In spite of himself Cleek's nerves gave an absolute jump, but being an adep_n the art of dissimulation, he laughed lightly and gave Hamer a quizzica_ook.
"The Lady in Pink, eh?" he said cheerily. "You know more than your prayers, I'm afraid, Hamer. Now what in the world made you think he'd be calling on he_ast night, eh?"
"Well, sir, I can't exactly say what, unless it was a sort of putting two an_wo together, sir. I'd seen him with her over Kingston way on my day off, onl_he wasn't dressed in pink then, of course. And last night, a deal earlier i_he evening, just about the time Lady Katharine and Miss Lorne was startin_or Clavering Close it was, sir, I happens to go round back and slip int_ulberry Lane for a pull at my pipe on the sly—master never letting any of th_ervants smoke in the grounds, and housekeeper objecting to pipes in th_ervants' hall—and just as I comes out, there she was a-standing in the shado_f the trees, and so close up to the wall that I nigh barged into her, sir."
"Who? The Lady in Pink?"
"Yes, sir. Took her by surprise, coming out in that unexpected manner, and sh_ust had time to throw a pink scarf she was wearing over her face and hurr_way, sir, before I could so much as apologize. But quick as she was it didn'_revent me a-seeing of her, sir, and recognizing her as the lady I'd seen Mr.
Harry with on my day off, although, as I say, sir, she was dressed quit_ifferent last night. Looked to me as she was going to some sort of an evenin_ffair: a dance or the theatre or something of that sort; for she didn't hav_ny hat on, and although she was wearing a long black cloak that reache_lmost to the ground, I could see when she made such a bolt to get out o_ight that it was lined with ermine, and that, under it, she wore a rose-pin_vening frock that she was holding up to keep from touching the ground."
Cleek did not so much as turn a hair, although beneath his placid exterio_omething in the nature of a tumult was raging. And why not? For here, undoubtedly, was the pink gauze dress that had left the fragment on the nai_ead at Gleer Cottage last night; and here, too, was a garment which, bein_urned inside out, would become in truth an ermine cloak!
"Oho! Now I see how you came by the idea that Mr. Harry had gone out to mee_er, Hamer," he said with the utmost serenity. "Quite natural, quite, in th_ircumstances; only, as it turns out, you were mistaken. Mr. Harry spent th_vening with me, and as we had the misfortune to miss the Pink Lad_ltogether, we didn't see her at all last night, worse luck. But, I say, that's letting you into something, isn't it? Well, here's half a crown to pa_ou to forget all about it and to keep your tongue behind your teeth.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Much obliged, sir. Won't breathe a word to a livin_oul."
"Mind you don't, or you'll spoil sport and—wait! Stop a moment! Got time to d_omething for me?"
"Oh, yes, indeed, sir. Plenty of time; no end of it this evening. Master say_e'll be up best part of the night reading, sir, and won't need me at all to- night; so if it's to go anywhere or to carry any message for you, sir, I'v_ot hours at my disposal."
"Thanks, but I shan't require any more than a minute or two of your time. I'l_ust scrawl a line on the leaf of my notebook, and—ph, blow! Another fellow'_vening clothes! And, besides, when I come to think, it was in the pocket o_he coat that confounded thief carried off. Slip into the library and get me _heet of paper and a bit of pencil, will you? Look sharp!"
"Couldn't do that, sir—couldn't get what you want from the library, I mean.
Master's in there reading, sir, and he's locked the door and given orders tha_obody's to disturb him. But if a bit of typewriting paper will do, sir——"
"Yes, certainly. The very thing. Can you get me a sheet or two?"
"As much as you care to have, sir. It's all in the hall cupboard along wit_he typewriter itself. Master had them taken there when he'd finished his boo_nd let the typist go. I'll get you some in an instant, sir."
He hurried away forthwith and was back presently with half a dozen sheets o_ypewriting paper, a bit of pencil and an envelope, which latter he ha_ncluded on the off-chance of its being needed.
Walking a few paces away, Cleek rested the paper against the wall, scribbled _ew hasty words, sealed them up in the envelope, and then handed it over t_amer.
"Here, take this thing to Miss Lorne. You'll find her in the drawing-room," h_aid, as he threw the remaining sheets which he had employed as a sort o_riting pad upon one of the hall chairs. "You can attend to that litte_fterward. Move sharp!"
He turned as he spoke, as if to go upstairs again, but the very instant Hame_ad disappeared he went fleetly back to the chair, caught up one of the sheet_f paper, folded it carefully, slid it into his pocket, and passing swiftl_nd soundlessly down the hall, opened the door and went out again into th_ight.
Hitherto all had been speculation, theory, guesswork, not irrefutable facts; hitherto all clues had been mere possibilities, never actual certainties.
The curious smile travelled up his cheek, slipped down again, and left hi_ace as hard and as colourless as a mask of stone. He turned as he rounded th_ngle of the house and glanced back to where the windows of the dining-roo_ut two luminous rectangles in the fragrant, flower-scented darkness; then hi_ye travelled farther on, and dwelt a moment on the chinks of light tha_rrowed out from the curtained bay of the library.
"Poor old chap! Poor, dear old chap!" he said between shut teeth.
The tightly woven fabric of last night's mystery had started to unravel. I_ne little corner a flaw had suddenly sprung into existence, and to-night th_irst loosened thread was in this man's hands.
He set his back to the lighted windows and forged on through the darknes_ntil the swerving path brought him to the little summerhouse where, earlier, he had first met Ailsa, and stepping in, threw himself into a rustic seat an_ent forward with his elbows upon his knees and his face between his hands: _rim and silent figure in the loneliness and the darkness.
Five minutes passed—six, seven—and found him still sitting there, stil_ommuning with his own thoughts, though it was now nearing ten o'clock, and h_ad told Dollops to be at the wall angle to meet him at nine. But suddenly hi_ttitude changed; his hands dropped, his head jerked upward, as a sleepin_at's does when it hears a gnawing mouse, and he was on his feet, alert, eager, all alive, in a twinkling. Half a minute later Miss Lorne stepped fro_he grass on to the gravel and found him waiting for her in the arch of th_ummerhouse doorway.
"It is you at last, then, is it?" he said, reaching out to her through th_arkness. "Take my hand and I will guide you if you cannot see the wa_learly. I can't risk striking a match."
"It isn't necessary; I know the way quite well," she answered; but she too_is hand all the same. "I hope I haven't kept you waiting; I came as quickl_s I could. Mrs. Raynor had fallen asleep over her novel while we were waitin_or you and her son to finish your cigars and join us in the drawing-room, bu_amer coming in with your note awoke her and I could not get away so quickl_s I desired."
"Was Mrs. Raynor interested in the note, then? Did she show any desire to hea_hat it was about?" he questioned eagerly.
"Oh, no. She"—colouring under cover of the darkness—"she merely laughed, an_aid that it was no more than she should have expected, but she kept m_alking so long that I nearly lost all patience, and your note did puzzle me, Mr. Cleek. Why was it so important that you should see me at once withou_athie knowing? Have you discovered anything fresh?"
"Such strange things indeed have happened, Miss Lorne, since this evening," h_eturned quietly, "that I think I shall need your help in getting to th_ottom of them. For one thing, it is now absolutely certain that the murdere_f the Common keeper came into these grounds last night after he had committe_he crime, and that when he gave Narkom and his men the slip the fellow cam_irectly to this place unseen."
"Sh-h-h! Not so loud, please. And don't shake like that. Steady yourself, fo_here is something yet more startling to come. There is now positive proof, Miss Lorne, that Lady Katharine Fordham did leave this house last night and g_o Gleer Cottage."
"I won't believe it!" she flung out loyally. But she had scarcely more tha_aid it when his next words cut the ground from beneath her.
"A witness has turned up," he said; "a witness who saw her there and spoke t_er."
"A witness? Dear God! Who?"
"Geoffrey Clavering? Geoffrey?"
"Yes. He and Lady Katharine had an interview in the ruin this evening, a_nterview which I overheard without either being aware of my presence. That i_hat sent Lady Katharine to bed with a bad headache just before dinner.
Geoffrey Clavering accused her of murdering De Louvisan and acknowledged tha_t was he himself who placed the two lighted candles at the feet of the dea_an's body."
She made no cry this time, no single sound. He knew that she was beyond doin_o, that she was struck to the very heart, and he made haste to lessen he_istress by telling her of Lady Katharine's denial and of the whol_ircumstance as it happened. Then he told of his own discovery of the burie_lothing, his overhearing the interview, the manner in which the lovers ha_arted, and, finally, of his own act in apprehending young Clavering and the_ccepting his parole and sending him off to London for the night.
"Why did you do that?" she questioned feebly, and was not satisfied even whe_e explained his motive. "I will not even take his word against Kathie's, bu_ could have told you that he speaks the truth when he says that hi_tepmother's interest in him is so great it is very likely that she did go ou_n the Common to look for him, and for the reason he gave. If he were her ow_on she could not think more of him. She absolutely idolizes him. He is no_earer to his father than he is to her; and if he does not return to Claverin_lose to-night, be sure she will have the Common searched from end to end, an_ill go half out of her mind when she does not find him."
Cleek took his chin between his thumb and forefinger and squeezed it hard.
This was somewhat of a facer, he was obliged to confess.
"You rather take the wind out of my sails," he said reflectively. "If the bo_poke the truth, if the stepmother really does care like that, why tha_liminates her from the case altogether, and it isn't worth while asking yo_o take the risk I alluded to in the note."
"A very considerable one for a young lady in your position, should you b_een. As I do not even know Lady Clavering by sight, I was going to ask you i_ou would mind prowling about the Common in company with me, that, if the lad_ut in an appearance, you might be able to identify her for me. But of course, if it is so very certain that she will join in the search for the boy, there'_o necessity for doing such a thing."
"Pardon me, but I think, Mr. Cleek, there is more reason than ever," sh_eplied, "if only to ease her mind, you know. You might do that by telling he_hat Geoff was unexpectedly called to town and that you were on the way to th_lose to tell them so. I don't in the least mind taking the risk, as you cal_t, under those circumstances; it would be a charity to do so, for I know he_adyship, and Sir Philip will worry. Of course they will not think of worryin_et a while; it is much too early; and as Geoff came over here to see Kathi_hey will think he is remaining for the evening. But later, when it is pas_edtime, when it is getting on toward twelve o'clock, they will be half out o_heir minds with anxiety. Oh, yes; I'll go with you willingly, this minute i_ou like, in such a cause as that."
"How loyal you are! What a woman you are! What a friend!" said Clee_dmiringly. "Shall I tell you something? I have hope that one of those friend_ill be wholly cleared before another day comes; that something may happen to- night which will make Geoff Clavering the happiest of men and you and Lad_atharine almost beside yourselves with joy. No, don't ask me what it is jus_et a while. I have dreams and fancies and odd notions like other me_ometimes; and I am a great believer in the theory of Loisette that a likenes_f events acting upon a weary brain is apt to produce similar results i_ertain highly strung natures. But will you walk with me as far as the angl_f the wall on the other side of the shrubbery, Miss Lorne? Dollops is waitin_here for me. I have something of great importance for him to do to-night, an_ think you will be interested in it. Will you come? Thank you! This way then, please, as quietly as you can."
Taking her hand and keeping always on the grass and always in the dark, wher_he shadows of the trees lay between them and the lighted windows of th_range, he led her on to something which even he had not foreseen and neve_or a moment guessed.
At the angle of the wall he stopped and began to whistle softly "Kathlee_avourneen." As upon another occasion, before he had completed the third bar, the wall door gaped open and flashed shut again and Dollops was in the dark, tree-crowded enclosure with him. It was a rather more excited Dollops than h_ad expected to find, however, for Cleek had no more than just begun t_pologize for his lateness when the boy was on him like a pouncing cat and wa_utting into his low-spoken words in a panting sort of whisper:
"For Gawd's sake, gov'ner. Come quick, sir!" he said, as he laid a tense, nervous grip on Cleek's arm. "'Nother door in the wall, sir. Higher up wher_hem mulberry trees is thickest. Woman prowlin' round, gov'ner. Been prowlin'
round this ten minutes past and been to that door and tried it three time_'ready. Woman in a pink dress, sir, and a long dark cloak reachin' almost t_he ground!"
"Margot!" said Cleek in an exultant whisper. "Margot at last, by George!"
Then, for the second time that night, he received a shock.
"If you mean that French Aparsh 'skirt' we run up against in the time of th_ed Crawl, gov'ner," interposed Dollops, "you're backin' the wrong horse. I_ren't _her_ —aren't a bit like her, sir; no fear!"