It was obvious at once why no one called Edward Champneis anything but Edward. He was a very tall, very dignified, very good-looking, and very orthodox person, with a manner of grave, if kindly, interest, and a rare but charming smile. Alongside the fretful movements of the fussy Mr. Erskine, his composure was like that of a liner suffering the administrations of a tug.
Grant had not met him before. Edward Champneis had arrived in London on Thursday afternoon, after nearly three months’ absence, only to be greeted by the news of his wife’s death. He had gone down immediately to Westover and identified the body, and on Friday he had interviewed the worried County Constabulary, puzzling over the button, and helped them to make up their minds that it was a case for the Yard. The thousand things waiting in town to be done as a result of his wife’s death and his own long absence had sent him back to London just as Grant left it.
He looked very tired, now, but showed no emotion. Grant wondered under what circumstances this orthodox product of five hundred years of privilege and obligation would show emotion. And then, suddenly, as he drew the chair under him, it occurred to him that Edward Champneis was anything but orthodox. Had he conformed to the tribe, as his looks conformed, he would have married a second cousin, gone into the Service, looked after an estate, and read the Morning Post. But he had done none of those things. He had married an artist picked up at the other side of the world, he explored for fun, and he wrote books. There was something almost eerie in the thought that an exterior could be so utterly misleading.
“Lord Edward has, of course, seen the will,” Erskine was saying. “He was, in fact, aware of its most important provisions some time ago, Lady Edward having acquainted him with her desires at the time the testament was made. There is, however, one surprise. But perhaps you would like to read the document for yourself.”
He turned the impressive-looking sheet round on the table so that it faced Grant.
“Lady Edward had made two previous wills, both in the United States, but they were destroyed, on her instructions, by her American lawyers. She was anxious that her estate should be administered from England, for the stability of which she had a great admiration.”
Christine had left nothing to her husband. “I leave no money to my husband, Edward Champneis, because he has always had, and always will have, more than he can spend, and because he has never greatly cared for money.” Whatever he cared to keep of her personal possessions were to be his, however, except where legacies specifically provided otherwise. There were various bequests of money, in bulk or in annuities, to friends and dependents. To Bundle, her housekeeper and late dresser. To her Negro chauffeur. To Joe Myers, who had directed her greatest successes. To a bellhop in Chicago “to buy that gas station with.” To nearly thirty people in all, in all parts of the globe and in all spheres of existence. But there was no mention of Jason Harmer.
Grant glanced at the date. Eighteen months ago. She had at that time probably not yet met Harmer.
The legacies, however generous, left the great bulk of her very large fortune untouched. And that fortune was left, surprisingly, not to any individual, but “for the preservation of the beauty of England.”
There was to be a trust, in which would be embodied the power to buy any beautiful building or space threatened by extinction and to provide for its upkeep.
That was Grant’s third surprise. The fourth came at the end of the list of legacies. The last legacy of all read, “To my brother Herbert, a shilling for candles.”
“A brother?” Grant said, and looked up inquiring.
“Lord Edward was unaware that Lady Edward had a brother until the will was read. Lady Edward’s parents died many years ago, and there had been no mention of any surviving family except for herself.”
“A shilling for candles. Does it convey anything to you, sir?” He turned to Champneis, who shook his head.
“A family feud, I expect. Perhaps something that happened when they were children. These are often the things one is more unforgiving about.” He glanced toward the lawyer. “The thing I remember when I meet Alicia is always that she smashed my birds’-egg collection.”
“But not necessarily a childhood quarrel,” Grant said. “She must have known him much later.”
“Bundle would be the person to ask. She dressed my wife from her early days in New York. But is it important? After all, the fellow was being dismissed with a shilling.”
“It’s important because it is the first sign of real enmity I have discovered among Miss Clay’s relationships. One never knows what it might lead us to.”
“The Inspector may not think it so important when he has seen this,” Erskine said. “This, which I will give you to read, is the surprise I spoke of.”
So the surprise had not been one of those in the will.
Grant took the paper from the lawyer’s dry, slightly trembling hand. It was a sheet of the shiny, thick, cream-colored notepaper to be obtained in village shops all over England, and on it was a letter from Christine Clay to her lawyer. The letter was headed “Briars, Medley, Kent,” and contained instructions for a codicil to her will. She left her ranch in California, with all stock and implements, together with the sum of five thousand pounds, to one Robert Stannaway, late of Yeoman’s Row, London.
“That,” said the lawyer, “was written on Wednesday, as you see. And on Thursday morning —” He broke off, expressively.
“Is it legal?” Grant asked.
“I should not like to contest it. It is entirely handwritten and properly signed with her full name. The signature is witnessed by Margaret Pitts. The provision is perfectly clear, and the style eminently sane.”
“No chance of a forgery?”
“Not the slightest. I know Lady Edward’s hand very well — you will observe that it is peculiar and not easy to reproduce — and moreover I am very well acquainted with her style, which would be still more difficult to imitate.”
“Well!” Grant read the letter again, hardly believing in its existence. “That alters everything. I must get back to Scotland Yard. This will probably mean an arrest before night.” He stood up.
“I’ll come with you,” Champneis said.
“Very good, sir,” Grant agreed automatically. “If I may, I’ll telephone first to make sure that the Superintendent will be there.”
And as he picked up the receiver, the looker-on in him said: Harmer was right. We do treat people variously. If the husband had been an insurance agent in Brixton, we wouldn’t take it for granted that he could horn in on a Yard conference!
“Is Superintendent Barker in the Yard, do you know? . . . Oh . . . At half past? That’s in about twenty minutes. Well, tell him that Inspector Grant has important information and wants a conference straightaway. Yes, the Commissioner, too, if he’s there.” He hung up.
“Thank you for helping us so greatly,” he said, taking farewell of Erskine. “And by the way, if you unearth the brother, I should be glad to know.”
And he and Champneis went down the dark, narrow stairs and out into the hot sunshine.
“Do you think,” Champneis asked, pausing with one hand on the door of Grant’s car, “there would be time for a drink, I feel the need of some stiffening. It’s been a — a trying morning.”
“Yes, certainly. It won’t take us longer than ten minutes along the Embankment. Where would you like to go?”
“Well, my club is in Carlton House Terrace, but I don’t want to meet people I know. The Savoy isn’t much better —”
“There’s a nice little pub up here,” Grant said, and swung the car around. “Very quiet at this time. Cool, too.”
As they turned the corner Grant caught sight of the news-sellers’ posters. CLAY FUNERAL: UNPRECEDENTED SCENES. TEN WOMEN FAINT. LONDON’S FAREWELL TO CLAY. And (the Sentinel) CLAY’S LAST AUDIENCE.
Grant’s foot came down on the accelerator.
“It was unbelievably ghastly,” said the man beside him, quietly.
“Yes, I can imagine.”
“Those women. I think the end of our greatness as a race must be very near. We came through the war well, but perhaps the effort was too great. It left us — epileptic. Great shocks do, sometimes.” He was silent for a moment, evidently seeing it all again in his mind’s eye. “I’ve seen machine guns turned on troops in the open — in China — and rebelled against the slaughter. But I would have seen that subhuman mass of hysteria riddled this morning with more joy than I can describe to you. Not because it was — Chris, but because they made me ashamed of being human, of belonging to the same species.”
“I had hoped that at that early hour there would be very little demonstration. I know the police were counting on that.”
“We counted on it too. That is why we chose that hour. Now that I’ve seen with my own eyes, I know that nothing could have prevented it. The people are insane.”
He paused, and gave an unamused laugh. “She never did like people much. It was because she found people — disappointing that she left her money as she did. Her fans this morning have vindicated her judgment.”
The bar was all that Grant had promised, cool, quiet, and undemanding. No one took any notice of Champneis. Of the six men present three nodded to Grant and three looked wary. Champneis, observant even in his pain, said: “Where do you go when you want to be unrecognized?” and Grant smiled. “I’ve not found a place yet,” he admitted. “I landed in Labrador from a friend’s yacht once, and the man in the village store said, ‘You wear your mustache shorter now, Sergeant.’ After that I gave up expecting.”
They talked of Labrador for a little, and then of Galeria, where Champneis had spent the last few months.
“I used to think Asia primitive, and some of the Indian tribes of South America, but the east of Europe has them all beaten. Except for the towns, Galeria is still in the primeval dark.”
“I see they’ve mislaid their spectacular patriot,” Grant said.
“Rimnik? Yes. He’ll turn up again when his party is ready. That’s the way they run the benighted country.”
“How many parties are there?”
“About ten, I think, not counting subdivisions. There are at least twenty races in that boiling pot of a country, all of them clamoring for self-government, and all of them medieval in their outlook. It’s a fascinating place. You should go there someday. The capital is their shop window — as nearly a replica of every other capital as they can make it. Opera, trams, electric light, imposing railway station, cinemas — but twenty miles into the country you’ll find bride barter. Girls set in rows with their dowry at their feet, waiting to go to the highest bidder. I’ve seen an old country woman led raving mad out of a lift in one of the town buildings. She thought she was the victim of witchcraft. They had to take her to the asylum. Graft in the town and superstition in the country — and yet a place of infinite promise.”
Grant let him talk, glad that for even a few minutes he might be able to forget the horror of the morning. His own thoughts were not in Galeria but in Westover. So he had done it, that good-looking emotionalist! He had screwed a ranch and five thousand out of his hostess and then made sure that he would not have to wait for it. Grant’s own inclination to like the boy died an instant death. From now on Robert Tisdall would be no more to him than the bluebottle he swatted on the windowpane, a nuisance to be exterminated as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. If, away in the depths, he was sorry that the pleasant person who was the surface Tisdall did not exist, his main and overwhelming emotion was relief that the business was going to be cleared up so easily. There was little doubt of the result of the conference. They had evidence enough. And they would have more before it came to a trial.
Barker, his Superintendent, agreed with him, and so did the Commissioner. It was a clear enough case. The man is broke, homeless, and at his wit’s end. He is picked up by a rich woman at the psychological moment. Four days later a will is made in his favor. On the following morning very early, the woman goes to swim. He follows her ten minutes later. When her body is found he has disappeared. He reappears with an unbelievable tale about stealing the car and bringing it back. A black button is found twisted in the dead woman’s hair. The man’s dark coat is missing. He says it was stolen two days before. But a man identifies him as wearing it that morning.
Yes, it was a good enough case. The opportunity, the motive, the clue.
The only person to protest against the issue of the warrant was, strangely enough, Edward Champneis.
“It’s too pat, don’t you think?” he said. “I mean, would any man in his senses commit the murder the very next morning?”
“You forget, Lord Edward,” Barker said, “that but for the merest chance there would be no question of murder at all.”
“And moreover, time was precious to him,” Grant pointed out. “There were only a few days left. The tenancy of the cottage expired at the end of the month. He knew that. She might not go bathing again. The weather might break, or she might be seized with a desire to go inland. More especially she might not go swimming in the early morning again. It was an ideal setting: a lonely beach in the very early morning, with the mist just rising. Too perfect a chance to let go to waste.”
Yes, it was a good case. Edward Champneis went back to the house in Regent’s Park which he had inherited with the Bremer fortune, and which between his peregrinations he called home. And Grant went down to Westover with a warrant in his pocket.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14