Chapter XVI. The Intruder
 

"D----!" exclaimed Bruce Wright.

He stood in the great porch at Harkings, his finger on the electric bell. No sound came in response to the pressure, nor any one to open the door. Thus he had stood for fully ten minutes listening in vain for any sound within the house. All was still as death. He began to think that the bell was out of order. He had forgotten Hartley Parrish's insistence on quiet. All bells at Harkings rang, discreetly muted, in the servants' hall.

He stepped out of the porch on to the drive. The weather had improved and, under a freshening wind, the country was drying up. As he reached the hard gravel, he heard footsteps, Bude appeared, his collar turned up, his swallow-tails floating in the wind.

"Now, be off with you!" he cried as soon as he caught sight of the trim figure in the grey overcoat; "how many more of ye have I to tell there's nothing for you to get here! Go on, get out before I put the dog on you!"

He waved an imperious hand at Bruce.

"Hullo, Bude," said the boy, "you've grown very inhospitable all of a sudden!"

"God bless my soul if it isn't young Mr. Wright!" exclaimed the butler. "And I thought it was another of those dratted reporters. It's been ring, ring, ring the whole blessed morning, sir, you can believe me, as if they owned the place, wanting to interview me and Mr. Jeekes and Miss Trevert and the Lord knows who else. Lot of interfering busybodies, I call 'em! I'd shut up all noospapers by law if I had my way ..."

"Is Mr. Jeekes here, Bude?" asked Bruce.

"He's gone off to London in the car, sir ... But won't you come in, Mr. Wright? If you wouldn't mind coming in by the side door. I have to keep the front door closed to shut them scribbling fellows out. One of them had the face to ask me to let him into the library to take a photograph ..."

He led the way round the side of the house to the glass door in the library corridor.

"This is a sad business, Bude!" said Bruce.

"Ah, indeed, it is, sir," he sighed. "He had his faults had Mr. Parrish, as well you know, Mr. Wright. But he was an open-handed gentleman, that I will say, and we'll all miss him at Harkings ..."

They were now in the corridor. Bude jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

"It was in there they found him," he said in a low voice, "with a hole plumb over the heart."

His voice sank to a whisper. "There's blood on the carpet!" he added impressively.

"I should like just to take a peep at the room, Bude," ventured the boy, casting a sidelong glance at the butler.

"Can't be done, sir," said Bude, shaking his head; "orders of Detective-Inspector Manderton. The police is very strict, Mr. Wright, sir!"

"There seems to be no one around just now, Bude," the young man wheedled. "There can't be any harm in my just going in for a second?..."

"Go in you should, Mr. Wright, sir," said the butler genially, "if I had my way. But the door's locked. And, what's more, the police have the key."

"Is the detective anywhere about?" asked Bruce.

"No, sir," answered Bude. "He's gone off to town, too! And he don't expect to be back before the inquest. That's for Toosday!"

"But isn't there another key anywhere?" persisted the boy.

"No, sir," said Bude positively, "there isn't but the one. And that's in Mr. Manderton's vest pocket!"

Young Wright wrinkled his brow in perplexity. He was very young, but he had a fine strain of perseverance in him. He was not nearly at the end of his resources, he told himself.

"Well, then," he said suddenly, "I'm going outside to have a look through the window. I remember you can see into the library from the path round the house!"

He darted out, the butler, protesting, lumbering along behind him.

"Mr. Wright," he panted as he ran, "you didn't reelly ought ... If any one should come ..."

But Bruce Wright was already at the window. The butler found him leaning on the sill, peering with an air of frightened curiosity into the empty room.

"The glazier from Stevenish"--Bude's voice breathed the words hoarsely in Wright's ear--"is coming to-morrow morning to put the window in. He wouldn't come to-day, him being a chapel-goer and religious. It was there we found poor Mr. Parrish--d'you see, sir, just between the window and the desk!"

But Bruce Wright did not heed him. His eyes were fixed on the big writing-desk, on the line of black japanned letter-trays set out in orderly array. Outside, the short winter afternoon was drawing in fast, and the light was failing. Dusky shadows within the library made it difficult to distinguish objects clearly.

A voice close at hand cried out sharply:

"Mr. Bude! Mr. Bu-u-ude!"

"They're calling me!" whispered the butler in his ear with a tug at his sleeve; "come away, sir!"

But Bruce shook him off. He heard the man's heavy tread on the gravel, then a door slam.

How dark the room was growing, to be sure! Strain his eyes as he might, he could not get a clear view of the contents of the letter-trays on the desk. But their high backs hid their contents from his eyes. Even when he hoisted himself on to the window-sill he could not get a better view.

He dropped back on to the gravel path and listened. The wind soughed sadly in the bare tree-tops, somewhere in the distance a dog barked hoarsely, insistently; otherwise not a sound was to be heard. He cast a cautious glance round the side of the house. The glass door was shut; the lamp in the corridor had not been lit.

Hoisting himself up to the window-sill again, he crooked one knee on the rough edge and thrusting one arm through the broken pane of glass, unbolted the window. Then, steadying himself with one hand, with the other he very gently pushed up the window, threw his legs across the sill, and dropped into the library. Very deliberately, he turned and pushed the window softly down behind him.

Some unconscious prompting, perhaps an unfamiliar surface beneath his feet, made him look down. Where his feet rested on the mole-grey carpet a wide dark patch stood out from the delicate shade of the rug. For a moment a spasm of physical nausea caught him.

"How beastly!" he whispered to himself and took a step towards the desk.

Hartley Parrish's desk was arranged just as he always remembered it to have been. All the letter-trays save one were empty. In that was a little pile of papers held down by a massive marble paper-weight. Quickly he stepped round the desk.

He had put out his hand to lift the weight when there was a gentle rattle at the door.

Bruce Wright wheeled instantly round, back to the desk, to face the door, which, in the gathering dusk, was now but a squarer patch of darkness among the shadows at the far end of the library. He stood absolutely still, rooted to the spot, his heart thumping so fast that, in that silent room, he could hear the rapid beats.

Some one was unlocking the library door. As realization came to the boy, he tiptoed rapidly round the desk, the sound of his feet muffled by the heavy pile carpet, and reached the window. There was a click as the lock of the door was shot back. Without further hesitation Bruce stepped behind the long curtains which fell from the top of the window to the floor.

The curtains, of some heavy grey material, were quite opaque. Bruce realized, with a sinking heart, that he must depend on his ears to discover the identity of this mysterious interloper. He dared not look out from his hiding-place--at least not until he could be sure that the newcomer had his back to the window. He remained, rigid and vigilant, straining his ears to catch the slightest sound, scarcely daring to breathe.

He heard the door open, heard it softly close again. Then ... silence. Not another sound. The boy remembered the heavy pile carpet and cursed his luck. He would have to risk a peep round the curtains. But not yet! He must wait ...

A very slight rustling, a faint prolonged rustling, caught his ear. It came nearer, then stopped. There was a little rattling noise from somewhere close at hand, a small clinking sound.

Then silence fell again.

The wind whooshed sadly round the house, the window clattered dismally in its frame, the curtains tugged fretfully before the cold breeze which blew in at the broken pane. But the silence in the room was absolute.

It began to oppress the boy. It frightened him. He felt an uncontrollable desire to look out into the room and establish the identity of the mysterious entrant. He glided his hand towards the window-frame in the hope that he might find a chink between curtain and wall through which he might risk a peep into the room. But the curtain was fastened to the wall.

The room was almost entirely dark now. Only behind him was a patch of grey light where the lowering evening sky was framed in the window. He began to draw the curtain very slowly towards him, at the same time leaning to the right. Very cautiously he applied one eye to the edge of the curtain.

As he did so a bright light struck him full in the face. It streamed full from a lamp on the desk and almost blinded him. It was a reading-lamp and the bulb had been turned up so as to throw a beam on the curtain behind which the boy was sheltering.

Behind the desk, straining back in terror, stood a slim, girlish figure. The details of her dress were lost in the gathering shadows, but her face stood out in the gloom, a pale oval. Bruce could see the dark line made by the lashes on her cheek.

At the sight of her, he stepped boldly forth from his hiding-place, shielding his eyes from the light with his hand.

"It's Bruce Wright, Miss Trevert," he said, "don't you remember me?"