Do you understand, Knox?" said Harley as the cab bore us toward Hamilton Place. "Do you grasp the details of this cunning scheme?"
"On the contrary," I replied, "I am hopelessly at sea."
Nevertheless, I had forgotten that I was hungry in the excitement which now claimed me. For although the thread upon which these seemingly disconnected things hung was invisible to me, I recognized that Bampton, the city clerk, the bearded stranger who had made so singular a proposition to him, the white-hatted major, the dead stockbroker, and the mysterious woman whose presence in the case the clear sight of Harley had promptly detected, all were linked together by some subtle chain. I was convinced, too, that my friend held at least one end of that chain in his grip.
"In order to prepare your mind for the interview which I hope to obtain this evening," continued Harley, "let me enlighten you upon one or two points which may seem obscure. In the first place you recognize that anyone leaning out of the window on the second floor would almost automatically rest his weight upon the iron bar which was placed there for that very purpose, since the ledge is unusually low?"
"Quite," I replied, "and it also follows that if the bar gave way anyone thus leaning on it would be pitched into the street."
"Your reasoning is correct."
"But, my dear fellow," said I, "how could such an accident have been foreseen?"
"You speak of an accident. This was no accident! One end of the bar had been filed completely through, although the file marks had been carefully concealed with rust and dirt; and the other end had been wrenched out from its socket and then replaced in such a way that anyone leaning upon the bar could not fail to be precipitated into the street!"
"Good heavens! Then you mean------"
"I mean, Knox, that the man who occupied the supper room on the night before the tragedy--the dark man, tanned and bearded, with slightly oblique eyes---spent his time in filing through that bar--in short, in preparing a death trap!"
I was almost dumbfounded.
"But, Harley," I said, "assuming that he knew his victim would be the next occupant of the room, how could he know------?"
I stopped. Suddenly, as if a curtain had been raised, the details of what I now perceived to be a fiendishly cunning murder were revealed to me.
"According to his own account, Knox," resumed Harley, "Major Ragstaff regularly passed along that street with military punctuality at the same hour every night. You may take it for granted that the murderer was well aware of this. As a matter of fact, I happen to know that he was. We must also take it for granted that the murderer knew of these little dinners for two which took place in the private room above the Cafe Dame every Wednesday--and sometimes on Friday. Around the figure of the methodical major--with his conspicuous white hat as a sort of focus--was built up one of the most ingenious schemes of murder with which I have ever come in contact. The victim literally killed himself."
"But, Harley, the victim might have ignored the disturbance."
"That is where I first detected the touch of genius, Knox. He recognized the voice of one of the combatants--or his companion did. Here we are."
The cab drew up before the house in Hamilton Place. We alighted, and Harley pressed the bell. The same footman whom I had seen admit the woman opened the door.
"Is Lady Ireton at home?" asked Harley.
As he uttered the name I literally held my breath. We had come to the house of Major Ragstaff's daughter, the Marchioness of Ireton, one of society's most celebrated and beautiful hostesses!--the wife of a peer famed alike as sportsman, soldier, and scholar.
"I believe she is dining at home, sir," said the man. "Shall I inquire?"
"Be good enough to do so," replied Harley, and gave him a card. "Inform her that I wish to return to her a handbag which she lost a few days ago."
The man ushered us into an anteroom opening off the lofty and rather gloomy hall, and as the door closed:
"Harley," I said in a stage whisper, "am I to believe------"
"Can you doubt it?" returned Harley with a grim smile.
A few moments later we were shown into a charmingly intimate little boudoir in which Lady Ireton was waiting to receive us. She was a strikingly handsome brunette, but to-night her face, which normally, I think, possessed rich colouring, was almost pallid, and there was a hunted look in her dark eyes which made me wish to be anywhere rather than where I found myself. Without preamble she rose and addressed Harley:
"I fail to understand your message, sir," she said, and I admired the imperious courage with which she faced him. "You say you have recovered a handbag which I had lost?"
Harley bowed, and from the pocket of his greatcoat took out a silken-tasselled bag.
"The one which you left in the Cafe Dame, Lady Ireton," he replied. "Here also I have"--from another pocket he drew out a diamond ring--"something which was extorted from you by the fellow Meyer."
Without touching her recovered property, Lady Ireton sank slowly down into the chair from which she had arisen, her gaze fixed as if hypnotically upon the speaker.
"My friend, Mr. Knox, is aware of all the circumstances," continued the latter, "but he is as anxious as I am to terminate this painful interview. I surmise that what occurred on Wednesday night was this--: While dining with Mr. De Lana you heard sounds of altercation in the street below. May I suggest that you recognized one of the voices?"
Lady Ireton, still staring straight before her at Harley, inclined her head in assent.
"I heard my father's voice," she said hoarsely.
"Quite so," he continued. "I am aware that Major Ragstaff is your father." He turned to me: "Do you recognize the touch of genius at last?" Then, again addressing Lady Ireton: "You naturally suggested to your companion that he should look out of the window in order to learn what was taking place. The next thing you knew was that he had fallen into the street below?"
Lady Ireton shuddered and raised her hands to her face.
"It is retribution," she whispered. "I have brought this ruin upon myself. But he does not deserve------"
Her voice faded into silence, and:
"You refer to your husband, Lord Ireton?" said Harley.
Lady Ireton nodded, and again recovering power of speech:
"It was to have been our last meeting," she said, looking up at Harley.
She shuddered, and her eyes blazed into sudden fierceness. Then, clenching her hands, she looked aside.
"Oh, God, the shame of this hour!" she whispered.
And I would have given much to have been spared the spectacle of this proud, erring woman's humiliation. But Paul Harley was scientifically remorseless. I could detect no pity in his glance.
"I would give my life willingly to spare my husband the knowledge of what has been," said Lady Ireton in a low, monotonous voice. "Three times I sent my maid to Meyer to recover my bag, but he demanded a price which even I could not pay. Now it is all discovered, and Harry will know."
"That, I fear, is unavoidable, Lady Ireton," declared Harley. "May I ask where Lord Ireton is at present?"
"He is in Africa after big game."
"H'm," said Harley, "in Africa, and after big game? I can offer you one consolation, Lady Ireton. In his own interests Meyer will stick to his first assertion that Mr. De Lana was dining alone."
A strange, horribly pathetic look came into the woman's haunted eyes.
"You--you--are not acting for------?" she began.
"I am acting for no one," replied Harley tersely. "Upon my friend's discretion you may rely as upon my own."
"Then why should he ever know?" she whispered.
"Why, indeed," murmured Harley, "since he is in Africa?"
As we descended the stair to the hall my friend paused and pointed to a life-sized oil painting by London's most fashionable portrait painter. It was that of a man in the uniform of a Guards officer, a dark man, slightly gray at the temples, his face very tanned as if by exposure to the sun.
"Having had no occasion for disguise when the portrait was painted," said Harley, "Lord Ireton appears here without the beard; and as he is not represented smiling one cannot see the gold tooth. But the painter, if anything, has accentuated the slanting eyes. You see, the fourth marquis--the present Lord Ireton's father--married one of the world-famous Yen Sun girls, daughters of the mandarin of that name by an Irish wife. Hence, the eyes. And hence------"
"But, Harley--it was murder!"
"Not within the meaning of the law, Knox. It was a recrudescence of Chinese humour! Lord Ireton is officially in Africa . The counsel is not born who could secure a conviction. We are somewhat late, but shall therefore have less difficulty in finding a table at Prince's."