"And of course, what you want, Inspector, is a rest. A little relaxation." The Chief Constable heaved himself into his raincoat. "Overworking yourself disgracefully. That never got a man anywhere. Except into his grave. Here it is Friday, and I dare swear you haven't had a night's sleep or a proper meal this week. Ridiculous! Mustn't take the thing to heart like that. Criminals have escaped before and will escape again."
"Not from me."
"Overdue, then. That's all I can say. Very overdue. Everyone makes mistakes. Who was to think a door in a bedroom was a fire escape, anyhow?"
"I should have looked in the cupboards."
"Oh, my dear good sir —»
"The first one opened towards me, so that I could see inside. And by the time he came to the second he had lulled me into —»
"I told you you were losing your sense of proportion! If you don't get away for a little, you'll be seeing cupboards everywhere. You'll be what your Sergeant Williams calls 'falling down on the job. You are coming back to dinner with me. You needn't 'but' me! It's only twenty miles."
"But meanwhile something may —»
"We have a telephone. Erica said I was to bring you. Said something about ordering ices specially. You fond of ices? Anyhow, she said she had something to show you."
"Puppies?" Grant smiled.
"Don't know. Probably. Never a moment in the year, it seems to me, when there isn't a litter of sort at Steynes. Here is your excellent substitute. Good evening, Sergeant."
"Good evening, sir," said Williams, rosily pink from his high tea.
"I'm taking Inspector Grant home to dinner with me."
"Very glad, sir. It'll do the Inspector good to eat a proper meal."
"That's my telephone number, in case you want him."
Grant's smile broadened as he watched the spirit that won the empire in full blast. He was very tired. The week had been a long purgatory. The thought of sitting down to a meal in a quiet room among leisured people was like regaining some happier sphere of existence that he had known a long time ago and half-forgotten about.
Automatically he put together the papers on the desk.
"To quote one of Sergeant Williams's favorite sayings: 'As a detective I'm a grand farmer. Thank you, I'd like to come to dinner. Kind of Miss Erica to think of me." He reached for his hat.
"Thinks a lot of you, Erica. Not impressionable as a rule. But you are the big chief, it seems."
"I have a picturesque rival, I'm afraid."
"Oh, yes. Olympia. I remember. I don't know much about bringing up children, you know, Grant," he said as they went out to the car. "Erica's my only one. Her mother died when she was born, and I made her a sort of companion instead of letting her grow up in the nursery. Her old nurse and I were always having words about it. Great stickler for the comme il faut and all that, Nannie. Then she went to school. Must find your own level, that's all education is: learning to deal with people. She didn't like it, but she stuck it. A good plucked 'un, she is."
"I think she is a charming child," Grant said heartily, answering the «justifying» tone and the Colonel's worried look.
"That's just it, Grant, that's just it! She isn't a child any longer. She should be coming out. Going to dances. Staying with her aunts in town and meeting people. But she doesn't want to. Just stays at home and runs wild. Doesn't care for clothes or pretties or any of the things she should care about at her age. She's seventeen, you know. It worries me. She's taken to gadding about all over the place in that little car of hers. I don't know where she has been half the time. Not that she doesn't tell me if I ask. Always a truthful child. But it worries me."
"I don't think it need, sir. She'll make her own happiness. You'll see. It's rare to meet anyone of that age who has so sure a knowledge of what she wants."
"Hrrmp!" said the Colonel. "And gets it! George will be there for dinner," he added. "George Meir. Cousin of my wife's. Perhaps you know him? Nerve specialist."
"I know him well by reputation, but I've never met him."
"That's Erica's doing. Nice fellow, George, but a bit of a bore. Don't understand what he's talking about half the time. Reactions, and things. But Erica seems to understand the lingo. Good shot, though: George. Nice fellow."
Sir George was a nice fellow. Grant liked him at sight, and noticing his narrow cheekbones, felt that some other attribute in him must weigh very strongly with Erica to overcome his physical characteristics. He was certainly a pleasant person, with neither the slight flamboyance nor the condescension so common in Wimpole Street. That he could commiserate with Grant on his nonsuccess without making Grant want to hit him, was a test of his worth. Grant, in fact, turned to him in his sore state, as to someone who would understand. This was a man to whom human failure must be a very ordinary affair.
Colonel Burgoyne had forbidden mention of the Clay affair during dinner, but he might as well have bidden the tides cease. They were all talking Tisdall, Colonel included, before the fish had disappeared. All but Erica, who sat at the end of the table in her demure school-supper white dress, listening quietly. She had powdered her nose, but looked no more grown up than she did by day.
"We never picked up his trail at all," Grant said in answer to a question of Meir. "He just disappeared from the moment he left the hotel. Oh, there were dozens of accounts of men like him, of course. But they all led to nothing. We don't know a thing more than we did last Monday. He might have been sleeping out, the first three nights. But you know what last night was like. Torrents. Not even an animal could have stayed out in it. He must have found shelter somewhere, if he's still alive. It wasn't local, the storm. There are floods from here to the Tyne. And yet another whole day has gone past and not a hint of him."
"No chance of his escaping by sea?"
"Not likely. Curiously enough, not one criminal in a thousand escapes that way."
"So much for our island race!" laughed Meir. "The sea's the last thing they think of. You know, Inspector, I don't know if you know it, but you have made the man very vivid in the half hour we've been talking. And there's something else you've made clear, I think; something you probably are not aware of yourself."
"What is that?"
"You were surprised in your heart of hearts that he had done it. Perhaps even sorry. You hadn't believed it."
"Yes, I think that's true. You'd have been sorry yourself, Sir George," Grant grinned. "He's very plausible. And he stuck to truth as far as it served him. As I told you, we've checked his statement from beginning to end. It's true as far as it can be checked. But that thin story about stealing the car! And losing his coat — the all-important coat!"
"Curiously enough, I don't think the stealing episode is as incredible as it sounds. His main thought for the past few weeks had been escape. Escape from the disgrace of his spent fortune, from the crowd (whom he seems to have begun to value at their proper worth), from the necessity of earning his living again (tramping was just as mad a notion, in the case of a boy with influential connections, as stealing a car: the escape motif again), and latterly escape from the equivocal situation at the cottage. He must have looked forward, you know, with subconscious dread to the leave-taking that was due in a day or two. He was in a highly emotional condition due to his self-disgust and self-questioning (at bottom what he wanted to escape from was himself). At a moment of low vitality (six in the morning) he is presented with the means of physical escape. A deserted countryside and abandoned car. He is possessed for the time being. When he recovers he is horrified, just as he says. He turns the car without having to think twice, and comes back at the best speed he can make. To his dying day he'll never understand what made him steal the car."
"Stealing will pretty soon not be a crime at all, what with all you specialists," the Colonel remarked with a sort of tart resignation.
"Not a bad theory, sir," Grant said to Meir. "Can you make the thin tale about the coat thicker too?"
"Truth is often terribly thin, don't you think?"
"Are you taking the view that the man may be innocent?"
"I had thought of it."
"I have an excellent opinion of your judgment."
"Yes. You were surprised the man had done it. That means that your first impression was clouded by circumstantial evidence."
"In fact, I'm logical as well as imaginative. Mercifully, since I'm a police officer. The evidence may be circumstantial but it is very satisfying and neat."
"Much too neat, don't you feel?"
"Lord Edward said that. But no policeman feels that evidence is too neat, Sir George."
"Poor Champneis!" the Colonel said. "Dreadful for him. Very devoted they were, I'm told. A nice fellow. Didn't know him, but knew the family in my young days. Nice people. Dreadful for them!"
"I traveled up from Dover with him on Thursday," Meir said. "I had come over from Calais — I've just come back from a medical conference in Vienna — and he joined the boat train with the usual Champneis lordliness at Dover. He seemed very happy to be back. Showed me some topazes he had brought from Galeria for his wife. They corresponded every day by telegram, it seemed. I found that more impressive than the topazes, if I must be frank. European telegrams being what they are."
"Just a moment, Sir George. Do you mean that Champneis hadn't come over on the boat from Calais?"
"No, oh, no. He came home by yacht. The Petronel. It belongs to his elder brother, but he lent it to Edward for the voyage back from Galeria. A charming little ship. She was lying in the harbor."
"Then when had Lord Edward arrived in Dover?"
"The night before, I believe. Too late to go up to town." He paused and looked quizzically at Grant. "Neither logic nor imagination will make Edward Champneis suspect."
"I realize that." Grant went on calmly to prise the stone from a peach, an operation he had suspended abruptly at Meir's phrase about Champneis joining the boat train. "It is of no importance. The police habit of checking up."
But his mind was full of surprise and conjecture. Champneis had distinctly let him understand that he had crossed from Calais on Thursday morning. Not in words but by implication. Grant had made some idle remark, something about the accommodation in the new steamers, and Champneis in his reply had implied that he had been on board that morning. Why? Edward Champneis was in Dover on Wednesday night, and was reluctant to have the fact known. Why? In the name of all that was logical, why?
Because an awkward pause had succeeded the revelation of Champneis's presence in England, Grant said lightly, "Miss Erica hasn't produced the puppies, or whatever it was I was to be shown."
To everyone's surprise Erica grew pink. This was so unheard-of a happening that all three men stared.
"It isn't puppies," she said. "It's something you wanted very much. But I'm terribly afraid you're not going to be happy about it."
"It sounds exciting," admitted Grant, wondering what the child had imagined he wanted. He hoped she hadn't brought him something. Hero worship was all very well, but it was embarrassing to be given something in full view of the multitude. "Where is it?"
"It's in a parcel up in my room. I thought I'd wait till you had finished your port."
"Is it something you can bring into a dining room?" her father asked.
"Then Burt will fetch it."
"Oh, no!" she cried, arresting her father's hand on the bell. "I'll get it. I shan't be a minute."
She came back carrying a large brown paper parcel, which her father said looked like a Salvation Army gift day. She unwrapped it and produced a man's coat, of a grayish black.
"That is the coat you wanted," she said. "But it has all its buttons."
Grant took the coat automatically, and examined it.
"Where in Heaven's name did you get that, Erica?" her father asked, astonished.
"I bought it for ten shillings from a stone breaker at Paddock Wood. He gave a tramp five shillings for it, and thought it such a bargain that he didn't want to part with it. I had to have cold tea with him, and listen to what the Border Regiment did on the first of July, and see the bullet scar on his shin, before he would give up the coat. I was afraid to go away and leave him with it in case he sold it to someone else, or I couldn't find him again."
"What makes you think this is Tisdall's coat?" Grant asked.
"This," she said, and showed the cigarette burn. "He told me to look for that."
"Who?" said all three men at once.
"I met him by accident on Wednesday. And since then I've been searching for the coat. But it was great luck coming across it.
"You met him! Where?"
"In a lane near Mallingford."
"And you didn't report it?" Grant's voice was stern.
"No." Hers quavered just a little, and then went on equably. "You see, I didn't believe he had done it. And I really do like you a lot. I thought it would be better for you if he could be proved innocent before he was really arrested. Then you wouldn't have to set him free again. The papers would be awful about that."
There was a stunned silence for a moment.
Then Grant said, "And on Wednesday Tisdall told you to look for this." He held forward the burned piece, while the others crowded from their places to inspect.
"No sign of a replaced button," Meir observed. "Do you think it's the coat?"
"It may be. We can't try it on Tisdall, but perhaps Mrs. Pitts may be able to identify it."
"But — but," stammered the Colonel — "if it is the coat do you realize what it means?"
"Completely. It means beginning all over again."
His tired eyes, cold with disappointment, met Erica's kind gray ones, but he refused their sympathy. It was too early to think of Erica as his possible savior. At the moment she was just someone who had thrown a wrench into the machinery.
"I shall have to get back," he said. "May I use your telephone?"