THE BODY of Stephen Kelland had been found at half-past two in the morning, and Mrs. Larner, the old lady with whom the dead man had lodged, had gone off to the police station without arousing her neighbours. She was a grim, strong-minded old body, but if ever she had a weakness for one of her lodgers, it was for the dead man, who, up to yesterday, was acting editor of the "Mireshire County Herald."
On Thursday and Friday nights, which were publishing days, the dead man Kelland rarely reached home before 2 o'clock in the morning. Usually he let himself in with his latch key, and found his way to his room, which was at the back of the house, leading off the garden, where he rang a bell that communicated with the back basement apartment, where Mrs. Larner slept. There, over her bed, facing the window, she had a master switch with which she was in the habit of turning on the electric light when Kelland rang his bell, which she invariably heard, being a light sleeper, and so the light remained for precisely half an hour, at the end of which period it was turned off again, whether Kelland was in bed or not. It was one of the old lady's fads, a rule she would as soon have broken as she would the tables of the Commandments.
All this she explained to Venner as he sat opposite her in the ground floor sitting-room. She informed him that Kelland had come in just after 2, as she plainly heard, that he had fastened up the front door and gone into his own room. He rang as usual, a good long ring, which she heard immediately. Then the bell stopped more abruptly than usual, and was immediately followed by a heavy fall overhead. She would not have particularly noticed this, she said; the thing that aroused her suspicion was the fact that the light was not switched on in the room overhead. She knew that because her bed faced the window, looking into the back basement, and as this was lighted with white tiles so as to give as much illumination as possible, she would have noticed at once if the electric bulb in Mr. Kelland's sitting-room had been turned on. She had waited ten minutes without the darkness being broken, and then, feeling somewhat alarmed, she had slipped on part of her clothing and gone up the kitchen stairs to investigate.
"You can leave us now," Inspector Venner said. "Dr. Hack and myself will make the examination. Doctor, this is no suicide."
"Out of the question," the doctor responded. "You see, the poor fellow was standing on the right-hand side of the fireplace with his right hand on the bell, and was killed in the act of ringing it. Of course, I cannot speak quite definitely as yet, but a bullet from some weapon struck him immediately below the shoulder, and seems to have deflected through the heart. If I had found a revolver here with one chamber discharged, I should still be certain it was murder. No man could have shot himself in that way; there must have been somebody in the room."
The detective crossed the room to the open window, the blind of which was up, and the two old-fashioned casements thrown wide apart. Immediately underneath was the white tiled basement, some 10ft. deep, into which it would have been impossible for an assassin to have dropped, or indeed gained the room by that means, without arousing the landlady from her sleep in her back basement bedroom which had originally been used as a scullery.
"Nobody came or went this way," he said. "And if you look, you will see the switch by the door is still pushed up. No doubt Mr. Kelland came into the room and walked across to the fireplace to ring up his landlady without first pressing down the switch. I suppose that is rather a loud bell that rings down there in the basement."
With that, Venner crossed the room again and pressed his finger on the button. The clang that responded rang all over the house. With a little nod of approval, the police officer crossed to the window again and looked out through the still open window to the little old-world garden which faced, some 50 yards away, a similar avenue of houses, so that the two were back to back. They were situated in the ancient part of Padbury, and had been built perhaps a hundred years before. A party wall divided the two sets of gardens, a wall only a few feet in height.
"Did you know anything of the dead man?" Venner asked the doctor. "Was he a patient of yours by any chance?"
"Slightly tubercular," Hack responded. "That is why he always made a point of living practically behind open windows. I don't suppose his windows were ever closed. He was very careful about that sort of thing."
For some time after the doctor had left. Venner stood thoughtfully gazing out of the open window at the back of the houses in Watersmeet-avenue. They were houses built precisely on the same lines as those in Mayfield-avenue, and doubtless they both had been built at the same time. They were quite respectable houses, with basements, and two stories over, and each had its neat little garden in which the inhabitants appeared to take considerable pride. There were very few trees, the garden consisting mainly of flower beds and grass plots, with here and there a small greenhouse, with its back to the wall. It was quite a long time before Venner turned away and began a close examination of the sitting-room; all to no effect.
By this time the whole town was seething with excitement. Everybody was open-mouthed and everybody more than anxious to throw some light upon the mystery. But it was not till late in the afternoon, that Venner hit upon one of the residents in Watersmeet-avenue who was really in a position to tell him something worthy of note.
This was a retired seafarer named Kelly, who lived in Number 14, as a lodger who occupied a sitting-room at the back of the house, almost immediately facing that in which the tragedy had taken place. He had heard something, and had gone round to the police station to give his information. Confronted with Venner, he told his apparently simple story.
"You see, it was like this," he said. "I am a rotten sleeper, always have been. I am a great sufferer from asthma, and all yesterday and last night I had one of my worst attacks. From midnight till nearly three this morning I sat in my sitting-room with the window wide open, leaning out struggling for breath."
"And you saw something?" Venner asked.
"No, sir. I can't rightly say that I saw something, but some time after two o'clock I heard what sounded like a shot. I did not take much notice, but I don't think anybody else heard it, because I saw no lights anywhere, and heard nothing moving."
"And that is all?" Venner asked.
"Yes, that is all I can tell you, sir."
It was really a baffling mystery, but the old man could tell Venner no more. How had it been possible for the murderer to shoot down his victim in the pitch blackness of the sitting-room? And again, if Kelland had been murdered by a shot fired from the garden through the open window, how could the assassin be so sure of his aim? The mere fact that he was intimately acquainted with the ways and habits of his victim could not help him to that extent.
One thing, there was plenty of time. He walked back to the gardens in Mayfield-Avenue, and made a further examination of the basement outside Mrs. Larner's bedroom. It was some ten feet deep, and not more than four wide, enclosed on either side with a wall of polished white tiles, so that anybody down there would be held a prisoner unless he had something to stand on, so as to get a grip on the railing above his head. And there was nothing in the basement of any kind whatever. Certainly the assassin had not gone that way. He could not have shot his enemy and rushed down the basement stairs and out into the garden without attracting the attention of Mrs. Larner, who was wide awake at the time. And so Venner was forced to the conclusion that the murderer had not been in the house at all. He must have shot Kelland from the garden and escaped.
But this only made the problem harder still. It was, therefore, necessary at this point to try back a little, to make further inquiries, which Venner proceed to do. He elicited the fact that the dead man had only held his important post for the last few months, and that in the opinion of the office he had more or less supplanted one Barwick, who had by no means taken the set-back lying down. The proprietor of the "County Herald," Raymond Barringford, confirmed this. Venner found him at his country seat, just outside the town, and was received with every courtesy.
"I am terribly distressed over this dreadful business," he said. "If I had known a week ago what I know now, I should have got rid of both Kelland and Barwick."
"You were dissatisfied with both of them, then?"
"By no means. On the contrary, I had the highest opinion of Stephen Kelland, and I am bound to say that Barwick does his work exceedingly well. But he is jealous and easily touched, and extremely ready to take offence. One of those morbid sensitive natures that torments itself, and in his way quite a genius. He has a wonderful flair for the short story, and if he were not so morbid and prurient in his work, he might have gone far. That is a grievance of his against the editorial fraternity generally, but really some of his work is frankly disgusting."
"There was no quarrel between these two?"
"I don't think so. Barwick is not the man to openly quarrel with anybody. I hope you don't suspect that—"
"I don't suspect anybody," Venner interrupted. "I am not far advanced enough for that. And you may rest assured that anything you have said to me will be treated as confidential."
With that, Venner went back to Padbury very little wiser than he came. Then he repaired once more to the lodgings of the dead man and spent half the morning in the garden. He was about to turn away when a voice suddenly hailed him. It was a voice that seemed to come from nowhere, and one that that addressed him on terms that sounded like flippant familiarity.
"Hello, hello," it said. "Morning cocky."
Venner looked up to see a grey parrot seated on an overhanging bough, and evidently deeply enjoying his own demoniacal wit. Its head was on one side, and its little round, wicked eye twinkled with sly malice. Then the bird flew away and seemed to disappear through an open window opposite. Venner went back to the house and called Mrs. Larner up from the basement.
"To whom does that parrot belong," he asked. "It seems to be an exceedingly clever bird."
"Yes, isn't he a wonder, sir?" the old lady said. "He belongs to Mr. Barwick. I believe Mr. Barwick's family has had him for years. Jacko, they call him. He comes here just as if the place belongs to him, and I suppose in a measure it does, because Mr. Barwick lived here in Mr. Kelland's rooms a long time before the poor gentleman came to Padbury. Jacko flies all over the place, and everybody is glad to see him. In fine weather he lives in the gardens, but if it is cold or wet, he always comes back to his own rooms. You see, Mr. Kelland's window was always open, so there was no trouble about that."
Venner sighed deeply and thoughtfully.
"Oh, so Mr. Barwick used to live here, did he? Occupying Mr. Kelland's rooms? Why did he leave?"
"Well, you see, sir, we couldn't get on together very well. I have my own queer notions, and Mr. Barwick, he couldn't put up with them. I am all for economy, and Mr. Barwick, he didn't know the meaning of the word. He would come in late, and thought nothing of leaving his electric light on all night. So I had that master switch put in, and Mr. Barwick he gave me notice."
"Was he very late of nights?" Venner asked.
"Well, not so late as Mr. Kelland used to be on Thursday and Friday nights. But Mr. Kelland didn't mind. He used to laugh at me in a good-natured way, and said he should put me in a book some day. So Mr. Barwick left—"
"Where does he lodge now?" Venner asked.
"Just opposite, sir, in Watersmeet-avenue. There is his window, as you can see for yourself."
"Dear me, this is really interesting," Venner said thoughtfully. "Now, Mrs. Larner, I want you to do something for me. I want you to go into Mr. Kelland's room and ring the bell—I mean the bell that sounds in your bedroom. A good, long ring, if you won't mind."
As the old lady moved off to comply with this request, Venner strolled up as far as the end of the garden, where he stood in a listening attitude. At the end of a few seconds the electric bell trilled out sharp and clear, and a moment later Venner was on his way to the police station.
"Well, how are you getting on?" his Deputy Inspector asked.
"I think I am getting on very well indeed," Venner said. "But before I can go any further I want something done. I want you to make it possible for me to have the run of Number 15, Watersmeet-avenue, for a couple of hours or so, without anybody being any the wiser."
* * * * *
It was three days later when Venner strolled into Padbury Station with the intention of catching a train that left Padbury just before noon for Castleford, the country town, where the connection with the London express was made. He arrived a minute or two after Peter Barwick, who stood by the booking office, taking a first return to town. Five minutes later, they were seated in the same carriage together, and Venner saw to it that they were not interrupted. He also saw, with some interest, that Barwick was accompanied by a solid leather portmanteau, some three feet long. These men had spoken to one another more than once in the last day or so, and it was not difficult to drift into a pleasant conversation.
"A few days' holiday, eh?" Venner asked.
"No," Barwick explained. "I am going to town on the firm's business. I shall be back on Monday with any luck."
"Well, I am very pleased to have met you like this, because we shan't be interrupted, at any rate, not between here and Castleford. And there is something important I want to say to you."
Barwick looked up sharply, with a shade of suspicion in those brooding, sombre eyes of his.
"Anything I can do I am sure," he murmured.
"Yes, I thought you would say that," Venner replied. "It is about that unfortunate man, Kelland. We have three quarters of an hour before us, and I think I shall be able to say all I want to in that time. Now, in the first place I want to know why it was that you shot Stephen Kelland."
It was an unexpected homethrust, of the deadliest nature, but it did not seem to move Barwick in the slightest. He did not even change colour, and those moody eyes were quite steady.
"Do you want me to incriminate myself?" he asked.
"Not in the least," Venner replied. "You can refuse to reply if you like. When you arrive at Castleford I shall hand you over to the county authorities, and, so far as I am concerned, the case in at an end. You can speak, or you can remain as silent as you please."
"I admit nothing," Barwick said quietly. "Perhaps if you will put your cards on the table we can come to an understanding. Oh, I know when I am beaten, Mr. Venner."
"Very well," Venner said. "I will give you a general outline of my case. You were bitterly jealous of your late colleague, and you brooded over what you fancied to be your wrongs until the thing became an obsession with you. To begin with before you disagreed with Mrs. Larner, you occupied the rooms where Kelland died. You know all about the old lady's fads and habits, and you were perfectly aware of the fact that Kelland came home very late on Thursday and Friday nights. I understand that you got off on those evenings long before Stephen Kelland could leave. Now, you were in a back sitting room, some fifty or sixty feet away from Kelland's open window, and waiting for him to come back on the night of the murder. You knew the geography of Kelland's room as well as he knew it himself. You knew that he was in the habit of coming into the house in the dark and going straight to the bell and ringing it for the light to be turned on. With your intimate knowledge and your late military work, all you had to do was to train a rifle on the spot where you knew Kelland would stand when he had his fingers on the bell, and pull the trigger. Very possibly you had the rifle fixed in position on the window ledge, having trained it before it was dark. There was just the chance that you might not have killed your victim, but that was a small risk, and you were ready to take it. Directly you heard that bell sound in Mrs. Larner's basement you shot. It was a most brilliant criminal idea, and was unfortunately successful. But there was one thing you overlooked.
"Did I?" Barwick asked, dully. "What was that?"
"The evidence of the bullet. It was fired from a B.S.A. rifle which you had hidden away in your rooms, and, if I am not mistaken, you have the weapon in your portmanteau there in sections. You are going to get rid of it, but I think it would have been much safer if you had done that in Padbury. However, there never was a criminal yet who never made a mistake, and that is the small percentage that always runs in favour of the police. I am going to take possession of that portmanteau and hand it over to the chief constable at Castleford. I found the box of cartridges in the chimney of your bedroom when I searched your lodgings the day before yesterday."
"And that is your case?" Barwick asked, quietly.
"Yes, that is my case," Venner said.
"Then there is no more to be said. At least, except so far as I like to make a confession. But there is one question I should like to ask you. Did that confounded parrot of mine give me away?"
"To a certain extent, yes," Venner said. "But I think I could have managed without that evidence. Now, if you have anything to say I shall be glad to hear it, if not—"
"I don't think so," Barwick said with a queer twisted smile. "I will take my chance, and, honestly, I don't care whether I live or die. Well, here we are at Castleford, and, if I am not mistaken, there is the chief constable standing on the platform. I am a clever man, Mr. Venner, but not quite so clever as you. And there lies the whole tragedy. Now, then, put the handcuffs on—I am quite ready."