Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter IV. The Indiscretion of Letty Shaw
Amidst a storm of whispered criticisms, the general opinion was that Letty Shaw was a silly little fool who ought to have known better. When she had entered the restaurant a few minutes before midnight, followed by Austen Abbott, every one looked to see a third person following them. No third person, however, appeared. Gustav himself conducted them to a small table laid for two, covered with pink roses, and handed his fair client the menu of a specially ordered supper. There was no gainsaying the fact that Letty and her escort proposed supping alone!
The Café at the Milan was, without doubt, the fashionable rendezvous of the moment for those ladies connected with the stage who, after their performance, had not the time or the inclination to make the conventional toilet demanded by the larger restaurants. Letty Shaw, being one of the principal ornaments of the musical comedy stage, was well known to every one in the room. There was scarcely a person there who within the last fortnight had not found an opportunity of congratulating her upon her engagement to Captain the Honourable Brian Sotherst. Sotherst was rich, and one of the most popular young men about town. Letty Shaw, although she had had one or two harmless flirtations, was well known as a self-respecting and hard-working young actress who loved her work, and against whom no one had ever had a word to say. Consequently, the shock was all the greater when, within a fortnight of her engagement, she was thus to be seen openly supping alone with the most notorious woman hunter about town - a man of bad reputation, a man, too, towards whom Sotherst was known to have a special aversion. Nothing but a break with Sotherst or a fit of temporary insanity seemed to explain, even inadequately, the situation.
Her best friend - the friend who knew her and believed in her - rose to her feet and came sailing down the room. She nodded gaily to Abbott, whom she hated, and whom she had not recognized for years, and laid her hand upon Letty's arm.
"Where's Brian?" she asked.
Letty shrugged her shoulders - it was not altogether a natural gesture.
"On duty to-night," she answered.
Her best friend paused for a moment.
"Come over and join our party, both of you," she said. "Dicky Pennell's here and Gracie Marsh - just landed. They'd love to meet you."
Letty shook her head slowly. There was a look in her face which even her best friend did not understand.
"I'm afraid that we can't do that," she said. "I am Mr. Abbott's guest."
"And to-night," Austen Abbott intervened, looking up at the woman who stood between them, "I am not disposed to share Miss Shaw with anybody."
Her best friend could do no more than shake her head and go away. The two were left alone for the rest of the evening. When they departed together, people who knew felt that a whiff of tragedy had passed through the room. Nobody understood - or pretended to understand. Even before her engagement, Letty had never been known to sup alone with a man. That she should do so now, and with this particular man, was preposterous!
"Something will come of it," her best friend murmured, sadly, as she watched Austen Abbott help his companion on with her cloak.
Peter Ruff rose at his accustomed time the following morning, and attired himself, if possible, with more than his usual care. He wore the grey suit which he had carefully put out the night before, but he hesitated long between the rival appeals of a red tie with white spots and a plain mauve one. He finally chose the latter, finding that it harmonised more satisfactorily with his socks, and after a final survey of himself in the looking-glass, he entered the next room, where his coffee was set out upon a small round table near the fire, together with his letters and newspapers.
Peter Ruff was, after all, like the rest of us, a creature of habit. He made an invariable rule of glancing through the newspapers before he paid any regard at all to his letters or his breakfast. In the absence of anything of a particularly sensational character, he then opened his letters in leisurely fashion, and went back afterwards to the newspaper as he finished his meal. This morning, however, both his breakfast and letters remained for some time untouched. The first paragraph which caught his eye as he shook open the Daily Telegraph was sufficiently absorbing. There it was in great black type:
TERRIBLE TRAGEDY IN THE FLAT OF A WELL-KNOWN ACTRESS! AUSTEN ABBOTT SHOT DEAD! ARREST OF CAPTAIN SOTHERST
Beyond the inevitable shock which is always associated with the taking of life, and the unusual position of the people concerned in it, there was little in the brief account of the incident to excite the imagination. A policeman on the pavement outside the flat in which Miss Shaw and her mother lived fancied that he heard, about two o'clock in the morning, the report of a revolver shot. As nothing further transpired, and as the sound was very indistinct, he did not at once enter the building, but kept it, so far as possible, under observation. About twenty minutes later, a young gentleman in evening dress came out into the street, and the policeman noticed at once that he was carrying a small revolver, which he attempted to conceal. The constable thereupon whistled for his sergeant, and accompanied by the young gentleman - who made no effort to escape - ascended to Miss Shaw's rooms, where the body of Austen Abbott was discovered lying upon the threshold of the sitting room with a small bullet mark through the forehead. The inmates of the house were aroused and a doctor sent for. The deceased man was identified as Austen Abbott - a well-known actor - and the man under arrest gave his name at once as Captain the Honourable Brian Sotherst. Peter Ruff sighed as he laid down the paper. The case seemed to him perfectly clear, and his sympathies were altogether with the young officer who had taken the law into his own hands. He knew nothing of Miss Letty Shaw, and, consequently, did her, perhaps, less than justice in his thoughts. Of Austen Abbott, on the other hand, he knew a great deal - and nothing of good. It was absurd, after all, that any one should be punished for killing such a brute!
He descended, a few minutes later, to his office, and found Miss Brown busy arranging a bowl of violets upon his desk.
"Isn't it horrible?" she cried, as he entered, carrying a bundle of papers under his arm. "I never have had such a shock!"
"Do you know any of them, then?" Peter Ruff asked, straightening his tie in the mirror.
"Of course!" she answered. "Why, I was in the same company as Letty Shaw for a year. I was at the Milan, too, last night. Letty was there having supper alone with Austen Abbott. We all said that there'd be trouble, but of course we never dreamed of this! Isn't there any chance for him, Peter? Can't he get off?"
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"I'm afraid not," he answered. "They may be able to bring evidence of a quarrel and reduce it to manslaughter, but what you've just told me about this supper party makes it all the worse. It will come out in the evidence, of course."
"Captain Sotherst is such a dear," Miss Brown declared, "and so good-looking! And as for that brute Austen Abbott, he ought to have been shot long ago!"
Peter Ruff seated himself before his desk and hitched up his trousers at the knees.
"No doubt you are right, Violet," he said, "but people go about these things so foolishly. To me it is simply exasperating to reflect how little use is made of persons such as myself, whose profession in life it is to arrange these little matters. Take the present case, for example. Captain Sotherst had only to lay these facts before me, and Austen Abbott was a ruined man. I could have arranged the affair for him in half-a-dozen different ways. Whereas now it must be a life for a life - the life of an honest young English gentleman for that of a creature who should have been kicked out of the world as vermin!... I have some letters give you, Violet, if you please."
She swung round in her chair reluctantly.
"I can't help thinking of that poor young fellow," she said, with a sigh.
"Sentiment after office hours, if you please!" said Peter.
Then there came a knock at the door.
His visitor lifted her veil, and Peter Ruff recognized her immediately.
"What can I do for you, Lady Mary?" he asked.
She saw the recognition in his eyes even before he spoke, and wondered at it.
"You know me?" she exclaimed.
"I know most people," he answered, drily; "it is part of my profession."
"Tell me - you are Mr. Peter Ruff," she said, "the famous specialist in the detection of crime? You know that Brian Sotherst is my brother?"
"Yes," he said, "I know it! I am sorry - very sorry, indeed."
He handed her a chair. She seated herself with a little tightening of the lips.
"I want more than sympathy from you, Mr. Ruff," she warned him. "I want your help."
"It is my profession," he admitted, "but your brother's case makes intervention difficult, does it not?"
"You mean - " she began.
"Your brother himself does not deny his guilt, I understand."
"He has not denied it," she answered - "very likely he will not do so before the magistrate - but neither has he admitted it. Mr. Ruff, you are such a clever man. Can't you see the truth?"
Peter Ruff looked at her steadily for several moments.
"Lady Mary," he said, "I can see what you are going to suggest. You are going on the assumption that Austen Abbott was shot by Letty Shaw and that your brother is taking the thing on his shoulders."
"I am sure of it!" she declared. "The girl did it herself, beyond a doubt. Brian would never have shot any one. He might have horsewhipped him, perhaps - even beaten him to death - but shot him in cold blood - never!"
"The provocation - " Ruff began.
"There was no provocation," she interrupted. "He was engaged to the girl, and of course we hated it, but she was an honest little thing, and devoted to him."
"Doubtless," Ruff admitted. "But all the same, as you will hear before the magistrates, or at the inquest, she was having supper alone with Austen Abbott that night at the Milan."
Lady Mary's eyes flashed.
"I don't believe it!" she declared.
"It is nevertheless true," Peter Ruff assured her. "There is no shadow of doubt about it."
Lady Mary was staggered. For a few moment she seemed struggling to rearrange her thoughts.
"You see," Ruff continued, "the fact that Miss Shaw was willing to sup with Austen Abbott tete-a-tete renders it more improbable that she should shoot him in her sitting room, an hour or so later, and then go calmly up to her mother's room as though nothing had happened."
Lady Mary had lost some of her confidence, but she was not daunted.
"Even if we have been deceived in the girl," she said, thoughtfully - "even if she were disposed to flirt with other men - even then there might be a stronger motive than ever for her wishing to get rid of Abbott. He may have become jealous, and threatened her."
"It is, of course, possible," Ruff assented, politely. "Your theory would, at any rate, account for your brother's present attitude."
She looked at him steadfastly.
"You believe, then," she said, "that my brother shot Austen Abbott?"
"I do," he admitted frankly. "So does every man or woman of common sense in London. On the facts as they are stated in the newspapers, with the addition of which I have told you, no other conclusion is possible."
Lady Mary rose.
"Then I may as well go," she said tearfully.
"Not at all," Peter Ruff declared. "Listen. This is a matterof business with me. I say that on the facts as they are known, your brother's guilt appears indubitable. I do not say that there may not be other facts in the background which alter the state of affairs. If you wish me to search for them, engage me, and I will do my best."
"Isn't that what I am here for?" the girl exclaimed.
"Very well," Peter Ruff said. "My services are at your disposal."
"You will do your best - more than your best, won't you?" she begged. "Remember that he is my brother - my favourite brother!"
"I will do what can be done," Peter Ruff promised. "Please sit down at that desk and write me two letters of introduction."
She drew off her gloves and prepared to obey him.
"To whom?" she asked.
"To the solicitors who are defending your brother," he said, "and to Miss Letty Shaw."
"You mean to go and see her?" Lady Mary asked, doubtfully.
"Naturally," Peter Ruff answered. "If your supposition is correct, she might easily give herself away under a little subtle cross-examination. It is my business to know how to ask people questions in such a way that if they do not speak the truth their words give some indication of it. If she is innocent I shall know that I have to make my effort in another direction."
"What other direction can there be?" Lady Mary asked dismally.
Peter Ruff said nothing. He was too kind-hearted to kindle false hopes.
"It's a hopeless case, of course," Miss Brown remarked, after Lady Mary had departed.
"I'm afraid so," Peter Ruff answered. "Still I must earn my money. Please get some one to take you to supper to-night at the Milan, and see if you can pick up any scandal."
"About Letty?" she asked.
"About either of them," he answered. "Particularly I should like to know if any explanation has cropped up of her supping alone with Austen Abbott."
"I don't see why you can't take me yourself," she remarked. "You are on the side of the law this time, at any rate."
"I will," he answered, after a moment's hesitation. "I will call for you at eleven o'clock to-night."
He rose and closed his desk emphatically.
"You are going out?" she asked.
"I am going to see Miss Letty Shaw," he answered.
He took a taxicab to the flats, and found a handful of curious people still gazing up at the third floor. The parlourmaid who answered his summons was absolutely certain that Miss Shaw would not see him. He persuaded her, after some difficulty, to take in his letter while he waited in the hall. When she returned, she showed him into a small sitting room and pulled down the blinds.
"Miss Shaw will see you, sir, for a few minutes," she announced, in a subdued tone. "Poor dear young lady," she continued, "she has been crying her eyes out all the morning."
"No wonder," Peter Ruff said, sympathetically. "It's a terrible business, this!"
"One of the nicest young men as ever walked," the girl declared, firmly. "As for that brute, he deserved all he's got, and more!"
Peter Ruff was left alone for nearly a quarter of an hour. Then the door was softly opened and Letty Shaw entered. There was no doubt whatever about her suffering. Ruff, who had seen her only lately at the theatre, was shocked. Under her eyes were blacker lines than her pencil had ever traced. Not only was she ghastly pale, but her face seemed wan and shrunken. She spoke to him the moment she entered, leaning with on hand upon the sideboard.
"Lady Mary writes that you want to help us," she said. "How can you? How is it possible?"
Even her voice had gone. She spoke hoarsely, and as though short of breath. Her eyes searched his face feverishly. It seemed cruelty not to answer her at once, and Peter Ruff was not a cruel man. Nevertheless, he remained silent, and it seemed to her that his eyes were like points of fire upon her face.
"What is the matter?" she cried, with breaking voice. "What have you come for? Why don't you speak to me?"
"Madam," Peter Ruff said, "I should like to help you, and I will do what I can. But in order that I may do so, it is necessary that you should answer me two questions - truthfully!"
Her eyes grew wider. It was the face of a terrified child.
"Why not?" she exclaimed. "What have I to conceal?"
Peter Ruff's expression never changed. There was nothing about him, as he stood there with his hands behind him, his head thrown a little forward, in the least inspiring - nothing calculated to terrify the most timid person. Yet the girl looked at him with the eyes of a frightened bird.
"Remember, then," he continued, smoothly, "that what you say to me is sacred. You and I are alone without witnesses or eavesdroppers. Was it Brian Sotherst who shot Abbott - or was it you?"
She gave a little cry. Her hands clasped the sides of her head in horror.
"I!" she exclaimed, "I! God help me!"
He waited. In a moment she looked up.
"You cannot believe that," she said, with a calmness for which he was scarcely prepared. "It is absurd. I left the room by the inner door as he took up his hat to step out into the hall."
"Incidentally," he asked - "this is not my other question, mind - why did you not let him out yourself?"
"We had disagreed," she answered, curtly.
Peter Ruff bent his head in assent.
"I see," he remarked. "You had disagreed. Abbott probably hoped that you would relent, so he waited for a few minutes. Brian Sotherst, who had escaped from his engagement in time, he thought, to come and wish you good night, must have walked in and found him there. By the bye, how would Captain Sotherst get in?"
"He had a key," the girl answered. "My mother lives here with me, and we have only one maid. It was more convenient. I gave him one washed in gold for a birthday present only a few days ago."
"Thank you," Peter Ruff said. "The revolver, I understand, was your property?"
"It was a present from Brian," she said. "He gave it to me in a joke, and I had it on the table with some other curiosities."
"The first question," Peter Ruff said, "is disposed of. May I proceed to the second?"
The girl moistened her lips.
"Yes!" she answered.
"Why did you sup alone with Austen Abbott last night?"
She shrank a little away.
"Why should I not?" she asked.
"You have been on the stage, my dear Miss Shaw," Peter Ruff continued, "for between four and five years. During the whole of that time, it has been your very wise habit to join supper parties, of course, when the company was agreeable to you, but to sup alone with no man! Am I not right?"
"You seem to know a great deal about me," she faltered.
"Am I not right?" he repeated.
"You break your rule for the first time," Peter Ruff continued, "in favour of a man of notoriously bad character, a few weeks after the announcement of your engagement to an honourable young English gentleman. You know very well the construction likely to be put upon your behaviour - you, of all people, would be the most likely to appreciate the risk you ran. Why did you run it? In other words, I repeat my question. Why did you sup alone with Austen Abbott last night?"
All this time she had been standing. She came a little forward now, and threw herself into an easy-chair.
"It doesn't help!" she exclaimed. "All this doesn't help!"
"Nor can I help you, then," Peter Ruff said, stretching out his hand for his hat.
She waved to him to put it down.
"I will tell you," she said. "It has nothing to do with the case, but since you ask, you shall know. There is a dear little girl in our company - Fluffy Dean we all call her - only eighteen years old. We all love her, she is so sweet, and just like I was when I first went on the stage, only much nicer. She is very pretty, she has no money, and she is such an affectionate little dear that although she is as good as gold, we are all terrified for her sake whenever she makes acquaintances. Several of us who are most interested made a sort of covenant. We all took it in turns to look after her, and try to see that she did not meet any one she shouldn't. Yet, for all our precautions, Austen Abbott got hold of her and turned her silly little head. He was a man of experience, and she was only a child. She wouldn't listen to us - she wouldn't hear a word against him. I took what seemed to me to be the only chance. I went to him myself - I begged for mercy, I begged him to spare the child. I swore that if - anything happened to her, I would start a crusade against him, I would pledge my word that he should be cut by every decent man and woman on the stage! He listened to what I had to say and at first he only smiled. When I had finished, he made me an offer. He said that if I would sup with him alone at the Milan, and permit him to escort me home afterwards, he would spare the child. One further condition he made - that I was to tell no one why I did it. It was the man's brutal vanity! I made the promise, but I break it now. You have asked me and I have told you. I went through with the supper, although I hated it. I let him come in for a drink as though he had been a friend. Then he tried to make love to me. I took the opportunity of telling him exactly what I thought of him. Then I showed him the door, and left him. Afterwards - afterwards - Brian came in! They must have met upon the very threshold!"
Peter Ruff took up his hat.
"Thank you!" he said.
"You see," she continued, drearily, "that it all has very little to do with the case. I meant to keep it to myself, because, of course, apart from anything else, apart from Brian's meeting him coming out of my rooms, it supplies an additional cause for anger on Brian's part."
"I see," he answered. "I am much obliged to you, Miss Shaw. Believe me that you have my sincere sympathy!"
Peter Ruff's farewell words were unheard. Letty had fallen forward in her chair, her head buried in her hands.
Peter Ruff went to Berkeley Square and found Lady Mary waiting for him. Sir William Trencham, the great solicitor, was with her. Lady Mary introduced the two men. All the time she was anxiously watching Ruff's face.
"Mr. Ruff has been to see Miss Shaw," she explained to Sir William. "Mr. Ruff, tell me quickly," she continued, with her hand upon his shoulder, "did she say anything? Did you find anything out?"
He shook his head.
"No!" he said. "I found nothing out!"
"You don't think, then," Lady Mary gasped, "that there is any chance - of getting her to confess - that she did it herself?"
"Why should she have done it herself?" Peter Ruff asked. "She admits that the man tried to make love to her. She simply left him. She was in her own home, with her mother and servant within call. There was no struggle in the room - we know that. There was no necessity for any."
"Have you made any other enquiries?" Lady Mary asked.
"The few which I have made," Peter Ruff answered gravely, "point all in the same direction. I ascertained at the Milan that your brother called there late last night, and that he heard Miss Shaw had been supping alone with Austen Abbott. He followed them home. I have ascertained, too, that he had a key to Miss Shaw's flat. He apparently met Austen Abbott upon the threshold."
Lady Mary covered her face with her hands. She seemed to read in Ruff's words the verdict of the two men - the verdict of common sense. Nevertheless, he made one more request before leaving.
"I should like to see Captain Sotherst, if you can get me an order," he said to Sir William.
"You can go with me to-morrow morning," the lawyer answered. "The proceedings this morning, of course, were simply formal. Until after the inquest it will be easy to arrange an interview."
Lady Mary looked up quickly.
"There is still something in your mind, then?" she asked. "You think that there is a bare chance?"
"There is always the hundredth chance!" Peter Ruff replied.
Peter Ruff and Miss Brown supped at the Milan that night as they had arranged, but it was not a cheerful evening. Brian Sotherst had been very popular among Letty Shaw's little circle of friends, and the general feeling was one of horror and consternation at this thing which had befallen him. Austen Abbot, too, was known to all of them, and although a good many of the men - and even the women - were outspoken enough to declare at once that it served him right, nevertheless, the shock of death - death without a second's warning - had a paralysing effect even upon those who were his severest critics. Violet Brown spoke to a few of her friends - introduced Peter Ruff here and there - but nothing was said which could throw in any way even the glimmerings of a new light upon the tragedy. It all seemed too hopelessly and fatally obvious.
About twenty minutes before closing time, the habitues of the place were provided with something in the nature of a sensation. A little party entered who seemed altogether free from the general air of gloom. Foremost among them was a very young and exceedingly pretty girl, with light golden hair waved in front of her forehead, deep blue eyes, and the slight, airy figure of a child. She was accompanied by another young woman, whose appearance was a little too obvious to be prepossessing, and three or four young men - dark, clean-shaven, dressed with the irritating exactness of their class - young stockbrokers or boys about town. Miss Brown's eyes grew very wide open.
"What a little beast!" she exclaimed.
"Who?" Peter Ruff asked.
"That pretty girl there," she answered - "Fluffy Dean her name is. She is Letty Shaw's protege, and she wouldn't have dreamed of allowing her to come out with a crowd like that. Tonight, of all nights," she continued, indignantly, "when Letty is away!"
Peter Ruff was interested.
"So that is Miss Fluffy Dean," he remarked, looking at her curiously. "She seems a little excited."
"She's a horrid little wretch!" Miss Brown declared. "I hope that some one will tell Letty, and that she will drop her now. A girl who would do such a thing as that when Letty is in such trouble isn't worth taking care of! Just listen to them all!"
They were certainly becoming a little boisterous. A magnum of champagne was being opened. Fluffy Dean's cheeks were already flushed, and her eyes glittering. Every one at the table was talking a great deal and drinking toasts.
"This is the end of Fluffy Dean," Violet Brown said, severely. "I hate to be uncharitable, but it serves her right."
Peter Ruff paid his bill.
"Let us go," he said.
In the taxicab, on their way back to Miss Brown's rooms, Ruff was unusually silent, but just before he said good night to her - on the pavement, in fact, outside her front door - he asked a question.
"Violet," he said, "would you like to play detective for an hour or two?"
She looked at him in some surprise.
"You know I always like to help in anything that's going," she said.
"Letty Shaw was an Australian, wasn't she?" he asked.
"She was born there, and lived there till she was nearly eighteen - is that true?" he asked again.
"Quite true," Miss Brown answered.
"You know the offices of the P.& O. line of steamers in Pall Mall?" he asked.
"Get a sailing list to Australia - there should be a boat going Thursday. Present yourself as a prospective passenger. See how many young women alone there are going out, and ask their names. Incidentally put in a little spare time watching the office."
She looked at him with parted lips and wide-open eyes.
"Do you think - " she began.
He shook her hand warmly and stepped back into the taxicab.
"Good night!" he said. "No questions, please. I sha'n't expect you at the office at the usual time to-morrow, at any rate. Telephone or run around if you've anything to tell me."
The taxicab disappeared round the corner of the street. Miss Brown was standing still upon the pavement with the latchkey in her hand.
It was afternoon before the inquest on the body of Austen Abbott, and there was gathered together in Letty Shaw's parlor a curiously assorted little group of people. There was Miss Shaw herself - or rather what seemed to be the ghost of herself - and her mother; Lady Mary and Sir William Trencham; Peter Ruff and Violet Brown - and Mr. John Dory. The eyes of all of them were fixed upon Peter Ruff, who was the latest arrival. He stood in the middle of the room, calmly taking off his gloves, and glancing complacently down at his well-creased trousers.
"Lady Mary," he said, "and Miss Shaw, I know that you are both anxious for me to explain why I ask you to meet me here this afternoon, and why I also requested my friend Mr. Dory from Scotland Yard, who has charge of the case against Captain Sotherst, to be present. I will tell you."
Mr. Dory nodded, a little impatiently.
"Unless you have something very definite to say," he remarked, "I think it would be as well to postpone any general discussion of this matter until after the inquest. I must warn you that so far as I, personally, am concerned, I must absolutely decline to allude to the subject at all. It would be most unprofessional."
"I have something definite to say," Peter Ruff declared, mildly.
Lady Mary's eyes flashed with hope - Letty Shaw leaned forward in her chair with white, drawn face.
"Let it be understood," Peter Ruff said, with a slight note of gravity creeping into his tone, "that I am here solely as the agent of Lady Mary Sotherst. I am paid and employed by her. My sole object is on her behalf, therefore, to discover proof of the innocence of Captain Sotherst. I take it, however," he added, turning towards the drooping figure in the easy-chair, "that Miss Shaw is as anxious to have the truth known."
"Of course! Of course!" she murmured.
"In France," Peter Ruff continued, "there is a somewhat curious custom, which, despite a certain theatricality, yet has its points. The scene of a crime is visited, and its events, so far as may be, reconstructed. Let us suppose for a moment that we are now engaged upon something of the sort."
Letty Shaw shrank back in her chair. Her thin white fingers were gripping its sides. Her eyes seemed to look upon terrible things.
"It is too - awful!" she faltered.
"Madam," Peter Ruff said, firmly, "we seek the truth. Be so good as to humour me in this. Dory, will you go to the front door, stand upon the mat - so? You are Captain Sotherst - you have just entered. I am Austen Abbott. You, Miss Shaw, have just ordered me from the room. You see, I move toward the door. I open it - so. Miss Shaw," he added, turning swiftly towards her, "once more will you assure me that every one who was in the flat that night, with the exception of your domestic servant, is present now?"
"Yes," she murmured.
"Good! Then who," he asked, suddenly pointing to a door on the left - "who is in that room?"
They had all crowded after him to the threshold - thronging around him as he stood face to face with John Dory. His finger never wavered - it was pointing steadily towards that closed door a few feet to the left. Suddenly Letty Shaw rushed past them with a loud shriek.
"You shall not go in!" she cried. "What business is it of his?"
She stood with her back to the door, her arms outstretched like a cross. Her cheeks were livid. Her eyes seemed starting from her head.
Peter Ruff and John Dory laid their hands upon the girl's wrists. She clung to her place frantically. She was dragged from it, screaming. Peter Ruff, as was his right, entered first. Almost immediately he turned round, and his face was very grave.
"Something has happened in here, I am afraid," he said. "Please come in quietly."
On the bed lay Fluffy Dean, fully dressed - motionless. One hand hung down toward the floor - from the lifeless fingers a little phial had slipped. The room was full of trunks addressed to -
MISS SMITH, Passenger to Melborne. S.S. Caroline.
Peter Ruff moved over toward the bed and took up a piece of paper, upon which were scribbled a few lines in pencil.
"I think," he said, "that I must read these aloud. You all have a right to hear them."
No one spoke. He continued:
Forgive me, Letty, but I cannot go to Australia. They would only bring me back. When I remember that awful moment, my brain burns - I feel that I am going mad! Some day I should do this - better now. Give my love to the girls.
They sent for a doctor, and John Dory rang up Scotland Yard. Letty Shaw had fainted, and had been carried to her room. While they waited about in strange, half-benumbed excitement, Peter Ruff once more spoke to them.
"The reconstruction is easy enough now," he remarked. "The partition between this sitting room and that little bedroom is only an artificial one - something almost as flimsy as a screen. You see," he continued, tapping with his knuckles, "you can almost put your hand through it. If you look a little lower down, you will see where an opening has been made. Fluffy Dean was being taken care of by Miss Shaw - staying with her here, even. Miss Dean hears her lover's voice in this room - hears him pleading with Miss Shaw on he night of the murder. She has been sent home early from the theatre, and it is just possible that she saw or had been told that Austen Abbott had fetched Miss Shaw after the performance and had taken her to supper. She was mad with anger and jealousy. The revolver was there upon the table, with a silver box of cartridges. She possessed herself of it and waited in her room. What she heard proved, at least, her lover's infidelity. She stood there at her door, waiting. When Austen Abbott comes out, she shoots, throws the revolver at him, closes her door, and goes off into a faint. Perhaps she hears footsteps - a key in the door. At any rate, Captain Sotherst arrives a few minutes later. He finds, half in the hall, half on the threshold of the sitting room, Austen Abbott dead, and Miss Shaw's revolver by the side of him. If he had been a wise young man, he would have aroused the household. Why he did not do so, we can perhaps guess. He put two and two together a little too quickly. It is certain that he believed that the dead man had been shot by his fiancee. His first thought was to get rid of the revolver. At any rate, he walked down to the street with it in his hand, and was promptly arrested by the policeman who had heard the shot. Naturally he refused to plead, because he believed that Miss Shaw had killed the man, probably in self-defence. She, at first, believed her lover guilty, and when afterwards Fluffy Dean confessed, she, with feminine lack of common sense, was trying to get the girl out of the country before telling the truth. A visit of hers to the office of the steamship company gave me the clue I required."
Lady Mary grasped both his hands.
"And Scotland Yard," she exclaimed, with a withering glance at Dory, "have done their best to hang my brother!"
Peter Ruff raised his eyebrows.
"Dear Lady Mary," he said, "remember that it is the business of Scotland Yard to find a man guilty. It is mine, when I am employed for that purpose, to find him innocent. You must not be too hard upon my friend Mr. Dory. He and I seem to come up against each other a little too often, as it is."
"A little too often!" John Dory repeated, softly. "But one cannot tell. Don't believe, Lady Mary," he added, "that we ever want to kill an innocent man."
"It is your profession, though," she answered, "to find criminals - and his," she added, touching Peter Ruff on the shoulder, "to look for the truth."
Peter Ruff bowed low - the compliment pleased him.