Chapter XXV. Aylesbury's Theory
 

There were strangers about Cray's Folly and a sort of furtive activity, horribly suggestive. We had not pursued the circular route by the high road which would have brought us to the lodge, but had turned aside where the swing-gate opened upon a footpath into the meadows. It was the path which I had pursued upon the day of my visit to the Lavender Arms. A second private gate here gave access to the grounds at a point directly opposite the lake; and as we crossed the valley, making for the terraced lawns, I saw unfamiliar figures upon the veranda, and knew that the cumbersome processes of the law were already in motion.

I was longing to speak to Val Beverley and to learn what had taken place during her interview with Inspector Aylesbury, but Harley led the way toward the tower wing, and by a tortuous path through the rhododendrons we finally came out on the northeast front and in sight of the Tudor garden.

Harley crossed to the entrance, and was about to descend the steps, when the constable on duty there held out his arm.

"Excuse me, sir," he said, "but I have orders to admit no one to this part of the garden."

"Oh," said Harley, pulling up short, "but I am acting in this case. My name is Paul Harley."

"Sorry, sir," replied the constable, "but you will have to see Inspector Aylesbury."

My friend uttered an impatient exclamation, but, turning aside:

"Very well, constable," he muttered; "I suppose I must submit. Our friend, Aylesbury," he added to me, as we walked away, "would appear to be a martinet as well as a walrus. At every step, Knox, he proves himself a tragic nuisance. This means waste of priceless time."

"What had you hoped to do, Harley?"

"Prove my theory," he returned; "but since every moment is precious, I must move in another direction."

He hurried on through the opening in the box hedge and into the courtyard. Manoel had just opened the doors to a sepulchral-looking person who proved to be the coroner's officer, and:

"Manoel!" cried Harley, "tell Carter to bring a car round at once."

"Yes, sir."

"I haven't time to fetch my own," he explained.

"Where are you off to?"

"I am off to see the Chief Constable, Knox. Aylesbury must be superseded at whatever cost. If the Chief Constable fails I shall not hesitate to go higher. I will get along to the garage. I don't expect to be more than an hour. Meanwhile, do your best to act as a buffer between Aylesbury and the women. You understand me?"

"Quite," I returned, shortly. "But the task may prove no light one, Harley."

"It won't," he assured me, smiling grimly. "How you must regret, Knox, that we didn't go fishing!"

With that he was off, eager-eyed and alert, the mood of dreamy abstraction dropped like a cloak discarded. He fully realized, as I did, that his unique reputation was at stake. I wondered, as I had wondered at the Guest House, whether, in undertaking to clear Colin Camber, he had acted upon sheer conviction, or, embittered by the death of his client, had taken a gambler's chance. It was unlike him to do so. But now beyond reach of that charm of manner which Colin Camber possessed, and discounting the pathetic sweetness of his girl-wife, I realized how black was the evidence against him.

Occupied with these, and even more troubled thoughts, I was making my way toward the library, undetermined how to act, when I saw Val Beverley coming along the corridor which communicated with Madame de Staemer's room.

I read a welcome in her eyes which made my heart beat the faster.

"Oh, Mr. Knox," she cried, "I am so glad you have returned. Tell me all that has happened, for I feel in some way that I am responsible for it."

I nodded gravely.

"You know, then, where Inspector Aylesbury went when he left here, after his interview with you?"

She looked at me pathetically.

"He went to the Guest House, of course."

"Yes," I said; "he was close behind us."

"And"--she hesitated--"Mr. Camber?"

"He has been detained."

"Oh!" she moaned. "I could hate myself! Yet what could I say, what could I do?"

"Just tell me all about it," I urged. "What were the Inspector's questions?"

"Well," explained the girl, "he had evidently learned from someone, presumably one of the servants, that there was enmity between Mr. Camber and Colonel Menendez. He asked me if I knew of this, and of course I had to admit that I did. But when I told him that I had no idea of its cause, he did not seem to believe me."

"No," I murmured. "Any evidence which fails to dove-tail with his preconceived theories he puts down as a lie."

"He seemed to have made up his mind for some reason," she continued, "that I was intimately acquainted with Mr. Camber. Whereas, of course, I have never spoken to him in my life, although whenever he has passed me in the road he has always saluted me with quite delightful courtesy. Oh, Mr. Knox, it is horrible to think of this great misfortune coming to those poor people." She looked at me pleadingly. "How did his wife take it?"

"Poor little girl," I replied, "it was an awful blow."

"I feel that I want to set out this very minute," declared Val Beverley, "and go to her, and try to comfort her. Because I feel in my very soul that her husband is innocent. She is such a sweet little thing. I have wanted to speak to her since the very first time I ever saw her, but on the rare occasions when we have met in the village she has hurried past as though she were afraid of me. Mr. Harley surely knows that her husband is not guilty?"

"I think he does," I replied, "but he may have great difficulty in proving it. And what else did Inspector Aylesbury wish to know?"

"How can I tell you?" she said in a low voice; and biting her lip agitatedly she turned her head aside.

"Perhaps I can guess."

"Can you?" she asked, looking at me quickly. "Well, then, he seemed to attach a ridiculous importance to the fact that I had not retired last night at the time of the tragedy."

"I know," said I, grimly. "Another preconceived idea of his."

"I told him the truth of the matter, which is surely quite simple, and at first I was unable to understand the nature of his suspicions. Then, after a time, his questions enlightened me. He finally suggested, quite openly, that I had not come down from my room to the corridor in which Madame de Staemer was lying, but had actually been there at the time!"

"In the corridor outside her room?"

"Yes. He seemed to think that I had just come in from the door near the end of the east wing and beside the tower, which opens into the shrubbery."

"That you had just come in?" I exclaimed. "He thinks, then, that you had been out in the grounds?"

Val Beverley's face had been very pale, but now she flushed indignantly, and glanced away from me as she replied:

"He dared to suggest that I had been to keep an assignation."

"The fool!" I cried. "The ignorant, impudent fool!"

"Oh," she declared, "I felt quite ill with indignation. I am afraid I may regard Inspector Aylesbury as an enemy from now onward, for when I had recovered from the shock I told him very plainly what I thought about his intellect, or lack of it."

"I am glad you did," I said, warmly. "Before Inspector Aylesbury is through with this business I fancy he will know more about his limitations than he knows at present. The fact of the matter is that he is badly out of his depth, but is not man enough to acknowledge the fact even to himself."

She smiled at me pathetically.

"Whatever should I have done if I had been alone?" she said.

I was tempted to direct the conversation into a purely personal channel, but common sense prevailed, and:

"Is Madame de Staemer awake?" I asked.

"Yes." The girl nodded. "Dr. Rolleston is with her now."

"And does she know?"

"Yes. She sent for me directly she awoke, and asked me."

"And you told her?"

"How could I do otherwise? She was quite composed, wonderfully composed; and the way she heard the news was simply heroic. But here is Dr. Rolleston, coming now."

I glanced along the corridor, and there was the physician approaching briskly.

"Good morning, Mr. Knox," he said.

"Good morning, doctor. I hear that your patient is much improved?"

"Wonderfully so," he answered. "She has enough courage for ten men. She wishes to see you, Mr. Knox, and to hear your account of the tragedy."

"Do you think it would be wise?"

"I think it would be best."

"Do you hold any hope of her permanently recovering the use of her limbs?"

Dr. Rolleston shook his head doubtfully.

"It may have only been temporary," he replied. "These obscure nervous affections are very fickle. It is unsafe to make predictions. But mentally, at least, she is quite restored from the effects of last night's shock. You need apprehend no hysteria or anything of that nature, Mr. Knox."

"Oh, I see," exclaimed a loud voice behind us.

We all three turned, and there was Inspector Aylesbury crossing the hall in our direction.

"Good morning, Dr. Rolleston," he said, deliberately ignoring my presence. "I hear that your patient is quite well again this morning?"

"She is much improved," returned the physician, dryly.

"Then I can get her testimony, which is most important to my case?"

"She is somewhat better. If she cares to see you I do not forbid the interview."

"Oh, that's good of you, doctor." He bowed to Miss Beverley. "Perhaps, Miss, you would ask Madame de Staemer to see me for a few minutes."

Val Beverley looked at me appealingly then shrugged her shoulders, turned aside, and walked in the direction of Madame de Staemer's door.

"Well," said Dr. Rolleston, in his brisk way, shaking me by the hand, "I must be getting along. Good morning, Mr. Knox. Good morning, Inspector Aylesbury."

He walked rapidly out to his waiting car. The presence of Inspector Aylesbury exercised upon Dr. Rolleston a similar effect to that which a red rag has upon a bull. As he took his departure, the Inspector drew out his pocket-book, and, humming gently to himself, began to consult certain entries therein, with a portentous air of reflection which would have been funny if it had not been so irritating.

Thus we stood when Val Beverley returned, and:

"Madame de Staemer will see you, Inspector Aylesbury," she said, "but wishes Mr. Knox to be present at the interview."

"Oh," said the Inspector, lowering his chin, "I see. Oh, very well."