Chapter XIV. A Sheet of Blue Paper
 

The sight of that crumpled ball of slatey-blue paper brought back to Robin's mind with astonishing vividness every detail of the scene in the library. Once more he looked into Hartley Parrish's staring, unseeing eyes, saw the firelight gleam again on the heavy gold signet ring on the dead man's hand, the tag of the dead man's bootlace as it trailed from one sprawling foot across the carpet. Once more he felt the dark cloud of the mystery envelop him as a mist and with a little sigh he smoothed out the crumpled paper.

It was an ordinary quarto sheet of stoutish paper, with a glazed surface, of an unusual shade of blue, darker than what the stationers call "azure," yet lighter than legal blue. At the top right-hand corner was typewritten a date: "Nov. 25." Otherwise the sheet was blank.

The curious thing about it was that a number of rectangular slits had been cut in the paper. Robin counted them. There were seven. They were of varying sizes, the largest a little over an inch, the smallest not more than a quarter of an inch, in length. In depth they measured about an eighth of an inch.

Robin stared at the paper uncomprehendingly. He remembered perfectly where he had found it on the floor of the library at Harkings, between the dead body and the waste-paper basket. The basket, he recalled, stood out in the open just clear of the desk on the left-hand side. From the position in which it was lying the ball of paper might have been aimed for the waste-paper basket and, missing it, have fallen on the carpet.

Robin turned the sheet over. The back was blank. Then he held the paper up to the light. Yes, there was a water-mark. Now it was easily discernible. "EGMONT FF. QU." he made out.

The train was slowing down. Robin glanced out of the window and saw that they were crossing the river in the mirky gloom of a London winter Sunday. He balanced the sheet of paper in his hands for a moment. Then he folded it carefully into four and stowed it away in his cigarette-case. The next moment the train thumped its way into Charing Cross.

A taxi deposited him at the Middle Temple Gate. He walked the short distance to the set of chambers he occupied. On his front door a piece of paper was pinned. By the rambling calligraphy and the phonetic English he recognized the hand of his "laundress."

Dere sir [it ran], mr rite call he want to see u pertikler i tole im as you was in country & give im ur adress hope i dun rite mrs bragg

Robin had scarcely got his key in the door of his "oak" when there was a step on the stair. A nice-looking young man with close-cropped fair hair appeared round the turn of the staircase.

"Hullo, Robin," he exclaimed impetuously, "I am glad to have caught you like this. Your woman gave me your address, so I rang up Harkings at once and they told me you had just gone back to town. So I came straight here. You remember me, don't you? Bruce Wright ... But perhaps I'm butting in. If you'd rather see me some other time...."

"My dear boy," said Robin, motioning him into the flat, "of course I remember you. Only I didn't recognize you just for the minute. Shove your hat down here in the hall. And as for butting in,"--he threw open the door of the living-room,--"why! I think there is no other man in England I would so gladly see at this very moment as yourself."

The living-room was a bright and cheery place, tastefully furnished in old oak with gay chintz curtains. It looked out on an old-world paved court in the centre of which stood a solitary soot-laden plane-tree.

"What's this rot about Parrish having committed suicide?" demanded the boy abruptly.

Robin gave him in the briefest terms an outline of the tragedy.

"Poor old H.P., eh?" mused young Wright; "who'd have thought it?"

"But the idea of suicide is preposterous," he broke out suddenly. "I knew Parrish probably better than anybody. He would never have done a thing like that. It must have been an accident...."

Robin shook his head.

"That possibility is ruled out by the medical evidence," he said, and stopped short.

Bruce Wright, who had been pacing up and down the room, halted in front of the barrister.

"I tell you that Parrish was not the man to commit suicide. Nothing would have even forced him to take his own life. You know, I was working with him as his personal secretary every day for more than two years, and I am sure!"

He resumed his pacing up and down the room.

"Has it ever occurred to you, Robin," he said presently, "that practically nothing is known of H.P.'s antecedents? For instance, do you know where he was born?"

"I understand he was a Canadian," replied Robin with a shrewd glance at the flushed face of the boy.

"He's lived in Canada," said Wright, "but originally he was a Cockney, from the London slums. And I believe I am the only person who knows that...."

Robin pushed an armchair at his companion.

"Sit down and tell me about it," he commanded.

The boy dropped into the chair.

"It was after I had been only a few months with him," he began, "shortly after I was discharged from the army with that lung wound of mine. We were driving back in the car from some munition works near Baling, and the chauffeur took a wrong turning near Wormwood Scrubs and got into a maze of dirty streets round there...."

"I know," commented Robin, "Notting Dale, they call it...."

"H.P. wasn't noticing much," Wright went on, "as he was dictating letters to me,--we used to do a lot of work in the Rolls-Royce in those rush days,--but, directly he noticed that the chauffeur was uncertain of the road, he shoved his head out of the window and put him right at once. I suppose I seemed surprised at his knowing his way about those parts, for he laughed at me and said: 'I was born and brought up down here, Bruce, in a little greengrocer's shop just off the Latimer Road.' I said nothing because I didn't want to interrupt his train of thought. He had never talked to me or Jeekes or any of us like that before.

"'By Gad,' he went on, 'how the smell of the place brings back those days to me--the smell of decayed fruit, of stale fish, of dirt! Why, it seems like yesterday that Victor Marbran and I used to drive round uncle's cart with vegetables and coal. What a life to escape from, Bruce, my boy! Gad, you can count yourself lucky!'

"He was like a man talking to himself. I asked him how he had broken away from it all. At that he laughed, a bitter, hard sort of laugh. 'By having the guts to break away from it, boy,' he said. 'It was I who made Victor Marbran come away with me. We worked our passages out to the Cape and made our way up-country to Matabeleland. That was in the early days of Rhodes and Barney Barnato--long before I went to Canada. I made Victor's fortune for him and mine as well. But I made more than Victor and he never forgave me. He'd do me a bad turn if he could ...'

"Then he broke off short and went on with his dictating ..."

"Did he ever come back to this phase of his life?"

"Only when we got out of the car that morning. He said to me: 'Forget what I told you to-day, young fellow. Never rake up a man's past!' And he never mentioned the subject again. Of course, I didn't either ..."

Stretched full length in his chair, his eyes fixed on the ceiling, Robin remained lost in thought.

"The conversation came back to me to-day," said the boy, "when I read of Parrish's death. And I wondered ..."

"Well?"

"Whether the secret of his death may not be found somewhere in his adventurous past. You see he said that Victor Marbran was an enemy. Then there was something else. I never told you--when you took all that trouble to get me another job after Parrish had sacked me--the exact reason for my dismissal. You never asked me either. That was decent of you, Robin ..."

"I liked you, Bruce," said Robin shortly.

"Well, I'll tell you now," he said. "When I joined H.P.'s staff after I got out of the Army, I was put under old Jeekes, of course, to learn the work. One of the first injunctions he gave me was with regard to Mr. Parrish's letters. I suppose you know more or less how secretaries of a big business man like Hartley Parrish work. They open all letters, lay the important ones before the big man for him to deal with personally, make a digest of the others or deal with them direct ..."

Robin nodded.

"Well," the boy resumed, "the first thing old Jeekes told me was that letters arriving in a blue envelope and marked 'Personal' were never to be opened ..."

"In a blue envelope?" echoed Robin quickly.

"Yes, a particular kind of blue--a sort of slatey-blue--Jeekes showed me one as a guide. Well, these letters were to be handed to Mr. Parrish unopened."

Robin had stood up.

"That's odd," he said, diving in his pocket.

"I say, hold on a bit," protested the boy, "this is really rather important what I am telling you. I'll never finish if you keep on interrupting."

"Sorry, Bruce," said Robin, and sat down again.

But he began to play restlessly with his cigarette case which he had drawn from his pocket.

"Well, of course," Bruce resumed, "I wasn't much of a private secretary really, and one day I forgot all about this injunction. Some days old H.P. got as many as three hundred letters. I was alone at Harkings with him, I remember, Jeekes was up at Sheffield and the other secretaries were away ill or something, and in the rush of dealing with this enormous mail I slit one of these blue envelopes open with the rest. I discovered what I had done only after I had got all the letters sorted out, this one with the rest. So I went straight to old H.P. and told him. By Jove!"

"What happened?" said Robin.

"He got into the most paralytic rage," said Bruce. "I have never seen a man in such an absolute frenzy of passion. He went right off the hooks, just like that! He fairly put the wind up me. For a minute I thought he was going to kill me. He snatched the letter out of my hand, called me every name under the sun, and finally shouted: 'You're fired, d'ye hear? I won't employ men who disobey my orders! Get out of this before I do you a mischief! I went straight off. And I never saw him again ..."

Robin Greve looked very serious. But his face displayed no emotion as he asked:

"And what was in the letter for him to make such a fuss about?"

The boy shrugged his shoulders.

"That was the extraordinary part of it. The letter was perfectly harmless. It was an ordinary business letter from a firm in Holland ..."

"In Holland?" cried Greve. "Did you say in Holland? Tell me the name! No, wait, see if I can remember. 'Van' something--'Speck' or 'Spike' ..."

"I remember the name perfectly," answered Bruce, rather puzzled by the other's sudden outburst; "it was Van der Spyck and Co. of Rotterdam. We had a good deal of correspondence with them ..."

Robin Greve had opened his cigarette-case and drawn from it a creased square of blue paper folded twice across. Unfolding it, he held up the sheet he had found in the library at Harkings.

"Is that the paper those letters were written on?" he asked.

Bruce took the sheet from him. He held it up to the light.

"Why, yes," came the prompt answer. "I'd know it in a minute. Look, it's the same water-mark. 'Egmont.' Where did you get hold of it?"

"Bruce," said Robin gravely, without answering the question, "we're getting into deep water, boy!"