This section is from the book "The Skeleton Key", by Bernard Capes. Also available from Amazon: The Skeleton Key.
I had a long and interesting interview with Sir Calvin's lawyers, when I used the occasion to unburden my mind of some of the misgivings which had been disturbing it. I spoke theoretically, of course, and without prejudice, and no doubt considerably impressed my hearers, who were very earnest with me to keep my dVn counsel in the matter until one of the partners could run down-which he would do in the course of a few days-to examine into all the circumstances of the case on the spot; and, above all, not to let the Baron guess that he was in any way an object of my suspicion. They had, of course, heard of the murder and its sequel, and had been expecting their client's instructions for the 'defence. They were very sympathetic, but naturally cautious about advancing any opinion one way or the other at this stage of the affair, and the gist of the matter was relegated for discussion in diem. I do not, however, describe the interview at greater length for the simple reason that, as things came to turn out, it bore no eventual fruit. But that will appear.
I stayed three nights in town, and returned to Wildshott on the fourth day from my leaving it. Going to Sir Calvin's study straightway, and being bidden to enter, what was my chagrin and astonishment to find the Baron' already in the room before me, having anticipated my own return by some twelve hours or so. He was seated talking with his host-on some matter of grave import, I at once assumed, from the serious expression on the faces of the two. Even Le Sage's habitual levity appeared subdued, while as to the General, I thought he looked like a man in process of rallying from some great shock or recent illness. He sat with his head hunched into his shoulders, all the starch gone from him, and with a fixed white stare in his eyes, as if he were battling with some inward torment. What had the man been saying or doing to him? My gorge rose; I was seized with a fierce anger and foreboding. Was I witnessing the effects of that very villain blow so apprehended by me as in course of preparing when that significant journey to London was first announced? My eyes, instinctively hawking for evidence, pounced on the embrasure which contained the safe. The curtain was drawn aside, the door open; and on the table near Sir Calvin stood a packet of papers, the tape which had bound them fallen to the carpet. Had he by chance been learning for the first time of his loss--and too late? I was tired, and my temper, perhaps, was short. In my infinite disgust at discovering how this man had stolen a march on me, I made little attempt to control it. ' What, you back !' I exclaimed, for my only greeting.
' And you !' he responded placidly. [ This is a happy coincidence, Mr Bickerdike'.
I passed him, and went to shake Sir Calvin by the hand. The look of my poor friend as he gave me formal welcome inflamed my anger to that degree that I could contain myself no longer. I felt, too, that the moment had come; that it would be criminal in myself to postpone it longer; that I must give this fellow to understand that his villainy had not passed wholly undetected and unrecorded. Forgetting, I confess, in my exasperation, my promise to the lawyers, I turned on him in an irresistible impulse of passion.
' How, sir,' I said,' have you succeeded in reducing my friend the General to this state?'
There followed a moment's startled silence, and then Sir Calvin stiffened, and sat up, and cleared his throat.
'Bickerdike,' he said, 'don't be a damned ass !'
' That's as it may be, sir,' I said, now in a towering rage. 'You shall judge of the extent of my folly when you have heard what I insist upon making known to you'.
He sat looking at me in a frowning, wondering sort of way; then shrugged his shoulders.
'Very well-if you insist,' he said.
'I have no alternative,' I answered. 'If I am to do my duty, as I consider it, at this crucial pass, when the life of a dear friend hangs in the balance, all stuff of punctilio must be let go to the winds. If I hold the opinion that an evil influence is at work in this house, operating somehow to sinister but mysterious ends, it would be wickedness on my part to withhold the evidence on which that opinion is founded. I do think such an influence is at work, and I claim the condition in which I now find you as some justification for my belief'.
'You are quite mistaken,' said my host, 'utterly mistaken'.
I bowed. 'Very well, sir; and I only wish I were as mistaken about the character of this gentleman whom you have admitted to your acquaintance and your hospitality'.
Sir Calvin looked at Le Sage, who sat still all this time with a perfectly unruffled countenance. He laughed now good humouredly, and bent forward to take a pinch of snuff.
'Come, come, Mr Bickerdike,' he expostulated, brushing the dust from his waistcoat; 'of what do you accuse me ?'
'That is soon said,' I answered, 'and said more easily than one can explain the general impression of underhandedness one receives from you. I intend to be explicit, and I accuse you to your face of having secretly left your room one midnight, when the house was asleep' (I gave the date) ' and stolen a paper from Sir Calvin's desk here'.
He looked at me oddly.
'To be sure,' he said. 'Do you know, Mr Bickerdike, your half-face looking round the post that night reminded me so ludicrously of those divided portraits one sees in picture-restorers' shops that I was near bursting into laughter'.
* You may have eyes in your ears,' I cried, rallying from the shock; 'but that is not an answer to my charge'.
He turned to Sir Calvin : ' Tht sixty-four Knight move problem: you remember: I told you that, not being able to sleep, I had come down to borrow it from your desk, and work it out in the small hours'.
The General nodded, and looked at me.
'Upon my word, Bickerdike,' he said, 'you mustn't bring these unfounded charges. I don't know what's put this stuff about the Baron into your head; but you must understand that he's my very good friend, and much better known to me than he seems to be to you. Come, if I were you, I'd just apologize and say no more about it'.