Chapter XXVII. An Interruption from Beyond

Sudden frost had laid an icy finger on the gardens of Harkings. The smooth green lawns were all dappled with white and wore a pinched and chilly look save under the big and solemn firs where the ground, warmed by its canopy of branches and coverlet of cones, had thawed in dark patches. The gravel walks were firm and dry; and in the rosery the bare skeleton of the pergolas stood out in clear-cut silhouette against a white and woolly sky.

Overnight the frost had come. It had taken even the birds by surprise. They hopped forlornly about the paths as though wondering where they would get their breakfast. Robin Greve, idly watching them from the library window, found himself contrasting the cheerful winter landscape with the depressing conditions of the previous day. In wind and rain the master of Harkings had been laid to rest in the quiet little churchyard of Stevenish. The ceremony had been arranged in haste, as soon as the coroner's jury had viewed the body. Robin Greve, that morning arrived from Rotterdam, Bude, and Mr. Bardy the solicitor, had been the only mourners. As Robin looked out upon the wintry scene, his mind reverted to the hurried funeral with its depressing accompaniment of gleaming umbrellas, mud from the freshly turned clay, and dripping trees.

Beneath the window of the library, its shattered pane now replaced, a cluster of starlings whistled gaily, darting bright-eyed glances, full of anticipation, at the closed window.

"He used to give them crumbs every morning after breakfast," said Mary. "See, Robin, how they are looking up! It seems a shame to disappoint them...."

As though relieved to be quit of his dark thoughts, Robin, with a glad smile, turned to the girl. Dipping his hand into his pocket, he produced a hunk of bread and put it in her hand.

"You think of everything!" she said, smiling back at him prettily.

He pushed up the window and she crumbled the bread for the birds. He rested one hand on her shoulder.

"He thought of everything, too," was his comment, "even down to the birds. It's extraordinary! No detail was too small for him!..."

"He was remarkable, Robin," answered the girl soberly; "there was something magnetic about his personality that made people like him. Even now that he is dead, even in spite of what we know, I can feel his attraction still. And the whole house is impregnated with his personality. Particularly this room. Don't you feel it? I don't mind being here with you, Robin, but I shouldn't like to be here alone. I was dreadfully frightened on Sunday evening when I came here. And when I saw the curtains move ... oh! I thought my heart would stop beating! Dear, I'm glad we are giving this place up. I don't feel that I could ever be happy here ... even with you!"

"Poor devil!" said Robin. And then again he said: "Poor devil!"

"It was terrible ... to die like that!" replied Mary.

"It was terrible for him to lose you!" answered the young man.

She gave his hand a little, tender squeeze, but relinquished it quickly as the door opened.

Mr. Manderton was there, broad-shouldered and burly. Behind came Dr. Romain with a purple nose and eyes watering with the cold, Horace Trevert in plain clothes, Mr. Bardy, the solicitor, plump, middle-aged, and prim, with a broad, smooth-shaven face and an eyeglass on a black silk riband. In the background loomed the large form of Inspector Humphries, ruddy of cheek as of hair. Lady Margaret did not appear.

Mr. Manderton slapped his bowler hat briskly on a side table and with a little bow to Mary walked to the desk.

"Now," said Mr. Manderton with a long, shrewd look that comprehended the company, individually and collectively, and the entire room, "if Inspector Humphries will kindly close the door, we will reconstruct the crime in the light of the evidence we have collected."

He turned round to the desk and pulled back the chair ... Hartley Parrish's empty chair.

"It is just on five o'clock on Saturday evening, November 27," he began, "and growing dark outside. Mr. Parrish is sitting here"--he tapped the chair--"with all the lights in the room turned off except this one on the desk."

Here he put a large hand on the reading-lamp.

"The assumption that Mr. Parrish spent the afternoon, as he had spent the morning, over papers in connection with the business of Hornaway's in which he was interested is not correct. Mr. Archer, one of Mr. Parrish's secretaries who brought down a number of papers and letters for Mr. Parrish to sign in the morning, states that as far as Hornaway's or any other office business was concerned, Mr. Parrish was through with it by lunch. This is corroborated by the fact that no business papers of this description, with the exception of one, which I am coming to directly, were found on the desk here after Mr. Parrish's death. Nor were there any traces of burnt paper in or about the fire. These two facts were established by my colleague, Inspector Humphries."

At this everybody turned and looked at the Inspector, who blushed until the tint of his hair positively paled by comparison with that of his face.

"What Mr. Archer did leave with Mr. Parrish, however," Mr. Manderton resumed, looking round the group and emphasising the "did," "was his will and this letter ..."--he held up a typewritten sheet of slatey-blue paper--"which, a straightforward business communication in appearance, was in reality a threat against his life. It was with these two documents that Mr. Parrish spent the last few hours before he was found dead in this room. A few odd papers found lying on the desk have nothing to do with the case and may therefore be dismissed."

Mr. Manderton paused and then, with the deliberation which distinguished his every movement, walked round the desk to the window.

"The fire in this room," he said, turning and facing his audience, "was smoking. The butler will testify to this and state that Mr. Parrish complained about it to him with the result that the sweep was ordered for Monday morning. Owing to the smoke in the room Mr. Parrish opened the window. His finger-prints were on the inside of the window-frame and a small fragment of white paint was still adhering to one of his finger-nails.

"The window, then, was open as it is now. Mr. Parrish sat at his desk, read through his will, and wrote a letter to Miss Trevert informing her that, under the will, she was left sole legatee. This letter, with the will, was found on the desk after Mr. Parrish's death. Presumably in view of the threat against his life contained in this letter,"--the detective held up the slatey-blue paper,--"Mr. Parrish had either in his pocket or, as I am more inclined to think, lying on the desk in front of him, his Browning automatic pistol. This pistol was fitted with a Maxim silencer, an invention for suppressing the report of a firearm, which was sent to Mr. Parrish by a friend in America some years ago and which he kept permanently attached to the weapon."

Mr. Manderton came to an impressive full stop and glanced round his circle of listeners. He gave his explanations easily and fluently, but in a plain, matter-of-fact tone such as a police constable employs in the witness-box. He had marshalled his facts well, and his measured advance towards his dénouement was not without its effect on his audience. Dr. Romain, nursing his knee on a leather settee, Horace Trevert, a tall slim figure eagerly watching the detective from his perch on the arm of the Chesterfield, and Robin and Mary, standing, very close together, behind the empty chair at the desk--each and every one was listening with rapt attention. Inspector Humphries, propping his big bulk uneasily against the wall near the door, was the only one who appeared to be oblivious of the strain.

The detective walked round the desk and seated himself in the chair.

"Mr. Parrish is seated at the desk here," he resumed, "when his attention is directed to the window."

And here Mr. Manderton raised his head and looked out towards the frost-strewn gardens.

"Maybe he hears a step, more probably he sees a face staring at him out of the dark. Very much to his surprise he recognizes Jeekes, his principal private secretary--I say to his surprise because he must have believed Jeekes, who had the week-end free, to be in London. And at that, perhaps because he thinks he has made a mistake--in any case to make sure--he gets up...."

The detective suited the action to the word. He pushed back the chair and rose to his feet. They saw he held a large automatic pistol in his hand.

"He has had this threatening letter, remember, so he takes his pistol with him. And he reaches the window ..."

The detective was at the window now, his back to the room.

"He speaks to Jeekes, angrily, maybe--the butler heard the sound of loud voices--they have words. And then ..."

There came a knock at the library door. It was not a loud knock. It was in reality scarcely more than a gentle tap. But it fell upon a silence of Manderton's own creating, a rapt silence following a pause which preceded the climax of his narrative. So the discreet knocking resounded loud and clear through the library.

"Who is that? What is it?" rapped out Dr. Bomain irritably.

"Don't let any one disturb us, Inspector!" called out Horace Trevert to Inspector Humphries, who had opened the door.

Bude's face appeared in the doorway. He had a short altercation with the Inspector, who resolutely interposed his massive form between the butler and the room.

"What is it, Bude?" asked Robin, going to the door.

"It's a letter for Miss Trevert, sir!" said Bude.

"Well, leave it in the hall. Miss Trevert can't be disturbed at present ..."

"But ... but, sir," the butler protested. Then Robin noticed that he was trembling with excitement and that his features were all distraught.

"What's the matter with you, Bude?" Robin demanded.

Humphries had stood on one side and Robin now faced the butler.

"It's a letter from ... that Jeekes!" faltered Bude, holding out a salver. "I know his writing, sir!"

"For Miss Trevert?"

Robin gathered up the plain white envelope. It bore a Dutch stamp. The postmark was Rotterdam. He gave the letter to Mary. It was bulky and heavy.

"For you," he said, and stood beside her while she broke the seal. By this they had all gathered round her.

The envelope fluttered to the floor. Mary was unfolding a wad of sheets of writing-paper folded once across. She glanced at the topmost sheet, then handed the bundle to Robin.

"It's a confession!" she said.

From beyond the grave the little secretary had spoken and spoiled Mr. Manderton's dénouement.