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Now for a moment I will ask leave to remove my own insignificant personality and to describe events which occurred before we arrived upon the scene by the light of knowledge which came to us afterwards. Only in this way can I make the reader appreciate the people concerned and the strange setting in which their fate was cast.

The village of Birlstone is a small and very ancient cluster of half-timbered cottages on the northern border of the county of Sussex. For centuries it had remained unchanged; but within the last few years its picturesque appearance and situation have attracted a number of well-to-do residents, whose villas peep out from the woods around. These woods are locally supposed to be the extreme fringe of the great Weald forest, which thins away until it reaches the northern chalk downs. A number of small shops have come into being to meet the wants of the increased population; so there seems some prospect that Birlstone may soon grow from an ancient village into a modern town. It is the centre for a considerable area of country, since Tunbridge Wells, the nearest place of importance, is ten or twelve miles to the eastward, over the borders of Kent.

About half a mile from the town, standing in an old park famous for its huge beech trees, is the ancient Manor House of Birlstone. Part of this venerable building dates back to the time of the first crusade, when Hugo de Capus built a fortalice in the centre of the estate, which had been granted to him by the Red King. This was destroyed by fire in 1543, and some of its smoke-blackened corner stones were used when, in Jacobean times, a brick country house rose upon the ruins of the feudal castle.

The Manor House, with its many gables and its small diamond-paned windows, was still much as the builder had left it in the early seventeenth century. Of the double moats which had guarded its more warlike predecessor, the outer had been allowed to dry up, and served the humble function of a kitchen garden. The inner one was still there, and lay forty feet in breadth, though now only a few feet in depth, round the whole house. A small stream fed it and continued beyond it, so that the sheet of water, though turbid, was never ditchlike or unhealthy. The ground floor windows were within a foot of the surface of the water.

The only approach to the house was over a drawbridge, the chains and windlass of which had long been rusted and broken. The latest tenants of the Manor House had, however, with characteristic energy, set this right, and the drawbridge was not only capable of being raised, but actually was raised every evening and lowered every morning. By thus renewing the custom of the old feudal days the Manor House was converted into an island during the night--a fact which had a very direct bearing upon the mystery which was soon to engage the attention of all England.

The house had been untenanted for some years and was threatening to moulder into a picturesque decay when the Douglases took possession of it. This family consisted of only two individuals--John Douglas and his wife. Douglas was a remarkable man, both in character and in person. In age he may have been about fifty, with a strong-jawed, rugged face, a grizzling moustache, peculiarly keen gray eyes, and a wiry, vigorous figure which had lost nothing of the strength and activity of youth. He was cheery and genial to all, but somewhat offhand in his manners, giving the impression that he had seen life in social strata on some far lower horizon than the county society of Sussex.

Yet, though looked at with some curiosity and reserve by his more cultivated neighbours, he soon acquired a great popularity among the villagers, subscribing handsomely to all local objects, and attending their smoking concerts and other functions, where, having a remarkably rich tenor voice, he was always ready to oblige with an excellent song. He appeared to have plenty of money, which was said to have been gained in the California gold fields, and it was clear from his own talk and that of his wife that he had spent a part of his life in America.

The good impression which had been produced by his generosity and by his democratic manners was increased by a reputation gained for utter indifference to danger. Though a wretched rider, he turned out at every meet, and took the most amazing falls in his determination to hold his own with the best. When the vicarage caught fire he distinguished himself also by the fearlessness with which he reentered the building to save property, after the local fire brigade had given it up as impossible. Thus it came about that John Douglas of the Manor House had within five years won himself quite a reputation in Birlstone.

His wife, too, was popular with those who had made her acquaintance; though, after the English fashion, the callers upon a stranger who settled in the county without introductions were few and far between. This mattered the less to her, as she was retiring by disposition, and very much absorbed, to all appearance, in her husband and her domestic duties. It was known that she was an English lady who had met Mr. Douglas in London, he being at that time a widower. She was a beautiful woman, tall, dark, and slender, some twenty years younger than her husband; a disparity which seemed in no wise to mar the contentment of their family life.

It was remarked sometimes, however, by those who knew them best, that the confidence between the two did not appear to be complete, since the wife was either very reticent about her husband's past life, or else, as seemed more likely, was imperfectly informed about it. It had also been noted and commented upon by a few observant people that there were signs sometimes of some nerve-strain upon the part of Mrs. Douglas, and that she would display acute uneasiness if her absent husband should ever be particularly late in his return. On a quiet countryside, where all gossip is welcome, this weakness of the lady of the Manor House did not pass without remark, and it bulked larger upon people's memory when the events arose which gave it a very special significance.

There was yet another individual whose residence under that roof was, it is true, only an intermittent one, but whose presence at the time of the strange happenings which will now be narrated brought his name prominently before the public. This was Cecil James Barker, of Hales Lodge, Hampstead.

Cecil Barker's tall, loose-jointed figure was a familiar one in the main street of Birlstone village; for he was a frequent and welcome visitor at the Manor House. He was the more noticed as being the only friend of the past unknown life of Mr. Douglas who was ever seen in his new English surroundings. Barker was himself an undoubted Englishman; but by his remarks it was clear that he had first known Douglas in America and had there lived on intimate terms with him. He appeared to be a man of considerable wealth, and was reputed to be a bachelor.

In age he was rather younger than Douglas--forty-five at the most--a tall, straight, broad-chested fellow with a clean-shaved, prize-fighter face, thick, strong, black eyebrows, and a pair of masterful black eyes which might, even without the aid of his very capable hands, clear a way for him through a hostile crowd. He neither rode nor shot, but spent his days in wandering round the old village with his pipe in his mouth, or in driving with his host, or in his absence with his hostess, over the beautiful countryside. "An easy-going, free-handed gentleman," said Ames, the butler. "But, my word! I had rather not be the man that crossed him!" He was cordial and intimate with Douglas, and he was no less friendly with his wife--a friendship which more than once seemed to cause some irritation to the husband, so that even the servants were able to perceive his annoyance. Such was the third person who was one of the family when the catastrophe occurred.

As to the other denizens of the old building, it will suffice out of a large household to mention the prim, respectable, and capable Ames, and Mrs. Allen, a buxom and cheerful person, who relieved the lady of some of her household cares. The other six servants in the house bear no relation to the events of the night of January 6th.

It was at eleven forty-five that the first alarm reached the small local police station, in charge of Sergeant Wilson of the Sussex Constabulary. Cecil Barker, much excited, had rushed up to the door and pealed furiously upon the bell. A terrible tragedy had occurred at the Manor House, and John Douglas had been murdered. That was the breathless burden of his message. He had hurried back to the house, followed within a few minutes by the police sergeant, who arrived at the scene of the crime a little after twelve o'clock, after taking prompt steps to warn the county authorities that something serious was afoot.

On reaching the Manor House, the sergeant had found the drawbridge down, the windows lighted up, and the whole household in a state of wild confusion and alarm. The white-faced servants were huddling together in the hall, with the frightened butler wringing his hands in the doorway. Only Cecil Barker seemed to be master of himself and his emotions; he had opened the door which was nearest to the entrance and he had beckoned to the sergeant to follow him. At that moment there arrived Dr. Wood, a brisk and capable general practitioner from the village. The three men entered the fatal room together, while the horror-stricken butler followed at their heels, closing the door behind him to shut out the terrible scene from the maid servants.

The dead man lay on his back, sprawling with outstretched limbs in the centre of the room. He was clad only in a pink dressing gown, which covered his night clothes. There were carpet slippers on his bare feet. The doctor knelt beside him and held down the hand lamp which had stood on the table. One glance at the victim was enough to show the healer that his presence could be dispensed with. The man had been horribly injured. Lying across his chest was a curious weapon, a shotgun with the barrel sawed off a foot in front of the triggers. It was clear that this had been fired at close range and that he had received the whole charge in the face, blowing his head almost to pieces. The triggers had been wired together, so as to make the simultaneous discharge more destructive.

The country policeman was unnerved and troubled by the tremendous responsibility which had come so suddenly upon him. "We will touch nothing until my superiors arrive," he said in a hushed voice, staring in horror at the dreadful head.

"Nothing has been touched up to now," said Cecil Barker. "I'll answer for that. You see it all exactly as I found it."

"When was that?" The sergeant had drawn out his notebook.

"It was just half-past eleven. I had not begun to undress, and I was sitting by the fire in my bedroom when I heard the report. It was not very loud--it seemed to be muffled. I rushed down--I don't suppose it was thirty seconds before I was in the room."

"Was the door open?"

"Yes, it was open. Poor Douglas was lying as you see him. His bedroom candle was burning on the table. It was I who lit the lamp some minutes afterward."

"Did you see no one?"

"No. I heard Mrs. Douglas coming down the stair behind me, and I rushed out to prevent her from seeing this dreadful sight. Mrs. Allen, the housekeeper, came and took her away. Ames had arrived, and we ran back into the room once more."

"But surely I have heard that the drawbridge is kept up all night."

"Yes, it was up until I lowered it."

"Then how could any murderer have got away? It is out of the question! Mr. Douglas must have shot himself."

"That was our first idea. But see!" Barker drew aside the curtain, and showed that the long, diamond-paned window was open to its full extent. "And look at this!" He held the lamp down and illuminated a smudge of blood like the mark of a boot-sole upon the wooden sill. "Someone has stood there in getting out."

"You mean that someone waded across the moat?"

"Exactly!"

"Then if you were in the room within half a minute of the crime, he must have been in the water at that very moment."

"I have not a doubt of it. I wish to heaven that I had rushed to the window! But the curtain screened it, as you can see, and so it never occurred to me. Then I heard the step of Mrs. Douglas, and I could not let her enter the room. It would have been too horrible."

"Horrible enough!" said the doctor, looking at the shattered head and the terrible marks which surrounded it. "I've never seen such injuries since the Birlstone railway smash."

"But, I say," remarked the police sergeant, whose slow, bucolic common sense was still pondering the open window. "It's all very well your saying that a man escaped by wading this moat, but what I ask you is, how did he ever get into the house at all if the bridge was up?"

"Ah, that's the question," said Barker.

"At what o'clock was it raised?"

"It was nearly six o'clock," said Ames, the butler.

"I've heard," said the sergeant, "that it was usually raised at sunset. That would be nearer half-past four than six at this time of year."

"Mrs. Douglas had visitors to tea," said Ames. "I couldn't raise it until they went. Then I wound it up myself."

"Then it comes to this," said the sergeant: "If anyone came from outside--IF they did--they must have got in across the bridge before six and been in hiding ever since, until Mr. Douglas came into the room after eleven."

"That is so! Mr. Douglas went round the house every night the last thing before he turned in to see that the lights were right. That brought him in here. The man was waiting and shot him. Then he got away through the window and left his gun behind him. That's how I read it; for nothing else will fit the facts."

The sergeant picked up a card which lay beside the dead man on the floor. The initials V.V. and under them the number 341 were rudely scrawled in ink upon it.

"What's this?" he asked, holding it up.

Barker looked at it with curiosity. "I never noticed it before," he said. "The murderer must have left it behind him."

"V.V.--341. I can make no sense of that."

The sergeant kept turning it over in his big fingers. "What's V.V.? Somebody's initials, maybe. What have you got there, Dr. Wood?"

It was a good-sized hammer which had been lying on the rug in front of the fireplace--a substantial, workmanlike hammer. Cecil Barker pointed to a box of brass-headed nails upon the mantelpiece.

"Mr. Douglas was altering the pictures yesterday," he said. "I saw him myself, standing upon that chair and fixing the big picture above it. That accounts for the hammer."

"We'd best put it back on the rug where we found it," said the sergeant, scratching his puzzled head in his perplexity. "It will want the best brains in the force to get to the bottom of this thing. It will be a London job before it is finished." He raised the hand lamp and walked slowly round the room. "Hullo!" he cried, excitedly, drawing the window curtain to one side. "What o'clock were those curtains drawn?"

"When the lamps were lit," said the butler. "It would be shortly after four."

"Someone had been hiding here, sure enough." He held down the light, and the marks of muddy boots were very visible in the corner. "I'm bound to say this bears out your theory, Mr. Barker. It looks as if the man got into the house after four when the curtains were drawn, and before six when the bridge was raised. He slipped into this room, because it was the first that he saw. There was no other place where he could hide, so he popped in behind this curtain. That all seems clear enough. It is likely that his main idea was to burgle the house; but Mr. Douglas chanced to come upon him, so he murdered him and escaped."

"That's how I read it," said Barker. "But, I say, aren't we wasting precious time? Couldn't we start out and scout the country before the fellow gets away?"

The sergeant considered for a moment.

"There are no trains before six in the morning; so he can't get away by rail. If he goes by road with his legs all dripping, it's odds that someone will notice him. Anyhow, I can't leave here myself until I am relieved. But I think none of you should go until we see more clearly how we all stand."

The doctor had taken the lamp and was narrowly scrutinizing the body. "What's this mark?" he asked. "Could this have any connection with the crime?"

The dead man's right arm was thrust out from his dressing gown, and exposed as high as the elbow. About halfway up the forearm was a curious brown design, a triangle inside a circle, standing out in vivid relief upon the lard-coloured skin.

"It's not tattooed," said the doctor, peering through his glasses. "I never saw anything like it. The man has been branded at some time as they brand cattle. What is the meaning of this?"

"I don't profess to know the meaning of it," said Cecil Barker; "but I have seen the mark on Douglas many times this last ten years."

"And so have I," said the butler. "Many a time when the master has rolled up his sleeves I have noticed that very mark. I've often wondered what it could be."

"Then it has nothing to do with the crime, anyhow," said the sergeant. "But it's a rum thing all the same. Everything about this case is rum. Well, what is it now?"

The butler had given an exclamation of astonishment and was pointing at the dead man's outstretched hand.

"They've taken his wedding ring!" he gasped.

"What!"

"Yes, indeed. Master always wore his plain gold wedding ring on the little finger of his left hand. That ring with the rough nugget on it was above it, and the twisted snake ring on the third finger. There's the nugget and there's the snake, but the wedding ring is gone."

"He's right," said Barker.

"Do you tell me," said the sergeant, "that the wedding ring was BELOW the other?"

"Always!"

"Then the murderer, or whoever it was, first took off this ring you call the nugget ring, then the wedding ring, and afterwards put the nugget ring back again."

"That is so!"

The worthy country policeman shook his head. "Seems to me the sooner we get London on to this case the better," said he. "White Mason is a smart man. No local job has ever been too much for White Mason. It won't be long now before he is here to help us. But I expect we'll have to look to London before we are through. Anyhow, I'm not ashamed to say that it is a deal too thick for the likes of me."

三 伯尔斯通的悲剧

现在我把无关紧要的人物暂时放在一边,先描述一下在我们到达发案地点以前所发生的事情,这是我们后来才知道的。只有这样,我才能使读者了解有关人物以及决定他们命运的奇特背景。

伯尔斯通是一个小村落,在苏塞克斯郡北部边缘地区,有一片古老的半砖半木的房屋,几百年来一成不变,但近年来由于风景优美、位置优越,有些富户移居此地,他们的别墅在四周丛林中隐约可见。当地认为这些丛林是维尔德大森林的边缘,大森林伸展到北部白垩丘陵地,变得越来越稀疏了。由于人口日益增长,一些小商店也就应需开设起来,因此,它的远景已经显然可见,伯尔斯通会很快从一个古老的小村落发展成一个现代化城镇。伯尔斯通是一个相当大的农村地区的中心,因为离这里十或十二英里远近,向东延伸到肯特郡的边区,有一个离这里最近的重要城镇滕布里奇韦尔斯市。

离村镇半英里左右,有一座古老园林,以其高大的山毛榉树而闻名,这就是古旧的伯尔斯通庄园。这个历史悠久的建筑物的一部分兴建于第一次十字军东征时代,当时休戈·戴·坎普司在英王赐给他的这个庄园中心建立起一座小型城堡。这座城堡在一五四三年毁于火灾。直到詹姆士一世时代,一座砖瓦房又在这座封建城堡的废墟上修建起来,原来那座城堡四角所用的已被熏黑了的基石,也被利用上了。

庄园的建筑有许多山墙和菱形小格玻璃窗,仍象十七世纪初它的建造者所遗留下来的那种样子。原来用于卫护其富于尚武精神的先辈的两道护城河,外河已经干涸,被辟作菜园。那道内河依然存在,虽然现在只剩下几英尺深了 ,但宽度却还有四十英尺,环绕着整个庄园。有一条小河流经这里,蜿蜒不绝,因此,水流尽管浑浊,却从不象壕沟死水那样不卫生。庄园大楼底层的窗户离水面不到一英尺。

进入庄园必须通过一座吊桥。吊桥的铁链和绞盘早已生锈、毁坏。然而,这座庄园的新住户具有独特的精力,竟把它修复起来,这座吊桥不但可以吊起,而且实际上每天晚上都吊起来,早晨放下去。这样就恢复了旧日封建时代的习俗,一到晚上,庄园就变成了一座孤岛——这一事实是和即将轰动整个英国的这一案件有直接关系的。

这所房子已经多年没有人住了,在道格拉斯买它的时候,已有荒废坍塌成引人注目的废墟的危险。这个家庭只有两口人,就是约翰·道格拉斯和他的夫人。从性格和人品方面来说,道格拉斯是一个非凡的人。他年约五十,大下巴,面容粗犷,蓄着灰白的小胡子,一双特别敏锐的灰眼睛,瘦长而结实的体形,其健壮机敏丝毫不减当年。他总是喜气洋洋、和蔼可亲。但是在他的举止中,有点不拘礼仪,使人产生一种印象,似乎他曾体验过远远低于苏塞克斯郡社会阶层的生活。

然而,尽管那些颇有教养的邻居们以好奇而谨慎的眼光看待他,但由于他慷慨大方地捐款给当地一切福利事业,参加他们的烟火音乐会和其他盛大集会,加以他有着受人欢迎的男高音的圆润歌喉 ,而且常常喜欢满足大家的要求给人们唱一支优美的歌曲,所以道格拉斯很快便在村民中大得人心。他看起来很有钱,据说是从加利福尼亚州的金矿赚来的。从他本人和他的夫人的谈话中,人们清楚地得知,道格拉斯曾在美国生活过一段时间。

由于道格拉斯慷慨大方,平易近人,人们对他的印象格外好,而他那临危不惧、履险如夷的精神更大大地提高了他的声望。尽管他是一个不很高明的枪手,每次狩猎集会他都应邀参加,令人吃惊地与别人较量,凭着他的决心,不仅坚持下来,而且一点也不比别人差。有一次教区牧师的住宅起火,当本地的消防队宣告无法扑救之后,他仍无所畏惧地冲进火窟,抢救财物,从而崭露头角。因此,约翰·道格拉斯虽然来到此地不过五年,却已誉满伯尔斯通了。

他的夫人也颇受相识者的爱戴。按照英国人的习惯,一个迁来本地的异乡人,如果未经介绍,拜访他的人是不会很多的。这对她来说,倒也无关紧要。因为她是一个性格孤独的人。而且,显然她非常专心致志地照顾丈夫,料理家务。相传她是一个英国女子,在伦敦和道格拉斯先生相逢,那时道格拉斯正在鳏居。她是一个美丽的女人,高高的身材,肤色较深,体态苗条,比她丈夫年轻二十岁。年龄的悬殊似乎毫未影响他们美满的家庭生活。

然而,有时那些深知内情的人说,他们的相互信任并不是无懈可击的,因为道格拉斯夫人对她丈夫过去的生活与其说不愿多谈,还不如说是不完全了解。少数观察敏锐的人曾注意到并议论过:道格拉斯太太有时有些神经紧张的表现 ,每逢她丈夫回来得过迟的时候,她就显得极度不安。平静的乡村总喜欢传播流言蜚语,庄园主夫人这一弱点当然也不会被人们默默地放过,而事件发生后,这件事在人们的记忆中就会变得更加重要,因此也就具有特殊的意义。

可是还有一个人,说实在的,他不过是有时在这里住一下,不过由于这件奇案发生时,他也在场,因此在人们的议论中,他的名字就特别突出了。这个人叫塞西尔·詹姆斯·巴克,是汉普斯特德郡黑尔斯洛基市人。

塞西尔·巴克身材高大灵活,伯尔斯通村里主要大街上人人都认识他,因为他经常出入庄园,是一个在庄园颇受欢迎的客人。对道格拉斯过去的生活,人们都不了解,塞西尔·巴克是唯一了解这种往事的人。巴克本人无疑是个英国人,但是据他自己说,他初次与道格拉斯相识是在美洲,而且在那里两个人关系很密切,这一点是很清楚的。看来巴克是一个拥有大量财产的人,而且众所周知是个光棍汉。

从年龄上讲,他比道格拉斯年轻得多——最多四十五岁,身材高大笔直,膀大腰圆,脸刮得精光 ,脸型象一个职业拳击家,浓重的黑眉毛,一双目光逼人的黑眼睛,甚至用不着他那本领高强的双手的帮助,就能从敌阵中清出一条路来。他既不喜欢骑马,也不喜欢狩猎,但却喜欢叼着烟斗,在这古老的村子里转来转去,不然就与主人一起,主人不在时就与女主人一起,在景色优美的乡村中驾车出游,借以消遣。

“他是一个性情随和慷慨大方的绅士,"管家艾姆斯说,“不过,哎呀!我可不敢和他顶牛!"巴克与道格拉斯非常亲密,与道格拉斯夫人也一样友爱——可是这种友谊似乎不止一次地引起那位丈夫的恼怒,甚至连仆人们也察觉出道格拉斯的烦恼。这就是祸事发生时,这个家庭中的第三个人物。

至于老宅子里的另外一些居民,只要提一提艾姆斯和艾伦太太就够了——大管家艾姆斯是个拘谨、古板、文雅而又能干的人;而艾伦太太则是个健美而快乐的人,她分担了女主人一些家务管理工作。宅中其余六个仆人就和一月六日晚上的事件毫无关系了。

夜里十一点四十五分,第一次报警就传到当地这个小小的警察所了。这个警察所由来自苏塞克斯保安队的威尔逊警官主管。塞西尔·巴克非常激动地向警察所的门冲过去,拼命地敲起警钟。他上岂不接下平地报告:庄园里出了惨祸,约翰·道格拉斯被人杀害了。他匆匆地赶回庄园,过了几分钟 ,警官也随后赶到了,他是在向郡当局紧急报告发生了严重事件以后,于十二点多一点赶到犯罪现场的。

警官到达庄园时,发现吊桥已经放下,楼窗灯火通明,全家处于非常混乱和惊慌失措的状态。面色苍白的仆人们彼此紧挨着站在大厅里,惊恐万状的管家搓着双手,站在门口,只有塞西尔·巴克看来还比较镇静,他打开离入口最近的门,招呼警官跟他进来。这时,本村活跃而有本领的开业医生伍德也到了。三个人一起走进这间不幸的房屋,惊慌失措的管家也紧随他们走了进来,随手把门关上,不让那些女仆们看到这可怖的景象。

死者四肢摊开,仰卧在屋子中央,身上只穿一件桃红色晨衣,里面穿着夜服,赤脚穿着毡拖鞋。医生跪在他旁边,把桌上的油灯拿了下来。只看受害者一眼,就足以使医生明白,毫无救活的可能了。受害者伤势惨重,胸前横着一件稀奇古怪的武器——一支火枪,枪管从扳机往前一英尺的地方锯断了。两个扳机用铁丝缚在一起,为的是同时发射,以便构成更大的杀伤力。显然,射击距离非常近,而且全部火药都射到脸上,死者的头几乎被炸得粉碎。

这样重大的责任突然降到乡村警官身上,使他困惑不安,没有勇气承担。"在长官没来之前,我们什么也不要动,"他惊惶失措地凝视着那可怕的头颅 ,低声说道。

“到现在为止,什么也没有动过,"塞西尔·巴克说道,“我保证,你们所看到的一切完全和我发现时一模一样。”

“这事发生在什么时间?"警官掏出笔记本来。

“当时正是十一点半。我还没有脱衣服。我听到枪声时,正坐在卧室壁炉旁取暖。枪声并不很响——好象被什么捂住了似的。我奔下楼来,跑到那间屋子时,也不过半分钟的功夫。”

“那时门是开着的吗?”

“是的,门是开着的。可怜的道格拉斯倒在地上,和你现在看见的一样。他卧室里的蜡烛仍然在桌上点着。后来过了几分钟,我才把灯点上。”

“你一个人也没看见吗?”

“没有。我听见道格拉斯太太随后走下楼来,我连忙跑过去,把她拦住,不让她看见这可怕的景象。女管家艾伦太太也来了,扶着她走开。艾姆斯来了,我们又重新回到那屋里。”

“可是我肯定听说过吊桥整夜都是吊起来的。”

“是的,在我把它放下以前,吊桥是吊起来的。”

“那么凶手怎么能逃走呢?这是不可能的!道格拉斯先生一定是自杀的。”

“我们最初也是这样想的,不过你看!"巴克把窗帘拉到一旁,让他看那已经完全打开的玻璃长窗。"你再看看这个!"他把灯拿低些,照着木窗台上的血迹,象一只长统靴底的印痕,

“有人在逃出去的时候曾站在这里。”

“你认为有人蹚水逃过护城河了吗?

“不错!”

“那么,如果你在罪案发生后不到半分钟就来到屋中,罪犯当时必然还在水里。”

“我毫不怀疑这点。那时我要是跑到窗前就好了!可是正象你刚才看见的那样,窗帘遮住了窗户。所以我没有想到这点。后来我听到道格拉斯太太的脚步声,我可不能让她走进这间屋子。那情况简直太可怕了。”

“实在太可怕了!"医生看着炸碎的头颅和它四周的可怕血印说,“从伯尔斯通火车撞车事件以来,我还没见过这样可怕的重伤呢。”

“不过,我看,"警官说道,他那迟缓的、被那乡巴佬的常识局限住了的思路仍然停留在洞开的窗户上面,“你说有一个人蹚水过护城河逃走,是完全对的。不过我想问你,既然吊桥已经吊起来,他又是怎么走进来的呢?”

“啊,问题就在这里啊,"巴克说道。

“吊桥是几点钟吊起来的呢?”

“将近六点钟时,"管家艾姆斯说。

“我听说,"警官说道,“吊桥通常在太阳西下的时候吊起来。那么在一年中这个季节,日落应该是在四点半左右,而不会是六点钟。”

“道格拉斯太太请客人们吃茶点,"艾姆斯说道,“客人不走我是不能吊起吊桥的。后来,桥是我亲手吊起来的。”

“这样说来,"警官说道,“如果有人从外面进来——假定是这样——那他们必须在六点钟以前通过吊桥来到,而且一直藏到十一点钟以后,直到道格拉斯先生走进屋中。”

“正是这样!道格拉斯先生每天晚上都要在庄园四周巡视一番。他上床睡觉以前最后一件事是察看烛火是否正常。这样他就来到这里,那个人正在等着他,就向他开枪了,然后丢下火枪,越过窗子逃跑了。我认为就是这样;除此以外,没有任何其它解释能与眼前的事实相符。”

警官从死者身旁地板上拾起一张卡片,上面用钢笔潦草地写着两个姓名开头大写字母V.V.,下面是数目字341。

“这是什么?"警官举起卡片问道。

巴克好奇地看着卡片。

“我以前从没注意到这个,"巴克说道,“这一定是凶手留下来的。”

“V.V.——341。我弄不明白这是什么意思。”

警官的大手把名片来回翻着说道:

“V.V.是什么?大约是人名的开头大写字母。医生,你找到了什么?”

壁炉前地毯上放着一把大号铁锤,是一把坚固而精致的铁锤。

塞西尔·巴克指了指壁炉台上的铜头钉盒子说道:

“昨天道格拉斯先生换油画来着,我亲眼看见他站在椅子上把这张大画挂在上面。铁锤就是这么来的。”

“我们最好还是把铁锤放回发现它时的原地吧,"警官茫然不解,用手搔着头说道,“只有头脑极为灵敏的警探才能弄清这件事情的真相。还是请伦敦警探来清理这个案子吧。"他举起了灯,环屋慢慢地走着。

“喂!"警官兴奋地把窗帘拉向一旁,大声说道,“窗帘是几点钟拉上的呢?”

“在点起灯来的时候,"管家回答道,"四点钟刚过没多久。”

“完全可以肯定,有人藏在这里,"警官又把灯拿低了。在墙角那里,长统靴子泥污的痕迹非常明显。

“我敢肯定,巴克先生,这就完全证实了你的推测。看来,凶手是四点钟以后窗帘已经拉上,六点钟以前吊桥还没吊起来的时候溜进屋里来的。他溜进了这间屋子,因为这是他首先看到的一间。他没有别的地方可以藏身,所以就躲到这个窗帘后面。这一切看来非常明显。看样子,他主要是想盗窃室内的财物。可是道格拉斯先生正巧碰上了他,所以他就下了毒手,溜之大吉。”

“我也是这样想的,"巴克说道,“不过,我说,我们是不是在白白浪费宝贵的时间?我们为何不趁凶手还没走远,把这个村镇搜查一番呢?”

警官想了一想,说道:“早晨六点种以前没有火车,所以他决不能乘火车逃走。假如他两腿水淋淋地在大路上步行,大约人们会注意上他的。在没有人来和我换班以前,我无论如何也不能离开这儿。但我认为你们在水落石出以前,也是不便走开的。”

伍德医生拿起灯,仔细地检查尸体。

“这是什么记号?"他问道,“这可和案情有什么关系吗?”

死尸的右臂露在外面,直露到臂肘。大约在前臂中间的地方,有一个奇特的褐色标记——一个圆圈,里面有一个三角形,每一条痕迹都是凸起的——在灰白的皮肤上显得异常醒目。

“这不是针刺的花纹,"伍德医生的目光透过眼镜紧盯着标记说道,“我从来没见过象这样的标记。这个人曾经烙过烙印呢,就象牲口身上的烙印一样。这是怎么回事?”

“我不知道这是什么意思,不过近十年间我曾多次看到他臂上的这个标记。"塞西尔·巴克说道。

“我也看到过,"管家说道,“有很多次主人挽起衣袖,我就看到那个标记。我一直不明白那究竟是怎么回事?”

“那么,这和案情没有什么关系了,"警官说道,“但这是一件怪事。牵涉到这一案子的每桩事都这么怪。喂,这到底是怎么回事?”

管家指着死者伸出的手,惊呼起来:“他们把他的结婚戒指拿走了!"他气喘吁吁地说。

“什么?!”

“不错,真是这样!主人左手小指上总戴着纯金结婚戒指,再上面戴着带有天然块金的戒指,中指上戴着盘蛇形戒指。现在天然块金戒指和盘蛇戒指都还在,唯独结婚戒指没有了。”

“他说得不错,"巴克说道。

“你是说那只结婚戒指戴在另一只戒指下面吗?"警官问道。

“始终如此!”

“那么这凶手,或者不管他是谁吧,首先要把你说的那个天然块金戒指取下来,再取下结婚戒指,然后再把块金戒指套上去。”

“是这样。”

这位可敬的乡村警官摇起头来,他说:“依我看我们最好把这个案子交给伦敦去办吧,愈快愈好。怀特·梅森是一个精明人。当地案件没有怀特·梅森应付不了的。过不多久他就要到这里来帮助我们了。不过我想,我们只好指望伦敦把事情办到底。不管怎么说,不怕说出来让人笑话,象我这样的人,办这样的案子,实在是力所不及呢。”

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