Chapter XIX. Complications
 

"I am afraid of this man Aylesbury," said Paul Harley. We sat in the deserted dining room. I had contributed my account of the evening's happenings, Dr. Rolleston had made his report, and Inspector Aylesbury was now examining the servants in the library. Harley and I had obtained his official permission to withdraw, and the physician was visiting Madame de Staemer, who lay in a state of utter prostration.

"What do you mean, Harley?"

"I mean that he will presently make some tragic blunder. Good God, Knox, to think that this man had sought my aid, and that I stood by idly whilst he walked out to his death. I shall never forgive myself." He banged the table with his fist. "Even now that these unknown fiends have achieved their object, I am helpless, helpless. There was not a wisp of smoke to guide me, Knox, and one man cannot search a county."

I sighed wearily.

"Do you know, Harley," I said, "I am thinking of a verse of Kipling's."

"I know!" he interrupted, almost savagely.

  "A Snider squibbed in the jungle.
  Somebody laughed and fled--"

"Oh, I know, Knox. I heard that damnable laughter, too."

"My God," I whispered, "who was it? What was it? Where did it come from?"

"As well ask where the shot came from, Knox. Out amongst all those trees, with a house that might have been built for a sounding-board, who could presume to say where either came from? One thing we know, that the shot came from the south."

He leaned upon a corner of the table, staring at me intently.

"From the south?" I echoed.

Harley glanced in the direction of the open door.

"Presently," he said, "we shall have to tell Aylesbury everything that we know. After all, he represents the law; but unless we can get Inspector Wessex down from Scotland Yard, I foresee a miscarriage of justice. Colonel Menendez lay on his face, and the line made by his recumbent body pointed almost directly toward--"

I nodded, watching him.

"I know, Harley--toward the Guest House."

Paul Harley inclined his head, grimly.

"The first light which we saw," he continued, "was in a window of the Guest House. It may have had no significance. Awakened by the sound of a rifle-shot near by, any one would naturally get up."

"And having decided to come downstairs and investigate," I continued, "would naturally light a lamp."

"Quite so." He stared at me very hard. "Yet," he said, "unless Mr. Colin Camber can produce an alibi I foresee a very stormy time for him."

"So do I, Harley. A deadly hatred existed between these two men, and probably this horrible deed was done on the spur of the moment. It is of his poor little girl-wife that I am thinking. As though her troubles were not heavy enough already."

"Yes," he agreed. "I am almost tempted to hold my tongue, Knox, until I have personally interviewed these people. But of course if our blundering friend directly questions me, I shall have no alternative. I shall have to answer him. His talent for examination, however, scarcely amounts to genius, so that we may not be called upon for further details at the moment. I wonder how I can induce him to requisition Scotland Yard?"

He rested his chin in his hand and stared down reflectively at the carpet. I thought that he looked very haggard, as he sat there in the early morning light, dressed as for dinner. There was something pathetic in the pose of his bowed head.

Leaning across, I placed my hand on his shoulder.

"Don't get despondent, old chap," I said. "You have not failed yet."

"Oh, but I have, Knox!" he cried, fiercely, "I have! He came to me for protection. Now he lies dead in his own house. Failed? I have failed utterly, miserably."

I turned aside as the door opened and Dr. Rolleston came in.

"Ah, gentlemen," he said, "I wanted to see you before leaving. I have just been to visit Madame de Staemer again."

"Yes," said Harley, eagerly; "how is she?"

Dr. Rolleston lighted a cigarette, frowning perplexedly the while.

"To be honest," he replied, "her condition puzzles me."

He walked across to the fireplace and dropped the match, staring at Harley with a curious expression.

"Has any one told her the truth?" he asked.

"You mean that Colonel Menendez is dead?"

"Yes," replied Dr. Rolleston. "I understood that no one had told her?"

"No one has done so to my knowledge," said Harley.

"Then the sympathy between them must have been very acute," murmured the physician, "for she certainly knows!"

"Do you really think she knows?" I asked.

"I am certain of it. She must have had knowledge of a danger to be apprehended, and being awakened by the sound of the rifle shot, have realized by a sort of intuition that the expected tragedy had happened. I should say, from the presence of a small bruise which I found upon her forehead, that she had actually walked out into the corridor."

"Walked?" I cried.

"Yes," said the physician. "She is a shell-shock case, of course, and we sometimes find that a second shock counteracts the effect of the first. This, temporarily at any rate, seems to have happened to-night. She is now in a very curious state: a form of hysteria, no doubt, but very curious all the same."

"Miss Beverley is with her?" I asked.

Dr. Rolleston nodded affirmatively.

"Yes, a very capable nurse. I am glad to know that Madame de Staemer is in such good hands. I am calling again early in the morning, and I have told Mrs. Fisher to see that nothing is said within hearing of the room which could enable Madame de Staemer to obtain confirmation of the idea, which she evidently entertains, that Colonel Menendez is dead."

"Does she actually assert that he is dead?" asked Harley.

"My dear sir," replied Dr. Rolleston, "she asserts nothing. She sits there like Niobe changed to stone, staring straight before her. She seems to be unaware of the presence of everyone except Miss Beverley. The only words she has spoken since recovering consciousness have been, 'Don't leave me!'"

"Hm," muttered Harley. "You have not attended Madame de Staemer before, doctor?"

"No," was the reply, "this is the first time I have entered Cray's Folly since it was occupied by Sir James Appleton."

He was about to take his departure when the door opened and Inspector Aylesbury walked in.

"Ah," said he, "I have two more witnesses to interview: Madame de Staemer and Miss Beverley. From these witnesses I hope to get particulars of the dead man's life which may throw some light upon the identity of his murderer."

"It is impossible to see either of them at present," replied Dr. Rolleston briskly.

"What's that, doctor?" asked the Inspector. "Are they hysterical, or something?"

"As a result of the shock, Madame de Staemer is dangerously ill," replied the physician, "and Miss Beverley is remaining with her."

"Oh, I see. But Miss Beverley could come out for a few minutes?"

"She could," admitted the physician, sharply, "but I don't wish her to do so."

"Oh, but the law must be served, doctor."

"Quite so, but not at the expense of my patient's reason."

He was a resolute man, this country practitioner, and I saw Harley smiling in grim approval.

"I have expressed my opinion," he said, finally, walking out of the room; "I shall leave the responsibility to you, Inspector Aylesbury. Good morning, gentlemen."

Inspector Aylesbury scratched his chin.

"That's awkward," he muttered. "The evidence of this woman is highly important."

He turned toward us, doubtingly, whereupon Harley stood up, yawning.

"If I can be of any further assistance to you, Inspector," said my friend, "command me. Otherwise, I feel sure you will appreciate the fact that both Mr. Knox and myself are extremely tired, and have passed through a very trying ordeal."

"Yes," replied Inspector Aylesbury, "that's all very well, but I find myself at a deadlock."

"You surprise me," declared Harley.

"I can see nothing to be surprised about," cried the Inspector. "When I was called in it was already too late."

"Most unfortunate," murmured Harley, disagreeably. "Come along, Knox, you look tired to death."

"One moment, gentlemen," the Inspector insisted, as I stood up. "One moment. There is a little point which you may be able to clear up."

Harley paused, his hand on the door knob, and turned.

"The point is this," continued the Inspector, frowning portentously and lowering his chin so that it almost disappeared into the folds of his neck, "I have now interviewed all the inmates of Cray's Folly except the ladies. It appears to me that four people had not gone to bed. There are you two gentlemen, who have explained why I found you in evening dress, Colonel Menendez, who can never explain, and there is one other."

He paused, looking from Harley to myself.

It had come, the question which I had dreaded, the question which I had been asking myself ever since I had seen Val Beverley kneeling in the corridor, dressed as she had been when we had parted for the night.

"I refer to Miss Val Beverley," the police-court voice proceeded. "This lady had evidently not retired, and neither, it would appear, had the Colonel."

"Neither had I," murmured Harley, "and neither had Mr. Knox."

"Your reason I understand," said the Inspector, "or at least your explanation is a possible one. But if the party broke up, as you say it did, somewhere about half-past ten o'clock, and if Madame de Staemer had gone to bed, why should Miss Beverley have remained up?" He paused significantly. "As well as Colonel Menendez?" he added.

"Look here, Inspector Aylesbury," I interrupted, I speaking in a very quiet tone, I remember, "your insinuations annoy me."

"Oh," said he, turning his prominent eyes in my direction, "I see. They annoy you? If they annoy you, sir, perhaps you can explain this point which is puzzling me?"

"I cannot explain it, but doubtless Miss Beverley can do so when you ask her."

"I should like to have asked her now, and I can't make out why she refuses to see me."

"She has not refused to see you," replied Harley, smoothly. "She is probably unaware of the fact that you wish to see her."

"I don't know so much," muttered the Inspector. "In my opinion I am being deliberately baffled on all sides. You can throw no light on this matter, then?"

"None," I answered, shortly, and Paul Harley shook his head.

"But you must remember, Inspector," he explained, "that the entire household was in a state of unrest."

"In other words, everybody was waiting for this very thing to happen?"

"Consciously, or subconsciously, everybody was."

"What do you mean by consciously or subconsciously?"

"I mean that those of us who were aware of the previous attempts on the life of the Colonel apprehended this danger. And I believe that something of this apprehension had extended even to the servants."

"Oh, to the servants? Now, I have seen all the servants, except the chef, who lives at a house on the outskirts of Mid-Hatton, as you may know. Can you give me any information about this man?"

"I have seen him," replied Harley, "and have congratulated him upon his culinary art. His name, I believe, is Deronne. He is a Spaniard, and a little fat man. Quite an amiable creature," he added.

"Hm." The Inspector cleared his throat noisily.

"If that is all," said Harley, "I should welcome an opportunity of a few hours' sleep."

"Oh," said the Inspector. "Well, I suppose that is quite natural, but I shall probably have a lot more questions to ask you later."

"Quite," muttered Harley, "quite. Come on, Knox. Good-night, Inspector Aylesbury."

"Good-night."

Harley walked out of the dining room and across the deserted hall. He slowly mounted the stairs and I followed him into his room. It was now quite light, and as my friend dropped down upon the bed I thought that he looked very tired and haggard.

"Knox," he said, "shut the door."

I closed the door and turned to him.

"You heard that question about Miss Beverley?" I began.

"I heard it, and I am wondering what her answer will be when the Inspector puts it to her personally."

"Surely it is obvious?" I cried. "A cloud of apprehension had settled on the house last night, Harley, which was like the darkness of Egypt. The poor girl was afraid to go to bed. She was probably sitting up reading."

"Hm," said Harley, drumming his feet upon the carpet. "Of course you realize that there is one person in Cray's Folly who holds the clue to the heart of the mystery?"

"Madame de Staemer?"

He nodded grimly.

"When the rifle cracked out, Knox, she knew! Remember, no one had told her the truth. Yet can you doubt that she knows?"

"I don't doubt it."

"Neither do I." He clenched his teeth tightly and beat his fists upon the coverlet. "I was dreading that our friend the Inspector would ask a question which to my mind was very obvious."

"You mean?--"

"Well, what investigator whose skull contained anything more useful than bubbles would have failed to ask if Colonel Menendez had an enemy in the neighbourhood?"

"No one," I admitted; "but I fear the poor man is sadly out of his depth."

"He is wading hopelessly, Knox, but even he cannot fail to learn about Camber to-morrow."

He stared at me in a curiously significant manner.

"Do you mean, Harley," I began, "that you really think----"

"My dear Knox," he interrupted, "forgetting, if you like, all that preceded the tragedy, with what facts are we left? That Colonel Menendez, at the moment when the bullet entered his brain, must have been standing facing directly toward the Guest House. Now, you have seen the direction of the wound?"

"He was shot squarely between the eyes. A piece of wonderful marksmanship."

"Quite," Harley nodded his head. "But the bullet came out just at the vertex of the spine."

He paused, as if waiting for some comment, and:

"You mean that the shot came from above?" I said, slowly.

"Obviously it came from above, Knox. Keep these two points in your mind, and then consider the fact that someone lighted a lamp in the Guest House only a few moments after the shot had been fired."

"I remember. I saw it."

"So did I," said Harley, grimly, "and I saw something else."

"What was that?"

"When you went off to summon assistance I ran across the lawn, scrambled through the bushes, and succeeded in climbing down into the little gully in which the stream runs, and up on the other side. I had proceeded practically in a straight line from the sun-dial, and do you know where I found myself?"

"I can guess," I replied.

"Of course you can. You have visited the place. I came out immediately beside a little hut, Knox, which stands at the end of the garden of the Guest House. Ahead of me, visible through a tangle of bushes in the neglected garden, a lamp was burning. I crept cautiously forward, and presently obtained a view of the interior of a kitchen. Just as I arrived at this point of vantage the lamp was extinguished, but not before I had had a glimpse of the only occupant of the room--the man who had extinguished the lamp."

"Who was it?" I asked, in a low voice.

"It was a Chinaman."

"Ah Tsong!" I cried.

"Doubtless."

"Good heavens, Harley, do you think--"

"I don't know what to think, Knox. A possible explanation is that the household had been aroused by the sound of the shot, and that Ah Tsong had been directed to go out and see if he could learn what had happened. At any rate, I waited no longer, but returned by the same route. If our portly friend from Market Hilton had possessed the eyes of an Auguste Dupin, he could not have failed to note that my dress boots were caked with light yellow clay; which also, by the way, besmears my trousers."

He stooped and examined the garments as he spoke.

"A number of thorns are also present," he continued. "In short, from the point of view of an investigation, I am a most provoking object."

He sighed wearily, and stared out of the window in the direction of the Tudor garden. There was a slight chilliness in the air, which, or perhaps a sudden memory of that which lay in the billiard room beneath us, may have accounted for the fact that I shivered violently.

Harley glanced up with a rather sad smile.

"The morning after Waterloo," he said. "Sleep well, Knox."