I shall not pretend that I knew the man in America or that he was a friend of my family or that some one had written to me about him. The plain truth is that I never laid eyes on him until Sir Henry Marquis pointed him out to me the day after I went down from here to London. It was in Piccadilly Circus.
"There's your American," said Sir Henry.
The girl paused for a few moments. There was profound silence.
"And that isn't all of it. Nobody presented him to me. I deliberately picked him up!"
Three persons were in the drawing-room. An old woman with high cheekbones, a bowed nose and a firm, thin-lipped mouth was the central figure. She sat very straight in her chair, her head up and her hands in her lap. An aged man, in the khaki uniform of a major of yeomanry, stood at a window looking out, his hands behind his back, his chin lifted as though he were endeavoring to see something far away over the English country - something beyond the little groups of Highland cattle and the great oak trees.
Beside the old woman, on a dark wood frame, there was a fire screen made of the pennant of a Highland regiment. Beyond her was a table with a glass top. Under this cover, in a sort of drawer lined with purple velvet, there were medals, trophies and decorations visible below the sheet of glass. And on the table, in a heavy metal frame, was the portrait of a young man in the uniform of a captain of Highland infantry.
The girl who had been speaking sat in a big armchair by this table. One knew instantly that she was an American. The liberty of manner, the independence of expression, could not be mistaken in a country of established forms. She had abundant brown hair skillfully arranged under a smart French hat. Her eyes were blue; not the blue of any painted color; it was the blue of remote spaces in the tropic sky.
The old woman spoke without looking at the girl.
"Then," she said, "it's all quite as" - she hesitated for a word - "extraordinary as we have been led to believe."
There was the slow accent of Southern blood in the girl's voice as she went on.
"Lady Mary," she said, "it's all far more extraordinary than you have been led to believe - than any one could ever have led you to believe. I deliberately picked the man up. I waited for him outside the Savoy, and pretended to be uncertain about an address. He volunteered to take me in his motor and I went with him. I told him I was alone in London, at the Ritz. It was Blackwell's bank I pretended to be looking for. Then we had tea."
The girl paused.
Presently she continued: "That's how it began: You're mistaken to imagine that Sir Henry Marquis presented me to this American. It was the other way about; I presented Sir Henry. I had the run of the Ritz," she went on. "We all do if we scatter money. Sir Henry came in to tea the next afternoon. That's how he met Mr. Meadows. And that's the only place he ever did meet him. Mr. Meadows came every day, and Sir Henry formed the habit of dropping in. We got to be a very friendly party."
The motionless old woman, a figure in plaster until now, kneaded her fingers as under some moving pressure. "At this time," she said, "you were engaged to Tony and expected to be his wife!"
The girl's voice did not change. It was slow and even. "Yes," she said.
"Tony, of course, knew nothing about this?"
"He knows nothing whatever about it unless you have written him."
Again the old woman moved slightly. "I have waited," she said, "for the benefit of your explanation. It seems as - as bad as I feared."
"Lady Mary," said the girl in her slow voice, "it's worse than you feared. I don't undertake to smooth it over. Everything that you have heard is quite true. I did go out with the man in his motor, in the evening. Sometimes it was quite dark before we returned. Mr. Meadows preferred to drive at night because he was not accustomed to the English rule of taking the left on the road, when one always takes the right in America. He was afraid he couldn't remember the rule, so it was safer at night and there was less traffic.
"I shall not try to make the thing appear better than it was. We sometimes took long runs. Mr. Meadows liked the high roads along the east coast, where one got a view of the sea and the cold salt air. We ran prodigious distances. He had the finest motor in England, the very latest American model. I didn't think so much about night coming on, the lights on the car were so wonderful. Mr. Meadows was an amazing driver. We made express-train time. The roads were usually clear at night and the motor was a perfect wonder. The only trouble we ever had was with the lights. Sometimes one, of them would go out. I think it was bad wiring. But there was always the sweep of the sea under the stars to look at while Mr. Meadows got the thing adjusted."
This long, detailed, shameless speech affected the aged soldier at the window. It seemed to him immodest bravado. And he suffered in his heart, as a man old and full of memories can suffer for the damaged honor of a son he loves.
Continuing, the girl said: "Of course it isn't true that we spent the nights touring the east coast of England in a racer. It was dark sometimes when we got in - occasionally after trouble with the lights - quite dark. We did go thundering distances."
"With this person, alone?" The old woman spoke slowly, like one delicately probing at a wound.
"Yes," the girl admitted. "You see, the car was a roadster; only two could go; and, besides, there was no one else. Mr. Meadows said he was alone in London, and of course I was alone. When Sir Henry asked me to go down from here I went straight off to the Ritz."
The old woman made a slight, shivering gesture. "You should have gone to my sister in Grosvenor Square. Monte would have put you up - and looked after you."
"The Ritz put me up very well," the girl continued. "And I am accustomed to looking after myself. Sir Henry thought it was quite all right."
The old woman spoke suddenly with energy and directness. "I don't understand Henry in the least," she said. "I was quite willing for you to go to London when he asked me for permission. But I thought he would take you to Monte's, and certainly I had the right to believe that he would not have lent himself to - to this escapade."
"He seemed to be very nice about it," the girl went on. "He came in to tea with us - Mr. Meadows and me - almost every evening. And he always had something amusing to relate, some blunder of Scotland Yard or some ripping mystery. I think he found it immense fun to be Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department. I loved the talk: Mr. Meadows was always interested and Sir Henry likes people to be interested."
The old woman continued to regard the girl as one hesitatingly touches an exquisite creature frightfully mangled.
"This person - was he a gentleman?" she inquired. The girl answered immediately. "I thought about that a good deal," she said. "He had perfect manners, quite Continental manners; but, as you say over here, Americans are so imitative one never can tell. He was not young - near fifty, I would say; very well dressed. He was from St. Paul; a London agent for some flouring mills in the Northwest. I don't know precisely. He explained it all to Sir Henry. I think he would have been glad of a little influence - some way to meet the purchasing agents for the government. He seemed to have the American notion that he could come to London and go ahead without knowing anybody. Anyway, he was immensely interesting - and he had a ripping motor."
The old man at the window did not move. He remained looking out over the English country with his big, veined hands clasped behind his back. He had left this interview to Lady Mary, as he had left most of the crucial affairs of life to her dominant nature. But the thing touched him far deeper than it touched the aged dowager. He had a man's faith in the fidelity of a loved woman.
He knew how his son, somewhere in France, trusted this girl, believed in her, as long ago in a like youth he had believed in another. He knew also how the charm of the girl was in the young soldier's blood, and how potent were these inscrutable mysteries. Every man who loved a woman wished to believe that she came to him out of the garden of a convent - out of a roc's egg, like the princess in the Arabian story.
All these things he had experienced in himself, in a shattered romance, in a disillusioned youth, when he was young like the lad somewhere in France. Lady Mary would see only broken conventions; but he saw immortal things, infinitely beyond conventions, awfully broken. He did not move. He remained like a painted picture.
The girl went on in her soft, slow voice. "You would have disliked Mr. Meadows, Lady Mary," she said. "You would dislike any American who came without letters and could not be precisely placed." The girl's voice grew suddenly firmer. "I don't mean to make it appear better," she said. "The worst would be nearer the truth. He was just an unknown American bagman, with a motor car, and a lot of time on his hands - and I picked him up. But Sir Henry Marquis took a fancy to him."
"I cannot understand Henry," the old woman repeated. "It's extraordinary."
"It doesn't seem extraordinary to me," said the girl. "Mr. Meadows was immensely clever, and Sir Henry was like a man with a new toy. The Home Secretary had just put him in as Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department. He was full of a lot of new ideas - dactyloscopic bureaus, photographie mitrique, and scientific methods of crime detection. He talked about it all the time. I didn't understand half the talk. But Mr. Meadows was very clever. Sir Henry said he was a charming person. Anybody who could discuss the whorls of the Galton finger-print tests was just then a charming person to Sir Henry."
The girl paused a moment, then she went on
"I suppose things had gone so for about a fortnight when your sister, Lady Monteith, wrote that she had seen Sir Henry with us - Mr. Meadows and me - in the motor. I have to shatter a pleasant fancy about that chaperonage! That was the only time Sir Henry was ever with us.
"It came about like this: It was Thursday morning about nine o'clock, I think, when Sir Henry, popped in at the Ritz. He was full of some amazing mystery that had turned up at Benton Court, a country house belonging to the Duke of Dorset, up the Thames beyond Richmond. He wanted to go there at once. He was fuming because an under secretary had his motor, and he couldn't catch up with him.
"I told him he could have `our' motor. He laughed. And I telephoned Mr. Meadows to come over and take him up. Sir Henry asked me to go along. So that's how Lady Monteith happened to see the three of us crowded into the seat of the big roadster."
The girl went on in her deliberate, even voice
"Sir Henry was boiling full of the mystery. He got us all excited by the time we arrived at Benton Court. I think Mr. Meadows was as keen about the thing as Sir Henry. They were both immensely worked up. It was an amazing thing!"
"You see, Benton Court is a little house of the Georgian period. It has been closed up for ages, and now, all at once, the most mysterious things began to happen in it
"A local inspector, a very reliable man named Millson, passing that way on his bicycle, saw a man lying on the doorstep. He also saw some one running away. It was early in the morning, just before daybreak.
"Millson saw only the man's back, but he could distinguish the color of his clothes. He was wearing a blue coat and reddish-brown trousers. Millson said he could hardly make out the blue coat in the darkness, but he could distinctly see the reddish brown color of the man's trousers. He was very positive about this. Mr. Meadows and Sir Henry pressed him pretty hard, but he was firm about it. He could make out that the coat was blue, and he could see very distinctly that the trousers were reddish-brown.
"But the extraordinary thing came a little later. Millson hurried to a telephone to get Scotland Yard, then he returned to Benton Court; but when he got back the dead man had disappeared.
"He insists that he was not away beyond five minutes, but within that time the dead man had vanished. Millson could find no trace of him. That's the mystery that sent us tearing up there with Mr. Meadows and Sir Henry transformed into eager sleuths.
"We found the approaches to the house under a patrol from Scotland Yard. But nobody had gone in. The inspector was waiting for Sir Henry."
The old man stood like an image, and the aged woman sat in her chair like a figure in basalt.
But the girl ran on with a sort of eager unconcern: "Sir Henry and Mr. Meadows kook the whole thing in charge. The door had been broken open. They examined the marks about the fractures very carefully; then they went inside. There were some naked footprints. They were small, as of a little, cramped foot, and they seemed to be tracked in blood on the hard oak floor. There was a wax candle partly burned on the table. And that's all there was.
"There were some tracks in the dust of the floor, but they were not very clearly outlined, and Sir Henry thought nothing could be made of them.
"It was awfully exciting. I went about behind the two men. Sir Henry talked all the time. Mr. Meadows was quite as much interested, but he didn't say anything. He seemed to say less as the thing went on.
"They went over everything - the ground outside and every inch of the house. Then they put everybody out and sat down by a table in the room where the footprints were.
"Sir Henry had been awfully careful. He had a big lens with which to examine the marks of the bloody footprints. He was like a man on the trail of a buried treasure. He shouted over everything, thrust his glass into Mr. Meadows' hand and bade him verify what he had seen. His ardor was infectious. I caught it myself.
"Mr. Meadows, in his quiet manner, was just as much concerned in unraveling the thing as Sir Henry. I never had so wild a time in all my life. Finally, when Sir Henry put everybody else out and closed the door, and the three of us sat down at the table to try to untangle the thing, I very nearly screamed with excitement. Mr. Meadows sat with his arms folded, not saying a word; but Sir Henry went ahead with his explanation."
The girl looked like a vivid portrait, the soft colors of her gown and all the cool, vivid extravagancies of youth distinguished in her. Her words indicated fervor and excited energy; but they were not evidenced in her face or manner. She was cool and lovely. One would have thought that she recounted the inanities of a curate's tea party.
The aged man, in the khaki uniform of a major of yeomanry, remained in his position at the window. The old woman sat with her implacable face, unchanging like a thing insensible and inorganic.
This unsympathetic aspect about the girl did not seem to disturb her. She went on:
"The thing was thrilling. It was better than any theater - the three of us at the old mahogany table in the room, and the Scotland Yard patrol outside.
"Sir Henry was bubbling over with his theory. `I read this riddle like a printed page,' he said. `It will be the work of a little band of expert cracksmen that the Continent has kindly sent us. We have had some samples of their work in Brompton Road. They are professional crooks of a high order - very clever at breaking in a door, and, like all the criminal groups that we get without an invitation from over the Channel, these crooks have absolutely no regard for human life.'
"That's the way Sir Henry led off with his explanation. Of course he had all that Scotland Yard knew about criminal groups to start him right. It was a good deal to have the identity of the criminal agents selected out; but I didn't see how he was going to manage to explain the mystery from the evidence. I was wild to hear him. Mr. Meadows was quite as interested, I thought, although he didn't say a word.
"Sir Henry nodded, as though he took the American's confirmation as a thing that followed. `We are at the scene,' he said, `of one of the most treacherous acts of all criminal drama. I mean the "doing in," as our criminals call it, of the unprofessional accomplice. It's a regulation piece of business with the hard-and-fast criminal organizations of the Continent, like the Nervi of Marseilles, or the Lecca of Paris.
"`They take in a house servant, a shopkeeper's watchman, or a bank guard to help them in some big haul. Then they lure him into some abandoned house, under a pretense of dividing up the booty, and there put him out of the way. That's what's happened here. It's a common plan with these criminal groups, and clever of them. The picked-up accomplice would be sure to let the thing out. For safety the professionals must "do him in" at once, straight away after the big job, as a part of what the barrister chaps call the res gestae.'
"Sir Henry went on nodding at us and drumming the palm of his hand on the edge of the table.
"`This thing happens all the time,' he said, `all about, where professional criminals are at work. It accounts for a lot of mysteries that the police cannot make head or tail of, like this one, for example. Without our knowledge of this sinister custom, one could not begin or end with an affair like this.
"`But it's simple when one has the cue - it's immensely simple. We know exactly what happened and the sort of crooks that were about the business. The barefoot prints show the Continental group. That's the trick of Southern Europe to go in barefoot behind a man to kill him.'
"Sir Henry jarred the whole table with his big hand. The surface of the table was covered with powdered chalk that the baronet had dusted over it in the hope of developing criminal finger prints. Now under the drumming of his palm the particles of white dust whirled like microscopic elfin dancers.
"`The thing's clear as daylight,' he went on: `One of the professional group brought the accomplice down here to divide the booty. He broke the door in. They sat down here at this table with the lighted candle as you see it. And while the stuff was being sorted out, another of the band slipped in behind the man and killed him.
"`They started to carry the body out. Millson chanced by. They got in a funk and rushed the thing. Of course they had a motor down the road, and equally of course it was no trick to whisk the body out of the neighborhood.'
"Sir Henry got half up on his feet with his energy in the solution of the thing. He thrust his spread-out fingers down. on the table like a man, by that gesture, pressing in an inevitable, conclusive summing up."
The girl paused. "It was splendid, I thought. I applauded like an entranced pit!
"But Mr. Meadows didn't say a word. He took up the big glass we had used about the inspection of the place, and passed it over the prints Sir Henry was unconsciously making in the dust on the polished surface of the table. Then he put the glass down and looked the excited baronet calmly in the face.
"`There,' cried Sir Henry, `the thing's no mystery.'
"For the first time Mr. Meadows opened his mouth. `It's the profoundest mystery I ever heard of,' he said.
"Sir Henry was astonished. He sat down and looked across the table at the man. He wasn't able to speak for a moment, then he got it out: `Why exactly do you say that?'
"Mr. Meadows put his elbows on the table. He twiddled the big reading glass in his fingers. His face got firm and decided.
"`To begin with,' he said, `the door to this house was never broken by a professional cracksman. It's the work of a bungling amateur. A professional never undertakes to break a door at the lock. Naturally that's the firmest place about a door. The implement he intends to use as a lever on the door he puts in at the top or bottom. By that means he has half of the door as a lever against the resistance of the lock. Besides, a professional of any criminal group is a skilled workman. He doesn't waste effort. He doesn't fracture a door around the lock. This door's all mangled, splintered and broken around the lock.'"
"He stopped and looked about the room, and out through the window at the Scotland Yard patrol. The features of his face were contracted with the problem. One could imagine one saw the man's mind laboring at the mystery. `And that's not all,' he said. `Your man Millson is not telling the truth. He didn't see a dead body lying on the steps of this house; and he didn't see a man running away.'
"Sir Henry broke in at that. `Impossible,' he said; 'Millson's a first-class inspector, absolutely reliable. Why do you say that he didn't see the dead man on the steps or the assassin running away?'
"Mr. Meadows answered in the same even voice. `Because there was never any dead man here,' he said, `for anybody to see. And because Millson's 'description of the man he saw is scientifically an impossible feat of vision.'
"Impossible?' cried Sir Henry.
"`Quite impossible,' Mr. Meadows insisted. 'Millson tells us that the man he saw running away in the night wore a blue coat and reddish-brown trousers. He says he was barely able to distinguish the blue coat, but that he could see the reddish-brown trousers very clearly. Now, as a matter of fact, it has been very accurately determined that red is the hardest color to distinguish at night, and blue the very easiest. A blue coat would be clearly visible long after reddish-brown trousers had become indistinguishable in the darkness.'
"Sir Henry's under jaw sagged a little. `Why, yes,' he said, `that's true; that's precisely true. Gross, at the University of Gratz, determined that by experiment in 1912. I never thought about it!'
"`There are some other things here that you have not, perhaps, precisely thought about,' Mr. Meadows went on.
"`For example, the things that happened in this room did not happen in the night. They happened in the day.'
"He pointed to the half-burned wax candle on the table. `There's a headless joiner's nail driven into the table,' he said, `and this candle is set down over the nail. That means that the person who placed it there wished it to remain there - to remain there firmly. He didn't put it down there for the brief requirements of a passing tragedy, he put it there to remain; that's one thing.
"`Another thing is that this candle thus firmly fastened on the table was never alight there. If it had ever been burning in its position on the table, some of the drops of melted wax would have fallen about it.
"`You will observe that, while the candle is firmly fixed, it does not set straight; it is inclined at least ten degrees out of perpendicular. In that position it couldn't have burned for a moment without dripping melted wax on the table. And there's none on the table; there has never been any on it. Your glass shows not the slightest evidence of a wax stain.' He added: `Therefore the candle is a blind; false evidence to give us the impression of a night affair.'
"Sir Henry's jaw sagged; now his mouth gaped. `True,' he said. `True, true.' He seemed to get some relief to his damaged deductions out of the repeated word.
"The irony in Mr. Meadows' voice increased a little. `Nor is that all,' he said. `The smear on the floor, and the stains in which the naked foot tracked, are not human blood. They're not any sort of blood. It was clearly evident when you had your lens over them. They show no coagulated fiber. They show only the evidences of dye - weak dye - watered red ink, I'd say.'
"I thought Sir Henry was going to crumple up in his chair. He seemed to get loose and baggy in some extraordinary fashion, and his gaping jaw worked. `But the footprints,' he said, `the naked footprints?' His voice was a sort of stutter-the sort of shaken stutter of a man who has come a' tumbling cropper.
"The American actually laughed: he laughed as we sometimes laugh at a mental defective.
"`They're not footprints!' he said. `Nobody ever had a foot cambered like that, or with a heel like it, or with toes like it. Somebody made those prints with his hand - the edge of his palm for the heel and the balls of his fingers for the toes. The wide, unstained distances between these heelprints and the prints of the ball of the toes show the impossible arch.'
"Sir Henry was like a man gone to pieces. `But who - who made them?' he faltered.
"The American leaned forward and put the big glass over the prints that Sir Henry had made with his fingers in the white dust on the mahogany table. `I think you know the answer to your question,' he said. `The whorls of these prints are identical with those of the toe tracks.'
"Then he laid the glass carefully down, sat back in his chair, folded his arms and looked at Sir Henry.
"`Now,' he said, `will you kindly tell me why you have gone to the trouble of manufacturing all these false evidences of a crime?"'
The girl paused. There was intense silence in the drawing-room. The aged man at the window had turned and was looking at her. The face of the old woman seemed vague and uncertain.
The girl smiled.
"Then," she said, "the real, amazing miracle happened. Sir Henry got on his feet, his big body tense, his face like iron, his voice ringing.
"`I went to that trouble,' he said, `because I wished to demonstrate - I wished to demonstrate beyond the possibility of any error - that Mr. Arthur Meadows, the pretended American from St. Paul, was in fact the celebrated criminologist, Karl Holweg Leibnich, of Bonn, giving us the favor of his learned presence while he signaled the German submarines off the east coast roads with his high-powered motor lights.'"
Now there was utter silence in the drawing-room but for the low of the Highland cattle and the singing of the birds outside
For the first time there came a little tremor in the girl's voice.
"When Sir Henry doubted this American and asked me to go down and make sure before he set a trap for him, I thought - I thought, if Tony could risk his life for England, I could do that much."
At this moment a maid appeared in the doorway, the trim, immaculate, typical English maid. "Tea is served, my lady," she said.
The tall, fine old man crossed the room and offered his arm to the girl with the exquisite, gracious manner with which once upon a time he had offered it to a girlish queen at Windsor.
The ancient woman rose as if she would go out before them. Then suddenly, at the door, she stepped aside for the girl to pass, making the long, stooping, backward curtsy of the passed Victorian era.
"After you, my dear," she said, "always!"