Chapter XXVII. The Orchid of Sleep
 

"My God!" cried Innes, "here is proof that the chief was right!"

Wessex nodded in silent agreement. On the table lay the report of Merton, the analyst, concerning the stains upon the serviette which Harley had sent from the house of the late Sir Charles Abingdon. Briefly, it stated that the serviette had been sprinkled with some essential oil, the exact character of which Merton had found himself unable to determine, its perfume, if it ever possessed any, having disappeared. And the minute quantity obtainable from the linen rendered ordinary tests difficult to apply. The analyst's report, however, concluded as follows:

"Mr. Harley, having foreseen these difficulties, and having apparently suspected that the oil was of Oriental origin, recommended me, in the note which he enclosed with the serviette, to confer with Dr. Warwick Grey. I send a copy of a highly interesting letter which I have received from Doctor Grey, whose knowledge of Eastern poison is unparalleled, and to whose opinion I attach immense importance."

It was the contents of this appended letter which had inspired Innes's remarks. Indeed, it contained matter which triumphantly established Paul Harley's theory that Sir Charles Abingdon had not died from natural causes. The letter was as follows:

'No.---- Harley Street London, W. I.

'MY DEAR MERTON:

'I am indebted to you and to Mr. Harley for an opportunity of examining the serviette, which I return herewith. I agree that the oil does not respond to ordinary tests, nor is any smell perceptible. But you have noticed in your microscopic examination of the stains that there is a peculiar crystalline formation upon the surface. You state that this is quite unfamiliar to you, which is not at all strange, since outside of the Himalayan districts of Northwest India I have never met with it myself.

'Respecting the character of the oil employed, however, I am in no doubt, and I actually possess a dried specimen of the flower from which it is expressed. This is poetically known among the Mangars, one of the fighting tribes or Nepal, as the Bloom or Orchid of Sleep.

'It is found upon the lower Himalayan slopes, and bears a close resemblance to the white odontoglossum of commerce, except that the flower is much smaller. Its perfume attracts insects and sometimes small animals and reptiles, although inhalation seems to induce instant death. It may be detected in its natural state by the presence of hundreds of dead flies and insects upon the ground surrounding the plant. It is especially fatal to nocturnal insects, its perfume being stronger at night.

'Preparation of the oil is an art peculiar to members of an obscure sect established in that district, by whom it is said to be employed for the removal of enemies.

'An article is sprinkled with it, and whilst the perfume, which is reported to resemble that of cloves, remains perceptible, to inhale it results in immediate syncope, although by what physiological process I have never been enabled to determine.

'With the one exception which I have mentioned, during my stay in Nepal and the surrounding districts I failed to obtain a specimen of this orchid. I have twice seen the curious purple stain upon articles of clothing worn by natives who had died suddenly and mysteriously. The Mangars simply say, "He has offended someone. It is the flower of sleep."

'I immediately recognized the colour of the stains upon the enclosed serviette, and also the curious crystalline formation on their surface. The identity of the "someone" to whom the Mangars refer, I never established. I shall welcome any particulars respecting the history of the serviette.

'Very truly yours,

'WARWICK GREY.'

"Sir Charles Abingdon was poisoned," said Wessex in a hushed voice. "For the girl's sake I hate the idea, but we shall have to get an exhumation order."

"It is impossible," returned Innes, shortly. "He was cremated."

"Good heavens," murmured Wessex, "I never knew."

"But after all," continued Inures, "it is just as well for everyone concerned. The known facts are sufficient to establish the murder, together with the report of Dr. Warwick Grey. But, meanwhile, are we any nearer to learning the identity of the murderer?"

"We are not! " said Wessex, grimly. "And what's more, when I get to Scotland Yard, I have got to face the music. First Mr. Harley goes, and now Nicol Brinn has disappeared!"

"It's almost unbelievable!"

"I took him for a white man," said the detective, earnestly. "I accepted his parole for twenty-four hours. The twenty-four hours expired about noon to-day, but since he played that trick on Stokes last night and went out of his chambers, he has vanished utterly."

Innes stood up excitedly.

"Your ideas may be all wrong, Wessex!" he cried. "Don't you see that he may have gone the same way as the chief?"

"He was mightily anxious to get out, at any rate."

"And you have no idea where he went?"

"Not the slightest. Following his performance of last night, of course I was compelled to instal a man in the chambers, and this morning someone rang up from the house of Lord Wolverham; he is commanding officer of one of the Guards battalions, I believe. It appears that Mr. Nicol Brinn not only locked up a representative of the Criminal Investigation Department, but also stole a Rolls Royce car from outside the Cavalry Club!"

"What!" cried Innes. "Stole a car?"

"Stole Lord Wolverham's car and calmly drove away in it. We have failed to trace both car and man!" The detective inspector sighed wearily. "Well, I suppose I must get along to the Yard. Stokes has got the laugh on me this time."

Wearing a very gloomy expression, the detective inspector proceeded on foot to New Scotland Yard, and being informed on his arrival upstairs that the Assistant Commissioner was expecting him, he entered the office of that great man.

The Assistant Commissioner, who had palpably seen military service, was a big man with very tired eyes, and a quiet, almost apologetic manner.

"Ah, Detective Inspector," he said, as Wessex entered. "I wanted to see you about this business of Mr. Nicol Brinn."

"Yes, sir," replied Wessex; "naturally."

"Now," the Assistant Commissioner turned wearily in his chair, and glanced up at his subordinate--"your accepting the parole of a suspect, under the circumstances, was officially improper, but I am not blaming you--I am not blaming you for a moment. Mr. Nicol Brinn's well-known reputation justified your behaviour." He laid one large hand firmly upon the table. "Mr. Nicol Brinn's absence alters the matter entirely."

"I am well aware of it," murmured the inspector. "Although," continued the Assistant Commissioner, "Mr. Brinn's record leads me to believe that he will have some suitable explanation to offer, his behaviour, you will admit, is that of a guilty man?"

"It is, sir; it certainly is."

"The Press, fortunately, has learned nothing of this unpleasant business, particularly unpleasant because it involves such well-known people. You will see to it, Detective Inspector, that all publicity is avoided if possible. Meanwhile, as a matter of ordinary departmental routine, you will circulate Mr. Brinn's description through the usual channels, and--" the Assistant Commissioner raised his eyebrows slightly.

"You mean that?" asked Wessex.

"Certainly. He must be arrested by the first officer who recognizes him."

"Very good, sir. I will move in the matter at once."

"Do so, please." The Assistant Commissioner sighed wearily, as one of his telephones set up a muted buzzing. "That is all for the moment, I think. Good morning."

Detective Inspector Wessex came out, quietly closing the door behind him. He felt that he had been let down very lightly. But nevertheless he was unpleasantly warm, and as he walked slowly along the corridor he whistled softly, and:

"Arrest of Mr. Nicol Brinn," he muttered. "What a headline, if they ever get it!"