THE QUESTION OF THE CLOCK

Audrey handed over a dingy envelope, bearing the London postmark, and
addressed to her at the Camden Hill house. Out of this Shawe took an
equally dingy piece of paper–a single sheet of very cheap stationery.
On it a few lines in vile caligraphy were scrawled. He read them at
once, while Audrey sat down on a near chair and watched him silently.

“DEAR MISS”–ran the anonymous letter,–“This is to warn you from
invistigiting your poor ma’s deth, as I know you are doing. Keip off
the gras and don’t be silly, or you will sueffer the gratest grief of
your life. This is from one who sines as you see–A FREND.”

“What do you think of it?” asked the girl, when her lover silently
replaced the paper in its envelope and sat down beside her.

“I think there may be something in it,” said Shawe, slowly. “I
wonder–”

“You wonder what?”

“If it would not be as well to take the advice of this,” and he tapped
the envelope as he handed it back to her.

“No!” cried Audrey, her worn face flushing.

“A thousand times no. I shall learn the truth at all costs.”

“But if it leads to more sorrow, dear?”

“I don’t care what it leads to. To know the worst–whatever the worst
may be–is better than this terrible suspense.” She looked at the
dingy communication dubiously. “I wonder who wrote this?”

“An uneducated person, apparently.”

“I don’t believe it,” declared the girl, quickly. “All that bad
spelling and bad writing is intended to mislead.”

Shawe shook his head. “How can you be sure of that?”

“I am sure of nothing. I am only assuming that such is the case. But,
at all events, the person who wrote this letter knows that the matter
of the death is being looked into.”

“I don’t see who can possibly know, save you and myself and Perry
Toat.”

“Who is Perry Toat?”

“The detective whom I am employing to search.”

“What has he found out?”

“She, dear. Miss Toat’s name is Peronella Toat, and she calls herself
Perry on her card for business reasons. She has found out nothing very
tangible, and confines herself to theorising a lot.” Ralph paused, and
shook his head once more. “I fancy she is growing tired of the case.”
And he related Perry Toat’s discoveries–such as they were–and also
detailed her theories. When he ended Audrey was almost as despairing
as he appeared to be.

“There doesn’t seem to be a single ray of light,” lamented the girl,
putting the envelope into her pocket. “Madame Coralie, her assistants,
and her husband seem to be all innocent; unless,” she added, with a
quick look, “there is something in this idea of a prepared alibi.”

“Well, Miss Toat has learnt nothing likely to show that her surmise is
right in that way, Audrey. Badoura apparently knows nothing, or,
infatuated with Eddy Vail, refuses to say what she may know. As to
Peri Banou, who is dumb, no information can be got from her, although
she was in the shop when the crime was committed. She says that she
was asleep on a divan, and Zobeide certainly admits that she left her
there when she went up to the still-room.”

“Badoura, Peri Banou, Zobeide,” said Miss Branwin, ticking off the
quaint and musical names on her fingers. “You have mentioned only
three of the assistants. What about the fourth?”

“Parizade? Oh! being blind, of course she can see nothing at all. She
was behind the curtain in the still-room preparing some wash when
Madame Coralie came to speak to her husband. That was about eight
o’clock, just before Madame came down to tell you that your mother
would remain for the night.”

“It was about half-past eight that Madame came to the door.”

“Oh! my dear girl, you must be mistaken. Madame herself and her
husband both say it was five or ten minutes after eight o’clock when
she came to you.”

Audrey shook her head vehemently. “Mrs. Mellop will tell you that we
did not leave the house until a quarter past eight.”

“The Pink Shop? That, of course, would make it right.”

“No, our own house. There was a first piece at the theatre which Mrs.
Mellop and I did not care about seeing. We only left in time to get to
the theatre by nine, when the chief drama of the evening began. It was
nearly half-past eight when we reached the Pink Shop, as it took us
ten minutes, more or less, to get to Walpole Lane.”

“There must be some mistake,” said Shawe, rather puzzled by this clear
and positive explanation. “Why, Badoura says that Eddy Vail drew her
attention to the clock in the still-room, and then it was five minutes
to eight. Almost immediately afterwards Madame came up from seeing
your mother tucked in for the night, and very shortly went to the shop
door to speak to you.”

“Then the clock in the still-room must be wrong,” said Audrey. “Tell
Miss Toat what I say, and she may be able to learn if it is so.”

“Well, and supposing you prove that the still-room clock is wrong?”

“Can’t you see? In that case Madame Coralie could not have come up
from seeing my mother safely to bed, for she must have come up to the
still-room at about fifteen or twenty minutes past the hour. And the
medical evidence says that my poor mother was murdered at eight
o’clock.”

“It does seem strange,” said Shawe, reflectively. “Humph! I wonder if
Perry Toat is right after all, and if this alibi–a very convincing
one, I must say–is a faked affair. Audrey”–he turned earnestly
towards the girl–“say nothing of this to anyone.”

“Will you tell Miss Toat?”

“Yes, I shall certainly do that. But, after all, both you and the
still-room clock may be right. It only means that Madame waited twenty
minutes or so talking to her husband instead of coming down at once.”

“But if she came at once–”

“Then the matter will have to be looked into. I shall ask Miss Toat to
question Badoura and Eddy Vail, who noticed the time. They may be able
to say how long Madame Coralie remained in the still-room. But, my
dear, it is all a mere theory–”

“And one that may prove to be true. Really, Ralph”–Audrey spoke with
a flush on her face–“you don’t seem anxious to learn the truth.”

“I am in one way, and not in another. I remember that anonymous
letter.”

“I don’t care what the letter says. The person who wrote it is
evidently concerned in the death of my poor mother, and is afraid lest
he or she should be caught.”

“There may be some truth in that,” admitted Shawe. “However, you had
better leave the matter in my hands. I shall tell Perry Toat what you
say about the difference in time, always supposing that Madame Coralie
did not linger in the still-room. When I hear of anything definite
likely to supply a clue I shall let you know.”

“You have let me know very little hitherto,” said Audrey, bitterly.

“My darling”–he took her hands and looked into her eyes–“surely you
are not dissatisfied with me?”

“I am in a way,” she admitted, blushing guiltily. “I am so anxious to
learn the truth and revenge my mother. If you won’t search, I shall
search myself.”

Shawe could do nothing in the face of this determination but agree. He
scribbled Perry Toat’s address on his card and gave it to the girl.
Audrey slipped it into the dingy envelope which held the anonymous
letter, with the intention of calling on the detective whenever she
could.

“If you go on with the matter I shall help you to the best of my
ability,” he said earnestly, as she turned away. “Don’t think that I
do not desire your wish to be gratified. I only want you to be happy.”

“I won’t be happy until I learn who murdered my dear mother,” said the
girl, obstinately; then she took his arm, and they walked across to
the gate near the Palace. “But I am glad that you will help me. All I
ask is that you will let me assist you.”

“You shall go to Perry Tat yourself and take an immediate hand in the
game we are playing,” said the barrister, decidedly, “as I see that in
no other way will you be satisfied. And now let me see you home.”

“Don’t come too far with me, dear. My father may have risen by this
time, and if he meets you there will be trouble.”

“I don’t mind that,” said Shawe, throwing back his well-shaped head.
“I am not afraid of Sir Joseph. By the way, talking about the
possibility of that clock being wrong, was your father with you in the
car?”

“No. He went out at six o’clock for one of his prowls.”

“What do you mean by one of his prowls?” asked Shawe, surprised.

“Well, papa, for all our talking, is really kind when he chooses. He
is sorry for poor people–for the really ragged, unwashed poor, that
is–and sometimes he goes out quietly and wanders round the streets,
giving money to beggars and helping those who need help.”

“You throw quite a light on your father’s character,” said Ralph,
grimly. “I should have thought that Sir Joseph was the last person in
the world to help anyone or to act the secret philanthropist.”

“Mrs. Mellop told me that he did so. She saw him once or twice in a
tweed suit in the evening helping people–giving money, that is. And
papa must go out for some such purpose, for he usually puts on evening
dress for dinner.”

“And changes it afterwards?”

“No; on the nights he goes out he doesn’t change his clothes, and very
often doesn’t come to dinner. On that night Mrs. Mellop and I had the
meal to ourselves, and went alone to the theatre. Papa had gone out at
six in his usual clothes for a prowl. Perhaps,” ended Audrey,
wistfully, “I have misjudged my father, and he may not be so hard as I
think. I never knew that he helped the poor until Mrs. Mellop told me;
and she only saw him by chance when her taxi-cab broke down one
evening on the Embankment.”

“Well, I am glad to hear that Sir Joseph has some redeeming
qualities,” said Shawe, somewhat cynically; for the whole story
sounded improbable, seeing what he knew of the man.



Neither of the young people noticed at the time that they were near
the gates of Branwin’s mansion, and were therefore astonished when Sir
Joseph himself stepped out. He was dressed in a rough tweed suit, and
looked more bulky and aggressive than ever. With a scowl he fairly
snatched his daughter from the barrister’s arm. “I expected something
of this sort, Audrey, when you went out so early,” he said, in his
domineering tones. “I was just coming to Kensington Gardens. Mrs.
Mellop kindly told me how you met this rascal in–”

“I am no rascal, sir,” said Shawe, spiritedly.

“Yes, you are. You know that I don’t wish my daughter to marry you,
and yet you arrange secret meetings in the Gardens.”

“I am to blame, if anyone,” said Audrey, hotly, “for I arranged the
meeting.”

“A pretty confession for a young lady,” said her father, grimly; “but
I shall take care that you arrange no more. As for you, sir”–he
turned on Ralph–“I forbid you to think of Miss Branwin. She is to
marry Lord Anvers.”

“I shall not,” cried Audrey, growing white, but perfectly determined.

“You shall. I have spoken to Lord Anvers, and he is willing to make
you his wife. You understand, Mr. Shawe?”

“I understand that I intend to marry Audrey,” said the barrister,
coolly, “so it matters little what arrangements you have made with
Anvers, who is indeed the rascal you called me.”

“Go inside, Audrey,” said Branwin, and pushed his daughter within the
gates hurriedly. “Mr. Shawe, good-day!” and he also stalked in,
without commenting on the young man’s speech.

Ralph thus Was left outside, like the Peri at the Gates of Paradise.

Between her father and Mrs. Mellop Audrey had a most unpleasant
time for the next two weeks. Sir Joseph was more bent than ever
upon her marriage with Lord Anvers, and asked him to dinner, so that
he might prosecute his suit. The proposed suitor was a pale-faced,
sandy-haired, insignificant little man, with a pair of wicked-looking
black eyes. At the first sight people never took Anvers to be the
strong man he really was, as they were deceived by his uninteresting
looks. But his eyes, and subsequently his acts, soon showed him in his
true light as a capable little scoundrel, who extracted all he could
from anyone and anything in order to benefit himself. Just now Anvers,
being desperately hard up, decided that it was necessary for him to
marry Audrey and Audrey’s dowry. He wanted the money more than the
maid, but, seeing that she was pretty, he was not unwilling to take
the two together, even though this meant the loss of his freedom.

Audrey took a violent dislike to him. Even before he had been
suggested to her as a possible husband she had never liked him, as
there was an atmosphere of impurity about him which repelled her. But
that he should seek to be her husband made her more active in her
dislike, and when he pressed his suit she told him plainly that she
would never marry him. Lord Anvers, not being troubled with delicacy,
simply laughed.

“Oh, but you must marry me,” he said brutally to the quivering girl;
“your father wishes it.”

“My father can wish it, but he won’t get it,” retorted Miss Branwin,
all her outraged soul flashing with sapphire lights in her eyes. “I
don’t love you, and I never shall love you.”

“Oh, I know there’s another man,” said Anvers, coolly. “Your father
told me to be prepared for the objection, that your affections were
engaged.”

“My affections have nothing to do with the matter, Lord Anvers. If
there wasn’t another man in the world, I wouldn’t marry you.”

“Why not?”

“Oh! we won’t go into particulars,” she said sharply. “I have heard–”

“A lot of lies, I assure you. I’m not a bad chap, as chaps go, and,
upon my soul, I’ll try and make you happy.”

“I want a better husband than one who is not bad as chaps go,” said
Audrey, coldly. “I want a man I can respect–a Galahad.”

“Never heard of him,” confessed Anvers, candidly, “unless it’s another
name for a fellow called Shawe.”

“Perhaps it is,” replied Miss Branwin, holding herself very straight,
“and you can tell my father that I shall marry no one else but Mr.
Shawe.”

“Oh, come, give me a chance,” pleaded the aristocratic black sheep.

“I have given you a chance to propose to me and I refuse you.”

Anvers looked bewildered. He was unaccustomed to this very plain
speaking on the part of a spinster. “You don’t let a chap down easy;
and I shan’t lose heart, anyhow. Your ‘No’ means ‘Yes.’ A woman
sometimes doesn’t accept a chap straight away.”

“This woman will never accept you, Lord Anvers. So if you are a
gentleman you will refrain from troubling me.”

“‘Fraid I can’t, Miss Branwin. I love you.”

“You love my money,” she retorted scornfully, and exasperated by this
obstinacy. “You know it is only the money.”

“Oh, money’s a good thing,” said the truthful Anvers, easily; “but,
really, upon my word, you know, you’re so pretty that I’d marry you
without a penny.”

Audrey burst out laughing. “Such candour on your part deserves candour
on mine,” she said quietly. “I say ‘No’ to your proposal, and I mean
it.”

For the time being Anvers saw that he was beaten, so took his leave.
“But I shall come back again,” he warned his lady-love. “I’ll bring
you up to the scratch somehow, see if I don’t.” And he reported the
conversation to Sir Joseph, with the remark that he would never stop
proposing until Audrey accepted his soiled title and his brutal self.

Of course, Branwin scolded the girl. She made no protest during the
storm of words, and let Sir Joseph talk himself into exhaustion. When
the millionaire could say no more she faced him calmly. “I shall never
marry Lord Anvers, papa, and I shall marry Ralph whenever I can.”

“Oh, you will, and when–when, confound you?” roared Branwin.

“When he learns who killed my mother,” said Audrey, and passed out of
the room without noticing the sudden greyness which replaced the
purple hues of her father’s large face.

What with anxiety to learn who had murdered her mother, and with the
insistent troubles around her, Audrey felt angry with everyone and
everything. Even Ralph seemed to be against her since he had waxed
lukewarm in prosecuting his search for the assassin. Audrey had not
seen him since he had advised her to heed the warning of the anonymous
letter, and she had received no communication likely to show that he
was looking into the matter of the murder. Under these circumstances,
she resolved to take up the _rôle_ of an amateur detective herself.
Since there was no one else who loved the dead sufficiently to avenge
the crime, Audrey at least made up her mind to hunt down the murderer.

She began one afternoon by driving to Perry Toat’s office, for Ralph
had written down its whereabouts. Sir Joseph, sullen and angry with
his daughter, had gone to his club, and Mrs. Mellop in her bedroom was
fretting over the destruction of her hopes. Therefore, there was no
one to spy on the girl, and, having dressed herself plainly, she took
a taxi-cab in Kensington High Street and drove to the Strand. Perry
Toat’s office was in Buckingham Street, and the detective herself was
disengaged. She admitted Audrey into her private sanctum the moment
she read the name on the card.

“I thought you would come, Miss Branwin,” said Perry Toat, cordially,
“as Mr. Shawe told me that you were different from most girls. Few
would wish to undertake the search you propose to make.”

“Few girls, if any, have had a mother murdered in so barbarous a
fashion,” was Audrey’s reply, and she eyed with some disapproval the
garish complexion and burnished hair and general renovation of Miss
Toat.

The detective smiled, guessing the thought of her visitor. “This and
this”–she touched her hair and skin–“are a concession to business
demands. I had to submit to this sort of thing in order to gain
permission to remain for searching purposes at the Pink Shop.”

“Oh!” Audrey understood. “And did you find out anything?”

“I told Mr. Shawe all I had discovered, and what theories I formed on
the discoveries,” said Miss Toat, glancing at her watch. “He explained
to me that he had reported everything to you over a week ago.”

“Yes,” admitted Miss Branwin, “but he did not give me any hope that
anything would come of what you have learnt.”

“I fear not. The clues are so slight, Miss Branwin. By the way”–Perry
Toat looked again at her watch–“I can only give you ten minutes or
so, as I am expecting another client–Colonel Ilse. Ah! poor man, he
comes to me to be helped in finding his stolen daughter.”

“His stolen daughter?” echoed Audrey.

“Yes. His wife died in child-birth some twenty years ago, and the
child was stolen by an hospital nurse who attended her. There was some
grudge, I believe. But why should I bother you with the troubles of
other people when you have so many of your own?” said Miss Toat, in a
lively way. “Come, time is short. What do you wish me to tell you?”

“What is your opinion of the case as it now stands?” asked Audrey,
abruptly.

“It’s a difficult and mysterious case,” said the detective, slowly,
“and it is my opinion that Madame Coralie can tell the truth.”

“Do you think that she is guilty?”

“No. That is, if she is guilty, it is because she employed someone
else to murder your mother. I don’t believe she strangled Lady Branwin
herself.”

“Why not?”

“Because Madame Coralie proved an alibi.”

“Ah!” Audrey nodded. “Then Mr. Shawe did not tell you about my idea as
to the clock in the still-room being wrong?”

Miss Toat looked at her quickly. “No. What is your idea?”

Audrey related what she knew of the discrepancy between the statement
of Madame Coralie, her husband, and Badoura, and her own. “It was
nearly half-past eight when Madame came to see me at the door,” said
Audrey, positively.

Miss Toat looked steadily at the girl. “Strange,” she said, in a
musing tone. “Now, I wonder why Mr. Shawe did not tell me this?”

“It is important, is it not?” asked Audrey, eagerly.

“Very important. If we can prove what you say, it will show that it
was possible for Madame Coralie to have been with Lady Branwin at
eight.”

“Then she must be guilty,” said Audrey, triumphantly.

“No. I suspect Eddy Vail, her husband. He, as well as his wife, was in
dire need of money, and he may have committed the deed, although his
wife may have suggested its commission. If I could only trace the
diamonds”–and Miss Toat, thinking hard, began to trace figures on her
blotting-paper.

“I have seen that man Vail,” said Miss Branwin, after a pause. “Mr.
Shawe described him to me, and I recognised the description at once.
He was hanging about Walpole Lane when my mother came back for the red
bag which contained the diamonds.”

“Oh!”–Miss Toat looked up–“that’s a strong point. Did your mother
happen to mention, when in the lane, that the diamonds were in the
bag?”

“No,” said Audrey, after some thought; “she simply asked for the bag.
But I am sure that Madame Coralie must have known about the diamonds,
as my poor mother would be sure to tell her.”

“Have you ever seen Madame Coralie?” asked Miss Toat, sharply.

“Only in the half-darkness, when she came to the door at half-past
eight to tell me that my mother would remain for the night.”

“Then,” said Perry Toat, rising, “go to the Pink Shop and see her now.
You are so straightforward and earnest that you may succeed where I
fail. Ask all the questions you can think of, and see what Madame
Coralie looks like.”

“Hear what she says, you mean.”

“No, I do not. Hear what she says, of course; but you may be sure that
if she has anything to hide she will be most guarded in her answers.
But look into her face, and watch the change of colour, and–oh!” Miss
Toat stopped in dismay. “I forgot, Madame Coralie wears a yashmak
constantly.”

“In that case I shall get her to remove it,” said Audrey, quickly. “I
see what you mean, and I shall manage in some way to see her face. If
she is guilty I shall know somehow.”

“I wish I could come with you myself,” said Miss Toat, hastily
following Audrey to the door, which opened into a small outer office;
“but I fear that Colonel Ilse–ah! here he is.”

Miss Branwin saw before her a slender and very straight man, with a
grey moustache and grey hair, with a tanned face and a general
military look. He had kind blue eyes, and when he saw so pretty a girl
emerge from the dingy office of Perry Toat these same eyes lighted up
with admiration. With a bow to the detective he stood on one side to
let the girl pass. Audrey gave a swift glance at his clearly-cut face
as she went out. There seemed to be something familiar about Colonel
Ilse’s countenance; but she could not say precisely what it was.
Besides, her mind was too much taken up with the late conversation
with Miss Toat to concern itself with so trifling a matter. The
detective accompanied her to the outer door.

“See me to-morrow at three o’clock,” she said, in a low voice, “and
tell me if you have succeeded in getting Madame Coralie to remove her
yashmak.”

Miss Branwin readily promised this, as she felt that she needed Miss
Toat’s professional assistance in the quest which she was now
undertaking. She felt eager to reach the Pink Shop and to question
Madame Coralie, and her heart beat quickly as she climbed into a ‘bus
which would take her to Kensington. Sir Joseph would have been furious
had he seen his daughter travelling on so humble a vehicle; but Audrey
enjoyed the novelty of the sensation. Indeed, she was beginning to
find out, for the first time since her mother’s death, that life was
worth living. And, although she did not know it, she was suffering
from a severe attack of detective fever.

The progress of the ‘bus seemed slow to the impatient girl; but in due
time she came to Kensington High Street. Here she alighted, and turned
into Walpole Lane without delay. Shortly she found herself before the
mysterious door of the Pink Shop, and entered with a beating heart and
a general sense that there was a crisis at hand.

“Is Madame Coralie to be seen?” she asked Badoura, who came forward in
her quaint Turkish dress to receive her.

“I will inquire, miss,” said Badoura, looking at her closely. “Oh! it
is Miss Branwin, is it not?”

“Yes, and I wish particularly to see Madame Coralie.”

“Will you please wait here, miss?” said Badoura, and, leaving Audrey
near the door of the empty shop–it was too early for the usual
customers–she walked towards an alcove on the left.

Audrey saw the girl pass through the pink silk curtains into the
alcove, and heard a faint murmur of voices. Deeming that all was fair
in the dangerous and anxious search which she was undertaking she drew
near, and distinctly heard Madame Coralie gasp with dismay.

“Tell Miss Branwin that I cannot see her,” said Madame Coralie,
sharply.

Audrey at once stepped forward and swept aside the pink curtain. “But
you must, Madame,” she said quietly.

The woman waved Badoura to leave the alcove, and beckoned Miss Branwin
to enter, making some remark in muffled tones as she did so. Suddenly,
as she rose quickly to her feet, a tack caught the yashmak, and it was
ripped off. Audrey saw Madame Coralie’s side face, and gave a cry of
surprise and terror.

“Mother!” she cried, then sank her voice with fear. “Mother! Oh,
mother!”