' Instance, M. le Baron,' I ventured to put in.
'Why,' said Le Sage good-humouredly, 'a dozen may well present themselves to a man of average inventive intelligence. Direct murder, for example- how crude! when a hundred means offer themselves for procuring plausible ends to life. Tetanus germs and an iron tack; ptomaine, that toxicologic mystery, so easy to introduce; the edge of a cliff and a windy day; a frayed picture cord; a loosened nut or two; a scrap of soap left on the boards by an opened window--given adroitness, timeliness, a little nerve, would not any of these do ? '
Audrey drew back in her chair, with a flushed little laugh.
' What a diabolical list!' she said, and made a face as if she had taken medicine.
'Yes,' said I. 'But after all, Baron, this is no more than generalising'.
'You want a concrete instance?' he answered, beaming on me. 'What do you say then to a swimmer being awarded the Humane Society's certificate for attempting to save the life of a man whom he had really drowned? It needs only a little imagination to fill in the details'.
* That is good,' I admitted. ' We put one to your credit'.
'Again,' said the Baron, 'I offer the case of a senseless young spendthrift. He gambles, he drinks, his life is a bad life from the insurance company's point of view. When hard pressed, he is lavish with his Iou's; when flush of money he redeems them; he pays up, he throws the slips into the fire with hardly a glance at them. One who holds a good deal of his paper observes this, and acts accordingly. He preserves the original securities, and on redemption, offers forgeries in their place, which he is careful to see destroyed. On the death of the young man he puts in his claim on his estate on the strength of the indisputable original documents. Thus he is paid twice over, without a possibility of any suspicion arising'.
' But one of the forged 10 U's,' said Audrey, 'had been carried up the chimney without catching alight, and had been blown through the open window of the young man's family lawyer, who had kept it as a surprise'.
There was a shout of laughter, in which the Baron joined.
' Bravo, Audrey !' cried her brother. ' What about your average inventive inteUigence, Baron?'
'I said, specifically, a man's,' pleaded Le Sage. 'Women, fortunately for us, are not eligible for the detective force'.
Audrey laughed at the compliment, but I think she liked the Baron for his pleasant good-nature. About that, for my part, I kept an open mind. Had he really invented these cases on the spur of the moment, or could it be possible that they touched on some experience of his own ? One could not say, of course; but one could bear the point in mind.
The dinner went cheerfully enough after this jeu d'esprit of Audrey's. That had even roused Hugh from his glooms, and to quite exaggerated effect. He became suddenly talkative where he had been taciturn, and almost boisterously communicative where he had been reserved. But I noticed that he drank a good deal, and detected curiously, as I thought, a hint of desperation under his feverish gaiety.
In all this, it may be said, I was appropriating to myself, without authority, a sort of watching brief on behalf of a purely chimerical client. I had no real justification for suspecting the Baron, either on his own account, or in association with my friend's apparent state; it was presumptive that Sir Calvin knew at least as much about the man as I did; still, I thought, so long as I preserved my attitude of what I may call sympathetic vigilance a la sourdine, nothing could be lost, and something even might be gained. The common atmosphere, perhaps, affected me with the others, and inclined me to an unusually observant mood; a mood, it may be, prone to attach an over-importance to trifles. Thus, I could find food for it in an incident so ordinary as the following. There was a certain picture on the wall, a genre painting, to which Le Sage, sitting opposite it, referred in some connexion. Sir Calvin, replying, remarked that so-and-so had declared one of the figures to be out of proportion-too short or too tall, I forget which--and, in order to measure the discrepancy, interposed, after the manner of the connoisseur, a finger between his eye and the subject. There was nothing out of the common in the action, save only that the finger he raised was the second finger of his right hand, the first having been shot away in some long-past engagement; but it appeared, quite obviously to me, to arrest in a curious way the attention of the visitor. He forgot what he was saying at the moment, his speech tailed off, he sat gazing, as if suddenly fascinated, not at the picture but at the finger. The next instant he had caught up and continued what he was observing; but the minute incident left me wondering. It had signified, I was sure, no sudden realization of the disfigurement, since that must have been long known to him, but of some association with it accidentally suggested. That, in that single moment, was my very definite impression--I could hardly have explained why at the time; but there it was. And I may say now, in my own justification, that my instinct, or my intuition, was not at fault.
Once or twice later I seemed to catch Le Sage manoeuvring to procure a repetition of the action, but without full success; and soon afterwards the two men fell upon the ever-absorbing subject of chess, and lapsed into vigorous discussion over the relative merits of certain openings, such as the Scotch, the Giuoco Piano, the Ruy Lopez attack, Philidor's defence, and the various gambits; to wit, the Queen's, the Allgaier, the Evans, the Muzio, the Sicilian, and God knows what else. They did not favour the drawing-room for long after dinner, but went off to the library to put their theories into practice, leaving Hugh and me alone with the lady. I cannot admit that I found the subsequent evening exhilarating. Hugh appeared already to be suffering a relapse from his artificial high spirits, and again disturbed me by the capricious oddity of his behaviour. He and his sister bickered, after their wont, a good deal, and once or twice the girl was brought by him near the verge of angry tears, I thought. I never could quite make out Audrey. She seemed to me a young woman of good impulses, but one who was for ever on the defensive against imagined criticism, and inclined therefore, in a spirit of pure perversity, to turn her worst side outermost. Yet she was a really pretty girl, a tall stalk of maidenhood, nineteen, and athletically modern in the taking sense, and had no reason but to value herself and her attractions at the plain truth they represented. The trouble was that she was underestimated, and I think proudly conscious of the fact. With a father like Sir Calvin, it was, and must be, Hugo first and the rest nowhere. He bullied every one, but there was no under-suggestion of jealous proprietorship in his bullying of Audrey as there was in his adoring bullying of his son. He did not care whether she felt it or not; with the other it was Hke a lover's temper, wooing by chastisement. Nor was Hugo, perhaps, a very sympathetic brother. He could enjoy teasing, Hke his father, and feel a mischievous pleasure in seeing 'the galled jade wince.' Audrey, I believe, would have worshipped Mm had he let her-I had observed how gratified she looked at dinner over his commendation of her jest-but he held her aloof between condescension and contempt, and the two had never been real companions. The long-motherless girl was lonely, I think, and it was rather pathetic ; still, she did not always go the right way about it to avoid unfavourable criticism.
We were out for a day in the stubble on the morrow, and I made it an excuse for going to bed betimes. The trial of the Bank-Manager, I may mention by the way, had ended in a verdict of guilty, and a sentence of three years penal servitude. I found, and took the paper in to Sir Calvin before going upstairs. The servants never dared to disturb him at his game.