I seemed conscious somehow, at dinner on the night of our arrival, of a feeling of electricity in the domestic atmosphere, Having no clue, such as the later course of events came to supply, to its origin, I diagnosed it, simply and vulgarly, as the vibrations from a family jar, of the sort to which even the most dignified and well-regulated households cannot always rise superior. Sir Calvin himself, exacting and domineering, could never at the best of times be considered a tactful autocrat: a prey to his hereditary foe, he appeared often to go out of his way to be thought detestable. When such was the case, his habit of harping on grievances could become an exquisite torture, his propensity for persisting in the unwelcome the more he saw it resented a pure malignancy. On this occasion, observing an obvious inclination in his son, my friend, to silence and self-obliteration, he took pleasure in drawing him out, with something of the savagery, I could not but think, of a fisherman who wrenches an obstinate hermit crab from its borrowed shell for bait. I saw how poor Hugh was rasped and goaded, but could do no more than take upon myself, where I could, the burden of response. Believing at the time that this aggravated fencing between the two was a part, or consequence, of some trouble, the serious nature of which might or might not have been implied in my friend's recent outburst, I made and could make but an inefficient second; yet, even had I known, as I came to know, that my surmise was wrong, and that the father's persistence was due to nothing but a perverse devil of teasing, it is not clear to me how else I could have helped the situation. I could not have hauled my host by the ears, as I should have liked to do, over his own dining-room table.
But the sense of atmospheric friction was not confined to these two. In some extraordinary way it communicated itself to the servants, the very butler, our young hostess. I had not seen Audrey at tea, and now greeted her for the first time. She came in late, to find us, by the Bashaw's directions, already seated, and to suffer a sharp reprimand for her unpunctuality which brought a flush to her young rebellious cheek. Nor did I better things, so far as she was concerned, by an ostentatious display of attentions; she seemed to resent my sympathy even more than the harshness which had provoked it. It is the way of cats and women to tear the hand that would release them from the trap.
The dinner, in short, began very uncomfortably, with an irascible host, a moody son, and an offended daughter, the butler taking his cue from his master, and the servants from the butler. They waited nervously, and got in one another's way, only the more flurriedly for their whispered harrying by the exacerbated Cleghorn. I was surprised, I,confess, by the change in that usually immaculate dignitary. The very type and pattern of his kind, correct, imperturbable, pontifical, I had never before known Cleghorn to manifest the least sign of human emotion, unless it were when Mr Yockney, the curate from Leighway, had mixed water with his Chateau Margaux 1907. Now, preposterous as it appeared, I could have believed the great man had been crying. His globous eyes, his mottled cheeks, bore suspicious evidences of the fact; his very side-whiskers looked limp. Surely the domestic storm, if such, which had rocked the house of Kennett must have been demoralising to a hitherto unknown degree.
It was the Baron who redeemed the situation, winning harmony out of discord. He had, to do him justice, the reconciliatory faculty, chiefly, I think, because he could always find, as one should, a bright interest in differences of opinion instead of a subject for contention. I never knew him, then or thereafter, to be ruffled by opposition or contradiction. He accepted them placidly, as constituting possible rectifications of his own argumentative frontiers.
His opportunity came with a growl of Sir Calvin's over the lateness of the evening papers. The General had been particularly curious to hear the result of a local trial, known as the Antonferry Bank robbery case, which was just reaching its conclusion, and it chafed him to be kept waiting. Le Sage asked for information, and the supplying it smoothed the troubled waters. There is a relish for most people in being the first to announce news, whether good, bad, or indifferent.
The case, as stated, was remarkable for nothing but the skill with which it had been unravelled. A Bank in Antonferry-a considerable market town lying some eight or nine miles north of Wildshott- had been robbed, and the question was by whom. That question had been answered in the upshot by an astute Scotland Yard detective, who, in spite of the obloquy thrown upon his kind by Mr Sherlock Holmes, had shown considerable sagacity in tracing the crime to its source in the Bank's own manager-a startling denouement. The accused, on the strength of this expert's evidence, had been committed to stand his trial at Winton Quarter Sessions, and it was the issue of that event which was interesting Sir Calvin. He had had some dealings with the Bank in question, and had even been brought into some personal contact with the delinquent official.
' It seems,' he ended, ' that there can be no doubt about the verdict. That Ridgway is a clever dog'.
' The detective ?' queried Le Sage; and the General nodded.
' The sort I should be sorry, if a thief, to have laid on my trail'.
'But supposing you left none?' questioned the Baron, with a smile.
' Ah! 'said Sir Calvin, having nothing better to reply.
'I have often thought,' said Le Sage, 'that if crime realised its own opportunities, there would be no use for detectives at all'.
'Eh? Why not?' asked his host.
'Because there would be nothing to find out,' answered the Baron.
'How d'ye mean? Nothing to find out?'
' Nothing whatever. My idea, now, of a successful crime is not a crime which baffles its investigators, but a crime which does not appear as a crime at all'.