Chapter IX. The Velvet Curtain
 

"This gets me well out of my depth, Mr. Addison," said Inspector Gatton.

We were standing in the garden at a point near to my open study window. A small flower-bed intervened between the path and the high privet hedge. It lay much in shade, and Coates had set tobacco plants there. But the soil was softer here than elsewhere.

Clearly marked upon it were the imprints of little high-heeled shoes.

"It seems to take us back to the days of 'Spring-heeled Jack,'" my friend continued; "which was before my time! I don't think that mystery was ever cleared up?"

"No," I replied, meeting his questioning glance; "it never was, satisfactorily. Therefore the analogy is an unfortunate one. But as you say, it certainly looks as though my visitor had sprung across a six-foot hedge!"

"It's absolutely mad," said Gatton gloomily. "Far from helping us, it only plunges us deeper in the mire."

We returned to the study, and:

"You will have seen the daily papers?" asked the Inspector.

I nodded.

"Practically all of them. They give a hateful prominence to the name of Miss Merlin."

"And to that of the new baronet--Sir Eric," said Gatton significantly.

I stared at him straightly.

"Do you seriously believe," said I, "that Eric Coverly had anything whatever to do with the death of his cousin?"

Gatton stirred uneasily in his chair.

"Well," he answered, "ignoring everything else for the moment, who else benefits by Sir Marcus Coverly's death?"

It was a poser--a question which I had dreaded because I had known it to be unanswerable.

"He inherits the title," continued Gatton, "and on the death of Lady Burnham Coverly he inherits Friars' Park. There is some clause or entail, or legal hotchpotch whereby the estate and revenue remain hers during her lifetime."

"But I understand the estate is mortgaged?"

"That I have to confirm, Mr. Addison," replied Gatton. "Sir Eric's solicitor has no information on the point and that of Sir Marcus's man of business is inexact. But even supposing that only the title is concerned, many a man has lost his life for less. Then you have to consider--Miss Merlin."

"In what way?" I demanded

"In relation to the attitude of Sir Marcus. Jealousy makes men (and women) do strange and desperate things. The character of Eric Coverly, the new baronet, is a very odd one."

"He is headstrong and in some respects weak," I admitted. "But otherwise he is an ordinary English gentleman, with the traditions of an old name and a public school to back him up. I tell you, Gatton, it's nonsense. His army career alone shows him to be a sound man."

"Yes," murmured Gatton; "he was awarded a decoration for distinguished service in Egypt."

That seemingly simple remark struck me with all the force of a physical blow. Gatton began quietly to load his pipe, without even glancing in my direction; but the covert significance of his words was all too apparent:

"Gatton," I said--"what the devil are you driving at?"

He slightly shrugged his shoulders.

"What you may term the hocus-pocus side of the case," he replied, "turns on matters Egyptian, doesn't it? Very well. Who else, that we know about, is associated, or ever has been associated with Egypt?"

"But--the woman?"

"Ah!" said Gatton. "Now you are getting down to the depths. But assuming that the extraordinary characteristics of this visitor of yours can be explained in some way, by deliberate trickery, for example, might she not be a woman whom Eric Coverly met in Egypt?"

I stared silently a while, and then:

"In short, a rival of Miss Merlin's?" I suggested.

"Precisely. The trick with the photograph was just of the kind one would expect from a madly jealous woman. Everything planned with supreme cunning, but the scene at which the hated rival enters the scheme badly overdone."

"And you believe Coverly's silence to be due to the fact that he is shielding some one?"

"Well, that or shielding himself. What else can it mean? A man suspected of murder doesn't hesitate to establish an alibi unless he is in a desperately tight corner. The exact position of your strange-eyed acquaintance in the case is not apparent to me at the moment, I'll admit, but I seem to have heard that there have been rare instances of human beings with luminous eyes."

"Quite right, Inspector," I agreed; "I hope very shortly to have some further particulars for you bearing upon this point. I am endeavoring to obtain a work by Saint-Hilaire dealing with teratology."

"As to her extraordinary activity and agility," Gatton continued, "we must remember that a privet hedge is not like a stone wall. I mean she may not have actually cleared the whole six feet, and after all, this is the age of the athletic girl. There are women athletes who can perform some extraordinary feats of high-jumping. Of course, there are still a number of witnesses to be discovered and examined, but I know by now exactly what to expect. It's an ingenious idea, although not entirely new to me.

"The whole thing has been managed by means of the telephone--a powerful ally of the modern criminal. Briefly what happened was this: The Red House--selected because of its lonely position, but also because it was fairly accessible--was leased by our missing assassin without any personal interview taking place. We have to look then in the first instance for some one possessing considerable financial resources. It was by the effective substitution of a year's rent--in cash--for the more usual references, that our man--or woman--whom I will call 'A' secured possession of the keys and right of entry to the premises. A limited amount of furniture was obtained in the same manner. We haven't found the firm who supplied it, but I don't doubt that the business was done over the telephone, cash being paid as before. Duplicate keys must have been made for some of the doors, I think--a simple matter. We shall find that the furnishing people as well as the caterer who later on supplied the supper were admitted to the Red House by a district messenger or else had the keys posted to them for the purpose.

"The whole business was built up around a central idea, simple in itself: that of inveigling Sir Marcus into the prepared supper-room. His attendance at the New Avenue Theater last night was doubtless assured--although we may never prove it--by another of these mysterious telephone messages, probably purporting to come from Miss Merlin. The cold-blooded thoroughness with which 'A' arranged for a crate to be delivered at the garage and for the body of the murdered man to be taken to the docks and shipped to the West Indies, illuminates the character of the person we have to seek.

"Discovery sooner or later was inevitable, of course. It came sooner because of the accident at the docks. Had it come later I don't doubt that 'A' would have dismantled the Red House again so that the investigation would have been severely handicapped. As it is, the only dismantling done was the most important of all."

"You mean?" I said with keen interest.

"The death-machine," answered Gatton. "The cunning device around which all these trappings were erected. We don't have to wait for the coroner's inquest nor the pathologists' report to know that Sir Marcus was asphyxiated."

"In that room where supper was laid for two?" I muttered.

"Can you doubt it?"

"No," I said, "and I don't."

"I have allowed nothing to be touched," continued Gatton, "and I am going around there now to make a final attempt to unravel the mystery of how Sir Marcus met his death."

"There is one detail," said I, "which it seems impossible to fit into its proper place in the scheme. The figure of Bast painted upon the crate--you have that at Scotland Yard--and the little image of the goddess which was stolen from my table last night."

Gatton stood up, uttering a sigh.

"I have always found, Mr. Addison," he replied, "that it is these outstanding features of a case, these pieces which don't seem to fit, that are the most valuable clews. It's the apparently simple cases in which there is no outstanding point that are the most baffling."

I laughed shortly.

"One could not very well complain of the lack of such features in 'the Oritoga mystery,'" I said. "As a confrere of mine remarked when the body of Sir Marcus was discovered in the crate, the whole thing is as mad as 'Alice in Wonderland'!"

Gatton presently departed for the Red House and I accompanied him, for I was intensely curious to learn by what means the murder of Sir Marcus had been accomplished. As I proposed later in the morning to call on Isobel, Coates drove Gatton and myself as far as the Red House and I instructed the man to wait for me.

Although the morning was still young, the prominence given by the press to this sensational crime had resulted in the presence of quite a considerable group of pilgrims who even thus early had arrived to look upon the scene of the mysterious tragedy. London is a city of onlookers. The most trivial street accident never lacks its interested audience, and a house in which a murder is reputed to have taken place becomes a center upon which the idly curious focus from the four points of the compass.

Our arrival created a subdued excitement amongst the nondescript group gathered upon the pavement. Despite the efforts of a constable on duty, men, women and children persistently gathered before the gates of the drive peering up at the empty house as if they anticipated seeing the face of the murderer or an apparition of the victim appear behind one of the windows. A considerable group, too, was gathered before the garage, but as Gatton and I descended and began to walk up the drive there was a general movement in our direction.

"I wonder," said I, "if 'A,' the wanted man, is among the crowd? One reads that murderers are irresistibly drawn back to the scene of their crimes."

"He may be," replied Gatton; "anyway there are two C.I.D. men there for certain, so that 'A' will do well to be upon his guard."

A few moments later I found myself again in the lounge-hall of the Red House; and the place now seemed to me to have taken on an air of oppressive mystery. In the very deserted silence of the house I detected something sinister. Of course, no doubt this was merely an effect created upon my mind by the ghastly associations of the place; but I know that whereas on the previous day surprise and curiosity had been the most characteristic emotions aroused by our discoveries there, this morning something darker seemed to have taken their place; and I found myself listening for a sound that never came and wondering vaguely and vainly, what secret was hidden in this desolate mansion.

By Gatton's orders the room in which that gruesome supper was laid had been left undisturbed and once more we stood surveying the spotless napery and sparkling silver. I listened to the ticking of the clock upon the mantelpiece and stared dully at the wine resting in the ice-pail which now contained nothing but dirty water. A big dish of fruit stood upon the table, peaches and apricots and nectarines; and several large wasps had entered through one of the windows which some one had opened, and were buzzing sleepily around the dish. Lastly--there beside the clock stood Isobel's photograph.

For any evidence of a struggle I looked in vain, but the nature of my companion's investigation was more obscure. Again the whole of his attention seemed to be directed upon the wall, the window-ledges and the door-frame. Suddenly:

"Ah," I said, "I know what you are looking for! Some connection between this room and the garage?"

Gatton, who was kneeling examining a lower panel of the door, looked up with a grim smile.

"Perhaps I am," he replied.

By the tone of his voice I knew that whatever he had sought he had failed once more to find. Presently, desisting from this quest of his, he stood and stared curiously for some time at a recess immediately behind one of the high-backed chairs drawn up to the supper table. We had already explored this recess and had found it to be vacant. Gatton advanced towards it and drew aside the curtain which was draped in the opening.

It was a recess about four feet wide by three deep and it contained nothing in the nature of furniture or ornament.

"Does anything strike you as curious about this arrangement?" said my companion.

I looked for a long time, but failed to detect anything of a notable nature.

"Nothing," I said, "except that it seems a peculiar idea to drape a curtain before a recess in that way."

"And such a curtain!" said Gatton, fingering the texture.

I in turn touched the material with my fingers and found it to be an extremely heavy velvet. Looking upward, I noticed that it was attached to a rod set so high in the wall on either side that the top of the drapery actually touched the ceiling.

"Well," said Gatton, looking at me oddly, "in addition to the texture of the curtain do you notice anything else?"

"No," I confessed.

"Well," he continued, "you may remember that yesterday when I examined this place, I had to drape the curtain over a chair, which I moved here for the purpose, in order to see the recess."

"So you did," I said; "I remember."

"Well, doesn't it strike you as odd? If you'll notice the way it is fastened above, you will see that it is not upon rings. In other words it is not intended to be opened. You see that it is in one piece so that anybody having occasion to enter the recess would have to lift it aside and let it fall to behind him."

I studied the arrangement of the drapings more closely and saw that his statement was correct; also I saw something else, and:

"This room has been lighted by gas at some time!" I cried. "Here, up under the picture-rail, is a plug."

"Most houses are provided both with gas and electric light about here," replied Gatton abstractedly.

But even before he had finished speaking I saw his expression change, and in a moment he had dragged a chair into the recess.

"Hold the curtain back," he directed sharply.

Standing on the chair, he began to examine the little brass plug to which I had drawn his attention. For some time I watched him in silence, and then:

"What do you think you have found?" I inquired.

He glanced down over his shoulder.

"I think I have found a clew!" he replied.