Chapter V. The Interrupted Supper
 

I arrived at the Red House before Inspector Gatton. A constable was on duty at the gate and as I came up and paused he regarded me rather doubtfully until I told him that I had an appointment with Gatton. I stared up the drive towards the house. It was not, apparently, a very old building, presenting some of the worst features of the mid-Victorian period, and from whence it derived its name I could not conjecture unless from the fact that the greater part of the facade was overgrown with some kind of red creeper.

The half-moon formed by the crescent-shaped carriage-way and the wall bordering the road was filled with rather unkempt shrubbery, laurels and rhododendrons for the most part, from amid which arose several big trees. In the blaze of the afternoon sun the place looked commonplace enough with estate agents' bills pasted in the dirty windows, and it was difficult to conceive that it had been the scene of the mysterious crime of which at that hour all London was talking and which later was to form a subject of debate throughout the civilized world.

Gatton joined me within a few minutes of my arrival. He was accompanied by Constable Bolton with whom I had first visited the Red House. Bolton was now in plain clothes, and he had that fish-out-of-water appearance which characterizes the constable in mufti. Indeed he looked rather dazed, and on arriving before the house he removed his bowler and mopped his red face with a large handkerchief, nodding to me as he did so.

"Good afternoon, sir; it was lucky you came along with me last night. I thought it was a funny go and I was right, it seems."

"Quite right," said Gatton shortly, "and now here are the keys which you returned to the depot this morning."

From his pocket the Inspector produced a steel ring bearing a large and a small key which I recognized as that which had hung from the lock of the garage door on the previous night.

We walked along to the garage and Inspector Gatton placed the key in the lock; then turning to Bolton:

"Now," he directed, "show us exactly what you did."

Bolton replaced his bowler, which hitherto he had carried in his hand, hesitated for a moment, and then unlocked the door.

"Of course I had my lantern with me last night," he explained, "and this gentleman and myself stood looking in for a moment."

"Mr. Addison has already described to me exactly what he saw," said Gatton. "Show us what you did after Mr. Addison left you."

Bolton, with a far-away look in his eyes betokening an effort of retrospection, withdrew the key from the lock and entered the garage, Gatton and I following. There was a sky window to light the place, so that when Bolton reclosed the door we could see well enough. His movements were as follows: Relocking the door from the inside, he walked slowly along to a smaller door at the opposite end and with the other key attached to the ring unfastened it.

"Wait a moment," said Gatton. "Did you look about you at all before opening this door?"

"Only long enough to find where it was, sir. Just about as long as I showed you."

"All right. Go on, then."

We followed Bolton out into a very narrow hedge-bordered path, evidently a tradesman's entrance, and he turned and locked the door behind him. Slipping the keys into his pocket, he tramped stolidly out to the main road whereon we emerged immediately beside the garage.

"Ah," murmured Gatton. "Now give me the keys," and as the man did so: "Throughout all this time did you see or hear anything of an unusual nature?"

Bolton removed his bowler once more. I had gathered by this time that he regarded fresh air as an aid to reflection.

"Well, sir," he replied in a puzzled way, "that first door--"

"Well," said Gatton, as the man hesitated.

"It seemed to open more easily just now than it did last night. There seemed to be a sort of hitch before when it was about half-way open."

"Perhaps the crate was in the way?" suggested Gatton. "Except for the absence of the crate do you notice anything different, anything missing, or anything there now that was not there before?"

Bolton shook his head.

"No," he answered; "it looks just the same to me--except, as I say, that the door seemed to open more easily."

"H'm," muttered Gatton; "and you carried the keys in your pocket until you went off duty?"

"Yes, sir."

"All right. You can go now."

Bolton touched his bowler and departed, and Gatton turned to me with a grim smile.

"We'll just step inside again," he said, "so as not to attract any undue attention."

He again unlocked the garage door and closed it as we entered.

"Now," said he, "before we go any further what was your idea in keeping back the fact that one of the missing links in the chain of evidence was already in your possession?"

"No doubt," I said rather guiltily, "you refer to the fact of my acquaintance with Miss Isobel Merlin?"

"I do!" said Gatton, "and to the fact that you nipped in ahead of me and interviewed this important witness before I had even heard of her existence." He continued to smile, but the thoroughness and unflinching pursuit of duty which were the outstanding features of the man, underlay his tone of badinage. "I want to say," he continued, "that for your cooperation, which has been very useful to me on many occasions, I am always grateful, but if in return I give you facilities which no other pressman has, I don't expect you to abuse them."

"Really, Inspector," I replied, "you go almost too far. I have done nothing to prejudice your case nor could I possibly have known until my interview this morning with Miss Merlin, that it was she in whom the late Sir Marcus was interested."

"H'm," said Gatton, but still rather dubiously, his frank, wide-open eyes regarding me in that naive manner which was so deceptive.

"All that I learned," I continued, "is unequivocally at your disposal. Finally I may tell you--and I would confess it to few men--that Miss Merlin is a very old friend and might have been something more if I had not been a fool."

"Oh!" said Gatton, and his expression underwent a subtle change--"Oh! That's rather awkward; in fact"--he frowned perplexedly--"it's damned awkward!"

"What do you mean?" I demanded.

"Well," said he, "I don't know what account Miss Merlin gave to you of her relations with Sir Marcus--"

"Relations!" I said hotly, "the man was a mere acquaintance; she hadn't even seen him, except from the stage, for some months past." "Oh," replied Gatton, "is that so?" He looked at me very queerly. "It doesn't seem to dovetail with the evidence of the stage-doorkeeper."

I felt myself changing color, and:

"What, then, does the stage-doorkeeper assert?" I asked.

Gatton continued to look at me in that perplexed way, and believing that I detected the trend of his reflections:

"Look here, Inspector," I said, "let us understand one another. Whatever may be the evidence of stage-doorkeepers and others, upon one point you can be assured. Miss Merlin had nothing whatever to do with this horrible crime. The idea is unthinkable. So confident am I of this, that you can be perfectly open with me and I give you my word of honor that I shall be equally frank with you. The truth of the matter cannot possibly injure her in the end and I am as anxious to discover it as you are."

Gatton suddenly extended his hand, and:

"Good!" he said. "We understand one another, but how is Miss Merlin going to explain this?"

He drew a note-book from his pocket, turned over several leaves, and then:

"On no fewer than six occasions," he said, "I have approximate dates here, Sir Marcus sent his card to Miss Merlin's dressing-room."

"I know," I interrupted him; "he persecuted her, but she never saw him."

"Wait a minute. Last night"--Gatton glanced at me sharply--"Marie, the maid, came down after Sir Marcus's card had been sent to the dressing-room and talked for several minutes to the late baronet, just by the doorkeeper's box, but out of earshot. That was at ten o'clock. At eleven, that is after the performance, Sir Marcus returned, and again Marie came down to see him. They went out into the street together and Sir Marcus entered a cab which was waiting and drove off. Miss Merlin left a quarter of an hour later."

Our glances met and a silence of some moments' duration fell between us; then:

"You suggest," I said, "that Miss Merlin had arranged a rendezvous with him and to save appearances had joined him there later?"

"Well"--Gatton raised his eyebrows--"what do you suggest?"

I found myself temporarily at a loss for words, but:

"Knowing nothing of this," I explained, "naturally I was not in a position to tax Miss Merlin with it. Possibly you have done so. What is her explanation?"

"I have not seen her," confessed Gatton; "I arrived at her flat ten minutes after she had gone out--with you."

"You saw Marie?"

"Unfortunately Marie was also out, but I saw an old charwoman who attends daily, I understand, and it was from her that I learned of your visit."

"Marie," I said, "may be able to throw some light on the matter."

"I don't doubt it!" replied Gatton grimly. "Meanwhile we have sufficient evidence to show that Sir Marcus drove from the New Avenue Theater to this house."

"He may not have driven here at all," I interrupted; "he may have driven somewhere else and performed the latter part of his journey here--"

"In the crate!" cried Gatton. "Yes, you are right; his body may actually have been inside the crate at the time that you and Bolton arrived here last night; for that would be fully an hour after Sir Marcus left the stage-door."

"But who can have rung up the police station last night?" I cried, "and what can have been the object of this unknown person?'

"That we have to find out," said Gatton quietly; "undoubtedly it formed part of a scheme planned with extraordinary cunning; it was not an accident or an oversight, I mean. The men who are assisting me haven't been idle, for we have already learned some most amazing facts about the case. I haven't yet visited the house myself, but I have here the report of one of my assistants who has done so; also I have the keys. The garage I will inspect more carefully later on."

He glanced quickly about the place before we left it, then, leaving the door locked behind us, we walked along to the gate before which the constable stood on duty, and from thence proceeded up the drive to the front entrance. There was a deep porch supported by pillars and densely overgrown with creeper. I noted, too, a heavy and unhealthy odor as of decaying leaves, and observed that a perfect carpet of these lay on the path. In the shade of the big trees it was comparatively cool, but the heavy malarious smell did not please me and I imagined that it must have repelled more than one would-be lessee.

As we approached the porch I saw that the windows of the rooms immediately left and right of it had been stripped of the agent's bills, for I could see where fragments of paper still adhered to the glass. There were no bills in the porch either; but when Gatton opened the front door I uttered an exclamation of surprise.

We stood in a small lounge-hall. There was a staircase on the left and three doors opened on to the hall. But although the Red House was palpably unoccupied, the hall was furnished! There were some rugs upon the polished floor, a heavy bronze club-fender in front of the grate, several chairs against the walls and a large palm in a Chinese pot.

"Why," I exclaimed, "the place is furnished and the stairs are carpeted tool"

"Yes," said Gatton, looking keenly about him, "but according to report if you will step upstairs you will get a surprise."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, suppose we go and see."

Gatton led the way and I followed up the stairs as fair as the first landing. Here I paused in amazement For at this point all attempts at furnishing ceased. The landing was quite bare and so were the stairs above it! Seeing my expression of incredulous surprise:

"Yes," said Gatton, smiling, "it's a strange arrangement, isn't it?"

We descended again to the furnished hall.

"Look here," continued my companion.

He unlocked a door on the left, having tried several keys from the bunch which he carried without success, but finally discovering the right one.

A long rectangular room was revealed, evidently intended for a dining-room. It was empty and unfurnished, odds and ends of newspaper and other rubbish lying here and there upon the floor. My astonishment was momentarily increasing. A second door, that in the center, Gatton opened, revealing another empty room, but:

"I have reserved this one for the last," he said: "you will find that it is unlocked."

He pointed to the third door, that on the right, and as he evidently intended me to open it, I stepped forward, turned the handle and entered a small square room, exquisitely furnished.

A heavy Persian carpet was spread upon the floor and the windows were draped with some kind of brightly colored Madras. Tastefully-framed water-colors hung upon the wall. There was a quaint cabinet in the room, too; a low cushioned settee and two armchairs. In the center was a table upon which stood a lamp with a large mosaic shade. Two high-backed chairs were set to the table--and the table was laid for supper! A bottle of wine stood in an ice-pail, in which the ice had long since melted, and a tempting cold repast was spread. The table was decorated with a bowl of perfect white roses. The silver was good; the napery was snowy.

Like a fool I stood gaping at the spectacle, until, noting the direction of Gatton's glance, I turned my attention to the mantelpiece upon which a clock was ticking with a dull and solemn note.

Standing beside the clock, in a curious carved frame, was a large photograph of Isobel!