A thing can sometimes be too extraordinary to be remembered. If it is clean out of the course of things, and has apparently no causes and no consequences, subsequent events do not recall it, and it remains only a subconscious thing, to be stirred by some accident long after. It drifts apart like a forgotten dream; and it was in the hour of many dreams, at daybreak and very soon after the end of dark, that such a strange sight was given to a man sculling a boat down a river in the West country. The man was awake; indeed, he considered himself rather wide awake, being the political journalist, Harold March, on his way to interview various political celebrities in their country seats. But the thing he saw was so inconsequent that it might have been imaginary. It simply slipped past his mind and was lost in later and utterly different events; nor did he even recover the memory till he had long afterward discovered the meaning.
Pale mists of morning lay on the fields and the rushes along one margin of the river; along the other side ran a wall of tawny brick almost overhanging the water. He had shipped his oars and was drifting for a moment with the stream, when he turned his head and saw that the monotony of the long brick wall was broken by a bridge; rather an elegant eighteenth-century sort of bridge with little columns of white stone turning gray. There had been floods and the river still stood very high, with dwarfish trees waist deep in it, and rather a narrow arc of white dawn gleamed under the curve of the bridge.
As his own boat went under the dark archway he saw another boat coming toward him, rowed by a man as solitary as himself. His posture prevented much being seen of him, but as he neared the bridge he stood up in the boat and turned round. He was already so close to the dark entry, however, that his whole figure was black against the morning light, and March could see nothing of his face except the end of two long whiskers or mustaches that gave something sinister to the silhouette, like horns in the wrong place. Even these details March would never have noticed but for what happened in the same instant. As the man came under the low bridge he made a leap at it and hung, with his legs dangling, letting the boat float away from under him. March had a momentary vision of two black kicking legs; then of one black kicking leg; and then of nothing except the eddying stream and the long perspective of the wall. But whenever he thought of it again, long afterward, when he understood the story in which it figured, it was always fixed in that one fantastic shape — as if those wild legs were a grotesque graven ornament of the bridge itself, in the manner of a gargoyle. At the moment he merely passed, staring, down the stream. He could see no flying figure on the bridge, so it must have already fled; but he was half conscious of some faint significance in the fact that among the trees round the bridgehead opposite the wall he saw a lamp-post; and, beside the lamp-post, the broad blue back of an unconscious policeman.
Even before reaching the shrine of his political pilgrimage he had many other things to think of besides the odd incident of the bridge; for the management of a boat by a solitary man was not always easy even on such a solitary stream. And indeed it was only by an unforeseen accident that he was solitary. The boat had been purchased and the whole expedition planned in conjunction with a friend, who had at the last moment been forced to alter all his arrangements. Harold March was to have traveled with his friend Horne Fisher on that inland voyage to Willowood Place, where the Prime Minister was a guest at the moment. More and more people were hearing of Harold March, for his striking political articles were opening to him the doors of larger and larger salons; but he had never met the Prime Minister yet. Scarcely anybody among the general public had ever heard of Horne Fisher; but he had known the Prime Minister all his life. For these reasons, had the two taken the projected journey together, March might have been slightly disposed to hasten it and Fisher vaguely content to lengthen it out. For Fisher was one of those people who are born knowing the Prime Minister. The knowledge seemed to have no very exhilarant effect, and in his case bore some resemblance to being born tired. But he was distinctly annoyed to receive, just as he was doing a little light packing of fishing tackle and cigars for the journey, a telegram from Willowood asking him to come down at once by train, as the Prime Minister had to leave that night. Fisher knew that his friend the journalist could not possibly start till the next day, and he liked his friend the journalist, and had looked forward to a few days on the river. He did not particularly like or dislike the Prime Minister, but he intensely disliked the alternative of a few hours in the train. Nevertheless, he accepted Prime Ministers as he accepted railway trains — as part of a system which he, at least, was not the revolutionist sent on earth to destroy. So he telephoned to March, asking him, with many apologetic curses and faint damns, to take the boat down the river as arranged, that they might meet at Willowood by the time settled; then he went outside and hailed a taxicab to take him to the railway station. There he paused at the bookstall to add to his light luggage a number of cheap murder stories, which he read with great pleasure, and without any premonition that he was about to walk into as strange a story in real life.
A little before sunset he arrived, with his light suitcase in hand, before the gate of the long riverside gardens of Willowood Place, one of the smaller seats of Sir Isaac Hook, the master of much shipping and many newspapers. He entered by the gate giving on the road, at the opposite side to the river, but there was a mixed quality in all that watery landscape which perpetually reminded a traveler that the river was near. White gleams of water would shine suddenly like swords or spears in the green thickets. And even in the garden itself, divided into courts and curtained with hedges and high garden trees, there hung everywhere in the air the music of water. The first of the green courts which he entered appeared to be a somewhat neglected croquet lawn, in which was a solitary young man playing croquet against himself. Yet he was not an enthusiast for the game, or even for the garden; and his sallow but well-featured face looked rather sullen than otherwise. He was only one of those young men who cannot support the burden of consciousness unless they are doing something, and whose conceptions of doing something are limited to a game of some kind. He was dark and well dressed in a light holiday fashion, and Fisher recognized him at once as a young man named James Bullen, called, for some unknown reason, Bunker. He was the nephew of Sir Isaac; but, what was much more important at the moment, he was also the private secretary of the Prime Minister.
“Hullo, Bunker!” observed Horne Fisher. “You’re the sort of man I wanted to see. Has your chief come down yet?”
“He’s only staying for dinner,” replied Bullen, with his eye on the yellow ball. “He’s got a great speech tomorrow at Birmingham and he’s going straight through to-night. He’s motoring himself there; driving the car, I mean. It’s the one thing he’s really proud of.”
“You mean you’re staying here with your uncle, like a good boy?” replied Fisher. “But what will the Chief do at Birmingham without the epigrams whispered to him by his brilliant secretary?”
“Don’t you start ragging me,” said the young man called Bunker. “I’m only too glad not to go trailing after him. He doesn’t know a thing about maps or money or hotels or anything, and I have to dance about like a courier. As for my uncle, as I’m supposed to come into the estate, it’s only decent to be here sometimes.”
“Very proper,” replied the other. “Well, I shall see you later on,” and, crossing the lawn, he passed out through a gap in the hedge.
He was walking across the lawn toward the landing stage on the river, and still felt all around him, under the dome of golden evening, an Old World savor and reverberation in that riverhaunted garden. The next square of turf which he crossed seemed at first sight quite deserted, till he saw in the twilight of trees in one corner of it a hammock and in the hammock a man, reading a newspaper and swinging one leg over the edge of the net.
Him also he hailed by name, and the man slipped to the ground and strolled forward. It seemed fated that he should feel something of the past in the accidents of that place, for the figure might well have been an early-Victorian ghost revisiting the ghosts of the croquet hoops and mallets. It was the figure of an elderly man with long whiskers that looked almost fantastic, and a quaint and careful cut of collar and cravat. Having been a fashionable dandy forty years ago, he had managed to preserve the dandyism while ignoring the fashions. A white top-hat lay beside the Morning Post in the hammock behind him. This was the Duke of Westmoreland, the relic of a family really some centuries old; and the antiquity was not heraldry but history. Nobody knew better than Fisher how rare such noblemen are in fact, and how numerous in fiction. But whether the duke owed the general respect he enjoyed to the genuineness of his pedigree or to the fact that he owned a vast amount of very valuable property was a point about which Mr. Fisher’s opinion might have been more interesting to discover.
“You were looking so comfortable,” said Fisher, “that I thought you must be one of the servants. I’m looking for somebody to take this bag of mine; I haven’t brought a man down, as I came away in a hurry.”
“Nor have I, for that matter,” replied the duke, with some pride. “I never do. If there’s one animal alive I loathe it’s a valet. I learned to dress myself at an early age and was supposed to do it decently. I may be in my second childhood, but I’ve not go so far as being dressed like a child.”
“The Prime Minister hasn’t brought a valet; he’s brought a secretary instead,” observed Fisher. “Devilish inferior job. Didn’t I hear that Harker was down here?”
“He’s over there on the landing stage,” replied the duke, indifferently, and resumed the study of the Morning Post.
Fisher made his way beyond the last green wall of the garden on to a sort of towing path looking on the river and a wooden island opposite. There, indeed, he saw a lean, dark figure with a stoop almost like that of a vulture, a posture well known in the law courts as that of Sir John Harker, the Attorney–General. His face was lined with headwork, for alone among the three idlers in the garden he was a man who had made his own way; and round his bald brow and hollow temples clung dull red hair, quite flat, like plates of copper.
“I haven’t seen my host yet,” said Horne Fisher, in a slightly more serious tone than he had used to the others, “but I suppose I shall meet him at dinner.”
“You can see him now; but you can’t meet him,” answered Harker.
He nodded his head toward one end of the island opposite, and, looking steadily in the same direction, the other guest could see the dome of a bald head and the top of a fishing rod, both equally motionless, rising out of the tall undergrowth against the background of the stream beyond. The fisherman seemed to be seated against the stump of a tree and facing toward the other bank, so that his face could not be seen, but the shape of his head was unmistakable.
“He doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s fishing,” continued Harker. “It’s a sort of fad of his to eat nothing but fish, and he’s very proud of catching his own. Of course he’s all for simplicity, like so many of these millionaires. He likes to come in saying he’s worked for his daily bread like a laborer.”
“Does he explain how he blows all the glass and stuffs all the upholstery,” asked Fisher, “and makes all the silver forks, and grows all the grapes and peaches, and designs all the patterns on the carpets? I’ve always heard he was a busy man.”
“I don’t think he mentioned it,” answered the lawyer. “What is the meaning of this social satire?”
“Well, I am a trifle tired,” said Fisher, “of the Simple Life and the Strenuous Life as lived by our little set. We’re all really dependent in nearly everything, and we all make a fuss about being independent in something. The Prime Minister prides himself on doing without a chauffeur, but he can’t do without a factotum and Jack-of-all-trades; and poor old Bunker has to play the part of a universal genius, which God knows he was never meant for. The duke prides himself on doing without a valet, but, for all that, he must give a lot of people an infernal lot of trouble to collect such extraordinary old clothes as he wears. He must have them looked up in the British Museum or excavated out of the tombs. That white hat alone must require a sort of expedition fitted out to find it, like the North Pole. And here we have old Hook pretending to produce his own fish when he couldn’t produce his own fish knives or fish forks to eat it with. He may be simple about simple things like food, but you bet he’s luxurious about luxurious things, especially little things. I don’t include you; you’ve worked too hard to enjoy playing at work.”
“I sometimes think,” said Harker, “that you conceal a horrid secret of being useful sometimes. Haven’t you come down here to see Number One before he goes on to Birmingham?”
Horne Fisher answered, in a lower voice: “Yes; and I hope to be lucky enough to catch him before dinner. He’s got to see Sir Isaac about something just afterward.”
“Hullo!” exclaimed Harker. “Sir Isaac’s finished his fishing. I know he prides himself on getting up at sunrise and going in at sunset.”
The old man on the island had indeed risen to his feet, facing round and showing a bush of gray beard with rather small, sunken features, but fierce eyebrows and keen, choleric eyes. Carefully carrying his fishing tackle, he was already making his way back to the mainland across a bridge of flat stepping-stones a little way down the shallow stream; then he veered round, coming toward his guests and civilly saluting them. There were several fish in his basket and he was in a good temper.
“Yes,” he said, acknowledging Fisher’s polite expression of surprise, “I get up before anybody else in the house, I think. The early bird catches the worm.”
“Unfortunately,” said Harker, “it is the early fish that catches the worm.”
“But the early man catches the fish,” replied the old man, gruffly.
“But from what I hear, Sir Isaac, you are the late man, too,” interposed Fisher. “You must do with very little sleep.”
“I never had much time for sleeping,” answered Hook, “and I shall have to be the late man to-night, anyhow. The Prime Minister wants to have a talk, he tells me, and, all things considered, I think we’d better be dressing for dinner.”
Dinner passed off that evening without a word of politics and little enough but ceremonial trifles. The Prime Minister, Lord Merivale, who was a long, slim man with curly gray hair, was gravely complimentary to his host about his success as a fisherman and the skill and patience he displayed; the conversation flowed like the shallow stream through the stepping-stones.
“It wants patience to wait for them, no doubt,” said Sir Isaac, “and skill to play them, but I’m generally pretty lucky at it.”
“Does a big fish ever break the line and get away?” inquired the politician, with respectful interest.
“Not the sort of line I use,” answered Hook, with satisfaction. “I rather specialize in tackle, as a matter of fact. If he were strong enough to do that, he’d be strong enough to pull me into the river.”
“A great loss to the community,” said the Prime Minister, bowing.
Fisher had listened to all these futilities with inward impatience, waiting for his own opportunity, and when the host rose he sprang to his feet with an alertness he rarely showed. He managed to catch Lord Merivale before Sir Isaac bore him off for the final interview. He had only a few words to say, but he wanted to get them said.
He said, in a low voice as he opened the door for the Premier, “I have seen Montmirail; he says that unless we protest immediately on behalf of Denmark, Sweden will certainly seize the ports.”
Lord Merivale nodded. “I’m just going to hear what Hook has to say about it,” he said.
“I imagine,” said Fisher, with a faint smile, “that there is very little doubt what he will say about it.”
Merivale did not answer, but lounged gracefully toward the library, whither his host had already preceded him. The rest drifted toward the billiard room, Fisher merely remarking to the lawyer: “They won’t be long. We know they’re practically in agreement.”
“Hook entirely supports the Prime Minister,” assented Harker.
“Or the Prime Minister entirely supports Hook,” said Horne Fisher, and began idly to knock the balls about on the billiard table.
Horne Fisher came down next morning in a late and leisurely fashion, as was his reprehensible habit; he had evidently no appetite for catching worms. But the other guests seemed to have felt a similar indifference, and they helped themselves to breakfast from the sideboard at intervals during the hours verging upon lunch. So that it was not many hours later when the first sensation of that strange day came upon them. It came in the form of a young man with light hair and a candid expression, who came sculling down the river and disembarked at the landing stage. It was, in fact, no other than Mr. Harold March, whose journey had begun far away up the river in the earliest hours of that day. He arrived late in the afternoon, having stopped for tea in a large riverside town, and he had a pink evening paper sticking out of his pocket. He fell on the riverside garden like a quiet and well-behaved thunderbolt, but he was a thunderbolt without knowing it.
The first exchange of salutations and introductions was commonplace enough, and consisted, indeed, of the inevitable repetition of excuses for the eccentric seclusion of the host. He had gone fishing again, of course, and must not be disturbed till the appointed hour, though he sat within a stone’s throw of where they stood.
“You see it’s his only hobby,” observed Harker, apologetically, “and, after all, it’s his own house; and he’s very hospitable in other ways.”
“I’m rather afraid,” said Fisher, in a lower voice, “that it’s becoming more of a mania than a hobby. I know how it is when a man of that age begins to collect things, if it’s only collecting those rotten little river fish. You remember Talbot’s uncle with his toothpicks, and poor old Buzzy and the waste of cigar ashes. Hook has done a lot of big things in his time — the great deal in the Swedish timber trade and the Peace Conference at Chicago — but I doubt whether he cares now for any of those big things as he cares for those little fish.”
“Oh, come, come,” protested the Attorney–General. “You’ll make Mr. March think he has come to call on a lunatic. Believe me, Hook only does it for fun, like any other sport, only he’s of the kind that takes his fun sadly. But I bet if there were big news about timber or shipping, he would drop his fun and his fish all right.”
“Well, I wonder,” said Horne Fisher, looking sleepily at the island in the river.
“By the way, is there any news of anything?” asked Harker of Harold March. “I see you’ve got an evening paper; one of those enterprising evening papers that come out in the morning.”
“The beginning of Lord Merivale’s Birmingham speech,” replied March, handing him the paper. “It’s only a paragraph, but it seems to me rather good.”
Harker took the paper, flapped and refolded it, and looked at the “Stop Press” news. It was, as March had said, only a paragraph. But it was a paragraph that had a peculiar effect on Sir John Harker. His lowering brows lifted with a flicker and his eyes blinked, and for a moment his leathery jaw was loosened. He looked in some odd fashion like a very old man. Then, hardening his voice and handing the paper to Fisher without a tremor, he simply said:
“Well, here’s a chance for the bet. You’ve got your big news to disturb the old man’s fishing.”
Horne Fisher was looking at the paper, and over his more languid and less expressive features a change also seemed to pass. Even that little paragraph had two or three large headlines, and his eye encountered, “Sensational Warning to Sweden,” and, “We Shall Protest.”
“What the devil — ” he said, and his words softened first to a whisper and then a whistle.
“We must tell old Hook at once, or he’ll never forgive us,” said Harker. “He’ll probably want to see Number One instantly, though it may be too late now. I’m going across to him at once. I bet I’ll make him forget his fish, anyhow.” And, turning his back, he made his way hurriedly along the riverside to the causeway of flat stones.
March was staring at Fisher, in amazement at the effect his pink paper had produced.
“What does it all mean?” he cried. “I always supposed we should protest in defense of the Danish ports, for their sakes and our own. What is all this botheration about Sir Isaac and the rest of you? Do you think it bad news?”
“Bad news!” repeated Fisher, with a sort of soft emphasis beyond expression.
“Is it as bad as all that?” asked his friend, at last.
“As bad as all that?” repeated Fisher. “Why of course it’s as good as it can be. It’s great news. It’s glorious news! That’s where the devil of it comes in, to knock us all silly. It’s admirable. It’s inestimable. It is also quite incredible.”
He gazed again at the gray and green colors of the island and the river, and his rather dreary eye traveled slowly round to the hedges and the lawns.
“I felt this garden was a sort of dream,” he said, “and I suppose I must be dreaming. But there is grass growing and water moving; and something impossible has happened.”
Even as he spoke the dark figure with a stoop like a vulture appeared in the gap of the hedge just above him.
“You have won your bet,” said Harker, in a harsh and almost croaking voice. “The old fool cares for nothing but fishing. He cursed me and told me he would talk no politics.”
“I thought it might be so,” said Fisher, modestly. “What are you going to do next?”
“I shall use the old idiot’s telephone, anyhow,” replied the lawyer. “I must find out exactly what has happened. I’ve got to speak for the Government myself tomorrow.” And he hurried away toward the house.
In the silence that followed, a very bewildering silence so far as March was concerned, they saw the quaint figure of the Duke of Westmoreland, with his white hat and whiskers, approaching them across the garden. Fisher instantly stepped toward him with the pink paper in his hand, and, with a few words, pointed out the apocalyptic paragraph. The duke, who had been walking slowly, stood quite still, and for some seconds he looked like a tailor’s dummy standing and staring outside some antiquated shop. Then March heard his voice, and it was high and almost hysterical:
“But he must see it; he must be made to understand. It cannot have been put to him properly.” Then, with a certain recovery of fullness and even pomposity in the voice, “I shall go and tell him myself.”
Among the queer incidents of that afternoon, March always remembered something almost comical about the clear picture of the old gentleman in his wonderful white hat carefully stepping from stone to stone across the river, like a figure crossing the traffic in Piccadilly. Then he disappeared behind the trees of the island, and March and Fisher turned to meet the Attorney–General, who was coming out of the house with a visage of grim assurance.
“Everybody is saying,” he said, “that the Prime Minister has made the greatest speech of his life. Peroration and loud and prolonged cheers. Corrupt financiers and heroic peasants. We will not desert Denmark again.”
Fisher nodded and turned away toward the towing path, where he saw the duke returning with a rather dazed expression. In answer to questions he said, in a husky and confidential voice:
“I really think our poor friend cannot be himself. He refused to listen; he — ah — suggested that I might frighten the fish.”
A keen ear might have detected a murmur from Mr. Fisher on the subject of a white hat, but Sir John Harker struck it more decisively:
“Fisher was quite right. I didn’t believe it myself, but it’s quite clear that the old fellow is fixed on this fishing notion by now. If the house caught fire behind him he would hardly move till sunset.”
Fisher had continued his stroll toward the higher embanked ground of the towing path, and he now swept a long and searching gaze, not toward the island, but toward the distant wooded heights that were the walls of the valley. An evening sky as clear as that of the previous day was settling down all over the dim landscape, but toward the west it was now red rather than gold; there was scarcely any sound but the monotonous music of the river. Then came the sound of a half-stifled exclamation from Horne Fisher, and Harold March looked up at him in wonder.
“You spoke of bad news,” said Fisher. “Well, there is really bad news now. I am afraid this is a bad business.”
“What bad news do you mean?” asked his friend, conscious of something strange and sinister in his voice.
“The sun has set,” answered Fisher.
He went on with the air of one conscious of having said something fatal. “We must get somebody to go across whom he will really listen to. He may be mad, but there’s method in his madness. There nearly always is method in madness. It’s what drives men mad, being methodical. And he never goes on sitting there after sunset, with the whole place getting dark. Where’s his nephew? I believe he’s really fond of his nephew.”
“Look!” cried March, abruptly. “Why, he’s been across already. There he is coming back.”
And, looking up the river once more, they saw, dark against the sunset reflections, the figure of James Bullen stepping hastily and rather clumsily from stone to stone. Once he slipped on a stone with a slight splash. When he rejoined the group on the bank his olive face was unnaturally pale.
The other four men had already gathered on the same spot and almost simultaneously were calling out to him, “What does he say now?”
“Nothing. He says — nothing.”
Fisher looked at the young man steadily for a moment; then he started from his immobility and, making a motion to March to follow him, himself strode down to the river crossing. In a few moments they were on the little beaten track that ran round the wooded island, to the other side of it where the fisherman sat. Then they stood and looked at him, without a word.
Sir Isaac Hook was still sitting propped up against the stump of the tree, and that for the best of reasons. A length of his own infallible fishing line was twisted and tightened twice round his throat and then twice round the wooden prop behind him. The leading investigator ran forward and touched the fisherman’s hand, and it was as cold as a fish.
“The sun has set,” said Horne Fisher, in the same terrible tones, “and he will never see it rise again.”
Ten minutes afterward the five men, shaken by such a shock, were again together in the garden, looking at one another with white but watchful faces. The lawyer seemed the most alert of the group; he was articulate if somewhat abrupt.
“We must leave the body as it is and telephone for the police,” he said. “I think my own authority will stretch to examining the servants and the poor fellow’s papers, to see if there is anything that concerns them. Of course, none of you gentlemen must leave this place.”
Perhaps there was something in his rapid and rigorous legality that suggested the closing of a net or trap. Anyhow, young Bullen suddenly broke down, or perhaps blew up, for his voice was like an explosion in the silent garden.
“I never touched him,” he cried. “I swear I had nothing to do with it!”
“Who said you had?” demanded Harker, with a hard eye. “Why do you cry out before you’re hurt?”
“Because you all look at me like that,” cried the young man, angrily. “Do you think I don’t know you’re always talking about my damned debts and expectations?”
Rather to March’s surprise, Fisher had drawn away from this first collision, leading the duke with him to another part of the garden. When he was out of earshot of the others he said, with a curious simplicity of manner:
“Westmoreland, I am going straight to the point.”
“Well?” said the other, staring at him stolidly.
“You have a motive for killing him,” said Fisher.
The duke continued to stare, but he seemed unable to speak.
“I hope you had a motive for killing him,” continued Fisher, mildly. “You see, it’s rather a curious situation. If you have a motive for murdering, you probably didn’t murder. But if you hadn’t any motive, why, then perhaps, you did.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” demanded the duke, violently.
“It’s quite simple,” said Fisher. “When you went across he was either alive or dead. If he was alive, it might be you who killed him, or why should you have held your tongue about his death? But if he was dead, and you had a reason for killing him, you might have held your tongue for fear of being accused.” Then after a silence he added, abstractedly: “Cyprus is a beautiful place, I believe. Romantic scenery and romantic people. Very intoxicating for a young man.”
The duke suddenly clenched his hands and said, thickly, “Well, I had a motive.”
“Then you’re all right,” said Fisher, holding out his hand with an air of huge relief. “I was pretty sure you wouldn’t really do it; you had a fright when you saw it done, as was only natural. Like a bad dream come true, wasn’t it?”
While this curious conversation was passing, Harker had gone into the house, disregarding the demonstrations of the sulky nephew, and came back presently with a new air of animation and a sheaf of papers in his hand.
“I’ve telephoned for the police,” he said, stopping to speak to Fisher, “but I think I’ve done most of their work for them. I believe I’ve found out the truth. There’s a paper here — ” He stopped, for Fisher was looking at him with a singular expression; and it was Fisher who spoke next:
“Are there any papers that are not there, I wonder? I mean that are not there now?” After a pause he added: “Let us have the cards on the table. When you went through his papers in such a hurry, Harker, weren’t you looking for something to — to make sure it shouldn’t be found?”
Harker did not turn a red hair on his hard head, but he looked at the other out of the corners of his eyes.
“And I suppose,” went on Fisher, smoothly, “that is why you, too, told us lies about having found Hook alive. You knew there was something to show that you might have killed him, and you didn’t dare tell us he was killed. But, believe me, it’s much better to be honest now.”
Harker’s haggard face suddenly lit up as if with infernal flames.
“Honest,” he cried, “it’s not so damned fine of you fellows to be honest. You’re all born with silver spoons in your mouths, and then you swagger about with everlasting virtue because you haven’t got other people’s spoons in your pockets. But I was born in a Pimlico lodging house and I had to make my spoon, and there’d be plenty to say I only spoiled a horn or an honest man. And if a struggling man staggers a bit over the line in his youth, in the lower parts of the law which are pretty dingy, anyhow, there’s always some old vampire to hang on to him all his life for it.”
“Guatemalan Golcondas, wasn’t it?” said Fisher, sympathetically.
Harker suddenly shuddered. Then he said, “I believe you must know everything, like God Almighty.”
“I know too much,” said Horne Fisher, “and all the wrong things.”
The other three men were drawing nearer to them, but before they came too near, Harker said, in a voice that had recovered all its firmness:
“Yes, I did destroy a paper, but I really did find a paper, too; and I believe that it clears us all.”
“Very well,” said Fisher, in a louder and more cheerful tone; “let us all have the benefit of it.”
“On the very top of Sir Isaac’s papers,” explained Harker, “there was a threatening letter from a man named Hugo. It threatens to kill our unfortunate friend very much in the way that he was actually killed. It is a wild letter, full of taunts; you can see it for yourselves; but it makes a particular point of poor Hook’s habit of fishing from the island. Above all, the man professes to be writing from a boat. And, since we alone went across to him,” and he smiled in a rather ugly fashion, “the crime must have been committed by a man passing in a boat.”
“Why, dear me!” cried the duke, with something almost amounting to animation. “Why, I remember the man called Hugo quite well! He was a sort of body servant and bodyguard of Sir Isaac. You see, Sir Isaac was in some fear of assault. He was — he was not very popular with several people. Hugo was discharged after some row or other; but I remember him well. He was a great big Hungarian fellow with great mustaches that stood out on each side of his face.”
A door opened in the darkness of Harold March’s memory, or, rather, oblivion, and showed a shining landscape, like that of a lost dream. It was rather a waterscape than a landscape, a thing of flooded meadows and low trees and the dark archway of a bridge. And for one instant he saw again the man with mustaches like dark horns leap up on to the bridge and disappear.
“Good heavens!” he cried. “Why, I met the murderer this morning!”
Horne Fisher and Harold March had their day on the river, after all, for the little group broke up when the police arrived. They declared that the coincidence of March’s evidence had cleared the whole company, and clinched the case against the flying Hugo. Whether that Hungarian fugitive would ever be caught appeared to Horne Fisher to be highly doubtful; nor can it be pretended that he displayed any very demoniac detective energy in the matter as he leaned back in the boat cushions, smoking, and watching the swaying reeds slide past.
“It was a very good notion to hop up on to the bridge,” he said. “An empty boat means very little; he hasn’t been seen to land on either bank, and he’s walked off the bridge without walking on to it, so to speak. He’s got twenty-four hours’ start; his mustaches will disappear, and then he will disappear. I think there is every hope of his escape.”
“Hope?” repeated March, and stopped sculling for an instant.
“Yes, hope,” repeated the other. “To begin with, I’m not going to be exactly consumed with Corsican revenge because somebody has killed Hook. Perhaps you may guess by this time what Hook was. A damned blood-sucking blackmailer was that simple, strenuous, self-made captain of industry. He had secrets against nearly everybody; one against poor old Westmoreland about an early marriage in Cyprus that might have put the duchess in a queer position; and one against Harker about some flutter with his client’s money when he was a young solicitor. That’s why they went to pieces when they found him murdered, of course. They felt as if they’d done it in a dream. But I admit I have another reason for not wanting our Hungarian friend actually hanged for the murder.”
“And what is that?” asked his friend.
“Only that he didn’t commit the murder,” answered Fisher.
Harold March laid down the oars and let the boat drift for a moment.
“Do you know, I was half expecting something like that,” he said. “It was quite irrational, but it was hanging about in the atmosphere, like thunder in the air.”
“On the contrary, it’s finding Hugo guilty that’s irrational,” replied Fisher. “Don’t you see that they’re condemning him for the very reason for which they acquit everybody else? Harker and Westmoreland were silent because they found him murdered, and knew there were papers that made them look like the murderers. Well, so did Hugo find him murdered, and so did Hugo know there was a paper that would make him look like the murderer. He had written it himself the day before.”
“But in that case,” said March, frowning, “at what sort of unearthly hour in the morning was the murder really committed? It was barely daylight when I met him at the bridge, and that’s some way above the island.”
“The answer is very simple,” replied Fisher. “The crime was not committed in the morning. The crime was not committed on the island.”
March stared at the shining water without replying, but Fisher resumed like one who had been asked a question:
“Every intelligent murder involves taking advantage of some one uncommon feature in a common situation. The feature here was the fancy of old Hook for being the first man up every morning, his fixed routine as an angler, and his annoyance at being disturbed. The murderer strangled him in his own house after dinner on the night before, carried his corpse, with all his fishing tackle, across the stream in the dead of night, tied him to the tree, and left him there under the stars. It was a dead man who sat fishing there all day. Then the murderer went back to the house, or, rather, to the garage, and went off in his motor car. The murderer drove his own motor car.”
Fisher glanced at his friend’s face and went on. “You look horrified, and the thing is horrible. But other things are horrible, too. If some obscure man had been hag-ridden by a blackmailer and had his family life ruined, you wouldn’t think the murder of his persecutor the most inexcusable of murders. Is it any worse when a whole great nation is set free as well as a family? By this warning to Sweden we shall probably prevent war and not precipitate it, and save many thousand lives rather more valuable than the life of that viper. Oh, I’m not talking sophistry or seriously justifying the thing, but the slavery that held him and his country was a thousand times less justifiable. If I’d really been sharp I should have guessed it from his smooth, deadly smiling at dinner that night. Do you remember that silly talk about how old Isaac could always play his fish? In a pretty hellish sense he was a fisher of men.”
Harold March took the oars and began to row again.
“I remember,” he said, “and about how a big fish might break the line and get away.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06