Sir Francis Orsden and the Baron Le Sage walked slowly up the kitchen garden together. It was a windless autumn morning, such serene and gracious weather as had prevailed now for some days, and the primroses under the wall were already putting forth a little precocious blossom or two, feeling for the Spring. There was a balm in the air and a softness in the soil which communicated themselves to the human fibre, reawakening it as it were to a sense of new life out of old distress. Such feelings men might-have who have landed from perilous seas upon a smiling shore.
The two talked earnestly as they strolled, on a subject necessarily the most prominent in their minds. Said Le Sage :-
'Are we not a little apt to judge a man by his business-as that a lawyer must be unfeeling, a butcher cruel, a doctor humane, and a sweep dishonest? But it is not his profession which makes a man what he is, but the man who makes his profession what it appears in him. A lawyer does not appropriate trust funds because he is a lawyer, but because he is a gambler : so, a detective is not impeccable because he is a detective, but because he is an honest man. You wonder that he can be at the same time a detective and a desperate criminal. Well, I don't'.
'Ah ! You've got a reason?'
'Just this. What is in that lawyer's mind when he steals? Imagination. It leaps the dark abyss to wing for the golden peaks beyond, where, easy restitution passed, it sees its dreams fulfilled. What was in Ridgway's mind when he planned his tremendous venture ? Imagination again. It may be the angel or the devil of a piece, spur a Pegasus or ride a broomstick. The butcher, the baker, the candlestick-maker may any of them have it, and still be the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker. The last thing of which a lawyer, as a lawyer, would be guilty, would be the bringing himself within the grasp of the law: the last thing of which a detective, as a detective, would be guilty would be the making himself a subject for detection. What induces either of them, then, to sin against the logic of his own profession ? Imagination alone and always, the primary impulse to everything that is good and bad in the world. A man may be blessed with it, or he may be cursed; contain it in his being like the seed of beauty or the seed of dipsomania'.
'And Ridgway like the latter?'
'It would seem so. The man is by nature a romantic. I once got a glimpse of the truth in a conversation I had with him. What flashed upon me, in that momentary lifting of the veil, was a revelation of fierce vision, immense passion. It was like taking a stethescope to a man's heart and surprising its secret'.
' A d-diseased heart, eh ? *
'One may say so-diseased with Imagination, which is hke an aneurism, often unsuspected and undetectable, until, put to some sudden strain, it bursts in .blood'.
' You mean, in this case-? '
'I mean that the murder was not premeditated; that is my sure conviction. It was the result of a sudden frenzied impulse finding the means ready to its hand. The man had plotted, but not that. Why should he, since it meant the ruin of his visions?'
'Ah ! You forget, Baron-'
'We will come to that. What I want to impress upon you at the outset is that Ridgway was at soul a gambler. Circumstance, accident, may have made him a detective : if it had made him a bishop it would have been aU the same. That fire, that energy, kept under and banked down, would as surely have roared into flame the moment Fate drew out the damper. That moment came, and with it the vision. He saw in it certain hazards, leading to certain ruin or certain fortune; hke a gambler he counted the cost and took the odds, since they seemed worth to him. What he failed to count on was a certain contingency which a less imaginative man than he might have foreseen-the possible treachery of a confederate'.
'And such a confederate'.
'Exactly. It was to sin most vilely against all his instinctive code; and worse-it was to stab him with a double-edged dagger'.
'I th-think I can pity him for that'.
'And so can I; and for this reason. Coolness is, or should be, the first quality of a gambler; gamblers, for that reason, do not easily fall in love. But when they do fall they fall hard, they fall headlong, they do not so much fall as plunge, as a gambler plunges, all heaven or all hell the stake. There is no doubt that Ridgway's passion for this girl was a true gambler's passion. To gain or lose her meant heaven or hell to him.' .
' I can quite believe it, Baron. But, d-damri it! how much longer are you going to keep me on tenter-hooks?'
Le Sage laughed. They had been strolling, and pausing, and strolling again, until they had approached by degrees the upper boundary of the estate, where, amid great bushes of lavender and sweet marjoram, stood a substantial thatched summer-house, cosily convenient for the view. ' Let us go and sit in there,' he said, 'and I will unfold my tale without further preamble'.
As he spoke a figure dodging about among the raspberry canes came into view.
' Hullo ! ' cried Orsden: ' Bickerdike, What's he doing here?'
' I think I know,' said the Baron. He went over to the elaborately unconscious gentleman-who, pretending to see him for the first time, glanced up with a start and an expression of surprise which would not have deceived a town-idiot--and accosted him genially-'
'Looking for anything, Mr Bickerdike?'
'Just the chance of a late raspberry the bird* may have left,' was the answer.
' O! I wonder if I can provide any fruit as much to your taste. You haven't a half-hour to spare, I suppose?'
Mr Bickerdike came promptly out from among the canes.
'Certainly,' he said. 'I am quite at your service. What is it?' '
'Only that I am under promise to Sir Francis to unfold for his delectation the story of a certain mystery, and the steps by which I came to arrive at its elucidation. It occurs to me-but, of course, if it would bore you--'