The inquest into Robert Ashton's strange death, which was held the followin_ay in the billiard-room at The Oaks, was a brief affair. A jury had bee_mpaneled in the town, and Major Temple, Miss Temple and myself, as well as L_in and the other servants, were duly examined and we told our respectiv_tories as we had already told them to Sergeant McQuade. No new light wa_hrown upon the affair by our testimony. Miss Temple, when questioned,
admitted that she had left the house early in the morning, with the intentio_f running away, but had changed her mind suddenly and returned. Beyond thi_othing could be got out of her. The divisional surgeon testified that hi_xamination of the deceased showed a simple fracture of the skull, no_ecessarily sufficient to produce death, although capable of doing so whe_ombined with nervous shock or a weakened condition of the heart. That one o_oth of the latter agencies had combined with the result of the blow wa_videnced by Ashton's almost instantaneous death and the look of horror whic_as upon his face. There was nothing for the jury to do but render a verdic_tating that Robert Ashton had come to his death through a blow upon the head,
delivered with some sharp instrument by a person or persons unknown. Sai_erdict having accordingly been rendered, and the body removed to a_ndertaking establishment in Exeter, there seemed nothing further for me to d_ut pack up my few belongings and go my way, knowing no more of the cause o_obert Ashton's death than before. I knew that Sergeant McQuade was workin_agerly upon the case, and I felt sure that, if the discovery of the murdere_ere possible, he would accomplish it, but I had very grave doubts as to hi_uccess. I spoke a few words to him at the close of the inquest, and h_nformed me that he intended going up to London early that afternoon t_nterrogate the two Chinamen detained there since the preceding day, and, upo_y volunteering to accompany him, he evinced no objection, but on the contrar_eemed rather to welcome my suggestion. I knew perfectly well that, until th_ystery was solved, not only myself, but Major and Miss Temple and Li Min, a_ell as the other servants in the house would all be more or less under polic_urveillance, and my sudden determination to go up to London arose from _eeling that I wanted if possible to stay with this case to the end—a feelin_hat became intensified whenever I thought of Muriel Temple and th_nfortunate position in which this affair had placed her. Her exquisitel_ovely face, drawn with suffering, appeared to me constantly, as she ha_ooked at the coroner's inquest, and I felt with all my heart that, if I coul_o anything to help her, I would, cost what it might. I had no very clear ide_s to just what I could accomplish by going up to London, but I felt sure tha_ should be more likely to find opportunities for helping her there, with th_etective, than would be the case should I continue my walking trip t_orquay.
I hastened to my room, therefore, intending to pack my belongings befor_uncheon, so as to be ready for a start as soon thereafter as the detectiv_as ready. I left the door of my room partially open upon entering, and for _ime busied myself in arranging my luggage. As I did so, I thought I heard _light sound in the green room across the hall—the one in which the traged_ad occurred—and, glancing up, saw that, by looking into the mirror of m_resser, I could see most of the interior of the room opposite. The room wa_ot empty—for in a moment I observed Li Min, the Chinese servant, engage_pparently in arranging it, now that its unfortunate occupant and hi_elongings had been removed. His actions struck me as being decidedl_eculiar, and I watched him carefully as he moved about. He was evidentl_earching for something, and examined with the most minute care every objec_n the room—the carpet, the pictures, the furniture, even the wall paper, a_hough looking for some place of concealment. I tried to figure this out t_yself, but I could see no reasonable explanation of his conduct. If he, o_ny of his confederates had killed Ashton, they certainly must have secure_he emerald Buddha, and taken it with them—the empty case, I remembered, la_pon the table. What then, could this Chinaman be searching for with suc_vident eagerness and anxiety? I determined to surprise him, and with a fe_apid steps crossed the intervening hall and appeared in the doorway. He a_nce seemed confused, and made a quick pretense of being busily occupied i_he business of setting the room to rights. I stood looking at hi_uestioningly for a few moments, when I presently became aware of a curiousl_ungent, yet sweet, aromatic odor, which had something vaguely familiar to m_bout it. I could not, at first, place this perfume, which was noticeabl_ifferent from those of our own country, when suddenly it flashed into my min_hat this was the curious scent which I had noticed upon Miss Temple'_andkerchief—the one dropped by her in Ashton's room on the occasion of he_isit to him shortly before midnight on the evening preceding the tragedy. _lanced about, thinking to discover the source of this perfume, but for a tim_ad difficulty in doing so. At last, however, I found that it came from _mall cake of soap, of a dull-green color, which lay upon the washstand wher_t had evidently been left by Ashton. I picked up the soap and examined it,
and at once recognized the pungent odor of which I have spoken. Th_oincidence struck me as being queer—the presence of this same perfume upo_iss Temple's handkerchief—and I was at a loss to account for it. I picked u_he cake of soap, observing its perfume closely, then, noticing that th_hinaman was regarding me with a particularly malevolent gaze, I retired to m_oom, taking the soap with me. I had no definite purpose in this except t_eep it in order to identify the perfume, and, upon returning to my room thre_t into my satchel and completed the arrangements for my departure.
I was soon ready to go, and, after leaving my bag with one of McQuade's men,
who was to accompany us to the railway station, I sought Miss Temple in th_ope of saying good-by to her before my departure. I was lucky enough to fin_er in the library, sewing, and looking unusually pale and distressed. Sh_reeted me with rising color, and I confess that I, too, felt a trifle o_mbarrassment. I could not forget her agitation of the day before when I ha_uestioned her as to her movements upon the morning of the tragedy and he_lat refusal to continue the conversation when I had pressed her to explai_er reasons for her early morning expedition as well as her sudden return. _tood gazing at her in perplexity, but, as I did so, the beauty of her face,
the clear, honest expression of her eyes once more convinced me that whateve_ere her reasons for silence they did not in any way implicate _her_ in thi_angled affair.
"I have come to say good-by," I said.
"Oh, are you going—I did not know." She half rose; her face filled with livel_oncern.
"I'm afraid I've already overstayed my time," I replied. "After all, Mis_emple, I came as a stranger and must thank you and your father for making m_s welcome as you have under the existing painful circumstances."
"I have not thought of you as a stranger, Mr. Morgan," she answered simply.
"You have been a great help during this trying ordeal, and I am sorry that yo_ust go—very sorry." There was a ring of sincerity in her voice that thrille_e; my heart gave a leap, and, as I met her eyes, I realized all of a sudde_hat, go where I might, I could not yet go very far away from Muriel Temple.
"I do not go because I desire it," I replied, in a voice from which I coul_ot eliminate the depth and intensity of my feelings. "I am no longer neede_ere, and it is in the hope that I may perhaps be of some service to you i_ondon that I have asked Sergeant McQuade's permission to accompany him ther_o-day. I have taken the deepest interest in this terrible affair, Mis_emple, and, if it lies in my power, I intend to find the solution of it. M_eward, if I can do so, will be the knowledge that I have served you."
"You are very good, Mr. Morgan. I shall never forget it, never." She rose an_laced her hand in mine, and allowed it to remain there for a moment—a momen_hich seemed far too short to me, since I had suddenly realized that I shoul_e madly happy could I know that I would have the right to keep it ther_lways. "And, when you have good news, you will come to The Oaks and tell u_bout it, will you not?" she concluded, with a smile that went to my heart.
"Indeed I shall, Miss Temple—you may be sure of that—and I hope it may b_oon."
"So do I," she said, and I turned to leave her. Then I suddenly bethough_yself of the strange Oriental perfume that had clung so strongly to th_andkerchief which the detective had found in the green room. I turned to he_nce more. "Miss Temple," I said, with some hesitation, "you will pardon me, _now, but you may remember that the handkerchief which was found in Mr.
Ashton's room upon the morning of the—the tragedy, and which you thought yo_ight have dropped there, was strongly scented with a powerful Orienta_erfume. May I ask what that perfume is, and where you procured it?"
"Perfume?" she ejaculated, in surprise. "Why, Mr. Morgan, I never us_ny—never."
"You never use any?" I stammered. "But it was upon your handkerchief. _hought that perhaps you might have gotten it during your travels in China."
"The handkerchief was mine, Mr. Morgan—that is true. But of the perfume I kno_bsolutely nothing. Why do you ask?"
I hardly knew what reply to make. The whole affair seemed absurdly trivial;
the identity of the perfume of the soap, and of the handkerchief mean_othing, pointed to nothing, and yet I could not shake off the idea that ther_as some intimate connection between the perfume of the handkerchief and tha_f the soap which would go far toward solving the mystery of Robert Ashton'_eath. I bade her good-by with some simple explanation of my question, an_urried out to find McQuade. I understood that he intended going in to Exete_efore luncheon, getting a bite to eat there, and taking the early afternoo_xpress for London. I found him with one of his men upon the porch roof,
busily engaged in making photographs of the bloody hand print upon the windo_ill of the green room. He came down presently and joined me.
"Is it not a curious fact, Mr. Morgan," he remarked, as he reached the foot o_he short ladder he had used to ascend to the roof, "that, although Li Min ha_ot only the motive for the murder, namely, the securing of the emeral_uddha, but also the opportunity, inasmuch as he could readily have reache_he porch roof from within the house by means of the hall window, and whil_he hand print which I have been photographing is small and delicate, lik_hat of a woman, or indeed like that of Li Min himself, yet I have teste_very possible human means whereby the windows and doors of that room coul_ave been bolted after the crime was committed, and I can see no possible wa_n which it could have been done, unless either Major Temple or yourself di_t upon entering the room, which you certainly would neither of you have an_eason to do were Li Min the guilty person? In spite of many of th_eculiarities of Miss Temple's conduct, in spite of Major Temple's altercatio_ith Mr. Ashton, I have been prepared to believe all along that Li Min was o_his roof at or near daybreak yesterday morning and I do not mind telling yo_hat I have discovered certain evidence—evidence which had before escaped me,
that to my mind proves it conclusively—yet how he could have entered tha_oom, murdered Mr. Ashton, secured the jewel, climbed out of the window an_hut and bolted it behind him on the inside is beyond my comprehension. It i_ot humanly possible—it simply cannot be." He shook his head and looked at m_n a state of evident perplexity.
I felt unable to offer any suggestions of value, but I hazarded a question.
"Have you searched the attic above the room?" I asked.
"Thoroughly," he replied. "The rafters have never been floored over. The lat_nd plaster of the ceiling are absolutely unbroken. As for the four walls, tw_f them are exterior walls, without openings, except the windows. One is th_olid partition between the room and the hallway. The fourth is equally solid,
and of brick, between the green room and a large closet adjoining it to th_ast, which has evidently been used as a sort of lumber room, and contains _ollection of old furniture, carpets, etc., covered with dust half an inc_eep. The dust-covered floor and the rusty lock both show that it has not bee_ntered for a long time. The furniture belongs to the owners of the property,
and was evidently placed there years ago when the property was offered fo_easing."
"Then it would seem that we have exhausted all possible clews," I observed. _id not think it worth while to take him into my confidence regarding Li Min,
or the perfumed soap; and the brass-headed poker which I had found, and whic_ had placed in the drawer in my room, I had for the moment completel_orgotten.
"So it seems," he remarked, thoughtfully. "This is by long odds the stranges_ase I have ever worked on. Possibly the two Chinamen we have in London may b_ble to throw some light upon it."
As we rounded the corner of the house, on our way to the front door, w_uddenly saw Li Min dart out of the main entrance, closely pursued by th_fficer to whom I had entrusted my luggage. The Chinaman carried in his han_y Gladstone bag, and was running with incredible swiftness toward the road.
Before I had time to make a move, McQuade darted forward and intercepted him,
knocking from his hand with lightning-like quickness a long knife which h_rew from his blouse. The two of them tumbled over upon the turf, McQuad_ising first with my satchel in his hand. He looked at it, and seeing my nam_pon it handed it to me with a grim smile. "You must have a valuable kit here,
Sir," he said, "or else this fellow has taken leave of his senses." He nodde_o his assistant, who promptly stepped forward and snapped a pair of handcuff_pon the sullen-looking Oriental.
"The whole outfit isn't worth five pounds," I said, laughing, and picked u_he satchel. As I did so the catch came open and my small collection o_lannel shirts, toilet articles, sketching materials, etc., tumbled upon th_rass. McQuade joined in my laugh, and assisted me in replacing my effects.
"Nothing much here, Sir," he said, but I did not fail to notice that h_bserved each article closely as we repacked the satchel.
We drove back to town in the high cart, with one of Major Temple's grooms a_he reins beside me, and Li Min and the Sergeant upon the rear seat. Afte_epositing the Chinaman at the jail, we took a hurried lunch at the Half Moon,
and left for London on the early afternoon express, arriving at Waterlo_tation about dusk. I gave McQuade the address of my lodgings and studio i_ottenham Court Road, and, as he intended reporting at once at Scotland Yard,
I left him with the understanding that, if anything significant develope_uring his examination of the two Chinamen, he would advise me and call upo_e if I could assist him in any way. I realized of course that I was purely a_utsider, and in no position to expect the police to take me into thei_onfidence, but on the other hand I was not only the most important witness i_he case, but my keen interest in the solution of the mystery, for the purpos_f clearing the names of both Miss Temple and her father from any vestige o_uspicion, was not lost upon the Sergeant, and I think he realized that _ight be of considerable assistance to him should the case take som_nexpected turn. He hurried off in a hansom and I followed, stopping on my wa_t the Vienna Café for dinner. It was past eight when I arrived at my studio,
and, throwing my bag into a corner I sat down and wrote a letter to my mothe_t Torquay, explaining to her my change of plans, although making no mentio_f the reasons which caused the change. I must have been unusually tired,
owing to my early rise and the varied excitements of the day, for I dozed i_y chair, and was not aroused until after eleven, when I heard a loud knock a_he studio door. I sprang up, somewhat confused, and, opening the door, foun_nder it an envelope containing a note, written on plain, rather cheap paper,
in a somewhat irregular but legible hand. It was from McQuade, and requeste_e to meet him at once at Number 30, Kingsgate Street. There was nothing els_n the note, so without further delay I threw on a warm coat and soft hat,
and, hurrying to the street, summoned a cab. The driver looked a bit surprise_t the address, and asked me to repeat it, which I did a bit sharply, the_hrew myself into the rear seat and lighted a cigarette. Events were movin_uickly it seemed. McQuade, I felt sure would not have sent for me at thi_our of the night unless some developments of importance had occurred. _ejoiced in the hope that the examination of the two Exeter Chinamen ha_esulted in the discovery of both the missing jewel and the murderer, an_hought with pleasure of the expedition I should make on the morrow to Th_aks and the happy tidings I should bring to Muriel. I had thought of her s_ontinuously, since leaving there, and felt so keenly the loss of he_ompanionship, slight as it had so far been, that I knew that hereafter al_oads, for me, would lead to Exeter until the day came when I might lead he_rom it as my wife. It was while occupied in these dreams that I felt my ca_raw up alongside the curb, just as the hour of midnight was striking from Ol_t. Paul's. I dismissed my man with a shilling for his pains, and ascended th_teps of Number 30.
The house was an old one, and its exterior was gloomy and forbidding. Not _ight shone in its closely shuttered windows, and only over the transom of th_oor was there any visible sign of occupants within. Here a faintly burnin_il lamp shone behind a cobwebby glass, with the number of the house painte_pon it in black. The whole atmosphere of the place was depressing in th_xtreme, and I pulled the bell with feelings of inward trepidation. Without,
all was silent and deserted, and the starless sky and the sighing of win_hrough the gloomy streets, from which my cab had long since departed, bu_dded to my presentiments of evil. I had heard the faint jangle of a bell i_he interior of the house when I pulled the knob, but so long an interva_lapsed before any response came that I was on the point of ringing it again,
when I suddenly heard soft footsteps in the hallway, and the door was silentl_pened. I stepped within, mechanically, unable to observe the person who ha_dmitted me, owing to the fact that he or she, I knew not which, stoo_artially behind the door as it swung open and was therefore concealed by it.
I had taken but a single step into the passage, when the door was swiftl_losed behind me, and at the same instant a bag of heavy cloth was thrust ove_y head, and my arms were pinioned from behind in a vise-like grip. _ttempted an outcry, and struggled violently, but the bag was drawn closel_bout my throat by a noose in the edge of it, and I felt myself being slowly,