Chapter VI. The Letter
 

The great drawing-room of Harkings was ablaze with light. The cluster of lights in the heavy crystal chandelier and the green-shaded electric lamps in their gilt sconces on the plain white-panelled walls coldly lit up the formal, little-used room with its gilt furniture, painted piano, and huge marble fireplace.

This glittering Louis Seize environment seemed altogether too much for the homely Inspector. Whilst waiting for Mary Trevert to come to him, he tried several attitudes in turn. The empty hearth frightened him away from the mantelpiece, the fragile appearance of a gilt settee decided him against risking his sixteen stone weight on its silken cushions, and the vastness of the room overawed him when he took up his position in the centre of the Aubusson carpet. Finally he selected an ornate chair, rather more solid-looking than the rest, which he drew up to a small table on the far side of the room. There he sat down, his large red hands spread out upon his knees in an attitude of singular embarrassment.

But Mary Trevert set him quickly at his ease when presently she came to him. She was pale, but quite self-possessed. Indeed, the effort she had made to regain her self-control was so marked that it would have scarcely escaped the attention of the Inspector, even if he had not had a brief vision of her as she had stood for that instant at the library door, pale, distraught, and trembling. He was astonished to find her cool, collected, almost business-like in the way she sat down, motioned him to his seat, and expressed her readiness to tell him all she knew.

The phrases he had been laboriously preparing--"This has been a bad shock for you, ma'am"; "You will forgive me, I'm sure, ma'am, for calling upon you at a moment such as this"--died away on his lips as Mary Trevert said:

"Ask me any questions you wish, Inspector. I will tell you everything I can."

"That's very good of you, ma'am, I'm sure," answered the Inspector, unstrapping his notebook, "and I'll try and not detain you long. Now, then, tell me what you know of this sad affair ..."

Mary Trevert plucked an instant nervously at her little cambric handerchief in her lap. Then she said:

"I went to the library from the billiard-room ..."

"A moment," interposed the Inspector. "What time was that?"

"A little after five. The tea gong had gone some time. I was going to the library to tell Mr. Parrish that tea was ready ..."

Mr. Humphries made a note. He nodded to show he was listening.

"I crossed the hall and went down the library corridor. I knocked on the library door. There was no reply. Then I heard a shot and a sort of thud."

Despite her effort to remain calm, the girl's voice shook a little. She made a little helpless gesture of her hands. A diamond ring she was wearing on her finger caught the light and blazed for an instant.

"Then I got frightened. I ran back along the corridor to the lounge where the others were and told them."

"When you knocked at the door, you say there was no reply. I suppose, now, you tried the handle first."

"Oh, yes ..."

"Then Mr. Parrish would have heard the two sounds? The turning of the handle and then the knocking on the door? That's so, isn't it?"

"Yes, I suppose so ..."

"Yet you say there was no reply?"

"No. None at all."

The Inspector jotted a word or two in his notebook as it lay open flat upon the table.

"The shot, then, was fired immediately after you had knocked? Not while you were knocking?"

"No. I knocked and waited, expecting Mr. Parrish to answer. Instead of him answering, there came this shot ..."

"I see. And after the shot was fired there was a crash?"

"A sort of thud--like something heavy falling down."

"And you heard no groan or cry?"

The girl knit her brows for a moment.

"I ... I ... was frightened by the shot. I ... I ... don't seem able to remember what happened afterwards. Let me think ... let me think ..."

"There, there," said the Inspector paternally, "don't upset yourself like this. Just try and think what happened after you heard the shot fired ..."

Mary Trevert shuddered, one slim white hand pressed against her cheek.

"I do remember now," she said, "there was a cry. It was more like a sharp exclamation ..."

"And then you heard this crash?"

"Yes ..."

The girl had somewhat regained her self-possession. She dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief quickly as though ashamed of her weakness.

"Now," said Humphries, clearing his throat, as though to indicate that the conversation had changed, "you and Lady Margaret Trevert knew Mr. Parrish pretty well, I believe, Miss Trevert. Have you any idea why he should have done this thing?"

Mary Trevert shook her dark head rather wearily.

"It is inconceivable to me ... to all of us," she answered.

"Do you happen to know whether Mr. Parrish had any business worries?"

"He always had a great deal of business on hand and he has had a great deal to do lately over some big deal."

"What was it, do you know?"

"He was raising fresh capital for Hornaway's--that is the big engineering firm he controls ..."

"Do you know if he was pleased with the way things were shaping?"

"Oh, yes. He told me last night that everything would be finished this week. He seemed quite satisfied."

The Inspector paused to make a note.

Then he thrust a hand into the side-pocket of his tunic and produced Hartley Parrish's letter.

"This," he said, eyeing the girl as he handed her the letter, "may throw some light on the affair!"

Open-eyed, a little surprised, she took the plain white envelope from his hand and gazed an instant without speaking, on the bold sprawling address--

"Miss Mary Trevert."

"Open it, please," said the Inspector gently.

The girl tore open the envelope. Humphries saw her eyes fill, watched the emotion grip her and shake her in her self-control so that she could not speak when, her reading done, she gave him back the letter.

Without asking her permission, he took the sheet of fine, expensive paper with its neat engraved heading and postal directions, and read Hartley Parrish's last message.

My dear [it ran], I signed my will at Bardy's office yesterday, and he sent it back to me to-day. Just this line to let you know you are properly provided for should anything happen to me. I wanted to fix things so that you and Lady Margaret would not have to worry any more. I just had to write. I guess you understand why.

H.

There was a long and impressive silence while the Inspector deliberately read the note. Then he looked interrogatively at the girl.

"We were engaged, Inspector," she said. "We were to have been married very soon."

A deep flush crept slowly over Mr. Humphries's florid face and spread into the roots of his tawny fair hair.

"But what does he mean by 'having to write'?" he asked.

The girl replied hastily, her eyes on the ground.

"Mr. Parrish was under the impression that ... that ... without his money I should not have cared for him. That is what he means ..."

"You knew he had provided for you in his will?"

"He told me several times that he intended to leave me everything. You see, he has no relatives!"

"I see!" said the Inspector in a reflective voice.

"Had he any enemies, do you know? Anybody who would drive him to a thing like this?"

The girl shook her head vehemently.

"No!"

The monosyllable came out emphatically. Again the Inspector darted one of his quick, shrewd glances at the girl. She met his scrutiny with her habitual serene and candid gaze. The Inspector dropped his eyes and scribbled in his book.

"Was his health good?"

"He smoked far too much," the girl said, "and it made him rather nervy. But otherwise he never had a day's illness in his life."

Humphries ran his eye over the notes he had made.

"There is just one more question I should like to ask you, Miss Trevert," he said, "rather a personal question."

Mary Trevert's hands twisted the cambric handkerchief into a little ball and slowly unwound it again. But her face remained quite calm.

"About your engagement to Mr. Parrish ... when did it take place?"

"Some days ago. It has not yet been announced."

The Inspector coughed.

"I was only wondering whether, perhaps, Mr. Parrish was not quite ... whether he was, maybe, a little disturbed in his mind about the engagement ..."

The girl hesitated. Then she said firmly:

"Mr. Parrish was perfectly happy about it. He was looking forward to our being married in the spring."

Mr. Humphries shut his notebook with a snap and rose to his feet.

"Thank you very much, ma'am," he said with a little formal bow. "If you will excuse me now. I have the doctor to see again and there's the Coroner to be warned ..."

He bowed again and tramped towards the door with a tread that made the chandelier tinkle melodiously.

The door closed behind him and his heavy footsteps died away along the corridor. Mary Trevert had risen to her feet calm and impassive. But when he had gone, her bosom began to heave and a spasm of pain shot across her face. Again the tears welled up in her eyes, brimmed over and stole down her cheeks.

"If I only knew!" she sobbed, "if I only knew!"