THE WIND of the bullet came so close to his left eye that it almost blinded him momentarily. He was stunned with the proximity of the explosion, staggered, and dropped to his knees, and then, ahead of him, he heard the sound of running feet, and scrambling up, he darted forward, only to fall headlong again; for the assassin had fixed a trip wire between two of the trees, and later they were to find that this cover to retreat had been installed at intervals along the path. Death had been very near to Dick Martin that night.
"Could he have got away?"
"Yes," he said shortly. "There is a side road runs parallel with the orchard for about two hundred yards; I made a fairly thorough examination of the house before my first visit. I particularly wanted to know the lay - out of the grounds in case there was trouble, and I took the precaution of examining a plan of the estate before I left town."
He went back to the house, baffled and fretful. Where was Sybil Lansdown? He told himself a dozen times that the girl could be in no immediate danger without his knowing. Why he should know he could not for the life of him tell; but he was satisfied in his mind that his instinct was not leading him into error. When they reached the house, all the lights were burning and one of the officers had a report to make. There was, he said, an outside transformer; a steel box on the farther side of the lawn, and the iron door of this was found to be open.
"That is where the current was disconnected," he explained. "The telephone wire was easy; it was cut outside the house."
With the aid of the lights they were able to make a very complete examination of the house, but there was no clue of any kind, and whilst they were inspecting Mrs Cody's bedroom the local police arrived. Apparently Scotland Yard had heard enough of the interrupted conversation, before the wire was cut, to communicate with the Sussex police, and a special force of detectives had been packed off from Chichester by car.
Sneed waited until the officers had distributed themselves through the house, and went on with the work which their arrival had interrupted. He was trying a bunch of keys on a small box of Indian workmanship.
"Found this under the bed," he said laconically. "Queer how a certain class of people keep things under their beds, and another class keep 'em under their pillows. That fits, I think."
He turned the key and opened the box. It was filled with papers - letters, old bills, a concert programme of a very remote date, and possibly associated, in the mind of the poor dead woman, with what there was of romance in life.
"You take the top bundle; I'll search the rest."
Dick untied the ribbon which fastened the papers together and began to read. There was a letter of two written in childish handwriting, and one scrawled note signed 'Your loving nefew, John Cawler'.
"I thought she only had one nephew - Tom?"
"You never know how many nephews people have," said the indifferent Sneed.
"But this speaks about Tom. It must be his brother?"
Sneed looked up.
"I wonder where that darned chauffeur is? I sent a call out to pull him in. He's been missing since last night, and I don't exclude the possibility of his having had something to do with this murder."
"I rule that out entirely," said Dick promptly. "I know Cawler; he's not that kind of man. I wouldn't trust him with any goods valuable and portable, but the habitual criminal is not a murderer."
Sneed grunted a half agreement, and went on reading.
Presently, almost at the bottom of the bundle Dick had under examination, he found a note written in a clerkly hand.
'DEAR MRS CAWLER (it ran),
I have just seen Stalletti, and he tells me that his lordship is very ill indeed. I wish you would send me the latest news, for reasons which you well know and which need not be mentioned.
Yours faithfully, H. BERTRAM.'
"He calls himself Bertram - but the handwriting is Cody's," said Sneed, puzzled. "Bertram? I seem to know the name."
Dick was looking past the letter into vacancy.
"Then they were all acquainted," he said slowly. "Cody, Mrs Cody, Stalletti, and the late Lord Selford. When Cody said he knew nothing of the Selfords he was lying."
"You knew that, anyway," said the other.
Dick turned over letter after letter, but no further information reached him except a copy of a marriage certificate. This, however, he did not find till the box had been completely turned out.
"Humph!" he said. "They married about eight months after the late Lord Selford's death, by special licence. Stalletti was a witness, and William Brown. Now, who the devil is William Brown?"
"It's not an uncommon name," said Mr Sneed sententiously.
Their search finished, they went back to the library. Sneed took the hollow - eyed young man by the arm and led him to a quiet corner.
"Where do we go from here?" he asked.
"I don't know," said the other helplessly.
He put his hand in his pocket, took out the key and examined it.
"Number four! I've got three more to find, and then somebody will be hanged for this night's work!"
"Where shall we go from here?" asked Sneed again.
Dick looked at his watch. The hands pointed to a quarter past two.
"Selford Manor," he said briefly. "It has just occurred to me that we're only three miles away from that home of the nobility."
They went out into the open, where Dick had left his car.
"What do you expect to find there?"
"I'm not sure yet," said Dick, as he got into the seat and put his foot on the starter. "But I have an idea that I shall find - something!"
The car moved, but not steadily. It waddled and jarred forward a few paces, and then Dick stopped and jumped out.
"I'm afraid I shall have to go on my two big feet," he said, and turned the light on to the wheels.
Every tyre had been slashed in a dozen places and was quite flat.