In the Mayor's Parlour - Joseph Smith Fletcher - ebook
Kategoria: Sensacja, thriller, horror Język: angielski Rok wydania: 1922

In the Mayor's Parlour darmowy ebook

Joseph Smith Fletcher

(0)
0,00 zł
Do koszyka

Ebooka przeczytasz na:

e-czytniku EPUB
tablecie EPUB
smartfonie EPUB
komputerze EPUB
Czytaj w chmurze®
w aplikacjach Legimi.
Dlaczego warto?

Pobierz fragment dostosowany na:

Opis ebooka In the Mayor's Parlour - Joseph Smith Fletcher

The Mayor of a small town is found murdered. A classic "whodunnit".

Opinie o ebooku In the Mayor's Parlour - Joseph Smith Fletcher

Fragment ebooka In the Mayor's Parlour - Joseph Smith Fletcher

About
Chapter 1 - THE MAYOR'S PARLOUR
Chapter 2 - THE CAMBRIC HANDKERCHIEF

About Fletcher:

Joseph Smith Fletcher (7 February 1863 - 30 January 1935) was a British journalist and writer. He wrote about 200 books on a wide variety of subjects, both fiction and non-fiction. He was one of the leading writers of detective fiction in the "Golden Age". Fletcher was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, son of a clergyman. He was educated at Silcoates School in Wakefield. After some study of law, he became a journalist. His first books published were poetry, and he then moved on to write numerous works of both historical fiction and history, many dealing with Yorkshire. He was made a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. In 1914 he wrote his first detective novel and went on to write over a hundred, latterly featuring private investigator, Ronald Camberwell. Source: Wikipedia

Copyright: This work is available for countries where copyright is Life+70 and in the USA.
Note: This book is brought to you by Feedbooks
http://www.feedbooks.com
Strictly for personal use, do not use this file for commercial purposes.

Chapter 1 THE MAYOR'S PARLOUR

Hathelsborough market-place lies in the middle of the town—a long, somewhat narrow parallelogram, enclosed on its longer side by old gabled houses; shut in on its western end by the massive bulk of the great parish church of St. Hathelswide, Virgin and Martyr, and at its eastern by the ancient walls and high roofs of its mediaval Moot Hall. The inner surface of this space is paved with cobble-stones, worn smooth by centuries of usage: it is only of late years that the conservative spirit of the old borough has so far accommodated itself to modern requirements as to provide foot-paths in front of the shops and houses. But there that same spirit has stopped; the utilitarian of to-day would sweep away, as being serious hindrances to wheeled traffic, the two picturesque fifteenth-century erections which stand in this market-place; these, High Cross and Low Cross, one at the east end, in front of the Moot Hall, the other at the west, facing the chancel of the church, remain, to the delight of the archaologist, as instances of the fashion in which our forefathers built gathering places in the very midst of narrow thoroughfares.

Under the graceful cupola and the flying buttresses of High Cross the countryfolk still expose for sale on market-days their butter and their eggs; around the base of the slender shaft called Low Cross they still offer their poultry and rabbits; on other than market-days High Cross and Low Cross alike make central, open-air clubs, for the patriarchs of the place, who there assemble in the lazy afternoons and still lazier eventides, to gossip over the latest items of local news; conscious that as they are doing so their ancestors have done for many a generation, and that old as they may be themselves, in their septuagenarian or octogenarian states, they are as infants in comparison with the age of the stones and bricks and timbers about them, grey and fragrant with the antiquity of at least three hundred years.

Of all this mass of venerable material, still sound and uncrumbled, the great tall-towered church at one end of the market-place, and the square, heavily fashioned Moot Hall at the other, go farthest back, through association, into the mists of the Middle Ages. The church dates from the thirteenth century and, though it has been skilfully restored on more than one occasion, there is nothing in its cathedral-like proportions that suggests modernity; the Moot Hall, erected a hundred years later, remains precisely as when it was first fashioned, and though it, too, has passed under the hand of the restorer its renovation has only taken the shape of strengthening an already formidably strong building. Extending across nearly the whole eastern end of the market-place, and flanked on one side by an ancient dwelling-house—once the official residence of the Mayors of Hathelsborough—and on the other by a more modern but still old-world building, long used as a bank, Hathelsborough Moot Hall presents the appearance of a mediaval fortress, as though its original builders had meant it to be a possible refuge for the townsfolk against masterful Baron or marauding Scot. From the market-place itself there is but one entrance to it; an arched doorway opening upon a low-roofed stone hall; in place of a door there are heavy gates of iron, with a smaller wicket-gate set in their midst; from the stone hall a stone stair leads to the various chambers above; in the outer walls the windows are high and narrow; each is filled with old painted glass. A strong, grim building, this; and when the iron gates are locked, as they are every night when the curfew bell—an ancient institution jealously kept up in Hathelsborough—rings from St. Hathelswide's tower, a man might safely wager his all to nothing that only modern artillery could effect an entrance to its dark and gloomy interior.

On a certain April evening, the time being within an hour of curfew—which, to be exact, is rung in Hathelsborough every night, all the year round, sixty minutes after sunset, despite the fact that it is nowadays but a meaningless if time-honoured ceremony—Bunning, caretaker and custodian of the Moot Hall, stood without its gates, smoking his pipe and looking around him. He was an ex-Army man, Bunning, who had seen service in many parts of the world, and was frequently heard to declare that although he had set eyes on many men and many cities he had never found the equal of Hathelsborough folk, nor seen a fairer prospect than that on which he now gazed. The truth was that Bunning was a Hathelsborough man, and having wandered about a good deal during his military service, from Aldershot to Gibraltar, and Gibraltar to Malta, and Malta to Cairo, and Cairo to Peshawar, was well content to settle down in a comfortable berth amidst the familiar scenes of his childhood. But anyone who loves the ancient country towns of England would have agreed with Bunning that Hathelsborough market-place made an unusually attractive picture on a spring evening. There were the old gabled houses, quaintly roofed and timbered; there the lace-like masonry of High Cross; there the slender proportions of Low Cross; there the mighty bulk of the great church built over the very spot whereon the virgin saint suffered martyrdom; there, towering above the gables on the north side, the well-preserved masonry of the massive Norman Keep of Hathelsborough Castle; there a score of places and signs with which Bunning had kept up a close acquaintance in youth and borne in mind when far away under other skies. And around the church tower, and at the base of the tall keep, were the elms for which the town was famous; mighty giants of the tree world, just now bursting into leaf, and above them the rooks and jackdaws circling and calling above the hum and murmur of the town.

To Bunning's right and left, going away from the eastern corner of the market-place, lay two narrow streets, called respectively River Gate and Meadow Gate—one led downwards to the little river on the southern edge of the town; the other ran towards the wide-spread grass-lands that stretched on its northern boundary. And as he stood looking about him, he saw a man turn the corner of Meadow Gate—a man who came hurrying along in his direction, walking sharply, his eyes bent on the flags beneath his feet, his whole attitude that of one in deep reflection. At sight of him Bunning put his pipe in his pocket, gave himself the soldier's shake and, as the man drew near, stood smartly to attention. The man looked up—Bunning's right hand went up to his cap in the old familiar fashion; that was how, for many a long year of service, he had saluted his superiors.

There was nothing very awe-compelling about the person whom the caretaker thus greeted with so much punctilious ceremony. He was a little, somewhat insignificant-looking man—at first sight. His clothes were well-worn and carelessly put on; the collar of his under-coat projected high above that of his overcoat; his necktie had slipped round towards one ear; his linen was frayed; his felt hat, worn anyway, needed brushing; he wore cotton gloves, too big for him. He carried a mass of papers and books under one arm; the other hand grasped an umbrella which had grown green and grey in service. He might have been all sorts of insignificant things: a clerk, going homeward from his work; a tax-gatherer, carrying his documents; a rent-collector, anxious about a defaulting tenant—anything of that sort. But Bunning knew him for Mr. Councillor John Wallingford, at that time Mayor of Hathelsborough. He knew something else too—that Wallingford, in spite of his careless attire and very ordinary appearance, was a remarkable man. He was not a native of the old town; although he was, for twelve months at any rate, its first magistrate, and consequently the most important person in the place, Hathelsborough folk still ranked him as a stranger, for he had only been amongst them for some twelve years. But during that time he had made his mark in the town—coming there as managing clerk to a firm of solicitors, he had ultimately succeeded to the practice which he had formerly managed for its two elderly partners, now retired. At an early period of his Hathelsborough career he had taken keen and deep interest in the municipal affairs of his adopted town and had succeeded in getting a seat on the Council, where he had quickly made his influence felt. And in the previous November he had been elected—by a majority of one vote—to the Mayoralty and had so become the four hundred and eighty-first burgess of the ancient borough to wear the furred mantle and gold chain which symbolized his dignity. He looked very different in these grandeurs to what he did in his everyday attire, but whether in the Mayoral robes or in his carelessly worn clothes any close observer would have seen that Wallingford was a sharp, shrewd man with all his wits about him—a close-seeing, concentrated man, likely to go through, no matter what obstacles rose in his path, with anything that he took in hand.

Bunning was becoming accustomed to these evening visits of the Mayor to the Moot Hall. Of late, Wallingford had come there often, going upstairs to the Mayor's Parlour and remaining there alone until ten or eleven o'clock. Always he brought books and papers with him; always, as he entered, he gave the custodian the same command—no one was to disturb him, on any pretext whatever. But on this occasion, Bunning heard a different order.

"Oh, Bunning," said the Mayor, as he came up to the iron gates before which the ex-sergeant-major stood, still at attention, "I shall be in the Mayor's Parlour for some time to-night, and I'm not to be disturbed, as usual. Except, however, for this—I'm expecting my cousin, Mr. Brent, from London, this evening, and I left word at my rooms that if he came any time before ten he was to be sent on here. So, if he comes, show him up to me. But nobody else, Bunning."

"Very good, your Worship," replied Bunning. "I'll see to it. Mr. Brent, from London."

"You've seen him before," said the Mayor. "He was here last Christmas—tall young fellow, clean-shaven. You'll know him."

He hurried inside the stone hall and went away by the stairs to the upper regions of the gloomy old place, and Bunning, with another salute, turned from him, pulled out his pipe and began to smoke again. He was never tired of looking out on that old market-place; even in the quietest hours of the evening there was always something going on, something to be seen, trivial things, no doubt, but full of interest to Bunning: folks coming and going; young people sweethearting; acquaintances passing and re-passing; these things were of more importance to his essentially parochial mind than affairs of State.

Presently came along another Corporation official, whom Bunning knew as well as he knew the Mayor, an official who, indeed, was known all over the town, and familiar to everybody, from the mere fact that he was always attired in a livery the like of which he and his predecessors had been wearing for at least two hundred years. This was Spizey, a consequential person who, in the borough rolls for the time being, was entered as Bellman, Town Crier, and Mace Bearer. Spizey was a big, fleshy man, with a large solemn face, a ponderous manner, and small eyes. His ample figure was habited at all seasons of the year in a voluminous cloak which had much gold lace on its front and cuffs and many capes about the shoulders; he wore a three-cornered laced hat on his bullet head, and carried a tall staff, not unlike a wand, in his hand. There were a few—very few—progressive folk in Hathelsborough who regarded Spizey and his semi-theatrical attire as an anachronism, and openly derided both, but so far nobody had dared to advocate the abolition of him and his livery. He was part and parcel of the high tradition, a reminder of the fact that Hathelsborough possessed a Charter of Incorporation centuries before its now more popular and important neighbouring boroughs gained theirs, and in his own opinion the discontinuance of his symbols of office would have been little less serious than the sale of the Mayor's purple robe and chain of solid gold: Spizey, thus attired, was Hathelsborough. And, as he was not slow to remind awe-stricken audiences at his favourite tavern, Mayors, Aldermen and Councillors were, so to speak, creatures of the moment—the Mayor, for example, was His Worship for twelve months and plain Mr. Chipps the grocer ever after—but he, Spizey, was a Permanent Institution, and not to be moved.

Spizey was on his way to his favourite tavern now, to smoke his pipe—which it was beneath his dignity to do in public—and drink his glass amongst his cronies, but he stopped to exchange the time of day with Bunning, whom he regarded with patronizing condescension, as being a lesser light than himself. And having remarked that this was a fine evening, after the usual fashion of British folk, who are for ever wasting time and breath in drawing each other's attention to obvious facts, he cocked one of his small eyes at the stairs behind the iron gates.

"Worship up there?" he asked, transferring his gaze to Bunning.

"Just gone up," answered Bunning. "Five minutes ago."

The Mace-Bearer looked up the market-place, down River Gate and along Meadow Gate. Having assured himself that there was nobody within fifty yards, he sank his mellow voice to a melodious whisper, and poked Bunning in the ribs with a pudgy forefinger.

"Ah!" he said confidingly. "Just so! Again! Now, as a Corporation official—though not, to be sure, of the long standing that I am—what do you make of it?"

"Make of what?" demanded the caretaker.

Spizey came still nearer to his companion. He was one of those men who when disposed to confidential communication have a trick of getting as close as possible to their victims, and of poking and prodding them. Again he stuck his finger into Bunning's ribs.

"Make of what, says you!" he breathed. "Ay, to be sure! Why, of all this here coming up at night to the Moot Hall, and sitting, all alone, in that there Mayor's Parlour, not to be disturbed by nobody, whosomever! What's it all mean?"

"No business of mine," replied Bunning. "Nor of anybody's but his own. That is, so far as I'm aware of. What about it?"

Spizey removed his three-cornered hat, took a many-coloured handkerchief out of it, and wiped his forehead—he was in a state of perpetual warmth, and had a habit of mopping his brow when called on for mental effort.

"Ah!" he said. "That's just it—what about it, do you say? Well, what I say is this here—'taint in accordance with precedent! Precedent, mark you!—which is what a ancient Corporation of this sort goes by. Where should we all be if what was done by our fathers before us wasn't done by us? What has been, must be! Take me, don't I do what's been done in this here town of Hathelsborough for time immemorial? Well, then!"

"That's just it," said Bunning. "Well, then? Why shouldn't his Worship come here at night and stick up there as long as he likes? What's against it?"

"Precedent!" retorted Spizey. "Ain't never been done before—never! Haven't I been in the office I hold nigh on to forty years? Seen a many mayors, aldermen and common councillors come and go in my time. But never do I remember a Mayor coming here to this Moot Hall of a night, with books and papers—which is dangerous matters at any time, except in their proper place, such as my proclamations and the town dockyments—and sitting there for hours, doing—what?"

Bunning shook his head. He was pulling steadily at his pipe as he listened, and he gazed meditatively at the smoke curling away from it and his pipe.

"Well?" he said, after a pause. "And what do you make of it? You'll have some idea, I reckon, a man of your importance."

Once more the Mace-Bearer looked round, and once more applied his forefinger to Bunning's waistline. His voice grew deep with confidence.

"Mischief!" he whispered. "Mischief! That's what I make of it! He's up to something—something what'll be dangerous to the vested interests in this here ancient borough. Ain't he allus been one o' them Radicals—what wants to pull down everything that's made this here country what it is? Didn't he put in his last election address, when he was a candidate for the Council, for the Castle Ward, that he was all for retrenchment and reform? Didn't he say, when he was elected Mayor—by a majority of one vote!—that he intended to go thoroughly into the financial affairs of the town, and do away with a lot of expenses which in his opinion wasn't necessary? Oh, I've heard talk—men in high office, like me, hears a deal. Why, I've heard it said that he's been heard to say, in private, that it was high time to abolish me!"

Bunning's mouth opened a little. He was a man of simple nature, and the picture of Hathelsborough without Spizey and his livery appalled him.

"Bless me!" he exclaimed.

"To be sure!" said Spizey. "It's beyond comprehension! To abolish me!—what, in a manner of speaking, has existed I don't know how long. I ain't a man—I'm a office! Who'd cry things that was lost—at that there Cross? Who'd pull the big bell on great occasions, and carry round the little 'un when there was proclamations to be made? Who'd walk in front o' the Mayor's procession, with the Mace—what was give to this here town by King Henry VII, his very self? Abolish me? Why, it's as bad as talking about abolishing the Bible!"

"It's the age for that sort of thing," remarked Bunning. "I seen a deal of it in the Army. Abolished all sorts o' things, they have, there. I never seen no good come of it, neither. I'm all for keeping up the good old things—can't better 'em, in my opinion. And, as you say, that there mace of ours—'tis ancient!"

"Nobody but one o' these here Radicals and levellers could talk o' doing away with such proper institutions," affirmed Spizey. "But I tell yer—I've heard of it. He said—but you'd scarce believe it!—there was no need for a town crier, nor a bellman, and, as for this mace, it could be carried on Mayor's Day by a policeman! Fancy that, now—our mace carried by a policeman!"

"Dear, dear!" said Bunning. "Don't seem to fit in, that! However," he added consolingly, "if they did abolish you, you'd no doubt get a handsome pension."

"Pension!" exclaimed Spizey. "That's a detail!—it's the office I'm a-considering of. What this here free and ancient borough 'ud look like, without me, I cannot think!"

He shook his head and went sadly away, and Bunning, suddenly remembering that it was about his supper-time, prepared to retreat into the room which he and his wife shared, at the end of the stone hall. But as he entered the gates, a quick firm footstep sounded behind him, and he turned to see a smart, alert-looking young man approaching. Bunning recognized him as a stranger whom he had seen once or twice before, at intervals, in company with Wallingford. For the second time that night he saluted.

"Looking for the Mayor, sir?" he asked, throwing the gate open. "His Worship's upstairs—I was to show you up. Mr. Brent, isn't it, sir?"

"Right!" replied the other. "My cousin left word I was to join him here. Whereabouts is he in this old fortress of yours?"

"This way, sir," said Bunning. "Fortress, you call it, sir, but it's more like a rabbit-warren! No end of twists and turns—that is, once you get inside it."

He preceded Richard Brent up the stone staircase, along narrow corridors and passages, until he came to a door, at which he knocked gently. Receiving no reply he opened it and went in, motioning Brent to follow. But before Bunning had well crossed the threshold he started back with a sharp cry. The Mayor was there, but he was lying face forward across the desk—lifeless.


Chapter 2 THE CAMBRIC HANDKERCHIEF

Bunning knew the Mayor was dead before that cry of surprise had passed his lips. In his time he had seen many dead men—sometimes it was a bullet, sometimes a bayonet; he knew the signs of what follows on the swift passage of one and the sharp thrust of the other. In his first glance into the room he had been quick to notice the limp hand hanging across the edge of the desk, the way in which Wallingford's head lay athwart the mass of papers over which he had collapsed in falling forward from his chair—that meant death. And the old soldier's observant eye had seen more than that—over the litter of documents which lay around the still figure were great crimson stains. The caretaker's cry changed to articulated speech.

"Murder! The Mayor's been murdered!"

Brent, a strongly-built and active man, pushed by, and made for the desk. He was going to lay a hand on his cousin's shoulder, but Bunning stopped him.

"For God's sake, Mr. Brent, don't touch him!" he exclaimed. "Let him be, sir, till the police——" He paused, staring round the gloomy, oak-panelled room from the walls of which the portraits of various dignitaries looked down. "Who on earth can have done it?" he muttered. "It's—it's not three-quarters of an hour since he came up here!"

"Alone?" asked Brent.

"Alone, sir! And I'll take my solemn oath that nobody was here, waiting for him. I'd been in this room myself, not five minutes before he came," said Dunning. "It was empty of course."

Brent disregarded the caretaker's admonition and laid a finger on the dead man's forehead. But Bunning pointed to a dark stain, still spreading, on the back of the Mayor's coat—a well-worn garment of grey tweed.

"Look there, sir," he whispered. "He's been run through the body from behind—right through the heart!—as he sat in his chair. Murder!"

"Who should murder him?" demanded Brent.

Bunning made no answer. He was looking round. There were three doors into that room; he glanced at each, shaking his head after each glance.

"We'd best get the police, at once, Mr. Brent," he said. "The police station's just at the back—there's a way down to it from outside this parlour. I'll run down now. You, sir——"

"I'll stop here," answered Brent. "But get a doctor, will you? I want to know——"

"Dr. Wellesley, the police-surgeon, is next door," replied Brent. "The police'll get him. But he's beyond all doctors, Mr. Brent! Instantaneous—that! I know!"

He hurried out of the room, and Brent, left alone with the dead man, looked at him once again wonderingly. Cousins though they were, he and Wallingford knew little of each other: their acquaintance, such as it was, had not been deep enough to establish any particular affection between them. But since Wallingford's election as Mayor of Hathelsborough Brent, by profession a journalist in London, had twice spent a week-end with him in the old town, and had learnt something of his plans for a reform of certain matters connected with the administration of its affairs. They had discussed these things on the occasion of his last visit, and now, as he stood by the dead man, Brent remembered certain words which Wallingford had spoken.

"There are things that I can do," Wallingford had said, with some confidence. And then he had added, with a cynical laugh, "But there are other things that—why, it would be, literally, as much as my life's worth to even try to undermine them!"

That was now four months since, but Brent remembered. And as he stood there, waiting for help which would be useless, he began to wonder if Wallingford, eager for reform, had attempted anything likely to bring him into personal danger. Certainly, from all that Brent knew of him, he was the sort of man who, having set himself to a task, would let nothing stop him in accomplishing it; he was the sort of man too, Brent thought, who had a genius for making enemies: such men always have. But murder? Cold-blooded, deliberate, apparently well-planned murder! Yet there it was, before him. The Mayor of Hathelsborough had walked up into that room, sacred to his official uses and suggestive in its atmosphere and furniture of his great dignity, and had settled down to his desk, only to be assassinated by some enemy who had taken good care to perform his crime with swiftness and thoroughness.

The sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs outside the half-open door aroused Brent from these melancholy speculations; he turned to see Bunning coming back, attended by several men, and foremost among them, Hawthwaite, superintendent of the borough police, whom Brent had met once or twice on his previous visits to the town. Hawthwaite, a big, bearded man, was obviously upset, if not actually frightened; his ruddy face had paled under the caretaker's startling news, and he drew his breath sharply as he entered the Mayor's Parlour and caught sight of the still figure lying across the big desk in the—middle.

"God bless my life and soul, Mr. Brent!" he exclaimed in hushed tones as he tiptoed nearer to the dead and the living. "What's all this? You found the Mayor dead—you and Bunning? Why—why——"

"We found him as you see him," answered Brent. "He's been murdered! There's no doubt about this, superintendent."

Hawthwaite bent down fearfully towards the dead man, and then looked round at Bunning.

"When did he come up here?" he asked sharply.

"About three-quarters of an hour before Mr. Brent came, sir," replied Bunning. "He came up to me as I was standing outside the gates, smoking my pipe, and said that he was going up to the Mayor's Parlour, and nobody was to be allowed to disturb him, but that if his cousin, Mr. Brent, came, he was to be shown up. Mr. Brent came and I brought him up, and we found his Worship as you see."

"Somebody's been lying in wait for him," muttered Hawthwaite. "Hid in this room!"

"Nobody here five minutes before he came up, sir," affirmed Bunning. "I was up here myself. There was nobody in here, and nobody in this part of the building."

Hawthwaite looked round the room, and Brent looked with him. It was a big room, panelled in old oak to half the height of its walls; above the panelling hung numerous portraits of past occupants of the Mayoral chair and some old engravings of scenes in the town. A wide, old-fashioned fire-place stood to the right of the massive desk; on either side of it were recesses, in each of which there was a door. Hawthwaite stepped across to these in turn and tried them; each was locked from the inside; he silently pointed to the keys.

"The door to the stairs was open, sir," remarked Bunning. "I mean his Worship hadn't locked himself in, as I have known him do."

Hawthwaite nodded. Then he nudged Brent's elbow, looking sideways at the dead man.

"Been done as he sat writing in his chair," he muttered. "Look—the pen's fallen from his fingers as he fell forward. Queer!"

A policeman came hurrying into the room, pulling himself up as he saw what was there. His voice instinctively hushed.

"Dr. Wellesley's just gone down Meadow Gate, sir," he announced. "They've sent for him to come here at once."

"Unless!" murmured the superintendent. "Still——"

Then the five or six men present stood, silently waiting. Some stared about the room, as if wondering at its secret: some occasionally took covert glances at its central figure. One of the three high, narrow windows was open: Brent distinctly heard the murmur of children playing in the streets outside. And suddenly, from the tower of St. Hathelswide, at the other end of the market-place, curfew began to ring.

"He's coming, sir!" whispered the policeman who stood near the door. "On the stairs, sir."

Brent turned as Dr. Wellesley came hurrying into the room; a tall, clean-shaven, fresh-coloured man, who went straight to the desk, looked at what he found there, and turned quickly on the men grouped around.

"How long is it since he was found?" he asked abruptly.

"Ten or twelve minutes," answered Brent.

"Dead then?"

"Yes," said Brent. "I should say—of course, I don't speak professionally—but I should think he'd been dead at least half an hour."

The doctor glanced at the superintendent.

"We must have him taken down to the mortuary," he said. "Let some of you men stay here with me, and send another for my assistant and for Dr. Barber."

The superintendent gave some orders, and touching Brent's arm motioned him to follow outside the room.

"This is a bad business, Mr. Brent!" he said as they paused at the head of the stair. "That's murder, sir! But how on earth did the murderer get in there? Bunning tells me that he himself was standing outside the iron gates at the entrance to the Moot Hall from the time the Mayor entered until you came. He asserts that nobody entered the place by those gates."

"I suppose there are other means of entrance?" suggested Brent.

"Doubtful if anybody could get in by them at this hour of the evening," answered the superintendent. "But there are two ways by which anybody could get to the Mayor's Parlour. They're both what you might call complicated. I'll show you them. Come this way."

He led Brent across a corridor that branched off from the head of the stone staircase, and presently stopped at a big double door.

"This is the Council Chamber," he said, as they entered a spacious apartment. "You see that door in the far corner, over there? There's a staircase leads down from that to the rooms that Bunning and his wife occupy as caretakers—a back stairs, in fact. But nobody can come up it, and through the Council Chamber, and along the corridor to the Mayor's Parlour without first coming through Bunning's rooms, that's flat. As for the other—well, it's still more unlikely."

He led Brent out of the Council Chamber and farther along to another door, which he flung open as he motioned his companion to enter.

"This is the Borough Court," he said. "Magistrates' bench, solicitors' table, and all the rest of it. And there's the dock, where we put the prisoners. Now, Mr. Brent, there's a staircase—a corkscrew staircase, modern, of ironwork—in the corner of that dock which leads down to the cells. And that's the second way by which you could get to the Mayor's Parlour. But just fancy what that means! A man who wanted to reach the Mayor's Parlour by that means of approach would have to enter the police station from St. Laurence Lane, at the back of the Moot Hall, pass the charge office, pass my office, go along a passage in which he'd be pretty certain to meet somebody, come up that stairs into the dock there, cross the court and—so on. That's not likely! And yet, those are the only ways by which there's access to the Mayor's Parlour except by the big staircase from the iron gates."

"What is certain," observed Brent, "is that the murderer did get to the Mayor's Parlour. And what seems more important just now is the question—how did he get away from it, unobserved? If Bunning is certain that no one entered by the front between my cousin's arrival and my coming, he is equally certain that no one left. Is it possible that anyone left by the police station entrance?"

"We'll soon settle that point!" answered Hawthwaite. "Come down there."

He opened the door of the dock and led Brent down an iron staircase into an arched and vaulted hall at its foot, whence they proceeded along various gloomy passages towards a heavy, iron-studded door. Near this, a police constable stood writing at a tall desk; the superintendent approached and spoke to him. Presently he turned back to Brent.

"There's nobody that he doesn't know has been in or out of this place during the whole of the evening," he said. "He's been on duty there since six o'clock. Nobody has entered—or left—during the time that's elapsed."

"I never supposed they had," remarked Brent. "The thing's been done in much cleverer fashion than that! As I said before, what we do know is that the murderer got to the Mayor's Parlour, and that he got away from it!"

Hawthwaite shook his head, with a puzzled expression overspreading his somewhat heavy and unimaginative features.

"Ay, but how?" he said. "How?"

"That's a job for you," replied Brent, with a suggestive glance. "And, if I might suggest it, why not make a thorough examination of the Moot Hall? My cousin showed me over it when I was here last, and I remember some queer places in it."

"There are queer places in it," admitted Hawthwaite. "But it's hardly likely the murderer would hang about after doing what he did. Of course I'll have the whole place searched thoroughly—every inch of it!—for any possible clues and traces. We shall neglect nothing in a case of this sort, I can assure you, Mr. Brent. I—But come into my office."

He led the way into a drab-walled, official-looking apartment, curiously suggestive of the lesser and meaner forms of crime, and pointed to a chair.

"Sit down," he said. "As I was about to say——"

"Oughtn't one to be doing something?" interrupted Brent, refusing the chair. "That's what I feel anyway. Only what can one do?"

"Ah, that's just it!" exclaimed Hawthwaite. "You may feel as energetic as you will, but what can you do? The doctors are doing the absolutely necessary things at present; as for me, all I can do is to search for clues and traces, as I suggested, and make all possible inquiries. But there you are, we've nothing to go on—nothing, I mean, that would identify."

Brent gave the superintendent a keen glance.

"Between ourselves," he said, "have you any reason for suspecting anyone?"

Hawthwaite started. His surprise was genuine enough.

"For suspecting anyone?" he exclaimed. "Good Lord, no, Mr. Brent! His Worship, poor man, wasn't exactly popular in the town—with a certain section, that is—but I couldn't believe that there's man or woman in the place would wish him harm! No, sir—in my opinion this is outside work!"

"Somewhat doubtful whether any outsider could obtain the apparently very accurate knowledge of Hathelsborough Moot Hall which the murderer of my cousin evidently possessed, isn't it?" suggested Brent. "I should say the guilty person is some one who knows the place extremely well!"

Before the superintendent could reply, his partly-open door was further opened, and a little, bustling, eager-faced man, who wore large spectacles and carried a pencil behind his right ear, looked in. Brent recognized him as another of the half-dozen Hathelsborough men whose acquaintance he had made on former visits—Peppermore, the hard-worked editor-reporter of the one local newspaper. Wallingford had introduced him to Peppermore in the smoking-room of the Chancellor Hotel, and Peppermore, who rarely got the chance of talking to London journalists, had been loquacious and ingratiating. His expressive eyebrows—prominent features of his somewhat odd countenance—went up now as he caught sight of Brent standing on the superintendent's hearth-rug. He came quickly into the room.

"Mr. Brent!" he exclaimed. "No idea you were here, sir. My profound sympathy, Mr. Brent! Dear, dear! what a truly terrible affair!" Then, his professional instincts getting the better of him, he turned on Hawthwaite, at the same time pulling out a note-book. "What are the details, Mr. Superintendent?" he asked. "I just met one of your officers, going for Dr. Barber; he gave me the scantiest information, so I hurried to see you."

"And I can't give you any more," replied Hawthwaite. "There are no details yet, my lad! All we know is that the Mayor was found dead in the Mayor's Parlour half an hour ago, and that he's been murdered. You'll have to wait for the rest."

"We don't go to press till 12.30," remarked Peppermore, unperturbed by this curtness. "Perhaps by then you can give me more news, Mr. Superintendent? Murdered! The Mayor of Hathelsborough! Now that's something that's unique in the history of the town, I believe. I was looking over the records not so long since, and I don't remember coming across any entry of such an event as this. Unparalleled!"

Hawthwaite made no reply. At that moment a policeman put his head inside the door and asked him to go to Dr. Wellesley, and he went off, leaving the two newspaper men together. Brent looked at Peppermore and suddenly put an abrupt question to him.

"I guess you'll know," he said meaningly. "Was my cousin unpopular in this place?"

Peppermore turned his big spectacles on his questioner and sank his voice to a whisper.

"Between ourselves," he answered, "in some quarters—very!"

"Of late, I suppose?" suggested Brent.

"Become—gradually—more and more so, Mr. Brent," said Peppermore. "You see, he only got elected Mayor by one vote. That meant that half the Council was against him. Against his policy and ideas, you know. Of course he was a reformer. Those who didn't like him called him a meddler. And in my experience of this place—ten years—it's a bad thing to meddle in Hathelsborough affairs. Too many vested interests, sir! Certainly—amongst some people—Mr. Wallingford was not at all popular. But—murder!"

"There are plenty of people who don't stick at that," remarked Brent. "But you wanted information. I'll give you some." He went on to tell how he and Bunning had found Wallingford, and of the difficulties of access to the Mayor's Parlour. "The thing is," he concluded, "how did the murderer get in, and how did he get away?"

"Queer!" admitted Peppermore, scribbling fast in his note-book. "That's a nice job for the detectives. Looks like a skilfully-planned, premeditated job too——"

Hawthwaite came in again, carrying something in his hand, concealed by a piece of brown paper. His face betokened a discovery.

"Look here!" he said. "No secret about it—you can mention it, Peppermore. Just after you and I had gone out of the Mayor's Parlour, Mr. Brent, Bunning picked something out of the hearth, where it was half-burnt, and what's left charred, and gave it to Dr. Wellesley. See!"

He laid the brown paper on his desk, turned back the edges, and revealed part of a fine cambric pocket-handkerchief, crumpled and blood-stained, charred and blackened.

"Without a doubt," he whispered confidentially, "this belonged to the murderer! He got blood on his hands—he wiped them on this, and threw it away on the fire, to burn. And this half is not burned!"