VII. The Man in the Limousine
 

The house of the late Horace Vernon was a modern villa of prosperous appearance; but, on this sunny September morning, a palpable atmosphere of gloom seemed to overlie it. This made itself perceptible even to the toughened and unimpressionable nerves of Inspector Dunbar. As he mounted the five steps leading up to the door, glancing meanwhile at the lowered blinds at the windows, he wondered if, failing these evidences and his own private knowledge of the facts, he should have recognized that the hand of tragedy had placed its mark upon this house. But when the door was opened by a white-faced servant, he told himself that he should, for a veritable miasma of death seemed to come out to meet him, to envelop him.

Within, proceeded a subdued activity: somber figures moved upon the staircase; and Inspector Dunbar, having presented his card, presently found himself in a well-appointed library.

At the table, whereon were spread a number of documents, sat a lean, clean-shaven, sallow-faced man, wearing gold-rimmed pince- nez; a man whose demeanor of business-like gloom was most admirably adapted to that place and occasion. This was Mr. Debnam, the solicitor. He gravely waved the detective to an armchair, adjusted his pince-nez, and coughed, introductorily.

"Your communication, Inspector," he began (he had the kind of voice which seems to be buried in sawdust packing), "was brought to me this morning, and has disturbed me immeasurably, unspeakably."

"You have been to view the body, sir?"

"One of my clerks, who knew Mrs. Vernon, has just returned to this house to report that he has identified her."

"I should have preferred you to have gone yourself, sir," began Dunbar, taking out his notebook.

"My state of health, Inspector," said the solicitor, "renders it undesirable that I should submit myself to an ordeal so unnecessary--so wholly unnecessary."

"Very good!" muttered Dunbar, making an entry in his book; "your clerk, then, whom I can see in a moment, identifies the murdered woman as Mrs. Vernon. What was her Christian name?"

"Iris--Iris Mary Vernon."

Inspector Dunbar made a note of the fact.

"And now," he said, "you will have read the copy of that portion of my report which I submitted to you this morning--acting upon information supplied by Miss Helen Cumberly?"

"Yes, yes, Inspector, I have read it--but, by the way, I do not know Miss Cumberly."

"Miss Cumberly," explained the detective, "is the daughter of Dr. Cumberly, the Harley Street physician. She lives with her father in the flat above that of Mr. Leroux. She saw the body by accident--and recognized it as that of a lady who had been named to her at the last Arts Ball."

"Ah!" said Debnam, "yes--I see--at the Arts Ball, Inspector. This is a mysterious and a very ghastly case."

"It is indeed, sir," agreed Dunbar. "Can you throw any light upon the presence of Mrs. Vernon at Mr. Leroux's flat on the very night of her husband's death?"

"I can--and I cannot," answered the solicitor, leaning back in the chair and again adjusting his pince-nez, in the manner of a man having important matters--and gloomy, very gloomy, matters--to communicate.

"Good!" said the inspector, and prepared to listen.

"You see," continued Debnam, "the late Mrs. Vernon was not actually residing with her husband at the date of his death."

"Indeed!"

"Ostensibly"--the solicitor shook a lean forefinger at his vis-a- vis--"ostensibly, Inspector, she was visiting her sister in Scotland."

Inspector Dunbar sat up very straight, his brows drawn down over the tawny eyes.

"These visits were of frequent occurrence, and usually of about a week's duration. Mr. Vernon, my late client, a man--I'll not deny it--of inconstant affections (you understand me, Inspector?), did not greatly concern himself with his wife's movements. She belonged to a smart Bohemian set, and--to use a popular figure of speech--burnt the candle at both ends; late dances, night clubs, bridge parties, and other feverish pursuits, possibly taken up as a result of the--shall I say cooling?--of her husband's affections" . . .

"There was another woman in the case?"

"I fear so, Inspector; in fact, I am sure of it: but to return to Mrs. Vernon. My client provided her with ample funds; and I, myself, have expressed to him astonishment respecting her expenditures in Scotland. I understand that her sister was in comparatively poor circumstances, and I went so far as to point out to Mr. Vernon that one hundred pounds was--shall I say an excessive?--outlay upon a week's sojourn in Auchterander, Perth."

"A hundred pounds!"

"One hundred pounds!"

"Was it queried by Mr. Vernon?"

"Not at all."

"Was Mr. Vernon personally acquainted with this sister in Perth?"

"He was not, Inspector. Mrs. Vernon, at the time of her marriage, did not enjoy that social status to which my late client elevated her. For many years she held no open communication with any member of her family, but latterly, as I have explained, she acquired the habit of recuperating--recuperating from the effects of her febrile pleasures--at this obscure place in Scotland. And Mr. Vernon, his interest in her movements having considerably--shall I say abated?-- offered no objection: even suffered it gladly, counting the cost but little against" . . .

"Freedom?" suggested Dunbar, scribbling in his notebook.

"Rather crudely expressed, perhaps," said the solicitor, peering over the top of his glasses, "but you have the idea. I come now to my client's awakening. Four days ago, he learned the truth; he learned that he was being deceived!"

"Deceived!"

"Mrs. Vernon, thoroughly exhausted with irregular living, announced that she was about to resort once more to the healing breezes of the heather-land"--Mr. Debnam was thoroughly warming to his discourse and thoroughly enjoying his own dusty phrases.

"Interrupting you for a moment," said the inspector, "at what intervals did these visits take place?"

"At remarkably regular intervals, Inspector: something like six times a year."

"For how long had Mrs. Vernon made a custom of these visits?"

"Roughly, for two years."

"Thank you. Will you go on, sir?"

"She requested Mr. Vernon, then, on the last occasion to give her a check for eighty pounds; and this he did, unquestioningly. On Thursday, the second of September, she left for Scotland" . . .

"Did she take her maid?"

"Her maid always received a holiday on these occasions; Mrs. Vernon wired her respecting the date of her return."

"Did any one actually see her off?"

"No, not that I am aware of, Inspector."

"To put the whole thing quite bluntly, Mr. Debnam," said Dunbar, fixing his tawny eyes upon the solicitor, "Mr. Vernon was thoroughly glad to get rid of her for a week?"

Mr. Debnam shifted uneasily in his chair; the truculent directness of the detective was unpleasing to his tortuous mind. However:--

"I fear you have hit upon the truth," he confessed, "and I must admit that we have no legal evidence of her leaving for Scotland on this, or on any other occasion. Letters were received from Perth, and letters sent to Auchterander from London were answered. But the truth, the painful truth came to light, unexpectedly, dramatically, on Monday last" . . .

"Four days ago?"

"Exactly; three days before the death of my client." Mr. Debnam wagged his finger at the inspector again. "I maintain," he said, "that this painful discovery, which I am about to mention, precipitated my client's end; although it is a fact that there was-- hereditary heart trouble. But I admit that his neglect of his wife (to give it no harsher name) contributed to the catastrophe."

He paused to give dramatic point to the revelation.

"Walking homeward at a late hour on Monday evening from a flat in Victoria Street--the flat of--shall I employ the term a particular friend?--Mr. Vernon was horrified--horrified beyond measure, to perceive, in a large and well-appointed car--a limousine--his wife!" . . .

"The inside lights of the car were on, then?"

"No; but the light from a street lamp shone directly into the car. A temporary block in the traffic compelled the driver of the car, whom my client described to me as an Asiatic--to pull up for a moment. There, within a few yards of her husband, Mrs. Vernon reclined in the car--or rather in the arms of a male companion!"

"What!"

"Positively!" Mr. Debnam was sedately enjoying himself. "Positively, my dear Inspector, in the arms of a man of extremely dark complexion. Mr. Vernon was unable to perceive more than this, for the man had his back toward him. But the light shone fully upon the face of Mrs. Vernon, who appeared pale and exhausted. She wore a conspicuous motor-coat of civet fur, and it was this which first attracted Mr. Vernon' s attention. The blow was a very severe one to a man in my client's state of health; and although I cannot claim that his own conscience was clear, this open violation of the marriage vows outraged the husband--outraged him. In fact he was so perturbed, that he stood there shaking, quivering, unable to speak or act, and the car drove away before he had recovered sufficient presence of mind to note the number."

"In which direction did the car proceed?"

"Toward Victoria Station."

"Any other particulars?"

"Not regarding the car, its driver, or its occupants; but early on the following morning, Mr. Vernon, very much shaken, called upon me and instructed me to despatch an agent to Perth immediately. My agent's report reached me at practically the same time as the news of my client's death" . . .

"And his report was?" . . .

"His report, Inspector, telegraphic, of course, was this: that no sister of Mrs. Vernon resided at the address; that the place was a cottage occupied by a certain Mrs. Fry and her husband; that the husband was of no occupation, and had no visible means of support"-- he ticked off the points on the long forefinger--"that the Frys lived better than any of their neighbors; and--most important of all--that Mrs. Fry's maiden name, which my agent discovered by recourse to the parish register of marriages--was Ann Fairchild."

"What of that?"

"Ann Fairchild was a former maid of Mrs. Vernon!"

"In short, it amounts to this, then: Mrs. Vernon, during these various absences, never went to Scotland at all? It was a conspiracy?"

"Exactly--exactly, Inspector! I wired instructing my agent to extort from the woman, Fry, the address to which she forwarded letters received by her for Mrs. Vernon. The lady's death, news of which will now have reached him, will no doubt be a lever, enabling my representative to obtain the desired information."

"When do you expect to hear from him?"

"At any moment. Failing a full confession by the Frys, you will of course know how to act, Inspector?"

"Damme!" cried Dunbar, "can your man be relied upon to watch them? They mustn't slip away! Shall I instruct Perth to arrest the couple?"

"I wired my agent this morning, Inspector, to communicate with the local police respecting the Frys."

Inspector Dunbar tapped his small, widely-separated teeth with the end of his fountain-pen.

"I have had one priceless witness slip through my fingers," he muttered. "I'll hand in my resignation if the Frys go!"

"To whom do you refer?"

Inspector Dunbar rose.

"It is a point with which I need not trouble you, sir," he said. "It was not included in the extract of report sent to you. This is going to be the biggest case of my professional career, or my name is not Robert Dunbar!"

Closing his notebook, he thrust it into his pocket, and replaced his fountain-pen in the little leather wallet.

"Of course," said the solicitor, rising in turn, and adjusting the troublesome pince-nez, "there was some intrigue with Leroux? So much is evident."

"You will be thinking that, eh?"

"My dear Inspector"--Mr. Debnam, the wily, was seeking information-- "my dear Inspector, Leroux's own wife was absent in Paris--quite a safe distance; and Mrs. Vernon (now proven to be a woman conducting a love intrigue) is found dead under most compromising circumstances--most compromising circumstances--in his flat! His servants, even, are got safely out of the way for the evening" . . .

"Quite so," said Dunbar, shortly, "quite so, Mr. Debnam." He opened the door. "Might I see the late Mrs. Vernon's maid?"

"She is at her home. As I told you, Mrs. Vernon habitually released her for the period of these absences."

The notebook reappeared.

"The young woman's address?"

"You can get it from the housekeeper. Is there anything else you wish to know?"

"Nothing beyond that, thank you."

Three minutes later, Inspector Dunbar had written in his book:-- Clarice Goodstone, c/o Mrs. Herne, 134a Robert Street, Hampstead Road, N. W.

He departed from the house whereat Death the Gleaner had twice knocked with his Scythe.