"Let us go and interview the swans," he murmured absently.
AT THE LAVENDER ARMS
In certain moods Paul Harley was impossible as a companion, and I, who knew him well, had learned to leave him to his own devices at such times. These moods invariably corresponded with his meeting some problem to the heart of which the lance of his keen wit failed to penetrate. His humour might not display itself in the spoken word, he merely became oblivious of everything and everybody around him. People might talk to him and he scarce noted their presence, familiar faces appear and he would see them not. Outwardly he remained the observant Harley who could see further into a mystery than any other in England, but his observation was entirely introspective; although he moved amid the hustle of life he was spiritually alone, communing with the solitude which dwells in every man's heart.
Presently, then, as we came to the lake at the foot of the sloping lawns, where water lilies were growing and quite a number of swans had their habitation, I detected the fact that I had ceased to exist so far as Harley was concerned. Knowing this mood of old, I pursued my way alone, pressing on across the valley and making for a swing gate which seemed to open upon a public footpath. Coming to this gate I turned and looked back.
Paul Harley was standing where I had left him by the edge of the lake, staring as if hypnotized at the slowly moving swans. But I would have been prepared to wager that he saw neither swans nor lake, but mentally was far from the spot, deep in some complex maze of reflection through which no ordinary mind could hope to follow him.
I glanced at my watch and found that it was but little after two o'clock. Luncheon at Cray's Folly was early. I therefore had some time upon my hands and I determined to employ it in exploring part of the neighbourhood. Accordingly I filled and lighted my pipe and strolled leisurely along the footpath, enjoying the beauty of the afternoon, and admiring the magnificent timber which grew upon the southerly slopes of the valley.
Larks sang high above me and the air was fragrant with those wonderful earthy scents which belong to an English countryside. A herd of very fine Jersey cattle presently claimed inspection, and a little farther on I found myself upon a high road where a brown-faced fellow seated aloft upon a hay-cart cheerily gave me good-day as I passed.
Quite at random I turned to the left and followed the road, so that presently I found myself in a very small village, the principal building of which was a very small inn called the "Lavender Arms."
Colonel Menendez's curacao, combined with the heat of the day, had made me thirsty; for which reason I stepped into the bar-parlour determined to sample the local ale. I wars served by the landlady, a neat, round, red little person, and as she retired, having placed a foam-capped mug upon the counter, her glance rested for a moment upon the only other occupant of the room, a man seated in an armchair immediately to the right of the door. A glass of whisky stood on the window ledge at his elbow, and that it was by no means the first which he had imbibed, his appearance seemed to indicate.
Having tasted the cool contents of my mug, I leaned back against the counter and looked at this person curiously.
He was apparently of about medium height, but of a somewhat fragile appearance. He was dressed like a country gentleman, and a stick and soft hat lay upon the ledge near his glass. But the thing about him which had immediately arrested my attention was his really extraordinary resemblance to Paul Harley's engraving of Edgar Allan Poe.
I wondered at first if Harley's frequent references to the eccentric American genius, to whom he accorded a sort of hero-worship, were responsible for my imagining a close resemblance where only a slight one existed. But inspection of that strange, dark face convinced me of the fact that my first impression had been a true one. Perhaps, in my curiosity, I stared rather rudely.
"You will pardon me, sir," said the stranger, and I was startled to note that he spoke with a faint American accent, "but are you a literary man?"
As I had judged to be the case, he was slightly bemused, but by no means drunk, and although his question was abrupt it was spoken civilly enough.
"Journalism is one of the several occupations in which I have failed," I replied, lightly.
"You are not a fiction writer?"
"I lack the imagination necessary for that craft, sir."
The other wagged his head slowly and took a drink of whisky. "Nevertheless," he said, and raised his finger solemnly, "you were thinking that I resembled Edgar Allan Poe!"
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed, for the man had really amazed me. "You clearly resemble him in more ways than one. I must really ask you to inform me how you deduced such a fact from a mere glance of mine."
"I will tell you, sir," he replied. "But, first, I must replenish my glass, and I should be honoured if you would permit me to replenish yours."
"Thanks very much," I said, "but I would rather you excused me."
"As you wish, sir," replied the American with grave courtesy, "as you wish."
He stepped up to the counter and rapped upon it with half a crown, until the landlady appeared. She treated me to a pathetic glance, but refilled the empty glass.
My American acquaintance having returned to his seat and having added a very little water to the whisky went on:
"Now, sir," said he, "my name is Colin Camber, formerly of Richmond, Virginia, United States of America, but now of the Guest House, Surrey, England, at your service."
Taking my cue from Mr. Camber's gloomy but lofty manner, I bowed formally and mentioned my name.
"I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Knox," he assured me; "and now, sir, to answer your question. When you came in a few moments ago you glanced at me. Your eyes did not open widely as is the case when one recognizes, or thinks one recognizes, an acquaintance, they narrowed. This indicated retrospection. For a moment they turned aside. You were focussing a fugitive idea, a memory. You captured it. You looked at me again, and your successive glances read as follows: The hair worn uncommonly long, the mathematical brow, the eyes of a poet, the slight moustache, small mouth, weak chin; the glass at his elbow. The resemblance is complete. Knowing how complete it is myself, sir, I ventured to test my theory, and it proved to be sound."
Now, as Mr. Colin Camber had thus spoken in the serious manner of a slightly drunken man, I had formed the opinion that I stood in the presence of a very singular character. Here was that seeming mesalliance which not infrequently begets genius: a powerful and original mind allied to a weak will. I wondered what Mr. Colin Camber's occupation might be, and somewhat, too, I wondered why his name was unfamiliar to me. For that the possessor of that brow and those eyes could fail to make his mark in any profession which he might take up I was unwilling to believe.
"Your exposition has been very interesting, Mr. Camber," I said. "You are a singularly close observer, I perceive."
"Yes," he replied, "I have passed my life in observing the ways of my fellowmen, a study which I have pursued in various parts of the world without appreciable benefit to myself. I refer to financial benefit."
He contemplated me with a look which had grown suddenly pathetic.
"I would not have you think, sir," he added, "that I am an habitual toper. I have latterly been much upset by—domestic worries, and—er—" He emptied his glass at a draught. "Surely, Mr. Knox, you are going to replenish? Whilst you are doing so, would you kindly request Mrs. Wootton to extend the same favour to myself?"
But at that moment Mrs. Wootton in person appeared behind the counter. "Time, please, gentlemen," she said; "it is gone half-past two."
"What!" exclaimed Mr. Camber, rising. "What is that? You decline to serve me, Mrs. Wootton?"
"Why, not at all, Mr. Camber," answered the landlady, "but I can serve no one now; it's after time."
"You decline to serve me," he muttered, his speech becoming slurred. "Am I, then, to be insulted?"
I caught a glance of entreaty from the landlady. "My dear sir," I said, genially, "we must bow to the law, I suppose. At least we are better off here than in America."
"Ah, that is true," agreed Mr. Camber, throwing his head back and speaking the words as though they possessed some deep dramatic significance. "Yes, but such laws are an insult to every intelligent man."
He sat down again rather heavily, and I stood looking from him to the landlady, and wondering what I should do. The matter was decided for me, however, in a way which I could never have foreseen. For, hearing a light footfall upon the step which led up to the bar-parlour, I turned —and there almost beside me stood a wrinkled little Chinaman!
He wore a blue suit and a tweed cap, he wore queer, thick-soled slippers, and his face was like a smiling mask hewn out of very old ivory. I could scarcely credit the evidence of my senses, since the Lavender Arms was one of the last places in which I should have looked for a native of China.
Mr. Colin Camber rose again, and fixing his melancholy eyes upon the newcomer:
"Ah Tsong," he said in a tone of cold anger, "what are you doing here?"
Quite unmoved the Chinaman replied:
"Blingee you chit, sir, vellee soon go back."
"What do you mean?" demanded Mr. Camber. "Answer me, Ah Tsong: who sent you?"
"Lilly missee," crooned the Chinaman, smiling up into the other's face with a sort of childish entreaty. "Lilly missee."
"Oh," said Mr. Camber in a changed voice. "Oh."
He stood very upright for a moment, his gaze set upon the wrinkled Chinese face. Then he looked at Mrs. Wootton and bowed, and looked at me and bowed, very stiffly.
"I must excuse myself, sir," he announced. "My wife desires my presence at home."
I returned his bow, and as he walked quite steadily toward the door, followed by Ah Tsong, he paused, turned, and said: "Mr. Knox, I should esteem it a friendly action if you would spare me an hour of your company before you leave Surrey. My visitors are few. Any one, any one, will direct you to the Guest House. I am persuaded that we have much in common. Good-day, sir."
He went down the steps, disappearing in company with the Chinaman, and having watched them go, I turned to Mrs. Wootton, the landlady, in silent astonishment.
She nodded her head and sighed.
"The same every day and every evening for months past," she said. "I am afraid it's going to be the death of him."
"Do you mean that Mr. Camber comes here every day and is always fetched by the Chinaman?"
"Twice every day," corrected the landlady, "and his poor wife sends here regularly."
"What a tragedy," I muttered, "and such a brilliant man."
"Ah," said she, busily removing jugs and glasses from the counter, "it does seem a terrible thing."
"Has Mr. Camber lived for long in this neighbourhood?" I ventured to inquire.
"It was about three years ago, sir, that he took the old Guest House at Mid-Hatton. I remember the time well enough because of all the trouble there was about him bringing a Chinaman down here."
"I can imagine it must have created something of a sensation," I murmured. "Is the Guest House a large property?"
"Oh, no, sir, only ten rooms and a garden, and it had been vacant for a long time. It belongs to what is called the Crayland Park Estate."
"Mr. Camber, I take it, is a literary man?"
"So I believe, sir."
Mrs. Wootton, having cleared the counter, glanced up at the clock and then at me with a cheery but significant smile.
"I see that it is after time," I said, returning the smile, "but the queer people who seem to live hereabouts interest me very much."
"I can't wonder at that, sir!" said the landlady, laughing outright. "Chinamen and Spanish men and what-not. If some of the old gentry that lived here before the war could see it, they wouldn't recognize the place, of that I am sure."
"Ah, well," said I, pausing at the step, "I shall hope to see more of Mr. Camber, and of yourself too, madam, for your ale is excellent."
"Thank you, sir, I'm sure," said the landlady much gratified, "but as to Mr. Camber, I really doubt if he would know you if you met him again. Not if he was sober, I mean."
"Oh, it's a fact, believe me. Just in the last six months or so he has started on the rampage like, but some of the people he has met in here and asked to call upon him have done it, thinking he meant it."
"And they have not been well received?" said I, lingering.
"They have had the door shut in their faces!" declared Mrs. Wootton with a certain indignation. "He either does not remember what he says or does when he is in drink, or he pretends he doesn't. Oh, dear, it's a funny world. Well, good-day, sir."
"Good-day," said I, and came out of the Lavender Arms full of sympathy with the views of the "old gentry," as outlined by Mrs. Wootton; for certainly it would seem that this quiet spot in the Surrey Hills had become a rallying ground for peculiar people.
THE CALL OF M'KOMBO
Of tea upon the veranda of Cray's Folly that afternoon I retain several notable memories. I got into closer touch with my host and hostess, without achieving anything like a proper understanding of either of them, and I procured a new viewpoint of Miss Val Beverley. Her repose was misleading. She deliberately subjugated her own vital personality to that of Madame de Staemer, why, I knew not, unless she felt herself under an obligation to do so. That her blue-gray eyes could be wistful was true enough, they could also be gay; and once I detected in them a look of sadness which dispelled the butterfly illusion belonging to her dainty slenderness, to her mobile lips, to the vagabond curling hair of russet brown.
Paul Harley's manner remained absent, but I who knew his moods so well recognized that this abstraction was no longer real. It was a pose which he often adopted when in reality he was keenly interested in his surroundings. It baffled me, however, as effectively as it baffled others, and whilst at one moment I decided that he was studying Colonel Menendez, in the next I became convinced that Madame de Staemer was the subject upon his mental dissecting table.
That he should find in Madame a fascinating problem did not surprise me. She must have afforded tempting study for any psychologist. I could not fathom the nature of the kinship existing between herself and the Spanish colonel, for Madame de Staemer was French to her fingertips. Her expressions, her gestures, her whole outlook on life proclaimed the fashionable Parisienne.
She possessed a vigorous masculine intelligence and was the most entertaining companion imaginable. She was daringly outspoken, and it was hard to believe that her gaiety was forced. Yet, as the afternoon wore on, I became more and more convinced that such was the case.
I thought that before affliction visited her Madame de Staemer must have been a vivacious and a beautiful woman. Her vivacity remained and much of her beauty, so that it was difficult to believe her snow-white hair to be a product of nature. Again and again I found myself regarding it as a powdered coiffure of the Pompadour period and wondering why Madame wore no patches.
That a deep and sympathetic understanding existed between herself and Colonel Menendez was unmistakable. More than once I intercepted glances from the dark eyes of Madame which were lover-like, yet laden with a profound sorrow. She was playing a role, and I was convinced that Harley knew this. It was not merely a courageous fight against affliction on the part of a woman of the world, versed in masking her real self from the prying eyes of society, it was a studied performance prompted by some deeper motive.
She dressed with exquisite taste, and to see her seated there amid her cushions, gesticulating vivaciously, one would never have supposed that she was crippled. My admiration for her momentarily increased, the more so since I could see that she was sincerely fond of Val Beverley, whose every movement she followed with looks of almost motherly affection. This was all the more strange as Madame de Staemer whose age, I supposed, lay somewhere on the sunny side of forty, was of a type which expects, and wins, admiration, long after the average woman has ceased to be attractive.
One endowed with such a temperament is as a rule unreasonably jealous of youth and good looks in another. I could not determine if Madame's attitude were to be ascribed to complacent self-satisfaction or to a nobler motive. It sufficed for me that she took an unfeigned joy in the youthful sweetness of her companion.
"Val, dear," she said, presently, addressing the girl, "you should make those sleeves shorter, my dear."
She had a rapid way of speaking, and possessed a slightly husky but fascinatingly vibrant voice.
"Your arms are very pretty. You should not hide them."
Val Beverley blushed, and laughed to conceal her embarrassment.
"Oh, my dear," exclaimed Madame, "why be ashamed of arms? All women have arms, but some do well to hide them."
"Quite right, Marie," agreed the Colonel, his thin voice affording an odd contrast to the deeper tones of his cousin. "But it is the scraggy ones who seem to delight in displaying their angles."
"The English, yes," Madame admitted, "but the French, no. They are too clever, Juan."
"Frenchwomen think too much about their looks," said Val Beverley, quietly. "Oh, you know they do, Madame. They would rather die than be without admiration."
Madame shrugged her shoulders.
"So would I, my dear," she confessed, "although I cannot walk. Without admiration there is"—she snapped her fingers—"nothing. And who would notice a linnet when a bird of paradise was about, however sweet her voice? Tell me that, my dear?"
Paul Harley aroused himself and laughed heartily.
"Yet," he said, "I think with Miss Beverley, that this love of elegance does not always make for happiness. Surely it is the cause of half the domestic tragedies in France?"
"Ah, the French love elegance," cried Madame, shrugging, "they cannot help it. To secure what is elegant a Frenchwoman will sometimes forget her husband, yes, but never forget herself."
"Really, Marie," protested the Colonel, "you say most strange things!"
"Is that so, Juan?" she replied, casting one of her queer glances in his direction; "but how would you like to be surrounded by a lot of drabs, eh? That man, Mr. Knox," she extended one white hand in the direction of Colonel Menendez, the fingers half closed, in a gesture which curiously reminded me of Sarah Bernhardt, "that man would notice if a parlourmaid came into the room with a shoe unbuttoned. Poof! if we love elegance it is because without it the men would never love us."
Colonel Menendez bent across the table and kissed the white fingers in his courtier-like fashion.
"My sweet cousin," he said, "I should love you in rags."
Madame smiled and flushed like a girl, but withdrawing her hand she shrugged.
"They would have to be pretty rags!" she added.
During this little scene I detected Val Beverley looking at me in a vaguely troubled way, and it was easy to guess that she was wondering what construction I should place upon it. However:
"I am going into the town," declared Madame de Staemer, energetically. "Half the things ordered from Hartley's have never been sent."
"Oh, Madame, please let me go," cried Val Beverley.
"My dear," pronounced Madame, "I will not let you go, but I will let you come with me if you wish."
She rang a little bell which stood upon the tea-table beside the urn, and Pedro came out through the drawing room.
"Pedro," she said, "is the car ready?"
The Spanish butler bowed.
"Tell Carter to bring it round. Hurry, dear," to the girl, "if you are coming with me. I shall not be a minute."
Thereupon she whisked her mechanical chair about, waved her hand to dismiss Pedro, and went steering through the drawing room at a great rate, with Val Beverley walking beside her.
As we resumed our seats Colonel Menendez lay back with half-closed eyes, his glance following the chair and its occupant until both were swallowed up in the shadows of the big drawing room.
"Madame de Staemer is a very remarkable woman," said Paul Harley.
"Remarkable?" replied the Colonel. "The spirit of all the old chivalry of France is imprisoned within her, I think."
He passed cigarettes around, of a long kind resembling cheroots and wrapped in tobacco leaf. I thought it strange that having thus emphasized Madame's nationality he did not feel it incumbent upon him to explain the mystery of their kinship. However, he made no attempt to do so, and almost before we had lighted up, a racy little two-seater was driven around the gravel path by Carter, the chauffeur who had brought us to Cray's Folly from London.
The man descended and began to arrange wraps and cushions, and a few moments later back came Madame again, dressed for driving. Carter was about to lift her into the car when Colonel Menendez stood up and advanced.
"Sit down, Juan, sit down!" said Madame, sharply.
A look of keen anxiety, I had almost said of pain, leapt into her eyes, and the Colonel hesitated.
"How often must I tell you," continued the throbbing voice, "that you must not exert yourself."
Colonel Menendez accepted the rebuke humbly, but the incident struck me as grotesque; for it was difficult to associate delicacy with such a fine specimen of well-preserved manhood as the Colonel.
However, Carter performed the duty of assisting Madame into her little car, and when for a moment he supported her upright, before placing her among the cushions, I noted that she was a tall woman, slender and elegant.
All smiles and light, sparkling conversation, she settled herself comfortably at the wheel and Val Beverley got in beside her. Madame nodded to Carter in dismissal, waved her hand to Colonel Menendez, cried "Au revoir!" and then away went the little car, swinging around the angle of the house and out of sight.
Our host stood bare-headed upon the veranda listening to the sound of the engine dying away among the trees. He seemed to be lost in reflection from which he only aroused himself when the purr of the motor became inaudible.
"And now, gentlemen," he said, and suppressed a sigh, "we have much to talk about. This spot is cool, but is it sufficiently private? Perhaps, Mr. Harley, you would prefer to talk in the library?"
Paul Harley flicked ash from the end of his cigarette.
"Better still in your own study, Colonel Menendez," he replied.
"What, do you suspect eavesdroppers?" asked the Colonel, his manner becoming momentarily agitated.
He looked at Harley as though he suspected the latter of possessing private information.
"We should neglect no possible precaution," answered my friend. "That agencies inimical to your safety are focussed upon the house your own statement amply demonstrates."
Colonel Menendez seemed to be on the point of speaking again, but he checked himself and in silence led the way through the ornate library to a smaller room which opened out of it, and which was furnished as a study.
Here the motif was distinctly one of officialdom. Although the Southern element was not lacking, it was not so marked as in the library or in the hall. The place was appointed for utility rather than ornament. Everything was in perfect order. In the library, with the blinds drawn, one might have supposed oneself in Trinidad; in the study, under similar conditions, one might equally well have imagined Downing Street to lie outside the windows. Essentially, this was the workroom of a man of affairs.
Having settled ourselves comfortably, Paul Harley opened the conversation.
"In several particulars," said he, "I find my information to be incomplete."
He consulted the back of an envelope, upon which, I presumed during the afternoon, he had made a number of pencilled notes.
"For instance," he continued, "your detection of someone watching the house, and subsequently of someone forcing an entrance, had no visible association with the presence of the bat wing attached to your front door?"
"No," replied the Colonel, slowly, "these episodes took place a month ago."
"Exactly a month ago?"
"They took place immediately before the last full moon."
"Ah, before the full moon. And because you associate the activities of Voodoo with the full moon, you believe that the old menace has again become active?"
The Colonel nodded emphatically. He was busily engaged in rolling one of his eternal cigarettes.
"This belief of yours was recently confirmed by the discovery of the bat wing?"
"I no longer doubted," said Colonel Menendez, shrugging his shoulders. "How could I?"
"Quite so," murmured Harley, absently, and evidently pursuing some private train of thought. "And now, I take it that your suspicions, if expressed in words would amount to this: During your last visit to Cuba you (a) either killed some high priest of Voodoo, or (b) seriously injured him? Assuming the first theory to be the correct one, your death was determined upon by the sect over which he had formerly presided. Assuming the second to be accurate, however, it is presumably the man himself for whom we must look. Now, Colonel Menendez, kindly inform me if you recall the name of this man?"
"I recall it very well," replied the Colonel. "His name was M'kombo, and he was a Benin negro."
"Assuming that he is still alive, what, roughly, would his age be to- day?"
The Colonel seemed to meditate, pushing a box of long Martinique cigars across the table in my direction.
"He would be an old man," he pronounced. "I, myself, am fifty-two, and I should say that M'kombo if alive to-day would be nearer to seventy than sixty."
"Ah," murmured Harley, "and did he speak English?"
"A few words, I believe."
Paul Harley fixed his gaze upon the dark, aquiline face.
"In short," he said, "do you really suspect that it was M'kombo whose shadow you saw upon the lawn, who a month ago made a midnight entrance into Cray's Folly, and who recently pinned a bat wing to the door?"
Colonel Menendez seemed somewhat taken aback by this direct question. "I cannot believe it," he confessed.
"Do you believe that this order or religion of Voodooism has any existence outside those places where African negroes or descendents of negroes are settled?"
"I should not have been prepared to believe it, Mr. Harley, prior to my experiences in Washington and elsewhere."
"Then you do believe that there are representatives of this cult to be met with in Europe and America?"
"I should have been prepared to believe it possible in America, for in America there are many negroes, but in England——"
Again he shrugged his shoulders.
"I would remind you," said Harley, quietly, "that there are also quite a number of negroes in England. If you seriously believe Voodoo to follow negro migration, I can see no objection to assuming it to be a universal cult."
"Such an idea is incredible."
"Yet by what other hypothesis," asked Harley, "are we to cover the facts of your own case as stated by yourself? Now," he consulted his pencilled notes, "there is another point. I gather that these African sorcerers rely largely upon what I may term intimidation. In other words, they claim the power of wishing an enemy to death."
He raised his eyes and stared grimly at the Colonel.
"I should not like to suppose that a man of your courage and culture could subscribe to such a belief."
"I do not, sir," declared the Colonel, warmly. "No Obeah man could ever exercise his will upon me!"
"Yet, if I may say so," murmured Harley, "your will to live seems to have become somewhat weakened."
"What do you mean?"
Colonel Menendez stood up, his delicate nostrils dilated. He glared angrily at Harley.
"I mean that I perceive a certain resignation in your manner of which I do not approve."
"You do not approve?" said Colonel Menendez, softly; and I thought as he stood looking down upon my friend that I had rarely seen a more formidable figure.
Paul Harley had roused him unaccountably, and knowing my friend for a master of tact I knew also that this had been deliberate, although I could not even dimly perceive his object.
"I occupy the position of a specialist," Harley continued, "and you occupy that of my patient. Now, you cannot disguise from me that your mental opposition to this danger which threatens has become slackened. Allow me to remind you that the strongest defence is counter-attack. You are angry, Colonel Menendez, but I would rather see you angry than apathetic. To come to my last point. You spoke of a neighbour in terms which led me to suppose that you suspected him of some association with your enemies. May I ask for the name of this person?"
Colonel Menendez sat down again, puffing furiously at his cigarette, whilst beginning to roll another. He was much disturbed, was fighting to regain mastery of himself.
"I apologize from the bottom of my heart," he said, "for a breach of good behaviour which really was unforgivable. I was angry when I should have been grateful. Much that you have said is true. Because it is true, I despise myself."
He flashed a glance at Paul Harley.
"Awake," he continued, "I care for no man breathing, black or white; but asleep"—he shrugged his shoulders. "It is in sleep that these dealers in unclean things obtain their advantage."
"You excite my curiosity," declared Harley.
"Listen," Colonel Menendez bent forward, resting his elbows upon his knees. Between the yellow fingers of his left hand he held the newly completed cigarette whilst he continued to puff vigorously at the old one. "You recollect my speaking of the death of a certain native girl?"
Paul Harley nodded.
"The real cause of her death was never known, but I obtained evidence to show that on the night after the wing of a bat had been attached to her hut, she wandered out in her sleep and visited the Black Belt. Can you doubt that someone was calling her?"
"Mr. Harley, she was obeying the call of M'kombo!"
"The call of M'kombo? You refer to some kind of hypnotic suggestions?"
"I illustrate," replied the Colonel, "to help to make clear something which I have to tell you. On the night when last the moon was full—on the night after someone had entered the house—I had retired early to bed. Suddenly I awoke, feeling very cold. I awoke, I say, and where do you suppose I found myself?"
"I am all anxiety to hear."
"On the point of entering the Tudor garden—you call it Tudor garden?— which is visible from the window of your room!"
"Most extraordinary," murmured Harley; "and you were in your night attire?"
"And what had awakened you?"
"An accident. I believe a lucky accident. I had cut my bare foot upon the gravel and the pain awakened me."
"You had no recollection of any dream which had prompted you to go down into the garden?"
"Does your room face in that direction?"
"It does not. It faces the lake on the south of the house. I had descended to a side door, unbarred it, and walked entirely around the east wing before I awakened."
"Your room faces the lake," murmured Harley.
Their glances met, and in Paul Harley's expression there seemed to be a challenge.
"You have not yet told me," said he, "the name of your neighbour."
Colonel Menendez lighted his new cigarette.
"Mr. Harley," he confessed, "I regret that I ever referred to this suspicion of mine. Indeed it is hardly a suspicion, it is what I may call a desperate doubt. Do you say that, a desperate doubt?"
"I think I follow you," said Harley.
"The fact is this, I only know of one person within ten miles of Cray's Folly who has ever visited Cuba."
"I have no other scrap of evidence to associate him I with my shadowy enemy. This being so, you will pardon me if I ask you to forget that I ever referred to his existence."
He spoke the words with a sort of lofty finality, and accompanied them with a gesture of the hands which really left Harley no alternative but to drop the subject.
Again their glances met, and it was patent to me that underlying all this conversation was something beyond my ken. What it was that Harley suspected I could not imagine, nor what it was that Colonel Menendez desired to conceal; but tension was in the very air. The Spaniard was on the defensive, and Paul Harley was puzzled, irritated.
It was a strange interview, and one which in the light of after events I recognized to possess extraordinary significance. That sixth sense of Harley's was awake, was prompting him, but to what extent he understood its promptings at that hour I did not know, and have never known to this day. Intuitively, I believe, as he sat there staring at Colonel Menendez, he began to perceive the shadow within a shadow which was the secret of Cray's Folly, which was the thing called Bat Wing, which was the devilish force at that very hour alive and potent in our midst.
This conversation in Colonel Menendez's study produced a very unpleasant impression upon my mind. The atmosphere of Cray's Folly seemed to become charged with unrest. Of Madame de Staemer and Miss Beverley I saw nothing up to the time that I retired to dress. Having dressed I walked into Harley's room, anxious to learn if he had formed any theory to account for the singular business which had brought us to Surrey.
Harley had excused himself directly we had left the study, stating that he wished to get to the village post-office in time to send a telegram to London. Our host had suggested a messenger, but this, as well as the offer of a car, Harley had declined, saying that the exercise would aid reflection. Nevertheless, I was surprised to find his room empty, for I could not imagine why the sending of a telegram should have detained him so long.
Dusk was falling, and viewed from the open window the Tudor garden below looked very beautiful, part of it lying in a sort of purplish shadow and the rest being mystically lighted as though viewed through a golden veil. To the whole picture a sort of magic quality was added by a speck of high-light which rested upon the face of the old sun-dial.
I thought that here was a fit illustration for a fairy tale; then I remembered the Colonel's account of how he had awakened in the act of entering this romantic plaisance, and I was touched anew by an unrestfulness, by a sense of the uncanny.
I observed a book lying upon the dressing table, and concluding that it was one which Harley had brought with him, I took it up, glancing at the title. It was "Negro Magic," and switching on the light, for there was a private electric plant in Cray's Folly, I opened the book at random and began to read.
"The religion of the negro," said this authority, "is emotional, and more often than not associated with beliefs in witchcraft and in the rites known as Voodoo or Obi Mysteries. It has been endeavoured by some students to show that these are relics of the Fetish worship of equatorial Africa, but such a genealogy has never been satisfactorily demonstrated. The cannibalistic rituals, human sacrifices, and obscene ceremonies resembling those of the Black Sabbath of the Middle Ages, reported to prevail in Haiti and other of the islands, and by some among the negroes of the Southern States of America, may be said to rest on doubtful authority. Nevertheless, it is a fact beyond doubt that among the negroes both of the West Indies and the United States there is a widespread belief in the powers of the Obeah man. A native who believes himself to have come under the spell of such a sorcerer will sink into a kind of decline and sometimes die."
At this point I discovered several paragraphs underlined in pencil, and concluding that the underlining had been done by Paul Harley, I read them with particular care. They were as follows: "According to Hesketh J. Bell, the term Obeah is most probably derived from the substantive Obi, a word used on the East coast of Africa to denote witchcraft, sorcery, and fetishism in general. The etymology of Obi has been traced to a very antique source, stretching far back into Egyptian mythology. A serpent in the Egyptian language was called Ob or Aub. Obion is still the Egyptian name for a serpent. Moses, in the name of God, forbade the Israelites ever to enquire of the demon, Ob, which is translated in our Bible: Charmer or wizard, divinator or sorcerer. The Witch of Endor is called Oub or Ob, translated Pythonissa; and Oubois was the name of the basilisk or royal serpent, emblem of the Sun and an ancient oracular deity of Africa."
A paragraph followed which was doubly underlined, and pursuing my reading I made a discovery which literally caused me to hold my breath. This is what I read:
"In a recent contribution to the Occult Review, Mr. Colin Camber, the American authority, offered some very curious particulars in support of a theory to show that whereas snakes and scorpions have always been recognized as sacred by Voodoo worshippers, the real emblem of their unclean religion is the bat, especially the Vampire Bat of South America.
"He pointed out that the symptoms of one dying beneath the spell of an Obeah man are closely paralleled in the cases of men and animals who have suffered from nocturnal attacks of blood-sucking bats."
I laid the open book down upon the bed. My brain was in a tumult. The several theories, or outlines of theories which hitherto I had entertained, were, by these simple paragraphs, cast into the utmost disorder. I thought of the Colonel's covert references to a neighbour whom he feared, of his guarded statement that the devotees of Voodoo were not confined to the West Indies, of the attack upon him in Washington, of the bat wing pinned to the door of Cray's Folly.
Incredulously, I thought of my acquaintance of the Lavender Arms, with his bemused expression and his magnificent brow; and a great doubt and wonder grew up in my mind.
I became increasingly impatient for the return of Paul Harley. I felt that a clue of the first importance had fallen into my possession; so that when, presently, as I walked impatiently up and down the room, the door opened and Harley entered, I greeted him excitedly.
"Harley!" I cried, "Harley! I have learned a most extraordinary thing!"
Even as I spoke and looked into the keen, eager face, the expression in Harley's eyes struck me. I recognized that in him, too, intense excitement was pent up. Furthermore, he was in one of his irritable moods. But, full of my own discoveries:
"I chanced to glance at this book," I continued, "whilst I was waiting for you. You have underlined certain passages."
He stared at me queerly.
"I discovered the book in my own library after you had gone last night, Knox, and it was then that I marked the passages which struck me as significant."
"But, Harley," I cried, "the man who is quoted here, Colin Camber, lives in this very neighbourhood!"
"What! You know?"
"I learned it from Inspector Aylesbury of the County Police half an hour ago."
Harley frowned perplexedly. "Then, why, in Heaven's name didn't you tell me?" he exclaimed. "It would have saved me a most disagreeable journey into Market Hilton."
"Market Hilton! What, have you been into the town?"
"That is exactly where I have been, Knox. I 'phoned through to Innes from the village post-office after lunch to have the car sent down. There is a convenient garage by the Lavender Arms."
"But the Colonel has three cars," I exclaimed.
"The horse has four legs," replied Harley, irritably, "but although I have only two, there are times when I prefer to use them. I am still wondering why you failed to mention this piece of information when you had obtained it."
"My dear Harley," said I, patiently, "how could I possibly be expected to attach any importance to the matter? You must remember that at the time I had never seen this work on negro sorcery."
"No," said Harley, dropping down upon the bed, "that is perfectly true, Knox. I am afraid I have a liver at times; a distinct Indian liver. Excuse me, old man, but to tell you the truth I feel strangely inclined to pack my bag and leave for London without a moment's delay."
"What!" I cried.
"Oh, I know you would be sorry to go, Knox," said Harley, smiling, "and so, for many reasons, should I. But I have the strongest possible objection to being trifled with."
"I am afraid I don't quite understand you, Harley."
"Well, just consider the matter for a moment. Do you suppose that Colonel Menendez is ignorant of the fact that his nearest neighbour is a recognized authority upon Voodoo and allied subjects?"
"You are speaking, of course, of Colin Camber?"
"Of none other."
"No," I replied, thoughtfully, "the Colonel must know, of course, that Camber resides in the neighbourhood."
"And that he knows something of the nature of Camber's studies his remarks sufficiently indicate," added Harley. "The whole theory to account for these attacks upon his life rests on the premise that agents of these Obeah people are established in England and America. Then, in spite of my direct questions, he leaves me to find out for myself that Colin Camber's property practically adjoins his own!"
"Really! Does he reside so near as that?"
"My dear fellow," cried Harley, "he lives at a place called the Guest House. You can see it from part of the grounds of Cray's Folly. We were looking at it to-day."
"What! the house on the hillside?"
"That's the Guest House! What do you make of it, Knox? That Menendez suspects this man is beyond doubt. Why should he hesitate to mention his name?"
"Well," I replied, slowly, "probably because to associate practical sorcery and assassination with such a character would be preposterous."
"But the man is admittedly a student of these things, Knox."
"He may be, and that he is a genius of some kind I am quite prepared to believe. But having had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Colin Camber, I am not prepared to believe him capable of murder."
I suppose I spoke with a certain air of triumph, for Paul Harley regarded me silently for a while.
"You seem to be taking this case out of my hands, Knox," he said. "Whilst I have been systematically at work racing about the county in quest of information you would appear to have blundered further into the labyrinth than all my industry has enabled me to do."
He remained in a very evil humour, and now the cause of this suddenly came to light.
"I have spent a thoroughly unpleasant afternoon," he continued, "interviewing an impossible country policeman who had never heard of my existence!"
This display of human resentment honestly delighted me. It was refreshing to know that the omniscient Paul Harley was capable of pique.
"One, Inspector Aylesbury," he went on, bitterly, "a large person bearing a really interesting resemblance to a walrus, but lacking that creature's intelligence. It was not until Superintendent East had spoken to him from Scotland Yard that he ceased to treat me as a suspect. But his new attitude was almost more provoking than the old one. He adopted the manner of a regimental sergeant-major reluctantly interviewing a private with a grievance. If matters should so develop that we are compelled to deal with that fish-faced idiot, God help us all!"
He burst out laughing, his good humour suddenly quite restored, and taking out his pipe began industriously to load it.
"I can smoke while I am changing," he said, "and you can sit there and tell me all about Colin Camber."
I did as he requested, and Harley, who could change quicker than any man I had ever known, had just finished tying his bow as I completed my story of the encounter at the Lavender Arms.
"Hm," he muttered, as I ceased speaking. "At every turn I realize that without you I should have been lost, Knox. I am afraid I shall have to change your duties to-morrow."
"Change my duties? What do you mean?"
"I warn you that the new ones will be less pleasant than the old! In other words, I must ask you to tear yourself away from Miss Val Beverley for an hour in the morning, and take advantage of Mr. Camber's invitation to call upon him."
"Frankly, I doubt if he would acknowledge me."
"Nevertheless, you have a better excuse than I. In the circumstances it is most important that we should get in touch with this man."
"Very well," I said, ruefully. "I will do my best. But you don't seriously think, Harley, that the danger comes from there?"
Paul Harley took his dinner jacket from the chair upon which the man had laid it out, and turned to me.
"My dear Knox," he said, "you may remember that I spoke, recently, of retiring from this profession?"
"My retirement will not be voluntary, Knox. I shall be kicked out as an incompetent ass; for, respecting the connection, if any, between the narrative of Colonel Menendez, the bat wing nailed to the door of the house, and Mr. Colin Camber, I have not the foggiest notion. In this, at last, I have triumphed over Auguste Dupin. Auguste Dupin never confessed defeat."
THE NIGHT WALKER
If luncheon had seemed extravagant, dinner at Cray's Folly proved to be a veritable Roman banquet. To associate ideas of selfishness with Miss Beverley was hateful, but the more I learned of the luxurious life of this queer household hidden away in the Surrey Hills the less I wondered at any one's consenting to share such exile. I had hitherto counted an American freak dinner, organized by a lucky plunger and held at the Cafe de Paris, as the last word in extravagant feasting. But I learned now that what was caviare in Monte Carlo was ordinary fare at Cray's Folly.
Colonel Menendez was an epicure with an endless purse. The excellence of one of the courses upon which I had commented led to a curious incident.
"You approve of the efforts of my chef?" said the Colonel.
"He is worthy of his employer," I replied.
Colonel Menendez bowed in his cavalierly fashion and Madame de Staemer positively beamed upon me.
"You shall speak for him," said the Spaniard. "He was with me in Cuba, but has no reputation in London. There are hotels that would snap him up."
I looked at the speaker in surprise.
"Surely he is not leaving you?" I asked.
The Colonel exhibited a momentary embarrassment.
"No, no. No, no," he replied, waving his hand gracefully, "I was only thinking that he—" there was a scarcely perceptible pause—"might wish to better himself. You understand?"
I understood only too well; and recollecting the words spoken by Paul Harley that afternoon, respecting the Colonel's will to live, I became conscious of an uncomfortable sense of chill.
If I had doubted that in so speaking he had been contemplating his own death, the behaviour of Madame de Staemer must have convinced me. Her complexion was slightly but cleverly made up, with all the exquisite art of the Parisienne, but even through the artificial bloom I saw her cheeks blanch. Her face grew haggard and her eyes burned unnaturally. She turned quickly aside to address Paul Harley, but I knew that the significance of this slight episode had not escaped him.
He was by no means at ease. In the first place, he was badly puzzled; in the second place, he was angry. He felt it incumbent upon him to save this man from a menace which he, Paul Harley, evidently recognized to be real, although to me it appeared wildly chimerical, and the very person upon whose active cooeperation he naturally counted not only seemed resigned to his fate, but by deliberate omission of important data added to Harley's difficulties.
How much of this secret drama proceeding in Cray's Folly was appreciated by Val Beverley I could not determine. On this occasion, I remember, she was simply but perfectly dressed and, in my eyes, seemed the most sweetly desirable woman I had ever known. Realizing that I had already revealed my interest in the girl, I was oddly self-conscious, and a hundred times during the progress of dinner I glanced across at Harley, expecting to detect his quizzical smile. He was very stern, however, and seemed more reserved than usual. He was uncertain of his ground, I could see. He resented the understanding which evidently existed between Colonel Menendez and Madame de Staemer, and to which, although his aid had been sought, he was not admitted.
It seemed to me, personally, that an almost palpable shadow lay upon the room. Although, save for this one lapse, our host throughout talked gaily and entertainingly, I was obsessed by a memory of the expression which I had detected upon his face that morning, the expression of a doomed man.
What, in Heaven's name, I asked myself, did it all mean? If ever I saw the fighting spirit looking out of any man's eyes, it looked out of the eyes of Don Juan Sarmiento Menendez. Why, then, did he lie down to the menace of this mysterious Bat Wing, and if he counted opposition futile, why had he summoned Paul Harley to Cray's Folly?
With the passing of every moment I sympathized more fully with the perplexity of my friend, and no longer wondered that even his highly specialized faculties had failed to detect an explanation.
Remembering Colin Camber as I had seen him at the Lavender Arms, it was simply impossible to suppose that such a man as Menendez could fear such a man as Camber. True, I had seen the latter at a disadvantage, and I knew well enough that many a genius has been also a drunkard. But although I was prepared to find that Colin Camber possessed genius, I found it hard to believe that this was of a criminal type. That such a character could be the representative of some remote negro society was an idea too grotesque to be entertained for a moment.
I was tempted to believe that his presence in the neighbourhood of this haunted Cuban was one of those strange coincidences which in criminal history have sometimes proved so tragic for their victims.
Madame de Staemer, avoiding the Colonel's glances, which were pathetically apologetic, gradually recovered herself, and:
"My dear," she said to Val Beverley, "you look perfectly sweet to- night. Don't you think she looks perfectly sweet, Mr. Knox?"
Ignoring a look of entreaty from the blue-gray eyes:
"Perfectly," I replied.
"Oh, Mr. Knox," cried the girl, "why do you encourage her? She says embarrassing things like that every time I put on a new dress."
Her reference to a new dress set me speculating again upon the apparent anomaly of her presence at Cray's Folly. That she was not a professional "companion" was clear enough. I assumed that her father had left her suitably provided for, since she wore such expensively simple gowns. She had a delightful trick of blushing when attention was focussed upon her, and said Madame de Staemer:
"To be able to blush like that I would give my string of pearls—no, half of it."
"My dear Marie," declared Colonel Menendez, "I have seen you blush perfectly."
"No, no," Madame disclaimed the suggestion with one of those Bernhardt gestures, "I blushed my last blush when my second husband introduced me to my first husband's wife."
"Madame!" exclaimed Val Beverley, "how can you say such things?" She turned to me. "Really, Mr. Knox, they are all fables."
"In fables we renew our youth," said Madame.
"Ah," sighed Colonel Menendez; "our youth, our youth."
"Why sigh, Juan, why regret?" cried Madame, immediately. "Old age is only tragic to those who have never been young."
She directed a glance toward him as she spoke those words, and as I had felt when I had seen his tragic face on the veranda that morning I felt again in detecting this look of Madame de Staemer's. The yearning yet selfless love which it expressed was not for my eyes to witness.
"Thank God, Marie," replied the Colonel, and gallantly kissed his hand to her, "we have both been young, gloriously young."
When, at the termination of this truly historic dinner, the ladies left us:
"Remember, Juan," said Madame, raising her white, jewelled hand, and holding the fingers characteristically curled, "no excitement, no billiards, no cards."
Colonel Menendez bowed deeply, as the invalid wheeled herself from the room, followed by Miss Beverley. My heart was beating delightfully, for in the moment of departure the latter had favoured me with a significant glance, which seemed to say, "I am looking forward to a chat with you presently."
"Ah," said Colonel Menendez, when we three men found ourselves alone, "truly I am blessed in the autumn of my life with such charming companionship. Beauty and wit, youth and discretion. Is he not a happy man who possesses all these?"
"He should be," said Harley, gravely.
The saturnine Pedro entered with some wonderful crusted port, and Colonel Menendez offered cigars.
"I believe you are a pipe-smoker," said our courteous host to Harley, "and if this is so, I know that you will prefer your favourite mixture to any cigar that ever was rolled."
"Many thanks," said Harley, to whom no more delicate compliment could have been paid.
He was indeed an inveterate pipe-smoker, and only rarely did he truly enjoy a cigar, however choice its pedigree. With a sigh of content he began to fill his briar. His mood was more restful, and covertly I watched him studying our host. The night remained very warm and one of the two windows of the dining room, which was the most homely apartment in Cray's Folly, was wide open, offering a prospect of sweeping velvet lawns touched by the magic of the moonlight.
A short silence fell, to be broken by the Colonel.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I trust you do not regret your fishing excursion?"
"I could cheerfully pass the rest of my days in such ideal surroundings," replied Paul Harley.
I nodded in agreement.
"But," continued my friend, speaking very deliberately, "I have to remember that I am here upon business, and that my professional reputation is perhaps at stake."
He stared very hard at Colonel Menendez.
"I have spoken with your butler, known as Pedro, and with some of the other servants, and have learned all that there is to be learned about the person unknown who gained admittance to the house a month ago, and concerning the wing of a bat, found attached to the door more recently."
"And to what conclusion have you come?" asked Colonel Menendez, eagerly.
He bent forward, resting his elbows upon his knees, a pose which he frequently adopted. He was smoking a cigar, but his total absorption in the topic under discussion was revealed by the fact that from a pocket in his dinner jacket he had taken out a portion of tobacco, had laid it in a slip of rice paper, and was busily rolling one of his eternal cigarettes.
"I might be enabled to come to one," replied Harley, "if you would answer a very simple question."
"What is this question?"
"It is this—Have you any idea who nailed the bat's wing to your door?"
Colonel Menendez's eyes opened very widely, and his face became more aquiline than ever.
"You have heard my story, Mr. Harley," he replied, softly. "If I know the explanation, why do I come to you?"
Paul Harley puffed at his pipe. His expression did not alter in the slightest.
"I merely wondered if your suspicions tended in the direction of Mr. Colin Camber," he said.
As the Colonel spoke the name either I became victim of a strange delusion or his face was momentarily convulsed. If my senses served me aright then his pronouncing of the words "Colin Camber" occasioned him positive agony. He clutched the arms of his chair, striving, I thought, to retain composure, and in this he succeeded, for when he spoke again his voice was quite normal.
"Have you any particular reason for your remark, Mr. Harley?"
"I have a reason," replied Paul Harley, "but don't misunderstand me. I suggest nothing against Mr. Camber. I should be glad, however, to know if you are acquainted with him?"
"We have never met."
"You possibly know him by repute?"
"I have heard of him, Mr. Harley. But to be perfectly frank, I have little in common with citizens of the United States."
A note of arrogance, which at times crept into his high, thin voice, became perceptible now, and the aristocratic, aquiline face looked very supercilious.
How the conversation would have developed I know not, but at this moment Pedro entered and delivered a message in Spanish to the Colonel, whereupon the latter arose and with very profuse apologies begged permission to leave us for a few moments.
When he had retired:
"I am going upstairs to write a letter, Knox," said Paul Harley. "Carry on with your old duties to-day, your new ones do not commence until to- morrow."
With that he laughed and walked out of the dining room, leaving me wondering whether to be grateful or annoyed. However, it did not take me long to find my way to the drawing room where the two ladies were seated side by side upon a settee, Madame's chair having been wheeled into a corner.
"Ah, Mr. Knox," exclaimed Madame as I entered, "have the others deserted, then?"
"Scarcely deserted, I think. They are merely straggling."
"Absent without leave," murmured Val Beverley.
I laughed, and drew up a chair. Madame de Staemer was smoking, but Miss Beverley was not. Accordingly, I offered her a cigarette, which she accepted, and as I was lighting it with elaborate care, every moment finding a new beauty in her charming face, Pedro again appeared and addressed some remark in Spanish to Madame.
"My chair, Pedro," she said; "I will come at once."
The Spanish butler wheeled the chair across to the settee, and lifting her with an ease which spoke of long practice, placed her amidst the cushions where she spent so many hours of her life.
"I know you will excuse me, dear," she said to Val Beverley, "because I feel sure that Mr. Knox will do his very best to make up for my absence. Presently, I shall be back."
Pedro holding the door open, she went wheeling out, and I found myself alone with Val Beverley.
At the time I was much too delighted to question the circumstances which had led to this tete-a-tete, but had I cared to give the matter any consideration, it must have presented rather curious features. The call first of host and then of hostess was inconsistent with the courtesy of the master of Cray's Folly, which, like the appointments of his home and his mode of life, was elaborate. But these ideas did not trouble me at the moment.
Suddenly, however, indeed before I had time to speak, the girl started and laid her hand upon my arm.
"Did you hear something?" she whispered, "a queer sort of sound?"
"No," I replied, "what kind of sound?"
"An odd sort of sound, almost like—the flapping of wings."
I saw that she had turned pale, I saw the confirmation of something which I had only partly realised before: that her life at Cray's Folly was a constant fight against some haunting shadow. Her gaiety, her lightness, were but a mask. For now, in those wide-open eyes, I read absolute horror.
"Miss Beverley," I said, grasping her hand reassuringly, "you alarm me. What has made you so nervous to-night?"
"To-night!" she echoed, "to-night? It is every night. If you had not come—" she corrected herself—"if someone had not come, I don't think I could have stayed. I am sure I could not have stayed."
"Doubtless the attempted burglary alarmed you?" I suggested, intending to sooth her fears.
"Burglary?" She smiled unmirthfully. "It was no burglary."
"Why do you say so, Miss Beverley?"
"Do you think I don't know why Mr. Harley is here?" she challenged. "Oh, believe me, I know—I know. I, too, saw the bat's wing nailed to the door, Mr. Knox. You are surely not going to suggest that this was the work of a burglar?"
I seated myself beside her on the settee.
"You have great courage," I said. "Believe me, I quite understand all that you have suffered."
"Is my acting so poor?" she asked, with a pathetic smile.
"No, it is wonderful, but to a sympathetic observer only acting, nevertheless."
I noted that my presence reassured her, and was much comforted by this fact.
"Would you like to tell me all about it," I continued; "or would this merely renew your fears?"
"I should like to tell you," she replied in a low voice, glancing about her as if to make sure that we were alone. "Except for odd people, friends, I suppose, of the Colonel's, we have had so few visitors since we have been at Cray's Folly. Apart from all sorts of queer happenings which really"—she laughed nervously—"may have no significance whatever, the crowning mystery to my mind is why Colonel Menendez should have leased this huge house."
"He does not entertain very much, then?"
"Scarcely at all. The 'County'—do you know what I mean by the 'County?'—began by receiving him with open arms and ended by sending him to Coventry. His lavish style of entertainment they labelled 'swank'—horrible word but very expressive! They concluded that they did not understand him, and of everything they don't understand they disapprove. So after the first month or so it became very lonely at Cray's Folly. Our foreign servants—there are five of them altogether— got us a dreadfully bad name. Then, little by little, a sort of cloud seemed to settle on everything. The Colonel made two visits abroad, I don't know exactly where he went, but on his return from the first visit Madame de Staemer changed."
"Changed?—in what way?"
"I am afraid it would be hopeless to try to make you understand, Mr. Knox, but in some subtle way she changed. Underneath all her vivacity she is a tragic woman, and—oh, how can I explain?" Val Beverley made a little gesture of despair.
"Perhaps you mean," I suggested, "that she seemed to become even less happy than before?"
"Yes," she replied, looking at me eagerly. "Has Colonel Menendez told you anything to account for it?"
"Nothing," I said, "He has left us strangely in the dark. But you say he went abroad on a second and more recent occasion?"
"Yes, not much more than a month ago. And after that, somehow or other, matters seemed to come to a head. I confess I became horribly frightened, but to have left would have seemed like desertion, and Madame de Staemer has been so good to me."
"Did you actually witness any of the episodes which took place about a month ago?"
Val Beverley shook her head.
"I never saw anything really definite," she replied.
"Yet, evidently you either saw or heard something which alarmed you."
"Yes, that is true, but it is so difficult to explain."
"Could you try to explain?"
"I will try if you wish, for really I am longing to talk to someone about it. For instance, on several occasions I have heard footsteps in the corridor outside my room."
"Yes, at night."
"That is the uncanny part of it. You know how familiar one grows with the footsteps of persons living in the same house? Well, these footsteps were quite unfamiliar to me."
"And you say they passed your door?"
"Yes. My rooms are almost directly overhead. And right at the end of the corridor, that is on the southeast corner of the building, is Colonel Menendez's bedroom, and facing it a sort of little smoke-room. It was in this direction that the footsteps went."
"To Colonel Menendez's room?"
"Yes. They were light, furtive footsteps."
"This took place late at night?"
"Quite late, long after everyone had retired."
She paused, staring at me with a sort of embarrassment, and presently:
"Were the footsteps those of a man or a woman?" I asked.
"Of a woman. Someone, Mr. Knox," she bent forward, and that look of fear began to creep into her eyes again, "with whose footsteps I was quite unfamiliar."
"You mean a stranger to the house?"
"Yes. Oh, it was uncanny." She shuddered. "The first time I heard it I had been lying awake listening. I was nervous. Madame de Staemer had told me that morning that the Colonel had seen someone lurking about the lawns on the previous night. Then, as I lay awake listening for the slightest sound, I suddenly detected these footsteps; and they paused— right outside my door."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "What did you do?"
"Frankly, I was too frightened to do anything. I just lay still with my heart beating horribly, and presently they passed on, and I heard them no more."
"Was your door locked?"
"No." She laughed nervously. "But it has been locked every night since then!"
"And these sounds were repeated on other nights?"
"Yes, I have often heard them, Mr. Knox. What makes it so strange is that all the servants sleep out in the west wing, as you know, and Pedro locks the communicating door every night before retiring."
"It is certainly strange," I muttered.
"It is horrible," declared the girl, almost in a whisper. "For what can it mean except that there is someone in Cray's Folly who is never seen during the daytime?"
"But that is incredible."
"It is not so incredible in a big house like this. Besides, what other explanation can there be?"
"There must be one," I said, reassuringly. "Have you spoken of this to Madame de Staemer?"
Val Beverley's expression grew troubled.
"Had she any explanation to offer?"
"None. Her attitude mystified me very much. Indeed, instead of reassuring me, she frightened me more than ever by her very silence. I grew to dread the coming of each night. Then—" she hesitated again, looking at me pathetically—"twice I have been awakened by a loud cry."
"What kind of cry?"
"I could not tell you, Mr. Knox. You see I have always been asleep when it has come, but I have sat up trembling and dimly aware that what had awakened me was a cry of some kind."
"You have no idea from whence it proceeded?"
"None whatever. Of course, all these things may seem trivial to you, and possibly they can be explained in quite a simple way. But this feeling of something pending has grown almost unendurable. Then, I don't understand Madame and the Colonel at all."
She suddenly stopped speaking and flushed with embarrassment.
"If you mean that Madame de Staemer is in love with her cousin, I agree with you," I said, quietly.
"Oh, is it so evident as that?" murmured Val Beverley. She laughed to cover her confusion. "I wish I could understand what it all means."
At this point our tete-a-tete was interrupted by the return of Madame de Staemer.
"Oh, la la!" she cried, "the Colonel must have allowed himself to become too animated this evening. He is threatened with one of his attacks and I have insisted upon his immediate retirement. He makes his apologies, but knows you will understand."
I expressed my concern, and:
"I was unaware that Colonel Menendez's health was impaired," I said.
"Ah," Madame shrugged characteristically. "Juan has travelled too much of the road of life on top speed, Mr. Knox." She snapped her white fingers and grimaced significantly. "Excitement is bad for him."
She wheeled her chair up beside Val Beverley, and taking the girl's hand patted it affectionately.
"You look pale to-night, my dear," she said. "All this bogey business is getting on your nerves, eh?"
"Oh, not at all," declared the girl. "It is very mysterious and annoying, of course."
"But M. Paul Harley will presently tell us what it is all about," concluded Madame. "Yes, I trust so. We want no Cuban devils here at Cray's Folly."
I had hoped that she would speak further of the matter, but having thus apologized for our host's absence, she plunged into an amusing account of Parisian society, and of the changes which five years of war had brought about. Her comments, although brilliant, were superficial, the only point I recollect being her reference to a certain Baron Bergmann, a Swedish diplomat, who, according to Madame, had the longest nose and the shortest memory in Paris, so that in the cold weather, "he even sometimes forgot to blow his nose."
Her brightness I thought was almost feverish. She chattered and laughed and gesticulated, but on this occasion she was overacting. Underneath all her vivacity lay something cold and grim.
Harley rejoined us in half an hour or so, but I could see that he was as conscious of the air of tension as I was. All Madame's high spirits could not enable her to conceal the fact that she was anxious to retire. But Harley's evident desire to do likewise surprised me very greatly; for from the point of view of the investigation the day had been an unsatisfactory one. I knew that there must be a hundred and one things which my friend desired to know, questions which Madame de Staemer could have answered. Nevertheless, at about ten o'clock we separated for the night, and although I was intensely anxious to talk to Harley, his reticent mood had descended upon him again, and:
"Sleep well, Knox," he said, as he paused at my door. "I may be awakening you early."
With which cryptic remark and not another word he passed on and entered his own room.
THE SHADOW ON THE BLIND
Perhaps it was childish on my part, but I accepted this curt dismissal very ill-humouredly. That Harley, for some reason of his own, wished to be alone, was evident enough, but I resented being excluded from his confidence, even temporarily. It would seem that he had formed a theory in the prosecution of which my cooeperation was not needed. And what with profitless conjectures concerning its nature, and memories of Val Beverley's pathetic parting glance as we had bade one another good- night, sleep seemed to be out of the question, and I stood for a long time staring out of the open window.
The weather remained almost tropically hot, and the moon floated in a cloudless sky. I looked down upon the closely matted leaves of the box hedge, which rose to within a few feet of my window, and to the left I could obtain a view of the close-hemmed courtyard before the doors of Cray's Folly. On the right the yews began, obstructing my view of the Tudor garden, but the night air was fragrant, and the outlook one of peace.
After a time, then, as no sound came from the adjoining room, I turned in, and despite all things was soon fast asleep.
Almost immediately, it seemed, I was awakened. In point of fact, nearly four hours had elapsed. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I sprang up in bed with a stifled cry, but:
"It's all right, Knox," came Harley's voice. "Don't make a noise."
"Harley!" I said. "Harley! what has happened?"
"Nothing, nothing. I am sorry to have to disturb your beauty sleep, but in the absence of Innes I am compelled to use you as a dictaphone, Knox. I like to record impressions while they are fresh, hence my having awakened you."
"But what has happened?" I asked again, for my brain was not yet fully alert.
"No, don't light up!" said Harley, grasping my wrist as I reached out toward the table-lamp.
His figure showed as a black silhouette against the dim square of the window.
"Well, it's nearly two o'clock. The light might be observed."
"Two o'clock?" I exclaimed.
"Yes. I think we might smoke, though. Have you any cigarettes? I have left my pipe behind."
I managed to find my case, and in the dim light of the match which I presently struck I saw that Paul Harley's face was very fixed and grim. He seated himself on the edge of my bed, and:
"I have been guilty of a breach of hospitality, Knox," he began. "Not only have I secretly had my own car sent down here, but I have had something else sent, as well. I brought it in under my coat this evening."
"To what do you refer, Harley?"
"You remember the silken rope-ladder with bamboo rungs which I brought from Hongkong on one occasion?"
"Well, I have it in my bag now."
"But, my dear fellow, what possible use can it be to you at Cray's Folly?"
"It has been of great use," he returned, shortly.
"It enabled me to descend from my window a couple of hours ago and to return again quite recently without disturbing the household. Don't reproach me, Knox. I know it is a breach of confidence, but so is the behaviour of Colonel Menendez."
"You refer to his reticence on certain points?"
"I do. I have a reputation to lose, Knox, and if an ingenious piece of Chinese workmanship can save it, it shall be saved."
"But, my dear Harley, why should you want to leave the house secretly at night?"
Paul Harley's cigarette glowed in the dark, then:
"My original object," he replied, "was to endeavour to learn if any one were really watching the place. For instance, I wanted to see if all lights were out at the Guest House."
"And were they?" I asked, eagerly.
"They were. Secondly," he continued, "I wanted to convince myself that there were no nocturnal prowlers from within or without."
"What do you mean by within or without?"
"Listen, Knox." He bent toward me in the dark, grasping my shoulder firmly. "One window in Cray's Folly was lighted up."
"At what hour?"
"The light is there yet."
That he was about to make some strange revelation I divined. I detected the fact, too, that he believed this revelation would be unpleasant to me; and in this I found an explanation of his earlier behaviour. He had seemed distraught and ill at ease when he had joined Madame de Staemer, Miss Beverley, and myself in the drawing room. I could only suppose that this and the abrupt parting with me outside my door had been due to his holding a theory which he had proposed to put to the test before confiding it to me. I remember that I spoke very slowly as I asked him the question:
"Whose is the lighted window, Harley?"
"Has Colonel Menendez taken you into a little snuggery or smoke-room which faces his bedroom in the southeast corner of the house?"
"No, but Miss Beverley has mentioned the room."
"Ah. Well, there is a light in that room, Knox."
"Possibly the Colonel has not retired?"
"According to Madame de Staemer he went to bed several hours ago, you may remember."
"True," I murmured, fumbling for the significance of his words.
"The next point is this," he resumed. "You saw Madame retire to her own room, which, as you know, is on the ground floor, and I have satisfied myself that the door communicating with the servants' wing is locked."
"I see. But to what is all this leading, Harley?"
"To a very curious fact, and the fact is this: The Colonel is not alone."
I sat bolt upright.
"What?" I cried.
"Not so loud," warned Harley.
"My dear fellow, we must face facts. I repeat, the Colonel is not alone."
"Why do you say so?"
"Twice I have seen a shadow on the blind of the smoke-room."
"His own shadow, probably."
Again Paul Harley's cigarette glowed in the darkness.
"I am prepared to swear," he replied, "that it was the shadow of a woman."
"Don't get excited, Knox. I am dealing with the strangest case of my career, and I am jumping to no conclusions. But just let us look at the circumstances judicially. The whole of the domestic staff we may dismiss, with the one exception of Mrs. Fisher, who, so far as I can make out, occupies the position of a sort of working housekeeper, and whose rooms are in the corner of the west wing immediately facing the kitchen garden. Possibly you have not met Mrs. Fisher, Knox, but I have made it my business to interview the whole of the staff and I may say that Mrs. Fisher is a short, stout old lady, a native of Kent, I believe, whose outline in no way corresponds to that which I saw upon the blind. Therefore, unless the door which communicates with the servants' quarters was unlocked again to-night—to what are we reduced in seeking to explain the presence of a woman in Colonel Menendez's room? Madame de Staemer, unassisted, could not possibly have mounted the stairs."
"Stop, Harley!" I said, sternly. "Stop."
He ceased speaking, and I watched the steady glow of his cigarette in the darkness. It lighted up his bronzed face and showed me the steely gleam of his eyes.
"You are counting too much on the locking of the door by Pedro," I continued, speaking very deliberately. "He is a man I would trust no farther than I could see him, and if there is anything dark underlying this matter you depend that he is involved in it. But the most natural explanation, and also the most simple, is this—Colonel Menendez has been taken seriously ill, and someone is in his room in the capacity of a nurse."
"Her behaviour was scarcely that of a nurse in a sick-room," murmured Harley.
"For God's sake tell me the truth," I said. "Tell me all you saw."
"I am quite prepared to do so, Knox. On three occasions, then, I saw the figure of a woman, who wore some kind of loose robe, quite clearly silhouetted upon the linen blind. Her gestures strongly resembled those of despair."
"Exactly. I gathered that she was addressing someone, presumably Colonel Menendez, and I derived a strong impression that she was in a condition of abject despair."
"Harley," I said, "on your word of honour did you recognize anything in the movements, or in the outline of the figure, by which you could identify the woman?"
"I did not," he replied, shortly. "It was a woman who wore some kind of loose robe, possibly a kimono. Beyond that I could swear to nothing, except that it was not Mrs. Fisher."
We fell silent for a while. What Paul Harley's thoughts may have been I know not, but my own were strange and troubled. Presently I found my voice again, and:
"I think, Harley," I said, "that I should report to you something which Miss Beverley told me this evening."
"Yes?" said he, eagerly. "I am anxious to hear anything which may be of the slightest assistance. You are no doubt wondering why I retired so abruptly to-night. My reason was this: I could see that you were full of some story which you had learned from Miss Beverley, and I was anxious to perform my tour of inspection with a perfectly unprejudiced mind."
"You mean that your suspicions rested upon an inmate of Cray's Folly?"
"Not upon any particular inmate, but I had early perceived a distinct possibility that these manifestations of which the Colonel complained might be due to the agency of someone inside the house. That this person might be no more than an accomplice of the prime mover I also recognized, of course. But what did you learn to-night, Knox?"
I repeated Val Beverley's story of the mysterious footsteps and of the cries which had twice awakened her in the night.
"Hm," muttered Harley, when I had ceased speaking. "Assuming her account to be true——"
"Why should you doubt it?" I interrupted, hotly.
"My dear Knox, it is my business to doubt everything until I have indisputable evidence of its truth. I say, assuming her story to be true, we find ourselves face to face with the fantastic theory that some woman unknown is living secretly in Cray's Folly."
"Perhaps in one of the tower rooms," I suggested, eagerly. "Why, Harley, that would account for the Colonel's marked unwillingness to talk about this part of the house."
My sight was now becoming used to the dusk, and I saw Harley vigorously shake his head.
"No, no," he replied; "I have seen all the tower rooms. I can swear that no one inhabits them. Besides, is it feasible?"
"Then whose were the footsteps that Miss Beverley heard?"
"Obviously those of the woman who, at this present moment, so far as I know, is in the smoking-room with Colonel Menendez."
I sighed wearily.
"This is a strange business, Harley. I begin to think that the mystery is darker than I ever supposed."
We fell silent again. The weird cry of a night hawk came from somewhere in the valley, but otherwise everything within and without the great house seemed strangely still. This stillness presently imposed its influence upon me, for when I spoke again, I spoke in a low voice.
"Harley," I said, "my imagination is playing me tricks. I thought I heard the fluttering of wings at that moment."
"Fortunately, my imagination remains under control," he replied, grimly; "therefore I am in a position to inform you that you did hear the fluttering of wings. An owl has just flown into one of the trees immediately outside the window."
"Oh," said I, and uttered a sigh of relief.
"It is extremely fortunate that my imagination is so carefully trained," continued Harley; "otherwise, when the woman whose shadow I saw upon the blind to-night raised her arms in a peculiar fashion, I could not well have failed to attach undue importance to the shape of the shadow thus created."
"What was the shape of the shadow, then?"
"Remarkably like that of a bat."
He spoke the words quietly, but in that still darkness, with dawn yet a long way off, they possessed the power which belongs to certain chords in music, and to certain lines in poetry. I was chilled unaccountably, and I peopled the empty corridors of Cray's Folly with I know not what uncanny creatures; nightmare fancies conjured up from memories of haunted manors.
Such was my mood, then, when suddenly Paul Harley stood up. My eyes were growing more and more used to the darkness, and from something strained in his attitude I detected the fact that he was listening intently.
He placed his cigarette on the table beside the bed and quietly crossed the room. I knew from his silent tread that he wore shoes with rubber soles. Very quietly he turned the handle and opened the door.
"What is it, Harley?" I whispered.
Dimly I saw him raise his hand. Inch by inch he opened the door. My nerves in a state of tension, I sat there watching him, when without a sound he slipped out of the room and was gone. Thereupon I arose and followed as far as the doorway.
Harley was standing immediately outside in the corridor. Seeing me, he stepped back, and: "Don't move, Knox," he said, speaking very close to my ear. "There is someone downstairs in the hall. Wait for me here."
With that he moved stealthily off, and I stood there, my heart beating with unusual rapidity, listening—listening for a challenge, a cry, a scuffle—I knew not what to expect.
Cavernous and dimly lighted, the corridor stretched away to my left. On the right it branched sharply in the direction of the gallery overlooking the hall.
The seconds passed, but no sound rewarded my alert listening—until, very faintly, but echoing in a muffled, church-like fashion around that peculiar building, came a slight, almost sibilant sound, which I took to be the gentle closing of a distant door.
Whilst I was still wondering if I had really heard this sound or merely imagined it:
"Who goes there?" came sharply in Harley's voice.
I heard a faint click, and knew that he had shone the light of an electric torch down into the hall.
I hesitated no longer, but ran along to join him. As I came to the head of the main staircase, however, I saw him crossing the hall below. He was making in the direction of the door which shut off the servants' quarters. Here he paused, and I saw him trying the handle. Evidently the door was locked, for he turned and swept the white ray all about the place. He tried several other doors, but found them all to be locked, for presently he came upstairs again, smiling grimly when he saw me there awaiting him.
"Did you hear it, Knox?" he said.
"A sound like the closing of a door?"
Paul Harley nodded.
"It was the closing of a door," he replied; "but before that I had distinctly heard a stair creak. Someone crossed the hall then, Knox. Yet, as you perceive for yourself, it affords no hiding-place."
His glance met and challenged mine.
"The Colonel's visitor has left him," he murmured. "Unless something quite unforeseen occurs, I shall throw up the case to-morrow."
The man known as Manoel awakened me in the morning. Although characteristically Spanish, he belonged to a more sanguine type than the butler and spoke much better English than Pedro. He placed upon the table beside me a tray containing a small pot of China tea, an apple, a peach, and three slices of toast.
"How soon would you like your bath, sir?" he enquired.
"In about half an hour," I replied.
"Breakfast is served at 9.30 if you wish, sir," continued Manoel, "but the ladies rarely come down. Would you prefer to breakfast in your room?"
"What is Mr. Harley doing?"
"He tells me that he does not take breakfast, sir. Colonel Don Juan Menendez will be unable to ride with you this morning, but a groom will accompany you to the heath if you wish, which is the best place for a gallop. Breakfast on the south veranda is very pleasant, sir, if you are riding first."
"Good," I replied, for indeed I felt strangely heavy; "it shall be the heath, then, and breakfast on the veranda."
Having drunk a cup of tea and dressed I went into Harley's room, to find him propped up in bed reading the Daily Telegraph and smoking a cigarette.
"I am off for a ride," I said. "Won't you join me?"
He fixed his pillows more comfortably, and slowly shook his head.
"Not a bit of it, Knox," he replied, "I find exercise to be fatal to concentration."
"I know you have weird theories on the subject, but this is a beautiful morning."
"I grant you the beautiful morning, Knox, but here you will find me when you return."
I knew him too well to debate the point, and accordingly I left him to his newspaper and cigarette, and made my way downstairs. A housemaid was busy in the hall, and in the courtyard before the monastic porch a negro groom awaited me with two fine mounts. He touched his hat and grinned expansively as I appeared. A spirited young chestnut was saddled for my use, and the groom, who informed me that his name was Jim, rode a smaller, Spanish horse, a beautiful but rather wicked- looking creature.