"Put it all in the bill," he said coarsely.
"Therefore I will give you nothing back. You shall have only your bond."
"Why waste your breath on heroics to me?" he sneered. "You would sell your soul for money. You have often boasted it."
"I would sell my soul for money any day," she agreed frankly—"but not my pride. I am too much of a sinner already to scruple over the disposal of my soul. But it would not profit me to gain the whole world, and lose my pride."
"Bosh!" he said contemptuously. "Pride pays no bills—and you owe too many to let it deprive you of the pleasure of getting rid of a few."
"That is as it may be," she returned. "I have told you the only exchange I will make."
He sprang up again. This time his anger was scornful.
"Fool!" he cried harshly. "Take your warning! Do you think my secrets—if I have any—are for you? Or that I, myself, am for you? Why do you try to force yourself on to dangerous ground? There are things in the world into which it is not good to pry."
"Plenty," she said, unmoved.
"I may have made you careless promises," he admitted. "I have made many women promises. It is a bad habit. I cannot keep them. I cannot, and will not, marry you, or any other woman. The only one I might have married ... is dead."
"Again you throw her in my face," she murmured, through closed teeth.
"I daresay I used you meanly," he acknowledged. "I did use you meanly. It was not the game to do what I did that night. I freely admit it. And I offer you reparation—the only reparation I can make. It would be the wisest act of your life to take it."
"You have heard my conditions," she replied. "I shall not change them. Unlike most women, I have been gifted with the faculty of being able to make up my mind. The time for compromise has passed."
"You don't care for me," he persisted. "You couldn't care for any man. You're not capable of it. It's not in you."
"Whether or not I care for you does not enter into the matter at all," she rejoined calmly. "My capability for affection has no bearing on the present question."
"You were relying on marrying me to pay your debts," he declared. "You could not have built a more forlorn hope. I should not pay your debts if I did marry you. I will give you five thousand pounds for your lie this morning."
She was very angry. The insult dashed all the color from her face, leaving it white and set in lines that made her look almost old. Her eyes glittered menacingly.
"You dare," she said slowly, "to offer me five thousand pounds?"
"And consider yourself damned lucky!" he retorted.
He took out his case, and lit a cigarette with a show of indifference.
"I am not bound to offer you anything," he said carelessly. "That small point seems to have escaped you. You have no claim on me. I consider my suggestion an exceedingly generous one. You can take it or leave it. It's all you'll get."
"You insult me again," she said, in measured tones. "You are not wise."
He laughed easily.
"My dear Phyllis," he said, "you are adorable in a rage—but I am afraid I must steel myself against your gentle exactions. Let me convince you that I am really treating you in a highly preferential manner. During my career three women have attempted to blackmail me. They were all ugly—so they got nothing. You are charming—so you get five thousand pounds. That is the most I have ever paid for my smaller indiscretions. And I take the liberty of thinking it more than sufficient compensation for the few erroneous impressions I may have allowed you to contract."
"You are making the mistake," she said, in the same controlled tones, "of imagining that you are buying back your promises to me, which I can quite understand that you value lightly. But I have told you that those promises are not for sale. You have wandered from the real issue. You are not buying the promises of your heart—you are buying the secrets of your house. Are they not on a different scale of values?"
"You know nothing of my house," he returned. "You do not know whether there are secrets in it or not."
"I don't know," she confessed candidly. "Possibly there are not. But I am prepared to take a sporting chance that there are. And if I am wrong—so much the better for you."
He was silent, looking at her thoughtfully, as if carefully weighing his course of action.
"You were under the suspicion of Scotland Yard," she reminded him, "until I told my lie. You will be under it again if I admit my lie. Inspector Fay would certainly not rest until he had thoroughly investigated your reasons for giving a false account of yourself. He is by no means a fool—and I very much doubt that he is to be bought, anyway so reasonably as I am."
Copplestone's face wore a strange expression. There was now no animosity in it, but rather a mild resignation, in strange contrast to his previous anger.
"So," he said, after a pause, "you would put them on to me again...?"
"I need not have taken them off you," she replied.
"I have offered you five thousand pounds for that," he said slowly.
"I have refused them."
"Think over it well," he advised her impressively.
"I do not need to," she returned.
For a moment they faced each other steadily.
"You mean that—finally?" he asked.
"Finally," she answered.
He moved to a door at the further end of the room, and opened it.
"Come," he said quietly. "You have gone too far to draw back. You shall see the secrets of my house. Follow me."
THE SECRET OF THE HOUSE
She followed him out of the black room into a dark, narrow passage.
Her calmness and self-possession remained undisturbed. Without a tremor she accepted this unexpected invitation to the secrets of the Crooked House—quite ignorant of, and indifferent to, the danger to which she might be committing herself. That there were hidden things in the house she had for a long time been convinced, but of their nature she had been unable to form even a conjecture, in spite of many attempts to creep into the mystery. Copplestone's sudden decision to reveal them to her was a surprise, and an unpleasant check to the development of her schemes. Either he placed a much lower value on his secrets than she had expected, or her participation in them was by no means to be dreaded to the extent that she had relied upon. In any case her position was considerably weakened, and the success of her plans was no longer the assured thing she had believed it to be.
In silence they ascended a flight of stairs, and reached a door which appeared to be the entrance into a separate part of the building. It was a massive oak door, fitted with double locks of remarkable strength for a private house. Copplestone held it open, motioning her to pass before him, and relocked it on the other side. She was still without any nervousness, but her curiosity increased with every step. He led the way on, and she followed him unhesitatingly. They traversed several corridors, and turned many corners. Her sense of direction told her that they had entered an extreme wing of the house, hidden away among the thickest trees of the garden, and to all appearances unused. The place was damp, dusty, and silent, with the intense silence of emptiness. Some of the doors were open, showing unfurnished, neglected rooms. The papers were peeling off the walls; the fittings were covered with the rust and dirt of years; the soiled blinds half covered the closed, uncleaned windows. The atmosphere was close and unhealthy.
"What a parable of waste!" she said.
He did not reply. They came to a square landing, and another heavy door faced them. Copplestone stopped, and for a moment stood looking at her intently. She did not flinch. He shrugged his shoulders, and took a key from his pocket. It was a peculiar key, and was attached to a strong chain. He fitted it into the lock, and opened the door. Then he turned to her again, and she saw a change coming over his face.
"Go in," he said curtly.
She hesitated, for the first time. He withdrew the key, and returned it to his pocket.
"You need not be afraid," he said.
"I will follow you," she returned, watching him carefully.
He shrugged his shoulders again, and went into the room. She entered after him.
It was a long, low room. There was a window at the far end, but it was so dirty, and the curtains in front of it were so thick and discolored, that the place was in semi-darkness, and the air overwhelmingly heavy and unwholesome. There was a little rough furniture, a strip of worn carpet on the floor, and some untasted food on the table—but it was not any of those dismal objects that attached the woman's gaze. It was rather a white, pasty face that seemed to gleam at her from the darkest corner of the room—the drawn pallid face, and dull lifeless eyes, of a white-haired man, who was sitting in a huddled, contorted attitude on a bare wooden chair.
She shrank back with a startled exclamation, and turned to Copplestone. His face was convulsed with fury, his eyes aflame with hatred.
"Well?" he said harshly.
She drew away from him fearfully.
"What wickedness is this?" she shuddered.
"None of mine," he answered.
The vacant eyes rested on them with a fixed stare, completely devoid of intelligence. The huddled figure evinced no sign of life. It appeared to be unconscious of their presence. Copplestone advanced a few paces; but the woman hung back, horrified.
"Is that ... a living thing?" she whispered.
He laughed—an unnatural, metallic laugh.
"Yes," he said—"it's living ... with as much life as its sins have left it, and its rotten body can hold."
He turned back to her.
"Come nearer," he said. "There is nothing to be afraid of."
But the glassy stare of the motionless figure had unnerved her. She was white, and shaking.
"No, no," she muttered, shrinking further back.
He seized her arm.
"I warned you," he cried roughly, "but you wouldn't listen. You were brave enough then—when you thought I daren't stand up to you. You shall learn your lesson—you who talked so glibly of my secrets. Come closer."
He dragged her with him towards the corner.
"Look!" he commanded. "Look at that thing in front of you—that thing crouching there like an ape. It was once a man. It was once an active, intelligent, healthy human being—a strong handsome member of a strong handsome family. Everything was in its favor. There were no obstacles in its path. It had many more natural gifts than the average man is endowed with. It might have ruled an empire. It might have loaded its name with honor, and left it to its children. It had the capability, the power, and the opportunity to leave the world a better place than it found it. Look at it now."
She stood silent, her head turned away. He went on, with increasing rage.
"Look at that man now! He has brought himself to a state of gibbering insanity by a life of indulgence in every form of vice and depravity known to humanity. He knowingly and deliberately drained his mental and physical resources by every insult to nature that depraved men and women—the lowest creatures of the earth—have devised for the satisfaction of their diseased senses. He was a drunkard and drug-fiend before he was twenty. Every effort was made to check and reclaim him, but he defied them all. He was fully warned. He knew what the consequences would be. He knew that nature cannot be violated continuously without exacting her penalty, sooner or later. But he plunged on. Step by step he brought himself to this. His brain and his body are decaying from the unnameable excesses he has committed with both. He is literally rotting in front of us at this moment."
She put her hands up to her face.
"Can he hear you?" she gasped.
"I don't know," he replied savagely. "Perhaps he can. I hope he can. I hope he can hear every word. It wouldn't be the first time he had heard the story of his shame. And it won't be the last. Curse him!"
She tried to draw him back.
"Come away," she cried. "How can you stand in front of the poor creature, and talk like that before his face?"
His iron grip closed on her wrist, and held her helpless.
"Why not?" he demanded, with dreadful bitterness. "Why should he be spared because he is suffering a fraction of the just and natural consequences of his own deliberate acts? What is there to pity in that? It is a merciful retribution. If you have any sympathy to show—show it to me."
"To you?" she echoed.
"To me," he repeated.
She screamed, and tried to wrench herself from his grasp. The horrible head had begun to move slowly from side to side. A faint, ghastly smile appeared round the twisted lips.
"Let me go," she cried. "It's too dreadful."
He dragged her round again.
"You forced yourself into my secrets," he said hardly. "It is too late to shrink back now. You shall know them to the full—and then you may go."
He paused, still holding her. In her horror, and under the sickly, stifling atmosphere of the room, she was almost fainting. But he paid no heed to her condition. His eyes were fixed malignantly on the grinning object of his hatred.
"That man," he said slowly, "was free from any hereditary weakness. His viciousness was not inherent. He came of a good, clean stock. When he was thirty—although the inevitable results of his violations had already seized upon him—he committed the crime of marrying. It was the foulest sin of his life. He knew what the result would be—what it was bound by every natural law to be. He knew that the sins of the fathers must be visited on the children"—he clenched his hands, and she winced as her wrist was crushed in his grip—"and knowing that, he dared to marry."
His voice rose. His face began to work with passion.
"He married a good woman—who bore all the cruelties he heaped upon her because she loved him. Her money had been his only consideration—and when he had got all that he treated her like dirt. But there are limits even to what a woman can bear. He broke her heart, and she died ... mad. If only she had died a little sooner...."
She steadied herself with an effort.
"Who is he?" she asked. "Why is he here, in your house?"
A flood of fury shook him.
"His name is Oscar Winslowe," he said fiercely. "He is my father."
She uttered a sharp cry, and wrenched her hand away from him.
"Your father? That creature ... your father...."
"Yes," he cried wildly—"he is my father. I am George Copplestone Winslowe. Do you wonder that I hate him? I am the victim of his vices—the heir to his sins. He has left me the legacy of outraged nature. I am mad."
She recoiled from him, panting. He was beside himself. His face was distorted; madness glared in his eyes. Then, suddenly, the paroxysm left him. He turned to her weakly, with the appeal of his utter despair.
"Pity me," he said. "Oh, if you are capable of pitying anything in this dreadful world, pity me! My awful inheritance is closing in on me. Every day one more grain of reason leaves me. Like him, I might have been a leader of men. Like him, I have power and capability. I have a brain that could have raised me to the greatest heights. I have a body that can bear any strain. But I am mad."
His agony was pitiful. He sobbed, wringing his hands.
"I can feel the hideous thing growing in me, hour by hour—a little more—a little more. I can feel its clutch tightening on me. And I can't resist. I can't escape. The little mental balance I have is being dragged away from me. In a few years—if I let myself live to it—I shall be a babbling maniac. Nothing can save me. I knew it when I was a boy—before that thing there completely lost its reason. I knew I was born a madman for my father's sins. It crept on me gradually—one sign after another—one horrible secret impulse after another. The slow, sure growth of madness." He buried his face in his hands. "Oh, God! Oh, God!"
In the silence that followed the figure on the chair straightened itself with a jerk, and gibbered at him, twitching spasmodically. The woman turned away, shaking.
"I live in hell," he moaned—"in all the torment of the uttermost hell. I fly from one thing to another for respite, for relief—but there is no relief. I can only make madness of them all. Everything twists and turns in my hands. I can keep nothing straight." Then another gust of passion seized him. He shouted, beating his hands together. "What right," he cried furiously, "have men and women to marry and bequeath disease and madness to their children? What right have they to propagate the rottenness of their minds and bodies? It's worse than murder. It's the cruelest, the most wicked, of all crimes. What are the feelings of a child to such parents? Is it not to hate them—as I hate that foul thing there?—to curse them, as I curse him, with every breath?" His arms dropped limply to his sides. "What is the use of hating?" he said dully. "It can't cure me. It can't cure me."
He looked at her fixedly.
"Well?" he asked bitterly. "You know the secrets of my house. Are you satisfied?"
She laid a hand on his arm, and turned him gently towards the door. There were tears in her eyes.
"Come away," she said weakly. "Let us speak somewhere else."
He followed her. They went out, without another look at the figure behind them, and returned in silence to the black room.
A great change had come over her. All the hardness had disappeared from her face. It was transformed by a wonderful new pity—a latent compassion, stirred for the first time by this miserable man's utter tragedy. And so transformed she was very lovely—with a loveliness that all the arts of an accomplished society woman had never bestowed upon her.
"Forgive me," she said gently. "I would not have said what I did if I had even thought ... of that."
He looked down at her, a world of agony in his tortured eyes.
"Well," he asked—"do you still want to marry me ... now?"
For an instant the old hardness flashed back.
"You would have married her," she returned.
"I wonder," he said slowly. "I wonder ... if I should."
His gaze wandered vacantly round the room.
"She intoxicated me," he said. "Her memory intoxicates me still. She set fire to all my passions. She made me forget the barrier. But I think I really hated her. Perhaps ... if she hadn't died in the garden ... I might have killed her...."
The madness was leaving him, and the weakness of reaction taking its place. He put a hand on her shoulder, and leant heavily on her. His face was mild and kind—the face of the normal man.
"Phyllis," he said softly, "I mocked you, and treated you badly. But it wasn't really I. Forgive a poor madman the sins of his madness."
She made no attempt to check her tears. He took her hand, as gently as a child.
"Don't cry," he begged. "See—I am all right now. Sit down, and let us talk."
Still leaning on her, he moved to a couch, and drew her down beside him.
"First," he said, "I will tell you why I lied to Inspector Fay. I did not go into the house to fill my cigarette case. I was mad. It came on me—as it often does—when I see sane people about me—a rush of hatred and despair."
He spoke dispassionately, without a trace of the terrible disorder that had possessed him a few minutes before. Only the gloom remained—the shadow that never left him.
"You can understand," he went on, "what my life has been since this cloud first settled on me. I tried to fight against it—but how could I fight against a thing that I knew to be there, creeping on me day after day—when I knew that in the end I must give way? Every hour seemed to bring some fresh proof of the madness that was in me—some proof that made resistance more and more futile and hopeless. A thousand times I have been tempted to kill myself—but always there was the dim, desperate hope that some miraculous twist of sanity might yet deliver me. I can't convey to you a tenth—a hundredth—part of the agony of that struggle. There were times when I shrank into the farthest corner of my darkest cellar, and prayed, as only a madman could pray, to be spared from the unjust curse. There were times when I stood out on the roof of my house, and defied the God I had prayed to...."
He stared straight out in front of him, a figure of unutterable pathos—a helpless accuser of Eternal Laws.
"If I were suffering for a fault of my own, I would bear my punishment uncomplaining. But I am innocent. I have done nothing to deserve this torture. And there is always the thought of what I might have been—of what I know I could have been. That is the cruelest torment of all. I have to see sane men and women wasting every minute of their lives—without the slightest appreciation of the value, or the responsibilities, of reason—who might as well be mad, for all the use they are to their fellow-creatures. And I...." He broke off. "That is enough about myself," he said. "I want to talk about you."
He looked at her in surprise, as if noticing the alteration in her for the first time.
"How changed you are," he said. "You have never looked like that before. You have always been so hard. Why have you never looked like that before?"
She was silent. She bent her head, as if ashamed of betraying herself.
"Was all that hardness ... only a cloak ... to hide yourself?"
He seized her hand tightly.
"You fool! You fool!" he cried—"to make yourself hard and unfeeling and unnatural—to try to stamp all the heart out of your life—to blaspheme your sex. Don't you know that a hard woman is the most terrible thing in the world? Don't you know that while men dare to think that they have the image of God, it is women who can really have the heart of God? And to think that all the time you have disguised yourself, you have been capable of looking like that."
"I have been up against the world," she said. "I have never had enough money to be soft-hearted. No woman with feeling can get five hundred per cent. out of her income."
"What does it matter," he returned, "if she can get five hundred per cent. out of life?"
He still held her hand, his eyes fixed longingly on her face.
"If only I were not mad," he said, with all his sadness—"now I know that you are really a woman...."
"Let me go," she said brokenly, withdrawing her hand from his.
"Not yet," he returned, detaining her. "There is something more I want to do." He paused. "My dear," he said softly, "an hour ago I would not have married you even if I had been sane. Now I want to marry you although I am mad. But, since that cannot be, there is something else." He released her, and stood up. "I want you always to look like that," he said. "I want you to forget that you have ever tried to disguise yourself. I want to make it possible for you to go through the rest of your life with your heart in its proper place."
He took his check book from his pocket.
"No, no," she said quickly—"not that."
"Please," he insisted.
"I would have taken it before," she said, forcing back her tears. "But not now."
"You must," he declared. "My money is no use to me. I can't do anything worth doing with it. With all my fantastic extravagancies, I only spend a small part of my income. The rest has been accumulating for years. I shall never use it, and when I die it will pass to some one I have never seen. It is doing no good—and I want it to do some good. What better thing could I do with it than give it ... to the woman I would marry if I could?"
She sprang up.
"For God's sake," she cried, "don't say that! I can't bear it!"
He laid a hand again on her shoulder.
"Do you care?" he asked slowly. "I don't think you cared before. I thought you were only sorry for me now. Do you really care?"
"I do care!" she cried recklessly. "I care—and care—and care. My God, how I care!"
He turned his face upwards, and over it passed a dreadful, mocking smile.
"O God of Mercy!" he muttered—"another torment!"
He drew away from her.
"I shall do this for you," he said firmly. "I intend to do this. And then we must not see each other again. I hope that when you marry, as you must, you will marry a good, clean man—a man who can stand out among his fellow-creatures, and need not shrink away from them, as I must. I want you to be very happy and bring happy children to the world...." His voice shook. "And forget there are unfortunate people in it ... who may only gaze hungrily over the gulf that they can never cross."
He left her sobbing, and went to his writing table.
"No one will know," he said. "I will draw it to myself. The bank is quite close here. I will walk there and cash it at once."
He wrote the check, and rose.
"Wait for me here," he said. "I shall only be a few minutes." And he went out with the face of a stricken man.
PROVIDING FOR THE WORST
Though Inspector Fay had disclosed no more than was necessary for the purpose of the initial charge, the arrest of James Layton was popularly considered to have solved the mystery of the murder of Christine Manderson.
No one realized more fully than Layton himself the overwhelming strength of the case against him. He was as good as condemned already. Beyond his own assertion of innocence, he was utterly defenseless against a sequence of evidence that might well have shattered the strongest reply. And he was without any reply at all, except his own denial. He could only admit the truth of the damning train of circumstances, in face of which his mere word was hopelessly—and, he was compelled to acknowledge, justly—inadequate. The secret of his identity—most crushing fact of all—was lost. He was the Michael Cranbourne whom Christine Manderson, then Thea Colville, had drawn on to ruin and disgrace. He had threatened her, in the presence of witness, with just such an end as she had met with. He had been seen lurking in the garden at the time of the crime. He had been beside himself. And to all that he had no more convincing answer than the plea of not guilty. He placed himself, quite dispassionately, in the position of his own judge and jury. There could be only one result.
The strange message of hope, brought to him by Jenny West, from a mysterious foreigner who had declared knowledge of his innocence and of half the truth, aroused his curiosity, if no more. That one person, at all events, had discovered, and was apparently pursuing, an alternative to his own guilt was interesting, if a slender encouragement to build on. He was not disposed to cling to flimsy hopes. He accepted his position with perfect calmness. Since the confession of his identity to Inspector Fay a load seemed to have been lifted from his mind, and with it had passed the revival of mad passion which the sight of Christine Manderson's fatal beauty had aroused. He found himself able to dwell on her memory—even to contemplate her death—with a cold detachment which surprised himself. He no longer shrank from conjuring up her image—but now it was a dead image from a dead world. And—not without surprise also, and perhaps a certain satisfaction—he found himself looking forward to a visit from Jenny West.
She came to him at the appointed time. She was very white. The deep shadows of sleepless grief and anxiety were round her eyes—but in them shone the fire of a dogged, dauntless courage. Her great untamed soul was aflame with revolt against the implacable circumstances that had placed the man whose name a thousand had blessed on the highroad to the gallows. She threw herself against the wall of facts with all the force of her primitive love. She was one of those whose trust rises to its greatest heights when opposed to reason.
He greeted her kindly. He was cheerful and composed. He showed that he was glad to see her.
"We shall save you, Jim!" she declared, straining back the tears that sprang to her eyes at his kindness. "I know we shall! I know it!"
"God will save His workman," he returned quietly—"if it is His will."
He looked at her closely. And something very like affection came into his face.
"You are pale," he said. "You are over strained. You haven't slept."
She bent her head, to hide her brimming eyes.
"My child...." he said gently.
"What does it matter," she sobbed, "if I haven't slept? How can I sleep—when you are ... here?"
"Listen, my dear," he said—"we must face this thing squarely. It's no use trying to shut our eyes to the truth, however unpleasant it may be. As the case stands at present, no jury in the world could acquit me. I have no reply to the charge, except to declare that I did not kill Christine Manderson—and that will not help me. The evidence is more than enough to satisfy any impartial, clear-thinking man or woman. It would satisfy me. That I know myself to be innocent will not assist me to establish my innocence. Thousands of things may happen in the meantime—but I must prepare to suffer the penalty for a crime that I did not commit."
"You shall not!" she cried passionately. "If there is justice in heaven or earth, you shall not!"
"I do not cling to life," he returned. "It has very little to give me, or to take away. Men may find me guilty—but I shall stand before God innocent. It will not be the first time I have stood before God."
A spark of his old fanaticism flashed into his eyes for a moment, then faded.
"I shall be ready," he said steadily, "for whatever He sends."
"Men shall not find you guilty," she declared. "There are three people working for you. The truth will be discovered."
"Your mysterious Frenchman?" he smiled. "What has he done?"
"I don't know," she confessed. "He tells me nothing—except to keep on promising that you will be saved. And that is enough for me."
A frown darkened Layton's face.
"I wish you would not put yourself so completely into the hands of a stranger," he said doubtfully. "Who and what, is this man? And how does he come to be mixed up in this affair?"
"I know nothing whatever about him," she replied. "But there is something that makes me trust him. I believe he will keep his promise."
"I don't like it," he insisted.
"If I didn't help him," she said, "I could do nothing. And I should go mad."
"What has he given you to do?" he asked.
"I promised not to tell any one," she hesitated.
He shrugged his shoulders.
"You had better tell me. You have no one else to protect you."
"It is something I can't understand," she said slowly. "This morning I had to write out the names and addresses of all the Art and Picture Dealers from the Directory, and this afternoon I am to go round in a car to as many of them as I can, with a letter from the French Embassy, to ask if any articles have ever been supplied to, or orders taken from, a Miss Masters, of 35, De Vere Terrace, Streatham, and if so, what."
Layton stared at her in astonishment.
"What possible connection can that have with the case?" he exclaimed.
"I don't know," she said again. "I've tried to think."
"The French Embassy," he mused. "That is strange...."
He checked himself, and looked at his watch.
"You time is nearly up," he said. "Listen to me carefully. There is one very important thing that I want you to understand. Whatever may develop in the meantime, I intend to prepare for the worst."
He kept her silent with a firm gesture.
"My work must go on. No matter what happens to me, my work must go on. And it must be carried on as I have begun it, by some one who has worked with me, and understands my objects—by some one who is human, and unlimited by sect or creed. I don't want to make people religious—it would spoil most of them. I want to make them healthy and happy. I would rather they were clean pagans than unclean Christians. No soul is saved or lost because it happens to take a certain view of the Mysteries of God. It is the bodies I care for—the bodies I want to build. Humanity should be a song of thanksgiving, not a prayer for alleviation."
The fires kindled again. His face was lit up.
"You must continue my work. If I should have to leave it ... you will find everything yours. There is over a million. Use it as I have taught you. Use it to help children to grow into men and women, and men and women to grow into old men and women. Use it to help human beings against the cruelties they inflict on each other—and animals against the cruelties inflicted on them. Promise me that if the worst happens, you will go on where I leave off."
Tears blinded her. She could not speak.
"Promise," he insisted.
"I will," she sobbed. "I will go on—as long as I can live after you."
He stood still, looking at her fixedly. There was the dawn of an awakening on his face.
"My God!" he whispered, "I was wrong. I do cling to life. I want to live. O God, save me!"
And the girl uttered a great sigh of thankfulness, and fell fainting against the wire partition that stood between them.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF TRANTER
At one o'clock on the following day, Monsieur Dupont sat in his room waiting for Tranter. At half-past one he had become impatient. At two he seized the telephone directory, and, a minute later, the instrument. At two-thirty he obtained his number.
The answer to his first question stiffened him into an attitude of rigid tensity.
"Mr. Tranter is not in, sir," a voice told him. "He has disappeared."
"Disappeared?" Monsieur Dupont echoed sharply.
"We do not know what has happened to him. He went out last night at nine o'clock, and has not returned."
"Not returned...." the listener muttered.
"We are getting anxious," the voice went on. "He left orders for his supper, and there is no doubt that he intended to return. We have telephoned to the hospitals and the police stations, but nothing has been heard of him. Do you happen to know where he was going?"
There was a moment's pause. Monsieur Dupont's hands were clenched so tightly round the instrument that the veins stood out on them like cords.
"Yes," he said slowly, "I know where he was going."
He rose quickly.
"I will find him," he promised and rang off.
He replaced the instrument, and stood still. For the first time since his arrival in London fear found a place in the expression of his face.
"Dieu," he whispered—"that Crooked House...."
He seized his hat and stick, and hurried out to his car.
* * * * *
Remarkable changes were in progress when he arrived at the Crooked House. A small army of workmen swarmed over the whole place in a condition of feverish energy. There were stacks of tools, dozens of machines, and cartloads of material. At first sight it might have appeared as if nothing less than the effects of an earthquake could have been in process of repair—but, as Monsieur Dupont stood staring about him in amazement, it became apparent that the men were engaged in eliminating the crookedness of the garden, and must have been so engaged from a very early hour. Many of the twisting paths had been shorn of their high maze-like walls of hedge, and the paths themselves were in varying stages of conversion or disappearance. Under rapid and ruthless hands straightness was already appearing out of the confusion. Monsieur Dupont looked positively frightened.
"Mon Dieu," he exclaimed aloud, "they are making it a human garden!"
The house itself presented a no less startling aspect. It was no longer gloomy, deserted, and silent. It was teeming with life. Every window was open, and from within came sounds of rapacious cleaning. A hundred painters had commenced a vigorous assault upon the exterior, and representatives of every branch of house decoration were attacking the interior. It was a scene of resurrection.
Monsieur Dupont almost ran to the open front door. Copplestone's manservant was at work in the hall, and came forward with a sphinx-like expression.
"Mr. Copplestone?" said Monsieur Dupont.
"Mr. Copplestone is away, sir."
"He left in the car early this morning, sir, without saying where he was going or when he would be back."
Monsieur Dupont was plainly staggered.
"Was he alone?"
"I do not know, sir."
"You do not know?"
"I did not see him leave, sir. He gave me my instructions in the library, and ordered me to remain there until he had gone."
Monsieur Dupont took a threatening step towards him.
"Where is Mr. Tranter?" he demanded, with sudden fierceness.
The man met his challenging gaze steadily.
"Mr. Tranter, sir?"
"Mr. Tranter came here last night—between ten and eleven o'clock."
"I think you must be mistaken, sir. If he had come here, I should have seen him."
Monsieur Dupont clenched his fists.
"I am not mistaken! I say that he came here last night!"
"I did not see him, sir."
"Since then he has disappeared. He has not returned to his house, and nothing has been heard of him. Where is he?"
"I know nothing of Mr. Tranter, sir."
"That is not true!" Monsieur Dupont almost shouted.
"I say that is not true!"
The man drew himself up.
"It certainly is true, sir."
"It is not! Will you tell the truth to me—or to the police?"
"I have nothing to tell," the man insisted doggedly.
Monsieur Dupont appeared to be beside himself.
"Dieu!" he cried, "if any harm has come to Mr. Tranter, you shall pay for it—all of you!"
The man shrugged his shoulders.
"I can only repeat, sir, that I have not seen Mr. Tranter, and that, so far as I know, he has not been to this house. He is certainly not here now. You are welcome to search every room for him if you like. Mr. Copplestone left word that the house was to be open to any one who might wish to go over it."
"He said that?" Monsieur Dupont exclaimed, his anger giving place to astonishment.
Monsieur Dupont turned away without another word, and walked slowly to the gates. Reaching them, he stopped, and looked back.
"In the name of heaven," he muttered, "what happened in that house last night?"
He went back to his car. Amazement and anxiety were blended on his face. It was plain that his calculations had received an unexpected check, the meaning of which he could not at present grasp. The sudden transformation of the house and garden was a development that had not entered into his scheme of procedure. It presented him with an entirely new and unlooked-for problem. After a moment's indecision, he took out his pocket-book, referred to an address, and gave it to his chauffeur.
During the return journey he sat with his face between his hands, buried in thought. When the car stopped before a house in Grosvenor Gardens, he lifted his head slowly and heavily, as if rousing himself from a stupor.
"Mrs. Astley-Rolfe, if you please," he said to the footman who answered his summons.
"Mrs. Astley-Rolfe is not at home, sir."
"It is most important," said Monsieur Dupont. "I wished to speak to her of a matter connected with Mr. George Copplestone."
"She went away early this morning, sir."
"Away?" Monsieur Dupont repeated.
"With Mr. Copplestone."
Monsieur Dupont started back.
"With Mr. Copplestone?"
"Yes, sir. Just before eight o'clock."
"With Mr. Copplestone...."
"He came in his car, sir, and insisted on Mrs. Astley-Rolfe getting up to see him. She went away with him ten minutes afterwards, without telling us where she was going or when to expect her back."
Monsieur Dupont's face had become blanker and blanker. He stared at the man speechlessly then turned from the door, and gazed in a helpless fashion up and down the street.
"Mille diables!" he murmured, "what does it mean...."
He got into his car again. He looked about him like a man dazed by a heavy blow. Returning to the Savoy, he went up to his room.
There was a telegram on the table. He opened it, and read:
"The name was George Copplestone Winslowe, LESSING."
Monsieur Dupont uttered an extraordinary sound. In a flash the gloom and uncertainty that had held him gave place to a seething excitement. Crushing the telegram into his pocket, he rushed from the room. Two minutes later he was on his way to Scotland Yard.
Inspector Fay was occupied with the arrangement of the evidence to be presented at the inquest on the body of Christine Manderson. He disliked interruptions when at work, but the appearance of Monsieur Dupont banished his annoyance, and called forth a smile of complacent triumph.
"My friend," said Monsieur Dupont, "you know me well enough to be sure that I would not mislead you?"
There was that in the look of him that caused the smile to fade from the inspector's face.
"Of course," he replied, laying down his papers.
"There is not a moment to lose. You must come with me."
"Come with you?"
"Wherever it may be necessary to go. I do not yet know myself. I only know that we must go."
"Impossible," the inspector declared. "I must be ready for the inquest."
"If you do not come with me," Monsieur Dupont retorted, "you will not be ready for the inquest." He allowed his excitement to overflow. "Why do you stand there?" he cried. "I tell you, there is not a moment to lose. Cannot you see that I am serious? In all the years that you have known me I have never been more serious. Come!"
"What for?" demanded the inspector sharply.
"To discover the truth of the death of Christine Manderson."
"The truth is discovered," returned the inspector, looking down at his papers.
"The truth is not discovered," said Monsieur Dupont.
"It is a perfectly clear case," the inspector retorted. "There cannot be the smallest doubt that Layton killed her."
"Layton did not kill her. At the beginning I warned you to ignore the obvious. But you did not. Layton is no more guilty of the crime than you are."
"I am satisfied," the inspector said shortly.
"You must please yourself," said Monsieur Dupont. "I cannot wait. There are two lives to save—his and another. I came here to keep my word to you. I promised that if I succeeded in solving the mystery, I would hand the rest to you. I do not want credit from this affair. There is another meaning in it for me. I am ready to hand the rest to you, if you will come and take it. If you will not come—I must go on to the end myself. The choice is to you."
Inspector Fay looked at him steadily for a moment. Then he turned back to his desk, and locked up his papers.
"I will come," he said.
ETHICS OF KILLING
They swung out from Scotland Yard into Whitehall.
"What has happened?" the inspector asked.
Monsieur Dupont leant forward, controlling his excitement with an effort.
"Mon Dieu," he said, "I wish I knew!"
He took the telegram from his pocket.
"It is an hour only that I have returned from Richmond. I found the house of George Copplestone in course of transformation. I found all the windows open. I found men and women cleaning—painting—making new. I found a hundred men ... making the crooked garden straight."
"Well?" said the inspector—"why not?"
Monsieur Dupont brought his hands together impatiently.
"Why not? There are a thousand reasons why not. But the reason why...."
"Is it an extraordinary thing for a man to open his windows, paint his house, and straighten his garden?"
"It is!" exclaimed Monsieur Dupont. "It is more than an extraordinary thing—it is a gigantic, a brain-splitting thing—if he has kept his windows closed, his house unpainted, and his garden crooked for twenty years. The house of a man is the reflection of his soul. It was the reflection of George Copplestone's soul yesterday. But ... something happened in it last night. And to-day...."
He broke off, and began to smooth out the telegram on his knee.
"The moment I entered that house," he continued, "I knew it was a wicked house. And when that dreadful thing happened, I felt positively that the wickedness of the house had some direct connection with the crime in the garden. I felt that it would be impossible to solve one without solving the other. I knew, also, that you would certainly be satisfied with the evidence against James Layton, and would consider no other possibility. That evidence, I admit, was unanswerable—but I, with some previous knowledge to help me, knew that Layton was innocent. The difficulty in front of me was to prove the guilt of the real criminal in time. My friend Tranter, and that remarkable young protegee of Layton, Jenny West, agreed to help me. Together we began to draw the nets, and the criminal was aware of our movements. In the country yesterday I discovered the identity of the most important witness in the case—but when I went to find her in the evening, she had been snatched away. I instructed Tranter to discover and bring to me the secret of the Crooked House, whatever it might be. He set out to do so at nine o'clock last night. And he has disappeared."
"Disappeared?" the inspector exclaimed.
"Without a trace. I, only, knew where he was going. And not only has he disappeared—but Copplestone and Mrs. Astley-Rolfe have disappeared with him."
Inspector Fay began to show more interest.
"They will be wanted for the inquest," he said sharply.
"If we do not find them in time for the inquest," Monsieur Dupont returned, "there will be two inquests to hold."
"Two inquests?" the inspector echoed.
"I could not understand it," continued Monsieur Dupont. "It was contrary to all my calculations. I was bewildered—and you may recollect that I am not often bewildered. But when I returned to my hotel, I found this." He held out the telegram. "It is the answer to a certain inquiry I have made."
"What does it mean?" the inspector asked, handing it back.
"It means," said Monsieur Dupont slowly, "that we shall be lucky if we find Tranter alive."
"Where can they have gone?"
"I do not know. I can only guess—and if I have not guessed rightly, we shall not see him again."
"Are you telling me," the inspector demanded, "that Copplestone killed the woman he had just become engaged to?"
"I shall tell you who killed her within twelve hours," Monsieur Dupont replied. "I will tell you why she was killed now."
"Why," he asked, "did the murderer, whoever it was, kill her so horribly? Why was it not enough to deprive her of life? Could one have desired more? Why was she stamped on, and torn, and crushed?"
"It was obviously done in the madness of jealousy and revenge," replied the inspector.
"It was done in madness," said Monsieur Dupont—"but it was not the madness of jealousy or revenge. It was the madness of a strange and terrible hatred. It was done—because the killer hated her beauty and not her."
The inspector stared at him blankly.
"Hated her beauty, and not her...?"
"Twenty years ago," said Monsieur Dupont, "there was in France a very beautiful woman. She was named Colette d'Orsel. It was said that she was the most beautiful woman in the country. She was also very rich, very generous, and very kind. She was always doing good actions. She had not an enemy in the world. There was no one who could have wished her a moment's pain. She was only twenty-five. With several of her friends she went to stay at Nice. One night she was found in the gardens of her hotel—almost torn to pieces."
"I remember the case," said the inspector. "It was a ghastly affair."
"There appeared no motive. She was wearing some splendid jewels. They had been crushed with her, but nothing was missing—not a stone. She had just returned from the tables, and had not troubled to deposit her winnings of the evening with the cashier of the hotel. Forty thousand francs were found on the body. Not a note had been touched. The greatest detectives of France were called in to solve the mystery—but they solved nothing. They made the mistake of trying to find a motive. They looked for a person who could have had a reason to kill her. But it was time lost. They should have looked among the people who had no reason to kill her. The weeks became months, and still they discovered nothing. That crime is a mystery to-day."
The inspector's attention was rivetted. He remained silent.
"Ten years ago," Monsieur Dupont proceeded, "there was in Boston a young girl named Margaret McCall. She was wonderfully beautiful. Her parents were poor people, and she worked for her living. She was quiet and reserved by nature. She made few friends, and cared little for the society of men. Naturally there were hundreds who regretted, and attempted to overcome, that characteristic; but she went her own way quietly and firmly. One evening her body was found in a lonely part of one of the public parks torn and crushed in the most terrible manner. The police were helpless. The thing that baffled them completely was the absence of any motive for the crime. They tried to find one—but all that they found was what I have said, that she had been a good, honest girl—that she had had no enemies—that she had not jilted a man, or wronged a woman—that she had never flirted, or encouraged men to pay attentions to her. Yet there she had been found—broken and mutilated. The small sum of money she carried had remained untouched. The crime was never solved."
His voice had sunk lower. He had dwelt on each detail with impassive deliberation.
"This week, Christine Manderson—without doubt the most beautiful woman of the three—was found in that crooked garden at Richmond, if possible in a more horrible condition than either of the others."
"You mean," exploded the inspector, "that the murderer of Colette d'Orsel at Nice twenty years ago also killed Margaret McCall in Boston ten years after?"
"I do," replied the low voice.
"And Christine Manderson here three days ago?"
"And Christine Manderson here three days ago. But this time there was a difference. An unfortunate chain of circumstances provided clear evidence against an innocent man—James Layton. I admit that as the case stood you had no option but to arrest him. But in doing so you committed the same mistake that your French and American brothers had committed before you. They had looked for a motive, and could not find one. You found a motive, and devoted yourself to the man with the motive. You should have looked for the Destroyer."
There was something of awe in the silence that followed, like the hush that succeeds the passing of a storm.
"My friend," said the inspector slowly, "what utterly monstrous thing are you telling me?"
Monsieur Dupont turned to him a face of massive innocence.
"Is it monstrous?" he said mildly. "If a man is born with a longing to kill elephants, he is a daring sportsman. If the longing is to kill beetles, he is a scientist. But if the inclination is to kill men—or women—he is a criminal lunatic. Why? If the desire to kill is not in itself monstrous, the desire to kill a particular thing, whatever it may be, cannot be monstrous. It can only be illegal. If it is dreadful to kill a young child, it must be dreadful to kill anything young. If it is cowardly for a man to kill a woman, it is cowardly for a man to kill the female sex in any shape or form. Yet, what scientist allows the matter of sex to interfere with the impalement of his beetle? Nor would he do so if his hobby were to impale human beings. If he searches for a beautiful beetle to kill, it only requires a broadening of his particular outlook for him to search for a beautiful woman to kill. There may be a perfectly sane and moral country in the world (although I have never heard of it) in which it would be criminal to kill the beetle, and scientific to kill the woman. I confess that a well-mounted collection of beautiful women would be very much more interesting to me than the finest collection of beautiful beetles. But if I have the one, I am made a member of a Royal Society—and if I have the other, I am executed. And the only reason for that is that the human beings make the laws, and not the beetles."
The car swung round a sharp corner, and the inspector's amazement was interrupted by the sudden necessity of keeping his position. Monsieur Dupont continued slowly.
"But the monstrousness of this case is not that three people have been killed—but that three people have been more than killed. It is monstrous because we have none of the simple dignity of the primitive slayer, and all the morbid excesses of the modern despoiler. While it might be an entirely respectable thing to kill a woman to preserve her beauty, it is an entirely monstrous thing to kill her to destroy it. That is the only reason why the collector of beetles and butterflies is not the most cold-blooded of murderers. That is the only——"
"What in the name of all that's unholy," gasped the inspector, "are you going to say next?"
Monsieur Dupont leant forward as the car stopped, and opened the door.
"Next," he replied gravely, "I am going to inform you that we have arrived at Paddington, and request you to get out."
MONSIEUR DUPONT'S TASK
He bought the tickets, and conducted the inspector to a train.
"Where are we going?" demanded the bewildered officer, as Monsieur Dupont settled himself in a corner, and produced his cigar case.
"We are going," said Monsieur Dupont, "to a delightful little village, hidden away in the hills of the country—far from the sins of cities—where they do not even know that Paris is the center of the world."
Fortunately they had the carriage to themselves. Monsieur Dupont smoked in silence for some minutes.
"I will explain to you," he began, at last, "how I came to be concerned in this affair. The reason was that, after my retirement, I had the honor to marry a cousin of Colette d'Orsel. The brother of my wife had been one of the party at Nice at the time of the crime, and, though there was not the least evidence against him, the police had allowed it to be known that they looked upon him as the guilty person. You know how ready certain people are to discuss and even to credit the wildest theories—and you know also that after sufficient discussion the wildest theories become not only possibilities, but probabilities. The cloud of suspicion hung over him, ruining his health and his life, and casting a shadow over the whole family. When I married my wife, I determined that the shadow should be removed. And for the past two years I have devoted myself to that object.
"You can imagine," he went on, after a pause, "the difficulties that confronted me. Eighteen years had elapsed since the crime had been committed. Men, women, and even buildings, had passed, and been replaced—records had been lost—memories failed. But money, perseverance, and imagination slowly conquered. Step by step the years were overcome. With the aid of a small army of assistants, I succeeded in isolating a certain person. I placed that person beside the dead body of Colette d'Orsel, and began my pursuit. Mon Dieu, how I worked! After the hardest year of my life, I at last established a link between the death of Colette d'Orsel and the death of Margaret McCall—and that link was the personality I had isolated in the first place at Nice. But it had changed itself. I followed scent after scent—trail after trail. When I came to London a few days ago, I had sufficient information to allow me to commence the final stage of the adventure. I had solved the most difficult question of all—the present identity of my quarry. The second most difficult question remained to be solved—proofs of guilt. How could I obtain them? How could I prove that this person—living here in all the security of time—was the person who had torn those two women to pieces in America and France ten and twenty years ago? I had certain clues to follow up, but the results could not possibly have been sufficient to prove such an accusation. What was I to do? To rely upon observation? To search for—and wait for—a proof in this person's daily intercourse with the world? To place a beautiful woman within reach, and watch for a betrayal? That was actually the object in my mind when I called on my friend Tranter, and requested him to open to me the doors of London society. Sooner or later, I should have found, or brought about, the situation I was looking for. It might have been years—doubtless it would have been years—if he had not, by the most remarkable chance, taken me direct to that house at Richmond. Then came the death of Christine Manderson. It was horrible—appalling! And to think that I, who had detected and tracked the Destroyer, had been there in the same garden, within a few yards of the third death, and yet was no nearer my proofs! And to add to my difficulties, there was the certainty that an innocent man would suffer unjustly if I could not succeed in time."
He paused, looking grimly out at the passing scenery.
"And if I had not sent Tranter to the Crooked House yesterday, I do not know how I could have succeeded in time."
He turned abruptly from the window, put his feet up on the seat, and closed his eyes.
"I am a little tired," he said. "If you will excuse me, I will take a nap."
He slept for an hour.
* * * * *
They got out at a small country station. The shadows of the hot twilight were merging into darkness. A few minutes walking brought them to an inn, at which Monsieur Dupont demanded, and obtained, a conveyance.
For half an hour they drove through the heavily scented air of the country. Scarcely a word was spoken until they reached another village. There, Monsieur Dupont requested the inspector to alight and they proceeded on foot.
The red rear-light of a motor-car appeared at the turn of a corner. Monsieur Dupont drew a deep breath.
"Le bon Dieu be thanked!" he muttered.
The car was stationary and empty. Monsieur Dupont laid a hand on the radiator.
"It is hot," he said. "They have only been here a few minutes. Do not make a sound."
He opened a gate. The long low shape of a house was in front of them. They stood still, listening. There was no sound, no light.
"To the back," Monsieur Dupont whispered.
WHAT THEY HEARD
They crept round the house. At the back a pair of French windows were open, but heavy curtains were drawn across them. No light was visible. They listened. A voice was speaking—slowly, scarcely above a whisper, but a whisper of contemptuous pride.
"Yes," it said, "I am the Destroyer! I was born to kill. It was the curse of my birth."
The silence of the room was broken only by the faint sound of a woman sobbing. Monsieur Dupont and the inspector drew nearer to the window.
"You fools!" said the arrogant voice. "What are your laws of Right and Wrong to me? I am Right and Wrong. What are your Codes of Sin? I am Sin. Who are you to judge me? Who are you to set your little laws against My Madness?"
There was a long pause. Then the voice continued, in a tone of dull bitterness.
"Ever since I had strength to break, I have broken—to tear, I have torn. The disease took command of me long before I knew its meaning. When I was a child the sight of pretty things frightened me. I used to shrink from them, and hide my face. I was only quiet and normal when there were plain, colorless things about me. As I grew older the fear developed into hatred—and with hatred grew, slowly and subtly, the inclination to destroy. At first the opposition of all that was normal in me sufficed to keep the desire in check, but day by day it grew stronger and stronger, and day by day the power to resist became less and less. The increase of the hatred into madness followed the growth of the impulse towards the first surrender. It came upon me for the first time when I was twelve. How well I remember that day! My sanity had fought its strongest battle, and my head was still throbbing and swimming with the strain of it. I was taken to a strange house, and left alone in a bright room. On the wall there was a picture of a very beautiful woman. I couldn't take my eyes off it. I couldn't move from in front of it. New passions, that I had never felt before, were tearing me. The picture seemed to be alive, to be mocking me. I hated it. I felt that it was cruel and loathsome—that it had wronged me. My whole body was on fire—my brain was flaming. Then something seemed to snap in my head. I lost myself. Irresistible forces took possession of me, and used me. When I came to myself ... the picture was lying at my feet ... in fragments."
The voice settled down into an expressionless monotone, pursuing its story without emotion.
"From that moment my doom lay on me. I had made the initial submission. Any attempt at resistance after that was futile. I was helpless. Out of my hatred of beauty in any shape or form came the desire to obtain the most beautiful things I could find to enjoy the mad ecstasy of shattering them. I had all the morbid secret longing to induce attacks of my own madness—to enjoy the awful exaltation, the triumph of destruction. I was not ashamed. I found myself entirely without scruple, without conscience, incapable of remorse. When the periods of desire were upon me, I hesitated at nothing to gratify them. At first they were frequent—sometimes there were only a few days between—but as I grew older the intervals lengthened, until sometimes I dared to think myself free. But, sooner or later, it came again. I knew all the warning signals—the creeping in of uncontrollable thoughts—the brain pictures—the quickening of mind and body—then the grip of the madness. All I could do at such times was to collect a number of things sufficiently beautiful to satisfy my lust, and lock myself in to an orgy of destruction. Then I was normal again for another period. So I grew up. When I was twenty, I learnt the truth."
"I told him," a woman's broken voice said. "I hadn't the heart to tell him before. I was hoping against hope that the curse would pass away as he grew into manhood. But when I saw that it would not ... I told him."
"Then I knew there was no escape," the dull voice went on. "The results of my father's vices and my mother's madness were my inheritance. God! ... what a legacy!"
The voice flamed for an instant—then subsided again into its previous monotony.
"The intervals became longer and longer, but each time the madness recurred it tightened its clutches. Each time it made me more and more its own property. Whenever the warnings showed themselves I fled to the refuge of Miss Masters's house. She bought and kept there things on which, when the mania was at its height, it satisfied me to expend my lust. But those inanimate things, though sufficient for that purpose, had no power in themselves to produce an attack of the madness. The capability to do that was reserved to a woman's beauty—the effect of which, so far, I had had no opportunity to experience. That opportunity came to me for the first time at Nice—twenty years ago. I had never seen a really beautiful woman before I saw Colette d'Orsel."
Another pause followed the name. The room behind the curtains remained in tense silence until the voice resumed.
"I can remember it now—as if it were yesterday. How she stood there—in the soft shaded light—terribly beautiful. And I—the Destroyer—watched her paralyzed—knowing for the first time the pinnacle of my madness. The sight of her numbed all my sanity. I could no more have torn myself away from that place than I could have resisted the new flood of my disease that broke over me like a nightmare wave. I was introduced to her. As I bent over her hand I almost laughed at the thought of what her horror would have been if she had known the impulses that surged through me. Her voice—the touch of her—burnt into me like flames. I knew what the end would be, but I was powerless in the grip of my inheritance. And she—in the pitiless irony of it—liked me! Three evenings later I met her in the gardens of the hotel. We sat together ... alone for the first time. I struggled. My God, I struggled! But it was useless. The white shape of her next to me—the dim outline of her features—the whole nearness of her beauty.... Then it came on me, as I knew it would—the final rush of irresistible hatred. When I knew myself again ... she was lying on the ground ... smashed ... my first living victim."
The woman sobbed.
"God forgive him!" she cried. "He was innocent himself. It wasn't really him...."
Light footsteps moved across the floor.
"Let me be," said the voice hardly. "What God does with me is for God to do. Sit down again."
The footsteps returned.
"I left her there, and went back to the hotel. I sat down in my room, and analyzed my feelings. The madness had left me. My mind was perfectly clear and steady. I felt no horror at what I had done—no remorse—only a sense of impersonal regret at the death of an innocent woman, and a faint detached pity for her misfortune in crossing my path. I carefully considered my position, and certainty that there could be no evidence against me dispelled any fears for myself—but my cold-blooded sanity realized that the odds were tremendously against a recurrence of the same good fortune, and that the avoidance of the opposite sex must become the chief care of my life. Then I went to bed, and slept soundly. The discovery of Colette d'Orsel's body early the next morning provided the sensation of the year at Nice. The police were confounded. There was no motive—no clue. It is an unsolved mystery to-day."
The callousness of the story was so revolting that even the inspector, seasoned as he was, allowed a muttered expression of disgust to escape him. But Monsieur Dupont remained as silent and still as the house itself.
"Ten years later," continued the voice, "I went to America. For five years I had been free from any return of the madness. You can imagine the longing to be like other men—to presume on the years of immunity. I felt unshakably sane. I even felt that I had never been mad. I gloried in the keenness of my intellect, the absolute order and control of my thoughts. What had I to do with madness? But in Boston ... I saw Margaret McCall. In an instant I was mad. In an instant——"
A cry tore the air—a cry so awful in its inhuman fury that the two listeners shrank back horrified. For a moment the room seethed with confusion. The voices of men and women were blended in rage, terror, and command. Then the curtains were wrenched aside, and two figures rushed out shrieking into the darkness of the garden.
Four more figures dashed out through the curtains—two women and two men. The inspector and Monsieur Dupont joined them. Guided by the sounds in front of them, they dashed across the garden at the top of their speed.
A black wall of earth loomed up before them, like the rising of a gigantic wave. It was strongly rivetted, and must have been at least ten feet high. It was quite inaccessible from where the pursuers stopped beneath it.
"Look! Look!" a woman screamed.
They looked up.
"My God!" the inspector exclaimed.
On the height above them, silhouetted against the pale sky of the summer night, they saw a figure—its arms uplifted in an attitude of majesty, of triumphant defiance. The white light of the moon lit up a face terrible beyond words in its pride, its sin, and its utter madness.
"I am the Beauty-Killer! I killed Colette d'Orsel! I killed Margaret McCall. I killed Christine Manderson...."
Another figure scrambled up out of the darkness on to the height, and the silver head of Oscar Winslowe gleamed in the light. For a moment he crouched—then sprang forward with a yell. The two figures swayed backwards in a fierce struggle.
"They will go down!" a man's voice cried. "It is the edge of a gravel pit. The fence will not bear. There is a sheer drop of fifty feet."
"Let them go," another woman sobbed. "It is the best way."
And, even as she spoke, there was the sound of tearing woodwork. The struggling figures stood out for an instant with startling clearness—then disappeared like the sudden shutting off of a moving picture. And the whole night seemed to wince at the thud that followed.
"We must go down," the man's voice said, breaking the silence in an awestruck whisper. "There is a way round the other side."
They followed him round the edge of the pit. It seemed like walking round the world. They descended a steep slope—and then, in the vast gray silence, a circle of pale faces surrounded the dead bodies of Oscar Winslowe, and John Tranter.
"My friends," said Monsieur Dupont, "you have already heard a great part of the story. John Tranter was the son of Oscar Winslowe. He was mad. He was, as he called himself truly, a Beauty-Killer. That strange lust he inherited from his mother, who had been robbed of all she cared for, and hoped for, in life by a beautiful woman, and rendered insane three months before his birth. It was a most pathetic tragedy. We shall now hear——"
"One moment," Inspector Fay interrupted. "As I represent the police here, I should be glad to know, before we go any further, whose house I am in."
"Pardon me," Monsieur Dupont apologized. "I had forgotten. You are in the house of Doctor Lessing," he inclined himself towards the doctor, "who will in due course repeat to you a statement which he made to me yesterday. This lady is Miss Masters, who was Tranter's nurse. Mrs. Astley-Rolfe and Mr. Copplestone—which, I fancy, is not his correct name—you know already."
He added a high compliment to the inspector's present position and past achievements, and then turned to Copplestone.
"Mr. Copplestone, when Tranter did not return to me at the appointed time this afternoon, I went to your house. I found great changes. I found it, as you say, upside down."
Copplestone was radiant with happiness. Every trace of the old gloom had left him. He was a new man.
"I should think you did!" he retorted. "And you'd have found the earth upside down as well, if I'd been able to turn it."
"I was puzzled," Monsieur Dupont admitted. "I could not understand it. But I knew this—that when the shadows roll away from a man's house, they roll away from his life. When he draws the blinds and throws open the windows of his house to the light and the air, he draws the blinds and throws open the windows of his soul. When he straightens his garden, he straightens himself. I knew that before you would lift the cloud from your house something must have lifted the cloud from you. You had been delivered——"
"There was a fellow in the Bible," said Copplestone—"I think he was a king—who was cured of leprosy by taking a dip in a river. I don't know what happened afterwards, but I am quite sure that he turned his palace upside down when he got back."
He sprang up, his face illuminated with all the wonder of his new birth.
"I am free!" he cried. "Free! That's what my house told you. I had been brought out into the light after half a life of darkness. I had been released after forty years of prison, of torment that all the tortures of the Inquisition at once couldn't have equalled!"
He stared about him, like an intoxicated man.
"This room is too small!" he almost shouted. "Everything is too small. I want to dance on the Universe. I want the world to be a football. I want to play enormous games with giants—" He checked himself abruptly, and sat down. "Forgive me," he said. "You would understand, if you knew what I have suffered."
"I can, for one," agreed the doctor heartily.
"And I, indeed," said Monsieur Dupont. "But to proceed with the story—I think it would be better to commence with what Miss Masters has to tell us."
He bowed to a gray-haired, grief-stricken woman. There was a pause before she overcame her emotion sufficiently to speak.
"I took charge of Mary Winslowe's child from its birth," she began, at last. "She entrusted it to me in her sane moments, and I kept my trust faithfully. Perhaps it would have been better if I had not."
"You did your duty," the doctor said.
"It was a condition that he should never come under his father's influence, or even know his real name. He was to be kept in complete ignorance of the tragedy of his birth. It was necessary for him to be christened in his proper name to legalize the inheritance of his mother's fortune, but after that I took him away, and brought him up in strict accordance with my promises. He was told that both his parents had been drowned at sea. I gave him the name of John Tranter—Tranter was an old family name of mine. He was a bonny little fellow. I never thought that he might have inherited his mother's madness."
"The Laws of Nature are inexorable," said the doctor. "If only the Second Commandment were given to people as the Law of Nature instead of the threat of God, it would be of some value."
"I hardly realized it," she went on, "even when the symptoms had unmistakably developed. But it increased too plainly to be denied. I hoped and prayed that the horrible disease would pass away from him as he grew up—but it grew stronger and stronger with him. At last he made me tell him what it really was. It was against my promise, but he had to know. I pledged my word that I would keep his secret, and it was arranged that whenever he felt the approach of an attack he would come to me. I kept things for him. At first smaller things satisfied him. He was content to destroy flowers, pictures, prettily colored china, anything that was beautiful. But after that visit to France, when he was twenty, there was a change. He never told me what had happened—that he had killed a woman—but from that time only a woman's beauty would satisfy him. The attacks became few and far between, but when they came he would have died with the very force of his madness if he had not had some representation of a beautiful woman to expend it on."
"It's frightful—incredible," the inspector exclaimed.
"It was all the more pitiful," she said, "because his sanity was so wonderful. He had a towering intellect. He succeeded in anything he put his hand to."
"He was looked upon as one of the greatest authorities on finance in the country," said the inspector.
"He could have been a Member of Parliament before he was thirty if he had cared for politics. He refused a title. To be a Privy Councillor was the only honor he accepted. And he—one of England's great men—came to my little house at Streatham to gratify his madness to destroy."
She looked round at them defiantly, anger displacing the sorrow on her face.
"But he was not guilty," she declared. "His hands may have killed those three women—but he was not guilty. Nor was that poor innocent woman, his mother, who died in the madhouse. They were both clean of sin. It was on his wicked father that the guilt lay. It was Oscar Winslowe who was responsible for the lives that have fallen to his sins. Oscar Winslowe, and no one else."
"I bear witness to that," agreed Doctor Lessing. "Mary Winslowe was the gentlest, the sweetest, and the most patient woman that ever walked this earth, as you will see when I tell you my story. And he was the biggest blackguard that ever blasphemed the likeness of his Maker."
"It is true," said the woman.
She drew back in her chair, and pressed a hand to her forehead.
"That is all I have to tell you," she concluded.
"Last night," said Monsieur Dupont, "I called at your house, and was told by the lady who lives next door that you had left in a hurry two hours before."
"Yes," she said.
"I presume that you did so on instructions from Tranter?"
"Evidently he shadowed me to Paddington Station, as I expected he would, and decided to remove you in case I should get on the right track."
"He sent me an urgent message," she said, "saying that a great disaster hung over his head, and that I must go away without leaving any trace. He told me where to go, and promised to come to me and explain."
"He knew that it was only you who could give any proof against him?"
"After forty years," she returned, with a touch of bitterness, "he ought to have known that I should not betray him."
"Even if one had told you of those three dreadful crimes that he had committed, and that an innocent man was accused of the last one?"
She locked her hands together.
"Don't ask me," she cried. "I don't know what I should have done."
"He foresaw that problem," said Monsieur Dupont. "His sanity was, as you have said, wonderful. But the sanity of madness is always wonderful—that is why madmen are such superb criminals. It is only a madman who can be really sane. Although I allowed him to see that I knew already something of the truth, he never betrayed himself by even a tremor. He had all the grand egotism of the born criminal. His disguise was impenetrable. He was never sure how far my knowledge went, but not a sign of anxiety did he ever show. We played a game of cross purposes. I used him, under the pretense of requiring his assistance, to keep him by my side, and in the hope that as he saw me draw nearer to him step by step, he would break down. He, on his side, allowed himself to be used in order to keep watch on my moves, and safeguard himself against them, as he did in the case of Miss Masters. He dared not leave me. In all my conversations with him, I placed him more and more at his wit's end to know how much I really knew. As much from curiosity as from anything, I instructed him to discover the secret of Mr. Copplestone's house, for I was convinced that it did contain an interesting secret. He was quite willing to make the attempt. It did not promise to lead me any nearer to him. He little thought when he went—and I had little thought when I sent him—that he was going to his own undoing."
"And my salvation," Copplestone added.
"There," said Monsieur Dupont, "it passes to you to enlighten me."
"First," returned Copplestone, "I should like to know what caused you to be so positive, after being in my house only two or three hours, that there was a secret in it."
"My instinct for the mysterious is seldom at fault," said Monsieur Dupont. "Have you not observed how, by their characters, their habits, and their desires, human beings draw to themselves certain events and conditions of life? And it is equally true that houses draw to themselves certain contents and certain kinds of inhabitants. If a house is particularly adapted to contain a secret, in the course of time will certainly contain one. By a few strokes of his pencil an architect can condemn a house to become the scene of a murder, as surely as he can make it a convenient or inconvenient dwelling. Your house was constructed to hide a secret. And I was not only sure that it did hide one, but that it hid one which was in some way connected with the crime in the garden."
"I have had some experience of that instinct of yours," the inspector remarked, with a somewhat rueful smile.
"Well," said Copplestone, "instinct or no instinct, it certainly did hide a secret, and that secret was that Oscar Winslowe lived in it—if his condition could be called living. For the last five years he had been practically a helpless imbecile. He seldom uttered a sound beyond a gibber, and hardly seemed to be conscious. He was suffering the natural consequences of his vices. He had been gradually reaching that condition since nature had dealt him her first stroke of vengeance more than thirty years ago. One by one his faculties had rotted. He was a living mass of decay."
"It was a sure thing," the doctor said. "Such a condition was bound to come. I prophesied it to his face when I first knew him."
"That was the secret of my house," Copplestone proceeded. "My own secret was that I believed myself to be his son—the inheritor of the curse that really belonged to Tranter. And the horror of it, the helplessness, the constant contemplation of the awful state of the man I knew as my father, and the morbid certainty that sooner or later I must come to the same state, actually drove me to the madness that was not really in me at all."
"But how had you come to believe yourself to be his son?" the inspector asked.
"That was the last of Winslowe's diabolical acts. He inherited a large fortune on condition that a child of his, to whom it could succeed, was alive at the time of the testator's death. He did not know anything of his own child, and did not want to. He was afraid that if he made public inquiries for it, he might learn publicly that it was dead, and lose his claim. Also, he was afraid of other complications and exposures."
"And with good reason," said the doctor grimly.
"He wanted a child of five to produce as his son, George Copplestone Winslowe—and possibly make away with in due course after the business was settled. I am quite sure that would have been my fate if nature had not come to my rescue by striking him. He knew, from his knowledge of the underworld of London, how such things could be arranged without risk. No doubt he bought me for a few pounds. I am not the first heir to an estate who has been produced by such means."
"True enough," agreed the inspector. "The heir to a million has been bought for a fiver."
"But a few years after taking possession of the fortune, he was struck down, as I have said, by the first instalment of nature's retribution, and was incapable of carrying out his plans. No one cared for me. No one thought of removing me from the sight and influence of his growing imbecility. I was brought up under the shadow of it. And so the horror was born in me—the belief that I was mad. What chance had I to resist it, in those surroundings? When I came to an age to do so, I searched out the story of my birth, of my father's excesses and my mother's madness, and my doom crashed upon me. Can you wonder that I became what I was?"
"No, indeed," said Monsieur Dupont.
"I dropped the name of Winslowe. It was loathsome to me. I used my other two names, George Copplestone. They, at least, had come from my mother's side. My old manservant and his wife stuck to me, and kept my secrets. The income devolved on me in consequence of Winslowe's incapability. And so things went on. In my morbid demoralization I saw myself growing nearer and nearer to that wretched creature day by day."
"Dreadful!" shuddered the doctor. "It must have been a living hell."
"Then, last night, Tranter came. He climbed up on the ivy, and tried to spy into Winslowe's room. But I was there, and heard him. I dragged him in through the window. I suppose it was some look, some likeness to his mother, that stirred Winslowe's memory. He recognized him, and a flash of sanity came back to him. Under that sudden mental stimulation he recovered his power of movement, and was able to confess at least a part of the truth. Tranter was taken off his guard, and I forced him to admit his madness. I compelled him to take Winslowe and myself to Miss Masters, and she, in her turn, brought us here."
"I imagined she would," Monsieur Dupont remarked.
Copplestone drew a deep breath, and laughed aloud.
"And I am like other men! I can live as other men live. I can do what other men do. I can——" His eyes rested on the woman beside him, and his face grew tender. "Yes," he repeated slowly, "I can ... I can...."
There was a pause.
"And it was Tranter who killed Christine Manderson...." the inspector said, almost to himself.
"It was," said Monsieur Dupont. "He admitted to you on the night of the crime that he had known her in America years ago. And here we have a curious study in conflicting emotions. When he first met her, he had already killed two beautiful women. She was certainly more beautiful than either—yet he was able to associate with her on intimate terms for a considerable time, and even to tear himself away from her at last, without adding her to the victims of his madness. How was he able to do that? It was undoubtedly because he loved her. He had not loved either of the other two, so there had been no opposing emotion to his mania. But he loved Christine Manderson, and love was capable of holding the madness in check, because love, in its full strength, is the strongest of all human emotions. Love is stronger than madness, and ten times stronger than sanity. But after he left her the love faded to a certain extent, while the madness increased. Therefore, when he was suddenly confronted with her extraordinary beauty a few nights ago, the love that had faded was unable to restrain the madness that had not. And he killed her."
"My God!" exclaimed Copplestone, "to think that he stood there with us over the body he had torn—and even lifted it into my arms—without so much as a quiver."
"He was not capable of remorse or regret," Monsieur Dupont returned. "If he had been, he would have killed himself long ago." He paused. "There remain now a few points of my own part in this affair to tell you, and we will then ask the doctor for his statement."
"Before you do that," said Doctor Lessing, bluntly, "I, for one, am curious to know who you really are, and how you came to take such a large hand in the whole business."
"My connection with the whole business," replied Monsieur Dupont, "is a long story. I have already told it to Inspector Fay, and I will tell it again with pleasure when all the more important statements have been made. As regards myself——"
Inspector Fay took upon himself the continuation of the sentence.
"Up to a few years ago," he said, "Monsieur Dupont was, under a certain pseudonym, the most brilliant member of the French Secret Service—and was, in fact, admitted to have no equal in the whole of Europe."
"A gross exaggeration, my friends," protested Monsieur Dupont. He waved the inspector to silence. "When I came to London last week," he told them, "I came knowing that John Tranter had killed two women. I had known that when I returned from America six months before. You can imagine the difficulties in front of me then. I was to prove that an English Privy Councillor, a well-known and highly respected man, was in reality a madman who was responsible for two of the most dreadful crimes that had ever been committed. I had never seen him, but fortunately he was in Paris at that time, and I had no difficulty in making his acquaintance. By extreme good fortune, I was able to render him a service in the streets which placed him under an obligation to me. I observed him carefully, only to find him to all appearances the sanest and most level-headed man I had ever met. But there was one thing—he shut himself away completely from the society of women, and he avoided all places where beauty was to be found in any form. But I was so far from any proof. My next step was to test my own belief that his madness was an inherent disease, and to do that I employed inquiry agents in this country to discover whether there were any records of such a case in existence. It is only two weeks since I received information from them that a woman named Mary Winslowe had died in an asylum from that very kind of madness, forty years ago."
"That is true," corroborated the doctor.
"I came to London immediately. While following up my clues, I renewed my acquaintance with Tranter, and pressed him to act as my cicerone in London society, hoping to be able to entrap him into a situation that would lead him to betray himself. And he took me to Richmond. What happened there, you know. Though he knew when Christine Manderson first came into the room what the outcome would be, he was unable to tear himself away. And in the garden she forced herself upon him. He tried to resist her, but his madness overcame him. That is the explanation of the absence of a cry for help, which once I stated to be the key to the mystery. If she had been walking along that path to the house, she would have had time to cry out, no matter how quickly the assailant had sprung out at her. But she did not utter a cry because she was already in the arms of the assailant, compelling him to a passionate embrace, and without doubt it was a simple thing to strangle her silently in that very position."
"Good God!" Copplestone shuddered.
"His account of how she had asked him to find Mr. Copplestone, and tell him she was not well, and of how he had left her on her way to the house, was a succession of ingenious lies which could not be disproved. That is my story," concluded Monsieur Dupont. "The next most important point at the moment is that James Layton is cleared of a charge from which he could not possibly have saved himself."
"Layton will be released with full honors to-morrow," the inspector said.
"And I think," added Monsieur Dupont, "that there will be another matter—not unconnected with a young lady named Jenny West—upon which we shall have to congratulate him—and with very good reason."
Half-an-hour later, when the doctor's statement had been made, Copplestone and Mrs. Astley-Rolfe stood together in the flower-laden garden.
"My dear," said the new man, "I brought you here to witness my deliverance. Yesterday, when you had left me, I made up my mind to put an end to my life. To-day I am free. The cloud has rolled away. I am fit to keep my promise—if you wish it kept."
She smiled up at him through happy tears.
"If I wish it kept!" she whispered.
"By Jove!" Copplestone exclaimed, "I believe in every miracle that has ever been reported, suggested, or hinted at, from the first hour of the world!"