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   Chapter 13 No.13

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11725

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Berrington's exclamation of surprise was not lost upon Inspector Field. He stood obviously waiting for the gallant officer to say something. As there was a somewhat long pause, the inspector took up the parable for himself.

"In a great many cases that come under our hands, so many give us a chance," he said. "We allow something for luck. More than once in looking up one business I have come across a burning clue of another."

"What is the meaning of all this philosophy, Mr. Field?" Berrington asked.

"Well, I think it is pretty obvious, if you care to see it. We are engaged, just for the present, on looking for a private hansom, painted black, in which is seated a lame gentleman. The rest of our investigation does not matter just now, because we have beyond doubt actually traced the parties who conveyed the body of Sir Charles from the hotel. When the lame gentleman is spoken of you say something about No. 100, Audley Place. It is quite obvious that you know something of the man, or at any rate you think you do. May I point out that it is your duty to help us if you can."

Berrington looked uncomfortable. As a matter of fact he had made up his mind to say nothing as to Audley Place.

"There are several Audley Places in the Directory," Field went on. "I am sure you would not put us to the trouble of looking them all up, sir. Tell me all you know. Anything that you may say will be treated as confidential."

"I quite see your reasoning," Berrington replied. "Let me tell you that I should have said nothing-for the present, at any rate-had I not betrayed myself. Look here, Field, I might just as well inform you that we are treading on very delicate ground here. As soon as I begin to speak, Sir Charles's daughter comes into the business."

"You mean Miss Darryll-Mrs. Richford, I should say. How, Colonel?"

"Because I am quite sure that she knows something of the matter. In the first place you must understand that the marriage was the reverse of a love match. Sir Charles's affairs were in anything but a prosperous condition at the time of his death."

"In fact he was on the point of being arrested in connection with a certain company," Field said coolly. "I got that information from the City Police. It was a mere piece of gossip, but I did not identify it as in any way connected with the subsequent tragedy."

"Well, I should not be surprised to hear that it had an important bearing on the mystery. As far as I could judge after the wedding there was a quarrel between Mr. and Mrs. Richford--"

"Ah!" Field exclaimed. His face was shrewd and eager. "Can you tell me what about?"

"Indeed, I cannot. I cannot even guess. But I can't see what that has to do with it."

"Can't you indeed, sir?" Field asked drily. "Mrs. Richford shall tell me herself, presently. But we are getting no nearer to the lame gentleman in Audley Place."

"Oh, yes we are. Let us admit that quarrel. I am certain of it because yesterday Mr. Richford had luncheon at the same table as myself. He ordered a steak and potatoes. When it came, he asked the waiter who had been putting salt on his plate. Sure enough there was salt on the plate and in the shape of a bullet. Directly Richford saw that, his whole aspect changed. He was like one beside himself with terror. He did not know that I was watching him, he knew nothing beyond the horror of the moment."

"You mean that shaped salt had some hidden meaning, sir?" Field asked.

"I am certain of it. Now don't run your head up against the idea that you are on the track of some political society, or that Anarchism has anything to do with it. It so happens that I have seen that salt sign before in India under strange circumstances that we need not go into at the present moment. The man who pointed it out to me disappeared and was never heard of again. The sign was in his own plate at dinner. A little later I was enabled to get to the bottom of the whole thing; the story shall be told you in due course.

"Well, I wanted to see what Mr. Richford would do next. Was the sign an imperative one or not? Evidently it was, for he got up, finished his brandy, and left the table without having had a single mouthful of food. Under ordinary conditions I should have taken no action, but you see Mrs. Richford is a great friend of mine, and I was anxious to see how far her husband was in with these people. To make a long story short, I followed Richford's cab and traced him to No. 100, Audley Place, which is somewhat at the back of Wandsworth Common. There I was so fortunate as to find a policeman who had been in my regiment, and he gave me all the information he could as to the inhabitants of the house. The gist of that information was that the owner of the house was a lame gentleman who sometimes went out in a bath chair. Now you do see why I cried out when the cabman finished his story to-day?"

Field nodded thoughtfully. He saw perfectly well. For a little time he was silent, piecing the puzzle together. On the whole he was more than satisfied with the morning's work.

"I see," he said at length. "The lame gentleman, of course, sent the message to Mr. Richford. Within a few hours the body of Sir Charles disappears. Why, then, was this message sent? So that the lame man could get posted in all his facts with a view to stealing the body. In other words, Mrs. Richford's husband was a party to that daring crime. Why that body was fetched away we cannot inquire into, at present. What I want to know, and what I must know, is what Mrs. Richford and her husband quarrelled about."

Berrington winced. He had no pleasant vision of Beatrice being cross-examined by this sharp, shrewd policeman. And yet the thing was inevitable. Field's eyes asked a question.

"All right, Inspector," Berrington said, not without some irritation. "I'll go an

d see the lady, and let her know what you have already found out. I suppose it is fatal to try and conceal anything. This comes of a lady marrying such a sweep as that."

Beatrice listened calmly enough to all Berrington had to say. It was not nice to have to tell her story over again, but she decided to conceal nothing. She had done a foolish thing, a wrong thing to save her father, and the world was going to know the whole sordid truth. But so long as Mark stood by her, what did the opinion of the world matter?

"Ask Inspector Field in here," she said. "No, I do not blame you, my dear old friend. Is it not far better that everything should come out? A dreadful crime has been committed and the guilty should be punished, whoever they are."

Inspector Field came in, very sorry and very apologetic for the trouble he was causing. He was quite different from the hard man who had been cross-examining Berrington outside.

"I fancy you can give me certain information," he said. "I have some little hesitation in saying anything personal as to the character of Mr. Richford--"

"You need not hesitate," Beatrice said bitterly, "on my account. I am going to speak freely, and all the more so because I see the possibility of having to repeat it all in the witness box. I married my husband with the sole idea of saving my father from dis--"

"Unpleasantness," Field said swiftly. "There is no occasion for anything of that kind to come out in the witness box. For family reasons you became Mrs. Richford. There is no reason why your sacrifice should have been altogether in vain."

"That is very good of you," Beatrice said gratefully. "Let me say that I am not in love with the man whose name I am supposed to bear. Had anything happened to my father before yesterday, my marriage would never have taken place. My quarrel with my husband was that he knew my father was dead two hours before the ceremony was fixed to take place."

Hardened as he was, Field started. This information was unexpected as it was dramatic.

"I am not speaking idly," Beatrice went on. "I came back here, directly my father's death came to my ears. In his room I found a telegram. It was dated yesterday, the hour was clearly marked upon it-about ten o'clock yesterday morning. That telegram was addressed to my husband; it was found by me close to my father's body. The doctor said that Sir Charles had been dead some hours before he was discovered. Therefore I had conclusive proof in my hands that my husband had seen my father's corpse and that he had stolen out of the room and said nothing, knowing that I should never be his wife if he spoke the truth."

"It seems almost incredible," Field muttered. "What did Mr. Richford say?"

"What could he do or say beyond admitting the truth of my accusation? Even his cunning failed before the production of that fateful telegram. He had to admit everything, he had to admit that the telegram belonged to him, that he had occasion to see my father very early on pressing business, and that he had not raised the alarm because he knew if he did so he would lose me. At one time the suite of rooms in which we stand was rented by Mr. Richford; indeed his term has not expired yet, and that is why my father came here. I can tell you little if any more. What I said to my husband does not matter in the least. I told him plainly that I had done with him, and I hope that I may never see him again."

Field had few questions to ask further. A hundred theories were flying through his nimble brain. Beatrice seemed to divine something of this.

"In common fairness I am bound to say that Mr. Richford could have had nothing to do with my father's death," she said. "In the first place he had everything to gain by Sir Charles keeping his health. I know the doctors are suspicious that there is foul play somewhere, but recollect that they are prepared to swear to my father's death some hours before his body was found. A little before ten, Mr. Richford must have been at home or he could never have had that telegram. Therefore it was after ten before he sought out my father, who, according to the medical view of the cause, had passed away hours before."

"That is very cleverly and logically reasoned," Field said, not without admiration. "And in any case Mr. Richford would be able to give a really convincing account of the reason why he remained silent-especially after a jury had seen you in the witness box."

It was a pretty compliment and a tribute to Field's sound judgment as to human nature, but Beatrice did not appear to heed his words.

"I had better finish and tell you everything," she said. "I have said everything I can, in common fairness to my husband. I feel convinced that if there was foul play he had no hand in it, no actual hand, that is. But there is another side to the question. I have already told you all about the Countess and the General. I told you how my suspicions were aroused, and when I came up to my room as quickly as possible-the door was shut and two people were talking inside. You asked me just now, Inspector Field, if I could recognize the man again-the man who was in the room when the Countess was actually taking impressions of the seals on the door, and I said I could. Can you guess who that man was?"

The inspector looked puzzled for a moment, then the light of illumination came over his face. He glanced up eagerly; his dark eyes were dancing.

"You don't mean to say that it was Mr. Richford?" he asked.

"Indeed I do," Beatrice said quietly, "I had intended to keep that piece of information to myself, but you have forced my hand. Of actual crime, of actual murder, I am quite sure that Stephen Richford is innocent. But as to the rest I cannot say. At any rate I have concealed nothing that is likely to injure the course of justice."

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