Read CHAPTER XVII of The Hand in the Dark , free online book, by Arthur J. Rees, on ReadCentral.com.

“Lunch is waiting,” said the young man. “My aunt thought that you did not hear the gong, so I came up to tell you.”

“Miss Heredith was right I did not hear it. I am sorry if I have kept you waiting. I have been so busy that I forgot the passing of time.”

If Phil felt any curiosity as to the matters which had engaged Colwyn’s attention in the room where his wife had been murdered, he did not express it in words.

“My aunt will show you over the moat-house after lunch, if you wish,” was what he said.

“I should be glad,” returned Colwyn. “But I am reluctant to put Miss Heredith to the trouble.”

“Do not think of that,” responded Phil. “My aunt desires nothing better than to show the old place to anybody she likes. And she has taken a liking to you.”

“It is very good of her. I shall be pleased to accept her offer, for I wish to see over the house as soon as possible.”

They had started to descend the stairs. Colwyn, happening to glance over the balusters, saw the motionless figure of Tufnell standing at the bottom of the staircase partly concealed by the group of ornamental shrubs in the hall. His face was turned upwards with an aspect of strained curiosity, but it was immediately withdrawn as his eyes encountered Colwyn’s downward gaze. A moment later Colwyn saw him enter the dining-room.

When they reached the foot of the staircase, Colwyn, with an explanatory glance at his soiled hands and dusty clothes, promised to join the luncheon party in a few minutes. He went to his own room for a hasty toilet, and when he descended a few minutes later he again saw Tufnell in the hall. The butler, who was giving a direction to a servant, met his eye calmly, and hastened to open the dining-room door for him.

There was more conversation at luncheon than at the morning meal. The weight of senility relaxed from Sir Philip sufficiently to permit him to talk to his guest with some brightness. He told Colwyn a story of a seagoing ancestor of his who had entertained the Royal Family in his own frigate at Portsmouth in honour of Sir Horatio Nelson’s victory of the Nile, and how the occasion had tempted the cupidity of his own fellow to make a nefarious penny by permitting the rabble of the town to take peeps at the guests through one of the port-holes. It happened that one Jack Tar, eager to gaze on his idol Nelson, got his head jammed in the port-hole, and broke up the party with a volley of terrible oaths and roars for assistance. “The servant’s name was Egg Dick Egg, but he was a bad egg,” chuckled Sir Philip, as he concluded the narrative. He repeated the poor joke several times in manifest appreciation.

Miss Heredith did not smile at the story. She deprecated anything which had the slightest tendency to cast ridicule on the family name. That was made abundantly clear after the meal, when Sir Philip had retired to his room for his afternoon nap, and the others went over the old house. She took Colwyn under her special charge, and, forgetful of the real object of the detective’s visit, discoursed impressively to him on the past glories of the Heredith line. She lingered long in each room, all rich in memories of the past, pointing out the objects of interest with loving pride. It would have been a disappointment to her if she had known that the guest who walked beside her, listening to her stories and legends of each antique relic and ancient picture, had his thoughts fixed on far different matters. Colwyn’s reasons for seeing the moat-house had little to do with ancient oak, carved ceilings, panelled walls, and old family portraits.

It was not until they descended to the gun-room that Colwyn’s keen professional scrutiny suggested, by force of contrast, that his former air of interest had been largely feigned. There were several underground rooms, entered by a short flight of stone steps, with an oak door at the top and bottom. The two principal rooms were the armoury, full of armour, spears, lances and bows, and the gun-room adjoining. What arrested Colwyn’s attention in the latter room was the display of guns on the walls. There were many varieties of them: rifled harquebuses, obsolete carbines, flint-lock muskets, and modern rifles; in fact, the whole evolution of explosive weapons, from the first rude beginnings down to the breech-loader of the present day.

“The Herediths have ever been a family of great warriors, Mr. Colwyn,” said Miss Heredith, following his glance along the walls. “Each of those weapons has some story of bravery, I might almost say heroism, attached to it. That sword you are looking at belonged to my grand-uncle, who commanded the British Army in the Peninsula. He was originally a major in the 14th Foot.”

“I was under the impression that Wellington commanded in Portugal,” said Musard.

“My grand-uncle was Sir Arthur Wellesley’s senior officer, Vincent,” responded Miss Heredith. “He arrived in Portugal in 1809 to take command, but Sir Arthur most culpably failed to have horses ready to carry him to the field of battle. In consequence of Sir Arthur’s neglect my grand-uncle was compelled to take the next boat back to England. There was a question asked in the Commons of the day about Sir Arthur’s conduct. I do not know what the question was, but the answer was in the negative, though I am not quite sure what that means. In any case, my grand-uncle was a greater soldier than Wellington. My mother often heard my grand-aunt say so.”

“I notice that there are no revolvers or pistols among the weapons on the walls,” said Colwyn.

“We never had a revolver,” replied Phil.

“There are a pair of horse pistols in that case,” said Musard, pointing to an oblong mahogany box with brass corners, resting on a stand in a niche of the wall. He crossed over to the box and fumbled with the brass snibs, but was unable to open it. “The case is locked,” he said.

“Perhaps it is only jammed,” suggested Phil.

“Oh, no, it is locked fast enough. Do you understand anything about locks, Mr. Colwyn?”

“You will have to break it open if you have lost the key,” said Colwyn, after glancing at the box. “It is an obsolete type of lock.”

“I should have liked to show you those pistols,” said Musard. “They carry as true as a rifle up to fifty yards. Their only drawback is that they are a bit clumsy, and have a heavy recoil.”

“I wonder where the key is?” remarked Miss Heredith. “I must ask Tufnell about it.”

“Will you tell me where the revolver practice took place that afternoon?” said Colwyn, turning to Phil.

“They were firing from behind the bagatelle board at a target fixed over there,” said Phil, pointing to the far wall.

“Who proposed the game?”

“Nepcote. It was a very wet afternoon, and everybody had to stay indoors. He suggested after tea that it would be a good way of killing the time before dinner. Several of the men and two or three of the girls thought it a capital idea, and a sweepstake was arranged. They asked me for a revolver, but I told them we had not one. One of the officers offered his army revolver, but that was objected to as too heavy and dangerous for indoor shooting. Then Nepcote said that he had a light revolver in his bag, and he went upstairs to get it. He came downstairs with it in his hand, and those who were taking part in the sport went downstairs to the gun-room. I went with them for a while, but I did not stay long.”

“Captain Nepcote’s revolver is not an army weapon?”

“Oh, no. It is a very small and slight weapon, nickel-plated, with six chambers. It is so light as to resemble a toy.”

“With a correspondingly light report, I presume. The sound of the target practice would not be heard upstairs?”

“It would be an exceedingly loud report that penetrated to the upper regions through that door,” interjected Musard, pointing to the oak door with iron clamps which gave entrance to the gun-room. “Besides, there is another door at the top of the steps. If they were both shut you might fire off every weapon in the place without anybody upstairs hearing a sound.”

Colwyn had listened to Phil’s account of the target shooting with the closest attention. He remained silent for some moments, as though he were pondering over every point in it. Then he said:

“What makes you feel so sure that Nepcote did not leave his revolver in this room after the shooting?”

“He could only have left it on the bagatelle board or one of the chairs,” replied Phil earnestly. “If he had done so it would have been seen by somebody.”

“Provided anybody entered the gun-room,” put in Musard.

“Of course there must have been somebody here,” rejoined Phil with some warmth. “The detectives think that Hazel did not find it until the following evening. Do you suppose nobody visited the gun-room for twenty-four hours?”

“I think it quite likely with such a poor shooting lot ” Musard commenced, but broke off as he caught Miss Heredith’s warning glance. “All right, laddie,” he added soothingly; “Perhaps you are right, after all.”

“I have no doubt I am right,” exclaimed Phil excitedly. “Do you not think I am right, Mr. Colwyn?”

“I think that what you have said about the likelihood of the revolver having been seen is quite feasible,” responded the detective. “But there is nothing to be gained by discussing that possibility at the present moment. Shall we go upstairs again, Miss Heredith?” he added, turning to her.

She turned on him a grateful glance for his tact and forbearance, and hastened to lead the way from the gun-room. The few words between Phil and Musard had not only brought sharply back to her all the past horror and agony of the murder, but had caused a poignant renewal of her apprehensions about her nephew’s health. She realized that he was a changed being, moody and irritable, and liable to sudden fits of excitement on slight provocation. She felt that Musard had been rather inconsiderate to forget Phil’s illness and cause him to get excited by differing from him.

Her concern was not lessened by intercepting a strange glance which Phil cast at Musard when they reached the library. Before she had time to reflect on what it meant, Phil turned to her and asked her where she had put Violet’s jewel-case.

“I told you yesterday, Phil, that I brought it downstairs and locked it up,” replied Miss Heredith, with a glance at the safe in the corner of the room. “I have been keeping the keys until you got better.”

“Then you might let me have them now,” said the young man. “I should like to see if the jewels are all right.”

“Why, Phil, of course they are all right,” his aunt replied. “We found the jewel-case locked, and not tampered with in any way.”

“Was Mrs. Heredith’s jewel-case in her bedroom the night she was murdered?” asked Colwyn.

“Yes,” responded Miss Heredith. “We found it on her toilet-table, where she usually kept it.”

“Did it contain valuable jewels?”

“It contained a necklace of pearls which was given to poor Violet by Sir Philip,” was the reply. “It is an old family necklace.”

“Then I agree with Mr. Heredith that the jewel case should be opened.”

“Very well. As you think it necessary, I will go to my room for the keys.”

Miss Heredith left the library, and returned in a few moments with a small bunch of keys in her hand. She went to the safe, unlocked it, and returned to the table bearing an oblong silver box of quaint design, with the portrait of a stout simpering lady in enamel on the cover. Miss Heredith directed Colwyn’s attention to the portrait, remarking that it was a likeness of a princess of the reigning house, who had given it and the box to her great-uncle, Captain Sir Philip Heredith.

“Her Royal Highness held my great-uncle in much esteem, Mr. Colwyn,” she added, as she proceeded to fit one of the keys into the box. “He was one of the most famous of Nelson’s captains. When he died the residents of his native town erected a memorial to him. It was inscribed with testimony to his worth in a civic, military, and Christian capacity, together with a text stating that he caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. Beneath the text was commemorated his feat in sinking the French frigate L’Equille, with every soul on board.”

“That hardly seems like causing the widow’s heart to sing for joy,” commented Musard.

“The reference was to English widows, Vincent,” replied Miss Heredith, proceeding to open the box with loving care. “At that period of our history we had not discovered the good qualities of the French people, which have endeared them to Oh!” Miss Heredith broke off with a startled exclamation as the lid of the silver box fell back, revealing an empty interior.

It is only in moments of complete surprise that the human face fails to keep up some semblance of guard over the inmost feelings. At the discovery that the jewel-case was empty Miss Heredith’s dignity dropped from her like a falling garment, and she stared at the velvet interior with half-open mouth and an air of consternation on her face.

“Oh!” she cried again, finding voice after a moment’s tense silence. “The necklace is gone.”

“By heaven, this is amazing,” muttered Musard.

“I thought you said it was safe?” The speaker was Phil. He did not look at his aunt as he uttered this reproach, but gazed at the empty box with glowing eyes under drawn brows.

“Phil, Phil, I thought it was safe oh, I thought it was safe!” cried Miss Heredith almost hysterically. “Where is it gone? Who could have taken it? The box was locked when we saw it upstairs, and the day after the funeral I found Violet’s keys at the back of the drawer where she always kept them.”

“The box may have been locked when you found it, but it seems equally certain that it was also empty,” said Colwyn. He alone of the excited group was cool enough to estimate the awkward possibilities of this discovery. “How was it that the detectives did not open the jewel-case on the night of the murder, so as to make quite sure that the necklace had not been stolen?”

“I took the necklace downstairs and locked it away before the police arrived,” said Miss Heredith tearfully. “When Detective Caldew came he asked me if anything was missing from Violet’s bedroom, and I told him no. Of course, I did not dream of anything like this. Oh, how I wish now that I had opened the jewel-case at the time. But I never thought. I tried the case and found it locked, so I thought it had not been touched.”

“Really, I am more to blame than Miss Heredith,” interposed Musard hurriedly. “I saw the jewel-case first, and I should have thought of having it opened.”

“It is a pity you did not inform the detectives about the case,” said Colwyn. His face was grave as he realized how completely the police had been led astray in their original investigations by the misunderstanding which had concealed an important fact. “But first let us make sure that the jewel-case was empty when it was brought downstairs. How many people have access to this safe, Miss Heredith? Is there more than one key?”

“There is only one key,” she replied. “And that has been in my possession since the night of the murder.”

“That disposes of that possibility, then. What about Mrs. Heredith’s bunch of keys? Have they also been in your possession since she was killed?”

“Yes; I kept them in an upstairs drawer, which was locked.”

“Can you tell me when you last saw the necklace?”

Miss Heredith reflected for a moment.

“Not for some time,” she said. “Violet did not care for it, and rarely wore it.”

“The necklace was of pink pearls,” Musard explained. “Their value was more historical than intrinsic, for they had become tarnished with age, and the setting was old-fashioned. It was for that reason Mrs. Heredith did not like it. I was going to take the pearls to London the following day to arrange to have them skinned and reset.”

“When I went into poor Violet’s room that night to see if she felt well enough to go to the Weynes’ I asked her for the necklace,” said Miss Heredith. “She replied that she would give it to me in the morning. If she had only given it to me then, she might have been alive to-day.”

“I should like to hear more about this,” said Colwyn. “Please tell me everything.”

In response Miss Heredith related to the detective all that had passed between the young wife and herself in the bedroom before dinner on the night of the murder. Colwyn listened attentively, with a growing sense of hidden complexities in the crime revealed at the eleventh hour. He saw that the case took on a new and deeper aspect when considered in conjunction with the facts which had been so innocently ignored. When Miss Heredith had finished, he asked her when it was first decided to send the necklace to London for resetting.

“It was the night before the murder,” Miss Heredith replied. “Sir Philip suggested that Violet should wear the necklace to the dance on the following night, but Violet said that the pearls were really too dull to be worn. Mr. Musard agreed with her, and offered to take it to London and have it cleaned and reset by an expert of his acquaintance. Mr. Musard had to return to London on the morning after the dance, so that was the reason why I went into Violet’s room before dinner on the night of the party to ask her for the necklace.”

Colwyn considered this reply in all its bearings before he spoke.

“The best thing I can do is to return to London without delay and bring these additional facts before Scotland Yard,” he said. “They have been misled unwittingly but gravely misled and it is only right that they should be informed at once. I know Merrington, and I will make a point of seeing him personally and telling him about the discovery of the missing necklace.”

The little group heard his decision in a silence which suggested more than words were able to convey. It was Phil who finally uttered the thought which was in all their minds:

“Are you satisfied that Hazel Rath is innocent?”

“I cannot say that,” responded the detective quickly. “The loss of the necklace does nothing to lessen the suspicion against her unless it can be proved that she had nothing to do with its disappearance perhaps not even then. But all the facts must be investigated anew. The necklace must be traced, and the point about the revolver cleared up. But there is nothing more to be done here at present. The field of the investigation now shifts to London. I will get ready for the journey, if you will excuse me.”

“I hope you will continue your own investigations, Mr. Colwyn,” said Phil earnestly. “I am more than ever convinced of Hazel Rath’s innocence, but I have small faith that the police are likely to establish it even if they attempt to do so. I was not impressed with the skill of Detective Caldew, or his attitude when I told him that I believed Hazel Rath to be innocent.”

“I will continue my investigations in conjunction with Scotland Yard, if it is your wish,” the detective replied.