That the nocturnal visitor would prove to be Lady Clavering Cleek had not th_mallest shadow of a doubt, although he marvelled much at her temerity i_enturing into the grounds of the Grange after that experience at the wal_oor so short a time previously, and he therefore remained as breathless an_s still as the shadows surrounding him, and waited the coming of events. Not, however, without some slight feeling of disappointment at the thought that, intricate and puzzling as this case had been, it now promised to be solved i_uch a tame and paltry manner; for if the newcomer should prove to be Lad_lavering, as, naturally, he had every reason for supposing, the affair woul_esolve itself into simply playing the part of eavesdropper at her intervie_ith the General, and then making capital of the information thus obtained.
The intruder was advancing with extreme caution, but lacking his own peculia_ift of soundless stepping and noiseless movement, did not succeed in passin_etween hedge and coppice without the betraying rustle of disturbed leaves; and it was out of this circumstance the mischief which followed was formed.
The shrubbery where Ailsa was waiting lay but a rope's cast distant from th_pot where Cleek now crouched; and as if the ill-luck which had balked hi_nce before to-night was intent upon flooring him at all quarters, he had n_ooner grasped the unwelcome fact—made manifest by the clearer sound of th_pproaching body as it came into closer range—that the steps were advancing i_ direct line with that shrubbery than a thin, eager whisper pierced th_tillness.
It was the voice of Miss Lorne, saying cautiously, yet distinctly:
"Goodness gracious! Why, Purviss! You don't mean to tell me it's you?"
Purviss! Not Lady Clavering, but Geoff Clavering's old valet, Purviss? Her_as a facer to be sure. Well, well, you never can tell which way a cat wil_ump, and that's a fact.
Purviss, eh? So he, too, was in the know, was he? Of course he must be, to b_laying the rôle of Mercury and carrying messages between them in this secre_anner. Cleek decided to have a look at Mr. Purviss, and a word or two a_ell, by George! For now, of course, he would make no attempt to go near tha_indow.
The thought had no sooner presented itself to him than he acted upon it. Wit_he speed of a hound, but with no more noise than a moving shadow, he left hi_iding-place, skirted the house, got round to the front of it, crawled up th_teps, then, rising suddenly, appeared to come out of the doorway and down th_teps whistling, as he descended to the gardens and moved leisurely along i_he direction of the shrubbery.
When he was within a foot of it he suddenly stopped, pulled out his cigarett_ase, struck a match as if for the purpose of smoking, and by the aid of tha_ight saw standing within a yard of him Miss Ailsa Lorne in close conversatio_ith a mild-mannered, mild-faced elderly person, upon whom the word "valet"
was clearly written.
"Hullo, Miss Lorne, enjoying an evening ramble, too? May I be allowed to joi_ou?"
"With pleasure, Mr. Barch," said Ailsa. Then she motioned toward the valet, who had stepped meekly back.
"Purviss has just come over from Lady Clavering to inquire for Mr. Geoffrey——"
"Ah, yes," said Cleek, smiling to himself unnoticed in the dark. "He left thi_fternoon, did he not? You have evidently just missed Sir Philip, who wa_imself here."
"Yes," added Ailsa, "I was just telling him, but it seems he has a message fo_eneral Raynor from Lady Clavering——"
"I thought as much," said Cleek to himself triumphantly, though aloud h_emarked, calmly enough: "Ah! but the General has gone to bed. I heard him sa_hat he was not to be disturbed, but if you care to give any message o_etter, I'll go and knock him up."
"Oh, no, there's no need to do that, sir," replied Purviss hurriedly. "It'_nly a request for a gardening book if I happened to see General Raynor; of n_mportance at all, sir."
"I quite understand," said Cleek, the smile on his face hidden in th_creening darkness.
"As for Mr. Geoffrey," put in Ailsa kindly, "he is quite safe. He went up t_own on an errand for Lady Katharine——"
"Thank you, Miss," returned Purviss respectfully. "That will be a relief t_er ladyship to know that. She was very anxious. Good-night, Miss! Good-night, sir!" With a deferential salute, the man turned and disappeared swiftly int_he night.
"You see now," said Ailsa, "that I was right, that Geoff's absence woul_reate such a panic at the Close that they would scour the place for news o_im. First his father, and now Purviss. I thought you would be satisfied as t_he truth of his mission directly I spoke."
"Yes," said Cleek quietly, "but he did not come here to seek Geoff Clavering.
That was a lie. He came for the purpose of having an interview with some on_lse, and for the second time this night, Miss Lorne, you have unfortunatel_revented me from hearing something which might have cleared this mystery u_ithout any further search on my part. You remember how I rushed past you a_he time when Dollops had set me on the track of the lady in pink? She cam_nd she had an interview, or, at least, she had the beginning of an interview, with the man she was there to see. What's that? No, she was not Margot. Sh_as Lady Clavering. Sh-h-h! Quiet! Quiet! Yes, she was Lady Clavering. And sh_ad just accused the man she came to meet of having murdered De Louvisan, whe_our approach startled the pair of them and made them separate hurriedly. Mis_orne, can you stand a shock? Good! Then hold your nerves under tight control.
The man Lady Clavering met at the wall door to-night was the master of thi_ouse, General Raynor!"
She all but collapsed when she heard that.
"General Raynor?" she breathed in a horrified voice. "General Raynor? And Lad_lavering? Oh, but why, but how? Dear Mr. Cleek, it—it is like some horribl_ream! What possible connection could there be between those two people of al_thers?"
"I don't know. I have a suspicion—it is my business to have that, you know—bu_ want something stronger. I shall have it soon. My work here in this house i_retty well finished, I fancy. Maybe to-morrow, maybe the next day, but thi_eek certain, I shall be off to Malta. I am going to hunt up a man's arm_ecord there."
"Yes. His and—well, possibly, some one's else. When I come back I promise yo_hat I will have the solution to this riddle in my hands. What's that? Oh, yes, Margot is in it."
"Then why—then how can Lady Clavering——"
"Lady Clavering, it appears, knows Margot. So does the General, evidently, fo_he mentioned her name to him."
"Dear heaven! And you say that she accused him of the murder? Accused him? Ho_ould she?"
"She was there—at Gleer Cottage— _last_ night. She went there to meet him. Bu_he was not, however, the first to direct my suspicions against the General.
That was done hours before and by a totally different person."
"His son," said Cleek, and forthwith told her of that memorable interview wit_arry Raynor after dinner, and of the typewritten letter he had abstracte_rom the young wastrel's coat pocket. "Miss Lorne, I waste no sympathy upo_hat worm," he went on. "From the top of his empty head to the toe of hi_orthless foot there's not one ounce of manhood in him. But he spoke th_ruth! His father did type that forged letter and for the purpose h_eclared."
"To get him out of the neighbourhood for the night?"
"Yes. And but for the mere accident of the fellow's having discovered that th_ypist girl was out of England, he would have succeeded without having t_esort to other means."
"How do you know that the General typed the letter?" asked Miss Lorne.
"I didn't in the beginning," returned Cleek. "I did know, however, that it ha_een typed by somebody in this house; for I stole the letter, then tricke_amer into getting me an unused sheet of the typing paper that was left ove_rom the manuscript of the General's book. A glance at the watermark showe_hem to be identical; in other words, that the letter had been typed upon on_f those left-over sheets. Well, that was one thing; the other was that th_eneral, having failed to get his son out of the way for to-night by tha_eans, took steps to accomplish it by drugging him."
"Yes. Earlier in the day Purviss had brought him a note from Lady Clavering, and it was imperative that he should go out to-night to meet her in secret. H_idn't want his son prowling about, and he didn't want me prowling about, either. Still less did he want you prowling about, or that his wife shoul_now of his leaving the house after she had gone to bed. To make sure o_aving no such risk to run, he put a sleeping draught into every drop o_pirit or liqueur that was served in this house to-night. What he had no_eckoned upon, however, was the fact that neither you nor I tasted either. Bu_t this moment his son lies drugged and unconscious in the dining-room, and i_ould be a safe hazard to stake one's life that his wife is lying unconsciou_n bed."
"But—but—are you _sure_ there is no mistake?"
"No, Miss Lorne, there is no mistake. It was the General who did the drugging.
I found the paper in which the sleeping draught had come from the chemist's i_he waste basket in the library; and when I wanted to clench the belief an_ake it absolutely positive, I tricked the General into confessing that h_tood in need of a stimulant after the stress of the night, then invited hi_o join me in one from the decanters in the dining-room. He knew what was i_hat liqueur and—he declined. I knew then that there was no mistake about hi_eing the hand that had done the drugging, just as I had known previously tha_e was the man Lady Clavering had met at the wall door.
"When I rushed past you that time and raced through these grounds, I had n_ore idea than a child unborn who the man I was pursuing would prove to be. H_ight have been Harry Raynor; he might have been Lord St. Ulmer. I even sai_o myself that he might be any male member of this household from the Genera_own; and my one idea was to get to the house and to find which man wa_issing. I found no one absent! St. Ulmer was in his bedroom; Harry Raynor wa_leeping over the table in the dining-room; and as I came clattering down th_tairs the General stepped out of the library to inquire into the cause of th_isturbance. To all intents and purposes he had been in there reading th_hole evening long. But it was a significant fact that as he opened the doo_nd came out, I was able to see past him into the room and to discern that th_urtains drawn over the swinging window were bellying inward, showing that th_pening of the door had started a current of air which could be created onl_y the window behind them being likewise open.
"That gave me the first suspicion of a clue. I looked at the man himself fo_urther evidence to back it up and, in the first glance, found it. There wa_lack soil on the toes of his house shoes and a smudge of green wall-moss o_is shirt cuff! I knew then just what he had done, and how I had failed t_verhaul him in that hot race. He had simply ducked down out of sight, lai_till in the bushes and allowed me to run past him. For me there was, o_ourse, no other means of entering the house but by the door; for him ther_as the library window! He waited to give me time to get into the house, the_ose, ran across the intervening space and back into the library by means o_hat window, and had had just about sufficient time to get there when I cam_ushing down the stairs. You will remember, will you not, that I spoke o_hose two things: the spot of black and smudge of green? You know now to wha_ alluded."
"It is wonderful and—yes, it is horrible also!" she said with a faint shudder.
"What a day of horror this has been! I think the shadow of it will weigh upo_e forever."
"Not if I can help it," said Cleek very gently, very tenderly. "And I coun_ery, very much indeed, Miss Lorne, upon the possibility of making you bles_t before the whole twenty-four hours of it have been rounded out. Don't yo_emember what I said to you about my hopes for the clearing of all shadow_rom the path of Geoff Clavering and Lady Katharine, about the theory o_oisette?"
"Loisette? That is the great French scientist, is it not? The first man wh_ctually did establish a standard rule for the training of the memory an_chools for the teaching of his system all over the world?"
"Yes, that is the man. His principle is somewhat akin to that of the principl_f homœopathy. 'Like cures like,' says the homœopathist. 'Like produces like,'
says Loisette, 'and the similarity of events acting upon the human mind may, by suggestion, produce similar results,' Well, last night Lady Katharin_ordham went through an experience which no living woman is ever likely t_orget: the knowledge that hope of happiness is over, and that the man sh_oves is lost to her beyond all possible recall. This evening, in the rui_ver there, she went through an exactly similar experience, and after some fe_ours of hope, was thrust rudely back into the absolute certainty that _arrier as high as heaven itself had come between Geoff Clavering and her. _take my hopes upon that, Miss Lorne. I look for Loisette to be vindicated. _ook for last night to be repeated _in all particulars_ , and I am so hopefu_f it that I have sent for Geoff Clavering to come here and be a witness t_t."
"Sent for Geoff Clavering to come here—here?"
"Yes. At twelve o'clock he will be waiting for me at the lodge gates; and i_ll goes as I hope and believe that it will go—ah, well, it will be a blesse_ime for him, for her, for you! As for myself—but that doesn't matter. I shal_ave but one more thing to accomplish under the roof of this house, and the_f the trail leads elsewhere, I'll be off to Malta as fast as steam can tak_e."
"And that one thing, Mr. Cleek? May I ask what it is?"
"Yes, certainly. It is to discover Lord St. Ulmer's part in this elusiv_usiness, and then to be absolutely certain of getting at the man who kille_he Count de Louvisan, and at the reason for the crime."
"The reason? The man?" repeated Ailsa in utter bewilderment. "I thought yo_aid just now that you were satisfied regarding that? Why, then, should yo_peak as if there were a possibility of Lord St. Ulmer being concerned in th_urder if you are seemingly so sure that General Raynor did it?"
"General Raynor? Good heavens above, Miss Lorne, get that idea out of you_ind! Why, General Raynor is no more guilty of the murder of De Louvisan tha_ou are!"