Everard Myatt — or Catherton Hunt — was lost again. Martin Hewitt had been wholly successful, for he had recovered Mr. Bell’s missing bonds; but the police caught neither of the conspirators. Investigation at Henning’s lodgings showed that careful preparations must have been made for an immediate flight if it should become necessary, and the flight had taken place. The man in the hospital, who had been knocked down in carrying from one to the other the extraordinary message that Hewitt deciphered, remained insensible for a few days, and could not be questioned till some time later still. Then he professed to have forgotten all about the message on which he was going when he met his accident, and the medical men in attendance informed the police that it was quite possible that the fellow’s statement was true. He said that he did carry messages sometimes, when he could get a job, but he could remember nothing of the message of the key, nor of who had sent him, nor where he was to go. Nevertheless, the police, although they professed to accept his statement, kept a wary eye on him after his discharge from the hospital, for they had a very great suspicion that he knew more than he chose to tell. But nothing more was heard of the accomplices till another case of Martin Hewitt’s brought the news, and that in a manner strange enough.
The matter began, as so many matters of Hewitt’s did, with the receipt of a telegram, followed immediately by another. For the first having been handed in at a country office not very long before eight the previous evening, it was not delivered at Hewitt’s office till the morning, in accordance with the ancient manners and customs observed in the telegraphic system of this country. It had been despatched from Throckham, in Middlesex, and it was simply a very urgently worded request to Hewitt to come at once, signed “Claire Peytral.” The second telegram, which came even as Hewitt was reading the first, on his arrival at his office, ran thus:—
“Did you receive telegram? See newspapers. Matter life or death. Would come personally but cannot leave mother. Pray answer. — Peytral.”
The answer went instantly that Hewitt would come by the next train, for he had seen the morning paper and from that knew the urgency of the case. But a consultation of the railway guide showed that trains to Throckham were fewer than one might suppose, considering the proximity of the village to London, and that the next would leave in about an hour and a quarter; so that I saw Hewitt before he started. He came up to my rooms, in fact, as I was beginning to breakfast.
“See here,” he said, “I am sent for in the Throckham case. Have you seen the report?”
As a leader writer, I had little business with the news side of my paper, and indeed I had no more than a vague recollection of some such heading as: “Tragedy in a barn,” in one evening paper of the day before, and “Murder at Throckham” in another. So I could claim no very exact knowledge of the affair.
“Here you have a paper, I see,” Hewitt said, reaching for it. “Perhaps their report is fuller than that in mine.” He gave me his own newspaper and began searching in the other. “No,” he said presently, “much the same. News agency report to both papers, no doubt.”
The report which I read ran as follows:—
“Singular Tragedy. — An extraordinary occurrence is reported from Throckham, a small village within fifteen miles of London, involving a tragic fatality that has led to a charge of murder. On Thursday evening an old barn, for some time disused, was discovered to be on fire, and it was only by extraordinary exertions on the part of the villagers that the fire was extinguished. Upon an examination of the place yesterday morning the body of Mr. Victor Peytral, a gentleman who had lived in the neighbourhood for some time, and who had been missing since shortly before the discovery of the fire, was found in the ruins. The body was burnt almost beyond recognition, but not so much as to conceal the fact that the unfortunate gentleman had not perished in the fire, but had been the victim of foul play. The throat was very deeply cut, and there can be no doubt that the murderer must have fired the barn with the object of destroying all traces of the crime. The police have arrested Mr. Percy Bowmore, a frequent visitor at the house of the deceased.”
“My telegram,” said Hewitt, “is plainly from a relative of this Mr. Peytral who is dead — perhaps a daughter, since she speaks of being unable to leave her mother. In that case, probably an only child, since there is no other to leave.”
“Unless the others are too young,” I suggested.
“Just so,” Hewitt replied. “Well, Brett,” he added, “to-day is Saturday.”
Saturday was, of course, my “off” day, and I understood Hewitt to hint that if I pleased I might accompany him to Throckham. “Saturday it is,” I said, “and I have no engagements. Would you care for me to come?”
“As you please, of course. I can guess very little of the case as yet, naturally, beyond what I have read in the paper; but the subtle sense of my experience tells me that there is all the chance of an interesting case in this. That’s your temptation. As for myself, I don’t mind admitting that — especially in these country cases, where the resources of civilisation are not always close at hand — I’m never loth to have a friend with me who isn’t too proud to be made use of. That’s my temptation!”
No persuasion was needed, and in due time we set out together.
It is my experience that places are to be found within twenty miles of London far more rural, far sleepier, far less influenced by the great city that lies so near, than places thrice and four times as far away. They are just too far out to be disturbed by suburban traffic, and too near to feel the influence of the great railway lines. These main lines go by, carrying their goods and their passengers to places far beyond, and it is only by awkward little branch lines, with slow and rare trains, that any part of this mid-lying belt is reached, and even then it is odds but that one must drive a good way to his destination.
Throckham was just such a place as I speak of, and that was the reason why we had such ample time to catch the first of the half-dozen leisurely trains by which one might reach the neighbourhood during the day. The station was Redfield, and Throckham was three miles beyond it.
At Redfield a coachman with a dogcart awaited Hewitt — only one gentleman having been expected, as the man explained, in offering to give either of us the reins. But Hewitt wished to talk to the coachman, and I willingly took the back seat, understanding very well that my friend would get better to work if he first had as many of the facts as possible from a calm informant before discussing them with the dead man’s relations, probably confused and distracted with their natural emotions.
The coachman was a civil and intelligent fellow, and he gave Hewitt all he knew of the case with perfect clearness, as I could very well hear.
“It isn’t much I can tell you, sir,” he said, “beyond what I expect you know. I suppose you didn’t know Mr. Peytral, my master, that’s dead?”
“No. But he was a foreigner, I suppose — French, from the name.”
“Well, no, sir,” the coachman replied, thoughtfully; “not French exactly, I think, though sometimes he talked French to the mistress. They came from somewhere in the West Indies, I believe, and there’s a trifle of — well, of dark blood in ’em, sir, I should think; though, of course, it ain’t for me to say.”
“Yes — there are many such families in the French West Indies. Did you ever hear of Alexandre Dumas?”
“No, sir, can’t say I did.”
“Well, he was a very great Frenchman indeed, but he had as much ‘dark blood’ as your master had — probably more; and it came from the West Indies, too. But go on.”
“Mr. Peytral, you must understand, sir, has lived here a year or two — I’ve only been with him nine months. He talked English always — as good as you or me; and he was always called Mr. Peytral — not Monsieur, or Signor, or any o’ them foreign titles. I think he was naturalised. Mrs. Peytral, she’s an invalid — came here an invalid, I’m told. She never comes out of her bedroom ‘cept on an invalid couch, which is carried. Miss Claire, she’s the daughter, an’ the only one, and she was hoping you’d ha’ been down last night, sir, by the last train. She’s in an awful state, as you may expect, sir.”
“Naturally, to lose her father in such a terrible way.”
“Yes, sir, but it’s wuss than that even, for her. You see, this Mr. Bowmore, that they’ve took up, he’s been sort of keepin’ company with Miss Claire for some time, an’ there’s no doubt she was very fond of him. That makes it pretty bad for her, takin’ it both ways, you see.”
“Of course — terrible. But tell me how the thing happened, and why they took this Mr. Bowmore.”
“Well, sir, it ain’t exactly for me to say, and, of course, I don’t know the rights of it, bein’ only a servant, but they say there was a sudden quarrel last night between Mr. Peytral and Mr. Bowmore. I think myself that Mr. Peytral was getting a bit excitable lately, whatever it was. On Thursday night, just after dinner, he went strolling off in the dusk, alone, and presently Mr. Bowmore — he came down in the afternoon — went strolling off after him. It seems they went down toward the Penn’s Meadow barn, Mr. Peytral first, and Mr. Bowmore catching him up from behind. A man saw them — a gamekeeper. He was lyin’ quiet in a little wood just the other side of Penn’s Meadow, an’ they didn’t see him as they came along together. They were quarrelling, it seems, though Grant — that’s the gamekeeper — couldn’t hear exactly what about; but he heard Mr. Peytral tell Mr. Bowmore to go away. He ‘preferred to be alone’ and he’d ‘had enough’ of Mr. Bowmore, from what Grant could make out. ‘Get out o’ my sight, sir, I tell you!’ the old gentleman said at last, stamping his foot, and shaking his fist in the young gentleman’s face. And then Bowmore turned and walked away.”
“One moment,” Hewitt interposed. “You are telling me what Grant saw and heard. How did it come to your knowledge?”
“Told me hisself, sir — told me every word yesterday. Told me twice, in fact. First thing in the morning when they found the body, and then again after he’d been to Redfield and had it took down by the police. It was because of that they arrested Mr. Bowmore, of course.”
“Just so. And is this gamekeeper Grant in the same employ as yourself?”
“Oh, no, sir! Mr. Peytral’s is only just an acre or two of garden and a paddock. Grant’s master is Colonel White, up at the Hall.”
“Very good. You were saying that Mr. Peytral told Mr. Bowmore to get out of his sight, and that Mr. Bowmore walked away. What then?”
“Well, Grant saw Mr. Bowmore walk away, but it was only a feint — a dodge, you see, sir. He walked away to the corner of the little wood where Grant was, and then he took a turn into the wood and began following Mr. Peytral up, watching him from among the trees. Came close by where Grant was sitting, following up Mr. Peytral and watching him; and so Grant lost sight of ’em.”
“Did Grant say what he was doing in the wood?”
“He said he’d found marks of rabbit-snares there, and he was watching to see if anybody came to set any more.”
“Yes — quite an ordinary part of his duty, of course. What next?”
“Well, Grant didn’t see any more. He waited a bit, and then moved off to another part of the wood, and he didn’t notice anything else particular till the barn was on fire. It was dark, then, of course.”
“Yes — you must tell me about the fire. Who discovered it?”
“Oh, a man going home along the lane. He ran and called some people, and they fetched the fire-engine from the village and pumped out of the horse-pond just close by. It was pretty much of a wreck by the time they got the fire out, but it wasn’t all gone, as you might have expected. You see, it had been out of use for some time, sir, and there was mostly nothing but old broken ploughs and lumber there; and what’s more, there was a deal of rain early in the week, as you may remember, sir, so the thatch was pretty sodden, being out o’ repair and all — and so was the timber, for the matter o’ that, for there’s no telling when it was last painted. So the fire didn’t go quite so fierce as it might, you see; else I should expect it had been all over before they got to work on it.”
“Not at all a likely sort of place to catch fire, it would seem, either,” Hewitt commented. “Old ploughs and such lumber are not very combustible.”
“Quite so, sir; that’s what makes ’em think it so odd, I suppose. But there was a bundle or two of old pea-straw there, shied in last summer, they say, being over bundles from the last load, and there left.”
“And when was Mr. Bowmore seen next?”
“He came strolling back, sir, and told the young lady he’d left her father outside, or something of that sort, I think; said nothing of the quarrel, I believe. But he said the barn was on fire — which he must have known pretty early, sir, for ’tis a mile from the house off that way;” and the coachman pointed with his whip.
“Nothing was suspected of the murder, it seems, till yesterday morning?”
“No, sir. Miss Claire got frightful worried when her father didn’t come home, as you would expect, and specially at him not coming home all night. But when the fire was quite put out, o’ course the people went away home to bed, and it wasn’t till the morning that anybody went in to turn the place over. Then they found the body.”
“Badly burnt, I believe?”
“Horrid burnt, sir. If it wasn’t for Mr. Peytral’s being missing, I doubt if they’d have known it was him at all. It took a doctor’s examination to see clear that the throat had been cut. But cut it had been, and deep, so the doctor said. And now the body’s gone over to Redfield mortuary.”
Hewitt asked a few questions more, and got equally direct answers, except where the coachman had to confess ignorance. But presently we were at the house to which Hewitt had been summoned.
It was a pleasant house enough, standing alone, apart from the village, a little way back from a loop of road that skirted a patch of open green. As we came in at the front gate, I caught an instant’s glimpse of a pale face at an upper window, and before we could reach the drawing-room door Miss Claire Peytral had met us.
She was a young lady of singular beauty, which the plain signs of violent grief and anxiety very little obscured. Her complexion, of a very delicate ivory tinge, was scarcely marred by the traces of sleeplessness and tears that were nevertheless clear to see. Her eyes were large and black, and her jetty hair had a slight waviness that was the only distinct sign about her of the remote blend of blood from an inferior race.
“Oh, Mr. Hewitt,” she cried, “I am so glad you have come at last! I have been waiting — waiting so long! And my poor mother is beginning to suspect!”
“You have not told her, then?”
“No, it will kill her when she knows, I’m sure — kill her on the spot. I have only said that father is ill at — at Redfield. Oh, what shall I do?”
The poor girl seemed on the point of breakdown, and Hewitt spoke sharply and distinctly.
“What you must do is this,” he said. “You must attend to me, and tell me all I want to know as accurately and as tersely as you can. In that case I will do whatever I can, but if you give way you will cripple me. It all depends on you, remember. This is my intimate friend, Mr. Brett, who is good enough to offer to help us. Now, first, I think I know the heads of the case, from the newspapers, and, more especially, from your coachman. But when you sent for me, no doubt you had some definite idea or intention in your mind. What was it?”
“Oh, he is innocent, Mr. Hewitt — he is, really! The only friend I have in the world — the only friend we all have!”
“Steady — steady,” Hewitt said, pressing her kindly and firmly into a seat. “You must keep steady, you know, if I am to do anything. I expected that would be your belief. Now tell me why you are so sure.”
“Mr. Hewitt, if you knew him you wouldn’t ask. He would never injure my poor father — he went out after him purely out of kindness, because I was uneasy. He would never hurt him, Mr. Hewitt, never, never! I can’t say it strongly enough — he never would! Oh! my poor father, and now ——”
“Steady again!” cried Hewitt, more sharply still. I could see that he feared the hysterical breakdown that might come at any moment after the lengthened suspense Miss Peytral had suffered. “Listen, now — you mustn’t frighten yourself too much. If Mr. Bowmore is innocent — and you say you are so certain of it — then I’ve no doubt of finding a way to prove it if only you’ll make your best effort to help me, and keep your wits about you. As far as I can see at present there’s nothing against him that we need be afraid of if we tackle it properly, and, of course, the police make arrests of this sort by way of precaution in a case like this, on the merest hint. Come now, you say you were uneasy when your father went out after dinner on Thursday night. Why?”
“I don’t know, quite, Mr. Hewitt. It was my mother that was uneasy, really, about something she never explained to me. My father had taken to going out in the evening after dinner, just in the way he did on Thursday night. I don’t know why, but I think it had something to do with my mother’s anxiety.”
“Did he dress for dinner?”
“No, not lately. He used to dress always, but he has dropped it of late.”
Hewitt paused for a moment, thoughtfully. Then he said, “Mrs. Peytral is an invalid, I know, and no doubt none the better for her anxiety. But if it could be managed I should like to ask her a few questions. What do you think?”
But this Miss Peytral was altogether against. Her mother was suffering from spinal complaint, it appeared, with very serious nervous complications, and there was no answering for the result of the smallest excitement. She never saw strangers, and, if it could possibly be avoided, it must be avoided now.
“Very well, Miss Peytral, I will first go and look at some things I must see, and I will do without your mother’s help as long as I possibly can. But now you must answer a few more questions yourself, please.”
Hewitt’s questions produced little more substantial information, it seemed to me, than he had already received. Mr. Peytral had taken the house in which we were sitting — it was called “The Lodge” simply — two years ago. Before that the family had lived in Surrey, but they had not moved direct from there; there was a journey to America between, on some business of Mr. Peytral’s, and it was on the return voyage that they had met Mr. Percy Bowmore. Mr. Bowmore had no friends nearer than Canada, and he was reading for the Bar — in a very desultory way, as I gathered. Miss Peytral’s childhood had been passed in the West Indies, at the town of San Domingo, in fact, where her father had been a merchant. Her mother had been a helpless invalid ever since Miss Peytral could remember. As to the engagement with Bowmore, it would seem to have had the full approval of both parents all along. But a rather curious change had come over her father, she thought, a few months ago. What it was that had caused it she could not say, but he grew nervous and moody, often absent-minded, and sometimes even short-tempered and snappish, a thing she had never known before. Also he read the daily papers with much care and eagerness. It was plain that Miss Peytral had no idea of any cause which might have led to a quarrel between Bowmore and her father, and Hewitt’s most cunning questions failed to elicit the smallest suggestion of reason for such an occurrence.
Ten days or so ago, Mr. Peytral had returned from a short walk after dinner, very much agitated; and from that day he had made a practice of going out immediately after dinner every evening regularly, walking off across the paddock, and so away in the direction of Penn’s Meadow. The first visit of Percy Bowmore after this practice had begun was on Thursday, but the presence of the visitor made no difference, as Miss Peytral had expected it would. Her father rose abruptly after dinner and went off as before; and this time Mrs. Peytral, who had been brought down to dinner, displayed a singular uneasiness about him. She had experienced the same feeling, curiously enough, on other occasions, Miss Peytral remarked, when her husband had been unwell or in difficulties, even at some considerable distance. This time the feeling was so strong that she begged Bowmore to hurry after Mr. Peytral and accompany him in his walk. This the young man had done; but he returned alone after a while, saying simply that he had lost sight of Mr. Peytral, whom he had supposed might have come home by some other way; and mentioning also that he had been told that Penn’s Meadow barn was on fire.
When it grew late, and Mr. Peytral failed to return, Bowmore went out again and made inquiry in all directions. It grew necessary to concoct a story to appease Mrs. Peytral, who had been taken back to her bedroom. Bowmore spent the whole night in fruitless search and inquiry, and then, with the morning, came the terrible news of the discovery in the burnt barn; and late in the afternoon Bowmore was arrested.
The poor girl had a great struggle to restrain her feelings during the conversation, and, at its close, Hewitt had to use all his tact to keep her going. Physical exhaustion, as well as mental trouble, were against her, and stimulus was needed. So Hewitt said, “Now you must try your best, and if you will keep up as well as you have done a little longer, perhaps I may have good news for you soon. I must go at once and examine things. First, I should like to have brought to me every single pair of boots or shoes belonging to your father. Send them, and then go and look after your mother. Remember, you are helping all the time.”
Hewitt examined the boots and shoes with great rapidity, but with a singularly quick eye for peculiarities.
“He liked a light shoe,” he said, “and he preferred to wear shoes rather than boots. There are few boots, and those not much worn, although he was living in the country. Trod square on the right foot, inward on the left, and wore the left heel more than the right. It’s plain he hated nails, for these are all hand-sewn, with scarcely as much as a peg visible in the lot; and they are all laced, boots and shoes alike. Come, this is the best-worn pair; it is also a pair of the same sort the maid tells me he must have been wearing, since they are missing; low shoes, laced; we’ll take them with us.”
We left the house and sought our friend the coachman. He pointed out quite clearly the path by which his master had gone on his last walk; showed us the gate, still fastened, over which he had climbed to gain the adjoining meadow, and put us in the way of finding the small wood and the barn.
Both within and without the gate there was a small patch bare of grass, worn by feet; and here Martin Hewitt picked up his trail at once.
“The ground has hardened since Thursday night,” he said; “and so much the better — it keeps the marks for us. Do you see what is here?”
There were footmarks, certainly, but so beaten and confused that I could make nothing of them. Hewitt’s practised eye, however, read them as I might have read a rather illegibly written letter.
“Here is the right foot, plain enough,” he said, carefully fitting the shoe he had brought in the mark. “He alighted on that as he came over the gate. Half over it is another footmark — Bowmore’s, I expect, for I can see signs of others, in both directions — going and coming. But we shall know better presently.”
He rose, and we followed the irregular track across the meadow. Like most such field-tracks, its direction was plainly indicated by the thin and beaten grass, with a bare spot here and there. Hewitt troubled to take no more than a glance at each of these spots as we passed, but that was all he needed. The meadow was bounded by a hedge, with a stile; and at the farther side of this stile my friend knelt again, with every sign of attention.
“A little piece of luck,” he reported. “The left shoe has picked up a tiny piece of broken thorn-twig just here. See the mark? The shoe was a little soddened in the sole by this time, and the thorn stuck. I hope it stuck altogether. If it did it may help us wonderfully when we get to the barn, for the trouble there will be the trampling all round of the people at the fire.”
So we went on till we reached the edge of the little wood. The field-path skirted this, and here Hewitt dropped on his knees and set to work with great minuteness.
“Keep away from the track, Brett,” he warned me, “or you may make it worse. The police have been here, I see, and quite recently, coming from the direction of Redfield. Here are two pairs of unmistakable police boots and another heavy pair with them; no doubt they brought the gamekeeper along with them, to have things fully explained.”
From the corner of the wood to a point forty yards along the path; back to the corner again, and then into the wood Hewitt went, carefully examining every inch of the ground as he did so. Then at last he rejoined me.
“I think the gamekeeper has told the truth,” he said. “It’s pretty plain, thanks to the soft ground hereabout, notwithstanding the policemen’s boots. Here they came together — the thorn-twig sticks to the shoe still, you see — and here they stopped. The marks face about, and Bowmore’s steps are retraced to the corner of the wood. Peytral’s turn again and go on, and Bowmore’s turn into the edge of the wood and come along among the trees. You don’t see them in the grassy parts quite as well as I do, I expect, but there they are. We’ll keep after Peytral’s prints. Bowmore’s come back in the same track, I see.”
The next stile led to Penn’s Meadow. This meadow — a large one — stretched over a rather steep hump of land, at the other side of which the barn stood. From the stile two paths could be discerned — one rising straight over the meadow in the direction of the barn, and the other skirting it to the left, parallel with the hedge.
“Here the footprints part,” Hewitt observed, musingly; “and what does that mean? Man[oe]uvring — or what?”
He thought a moment, and then went on: “We’ll leave the tracks for the present and see the barn. That is straight ahead, I take it.”
When we reached the top of the rise the barn came in view, a blackened and sinister wreck. The greater part of the main structure was still standing, and even part of the thatched roof still held its place, scorched and broken. Off to the right from where we stood the village roofs were visible, giving indication of the position of the road to Redfield. A single human figure was in sight — that of a policeman on guard before the barn.
“Now we must get rid of that excellent fellow,” said Hewitt, “or he’ll be offering objections to the examination I want to make. I wonder if he knows my name?”
We walked down to the barn, and Hewitt, assuming the largest possible air, addressed the policeman.
“Constable,” he said, “I am here officially — here is my card. Of course you will know the name if you have had any wide experience — London experience especially. I am looking into this case on behalf of Miss Peytral — co-operating with the police, of course. Where is your inspector?”
He was a rather stupid countryman, this policeman, but he was visibly impressed — even flurried — by Hewitt’s elaborate bumptiousness. He saluted, tried to look unnaturally sagacious, and confessed that he couldn’t exactly say where the inspector was, things being put about so just now. He might be in Throckham village, but more likely he was at Redfield.
“Ah!” Hewitt replied, with condescension. “Now, if he is in the village, you will oblige me, constable, by telling him that I am here. If he is not there, you will return at once. I will be responsible here till you come back. Don’t be very long, now.”
The man was taken by surprise, and possibly a trifle doubtful. But Hewitt was so extremely lofty and so very peremptory and official, that the inferior intelligence capitulated feebly, and presently, after another uneasy salute, the village policeman had vanished in the direction of the road. The moment he had disappeared Hewitt turned to the ruined barn. The door was gone, and the scorched and charred lumber that littered the place had a look of absolute ghostliness — perhaps chiefly the effect of my imagination in the knowledge of the ghastly tragedy that the place had witnessed. Well in from the doorway was a great scatter of light ashes — plainly the pea-straw that the coachman had spoken of. And by these ashes and partly among them, marked in some odd manner on the floor, was a horrible black shape that I shuddered to see, as Hewitt pointed it out with a moving forefinger, which he made to trace the figure of a prostrate human form.
“Did you never see that before in a burnt house?” Hewitt asked in a hushed voice. “I have, more than once. That sort of thing always leaves a strange stain under it, like a shadow.”
But business claimed Martin Hewitt, and he stepped carefully within. Scarcely had he done so, when he stood suddenly still, with a low whistle, pointing toward something lying among the dirt and ashes by the foot of that terrible shape.
“See?” he said. “Don’t disturb anything, but look!”
I crept in with all the care I could command, and stooped. The place was filled with such a vast confusion of lumber and cinder and ash that at first I failed to see at all what had so startled Hewitt’s attention. And even when I understood his direction, all I saw was about a dozen little wire loops, each a quarter of an inch long or less, lying among a little grey ash that clung about the ends of some of the loops in clots. Even as I looked another thing caught Hewitt’s eye. Among the straw-ashes there lay some cinders of paper and card, and near them another cinder, smaller, and plainly of some other substance. Hewitt took my walking-stick, and turned this cinder over. It broke apart as he did so, and from within it two or three little charred sticks escaped. Hewitt snatched one up and scrutinised it closely.
“Do you see the tin ferrule?” he said. “It has been a brush; and that was a box of colours!” He pointed to the cinder at his feet. “That being so,” he went on, “that paper and card was probably a sketch-book. Brett! come outside a bit. There’s something amazing here!”
We went outside, and Hewitt faced me with a curious expression that for the life of me I could not understand.
“Suppose,” he said, “that Mr. Victor Peytral is not dead after all?”
“Not dead?” I gasped; “but — but he is! We know ——”
“It seems to me,” Hewitt pursued, with his eyes still fixed on mine, “that we know very little indeed of this affair, as yet. The body was unrecognisable, or very near it. You remember what the coachman said? ‘If it wasn’t for Mr. Peytral’s being missing,’ he said, ‘I doubt if they’d have known it was him at all.’ I think those were his exact words. More, you must remember that the body has not been seen by either of Peytral’s relatives.”
“But then,” I protested, “if it isn’t his body whose is it?”
“Ah, indeed,” Hewitt responded, “whose is it? Don’t you see the possibilities of the thing? There’s a colour-box and a sketch-book burned. Who carried a colour-box and a sketch-book? Not Peytral, or we should have heard of it from his daughter; she made a particular point of her father’s evening strolls being quite aimless, so far as her knowledge or conjecture went; she knew nothing of any sketching. And another thing — don’t you see what those things mean?” He pointed toward the place of the little wire loops.
“Not at all.”
“Man, don’t you see they’ve been boot-buttons? When the boots shrivelled, the threads were burnt and the buttons dropped off. Boot-buttons are made of a sort of composition that burns to a grey ash, once the fire really gets hold of them — as you may try yourself, any time you please. You can see the ash still clinging to some of the shanks; and there the shanks are, lying in two groups, six and six, as they fell! Now Peytral came out in laced shoes.”
“But if Peytral isn’t dead, where is he?”
“Precisely,” rejoined Hewitt, with the curious expression still in his eyes. “As you say, where is he? And as you said before, who is the dead man? Who is the dead man, and where is Peytral, and why has he gone? Don’t you see the possibilities of the case now?”
Light broke upon me suddenly. I saw what Hewitt meant. Here was a possible explanation of the whole thing — Peytral’s recent change of temper, his evening prowlings, his driving away of Bowmore, and lastly, of his disappearance — his flight, as it now seemed probable it was. The case had taken a strange turn, and we looked at one another with meaning eyes. It might be that Hewitt, begged by the unhappy girl we had but just left to prove the innocence of her lover, would by that very act bring her father to the gallows.
“Poor girl!” Hewitt murmured, as we stood staring at one another. “Better she continued to believe him dead, as she does! Brett, there’s many a good man would be disposed to fling these proofs away for the girl’s sake and her mother’s, seeing how little there can be to hurt Bowmore. But justice must be done, though the blow fall — as it commonly does — on innocent and guilty together. See, now, I’ve another idea. Stay on guard while I try.”
He hurried out toward the farther side of the broad band of trampled ground which surrounded the burnt barn, and began questing to and fro, this way and that, receding farther from me as he went, and nearing the horse-pond and the road. At last he vanished altogether, and left me alone with the burnt barn, my thoughts, and — that dim Shape on the barn floor. It was broad day, but I felt none too happy; and I should not have been at all anxious to keep the police watch at night.
Perhaps Hewitt had been gone a quarter of an hour, perhaps a little more, when I saw him again, hurrying back and beckoning to me. I went to meet him.
“It’s right enough,” he cried. “I’ve come on his trail again! There it is, thorn-mark and all, by the roadside, and at a stile — going to Redfield — probably to the station. Come, we’ll follow it up! Where’s that fool of a policeman? Oh, the muddle they can make when they really try!”
“Need we wait for him?” I asked.
“Yes, better now, with those proofs lying there; and we must tell him not to be bounced off again as I bounced him off. There he comes!”
The heavy figure of the local policeman was visible in the distance, and we shouted and beckoned to hurry him. Agility was no part of that policeman’s nature, however, and beyond a sudden agitation of his head and his shoulders, which we guessed to be caused by a dignified spasm of leisurely haste, we saw no apparent acceleration of his pace.
As we stood and waited we were aware of a sound of wheels from the direction of Redfield, and as the policeman neared us from the right, so the sound of wheels approached us from the left. Presently a fly hove in sight — the sort of dusty vehicle that plies at every rural railway station in this country; and as he caught sight of us in the road the driver began waving his whip in a very singular and excited manner. As he drew nearer still he shouted, though at first we could not distinguish his words. By this time the policeman, trotting ponderously, was within a few yards. The passenger in the fly, a thin, dark, elderly man, leaned over the side to look ahead at us, and with that the policeman pulled up with a great gasp and staggered into the ditch.
“‘Ere ‘e is!” cried the fly-driver, regardless of the angry remonstrances of his fare. “‘Ere ‘e is! ‘E’s all right! It ain’t ’im! ‘Ere he is!”
“Shut your mouth, you fool!” cried the angry fare. “Will you stop making a show of me?”
“Not me!” cried the eccentric cabman. “I don’t want no fare, sir! I’m drivin’ you ‘ome for honour an’ glory, an’ honour an’ glory I’ll make it! ‘Ere ‘e is!”
Hewitt took in the case in a flash — the flabbergasted policeman, the excited cabman and the angry passenger. He sprang into the road and cried to the cabman, who pulled up suddenly before us.
“Mr. Victor Peytral, I believe?” said Martin Hewitt.
“Yes, sir,” answered the dark gentleman snappishly, “but I don’t know you!”
“There has been a deal of trouble here, Mr. Peytral, over your absence from home, as no doubt you have become aware; and I was telegraphed for by your daughter. My name is Hewitt — Martin Hewitt.”
Peytral’s face changed instantly. “I know your name well, Mr. Hewitt,” he said. “There’s a matter — but who is this?”
“My friend, Mr. Brett, who is good enough to help me to-day. If I may detain you a moment, I should like a word with you aside.”
Mr. Peytral alighted, and the two walked a little apart.
I saw Hewitt talking and pointing toward the burnt barn, and I well guessed what he was saying. He was giving Peytral warning of what he had discovered in the barn, explaining that he must give the information to the police, and asking if, in those circumstances, Peytral wished to go home, or to make other arrangements. Often Hewitt’s duty to his clients and his duty as a law-upholding citizen between them put him in some such delicate position.
But there was no hesitation in Mr. Victor Peytral. Plainly he feared nothing, and he was going home.
“Very well, then,” I heard Hewitt say as they turned towards us, “perhaps we had better go on slowly and let my friend cut across the fields first to break the news. Brett — I knew you would be useful, sooner or later.”
And so I hurried off, with the happy though delicate mission to restore both father and lover to Miss Claire Peytral.
Miss Peytral had to be put to bed under care of a nurse, for the revulsion was very great, and so was her physical prostration. Bowmore, now set free, and in himself a very pleasant young fellow, came with hurried inquiries and congratulations, and then rushed off to London to cable to his friends in Canada, for fear of the effect of newspaper telegrams.
When at last Hewitt and I sat with Mr. Peytral in his study, “Mr. Hewitt,” said Peytral, “I am not sure how far explanations may go between us. There is more in that death in the barn than the police will ever guess.”
Peytral was haggard and drawn, for, as he had let slip already, he had scarce slept an hour since leaving home on Thursday.
“I am tired,” he said, “and worn out, but that is not a novelty with me; and I’m not sure but we may be of use to each other. Did my daughter tell you why she sent Mr. Bowmore after me on Thursday night?”
Hewitt explained the thing as briefly as possible, just as he had heard it from Miss Peytral.
“Ah,” said Peytral, thoughtfully. “So she thought my manner became moody a few months back. It did, no doubt, for I had memories; and more, I had apprehensions. Mr. Hewitt, I think I read in the papers that you were in some way engaged in the extraordinary case of the murder of Mr. Jacob Mason?”
“That is quite correct. I was.”
“There was another case, a little while before, which possibly you may not have heard of. A man was found strangled near the York column, by Pall Mall, with just such a mark on his forehead as was found on Mr. Mason’s.”
“I know that case, too, as well as the other.”
“Do you know the name of the murderer?”
“I think I do. We speak in confidence, of course, as client and professional man?”
“Of course. What was his name?”
“I have heard two — Everard Myatt and Catherton Hunt.”
“Neither is his real name, and I doubt if anybody but himself knows it. Twenty years ago and more I knew him as Mayes. He was a Jamaican. Mr. Hewitt, that man’s foul life has been justly forfeit a thousand times, but if it belongs to anybody it belongs to me!”
It was terrible to see the sudden fiery change in the old man. His lassitude was gone in a flash, his eyes blazed and his nostrils dilated.
For a little while he sat so, his mouth awork with passion; then he sank back in his chair with a sigh.
“I am getting old,” he said, more quietly, “and perhaps I am not strong enough to lose my temper. . . . Well, as I said, Mayes was a Jamaican, a renegade white. Do you remember that in the black rebellion of 1865, there was a traitorous white man among the negroes? Eyre hanged a few rebels, and rightly, but the worst creature on all that island escaped — probably escaped by the aid of that very white skin that should have ensured him a greater punishment than the rest. He escaped to Hayti. Now you have probably heard something of Hayti, and of the common state of affairs there?”
We both had heard, and, indeed, the matter had been particularly brought to Hewitt’s notice by the case which I have told elsewhere as “The Affair of the Tortoise.” As for me, I had read Sir Spenser St. John’s book on the black republic, and I had been greatly impressed by the graphic picture it gives of the horrible, blood-stained travesty of regular government there prevailing. Nothing in the worst of the South American Republics is to be remotely compared to it. In the worst periods there was not a crime imaginable that could not be, and was not, committed openly and with impunity by anybody on the right side of the so-called “government”; and the “government” was nothing but an organised crime in itself.
“Well,” Peytral pursued, “then I need not expatiate on it, and you will understand the sort of place that Mayes fled to, and how it suited him. He was a man of far greater ability than any of the coarse scoundrels in power, and he was worse than all of them. He was not such a fool as to aim at ostensible political power — that way generally led to assassination. He was the jackal, the contriver, the power behind the throne, the instigator of half the devilry set going in that unhappy place, and he profited by it with little risk; he was the confidential adviser of that horrible creature Domingue. If you know anything of Hayti you will know what that means.
“At this time I was comparatively a young man, and a merchant at Port-au-Prince. It was a bad place, of course, and business was risky enough, but, for that very reason, profits were large, and that was an attraction to a sanguine young man like myself. I did very well, and I had thoughts of getting out of it with what I had made. But it was a fatal thing to be supposed wealthy in Port-au-Prince, unless you were a villain in power, or partner with one. I was neither, and I was judged a suitable victim by Mayes. Not I alone, either — no, nor even only I and my fortune. Gentlemen, gentlemen, my poor wife, who now lies ——”
Peytral’s utterance failed him. He rose as if choking, and Hewitt rose to quiet him. “Never mind,” he said, “sit quiet now. We understand. Rest a moment.”
The old man sank back in his chair, and for a little while buried his face in his hands. Then he went on.
“I needn’t go into details,” he said, huskily. “It is enough to say that every devilish engine of force and cunning was put in operation against me. So it came that at last, on a hint from a hanger-on of the police-office, who had enough humanity in him to remember a kindness he had experienced at my hands, that we took flight in the middle of the night — my poor wife, myself, and our three children, with nothing in the world but our bare lives and the clothes we wore. I might have tried to get aboard a foreign ship in the harbour, but I knew that would be useless. I should have been given up on whatever criminal charge Mayes chose to present, and my wife and children with me. I had hope of somehow getting to San Cristobel, where I had a friend — over the border in the other Government of the island, the Dominican Republic. That was eighty miles away and more, across swamps, and forests and mountains. Well, we did it — we did it. We did it, Mr. Hewitt, and I dream of it still. They hunted us, sir — hunted us with dogs. We hid from them a whole day among the rank weeds — up to our shoulders in the water of a pestilential fever-swamp; Claire, the baby, on her mother’s back, and both the boys on mine. They died — they died next day. My two beautiful boys, gentlemen, died in my arms, and I was too weak even to bury them!”
There was another long pause, and the man’s head was bowed in his hands once more. Presently he went on again, but at first without lifting his head.
“We did it, gentlemen,” he said —“we did it. We crawled into San Cristobel at the end of five days; and from that moment my dear wife has never once stood upright on her feet. So we came out of it, and the baby, Claire, was the one that suffered least. She was too young to understand, and her mother — her mother saved her, when I could not save the boys!”
He paused again, and presently sat up, pale, but in full command of himself. “You will excuse me, gentlemen, I am sure, and make allowances for my feelings,” he said. “There is not a great deal more to tell. Mayes did not last long in Hayti. Domingue was overthrown, and Mayes left the island, I was told, and made for another part of the world. Years afterward I heard of his being in China, though what truth there may have been in the rumour I cannot say.
“My friend in San Cristobel — he was a cousin, in fact — put me on my legs again, and after a while he helped me to begin business at San Domingo, under my present name, Peytral, which, in fact, was my mother’s maiden name. There came a sudden push in trade with the United States about this time, and I went into my affairs with the more energy to distract my thoughts. In fifteen years — to cut a long story short — I had made the small competency which I have brought to England with me, with the idea of a peaceful end to my life and my wife’s; though I doubt if I am to have that now. I doubt it, and I will tell you why. Mr. Hewitt, when I went away without warning on Thursday night I was dogging Mayes!”
Hewitt nodded, with no sign of surprise. “And the man killed in the barn?”
“That is one more of his thousand crimes, without a doubt. Though it differs. Do you know what drew my attention to the murders of the men Denson and Mason, and so set me thinking? In each case the murder was by strangulation, and the medical evidence at the inquests showed that it was effected by means of a tourniquet. In fact, in the second case, the tourniquet itself was left behind.”
“Yes,” Hewitt replied, “I loosened it myself — but, unfortunately, I was too late.”
“Well, now,” Peytral went on, “in Hayti, in my time, Mayes’s enemies had a habit of dying suddenly in the night, by strangulation, and a tourniquet was always the instrument. And just as murder was quite a popular procedure in that accursed place, so strangulation by tourniquet became for a while the most common form of the crime. It was rapid, effective, and silent, you see. So that a murder by tourniquet, quite an unknown thing in this country, took my attention at once, and when another followed it so soon, I felt something like certainty. And the triangle was suggestive, too.”
“Were Mayes’s victims marked in that way in Hayti?”
“No, there was no mark. But”— here Mr. Peytral’s features assumed a curious expression —“there are things which are not believed in this country — which are laughed at, in fact, and called superstition. You know something of Hayti, and therefore you must have heard of Voodoo — the witchcraft and devil-worship of the West Indies. Well, Mayes was as deep in that as he was in every other species of wickedness. It sounds foolish, perhaps, here in civilised England, and you may laugh, but I tell you that Mayes could make men do as he wished, with their consent or against it! And he used a thing — it was generally known that he used a thing marked with a triangle — a Red Triangle — by the use of which he could bend men to his will!”
Hewitt was listening intently, with no sign of laughter at all, notwithstanding his client’s apprehension. And I remembered the case of Mr. Jacob Mason, and how that victim had so fervently expressed his wish to the excellent clergyman, Mr. Potswood, that he had never dabbled in the strange devilries of Myatt — or Mayes, as we were now learning to call him.
“At any rate,” Peytral resumed, “you will understand that the conjunction of the tourniquet with the Red Triangle in the two cases you know of caused me some excitement. My daughter, as you have said, noticed a change in my habits from that time; my wife did more — she knew the reason. Mr. Hewitt, I am an older man, but there is hotter blood in my veins than in yours. My father was English — though you might scarcely suppose it — but my mother, to whose name I have reverted, was a French Creole. So perhaps my natural instincts come nearer to those of our savage ancestry than do yours. Whether or not you will understand me I do not know, but I can tell you that even now, in cold blood — for my paroxysm has exhausted itself and me — it seems to me that it would be my duty, not to say my sacred duty, to tear that man to pieces with my hands whenever and wherever I could put them on him! My old passions may have slept, I find, but they are alive still, and I found them waking when I realised that Mayes was alive and in England. The words ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ are elastic in their application, but I doubt if you would have called me strictly sane of late. I evolved mad schemes for the destruction of this wretch, and I was ready to devote myself and everything I possessed to the purpose. More than once I contemplated coming to you — seeing that you had met the man in one of his villainies — with the idea of enlisting your aid. But I reflected that you would probably make yourself no party to a plan of private revenge, and I hesitated. And then — then, a little more than a week ago, I saw the man himself! Changed, without doubt, but not half as much changed as I am myself. Nevertheless, sure as I am of him now, I hesitated then. For it was here in the meadow that you know, near the barn, and the thing seemed so likely to be illusion that I almost suspected my senses. It was dusk, and he was walking and talking with another man, a good deal younger. And presently, while I was still confounded with surprise, and as they passed behind a clump of trees, Mayes was gone, and I saw his companion alone. He was a young man — an artist, it would seem, with sketch-book and colours.”
I started, and Hewitt and I glanced at each other. Peytral saw it and paused. “Never mind,” said Hewitt. “Please go on.”
“After that I came out every night, in the hope of seeing my enemy again. On several evenings I saw the young artist waiting by the barn expectantly, but nobody joined him. I found that this young man was lodging at a cottage in the village, and I resolved not to lose sight of him.
“At last, on Thursday night, I saw Mayes again. Mr. Bowmore was here, and when I left the house he troubled me much by coming after me. I was obliged to tell him that I wished to be alone, and I was in a nervously explosive state when I did it. He seemed reluctant to go; my anger blazed out, and I violently ordered him off. From what he has told me it seems that he followed me still, but lost sight of me near Penn’s Meadow. Well, be that as it may, I saw Mayes and the young artist again. I watched from a rather awkward spot, and dusk was falling, so that I could not see all that passed; but presently I was aware that Mayes was making off by the road alone, and I followed him.
“From that moment I think I really was mad, though my madness did not drive me to attack him at once. I had a feeling of curiosity to see where he would go, and a curious cruel idea of letting him run for a little first — as a cat feels, I suppose, with a mouse. You may judge that I was not in my normal state of mind from the fact that all through yesterday and part of to-day I never as much as thought of telegraphing home to say that I had gone to London. For it was to London I followed him. I took no ticket at the station — I got on the platform by stealth, and entered the train unobserved, for he and one boy were the only passengers, and I feared attracting attention. It was easy enough, in such a station as Redfield, and I paid my fare at London. And after all I lost him! Lost him in London!”
“Like a fool. I saw him enter a house, and waited. Followed him again, and waited at another. I might have flung him into the river from the Embankment, and I refrained. And then — whether it began at a dark corner or in a group of people I cannot tell, but I suddenly discovered that I was following a stranger — a stranger of about Mayes’s form and stature. It was what I should have expected, and provided for, in London streets at night!
“If I have been mad, it was then I was worst. I suppose by that time it must have been too late to get back home, but I never thought of that. I ran the streets the whole night, like a fool, hunting for Mayes. I kept on all day yesterday. I waited and watched hours at the two houses he had visited; and it was not till early this morning that I flung myself on a bed in a private hotel in Euston Road. I slept a little, and my paroxysm was over. Perhaps I am more fortunate than I am disposed to think, since I am as yet in no danger of trial for murder.”
This passionate, wayward, stricken man was plainly the object of fascinated interest to Hewitt. My friend waited a moment, and then said —“The houses he called at — I should like to know them. And where you lost sight of him.”
Peytral sat back, and gazed thoughtfully for fully half a minute in Hewitt’s face. “Do you know,” he said at length, “I don’t think I’ll answer that question now. I’d like to leave it for a day or two. Yesterday I wouldn’t have told you, even on the rack — no, not a word! I should have said, ‘Take your own chances, and get him if you can. As for me, I consider him my prey, and what scent I have picked up I shall use myself!’ A mad fancy, you will think, perhaps. For me the question is, was I sanest then or now? I will take a day or two to think.”
In less than a day or two the identity of the victim of the burnt barn was established. For Hewitt had his idea, and he communicated with Plummer, of Scotland Yard. The man with the buttoned boots and the sketch-book was the artist who had been staying at the cottage in the village, but who, singularly enough, had never been seen to draw, and had left no drawings behind him. He had warned the people of the cottage that he might be away for a night or two, and he had stayed away for two nights before; so that his disappearance did not disturb them, and when they heard that Mr. Peytral’s body had been found in the barn they accepted the news as fact. They recognised at once a photograph produced by Plummer as that of their late lodger. And the photograph had been procured from Messrs. Kingsley, Bell and Dalton, the intended victims in the bond case, and it was one of Henning, their vanished correspondence clerk!
That his death would be convenient to Mayes, the greater scoundrel, was plain enough. The bond robbery had been brought to naught, thanks to Martin Hewitt, and Henning was now useless. Worse, he might be caught, or give himself up, and was thus a perpetual danger. And probably he wanted money. This being so, it was a singular fact that at the inquest the surgeon who had examined the wound gave it as his most positive opinion that it had been self-inflicted. And it was inflicted with a razor, Henning’s own, as was very clearly proved after inquiry. For the razor was found in the barn by the police, entangled with the blackened frame of an old lantern. Here was still another puzzle; one to which the final revelation of the mystery of the Red Triangle gave an answer, as will be seen in due place.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58