THE PRESIDENT OF SAN JACINTO
MR. REGINALD FORTUNE lay in a long chair. On his right hand a precipice fell to still black water. On his left the mountains rose into a tiara of snow. Far away in front sunlight found the green flood of a glacier. But Mr. Fortune saw none of these things. He was eating strawberries and cream.
The Hon. Sidney Lomas, Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department, disguised as a bloodthirsty fisherman, arrived stiffly but happy, and behind him a large Norwegian bore the corpses of two salmon into the farm-house. “The lord high detective,” Reggie murmured. “An allegorical picture, by the late Mr. Watts.”
“Great days,” Lomas said, and let himself down gingerly into a chair. “Hallo, has there been a post?” He reached for one of the papers at Reggie’s feet. “My country, what of thee?”
“They’re at it again, Lomas. They’ve murdered a real live lord.”
“Thank heaven I’m not there. Who is it?”
“One Carwell. In the wilds of the Midlands.”
“Young Carwell? He’s a blameless youth to slay. What happened?”
“They found him in his library with his head smashed. Queer case.”
Lomas read the report, which had nothing more to tell. “Burglary, I suppose,” he pronounced.
“Well, I have an alibi,” said Reggie.
Neither the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department nor his scientific adviser saw any reason to end a good holiday for the sake of avenging Lord Carwell. The policemen who dealt with the affair did not call for help. Mr. Fortune and Mr. Lomas continued to catch the salmon and eat the strawberries of Norway and let the world go by and became happily out of date. It was not till they were on the North Sea that they met the Carwell case again.
The Newcastle packet was rolling in a slow, heavy rhythm. Most of the passengers had succumbed. Lomas and Reggie fitted themselves and two chairs into a corner of the upper deck with all the London newspapers that were waiting for them at Bergen. Lomas, a methodical man, began at the beginning. Reggie worked back from the end. And in a moment, “My only aunt!” he said softly. “Lomas, old thing, they’re doing themselves proud. Who do you think they’ve taken for that Carwell murder? The cousin, the heir, one Mark Carwell. This is highly intriguing.”
“As you say,” Reggie agreed. “Yes. Public Prosecutor on it. Old Brunker leading for the Crown. Riding pretty hard, too. The man Mark is for it, I fear, Lomas. They do these things quite neatly without us. It’s all very disheartening.”
“Mark Carwell? A harum-scarum young ruffian be always was.”
“Yes. Have you noticed these little things mean much? I haven’t.”
“What’s the case?”
“The second housemaid found Lord Carwell sitting in the library with his head smashed. He was dead. The doctor came up in half an hour, found him cold, and swears he had been dead five or six hours. Cause of death―brain injury from the blow given by some heavy, blunt instrument. No one in the house had heard a sound. No sign of burglary, no weapon. There was a small house-party, the man Mark, the girl Carwell was engaged to, Lady Violet Barclay and her papa and mamma, and Sir Brian Carwell―that’s the contractor, some sort of distant cousin. Mark was left with Lord Carwell when the rest of them went to bed. Lady Violet and papa and mamma say they heard a noisy quarrel. Violet says Carwell had told her before that Mark was writing to him for money to get married on, and Carwell didn’t approve of the girl.”
“I don’t fancy Carwell would approve of the kind of girl Mark would want to marry.”
“Yes, that’s what the fair Violet implies. She seems to be a good hater. She did her little best to hang Mark.”
“Why, if he killed her man, can you wonder?”
“Oh, I don’t wonder. But I wouldn’t like to get in her way myself. Not really a nice girl. She swore Mark had been threatening Carwell, and Carwell was afraid of him. The prosecution put in a letter of Mark’s which talked wild about doing something vague and desperate if Carwell didn’t stump up.”
“Did Mark go into the box?”
“Yes. That was his error. I’m afraid he isn’t respectable, Lomas. He showed no seemly grief. He made it quite clear that he had no use for Hugo, Lord Carwell. He rather suggested that Hugo had lived to spite him, and got killed to spite him. He admitted all Lady Violet’s evidence and underlined it. He said Hugo had been more against him than ever since she came into the family. He owned to the quarrel of Hugo’s last night. Only he swore that he left the man alive.”
“Well, he did his best to hang himself.”
“As you say. A bold, bad fellow. That’s all, except that cousin Mark had a big stick, a loaded stick with a knob head, and he took it down to Carwell Hall.”
“What’s the verdict?”
“To be continued in our next. The judge was going to sum up in the morning. In the paper we haven’t got.”
Lomas lay back and watched the grey sea rise into sight as the boat rolled to starboard. “What do you make of it, Fortune?”
“There’s the rudiments of a case,” said Reggie. “The Carwell estate is entailed. Mark is the heir. He didn’t love the man. The man was going to marry and that would wash out Mark. Mark was the last man with him, unless there is some hard lying. They had a row about money and girls, which are always infuriating, and Mark had a weapon handy which might have killed him. And nobody else had any motive, there’s no evidence of anybody else in the business. Yes, the rudiments of a case.”
“I don’t see the rudiments of a defence.”
“The defence is that Mark says that he didn’t.”
“Quite, quite,” Lomas nodded. “It’s not the strongest case in the world, but I have had convictions on worse. The jury will go by what they made of Mark in the box.”
“And hang him for his face.” Reggie turned over a paper and held out the portrait of a bull-necked, square-headed young man.
“I wouldn’t say they’d be wrong,” Lomas said. “Who’s the judge? Maine? He’ll keep ’em straight.”
“I wonder. What is straight, Lomas?”
“My dear fellow, it all turns on the way this lad gave his evidence, and that you can’t tell from a report.”
“He don’t conciliate me,” Reggie murmured. “Yet I like evidence, Lomas.”
“Why, this is adequate, if it’s true. And Mark didn’t challenge it.”
“I know. Adequate is the word. Just enough and nothing more. That’s unusual, Lomas. Well, well. What about tea?”
They picked their way over some prostrate bodies to the saloon and again gave up the Carwell case.
But when the boat had made her slow way through the clatter of the Tyne, Reggie was quick to intercept the first customs officer on board. “I say, what was the result of that murder trial?”
The man laughed. “Thought you wanted the 3.30 winner, you were so keen, sir. Oh, Mark Carwell’s guilty, of course. His mother’s white-haired boy, he is. Not ’alf.”
“The voice of the people,” said Lomas, in Reggie’s ear.
On the way to London they read the judge’s summing up, an oration lucid and fair but relentless.
“He had no doubt,” Reggie said.
“And a good judge too,” Lomas tossed the paper aside. “Thank heaven they got it out of the way without bothering me.”
“You are an almost perfect official,” said Reggie with reverence.
In the morning when Reggie came down to his breakfast in London he was told that some one had rung up to know if he was back in England yet. He was only half-way through his omelet when the name of Miss Joan Amber was brought to him.
Every one who likes to see a beautiful actress act, and many who don’t care whether she can act or not, know what Miss Amber looks like, that large young woman with the golden eyes whom Reggie hurried to welcome. He held her hand rather a long while. “The world is very good to-day,” he said, and inspected her. “You don’t need a holiday, Miss Amber.”
“You’ve had too much, Mr. Fortune.”
“Have you been kind enough to want me?”
“I really meant that you looked――” she made a large gesture.
“No, no―not fat,” Reggie protested. “Only genial. I expand in your presence.”
“Well―round,” said Miss Amber. “And my presence must be very bad for you.”
“No, not bad for me―only crushing.”
“Well, I did sometimes notice you were away. And I want you now. For a friend of mine. Will you help her?”
“When did I ever say No to you?”
“Bless you,” said Miss Amber. “It’s the Carwell case.”
“Oh, my prophetic soul,” Reggie groaned. “But what in wonder have you to do with the Carwell case?”
“I know Nan Nest. She’s the girl Mark Carwell is going to marry.”
“Do you mind if you sit down?” said Reggie, and wandered away to the window. “You’re disturbing to the intellect, Miss Amber. Let us be calm. You shouldn’t talk about people marrying people and look like that.” Miss Amber smiled at his back. She has confessed to moments in which she would like to be Reggie Fortune’s mother. “Yes. Well now, does Miss Amber happen to know the man Mark?”
“I’ve met him. He’s not a bad fellow. A first-class fighting-subaltern. That sort of thing.”
Reggie nodded. “That’s his public form too.”
“Oh, Mr. Fortune, he’s absolutely straight. Not a very wise youth, of course. You know, I could imagine him killing his cousin, but what I can’t imagine is that he would ever say he didn’t if he did.”
“Yes. There weren’t any women on the jury?”
“I never do when you’re listening. That was a scientific statement. Now, what’s Miss Nest like?”
“Like a jolly schoolboy. Or she was, poor child. Oh, they would have been splendidly happy, if that tiresome man had set Mark up somewhere in the country instead of getting himself murdered.”
Reggie smiled sadly. “Don’t say that to anyone but me. Or let her say it. Why did the tiresome man object to her? I suppose it’s true that he did?”
“Oh heavens, yes. Because she’s on the stage. She plays little parts, you know, flappers and such. She’s quite good as herself. She can’t act.”
“What was the late Carwell? What sort of fellow? That didn’t come out at the trial.”
“A priceless prig, Mark says. I suppose he was the last survivor of our ancient aristocracy. Poor Mark!”
“I wonder,” Reggie murmured.
“Well”―he spread out his hands―“everything. You haven’t exactly cleared it up, have you?”
“Mark told Nan he didn’t do it,” she said quietly, and Reggie looked into her eyes. “Oh, can’t you see? That’s to trust to. That’s sure.” Reggie turned away. “You will help her?” the low voice came again.
And at last, “My dear, I daren’t say so,” Reggie said. “You mustn’t tell her to hope anything. I’ll go over all the case. But the man is condemned.”
“Why, but there’s a court of appeal.”
“Only for something new. And I don’t see it.”
“Mark didn’t kill him!” she cried.
Reggie spread out his hands. “That’s faith.”
“Mr. Fortune! When I said I had come about the Carwell case, you said, ‘Oh, my prophetic soul!’ You don’t believe the evidence, then. You never did. You always thought there was something they didn’t find out.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Reggie said slowly. “That’s the last word now. And it may be the last word in the end.”
“You!” she said, and held out her hand.
When she was gone, Reggie stood looking at the place where she had sat. “God help us,” he said, rare words on his lips. And the place he went to was Scotland Yard.
Lomas was occupied with other sublime officials. So Superintendent Bell reported. He had also been telephoning for Mr. Fortune. Mr. Fortune was admitted and found himself before a large red truculent man who glared. “Hallo, Finch. Is this a council of war?” said Mr. Fortune; for at that date Mr. Montague Finchampstead was the Public Prosecutor.
“Lomas tells me”―Finchampstead has a bullying manner―“you’ve formed an opinion on the evidence in the Carwell case.”
“Then he knows more than I do. The evidence was all right―what there was of it.”
“The chain is complete,” Finchampstead announced.
“Yes. Yes. If you don’t pull it hard.”
“Well, no one did pull it.”
“That’s what I’m pointing out, Finch,” said Reggie sweetly. “Why are you so cross?”
“The trouble is, Fortune, the Carwell butler’s bolted,” Lomas said.
Reggie walked across the room and took one of Lomas’s cigars and lit it, and made himself comfortable in his chair. “That’s a new fact,” he said softly.
“Nonsense,” Finchampstead cried. “It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t affect the issue. The verdict stands.”
“I noticed you didn’t call the butler at the trial,” Reggie murmured.
“Why the devil should we? He knew nothing.”
“Yet he bolts.”
Lomas smiled. “The unfortunate thing is, Fortune, he bolted before the trial was over. At the end of the second day the local police were told that he had vanished. The news was passed on to Finchampstead. But the defence was not informed. And it didn’t come out at the trial.”
“Well, well. I thought you were riding rather hard, Finch. You were.”
“Rubbish. The case was perfectly clear. The disappearance of the butler doesn’t affect it―if he has disappeared. The fellow may very well have gone off on some affair of his own, and turn up again in a day or two. And if he doesn’t, it’s nothing to the purpose. The butler was known to have a kindness for Mark Carwell. If we never hear of him again I shall conclude that he had a hand in the murder, and when he saw the case was going against Mark thought he had better vanish.”
“Theory number two,” Reggie murmured.
“What do you mean?”
“Your first was that the butler knew nothing. Your second is that he knows too much. Better choose which leg you’ll stand on in the Court of Appeal.”
“In the meantime, Finch, we’ll try to find the butler for you,” said Lomas cheerfully.
“And I think I’ll have a look at the evidence,” Reggie murmured.
“There is no flaw in the evidence,” Finchampstead boomed.
“Well, not till you look at it.”
Finchampstead with some explosions of disgust removed himself.
“Zeal, all zeal,” said Reggie sadly. “Well-meaning man. Only one idea at a time. And sometimes a wrong un.”
“He’s a lawyer by nature,” Lomas apologised. “You always rub him up the wrong way. He don’t like the scientific mind. What?” Bell had come in to give him a visiting card. He read out, “Sir Brian Carwell.” He looked at Reggie. “Now which side is he on?”
“One moment. Who exactly is he? Some sort of remote cousin?”
“Yes. He comes of a younger branch. People say the brains of the Carwell’s went to them. His father was the engineer, old Ralph Carwell. This man’s an engineering contractor. He made his pile over South American railways.”
“You wouldn’t say he was passionately interested in the late Lord Carwell or Cousin Mark.”
There came in a lean man with an air of decision and authority, but older than his resilient vigour suggested, for his hair was much sprinkled with grey, and in his brown face, about the eyes and mouth, the wrinkles were many. He was exact with the formalities of introduction and greeting, but much at his ease, and then, “I had better explain who I am, Mr. Lomas.”
“Oh, we’ve heard of Sir Brian Carwell.”
“Thanks. But I dare say you don’t know my private affairs. I’m some sort of fifteenth cousin of these two unfortunate young fellows. And just now I happen to be the acting head of the family. I’m not the next heir, of course. That’s old Canon Carwell. But I was on the spot when this thing happened. After his arrest Mark asked me to take charge for him, and the Canon wished me to act. That’s my position. Well, I carried on to keep things as they were at the Hall and on the estate. Several of the servants want to quit, of course, but they haven’t gone yet. The butler was a special case. He told me he had given Hugo notice some time before. I could find no record, but it was possible enough, and as he only wanted to retire and settle down in the neighbourhood, I made no difficulty. So he set himself up in lodgings in the village. He was looking about for a house, he told me. I suppose he had done pretty well. He had been in service at the Hall thirty or forty years, poor devil. What a life! He knew Hugo and Mark much better than I do, had known ’em all their young lives. He knew all the family affairs inside and out. One night the people where he was lodging went round to the police to say he’d gone out and not come back. He hasn’t come back yet.”
“And what do you conclude, Sir Brian?”
“I’ll be damned if I know what I conclude. That’s your business, isn’t it?”
“Not without some facts,” said Lomas. “When did he leave the Hall?”
“After Mark was arrested. May 13. And he disappeared on the evening of the second day of the trial.”
“That would be when it looked certain that Mark would be found guilty. Why did he wait till then?”
Sir Brian laughed. “If I knew that, I suppose I shouldn’t be here. I’m asking you to find him.”
“Quite, quite,” Lomas agreed. “The local police knew of his disappearance at once?”
“I said so. I wish I had known as soon. The police didn’t bother to mention it at the trial. It might have made some difference to the verdict, Mr. Lomas.”
“That’s matter of opinion, of course,” said Lomas. “I wasn’t in England myself. I needn’t tell you that it’s open to the defence to appeal against the conviction.”
“Is it?” Sir Brian’s shadowed eyes grew smaller. “You don’t know Mark, Mr. Lomas. If I were to tell you Mark refuses to make an appeal on this ground because it would be putting the murder on the butler, what would you say?”
“Good Gad!” was what Lomas did say. He lay back and put up his eyeglass and looked from Sir Brian to Reggie and back again. “You mean Mark admits he is guilty?”
“Guilty be damned,” said Sir Brian. “No, sir, I mean Mark liked the wretched fellow and won’t hear of anything against him. Mark’s a fool. But that’s not a reason for hanging him. I say you got your conviction by suppressing evidence. It’s up to you to review the case.”
“Still, Lord Carwell was killed,” said Lomas gently, “and somebody killed him. Who was it?”
“Not Mark. He hasn’t got it in him, I suppose he never hit a fellow who couldn’t hit back in his life.”
“But surely,” Lomas purred, “if there was a quarrel, Lord Carwell might――”
“Hugo was a weed,” Sir Brian pronounced. “Mark never touched him, my friend.”
“Yes, yes, very natural you should think so,” Lomas shifted his papers. “Of course you won’t expect me to say anything, Sir Brian. And what exactly is it you want me to do?”
Sir Brian laughed. “My dear sir, it’s not for me to tell you your duty. I put it to you that a man has disappeared, and that his disappearance makes hay of the case on which the Crown convicted a cousin of mine of murder. What you do about it is your affair.”
“You may rely upon it, Sir Brian,” said Lomas in his most official manner, “the affair will be thoroughly investigated.”
“I expected no less, Mr. Lomas.” And Sir Brian ceremoniously but briskly took his leave.
After which, “Good Gad!” said Lomas again, and stared at Reggie Fortune.
“Nice restful companion, isn’t he? Yes. The sort of fellow that has made Old England great.”
“Oh, I don’t mind him. He could be dealt with. But he’s right, confound him. The case is a most unholy mess.”
“Well, well,” said Reggie placidly. “You must rub it out, dear, and do it again.”
“If everybody had tried to muddle it they couldn’t have done worse.”
Reggie stared at him. “Yes. Yes, you have your moments, Lomas,” he said.
“Suppose the butler did the murder. Why in the world should he wait to run away till Mark was certain to be found guilty?”
“And suppose he didn’t, why did he run away at all? You can make up quite a lot of riddles in this business. Why should anyone but Mark do it? Why is Mark so mighty tender of the butler’s reputation? Why is anything?”
“Yes, it’s all crazy―except Sir Brian. He’s reasonable enough, confound him.”
“Yes. Yes, these rational men are a nuisance to the police. Well, well, begin again at the beginning.”
“I wish I knew where it did begin.”
“My dear fellow! Are we down-hearted? I’ll have a look at the medical evidence. You go over Carwell Hall and the butler’s digs with a small tooth comb.”
But the first thing which Mr. Fortune did was to send a note to Miss Amber.
My dear Child,―
Mark can appeal. The ground for it is the disappearance of the Carwell butler―and a good ground.
But he must appeal. Tell Miss Nest.
Two days afterwards he went again to Scotland Yard summoned to a conference of the powers. The public prosecutor’s large and florid face had no welcome for him. “Any more new facts, Finch?” he said cheerfully.
“Mark Carwell has entered an appeal,” Mr. Finchampstead boomed. “On the ground of the butler’s disappearance.”
“Fancy that!” Reggie murmured, and lit a cigar. “Sir Brian doesn’t seem to have been very well informed, Lomas.”
“The boy’s come to his senses, I suppose. But we haven’t found the butler. He left no papers behind him. All he did leave was his clothes and about a hundred pounds in small notes.”
“So he didn’t take his ready money. That’s interesting.”
“Well, not all of it. He left another hundred or so in the savings bank, and some small investments in building societies and so forth―a matter of five hundred. Either he didn’t mean to vanish, or he was in the deuce of a hurry to go.”
“Yes. Yes, there’s another little point. Five or six hundred isn’t much to retire on. Why was he in such a hurry to retire?”
“He may have had more than we can trace, of course. He may have gone off with some Carwell property. But there is no evidence of anything being stolen.”
“The plain fact is,” Finchampstead boomed, “you have found out nothing but that he’s gone. We knew that before.”
“And it’s a pity you kept it dark,” said Lomas acidly. “You wouldn’t have had an appeal to fight.”
“The case against Mark Carwell is intrinsically as strong as ever,” Finchampstead pronounced. “There is no reason whatever to suspect the butler, he had no motive for murder, he gained nothing by it, his disappearance is most naturally accounted for by an accident.”
“Yes, you’ll have to say all that in the Court of Appeal. I don’t think it will cut much ice.”
“I am free to admit that his disappearance is an awkward complication in the case,” Finchampstead’s oratory rolled on. “But surely, Lomas, you have formed some theory in explanation?”
Lomas shook his head.
“We’ve had too much theory, Finch,” said Reggie cheerfully. “Let’s try some facts. I want the body exhumed.”
The eyes of Mr. Finchampstead goggled. His large jaw fell.
“Good Gad, you don’t doubt he’s dead?” Lomas cried.
“Oh, he’ll be dead all right. I want to know how he died.”
“Are you serious?” Finchampstead mourned. “Really, Fortune, this is not a matter for frivolity. The poor fellow was found dead with one side of his head beaten in. There can be no dispute how he died. I presume you have taken the trouble to read the medical evidence.”
“I have. That’s what worries me. I’ve seen the doctors you called. Dear old things.”
“Very sound men. And of the highest standing,” Finchampstead rebuked him.
“As you say. They know a fractured skull when they see it. They would see everything they looked for. But they didn’t look for what they didn’t see.”
“May I ask what you mean?”
“Any other cause of death.”
“The cause was perfectly plain. There was nothing else to look for.”
“Yes. Yes,” Reggie lay back and blew smoke. “That’s the sort of reasoning that got you this verdict. Look here, Finch. That smashed head would have killed him all right, but it shouldn’t have killed him so quick. He ought to have lingered unconscious a long while. And he had been dead hours when they found him. We have to begin again from the beginning. I want an order for exhumation.”
“Better ask for a subpoena for his soul.”
“That’s rather good, Finch,” Reggie smiled. “You’re beginning to take an interest in the case.”
“If you could take the evidence of the murdered,” said Lomas, “a good many convictions for murder would look rather queer.”
Mr. Finchampstead was horrified. “I conceive,” he announced with dignity, “that a trial in an English court is a practically perfect means of discovering the truth.”
Reverently then they watched him go. And when he was gone, “He’s a wonderful man,” said Reggie. “He really believes that.”
The next morning saw Mr. Fortune, escorted by Superintendent Bell, arrive at Carwell Hall. It stands in what Mr. Fortune called a sluggish country, a country of large rolling fields and slow rivers. The air was heavy and blurred all colour and form. Mr. Fortune arrived at Carwell Hall feeling as if he had eaten too much, a sensation rare in him, which he resented. He was hardly propitiated by the house, though others have rejoiced in it. It was built under the Tudors out of the spoils and, they say, with the stones of an abbey. Though some eighteenth-century ruffian played tricks with it, its mellow walls still speak of an older, more venturous world. It is a place of studied charm, gracious and smiling, but in its elaboration of form and ornament offering a thousand things to look at, denies itself as a whole, evasive and strange.
Reggie got out of the car and stood back to survey it. “Something of everything, isn’t it, Bell? Like a Shakespeare play. Just the place to have a murder in one room with a children’s party in the next, and a nice girl making love on the stairs, and father going mad in the attics.”
“I rather like Shakespeare myself, sir,” said Superintendent Bell,
“You’re so tolerant,” said Reggie, and went in.
A new butler said that Sir Brian was expecting them. Sir Brian was brusquely civil. He was very glad to find that the case was being reopened. The whole place was at their orders. Anything he could do――
“I thought I might just look round,” Reggie said. “We are rather after the fair, though.” He did not think it necessary to tell Sir Brian that Lord Carwell’s body would be dug up that night.
They were taken across a hall with a noble roof of hammer beams to the place of the murder. The library was panelled in oak, which at a man’s height from the ground flowered into carving. The ceiling was moulded into a hundred coats of arms, each blazoned with its right device, and the glow and colour of them, scarlet and bright blue and gold, filled the room. Black presses with vast locks stood here and there. A stool was on either side the great open hearth. By the massive table a stern fifteenth-century chair was set.
Bell gazed about him and breathed heavily. “Splendid room, sir,” he said. “Quite palatial.”
“But it’s not what I’d want after dinner myself,” Reggie murmured.
“I’ve no use for the place,” said Sir Brian. “But it suited Hugo. He would never have a thing changed. He was really a survival. Poor old Hugo.”
“He was sitting here?” Reggie touched the chair.
“So they tell me. I didn’t see him till some time after the girl found him. You’d better hear what she has to say.”
A frightened and agitated housemaid testified that his lordship had been sitting in that chair bent over the table and his head rested on it, and the left side of his head was all smashed, and on the table was a pool of his blood. She would never forget it, never. She became aware of Reggie’s deepening frown. “That’s the truth, sir,” she cried, “so help me God, it is.”
“I know, I know,” said Reggie. “No blood anywhere else? No other marks in the room?”
There hadn’t been anything. She had cleaned the room herself. And it had been awful. She hadn’t slept a night since. And so on till she was got rid of.
“Well?” said Sir Brian. “What’s the expert make of her?”
Reggie was looking at the table and fingering it. He looked up suddenly. “Oh, she’s telling the truth,” he said. “And that’s that.”
The lunch bell was ringing. Sir Brian hoped they would stay at the Hall. They did stay to lunch and talked South America, of which Sir Brian’s knowledge was extensive and peculiar. After lunch they smoked on the terrace and contemplated through the haze the Carwell acres. “Yes, it’s all Carwell land as far as you see―if you could see anything,” Sir Brian laughed. “And nothing to see at that. Flat arable. I couldn’t live in the place. I never feel awake here. But the family’s been on the ground four hundred years. They didn’t own the estate. The estate owned them. Well, I suppose one life’s as good as another if you like it. This isn’t mine. Watching Englishmen grow wheat! My God! That just suited Hugo. Poor old Hugo!”
“Had the butler anything against him, sir?” Bell ventured.
“I can’t find it. The butler was just a butler. I never saw a man more so. And Hugo, well, he didn’t know servants existed unless they didn’t answer the bell. But he was a queer fellow. No notion of anybody having rights against him. He wouldn’t let you get near him. I’ve seen that make quiet men mad.”
“Meaning anyone in particular, sir?” Bell said.
“Oh Lord, no. Speaking generally.” He looked at Bell with a shrewd smile. “Haven’t you found that in your job?” And Bell laughed. “Yes, I’m afraid I don’t help you much. Are you going to help Mark? Where is the butler?”
“Yes. Yes, we are rather wasting time, aren’t we?” Reggie stretched himself. “It’s too soothing, Sir Brian. Can we walk across the park? I hate exercise, but man must live.”
“I don’t think anyone would have to murder me if I stayed here long,” Sir Brian started up. “I’ll show you the way. We can send your car round to the village.”
Over immemorial turf they went their warm way. A herd of deer looked at them critically, and concluded they were of no importance. “Pretty creatures,” said Superintendent Bell.
“I’d as soon keep white mice,” said Sir Brian, and discoursed of the wilder deer of other lands till he discovered that Reggie was left behind.
Reggie was wandering off towards a little building away in a hollow among trees. It was low, it was of unhewn stone bonded with lines of red tile or brick, only a little above the moss-grown roof rose a thin square tower. The tiny rounded windows showed walls of great thickness and over its one door was a mighty round arch, much wrought.
“Does the old place take your fancy?” Sir Brian said.
“How did that get here?” said Reggie.
“Well, you’ve got me on my blind side,” Sir Brian confessed. “We call it the old church. I dare say it’s as old as the Hall.”
“The Hall’s a baby to it,” said Reggie angrily. “The porch is Norman. There’s Saxon work in that tower. And that tile is Roman.”
Sir Brian laughed. “What about the Greeks and the Hebrews? Give them a look in.” Reggie was not pleased with him. “Sorry, afraid these things don’t mean much to me. I don’t know how it began.”
“It may have been a shrine or a chapel over some sacred place.”
“Haven’t a notion. They say it used to be the village church. One of my revered ancestors stopped the right of way―didn’t like the people disturbing his poultry, I suppose―and built ’em a new church outside the park.”
“Priceless,” Reggie murmured.
“What, the place or my ancestors?”
“Well, both, don’t you think?”
For the rest of the way Sir Brian told strange stories of the past of the family of Carwell.
“He’s a good talker, sir,” said Superintendent Bell, when they had left him at the park gate and were in their car. “Very pleasant company. But you’ve something on your mind.”
“The chair,” Reggie mumbled. “Why was the man in his chair?”
“Lord Carwell, sir?” Bell struggled to adjust his mind. “Well, he was. That girl was telling the truth.”
“I know, I know. That’s the difficulty. You smash the side of a man’s head in. He won’t sit down to think about it.”
“Perhaps he was sitting when he was hit.”
“Then he’d be knocked over just the same.”
“I suppose the murderer might have picked him up.”
“He might. But why? Why?”
Superintendent Bell sighed heavily. “I judge we’ve some way to go, sir. And we don’t seem to get any nearer the butler.”
“Your job,” said Reggie, and again the Superintendent sighed.
That night through a drizzling rain, lanterns moved in the village churchyard. The vault in which the Carwells of a hundred and fifty years lie crumbling was opened, and out of it a coffin was borne away. One man lingered in the vault holding a lantern high. He moved from one coffin to another, and came up again to the clean air and the rain. “All present and correct,” he said. “No deception, Bell.”
Superintendent Bell coughed. Sometimes he thinks Mr. Fortune lacking in reverence.
“Division of labour,” Reggie sank into the cushions of the car and lit a pipe, “the division of labour is the great principle of civilisation. Perhaps you didn’t know that? In the morning I will look at the corpse and you will look for the butler.”
“Well, sir, I don’t care for my job, but I wouldn’t have yours for a hundred pounds.”
“Yet it has a certain interest,” Reggie murmured, “for that poor devil with the death sentence on him.”
To their hotel in Southam Reggie Fortune came back on the next day rather before lunch time.
“Finished at the mortuary, sir?” said Bell. “I thought you looked happy.”
“Not happy. Only pleased with myself. A snare, Bell, a snare. Have you found the butler?”
Bell shook his head. “It’s like a fairy tale, sir. He went out on that evening, walked down the village street, and that’s the last of him they know. He might have gone to the station, he might have gone on the Southam motor-bus. They can’t swear he didn’t, but nobody saw him. They’ve searched the whole country-side and dragged the river. If you’ll tell me what to do next, I’ll be glad.”
“Sir Brian’s been asking for me, they say,” said Reggie. “I think we’ll go and call on Sir Brian.”
They took sandwiches and their motor to Carwell Hall. The new butler told them Sir Brian had driven into Southam and was not yet back. “Oh, we’ve crossed him, I suppose,” Reggie said. “We might stroll in the park till he’s back. Ah, can we get into the old church?”
The butler really couldn’t say, and remarked that he was new to the place.
“Oh, it’s no matter.” Reggie took Bell’s arm and strolled away.
They wandered down to the little old church, “Makes you feel melancholy, sir, don’t it?” Bell said. “Desolate, as you might say. As if people had got tired of believing in God.”
Reggie looked at him a moment and went into the porch and tried the worm-eaten oak door. “We might have a look at the place,” he said, and took out of his pocket a flat case like a housewife.
“Good Lord, sir, I wouldn’t do that,” Bell recoiled. “I mean to say―it’s a church after all.”
But Reggie was already picking the old lock. The door yielded and he went in. A dank and musty smell met them. The church was all but empty. Dim light fell on a shattered rood screen and stalls, and a bare stone altar. A tomb bore two cadaverous effigies. Reggie moved hither and thither prying into every corner, and came at last to a broken flight of stairs. “Oh, there’s a crypt, is there,” he muttered, and went down. “Hallo! Come on, Bell.”
Superintendent Bell, following reluctantly, found him struggling with pieces of timber, relics of stall and bench, which held a door closed. “Give me a hand, man.”
“I don’t like it, sir, and that’s the truth.”
“Nor do I,” Reggie panted, “not a bit,” and dragged the last piece away and pulled the door open. He took out a torch and flashed the light on. They looked into a place supported on low round arches. The beam of the torch moved from coffin to mouldering coffin.
“Good God,” Bell gasped, and gripped Reggie’s arm.
Reggie drew him in. They came to the body of a man which had no coffin. It lay upon its face. Reggie bent over it, touching gently the back of the neck. “I thought so,” he muttered, and turned the body over. Bell gave a stifled cry.
“Quite so, quite――” he sprang up and made a dash for the door. It was slammed in his face. He flung himself against it, and it yielded a little but held. A dull creaking and groaning told that the timbers were being set again in place. Together they charged the door and were beaten back “And that’s that, Bell,” said Reggie. He flashed his light round the crypt, and it fell again on the corpse. “You and me and the butler.”
Bell’s hand felt for him. “Mr. Fortune―Mr. Fortune―was he dead when he came here?”
“Oh Lord, yes. Sir Brian’s quite a humane man. But business is business.”
“Sir Brian?” Bell gasped.
“My dear chap,” said Reggie irritably, “don’t make conversation.” He turned his torch on the grey oak of the door. . . .
It was late in that grim afternoon before they had cut and kicked a hole in it, and Reggie’s hand came through and felt for the timbers which held it closed. Twilight was falling when, dirty and reeking, they broke out of the church and made for the Hall.
Sir Brian―the new butler could not conceal his surprise at seeing them―Sir Brian had gone out in the big car. But the butler feared there must be some mistake. He understood that Sir Brian had seen the gentlemen and was to take them with him. Sir Brian had sent the gentlemen’s car back to Southam. Sir Brian――
“Where’s your telephone?” said Reggie.
The butler was afraid the telephone was out of order. He had been trying to get――
Reggie went to the receiver. There was no answer. Still listening, he looked at the connexions. A couple of inches of wire were cut out. Half an hour later two breathless men arrived at the village post office and shut themselves into the telephone call-box.
On the next day Lomas called at Mr. Fortune’s house in Wimpole Street and was told that Mr. Fortune was in his bath. A parlourmaid with downcast eyes announced to him a few minutes later that if he would go up Mr. Fortune would be very glad to see him.
“Pardon me,” said the pink cherubic face from the water. “I am not clean. I think I shall never be clean again.”
“You look like a prawn,” said Lomas.
“That’s your unscientific mind. Have you got him?”
Lomas shook his head. “He has been seen in ten places at once. They have arrested a blameless bookmaker at Hull and an Irish cattle-dealer at Birkenhead. As usual. But we ought to have him in time.”
“My fault entirely. He is an able fellow. I have underrated these business men, Lomas. My error. Occasionally one has a head. He has.”
“These madmen often have.”
Reggie wallowed in the water. “Mad? He’s as sane as I am. He’s been badly educated, that’s all. That’s the worst of business men. They’re so ignorant. Just look at it. He killed Hugo by a knife thrust in the vertebrae at the base of the skull. It’s a South American fashion, probably indigenous. When I found that wound in the body I was sure of the murderer. I had a notion before from the way he spoke about Hugo and the estate. Probably Hugo was bent over the table and the blow was struck without his knowledge. He would be dead in a moment. But Sir Brian saw that wouldn’t do. Too uncommon a murder in England. So he smashed in the skull to make it look like an ordinary crime of violence. Thus ignorance is bliss. He never thought the death wasn’t the right kind of death for that. Also it didn’t occur to him that a man who is hit on the head hard is knocked down. He don’t lay his head on the table to be hammered same like Hugo. I don’t fancy Brian meant Mark to be hanged. Possibly he was going to manufacture evidence of burglary when he was interrupted by the butler. Anyhow the butler knew too much and had to be bought off. But I suppose the butler wouldn’t stand Mark being hanged. When he found the trial was going dead against Mark he threatened. So he had to be killed too. Say by appointment in the park. Same injury in his body―a stab through the cervical vertebrae. And the corpse was neatly disposed of in the crypt.”
“What in the world put you on to the crypt?”
“Well, Sir Brian was so anxious not to be interested in the place. And the place was so mighty convenient. And the butler had to be somewhere. Pure reasoning, Lomas, old thing. This is a very rational case all through.”
“Rational! Will you tell me why Sir Brian came to stir us up about the butler and insisted Mark was innocent?”
“I told you he was an able man. He saw it would have looked very fishy if he didn’t. Acting head of the family―he had to act. And also I fancy he liked Mark. If he could get the boy off, he would rather do it than not. And who could suspect the worthy fellow who was so straight and decent? All very rational.”
“Very,” said Lomas. “Especially the first murder. Why do you suppose he wanted to kill Hugo?”
“Well, you’d better look at his papers. He talked about Hugo as if he had a grudge against the way Hugo ran the estate. I wonder if he wanted to develop it―try for minerals perhaps―it’s on the edge of the South Midland coal-field―and Hugo wouldn’t have it.”
“Good Gad!” Lomas said. “You’re an ingenious fellow, Fortune. He had proposed to Hugo to try for coal, and Hugo turned it down.”
Reggie emerged from the bath. “There you have it. He knew if Hugo was out of the way he could do what he wanted. If Mark or the old parson had the place, he could manage them. Very rational crime.”
“Rational! Murder your cousin to make a coal mine!”
“Business men and business methods. Run away and catch him, Lomas, and hang him to encourage the others.”
But in fact Lomas did not catch him. Some years afterwards Mrs. Fortune found her husband on the veranda of an hotel in Italy staring at a Spanish paper. “Don’t dream, child,” she said. “Run and dress.”
“I’m seeing ghosts, Joan,” said Mr. Fortune.
She looked over his shoulder. “Who is San Jacinto?”
“The last new South American republic. Here’s His Excellency the President. Né Brian Carwell. Observe the smile.”