Ailsa caught her breath with a faint, little, sobbing sigh at this, and eve_f the moon had not chosen just then to slip out from the screen of th_nveloping clouds and throw a dusk of silver over everything, so that he coul_ee her face and the deep look of relief in her uplifted eyes, he still woul_ave known what a load his declaration of the General's innocence had lifte_rom her mind.
"Oh, I am so glad," she said fervently; "so very, very glad! Do you know, _ade sure from the manner in which you spoke that, horrible as it seemed, i_ust surely be he; that you must certainly have discovered something whic_eft no room for doubt in your own mind; otherwise you would not have told m_ll these terrible things regarding the forged letter and the drugged drin_nd his meeting with Lady Clavering at the wall door. And now to know that yo_o not suspect him, that you are sure it was not he that killed De Louvisan,
ah, I can't tell you how glad I am."
"How loyal you are to your friends," he said admiringly. "You needn't assur_e of your gladness; I can read it in your voice and face. No, General Rayno_s not guilty, although I am very positive that he not only was out las_ight, but was actually at Gleer Cottage; but I am absolutely certain his wa_ot the hand that killed De Louvisan. I will even go further, and say that i_ould not surprise me to learn that he was not even present at the time of th_illing, though there is, of course, always the possibility, in the light o_y theory of the whys and wherefores of the case, that he was."
"You have a theory regarding it, then?"
"Yes. I had a vague one in the beginning that became more pronounced when _eard Lady Clavering speak of 'letters' in her interview with the General a_he wall door to-night. She also spoke of Margot, recollect. And I have sai_rom the first that a woman was in it."
"And you think that she—that Margot—did it?"
"Did what—the murder? No, I do not. As a matter of fact, I am beginning t_elieve that the presence of that crafty female in England, and in thi_articular neighbourhood at this particular time, may possibly have led me t_eap to a conclusion which is a long way from the truth. That she meant to se_e Louvisan, and, with the aid of her band, deal pretty harshly with him—giv_im the 'traitor's spike,' in fact—I feel very nearly positive; but I am no_eginning to realize there is a possibility that the scrap of pink gauze ma_ot have come from Margot's dress, and that she may not have been at Glee_ottage last night, after all. In other words, that the woman in the case i_ot Margot."
"Who then? Lady Clavering?"
"Possibly. There is, however, a chance that it is not even she."
All in a moment Ailsa flamed up.
"You are leaving only Kathie," she said with spirit. "And if you were an ange_rom heaven you could not make me believe it is she. I know you declare tha_he was at Gleer Cottage last night; that you say Geoff swears he met he_here; but even so——"
"Oh, thank you for reminding me of that dear boy," interjected Cleek, whippin_ut his watch and glancing at it. "If he keeps his promise, as he doubtles_ill, he'll be at the lodge gates in exactly twelve minutes, Miss Lorne. An_here is another 'dear boy' to consider too, my poor Dollops, who's probabl_aiting at the wall angle for me to explain my change of tactics with regar_o the arrest and release of Sir Philip Clavering. Will you pardon me if _ush off and see him for a few minutes? I'll be back here to join you a_uickly as I can, and then, if you will honour me, we'll be off together t_he lodge gates to meet Geoff Clavering."
He did not wait for her to reply; did not stop to make any comment upon he_emarks regarding Lady Katharine. Moving off as briskly as if he wer_ndeavouring to evade that subject, he slipped soundlessly away through th_hrubbery and was gone before she could speak. He was absent for somethin_ike eight or ten minutes; then, as silently and as abruptly as he had lef_er side he issued from the bushes and returned to it.
"Shall we go to meet Geoff?" he asked; and again scarcely waiting for her t_eply, led the way in silence.
It was on the tip of Ailsa's tongue to ask him if, after so often expressin_is conviction of Lady Katharine's innocence and admitting to-night that h_ad changed his opinion with regard to one woman's part in this elusiv_iddle, he had suddenly changed it regarding her, too, when, without prefac_f any sort, he looked round at her.
"Rum how we English stick to precedent, isn't it?" he said. "Ever remark ho_aithfully old footmen cling to their 'calves' and old valets cleave to thei_ittle black side-whiskers? And, I say, Miss Lorne! what's the fashion i_vening petticoats these days? Coloured ones, I mean. Do they have to matc_he dress that's worn with them or not?"
"Certainly they don't," said Ailsa, looking round at him in surprise. "Goo_racious, Mr. Cleek, whatever in the world are you thinking about?"
"I? Oh, nothing in particular. There we are at the lodge gates at last; an_ere's our man. Come in, bonny boy, come in."
Geoff came up out of the shadow of the two big trees at the entrance and move_wiftly toward the gates.
"Wait a bit," went on Cleek. "I've got a skeleton key handy, and in two shake_f a ram's tail——Told you so! In with you, my lad. Miss Lorne's here with me;
and if Loisette wasn't a dreamer and I'm not a fool, you'll be the happies_hap in England to-night. Sh-h-h! don't speak. Walk on your toes, take to th_rass, keep in the shadow of the hedge, and get over there to that shrubber_s quickly and as noiselessly as you can. With you in a minute, my boy."
He was. Stopping just long enough to relock the gates and to motion Ailsa t_ccompany him, he travelled like a fleet-moving shadow across the lawn, an_as again with Geoff Clavering.
"Well, here I am as you requested, you see, Mr. Barch," said Geoff. "I don'_now what in the world you meant when you told me that thing over th_elephone; but whatever it is that's going to make Kathie and me as happy a_ou promised, I'm ready enough to hear it, God knows."
"Yes, God does know; you're right there, my boy. He knows that Lady Katharin_id call you into Gleer Cottage last night, and did send you into the roo_here that dead man's body hung; and—oh, yes, she did, Miss Lorne. He'll tel_ou that just as he told me; won't you, Clavering, eh?"
"Yes," said Geoff, and did forthwith, giving all the details just as he ha_iven them to Cleek hours earlier in the General's famous ruin.
"Will you believe now, Miss Lorne?" said Cleek, and then paused and gave _ittle, shaky, half-suppressed laugh. For, of a sudden, a cuckoo's note ha_isen softly over the stillness, sounding thrice in rapid succession, as i_he bird had mistaken the moon's glamour for the sheen of day dawn, and ha_ent forth this untimely call.
Hearing it, Cleek knew that what he had so fervently hoped might come to pas_eally _had_ come to pass, and that the theory of Loisette was about to b_indicated.
"Or, if you will not," he said, taking up the sentence just where the bir_ote had broken off, "come with me and find proof of it for yourself. Com_uickly. Hold your breath. Walk on your toes. Don't make a sound on you_ives. This way. Quickly. Come."
He took them each by the hand and, leading the way, passed on tiptoe with the_ut of the shrubbery and down the hedged path to the mimic ruin. The figure o_ollops rose out of the shadow of it as they came upon the place, move_leetly and quietly to Cleek's side, and then as quietly slipped round behin_im into the shade of the trees.
"All right, gov'ner," he whispered softly. "Over to the left there. Give yo_he signal the minute I spotted her. Lie low, all of you. Here she comes!"
"Here who comes?" Ailsa and Geoff spoke in concert.
"Lord, I dunno, miss," replied Dollops in a whisper. "Gov'ner said, 'Loo_harp for a lady in white, and "cuckoo" when she appears.' Dunno no more tha_hat."
Ailsa flashed round and looked at Cleek.
"Yes, Miss Lorne," he said, answering that look. "Lady Katharine Fordham! Sh_id steal out of the house last night, and— Loisette is right. The mirror o_o-night, reflecting the counterpart of yesterday, is duplicating events. He_adyship is stealing out of the house again, and on the selfsame mission: t_isit Gleer Cottage. She will certainly wear a cloak, though not an ermin_ne, to-night. I looked out to see that one was placed in the anteroom, t_ake sure of that. Quiet, quiet, all of you! Not a sound, not a breath! Loo_harp! You'll see her presently!"
They saw her even then. Of a sudden a footstep sounded, the rustle of move_eaves disturbed the stillness, then the figure of Lady Katharine rounded th_ngle of the ruin, and advanced toward them with great deliberation. A lon_ark cloak covered her almost to the feet, the hood of it being drawn up ove_er head until its loose frill framed her face; but it was easy to see, as sh_dvanced, that under that cloak she wore a gown of white satin and slipper_ith sparkling buckles on the toes. She came into view so suddenly, and wa_alking so rapidly, that she was upon them almost as they saw her, walkin_traight to them, walking straight by them, within touch of them, yet seemin_ot to care or even to notice, and taking the path which led to the stabl_ate, to the waste land beyond, and thence to Gleer Cottage. It was then, whe_he had deliberately walked past them, then, and then only, that Ails_nderstood.
"Dear God!" she said in a shaking whisper as she plucked at Cleek's sleeve.
"She does not know, she does not understand. She is asleep, Mr. Cleek!"
"Yes," he made answer. "You know now why she looked so haggard and weary thi_orning, despite her assurance that she had slept well. Poor little woman;
poor unhappy little woman! A sleep-walker, Clavering—and going back where he_eart leads her: to the cottage where she had often spent those happier day_hen she was so sure of love and of you!"