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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 15999

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


"Oh yes, I'm modern enough," said Austin Turold, balancing his cigarette in his white fingers, and glancing at Barrant with a reflective air-"that is to say, I believe in America and the League of Nations, but not in God. It's not the fashion to believe in God or have a conscience nowadays. They both went out with the war. After all, what's a conscience to a liver? But here I am, chattering on to distract my sad thoughts, although I can see in your eye that you have it in you to ask me some questions. Well, go ahead and ask them, and I will answer them-if I can."

"I do wish to ask you some questions," said Barrant-"questions connected with your brother's death."

"I know very little about it. It was a most terrible shock to me, I assure you, and is likely to detain me in this barbarous place longer than I intended-greatly against my will."

"I understand you came to Cornwall at your brother's request?"

"Yes. My brother sent for me and my son more than a month ago, so we came at once. I'll forestall the further inquiry I see on your lips, and tell you why I came so promptly. My brother Robert was the wealthy member of the family, and I was the poor one-a poor devil of an Anglo-Indian with nothing on this side of the grave but a niggardly Civil Service pension!

"When we arrived I found that Robert had already taken these lodgings for us, which was as near as he could get accommodation to his own house. I did not object to that arrangement, because I do not like hotels nowadays-not since the newly-rich started to patronize them. So here I've been rusticating ever since, conferring daily with my poor brother, and eating the four meals a day which are provided with the lodgings by the estimable people of this house. My landlord is an artist. That is to say, he's forever daubing pictures which nobody buys. I've come to the conclusion that most people dislike Cornwall because of the number of bad pictures which are painted here. You see some samples of my host's brush on these walls. They are actually too bad to be admitted to the Academy. My poor host and hostess, being unable to make ends meet, were obliged to take in lodgers. The fact, however, is not unduly obtruded. We discuss Art at night, and not the scandalously high price of food. I get on very well, but then I can adapt myself to any society. I pride myself on being a philosopher. But my son is not so facile. My worthy entertainers regard him as a Philistine, and bestow very little of their attention upon him. He spends his time in taking long walks through the wilds. He is out walking at present. I am sorry he is not here."

The conversation was suspended by the entrance of an elderly maid servant with a long and melancholy white face, thickly braided hair, strongly marked black eyebrows, wearing a black dress with white apron, and a white bow in her hair, who came to ask if Mr. Turold required any more tea. On learning that he did not she withdrew as noiselessly as she had entered.

"I see you are looking at our parlour-maid," said Austin Turold, following the direction of his visitor's glance.

"She's a strange sort of parlour-maid," admitted the detective. "She reminds me of-of-"

"A study in black and white," suggested his host. "Her face is her fortune. She's sitting to Brierly-that's my host-for his latest effort. He's painting her as the Madonna or Britannia-I really forget which. A new type, you know. The servants in this house are engaged for their faces. They had a villainous scoundrel of a man-servant-a returned soldier-engaged as Judas Iscariot, who bolted last week with the silver spoons. But all this is beside the point, Mr. Barrant, and I must not waste your time. You have come here for a specific purpose-to turn me inside out. What can I tell you?"

"I want to know all that you can tell me about your brother's death," said the other, with emphasis.

"But what can I tell you that you do not already know?" exclaimed Austin, raising his eyebrows with a helpless look. "Ask me what questions you like, and I'll endeavour to answer them. When the famous Detective Barrant-for I understand from the newspapers that you are famous-takes an interview in hand I expect him to handle the situation in a masterly fashion, as befits his reputation. So ask your questions, my dear fellow, and I'll do my utmost to respond." Austin Turold took off his glasses, and posed himself in an attitude of expectation, with his eyes fixed upon the detective's face.

Barrant eyed the elder man with a puzzled curiosity which was tolerably masked by official impassivity. Barrant had his own methods of investigation and inquiry. He brought an alert intelligence, a seeing eye, and a false geniality to bear in his work. Unversed in elaborate deduction, he flattered himself that he knew enough about human nature to strike the balance of probabilities in almost any case. His cardinal article of faith was that there was nothing like getting on good terms with those he was interviewing in order to find out things. Most people were on their guard against detectives, who too often took advantage of their position to assume offensive airs of intimidation, whereas the great thing was to disarm suspicion by a friendly manner. Barrant had cultivated pleasantness with considerable success. Some who were not good judges of physiognomy were apt to overlook the watchful eyes in his smiling affable presence, and talk freely-sometimes too freely, as they later on discovered to their cost. A chance word, a significant phrase, was sufficient to set him burrowing underground with the activity of a mole, to burst into the open later on with all his clues complete, to the confusion of the trusting person with an unguarded tongue.

He had put these tactics into execution with Austin Turold. Austin, taking tea when he called, in a bright blue room hung with pictures, had received his visitor with a charming cordiality, insisted on his taking tea with him, and then let loose a flood of small-talk, as though he were delighted with his visitor. His welcome was so perfect, his manners so gracefully unforced, that Barrant had an uneasy suspicion that he was being beaten at his own game, and was slightly out of countenance in consequence. Up to that moment he could not, for the life of him, decide whether Austin Turold's polished self-assurance was a mask or not. It seemed too natural to be assumed.

"Your own opinion is that your brother committed suicide?" he asked again.

"No other conclusion is possible, in my mind."

"But did he have any reason, that you know of, to commit suicide?"

Austin shrugged his shoulders. "Suicide is not usually associated with reason," he observed. "But in Robert's case there is a reason, or so it seems to me. I have not seen him for many years, but during my recent close association with him I was struck by two things: the solitary aloofness of his mind, and his overwhelming pride-pride in the family name. These two traits in his character coloured all his actions. In the first place, he disliked opening his mind to anybody, but the stronger influence, his family pride, overcame his habitual secretiveness when he thought it necessary and desirable to do so in furtherance of his darling ambition-the restoration of this title. Men who lead a solitary, self-contained life, like my brother, become introspective and ultra-sensitive, and face any intimate personal revelation with the utmost reluctance. They will nerve themselves to it when the occasion absolutely requires, but the after effects-the mental self-probings, the agonized self torture that a self-conscious proud man can inflict on himself when he comes to analyze the effects of his disclosure on other minds, are sometimes unendurable."

Austin put forward this analysis of his brother's state of mind with a gravity which was in complete contrast with the light airiness of his tea-table gossip, and Barrant felt that he wa

s speaking with sincerity.

"Yes, I can understand that," he said with a thoughtful nod.

"I think that is what happened in my brother's case, when he felt called upon to reveal, as he did yesterday, a shameful family secret which hurt him in his strongest point-his family pride."

"Stop a minute," interrupted Barrant, in a surprised voice. "I really do not follow you here. What is this shameful secret to which you refer?"

Austin Turold looked surprised in his turn. "It had to do with his marriage and his daughter's legitimacy," he slowly replied. "Surely my sister imparted this to the Penzance police inspector, when she besought his assistance?"

"I know nothing about it," replied Barrant quickly and emphatically. "I shall be glad if you will tell me."

"Certainly."

Austin Turold related the story of his brother's. Again he spoke in careful grave words, and with a manner completely divested of any trace of his habitual flippancy.

"It appears to me that this revelation must have had a very painful effect on Robert's mind," he added. "You must remember that he was an abnormal type. An ordinary man would not have made such a disclosure on the day of the funeral of the woman who was supposed to be his wife. But all Robert's acts hinged on his one great obsession. He allowed nothing to come between him and his one ambition-not even his wife (let us call her so) and child. But it would come home to him afterwards-I mean the normal point of view-the way the world would regard such a disclosure-and I have no doubt that his belated mental anguish and morbid thoughts impelled him to take his life. Understand me, Mr. Barrant, I do not mean that he did this through remorse, but through the blow to his pride. He couldn't face the racket-the gossip, the notoriety and all the rest of it."

"But according to your story, your brother had nothing to blame himself for," said Barrant. "You say that he was ignorant of this earlier marriage until recently?"

"Public sentiment will not look at it that way. People will say he sacrificed a dead woman and his daughter to his own selfish ends-threw them over when he had attained his ambition. That's what came home to him, in my opinion."

"I see." Barrant was silent for a while, turning this over in all its bearings. "Yes. There may be something in that point of view. But did not your brother confide this story to you before yesterday?"

"When we were alone together during the last few days he frequently seemed on the point of telling me something. I could see that by his manner. But he never got beyond a certain portentousness, as it were. It's my belief now that he wanted to tell me, but couldn't quite bring himself to it. I am very sorry that he didn't."

"Do you know how long your brother has been aware of this earlier marriage?"

"Quite recently, I believe. He gave us to understand yesterday that it was a death-bed confession."

"Are there any proofs of the earlier marriage?"

"I am afraid I cannot enlighten you on that point either."

"This is very strange," said Barrant. "The proofs are very important. This disclosure vitally affected your brother's ambitions, and was therefore likely to influence his views regarding the disposition of his property."

He shot a keen glance at his companion. Austin laid aside his glasses and bent earnestly across the table.

"I will be frank with you," he said, "quite frank. My brother told me a little more than a week ago that he had made a new will, and that I was his heir."

"Where is this will?"

"I found it in the clock-case at Flint House last night, and I have since handed it to the lawyer who drafted it."

"Your brother gave you no indication of this before?"

"No. He told me when I came that he had summoned me to Cornwall because of the great change in the family fortunes. As I was his only brother he desired my presence in the investigation of the final proofs and the preparation of his claim for the House of Lords. Nothing was said about the succession then. Robert was very excited, and talked only of his own future. I feel sure that he was not then thinking of who was to succeed to the title after his death. He looked forward to enjoying it himself. I certainly did not give it a thought, either. Who could have foreseen this tragic event?"

"Do you know anything about this peerage?"

"Not till latterly. I never took it seriously, like Robert. I looked upon it as a family fiction. I understand that the Turrald barony was a barony by writ-whatever that may be. The point is that if my brother had lived to restore it, the title, on his death, would have descended to his only daughter, if she had been born in wedlock. As she is illegitimate, the title would have descended to me, and after me to my son."

"You were here last night when they brought you the news of your brother's death, I understand?" remarked Barrant, in a casual sort of way.

"Yes; I did not go out again after I returned from the funeral."

"Was your son home with you?"

"Most of the time. He came in later than I, and then went out for a walk when the storm cleared away. I did not see him again until this morning. Thalassa came for me with the news of my brother's death, and I did not get back from Flint House until very late."

"I suppose you are aware your sister does not share your view that your brother committed suicide?"

"I understand she has some absurd suspicion about Thalassa, my brother's servant."

"Why do you call her suspicion absurd?" asked Barrant cautiously.

"It is more than absurd," replied Austin warmly. "I am ashamed to think that my sister should have given utterance to such a dreadful thought against a faithful old servant who has been with Robert for half a lifetime, and was devoted to him."

"Mrs. Pendleton saw him looking through the door."

"She only thought so. She went to the door immediately to find out who it was, but there was nobody there."

"Do you think she imagined it?"

"No; I think somebody was there, but it is by no means certain that it was Thalassa. It might have been Thalassa's wife. It might even have been Robert's daughter."

"Was not Miss Turold present at the family gathering?"

"No; my brother naturally did not wish her to be present, and she went upstairs. She went out while we were in the room. The door was slightly open, and she may have glanced in as she passed."

"But this person was listening."

Austin Turold shrugged his shoulders.

"Was your brother talking about his marriage at the time?"

"Yes."

"Could Miss Turold have heard what he was saying?"

"Anybody could. The door was partly open."

"There is some mystery here."

Barrant spoke with the thoughtful air of one viewing a new vista opening in the distance. These surmises about the listener at the door, by their manifest though perhaps unintended implication, pointed to a deeper and more terrible mystery than he had imagined.

Austin Turold did not speak. Darkness had long since fallen, and a lamp, which had been brought in by the maid who was also the model, stood on the table between the two men, and threw its shaded beams on their faces. A clock on the mantel-piece chimed eight, and aroused Barrant to the flight of time.

"I must get back," he said. "I intended to see Dr. Ravenshaw, but I shall leave that until later. Can I get a conveyance back to Penzance?"

"There is a public wagonette. I am not sure when it goes, but it starts from 'The Three Jolly Wreckers' at the other end of the churchtown."

"'The Three Jolly Wreckers!' That's rather a cynical name for a Cornish inn, isn't it?"

"Oh, the Cornish people are not ashamed of the old wrecking days, I assure you."

He accompanied Barrant to the door with the lamp, which he held above his head to light him down the garden path. Barrant, glancing back, saw him looking after him, his face outlined in the darkness by the yellow rays of the lamp.

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