There was a long silence in the studio.
'Now tell me,' said Michael, in a low voice: 'Had you any hand in it?' and he pointed to the body.
The little artist could only utter broken and disjointed sounds.
Michael poured some gin into a glass. 'Drink that,' he said. 'Don't be afraid of me. I'm your friend through thick and thin.'
Pitman put the liquor down untasted.
'I swear before God,' he said, 'this is another mystery to me. In my worst fears I never dreamed of such a thing. I would not lay a finger on a sucking infant.'
'That's all square,' said Michael, with a sigh of huge relief. 'I believe you, old boy.' And he shook the artist warmly by the hand. 'I thought for a moment,' he added with rather a ghastly smile, 'I thought for a moment you might have made away with Mr Semitopolis.'
'It would make no difference if I had,' groaned Pitman. 'All is at an end for me. There's the writing on the wall.'
'To begin with,' said Michael, 'let's get him out of sight; for to be quite plain with you, Pitman, I don't like your friend's appearance.' And with that the lawyer shuddered. 'Where can we put it?'
'You might put it in the closet there--if you could bear to touch it,' answered the artist.
'Somebody has to do it, Pitman,' returned the lawyer; 'and it seems as if it had to be me. You go over to the table, turn your back, and mix me a grog; that's a fair division of labour.'
About ninety seconds later the closet-door was heard to shut.
'There,' observed Michael, 'that's more homelike. You can turn now, my pallid Pitman. Is this the grog?' he ran on. 'Heaven forgive you, it's a lemonade.'
'But, O, Finsbury, what are we to do with it?' walled the artist, laying a clutching hand upon the lawyer's arm.
'Do with it?' repeated Michael. 'Bury it in one of your flowerbeds, and erect one of your own statues for a monument. I tell you we should look devilish romantic shovelling out the sod by the moon's pale ray. Here, put some gin in this.'
'I beg of you, Mr Finsbury, do not trifle with my misery,' cried Pitman. 'You see before you a man who has been all his life--I do not hesitate to say it--imminently respectable. Even in this solemn hour I can lay my hand upon my heart without a blush. Except on the really trifling point of the smuggling of the Hercules (and even of that I now humbly repent), my life has been entirely fit for publication. I never feared the light,' cried the little man; 'and now--now--!'
'Cheer up, old boy,' said Michael. 'I assure you we should count this little contretemps a trifle at the office; it's the sort of thing that may occur to any one; and if you're perfectly sure you had no hand in it--'
'What language am I to find--' began Pitman.
'O, I'll do that part of it,' interrupted Michael, 'you have no experience.' But the point is this: If--or rather since--you know nothing of the crime, since the--the party in the closet--is neither your father, nor your brother, nor your creditor, nor your mother-in-law, nor what they call an injured husband--'
'O, my dear sir!' interjected Pitman, horrified.
'Since, in short,' continued the lawyer, 'you had no possible interest in the crime, we have a perfectly free field before us and a safe game to play. Indeed, the problem is really entertaining; it is one I have long contemplated in the light of an A. B. case; here it is at last under my hand in specie; and I mean to pull you through. Do you hear that?--I mean to pull you through. Let me see: it's a long time since I have had what I call a genuine holiday; I'll send an excuse tomorrow to the office. We had best be lively,' he added significantly; 'for we must not spoil the market for the other man.'
'What do you mean?' enquired Pitman. 'What other man? The inspector of police?'
'Damn the inspector of police!' remarked his companion. 'If you won't take the short cut and bury this in your back garden, we must find some one who will bury it in his. We must place the affair, in short, in the hands of some one with fewer scruples and more resources.'
'A private detective, perhaps?' suggested Pitman.