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The White Room written by Fergus Hume who was a prolific English novelist. This book was published in 1904. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.
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The White Room
CHAPTER I. THE POLICEMAN'S DISCOVERY
CHAPTER II. ANOTHER MYSTERY
CHAPTER III. THE BALDWINS
CHAPTER IV. THE MISSING MOTOR-CAR
CHAPTER V. PUBLIC OPINION
CHAPTER VI. A STRANGE DISCOVERY
CHAPTER VII. THE OTHER WHITE ROOM
CHAPTER VIII. PROFESSOR BOCAROS
CHAPTER IX. MRS. BRAND'S WILL
CHAPTER X. WHAT THE COOK FOUND
CHAPTER XI. THE INQUIRY-AGENT
CHAPTER XII. ARNOLD AND LAURA
CHAPTER XIII. ON THE TRACK
CHAPTER XIV. THE NEW TENANT
CHAPTER XV. THE PROFESSOR'S COURTING
CHAPTER XVI. A SURPRISE
CHAPTER XVII. THE PROFESSOR'S TRUMP CARD
CHAPTER XVIII. A STORY OF THE PAST
CHAPTER XIX. STILL A MYSTERY
CHAPTER XX. THE HOUSE IN THE FIELDS
CHAPTER XXI. THE TRUTH
CHAPTER XXII. THE WIND-UP
"Eleven o'clock and a windy night!" might have been the cry of a mediæval watchman at that hour on the 24th July 19—. Constable Mulligan was more reticent, as it formed no part of his duties to intimate publicly the time or the state of the weather. Nevertheless the bells of the Anglican Church, Troy, London, S.W., chimed the hour through the clamour of a high wind; and those people who were not in bed must have decided to retire. Not that any one appeared to be stirring. The lights were extinguished in all windows within the range of Mulligan's vision, and the flashing of his lantern on the doors and gates in Achilles Avenue showed that they were discreetly closed. Not even a tramp or a cat enlivened the roadway. Mulligan was apparently the sole waking person in a sleeping world.
Troy was a bran-new suburb, built by a jerry-builder, who knew Greek history through the medium of Lempriere's Dictionary. This pseudo-scholar had erected classic villas with classic names in roads, avenues, and streets designated by Hellenic appellations. The rents in this anachronistic suburb were rather high, and the houses were inhabited mostly by stockbrokers, prosperous or not, according to their wits or the state of the money-market. There was also a sprinkling of schoolmasters, professors, and students, attracted by the phraseology of the place, which promised cultured surroundings. The drainage was perfect and the morals were unexceptional So new was the suburb, that not even a slum had been evolved to mar its cleanliness. The police, having little to do in so genteel a neighbourhood, were individually and collectively more for ornament than use. The ten years' history of the locality was one of order, intense respectability, and consequent dulness. Only in a rogues' purlieus is life picturesque and exciting.
Mulligan was a black-haired giant, somewhat dull, but possessed of a dogged sense of duty, eminently useful when taken in conjunction with brute force. He paced his beat in a ruminative frame of mind, thinking, not unpleasantly, of a certain pretty housemaid, with whom he intended to walk out on Sunday. Being as talkative as Bunyan's character of that name, Mulligan would not have been displeased to meet a brother-officer, or even a stray reveller, with whom to converse. But his fellows were in other neighbourhoods, and revellers were unknown in the respectable streets of Troy; so Mulligan, for the sake of hearing his own voice, hummed a little song in a deep bass growl. He passed Hector Villa, Agamemnon Villa, Paris Villa, and Priam Villa, all of which were in darkness, enshrined in leafy gardens. At the gate of Ajax Villa he halted. A light in a first-floor window over the classic porch showed that the inmates had not yet retired. Also a woman was singing. Constable Mulligan, being fond of music, waited to hear the song.
"Kathleen Mavourneen;" thought he, recognising the melody, "and a fine pipe she has who sings it. It's a party they'll be having within, with the tongues clapping and the whisky flowing. Begorra, it's myself that's wishing I had some of that same," and he wiped his mouth with a longing air.
As he stood at the gate, looking up the wide path which ran straightly to the shallow steps of the porch through a short avenue of elms in full leaf, he became aware that some one was coming out of the front door. The constable put it to himself in this way, as he heard the sound of opening and shutting, but no stream of light, as he expected, poured from the hall. With such darkness there could scarcely be a party in progress. Also—as Mulligan's quick ears detected—the door was opened with unusual caution and closed with equal care. The person who had emerged—whether it was a man or a woman the policeman could not guess—hesitated on the steps for a few minutes. Apparently the officer's form bulked blackly against the light of the opposite street-lamp, and the stranger was undecided whether to re-enter the house, or to come down the path. Mulligan was too dense to be suspicious, and merely wondered why the person in question did not fulfil his or her original intention. Meanwhile the song flowed an smoothly, and Mulligan half unconsciously noted that although the words were sung slowly, the piano music between each verse was played hurriedly.
Finally, thinking that the stranger on the steps would not approve of a policeman leaning on the gate, Mulligan turned away with the airy grace of an elephant. Hardly had he taken a few steps when a young man came quickly down the path with a light, springy step. In a pleasant tenor voice he called to the constable. "Anything wrong, officer?" he asked, and the gate clicked behind him as he uttered the words.
Mulligan, halting under a street-lamp, saluted good-humouredly. "No, sir," he declared. "I was just listening to your good lady singing."
"My sister," corrected the man, also pausing under the lamp, but in such a position that the light did not reveal his countenance. "You ought to like that song, constable."
"An' for why, sir?"
"It's Irish, as you are."
"Augh! An' is it me, sir, you'd be calling Irish?"
"The way in which you turn that sentence would stamp your nationality, even if the brogue didn't," retorted the young man, taking out a silver cigarette-case. "You smoke, officer?"
"Mostly a pipe, sir," rejoined Mulligan, accepting the little roll of tobacco. "Is it a light you'll be wanting?"
"Thanks," said the other, and bent down to ignite his cigarette at the match provided by the policeman. But he still kept his face in shadow. Not that Mulligan had any desire or reason to see it. He merely thought that the gentleman was a departing guest, although he could not account for the dark hall, which set aside the idea of a party. Moreover, the stranger was arrayed in a light tweed suit, which was not exactly appropriate for a party. Also he wore a loose overcoat of bluish-black cloth, with a deep velvet collar and velvet cuffs made in the latest fashion. On so warm a night, this garment was quite unnecessary. Still, Mulligan had no reason to be suspicious, and was the last man to be inquisitive. He had the politeness if not the keen wit of the Celt.
After lighting his cigarette the gentleman strolled away towards the ancient village which formed the nucleus of modern Troy. Unwilling to lose the chance of a pleasant conversation, and perhaps a kindly shilling, Mulligan followed, and beside the light active form of his companion looked like a bear lumbering in the company of an antelope. The gentleman did not appear anxious to talk, so Mulligan made the first remark.
"The song's done," said he, as they walked on.
"It isn't a long song," replied the other carelessly. "I dare say she'll start another soon, and you can listen at the gate half the night, if you have a mind to."
"It's a party you'll be having then, sir?"
"Party! No! Can't people sit up till midnight without having the house full of dancers?"
"Augh," grunted Mulligan; "there being no light in the hall, I might have guessed there was no party."
The other man started slightly and laughed uneasily. "My sister asked me to turn out the light when I went," said he. "I did so before I opened the door."
"You'll be going home then, sir?"
"Yes—to the other end of London. Is there a hansom about?"
"Near the station, sir. That'll be half a mile away."
"I know—I know," retorted the other quickly. "I often come here to see my sister." He paused, then added anxiously: "I suppose you know most of the people who live in these villas?"
"None, sir. I've only been on this beat a week."
"You'll get to know them soon, I expect. A quiet place, officer."
"It is that, sir," assented Mulligan, as they turned down a narrow and lonely street. "Never a robbery or an accident or a murder to make things happy."
"Why should there be a murder?" asked the man angrily. "Murders are not so common."
"More common than you think, sir, but the most of them aren't found out. It is I who'd like a really fine crime with my name in the papers, and a printed recommendation as an efficient officer. None of your poker murders and plain sailing you'll understand, sir, but a mystery, as you read of in them little books written by gentry as don't know the law."
"Ah! Incidents in detective novels rarely occur in real life," said the other, with a more tranquil laugh. "Providence is too original to borrow in that way. But live in hope, officer, a crime may come your way sooner than you expect."
"Not hereabouts, sir." Mulligan shook his head gloomily. "It's too clean a neighbourhood."
"The very place where a crime is likely to occur. Have you another light, constable?"
Mulligan struck another match, and this time he saw the face of the speaker clearly. It was a handsome face, rather worried-looking. But as the stranger wore a moustache and a small pointed beard, and as his Homberg hat—it was grey with a black band—was pressed down over his eyes, Mulligan could not determine if he were more than usually worried. Not that he minded. He fancied after some reflection that this handsome young gentleman was—as he put it—out on the spree, and therefore took the marks of worry for those of dissipation. He did not even examine the face closely, but when the match was extinguished he halted. "There's the half-hour, sir. I must get back to my beat."
"And I must race for a cab," said the stranger, pressing a half-crown into a not unwilling hand. "Thanks for coming so far with me, officer. I wonder if my watch is right," he added, pulling it out. "It's half-past eleven." Something fell at the moment, chipped against the curb with a tinkling sound, and rebounded into the road. "You've dropped something, sir," said Mulligan, flashing his lantern towards the middle of the street.
The other felt his pockets. "No, I don't think so. Can you see anything? Oh, no matter. I dare say—what can I have dropped?"
The two searched for a time without success. At length the stranger shook his head positively, and felt his pockets again. "You must be mistaken," he remarked. "I don't think anything is missing. However, if you do find anything, you can give it to me when you see me next. You are usually on this beat?"
"For the next three nights, sir."
"Ah then, we are sure to meet. I often come here. Good night." And with a wave of his hand the gentleman walked rapidly away. At the turn of the street he looked back and again waved his hand. It might have been that he was anxious to see if the constable was watching him. But no such suspicion occurred to Mulligan. He was too pleased with the half-crown.
"A fine upstanding young gentleman," was the policeman's verdict; "free with his money"—he here produced the cigarette—"and his tobacco, good luck go with him."
As the inspector was not within sight, and indeed would not be until Mulligan returned to the fixed point in Achilles Avenue, the policeman decided to solace himself with a smoke. After lighting up he threw away the match. It fell almost in the middle of the road, and flamed up brightly in a pause of the wind. Although it went out with the next gust, Mulligan, in the short time, caught with his keen eye the glitter of steel. Striking another match, he searched round, and picked up a latch-key, long and slim and with scarcely projecting wards. "He'll not get to his bed this night," said Mulligan, looking towards the corner. "If I was to run after him now———"
But this, he decided, was impossible. The gentleman, walking at an unusually rapid pace, would be some distance away, and also in the meantime he might have met with a hansom. Also Mulligan had to return to the fixed point, as failure to meet his superior officer would meet with a sharp reprimand. "Ah well," said the philosophic policeman, "the young gentleman will be here to-morrow night, or maybe his sister will be still up, and I can give the key to her."
On the chance of securing another half-crown, Mulligan decided that this latter course would be the more diplomatic. Astutely adopting it, he walked smartly to Achilles Avenue. A consultation of his Waterbury watch assured him that he had nearly twenty minutes to spare before the arrival of the inspector. He therefore sought out Ajax Villa, being guided thereto by the fact that the light was still burning on the first floor. But he heard no singing. However, the light showed that the lady was still in the room, though doubtless the servants—as was shown plainly by the stranger's conversation—were in bed. Mulligan walked up to the door and rang. With some foresight he argued the lady would come herself to the door, whereby he would be more certain of his money.
The wind was dying down, now that it was close upon midnight, and everything in the house and garden was absolutely still. Walking up the path under the umbrageous shelter of the elms, Mulligan saw the colours of the flowers in neutral tints under a faint starry sky. There was no moon, but a kind of luminous twilight pervaded the atmosphere. Mulligan, being a Celt, was not impervious to the charm of the place which might have been Juliet's garden, so strangely had the magic of night transmuted its commonplace into romance. But his housemaid was expensive, and he hurried to the door, anxious to obtain a reward for the return of the key.
Several times did he ring, and although he heard the shrill vibration of the bell echo through the house, no one appeared in answer to its imperative summons. Thinking he might have made a mistake, the constable stepped back into the garden. But he was right. This was the villa out of which the young man had issued, for there burned the guiding light on the first floor. Mulligan felt puzzled by the inexplicable silence and rang the bell again. Indeed he pressed his great thumb on the ivory button for nearly one minute. The bell shrilled continuously and imperiously. Still no one came. Mulligan scratched his head and considered. "Something's wrong," thought he. "If I'd the key I'd enter and see if the lady is ill. Queer, the bell don't waken the servants. Augh! The lazy beasts."
It occurred to him that in his hand he held the key dropped by the young gentleman. Almost without thinking he fumbled for the hole and slipped in the key. To his surprise it turned under his involuntary pressure, and the door swung open noiselessly. Again the constable scratched his head. Things—so he assured himself—were becoming mysterious, and he scented an adventure. It was strange that this key should open the door. "Unless this is his home, and he's running away for some devilment. Maybe the lady isn't his sister; perhaps his wife or his sweetheart. Augh! But she'd not let him go at this hour. Catch her."
However he might argue, it was foolish to stand before an open door without doing something. The inspector would be round soon, and might—probably would—demand an explanation. Now that he had got this far, Mulligan naturally decided to see the adventure through. As yet he had no suspicion that anything was wrong, though he certainly thought the whole affair mysterious. Walking into the dark hall, at the end of which, by the light of his lantern, he saw the glimmer of a marble staircase, he called gently up into the blackness. "Is there any one there?" demanded Mulligan. "If so, come down, for I'm in want of an explanation."
He paused and listened. There came no reply. The dense silence held the house. Not even a clock ticked. Mulligan suppressed his breath and listened with all his ears. No sound filled them save the drumming of his heart. Again he ran into the garden and again assured himself that the light was burning overhead. He began to conclude that the position called for the intervention of the law. Assuming an official air, he tramped up the stairs, flashing the light right and left as he ascended. He did not know the position of the room, save that it was in the front of the house. But thus indicated, he thought there would be little difficulty in finding it and solving the mystery.
From the glimpses he caught, the house appeared to be richly furnished. He saw pictures, velvet curtains, marble statues, and all the paraphernalia of a wealthy man's mansion. The stairs were draped with scarlet hangings, contrasting vividly with the whiteness of the polished marble. On the landing, curtains of the same flamboyant hue were parted before another dark hall. Mulligan crossed this, for he saw—or thought he saw—a thread of light beneath a door. The hall was of marble and filled with tropical plants. A glass roof overhead revealed the starry night and the grotesque forms of the plants. The flooring was of mosaic, and here and there stood velvet-cushioned chairs, deep and restful. Evidently the house was owned by rich and artistic people. And the fitful gleams from his lantern exaggerated the wealth and splendour around.
In spite of the noise made by his boots—which were anything but light—no one appeared to demand the reason of his intrusion. He began to feel an eerie feeling creeping over him. This silent, lordly house, the darkness, the stillness, the loneliness: it was all calculated to appeal strongly—as it did—to the Celtic imagination of the policeman.
Towards the thin stream of light flowing, as it seemed, from under the door, Mulligan took his cautious way. Knocking softly, he waited. No reply came. Again he knocked, and again the silence which struck a chill to his heart ensued. At length he took his courage in both hands and flung open the door. It was not locked. A gush of light nearly blinded him. He staggered back, and placed his hands across his dazzled eyes. Then he looked in bewilderment at a remarkable scene. The room was square and rather large, unbroken by pillar or arch, and contained only one window. Walls and roof and flooring aid furniture and hangings were absolutely white. There was not a spot or speck of colour in the place. The walls were of white enamel studded with silver fleur-de-lis; the floor of polished marble strewn with white skins of long-haired animals. The curtains, drawn aside from the window, were of milky velvet. The furniture was of white polished wood cushioned with pearly silks. Everywhere the room was like snow, and the milky globes of the lamps shed an argent radiance over the whole. It looked cold and cheerless but eminently beautiful. An artistic room, but not one that had a homely look about it. The white glow, the dazzling expanse, colourless and severe, made the man shiver, rough though he was. "It's like a cold winter's day," said the imaginative Celt.
Suddenly he uttered an exclamation. On moving cautiously into the room, he saw a piano of polished white wood in a recess, concealed by a white velvet curtain from the door. Before the piano lay a white bearskin; on this, face downward; the body of a woman. She was dressed in black, the one spot of colour in that pale room. But there was another colour—a vivid red, staining the skin. Mulligan touched the body—it was cold and limp. "Dead," said Mulligan. From under the left shoulder-blade trickled a thin stream of blood, and his voice, strong as it was, used as he had been to scenes of terror, faltered in the dead silence of that death-chamber.
Not a sound. Even the wind had died away. Only the strong man looking down at that still corpse, only the blackness of her dress; the redness of her life-blood soaking into the white bearskin, and all around the wan desolation of that white, mysterious room, Arctic and silent.
Mulligan stared at the dead woman, but beyond touching her to see if life remained, he did not attempt to alter the position of the corpse. For corpse it was. The woman was as dead as a stone, and Mulligan knew his duty too well to take any authority upon himself the inspector was the man to issue orders, and the inspector would be at the head of Achilles Avenue when the clock struck twelve. As this thought passed slowly through the policeman's mind—for the unexpectedness of the tragedy had somewhat dazed him—he heard the midnight chimes. With a sudden start he recovered his wits and wheeled round. In a few minutes he was out of the house, and had closed the door. Only when in the roadway did his brain begin to work at its normal speed.
"It's that young gentleman," thought Mulligan. "He said I'd come across a crime sooner than I expected. And the key is his. Mary, be good to us; but he must have killed the poor creature before he joined me. Augh!" He stopped and considered. "But if that's so, what about the singing. She was at the piano, and the song wasn't done when the gentleman joined me. Augh!"
At this moment of his reflection, and while he was looking anxiously down the road for the inspector, a man came walking rapidly along, and suddenly emerged from a side-street that ran at right angles to Achilles Avenue. He almost dashed into the arms of Mulligan, who brought up short under a lamp. "Where are ye going?" asked the policeman, rendered suspicious by his recent discovery and by the manifest haste of the man.
"Going, confound you!" snapped the man, who seemed to be in a very bad temper. "I'm looking for my motor-car."
"For your what?"
"Motor-car! Automobile! Can't you understand English? I've lost it. Some one's bolted with the whole kit. Have you seen my car? It's painted yellow picked out with black, and———"
"Here's the inspector," chipped in Mulligan, recognising with relief the rigid form of his superior. "You can tell him, and if you're the man, anything you may say will be used in evidence against you. That's the law. Augh!"
The man stared at this speech, but Mulligan wiped his heated brow and glared at him in a resentful manner, not at all sure but what this might be the criminal. There was no ground for such a supposition, especially as the key belonged to another man. But Mulligan was not in a position to weigh his words, and therefore said the first thing that came into his mind. So the man stared, Mulligan scowled, and the inspector drew near.
"You've been drinking, bobby," said the man at length. "My name is Luther Tracey. I manufacture motor-cars, and some beast has bolted with one of the best I've ever turned out. Such a flier. I guess you police hereabouts ain't worth a cent."
"You're American," said Mulligan.
"And you're several kinds of ass, I reckon. See here, about this car of mine."
Mr. Tracey would have gone on to explain at length, but that he was interrupted by the arrival of the inspector, who was tall and thin, military and sharp. He glanced keenly at Tracey, and inquiringly at Mulligan. The engineer would have begun talking at once, as he appeared to have a considerable fund of what his countrymen call "chin-music"; but Mulligan waved him aside, and reported hurriedly to Inspector Derrick what he had discovered. Although Derrick was manifestly surprised and excited by the strange recital, he made no remark; but when in possession of Mulligan's facts—which ranged from his meeting with the young gentleman to his leaving the dead body in the house—he turned to Tracey. That man was listening eagerly, and seemed quite interested.
"Well, I surmise that's a queer case," said he, smacking his leg. "What do you make of it, inspector? If you want to know my opinion, the man as laid out that lady corpse has bolted with my motor-car."
"No," said Mulligan; "he walked with me for a—— When did you miss your car, sir?"
"You might call it a few minutes after eleven."
"He was with me then," said the policeman; "'twasn't him. No!"
Derrick, who had preserved silence, chimed in "Who are you, sir?"
"My name's Tracey," replied the American smartly; "here's my card. I manufacture motor-cars, and came to see some friends of mine this night in one of my latest. I left her humming at the gate, and at ten minutes after eleven I went out to start her for the factory. Nary a sign of the car, sir, and I've been chasing round these lanes for the last hour. This lunatic"—he pointed to Mulligan—"seems to think I have to do with the murder. Don't you think you'd better run me in? It 'ull be an advertisement and a smart action for false imprisonment."
Derrick smiled under his heavy moustache, and took a long look at Mr. Tracey. The American was fair and handsome, active in his movements and compact in his frame. He wore fashionable evening-dress, and looked a shrewd, pleasant man of the world, who had travelled much and had his wits about him. The mention he made of arrest showed Derrick that the man was innocent. Not even a Yankee's passion for advertising his goods would hurry a man into the grip of the law if he were in any way guilty. The inspector, however, did not think it wise to lose sight of Tracey, and being diplomatic he behaved towards him in quite an affable way. "You might come with me and see into this matter," he said, moving on.
"Rather," rejoined Tracey with alacrity. "I'm dead gone on adventures, and this is a ripper. Wonder if I can get an advertisement out of it? What do you think, sir?"
"Well, if your car is missing———"
"'Course. The man's raced off with it."
"No," denied Mulligan again; "he was with me at the time your car was lost."
"Do you think the man you talked to, killed this woman?" asked the inspector, turning sharply on Mulligan.
"I do and I don't, sir."
"What do you mean by that?"
Mulligan scratched his head. "He had the key, and he came out of the house sure enough. But she was singing when he talked to me at the gate. She wasn't dead then."
"Then he must be innocent," said Derrick sharply. "Do you know to whom the villa belongs?"
"No, sir. Here it is, and you can see that the light's still burning as I left it. I haven't touched the body, sir."
"You did right," approved Derrick, swinging open the gate. "Wait, we must look at the name. Your lantern, Mulligan."
The light illuminated the black letters on the gate, but before the inspector could pronounce the name, Tracey did it for him. "Ajax Villa—Ajax Villa," said he, stopping; "sakes, it's Fane's house. Don't tell me it's Mrs. Fane—such a fine woman. But it can't be."
"Why not?" said Derrick, looking at him suspiciously.
"Because the whole family are at the seaside—all except Miss Mason."
"Where is she, and who is she?"
"Miss Mason is the sister of Mrs. Fane, and she's stopping with the friends I was seeing when my car was stolen."
This was a strange discovery, and Derrick looked puzzled. Tracey spoke in all good faith, and seemed quite willing to enter the house. All the same it was queer he should know so much about the matter. As the constable opened the door Derrick asked a question. "You heard Mulligan describe the man who came out of this house," he said; "can you tell me who he is?"
"No," confessed Tracey. "I know very little of Mr. Fane and his family. I've never been in this house. But Miss Mason is the bosom friend of the girl I'm going to engineer into the position of Mrs. Tracey. She's Gerty Baldwin at present, and lives at No. 20 Meadow Lane along with her mother and the kids. Now, is there anything else you want, to know, Mr. Inspector?"
"Not at present. But later on." Derrick nodded and walked into the house, followed by the two men.
"Oh, anything you like," called out Tracey, not at all damped by the fact of death being in the house, "anything for an advertisement. I guess I'll sell that ear at a big figure. Tussaud's will buy it if the murderer's skipped in it."
"He hasn't," said Mulligan, still confused.
"He has," insisted the American. "Why should an honest man yank off my car? Some one wanted to get out of the way in a hurry, and he took my flier. I guess he's out of London by this time. She can skim a bit. Oh, I reckon she's no slouch."
"Hush," said Derrick sharply, and removed his cap. Tracey did the same, for the presence of death—the immediate presence—began to sober him. Mulligan stood rigidly at the door while Derrick examined the body. "Is it Mrs. Fane?" he asked.
"No," said Tracey, staring at a girlish face, still and white and waxen. "Mrs. Fane would make two of this poor thing. She's a Junoesque sort of woman, about the size of the Venus of Milo, and the same shape, too. This is a slip of a girl."
"A married woman," said Derrick, pointing to a ring on the hand. He walked slowly round the room. "Mulligan," said he, "go and see if any one else is in the house———"
"I tell you Fane and family are at the seaside," said Tracey.
"Never mind. There may be a caretaker. Look round, Mulligan, and see if any windows or doors are unlocked or open. Mr. Tracey, please sit still and silent. I wish to make an examination."
Mulligan departed promptly, and the American sat comfortably in a deep armchair watching the inspector. That gentleman prowled round like a sleuth-hound. He examined the window, then scrambled along the floor, shook various curtains, shifted several cushions, and finally knelt beside the body after a glance at the piano. He interrupted his examination to point out the music. "According to Mulligan, she was singing 'Kathleen Mavourneen,'" said he. "There's the song. Poor soul. She was evidently struck down when singing."
"Then the man met by Mulligan is innocent, since he was outside while the song was still being sung."
"He might be an accessory before the fact, Mr. Tracey."
"In other words, an accomplice. But he didn't nick my car. No, sir. The real murderer did that, and I guess that car's worth money at the boss waxwork show of this metropolis. They can fire it into the chamber of horrors along with Napoleon's cart and the baby's pram. What figure would you ask now, inspector?"
"You go too fast, Mr. Tracey. We don't know yet that the criminal has stolen your car. Is the house you were visiting far from here?"
"Oh, I guess not. Mrs. Baldwin hangs out No. 20———"
"Yes," interrupted Derrick, "you told me. That's no distance. Meadow Lane—to be sure—part of Old Troy."
"No," contradicted Tracey. "The village is called Cloverhead."
"And round the village Troy has been built, so the lesser name is merged in the larger."
"Sounds legal, and not quite right, Mr. Inspector. Say, your name's———"
"Derrick. Inspector Derrick. I am in charge of the Troy police, and this is the first crime of any sort I have stumbled across here."
"Slow lot," commented the American. "In our country we'd have filled the boneyard in six months."
"We don't murder on that gigantic scale here, Mr. Tracey," Derrick answered, somewhat dryly. Then he looked steadily and keenly at the man. "I'm going to trust you," he declared.
Tracey whistled, and stared doubtfully at the body. "Shouldn't if I were you, sir. Here's a crime, and I know a lot———"
"Oh, you do! What do you know?"
"What I've told you. I might be an accomplice too, you see, along with the other man."
"No. The rooster who skipped with my car. He didn't stick that poor girl there. Not he. Guess he kept your copper employed in jaw while the real murderer polished off the female. That's how I size up things. Well, sir, and what do you want me to do?"
"Fetch a doctor."
"Don't know any hereabouts My knowledge of this township is limited to Meadow Lane, and Miss Baldwin's favourite walk across the fields. 'Sides"—he cast a quizzical look at the officer—"I might not come back."
"Oh yes, you will. I shouldn't let you go if I wasn't sure you'd return, if only for the sake of your car and the advertisement."
Tracey laughed. "Well, where's the medicine man?"
Derrick scribbled a few lines on his card, and passed it along. "Go there, and ask Dr. Geason to come here—the sooner the better."
"Right, sir!" Tracey rose and looked wistfully down at the dead. "I guess the man who did that would be lynched in our country."
"He'll be hanged in this when found," retorted Derrick. "Go, please."
When the American was out of the room the inspector resumed his examination. Mulligan returned when he was in the middle of a brown study. "There's nothing to be seen, sir," he reported. "No one in the house. Doors and windows all bolted and barred. Not a sign."
"Strange," mused Derrick. "You are sure that the man who came out of the house was speaking with you while the singing was going on?"
"I'll take my oath on it, sir. He can't be guilty."
"Did he strike you as being confused?"
"Not very, sir. He didn't want his face to be seen, though, and kept his hat down on his eyes. He said the lady who was singing was his sister, and that he often came to see her."
"H'm! Why should he come to a house which is shut up?"
"He had the latch-key."
"Hand it over to me," said Derrick, and when in possession of it, took a long look at the size and shape. "New," said he, rapping it on his knuckles. "Hasn't been used much."
"Might be polished from too much use, sir," ventured Mulligan.
"The edges wouldn't be so rough if it wasn't new." Derrick pointed this fact out. "You don't know the man's name?"
"Nor where he lives?"
"No, sir; I had no reason to ask him anything."
"Well, I suppose you couldn't foresee that we should want him. I don't expect he'll turn up in this neighbourhood again."
"What's your theory, sir?"
"It's early to form one, Mulligan. I fancy two men killed this woman. The one you saw kept you in conversation, while the other murdered the woman, and then cleared, while his accomplice led you away. Did you hear a scream?"
"No, sir. The song ended as we left the gate, and in a few minutes we were too far away to hear any cry."
"As I thought. The man was an accomplice sent out to lure you away."
"It might be, sir," confessed Mulligan. "I was leaning over the gate when the young gentleman came out."
"The men saw you from the window, and as they couldn't kill the woman while you were there, Number One went out to draw you away, while Number Two remained behind to commit the crime. At what hour did you part with Number One?"
"Half-past eleven, sir. I was with him thirty minutes."
"Time enough for Number Two to murder the woman and make off. He escaped by the front door, since you say the back premises are locked up. Ah! There's the doctor. Go to the station and send on——" Here Derrick named two of his most trusted subordinates.
When Mulligan left, the inspector resumed his examination. Already he had looked over the clothing of the deceased. She was plainly but tastefully dressed in black, but wore no ornaments. Everything was of good quality, but made without trimmings. The under-linen was equally fine, but on it the inspector could find no mark or initials likely to indicate the name. Apparently she had been seated at the piano when stabbed, and had fallen dead on the bearskin almost without a cry. The assassin had assured himself that she was dead, then had turned her face downward, so as to avoid the horrified stare of those wide-open eyes. At least this was the inspector's view.
"A pretty woman," said Derrick musingly. "Fair, slender, blue eyes, delicate hands. I should think she was a lady. Married"—he touched the ring—"but not rich, since she wears no ornaments. Careful in her dress, but, not mean, and not fashionable either. Hullo!"
This exclamation was drawn from him by the sight of a hat and cloak thrown over a chair on the further side of the piano. These were also fine, but neat and unpretentious. The woman must have come to the house on a visit, since she certainly would not have placed her out-of-door things in such a place and have sat down had she a bedroom in the house. But what was she doing in a mansion, the owner of which was at the seaside? Had the first man let her in with his latch-key, and if so, how did he come to be in possession of the latch-key? These were questions which the inspector was trying to answer when the doctor arrived.
Geason was an ambitious young medical man who had set up in Troy a year previously, and was trying hard to scrape a practice together. He was well aware that such a case as this would give him a much-desired publicity, and consequently expressed himself profoundly grateful to Derrick for the job. Then he knelt beside the body and made an examination, while Tracey, who had returned, questioned the inspector. "Found out anything?" he asked.
"Only that the woman was a visitor to this house," and Derrick pointed out the cloak and hat.
"Strange," said the American. "Wonder what she meant making free with a man's house in his absence?"
"Are you sure Mr. Fane's at the seaside?"
"Certain. Miss Baldwin was told by Miss Mason—and she's Mrs. Fane's sister—that they would stay a month. Westcliff-on-Sea is the place. Miss Mason got a letter yesterday. Fane was there then."
"It is an easy run from Westcliff-on-Sea to this place," responded Derrick dryly. "A man can fetch this house from there in a couple of hours. But I don't suspect Mr. Fane."
"He might be the man with the latch-key."
"No." Derrick thought of the key being new. "I don't think so. Did any young man stay in this house?"
"Not that I know of. You'd better ask Miss Mason. I know nothing about this ranche. Well, doctor?"
"She's been dead nearly five hours," said Geason, rising.
"Nonsense," said Derrick. "She was alive at eleven, and it's not one o'clock yet."
"I don't know about that," persisted Geason, "but from the condition of the body and the lack of warmth, I say she has been dead five hours."
Derrick and Tracey looked at one another perplexed. If the doctor was right—and he seemed positive—this unknown person could not have been the woman who sang "Kathleen Mavourneen."
"There's four of them," said Tracey; "two women and two men."
Derrick shook his head. The case was too mysterious for him to venture an opinion.
"Maryanneliza, do keep the children quiet. The bad twins are fighting with the good twins, and the odd ones are making such a noise that I can't finish this story."
"Well, ma'am, there's so much to be done. The breakfast's to clear away, and the washing to be counted, and——"
"Oh, don't trouble me," cried Mrs. Baldwin, settling herself on the sofa. "It's one of my bad days. What Miss Mason will think of the way this house is kept, I don't know. What do I pay you wages for?"
"It's little enough I get," said Mary Ann Eliza, firing up.
"More than you're worth," retorted her mistress. "If you were a mother, with seven orphans to keep, you might talk. Where's Miss Gerty?"
"Gone to see Mr. Tracey at the factory."
"So like her," lamented the mother; "no consideration for my feelings. What I feel only the doctor knows. There!" as several wild screams rent the air to tatters, "that's blood. If any one of my darlings die, I'll hold you responsible, Maryanneliza!" Mrs. Baldwin ran the three names into one as the children did, and shrieked out to stop the servant from going. But Maryanneliza knew better. If she stopped to listen to Mrs. Baldwin's complaints, there would be no work done. She simply bolted to see which child was being tormented to death, and Mrs. Baldwin, after calling in vain, subsided into her book, and solaced herself with a lump of Turkish delight.
She was not unlike a Turkish odalisque herself, if rumour speaks truly of their fatness and flabbiness. A more shapeless woman it would have been hard to discover, and she usually wore a tea-gown as the least troublesome garment to assume. From one week's end to the other, Mrs. Baldwin never went out, save for a stroll in the garden. Not even the delights of shopping could tempt her into making any exertion, and she had long since ceased to care for the preservation of her figure or good looks. At one time of her life she had been handsome, but the production of seven children, including two sets of twins, had proved too much for her. Also her second husband had deserted her, and as he had been responsible for six children, she complained bitterly of his absence. He was supposed to be alive, but kept carefully away from his too prolific wife. For eight years she had not heard from him, but never ceased to expect him back.
Mrs. Baldwin's first husband had been a gentleman, and she was the pretty daughter of a lodging-house keeper, who had ensnared him when he was not on his guard. His family disowned him, and after the birth of a daughter, the young man broke his neck when hunting. He left Mrs. Harrow, as she was then, with the child and five hundred a year. Afterwards a man called Rufus Baldwin, attracted by the money, married the pretty young widow. Luckily, owing to the will, Mr. Baldwin was not able to seize the principal of the income. But he lived on his wife till six children came to lessen the money, and then finding he could get nothing more luxurious, he ran away. Mrs. Baldwin then removed to Cloverhead, and occupied an old manor-house at a small rent. It was a pleasant, rambling old mansion in a quiet street, and here she lived very comfortably on her five hundred a year.
"Do you remember Gerty Harrow with whom we were at school?" wrote Laura Mason to an old friend. "She lives here, near the place of my brother-in-law, and is now about twenty-two years of age. Such a nice girl—pretty and clever, and engaged to a most amusing American called Luther Tracey. He manufactures motor-cars, and Gerty Baldwin drives them. Whenever a car is sold, Gerty goes down and stops for a week or so with the people who buy it, to show them how it works. Being pretty she gets plenty to do. Mrs. Baldwin objected to Gerty doing this for a livelihood, and only consented when Gerty agreed to drop her father's name. She is Miss Baldwin now, and I like her more than ever. The mother——"
Here followed several marks of exclamation, as though Laura's powers of writing failed her, as they assuredly did. It would have taken the pen of Dickens to describe this lazy, self-indulgent, querulous woman, who lay on a sofa all day reading novels. At the present moment, she was deep in a Family Herald story called "Only an Earl," in which a governess with a single rose in her hair marries, with great self-abnegation, a mere earl, after refusing two dukes and a foreign prince. Mrs. Baldwin, basking like a cat in the sunshine that poured through the window, read each page slowly, and ate a lump of Turkish delight every time she turned a page.
The sitting-room was most untidy. Children's toys were strewn about; the carpet was raggedy the pictures hung askew, the red plush table-cloth—it was a most abominable covering—was stained, the blind was torn, and a broken window-pane had been filled up with brown paper. Yet the room had a comfortable, homely look, and if it had not been so disorderly, would have been pleasant to live in. But Mrs. Baldwin, quite undisturbed by the confusion, read on with great enjoyment. She only lifted her eyes when Laura Mason entered the room, and then her first words were querulous.
"How you can bear to stop here with Getty when your own home is so beautiful, I really don't know," moaned Mrs. Baldwin, keeping her place in the tale by bending the book backward. "Just look at this room. I may toil from morning to night, and it never will look tidy."
"It's comfortable, at all events," said Laura, sitting down. "Do you feel well this morning, Mrs. Baldwin."
"Just alive. I could hardly get out of bed. Not a wink of sleep, and dreadful dreams."
Mrs. Baldwin did not explain how she could dream without sleeping, but she was such a wonderful woman that she could do anything. For instance, she could be idle throughout the day, and keep up the fiction that she worked like a slave. She could enjoy her life in laziness and dirt and selfishness, posing as a martyr to every one. Laura saw through her as most people did; but as Laura was a guest, and Gerty's friend, she did not explain herself at length, as she would have liked to do. Besides, Mrs. Baldwin was a good-natured old dormouse, and no one could be angry with her long.
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