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Whilst Henry Leroux collected his thoughts, Dr. Cumberly glanced across at the writing-table where lay the fragment of paper which had been clutched in the dead woman's hand, then turned his head again toward the inspector, staring at him curiously. Since Dunbar had not yet attempted even to glance at the strange message, he wondered what had prompted the present line of inquiry.
"My wife," began Leroux, "shared a studio in Paris, at the time that I met her, with an American lady a very talented portrait painter--er--a Miss Denise Ryland. You may know her name?--but of course, you don't, no! Well, my wife is, herself, quite clever with her brush; in fact she has exhibited more than once at the Paris Salon. We agreed at--er--the time of our--of our-- engagement, that she should be free to visit her old artistic friends in Paris at any time. You understand? There was to be no let or hindrance. . . . Is this really necessary, Inspector?"
"Pray go on, Mr. Leroux."
"Well, you understand, it was a give-and-take arrangement; because I am afraid that I, myself, demand certain--sacrifices from my wife--and--er--I did not feel entitled to--interfere" . . .
"You see, Inspector," interrupted Dr. Cumberly, "they are a Bohemian pair, and Bohemians, inevitably, bore one another at times! This little arrangement was intended as a safety-valve. Whenever ennui attacked Mrs. Leroux, she was at liberty to depart for a week to her own friends in Paris, leaving Leroux to the bachelor's existence which is really his proper state; to go unshaven and unshorn, to dine upon bread and cheese and onions, to work until all hours of the morning, and generally to enjoy himself!"
"Does she usually stay long?" inquired Dunbar.
"Not more than a week, as a rule," answered Leroux.
"You must excuse me," continued the detective, "if I seem to pry into intimate matters; but on these occasions, how does Mrs. Leroux get on for money?"
"I have opened a credit for her," explained the novelist, wearily, "at the Credit Lyonnais, in Paris."
Dunbar scribbled busily in his notebook.
"Does she take her maid with her?" he jerked, suddenly.
"She has no maid at the moment," replied Leroux; "she has been without one for twelve months or more, now."
"When did you last hear from her?"
"Three days ago."
"Did you answer the letter?"
"Yes; my answer was amongst the mail which Soames took to the post, to-night."
"You said, though, if I remember rightly, that he was out without permission?"
Leroux ran his fingers through his hair.
"I meant that he should only have been absent five minutes or so; whilst he remained out for more than an hour."
Inspector Dunbar nodded, comprehendingly, tapping his teeth with the head of the fountain-pen.
"And the other servants?"
"There are only two: a cook and a maid. I released them for the evening--glad to get rid of them--wanted to work."
"They are late?"
"They take liberties, damnable liberties, because I am easy-going."
"I see," said Dunbar. "So that you were quite alone this evening, when"--he nodded in the direction of the writing-table--"your visitor came?"
"Was her arrival the first interruption?"
"No--er--not exactly. Miss Cumberly . . ."
"My daughter," explained Dr. Cumberly, knowing that Mr. Leroux, at these times, was very neglectful in regard to meals, prepared him an omelette, and brought it down in a chafing-dish."
"How long did she remain?" asked the inspector of Leroux.
"I--er--did not exactly open the door. We chatted, through--er-- through the letter-box, and she left the omelette outside on the landing."
"What time would that be?"
"It was a quarter to twelve," declared Cumberly. "I had been supping with some friends, and returned to find Helen, my daughter, engaged in preparing the omelette. I congratulated her upon the happy thought, knowing that Leroux was probably starving himself."
"I see. The omelette, though, seems to be upset here on the floor?" said the inspector.
Cumberly briefly explained how it came to be there, Leroux punctuating his friend's story with affirmative nods.
"Then the door of the flat was open all the time?" cried Dunbar.
"Yes," replied Cumberly; "but whilst Exel and I searched the other rooms--and our search was exhaustive--Mr. Leroux remained here in the study, and in full view of the lobby--as you see for yourself."
"No living thing," said Leroux, monotonously, "left this flat from the time that the three of us, Exel, Cumberly, and I, entered, up to the time that Miss Cumberly came, and, with the doctor, went out again."
"H'm!" said the inspector, making notes; "it appears so, certainly. I will ask you then, for your own account, Mr. Leroux, of the arrival of the woman in the civet furs. Pay special attention"--he pointed with his fountain-pen--"to the time at which the various incidents occurred."
Leroux, growing calmer as he proceeded with the strange story, complied with the inspector's request. He had practically completed his account when the door-bell rang.
"It's the servants," said Dr. Cumberly. "Soames will open the door."
But Soames did not appear.
The ringing being repeated:--
"I told him to remain in his room," said Dunbar, "until I rang for him, I remember--"
"I will open the door," said Cumberly.
"And tell the servants to stay in the kitchen," snapped Dunbar.
Dr. Cumberly opened the door, admitting the cook and housemaid.
"There has been an unfortunate accident," he said--"but not to your master; you need not be afraid. But be good enough to remain in the kitchen for the present."
Peeping in furtively as they passed, the two women crossed the lobby and went to their own quarters.
"Mr. Soames next," muttered Dunbar, and, glancing at Cumberly as he returned from the lobby:--"Will you ring for him?" he requested.
Dr. Cumberly nodded, and pressed a bell beside the mantelpiece. An interval followed, in which the inspector made notes and Cumberly stood looking at Leroux, who was beating his palms upon his knees, and staring unseeingly before him.
Cumberly rang again; and in response to the second ring, the housemaid appeared at the door.
"I rang for Soames," said Dr. Cumberly.
"He is not in, sir," answered the girl.
Inspector Dunbar started as though he had been bitten.
"What!" he cried; "not in?"
"No, sir," said the girl, with wide-open, frightened eyes.
Dunbar turned to Cumberly.
"You said there was no other way out!"
"There is no other way, to my knowledge."
"Where's his room?"
Cumberly led the way to a room at the end of a short corridor, and Inspector Dunbar, entering, and turning up the light, glanced about the little apartment. It was a very neat servants' bedroom; with comfortable, quite simple, furniture; but the chest-of-drawers had been hastily ransacked, and the contents of a trunk--or some of its contents--lay strewn about the floor.
"He has packed his grip!" came Leroux's voice from the doorway. "It's gone!"
The window was wide open. Dunbar sprang forward and leaned out over the ledge, looking to right and left, above and below.
A sort of square courtyard was beneath, and for the convenience of tradesmen, a hand-lift was constructed outside the kitchens of the three flats comprising the house; i. e.:--Mr. Exel's, ground floor, Henry Leroux's second floor, and Dr. Cumberly's, top. It worked in a skeleton shaft which passed close to the left of Soames' window.
For an active man, this was a good enough ladder, and the inspector withdrew his head shrugging his square shoulders, irritably.
"My fault entirely!" he muttered, biting his wiry mustache. "I should have come and seen for myself if there was another way out."
Leroux, in a new flutter of excitement, now craned from the window.
"It might be possible to climb down the shaft," he cried, after a brief survey "but not if one were carrying a heavy grip, such as that which he has taken!"
"H'm!" said Dunbar. "You are a writing gentleman, I understand, and yet it does not occur to you that he could have lowered the bag on a cord, if he wanted to avoid the noise of dropping it!"
"Yes--er--of course!" muttered Leroux. "But really--but really-- oh, good God! I am bewildered! What in Heaven's name does it all mean!"
"It means trouble," replied Dunbar, grimly; "bad trouble."
They returned to the study, and Inspector Dunbar, for the first time since his arrival, walked across and examined the fragmentary message, raising his eyebrows when he discovered that it was written upon the same paper as Leroux's MSS. He glanced, too, at the pen lying on a page of "Martin Zeda" near the lamp and at the inky splash which told how hastily the pen had been dropped.
Then--his brows drawn together--he stooped to the body of the murdered woman. Partially raising the fur cloak, he suppressed a gasp of astonishment.
"Why! she only wears a silk night-dress, and a pair of suede slippers!"
He glanced back over his shoulder.
"I had noted that," said Cumberly. "The whole business is utterly extraordinary."
"Extraordinary is no word for it!" growled the inspector, pursuing his examination. . . . "Marks of pressure at the throat--yes; and generally unhealthy appearance."
"Due to the drug habit," interjected Dr. Cumberly.
"I should not like to say out of hand; possibly morphine."
"No jewelry," continued the detective, musingly; "wedding ring--not a new one. Finger nails well cared for, but recently neglected. Hair dyed to hide gray patches; dye wanted renewing. Shoes, French. Night-robe, silk; good lace; probably French, also. Faint perfume--don't know what it is--apparently proceeding from civet fur. Furs, magnificent; very costly." . . .
He slightly moved the table-lamp in order to direct its light upon the white face. The bloodless lips were parted and the detective bent, closely peering at the teeth thus revealed.
"Her teeth were oddly discolored, doctor," he said, taking out a magnifying glass and examining them closely. "They had been recently scaled, too; so that she was not in the habit of neglecting them."
Dr. Cumberly nodded.
"The drug habit, again," he said guardedly; "a proper examination will establish the full facts."
The inspector added brief notes to those already made, ere he rose from beside the body. Then:--
"You are absolutely certain," he said, deliberately, facing Leroux, "that you had never set eyes on this woman prior to her coming here, to-night?"
"I can swear it!" said Leroux.
"Good!" replied the detective, and closed his notebook with a snap. "Usual formalities will have to be gone through, but I don't think I need trouble you, gentlemen, any further, to-night."
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