Chapter XX. A Spanish Cigarette
Sleep was not for me, despite Harley's injunction, and although I was early afoot, the big house was already astir with significant movements which set the imagination on fire, to conjure up again the moonlight scene in the garden, making mock of the song of the birds and of the glory of the morning.
Manoel replied to my ring, and prepared my bath, but it was easy to see that he had not slept.
No sound came from Harley's room, therefore I did not disturb him, but proceeded downstairs in the hope of finding Miss Beverley about. Pedro was in the hall, talking to Mrs. Fisher, and:
"Is Inspector Aylesbury here?" I asked.
"No, sir, but he will be returning at about half-past eight, so he said."
"How is Madame de Staemer, Mrs. Fisher?" I enquired.
"Oh, poor, poor Madame," said the old lady, "she is asleep, thank God. But I am dreading her awakening."
"The blow is a dreadful one," I admitted; "and Miss Beverley?"
"She didn't go to her room until after four o'clock, sir, but Nita tells me that she will be down any moment now."
"Ah," said I, and lighting a cigarette, I walked out of the open doors into the courtyard.
I dreaded all the ghastly official formalities which the day would bring, since I realized that the brunt of the trouble must fall upon the shoulders of Miss Beverley in the absence of Madame de Staemer.
I wandered about restlessly, awaiting the girl's appearance. A little two seater was drawn up in the courtyard, but I had not paid much attention to it, until, wandering through the opening in the box hedge and on along the gravel path, I saw unfamiliar figures moving in the billiard room, and turned, hastily retracing my steps. Officialdom was at work already, and I knew that there would be no rest for any of us from that hour onward.
As I reentered the hall I saw Val Beverley coming down the staircase. She looked pale, but seemed to be in better spirits than I could have hoped for, although there were dark shadows under her eyes.
"Good morning, Miss Beverley," I said.
"Good morning, Mr. Knox. It was good of you to come down so early."
"I had hoped for a chat with you before Inspector Aylesbury returned," I explained.
She looked at me pathetically.
"I suppose he will want me to give evidence?"
"He will. We had great difficulty in persuading him not to demand your presence last night."
"It was impossible," she protested. "It would have been cruel to make me leave Madame in the circumstances."
"We realized this, Miss Beverley, but you will have to face the ordeal this morning."
We walked through into the library, where a maid white-faced and frightened looking, was dusting in a desultory fashion. She went out as we entered, and Val Beverley stood looking from the open window out into the rose garden bathed in the morning sunlight.
"Oh, Heavens," she said, clenching her hands desperately, "even now I cannot realize that the horrible thing is true." She turned to me. "Who can possibly have committed this cold-blooded crime?" she said in a low voice. "What does Mr. Harley think? Has he any idea, any idea whatever?"
"Not that he has confided to me," I said, watching her intently. "But tell me, does Madame de Staemer know yet?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean has she been told the truth?"
The girl shook her head.
"No," she replied; "I am positive that no one has told her. I was with her all the time, up to the very moment that she fell asleep. Yet--"
"She knows! Oh, Mr. Knox! to me that is the most horrible thing of all: that she knows, that she must have known all along--that the mere sound of the shot told her everything!"
"You realize, now," I said, quietly, "that she had anticipated the end?"
"Yes, yes. This was the meaning of the sorrow which I had seen so often in her eyes, the meaning of so much that puzzled me in her words, the explanation of lots of little things which have made me wonder in the past."
I was silent for a while, then:
"If she was so certain that no one could save him," I said, "she must have had information which neither he nor she ever imparted to us."
"I am sure she had," declared Val Beverley.
"But can you think of any reason why she should not have confided in Paul Harley?"
"I cannot, I cannot--unless--"
"Unless, Mr. Knox," she looked at me strangely, "they were both under some vow of silence. Oh! it sounds ridiculous, wildly ridiculous, but what other explanation can there be?"
"What other, indeed? And now, Miss Beverley, I know one of the questions Inspector Aylesbury will ask you."
"What is it?"
"He has learned, from one of the servants I presume, as he did not see you, that you had not retired last night at the time of the tragedy."
"I had not," said Val Beverley, quietly. "Is that so singular?"
"To me it is no more than natural."
"I have never been so frightened in all my life as I was last night. Sleep was utterly out of the question. There was mystery in the very air. I knew, oh, Mr. Knox, in some way I knew that a tragedy was going to happen."
"I believe I knew, too," I said. "Good God, to think that we might have saved him!"
"Do you think--" began Val Beverley, and then paused.
"Yes?" I prompted.
"Oh, I was going to say a strange thing that suddenly occurred to me, but it is utterly foolish, I suppose. Inspector Aylesbury is coming back at nine o'clock, is he not?"
"At half-past eight, so I understand."
"I am afraid I have very little to tell him. I was sitting in my room in an appalling state of nerves when the shot was fired. I was not even reading; I was just waiting, waiting, for something to happen."
"I understand. My own experience was nearly identical."
"Then," continued the girl, "as I unlocked my door and peeped out, feeling too frightened to venture farther in the darkness, I heard Madame's voice in the hall below."
"Crying for help?"
"No," replied the girl, a puzzled frown appearing between her brows. "She cried out something in French. The intonation told me that it was French, although I could not detect a single word. Then I thought I heard a moan."
"And you ran down?"
"Yes. I summoned up enough courage to turn on the light in the corridor and to run down to the hall. And there she was lying just outside the door of her room."
"Was her room in darkness?"
"Yes. I turned on the light and succeeded in partly raising her, but she was too heavy for me to lift. I was still trying to revive her when Pedro opened the door of the servants' quarters. Oh," she closed her eyes wearily, "I shall never forget it."
I took her hand and pressed it reassuringly.
"Your courage has been wonderful throughout," I declared, "and I hope it will remain so to the end."
She smiled, and flushed slightly, as I released her hand again.
"I must go and take a peep at Madame now," she said, "but of course I shall not disturb her if she is still sleeping."
We turned and walked slowly back to the hall, and there just entering from the courtyard was Inspector Aylesbury.
"Ah!" he exclaimed, "good morning, Mr. Knox. This is Miss Beverley, I presume?"
"Yes, Inspector," replied the girl. "I understand that you wish to speak to me?"
"I do, Miss, but I shall not detain you for many minutes."
"Very well," she said, and as she turned and retraced her steps, he followed her back into the library.
I walked out to the courtyard, and avoiding the Tudor garden and the billiard room, turned in the other direction, passing the stables where Jim, the negro groom, saluted me very sadly, and proceeded round to the south side of the house.
Inspector Aylesbury, I perceived, had wasted no time. I counted no fewer than four men, two of them in uniform, searching the lawns and the slopes beyond, although what they were looking for I could not imagine.
Giving the library a wide berth, I walked along the second terrace, and presently came in sight of the east wing and the tower. There, apparently engaged in studying the rhododendrons, I saw Paul Harley.
He signalled to me, and, crossing the lawn, I joined him where he stood.
Without any word of greeting:
"You see, Knox," he said, speaking in the eager manner which betokened a rapidly working brain, "this is the path which the Colonel must have followed last night. Yonder is the door by which, according to his own account, he came out on a previous occasion, walking in his sleep. Do you remember?"
"I remember," I replied.
"Well, Pedro found it unlocked this morning. You see it faces practically due south, and the Colonel's bedroom is immediately above us where we stand." He stared at me queerly. "I must have passed this door last night only a few moments before the Colonel came out, for I was just crossing the courtyard and could see you at my window at the moment when you saw poor Menendez enter the Tudor garden. He must have actually been walking around the east wing at the same time that I was walking around the west. Now, I am going to show you something, Knox, something which I have just discovered."
From his waistcoat pocket he took out a half-smoked cigarette. I stared at it uncomprehendingly.
"Of course," he continued, "the weather has been bone dry for more than a week now, and it may have lain there for a long time, but to me, Knox, to me it looks suspiciously fresh."
"What is the point?" I asked, perplexedly.
"The point is that it is a hand-made cigarette, one of the Colonel's. Don't you recognize it?"
"Good heavens!" I said; "yes, of course it is."
He returned it to his pocket without another word.
"It may mean nothing," he murmured, "or it may mean everything. And now, Knox, we are going to escape."
"To escape?" I cried.
"Precisely. We are going to anticipate the probable movements of our blundering Aylesbury. In short, I wish you to present me to Mr. Colin Camber."
"What?" I exclaimed, staring at him incredulously.
"I am going to ask you," he began, and then, breaking off: "Quick, Knox, run!" he said.
And thereupon, to my amazement, he set off through the rhododendron bushes in the direction of the tower!
Utterly unable to grasp the meaning of his behaviour, I followed, nevertheless, and as we rounded the corner of the tower Harley pulled up short, and:
"I am not mad," he explained rather breathlessly, "but I wanted to avoid being seen by that constable who is prowling about at the bottom of the lawn making signals in the direction of the library. Presumably he is replying to Inspector Aylesbury who wants to talk to us. I am determined to interview Camber before submitting to further official interrogation. It must be a cross-country journey, Knox. I am afraid we shall be a very muddy pair, but great issues may hang upon the success of our expedition."
He set off briskly toward a belt of shrubbery which marked the edge of the little stream. Appreciating something of his intentions, I followed his lead unquestioningly; and, scrambling through the bushes:
"This was the point at which I descended last night," he said. "You will have to wade, Knox, but the water is hardly above one's ankles."
He dropped into the brook, waded across, and began to climb up the opposite bank. I imitated his movements, and presently, having scrambled up on the farther side, we found ourselves standing on a narrow bank immediately under that summer house which Colin Camber had told me he had formerly used as a study.
"We can scarcely present ourselves at the kitchen door," murmured Harley; "therefore we must try to find a way round to the front. There is barbed wire here. Be careful."
I had now entered with zest into the business, and so the pair of us waded through rank grass which in places was waist high, and on through a perfect wilderness of weeds in which nettles dominated. Presently we came to a dry ditch, which we negotiated successfully, to find ourselves upon the high road some hundred yards to the west of the Guest House.
"I predict an unfriendly reception," I said, panting from my exertions, and surveying my friend, who was a mockery of his ordinarily spruce self.
"We must face it," he replied, grimly. "He has everything to gain by being civil to us."
We proceeded along the dusty high road, almost overarched by trees.
"Harley," I said, "this is going to be a highly unpleasant ordeal for me."
Harley stopped short, staring at me sternly.
"I know, Knox," he replied; "but I suppose you realize that a man's life is at stake."
"I mean that when we are both compelled to tell all we know, I doubt if there is a counsel in the land who would undertake the defence of Mr. Colin Camber."
"Good God! then you think he is guilty?"
"Did I say so?" asked Harley, continuing on his way. "I don't recollect saying so, Knox; but I do say that it will be a giant's task to prove him innocent."
"Then you believe him to be innocent?" I cried, eagerly.
"My dear fellow," he replied, somewhat irritably, "I have not yet met Mr. Colin Camber. I will answer your question at the conclusion of the interview."