'You wanted to speak with me, sir?'
'Just a few words,' he answered. 'This young woman's name, Mrs Bingley--?'
'Was Annie Evans, sir'.
'And her age?'
'She was just, by her own statement, turned twenty-three'.
'You have communicated with her relations?'
'No, indeed. She never referred to any, and I have no means of finding them out. Annie was a very reserved girl'.
'But surely, when you engaged her--'
'I did so by advertisement, sir, through the Ladies' Times newspaper. We were in immediate need of an under-housemaid, and there was a difficulty about local girls. I put an advertisement in the paper, as I had often done before, preferring that method to the agencies, and she answered it. That was about two months ago'.
'And her former employer?'
'That was a Mrs Wilson, sir. She had gone to New Zealand, and left a written character with Annie. It was quite against my custom to take a servant with only a written character; but in this instance I was persuaded to break my rule, the character given was so excellent, and the girl herself so modest and attractive'.
'H'm ! Then you saw her before engaging her?'
'I went up to see her at the office of the paper itself by her own appointment, and was so struck by her manner and appearance that I settled with her then and there. She was to come down two days later. To the best of my memory, I never inquired about her people'.
'But she must have spoken of them--received letters?'
'She never spoke of them to my knowledge, or that of her fellow servants, to whom I have put the question. As to letters, Annie certainly did receive one now and again-one or two quite recently; but I have been looking, and can find no trace of any. It would have been just like her funny sensitive ways to destroy every one of them'.
The detective was silent for a moment, his dark scrutinizing eyes fixed on the speaker's face, as if he were pondering some significance, to him, in the answer.
'What became of the written character?' he asked presently.
'I returned it to her, sir. It is customary to do so'.
' In case she should want to use it again ? That being so, I should have thought she would have kept it?'
'But you have not come across it ?'
'It may be in her boxes. I have not looked'.
'You and I must overhaul those boxes, Mrs Bingley. Did you think, now, of making any inquiries about this Mrs Wilson ?'
'No, it would have been useless; she had already sailed for New Zealand'.
'Do you remember her address?'
'She wrote, so far as I can recollect, from the Savoy Hotel'.
Sergeant Ridgway took an envelope from his pocket, and making a note on the back of it, returned it into keeping.
'Well, you can leave that to me,' he said, and, resting his right elbow in the palm of the other hand, softly caressed his chin, bending an intent look on his witness.
'Now, ma'am,' he said. 'I want to ask you a particular question. Has Annie Evans's conduct, while in this service, always continued to justify you in your first good opinion of her ?'
'Always,' answered the housekeeper with emphasis. 'She was a thoroughly good straightforward girl, and during the short time she was here I have never had any trouble with her that was of her own procuring'.
'Will you tell me quite what you mean by that?'
'Well, sir, she could not help being pretty and admired, and if it led to some quarrels among the men on her account, the blame was theirs, and never in the smallest degree to be charged to her conduct with them. She always did her best to keep them at a distance'.
'O, quarrels, were there? Can you tell me of any particular quarrel, now?'
' I could--' began the housekeeper, and stopped.
' Come, Mrs Bingley,' said her master. ' You must speak out without fear or favour'.
' I know it, sir,' said the housekeeper, distressed. ' I will try to do my duty'.
' Hey !' cried the General. ' Of course you must. You wouldn't want to risk hanging the wrong man? What particular quarrel-hey?'
'It was between Mr Cleghorn and the Baron's gentleman, sir'.
'Cleghorn, eh? Great Scott! Was he sweet on the girl?'
' I think for some time he had greatly admired her, sir. And then Mr Cabanis came; and being a young man, with ways different from ours--' again she hesitated.
'Out with it!' cried Sir Calvin. 'Don't keep anything back'.
'On the night before-before the deed,' said the housekeeper, with an effort, 'Annie had come down into the kitchen, I was told, red with fury over Mr Cabanis having tried to kiss her. She had boxed his ears for him, she said, and he had looked murder at her for it. He came down himself later on, I understand, and there was a fine scene between the two men. It was renewed the next day at dinner, when Annie wasn't there, and in the end, after having come to blows and been separated, they both went out, Cabanis first, and Mr Cleghorn a little later. That is the truth, sir, and now may I go ?'
I think we were all sorry for the Baron; it appeared so obvious whither the trend of the detective's inquiries must henceforth carry him. But he sat quite quiet, with only a smile on his face.
'Louis is not vindictive,' was the sole thing he contented himself with saying.
Sir Calvin turned to the detective. ' Do you need Mrs Bingley any more ?'
' Not for the present,' answered the Sergeant, and the housekeeper left the room. I had expected from him, on her disappearance, some significant look or gesture, betokening his acceptance of the inevitable conclusion; but he made no such sign, and merely resumed his business conduct of the case. He knew better than we, no doubt, that in crime the most obvious is often the most unreliable.
'We must find the girl's relations, if possible, Sir Calvin,' he said. 'You can leave that to me, however. What I would advise, if her boxes yield no clue, would be an advertisement in the papers'.
An examination of some of the servants ensued upon this; but beyond the fact of their supplying corroborative testimony as to the quarrel, their evidence was of little interest, and I omit it here. The Baron disappeared during the course of the inquiry, so secretively that I think I was the only one who noticed his going. At the end the detective expressed a desire to examine the scene of the crime. If one of us, he said, would conduct him there, he would be satisfied and would ask no more. He did not want a crowd. I ventured to volunteer, and was accepted. Sir Calvin had looked towards his son; but Hugh, with reason sufficient, had declined to go. He had sat throughout the inquiry, after giving his own evidence, perfectly still, and with a sort of white small smile on his lips. Thinking my own thoughts, I was sorry for him.
The Sergeant and I made for the coppice. Passing the constable at the gun-room door, he nodded to him. 'That's a poor thing inside,' he said, as we went on. 'What a lot of trouble she'd save if she could speak ! Well, I suppose that him that did it thinks she's got her deserts.' ' I hope he'll get his,' I answered. ' Ah !' he agreed,' I hope he will.' We turned a bend as we came near the fatal beech-tree -and there was the Baron before us !
The detective stopped with a smart exclamation, then went on slowly.
'Doing a little amateur detective work on your own, sir?' he asked sarcastically.
' I was considering, my friend,' answered the Baron. 'It becomes interesting to me, you see, since my man is involved'.
' Who said he was involved, sir?'
'Ah ! Who, now? You can see very distinctly, Sergeant, where the body lay-just the one ugly token. No signs of a struggle, I think; and the ground too hard to have left a trace of footprints. But I won't disturb you at your work'.
'I wouldn't, sir,' said the detective pretty bluntly. 'You can undertake, I fancy, to leave it all to me'.
'I'm sure I can,' answered the Baron pleasantly, and he went off towards the house, humming softly to himself a little French air.
'Who is he?' asked the detective, when the odd creature was out of hearing.
'I know little more about him than you do,' I answered; ' and Sir Calvin's acquaintance with him is, I think, almost as casual as my own. We both met him abroad at different times. He may be a person of distinction, or he may be just an adventurer for all I know to the contrary'.
'Well,' said the officer, 'whoever he is, I don't want him meddling in my business, and I shall have to tell Sir Calvin so'.
'Do,' I said. 'Chess is the Baron's business, and it's that that he's here for'.
But I kept my private suspicion, while duly noting as much as might or might not be implied in Le Sage's curious interest in the scene of the crime. No doubt the last thing he had expected was our sudden descent upon him there.