PHILIP STENNING asked the question twice without getting a reply.
"I think we had better understand one another, Mabel," he said. "I have come all these thousands of miles in response to your letter, because I refuse to accept your suggestion as final. And, as to your liking Archer King, the mere suggestion is ridiculous."
Mabel Larchester found her voice at last.
"It seems so utterly hopeless," she murmured. "Isn't it four years since you went out to Australia, Phil? People suppose that my father is prosperous, but, when things come to be investigated, he will have to confess—"
"Oh," Stenning said in the same calm, constrained voice, "I think I begin to understand. You have grown old enough to see the advantage of throwing me over for a rich man like Archer King."
The girl looked swiftly up into his face. He could see how her lips were trembling, how she was trying to force herself to say something other than what he wished to hear. She twisted her hands together painfully.
"Oh, it isn't that," she cried. "If it were nothing but money, I shouldn't care. Even for my father I couldn't marry a man like Archer King."
"This is just what I feared," Stenning went on. "Is it a large amount that your father has—"
"I don't know," Mabel said miserably.
"Now, listen. I don't want anybody to know that I am back here. I walked over from Rothesay Junction on purpose to avoid people. But you are not going to marry Archer King. Is he in the village now?"
"I saw him this afternoon," Mabel murmured.
A clock somewhere in the distance was chiming the hour of ten. Most of the houses in the little village were in darkness by this time. At some distance away on the hillside two windows gleamed brightly yellow through the gloom.
"That is Rothesay House," Phillip said, as if speaking to himself. "And those windows are in Archer King's library upstairs. I have been there more than once, and I am going there again this evening. When I come away you will be free."
He stooped, and lightly brushed her forehead with his lips. Then he turned and plunged into the darkness and gloom of the shrubbery. Just for a moment or two Mabel hesitated. She knew by this time that the servants in the house had gone to bed. She knew that for the next hour or two it would be very little use to expect her father. It would be safe to follow Stenning. There would be no risk in leaving the house open to the world; in a quiet place like that there was no one to take precautions against. And Phillip Stenning had embarked upon a dangerous errand. She feared for him more for his courage and resolution than she did for the results likely to accrue to herself. A clock somewhere was striking eleven, as she turned into the drive leading to Rothesay House. She pulled up and stood in the shadow, waiting patiently for she knew not what.
Philip Stenning walked round the house twice in the shadow of the darkness. He knew the place almost as well as he knew his own home. Years before it had come into the possession of King, he had been a welcome guest there as a boy. He could see now that the lights were out all over the house, save for the two gleaming windows upstairs, which gave light to the library. Just for a moment Phil stood there with his hand on the bell-pull. He had proved to himself that the servants were all upstairs. It was fair to assume that King would answer the summons himself. But this did seem sufficiently dramatic to please Stenning. He wanted to take the man utterly off his guard, entirely by surprise, to frighten him into giving up that suspected document before he could recover his nerve and cunning. It might be just possible, Stenning thought, to get into the house other than by the front door. He moved round to the side entrance. He fumbled over the window-sash. It seemed to him that one of the catches was broken. The window yielded to the pressure, and a moment later he was inside.
All this had taken time, and, just as Stenning entered the house, he heard the clock on the staircase strike the three-quarters after eleven. He stood there in the velvety darkness trying to recall his knowledge of the house. In the daylight it would have been easy enough. But now it was somewhat of a different matter.
Slowly the pieces of the puzzle came together in his brain. He groped his way along until he came at length to the big square hall. He could feel the soft carpet under his feet. He was beginning to make out the outline of the objects there. A thin slit of light lay like a lance along the stairs and across the floor. Evidently the library door was open, and this faint streak of illumination came from there. Stenning stood at the foot of the staircase, listening intently. His four years of Australian training was standing him in good stead now. He was not in the least afraid, not in the least nervous. He had himself under perfect control. And yet it seemed to him that he could hear stealthy whispers somewhere, and the creaking of the old oak stairs, as if someone were creeping up them. The little slice of light glimmered on the banisters, and then Stenning could have sworn that he saw a hand, dull and brown, laid on the glittering oak just for a minute. It was not the hand, white or brown, of an Englishman; it seemed to Stenning to be of a dull copper hue. But of that he could not be certain, for the light was not strong enough, and a moment later the dusky fingers vanished. Just as he had anticipated, the library door was open. He could see a lamp gleaming on the table. He could make out the form of Archer King there bending over his correspondence. He sat with his left cheek resting on his hand. His right arm appeared to be moving, as if his pen were travelling over the paper. Stenning stepped across the room and tapped smartly on Archer King's shoulder.
"I want a word with you," he said. "Do you hear?"
The man sitting by the table made no sign or motion. He sat there, without moving a muscle. His pen had dropped from his fingers.
"Oh, take your time," Stenning went on. "'I have come for that document you hold—the paper which gives you such a power over George Larchester."
Still, there was no sign from the man by the table. Nothing but a quiet chuckle which was almost instantly suppressed. With his open hand Stenning dealt King a blow on the side of his head. He fell from his chair, and crashed upon the floor. There was no great noise, the blow was not so heavy as all that. But King lay there with his head curiously twisted under his left shoulder. He lay there still and motionless, without a sound.
Was the fellow dead? It was a chance in a million. He might have fallen like that 10,000 times without injury. But there was no recalling it now. The man had pitched head-long upon the polished floor. A broken neck? He was gone beyond hope of surgery, and Stenning stood there knowing that he was this man's murderer.
He was out in the garden now, hurrying across the lawn. He did not seem to be aware for a moment or two that Mabel Larchester was by his side. She reached and touched his wet, clammy hand.
"What has happened?" she whispered. "What is it?"
"Archer King is dead," Stenning said hoarsely. "And I have killed him. Nothing seems to matter after that."
Stenning sat in his hotel, thinking of his recent ride through the darkness along the coast line, to the big town he had now safely reached. It was Mabel's idea that his discarded bicycle should be pushed over the cliffs into the sea, where it would lie unheeded till it rusted beyond recognition. It was Mabel who suggested that Stenning should go from thence to London, back to the hotel where he had left his belongings. He had started in his head-long way, and everything had gone smoothly, the more so, perhaps, because Stenning was reckless and desperate, and took few precautions. That had been five days ago, now, and yet nothing had happened. The papers were more or less full of the Rothesay affair. It was just the kind of thing that appealed to the popular imagination. The inquest that day was eagerly being looked forward to. Stenning could hear the boys in the street shouting it oot. He stepped into the roadway, and bought one of the damp sheets.
"Miss Mabel Larchester was the next witness. Her story was to the effect that on the night of the tragedy, she had occasion to go from her own house as far as the residence of the deceased gentleman. It was very late when she started, so late, indeed, that she did not arrive outside Rothesay House till a few minutes before twelve. The clock had struck twelve before she rang the bell; which she did three times before she made anybody hear. On the butler tardily appearing, she asked to see Mr. King. The butler went upstairs to the library and returned a few moments later with the horrifying intelligence that Mr. King was dead.
"The Coroner: 'Now, did you happen to see anything to arouse your suspicions? Little things are sometimes of importance.'
"'There is only one thing. As I said before, it was just a few minutes past twelve when I rang the bell of Rothesay House. As I crossed the lawn I looked up at the library windows, and I saw a figure cross between the light and the blind. It was not the figure of Mr. King. That would be, as far as I recollect, about six minutes past twelve. I am quite sure of this because I heard the stable clock strike the midnight hour.'"
Stenning dropped the paper at this point, and allowed himself to think. Surely, it seemed to him that Mabel was mistaken. Perhaps she had placed the hour at past twelve to shield him. There was not much more besides the evidence of the doctor, which went far to disprove the theory of King's death being due to an accident. The doctor declined to believe that a man could have fallen from his chair and broken his neck in this fashion. A broken neck was instantaneous death, of course, so that he could not have crawled into the room.
"The Coroner: 'You feel quite convinced that the deceased man met with foul play?'
"'I think so. At any rate, I think there is something mysterious in this matter which calls for investigation.'
"At this point Inspector Dainton appealed for a week's adjournment. He claimed to have discovered an important document which seemed to throw light upon the mysterious affair.
"The inquest was accordingly adjourned till the next Friday, when, we are informed, sensational developments are likely to arise. In the meantime the police are exceedingly reticent. Inspector Dainton informs us that he has not the slightest doubt of a satisfactory solution at almost any moment."
There was nothing for Phillip Stenning to do but to possess his soul in patience. He went in and out of his hotel much like any other man who might have business in the big city; he only came back late in the evening. He was killing time as best he could. No word or sign had come from Mabel, nor had he made any attempt to communicate with her. This had been an understood thing between them. Possibly, the evening papers on Friday afternoon would have something sensational to say. Not that it in the least mattered, Stenning told himself. Archer King was dead, and he had killed him, and the most ingenious police theory could not alter the fact. It was nearly six o'clock on Friday night before the Rothesay House tragedy was on everybody's lips again. The whole of London seemed to ring with it. As Stenning walked along it seemed as if those voices were mocking him. Stenning passed his hand across his eyes. He thrust sixpence into the hand of one of the newsboys. He hurried along to his hotel, and locked himself in his room. Then, with a shaking hand, he tore open the paper.
"Important Arrest—Sensational Statement by Inspector Dainton. The Prisoner in the Dock—Full Confession of the Crime."
Then he began to read.
"One of the most extraordinary disclosures of modern times took place this morning before the local magistrates in the case of the mysterious murder at Rothesay House. Lallah Rehn, described as a native of Borneo, was placed in the dock charged with the wilful murder of Mr. Archer King, on the 5th inst. The arrest had been kept profoundly quiet, and the courthouse was more or less deserted when Inspector Dainton got up to tell his extraordinary story. It would be as well, perhaps, to give the narrative in his own words.
"'As your worship is aware,' he said, 'the inquest on Mr. King was adjourned at my request, so that I could follow up a certain clue which I had come upon in an examination of Mr. King's private papers. In the course of my search, I found a large foolscap envelope duly sealed with a superscription to the effect that it was only to be opened in case of the owner's death by violence. Being more or less satisfied that Mr. King had died by violence, the packet was opened by myself in the presence of Mr. King's solicitor. In it we found a number of letters written to Mr. King from some place in Borneo, the letters being signed by one Lallah Rehn. I should like your worship to read these letters which are all the more illuminating because, as a methodical man, Mr. King had placed in the envelopes copies of his replies. It seems that at one time the prisoner and Mr. King were in a sort of partnership. They had obtained important concessions relating to the rubber industry, out of which, I gather, Mr. King made a large fortune. It seems, also, from a careful perusal of these letters, that Mr. King had treated his partner exceedingly shabbily. In fact, I may go so far as to say that the prisoner was deliberately cheated out of his just due. This seems to have affected his mind to a certain extent, and in more than one of his letters he threatens Mr. King with a peculiar kind of death, doubtless some native form of murder, which Mr. King probably was aware of. I may tell your worship that these letters were meant to fall into the hands of the police, in case anything happened to Mr. King, and in one of Mr. King's communications placed in the envelope he says so quite cynically. I presume his idea was that the prisoner should not escape, in case he was successful in his attempt to take the life of his late partner. We are not altogether successful in saying how the crime was committed, but, in the course of time, witnesses may be able to clear up that point.
"'Immediately after reading these letters, I caused inquiries to be made, and last night the prisoner was arrested in Hull. I shall be able to prove to you that he was at Rothesay House the day before the murder, where he was accidentally seen by one of the servants, and that the butler saw him again in the grounds when he returned to the house about ten o'clock. Other evidence will be given you to connect the prisoner with the crime. There is nothing more for the present, except that I should like a remand until to-morrow morning to enable the authorities to perfect their case.'
"The Chairman: 'I suppose the prisoner is not represented? Does he happen to know any English?'
"Inspector Dainton: 'The letters I spoke of, sir, are written in English. The prisoner is a man of some education. Probably, he will want to employ a solicitor.'
"At this point the prisoner raised his head. He had apparently been taking no interest in the proceedings. He displayed a countenance of considerable intelligence. His features appeared to be rather prepossessing than otherwise.
"'I want no counsel, your Worship,' he said. 'It is all exactly as your chief of the police says. King, he was my partner. King, he was a great scoundrel, and robbed me of all that I possessed. He left me penniless, he refused to do anything for me. It is all at his door that the death of my wife and daughter lie. And I have waited all this time for my revenge. Oh, I would have got away if I could. I never expected that King would leave these letters behind him. I saw King the day before he died, but he laughed at me. I pretended that I did not care. I went away as if everything were hopeless, but I came back the next night, and got in through the scullery window. I crept to the library. I killed him there and then, as he sat bending over the desk. You would like, perhaps, me to show you how it is done, and I will show you.'
"The few people in court followed the prisoners movements with breathless interest. He took from round his waist a soft silk sash, which he proceeded to fold and place across his throat. He knotted the two ends firmly to the rail of the dock, and he proceeded to twist his right arm in the folds behind him.
"'You have heard of the Thugs in India?' he explained. 'The white man thinks that Thugs are extinct, but that is not so. You throw your scarf round the victim's neck; then, with your knee in his back, you pull him backwards, and you twist the silk just so, and his neck snaps like a twig, and your enemy lies dead at your feet. If you will watch me, you will see how easy it is. It was half-past eleven when I entered King's house. When the clock struck the quarter after twelve, I was a mile away, and in that time he died without a word, and no one could say how he perished. And as I do not wish to linger in one of your English gaols, and a life is nothing for me, why, all I have to do is this, and—'
"The horrified spectators saw the unfortunate man give a quick wrench of his body to the left, whereupon he imediately fell prostrate upon the floor of the dock, where he lay till a doctor could be summoned. It subsequently transpired that his neck was broken, that he had taken his own life just in the same manner as that in which he had destroyed Mr. King. There were absolutely no marks of violence, and, but for these sensational developments, there is little doubt that the murderer of Mr. Archer King would have remained amongst the unsolved mysteries of which there have been far too many of late."
The paper fell from Stenning's hand. He saw it all clearly now. It came back to him vividly. He shuddered as he pictured himself standing behind Archer King, and pouring out his wrath and scorn upon a dead man. He recollected the brown hand on the banister. It seemed to him that he could never forget the noise of King's fall from the chair. And then the mist cleared from Stenning's eyes, and he saw that he was free. There would be no more hiding and mystery for him. He could go back in the course of time with his head high in the air. He could claim his wife. Then he dropped his head on his hands, and slept soundly for the first time for many days.—"M.A.P."