CHAPTER V CONTAINS CERTAIN CONFIDENCES
As I dashed forward to the gap in the boundary wall of the wood, I nearly stumbled over a form lying across the narrow path.
So dark was it beneath the trees that at first I could not plainly make out what it was until I bent and my hands touched the garments of a woman. Her hat had fallen off, for I felt it beneath my feet, while the cloak was a thick woolen one.
Was she dead, I wondered? That cry-that single word of reproach-sounded in my ears, and it seemed plain that she had been struck down ruthlessly after an exchange of angry words.
I felt in my pocket for my vestas, but unfortunately my box was empty. Yet just at that moment my strained ears caught a sound-the sound of someone moving stealthily among the fallen leaves. Seizing my gun, I demanded who was there.
There was, however, no response. The instant I spoke the movement ceased.
As far as I could judge, the person in concealment was within the wood about ten yards from me, separated by an impenetrable thicket. As, however, I stood out against the sky, my silhouette was, I knew, a well-defined mark for anyone with fire-arms.
It seemed evident that a tragedy had occurred, and that the victim at my feet was a woman. But whom?
Of a sudden, while I stood hesitating, blaming myself for being without matches, I heard the movement repeated. Someone was quickly receding-escaping from the spot. I listened again. The sound was not of the rustling of leaves or the crackling of dried sticks, but the low thuds of a man's feet racing over softer ground. He had scaled the rough stone dyke and was out in the turnip-field adjacent.
I sprang through the gap, straining my eyes into the gloom, and as I did so could just distinguish a dark figure receding quickly beneath the wall of the wood.
In an instant I dashed after it. But the agility of whoever the fugitive was, man or woman, was marvelous. I considered myself a fairly good runner, but racing across those rough turnips and heavy, newly-plowed land in the darkness and carrying my gun soon caused me to pant and blow. Yet the figure I was pursuing was so fleet of foot and so nimble in climbing the high rough walls that from the very first I was outrun.
Down the steep hill to the Scarwater I followed the fugitive, crossing the old footbridge near Penpont, and then up a wild winding glen towards the Cairnsmore of Deugh. For a couple of miles or more I was close behind, until, at a turn in the dark wooded glen where it branched in two directions, I lost all trace of the person who flew from me. Whoever it was they had very cleverly gone into hiding in the undergrowth of one or other of the two glens-which I could not decide.
I stood out of breath, the perspiration pouring from me, undecided how to act.
Was it Leithcourt himself whom I had surprised?
That idea somehow became impressed upon me and I suddenly resolved to go boldly across to Rannoch and ascertain for myself. Therefore, with the excuse that I was belated on my walk home, I turned back down the glen, and half an hour afterward entered the great well-lighted hall of the castle where the guests, ready dressed, were assembling prior to dinner.
I was welcomed warmly, as I was always by the men of the party, who seeing my muddy plight at once offered me a glass of the sportsman's drink in Scotland, and while I was adding soda to it Leithcourt himself joined his guests, ready dressed in his dinner jacket, having just descended from his room.
"Hulloa, Gregg!" he exclaimed heartily, holding out his hand. "Had a long day of it, evidently. Good sport with Carmichael-eh?"
"Very fair," I said. "I remained longer with him than I ought to have done, and have got belated on my way home, so looked in for a refresher."
"Quite right," he laughed merrily. "You're always welcome, you know. I'd have been annoyed if I knew you had passed without coming in."
And Muriel, a pretty figure in a low-cut gown of turquoise chiffon, standing behind her father, smiled secretly at me. I smiled at her in return, but it was a strange smile, I fear, for with the knowledge of that additional mystery within me-the mystery of the woman lying unconscious or perhaps dead, up in the wood-held me stupefied.
I had suspected Leithcourt because of his constant trysts at that spot, but I had at least proved that my suspicions were entirely without foundation. He could not have got home and dressed in the time, for I had taken the nearest route to the castle while the fugitive would be compelled to make a wide detour.
I only remained a few minutes, then went forth into the darkness again, utterly undecided how to act. My first impulse was to return to the woman's aid, for she might not be dead after all.
And yet when I recollected that hoarse cry that rang out in the darkness, I knew too well that she had been struck fatally. It was this latter conviction that prevented me from turning back to the wood. You will perhaps blame me, but the fact is I feared that if I went there suspicion might fall upon me, now that the real culprit had so ingeniously escaped.
If the victim were dead, what aid could I render? A knife had, I believed, been used, for my foot caught against it when I had started off after the fugitive. The only doubt in my own mind was whether the unfortunate woman was actually dead, for if she were not then my disinclination to return to the scene of the tragedy was culpable.
Whether or not I acted rightly in remaining away from the place, I leave it to you to judge in the light of the amazing truth which afterwards transpired.
I decided to walk straight back to my uncle's, and dinner was over before I had had my tub and dressed. I therefore ate my meal alone, Davis, the grave old butler, serving me with that stateliness which always amused me. I usually chatted with him when others were not present, but that night I remained silent, my mind full of that strange and startling affair of which I alone held secret knowledge.
Next day the body would surely be found; then the whole countryside would be filled with horror and surprise. Was it possible that Leithcourt, that calm, well-groomed, distinguished-looking man, held any knowledge of the ghastly truth? No. His manner as he stood in the hall chatting gayly with me was surely not that of a man with a guilty secret. I became firmly convinced that although the tragedy affected him very closely, and that it had occurred at the spot which he had each day visited for some mysterious purpose, yet up to the present he was in ignorance of what had transpired.
But who was the woman? Was she young or old?
A thousand times I regretted bitterly that I had no matches with me so that I might examine her features.
One sudden thought that struck me as I sat there at table caused me to lay down my fork and pause in breathless bewilderment. Was the victim that sweet-faced young girl whose photograph had been so ruthlessly cast from its frame and destroyed? The theory was a weird one, but was it the truth?
I longed for the coming of the dawn when the Rannoch keepers would most certainly discover her. Then at least I should know the truth, for I might go and see the body out of curiosity without arousing any suspicion.
I tried to play my usual game of billiards with my uncle, but my hand was so unsteady that the old gentleman began to chaff me.
"It's the gun, I suppose," I remarked. "I've been carrying it all day, and am tired out. I walked all the way home from Crossburn."
"The Carmichaels are very thick with the Leithcourts, I hear," my uncle remarked. "Strange they didn't ask Leithcourt to their shoot."
"They did, but he'd got another engagement-over at Kenmure Castle, I think."
I retired to my room that night full of fevered apprehension. Had I acted rightly in not returning to that lonely spot on the brow of the hill? Had I done as a man should do in keeping the tragic secret to myself?
I opened my window and gazed away across the dark Nithsdale, where, in the distant gloom, the black line of wood loomed up against the stormy sky. The stars were no longer shining and the rain clouds had gathered. I stood with my face turned to the dark indistinct spot that held the secret, lost in wonderment.
At last I closed the window and turned in, but no sleep came to my eyes, so full was my mind of the startling events of those past few months and of that gruesome discovery I had made.
Had the fugitive actually recognized me? Probably my voice when I had called out had betrayed me. Hour after hour I lay puzzling, trying to arrive at some solution of that intricate problem which now presented itself. Muriel could tell me what I wished to know. Of that I was certain. Yet she dared not speak. Some inexpressible terror held her dumb-she was affianced to the man Martin Woodroffe.
Again I rose, lit the gas, and tried to read a novel. But I could not concentrate my thoughts, which were ever wandering to that strange mystery of the wood. At six I shaved, descended, and went out with the dogs for a short walk; but on returning I heard of nothing unusual, and was compelled to remain inactive until near mid-day.
I was crossing the stable-yard where I had gone to order the carriage for my aunt, when an English groom, suddenly emerging from the harness-room, touched his cap, saying-
"Have you 'eard, sir, of the awful affair up yonder?"
"Of what?" I asked quickly.
"Well, sir, there seems to have been a murder last night up in Rannoch Wood," said the man quickly. "Holden, the gardener, has just come back from that village and says that Mr. Leithcourt's under-gamekeeper as he was going home at five this morning came upon a dead body."
"A dead body!" I exclaimed, feigning great surprise.
"Yes, sir-a youngish man. He'd been stabbed to the heart."
"Yes, sir-so Holden says."
"Call Holden. I'd like to know all he's heard," I said. And presently, when the gardener emerged from the grape-house, I sought of him all the particulars he had gathered.
"I don't know very much, sir," was the man's reply. "I went into the inn for a glass of beer at eleven, as I always do, and heard them talking about it. A young man was murdered last night up in Rannoch Wood. The gamekeeper thought at first there'd been a fight among poachers, but from the dead man's clothes they say he isn't a poacher at all, but a stranger in this district."
"The body was that of a man, then?" I asked, trying to conceal my utter bewilderment.
"Yes-about thirty, they say. The police have taken him to the mortuary at Dumfries, and the detectives are up there now looking at the spot, they say."
A man! And yet the body I found was that of a woman-that I could swear.
After lunch I took the dog-cart and drove alone into Dumfries.
When I inquired of the police-constable on duty at the town mortuary to be allowed to view the body of the murdered man, he regarded me, I thought, with considerable suspicion. My request was an unusual one. Nevertheless, he took me up a narrow alley, unlocked a door, and I found myself in the cold, gloomy chamber of death. From a small dingy window above the light fell upon an object lying upon a large slab of gray stone and covered with a soiled sheet.
The sight was ghastly and gruesome; the body lay there awaiting the official inquiry into the cause of death. The silence of the tomb was unbroken, save for the heavy tread of the policeman, who having removed his helmet in the presence of the dead, lifted the end of the sheet, revealing to me a white, hard-set face, with closed eyes and dropped jaw.
I started back as my eyes fell upon the dead countenance. I was entirely unprepared for such a revelation. The truth staggered me.
The victim was the man who had acted as my friend-the Italian waiter, Olinto.
I advanced and peered into the thin inanimate features, scarce able to realize the actual fact. But my eyes had not deceived me. Though death distorts the facial expression of every man, I had no difficulty in identifying him.
"You recognize him, sir?" remarked the officer. "Who is he? Our people are very anxious to know, for up to the present moment they haven't succeeded in establishing his identity."
I bit my lips. I had been an arrant fool to betray myself before that man. Yet having done so, I saw that any attempt to conceal my knowledge must of necessity reflect upon me.
"I will see your inspector," I answered with as much calmness as I could muster. "Where has the poor fellow been wounded?"
"Through the heart," responded the constable, as turning the sheet further down he showed me the small knife wound which had penetrated the victim's jacket and vest full in the chest.
"This is the weapon," he added, taking from a shelf close by a long, thin poignard with an ivory handle, which he handed to me.
In an instant I recognized what it was, and how deadly. It was an old Florentine misericordia, a long thin, triangular blade, a quarter of an inch wide at its greatest width, tapering to a needle-point, with a hilt of yellow ivory, the most deadly and fatal of all the daggers and poignards of the Middle Ages. The blade being sharp on three angles produced a wound that caused internal hemorrhage and which never healed-hence the name given to it by the Florentines.
It was still blood-stained, but as I took the deadly thing in my hand I saw that its blade was beautifully damascened, a most elegant specimen of a medieval arm. Yet surely none but an Italian would use such a weapon, or would aim so truly as to penetrate the heart.
And yet the person struck down was a woman, and not a man!
A wound from a misericordia always proves fatal, because the shape of the blade cuts the flesh into little flaps which, on withdrawing the knife, close up and prevent the blood from issuing forth. At the same time, however, no power can make them heal again. A blow from such a weapon is as surely fatal as the poisoned poignard of the Borgia or the Medici.
I handed the stiletto back to the man without comment. My resolve was to say as little as possible, for I had no desire to figure publicly at the inquiry, and consequently negative all my own efforts to solve the mystery of the Leithcourts and of Martin Woodroffe.
I returned to where the figure was lying so ghastly and motionless, and looked again for the last time upon the dead face of the man who had served me so well, and yet who had enticed me so nearly to my death. In the latter incident there was a deep mystery. He had relented at the last moment, just in time to save me from my secret enemies.
Could it be that my enemies were his? Had he fallen a victim by the same hand that had attempted so ingeniously to kill me?
Why had Leithcourt gone so regularly up to Rannoch Wood? Was it in order to meet the man who was to be entrapped and killed? What was Olinto Santini doing so far from London, if he had not come expressly to meet someone in secret?
As I glanced down at the cold, inanimate countenance upon which mystery was written, I became seized by regret. He had been a faithful and honest servant, and even though he had enticed me to that fatal house in Lambeth, yet I recollected his words, how he had done so under compulsion. I remembered, too, how he had implored me not to prejudge him before I became aware of the full facts.
With my own hand I re-covered the face with the sheet, and inwardly resolved to avenge the dastardly crime.
I regretted that I was compelled to reveal the dead man's name to the police, yet I saw that to make some statement was now inevitable, and therefore I accompanied the constable to the inspector's office some distance across the town.
Having been introduced to the big, fair-haired man in a rough tweed suit, who was apparently directing the inquiries into the affair, he took me eagerly into a small back room and began to question me. I was, however, wary not to commit myself to anything further than the identification of the body.
"The fact is," I said confidentially, "you must omit me from the witnesses at the inquest."
"Why?" asked the detective suspiciously.
"Because if it were known that I have identified him, all chance of getting at the truth will at once vanish," I answered. "I have come here to tell you in strictest confidence who the poor fellow really is."
"Then you know something of the affair?" he said, with a strong Highland accent.
"I know nothing," I declared. "Nothing except his name."
"H'm. And you say he's a foreigner-an Italian-eh?"
"He was in my service in Leghorn for several years, and on leaving me he came to London and obtained an engagement as waiter in a restaurant. His father lived in Leghorn; he was doorkeeper at the Prefecture."
"But why was he here, in Scotland?"
"How can I tell?"
"You know something of the affair. I mean that you suspect somebody, or you would have no objection to giving evidence at the inquiry."
"I have no suspicions. To me the affair is just as much of an enigma as to you," I hastened at once to explain. "My only fear is that if the assassin knew that I had identified him he would take care not to betray himself."
"You therefore think he will betray himself?"
"I hope so."
"By the fact that the man was attacked with an Italian stiletto, it would seem that his assailant was a fellow-countryman," suggested the detective.
"The evidence certainly points to that," I replied.
"You don't happen to be aware of anyone-any foreigner, I mean-who was, or might be his enemy?"
I responded in the negative.
"Ah," he went on, "these foreigners are always fighting among themselves and using knives. I did ten years' service in Edinburgh and made lots of arrests for stabbing affrays. Italians, like Greeks, are a dangerous lot when their blood is up." Then he added: "Personally, it seems to me that the murdered man was enticed from London to that spot and coolly done away with-from some motive of revenge, most probably."
"Most probably," I said. "A vendetta, perhaps. I live in Italy, and therefore know the Italians well," I added.
I had given him my card, and told him with whom I was staying.
"Where were you yesterday, sir?" he inquired presently.
"I was shooting-on the other side of the Nithsdale," I answered, and then went on to explain my movements, without, however, mentioning my visit to Rannoch.
"And although you know the murdered man so intimately, you have no suspicion of anyone in this district who was acquainted with him?"
"I know no one who knew him. When he left my service he had never been in England."
"You say he was engaged in service in London?"
"Yes, at a restaurant in Oxford Street, I believe. I met him accidentally in Pall Mall one evening, and he told me so."
"You don't know the name of the restaurant?"
"He did tell me, but unfortunately I have forgotten."
The detective drew a deep breath of regret.
"Someone who waited for him on the edge of that wood stepped out and killed him-that's evident," he said.
"Without a doubt."
"And my belief is that it was an Italian. There were two foreigners who slept at a common lodging-house two nights ago and went on tramp towards Glasgow. We have telegraphed after them, and hope we shall find them. Scotsmen or Englishmen never use a knife of that pattern."
With his latter remark I entirely coincided. In my own mind that was the strongest argument in favor of Leithcourt's innocence. That the tenant of Rannoch had kept that secret tryst in daily patience I knew from my own observations, yet to me it scarcely seemed feasible that he would use a weapon so peculiarly Italian and yet so terribly deadly.
And then when I reflected further, recollecting that the body I had discovered was that of a woman and not a man, I stood staggered and bewildered by the utterly inexplicable enigma.
I promised the burly detective that in exchange for his secrecy regarding my statement that I would assist him in every manner possible in the solution of the problem.
"The real name of the murdered man must be at all costs withheld," I urged. "It must not appear in the papers, for I feel confident that only by the pretense that he is unknown can we arrive at the truth. If his name is given at the inquiry, then the assassin will certainly know that I have identified him."
"And what then?"
"Well," I said with some hesitation, "while I am believed to be in ignorance we shall have opportunity for obtaining the truth."
"Then you do really suspect?" he said, again looking at me with those cold, blue eyes.
"I know not whom to suspect," I declared. "It is a mystery why the man who was once my faithful servant should be enticed to that wood and stabbed to the heart."
"There is no one in the vicinity who knew him?"
"Not to my knowledge."
"We might obtain his address in London through his father in Leghorn," suggested the officer.
"I will write to-day if you so desire," I said readily. "Indeed, I will get my friend the British Consul to go round and see the old man and telegraph the address if he obtains it."
"Capital!" he declared. "If you will do us this favor we shall be greatly indebted to you. It is fortunate that we have established the victim's identity-otherwise we might be entirely in the dark. A murdered foreigner is always more or less of a mystery."
Therefore, then and there, I took a sheet of paper and wrote to my old friend Hutcheson at Leghorn, asking him to make immediate inquiry of Olinto's father as to his son's address in London.
I said nothing to the police of that strange adventure of mine over in Lambeth, or of how the man now dead had saved my life. That his enemies were my own he had most distinctly told me, therefore I felt some apprehension that I myself was not safe. Yet in my hip pocket I always carried my revolver-just as I did in Italy-and I rather prided myself on my ability to shoot straight.
We sat for a long time discussing the strange affair. In order to betray no eagerness to get away, I offered the big Highlander a cigar from my case, and we smoked together. The inquiry would be held on the morrow, he told me, but as far as the public was concerned the body would remain as that of some person "unknown."
"And you had better not come to my uncle's house, or send anyone," I said. "If you desire to see me, send me a line and I will meet you here in Dumfries. It will be safer."
The officer looked at me with those keen eyes of his, and said:
"Really, Mr. Gregg, I can't quite make you out, I confess. You seem to be apprehensive of your own safety. Why?"
"Italians are a very curious people," I responded quickly. "Their vendetta extends widely sometimes."
"Then you have reason to believe that the enemy of this poor fellow Santini may be your enemy also?"
"One never knows whom one offends when living in Italy," I laughed, as lightly as I could, endeavoring to allay his suspicion. "He may have fallen beneath the assassin's knife by giving quite a small and possibly innocent offense to somebody. Italian methods are not English, you know."
"By Jove, sir, and I'm jolly glad they're not!" he said. "I shouldn't think a police officer's life is a very safe one among all those secret murder societies I've read about."
"Ah! what you read about them is often very much exaggerated," I assured him. "It is the vendetta which is such a stain upon the character of the modern Italian; and depend upon it this affair in Rannoch Wood is the outcome of some revenge or other-probably over a love affair."
"But you will assist us, sir?" he urged. "You know the Italian language, which will be of great advantage; besides, the victim was your servant."
"Be discreet," I said. "And in return I will do my very utmost to assist you in hunting down the assassin."
And thus we made our compact. Half-an-hour after I was driving in the dog-cart through the pouring rain up the hill out of gray old Dumfries to my uncle's house.
As I descended from the cart and gave it over to a groom, old Davis, the butler, came forward, saying in a low voice:
"There's Miss Leithcourt waiting to see you, Mr. Gordon. She's in the morning-room, and been there an hour. She asked me not to tell anyone else she's here, sir."
"Then my aunt has not seen her?" I exclaimed, scenting mystery in this unexpected visit.
"No, sir. She wishes to see you alone, sir."
I walked across the big hall and along the corridor to the room the old man had indicated.
And as I opened the door and Muriel Leithcourt in plain black rose to meet me, I plainly saw from her white, haggard countenance that something had happened-that she had been forced by circumstances to come to me in strictest confidence.
Was she, I wondered, about to reveal to me the truth?