No. III - The Solicitor’s Story
IR ANDREW rose, with disapproval written in every lineament.
“I thought your story would bear upon the murder,” he said. “Had I imagined it would have nothing whatsoever to do with it, I would not have remained.” He pushed back his chair and bowed stiffly. “I wish you ‘Good-night,’ ” he said.
THERE was a chorus of remonstrance, and under cover of this and the Baronet’s answering protests a servant for the second time slipped a piece of paper into the hand of the gentleman with the pearl stud. He read the lines written upon it and tore it into tiny fragments.
The youngest member, who had remained an interested but silent listener to the tale of the Queen’s Messenger, raised his hand commandingly.
“Sir Andrew,” he cried, “in justice to Lord Arthur Chetney I must ask you to be seated. He has been accused in our hearing of a most serious crime, and I insist that you remain until you have heard me clear his character.”
“You?” cried the Baronet.
“Yes,” answered the young man briskly. “I would have spoken sooner,” he explained, “but that I thought this gentleman”—he inclined his head toward the Queen’s Messenger—“was about to contribute some facts of which I was ignorant. He, however, has told us nothing, and so I will take up the tale at the point where Lieutenant Sears laid it down, and give you those details of which Lieutenant Sears is ignorant. It seems strange to you that I should be able to add the sequel to this story. But the coincidence, when explained, is obvious enough. I am the junior member of the law firm of Chudleigh and Chudleigh. We have been solicitors for the Chetneys for the last two hundred years. Nothing, no matter how unimportant, which concerns Lord Edam and his two sons is unknown to us, and naturally we are acquainted with every detail of the terrible catastrophe of last night.”
The Baronet, bewildered but eager, sank back into his chair.
“Will you be long, sir?” he demanded.
“I shall endeavour to be brief,” said the young solicitor; “and,” he added, in a tone which gave his words almost the weight of a threat, “I promise to be interesting.”
“There is no need to promise that,” said Sir Andrew, “I find it much too interesting as it is.” He glanced ruefully at the clock and turned his eyes quickly from it.
“Tell the driver of that hansom,” he called to the servant, “that I take him by the hour.”
“FOR the last three days,” began young Mr. Chudleigh, “as you have probably read in the daily papers, the Marquis of Edam has been at the point of death, and his physicians have never left his house. Every hour be seemed to grow weaker; but although his bodily strength is apparently leaving him for ever, his mind has remained clear and active. Late yesterday evening word was received at our office that he wished my father to come at once to Chetney House and to bring with him certain papers. What these papers were is not essential; I mention them only to explain how it was that last night I happened to be at Lord Edam’s bed-side. I accompanied my father to Chetney House, but at the time we reached there Lord Edam was sleeping, and his physicians refused to have him awakened. My father urged that he should be allowed to receive Lord Edam’s instructions concerning the documents, but the physicians would not disturb him, and we all gathered in the library to wait until he should awake of his own accord. It was about one o’clock in the morning, while we were still there, that Inspector Lyle and the officers from Scotland Yard came to arrest Lord Arthur on the charge of murdering his brother. You can imagine our dismay and distress. Like everyone else, I had learned from the afternoon papers that Lord Chetney was not dead, but that he had returned to England. And on arriving at Chetney House I had been told that Lord Arthur had gone to the Bath Hotel to look for his brother and to inform him that if he wished to see their father alive he must come to him at once. Although it was now past one o’clock, Arthur had not returned. None of us knew where Madame Zichy had lived, so we could not go to recover Lord Chetney’s body. We spent a most miserable night, hastening to the window whenever a cab came into the square, in the hope that it was Arthur returning, and endeavouring to explain away the facts that pointed to him as the murderer. I am a friend of Arthur’s, I was with him at Harrow and at Oxford, and I refused to believe for an instant that he was capable of such a crime; but as a lawyer I could not but see that the circumstantial evidence was strongly against him.
“Toward early morning, Lord Edam awoke, and in so much better a state of health that he refused to make the changes in the papers which he had intended, declaring that he was no nearer death than ourselves. Under other circumstances this happy change in him would have relieved us greatly, but none of us could think of anything save the death of his elder son and of the charge which hung over Arthur.
“As long as Inspector Lyle remained in the house my father decided that I, as one of the legal advisers of the family, should also remain there. But there was little for either of us to do. Arthur did not return, and nothing occurred until late this morning, when Lyle received word that the Russian servant had been arrested. He at once drove to Scotland Yard to question him. He came back to us in an hour and informed me that the servant had refused to tell anything of what had happened the night before, or of himself, or of the Princess Zichy. He would not even give them the address of her house.
“ ‘He is in abject terror,’ Lyle said. ‘I assured him that he was not suspected of the crime, but he would tell me nothing.’
“There were no other developments until two o’clock this afternoon, when word was brought to us that Arthur had been found, and that he was lying in the Accident Ward of St. George’s Hospital. Lyle and I drove there together, and found him propped up in bed with his head bound in a bandage. He had been brought to the hospital the night before by the driver of a hansom that had run over him in the fog. The cab-horse had kicked him on the head and he had been carried in unconscious. There was nothing on him to tell who he was, and it was not until he came to his senses this afternoon that the hospital authorities had been able to send word to his people. Lyle at once informed him that he was under arrest, and with what he was charged, and though the Inspector warned him to say nothing which might be used against him, I, as his solicitor, instructed him to speak freely and to tell us all he knew of the occurrences of last night. It was evident to anyone that the fact of his brother’s death was of much greater concern to him than that he was accused of his murder.
“ ‘That—’ Arthur said contemptuously, ‘that is nonsense! It is monstrous and cruel. We parted better friends than we have been for years. I will tell you all that happened—not to clear myself, but to help you to find out the truth.’ His story is as follows: Yesterday afternoon, owing to his constant attendance on his father, he did not look at the evening papers, and it was not until after dinner, when the butler brought him one and told him of its contents, that he learned that his brother was alive and at the Bath Hotel. He drove there at once, but was told that about eight o’clock his brother had gone out, but without giving any clue to his destination. As Chetney had not at once come to see his father, Arthur decided that he was still angry with him, and his mind, turning naturally to the cause of their quarrel, determined him to look for Chetney at the home of the Princess Zichy.
“Her house had been pointed out to him, and, though he had never visited it, he had passed it many times and knew its exact location. He accordingly drove in that direction, as far as the fog would permit the hansom to go, and walked the rest of the way, reaching the house about nine o’clock. He rang, and was admitted by the Russian servant. The man took his card into the drawing-room, and at once his brother ran out and welcomed him. He was followed by the Princess Zichy, who also received Arthur most cordially.
“ ‘YOU brothers will have much to talk about,’ she said. ‘I am going to the dining-room. When you have finished, let me know.’
“As soon as she had left them, Arthur told his brother that their father was not expected to outlive the night, and that he must come to him at once.
“ ‘This is not the time to remember your quarrel,’ Arthur said to him; ‘you have come back from the dead only in time to make your peace with him before he dies.’
“Arthur says that Chetney was greatly moved at what he told him.
“ ‘You entirely misunderstand me, Arthur,’ he returned. ‘I did not know the governor was ill, or I would have gone to him the instant I arrived. My only reason for not doing so was because I thought he was still angry with me. I shall return with you immediately, as soon as I have said good-bye to the Princess. It is a final good-bye. After to-night I shall never see her again.’
“ ‘Do you mean that?’ Arthur cried.
“ ‘Yes,’ Chetney answered. ‘When I returned to London, I had no intention of seeking her again, and I am here only through a mistake.’ He then told Arthur that he had separated from the Princess even before he went to Central Africa, and that, moreover, while at Cairo on his way south he had learned certain facts concerning her life there during the previous season which made it impossible for him ever to wish to see her again. Their separation was final and complete.
“ ‘She deceived me cruelly,’ he said; ‘I cannot tell you how cruelly. During the two years when I was trying to obtain the governor’s consent to our marriage she was in love with a Russian diplomat. During all that time he was secretly visiting her here in London, and her trip to Cairo was only an excuse to meet him there.’
“ ‘Yet you are here with her to-night,’ Arthur protested, ‘only a few hours after your return!’
“ ‘That is easily explained,’ Chetney answered. ‘I had just finished dinner to-night at the hotel when I received a note from her from this address. In it she said she had just learned of my arrival and begged me to come to her at once. She wrote that she was in great and present trouble, dying of an incurable illness, and without friends or money. She begged me, for the sake of old times, to come to her assistance. During the last two years in the jungle all my former feeling for Zichy has utterly passed away from me, but no one could have dismissed the appeal she made in that letter. So I drove here and found her, as you have seen her, quite as beautiful as ever she was, in very good health, and, from the look of the house, in no need of money.
“ ‘I asked her what she meant by writing me that she was dying in a garret, and she laughed and said she had done so because she was afraid unless I thought she needed help I would not try to see her. That was where we were when you arrived. And now,’ Chetney added, ‘I will say good-bye to her, and you had better return home. No, you can trust me. I shall follow you at once. She has no influence over me now, but I believe, in spite of the way she has used me, that she is still fond of me after her queer fashion, and when she learns that this good-bye is final there may be a scene. And it is not fair to her that you should be here. So go home at once and tell the governor that I am following you in ten minutes.’
“ ‘That,’ said Arthur, ‘is the way we parted. I never left him on more friendly terms. I was happy to see him alive again, I was happy to think he had returned in time to make up his quarrel with my father, and I was happy that at last he was clear of that woman. I was never better pleased with him in my life.’ He turned to Inspector Lyle, who was sitting at the foot of the bed taking notes of all he told us.
“ ‘Why, in the name of common-sense,’ he cried, ‘should I have chosen that moment of all others to send my brother back to the grave again?’ For a moment the Inspector did not answer him. I do not know if any of you gentlemen are acquainted with Inspector Lyle, but if you are not, I should tell you that he is a very remarkable man. Our firm often applies to him for aid, and he has never failed us yet; my father has the greatest possible respect for him. Where he has the advantage over the ordinary police official is in the fact that he possesses imagination. He imagines himself to be the criminal, imagines how he would act under the same circumstances, and he imagines to such purpose that he generally finds the man he wants. I have often told Lyle that if he had not been a detective, he would have made a great success as a poet or a playwright.
“When Arthur turned on him, Lyle hesitated for a moment and then told him exactly what was the case against him.
“ ‘Ever since your brother was reported as having died in Africa,’ he said, ‘your Lordship has been collecting money on post obits. Lord Chetney’s arrival last night turned them into waste paper. You were suddenly in debt for thousands of pounds—for much more than you could ever possibly pay. No one knew that you and your brother had met at Madame Zichy’s. But you knew that your father was not expected to outlive the night, and that if your brother were dead also, you would be saved from complete ruin, and that you would become the Marquis of Edam.’
“ ‘Oh! that is how you have worked it out, is it?’ Arthur cried. ‘And for me to become Lord Edam, was it necessary that the woman should die, too?’
“ ‘They will say,’ Lyle answered, ‘that she was a witness to the murder—that she would have told.’
“ ‘Then why did I not kill the servant as well?’ Arthur said.
“ ‘He was asleep, and saw nothing.’
“ ‘And you believe that?’ Arthur demanded.
“ ‘It is not a question of what I believe,’ Lyle said gravely. ‘It is a question for your peers.’
“ ‘The man is insolent!’ Arthur cried. ‘The thing is monstrous! Horrible!’
“‘BEFORE we could stop him, he sprang out of his cot and began pulling on his clothes. When the nurses tried to hold him down, he fought with them.
“ ‘Do you think you can keep me here,’ he shouted, ‘when they are plotting to hang me? I am going with you to that house!’ he cried to Lyle. ‘When you find those bodies, I shall be beside you. It is my right. He is my brother. He has been murdered, and I can tell you who murdered him. That woman murdered him. She first ruined his life, and now she has killed him. For the last five years she has been plotting to make herself his wife, and last night, when he told her he had discovered the truth about the Russian, and that she would never see him again, she flew into a passion and stabbed him, and then, in terror of the gallows, killed herself. She murdered him, I tell you, and I promise you that we shall find the knife she used near her—perhaps still in her hand. What will you say to that?’
“Lyle turned his head away and stared down at the floor. ‘I might say,’ he answered, ‘that you placed it there.’
“Arthur gave a cry of anger and sprang at him, and then pitched forward into his arms. The blood was running from the cut under the bandage and he had fainted. Lyle carried him back to the bed again, and we left him with the police and the doctors and drove at once to the address he had given us. We found the house not three minutes’ walk from St. George’s Hospital. It stands in Trevor Terrace, that little row of houses set back from Knightsbridge with one end in Hill Street.
“As we left the hospital, Lyle had said to me, ‘You must not blame me for treating him as I did. All is fair in this work, and if by angering that boy I could have made him commit himself, I was right in trying to do so; though, I assure you, no one would be better pleased than myself if I could prove his theory to be correct. But we cannot tell. Everything depends upon what we see for ourselves within the next few minutes.’
“WHEN we reached the house, Lyle broke open the fastenings of one of the windows on the ground floor, and, hidden by the trees in the garden, we scrambled in. We found ourselves in the reception-room, which was the first room on the right of the hall. The gas was still burning behind the coloured glass and red silk shades, and when the day-light streamed in after us, it gave the hall a hideously dissipated look, like the foyer of a theatre at a matinée, or the entrance to an all-day gambling hell. The house was oppressively silent, and because we knew why it was so silent we spoke in whispers. When Lyle turned the handle of the drawing-room door, I felt as though someone had put his hand upon my throat. But I followed close at his shoulder and saw, in the subdued light of many-tinted lamps, the body of Chetney at the foot of the divan, just as Lieutenant Sears has described it. In the drawing-room we found upon the floor the body of the Princess Zichy, her arms thrown out, and the blood from her heart frozen in a tiny line across her bare shoulder. But neither of us, although we searched the floor on our hands and knees, could find the weapon which had killed her.
“ ‘For Arthur’s sake,’ I said, ‘I would give a thousand pounds if we had found the knife in her hand, as he said we would.’
“ ‘That we have not found it there,’ Lyle answered, ‘is to my mind the strongest proof that he is telling the truth—that he left the house before the murder took place. He is not a fool, and had he stabbed his brother and this woman he would have seen that by placing the knife near her he could help to make it appear as if she had killed Chetney and then committed suicide. Besides, Lord Arthur insisted that the evidence in his behalf would be our finding the knife here. He would not have urged that if he knew we would not find it, if he knew he himself had carried it away. This is no suicide. A suicide does not rise and hide the weapon with which he kills himself, and then lie down again. No, this has been a double murder, and we must look outside the house for the murderer.’
“While he was speaking, Lyle and I had been searching every corner, studying the details of each room. I was so afraid that, without telling me, he would make some deductions prejudicial to Arthur, that I never left his side. I was determined to see everything that he saw, and, if possible, to prevent his interpreting it in the wrong way. He finally finished his examination, and we sat down together in the drawing-room, and he took out his notebook and read aloud all Mr. Sears had told him of the murder, and what we had just learned from Arthur. We compared the two accounts, word for word, and weighed statement with statement. But I could not determine from anything Lyle said which of the two versions he had decided to believe.
“ ‘We are trying to build a house of blocks,’ he exclaimed, ‘with half of the blocks missing. We have been considering two theories,’ he went on; ‘one that Lord Arthur is responsible for both murders, and the other that the dead woman in there is responsible for one of them, and has committed suicide; but until the Russian servant is ready to talk, I shall refuse to believe in the guilt of either.’
“ ‘What can you prove by him?’ I asked. ‘He was drunk and asleep. He saw nothing.’
“Lyle hesitated and then, as though he had made up his mind to be quite frank with me, spoke freely.
“ ‘I do not know that he was either drunk or asleep,’ he answered. ‘Lieutenant Sears describes him as a stupid boor. I am not satisfied that he is not a clever actor. What was his position in this house? What was his real duty here? Suppose it was not to guard this woman, but to watch her. Let us imagine that it was not the woman he served, but a master, and see where that leads us. For this house has a master, a mysterious, absentee landlord, who lives in St. Petersburg, the unknown Russian who came between Chetney and Zichy, and because of whom Chetney left her. He is the man who bought this house for Madame Zichy, who sent these rugs and curtains from Petersburg to furnish it for her after his own tastes, and, I believe, it was he also who placed the Russian servant here, ostensibly to serve the Princess, but in reality to spy upon her. At Scotland Yard we do not know who this gentleman is; the Russian police confess to equal ignorance concerning him. When Lord Chetney went to Africa, Madame Zichy lived in St. Petersburg; but there her receptions and dinners were so crowded with members of the nobility and of the army and diplomats, that among so many visitors the police could not learn which was the one for whom she most greatly cared.’
“Lyle pointed at the modern French paintings and the heavy silk rugs which hung upon the walls.
“ ‘The unknown is a man of taste and of some fortune,’ he said, ‘not the sort of man to send a stupid peasant to guard the woman he loves. So I am not content to believe with Mr. Sears, that the man is a boor. I believe him instead to be a very clever ruffian. I believe him to be the protector of his master’s honour, or, let us say, of his master’s property, whether that property be silver plate or the woman his master loves. Last night, after Lord Arthur had gone away, the servant was left alone in this house with Lord Chetney and Madame Zichy. From where he sat in the hall he could hear Lord Chetney bidding her farewell; for, if my idea of him is correct, he understands English quite as well as you or I. Let us imagine that he heard her entreating Chetney not to leave her, reminding him of his former wish to marry her, and let us suppose that he hears Chetney denounce her, and tell her that at Cairo he has learned of this Russian admirer—the servant’s master. He hears the woman declare that she has had no admirer but himself, that this unknown Russian was, and is, nothing to her, that there is no man she loves but him, and that she cannot live, knowing that he is alive, without his love. Suppose Chetney believed her, suppose his former infatuation for her returned, and that in a moment of weakness he forgave her and took her in his arms. That is the moment the Russian master has feared. It is to guard against it that he has placed his watch-dog over the Princess; and how do we know but that, when the moment came, the watch-dog served his master, as he saw his duty, and killed them both? What do you think?’ Lyle demanded. ‘Would not that explain both murders?’
“I was only too willing to hear any theory which pointed to anyone else as the criminal than Arthur, but Lyle’s explanation was too utterly fantastic. I told him that he certainly showed imagination, but that he could not hang a man only for what he imagined he had done.
“ ‘No,’ Lyle answered, ‘but I can frighten him by telling him what I think he has done, and now when I again question the Russian servant I will make it quite clear to him that I believe he is the murderer. I think that will open his mouth. A man will at least talk to defend himself. Come,’ he said, ‘we must return at once to Scotland Yard and see him. There is nothing more to do here.’
“He arose, and I followed him into the hall, and in another minute we should have been on our way to Scotland Yard. But just as he opened the street-door a postman halted at the gate of the garden and began fumbling with the latch.
“Lyle stopped, with an exclamation of chagrin.
“ ‘How stupid of me!’ he exclaimed. He turned quickly and pointed to a narrow slit cut in the brass plate of the front door. ‘The house has a private letter-box,’ he said, ‘and I had not thought to look in it! If we had gone out as we came in, by the window, I should never have seen it. The moment I entered the house I should have thought of securing the letters which came this morning. I have been grossly careless.’ He stepped back into the hall and pulled at the lid of the letter-box, which hung on the inside of the door, but it was tightly locked. At the same moment the postman came up the steps holding a letter. Without a word Lyle took it from his hand and began to examine it. It was addressed to the Princess Zichy, and on the back of the envelope was the name of a West End dressmaker.
“ ‘That is of no use to me,’ Lyle said. He took out his card and showed it to the postman. ‘I am Inspector Lyle, from Scotland Yard,’ he said. ‘The people in this house are under arrest. Everything it contains is now in my keeping. Did you deliver any other letters here this morning?’
“The man looked frightened, but answered promptly that he was now upon his third round. He had made one postal delivery at seven that morning and another at eleven.
“ ‘How many letters did you leave here?’ Lyle asked.
“ ‘About six altogether,’ the man answered.
“ ‘Did you put them through the door into the letter-box?’
“The postman said, ‘Yes, I always slip them into the box, and ring and go away. The servants collect them from the inside.’
“ ‘Have you noticed if any of the letters you leave here bear a Russian postage-stamp?’ Lyle asked.
“The man answered, ‘Oh, yes, sir, a great many.’
“ ‘From the same person, would you say?’
“ ‘The writing seems to be the same,’ the man answered. ‘They come regularly about once a week—one of those I delivered this morning had a Russian postmark.’
“ ‘That will do,’ said Lyle eagerly. ‘Thank you, thank you very much.’
“He ran back into the hall and, pulling out his penknife, began to pick at the lock of the letter-box.
“ ‘I have been supremely careless,’ he said in great excitement. ‘Twice before when people I wanted had flown from a house I have been able to follow them by putting a guard over their mail-box. These letters, which arrive regularly every week from Russia in the same handwriting—they can come but from one person. At least we shall now know the name of the master of this house. Undoubtedly it is one of his letters that the man placed here this morning. We may make a most important discovery.’
“As he was talking he was picking at the lock with his knife, but he was so impatient to reach the letters that he pressed too heavily on the blade and it broke in his hand. I took a step backward and drove my heel into the lock and burst it open. The lid flew back, and we pressed forward, and each ran his hand down into the letter-box. For a moment we were both too startled to move. The box was empty!
“I do not know how long we stood staring stupidly at each other, but it was Lyle who was the first to recover. He seized me by the arm and pointed excitedly into the empty box.
“ ‘Do you appreciate what that means?’ he cried. ‘It means that someone has been here ahead of us. Someone has entered this house not three hours before we came, since eleven o’clock this morning.’
“ ‘It was the Russian servant!’ I exclaimed.
“ ‘The Russian servant has been under arrest at Scotland Yard,’ Lyle cried. ‘He could not have taken the letters. Lord Arthur has been in his cot at the hospital. That is his alibi. There is someone else—someone we do not suspect—and that someone is the murderer. He came back here either to obtain those letters because he knew they would convict him, or to remove something he had left here at the time of the murder, something incriminating—the weapon, perhaps, or some personal article: a cigarette-case, a handkerchief with his name upon it, or a pair of gloves. Whatever it was, it must have been damning evidence against him to have made him take so desperate a chance.’
“ ‘How do we know,’ I whispered, ‘that he is not hidden here now?’
“ ‘No, I’ll swear he is not!’ Lyle answered. ‘I may have bungled in some things, but I have searched this house thoroughly. Nevertheless,’ he added, ‘we must go over it again, from the cellar to the roof. We have the real clue now, and we must forget the others and work only it.’ As he spoke he began again to search the drawing-room, turning over even the books on the tables and the music on the piano.
“ ‘Whoever the man is,’ he said over his shoulder, ‘we know that he has a key to the front door and a key to the letter-box. That shows us he is either an inmate of the house or that he comes here when he wishes. The Russian says that he was the only servant in the house. Certainly we have found no evidence to show that any other servant slept here. There could be but one other person who would possess a key to the house and the letter-box—and he lives in St. Petersburg. At the time of the murder he was two thousand miles away.’ Lyle interrupted himself suddenly with a sharp cry and turned upon me with his eyes flashing. ‘But was he?’ he cried. ‘Was he? How do we know that last night he was not in London, in this very house when Zichy and Chetney met here?’
“He stood staring at me without seeing me, muttering and arguing with himself.
“ ‘Don’t speak to me!’ he cried, as I ventured to interrupt him. ‘I can see it now. It is all plain to me. It was not the servant, but his master, the Russian himself, and it was he who came back for the letters. He came back for them because he knew they would convict him. We must find them. We must have those letters. If we find the one with the Russian postmark, we shall have found the murderer.’ He spoke like a madman, and as he spoke he ran around the room with one hand held out in front of him as you have seen a mind-reader at a theatre seeking for something hidden in the stalls. He pulled the old letters from the writing-desk and ran them over as swiftly as a gambler deals out cards; he dropped on his knees before the fireplace and dragged out the dead coals with his bare fingers, and then with a low, worried cry, like a hound on a scent, he ran back to the waste-paper basket and, lifting the papers from it, shook them out upon the floor. Instantly he gave a shout of triumph and, separating a number of torn pieces from the others, held them up before me.
“ ‘Look!’ he cried. ‘Do you see? Here are five letters, torn across in two places. The Russian did not stop to read them, for, as you see, he has left them still sealed. I have been wrong. He did not return for the letters. He could not have known their value. He must have returned for some other reason, and, as he was leaving, saw the letter-box, and taking out the letters, held them together—so—and tore them twice across, and then, as the fire had gone out, tossed them into this basket. Look!’ he cried, ‘here in the upper corner of this piece is a Russian stamp. This is his own letter—unopened!’
“WE examined the Russian stamp and found it had been cancelled in St. Petersburg four days ago. The back of the envelope bore the postmark of the branch station in Upper Sloane Street and was dated this morning. The envelope was of official blue paper, and we had no difficulty in finding the two other parts to it. We drew the torn pieces of the letter from them and joined them together side by side. There were but two lines of writing, and this was the message: ‘I leave Petersburg on the night train, and I shall see you at Trevor Terrace after dinner Monday evening.’
“ ‘That was last night!’ Lyle cried. ‘He arrived twelve hours ahead of his letter—but it came in time—it came in time to hang him!’ ”
The Baronet struck the table with his hand. “The name!” he demanded. “How was it signed? What was the man’s name?”
The young solicitor rose to his feet and, leaning forward, stretched out his arm. “There was no name," he cried. “The letter was signed with only two initials. But engraved at the top of the sheet was the man’s address. That address was ‘THE AMERICAN EMBASSY, ST. PETERSBURG, BUREAU OF THE NAVAL ATTACHÉ,’ and the initials,” he shouted, his voice rising into an exultant and bitter cry, “were those of the gentleman who sits opposite, who told us that he was the first to find the murdered bodies, the Naval Attaché to Russia, Lieutenant Ripley Sears!”
A strained and awful hush followed the solicitor’s words, which seemed to vibrate in the air like a twanging bowstring which had just hurled its bolt. Sir Andrew, pale and staring, drew away with an exclamation of repulsion. His eyes were fastened upon the Naval Attaché with fascinated horror. But the American emitted a sigh of great content and sank comfortably into the arms of his chair. He clapped his hands softly together.
“Capital!” he murmured. “I give you my word I never guessed what you were driving at. You fooled me, I’ll be hanged if you didn’t—you certainly fooled me!”
The man with the pearl stud leaned forward with a nervous gesture. “Hush! be careful!” he whispered. But at that instant, for the third time, a servant hastening through the room handed him a piece of paper, which he scanned eagerly. The message on the paper read, “The light over the Commons is out. The House has risen.”
The man with the black pearl gave a mighty shout and tossed the paper from him on the table. “Hurrah!” he cried. “The House is up! We’ve won!” He caught up his glass and slapped the Naval Attaché violently upon the shoulder. He nodded joyously at him, at the Solicitor, and at the Queen’s Messenger. “Gentlemen, to you!” he cried; “my thanks and my congratulations!” He drank deep from the glass and breathed forth a long sigh of satisfaction and relief.
“But I say!” protested the Queen’s Messenger, shaking his finger violently at the Solicitor, “that story won’t do. You didn’t play fair—and—and you talked so fast I couldn’t make out what it was all about. I’ll bet you that evidence wouldn’t hold in a court of law—you couldn’t hang a cat on such evidence. Your story is condemned tommy-rot. Now, my story might have happened, my story bore the mark——”
In the joy of creation the story-tellers had forgotten their audience, until a sudden exclamation from Sir Andrew caused them to turn guiltily toward him. His lace was knit with lines of anger, doubt, and amazement.
“What does this mean?” he cried. “Is this a jest, or are you mad? If you know this man is a murderer, why is he at large? Is this a game you have been playing? Explain yourselves at once. What does it mean?”
The American, with first a glance at the others, rose and bowed courteously.
“I am not a murderer, Sir Andrew, believe me,” he said; “you need not be alarmed. As a matter of fact, at this moment I am much more afraid of you than you could possibly be of me. I beg you please to be indulgent. I assure you we meant no disrespect. We have been matching stories, that is all, pretending that we are people we are not, endeavouring to entertain you with better detective tales than, for instance, the last one you read, ‘The Great Rand Robbery.’ ”
The Baronet brushed his hand nervously across his forehead.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he exclaimed, “that none of this has happened? That Lord Chetney is not dead, that his solicitor did not find a letter of yours written from your post in Petersburg, and that just now, when he charged you with murder, he was in jest?”
“I am really very sorry,” said the American, “but you see, sir, he could not have found a letter written by me in St. Petersburg, because I have never been in Petersburg. Until this week I have never been outside of my own country. I am not a naval officer. I am a writer of short stories. And to-night, when this gentleman told me that you were fond of detective stories, I thought it would be amusing to tell you one of mine—one I had just mapped out this afternoon.”
“But Lord Chetney is a real person,” interrupted the Baronet, “and he did go to Africa two years ago, and he was supposed to have died there, and his brother, Lord Arthur, has been the heir. And yesterday Chetney did return. I read it in the papers.”
“So did I,” assented the American soothingly. “And it struck me as being a very good plot for a story. I mean his unexpected return from the dead, and the probable disappointment of the younger brother. So I decided that the younger brother had better murder the elder one. The Princess Zichy I invented out of a clear sky. The fog I did not have to invent. Since last night I know all that there is to know about a London fog. I was lost in one for three hours.”
The Baronet turned grimly upon the Queen’s Messenger. “But this gentleman,” he protested, “he is not a writer of short stories; he is a member of the Foreign Office. I have seen him in Whitehall often, and, according to him, the Princess Zichy is not an invention. He says she is very well known—that she tried to rob him.”
The servant of the Foreign Office looked unhappily at the Cabinet Minister and puffed nervously at his cigar.
“It’s true, Sir Andrew, that I am a Queen’s Messenger,” he said appealingly, “and a Russian woman once did try to rob a Queen’s Messenger in a railway carriage—only it did not happen to me, but to a pal of mine. The only Russian princess I ever knew called herself Zabrisky. You may have seen her. She used to do a dive from the roof of the Aquarium.”
Sir Andrew, with a snort of indignation, fronted the young Solicitor.
“And I suppose yours was a cock-and-bull story, too?” he said. “Of course, it must have been, since Lord Chetney is not dead. But don’t tell me,” he protested, “that you are not Chudleigh’s son, either.”
“I’m sorry,” said the youngest member, smiling in some embarrassment, “but my name is not Chudleigh. I assure you, though, that I know the family very well and that I am on very good terms with them.”
“You should be!” exclaimed the Baronet; “and, judging from the liberties you take with the Chetneys, you had better be on very good terms with them, too.”
The young man leaned back and glanced toward the servants at the far end of the room.
“It has been so long since I have been in the Club,” he said, “that I doubt if even the waiters remember me. Perhaps Joseph may,” he added. “Joseph!” he called, and at the word a servant stepped briskly forward.
The young man pointed to the stuffed head of a great lion which was suspended above the fireplace.
“Joseph,” he said, “I want you to tell these gentlemen who shot that lion. Who presented it to the Grill?”
Joseph, unused to acting as master of ceremonies to members of the Club, shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
“Why, you—you did,” he stammered.
“Of course I did!” exclaimed the young man. “I mean, what is the name of the man who shot it. Tell the gentlemen who I am. They wouldn’t believe me.”
“Who you are, my lord?” said Joseph. “You are Lord Edam’s son, the Earl of Chetney.”
“You must admit,” said Lord Chetney, when the noise had died away, “that I couldn’t remain dead while my little brother was accused of murder. I had to do something. Family pride demanded it. Now, Arthur, as the younger brother, can’t afford to be squeamish, but personally I should hate to have a brother of mine hanged for murder.”
“You certainly showed no scruples against hanging me,” said the American, “but in the face of your evidence I admit my guilt, and I sentence myself to pay the full penalty of the law as we are made to pay it in my own country. The order of this Court is,” he announced, “that Joseph shall bring me a wine-card, and that I sign it for five bottles of the Club’s best champagne.”
“Oh, no!” protested the man with the pearl stud, “it is not for you to sign it. In my opinion, it is Sir Andrew who should pay the costs. It is time you knew,” he said, turning to that gentleman, “that unconsciously you have been the victim of what I may call a patriotic conspiracy. These stories have had a more serious purpose than merely to amuse. They have been told with the worthy object of detaining you from the House of Commons. I must explain to you that all through this evening I have had a servant waiting in Trafalgar Square with instructions to bring me word as soon as the light over the House of Commons had ceased to burn. The light is now out, and the object for which we plotted is attained.”
The Baronet glanced keenly at the man with the black pearl and then quickly at his watch. The smile disappeared from his lips, and his face was set in stern and forbidding lines.
“And may I know,” he asked icily, “what was the object of your plot?”
“A most worthy one,” the other retorted. “Our object was to keep you from advocating the expenditure of many millions of the people’s money upon more battleships. In a word, we have been working together to prevent you from passing the Navy Increase Bill.”
Sir Andrew’s face bloomed with brilliant colour. His body shook with suppressed emotion.
“My dear sir!” he cried, “you should spend more time at the House and less at your Club. The Navy Bill was brought up on its third reading at eight o’clock this evening. I spoke for three hours in its favour. My only reason for wishing to return again to the House to-night was to sup on the terrace with my old friend, Admiral Simons; for my work at the House was completed five hours ago, when the Navy Increase Bill was passed by an overwhelming majority.”
The Baronet rose and bowed. “I have to thank you, sir,” he said, “for a most interesting evening.”
The American shoved the wine-card which Joseph had given him toward the gentleman with the black pearl.
“You sign it,” he said.