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The Arncliffe Puzzle
LORD ARNCLIFFE CAUSES A DISPUTE
"AH!" said the fisherman, "I nearly had him that time!"
Perhaps the stolid "March Brown" at the end of the cast had dropped like a stone into the clear water. The whole bunch of flies might have fallen a trifle short. Or the shadow of the line as it sped over a sunlit space had flashed a warning to wary eyes. Whatever the explanation, the disastrous fact remained. A huge trout, feeding lazily at the head of the shallows, had darted silently up-stream, leaving a tempting array of "March Browns," "Black Gnats," and even a glittering "Greenman's Glory," to float back in a defeated tangle.
Although certain spasmodic wrigglings inside an ample pannier revealed that George Lester was a fisher of skill, it will be obvious to the sympathetic soul that the escaped leviathan was the trout of trouts, the two-pound monarch of the beck, the "wonder" of whose existence a beer-inspired poacher had hinted over-night in the sanded "bar" of the Fisherman's Rest. Was it not at this precise spot that the man in a rabbit-skin cap had warned his new acquaintance to "keep an eye open for t' big 'un?" Had not the speckled beauty not only rewarded expectancy but actually curled its plump body into the sunlight to gobble a May-fly? And now it was a memory, a brown ghost hidden in the black depths beneath the hazels and the willows! Scoffers those to whom a fish is a mere item on a menu — might marvel at the bitterness of the moment. Not so this fisherman, nor any other brother of the rod.
Lester recovered his flies and whipped his line clear. The wide-spreading pastures had narrowed thereabouts into a lovely dingle, and the sylvan mysteries of the rivulet were choked by a belt of solemn firs. Gruffly insistent, where fences on both sides ran into the willows, was a notice-board: "trespassers will be prosecuted — BY ORDER." He laughed.
"An educated fish, evidently," he murmured. "Here endeth the common right. Some bloated colliery magnate probably owns the neighboring property and that fish. What is the fine, I wonder? Forty shillings and costs? I'll pay so much cheerfully. But the local paper will publish the fell details. By Jove, what a change a month plus a mail-steamer can make! Wish I had this coal merchant thigh-deep in the Banti swamp. He would give me the free run of his preserves for life to pull him out."
Consoled by the imaginary spectacle of a plethoric person in a frock-coat and a silk hat struggling through the hinterland of Ashanti, George Lester hitched the strap of his pannier out of a rut in his shoulder, laid the rod on the grass, and produced a pipe and tobacco-pouch. The mere thought of a smoke was so pleasing that he found himself indulging in the conceit that the trespass-forbidding ogre might be amenable to a polite request for permission to fish the protected waters.
And then, all unsuspected, the curtain rose on the great drama of his life.
Having lit his pipe, he disjointed the rod, and had turned to walk back to the village of Arncliffe and its comfortable inn, when a slight shriek broke the magic silence of the place. It appeared to come from the midst of the dense plantation. It was the cry of a woman in distress, and this young man was not of hesitating temperament under such conditions. Instantly he vaulted over a stout railing that closed a gap in the quick-set hedge and ran quickly through the trees, with eyes and ears intent.
The soft carpet provided by generations of fir spines rendered his passage almost noiseless. Once within the cathedral aisle of the straight trunks he could see a considerable distance. Nothing was visible in the wood except the white tails of several scuttling rabbits and the golden-brown plumage of an alarmed pheasant. Hence he concluded that the scream must have come from the denser growth by the banks of the little river. He hurried on, soon discovering that the plantation narrowed during its descent of the steep sides of the valley. A vista of rolling park-land, studded with solitary oaks, dumps of elms, and groups of short-horned cattle gradually unfolded itself.
And now, in the angle formed by the fir-trees and the stream, he discerned a big straw hat covering a muslin dress. The wearer of these feminine accessories seemed to be greatly interested in some thrilling incident which was enacting itself in the water. An open sunshade, thrown heedlessly aside, and a book lying on the grass near a fallen tree, showed that a reader's solitude had been rudely disturbed.
Lester, climbing another fence, thought it best not to add to her alarm, whatever the cause, by appearing unexpectedly. So he shouted: "Don't be frightened! Can I help you?"
His first impression of the face suddenly turned toward him was that nature, playing one of her pranks in the staid North of England, had transported to that secluded spot a Frenchwoman of Versailles, some charming Duchesse or Marquise such as Greuze loved to paint. There was a glimpse of Titian red hair framing an oval face, a hint of coral lips, a flash of eyes of myosotis blue. But instantly the vision was withdrawn, and a sweet voice wailed:
"Oh, it is too late!"
Lester was now near enough to witness the final act of a tragedy.
A full-grown dog otter was making off with his kill, a superb trout that could be none other than the poacher's "big 'un." A stream which yielded fish averaging six ounces in weight could not harbor two such monsters in one short reach. And there was the sleek thief vanishing silently with the prize, while the girl turned tear-dimmed eyes to the newcomer.
"How horrid!" she cried. "I was sitting here in absolute quiet when I heard a rush and a splash, and I saw that nasty otter spring after the fish. Poor thing! It tried to escape. But he turned over some large stones quite easily, and caught it."
"If there are no otter hounds in the neighborhood, the keepers should trap or shoot the brutes. They are perfect pests in a well-stocked river," said Lester.
"Lord Arncliffe will not permit anything on the estate to be killed."
"He ought to be told that by encouraging otters, weasels, stoats, and other destructive creatures, he is sanctioning wholesale murder, though indeed it is well not to push the theory too far, seeing that lex talionis is the law of nature."
"It may be; nevertheless I dislike such demonstrations. It has ruined my afternoon, and I am so sorry for the poor fish! Just imagine its feelings when it was pounced on by a fierce beast with sharp teeth and wicked eyes!"
Then the young woman became conscious that she was speaking thus impulsively to a stranger. Moreover, a squirm inside the creaking pannier revealed that the difference between man and otter, when equally intent on the capture of trout, would demand careful definition. Quick to interpret and anxious to remove the cause of her sudden embarrassment, Lester bent to recover the book and parasol. Being an observant person, he noted that the volume was a presentation copy of an irreproachable French novel, a rarity in itself. Nevertheless, being a man of candid humor, he protested against the girl's generic description of the angling tribe.
"My own want of skill alone saved the victim from earlier disaster," he said pleasantly. "Moreover, I saw him deliberately cut off a May-fly in its prime, so my sympathy rests chiefly with you, who were so disagreeably disturbed in this Arcady."
He was endowed with what his Mends described as a "reassuring" smile. It won the goodwill of men, the confidence of women, and its present effect was to restore Miss Edith Holt to her normal mood of cheerful audacity. She glanced at his fishing equipment.
"You must not be caught poaching here," she said with a gravity belied by her eyes. "The plea that you are ignorant of the law will only enhance your punishment."
"My only offense is that I rushed to your assistance. Does the action constitute me a poacher? If so, I will suffer the penalty with Christian fortitude."
"How could you know what was going on unless you were in the wood?" said she, sticking to her text.
"Because you screamed."
"I am sure I did nothing of the sort. I never scream.”
"Then we have provided a case worthy of the Psychical Research Society's records, for I was mysteriously influenced to jump two hedges and traverse the wood in your behalf."
"I must have scr — cried out more loudly than I fancied. And you reached me very quickly," she added hastily, conscious that this unknown and distinguished-looking young man better deserved her thanks than dire threats of the fishery laws.
He was tempted to seize the new opening and prolong the conversation, but there was an element of unfairness in taking advantage of the girl's confusion. When all was said and done, he was an interloper, and the first surprise of finding such a dainty divinity in that solitary nook was yielding to the surmise that he was addressing one who, in all probability, was the nineteenth-century goddess of Arncliffe Park.
So he lifted his hat with the polite ease of a man of the world.
"My excuse for intruding on your domain is that I thought my help was needed. Let me apologize for myself — and the otter."
"Indeed, I am very much obliged to you," she replied.
"And I to the otter," he could not resist saying, though now he was half-turned towards the wood.
"Hello, there! Stop! What are you doing here?" suddenly demanded a loud voice.
Neither Edith Holt nor her would-be protector had noticed the rapid approach of a stoutly built, bull-necked youngster of the country squire type, who was striding across the park in a violent hurry. Indeed, he had just ceased running. The exertion gave an apoplectic tinge to his red face and brought his skin into curious harmony with the vivid hue of his leather gaiters and tan-colored boots. The cut of his clothes, the pattern of his waistcoat, the shape of his hat, bespoke a horsey individual. He carried a hunting-crop with a bone handle carved to represent a dog's head, while the gold pin in his hunting tie was fashioned as a fox at full gallop.
The manner of his coming no less than his peremptory hail was offensive. His attitude bespoke the outraged upholder of property rights. "Wait till I catch you, my fine fellow!" he seemed to say. "I'll teach you not to try your poaching tricks here!"
Lester, habited to classify mankind in the rough, likened the truculent newcomer to a savage chief who once waylaid him, unarmed, in the Ashanti bush, but who was incontinently put to flight when the Englishman, by a happy thought, planted the tripod of a camera before him and dived his head under the dark cloth. The warrior knew naught of photography, but once he had seen a Maxim gun in action — seen it from the front, too. The square black thing induced doubt. A flap of the cloth and a raised shutter caused the negro to fly with a yell. Lester wondered now what would happen if he charged the other man full tilt with his fishing-rod; but the girl gave a fresh turn to his thoughts by crying excitedly:
"Oh, Harry, I have had such a fright! I was sitting here reading when an otter caught a fish almost at my feet. This gentleman heard me cry out and very kindly ran to my assistance."
"Harry" still snorted suspicion, and the glint of his light-blue eyes betokened that the well-set-up, gentlemanly aspect of the stranger was as little to his liking as the more distant semblance of a trespasser.
"Don't you understand? He was fishing the stream beyond the wood, and he was brought here by my very natural cry of alarm."
The smile had left the girl's face. It was succeeded by a flush of annoyance. Her voice too had a touch of petulance. Harry's gauche manner evidently irritated her. Why had be not accepted the explanation she tendered so readily?
"Beyond the wood, was he? All right. I hurried here to tell you that his lordship has been taken seriously ill. My mother is asking for you — Edith."
There was still an ungracious tone in the man's speech, and he dragged in the girl's Christian name with awkward effect.
Lester, unwilling that he should be the cause of a quarrel between two young people who were on such familiar terms, raised his hat again.
"I fear I am to blame for disregarding the notice-board," he said. "But I did not wait to consider consequences. Happily, the affair is unimportant."
By this time the girl was hastening away, and Harry, apparently anxious to accompany her, thought fit to say, less roughly:
"Of course I didn't know what had happened. If you wish to avoid the wood you will find a path at the top of the hill. It leads direct to the village. Should any of the keepers meet you, say you were sent that way by Mr. Warren. Good-day!"
Lester, whose disposition was eminently placid, did as he was told. Relighting his pipe, he climbed the hill, and watched the fluttering muslin skirt and the red gaiters making rapid progress across the park. Above the soaring, foliage of many elms he could now see the chimneys and gables of a large Elizabethan house.
"I am afraid my pretty little marquise and that half-educated clodhopper are pairing off," he mused. "How oddly humanity blunders at times! There should be a law to prevent such ill-matched sorting."
At that moment the "clodhopper" glanced back and his companion followed suit. Lester smiled good-humoredly.
"She is pitching into him for being rude to me," thought Lester, "and he is defending himself by explaining his extreme civility in telling me about the path. Well, if it gratifies mademoiselle — for she is certainly of French descent, notwithstanding the Saxon sound of 'Edith' — I am glad I came this way."
He encountered no keeper. When he reached the village, the stout landlord of the "Fisherman's Rest," known to two generations of anglers as "Jolly Jim" Jones, greeted him at the door.
"Well, sir, what sport?"
"Excellent, with a catastrophe thrown in."
"What was thrown in, sir?"
"A young lady, not to mention a fierce beast with wicked eyes."
"By gum!" said the landlord, doubtful whether to believe the grave words or the laughing voice. Handing the laden pannier to a maid-servant, the fisherman became more explicit. Then Jones yielded information.
"Aye, t' young leddy mun be Miss Edith Holt. She's a sort of a secriterry to his lordship. She kern frae somewheer i' t' South, soom place named efter a coo. Dang me if I can think."
"Named after a cow?"
"Well, mebbe t' coo was called efter t' place. Blow me —"
Suddenly light was vouchsafed to Lester.
"Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney?" he tried.
"That's it, Alderney. Good cast, sir!"
"Ah, hence the marquise," murmured Lester. Jones was puzzled again. He laughed, in case there was a lurking joke. The word suggested a circus or a fair to him, but his guest went on: "And who is Mr. Warren?"
"He's t' agent, Mrs. Warren's son. She's t' housekeeper at t' Hall. A nice fat job she's gotten him. A bonny agent to be sure! He doesn't know wuts (oats) frae turnips till they're cooked. By gum! Farmer Brown tell't me t'other day —"
Any further gossip was cut short by the rapid clatter of a horse hard ridden up the village street. The rider, a groom, dismounted in great haste outside a house with a brass plate on the door.
"What's wrang noo?" said the landlord. "Yon's one o' Lord Arncliffe's men. Somebody ill, I'll be bound, as sure as my name's J. J.! "
Lester, of course, was in a position to hazard a guess on the point, but he said nothing. A consultation between the messenger and a serving maid caused the former to turn away, mopping his head in perplexity. A glass of beer is the usual resource of such a man if his brains are taxed unduly. The groom, tucking his bridle under his arm, led his horse toward the "Fisherman's Rest".
"Here's a nice thing!" he cried, in response to Jones's inquiry. "Lord Arncliffe at death's door, an' Dr. Smalley gone off on a round the Lord knows where! What's best to be done — ride to Moseley or telegraph to Alnwick?"
"His lordship dyin'? S'welp me! " gasped the innkeeper.
"So Mrs. Warren said. She told me to ride like — well, as fast as I could, for Dr. Smalley, an' now I'm in a fix."
"Did you say mixed ale?" was all Jones was able to ask, for he was dazed by the news.
"Can I be of any service?" interposed Lester. "I am a doctor."
"Are you, sir?" cried the groom. "Can you ride?"
"Well, sir, take my mare. It's a godsend to have met you. Tell Mrs. Warren how it happened, an' say I am following. I have left word for Dr. Smalley."
"Has Lord Arncliffe had a sudden seizure? Is he an old man?"
"He is very old, sir, but, though ailing, he has had nothing like this before."
"Is he stout?"
"Bless you, sir, he's thin as a herring!"
George Lester quickly ran up-stairs, grabbed a small instrument case from his portmanteau, obtained some directions from the groom as he swung into the saddle, and was gone before Jones appeared with a brimming tankard.
The inn-keeper had earned his nickname because he could laugh on any pretext. He grinned now vacuously.
"So he's a docther, is he," was his comment. "Dang me, I thowt he was a gentleman!"
"Anyhow, he can ride," said the groom.
A pleasant country road, a lodge, a well-kept drive through a fine park sheltered by woods glorious in their June boscage, whirled past Lester during that strenuous gallop. The mare was a good one, and her head was turned toward the stables; so not many minutes elapsed ere he was breathlessly asking for Mrs. Warren at the spacious entrance to the fine mansion he already had seen amid the trees.
To avoid delay, he told the footman why he was there, and he was surprised when the man returned, white-faced, with a stammering message from Mr., not Mrs., Warren that he was too late. Lord Arncliffe was dead. Yet the footman was obviously startled by the news.
"Take my compliments to Mr. Warren," said Lester with some emphasis, "and tell him that he has arrived at a serious decision. None except a medical man can decide that question."
The passive resistance apparently offered to professional aid was astonishing. It tended to throw George Lester into a critical, if not hostile, frame of mind. A gardener offered to hold his horse, so he advanced a few steps into the wide hall. That Lord Arncliffe, when living, was a dilettante of exquisite taste and far-reaching knowledge was evident at a glance. Here were Saracen and old Spanish coats of mail, steel inlaid with gold, shields of Japanese lacquer, bossed with carved dragons in oxidized silver, portraits by Lely and Gainsborough, porcelain from Sèvres and Dresden, statuettes from Pompeii, squat figures of long-forgotten gods from Southern India. Quaintly varied as were the trappings of hall and splendid oak staircase, each object was a gem in itself. Wealth alone could not have gathered the display. The soul of a collector, the cunning eye of a connoisseur, must have commanded the purse of a millionaire, if the remainder of the house was Wicked with an artistic hoard to match this first sample of its treasures.
He was admiring a jade vase, embellished with scrollwork in red gold, when the rustle of a dress came from a corridor leading into the broad landing of the stairs. Followed by the footman, an elderly woman appeared. Her attire, a black gown of stiff silk, her lace cap, a bunch of shining keys at her waist, the lines in her pallid face expressing discipline and order, showed that this could be none other than the housekeeper, Mrs. Warren. Lester, prone to idle musings, wondered if she would object to the dust on his garments, so prim was she, and so spick and span the polished oak and tessellated floor of the mansion she ruled.
But her somewhat harsh features softened into a mechanical affability when Lester advanced to meet her. She had been observing him narrowly as she descended the stairs, and a woman of her position might be trusted to sum up a stranger with exceeding accuracy.
"My son did not quite understand the footman's message," she said in measured accents, though her natural emotion was betrayed by the effort to speak without constraint. "Of course we are only too glad that a doctor should see his lordship. May I ask your name, sir?"
"George Lester. Although not practising now, I have recently been medical officer to the Associated Gold-Fields Company on the West Coast of Africa."
"Are you staying in the village?"
She turned to usher him to the upper floor, and he briefly accounted for his presence as they went on together. They traversed a long passage, adorned throughout with rare pictures, ancient arms, and fine china, with here and there a wonderful burl cabinet or marquetry table. Pausing at the end door on the right, Mrs. Warren stepped aside.
"Lord Arncliffe's bedroom," she whispered. "We brought him here from the library when — when Simpson found him."
Lester asked no questions. The time for explanation was not yet. Some one, seemingly Lord Arncliffe's agent, had spoken of death. Let that all-important verdict be ratified first.
The room was dim. Green blinds shut out the afternoon sun. On a narrow bed lay a diminutive figure, fully dressed. Near a window stood the man with the red gaiters. Nearer the still form on the bed was a liveried servant, aged and bent, gulping back his grief. Lester almost expected to find Miss Holt there too, but the large room held no other occupant. He noticed, but paid no heed to, the surprised air of the agent when he entered the room.
His first action was to raise the blind of the window nearest the bed. Then he stooped over the shrunken form stretched so stiffly on the coverlet. Waistcoat and shirt had been disarranged at the breast. He lifted an eyelid, and a glance sufficed. The cornea was opaque. Though this sign is practically infallible, Lester applied a stethoscope to the region of the heart. He listened intently for a period that must have seemed long to the watchers. Then he straightened himself.
"Yes, he is dead," he said.
There was a pause of tense silence. Even the weeping domestic withheld his sobs. Lester leaned over the bed again. Clearly, his attention was drawn by a slight irritation of the skin of the neck and scalp.
"He has been dead for more than an hour," volunteered Warren, speaking in the sharp, suspicious tone of one who resents, but cannot prevent, an intrusion.
"Has Dr. Smalley been in regular attendance on Lord Arncliffe?" inquired Lester, still examining the dead man's face.
Mrs. Warren answered. "Yes, in a sense," she said." Dr. Smalley saw him two days ago."
"Did the doctor prescribe any medicine?"
"Lord Arncliffe would not touch any drug or alcoholic stimulant."
"Did he appear to be in his usual health to-day?"
"Oh, yes. He was at work in the library with Miss Holt until five o'clock. Then, as was her usual habit, she brought him a cup of beef tea and some biscuits, and left him with his papers."
"Did the beef tea and biscuits constitute his last meal?"
"Yes, sir. Simpson went in soon after six. His lordship was lying back in his chair, dead, to all appearance."
"He had — taken — the beef tea — but only one — biscuit," said Simpson, brokenly. George Lester assumed that the man was the trusted attendant of the deceased peer.
"Can you let me see the vessel which contained the beef tea?"
Mrs. Warren hesitated. The question was unexpected. Then she said: "Simpson, go and bring the tray from the table, if it is still in the library."
The servant, faithful to his training, at once recovered his self-possession when given an order. He left the room. No word was spoken until he returned with the message: "A housemaid took the things to the kitchen, ma'am."
"You heard this gentleman's request. Ask if they have gone to the scullery," said Mrs. Warren sharply. Lester, listening, recalled his fleeting thought about the dust. Not even the tragedy of her master's sudden death could deprive the housekeeper of her authoritative air. Yet she spoke as if her social rank were far above her son's. When she uttered a command there could be no disputing it.
Simpson came back quickly. Meanwhile, Lester had peered again into both eyes of the dead man, and had tested the rigidity of an arm.
The servant carried a tray containing a silver biscuit box, a small covered jug, and a cup and saucer.
Lester glanced at the various articles. "They have been washed," he commented.
"Yes, sir. A house order."
"Well," admitted Mrs. Warren, "that is so, of course. I thought that in the excitement of his lordship's seizure the maids might not have been so prompt. But do you think the beef tea was harmful, Dr. Lester? It was prepared by the same cook who has made it for several years almost without exception."
"It is hard to say," was the non-committal answer.
"Dr. Smalley believed his lordship's heart was affected. He told me so many a time," growled Harry Warren.
"I am sure of it," said Lester. "No doubt Lord Arncliffe suffered from occasional sickness, perhaps fainting fits?"
"Not that I know of," replied Warren.
"Oh yes, he did! " broke in Simpson. "I told you, Mrs. Warren, didn't I, ma'am?"
"Certainly. Dr. Smalley was anxious about these symptoms, though they were very slight and far from frequent. Lord Arncliffe was sensitive about such matters, so they were never discussed."
There was a knock at the door. A tubby, baldheaded little man, balancing gold-rimmed pince nez on his nose, with drops of perspiration glistening on his forehead, entered precipitately.
"Bless my soul! what is this I hear?" he cried.
"I am grieved to tell you that his lordship is dead, Dr. Smalley," said Mrs. Warren in her quiet well-bred way. "This gentleman is Dr. Lester, who, fortunately, met one of the grooms near your house in the village."
Dr. Smalley nodded with marked coolness. In such wise did interlopers pry into a new practise!
But Lester paid no heed to his fellow-practitioner's hauteur. He waited until Dr. Smalley had concluded an examination on his own part. Then he touched the village doctor's arm.
"Will you oblige me by coming into the corridor a moment?" he asked.
"There's nothing—" began the other stiffly. "Exactly. I only wish a word in private with you."
"Pooh! Why this air of mystery, my good sir? Lord Arncliffe died from aortic regurgitation. I have warned him repeatedly."
Lester was nettled by the little man's absurd introduction of professional rivalry into the affair. Yet his demeanor was unruffled.
"I am an utter stranger in Arncliffe," he explained. "Even his lordship's name was unknown to me before to-day. Therefore—"
"Precisely, my dear sir. Lord Arncliffe's illness and its sad conclusion are entirely within my province."
Dr. Smalley placed his hands behind his back and glared up at Lester defiantly. More than once had he frightened away possible competitors by similar tactics. There was nothing else for it; Lester must speak openly.
"I was going to tell you," he said with cold distinctness, "that Lord Arncliffe's heart failure was not due to natural causes. It arose from the administration of arsenic in one of its many forms. Lord Arncliffe has been poisoned!"