CHAPTER VI THE GATHERING OF THE CLOUDS
"Mr. Gregg," exclaimed the girl with agitation, as she put forth her black-gloved hand, "I-I suppose you know-you've heard all about the discovery to-day up at the wood? I need not tell you anything about it"
"Yes, Miss Leithcourt, I only wish you would tell me about it," I said gravely, inviting her to a chair and seating myself. "I've heard some extraordinary story about a man being found dead, but I've been in Dumfries nearly all day. Who is the man?"
"Ah! that we don't know," she replied, pale-faced and anxious. Her attitude was as though she wished to confide in me and yet still hesitated to do so.
"You've been waiting for me quite a long time, Davis tells me. I regret that you should have done this. If you had left word that you wished to see me, I would have come over to you at once."
"No. I wanted to see you alone-that's the reason I am here. They must not know at home that I've been over here, so I purposely asked the man not to announce me to your aunt."
"You want to see me privately," I said in a low, earnest voice. "Why? Is there any service I can render you?"
"Yes. A very great one," she responded with quick eagerness, "I-well-the fact is, I have summoned courage to come to you and beg of you to help me. I am in great distress-and I have not a single friend whom I can trust-in whom I can confide."
"I shall esteem it the highest honor if you will trust me," I said in deep earnestness. "I can only assure you that I will remain loyal to your interests and to yourself."
"Ah! I believe you will, Mr. Gregg!" she declared with enthusiasm, her large, dark eyes turned upon me-the eyes of a woman in sheer and bitter despair. Her face was perfect, one of the most handsome I had ever gazed upon. The more I saw of her the greater was the fascination she held over me.
A silence fell between us as she sat with her gloved hands lying idly in her lap. Her lips moved nervously, but no sound came from them, so agitated was she, so eager to tell me something; and yet at the same time reluctant to take me into her confidence.
"Well?" I asked at last in a low voice. "I am quite ready to render you any service, if you will only command me."
"Ah! But I fear what I require will strike you as so unusual-you will hesitate to act when I explain what service I require of you," she said doubtfully.
"I cannot tell you until I hear your wishes," I said, smiling, and yet puzzled at her attitude.
"It concerns the terrible discovery made up in Rannoch Wood," she said in a hoarse, nervous voice at last. "That unknown man was murdered-stabbed to the heart."
"Well," she said, scarcely above a whisper, "I have suspicions."
"Of the murdered man's identity?"
"No. Of the assassin."
I glanced at her sharply and saw the intense look in her dark, wide-open eyes.
"You believe you know who dealt the blow?"
"I have a suspicion-that is all. Only I want you to help me, if you will."
"Most certainly," I responded. "But if you believe you know the assassin you probably know something of the victim?"
"Only that he looked like a foreigner."
"Then you have seen him?" I exclaimed, much surprised.
My remark caused her to hold her breath for an instant. Then she answered, rather lamely, it seemed to me:
"I saw him when the keepers brought the body to the castle."
Now, according to the account I had heard, the police had conveyed the dead man direct from the wood into Dumfries. Was it possible, therefore, that she had seen Olinto before he met with his sudden end?
I feared to press her for an explanation at that moment, but, nevertheless, the admission that she had seen him struck me as a very peculiar fact.
"You judge him to be a foreigner?" I remarked as casually as I could.
"From his features and complexion I guessed him to be Italian," she responded quickly, at which I pretended to express surprise. "I saw him after the keepers had found him."
"Besides," she went on, "the stiletto was evidently an Italian one, which would almost make it appear that a foreigner was the assassin."
"Is that your own suspicion?"
She hesitated a moment, then in a low, eager voice she said:
"Because I have already seen that three-edged knife in another person's possession."
"That's pretty strong evidence," I declared. "The person in question will have to prove that he was not in Rannoch Wood last evening at nightfall."
"How do you know it was done at nightfall?" she asked quickly with some surprise, half-rising from her chair.
"I merely surmised that it was," I responded, inwardly blaming myself for my ill-timed admission.
"Ah!" she said with a slight sigh, "there is more mystery in this affair than we have yet discovered, Mr. Gregg. What, I wonder, brought the unfortunate young man up into our wood?"
"An appointment, without a doubt. But with whom?"
She shook her head, saying:
"My father often goes to that spot to shoot pigeon in the evening. He told us so at luncheon to-day. How fortunate he was not there last night, or he might be suspected."
"Yes," I said. "It is a very fortunate circumstance, for it cannot be a pleasant experience to be under suspicion of being an assassin. He was at home last night, was he?" I added casually.
"Of course. Don't you recollect that when you called he chatted with you? I did some typewriting for him in the study, and we were together all the afternoon-or at least till nearly five o'clock, when we went out into the hall to tea."
"Then what is your theory regarding the affair?" I inquired, rather puzzled why she should so decisively prove an alibi for her father.
"It seems certain that the poor fellow went to the wood by appointment, and was killed. But have you been up to the spot since the finding of the body?"
"No. Have you?"
"Yes. The affair interested me, and as soon as I recognized the old Italian knife in the hand of the keeper, I went up there and looked about. I am glad I did so, for I found something which seems to have escaped the notice of the detectives."
"And what's that?" I asked eagerly.
"Why, about three yards from the pool of blood where the unfortunate foreigner was found is another small pool of blood where the grass and ferns around are all crushed down as though there had been a struggle there."
"There may have been a struggle at that spot, and the man may have staggered some distance before he fell dead."
"Not if he had been struck in the heart, as they say. He would fall, would he not?" she suggested. "No. The police seem very dense, and this plain fact has not yet occurred to them. Their theory is the same as what you suggest, but my own is something quite different, Mr. Gregg. I believe that a second person also fell a victim," she added in a low, distinct tone.
I gazed at her open-mouthed. Did she, I wondered, know the actual truth? Was she aware that the woman who had fallen there had disappeared?
"A second person!" I echoed, as though in surprise. "Then do you believe that a double murder was committed?"
"I draw my conclusion from the fact that the young man, on being struck in the heart, could not have gone such a distance as that which separates the one mark from the other."
"But he might have been slightly wounded-on the hand, or in the face-at first, and then at the spot where he was found struck fatally," I suggested.
She shook her head dubiously, but made no reply to my argument. Her confidence in her own surmises made it quite apparent that by some unknown means she was aware of the second victim. Indeed, a few moments later she said to me:
"It is for this reason, Mr. Gregg, that I have sought you in confidence. Nobody must know that I have come here to you, or they would suspect; and if suspicion fell upon me it would bring upon me a fate worse than death. Remember, therefore, that my future is entirely in your hands."
"I don't quite understand," I said, rising and standing before her in the fading twilight, while the rain drove upon the old diamond window panes. "But I can only assure you that whatever confidence you repose in me, I shall never abuse, Miss Leithcourt."
"I know, I know!" she said quickly. "I trust you in this matter implicitly. I have come to you for many reasons, chief of them being that if a second victim has fallen beneath the hand of the assassin, it is, I know, a woman."
"A woman! Whom?"
"At present I cannot tell you. I must first establish the true facts. If this woman were really stricken down, then her body lies concealed somewhere in the vicinity. We must find it and bring home the crime to the guilty one."
"But if we succeed in finding it, could we place our hand upon the assassin?" I asked, looking straight at her.
"If we find it, the crime would then tell its own tale-it would convict the person in whose hand I have seen that fatal weapon," was her clear, bold answer.
"Then you wish me to assist you in this search, Miss Leithcourt?" I said, wondering if her suspicions rested upon that mysterious yachtsman, Philip Hornby, the man to whom she was engaged.
"Yes, I would beg of you to do your utmost in secret to endeavor to discover the body of the second victim. It is a woman-of that I am certain. Find her, and we shall then be able to bring the crime home to the assassin."
"But my search may bring suspicion upon me," I remarked. "It will be difficult to examine the whole wood without arousing the curiosity of somebody-the keeper or the police."
"I have already thought of that," she said. "I will pretend to-morrow to lose this watch-bracelet in the wood," and she held up her slim wrist to show me the little enameled watch set in her bracelet. "Then you and I will search for it diligently, and the police will never suspect the real reason of our investigation. To-morrow I shall write to you telling you about my loss, and you will come over to Rannoch and offer to help me."
I was silent for a moment.
"Is Mr. Woodroffe back at the castle? I heard he was to return to-day."
"No. I had a letter from him from Bordeaux a week ago. He is still on the Continent. I believe, indeed, he has gone to Russia, where he sometimes has business."
"I asked you the question, Miss Muriel, because I thought if Mr. Woodroffe were here, he might object to our searching in company," I explained, smiling.
Her cheeks flushed slightly, as though confused at my reference to her engagement, and she said mischievously:
"I don't see why he should object in the least. If you are good enough to assist me to search for my bracelet, he surely ought to be much obliged to you."
It was on the tip of my tongue to explain to that dark-eyed, handsome girl the circumstances in which I had met her lover on the sunny Mediterranean shore, yet prudence forbade me to refer to the matter, and I at once gladly accepted her invitation to investigate the curious disappearance of the body of poor Olinto's fellow-victim.
What secret knowledge could be possessed by that smart, handsome girl before me? That her suspicions were in the right direction I felt confident, yet if the dead woman had been removed and hidden by the assassin it must have been after the discovery made by me. The fellow must have actually dared to return to the spot and carry off the victim. Yet if he had actually done that, why did he allow the corpse of the Italian to remain and await discovery? He might perhaps have been disturbed and compelled to make good his escape.
"If the woman was really removed the assassin must surely have had some assistance," I pointed out. "He could not have carried the body very far unaided."
She agreed with me, but expressed a belief that the double crime had been committed alone and unaided.
"Have you any idea as to the motive?" I asked her, eager to hear her reply.
"Well," she answered hesitatingly, "if the woman has fallen a victim, the motive will become plain; but if not, then the matter must remain a complete mystery."
"You tell me, Miss Muriel, that you suspect the truth, and yet you deny all knowledge of the murdered man!" I exclaimed in a tone of slight reproach.
"Until we have cleared up the mystery of the woman I can say nothing," was her answer. "I can only tell you, Mr. Gregg, that if what I suspect is true, then the affair will be found to be one of the strangest, most startling and most ingenious plots ever devised by one man against the life of another."
"Then a man is the assassin, you think?" I exclaimed quickly.
"I believe so. But even of that I am not at all sure. We must first find the woman."
She seemed so positive that a woman had also fallen beneath that deadly misericordia that I fell to wondering whether she, like myself, had discovered the body, and was therefore certain that a second crime had been committed. But I did not seek to question her further, lest her own suspicions might become aroused. My own policy was to remain silent and to wait. The woman sitting before me was herself a mystery.
Then, when the rain had abated, I told Davis to send her trap a little way up the high-road, so that my aunt and uncle should not see her departing; and after helping her on with her loose driving-coat, we left by one of the servants' entrances, and I saw her into her high dog-cart and stood bareheaded in the muddy high-road as she drove away into the gloom.