THE red curtains were closely drawn across the mullioned windows of the dining-room of Mulgrave Manor House, and a great log fire splashed like a great crimson smudge on the Christmas hearth, with Arnold Brentwood seated in front of it and his wife opposite. If it were going to freeze, let it freeze, he growled, but this alternate thaw and frost, this night lowering of the thermometer followed by a rise of temperature with the going down of the young crescent moon was maddening to a household where sport was a solemn ritual.
"Pity we hadn't gone to St. Moritz as we originally intended," Brentwood muttered. "We should have had some sport there, whereas here we are getting neither hunting nor skating."
"Oh, it isn't so sad as all that," Cecilia Brentwood smiled. "We shall manage to amuse our Christmas party somehow."
With that, she faded from the room and went up to her own cosy nest in cream and amber, leaving her spouse to his post-prandial cigar, and his own easy reflections. He nodded over the red blaze, his eyes closed, then out of space the old family butler, Thomas Shinwell, announced a visitor to see the master of the Manor.
"It's Andrew Marston, sir," he said. "Says he must see to-night, though I told him——"
On the instant Brentwood was very much awake. His jaw set tight, and there was a grim fighting light in his blue eyes.
"Oh, indeed, Shinwell," he muttered, "oh, indeed! Ask the scoun—I mean, ask the gentleman in here. No, you need not trouble to bring in any clean glasses. Bring the fellow here."
Shinwell departed mildly wondering. He had been a member of that exclusive household ever since he could remember, and there was little in the history of the family he did not know—certainly during the last fifty years. Also, he had a mental scenario of the shady past of the man called Andrew Marston who came from the city of Canterley, some two miles away. And Marston's dead mother, a boldly-handsome, gipsy-bred woman. And there had been whispers in Canterley thirty years ago about her and old Squire Brentwood, the present owner of Mulgrave Manor's uncle, when the latter had had a small chance of succession. Things that happen from time to time in all exclusive families; but nothing definite—Shinwell was quite sure of that.
Followed a few moments later a tall, shambling figure of a man, with a shifty eye and an uneasy swagger. His thin boots were broken, and, despite the bitter cold of the night, there was no overcoat over his summer suit of flimsy blue serge. He nodded with insolent familiarity to Brentwood, and dropped with easy impudence into a chair.
"You didn't expect me?" he growled.
"I did not," Brentwood said coldly. "In fact, I warned you more than once that I was only to be approached by letter. And after I helped you to get to Canada, it was understood——"
"Oh, was it," the other man sneered. "The unwritten code of honor between two gentlemen! The word of a Brentwood——"
"I have nothing to do with the past, neither have I, personally, anything to be ashamed of," Brentwood said quietly.
"No, but your uncle, Hallam Brentwood, had," the intruder went on. "If I had my rights and your old scamp of an uncle had married my mother I should be where you are at the present moment."
It was the heat of the fire, perhaps, but Brentwood's face took on a deeper red. He had heard this disgraceful episode, seated by the bedside of his dying predecessor. And by subsequent enquiry from the aged family solicitor, he had ascertained that it was not all old Hallam Brentwood's fault. He had been both weak and slightly dissolute, he had been angled for by the dead and gone Lydia Marston, and her cunning father, and the result of that sorry intrigue stood before Arnold Brentwood at that moment, with the suggestion of blackmail in those weak, shifty eyes of his.
"And your game," the latter said, "is to threaten me with an exposure of the whole business in Canterley unless I am ready to help you again. Isn't that the case?"
"And why not?" Marston blustered. "I've got a claim."
"I have done with you," Brentwood answered. "I told you so when I set you up in Canada. Be off, you scoundrel."
As he banged the door on his discomfited foe, he turned to see Shinwell, the butler, standing there, with no trace of astonishment on his stolid, impassive face. As the man who had seen nothing, his impersonation was to the life. Not so the tall, slim, black and white starched parlor-maid, who at the same moment was coming down the broad stairs. She was taking in everything with widely interested eyes. But she spoke quietly and respectfully enough.
"I was to tell you, sir, that madame has gone to bed, with a slight headache," she said demurely. "I think she is asleep, sir."
As he lay in bed later on, Brentwood thought it all out. Let the story come out. At any rate, his wife knew. Better than being bled white by instalments. And with that he fell asleep.
He came back to his senses again with the consciousness that somebody was shaking him by the shoulder. Shinwell, hanging over the bed, with a white face and shaky countenance.
"What is it, Shinwell?" he asked lazily.
"It's that man who was here last night, sir," Shinwell said through chattering teeth. "Found in the drive just now by one of the under gardeners. Lying on his face, dead—murdered."
The body lay just where it had fallen. Evidently the man had been dead for many hours, for he was stiff and deadly cold, though the frost of the early night had given again with the sitting of the moon, and the trees and shrubs were all dripping in the thin powder of dirty grey snow. Brentwood bent over the body.
Marston had pitched forward and lay on his face with his hands flung above his head, as if the fatal blow had dropped him in a flash, and evidently he had never moved again. He lay with his head and shoulders just under the cover of a sort of portcullis, roofed with heather thatch and ivy, which spanned the drive. The Manor House had been built originally inside the ruins of an ancient castle, and this portcullis, with its great iron gates at the far width of it was all that remained of the old mediaeval greatness and formed a fitting way into the demesne of the Brentwoods. Just now it looked like the entrance into the domain of Father Christmas; for, from the roof, hung long, bearded icicles in a sort of stiff fringe, and on the ground beneath, another cheveau de frize of transparent ice had been formed by the steady drippings from the roof in the house when the thaw had set in with the passing of the young moon. There was almost a suggestion of sanctuary about it.
Brentwood bent down and turned the body over. In the thin blue serge coat over the left breast was a triangular tear that might have been made by a sort of blunt bayonet penetrating through the flimsy cloth, and the ragged shirt—the dead man had no waistcoat—right into the heart. The blow must have been a savage one, and death instantaneous. Brentwood could see the ragged wound in the chest, and on the ground a red wet patch, which had not frozen since the passing warmth of the corpse and the protection of the clothing had prevented that. Inside the shirt and all down the body it was as if in falling the unfortunate man had contrived to get a patch of snow inside the clothing, for the shirt was sopping wet and the blood there was as if it had been diluted. Brentwood was still noting these things in a vague, unreal way, when there came a car that stopped at the high gates, and a man in uniform got out.
"Inspector Weston," he explained sketchily. "Sent here by the chief at Canterley to investigate. Mr. Brentwood, I think?"
Shinwell ventured a remark. He had taken the liberty of telephoning to Dr. Coffin when he had got the police, and the gentleman in question was on his way.
"He will do quite as well as the police surgeon," the Inspector said casually. "Newcomer in these parts, isn't he, Mr Brentwood?"
A motor cycle roared up to the gate, and a short, thick-set figure with restless eyes behind thick, heavy lenses, stood in the ancient gateway. He merely nodded to Brentwood, and then bent over the body.
"Been disturbed," he yapped. "Why? Silly thing to do."
Brentwood proceeded to excuse himself. He hoped that what he had done would not interfere with the course of justice.
"In this case I don't think so," Dr. Coffin said with a smile that lighted up his whole face. "Let me see. Um. Death caused by some sharp-edged weapon with a broadening point such as a Spanish poniard which penetrated to the heart. Any barn or empty house where I can get to work?"
There being no difficulty about that, the body was removed by two of the gardeners and the somewhat eccentric Coffin moved off with them, whilst Brentwood and the Inspector retired to the house.
"I don't want to put you to more trouble than necessary," the latter said, "but I must ask your servants a few questions. Marston may have come here to see one of them, sir, in which case——"
"Oh, then you know the fellow's name?" Brentwood exclaimed.
"I know all the hard cases in Canterley," Weston said. "And now, if you don't mind, sir, I'd like to have your staff all together in some room."
"Of course," Brentwood agreed. "I'll send them all into the library. My wife will be wondering what all this trouble is about so I'll just run upstairs and break it to her gently."
It was an hour later before Brentwood came down, after sharing a breakfast in his wife's room. And there he found Weston waiting for him, very grave and troubled.
"I am going to ask you some personal questions, sir," he said. "That parlor-maid of yours. Bit of a talker. They gabble and never know what they are saying till it is too late."
"Perhaps I had better explain now we have a few quiet moments together," Brentwood said. "Marston came to see me last night, and nobody else. He wanted money, and I threw him out. By chance the servant you speak of saw the affray. I never set eyes on the fellow again till Shinwell dragged me out of bed to look at the body. Of course, I know that my story sounds a bit thin, but I assure you that I am telling you things exactly as they happened. Look here, Inspector, I would not have had this happen in Christmas week for anything. Christmas of all times of the year!"
Inspector Weston heard all this with becoming gravity.
"I'm sorry to hear this, sir," he said. "You had a violent quarrel, and a few hours later the man Marston is found dead in your own grounds. Moreover, clearly murdered. Did he come back again after the servants had gone to bed, or had you any occasion to go out into the grounds? I'm bound to ask you these questions, sir."
Brentwood was beginning to appreciate the sinister aspect of the situation. He had no particular apprehensions as to his share in the tragedy, but it would be necessary to explain fully why Marston had come to the Manor House or have the facts of the family scandal more or less dragged to light at the inquest. It meant publicity all over the country. Brentwood groaned as he thought of it.
"Perhaps I had better tell you," he said, "it was I who sent the man Marston to Canada and set him up there. And when he had drunk everything away, he came back here, asking for more."
"But what claim had he got on you, sir?" Weston asked.
Brentwood proceeded to tell him at some length.
"And that's the story," he concluded. "But always I have had my doubts as to Marston's account of his parentage."
"And so should I, sir," Weston agreed. "I've been in the Canterley Police Force since I was nineteen, and I know all about the shady characters there. A rare bad set those Marstons, and the woman was the worst of the lot. Handsome as paint in her day, but as evil as she was lovely. Still, in the circumstances——"
"Must this come out at the inquest?" Brentwood asked.
"I'm very much afraid so, sir. If we could prove that the man died through accident, or that he was in contact with somebody else after you threw him out of the house, then the family story would not have much significance. We might suppress it altogether. But so long as we admit the fact that the man was murdered——"
Indeed, is was impossible to point to any other conclusion. The man had been murdered, and so far circumstances pointed to Brentwood as the only one who was directly interested in getting the blackmailer out of the way. Looking at matters in the most optimistic light, it was impossible to keep the family scandal out of the papers all over the country, unless the real murderer was brought to justice, and that without delay.
"Can't you hold off the inquest for a few days?" Brentwood asked with some diffidence. "I am ready to swear that I never saw the man after I kicked him out of the house. If all that scandal is dragged out and it turns out afterwards that the real criminal——"
Weston nodded—he quite saw the point. A capital crime had been committed and somebody was responsible, but he was not inclined to believe that Brentwood had had anything to do with it.
"As to that, sir," he said, "it's more a matter for the doctor than anyone else at the moment. He may take a long time in making his autopsy or he may have made some discovery that we prefer not to have discussed in public just yet. If he made an application like that the coroner would not hesitate to adjourn the inquest at once, especially if we backed up the application."
So it rested more or less with the doctor, Brentwood thought uneasily. Could he manage to induce the man of medicine to . . . and so save a flaming scandal? Again, there must be a clue somewhere to this amazing crime, if the police would only look for it elsewhere.
Perhaps Dr. Coffin might help him. The latter had only been in the neighborhood for a few months, and was hardly to be compared with the usual country practitioner, being a highly-trained specialist who had been forced out of London owing to the condition of his health. He had dined at the Manor House once of twice and had proved to be a brilliant conversationalist and an impressive mental force, but beyond that Brentwood knew nothing about him.
Coffin was deep in his gruesome task when Brentwood and Weston sought him out in the building where he was at work. He had had the best part of two hours to himself and was now in the act of putting away his sinister instruments. As Weston and Brentwood entered he was in the act of placing what looked like a piece of rough black string in between the leaves of a pocket-book.
"Have you nearly finished, doctor?" Weston asked.
"More or less," came the reply. "At any rate, I shall be ready for the inquest which, I presume, will be to-morrow?"
"Unless you want a little further time," Weston suggested, with a significant note in his voice. "Perhaps, on the whole, such a policy would suit the authorities, too."
The shrewd little doctor grinned appreciatingly.
"Sets the wind in that quarter, eh?" he asked. "All right. I can make a longer job of it if you like, though I see nothing to be gained by doing so. Perhaps Mr. Brentwood——"
"Who was the last man to see the deceased man alive! Bar the actual criminal, of course. Fact is, Marston called at the Manor House last night, and there was some sort of a dispute, and Marston was pitched out. If the story is to be told in public it must, but probably if I have a little more time I may——"
"Lay your hand on the real culprit," Doctor Coffin chuckled. "I am ready to make a little bet about that. You will never lay hands on the criminal who killed the man who lies there. Am I correct in my deduction that Mr. Brentwood is anxious to hush up some scandal? Not that I am vulgarly curious—we medical men are too accustomed to such things in our practice."
"That's what it comes to," Brentwood muttered.
"Then I think you can make your mind easy on that score," the doctor went on. "It is a mighty curious case, and I never came on the like of it before, though I believe something of the sort once happened out in the Klondyke. At the inquest Mr. Brentwood can give his evidence that the deceased came to him—was it in search of money?—thank you and the request was refused. No occasion to say a word more, my dear sir, I assure you. And when I have spoken my little piece the Coroner will address the jury, and there will be an end of what in other circumstances the reporting fraternity would have called 'The Great Manor House Mystery.' Meanwhile, Inspector, you want a clue as to the culprit. Suppose I give you one?"
"It will be a great service," Weston muttered.
The doctor bent over his pocket-book that was lying on the bare deal table which he had been using, and took from it the rough piece of blackened string which he had had in his hand when the others came into the building. He passed it over to Weston.
"Do you happen to know what that is?" he asked.
"No, I'll be hanged if I do!" the Inspector said. "Looks like a perished fragment of tarred rope."
"Not quite," the doctor smiled. "I will explain presently, and then you will see where this tiny clue comes in. Where did I get it from? It came out of the dead man's breast. It was buried deep in the wound—so deep that it had entered the heart. Now how do you suppose this man was killed, Inspector?"
"By a blow with some sharp instrument."
"Right! What sort of a lethal weapon, eh?"
"A sort of pointed tool, getting blunter as it sloped from the apex. A bayonet perhaps, or a Spanish poinard."
"All of which is absolutely correct," the man of science went on in the same tone. "The heart was badly torn by the weapon that penetrated it deeply, and was evidently driven with great force. But how did this funny wisp of black stuff find its way actually into a vital organ? Answer me that, Inspector Weston."
Weston shook his head. But he was wise enough to see that he was up against a greater mental force, than his own.
"The sharp instrument and the thickening blade is admitted," Coffin resumed. "But one can't visualise a piece of rough black string clinging to the point of a steel weapon and being thrust into the body of the dead man; therefore, the incident needs investigation. Marston undoubtedly died from the thrust of a sharp instrument, so will we admit so much. Bearing this in mind, let us go on to the consideration of a few further points. When the body was laid on the table and I began my examination, I noticed that the front of the serge jacket was damp, and that the shirt under it—there is no waistcoat—was still more damp, in fact, sopping wet. But not altogether with blood. A mixture of blood and water. Now, how in the name of fortune did the water get there? Blood still oozing from the wound and shading away in color till it becomes a thin claret in hue.
"Now, I must confess this puzzled me until I found that piece of ragged string, as the Inspector calls it. And when I got hold of that I began to ask myself some searching questions. Then, when I had answered those question from a severe scientific point of view, I knew how the man called Marston came by his death."
"How he was murdered, you mean?" Weston suggested.
"Well, if you like to put it that way—yes," Coffin smiled. "But perhaps I had better show you the solution. If you both will come this way we can touch bottom in a very short time."
Coffin turned out into the open, followed by the others. Down the drive he went until he came to the spot under the shadow of the ruined thatched portcullis where Marston's body had been found. The whole world was dripping now with the thaw that had come with the dawn, and from the thatch overhead came something like a steady rain from the thatch of the portcullis. The long icicles on it were shedding tears, and on the drive just below where other spikes of transparent ice had lifted their heads after each thaw, a sort of brittle rampart uprose not unlike grim rows of lions' teeth. Here and there patches of snow lay on the drive like huge grey slugs partly melted in the thaw, and where they had frozen up ere the dawn were slippery patches or ice trodden into the ground.
"When did it begin to freeze last night?" Coffin asked.
"About seven o'clock," Brentwood responded. "And went on till the moon went down, as it has done for the last five nights."
"So I thought," Coffin murmured. "Now look at this, bearing in mind that the earth must have been frozen hard again at the time Marston came here. He walked back along the drive just where we are standing and slipped on a fragment of ice as he reached the shadow of the portcullis. You can see where the scrape of his boot-toes caught the hard powder of the snow as he pitched forward and died."
"Yes—after he was stabbed," Weston declared.
"No," Coffin thundered. "When he slipped up and came headlong to the ground he was as much alive as we are at the present moment. Now, take this thread of black string. What is it really? You don't know? It is a fragment of heather thatch off the portcullis and was washed down by the thaw. As the sprig fell it lodged by the side of an icicle and became embedded in it somewhere near this point. What price this for a weapon?"
As Coffin spoke he stooped and snapped off one of the long, keen-edged icicles and held it in his hand.
"There!" he exclaimed. "That is what killed Marston. He pitched headlong on to one of those bayonet-like icicles and it penetrated his coat and his shirt and entered the heart. If the frost had not come back last night somewhere about the time that Marston was on his way here—but it is no use speculating about that, and I don't think we shall have to trouble Mr. Brentwood very much when we appear before the coroner."
"IT'S all very dreadful, of course, Arnold," Cecilia shuddered. "But I suppose it might have been a great deal worse."
"A great deal worse for me," Brentwood said grimly.
"Darling, as if ever you would have been really suspected! And we shall be able to keep Christmas up in the good old-fashioned way, as we always have done."
"Yes," Brentwood muttered. "But it has been a precious near thing."