Chapter XXVIII. My Theory of the Crime
 

The afternoon was well advanced before Paul Harley returned.

So deep was my conviction that I had hit upon the truth, and so well did my theory stand every test which I could apply to it, that I felt disinclined for conversation with any one concerned in the tragedy until I should have submitted the matter to the keen analysis of Harley. Upon the sorrow of Madame de Staemer I naturally did not intrude, nor did I seek to learn if she had carried out her project of looking upon the dead man.

About mid-day the body was removed, after which an oppressive and awesome stillness seemed to descend upon Cray's Folly.

Inspector Aylesbury had not returned from his investigations at the Guest House, and learning that Miss Beverley was remaining with Madame de Staemer, I declined to face the ordeal of a solitary luncheon in the dining room, and merely ate a few sandwiches, walking over to the Lavender Arms for a glass of Mrs. Wootton's excellent ale.

Here I found the bar-parlour full of local customers, and although a heated discussion was in progress as I opened the door, silence fell upon my appearance. Mrs. Wootton greeted me sadly.

"Ah, sir," she said, as she placed a mug before me; "of course you've heard?"

"I have, madam," I replied, perceiving that she did not know me to be a guest at Cray's Folly.

"Well, well!" She shook her head. "It had to come, with all these foreign folk about."

She retired to some sanctum at the rear of the bar, and I drank my beer amid one of those silences which sometimes descend upon such a gathering when a stranger appears in its midst. Not until I moved to depart was this silence broken, then:

"Ah, well," said an old fellow, evidently a farm-hand, "we know now why he was priming of hisself with the drink, we do."

"Aye!" came a growling chorus.

I came out of the Lavender Arms full of a knowledge that so far as Mid- Hatton was concerned, Colin Camber was already found guilty.

I had hoped to see something of Val Beverley on my return, but she remained closeted with Madame de Staemer, and I was left in loneliness to pursue my own reflections, and to perfect that theory which had presented itself to my mind.

In Harley's absence I had taken it upon myself to give an order to Pedro to the effect that no reporters were to be admitted; and in this I had done well. So quickly does evil news fly that, between mid-day and the hour of Harley's return, no fewer than five reporters, I believe, presented themselves at Cray's Folly. Some of the more persistent continued to haunt the neighbourhood, and I had withdrawn to the deserted library, in order to avoid observation, when I heard a car draw up in the courtyard, and a moment later heard Harley asking for me.

I hurried out to meet him, and as I appeared at the door of the library:

"Hullo, Knox," he called, running up the steps. "Any developments?"

"No actual development?" I replied, "except that several members of the Press have been here."

"You told them nothing?" he asked, eagerly.

"No; they were not admitted."

"Good, good," he muttered.

"I had expected you long before this, Harley."

"Naturally," he said, with a sort of irritation. "I have been all the way to Whitehall and back."

"To Whitehall! What, you have been to London?"

"I had half anticipated it, Knox. The Chief Constable, although quite a decent fellow, is a stickler for routine. On the strength of those facts which I thought fit to place before him he could see no reason for superseding Aylesbury. Accordingly, without further waste of time, I headed straight for Whitehall. You may remember a somewhat elaborate report which I completed upon the eve of our departure from Chancery Lane?"

I nodded.

"A very thankless job for the Home Office, Knox. But I received my reward to-day. Inspector Wessex has been placed in charge of the case and I hope he will be down here within the hour. Pending his arrival I am tied hand and foot."

We had walked into the library, and, stopping, suddenly, Harley stared me very hard in the face.

"You are bottling something up, Knox," he declared. "Out with it. Has Aylesbury distinguished himself again?"

"No," I replied; "on the contrary. He interviewed Madame de Staemer, and came out with a flea in his ear."

"Good," said Harley, smiling. "A clever woman, and a woman of spirit, Knox."

"You are right," I replied, "and you are also right in supposing that I have a communication to make to you."

"Ah, I thought so. What is it?"

"It is a theory, Harley, which appears to me to cover the facts of the case."

"Indeed?" said he, continuing to stare at me. "And what inspired it?"

"I was staring up at the window of the smoke-room to-day, and I remembered the shadow which you had seen upon the blind."

"Yes?" he cried, eagerly; "and does your theory explain that, too?"

"It does, Harley."

"Then I am all anxiety to hear it."

"Very well, then, I will endeavour to be brief. Do you recollect Miss Beverley's story of the unfamiliar footsteps which passed her door on several occasions?"

"Perfectly."

"You recollect that you, yourself, heard someone crossing the hall, and that both of us heard a door close?"

"We did."

"And finally you saw the shadow of a woman upon the blind of the Colonel's private study. Very well. Excluding the preposterous theory of Inspector Aylesbury, there is no woman in Cray's Folly whose footsteps could possibly have been heard in that corridor, and whose shadow could possibly have been seen upon the blind of Colonel Menendez's room."

"I agree," said Harley, quietly. "I have definitely eliminated all the servants from the case. Therefore, proceed, Knox, I am all attention."

"I will do so. There is a door on the south side of the house, close to the tower and opening into the rhododendron shrubbery. This was the door used by Colonel Menendez in his somnambulistic rambles, according to his own account. Now, assuming his statement to have been untrue in one particular, that is, assuming he was not walking in his sleep, but was fully awake--"

"Eh?" exclaimed Harley, his expression undergoing a subtle change. "Do you think his statement was untrue?"

"According to my theory, Harley, his statement was untrue, in this particular, at least. But to proceed: Might he not have employed this door to admit a nocturnal visitor?"

"It is feasible," muttered Harley, watching me closely.

"For the Colonel to descend to this side door when the household was sleeping," I continued, "and to admit a woman secretly to Cray's Folly, would have been a simple matter. Indeed, on the occasions of these visits he might even have unbolted the door himself after Pedro had bolted it, in order to enable her to enter without his descending for the purpose of admitting her."

"By heavens! Knox," said Harley, "I believe you have it!"

His eyes were gleaming excitedly, and I proceeded:

"Hence the footsteps which passed Miss Beverley's door, hence the shadow which you saw upon the blind; and the sounds which you detected in the hall were caused, of course, by this woman retiring. It was the door leading into the shrubbery which we heard being closed!"

"Continue," said Harley; "although I can plainly see to what this is leading."

"You can see, Harley?" I cried; "of course you can see! The enmity between Camber and Menendez is understandable at last."

"You mean that Menendez was Mrs. Camber's lover?"

"Don't you agree with me?"

"It is feasible, Knox, dreadfully feasible. But go on."

"My theory also explains Colin Camber's lapse from sobriety. It is legitimate to suppose that his wife, who was a Cuban, had been intimate with Menendez before her meeting with Camber. Perhaps she had broken the tie at the time of her marriage, but this is mere supposition. Then, her old lover, his infatuation by no means abated, leases the property adjoining that of his successful rival."

"Knox!" exclaimed Paul Harley, "this is brilliant. I am all impatience for the denouement."

"It is coming," I said, triumphantly. "Relations are reestablished, clandestinely. Colin Camber learns of these. A passionate quarrel ensues, resulting in a long drinking bout designed to drown his sorrows. His love for his wife is so great that he has forgiven her this infidelity. Accordingly, she has promised to see her lover no more. Hers was the figure which you saw outlined upon the blind on the night before the tragedy, Harley! The gestures, which you described as those of despair, furnish evidence to confirm my theory. It was a final meeting!"

"Hm," muttered Harley. "It would be taking big chances, because we have to suppose, Knox, that these visits to Cray's Folly were made whilst her husband was at work in the study. If he had suddenly decided to turn in, all would have been discovered."

"True," I agreed, "but is it impossible?"

"No, not a bit. Women are dreadful gamblers. But continue, Knox."

"Very well. Colonel Menendez has refused to accept his dismissal, and Mrs. Camber had been compelled to promise, without necessarily intending to carry out the promise, that she would see him again on the following night. She failed to come; whereupon he, growing impatient, walked out into the grounds of Cray's Folly to look for her. She may even have intended to come and have been intercepted by her husband. But in any event, the latter, seeing the man who had wronged him, standing out there in the moonlight, found temptation to be too strong. On the whole, I favour the idea that he had intercepted his wife, and snatching up a rifle, had actually gone out into the garden with the intention of shooting Menendez."

"I see," murmured Harley in a low voice. "This hypothesis, Knox, does not embrace the Bat Wing episodes."

"If Menendez has lied upon one point," I returned, "it is permissible to suppose that his entire story was merely a tissue of falsehood."

"I see. But why did he bring me to Cray's Folly?"

"Don't you understand, Harley?" I cried, excitedly. "He really feared for his life, since he knew that Camber had discovered the intrigue."

Paul Harley heaved a long sigh.

"I must congratulate you, Knox," he said, gravely, "upon a really splendid contribution to my case. In several particulars I find myself nearer to the truth. But the definite establishment or shattering of your theory rests upon one thing."

"What's that?" I asked. "You are surely not thinking of the bat wing nailed upon the door?"

"Not at all," he replied. "I am thinking of the seventh yew tree from the northeast corner of the Tudor garden."