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A breeze, hardly more than a whisper of wind, stirred the curtains that hung on either side of the long window, and wafted into the room the scent of the wisteria covering the wall of the house. The policeman turned his head as the curtains faintly rustled, his rather glassy blue eyes frowning and suspicious. Straightening himself, for he had been bending over the figure of a man seated behind the carved knee-hole desk in the middle of the room, he trod over to the window and looked out into the dusky garden. His torch explored the shadows cast by two flowering shrubs without, however, revealing anything but a nondescript cat, whose eyes caught and flung back the light for an instant before the animal glided into the recesses of the shrub. There was no other sign of life in the garden, and after a moment of keen scrutiny, the policeman turned back into the room, and went to the desk. The man behind it paid no heed, for he was dead, as the policeman had already ascertained. His head lay on the open blotter, with blood congealing in his sleek, pomaded hair.
The policeman drew a long breath. He was rather pale, and the hand which he stretched out towards the telephone shook a little. Mr Ernest Fletcher's head was not quite the right shape; there was a dent in it, under the coagulated blood.
The policeman's hand was arrested before it had grasped the telephone receiver. He drew it back, felt for a handkerchief, and with it wiped a smear of blood from his hand, and then picked up the receiver.
As he did so, he caught the sound of footsteps approaching the room. Still holding the instrument, he turned his head towards the door.
It opened, and a middle-aged butler came in, carrying a tray with a syphon and a whisky decanter and glasses upon it. At sight of the police constable he gave a perceptible start. His gaze next alighted on the figure of his master. The tumbler on the tray shuddered against the decanter, but Simmons did not drop the tray. He stood holding it mechanically, staring at Ernest Fletcher's back.
PC Glass spoke the number of the police station. His flat, unemotional voice brought Simmons's eyes back to his face. ‘My God, is he dead?' he asked in a hushed voice.
A stern glance was directed towards him. ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain,' said Glass deeply.
This admonishment was more comprehensible to Simmons, who was a member of the same sect as PC Glass, than to the official at the Telephone Exchange, who took it in bad part. By the time the misunderstanding had been cleared up, and the number of the police station repeated, Simmons had set the tray down, and stepped fearfully up to his master's body. One look at the damaged skull was enough to drive him back a pace. He raised a sickly face, and demanded in an unsteady voice: ‘Who did it?'
‘That'll be for others to find out,' replied Glass. ‘I shall be obliged to you, Mr Simmons, if you will shut that door.'
‘If it's all the same to you, Mr Glass, I'll shut myself on the other side of it,' said the butler. ‘This this is a very upsetting sight, and I don't mind telling you it turns my stomach.'
‘You'll stay till I've asked you a few questions, as is my duty,' replied Glass.
‘But I can't tell you anything! I didn't have anything to do with it!'
Glass paid no heed, for he was connected at that moment with the police station. Simmons gulped, and went to shut the door, remaining beside it, so that only Ernest Fletcher's shoulders were visible to him.
PC Glass, having announced his name and whereabouts, was telling the Sergeant that he had a murder to report.
Policemen! thought Simmons, resentful of Glass's calm. You'd think corpses with their heads bashed in were as common as daisies. He wasn't human, Glass; he was downright callous, standing there so close to the body he could have touched it just by stretching out his hand, talking into the telephone as though he was saying his piece in the witness-box, and all the time staring at the dead man without a bit of feeling in his face, when anyone else would have turned sick at the sight.
Glass laid down the receiver, and restored his handkerchief to his pocket. ‘Lo, this is the man that made not God his strength, but trusted in his riches,' he said.
The sombre pronouncement recalled Simmons's thoughts. He gave a sympathetic groan. ‘That's true, Mr Glass. Woe to the crown of pride! But how did it happen? How do you come to be here? Oh dear, oh dear, I never thought to be mixed up with a thing like this!'
‘I came up that path,' said Glass, nodding towards the French windows. He drew a notebook from his pocket, and the stub of a pencil, and bent an official stare upon the butler. ‘Now, Mr Simmons, if you please!'
‘It's no use asking me: I don't know anything about it, I tell you!'
‘You know when you last saw Mr Fletcher alive,' said Glass, unmoved by the butler's evident agitation.
‘It would have been when I showed Mr Budd in,' replied Simmons, after a moment's hesitation.
‘I don't know not for certain, that is. It was about an hour ago.' He made an effort to collect his wits, and added: ‘About nine o'clock. I was clearing the table in the dining-room, so it couldn't have been much later.'
Glass said, without raising his eyes from his notebook: ‘This Mr Budd: known to you?'
‘No. I never saw him before in my life not to my knowledge.'
‘Oh! When did he leave?'
‘I don't know. I didn't know he had left till I came in just now. He must have gone by the garden-way, same as you came in, Mr Glass.'
‘Was that usual?'
‘It was and it wasn't,' replied Simmons, ‘if you know what I mean, Mr Glass.'
‘No,' said Glass uncompromisingly.
‘The master had friends who used to visit him that way.' Simmons heaved a sigh. ‘Women, Mr Glass.'
‘Thine habitation,' said Glass, with a condemnatory glance round the comfortable room, ‘is in the midst of deceit.'
‘That's true, Mr Glass. The times I've wrestled in prayer '
The opening of the door interrupted him. Neither he nor Glass had heard footsteps approaching the study, and neither had time to prevent the entrance into the room of a willowy young man in an ill-fitting dinner-jacket suit, who paused on the threshold, blinked long-lashed eyelids at the sight of a policeman, and smiled deprecatingly.
‘Oh, sorry!' said the newcomer. ‘Fancy finding you here!'
His voice was low-pitched, and he spoke softly and rather quickly, so that it was difficult to catch what he said. A lock of lank dark hair fell over his brow; he wore a pleated shirt, and a deplorable tie, and looked, to PC Glass, like a poet.
His murmured exclamation puzzled Glass. He said suspiciously: ‘Fancy meeting me, eh? So you know me, do you, sir?'
‘Oh no!' said the young man. His fluttering glance went round the room and discovered the body of Ernest Fletcher. His hand left the door-knob; he walked forward to the desk, and turned rather pale. ‘I should shame my manhood if I were sick, shouldn't I? I wonder what one does now?' His gaze asked inspiration of Glass, of Simmons, and encountered only blank stares. It found the tray Simmons had brought into the room. ‘Yes, that's what one does,' he said, and went to the tray, and poured himself out a stiff, short drink of whisky-and-soda.
‘The master's nephew Mr Neville Fletcher,' said Simmons, answering the question in Glass's eye.
‘You're staying in this house, sir?'
‘Yes, but I don't like murders. So inartistic, don't you think? Besides, they don't happen.'
‘This has happened, sir,' said Glass, a little puzzled.
‘Yes, that's what upsets me. Murders only occur in other people's families. Not even in one's own circle. Ever noticed that? No, I suppose not. Nothing in one's experience one had thought it so wide! has taught one how to cope with such a bizarre situation.'
He ended on an uncertain laugh; it was plain that under his flippancy he was shaken. The butler looked at him curiously, and then at Glass, who, after staring at Neville Fletcher for a moment, licked his pencil-point, and asked: ‘When did you see Mr Fletcher last, if you please, sir?'
‘At dinner. In the dining-room, I mean. No, let us be exact; not the dining-room; the hall.'
‘Make up your mind, sir,' recommended Glass stolidly.
‘Yes, that's all right. After dinner he came here, and I wandered off to the billiard-room. We parted in the hall.'
‘At what hour would that have been, sir?'
Neville shook his head. ‘I don't know. After dinner. Do you know, Simmons?'
‘I couldn't say, sir, not precisely. The master was usually out of the dining-room by ten to nine.'
‘And after that you didn't see Mr Fletcher again?'
‘No. Not till now. Anything you'd like to know, or can I withdraw?'
‘It'll save time, sir, if you'll give an account of your movements between the time you and the deceased left the dining-room, and 10.05 p.m.'
‘Well, I went to the billiard-room, and knocked the balls about a bit.'
‘Yes, but my aunt came to find me, so I left.'
‘Miss Fletcher,' interpolated the butler. ‘The master's sister, Mr Glass.'
‘You left the billiard-room with your aunt, sir? Did you remain with her?'
‘No. Which all goes to show that politeness always pays. I silently faded away, and now I'm sorry, because if I'd accompanied her to the drawing-room I should have had an alibi, which I haven't got. I went upstairs to my own room, and read a book. I wonder if I can have fallen asleep over it?' He looked doubtfully towards his uncle's chair, and gave a faint shudder. ‘No, my God, I couldn't dream anything like this! It's fantastic.'
‘If you'll excuse me, Mr Glass, I fancy that was the front-door bell,' interrupted Simmons, moving towards the door.
A few moments later a police-sergeant, with several satellites, was ushered into the study, and in the hall outside the voice of Miss Fletcher, urgently desiring to be told the meaning of this invasion, was upraised in some agitation. Neville slid out of the study, and took his aunt by the arm. ‘I'll tell you. Come into the drawing-room.'
‘But who are all those men?' demanded Miss Fletcher. ‘They looked to me exactly like policemen!'
‘Well they are,' said Neville. ‘Most of them, anyway. Look here, Aunt Lucy '
‘We've been burgled!'
‘No ' He stopped. ‘I don't know. Yes, perhaps that was it. Sorry, aunt, but it's worse than that. Ernie has met with an accident.'
He stumbled a little over the words, looking anxiously at his aunt.
‘Try not to mumble so, Neville dear. What did you say?'
‘I said an accident, but I didn't mean it. Ernie's dead.'
‘Dead? Ernie?' faltered Miss Fletcher. ‘Oh no! You can't mean that! How could he be dead? Neville, you know I don't like that sort of joke. It isn't kind, dear, to say nothing of its being in very questionable taste.'
‘It isn't a joke.'
She gave a gasp. ‘Not? Oh, Neville! Oh, let me go to him at once!'
‘No use. Besides, you mustn't. Terribly sorry, but there it is. I'm a trifle knocked-up myself.'
‘Neville, you're keeping something back!'
‘Yes. He's been murdered.'
Her pale, rather prominent blue eyes stared at him. She opened her mouth, but no words passed her lips. Neville, acutely uncomfortable, made a vague gesture with his hands. ‘Can I do anything? I should like to, only I don't know what. Do you feel faint? Yes, I know I'm being incompetent, but this isn't civilised, any of it. One has lost one's balance.'
She said: ‘Ernie murdered? I don't believe it!'
‘Oh, don't be silly,' he said, betraying ragged nerves. ‘A man doesn't bash his own skull in.'
She gave a whimper, and groped her way to the nearest chair, and sank into it. Neville lit a cigarette with a hand that trembled, and said: ‘Sorry, but you had to know sooner or later.'
She seemed to be trying to collect her wits. After a pause she exclaimed: ‘But who would want to murder dear Ernie?'
‘There has been some dreadful mistake! Oh, Ernie, Ernie!'
She burst into tears. Neville, attempting no consolation, sat down in a large armchair opposite to her, and smoked.
Meanwhile, in the study, PC Glass was making his painstaking report to his superior. The doctor had gone; the cameramen had taken their photographs; and the body of Ernest Fletcher had been removed.
‘I was on my beat, Sergeant, walking along Vale Avenue, the time being 10.02 p.m. When I came to the corner of Maple Grove, which, as you know, sir, is the lane running between Vale Avenue and the Arden Road, at the back of the house, my attention was attracted by a man coming out of the side gate of this house in what seemed to me a suspicious manner. He set off, walking very fast, towards the Arden Road.'
‘Would you know him again?'
‘No, Sergeant. It was nearly dark, and I never saw his face. He had turned the corner into Arden Road before I had time to do more than wonder what he was up to.' He hesitated, frowning a little. ‘As near as I could make out, he was a man of average height, wearing a light-coloured soft hat. I don't know what gave me the idea there was something wrong about his coming out of Mr Fletcher's garden-gate, unless it was the hurry he seemed to be in. The Lord led my footsteps.'
‘Yes, never mind about that!' said the Sergeant hastily. ‘What did you do then?'
‘I called out to him to stop, but he paid no heed, and the next instant had rounded the corner into the Arden Road. That circumstance led me to inspect these premises. I found the garden-gate standing open, and, seeing the light from this window, I came up the path with the intention of discovering whether anything was wrong. I saw the deceased, like you found him, Sergeant. The time, as verified by my watch and the clock there, was 10.05 p.m. My first action was to ascertain that Mr Fletcher was dead. Having assured myself that he was past mortal help, I effected a search of the room, and made sure no one was hiding in the bushes in the garden. I then called up the station on the telephone, the time being 10.10 p.m. While I was waiting to be connected, the butler, Joseph Simmons, entered the room, bearing the tray you see upon that table. I detained him, for interrogation. He states that at about 9 p.m. a person of the name of Abraham Budd came to see the deceased. He ushered same into this room. He states that he does not know when Abraham Budd left the house.'
‘I hadn't got to that, sir. Mr Neville Fletcher came in at that moment. He states that he saw the deceased last at about 8.50 p.m., when they left the dining-room together.'
‘All right; we'll see him in a minute. Anything else?'
‘Nothing that I saw,' replied Glass, after a moment's scrupulous thought.
‘We'll look around. Looks like an open-and-shut case against this man you saw making off. Friend Abraham Budd, eh?'
‘Not to my way of thinking, Sergeant,' said Glass.
The Sergeant stared. ‘Oh, it isn't, isn't it? Why not? The Lord been guiding you again?'
A flash of anger brought Glass's cold eyes to life. ‘The scorner is an abomination to men!' he said.
‘That's enough!' said the Sergeant. ‘You remember you're speaking to your superior officer, if you please, my lad!'
‘A scorner,' pursued Glass inexorably, ‘loveth not one that reproveth him: neither will he go unto the wise. The man Budd came openly to the front door, making no secret of his name.'
The Sergeant grunted. ‘It's a point, I grant you. May not have been a premeditated murder, though. Fetch the butler in.'
‘Joseph Simmons is well known to me for a godly member,' said Glass, on his way to the door.
‘All right, all right! Fetch him!'
The butler was discovered in the hall, still looking rather pale. When he entered the study he cast a nervous look towards the desk, and drew an audible sigh of relief when he saw the chair behind it unoccupied.
‘Your name?' asked the Sergeant briskly.
‘Joseph Simmons, Sergeant.'
‘I am I was employed as Mr Fletcher's butler.'
‘How long have you been with him?'
‘Six-and-a-half years, Sergeant.'
‘And you state,' pursued the Sergeant, consulting Glass's notes, ‘That you last saw your master alive at about 9 p.m., when you showed a Mr Abraham Budd into this room. Is that correct?'
‘Yes, Sergeant. I have the person's card here,' said Simmons, holding out a piece of pasteboard.
The Sergeant took it, and read aloud: ‘Mr Abraham Budd, 333c Bishopsgate, EC. Well, we know where he's to be found, that's one thing. You state that he wasn't known to you, I see.'
‘I never laid eyes on the individual before in my life, Sergeant. He was not the type of person I have been in the habit of admitting to the house,' said Simmons haughtily.
Glass dispelled this pharisaical attitude with one devastating pronouncement. ‘Though the Lord be high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly,' he said in minatory accents, ‘but the proud he knoweth afar off.'
‘My soul is humbled in me,' apologised Simmons.
‘Never mind about your soul!' said the Sergeant impatiently. ‘And don't take any notice of Glass! You listen to me! Can you describe this Budd's appearance?'
‘Oh yes, Sergeant! A short, stout person in a suit which I should designate as on the loud side, and a bowler hat. I fancy he is of the Jewish persuasion.'
‘Short and stout!' said the Sergeant, disappointed. ‘Sounds to me like a tout. Did the deceased expect a visit from him?'
‘I hardly think so. Mr Budd stated that his business was urgent, and I was constrained to take his card to Mr Fletcher. My impression was that Mr Fletcher was considerably annoyed.'
‘Do you mean scared?'
‘Oh no, Sergeant! Mr Fletcher spoke of "damned impertinence", but after a moment he told me to show Mr Budd in, which I did.'
‘And that was at 9 p.m., or thereabouts? Did you hear any sounds of altercation?'
The butler hesitated. ‘I wouldn't say altercation, Sergeant. The master's voice was upraised once or twice, but I didn't hear what he said, me being in the dining-room, across the hall, until I withdrew to my pantry.'
‘You wouldn't say that a quarrel took place between them?'
‘No, Sergeant. Mr Budd did not strike me as a quarrelsome person. In fact, the reverse. I got the impression he was afraid of the master.'
‘Afraid of him, eh? Was Mr Fletcher a bad-tempered man?'
‘Dear me, no, Sergeant! A very pleasant-spoken gentleman, usually. It was very seldom I saw him put-out.'
‘But was he put-out tonight? By Mr Budd's call?'
The butler hesitated. ‘Before that, I fancy, Sergeant. I believe Mr Fletcher had a a slight difference with Mr Neville, just before dinner.'
‘Mr Neville? That's the nephew? Does he live here?'
‘No. Mr Neville arrived this afternoon to stay with his uncle for a few days, I understand.'
‘Was he expected?'
‘If he was, I was not apprised of it. I should mention, in fairness to Mr Neville, that he is if I may say so a somewhat eccentric young gentleman. It is by no means an unusual occurrence for him to arrive here without warning.'
‘And this difference with his uncle: was that usual?'
‘I should not like to give a false impression, Sergeant: there wasn't any quarrel, if you understand me. All I know is that when I took sherry and cocktails to the drawing-room before dinner it seemed to me that I had interrupted an altercation. The master looked to be distinctly annoyed, which was a rare thing, in my experience, and I did hear him say, just as I came in, that he wanted to hear no more about it, and Mr Neville could go to hell.'
‘Oh! And what about Mr Neville? Was he annoyed?'
‘I shouldn't like to say, Sergeant. Mr Neville is a peculiar young gentleman, not given to showing what he feels, if he feels anything, which I sometimes doubt.'
‘Well I do, frequently,' said Neville, who had come into the room in time to hear this remark.
The Sergeant, unaccustomed to young Mr Fletcher's noiseless way of entering rooms, was momentarily startled. Neville smiled in his deprecating fashion, and said softly: ‘Good-evening. Isn't it shocking? I do hope you've arrived at something? My aunt would like to see you before you go. Do you know who killed my uncle?'
‘It's early days to ask me that, sir,' replied the Sergeant guardedly.
‘Your words hint at a prolonged period of suspense, which I find peculiarly depressing.'
‘Very unpleasant for all concerned, sir,' agreed the Sergeant. He turned to Simmons. ‘That'll be all for the present,' he said.
Simmons withdrew, and the Sergeant, who had been eyeing Neville with a good deal of curiosity, invited him to sit down. Neville obligingly complied with this request, choosing a deep armchair by the fireplace. The Sergeant said politely: ‘I'm hoping you may be able to help me, sir. I take it you were pretty intimate with the deceased?'
‘Oh no!' said Neville, shocked. ‘I shouldn't have liked that at all.'
‘No, sir? Am I to understand you were not on good terms with Mr Fletcher?'
‘But I was. I'm on good terms with everyone. Only I'm not intimate.'
‘Well, but, what I mean, sir, is '
‘Yes, yes, I know what you mean. Did I know the secrets of my uncle's life? No, Sergeant: I hate secrets, and other people's troubles.'
He said this with an air of sweet affability. The Sergeant was a little taken aback, but rallied, and said: ‘At all events, you knew him fairly well, sir?'
‘We won't argue the point,' murmured Neville.
‘Do you know if he had any enemies?'
‘Well, obviously he had, hadn't he?'
‘Yes, sir, but what I'm trying to establish '
‘I know, but you see I'm just as much at a loss as you are. You weren't acquainted with my uncle?'
‘I can't say as I was, sir.'
Neville blew one smoke ring through another, and watched it dreamily. ‘Everybody called him Ernie,' he sighed. ‘Or Ernie dear, according to sex. You see?'
The Sergeant stared for a moment, and then said slowly: ‘I think I get you, sir. I've always heard him well spoken of, I'm bound to say. I take it you don't know of any person with a grudge against him?'
Neville shook his head. The Sergeant looked at him rather discontentedly, and consulted Glass's notebook. ‘I see you state that after you left the dining-room you went into the billiard-room, where you remained until Miss Fletcher came to find you. At what hour would that have been?'
Neville smiled apologetically.
‘You don't know, sir? No idea at all? Try and think!'
‘Alas, time has hitherto meant practically nothing to me. Does it help if I say that my aunt mentioned that a most peculiar visitor was with my uncle? A fat little man, who carried his hat in his hand. She had seen him in the hall.'
‘Did you see this man?' asked the Sergeant quickly.
‘You don't know whether he was still with your uncle when you went up to your room?'
‘Sergeant, Sergeant, do you think I listen at keyholes?'
‘Of course not, sir, but '
‘At least, not when I'm wholly incurious,' explained Neville, temporising.
‘Well, sir, we'll say that some time between 9.00 and 10.00 you went up to your room.'
‘At half-past nine,' said Neville.
‘At A moment ago, sir, you said you had no idea what time it was!'
‘Oh, I hadn't, but I remember now one solitary cuckoo.'
The Sergeant shot a startled look towards Glass, standing motionless and disapproving by the door. A suspicion that the eccentric Neville Fletcher was of unsound mind had darted into his brain. ‘What might you mean by that, sir?'
‘Only the clock on the landing,' said Neville.
‘A cuckoo-clock! Well, really, sir, for a moment I thought And it struck the half-hour?'
‘Yes, but it's quite often wrong.'
‘We'll go into that presently. Which way does your room face, sir?'
‘It's at the back of the house, then? Would it be possible for you to hear anyone coming up the side path?'
‘I don't know. I didn't hear anyone, but I wasn't trying to.'
‘Quite,' said the Sergeant. ‘Well, I think that'll be all for the present, thank you, sir. Of course, you understand that you will not be able to leave this house for a day or two? Just a matter of routine, you know. We'll hope it won't be long before we get the whole thing cleared up.'
‘Yes, let's,' agreed Neville. His gaze dwelt speculatively on a picture on the wall opposite the fireplace. ‘It wouldn't be robbery, would it?'
‘Hardly, sir, but of course we can't say definitely yet. It isn't likely a burglar would come when Mr Fletcher was still up, not to mention the rest of the household.'
‘No. Only the safe is behind that picture just in case you didn't know.'
‘Yes, sir, so the butler informed me. We've been over it for finger-prints, and as soon as we can get Mr Fletcher's lawyer down we'll have it opened. Yes, Hepworth? Found anything?'
The last words were addressed to a constable who had stepped into the room through the window.
‘Not much, Sergeant, but I'd like you to have a look at one thing.'
The Sergeant went at once; Neville uncoiled himself, got up, and wandered out of the room in his wake. ‘Don't mind me coming, do you?' he murmured, as the Sergeant turned his head.
‘I don't see as there's any objection, sir. The fact is, a man was seen sneaking out by the side gate just after 10 p.m., and unless I'm mistaken he's the chap we're after.'
‘A a fat man?' suggested Neville, blinking.
‘Ah, that would be too easy, wouldn't it, sir?' said the Sergeant indulgently. ‘No, just an ordinary looking chap in a soft hat. Well, Hepworth, what is it?'
The constable had led the way to the back of a flowering currant bush, which was planted in a bed close to the house. He directed the beam of his torch on to the ground. In the soft earth were the deep imprints of a pair of high-heeled shoes.
‘They're freshly made, Sergeant,' said Hepworth. ‘Someone's been hiding behind this bush.'
‘The Women in the Case!' said Neville. ‘Aren't we having fun?'