He and the Baron were very fond of devising problems, which they would send up for solution to the Morning Post. They set to elaborating a tough one now, a very difficult changed-mate two-mover, which kept them absorbed and occupied over the board for a considerable time. Indeed, a full hour and a half had passed before they had settled it to their satisfaction; and then the Baron, taking a refreshing pinch of Macuba, rose to his feet.
'That is it, my friend,' said he; 'an economical B.P. at K. Knight 4, and the thing is done'.
The clock on the mantelpiece chimed a quarter past four as he spoke, and on the tinkling reverberation of its one stroke some one opened the door. It was Hugo Kennett: the young man's face was ghastly; his hands shook; rie came into the room hurriedly, as if overweighted with some dreadful piece of intelligence.
' Good God, Hughie !' exclaimed his father, and rose, staring at the boy, his eternal cigarette caught between his teeth.
The young soldier made an effort to speak; his breath fluttered audibly in him hke the leaf of a ventilator; his nerve seemed for the moment gone utterly beyond his control.
' Steady, sir ! I commanded the General; and his masterful tone had its visible effect. 'Now,' he said, after a rallying pause. 'What is it?'
Hugh swallowed once or twice, and answered. Le Sage, observant of him, could see what immense force he had to put upon himself to do so.
' The Bishop's Walk ! Can you come at once, sir? There's been what looks like a dreadful murder there'.
Sir Calvin never so much as blenched or exclaimed. One might at least admire in him the self-possessed soldier, not to be rattled by any sudden call upon his nerve.
'Murder !' he said. 'Whose murder?'
The young man's hps quivered; he looked physically sick.
' It's one of the maids, sir. I saw her; I came upon her myself. I had forgotten my gun, and went back to fetch it, and there she was lying on her face, and-' he put his hands before his own face and shuddered horribly.
'Look here,' said the father, 'you must pull yourself together. This won't do at all. Baron, get me my hunting flask, if you'll be so good. It's in the right-hand top drawer of my desk'.
He poured into the cup, with an unshaking hand, a full half gill of liqueur brandy, and made his son drink it down. It wrought a measure of effect; a tinge of colour came to Hugh's cheek ; his hurried respirations steadied.
'Now,' said Sir Calvin, 'try to be coherent. What do you mean by forgetting your gun ?'
'I mean, sir,'-he looked down; his features still twitched spasmodically, 'I mean--it was like this. I was no good at the shoot, and I left it and came back by myself--came back by the Bishop's Walk. Just a little way inside, I stopped to light a cigarette, and rested my gun against a tree and forgot it; but an hour later I remembered that I had left it there, and went back to fetch it, and saw--O, it was ghastly !'
' §teady, man ! Was. the girl there when you first entered the path ?'
Le Sage listened for an answer in the affirmative, and could hardly hear it when it came.
'And you stopped to light a cigarette?' The father looked keenly into the son's face. 'You haven't yet told us what girl, Hughie'.
The good liquor was working. The young fellow lifted his head, a new passionate expression in his eyes :-
' It was Annie, sir--that good-looking housemaid. You wouldn't wonder over my horror if you saw.
He must have fired at short range, the damned villain, and when she was turned from him. There is a hole in her back that one could put-ah, I can't tell you ! '
M. le Baron exclaimed, 'That would have been,' said he, speaking for the first time, 'between three and four, when you discovered the body ?'
' Just now,' answered Hugh, addressing his father. 'I have come straight from it. They are waiting for you, sir, to know what to do'.
' It was done with your gun ? Is that the assumption? ' suggested the Baron.
' I don't know,' replied the young man feverishly, again not to the questioner. 'I suppose so; I dare say. Both barrels are discharged, and one I am pretty sure I left loaded. Are you coming, sir?'
Sir Calvin, frowning a stiff moment, moved to acquiesce. They all went out together. At the entrance to the track a group of frightened maidservants stood white-lipped and whispering, afraid to penetrate farther. One or two grooms and a couple of gardeners had already gone in, and were awaiting about the body the arrival of their master. It lay, face downwards, close beside the beech trunk behind which the living girl had sought to hide herself from Le Sage. That stood at a point in the winding path some twenty-five yards from the wicket, and was nowhere remotely visible from the road. She might have been making her way back to the house when she was fired on and shattered. It was a pitiful, ugly sight; but death must have been instantaneous--that was one comfort. Le Sage made the most of it to himself, though he was really distressed and moved. ' Poor eyes !' he thought, 'si pleins de tendresse: but an hour ago so beautiful, and now quenched in death. So this was the tryst you kept i Why, it can hardly be cold yet about your heart'.
Sir Calvin, stern and wrath, gave brief directions. A shutter was to be brought, a doctor fetched from Longbridge by one servant, the county police informed by another. He asked a short question or two-one. of his son. Was this the tree against which he had left his gun leaning ? Hugh answered no, while Le Sage listened. He had left it, he said, propped against a smaller trunk, four or five yards nearer the gate. He had had to pass the body to recover it, and had then taken it home, and thrust it into the gun-room as he had hurried by to raise an alarm. He spoke with extreme agitation, averting his eyes from the dead girl; and, indeed, it was a sight to move a tougher heart than his. Sir Calvin's next question was to the group at large. It was to ask if any one knew of any enemy the unfortunate victim had raised against herself, or of any possible reason for the attack. But no one knew or guessed, or, if he felt a suspicion, would have dared to formulate it. It would have been too risky a venture at this stage of the affair. Their master looked from face to face, and grunted and spoke a warning word. If that were so, he said, let them avoid all loose discussion of the matter until the police had taken it in hand. It might, after all, prove no murder, but only an accident, the perpetrator of which, terrified by the deed which he had unwittingly committed, might be keeping silence only until assured that he could tell the truth without danger to himself. Le Sage ventured to applaud that suggestion, turning to Hugh to ask him if he did not think it a quite reasonable one. But the young man refused to consider it; he was very excited; it was murder, he said, gross, palpable, open, and it was mere criminal sophistry to pretend to account for it on any other theory. His father steadied him once more with a word, and the three turned to go back to the house together as they had come, leaving the men to follow with the body. On issuing from the copse they found the little group of frightened sobbing women reinforced by Cleghorn. The butler wore a cloth cap and a light overcoat. His face was the colour of veal, and his lower jaw hung in a foolish incapable way.
'Ha, Cleghorn I' said his master. 'This is a bad business.'
'It's knocked me all of a heap, sir,' answered the man. His voice shook and wheezed. 'I've only this moment heard of it, sir.'
Hugo hung behind as they entered the hall. His father, steady as a rock, marched on to his study, and was followed by M. le Baron. The latter shut the door upon them.
'An ugly business,' he said.
'A cursed interruption to our game,' damned the General. He was greatly incensed. That such a vulgar scandal should have come to pollute the sacred preserves of Wildshott seemed to him the incredible outrage.
' What am I to do ?' he said. ' What is the infernal procedure? There will have to be an inquest, I suppose, and then--'.
'And then to indict the murderer,' said Le Sage, answering the pause.
'You think it is a murder?'
'What do you think?'
'I don't know; I suppose so. It may prove a devil of a business to find out. Ought we to have a detective?'
'These provincial police are excellent men, but their normal training -. Still, it may prove a quite simple affair'.
'I have a feeling somehow that it won't. I'd better write up to Scotland Yard'.
'If you're decided on it, why not apply? there is, or was, in the neighbourhood the very man'.
'You mean that fellow Ridgway? By Jove, yes - a clever dog ! I'll motor into Winton first thing to-morrow, and find out. In the meantime -where's Hugo?'
'I think I saw him go upstairs. I'll have him sent to you, if you'll allow me. I was wanting to write some letters'.
He retreated, with a smile which left his face the moment he was outside. Finding a servant, he gave her Sir Calvin's message, and then put a question of his own :-
' Do you know where my man is, my dear?'
'I think Mr Cabanis is out, sir,' answered the girl. Her cheeks were still mottled with the fright of things. 'He went out some time ago'.
' O, to be sure ! About three o'clock, wasn't it?'
'Earlier than that, sir-directly after dinner in the servants' hall'.
'Her manner appeared a little odd, disordered; but that might have been due to the shock they had all received.
'And he has not yet returned?' said the Baron cheerily. 'Well, send him to. me the moment he comes in, if you will be so good. And he moved to mount the stairs, humming as he went. But again, though his song was light, he turned a dark face to the wall.