The Footprint in the Sky
She awoke out of confused dreams; awoke with a start, and lay staring at the white ceiling of her bedroom for a minute or two before she could convince herself it was anything but a dream.
But it was a dream.
The cold, brittle sunlight poured in at the open window. The cold, brittle air, blowing the curtains, stirred a light coating of snow on the window-sill. It stirred briskly in that little, bare room; it should have set the blood racing, and Dorothy Brant breathed it deeply.
Everything was all right. She was at the country cottage, where she and Dad and Harry had come down for the skating on the frozen lake; possibly even a little mild skiing, if the snow came on according to the weather forecast. And the snow had fallen. She should have been glad of that, though for some reason the sight of it on the window-sill struck her with a kind of terror.
Shivering in the warm bed, the clothes pulled up about her chin, she looked at the little clock on her bedside. Twenty minutes past nine. She had overslept; Dad and Harry would be wanting their breakfast. Again she told herself (that everything was all right: though now, fully awake, she knew it was not. The unpleasantness of yesterday returned. Mrs. Topham next door-that old shrew and thief as well…
It was the only thing which could have marred this weekend. They had looked forward to the skating: the crisp blades thudding and ringing on the ice, the flight, the long scratching drag as you turned, the elm-trees black against a clear cold sky. But there was Mrs. Topham with her stolen watch and her malicious good manners, huddled up in the cottage next door and spoiling everything.
Put it out of your mind! No good brooding over it: put it out of your mind!
Dorothy Brant braced herself and got out of bed, reaching for her dressing-gown and slippers. But it was not her dressing-gown she found draped across the chair; it was her heavy fur coat. And there were a pair of soft-leather slippers. They were a pair of soft-leather moccasins, ornamented with bead-work, which Harry had brought her back from the States; but now the undersides were cold, damp, and stiff, almost frozen. That was when a subconscious fear struck at her, took possession, and would not leave.
Closing the window, she padded out to the bathroom. The small cottage, with its crisp white curtains and smell of old wood, was so quiet that she could hear voices talking downstairs. It was a mumble in which no words were distinguishable: Harry's quick tenor, her father's slower and heavier voice, and another she could not identify, but which was slowest and heaviest of all.
What was wrong? She hurried through her bath and through her dressing. Not only were they up but they must be getting their own breakfast, for she could smell coffee boiling. And she was very slow; in spite of nine hours' sleep she felt as edgy and washed-out as though she had been up all night.
Giving a last jerk of the comb through her brown bobbed hair, putting on no powder or lipstick, she ran downstairs. At the door of the living-room she stopped abruptly. Inside were her father, her cousin Harry, and the local Superintendent of Police.
"Good morning, miss," said the Superintendent.
She never forgot the look of that little room or the look on the faces of those in it. Sunlight poured into it, touching the bright-coloured rough-woven rugs, the rough stone fireplace. Through side windows she could see out across the snow-covered lawn to where-twenty yards away and separated from them only by a tall laurel hedge, with a gateway-was Mrs. Topham's white weather-boarded cottage.
But what struck her with a shock of alarm as she came into the room was the sense of a conversation suddenly cut off; the look she surprised on their faces when they glanced round, quick and sallow, as a camera might have surprised it.
"Good morning, miss," repeated Superintendent Mason, saluting.
Harry Ventnor intervened, in a kind of agony. His naturally high colour was higher still; even his large feet and bulky shoulders, his small sinewy hands, looked agitated.
"Don't say anything, Dolly!" he urged. "Don't say anything! They can't make you say anything. Wait until-"
"I certainly think-" began her father slowly. He looked down his nose, and then along the side of his pipe, everywhere except at Dorothy. "I certainly think," he went on, clearing his throat, "that it would be as well not to speak hastily until-"
«"If» you please, sir," said Superintendent Mason, clearing his throat. "Now, miss, I'm afraid I must ask you some questions. But it is my duty to tell you that you need not answer my questions until you have seen your solicitor."
"Solicitor? But I don't want a solicitor. What on earth should I want with a solicitor?"
Superintendent Mason looked meaningly at her father and Harry Ventnor, as though bidding them to mark that.
"It's about Mrs. Topham, miss."
"Why do you say 'Oh'?"
"Go on, please. What is it?"
"I understand, miss, that you and Mrs. Topham had 'words' yesterday? A bit of a dust-up, like?"
"Yes, you could certainly call it that."
"May I ask what about?"
"I'm sorry," said Dorothy; "I can't tell you that. It would only give the old cat an opportunity to say I had been slandering her. So that's it! What has she been telling you?"
"Why, miss," said Superintendent Mason, taking out a pencil and scratching the side of his jaw with it, "I'm afraid she's not exactly in a condition to tell us anything. She's in a nursing-home at Guildford, rather badly smashed up round the head. Just between ourselves, it's touch and go whether she'll recover."
First Dorothy could not feel her heart beating at all, and then it seemed to pound with enormous rhythm. The Superintendent was looking at her steadily. She forced herself to say: "You mean she's had an accident?"
"Not exactly, miss. The doctor says she was hit three or four times with that big glass paper-weight you may have seen on the table at her cottage. Eh?"
"You don't mean-you don't mean somebody «did» it? Deliberately? But who did it?"
"Well, miss," said Superintendent Mason, looking at her still harder until he became a huge Puritan face with a small mole beside his nose. "I'm bound to tell you that by everything we can see so far, it looks as though you did it."
This wasn't happening. It couldn't be. She afterwards remembered, in a detached kind of way, studying all of them: the little lines round Harry's eyes in the sunlight, the hastily brushed light hair, the loose leather wind-jacket whose zip fastener was half undone. She remembered thinking that despite his athletic prowess he looked ineffectual and a little foolish. But then her own father was not of much use now.
She heard her own voice.
"But that's absurd!"
"I hope so, miss. I honestly hope so. Now tell me: were you out of this house last night?"
"At any time."
"Yes. No. I don't know. Yes, I think I was."
"For God's sake, Dolly," said her father, "don't say anything more until we've got a lawyer here. I've telephoned to town; I didn't want to alarm you; I didn't even wake you: there's some explanation of this. There must be!"
It was not her own emotion; it was the wretchedness of his face which held her. Bulky, semi-bald, worried about business, worried about everything else in this world, that was John Brant. His crippled left arm and black glove were pressed against his side. He stood in the bright pool of sunlight, a face of misery.
"I've-seen her," he explained. "It wasn't pretty, that wasn't. Not that I haven't seen worse. In the war." He touched his arm. "But you're a little girl, Dolly; you're only a little girl. You couldn't have done that."
His plaintive tone asked for confirmation.
"Just one moment, sir," interposed Superintendent Mason. "Now, miss! You tell me you were outside the house last night?"
"In the snow?"
"Yes, yes, yes!"
"Do you remember the time?"
"No, I don't think so."
"Tell me, miss: what size shoes do you wear?"
"That's a rather small size, isn't it?" When she nodded dumbly, Superintendent Mason shut up his notebook. "Now, if you'll just come with me?"
The cottage had a side door. Without putting his fingers on the knob, Mason twisted the spindle round and opened it. The overhang of the eaves had kept clear the two steps leading down; but beyond a thin coating of snow lay like a plaster over the world between here and the shuttered cottage across the way.
There were two strings of footprints in that snow. Dorothy knew whose they were. Hardened and sharp-printed, one set of prints moved out snakily from the steps, passed under the arch of the powdered laurel-hedge, and stopped at the steps to the side door of Mrs. Topham's house. Another set of the same tracks-a little blurred, spaced at longer intervals where the person had evidently been running desperately-came back from the cottage to these steps.
That mute sign of panic stirred Dorothy's memory. It wasn't a dream. She had done it. Subconsciously she had known it all the time. She could remember other things: the fur coat clasped round her pyjamas, the sting of the snow to wet slippers, the blind rush in the dark.
"Yours, miss?" inquired Superintendent Mason.
"Yes. Oh, yes, they're mine."
"Easy, miss," muttered the Superintendent. "You're looking a bit white round the gills. Come in here and sit down; I won't hurt you." Then his own tone grew petulant. Or perhaps something in the heavy simplicity of the girl's manner penetrated his official bearing. "But why did you do it, miss? Lord, why did you do it? That's to say, breaking open that desk of hers to get a handful of trinkets not worth ten quid for the lot? And then not even taking the trouble to mess up your footprints afterwards!" He coughed, checking himself abruptly.
John Brant's voice was acid. "Good, my friend. Very good. The first sign of intelligence so far. I presume you don't suggest my daughter is insane?"
"No, sir. But they were her mother's trinkets, I hear."
"Where did you hear that? You, I suppose, Harry?"
Harry Ventnor pulled up the zip fastener of his wind-jacket as though girding himself. He seemed to suggest that he was the good fellow whom everybody was persecuting; that he wanted to be friends with the world, if they would only let him. Yet such sincerity blazed in his small features that it was difficult to doubt his good intentions.
"Now look here, Dad, old boy. I had to tell them, didn't I? It's no good trying to hide things like that. I know that, just from reading those stories-"
"All right: say what you like. They always find out, and then they make it worse than it really was." He let this sink in. "I tell you, you're going about it in the wrong way. Suppose Dolly did have a row with the Topham about that jewellery? Suppose she did go over there last night? Suppose those are her footprints? Does that prove she bashed the Topham? Not that a public service wasn't done; but why couldn't it have been a burglar just as well?"
Superintendent Mason shook his head.
"Because it couldn't, sir."
"But why? I'm asking you, why?"
"There's no harm in telling you that, sir, if you'll just listen. You probably remember that it began to snow last night at a little past eleven o'clock."
"No, I don't. We were all in bed by then."
"Well, you can take my word for it," Mason told him patiently. "I was up half the night at the police station; and it did. It stopped snowing about midnight. You'll have to take my word for that too, but we can easily prove it. You see, sir, Mrs. Topham was alive and in very good health at well after midnight. I know that too, because she rang up the police station and said she was awake and nervous and thought there were burglars in the neighbourhood. Since the lady does that same thing," he explained with a certain grimness, "on the average of about three times a month, I don't stress that. What I am telling you is that her call came in at 12.10, at least ten minutes after the snow had stopped."
Harry hesitated, and the Superintendent went on with the same patient air: "Don't you see it, sir? Mrs. Topham wasn't attacked until after the snow stopped. Round her cottage now there's twenty yards of clean, clear, unmarked snow in every direction. The only marks in that snow, the only marks of any kind at all, are the footprints Miss Brant admits she made herself."
Then he rose at them in exasperation.
" 'Tisn't as though anybody else could have made the tracks. Even if Miss Brant didn't admit it herself, I'm absolutely certain nobody else did. You, Mr. Ventnor, wear size ten shoes. Mr. Brant wears size nine. Walk in size four tracks? Ayagh! And yet somebody did get into the cottage with a key, bashed the old lady pretty murderously, robbed her desk, and got away again. If there are no other tracks or marks of any kind in the snow, who did it? Who must have done it?"
Dorothy could consider it, now, in almost a detached way. She remembered the paper-weight with which Mrs. Topham had been struck. It lay on the table in Mrs. Topham's stuffy parlour, a heavy glass globe with a tiny landscape inside. When you shook the glass globe, a miniature snowstorm rose within-which seemed to make the attack more horrible.
She wondered if she had left any fingerprints on it. But over everything rose Renee Topham's face, Renee Topham, her mother's bosom friend.
"I hated her," said Dorothy; and, unexpectedly, she began to cry.
Dennis Jameson, of the law-firm of Morris, Farnsworth & Jameson, Lincoln 's Inn Fields, shut up his brief-case with a snap. He was putting on his hat and coat when Billy Farnsworth looked into the office.
"Hullo!" said Farnsworth. "You off to Surrey over that Brant business?"
"H'm. Believe in miracles, do you?"
"That girl's guilty, my lad. You ought to know that."
"It's our business," said Jameson, "to do what we can for our clients."
Farnsworth looked at him shrewdly. "I see it in your ruddy cheek. Quixotry is alive again. Young idealist storms to relief of good-looker in distress, swearing to-"
"I've met her twice," said Jameson. "I like her, yes. But, merely using a small amount of intelligence on this, I can't see that they've got such a thundering good case against her."
"Oh, my lad!"
"Well, look at it. What do they say the girl did? This Mrs. Topham was struck several times with a glass paper-weight. There are no fingerprints on the paper-weight, which shows signs of having been wiped. But, after having the forethought to wipe her fingerprints carefully off the paper-weight, Dorothy Brant then walks back to her cottage and leaves behind two sets of footprints which could be seen by aerial observation a mile up. Is that reasonable?"
Farnsworth looked thoughtful.
"Maybe they would say she isn't reasonable," he pointed out. "Never mind the psychology. What you've got to get round are the physical facts. Here is the mysterious widow Topham entirely alone in the house; the only servant comes in by day. Here are one person's footprints. Only that girl could have made the tracks; and, in fact, admits she did. It's a physical impossibility for anybody else to have entered or left the house. How do you propose to get round that?"
"I don't know," said Jameson rather hopelessly. "But I want to hear her side of it first. The only thing nobody seems to have heard, or even to be curious about, is what she thinks herself."
Yet, when he met her at the cottage late that afternoon, she cut the ground from under his feet.
Twilight was coming down when he turned in at the gate, a bluish twilight in which the snow looked grey. Jameson stopped a moment at the gate, and stared across at the thin laurel-hedge dividing this property from Mrs. Topham's. There was nothing remarkable about this hedge, which was some six feet high and cut through by a gateway like a Gothic arch. But in front of the arch, peering up at the snow-coated side of the hedge just above it, stood a large figure in cap and waterproof. Somehow he looked familiar. At his elbow another man, evidently the local Superintendent of Police, was holding up a camera; and a flash-bulb glared against the sky. Though he was too far away to hear anything, Jameson had a queer impression that the large man was laughing uproariously.
Harry Ventnor, whom he knew slightly, met Jameson at the door.
"She's in there," Harry explained, nodding towards the front room. "Er-don't upset her, will you? Here, what the devil are they doing with that hedge?"
He stared across the lawn.
"Upset her?" said Jameson with some asperity. "I'm here, if possible, to help her. Won't you or Mr. Brant give some assistance? Do you honestly think that Miss Brant in her rational senses could have done what they say she did?"
"In her rational senses?" repeated Harry. After looking at Jameson in a curious way, he said no more; he turned abruptly and hurried off across the lawn.
Yet Dorothy, when Jameson met her, gave no impression of being out of her rational senses. It was her straightforwardness he had always liked, the straightforwardness which warmed him now. They sat in the homely, firelit room, by the fireplace over which were the silver cups to denote Harry's athletic and gymnastic prowess, and the trophies of John Brant's earlier days at St. Moritz. Dorothy herself was an outdoor girl.
"To advise me?" she said. "You mean, to advise me what to say when they arrest me?"
"Well, they haven't arrested you yet, Miss Brant."
She smiled at him. "And yet I'll bet that surprises you, doesn't it? Oh, I know how deeply I'm in! I suppose they're only poking about to get more evidence. And then there's a new man here, a man named March, from Scotland Yard. I feel almost flattered."
Jameson sat up. He knew now why that immense figure by the hedge had seemed familiar.
"Not Colonel March?"
"Yes. Rather a nice person, really," answered Dorothy, shading her eyes with her hand. Under her light tone he felt that her nerves were raw. "Then again, they've been all through my room. And they can't find the watch and the brooch and the rings I'm supposed to have stolen from Aunt Renee Topham. Aunt Ren'ee!"
"So I've heard. But that's the point: what are they getting at? A watch and a brooch and a couple of rings! Why should you steal that from anybody, let alone her?"
"Because they weren't hers," said Dorothy, suddenly looking up with a white face, and speaking very fast. "They belonged to my mother."
"My mother is dead," said Dorothy. "I suppose it wasn't just the watch and the rings, really. That was the excuse, the breaking-point, the thing that brought it on. My mother was a great friend of Mrs. Topham. It was 'Aunt Ren'ee' this and 'Aunt Ren'ee' that, while my mother was alive to pamper her. But my mother wanted me to have those trinkets, such as they were. And Aunt Ren'ee Topham coolly appropriated them, as she appropriates everything else she can. I never knew what had happened to them until yesterday.
"Do you know that kind of woman? Mrs. Topham is really charming, aristocratic and charming, with the cool charm that takes all it can get and expects to go on getting it. I know for a fact that she's really got a lot of money, though what she does with it I can't imagine: and the real reason why she buries herself in the country is that she's too mean to risk spending it in town. I never could endure her. Then, when my mother died and I didn't go on pampering Aunt Ren'ee as she thought I should, it was a very different thing. How that woman loves to talk about us! Harry's debts, and my father's shaky business. And me."
She checked herself again, smiling at him. "I'm sorry to inflict all this on you."
"You're not inflicting anything on me."
"But it's rather ridiculous, isn't it?"
"'Ridiculous,'" said Jameson grimly, "is not the word I should apply to it. So you had a row with her?"
"Oh, a glorious row. A beautiful row. The grandmother of all rows."
"Yesterday. When I saw her wearing my mother's watch."
She looked at the fire, over which the silver cups glimmered.
"Maybe I said more than I should have," she went on. "But I got no support from my father or Harry. I don't blame Dad: he's so worried about business, and that bad arm of his troubles him so much sometimes, that all he wants is peace and quiet. As for Harry, he doesn't really like her; but she took rather a fancy to him, and that flatters him. He's a kind of male counterpart of Aunt Ren'ee. Out of a job?-well, depend on somebody else. And I'm in the middle of all this. It's 'Dolly, do this,' and 'Dolly, do that,' and 'Good old Dolly; she won't mind.' But I do mind. When I saw that woman standing there wearing my mother's watch, and saying commiserating things about the fact that we couldn't afford a servant, I felt that something ought to be done about it. So I suppose I must have done something about it."
Jameson reached out and took her hands. "All right," he said. "Did you do it?"
"I don't know! That's just the trouble."
"No. That was one of the things Mrs. Topham always had such sport with. You don't know much about anything when you walk in your sleep.
"Ridiculous, isn't it?" she went on, after another pause. "Utterly ludicrous. But not to me! Not a bit. Ever since I was a child, when I've been over-tired or nervously exhausted, it's happened. Once I came downstairs and built and lit a fire in the dining-room, and set the table for a meal. I admit it doesn't happen often, and never before with results like this." She tried to laugh. "But why do you think my father and Harry looked at me like that? That's the worst of it. I really don't know whether I'm a near-murderer or not."
This was bad.
Jameson admitted that to himself, even as his reason argued against it. He got up to prowl round the room, and her brown eyes never left him. He could not look away; he saw the tensity of her face in every corner.
"Look here," he said quietly; "this is nonsense."
"Oh, please. Don't you say that. It's not very original."
"But do you seriously think you went for that woman and still don't know anything about it now?"
"Would it be more difficult than building a fire?"
"I don't ask you that. «Do» you think you did it?"
"No," said Dorothy.
That question did it. She trusted him now. There was understanding and sympathy between them, a mental force and communication that could be felt as palpably as the body gives out heat.
"Deep down inside me, no, I don't believe it. I think I should have waked up. And there was no-well, no blood on me, you know. But how are you going to get round the evidence?"
(The evidence. Always the evidence.)
"I did go across there. I can't deny that I remember half waking up as I was coming back. I was standing in the middle of the lawn in the snow. I had on my fur coat over my pyjamas; I remember feeling snow on my face and my wet slippers under me. I was shivering. And I remember running back. That's all. If I didn't do it, how could anybody else have done it?"
"I beg your pardon," interposed a new voice. "Do you mind if, both figuratively and literally, I turn on the light?"
Dennis Jameson knew the owner of that voice. There was the noise of someone fumbling after an electric switch; then, in homely light, Colonel March beamed and basked. Colonel March's seventeen stone was swathed round in a waterproof as big as a tent. He wore a large tweed cap. Under this his speckled face glowed in the cold; and he was smoking, with gurgling relish, the large-bowled pipe which threatened to singe his sandy moustache.
"Ah, Jameson!" he said. He took the pipe out of his mouth and made a gesture with it. "So it was you. I thought I saw you come in. I don't want to intrude; but I think there are at least two things that Miss Brant ought to know."
Dorothy turned round quickly.
"First," pursued Colonel March, "that Mrs. Topham is out of danger. She is at least able, like an after-dinner speaker, to say a few words; though with about as much coherence. Second, that out on your lawn there is one of the queerest objects I ever saw in my life."
"You've met this fellow?" he said to Dorothy. "He is the head of the Queer Complaints Department. When they come across something outlandish, which may be a hoax or a joke but, on the other hand, may be a serious crime, they shout for him. His mind is so obvious that he hits it every time. To my certain knowledge he has investigated a disappearing room, chased a walking corpse, and found an invisible piece of furniture. If he goes so far as to admit that a thing is a bit unusual, you can look out for squalls."
Colonel March nodded quite seriously.
"Yes." he said. "That is why I am here, you see. They thought we might be interested in that footprint."
"That footprint?" cried Dorothy. "You mean-?"
"No, no; not your footprint, Miss Brant. Another one. Let me explain. I want you, both of you, to look out of that window; I want you to take a look at the laurel-hedge between this cottage and the other. The light is almost gone, but study it."
Jameson went to the window and peered out.
"Well?" he demanded. "What about it? It's a hedge."
"As you so shrewdly note, it is a hedge. Now let me ask you a question. Do you think a person could walk along the top of that hedge?"
"Good lord, no!"
"No? Why not?"
"I don't see the joke," said Jameson, "but I'll make the proper replies. Because the hedge is only an inch or two thick. It wouldn't support a cat. If you tried to stand on it, you'd come through like a ton of bricks."
"Quite true. Then what would you say if I told you that someone weighing at least twelve stone must have climbed up the side of it?"
Nobody answered him; the thing was so obviously unreasonable that nobody could answer. Dorothy Brant and Dennis Jameson looked at each other.
"For," said Colonel March, "it would seem that somebody at least climbed up there. Look at the hedge again. You see the arch cut in it for a gate? Just above that, in the snow along the side of the hedge, there are traces of a footprint. It is a large footprint. I think it can be identified by the heel, though most of it is blurred and sketchy."
Walking quickly and heavily, Dorothy's father came into the room. He started to speak, but seemed to change his mind at the sight of Colonel March. He went over to Dorothy, who took his arm.
"Then," insisted Jameson, "somebody did climb up on the hedge?"
"I doubt it," said Colonel March. "How could he?"
Jameson pulled himself together.
"Look here, sir," he said quietly. '"How could he?' is correct. I never knew you to go on like this without good reason. I know it must have some bearing on the case. But I don't care if somebody climbed up on the hedge. I don't care if he danced the Big Apple on it. The hedge leads nowhere. It doesn't lead to Mrs. Topham's; it only divides the two properties. The point is, how did somebody manage to get from here to that other cottage-across sixty feet of unbroken snow-without leaving a trace on it? I ask you that because I'm certain you don't think Miss Brant is guilty."
Colonel March looked apologetic.
"I know she isn't," he answered.
In Dorothy Brant's mind was again that vision of the heavy globed paper-weight inside which, as you shook it, a miniature snowstorm arose. She felt that her own wits were being shaken and clouded in the same way.
"I knew Dolly didn't do it," said John Brant, suddenly putting his arm round his daughter's shoulder. "I knew that. I told them so. But-"
Colonel March silenced him.
"The real thief, Miss Brant, did not want your mother's watch and brooch and chain and rings. It may interest you to know what he did want. He wanted about fifteen hundred pounds of notes and gold sovereigns, tucked away in that same shabby desk. You seem to have wondered what Mrs. Topham did with her money. That is what she did with it. Mrs. Topham, by the first words she could get out in semi-consciousness, was merely a common or garden variety of miser. That dull-looking desk in her parlour was the last place any burglar would look for a hoard. Any burglar, that is, except one."
"Except one?" repeated John Brant, and his eyes seemed to turn inwards.
A sudden ugly suspicion came to Jameson.
"Except one who knew, yes. You, Miss Brant, had the blame deliberately put on you. There was no malice in it. It was simply the easiest way to avoid pain and trouble to the gentleman who did it.
"Now hear what you really did," said Colonel March, his face darkening. "You did go out into the snow last night. But you did not go over to Mrs. Topham's; and you did not make those two artistic sets of footprints in the snow. When you tell us in your own story that you felt snow sting on your face as well as underfoot, it requires no vast concentration, surely, to realise that the snow was still falling. You went out into it, like many sleep-walkers; you were shocked into semi-consciousness by the snow and the cold air; and you returned long before the end of the snowfall, which covered any real prints you may have made.
"The real thief-who was very much awake-heard you come back and tumble into bed. He saw a heaven-sent opportunity to blame you for a crime you might even think you had committed. He slipped in and took the slippers out of your room. And, when the snow had stopped, he went across to Mrs. Topham's. He did not mean to attack her. But she was awake and surprised him; and so, of course, Harry Ventnor struck her down."
The word, which Dorothy had said almost at a scream, was checked. She looked round quickly at her father; she stared straight ahead; and then she began to laugh.
"Of course," said Colonel March. "As usual, he was letting his (what is it?) his 'good old Dolly' take the blame."
A great cloud seemed to have left John Brant; but the fussed and worried look had not left him. He blinked at Colonel March.
"Sir," he said, "I would give my good arm to prove what you say. That boy has caused me half the trouble I ever had. But are you raving mad?"
"I tell you he couldn't have done it! He's Emily's son, my sister's son. He may be a bad lot; but he's not a magician."
"You are forgetting," said Colonel March, "a certain large size-ten footprint. You are forgetting that interesting sight, a smeared and blurred size-ten footprint on the side of a hedge which would not have held up a cat. A remarkable footprint. A disembodied footprint."
"But that's the whole trouble," roared the other. "The two lines of tracks in the snow were made by a size four shoe. Harry couldn't have made them, any more than I could. It's a physical impossibility. Harry wear? size ten. You don't say he could get his feet into flat leather moccasins which would fit my daughter?"
"No," said Colonel March. "But he could get his hands into them."
There was a silence. The Colonel wore a dreamy look; almost a pleased look.
"And in this unusual but highly practical pair of gloves," he went on, "Harry Ventnor simply walked across to the other cottage on his hands. No more than that. For a trained gymnast (as those silver cups will indicate) it was nothing. For a rattle-brained gentleman who needed money it was ideal. He crossed in a thin coating of snow, which would show no difference in weight. Doorsteps, cleared of snow by the overhanging roof, protected him at either end when he stood upright. He had endless opportunities to get a key to the side door. Unfortunately, there was that rather low archway in the hedge. Carrying himself on his hands, his feet were curved up and back over the arch of his body to balance him; he blundered, and smeared that disembodied footprint on the side of the hedge. To be quite frank, I am delighted with the device. It was crime upside down; it is leaving a footprint in the sky; it is-"
"A fair cop, sir," concluded Superintendent Mason, sticking his head in at the door. "They got him on the other side of Guildford. He must have smelled something wrong when he saw us taking photographs. But he had the stuff on him."
Dorothy Brant stood looking for a long time at the large, untidy blimp-like man who was still chuckling with pleasure. Then she joined in.
"I trust," observed Dennis Jameson politely, "that everybody is having a good time. For myself, I've had a couple of unpleasant shocks today; and just for a moment I was afraid I should have another one. For a moment I honestly thought you were going to pitch on Mr. Brant."
"So did I," agreed Dorothy, and beamed at her father. "That's why it's so funny now."
John Brant looked startled. But not half so startled as Colonel March.
"Now there," the Colonel said, "I honestly do not understand you. I am the Department of Queer Complaints. If you have a ghost in your attic or a footprint on top of your hedge, ring me up. But a certain success has blessed us because, as Mr. Jameson says, I look for the obvious. And Lord love us!-if you have decided that a crime was committed by a gentleman who could walk on his hands, I would hold under torture that you are not likely to succeed by suspecting the one person in the house who has a crippled arm."