When I had entered the little sitting room and shut the door, I turned to Barbara, awaiting with some curiosity what she had to say to me. But for a while she said nothing, standing before me silently, and looking at me with a most disquieting expression. All her calm self-possession had gone. I could read nothing in her face but alarm and dismay.
"It is dreadful, Rupert!" she exclaimed, at length, in a half-whisper. "It is like some awful dream! What can it all mean? I don't dare to ask myself the question."
I shook my head, for I was in precisely the same condition. I did not dare to weigh the meaning of the things that I had seen and heard.
Suddenly, the stony fixity of her face relaxed and with a little smothered cry she flung her arm around my neck and buried her face on my shoulder.
"Forgive me, Rupert, dearest, kindest friend," she sobbed. "Suffer a poor lonely woman for a few moments. I have only you, dear, faithful one; only your strength and steadfastness to lean upon. Before the others I must needs be calm and brave, must cloak my own fears to support their flagging courage But it is hard, Rupert; for they see what we see and dare not put it into words. And the mystery, Rupert, the horrible shadow that is over us all! In God's name, what can it all mean?
"That is what I ask myself, Barbara, and dare not answer my own question."
She uttered a low moan and clung closer to me, sobbing quietly. I was deeply moved, for I realized the splendid courage that enabled her to go about this house of horror, calm and unafraid; to bear the burden of her companions' weakness as well as her own grief and humiliation. But I could find nothing to say to her. I could only offer her a silent sympathy, holding her head on my shoulder and softly stroking her hair while I wondered dimly what the end of it all would be.
Presently she stood up, and, taking out her handkerchief, wiped her eyes resolutely and finally.
"Thank you, dear Rupert," she said, "for being so patient with me. I felt that I had come to the end of my endurance and had to rest my burden on you. It was a great relief. But I didn't bring you up here for that. I wanted to consult you about what has to be done. I can't look to poor Tony in his present state."
"What is it that has to be done?" I asked.
"There is the funeral. That has still to take place."
"Of course it has," I exclaimed, suddenly taken aback; for amidst all the turmoils and alarms, I had completely lost sight of this detail. "I suppose I had better call on the undertaker and make the necessary arrangements."
"If you would be so kind, Rupert, and if you can spare the time. You have given up the whole day to us already."
"I can manage," said I. "And as to the time of the funeral, I don't know whether it could be arranged for the evening. It gets dark pretty early"
"No, Rupert," she exclaimed, firmly. "Not in the evening. Certainly not. I will not have poor Harold's body smuggled away in the dark like the dishonoured corpse of some wretched suicide. The funeral shall take place at the proper time, if I go with it alone."
"Very well, Barbara. I will arrange for us to start at the time originally fixed. I only suggested the evening because—well, you know what to expect."
"Yes, only too well! But I refuse to let a crowd of gaping sight-seers intimidate me into treating my dead husband with craven disrespect."
"Perhaps you are right," said I with secret approval other decision, little as I relished the prospect that it opened. "Then I had better go and make the arrangements at once. It is getting late. But I am loath to leave you alone with Madeline and Wallingford."
"I think, perhaps, we shall be better alone for the present, and you have your own affairs to attend to. But you must have some food before you go. You have had nothing since the morning, and I expect a meal is ready by now."
"I don't think I will wait, Barbara," I replied. "This affair ought to be settled at once. I can get some food when I have dispatched the business."
She was reluctant to let me go. But I was suddenly conscious of a longing to escape from this house into the world of normal things and people; to be alone for a while with my own thoughts, and, above all, to take counsel with Thorndyke. On my way out I called in at the dining room to make my adieux to Madeline and Wallingford. The former looked at me, as she shook my hand, very wistfully and I thought a little reproachfully.
"I am sorry you have to go, Rupert," she said. "But you will try to come and see us tomorrow, won't you? And spend as much time here as you can."
I promised to come at some time on the morrow; and having exchanged a few words with Wallingford, took my departure, escorted to the street door by the two women.
The closing of the door, sounding softly in my ears, conveyed a sense of relief of which I felt ashamed. I drew a deep breath and stepped forward briskly with a feeling of emancipation that I condemned as selfish and disloyal even as I was sensible of its intensity. It was almost with a sense of exhilaration that I strode along, a normal, unnoticed wayfarer among ordinary men and women, enveloped by no cloud of mystery, overhung by no shadow of crime. There was the undertaker, indeed, who would drag me back into the gruesome environment, but I would soon have finished with him, and then, for a time, at least, I should be free.
I finished with him, in fact, sooner than I had expected, for he had already arranged the procedure of the postponed funeral and required only my assent; and when I had given this, I went my way breathing more freely but increasingly conscious of the need for food.
Yet, after all, my escape was only from physical contact. Try as I would to forget for a while the terrible events of this day of wrath, the fresh memories of them came creeping back in the midst of those other thoughts which I had generated by a deliberate effort. They haunted me as I walked swiftly through the streets, they made themselves heard above the rumble of the train, and even as I sat in a tavern in Devereux Court, devouring with ravenous appreciation a well-grilled chop, accompanied by a pint of claret, black care stood behind the old-fashioned, high-backed settle, an unseen companion of the friendly waiter.
The lighted windows of Thorndyke's chambers were to my eyes as the harbour lights to the eyes of a storm-beaten mariner. As I emerged from Fig Tree Court and came in sight of them, I had already the feeling that the burden of mystery and vague suspicion was lightened; and I strode across King's Bench Walk with the hopeful anticipation of one who looks to shift his fardel on to more capable shoulders.
The door was opened by Thorndyke, himself; and the sheaf of papers in his hand suggested that he was expecting me. "Are those the depositions?" I asked as we shook hands.
"Yes," he replied. "I have just been reading through them and making an abstract. Holman has left the duplicate at your chambers."
"I suppose the medical evidence represents the 'complications' that you hinted at? You expected something of the kind?"
"Yes. An inquest in the face of a regular death certificate suggested some pretty definite information; and then your own account of the illness told one what to expect."
"And yet," said I, "neither of the doctors suspected anything while the man was alive."
"No; but that is not very remarkable. I had the advantage over them of knowing that a death certificate had been challenged. It is always easier to be wise after than before the event."
"And now that you have read the depositions, what do you think of the case? Do you think, for instance, that the verdict was justified?"
"Undoubtedly," he replied. "What other verdict was possible on the evidence that was before the court? The medical witness swore that deceased died from the effects of arsenic poisoning. That is an inference, it is true. The facts are that the man died and that a poisonous quantity of arsenic was found in the body. But it is the only reasonable inference and we cannot doubt that it is the true one. Then again as to the question of murder as against accident or suicide, it is one of probabilities. But the probabilities are so overwhelmingly in favour of murder that no others are worth considering. No, Mayfield, on the evidence before us, we have to accept the verdict as expressing the obvious truth."
"You think it impossible that there can be any error or fallacy in the case?"
"I don't say that," he replied. "I am referring exclusively to the evidence which is set forth in these depositions. That is all the evidence that we possess. Apart from the depositions we have no knowledge of the case at all; at least I have none, and I don't suppose you have any."
"I have not. But I understand that you think it at least conceivable that there may be, after all, some fallacy in the evidence of wilful murder?"
"A fallacy," he replied, "is always conceivable. As you know, Mayfield, complete certainty, in the most rigorous sense, is hardly ever attainable in legal practice. But we must be reasonable. The law has to be administered; and it certainty, in the most extreme, academic sense, is unattainable, we must be guided in our action by the highest degree of probability that is within our reach."
"Yes, I realize that. But still you admit that a fallacy is conceivable. Can you list for the sake of illustration, suggest any such possibility in the evidence that you have read?"
"Well," he replied, "as a matter of purely academic interest, there is the point that I mentioned just now. The body of this man contained a lethal quantity of arsenic. With that quantity of poison in his body, the man died. The obvious inference is that those two facts were connected as cause and effect. But it is not absolutely certain that they were. It is conceivable that the man may have died from some natural cause overlooked by the pathologist—who was already aware of the presence of arsenic, from Detling's information; or again it is conceivable that the man may have been murdered in some other way—even by the administration of some other, more rapidly acting poison, which was never found because it was never looked for. These are undeniable possibilities. But I doubt if any reasonable person would entertain them, seeing that they are mere conjectures unsupported by any sort of evidence. And you notice that the second possibility leaves the verdict of wilful murder unaffected."
"Yes, but it might transfer the effects of that verdict to the wrong person."
"True," he rejoined with a smile. "It might transfer them from a poisoner who had committed a murder to another poisoner who had only attempted to commit one; and the irony of the position would be that the latter would actually believe himself to be the murderer. But as I said, this is mere academic talk. The coroner's verdict is the reality with which we have to deal."
"I am not so sure of that, Thorndyke," said I, inspired with a sudden hope by his "illustration." "You admit that fallacies are possible and you are able to suggest two off-hand. You insist, very properly, that our opinions at present must be based exclusively on the evidence given at the inquest. But, as I listened to that evidence, I had the feeling—and I have it still—that it did not give a credible explanation of the facts that were proved. I had—and have—the feeling that careful and competent investigation might bring to light some entirely new evidence."
"It is quite possible," he admitted, rather drily.
"Well, then," I pursued, "I should wish some such investigation to be made. I can recall a number of cases in which the available evidence, as in the present case, appeared to point to a certain definite conclusion, but in which investigations undertaken by you brought out a body of new evidence pointing in a totally different direction. There was the Hornby case, the case of Blackmore, deceased, the Bellingham case and a number of others in which the result of your investigations was to upset completely a well-established case against some suspected individual."
He nodded, but made no comment, and I concluded with the question: "Well, why should not a similar result follow in the present case?"
He reflected for a few moments and then asked: "What is it that is in your mind, Mayfield? What, exactly do you propose?"
"I am proposing that you should allow me to retain you on my own behalf and that of other interested parties to go thoroughly into this case."
"With what object?"
"With the object of bringing to light the real facts connected with the death of Harold Monkhouse."
"Are you authorized by any of the interested parties to make this proposal?"
"No; and perhaps I had better leave them out and make the proposal on my own account only."
He did not reply immediately but sat looking at me steadily with a rather inscrutable expression which I found a little disturbing. At length he spoke, with unusual deliberation and emphasis.
"Are you sure, Mayfield, that you want the real facts brought to light?"
I stared at him, startled and a good deal taken aback by his question, and especially by the tone in which it was put. "But, surely," I stammered, in reply. "Why not?"
"Don't be hasty, Mayfield," said he. "Reflect calmly and impartially before you commit yourself to any course of action of which you cannot foresee the consequences. Perhaps I can help you. Shall we, without prejudice and without personal bias, take a survey of the status quo and try to see exactly where we stand?"
"By all means," I replied, a little uncomfortably.
"Well," he said, "the position is this. A man has died in a certain house, to which he has been confined as an invalid for some considerable time. The cause of his death is stated to be poisoning by arsenic. That statement is made by a competent medical witness who has had the fullest opportunity to ascertain the facts. He makes the statement with complete confidence that it is a true statement, and his opinion is supported by those of two other competent professional witnesses. It is an established fact, which cannot be contested, that the body of deceased contained sufficient arsenic to cause his death. So far as we can see, there is not the slightest reason to doubt that the man died from arsenical poisoning.
"When we come to the question, 'How did the arsenic find its way into the man's body?' there appears to be only one possible answer. Suicide and accident are clearly excluded. The evidence makes it practically certain that the poison was administered to him by some person or persons with the intent to compass his death; and the circumstances in which the poisoning occurred make it virtually certain that the arsenic was administered to this man by some person or persons customarily and intimately in contact with him.
"The evidence shows that there were eight persons who would answer this description; and we have no knowledge of the existence of any others. Those persons are: Barbara Monkhouse, Madeline Norris, Anthony Wallingford, the housemaid, Mabel Withers, the cook, the kitchenmaid, Dr Dimsdale and Rupert Mayfield. Of these eight persons the police will assume that one, or more, administered the poison; and, so far as we can see, the police are probably right."
I was rather staggered by his bluntness. But I had asked for his opinion and I had got it. After a brief pause, I said: "We are still, of course, dealing with the depositions. On those, as you say, a presumption of guilt lies against these eight persons collectively. That doesn't carry us very far in a legal sense. You can't indict eight persons as having among them the guilty party. Do you take it that the presumption of guilt lies more heavily on some of these persons than on others?"
"Undoubtedly," he replied. "I enumerated them merely as the body of persons who fulfilled the necessary conditions as to opportunity and among whom the police will—reasonably—look for the guilty person. In a sense, they are all suspect until the guilt is fixed on a particular person. They all had, technically, a motive, since they all benefited by the death of deceased. Actually, none of them has been shown to have any motive at all in an ordinary and reasonable sense. But for practical purposes, several of them can almost be put outside the area of suspicion; the kitchenmaid, for instance, and Dr Dimsdale and yourself."
"And Mrs Monkhouse," I interposed, "seeing that she appears to have been absent and far away on each occasion when the poison seems to have been administered."
"Precisely," he agreed. "In fact, her absence would seem to exclude her from the group of possible suspects. But apart from its bearing on herself, her absence from home on these occasions has a rather important bearing on some of the others."
"Indeed!" said I, trying rapidly to judge what that bearing might be.
"Yes, it is this: the fact that the poisoning occurred—as it appears—only when Mrs Monkhouse was away from home, suggests not only that the poisoner was fully cognizant other movements, which all the household would be, but that her presence at home would have hindered that poisoner from administering the poison. Now, the different persons in the house would be differently affected by her presence. We need not pursue the matter any further just now, but you must see that the hindrance to the poisoning caused by Mrs Monkhouse's presence would be determined by the nature of the relations between Mrs Monkhouse and the poisoner."
"Yes, I see that."
"And you see that this circumstance tends to confirm the belief that the crime was committed by a member of the household?"
"I suppose it does," I admitted, grudgingly.
"It does, certainly," said Thorndyke; "and that being so, I ask you again: do you think it expedient that you should meddle with this case? If you do, you will be taking a heavy responsibility; for I must remind you that you are not proposing to employ me as a counsel, but as an investigator who may become a witness. Now, when I plead in court, I act like any other counsel; I plead my client's case frankly as an advocate, knowing that the judge is there to watch over the interests of justice. But as an investigator or witness I am concerned only with the truth. I never give ex parte evidence. If I investigate a crime and discover the criminal, I denounce him, even though he is my employer; for otherwise I should become an accessory. Whoever employs me as an investigator of crime does so at his own risk.
"Bear this in mind, Mayfield, before you go any further in this matter. I don't know what your relations are to these people, but I gather that they are your friends; and I want you to consider very seriously whether you are prepared to risk the possible consequences of employing me. It is actually possible that one or more of these persons may be indicted for the murder of Harold Monkhouse. That would, in any case, be extremely painful for you. But if it happened through the action of the police, you would be, after all, but a passive spectator of the catastrophe. Very different would be the position if it were your own hand that had let the axe fall. Are you prepared to face the risk of such a possibility?"
I must confess that I was daunted by Thorndyke's blunt statement of the position. There was no doubt as to the view that he took of the case. He made no secret of it. And he clearly gauged my own state of mind correctly. He saw that it was not the crime that was concerning me; that I was not seeking justice against the murderer but that I was looking to secure the safety of my friends.
I turned the question over rapidly in my mind. The contingency that Thorndyke had suggested was horrible. I could not face such a risk. Rather, by far, would I have had the murderer remain unpunished than be, myself, the agent of vengeance on any of these suspects. Hideous as the crime was, I could not bring myself to accept the office of executioner if one of my own friends was to be the victim.
I had almost decided to abandon the project and leave the result to Fate or the police. But then came a sudden revulsion. From the grounds of suspicion my thoughts flew to the persons suspected; to gentle, sympathetic Madeline, so mindful of the dead man's comfort, so solicitous about his needs, so eager to render him the little services that mean so much to a sick man. Could I conceive other as hiding under this appearance of tender sympathy the purposes of a cruel and callous murderess? The thing was absurd. My heart rejected it utterly. Nor could I entertain for a moment such a thought of the kindly, attentive housemaid; and even Wallingford, much as I disliked him, was obviously outside the area of possible suspicion. An intolerable coxcomb he certainly was; but a murderer—never!
"I will take the risk, Thorndyke," said I. He looked at me with slightly raised eyebrows, and I continued: "I know these people pretty intimately and I find it impossible to entertain the idea that any of them could have committed this callous, deliberate crime. At the moment, I realize circumstances seem to involve them in suspicion; but I am certain that there is some fallacy—that there are some facts which did not transpire at the inquest but which might be brought to the surface if you took the case in hand."
"Why not let the police disinter those facts?"
"Because the police evidently suspect the members of the household and they will certainly pursue the obvious probabilities."
"So should I, for that matter," said he; "and in any case, we can't prevent the police from bringing a charge if they are satisfied that they can support it. And your own experience will tell you that they will certainly not take a case into the Central Criminal Court unless they have enough evidence to make a conviction a virtual certainty. But I remind you, Mayfield, that they have got it all to do. There is grave suspicion in respect of a number of persons, but there is not, at present, a particle of positive evidence against any one person. It looks to me as if it might turn out to be a very elusive case."
"Precisely," said I. "That is why I am anxious that the actual perpetrator should be discovered. Until he is, all these people will be under suspicion, with the peril of a possible arrest constantly hanging over them. I might even say, 'hanging over us'; for you, yourself, have included me in the group of possible suspects."
He reflected for a few moments. At length he replied: "You are quite right, Mayfield. Until the perpetrator of a crime is discovered and his guilt established, it is always possible for suspicion to rest upon the innocent and even for a miscarriage of justice to occur. In all cases it is most desirable that the crime should be brought home to the actual perpetrator without delay for that reason, to say nothing of the importance, on grounds of public policy, of exposing and punishing wrong-doers. You know these people and I do not. If you are sufficiently confident of their innocence to take the risk of associating yourself with the agencies of detection, I have no more to say on that point. I am quite willing to go into the case so far as I can, though, at present, I see no prospect of success."
"It seems to you a difficult case, then?"
"Very. It is extraordinarily obscure and confused. Whoever poisoned that unfortunate man, seems to have managed most skilfully to confuse all the issues. Whatever may have been the medium through which the poison was given, that medium is associated equally with a number of different persons. If the medicine was the vehicle, then the responsibility is divided between Dimsdale, who prepared it, and the various persons who administered it. If the poison was mixed with the food, it may have been introduced by any of the persons who prepared it or had access to it on its passage from the kitchen to the patient's bedroom. There is no one person of whom we can say that he or she had any special opportunity that others had not. And it is the same with the motive. No one had any really, adequate motive for killing Monkhouse; but all the possible suspects benefited by his death, though they were apparently not aware of it."
"They all knew, in general terms, that they had been mentioned in the will though the actual provisions and amounts were not disclosed. But I should hardly describe Mrs Monkhouse as benefiting by her husband's death. She will not be as well off now as she was when he was alive and the whole of his income was available."
"No. But we were not including her in the group since she was not in the house when the poison was being administered We were speaking of those who actually had the opportunity to administer the poison; and we see that the opportunity was approximately equal in all. And you see, Mayfield, the trouble is that any evidence incriminating any one person would be in events which are past and beyond recall. The depositions contain all that we know and all that we are likely to know, unless the police are able to ascertain that some one of the parties has purchased arsenic from a chemist; which is extremely unlikely considering the caution and judgment that the poisoner has shown. The truth is that, if no new evidence is forthcoming, the murder of Harold Monkhouse will take its place among the unsolved and insoluble mysteries."
"Then, I take it that you will endeavour to find some new evidence? But I don't see, at all, how you will go about it."
"Nor do I," said he. "There seems to be nothing to investigate. However, I shall study the depositions and see if a careful consideration of the evidence offers any suggestion for a new line of research. And as the whole case now lies in the past, I shall try to learn as much as possible about everything and everybody concerned. Perhaps I had better begin with you. I don't quite understand what your position is in this household."
"I will tell you with pleasure all about my relations with the Monkhouses, but it is a rather long story, and I don't see that it will help you in any way."
"Now, Mayfield." said Thorndyke, "don't begin by considering what knowledge may or may not be helpful. We don't know. The most trivial or seemingly irrelevant fact may offer a most illuminating suggestion. My rule is, when I am gravelled for lack of evidence, to collect, indiscriminately, all the information that I can obtain that is in the remotest way connected with the problem that I am dealing with. Bear that in mind. I want to know all that you can tell me, and don't be afraid of irrelevant details. They may not be irrelevant, after all; and if they are, I can sift them out afterwards. Now, begin at the beginning and tell me the whole of the long story."
He provided himself with a note-book, uncapped his fountain pen and prepared himself to listen to what I felt to be a perfectly useless recital of facts that could have no possible bearing on the case.
"I will take you at your word," said I, "and begin at the very beginning, when I was quite a small boy. At that time, my father, who was a widower, lived at Highgate and kept the chambers in the Temple which I now occupy. A few doors away from us lived a certain Mr Keene, an old friend of my father's—his only really intimate friend, in fact—and, of course, I used to see a good deal of him. Mr Keene, who was getting on in years, had married a very charming woman, considerably younger than himself, and at this time there was one child, a little girl about two years old. Unfortunately, Mrs Keene was very delicate, and soon after the child's birth she developed symptoms of consumption. Once started, the disease progressed rapidly in spite of the most careful treatment, and in about two years from the outset of the symptoms, she died.
"Her death was a great grief to Mr Keene, and indeed, to us all, for she was a most lovable woman; and the poor little motherless child made the strongest appeal to our sympathies. She was the loveliest little creature imaginable and as sweet and winning in nature as she was charming in appearance On her mother's death, I adopted her as my little sister, and devoted myself to her service. In fact, I became her slave; but a very willing slave; for she was so quick and intelligent, so affectionate and so amiable that, in spite of the difference in our ages—some eight or nine years—I found her a perfectly satisfying companion. She entered quite competently into all my boyish sports and amusements, so that our companionship really involved very little sacrifice on my part but rather was a source of constant pleasure.
"But her motherless condition caused Mr Keene a good deal of anxiety. As I have said, he was getting on in life and was by no means a strong man, and he viewed with some alarm the, not very remote, possibility of her becoming an orphan with no suitable guardian, for my father was now an elderly man, and I was, as yet, too young to undertake the charge. Eventually, he decided, for the child's sake, to marry again; and about two years after his first wife's death he proposed to and was accepted by a lady named Ainsworth whom he had known for many years, who had been left a widow with one child, a girl some two years younger than myself.
"Naturally, I viewed the advent of the new Mrs Keene with some jealousy. But there was no occasion. She was a good, kindly woman who showed from the first that she meant to do her duty by her little stepdaughter. And her own child, Barbara, equally disarmed our jealousy. A quiet, rather reserved little girl, but very clever and quickwitted, she not only accepted me at once with the frankest friendliness but, with a curious tactfulness for such a young girl, devoted herself to my little friend, Stella Keene, without in the least attempting to oust me from my position. In effect, we three young people became a most united and harmonious little coterie in which our respective positions were duly recognized. I was the head of the firm, so to speak, Stella was my adopted sister, and Barbara was the ally of us both.
"So our relations continued as the years passed; but presently the passing years began to take toll of our seniors. My father was the first to go. Then followed Mr Keene, and after a few more years, Barbara's mother. By the time my twenty-fifth birthday came round, we were all orphans."
"What were your respective ages then?" Thorndyke asked.
Rather surprised at the question, I paused to make a calculation. "My own age," I replied, "was, as I have said, twenty-five. Barbara would then be twenty-two and Stella sixteen."
Thorndyke made a note of my answer and I proceeded: "The death of our elders made no appreciable difference in our way of living. My father had left me a modest competence and the two girls were fairly provided for. The houses that we occupied were beyond our needs, reduced as we were in numbers and we discussed the question of sharing a house. But, of course, the girls were not really my sisters and the scheme was eventually rejected as rather too unconventional; so we continued to live in our respective houses."
"Was there any trustee for the girls?" Thorndyke asked.
"Yes, Mr Brodribb. The bulk of the property was, I believe, vested in Stella, but, for reasons which I shall come to in a moment, there was a provision that, in the event of her death, it should revert to Barbara."
"On account, I presume, of the tendency to consumption?"
"Exactly. For some time before Mr Keene's death there had been signs that Stella inherited her mother's delicacy of health. Hence the provisions for Barbara. But no definite manifestations of disease appeared until Stella was about eighteen. Then she developed a cough and began to lose weight; but, for a couple of years the disease made no very marked progress, in fact, there were times when she seemed to be in a fair way to recovery. Then, rather suddenly, her health took a turn for the worse. Soon she became almost completely bed-ridden. She wasted rapidly, and, in fact, was now the typical consumptive, hectic, emaciated, but always bright, cheerful and full of plans for the future and enthusiasm for the little hobbies that I devised to keep her amused.
"But all the time, she was going down the hill steadily, although, as I have said, there were remissions and fluctuations; and, in short, after about a year's definite illness, she went the way other mother. Her death was immediately caused, I understand, by an attack of hemorrhage."
"You understand?" Thorndyke repeated, interrogatively.
"Yes. To my lasting grief, I was away from home when she died. I had been recently called to the bar and was offered a brief for the Chelmsford Assizes, which I felt I ought not to refuse, especially as Stella seemed, just then, to be better than usual. What made it worse was that the telegram which was sent to recall me went astray. I had moved on to Ipswich and had only just written to give my new address, so that I did not get home until just before the funeral. It was a fearful shock, for no one had the least suspicion that the end was so near. If I had supposed that there was the slightest immediate danger, nothing on earth would have induced me to go away from home."
Thorndyke had listened to my story not only with close attention but with an expression of sympathy which I noted gratefully and perhaps with a little surprise. But he was a strange man; as impersonal as Fate when he was occupied in actual research and yet showing at times unexpected gleams of warm human feeling and the most sympathetic understanding. He now preserved a thoughtful silence for some time after I had finished. Presently he said: "I suppose this poor girl's death caused a considerable change in your way of living?"
"Yes, indeed! Its effects were devastating both on Barbara and me. Neither of us felt that we could go on with the old ways of life. Barbara let her house and went into rooms in London, where I used to visit her as often as I could; and I sold my house, furniture and all and took up residence in the Temple. But even that I could not endure for long. Stella's death had broken me up completely. Right on from my boyhood, she had been the very hub of my life. All my thoughts and interests had revolved around her. She had been to me friend and sister in one. Now that she was gone, the world seemed to be a great, chilly void, haunted everywhere by memories of her. She had pervaded my whole life, and everything about me was constantly reminding me of her. At last I found that I could bear it no longer. The familiar things and places became intolerable to my eyes. I did not want to forget her; on the contrary, I loved to cherish her memory. But it was harrowing to have my loss thrust upon me at every turn. I yearned for new surroundings in which I could begin a new life; and in the end, I decided to go to Canada and settle down there to practise at the Bar.
"My decision came as a fearful blow to Barbara, and indeed, I felt not a little ashamed of my disloyalty to her; for she, too, had been like a sister to me and, next to Stella, had been my dearest friend. But it could not be helped. An intolerable unrest had possession of me. I felt that I must go; and go I did, leaving poor Barbara to console her loneliness with her political friends.
"I stayed in Canada nearly two years and meant to stay there for good. Then, one day, I got a letter from Barbara telling me that she was married. The news rather surprised me, for I had taken Barbara for an inveterate spinster with a tendency to avoid male friends other than myself. But the news had another, rather curious effect. It set my thoughts rambling amidst the old surroundings. And now I found that they repelled me no longer; that, on the contrary, they aroused a certain feeling of home-sickness, a yearning for the fuller, richer life of London and a sight of the English countryside. In not much more than a month, I had wound up my Canadian affairs and was back in my old chambers in the Temple, which I had never given up, ready to start practice afresh."
"That," said Thorndyke, "would be a little less than three years ago. Now we come to your relations with the Monkhouse establishment."
"Yes; and I drifted into them almost at once. Barbara received me with open arms, and of course, Monkhouse knew all about me and accepted me as an old friend. Very soon I found myself, in a way, a member of the household. A bedroom was set apart for my use, whenever I cared to occupy it, and I came and went as if I were one of the family. I was appointed a trustee, with Brodribb, and dropped into the position of general family counsellor."
"And what were your relations with Monkhouse?"
"We were never very intimate. I liked the man and I think he liked me. But he was not very approachable; a self-contained, aloof, undemonstrative man, and an inveterate book-worm. But he was a good man and I respected him profoundly, though I could never understand why Barbara married him, or why he married Barbara. I couldn't imagine him in love. On the other hand I cannot conceive any motive that anyone could have had for doing him any harm. He seemed to me to be universally liked in a rather lukewarm fashion."
"It is of no use, I suppose," said Thorndyke, "to ask you if these reminiscences have brought anything to your mind that would throw any light on the means, the motive or the person connected with the crime?"
"No," I answered; "nor can I imagine that they will bring anything to yours. In fact, I am astonished that you have let me go on so long dribbling out all these trivial and irrelevant details. Your patience is monumental."
"Not at all," he replied. "Your story has interested me deeply. It enables me to visualize very clearly at least a part of the setting of this crime, and it has introduced me to the personalities of some of the principal actors, including yourself. The details are not in the least trivial; and whether they are or are not irrelevant we cannot judge. Perhaps, when we have solved the mystery—if ever we do—we may find connections between events that had seemed to be totally unrelated."
"It is, I suppose, conceivable as a mere, speculative possibility. But what I have been telling you is mainly concerned with my own rather remote past, which can hardly have any possible bearing on comparatively recent events."
"That is perfectly true," Thorndyke agreed. "Your little autobiography has made perfectly clear your own relation to these people, but it has left most of them—and those in whom I am most interested—outside the picture. I was just wondering whether it would be possible for you to amplify your sketch of the course of events after Barbara's marriage—I am, like you, using the Christian name, for convenience. What I really want is an account of the happenings in that household during the last three years, and especially during the last year. Do you think that, if you were to turn out the garrets of your memory, you could draw up a history of the house in Hilborough Square and its inmates from the time when you first made its acquaintance? Have you any sort of notes that would help you?"
"By Jove!" I exclaimed. "Of course I have. There is my diary."
"Oh," said Thorndyke, with obviously awakened interest. "You keep a diary. What sort of diary is it? Just brief jottings, or a full record?"
"It is a pretty full diary. I began it more than twenty years ago as a sort of schoolboy hobby. But it turned out so useful and entertaining to refer to that I encouraged myself to persevere. Now, I am a confirmed diarist; and I write down not only facts and events, but also comments, which may be quite illuminating to study by the light of what has happened. I will read over the last three years and make an abstract of everything that has happened in that household. And I hope the reading of that abstract will entertain you; for I can't believe that it will help you to unravel the mystery of Harold Monkhouse's death."
"Well." Thorndyke replied, as I rose to take my leave, "don't let your scepticism influence you. Keep in your mind the actual position. In that house a man was poisoned, and almost certainly feloniously poisoned. He must have been poisoned either by someone who was an inmate of that house or by someone who had some sort of access to the dead man from without. It is conceivable that the entries in your diary may bring one or other such person into view. Keep that possibility constantly before you; and fill your abstract with irrelevancies rather than risk omitting anything from which we could gather even the most shadowy hint."