Chapter X. "Hanging Evidence"
 

Isobel came into the room and approached the chair from which I had arisen. In her plain morning frock, with the sun bringing out those wonderful russet tints in her hair, but having that frightened look still in her eyes, she had never seemed more beautiful. Yet I saw as I rose to greet her that she was laboring under the influence of dangerous nervous excitement.

"You are worried about Eric?" I said, when we had exchanged those rather formal greetings in which I think we took mutual shelter. Certainly I did, and later I was to know that Isobel did so, too.

"Every day seems to make the case grow blacker against him," she replied, sinking down upon the settee beside me.

And indeed the shadow which had fallen upon all of us seemed at that moment almost palpable--a thing to be felt like the darkness of Egypt and not to be dispelled even by the brightness of the morning.

"When did you last see Coverly?"

Isobel raised her head wearily.

"Last night, and he seemed to think that some one was following him--a detective."

I noticed that Isobel spoke of Eric Coverly with a certain manner of restraint for which I could not account. Yet perhaps it was only natural that she should do so, but at the time I was foolishly blind to the opposing emotions which fought and conflicted within her.

"He still refused to explain his movements on the night of the murder?" I asked.

"Yes, he persisted in his extraordinary silence," said Isobel.

The look of trouble in her eyes grew more acute.

"What I cannot understand is a sort of attitude of resentment which he has lately adopted."

"Of resentment? Towards whom?"

"Towards me."

"But--"

"Oh, it's quite incomprehensible, Jack, and it is making me horribly unhappy. He complained so bitterly too about this police surveillance to which he is subjected. He realizes that the coroner is almost certain to put a wrong construction on his silence, but instead of being frank about it he adopts, even when alone with me, this incomprehensible attitude of resentment. In fact his behavior almost suggests that I am responsible for his present misfortunes."

"He must be mad," I said, and I expect I spoke bitterly, for Isobel lowered her eyes and her face flushed with embarrassment.

"Don't think that I condemn him," I added hastily, "but really in justice to you, if not in order to clear his own good name, he should speak out at once. Are you expecting to see him to-day?"

Isobel nodded.

"I am expecting him at almost any moment," she replied; then glancing aside at a number of daily papers which lay littered upon the floor beside the settee: "Of course you have seen what the press has to say about it?" she added.

I nodded.

"What can you expect?" said I. "It is one of those cases in which practically all the evidence, although it is of a purely circumstantial nature, points to an innocent man as the culprit. I feel very keenly annoyed with Coverly, for not only is he involving both of you in a most unsavory case but he is also hindering the work of justice. In fact by his inexplicable silence he is, although no doubt unconsciously, affording the murderer time to elude the law."

Even as I spoke the words I heard a cab draw up in the street below, and glancing out of the window, I saw Coverly alight from the cab, pay the man and enter the doorway. His bearing was oddly furtive, that, as I thought with a sudden pang, of a fugitive. A few moments later he came into the room and his expression when he found me there was one of marked hostility.

Eric Coverly bore no resemblance whatever to the deceased baronet from whom he inherited the title, belonging as he did to quite another branch of the family. Whereas Sir Marcus had been of a dark and sallow type, Eric Coverly was one of those fair, fresh-colored, open-air English types, handsome in an undistinguished way, and as a rule of a light and careless disposition. There had never been any very close sympathy between us, for the studies to which I devoted so much time were by him regarded as frankly laughable absurdities. Although well enough informed, he was typical of his class, and no one could justly have catalogued him as an intellectual.

"Good morning, Addison," he said, having greeted Isobel in a perfunctory fashion which I assumed to be accounted for by my unwelcome presence. "The men of your Fleet Street tribe have conspired to hang me, I see."

"Don't talk nonsense, Coverly," I said bruskly; "this misapprehension is bound to arise if you decline to give any account of your movements."

"But it is an outrage!" cried Coverly hotly. "What the devil do I know about Marcus's death?"

"I am perfectly convinced that you know nothing whatever; but then I have known you for many years. The 'Fleet Street tribe' to whom you refer merely regard you as a unit of our rather large population. In a case of this kind, Coverly, all men are equal."

Whilst I had been delivering myself of this somewhat priggish speech--designed, I may add, in self-defense, to spur Coverly to a rejoinder which might throw some light upon the mystery--he had regarded me with an expression of ever increasing dislike. I noted that there were shadows under his eyes, and that he was in a highly nervous and excited condition. He had slept but little I judged during the last forty-eight hours and had possibly had recourse to stimulants to enable him to face the new trials which arose with every day.

"I don't feel called upon," he said angrily, "to give an account of my movements to every policeman who cares to inquire. I know nothing whatever about the matter. I have said so, and I am not accustomed to have my word doubted."

"My dear Coverly," said I, "you must be perfectly well aware that sooner or later you will have to relinquish this heroic pose. Will you allow no one to advise you? You will have to answer the coroner, and if you persist in this extraordinary refusal to give a simple answer to a simple question, surely you realize that the matter will be transferred to a higher tribunal?"

"Oh, I told you that they had hanged me in Fleet Street already, Isobel!" cried Coverly, with a burst of unmirthful laughter.

But (and no man could have construed the thing favorably to Coverly) to my anger and amazement he added:

"Let them do it! I'll speak if I choose, but not otherwise!"

That I was annoyed with the young fool already, my remarks to him, which had transgressed every code of good taste, must sufficiently have shown. But I had hoped to provoke him to a declaration which would clear his name from the shadow which was settling darkly upon it, and which would raise that shadow from the girl who stood beside him, watching me with a sort of reproachful look in her dark eyes.

Now I recognized that I could remain no longer and keep the peace, therefore:

"Perhaps it is time that I went about my own business," I said, conjuring up a smile, although it must have been a dreary one, "and ceased to interfere with the affairs of other people. Good-by, Isobel. Anything I can do, you know you may command. Good-by, Coverly. I am deeply sorry about this business."

He barely touched my extended hand, but instantly turned and walked to the bay window. Descending to the street, I had immediate confirmation of Coverly's statement that his movements were watched.

In the porch below a man stood talking to the hall-porter. As I appeared he immediately averted his face and began to light a cigarette. Nevertheless I had had time to recognize him as the man who had brought Gatton news of Marie's detention.

It was in a truly perturbed frame of mind that I proceeded on my way to the Planet offices. I would have sacrificed much to have been afforded means to comfort Isobel; a furious anger towards the man who thus deliberately had brought doubt and unhappiness upon her had taken up permanent quarters in my mind. I counted Coverly's declination to clear himself little better than the attitude of a cad.

I read religiously through a pile of cuttings bearing upon the case, and found the unmistakable trend of opinion to be directed towards Coverly as the culprit. The use made of Isobel's name enraged me to boiling point and I presently took up the entire bundle of cuttings and crammed them into a waste-paper basket. I was engaged in stamping them down with my foot when I was called to the telephone.

Inspector Gatton was speaking from New Scotland Yard; and his voice was very grave.

"Can you possibly come along at once?" he asked. "There is a new development; a most unpleasant one."

He would say no more over the telephone. Therefore I hurried out to where Coates was waiting, and in ten minutes found myself in one of those bare, comfortless apartments which characterize the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police Force.

With his hat off Gatton looked more like a seaman than ever, for he had short, crisply curly hair and that kind of bull-dog line of cranium which one associates with members of the senior service. Upon a chair set in a recess formed by one of the lofty windows a leather grip rested. It was wet and stained, and had palpably been recovered but recently from the water. Seeing my glance straying towards this object at the moment of my entrance, the Inspector nodded.

"Yes," said he, "it has just come in."

"What is it?"

"Well," replied Gatton, sitting upon a corner of the table and folding his arms, "it is a piece of evidence sufficient to hang the most innocent man breathing."

He eyed me in a significant manner and I felt my heart beginning to beat more rapidly.

"May I know the particulars?"

"Certainly. I asked you to come along for the purpose of telling you. Sir Eric Coverly's refusal to answer the questions put to him had necessitated his being watched, as you know. I mean to say, it's sheerly automatic; the Commissioner himself couldn't make an exception. Well, last night he left his chambers and started for Miss Merlin's flat. He came out of a back door and went along a narrow passage, instead of going out at the front. He evidently thought he had got away unobserved. He was carrying--that."

"Good heavens!" I said. "The young fool seems determined to put a rope around his own neck."

"As a matter of fact," continued Gatton, "he was not unobserved. He was followed right across St. James's Park. By the lake he lingered for some time; and the man tracking him kept carefully out of sight, of course. There was nobody else about at the moment, and presently, thinking himself safe, Coverly dropped his bag in the water! Immediately he set off walking rapidly again, and he was followed right to Miss Merlin's door. But the spot where he had dropped the bag had been marked, of course, and when I came in here to-day it had been fished, up--and placed there for my inspection."

With ever-growing misgivings.

"What does it contain?" I asked.

Inspector Gatton walked across to the chair and threw the bag open. First he took out several lumps of wet coal.

"To weight it, of course," he said.

Then one by one he withdrew from the clammy interior a series of ragged garments, the garments of a tramp. A pair of heavy boots there were, a pair of patched trousers and an old shabby coat, a greasy cap, and finally a threadbare red muffler!

Gatton looked hard at me.

"He will have to break his obstinate silence now," he said. "Failing our discovery of new clews pointing in another direction, this is hanging evidence!"

"It is maddening!" I cried. "Can nothing be done, Gatton? Is there no possible line of inquiry hitherto neglected which might lead to the discovery of the truth? For whatever your own ideas may be, personally I am certain that Coverly is innocent."

Gatton replaced the sodden garments one by one in the bag, frowning as he did so, and:

"It occurred to me this morning," he replied, "that there is one inquiry which in justice to the suspected man and in order to round off the investigation, should be instituted. I'm afraid Coverly will have a bad time in the Coroner's court, but it is even possible that something might be done before the inquest. Now--"

He looked at me quizzically, and:

"Knowing your keen personal interest in the case, I am going to make a suggestion. It is probably going outside the intentions of the chief in regard to your share of the inquiry, but I'll risk that. I stipulate, however, that anything you learn is to be communicated direct to me, not to the Planet. Is this arrangement consistent with your journalistic conscience?"

"Quite," I said eagerly; "my contributions to the Planet are always subject, of course, to your censorship. What is it that you propose I should do?"

"This," said Gatton tersely; "I should like to know under what circumstances Mr. Roger Coverly died."

"Roger Coverly?" I echoed.

"The son of Sir Burnham Coverly," continued Gatton, "and therefore the direct heir to the title. He died somewhere abroad about five or six years ago, and as a result the late Sir Marcus inherited the baronetcy on the death of his uncle, Sir Burnham. You will remember that the man, Morris, spoke of the ill-feeling existing between Lady Burnham Coverly and Sir Marcus, because of the premature death of her own son, of course."

"I follow you," I said eagerly. "You suggest that I should go down to Friar's Park and interview Lady Burnham Coverly?"

"Exactly," replied Gatton. "It's very irregular, of course, but I know you well enough to take my chance of a carpeting. I may send a C.I.D. man down as well. I've too much to do in town to think of going myself; but I will advise you of any such step."

The motive underlying Inspector Gatton's suggestion was perfectly evident to me and I experienced a feeling of gratitude for the humanity which directed it. I held out my hand, and:

"Thanks, Gatton," I said; "you can leave the matter in my care with every confidence. I will start for Friar's Park to-day."

"Good," replied Gatton. "Let me give you a hint. Take a good pistol with you!"