Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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AN aged spoonerism came into Montagu Kemp's mind when the porter approached him on Crandon station platform with the query: "Any luggage, sir?" He wanted to reply "Two rags and a bug," but since he himself was carrying the rug, together with his attaché case, the hoary jape would not have been apposite.
"Yes," he answered. "Two suit-cases, in the forward van, I think. Both initialled 'M.K.' in white letters."
Most of the passengers by this train went hurrying out by way of the booking office. Porters went up and down the train calling—"All Out! All Change Here! All Out, Please!" A bitter wind drove flurries of dry, powdery snow down between the coaches and the edge of the station roof, and howled as if in derision of the few who were such fools as to travel on a day like this. Kemp, hungering for the comparative warmth of the compartment he had left, turned up his coat collar and silently prayed that the porter would hurry with the suit-cases. He saw a slim, tall girl, heavily furred, waiting on the platform in apparent indecision, and what he could see of her face above her fur collar looked anxious. Then he saw his porter approaching with the two suit-cases on a barrow, and himself went toward the booking office entrance, which was also the exit from the station, evidently. Chilly though it was inside the booking office, there was at least shelter from the biting wind: the barrow rumbled in after Kemp, and the porter halted beside him for directions.
"I want to get to Castel Garde, Harry," he said.
"Godblessmesoul, it's Mr. Kemp!" the porter exclaimed. "Didn't know you, sir, wi' that coat collar up round your ears. Castel Garde, sir?" He shook his head. "Not this night, sir, I'm thinkin'."
"Hasn't Mr. Houghton sent a car for me?" Kemp inquired.
Again the porter shook his head. "He wouldn't risk it, sir—no car's goin' to do that five mile till the snow plough's been round the roads. They say the drifts are somethin' terrible."
"Nonsense, man!" Kemp exclaimed impatiently. "There's been no depth of snow, and hardly any at all, further south."
"No, sir, that's true," Harry responded. "It ain't the depth, it's the wind has druv it wherever there's shelter behind a hedge or anything. It's all dry stuff, you see, sir, an' it banks up wherever there's a lee from the wind, feet an' feet deep. It's stuck the train here, sir—you must o' heard 'em callin' 'All Change!' The half-mile cuttin' atwixt here an' Westingborough's got a good forty feet o' snow in it, piled there by the wind. No more trains get through till it's cleared away. An' the road to Castel Garde is blocked before this."
"The main road, possibly, but there's still the marsh road," Kemp dissented. "I know it's nine miles and more, but that's nothing to a car, and there's no shelter on the marshes for drifts to form."
"But there's three mile an' more, sir, between the last o' the marsh road an' Castel Garde," Harry reminded him. "Three mile all hedges an' hollows—it'll drift deep, there."
"Well, I'll just see if he's sent a car," Kemp said.
He went to the door that gave access to the station yard, and turned its handle. Instantly the door was flung in on him with such force as to send him staggering back a pace, and a blinding, whirling cloud of snow came at him. Recovering, he charged through the doorway and looked round the big yard. Winter night was beginning, but there was light enough to show that no vehicle of any kind awaited him. At the far side of the yard, in the lee of its wall, the snow had piled in a great bank that sloped up to the top of the wall, and sight of the mass made Kemp realise how it was that Houghton had sent no car. He went back into the booking hall, and closed the door with difficulty against the pressure of the wind. Then, facing the porter again, he saw the slim, furred girl he had observed on the platform, standing beside the barrow that held his suit-cases.
"Porter," she said—and Kemp loved her voice—"do you know if there is a car waiting, from a place called Castel Garde?"
"No," Kemp cut in, "I can tell you there isn't. I want to get there myself, and it looks rather hopeless."
"Oh!" She turned to him, with disappointment evident in the exclamation. "But—but what am I to do?"
Her face, he decided, matched her voice: it was piquantly attractive, small-featured, with glorious deep blue eyes and corn-gold hair. For her part, she saw a rather plumply-built, middle-aged man, with white hair showing from under the edge of his soft felt hat, and grey eyes, keen and clear, with an expression in them that made her feel she could trust him—for she had put a definite appeal into her half-involuntary query.
"The obvious suggestion," he said, "is a hotel here in Crandon."
"Oh, but I can't!" she protested. "Porter"—she turned to the man again—"couldn't I get a train on to Westingborough? I have relatives there, and they might get me to Castel Garde to-night."
The porter shook his head. "No miss, you can't," he answered. "That is, not till they get a snow-plough out an' clear the cuttin's. This train should 'a gone through to Westingborough, but it can't. Nothing more for there to-night, an' I dunno when we'll get another to run through. It's a blizzard, that's what it is."
"Look here, porter," Kemp interposed persuasively, moved by the girl's anxiety even more than by his own need, "isn't there any way of getting to Castel Garde? If it's a question of money, I'll pay."
The porter scratched his ear doubtfully. Kemp's hand came out from his pocket, and the piece of paper between his fingers revealed itself as a ten-shilling note. "For a practicable suggestion," he offered. "Cudgel your brains, Harry. There must be some way of getting there, in this age of progress."
"I dunno about progress, sir," Harry responded, while the girl gazed at Kemp as if confident that he would find a way out of their joint difficulty. "Seems like a snowstorm gets us down just as it useter, specially when it's like this one. There's only one thing I can think of, an' that's Andy Parker an' his car—if he'd risk it, that is."
"Produce Andy," Kemp bade. "Where do you keep him—in your hat?"
"Same as the rabbit, you mean, sir," Harry suggested, with an appreciative twinkle in his eye. "I seen that trick done. No, sir. Andy Parker—Mad Andy, they call him—he's got a Rolls he picked up cheap, an' he does hire jobs with it. He might—I don't say he would—but he might take it on to get you out there. I reckon he'll be at the Griffin, just outside the station gates."
"Andy—is that Ethel Parker's son?" Kemp inquired curiously.
"That's him, sir. Mother's dead—useter keep a little shop in the town here, but Andy couldn't stand shopkeepin'—"
"It's worth that for you to find him and see if he'll risk the drive," Kemp interrupted, tendering the note. "Tell him—this lady and myself want to get to Castel Garde in time for a bath and a change before dinner, and I'll pay anything he likes to charge, within reason."
"Right you are, Mr. Kemp." The porter took the note, and fingered it hesitatingly. "But supposin' he won't risk turnin' out? What then?"
"Then keep the note, and see if you can think of anything else."
"I'll see if I can get him at the Griffin, sir," Harry promised. "He ain't likely to be out, anyhow."
He went out to the yard. Kemp helped him to close the door against the force of the snow-laden gale, and then turned back to the girl, who was gazing up at the clock. Its hands pointed to fifteen minutes past five. She turned from her gazing and faced him, and again he realised that she was very attractive.
"Fellow guests, I suggest," he observed. "My name is Kemp—Montagu Kemp. If this man Parker turns up, I may have the honour, I hope?"
"It's tremendously good of you," she assented. "My name is Heriot—Diane Heriot. And now we've introduced ourselves."
"Not—not the Diane Heriot?" Kemp inquired, with awe in his voice.
She laughed. "It's not a common name, is it?" she rejoined.
"Well!" he exclaimed. "This is an honour!"
"Je vous remercie, m'sieu." She made him a little curtsey. "But do you think this man will consent to take us? The porter sounded doubtful, I thought. And the wind and the snow—" She hesitated.
"But remember, he called him Mad Andy," Kemp pointed out. "I recall having heard of him as a wonderful driver. A madman might attempt the trip, even if a sane one wouldn't. On the whole, I think we should be far wiser to go to a hotel and stay there till the blizzard blows itself out. If there's any risk in the journey, you of all people ought not to attempt it. Gods, hear that wind!"
"Why should I shirk a risk any more than you?" she demanded challengingly. "No one life is more valuable than another, unless it is of real use to humanity as a whole. And I don't claim—"
"Oh, come, now, Miss Heriot!" he interrupted. "I've heard you sing, and—well, that's enough to prove you wrong about your life being no more valuable than mine. And on a night like this, I think you ought not to attempt to make Castel Garde—now I know who you are, I mean. Your voice—your throat needs every care—"
"And gets it!" She leaned toward him to interrupt in turn, and laughed. "Mr. Kemp, if this Mad Andy will take you, he'll take me too. Like you, I have no intention of missing our host's birthday dinner—though if our porter doesn't hurry, we shall be late for it." She glanced up at the clock again. "Do you think he—you gave him ten shillings, I saw. And in a place called the Griffin there's sure to be a bar."
"We can only hope he's not moaning at it," Kemp responded, "though on a night like this he's to be forgiven if—"
The door leading to the yard, not so much opening as flying inward with a crash, interrupted his apologia for Harry. There entered, first, a swirling flurry of snowflakes, then Harry, and lastly a lean, tall individual with strips of sacking wrapped round his calves and tied with string, by way of leggings, a waterproof coat from under which a plaid rug showed at his neck and knees, and an ancient bowler hat tied down on to his head by means of a woollen scarf knotted under his chin. His piercing eyes, set on each side of a long, beaky nose, were so dark as to appear quite black, and Kemp felt rather startled as the gaze of those eyes rested on him after only the merest glance at Miss Heriot, for that gaze had a disturbing, almost uncanny quality.
"Yes," he said, with no preface at all. "Oh, yes, I'll take 'em."
"You'll take whom?" Kemp demanded sharply.
"Two pound a mile," the strange being responded, taking no heed of the query. "I'll set the trip hand at O, an' it'll be two pound a mile, an' any bit of a mile to count as a whole one. Only come on if you mean to come. It's driftin' like the devil i' this wind."
"Two pounds a mile?" Kemp echoed incredulously.
"Take it or leave it," the being fired back. "Harry, shut that blasted door, can't you? The lady's freezin'!"
"What do you make the distance?" Kemp asked suspiciously.
"Five mile, goin' straight," Andy replied promptly. "But ye'll not go straight through this—ye'd be bunged in a drift two mile out, if not before. I'll follow the marsh road till we get abreast Carden, an' then straight up the hill, an' trust the skid chains to hold us up the slope. Even so it's a chance, an' two pound a mile's fair for't. No more, no less. My price, an' not another man i' the county'd try it f'r twenty pound a mile, let alone two. What say?"
Kemp glanced at the girl as the porter got the door shut again, and received her nod of assent.
"Yes," he said. "Harry, can you get this lady's baggage? We'd better put all our belongings inside the car."
"Sure ye'll put 'em inside!" Andy confirmed him with ironic emphasis. "An', Harry, get 'em a couple o' foot-warmers o' some sort—stone jars wi' hot water—anything! It's hell outside, when ye get past the houses. Fetch the hot bottles—I'll see to these things."
He lifted Kemp's two heavy suit cases off the barrow as if they had been mere paper bags containing feathers, slung one up under his left arm and, carrying the other in his hand, went to the door, opened it, and went out. Kemp hurried to close the door again, and returned to the girl to find that Harry the porter had gone out by the platform door.
"We're mad to try it, especially with such a driver," he urged.
"I'm still young enough to enjoy mad things," she pointed out.
"And supposing we get stuck in a drift?" he asked, rather grimly.
"Mr. Kemp"—she looked very resolute, and very charming too, as she enunciated her decision—"I promised Jim Houghton I would come to Castel Garde for this birthday party, and I mean to keep my promise."
"Which doesn't answer my query," he insisted gravely. "Supposing we get stuck? If trains are held up in the district, it's quite probable the roads will be blocked too, and, as that porter said, only a mad driver would attempt the journey. I'm thinking for you, Miss Heriot. It doesn't matter for me—I'm old and tough, and can fight my way through the drifts on foot if the car gets stuck, but you—"
"Mean to risk it with you," she interrupted. "Remember, you offered me a seat in the car, in the first place."
"Well, I've warned you," he pointed out. "One thing, though. We might ring through to Houghton at Castel Garde and tell him we are on the way. Then, in the event of trouble, they'll be on the lookout for us, and possibly send out to help us through, after a time."
She nodded a thoughtful assent: the mere nine-mile journey was assuming the dimensions of an expedition. The outer door opened again to admit Andy Parker, and Kemp turned to him.
"Before we start," he said, "I think we ought to ring through to Castel Garde and say you're taking us there—"
"Ring nuthin'," Andy interrupted. "There ain't a wire left between here an' Carden. Mid-day to-day, a poplar dropped on the lines an' knocked a post down. Telephonin's off, till the wind drops an' they get a repair gang out. Where's Harry gone?"
"Out to the platform—that's all I know," Kemp answered shortly. The dictatorial, off-hand manner of this uncouth being rubbed him the wrong way, and only the fact that Andy appeared to rule their chances of getting to Castel Garde kept him from sharp reproof.
"An' your belongings, miss?" Andy turned to Miss Heriot, and spoke with more civility.
"A black trunk and two suit cases, all marked 'D.H.,'" she answered. "I expect the porter will bring them, though."
"Since you didn't tell him what they was, it ain't likely," Andy observed. "No, he's after them hot water bottles I told him to find. I'll have a look for your stuff, miss—we ought to get away."
He went toward the platform entrance. Kemp shook his head.
"All wires down, and a driver like that!" he said.
She smiled at him. "Count it an adventure," she suggested. "And it looks as if we shall be quite cut off from the rest of the world when we get there—anything may happen. Jim and his party, isolated."
"If we get there, I think," Kemp amended gravely.
THEY had their baggage piled before them in the roomy body of the Rolls: Diane Heriot had put her feet on a two-gallon stone jar which Harry had filled with boiling water, and a similar jar lay on the seat between her and Kemp so that they could share its warmth. Andy Parker, at the wheel in front of Diane, engaged his gear and drove slowly out from the station yard. He turned his head momentarily toward Kemp.
"Two pound a mile, mister," he said, half-questioningly.
"I have agreed to it," Kemp responded, rather acidly.
"An' the young lady's a witness. Right! Off we go."
The snow drove at them slantingly in dry, crisp pellicles, and though Andy kept his wind-screen wiper at work it was hardly necessary. His headlights showed the houses on either side of the street as he drove, and showed how the snow had drifted and banked against the doors on one side, while the other was swept clean by the bitter wind, even the pavement being visible. The off wheels crunched softly in the drift, which extended almost half-way across the narrow street.
"Lucky I got skid chains," Andy observed complacently. "No car'd make a yard without 'em, in this. We'll keep the marsh road."
They passed the last house on the outskirts of the little town, and now the wind came quartering at them from the near side, Wheee-eee-ee! and Kemp felt the heavy car quiver at the impact and swerve momentarily. They slowed, and swayed in crunching through a low drift.
"It's them chains holdin' us," Andy remarked, as if in pride over his own forethought. "Else, we'd never make it. Two pound a mile, an' worth it, too, I reckon."
"I begin to think it is worth it," Kemp concurred thoughtfully.
Wheee-eee-eee-e! said the wind, and snow rattled purringly on the glass that guarded them from the full bitterness of the night.
"Ain't had a blizzard like this since I don't remember when," Andy remarked. "I begin to wish I'd said three pound a mile."
"Well, you didn't," Kemp snapped, "and I wouldn't have paid it if you had. The bargain is for two."
"An' any odd bit to count a full mile," Andy insisted. "I got to make the run back, somehow. Thank Gord I got them chains."
"And any fraction of a mile to count as a mile," Kemp assented blandly. "Would you like a little on account?"
"Thass the word I couldn't remember!" Andy exclaimed, taking no heed of the satiric offer. "Fraction, which means a bit. Yes, fraction."
Abruptly he swung off to the left, away from what was obviously a main road. In spite of the chains of which he was so proud, Kemp felt the back wheels skid on the turn, and now the wind struck them quartering from the rear, instead of from the front. They tipped up and down over a hump-backed bridge, and the headlights showed a level, narrow line of road ahead, its metalling apparent in places through the snow. It was set up on an embankment with, possibly, a marsh dyke on either side, though all hollows were filled by the driven snow, now. As nearly as they could tell, the road ran arrow-straight across the level. Kemp gazed along it and shook his head.
"This looks more like two shillings than two pounds a mile, to me," he remarked. "Any car could do it, obviously."
Andy stopped the car so suddenly that both his passengers jerked in their seats. "I'll haf to back a distance to turn, if you wanter call the deal off," he said. "It's off on your say-so."
"No, no—get on," Kemp bade soothingly. "I'll pay. It was only the appearance of the road. Carry on, man—we want to get there."
Sulkily Andy engaged his gear again, and they moved forward. "If you reckon you know this country, you better take the wheel," he offered. "You ain't there yet, by the length of a hog's back tooth."
"All right," Kemp said placatingly. "We'll trust ourselves to you."
Wheeee-eeee-eee-ee-e! And in the light laid before them by the headlamps, misty flurries of snow sped diagonally away, dispersed, and gathered again. In spite of the perfection of build that characterised the bodywork of the car, the night's bitter cold got in and found all three, so that Diane pulled her fur coat closely round her chest and neck, Kemp settled himself as snugly as he might in his heavy, double-breasted overcoat, and Andy spared a hand from the wheel to pull his plaid rug higher and more closely round his neck. In the quartering wind, miles fell behind them; they saw no light other than their own, no sign of any human habitation, and Diane began to question inwardly as to whether their driver were lengthening the run for the sake of his fare. Through the off-side window, unclogged as yet with snow since it was on the lee side of the car, a dark line showed on the indistinct whiteness of the landscape, as if the level marsh were bounded on that side by forest or shadowed hills. They were running smoothly, noiselessly. Kemp laid his hand on the stone bottle between him and the girl, and found that it was still quite hot. Andy might be mad in some respects, but over this he had been sane enough.
"I've never heard Mr. Houghton mention you, Mr. Kemp," Diane observed, as if following out a train of thought, after a long silence.
"And I had no idea he knew you," he responded.
"He hasn't known me so very long," she explained. "I was playing lead in Manners and Music—perhaps you remember it?"
"You made it unforgettable," he answered. "Especially the Slave Song. I went five times, mainly to hear you sing that."
"I'd blush, if it were not quite so cold," she said, and gave him a pleased smile. "But I was telling you. Malcolm Carmichael brought Jim—Mr. Houghton, that is—round to my dressing room one night after the show. That was how we got to know each other."
"Carmichael, eh?" Kemp commented, and gave the name an odd inflection. "And after the introduction, Houghton didn't need anyone to bring him round. He just got there alone."
She laughed. "What a mercy we've got this hot bottle!" she said.
"Ye-es." Kemp's drawl sounded satiric, even sour. "If it's not altogether too impertinent from an old buffer like me, how does a very charming girl like you happen to know Malcolm Carmichael? He's not exactly the type one would associate with you."
"No?" She uttered the monosyllable with chill aloofness.
"Of course, I've no right to question about it," he hastened to assure her, apologetically. "You see, Miss Heriot, I'm quite old enough to be your father, and since Jim asked you down as he did me for this birthday party—well, you see, don't you? Carmichael, now!"
"Malcolm Carmichael!" The name sounded with astounding bitterness from Andy Parker's lips, and his two passengers stared in amazement at his expanse of back as he peered out at the road before him.
"What do you know about him, driver?" Diane inquired, after a pause of partial stupefaction. With the howling, eerie wind beating at the car, the gloom of night and driving snow all about them, and the sense of steady advance to some place or point beyond the line of radiance laid on the road as they advanced, she was beginning to feel that she had left the world of realities and entered some region of nightmare fantasy, guided by this Charon at a car wheel instead of in a ferryboat. He was uncouth enough for the part.
"Malcolm Carmichael—Kadmiel ben Issachar," he said gratingly. "An' here we turn off. Now see if it's worth two pound a mile or two shillin'! No man but me'd risk it to-night, I know."
But, for awhile, they travelled on as smoothly and easily as before, and, after Andy had made the turn, the wind drove snow at the off side of the car, so that in a little while the windows on that side were obscured, and only the wiped spaces of the front screen clear.
"Quite true," Kemp remarked after another long pause. "He was Kadmiel Issachar—or Kadmiel ben Issachar, if you like—till it was changed to Carmichael by deed poll. And I wonder some honest Scot does not rise up in wrath and smite him for the sacrilege."
"It was he who took me off tour and made me lead in Manners and Music," Diane said, "and he never let me forget what his influence had done for me. That was how it came about that he rang up and asked if he might bring a friend to see me after the show. The friend was Jim—Mr. Houghton. And now I've told you, how do you happen to know him? Mr. Houghton, I mean, not Malcolm Carmichael?"
"I don't see why I shouldn't tell you," Kemp said slowly. "Jim's father and I wanted the same girl—and Jim's father won. He died when the boy was less than two years old, and made me co-trustee with his widow for the child—his winning her never altered our friendship. When Jim was four, she consented to marry me—and died a fortnight before the wedding that should have been."
"Oh, I'm so sorry I asked you!" she exclaimed.
"No need to be," he told her. "Jim's always been as dear as a son to me, since then, and I promised to be in at his thirtieth birthday—in time for dinner to-night, if not before."
"At two pound a mile, an' the fraction to count as a mile," came from Andy unexpectedly. "The fraction bein' the odd bit."
"Will you keep your nose out of this?" Kemp demanded angrily.
"Ye can't talk secrets in a Rolls," Andy said calmly. "The engine's too quiet. An' now, hold ye'r breaths, f'r this is where I earn me fare, an' a trifle over if the wind ain't swep' the road a bit."
The headlights showed a rise before them, with a hedge running at right angles to the narrow road and marking the boundary of the open marshland through which they had come. The slant of falling snow, less heavy now, indicated that they had the wind directly behind them. On the rise, the long car accelerated with the silent ease that marks Rolls-Royce transmission, and as they went on and upward their road showed, blown almost clean to its surface, with no apparent cause for Andy's admonition. Now they had a hedge on either side, and there were occasional trees, with their bare branches bending in the gale as the beam of light revealed them transiently.
"I'm still breathing easily," Kemp remarked ironically.
"Wait f'r the dip," Andy admonished him, and accelerated still more.
They reached the crest of the rise. Beyond, where the ridge cut off the full force of the wind, a mass of loose, powdery snow had drifted to half the height of the hedges, and now Kemp understood what his driver had feared. The car swooped down, and for long seconds they were enveloped in a blinding whiteness, and reeling madly about the road as if every wheel were loose on its axle. Kemp caught a glimpse of a hedge within a foot of his window, and Diane, flung sideways by their staggering progress, bumped against his shoulder. Then they were through, and Andy eased his engine over a stretch of level between high trees.
"Not another car'd have done it," he said, "an' not this, without the chains. Two pound a mile's cheap, mister."
"I begin to think you're right," Kemp admitted. "Also, I think not another driver would have risked it."
"I'm knockin' nuthin' off the fare for bokays," Andy said cheerfully. "And that's the first bad bit, but not the last."
"How much farther?" Kemp asked.
"Hold y'r breath," Andy responded. "There's a bend ahead."
Kemp realised that any bend, out from the straight line of the wind that swept their road comparatively clear, meant drifts. Even the tree trunks had ridges of snow on their lee sides, and the shelter of a hedge gave place for a banked mass. Again he felt the back of the seat press against him: they careered round a curve and, striking another drifted bank, slowed in a white cloud, and stopped. The differential of the back axle began singing as the off wheel bit on macadam and the near one spun madly, grinding its way down into the packed snow with the aid of its skid chain. They jerked forward another dozen yards, and again stopped. Andy cursed softly, foully.
"You've a lady here!" Kemp reminded him sharply.
"An' hell's own bank o' snow in front o' me," he retorted. "I was afraid o' this. We'll have a look at it."
He put in reverse, and the chain-aided wheels dragged the car back a dozen feet or more. Before them, Kemp could see a solid white wall, snow driven and packed hard by the impact of their charge, and lifted higher than the top of the radiator in its piling. From the radiator itself rose a cloud of steam, and Andy shook his head and swore again.
"Can't you keep that foul language to yourself?" Kemp demanded.
Andy turned his head, and his black-brown eyes fairly glittered. "I paid three hunderd f'r this car, nearly all me mother left me," he flung back, "an' if we're stuck here I'm entitled to blast an' damn. Hold y'r breath—ye may need it. An' wait a bit."
He reached down beside his seat, and came up again with something in his hand that Kemp recognised as a military entrenching tool. Then he got out and slammed the door—but in the few seconds that it was open an arctic chill bit into the comparative warmth of the saloon. He came into the snow-dimmed light of the head-lamps, struggling almost waist-deep in the drift, and then they saw him attack the rammed mass the car had driven up, working furiously with his entrenching tool, so that chunks of snow flew aside in endless succession.
"He's a perfect Samson," Diane remarked after a minute or so.
"From Billingsgate," Kemp added sourly.
"I've heard scene shifters use much worse language," she pointed out. "And look—he's cleared it nearly all away! Marvellous!"
They saw him come back beside the car, and he entered and slumped down in his seat, breathing heavily. Again he engaged a gear: both driving wheels raced with no movement of the chassis, at first, grinding away the packed snow under the back axle until the chains struck the road surface. Then with a jerk the car went forward, and they felt it lift as the front wheels encountered the hard-packed mass that Andy had partially cleared away. They ground on through the drift, zigzagging as first one and then the other driving wheel skidded, on and on, slowly, but Kemp saw with relief that the road was rising before them, and that another bend was leading directly into the line of the wind. And he realised that he had been literally obeying Andy's order, and holding his breath in the suspense of their crazy advance.
So they came to a wind-swept stretch, and there Andy stopped the car and again got out. They saw him inspecting the front of the radiator with a pocket electric torch, and he came back and seated himself, turning to look at Kemp with his disquietingly piercing eyes.
"Not damaged, so far," he said, "but there's another dip, an' it'll be hell. If I risk it an' crack me radiator, mister, will ye stand me a new one? Stand the damage, I mean? I can't afford it, meself, an' it's hell's own risk to charge that next dip."
"I'll stand it for you," Diane promised before Kemp could answer.
"Good enough, miss. Another mile sees ye through."
He went on again. They could hear the whirring crunch of dry snow beneath the wheels, and ever and again the car swayed in a skid, but Andy corrected every swerve in time. The speedometer hand moved up and up, and they came to another bend.
"If we stick here, no diggin' 'll get us out," Andy remarked grimly.
He swooped down on a tract of whiteness that rose almost level with the hedges. A white cloud rose before them, and masses of snow banged on the wind-screen—Kemp saw a long crack appear in the glass. He felt Diane clutch at him to hold herself on the rocking seat, and the stone bottle fell from between them to the floor with a thud. For seconds it seemed that the car must overturn, and Andy shrieked curses above the hum of the differential and the grinding surr-r! of the wheels in snow. Then they were through and climbing again, and piled snow along the bonnet reached halfway to the top of the wind-screen, with the wiper blades stuck immovably in it.
"I'll get out an' clean it off," Andy said as he stopped the car.
"And I'll pay all damages, after that," Kemp promised. "Man, it wasn't mere driving. It was a miracle."
"Aye, ye'll make Castel Garde, now," Andy retorted drily, and got out to push the packed snow off the bonnet and scuttle.
"'Tis a new radiator web," he said when he returned. "This one's bent an' leakin', an' I think 'tis one new head-lamp an' the glass f'r the screen—about fifteen pound it'll stand ye in altogether, on top o' the two pound a mile includin' fractions. But we'll make it now."
He drove on steadily, and, presently, turned in at a gateway where Kemp saw an iron gate to either side, standing open, and recognised the approach to Castel Garde. A little way beyond the gates an old elm lay crashed by the gale, though fortunately for them it had fallen away from the drive. Andy nodded at it.
"F'r that, if f'r nuthin' else, there's no telephonin' from here to-night," he said. "She's took the wire an' a post with her."
They saw lighted windows—the first sign of a habitation since they had left the town behind. The car skidded again as Andy took a curve of the drive, but again he corrected the swerve in time, and came to a standstill before a pillared doorway.
"Ye must make Mr. Houghton put me up," he said. "There's no goin' back to Crandon to-night, even if the radiator wasn't leakin', an' since it is, 'twould ruin the engine to try it. Nine mile an' a half, the way we've come—that's twenty pound, an' the repairs on top of it. But I've got ye here as ye wanted, an' ye'll be in time f'r the dinner, an' maybe the bath too. Nine mile an' a half in an hour an' a quarter—hell!"
Like a presage of evil the wind shrieked, and the snow drove down.
BEFORE a mighty, old-time log fire on the open hearth at the upper end of the great hall of Castel Garde, three men luxuriated in the last possible ten minutes before going up to dress for dinner. Fraser Ruthven, shortest of the three, and a dark, determined-looking youngster at that—he was the type that makes a loyal friend or a staunch and dangerous enemy—took a cigarette from his case and offered the open case to Tom Russell, a tall, fair youngster who looked at the case and shook his head after a moment of indecision.
"No thanks, Ruthven," he said. "It's your last."
"I've plenty more," Ruthven encouraged him.
"All right, then, I will have that one. By the look of things, we may all be coming to you soon. Hear that wind!"
"You economise on your own cigarettes if we are cut off by the snow, Tom Russell," Ruthven admonished him. "I'm a Scot, remember."
"Ah! That reminds me." Rodney Black, lean and dark and more often than not sententious, spoke as if he found a gentle pleasure in his reminiscence, and took a cigarette from his own case.
"Then don't let it," Ruthven advised sternly. "You've libelled my nation quite enough since tea. I saw Ferguson positively glowering over your last insult to Aberdeen."
"Talking about Aberdeen," Russell observed, "I didn't see Carmichael go up to dress."
"He may still be in the dining room," Black hazarded.
"No, he's gone up to dress," Ruthven asserted. "Vat you t'ink, mine tear? And I've never heard Aberdeen worse insulted than by your saying a renegade Jew like him reminded you of it, Russell."
"I merely said I didn't see him go," Russell defended himself. "I don't care for him any more than you do."
"Why Houghton ever invited him for a party like this is past my understanding," Black observed gravely.
"Wheels within wheels, possibly," Ruthven suggested.
"Possibly—it's Houghton's business, though," Black said. "But the sleek financier doesn't seem to be really popular with any of us."
"Where is Houghton? Gone up?" Russell demanded abruptly.
"No—in the lounge, I believe," Ruthven answered.
Black gazed meditatively down the incredible length of the great hall, lofty as it was wide, with a wide staircase on the right as he gazed, leading first to one and then to another gallery which gave access to rooms on the upper storeys of the two wings built on to this central hall of Castel Garde. Halfway down the length of the hall there was a great pillar of grey stone, of which the branching foliations made both support and decoration for the arched ceiling. The whole effect was almost ecclesiastical, though at this upper, fireplace end the furnishing gave a sense of ease and cosiness.
"Superfluous to call it that," Black remarked pensively. "The whole place is one lounge, and thank heaven and Houghton for it, on a night like this. Which, now I come to think of it, reminds me of a story."
"Yes, it would," Ruthven said caustically. "Black, if someone emptied a bucket of water over you, you'd merely say it reminded you of a story."
"Naturally," Black assented, as Houghton, big, yellow-haired, easily athletic in his movements, appeared through the lounge doorway at the side of the hall. "I should remember the Flood."
"What's that about the Flood?" Houghton asked, coming towards them.
"Oh, Noah matter," Black said calmly. "'Ark at the wind!"
"Gosh! And we let him live!" Ruthven exclaimed. "Come on, Russell! Let's go for him."
"No—not two by two." Black got behind a chair as he spoke.
"Here, you stop it!" Ruthven ordered. "Houghton—" he turned to the big man—"we were just saying—" Then he broke off constrainedly, as if realising that the topic in his mind were better left alone.
"Well, what were you saying?" Houghton inquired interestedly.
"About Carmichael," Russell put in.
Houghton's expression hardened at the name. Outside the hall the wind shrieked, Wheeee-eee-ee-e!
"What about Carmichael?" Houghton asked at last.
"Well—er—to put it frankly," Russell began in a stammering way. "You see, Houghton—" Then, as Ruthven had done, he broke off.
"We can't make out," Ruthven took up the tale as if to get it over, "how you came to invite a middle-aged, hook-nosed financier to this cheerful little birthday party. Seeing him when I got here yesterday gave me quite a shock. And he doesn't seem to fit, somehow."
"No?" Houghton spoke with stiff displeasure. "Well, Fraser, Carmichael practically invited himself, if you want to know the truth. I am under an obligation to him."
"Sorry, Jim," Ruthven apologised. "It was unpardonable of us to pry into it—"
"But the trouble is," Black interrupted incisively—"we don't like Carmichael."
"I should be surprised if you did," Houghton said drily.
"And he invited himself down into the heart of the country—in this weather," Russell reflected aloud. "It's not as if he liked any of us, either."
"Oh, that's easy," Black said, with a satiric inflection.
"It may be, but I don't see it," Russell retorted. "What was his idea?"
"Diane Heriot, of course," Black explained complacently.
"Black!" Houghton's exclamation was raspingly authoritative. "You can cut that out! Diane has never—"
"All right, Houghton—all right!" Black interrupted placatingly. "Diane Heriot is the straightest little lady that ever faced the footlights, and we all know it. But Carmichael—Oh, yes, I know he's your guest here, but still I'm saying it—Carmichael thinks he can buy any girl, if he wants her."
For a moment Houghton appeared on the brink of a heated reply, but he restrained it and, turning, gazed toward the staircase beyond the central pillar of the long hall.
"Where is he?" he asked.
"Gone up to dress, of course," Black answered. "It takes him half an hour to tie a white bow."
"When were you his valet?" Ruthven inquired ironically.
"Of course, he might have gone early to get a bath," Russell suggested thoughtfully.
"A bath?" Ruthven made the query sound incredulous. "Miracles went out with the middle ages."
"But he's middle-aged," Black pointed out.
"Oh, Lord!" Ruthven groaned. "I wish you'd remember it's no longer important to be earnest, and stop this straining after epigrams. Especially with poor old Jim looking sorrowful over the loss of his lady."
"She should have got here yesterday, like the rest of us," Russell observed. "There wasn't a blizzard, then."
"And now there's not an earthly chance of her getting through to-night," Houghton said rather wistfully. "The Crandon road will be completely blocked by this time. But I've put dinner back a quarter of an hour, just in case she might get here."
"Good! An extra fifteen minutes for us, chaps," Ruthven remarked. "Not but what it's about up, if we want to get a smell at a bathroom. But her train was due at Crandon two hours ago, Jim."
"I know," Houghton assented. "But she might be late—snow on the line. She'll get there, put up for the night, and come on as soon as the roads are cleared. Possibly Kemp, too."
"Why not ring through and find out?" Russell inquired.
"Didn't I tell you an hour ago that the wires are down?" Ruthven demanded witheringly.
"Yes," Black observed, "but to make Russell realise a thing, you have to repeat it nine times. After that, he gets bored."
Any retort that Russell might have made was silenced by the deep clanging of a bell, and at the sound Houghton spun about and stared at a big carved screen set before the double doors at the far end of the hall. There was a portentous resonance in the bell's warning.
"Never!" Houghton almost whispered, and took a couple of steps away from the fireplace as if to go down the hall. "It can't be!"
Paused doubtfully, he stood a little in advance of the other three, and all four gazed down the hall while an elderly but still active manservant emerged from a doorway at the side of the hall and hastened toward the screen that masked the main entrance, behind which he disappeared as the bell clanged a second summons. Then, as Diane Heriot appeared and Kemp followed her, Houghton went down the hall, almost running, and took both her hands in his own to welcome her.
"But this is wonderful, Diane!" he exclaimed happily. "We'd given you up altogether. And"—his gaze travelled past her—"Uncle Mont! By all the gods in Valhalla, it's too good to be true!"
Though, for a woman, Diane was tall, Houghton gazed down into her eyes before he spared a hand to Kemp, who, observing this greeting, understood how the younger man regarded this girl. For her part, she saw and answered the message in Houghton's eyes with her own, saw Kemp grave and watchful, Andy Parker, negligently lounging beside the suit cases he had brought in while he looked up into the shadows of the ceiling, and, a little behind them both, the tall, correctly-dressed, clean-shaven and rather sardonic-looking manservant who had admitted the trio. And the fire outlined three others watching this entry from the far end of the long hall.
"I never expected to get here, Jim," Kemp said, as Diane did not speak. "Mad Andy there"—he nodded at Parker—"had a shovel in his car, and we sat in the car while he dug his way through three drifts. I promised to get here for this birthday party if it were humanly possible, and Andy made it possible."
"At two pound a mile, an' the odd bit to count as one," Andy interpolated, dropping his gaze from the ceiling to Houghton. "The odd bit bein' the fraction, an' countin' as two pound."
"In the Rolls!" Houghton exclaimed, and laughed. "Andy, you scoundrel, you're the only man on earth who would have risked it, with trees blown across the roads everywhere. Good old Andy! Uncle Mont, take Diane up to the fire while I see about things for you both. You've met Rodney Black before, Diane, and you know Fraser Ruthven, Uncle Mont."
The pair went up the hall, and Andy stepped forward, interposing himself between Houghton and the elderly manservant.
"Beg pardon, Mr. Houghton," he said, "but I went bald-headed at a snow-drift, an' me radiator's leakin' like hell. There's no gettin' back to Crandon for me this night."
"Boyle?" Houghton looked past Andy at his butler. "See that Parker has what he needs in the way of food, and a bed. Everything he wants, for bringing me the two people I wanted most."
"At two pound a mile, an' repairs extra," Andy insisted, lest it should be overlooked. "Mister Boyle, I'd like hamaneggs, if it's handy, an' tea—lashin's o' tea."
He turned as Boyle inclined his head in assent, and indicated the two suit cases he had brought in.
"The other traps are in the car, Mr. Houghton," he said. "If ye'll have 'em out, I'll shove her in the garage afore the radiator freezes, an' afore I have me hamaneggs, not to mention the tea."
"I'll see to it," Houghton promised, and laughed. "Get everything out of the car, Boyle, and send Martha here to take Miss Heriot up to her room. And put a fire in Mr. Kemp's room, at once."
He left the two to carry out his orders, and went back to the fireplace, where the two new arrivals were thawing themselves. Kemp saw the look that passed between him and Diane, and Ruthven, too, noted it and smiled. They would make a fine pair, Ruthven decided.
"Who's here for the party, Jim?" Kemp asked.
"Oh, you'll see them all at dinner," Houghton answered. "Doctor Ferguson and his sister Betty, Mrs. Hammersley—"
"Mrs. Hammersley and Betty Ferguson?" Kemp interrupted incredulously.
"Yes." There was an annoyed constraint in Houghton's rejoinder, and he glanced at Diane again. "It didn't strike me at the time, when Ferguson almost suggested Betty's coming with him. Also Carmichael managed to invite himself, though none of us wanted him."
"Good Lord, Jim!" There was real dismay in Kemp's voice. "Those two—and Carmichael!"
In the silence that followed his protest they could hear the shriek of the wind outside. Diane took a couple of steps from the fire toward Houghton, and gave Kemp a puzzled glance.
"What is it, Jim?" she asked. "I don't understand Carmichael being here, but—but what does Mr. Kemp mean, those two and Carmichael?"
For the moment, neither Kemp nor Houghton could find a reply. They glanced at each other, as if neither cared to risk an explanation.
"There is—er—a certain conjunction, Miss Heriot," Black put in, in his rather didactic fashion. "There was, rather. To correct it again, there were. Certain conjunctions."
Diane gave him a steady gaze, and shrugged slightly.
"I never met a man so capable of damning people by saying nothing about them as you are, Mr. Black," she said. "Jim, who else is here?"
"You are, and that's more important than anything else to me," he told her significantly. "Also Helen Turner—I knew it was no use asking Black without her. And here's Martha—a stout, middle-aged woman came out from the servants' entrance at the side of the hall—"and dinner is in thirty-five minutes from now. Oh, Martha, take Miss Heriot up to her room and make the fire big. She's come in Parker's car from Crandon, and you know what that means on a night like this."
The woman gestured an acknowledgment of the order. Diane, with a smile and nod at Houghton, turned away from the fire, and followed Martha down the hall and up the soundlessly-carpeted staircase to the first gallery. On her way she looked over the rail at the group by the fire and saw Houghton gazing up at her. Then, at the stair's top, Martha gestured her to enter a short corridor, and opened the first door on the right.
"It should be nicely warm, miss," she said. "Mr. Houghton had me light the fire just after lunch, in case you got here."
Entering, Diane heard the wind howling outside, and the murmurous patter of snow on the windows, behind thick curtains. The room was spacious, beautifully furnished, and well warmed.
"There's hot and cold laid on, miss," Martha told her, "and your own bathroom is through that door in the far corner. I don't know about your things, miss. Did you have any trunks with you?"
"I think Mr. Houghton is having them sent up—they were in the car," Diane explained. She slipped off her fur coat, laid it across a settee, and went to the fire. "There is no hurry," she added. "I must finish getting warm before thinking of anything else."
"I'll see about 'em, miss," Martha promised, and left her.
Faced toward the banked, glowing coals, feeling grateful for their heat, Diane saw that the high mantel—the shelf was level with her chin as she stood—was bare, except for a framed portrait of Jim Houghton angled at its right corner. The photograph gave her the stark, open honesty of his face, and her own thought could put into his little, rippling curls the yellow sheen that was like laughter in the sun, and tint his steel-grey, steady eyes that met hers from the pictured face.
"Yes," she said, and smiled at the portrait, "you would put it here. And I suppose, since I've accepted this invitation—"
She turned about. Martha entered, bearing a suit-case. Following her came Boyle, the butler, at one end of Diane's trunk, saturnine and stately in spite of his grip on the handle and the second suit-case in his other hand. A young maidservant had the other handle of the trunk.
"Down there, Jenny," Boyle ordered in a rich, sonorous voice—a perfect voice for a butler. "And put the suit-case down beside it."
He squared the trunk on the baggage rack, and the two retired. Martha, remaining, gazed inquiringly at Diane.
"Shall I take the keys and unpack, miss?" she asked.
Diane shook her head. "I'll get out all I need for the evening," she answered. "But tell me, what is this place? A real castle?"
"The big hall is the keep of the old castle, miss," Martha answered. "Mr. Houghton's great-great-grandfather—him that made his money selling African slaves to the plantations, and a big fortune it was, too—he had the floors taken out of the keep and all the rest pulled down, and he built the two wings to it. So it's part old and part new, or not quite new, as you might say, miss, and there's still the old dungeons under the keep. Boyle has his wine-cellar in the torture-chamber, because it's in the middle and the temperature's even."
"Most inappropriate, and I hope it doesn't favour the wine reminiscently," Diane commented. She went to the settee on which she had laid her handbag with the fur coat, and took out her keys. "And what time is dinner, and where do we meet for it?" she inquired.
"Dinner's at eight o'clock, miss—the master had it put back a quarter of an hour, in case you managed to get here somehow, so as to give you plenty of time. And you just go down to the big hall, miss."
Diane glanced at a little silver clock on the dressing table, and then at the watch on her wrist. Both told her that she had still half an hour in which to dress for dinner. She bent and unlocked her trunk, and, as she opened it and took out the tray, Martha hurried to help.
"Thanks very much," she said, "but I'm sure you have plenty to do, all these people in the house. I can manage quite well."
"The master said I was to be lady's maid to you, if you got here, and not bother about anything else," Martha explained.
"Well, that's very sweet of him, but I'm used to managing for myself. And there must be—how many are here, though?"
"You an' Mr. Kemp make sixteen, without the master," Martha answered. "Shall I turn your bath on now, Miss?"
Diane straightened herself from the trunk, an evening frock in each hand, and considered them both. She decided for the blue and silver, and threw it over the bedrail. "Thank you, if you will," she said, rather abstractedly. "And then—I'll do all the rest myself, thanks."
Martha bustled into the bathroom, and Diane hastily disrobed. There was not too much time, and possibly, if she got down early, Houghton might also be down and waiting for her. Sixteen people, and she knew only half-a-dozen of them—she would want his support, though already she decided that she liked Fraser Ruthven. She was ready in her dressing gown when Martha emerged from the bathroom and stood gazing at her in silence for some seconds.
"Why, what's wrong, Martha?" she asked curiously.
"Nothing, miss. I was just thinking how lovely you are. The bath is all ready, miss. Shall I stay and help you to dress?"
Diane smiled as she shook her head. "No, thank you—you flatterer! I'd rather do it all myself. I'm quite used to quick changes."
She bathed and, returning, dressed herself as quickly as she could, with due regard for the effect on Houghton. The blue and silver frock was one she had put away since wearing it for an evening with Houghton in London—a late evening, since it had only begun after the audience had turned out from Manners and Music.
Though she made haste over her toilet, it was ordered, deliberate haste, for no other woman must outshine her to-night in Houghton's eyes. Her thoughts raced more swiftly than her movements in a survey of past and future, the career that Malcolm Carmichael had made a possibility, the long run of the play, only just taken off, that had made her success, her meeting with Houghton, this evening and all that she hoped from it, the implication in his greeting...
Carmichael had made her, and so far she had evaded paying the price that he had plainly indicated he expected, though he had not yet put his hopes into words. He, finance for Manners and Music, had taken her out from a touring company, forced her on his producer as lead in the comedy, and in the result had been more than justified: the eighteen months' run had put her among the stars of her profession, and her future was assured, now.
But there was another future that she wanted far more, and she felt that in asking her to Castel Garde Houghton had meant her to realise that he wanted it, too. Yet—she was no more than an actress, while he stood as last representative of one of the oldest families in England. The great hall to which she had entered typified him, in its way: in its magnificent central pillar she could discern a likeness to the purpose of his life, upholder of a fabric old as the kingdom, almost, and one of the very few remaining inheritors of real greatness, as distinct from mushroom nobility. A Houghton had sided with Queen Maud when she fled across the snow from Stephen; another had stood with Warwick at Barnet—and there had fallen—fighting against the "new men" with whom the Yorkists beat down the feudal system, and the barony of the family had been lost, attainted with the downfall of the Lancastrian cause. Houghtons had been not less noble since, because of that loss.
And a Houghton loved her. Else, when he had taken her hands and gazed at her in the hall, his eyes had lied.
And Malcolm Carmichael was here!
Wheeeee-eeee-eee-ee-e! Shrieking evilly round the thick walls, like a presage of evil to come. Andy Parker had eyes almost as penetrating as Carmichael's, but they lacked the latter's hypnotic, compelling power. Jim's grey eyes had gazed at her while the clasp of his two hands warmed her own, and the message of clasp and gaze had made a warmth about her heart: he might be noble, wealthy, heroic in mould and mind—or he might be an outcast, not worth the regard of his kind. It was all one to her, since she loved him, and felt in her heart that she was loved by him in turn. The grey eyes had told her.
She took out a sapphire pendant and fastened its thin gold chain round her neck. The gold matched her hair: it was like Jim's hair, too! She was quite alone in the room, but for a moment she covered her face with her hands: not even her own eyes in the mirror might see her face for the moment of that thought.
A little baby with golden curls. Like Jim's curls!
Nearly ten minutes left. Nearly ten minutes with Houghton, if she went down now—perhaps! She gave one last glance at herself in the mirror, and then crossed the room quickly and opened the door.
On the other side of the corridor another door, nearly opposite her own, stood open, and, framed in the doorway—until he took two steps toward her as she hesitated—was the man she desired least to see, the man whom Jim ought not to have included in such a gathering as this, the one she had almost succeeded in thrusting from her thoughts, but now knew that she could not avoid fearing. Carmichael!
The two steps that he took placed him, facing her, and between her and the gallery end of the corridor. He looked up at her, lacking a full inch of her own height, and the gaze of his soft, intensely dark eyes had in it a confident quality that intensified her fear of the man, made her realise it anew. He displayed all the easy assurance of a man of the world.
"My dear, you look lovely," he said. "I told Houghton you would find some way of getting here. Now can you spare me a moment?"
"Mr. Carmichael!" There was intense resentment in her retort. "I am not your dear, never have been, and never intend to be."
"No?" He appeared quite unruffled. "Houghton, of course. But I want you to spare me a moment before going down."
"It is just dinner time," she pointed out.
"Oh, no!" He took a dress watch from his pocket and glanced at it. "Eight minutes, yet. And you and I are privileged people, here, for different reasons. Just remember, Diane, I made you, and quite possibly you would never have met Houghton if it hadn't been for me."
"Oh, quite possibly," she agreed coolly. "I am going down, now."
"I think not." He barred her way as he spoke. "What I have to tell you is important, to Houghton as well as to you—and me."
She hesitated. His eyes were compelling her, equally with his voice, and his mention of Houghton's name sounded like a threat.
"Mr. Carmichael"—her dislike for him showed in her tone—"now that the run of the piece is over, I can speak plainly to you."
"Oh, by all means!" he assented, with a tinge of irony.
"You have been careful," she went on, "to show me that you were not satisfied with your profits on Manners and Music, but wanted me thrown in, as to my knowledge you have wanted other girls and then thrown them aside. I tell you quite plainly that I do not intend to share their fate. Now let me go, please."
He did not move, but looked up at her.
"Houghton, eh?" he queried.
"I decline to discuss Mr. Houghton with you, Mr. Carmichael," she answered coldly, "and I wish to pass you and go down."
Still he stood so that she could not pass, and shook his head.
"But I have something to tell you, as important to him as it is to you," he said calmly. "I joined this party the day before yesterday because I knew you would be a member of it, my dear Diane."
She made a little, angry gesture. "Please omit that form of address, Mr. Carmichael!" she ordered sharply. "If you have any message for Mr. Houghton, give it to him yourself."
He bent toward her. "For his sake, I want you to listen," he said purposefully. "More, I urge it, while there is yet time."
There was more than mere desire of her in the demand, she felt. A sinister assurance, a confidence in the strength of some case that he meant to put before her—for Houghton's sake, rather than for herself, she wavered. Dislike of the man must not blind her to Houghton's interests, though never had that dislike been so strong.
"But where?" she asked.
He gestured toward the doorway from which he had emerged. "There—only we two are in this corridor," he answered. "I—I urge it."
After another pause of indecision she entered the room, and he followed her, leaving the door just ajar. He was smiling as he faced her.
"You have persistently evaded me, Diane," he said quietly. "You have shown me that you wish to regard me as only the money behind your success—"
"I do wish it!" she interrupted harshly.
"So I see," he retorted coolly, "but I usually get what I want. This cold dignity of yours is wonderfully attractive. And you are obviously in love with Houghton."
"Oh, let me go!" she demanded angrily. "This discussion is not only useless, but silly, Mr. Carmichael—"
"It is neither," he interrupted incisively. "Before you go, I want to tell you how I have adapted an idea from old melodrama, with a view to getting one of two things I want."
"I am not interested in old melodrama," she retorted contemptuously.
"No?" he sounded unimpressed by her contempt, and kept between her and the door. "Well, concerning Houghton, first. Nearly five years ago, he struck me, before other men. An Israelite never forgets either a benefit or an injury. He has forgotten the blow."
"But I thought you were ashamed of being an Israelite," she flung back cuttingly. "And probably his striking you was fully justified."
"I may forget my origin for social advantage," he said unmovedly. "But I want to tell you that Houghton has so far forgotten the blow he gave me that he accepted a loan of two thousand pounds from me yesterday morning, and agreed that it should be added to the mortgage I already hold on Castel Garde."
"You hold a mortgage on this place?" she echoed incredulously.
Again he smiled. "I told you the idea was adapted from old melodrama," he reminded her. "I bought the mortgage, a perfectly safe investment, from the previous holders. Until Houghton's uncle dies, he is a poor man, and glad of a loan of two thousand pounds at a reasonable rate of interest. Presently, failing your part in my plan, he will be a convicted forger."
"Oh, this is utter nonsense!" she exclaimed, with renewed contempt.
"No, melodrama, as I keep reminding you," he dissented coolly. "Houghton wrote a letter at my dictation, stating that the mortgage was to be increased by two thousand pounds. That letter is in my writing case, in the trunk there. In return for it, I gave him my cheque for two thousand pounds, yesterday morning, and he sent it off to his bank."
"Now may I go?" she asked cuttingly. "I do not wish to listen to Mr. Houghton's business affairs."
"Just wait one minute, and listen carefully to this," he commanded. "Houghton and I have accounts at the same bank. I told him I had no cheque forms here with me, and wrote that cheque for two thousand pounds on one of his cheque forms, which he gave me at my request."
"I do not wish to listen to his business affairs," she repeated, and looked past him at the door from which he barred her as he stood.
He made a little gesture with his hands—one that indicated his origin, and at the same time denoted his intent to tell all his tale. "That cheque form," he said, "can be proved by its serial number to be one from his cheque book. There were no witnesses either to his writing the letter to me, to add the amount of the mortgage, or to my writing the cheque. Now if I burn that letter, and say the signature on the cheque is a forgery, what do you think will happen to Houghton?"
"Nothing!" she retorted, with angry triumph. "The soul of honour as he is—"
"Wait!" he interrupted. "My forged signature, on a cheque taken from his cheque book! My allegation that he asked me to lend him the money and I refused. The fact that he is pressed for money, and will go on being pressed till his uncle dies, if only to keep up such a place as this. Souls of honour have yielded to temptation before now, Diane, and a jury—"
"Will acquit him!" she interrupted in turn. "The very fact that you have told me of this devil's scheme—my evidence for him—"
"Will count—that!" He snapped his fingers at her as he broke in on her retort. "'Publicity-Seeking Actress Perjures Herself in an Attempt at Saving Her Lover'—I can see the headlines in the press! Your word against mine, his word against mine—and my two thousand pounds paid to his account! Not my signature on the cheque, but a forgery—make up your mind that I made variations from my usual handwriting when I signed that cheque!"
"What of it?" She was still contemptuous, but he could see that he had shaken her. "You have told me the story, now."
"What if I have?" he demanded triumphantly. "That forgery will carry far more weight with a jury than any cock-and-bull tale he can tell about a non-existent letter he wrote me, or an equally thin story from you about this talk with me. And even if by a miracle he did get an acquittal, the disgrace of the trial would ruin him socially, and cause his uncle to cut him out—financial ruin as well." He stooped to pick up a burnt match from the carpet, and held it for her to see. "I hold Houghton—like that!" he said. "I can break him—like that!" And he snapped the match in two between his fingers and dropped the pieces.
"Now, will you let me go down to dinner?" she asked coldly.
"You, if you will, can keep him whole," he said, disregarding the query. "For so, when he sees what you have done, I shall get a fuller requital for the blow he struck me than in any other way, and—what is far more important—I shall have you, Diane."
"You said at the beginning that it was melodrama," she remarked.
"Either that, or black tragedy for Houghton," he retorted composedly.
"Old melodrama," she said cuttingly. "Yes, mouldily old. Mr. Carmichael, you dishonoured every Scotsman when you assumed that name. You are a renegade from a great people, and a disgrace to the word man. You are one who will eat bread in a man's house while you plan to stab him in the back. If this plan of yours is carried out, and no other can be found to kill you, then I myself will put an end to your evil life, though it cost me my own."
He gave her a steady gaze that seemed to last a long time, but she saw, from the change of his expression, that the threat was not lost on him. He had expected anger, perhaps, or pleading, but not this utter defiance. But he was still confident as he answered.
"Yes, melodrama of the old order," he said, "but at its best, I think. That speech ought to be written down—you were wonderful as you said it, Diane.
"Have you quite finished, Mr. Carmichael?" she demanded coldly.
"No!" For the first time, as he fired back the negative, he showed anger at her stubbornness. "If you say the word, I will keep the letter, own to my signature on the cheque, and Houghton will be in no danger from me. The decision rests with you."
"I have decided," she retorted. "For no man's sake would I be your mistress. You have too many already."
He stood aside from the door. "So you say now," he told her sneeringly. "Think it over, though—I shall not destroy the letter yet—"
But she passed him and went out from the room, and, going out to the gallery and down the staircase, saw him following. She saw, too, that Houghton came forward from among his guests to meet her as she advanced up the hall from the stairs' foot, and his face showed his admiration for her as she met him.
"Oh, you're wonderful!" he said. "And the frock, too—I hoped you'd remember, and wear it."
"Jim?" A glance behind showed her Carmichael slowly descending the stairs, with an ease of manner and expression that betokened not a care in the world. "Why did you put me there—next to his room?"
"Why?" He too saw Carmichael, and led her up the hall toward the group round the fire. "Has he been—Diane, you don't mean he'd dare to think—?" He broke off, looking down at her with angry questioning.
"No." She shook her head. "Not that, but—more devil than man, I think. I—it's about you. Jim, I must tell you!"
"I'll see—Diane, we can't keep them all waiting. Will after dinner do? I'll manage to get alone with you then, somehow. Will it keep till then? If it's anything but you, I don't want to quarrel with him—and can't quarrel with him here in my own house."
"It will—it must be after dinner, then," she assented. They were nearing the other guests by the fireplace, and Carmichael, beyond hearing of their talk, had not yet destroyed the letter Houghton had written him, she knew—as long as it existed, Houghton was safe. "Find somewhere—I don't know the house, you understand. I must tell you before the end of the evening—before Carmichael goes up to his room."
"Before the blizzard breaks, you mean." They were within hearing of the group round the fire as he spoke. "I don't know if you realise that your getting here was a miracle, and all of us in the house are cut off from the outside world till we get a road cleared—even the telephone doesn't exist for us till somebody goes and puts a wire up."
"State of siege, eh?" Kemp, foremost of the party they were joining, spoke the query with a smile. "When do we go on half-rations?"
"Not to-night," Houghton told him decidedly. "Self-contained for light and heating and refrigerating plant, probably a week's supply of food in the house, and—Oh, yes, I nearly forgot the six cows and the model dairy. If it comes to the worst, how long will it take us to eat six cows, and a pig or two thrown in? Several pigs, in fact?"
"Average appetite, X." Rodney Black, standing by Kemp, smiled at Diane as he made the comment. "Number of pigs, also X. There's too much unknown quantity about this problem for a mathematical answer."
"Diane—" Houghton took her arm and led her forward—"you've met Ruthven, you know Black, and there's Helen Turner waiting to talk to you, but I don't know how many of the rest—"
"Never mind for the present, Jim." Ruthven hurried forward and faced Diane. "Miss Heriot, introductions are a sheer waste of time, when you do more than one at once, and I shook dice for the honour of taking you into dinner, and won. Five aces, and Houghton's said I might. May I? You'll get to know everybody over dinner."
She looked at Houghton. "May he, Jim?" she asked, smiling.
"I think you'd better let him," Houghton assented. "Fraser's a devil when he's roused to a sense of injustice, and he did throw five aces. And wading through a dozen introductions while we all starve does seem a mistake. The cocktails are on the table, and the gong has already gone—and the introductions will happen naturally while we all eat. Is it carried that we all go along?"
"Carried, you unceremonious devil!" Ruthven seconded him. "But ceremony would mean ice water on my melon plate, and I don't like that. Miss Heriot, Jim reckons me one of his oldest friends—may I call you Diane? I mean, am I old enough?"
There was the faintest of Scots accents in the query. She had already decided that she liked Ruthven, and, remembering Carmichael and his plot, reflected that Houghton might need all his friends. The plot was a monstrous impossibility, and yet—
"I think you are, Fraser," she answered as she took his arm.
"Now I know what heaven is like," he said solemnly. "That is, if the ice is still solid on the melon plates. Do you know, Miss Heriot—Diane, I mean—the end of my nose is painfully sore? I've been balancing fire-irons on it, and had to scrub it with my nail brush before I dressed. Sacrifice in the cause of art."
"You should have scrubbed the fire-irons," she told him.
"There wasn't time. Russell walked on his hands to amuse us, since we couldn't go out and do things in this weather, and I had to stand up for the honour of Scotland. I am glad you got here!"
"Flattery is always acceptable," she said.
"No, but I mean it," he protested. "You should have seen how disappointed Houghton was over your non-arrival. He's a different man since you appeared."
"I thought you said you were glad," she countered.
"Hasn't he told you about me?" he asked.
"If he has it ought to make you humble," she told him.
"Not a bit, Miss Heriot—Diane, I mean."
They passed directly to the dining room through an arched doorway in the wall of the old keep. Boyle and two maidservants stood back to wait at table—an old, heavy table of oak, beeswaxed almost to the mirroring gloss of french polish, and set in the middle of the tapestry-panelled, high-ceilinged dining-room.
"You'll have Jim on the other side of you," Ruthven remarked as Boyle drew back Diane's chair for her, "and I know how things are, but please throw me an occasional word sometimes. Just to give me the impression that heaven is still within shouting distance."
She smiled. "You're quite capable of finding your own heaven, I think," she said.
"But, being a Scot, not anxious," he replied. "And it isn't melon, after all!"
THE stately Boyle, following Martha Bowers as she went round with the coffee tray, offered liqueurs, but found few takers. The party had come out from the dining-room and gathered round the log fire in the great hall. Carmichael took liqueur brandy, and put it down beside his coffee cup on a small occasional table; he was standing near the corner of the fireplace with his back to the flames, but beside the table was the easiest of all the easy chairs, which he appeared to regard as devoted to his use. Mary Hammersley, a dark, rather self-absorbed type of woman seated at the other end of the fireplace, decided for Grand Marnier, and Kemp and Ruthven took brandy, but the rest declined. Houghton, cup in hand, moved to where Diane stood back from the fireplace and alone for the moment. He had seen her glance first at Carmichael and then at himself, and wanted to make an opportunity of hearing what she had to tell him concerning Carmichael.
"Mr. Houghton?" Mrs. Hammersley's tone was almost peremptory. "I don't understand yet how Miss Heriot and Mr. Kemp got here. You told us before dinner that the blizzard had isolated us—yet here they are!"
"Thanks to Andy Parker and a Rolls-Royce, the one man and the one car capable of getting here on such a night," Houghton explained.
"Oh, do tell me the rest!" she demanded. "I'm simply aching for a plot for my next novel, and this is far, far better than a desert island. Marooned in the middle of an English county, in a mysterious old castle, and two mysterious visitors arrive. How?"
"Simply Andy Parker," Houghton insisted with a smile. "You see, Mrs. Hammersley, no ordinary person would attempt such a drive, but Andy—he's generally known as Mad Andy—took the risk, and needs a new radiator for his car in consequence. Kemp tells me he had to dig the snow away, in one of the drifts, and there was a risk of overturning or getting stuck, all the way. And, since it hasn't left off snowing or blowing yet, even the roundabout road Andy took will be blocked by now."
"And it took a very sane and clever driver to get here with us," Kemp added. "He earned his fare, if ever a man did."
"Do tell us more about him, Mr. Houghton," Mrs. Hammersley asked. "You appear to know him, I mean. What is he like?"
"He's about twenty-two, and a giant for strength," Houghton replied—everyone appeared to be listening, and he knew there was no chance of getting Diane to himself for the present. "His mother was parlourmaid here until about ten years ago, and Andy knows every lane and path for miles around—knows Castel Garde, too, as if it were his instead of mine. Then his mother took a little tobacco and sweet shop in Crandon, but when Andy grew up he was much too restless for anything like that. He went to work in a garage, and got thrown out after three months for crashing a car he borrowed without mentioning it. Then his mother died, and with what he made by selling her business he bought this secondhand Rolls of his, and he'll drive you anywhere in it. That's all."
"No father?" Mrs. Hammersley inquired.
"Obviously," Ruthven observed drily, as Houghton hesitated over answering. "Jim, it's a dull tale, and no use to Mrs. Hammersley for her fiction factory. How thick are these walls?"
"About twelve feet at each end, and eight at the sides. Why?"
"They might be paper. Listen!"
In the silence that followed, the wind's eerie howling sounded to them as a reminder of the wild night beyond their sheltered warmth. Carmichael took up his liqueur glass and drank the brandy in one gulp.
"It sounds through the windows, and the chimney," Houghton explained. "And I think this is the worst blizzard I have ever known in England. To-night will end it, probably."
"I'm glad you invited me," Mrs. Hammersley remarked. "I've never felt anything so eerie as this is when nobody's talking. If it grows on me much more, I shall rush off to my typewriter and put it down."
"Mr. Houghton, couldn't we all take candles and explore the dungeons under this old part?" a tall, fair girl asked.
"You go alone, Betty," Ruthven said, before Houghton could reply. "I'll wait till it gets warmer. I've been down there, once."
"Your central heating is almost perfect, Houghton," Carmichael observed, "but I think two packs of cards and a bridge scorer by this fire would be preferable to any form of exploration to-night. Would anyone else care to join in a rubber?"
"Och, but it's too early!" Ruthven expostulated. "Bridge immediately after dinner is too great a strain on the poor old intellect."
"Assuming it exists," Houghton contributed. "Diane, I promised to show you the Othello tapestry down at the other end of the hall. Would you care to come and see it now?"
He took her cup and put it down with his own on one of the occasional tables. The pair turned away from the rest of the party and went toward the great, carved screen that masked the doorway of the keep. Carmichael's gaze followed them, a questioning, meditative gaze. Would she tell him, and, if so, what would he do? Since, so far, Carmichael himself had done nothing, he could deny the whole story to Houghton, accuse Diane of vilifying him through mere dislike, and then smash Houghton by calling in the mortgage on Castel Garde. He knew that Houghton could not raise the money anywhere in time to avert disaster, and that the uncle, a man who regarded his nephew as far too extravagant, would not step in to help, though his money must come to Houghton eventually.
Diane hated him, Carmichael: he preferred his women to hate him, at first; they loved him all the more passionately after—when he had broken and tamed them. Mary Hammersley had begun by hating him: Houghton ought not to have invited her here. A discarded mistress is like stale beer beside a glass of champagne.
And Diane was the glass of champagne!
So ran Carmichael's thoughts. He had blundered in telling her his scheme too soon, but he knew Houghton had sent the cheque off to his bank, and he, Carmichael, must disown his signature on it immediately he learned of the debit to his account, or not at all. This infernal blizzard was upsetting everything. But for its occurrence, both he and Diane would have been in London again by the next day's end, and he could have gone to her and told her there, beyond reach of Houghton. A blunder, a bad blunder, but—would she have nerve enough to tell Houghton? Yet a woman in love has nerve enough for anything.
How lovely she was! If he could take her with that chill hate he had seen in her eyes, take her and break her—there was a sadistic pleasure in the mere thought. He would grow tired of her, of course, probably more quickly than he had tired of Mary Hammersley, whose wit and worldly knowledge had held him longer than—
"Yes, Mrs. Hammersley? I'm listening."
"Let's wait till those two come back. We must all join in."
At the far end of the hall, Houghton pressed Diane's arm as he held it, while they stood before the faded, sixteenth-century tapestry panel.
"Now, Diane," he asked, "what is it you have to tell me?"
"To ask you," she amended. "I want you, some time during the evening, and certainly before Carmichael has a chance of going up to his room, to bring up the subject of money in his hearing. I want you to ask him something like this—'You've lent me two thousand pounds since you came here, haven't you?' and get his reply before witnesses."
"But why?" he demanded. "And how do you know he lent it to me?"
"He told me. He is planning to destroy your letter about it, and deny his signature on the cheque that came out of your cheque book—accuse you of having forged it. You must make him own to the loan."
"My God, Diane!" He gazed at her in amazed incredulity. "Carmichael? Never! You're dreaming, surely!"
"Jim, I believe you'd trust the devil himself till he ruined you," she said earnestly. "You must do this, I tell you, before he can destroy that letter. Having seen us talking together like this, he will almost certainly destroy it as soon as he goes up to his room for the night, unless you forestall him. Bring up the subject of money in a casual way, and make him own to the loan before witnesses. Then he can't deny it, or accuse you of forgery."
"But why should he do such a thing?" Houghton asked, still incredulous over it. "Why should he?"
"A revenge for your knocking him down in public," she answered.
"But—but that was years ago!" he exclaimed. "And even so, why should he tell you of such a preposterous scheme?"
"Jim, it's not preposterous," she insisted earnestly. "And he told me because—because he thought I would become his mistress to save you. He'd forgo the scheme if I—" She broke off and averted her face.
"Diane—?" He grasped her arm and made her face him again.
"He knows—knows I—no, I can't tell you," she answered the question in his eyes. "But you must do that. And we must go back—someone's calling you to come back to them."
Still holding her arm, he looked down at her—and then as his expression changed she realised that he understood. She saw a berserk fury in his grey eyes that frightened her, a murderous, cold rage that was more deadly than any heat.
"By God!" he whispered. "I'll kill him for that!"
"Jim—oh, Jim, remember!" she pleaded. "You mustn't make a scene before all these people—you mustn't! Safeguard yourself in the way I tell you, and be just the same to him for to-night. Do what you like when you get him alone in the morning, but not to-night. I could have told you that you must never trust him, told you what he is, as much devil as man. And you struck him, he told me—"
"I know. He said Betty Ferguson was—I had to hit him for what he said of her. Betty—and she's here, too! Devils in hell, what next?"
"Let's go back," she urged, "and for heaven's sake don't betray yourself." She turned, impelling him—Mrs. Hammersley had called him again. "Why did you invite him, Jim—why did you?"
"I couldn't get out of it—his suggestion," he explained. "He bought up the mortgage on Castel Garde, and it's overdue, only kept going by his grace. His grace! Yes, I see. I'll keep cool, Diane, and manage to get that question in somehow—not just at once, but as soon as I can manage it naturally, and before he can get up to his room to destroy my letter, as you say. And he—Diane, you wouldn't have bought me off that way, would you?"
"Don't ask me that!" she bade. "Please, Jim. And now remember—cool, so that nobody knows I've told you anything."
They heard Ruthven's voice as they neared the party round the fire.
"The record for the hundred yards is less than ten seconds," he said, evidently for all to hear. "Anyhow, ten seconds is all you'll get. It's much longer than you think, really."
"What is it all about, Fraser?" Houghton inquired. His gaze met Carmichael's for the fraction of a second, and the impact of the meeting was like a clash of black diamonds against tempered steel. Carmichael knew, in that moment, that Diane had told Houghton of the plot.
"Saving your presence, sir—" Mrs. Hammersley stepped in front of Houghton and Diane, and looked up at him with her impudent, mocking, dark eyes—"we here assembled want to play murder. The murder game."
"Well, play it," Houghton answered. "It sounds interesting."
"Interesting? It's deleeriously alluring," Ruthven assured him. "But we shall all have to join in, Jim, because we must have the lights out for it. While the murder is being done."
"Yes, I've heard of it," Houghton owned. "And Kemp, being a barrister, ought to do the detective part well—"
"Hold your hosses!" Ruthven interrupted. "You don't know who is the detective, till the lights go up again."
"All right," Houghton said. "Let's have your version of the game."
"Like this, Mr. Houghton," Mrs. Hammersley interposed. "There are seventeen of us. You take seventeen cards from a pack—any seventeen, as long as they include the king of diamonds—that's the detective—and the knave of spades—he's the murderer. You shuffle and cut, and deal one of the seventeen to each person, and nobody shows his or her card. Then you arrange yourselves, and the lights are put out. The knave of spades grabs anyone he likes—or anyone he can find in the dark—by the throat, and that person squeals like the very devil. Ten seconds after the squeal, the lights are turned up again—"
"Hold on, Mrs. Hammersley," Ruthven interposed. "Don't forget that the murdered person has to stay put, exactly where he or she was murdered, to give the detective a chance of tracing the assassin. Then the lights go up, and everybody except the victim gathers round, and the detective shows his king of diamonds to prove he is the detective. None of the others show their cards. The detective can ask any question he likes, and the person questioned is bound to tell the exact truth in reply, just like a witness on oath—"
"All except the murderer," Mrs. Hammersley interrupted in turn. "He can lie all he likes in his replies, to prevent detection. And with seventeen of us it should be a yell—before bridge starts." She gave Carmichael a resentful glance as she made the reference.
"And who's going to be the murdered person?" Doctor Ferguson, a tall, pale man, and Betty Ferguson's brother, put the query.
"Anybody, you sap!" Ruthven retorted. "Anyone the murderer can find in the dark—that's the thrill of it. And if you get the knave of spades, doc, for heaven's sake don't go kissing your own sister before you tell her to yell. The shock would make you tell the truth when the detective begins questioning you."
There was a little ripple of laughter, in which Ferguson joined. "I'm a man of high principle, Ruthven," he said. "As long as your request only concerns my own sister, I give you my word of honour."
"But how about the fire?" Betty Ferguson asked. "We can't make this hall dark, even if we do have all the lights out."
Houghton went to a bell push and pressed it. "I'll get Boyle and—yes, we'll commandeer Andy Parker to help, since that screen is a good weight. We'll move the big screen away from the inner doors there and stand it in front of the fire. Then we can declare dead ground anywhere within twenty feet of the fireplace, as nearly as we can judge it in the dark. Open the doors of the dining-room and the big lounge opposite it on the other side of this hall—but does anyone want to stand out of the game for any reason? If so, we must leave a lighted room."
There was a general shaking of heads. Someone said: "We might have a treasure hunt, after we've finished this game," and Boyle appeared from the servants' entrance down the hall and faced his master.
"I want you to move the big screen close up in front of the fire, Boyle," Houghton told him, "to cut off all the light from the room. Turn Andy Parker out and get him to help you, and I'll give a hand myself if you need one. Then stay in here—I want you to be at the light switch to turn it off and on when I give the word—the main switch by your doorway down there. It's a game we're playing."
"Very good, sir." And Boyle went off in quest of Andy.
"Meanwhile"—Mrs. Hammersley took up a pack of cards, one of the two that Carmichael had got out hopefully for a rubber at bridge, and began dealing face upward on to an occasional table—"we may as well get ready for our respective parts. I do hope I'm the murderer."
Ruthven, joining her, began picking out cards, until he had collected the required seventeen. Then he shuffled them and handed them to her, and at her suggestion cut them.
"All keep your cards carefully," he said, as she began dealing one to each member of the party. "Else, when the detective accuses the wrong one of the murder, that one won't have a card to prove he isn't."
"I've got—" Tom Russell began, as he looked at his card.
"Shut up, you ass!" Ruthven interrupted. "You mustn't say what you've got before the end of the game."
"Got an idea this is going to be good fun," Russell completed. "Ass yourself, Ruthven!"
Mrs. Hammersley had finished dealing, and the recipients of the cards had put them carefully away in handbags and pockets, when Boyle returned with Andy, who evidently had discarded no part of his attire except his hat since arriving, and began moving the screen up the hall. It went well at Andy's end, but was obviously too much for Boyle, and Houghton saw the butler's difficulty.
"Hold on there, Boyle, before you hurt yourself," he called, and went toward them. "Go and give Andy a hand at his end, and leave that one to me. Move the tables out of the way, somebody."
Kemp, his back to the fire, turned his head toward Carmichael.
"That's what I like about Houghton," he said. "He fits himself in with everything, and doesn't mind how much he does to please people. But that man Parker—he looks wilder than ever without his hat."
"Yokel-bred, and showing it," Carmichael remarked contemptuously.
"His mother was no yokel's daughter, to my knowledge," Kemp dissented.
"Probably she fell in love with some chawbacon and yielded to him—I gathered that the youth is illegitimate," Carmichael said acidly. "But he's of no consequence. Do you like these childish games?"
"I don't object to this one. If the king of diamonds has brains and a talent for extracting evidence, he can make it very amusing."
"I prefer contract bridge," Carmichael said, with evident distaste for the murder game. "Still, it would look silly to remain out."
"In addition to making a difficulty about the lights," Kemp pointed out. "That is," he added after a pause, "unless you went up to your room and shut yourself in to prevent the light from showing."
"Ye-es," Carmichael drawled thoughtfully, and with Kemp stood away as Houghton bore his end of the screen into position. "I might have done that, of course, but I didn't think of it."
While the lights were down, he decided, he could go up to his room and put a match to Houghton's letter before the latter could demand it of him. Then, if Houghton taxed him with the plot of which he had told Diane, he could at least press for the instant return of the two thousand pounds, since it would be his word against Houghton's as to whether the amount were to be regarded as a short-term loan or added to the mortgage.
"Now, everybody!" Ruthven, self-constituted master of ceremonies, spoke. "Twenty feet back from the fireplace, and then go anywhere you like in this hall, in the dining-room, or in the lounge. That's the murder ground, and up the stairs or any other room on this floor is out of bounds, verboten. The murderer can take his or her own time over the dark deed after the lights are turned out, but the murdered person must yell like blazes when he or she feels a hand clutching his or her throat. Then ten seconds more darkness in which the murderer can do what he or she likes to prevent detection, and then Houghton will give the word for the lights to be turned on again. Does everyone understand it clearly, because talking always makes me thirsty?"
"We know it, Fraser," Houghton answered for them all. "Boyle, go to that main switch, turn down when I tell you, and switch on again when I tell you. Ferguson, turn off those lights in the lounge, will you, please? Andy, thanks very much for your help with the screen, and I shall be glad if you will come in again in about half an hour and help us to move it back to its proper place. Till then, we shall not need you—till I send for you, that is."
"Right you are, Mr. Houghton," Andy said quietly, and went out toward the servants' quarters, giving a wink to Boyle, who stood in readiness at the switch beside the doorway, as he passed.
Houghton caught Diane's significant glance at him as she stood between the great central pillar of the hall and the foot of the staircase. Carmichael was stealing unobtrusively to the foot of the stairs, and Houghton knew Diane's glance was a warning that the destruction of the letter was imminent. But he had had no chance of carrying out her suggestion, short of making a scene—which he could not do before his guests. Yet, if that letter were destroyed, Carmichael could deny having made the loan if he chose.
Diane, following Carmichael toward the foot of the staircase, halted and turned to face Houghton when she was level with the end of the third or fourth stair. Carmichael was a couple of paces beyond the end of the staircase, then, and faced toward it. He knew, past question, that he had ruined his main plot by disclosing it to her. He had lost her, but he could still smash Houghton out of Castel Garde and make a pauper of him until his uncle's death—or it might yet be possible to devise some plan that would give him Diane as well.
He wanted her. The more inaccessible she became, the more he wanted her. Some other plan... or, if only a post could get through in the morning to give him an excuse for disowning his signature on the cheque, he might yet put Houghton in the dock for forgery. Their word against his, and in the opinion of a jury, girl and man alike might lie without ceasing, to save the man from the results of such a charge. Even so, Carmichael knew, he must lose Diane: he had no hope left that his bit of melodrama would succeed now, as far as she was concerned. His eagerness for her, causing him to make his revelation too soon, had lost her to him.
Rodney Black and Helen Turner edged to the doorway of the lounge, as if to enter it as soon as the lights went down, and Ruthven shook his head at them reproachfully. Mrs. Hammersley, near the dining-room door, and Betty Ferguson farther out into the hall, both faced toward Houghton down by the pillar as if waiting for his word to bring darkness. Ferguson and Joan Shaw, an attractive girl whom Houghton had invited for Ferguson's sake, and the youngest member of the party, evidently intended to make for the dining-room when the switch was turned. The rest seemed concerned with getting as far as they could from each other, for fear of the knave of spades. Abruptly Houghton spoke—
"Lights out, Boyle!"
Darkness followed the order, appearing impenetrable until eyes, attuned to the change, discerned the glow about the edges of the great screen. A girl's voice murmured fearfully—"Oh, I don't like this!" and another—it might have been Joan Shaw—uttered a long—"Ah-h!" that sounded like ecstasy.
"There's one that isn't being murdered," Ruthven observed from somewhere near the middle of the hall, and a laugh or two followed. Then, for awhile, there was no sound but the howling of the wind outside the age-old walls—
From behind the screen, the firelight glimmered on the vaulted ceiling of the hall, but at too great a height for any reflection to be thrown down. A faint gleam of light appeared for awhile, showing from the corridor giving access to Carmichael's and Diane's rooms, but it was very faint, and visible only from the opposite side of the hall, since the projecting gallery cut it off from any who might look up from near the pillar, or on the staircase side. Dim figures flitting, appeared and vanished in the faint light from behind the screen: they came and went in turn, as if a devil chased a lost soul in Plutonian shades. A girl exclaimed—"Oh!" with an inflection of sudden fright, and Houghton said, quietly—"Keep the lights down Boyle." Then silence came again throughout the hall, going on interminably, and beginning to grow terrible. It was too eerie for a game, now.
Wheeeee-eeee-eee-ee-e! And in and over the nightmarish howling of the wind an owl screeched. Somewhere beyond locating sounded a momentary scuffle, followed by the click and faint creak of a door opening or closing—it might have been in the servants' quarters, might have been the movement of some piece of furniture in the lounge. It might have been anything, anywhere! The owl screeched again, and a man, perhaps Rodney Black, said—"Knave of—" Interrupting him, from somewhere in or near the dining-room, sounded a shrill, agonised scream of utter terror, a cry far too realistic to be part of any game. Another age of silence went by, and then Houghton spoke, as quietly as before—
"Lights, please, Boyle. The ten seconds is up, everyone."
In the sudden return of light blinking eyes searched the hall. Scarcely anyone had remained in the positions they had taken up before the lights had been turned out. Ruthven, almost the first to move, hurried to the doorway of the dining room, where a girl or woman lay prostrate by the wall, just outside the dining room itself.
"Who's killed?" he demanded.
"Me." Mrs. Hammersley sat up to answer. "Didn't I squeal nicely?"
"Horribly," he assured her. "Oy, who's the detective? Come and show your card and view the body, before it gets up!"
A dozen of the party clustered round him and Mrs. Hammersley, gazing down at her. Ferguson, the king of diamonds held high for all to see, elbowed a way through them. "The body must not be moved," he declared.
"Then hurry yourself," Mrs. Hammersley bade. "The body doesn't like sitting on the floor, and wants to get up."
"Did the murderer put you down there?" Ferguson asked.
"Here, stop that, doc!" Ruthven protested. "She's dead. You can't question the corpse, you know. And in a real murder case it doesn't keep long enough to be produced at the trial as evidence."
"Well, I give the corpse permission to get up," Ferguson said. He shuddered visibly. "That scream was much too genuine, Mrs. Hammersley," he declared. "It sounded like the limit of ghostly terror, and the darkness made it worse. Let's adjourn behind the screen, and I'll collect my evidence and tell you who killed her."
"But don't try to collect any more from the corpse," Ruthven adjured. "Wa—ah! Ferguson!" He himself emitted an exultant yell. "A detective shouldn't give clues away. If that isn't lipstick on your cheek, I'm the goat. Look at him, everyone!"
Ferguson backed out from the group amid general laughter, and scrubbed vigorously at his cheek with his handkerchief.
"And him a respectable medical practitioner, too!" Ruthven exclaimed, following him toward the fireplace. "It's 'orrid! Collusion with the murderer—I'll bet anyone twopence he arranged for the crime to be delayed. Oh, doctor, doctor!"
Kemp and Rodney Black together carried back one end of the screen until it stood at right angles to and at one end of the fireplace, and the other members of the party dropped into armchairs, or sat on the arms, or stood, holding themselves in readiness for Ferguson's inquisition. Ruthven, standing back from the rest, counted heads.
"Where's Jim?" he inquired. "Anyone know where Jim's hidden himself—do you know, Diane? Carmichael, too—though"—he lowered his voice—"we could do without him. Oh, Jim? Jeehim?" He raised his voice again, and looked down the hall. "Here's an honest, gory murder, and a detective with lipstick on his cheek! Dilly, dilly, dilly! Come and own up to the 'orrid crime, whether you did it or no!"
For some seconds there was no response. Then from the first floor gallery, quite near the top of the staircase, Houghton called down.
"Here I am." His voice was grave, steady, measured in its tone. "Ferguson, before you begin your case down there, I want you to come up here for a minute. No, not you, Fraser! Nobody but Ferguson. Carmichael appears to have had a stroke of some sort, up here. Just carry on quietly down there, the rest of you. Only you come up, Ferguson."
"What the devil was he doing up there, anyhow?" Ruthven demanded irritably. "It was out of bounds for the game."
"Felt it coming on, perhaps," Black suggested.
Ferguson detached himself from the party and went down the hall. As he went up the stairs, he saw Houghton turn toward him and put his forefinger to his lips, as if to enjoin silence, and at the signal Ferguson nodded a silent assent. Then again Houghton looked over the rail at the party round the fire, but they were all waiting quietly: Ruthven was looking up at the gallery, and shaking his head disconsolately, as if he resented this interruption.
Turning as Ferguson approached from the staircase head, Houghton took him by the arm and led him along the gallery until they came to the corridor entrance, leading to Carmichael's and Diane's rooms. There, by the angle of the wall, Carmichael lay, face upward, with his head projecting beyond the wall into the gallery. His tongue protruded from between his clenched teeth: his almost black eyes glared upward, horribly. A shining, black-hafted, antique dagger had been driven through his shirt front and deep into his breast.
They heard, yet with this sight before them did not hear the wind—
"AYE, he's deid."
Bent forward, while he looked down at Carmichael's body, Ferguson lapsed for the one remark into broad Scots dialect. The playing card between his fingers, loosely held, escaped from his grasp and fluttered down on to the dead man's breast, whence the king of diamonds showed plainly in the light of the electric bulb over the arched entrance to the corridor. Stooping, without touching the body, Ferguson retrieved his card, and straightened himself again to look at Houghton.
"And I wonder—" he said with no trace of dialect, and did not end the sentence, but shook his head doubtfully.
He appeared to Houghton to indicate no surprise, but a detached, professional calm. He was not so much guest at Castel Garde as doctor, now. Again he looked down at the body, and again shook his head.
"It's not for me to examine him," he said. "Leave him there—let the police bring their own medical man to him."
Houghton went to the rail of the gallery and looked down. The party round the fire appeared to be waiting in silence. He came back, and faced Ferguson.
"Do you realise that it may be a full twenty-four hours before we can get in touch with the police—or with anyone from outside?" he demanded. "We're cut off, even from telephoning, and two-thirds of the people down there would have to pass this to get to their rooms."
Yet again Ferguson shook his head. "Do you realise, Houghton, that the man has been murdered, and every one of us sixteen left alive here is suspect? If I touched that body to examine it, they'd say I had been trying to eliminate the traces of my own work."
"But you've nothing against him?" Houghton half-questioned. "You had no cause to—do this, surely?"
Ferguson's face darkened, and Houghton saw his fists clench.
"Do you remember when you knocked him down, five years ago, nearly?" he asked. "Ruthven was there—he told me why you did it."
"Yes, I remember now," Houghton said. "So did Carmichael."
"Aye. Well, ye're my friend, Houghton. What he said was true, then. He made a light woman of Betty, wrecked her life, and threw her away. Wrecked her nerves—she'll never be quite right in that respect again, and I keep her in my care since—since then. And it's not been easy for her and me to stop here for your birthday party since he came into the house. He's dead—hell receive him! But now you know why it's not for me to examine his body."
"No," Houghton assented, after a long pause. He bent over the body and, standing erect again, shook his head.
"No fingerprints on that dagger handle," he said. "That soft leather wouldn't hold them. It's from the plaque on the wall there." He nodded toward a baize-covered, shield-shaped plaque, on which still hung a pair of gauntlets, a pair of mediaeval spurs, a battle-axe and sword, and two more daggers.
Ferguson glanced at the king of diamonds in his hand, and then replaced it in his breast pocket. "I'm no detective," he said. "And—it's for the police surgeon, this. Not for me."
"But—stabbed to the heart—why didn't he cry out?" Houghton asked. "Except for the wind outside, there was almost dead silence."
"He—wait, though!" Ferguson knelt beside the body, and lowered his head until it almost touched the carpet, while he looked at the back of Carmichael's head. Then he knelt up and looked along the corridor.
"Look there!" He pointed toward the door of Carmichael's room.
Just beyond the door from where he knelt, there lay a spiked mace. And now Houghton saw a stain of blood on the pale brown pile of the carpet, just behind Carmichael's head. A little stain, that the head almost covered.
"Struck down with that, from behind," Ferguson said. "He pitched forward, probably on to his face—you wouldn't hear the fall on a thick carpet like this, with the wind shrieking outside. Then—turned over as he lay and the dagger driven home to make sure. But I think that club killed him—certainly it stunned him before he could shout."
"And we must leave the mace where it is," Houghton said. "Almost certainly there will be fingerprints on the handle. It's smooth wood."
"From over there?" Ferguson rose to his feet, and gestured at the shield-shaped plaque on the wall.
"From over there," Houghton assented. "He went to his room—I think I know why he went to his room. A little light would come out on to the plaque when he opened the door and switched on his light in his room. Somebody took down the mace and dagger, and waited till he came out. Struck in the dark—there would be no light—"
"I'm no detective," Ferguson said again in the pause.
"And—what do we do?" Houghton asked. "The others down there?"
"Why did he go to his room?" Ferguson gazed hard at the other man as he put the abrupt question.
Houghton stared back at him, hearing a note of suspicion in the query. Was the man trying to throw the authorship of the crime away from himself? And Ferguson, remembering his confession concerning his sister's cause for vengeance on the dead man, saw the doubt in Houghton's eyes—doubt as to whether he were talking to a murderer. Or was it a pretended doubt, a device to allay Ferguson's suspicions?
"No," Houghton said at last. "I shall not answer that question."
"Just as you like," Ferguson replied quietly.
"Look here, let's keep our heads!" There was a sharp, authoritative note in Houghton's voice. "Isolated here—sixteen of us, and the servants as well. I think the others down there by the fire need know no more than that he is dead."
"You mustn't cover that." Ferguson pointed down at the body. "You mustn't touch it with anything, till the police surgeon has finished with it—mustn't touch it with anything or move it. So how can you keep it from them?"
"Of course," Houghton made the admission reluctantly, "I can't."
"That being so, we'd better go down," Ferguson suggested. "Leaving this light on, and telling them they mustn't come past here, but must go round the other way of the gallery when they want to go to bed."
"Will you want to go to bed?" Houghton asked derisively.
"What the hell do you mean by that?" Ferguson retorted fiercely.
They faced each other through a long pause.
"I said, keep our heads," Houghton said at last.
Ferguson moved a couple of steps out toward the gallery rail. "No," he said. "I shall not want to go to bed. Shall we go down?"
Houghton followed him. Together they went down the staircase, and toward the group at the upper end of the great hall. Boyle was busy replenishing the fire with logs that he took from a huge basket in a recess at one end of the fireplace. Ferguson went straight to where his sister Betty was standing—quite close to the occasional table and easy chair that Carmichael had appropriated to his use earlier in the evening—and put his arm round her waist. So holding her, he faced toward Houghton, who had paused at the outer edge of the group, with every face turned toward him in an expectancy that had grown tense through the significance of Ferguson's protecting gesture.
There was a pause in which the howling of the wind was audible, but the sound was fainter than when Diane and Kemp had entered this hall before dinner, as if the gale were lessening in strength, now. Boyle finished with the fire and turned to go, but, seeing his master standing apart from the rest as if to address them, remained, perhaps awaiting an order, with his back to the big, carved screen.
And, standing thus in the full light of the fire, as well as that of the electric light on the walls, Houghton was magnificent, a broad-shouldered giant, lean-flanked and lithe, as his evening clothes revealed. His little yellow curls, almost too closely cropped, shone in the light, and his grey eyes appeared to search every face before him in turn. Then he spoke, slowly and distinctly.
"Doctor Ferguson and I have decided that you must all be told what has happened," he said. "The game we were playing turned to earnest when the lights were turned down. There are twenty-five living people here in Castel Garde. That is, sixteen of us, eight servants, and Andy Parker. There is one dead man lying outside his room, just at the entrance to the corridor leading off from the first-floor gallery. The body must not be moved, or touched in any way, until the police have sent a surgeon to examine it, and examined it themselves. That is all."
"O-o-o-o-h!" The long-drawn, shuddering exclamation came from Helen Turner, seated with Rodney Black a little apart from the rest, in comparative shadow at the screen end of the fireplace.
"Do you mean"—Ruthven spoke after the first effect of that moaning comment had died away—"that he's murdered, Jim?"
"Obviously," Houghton answered, with a dry inflection.
He moved forward into the group, heading for Diane Heriot as might a ship toward its harbour, and stood beside her. Except for Carmichael himself, she had been nearest of all to the foot of the stairs when the lights had been extinguished. Had any others noted her position, beside himself?
"Then one of us sixteen—" Tom Russell began, but Ruthven's voice cut sharply across his:
"Shut up, Russell, you infernal idiot!"
"Boyle!" Houghton spoke quietly after another long pause. "Fetch Andy Parker, and we'll put the screen back in its place. There's a bad draught at the other end of the hall, without it."
"Very good, sir," Boyle answered, and went to obey.
"We could have got it back ourselves," Ruthven remarked.
"Unless you have strength enough to hold the edge away from yourself when you lift it, you get a soiled shirt front," Houghton explained. "You have only to look at Boyle's shirt front."
"But, Mr. Houghton—?" Joan Shaw, seated between him and the Fergusons, spoke, and paused doubtfully, timidly.
"Yes, Joan, what is it?" he asked in an encouraging tone.
"It struck me—you said before dinner that we were cut off here," she said, almost apologetically. "I mean, that nobody can get to us. So—so the police can't get to us, can they? And some of us are sure to want to go to bed—" She paused again, or rather, her attempted explanation wavered to silence.
"There is nothing to prevent anybody from going to bed," Houghton said rather caustically, "but the body must not be moved or touched."
"But—but, you see, that's just it," Joan expostulated. "One just couldn't go while... I mean if it's examined—" She broke off in confusion, realising that everyone was listening, and then went on—"You see, Bertie is a doctor, and—"
She could not end her query, after all. Ferguson moved a couple of steps away from his sister, and the movement brought him facing Joan.
"I have already explained to Houghton why I cannot examine the body, even if my examination permitted of its being moved, which I doubt," he said. "No, Joan—Houghton and I agreed that it must not be touched."
"But why couldn't you—your word—?" she questioned, and again left the sentence incomplete. Ferguson shook his head.
"No," he said. "Russell stated the case just now—Ruthven, we've got to face it, and everybody realises it, so why not say it? One of us sixteen! So, until the police come—" He broke off, abruptly.
"Bertie!" She stood up to face him, all her hesitation gone in the certainty that, whoever had killed Carmichael, this man was innocent of the deed. "Everyone knows he was nothing to you! You had no cause against him—you could examine—certify—"
There was a tense strain growing evident in every member of the party, now. Fourteen pairs of eyes, other than those of Joan Shaw, watched Ferguson's face, and saw blood spring from his lower lip before he spoke. His gaze went to Betty, and again to Joan.
"There is—there was cause," he said, forcing the words out. "I—he—it might be thought that I had destroyed evidence. He is dead. For my own sake I must make no examination, but he must lie—up there." He nodded toward the gallery, where Carmichael's body lay.
Betty Ferguson put her hands over her face and sobbed aloud, until her brother reached her and put his arm round her again. Joan, too, hurried to her, and backed her away into the comparative shadow beside the fireplace. The movement of the two girls left Ferguson quite alone, since Joan had pulled his arm from about Betty's waist. And now thirteen pairs of eyes averted themselves from him, as if they all feared to look on one who dared not touch the body of the man he had killed. Then Ruthven broke the strained silence.
"Quite right, Ferguson," he said. "You've taken the wise course, considering everything. Jim, he's dead up there, you say, but I wonder how many of us sixteen don't want him back—"
"For God's sake, Ruthven!" Kemp broke in, shocked amazement in his voice. "The man is lying dead up there, remember. Surely the respect death should cause is enough to stop talk of that sort."
"But don't you see?" Ruthven retorted earnestly. "Fifteen of us suspected Ferguson, then—fourteen, rather, if there's one here who has no reason to suspect anyone else. And that's damnable, suspecting him any more than me, or Houghton, or anyone else. We're marooned here, as Mrs. Hammersley put it a century or two ago, and we've got to keep our heads somehow, and make up our minds that we've no right to suspect any one of ourselves more than any other one. I'll be so grateful that I'll nearly weep if anyone confesses to a grudge against Carmichael as frankly and honestly as Ferguson did just now. I've got a heavy grudge against him myself—my father would still be alive if it hadn't been for Malcolm Carmichael and his financial jugglings. Listen, all of you! I'm talking for sanity, to stop any one of us from making lifelong enemies through suspecting innocent friends. We've got to keep our heads till the police get here and solve the problem of who killed Carmichael—or don't solve it, as the case may be."
"Fraser," Houghton said, "nobody here will regard you as other than a good friend, after that."
He saw Boyle and Andy Parker advancing from the entrance to the servants' quarters, halfway down the hall, and himself went to the end of the screen nearest the wall, to help them in carrying it back to its place. Diane crossed to where Ruthven stood, a little apart from the rest, an angry-looking man till she smiled at him.
"I shall never forget your friendship, Fraser," she said.
"Eh, it's a mad business!" he answered, looking up at her and smiling in turn. "Before this night's out, there'll be more than one of us that feels it too mad for endurance—and yet we must endure. Did I do it did you do it—is he really dead? Even for that, we've only Ferguson's and Jim's word. Are they in league with Carmichael to give us all the horrors, or is he really lying dead up there?"
"And just now you talked for sanity!" she said reprovingly.
"I know, but isn't it always the one who holds the rest that feels the strain most? Castel Garde—old as sin, and the ghosts of God knows what looking down on us from the shadows up there, and the wind outside wailing like an evil spirit in torment. Shut off here, prisoned—"
"Oh, don't—don't!" she pleaded whisperingly. "I wish—I wish he were not dead! I wish—you make me feel evil round us."
"I'm sorry—Diane! Let's go and talk to Ferguson, to make the blasted fools see how silly they are. Even if he did—"
They moved together. Houghton, having taken up his end of the screen, was moving it farther away from the fireplace, to get a clear line down the hall to the doorway at the far end. Andy Parker was lifting his end away, and Boyle, grasping a cross-piece and keeping his toes from being trodden on by Andy, made an ineffectual third at the task. They moved slowly away from the fireplace.
"Left, Andy—to your own right, rather, to miss the pillar," Houghton bade, for Andy, stepping backward with his burden, could not see his direction.
"Right you are, Mr. Houghton, an' right it is. I'll miss it."
"I wonder—who was the murderer?"
Young Tom Russell, who had first voiced the thought that one of the sixteen people there must be responsible for Carmichael's death, spoke the words reflectively. Ruthven left Diane to face him.
"I'll smash your silly head for you if you don't keep off it, Russell!" he threatened gratingly. "It might be you, for all that the rest of us can tell—though I doubt if you've got brains enough."
"But I didn't mean that, Ruthven!" Russell protested angrily. "I was thinking of the game we'd started playing, and who gripped Mrs. Hammersley's throat to make her give that awful scream."
"Oh, for heaven's sake let's forget about the game!" Mrs. Hammersley exclaimed harshly. "Isn't real murder horrible enough, without resorting to its caricature? You'll be wanting to dance, next."
"But what are we to do?" Russell inquired almost plaintively. "We can't possibly go to bed—I don't want to go to bed, in any case. And it's frightfully early yet—the evening's only just begun."
"Well, take a chair cushion and choke yourself," Ruthven advised savagely. "Or else, keep off the subject of murder, unless you want me to choke you. Ferguson, don't you think a spot of bromide and soda all round, to prevent us from going stone dotty—have you got any bromide?"
"Not a grain," Ferguson confessed. "I'm an aural specialist."
"Oral, eh?" Ruthven came back to him and, standing beside Diane, laid his hand lightly on her arm and pressed it as if to reassure her. He was talking to prevent thought, to help himself to maintain sanity of outlook. "It was Boyle Roche who said an oral law isn't worth the paper it's written on, and an oral specialist—but I'll come to you if my voice shows any sign of giving out. At half fees, of course."
"Aural—a-u-r-a-l—" Ferguson spelt the word out. "Ears, not vocal chords—though the two are related in some measure. But I've got no bromide. Were you serious when you suggested it, though?"
"I don't want to be serious," Ruthven answered. "We must be, to a certain extent, out of—as Kemp expressed it—respect for death, if for nothing else. But I'm thinking of the hours and hours we've got to spend before sleep beats us down, or the end of this nightmare comes in some form or other. Is there no way of getting the police here?"
"I don't know," Ferguson said vaguely. "I don't know this part of the country, and Houghton said we were shut in—cut off, that is."
Ruthven turned his head to look down the hall. The screen was back in its place before the doors, and the three men were returning, Houghton and Andy talking together, and Boyle in rear of them. The vastness of the old keep impressed itself on Ruthven, then: he could see that those two were conversing, but could not hear their talk.
"I'll ask Jim, when he gets here," he said.
Boyle turned off toward the servants' entrance, and there paused, as if he would await some further order or word of dismissal from his master. Andy, leaving Houghton's side, also waited until Boyle should bid him go, or possibly through curiosity regarding the group of guests, since he stared interestedly toward them. Except that he had laid aside his old bowler hat and its securing scarf, he was as Kemp had seen him at Crandon station, with sacking leggings, dirty old waterproof coat, and the plaid showing from under it, as then. His uncombed, tousled hair standing out from his head in all directions, combined with his piercing, blackish eyes and purplish beak of a nose to render him weirdly impressive, a lank, goblin figure looming before the comparative dimness at the far end of the long hall. He whistled a little between his teeth as he stood.
"Fraser—" Houghton went straight toward Diane and Ruthven—"I've come to the conclusion that the police must be got out here at all costs. I've talked it over with Andy Parker, and he thinks it might be possible to get through to Westingborough, though the Crandon roads will certainly be impassable. And it has stopped snowing, he tells me."
"Umm-m!" Ruthven looked dubious. "How far is it to this place? Westingborough, I mean? Farther than Crandon, isn't it?"
"Fourteen miles, roughly," Houghton answered. "Down the hill—that is, directly away from Crandon—through Carden village, and over Condor Hill. Andy thinks it should be possible to take a high-powered, heavy car as far as the top of Condor Hill, and then, if the drift in the cutting at the top is too deep, fight through it on foot and walk the rest of the way, or pick up another car somehow."
"How far is that rest of the way?" Ruthven asked again.
"From the crest of the hill? Well, about three miles beyond the summit, there's an inn, the Cat and Fiddle. Andy says it would be possible to hire the car they keep there, and do the rest of the journey."
"Yes—and who is to do it?"
"I am, of course. I can't take the responsibility of letting any other leave this place till the police have got here."
"What do you mean by that, Houghton?" Ferguson demanded harshly from behind Ruthven, and Diane, startled more by his tone than by the query itself, looked round at him.
"When I tell you I believe you killed him, Ferguson, then think it," Houghton answered coolly. "An attitude like yours might easily lead to panic, coupled as it is with the impossibility of getting away from this place. You yourself may be badly shaken, but so are others, remember."
"Sorry," Ferguson had the grace to apologise. "I'm afraid I am getting ragged-edged about the nerves. And you—" He broke off.
"Jim"—Ruthven shook his head gravely as he spoke—"it's a dangerous journey, isn't it? I don't know the district, but you yourself said we were cut off. And now you talk of fourteen miles through this."
"There should be two, I think," Ferguson said. "With the danger of being caught in a drift—I've seen Condor Hill, and with that danger, one ought not to attempt it alone. Even a strong one like you."
"No other may leave this place," Houghton said, with decision.
"Mister Houghton!" Andy Parker came toward them with long, swift strides. "There's not a man in the county knows these roads as I do—every crack an' bump in 'em. Let me go! I'll get through where any other would fall down on it, an' quicker than any other even if he didn't fall down. 'Tis my job, an' little enough to do for you, too."
They gazed at him, lanky, uncouth, almost comic in the scarecrow mixture of his attire, set as it was against their evening clothes. But there was nothing comic about his glittering, almost fiercely earnest eyes, nor in the vehemence with which he made his request.
"Why do you say it's your job, Andy?" Houghton asked.
"'Tis my job!" Andy insisted. "Who else knows these roads an' their tricks, as I know 'em? Mr. Houghton, there's another Rolls in your garage—gimme leave to take it, an' put me own skid chains on the wheels, an' I'll make Condor Hill or break me neck tryin'."
"Carmichael's car—he drove it down from London himself, the day before yesterday," Houghton half-soliloquised. "Well, Andy—"
"He's right." Kemp, at Houghton's elbow, broke in on the discussion. "I know from his driving on the way here that he can do it if anyone can, Jim, and you of all people ought not to leave here now."
"I?" Houghton swung round to face the smaller, older man, and the query was a challenging bark, hostile, angered.
"You." Kemp smiled as he answered. "Who is to give orders here if you go? In the event of need for orders. It needs only one shrieking woman, or a quarrel between two men, to start something very like a panic row—man, they're all getting keyed up nearly to panic point, except Ruthven here, perhaps. That dead body up there is a weight on all their minds, and everybody here is wondering whether the next man or woman did it. And you're the host, remember."
"Yes, you're right, Uncle Mont." Houghton let his gaze stray over the twos and threes before the fire, and saw or imagined a separateness grown between the pairs or trios. Then he turned back to Andy, who waited for his decision.
"Take the Rolls, then, Andy," he said, "and come and see me again before you start. How long do you think it will take?"
"One hour—two—three," Andy answered. "Maybe I'll haf to dig two or three times, specially just past the cuttin' on Condor Hill—if the wind ain't blocked the cuttin' itself wi' snow. If it ain't, I'll find deep snow on t'other side—but I'll have the slope to help me."
"You'd better take somebody with you," Houghton suggested.
Andy shook his head. "Savin' yourself, Mr. Houghton, there's no man I'd want from any here. I'll make Westingborough alone, or not at all."
"Right. Come in and see me again before you go, when you've got the chains on and the car out ready. Just in case—"
He did not end it, and after a second or two Andy, understanding the pause, turned with a nod of assent and went out by the servants' entrance. It would take some time, Houghton knew, to fix the chains on the wheels of Carmichael's car, and in that time anything might transpire. So much had transpired already...
Outside the wind wailed mournfully, eerily.
DIANE HERIOT and the four men—Houghton, Kemp, Ruthven, and Ferguson—had been standing almost beyond hearing of the rest of the party while Houghton and Andy Parker talked to each other. Now, as Andy went out, they moved towards the fire, but Houghton turned back at a thought, and called to Boyle.
The sardonic-looking butler came forward from the side of the hall at his master's summons. A soldierly, erect figure of a man, apparently in his fifties, he lacked an inch or two of Houghton's height and had nothing like the latter's breadth of shoulders. Houghton gestured him down the hall toward the central pillar, and went with him.
"I suppose everybody knows, Boyle?" Houghton asked.
"Yes, sir. There was an inclination to hysterics with two of the girls, but Martha sat on 'em, sir. They were a bit scared of Andy."
"Scared, eh? What did he do to scare them?"
"Just laughed, sir. Like—it was like a devil laughing."
Houghton frowned. "Mad Andy," he commented.
"Boyle, never mind that for the present. Andy's going to fetch the police so that we can get rid of the body, and till then I've got to hold these people in here to reason—they're all edgy and nervous, and I'm not quite sure as to how to handle them for the best. But I want you to order in a supply of good, strong coffee in about half an hour from now, and plenty of sandwiches and dainties—they'll say they couldn't think of eating, but they'll eat. Anything to pass the time."
"Yes, sir. I understand."
"And then I want you to come back and stay in the hall," Houghton pursued, "just to make sure that nobody tries to go up the staircase while I'm not looking, or plays any other tricks."
"Yes, sir. I'll tell Martha about the food. She can keep things all right with the maids, sir. I'll just give the order and come back here at once.
"Good old Boyle!" Houghton laid a hand momentarily on the man's shoulder, and turned back toward the fireplace.
He saw Diane, standing alone and gazing toward him. Ferguson, his sister Betty, and Joan Shaw made a group apart, in the comparative shadow beyond one corner of the fireplace, and in the other corner, still less noticeable, Rodney Black and Helen Turner had settled themselves in two big armchairs, partly turned away from the rest of the party and beyond the glow from the logs. Mrs. Hammersley sat in the chair that Carmichael had used, and Ruthven stood beside her. Tom Russell, a genius at putting his foot in it with inane remarks, faced the middle of the fireplace, and had his hand laid on the arm of Ethna Blair, a fragile-looking little woman whom Houghton had invited for this party because her mother and his had been friends, and she had appeared to seek an invitation. He had thought she might act as hostess, but had given up the idea when he found she was quite incapable, and wanted only to be amused. It appeared that Tom Russell knew how to amuse her.
Then there was Kemp, talking now to Jack and Gwen Warren, a young couple who had been married only three months before, and, apart from the rest before the middle of the fireplace, the two Mostyns, brothers who had been schoolfellows of Houghton. Yes, fifteen in all, and he himself made sixteen. And, surveying them thus, he felt that Boyle as a watcher was hardly necessary: none of them would willingly separate from the rest, while Carmichael's body lay in the gallery.
"Mr. Houghton?" Mrs. Hammersley's voice arrested his movement toward Diane. "How old is this place? This big hall, I mean?"
"It dates from the time of King Stephen," he answered. "A remote ancestor of mine built it. What made you ask?"
Her dark, magnetic eyes shone full at him as he approached her. "One must talk about something," she said. "That is, either talk or think, and thinking would be the very devil for any of us, just now. From Stephen's time—but I've forgotten all my dates. Are there any legends? There must be, though, since it's so old."
"Quite a few." He felt grateful to her for opening the subject, for anything that might avert thought from the body in the gallery. "I believe King John stayed here awhile before Runnymede happened, and we have documents to prove that Simon de Montfort held a council in this hall—it had two stories above this then. Also I've got a parchment deed signed by John of Gaunt among my treasures."
"Wasn't he the one who married Jane Shore, or something of the sort?" she queried idly. "Or was that Henry the Eighth? Never mind, though—it's no use telling me, because I always forget history."
"Jane Shore—I believe she belongs in an intermediate period," he said. "I'm not quite clear about her myself, except that she walked with a sheet wrapped round her as a penance for something or other."
"Rather chilly, even if it were becoming," she commented. "But do tell me—why is there that big pillar in the middle of the hall?"
"To support the roof," he answered composedly. Diane came to his side and stood listening to the dialogue, and others, too, turned to hear. Like Houghton, they were grateful for the diversion.
"Yes, but it isn't normal," Mrs. Hammersley urged. "I know a very little about architecture, and the old castles were not usually built like this. We're in what used to be the keep, I understand, and those two galleries indicate the positions of the first and second floors—yes, that's all right. But the arched stone roof and the pillar are both quite abnormal, for a fortified castle."
"Quite," Houghton agreed. "My remote ancestor was under a vow, or something of the sort, and he built this hall with the intention of having it consecrated and turned over to the Church. Hence the stone roof and the general design. But he died just before the building was completed, and his son wasn't quite so religious. So the consecration never took place, but he extended the structure to either side and fortified it instead, and so we get Castel Garde."
"And I suppose he shut himself in here, and tortured the villeins and carried off the virgins, and played Old Harry generally?"
"If he could find any virgins," Ruthven put in.
"He wasn't exactly a moral character," Houghton admitted.
"It must be nice to have an old rip among one's ancestors," Mrs. Hammersley reflected. "I should get quite a moral glow out of it, if I had one, but all mine were merely respectable."
"Which is horrid," Ruthven put in again.
"I don't see how one could get the glow," Houghton observed drily.
"That's immaterial, as long as we keep on talking," she replied.
But, having no comment ready, Houghton did not respond. She had made a good effort at relieving the strain that all were feeling, but nobody seconded her, and the fourteen pairs of eyes directed at them as they talked rendered Houghton dumb. He glanced at Diane, and could tell from her expression that the strain was beginning to affect her in a way he did not like. They were all keyed up—the body in the gallery was foremost in all their thoughts, and Andy Parker had not started for Westingborough, yet! Kemp and Ruthven and Mrs. Hammersley appeared the sanest and most controlled of the party, Houghton felt.
Ruthven crooked a finger and beckoned him away from Mrs. Hammersley's chair. He followed his friend beyond the end of the fireplace, and there Ruthven faced him with an odd, almost pitying expression.
"It's no use, Jim," he said. "While you were talking to Andy and Boyle down the hall, that blasted idiot Russell wanted to know how it happened that you were up in the gallery so soon after the lights went up. Everybody heard him. I'm not questioning you about it, old chap, but—well, you see the impression he's created, don't you?"
"I never thought of it," Houghton confessed. "Yes, I see."
"What are you going to do about it? They—they're uneasy."
"Fraser, that's perfectly damnable!" Houghton exclaimed heatedly.
"Admitted, but—don't you see, all but the one who did it are questioning whether you did it? I don't question, but they do. And you're the big noise, the one who has to hold us all up till the police get here or we drop off to sleep—they've got to be made to trust you! Somehow, it's got to be done. Mrs. Hammersley did her damnedest just now, but it didn't quite work, I could see. I think—if you could make some explanation that would go down with them—"
"Damn it, man, don't you see I'm trying to keep off the subject?"
"Yes, but it's uppermost in everyone's mind. Wouldn't it be far better to grasp the nettle, make them see that you had some sound reason for being up there, rather than let them suspect you like this? They're in your house—it's altogether hateful! I could kill Russell."
"But it appears that he only said what all the rest were thinking," Houghton pointed out. "All but you and Diane, that is," he added, and then felt that, with the knowledge he and she shared, it was probable that she thought no differently from the rest concerning him.
"Well, stop them from thinking it," Ruthven urged.
"I'm afraid that's a little too much to ask," Houghton said slowly.
He saw, from Ruthven's sudden glance at him, that he had planted the first doubt of his own innocence in his friend's mind. A tiny doubt, and Ruthven tried to fight it down, but it was there.
"All right," Houghton said at last, coldly. "I'll make things either worse or better by telling them the truth. Then they can think what they like. Whatever they think, they can't get away from here."
"Sorry, Jim," Ruthven apologised frankly. "This—this business has got us all strung up, and I'm no better than the rest. Why should you tell them? If there's any story in it, Mrs. Blair there for one will blaze it out to the whole world as soon as she gets a chance, and probably Mrs. Hammersley would put it in her next novel. If it means a confession of any sort, don't do it. We know you."
"Do any of us know each other, with this on one of us?" Houghton rejoined grimly. "Wait—I've got to make them see sense."
He went back and, standing before the middle of the fireplace, faced out into the hall. A couple of low-toned conversations ceased, since it was evident from his pose that he meant to speak for all to hear. Diane moved a little nearer to him, and Ruthven came out from the shadows. Houghton stood at his full height, in an attitude of challenge.
"I wish to say—there appears to be a question in some of your minds," he began. "A question as to how I happened to go up into the gallery immediately after the lights were turned on, as if I knew Carmichael would be there. I did know he would be there. I knew, before the lights were turned out, that he meant to go up to his room, and I am not the only one who knew it. I knew, too, why he wanted to go."
Diane went to his side. "I, too, knew it," she said.
She put into the assertion a defiant challenge to them all. She dared them to accuse Houghton, or to doubt his innocence. The gesture was splendid, as she was splendid with her little head held high and her eyes searching face after face of all that turned toward her.
Houghton's hand sought and grasped hers. "I went up," he said. "Perhaps some of you saw me go. But for the time of darkness I was standing by the pillar. I spoke from there, telling Boyle to keep the lights down, and I spoke from there again telling him to turn them up. All of you must have heard me. Finally, as a matter of common-sense, if I were the type of man who wanted to invite a guest to my house for the purpose of killing him, is it likely that I should invite fifteen other people to witness the crime?"
A long silence followed the challenging question. At last Kemp coughed, a dry little sound that turned all eyes toward him expectantly.
"In other words," he said, "Houghton objects to being thought an utter fool. But if you'll forgive me for saying it, Jim, I think we had better keep off this subject if we can. It was quite right of you to clear the air as far as you yourself are concerned, you being our host, but we can do no good by discussing it farther."
"Unless—" Tom Russell began, and thought better of it.
"There is no 'unless,' Russell," Kemp said coldly. "You've put your foot in it twice already to-night, remember."
In the long, unhappy silence that followed his reproof, they could hear the wind, diminished in force, but moaning round the walls with direful insistence.
Its note had changed from syren-like, shrieking clamour to a boding, threatening lament—
Across the doleful wail the crack of a burning log in the fireplace cut like a pistol shot. Houghton started and almost faced about, and Ethna Blair shrieked, a little yelp of sudden alarm.
"It's all right—only the fire, Ethna," Tom Russell said.
Jack Warren, a chubby-faced, pleasant-looking youngster, who had hitherto contributed nothing to such conversation as had been, looked anxiously toward Houghton from where he sat on the arm of an easy chair, holding his wife's hand as she sat in the chair.
"Er—Houghton?" he asked, with evident nervousness. "Couldn't we do something? Gwen here can't face the thought of going to bed, and as far as that goes it's barely ten o'clock, yet. Couldn't we—?"
His query faded out, as if he had realised its utter futility, or his courage had failed him since every eye turned his way. Houghton shook his head slowly, doubtfully.
"I'm afraid—" he said, and paused. Then—"What could we do?"
For awhile nobody answered. They heard the wind again—
Euuuu-ooo-uu-oo! An anguished, fearful wail.
"We might finish that game—" It was Tom Russell speaking again, but Ferguson's voice drowned the end of the suggestion.
"We might gag you, you idiot, and lock you away somewhere till morning!" Ferguson grated out fiercely.
"How nice of you, Mr. Ferguson!" Mrs. Hammersley observed with ironic sweetness. "A little honest bickering might clear the air."
Again, so strained were they, there was a visible start and movement of them all when with a clang the inner door at the far end of the hall swung open beyond the big screen. Round the screen and up the hall came Andy Parker, sacking-legged and waterproofed with his plaid rug showing round his neck, and his faded, dusty-looking old bowler hat secured on his head by means of the woollen scarf tied under his chin. Houghton went a few steps down the hall to meet him.
"All ready, Mr. Houghton," he said. "She's newer'n mine, that car, but the tyres are the same, an' the chains sit tight an' good. I've kem to tell ye I'm all ready to go."
"And still I think it would be better if somebody went with you," Houghton urged. "In the event of getting stuck on the way."
"Tcha!" Andy ejaculated derisively. "That is, savin' ye'r presence, Mr. Houghton, no. But f'r yerself, there's no man here I'd want with me. Ye see, sir, I reckon maybe I'll take me shovel an' dig a few times 'twixt here an' Carden—maybe four or five times, as I had to on the way here wi' me own car. Up Condor Hill ought to be fairly clear, f'r the wind'll have swep' most of it, an' I think the drive o' the wind ought to be clean through the cuttin' at the top. Then, if it's drifted thick beyond the cuttin', I've got the grade to help me drive through, an' drivin' through'll clear me a road back. The snowin's stopped an' the stars are out, so what more could I want? An' 'tis my job, as I told ye afore, sir."
"Well, Andy, I shall not forget it," Houghton said gravely. "If you get through, go straight to Westingborough police station and ask for Inspector Head. He won't be there at this time of night, but they won't hesitate over getting him for you when you tell them—" He hesitated, and glanced over his shoulder at the listening group behind him. They appeared to ignore each other in their interest in Andy.
"Tell him Malcolm Carmichael was murdered here this night i' the dark," Andy completed, with no scruples over the results of such a statement in the hearing of seven frightened women before him.
"Tell him we want him and a police surgeon out here, and that you can drive them out," Houghton amended. "On the other hand, Andy, in case the snow on Condor Hill should stop you from getting through, stop on your way at the Carden Arms before trying to get up the hill, and almost certainly you'll find the telephone from there to Westingborough is working. If it's not broken down, ring through to the police at Westingborough, tell them you're on your way to them from Castel Garde, and why you're doing it. Is that clear?"
"Quite clear, Mr. Houghton. Stop at the Carden Arms, tell 'em you want 'em here for a murder, an' then go on. All clear, sir."
"Right you are, Andy. Good luck to you on the run."
He held out his hand. Andy took and gripped it with a steady, firm clasp, and his teeth showed in a smile as his piercing, dark eyes directed their gaze at the man before him—and then, as Houghton noted, at the intent faces of the group of watchers beyond, silhouetted by the firelight which illumined them more strongly than the shaded bracket lights on the walls. It seemed to Houghton that the momentary, searching look was so perceptive that Andy sought each pair of eyes before him in turn, accused the gathering, and tried to single out from among the rest that one who had struck Carmichael down.
"Mr. Houghton, I'll be back by midnight or a bit after, if it's not too bad—an' maybe before," he promised. "'Tis my job."
He turned away, and Houghton stood watching him. He went down the long hall, past the central pillar, and to the edge of the screen before the inner door. There he halted and faced about.
"Mr. Houghton?" he called, clearly.
"Yes—what is it, Andy?" Houghton called back.
"'Tis my job, Mr. Houghton, as I told ye. May the soul of me mother in glory look down on him as he rots in hell. She told me before she died—Carmichael was my father!"
With the last word he turned and vanished behind the screen. After no more than a second's pause of stupefaction Houghton started forward.
"Andy! Andy! Come back!" he shouted.
The clang of the closing door answered him as he went down the hall in great leaps. He wrenched the heavy door open so that it went back against its stop with a crash, and shot along the stone floor of the portico to the outer door. This too he flung wide and, stepping out, saw the rear light of the car a good hundred yards on its way along the drive, and momentarily gaining speed.
He cupped his hands about his mouth. "Andy! Andy!" he roared.
But all in vain. It would be useless, he knew, to attempt to overtake the car. The setting moon, days yet from full, whitened the snow-clothed land, in which black trees stood up—except for three that the gale had crashed within sight of this doorway. Stars in the sky were larger, brighter, than is normal to an English night, and the wind, sweeping diagonally at the front of the huge old keep, felt as if it drove needles of ice at Houghton's face. Here and there, on the stretch of open land before him, little clouds of snow were swept up by gusts of the bitter wind, and carried a little way to disperse and fall again.
Cold as death—cold as the death lying up in the gallery!
Houghton turned back and, entering the portico—an arch in the thickness of the wall—closed the outer door. Along the stone floor the chill was like that of a deeply-sunk tomb. He passed through into the hall, closed the inner door, and emerged from behind the screen. Facing him, all lifted to their feet by Andy's parting words, were fifteen people whom he must keep sane and quiet until Andy returned. Fifteen living people, company for the corpse in the gallery!
Anywhere but here! If only it had happened anywhere but here! He whispered the vain wish to himself as he went up the hall. Every light was on, but there were ghostly shadows in the archings of the roof, shadowed alcoves on either side, armour and weapons of death before and on either wall. A suit of Norrnam mail, the gauntlets laid on a huge, two-handed sword, appeared as an executioner who might step forward to demand the head of Carmichael's slayer. Under foot were dungeons in which the victims of a harsher age had lain in chains, and the torture chamber in which they had writhed and shrieked. The hall was full of ghosts, giving silent greeting to the new ghost added to their number that night. Anywhere but here!
Ruthven stood out from among the rest as Houghton came toward them.
"Man—" his accent declared his ancestry as he spoke—"man, Jim—ye've let the one that killed him go!"
A COLLECTIVE, audible sigh of relief followed on Ruthven's assertion, an expression of the almost unanimous thought that Andy's guilt exonerated the members of this party, rendering it possible for each one of them to look his or her fellow squarely in the face, with no fear of being thought guilty of murder in the dark. Houghton's face, too, cleared at the realisation, and he saw Diane's change of expression.
But Boyle, busied over piling fresh logs on the fire, faced about and straightened himself with a little, protesting cough.
"Pardon me, sir," he said respectfully. "I'm afraid you're mistaken about that. Andy Parker couldn't have—couldn't have—" He saw the watching faces turned towards him, and became silent.
"Why not, Boyle?" Houghton asked, after a long silence.
"Well, sir, you told me to stand at the main switch, just outside the door leading to the servants' quarters," Boyle answered. "Standing so, I had the little peep-hole—the square of glass in the door, sir—right in front of my eyes, and I kept my head in front of it to stop any light from coming through into the hall. I could see Andy Parker all the time, sir, leaning in the doorway of the servants' sitting-room at the far end of the passage—leaning against the side of the doorway and laughing and talking to the girls in the room."
"All the time, Boyle?" Kemp asked, since Houghton did not speak.
"All the time, sir," Boyle answered firmly.
"On the whole, Boyle, it's a pity you told us that," Ruthven observed after yet another silence. "We might have cherished the illusion and helped ourselves with it till Andy gets back."
"I beg your pardon, sir," Boyle said stiffy, "but I couldn't keep quiet while an innocent man was being accused."
"Well, who the hell did it?"
Jack Warren, his ordinarily pink, chubby face gone white with rage, started up from the arm of the chair in which his young wife sat, and flung out the heated query with his gaze directed at Houghton.
"I don't know," Houghton answered quietly. "Did you?"
"My God! Of all the—!" Warren almost choked, and left his protest against such a counterthrust incomplete.
"Because," Houghton went on, "if I ask your question of my guests here, I must ask them all, and you are one of them. And that, you see, I cannot do—quite possibly none of them did it. This place is old, and there are secret passages in the walls of which even I know little or nothing—there may be some outsider in hiding, somewhere."
"But, you see, Gwen here—" Warren began again, but the girl stood up from the chair, and her gesture silenced him.
"Jack's frightened over me, Mr. Houghton," she said clearly, "but he need not be. Because I said I wouldn't go to bed, I think. I'm—of course, it's terrible for us all, and—" her voice broke on a half-sob—"and I'm sorry if—Oh, Jack, do sit down! Mr. Houghton didn't mean that you did it, you know. It was just—he's quite right. He can't ask us all, and it may have been nobody we know."
But, with the passing of suspicion from Andy Parker, the cloud of doubt settled again on them all, more darkly and heavily by reason of the brief interlude of freedom from its influence. A sombre chill that restrained them from free speech was apparent as Warren slowly seated himself on the arm of the chair, and his wife's hand reached up, groping until he took it and twined his fingers round hers, as if to give or take comfort. Again Houghton went to Diane's side, and tried to smile at her.
"The roads may be fairly clear," he said, and made the statement as cheerful-sounding as he could, "and once Andy gets back—at least we can all go to bed, if we wish."
"But—but we shall all be questioned, Mr. Houghton?" Joan Shaw, overhearing his words, put the query. "The police, I mean?"
"Probably, Joan." It was in his mind that, if Inspector Head himself came out, the truth might be revealed without overmuch questioning. Head was far cleverer than the average provincial inspector of police. An hour, two hours, three hours more...
"But that claim of Parker's was absurd, surely," Mrs. Hammersley said abruptly. "About Mr. Carmichael being his father, I mean. An impossibility, of course, said merely for dramatic effect."
"Not so impossible." Kemp, seeing a line of conversation that might divert all their thoughts, and grateful to her for the opening, took up the cue. "Raphael Issachar hired Castel Garde from me for two years—you were a child of four or five at the time, Jim, and I was trustee. I believe Andy was born in the second of those two years."
"But who was Raphael Issachar, and what had he to do with it?" Mrs. Hammersley asked, with intent to keep the ball rolling.
"He was a West-end moneylender, for one thing," Kemp explained. "He kept that name till he died, a very wealthy man indeed, but he changed his son's name from Kadmiel Issachar—or Kadmiel ben Issachar—to Malcolm Carmichael when the boy was only twelve years old. And I let this place to him for those two years. He entertained rather largely, in the interests of his various business enterprises."
"But why let it, when Mr. Houghton should have lived here?" Tom Russell asked, with a glance at Ruthven as if to ascertain whether he were putting his foot in it again with the query.
"In order that Mr. Houghton might live here in comfort when he grew old enough to enjoy his patrimony," Kemp answered equably. "I had full charge of him and of the estate, which was very much impoverished, and I was glad to find a tenant—any tenant—willing to take it as it stood, to save the expense of upkeep for the time. Houghton was domiciled with his uncle and aunt, and Raphael Issachar came forward and agreed to a two years' lease, with furniture, servants—everything."
"But he—Parker—said Carmichael was his father, not Raphael Issachar," Mrs. Hammersley pointed out, rather ironically.
"He did," Kemp assented, with unabated patience. "Carmichael, Raphael's son, was at that time about nineteen years old, or perhaps a year or two older—I am not sure. He was studying in Edinburgh, and spent the greater part of his vacations here with his father. Ethel Parker was a servant in the house at the time."
"Not a good novel plot," Mrs. Hammersley said decidedly. "Too much like old melodrama, and it's been done too many times, I'm afraid."
"So you were trustee, Kemp?" Ferguson asked interestedly.
"Co-trustee with the late Mrs. Houghton till she died," Kemp answered composedly. "After that, sole trustee till Jim here came of age."
He gave Houghton a brief smile that transfigured his deeply-lined, normally grave face. "Eh, Jim!" he said—very gently, for him—"I've had some anxious times over you, lad, but never a lasting regret."
"Nor ever will, I hope, Uncle Mont," Houghton remarked gravely.
"Is Mr. Kemp really your uncle?" Mrs. Hammersley demanded.
Houghton shook his head. "Merely my oldest friend," he answered. "But the tie is as close as blood relationship, in view of all he's done for me—and for my mother before me."
"It seems strange that a moneylender should ever have lived in a wonderful old place like this," Mrs. Hammersley observed musingly.
"Or that a moneylender's son should have died in it!"
The exclamation—it was no less—came from Betty Ferguson, high-pitched in tone, startling in its suddenness, and the tensed strain that normal converse had eased for a little while came back. Ferguson, standing close by Joan Shaw as his sister spoke, went hastily to her.
"Betty, remember!" he urged warningly, soothingly. "Pull yourself together, old girl. That wasn't a very tactful thing to say."
"What should I care? Andy was right—may hell rot him for what he was and did!" She spoke the words with swift, half-sobbing fierceness. Her right hand shot up and showed, outlined by the firelight, with its index finger extended and appearing crooked and distorted. "Why should we care what we say of him? Look! He did that! Held me down while he broke and twisted it for his own pleasure—and it's broken and twisted now! Broken—he—Ooh-h-h!"
She fell into her brother's arms, clutched and clung to him in the sobbing laughter of hysteria, total loss of all self-control. Ferguson, his face a greyish white, got one hand behind her knees and lifted her in his arms, while gasping shrieks began to mix in with her sobs.
"Joan—anyone!" he begged desperately, and set off, carrying Betty, toward the open doorway of the lounge. "Not too many—you, Joan!"
For every woman had started to follow him. Joan Shaw, nearest to him, turned momentarily to gesture the rest back.
"He and I—leave her to us," she bade. "I know—she gets these fits sometimes, and what happened to-night makes this one worse. Leave her to him and me. It's much better that you should."
Diane and Mrs. Hammersley, pausing side by side at her bidding, checked the rest. Joan went on into the room into which Ferguson had already carried Betty, and closed the door after she had passed through.
"Of course," Mrs. Hammersley said. "In that state, there's no telling what further revelations she might make. Poor Doctor Ferguson!"
Kemp gazed at the closed door of the lounge, and rubbed his chin in a reflective way. Then he glanced up toward the gallery.
"Sadistic, eh?" he muttered. "I thought so."
"What's that, Mr. Kemp?" Tom Russell asked curiously.
Kemp gave him a long look, and went on rubbing his own chin. Then he looked round, and saw that no girl or woman was within hearing.
"Where did you go to school?" he inquired caustically. "A sadist, Russell, is one who finds exquisite pleasure in inflicting physical pain on others, and in extreme cases kills for the pleasure he gets out of it. Most schoolboys know the term—derived from the Marquis de Sade. Carmichael evidently had that abnormality."
Mrs. Hammersley, returning to her chair, might have heard the last sentence, but he hoped she had not.
"Judging by what we have just seen and heard, then, he got no more than he deserved, whoever was responsible for his getting it," Russell remarked, failing to perceive Mrs. Hammersley near them, for the moment.
"It's an ill day for most men when that happens to them," Kemp observed gravely. "The subject doesn't pay for discussion."
At the sound of a door's opening, the whole party turned to look down the hall: there was nervousness, and in some cases fear, in the abrupt, collective movement. They saw Martha Bowers bearing a huge coffee urn toward the fireplace, and, following her, two of the maids with large trays. Boyle hastened to drag occasional tables together to form a sort of buffet at one side of the fireplace, and snatched up a small mat, in the absence of anything more fitting, to interpose between a polished table-top and the urn. The clatter of cups and plates followed, and Martha and the maids retired, leaving Boyle in charge.
"That's one gone," Jack Warren told his wife, bending toward her as she sat. "Ferguson won't let Betty come back here—he'll insist on her going straight up to bed when they come out of that room. Now, darling, won't you go to bed too, please? I'll come up, if you will."
"No, I won't," she answered determinedly. "If I did, I shouldn't sleep, and what is the use of going up to our room and undressing, when we shall probably all be called down again in an hour or two?"
"It's not in the least certain that you will," Houghton, overhearing their talk, put in. "I'm very doubtful as to whether Parker can get as far as Carden village with that car, considering what it meant to get here from Crandon. It went on snowing for a good two hours after he arrived with Miss Heriot and Kemp."
"But there's no real depth of snow, Jim," Kemp remarked. "That is, on level ground and away from shelter. It's all dry and powdery, and drifts into heaps behind hedges and in hollows where the wind doesn't reach, but the road to Carden is fairly open, for the most part."
"Not too open—there's more than one sheltered hollow between here and the Carden Arms," Houghton pointed out. "Diane, coffee? Let's all have coffee! Come on, Fraser. Mrs. Hammersley, let me bring you a cup."
"Yes, please." She spoke from the depths of the chair Carmichael had annexed, and made no move toward getting up, though at Houghton's invitation there was a general move toward Boyle as he stood before his improvised buffet. "It sounds so nice and normal, coffee."
Again the clink and clatter of cups and saucers. Houghton himself took a cup to Mrs. Hammersley, at the far side of the fireplace from Boyle and his activities, and thus practically alone, for the time. She gazed up at him, so intently and steadily that she had to grope to find the edge of the saucer. Her dark, compelling eyes formed her only noteworthy attraction, but they were full compensation for all the rest. Still gazing up at Houghton, she put the cup and saucer down on the arm of her chair, spilling about a quarter of the coffee into the saucer.
"Thanks so much, Mr. Houghton," she said gravely. "You were saying a little while ago that Mr. Kemp is your oldest friend."
"Friend, guardian—father, almost, since my own father died before I was old enough to remember him," Houghton assented.
"I see," she said, with a quietly thoughtful inflection. "And did he know, too, why Carmichael wanted to go up to his room?"
"I refuse to discuss the subject with you, Mrs. Hammersley," he said stiffly, and glanced over his shoulder. The others could not have heard her question or his answer, he felt nearly certain.
"As you like." The indifferent rejoinder drew his gaze toward her again. "You will find Mr. Kemp is not so squeamish, though. I heard him tell Tom Russell what he meant by saying that Carmichael was a sadist, after Betty Ferguson had broken down and given herself away. He didn't know I overheard, of course."
"Kemp?" Houghton queried incredulously. "Impossible!"
"The truth usually is impossible," she said composedly.
"Well, he ought to have had more reticence, more decency, with the man lying dead up there!" Houghton exclaimed indignantly. "And it's not the sort of subject for general discussion, in any case."
She smiled. "Be careful, Mr. Houghton, unless you wish to be overheard," she urged. "Don't you see we're all keyed up to the limit—I tried two or three times to start an ordinary conversation and relieve the general strain, but so far my efforts haven't met with much success. Keyed up, and our real selves begin to show under the strain—the decencies and reticences of normal life fall away. Betty Ferguson will want to kill herself to-morrow for making that revelation of herself to-night. I think Russell is the least concerned of anyone, probably because he has the least brain. It's a terrible experience, but at the same time very interesting to a psychological novelist like me."
"You don't appear to be very concerned," Houghton said, flinging the statement at her with evident resentment at her cold-blooded composure. For the moment, he felt that he hated her.
"No?" There was a mocking note in the languid comment. "I keep my head, Mr. Houghton. I wonder if you realise how much must come out, over what has happened to-night. Ethna Blair will lose her reputation, Doctor Ferguson will probably be struck off the medical register, you and Miss Heriot will be made to tell all you know about Carmichael's going up to his room when the lights were down, the fact that Betty Ferguson has been his mistress will probably be made public, Mr. Ruthven's father's bankruptcy will be dragged to light again—scarcely one of us here will be able to take up life to-morrow as we knew it yesterday."
"You?" Houghton demanded, with brutal, almost savage directness. Her ironic placidity seemed a terrible thing to him. "What about you?"
She smiled. "I told you ordinary reticence was failing us," she answered, "and now you're demonstrating it. I—yes. Well, Mr. Houghton, Betty Ferguson's case is not unique, for I was Carmichael's mistress too, for awhile after her. I am not telling you because I'm proud of the distinction, but because it will almost certainly come out with the rest of our secrets, when the general inquisition begins. And Mr. Kemp is quite right. The late Malcolm Carmichael was a sadist."
Houghton made a half-turn away from her, and faced her again.
"I have a good mind—" he began, and did not end it.
She gave a satiric little laugh. "But you have already said that if you asked one that question, you would have to ask all," she said. "And whether I did it or no, I should tell you I didn't. Even in the game, remember, the murderer is permitted to lie."
Hearing her, seeing her thus, probably the only member of the whole party who retained full self-control, he felt almost convinced for the moment that her hand had struck Carmichael down and driven the dagger into his breast. Then he turned again, seeing the direction of her gaze, and noted how Kemp, standing by Ruthven then, gave a momentary glance up at the gallery where Carmichael's body lay. It seemed to Houghton that there was a vague unease, even fear, in the older man's eyes. Fear, yes, but of what?
Kemp had known that Carmichael held Castel Garde at his mercy, and for all of Houghton's life had known what the place meant to his ward. The love of his home was in Houghton's blood, and the loss of it would be no less than that of eye or limb—and Kemp's love for him, Houghton, was far greater than that of many fathers for their sons. Was this damnably intuitive woman right? Had Kemp, knowing that his own years were few, and setting the son of the one woman he had loved before himself, made this ultimate, terrible sacrifice?
And yet—Houghton glanced down again at the seated, ironic woman. Had she killed Carmichael? No, for she loved her own life too much.
"Somebody did," she said, very softly.
Houghton literally glared at her. The obvious divination of his thoughts brought him near an angry outburst, but he restrained it.
"I'm sorry, Mrs. Hammersley," he said freezingly. "You prefer to sit here alone, I see, but I have other people to consider."
He stalked back to where Diane stood talking—trying to talk—to Gwen Warren, who had joined the rest for coffee at her husband's urging. Leaving out Mrs. Hammersley—and he wished with all his heart that he had never acceded to Ruthven's suggestion and invited her as one of this party—they appeared to be getting over the first terrible strain imposed on them by the tragedy, to be getting back to normality and, possibly, the ordinary reticences out of which Mrs. Hammersley—that damned woman again!—alleged they had been drawn.
Kemp—no! Steady old file, Kemp, always there when wanted, always ready with a solution, whatever the problem might be. But for his rigid management, Houghton knew, Castel Garde would have been sold long ago. Kemp had negotiated the mortgage that had saved the situation, and had failed only in that he had been unable to prevent Carmichael from taking it over—and Houghton knew that only his own extravagances in his early twenties had prevented the amount from being reduced to almost negligible proportions, before any opportunity arose for Carmichael to step in. Kemp had stood between him and the loss of his home.
No, no! Anyone but Kemp! And Houghton felt that he wanted to take Carmichael's slayer by the throat, shake the truth from him here and now. Shake the truth from him—or her!
From her! From her who sat there alone and composed, apparently weighing and measuring the emotions of all these others.
Again he saw Kemp glance up at the gallery. It was a fleeting, almost furtive glance, while Ruthven was looking away from him. Was it furtive, though? Had Mrs. Hammersley intended to implant this doubt of Kemp in his, Houghton's mind?
"She prefers to sit there alone, apparently," he said, answering a remark Diane made. "I don't think I've ever hated anyone as much as I hate that woman to-night. She's uncanny, witch-like."
He made the comment in a lowered tone, so that it should not reach to the hearing of Ethna Blair, standing at only a little distance from them, since Diane had turned from her to speak to him. And with a gust of angry self-despite he realised that he, too, was abandoning ordinary reticences, since he could speak thus—even to Diane I—of one who was a guest in his house.
WITH the gear in reverse, the back wheels of Carmichael's Rolls alternately ground into the snow, sending it forward of the car in showers, and gripped down on macadam, while the car itself went backward in little jerks. Having backed five or six yards from the piled, packed mass his advance had driven up, Andy Parker took his entrenching tool and got out to survey the difficulty before him: he saw that the impetus of the heavy vehicle had taken him more than halfway through the drift, but the piled snow was compressed almost to ice-like hardness and solidity. It had not appeared a formidable drift, till he charged at it, but it filled a long hollow of the road.
"F'r the fourth time!" Andy said savagely. "An' Carden another mile an' more to go!" He took his electric torch from his pocket, and flashed its light up and down the radiator.
"Ye're all right so far," he told it, and put the torch away, "but I'd bash ye in if I charged yon blasted ice-pack again. Hell an' blue pigs, an' the moon nigh down! Must I dig all night?"
Turning his back on the car, he attacked the snow before him with the entrenching tool and, as gout after gout of snow flew high from the shovel blade, he spattered the night with obscene profanities. For a rest, when his breath was near on giving out, he went and cleared the piled snow off the radiator and bonnet; then he went back and tackled the drift again, not with intent to clear the way down to road level, which would have taken far more time than he intended to spare for this work, but to form a slight slope up which the chains on the driving wheels might push the car, and, with the impetus he could gain before the rest of the drift began to resist against the dumb irons, drive through to a point where the snow lay only a few inches deep.
He ceased cursing, needing all his breath for his task. Presently the perspiration began to show on his forehead, and trickled down his beaky nose. He ceased work again, and gazed at the opening he had already made.
"Mother," he muttered, "ye're never far off when I'm in trouble, I know. Gimme a hand, now, an' let me get through this hell's pile."
Again, as if the prayer had won answer, the shovelfuls flew high and fell to either side. When he paused again and wiped his forehead, a lane in the drift, as wide as the wheel-track of the car, was clear. He gave it a momentary survey, went back, and took the driving seat. He had left the engine idling, knowing that the icy wind might freeze the cooling system if he left it stationary too long, and now he put in first gear, breathing heavily over the steering wheel.
"Grind in, ye devil!" he admonished the car, "an' to hell wi' runnin' boards an' wings, as long as the wheels go through! Grind in, blast ye, an' grind through. He'll never take this wheel again, hell rot him!"
The car went forward, and the front wheels lifted on the slope he had made in the hard-packed snow. For seconds the back wheels spun, and then the chains dug down to road level, so that the vehicle went staggering onward, jerking and skidding. The snow to either side decreased in depth: Andy righted a skid just in time to keep out from the filled ditch on his near side, and then he was travelling with comparative smoothness again.
"A mile an' more to Carden!" He watched the road come into the headlights' ray. "I'll make it, f'r he's dead, thank God!"
WHO killed him?
Turning back to Diane with the cup of coffee Boyle had poured out at his request, Houghton could see the unspoken question in a dozen pairs of eyes. The devils of suspicion and distrust were ousting the scarcely more dangerous devils of fear and tendency to panic outbursts such as Betty Ferguson and Jack Warren had already betrayed, in their different ways; even between two such men as Ruthven and Kemp the question was evident from their way of regarding each other; Ethna Blair, who had gravitated to the company of Peter and Bernard Mostyn, the two brothers whom Houghton had invited since they were schoolmates both of himself and Ruthven, appeared to consider the pair doubtfully, as if she were not quite sure whether one or other of them had killed Carmichael. Even Diane seemed different in her attitude to himself—or was that his imagination.
Certain it was that with returning poise, and with time for thought, every man and woman there—except, perhaps, one—was beginning to formulate a question. "Did you do it? Did he? Was she the one? Am I talking to a murderer?" And out of this state, Houghton felt with hopeless impatience, the threat of panic would again arise, or, worse, a hint of accusation by Tom Russell or some other with unguarded tongue, with, all too probably, an end to reticence and decency.
Mrs. Hammersley was right, so damnably right! Men and women alike, they were beginning to show their real selves, and with very few exceptions it was not an attractive exhibition.
"Jim, you mustn't talk like that," Diane reproved him gently. "About hating Mrs. Hammersley, or anyone, I mean. We're all depending on you."
"It's all right, Diane." He managed to smile at her as he answered. "I'll keep cool, whatever happens. And to tell the truth, I envy her her coolness. It's a help, really."
"She's travelled everywhere and done almost everything," Diane pointed out. "Experience of that kind is useful in emergencies—"
The sound was like that of an arrow's flight across the hall, and with it every electric light was extinguished, leaving only the fluctuating glow of the big log fire. Gwen Warren screamed, and checked the outbreak almost instantly. Houghton heard Bernard Mostyn say—"It's only a fuse gone," to Ethna Blair, and then came a long, shrill scream from the lounge, partly muffled by the closed door between it and this hall. Mrs. Hammersley rose up from her chair and crossed to where Ruthven and Kemp stood together.
"That was Betty," she said, with a suggestion in her tone of urging them to aid. "The lights must have gone in there too. Would they, Mr. Houghton, when these go?"
He had no time to answer before they heard the lounge door opened—away from the fire, it was invisible to them in the gloom—and Ferguson's voice, irritably commanding in its inflection.
"I tell you, Betty, it's nothing but the light failing! For heaven's sake control yourself, and come over to the fire with the others till it's put right! Quiet, now—I'm holding you."
They could hear, but could not see him. Boyle had lately replenished the fire, and the fresh logs he had added had not yet broken into flames. The central pillar of the hall was just visible, a grey shaft outlined against the Stygian blackness that hid the entrance doors, but the side walls, the staircase, and the gallery in which Carmichael's body partly lay, were altogether invisible. And with the darkness, which was as if it held watching, accusing eyes, fear came back to the party round the fire. Its members saw each other's faces dimly red in the faint light from among the logs, or, as they turned from the flame to look down the hall, mere outlines silhouetted.
"Couldn't we—couldn't I be alone somewhere?" It was Betty's voice, quaveringly uncertain, with a hint of tears in it.
Mrs. Hammersley walked out into the shadows, and the suddenness of her movement had the quality of a shock for the others before the fire.
"Boyle?" Houghton spoke only just loud enough for his man to hear him. "Go at once and see what's wrong. If it's a fuse blown, get Mason to replace it at once. Go and see, in any case."
Boyle went out from the firelight, and vanished. Over by the lounge doorway Ferguson struck a match, and they saw Joan Shaw's face upturned toward the outline of a head—saw it, and then the match went out. Then came Mrs. Hammersley's voice, persuasive, gentle—
"Betty, dear, don't be afraid. Let me take your arm, and come and sit down. It won't be long before the lights come on again."
Persuasive, gentle, yet with just the note of authority that rendered her bidding effective. The four came out from the shadows, Betty, taller of the two, leaning on Mary Hammersley, while Ferguson and Joan Shaw followed, looking rather foolishly ineffectual as their faces showed plainly in the growing, wavering light from the fireplace.
"Darkness, and death in it—" Betty said tremulously.
"Don't think of it, dear—just don't think at all. Here's a chair all ready for you—see! I'll sit on the arm and keep with you."
The firelight showed her eyes, with a hypnotic quality in their gaze, as she directed and even urged Betty to seat herself in the chair that Carmichael had used. She made no passes, employed no other than simple, natural means to induce Betty to obey her, but the effect was that of a mesmerist controlling her subject. Ferguson turned from the chair toward the clustered watchers, and Joan Shaw kept with him.
"She's wonderful!" Joan whispered. "We'll leave Betty to her."
"In the dark—the sense of death—" Betty said wailingly.
"Hush, dear!" Mrs. Hammersley laid a hand on her forehead. "You'll only frighten us all and make yourself ill. Lie back, easily—your forehead is far too hot. Boyle has gone to put the lights on again."
"Have some coffee, Joan," Houghton invited, in an attempt at diverting attention from Mrs. Hammersley and the still half-hysteric girl. "You too, Ferguson—we're all having coffee. Fraser, you deputise for Boyle and pour it out. I hope he'll hurry over that fuse."
"Let's hope he hasn't strayed into one of the secret passages by mistake, and got lost," Tom Russell observed.
"Oh, do be quiet!" Mrs. Hammersley exclaimed impatiently.
But the mischief was done. Darkness, and death in it. Secret passages. As, in mind after mind, the two things linked themselves together, first one and then another face turned toward the darkness beyond this little island of light about the fire. In such a darkness as they faced, Carmichael had been stricken down, and only Houghton and Ferguson knew the manner of his death, since they had not told what they had seen up in the gallery. Was there some assassin lurking in the shadows, some maniac killer who might come out from a secret place and strike again, add death to death if any one of them went away from the light and the protection of the others' presence?
Houghton, realising this new fear, and itching to get Tom Russell alone and hammer him to silence for his dangerous inaneness, knew that any attempt at persuading Betty Ferguson—or, for that matter, any one of them—to go to bed would be useless, even after the lights had been restored. In this state of fear, they would not separate.
"Black," Joan said, as Ruthven took a cup to fill it. "No milk for me, please... Thanks, so much."
A natural, commonplace thing, this pouring and drinking coffee—natural and commonplace, but all the rest was fantastic, eerily unreal. The haunted shadows surrounding the little tract of light, a dead man lying only a little way beyond their circle, and in the silence that followed Joan's words the recurring, dreary moan of the night wind—a gale no longer, but a wind that would die to stillness soon—
A point of light appeared halfway down the hall, and declared itself as Boyle coming toward the fireplace with a lighted candle in one hand and a paper packet in the other. The feeble flame of the candle served only to emphasize the gloom at a little distance from him, until he came into the firelight and put his candlestick down on a table.
"Why haven't you renewed the fuse, Boyle?" Houghton demanded.
"It's not this fuse, sir," Boyle answered. He unwrapped the package he had brought, and disclosed a dozen or more candles. "It must be the main one in the engine room, because all the lights are gone in the servants' quarters, and I thought I'd bring these candles, first."
"Well, why didn't you go to the engine room?" Houghton asked.
"It's all dark everywhere, sir," Boyle explained. "Two of the girls are pretty much off their rockers with fright, and Martha and cook are having a terrible time with them. I thought I'd bring the candles, sir, and then go back and along to the engine room."
"Wasn't Mason out there with the others?"
"No, sir. I went to the outside door and called, but he didn't answer, so I don't know where he is. The engine is still running."
"My God!" Houghton exclaimed softly. "Can anything else go wrong to-night? No, you won't go back to the engine room, Boyle—I'll go myself. Light all these candles—stick them on plates, or anything. Give him a hand, Fraser—Ferguson—anyone! Let me have that candlestick, Boyle, and I'll go and see what's wrong out there."
"Jim, let me come with you and see if I can help with the servants," Diane asked. "Help to reassure them and get them quiet."
"Bless you, yes," he assented fervently. "Keep that fire well up, Boyle, and remember what I told you earlier in the evening."
He took the candlestick and went off with Diane; the light as he carried it silhouetted their two figures until they vanished in the corridor leading to the kitchens and servants' quarters. Around the fire in the hall the island of light grew a very little larger as candle after candle was lighted, but the net effect was small. Still the great central pillar loomed dimly, and blackness lay beyond. How many ages had passed since Andy Parker, standing where the shadows were heaviest, now, had turned back to claim Malcolm Carmichael as his father?
"Mary, I wish I were not so utterly foolish." Betty Ferguson's voice came faintly from where the two sat, apart from the others.
"My dear, we're all quite foolish, over a thing like this. I am myself, down inside me. We're all alike, really."
"But—but that utterly mad thing I said about my finger," Betty said quaveringly. "I—I did it myself, really—crushed it in a door."
"About your finger? I didn't hear," Mrs. Hammersley lied splendidly.
But Betty's denial of her former accusation against Carmichael went to the minds of the rest as an attempt at exculpating herself from the possible charge of having murdered him. It appeared as a hope of nullifying her confession of cause to hate him, and the clumsiness with which she made it, plausible to none of those who heard her, brought a sense of relief. She had had cause to kill the man, and had taken her chance, but now her nerve had failed her. Fear of the shadows gave place to certainty that the murderess sat in the dead man's chair, with Mary Hammersley beside her.
"I—somebody must have heard," Betty insisted. "I—I said he broke it. He didn't. I did it myself, crushed it in a door."
"Yes, yes." The other woman's voice was soothing, yet effectively authoritative. "And you're quite safe now, aren't you, Betty?"
"Safe?" There was both bewilderment and fear in the echoed word.
"You won't lose control of yourself again?"
"No—oh, no! I get these awful fits and don't know what I'm saying, and then I'm utterly ashamed of myself. Bert's so patient and good to me—" The last words were scarcely more than whispered, rose very little above the wailing Euuuu-ooo! of the wind outside, but they reached clearly to every ear.
"Quite sure?" There was grave insistence in the query.
"Quite, dear. You—you've made me see what a fool I was."
"And I tell you we are all fools." Each word was like a separate knife blade, flung at and striking on the listening group divided from those two by the full width of the old fireplace. "Fearing each other, suspecting each other, because a man who had no right here has had justice done on him! Does it matter who did it—does anyone want him back, alive and among us again—?"
"Mrs. Hammersley!" Kemp's voice, in shocked reproof, broke in on her fierce tirade. "Surely, under the circumstances—"
As his protest had interrupted her, so her harsh, mocking laugh interrupted him. She stood up, keeping a hand on Betty's shoulder.
"What?" she demanded. "Under the circumstances, what? Oh, we're all mad, I know! Before I began to speak, you were all sure that Betty killed him—and now you all know I did it! Who next? Why not hold an inquisition among ourselves, in case Andy Parker fails to bring the police back here? Somebody question us all one by one—and the questioner may be the guilty one! I tell you we're all fools, and I as great a fool as any of you, because I dare to speak out and defy the convention that a mere corpse demands respect! Respect for that? For that thing, whitewashed in life by the wealth that cannot stir him an inch to come and answer me—"
"Mrs. Hammersley!" Ruthven's interruption was almost a shout. "Do you want to drive us all mad? Tom Russell's shown himself a blasted fool more than once to-night, but talk like yours is worse!"
"And you?" she questioned, with bitter, scornful calmness. "You daren't face realities. It's the cowardice and folly of you all—you daren't face reality, because a man lies dead. Accuse me of killing him—why should I deny it? I'm glad he's dead! You're glad he's dead, Fraser Ruthven, when you think of how he ruined your father to add to his own wealth, though he already had more than one man could need. Betty here is glad, and her brother too—how many more? I'm not afraid to say I'm glad—are you?"
The candlelight showed her eyes, dark points of fire as she challenged not only Ruthven, but every one who faced her. She had accomplished her aim, showed them that they had no right to suspect Betty more than any other, and in the dead, awed stillness that followed on her words, the Euuu-ooo-uu-oo! of the wind outside mocked them all, and the darkness beyond the pillar appeared more intense, more ominous and threatful, as if ghosts had listened to their clamour and at any moment might reply.
"Nobody's going to call me a blasted fool!" Tom Russell said angrily.
Ruthven gave a little bark of strained laughter at Mostyn began a high-pitched, unnatural laugh, but Kemp's voice rang out over it—
"Ruthven! Mostyn! In another five minutes, if we're not careful, this hall will be like a ward in a madhouse! Mrs. Hammersley, you're to blame. We've got a certain time to get through—heaven only knows how long it will be!—but do let us all remember that it's our duty to help each other and not behave like lunatics."
"Quite right—I'm sorry," Ruthven said contritely.
"Say that I killed Carmichael, if you like, till the police get here," Kemp went on. "I don't mind, if only it will set your minds at rest and give you all a chance to cool down from this mad fever of suspicion and distrust of each other. Lock me up somewhere, and then all be friends. I'll stand it till the police get here."
"Kemp, you're a hero," Ferguson said. "It's just as likely to have been me—and most probably it's no one of us at all."
"At all, at all—you sound more Irish than Scotch, Ferguson," Ruthven put in. "Mrs. Hammersley, I don't think Kemp ought to blame you as he did. We were all getting wind up with repression, and you've had the courage to speak out, say what most of us have been thinking. For my part, I congratulate you, and it wasn't your fault that Mostyn and I laughed because Russell objected to being called the blasted fool he is. Yes, I know I said it, Russell, and I'll back it up to-morrow if you feel like it after thinking over what your remarks have done to disturb the peace. But for to-night, just keep quiet. You're very good at juggling tricks and walking on your hands, but the balance of opinion is against you over the way you use your brain in an emergency."
"Houghton—why doesn't he come back? He's worth a dozen of us."
Bernard Mostyn spoke the eulogy, and Kemp nodded assent at it.
"He's got brains and courage," he said. "I wish he would come back. Quite possibly it's something more than a blown fuse, though, and the lights will come back with him—and Miss Heriot."
Again they heard the wind, its dirge rising and falling like a wail over evil done and unrepented, and the sound, combined with the darkness that seemed to shut them off from normal life and feeling, seemed to jeer devilishly at them, prisoned here, waiting—but would the end of the waiting be less fearful or oppressive? Someone, best friend or best-beloved, perhaps, might go forth to conviction, sentence—death!
"I'd alter this place, if it were mine," Jack Warren remarked.
"But why?" Joan Shaw asked, with a note of surprise. "It's simply wonderful, and there can't be another hall like this in existence. I wouldn't touch or alter a thing in it."
"Quite right, Joan," Kemp said approvingly. "In summer it's a marvellous place, and this hall is a perfect paradise of coolness—"
The noise that interrupted him was like a hammer ringing on an anvil, and the thudding sound that followed it was as if somebody fell heavily on the carpeted floor—the floor of the gallery in which Carmichael's body lay! There was no mistaking the direction of the sounds, but their startled gazing could discern no light in the gallery, no sign of movement there—only the masking darkness that rendered the gallery itself, and even its guarding rail, invisible.
Through a little, breathless pause, sheer, unreasoning panic was near on gaining the upper hand. There were those who would have run to hiding—but the darkness was more fearsome than this area of light: Ferguson looked down to see Ethna Blair clinging to his arm, her white, terrified face upturned to his; Betty started up with a moan of fear, and Gwen Warren flung both her arms round her husband's neck and hid her face against his shirt front; Joan Shaw clutched and held Ruthven's hand, but Mary Hammersley, cool even now, peered up at the darkness in which the gallery was hidden. Nothing, it seemed, could shake her composure; the firelight showed her expression as calm, unmoved.
"It's simply that Mr. Carmichael is not dead," she said quietly. "He must have moved—that's all. Won't you—Doctor Ferguson, won't you take a candle and go up? It may mean saving him—won't you?"
"I'll go up, Mrs. Hammersley," Ferguson answered, with a doubtful note in his voice that proved he had no liking for the task. "But I know beyond any question that Mr. Carmichael is dead—was dead when I saw him up there, with Houghton. Beyond any question."
The pronouncement was definite, final. He took up one of the plates on which a lighted candle had been stuck by means of its own wax.
"Since that is so," he added, "and that noise proved that something or somebody moved up there, I'd be very glad if one of you would come with me. I'm not exactly a hero, I know—"
"Good Lord, man! Of course you're not going up alone!" Ruthven exclaimed. He took up a second plate with a candle stuck on it. "Just a second, though." He faced toward the gallery and called, loudly:
"Carmichael? Can you hear me? Carmichael?"
"For heaven's sake, don't!" Ferguson begged, with real fear in his voice. "He's dead, I tell you, and the dead can't answer when you call. Don't call again—it's too awful! Somebody—someone else is up there."
"And Ruthven called me a fool for mentioning secret passages!" Tom Russell ejaculated with triumphant derision.
"Boyle, hand me that iron bar," Ruthven asked quietly. "No, not the poker, but that heavy one you use for levering logs against the fire-dogs. If anyone is fooling up there—" he raised his voice to a sharp, threatening pitch—"I'll lay them out with that bar. One more chance, you up there, whoever you are! Come into the light and let's see you!" He took the bar and stood, faced towards the gallery.
"Of course!" Russell said after a pause. "He's gone back into his secret passage. You might have known he would."
"Come on, Ferguson," Ruthven bade. "Whatever it is, we can't dodder over it down here any longer, and it might be Carmichael trying to get up and falling down unconscious again."
But Ferguson had seen Carmichael's body, bent over it and seen how the mace had struck him, its spikes almost certainly penetrating to his brain, before the dagger had been driven into his chest. If he had had any doubt, or felt that there was the slightest chance of Carmichael, living, having caused those sounds, he would not have hesitated an instant. As it was, he let Ruthven precede him down the hall, past the central pillar, and toward the foot of the staircase. The others watched them in a tense silence, a stillness troubled, rather than relieved, only by the sound of the wind outside.
Two indistinct, dark figures moving silently over the heavy carpet laid along the side of the hall. Two patches of light from their candles moving along the wall itself, reflecting from glazed picture frames, from polished breastplates and casques until, as the pair passed the pillar, the slant of the staircase caused them to come out toward the centre of the hall. Two pigmy figures, they appeared, challenging and driving back the shadows with their little points of light, going on a quest for life where, as Ferguson knew, only death should be.
"DIANE?" Only a few steps along the corridor leading to the servants' quarters, Houghton stopped, and waited till the girl faced and looked up at him. "I want to ask you here and now—you must know by this time that I love you, dear. Will you marry me?"
"Oh, Jim! Don't ask me that now! Not—not like this."
"My dear," he said gravely, "I have a very important reason for asking you now, and in spite of everything. Will you?"
"You—you know I will, gladly," she said, no longer looking at him.
"I hoped, but I wanted to be sure." He attempted no caress, except that as they went on again slowly his arm held her close. "You see, dear, Boyle said the maids were all upset, and from the way he said it they may take some quietening. If you can walk in on them and tell them you're going to be mistress here—will you marry me at once, darling, as soon as I can possibly arrange it after this nightmare ends?"
"Yes, if you wish it," she assented unhesitatingly.
"I do, wish it, love you and want you here with me. Tell them you will be here next week as their mistress, and the idea of it will put an end to their fright, if I know anything of girls of that type. Here you are—this is the door. I'm going on to the engine room to see what's wrong with the lighting plant."
"Jim!" She tapped on the door he indicated: beyond it, they could hear that a shrill, monotonous sobbing was in progress. "You've got the only light, remember, till somebody opens this door."
"Quite true, Diane." He bent to kiss her lips. "My Diane, now."
"I—I want to be," she said, very softly.
He released his hold on her as the door opened, and Martha Bowers faced them. They could see lighted candles on the table within the room and, beyond the far side of the table, the back of a woman who knelt beside an armchair. The sobbing ceased.
"Beg pardon, sir," Martha said. "I thought it would be Mr. Boyle."
"Instead, it's myself and my promised wife, Martha," Houghton told her. "She wants to see if she can help you in any way while I go and look at the lighting set. I'll fetch you on my way back, Diane."
The look of pleased surprise on Martha's face, and the way in which the woman beside the armchair hastily rose to her feet, in themselves justified his proposal to the girl at such a time. She entered the room, and turned to give him a momentary, happy smile before he went on and the door closed on her.
But, though he had adduced this as his reason for having asked her at such a time, he had another, stronger cause for his proposal in mind. He must insist on her marrying him at once, as soon as he could get a licence, for neither husband nor wife can be compelled to give evidence against each other. She must not realize that he had robbed her of the hour to which every girl in love looks forward, for so ominous a reason: he must convince her that he had done it to render her help with the servants doubly effective. He could hold her to her promise to marry him at once with no difficulty, for she was not one to go back on a promise.
The short, covered way along which he went to the separate, almost new building in which the electric lighting set was housed was entirely dark; when he held up his candle to inspect one of the bulbs which should have lighted it, he saw that the glass was quite clear and the filament inside the bulb apparently undamaged. Through the partly opened doorway of the building itself, at the end of the passage, sounded the steady purr of the semi-Diesel engine connected to and driving the generating dynamo, but there, too, all was in black darkness.
He went in, candle in hand. From the copper brushes of the whirring dynamo an occasional spark flashed: there was no other light. The set was entirely automatic in its working; as soon as the amperage of the storage batteries fell to a certain point, a self-starter set the engine running, and, with the lighting required for such a birthday party as he had invited, it was kept running all the time.
Of Mason, the man who had charge of this set and of the furnace for central heating, Houghton could see no sign—unless a black bottle and empty glass standing on a shelf behind the engine constituted evidence of his recent presence. He lifted the candle high and looked behind both engine and dynamo: the engine was oil-smeared, dirty, and the dynamo covered with dust in which blurs and the prints of finger-tips showed, as if somebody had leant against it recently. Houghton gave a little exclamation of disgust: with no more work than was involved in the management of this set, tendance of the furnace, and keeping a car clean, Mason was obviously inefficient. Possibly the bottle and glass explained things: the label proclaimed whisky as the contents of the bottle. And the engine room was a disgrace to any attendant.
"Mason!" Houghton shouted. "Where are you?"
A groaning—"'Ere I am, sir," answered him from beyond an inner doorway. He crossed the floor of the engine room and entered to the larger room in which the storage batteries were ranged in tiers. On the bare stone floor before them sat the man, his right wrist supported by his left hand, and an expression of blank misery on his face.
"What is it?" Houghton asked coldly. "What have you done?"
"Shock, sir," Mason answered. "Got burnt, too." He scrambled awkwardly to his feet, and again supported his right hand with his left. "A short across the terminals, sir—knocked me clean out."
"What the hell were you sitting there for?" Houghton snapped.
"I—in the dark, sir, I was afraid I might run against the leads an' get another shock," the man answered. "I was all dazed, like, when I come round. Scared, too. It was like—like a flash o' lightnin', sir. Proper done me in, it did, for the time."
Bent toward the man and holding the candle to inspect his right hand and wrist, Houghton decided olfactorily that some part of the lightning had come out of the bottle on the shelf in the engine room. Abruptly he turned and went to the engine itself: both hand and wrist, he had seen, were badly burned. He returned with an oil can.
"Hold out that hand!" he commanded sharply.
Mason held it out, supporting it with his left hand. Houghton manipulated the pressure lever of the oil can, and a viscous stream jetted over the burns and dripped to the stone floor.
"You can get it properly dressed later," he said. "Now tell me, how did you short the battery terminals? What were you doing?"
Quite sober after the shock he had received, the man answered hesitatingly, but quite clearly, after a brief pause.
"Well, sir, I was havin' a last look round for the night, afore goin' to see to the furnace again, an' I'd filled up the fuel tank f'r the engine an' oiled her round, an' then I come in here an' looked at the batteries. I see one o' the main leads was sulphatin' a bit—gone blue, where the insulation was broken down—an' I reckoned I'd clean it off an' put a bit of insulatin' tape round sort o' tempor'y, an' do it properly in the mornin'. I reckoned to have a good clean up all round, then." He glanced down at the dirty floor apologetically as he spoke. "So I took a screwdriver, sir, an' started to scrape the sulphate off the lead, an' I must of got the screwdriver across both leads an' shorted 'em, 'cos there was a flash, an' then I woke up on the floor, a minute or so before I heard you call me, sir."
"I see." There was an ominous note in Houghton's voice. "Where's that screwdriver? Have you found it since you woke up on the floor?"
"No, sir. I dasn't look, in the dark. Me matches was in me right-hand pocket, an' all me right arm's gone numb. The screwdriver should be somewhere over there"—he indicated the end of the tiered range of storage cells, from which varnished black snakes of insulated cable went to and through the wall—"where I was startin' to clean off the lead. It'd drop somewhere there, sir."
Houghton turned to the point indicated, and saw the screwdriver neatly laid across both the positive and negative main terminals of the storage set. The negative joint was blue-mouldy with sulphate, and its insulation had been badly burned away. If the screwdriver had been carefully placed in the position in which it lay, it could not have formed a more effective interruption in the lighting circuit. Houghton kept back his anger for the time, and the man watched him miserably.
"Where are your rubber gloves?" he asked quietly.
"They'll be on the shelf back o' the main dynamo, sir."
Houghton went out to the engine room and returned with a glove. Not stopping to put it on his hand, he laid it over the handle of the screwdriver and drew the tool away. Instantly the lights came on both over the storage batteries and in the engine room.
"Thank Gord it ain't, 'urt the set!" Mason ejaculated fervently.
"You blasted fool!" Houghton said with quiet fury. "Come out here!"
He led the way to the engine room and, going behind the engine itself, took the bottle from the shelf and held it up. It showed half empty in the clear light from the electric bulb on the wall.
"What's this?" Houghton demanded crisply.
"I—I got the rheumatics so bad, sir," Mason answered reluctantly. "These here cold stone floors, an' it's a bitter night, sir—"
But he broke off as Houghton let the bottle fall, and stood staring in a stupid way while it shivered on the stone floor: the whisky it had held went trickling round the bedplate of the engine. Then Houghton took the glass, dropped it among the fragments of the bottle, and looked at the cowering man before him.
"You can clean up that mess—with one hand, if you can't use two," he said quietly, "and if there's so much as one fragment or stain left to-morrow morning, I'll thrash you till you can't stand before kicking you into the nearest snowdrift. This engine is filthy, the dynamo is no better, and that storage battery room is a pigsty. One other thing, Mason. You may have only one sound hand and arm, but if that furnace is not properly tended to-night, and the heat in the pipes goes down, I'll take a dog-whip to warm you in the morning. Now get on with it!"
He went out, and along the covered passage toward the room in which he had left Diane. He could telephone Parham's garage at Westingborough in the morning, and get them to send him a reliable man to replace Mason in charge of the lighting set: Parham had supplied and fitted the set, and would send him a temporary substitute who would take charge until he could engage a permanent, preferably teetotal man—
He came to an abrupt check in his thoughts. He could not telephone Parham, nor anyone else, for the wires were down! The nightmarish reality of the position in which he was placed recurred to his mind with full force. Castel Garde was isolated by the drifted snow—quite probably Andy Parker was stuck in a drift on the way to Carden, unable either to proceed to the village or get back here with the car, and in the great hall was the party of his guests, half of whom he wished he had never invited, now, and all oppressed with the terrible knowledge that Castel Garde held a murderer, either among themselves or concealed somewhere and waiting to strike down others beside Carmichael. If uncertainty and vague, wavering suspicion were features of the punishment that awaited unrepentant sinners, then surely he and the group he had left in the hall had already come to a foretaste of hell!
Then, coming to the point where the covered way emerged to the corridor leading past the servants' sitting room to the great hall, he turned a groan into a curse, for black darkness faced him, relieved only by lines of light round the door beyond which Diane and the servants should be. At the far end of the corridor, he knew, there should be a tiny oblong of light, if the lighting of the great hall had been restored by his removal of the screwdriver from the main leads. But evidently the intermediate fuse which carried current for all the ground floor beyond the servants' quarters had been blown, and the hall was still in darkness: otherwise, the oblong of glass in the door at the end of the corridor, before which Boyle had stood to switch the lights on and off for the murder game, would have showed lighted, from this point.
Damnation! But Boyle had some fuse wire, and could replace the blown connection. He, Houghton, would not go back to the engine room, for it would take no longer if he got Boyle to renew the fuse than if he himself went back and demanded wire from the muzzy, incapable fool whose clumsiness had caused the damage.
He went towards the lines of light about the door, intending to tap and summon Diane to join him, but halted abruptly with his hand half raised, as a new thought, a new suspicion, came to his mind.
He had read scores of mystery stories—he was living one, now, instead of reading it! But in one after another of those stories, the crime had come home in the end to the butler, least liable to suspicion, and placed precisely as Boyle. A faithful servant for years, guardian of his master's welfare, attached to his service by ties that made him almost as much friend as servant, and cognisant of the position in which his master stood in relation to the murdered man. That was Boyle, sardonic, self-contained, very nearly inscrutable, and devotedly loyal. Just as Kemp might have made the ultimate sacrifice for the ward whom he had always regarded as a son, so Boyle might have made it, in the belief that the darkness and his responsibility for turning on the lights at Houghton's order would put him beyond suspicion. Sounds in the darkness would have told him that none of the participants in the game wanted light thrown on them too soon: he would have had time to get up the staircase and back, and from his position by the switch would have seen that Carmichael meant to go up to his room.
And his defence of Andy, his claim that he had seen Andy all the time the lights had been down, might have been a blind to cover his leaving his post at the switch. He might have seen Andy leaning in the doorway before he went up the staircase, and again on returning, when the faintly lighted square of glass would have guided him back to his post by the door. He could assume that Andy had been talking to the maids all the time, and by making the statement cover his own absence.
The servants' door, opening suddenly, threw a shaft of light on Houghton—all the lights in the room were on. He saw Diane framed in the doorway, and heard Martha Bowers' voice—
"Yes, miss, he should be back now. And if I might make so bold, miss, as to tell you how glad we all are it's you—"
Then she caught sight of Houghton standing in the light, and broke off abruptly. Diane came out to him, smiling happily, as if there had been no murder that night! As in his encounter with Mason he had forgotten, until the darkness of this corridor brought realisation back, so she had forgotten the tragedy among these girls and women he knew.
"Jim! Why, it's light in there—" She broke off, a note of sudden alarm in her voice. "I thought, when the lights came back—"
She gazed along the corridor toward the hall, and he saw doubt, fear, full renewal of the sense of their position, waken again in her mind, just as they had reawakened in his own.
"The main set is in order again, Diane," he said reassuringly. "It's only an intermediate fuse that needs re-wiring, and Boyle can do it in a minute or two. Leave the door open, Martha, and give me a lighted candle to show us our way back into the hall."
Two scared girls, with tear-stained faces, got in each other's way as they hurried to relight one of the candles they had blown out when the electric lights came on again. Martha handed out the candlestick, and Houghton took Diane's arm and impelled her back toward the hall.
"It's nearly eleven o'clock, Jim," she said. "How long do you think it will be before Andy gets back?"
"I've no idea," he answered. "At any moment, but it may be an hour or two yet, for all I can tell. It depends on what drifts he encounters on the road, and whether he can get through them."
"He may not get back at all, you mean?"
"Oh, he'll get through!" He tried to put conviction into the assertion, but felt that the effort was not quite successful. "Our first concern is to get this fuse renewed, and get light in the hall again."
They came to the door at the end of the corridor, and Houghton opened it. He gestured Diane to precede him through the doorway, and then, by his hold on her arm, held her back. For, at the far side of the hall from this doorway, he saw two points of light travelling toward the foot of the staircase, two little points like that of the lighted candle he carried, one behind the other. And, as the foremost of the two changed direction, he saw Ruthven's face behind it. Ruthven, apparently, was going up there, and Boyle, in spite of the order Houghton had given, was letting him go.
"Fraser!" Houghton drew Diane back and stepped past her into the hall as he called, and Ruthven halted with his foot on the lowest stair. "What are you doing there, man? Who's that with you?"
A faint exclamation, as of terror, sounded from some one of the women round the fire. Ruthven faced toward where Houghton and Diane stood, and his face showed plainly in the light of his candle.
"Ferguson," he called back, answering the second question first. "We're going up—we heard a noise that proves Carmichael isn't dead."
"Then come back!" Houghton ordered sharply, "and wait for lights. Carmichael's got the back of his head smashed in and a dagger in his heart. I saw him, and he's as dead as a man can be. Come back! If anyone is alive up there, it's not Carmichael."
"But, surely, Houghton—" Ferguson's candle wavered uncertainly in his grasp, and his voice held a note of shocked protest.
"Come back, I tell you!" There was resolute authority in Houghton's order. "I hold myself responsible—I am responsible. I know Carmichael is dead, and you know it too, Ferguson. Wait for the lights. Whatever you think is alive up there is not to be investigated with no more light than a couple of candles can give."
"Oh, do come back, Bertie!" Ethna Blair made the appeal, which under any other circumstances might have sounded comic, but none who heard it felt other than the oppression of tragedy, then.
Houghton reached out and found Diane's hand to lead her into the half-circle of light before the fire. From the foot of the staircase, first Ruthven and then Ferguson returned, their two candles giving little spheres of light in which their faces travelled pallidly.
"Boyle?" Houghton spoke with matter-of-fact, practical calmness. "Find your reel of fuse wire, wherever it is, and renew the fuse outside the door of the servants' room—you know the one I mean. It's all right, people, we shall have light back as soon as he can get to the fuse-box and replace the wire in the holder."
Then, he thought, but did not say, they could go up and search the gallery, where, possibly, the one who had killed Carmichael hid in the shadows. And, he realised as Boyle went to obey his order, the two men who had started on their way up with no more than candles to light them had courage of no common order, unless—
Unless one or other of them were himself the murderer, and so knew that the gallery held no more than the dead man outside his room.
LEAVING Carmichael's Rolls with the hand-brake on, and the engine idling to keep it warm, Andy Parker got out from the driving seat in front of the Carden Arms. Snow, driven by the wind, lay in ridged banks in the forecourt of the hotel, feet deep, and he left the car in the middle of the road, knowing that if he drove up to the hotel door he might be compelled to dig his way out. And he had had enough of digging, for one night, though there might be more ahead, yet.
Two of the upper windows of the hotel showed lighted, but the ground floor was in darkness, as far as the frontage was concerned. Andy shook his head gravely, and then floundered through the deep snow of the forecourt to the main entrance. Groping in the darkness of the porch, he found the bell push, put his left thumb on it, and kept it pressed in while with his right hand he got out a clasp knife that served as knocker for a loud, prolonged tattoo on the panels of the door. Presently a light appeared through the transom, and a voice called, with evidently only partly-suppressed wrath—
"What do you want?" There was a foreign accent in the query. "We are closed. Go away! It ees too late—go away!"
"Not on your life!" Andy called back. "Open this door before I break it in!" He renewed his assault with the knife handle.
The click of drawing bolts rewarded him. Then the door opened, and a middle-aged man, with black, curly hair and angry black eyes, dressed only in shirt, trousers, and socks, looked out.
"I tell you, go away!" he ordered, with whispering fierceness. "There ees an eenvalid staying heere—you disturb heem. Go away!"
"O-ah!" Andy pushed past him into the hallway of the hotel, determinedly. "I know that invalid—druv him here from Crandon. A job o' work'd cure all his complaints, if he only knew it. Mr. Cortazzi, it ain't no use your makin' a fuss. There's been a murder done, an' I want to get the police. Is your telephone workin' betwixt here an' Westingborough? 'Cause, if it is, I want a call to there, quick."
"Murder? Sancta Maria!" Cortazzi's anger at the intrusion gave place to alarm. "Wheere ees the murder?"
"Castel Garde," Andy responded, with laconic impatience. "Is that telephone o' yours in workin' order, Mr. Cortazzi?"
"But who ees eet that ees kill?" Cortazzi demanded in return, ignoring the query in his eagerness for particulars. "Who ees—?"
"Look here!" Andy interrupted wrathfully "I want the police, not a heart-to-heart wi' you. Can I ring 'em from here, or can't I?"
"Why, yes—yess! Come with me to the office—you shall reeng."
He preceded Andy along the hallway to a tiny room in which the last embers of a coal fire still glowed in the grate, and pointed to a telephone instrument standing on the top of an old-fashioned roll-top desk.
"And you have come from Castel Garde all through the snow?" he asked.
But Andy, with the receiver to his ear, ignored the question as he rattled the hook of the instrument. Presently he got a response, and took the instrument off the desk to speak into it.
"Westingborough head police-station—urgent," he said.
Cortazzi closed the office door with himself inside the little room. "And you have come all through the snow from Castel Garde?" he repeated.
"Shurrup!" Andy responded impatiently. "No no, not you!" This to the instrument, since a deep voice had answered in the receiver. "I want you. Is that the main police station at Westingborough?"
"It is," the voice told him. "Sergeant Wells speaking. Who are you, please?"
"Andy Parker, speakin' from the Carden Arms at Carden. Sargint, there's been a murder done to-night at Castel Garde, an' Mr. Houghton asked me—at least, he didn't exactly ask me—but I was to drive over to you an' fetch Mr. Head or someone with a doctor right away—"
"Hold on a minute—hold on!" Wells interrupted. "Murder? At Castel Garde—Mr. Houghton's place? Why don't you get through to Crandon? It's their district, not ours."
"Hell an' blue pigs—I can't!" Andy explained irritably. "The wires are all down between Crandon an' nearly everywhere—was when I left there early this evenin', an' the roads between Crandon an' Castel Garde are blocked wi' snow—there's no gettin' to Crandon again this night, by car or on foot. Mr. Houghton said for me to get you over to him as soon as I could. He's shut up there wi' a party o' people all scared stiff—an' the corpse too. An' he said to get you, so I've druv as far as Carden on me way—"
"What's it like out there?" Wells interrupted again.
"What d'ye want me to do?" Andy retorted angrily. "Describe the scenery, or give ye a weather report? It's blasted cold an' dark—"
"No, no!" Wells interposed yet again. "What are the roads like, I mean? I don't see us or anyone getting up Condor Hill to-night."
"Ye don't, don't ye?" Andy inquired with caustic bitterness. "Well, let me tell ye I've dug me way through as bad drifts as ye'll have on Condor Hill, to get this far—wi' skid-chains on a Rolls-Royce—an' now I'm goin' up Condor Hill or breakin' me blasted neck, but Mr. Houghton said f'r me to ring you from here first if the line wasn't down, an' I've rung ye. An' if I make the rest o' the way, maybe it'll shame ye into turnin' out, seein' it's a murder ye're wanted for."
"Oh, well, keep your hair on," Wells advised unpleasantly. "Give me some particulars first. Who was murdered at Castel Garde, and when was the crime committed?"
"'Twas Malcolm Carmichael, the big financeer an' God knows what else, an' 'twas about nine o'clock to-night when the job was done," Andy informed him. "I know no more than that."
"You don't know who killed him, eh?"
"No, that's your job—it's what Mr. Houghton wants ye for. An' now I've told ye, I'll start off again on me way to ye, an' maybe Inspector Head'll comb y'r hair for ye f'r bein' so damned sniffy when I tell ye 'tis bloody murder that's been done, an' me riskin' me life to make Condor Hill to get at ye an' fetch ye as Mr. Houghton said—"
"Wait, man—wait!" Wells broke in angrily. "We're snow-bound here just as badly as you are there, till they get the ploughs out in the morning—the drifts are simply awful. I'll get through to Inspector Head—he's gone home, and I'm in charge here—"
"An' what'll I be doin'?" Andy demanded, interrupting. "Takin' a Sunday school class, or gettin' meself manicured?"
"You stay where you are till I've had a talk with Mr. Head. Even if you make the top of Condor Hill with skid chains on your car, which I very much doubt, you'll never get down this side of the hill—"
"I told ye, I'd make it or break me neck," Andy interrupted again.
"Well, just wait where you are while I get through to Mr. Head and hear what he says. Then I'll get through to you again and tell you what he decides ought to be done. I expect he'll find some way of coming out, but I'll let you know his decision, whatever it is."
"An' how long am I to wait?" Andy demanded.
"Ten minutes—a quarter of an hour. Not more. I'll ring you."
"Ring me it is, sargint. I'll be here, but hurry it."
He put the instrument back on the desk and replaced the receiver. Then he turned to Cortazzi, who had been taking in the conversation.
"He says, wait here till he rings me up," Andy explained, "so I'll haf to wait. Now, Mr. Cortazzi, you just get me a large whisky, neat, please. The marrow in me bones is friz hard, after that drive."
"But—eet ees past the hour—we are close," Cortazzi protested. "You have but just talk to the police—I lose my licence."
"You'll lose a damn sight more'n your licence if you don't get me that whisky," Andy threatened. "I'll raise hell till that invalid you keep here comes down ragin' an' healthy to find out what it's all about. A large whisky, neat, afore I begin warmin' meself tearin' your hair out in handfuls! 'Tis a murder case I'm on, an' closin' time don't count. Hurry it, Mr. Cortazzi!"
Cortazzi obeyed. Andy, bulky in his plaid and waterproof, looked too fierce for further dispute to be safe. Cortazzi put the whisky down on the flap of the desk beside him, and sat down to wait with him for the telephone call Wells had promised.
THE addition of three candles to those already on the tables before the fire appeared to make no difference to the surrounding gloom. Shadows, and beyond them black darkness, hid more than half the hall: the logs on the fire were burning more brightly now, and the light from them was stronger than that of the candles. Boyle, who had not ventured to take a candle to light him on his way when he went to replace the blown fuse, struck matches to light his progress until he disappeared into the corridor by which Houghton and Diane had returned.
"Now, Ferguson," Houghton asked, "what sort of noise was it that made you think a dead man might come back to life?"
"It was—but you said you'd take the responsibility," Ferguson answered with hostile stiffness. "So we wait for the lights, it seems."
"You saw him—saw his body, that is—as plainly as I did," Houghton reminded him sharply. "And as I said, a man with his skull smashed by a spiked mace and a dagger through his heart is dead—he doesn't make noises. What sort of noise was it, Fraser?"
"A clank, and then a thud," Ruthven answered. "As if metal struck metal, and then as if somebody fell down on the carpet. Two separate noises, the thud following immediately after the clank."
"Well, since Carmichael couldn't get up, he couldn't fall down," Houghton observed coolly. "And I know as well as Ferguson knows that he could not get up. That being so, I decline either to allow anyone to take the risk of going up there with no more than a candle, or to go myself. I suppose nobody went away from here while I was out of the hall? The whole party of you remained here by the fire?"
"Is it likely that we'd leave it?" Peter Mostyn asked after a pause.
"I don't care whether it's likely or no!" Houghton rasped out. "Did any one of you go away from the rest?"
"Nobody, Mr. Houghton," Mrs. Hammersley answered for them, and—"No, we were all here," Kemp confirmed her almost simultaneously.
Then the lights came back, and they blinked at each other with "Ahs!" of relief. Possibly the change, from the ruddy glow that the fire had thrown to ordinary electric light, rendered their faces pale to each other's gaze. Houghton looked at the bar Ruthven was still holding.
"Wait here," he bade. "I'm going up there, too."
He went into the lounge, and returned almost immediately with an automatic pistol showing blue and shining in his hand. "Now we'll go," he said. "Come on, Fraser. Are you coming too, Ferguson?"
That final query was coldly polite, no more. Ferguson nodded assent.
"Yes," he said, quite as coldly as Houghton had spoken to him.
They went down the side of the hall toward the staircase, big blond Houghton and little Ruthven side by side, and Ferguson following them.
"Medical corps behind the army," Tom Russell suggested cheerfully.
"I hope you're not implying that Doctor Ferguson is afraid," Ethna Blair observed icily, gazing at him with marked displeasure.
"Oh, no, Mrs. Blair!" he assured her hastily. "I never thought of any such thing. It was—well, just his hanging behind like that, you know. I mean—well, Houghton went first, you see. Just—it looked for the moment—" Then, realising that the more he said the worse it sounded, he stopped speaking.
"And you didn't volunteer to go, did you, Tom?" Bernard Mostyn inquired gently. "Any more than I did, or Peter here."
Russell made no response to the thrust. Joan Shaw, looking at Ethna's delicately-complexioned, troubled face, questioned inwardly how it happened that Mrs. Blair must take it on herself to voice such an unnecessary defence of Ferguson. What was Ethna to him, or he to her? For a moment or two she was fiercely jealous of the fragile-looking little woman, but then the consciousness that Ferguson loved her came as reassurance. Ethna had merely sat on Tom Russell, who was unpleasantly establishing a position as the blundering fool of the party. She had no personal interest in Ferguson, Joan told herself.
The three men went on beyond the head of the stairs to the end of the corridor, beyond which Carmichael's body lay as Houghton and Ferguson had last seen it. They could see no sign of other human presence, but Ferguson pointed silently at the carpet under the baize-covered plaque. There, Houghton saw, lay the battle-axe that had been hung on the plaque, and a white sliver of wood showed through the baize, where one of the hooks that had held the axe suspended in its place had been torn away. Houghton went and inspected the damage.
"Yes, I see," he said. "Whoever took that mace down to strike Carmichael must have pulled at the axe, either intentionally or by accident, and loosened this hook. The weight of the axe caused it to give way gradually, and at last it came altogether out of the wood, so that the axe fell. Struck the sword in falling—that was the clang you heard, before the thud on the carpet."
"Simple, isn't it?" Ruthven observed. He looked down at Carmichael's body. "Gosh, Jim, you'd better not persuade anyone to come up to bed till that's moved out of the way—unless you could put a screen round it! Horrible!" He moved to where the mace lay, and bent over it.
"Don't touch it!" Houghton warned him sharply. "There will be fingerprints on the handle, probably, and it's not for any of us to touch."
Ruthven, straightening himself, turned and looked steadily at his friend, and there was half a question and half a reproach in his gaze.
"I had no intention of touching it," he answered quietly. "Well, now we know how the noise was caused, hadn't we better go down and explain the mystery to the others? They're still trembling over the possibility of someone waiting in hiding up here, to kill again."
"And as soon as you remove that fear, they'll begin to tremble at each other again," Houghton remarked with caustic bitterness.
"Quite—oh, quite so!" Ruthven agreed ironically. He came out from the corridor and looked over the rail of the gallery. "With some few exceptions, humanity is a most unpleasant product if anything happened to scrape the varnish off it," he observed. "I vote we go down again, and if you don't mind, Jim, I'd like a quiet word or two with you, after you've explained the mystery of the falling battle-axe."
Ferguson, who had made no comment of any kind on the discovery, and who of course knew nothing of the remarks that had been made round the fire in his absence, was first to go down as he had been last to come up. Seeing him in advance of the other two, Kemp went to Russell.
"Comment on the order of the procession is unnecessary this time, Russell," he said. "You understand what I mean, I hope?"
"Good Lord, Mr. Kemp!" Tom exclaimed miserably. "I can't open my mouth without somebody jumping down my throat! I haven't said anything at all since Mrs. Blair wanted to exterminate me. At least, the way she spoke sounded as if she did, and I only made a perfectly innocent remark about Ferguson, then. A perfectly harmless remark!"
"Quite so." Kemp kept his voice low. "But in the state of nerves in which everyone is just now, a perfectly harmless remark easily gets misconstrued. I'm old enough to advise you, Russell."
"All right, Mr. Kemp, since you put it like that. I'm sorry."
"It was an old battle-axe loose on its fastening," Houghton said for everyone to hear as he rejoined the party. "The weight of the axe gradually pulled away the fastening, and eventually it fell, and in falling made the two noises you heard."
"Yes, but what loosened it?" Jack Warren inquired suspiciously.
"I should say it was the hand of the person who took down the weapon that broke Carmichael's skull," Houghton answered coolly. "It may have been that weapon itself, striking against the axe as it was being taken down. The two were hung on the wall together with a sword, and the axe probably struck the sword as it fell. There is no living person on that floor, since we three have come down."
"Well, I think we ought all to be grateful to you for relieving our fears," Mrs. Hammersley remarked. "And now, Mr. Houghton, when do you think the man Parker will get back—if at all?"
"Of course he'll get back," Houghton answered, and infused into the statement a certainty he was far from feeling. "I've no idea how long he'll be, though. Possibly only a little while longer—a blizzard like this is usually a very local affair in this country, and there may have been only a very slight fall of snow beyond Carden—beyond Condor Hill and the line of hills generally beyond Carden, that is. If that is so, he should be back very soon, now."
He turned to Ruthven. "You said you wanted a word with me, Fraser," he said, to evade any question as to what might happen to Andy if there were deep snow beyond Carden, in the Idleburn valley and in and round Westingborough. "Suppose we excuse ourselves and go to the lounge?"
"Excellent," Ruthven assented. "It's a purely personal request I want to make of you," he added rather loudly, for the benefit of the others. "It won't take more than a minute or two."
They went together. Houghton let Ruthven precede him into the cosily furnished room, and, leaving the door just ajar after he himself had entered, moved beyond hearing from it and faced his friend.
"Well, Fraser?" he asked quietly.
"It appears to me," Ruthven said with equal composure, "that if Parker by any chance does not get back here, we shall have bad trouble with some of these people by morning. They're all hating each other like hell—with a few exceptions, that is—and all afraid of each other. Which means trouble, sooner or later."
"I know it," Houghton assented. "How do you propose to remedy it?"
"By the sound of that, you think it can't be remedied," Ruthven observed. "You may be right, too. But look here, Jim! Let's make ourselves into a committee of two, just for a minute or so, and see if we can arrive at anything. If we could decide to a certain extent—"
"I'm not going to question or accuse anyone," Houghton interrupted. "The risk of turning suspicion to an innocent person is far too great."
"I don't suggest that," Ruthven agreed, "and it's far too damned difficult. I had cause enough to wish him dead, I own, and you can suspect me, if you like. That is, if you're in a position to suspect me—I'm talking quite frankly, Jim, and I wouldn't blame you or anyone for wiping Carmichael out. But let's assume that we're both innocent, while we're in committee here, away from the others."
"Yes," Houghton assented, with unruffled calmness. "But to what end? What is the object of your committee meeting?"
"I've been trying to place everyone—to assign them to their respective positions at the time the lights were switched off for the game," Ruthven explained. "It won't necessarily give us the one, but it will eliminate some of us from the possibility of having killed him."
Houghton shook his head. "The lights were down too long," he objected. "Anyone could have got anywhere in the time."
"Well, let's see if we can fix where they all started from," Ruthven urged. "You were near the pillar, for one, and you spoke from there."
"And had plenty of time to get up and down the staircase either before or after I told Boyle to keep the lights down," Houghton pointed out. "No, Fraser, you can prove nothing, assert nothing definitely."
"Well, look here! Diane—yes, she told me I might call her that—was quite near the foot of the stairs when the lights went down, and very nearly in the same place when they were turned up—No, hear what I want to say, Jim! I'm not accusing her. She was nearer the staircase than anyone, and several people were moving about—I heard them. Whoever went up those stairs to kill Carmichael must have passed quite close to her, and she must have heard that one, might know the identity of the man or woman—it might have been either—"
"I am not going to question her," Houghton interrupted.
"Well, you're in command," Ruthven observed disappointedly. "Then there are the Fergusons and Mrs. Hammersley who might all have cause to kill him, but it seems to me we've got to exonerate them. I saw them all near the dining room before the lights were turned out. Mrs. Hammersley was there to be caught and scragged as part of the game, and she yelled from there when she was caught—and Betty Ferguson was near her, too. Ferguson keeps near his sister if anything is likely to frighten her, because of her fits of hysterics, and he was on hand with his detective card at once when the lights went up—"
"Fraser, you're doing no good, arriving nowhere," Houghton interrupted again. "You may divert suspicion from the guilty one and fix it on somebody utterly innocent. It's no use trying to discuss it like this."
"Possibly not." Ruthven's tone showed his reluctance to abandon the subject. "I can see you—but never mind. If you want help of any sort—I'm sure trouble's coming to us if Andy and the police don't—if I can be any use at all, Jim, rope me in. I'm not going to tell you I didn't kill him. The guilty one is certain to deny the crime."
Houghton remembered Mrs. Hammersley's satiric assertion to the effect that even in the game the murderer was permitted to lie. He turned toward the door: Ruthven, remembering his father's ruin and death, might easily have taken his chance of killing the man who had caused the ruin. Houghton had seen him flare to reckless fury, more than once.
"Let's go back, Fraser," he said. "The others will only think we are talking about them if we stay in here any longer."
He could not avoid an inward questioning as to whether in this suggested analysis of the party, Ruthven had been trying to divert suspicion from himself. And he knew that his own evasion of the proposal had put an equally damning query into his friend's mind. They would not blame each other, for both hated Carmichael even now that he was dead.
He turned, with the lounge door closed behind him, and Ruthven looked up at him. They were still out of hearing of the rest of the party.
"Fraser, who suggested the murder game?" Houghton asked. "I was down the hall with Diane at the time, and didn't hear."
"Rodney Black, I believe—he's been sitting away from the rest of us all the evening with Helen Turner," Ruthven answered. "Or she may have suggested it—I'm not sure. It was one of those two, though. And they haven't spoken to anyone else in my hearing since the game—since you found Carmichael's body, that is."
"Which means nothing, absorbed in each other as they are," Houghton pointed out. "The two Mostyns have kept to themselves, too."
"Quite possibly Black and Helen are feeling that they have put their feet in it by making the suggestion," Ruthven hazarded, "though they're a shy couple at any time, when they get together. I rather wondered at your asking him, when I got here yesterday."
"Because Helen is a friend of Diane's, and I had to ask him to get her," Houghton explained. "But if either of them suggested the game—"
He went on without ending the sentence. He had been about to say that, of all the party, Helen Turner and Black were least open to suspicion, but he realised that he could no more exonerate them than others who, he knew, had cause to wish Carmichael dead. They too might wish it: the dead man had spun so many webs in his lifetime, had had influence on so many lives, that it was impossible to say who feared or hated him, and who did not.
"Dark horses," Ruthven observed. "But then, it's a whole stableful."
ANDY'S glass being empty, he put it down on the flap of the desk and gazed at it. Cortazzi, hoping to loosen his guest's tongue with regard to the circumstances of the murder, suggested a refill, but Andy shook his head, though with evident reluctance.
"Thanks, but no, Mr. Cortazzi," he said. "It's got a kick to it, an' if I've got to go up Condor Hill this night, I'll want all me wits."
Then the telephone bell rang—it was fully twenty minutes since Andy had hung up. He took down the instrument and put the receiver to his ear, and Cortazzi tried to hear the other end of the conversation.
"It's me, Andy Parker," he said. "Who's that?"
"Inspector Head speaking, Andy. I understand from Sergeant Wells that you are now at the Carden Arms, and a Mr. Malcolm Carmichael has been found dead at Castel Garde at about nine to-night. You want us out there—or Mr. Houghton does, rather—because you're cut off from Crandon both by road and telephone."
"All correct, Mr. Head. An' now, what'll I do?"
"Have you your own car there with you?" Head inquired in reply.
"No, but one as good, if not better," Andy told him. "'Tis the one Malcolm Carmichael druv to Castel Garde when he kem there. Mine's got the radiator bashed in, chargin' at snowdrifts on the way from Crandon to Castel Garde, so Mr. Houghton said f'r me to take this one an' try to get to you, since Crandon's out, till the road's cleared."
"Well, listen, Andy. I've not been idle since I got Well's report of what you told him. I'm getting Parham's garage here to turn me out a six-wheeler lorry, a five tonner, with the drive on all four back wheels and every wheel fitted with a skid chain. They are putting a V-shaped snow plough of heavy joists on the front as fast as they can, and in about a quarter of an hour from now I shall start out from here with the sergeant and a constable and a doctor. But even with that I don't expect to get to the top of Condor Hill. I may get halfway to the top, or more, but never through the cutting to-night."
"Good f'r you, Mr. Head!" Andy exclaimed. "An' what d'ye want me to do at my end—come an' meet you?"
"Stay where you are for another half hour, Andy, and keep warm. Then, if you don't mind taking the risk, turn out with your car and see if you can get to the top of Condor Hill from your side—but don't try to get through the cutting at the top, or you'll never be able to turn and get back. Wait for us there, and take us on to Castel Garde. If you don't think you can risk the hill, wait for us where you are, and we'll join you as soon as we can, walking when we find ourselves compelled to abandon the lorry this side of the hill."
"Ye'll find me on the top o' the hill, Mr. Head. The snow'll be swep' thin by the wind, most o' the way up from here, an' if there's any heavy patches I got me shovel in the car—but I don't count on meetin' any great trouble. An' as you're sayin', it's the other side of the top where it'll be banked thick, where the wind's druv it an' left it stacked. So I'll look f'r ye somewhere in the cuttin' at the top, inside an hour from now, an' take ye all on to Castel Garde."
"Excellent, Andy!" Head responded. "I suppose you have no more particulars of the affair than you gave Sergeant Wells?"
"Not a thing, sir—not a thing. Carmichael's prayin' f'r cold like we're sufferin' from, by this time, an' that's about all I know."
"Well, we shall be with you as soon as we can get up the hill from our side. You can stay in the warm where you are for a good half-hour longer, Parham's people haven't got the lorry ready for us, yet."
"Can do, Mr. Head. Count on findin' me at the top o' the hill when ye get there. Good-bye, sir."
He hung up and turned to Cortazzi, who had put on an overcoat over his light attire, and now, having concluded that his guest was not leaving quite yet, was stirring the remains of the fire and adding little bits of coal to encourage it.
"I'll enjoy y'r hospitality a while longer, Mr. Cortazzi," Andy told him. "'Tis unusual circumstances, an' blasted cold at that, even in here. One more whisky, neat, I think, an' maybe ye'll have a drop too."
Cortazzi brought both without protest, and seated himself again.
"What's Italy like, Mr. Cortazzi?" Andy inquired abruptly, after he had assured himself that the whisky in his glass really was neat.
"Eet ees a beautiful country," Cortazzi answered reverently.
"Then what the hell made ye come here? Never mind, though—it'll be warm again some time, an' maybe ye don't get whisky like this in Italy. But I've heerd killin' each other is so common there that ye go to a murder just as we go to a football match. Tell me about it, Mr. Cortazzi. I like learnin' about foreign countries."
THE wind, that for a time had died to inaudibility, rose again to a dreary lament, but with full light restored in the hall its dirge was less impressive: there was, now, an increasing confidence and steadiness about the party that made Ruthven's forecast of trouble appear unfounded. Explanation of the sounds that had been heard from the gallery, and Houghton's commonsense attitude, had reassured them all—but Houghton knew that any little thing might take the whole party back to the brink of panic. Where was Andy? Struggling in a snowdrift, or making steady headway toward Westingborough?
Houghton counted heads again: seven women, nine men, all there by the fire. If three others whom he had invited for the birthday party had not failed him at the last, there would have been nine of each sex, excluding himself—and excluding Carmichael, of course. None of them had expected the financier to appear. Houghton himself had not wanted him, had tried to get out of inviting him, and wished now that he had flatly declined to include him. But it was far too late for wishing!
"Boyle?" He spoke composedly, naturally, but in the silence that had fallen on them all the sound of his voice caused a series of sudden movements, proving that nerves were still strung to tenseness. "You might get all those coffee things cleared away. Get out decanters and glasses in the dining room, and put the sandwiches in there, too."
"Very good, sir. I'll ring Martha."
He went to the bell push. Betty Ferguson stood up, looked at her chair, and turned the cushion, evidently searching for something.
"I expect I left it in the lounge," she said and sat down again.
"What are you looking for, Betty?" Ferguson asked.
"My bag. I don't want it just now—only to know where it is."
"Probably in the lounge. I'll go and see, and get it if it is in there. You're sure to want it for something or other, sooner or later."
He turned and went toward the lounge. Ethna Blair followed him.
"I left a book in there," she explained.
Joan Shaw watched her curiously, jealously. She followed Ferguson into the room and gave the door a push. Its latch clicked.
"Bert, I had to speak to you," she said.
Turned so that he faced her, he gave her a long look, possibly of irritation, and then glanced past her at the closed door. "Well?" he asked coldly. "You're only making us conspicuous."
"But—but I felt I must speak to you," she protested. "Can't you see how awful this is for me?"
"I can see what the rest of them will think, over your shutting us in here like this," he retorted. "No—don't open the door again. You'll only make it worse, if you do. What is it—what's awful?"
She came close to him. "You mean you can see what Joan will think," she accused. "Oh, don't think I'm under any illusions now, Bert! Have you quite wiped all her lipstick off your cheek?"
"Don't be silly!" he exclaimed sharply. "You might know it was mere fooling, to mislead people. You and I have got to be careful."
"Oh, yes, careful!" she mocked, with angry bitterness. "I wasn't wanted to help with Betty! It must be Joan, of course! You've had no eyes for anyone but Joan since you got here yesterday—you've not come near me or spoken to me while she was in sight!"
"My dear—" he tried lamely to placate her—"I tell you we've simply got to be careful."
"Being careful didn't always appeal to you," she retorted bitterly. "Oh, it's easy to see! You've had all I could give you, and now she comes along—"
"Ethna!" He glanced anxiously at the closed door as he interrupted her. "Do be reasonable! I've got my practice as a doctor to consider, I've got Betty on my hands, and you told me what it meant when your husband nearly found us out last summer—"
"Yes!" she interrupted in turn. "Because you would not be careful, then! As long as you were not sure about me, you were mad about me. You'd have flung your practice and your sister and everything else to the winds to get me—"
"Ethna, listen!" Again he glanced anxiously at the door. "Do try and be reasonable, for heaven's sake—"
"Now you have got me"—her voice beat back his protest—"now you are sure of me, I can stand back and watch you make love to that child! So like a man! Deny him, and you hold him. Yield, and he no longer wants you."
"I tell you to be reasonable!" he retorted angrily. "Both you and I know what it would mean if what we are to each other got known."
"Oh, yes, I know!" she gibed bitterly. "But I don't think Joan Shaw will want to leave lipstick on your cheek, after to-night."
"I wish you'd leave Joan Shaw out of this!" he exclaimed.
"You'll have to leave her out, in future!" she prophesied vindictively.
"Oh, will I?" he flung back, with sneering defiance. "At your dictation, I suppose! Since you're determined to make a scene—"
"No, not at my dictation," she interrupted, flinging the retort at him with angry triumph. "At my husband's. To-night and what must follow it make that inevitable, so you'd better begin to face it!"
"What do you mean by that?" He tried to render the query imperative, but there was manifest unease in his tone.
"I mean," she told him, slowly and incisively, "when you were too much in love with me to be careful, he found out far more than I told you, and made me promise never to see you again. He forgave me and took me back only with that promise. I gave it."
"Well, what of it?" he demanded with renewed assurance. "How is your husband to know that you got Houghton to invite you here because you knew he was inviting me? It's not as if we'd planned to go away together again as we did last summer."
"Possibly not," she said, "but I told my husband I was going north to stay with my sister, and said nothing about being invited here. And now, after what has happened to-night, all our names are bound to come out. There's sure to be a list published."
"Yes, but he may miss it," Ferguson countered, "and even if—"
"Not he!" she interrupted harshly. "And that, Bert, means a divorce case, with you as the co-respondent. He won't forgive me a second time."
"Don't talk nonsense!" he retorted roughly, to cover his alarm. "You can't bring a divorce action without evidence, and he has none."
"But he has," she contradicted quietly. "He found out far more than I told you, after you and I went away together last summer. He knows where we stayed, and the name we stayed under."
"My God, Ethna!" he almost whispered, with real fear. "Do you mean to say you were such a damned fool as that?"
"Ah, you would call me that now!" she half-sobbed. "Bert—don't you see?" She clutched at his arm and looked up at him pleadingly. "If he does divorce me, I've absolutely nothing."
"And what do you think I shall have, after appearing as a co-respondent?" he demanded fiercely, shaking himself free of her hold and drawing back from her. "When I first met you as one of my patients!"
"Oh, Bert!" The tears were running unchecked down her cheeks, now. "I gave you all, gladly—gave you all a woman can give! I—I'm terrified. Don't quarrel with me, Bert! Surely you still love me a little, don't you? I—if he—I shall have nothing left, but you!"
Again she grasped his arms and clung to him. Holding her wrists—holding her off, in reality—he gazed past her at the closed door. The door beyond which was Joan Shaw, a symbol of the future he had planned, the desired life in which this woman had no part.
"Don't you still love me, Bert—just a little?"
A fatal question, on any woman's lips, yet one that nearly every woman asks when she sees her man turning from her! He bent his head to brush her forehead with his lips, and then stood back from her.
"Yes, Ethna," he lied, but his tone rendered the insincerity plain.
"That's all I want," she moaned, trying to believe him.
"My God, Ethna!" Realisation of the position in which he was placed came back to him. "This is terrible!"
"Bert, you won't let me down?" she pleaded fearfully. "You won't, will you? I love you just as much as ever."
He stood, gazing at her gloomily, while the full significance of all that she had said impressed itself on him. Though all love for her had gone, and one look from Joan Shaw meant more to him than all this woman had given or could give, yet he knew she had nothing but him if Roy Blair divorced her. But he himself—she had come to him as a patient before she became his mistress, and if that fact should be brought to light by divorce proceedings it would mean a charge of unprofessional conduct, and an end to his practice just as he was beginning to establish a reputation. She stood there, powdering her face after drying her eyes, glancing at him almost furtively over the mirror in her flapjack. Already he had Betty, a nerve-shattered wreck, on his hands—
These clinging, impossible women! She had encouraged him, even tempted him, at the outset—and now she claimed him! There was no escape, if he would retain a shred of decency with regard to her. She would insist on marriage after Blair had discarded her, and he would be tied to her for the rest of his life, have her on his hands with Betty. And Betty hated her, he knew: Betty had guessed at the liaison, taxed him with it, refused to believe his denials, and gone into one of her hysteric fits over it. No escape—everything must come out—
Watching his face, Ethna read some of his thoughts, and her own rather weak face lost some of its attractiveness as her anger against him grew again. His gaze met hers, sullenly, miserably.
"We'd better go back," he said. "They'll begin to think things."
"Joan Shaw will think things, you mean!" she amended bitterly. "Oh, I see, now! I was an amusement for you till you met her, something to play with and fling aside when you tired of me! Cheap—thrown aside for her! Don't lie to me any more, Bert, as you did just now when you said you loved me. Go to her, there with the rest! Get her alone to yourself—get more of her lipstick on your cheek!"
"Is this a time for talk of that sort?" he asked harshly.
"A time for—" She paused, staring up at him, and a look of fear grew in her eyes. "Did you kill Carmichael, Bert, because of the wreck he made of Betty's life?"
He backed a step away from her, and made no answer.
"If you did," she said, "I'd have shielded you, suffered for you, if I could think you still loved me."
"Don't talk nonsense!" he exclaimed angrily. "Of course I didn't kill him! Do you think I'm an utter fool?"
"You'd have to deny it, even to me," she said drearily. "Oh, Bert—Bert!" It was a sudden, passionate appeal. "Is there nothing left?"
"Nothing, apparently, except to pay," he answered bitterly. "And since the Medical Council will strike me off, this looks like one of the cases in which the man pays too."
"Ah!" she breathed, with stinging contempt. "You would forget me in thinking of yourself."
She opened the door and went out, her head held high. Ferguson, about to follow her, remembered, and turned back into the room. He found Betty's bag on the floor, beside the armchair in which she had sat while he and Joan tried to quiet her—Joan's hand touching his, Joan's gaze meeting his with shy confession, even remembrance of how he had held and kissed her in the darkness—Joan, telling him in all but words that she wanted his kisses!
Now, as he took up the bag, he foresaw how Joan would take the news of Ethna's divorce, saw himself named and pilloried, called to account for his misconduct with a patient—Roy Blair, bitter and vengeful, would make the most of that!—and turned out from his profession to begin a new career, somehow, somewhere. Joan lost, the work he loved lost, and that clinging little woman alternately pleading and reviling. He knew her too well to hope that he could ever rid himself of her: she would make hell of his life, but would insist on sharing it.
Carmichael, by his death, had brought all this to pass. As great a rage, as great a hatred of the man, as he had ever known, surged up in Ferguson then. Even in death, Carmichael's dark influence on other lives persisted: he had deserved to die, for all the evil he had wrought in his lifetime, but he had found death too easily. One swift, unsuspected blow, one sure thrust...
Going back to Betty with the handbag, Ferguson kept his gaze averted from Joan Shaw, though he knew she was looking at him. He went over to where Betty sat, and dropped the bag in her lap.
"It was in there, on the floor," he said listlessly.
She took it up, and almost idly opened it. When she took out her handkerchief a playing card fell, face upward, at her feet. Tom Russell, standing near the chair, bent and retrieved the card before Ferguson could get to it, and offered it to her. It was the ace of spades.
"No!" she screamed shrilly. "No! Take it away! Don't let me see it! Take it away—Bert, make him take it away!"
Russell drew back from her aghast and, turning the card, looked at its face and then at the terrified girl shrinking down in the chair.
"For heaven's sake don't make another scene, Betty!" Ferguson commanded sharply. "Naturally Russell handed it back to you, since it fell out of your bag. What else was he to do with it?"
"I—I'm sorry," she faltered. "I—it frightened me. The ace of spades means death, you know, and seeing it suddenly—it didn't strike me when it was dealt to me, but—I'm so sorry, Mr. Russell."
"The ace is nothing to bother about," he said, as he put the card down on the table beside her chair. "It was the knave of spades was—"
Then he broke off. "The murderer," was the obvious end to the sentence he had begun, but even his dunderheadedness was not so great as to admit of his speaking the words. Yet, since Betty's outburst had focussed attention on her and the card, the effect was nearly as potent as if he had ended the statement: the brief tendency almost to ignore the fact that Carmichael was lying dead, and that somebody in the house had killed him, gave place to renewed distrust and fear, and Ruthven's prophecy of impending trouble began to appear more credible.
"I was thinking of the game," Russell said apologetically, after a long, constrained pause. "Not of—well, not of anything else."
"You mean there was a faint reflection on what you consider your mind," Ruthven observed caustically. "The idea of your really thinking about anything is altogether too preposterous."
"Are you asking for trouble?" Russell faced toward him, fiercely.
"Fraser!" Houghton's interruption had a compellingly imperative ring. "You'll find the whisky on the sideboard—in the dining room. If either of you carries this bickering a word further, I'll knock both your silly heads together, cheerfully. You'll find a drink in there too, Russell, if you feel like one. And kindly forget altogether about that game, everybody, and don't mention it again."
Not only the two, but all who heard him, began to realise that his strength was holding them, keeping such sanity as might be in this mad nightmare of waiting that they must all endure. He was cool, steady—the thought came to one or two that he might have got past fear, in the knowledge that there could be no escape for the one who had struck Carmichael down: his coolness might be due to finality of knowledge, realisation of what he had to face at the end of this time of waiting. Yet, be that as it might, he was dominant of them all as he stood, commander as well as host. Even Ferguson admired him, and, grudgingly, almost forgave him the scene that had followed Houghton's entry to the hall just as he himself and Ruthven had reached the foot of the staircase, the scene of his own ignominious, candlelit return to the fireside.
"Quite so, Jim," Ruthven remarked unresentingly, at the end of a long silence. "Forget about it, and the idea of a spot of whisky appeals to my department of the interior. Russell, what about splitting one and drowning the hatchet in it, head downward?"
"If you like," Russell answered rather stiffly. Then, with more cordiality—"It would be rather a good idea."
They went together into the dining-room. Ethna Blair turned and moved a couple of steps, so that Joan Shaw faced her in turning away from Betty Ferguson, who sat quiet again with her brother standing beside her. His absence with Ethna in the lounge, and his altered demeanour now, had their own meaning for Joan.
"You're looking frightfully tired, Joan," Ethna said with tender sympathy. "It was sweet of you to help Doctor Ferguson with Betty as you did. He has been telling me how much he appreciated it."
"I am rather tired," Joan said, and ignored the rest of the older woman's slightly too honeyed remark.
"And to see a brother so thoroughly devoted to his sister—one can't help admiring him," Ethna pursued sweetly. "But you—don't you think you ought to rest in some way, dear?"
"I am no worse off than anyone else—until this man Parker gets back with the police," Joan retorted with cold irritation.
"But supposing he does not get back?" Ethna persisted with apparent solicitude. She turned to Ferguson. "Doctor Ferguson, couldn't you insist on Joan lying down, or something. One can see the strain is beginning to tell on her."
She had succeeded in the object for which she had made this attack, for now all attention was centred on Ferguson and Joan.
"I'm quite all right, Doctor Ferguson!" Joan exclaimed angrily, before he could make any reply. "And I hate a fuss—Mrs. Blair doesn't seem to realise it, but—I'm sorry, Mrs. Blair, I know you meant well. Oh, please leave me alone!" She broke out with sudden, unrestrained anger. "I'm not a child!"
"Of course not!" Ethna hastened to assure her. "We've all admired the splendid way you helped Doctor Ferguson with Betty, and the way you kept your head when you were in the lounge with him and the lights went out. I didn't mean to make a fuss, dear. But it's so difficult for you. Isn't it, doctor?" She appealed to Ferguson with the final words.
"Did you find it difficult to keep your head when you were shut in the lounge with him?" Joan inquired, furious at the insinuation in Ethna's apparently sympathetic solicitude.
"Joan"—Ferguson came to the rescue—"you are over-tired, or overstrained, which amounts to the same thing. Couldn't you—"
"No! Whatever it is—no!" she interrupted passionately. "I am quite capable of taking care of myself, Doctor Ferguson, and need no suggestions of any kind from you. Or"—she added significantly—"from Mrs. Blair."
She turned her back on him and on Ethna, and walked, with her head held proudly, into the dining room. Ethna watched her, smiling.
"Poor child!" she said gently. "She's terribly upset, one can see. I was trying to help her out, but she won't let me."
But Ferguson, shrugging his shoulders as he thrust his hands in his pockets and turned back to Betty, knew differently. Peter Mostyn leaned toward his brother, and whispered—
"If I owned a cat that was anything like that Blair woman, I'd tie a brick round its neck and drown it. Did you hear that, Bernard?"
"Who could help hearing it?" Bernard answered. "But then, women are all alike. Let's go and get a whisky apiece, Pete, and see if we can get Joan to talk to us. She sounds off the doctor, now."
They went together, and Houghton noted their going. There were five in the dining room now, he reflected, Ruthven, Russell, Joan, and these two brothers. Out here in the hall he had ten more—again he counted heads. Not one of them, he knew, would entertain the idea of going to bed: they were sane and quiet, for the time—apart from such petty, idiotic scenes as Ethna Blair had just made—but if they realised that Andy Parker could not get back here with the police until the roads had been cleared, if they found themselves entirely cut off from the outside world for an indefinite time, with that corpse lying in the gallery, would they remain sane? Could he hold them from open accusation of each other, open quarrelling?
Would it be better to hold some sort of inquisition, one that would either clear them all of guilt or fix the crime on some one of them? Yet he himself was as open to suspicion as the rest, and in no position to act as inquisitor: he wished now that he had not owned to knowing why Carmichael had gone to his room when the lights were switched off. In the event of any inquisition among themselves, he would have to tell how he knew, now—and draw suspicion down on Diane as well as on himself!
But it was too late for wishing, either over that or anything else.
"Tired, Diane?" He turned to her to put the question, and there was infinite tiredness in his own voice. She looked up at him.
"A little, Jim. But it's not midnight, yet. Andy Parker—" She broke off, but her eyes completed the query.
"You know as well as any of us what the roads are like," he said.
"I doubted once or twice as to whether he could get us here," she answered. "And it was still snowing when we came in, you remember."
He nodded and, seating himself on the arm of her chair, took her hand and held it. "I'd send you up to bed if I could, darling," he told her. "We'll give Andy another hour or so, and then I'll make Ferguson examine—Oh, well, you don't want me to talk about that, I know. But if Andy doesn't get back, we've got to resolve this situation somehow—make it possible for anyone who wishes to go to bed."
"You have to resolve it, you mean," she said dissentingly. "Everyone is depending on you, Jim."
"Or suspecting me!" He put a trace of anger into the remark. "And I meant this to be a rollicking, cheery birthday party!"
He felt the firm, comforting pressure of her fingers against his own, as he glanced from one to another face of the guests remaining about the fire. Boyle was putting on more logs, acting as reminder of the fact that tragedy and fear could not obviate life's commonplace necessities. Jack Warren sat on the arm of his young wife's chair with his hand on her shoulder, and beyond them Rodney Black and Helen Turner, faced towards the fire, maintained the separateness that had rendered them inconspicuous since the murder game had turned to murder in reality, but now began to bring them into prominence. Ethna Blair stood brooding alone, perhaps even regretting the effect on Ferguson of her envenomed attack on Joan Shaw, and Ferguson stood over Betty, who lay back in her chair in invalidish silence. Kemp sat on a pouffe facing Mary Hammersley, who now had an armchair at the corner of the fireplace, and the two appeared to be regarding each other with suspicion and distrust, as if each had failed to conceal the conviction that the other was responsible for Carmichael's death.
Houghton looked down at Diane again.
"What are you thinking, Diane?" he asked.
"That even this is better for you than what might have happened if—if Carmichael had still been alive," she answered.
"SPEAKING without any resentment, Ruthven, and looking facts squarely in the face"—Tom Russell seated himself in the chair next to that which Ruthven had taken, and put his glass down on the dining table—"you look on me as the world's most perfect ass, don't you?"
"I should hate to credit anyone with perfection," Ruthven answered, "but, still looking facts squarely in the face, I think you're in the running, after the way you've managed to drop bricks to-night. You've made me shudder over what you might say next, every time you opened your mouth—and generally you've said it, too."
"I admit it frankly," Tom said. "Not about making you shudder, but—well, you know. If the wrong thing is to be said, and I'm there to say it, you needn't wait for anyone else to speak. Now here are we two, Ruthven, on our own—I know I've earned most of what you've said about me, and I've got past being angry over it. Here are we two, and nobody can say either of us had the slightest reason to slosh Carmichael—whoever did it, we didn't. Who do you think did?"
"I've no idea," Ruthven answered, with evident distaste for the subject. "If I had, I wouldn't express it to you, or to anyone. What on earth is the use of our discussing it?"
"Why, don't you see?" Tom urged earnestly. "We might go to Houghton—you could go to him, that is, because he wouldn't listen to me—and then, after we'd grabbed the right one and tied him up, or locked him away somewhere, all the girls and women could go to bed when they felt like it, and forget about the tragedy for a bit. This state of affairs can't go on indefinitely—it simply can't!"
"And supposing one of those girls or women turns out to be the one who did it?" Ruthven inquired caustically. "What do you do then?"
Floored for the moment, Tom considered the point. "I hadn't thought of that," he confessed eventually, "and after all, it's too impossible. Of course, I haven't taken particular notice of the servants, except Martha—you know what Kemp said about Andy Parker's mother. It might be seduction and desertion again, just as in her case, but—"
"Are you any good at contract bridge?" Ruthven interrupted.
"Contract bridge?" Tom looked puzzled. "Surely you wouldn't suggest playing bridge, with a body lying in the house?"
"I wasn't suggesting playing it," Ruthven answered patiently. "I thought we might possibly talk about that, as an alternative to what might turn into a rather dangerous discussion before we get to the end of it—and a useless one, at best."
"But why contract bridge?" Tom inquired earnestly.
"Very well, then," Ruthven said, "let's make it the weather, or the advantages of anthracite over coal—any damned thing you like!"
"I see!" There was anger in Tom's retort. "Being the perfect ass, I'm entitled to have my leg pulled. Well, I'm not going to resurrect the hatchet, Ruthven. Just go on pulling."
He rose to his feet, seeing Joan Shaw enter the room, and Ruthven imitated him. She shook her head at them both as she came to the table.
"Please sit down," she urged. "I didn't mean to disturb you." Her hand wavered uncertainly between two plates of sandwiches. "I suppose one ought not to be hungry," she added, "but I am."
"That one," Tom said. "Yes, the one you're aiming at now. They're caviare, and the others are only chicken and ham. Can we get you a drink, Joan? Lots of things on the sideboard, you know."
"No, thanks." She took a caviare sandwich and nibbled at it. "I feel glad to get away from them all, and I am hungry," she asserted.
"Well, it's not so far off midnight, now," Ruthven observed. "Do we take our drinks and go, since you want to get on your own?"
"No, please don't! Do sit down and be sociable, won't you? It was the—the general atmosphere out there in the hall. Not you two."
"Couldn't we get up a game, or something, to stop people from thinking about—about what's happened?" Tom inquired rather vaguely.
"Try it, by all means," Ruthven advised with ironic scepticism. "Remember how Betty Ferguson squealed at sight of the ace of spades, and then try and get out a pack of cards. What would you—musical chairs, or hunt-the-slipper? Russell, a game is not a bright idea!"
"Then what can we do?" Tom demanded plaintively.
"Exactly what you are doing—wonder what you can do," Ruthven assured him. "Remember, when it comes down to brass tacks, you can't do anything. Somehow, you've got to endure through this night, wait for it to end, and when it comes to ways of passing the time there's not a soul among us who can help you. I realised that a long while ago—didn't you, Joan?"
"You mean—?" She took another sandwich, and looked at him questioningly. "None of us can help each other, because—"
"Exactly," he agreed, and sat back in his chair.
"Because—you mean—you don't know who—" Tom suggested, and left the obvious end of the sentence unspoken.
"Because you don't know who," Ruthven agreed, "and you can't ask."
"Yes, I've got it!" There was a faint enthusiasm in Tom's assent. "Just like the game—the detective can only accuse one person after he finishes his questioning, and if he's wrong—of course, you couldn't."
"We'll drop that subject, I think," Ruthven suggested gravely.
"We've been dropping it all the evening," Joan pointed out, "and one after another has picked it up again either by a look or by something said. I think Mrs. Hammersley showed as much sense as any of us in what she said about it—that we're all afraid of each other and even of our own thoughts. If you, Mr. Ruthven, could persuade Mr. Houghton to agree to thrashing it out—"
"No, no, Joan, he can't do that," Ruthven interrupted her gravely.
"Why not?" she asked. "Surely it would be better than—"
"He can't." Ruthven stopped her again. "We've got to wait."
Tom Russell frowned at his glass as he twirled it between his fingers; he was evidently in throes with a new idea.
"I see," Joan said quietly, after a pause of reflection.
"Of course he can't!" Tom exclaimed. His idea had taken shape.
Peter and Bernard Mostyn, entering the room at that moment, heard him. Peter paused beside Joan and selected a sandwich, while Bernard went on to the sideboard and took a glass and whisky decanter.
"Get me one at the same time, Bernard lad," Peter admonished him. "Lots of soda, and just enough whisky to flavour it—I've got a long thirst. Who can't what, Russell—were you talking about the chances of that man Parker getting back? If so, I think they're thin, myself."
"I think the chance of his getting as far as Carden is doubtful, let alone getting through to Westingborough," Ruthven said decidedly.
"Which means that most of us will eventually fall asleep down here," Bernard observed from the sideboard. "Nobody will have the nerve to go to bed, with the wind howling round an old house like this."
"But we were not talking about Parker." Tom, fearful lest his idea should be still-born, made a protest of his statement. "It was about the possibility of getting Houghton to—"
"I should leave it alone, if I were you," Ruthven advised, interrupting. "We have already agreed that it's impracticable."
"But what is?" Bernard Mostyn came back from the sideboard, and handed one to his brother. "There's no reason to prevent him from saying what he likes with only the five of us here—is there, Joan? I mean, it's nothing unfit for your ears, surely, since you appear to have been discussing it when we two came in."
Ruthven made a little gesture of hopelessness. Joan shook her head.
"As far as I know, there is no reason why I should not hear it," she answered. "Mr. Ruthven said—what was it, though?"
"It wasn't—it was what you said," Tom put in eagerly. "You said it would be better for all of us if Houghton would agree to thrashing this matter out—the one everybody is afraid to mention, I mean. And Ruthven said he couldn't, and I saw then why he couldn't."
"You did, did you?" Peter, with his glass halfway to his lips, arrested its movement to stare at Tom. "And why couldn't he? I don't see why he should, of course, but what's to prevent him if he likes?"
"Because—" Tom paused to glance apprehensively at Ruthven, knowing that he himself was about to drop a very large brick, and then went on—"because, in the murder game, he was the one who had control of the lights. They had to stop down till he told Boyle to turn them up."
"And I tell you Houghton did not do it!" Ruthven exclaimed harshly.
Joan Shaw put down all that was left of her sandwich—on the table itself, since her stare at Ruthven prevented her from seeing what her hand was doing. Tom Russell rose slowly to his feet, and the two Mostyns stared at Ruthven, still seated, with his face set determinedly.
"How do you know?" Joan asked at last, fearfully.
"How do I know?" He looked up at her and spoke with rasping anger. "How do I—Oh, I see. I see! Well, if that's what you think of me—" He started to his feet and turned toward the door. "But don't you see, Mr. Ruthven?" Joan's protest brought him to a halt, facing her. "You implied that you did know!"
"Well, I don't, except that Houghton did not," he retorted.
"But if you don't know who did—" Tom Russell began, and paused.
"This"—Ruthven spoke with angry bitterness—"is what comes of opening the subject, even among five of us. Houghton is perfectly right in keeping off it—and it doesn't matter how much I tell you four that I don't know who did it, for you won't believe me. That being so, I'll leave you to continue the discussion among yourselves. Quite possibly Russell will manage to convince you that he killed Carmichael, if you all carry on a little longer. Then you can acquit me."
"We didn't suggest you did it, Ruthven," Tom protested.
Ruthven turned and gave him a withering stare. "Why don't you, for heaven's sake?" he demanded angrily. "You're all thinking it."
"I'm not," Joan interposed clearly. "I don't believe it for a moment, Mr. Ruthven. But your defence of Mr. Houghton implied some knowledge of some sort—you can't get away from the fact of your having implied that you know who did kill Mr. Carmichael, by stating so flatly that somebody did not. As if you might be trying to shield somebody—I'm speaking quite plainly, since we've got so far with the subject—"
"I am not trying to shield anyone," Ruthven snapped, interrupting.
"If you were, you'd have to deny it," Tom Russell observed in a thoughtful way. "Otherwise, if you admitted it—"
"Coming from you, that's really brilliant," Ruthven retorted contemptuously. "Now go on playing at parlour detective, and you'll wind up in a free fight with everyone joining in. Except me, that is."
He stalked out from the room, and they saw him rejoin the party round the big log fire. Tom Russell shook his head gravely.
"He's far too thin-skinned," he said. "I didn't mean anything."
"No," Bernard Mostyn agreed. "But nobody is expecting miracles."
Tom gave him a long look, and thought it out.
"I see," he said at last. "You mean I couldn't mean anything if I tried. Well, there's consolation in that, enough to stop me from punching your head. Being the perfect ass, it's obvious that I couldn't have had enough brains to evolve the idea of killing Carmichael."
"But it wasn't such a very bright idea, when you come to consider it," Peter observed after a pause.
"Since you must talk about it," Joan said with some asperity, "what do you mean by that? Why wasn't it a bright idea?"
Peter shook his head gravely. "Because whoever did it hasn't the remotest chance of getting away," he explained. "Bernard and I were discussing that point a few minutes ago, and we agreed on it."
"More or less agreed," Bernard dissented. "You said—"
"I quoted Houghton—twenty-five living people in the house," Peter interrupted him. "And it's merely a matter of sifting down—"
"I don't think I like this discussion, after all," Joan interrupted in turn. "It's beginning to sound too grim and practical."
"But—excuse me one remark, Joan," Tom Russell said. "Surely it would be impossible to sift down, as Mostyn calls it. You can't put twenty-five men and women on trial on the chance of catching one."
"Quite true," Peter agreed, "but you can eliminate the impossibles, go through the possibles for motive, and so get to the probables. And then, with a little of what the Americans call third-degree—"
"Oh, this is altogether too cold-blooded!" Joan exclaimed, interrupting.
"But it was you who talked about thrashing the subject out," Tom reminded her. "Sorry, but this talk puts a new complexion on the whole affair for me—I begin to see it all differently."
She gave him a thoughtful look. "Do you mean to say you thought detection of the one who did it would be impossible?" she inquired.
He nodded, very gravely, for him. "I certainly did," he admitted.
They heard the threatful, boding wail of the wind outside. At last Bernard Mostyn took up his glass from the table, drank the remainder of its contents, and, in putting it down again, moved a step or two away from Tom Russell. Tom observed the movement.
"I see," he said. "Ruthven was quite right in what he said. And denying it to you would be mere waste of breath, of course. So I won't!"
He went back to the hall. After only a momentary hesitation Joan Shaw followed him, without explanation or excuse to the two brothers.
"That would be quite impossible," Bernard said after she had gone.
"Suppose you alter it to highly improbable?" Peter suggested.
"On the ground of his being too big a damned fool, you mean," Bernard said thoughtfully. "Besides, he had no motive."
"How do you know?" Peter asked, with a hint of derision. "I'd have said at dinner time that Betty Ferguson had no motive, that Ruthven had none—I'd have said, then, that it was altogether impossible for such a thing to happen. You don't know what Russell's dealings with Carmichael may have been—or anybody's, as far as that goes."
"No-o," Bernard agreed, still more thoughtfully. "We don't know."
"AN' now, Mr. Cortazzi, I'll be gettin' on me way," Andy Parker announced, and, reaching for his ancient bowler, jammed it down on his head and adjusted the woollen scarf over the crown. "Half an hour they gey me to warm meself, an' time's up. I'm much obliged to ye."
"I was glad to be of sairvice," Cortazzi told him. "Eet ees not a voyage I would enterprise, on such a night."
"'Try not the pass, the old man said'," Andy quoted, as he tied the scarf under his chin and rose to his feet. "I'm not makin' reflections on y'r age, Mr. Cortazzi. 'Tis only some poetry that came into me mind. An' the top o' that pass, meanin' Condor Hill, is goin' to be blasted cold—I hope they don't keep me waitin' over long up there. Well, Excelsior, an' many thanks to ye f'r the whisky an' the fire."
Cortazzi went with him to the front door, and closed it on him. As Andy floundered through the snow toward Carmichael's Rolls-Royce, he heard the door bolts being shot home, as emphasis of the fact that he was shut out in the winter night. He knew well that there was danger in the ascent of the hill, but nodded in a satisfied way when he opened the car door and settled himself in the driving seat: the engine was still ticking as he had left it; the bitter wind had rendered the interior of the car like an ice-house, and its chill bit at him.
"I'll warm ye, ye devil," he threatened, and livened the idling engine to a purr. Then, engaging gear, he began to move: the corner of a curtain, drawn back from a first-floor window of the hotel, told him that Cortazzi was watching, and he changed up to second and left the hotel behind, switching on his headlights. Swept by the wind, the village street showed fairly clear, a slight rise leading to the steeper grade of the hill, known as a beauty spot to summer tourists.
It was a new road, made to replace an old coaching way between Westingborough and London, and carefully planned and graded. Under normal circumstances, Andy knew, he could take it in top gear with the power under his control, but to-night he kept to second speed, grinding a steady way past the last houses of Carden Street until his lamps showed him the beginning of the hill, a diagonal cut in the side of the ridge dividing Carden from the valley of the Idleburn.
Just past the last house of the village he entered on a right-hand curve, and, beyond this, snow and wind together had played fantastic tricks; there were snow castles almost overhanging the road, smooth stretches where no road showed, but the snow sloped in unbroken whiteness from the high right-hand bank to the railings guarding the road from the cliff-like drop on the left, and again there were stretches of surface swept nearly clean, where eddies had struck and whirled the snow away. Andy measured his first difficulty with his eyes, and forged on.
"A mile and a half to the top," he reflected, "an' only a blasted fool like me'd try it on a night like this. Thank God I got me shovel!"
He kept well over to the railings on the near side of the road, since the drift was thinnest there. For the most part the light, powdery snow ploughed aside as the car advanced, but three times he had to get out and use his shovel, working like a giant at the compressed mass driven up by his advance. The third time, he looked up at the coldly glittering stars, and shook his entrenching tool at them.
"Ah, ye devils!" he exclaimed savagely. "What d'ye care if I break me neck? 'Tis all one to ye what happens to Andy Parker!"
Again he drove on, swaying, skidding, correcting every swerve of the car until, nearly two-thirds of the way up, he miscalculated the point at which a spring in the hillside oozed a trickle of water down on to the road. A drain took the water away, under normal circumstances, but to-night water and snow had combined to form ice and choke the drain, and a score yards or more of road surface was irregularly coated with ice under the snow that hid it. Andy felt the car slipping from control, felt the chains bite through to macadam and steady it, jerked forward, and then his near back wheel hit the banking under the railings with a crash, leaving him faced diagonally toward the high bank on the right of the road, the front of the car still toward the ascent.
"Which looks as if it's ripped it," he told himself, and got out to estimate his chances of getting under way again.
The back mud-guard, he saw, was buckled down on to the tyre, and in front of it the running board had been bent until it almost touched the ground. He dropped his entrenching tool, took the mud-guard by its edge, and heaved it up until it stuck out horizontally behind the car: then he bent over the running board, gripped it with both hands, and lifted with all his great strength, getting it back nearly to its normal level. It was a feat few men could have accomplished.
"An' now, careful does it," he told himself, taking up the entrenching tool to get back into the car. "An' double care comin' down wi' them policemen, too, or else it's glory f'r all of us."
For minor mishaps he had curses in plenty, but this real danger—for if the banking had given way, he would have gone down the hillside after crashing through the railings—reduced him to sober calculation of his chances of straightening out and going on up the hill. He put in first speed and eased his clutch in gingerly, feeling both back wheels spin on the hidden ice. At the first sign of the chains biting on the road surface, he eased his clutch a little, and felt the car move forward. With the engine running free, he let the slope take him back on to the banking on which the railings were set, and, by rocking back and forth in this way half a dozen times, straightened out to face directly uphill again. Then, foot by foot, he went on.
Twice, on the frozen surface, his back wheels began to race uselessly, but each time the chains ground the ice away and gave him grip again. Now, all the fighting spirit in him roused, he thrust his chin toward the wind-screen, narrowed his eyes to glare at the lighted strip of road before him, and held his breath till the danger was past. As he had told Wells when he talked on the telephone in the Carden Arms, he would get to the top of Condor Hill or break his neck—if the car held out! He knew there was a possibility of stalling it past recovery, and that alone he feared.
A bend to the left, directly into the wind, showed him an ordinary depth of snow, and he changed up to second gear and went on steadily. He reached the widened stretch near the top, where cars parked in summer for the sake of the view: beyond it the road curved almost to a right angle toward the cutting at the summit, and he knew he had mistaken the direction of the wind badly, for its force was not directed straight at the cutting as he had expected, but across it at right angles. He stopped while still on the treble width of roadway, admitting of turning easily to go back to Carden, and got out to survey the cutting on foot, though with a feeling that further progress was an impossibility.
One glance told him that he could take the car no farther. There was no cutting, to-night, but a gentle concavity over the surface of snow piled to a height of thirty and forty feet by the wind, an utterly impassable barrier. Andy shook his head at it, gravely.
"Pile half a dozen lorries atop of each other, Mr. Head, an' it'll bury the lot," he said. "Ye'll make the foot o' the hill on t'other side, and then ye'll climb an' climb, an' come to this!"
He went back to the car, and turned it about to face downhill. For awhile he sat at the wheel after the turn, cogitating.
"An' yet—" he opened the door and got out again—"we might beat it, yet. Brains is what is wanted, here."
The wind cut at his face with bitter keenness. He pulled his plaid rug up under his old waterproof, tucked his chin down, and went back, up toward the cutting.
"WELL, Black, I wish everyone here were taking this tragedy as philosophically as you two—judging by the look of you."
Houghton made the observation sound gravely cordial, but there was a definite, almost questioning meaning in his tone as well. Rodney Black and Helen Turner had seated themselves in a couple of armchairs, faced toward the fire, soon after the catastrophic interruption to the murder game; neither had moved out since, nor had they attempted to converse with any of their fellow guests. Usually, as Houghton knew, Black was an asset to any gathering, and a good raconteur: his lean, dark face, and air of perfect gravity as he told one of his really humorous stories, helped him in this latter respect. This withdrawal of himself and Helen from all contact with the others had begun to appear noticeable by the time Joan Shaw and the two Mostyns went into the dining room, and, since it was being remarked, Houghton decided to put an end to it—if he could.
Black unfolded his long, gaunt frame from the chair and faced his host. His lankness emphasised his six feet of height; his hands appeared too large by reason of his slender, bony wrists, and his dress trousers seemed to flap about his legs as he moved. Somebody once said of him that, with such legs, he was in danger of arrest for being without visible means of support, but his physical peculiarities were fully compensated by his mental brilliance: though no older than Houghton he had already established a literary reputation, and had written a successful play as well. Carmichael had financed its production, as Houghton knew, and Carmichael had been one who made very few mistakes indeed with regard to his investments.
"We thought it better to put no extra burden on you by making nuisances of ourselves, Houghton," Black answered quietly. "You've had quite enough on your hands as it is. So Helen and I settled down—as well as the various disturbances would let us, that is—and made the best of what obviously must be a worse time for you than it is for us."
"That's very kind of you," Houghton said. "Probably you've both found it very dull, but it's better to be dull than frightened."
Helen Turner looked up at him, with her head laid back in the corner of the armchair in which she sat: her hazel eyes made two points of colour in the olive-tinted paleness of her face, and her almost startlingly red, sensuous lips—they were of the type that Wilde and his plagiarists of the 'nineties described as like a wound, in the belief that they had made a discovery—parted in a slight smile.
"We have not been in the least dull, Jim," she asserted. "We have discussed the obvious subject, and reached an important conclusion. Rodney and I are very much en rapport, you know."
"I didn't know." Houghton glanced back at the rest of his guests as he spoke, and saw Ruthven emerge from the dining room, looking bleakly wrathful after his talk with Tom Russell and the Mostyns.
"Helen is a sensitive," Black explained. "Of course, she was badly upset at first, like the rest of us, and I had to get her back to quiet reason. And, since then, it's been rather a wonderful experience."
"Oh, wonderful!" Houghton agreed, with ironic irritation.
"For us, I mean," Black hastened to explain. "I know it must be terrible for you, but at least our investigations have kept us quiet."
"Very quiet indeed," Houghton assented again. "So much so, in fact, that the others appear to be wondering about you, to tell the truth."
"Ye-es," Black commented thoughtfully, gazing from face to face of those grouped round the fire. "It's easy to see—they're all obsessed by fear of what has happened and what may happen—"
"Can you wonder at it?" Houghton interrupted irritably.
Black shook his head. Helen Turner rose to her feet and joined them, possibly with a view to ensuring that their conversation should not be overheard: her black and red evening frock revealed her too thin shoulders and neck—for she was almost as gaunt as Black—but there was a species of magnetic attraction radiating from her, a force of which any man, facing her as did Houghton now, could feel the effect. She gave an impression of being intensely alive, and disturbingly intuitive: a bizarre being, one who would either attract or repel, but whom it was impossible to ignore. Two years earlier, she had been widowed at the end of three months' married life by her husband's suicide, and for the past year had carried on an apparently close intimacy with Black. As far as was known, there was nothing to prevent the pair from marrying each other, but they did not.
"He might have said that you are all obsessed with fear, Jim," she remarked. "You control yours with the help of your sense of responsibility, but it is not less there. Probably Rodney and I are the only two people here who have risen above fear—or conquered it."
"If you'd publish your recipe, I might get some of these people to go to bed," he answered drily. "I've very little hope, now, of Parker's getting back here with the police, and they'll have to go to bed some time—or fall asleep down here."
She shook her head and smiled again. "It would be useless to publish the recipe," she dissented. "One has to realise this type of fear as no more than a shadow on the mind, to see it as I see it."
"Occultly," Black explained for her, as she appeared to hesitate. "Helen is psychic, wonderfully so, and an occasion like this—"
"A soul newly released wakens all one's psychic perceptiveness," she completed for him. "And the atmosphere of this hall is perfect."
"I've never dabbled," Houghton said, with marked distaste for the subject. "It doesn't appeal to me, and I didn't know you practised it—went in for mediumship, or anything of the sort."
"If you mean the usual spiritualistic seances, I don't," she assured him rather earnestly. "As soon as you bring money and the idea of profit into psychic experiment, you kill its reality. But to-night I have seen—Jim, have you any portrait or detailed description of an ancestor or anything of the sort in a three-cornered hat, knee breeches and stockings, broad-toed shoes with silver buckles, and a long-tailed coat, and an L-shaped scar on his left cheek? A big man, quite as big as you are—does the description convey anything to you?"
He nodded, interested in spite of himself. "It sounds like the James Houghton we don't talk about, as a general rule," he answered. "He made a tremendous fortune running African slaves to the American plantations, and rebuilt Castel Garde a little before the time of the French Revolution. There's a head-and-shoulders portrait of him, but without his hat, in the dining room. It's not quite three-quarter face, and the scar is not shown. He had no reason to be proud of it."
He glanced round again. The rest of the party appeared listlessly quiet. He might persuade them all to go to bed, in an hour or so.
"He is here in this hall to-night," Helen said in a tone of conviction. "I don't see him now"—her gaze strayed momentarily toward the pillar and the big screen concealing the inner doors at the far end of the hall—"but he is here, and appears rather angry."
The matter-of-fact statement irritated Houghton.
"I don't see why he should be," he said, "since murder was part of his trade."
"There is another in complete armour except for his helmet," she asserted unmovedly. "Plate armour, or whatever you call it—not the chain kind. He has a broken lance, I think it will be, stuck through his breastplate near the shoulder, and his hair is exactly like yours."
"Edmund, killed at Tewkesbury," Houghton commented, still more impressed. "That suit of armour is in the niche just beyond the Othello tapestry at the far end of the hall, but the hole in the breastplate has been hammered out and repaired—it's almost invisible.
"So Edmund is here, is he?" His irritation returned again. "Helen, I don't know how you do this sort of thing, but for heaven's sake don't let the others hear you talking about my departed ancestors. They'll all walk up the walls and lay eggs, if you do."
"She's quite serious, Houghton," Black assured him earnestly. "I've never known anyone so wonderfully clairvoyant—"
"But don't you realise how useless it is?" Houghton interrupted with irritable impatience. "If the whole crowd of my forefathers came crowding round, what could they do? If old James could push these people off to bed, or Edmund either, for that matter, I'd shake hands with them and ask them what they'd have. But both of you know quite well that if any of the others see what Helen claims to have seen—well, Bedlam won't be in it. It's no earthly use, this occult sight."
"It may be," Helen dissented gravely. "Supposing I tell you that the authorship of this crime—for undoubtedly it was a crime—will never be discovered? That it will remain a mystery?"
"Then I shall walk up the wall and lay an egg," Houghton retorted caustically, heedless in his impatience with her of what he said. The claim was too preposterous altogether, and he wished he had not started this discussion with the pair of them.
"It is true, though," she asserted. "Parker—I can see a car overturned—yes, on the slope of a steep hill. Not near here—not very near here." Her voice became mechanical, and her eyes grew vacantly expressionless. "Parker is inside the car. I can see the canvas stuff he wears round his legs, and his hat is pushed sideways on his head. I do not know if he is dead, or only asleep, but the car is lying on its side and the snow is deep round it. He will not come back with the car, perhaps will not come back at all."
"Condor Hill!" Houghton nearly whispered the words. "So he got through Carden, and—" he shook himself free of the spell she was casting—"Helen, don't! They'll see you, and then there'll be panic."
"I'm sorry." She came back to normality, and gave him a pleased smile—pleased, possibly, by the impression she had made on him. "It is so easy to slip away, in a place like this. The atmosphere—the passed-over ones who have come back because of the new soul joining them—quite possibly you'll have another ghost in the gallery after this, Jim, for those who have eyes to see. A thought-form, probably."
"I've never seen a ghost here, and I don't want to see a ghost here," he declared forcefully. "I've no use for ghosts."
"Two thought-forms," she amended, disregarding his scepticism. "The other will be Andy Parker, down there by the door, trying to tell you that Carmichael was his father. His face will be angry, troubled—"
"Helen, if you say another word, I'll take you by the shoulders and shake you!" Houghton interrupted forcibly. "I don't care two hoots about thought-forms, and since I've got to live here, it's just as well. Knowing Andy as I do, too, I don't believe the mere overturning of a car would kill him. He's much too cunning for that."
"I didn't tell you he was dead," she pointed out. "All I saw was that he was in the car, and quite still. He may be merely unconscious for the time—stunned, and in other respects uninjured."
"And even if he is, it's no proof that the—that—" He hesitated, and began again—"You said that the authorship of Carmichael's death would not be discovered. That's rather an impossible assumption, since the one who killed him must be here."
"Not in the least," she dissented confidently. "Here, as you said, are twenty-five people to your knowledge—twenty-four, since Parker is not here, nor likely to be. How many are here not to your knowledge? My psychic sight has revealed to me a secret passage running from that door—the one where Boyle stood to turn the switch when you gave the order—through the walls, and emerging to the first floor gallery quite near to the top of the staircase. That is one exit—I don't know where others may be. My sight extended only to the first gallery."
"That passage was closed in my grandfather's time," Houghton said. "For practical purposes, it no longer exists. It's there, I own."
"How was it closed?" she demanded, still confidently.
"By the panelling, of course," he answered. "The stone work was not disturbed—it's too valuable from an archaeological point of view. But for all practical purposes the passage is closed."
"As far as you know," she said significantly.
"I do know!" he exclaimed with some heat. "Look here, Helen, if you're trying to direct my suspicions to Boyle, you're simply wasting breath—or if you're trying to suggest anyone, in fact—"
"Houghton, don't raise your voice," Black admonished in little more than a whisper. "She's not accusing anyone. She's simply telling you—don't you see what an enormous advantage she has over the rest of us, with this gift of hers? Already she has described two of your ancestors—accurately, too, you owned!—and now she's told you of the existence of this passage, a thing neither she nor I could guess on a first visit like this. She isn't accusing! She's merely telling you, giving you proof that she can see more than anyone else here. She didn't mention Boyle—didn't mention anybody."
"No, but the inference is there," Houghton pointed out.
"Jim, what is the use of my accusing anyone?" Helen demanded. "I've already told you—Carmichael's death will remain a mystery, utterly beyond solution by any of the practical modern methods. I know that must sound fantastic to you, but it's true, none the less. Twenty-five people, remember, and to accuse the whole twenty-five would be absurd. And there will be no credible evidence against any one of them. Suspicion, perhaps, but nothing more, nothing tangible."
"Do you mean to say that I and all the rest of us must remain under suspicion, and do nothing about it?" Houghton asked incredulously.
"What can you do?" She gave him a smile as she put the counter-question, and her brilliantly red lips were tempting, sensuous.
"Yes, what can you do?" Black echoed, after a pause.
Houghton turned to him. "Carmichael put that play of yours on, didn't he, Black?" he demanded, with disconcerting abruptness.
"Financed it," Black answered, after another uncomfortable pause. "Anthony Harrington was the producer. It's still running."
Another silence fell between them. Both Black and Helen Turner had been here two days, Houghton reflected. He had dissembled, to a certain extent, with regard to the secret passage of which Helen had spoken: there was still a means of entry, but to gain access to the passage one had to press three studs simultaneously and hard, and the three were so placed that it was very nearly impossible for anyone ignorant of the construction of the entrance to discover their existence, let alone learn how to press them. Boyle did not know the secret, Houghton felt certain, nor could either Helen or Black have learned it. Did she know by real psychic intuition, or was it guesswork?
"I think we'll end this discussion," he observed, "before it lands us in difficulties. Now if you two, instead of sitting here apart—"
"Wait a bit," Black interrupted. "What has Carmichael's financing of my play got to do with what we have been talking about?"
"Nothing whatever," Houghton answered with finality. "It was just a thought that occurred to me. If Helen can get in touch with one of my ancestors, you might induce him to go and see that play—I've seen it myself, and know it's good. Both of you persuade him to go and have a look at it. In the meantime, you might—"
"Houghton, I don't like this sort of sceptical ridicule," Black interrupted again. "It appears to conceal some sort of suspicion—as if through the play you were implicating me, I mean."
"Why worry?" Houghton retorted calmly. "We have Helen's word for it that the identity of Carmichael's killer will never be discovered, and since Andy Parker is out of action, according to her, we shall have to move the body in a very little time, and send everybody off to bed. Now I want you two to stop this separateness from the rest—"
"But we have attained calm." It was Helen who interrupted him this time. "Why not let us keep it? If you do, it means two less for you to be concerned about."
"I want you two to mix in with the others," Houghton pursued with definite insistence, "to stop them from wondering what you are talking about on your own—communicate some of your calm to them. Don't treat them to any psychic talk or manifestations, unless you want them to go over the edge altogether and embarrass me with the task of getting them back. Just talk naturally round and round the lot of them, and you, Helen, make yourself generally fascinating—it's easy for you, I know. If only we can get them to go to their rooms, Ruthven and I will have a chance to go and look for Andy, if he doesn't get back in the next hour or so, and see what can be done to help him. I'd go at once, if I could get away, but my place is here, for the present."
"Yes, you're right," Black said, with relief in his tone. "Helen, keep off secret passages, and we may do some good, between us."
The two left their isolated pair of armchairs as Houghton backed away and went to rejoin Diane. He patted the right-hand pocket of his dinner jacket and smiled at her—and at that moment Tom Russell and Joan Shaw came out of the dining-room, Joan heading for the chair in which Betty Ferguson sat. Tom, after a brief pause, edged past the Warrens toward her: so far, she had not snubbed him or remarked on his disturbing contributions to the talk of the evening, but seemed rather to approve of him, and he found it comforting.
"Stay where you are, Diane," Houghton suggested, "and I'll come back to you. I'll go and get rid of this pistol—lock it away again. It's weighing my pocket down, and I don't need to carry a loaded gun in a party like this, now we know there's nobody up in the gallery."
"It's just on midnight, Jim," she pointed out.
"I know. The waiting seems interminable, but we'll get them to go to bed, soon. All the excitement has died down, and they're nearly all tired and ready to go, as soon as one or two lead the way."
But he thought, as he turned toward the lounge doorway, of the corpse lying up in the entrance to the corridor, its head visible from the top of the staircase. They must move it: Ferguson must make some sort of official examination, so that they could take up the body and place it on the bed in the room that had been Carmichael's.
Ferguson—and Ferguson might have been the one who killed him! But Carmichael had financed Rodney Black's play to success, and Helen Turner knew of the existence of the passage through the walls.
STANDING on the very crest of Condor Hill, beside the blocked cutting through which the road had been made, Andy Parker looked down toward Carden and saw the tail light of Carmichael's car as he had left it in readiness for the return journey, with the engine idling to keep the radiator water from freezing. Then, facing about, he gazed across the valley of the Idleburn toward Westingborough; such lights as were in use in the town at this late hour made a little, hazy cluster at the distance from which he viewed them, and, possibly half way between him and the town, one point of light appeared, disappeared, and again became visible. It was, he knew, the lighting of the six-wheeler of which Head had told him, making its way toward the foot of the hill by means of the improvised snow-plough, without which it would have been hopelessly stuck in a drift, before this.
For a minute or so Andy watched its progress: it was still so far away from the foot of the hill that its powerful headlights showed as only one speck of illumination on the greyish whiteness under the stars. Bends of the road hid it for seconds at a time: wayside houses blotted it out momentarily, and then it jumped into sight again. Whatever driver Head had chosen for the journey, the man was making good time, so far. But then, he was on the easiest part of his journey, where the road, slightly raised above the level of the belt of marsh land through which the river ran, would be wind swept and thus free of heavy drifts. It was a similar stretch to that of the marsh road by which Andy had come on the first part of his drive from Crandon to Castel Garde.
Here on the height, striking directly across the cutting and unobstructed in any way, the steady, freezing wind was almost silent, a strong, arctic blast. Beneath him Andy could hear it complaining, as at intervals the occupants of Castel Garde could hear it beat at their sheltered warmth. He gauged the distance of the lorry and, knowing every twist and rise and fall of the road it must yet travel, estimated the time he had still to wait. If he waited up here, inactive, this wind would paralyse him to numbness long before the lorry lamps could show him separate beams at the foot of Condor Hill.
He went scrambling, tumbling down the steep slope on the Carden side, climbed over the fence dividing the road from rough grazing land, and got his entrenching tool out of the car. With it he went back to the height, and saw that the lorry had made a mile or more by that time; its guiding ray showed clear and steady at the beginning of the three-mile, almost straight rise with which the ascent of Condor Hill from the Westingborough side is prefaced. But there would be heavy drifts, Andy knew, in the course of those three miles, and this cold in which he must wait was numbingly intense. It was too soon, yet, to signal to the occupants of the lorry: even if they saw the flash of his electric torch, they would not divine the meaning of the signal.
Descending a little way from the summit of the hill on the Westingborough side, he came to a ridge, on the lee side of which the snow had been banked by the wind to a depth of five or six feet. He jumped, entrenching tool in hand, from the ridge into the drift, sinking neck-deep in the dry, powdery mass. Then he wriggled and shoved to get freedom for his hands and arms, facing uphill, and attacked the snow bank with the entrenching tool, nearly blinding himself as he dug into the loosely-packed mass, sending it flying to either side. Presently he had a trench some twenty feet in length, and was working in snow only waist-deep, since the ridge that caused the drift decreased in height as he worked upward. He stopped shovelling, breathless after the fierce attack he had made, and nodded contentedly as he looked back.
"'Tis equal to Cortazzi's fire," he told himself, "an' a dam' sight healthier. Lord send the wind don't change yet!"
For he knew that a change of wind and rise of temperature would soften the snow, cause it to ball and cake on his tyres, rendering the skid chains useless. There was no sign of change: the glitter of the stars was pitiless, and the wind struck like massed swords of ice.
He floundered to the ridge from which he had jumped, and looked down the hillside. The lorry lamps gave him separate beams, now, and in the long shaft they laid before them he could see the low hedges between which the lorry came up Condor Hill itself, having conquered the three miles of steady, slow ascent toward the ridge of hills. That shaft of light wavered drunkenly, ever and again, for even the four chained driving wheels could not hold the lorry steady on the steep ascent. But, wavering, steadying, and wavering again, the light came nearer.
"Ye've not struck it, yet," Andy said to himself, grimly. And, since even in this short pause he could feel the wind bite at him, he went back to his trench and again set to work with the entrenching tool. His labour was utterly useless, he knew, except that it kept him warm. Once he paused to revile Head for turning him out from the Carden Arms a good half-hour too soon, but then he reflected that it had been impossible to calculate the time for this journey exactly, and it was better for him to wait up here, keeping warm as best he could, than for Head and the men with him to find nobody waiting, and give up the journey when they found the cutting impassable.
Again he climbed the ridge and looked down toward the end of the cutting. Beneath him, half a mile or so away, he could see a dim glow just beyond the beginning of the banks on either side of the road, a stationary, faint light with an indistinct black mass behind it. He knew that the driver of the lorry had charged the mass with which the cutting was choked, and had been brought to a standstill, with snow piled over his plough and radiator. He must have backed out again, for otherwise his light would not have been even dimly visible, and the fact that the glow was stationary proved that Head and his companions had realised the impossibility of getting through the cutting.
They were helplessly stuck, for turning the six-wheeler about was out of the question in the darkness. It might be just possible to back down the hill and find a gateway that would admit of turning, if one or more of the party walked and guided the driver, but any further advance was altogether impossible. Their engine, Andy could hear, was running, and, as he watched, the light from the headlamps grew clearer. Somebody was clearing the packed snow off the front of the lorry, evidently, and presently Andy could see the black figure at work.
He took out his torch and sent them a series of flashes, moving carefully down the ridge toward them. Presently he got an answering flash, and at that he cupped his hands about his mouth and shouted into the wind with all the power of his lungs—
"Come up here—on foot!"
"What?" A shout came back. "Can't hear!"
He went still nearer. Underfoot was dead grass, and every tuft sheltered a mass of dry, slippery snow on its lee side. Andy slipped, sat down, and shouted again after he had sent a couple more flashes from his torch to direct all their attention to himself—
"Stop that blasted engine!"
After a few seconds, the purring of the exhaust ceased.
"Now can ye hear me?" he called.
"Yes. What is it?" Head's voice answered him, sounding clearly, and apparently slightly raised. But the wind was carrying the sound, and blowing Andy's shouts back on him.
"Come up here, on foot! Road's blocked worse, higher up. Climb over the fence. Come up here to me. Shovels—bring shovels with ye!"
He waited, and saw one tiny figure detach itself from the mass of the lorry, and another that followed it toward him.
"Oy!" he roared at them. "Start that engine again! She'll freeze."
He heard the order obeyed. Another pair of figures joined the first two. He saw them clamber over the wire fence beside the road, and, getting on his feet again, sent them a flash at intervals for guidance. They came stumbling up the slope, and Head, his face almost hidden by the muffler inside the turned-up collar of his overcoat, was first to face Andy at speaking distance.
"Good evenin', Mr. Head," Andy said calmly. "An' a hell of a night it is to be out in, too. The car's waitin' for ye."
"How far off?" Head asked. "Down in Carden?"
"Not it! I made the hill as I said I would, an' it's on the wide part just past the cuttin'. Did ye bring any shovels with ye?"
"Two," Head answered. "All we had in the lorry."
"It'll do. We go right over the top—the cuttin's near on full with a drift. Four of ye—aye! I'll have three in behind, to hold me back axle down—thank God policemen always weigh heavy! All set, an' away we go, but whether we get down to Carden on four wheels, or on our noses, is past my tellin' ye. Goin' down Condor Hill is far worse'n comin' up, but I'll do me damnedest, an' I got skid chains."
He turned to the climb without further words, and led them up the slippery ascent. Then down, slipping, falling, and recovering to fall again, toward the red tail light of Carmichael's car. They climbed the fence and reached their objective, and Andy faced his passengers.
"Aye," he said. "Sargint Wells—it would be. Fifteen stone if ye're a pound, sargint—ye'll sit in the back, an' that man with ye too. I want weight on the axle to help hold her. Doctor Bennett, would ye mind sittin' with 'em, sir? Every pound counts. Mr. Head, I'll have ye alongside me, if ye don't mind. Was there enough petrol in the lorry tank to keep the engine runnin' till mornin'?"
"Plenty, Andy—I started with a full tank." Jeffries, the constable who had driven the lorry, answered.
"That's lucky. Else ye'd have her frozen an' a cracked cylinder or two when ye got back to her. Now we'll go, Mr. Head."
They got into the car as he had dictated, Wells and the constable in the back with the doctor, and Head beside the driving seat. Andy livened up the ticking engine for the start, and began the descent in first gear. They crawled slowly down toward the village.
"Have you any details of this Mr. Carmichael's death to tell me, Andy?" Head asked as they got under way.
"Not a thing, Mr. Head, bar what I told the sargint when I talked to him from the Carden Arms. Mr. Houghton said he wanted ye out at Castel Garde, an' would have come to fetch ye himself, but I knew I was the dog's hind leg an' then some f'r a job like this, so I told him I'd do it. Aye, 'tis easy goin', yet, but wait till we get to the ice on the road! He's got a big party there f'r his birthday—I took two of 'em out from Crandon earlier on, but knew I'd never go back there this night. They've got the corpse of Malcolm Carmichael, the dirtiest hound of a Jew that ever et a ham sandwich, though he was me own father, an' the rest of 'em scared to images—bar the one that corpsed him an' Mr. Houghton himself. Now hold y'r breath, f'r there's ice ahead."
"What's that you said about Carmichael being your father?" Head inquired, disregarding the injunction.
"Hold y'r breath, Mr. Head," Andy retorted. "If we skid an' go through them railin's, it'll never worry ye if I had sixteen fathers. 'Tis a long drop, down there, an' I'm busy holdin' her."
He bent forward, peering through the wind-screen, and Head let him concentrate all his attention on his task.
"EXCUSE me, sir do you think you'll need the fire kept up much longer? If so, I must bring in some more billets."
Houghton, about to go to the lounge and lock his automatic pistol away, turned and looked at the fire as Boyle put the question. The big oak stump, round which the butler had been piling small pieces of wood all the evening, was nearly burned away; a great basket in the niche at the side of the fireplace lay on its side, and only a score or so of billets remained for further use.
"I don't know, Boyle," he answered. "Wait, and I'll take stock."
"That lot will only last another half-hour or so, sir," Boyle said.
"I didn't mean take stock of the firewood," Houghton retorted.
He took stock. The pair he had just left had moved into the middle of the party, and now stood beside the chairs in which Jack Warren and his wife had ensconced themselves: Helen Turner was talking animatedly to Jack, and Black appeared to be waiting to get a word in, while Gwen, with parted lips, listened interestedly. On their left as Houghton looked at them, Ferguson sat on the arm of the chair in which Betty lay back in an invalidish pose; he looked glumly despairing, and, as Houghton's gaze travelled to him, glanced up at the gallery in which Carmichael's body lay and showed his teeth in a savage, wolfish grin for the fraction of a second. Then he relapsed to hopeless immobility, while Tom Russell, on the other side of the chair, looked down at Betty as if about to utter some expression of sympathy. Midway between them and Mrs. Hammersley, Ruthven stood alone, glooming, and Kemp, seated on his pouffe facing Mrs. Hammersley, smiled slightly as if he had posed her with a query or comment. Joan Shaw, alone on the other side of the four who included the Warrens and Helen Turner, and seeming as animated as any, gazed at Ferguson with an enigmatic expression on her mobile face. Not far from her, Ethna Blair also brooded alone, and the two Mostyns were just emerging from the dining-room. Diane, paused from whatever movement she had contemplated, since Houghton had turned back to overlook the group, was gazing at him questioningly, and smiled a little as his survey ended with her. He too smiled, and turned to Boyle again, having taken stock.
"I think you'd better get some more, Boyle. It's barely midnight, and by the look of things it will be an hour or more before I can persuade anyone to lead the way to bed. Andy's lost, of course."
"I don't think I'd say that yet, sir," Boyle dissented respectfully.
"No? Practically two hours since he started, remember."
"Quite so, sir, but Andy is not the sort to give in if there's half a chance. He'll get through and back here if anyone can."
"Possibly he will get through, and back here too. That being so, Boyle, we'll give him another hour, and you'd better put those billets on the fire when you think it's time to build it up again, and bring in some more. As long as I see any chance of Andy's getting back with the police, I won't suggest going to bed, unless somebody else does. It would only mean hauling them all out again if he does come through."
"I'll see about getting some more billets in, sir," Boyle offered.
"Not yet. You stay here while I'm out of the hall, even if it's only for minutes. I want somebody with his senses about him here all the time, and I haven't lost mine yet, nor have you yours. But what about Martha and the other servants? Have they gone to bed?"
Boyle shook his head. "I can't persuade 'em, sir," he answered. "I thought you might go along and have a word with 'em—give 'em a direct order to go, sir, if that isn't asking too much. There they sit, going over it again and again and keeping themselves scared."
"Yes, they would!" Houghton commented, with grim irritation at the thought. "Well, I'll see about them by and by—they're a secondary consideration, Boyle, and possibly they may tire themselves out. I'm going to lock this pistol away now."
He went on his way to the lounge. Tom Russell, still sore over the suspicion against him that the two Mostyns had refrained from putting into words, realising that Joan Shaw did not want him for the time, and, aching to feel himself welcome somewhere, smiled down at Betty Ferguson and eventually managed to catch her eye.
"Feeling better, I hope, Betty," he said cheerfully. "It's a horrible business for all of us, especially if Parker doesn't get back with the police to settle it. But there's a scrap of hope left yet."
"A scrap?" she echoed, in a startled way.
"Russell!" Ferguson spoke harshly as he sat on the chair arm. "Will you be so good as to take your infernal croaking somewhere else? Don't worry my sister with it, unless you want trouble from me."
"Trouble?" Tom echoed, glaring across Betty at her brother with wrath in his eyes. "If I wanted trouble, I'd find a man to hand it out to me. I wouldn't come to you."
"What do you mean by that?" Ferguson, as ready as Tom to find someone on whom to vent his wrath, started up, came round the back of the armchair, and faced the younger man, who glared at him defiantly. "You brainless, hopeless idiot, what do you mean by it?"
"That!" Tom retorted, and with a lightning movement gave Ferguson an open-handed smack on his cheek, a resounding blow that sent the doctor staggering away from the chair as Betty started to her feet. "You can have a real punch next time, damn you. I've stood enough for one night, and I'm standing no more from you or anyone! Come on, if you feel like it! Anyone else that wants to call me names can come too!"
He stood with doubled fists and his teeth bared savagely, as Ferguson's had been bared when, a few seconds before, he had glanced up at the gallery. The marks of Tom's fingers came out white on Ferguson's cheek as he recovered his balance after the unexpected attack, and, doubling his fists in turn, he leaped forward to the attack. He aimed a smashing blow—but Boyle, moving with incredible speed for one of his age, interposed between the two and took the weight of Ferguson's fist on his shoulder. He cannoned against Tom, and for a moment seemed about to return the blow, but controlled himself as Houghton emerged from the lounge doorway behind him.
"Gentlemen!" he exclaimed commandingly. "Gentlemen—please! Mr. Ferguson, put your hands down! Mr. Russell, stop it at once! In Mr. Houghton's absence, I order you to stop this brawling immediately, and be gentlemen. There are ladies present—remember yourselves and where you are."
"Stand aside, Boyle!" Houghton had reached the combatants. One long arm shot out, and his left hand took Russell's just below the shoulder in a grip that made Tom set his teeth in a different way. With his right hand Houghton took Ferguson by the coat collar and held him at arm's length. "Now, before I bang your silly heads together, what do you mean by this?" he demanded, with quiet incisiveness.
They looked very silly as he gazed from one face to the other.
"He insulted me, Houghton," Tom said sulkily.
"And he struck me!" Ferguson exclaimed heatedly.
"Boyle, you're a hero!" Houghton said, with grim amusement. "It's strange, you two fools, that I can't leave this hall for one minute without your disgracing yourselves with an exhibition of bad temper like this. Russell"—he jerked Tom's hand forward with a twist of his own wrist—"shake hands with him and own you're an ass. Ferguson"—he twitched the collar of Ferguson's coat, and its wearer involuntarily pitched toward his late antagonist—"you're a bigger ass for provoking the row. Now shake hands, and say you're sorry."
Ferguson hesitated, and Houghton gave him another shake—it was like a Newfoundland dog shaking a terrier. "Do as I tell you!" he ordered. "Otherwise, I will bang your heads together."
They clasped hands momentarily, obviously hating each other, and Houghton released them and stood back, a bleak expression on his face.
"If anyone else wants to start rough-housing," he said quietly, "we can ask the ladies to go into the lounge and close the door, and then I'll see what I can do to make the scrap worth calling one. But you two blithering idiots had better not join in. You might get hurt."
"Bravo, Mr. Houghton!" Mrs. Hammersley called to him. "But do let me stay and see the fun! I should love to see you go berserk!"
"I'll take you on, Houghton, in spite of your size!" Tom Russell exclaimed angrily, glaring at his host.
Houghton returned his look. "If you're not careful," he said sourly, "I'll get Boyle to fill a bath with cold water, and hold you down in it till you bubble, clothes and all. Man!" His tone changed to one of earnest appeal. "Isn't what has already happened to-night enough for you? Can't you realise where you are and what's with you?"
"I'm very sorry, Houghton," Tom said with frank contrition, moved by the appeal to realisation of his folly. "I've been a silly ass, and know it, now. I apologise for hitting you, Ferguson."
"It doesn't amount to anything." Ferguson, unable to recover his temper while his cheek still tingled, made the reply coldly ungracious.
"And he's lying up there—" The half-whispered words came from Betty, on her feet and holding the back of her chair while she stared, wide-eyed, toward the gallery: they made a startling, awesome interruption. "He can't hear you, can't move—"
She was near on another outbreak of hysteria, evidently. Her eyes, with their pupils dilated so that they showed as unnaturally dark and staring, and her twitching, restless hands, proved how near she was to complete loss of self-control. Ferguson's hand fell heavily on her shoulder and forced her down into the chair again. He bent over her.
"Quiet!" he commanded fiercely. "My God, why did I ever let you come here? Keep quiet, and sit still!"
The command was given too late. Her reminder took them all back into the state to which Houghton's announcement of Carmichael's death had thrown them. They realised anew the fearsomeness of their position, shut away here—Andy's failure to return emphasised their prisoned state, for now hardly anyone believed he would return—with a dead man and his slayer. Again the inevitable question shaped itself in every mind—every mind but one, if the slayer were indeed among them!
"Was it you? Did he do it? Could she have killed him? Are you suspecting me?" In essence the same question, no matter in how many different forms it might be silently asked. The devil of suspicion was alive again, and moving among them at full strength.
Houghton saw it, and knew, even if it became certain that Andy would not return, there was no hope of getting any of them to go to bed for hours, yet. Again the night wind became weirdly audible in the stillness that followed Betty's exclamation and Ferguson's reproof.
Boyle, his hand to his shoulder at the point where Ferguson's fist had made impact, went slowly to the fire and began packing billets of wood round the remains of the big oak log. He needed no telling from Houghton, now, that the fire would be needed beyond the time this stock of fuel would last. When he had finished his task, he turned his back to the fire and for a second stood looking at Houghton—so might an old dog look at the young master he adored! Then Boyle went to the niche and pulled out the big, empty wicker basket in which the billets had been stacked high at the beginning of the evening. "Your shoulder is rather sore, Boyle?" Houghton half-questioned, with a significant glance at Ferguson. He had seen the blow given.
"Nothing to speak of, sir," Boyle answered quietly. But he too glanced at Ferguson, who had offered no apology for what he had done, though Tom Russell had made manly amends for his share in the trouble. It was the briefest of glances, but Ferguson, looking up momentarily from his sister, met and seemed to flinch from the searing hate in the man's eyes. But still he did not speak, offered no apology.
"There is no hurry about refilling the basket," Houghton said. "In half an hour or so will do. Then, if your arm is still painful, you can get one of the maids to take a handle after filling it."
"Or some of us might go logging for him," Tom Russell suggested cheerfully. "It would keep us busy for a bit."
The marks of the tremendous flat-hander he had given Ferguson were still visible on the doctor's cheek. Joan Shaw moved closer to him: possibly she wanted to make him realise that the impression she might have conveyed to him in the dining-room, a little while before, was entirely unmeant, and again she may have been grateful to him for putting Ferguson in his present awkward position. Ethna Blair observed the girl's movement, and herself turned so that she faced Joan.
"What a good suggestion, Tom!" she remarked with satiric, faint enthusiasm. "You and Joan together, some more couples to bring an armful each—we should soon fill the basket between us."
The spiteful innuendo behind her little pleasantry was obvious. The pair at whom it was directed ignored it, except that Tom nodded and smiled cheerfully at Joan—and so, possibly, paved the way for the beginning of a little romance that had no real connection with the happenings of this one night. Now, with Ferguson silent in embarrassment, and the sugar-wrapped virulence of Ethna Blair plainly evident, constraint began to rule the party. A silence lengthened out painfully, oppressively, with not even the noise of the wind to emphasise or relieve it.
"Midnight," Ruthven observed at last, looking at his watch.
The one inoffensive word dropped like a bomb, shattering the silence. A dozen pairs of eyes turned toward him questioningly, as if there might be some hidden, sinister significance in the remark.
"In other words"—Kemp spoke after another long pause—"we need look for nothing further to happen before morning. Parker is lost."
"Stay there for a minute or two, Boyle," Houghton bade abruptly.
He went down the hall, and disappeared behind the screen that hid the inner doors of the main entrance. They heard the click of the door latch, and a metallic clang which announced that he had opened the outer door as well. Then came silence, and with it a faint chill that was felt momentarily by all. It was no more than the breath of cold air admitted as Houghton went out, but to their strained senses it was as a herald of death, accomplished or yet to be.
Boyle stood by the empty basket he had drawn out from its niche, his lean face coldly impassive; a trick of the light, possibly, gave his clean-shaven mouth a cruel, vengeful expression. Mrs. Hammersley rose deliberately from her chair, and went to face him.
"Boyle," she asked with gentle distinctness, "do you know anything about the secret passages there are said to be here?"
"I know there are such passages, madam," he answered stiffly.
"Mrs. Hammersley?" Ferguson made the interruption. "Don't you think that subject is better left alone, considering all things?"
"I do not," she answered over her shoulder. "It appears to me that everybody has gone back to suspecting everybody else, and it would be almost a cheerful diversion if we could suspect a secret passage instead. Whereabouts are they, Boyle? Round the fireplace, here?"
"I really couldn't say, madam," he answered, with respectful resentment at being questioned on the subject. "I'm afraid you'll have to ask Mr. Houghton. Probably he knows where they are."
"So do you," she accused, "but you've made up your mind not to tell us. They are in the walls of this keep, of course?"
"I really couldn't say, madam," he repeated inflexibly.
"Another hope dispelled!" she exclaimed, with an affectation of tragic regret. "Thanks so much, Boyle. At least you have not denied the existence of secret passages, so we can still believe in them."
He made no response, and after a momentary pause she went back and seated herself again. Kemp shook his head at her gravely.
"You could never tempt Boyle to speak if he thought he ought to remain silent," he told her. "I know him of old—from the time when Jim's father was alive, and he was much the same then as he is now."
She looked past him at the butler, still standing impassively beside the empty basket and gazing down the hall—waiting for Houghton's return, of course. There was grim strength in the set of the man's jaw, and again, as he stood thus, a hint of latent cruelty in his expression.
"A butler is—well, a butler," she observed reflectively. "Useful in many ways, Mr. Kemp. And loyalty of that sort is a fine quality."
"Did you kill him?" Kemp's expression suggested a recurrence of the query, though he said no word in answer to her. Or the query might have shaped itself in his mind in the other form—"Are you suspecting me?" He watched her intently, through an interval.
But she was gazing just as intently at Boyle.
"I WAS expectin' it," Andy Parker said calmly.
The headlights of the car, instead of shining over an expanse of snow, revealed the railings beside the road and emptiness beyond them. Andy got out, and Inspector Head opened the door on the near side and followed to the railings. The off-side dumb-iron had run into the banking until the wheel struck as a buffer, and the car stood nearly at right angles to the road. Andy breathed curses, softly.
"Swearing won't help," Head reminded him irritably.
"If you think you can get us out, Mr. Head," Andy replied, "take the wheel, an' I'll be quite happy to hand over to ye. I'm doin' me best, so far, bad though it may look to other people."
"All right, Andy." Remembering the distance still intervening between him and Castel Garde, Head made a hasty apology. "Carry on in your own way, as long as you get us there."
"'Tis that ice," Andy said explanatorily. "I'd ground a way up through it, but I see what's happened. There's water still seepin' out under the snow, an' it's froze on my tracks—so she slipped. Mr. Head, if ye'll turn the sargint an' that man o' yours out wi' their shovels, an' I take me entrenchin' tool to it as well, we'll soon have hard road to pull back on. Chip the ice away so's the wheels get a chance to bite, an' we'll get her to pull herself straight again."
Head gave the order, and the two men hurried to obey. Together with Andy they attacked the slippery tract in rear of the car, and worked on it until he expressed himself as confident of being able to back away from the railings and straighten out.
"An' if ye wouldn't mind gettin' in with 'em an' sittin' on the doctor's knees, Mr. Head, it'll give me a bit more weight on the back axle till we get to the foot of the hill," he suggested. "Every ounce counts, to stop her skiddin' when she overruns her drive."
Head complied without remark of any kind, and again Andy took the wheel and put in reverse gear. At first his driving wheels spun on ice, and the back of the car slipped farther downhill, but he had been careful to chip the ice away on the near, lower side, so that eventually the chained tyre bit through and, holding, gave its uphill fellow a chance to grind through to a grip. Slowly, carefully, he backed, and pulled parallel with the road, and Head, crowded against Doctor Bennett in the back of the car, uttered a "Well done!" of commendation. Then, following the track he had chipped in readiness, by the light of his headlamps, Andy moved forward down the hill and got safely beyond the tract of ice. He kept to the wheel tracks he had made on the ascent, using them even when his off wheels ran up the banking and tilted the car at what appeared to his passengers a dangerous angle. Head, knowing the man, held his peace and his breath at the same time, and when Jeffries, who had driven the lorry, ventured a groan of protest, the inspector jabbed an elbow in his ribs with a force that changed the groan to a grunt.
"Don't be afraid to say if ye're feelin' unhappy," Andy half-gibed without turning his head. "I'll make Carden, an' start ye diggin' again in one or two drifts on the far side. The wind'll ha' filled 'em again by this time, I reckon. It'll warm ye, anyhow."
He sounded quite satisfied with himself, as well he might. When, hours later, Head mentally reviewed the ride in the lorry, and then remembered how Andy had waited at the top of the hill and taken them down, he knew that few drivers could have accomplished the feat. "Mad" Andy on a good road, with a car ahead to pass, was a different being from this cool-nerved driver who appeared to anticipate every difficulty and danger instinctively, to check a swerve as it began, and hold them safely on the steep descent. There on the ice, when the dumb iron stuck in the bank, Head knew they had been in danger of breaking through and being hurled to death at the foot of the hillside, but Andy had been no less cool and assured there than on the easiest sections of his way.
Abreast the Carden Arms the car came to a standstill, and Andy looked round, grinning cheerfully at Wells, whose face showed his opinion of this drive, and expressed his longing to reach its end.
"Ye can come back in front, now, Mr. Head," Andy invited, "seein' as it's a bit crowded there. We'll make the rest o' the way with a bit o' diggin' here an' there. Shut the door quick, sir! It's damned cold, even down here, an' lucky f'r us it is, too, f'r the snow flies dry off me wheels instead o' ballin' up between the chains."
Head made the exchange, and remembered Andy's admonition with regard to the doors. The car moved on again.
"Will ye want me to take ye back, Mr. Head?" Andy inquired.
"I've no idea, till we get there," Head responded thoughtfully.
"Because, if ye do, I'm gettin' two pound a mile f'r the drive from Crandon to Castel Garde, earlier on, an' that run was a fool to this."
"I think we shall wait till the roads are cleared for us in the morning," Head said after a pause. It's midnight already, I see."
A WEATHERED pillar, its fluting smoothed and rendered indistinct in outline by the winds and rains of centuries, sheltered Houghton from the full strength of the night wind as he stood to look across the greyish whiteness of his demesne, with the heavy iron-bound outer door of Castel Garde just behind him. He saw no light, nor any sign of life in the landscape that faded from white at the foot of the steps to grey vagueness where the drive led—invisibly, now—toward the road along which Andy Parker had come from Crandon and, with Westingborough as his ultimate aim, had gone toward Carden.
Houghton knew the road, and knew that, if Andy were within two miles of this doorway, the lights of the car would be visible. But all he saw was grey stillness under the stars, untenanted by humanity or its contrivances, and, dimly visible on the snow, an elm that had crashed in the gale with which the snow had driven down.
Elms were bad trees, spaulty, unsafe. Alone here with the night's happenings incredible and unreal on the far side of his great door, he could get back to the enduring realities of life, trees and the wind, things that man could not spoil. Man himself stood revealed by this futile, ugly tragedy: fifteen people inside there had shown themselves as other than Houghton had known them while the veneer of restraint held good. Fourteen, rather, for he set Diane apart from the rest, as a lover would. Ferguson and his sister: blundering Tom Russell: Mary Hammersley, cynical, self-absorbed, indifferent to others' fears and to all but her own well-being: the two Warrens absorbed in each other to the exclusion of all outside interests: Black and Helen Turner able to exploit death with the ghoulish interest that can translate raps on a table into voices from God's other worlds—he felt, standing there apart from them, that he wanted never to see any of them again. They had come to his house to be fed and entertained: abnormal stress had revealed them as they really were, stripped away the cloaking reservations and left naked impulses, fears, weaknesses. Ruthven had been quite right: humanity proved itself an unpleasant product, when the varnish had been scraped off and the reality exposed by such a shock as this of Carmichael's death.
There was a different quality in the wind. Houghton moved out from the shelter of the pillar and snuffed at the pressure driving at him from the north-east. It was changing in direction, veering more to the north, and was points nearer full north than when he had come out to see the tail light of Carmichael's car as Andy drove away.
He looked up and saw the pole star, with the Great Bear on its apparently eternal swing about its pivot as earth spun on its axis, and the steely brightness that had been evident when he looked out before had lessened: there was even a hint of rising cloud down near the horizon. Beside him a driven ridge of snow hid a ledge of the stonework, and he pressed his hand into the mass: it was less crisp, no longer quite so dry a powder, and as he touched it a less cold breath of the wind struck on his face. The blizzard had blown itself out; a thaw was already beginning, and in another half-hour Andy's skid chains would be useless, clogged by the softening, caking snow. When that half-hour had passed, they could give up all hope of Andy's return, and he could drive the whole party up to bed. But Carmichael's body must be moved first, or else he would never get a girl or woman past the top of the staircase: that dead face was too awful a sight.
They were growing listless and tired, pettily irritable instead of impressed as they had been at first: the ridiculous scene between Ferguson and Russell would have been an impossibility an hour or two earlier. Under ordinary conditions, Houghton knew, the whole party would have stayed up till one or two in the morning, dancing or in other ways amusing themselves, but the unique combination of emotions that had been aroused in them induced a quicker fatigue. Like children at bedtime, they wanted to stay up, and no one of them would own to weariness, but increasing fractiousness and the way in which distrust of each other had renewed itself proved that the weariness was there.
He turned back from his reflective survey of the still landscape and pushed at the massive outer door: it swung inward on its hinges silently, and he entered the arched passageway formed by the thickness of the keep wall, closing the door and shutting himself into black darkness, since the screen inside the hall kept all light from the inner pair of doors. Twelve feet of bare stone paving divided the outer and inner portals, and he traversed the distance on tiptoe, pushed open one of the inner pair of doors, and faced the screen. For the brief time that he remained behind it to close the door again, he had the effect of a whispering gallery; voices from round the fire at the upper end of the long hall sounded as clearly to him as if he were among the speakers, with very little diminution of volume.
"This is your bag, isn't it, Betty?" Mrs. Hammersley's voice.
"Thanks, Mary," Betty, her tone a languid, please-sympathise-with-me bleat, replied. "I'm always getting separated from it, somehow."
Houghton came out from behind the screen, and instantly the voices ceased to sound to him. This acoustic quality of the hall had been familiar to him from his childhood: in some way the screen acted as a sounding board, and, if it were moved away, conversation at the far end was quite inaudible here, as it was with the screen in position and the doors opened. Kemp had explained it all to him once; the gallery floor running along the walls, the part the central pillar played in what Kemp had called "induction of resonance," or something of the sort, and an abstruse complication which, if one could understand it, explained the diversion of sound waves. But then, Kemp knew so much, not only with regard to abstract things like this.
Now, Houghton saw as he went back to Diane, whose eyes told him she was glad of his return, Kemp had lost his pouffe. Mrs. Hammersley sat on it, facing Betty Ferguson's chair, and Kemp stood beside Ruthven, gazing into the fire. Helen Turner, parted for the first time since the end of the murder game from Rodney Black, stood beside Betty's chair.
"Now, if only she had a black cat and a broomstick—" Houghton observed to Diane, and did not end it.
"You've forgotten the conical hat," Diane reminded him.
"Too clever, too critical, and too cold," he completed with a note of irritation. "Diane, I've come to the conclusion that I don't like most people, and I certainly don't like the witch on the pouffe."
"Me?" she asked, her shoulder touching his momentarily.
"To-night is no time to tell you, dear," he answered softly.
They heard Mrs. Hammersley's voice, a reflective drawl.
"An opiate, the effect to last three months, possibly four. One would wake up in time to see summer begin. Existence in winter is a mistake, and scientists ought to correct it. Existence, not life."
"Existence is life," Helen Turner dissented, with didactic precision and disregard of the real meaning of Mrs. Hammersley's observation.
"Is it?" The drawl became more pronounced, and had a sarcastic inflection now. "That fireplace exists, and so does this pouffe. I do hope the pouffe isn't alive. It feels inert, so far."
"Yet it is alive," Helen insisted gravely, and with irritating superiority, "and the fireplace is still more so. In every one of those stones there is some of the personality of the builders, and ages of sounds and even thoughts have impinged on the stones since they were placed there. A sensitive, touching it, would feel traces of all the life this old place has known and sheltered. Every stone is vibrant and responsive, a silent casket of history."
"Thanks so much, Helen," Mrs. Hammersley said, with cool satisfaction. "Phrases like that, 'a silent casket of history,' are so useful to me for my stories. You won't mind my stealing it, will you?"
"Just as you like," Helen retorted, with chill distaste.
"And still I think going to sleep for three months would be the best thing for us all. Winter is the devil." She was emphatic and earnest over it. My opiate would be so much cheaper than sunshine cruising, and not nearly so irritating. A trip into temporary annihilation, and no fellow passengers.
"Ye gods, those fellow passengers!"
"Yogi made a reality of your idea centuries ago," Helen pointed out gravely. "Voluntary withdrawal of the spirit from the body for stated periods is no new thing in eastern mysticism."
"Oh, Helen! Don't!" Betty exclaimed fearfully.
"My dear, we were talking in the abstract to divert our thoughts from the actual," Mrs. Hammersley assured her. "For your benefit, too, as much as for the interest we get out of it. Weren't we, Helen?"
"Increase of knowledge is equivalent to diminution of fear," Helen answered, with pontifical irrelevance. "Yes, we were," she added baldly.
"I can't get away from the actual," Betty said. "When one has suffered, been made to suffer—" she did not end the sentence.
"You are not alone in the experience," Mrs. Hammersley reproved her.
"No? Oh, I know! He told me he wanted you." There was all the recklessness of old, remembered jealousy in the confession. "When he had made me want to suffer, infected me with the mad pleasure in pain—in giving or enduring pain—a madness that I can't understand even now. To hurt, to see the hurt—" Her voice had grown whisperingly tense, and she broke off as if realising the extent of her self-betrayal. "I knew he would hurt you, even more than he had hurt me," she added more quietly. "Not only in a physical way."
"And enjoyed the knowledge," Mrs. Hammersley suggested, looking up at Helen, whose face showed her deep, entirely impersonal interest.
"Not—not my reasoning self, Mary." The statement was almost an apology. "When I could reason, see myself, I hated myself. But—but after that experience. I'm telling you quite frankly, Mary—and all I could tell you about him is no more than you know! He used to boast that he always got what he wanted. And sometimes that devil of pleasure in pain that he implanted in me got uppermost, and as you say enjoyed the knowledge that he was hurting you as he had hurt me, and more!"
"Once more—we had better drop the subject," Mrs. Hammersley said coolly, glancing up at Helen again. "Your everyday self would never dream of talking as you're talking now, Betty—you're getting excited again, too, and it's altogether bad for you. And the man is dead."
"Yes, and it was you who challenged us to own that we're glad of it. I own it—I am glad! Mary, I feel I've been a sham and a liar to myself for nearly five years, and to-night has made me real again. It has put an end to decent hypocrisy and pretty-pretty reticence. I've lied to myself, told myself that you don't know my story, that Bert doesn't know it, and comforted myself with that, though I knew it was a lie. Now I want to strip it all away. I want moral nakedness, rather than rags of dirty hypocrisy—you can use that phrase as you said you would use Helen's just now. But I mean it, and don't care if the whole world knows who and what I am, as long as I know and realise myself. I've shrivelled and warped my soul, and spoilt Bert's life as well, by trying to hide that real self from my own sight. An end to that!"
Helen, watching her, saw that her gaze and all her interest were concentrated on Mrs. Hammersley as she spoke, and took the opportunity to back away. A glance showed her Ferguson in converse with the two Mostyns, beyond where Houghton and Diane stood together, and she went to him in time to hear Bernard Mostyn declare that Andy Parker could not possibly get back, or there would have been some sign of him by now.
"Quite right, Mr. Mostyn," she said. "I could have told you he will not get back—I did tell Mr. Houghton, some time ago. Doctor, I think it would be advisable for you to keep an eye on Betty. She's talking quite openly of her relations with Carmichael to Mrs. Hammersley, and appears to be getting rather excited again."
"Well, she may," he retorted surlily. "She gave herself away pretty completely an hour or two ago, and can't say worse than I've already heard. It's impossible to stop her from talking, sometimes."
"And yet you accepted Mr. Houghton's invitation for her as well as for yourself," she half-questioned, half-accused. "I thought you took care of her. Don't you?"
"As far as a busy man can take care of a nervous wreck, I do," he answered with resentful hostility over her judgment of him. "As far as letting her come here is concerned, could I or anyone foresee that a thing like this would happen? Betty would have been perfectly all right if it had been a normal birthday party, as Houghton meant it to be. Nobody could tell it would not be that, surely."
"I knew," she asserted, with a return of irritating superiority.
"Well, it's a pity you didn't put a warning in the personal column of the Times," he snapped rudely, "or tell us before, not after the event. It would have sounded a good deal more convincing."
"You are not the type to be convinced by psychic manifestations," she told him. "But I didn't leave Betty and come to you for a discussion of this sort, Doctor Ferguson. I came because I realised a real need for you to stop her from talking about herself and Carmichael."
"Well, she may rave to her heart's content, to Mrs. Hammersley or anyone else," he declared, with bitter stubbornness. "She has already advertised her relations with Carmichael—and I wash my hands of her."
"Dry them again," she advised cuttingly—the two Mostyns, realising the conversation had begun to grow acrimonious, had backed out of hearing. "I have just heard Betty own to a tendency to sadism—not in so many words, but I have enough knowledge of psychology to interpret what she said in that way. And you, Doctor Ferguson, need no help from me to see the full implication of such a tendency in her, if you remember her relations with Carmichael and then consider what has happened here to-night."
"She said that?" He stared incredulously, fearfully.
"Pleasure in inflicting pain—the words admit of my interpretation," she answered quietly. "She had no intention of sparing him, after his contemptuous dismissal of the possibility of psychic manifestations. Given that interpretation, the tendency may take its addict beyond the mere infliction of pain. Need I put that more plainly?"
He turned away without replying, but with fear in his eyes, leaving her with an angry triumph in her own. Betty sat, apparently quiet and composed, in her chair, and Mary Hammersley, on the pouffe, faced her and looked up at Ferguson as he approached. He did not return the glance: he saw Betty's fingers twitching on the arm of the chair, and shook his head at her, gravely.
"You're not getting excited again, are you?" he asked, and tried to put an inflection of sympathetic solicitude into the query.
"I'm perfectly well aware of what I'm saying, if that's what you mean," she answered coldly. "Mary and I are talking, Bert."
"Well"—he looked down at Mrs. Hammersley—"you couldn't have better company, till we all get a chance to go to bed."
"Merci, m'sieu," Mrs. Hammersley said. "And when shall we get that chance? Not that it's really late yet, but it seems so."
"Yes," he agreed. "This waiting about is getting on everybody's nerves. Houghton will be forced to do something about it soon—tell us what he wants us to do, or give a definite order for all of us to go to our rooms till morning. Nobody will move till he does that."
"And when he does," Betty said determinedly, "I shall refuse, absolutely and finally. If I were made to go to my room, I should go simply mad with fright, and I don't think I should be the only one in that state. One couldn't sleep, as things are."
"You might share—" Ferguson began, and stopped.
"Then why go up?" she demanded harshly. "One goes to one's room to sleep, and sleep is an utter impossibility for me and probably for several others as well. That being so, why not stop down here?"
His only reply was a little gesture of hopelessness. After a few seconds he turned away and left the two women to each other: he saw Joan Shaw observing him, but she averted her gaze the instant his turned to her, and her expression told him that he need hope for no kind word from her. Besides, she had Tom Russell with her, and Ferguson's cheek still felt hot and tingling from Tom's hand. Then he saw Ethna Blair looking at him appealingly, her lips parted and tremulous: the expression was not new to him, nor were those lips strangers to his own. For the moment, he hated her, actively, fiercely.
All that the night meant to him came back with full force. Joan lost, Ethna impossible to lose, his own name and hers appearing in the list of guests at Castel Garde, Roy Blair's savage delight in breaking the man who, as he could prove, had seduced his wife, and the loss of his profession itself. Betty—Ferguson's reflections diverged along a different course, for Helen Turner's warning concerning his sister pointed to a possibility of more immediate, more complete disaster. Neurotic though she was, Betty had physical strength and the wit and will to use it, while of all the people in the hall, so far as he knew, no one had greater cause than Betty to hate Carmichael.
The ace of spades meant death!
Her shuddering horror at sight of the card as it fell from her bag recurred to his mind. She might have had resolution and wit enough to kill Carmichael, and certainly, if she had killed him, would shrink in just such horror from any reminder of the deed. Her strength and hatred of the man would carry her through the commission of the crime itself, and would fail her at any such monition or hint of the consequences she must face. He foresaw the trial, with all the sordid details of her intimacy with Carmichael made public, and himself saving her from the ignominy of the hangman's rope by a revelation of her neurosis and hysteria. Even then, beyond the resulting disgrace she would bring on his name, loomed Ethna's divorce and the judgment that must fall on him. Intolerable, unbearable punishment on punishment, hurled at him in reprisal not only for his own guilt with Ethna, but for Betty's vengeance on Carmichael as well!
He remembered the spiked mace lying up in the gallery with, almost certainly, finger prints on its polished wood handle that would be recognisable—as Betty's? With the chance that her hand had grasped the shaft for the blow—and moment by moment the conviction that she had killed Carmichael grew in Ferguson's mind—he must find some way of getting hold of the mace and obliterating any such deadly evidence as it might bear. He might steal up the staircase—no, for there was Boyle, hovering and watchful, and Houghton was watchful too, damn him! Find some excuse for going up with Houghton, and then divert his attention in some way from the mace—less than a minute would serve to run a handkerchief over the shaft and remove all traces of finger prints, if he could only think of a pretext for going up.
But to what end, after all? He could not trust Betty to refrain from betraying herself, once the inevitable accusation was made against her: it would be better to let the finger prints remain, lest some chance should bring detection of his having removed them. In that event, he knew, he would take his place in the dock as accessory after the crime, whether Betty or any other had committed it. Any attempt at destruction of evidence would be too dangerous. And, whatever he did, whether Betty were innocent or guilty, he must go the ugly way of his own making, face the consequences of appearing as co-respondent to Roy Blair's petition for divorce. Struck off, disqualified from practice, no longer "Doctor" Ferguson. Clerk to a druggist, possibly out of employment altogether, sunk and despairing, with Ethna as a millstone holding him down!
Houghton, observed the man as he stood brooding, saw some of his thoughts reflected in his face, and felt that, if ever a man dreaded the consequences of his guilt, that man was Ferguson. He had intended to persuade the doctor to make an examination of the body in the gallery, when it became quite certain that Andy Parker would not bring the police and their surgeon to Castel Garde, and then to move the gruesome thing into the room that had been Carmichael's, since it must be cleared away from its present position before the gallery could be used: to leave it lying there and send his guests up by way of the servants' staircase would be an impossibility.
Inspector Head, or whoever came eventually to investigate the circumstances of Carmichael's death, would regard the removal as a suspicious destruction of evidence, possibly, but would also see that the step had been forced on Houghton, and that he had only taken it after long waiting, in the knowledge that Castel Garde was isolated. Whether the police exonerated him, Houghton, or regarded the removal as an attempt at destroying traces of his guilt, the body could not lie there much longer, and Houghton could not see that its removal would make much difference to the detection of the murderer.
Seeing Ferguson then, he had little doubt of the man's guilt. Yet he had liked Ferguson, had regarded him as a friend and invited him and his sister to this gathering in the belief that they would add to its success. But this night's tragedy had—to adapt Ruthven's phrase—scraped the varnish off these guests, and unvarnished Ferguson, brooding alone with that hangdog expression on his face, was no man to consider as a friend.
Yet, Houghton reflected self-accusingly, pre-judgment was unfair. It might be that Betty's breakdown earlier in the evening, when she had declared that her broken finger was due to Carmichael's cruelty, was weighing on the doctor's mind. He might even be questioning if she, with such good cause, had been the one to strike Carmichael down.
Then Houghton, too, began debating the possibility in his mind.
THERE was, in the grouping of these sixteen people as midnight came and passed, a species of evidence of their affinities to each other, of the qualities that attracted each to each, and possibly some small statement of qualities that repelled each from each, too. They had settled, by this time, to acceptance of the fact that they were waiting for a period of suspense to end, and had gravitated to or away from each other as likes or dislikes prompted.
An independent student of character, given knowledge of their lives and tastes, would have found interest in observing them, and possibly Boyle, apart from them and as inconspicuous as he could make himself, found such an interest, though his inscrutably grave face betrayed no hint of it. He managed to keep within long speaking distance of Houghton, and kept an unobtrusive eye on the others.
Apart from the rest at their corner of the fireplace, Mary Hammersley and Betty Ferguson kept together: the influence the dead man had exercised over both their lives formed a bond between them. Kemp and Ruthven stood side by side, facing the fire, possibly in mutual suspicion and distrust, since they merely addressed casual, infrequent remarks to each other. Ferguson gloomed alone, as did Rodney Black, since Helen Turner had separated from him when she went to speak to Betty. She did not return to him, but kept near the two Mostyns: possibly, realising that Carmichael had financed Black's play into being, and that the author's royalties had been unduly small, she felt it advisable to proclaim a separateness from him, for the present. Tom Russell and Joan Shaw appeared to find comfort in keeping with each other; Ethna Blair hung unwanted on to Jack Warren and his wife, who obviously were interested only in themselves, and had little use for her. Houghton and Diane, of course, kept near each other in the awkward period of indecision that followed his return from survey of the night, in which the conviction that Andy Parker would not return grew and fixed itself in his mind.
"So you go in for spiritualism?" Peter Mostyn asked Helen, a minute or so after Ferguson had left her.
She shook her head. "One does not 'go in' for spiritualism," she said reprovingly. "One either has psychic qualities and realises it, or is unconscious that such qualities may exist. I am a sensitive."
Gwen Warren, overhearing her, turned to add a remark.
"Jack and I can move a glass on a table by putting our fingers on it," she said. "We get messages spelt out by putting an alphabet round the glass and asking it questions."
"The only answers you can get in that way are from elementals, sub-human entities," Helen answered, smiling in a superior way. "That is, if you get any real communications at all. Many people who try that form of communication move the glass themselves, sub-consciously."
"I'm sure we don't," Gwen retorted firmly, and turned to her husband again. Helen's reply had been too crushingly disapproving, and, altogether apart from spiritualism, Helen herself was much too attractive. Gwen had seen Jack's gaze wander to her far too interestedly, more than once during the evening.
"What is a sensitive, exactly?" Bernard Mostyn inquired.
"One who is capable of perceiving psychic influences, apprehending entities on other planes than the physical," Helen answered promptly.
"It doesn't interfere with one's physical perceptions, I hope?" Bernard asked, gazing into her hazel eyes. Peter was far more attracted by the vivid, tempting red of her lips.
"Not in the least," she answered. "In fact, it adds to one's capacities in every way. I see so much more than you two do, and feel much more—it's easy to see that neither of you is a sensitive."
"I'm very sensitive—to some influences, that is," Peter observed.
"I was talking seriously," she reproved him.
"Peter's an ass," Bernard interposed. "I'm really interested in this, myself. I wonder whether you'd tell me some more about it, some time when we get clear of this awful business of to-night."
She gave him an encouraging smile: it was quite clear that his main interest in her was solely connected with the physical plane, and that gazing into her eyes meant more to him than all the spiritualistic clap-trap she had talked. And Helen was quite as capable of responding to human admiration as to the influences supposed to be perceptible to a sensitive, as in the jargon of the craft she termed herself.
"I shall be very glad to tell you all I can," she said. "It's quite possible that you have undeveloped psychic powers, as so many people have. If so, I feel sure I can waken them."
"I'll give you every chance I can," he promised with earnest gravity, and Peter hated him for stealing a march on such false pretences. When Helen smiled like that, her lips were utterly alluring.
"Fraser—Uncle Mont?" Houghton's voice cut unexpectedly and startlingly across all talk in a summons that he evidently intended everyone to hear and realise. "Can you two spare me a minute or so? The rest of you will excuse us, I know. In the lounge, Uncle Mont."
He led the way, waited for them inside the lounge, and ignored their questioning looks until he had closed the door. Then he beckoned them away from it, into the room: he was taking no chances.
"The general welfare," he explained. "First of all, I want both of you to put a certain question outside that door, and leave it there for the present. I may have killed him, you may have killed him, Uncle Mont, and so may you, Fraser. Any one of the three of us may be a murderer, but I'm talking to the two best men friends I have here, and I want that question put entirely out of our minds till we go back and join the others. Will you both agree to that?"
"We will," Ruthven said without hesitation, and Kemp nodded assent.
"Right!" As Houghton uttered the word, it was an exclamation of relief. "That being settled, I want to tell you I have come to the conclusion that Andy Parker will not bring the police back here to-night, and Carmichael's body has got to be moved out of sight from the gallery, taken into his room and put on the bed there."
Ruthven shook his head. "You'll have hell's own trouble with the police if you do that, Jim," he pointed out. "They'll want to know exactly how he was killed, take measurements, and all the rest of it."
"Let them," Houghton said composedly. "I take full responsibility, Fraser. I can see what's in your mind, but I told you to put that on the other side of the door and leave it there. I may be wilfully destroying evidence to save myself, but if I am, it will count against me more than if I had left them the evidence. I take full responsibility for this, and that body has simply got to be moved, to make it possible for everyone—the women especially—to go up the staircase to their rooms. I can't ask them to pass a sight like that."
"There's another way up, isn't there?" Ruthven inquired.
"The servants' staircase—yes," Houghton assented. "But do you think any one of them is going up that way, when they know the fact of their being sent round by it is a statement that the body of a murdered man is still lying in full sight from the top of the main stairway? Man, that would be worse than trying to push them past the body!"
"Will they go if you move it?" Kemp asked reflectively.
"They won't if we don't," Houghton retorted with decision. "I mean them all to have the chance of going to their rooms, and to try persuasion on them, after it has been cleared out of the gallery and put out of sight. They are all quiet now, I know, but trouble may boil up among them again at any moment. Mrs. Blair, Betty Ferguson—there's more than one danger element round the fire in there, if you think them over. I don't want to stay in here with you two too long, in case of an eruption. Tom Russell and Ferguson have already caused one, and the next might not be put down so easily."
"You ought to get Ferguson to make an examination of the body before you move it," Kemp suggested after a brief pause.
"To what end?" Houghton demanded. "He can only certify that the man is dead, and the police surgeon can do that when he gets here to-morrow—or whatever day and time he does get here. Besides, Ferguson has already refused to make an examination, and I don't intend to ask him again. Either over that or anything else."
"So!" Ruthven exclaimed softly. "Well, they're your guests, Jim."
"What do you want us to do?" Kemp asked. "Ruthven and me, I mean."
"To begin with," Houghton answered, in the decided tone of one who has made up his mind to a definite course, "I want you both to come back to the others with me, while I make an announcement that we have decided to clear the gallery by removing Carmichael's body—"
"That you have decided, you mean," Ruthven interrupted.
"Yes," Houghton assented. "As I told you, I take full responsibility for moving it. Then I want you, Uncle Mont, to stay down with them and keep them quiet. I'm taking Boyle, as the most independent witness I can get, to help me carry Carmichael, and I want you to come up too, Fraser. The three of us can testify that we did no more than was necessary to render the gallery passable for the women, when the police arrive. And though you and Boyle help, Fraser, you do it under my direction and at my instigation. Neither of you is in any way responsible for this step, but merely a witness to what I order and do."
"It sounds fair enough," Ruthven observed, after a thoughtful pause. "I'll come up with you and help."
"What do you say, Uncle Mont? Houghton asked.
"I?" Kemp appeared rather surprised at the question. "I assent to anything you propose, of course. It is your responsibility."
"Right—let's go." Houghton sounded relieved as he said it.
Thirteen pairs of eyes watched them, expressing curiosity, apprehension, or definite fear, as they returned to the group round the fire. Kemp and Ruthven kept together, and Houghton went to Boyle.
"I want a six-foot length of strong cord, Boyle, and a piece of white chalk," he said. "Find them for me and bring them here."
He turned to the others as Boyle set off.
"Listen, all of you," he said, quietly and distinctly. "I have come to the conclusion that Andy Parker will not come back here to-night with the police, as he set out to do. That being so, we are isolated indefinitely by the snow, and cannot go on waiting as we have been doing. The strain is beginning to tell on all of us."
"Don't you think, Houghton, that Parker never meant to come back?" Tom Russell asked. "After what he said about Carmichael being his father, when he went out, it appears fairly plain that he saw his chance of escape and took it while he could."
"Don't you think," Houghton retorted incisively, "that if Andy Parker did kill his own father, he would know that his wisest course is to go to the police and bring them here as he said he would? Not being an utter fool, he knows quite well that any attempt at escaping and going into hiding would be construed into a confession of guilt, while going to the police and appearing entirely unconnected with what has happened would keep suspicion away from him. He would have brought the police back here if he could."
"Sorry," Tom said rather sarcastically. "I'm wrong again. But then, I always am. Carry on with what you want to tell us."
"I want to speak quite plainly," Houghton went on, "and want you all to control yourselves and not interrupt me unnecessarily. Entirely on my own initiative, without any advice or suggestion from anyone, I have decided that Carmichael's body must be moved from where it now is, so that all of you can forget about it enough to permit of going to your rooms when you feel inclined—and not later than two o'clock, in any case. I don't want fifteen or so nervous wrecks here when the police arrive some time to-morrow, and that's what there will be if you all stay round this fire till the morning. So I make two o'clock the limit for going up to your rooms, whether you feel like sleep or no, and expect this hall to be clear by then."
"That's a bit drastic, isn't it, Houghton?" Rodney Black inquired.
"Possibly," Houghton answered, and let the one word stand alone. But his expression made it more potent than any persuasion or definite command. He waited, but there was no further comment.
"Ruthven, Boyle, and myself will move the body into Carmichael's room," he explained after the pause. "None of you others have seen it since the lights went up, so you need not realise it as having been where it lies until we move it. None of you, that is, with the exception of Doctor Ferguson, who refused to make a medical examination of the body when I asked him."
"I don't refuse now," Ferguson interpolated sharply.
"I don't ask you, doctor," Houghton retorted, with a dry inflection.
"That's unforgivable!" Ferguson exclaimed. "I won't stand it!"
"You may put what construction you like on what I have said," Houghton said quietly, looking full at him. "I accuse neither you nor anyone else of responsibility for Carmichael's death—it is not my place to accuse, nor even to suspect. Since the police will not get here to-night, I have decided on a course of action, and you—all of you!—will concur in it, and help me to avoid trouble as far as you can, not"—he looked steadily at Ferguson—"make trouble."
It was no mere suggestion, but a command, and so all who heard him realised it. In the silence that followed his words, Boyle returned, and Houghton took from him a little hank of cord and a stick of chalk.
"Exactly right, Boyle," he said. "Now I want you to come up with Mr. Ruthven and me, and help to move Carmichael's body into his room."
"Me, sir?" Boyle made it an exclamation of surprise and fear.
"You," Houghton assured him, in a tone that admitted of no dispute. "Come on, Fraser, and come up with us, Boyle. And the rest of you keep quiet here till we come down."
It was a deathly quiet, in which the party round the fire watched the three men go down the hall to the foot of the staircase, and ascend in full view of them all. No one of all the evening's happenings had had the tragically impressive quality of that silent, slow progress of the three, who in their bearing and movements declared that they went to look on death, to hide a murdered man from the sight of others beside themselves. The stillness about the fire was absolute: the sound of the wind had entirely died away, and the momentary rustle of a falling log among the embers of the fire came as a shock from which they had to recover to watch, with held or tremulous breath, while the three stole noiselessly to their grim task, moving in a dead-march that seemed to last an age.
Up in the gallery Boyle, after one glance at the body, put his hand before his eyes, and dropped it again, but looked aside from where Carmichael lay, as if the sight were too terrible for him to endure.
"Jim?" Ruthven whispered it. "Couldn't we put a handkerchief or something over his face? His eyes, and his tongue between his teeth like that—it's awful!"
Houghton shook his head. "We shall only touch the body as much as is absolutely necessary," he declared. "Nothing must be put on it or taken off. Now watch me carefully, both of you. I may want evidence with regard to what I am going to do now."
Passing the body, he knelt beside the mace that had been used to strike Carmichael down, and with the chalk Boyle had handed him drew a line all round the weapon, on the carpet. Then, unwinding the string Boyle had procured, he passed one end under the spikes of the metal head, took it up and, drawing it out until both ends of the string were level with each other, tied it down so as to grip the mace securely by its head, and admit of lifting it by the string.
"I want you both to note that I have not touched the mace with my hands at all," he said, and, knotting the ends of the string together, dropped them. "It can stay there till we have finished with the body," he added. "Now to define the exact position of that body."
He came back and knelt again to carry out this far more gruesome task. Beginning at Carmichael's shoulder, he worked round the body with the chalk, impressing a clearly visible white line into the carpet, following round hands and arms, legs and feet, and finally round the head and back to the point from which he had started. Then he stood up again with a sigh of relief.
"Not pleasant, that," he said. "Open that door, Boyle, and switch on the light in his room. Fraser, help him at the feet end—I'll take it at the shoulders. And as nearly as you both can, keep him in the same posture as he is now. One on each side—support the body under the knees and waist. It will probably be fairly stiff by this time, but we must keep the posture as nearly as we can."
Boyle, returning from switching on the light, gave him a glance which might have been meant to express either admiration or fear. The man's face was a ghastly white, his eyes were narrowed as if to shut out some part of the sight before them, and his breath sounded shudderingly uneven as he bent to obey his master's command. The three of them carried the body into Carmichael's room, and laid it on the bed.
"Now the mace," Houghton observed. "Keep with me, both of you, and watch what I do—all of it. See that I do not touch the handle or let it touch anything."
Boyle went out with him. Ruthven, remaining in the doorway of the room, also saw that he inserted his forefinger in the loop he had made by tying the ends of the string, and so lifted the mace without touching it in any way. It hung twirling at the end of the string as he turned and re-entered the room.
"Keep an eye on it, to see that I don't touch it," he bade, "and you, Boyle, back into the room and open the wardrobe door."
They watched him go to the wardrobe, select a hook, and pass the loop of the string over it. The mace hung clear of such clothing as the dead man had put inside the wardrobe, and Houghton closed the door.
"Finished," he remarked. "The key—yes, in the door of the room. We lock it after going out, and it remains locked till the police arrive—and heaven knows when that will be!"
The strain the evening had imposed on him, and the knowledge of all that yet remained for him to face and control, were evident in that final exclamation. Then, as he turned from locking the door and gestured the other two to precede him out to the gallery, he set his shoulders as if resolved to show no weakness. As he had taken this responsibility on himself, so he would face all that remained to be done. The three went down the staircase, and back to the silent, waiting party they had left. Boyle went to the fire, took up a poker, and began pushing logs together and stirring up the embers.
"You need not do that, Boyle," Houghton said. "The hall is quite warm, and that fire as it is will last as long as we have need for it!"
"Very good, sir," Boyle said, and drew aside to where the empty fuel basket still stood. His face was still unnaturally white and strained in its expression: his voice, too, indicated that he had been badly shaken by the task Houghton had imposed on him.
"But do you really mean us to go—up there?" Betty Ferguson asked.
"I do," Houghton answered decidedly, and waited for further question or comment. His tone expressed his readiness for either.
None came. The members of the party looked at him and at each other, possibly querying inwardly as to who would be first to go, or who would refuse to leave the company of the rest. Then Houghton spoke again, choosing his words carefully.
"You all know which was Carmichael's room," he said. "Only that room and one other lead off from that particular corridor—the rest of you need only pass the end of the corridor to get to your rooms. Diane, you will have my room to-night, and I will get Martha Bowers to sleep in my dressing room, and the door between you and her can be left open. If I get to bed at all, I shall take the room you were to have had—I'm not superstitious—and won't put you in it."
"But the rest of us!" Betty Ferguson exclaimed protestingly.
"The rest of you," Houghton answered her inflexibly, "may do what you like in your own rooms, but after two o'clock may not stay down here. You girls can keep with each other in any of your rooms, if you're afraid of being alone, but I insist on everyone going up by two o'clock, at the latest. I've already told you my reason for this."
"Houghton, you can't do it!" Ferguson exclaimed at the end of a long silence. "You can't send us up like that!"
"No?" Houghton asked coldly. "Why not?"
"Because there's an undiscovered murderer at large in this house," Ferguson answered. "It's got to be put plainly, and when you talk of people going up together, girls going up together and keeping with each other, you may be sending—don't you see? It may be anyone."
"I was afraid somebody would invite panic by saying something of that sort," Houghton remarked. "I am appealing to common-sense and a realisation of our position. Admit that there is an undiscovered murderer at large, and still it is not necessarily one of us here. Stop this intolerable suspicion of each other, and make up your minds that rest of some sort is a necessity for us all. There is a police inquisition to-morrow that everyone here must face."
"Quite possibly there is," Ferguson retorted argumentatively, "but there's more comfort in keeping together than in separating to our rooms. And if, as you suggest, the murderer isn't one of us, that makes it all the worse as far as separating ourselves is concerned."
The hints of secret passages came back to every mind, then—or perhaps to every mind but one. Ferguson's words implied the possibility of a hidden murderer, capable of stealing out from his retreat to kill again: Boyle's face was enough to tell them that Carmichael had died terribly, and their imaginations ran riot over a maniac killer somewhere near them, one who might strike any one of them down as silently and fatally as he had stricken Carmichael. Houghton sensed the current of thought, and gave in, for the time. Nothing short of physical force would take these people up the staircase now, he knew: they would keep together here, probably till exhaustion overcame them. He turned to Boyle, who stood by the fuel basket.
"You'd better get that basket filled again, Boyle, after all," he said, and tried to keep the admission of defeat out of his voice. "There is no hurry about it, though. Pull what fire there is together first. It will last another half-hour yet."
For he knew that, in spite of Ferguson's fear-inspiring words, it needed only one or two to make a move and the rest would follow. He might get Kemp to go, or Jack Warren and his wife might go in each other's company—Jack had been trying to persuade Gwen to go, for the last two hours or more. Once this gathering began to thin out, even Betty Ferguson might hasten to get somebody to share her room, lest she should lose the chance. Ferguson had made them all far too nervous for any suggestion of retiring to find favour yet, but one o'clock, even, was far off, and emotion had reduced most of them to an inert state of fatigue in which they scarcely reacted to fear. Helen Turner and the two Mostyns, the three of them still together, looked capable of holding out for hours more, but the rest did not.
A gust of contemptuous irritation against all except Diane assailed Houghton. If they wanted to stay down here, let them! He had done all he could, probably had incurred official censure in the effort at making things easier for them, and now that effort seemed utterly futile. Oh, let them stay down here till they dropped unconscious through exhaustion, since they appeared determined on it!
ANDY PARKER, entrenching tool in hand, returned from the cutting he had made in the last deep drift of snow between him and the gateway of Castel Garde—or rather, from the cutting out of which Sergeant Wells and Constable Jeffries, working under his direction, had shovelled most of the snow. Inspector Head, who had stood by the radiator of the car while the three worked, since there were no more shovels, turned back to resume his seat now that the cutting was completed.
"I'll never have that satisfaction again," Andy observed regretfully. "Not if I live to be a hundred, I'm thinkin'."
"What satisfaction?" Head inquired, pausing before turning his door handle, since Andy had stopped to inspect the radiator.
"Seein' policemen work," Andy explained. "'Tis against nature, I know, an' the way they grunt is proof enough. But I've seen the miracle this night, if never again. Climb aboard, Mr. Head, if ye don't mind. There's a breath in the wind that means change, but this is the last stickin' place, an' the snow won't be soft enough to ball before we get through. Even if it does, a mile walk won't hurt ye."
"You mean that we're through?" Head seated himself, and put the question when Andy had got to the driving seat again.
"Aye, we're through. An' now, without puttin' any extra strain on ye, Mr. Head, I'd like ye to do me a favour when we get there. I was sayin', a while back, that I was promised two pound a mile f'r drivin' a couple o' people out from Crandon, earlier on in the evenin'."
"I have some faint recollection of it," Head admitted.
"Well, 'tis easy f'r a great detective like yerself to see how I dug me way out to Condor Hill, without two big policemen to help me wi' the shovellin'. Dug an' sweated, an' froze in between, an' waited f'r ye in the blastin' cold up there, an' generally done me damnedest to get ye through. An' I hadn't that amount o' work to do while I was earnin' me two pound a mile on the road from Crandon."
"I don't know about that," Head said, "but you've managed this road very cleverly, I must own, especially coming down Condor Hill."
"Many thanks f'r the bokay, Mr. Head. But what I wanted to ask ye was this. I told Mr. Houghton I'd make the trip an' fetch ye somehow, an' I meant to make it or bust meself. 'Tis all but made, an' me not busted. Now if ye could put in a word f'r me, remind Mr. Houghton I reckoned two pound a mile only just enough f'r a less job—he's not a man to count out pence an' groan, an' ye've only to mention it—He looked rather anxiously at the Inspector. Sergeant Wells climbed in behind, and apologised to Doctor Bennett for dropping the edge of a heavy shovel on his toes. Head waited till Bennett's rather verbose reply to the apology had ended, and Andy put in gear and began moving again, into and through the cutting in the drift.
"I'll certainly put in a word if I get the chance, Andy," Head promised, "though two pounds a mile—it's a tall figure."
"An' the drift at the top o' Condor Hill was a tall figure," Andy protested earnestly. "So was I a tall figure, when I stood up there wi' the wind whippin' me, watchin' the lorry come on till it stuck. An' Condor Hill itself is a tall figure, a night like this."
"Well, I promise to do what I can for you, and you must leave it at that," Head said. "Now where are we—Whup!"
For the car had swerved and flung him sideways with such force that his head struck on the glass of the door. He recovered himself.
"We are still on four wheels," Andy told him calmly, "an' if 'twas anyone but me holdin' this wheel, we wouldn't be. 'Twas bad, that skid. Presently, barrin' accidents, the lights 'll show the gateway into the drive, an'—yes, look! Over the hedge. Every downstair window alight, too! Barrin' accidents, as I said, we'll make Castel Garde in the next ten minutes, or else I'll have a stained glass window to me memory in the church. An' do not forget, Mr. Head, 'twas two pound a mile I was promised f'r that drive, an' it wasn't a circumstance to this I've had to fetch ye here. A word wi' Mr. Houghton is all I'm askin' of ye."
"HOUGHTON, did you take that dagger out of the wound?"
"Oh, Bert! How can you!"
Ethna Blair's protest, a frightened scream, followed so closely on Ferguson's question as to save Houghton the necessity of immediate reply. He gave Ferguson a steady, menacing look.
"A ship's captain would put you in irons and lock you out of hearing for such an attempt at creating panic as you made then, Ferguson," he said. "For one more remark of the kind, I'll take you downstairs myself and bolt you in one of the old dungeons for the rest of the night. No—keep silent! I don't want either explanation or apology from you. You've said far too much already, since Ruthven and Boyle and I came down from the gallery."
Silence came again, a strained oppressive silence. In it Houghton realised that Ferguson was deliberately thwarting his own efforts at getting the members of the party to go to bed. Perhaps the man was actuated by fear that Betty would break down completely if she were forced to leave the company of the others: perhaps he had some other, hidden motive. However that might be, his reference to an undiscovered murderer in the house, and then this disturbing question with regard to the dagger, proved that he was consciously trying to keep fear alive. He was not a blunderer like Tom Russell, and neither of his two reminders could be considered fortuitous: with the first of them he had re-established fear of the physical danger in the place, and with the second had called up a picture of the murdered man with the dagger in his heart. Well might Houghton tell Boyle that more firewood would be required, for there was little hope of dispersing the party for hours, now.
"If only we could do something!" Ethna Blair exclaimed at last.
"As far as I'm concerned," Tom Russell observed, after giving plenty of time for somebody else to take up her remark, "it begins to feel an awful long while since I had a drink. You don't mind if I punish the decanter again, do you, Houghton?"
"Help yourself," Houghton invited. "Not only you, but anyone who feels like it. There should be plenty in the dining room, alcoholic and otherwise, and plenty of sandwiches there too."
He glanced at Boyle as if seeking confirmation with regard to the sandwiches, and received a slight nod of assent.
"I'll come with you, Tom," Joan Shaw offered, and laid her hand on Russell's arm. "I should like some lemonade and another sandwich."
Ethna Blair gave them an appraising look, and then glanced at Ferguson in a meaning way. But she let the pair go without remark.
"I'll get that wood now, sir," Boyle said abruptly.
Houghton gestured assent, and watched the butler go down the hall with the basket and disappear in the entrance to the servants' quarters. An age or two ago, just inside that passage, he himself had paused to ask Diane to marry him, and had not even kissed her when she consented. He had foreseen and hoped for a far different type of proposal to her, when he had invited her to Castel Garde.
"Diane girl?" Turning to her after Boyle had gone, he spoke in too low a tone for the others to hear. "Do let me see you sit down—there's a comfortable chair just beside you. You've kept on your feet nearly the whole of the evening."
She shook her head. "I'm not in the least tired now, Jim," she answered, careful too that only he should hear. "Do you know, I was thinking then of your thought for me. How you wanted me to have your room, and Martha there with me in case I might be afraid."
"But then, you see, I love you," he told her very quietly.
"With that—" she looked up at him with frank happiness in her eyes—"I don't care what happens. I wanted it, Jim—I wanted to get here to-night in the hope that you'd tell me. Some time—soon, I trust—I shall tell you."
He took her hand and pressed it. "And now, dear," he asked, "if I tell Boyle to order Martha up to my dressing room as soon as he comes back, will you set these others an example by going up?"
"It would be quite useless, for awhile, Jim," she dissented. "Not one of them would follow, yet. A little later, when it begins to look possible that someone else would go—then I will. I'm not in the least tired, really. I've done nothing all the evening."
"With one exception, neither has anyone else," he declared grimly. "Well, I shall have you with me till the chance of pushing them off shows itself. That's one asset."
The pressure of her fingers against his own was her only answer. They stood together, side by side, and hand in hand like two children; the oppression of silence went on and on, and in it the indistinct murmur of Tom Russell's and Joan Shaw's voices as they talked in the dining room was a relief. For now the whole party was reduced to undisguised waiting for the night to end. There was no longer any hope that Andy Parker would bring the police here and put an end to their suspense, nor any knowledge of when this state of prisoning, in which each one might suspect any other of murder, might end.
"We are very dull," Mrs. Hammersley observed at last.
"I was thinking, till you spoke, of James Whitcomb Riley," Rodney Black remarked, looking across at her. "Those lines of his—'The thoughts that come in the shadows never come in the shine.' And then, Wells, with his description of night as the mother of fear and mystery. I'm not trying to harrow anyone. They were just detached reflections, for one must do something to pass the time, and even the memory of truths well-stated helps. And it struck me just now—"
He broke off, looking diffidently from face to face of his listeners. Helen Turner left the two Mostyns and went to him: the brothers were interesting youngsters, but, as he spoke then, Black appeared to her a man who could inspire others to believe in him, one worth while.
"What struck you, Black?" Houghton asked. "If you can interest us and make us forget ourselves for awhile, for heaven's sake go on!"
"Yes, do tell us, Mr. Black," Mrs. Hammersley seconded.
"I wonder"—Black assumed an air rather like that of a lecturer—"if it has struck any of you as it has me, that we are actually living a mystery story. Probably most of us read them."
"I used to read them," Gwen Warren confessed, "but I feel now you've said what you have that I shall never want to look at one again."
"You've realised it too, have you?" he remarked reflectively. "I read them, and shall go on reading them. The difference between reading one and living it came into my mind then."
His "shall go on reading them" made Houghton acquit him of any knowledge of the authorship of Carmichael's death. A man who feared the issue of this time of waiting would not have made such a remark.
"Carry on, Black," he said. "It's a new thought, to me."
"Well—you, Mrs. Hammersley," Black went on. "I've read more than one of your stories, and enjoyed them. You might take this setting, and move it to make it credible—nobody would believe that a party of people like ourselves could be utterly cut off from the rest of the world, in an English country mansion. Also, if you make it Castel Garde, Houghton will take out an injunction against you for using his place, and your publishers won't like you. Move it to America—they have lots of blizzards in the United States. Then you could introduce third degree, get the American police beating up sixteen people with rubber piping and generally manhandling them, and sixteen electric chairs in a row for the final scene, with reporters taking down the speeches. I'm not trying to harrow anyone, Houghton, as I said before, but merely trying to bring daylight thoughts into your minds, and make you remember the ridiculous things you see on American films, from which good Lord deliver us!"
"That's about the sanest talk I've heard to-night," Houghton said.
"I will treasure the appreciation," Black told him. "We're all so infernally worked up—that's the trouble with us. Helen, here—no, don't interrupt my spate of wisdom, Helen—she has a way of attaching a credible explanation to everything, reaching out into the void and bringing the explanation down and looking at it. A very useful gift, and one that saves her from getting worked up. I—well, I try to keep my head, and usually succeed. All of you may observe that I'm keeping it now. It makes things so much easier, I assure you—all of you!"
"Easier said than done," Ferguson put in, rather derisively.
"Yes," Black answered him, "I know you must think of what has happened to-night—you can't help it. The way you have all been trying to avoid the subject, and then breaking out with references to it, proves that you can't get it out of your minds. Is it any use my suggesting that you take a detached view, regard it impersonally?"
"Not the least," Ferguson answered him again. "Nobody can."
"I'm not so sure," Black insisted calmly. "Go over in your minds any of the mystery stories you may have read, and try to remember if a situation of this sort is unique. For my part, I believe it is. I'm not sure, though. Still, without trying to harrow you, I think Frank Norris's final scene in his story of McTeague has greater and more tragic force than anything that can evolve out of our dilemma. I don't know if any of you read the story of McTeague. If not, get hold of it and read it—unadulterated realism, and though it was done by an American writer it doesn't need translation into English. There, in that story, you have ultimate tragedy, unescapeable and awful, and I don't think any one of us is looking forward to that when the daylight comes again, however much we may be afraid of the shadows now. The world lost a fine writer when Norris died. I'm trying to make you forget yourselves, people, make you understand that there are other realities besides this mystery story you are all living to-night, and the one thing left in Pandora's box is still ours."
"Rodney, you're splendid!" Helen said, emphaticcally enough for the rest to hear her. "I don't care what they think—you are!"
"They agree with you, Helen," Houghton told her. "And I see your detached view as a possibility, Black. We've all been a trifle unbalanced, and it was left to you to restore us to the normal."
"But who was Pandora?" Ethna Blair asked pathetically.
Ruthven barely succeeded in repressing a laugh. He managed to turn it into a cough, and became silent again.
"Pandora," Black answered, thinking rapidly and improvising as he went on, "was an old-time lady who had a box of treasures—men, in fact. She used to keep the box carefully locked, and unlock it and let out one at a time, for—well, you can guess why an old-time lady wanted a whole boxful of men, and if you can't I'm not going to tell you—"
"Mr. Black!" Gwen Warren made a loud, tense whisper of the interruption. "You've got it all wrong. It wasn't that at all."
"I say it was, Mrs. Warren," he insisted firmly, grateful to her for the break which gave him time to construct the rest of the story. "She had this box of men, and she took them out one at a time, like the hard-hearted princesses in the fairy tales, and as she grew dissatisfied with each one she chopped off his head. But by-and-by she took out one, and was not quite sure if she were dissatisfied with him or no. So she put him back in the box, for future experiment. Well, he told all the rest that they could only expect to have their heads chopped off one by one as Pandora took them out and grew tired of them, unless they did something about it. So, the next time she opened the box, they all hopped out at once, and Pandora lost her head—I'm still keeping mine, you'll observe. But, tucked away in one corner of the box, there was a woman. She didn't hop out at once and run away, but stayed in the box. After Pandora had lost her head, the woman came out and raised trouble, and every other woman in the world followed her example. They're still at it, too."
"That's most unfair, Mr. Black," Diane protested, smiling at him. "But do tell us some more stories of the same sort."
"I think you're all forgetting what's lying upstairs," Ferguson rasped out viciously. "It's hardly a time for funny stories."
Houghton went to him and took him by the shoulder. He tried to wrench himself free of the grip, but the bigger man held him far too firmly, and looked down into his eyes with cold fierceness.
"It's a time for sanity, Ferguson," he said, "a time for reasonable companionship among us, of the sort that Black is trying to restore and you're trying to prevent, for some unpleasant reason of your own. Say one more word of that sort, and I'll smash your teeth down your throat and kick you out into the night to fend for yourself! You've outraged every decency that a guest ought to preserve, and given me the right to forget that I'm your host—and I do forget it, for the sake of these others. You're not a man, but a cad—shut up!"
He shook Ferguson, still holding him with one hand, as a dog might shake a rat, and gave him a twist that sent him spinning like a dervish, though as if by a miracle the man kept on his feet. Tom Russell and Joan Shaw came out from the dining-room in time to see him cannon against the chair in which Betty sat, clutch at its back, and just save himself from falling flat. They halted to watch.
"I don't think acrobatics are in very good taste just now," Tom said. "It's not—well, if I'd done anything like that—" he broke off, obviously aggrieved at what appeared a license allowed to Ferguson and denied to himself.
They all heard him, and, turning to look, saw Joan withdraw herself from his hold on her arm in a rather confused fashion. Then, into the silence that followed, came the sound of a motor horn, faint through the closed doors of the great keep, but audible to them all.
"My God!" Kemp sounded awestruck as he made the exclamation, and perhaps fearful as well. "Andy Parker has got back, after all!"
After a momentary pause of bewilderment, Houghton set off down the hall in long, hurrying strides, and for the first time for an hour or more Diane sought a chair and sat down, crumpling into the cushions as if the shock of this happening had overpowered her. Mrs. Hammersley watched her curiously, intently.
"I wonder—is he alone?" she questioned, in a grave, deliberate way. And she turned on her pouffe, to bring herself facing the doors at the other end of the hall, watching and waiting as did the rest.
They were tensed to the utter limit of expectancy, now, and very silent after Mrs. Hammersley's unanswered question. Only Ferguson let escape a little gasping "Ah!"—which might have denoted fear. Then they heard the doors opened, the click of the latch which held the inner pair, and the clanging withdrawal of the bolt on the great outer door, a ringing sound that bespoke Houghton's eagerness to open and admit the end of this long-drawn suspense. Looking out as he stood on the topmost step, Houghton saw five heavily-wrapped figures detach themselves from the car and advance toward him. First came Inspector Head from his place beside the driving seat, and he faced Houghton before the others reached them.
"A very bad night for a drive, Mr. Houghton," he observed coolly, "and I think nobody but Andy Parker could have got us here safely. I understand you sent him for us because a man named Malcolm Carmichael has been found dead here. That is so, isn't it?"
"Has been murdered," Houghton amended. "Come in, Inspector."
"Has been found dead—we cannot assume murder without evidence," Head pointed out dissentingly. This"—he half-turned—"is Doctor Bennett, whom you know, and these are two of my men. Parker, you had better come in, too. You were here when the body was found, I believe."
"I ought to put the car away, Mr. Head," Andy protested.
"You will leave the car there," Head insisted. "Mr. Houghton, you permit me to take charge for this investigation, I hope?"
"Why, certainly," Houghton assented. "I'll help you all I can."
"Thanks very much." The rejoinder sounded dryly businesslike. "Andy, in you go with the others. Come along, Doctor—Wells, Jeffries, in you go. Now, Mr. Houghton, as soon as we get in out of the cold, a word with you before I attend to anything else. Stop just inside, doctor, and you two men. You'll find a big screen—stop on the other side of it, and wait for my instructions as to what to do next."
Together with Houghton he followed them in, waiting for the doors to be closed. Beyond the screen, he gazed up toward the party round the fire for a second or two, and then turned to Houghton.
"The party you invited for your birthday, sir, I conclude?" he asked.
"It is," Houghton answered, "though I don't know how you learned that I was having a birthday party."
"Servants will always talk," Head observed, "and yours are no different from anyone else's. Eleven—twelve—fifteen, I make it."
"Correct," Houghton assured him, and mentally approved the "different from." He had not expected to hear a police inspector use it.
"Fifteen—yes. And that's Boyle, coming in with the big basket. Yes. Andy—was Andy here too at the time?"
"Out with the servants," Houghton answered, rather coldly. He knew he had to endure this inquisition, but liked it none the more for that.
"Out with the servants, eh?" Head seemed in no hurry to begin the real business of his investigation, but spoke reflectively, even musingly. "Were you by any chance out with the servants, Mr. Houghton?"
"Certainly I was not!" Houghton answered sharply.
"Then how do you know he was? But that can keep. Will those people stay where they are, or must I give them an order to stop there?"
"They'll stay," Houghton answered grimly. "That is, until you get fifteen steam cranes and lift each one away separately. I've tried nearly everything else, and not one of them has consented to move, yet."
"Well, then, Doctor Bennett and I will go and look at the body of the dead man, first. We'll take Jeffries with us—Wells, you stay just here, and keep an eye on that group at the far end of the hall. Watch if any one of them leaves the group, and mark where he or she goes—Mr. Houghton says they won't go, but watch them all the same. Andy, you stay here with Sergeant Wells till we have made our examination. Then we can go into things generally."
He turned to Houghton again. "Where is the body?" he asked.
"I'll take you up—it's in his room," Houghton answered.
He went toward the staircase, Head, Bennett, and the constable following him. As he went, he felt the sick sense of impending disaster, and physical manifestation of fear that the mind may yet control. Diane had promised to marry him at once, but this must be gone through first—this relentless ferreting, as he began to realise it.
From the other end of the hall, the others watched those four ascend that stairs and disappear in the corridor leading to Carmichael's room—all but Diane, who kept her face averted as she sat.
"What are we supposed to do?" Tom Russell inquired plaintively.
"What can we do, but wait?" Kemp rasped out with a note of irritated impatience.
"Well, you needn't bite my head off!" Tom snapped back.
"If it were not for this awful situation we're all in, I'd say I had no patience with fools," Kemp remarked acidly.
"You're finding it particularly awful, are you, Kemp?" Ferguson inquired, in a sneering, suspiciously insinuating tone.
"Didn't Houghton give you enough medicine to close your gall-trap of a mouth, Ferguson?" Rodney Black demanded with quiet fierceness. "If not, I'll close it for you, if you open it again."
"You will, eh?" Ferguson retorted with even more fury, and stood up beside Betty's chair, his fists clenched and his eyes glaring.
"Gentlemen!" Boyle advanced from the niche in which he had replaced the fuel basket, a billet of firewood firmly grasped in his right hand. "I have to remind you again, in Mr. Houghton's absence, that you are gentlemen, and there are ladies present. There's a policeman down at the other end, and if he doesn't get here in time to stop this brawling, I'll stun the one who begins it myself, with this!" And he held up his billet, threateningly.
"How nice of you, Boyle!" Mrs. Hammersley drawled. "But please don't wait for them to begin. Prevention is safer than cure."
Boyle stood in the midst of the party, grim and threatening, appearing fully prepared to carry out his threat, and faced toward Ferguson as if he had made up his mind as to where his billet should strike first. Then Gwen Warren broke into a violent fit of sobbing, and clung to her husband as if for protection.
"Oh, I can't stand any more!" she wailed. "I can't stand any more!"
"None of us can," Helen Turner said quietly, "but we must."
She went to Gwen, bent toward her as she clung to Jack. "Listen, Gwen," she bade imperatively. "My dear, listen to me! You've got your husband to hold you, and there's God as well, holding you still more surely. Go on crying, dear, if it helps you, but all this will pass and leave you happy with Jack as you were before."
"There is no God, you fool!"
But Mrs. Hammersley only whispered the denial, so that Betty Ferguson alone heard it, and nodded an emphatic assent. The two smiled at each other, understandingly.
"Life, and death—two such entirely unimportant things," Mrs. Hammersley observed caustically. "You and I know, Betty."
"And yet we cling, and fear," Betty answered tremulously.
"Because they're all we have, love of one and fear of the other," Mrs. Hammersley reflected aloud. "What fools we all are!"
"Hunger, and fear, and passion," Betty said broodingly. "I remember Bert saying once that those three motives were all we had to govern us—the three driving forces of life, he called them."
She gazed past Mrs. Hammersley at Helen Turner, who was holding Gwen with one protecting arm, now: the smaller, more fearful woman had turned to one who, she knew, could comprehend her state, and there clung as certain of safety as she had felt with her husband—and far more certain of the sympathy she needed, then. He stood by them, helplessly, a perturbed, ineffective figure of a man.
"Not long, now, Gwen," Helen told her. "It is near the end."
She had risen above the littleness of her psychic fad and, standing thus, might have been an embodiment of motherhood in loveliness sheltering youth, for with the expression that was on her face then she was very lovely. Boyle backed to the fuel basket with his gaze fixed on her, tiptoeing as if, flat-footed on the carpet, he might have startled her and spoiled the picture she made; he stooped and put his piece of wood down, noiselessly. At the far end of the hall, silent watchers of the group that had suddenly posed, tableau-wise, stood Wells in his heavy uniform coat, helmet in hand, and Andy Parker grotesque with his sacking leggings, waterproof, and scarf-bound bowler still on his head.
Ruthven looked up at the gallery after a long, long stillness—looked toward the end of the corridor in which Houghton and the three men who accompanied him had disappeared.
"No," he said very softly. "Not long, now."
Kemp frowned at him as if in reproof, and Ferguson smiled—but the smile was almost a sneer.
"THIS"—Houghton, standing just within the corridor, and so rendering himself invisible to his guests down in the hall, pointed to the outline he had chalked on the carpet—"is where the body was lying when I first saw it, after he had been killed."
"Why isn't it lying there now?" Head gave him a look of grave surprise as he put the question.
"I moved it and put it on the bed in his room," Houghton explained. "Two others helped me, and checked what I did, but I told them I would take sole responsibility for moving it, and they helped me on that understanding. They were witnesses that I did no more than was necessary and chalked these outlines to show where and how the body was lying."
Head gave him another long look. "Mr. Houghton," he said at last, "I want you to understand that you need not answer any question I put to you, unless you like. Anything you choose to tell me may help in deciding the agency by which this man met his death, but it is entirely within your discretion to answer or refuse to answer."
"I'll do everything I can to help you," Houghton said.
At that Head looked down again, walked all round the chalked outline, and came back to what obviously showed the position of the head. He saw the blotch of dried blood on which Carmichael's skull had lain, but made no comment on it, for the time.
"Who were the other two?" he asked. "The two who helped you?"
"Boyle, and a friend of mine named Fraser Ruthven," Houghton answered. "But, as I told you, they are in no way responsible."
Head looked up at him again. "Mr. Houghton, knowing as you must know that all possible evidence should be left intact in a case of this kind, why did you move that body from where it was lying?"
"To give me a chance of getting my guests to come up to bed," Houghton said patiently. "The head, as that chalk mark shows you, was projecting just past the end of the corridor into the gallery, and I knew I couldn't get them—especially the women—to pass it."
"They wouldn't, of course." He sounded thoughtful over the explanation, even doubtful of it. "How many guests have you here?"
"Fifteen. Carmichael made sixteen."
"Fifteen still alive, that is. Well, Mr. Houghton, moving the body doesn't appear to have been very successful, as far as getting them to come to bed is concerned, does it?"
"Inspector"—Houghton answered with quiet incisiveness—"it happens that you are here—Andy Parker managed to get you here to-night. I did not decide to move that body until I felt absolutely certain that you would not get here, that there was no chance of anyone reaching this place till the roads had been cleared. If I had had any expectation of of seeing you before morning, the body would be lying here now. And I made these chalk marks to give you all possible help, whenever you did arrive, which I thought would be some time to-morrow. To-day, I should say, since it is already well past midnight."
Head listened to the statement, and made no comment on it. Suddenly he pointed to the smaller chalk mark beside Carmichael's door.
"What's that?" he asked.
"It marks the spot where the mace was lying—he was struck on the back of his head with a spiked mace that usually hangs over there"—he pointed to the baize-covered plaque on the wall—"together with the battleaxe lying under it and the sword and other things still on it. When I moved the body into his room, I took the mace as well and hung it in the wardrobe inside the room—and locked the door on coming out, to make certain that nothing should be disturbed."
"And, incidentally, ruined all the finger prints there may have been on the handle of this mace," Head observed caustically.
"I did not!" There was more than a trace of anger in the denial. "I asked Boyle and Mr. Ruthven to witness most particularly that I did not touch any part of the mace with my hands. I passed string round the spiked head, tied it, made a loop at the end of the string, and carried it by the loop and hung it inside the wardrobe. Since it left off touching the carpet, it has not made contact with anything but the string round its head, and those two will confirm me in this."
"Rather well done," Head admitted cautiously. "Now, Mr. Houghton—you're answering quite voluntarily, remember—who found the body? Who was first to see it after the man had been killed?"
"I was," Houghton answered without hesitation. "I found it, and asked Doctor Ferguson—one of my guests—to come up and examine it. He came up but refused to touch it or to make any examination."
"On the ground of directing suspicion to himself by destroying evidence, I conclude," Head observed. "If so, he was quite right. Now, Mr. Houghton, in addition to what those chalk marks show, can you tell me anything about the position of the body at the time you found it? He would be lying on his face, I conclude, since he was struck down by this mace from behind—struck on the back of his head?"
"No, he was lying on his back," Houghton dissented, and saw Doctor Bennett, listening attentively to the dialogue, give a little start of surprise, "and a dagger taken from that plaque had been driven through his shirt front into his breast on the left side."
"Yes?" Head evinced no surprise. "Where is the dagger?"
"Still in the wound, of course, untouched."
"And the body—which is his room?"
Houghton took the door key from his pocket and moved a couple of steps toward the door to unlock it, but Head's voice stopped him.
"I'll take the key and open it, Mr. Houghton, please."
Houghton handed him the key, silently.
"And you say the mace is hanging in the wardrobe. Is that locked?"
"No. Only the door of the room."
"Thanks. Now I must ask you to remain just where you are, please, with my man Jeffries here. Doctor Bennett and I will go in and examine the body. You will stay here, in this corridor?"
"Certainly, if you wish it—and if I am not summoned downstairs."
"In either case, whether you are or no"—Head looked him full in the eyes—"I request you to wait here, Mr. Houghton."
Houghton inclined his head slightly in reply: there was a shadow of a definite accusation in that request—or command. After a second or two Head turned to the door, unlocked it, and took out the key. He let Bennett precede him into the room, and, entering himself, closed the door. Houghton heard him insert the key from the other side and turn it in the lock: he made a little gesture of amused resignation.
"And yet," he thought but did not say, "I should do exactly the same in his place. Assuming, that is, that I were as clever as he is."
Within the room, Head took one look at the body, and turned to Bennett. They nodded at each other gravely.
"Yes, murder," Head observed.
"Undoubtedly," Bennett agreed. "That dagger handle—finger prints?"
Head bent over the bed and looked closely at the handle. "It wouldn't hold any," he said, "with that padded surface. You get on with the body, doctor. I want to see that mace, myself."
He turned to the wardrobe and opened its door. With no scruple at all regarding the dried blood on the spikes, he took out the weapon by its head and looked down at its shining handle. Then he moved nearer to the electric light over the dressing table, took a magnifying glass from his pocket and, holding the mace up to the light, examined its handle from end to end through the glass, twisting and turning it over and over to miss no part of the surface. At last he replaced the glass in his pocket, put a finger through the loop of the string, and hung the mace back in the wardrobe.
"Either gloves or a handkerchief," he announced as he went back toward the bed, "or else carefully wiped off after use. Not a mark on it anywhere, as far as my pocket glass tells. Now what have you there, doctor? Hullo! The dagger thrust didn't kill him then?"
"No," Bennett agreed. "Not nearly enough blood on his underclothing—the heart had stopped beating when it was driven in. It went through the heart, though. He was killed by one single blow on the back of his head, and two of the spikes went through the cranium and fractured it. I should say he pitched forward and fell on his face, and then whoever struck the blow turned him over and drove in the dagger. Practically an instantaneous death, with no time to cry out."
"Anything else?" Head took up the dagger and looked at it, almost idly. "We shall have sixteen witnesses to give us the time of his death, so you needn't worry overmuch about that."
"Nothing else that you could regard as a clue," Bennett said.
"I detest that word, doctor," Head observed gravely. "You can cover it up—I don't want to see any more here—and then we can go."
He waited until the doctor had drawn a sheet over the body, and then went to the door and unlocked it again, taking out the key. When he opened the door for Bennett to pass out, he saw Houghton standing in the corridor, and paused to replace the key on the outside, close the door, and lock it again. Bennett went toward the gallery, but with a "Sst!" of warning to make him turn his head, the Inspector gestured him back toward Carmichael's door.
"I don't want to go till Mr. Houghton has told us a little more about this, doctor," he said. "That is, if you don't object, Mr. Houghton? You can refuse to answer my questions whenever you like."
"In other words, I need not incriminate myself," Houghton suggested.
"Under the circumstances, that applies to everybody in this house," Head told him unmovedly, "and I shall warn each one in the same way."
"Then, as I have already told you, Inspector," Houghton replied with equally quiet coolness, "I will help you in every possible way, and that includes answering every question you see fit to put to me."
Head thought over the answer for a second or two. Then—
"As I told you, Mr. Houghton, I intend to caution everyone I have reason to question, as I have cautioned you. You know what reply I shall get from each one of them, I suppose?"
"I couldn't tell you their words," Houghton replied rather irritably, as if he resented the waste of time involved by the apparently purposeless query. "All of them, I should say—or perhaps all but one—should be willing to help you as far as possible."
"Every one will say either—'I will help you all I can,' or—'I will answer every question you put to me.' And if I have occasion to question the one who killed Carmichael, that one will be most emphatic with the reply—will appear most willing to give me assistance."
"Well, have I been emphatic enough?" Houghton asked ironically.
Head disregarded the question. "Will you tell me what you can of the circumstances of Mr. Carmichael's death?" he asked. "The time, what the rest of you were doing, how the body was discovered—anything you can that may help? To begin with, at what time was the body found?"
"I can tell you much more than that," Houghton answered. "He was alive, down there in the hall, at nine-fifteen. It was not later than nine-twenty when I came up here and found the body. These times are by this watch." He took a thin gold watch from his pocket and held it up.
Head took it from him, held it to his ear, and then looked at its dial. For a dress watch, it had one unusual quality: the hands and figures, except for those on the small seconds' dial, were coated with luminous paint. Head handed the watch back, and Houghton pocketed it.
"What caused you to time him in that way, Mr. Houghton?"
"We were playing the murder game, and for that you have to put out all the lights for a certain time," Houghton explained. "I told Boyle to stand at the main switch in the big hall—"
"Stop a moment, Mr. Houghton," Head interrupted. "I know that game. Were you all playing it—everyone down there?"
"Every one of us," Houghton assured him. "Carmichael as well."
"Seventeen altogether," Head reflected. "Then you took seventeen cards from a pack, marked one with an M and one with a D—"
"No, we didn't mark them," Houghton interrupted him. "It was agreed that the one who was dealt the king of diamonds should be the detective, and the knave of spades the murderer."
"It comes to the same thing as marking the cards," Head said. "So you took seventeen cards from the pack, including the king of diamonds and knave of spades among them, and dealt one to each person. Then you put the room in darkness—what rooms did you include, though, in your game? You wouldn't use the whole of a mansion like this."
"No. We made it the great hall, the dining-room leading off it on one side, and the lounge on the other. All the rest was out of bounds—that was agreed on."
"Then the staircase and all this floor were out of bounds?"
"Yes. Only those three rooms were to be used for the game."
"Then you put the lights out, waited for the murderer—the one in the game, I mean—to catch someone and make them scream, then gave ten seconds longer, and turned up the lights."
"Exactly, and since I was controlling the lights, I know how long they were turned out—and in that time Carmichael was killed."
"You said just now that Boyle controlled the lights?"
"Yes, but under my orders," Houghton explained. "I told him to stand at the main switch, and myself took up a position close to the pillar—about midway between him and the foot of the staircase, in fact. Then, before I told him to switch off, I took out this watch and looked at it. It was exactly fifteen minutes past nine when I told him to switch off, and Carmichael was standing then at the foot of the stairs. I had an idea—quite a wrong one—that I could time the ten seconds by the seconds' hand of the watch. I couldn't, of course, for that hand isn't luminous, but I didn't think of that when I took the watch out, since the main hands and figures are luminous. I kept the watch in my hand all the time the lights were down, and when they went up again and I put it back in my pocket, the time by it was between nineteen and twenty minutes past nine."
"And you discovered Carmichael's body up here by twenty past nine?"
"I did. I came straight up the staircase and found him, immediately after the lights had gone up, ten seconds after the scream. That is, as nearly as I could judge ten seconds in the dark. As I told you, I was holding the watch in my hand when I told Boyle to turn the lights out, and still holding it when I told him to turn on again."
"Boyle was at that switch all the time, as nearly as you can tell?"
"He must have been. He couldn't tell when I should order him to turn up the lights, and so couldn't leave it, for anything."
"To kill Carmichael, that is. Possibly not. Mr. Houghton—"
"Just a second before we go on, Inspector, if you don't mind," Houghton interposed. "When Andy Parker was going to fetch you, he called out from the door something about Carmichael having been his father. On that, I tried to stop him from going, ran down the hill to stop him from driving away, but was too late—"
"Why did you try to stop him?" Head interrupted.
"Because—well, it was an impulse. His reference to Carmichael being his father indicated a hatred of the man."
"Yes, I see. Quite natural. But what has that to do with Boyle keeping his position at the switch while the lights were down?"
"Just this. The switch is beside the door leading to the kitchens and servants' quarters, and there is a little square of glass in the door, to let the servants see into the hall as they come in. When I came back to the others after trying to stop Andy, a friend of mine who was there, Mr. Ruthven, remarked that we had let Carmichael's murderer go, or something of the sort. Boyle was putting wood on the fire at the time, and he protested against this as an accusation of an innocent man, said he saw Andy leaning against the doorpost of the servants' sitting-room—saw him through that pane of glass—all the time the lights were down, laughing and talking with the maids in the room."
Head considered it for a while. Doctor Bennett and Constable Jeffries waited in silence for the end of this inquisition.
"Say three and a half to four minutes," Head remarked at last in a thoughtful way. "Mr. Houghton, who suggested playing the murder game?"
"One of two guests—either Miss Helen Turner or Mr. Rodney Black. I am almost certain it was one of those two."
Head took out a note book, requested a repetition of the names, and wrote them down. "Now, who dealt the cards?" he asked.
"Mrs. Hammersley actually dealt them," Houghton answered. "She and Ruthven managed it, getting the seventeen cards out of the pack, shuffling them, cutting, and dealing. It was quite openly done."
Head put these two names down too. "About Carmichael being Andy Parker's father," he asked when he had finished. "Do you attach any importance to the claim? He made it to me as well, on the way here."
"I should have considered it absurd, but for my friend Mr. Kemp—I think you know him. He is one of the guests here."
"I knew him as trustee for this estate in your mother's lifetime," Head agreed. "Before I joined the force, that is. Go on, though, Mr. Houghton. What had he to say about Andy's relationship to Carmichael?"
"Only that Carmichael was here for two long vacations, when his father hired the place, and Andy's mother was in service here at the time. So there was a possibility, and the likeness between Andy's eyes and Carmichael's confirms it—they are very much the same."
"You yourself discovered the body, you say?" Head asked, after another period of silence in which Bennett coughed impatiently, but vainly.
"I came up the staircase immediately after I had told Boyle to switch on the lights, and found it lying within that chalked area."
"And the mace inside the other chalked area?" Head suggested.
"Exactly," Houghton assented.
"What did you do next?"
"Stood stupefied for a minute or so. I did not touch it, but—"
"Did not touch it, or the mace," Head suggested, interrupting.
"Or the mace," Houghton agreed. "Then I went out to the gallery, and called down for Doctor Ferguson, another of the guests, to come up here. I thought then that he might make an examination—"
"Just a second." Head reverted to his note book. "Doctor Ferguson. Do you know his Christian name?"
"Albert. If he has others, I don't know them."
Head wrote it down, and with it that of Montagu Kemp, also present. "Doctor Ferguson came up here when you called him?" he asked.
"Yes. I said Carmichael had had a stroke, so as not to alarm the others. As I have already told you, Ferguson refused to touch the body to examine it, and said it must not be moved or touched till you got here—till some police officer had seen it, rather. Then I realised that it was in sight from the top of the staircase—that the head was in sight, that is—and so the whole party must be told what had happened. So I went down with Ferguson and told them."
"Yes. Did you notice any reaction to the news, on the part of anyone? Wait, though! Especially with regard to a question of this kind, you need not answer it unless you feel justified in doing so. Now, did you notice anything?"
"Nothing whatever that I can recall now," Houghton answered frankly. "Nothing distinctive enough to impress itself on my mind. They were all frightened and upset, naturally enough. I was upset myself."
"You have told me, Mr. Houghton, that this floor was out of bounds for your game. Yet the murdered man must have come up here immediately the lights downstairs were turned out, according to what you have told me, since he got here in time to be killed in the period of three and a half to four minutes after Boyle switched off at your order?"
"Yes, he did, evidently."
"How long after the lights went up was it when you came up?"
"I started for the staircase immediately after ordering Boyle to switch on, down in the hall," Houghton answered.
"Were there any lights up here?"
"None whatever that I could see, during the progress of the game—the period of darkness, that is. The gallery lights went out with the rest. It is a main switch, with subsidiary switches beyond it."
"Controlling the lights in the rooms on this floor?"
"No—only the lights downstairs and in the gallery and the other gallery above this one, too. We put the big door screen in front of the fire, and there was a very faint glow showing round it, but no other light, either downstairs or up here."
"Carmichael could have on the light in his room if he felt like it—that is, if he went into the room when he came up here?"
"He could—yes. He probably did."
"And with his door the least bit ajar, there would be light enough out here to show the mace and other things hanging on that wall?"
"Yes, there would."
"But not enough to show out to the gallery, or to be visible to anyone down there in the hall?"
"Not unless he threw his door wide open."
"No. And he wouldn't have done that." Head reflected again. "And anyone could stand back there on the other side of the door, with the mace lifted ready, waiting for him to come out—one can do a very great deal in three and a half to four minutes. The mace could be dropped on his head with hardly any force behind the blow—certainly not enough force for the impact to be audible downstairs. The blow being a light one—the weight of the mace head is enough to account for those fractures in his skull, without any force at all being necessary in addition—but the blow being a light one, the murderer made certain of his work by turning the body over and driving the dagger into the heart. Quite unnecessarily—the man was already dead."
He watched Houghton closely as he thus reconstructed the possible—or rather, probable—method by which the crime had been effected. He saw no change in his man's expression. Houghton waited, calmly.
"It appears to have been done like that," he said at last, as Head added no question at the end of his recital.
"Mr. Houghton, since this floor was out of bounds, and the murder game was confined to those three rooms downstairs as you have told me, why did you come up here to look for Carmichael the instant the lights went up? How did you know you would find him up here?"
"I knew he meant to use the darkness to come up to his room."
"You knew it, eh? He had a card dealt him, and you say he was in the game. He must have known that this floor was out of bounds, as all the rest of you knew it. Why did he come up to his room?"
He waited, but Houghton did not reply.
"I see," he said. "You prefer not to answer that question."
Still Houghton made no reply. He glanced at Bennett, at Jeffries, and back at Head, and made a little, nervous gesture with his right hand which might have implied negation—or might not.
"Since Mr. Carmichael was one of your guests, I assume he was a friend of yours?" Head asked after another long pause.
"I considered him one, until to-night," Houghton answered.
He could tell at once, from Head's change of expression, that he himself had blundered in adding that last phrase to his reply. The Inspector gave him a long, keen look, and asked for no fuller explanation. "Until to-night" had made him cautious over his questioning.
"I think we had better go down, doctor—and Mr. Houghton," he said at last. "I may be able to get further information from the people in the hall—after cautioning them that they need not reply, of course."
"Inspector!" Houghton's tone was so sharply imperative as to render the word an exclamation. "I realise, as far as your question with regard to why Carmichael came up to his room is concerned, that I shall have to answer it sooner or later, to somebody else if not to you. The reasons for my knowledge are personal to myself—and to one other. I am quite willing to communicate them to you now, but in confidence. Not with any others present beside our two selves, I mean. It would be best to tell you, I think."
"Very good, Mr. Houghton. You have some room we could use, I hope?"
He sounded quite cool, quite unemotional, and not in the least pleased over the concession. Bennett frowned, as if he disliked this unwillingness to talk in his presence, and then nodded as if he understood it. Jeffries waited stolidly.
"I suggest that we go down to the lounge, leading off from the hall," Houghton said. "But I don't quite know what to do with you, doctor. I can hardly ask you to join my party, under the circumstances."
"If you'll let me have that key, Mr. Head," Bennett suggested, "I can make a detailed, independent examination of the body, and then wait downstairs with Wells—I'll lock the door and bring you the key."
"Right so," Head agreed briskly—almost cheerfully—and handed over the door key. "But don't touch the handle of the mace, if you find you want to examine that. Hold it by the string or by the metal head. Now, Jeffries, follow us down, and wait with Sergeant Wells—there's a settle, I saw, just past the end of the screen, if you don't feel like keeping on your feet. We'll go to the lounge, Mr. Houghton, please."
AT the foot of the stairs Head gestured silently to Jeffries, indicating that he should go and join Andy and the sergeant by the screen. But Andy started forward with a whispered "Mr. Head?" that was practically as audible as a shout, and Head waited for him to come near.
"I'm to stay here, Mr. Head?" he asked, as if being left in charge of a police sergeant had an unpleasant significance.
"You are," Head told him firmly, "until I tell you what to do next."
"Then"—Andy leant toward him, and whispered for his hearing only—"don't forget my two pound a mile, Mr. Head, if ye get a chance."
Head gestured him back, and rejoined Houghton without replying. They went diagonally across the hall to the lounge doorway, and, as Houghton opened it, Head looked toward the fire, hesitating a moment.
"Just one minute, Mr. Houghton," he asked. "Wait here, please."
He went on until he was near the waiting group, and could see the strain of long suspense on all their faces.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said clearly, "Mr. Houghton has kindly permitted me to take charge here until I have completed the necessary—and I hope short—investigation I am compelled to make, with regard to the way in which Mr. Carmichael came by his death here to-night. I may ask some of you to help me by telling me what you know, later, may get you to check and confirm what Mr. Houghton is telling me now. On the other hand, there may be no need for me to ask any of you anything—I cannot say at present how it will be. But until he has finished telling me all he feels inclined to tell—we are just going to carry on with it by ourselves—until he has finished, I say, I want you all to remain together here, just as you are now. My sergeant at the other end of the hall has instructions to see that you do remain together here, in fact. And I assure you that I will not detain any one of you longer than is absolutely necessary for my investigation."
He turned away without waiting for comment or reply, and rejoined Houghton by the door of the lounge. All who heard the admonition knew him by repute, and some of them recognised him through having seen published photographs at the time of the Forrest murder case, in which his work and the prominence of the characters involved had given him far more than mere local celebrity.*
* See the novel, Shadow on the House, by the same author.
"So that's Inspector Head, is it?" Tom Russell observed.
"There's kindness as well as strength in his face," Rodney Black remarked, "and he sounded refined instead of refeened. I think I should like that man, if I got to know him."
"It isn't so much kindness as understanding," Helen Turner dissented. "He could be hard, very hard, but never willingly unjust."
"Well, isn't that kindness?" Black demanded.
"No. Willingly unjust people are often kind. What you see in his face is a far finer quality. He is not merely a policeman, but a very able psychologist, and as such needs no mere kindness in his make-up."
"Go on hair-splitting," Black advised, smiling at her. "We may have a long while to wait before he comes to question us."
"If at all, he said, remember," she pointed out.
Black shook his head. "Neither you nor anyone else will get me to believe that Houghton killed Carmichael," he told her.
"No?" she half-questioned. "But the information he has to give the Inspector may lead him to the right one, without questions to us."
"I thought you told me the authorship of the murder would not be discovered?" he asked her, with a look of surprise.
She nodded assent. "I did, but I had not seen Inspector Head, then. He may not know it, but his face is as truly psychic as any I have ever seen. The manifestation I had merely gave me the absurdity of ordinary police methods being capable of solving a mystery like this, but that man, Rodney, can look into souls. What a pity he chose such a profession! He might have been truly great."
"Is," Black insisted calmly, "and is doing better work for humanity than most of the great financiers and other title-buyers. Just think, Helen! He might have turned newspaper proprietor! As it is, he's a useful asset to society instead."
The object of their discussion faced Houghton in the lounge, silent and thoughtful, for the minute. His purposeful, deliberately obtrusive lack of haste in every way was in itself impressive.
"Won't you sit down, Inspector?" Houghton offered at last. "It will take some minutes to explain all you want to know—how it was that I knew Carmichael would go up to his room as soon as the lights were turned down, I mean. There's a chair." He took one for himself.
"Thanks very much," Head assented, and also seated himself. "I was thinking—apart from Mr. Kemp, all those people out there are strangers to this district. Would you mind completing my list of names for me?" He took out his note book as he made the request.
Houghton complied, adding such information as that the two Fergusons were brother and sister, the Warrens husband and wife, Diane Heriot, the well-known actress, and other details that occurred to his mind. Head laid the book on his knee, held it there, and looked straight at Houghton with a little, thoughtful frown creasing his brow.
"Miss Heriot—I have heard a rumour about her and you, Mr. Houghton, to the effect that you intend to marry the lady—it may be quite immaterial to this case, of course, and again may not."
"Miss Heriot will become Mrs. Houghton within a week or less," Houghton answered. "Material or immaterial, I am keeping nothing back from you, Inspector. She has consented to marry me."
"Thank you." The acknowledgment was grave, precise, even cold. "Now about your being in a position to know where you would find Mr. Carmichael's body as soon as the lights were—"
"Don't try any traps of that kind, Inspector!" Houghton interrupted with angry sharpness. "In a position to know where Carmichael intended to go as soon as the lights went down. Carmichael alive, not dead."
"Alive, not dead," Head assented unmovedly, and with no hint of apology for the scarcely veiled accusation. "Being in a position to know that he meant to go up to his room, though it and all that floor were out of bounds for the game."
"Well, it goes back a long way." Houghton recovered his composure and began his story. "Somewhere about five years ago, Inspector, Carmichael was a guest—not my guest—at lunch in one of the London clubs of which I am a member. I heard him say that a young lady—she was quite young, then—a young lady I happened to know was anybody's property, that he had bought and finished with her, and he wondered who would be the next buyer. For that, I simply laid him out on the floor in the club dining-room, and then picked him up and helped to bring him round again. I explained that it was a reasonable impulse, knowing the lady as I did, and then forgot all about the incident."
"And he did not," Head suggested. "Did he mention the lady's name?"
"Of course! That was why I laid him out."
"Justifiably, and quite properly," Head commented. "Mr. Houghton, I have heard a little of Carmichael and his habits. The lady in question was a Miss Betty Ferguson. Is that correct?"
"In confidence, it is. The Miss Ferguson who is here now with her brother, Doctor Albert Ferguson."
"Yes, I realised that," Head observed. "To revert to Carmichael, though. He didn't forget the blow you gave him?"
"No, but I thought he did. Next point in the story, Inspector—when my father died, he left a mortgage of eighteen thousand pounds on Castel Garde and the estate generally, at six per cent interest."
"It was given me as twenty thousand," Head commented.
"No, eighteen—here, is it any use my telling you anything? You appear to know all my affairs already."
"Go on, please, Mr. Houghton. You are telling me a very great deal."
"Oh, am I?" Houghton retorted sourly. "Well, during my minority, Mr. Kemp as trustee got the mortgage down to nine thousand, by careful handling of my affairs. I went rather wild when I came of age, and took it up to twelve thousand again. I have an uncle, Edmund Houghton, a very wealthy man, and unfortunately for my views on economy I know I am his heir. At the present time, he has not more than a year to live, in all probability, and possibly not a quarter of a year. When I inherit from him, I shall get rid of the mortgage altogether and be comparatively well off. At present, I am very hard up."
"Ye-es," Head commented, rather sceptically. "Not too hard up to marry Miss Heriot, evidently. But carry on, Mr. Houghton. The point of this story is not apparent, yet, in connection with Carmichael's death."
"It can be made so, now. Not long ago, the mortgage fell due for closure, and, short of forfeiting the greater part of the estate, there seemed no way of meeting it. Land is worth next to nothing in these days, unless it's building land, as you probably know. The holders would not renew, but Carmichael stepped in and bought them out, took over the mortgage in toto at the same rate of interest, and at the same time professed friendship for me. I didn't want his friendship, but as you may see, I was under that obligation to him, and there was always the possibility that he might be able to effect a closure before my uncle's death—before I could meet the call for such a sum."
"But your uncle would come to the rescue?" Head suggested.
"No," Houghton dissented. "He thinks—with perfect justice, too—that if I had not been so extravagant in my early twenties, the whole amount might have been paid off by now. So I am—was, rather—to a certain extent at Carmichael's mercy, couldn't afford to offend him."
"Carry on with the story, Mr. Houghton," Head urged, and looked at his watch. "We've been in here nearly ten minutes already."
"Carmichael practically forced himself on me for this birthday party," Houghton continued. "I didn't want him, and I know nobody else did either. I—we endured him, and that was all. But, being hard up as I told you, and already in his debt, I suggested increasing the mortgage by two thousand pounds, and he assented. Yesterday morning he gave me a cheque for two thousand pounds, and I gave him a letter agreeing that the amount should be added to the other twelve thousand pounds at the same rate of interest. And we had no witnesses to the transaction either to his writing the cheque or my writing the letter."
"From his point of view, that would not be necessary, since he had your signature on that letter," Head observed. "Six per cent. clear is a good rate of interest for a fully secured loan, nowadays."
"Yes, but he had another purpose in view," Houghton pointed out. "He meant to destroy my letter, disown his signature on the cheque, and accuse me of having forged the signature to get two thousand pounds transferred from his account to mine. Revenge, you see, for the blow I had struck him nearly five years ago."
"Mr. Houghton—" Head shook his head gravely as he spoke—"It's too impossible—no! He was a clever business man, not a fool. His cheque for two thousand pounds—yesterday morning—"
"Wait!" Houghton interrupted. "Not his cheque. He and I both have accounts at the same branch of the same bank. He told me he had no cheque forms left, and asked me to let him have one from my cheque book, and I did. On my cheque, not his own, he wrote two thousand pounds payable to me, and put his signature, but a slightly different one from his usual way of writing his name, as I noticed at the time. But I thought nothing of it, and sent the cheque off to my bank quite happily, knowing that he had my letter of acknowledgment in return."
"It sounds much too theatrical to be true," Head observed thoughtfully. "Yet... Yes, I see. But how do you know this? If he told you that he intended to destroy your letter and then accuse you of forgery, you had—yesterday morning—you had time to recover that cheque from your bank and hand it back to him, surely?"
"He did not tell me," Houghton answered. "Tonight, I think just before dinner, he told Miss Heriot of this damnable plot, and told her what was more damnable still, that he would spare me if she—"
He broke off and started to his feet, turning away from the Inspector. His agitation was visible in his face as it was evident in his voice. Head too rose to his feet.
"Mr. Houghton," he said after a long pause, and Houghton turned to face him again, "I think you will realise that this, assuming what you have told me is true, is a very grave business for you, now. For your sake, and for Miss Heriot's, will you let me ask her to come in here to us, so that I can get her version of this affair before you tell me any more. I want it at first hand, if possible."
"Oh, for God's sake, Inspector—!" Houghton began, and broke off.
"For your sake, and hers," Head said quietly.
"But she's not—don't you see what an ordeal like that would be for her? It's—no, it's impossible! Too much to ask."
"Remember"—Head's voice was measured, steady, judicial, a complete contrast to the other's agitation—"what you have just told me amounts to a grave accusation against Carmichael, and since he is dead he cannot defend himself. If true, it shows him as an unspeakable scoundrel instead of a straight business man—which he had the reputation of being. In addition, what you have just told me sounds incredibly foolish on his part, the sort of thing you find in old plays, but not in real life. The villain playing off the girl's honour against the hero's reputation old as the hills, that story!"
"No story, but truth," Houghton insisted.
"On your word only, so far," Head pointed out. "A melodramatic, dirty plot, with revenge and lust as its motives, and I tell you frankly that it sounds altogether impossible, to me. Still, I take what you have told me, and weigh it in my mind. Now if you will let me ask Miss Heriot to come in, and see how far her account of this affair coincides with yours—let her tell it without prompting from you—I may be able to credit that Carmichael was the dirty villain you make him out to be. Otherwise, if you are afraid to hear her tell me her version of the story, I can draw only one conclusion."
"All right, Inspector." He sounded a very angry man as he spoke the concession. "I'll go and fetch Miss Heriot here."
"I will go and fetch Miss Heriot," Head dissented firmly.
Houghton glared at him. "Will you?" he demanded sharply. "Aren't you taking a good deal on yourself, Inspector Head? I will go and ask Miss Heriot to come here!"
He turned, but almost instantly found Head between him and the door, and paused, looking down at the smaller man uncertainly.
"I thought you told me you would give me all the help you could, Mr. Houghton," Head reminded him. "Does this look like it?"
"Have it your own way, then!" The gesture accompanying the words implied a bitter sense of defeat. "Though what difference—"
"Her uninfluenced statement," Head interrupted. "In a case of murder, I trust no man, and you have a very strong motive for shielding Miss Heriot, if for nothing more. I want truth, unprompted."
With another little gesture Houghton stood back. Then Head took off his heavy overcoat and muffler, laid them across the back of a chair, and went out to the hall, leaving the lounge door open. He approached the fireplace in time to hear Ruthven exclaim sharply—
"Don't tear that up, man! It may be wanted, yet."
Tom Russell, about to tear in half the playing card he had taken from his pocket with his cigarette case, paused, and saw Head regarding him from a little distance. Then he glanced down at the card in his hand: it was the ten of spades, as Head had already seen.
"This gentleman is quite right," Head said gravely. "I must ask you not to destroy that card. And all of you, ladies and gentlemen, please be careful to destroy nothing whatever that might be connected with what you have been doing to-night, however trivial it may seem to you. I have already had valuable evidence destroyed by Mr. Houghton, who took the responsibility of moving the body of the dead man before it had been examined, and I want everything else that might help me in my inquiries carefully preserved. Please bear that in mind, all of you. And now—which of you is Miss Heriot?"
Diane stepped forward and faced him. "I am," she said.
"I am Inspector Head, of Westingborough, as possibly you know, Miss Heriot," he told her. "Will you be so good as to come to the lounge with me and answer any questions you think fit? I put this to you as a request, and you are at liberty to refuse, if you like."
"I will help you in any way I can," she answered instantly.
Almost, but not quite, he smiled. "Yes, I felt sure you would. I hope I shall not have to detain the rest of you ladies and gentlemen much longer. This way, please, Miss Heriot."
He let her precede him into the lounge, and closed the door on her and himself. Tom Russell looked hard at Ruthven.
"Not detain us much longer," he repeated in a scared way. "That means—any of us out here, doesn't it?"
"You should have asked him what it means," Ruthven retorted acidly.
"But—but he's been talking to Houghton—alone, I mean, without troubling about the rest of us, for a long while, now," Tom observed.
"Well, what are you going to do about it?" Ruthven snapped back.
"I—why, what can I do about it?" Tom asked helplessly. "But it isn't fair to us, keeping us all here in suspense like this. I know Houghton found the body, and moved it when he ought not, but surely that inspector—Houghton could have told him all he knows about it, long before this? And here we are, waiting as if he'd never got here at all!"
"It's possible that Houghton finds it difficult to tell all he knows about it," Ferguson put in meaningly.
The venomous insinuation brought him no reproof, though Rodney Black gave him an angry stare, and Boyle, apart from the rest by the fuel basket, looked at the billet of wood he had put down as if he still hoped for a chance to stun Ferguson. They waited, then, through a long silence. Would this suspense never end?
"Miss Heriot—" Tom said at last, and left it at that.
"Both she and Houghton owned that they knew why Carmichael went up to his room when the lights were turned down," Ferguson said.
"And Houghton told you where you get off, just before the police arrived," Tom fired back at him. "I agree with every word he said."
"I think the rest of us do, too, Russell," Black interposed, before Ferguson could frame the fierce retort he evidently intended to make.
"Nine—nearly one o'clock," Joan Shaw remarked after another long silence, and Tom looked at her in a puzzled way.
"What has nine to do with it?" he asked.
"I was thinking—it was about nine o'clock when we began playing that game," she explained, and glanced at Ferguson with a little shiver of disgust as she remembered that her lips had left an imprint on his cheek: she hated the memory, now. "Four hours—impossible that it should be only four hours! Four years, more nearly."
"I hope I never live through four such hours again," Black said gravely. "You're quite right—it's much more like four years."
They saw Dr. Bennett come down the staircase, pause at its foot to look along the hall toward them, and then, turning away, go slowly toward the three seated figures by the end of the screen. He addressed some remark or question to Sergeant Wells, received a reply, and then, turning again, gazed toward them.
They waited, waited...
"DIANE!" Houghton came toward her. "I'm sorry, dear—sorry you have to be brought into this. Inspector Head wants you to tell him—"
Head put up a warning hand. "Uninfluenced, I said, Mr. Houghton," he interrupted. "Miss Heriot has promised to help me all she can."
There was a sinister significance in the reminder that did not escape Houghton. He stood paused, a yard or so from Diane.
"Perhaps you would like to sit down, Miss Heriot," Head went on courteously, and indicated a chair for her. Houghton drew it forward, and she seated herself. "I want to tell you"—Head seated himself at a little distance from her—"as I have already told Mr. Houghton, and shall tell everybody else whom I have to question here, that you need not answer any question I put to you unless you wish it—"
"I will tell you everything I possibly can," she interrupted, with another frightened glance at Houghton.
"I felt sure you would," Head said encouragingly, and also glanced up at the man standing over him in a rather threatening way. "Mr. Houghton has been telling me a rather improbable story about Mr. Carmichael, a story which represents this dead man as an unmitigated scoundrel, and from what he said you appear to know—"
"The story is perfectly true," she interrupted again. "He told me—"
"Who told you?" Head interrupted in turn. "Try to put it quite clearly, Miss Heriot. I have asked Mr. Houghton not to prompt you in any way, because I want an independent confirmation of this story."
"Quite clearly—yes." She paused to collect her thoughts. "Well, inspector, I arrived here just in time to dress for dinner. After I had dressed, I came out from my room. The door was almost facing Mr. Carmichael's, and he was standing in his doorway. He stopped me from going down by speaking to me as I tried to pass him—"
"We'll break off there for a minute or two, please," Head interposed. "First of all—don't take this question personally, or as intended to make any reflection against you, Miss Heriot. What were your relations with Carmichael—how did you get to know him?"
"He financed the play, Manners and Music, and put me in it in the leading part," she answered. "First of all, though, he lent a friend of mine, an actor, some money—I went to him and asked him, and that was how I first saw him. He told me he would lend the money for my sake, and seemed impressed by me, as I intended he should be. When the show was put into rehearsal, I was on tour, and he offered me the principal part. I accepted it. He was not the producer, but he put up the money for Manners and Music, as he did for all sorts of things. He tried to be attentive to me, but I showed him quite plainly that I did not like him personally, though I realised what he had done for me by giving me a leading part in a West-end production."
"And a magnificent part you made it, too!" Head commented, with some show of enthusiasm. "I saw you in it. Now do you mind telling me, Miss Heriot, if Carmichael ever made any suggestions to you that a lady of your standing might resent?"
"Not in so many words—until to-night, that is," she answered. "But he let me see quite plainly that he hoped to have me as his mistress. Showed it by various allusions, and in ways that a woman cannot mistake. For that reason I detested the man, and was surprised to find that Mr. Houghton had invited him here."
"You discouraged him?" he suggested.
"Say ignored him," she amended. "I loathed him, always, in spite of the fact that his money made my success possible."
"Yes," Head observed, "I have heard he was that type of man. As a youngster, he was in this part of the country at times, when his father leased Castel Garde. But now, about this forgery story, Miss Heriot—the story Mr. Houghton has been telling me?"
"Carmichael told me, before I came down for dinner to-night, that he had given Mr. Houghton a cheque for two thousand pounds," she answered, "and that Mr. Houghton had given him a letter of acknowledgment. He said he would destroy the letter and accuse Mr. Houghton of having forged the cheque—have him arrested for forgery."
"But how could Mr. Houghton get hold of one of Carmichael's cheques and forge his signature on it?" Head demanded with patent scepticism. "Come, come, Miss Heriot! It's too thin a fairy tale!"
"But they have accounts at the same bank," she protested earnestly. "So he told me, and he said he had got Mr. Houghton to let him have a cheque form, by saying that he had none left himself—that he hadn't brought any with him. The same branch of the same bank."
"Why should he tell you a thing like this, Miss Heriot?" Head demanded again, still with an air of regarding the story as absurd.
"Because—he said—" she found difficulty in making the reply, evidently—"said that if I would be his mistress he would own to the signature on the cheque—he would not make any accusation against Mr. Houghton, if he could have me."
"I see." He sounded nearer belief in the story, and Houghton drew an audible breath of relief. "Either revenge or you. But why did he want revenge against Mr. Houghton? I thought they were friends."
"A long time ago, Carmichael told me, Mr. Houghton struck him in public," she explained. "And he said, as nearly as I can remember his words—'An Israelite never forgets either a benefit or an injury'."
He shrugged his shoulders. "The race of Israelites wouldn't like to hear him claiming kinship, if there is any truth in this story of yours," he said drily. "I forgot, though—he's dead. Do you know that Mr. Houghton owes—or owed—Carmichael fourteen thousand pounds?"
"I know there is a mortgage," she said, "but not the amount."
"Ah!" He appeared to reflect over the reply. "I suppose you realise that this story of either persecuting Mr. Houghton or getting you as a plaything is one of the thinnest ever told outside blood-and-thunder melodrama, Miss Heriot?"
"It is not a story, but the truth!" she protested indignantly.
"You're quite sure Mr. Houghton and you didn't arrange it between you, after—" he began, but Houghton broke in on the query.
"By God, Inspector—!" he grated out fiercely.
"Quiet!" Head's upraised hand, together with his exclamation, silenced Houghton. "I want the truth. Now, Miss Heriot?"
"Why ask any more?" she retorted with bitter scorn. "Why not arrest us both for killing him?"
"No, not both," he dissented calmly. "And I want a complete case before I think of arresting anyone. Now, accepting this story with no more question for the time, Miss Heriot, of course you went to Mr. Houghton at once and told him what Carmichael had told you?"
"No," she answered. "I had no chance till after dinner."
"I see." There was ironic scepticism in the comment. "Dinner meant more to you than Mr. Houghton's utter ruin, and the term of penal servitude he would get for forgery."
"Inspector," Houghton broke in again, angrily. "She tried—"
"Will you keep quiet?" Head demanded sternly. "I want this lady to give me a perfectly unbiassed story!"
"Dinner did not mean more!" Diane exclaimed passionately, "but—"
"Wait, Miss Heriot!" he interrupted her again. "Don't get too angry with me, please. You had no chance to tell Mr. Houghton this plot against him and you till after dinner, but you told him then?"
"Yes. I left it till then, because Carmichael had told me the letter Mr. Houghton had written him about adding the two thousand pounds to the mortgage was up in his room, and I knew Mr. Houghton was safe as long as that letter was not destroyed."
"Yes. So you told Mr. Houghton about it immediately after dinner?"
"As soon as I could get him alone. We went away from the big fireplace, down to the other end of the hall, on the pretext of his showing me the Othello tapestry, an old panel on the wall there, and I told him then."
"Told him that Carmichael intended to accuse him of forgery unless you consented to become a light woman?" Head suggested.
"Yes," she assented.
"And Mr. Houghton—how did he take it?"
"He was furious, of course!"
"Did he say anything about smashing Carmichael's head in, or anything of the sort?" he persisted.
"Don't answer that question, Diane!" Houghton broke in sharply.
She gave him a piteous, appealing glance: it was becoming apparent to her now that Head was forcing her, with every question, to implicate Houghton more and more. Head himself stood up and, between the two of them, watched her, although he addressed Houghton with his next words.
"Mr. Houghton," he said, coldly, "you have done yourself more harm by that prohibition than by anything you have said to me to-night. I won't repeat the question, Miss Heriot."
"But I'll answer it!" She flung the assertion at him with passionate resentment. "Mr. Houghton said—'By God, I'll kill him!' or something of the sort. I tell you that quite frankly, Inspector, because any man worth the name would have said it before he stopped to think. Mr. Houghton has asked me to marry him to-night, and I have said I would. Do you think for one minute I would consider marrying him if I were not absolutely certain that he is incapable of committing such a murder as this—of striking a man from behind in the dark?"
"Ah!" Again Head sounded coldly reflective. "He said—'By God, I'll kill him!' or something like that?"
"Yes," she retorted passionately. "So would you—so would any man worth calling one, if the woman he loved were threatened as Carmichael had threatened me! I had already said it myself—"
"You?" he interrupted sharply. "Said it to whom?"
"To Carmichael, when he told me of this plan of his," she answered.
"I see. You utterly refused to become Carmichael's mistress?"
"Of course I did!" she exclaimed indignantly. "All I wanted was to tell Mr. Houghton and trust him to find a way of defeating the plot."
"Did you suggest any way?" he asked thoughtfully.
"Yes. That he should make Carmichael own before witnesses to having made the loan, before he could destroy Mr. Houghton's letter."
He nodded approvingly. "Sound, very sound," he commented. "But this murder game intervened and stopped Mr. Houghton from doing that?"
"And Mr. Houghton knew," he pursued, "as soon as the lights went out, Carmichael meant to run up to his room and destroy that letter?"
"I knew it too," she pointed out. "We could both see him waiting at the foot of the stairs for the lights to go out."
"Oh! You knew it too, did you?" he asked, as if he had not expected such an admission from her.
"Yes!" She made a sharp, passionate exclamation of the syllable.
"Yes," he repeated thoughtfully. "Yes. Let's consider that murder game for a minute, Miss Heriot."
Again she glanced at Houghton, fearfully appealing. Head was driving her from one admission to another, and she could see whither he meant to drive her in the end. Houghton stepped forward again.
"I have already told you all about that game, Inspector," he said angrily.
"Quite possibly," Head retorted with cool irony, "but I am availing myself of the information Miss Heriot is kind enough to give me. You permitted me to take full charge here—now oblige me by keeping quiet."
"Oh, well!" Houghton exclaimed in utter exasperation.
"Not well, so far," Head dissented calmly. "Miss Heriot, do you know where Mr. Houghton was when the lights went out?"
"Yes," she answered. "Standing by the pillar in the middle of the hall on the staircase side of it, facing me."
"And where were you?" he pursued.
"Standing with my back to the staircase, opposite the third or fourth stair up. At the end of the fourth stair, probably."
"You could both see Carmichael, then?"
"Yes. He placed himself directly at the foot of the staircase, faced toward it, in readiness to run up when the lights went out."
Head nodded comprehension. "Where had you and Mr. Houghton moved to when the lights came on again?" he asked.
"Mr. Houghton was practically in the same place," she answered. "I had moved a step or two."
"Moved a step or two, eh?" He made the repetition suspiciously significant, and watched her closely.
"Yes," she retorted. "The lights were down nearly ten minutes, and I moved to avoid touching people who passed me."
"Do you know, Miss Heriot," he asked gravely and impressively, "that Mr. Houghton claims the lights were down for not much more than three and a half minutes at most, instead of the ten minutes you state?"
"I had no means of estimating the length of time," she protested, rather confusedly, for he was driving her hard, now. "I could only guess it, in the dark."
"You were in black darkness?" he asked.
"Yes." She recovered her composure. "And I know from stage experience that a period of darkness seems much longer than it really is. It may have been much less than ten minutes."
"But you estimate it as ten minutes, instead of Mr. Houghton's three and a half?" he persisted.
"By my impressions," she insisted. "I was not calculating."
"And you say people passed you in the darkness. How many people?"
"Three, probably four," she answered. "I leant back to avoid being touched by them."
"Yes—yes. Have you any idea who they were?"
"None at all." The reply came unhesitatingly, with certainty. "They made practically no noise, and there was the sound of the wind outside all the time."
"Could you say whether they were men or women?" he asked.
"I haven't the least idea," she answered firmly.
"Was Mr. Houghton one of them?"
"No. He would have had to come straight toward me, and they passed either up or down the hall."
"He might have aimed to come straight toward you," Head pointed out, "might have come higher up the side of the staircase in the dark, and then passed you going toward its foot."
"No," she dissented firmly. "If he had, I should have heard him when he came to the side of the staircase and turned toward me."
"I thought you said the wind prevented you from hearing other sounds clearly?" he reminded her.
"I should have heard that!" she retorted angrily.
"Well, let it go," he said. "And you don't know who any of those were who passed you in the dark?"
"No. The game is—well, rather thrilling, and I was thinking of my chances of being caught and having to scream."
"Then you didn't get the murderer's card—by the way, Miss Heriot, which was the murderer's card for the game?"
"The knave of spades," she answered, "and the king of diamonds was the detective's."
"I see. Now, how long before the beginning of this game did you tell Mr. Houghton of Carmichael's plot against him?"
"I think"—she reflected for a few seconds—"about a quarter of an hour. It may have been a little less."
"Not long enough for his rage against Carmichael to die down?"
"He became interested in the game, as we all did," she countered, seeing the significance of his suggestion.
"Quite possibly," he said, rather caustically. "But when a man is faced with the possibility of an unjust charge of forgery being made against him, and as an alternative seeing the woman he intends to marry as another man's mistress, do you think he's going to lose his rage against the man proposing those alternatives in a quarter of an hour, game or no game?"
She gave him no reply. The persistent inquisition, coming at the end of the night's long strain, and Head's evident determination to compel her to accuse Houghton, or at least to admit belief in his guilt, had almost broken her down. Houghton tried to pass the inspector and go to her, but Head's outstretched arm stopped him.
"Please don't interfere, Mr. Houghton!" Head commanded curtly. "Miss Heriot, I consider myself a fairly cool man, but I can't see myself losing the itch to get my hands on that seducer's throat within fifteen minutes of being told of his devilries, and if I had seen the obvious chance of his going up those stairs in the dark—"
"You accuse me of murdering him, then?" Houghton broke in fiercely.
"Have I?" Head inquired with ironic surprise in his voice. "I was not aware of it. None of what has been said here can be used as evidence—I don't want it as evidence. Call it third degree, if you like, and you'll see later why I'm doing it. You, Mr. Houghton, especially."
"This is utterly absurd!" Diane exclaimed protestingly.
"Is it?" Head sounded derisive, now, and watched her face as he put the query. "With that motive?"
"Mr. Houghton is innocent!" she insisted angrily.
"Who had such just cause to kill the man?" he asked gravely.
She started to her feet and faced him. "I had!" she declared.
"You, Miss Heriot?" He appeared startled.
"I!" There was fierce passion in the assertion. "The man I love threatened, and myself demanded as his price! I!"
"No, no, Miss Heriot!" he reproved her, almost soothingly, and shook his head. "You're trying your best for Mr. Houghton, but—"
"Wait!" she interrupted. "I killed Carmichael!"
An absolute silence, in which Houghton stared at her stupidly, open-mouthed, followed her assertion. Then Head nodded repeatedly, in a way that indicated his satisfaction over her admission.
"In that case—" he began.
But Houghton clutched him by his shoulder and flung him away, so that he went staggering half a dozen steps across the lounge before he could recover himself.
"Don't you see, you damned fool?" Houghton grated out fiercely. "She's lying to save me—and heaven only knows how I kept my hands off you while you tortured her! She's lying—you're right in your infernal suspicions. I killed Carmichael!"
"He didn't, inspector!" Diane cried passionately. "I did. He's trying to save me—don't you see?"
Head faced the pair of them, grave, unperturbed.
"Apparently you both go for trial together," he said coolly, "principal and accessory after." He smiled at them bleakly. "What a pair of fools you are!" he added abruptly.
"Don't you call Miss Heriot a fool again!" Houghton exclaimed wrathfully, "or I'll break your damned neck!"
"I think not." Head sounded quite unmoved by the threat. "But your claim to have murdered him, Miss Heriot, doesn't hold good—it must have been Mr. Houghton. You couldn't have struck three blows with that heavy mace. Let it fall on Carmichael's head once—yes, but not lift it again and yet again for three separate blows."
"But I did!" she insisted desperately. "In a rage like mine, it could be done. I remember striking the three blows."
"Ah, well!" He sighed gently, with evident satisfaction. "You're a good actress, but you fell for it. Carmichael was only struck once, so I don't know where the other two blows went, or what he was doing while you were striking them. Neither do you. And you, Mr. Houghton, with your watch in your hand all the time—I had to work you two up, to make you clear each other."
"You mean—?" Houghton passed his arm round Diane's waist, and gasped the words out, staring at the Inspector fixedly.
"I mean," Head explained, "after you had told me of Carmichael's dirtiness, it was obvious that both of you had a very strong motive for killing him, and I had to satisfy myself about you before looking elsewhere. I am satisfied—that you're a pair of fools, splendid fools."
"I forgive you, Inspector," Houghton said rather huskily. He looked down at Diane, leaning close to him. "You made her show me—her life, even—to save me—"
Head lifted his hand to look at his wrist watch. "I'm afraid we are keeping the murderer waiting," he said drily.
"You mean you know who it is?" In his amazement at the implication, Houghton released his hold on Diane to stare at the inspector.
"Not quite," Head answered calmly. "But now I am satisfied it is neither of you, I think I can lay hands on the right one if this party is prevented from breaking up before I finish—which is why I told my sergeant to watch that they keep together."
"It is one of them, then?" Houghton persisted.
"It might be an outsider," Head admitted, "but I don't think it likely. Would you mind both showing me the cards dealt to you for the murder game?"
Houghton produced a card from his breast pocket, and Diane took hers from the handbag she had brought with her. They held the two cards out, but Head gestured them back.
"Right, and pretty conclusive too," he observed. "You can keep them for the present. King and Queen of Hearts—and Carmichael had the knave in his pocket, I believe. Most appropriate."
"You've quite finished questioning us?" Houghton asked.
"Questioning you—yes." He frowned thoughtfully. "But you can both do something for me, if you will."
"Anything we possibly can to help you," Houghton assured him. He put his arm round Diane's shoulders again and looked down at her.
"I think you say the same, don't you, darling?"
"Anything he asks us," she assented.
"Yes," Head observed drily, "that's what the murderer is going to say, if I happen to question him. I want you to let me handcuff you two together, and take you out into the hall handcuffed while I finish my inquiry—and my case, I hope."
"But—" Houghton looked alarmed—"you mean—after all—?"
"No, I don't," Head interrupted decidedly. "You can have the key of the handcuffs, and unlock yourselves when I've finished what I want to do. And with the pair I've got here, Miss Heriot can slip her small hand in and out without unlocking the manacle. I want the real murderer to feel that I've arrested you two, to see you handcuffed together, and feel quite confident, whatever I do or say."
"But—but it's degrading," Houghton protested uneasily.
"Anything you can do to help me, I thought," Head reminded him, caustically. "And I wouldn't feel myself degraded over being attached to a lady like Miss Heriot, even by a handcuff. Call it stage play. I want to get my man to-night, not have weeks and weeks of work as I shall if this party disperses before I complete my case—work which might end in failure, unless it's completed to-night."
"Diane"—Houghton looked down at her again—"will you submit to it?"
She gave him a brief, happy glance. "It's—it's to help him," she answered, "and—and—being attached to you—" She broke off, then.
Head smiled again as he observed them. "One little irrelevant point, Mr. Houghton, now I think of it," he remarked. Andy Parker reckons his fetching me here as worth two pounds a mile. It seems to me an abnormally high figure, but—" He left it at that, knowing quite well that at this moment, with Diane cleared of suspicion and held close to him, Houghton would agree to pay anything Andy chose to ask.
"He shall have it," Houghton promised, "and state the milage himself. Tell him to come to me for it."
"Good—I will." He took a pair of handcuffs from his pocket. "Now, your right hand, please, Mr. Houghton." He clicked a manacle on Houghton's wrist, felt in his pocket again, and held out the key. "Now take this, and you can unlock that thing and take it off after I've finished out in the hall. Miss Heriot, just slip your hand through this other one, please, and mind it doesn't slip off again before I want it removed. Yes—so! That's how I want you to go out to the hall, and see that the handcuffs show as you go."
He stood back and surveyed them, and shook his head.
"Wrong expression," he told them. "Hold your wrists so that the handcuffs are easily seen, and look miserable! That's very important. Remember, this is no play, but deadly earnest—very deadly for somebody. I'm doing this to enable me to arrest a murderer, and that won't be a pleasant sight for either of you. Now, are you all ready?"
"All ready," Houghton assented gravely.
Head went toward the door. "I don't think I've ever felt pleasure in putting these things on people before," he observed. "Please don't let your hand slip out of that manacle, Miss Heriot—crook your wrist a bit, and remember, look miserable. And whatever you do, don't speak to anyone."
"I'm sorry," Diane apologised. "I'm not used to them. But I don't think it will fall off, if I hold it like this."
"That's better," Head admitted, "but mind it as you go through the doorway. I think you'd better get slightly ahead of Mr. Houghton." He regarded the pair with as much anxiety as ever a producer put into scrutiny of his principals at the final dress rehearsal. "And outside there, I'm not going to ask you to do anything, but order you to do it. You understand that, Mr. Houghton?"
"I will help you in any way I can," Houghton promised gravely.
Head nodded. "If all goes well," he said, "the actual murderer will have no opportunity to make that offer."
"NOW, both of you!" Still holding the door handle, Head looked at the linked pair, and his tone changed: Diane started at the harsh note of command. "This is no play we're going to, but deadly earnest, remember. Precede me out, and seat yourselves on that settee on the right of the doorway just outside this room." He pulled the door open, and with a movement of his head gestured them forward. Following, he closed the door, and Kemp, standing before the fire, caught sight of the handcuffs and visibly reeled and recovered, starting forward—
"Jim, lad!" He put a whole world of horror and grief into the two words—but Head held up a forbidding hand.
"Stop where you are, Mr. Kemp!" he commanded curtly. "I am in charge here, and I absolutely forbid anyone of you ladies and gentlemen to hold any communication with this pair till I have finished collecting the further evidence I want. They won't get away from each other."
He made that last assertion with grim satisfaction. With Kemp paused rigidly, and all the rest on their feet and staring—except Mrs. Hammersley and Betty Ferguson, who kept one to the pouffe and the other to her armchair—Head turned to the lower end of the hall, where his two men and Doctor Bennett had risen at his appearance.
"Jeffries, stay there in charge of Andy," he called. "Sergeant Wells, I want you here! Doctor Bennett, I want you too, please."
Without waiting for their approach, he faced Houghton and Diane.
"You two may sit down, for the present, on that settee by the wall," he bade, as sharply and coldly as if they had been real prisoners. "Here, Wells—place yourself just here, and see that they hold no communication with anyone else for the present. No, don't take charge of them in any way. I haven't cautioned either of them formally, yet. Just stand there, between them and the rest of the people here."
He was setting his stage, Houghton realised as he seated himself beside Diane, and, even though it were but a play as far as Houghton himself and Diane were concerned, this curt authoritativeness was galling almost to the limit of endurance. In spite of Head's admonition regarding the handcuffs, he tried to settle them out of sight between himself and Diane, and so made them more conspicuous. Head turned to Bennett as he approached.
"Just a word, doctor," he said, and gestured down the hall. They moved beyond hearing of the rest.
"You made that second examination?" Head asked.
Bennett nodded. "With no results of importance," he answered.
"Did you go through his pockets, or leave them to me?"
"Went through them," Bennett replied. "Put everything back, though. Why—did you want them left untouched?"
"I don't think so. You left that knave of hearts as you found it?"
"I did. You mean—it was proof that he was in the murder game?"
"Oh, he was in it!" Head sounded rather impatient. "All right, doctor. Just wait here or hereabouts, apart from everyone for the present, if you don't mind."
He turned and went toward the fireplace, pausing within a few feet of Rodney Black, who gave him a defiant, rather contemptuous stare. Then he bent and took hold of a small occasional table, drawing it toward one of the vacant armchairs. He knew the value of this impressive silence, and made it last long enough to afford him brief scrutiny of every face in the group.
"I am sorry"—he spoke clearly and slowly—"to have detained you all so long. You will, I hope, realise that on entering this place I knew only that a man had been found dead—I had no details of any kind. My duty now, as probably you all see, is an exceedingly painful one, and it includes one or two further things necessary for the completion of my case."
He seated himself in the armchair he had chosen, faced toward the group of watchers, with the occasional table before him. There followed another little eternity of suspense while he took out his note book and then a fountain pen, of which he unscrewed the cap, placing it on the reverse end so that the pen was ready for use.
"For the purposes of this case of mine," he went on, "I am interested in the murder game, in which I understand you all took part. Now, can any of you tell me who first proposed this game?"
"I believe I mentioned it first," Rodney Black said after a pause.
"No, I suggested it to you," Helen Turner objected. "Don't you remember, Rodney?"
"Well, since you claim the honour," Black conceded with apparent reluctance. "You might have let me keep it, though."
"May I ask your names, please?" Head inquired.
"This lady is Miss Helen Turner," Black answered him. "My name is Rodney Black."
Head opened his note book and made a show of turning its pages. Then he looked up again. "Now," he asked, "can anyone tell me what cards were used in the game? Did you take the top seventeen from a pack to make one each, or did you select special cards?"
"I can tell you," Mrs. Hammersley said. "We took the four aces, the four tens, and nine court cards."
"Missing out the court cards of clubs," Ruthven added. "Mrs. Hammersley and I did the choosing."
"Thank you, sir. Your name, please?"
"Ruthven. Fraser Ruthven."
Again Head took up his note book and looked at the list of names Houghton had given him.
"We made the knave of spades the murderer," Mrs. Hammersley explained further, "and the king of diamonds the detective."
"Ah! Thank you." He gave her a long, thoughtful look. "May I ask your name, please, madam?"
"Mary Woodward Hammersley," she answered composedly.
"The surname would have been enough, madam," he observed courteously, inclining his head toward her in acknowledgment. "I am not taking statements of witnesses, now, but merely asking a few questions to clear up points in the happenings of the evening—up to the time this man was murdered. Now will somebody tell me who shuffled the cards?"
"Mr. Ruthven and I," Mrs. Hammersley told him. "Then he cut them, and I dealt one to each person."
"Thank you. Four aces, four tens, and nine court cards. Seventeen in all. Yes."
He was irritatingly, even exasperatingly reflective and dilatory. Again he took up his note book, looked at it as if in indecision, and then put it down on the table and took up his fountain pen. Then he gazed steadily at the group before him, and to every one it appeared that his gaze sought the eyes of that one and no other.
"I want you all, now, to come to me here, one at a time," he said, distinctly and impressively, "and each of you put down on this table the card that was dealt you for the murder game!"
"Ah-h-h!" Kemp breathed it, a long, sighing sound of terror, and the whole party stood staring at the seated man before them, as if his demand had petrified them all—except that, a little apart from the rest, Mrs. Hammersley and Betty Ferguson kept their respective seats. And they, too, stared wonderingly as they heard the command, for it was no less, as all slowly realised.
"Come along, anyone!" Head barked at last, in sharp, impatient irritation. "I don't care who's first, but I want those cards!"
After another brief pause, in which four or five of the party moved irresolutely, Tom Russell took his card from his breast pocket, advanced nervously to the table, and put down the card.
"Thank you," Head said curtly. "Ten of spades. Your name, please?"
"Tot-tot-tot-Thomas Russell," he responded shakily.
Head wrote the name across the card with his fountain pen. "That will do, thank you," he said. "Next, please?
Ferguson approached the table as Tom went back from it, and put down the king of diamonds with, beside it, the ace of spades that Betty had dropped and refused to take back when Tom Russell had offered it.
"That," Ferguson said, "is my card, and that ace of spades is my sister's—Miss Betty Ferguson's. I am Doctor Albert Ferguson."
"Thank you, doctor." Head wrote Ferguson's name across his card, drew the ace of spades towards him, and, pausing, looked up.
"Is anyone else in a position to state that this ace of spades was the card dealt to Miss Betty Ferguson for the game?" he asked.
"I am," Tom Russell spoke up promptly. "I saw it fall out of her bag and picked it up. I know it's hers."
Head wrote Betty's name across the card. "Next, please?" he asked.
Kemp came forward and laid down the ace of clubs. "Ah, Mr. Kemp!" Head looked up at him in a way that indicated his realisation of Kemp's pitiable nervousness, and possible comprehension of the significance of the one club—the weapon that had struck Carmichael down. He wrote the name on the card, put it aside, and looked up as Kemp retired. Ruthven came slowly to the table, and laid down the ten of diamonds.
"Mr. Fraser Ruthven—thank you," Head said, and inscribed the card.
Ruthven went back to where Kemp was standing, and in turn Gwen and Jack Warren approached the table putting down the king of spades—Head gave it a second look as Gwen put it down, and made a little negative movement of his head, scarcely amounting to a shake—and the ten of hearts. Joan Shaw followed them, putting down the ten of clubs, and Head looked up at her.
"May I have your name, please?" His voice was surprisingly gentle as he asked the question.
"Shaw. The—the other name is Joan—Joan Shaw. The—it's the ten of diamonds. It was given me for the game."
"Thank you very much, Miss Shaw," he said, with evident kindness. "That's all I shall want of you."
She retired, and Ethna Blair went to the table and laid down the ace of hearts. Head took the card, wrote her name on it, and swept the others on which the ink had dried into a little pile, for the vacant space on the table had grown small. And now the number of those still holding cards was terribly small: fate was closing in on them.
"What does it mean, Mary?" Betty Ferguson asked, bending forward as she sat to whisper.
"He's playing the game out without asking any questions," Mrs. Hammersley answered cynically, and watched Rodney Black go to the table. He put down the knave of diamonds, gave his name, and stood back to make way for Helen Turner, who laid down the queen of spades.
"This your card?" Head rasped out sourly, looking up at her.
"The card that was dealt to me," she answered. "I am Miss Helen Turner, in case you wish to know my name."
He wrote the name, and ranged the gathering round the fire with his gaze. "The cards are not all in, yet," he announced. "I want three more from you."
Peter Mostyn glanced at his brother and went to the table.
"Mostyn—Peter Mostyn—queen of diamonds," he said.
Head inscribed it without comment, and looked up.
"It's growing late."
"Well?" he asked harshly.
Then Bernard Mostyn went to him.
"Mostyn—Bernard," he said. "That's my card."
Head wrote "B. Mostyn" across the ace of diamonds, pushed it aside, and shifted the other cards on the table with his forefinger idly. Then he gathered them up, shuffled them twice in an abstracted way, and slipped them into the side pocket of his lounge coat. He replaced the cap on his fountain pen, put it away, and put his note book in his pocket, after which he rose slowly to his feet.
"The tally is complete," he said, "thirteen cards. By this time, I expect you have all realised why I wanted them. The one who held the knave of spades, the murderer in the game, had to make somebody scream before the lights could go up again. That one, and that one only, knew how long the period of darkness would be, and in effect controlled the lights. That one only could be sure of committing real murder in the dark."
Again his gaze ranged all the party, and went for one instant to Houghton and Diane, seated side by side, apart, and very still.
"That one," Head went on, slowly and impressively, "has confirmed the theory I had formed."
He stepped aside from the table, with a startlingly abrupt movement.
"Wells!" His voice had all the crispness of official authority. "Come here—I want you! Mr. Houghton, you can unlock that handcuff and take it off!"
He stood, looking across at the pouffe. The one seated on it rose slowly, and came toward him steadily unfalteringly—Tom Russell started back from her as she passed, as if fearful lest she should touch him. She faced Head, proudly, coldly.
"You are a very clever man, Inspector Head—cleverer than I thought you," she said. "The tally is complete, you say? Then this one—this card—is apart from the rest?"
Head looked for one instant at the card, and then full into her eyes again.
"Quite apart," he answered her.
"Yes," she said, "the tally of these other people is complete. As for me, I killed him, and I have no fear, no regret."
She put down the knave of spades.
Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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