THE GREEN EYES OF BAST
BY SAX ROHMER
"The Golden Scorpion," "Dope," "The Hand of Fu-Manchu," "The Insidious Dr. Fu-Manchu," "The Return of Fu-Manchu," "Tales of Secret Egypt," "The Yellow Claw," "The Quest of the Sacred Slipper," etc.
A.L. BURT COMPANY Publishers New York
Published by arrangement with Robert M. McBride & Co. Copyright, 1920, by
ROBERT M. MCBRIDE & Co.
* * * * *
Printed in the United States of America
I. I SEE THE EYES 1 II. THE SIGN OF THE CAT 12 III. THE GREEN IMAGE 22 IV. ISOBEL 32 V. THE INTERRUPTED SUPPER 41 VI. THE VOICE 52 VII. THE CAT OF BUBASTIS 63 VIII. MY VISITOR 73 IX. THE VELVET CURTAIN 84 X. "HANGING EVIDENCE" 95 XI. THE SCARRED MAN 105 XII. I DREAM OF GREEN EYES 117 XIII. DR. DAMAR GREEFE 125 XIV. THE BLACK DOCTOR 135 XV. I RECEIVE VISITORS 147 XVI. THE GOLDEN CAT 158 XVII. THE NUBIAN MUTE 169 XVIII. THE SECRET OF FRIAR'S PARK 177 XIX. THE MAN ON THE TOWER 187 XX. GATTON'S STORY 198 XXI. IN LONDON AGAIN 212 XXII. THE GRAY MIST 225 XXIII. THE INEVITABLE 240 XXIV. A CONFERENCE—INTERRUPTED 251 XXV. STATEMENT OF DAMAR GREEFE, M.D. 263 XXVI. STATEMENT OF DR. DAMAR GREEFE (CONTINUED) 273 XXVII. STATEMENT OF DR. DAMAR GREEFE (CONCLUDED) 285 XXVIII. THE CLAWS OF THE CAT 300 XXIX. AN AFTERWORD 309
THE GREEN EYES OF BAST
I SEE THE EYES
"Good evening, sir. A bit gusty?"
"Very much so, sergeant," I replied. "I think I will step into your hut for a moment and light my pipe if I may."
"Certainly, sir. Matches are too scarce nowadays to take risks with 'em. But it looks as if the storm had blown over."
"I'm not sorry," said I, entering the little hut like a sentry-box which stands at the entrance to this old village high street for accommodation of the officer on point duty at that spot. "I have a longish walk before me."
"Yes. Your place is right off the beat, isn't it?" mused my acquaintance, as sheltered from the keen wind I began to load my briar. "Very inconvenient I've always thought it for a gentleman who gets about as much as you do."
"That's why I like it," I explained. "If I lived anywhere accessible I should never get a moment's peace, you see. At the same time I have to be within an hour's journey of Fleet Street."
I often stopped for a chat at this point and I was acquainted with most of the men of P. division on whom the duty devolved from time to time. It was a lonely spot at night when the residents in the neighborhood had retired, so that the darkened houses seemed to withdraw yet farther into the gardens separating them from the highroad. A relic of the days when trains and motor-buses were not, dusk restored something of an old-world atmosphere to the village street, disguising the red brick and stucco which in many cases had displaced the half-timbered houses of the past. Yet it was possible in still weather to hear the muted bombilation of the sleepless city and when the wind was in the north to count the hammer-strokes of the great bell of St. Paul's.
Standing in the shelter of the little hut, I listened to the rain dripping from over-reaching branches and to the gurgling of a turgid little stream which flowed along the gutter near my feet whilst now and again swift gusts of the expiring tempest would set tossing the branches of the trees which lined the way.
"It's much cooler to-night," said the sergeant.
I nodded, being in the act of lighting my pipe. The storm had interrupted a spell of that tropical weather which sometimes in July and August brings the breath of Africa to London, and this coolness resulting from the storm was very welcome. Then:
"Well, good night," I said, and was about to pursue my way when the telephone bell in the police-hut rang sharply.
"Hullo," called the sergeant.
I paused, idly curious concerning the message, and:
"The Red House," continued the sergeant, "in College Road? Yes, I know it. It's on Bolton's beat, and he is due here now. Very good; I'll tell him."
He hung up the receiver and, turning to me, smiled and nodded his head resignedly.
"The police get some funny jobs, sir," he confided. "Only last night a gentleman rang up the station and asked them to tell me to stop a short, stout lady with yellow hair and a big blue hat (that was the only description) as she passed this point and to inform her that her husband had had to go out but that he had left the door-key just inside the dog-kennel!"
He laughed good-humoredly.
"Now to-night," he resumed, "here's somebody just rung up to say that he thinks, only thinks, mind you, that he has forgotten to lock his garage and will the constable on that beat see if the keys have been left behind. If so, will he lock the door from the inside, go out through the back, lock that door and leave the keys at the station on coming off duty!"
"Yes," I said. "There are some absent-minded people in the world. But do you mean the Red House in College Road?"
"That's it," replied the sergeant, stepping out of the hut and looking intently to the left.
"Ah, here comes Bolton."
He referred to a stolid, red-faced constable who at that moment came plodding across the muddy road, and:
"A job for you, Bolton," he cried. "Listen. You know the Red House in College Road?"
Bolton removed his helmet and scratched his closely-cropped head.
"Let me see," he mused; "it's on the right—"
"No, no," I interrupted. "It is a house about half-way down on the left; very secluded, with a high brick wall in front."
"Oh! You mean the empty house?" inquired the constable.
"Just what I was about to remark, sergeant," said I, turning to my acquaintance. "To the best of my knowledge the Red House has been vacant for twelve months or more."
"Has it?" exclaimed the sergeant. "That's funny. Still, it's none of my business; besides it may have been let within the last few days. Anyway, listen, Bolton. You are to see if the garage is unlocked. If it is and the keys are there, go in and lock the door behind you. There's another door at the other end; go out and lock that too. Leave the keys at the depot when you go off. Got that fixed?"
"Yes," replied Bolton, and he stood helmet in hand, half inaudibly muttering the sergeant's instructions, evidently with the idea of impressing them upon his memory.
"I have to pass the Red House, constable," I interrupted, "and as you seem doubtful respecting its whereabouts, I will point the place out to you."
"Thank you, sir," said Bolton, replacing his helmet and ceasing to mutter.
"Once more—good night, sergeant," I cried, and met by a keen gust of wind which came sweeping down the village street, showering cascades of water from the leaves above, I set out in step with my stolid companion.
It is supposed poetically that unusual events cast their shadows before them, and I am prepared to maintain the correctness of such a belief. But unless the silence of the constable who walked beside me was due to the unseen presence of such a shadow, and not to a habitual taciturnity, there was nothing in that march through the deserted streets calculated to arouse me to the fact that I was entering upon the first phase of an experience more strange and infinitely more horrible than any of which I had ever known or even read.
The shadow had not yet reached me.
We talked little enough on the way, for the breeze when it came was keen and troublesome, so that I was often engaged in clutching my hat. Except for a dejected-looking object, obviously a member of the tramp fraternity, who passed us near the gate of the old chapel, we met never a soul from the time that we left the police-box until the moment when the high brick wall guarding the Red House came into view beyond a line of glistening wet hedgerow.
"This is the house, constable," I said. "The garage is beyond the main entrance."
We proceeded as far as the closed gates, whereupon:
"There you are, sir," said Bolton triumphantly. "I told you it was empty."
An estate agent's bill faced us, setting forth the desirable features of the residence, the number of bedrooms and reception rooms, modern conveniences, garage, etc., together with the extent of the garden, lawn and orchard.
A faint creaking sound drew my glance upward, and stepping back a pace I stared at a hatchet-board projecting above the wall which bore two duplicates of the bill posted upon the gate.
"That seems to confirm it," I declared, peering through the trees in the direction of the house. "The place has all the appearance of being deserted."
"There's some mistake," muttered Bolton.
"Then the mistake is not ours," I replied. "See, the bills are headed 'To be let or sold. The Red House, etc.'"
"H'm," growled Bolton. "It's a funny go, this is. Suppose we have a look at the garage."
We walked along together to where, set back in a recess, I had often observed the doors of a garage evidently added to the building by some recent occupier. Dangling from a key placed in the lock was a ring to which another key was attached!
"Well, I'm blowed," said Bolton, "this is a funny go, this is."
He unlocked the door and swept the interior of the place with a ray of light cast by his lantern. There were one or two petrol cans and some odd lumber suggesting that the garage had been recently used, but no car, and indeed nothing of sufficient value to have interested even such a derelict as the man whom we had passed some ten minutes before. That is if I except a large and stoutly-made packing-case which rested only a foot or so from the entrance so as partly to block it, and which from its appearance might possibly have contained spare parts. I noticed, with vague curiosity, a device crudely representing a seated cat which was painted in green upon the case.
"If there ever was anything here," said Bolton, "it's been pinched and we're locking the stable door after the horse has gone. You'll bear me out, sir, if there's any complaint?"
"Certainly," I replied. "Technically I shall be trespassing if I come in with you, so I shall say good night."
"Good night, sir," cried the constable, and entering the empty garage, he closed the door behind him.
I set off briskly alone towards the cottage which I had made my home. I have since thought that the motives which had induced me to choose this secluded residence were of a peculiarly selfish order. Whilst I liked sometimes to be among my fellowmen and whilst I rarely missed an important first night in London, my inherent weakness for obscure studies and another motive to which I may refer later had caused me to abandon my chambers in the Temple and to retire with my library to this odd little backwater where my only link with Fleet Street, with the land of theaters and clubs and noise and glitter, was the telephone. I scarcely need add that I had sufficient private means to enable me to indulge these whims, otherwise as a working journalist I must have been content to remain nearer to the heart of things. As it was I followed the careless existence of the independent free-lance, and since my work was accounted above the average I was enabled to pick and choose the subjects with which I should deal. Mine was not an ambitious nature—or it may have been that stimulus was lacking—and all I wrote I wrote for the mere joy of writing, whilst my studies, of which I shall have occasion to speak presently, were not of a nature calculated to swell my coffers in this commercial-minded age.
Little did I know how abruptly this chosen calm of my life was to be broken nor how these same studies were to be turned in a new and strange direction. But if on this night which was to witness the overture of a horrible drama, I had not hitherto experienced any premonition of the coming of those dark forces which were to change the whole tenor of my existence, suddenly, now, in sight of the elm tree which stood before my cottage the shadow reached me.
Only thus can I describe a feeling otherwise unaccountable which prompted me to check my steps and to listen. A gust of wind had just died away, leaving the night silent save for the dripping of rain from the leaves and the vague and remote roar of the town. Once, faintly, I thought I detected the howling of a dog. I had heard nothing in the nature of following footsteps, yet, turning swiftly, I did not doubt that I should detect the presence of a follower of some kind. This conviction seized me suddenly and, as I have said, unaccountably. Nor was I wrong in my surmise.
Fifty yards behind me a vaguely defined figure showed for an instant outlined against the light of a distant lamp—ere melting into the dense shadow cast by a clump of trees near the roadside.
Standing quite still, I stared in the direction of the patch of shadow for several moments. It may be said that there was nothing to occasion alarm or even curiosity in the appearance of a stray pedestrian at that hour; for it was little after midnight. Indeed thus I argued with myself, whereby I admit that at sight of that figure I had experienced a sensation which was compounded not only of alarm and curiosity but also of some other emotion which even now I find it hard to define. Instantly I knew that the lithe shape, glimpsed but instantaneously, was that of no chance pedestrian—was indeed that of no ordinary being. At the same moment I heard again, unmistakably, the howling of a dog.
Having said so much, why should I not admit that, turning again very quickly, I hurried on to the gate of my cottage and heaved a great sigh of relief when I heard the reassuring bang of the door as I closed it behind me? Coates, my batman, had turned in, having placed a cold repast upon the table in the little dining-room; but although I required nothing to eat I partook of a stiff whisky and soda, idly glancing at two or three letters which lay upon the table.
They proved to contain nothing of very great importance, and having smoked a final cigarette, I turned out the light in the dining-room and walked into the bedroom—for the cottage was of bungalow pattern—and, crossing the darkened room, stood looking out of the window.
It commanded a view of a little kitchen-garden and beyond of a high hedge, with glimpses of sentinel trees lining the main road. The wind had dropped entirely, but clouds were racing across the sky at a tremendous speed so that the nearly full moon alternately appeared and disappeared, producing an ever-changing effect of light and shadow. At one moment a moon-bathed prospect stretched before me as far as the eye could reach, in the next I might have been looking into a cavern as some angry cloud swept across the face of the moon to plunge the scene into utter darkness.
And it was during such a dark spell and at the very moment that I turned aside to light the lamp that I saw the eyes.
From a spot ten yards removed, low down under the hedges bordering the garden, they looked up at me—those great, glittering cat's eyes, so that I stifled an exclamation, drawing back instinctively from the window. A tiger, I thought, or some kindred wild beast, must have escaped from captivity. And so rapidly does the mind work at such times that instinctively I had reviewed the several sporting pieces in my possession and had selected a rifle which had proved serviceable in India ere I had taken one step towards the door.
Before that step could be taken the light of the moon again flooded the garden; and although there was no opening in the hedge by which even a small animal could have retired, no living thing was in sight! But, near and remote, dogs were howling mournfully.
THE SIGN OF THE CAT
When Coates brought in my tea, newspapers and letters in the morning, I awakened with a start, and:
"Has there been any rain during the night, Coates?" I asked.
Coates, whose unruffled calm at all times provided an excellent sedative, replied:
"Not since a little before midnight, sir."
"Ah!" said I, "and have you been in the garden this morning, Coates?"
"Yes, sir," he replied, "for raspberries for breakfast, sir."
"But not on this side of the cottage?"
"Not on this side."
"Then will you step out, Coates, keeping carefully to the paths, and proceed as far as the tool-shed? Particularly note if the beds have been disturbed between the hedge and the path, but don't make any marks yourself. You are looking for spoor, you understand?"
"Spoor? Very good, sir. Of big game?"
"Of big game, yes, Coates."
Unmoved by the strangeness of his instructions, Coates, an object-lesson for those who decry the excellence of British Army disciplinary methods, departed.
It was with not a little curiosity and interest that I awaited his report. As I sat sipping my tea I could hear his regular tread as he passed along the garden path outside the window. Then it ceased and was followed by a vague muttering. He had found something. All traces of the storm had disappeared and there was every indication of a renewal of the heat-wave; but I knew that the wet soil would have preserved a perfect impression of any imprint made upon it on the previous night. Nevertheless, with the early morning sun streaming into my window out of a sky as near to turquoise as I had ever seen it in England, I found it impossible to recapture that uncanny thrill which had come to me in the dark hours when out of the shadows under the hedge the great cat's eyes had looked up at me.
And now, becoming more fully awake, I remembered something else which hitherto I had not associated with the latter phenomenon. I remembered that lithe and evasive pursuing shape which I had detected behind me on the road. Even now, however, it was difficult to associate one with the other; for whereas the dimly-seen figure had resembled that of a man (or, more closely, that of a woman) the eyes had looked out upon me from a point low down near the ground, like those of some crouching feline.
Coates' footsteps sounded again upon the path and I heard him walking round the cottage and through the kitchen. Finally he reentered the bedroom and stood just within the doorway in that attitude of attention which was part and parcel of the man. His appearance would doubtless have violated the proprieties of the Albany, for in my rural retreat he was called upon to perform other and more important services than those of a valet. His neatly shaved chin, stolid red countenance and perfectly brushed hair were unexceptionable of course, but because his duties would presently take him into the garden he wore, not the regulation black, but an ancient shooting-jacket, khaki breeches and brown gaiters, looking every inch of him the old soldier that he was.
"Well, Coates?" said I.
He cleared his throat.
"There are footprints in the radish-beds, sir," he reported.
"Yes, sir. Very deep. As though some one had jumped over the hedge and landed there."
"Jumped over the hedge!" I exclaimed. "That would be a considerable jump, Coates, from the road."
"It would, sir. Maybe she scrambled up."
Coates cleared his throat again.
"There are three sets of prints in all. First a very deep one where the party had landed, then another broken up like, where she had turned round, and the third set with the heel-marks very deep where she had sprung back over the hedge."
"She?" I shouted.
"The prints, sir," resumed Coates, unmoved, "are those of a lady's high-heeled shoes."
I sat bolt upright in bed, staring at the man and scarcely able to credit my senses. Words failed me. Whereupon:
"Will you have tea or coffee for breakfast?" inquired Coates.
"Tea or coffee be damned, Coates!" I cried. "I'm going out to look at those footprints! If you had seen what I saw last night, even your old mahogany countenance would relax for once, I assure you."
"Indeed, sir," said Coates; "did you see the lady, then?"
"Lady!" I exclaimed, tumbling out of bed. "If the eyes that looked at me last night belonged to a 'lady' either I am mad or the 'lady' is of another world."
I pulled on a bath-robe and hurried out into the garden, Coates showing me the spot where he had found the mysterious foot-prints. A very brief examination sufficed to convince me that his account had been correct. Some one wearing high-heeled shoes clearly enough had stood there at some time whilst the soil was quite wet; and as no track led to or from the marks, Coates' conclusion that the person who had made them must have come over the hedge was the only feasible one. I turned to him in amazement, but recognizing in time the wildly fantastic nature of the sight which I had seen in the night, I refrained from speaking of the blazing eyes and made my way to the bathroom wondering if some chance reflection might not have deceived me and the presence of a woman's footmarks at the same spot be no more than a singular coincidence. Even so the mystery of their presence there remained unexplained.
My thoughts were diverted from a trend of profitless conjecture when shortly after breakfast time my 'phone bell rang. It was the editor of the Planet, to whom I had been indebted for a number of special commissions—including my fascinating quest of the Giant Gnu, which, generally supposed to be extinct, was reported by certain natives and others to survive in a remote corner of the Dark Continent.
Readers of the Planet will remember that although I failed to discover the Gnu I came upon a number of notable things on my journey through the almost unexplored country about the head-waters of the Niger.
"A most extraordinary case has cropped up," he said, "quite in your line, I think, Addison. Evidently a murder, and the circumstances seem to be most dramatic and unusual. I should be glad if you would take it up."
I inquired without much enthusiasm for details. Criminology was one of my hobbies, and in several instances I had traced cases of alleged haunting and other supposedly supernatural happenings to a criminal source; but the ordinary sordid murder did not interest me.
"The body of Sir Marcus Coverly has been found in a crate!" explained my friend. "The crate was being lowered into the hold of the S.S. Oritoga at the West India Docks. It had been delivered by a conveyance specially hired for the purpose apparently, as the Oritoga is due to sail in an hour. There are all sorts of curious details but these you can learn for yourself. Don't trouble to call at the office; proceed straight to the dock."
"Right!" I said shortly. "I'll start immediately."
And this sudden decision had been brought about by the mention of the victim's name. Indeed, as I replaced the receiver on the hook I observed that my hand was shaking and I have little doubt that I had grown pale.
In the first place, then, let me confess that my retirement to the odd little retreat which at this time was my home, and my absorption in the obscure studies to which I have referred were not so much due to any natural liking for the life of a recluse as to the shattering of certain matrimonial designs. I had learned of the wreck of my hopes upon reading a press paragraph which announced the engagement of Isobel Merlin to Eric Coverly. And it was as much to conceal my disappointment from the world as for any better reason that I had slunk into retirement; for if I am slow to come to a decision in such a matter, once come to, it is of no light moment.
Yet although I had breathed no word of my lost dreams to Isobel but had congratulated her with the rest, often and bitterly I had cursed myself for a sluggard. Too late I had learned that she had but awaited a word from me; and I had gone off to Mesopotamia, leaving that word unspoken. During my absence Coverly had won the prize which I had thrown away. He was heir to the title, for his cousin, Sir Marcus, was unmarried. Now here, a bolt from the blue, came the news of his cousin's death!
It can well be imagined with what intense excitement I hurried to the docks. All other plans abandoned, Coates, arrayed in his neat blue uniform, ran the Rover round from the garage, and ere long we were jolting along the hideously uneven Commercial Road, East, dodging traction-engines drawing strings of lorries, and continually meeting delay in the form of those breakdowns which are of hourly occurrence in this congested but rugged highway.
In the West India Dock Road the way became slightly more open, but when at last I alighted and entered the dock gates I recognized that every newspaper and news agency in the kingdom was apparently represented. Jones, of the Gleaner, was coming out as I went in, and:
"Hello, Addison!" he cried, "this is quite in your line! It's as mad as 'Alice in Wonderland.'"
I did not delay, however, but hurried on in the direction of a dock building, at the door of which was gathered a heterogeneous group comprising newspaper men, dock officials, police and others who were unclassifiable. Half a dozen acquaintances greeted me as I came up, and I saw that the door was closed and that a constable stood on duty before it.
"I call it damned impudence, Addison!" exclaimed one pressman. "The dock people are refusing everybody information until Inspector Somebody-or-Other arrives from New Scotland Yard. I should think he has stopped on the way to get his lunch."
The speaker glanced impatiently at his watch and I went to speak to the man on duty.
"You have orders to admit no one, constable?" I asked.
"That's so, sir," he replied. "We're waiting for Detective-Inspector Gatton, who has been put in charge of the case."
"Ah! Gatton," I muttered, and, stepping aside from the expectant group, I filled and lighted my pipe, convinced that anything to be learned I should learn from Inspector Gatton, for he and I were old friends, having been mutually concerned in several interesting cases.
A few minutes later the Inspector arrived—a thick-set, clean-shaven, very bronzed man, his dark hair streaked with gray, and with all the appearance of a retired naval officer, in his well-cut blue serge suit and soft felt hat; a very reserved man whose innocent-looking blue eyes gave him that frank and open expression which is more often associated with a seaman than with a detective. He nodded to several acquaintances in the group, and then, observing me where I stood, came over and shook hands.
"Open the door, constable," he ordered quietly.
The constable produced a key and unlocked the door of the small stone building. Immediately there was a forward movement of the whole waiting group, but:
"If you please, gentlemen," said Gatton, raising his hand. "I must make my examination first; and Mr. Addison," he added, seeing the resentment written upon the faces of my disappointed confreres, "has special information which I am going to ask him to place at my disposal."
The constable stood aside and I followed Inspector Gatton into the stone shed.
"Lock the door again, constable," he ordered; "no one is to be admitted."
Thereupon I looked about me, and the scene which I beheld was so strange and gruesome that its every detail remains imprinted upon my memory.
The building then was lighted by four barred windows set so high in the walls that no one could look in from the outside. Blazing sunlight poured in at the two southerly windows and drew a sharp black pattern of the bars across the paved floor. Kneeling beside a stretcher, fully in this path of light, so that he presented a curious striped appearance, was a man who presently proved to be the divisional surgeon, and two paces beyond stood a police inspector who was engaged at the moment of our entrance in making entries in his note-book.
On the stretcher, so covered up that only his face was visible, lay one whom at first I failed to recognize, for the horribly contorted features presented a kind of mottled green appearance utterly indescribable.
Stifling an exclamation of horror, I stared and stared at that ghastly face, then:
"My God!" I muttered. "Yes! it is Sir Marcus!"
The surgeon stood up and the inspector advanced to meet Gatton, but my horrified gaze had strayed from the stretcher to a badly damaged and splintered packing-case, which was the only other object in the otherwise empty shed. At this I stared as much aghast as I had stared at the dead man.
The iron bands were broken and twisted and the whole of one side lay in fragments on the floor; but upon a board which had formed part of the top I perceived the figure of a cat roughly traced in green paint.
Beyond any shadow of doubt this crate was the same which on the night before had lain in the garage of the Red House!
THE GREEN IMAGE
"Yes," said Gatton, "I was speaking no more than the truth when I told them that you had special information which I hoped you would place at my disposal. Some of the particulars were given to me over the 'phone, you see, and I was glad to find you here when I arrived. I should have consulted you in any event, and principally about—that."
He pointed to an object which I held in my hand. It was a little green enamel image; the crouching figure of a woman having a cat's head, a piece of Egyptian workmanship probably of the fourth century B.C. Considered in conjunction with the figure painted upon the crate, the presence of this little image was so amazing a circumstance that from the moment when it had been placed in my hand I had stood staring at it almost dazedly.
The divisional surgeon had gone, and only the local officer remained with Gatton and myself in the building. Sir Marcus Coverly presented all the frightful appearance of one who has died by asphyxia, and although of course there would be an autopsy, little doubt existed respecting the mode of his death. The marks of violence found upon the body could be accounted for by the fact that the crate had fallen a distance of thirty feet into the hold, and the surgeon was convinced that the injuries to the body had all been received after death, death having taken place in his opinion fully twelve hours before.
"You see," said Gatton, "when the crate broke several things which presumably were in Sir Marcus' pockets were found lying loose amongst the wreckage. That cat-woman was one of them."
"Yet it may not have been in any of his pockets at all," said I.
"It may not," agreed Gatton. "But that it was somewhere in the crate is beyond dispute, I think. Besides this is more than a coincidence."
And he pointed to the painted cat upon the lid of the packing-case. I had already told him of the episode at the Red House on the previous night, and now:
"The fates are on our side," I said, "for at least we know where the crate was despatched from."
"Quite so," agreed Gatton. "We should have got that from the carter later, of course, but every minute saved in an affair such as this is worth considering. As a pressman you will probably disagree with me, but I propose to suppress these two pieces of evidence. Premature publication of clews too often handicaps us. Now, what is that figure exactly?"
"It is a votive offering of a kind used in Ancient Egypt by pilgrims to Bubastis. It is a genuine antique, and if you think the history of such relics is likely to assist the investigation I can give you some further particulars this evening if you have time to call at my place."
"I think," said Gatton, taking the figure from me and looking at it with a singular expression on his face, "that the history of the thing is very important. The fact that a rough reproduction of a somewhat similar figure is painted upon the case cannot possibly be a coincidence."
I stared at him silently for a moment, then:
"You mean that the crate was specially designed to contain the body?" I asked.
"I am certainly of that opinion," declared Inspector Heath, the local officer. "It is of just the right size and shape for the purpose."
Once more I began to examine the fragments stacked upon the floor, and then I looked again at the several objects which lay beside the crate. They were the personal belongings of the dead baronet and the police had carefully noted in which of his pockets each object had been found. He was in evening dress and a light top-coat had been packed into the crate beside him. In this had been found a cigar-case and a pair of gloves; a wallet containing L20 in Treasury notes and a number of cards and personal papers had fallen out of the crate together with the cat statuette. The face of his watch was broken. It had been in his waistcoat pocket but it still ticked steadily on where it lay there beside its dead owner. A gold-mounted malacca cane also figured amongst the relics of the gruesome crime; so that whatever had been the object of the murderer, that of robbery was out of the question.
"The next thing to do," said Gatton, "is to trace Sir Marcus's movements from the time that he left home last night to the time that he met his death. I am going out now to 'phone to the Yard. We ought to have succeeded in tracing the carter who brought the crate here before the evening. I personally shall proceed to Sir Marcus's rooms and then to this Red House around which it seems to me that the mystery centers."
He put the enamel figure into his pocket and taking up the broken board which bore the painted cat:
"You are carrying a top-coat," he said. "Hide this under it!"
He turned to Inspector Heath, nodding shortly.
"All right," he said, with a grim smile, "go out now and talk to the crowd!"
Having issued certain telephonic instructions touching the carter who had delivered the crate to the docks, and then imparting to the representatives of the press a guarded statement for publication, Inspector Gatton succeeded in wedging himself into my little two-seater and ere long we were lurching and bumping along the ill-paved East-end streets.
The late Sir Marcus's London address, which had been unknown to me, we had learned from his cards, and it was with the keenest anticipation of a notable discovery that I presently found myself with Gatton mounting the stairs to the chambers of the murdered baronet.
At the very moment of our arrival the door was opened and a man—quite obviously a constable in plain clothes—came out. Behind him I observed one whom I took to be the late Sir Marcus's servant, a pathetic and somewhat disheveled figure.
"Hello, Blythe!" said Gatton, "who instructed you to come here?"
"Sir Marcus's man—Morris—telephoned the Yard," was the reply, "as he couldn't understand what had become of his master and I was sent along to see him."
"Oh," said Gatton, "very good. Report to me in due course."
Blythe departed, and Gatton and I entered the hall. The man, Morris, closed the door, and led us into a small library. Beside the telephone stood a tray bearing decanter and glasses, and there was evidence that Morris had partaken of a hurried breakfast consisting only of biscuits and whisky and soda.
"I haven't been to bed all night, gentlemen," he began the moment that we entered the room. "Sir Marcus was a good master and if he was sleeping away from home he never failed to advise me, so that I knew even before the dreadful news reached me that something was amiss."
He was quite unstrung and his voice was unsteady. The reputation of the late baronet had been one which I personally did not envy him, but whatever his faults, and I knew they had been many, he had evidently possessed the redeeming virtue of being a good employer.
"A couple of hours' sleep would make a new man of you," said Gatton kindly. "I understand your feelings, but no amount of sorrow can mend matters, unfortunately. Now, I don't want to worry you, but there are one or two points which I must ask you to clear up. In the first place did you ever see this before?"
From his pocket he took out the little figure of Bast, the cat-goddess, and held it up before Morris.
The man stared at it with lack-luster eyes, scratching his unshaven chin; then he shook his head slowly.
"Never," he declared. "No, I am positive I never saw a figure like that before."
"Then, secondly," continued Gatton, "was your master ever in Egypt?"
"Not that I am aware of; certainly not since I have been with him—six years on the thirty-first of this month."
"Ah," said Gatton. "Now, when did you last see Sir Marcus?"
"At half-past six last night, sir. He was dining at his club and then going to the New Avenue Theater. I booked a seat for him myself."
"He was going alone, then?"
Gatton glanced at me significantly and I experienced an uncomfortable thrill. In the inspector's glance I had read that he suspected the presence of a woman in the case and at the mention of the New Avenue Theater it had instantly occurred to me that Isobel Merlin was appearing there! Gatton turned again to Morris.
"Sir Marcus had not led you to suppose that there was any likelihood of his not returning last night?"
"No, sir; that was why, knowing his regular custom, I became so alarmed when he failed to come back or to 'phone."
Gatton stared hard at the speaker and:
"It will be no breach of confidence on your part," he said, speaking slowly and deliberately, "for you to answer my next question. The best service you can do your late master now will be to help us to apprehend his murderer."
He paused a moment, then:
"Was Sir Marcus interested in some one engaged at the New Avenue Theater?" he asked.
Morris glanced from face to face in a pathetic, troubled fashion. He rubbed the stubble on his chin again and hesitated. Finally:
"I believe," he replied, "that there was a lady there who—"
He paused, swallowing, and:
"Yes," Gatton prompted, "who—?"
"Who—interested Sir Marcus; but I don't know her name nor anything about her," he declared. "I knew about—some of the others, but Sir Marcus was—very reserved about this lady, which made me think—"
"That he perhaps hadn't been so successful."
Morris ceased speaking and sat staring at a bookcase vacantly.
"Ah," murmured Gatton. Then, abruptly: "Did Sir Marcus ever visit any one who lived in College Road?" he demanded.
Morris looked up wearily.
"College Road?" he repeated. "Where is that, sir?"
"It doesn't matter," said Gatton shortly, "if the name is unfamiliar to you. Had Sir Marcus a car?"
"Not latterly, sir."
"Any other servants?"
"No. As a bachelor he had no use for a large establishment, and Friars' Park remains in the possession of the late Sir Burnham's widow."
"Sir Burnham? Sir Marcus's uncle?"
"What living relatives had Sir Marcus?"
"His aunt—Lady Burnham Coverly—with whom I believe he was on bad terms. Her own son, who ought to have inherited the title, was dead, you see. I think she felt bitterly towards my master. The only other relative I ever heard of was Mr. Eric—Sir Marcus's second cousin—now Sir Eric, of course."
I turned aside, glancing at some books which lay scattered on the table. The wound was a new one and I suppose I was not man enough to hide the pain which mention of Eric Coverly still occasioned me.
"Were the cousins good friends?" continued the even, remorseless voice of the inquisitor.
Morris looked up quickly.
"They were not, sir," he answered. "They never had been. But some few months back a fresh quarrel arose and one night in this very room it almost came to blows."
"Indeed? What was the quarrel about?"
The old hesitancy claimed Morris again, but at last:
"Of course," he said, with visible embarrassment, "it was—a woman."
I felt my heart leaping wildly, but I managed to preserve an outward show of composure.
"What woman?" demanded Gatton.
"I don't know, sir."
"Do you mean it?"
A fierce note of challenge had come into the quiet voice, but Morris looked up and met Gatton's searching stare unflinchingly.
"I swear it," he said. "I never was an eavesdropper."
"I suggest it was the same woman that Sir Marcus went to see last night?" Gatton continued.
The examination of Morris had reached a point at which I found myself hard put to it to retain even a seeming of composure. All Gatton's questions had been leading up to this suggestion, as I now perceived clearly enough; and from the cousins' quarrel to Isobel, Eric's fiancee, who was engaged at the New Avenue Theater, was an inevitable step. But:
"Possibly, sir," was Morris's only answer.
Inspector Gatton stared hard at the man for a moment or so, then:
"Very well," he said. "Take my advice and turn in. There will be much for you to do presently, I am afraid. Who was Sir Marcus's solicitor?"
Morris gave the desired information in a tired, toneless voice, and we departed. Little did Gatton realize that his words were barbed, when, as we descended to the street, he said:
"I have a call to make at Scotland Yard next, after which my first visit will be to the stage-doorkeeper of the New Avenue Theater."
"Can I be of further assistance to you at the moment?" I asked, endeavoring to speak casually.
"Thanks, no. But I should welcome your company this afternoon at my examination of the Red House. I understand that it is in your neighborhood, so perhaps as you are also professionally interested in the case, you might arrange to meet me there. Are you returning home now or going to the Planet office?"
"I think to the office," I replied. "In any event 'phone there making an appointment and I will meet you at the Red House."
Ten minutes later I was standing in a charming little boudoir which too often figured in my daydreams. My own photograph was upon the mantelpiece, and in Isobel's dark eyes when she greeted me there was a light which I lacked the courage to try to understand. I had not at that time learned what I learned later, and have already indicated, that my own foolish silence had wounded Isobel as deeply as her subsequent engagement to Eric Coverly had wounded me.
The psychology of a woman is intriguing in its very naivete, and now as she stood before me, slim and graceful in her well-cut walking costume, a quick flicker of red flaming in her cheeks and her eyes alight with that sweet tantalizing look in which expectation and a hot pride were mingled, I wondered and felt sick at heart. Desirable she was beyond any other woman I had known, and I called myself witling coward, to have avoided putting my fortune to the test on that fatal day of my departure for Mesopotamia. For just as she looked at me now she had looked at me then. But to-day she was evidently on the point of setting out—I did not doubt with the purpose of meeting Eric Coverly; on that day of the irrevocable past she had been free and I had been silent.
"You nearly missed me, Jack," she said gayly. "I was just going out."
By the very good-fellowship of her greeting she restored me to myself and enabled me to stamp down—at least temporarily—the monster through whose greedy eyes I had found myself considering the happiness of Eric Coverly.
"I am afraid, Isobel," I replied, "that what I have to tell you is not by any means pleasant—although—"
"Yes?" she prompted, noting how I hesitated.
"Although it means that you are now the future Lady Coverly."
The bright color left her cheeks. That some black tragedy underlay my words she had intuitively perceived, but I could see that she failed to grasp the whole meaning of my bald statement. She sank down slowly into a cushioned chair, so that a beam of golden light pouring in through the opened window set aglowing the russet tints in her dark brown hair.
"Did you know Sir Marcus?" I asked, speaking as gently as I could.
With what intense, if hidden, emotion I awaited her answer it were impossible to describe.
"Do you mean—"
She met my glance, and I nodded gravely.
"Oh, Jack! When did it happen?"
"Last night. But you have not told me if you knew him?" I persisted.
Isobel shook her head.
"Not in any way—intimately," she replied. "Eric"—she hesitated, glancing up quickly and as quickly down again—"and he were not on good terms."
"But you had met him?" I persisted; for I had detected in her manner a reluctance to discuss Sir Marcus which I failed to understand.
"I used to meet him, Jack, when—when you were away. He came once or twice with Eric. They were not good friends, even then. But I never liked him. I quite lost sight of him from the time that he came into the title—about four years ago, was it not?—until quite recently. He had been in Russia, I think. Then he—" Again she hesitated. It was odd how often people hesitated, as if seeking for words, when speaking of the late baronet. "He called at the theater. Considering that he knew of my engagement to Eric, his manner was not quite nice. But I was anxious to prevent trouble, and did not mention the visit to Eric. Sir Marcus was very persistent, however. One night Eric saw him leaving the stage-door and I believe there was a dreadful scene at Eric's rooms."
"And that is all you know of him, Isobel?"
"Practically all, except what I have heard, of course. I might add that I instructed Marie to tell Sir Marcus I was engaged whenever he might call in future."
"And did he call again?"
"Marie said that he sent his card up on several occasions, but she knew how the affair worried me and did not tell me at the time. I saw him in the stalls occasionally, and—oh!—"
The last word was a mere murmur. Isobel's expression grew more than ever troubled.
"He was there last night," she whispered, and raising her eyes to me: "Tell me how it happened, and where—"
But ere I had time to begin there was an interruption. Dimly, a telephone bell rang. I could hear the voice of Marie, Isobel's maid, answering the call then:
"Mr. Coverly to speak to you, madam," said Marie, entering the room.
"He must have only just heard the news!" cried Isobel, rising swiftly and going out.
Consumed by impatience, I walked up and down the dainty apartment listening to Isobel's muffled voice speaking in the lobby. Twice I went to the window and peered down into the street, expecting to see the thick-set figure of Inspector Gatton approaching. My frame of mind was peculiar and troubled. Gatton's inquiries pointed unmistakably to a suspicion that Sir Marcus's last hours had been spent, if not actually with, at any rate near to Isobel. And since the man who would most directly profit by the baronet's death happened also to be Isobel's fiance, I foresaw a dreadful ordeal for both if Eric Coverly was not in a position to establish an alibi.
I had been about to ask her if Coverly had been in her company on the previous night when the interruption had occurred. Now if Gatton should arrive and find me in Isobel's flat, what construction would he put upon my presence?
Yet again I went to the window and peered anxiously up and down the street. Every cab that approached I expected to contain the inspector, and I heaved a sigh of relief as one after another passed the door. Pedestrians who turned the distant corner I scrutinized closely and was so employed when Isobel came running back to the room.
All her color had fled and her eyes were wide and fear-stricken.
"Oh, Jack, Jack!" she cried, "it is horrible, horrible! Eric is at his solicitors' and they tell him that suspicion is bound to fall on him! It's preposterous—unthinkable. It must have been some fiend who committed such a crime, not a human being—"
"Then," I interrupted excitedly, "Coverly was not with you last night?"
"No! That is the crowning tragedy of it all. He 'phoned me early in the evening saying that he had an unavoidable business appointment to keep. From the tone of his voice—"
She ceased speaking abruptly, and stared at me rather wildly.
"Isobel," I said, "you should surely know that you can trust your life to me—and the life of any one dear to you."
She quickly laid her hand on my arm and her face flushed sweetly. I fear I had infused my words with an ardor which exhibited at an earlier and more opportune moment might have changed the course of both our lives.
"Of course I know, Jack," she said. "But I am so frightened that I distrust my very self. Well, then, I thought that I noticed a change in Eric's manner last night—in the tone of his voice. In fact I asked him if I had done anything of which he had disapproved." She gave me a quick little embarrassed glance. "He is somewhat exacting, you know. He laughed at the idea, but in rather a forced way, it seemed. Then he arranged to meet me for lunch at the Carlton to-day."
"But surely he can satisfactorily account for his movements? He must have been seen by those who know him."
Isobel frowned in a troubled manner that awakened strange, wild longings.
"I cannot make it out," she replied. "He appears to be keeping something back."
"He is very ill-advised. He will certainly have to make up his mind to speak out when Inspector Gatton examines him. I cannot disguise from you, Isobel, that the police know that Sir Marcus was at the New Avenue last night, and since his death occurred some hours later the nature of their suspicion is obvious enough. Are you joining him at the solicitors', Isobel?"
"Yes, he asked me to do so."
"Then come along at once. I expect a Scotland Yard man to arrive at any moment and it would be advisable to see Coverly and to take a legal opinion before you give your testimony."
"But, Jack!" Isobel confronted me. "You don't think that I or Eric have anything to hide?"
"Certainly not. You must know that I do not think so. But on the other hand, the legal mind being used to considering problems of evidence, a solicitor will be able to advise you of the best course to adopt, and that most likely to result in your being spared all association with the inquiry. Meanwhile—let us hurry. I prefer to give Inspector Gatton my own account of this visit rather than to be discovered here by him. He will learn from Marie that I have called, of course, but that doesn't matter."
We had now quitted the flat and were descending the stairs. On reaching the street I glanced sharply to right and left. But Gatton was not in sight.
I secured a taxi at the corner and Isobel set out for the office of Coverly's solicitor. I stood looking after the cab until it was out of sight and then I set out to walk to the Planet office. By the time that I had reached Fleet Street I had my ideas in some sort of order and I sat down to write the first of my articles on the "Oritoga mystery"—for under that title the murder of Sir Marcus Coverly was destined to figure as the cause celebre of the moment. I had more than one reason for reticence and indeed I experienced no little difficulty in preparing the requisite amount of copy without involving Isobel and Eric Coverly. Half-way through my task I paused, laid down my pen, and was on the point of tearing up the pages already written and declining the commission at the eleventh hour.
A few minutes' reflection, however, enabled me to see that the best service I could offer to the suspected man (always assuming that he had no alibi to offer) was that of representing the facts as I saw them to the vast public reached by this influential journal. In my own mind I had never entertained a shadow of suspicion that Coverly was the culprit. Underlying the horrible case I thought I could perceive even darker things—a mystery within a mystery; a horror overtopping horror.
I had just resumed work, then, when a boy came in to inform me that Gatton had rung up and wished to speak to me.
Half fearful of what I should hear, I went to the adjoining room and took up the receiver. Presently:
"Hullo! Is that Mr. Addison?" came Gatton's voice.
"Yes, speaking. What developments, Gatton?"
"Several. I've got the report of the estate-agent and I've seen the stage-doorkeeper of the New Avenue! You mustn't write anything until I see you, but in order to regularize things a bit I've spoken to the Chief and formally asked his permission to consult you on the case—about the Egyptian figures, you know. He remembered you at once, so it's all square. But I've got a bone to pick with you."
"What is that?"
"Never mind now. Can you meet me at the Red House at five o'clock?"
"Yes. I will be there."
"Good. I don't hope for much. It's the strangest case I ever touched. We are dealing with unusual people, not ordinary criminals."
"If there is any man in London who can see daylight through the mystery I believe you are the man. Do you know on what I think the whole thing turns?"
"On some undiscovered incident in Sir Marcus's past, beyond a doubt. Probably an amorous adventure."
"You're wrong," said Gatton grimly. "It turns on the figure of the green cat. Good-by. Five o'clock."
THE INTERRUPTED SUPPER
I arrived at the Red House before Inspector Gatton. A constable was on duty at the gate and as I came up and paused he regarded me rather doubtfully until I told him that I had an appointment with Gatton. I stared up the drive towards the house. It was not, apparently, a very old building, presenting some of the worst features of the mid-Victorian period, and from whence it derived its name I could not conjecture unless from the fact that the greater part of the facade was overgrown with some kind of red creeper.
The half-moon formed by the crescent-shaped carriage-way and the wall bordering the road was filled with rather unkempt shrubbery, laurels and rhododendrons for the most part, from amid which arose several big trees. In the blaze of the afternoon sun the place looked commonplace enough with estate agents' bills pasted in the dirty windows, and it was difficult to conceive that it had been the scene of the mysterious crime of which at that hour all London was talking and which later was to form a subject of debate throughout the civilized world.
Gatton joined me within a few minutes of my arrival. He was accompanied by Constable Bolton with whom I had first visited the Red House. Bolton was now in plain clothes, and he had that fish-out-of-water appearance which characterizes the constable in mufti. Indeed he looked rather dazed, and on arriving before the house he removed his bowler and mopped his red face with a large handkerchief, nodding to me as he did so.
"Good afternoon, sir; it was lucky you came along with me last night. I thought it was a funny go and I was right, it seems."
"Quite right," said Gatton shortly, "and now here are the keys which you returned to the depot this morning."
From his pocket the Inspector produced a steel ring bearing a large and a small key which I recognized as that which had hung from the lock of the garage door on the previous night.
We walked along to the garage and Inspector Gatton placed the key in the lock; then turning to Bolton:
"Now," he directed, "show us exactly what you did."
Bolton replaced his bowler, which hitherto he had carried in his hand, hesitated for a moment, and then unlocked the door.
"Of course I had my lantern with me last night," he explained, "and this gentleman and myself stood looking in for a moment."
"Mr. Addison has already described to me exactly what he saw," said Gatton. "Show us what you did after Mr. Addison left you."
Bolton, with a far-away look in his eyes betokening an effort of retrospection, withdrew the key from the lock and entered the garage, Gatton and I following. There was a sky window to light the place, so that when Bolton reclosed the door we could see well enough. His movements were as follows: Relocking the door from the inside, he walked slowly along to a smaller door at the opposite end and with the other key attached to the ring unfastened it.
"Wait a moment," said Gatton. "Did you look about you at all before opening this door?"
"Only long enough to find where it was, sir. Just about as long as I showed you."
"All right. Go on, then."
We followed Bolton out into a very narrow hedge-bordered path, evidently a tradesman's entrance, and he turned and locked the door behind him. Slipping the keys into his pocket, he tramped stolidly out to the main road whereon we emerged immediately beside the garage.
"Ah," murmured Gatton. "Now give me the keys," and as the man did so: "Throughout all this time did you see or hear anything of an unusual nature?"
Bolton removed his bowler once more. I had gathered by this time that he regarded fresh air as an aid to reflection.
"Well, sir," he replied in a puzzled way, "that first door—"
"Well," said Gatton, as the man hesitated.
"It seemed to open more easily just now than it did last night. There seemed to be a sort of hitch before when it was about half-way open."
"Perhaps the crate was in the way?" suggested Gatton. "Except for the absence of the crate do you notice anything different, anything missing, or anything there now that was not there before?"
Bolton shook his head.
"No," he answered; "it looks just the same to me—except, as I say, that the door seemed to open more easily."
"H'm," muttered Gatton; "and you carried the keys in your pocket until you went off duty?"
"All right. You can go now."
Bolton touched his bowler and departed, and Gatton turned to me with a grim smile.
"We'll just step inside again," he said, "so as not to attract any undue attention."
He again unlocked the garage door and closed it as we entered.
"Now," said he, "before we go any further what was your idea in keeping back the fact that one of the missing links in the chain of evidence was already in your possession?"
"No doubt," I said rather guiltily, "you refer to the fact of my acquaintance with Miss Isobel Merlin?"
"I do!" said Gatton, "and to the fact that you nipped in ahead of me and interviewed this important witness before I had even heard of her existence." He continued to smile, but the thoroughness and unflinching pursuit of duty which were the outstanding features of the man, underlay his tone of badinage. "I want to say," he continued, "that for your cooperation, which has been very useful to me on many occasions, I am always grateful, but if in return I give you facilities which no other pressman has, I don't expect you to abuse them."
"Really, Inspector," I replied, "you go almost too far. I have done nothing to prejudice your case nor could I possibly have known until my interview this morning with Miss Merlin, that it was she in whom the late Sir Marcus was interested."
"H'm," said Gatton, but still rather dubiously, his frank, wide-open eyes regarding me in that naive manner which was so deceptive.
"All that I learned," I continued, "is unequivocally at your disposal. Finally I may tell you—and I would confess it to few men—that Miss Merlin is a very old friend and might have been something more if I had not been a fool."
"Oh!" said Gatton, and his expression underwent a subtle change—"Oh! That's rather awkward; in fact"—he frowned perplexedly—"it's damned awkward!"
"What do you mean?" I demanded.
"Well," said he, "I don't know what account Miss Merlin gave to you of her relations with Sir Marcus—"
"Relations!" I said hotly, "the man was a mere acquaintance; she hadn't even seen him, except from the stage, for some months past."
"Oh," replied Gatton, "is that so?" He looked at me very queerly. "It doesn't seem to dovetail with the evidence of the stage-doorkeeper."
I felt myself changing color, and:
"What, then, does the stage-doorkeeper assert?" I asked.
Gatton continued to look at me in that perplexed way, and believing that I detected the trend of his reflections:
"Look here, Inspector," I said, "let us understand one another. Whatever may be the evidence of stage-doorkeepers and others, upon one point you can be assured. Miss Merlin had nothing whatever to do with this horrible crime. The idea is unthinkable. So confident am I of this, that you can be perfectly open with me and I give you my word of honor that I shall be equally frank with you. The truth of the matter cannot possibly injure her in the end and I am as anxious to discover it as you are."
Gatton suddenly extended his hand, and:
"Good!" he said. "We understand one another, but how is Miss Merlin going to explain this?"
He drew a note-book from his pocket, turned over several leaves, and then:
"On no fewer than six occasions," he said, "I have approximate dates here, Sir Marcus sent his card to Miss Merlin's dressing-room."
"I know," I interrupted him; "he persecuted her, but she never saw him."
"Wait a minute. Last night"—Gatton glanced at me sharply—"Marie, the maid, came down after Sir Marcus's card had been sent to the dressing-room and talked for several minutes to the late baronet, just by the doorkeeper's box, but out of earshot. That was at ten o'clock. At eleven, that is after the performance, Sir Marcus returned, and again Marie came down to see him. They went out into the street together and Sir Marcus entered a cab which was waiting and drove off. Miss Merlin left a quarter of an hour later."
Our glances met and a silence of some moments' duration fell between us; then:
"You suggest," I said, "that Miss Merlin had arranged a rendezvous with him and to save appearances had joined him there later?"
"Well"—Gatton raised his eyebrows—"what do you suggest?"
I found myself temporarily at a loss for words, but:
"Knowing nothing of this," I explained, "naturally I was not in a position to tax Miss Merlin with it. Possibly you have done so. What is her explanation?"
"I have not seen her," confessed Gatton; "I arrived at her flat ten minutes after she had gone out—with you."
"You saw Marie?"
"Unfortunately Marie was also out, but I saw an old charwoman who attends daily, I understand, and it was from her that I learned of your visit."
"Marie," I said, "may be able to throw some light on the matter."
"I don't doubt it!" replied Gatton grimly. "Meanwhile we have sufficient evidence to show that Sir Marcus drove from the New Avenue Theater to this house."
"He may not have driven here at all," I interrupted; "he may have driven somewhere else and performed the latter part of his journey here—"
"In the crate!" cried Gatton. "Yes, you are right; his body may actually have been inside the crate at the time that you and Bolton arrived here last night; for that would be fully an hour after Sir Marcus left the stage-door."
"But who can have rung up the police station last night?" I cried, "and what can have been the object of this unknown person?"
"That we have to find out," said Gatton quietly; "undoubtedly it formed part of a scheme planned with extraordinary cunning; it was not an accident or an oversight, I mean. The men who are assisting me haven't been idle, for we have already learned some most amazing facts about the case. I haven't yet visited the house myself, but I have here the report of one of my assistants who has done so; also I have the keys. The garage I will inspect more carefully later on."
He glanced quickly about the place before we left it, then, leaving the door locked behind us, we walked along to the gate before which the constable stood on duty, and from thence proceeded up the drive to the front entrance. There was a deep porch supported by pillars and densely overgrown with creeper. I noted, too, a heavy and unhealthy odor as of decaying leaves, and observed that a perfect carpet of these lay on the path. In the shade of the big trees it was comparatively cool, but the heavy malarious smell did not please me and I imagined that it must have repelled more than one would-be lessee.
As we approached the porch I saw that the windows of the rooms immediately left and right of it had been stripped of the agent's bills, for I could see where fragments of paper still adhered to the glass. There were no bills in the porch either; but when Gatton opened the front door I uttered an exclamation of surprise.
We stood in a small lounge-hall. There was a staircase on the left and three doors opened on to the hall. But although the Red House was palpably unoccupied, the hall was furnished! There were some rugs upon the polished floor, a heavy bronze club-fender in front of the grate, several chairs against the walls and a large palm in a Chinese pot.
"Why," I exclaimed, "the place is furnished and the stairs are carpeted too!"
"Yes," said Gatton, looking keenly about him, "but according to report if you will step upstairs you will get a surprise."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, suppose we go and see."
Gatton led the way and I followed up the stairs as far as the first landing. Here I paused in amazement. For at this point all attempts at furnishing ceased. The landing was quite bare and so were the stairs above it! Seeing my expression of incredulous surprise:
"Yes," said Gatton, smiling, "it's a strange arrangement, isn't it?"
We descended again to the furnished hall.
"Look here," continued my companion.
He unlocked a door on the left, having tried several keys from the bunch which he carried without success, but finally discovering the right one.
A long rectangular room was revealed, evidently intended for a dining-room. It was empty and unfurnished, odds and ends of newspaper and other rubbish lying here and there upon the floor. My astonishment was momentarily increasing. A second door, that in the center, Gatton opened, revealing another empty room, but:
"I have reserved this one for the last," he said: "you will find that it is unlocked."
He pointed to the third door, that on the right, and as he evidently intended me to open it, I stepped forward, turned the handle and entered a small square room, exquisitely furnished.
A heavy Persian carpet was spread upon the floor and the windows were draped with some kind of brightly colored Madras. Tastefully-framed water-colors hung upon the wall. There was a quaint cabinet in the room, too; a low cushioned settee and two armchairs. In the center was a table upon which stood a lamp with a large mosaic shade. Two high-backed chairs were set to the table—and the table was laid for supper! A bottle of wine stood in an ice-pail, in which the ice had long since melted, and a tempting cold repast was spread. The table was decorated with a bowl of perfect white roses. The silver was good; the napery was snowy.
Like a fool I stood gaping at the spectacle, until, noting the direction of Gatton's glance, I turned my attention to the mantelpiece upon which a clock was ticking with a dull and solemn note.
Standing beside the clock, in a curious carved frame, was a large photograph of Isobel!
"This is where the mystery centers," said Gatton.
I made no reply, for I had not yet recovered from the shock of that discovery in the deserted supper room. It was so wholly unexpected and yet it so cruelly confirmed the Inspector's undisguised suspicions that it seemed to me to have created a sort of impalpable barrier between us. Of this Gatton was evidently conscious. He endeavored to arouse my interest in the inquiries which he was conducting in the garage, but for long enough I saw nothing of the place in which we stood; I could only see that photograph smiling at me inquiringly through a haze of doubt, and my companion's words reached me in a muffled fashion. Finally, however, I succeeded in rousing myself from this dazed condition, and confident as ever that Isobel was innocent of all complicity in the matter:
"The presence of the photograph," I said, "takes us a step further. Don't you see, Inspector, that this is a deeply and cunningly laid trap? What I had taken for a series of unfortunate coincidences I perceive now to be the workings of an elaborate scheme involving perfectly innocent people in the crime."
"H'm," said Gatton doubtfully; "it may be as you suggest; at any rate it is a new point of view and one which I confess had not occurred to me. There is one witness who can clear up any doubt on the subject."
"You mean Marie?"
"Exactly. She will lie, beyond doubt, but we shall find means to reach the truth."
"Would it not be advisable, Inspector," I asked excitedly, "to make sure of her at once?"
Gatton smiled grimly, and:
"Marie would have to make herself invisible to evade Scotland Yard now," he replied. "She is being watched closely. But," he continued, "what do you make of these marks on the door?"
We had reclosed the garage door and now were standing immediately inside. The marks to which my companion had drawn my attention were situated high up near the roof.
"This may account for the statement of Bolton that the door seemed more difficult to open last night than to-day," he said. "Unless I am greatly mistaken, some sort of attachment existed here until quite recently."
"Possibly a contrivance for reclosing the door?" I suggested.
The marks in fact roughly corresponded to those which would be made by the presence of such a contrivance and there seemed to have been some attempt where it had been removed to disguise the holes left by the screws.
"But the purpose of it?" muttered Gatton helplessly.
"God knows," I said; "the purpose of the whole thing is a mystery beyond me entirely."
"Assuming that such a piece of mechanism as you suggest had been attached to the door," mused Gatton, "you would have noticed its operation last night, unless one of you held the door open."
"Neither of us held the door!" I interrupted excitedly. "I remember that we stood just outside looking in. I was behind the constable and he was directing the rays of his lantern into the place."
"H'm," muttered Gatton. "Then it wasn't a contrivance for closing the door; it was something else. Suppose we investigate the other door?"
We proceeded to the other door and I became aware of an intense curiosity respecting what we should find, and of a conviction too that there would be evidence here of another attachment. In this I was quite correct. Some piece of mechanism had evidently been fastened to this door also. Together we stood staring up at these tell-tale screw-holes and then rather blankly we stared at one another.
"We only lack one thing," said Gatton; "the scheme upon which all these contrivances and apparently isolated episodes were hung together. Nothing, as we have already assumed, was accident, and nothing coincidence. It was with some deliberate purpose that the constable was instructed to walk through this garage, opening and shutting the doors behind him."
"From whom did these instructions come?"
"That is one of the minor points which I have already cleared up," he replied. "On my way here I called at the house agent's, as you know, since I have the keys; I also called at the station. The sergeant who was on duty last night I could not see, unfortunately, but I learned—that it was a woman who rang up."
My heart sank lower and lower. It seemed to me as we stood in that empty garage that an invisible hand was drawing a net closer and closer about Isobel and my ideas became increasingly chaotic, for the purpose of it all eluded me, try how I would to conceive of a scheme by which any one could profit which necessitated the imprisonment, or worse, of Isobel.
"And the agent?" I asked in a rather toneless voice.
Gatton shook his head.
"I have no reason to doubt the word of this man of business," he replied, "because at the time when I saw him he could not possibly have learned of the crime, but nevertheless his account is almost unbelievable. It appears then, he, too, received his instructions throughout by telephone."
"What?" I exclaimed.
"By telephone," repeated Gatton. "He was rung up about ten days ago by some one who made a verbal offer to lease the Red House for a period of twelve months. A foreigner, who in lieu of the usual references, was prepared to pay the annual rent in advance. As the Red House, to use an Irishism, was regarded as something of a white elephant, the agent was interested, apparently; and when on the following day the sum agreed upon arrived by post, he did not demur about delivering the keys to the prospective lessee, who desired to take certain measurements in regard to carpets and so forth."
"Wait a moment," I interrupted; "to whom did he deliver these keys?"
"To a district messenger who called for them, as the agent had been advised that one would do."
"Very well. What then?"
"That is all that the agent had to say."
"What, that is all?"
"Substantially there is nothing more. It is quite evident that the sole intention of this unknown lessee was to secure possession of the house for the purpose of the crime only."
"Do you mean that from first to last no one but the district messenger appeared in the matter?"
"No one," Gatton assured me, "and the rent, payment of which quite disarmed the agent of course, was sent in the form of Treasury notes and not by check."
"But surely some name, some address, must have been given?"
"A name was given," replied Gatton, "and a hotel address, but confirmation of their accuracy was never sought, after the receipt of the money."
"And the voice on the telephone?"
Again I saw that odd expression creep over Gatton's face, and:
"It was a woman's voice," he answered.
"Great heavens!" I muttered—"what does it all mean?"
That the evidence of the cabman when he was discovered and of the carter who had taken the box from the garage to the docks, and (for it was possibly the same man) who had first delivered it at the Red House, would but tighten the net about Isobel, whom I knew to be innocent, I felt assured.
"Gatton," I said, "this case appears to me to resolve itself into a deliberate conspiracy of which the end was not the assassination of Sir Marcus, but the conviction of Miss Merlin!"
Gatton looked at me with evident complexity written all over him.
"I begin to think the same," he confessed. "This business was never planned and carried out by a woman, I'll swear to that. There is a woman concerned in it, for at every point we come upon evidence of her voice issuing the mysterious instructions; but she is not alone in the matter. Already the intricacy of the thing points to a criminal of genius. When we know the whole truth, if we ever do, that the crime was planned by a man of amazing, if perverted, intellect, will be put beyond dispute, I think."
"What is puzzling me, Gatton," I said, "is the connection existing between the incidents which took place in this garage and those, unknown at present, which took place in the furnished room in the Red House."
"Obviously," replied Gatton, "a supper for two had been prepared, and that one of those two was the late Sir Marcus is perfectly obvious. That he expected the other to be Miss Merlin is at least suggested by the presence of her photograph in the room; for you will have noticed that it is the only photograph there."
"Nevertheless," I said firmly, "I am positive that no one would be more surprised than herself to learn of its presence."
"And as I have already said," replied Gatton, "I am rapidly coming round to your way of thinking. But even if I were quite sure of it the evidence at the moment is all the other way, you will admit. As to the connection between this garage and the interrupted supper party (for obviously it was interrupted) this it must be my business to find out."
"Don't you think," I said, "that we are attaching perhaps undue importance to the fact that some kind of fittings have been removed from the doors? They may have been removed by the late occupier, and the call to the police depot may have been made with the idea of securing a witness, and a credible one, to the presence of the crate here on the night of the murder."
"At the moment," replied Gatton, musingly, "I cannot see that this would have served any useful purpose; but nevertheless you may be right. I am going to assume, however, that you are wrong, and that the object of sending Bolton here last night was to open and shut these doors. I propose now to return again to the scene of the interrupted supper."
Leaving the garage not very much wiser than when we had entered it, we paced once more up the drive in the shade of the big trees and were greeted again by the malarious smell of rotting leaves. Entering the Red House, Gatton and I proceeded first to that incredible oasis in the desert of empty rooms and my companion made a detailed examination of everything in the place, even sounding the walls, examining the fittings of the door, and finally proceeding through the hall in the direction of the south wing of the house—that nearest to the garage.
What he expected to find I had no idea, but his attention seemed to be more particularly directed towards the wainscot and the picture-rails of the empty and uncarpeted rooms which we entered. Whatever he had sought he failed to find, and at last we stood in a desolate apartment looking out into the tangled shrubbery before the windows. The back of the garage was visible from there and I viewed it dully, wondering what evil secret it held, and marveling at the trick of fate which had made me witness of an act in this gruesome drama.
"Of course, Gatton," I said, "we are all along assuming that Sir Marcus actually met his death in this house. We must remember that he may merely have been brought here after the crime."
"Such a short period elapsed," replied the Inspector, "between his leaving the New Avenue Theater and the approximate time of his death that it seems unlikely that he visited any intermediate spot."
"But he may not have been in the crate when Bolton and I saw it."
"I don't believe he was in the crate then," replied Gatton, "but I think he was at the Red House nevertheless."
I stared at him with curiosity.
"You mean that he was in the house at the time that the constable and I opened the garage?"
"I do. I think he was in that room where supper was laid for two."
"Good God!" I exclaimed; for there was something horrible in the idea of the man who now lay murdered having been in the house presumably alive, whilst Bolton and I had stood within forty yards of him; in the idea that it had lain in our power, except for those human limitations which rendered us ignorant of his presence, to have averted his fate, perhaps to have checked the remorseless movement of this elaborate murder machine which seemingly had been set up in the Red House.
"Some one was here last night," declared Gatton suddenly, as we turned to leave the deserted room, "after you and Bolton had gone. Everything incriminating the assassin has been removed. Looking at the matter judicially, it becomes quite evident that any one clever enough to have planned this crime could not possibly have been guilty of an act of such glaring stupidity as that of accidentally leaving a photograph planted upon the mantelpiece."
That this fact had presented itself to the Inspector with such a force of conviction raised a great load from my mind. It had all along been evident to me, but I had feared that to the official outlook of my companion, and the official outlook is always peculiar, it might have seemed otherwise.
"The clever and cunning villain who planned this thing," I said, "has overstepped himself, as you say, Gatton. If the murder was planned artistically, in his attempt to throw the onus of the crime upon innocent shoulders he has been guilty of a piece of very mediocre work. It would not deceive a child."
"No, I agree with you there. The discovery of that photograph has done more to convince me of the innocence of Miss Merlin than any amount of testimonials to her good character could ever have done. You see," he added, smiling whimsically, "all sorts of people hitherto unsuspected by their closest friends of criminal tendency, develop that taint, so that I am never surprised to find a convicted thief or assassin possessed of credentials which would do justice to an Archbishop. But when I see an obviously artificial clew I recognize it a mile off. Real clews never stare you in the face like that."
Coming out of the front door, we walked down the leaf-strewn drive to find that the constable on duty at the gate had been joined by a plain-clothes man who was evidently waiting to speak to the Inspector.
"Yes?" said Gatton eagerly, at sight of the newcomer.
"We have her, sir," he reported tersely.
"Does he refer to Marie?" I asked.
"I think, Mr. Addison," he said, "I will proceed immediately to Bow Street, where she has been taken to be interrogated. Will you come with me or are you otherwise engaged?"
I hesitated ere I replied:
"I do not particularly want to confront this woman, but I should be much indebted if you could let me know the result of your examination."
"I shall do that without fail," said Gatton, "and some time to-day I should be obliged if you could provide me with the facts concerning the little cat-images which you said you had in your possession."
"Certainly," I agreed. "You are still of the opinion that the mark upon the crate and the image of the cat-woman have an important bearing upon the crime?"
"I don't doubt it," was the reply. "If the photograph clew is a false one, the cat clew is a true one and one to be followed up. Perhaps," he added, "it would be as well if you returned now and looked out the points which you think would be of interest, as when I come I may not have long to stay."
"I will do so," I said, "although I think I can lay my hands upon the material almost immediately."
Accordingly Gatton set off with the detective who had brought the news of Marie's arrest and I, turning in the opposite direction, proceeded towards my cottage in such a state of mental tumult respecting what the end of all this would be and what it might mean for Isobel, that I found myself unable to think connectedly; and needless to say I failed to conjure up by any stretch of the imagination a theory which could cover this amazing and terrible sequence of events.
THE CAT OF BUBASTIS
"She belongs to the innumerable family of cats which suddenly came forth from the ruins of Tell Bastah in 1878," I wrote, Sir Gaston Maspero's "Egyptian Art" lying before me on the table, "and were in a few years scattered over the whole world."
"She is Bast, a goddess of good family, the worship of whom flourished especially in the east of the delta, and she is very often drawn or named on the monuments, although they do not tell us enough of her myths or her origin. She was allied or related to the Sun, and was now said to be his sister or wife, now his daughter. She sometimes filled a gracious and beneficent role, protecting men against contagious diseases or evil spirits, keeping them off by the music of her sistrum: she had also her hours of treacherous perversity, during which she played with her victim as with a mouse, before finishing him off with a blow of her claws. She dwelt by preference in the city that bore her name, Poubastit, the Bubastis of classical writers. Her temple, at which Cheops and Chephren had worked while building their pyramids, was rebuilt by the Pharaohs of the 22nd Dynasty, enlarged by those of the 26th; when Herodotus visited it in the middle of the fifth century B.C. he considered it one of the most remarkable he had seen in the parts of Egypt through which he had traveled.
"The fetes of Bast attracted pilgrims from all parts of Egypt, as at the present day those of Sidi Ahmed el-Bedawee draw people to the modern fair of Tantah. The people of each village crowded into large boats to get there, men and women pell-mell, with the fixed intention of enjoying themselves on the journey, a thing they never failed to do. They accompanied the slow progress of navigation with endless songs, love songs rather than sacred hymns, and there were also to be found among them flute-players and castanet-players to support or keep time to the voices. Whenever they passed by a town they approached the bank as near as they could without landing, and then, while the orchestra redoubled its noise, the passengers threw volleys of insults and coarse remarks at the women standing on the banks; they retorted, and when they had exhausted words ..."
I finished my notes at this point; the improper behavior of the Ancient Egyptians mentioned by the great Egyptologist having no possible bearing upon the matter in hand, I thought. I then proceeded to add some facts directly relating to the votive offerings laid at the feet of the goddess.
"The greater number of pilgrims, before returning home, left a souvenir of their visit at the feet of Bast. It was a votive stele with a fine inscription, and a picture showing the donor worshiping his goddess; or a statuette in blue or green pottery, or if they were wealthy, in bronze, silver, or sometimes gold: the goddess would be standing, seated, crouching, with a woman's body and a cat's head, a sistrum or an aegis in her hand. During the Greek period the figures were in bronze or in painted or gilded wood surmounted by a cat's head in bronze, many were life-size and modeled with elaborate art; they had eyes of enamel and amulets on the forehead."
The learned authority went on to explain that these accumulated offerings were after a time stored by the priests in cellars or in pits dug expressly for them, "veritable favissae similar to those of classical times." They accumulated in thousands, large and small, some intact and fresh as when just made, others already out of shape and of no value. The places of concealment were soon forgotten, and the stores hidden therein reposed beyond the reach of men until the day when the chances of excavation brought them to light.
My notes completed, I turned my attention to the little image of green enamel ware which Gatton had left with me for examination. It was not possible to determine the period at which it was buried, but judging from the contours and general forms, together with the aspect of the enamel, I thought I recognized the style of the second Saite Period, and attributed the piece to the early Ptolemies, or the fourth century B.C. It was the time when the worship of Bast and her subordinate forms, Pakh, Mait, was most popular, the period when the most extensive cemetery of cats was established in Egypt. The execution of the little figure was pure Egyptian, and in no way betrayed Greek influence.
So far had my studies proceeded when I heard the door-bell ring, and Coates entered the room.
"Detective-Inspector Gatton to see you, sir."
Gatton came in looking if anything more puzzled than when I had left him at the Red House; also I thought he looked tired, and:
"Mix yourself a drink, Inspector," I said, pointing to a side-table upon which refreshments were placed.
"Thanks," replied Gatton. "I have not had time to stop for a drink or even a smoke since I left you; but evidence is coming in quickly enough now."
He helped himself to a whisky and soda, being an old visitor and one used to the Bohemian ways of my household; then setting his glass upon a corner of my writing-table, he dropped into the armchair and began in leisurely fashion to fill his pipe.
Although the hour was growing late, sunset was still a long way off and the prospect visible through the window was bathed in golden light. From where I sat I could catch a glimpse of the tree-lined road, and for the first time since that strange experience had befallen me, I found myself wondering if the vaguely-perceived follower whom I had detected on the previous night and those blazing feline eyes which had looked out at me from beneath the shadow of the hedge could have had any possible connection with the tragedy which at about the same hour was being enacted in the Red House. I determined presently to confide the strange particulars to my friend, but first I was all anxiety to learn what evidence Marie had given; and that this evidence, to which he had referred had done little more than to increase Gatton's perplexity was clear enough from his expression. Therefore:
"Tell me about Marie," I said.
Gatton smiled grimly, took a drink from his glass, and then:
"She began of course as I had anticipated, by denying all knowledge of the matter, but recognizing that she was in a tight corner, she presently changed her tactics, and although every available plan was tried to induce her to change her ground, she afterwards stuck to the extraordinary story which we first extracted from her. Briefly it was this:
"The late Sir Marcus had been paying unwelcome attention to Miss Merlin for a long time, and Marie had instructions that he was to be discouraged as much as possible. In fact I am pleased to say that your theory of Miss Merlin's ignorance respecting the murder plot is borne out by the testimony of her maid. On several occasions, it appears, when he sent his card to the dressing-room, Marie returned equivocal messages and did not even inform her mistress of Sir Marcus's visit. This had been going on for some time when one night whilst Miss Merlin was on the stage a telephone call came for Marie and a certain proposal was made to her.
"It was this: if on the following night Sir Marcus should present himself she was to tell him that Miss Merlin would take supper in his company after the performance, but that he was to observe every possible precaution. Marie, according to her account, at first declined to entertain the proposal, but being informed that it was merely intended to play a practical joke upon the baronet, she ultimately consented. I may add that the promise of a ten-pound note undoubtedly hastened her decision and it was on her receipt of the amount by post on the following morning that she determined to carry out her part of the bargain.
"Her instructions had been explicit. She was to tell Sir Marcus that Miss Merlin would see him after the performance, then when he presented himself, to inform him that her mistress had decided it would be more prudent for him to proceed to the rendezvous alone, where she would join him in a quarter of an hour. She was to give him the door key (which had arrived with the money) and to direct him to enter and wait in the room on the right of the hall. A cabman who knew the address would be waiting at the stage door."