The Estate Agent

Copplestone had kept a sharp watch on Marston Greyle and his cousin when they walked off, and he had seen that they had parted at a point a little farther along the shore road⁠—the man turning up into the wood, the girl going forward along the quay which led to the other half of the village. He quickened his pace and followed her, catching her up as she came to a path which led towards the old church. At the sound of his hurrying steps she turned and faced him, and he saw in the light of a cottage lamp that she still looked troubled and perplexed.

“Forgive me for running after you,” said Copplestone as he went up to her. “I just wanted to say that I’m sorry about⁠—about that little scene down there, you know. Your cousin misunderstood Mr. Stafford⁠—what Stafford meant was that⁠—”

“I saw what Mr. Stafford meant,” she broke in quickly. “I’m sorry my cousin didn’t see it. It was⁠—obvious.”

“All the same, Stafford put it rather⁠—shall we say, brusquely,” remarked Copplestone. “Of course, he’s terribly upset about Oliver’s disappearance, and he didn’t consider the effect of his words. And it was rather a surprise to hear that Oliver had known some man of your cousin’s name over there in America, wasn’t it?”

“And that Mr. Oliver should mysteriously disappear just after making such an announcement,” said Audrey. “That certainly seems very surprising.”

The two looked at each other, a question in the eyes of each, and Copplestone knew that the trouble in the girl’s eyes arose from inability to understand what was already a suspicious circumstance.

“But after all, that may have been a mere coincidence,” he hastened to say. “Let’s hope things may be cleared. I only hope that Oliver hasn’t met with an accident and is lying somewhere without help. I’m going to remain here for the night, however, and Stafford will come back early in the morning and go more thoroughly into things⁠—I suppose there’ll have to be a search of the neighbourhood.”

They had walked slowly up a path on the side of the cliff as they talked, and now the girl stopped before a small cottage which stood at the end of the churchyard, set in a tree-shaded garden, and looking out on the bay. She laid her hand on the gate, glancing at Copplestone, and suddenly she spoke, a little impulsively.

“Will you come in and speak to my mother?” she said. “She was a great admirer of Mr. Oliver’s acting⁠—and she knew him at one time. She will be interested⁠—and grieved.”

Copplestone followed her up the garden and into the house, where she led the way into a small old-fashioned parlour in which a grey-haired woman, who had once been strikingly handsome, and whose face seemed to the visitor to bear traces of great trouble, sat writing at a bureau. She turned in surprise as her daughter led Copplestone in, but her manner became remarkably calm and collected as Audrey explained who he was and why he was there. And Copplestone, watching her narrowly, fancied that he saw interest flash into her eyes when she heard of Bassett Oliver’s remark to the fisherman. But she made no comment, and when Audrey had finished the story, she turned to Copplestone as if she had already summed up the situation.

“We know this place so well⁠—having lived here so long, you know,” she said, “that we can make a fairly accurate guess at what Mr. Oliver might do. There seems no doubt that he went up the path to the Keep. According to Mr. Marston Greyle’s statement, he certainly did not go to the house. Well, he might have done one of two other things. There is a path which leads from the Keep down to the beach, immediately opposite the big rocks which you have no doubt seen. There is another path which turns out of the woods and follows the cliffs towards Lenwick, a village along the coast, a mile away. But⁠—at that time, on a Sunday afternoon, both paths would be frequented. Speaking from knowledge, I should say that Mr. Oliver cannot have left the woods⁠—he must have been seen had he done so. It’s impossible that he could have gone down to the shore or along the cliffs without being seen, too⁠—impossible!”

There was a certain amount of insistence in the last few words which puzzled Copplestone⁠—also they conveyed to him a queer suggestion which repulsed him; it was almost as if the speaker was appealing to him to use his own common sense about a difficult question. And before he could make any reply Mrs. Greyle put a direct inquiry to him.

“What is going to be done?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” answered Copplestone. “I’m going to stay here for the night, anyway, on the chance of hearing something. Stafford is coming back in the morning⁠—he spoke of detectives.”

He looked a little doubtfully at his questioner as he uttered the last word, and again he saw the sudden strange flash of unusual interest in her eyes, and she nodded her head emphatically.

“Precisely!⁠—the proper thing to do,” she said. “There must have been foul play⁠—must!”

“Mother!” exclaimed Audrey, half doubtfully. “Do you really think⁠—that?”

“I don’t think anything else,” replied Mrs. Greyle. “I certainly don’t believe that Bassett Oliver would put himself into any position of danger which would result in his breaking his neck. Bassett Oliver never left Scarhaven Wood!”

Copplestone made no comment on this direct assertion.

Instead, after a brief silence, he asked Mrs. Greyle a question.

“You knew Mr. Oliver⁠—personally?”

“Five and twenty years ago⁠—yes,” she answered. “I was on the stage myself before my marriage. But I have never met him since then. I have seen him, of course, at the local theatres.”

“He⁠—you won’t mind my asking?” said Copplestone, diffidently, “he didn’t know that you lived here?”

Mrs. Greyle smiled, somewhat mysteriously.

“Not at all⁠—my name wouldn’t have conveyed anything to him,” she answered. “He never knew whom I married. Otherwise, if he met someone named Marston Greyle in America he would have connected him with me, and have made inquiry about me, and had he known I lived here, he would have called. It is odd, Audrey, that if your cousin met Mr. Oliver over there he should have forgotten him. For one doesn’t easily forget a man of reputation⁠—and Mr. Oliver was that of course!⁠—and on the other hand, Marston Greyle is not a common name. Did you ever hear the name before, Mr. Copplestone?”

“Only in connection with your own family⁠—I have read of the Greyles of Scarhaven,” replied Copplestone. “But, after all, I suppose it is not confined to your family. There may be Greyles in America. Well⁠—it’s all very queer,” he went on, as he rose to leave. “May I come in tomorrow and tell you what’s being done?⁠—I’m sure Stafford means to leave no stone unturned⁠—he’s tremendously keen about it.”

“Do!” said Mrs. Greyle, heartily. “But the probability is that you’ll see us out and about in the morning⁠—we spend most of our time out of doors, having little else to do.”

Copplestone went away feeling more puzzled than ever.

Now that he was alone, for the first time since meeting Audrey Greyle on the beach, he was able to reflect on certain events of the afternoon in uninterrupted fashion. He thought over them as he walked back towards the Admiral’s Arms. It was certainly a strange thing that Bassett Oliver, after remarking to the fisherman that he had known a Mr. Marston Greyle in America, and hearing that the Squire of Scarhaven had been in that country, should have gone up to the house saying that he would call on the Squire and should never have been seen again. It was certainly strange that if this Marston Greyle, of Scarhaven, had met Bassett Oliver in America he should have completely forgotten the fact. Bassett Oliver had a considerable reputation in the United States⁠—he was, in fact, more popular in that country than in his own, and he had toured in the principal towns and cities across there regularly for several years. To meet him there was to meet a most popular celebrity⁠—could any man forget it? Therefore, were there two men of the name of Marston Greyle?

That was one problem⁠—closely affecting Oliver’s disappearance. The other had nothing to do with Oliver’s disappearance⁠—nevertheless, it interested Richard Copplestone. He was a young man of quick perception and accurate observation, and his alert eyes had seen that the Squire of Scarhaven occupied a position suggestive of power and wealth. The house which stood beneath the old Keep was one of size and importance, the sort of place which could only be kept up by a rich man⁠—Copplestone’s glances at its grounds, its gardens, its entrance lodge, its entire surroundings had shown him that only a well-to-do man could live there. How came it, then, that the Squire’s relations⁠—his cousin and her mother⁠—lived in a small and unpretentious cottage, and were obviously not well off as regards material goods? Copplestone had the faculty of seeing things at a glance, and refined and cultivated as the atmosphere of Mrs. Greyle’s parlour was, it had taken no more than a glance from his perceptive eyes to see that he was there confronted with what folk call genteel poverty. Mrs. Greyle’s almost nun-like attire of black had done duty for a long time; the carpet was threadbare; there was an absence of those little touches of comfort with which refined women of even modest means love to surround themselves; a sure instinct told him that here were two women who had to carefully count their pence, and lay out their shillings with caution. Genteel, quiet poverty, without doubt⁠—and yet, on the other side of the little bay, a near kinsman whose rent-roll must run to a few thousands a year!

And yet one more curious occasion of perplexity⁠—to add to the other two. Copplestone had felt instinctively attracted to Audrey Greyle when he met her on the sands, and the attraction increased as he walked at her side towards the village. In his quiet unobtrusive fashion he had watched her closely when they encountered the man whom she introduced as her cousin; and he had fancied that her manner underwent a curious change when Marston Greyle came on the scene⁠—she had seemed to become constrained, chilled, distant, aloof⁠—not with the stranger, himself, but with her kinsman. This fancy had become assurance during the conversation which had abruptly ended when Greyle took offence at Stafford’s brusque remark. Copplestone had seen a sudden look in the girl’s eyes when the fisherman repeated what Oliver had said about meeting a Mr. Marston Greyle in America; it was a look of sharply awakened⁠—what? Suspicion? apprehension?⁠—he could not decide. But it was the same look which had come into her mother’s eyes later on. Moreover, when the Squire turned huffily away, taking his cousin with him, Copplestone had noticed that there was evidently a smart passage of words between them after leaving the little group on the quay, and they had parted unceremoniously, the man turning on his heel up a side path into his own grounds and the girl going forward with a sudden acceleration of pace. All this made Copplestone draw a conclusion.

“There’s no great love lost between the gentleman at the big house and his lady relatives in the little cottage,” he mused. “Also, around the gentleman there appears to be some cloud of mystery. What?⁠—and has it anything to do with the Oliver mystery?”

He went back to the inn and made his arrangements with its landlady, who by that time was full to overflowing with interest and amazement at the strange affair which had brought her this guest. But Mrs. Wooler had eyes as well as ears, and noticing that Copplestone was already looking weary and harassed, she hastened to provide a hot dinner for him, and to recommend a certain claret which in her opinion possessed remarkable revivifying qualities. Copplestone, who had eaten nothing for several hours, accepted her hospitable attentions with gratitude, and he was enjoying himself greatly in a quaint old-world parlour, in close proximity to a bright fire, when Mrs. Wooler entered with a countenance which betokened mystery in every feature.

“There’s the estate agent, Mr. Chatfield, outside, very anxious to have a word with you about this affair,” she said. “Would you be for having him in? He’s the sort of man,” she went on, sinking her tones to a whisper, “who must know everything that’s going on, and, of course, having the position he has, he might be useful. Mr. Peter Chatfield, Mr. Greyle’s agent, and his uncle’s before him⁠—that’s who he is⁠—Peeping Peter, they call him hereabouts, because he’s fond of knowing everybody’s business.”

“Bring him in,” said Copplestone. He was by no means averse to having a companion, and Mrs. Wooler’s graphic characterization had awakened his curiosity. “Tell him I shall be glad to see him.”

Mrs. Wooler presently ushered in a figure which Copplestone’s dramatic sense immediately seized on. He saw before him a tall, heavily-built man, with a large, solemn, deeply-lined face, out of which looked a pair of the smallest and slyest eyes ever seen in a human being⁠—queer, almost hidden eyes, set beneath thick bushy eyebrows above which rose the dome of an unusually high forehead and a bald head. As for the rest of him, Mr. Peter Chatfield had a snub nose, a wide slit of a mouth, and a flabby hand; his garments were of a Quaker kind in cut and hue; he wore old-fashioned stand-up collars and a voluminous black stock; in one hand he carried a stout oaken staff, in the other a square-crowned beaver hat; altogether, his mere outward appearance would have gained notice for him anywhere, and Copplestone rejoiced in him as a character. He rose, greeted his visitor cordially, and invited him to a seat by the fire. The estate agent settled his heavy figure comfortably, and made a careful inspection of the young stranger before he spoke. At last he leaned forward.

“Sir!” he whispered in a confidential tone. “Do you consider this here a matter of murder?”