a treasure-trove of literature
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Sir John Mortmain turned over the Sunday papers idly in search of some item of possible interest. It was one of those perfect mornings at the end of June, without the semblance of a cloud in the sky and the warm, languid air that conduces to sleepiness. Moreover, it was a Sunday morning, and Mortmain had nothing whatever to do. He sat in a long cane chair on the terrace in front of Mortmains, looking out across the slumbering sea and half wondering how he was going to get through the day.
Mortmain was a good deal of a sportsman and, though a good many people wondered what he did with himself half his time, he was no idler despite the fact that he was a rich man in possession of one of the finest estates in North Devon. More than that, he had been, up to a certain time one of the most promising of the younger school of novelists. His was a strange and whimsical fancy with a decided bent in the direction of the gruesome and the grim—in fact, a sort Stevenson-cum-Edgar Allen Poe frame of mind. In his earlier days he had written a couple of novels on these lines, and they had found decided favour in the eyes of the most discerning critics. In fact, he was well on the way to making a name for himself when fate took a hand in his affairs, and from a mere University graduate, more or less fighting his way in Fleet-street, he found himself in the possession of a title, to say nothing of a handsome income and one of the great ancestral estates, on the northern side of the county of Devon. It had only needed a motor accident in a fog along the romantic valley that led up to Mortmains Lodge, and two lives that stood between him and the twinkling of an eye. Then the late property had been swept away in the late baronet, who was already an old man, bent before the shock of his sons' death, and John Mortmain found himself master of the fine old domain and the owner of a fortune that he had never expected.
He had come down there from London almost at once. He had turned his back upon all his old friends and had shut himself up in that glorious old house, where he entertained none and asked nobody, though there were plenty of his own class in the neighbourhood who would have been only too glad to have made much of the new owner of Mortmains.
Not that John Mortmain was in the least exclusive or distant. He was friendly enough with his neighbours when they met. He rode regularly to hounds and subscribed handsomely to the pack. He shot and fished and played cricket with the local team. In a way, he was popular enough, and yet there was that strange feeling of a gulf between himself and the local inhabitants. Certainly he managed to convey the impression that he wanted to be left alone, and that he was not particularly anxious to exchange amenities outside the field of sport. He was writing another book, or so he gave the people to understand, and perhaps when that was finished he would be less exclusive.
But John Mortmain was not engaged upon another novel, at least, not in the practical sense of the word. That he would publish something new in the course of time was sure enough, but, so far, the plot was only beginning to simmer in his mind. It was to be something of a tragic nature, with a good deal of the sensational in it, and a lot connected with Scotland Yard.
But Mortmain was too much of an artist to set about a romance of that kind without having his facts correct to the last detail. If he wrote about the modern detective and his ways, he would do so from life, and not draw one of the sleuths who is so familiar in current works of fiction. When he was ready to tackle that part of his story, then he would go to the fountain head and obtain all his information first hand. Or perhaps he might get the details he needed brought to him. It was a happy thought, and Mortmain turned it over in his mind again and again until it became almost an obsession with him.
Meanwhile, he had nothing much to do but to pass the golden days as best he might and contemplate nature from the terrace in front of that mediaeval house and soak his soul in some of the most wonderful scenery that England boasts. Thus he was sitting there on that beautiful Sunday morning late in June, smoking his cigarette and turning his papers over idly with the full intention of staying where he was till luncheon.
And then, suddenly, a paragraph caught his eye and arrested his attention. It was only personal allusion contained in a few lines, but it served to hold Mortmain and cause him to draw a sharp breath between his lips. It ran thus:—
"I looked in at the 'Frivolity' last night to find that the new revue there is going as strong as ever. By the way, it has been considerably strengthened by a new sketch written by Miss Margaret Debenham, whose sprightly paragraphs in the 'Weekly Herald' are so well known to most of my readers. Miss Debenham tells me that she has just finished a comedy which will shortly see the light in the West End, though she was charmingly discreet as to the name of the famous comedian who is fathering it. Miss Debenham, by the way, is well worth watching."
Just a mere paragraph with a faint suggestion of the work of the Press agent about it. But it was enough to bring a cloud across Mortmain's handsome, bronzed face and a look of pain to his clear, brown eyes. Those few lines in cold print brought back to him with startling clearness something which he had hoped he had put behind him for all time.
He remembered, as if it had only been yesterday, his first meeting with Margaret Debenham. It was barely two years ago, and in that time so much had happened. He had been coming out of one of the Fleet-street offices when she was going in, and just for a moment they had almost collided. A half-apology on either side, and they had gone their several ways. Just one of those chance meetings that mean so little—or so much.
Mortmain had gone on towards Charing Cross, thinking a good deal of those blue eyes and that lovely, clever little face, and had laughed at himself as a cheap sentimentalist. He would never see her again, of course, and, anyway, it would be all the same if he did. A man who was making a bare living had no business to allow himself to think about the future, especially a future in which a pretty girl was involved.
All the same, those two were destined to meet again more than once. They seemed to have mutual friends in the Bohemian set in which they moved, so that there came a time when Margaret became "Peggy" and John Mortmain became "Jack." And so it progressed by easy stages until the two were engaged.
There were many ties between them; they were both engaged in the same literary pursuits, and both had their ambitions clearcut before them. One was to become a great novelist and the other an equally famous dramatist. Still, there was one advantage that Margaret held over her lover. Whilst he had his pen to depend upon for a living, she had come to London after the death of her father with some hundreds a year of her own. And it was a long time before she could induce Mortmain to regard this as anything but a personal disadvantage. She had overcome his scruples at length and their marriage was dimly in sight when the blow fell. It came out of nowhere, like a flash of lightning in a blue sky, and it left Mortmain stunned and bewildered. Moreover it reached him by the same post as the letter, telling him of the tragedy in the Valley of Rocks, and that he was now heir to the title and property. Would he come down to Devonshire at once.
Moved by this appeal, and being the really good fellow that he was, John put his own troubles on one side and hastened down to Devonshire. There would be time enough to untie the complicated knot after the funeral, and meanwhile he would not communicate with Margaret or make any attempt to see her and get an explanation of her most amazing letter.
But he was detained by the grief-stricken and broken old gentleman longer than he had expected. And when he found himself at liberty to get back to London, it was too late. To begin with he could find no trace of Margaret at her lodgings.
"Do you mean to say she has left?" he asked the landlady in Bloomsbury-square. "Left altogether?"
The old lady looked at him wonderingly.
"Why, didn't you know that, sir?" she responded. "She went over a week ago. Come in one night in a great hurry, she did, and told me she had to go to Paris for some months. So we parted, and very sorry indeed I was. And no one more surprised than me when I see a day or two afterwards in one of the papers as she was married, and not to you, sir, neither."
Mortmain remembered vividly how he stood there asking questions and hoping that he was not showing his feelings too much to the good natured old gossip who was more or less unconsciously dealing him an almost mortal stab. And it was true, every word of it. He found that out as soon as he could get amongst the Bohemian circle in which they both moved. By that time he was prepared to face the inevitable, so that he could hear exactly what had happened without betraying himself too far. It was a little comedy actress who told him all he wanted.
"Yes, we were awfully surprised," she said. "And not at all the sort of man one would have expected Peggy to marry. You ought not to have gone away, Jack. She never told me what your quarrel was about, and I didn't like to ask her. Oh, yes, a man named Grimshaw, Richard Grimshaw, a rich Australian, so I am told. But what you call a rough diamond, all the same. I can't say that he made a favourable impression upon us."
So Mortmain had turned away with a shrug of the shoulders and an epigram on his lips. The wound had gone deep and the expiration of two years had not cured it.
Mortmain sat there in the sunshine, turning it all over in his mind. He wondered rather morbidly if he could have saved the situation had he seen Margaret before he left London on the most momentous day of his life. But it was no use to think about that now. After all, if the gods had taken away with one hand, they had given liberally with the other, and there was more than one Margaret in the world if he cared to seek her.
Still, what did that paragraph mean? He had not been in London for two years, he had dropped out of the old Bohemian set entirely, and knew nothing of the doings of that world in which, at one time, he had taken so keen a delight. He had been under the impression that Margaret had married that man Richard Grimshaw and had gone back to Australia with him. And yet here she was, apparently still in London, living in the same old environment and, what was more extraordinary, passing under her maiden name. Now, why was she doing that? She was not an actress nor had she ever had the slightest ambition that way. But there it was plainly in print for everyone to see, and the more John turned it over in his mind, the more puzzled he became.
But what did it all matter to him, he asked himself impatiently. Margaret had turned him down over some fancied grievance, without giving him even the chance to explain. And if for some reason, she had parted with her Australian husband, then it would be all the same, in any case. She was married now, and there was an end to it and, if Mortmain had his way he would never see her again. Still, the old memories were bitter in the mind and took away all the flavour of his cigarette.
He was still trying to forget when the old family butler, Thomas Farthing, came out of the house and approached the long basket chair in which he was seated.
"Excuse me, sir," the elderly servitor said, "but would you be pleased to come in for lunch?"
"Lord, I didn't know it was as late as that," Mortmain smiled. "Really, Farthing, it is almost a pity to go in the house on a day like this. The finest day we have had this year. The coast of Wales looks as if it was cut out of marble. To-morrow morning I think I will go out prawning. Let me see, what time is low water? I mean to-morrow morning's tide?"
"Half-past three, sir," Farthing responded. The old man had been born on the coast, and knew every trick and turn of the tide as he had done from early boyhood. "Half-past three, sir, and the tide will be dead out. And there won't be a breath of wind either. If you go down the zig-zag path and start away out from under the Castle Rock you ought to get a sackful."
"So I have been thinking," Mortmain smiled. "And not a soul to disturb me. You get my traps together, as usual, and leave the rest to me. See that everything is in my bedroom, so that I need not disturb anybody at that time of the morning, and set my alarm clock for a quarter-past three. It will be more or less daylight by then, and with any luck I shall be back for a change and a bath before my breakfast at the usual hour. And don't forget the alarm."
"Oh no, sir, of course not, sir. And if there is nothing else, sir, perhaps you will come in to luncheon."
Mortmain followed languidly enough. He had the natural appetite of the clean-living athlete, but he did not particularly feel the call to the mid-day meal just then. And though he was looking forward keenly enough to his sport on the morrow, his mind was half engaged on other things. It was ten o'clock in the evening before he threw aside some notes he was making with an air of impatience and went up to bed, although outside it was still more or less daylight. But Mortmains was an early household, and an hour later all its inhabitants were in bed and asleep. Then morning came, as morning does, and the household began to stir. First the maidservants, then Mrs. Morse, the housekeeper, and, after her, the two footmen, followed by Farthing, whose work consisted mainly at that time of the day in seeing that everything was in order in the library.
He came down leisurely enough, as befitted his age and dignity and threw open the library door. It was a majestic room in the left wing, running the whole depth of the house, with a large mullioned window at either end. At one time, it had been a sort of chapel, as shown by the arched roof with its finely carved timbers and the floor of encaustic tiles, covered, for the most part, with a magnificent Persian carpet, which, however, showed the patterns of the tiles for some six feet round the side of the room. The walls were covered with shelves bearing volumes of various ages and in divers bindings. For the Mortmains' library was a famous one, and more than one transatlantic visitor had tried to buy it from its late owner. On the whole, a wonderful room, placid and calm and dignified and filled with that ancient peace that Tennyson sang about. In one window was a great carved writing desk, and against one of the high shelves lay the light ladder which is usually found where libraries are concerned. This rested on its side against a book shelf, and Farthing scratched his head as he contemplated it.
"Um, that's a funny thing," he told himself. "What's that ladder doing down there? I could have sworn that I put it under the far window before I went to bed last night. And nobody couldn't have moved it, because I was last out of the room."
With that, he made his way to the window facing the sea and pulled back the heavy velvet curtains, so that the fine old apartment was flooded with sunlight. Then the old man did a strange thing.
He stood there as if gasping for breath. He tottered across the room and pulled back the other curtains. Then, almost mechanically he looked to see if the windows had been properly fastened the night before. With another gasp, he found that the window farthest from the sea was not only unfastened, but opened a good two feet or more. Then, carrying himself as best he might, he walked out into the corridors leading to the domestic offices and thence into the steward's room where Charles, one of the men servants in the house, was busily engaged on his domestic duties. The old man clutched him frantically by the collar.
"Charles," he said quaveringly.
"Charles. Tell me, my boy, did ye ever see a ghost?"
"Well, I can't rightly recollect, as ever I seen one myself," Charles replied gravely. "But my father he told me as he seen one once when he was coming back from the Valley of Rocks one night very late, about the time when he and my mother was keeping the lodge. But you look as if you's seen one, Mr. Farthing."
"Well, perhaps I have and perhaps I haven't. But you run up to Sir John's room and wake him up."
"Wake him up? Why he ain't in. Didn't you tell me your very self as he was going prawning this morning?"
"Yes, I know that," the old man said impatiently. "But it's half-past seven now and he must have been out at least four hours. And he couldn't go prawning all that time, because the tide would be agin him. No, he must have been back an hour or so. I know he hasn't come down yet: but it stands to reason as he's in the house somewhere. If he ain't in his bedroom, he's pretty sure to be in his bath. But go you up and bring him down and tell him to come immediate."
Charles departed on his errand, leaving Farthing leaning heavily against the table, as if in need of support. There was nobody in the bath-room, the door of which was open, so Charles proceeded to discreetly knock upon the door of his master's sleeping chamber. As there came no reply, he ventured to steal into the room and cross over to the bed. There lay John Mortmain fast asleep, and on a chair by his bedside his fishing kit complete to the rubber-soled shoes which he usually wore. One glance at these convinced the servant that this morning, at least, the outfit by the bedside had not been worn. Everything was as clean and dry as it had been when Farthing had placed it there the night before. The alarm clock was ticking on merrily, as if it had not been interfered with. It was quite plain to Charles that the alarm had failed to function and that his master was still sleeping placidly on. He bent down and laid a hand on Mortmain's shoulder and shook him gently.
Mortmain turned over uneasily and opened his eyes.
"What is it, Charles?" he asked. "Why, it's after half-past seven. What the dickens has happened? Oh, I see—that confounded clock never went off. I shall have to get a new one. But what on earth are you looking so worried about?"
"Blessed if I know, Sir John," Charles murmured. "Mr. Farthing, he's seen a ghost in the library. Pretty well frightened him to death, it has. So he sent me up here to fetch you, and said as how you was to come down to the library at once, Sir John."
Mortmain dragged himself more or less unwillingly out of bed and, donning a pair of slippers, went down the broad oak stairway in his pyjamas, just as he was. He called aloud for Farthing as he turned into the library. It was a white-faced Farthing that joined him and one, apparently bereft of speech, because he could only point to an object that lay on the brightly-hued tiles on one side of the great room.
"Good lord, man!" Mortmain cried. "What on earth is he doing here? And how did he get in?"
"Through the window, Sir John," Farthing explained. "I found the far window open this morning, though I swear I fastened it last night. Anyway, there he is."
"And badly hurt," Mortmain inquired.
"Dead," Farthing said. "Aye, I've seen too many bodies in my time to be deceived as to that, Sir John."
"Ah, I see. Some burglar, of course. Found his way into the house and met with a nasty accident."
"Murdered," Farthing corrected solemnly. "Murdered."
Mortmain stood contemplating his aged retainer as if he were seeing him for the first time. It seemed so strange that the quiet and retiring Farthing should speak so emphatically.
"What makes you think that?" he asked. "My dear man, you are surely not suggesting that a melodrama has been staged during the dead of night in this aristocratic old library?"
"I don't know nothing about that, Sir John," Farthing said stubbornly. "But I do know as that poor chap was murdered. You have only got to look at him to see that."
"Well, at any rate, he is dead," Mortmain went on. "How he got here and what happened is at present a mystery. But I can't admit that he was the victim of violence under my roof."
"It isn't for me to say, Sir John," Farthing replied, in the same rather obstinate tone. "But I do know this—I was in the room after everybody had gone to bed last night, and I am prepared to swear that both these windows were fastened up. And now, here is one of them open wide enough to admit a man. And, of course, Sir John, if it is wide enough to admit one man, it is wide enough to admit two. If my opinion is worth having, I should say that a couple of burglars got into the house by forcing that window, and that they had a quarrel when they got inside. The one who got away knocked the other down and accidentally killed him. The poor chap fell with his head on the mosaic tiles and fractured his skull. And then the other man, seeing what he had done, made off, and, no doubt, by this time is far enough away. That is how I see it, Sir John, if I may make so bold."
"Well, up to a certain point, you may be right," Mortmain conceded. "But you are wrong in your particulars. In the first place, what is the library ladder doing where it is now?"
Farthing scratched his head thoughtfully.
"Well, I hadn't thought of that, sir. I am prepared to swear that, when I went round the house last night after everybody had gone to bed, the ladder was lying at length on the floor under the window facing the sea."
"Where it always lies, in fact."
"That's right, Sir John. I am as certain of it as I am that I am speaking to you now."
"And yet here is the ladder on the other side of the room altogether. Lying on its side on the floor, by that body. And, more than that, there is a book on the edge of the carpet."
Mortmain bent down and took the volume from the floor. It was a rare early edition of Boccaccio's "Decameron," beautifully bound in vellum and tooled in gold, perhaps one of the rarest books in all the treasures the library contained. As he lifted the volume, Mortmain glanced at one of the top shelves.
"Ah, there you are," he exclaimed. "You can see the space on the top shelf left when somebody—never mind who it was—took it down with the aid of the ladder. Now, I suppose that that book is worth anything up to a thousand pounds. There are other books here of almost equal value. My theory is that there were two thieves, and that they came here to rifle my library."
"Very likely, sir," Farthing conceded. "But I don't see as how they could do much good with those books when they had got them. I mean you can't sell stuff like that."
"Ah, there, my dear old friend, you are absolutely wrong," Mortmain smiled. "There is nobody on the face of the earth who is more unmoral than your hardened bibliophile. He would steal a classic manuscript as soon as look at it—especially your American collector. Nor would he hesitate for a moment to buy that Decameron at any price the thief liked to ask for it, and ask no questions. It is the sort of thing that has happened over and over again, even in the case of historic pictures. Now, what I think is this. These thieves knew all about my treasures; in fact, there is a list of them in the Free Library Museum at Instaple. They have only to have a look at that, and they would know exactly what to come for."
To all of which Farthing listened respectfully enough. Of course, he had not known that in the Free Library at Instaple, the big town some twenty miles away, such a list was on record. But Sir John had said so, and there was an end to the matter.
"So there you are," Mortmain went on. "Those chaps came here in the middle of the night and forced the catch of the centre window, which would not be a very difficult job to men who were familiar with that sort of work. And the first thing they did was to erect the ladder and lay their hands upon, perhaps, the most valuable book in the library. What happened afterwards can only be a matter of conjecture. And mind you, we are not bound to argue that the thieves even had a quarrel. Suppose the ladder had slipped just as one of the thieves was about to descend with this Decameron in his hand. He might have come crashing backwards, or turned over as he fell, and even from the height of ten feet it would be no extraordinary matter if he sustained that fracture, which even my inexperienced eyes can detect. And this leads us to another theory. Supposing the thief had been alone, and I cannot see any reason why he should not have been. He comes by himself and he meets with an accident. You find him dead when you come down this morning and, not unnaturally, arrive at certain conclusions. I am not saying you are wrong, Farthing, nor am I saying that my one-man theory is correct. That will be for the police to ascertain later on. Anyhow, the unfortunate individual is dead, and there is an end of it."
Mortmain spoke as if the conversation was finished, so far as he was concerned; and bent down to examine the body. It was that of a man of some forty years of age, clean-shaven and round-faced, and by no means ill-looking. The head was crowned with short, curly hair of a reddish hue, and the unfortunate individual seemed to have fallen backwards and then turned over on his face with one of his arms doubled behind him. Even to the lay eye, the cause of death was plain enough for there was a deep indentation at the base of the skull, and on the soft collar which the man was wearing a mass of blood had congealed.
For some little time both men stood contemplating that rather sinister sight with no word spoken between them. It was Farthing who, at length, broke the silence.
"What are we going to do about it, sir?" he asked.
"Do about it?" Mortmain echoed. "Oh, I see what you mean. Call in the police and all that sort of thing. Yes, you are quite right. We had better lock the door of this room and leave everything just as we found it. Then you go into Watersmouth village and fetch the local constable whilst I telephone to Instaple and call up the superintendent there. Yes, Farthing, at the same time it would not be a bad thing if you dropped on your way and asked Dr. Hartley Deacon to give me a call. As a matter of fact, we ought to send for him first."
Farthing departed on his errand, and some quarter of an hour later the local doctor arrived at Mortmains in his car. He was a small, dry-looking man, brown faced and wiry, with every suggestion of the athlete about him. As a matter of fact, he had been a famous county cricketer in his time, before he had settled down to a country practice, where he could get a decent living and follow his scientific pursuits in quietness and comfort. Hartley Deacon was a man whose name was known and respected far beyond the borders of the county of Devon.
"Hello, Mortmain," he cried. "What's all this story that Farthing has been telling me. The old chap was so incoherent that I could hardly make head or tail of the yarn. Something about a murdered man that he found in the library."
"Come and see for yourself," Mortmain said briefly.
"Yes, a fractured skull, all right," Deacon said, after making a close examination. "Now let us hear what you have to say about it . . . . yes, I shouldn't wonder if you were right. There are certain circumstances about the case which present themselves to me pretty plainly, as they would to any scientific man. But I don't want to go into them until the police have taken a hand in the game. Of course, there will have to be an inquest."
Whilst Mortmain and Deacon were still discussing all the bearing on the tragedy, the inspector from Instaple put in an appearance. He listened gravely to all that the others had to say before making any statement of his own.
"Well, Doctor," he said. "I am inclined to agree with you that we cannot do any more for the moment. No doubt it will transpire that that man was killed in the act of committing a burglary, thought I am not going to rule a violent death out altogether until we have exhausted the evidence. If you don't mind, Sir John, I should like to ask your servants a few questions."
"Yes, I rather expected you to say that," Mortmain replied. "Of course, you are at liberty to do as you like. For the moment, at any rate, you can regard Mortmains as your own."
"In the servants," Inspector James Gore said, "I must ask you how many servants you keep."
Mortmain went over the whole list. Butler, housekeeper, two footmen, four indoor domestics, excluding the cook and kitchen maid. In addition to those, were three gardeners, who however, did not live on the estate and the aged lodge keeper and his wife. But a close cross-examination of all these served to throw no ray of light upon the remarkable tragedy. There was no questioning the fact that the whole of the domestic staff had been in bed the night before quite early and, indeed, Farthing testified to the fact that it was so light when he went to bed himself that he had no occasion to switch on the electric light, nor had anybody heard the slightest sound during the night, except that one of the dogs in the kennels had barked.
"Well, I must leave it at that for the moment," Gore said. "I will get back and see the coroner."
"And when will the inquest be?" Mortmain asked.
"I can't quite tell you that," the inspector explained. "But I should say not before the day after to-morrow. If you don't mind I will take the key of the library away with me."
It was only natural that, before many hours had passed, the amazing tragedy at Mortmains was the only theme of discussion for many miles around. Long before mid-day, the road leading to the old house was thronged with those anxious to see the scene and to gather all there was connected with the story. Representatives of at least two Press agencies were on the spot as if by magic, and the six o'clock edition of most of the evening papers contained columns on the subject of what was destined to be known far and wide ere long as the Mortmains mystery. It was a quiet time, with nothing more sensational than cricket and racing to fill the daily Press, so that news editors fell upon the happenings in Devonshire with avidity. The story was widely discussed in London and the great towns within a few hours of the preliminary details being flashed over the wires. And in the interim the curious would have to wait, for the simple reason that something like eight and forty hours must elapse between the discovery of the body and the preliminary investigations into the cause of the unfortunate man's death.
It was a full four and twenty hours later before Inspector Gore re-appeared at Mortmains, arriving on this occasion in Dr. Deacon's car. He had nothing very much to say, except that the inquest was fixed to take place in the library at Mortmains on the following morning.
"The coroner will be here at 10 o'clock," he explained to Mortmain. "And the jury is already summoned. I expect you will find it rather a nuisance, Sir John, but in the circumstances, it cannot very well be helped. You will have the house and grounds over-run with people but, seeing that it is a public inquiry, I cannot very well keep them out. But it shan't occur again. There is no occasion why the adjourned inquest should not be held in the village. At the town hall, probably."
"Then you don't expect to finish to-morrow?" Mortmain asked.
"Most assuredly I don't. I have not the least idea, so far, who the man is or where he comes from, and nobody has turned up to inquire for him. In the circumstances, we can only take formal evidence and perhaps get a certificate for the burial of the body. You see, I have still to make a close examination of the dead man and that is why I brought the doctor with me. But, as you know, Sir John, there were no papers on the corpse."
"Yes, I remember that," Mortmain said. "I suppose you don't mind my being with you whilst you are doing this?"
"Oh, not in the least," the inspector said. "It is not likely to lead to anything so far as I can see."
In which conclusion the inspector was right. To begin with, the pockets of the dead man were absolutely empty. No papers of any kind were found on him, no watch or purse, or even any markings on his under-linen. If he had come there that fatal night with any sort of head covering, no sign of such a thing was found either in the library or anywhere about the grounds, although the gardeners made a careful search, lasting for hours. As to the clothes themselves, they were shabby and worn, and evidently the kind that are called "ready to wear," in other words, ready made. But there was a certain suggestion about the cut of them that caused the inspector to nod his head knowingly.
"Not English," he decided. "Those clothes were never brought in an English shop. Look at the shoulders. And, again, look at the man's shoes. They speak for themselves."
"What, precisely do they say?" Mortmain asked.
"Well, 'Hail, Columbia,' I should imagine," the inspector said drily. "Brought in some cheap store in New York or San Francisco. Anyway, I will swear the shoes were."
"Doesn't that rather bear out my theory?" Mortmain said thoughtfully. "I mean my suggestion that this fellow was a book thief, and that he came here to get hold of some of my rarer volumes. In fact, I think I have already proved to you that he could have come here for no other reason. There was the Decameron on the floor and we have evidence to the fact that the ladder must have slipped and flung the thief heavily on those tiles. More than that, most of our rare volumes to-day go to America, where they can be disposed of at a fancy price and no questions asked. I should not be at all surprised if some wealthy American book lover hadn't given the man lying there instructions to come over here and get that particular Decameron. If that is correct, then we can wash out the idea of a murder altogether, and the case resolves itself into one of vulgar theft, which will be very disappointing to the sensation-loving Press, but a common sense deduction, all the same.
"Very likely," the inspector admitted. "And again, very likely not. What do you think, Doctor?"
All this time, Dr. Deacon had been saying nothing. He was on his knees by the side of the corpse with a strong magnifying glass in his hand. With the aid of this he examined the body from head to foot finishing with a very minute inspection of the close-cropped, curly, red hair.
"Um," he said, as if speaking to himself and as if he had quite forgotten the fact that he was not alone. "This is rather curious. Most distinctly curious."
"Have you found anything out?" Mortmain asked.
"I have found everything or nothing," was the enigmatic reply. "Please don't think me rude, but I am always averse from giving an opinion until I am absolutely certain of my ground."
With that, he turned once more to the body and half turning it over, proceeded to examine intently the little mass of congealed blood at the base of the skull.
"Curiouser and curiouser," he said whimsically. "Most extraordinary. Now, how the dickens——"
He broke off abruptly and refused to say anything more.
"But you can't leave it like that," the inspector protested.
"Oh, yes, I can," the doctor smiled. "I suppose I can make an observation like that if I please? My dear police-man, if there is one thing I hate more than another it is making a fool of myself. And if I gratify your very natural curiosity, it is just possible that I shall make a brilliant success in that direction. Whereas, if you leave me alone I may be able to tell you something of the utmost importance, not necessarily to-morrow, but at the adjourned inquest you spoke of. And even then there is the possibility of my being wrong. You go your way and I will go mine and we shall meet in the end all right."
And not a single word more would the man of science say. He turned away from the others and wandered as far as the window looking over the sea. Far down below, at the bottom of the sloping garden, lay the wide stretch of golden sands, and to his left the bold, upstanding peak of granite that was known locally as the Castle Rock. It stood clear of the beach, some hundred feet in height, a bold sentinel, all by itself, with a pathway along the fringe of it leading from the village to the moor and beyond. It was a picturesque and majestic sight in itself and it seemed to fascinate the doctor, though he had seen it scores of times before. There was just the ghost of a smile on his lips as he turned away and approached his companions again.
"I wonder if you would mind answering me a question, Mortmain?" he asked, "just as a matter of form."
"A dozen, if you like," Mortmain smiled.
"Well, it's just this. You go prawning most of these mornings when the tide is low. Which way do you go?"
"Oh, just down the zig-zag path on to the sands and past the Castle Rock out to the far point fringing the next bay. But why do you ask? What has that got to do with it?"
"Yes, that is just what I have to find out," Deacon said. "Very likely nothing of the least importance, but, you never can tell. And, anyhow, as I said just now, I never advance an idea unless I have something sound behind it. And now, Inspector, if you have nothing more to do, I will give you a lift back as far as the village. I don't mind admitting that I am very interested in this case, but I have patients to attend, and I seem to have been neglecting them quite a lot the last day or so."
"Well, I suppose I had better come along," the inspector said reluctantly. "I hoped to find out something tangible this morning but must confess to be just as much in the dark as ever. It looks to me as if I shall have to fall back on Sir John's theory after all. I mean a fatal accident."
"Ah, there I entirely agree with you," Deacon laughed. "After what I have just said, it sounds like a paradox on my part, but you policemen are meeting paradoxes all your life. Now, come long, I really must be moving."
The two went off together, leaving Mortmain to his thoughts. They were not altogether unpleasant thoughts, perhaps, for he smiled a curious sort of smile as he returned to the house and proceeded to the morning-room where the day's papers awaited him. For the present, at any rate, he could not use the library, which was not altogether a pleasing reflection.
He had hardly opened the "Times" before Farthing came to him with the information that a visitor was in the drawing-room, a visitor who would not give her name, but who stated that an interview was required with Sir John on most important business.
He strode angrily into the drawing-room, then as he caught sight of his visitor, started back.
"Margaret," he cried. "Peggy!"
"Jack," the woman murmured. "Jack."
Mortmain froze almost into immobility.
"Why this honour, Mrs. Grimshaw?" he asked icily.
It was Mortmain who first recovered his poise, to realize in a flash how this amazing thing had happened. For here was the woman of his dreams, the woman he had loved and lost and the one being in the world he had never expected to see again. And, behold, here she was, standing opposite him, as young and as beautiful as ever and not changed one iota from the girl from whom he had parted just two years ago with every hope of seeing her again on the morrow. And then had come that letter which had touched his pride and sent him out into the wilderness, a broken and unhappy man at the very moment when he had deemed himself to be basking in fortune's most spacious smile.
It was not to be deemed for a moment that Margaret Grimshaw, as he had to call her, had come there expecting to meet her old lover. At the same time it was almost incredible to Mortmain to believe that she had remained unaware of the startling change in his fortune.
"You wanted to speak to me?" he ventured.
"Oh, yes." Margaret said confusedly. "Of course I wanted speak to you. But then, I want you to believe that I did not know whom I was going to see, all the same."
"I am beginning to understand," Mortmain smiled. "You mean to say that nobody ever told you that I am Sir John Mortmain and that this is my country residence?"
"Indeed, no," Margaret murmured. "It is, perhaps, best to be plain. When I set out from Watersmouth an hour ago to call upon Sir John Mortmain, I had not the faintest idea that I was going to find myself face to face with—with——"
"Your old lover," Mortmain finished the sentence grimly. "There is no reason for us to beat about the bush over it. We can look back on that now with equanimity. You are a happily married woman and I am a rather lonely bachelor, pretending to be a popular novelist. I suppose some of these days I shall write another book, in fact, I was working on the plot when the tragedy everybody is speaking of, suddenly happened under this peaceful roof. I suppose it was this tragic event that brought you all this way to call at Mortmains."
"That is quite correct," Margaret said. "You see, I came down here a few days ago on a fortnight's holiday. I am very fond of the world and this is by no means my first visit. I am staying at the Crown Hotel in Watersmouth and early this morning I had a telephone message from the news editor of the 'Daily World' asking me to take up the story of the Mortmains tragedy and send them what I pleased. So I came over here at once to interview Sir John Mortmain—and——"
"And here you are," Mortmain smiled. "And here am I, for that matter. And you see, when I received a certain letter of yours, I was just back in London after helping to bury two cousins of mine who were killed in a motor accident and when the late owner of this property died a few weeks afterwards, more or less of a broken heart. I came into the property and the title."
"But you never told me——" Margaret began.
"No? Well, when I come to think of it, I didn't. You see, at that time I had not the least expectation of becoming head of the family, and there was no object in telling everybody that I was the nephew of a baronet. I always hated that sort of thing—it sounds so much like swank. However, here you are and I must do my best to make you welcome. I wonder if you will be offended if I ask you to join me in a bit of luncheon."
"That is very kind of you," Margaret murmured. "I shall be only too pleased. But are you quite sure——"
"Quite sure. Oh, I know what you are going to say. Then you can tell me all about yourself and I will tell you what I have been doing since we last met. So long as you are happy, the rest matters nothing."
It was rather a happy turn of speech and Margaret appreciated it accordingly. And yet, though she smiled pleasantly enough, there was very little about her to show that her married life had been a desirable one. There was just a suggestion of pain in her eyes and a faint shadow on her smooth brow that had certainly not been there two years ago. A worn and worried look that told imaginative Mortmain something of a tale. But it as not for him to comment on the subtle change, and he led the way into the dining room where, at his request, Farthing laid another place at the table. It was a glorious old room with its panelled walls and carved ceiling looking out over the broad expanse of sea, and Margaret exclaimed aloud at the beauty of it.
"What a glorious old house," she cried. "Do you know, I have often wished for a chance to look over it. You are a fortunate man to have a residence like this."
"Yes, I suppose I am," Mortmain said with something of a sigh. "But then, we are never satisfied. Now, sit down and make yourself at home. Farthing, you can put the lunch on the table and leave us. Mrs. Grimshaw is an old friend of mine and we shall have quite a lot of subjects to discuss."
Farthing did as he was told and discreetly vanished. It was not until the meal was finished and Mortmain passed the silver cigarette box across the table that he began to speak of those things which were nearest to his heart.
"I suppose it is no use going over old grievances," he said. "But there are one or two things which I should like to have explained. You are a staid married woman now and our old romance is more or less forgotten."
"I suppose it is," Margaret agreed. All the same, she didn't altogether look as it she thought so. In most ways, she was the old Margaret still, but the trouble cloud still dimmed her eyes, and there was a yearning look in them as she turned to her companion. Nor could she see that he was in any way altered. But, deep down in her heart, she knew that there had been no change, nor ever would be.
"In that case," Mortmain said. "Perhaps you would not mind answering me a few questions. Why did you write me that dreadful letter? If I had done anything wrong, why didn't you come to me and give me a chance of righting myself?"
"But you must not put me on the defensive like that," Margaret cried. "If I was rash and impulsive, surely I had cause?"
"My dear girl, that is just the question I am asking you. What was the cause? You never said in your letter. And I think you will admit it was rather a wild epistle. I am quite sure you were desperately angry with me over something or another. And when you told me you never wanted to see my face again, I could do no more than take you at your word. And I didn't mind admitting that I have been sorry for it ever since. If I had exercised my rights and compelled you to see me I am perfectly certain that I could have explained everything, whatever it was."
"Even those other letters of yours?"
"What other letters? Come, Margaret, let us have it out now. A curious chance has brought us together, otherwise we might never have met again. You may say I have everything now that a man could wish, but you would be wrong. Because I have this beautiful old house and all that it stands for, it doesn't follow that I am satisfied. I shan't even be satisfied when I have written the novel that is going to make my reputation. Call it a form of conceit, if you like, but I like to stand well in the eyes of every man, and when I say that, I mean every woman, too. I was a poor man when I last saw you, but I think most people would say an honourable one, and that is why I want to clear my name in your sight, if you will only give me a chance. But it is strange that you didn't know of my change of circumstances."
"Not so very strange I think," Margaret murmured. "I was just as unhappy as you when I wrote that letter. I didn't want to see you again, I didn't want to see anything that reminded me of you. So I just slipped out of the old set and changed my lodgings. I suppose that is why I never heard that Jack Mortmain had become Sir John Mortmain, baronet. I hadn't the remotest idea, when I called here to-day, whom I was going to see."
"Otherwise——" Mortmain queried. "Otherwise?"
"No," Margaret said firmly. "There is no otherwise about it. I had a commission offered me, and I should have taken it even if I had known that I was going to meet the man I used to be engaged to. I can't afford to turn down work."
Mortmain gazed at Margaret in astonishment. For the first time he noticed that she was not so well dressed as she used to be in the old days. There was an indefinite air about her as of one who has a struggle with life.
"But that is all nonsense," he explained. "I know you are making quite a good income in Fleet-st., and, besides, you had some hundreds a year of your own."
"We will come to that presently," Margaret said. "For the present I have to work hard enough for a bare living. Let us confine ourselves for the moment to the letter you complain of. I wrote it after seeing another letter. I am speaking of the last communication you ever made to Violet Graham."
"Violet Graham? I have never heard the name mentioned before."
"What—not the girl who used to be in the chorus of one of the theatres? I forget which for the moment, but it doesn't matter. A girl you used to take on the river. A very pretty girl, but terribly frail and consumptive. And when her final illness came and she wrote to you in distress, you turned your back upon her in the most brutal fashion."
"I give you my word of honour," Mortmain exclaimed. "This is the first time I have heard a word of it."
"Perhaps you would like to see the letter," Margaret replied. "I have it in my bag."
"Strangely enough," Margaret went on, "I found that letter, which I thought I had destroyed, the morning I came away from London. So I slipped it in my bag, heaven knows why. I suppose it was fate. It was found amongst the poor girl's belongings after her death, and handed over to me by someone whom I need not name just for the moment. But if you would like to see it——"
"Like to see it?" Mortmain cried. "I would give half I possess for a sight of it. Now, please——!"
The letter was handed over in silence, and Mortmain read it carefully twice. There was no address and no date, and not more than a few lines in a handwriting strangely like his own. And as Margaret had said, it was, indeed, a brutal letter—the sort of letter a certain type of man writes to a certain type of girl when he wishes all relationship to cease.
"So this is the cause of the trouble, is it?" Mortmain asked. "I am going to tell you, with all the earnestness in my power, that that letter is nothing more or less than an impudent forgery. I admit that the handwriting is very much like mine, and I suppose the scoundrel who was responsible for this effort must have borrowed a specimen of my handwriting with a view to the forgery. Now, did you ever know me to write a letter without an address and without a date? It is a strange fate that has brought us together here again to-day, but it will be a fortunate one for me or the fault is altogether mine. I tell you again that the girl you speak of was never known to me, and that I never put pen to the paper on which that was written. I don't know how I am going to prove it, but if you had given me a chance at the time, I could have cleared myself easily enough. As it is, two years have elapsed, which makes all the difference. But you can see for yourself that this matter has got to be thrashed out, unless you disbelieve me, in which case, there is no more to be said."
"But I don't disbelieve you," Margaret cried. "I think I would have taken your word in any case. Oh, what a headstrong, silly fool I was not to have given you the opportunity. Even when I wrote you in the terms I did, I felt that it could not be true. But I was deeply wounded, heartbroken almost, and I hardly knew what I was doing. And I am very much afraid, Jack, that I have wrecked two lives."
"Looks very much like it," Mortmain said sadly. "It is good in a way to see you again, Margaret, but I almost wish you had not come. Now, tell me, who gave you that letter?"
Margaret replied under her breath. It was almost a whisper, but it carried clearly enough to Mortmain's ears.
"My husband," she said.
"What!—the man Grimshaw? Do you mean to say that he it was who gave you that letter? Oh come, there is a great deal more here than meets the eye. Why should he do such a dastardly thing? He and I were not even acquainted. I never heard of him till some time after we had parted for good. And then a friend casually mentioned that my old flame, Margaret Debenham, had married an Australian called Grimshaw."
Margaret sat there for a moment or two with her head in her hands. She was crying gently. Then she looked up into Mortmain's face.
"I am not going to ask you to forgive me yet," she murmured. "That will come presently. Perhaps, in the first place I had better tell you all there is to know about my husband. He was an Englishman who had travelled a good deal and finally came back to England where he began to write about all sorts of strange happenings for the London papers. I met him two or three times in the course of my work, and it was not long before I began to see that he found me attractive. I am not boasting—that is the sort of thing that every woman knows by instinct. And then when he asked me to marry him, I told that I was already as good as engaged. I never mentioned the fact to you, because I thought it would not be quite fair. He seemed to take my refusal calmly enough and in a few days had, apparently, forgotten all about it. I was always meeting him in odd places and we were quite friendly. And then, when you were taking your holidays two years ago I went out with him on several occasions. He was interesting and amusing, and you know how casual we used to be in that old Bohemian set of ours. Then, when I got to know him better, he told me the sad story of Violet Graham. He told it very well indeed, and I was very much moved by what he had to say. And then, one day, when we were on the river at Hampton Court, he brought up the subject of the girl again and, after warning me that I must prepare for a great shock, produced the letter that is lying there on the table."
"What an infernal scoundrel," Mortmain muttered.
"You can imagine what a blow it was to me," Margaret went on. "There was your writing plainly before me and in the back of my mind was the story of that poor girl. You must remember that I had heard it more than once and I believed it implicitly. I was so furious against you that when I got back to my rooms, I sat down and wrote you that letter."
"Yes, in which you mentioned no woman whatsoever," Mortmain smiled sadly. "You brought no accusation against me, you merely said you never wanted to see me again. And I suppose you regarded Richard Grimshaw as a chivalrous gentleman who was doing his best for a poor girl that I had been making love to behind your back. And because many a heart is caught on the rebound you thought it would be just as well if you married Grimshaw. But, my dear, a marriage like that could never be a happy one."
"It wasn't," Margaret said with tears in her eyes. "In fact, I may say that it was no marriage at all. We had arranged that the ceremony should be private in the circumstances, and there was nobody present except ourselves and the verger of the church and the pew opener. And when we came into the street, a woman was standing outside. Directly my husband caught sight of her he changed colour and tried to hide himself behind a taxi that was crawling down the street. But the woman would have none of it. She was not noisy, but still very determined. And I wanted to hear what she had to say, because she looked a lady, despite the shabbiness of her dress it was easy to see that she had seen better times. Oh, it was dreadful."
"Don't go on unless you feel up to it," Mortmain said. "I can quite understand what your feelings are."
"But I must go on," Margaret said firmly. "She told me the most terrible things whilst the man stood by my side, white and shamefaced and uttering never a word. And when the woman had turned away quietly telling her story and warning me of the character of the man I had married, I made up my mind there and then what to do."
"You left him, of course," Mortmain said.
"I left him there and then," Margaret went on. "I told him that we must never meet again, and that though we had gone through the ceremony of marriage, he was no husband of mine."
"And that was the unhappy finish?" Mortmain asked.
"Well, not quite," Margaret said with a watery smile. "The man was a thorough adventurer. It was a proper shock to my pride to find that he did not care for me in the least. He hated work himself, and did as little of it as he possibly could. But he calculated that I did very well, and was likely to do better, and that I had an income of my own as well. In other words, he proposed to live upon me. And after we had parted he wrote to me and suggested a bargain. Nobody knew we were married, he said, and nobody need ever know, if I preferred it that way. My opinion has always been that he has already got a wife somewhere else, but that is by the way. His idea was that I should give him my own income on condition that the so-called marriage remained a secret, and that I should go on in the old way under my old name, otherwise he would cause a scandal and practically ruin me in the eyes of my friends. And I was so miserable that I consented. I insisted that he should leave England which, for a considerable time, he did. When he came back he began to blackmail me. He took my private income and a good deal of my earnings besides. He keeps me so poor that sometimes I have barely enough to eat. But why go on? I have told you the story of my life which I felt bound to do when fate brought us together in this amazing way. Do let me forget it for the moment and try and remember that I came here entirely on business."
"Oh, of course, of course," Mortmain said with assumed briskness. "I will tell you all I can, but I am afraid that I can't show you the room where the tragedy took place, because the police have the key. Still, there is a good deal of information that I can give you, and if you want to be really thorough, I can take you to the room upstairs where the body of the dead man is lying. But you will probably prefer to wait for the inquest."
"I am not afraid to look at a corpse," Margaret said. "I have all sorts of unpleasant things to do in the way of business, and I cannot afford to neglect anything, however gruesome it is. My editor will expect everything that I can send along and—well—will you think it very unwomanly of me if I suggest——"
Mortmain got up from his chair readily enough. He didn't want to think too much just then of the strange story he had just heard, because there would be plenty of time for that. He led the way up the broad stairs along a corridor and flung open the door of a room in which was the bed where the dead man lay.
"There," he said. "But don't dwell on it too long."
Bravely enough, Margaret gazed down on the placid features of the dead man. Then something like a stifled cry broke from her lips, and she would have fallen had not Mortmain caught her.
"Heavens, what is the matter?" he cried.
"My husband," she gasped. "Richard Grimshaw."
The few words coming faintly from Margaret's lips seemed to have the most extraordinary effect upon Mortmain. There was a look of mingled horror and surprise in his eyes, together with what might have been remorse, though it was an entirely different emotion. He glanced hastily at Margaret to see if his feelings had conveyed any sort of an impression to her, but she had dropped down on a settee, white and motionless and for the moment entirely unable to move.
"This is horrible," Mortmain said thickly. "Are you quite sure that you have not made some ghastly mistake?"
"Oh, there is no mistake," Margaret murmured. "That man lying there is my husband."
Mortmain was silent for a moment or two, turning this new development over in his mind. He hardly knew what to think or what to do for the best. He was not unconscious of a certain satisfaction playing about in the back of his brain, the satisfaction that there was no longer any barrier between himself and the woman whom he still loved as dearly as ever. He had cleared himself in her eyes, which was one good thing done, and now fate had made the way plain for him to the inevitable conclusion.
But there was much to do before that, much pain and gossip and scandal, though perhaps Margaret, as yet, had not fully recognised it. To begin with, the story of her marriage would have to be made public, she would have to tell her amazing facts to the coroner's court for all the world to gloat over. It was a cruel chance that had brought her to this pass, but then, on the other hand, if she had not elected to do her work so thoroughly the man lying on the bed might have been buried without recognition and Margaret allowed to live for years under the impression that she still had a husband in some part of the world.
"Do you quite understand the position?" Mortmain asked.
"I think so," Margaret replied. "I shall have to stand at the witness table and testify that this man was my husband. I shall have to tell the whole story, but I am not going to flinch from it. I shall be quite ready when the time comes."
"You know all about him, of course?" Mortmain asked.
"As a matter of fact, I know nothing," Margaret said. "Oh, let us get out of here. Downstairs I shall be able to think and speak more coherently."
Mortmain led the way back to the drawing room, and there Margaret grew more calm and collected.
"It is a very strange fact," she said. "But I know nothing whatever about Richard Grimshaw. He was always a very reticent man and, beyond speaking casually from time to time about his relatives in Australia, he told me very little. I don't even know if he has any parents or not. There may be brothers and sisters, for all I know to the contrary. I was not curious at the time, because I thought that I should learn everything in due course. And you must remember that I had not known Richard Grimshaw long before we were married. He always appeared to have ample means, and was quite a clever journalist. I shall be able to tell the coroner very little."
"Why should you tell the coroner anything at all?" Mortmain asked. "Why should you face such a cruel and unnecessary ordeal? Let the man be buried, and if the police authorities like to carry the case any further, there is no reason why you should help them. Let it be a secret between us."
"Oh, no, no, I couldn't do that," Margaret cried. "I should not dare. I should be afraid to carry on my life, knowing what I know with the chance that the truth might come to light at any moment. You never know what trifle is going to turn out a fact of the greatest importance. And if the real story ever did become public, how could I explain my strange silence. No, Jack I must go through with it to the bitter end. I must go into Instaple this very afternoon and tell the police there everything. Oh, you must see that I am right."
Mortmain agreed reluctantly, but there was no occasion for Margaret to go into Instaple, he said, because he was expecting Inspector Gore at any moment. And, indeed, that individual put in an appearance whilst the two were still discussing the amazing turn of recent events. He listened to all that Margaret had to say with the deepest interest, and when he had heard her to the end, he spoke with some decision.
"What an amazing series of events," he said. "I am exceedingly sorry for you, Mrs. Grimshaw, but I am afraid you will have to go through with it. Not necessarily to-morrow, when the first hearing will take place here at 10 o'clock. I don't propose to call much evidence then, merely to get the jury to view the body so that the doctor can give a burial certificate, after which the inquiry will probably be adjourned for a week or two and resumed in the town hall at Watersmouth. I have strong reasons for not calling Mrs. Grimshaw to-morrow morning, and for the moment, at any rate, what has just transpired must remain an absolute secret between us three. Meanwhile, I have not been idle. I shall have some evidence to call in the morning."
"You mean that you have found something out?" Mortmain asked. "Something that is really of vital importance."
"Well, I am not going quite as far as that," Gore smiled. "But I can certainly carry matters a good deal further. And I believe that this is a very complicated case and that we are a long way, yet, from getting to the bottom of it. It will probably be necessary for me to consult other authorities."
"Exactly what I was going to suggest," Mortmain said eagerly. "With all due deference to you, Inspector, this has looked to me like a Scotland Yard case from the first. And if I may be allowed to make a suggestion, I should like Captain Reginald Blake to have the chance of going into the matter."
"That is all the same to me," Gore said. "Of course, I know the name of Blake, but it doesn't follow that——"
"Oh, yes, it does, if he is at liberty," Mortmain declared. "You see, he is an old friend of mine and we served during the war together until he was transferred to the Secret Service, where he remained and distinguished himself highly. After the trouble ceased, they were only too glad to have him at Scotland Yard, and there he has been ever since. If you can get him down here, I shall be only too glad to put him up. It might be an advantage for him to stay here as my guest, because, in that case, no questions will be asked and nobody will identify him as a police officer. You see what I mean?"
"Yes, that is a very good suggestion," Gore agreed. "I wonder if you would mind my using your telephone? I can get on to Scotland Yard from here and settle the whole business."
It was even as the inspector said. He came back from the little office in the hall where the telephone was situated in rather less time than he had expected, with the cheerful announcement that he had been able to get in touch with Captain Reginald Blake himself, and that that individual might be expected to arrive at Mortmains some time the following afternoon.
Mortmain heaved a sigh of obvious relief. He seemed strangely absent and vague in his manner and conveyed the impression that something was weighing heavily on his mind. It was a time, too, when he might have been expected to take a cheerful view of things in the face of recent events, but there was nothing cheerful about him, though he seemed relieved when Gore had taken his departure.
"And what are we going to do next?" Margaret asked.
"What are we going to do next?" Mortmain echoed. "I don't know. I am so utterly bewildered that I can't even think. Things have moved so rapidly and so much has happened during the last few hours that I can hardly grasp the situation. That may be a strange thing for a novelist to say, but even fiction would seem to be less bewildering than fact. Of one thing I am glad, and that is the fact that you will not be called upon to give any evidence to-morrow. If I have my own way, and if I can convince Blake that my view is a right one, perhaps there will be no occasion for you to give evidence at all. Why should you? You have identified the body to the satisfaction of the police and you have told Gore all you can as to your husband's identity and family connections. It would take months to get in contact with them, if ever we found them at all."
"But there is my paper," Margaret pointed out. "It is my positive duty to do the best I can for the people in Fleet-street, and I don't see how I can keep the personal note out of it."
"Of course you can," Mortmain said impatiently. "You don't write the stuff under your own name. You are called 'Our Special Correspondent' and, as such, anonymous. But don't you think we are rather beating the air? You leave everything to me and I will see what I can do when Blake comes."
"Very well," Margaret agreed reluctantly. "And now do you think that this tragedy was the result of an accident?"
"I don't know what to think," Mortmain confessed. "It might have been an accident and, on the other hand, it might have been deliberate murder. You see, all that business of the book taken from the upper shelf and the ladder carefully arranged on the floor might have been thought out by the murderer. But I do think that that wretched man had some object in coming into this house which we have yet to discover. You see, he knew all about me. He knew that you and I were engaged at one time, and it was he who deliberately came between us and induced you, by a disgraceful fraud, to marry him. But it is no use talking like this. Now, are you walking back into Watersmouth, or shall I place one of my cars at your disposal?"
"I shall be very grateful for it," Margaret said. "It is not very far and I am fond of walking as a rule, but this afternoon I really don't feel up to it."
"Then the car it is," Mortmain decided.
The preliminary inquiry into the death of Richard Grimshaw was almost perfunctory. Inspector Gore had seen the coroner previous to the inquest, and, between them, they had decided upon a certain line of action. So that, quite early in the day, Margaret had been informed that her attendance would not be required, though she had walked over to Mortmain's with a view to doing the best she could for her paper.
First came Farthing, who testified to the finding of the body and, after him, Charles the footman, who had been the second to be acquainted with the strange tragedy. Then came Dr. Deacon, who said no more than that he had been called in and testified to the fact that the body had been dead for certainly not more than six or less than four hours when he reached the library. Nothing whatever was said as to the identity of the deceased and, at this point, Inspector Gore intimated that he had no further evidence to call. He applied for an adjournment for a week and intimated that, in the meantime, it was his intention to enlist the services of Scotland Yard. The proceedings were over almost before they were started and, with a curt intimation to the effect that the inquest was adjourned until that day week in the town hall at Watersmouth, the coroner closed his court and the more or less disappointed gathering slowly dispersed.
It was a real relief to Mortmain to find himself alone, and in the enjoyment of his own house once again. He sat for a long time in the library, thinking matters over with a gloomy frown on his face and a look of anxiety in his eyes. He was sitting there when Farthing announced Captain Blake.
Blake came breezily into the room. He was a tall, thin man with features burnt almost black by exposure to tropical suns, and looking a great deal more like a sportsman than a detective. For the rest, he was quietly dressed and his manner conveyed a certain heartiness and a suspicion of simplicity that effectually disguised the keen, searching look in his eyes.
"Well, here we are again," he said. "Do you mean to spend the rest of your life down here doing nothing, or are we ever to see you in town again? And what about that famous novel?"
"The famous novel will come along all in good time," Mortmain smiled. "You see, one is rather handicapped, living in the country. It is like being shut up in a house without any books. And besides, I don't want to make a real start until I can have an opportunity of seeing a real detective at work and studying his methods. That is why I sent for you, old chap. It will be an education to me to see how you handle this case. In all probability I shall found my book on it. I consider myself very lucky to have a real original and startling plot developed for me by an outside agency under my very roof. And now I suppose you want me to tell you everything to the minutest detail."
"If you don't mind," Blake said. "And please don't forget those details, in fact, there are none in my profession. Details as you call them, are something of the utmost importance. You talk and I will listen. Pass those cigarettes and ask your man to get me a cup of tea. I shall want nothing else till dinner time. Now, go ahead with the story of the tragedy. And, by the way, it took place in this very room, didn't it?"
"In this very room," Mortmain echoed. "Now, don't interrupt, and ask questions afterwards."
There was no interruption on Blake's part until the story was finished down to the very last item.
"Yes, quite a case," Blake said critically. "Now, have you made up your mind? I mean, have you any theories?"
"Speaking as a novelist, a dozen," Mortmain smiled. "But then, you see, a novelist can twist his facts to fit into his plot. And when you come to realities, it is a different matter. Speaking as a mere man, I have no theories. That unfortunate individual might have been murdered, or he might have met with an accident here whilst he was trying to steal some of my literary treasures. It is impossible to say."
"For the moment, perhaps," Blake said thoughtfully. "Anyway, I am not going to allow myself to be led astray by outward appearances. You didn't know that man of course?"
"Never saw him in my life," Mortmain said. "I have already told you what a sorry trick he served me, and I suppose he came down here with the intention of serving me yet another one. At any rate, it is a strange thing that he should have picked out perhaps the most valuable book in my library."
"Yes, I haven't overlooked that point. Now, I wonder if he was aware of the fact that his wife was down here at the same time as himself. I mean, did he follow her here for some purpose? Did they meet and quarrel?"
"I am quite sure they didn't," Mortmain said with some warmth. "Margaret would have told me that. You know her almost as well as I do. Surely after identifying her husband and telling me who he was she would never have played such a trick upon me as concealing the fact that they had met down here."
"No, I don't think she would," Blake agreed diplomatically. "But then we, at the Yard, never take anything for granted. We have to treat everybody as suspect until we have proved their evidence. And I am going to take the liberty of applying the same test to Mrs. Grimshaw. Anyhow, I can't do anything till I have had an opportunity of looking round, possibly not before I have studied the witnesses at the adjourned inquiry. Meanwhile, nobody knows that I am down here in connection with Scotland Yard, and that will be greatly in my favor. And now, come and show me round this lovely old place of yours. After being mewed up in London for the best part of a year, it is a blessed privilege to come down to such a paradise as this."
For some time the two friends roamed about the house and then out into the grounds, where Blake took a keen stock of everything. He wanted to know how the sands were reached from the house and where that path through the valley and over the crest of the Castle Rock led to. He even wanted to know all about Mortmain's prawning expeditions and how the household liked to be dragged out of bed at daybreak on those occasions.
"They don't," Mortmain explained. "You see, I have an alarm clock which I set for very early, and I never see the household till I come in to breakfast. But why do you ask?"
"Oh, nothing," Blake said, and with that the conversation dropped, save that Blake expressed a desire to see Dr. Hartley Deacon, of whom he seemed to have heard.
"A very clever fellow," was his verdict. "I cannot understand what he is doing down in a quiet place like this. Do you remember that Hart Lane case? Yes, I see you do. Well, your man, Deacon, worked out a piece of analysis in connection with a couple of grey hairs that put us on the track of the murderer. Most decidedly, I want to see him."
As a matter of fact, Blake saw Deacon not once, but many times, in the course of the next few days. But he seemed to make no progress. He pottered about for hours at a time, whilst Mortmain was otherwise engaged. He seemed to spend whole mornings on the sands at the foot of the Castle Rock and in the bay beyond. But if he was disappointed, he said nothing, and if he discovered anything, he was equally reticent. He was always smiling and cheerful and always hoping for the best.
"I don't believe you are troubling anything about the case," Mortmain said to him on the morning of the adjourned inquest. "I believe that you have fallen in love with this beautiful old place, and that the scenery has hypnotised you."
"Well, there may be something in that," Blake agreed. "Still, I have not been altogether idle. I warned you when I came down here that things were not likely to move until after the adjourned inquest, and I am still of the same opinion. I happened to run against Gore in Watersmouth yesterday, and he seems to have got hold of a piece of evidence which may help us considerably. You had better come in with me this morning and hear it."
The town hall at Watersmouth was packed almost to suffocation when Blake and his host arrived. They managed to push their way up to the table in front of the platform on which the coroner was seated, and there Mortmain saw Margaret, seated in a business-like attitude with her notebook. He had not seen her since the startling events of the week before, for he thought it better not to do so in the circumstances. There would be plenty of time for that, he had decided, and Margaret had tacitly agreed.
The proceedings dragged on for a time, and then at the witness-table there appeared a little old woman in a cotton bonnet who curtseyed to the coroner as her name was called.
"This is Mary Whiddon, sir," the inspector said. "She lives on a small farm at the back of the Castle Rock, and she has something to tell you as to the case in hand."
"Go on, my good woman," the coroner said. "Tell your own story in your own way. Inspector, has the witness seen the body of the deceased or is she speaking from hearsay?"
"She has identified the body as that of a man who has been lodging in her farmhouse for some week or two."
"Yes, that is quite right, sir," the old lady said. "Only he didn't call himself Grimshaw, because he said his name was Brown. He was a quiet gentleman and came down for the fishing. No, sir, he didn't have no letters all the time he was with me. And twice, when he was out all night, he told me not to be alarmed, because sometimes he fished all through the darkness. And nobody came near him, except one strange gentleman that he didn't seem to get on with—a gentleman with a dark moustache."
"You would identify the stranger again?" the coroner asked.
"Aye, I should that, sir, because I see his face lit up by a match as he was putting to a cigarette. And I seen that gentleman again this morning—aye, that I do. Why, he was close behind me when I come into court a quarter of an hour ago."
The old lady in the cotton bonnet was quite conscious of the effect she was creating. In a way, it was the hour of her life, and she was evidently going to make the most of it. She was well enough known to a great majority of the people in the town hall, indeed, there had been a Whiddon farming on the hillside beyond the Castle Rock for the last three hundred years. It was one of those old Devonshire farms, picturesque and low-gabled and, in the summer time, a favourite rendezvous for visitors who know how to appreciate an old-fashioned Devonshire tea with everything made on the premises, including the cream.
The coroner looked up and wiped his spectacles. He was expecting something sensational, as, indeed, were the rest of the spectators who had gathered there.
"Go on," the coroner said. "I understood you to say that, within the last half hour, at least, you have seen the man who was talking to deceased. Look round the court and tell me if you can identify him. He must be here."
But, apparently, he wasn't, for, after a long pause, the old lady shook her head and murmured underneath her breath.
"No, sir," she said. "I can't see him anywhere. And I know he was here, because he was just behind me."
"Very strange," the coroner said. "He must have slipped out in the last minute or two. Has anybody left the building, officer? I mean, since the witness came forward."
The policeman at the door did not know and said so. But it was just possible that somebody might have left the building by the doorway leading into the public offices.
"Well, for the moment it doesn't matter," the coroner went on. "Now, Mrs. Whiddon, will you kindly tell the court all about your late lodger and when he came to your house and when you saw him last. Particularly, I want to know the date and the time when your lodger had the visitor you speak of."
"Well, it's like this, sir," the witness explained. "The gentleman what's dead, he come to me a week or two ago and asks me if I'd got any lodgings to let. And, of course, I had, it being only the end of June and very few visitors about, so far. I let two sets of rooms and I haven't got any bookings till the fourteenth of July. So I told the gentleman as how he could have room for a fortnight or more, but that I couldn't take him afterwards. So he engaged a sitting-room and a bedroom and I was to board him. He came down for the fishing, because, you see, the fishing in the Lydd is good fishing and gentlemen come from far and near for the trout in the stream."
"He brought his equipment with him, I suppose?"
"Equipment? Oh, I suppose you mean his tackle, sir. Yes, he brought a rod and some odds and ends of stuff what's in my house at the present moment. But he didn't fish very much, leastwise, not through the daytime. Rare fond he was of going out late at night and coming back at all sorts of hours. And one night he never come back at all."
"You mean the night of his death?" the coroner asked.
"No, I don't, sir. I mean once before that. And when finally, he didn't come back and a whole day elapsed I didn't give myself much concern until Inspector Gore came to me and asked me to go and identify a body. And, of course, when I went up to Mortmains and did so, blest if it wasn't my lodger."
"Then I understand you to say that you positively identified the dead man as your lodger?" the coroner asked.
"That indeed I did, sir, and a rare shock it were."
"Um—Now, let us go a little further. Since we have established the fact that the deceased was your lodger, we go on to consider the matter of this mysterious visitor. But, first of all, Mrs. Whiddon, had the deceased any correspondence?"
"You mean letters, sir? No, not one all the time he was with me. Not even a newspaper."
"Very well, then. Now, in what circumstances did you see the deceased talking to this mysterious visitor? You said just now that you recognised his features when he was lighting a cigarette. From that, I assume that you witnessed a meeting between the two men in the darkness. As it is light at this time of the year till nearly eleven o'clock, I assume that the meeting alluded to must have taken place very late."
"Yes, that it did, sir. Matter of fact, I was upstairs and nearly undressed when I recollected that I hadn't given a calf of mine that was sick her dose. So I slips on a few clothes and goes out in my stockinged feet, seeing as it was dry. And there under the shadow of the barn, I see my lodger, or at least wise, I heard his voice talking to somebody I couldn't see at all. And they was quarrelling. I overheard words that left no doubt as to that. And the other man was threatening my gentleman as to what would happen if he did not find something, which I took to be money, in the next day or two. Then the stranger, he strikes a match to light a cigarette and I see his face. A youngish man, he was, with queer eyes and an expression as I didn't much care for. He had a dark moustache, thick and matty like a scrubbing brush it was. Then they both moved away out of hearing and I didn't see any more or hear any more. When I had finished my job I went back to bed. And that is all I can tell you, sir, if you was to keep me here for a month."
One or two more trivial questions were asked and then the old lady faded away into the back of the court. She had told the coroner very little, save for the fact that the dead man had an enemy in the neighbourhood and that the two of them had met a few hours previous to what was beginning to look very much like a murder. The sensation the audience had half expected was to come when Margaret stepped up to the table. Most of the people knew her, indeed, in a gossiping little village, especially so early in the season, few people were likely to escape attention. So that Margaret, who was already known as the pretty lady who was staying at the Crown, was a familiar figure.
"I think you knew the deceased," the coroner asked.
"I knew him very well," Margaret replied. "He was my husband. I did not know that until I was confronted with his body but, nevertheless, he was my husband and his name was Richard Grimshaw. That is my name, though I prefer to be known as Margaret Debenham, which I was before my marriage."
"Really," the coroner said. "Perhaps you had better tell us exactly who you are and what you are doing here."
Margaret proceeded to explain. She was quite calm and collected now and ready to go through with it to the end. She told her story with a simplicity that carried conviction to every hearer, including Blake, who watched the proceedings in the guise of a holiday-maker in a golfing suit and an air of absolute detachment. It was a big sensation, that Margaret had created, though she appeared utterly unconscious of the fact as she went back to her seat.
The coroner looked inquiring in the direction of Inspector Gore, but the latter shook his head.
"I don't propose to go any further this morning, sir," he said. "We have established the identity of the deceased and proved that he was down here on some more or less secret mission. Also, the witness, Whiddon, testified to the fact that he had a secret enemy somewhere in the neighbourhood. I am not in the least satisfied that the deceased met his death by accident, and as I have further inquiries to make, I shall be obliged, sir, if you will postpone this inquiry for a week."
"Very well," the coroner said quietly. "The inquest stands adjourned for seven days, the same place and hour."
More or less reluctantly, the excited audience faded away and gathered in the street outside, discussing the sensational stories of the morning in little animated groups. Margaret passed them almost unseen, followed a moment later by Mortmain and, behind him came Blake, in company with Mr. Deacon.
"Well, Margaret," Mortmain said. "You would tell your story though I don t see the least necessity for it. There was no reason at all why you should be dragged into the case."
"But what could I do?" Margaret asked. "And, after all, I have done no wrong. Somebody had to identity Richard Grimshaw, and who better than his own distracted wife?"
She spoke bitterly enough as Mortmain did not fail to notice. The cloud that seemed to have settled over him for the last day or two still brooded in his eyes and his air was one of utter dejection that verged on absolute misery. If he had been guilty of the crime itself he could not have looked more unhappy. It was so palpable that Margaret could not fail to notice it.
"My dear, boy, why be so downcast? After all I am not the first woman who has been the victim of a scoundrel. And now he is dead and I am free. Can't you understand what that means to me, Jack? Free to go my own way without fear of the morrow. Free to call my income my own, and to spend it as I like. Free to buy what I like and not to have to face semi-starvation every now and then because I dreaded a scandal. Oh, of course, I know it will be a nine days' wonder, and that lots of people will say there is more in it than meets the eye, but, so long as my conscience is clear, what does the rest matter? Richard Grimshaw is dead, and I am glad, yes, glad of it. He was never a husband of mine, and if I had not been a reckless little fool I should never have married him. And now that the story is told I feel all the easier in my mind. Oh, you don't know what that means."
"What are you going to do now?"
"This moment, you mean? Well, look after the interests of my paper, to begin with and watch events. And I think that I shall enjoy my lunch when I get it."
"Well, in that case, why not walk out to Mortmains and have it with me?" Mortmain suggested. "Don't say no."
Margaret responded a little shyly that she had not the least intention of refusing. Besides, she could hear Blake and the doctor close behind and it was her suggestion that they were asked to join the luncheon party at Mortmains.
"Don't let us talk any more horrors," she pleaded. "Let us forget all about it for the present on such a beautiful day as this. Then afterwards you can show me all over your house and grounds and I shall love it. My one regret will be that my own folly has prevented me from sharing such a paradise with you."
"Yes, but has it?" Mortmain asked boldly. "I fail to appreciate your logic. However, we can argue it out presently."
There was no time to pursue the subject any further, because Blake and Deacon came up at the same moment. As the doctor declared that he had nothing to do and that, if things didn't mend he would have to seek a living elsewhere, it was not difficult to persuade him to become a member of the luncheon party.
"Yes, do," Blake supplemented. "And then I will walk back to Watersmouth with you, Deacon. There are one or two little matters in which you can help me and I prefer not to discuss them in the presence of the lady here, who must hate the very name of Grimshaw. Really, I beg your pardon."
"There is no occasion," Margaret smiled. "At any rate, I want to forget it for the moment and enjoy a perfect afternoon."
And, so far as she was concerned, it was a perfect afternoon, and none the less when, shortly after luncheon was finished, Blake and the doctor went off together in the direction of Watersmouth. Then Mortmain turned to his companion.
"Come outside in the beautiful sunshine," he suggested. "I have shown you some of the attractions of Mortmains, but you might be here a month without discovering them all. I believe I could take you for a walk round the domain twice a day for a week and show you something fresh every time. Now we will climb up to the top of the Tower Rock and sit in the sun there feeling as if the whole world was a thousand miles away."
Margaret followed, nothing loth. And there presently they sat looking out over the broad channel with the floating gulls far below them and gradually slipping into an easy discussion of old times.
"After all, it has been very wonderful," he said. "Fancy you coming down here, just at this particular time, not knowing that I was within leagues of you, and then to find——"
Margaret shuddered slightly.
"Please, please don't go into that," she implored.
"I really had no intention," Mortmain said. "I am giving myself over to the enjoyment of the moment and I am not going to think about anything else. Moreover, I am going to make love to you, my dear, if you have no special objection."
She looked up at him out of those cloudless eyes of hers, and a happy smile trembled about the corners of her lips.
"Why not," she asked demurely. "There is no obstacle in the way now, and, morally speaking, there never was. But please don't allow yourself to be carried away by——"
"Circumstances and the hour—is that what you mean?" Mortmain asked. "My dear girl, we have been a couple of utter fools, but there is no reason why we should go on playing those parts, though I must confess that they fit us pretty well. Margaret, if I had come to you as I ought to have done, I should have saved myself two years' misery, and that scoundrel would never have played us off, one against the other. And, though I was a fool, I was a faithful one, and I have never forgotten you. I love you just as much now as ever I did, and if you will consent to share this little paradise with me, I ask no more. But perhaps the past two years have not been the same to you as they have to me."
"Indeed they have," Margaret, said calmly. "I did what I thought was right and all for the best, but within a short time I began to see that I had thrown away my life's happiness. Even before it was too late I had the impulse, over and over again, to come to you and ask for an explanation. And then, the next morning, I grew hard again. And then it was too late. I had deliberately made my choice and for that choice I suffered more than words can tell. I suppose I have really paid less penalty than I deserve. But that is all over and done with now and, if you are of the same mind still, Jack——"
Mortmain needed no further information. For a long time there was silence, while they looked out over the summer sea with heart and mind in perfect accord. And then, suddenly, Mortmain awoke to the realisation of things. The cloud that had lifted for the last hour or two came down again and seemed to stifle him.
"Well," he sighed. "So far we understand one another, and that is all to the good. But there are many things to be done yet and much trouble before us ere this tragedy can be relegated to forgetfulness. I am perfectly certain that Richard Grimshaw was murdered, and am not the only one who holds that opinion."
"But how could it possibly be?" Margaret asked. "You don't lure a man into somebody else's house to murder him."
"No, perhaps not. But he was killed in my house, all the same. And both Blake and Gore are convinced of it. I am almost sorry now, that I asked Blake to come down here. He has got hold of a clue of sorts, though he is inclined to deny it, and he is not the man to release his grip when once he has fastened on anything or anybody. And I could not very well ask him to. He has his reputation to think of, and, though we are old friends, he would not listen to any suggestion to the contrary. Depend upon it, Blake is working on the mystery now."
Mortmain spoke more truly than he knew, for Blake had not gone back with Deacon to the latter's cosy bachelor house with the mere intention of talking generalities. He had found something which, as yet was vague and intangible, but which promised, with luck, to meet with startling results. And in this conclusion the evidence he had heard that morning had strengthened him. He knew now, at any rate, who the dead man was, and could give a pretty shrewd guess as to what had brought him down in that part of the world. And, moreover, he knew that not very far off lurked one who was one of Grimshaw's deadliest enemies.
He sat in Deacon's consulting room, smoking a cigarette whilst he asked any number of apparently pointless questions.
"Now, what, precisely, are you driving at?" Deacon asked presently. "My dear chap, you can pick my brains for what they are worth, but I don't think you will gain anything by not taking me into your confidence. Both of us are perfectly convinced that that man Grimshaw was murdered, but we don't know how or why or when or where——"
"Oh, come, we know where," Blake protested.
"Yes, I thought we do," Deacon said, thoughtfully. "But don't forget that I may have something to say on the matter yet. I have been merely asked to testify as to the time of his death, and, at that moment, I could not have said any more. But I think, my dear fellow, that I can improve upon that now."
"You mean to say you know something definite?" Blake asked, eagerly. "Something I can make good use of."
"No, I don't," Deacon admitted. "I can give you some pretty strong hints which may cause you to shift your point of view, but after that, I must leave it to your own resources. Now, you are under the impression that Grimshaw and some person or persons unknown came down here with the intention of getting away from Mortmains with some of those valuable books out of the library."
"Correct, so far," Blake admitted. "Everything points in that direction. We have Grimshaw down here with no apparent object in the world, pretending to fish, though there is no evidence that he ever wetted a line. He takes lonely lodgings a couple of miles outside Watersmouth, and develops a habit of staying out all night—ostensibly fishing. But I don't believe it for a moment. We know now that he was in contact with some mysterious individual who, I presume, is staying somewhere in the neighborhood, and this man does not call upon Grimshaw in the daytime, but has meetings with him late at night out-side the farm where Grimshaw makes his headquarters. A very cautious individual, evidently, and one who will probably be quite a match for me. It is not the slightest use my making up my mind that that chap with the black moustache is the actual murderer, though I have not the slightest doubt of it. For the present, what I really want to know is how that murder took place, and why; then I shall see my way a little more clearly. Now, if you have any information to give me I shall be deeply obliged."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I have," Deacon said. "Would you mind having a look at this?"
With that, he produced from a drawer an empty cigarette box, in which was a small patch of what appeared to be red hair attached to a fragment of skin.
"There you are," he said. "Now, that came from Grimshaw's head. It was hanging loose from his scalp when I examined his body, and I looked at it carefully through a strong magnifying glass, because I could see small, glittering particles shining in the hair and congealed blood on the strip of skin. Now, you take up this magnifying glass and examine the scrap of skin in the strong light from the window. Then you will see for yourself what I mean when I speak of shining particles."
"By jove—you are right!" Blake cried, as he placed the glass to his eye. "These look like little particles of gold. Perhaps you will be good enough to tell me what they are."
"Certainly," Deacon smiled. "What you take for particles of gold are nothing but grains of sand of the fine drift sort you see on the beach above high water-mark—blown sand."
"But how the dickens did they get there?"
"That," Deacon said, "is what we have to decide."
Blake sat for some considerable time smoking a contemplative cigarette before he made any reply. This was a new departure which he had not in the least expected, and one that tended to destroy all the theories that he had been building up since he had first taken the case in hand.
"Yes," he said, at length. "I see what you mean. But supposing that Grimshaw had had a little accident on his way to Mortmain's. He might have fallen on the back of his head. His hair was crisp and curly and might have retained a good deal of sand without his being any the wiser. What then?"
"Of course that is possible," Deacon agreed. "But I don't think that could have been so and I will tell you why. Now, as to the first thing I noticed when I came to examine the fracture that undoubtedly led to Grimshaw's death, I spotted one thing in particular. There was the fine sand, ground into the wound, so to speak and under it. What I mean by that is there was a certain amount of sand on the scalp at the base of the skull when that wound was inflicted."
"Wait a moment," Blake interrupted. "How are we to know definitely that that blow was inflicted? It might have been an accident, and the suggestion that Grimshaw fell off the ladder in the library where he was stealing that book might be the real cause of the man's death. I say it might be."
"And I say it isn't," Deacon smiled. "And I was going to tell you why when you interrupted me. If what you say is correct, then there must have been a certain amount of fine sand about the dead man's shoulders, in his ears and all that sort of thing. And certainly inside the welts of his shoes. Now I examined that body three times altogether and I could not find a single particle of sand, except that which was matted in the hair in the wound and round about it. How do you account for that?"
"Well, you certainly have me there," Blake confessed. "I thought I was beginning to see my way when you first told me about the sand, but now I am all at sea again. I shall have to reconsider my position and start afresh."
Blake spoke lightly enough, but, all the same, he was distinctly annoyed to think that a certain amount of valuable time had been wasted. He prowled about more or less aimlessly for the rest of the day and then, the following morning, with the intention of opening out inquiries in another direction, he came into Watersmouth rather hoping to find Gore there. But though Gore had promised to come over the first thing in the morning, he had not yet arrived, so that Blake fell back upon a casual conversation with the village policeman. There was just the chance, in the course of gossip, that he might hit upon something. The local representative of the law was by no means averse from being seen in intimate conversation with one of Sir John Mortmain's guests, little realizing that he was face to face with one of the leading lights of Scotland Yard. He was an old constable nearing his pension and talkative, after the manner of his kind.
"I suppose nothing fresh has turned up?" Blake asked.
"Well sir, we haven't much to go on up to now," the old man said with an air of importance. "And you must excuse me if I can't answer any direct questions. Still, it's rather a funny thing what happened to Julia Ridge."
"And who may Julia Ride be?" Blake asked.
"Oh, she be one of our old inhabitants. She lives in that white cottage up over on the side of the hill. It's her own property, it is, husband used to be in the Coastguards. She's got no call to do any work, seeing as they saved a tidy bit o' money between them, but she do let lodgings in the summer."
"You mean she has got a lodger now?"
The elderly officer coughed discreetly. Evidently he had a piece of knowledge to impart and was leading up to it after the manner of one who is an artist at that sort of thing.
"Well yes, sir, in a manner of speaking. A strange gentleman has come down from London a week or two ago."
"Nothing very strange about that, is there?" Blake smiled.
"Well, no, sir. But that wasn't what I was going to say. He come down from London, he did——"
"You are quite sure of that fact?" Blake cut in.
"At any rate, sir, he came off the London train, because the man who drives the bus from the Crown Hotel told me so, and he asks where he can get quiet rooms and Joe, being a sort of relative of Julia Ridge's, recommended him there. And there he stays for about a week and then, well he just disappears, leaving his baggage behind him and a word to say as he will be back in a few clays and that's just about all. Still, he owes a week's board and lodging and that looks rather suspicious."
A sudden thought flashed into Blake's mind.
"What sort of a man was he?" he demanded.
"Oh, youngish man, about forty, perhaps. I seen him about the village two or three times. Might have been a gentleman and might not. Dark eyes, and a scrubby black moustache."
Blake nodded thoughtfully. This was almost an exact description of the man Mary Whiddon had seen in conversation with her lodger on the night previous to his death in the shadow of the barn. Evidently a clue worth following up. One of those little facts that appear on the face of them so unimportant and yet which often lead to the most stupendous results. It seemed strange that Gore should not have heard of this or that the village policeman who was present at the inquest had not associated the missing lodger in his mind with the mysterious individual with the black moustache. At any rate, the local constabulary had seen nothing significant in the matter, and Blake was exceedingly glad to know that such was the case. The less the local authorities knew about it the better. At any rate, Gore would have to know, and as Blake turned into the dining-room at the Crown Hotel for a mouthful of luncheon, he was pleased to see Gore there.
"Just the very man I want to meet," Blake said. "Now, let us have a little refreshment, and then we can discuss a piece of information I have picked up at our leisure."
Gore was considerably impressed with the information that Blake conveyed to him. He could see plainly enough that there was some connection between the missing lodger and the dead man.
"Funny thing that I didn't hear that," he said. "But then, I suppose Smithers didn't reckon that it was of any importance. He only wanted to tell you that one of the villagers had been bilked by some dishonest visitor. That is a bit of gossip that would interest him a great deal more than half a dozen murders. Not that it is anything new, because it happens half a dozen times every season. But what do you want to do, Captain Blake?"
"Well, I haven't quite made up my mind," Blake said. "It is pretty certain that we have got on the track of the man with the black moustache. And from what your constable told me, he intends to come back here again. Otherwise, he would not have left all his traps behind him. I take it that this Julia Ridge is one of the innocent type of women who will believe any plausible tale that is told her. I mean, she would have allowed her lodger to take all his traps away if he had promised to send her a cheque directly he got back to London."
"Oh, Lord, yes," Gore smiled. "We are a very honest lot down here and the man would easily get away with a yarn like that. It is pretty certain he will come back again."
"Ah, that is as it may be," Blake said shrewdly. "He may not come back himself, but somebody representing him will. There must have been some powerful reason for his disappearing as he did, almost at a moment's notice. Anyhow, I don't think we ought to lose any time in overhauling his belongings. I suppose you have got a magistrate living in the village? Oh, you have. Then you had better run along to him and get a search warrant, and when that is done we will go up to the old woman's cottage."
"Yes, that wouldn't be a bad idea," Gore agreed. "I will go up to the Manor House and see one of the district magistrates who lives there and get his signature to a search warrant. There are sure to be one or two at the local police station. If you will wait here for me, I shan't be more than half an hour."
With that, Gore departed on his errand, leaving Blake to turn this new discovery over in his mind, whilst he smoked a cigarette, and sipped his coffee. He was not expecting too much, but it certainly looked to him as if the little bit of gossip of the local constable had opened up a fresh field for exploration. He was still deep in the consideration of this new side of the problem when the door of the coffee-room opened and Margaret came in. She was quite alone, and evidently in search of luncheon. Blake welcomed her with a smile and suggested that she should sit down at his table. The dining-room was empty, so that there were no people present to overhear their conversation.
"I have finished my own lunch, as you see," Blake said. "And now I am passing a half hour as best I can, waiting for my friend, Inspector Gore, who has a little business to transact. Won't you come and sit down by me and honor me with your company."
Margaret smilingly accepted the invitation. She was quite at home there, for this was by no means the first time she had stayed at the Crown Hotel, where she was always a welcome guest. She was fairly well-known to the village people as a whole, and it was comforting to find herself the recipient of so much sympathy from practically everybody with whom she came in contact. She had almost dreaded the result of her startling disclosures at the inquest, but now she was glad that she had followed the braver course and told the truth as to her unfortunate marriage.
"I shall be only too pleased," she said. "I have nothing to do and nobody to talk to, and if I meet anybody I know, I have to listen to all sorts of questions which I cannot answer. But, on the whole, I have little to complain of. I suppose you and Inspector Gore have discovered nothing fresh?"
The entrance of Gore himself at that moment saved Blake from answering a rather awkward question. He passed a swift sign to the inspector, who merely nodded and tapped his breast pocket before he took a vacant seat at the table and murmured something more or less complimentary to Margaret.
"Don't let me keep you," the latter said. "If you gentlemen have anything pressing to do——"
"Oh, it is not so pressing as all that," Blake said. "Now, Miss Margaret—really, I ought to have said Mrs. Grimshaw, but as I have always known you——"
"Oh, please don't apologise," Margaret said. "I never have been called Mrs. Grimshaw and I never shall be now. Is there anything more that I can tell you."
"Possibly," Blake said. "There is just one question I should like to ask you. Was Grimshaw a sportsman?"
"In the proper sense of the word, you mean?" Margaret asked. "People who go to race meetings call themselves sportsmen, you know. And so do men who attend prize fights, though they never struck a blow in their lives. Mr. Grimshaw was that type of a sportsman, and I have often heard him say so. But as for golf, or shooting or fishing——"
"But surely he was a fisherman?" Blake suggested.
"He might have been," Margaret said a little scornfully. "But I never saw any signs of it. He didn't play any game whatever, and the only time the subject of fishing cropped up between us was one night when we were dining with a party of friends at the Hotel Victoria. There was a boy present who was a great fisherman, and I remember Mr. Grimshaw sneered at him."
"And yet he came down here for the fishing," Blake said reflectively. "You remember that, Gore, don't you?"
Gore remembered it perfectly well. Indeed, Mary Whiddon had testified to the fact that her unfortunate lodger had come down to Watersmouth on purpose to fish.
"Yes, I recollect that," Gore said. "He told Mrs. Whiddon that he was so keen that he frequently fished in the night. Of course, that was untrue. It was only an excuse for being out at all sorts of hours without arousing suspicion."
Blake appeared to be content with what he had heard, for he switched off the conversation in another direction, and, at the end of a few moments, excused Gore and himself on the score of their pressing business, and vanished.
They walked up the side of the hill together in silence for a little time before Blake spoke again.
"Well, we have established another fact, you see," he said, "it is quite clear now that Grimshaw came down here with some sinister purpose. Of course, fishing would be as good an excuse as any other. Quite an ingenious idea in a neighbourhood like this, where the trout attract so many sportsmen. And besides, it gave Grimshaw an excuse for being out all night if he wanted to."
"Yes, I quite see that," Gore agreed. "And now we have to account for the quarrelsome gentleman who wore a black moustache and who left the neighbourhood so hurriedly after the discovery of Richard Grimshaw's body. We may be utterly wrong, of course, we may be searching for the wrong man, but I don't think this business is a mere coincidence. However, we shall see."
Mrs. Julia Ridge was in her garden looking after her early peas when her visitors arrived. She changed color and showed signs of confusion when she caught sight of Gore, for the inspector was no stranger in Watersmouth.
"Good afternoon, Mrs. Ridge," he said cheerfully. "You know who I am, and you might guess what brings me here. This gentleman is Captain Blake, from London, and a friend of mine who is interested in the way we policemen work. Can't we come inside."
"Oh, certainly, sir," the old woman said. "I hope it isn't anything to do with that there lodger of mine."
"Well, in a way, it is," Gore admitted. "I don't say that your late lodger is the man I am looking for, but he might be, by the description of him. And, anyhow, you don't want to lose your money, do you?"
Mrs. Ridge was understood to say that she did not in the least want to lose her money, though she would much prefer that calamity to being dragged into the trouble at Mortmain's.
"But why should you associate your lodger with Mortmain's?" Gore asked. "I have not suggested anything of the kind."
"Well, begging your pardon, sir, but I was at that there inquest and I heard what Mary Whiddon said about a man with a black moustache and my gentleman had a black moustache too, a sort of scrubby one, just as Mary described. You see, Mary and me are related and when I went over to tea with her last night——"
"You had the whole thing out, of course," Gore smiled. "You see, Captain Blake, everybody in this village is related to everybody else. And if one of them has a secret the rest are bound to hear it. Look here, Julia, you can make your mind easy. I am looking for somebody in connection with a case that doesn't concern you and is never likely to. I am not saying that your gentleman has anything whatever to do with it, but I am bound to make inquiries, so I am taking you into my confidence."
Mrs. Ridge smirked and bridled. Here was something to talk about. Actually, she was going to be taken into the confidence of the police. Something to last her a lifetime.
"I am sure, sir," she said, "every word you say——"
"Oh, I am quite certain of that," Gore said, knowing perfectly well that his visit to the cottage would be all over the district within the next few hours. "I know you are a model of discretion. But let us have everything properly in order. This paper I have in my hand is called a search warrant. It enables me to go all over your cottage and look into everything you have. I will read it to you if you like, but I don't think you want me to do that when you see the signature at the bottom."
Julia Ridge glanced respectfully at the signature of the Lord of the Manor, and declared that the inspector was welcome to search the cottage from top to bottom.
"I have got nothing to be ashamed of," she declaimed proudly.
"Of course, you haven't," Gore said. "And, as a matter of fact, I don't want to look at anything belonging to you. My task here is to examine the belongings of your late lodger. If he comes back you can tell him what happened, though I don't think you will have to bother about that. However, you never can tell. Did he have a sitting-room and a bedroom?"
"He had my best sitting-room and my best bedroom and he paid me two pounds a week, though, to be sure, I get more than double that in August. I was to cook for him and get in everything he wanted, because, being a bachelor gentleman, he didn't want to be bothered with all that sort of thing. When I gave him his bill it come to just under five pounds."
"Which he did not pay," Gore suggested.
"No, he didn't, sir, and that's a fact. He said he had been disappointed over some letter he had. Not that I saw any letter, because the postman never came here all the time he was here. But I understood him to say as he had given orders for all his letters to be addressed to the Post Office, seeing as he didn't know where he was going to stay when he came down here. And then the day as he went, he came in and told me that he had had an urgent telegram calling him back to town. And I didn't see no telegraph boy, though perhaps he met him, in the village. So he packs up and catches the mid-day train, saying as he was coming back in about a week, and that's all I knows, if you was to talk to me for a month."
Blake and Gore were alone at length in the little bedroom over the porch of the cottage, having convinced the old lady that her presence was not required. There was nothing much in the room, except a rather battered and travel-stained despatch case and a leather portmanteau which was pushed under the bed.
The despatch case disclosed nothing. It was crammed with papers, mostly cuttings from the leading London journals and a great many of them marked in red ink. Gore turned the contents on to the bed and examined the case to see if there was any sign of a false lining or double bottom. But the most careful scrutiny disclosed nothing of the kind.
"Well, we hare drawn a blank here, at any rate," Gore said. "Though perhaps you notice that most of these cuttings refer to different big houses in the West End of London. Whether we are right or wrong in our contentions, I should say that the owner of this case is well known to the police."
Blake nodded in agreement. Then the portmanteau was turned out, disclosing a wardrobe of a quite superior kind and, right at the bottom of a mass of under-linen a sheet of paper on which someone had written a letter. There was no address upon it, except the words "Orchard-st., Thursday night" and ran thus:—
"My dearest little girl,
Thanks for your phone and suggestion. It is so audaciously clever that I am positively afraid of using it. However, there is one point which I should like to discuss with you, but that will keep till we meet on Sunday.—Yours ever, Jacques."
Beyond that, absolutely nothing to throw the slightest light on the identity of the man with the black moustache. And yet Blake stood there with the letter in his hand, turning it over until, finally, he handed it to Gore.
"Does it tell you anything," Gore asked.
"Well, yes," Blake said, drawing a deep breath. "It tells me this much, only this is to be quite between ourselves till the time to speak comes. That letter is in the handwriting of my friend and host, Sir John Mortmain."
Gore whistled softly between his teeth.
"The mystery grows deeper," he said.
"I wonder what you make of it," Gore went on. "I suppose that you are quite sure that it is Sir John's handwriting."
"Of that I have not the slightest doubt," Blake said firmly. "I know it so well and, besides, it is so characteristic. Not an easy hand to forge as I am sure you will admit."
"Then I should like to know what you make of it."
Blake told himself that he could make a good deal, but, for the moment, he was saying nothing. Not even to Gore was he going to give away his friend until he could conceal his suspicions no longer. Nor could he altogether forget the fact that he was down in this part of the world in two capacities, first on behalf of the law and secondly, as the guest under an old friend's roof.
"Hang me if I know," he said irritably. "There is no doubt that this is an important discovery, though, at the same time, it may be capable of quite an ordinary explanation. On the other hand, it may not. I think, on the whole, we had better go each his own way and, possibly, we may be able to hit upon a solution on what is a most strange and fascinating crime. Meanwhile, not a word about this visit to a soul."
The two men parted a few moments later. Gore on his way back to Instaple and Blake more or less at a loose end. He was more puzzled and worried than he cared to admit. To begin with, everything seemed to point to some connection between the dead man and the individual whom he had so deeply wronged. And yet Mortmain had declared with every sign of truth that he had never met Richard Grimshaw or even knew what he was like. Still, Grimshaw had been found dead in mysterious circumstances under the roof of his rival, and nobody could say as yet whether Grimshaw had been murdered or had met with a fatal accident in the course of some nefarious scheme which he had been in the act of carrying out at the moment when he met with his tragic end.
There was a great deal here that wanted explaining and Blake was trying to fit the jagged pieces of the puzzle together in his mind as he walked along the lonely, picturesque road leading to Mortmains. He had barely cleared the village when he came upon Margaret, who appeared down a side lane and evidently as going in the same direction as himself.
"Whither bound?" Blake asked lightly.
"Well, I was going to walk through the valley and over the moor," Margaret explained. "I have nothing to do at the moment, and I am finding time hanging rather heavily on my hands. For the present, at any rate, I think it just as well that I should not be seen at Mortmains too often."
"Ah, there I quite agree with you," Blake said. "Really, this is a most amazing case. If you remain down here long enough I think you will have a startling story for your paper. And now I am going to take you into my confidence. Not altogether, perhaps, but to a certain extent. You have heard all about the man with the black moustache and formed your own conclusions."
"Yes." Margaret admitted. "But only vaguely. It seemed to me more than possible that the man with the black moustache was responsible for Richard Grimshaw's death. If I were a detective, I should want to find out all about that man."
"And you would be perfectly right. Now, for the last few hours, I have been devoting my time to making inquiries with regard to that mysterious individual and I found him."
"Do you mean to say that he is actually here?"
"No, he isn't," Blake admitted. "If he were still here I should be all the less inclined to regard him as the actual culprit. But he has vanished. I have been at his lodgings and together with Inspector Gore, searched certain belongings that he left behind him. He disappeared very hurriedly after receiving a telegram, or, at any rate saying he had received a telegram, and he told his landlady he was coming back in a few days. I don't believe he is for the simple reason that he left owing some five pounds for board and lodging. I shall be more than surprised if he turns up again. Still, you never can tell. But I think we have established the fact that he was very short of ready money and this knowledge might help us presently."
"And is that all?" Margaret asked.
"Not quite," Blake said drily. "I found a letter. Perhaps you would like to have a look at it."
Without further palaver, Blake produced the letter and placed it in Margaret's hand. If he had expected to see her show any signs of confusion or distress, he was greatly mistaken, for after she had glanced at the contents of the brief note, she looked up into Blake's face in blank astonishment.
"Why, this is Jack's writing," she cried.
"Precisely. I was practically sure of it, but I thought I would ask you before I was definitely certain. Now, I found that letter in the portmanteau of the man with the black moustache. I am not going to ask you to explain how it got there because, of course, you couldn't, but you might have seen it before; it might have been intended for you, because, you see, it is a familiar, not to say affectionate note, and could only have been written to a woman with whom Mortmain was on intimate terms."
"Yes, I see that," Margaret smiled. "But, all the same, it was certainly never written to me. Whom it was intended for and how it got into the possession of the man you are talking about is a mystery, and I don't think you could exactly call it a love letter. You see, ours was rather a Bohemian lot, and we were in the habit of addressing one another in such warm terms. Lots of men in literary circles would write to me like that, and nobody would think anything about it. But, if you like, I will show that letter to Jack and ask him whether——"
"Ah, that is precisely what I don't want you to do. I showed the letter to you because I wanted to know whether it had ever been one of yours. But, since you say it isn't, I shall be greatly obliged if you will say nothing whatever about it. Of course, I shall show it to Mortmain when I am ready to do so, but till then I am going to ask you to remain silent."
"Just as you like," Margaret said a little loftily. "You can rely upon me to say nothing."
They parted a little later on. Margaret to her walk and Blake through the lodge gates into the grounds of Mortmains. He smiled a little cynically to himself as he thought of what Margaret had had to say on the subject of the letter. Nor did he altogether agree with the implicit faith which she had shown in Mortmain. Was it not more than possible that the latter had been carrying on a flirtation with the girl to whom that letter had been originally addressed, behind Margaret's back? Knowing something of the world, Blake came to the conclusion that he was right.
Then, suddenly, moved by an idea that had come to him, he retraced his steps and walked across the moor to the picturesque farmhouse where Richard Grimshaw had been staying. Mrs. Whiddon was pleased to see him, as, indeed, she was pleased to see anybody out of the great world with whom she could gossip. Would the gentleman come into the house? Would he like a cup of tea and some home-made bread and jam, with some of her own special Devonshire cream? And most important of all, had he found out anything as to the identity of her late lodger?
"Well, no I haven't," Blake confessed. "There has been no time, to begin with. I suppose the man had friends somewhere; and perhaps in a day or two someone will come forward with particulars. But, really, you know as much about him as I do. You heard what was said about him at the inquest by the unfortunate lady who had the misfortune to call herself his wife."
"Aye, that I did," the old woman said hotly. "And a rare nice young lady she be. Many a time has she had her tea under this roof. It looks to me, sir, as if I was giving house-room to a pretty sort of a scamp. He's dead now, and I ought not to say much, but if I had known, he'd never have come here. But I daresay you know more about him than I do."
"Indeed, I don't," Blake insisted. "But I want to get to the bottom of this business because, you see, in a way, my friend, Sir John Mortmain, is implicated."
"Aye, there's something in that, sir. Not as I'd hear a word breathed against the squire. He keeps hisself to hisself, but he's a rare nice gentleman when you come know him. I only wish that I could lend a hand—that I do."
"As a matter of fact, you can," Blake said persuasively. "Now, I want you to give me your permission to go over your late lodger's belongings. Show me everything he had and allow me to open his suit-case and all that sort of thing."
The old lady hesitated but for a moment. She was doing wrong, perhaps, but curiosity was too strong for her.
"Well, sir," she said. "You be a gentleman and a friend of the squire's and I know you won't get me into trouble. There is nothing down in the sitting room except a fishing rod in its case, but in the bedroom overhead you'll find a portmanteau for the most part empty and some clothes in the chest of drawers."
Blake waited for no further invitation. For the best part of half an hour he made a close search without coming upon anything that rewarded his trouble. It struck him as a little singular that he could find nothing in the way of fishing tackle beyond a new line which had evidently never been wetted and a book of flies, every one of which was just as it had come from the hands of the maker. A pretty fine fisherman this, evidently.
Still, so far, Blake was conscious of the fact that he had been wasting his time. He turned out the portmanteau and, after that, the whole chest of drawers.
And then, at last in one of the small drawers at the top, under a heap of ties and collars, he found something which might prove of importance. It was a steel key with a flat brass handle, not unlike the key of a Yale lock. On the brass disc was a number—74321, and round it the legend "Mark Lane Safe Deposit."
"Ah, this might be all right," Blake said to himself under his breath. "I think I'll borrow it."
Much to the old lady's disappointment, Blake had nothing to tell her. He had no intention of mentioning the matter of the key, because that concerned himself only, and Mrs. Whiddon would have been none the wiser if he had explained to her the meaning of that particular talisman and what might be behind it. With a promise to come again at an early date, he retraced his footsteps and made his way towards Mortmains by the Castle Rock route.
It was the first time be had done so, indeed, the first time it had occurred to him to survey the land adjacent to the tragedy and the prospect interested him. Here was a pathway through the valley that closed in at the top, so that carts and foot passengers had to skirt the great rock that rose like a citadel to the left of Mortmains. The whole road was not more than twenty feet wide and the rugged pathway itself came within two or three feet of the edge of the Castle Rock, which dropped for a sheer two hundred feet onto the soft sands below. It was only at spring tides in March and October that the foot of the Castle Rock was washed by the sea. And now, for the last eight or ten weeks there was nothing down below, above high water mark, but dry sand covered almost with fragile seaweed that had become parched by the sun and wind. One step off the path into the darkness, and certain death would be the result. In his mind's eye, Blake could picture Grimshaw being deliberately pushed off the narrow shelf of rock and being dashed to pieces on the sands below, because he knew that the sands at the foot of the Castle Rock above high water mark were very thin in places and barely served to conceal the scores of jagged flints that lay below the surface.
Was it possible that Richard Grimshaw had met his death in circumstances something like these? And yet that was absolutely impossible. A man could not be hurled over the rock to his certain destruction under cover of darkness, and, at the same time almost, be found dead in the library at Mortmains.
Still Blake was a long way from being satisfied. The mystery was an absolute tangle that seemed to defy the finest efforts at unravelment, and yet Blake had a sort of conviction in his mind that the solution was easy enough if he could only get his fingers on the right end of the thread. He would not altogether abandon the idea that had occurred to him, and with the intention of satisfying himself on this point, he went down the slope, through the little gate at Mortmains, and thence into the house.
He was not altogether displeased to find that Mortmain was not there. He had gone into Instaple for the afternoon and had left a message for his friend to the effect that he would not be back very much before dinner-time. To all of which, Blake listened quietly enough, and then, after he had had his tea and smoked a contemplative cigarette he went out on the terrace, and from thence by a zig-zag path cut into the rock on to the wide stretch of sand that formed the beach below. From there he could walk round the buttress at the foot of the Castle Rock into the tiny bay beyond where Mortmain pursued his early habit of prawning. He knew this because it had come out in casual conversation. The time was not quite right just now, and it was only this that had prevented Blake from suggesting an early morning in the pools amongst the outlying rocks where the finest prawns were to be found.
The tide was fairly low as Blake set out on his ramble over the sands in the direction of the great rock. He noticed that for some fifty feet or so from the base of the huge bastion downwards the sand was dry and light as thistledown. It had been many weeks since the sea had washed past a certain line, and the whole of the dry beach was littered with seaweed, friable as tinder and tossed in heaps here and there above the reach of the waves. As he walked along he kicked this feathery weed on one side in a listless sort of way, and then, quite suddenly, he pulled up and looked down at his feet. He bent to examine what he had found, then crept cautiously for another yard or so, lifting the tindery weed out of his way and depositing it on one side. At the end of five minutes he reversed the process, and replaced the vegetation as nearly as possible whence he had moved it. Then thrusting a stick in the sand so as to mark the spot where he had been at work, he retraced his footsteps and went back to the house in a very thoughtful frame of mind.
A quarter of an hour later he was walking rapidly in the direction of Watersmouth. He wanted to send a telephone message which would have been more or less impossible at Mortmains, seeing that the instrument was in the hall where he would be liable to interruptions at any moment, and, what was much more important, to be overheard by Farthing or one of the servants. So that there was no help for it but to go into Watersmouth and send his message from the exchange there. And then another thought occurred to him. Why not call upon Dr. Deacon, who was more or less in his confidence, and send the message from there?
Deacon was pleased enough to see him and quite ready to place his telephone at Blake's disposal.
"Have you found anything out?" Deacon asked. "You look so grave and important that——"
"It's not as important as all that," Blake interrupted. "But I haven't been altogether wasting my time. To begin with, I have been up at Mrs. Whiddon's farm examining the belongings of the unfortunate Grimshaw."
"Well?" Deacon asked. "And then?"
"Well, I discovered, first of all, that Grimshaw did no fishing when he was down here. He didn't even wet a line. I have all his brand new tackle to prove that. So we can come to the conclusion that he didn't come down here for the sake of the trout. But perhaps I had better tell you how Gore and myself have been spending the best part of the day."
With that, Blake went into details which were followed by Deacon with rapt attention. He heard all about the man with the black moustache and the sudden way he had vanished and, finally, Blake produced the safe deposit key.
"Now we shall know something about Grimshaw and his movements," he said. "This is a key of his secret hiding place. And I was just going to telephone to Scotland Yard and ask the people there to go as far as Mark Lane and open the safe that corresponds to the number on this key."
"But without the key?" Deacon interrupted.
"Oh, my dear fellow, there will be no trouble about that. The safe deposit people have duplicate keys for the whole series. And when Scotland Yard wants a thing, then Scotland Yard usually gets it. Besides, the Company know all about the tragedy down here by this time and will be quite aware of the fact that Grimshaw is dead. I came to you because I could not telephone from Mortmains and I was on my way to do so from the village call office when it suddenly occurred to me that I could do much better here."
"Oh, by all means," Deacon said. "You will find the telephone in the hall. Oh, you need not be afraid. I have a sound proof box there because I am often in contact with the Instaple hospital, and I have a very strong objection to my servants listening to my professional conversations. Go and put your call through and then you can come back here and smoke a cigarette whilst you are getting in touch with the other end."
It was not more than five and twenty minutes later when Blake got his summons and then returned to the dining room where Deacon was awaiting him.
"So that's all right," he said. "My people will get down to Mark Lane at once and write me full particulars of what they discover addressed to Mortmains. Now I am going to ask you to help me in another matter. I know you are an expert photographer and very clever at enlargements. Now, if I brought you a minute object in some material, do you think you could enlarge it to such an extent that it would be easily recognised for what it is. I know I have put that clumsily."
"Yes, but I follow your idea. And if you bring the object you are speaking of to me, I think I shall be able to oblige you. But I hope it is a distinct impression."
"Ah, that, for the moment, I can't tell you," Blake said. "I am not going to enlighten you any further just now, because there must be no guess work about what I want."
Deacon nodded in agreement. He was not the man to ask unnecessary questions, so that the conversation drifted into another channel until Blake suddenly jumped up and proclaimed that he must be off and that he wanted to get back to Mortmains before Sir John returned from Instaple, if possible. By the time he had reached the big house, it was nearing seven o'clock and as yet there was no sign of his host. He rang the bell in the library and in the course of a minute or so Farthing appeared.
"Yes, sir," he asked. "You rang for me."
"Quite right, Farthing," Blake smiled. "There are one or two little things I want you to get for me. In the first place a small biscuit tin with a lid. You know the sort of thing I want. I think they are called 'half-tins' and are supplied by nearly every biscuit manufacturer."
"Yes, sir, very good sir," Farthing replied. It occurred to him as rather a singular request, but then Farthing was a well-trained servant and would have expressed astonishment if Blake had asked him to bring an elephant.
"Of course, we have such things in the house. Do you want it now, sir?"
"If you don't mind," Blake said.
Farthing re-appeared in a moment or two with a biscuit tin which Blake pronounced to be exactly what he required.
"Excellent, Farthing," he said. "Now, one more little thing. Do you think you could find me a pound, yes, a pound, of wax candles? You know the sort I mean."
The immovable Farthing was quite sure of it.
"Piano candles, sir," he said. "Will they do?"
"Nothing could be better," Blake said gravely.
Farthing betrayed not the slightest sign of curiosity, though he was itching to know why Blake was requiring these mysterious appliances. But, like the well-trained servant that he was, he merely set out to obtain that which Blake required and came back presently with a packet of piano candles.
"Here you are, sir," he said. "I am sorry to say there are no more in the house. You see, nobody plays the piano now and since the late Sir Robert had the electric light installed, we have never had occasion to use candles. Is there anything else sir, that you would like me to get?"
"Just one more thing," Blake said. "A small bottle—medicine bottle for choice—of that old pre-war whisky of yours. You can put that in my bedroom, if you don't mind."
So far as Farthing was concerned, the proceedings ended there, leaving him in a state of delightful bewilderment and the wild desire to know what all this mystery meant. But he quite understood that he was expected to keep these things to himself, so that the servants' hall benefited nothing in connection with something which might have been twisted into a first-class scandal.
Nor did Blake say anything about it to Mortmain when he got back and they sat down to dinner. All Blake seemed to think about was a fishing excursion. More than once Mortmain had suggested a day on the water, but one thing and another had come in the way and, now, apparently, Blake was getting impatient.
"Touching that fishing excursion," he suggested. "When are we going out after those prawns?"
"Not for a day or two, now, I am afraid," Mortmain said. "You see, we must wait for the tides? No use prawning on this coast unless the water is right and then you have to start earlier in the morning than you will probably like. But about Monday, I should think. I couldn't go to-morrow, any way, because it is Quarter Sessions in Instaple and I always make it a point of duty to attend that. Must do it, you know."
Blake carried the matter no further. On the whole, he was rather glad to have Mortmains to himself the next day and to know that he was not likely to be interrupted in the course of certain experiments which he had in his mind. No sooner, had he seen Mortmain through the lodge gates on the following morning than he gathered his belongings together and set out for the beach.
He knew that he would be alone there, because the only way to the sands under the Castle Rock and into the next bay was by the zig-zag path leading from the house down to sea level. To all intents and purposes it was a private beach which could not be reached by any wandering tourists, except by a flagrant act of trespassing. Blake looked around him and when once satisfied that he was absolutely alone and out of sight of the house, he began to set to work.
In the first place, he gathered together a little pile of dry wood and lighted a fire. On the top of this he placed the biscuit tin until it was hot and then, breaking the candles into fragments and withdrawing the wicks, placed them in the tin until they had resolved themselves into a plastic mass. Into this mass he kneaded the small amount of alcohol Farthing had procured for him, and then proceeded to scatter the fire. He had now a fairly large sized ball of wax in a semi-liquid state, and this he proceeded to pour gently over a square foot of sand, which he had marked with a stick the afternoon before. He waited until the wax had hardened into an almost solid mass and this he carefully wrapped in a sheet of brown paper. Half an hour later he was on the way to Watersmouth with the parcel under his arm.
He was fortunate enough to catch Deacon in his surgery, and proceeded to lay the wax impression on the table.
"Now, can you give me an hour?" he asked.
"As it happens, I can," Deacon said. "I have been all round the village this morning and my outlying patients can wait till the afternoon. What have you got there?"
"Well, I don't quite know," Blake said. "But, so far as I can judge, it is the cast of a footprint. I took it at the base of the Castle Rock. It was under a mass of seaweed, which I turned over more or less by accident. The sand all round there was perfectly dry, except where that drift had protected it, where it has remained damp enough to take an impression. The weed is very dry and, no doubt, had been blown about by puffs of wind. At any rate, I found that impression which lay in a sort of hollow as if some heavy weight falling had displaced a quantity of it. Now, do you think you can take a photograph of this sheet of wax? If you can, I want it enlarged."
"Oh, I can do that easily enough," Deacon said. "And the enlargement is a merely mechanical matter. If you will stay here for a quarter of an hour and amuse yourself with the morning paper, I will get a good negative. On a brilliant morning like this it will be easy enough and ten minutes should be sufficient to print. The enlargement won't take much longer."
Deacon came back within half an hour with the print in his hand. It was an excellent one, and Blake was loud in his praises as he turned it to the light.
"Just as I expected," he said. "This is a photograph of a footprint, and not an ordinary footprint, either. The shoe, you will notice, is by no means a common one. Scarf's patent rubber studs and imperforated leather. The sort of shoes that you couldn't buy under three guineas."
"Yes, I noticed that," Deacon agreed. "They are Scarf's patent, right enough, and I don't know anybody in this neighbourhood who can afford anything of the kind, unless it is our friend Sir John Mortmain. But why all this mystery? Why shouldn't Mortmain wear that type of shoe? And what is extraordinary in finding an impression of it on his own private beach?"
"Well, on the face of it, nothing," Blake said, more or less casually. "But you know what I am down here for, and I must not leave anything whatever to chance. Besides, it may not be Mortmain's, after all. If it isn't, then I should like to know who has been trespassing on his private beach. Mind you, that shoe could not have belonged to the average tripper, and no gentleman would have taken the liberty of strolling into Mortmain's grounds and walking down to the beach that way. He would have been certain to have been seen by one of the gardeners or servants and promptly turned back. And, if so, I should have heard of it."
"Yes, if it happened in the daylight," Deacon agreed.
"My dear chap, you have hit the right nail on the head. Whoever the owner of that shoe may be, he was on beach at the foot of the Castle Rock some time after dark. At this time of the year that would be very late, but it would be no difficult matter to slip through the lodge gates and down to the beach by the zig-zag path, though it is rather dangerous unless you happen to know it well. Still, anyone who liked to study the lie of the land from a boat, say somebody who came out of Watersmouth fishing, might visualise it well enough to be able to ignore any risks in that direction. What I have to do is to find out the owner of that shoe and——"
"And what then?" Deacon asked.
"Well, upon my word, I hardly know," Blake said. "I have had some queer cases in my time, but never one that puzzled me as much as this. Every step I take seems to land me deeper in the mire, and whenever I seem to see my way clear, down comes the blinding rain again, so to speak, and fogs my point of view. You may ask me why I am worrying about footprints on the sands when Grimshaw's body was found in the library at Mortmain's, but I am not altogether satisfied with regard to the body."
"What's the idea?" Deacon asked.
"Well, there again you have me. I have a dozen theories, and directly I put them to the test I have to abandon them again. The one clue we have to the murder being is the body, and it is the body that puzzles me all the time. However, I won't detain you any longer now; I will take that photograph away with me because I have a feeling that it is going to be useful. At any rate, one thing I am sure of—the footprint from which it was taken is a comparatively recent one. No, don't trouble to let me out. I can hear you have some patients waiting."
Blake strode away without further words, and walked down the crazy, pavement into the roadway. There he met Mrs. Ridge, who was just turning into the gate.
"Ah, good morning, Mrs. Ridge," he said. "You don't look as if you had occasion to see the doctor."
"Well, I have and I haven't, sir," the old lady said, as she pulled up, ready for a gossip, "It's them rheumatics. They comes and they goes, and whenever they're very bad, doctor, he gives me something as puts them right."
"Wonderful man, the doctor!" Blake laughed. "I suppose you haven't heard anything more about your lodger?"
"Not a single word, sir, but I got another one which don't happen often this time o' year. August and September I be full, but just now I'm glad to see anybody. And this new gentleman, he comes from London."
"Oh, indeed," Blake said politely. "Anything like your late lodger?"
"No, indeed, sir. He's quite a quiet gentleman, clean-shaved, just the same as you be, and wearing blue glasses. Kind of delicate-looking, just like a man who's just got over a serious illness. And almost afraid to give the least trouble. I let him have my other lodger's rooms, because he said he was only staying for a day or two. Gave the name of Barton, he did, and paid me a week's rent in advance. Not as I asked for it, but you never know, sir, do you? So I took the money."
"Quite right, too," Blake agreed. "I hope this new visitor of yours will be more satisfactory than the last."
Blake went on his way down the village street in a contemplative frame of mind. He was puzzled and annoyed over this case and in a mood just then to suspect everything and everybody. It occurred to him as strange that this old lady had secured a second lodger almost before the first was gone, and, that at a time of the year when such birds of passage were rare in Watersmouth. Was it possible, he wondered, if there were any sort of connection between these two men. It required no great acumen to know that the man with the black moustache had turned his back hurriedly on the village directly he heard the evidence which Mrs. Whiddon had tendered at the inquest on Richard Grimshaw. He had actually been present during the inquiry, because the old woman had seen him enter the town hall just behind her. Five minutes later, he had vanished, and, almost at once, had left the village and made his way somewhere else by the first available train.
In other words, he had been frightened out of the place, and, much against his will, had absconded. If this meant anything, it meant that he had been forced to disappear long before he had finished his sinister work in Watersmouth. That he would come back sooner or later Blake felt certain.
But supposing he had sent an accomplice in his place? Somebody who was not ear-marked and who could take up the threads of the conspiracy without being recognised. And supposing this somebody had actually taken the same rooms which the man with the black moustache had vacated so hurriedly. It was a long shot, but then long shots sometimes prove more effective than short ones and Blake was going to leave nothing to chance.
As he passed the post office it occurred to him to call and see if there were any letters awaiting him, because the mid-day post was in and, in ordinary circumstances any correspondence for Mortmains would not be delivered till the following morning. There were two or three people standing in front of the counter and one of these was a slight, pale individual, wearing a pair of blue glasses and who asked for letters that might be waiting there for one Mr. James Barton.
Blake stepped back a pace or two. He was in no hurry and he wanted rather to study the man standing by the counter. At the same moment, another man appeared, a tourist, undoubtedly, in a knickerbocker suit, who gave Blake an unmistakable sign, and then walked over to where the telegraph forms were placed. A minute later, the man called Barton had vanished, empty handed, and Blake was in the road close by the tourist.
"You gave me the sign," Blake said. "Who are you?"
"Rattrey, sir," he said. "Sergeant Rattrey of the Yard. You may not know me, sir."
"I don't know you personally," Blake said. "But the name is quite familiar. Still, what are you doing down here?"
"I was sent by the Deputy Commissioner, sir. Matter of fact, I was following that man with the blue glasses. I don't know who he is or what he is doing, but yesterday he was pointed out to me in the Strand by one of our men. I was told not to lose sight of him. I ran him down to a small hotel off the Grays Inn-road and reported. Then I was told to change into these clothes and pick him up again early this morning and follow him wherever he went. So I was behind him when he took his ticket at Waterloo Station at six o'clock this morning, and I took a ticket here as well. Of course, I knew you were down here, sir, and I was told to keep a look out for you."
"And that is all you know?" Blake asked.
"Practically, sir. Of course, I have read all about the strange affair at Mortmains, and I knew that you had that in hand. It seems to me, sir, that I was sent down here to follow somebody who is connected with the murder. But I shall know more about that when I get my written instructions. I have taken lodgings in the village and wired my address to the Yard. Very likely you will be told all about me in the course of a post or so. But here I am, sir, and if you want me am quite at your disposal. So long as I keep that man with blue glasses in sight. I have nothing else to do for the moment."
"Then you have not the least notion as to the real identity of the man who calls himself Barton?" Blake asked.
"No, sir," Rattrey replied. "I am simply obeying instructions and waiting here till I hear from the Yard. I have told them I have run Barton to earth and, so far as I can make out, he doesn't mean to move from here for some little time. At any rate, he has settled down in his lodgings and paid a week's rent in advance."
"Oh, you have found that out already, have you?" Blake smiled. "Upon my word, that was very smart of you. I happen to know that much myself, but I learnt the fact quite by accident. Now, you keep your eye upon Barton, especially at night. I don't think he will be in the least dangerous in the daytime, but, after darkness falls, he will be a different proposition altogether. And don't speak to me again if you can help it."
With that, Blake turned his back on the village and walked slowly and thoughtfully back to Mortmains. He had nothing whatever to do and he could not see his way to following up a single clue or even to work out a logical theory. He could only possess his soul in patience and wait, like another Mr. Micawber, for something to turn up. He was essentially a man of action and the prospect of a long, idle afternoon, even in that beautiful warm sunshine, was not particularly thrilling to him. Nor was he the more gratified when he reached Mortmains to receive the information that Sir John had telephoned from Instaple to the effect that the sessions had been unusually protracted and that he would not be back home till the following afternoon.
There was no help for it, therefore, but to make the best of it and wait. So, after a lonely afternoon and evening, Blake was prepared to go early to bed when Farthing entered the library with the information that somebody from Watersmouth was in the hall and wanted to see him on private business.
"Oh, ask him who he is," Blake said impatiently.
"He wouldn't give his name, sir," Farthing explained. "He said that he wouldn't keep you long."
Blake intimated that the stranger might be brought into the library and expressed no astonishment when his eyes dwelt upon the stolid features of Sergeant Rattrey.
"Well, what's up now?" he asked when Farthing had departed.
"That is what I want to know, sir," Rattrey said. "I have been keeping my eye upon the man who calls himself Barton and about half an hour ago I tracked him along the road here with another individual that I never saw before. Chap who looks like a poacher. I had to keep a good way behind them because the road was pretty straight and I don't want the men to know they were being followed. But by dodging in the bracken I managed to keep them in sight and they parted outside the gates here. One of them went on across the moor, but it was so dark that I couldn't tell you which it was and the other turned into the gates here, and he is somewhere about the grounds now."
"The devil he is," Blake cried. "Now, what on earth can he be doing here? You wait a moment whilst I put a pair of shoes on and change my coat, then, we will go and investigate the matter. No occasion to alarm the servants, because the less they know about this matter the better."
They pushed out into the grounds presently and for some time prowled about the various pathways and shrubberies to the side of the house. Then something moved in the shadows and Blake immediately challenged. There followed the sound of flying footsteps in the direction of the lodge, but though Blake was by no means slow of foot, he was not fast enough to overtake the man in front who vaulted the low, iron gates and disappeared headlong in the bracken on the other side of the road.
"Well, we have lost him, at any rate," he said. "Now I wonder which of the two he was. If he was the gentleman with the blue spectacles he was fairly nippy for an invalid. You had better hang about here for an hour or so, and if you catch sight of either of those two, come back to the house and let me know. But I don't think you will have any luck. Here what's that? Didn't you hear someone shouting?"
A distant call came from across the moor beyond the Castle Rock. Then the sounds of hurried footsteps and a boy of some fifteen years of age appeared.
"Here, what's wrong with you?" Blake demanded.
"It's over at Mrs. Widdon's farm," the boy panted. "A burglar tried to get in the house. And nobody there besides the old woman and me. Woke me up, he did, trying to open the window of the dairy. You see, I sleep's over there, and I heard him. Then I fetched the gun wot I shoots the rabbits with and fired at him. That woke the old lady up, so she sends me into Watersmouth for the police. Not as I think they'll be wanted; I skeered him off all right. Run like a hare, he did."
"Evidently quite a brave boy," Blake said. "I don't think you will have to trouble much about the police and in any case, it's too late to lay hands on the burglar now. Anyway, my friend and myself will come as far as Mrs. Widdon's and see if we can be of any use. I happen to know her."
They moved quickly across the moor, until they reached the farmhouse where, in the doorway, the lady herself awaited them. She did not seem in the least alarmed, but stood there with a lantern in her hand and some object she had picked up.
"You be welcome, gentlemen," she said. "If my eyes don't deceive me, that's Captain Blake."
"That's right," Blake said. "I hope you have not been frightened. But what have you got in your hand?"
"I just picked this up," the old lady said. "I found it lying on the ground by the dairy door."
It was a pair of blue spectacles.
When Blake turned his back upon the moorland farm house half a hour later he had that pair of blue spectacles in his pocket. He had taken them up casually enough, with the suggestion that they might be of some use to the police, and Mrs. Whiddon had made no objection. She was not, of course, aware that she had parted with what might prove to be a valuable clue.
"Well, good night," Blake said. "I don't think you need worry more."
"Oh, I ain't worrying," the old lady said stoutly. "I ain't afraid of no burglars, though what they come looking after in a place like this fair beats me."
"Now, look here, Rattrey," Blake said as he and the detective crossed the moor together. "You go back into Watersmouth and keep your eye on that cottage of Mrs. Ridge's. I think we can be pretty well sure that the gentleman with the spectacles was her lodger. You might try and find out what time he left the house this evening and, what is still more important, what time he gets back. Probably he is on his way now. How I make it out is this. Those two men set out from Watersmouth this evening on some shady errand and they parted by the lodge gates at Mortmains. I suggest that they knew they were being followed, and they parted to blind you. The man that we disturbed inside the lodge gates went there for no other purpose than to draw you off, whilst the other chap went as far as the old lady's farm. I feel quite convinced of that. However, we can't do any more now, but I will try and see you in the morning. You had better come half way to Mortmains along the valley and I will meet you there. If there is nobody about we can talk. Anyway, if there are people in the neighborhood, you hang back till the coast is clear."
When the two representatives of Scotland Yard met the next morning, Rattrey had very little to say. He had managed to find out one or two things, but nothing of real importance.
"It's like this, sir," he explained. "The man who calls himself Barton went out last night at about nine o'clock, saying that he was going for a stroll along the cliffs. Mrs. Ridge doesn't know what time he came in, but she knows that he hadn't returned at eleven o'clock when she went to bed. I am sorry I have nothing better for you, sir."
"Oh, well, that is something, at any rate," Blake smiled. "Keep your eyes open, and if you want to give me a message you can easily send me a letter."
So it was that a day or two passed without anything fresh coming to light and, sooth to say, Blake was getting very impatient. Up to a certain point, he could see his way clear enough, and then some obstacle arose, like a great rock in his path, so that, perforce, he had to find some way round it. And, beyond the problem that worried him day and night, there was another thing that troubled him exceedingly. Mortmain seemed to have changed altogether. He was moody and absent-minded now, and, now and again, almost sullen. And yet in the face of recent happenings, he ought to have been happy enough. Still he kept himself very much to himself and Blake hardly saw him, except at meal times and then without a smile upon his face until one afternoon Farthing came into the library with an intimation that Miss Debenham was waiting to see him in the drawing-room.
Mortmain rose with alacrity, leaving Blake to his own resources. He found her in the big drawing-room, and she greeted him with the ghost of a smile trembling on her lips.
"This is quite an unexpected honor," Mortmain said with a certain coldness in his manner. "To what am I——"
"Oh, please, don't talk like that," Margaret said. "You know perfectly well why I haven't been here. I should not have come to-day, only, my work compels a visit. My editor asked me if I could get him certain photographs of the house, so I came with my camera, hoping you would not mind."
"Oh, I don't in the least mind," Mortmain said. "But what I cannot understand is all the morbid curiosity. Why should people who have nothing whatever to do with me want to see photographs of this place in their favorite newspaper? Still, you have not answered my question."
"But I can't," Margaret pleaded. "How can I? How can I come here just as if I were a casual friend of yours after all that has happened? Of course, the people in the village are very kind and they regard me as an unfortunate woman who has been the victim of a scoundrel. But you know what these little country places are like. Until the mystery of Richard Grimshaw's death is cleared up, the less we see of one another the better."
"Yes, but suppose it never is cleared up?" Mortmain protested. "And suppose it isn't a mystery, after all? Supposing that man came here by an unhappy coincidence and tried to rob the library of the man he had so cruelly injured. Nobody believes that Grimshaw's death was anything but the result of an accident."
"But they do," Margaret cried. "There are lots of people in the village who think he was murdered. And more than one gossip hints that you had a hand in it."
Mortmain made no reply for a minute. He stood there, a little white of face and a pained expression on his features as if someone had struck him a sudden blow.
"I have anything to do with it?" he exclaimed. "What will people say next? Oh, don't listen to such horrible scandal. I firmly believe that the mystery never will be cleared up. And if I am right, what is to become of us, Margaret?"
"I don't know," Margaret said, almost in tears. "A little time ago I thought that everything was cleared up and that, after a time, I could mend my broken happiness. But not just yet, Jack, not yet. Remember that my story and the history of my unhappy life with Richard Grimshaw is known to all England. I told that story freely and openly, and I am not ashamed of it. It was the right thing to do, and I should not hesitate to repeat it. But I knew what it meant. I knew that slanderous tongues would attack my character if I did not go back to work as if nothing had happened, and never see you again. Think of my unhappy position, think a little less of yourself."
It was a stinging reproof, and Mortmain felt it none the less because the words were so sadly uttered.
"That is all very well, up to a certain point," he said. "But surely the thing cannot end here?"
"I am afraid it must, unless the law can put its hands on the man who murdered Richard Grimshaw. Jack, you don't want a wife who can be pointed at in the village street as one who connived with the murderer of her first husband so that she could go to her second. And a poor woman at that. A girl who was only too glad to become the mistress of a house like Mortmains. You don't want to sell this place and go away, do you?"
"Sell Mortmains?" the man exclaimed. "Good gracious, whatever could put such an idea in your mind?"
"Ah, I see how you feel it," Margaret said sadly. "And that is why I felt myself forced to raise the question."
"My dear girl, it would be absolutely cowardly."
"Of course it would," Margaret replied. "Cowardly and, perhaps in the end, absolutely unnecessary. But in the face of what the whole country knows, I can never consent to come here as mistress of Mortmains as long as things remain as they are. And I am quite sure that everybody will agree with me."
Mortmain seemed to be struggling with what Margaret hoped might be his better feelings. For there was much in what she said. He had been living long enough in that remote corner of Devonshire to know what local gossip meant. And, besides, with his keen imagination he could see far into the future. A time would come when, in the ordinary course of nature, he would be the father of a family. The mere suggestion of any scandal hanging over the heads of his innocent children stirred him strangely and moved him to his deepest depths.
And yet he could not let Margaret go. She was as near and dear to him now as ever she had been and, up to a day or two ago, it seemed as if a kindly providence had directly intervened to bring him back the happiness that he had lost.
Perhaps Margaret could see something of what was passing in his mind, for she came to his side and laid her hand more or less tenderly on his arm.
"I think you know that I am right, Jack," she said. "And I feel very deeply for you and none the less because it was I, and I alone, who brought all the trouble about. I ought to have known you better. I ought to have flung that letter back into the face of the man who gave it to me and denounced it as a forgery. Instead of that—well, we need not go into it. I took my happiness in both hands and deliberately tore it in two. And I am afraid that that is the end of it."
"Never," Mortmain cried. "I will not rest until I have got to the bottom of this tragic business. You know how anxious I am to do so. You know that it was I who contrived to get Blake down here and, at the present moment, he is doing his best. Precisely what schemes he has in hand I don't know, because he tacitly refused to take me into his confidence, but I feel sure that he is not wasting his time. He is not the sort of man to idle about in the country unless he can see his way pretty clearly to some definite conclusion. And, meanwhile——"
"Meanwhile, I am afraid things must continue as they are," Margaret said firmly. "I hate to speak like this, but I can see no other way. It may be only for a time and, on the other hand, it may be for years. But, sooner or later, the truth may be known, and then you will see that I am right."
Mortmain turned away dejectedly.
"I am afraid that I can see that already," he said. "Margaret, you are a better woman than I am a man."
It was an hour or two later when Blake walked into Watersmouth with Margaret as his companion. She had taken her photographs and had her tea, during which the subject of her recent conversation with Mortmain had cropped up. And Blake had been entirely on Margaret's side throughout. He had spoken quite plainly on the subject, so that there had been almost a quarrel between the two men, which had been more or less patched up, owing to Margaret's presence. It was she who threw oil on the troubled waters and brought the others back to the normal again.
Still, Blake was feeling a little heated and only too pleased to invent some reason for leaving the house for a little time. He had no particular business in Watersmouth, but there was no reason why Margaret should be told that. Therefore, he strode along by her side and dropped her just as they came to the house where Dr. Deacon lived. Blake held out his hand.
"I am going in here," he said. "One word, if I may be allowed the liberty. You were perfectly right in the view you took this afternoon and I can see that you are going to abide by it. But don't lose heart and don't despair. I can promise you that the mystery is going to be cleared up."
"Then you think that my husband was——"
"Murdered. Yes, I certainly do. And what is more, I have a hazy idea of how it was done. Why it was done is another matter. It is this 'why' that is puzzling me. Very frequently, in my way of business, the 'how' is subordinate to the 'why.' In other words they react upon one another. And as a rule, when you get the 'why,' the 'how' follows, as a matter of course. I don't mind telling you that this is one of the most amazing cases I have ever handled. Now, go along, Margaret, and don't worry too much, because it isn't necessary."
With that, Blake turned into the doctor's gate and asked to see him. As he stepped into the hall, a man came out of the consulting room and passed him. It was a man of medium height, with rather sharp features and a slight droop in the right shoulder that immediately attracted Blake's attention. He had a vague idea that he had seen this man somewhere before though he could not think where and in what circumstances. He was still puzzling over the matter when Deacon greeted him breezily.
"Hello," he said. "What's up now? Have you come to consult the oracle, or merely to beg a cigarette."
"Well, as a matter of fact, I came because I had nothing else to do," Blake explained. "I walked in with Mrs. Grimshaw, rather glad to turn my back upon Mortmain, who seemed to be suffering from a bad attack of liver. But, be that as it may, his company latterly is well nigh unbearable. But never mind Mortmain for the moment. Who is that man who just went out?"
"A patient," Deacon said a little shortly.
"My dear chap, I know all about that. I am not asking you to give any professional secrets away, but I have a strong impression that I have met that chap before in very different circumstances. Now, come, can't you stretch a point when a Scotland Yard man asks you what he believes, to be a pertinent question?"
"Oh, well, perhaps, in that case," Deacon agreed. "As a matter of fact, I never saw the man before. His name is Barton and he is staying at Mrs. Ridge's cottage."
"Oh, the deuce he is. So that is the man, is it? Would you mind telling we what is wrong with him?"
"Not very much," Deacon explained. "He has had a bit of an accident and came to me to put him right."
"I wonder if I can guess what the trouble is," Blake smiled. "Was the accident in connection with a shot gun?"
"Well, that's true," the puzzled Deacon replied. "He was wandering about over the moor yesterday afternoon when somebody nearby fired a shot, presumedly at a rabbit. My patient could not see who the sportsman was, and he doesn't know now. But he got a few pellets in his body and he came to me just now to extract them, which I did. Nothing serious, of course, but very uncomfortable. I can't think why he didn't come to me yesterday, though he did say that he felt no particular inconvenience till after he had gone to bed."
Blake made some casual comment and allowed the subject to drop. All the same, he felt that he had not been wasting his time. He knew, now, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that the man called Barton was the owner of the blue spectacles, and also the man who, for some mysterious reason, had come from a long way off into these remote parts for the express purpose of burgling a small farmhouse on a lonely Devonshire moor. Blake thought it all over as he walked back to Mortmains, still puzzled and annoyed with himself because he could not remember in what circumstances he had met the man called Barton before. Where had he seen that peculiar droop of the right shoulder? He knew that he had done so somewhere, under rather dramatic conditions, though the man's face conveyed nothing to him. But then, Blake was familiar enough with the various ingenious manners in which the human features can be disguised, almost beyond recognition. A pad in the mouth, the drawing up of an eyebrow, the twist of a lip, and the thing was done. It was more than possible that Rattrey might be able to help him in this direction. Anyhow, it was possible to discover where those blue spectacles had come from. He would send them up to London and get some official from Scotland Yard to make inquiries.
It was characteristic of the man that he had put these details entirely out of his mind, and was working along another track by the time he had dressed for dinner. Moreover, he was pleased to find Mortmain in a much more amiable frame of mind.
"I want to apologise to you, old chap," the latter said. "I know I behaved very badly this afternoon, and now that I have come to think matters over quietly, I see that I was altogether wrong. But you must make allowances. I have been terribly worried lately, and when Margaret spoke to me as she did this afternoon, I must have gone off the deep end altogether. And that is not everything. When I asked you to come down here I had a plot for a new story practically worked out in my mind. All I needed for my melodrama was to see one of the big men from Scotland Yard actively at work and study his methods. I didn't want any trite commonplace sort of stuff one reads in the average detective story. I was looking forward to seeing you and learning something of your artifices, never dreaming for a moment that I was going to become the centre of a vivid romance myself. For the time being, at any rate, I shall have to abandon my plot altogether."
"Are you quite sure of that?" Blake asked quietly. "Are you quite sure that you can't help me, just as much as I can help you? Oh, I know I am firing a shot at random."
"Evidently a blank, cartridge," Mortmain laughed a little unsteadily. "My dear chap, you must find your own salvation. And now, after that apology of mine, let's drop the subject for a bit. You were very anxious to do a morning's prawning, and if we started very early the tide will serve us to-morrow."
"Nothing I should like better," Blake responded. "But don't you want all sort of traps? Nets and all that kind of thing. And I suppose I could not go in an ordinary suit of clothes."
"That you could not," Mortmain smiled. "You want a sort of bag net with a long handle that you can shove under the crannies of the rocks at low tide, and a fisherman's basket to carry your prey in as you catch them. There is very little skill about it. You will require a pair of flannel shorts and a fisherman's jersey, and, last, but not least, a pair of shoes. Shoes with india-rubber soles would be the best, because they give you a firm footing. But you can leave all that to me. I can fit you with a kit. I will ask Farthing to look you out one and put it in your room to-night. I don't disturb the household in the morning when I am going fishing, so, to save that, I set my alarm clock at an early hour, which wakes me when I am required. Then I will come along to your room and pull you out of bed."
It seemed to Blake that he had only been asleep a few minutes when he felt a hand shaking him by the shoulder, and he opened his eyes in the still, dim light to see Mortmain standing over him.
"Come along," the latter said. "Get into your things. It's half-past four—that is half-past three by Greenwich time, so that it will be light enough to see by the time we get down to the Castle Rock. Come along!"
The morning was beginning to brighten as they reached the sands and made their way round into the next bay under the shadow of the Castle Rock. They skirted it fairly closely, because, as Mortmain explained, there were jagged flints just under the sand there, and they were apt to prove painful to thinly shod feet. Then they emerged onto the wide stretch of sand left by the receding tide and, for the best part of three hours, were engaged in probing the tiny pools on the edge of the surf, until that time had passed away and the whole landscape was flooded with the sunshine of a perfect morning. When they got back to the house again the servants were about and Farthing had provided a preliminary breakfast in the dining-room.
"Now, just a mouthful or two," Mortmain suggested. "And then a warm bath, and after that, what you like. You go on first and get off those moist, sandy rags."
Blake accordingly went up to the bath-room, after which he repaired to bedroom, where he dressed himself slowly, wondering what he was to do with himself for the next hour or two. Then, as a sudden thought occurred to him, he picked up the right shoe of the pair with which Mortmain had provided him and examined it closely in the strong light. After that, from a drawer in his wardrobe, he produced the photograph that Deacon had taken from the wax cast which he had made some days before.
"Identical," he whispered softly. "Identical."
Blake placed the shoe back with its fellow and laid the pair together with the kit that Mortmain had lent him. For the present, he was content to leave things as they were, though he would know how to make use of the piece of information he had just discovered when the right time came. He dressed himself thoughtfully and, when he had finished, went down to breakfast in a rather cheerful frame of mind. He found Mortmain awaiting him with the old frown back on his forehead and the brooding look in his eyes.
"Well, here I am," he said buoyantly. "And ready for the best breakfast that your cook can turn out. What's the matter? Have you had some bad news?"
"Nothing worse than usual," Mortmain replied. "Oh, yes, the post is in but there is nothing for me, and there was nothing for you, either, if it comes to that. What are you going to do with yourself to-day? I suppose you wouldn't care to come over with me and have a day's golf at Westward Ho?"
"My dear chap," Blake said smilingly. "There is nothing I should like better. But you seem to forget that I am down here on business. If my time was my own——"
"Well, isn't it?" Mortmain retorted with something of a sneer. "You have been down here for well over a week now and, so far as I can gather, you might have stayed away altogether."
"Isn't that a bit inhospitable?"' Blake asked.
Mortmain became all penitence at once.
"Upon my word, I beg your pardon," he said. "I hope you don't think I meant anything by that remark. I mean anything calculated to make you believe you are not welcome. I am afraid that this rotten business has got on my nerves. I hoped when you came down here that you would be able to do something."
"Well, how do you know I haven't? I might be able to put my hand upon the culprit, or culprits, at any moment for all you know to the contrary. But I do my work my own way. If I told you certain things now, it would be as if you were reading an exciting novel with the last hundred pages torn out. Of course, it must be very disappointing to you with that analytical mind of yours not to be able to see the busy brain of the master detective at work. But you can rest assured that it will come all right in the end. Suppose I told you now exactly how that mystery came about. What then?"
Mortmain looked up with genuine alarm. He opened his mouth as if about to speak, then began to pace up and down the room with all the symptoms of a conscience at work.
"Do you really mean that?" he stammered.
"Well, more or less. My dear fellow, you will have to wait, like everybody else. And the lady will have to wait, too. Mind you, she is quite right in the attitude she taken up. Don't forget that you can burn a house down a great deal quicker than you can build it up again."
With which cryptic remark Blake turned to his breakfast and refused to say any more. He had hardly finished and got through his first cigarette when old Farthing came sedately into the room and told him he was wanted at the telephone.
"Gentleman don't give his name, sir," he said sedately. "He said you wouldn't know him, in any case."
"Is he waiting now?" Blake asked.
Farthing was understood to say that the stranger was still at the end of the wire, so that Blake went out into the hall and took the receiver off the hook.
"Are you there?" he called.
"Double X," came the voice out of nowhere.
"Double Z," Blake whispered. "Where are you?"
"In the telephone box at Watersmouth post office. Rattrey speaking, sir. Of course you know that. Can I talk quite freely to you or are listeners about?"
"Yes," Blake replied. "I can listen to all you have to say, and you can speak freely, but——"
"I quite understand, sir. You can't say anything without being overheard and I can speak openly, because I am in a sound proof box. Things have been happening, sir."
"That is good news," Blake said cheerily. "Go on."
"Well, it's like this, sir. I have been going about with my eyes wide open, and I have picked up quite a few useful pieces of information. To begin with, Mrs. Whiddon is going away to-day and won't be back before Saturday. She spends a couple of nights with a sister of hers just this side of Torrington. A sort of annual affair, if you know what I mean, sir, a birthday, I believe. So she shuts up the farmhouse and leaves it to look after itself. Of course, everybody in Watersmouth knows this, in fact, I have heard it from a dozen people. So it occurred to me that perhaps our friend with the blue spectacles might make another attempt to-night to get into the house."
"I think it is exceedingly probable," Blake said. "Most interesting. Any, more?"
"Well, not much at the moment, sir. But if you will met me in an hour's time in Watersmouth——"
"I can't very well do that," Blake said.
"Oh, I quite see what you mean, sir. Not openly. But if you will come into the village and call at Yeo's shop you will see a bit of comedy there that may interest you. You know the shop I mean, sir, it's the one with all those beautiful old curios and china in the window. Known all over the world, that shop is. If you drop in there at about eleven, sir——"
"You may take that for granted," Blake said. "And now, if you have nothing more to say——"
"Just a second or two, sir," the voice at the other end of the wire pleaded. "It wouldn't be safe for me to speak to you or for you to speak to me in Yeo's shop, seeing that we are supposed to be strangers to each other, so I should like to arrange a place where we can meet half an hour afterwards. You had better return to Mortmains and hang about the gorse near the Witch's Cave in the Valley of Rocks and I will join you there."
Blake replaced the receiver on the hook and presently strolled apparently aimlessly out of the house and along the road through the valley into Watersmouth. He paused, at length, before the famous old curio shop and turned in through the doorway just as the clock in the church tower struck eleven. He was a bit of a collector in a small way, and he had intended more than once to call upon John Yeo with a view to doing a deal in connection with a small piece of square-marked Worcester china which he had noticed in the window on more than one occasion. There was one man in the shop when he entered, and he smiled as he recognised the square shoulders of his man, Rattrey.
Rattrey was bending over the counter examining what appeared to be a number of blue spectacles lying there.
"I am afraid those are all we have, sir," old John Yeo was saying. "I only keep a few for the benefit of visitors who complain of the glare off the sea sometimes. No, sir, I am afraid I haven't got a single pair with wide lens."
"But you used to keep them," Rattrey suggested. "I saw a man yesterday wearing a pair very like these."
"Oh, yes, sir, quite right," the shopkeeper said. "I did sell the last pair I had yesterday morning. I am very sorry I cannot give you what you want, but if you can wait a day or two I am quite certain that I can get them.
"Very well," Rattrey said. "I will call in again."
With that he lounged out of the shop, leaving Blake to follow him as best he might. The latter's business was soon finished, and with the small piece of china in his pocket, Blake followed his subordinate cautiously, at a distance, until they were able to meet and speak without interruption.
"Well?" Blake said. "Well?"
"That was all right, sir, wasn't it?" Rattrey asked. "You see, the man we are after had lost his blue spectacles and was bound to get another pair. And now you know where he got the other pair from. I wanted you to hear the shopkeeper say what he did say, because that proves to you that our man got his second pair of glasses at Yeo's. That is why I asked you to meet me in the shop at eleven o'clock."
"Very neatly done," Blake said approvingly. "I suppose the man we are after has no suspicions—I mean, he is not tracking you as well as you tracking him? I suppose that there is no chance of his having followed us?"
"Not in the least, sir," Rattrey explained. "As a matter of fact, the man who calls himself Barton has gone to Instaple. I saw him off from the station myself. But he is coming back this evening, and I have a feeling that late to-night he will pay another visit to the old farm on the moor."
"I think we can take that for granted," Blake said. "When Barton comes back this evening you keep an eye upon him and follow him along the road if he shows any signs of another raid on the old lady's house. I will be waiting for you just at the other side of the lodge gates, and we can follow him up together. There is something hidden in the farmhouse which Barton is more than anxious to get hold of. Moreover, he knows pretty well where it is. What I suspect is that there are papers or documents belonging to the late lamented Richard Grimshaw which, when recovered from their hiding-place, will represent money to that man Barton. But, of course, his name isn't Barton, and I can't for the life of me recollect who he is. I know I have seen him before in very different circumstances. That peculiar droop of his right shoulder ought to tell me something—but it doesn't. However, if we can catch him red-handed and strip him of that very clever disguise of his, we may be able to kill more than one bird with the same stone. Now, you get back to Watersmouth and I will return to Mortmains. I have a feeling that this is going to be a really critical evening, because I, too, have made a most remarkable discovery."
It was close on eleven the same evening when Blake crept out of his bedroom and went very very cautiously down the broad oak staircase in his stockinged feet, carrying a pair of stout shoes in his hand. It had pleased him well enough when Mortmain had suggested a rather early retirement, and Blake knew perfectly well that the household staff had gone to bed some time since. There was no particular reason why he should not have told Mortmain that he was bent on a nocturnal expedition, but on the whole he thought it just as well for the time being, to keep his movements to himself. He would have a good deal to say before many hours had elapsed, but, meanwhile, silence was his best policy.
He was dressed in a suit of shabby flannels, as he had changed into these directly he had reached his bedroom. It was more than possible that he would meet with some rough and tumble work and perhaps a cross-country chase, so that he did not want to be overburdened with clothes more than necessary. He donned his shoes and let himself out of the house by a side door, without making the slightest noise. He crept noiselessly past the lodge, vaulting the gates there and, when once he was in the open, there was no more cause to fear anything in the way of an unpleasant interruption.
And there he stood waiting in the warm, fragrant night, watching intently for anything that might pass. It was not a dark night, by any means, though there was no moon, but at that time of year it is easy enough to distinguish large objects at a distance, and Blake had no fear that his man would pass him in the gloom. For three-quarters of an hour he stood there, and then, from the direction of the valley, came the sound of soft footsteps, so soft, indeed, that Blake would hardly have heard them but for the crackle of little dry sticks on the road. And then a figure loomed in sight.
There was no doubt whose figure it was, for Blake could make out the peculiar droop of the right shoulder and even notice that the eyes were hidden behind dark glasses. Then, as the figure passed him and the thud of those rubber shod feet died in the distance, another shadow loomed up and Rattrey, appeared.
"Did you see him, sir?" the latter asked.
"Oh, I saw him right enough," Blake replied. "And it is our man, beyond the shadow of a doubt."
"Yes, it's Barton," Rattrey murmured. "I have been hanging about Mrs. Ridge's cottage for the last hour and a half. Indeed, I was on the point of giving him up when I saw him come sneaking out, and as soon as he turned in the direction of the valley, I knew where he was going. Shall we follow, sir?"
"Why, of course. Anyway, there is no great hurry. We need not keep him in sight, even. It will take him a good ten minutes to get into the house, so we can hang behind a bit and talk. Then my idea is to get into the house ourselves and actually watch the man at work. With any luck, we'll take him red-handed."
"That would have been my idea, sir," Rattrey said. "Do you think, sir, that he can tell us anything about Grimshaw's death? I mean, did he have any hand in it?"
"Well, upon my word, I can't tell you yet," Blake confessed. "If you look at the case from one angle, everything points to that conclusion. I worked out the whole problem on certain lines and I couldn't see but what the man, Barton, must have been responsible for the death of Richard Grimshaw. And yet, in the face of certain discoveries I have made recently, I am almost forced to the conclusion that there is a much more sensational climax than that. I hope to goodness I am wrong, but there are times when I wish to heaven I had never been brought into this case. Still, I may be entirely mistaken. Now, going aside for a moment, who do you suppose this Barton is?"
"I don't think it is for me to say, sir," Rattrey replied.
"Well, perhaps not. But there is one thing pretty obvious. The man Smith had to disappear. It was not safe for him to stay in Watersmouth a minute after Mrs. Whiddon's evidence at the inquest. So he just vanished, leaving Mrs. Ridge in debt and saying he was returning. Of course, he was returning, because it is imperative, for some reason or other, that he should get hold of certain property which Grimshaw had in his possession. So, being a master of disguise, he changes himself out of all recognition and comes down here in the form of the guileless Barton with the blue spectacles and innocent manner. You may depend upon it, that this Barton is an exceedingly dangerous criminal and when we arrest him to-night, which we shall do with any luck, we shall probably lay by the heels a man who is badly wanted by the authorities for something else."
"Upon my word, sir, I believe you are right," Rattrey said. "Only I must say it never occurred to me that Mrs. Ridge's two lodgers are one and the same man. Mind you, I thought they were confederates, but my idea was that Barton came down here to finish something the other man was unable to complete. But the more I think of what you say, the more sure I am that you are right."
They lapsed into silence presently as they drew nearer to the farmhouse that loomed up, black against a pallid sky. Not a sound did they make as they drew nearer and nearer until it was possible for them to hear the man they were searching for at work. As Blake had anticipated, the burglar had not attempted to break into the house by means of the stout oaken front door. The easiest means would be the more or less fragile dairy window and there the man called Barton could be seen forcing the window.
It was evidently not a long or a serious job, for the shadowy form vanished into the house and, standing close by the means of entrance, Blake could see the glimmer of a light. With his hand on Rattrey's arm, he followed and the detective crept silently behind him into a dim passage which was faintly lighted by the lantern of the man in front.
It was quite plain that the man Barton was under the impression that he had nothing to fear. He knew perfectly well that the house was empty and that there was little likelihood of it being watched. Moreover, he probably knew to a yard where the Watersmouth policeman was at that moment, and therefore he could proceed on his business with an entirely easy mind.
He crept into the kitchen and from thence into the sitting room where Grimshaw had had his quarters in the days before the murder. He placed the lantern on the high mantelshelf, so that the room was fairly well lighted. In the shadow of the doorway, Blake and Rattrey watched him.
It was a thorough search that the man made. There was not a drawer or a cupboard in the room that he didn't turn inside out, muttering and cursing to himself all the time. Then he threw the carpet back and heaped it in the middle of the room so that the uneven, creaking boards beneath were exposed to view. Then he proceeded to tap every one of them with his knuckles until at length he chuckled as one of them gave out a hollow sound.
"Ah, here it is," he told himself. "This short piece. Evidently a hiding place in the old days when the Doones and such like used to raid the farms. Come up."
He bent down and contrived to raise a short piece of floorboard from the skirting, disclosing a cavity below. Plunging his arm into the recess, he brought to sight what appeared to be a bundle of letters tied with a piece of string.
"Got 'em," he almost shouted. "Got 'em. I knew they were here somewhere, and, if that fool had only——"
The speaker broke off abruptly at a sudden sound behind him. Rattrey had moved forward a little too eagerly and a loose bit of flooring under his foot seemed to go off with a crack like the sound of a pistol shot. Instantly, Barton swung round and, at the same time, something glistened in his hand. He did not wait or challenge, but fired a bullet that struck within an inch of Blake's ear. He jumped back and closed the door.
"Now, what's the next move?" Blake said.
"You parley with him," Rattrey whispered. "I will go round to the window and see if I can get in that way. It's pretty sure to be unfastened. They never properly shut in these old houses. Then you give him a call, sir."
Blake waited for the best part of five minutes before he ventured to raise his voice, in challenge.
"You had better drop that pistol and come out," he said. "You haven't got a dog's chance. The house is surrounded, and we can afford to wait till you come. Now, what about it?"
Almost to Blake's astonishment the bluff came off.
"All right," the man inside said. "I know when I am done. If you will open that door——"
"No, I would much prefer that you opened the door," Blake replied. "Open it and throw that weapon down at my feet. You can't open it too far, because my foot is against it."
The door slid back and the automatic dropped with a dull thud a yard away. Then there was a sudden rush, and, an instant later, Blake had his hands full. He was still struggling desperately for the mastery when Rattrey came to the rescue, and, between the two of them they had Barton pinned to the floor.
"Well, you've made a bit of a mess of him, sir," Rattrey panted.
The man Barton lay there, minus his wig and one eyebrow. As he was allowed to struggle to his feet, Rattrey looked at him almost dazed, and then broke into a sudden cry.
"Cleghorn," he cried. "Cleghorn for a million. The man wanted for the Wedbridge murder, sir."
"By George," Blake said almost unctuously. "You're right."
Truly the discomfited burglar presented a sorry sight as he stood there panting in the light of the lantern that Rattrey had fetched from the sitting-room. There was not an atom of fight in him after the first wild dash and it seemed as if he had resigned himself to circumstances. But at the first sound of the name that Rattrey had given him, he looked up like a hunted animal and the shadow of a great fear crept into his eyes. Rattrey went up to his prisoner and proceeded to do certain things.
He literally peeled the unfortunate man's face, removing certain substances that looked like wax, much in the same way as one peels a banana. After that, he forced his fingers into the captive's mouth and removed thence other objects. When he had finished, the man now addressed as Cleghorn presented a different appearance altogether. It was as if he had suddenly been transposed into quite another man.
"Very clever," Rattrey said. "But I think you will admit that other people are just as clever as you are. This is the Wedbridge man, isn't it, sir?"
"Not the slightest doubt about it," Blake said seriously. "The question is, what are we going to do with him?"
The prisoner appeared to have lost all interest in the proceedings. His face, stripped of its elaborate disguise, had turned a dull, ashy grey and though there was a certain defiance in the eyes which had been concealed behind blue spectacles, there was terror and something almost like despair. For this was indeed the famous, or infamous, Jim Cleghorn for whom the police had been hunting high and low for the best part of a year. The Wedbridge affair had been a most sensational murder which had captured the imagination of the public until other dramatic events had wiped it out of the national mind. The police had been greatly blamed at the time and Rattrey, at any rate, was grimly amused to know that now Scotland Yard would be vindicated. And there would be no occasion to tell the general public that this vindication had been the result of a pure accident.
"You admit your identity?" Blake asked.
"No use doing anything else," the unfortunate prisoner said defiantly. "And no credit to you, either. I was a fool to come here to-night. I might have known the police would have watched. If I had only waited till the old woman came back, everything would have been all right."
"Yes, rather unfortunate, wasn't it?" Blake said. "I take it that your visit here to-night was dictated by a certain pressing need, in other words, you had no time to lose. I am not going to ask you what you came for, because I can see all the evidence I want in that direction lying on the floor at your feet."
With that, Blake picked up the bundle of letters which had been the lure that brought Cleghorn there that evening and placed them carefully away in his pocket.
"We had better be moving, Rattrey," Blake said. "And now, Mr. Smith, alias Barton, alias Cleghorn, I will trouble you to come along with us. You can say what you like or as little as you like, but everything you do say will be taken down in evidence against you. You know what a strong case we have over that Wedbridge tragedy and, as to the rest, everything lies absolutely on the surface. You came down here in the first instance and called yourself, I think, Smith. At that time you had a black moustache. But you had to sacrifice that when you heard the evidence at the inquest on the body of Richard Grimshaw, and also you had to get away from Watersmouth in double quick time. It was a brilliant idea of yours to re-disguise yourself and come back here as a mild-looking individual called Barton, and I don't mind telling you that if we hadn't had a certain amount of luck that bluff of yours might have been successful. Mind you, I am only telling you facts. I am not asking you to commit yourself in any way, but I want you to realise that the game is up and that I am arresting you for the murder of John Dearley at Wedbridge on November 26, last year. You need not say any more because that is quite as you please. But I think you must realise how desperate your position is. I might arrest you on yet another charge, but I am not going to do that for the simple reason that you can't hang a man more than once and my case against you over the Wedbridge business is overwhelming. Now then, come along and if you like to speak freely to me on the way to Watersmouth you are quite at liberty to do so."
"Very kind of you, I am sure," Cleghorn sneered. "But the least said, soonest mended. Lead the way."
Which Rattrey proceeded to do, having previously found a piece of rope with which he dexterously bound the prisoner's hands behind his back. Without a word being spoken, they tramped through the Valley of Rocks until they came to the village police station where the astonished local constable received them with a reverence that almost amounted to awe.
"Now, listen carefully to me," Blake commanded. "This is the famous Wedbridge murderer."
"You don't say so, sir," the constable gasped.
"Yes I do," Blake went on. "We are two Scotland Yard men, which fact you must keep to yourself. You have a telephone here, I see. Well, get on to Inspector Gore at Instaple and tell him what I have just told you. Ask him to send a couple of men out in a car and take this man back to Instaple and lock him up in the prison. And mind you keep a close eye on him in the meantime. Rattrey, you had better stay behind and keep them company in case of unexpected developments. Meanwhile, I am going back to Mortmains at once."
A few minutes later, and Blake was on his way through the Valley of Rocks and presently reached the house where he let himself in very quietly. He was about to proceed up the stairs when he saw the library door was slightly open and that there was a light burning inside.
He crossed over and looked in. There, fully clad, with a cigarette between his lips was Jack Mortmain.
"Come in," the latter said coolly, "I have been waiting for you. At least, not exactly waiting, because I have been following you for the last hour and a half. I heard you come down the stairs, so I slipped on a few odds and ends, like this sweater and flannel bags, because I wanted to know what was taking place. Nothing like seeing the real thing if you want to be able to describe it properly."
Blake dropped into a chair and helped himself to a cigarette from the silver box by his elbow.
"Quite right, my dear boy, quite right," he said cheerfully. "I should think, from a novelist's point of view, that you must have been more than satisfied."
"Well, I was and I wasn't. You see, I could follow you to a certain extent, but I didn't think it prudent to carry on to the extent of joining you inside the old lady's farmhouse. I knew you were after somebody who had burgled it and I concluded that your companion was one of the Scotland Yard watch-dogs, especially imported for the occasion."
"Perfectly correct," Blake smiled. "His name is Rattrey and he is one of the cleverest trackers we have. It was he who established the fact that the man with the black moustache and the man with the blue spectacles was one and the same. But perhaps I had better tell you all about that."
With that Blake began to relate certain recent happenings though Mortmain was not aware of the fact that several of the more important details were being kept back from him. At any rate, he was informed that the man with the black moustache who was seen in angry conversation with Richard Grimshaw on the night before his death had turned out to be no less a person, from the criminal point of view, than the Wedbridge murderer.
"A most interesting story," Mortmain said, when at length Blake had come to the end of his narrative. "And yet, from a novelist's point of view, rather disappointing. For instance, I can make very little out of that arrest because, from the angle of fiction, it was a pure fluke on your part."
"So are most of our wonderful discoveries," Blake agreed coolly. "You see, after all, the really famous criminals are very few in number so that it is not particularly marvellous that we, in following up one clue, should blunder on another. Anyway, we have got hold a criminal we have been looking for for months and months and the case is complete against him to the minutest detail. But don't forget, we didn't run him down, knowing the identity of the man we were looking for. We were simply following a man in blue spectacles who was making a second attempt to burgle a humble farmhouse on the Devonshire moors. I suppose you can guess why we were so anxious to know all about the man in blue spectacles? Now, Mr. Novelist."
Mortmain shewed signs of something like confusion.
"Oh, well," he hastened to say. "It was your business, wasn't it? I mean, from a professional point."
"Well, there is something in what you say. But, on the other hand, don't forget that I came down here especially to please you. You managed to arrange that, and I was very glad to come, and all the more so, because I think you would have found yourself in a pretty tight place if I had failed to materialise."
"Now what do you mean by that?" Mortmain demanded.
"Gently, gently," Blake smiled. "We will come to that presently. Now, why did you want me particularly to come down here? I am not a superman, you know."
Again Mortmain showed signs of agitation.
"Oh, well," he said. "You are an old friend of mine and I wanted to see the real Scotland Yard methods at work, and so far you have been as dumb as the Delphic oracle."
Blake smiled as he took another cigarette. He had a good deal to say yet, but he was not going to be hustled.
"You seem to forget," he said. "That I have come down here in charge of a sensational criminal case. I didn't come here entirely to coach you in Scotland Yard methods so that you might be able to get all your details correct for your new book. Of course, I have not the slightest objection to showing you all my tricks when the case is finished. Meanwhile, don't forget that I have my own reputation to think about. Even friendship must not be allowed to interfere. Now, you are under the impression that I have been more or less idle since I have been down here. Nothing of the kind, my dear chap. Would it astonish you very much if I told you exactly how Richard Grimshaw was killed and exactly what happened here in the library on the night of his death? Yes, I see that shakes you up a bit."
"Impossible," Mortmain gasped. "Impossible."
"There is nothing impossible so far as Scotland Yard is concerned," Blake said didactically. "And now, let me show you how easily a case can be built up. Let me show you, for instance, how I might implicate you in the crime."
"Implicate me?" Mortmain cried. "You are joking."
"Not in the least, my dear fellow, not in the least. Let us put it this way. Here you are, engaged to Margaret Debenham with whom you quarrel and who subsequently marries the man who came between you by working a cold-blooded fraud. You say you have never seen the man in your life, but we have only your bare word for that. Now, don't get restive—in criminal cases the law doesn't take anybody's bare word. Anyway, you say you have never met the man, and possibly that might be true. On the other hand, it might not. You come down here and shut yourself away from the world a prey to suspicion and hatred of everybody. And then the man who has so injured you turns up in the village. He comes here to this very house late at night, presumably, when everybody has gone to bed and he is found in this room the next morning with a fractured skull. Oh, yes, I know all about the ladder and the book and all the rest of it. But that is an ingenious sort of arrangement of properties which would occur to a novelist with an imagination like yourself. You leave the man here for dead and go to bed. The next morning your man Farthing comes down and finds the body. Then he comes up to your room and finds that you have not been out since you retired the evening before when you had arranged to go prawning at daybreak. In the course of casual conversation, you inform Farthing that your alarm clock has gone wrong. Again, we have only your word for that. Suppose you had put the clock back or so arranged it that the alarm would not strike. You want to create an atmosphere that will throw no kind of suspicion upon yourself. And, I must confess, you managed to do it. But do you really suppose that a jury of intelligent Englishmen are going to believe you when it comes out in the evidence that you were engaged to Margaret Grimshaw and that her husband, by a trick, came between you when you say that you didn't even know Grimshaw by sight? You ask that same jury to believe that Grimshaw was in this neighbourhood more or less by accident. And yet he is found dead under your very roof. The natural inference is that you knew all about his treachery and that he came down here at your instigation, or we will suppose that he came down here to blackmail you. Either theory is equally damaging from the point of view of the prosecution. At any rate, there is no getting away from the fact that your deadliest enemy was found killed under your roof and that, to the very last, you protested that you would not have known him if you had met him in the street."
"Which would be a fact," Mortmain said under his breath.
"Well, you tell me that as a friend and not as a detective and I am bound to believe you. But if you tell it to a detective, then I am by no means so sure. Oh, I know that the law views every man as innocent until he is proved guilty, but then, we sleuths of the law work on a contrary basis; when we come to dissect our theories we generally assume that every suspect is guilty until he is proved innocent. And I am rather afraid that Margaret is somewhat inclined to share my police opinion."
Mortmain paced up and down the room in great agitation. He no longer assumed an air of indifference, and it was clear that he was shaken to his deepest depths.
"I don't know what to say or think," he said. "Of course, this theory of yours is absolute nonsense. And yet, when you put it as you do, I can see that it is not so illogical as it appears at first sight. Worst of all, I fear Margaret takes a somewhat similar view. She refuses to come near me and, worse than that, she declines to see me. And now I have a note from her saying that she is leaving the neighbourhood to-morrow. It is quite a cold little note saying that nothing can be gained by staying where she is and that she can be of no further use to her paper. And, because she is so terribly upset by recent events and the blaze of publicity in which she moves in the village, she is going to spend the rest of her holidays elsewhere. She won't even tell me where she is going. However, perhaps I had better show you the letter and you can judge for yourself."
Blake read the note carefully enough. It was a little cold and distant, but Blake was shrewd enough to read a certain pathos between the lines. She was going away, Margaret said, and, for the present at any rate she did not want to be followed or in any way worried over the tragic affair. Perhaps it would all work out smoothly enough at the finish and then, if that was the case, then would come the time to knit up the broken threads again with perhaps a prospect of happiness to follow.
"What do you think of that?" Mortmain asked.
"Well, it strikes me as rather pathetic," Blake admitted. "But all the same, I can see nothing to which you can take exception."
"Except the tone," Mortmain pointed out. "Can't you read in it the suggestion that I am, to a certain extent, responsible for the trouble?"
"Well, perhaps, you are," Blake smiled. "At any rate, if you hadn't been so hot-headed, this would never have happened. My dear fellow, you are regarding the whole question from your own point of view. If your mind was a little less fantastically formed and if you were a little less a disciple of the Edgar Allan Poe school, I am sure this tragedy would never have taken place. You are too clever and ingenious altogether. Too morbid-minded. But I suppose that comes from having lived all this long time by yourself. However, that is a point we will come to presently. In the interim, I think you will be wise to look at the tragedy from Margaret's point of view. If she didn't care for you as much as she does she would never have written that letter, and I can't imagine how a man who knows as much of human psychology as you do can imagine her acting any other way than that in which she has. The poor girl is torn by conflicting doubts, so that she doesn't know which way to turn. If you can dissipate those doubts, then she will be the happiest woman in the world, but, until you can do so, you are best apart."
"Perhaps you are right," Mortmain sighed heavily. "But it is a terrible position for me. And the worst, if it is, I can't see any way out of the difficulty."
"You might, perhaps, if you told us all you knew."
"Me tell you all I know?" Mortmain challenged. "Wouldn't it be a great deal better if you told me all you know? You have given me a thrilling story, but I feel convinced in my mind that you could tell me a great deal more if you liked. For instance, I believe you know what brought Grimshaw down to this neighbourhood. And you know why the man with the black moustache followed him. Also, you know why the man with the black moustache, the man subsequently disguised in the blue spectacles, came so quickly after Grimshaw into the village. Why deny it?"
"I am not going to deny it," Blake said.
"Very well, then. Let us go a bit further. Have you any objection to telling me why this man, Cleghorn, was so anxious to get inside Mrs. Whiddon's house. He made two attempts, the second of which was fatal to him—more fatal then he knew. What was he looking for? Oh, I haven't overlooked the fact that he and Grimshaw had a violent quarrel on the night of the latter's death, because we have that on the evidence of Mrs. Whiddon herself. Was it money that was the cause of dispute?"
"That," Blake said quite frankly, "I cannot tell you. I may be able to do so in a day or two, when Cleghorn recognises his hopeless position. Once he does that, he may be disposed to speak. Meanwhile, I propose to leave him severely alone in Instaple Gaol, knowing something of the nature of such men."
"On the other hand," Mortmain went on, "It may be that documents were the cause of the trouble. Grimshaw might have had some papers that Cleghorn was anxious to obtain."
"As a matter of fact, it was," Blake said. "I didn't tell you that. The papers were hidden under a board in the floor of the room occupied by Grimshaw. They are in my possession at the present moment, but I prefer not to examine them until I have Inspector Gore with me. It is just possible they may throw important light upon the trouble, though, on the other hand, they may relate to another rascality altogether. Now, you have asked me several times to show you my methods, and, to a certain extent, I have been able to comply—not fully, perhaps, because my lips are sealed, but as one good turn deserves another, so I am going to ask you to give me your confidence."
Mortmain looked at his friend in amazement.
"Give you my confidence," he cried. "What do you mean? My dear fellow, I have no confidence to give."
"Oh, yes, you have," Blake said slowly. "I want you to tell me why and how you murdered Richard Grimshaw."
Mortmain jumped suddenly from his chair and as suddenly sat down again. Just for a moment it looked as if he were on the verge of a wild outbreak, but, if so, he contained himself and confronted his friend steadily.
"So you think that I murdered my hated rival?" he asked almost coolly. "But, you see, I have already told you that I have never met the man in his lifetime. By an extraordinary coincidence Richard Grimshaw was found dead in this room. Yes, the one man in the world I hated to my very core, the one man I would have given half my fortune to be rid of. And you accuse me of murdering him."
"As a matter of logical fact, I have done nothing of the kind," Blake replied. "I asked how you killed him, but then, between killing and murder there is often a very wide gap. Now, look here, Jack, I am placed in a very invidious position, quite as awkward a position as yours, as a matter of fact. I came down here to investigate this mysterious affair, mainly because you wanted me to. I have plenty of other work to do, so I could easily have made an excuse, but, out of regard for our old friendship, I took on the job. I have been working on it night and day, though you don't seem to recognise the fact all the time you have been deliberately blocking my efforts."
"I have?" Mortmain cried. "In what way?"
"Oh, well, I am not going into that now. You seem to forget that, whilst I am your friend, I am more or less of a Government servant, highly trusted, and with, I hope, something of a distinguished career before me. You wouldn't like to get up some morning and read in your copy of the "Times" that Captain Reginald Blake had been ignominiously dismissed from the Yard. Because if I played that sort of game, that would be the inevitable result. Once I put my hand to the case, I was a servant and not a master, and, whatever the consequences to you are, this thing must be thrashed out and made more or less public. And now, as it is past two o'clock and I have a heavy day's work before me to-morrow, I think we had better go to bed. I am not going to ask you to tell me anything more now, and I may not see much of you in the morning, but I am going to ask you to turn this matter over in your mind and let me know within the next day or so what you are prepared to do, and, what is equally important, what you are prepared to say. I think that is all for the present."
Blake turned from the room and walked resolutely away in the direction of the staircase. But it was a long time before he finally undressed and got into bed. He was down fairly early in the morning, before Mortmain had shown, and, after a solitary breakfast, went off in the direction of Watersmouth. Once there, he turned into the Crown Hotel and asked to see Margaret. She came at once out of her private sitting-room, looking unlike her usual self, so that Blake could see at a glance that she was suffering from some unaccustomed strain.
"You wanted to see me?" she asked.
"I did," Blake said. "I hear you are leaving before very long, so I thought perhaps if I came in——"
"I was going this morning," Margaret replied.
"No, I don't think I would, if I were you," Blake smiled. "I want you to stay for another day or two, at any rate. In fact, speaking in my official capacity, I am going as far as to declare that you must not go. Do you follow me?"
Margaret looked up with alarm in her eyes.
"Does that mean that I am a prisoner," she asked a little unsteadily. "Does that mean that I can't leave Watersmouth if I want to? Is there another side to the tragedy?"
"Well, I don't want to put it quite as brutally as that," Blake said. "And I don't want to tell you too much, for the moment. Just promise me to remain for the present."
Margaret gave the desired assurance. Indeed, there was little else that she could do in the circumstances.
"Now, that is very nice of you," Blake said. "Would you mind conferring another favor on me? Will you honor me with your company, say, round the North Walk, because there are certain things I have to say to you which are for your ears only."
Margaret was only too willing and ready to comply. They turned out together in the sunshine and made their way round the famous promenade where they came to a quiet seat presently, and sat down to talk matters over.
"If it is anything very terrible," Margaret implored, "please tell me at once. It is suspense that is so dreadful."
"Yes, I know," Blake nodded sympathetically. "Would you be very much astonished if I told you that I was seriously contemplating arresting Jack Mortmain for the murder of your husband?"
Margaret gazed at the speaker steadily.
"No, I shouldn't," she said. "Captain Blake, it is that horrible thought that has been oppressing me for days. I cannot bring myself to believe that my wretched husband found his way into Mortmains by sheer coincidence. He must have come down here to see Jack, though heaven knows why. And he must have come by arrangement. An appointment late at night, after all the servants had gone to bed. I can see him being let into the house by Jack Mortmain and them talking over something very serious in the library. Even you, who are accustomed to all sorts of extraordinary happenings, would hesitate to credit the fact that Richard Grimshaw came down here without knowing that he was going to meet the man from whom he had deliberately separated me. Yes, that is the cloud that has been hanging over me and which has kept me from sleeping for days. Oh, no—there was an appointment for some purpose or another. Of that I am sure."
"Yes, I am bound to confess that I have gone on that theory myself. But why should those two meet? Why should your late husband come down here to meet Jack Mortmain?"
"Ah, that I cannot tell," Margaret said sadly. "But if I might make a suggestion—blackmail."
"You really ought to be one of us," Blake said. "I don't think that it could have been anything else. Now, my suggestion is this. According to what you told me some time ago, Richard Grimshaw had had all your private fortune. About the time of his death, he was taking so much of your professional earnings that you were hard put to it to live."
"Yes, it was even as bad as that," Margaret said.
"Very well, then. What you had to give that man would not be sufficient for his requirements. Therefore, he hit upon some nefarious scheme for getting money out of Jack Mortmain. That was the reason why they met. Now, my theory is that they had a serious quarrel that led to blows and that, in the course of the fight, Richard Grimshaw's skull was fractured. Not deliberately murdered, of course, but a pure accident. If Mortmain had faced the matter out at once, then I am quite sure that no jury would have convicted him, especially after they had heard his story and you had entered the witness-box to corroborate it. But unfortunately, poor old Jack elected to keep silence and so he finds himself in this terrible mess. But, even now, there is a way out of it, if you will only listen to me and remain in Watersmouth for a day or two longer."
"Oh, I will do anything you ask. You see how cruelly I am situated. I was glad enough to be rid of a man who was dragging me down into the gutter and am not going to be a hypocrite enough to pretend that Richard Grimshaw's death was anything but a profound relief to me. You cannot tell how I felt when I knew that I was to be at his mercy no longer. And then, just as I was beginning to rejoice in my freedom, this other blow falls on me. I did not realise at first that the finding of Richard Grimshaw's body at Mortmains might take on so serious an aspect, but directly I began to turn the tragedy over in my mind, I saw that my troubles were likely to be increased a hundredfold. Tell me, Captain Blake, are you going to arrest Jack?"
Blake smiled and shook his head.
"Well, not just yet, at any rate. Perhaps there will be no occasion for me to do anything of the kind. Curiously enough, it is just on the cards that you can help."
"I help?" Margaret cried. "How is it possible?"
"You ask me that question to-morrow afternoon," Blake went on mysteriously. "I want you to come up to Mortmains about tea-time. I may not be quite ready for you, even then, but, with any luck, I shall be in a position to speak more freely. I know all this sounds mighty mysterious, but it is a rule of mine not even to hint at possibilities until I am sure of my ground."
"But it seems almost impossible," Margaret whispered, "that there is a happy ending to all this misery. And yet, one never knows. I am just as fond of Jack as ever I was, perhaps more so. But with this dreadful doubt hanging over me, I have deliberately kept out of the way. I know that he feels it, but what am I to do? To leave him to himself seems cruel to him, but to meet him as if nothing had happened would be equally cruel to both of us. Do you want me to help him to speak?"
"You have hit it exactly," Blake said. "That is precisely what I do want. And that is why I am asking you to come up to Mortmains to-morrow afternoon. You go on with your work, just as if nothing had happened, and turn up at Jack's house, say, about half-past four. I shall be there, and I will take care that Jack is there, too. And then we will have a heart-to-heart talk. And now I am going to take you back into Watersmouth again, because I have spent more time with you than I intended, and I have a very busy afternoon before me. First of all, I am going to Instaple to see an inmate of the prison there. When I have done that, I think that the way will be clear."
More than that Blake declined to say, and he and Margaret went back towards the village in thoughtful silence.
Ten minutes later, Blake turned into a garage and ordered a car to take him, at once, as far as Instable. It was only a matter of 20 miles or so, and he arrived in the leading North Devon town in time for luncheon. Once he had disposed of this, he walked over to the police station and asked for Inspector Gore. The latter appeared almost instantly.
"Well, Captain," he said. "I had rather expected to see you and I am quite at your disposal."
"Yes, you can help me to a certain extent. I suppose your man told you posed to answer them. I suppose your man told you something of what happened last night."
"Details, bare details," Gore said. "Of course, I know that I have a most important criminal in my care, and that he happens to be the man wanted for the Wedbridge murder, but, beyond that, I know practically nothing."
Blake proceeded to fill in the details with regard to the proceedings of the night before and how the man who was now spoken of as Cleghorn had been taken red-handed.
"But that is not the point," Blake went on. "You see, I know now why so famous a criminal should have apparently wasted his time in burgling a moorland farmhouse. He was after certain papers which belonged, or were in the possession of, Richard Grimshaw. I know that, because I have the papers in my pocket. They were found under the floor boards in the sitting room of the farmhouse where Grimshaw was lodging at the time of his death. They are letters and I have not even as much as looked at them, because I wanted to open and examine them in the presence of somebody in authority. Now, if you will lead the way into your private office, we will have a look at the contents of that packet."
The packet was produced, and was found, as Blake had said, to consist of a number of letters inside a large, blank envelope which, on being slit, disclosed the amazing fact that the envelopes, one and all, were in Mortmain's handwriting.
"Well, that is a strange thing," Blake murmured. "I suppose you don't know my friend Mortmain's handwriting, but these envelopes are all his. Suppose we look inside one of them."
As they did so, another surprise awaited them. It was not a pleasant task, reading the private correspondence of other people, especially when that correspondence takes the form of a series of impassioned love letters between a man and the woman of his choice. But every one of them was written on lines that conveyed the impression of a deep affection. They were a little wild and florid, as one might naturally expect from a literary man who prided himself upon his style and language and, here and there, was certain expressions which might have conveyed a wrong impression altogether to the casual or sarcastic reader. Not compromising, exactly, at least, not to a properly understanding mind. But by no means the sort of letters that the writer would have cared to have seen in the possession of anybody but the woman to whom they were written.
"What do you make of them, sir?" Gore asked.
"Well, upon my word, for the moment I don't know what to make of them." Blake confessed. "Those letters were undoubtedly written by Sir John Mortmain to the woman he loved previous to her marriage. It is pretty obvious that they found their way, somehow, into the possession of the scoundrel she married and that he had made up his mind to make use of them."
"By jove, you are right," Gore exclaimed. "That accounts for Grimshaw turning up at Mortmains. He came down there to blackmail Sir John and sell him his love letters at a fancy price. And then, when he had done that—phew——"
Gore pulled up as if short of breath.
"Well," Blake said, coolly. "What's stung you now?"
"Can't you see?" Gore cried. "If all this is correct, and I cannot see any other conclusion, we have solved the problem of Grimshaw's death. Those two men came to blows in the library and Grimshaw was accidentally killed. That would account for his body being found there. Then Sir John lost his head and set out to manufacture a first-class alibi. He would have been much wiser to have come here and told the whole story. But now I am afraid that I shall have to interfere."
"In other words, arrest Sir John Mortmain?"
"Well, I suppose that is what it amounts to," Gore said. "It is what you would do if you were in my place."
"There I quite agree with you," Blake said. "But then there are one or two little things I happen to know which place a different complexion on the tragedy, and, at any rate, there is no violent hurry. Sir John is not in the least likely to run away, so that you can pick him up whenever you want. Moreover, as the case is still in my hands, I prefer to carry it out in my own fashion. No offence, I hope, my dear fellow."
"Not in the least," Gore said formally. "So long as the responsibility is off my shoulders I am quite indifferent, and, after all, you are my superior officer."
"Yes, I thought you would take it that way," Blake said pleasantly. "Now, I want to see your prisoner. There are a few questions I should like to put to him, and I am sanguine that after a few hours' solitary reflection he will be disposed to answer them. I suppose he hasn't gone yet?"
"No, he hasn't," Gore explained, "I am expecting a couple of your men from the Yard this afternoon to come down and fetch him because I understand by telephone that he is to be formally charged to-morrow morning in London with the Wedbridge murder. They are fetching him to Holloway."
"Oh, then I am only just in time," Blake said. "Kindly lead the way and leave the rest to me."
Blake found the prisoner sitting moodily on his bed and contemplating a ray of sunshine that filtered into the cell through a narrow window near the ceiling. He looked up with a scowl as he realised who his visitor was. Then the cell door closed and the hunter and hunted were alone.
"I want you to answer a few questions," Blake said. "Of course, if you don't like to do so, there is an end of the matter. But I don't think you will refuse, when I tell you that you might be doing a good turn to a second party."
Something like the ghost of a smile flickered about the haggard features of the man known as Cleghorn.
"I have no grudge against you," he said. "Fact is, I have got no grudge against anybody. I may be all that you police chaps make me out to be, but I never turned on a pal, and I never refused to help anyone who was in trouble. Oh, I know I am in a tight place. But I led you a bit of a dance, didn't I? Nine months, more or less, wasn't it? and me going about the country under your very noses. More than once, I have been within a couple of yards of you and you the wiser."
"Oh, I admit all that," Blake said pleasantly. "But that merry dance has come to an end now, I think."
The prisoner became suddenly grave.
"Yes, that is right, Captain," he said. "I am finished. I know what evidence you have against me, because I read it all in the papers. And I am not going to trouble to make any defence, nor to get one of those barrister chaps to plead for me. I have had a good time, and I am ready to pay for it. Mind you, I didn't kill the old man in cold blood. If he had only let me get away with what I wanted, nothing would have happened, but he tried to shoot me and then it was a question as to who was going to come out of the business alive. You can make what use you like of this, and I will sign it, if you want me to."
"We will come to that presently. In the meantime, why were you so anxious to get hold of those letters which were in Richard Grimshaw's possession when he came down here with the intention of paying a call on Sir John Mortmain?"
"Oh you know that, do you?" the prisoner laughed. "Well, I might just as well make a clean breast of it. You may say I am a bit of a scoundrel, but I am not a dirty skunk and slimy worm like Dick Grimshaw. He was always ready to round on his pals when it paid him and he tried to round on me, though I had lent him money over and over again. And when I was dodging about the country, never knowing when I should be nabbed, he was living in clover and swearing he hadn't got a penny. But I happened to hear about those letters and what he was going to do with them, so I scraped enough together to get down here and tracked him to his lodgings. Lord, the sight of his face when he realised that I was fly to his little game! I very nearly did him in that night outside the farmhouse. You know what I mean, because you heard the old woman give her evidence about the man with the black moustache. And that was me, of course."
"I am fully aware of the fact," Blake said.
"Very well, then. I see you know all about it, so I won't bother you with a lot of detail. But I was not trusting Master Grimshaw a yard further than I could see him. He thought that he had satisfied me for the time being, and that I was well on my way back to Watersmouth when he set out to call upon Sir John. Telling me, mind you, at the same time, that he wasn't going to see the gentleman for the best part of a week. And him all the time meaning to sell those letters at once and clear out, leaving me in the lurch to get on as best I could."
"And what happened then?" Blake asked.
"Well, what do you think, Captain? I followed him and overtook him just on the top of the Castle Rock. He tried to shove me off, and I gave him one on the chin and over he went. And that is how Dick Grimshaw met his death."
"And after that?" Blake said.
"God knows. But Grimshaw was dead, right enough. Bound to be with a fall like that. But how he managed to be found in Mortmains, I know no more than the dead."
Margaret set out on that eventful afternoon for Mortmains in a state that was not far removed from terror. She hardly dared to think of what might happen in the course of the afternoon or how this strange and mysterious tragedy was going to end. And yet, a few days ago she had been happy enough.
She had been happy in the knowledge that she was rid for all time of a scoundrel who, had he lived, would, sooner or later, have dragged her down into the gutter. She made no pretence of sorrow or grief; indeed, why should she in the case of a man she had never cared for and, whom she had married in a moment when she was suffering from wounded pride and vanity?
And then she had begun to think. Hers was a logical mind trained to weigh evidence and she could not conceive that Richard Grimshaw had come down to Mortmains without having first communicated with Jack Mortmain. At any rate, he had come down there with the object of obtaining money. And that the two had met Margaret felt certain. And yet, Jack Mortmain had declared that he had never met Grimshaw in his life and had not the slightest idea how the latter had met his death in the library.
Not that Jack had said this in as many words, indeed, he had been most reticent on the subject. From a legal point of view, he had not uttered a single word calculated to prejudice himself in the eyes of the law. But, on the other hand, ever since the finding of that body, there had been something strange and almost sinister about him. He had been restless and moody and, uneasy in his manner. He had wanted to see Margaret and, at the same time, seemed almost relieved when she had left him. So strangely different from the Jack Mortmain she used to know.
And now she had a feeling that the whole story was going to be told. She braced herself to what she felt was bound to be a terrible ordeal and when she reached the portico in front of Mortmains, was outwardly herself again. She rang the bell with a firm hand and forced a smile to her lips when Farthing flung open the door and bade her enter.
"I suppose Sir John is in?" she asked.
"Indeed, yes, madam," Farthing replied. "He is out in the grounds somewhere. I will go and fetch him for you."
"And is Captain Blake here, too?" Margaret asked.
"I don't know where he is," Farthing went on to explain. "He went out quite early this morning. Will you kindly step inside, madam, whilst I go and look for Sir John?"
Margaret crossed the great hall in the direction of the library. She ignored Farthing's implied suggestion that she should wait in the west drawing-room that overlooked the wide panorama of sea and woodland and turned almost instinctively into the library. It was here that the great tragedy had been enacted and it was here, she felt instinctively, that the final act in the drama would be played out. She stood there a few minutes contemplating one of the finest landscapes in the world and then she turned to see Mortmain standing behind her.
"You here," he said, in some surprise. "Really, this is an honor that I hardly expected."
"I don't think either of us will gain anything by your taking that line," Margaret said coldly. "I came here because Captain Blake asked me to. He said that he wanted us to have a conference and, more or less unwillingly, I agreed."
"Then I am not to congratulate myself?"
"Oh, how do I know?" Margaret asked wildly. "I think you must appreciate the reasons why I have not been here as often as I might. Oh, Jack, please don't make it any harder for me than it is. You must know how I am suffering."
Before Mortmain could make reply, the door of the library opened and Blake came briskly in.
"I am sorry I kept you waiting," he said. "But I have been to Instaple and back since breakfast. You see, Jack, I asked Margaret to come here this afternoon because I thought she had a right to be present when the Mortmains mystery was cleared up."
"Oh, it is to be cleared up, then?" Mortmain sneered.
"That is so," Blake said evenly. "And I am sorry that there has been so much delay. But there has been a great deal to do, Margaret, and you must not blame me unduly. Do sit down. We shall be sometime over this business, and I want to proceed with it as comfortably as possible."
"Go on," Mortmain said. "Make your accusations. Say that I killed Richard Grimshaw. Don't hesitate."
"But why should I say anything of the kind," Blake asked. "I have never accused you of murdering Grimshaw."
"Indeed? I fail to appreciate the fine distinction. You asked me, in this very room, not so very long ago, to explain to you how I murdered my hated rival."
"Certainly I didn't. I asked you how you killed him, which is another thing altogether. And you didn't answer, because I wouldn't let you. I had my reasons at the time, but we can speak quite freely now and I ask you the question again."
"And I absolutely deny it," Mortmain said. "Whether Grimshaw was murdered or whether he died through an accident I don't know. One thing is absolutely certain. I never laid a hand upon him, and I never saw him until he was lying dead in this very room on that fatal morning we all know of."
"And I believe you implicitly," Blake said.
Mortmain stared at the speaker in astonishment.
"You implicitly believe me?" he echoed. "Then why all this mystery? Why this suggestion that I am little less than a blood-thirsty criminal?"
"Because I am waiting for you to speak," Blake went on. "My dear fellow, I may be a policeman, but, at the same time, I am your friend. That is, within the lines of my duty to the office I hold. And, because I am your friend, I implore you to let us hear your side of the story first."
"But there is no side to my story," Mortmain said stubbornly.
"Oh, yes, there is, my dear fellow. There is a very remarkable side to your story. So remarkable, indeed, that nobody would ever believe it unless absolute evidence to the contrary was forthcoming. If I told all that I knew in a Court of Justice you would be extremely lucky if you escaped the extreme penalty. Just think. Here is your deadliest rival a corpse under your own roof. He comes to see you because, he is hard up for money and because he expects to blackmail you."
"Blackmail me," Mortmain cried. "How?"
"Through certain letters in his possession," Blake went on.
"Now, Margaret, will you kindly tell me whether or not you destroyed the letters that Jack here wrote to you during your engagement? After you were married, or perhaps before, did you put those letters in the fire?"
Margaret blushed rosy as the dawn.
"No, I didn't," she confessed. "Of course, when I married Richard Grimshaw I ought to have done so. But I didn't. You see I never made the slightest pretence of caring for my husband and, in my heart, I never changed. I suppose, being a woman, I kept those letters out of sentiment."
"And you have them at the present moment, I suppose?"
"Indeed I haven't," Margaret blushed. "They disappeared somewhere. Perhaps I put them away so carefully that I forgot where they were. But they are no longer in my possession."
"Naturally enough, because your husband stole them," Blake said. "He stole them and read them and, being the kind of scoundrel he was, he said nothing to you, neither did he destroy them, because he hoped that some day he might be able to turn them into money. They were very loving letters, I think."
"Why do you go on like this, torturing the poor girl?" Mortmain burst out. "As a matter of fact, they were passionate letters, the sort of letters that a literary man would write. And in the hands of a filthy-minded reader they might have conveyed a wrong impression."
"Yes, so I thought," Blake said absently.
"Damnation," Mortmain cried. "Do you mean to stand there and actually tell me you have read those letters?"
"I have," Blake said calmly. "As a matter of fact, they are in my pocket at the present moment. Now, please be calm, Jack. Don't make a fool of yourself and don't say things that you will regret afterwards. Those letters came into my possession in the course of my investigations down here and they have an important bearing on the case, as you will see presently. In a way, they are going to do your cause a great deal of good. And now, as you won't speak let me talk. As far as I can gather, Richard Grimshaw was in dire need of money. He didn't know where to turn to get it. He knew that his wife could not find him all that he wanted so he thought he might make use of those letters. He came down here for the express purpose of doing so. He took rooms with Mrs. Whiddon in her moorland farm, and, from thence he was going to conduct his campaign. I suppose that he never came to see you, or wrote for an interview?"
"I have said, over and over again," Mortmain declared hotly, "that I never saw the man in my life, neither have I had any communication with him whatever."
"Well, it doesn't matter very much," Blake resumed. "He came down here with the letters, intending to sell them to you for a good round price. And I have not the slightest doubt you would have paid it, if only for Margaret's sake."
"I would," Mortmain murmured. "I would have done anything to save her humiliation."
"Yes, I expected you to say that. But circumstances prevented a meeting between you and, therefore——"
"Then you admit that?" Mortmain cried.
"Yes I admit that. And now, perhaps I had better put my cards—and the letters—on the table."
Blake proceeded to do as he had suggested. He took the fateful letters from his pocket and handed them over to Margaret.
"There you are," he said. "These are your property and nobody else has the right to see them. I had to read them myself; at least, I had to read two of them, because, directly that bundle came into my hands, I saw that they were Jack's writing and that they were addressed to you. I took them from Cleghorn's fingers myself. Perhaps I had better explain to you in what circumstances I got them."
With that, Blake went on to explain how he had worked from the very first to discover the motive which had brought Grimshaw down to Mortmains on his blackmailing errand. He told his eager listeners all about the man with the black moustache and how he disappeared from Mrs. Ridge's cottage, only to return again in the disguise of the pallid man with the blue glasses. Then he went on to say how the man who had called himself Barton had been followed to the farmhouse on the moor and the circumstances in which he had been taken red-handed with those letters in his possession. After that, Blake explained that the man called Barton was no other than the badly wanted murderer, Cleghorn, who had been roving the country at liberty for many months after the commission of the Wedbridge crime.
"What an amazing entanglement," Mortmain cried. "Then you mean to say that you have actually got the Wedbridge murderer by the heels? Where is he now?"
"Well, by this time I suppose he is in Holloway Jail," Blake smiled. "It was a bit of blind luck, but there you are. I have had a long talk with him and he made full confession. Of course, he recognised that we had overwhelming evidence against him and that is why he made no fight of it. And now, perhaps I had better tell you how this crafty murderer comes to be mixed up in what is called the Mortmains mystery."
"More mystery?" Margaret sighed. "Oh, dear."
"My dear young lady, the two mysteries were one. And when I come to explain them you will see how they dovetail one into another," Blake said. "You see, Richard Grimshaw was a personal friend of Barton, or Cleghorn, or whatever you like to call the Wedbridge murderer. As far as I can make out, Grimshaw owed the other a considerable amount of money. Cleghorn knew that Grimshaw had it in his power to blackmail our friend here but he didn't know how—he merely took the statement for granted. He wanted money pretty desperately and, not trusting Grimshaw, followed him down here. In fact, he hardly allowed his fellow criminal out of his sight. And then they quarrelled, as such men inevitably do."
"Stop a moment," Margaret interrupted. "This Cleghorn must have known something about my letters or he would never have gone back to the old farmhouse to look for them."
"Yes, but it doesn't follow that he knew they were your letters," Blake pointed out. "It was quite natural that Cleghorn should know that some documents were at the bottom of the conspiracy, and he must have been aware that Grimshaw had them in his possession. Then, as nothing of the sort was found, at any rate, nothing of the kind was mentioned at the inquest, Cleghorn came to the logical conclusion that those papers were somewhere in the farmhouse. That is how he walked into our trap. And when he told me that he had killed Richard Grimshaw——"
A sudden cry broke from both listeners.
"Killed Grimshaw?" Mortmain exclaimed hoarsely. "Do you mean to say that there was another murder?"
"I think you know that as well as I do," Blake smiled. "Those two men had a quarrel, a second quarrel. It was on the top of the Castle Rock on the very night that Grimshaw's body was found in this room and only about three or four hours before. I don't think it was a deliberate murder, but, anyhow, those two scoundrels came to blows and Grimshaw toppled over the Castle Rock onto the sands below. His skull was fractured and he probably died instantly. Mind you, I had that from Cleghorn himself. And now, Jack, as man to man, will you kindly tell me how the dead body of that miscreant found its way from the sands to the spot where it was discovered in this library. Why did you take that body and bring it here?"
Mortmain gazed at his friend in open-mouthed amazement. For the moment, he was too surprised to speak.
"You are very wonderful," he managed to say presently. "I wanted to see the wheels go round, like the little boy in 'Helen's Babies.' You see, I am what is called a realist in fiction, and I hate to set down second-hand impressions. I am working on a grim mystery story now, and it was more than essential that I should see how Scotland Yard does its work. I don't think anybody else would believe it, but I think you will."
"I am quite sure I shall," Blake said encouragingly.
"Very well, then. On that particular morning I got up as usual and dressed myself for the prawning expedition. It was barely daylight and I need not tell you now that there was nothing whatever the matter with my alarm clock. I slipped into my fishing kit and crept silently out of the house. Not a soul was about or likely to be for hours. I went down the zig-zag path onto the beach and across the sands so as to skirt the Castle Rock and reach the bay beyond. It was just light enough for me to see some foreign body lying at the base of the rock. Another moment and I knew that I had found a dead man. He had turned over with the force of the fall, and I could see the fracture that had caused his death. And then the strange temptation came over me, that weird sort of imaginative chimera that is peculiar to most novelists worthy of the name. You know we live half our time in a world of our own, a world filled with strange people. There came over me an irresistible impulse to take that body into my house and place it in the library in exactly the circumstances in which it was found. My idea was to baffle the police, and to get you down here and watch how you worked. So I carried out my scheme, carefully removing every trace of sand from the clothing of the dead man, never dreaming for a moment that he was my deadliest enemy. It was a coincidence almost beyond human credulity."
"It was nothing of the kind," Blake interrupted. "So you can rule the coincidence out. The man came down here to blackmail you and he was followed by another scoundrel who had determined that he should not get away with the whole plunder. Go on; what happened after that?"
"Well, I went back to bed again, taking care to make it appear that my alarm had failed me and that I had never been out of bed at all. Once I was easy in my mind over that I felt that my path was clear. I got you to come down here because I hoped to see how you worked. It never occurred to me that I was not to share in your investigations. And then you can imagine what my feelings were like when Margaret came along on behalf of her paper and identified the body as that of her husband. I knew that she would try and believe me to be innocent of a dastardly crime and that she would do her best to shield me. But would she really, in her heart of hearts, think I was innocent. This is the problem that has been haunting me night and day and rendering my life absolutely miserable. Over and over again I have been on the verge of confessing my insane folly. I didn't regard it as insane folly at the time, but we need not go into that. The question I kept on turning over and over in my brain was how far so wild a yarn would obtain credence even amongst my best friends. I couldn't see how they could believe it. But now, since you have heard the real story of Richard Grimshaw's death from the man who was actually responsible for it, I can speak more freely, and show you how far it is possible for a novelist to go into the grotesque and fantastic in pursuit of an ideal. But how did you manage to find out?"
"Well, I don't think I ought to tell you," Blake smiled. "Why give away the secrets of the profession? And why show how easy it is when you know how it is done. Mind you, I had a very valuable assistant in your friend, Deacon."
"Oh, Deacon was in it, was he?" Mortmain asked.
"Very much so. But perhaps I had better let you have the whole story and give you an exposition of the way in which we detectives use the man of science these days. Now listen."
Mortmain listened accordingly. He heard all about the sand mixed with the blood at the base of the dead man's skull and all about the photograph of the wax impression of the shoe with its india-rubber sole.
"And that is about all," Blake said. "Of course, this story will have to be told. You can't very well keep it quiet and choke scandal at the same time. There will be a good deal of sensation over the methods of a certain novelist, but it will all be forgotten in a few days and then you two can live happy ever afterwards, like the characters in fairy stories. Just one moment, I have forgotten something."
But Blake had forgotten nothing. It was merely his tactful way of effecting an exit and leaving the others alone. They stood in silence for some time looking out over the glorious landscape to the peaceful sea beyond and the woods that lay like a green mantle to the west—a haunt of ancient peace and silence with the spirit of it upon them.
"Have you got anything to say, Margaret?" Mortmain murmured.
Margaret faced him with her soul in her eyes.
"Can you ever forgive me," she faltered.
"My dear," he whispered. "There is nothing to forgive. We were both to blame and we have both paid for our pride and folly. But we shall find all the peace we want here, I think."
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