TWISTING the card in his fingers, Lancaster Vane stood, impatient. He had all the novelist's scarring, lightning-flash passion for puerile interruption.
"Didn't I tell you?" he growled. Then he paused, with the surging sense of humour uppermost. The black-and-white starched parlour maid was wilting before his scathing indignation. "Don't you know that I once murdered a maid who disobeyed my orders like this? Show the man in."
The girl gurgled and vanished. Then followed a man with a gliding step and a moist gray eye, that took the whole room and the trim garden beyond and even the novelist in like the flash of a camera, and held the picture on the mental gelatin for all time.
"I am afraid I am intruding upon you, sir," the stranger suggested.
"Oh, you are," Vane said quietly. "Don't let that trouble you, though. I always work in the mornings, and I play golf all the afternoon. I make this arrangement so that if people waste my time in the mornings I can make up for it by sacrificing my pleasure after luncheon."
Inspector Darch, of Scotland Yard, ventured upon a smile.
"I come upon business of importance," he said.
"I guessed that from the card. Had you not been a policeman I should have declined to see you. In search of copy I have spent a deal of time in police and criminal courts, and I am bound to say I have a certain affection for the average constable. He has imagination—the way he generally gives his evidence shows that. He is a novelist in the nut."
Inspector Darch looked searchingly at the speaker. He was just a little disappointing. He was not tall and pale, with flashing eyes and long hair; on the contrary, his hair was that of the athlete, and he might have passed for a pugilist of the better class. The sensitive mouth and fine gray eyes saved the countenance from the commonplace. Thus it was that, after a second searching gaze, Darch seemed to see a face kaleidoscope from broad commonplace into the rugged suggestion of a young Gladstone. Here was no ordinary man. But then everybody who had studied Lancaster Vane's novels knew that.
"My complaint is, that we all lack imagination," the inspector said. "Of course, what you so playfully allude to is inventiveness. Young policeman always invent—they fancy that their first duty is to get a conviction. But they have no imagination. I've got a name and a good reputation, but no imagination."
"You have come to a deadlock in some case you have on hand?"
"That's it, sir. And I've made so bold as to come and ask for your assistance."
"Come out into the garden and smoke a cigar, then," Vane said suddenly.
Darch complied willingly. Vane's thatched cottage was on the river—a tiny place consisting of a large study, a smoking room, and a dining-room, with quarters at the back for bachelor friends. Hither he had come earlier in the season than usual, with the intention of finishing a novel, before turning from "his beans and bacon," as he phrased it, to the butterfly delights of the London season. For Vane's books were satires for the most part, and he knew his world as well as any man living. Audacity and insight were the jewels in the wheel of his style. He had a marvellous faculty for seeing through a thing, a faculty that made him both respected and feared.
The garden was a riotous delight of daffodils and tulips, primulas and narcissus. There was no finer show of those pure spring flowers to be seen anywhere. Vane had a perfect passion for flowers, especially the spring varieties. He could name a bulb as a savant can locate the flint or the sandstone. With an eye for detail, Darch did not fail to notice that there were no less than 16 varieties of daffodils.
"Here I live for my work and my flowers," said Vane. "When down here, I smoke a pipe and live more or less on fish and bacon. When I am in town, I am nice over my wine and critical to rudeness over my friend's cigarettes. You are fond of flowers, Mr. Darch?"
"At present I am deeply interested in them," Darch replied.
"And thereby hangs a tale," said Vane. "Go on."
"There! I knew you were the man for me," Darch said admiringly.
Vance smiled; for even a novelist is only a man in disguise.
"Heavens! If I'd only got that insight of yours! It's a murder case, sir."
"You have a murder case on hand that utterly puzzles you?" Vane had dropped into a rustic garden seat, where he was thoughtfully pulling at his pipe. "And the matter is not remotely connected with flowers," he concluded.
"Got it again, sir!" the delighted Darch exclaimed. "You see, it's like this. I've read all your books—indeed, I have read most novels that make the study of humanity, and I don't deny that I've learnt a lot that way."
"Have you really?" Vane said quickly.
"I don't mind your little joke, sir. I've learnt that an innocent man can show exactly the same terror as the guilty caught red-handed; I've learnt—but no matter. And many a time it has struck me what a wonderful detective a first class novelist would make. I don't mean in little things, such as tracking criminals and the like—I mean in elucidating big problems. When we exhaust every avenue, his imagination would find a score of others, especially if he had a good psychological knowledge of his man. Now, I've got a case on hand that I believe you can solve for me, sir."
"Possibly," said Vane. "But where does my psychological knowledge come in? Seeing that there is no suspect, and that the victim is a stranger to me—"
"The victim is no stranger to you Mr. Vane; I've found that out. And because you know him, and because of your novels, I am here today."
"This is getting interesting," Vane murmured. "The victim?"
"Ernst Van Noop. He was found dead in his cottage at Pinner last night, and there is not the slightest trace of the murderer. Van Noop lived in his house quite alone, and he seemed to have no hobby or occupation beyond his little garden and greenhouses."
"Except when he was spouting sedition in Hyde Park on Sundays," said Vane. "I'm sorry to hear about this. Really, Van Noop was a perfectly harmless creature, and at heart as gentle as a child. A little eccentric, but that was all."
Darch dissented mildly. He was bound to regard the doings of the dead Dutchman with an official eye. The man had been an anarchist of the worst type; his Sunday orations would never have been tolerated in any other country; his doctrines were, to say the least, inflammatory.
"You are quite wrong," said Vane. "Poor Van Noop would not have injured a fly. In his way the man was a genius, and genius must have an outlet, or it is apt to become chargeable upon the rates. Anarchy was Van Noop's safety valve. He and I came together over the common table of flowers—bulbs especially. He could have worked wonders in the way of hybrids and new varieties had he lived. Your dangerous character theory won't hold water. I defy you to prove to me that the poor old Dutchman consorted with notoriously dangerous characters."
"Then why did he ask for police protection?" Darch demanded. "What was he afraid of? He had no money or valuables, he never went near any of the Soho clubs; so far as we can tell, nobody suspicious ever went near him. Yet for the last few days that man has been frightened out of his life—afraid of being murdered, he said. At the same time he refused to give any account of the party or parties who held him in terror, and he point-blank declined to open his mouth as to the reason for any threats or danger."
"You fancy he was a Nihilist who had fallen under the ban of the order?"
"I feel practically certain of it, sir," Darch replied. "He has been murdered by those people, and they have left no trace behind. That is why I am here."
Vane smiled in a manner calculated to annoy anybody but a detective.
"I don't fancy you are far wrong to appeal to the imagination of a novelist," he said, "especially to a novelist who knows the victim. I don't know the murderer, any more than you do, but I'll prophesy for once. Within a week you shall have the assassin within your hands. Come, isn't that assertion enough even for a writer of fiction?"
"You can put your hand upon the Nihilist?" Darch cried. "You know him?"
"I don't know him, and he isn't a Nihilist," Vane replied. "I haven't the remotest idea who the murderer is, and yet I stick to my opinion. I am going entirely on a theory, which theory is built upon some knowledge of the dead man's past. You will, perhaps, be glad to hear that it is a theory that would only occur to a novelist; therefore you were perfectly right in the line of policy that brought you here. Now, perhaps you will be so good as to tell me all the details."
"The details are nil, practically," Darch replied. "The policeman on duty near Van Noop's cottage had certain special orders. He noticed that the door was not open late in the afternoon, and he could not make anybody hear. Then he burst open the door and found Van Noop lying dead in the kitchen with a wound in his side. There were no signs of violence; indeed, Van Noop must have been taken quite by surprise, for just under his heel, as if he had slipped upon it, was a small smashed onion."
"Onion!" Vane cried. "An onion! Great Scot!"
The mention of that homely yet pungent vegetable seemed to have the strangest effect upon the novelist. He glanced at Darch with mingled contempt and pity, a great agitation possessed him as he restlessly strode to and fro. Then he dropped into his seat again, and his shoulders shook in a fit of uncontrollable laughter.
"You will pardon me," he said, after a pause; "but your apparently commonplace words swept all the strings of emotion at once. And yet you say there is no clue. Now, could you have any clue stronger than an onion?"
"You are slightly too subtle for me, sir," Darch said, not without heat.
"I beg your pardon," Vane said contritely. "But I should very much like to see that onion."
Darch replied that the request might be complied with. He would have permitted himself the luxury of satire with anybody else but Vane over the matter. But then Vane had made him a cold, concrete promise that he should handle the quarry within seven days. From a novelist who had consistently refused to be interviewed, the promise carried weight.
"Was there anything else?" Vane asked.
"Nothing so prominent as the onion," Darch replied. "I, of course, made a close examination of the body, and in the right hand I found a flower. It looks to me like a periwinkle. Of course, it is much faded, and perhaps you may attach some importance to it. Being an ordinary man, it conveys nothing to me?"
Vane's eyes were gleaming. The lines of his sensitive mouth twitched. If he was moved to laughter anymore, he laughed inside.
"I don't suppose it would," he said thoughtfully, "seeing that Van Noop was a lover of flowers. He might have been looking at the bloom at the moment when the fatal blow was struck. It would be quite natural for him to keep the flower in his grasp. You have it, of course?"
"Yes, sir," said Darch. "One never quite knows. Didn't some great man once say that there are no such things as small details?"
"Details are the cogwheels of great actions," Vane said sententiously. "Give me the flower."
Darch took the withered bloom from his pocketbook. It was wilted and lank, with a grass green stem and some dank velvet tassels hanging forlornly to the head. Had it been some precious treasure of the storied ages Vane could not have examined it more tenderly.
"What do you make of it?" Darch asked carelessly.
Vane shook his head. "The bloom is too far gone at present," he said. "It might be possible to revive it by plunging the whole in tepid water, with a little salt added." And yet, in spite of his assumed indifference, Vane's voice shook a little when he spoke.
"You had better leave this with me," he said. "In any case, it will be quite safe in my hands, and as the inquest on Van Noop's body is over, you will not need it for the present. At the same time, I am quite in earnest over my prophecy. If you will come here this day week at 6 P.M., I will go with you and assist you, if necessary, in arresting the murderer."
Darch departed, somewhat dazed at the result of his interview. But there was no smile on the face of the novelist, nothing but eager, palpitating curiosity, as he proceeded to plunge the wilted flower into water, to which a little salt was added.
"I'll go for a long pull on the river," he murmured. "I can't stay here by that thing. I should get an attack of nerves watching it expand. I wonder if it is possible that—"
He came back at length, two hours later, and proceeded to the study. Then he drew the flower from the water, and, behold! a glorious and pleasing transformation. The dead, crepe-like petals had filled out to a velvety, glossy softness, black as night and lustrous as ebony. There were five of these black petals, and in the centre a calyx of deep purple with a heart of gold. Vane's hand shook as if with wine as he examined the perfect flowers, his eyes were glowing with admiration.
He flicked the water from it and dried it carefully. Then he held it where the sun might play upon the velvety lustre and shine upon the perfect dead blackness. Vane's eyes were like those of a mother gazing at a child back from the gates of death.
"Now I know what Van Noop was hinting at," he said. "He said he had a fortune in his pocket, and he was right. And I am the only living man who has been as yet permitted to look upon a black narcissus."
It was characteristic of Lancaster Vane that he should throw himself heart and soul into his undertaking. It had occurred to him more than once that the typical detective officer was lacking in imagination, and crime in the abstract interested him, as it must interest all writers of fiction; and more than once he had found his theories of some great case not only at variance with the police, but absolutely right when they had been as absolutely wrong.
That marvelous audacity and insight had rarely failed Vane when dealing with living, breathing humanity. And he had no fear of failure here.
All the same, Inspector Darch began to grow uneasy when the sixth day came and nothing had transpired—at least, nothing of a tangible nature. He came down to the cottage late in the evening with a sufficiently flimsy excuse for seeing the man of letters.
Vane was seated in his study, reading by the light of a shaded lamp. The vivid blood-red line of the fringed silk was but one crimson spot in a dim, shimmering blackness. The novelist half sighed, and then smiled as he laid down his book.
"I had forgotten all about you, Darch," he said.
"You don't mean to say you have done nothing, sir?" the inspector cried.
"On the contrary, I have done a great deal, my friend," Vane replied. "I meant that I had forgotten you for a moment. I am reading a novel here which in my humble opinion is the best that Dumas ever wrote."
"Monte Cristo?" Darch murmured. "Hear, hear!"
"No, it is not Monte Cristo," Vane replied. "I am alluding to 'The Black Tulip.' Later on you will appreciate the value of the work. Imagination and education do a great deal for a man, but a judicious system of novel-reading does more. Some day our prophet shall arise and tell the world what an influence for good the best novels have wielded. Do you know the book?"
Darch admitted having skimmed it. He had found the characterisation feeble—at least, from a detective's point of view. Vane smiled.
"I shall change your opinion presently," he said. "Have you discovered anything?"
"As to Van Noop, you mean? No, sir. Have you?"
"No," Vane replied. "I am still quite as much in the dark as yourself."
"But you promised me that within a week—"
"I would show you the man. Well, I am going to do so. I haven't the remotest idea who he is yet, but I am going to meet him tomorrow afternoon. When I have done so, I shall send you a telegram to Scotland Yard giving you the man's address and the hour you are to meet me there. Does that satisfy you?"
Darch expressed his thanks but feebly. All this was very irregular. Also, though it had an element of gasconade about it, it was impossible to look into Vane's strong, grave face and doubt that he believed every word that he uttered. If this were detective's work, why, then, it amounted to genius. And thus Darch departed, with a strong feeling of uncertainty.
It was a little after 12:00 the next day that Vane set out to walk from Pinner Station on the Metropolitan to the cottage recently inhabited by the unhappy Van Noop. Nearing his destination he felt in his pocketbook for certain news cuttings and a printed circular he had there. And this printed circular was to the effect that on this same date the whole of the garden produce, plants, flowers, bulbs, and apparatus generally belonging to the late Ernst Van Noop, were to be sold by auction, by order of the landlord, under a distress for rent. By the time Vane came to the cottage a free sprinkling of gardeners and florists had arrived, for, though the sale was a small one, Van Noop had been fairly well known amongst the brotherhood, and there was just the chance of picking up an odd parcel or so of hybrid bulbs which might become worth their weight in gold later on.
A lover of flowers and a man keen on anything new in that direction, Vane was respectfully recognised. Most of the dealers present were gathered in the kitchen of the cottage where the bulbs were set out in little coarse blue paper bags. Most of them were properly labeled and catalogued, but there were three packets, of four bulbs each, to which the most trained florist present would have found it hard to give a name.
Vane pushed his way through a little knot of dealers. One of them touched his hat.
"Anything new here, Harris?" he asked.
"Well, sir," was the reply. "Van Noop was a close sort of party. I did hear something—in fact, I read it in the 'Garden Herald' today—as Van Noop had some wonderful black bulbs here, but maybe it's all nonsense. I can't make head or tail of those little packets yonder, and I should be sorry to risk a sovereign on the chance of them turning out anything beyond the common. The other bulbs look good, but we could all show as fine a variety."
"I'll speculate," said Vane. "There's a commission for you, Harris. You can go up to five pounds each for those particular packets, but not a penny beyond. Of course, it will be throwing money away, but nothing venture, nothing win. And it may be possible that the 'Garden Herald' was right, and Van Noop had invented the black tulip, after all."
Vane had spoken loud enough for everybody to hear. Then he left the cottage and strode down with the air of a man who has important business before him. He came back later and lounged into the cottage unconcernedly with a pipe in his mouth. The small knot of buyers were still lingering there. Vane came up to Harris languidly.
"Well," he asked. "Do you want my cheque for those mysterious bulbs?"
"No, sir," Harris replied, "and in my opinion you're quite well out of it. I bid up to five pounds, and then a stranger raised a sovereign a bag, and I dropped it, of course. There he is, sir. You don't often get a chance to see the amateur enthusiast at his best; but he's only a foreigner."
This with the finest insular contempt. Vane glanced carelessly at the slight, stooping figure and thin, pinched features of the man who had incurred the florist's displeasure. The eyes he could not see, for they were behind glasses.
"Evidently an enthusiast, like myself," Vane said. "We all have our philosopher's stone, Harris."
"I dare say we do," Harris replied sententiously.
Vane smiled again. He passed over to the auctioneer and, after a few minutes with that worthy, scribbled out a telegram in pencil. When he looked round again, the foreign connoisseur had disappeared. Harris was busily engaged in directing the package of his own small purchase.
"I am coming over tomorrow to see that salmon auricula of yours," said Vane. "I am sorry to say that mine are doing indifferently. Not enough shade, perhaps.'
"That's it, sir," Harris responded. "Aristocratic flower, naturally, is the auricula. Put 'em in an old garden along the borders under apple trees, and you can grow 'em like peonies. It's only county people who can grow auriculas."
"I'll put a coat-of-arms over mine," Vane laughed. "By the way, as you are passing a station, will you be good enough to send this telegram for me?"
The telegram merely contained an address, followed by a single figure, and was directed to Darch's registered address at Scotland Yard. To the casual reader it conveyed nothing. Then Vane made his way into the road.
He walked on for a mile or more until he came, at length, to a pretty little cottage, a double-fronted one-story affair, covered with creepers. There was a long garden in front, a garden deep sunken between trim, thick hedges, the black soil of which was studded with thousands of flowers—hyacinths, tulips, narcissus, nothing was wanting.
Vane's artistic eye reveled in the lovely sight.
He stood thus feasting his soul on the mass of beautiful colors before him. The more important mission was forgotten for the moment. There was something of envy in Vane's glance, too, for with all his lavish outlay he could not produce blooms like these. And the owner of the place was obviously a poor man.
"A better soil, perhaps," Vane muttered, "or perhaps it's because these beauties get the whole attention of the grower. Flowers want more attention than most women. When those gladiolus come into bloom—"
Vane paused in his ruminations as the owner of the cottage came out. He had a black skullcap on the back of his head, around which gray hairs straggled like a thatch. As he stood in the path of the setting sun Vane noticed the long, slender hands and a heavy signet ring on the right little finger. They were not the hands of the toiler or workman, and yet to Vane they indicated both strength and resolution.
"I am admiring your flowers," he said. "They are absolutely perfect. I am an enthusiast myself, but I have nothing like this."
"Nothing so perfect?" the old man said. "Won't you come in, sir?"
The question was asked with a certain mixture of humility and high courtesy that seemed to take Vane back over the bridge of the centuries. The man before him was bent and shaken by the palsy of old age, and yet his eyes were full of fire and determination. His English was thin and foreign, yet he spoke with the easy fluency of the scholar. Again Vane forgot his mission. An hour or more passed, the sun had flamed down behind the fragrant hawthorn, and Vane was still listening.
He had met a man with an enthusiasm greater than his own. Vane was standing in the presence of a master, and he knew it. The man was talking excitedly.
"I was a rich man once," he said. "The Van Eykes were a power in Holland at one time. And I have ruined myself over flowers as Orientals ruin themselves over their harems, and as the visionary in seeking for the elixir of life. Flowers have ever been my mistress—I have given my all for them, my life to the study of the secrets of nature. If I could only go down to posterity as the inventor of something new—"
"A black tulip, for instance," Vane suggested.
The dark eyes behind the glasses flashed. Vane looked at his watch.
"Oh, yes!" Van Eyke cried. "It was that fascinating romance that first set me thinking. Perhaps you, too, have had your dreams, sir?"
"I confess it," Vane smiled. "You see, I am a novelist as well as a florist. I am still sanguine of seeing a black, a velvety black, flower. It will be soft-stemmed when it comes, and, as you know, it will be a bulbous plant."
"Perhaps I shall be able to show it to you."
Van Eyke spoke quietly, yet with a thrill in his voice. His hand trembled with something more than the weight of years. His glance wandered toward the house.
"I had it almost within my grasp five years ago," he said. "I was living near Amsterdam then. You should have seen my hybrids—black, and white, and patches, and the black pre-dominating. Heavens! how I longed and waited for the next springtime!"
"You are speaking of tulips, of course?" Vane asked carelessly.
"Oh, no," said Van Eyke. He paused in confusion, the red thread of his lips paled. "Yes, yes, of course I meant tulips. The black tulip. Ah, ah!"
His gaiety was not a pleasant thing. It was too suggestive of the butterfly on the skeleton.
"Oh! I waited for the springtime," he went on. "Aye, I waited as a prisoner for freedom. And they all came pink! My children had been stolen! Sir, you are a novelist. You can understand the frame of mind in which one commits murder."
"Did you track the man who had robbed you?" Vane asked.
"After a time I did; but it was years. Sir, I am talking nonsense."
"You may have said too much in the excitement of the moment," Vane said coolly, "But certainly you are not talking nonsense. You tracked your man, and you killed him. Why?"
Van Eyke's hands went up with an almost mechanical gesture. At the same moment a step was heard, crunching the gravel outside, and Darch appeared. Vane made a motion with his hand in the direction of Van Eyke's bent, quivering figure.
"You have come in time," he said. "This is Mr. Darch, of Scotland Yard. And this is Mr. Van Eyke, the man who killed Van Noop a few days ago."
Darch was too astonished to speak for a moment. The dramatic force of the situation had almost overpowered him. For crime as a rule is sordid enough, and the heroic in the life of a detective is only for the pages of fiction.
"This is a poor return for all my courtesy," Van Eyke said, not without dignity. "I have never even heard of the gentleman you mention."
Darch looked helplessly at Vane. The suggestion that he was about to be fooled was painful. Never had the mantle of the majesty of the law lain more awkwardly on his shoulders.
"It is quite possible," Vane said, "that you never heard of Van Noop by that name. But assuredly you knew all about the man at Pinner, the man who was murdered, and some of whose bulbs today fetched over five pounds a packet, or nearly two pounds per bulb."
"I have not heard of that," said Van Eyke.
"Strange, seeing that you purchased them," Vane went on. "This is nonsense, Mr. Van Eyke. I saw you at the sale, and I am surprised that you did not see me. However, all this is beside the point. You bought those bulbs at an extravagant price because you believed that they were the bulbs of the black—"
"There is not a black—a black tulip in the world."
"Who said anything about a black tulip?" Vane retorted. "What you were after was a black narcissus. Perhaps you will deny the existence of that?"
"I should like to see it, above all things."
The sneer passed over Vane's head. He stepped close to Van Eyke and opened his overcoat. In the lapel of his coat, the stem carefully preserved in water, he wore Van Noop's black narcissus. The flower was slightly ragged at the edges, but it was all there, like a lovely woman past her prime.
The effect was staggering. Van Eyke fell, as if some unseen power had beaten him to his knees.
"Where did you get it?" he asked hoarsely. "Where did you get it?"
"Surely you need not ask the question," said Vane. "It was the one Van Noop was holding in his hand at the time you murdered him."
Van Eyke rose slowly to his feet. He made no further denial of the grave charge, he seemed to be absolutely unconscious of the danger hanging over his head. He had only eyes for the flower in Vane's coat. Darch watched the scene with lively admiration.
"Let me see it, let me hold it," said Van Eyke. He spoke like a man in a dream. "I don't care what you do, I don't care what happens to me, so long as I can hold that flower in my hand. You need not be afraid. I will not injure it. Injure it? Bah! Would a mother injure her firstborn? I have sold my soul for it, as Faust sold his for Marguerite."
His eyes had grown soft and pleading. It seemed impossible to believe that the gentle, quivering creature could have the blood of a fellow creature on his hands. Vane passed the flower over, in spite of a glance of disapproval from Darch. It seemed like madness to hand over to the prisoner's custody the strongest link of evidence against him and how frail that link was!
Van Eyke bent over the flower and pressed it to his lips.
"This is mine," he said, "Mine! For 20 years I have labored to attain this result. Another hand grew it, another hand feuded it and fostered it, but the child is mine. Van Noop stole my black and white hybrids two years ago, and from them he has developed this. He has been no more that the clod who has made the frame and varnished the canvas, for the picture is mine. And I killed him."
The confession was out a last. Darch stepped forward. The man was merged in the official. For the moment he forget to admire Vane and the wonderful way in which he had elucidated the mystery. He became a mere detective again.
"I must warn you," he said, "that all you say will be taken in evidence against you."
Van Eyke smiled. Then he handed the black narcissus back to Vane. "What does it matter?" he said. "What does anything matter? I have seen all the fond hopes of years gratified, and I can die happy. I care nothing whatever whether Van Noop or myself gets the credit for the black narcissus, so long as it is there. He robbed me—I found him—and I killed him—killed him with the very thing I coveted in his hand. He died with it in his hand, and I never knew it."
"It is two years since I tracked Van Noop to England, after he robbed me. Then I settled down in this cottage, waiting my time, and for two years he lived within a mile of me, and I never knew it—never found it out. A month last Sunday I was in London. I was passing through Hyde Park when I heard an anarchist addressing a mob. Something in his voice impelled me to draw near. It was my man, the man who had robbed me of the best part of my life.
"I followed him home. I found where he lived, and I waited my opportunity. It came. I slipped into the cottage when the door was open, and there he was, bending over a pot with a flower growing in it. I made a noise, and he turned and saw me. I fancied that it was his fear that caused him to break off the flower in the pot, but I had only eyes for my foe. Then with a knife I struck him to the heart, and he died without a murmur. For an hour I remained there, searching the house, but I could not find what I was searching for. I was looking for the black narcissus. Gentlemen, that is all."
"One question," said Vane. "Had you been hanging about Van Noop's cottage?"
"For three or four weeks, yes," Van Eyke replied. "I was seeking for my opportunity."
"Is it possible that he might have discovered this?"
"Oh, it is possible, all these things are possible. Why?"
"I was merely asking for my own information," said Vane. "There was a point to be cleared up, and you have done it for us. I am sorry for this, very sorry. It seems a pity that so fine and innocent and beautiful a place should be mixed up in a sordid crime like this."
Van Eyke shrugged his shoulders. There was no trace of fear in his eyes now; indeed, it seemed to Vane that those eyes were blazing with a fire beyond the bright glow of reason.
"Most of the brightest jewels in the world are stained with blood," Van Eyke said, "and if the orchids in your millionaires' houses could speak, what tragedies they might tell! Sir, I am in your hands. Sir, I wish you good night."
The Dutchman turned from Darch to Vane with a stately courtesy. He might have been a lordly host bowing out two objectionable visitors. A little later, and the prisoner found himself with a stolid policeman in the back of a dog cart. Darch lingered a moment before he took his seat.
"Mr. Vane," he said, "this is really wonderful."
"It is exceedingly painful and squalid to me," Vane replied. "But I see you are puzzled. You have seen the problem finished, and naturally you are anxious to have the moves all explained. If you will come to the Lotus Club after dinner tomorrow night, I will make everything clear. Say nine o'clock."
"Mr. Vane," Darch said emphatically, "I will be there."
"And now, Darch," said Vane, as he finished his coffee daintily, "I am going to be egotistical. I am going to talk about myself to the extent of some one thousand words. As a rule, I get some 20 guineas per thousand for my words—but that is another story.
"The other night you came to me with a story of an anarchist—he had done something wrong in the eyes of other Nihilists, and feared for his life. You came to me, in the first place, to obtain inspiration from a novelist, and, secondly, because the victim was, like myself, an ardent lover of flowers.
"Now, in the first place, permit me to correct a wrong impression of yours. From your point of view I should never make a good detective. I decline to believe in the theory of obvious deduction. Dupin and Sherlock Holmes were steeped to the lips in it. My word! What blunders they would have made had they reduced those theories to practice! Holmes takes a watch, and from a keyhole, by the scratches, deduces that the owner is a man of dissipated habits. But suppose he had been partially blind or suffering, from paralysis, eh? No, that's no good, save in fiction.
"Now, I knew Van Noop. I knew him to be incapable of injuring a fly. His socialism was merely a safety valve. The man might have been a visionary, but what he didn't know about flowers wasn't worth knowing. And more than once he had hinted to me that he was on the verge of a great discovery. As bulbs were his hobby, and as he was a Dutchman, also, as he was a great admirer of Dumas, I guessed he was after a black flower. They are all after it. And it was not to be a tulip, because Van Noop didn't care much for tulips.
"Then you came to me and told me he had been murdered. You told me about the mysterious way in which he had asked for police protection, and instantly it flashed across my mind that somebody had discovered his secret and was trying to get it from him. When you brought me that withered flower, I was sure of my argument; and when you spoke of that smashed onion, I was positive. You made me laugh over that onion, you remember. That probably was a bulb of the black narcissus, though as a layman you were quite justified in taking it for that succulent vegetable.
"After you were gone I developed that black narcissus. There before me was a motive for the murder. It seemed to me that there had been a struggle for it, and that Van Noop had destroyed the flower and crushed the bulb just before he was killed. Then, as a natural sequence to this important discovery, the story of 'The Black Tulip' came into my mind. I had to find the man who committed the crime for the sake of the narcissus. And this is where the novelist comes in. It was not a case for obvious deduction, it was a case of introspection. You would have gone blundering your head against Nihilist revenge and the like. I simply had to weave a romance round that flower, a romance with blood in it. And gradually my art and my imagination led me to the true and only possible solution of the mystery. Van Noop had been murdered for the sake of the black narcissus beyond question, and the assassin must be an enthusiast and a madman, like himself. You will call this intuition.
"Then I had to draw my man. I found out when the sale was coming off, and a man who knows the address of every amateur gardener in London posted a special circular I had printed hinting that Van Noop's collection held rare things to buyers. When I reached Van Noop's cottage on the day of the sale I had no idea who the murderer was, but I felt absolutely certain that he would be present, whether he had my circular or not. Then, in a stage whisper, I asked a florist to purchase a parcel or two of bulbs for me at a fancy price. As I expected, on my return I found they had been bought over my head by somebody else. And then, my dear Darch, I knew the man who had murdered Van Noop. I had only to go over to the auctioneer and obtain the address of the man who had given a large sum for a parcel of bulbs which he fondly hoped contained the black narcissus. I obtained that address and followed Van Eyke to his cottage."
"Wonderful!" Darch cried. "I should never have thought of it."
"Of course you wouldn't," Vane replied. "Crime for crime's sake would be the only motive that appealed to you. And why? Because it is impossible for the detective trained in the ordinary way to appreciate or understand the poetic side of crime. And yet I defy you to find anything sordid in the case. The whole thing is absolutely medieval. In this prosaic age it seems extraordinary that a man should commit murder for the sake of a flower. And yet in Van Eyke you have a man who would not have shed a drop of blood for all the mines of Golconda."
"You are right, sir," said Darch thoughtfully; "and I was right also. I knew that a man of imagination would be required here, and I found him. And I don't mind confessing that I should never have dreamt of connecting that crime with a simple flower."
"You might," Vane replied. "When everything else failed, you would probably have started to look out for the owner of the flower, going on the theory that the dead man had snatched it from the coat of the murderer. Another time, perhaps, I may show you how my detective theory can be worked out in another fashion. And the next time you find an onion, be quite sure it is an onion, and not a priceless bulb worth a king's ransom."