Bat Wing/Chapter XXIX
WHAT reply I should have offered to this astonishing remark I cannot say, but at that moment the library door burst open unceremoniously, and outlined against the warmly illuminated hall, where sunlight poured down through the dome, I beheld the figure of Inspector Aylesbury.
“Ah!” he cried, loudly, “so you have come back, Mr. Harley? I thought you had thrown up the case.”
“Did you?” said Harley, smilingly. “No, I am still persevering in my ineffectual way.”
“Oh, I see. And have you quite convinced yourself that Colin Camber is innocent?”
“In one or two particulars my evidence remains incomplete.”
“Oh, in one or two particulars, eh? But generally speaking you don’t doubt his innocence?”
“I don’t doubt it for a moment.”
Harley’s words surprised me. I recognized, of course, that he might merely be bluffing the Inspector, but it was totally alien to his character to score a rhetorical success at the expense of what he knew to be the truth; and so sure was I of the accuracy of my deductions that I no longer doubted Colin Camber to be the guilty man.
“At any rate,” continued the Inspector, “he is in detention, and likely to remain there. If you are going to defend him at the Assizes, I don’t envy you your job, Mr. Harley.”
He was blatantly triumphant, so that the fact was evident enough that he had obtained some further piece of evidence which he regarded as conclusive.
“I have detained the man Ah Tsong as well,” he went on. “He was an accomplice of your innocent friend, Mr. Harley.”
“Was he really?” murmured Harley.
“Finally,” continued the Inspector, “I have only to satisfy myself regarding the person who lured Colonel Menendez out into the grounds last night, to have my case complete.”
I turned aside, unable to trust myself, but Harley remarked quite coolly:
“Your industry is admirable, Inspector Aylesbury, but I seem to perceive that you have made a very important discovery of some kind.”
“Ah, you have got wind of it, have you?”
“I have no information on the point,” replied Harley, “but your manner urges me to suggest that perhaps success has crowned your efforts?”
“It has,” replied the Inspector. “I am a man that doesn’t do things by halves. I didn’t content myself with just staring out of the window of that little hut in the grounds of the Guest House, like you did, Mr. Harley, and saying ‘twice one are two’—I looked at every book on the shelves, and at every page of those books.”
“You must have materially added to your information?”
“Ah, very likely, but my enquiries didn’t stop there. I had the floor up.”
“The floor of the hut?”
“The floor of the hut, sir. The planks were quite loose. I had satisfied myself that it was a likely hiding place.”
“What did you find there, a dead rat?”
Inspector Aylesbury turned, and:
“Sergeant Butler,” he called.
The sergeant came forward from the hall, carrying a cricket bag. This Inspector Aylesbury took from him, placing it upon the floor of the library at his feet.
“New, sir,” said he, “I borrowed this bag in which to bring the evidence away—the hanging evidence which I discovered beneath the floor of the hut.”
I had turned again, when the man had referred to his discovery; and now, glancing at Harley, I saw that his face had grown suddenly very stern.
“Show me your evidence, Inspector?” he asked, shortly.
“There can be no objection,” returned the Inspector.
Opening the bag, he took out a rifle!
Paul Harley’s hands were thrust in his coat pockets, By the movement of the cloth I could see that he had clenched his fists. Here was confirmation of my theory!
“A Service rifle,” said the Inspector, triumphantly, holding up the weapon. “A Lee-Enfield charger-loader. It contains four cartridges, three undischarged, and one discharged. He had not even troubled to eject it.”
The Inspector dropped the weapon into the bag with a dramatic movement.
“Fancy theories about bat wings and Voodoos,” he said, scornfully, “may satisfy you, Mr. Harley, but I think this rifle will prove more satisfactory to the Coroner.”
He picked up the bag and walked out of the library.
Harley stood posed in a curiously rigid way, looking after him. Even when the door had closed he did not change his position at once. Then, turning slowly, he walked to an armchair and sat down.
“Harley,” I said, hesitatingly, “has this discovery surprised you?”
“Surprised me?” he returned in a low voice. “It has appalled me.”
“Then, although you seemed to regard my theory as sound,” I continued rather resentfully, “all the time you continued to believe Colin Camber to be innocent?”
“I believe so still.”
“I thought we had determined, Knox,” he said, wearily, “that a man of Camber’s genius, having decided upon murder, must have arranged for an unassailable alibi. Very well. Are we now to leap to the other end of the scale, and to credit him with such utter stupidity as to place hanging evidence where it could not fail to be discovered by the most idiotic policeman? Preserve your balance, Knox. Theories are wild horses. They run away with us. I know that of old, for which very reason I always avoid speculation until I have a solid foundation of fact upon which to erect it.”
“But, my dear fellow,” I cried, “was Camber to foresee that the floor of the hut would be taken up?”
Harley sighed, and leaned back in his chair.
“Do you recollect your first meeting with this man, Knox?”
“He was slightly drunk.”
“Yes, but what was the nature of his conversation?”
“He suggested that I had recognized his resemblance to Edgar Allan Poe.”
“Quite. What had led him to make this suggestion?”
“The manner in which I had looked at him, I suppose.”
“Exactly. Although not quite sober, from a mere glance he was able to detect what you were thinking. Do you wish me to believe, Knox, that this same man had not foreseen what the police would think when Colonel Menendez was found shot within a hundred yards of the garden of the Guest House?”
I was somewhat taken aback, for Harley’s argument was strictly logical, and:
“It is certainly very puzzling,” I admitted.
“Puzzling!” he exclaimed; “it is maddening. This case is like a Syrian village-mound. Stratum lies under stratum, and in each we meet with evidence of more refined activity than in the last. It seems we have yet to go deeper.”
He took out his pipe and began to fill it.
“Tell me about the interview with Madame de Stämer,” he directed.
I took a seat facing him, and he did not once interrupt me throughout my account of Inspector Aylesbury’s examination of Madame.
“Good,” he commented, when I had told how the Inspector was dismissed. “But at least, Knox, he has a working theory, to which he sticks like an express to the main line, whereas I find myself constantly called upon to readjust my perspective. Directly I can enjoy freedom of movement, however, I shall know whether my hypothesis is a house of cards or a serviceable structure.”
“Your hypothesis?” I said. “Then you really have a theory which is entirely different from mine?”
“Not entirely different, Knox, merely not so comprehensive. I have contented myself thus far with a negative theory, if I may so express it.”
“Exactly. We are dealing, my dear fellow, with a case of bewildering intricacies. For the moment I have focussed upon one feature only.”
“What is that?”
“Upon proving that Colin Camber did not do the murder.”
“Did not do it?”
“Precisely, Knox. Respecting the person or persons who did do it, I had preserved a moderately open mind, up to the moment that Inspector Aylesbury entered the library with the Lee-Enfield.”
“And then?” I said, eagerly.
“Then,” he replied, “I began to think hard. However, since I practise what I preach, or endeavour to do so, I must not permit myself to speculate upon this aspect of the matter until I have tested my theory of Camber’s innocence.”
“In other words,” I said, bitterly, “although you encouraged me to unfold my ideas regarding Mrs. Camber, you were merely laughing at me all the time!”
“My dear Knox!” exclaimed Harley, jumping up impulsively, “please don’t be unjust. Is it like me? On the contrary, Knox”—he looked me squarely in the eyes—“you have given me a platform on which already I have begun to erect one corner of a theory of the crime. Without new facts I can go no further. But this much at least you have done.”
“Thanks, Harley,” I murmured, and indeed I was gratified; “but where do your other corners rest?”
“They rest,” he said, slowly, “they rest, respectively, upon a bat wing, a yew tree, and a Lee-Enfield charger-loader.”