THE HAND IN THE DARK
BY ARTHUR J. REES
AUTHOR OF "THE SHRIEKING PIT"
NEW YORK: JOHN LANE COMPANY LONDON: JOHN LANE, THE BODLEY HEAD Copyright, 1920
PRESS OF THE VAIL-BALLOU COMPANY BINGHAMTON, N. Y., U. S. A.
THE HAND IN THE DARK
Seen in the sad glamour of an English twilight, the old moat-house, emerging from the thin mists which veiled the green flats in which it stood, conveyed the impression of a habitation falling into senility, tired with centuries of existence. Houses grow old like the race of men; the process is not less inevitable, though slower; in both, decay is hastened by events as well as by the passage of Time.
The moat-house was not so old as English country-houses go, but it had aged quickly because of its past. There was a weird and bloody history attached to the place: an historical record of murders and stabbings and quarrels dating back to Saxon days, when a castle had stood on the spot, and every inch of the flat land had been drenched in the blood of serfs fighting under a Saxon tyrant against a Norman tyrant for the sacred catchword of Liberty.
The victorious Norman tyrant had killed the Saxon, taken his castle, and tyrannized over the serfs during his little day, until the greater tyrant, Death, had taught him his first—and last—lesson of humility. After his death some fresh usurper had pulled down his stolen castle, and built a moat-house on the site. During the next few hundred years there had been more fighting for restless ambition, invariably connected with the making and unmaking of tyrants, until an English king lost his head in the cause of Liberty, and the moat-house was destroyed by fire for the same glorious principle.
It was rebuilt by the freebooter who had burnt it down; one Philip Heredith, a descendant of Philip Here-Deith, whose name is inscribed in the Domesday Book as one of the knights of the army of Duke William which had assembled at Dives for the conquest of England. Philip Heredith, who was as great a fighter as his Norman ancestor, established his claim to his new estate, and avoided litigation concerning it, by confining the Royalist owner and his family within the walls of the moat-house before setting it on fire. He afterwards married and settled down in the new house with his young wife. But the honeymoon was disturbed by the ghost of the cavalier he had incinerated, who warned him that as he had founded his line in horror it would end in horror, and the house he had built would fall to the ground.
Philip Heredith, like many other great fighters, was an exceedingly pious man, with a profound belief in the efficacy of prayer. He endeavoured to thwart the ghost's curse by building a church in the moat-house grounds, where he spent his Sundays praying for the eternal welfare of the gentleman he had cut off in the flower of his manhood. Perhaps the prayers were heard, for, when Philip Heredith in the course of time became the first occupant of the brand-new vault he had built for himself and his successors, he left behind him much wealth, and a catalogue of his virtues in his own handwriting. The wealth he left to his heirs, but he expressly stipulated that the record of his virtues was to be carved in stone and placed as an enduring tablet, for the edification of future generations, inside the church he had built.
It was a wise precaution on his part. The dead are dumb as to their own merits, and the living think only of themselves. Time sped away, until the first of the Herediths was forgotten as completely as though he had never existed; even his dust had been crowded off the shelf of his own vault to make room for the numerous descendants of the prolific and prosperous line he had founded. But the tablet remained, and the old moat-house he had built still stood.
It was a wonderful old place and a delight to the eye, this mediaeval moat-house of mellow brick, stone facings, high-pitched roof, with terraced gardens and encircling moat. It had defied Time better than its builder, albeit a little shakily, with signs of decrepitude here and there apparent in the crow's-feet cracks of the brickwork, and decay only too plainly visible in the crazy angles of the tiled roof. But the ivy which covered portions of the brickwork hid some of the ravages of age, and helped the moat-house to show a brave front to the world, a well-preserved survivor of an ornamental period in a commonplace and ugly generation.
The place looked as though it belonged to the past and the ghosts of the past. To cross the moat bridge was to step backward from the twentieth century into the seventeenth. The moss-grown moat walls enclosed an old-world garden, most jealously guarded by high yew hedges trimmed into fantastic shapes of birds and animals; a garden of parterres and lawns, where tritons blew stone horns, and naked nymphs bathed in marble fountains; with an ancient sundial on which the gay scapegrace Suckling had once scribbled a sonnet to a pair of blue eyes—a garden full of sequestered walks and hidden nooks where courtly cavaliers and bewitching dames in brocades and silks, patches and powder, had played at the great game of love in their day. That day was long since dead. The tritons and nymphs remained, to remind humanity that stone and marble are more durable than flesh and blood, but the lords and ladies had gone, never to return, unless, indeed, their spirits walked the garden in the white stillness of moonlit nights. They may well have done so. It was easy to imagine such light-hearted beauties visiting again the old garden to revive dead memories of love and laughter: shadowy forms stealing forth to assignations on the blanched, dew-laden lawn, their roguish faces and bright eyes—if ghosts have eyes—peeping out of ghostly hoods at gay ghostly cavaliers; coquetting and languishing behind ghostly fans; perhaps even feeding, with ghostly little hands, the peacocks which still kept the terrace walk above the moat.
The spectacle of a group of modern ladies laughing and chatting at tea in the cloistered recesses of the terrace garden struck a note as sharply incongruous as a flock of parrots chattering in a cathedral.
It was the autumn of 1918, and with one exception the ladies seated at the tea-tables on the lawn represented the new and independent type of womanhood called into existence by the national exigencies of war. The elder of them looked useful rather than beautiful, as befitted patriotic Englishwomen in war-time; the younger ones were pretty and charming, but they were all workers, or pretended workers, in the task of helping England win the war, and several of them wore the khaki or blue of active service abroad. They were all very much at ease, laughing and talking as they drank their tea and threw cake to the peacocks perched on the high terrace walk above their heads.
The ladies were the guests of Sir Philip Heredith. Some months before, his only son Philip, then holding a post in the War Office, had fallen in love with the pretty face of a girl employed in one of the departments of Whitehall. He married her soon afterwards, and brought her home to the moat-house. It was the young husband who had suggested that they should liven up the old moat-house by inviting some of their former London friends down to stay with them. Violet Heredith, who found herself bored with country life after the excitement of London war work, caught eagerly at the idea, and the majority of the ladies at tea were the former Whitehall acquaintances of the young wife, with whom she had shared matinee tickets and afternoon teas in London during the last winter of the war.
The hostess of the party, Miss Alethea Heredith, sister of the present baronet, Sir Philip Heredith, and mistress of the moat-house since the death of Lady Heredith, belonged to a bygone and almost extinct type of Englishwoman, the provincial great lady, local society leader, village patroness, sportswoman, and church-woman in one, a type exclusively English, taking several centuries to produce in its finished form. Miss Heredith was an excellent, if somewhat terrific, specimen of the class. She was tall and massive, with a large-boned face, tanned red with country air, shrewd grey eyes looking out beneath thick eyebrows which met across her forehead in a straight line (the Heredith eyebrows) and a strong, hooked nose (the Heredith falcon nose). But in spite of her massive frame, red face, hooked nose, and countrified attire, she looked more in place with the surroundings than the frailer and paler specimens of womanhood to whom she was dispensing tea. There was a stiff and stately grace in her movements, a slow ceremoniousness, in her politeness to her guests, which seemed to harmonize with the seventeenth-century setting of the moat-house garden.
At the moment the ladies were discussing an event which had been arranged for that night: a country drive, to be followed by a musical evening and dance. The invitations had been issued by the Weynes, a young couple who had recently made their home in the county. The husband was a popular novelist, who had left the distractions of London in order to win fame in peace and quietness in the country. Mrs. Weyne, who had been slightly acquainted with Mrs. Heredith before her marriage, was delighted to learn she was to have her for a neighbour. She had arranged the evening on her behalf, and had asked Miss Heredith to bring all her guests. The event was to mark the close of the house party, which was to break up on the following day. Unfortunately, Mrs. Heredith had fallen ill a few hours previously, and it was doubtful whether she would be able to join in the festivity.
"I hope you will all remember that dinner is to be a quarter of an hour earlier to-night," said Miss Heredith, as she handed a cup of tea to one of her guests. "It is a long drive to the Weynes' place, so I shall order the cars for half-past seven."
The guests glanced at their hostess and murmured polite assent.
"I am looking forward to the visit so much," said the lady to whom Miss Heredith had handed the cup. "It will be so romantic—a country dance in a lonely house on a hill. What an adorable cup, dear Miss Heredith! I love Chinese egg-shell porcelain, but this is simply beyond anything! It's——"
"Whatever induced Dolly Weyne to bury herself in the country?" abruptly exclaimed a young woman with cropped hair and khaki uniform. "She loathed the country before she was married."
"Mrs. Weyne is a wife, and it is her duty to like her husband's home," said Miss Heredith a little primly. She disapproved of the speaker, whose khaki uniform, close-cropped hair, crossed legs, and arms a-kimbo struck her as everything that was modern and unwomanly.
"Then what induced Teddy Weyne to bury himself alive in the wilds? I'm sure it must be terrible living up there alone, with nothing but earwigs and owls for company."
"Mr. Weyne is a writer," rejoined Miss Heredith. "He needs seclusion."
"My husband doesn't," said a little fair-haired woman. "He says newspaper men can write anywhere. And we know another writer, a Mr. Harland, I think his name is, who writes long articles in the Sunday newspapers——"
"I don't think his name is Harland, dear," interrupted another lady. "Something like it, but not Harland. Dear me, what is it?"
"Oh, the name doesn't matter," retorted her friend. "The point is that he writes long articles in his London office. Why can't Mr. Weyne do the same?"
"Mr. Weyne is a novelist—not a journalist. It's quite a different thing."
"Is it?" responded the other doubtfully. "All writing is the same, isn't it? Harry says Mr. Harland's articles are dreadfully clever. He sometimes reads bits of them to me."
"Mrs. Weyne feels a little lonely sometimes," said Miss Heredith. "She has been looking forward to meeting Violet again. It will be pleasant for both of them to renew their acquaintance."
"I should think she and Violet would get on well together," remarked the young lady with the short hair. "They both have a good many tastes in common. Neither likes the country, for one thing." The other ladies looked at one another, and the speaker, realizing that she had been tactless, stopped abruptly. "How is Violet?" she added lamely. "Do you think she will be well enough to go to-night?"
"I still hope she may be well enough to go," replied Miss Heredith. "I will ask her presently. Will anyone have another cup of tea?"
Nobody wanted any more tea. The meal was finished; but the groups of ladies at the little tables sat placidly talking, enjoying the peaceful surroundings and the afternoon sun. Some of the girls produced cigarette-cases, and lit cigarettes.
There was a sound of footsteps on the gravel walk. A tall, good-looking young officer was seen walking across the garden from the house. As he neared the tea-tables he smilingly raised a finger to his forehead in salute.
"I've come to say good-bye," he announced.
The ladies clustered around him. It was evident from their manner that he was a popular figure among them. Several of the younger girls addressed him as "Dick," and asked him to send them trophies from the front. The young officer held his own amongst them with laughing self-possession. When he had taken his farewell of them he approached Miss Heredith, and held out his hand with a deferential politeness which contrasted rather noticeably with the easy familiarity of his previous leave-taking.
"I am sorry you are compelled to leave us, Captain Nepcote," said Miss Heredith, rising with dignity to accept his outstretched hand. "Do you return immediately to the front?"
"To-night, I expect."
"I trust you will return safely to your native land before long, crowned with victory and glory."
Captain Nepcote bowed in some embarrassment. Like the rest of his generation, he was easily discomposed by fine words or any display of the finer feelings. He was about twenty-eight, of medium height, clean-shaven, with clear-cut features, brown hair, and blue eyes. At the first glance he conveyed nothing more than an impression of a handsome young English officer of the familiar type turned out in thousands during the war; but as he stood there talking, a sudden ray of sunlight falling on his bared head revealed vague lines in the face and a suspicion of silver in the closely cropped hair, suggesting something not altogether in keeping with his debonair appearance—secret trouble or dissipation, it was impossible to say which.
"Will you say good-bye to Mrs. Heredith for me?" he said, after a slight pause. "I hope she will soon be better. I have said good-bye to Sir Philip and Phil. Sir Philip wanted to drive me to the station, but I know something of the difficulties of getting petrol just now, and I wouldn't allow him. Awfully kind of him! Phil suggested walking down with me, but I thought it would be too much for him."
They had walked away from the tea-tables towards the bridge which spanned the entrance to the moat-house. Miss Heredith paused by two brass cannon, which stood on the lawn in a clump of ornamental foliage, with an inscription stating that they had been taken from the Passe-partout, a French vessel captured by Admiral Heredith in the Indian Seas in 1804.
"It is hard for Phil, a Heredith, to remain behind when all young Englishmen are fighting for their beloved land," she said softly, her eyes fixed upon these obsolete pieces of ordnance. "He comes of a line of great warriors. However," she went on, in a more resolute tone, "Phil has his duties to fulfil, in spite of his infirmity. We all have our duties, thank God. Good-bye, Captain Nepcote. I am keeping you, and you may miss your train."
"Good-bye, Miss Heredith. Thank you so much for your kindness during a very pleasant visit. I've enjoyed myself awfully."
"I am glad that you have enjoyed your stay. I hope you will come and see us again when your military duties permit."
"Er—yes. Thank you awfully. Thank you once more for your kindness."
The young officer uttered these polite platitudes of a guest's farewell with some abruptness, bowed once more, and turned away across the old stone bridge which spanned the moat.
Miss Heredith turned her steps towards the house. The guests had dispersed while she was saying farewell to Captain Nepcote, and nothing further was expected of her as a hostess until dinner-time. It was her daily custom to devote a portion of the time between tea and dinner to superintending the arrangements for the latter meal. The moat-house possessed a competent housekeeper and an excellent staff of servants, but Miss Heredith believed in seeing to things herself.
On her way to the house she caught sight of an under gardener clipping one of the ornamental terrace hedges on the south side of the house, and she crossed over to him. The man suspended his work as the great lady approached, and respectfully waited for her to speak.
"Thomas," said Miss Heredith, "go and tell Linton to have both motors and the carriage at the door by half-past seven this evening. And tell him, Thomas, that Platt had better drive the carriage."
The under gardener touched his cap and hastened away on his errand. Miss Heredith leisurely resumed her walk to the house, stopping occasionally to pluck up any weed which had the temerity to show its head in the trim flower-beds which dotted the wide expanse of lawn between the moat and the house. She entered the house through the porch door, and proceeded to the housekeeper's apartments.
Her knock at the door was answered by a very pretty girl, tall and dark, who flushed at the sight of Miss Heredith, and stood aside for her to enter. A middle-aged woman, with a careworn face and large grey eyes, dressed in black silk, was seated by the window sewing. She rose and came forward when she saw her visitor. She was Mrs. Rath, the housekeeper, and the pretty girl was her daughter.
"How are you, Hazel?" said Miss Heredith, offering her hand to the girl. "It is a long time since I saw you. Why have you not been to see us lately?"
The girl appeared embarrassed by the question. She hesitated, and then, as if reassured by Miss Heredith's gracious smile, murmured that she had been so busy that she had very little time to herself.
"I thought they gave you an afternoon off every week at your place of employment," pursued Miss Heredith, seating herself in a chair which the housekeeper placed for her.
"Not always," replied Hazel. "At least, not lately. We have had such a lot of orders in."
"Do you like the millinery business, Hazel?"
"Very much indeed, Miss Heredith."
"Hazel is getting on nicely now," said her mother.
"I am very glad to hear it," responded Miss Heredith, in the same gracious manner. "You must come and see us oftener. I take a great interest in your welfare, Hazel. Now, Mrs. Rath."
There are faces which attract attention by the expression of the eyes, and the housekeeper's was one of them. Her face was thin, almost meagre, with sunken temples on which her greying hair was braided, but her large eyes were unnaturally bright, and had a strange look, at once timid and watchful. She now turned them on Miss Heredith as though she feared a rebuke.
"Mrs. Rath," said Miss Heredith, "I hope dinner will be served punctually at a quarter to seven this evening, as I arranged. And did you speak to cook about the poultry? She certainly should get more variety into her cooking."
"It is rather difficult for her just now, with the food controller allowing such a small quantity of butcher's meat," observed Mrs. Rath. "She really does her best."
"She manages very well on the whole, but she has many resources, such as poultry and game, which are denied to most households."
When Miss Heredith emerged from the housekeeper's room a little later she was quite satisfied that the dinner was likely to be as good as an arbitrary food controller would permit, and she ascended to her room to dress. In less than half an hour she reappeared, a rustling and dignified figure in black silk. She walked slowly along the passage from her room, and knocked at Mrs. Heredith's door.
"Come in!" cried a faint feminine voice within.
Miss Heredith opened the door gently, and entered the room. It was a spacious and ancient bedroom, with panelled walls and moulded ceiling. The Jacobean furniture, antique mirrors, and bedstead with silken drapings were in keeping with the room.
A girl of delicate outline and slender frame was lying on the bed. She was wearing a fashionable rest gown of soft silk trimmed with gold embroidery, her fair hair partly covered by a silk boudoir cap. By her side stood a small table, on which were bottles of eau-de-Cologne and lavender water, smelling salts in cut glass and silver, a gold cigarette case, and an open novel.
The girl sat up as Miss Heredith entered, and put her hands mechanically to her hair. Her fingers were loaded with jewels, too numerous for good taste, and amongst the masses of rings on her left hand the dull gold of the wedding ring gleamed in sober contrast. Her face was pretty, but too insignificant to be beautiful. She had large blue eyes under arching dark brows, small, regular features, and a small mouth with a petulant droop of the under lip. Her face was of the type which instantly attracts masculine attention. There was the lure of sex in the depths of the blue eyes, and provocativeness in the drooping lines of the petulant, slightly parted lips. There was a suggestion of meretriciousness in the tinted lips and the pretence of colour on the charming face. The close air of the room was drenched with the heavy atmosphere of perfumes, mingled with the pungent smell of cigarette smoke.
Miss Heredith took a seat by the bedside. The two women formed a striking contrast in types: the strong, rugged, practical country lady, and the fragile feminine devotee of beauty and personal adornment, who, in the course of time, was to succeed the other as the mistress of the moat-house. The difference went far beyond externals; there was a wide psychological gulf between them—the difference between a woman of healthy mind and calm, equable temperament, who had probably never bothered her head about the opposite sex, and a woman who was the neurotic product of a modern, nerve-ridden city; sexual in type, a prey to morbid introspection and restless desires.
The younger woman regarded Miss Heredith with a rather peevish glance of her large eyes. It was plain from the expression of her face that she disliked Miss Heredith and resented her intrusion, but it would have needed a shrewd observer to have deduced from Miss Heredith's face that her feeling towards her nephew's wife was one of dislike. There was nothing but constrained politeness in her voice as she spoke.
"How is your head now, Violet? Are you feeling any better?"
"No. My head is perfectly rotten." As she spoke, the girl pushed off her boudoir cap, and smoothed back the thick, fair hair from her forehead, with an impatient gesture, as though she found the weight intolerable.
"I am sorry you are still suffering. Will you be well enough to go to the Weynes' to-night?"
"I wouldn't dream of it. I wonder you can suggest it. It would only make me worse."
"Of course I shall explain to Mrs. Weyne. That is, unless you would like me to stay and sit with you. I do not like you to be left alone."
"There is not the slightest necessity for that," said Mrs. Heredith decisively. "Do go. I can ring for Lisette to sit with me if I feel lonely."
"Perhaps you would like Phil to remain with you?" suggested Miss Heredith.
"Oh, no! It would be foolish of him to stay away on my account. I want you all to go and enjoy yourselves, and not to fuss about me. At present I desire nothing so much as to be left alone."
"Very well, then." Miss Heredith rose at this hint. "Shall I send you up some dinner?"
"No, thank you. The housekeeper has just sent me some strong tea and dry toast. If I feel hungry later on I'll ring. But I shall try and sleep now."
"Then I will leave you. I have ordered dinner a little earlier than usual."
"What time is it now?" Violet listlessly looked at her jewelled wrist-watch as she spoke. "A quarter-past six—is that the right time?"
Miss Heredith consulted her own watch, suspended round her neck by a long thin chain.
"Yes, that is right."
"What time are you having dinner?"
"A quarter to seven."
"What's the idea of having it earlier?" asked the girl, propping herself up on her pillow with a bare white arm, and looking curiously at Miss Heredith.
"I have arranged for us to leave for the Weynes' at half-past seven. It is a long drive."
"I see." The girl nodded indifferently, as though her curiosity on the subject had subsided as quickly as it had arisen. "Well, I hope you will all have a good time." She yawned, and let her fair head fall back on the pillow. "Now I shall try and have a sleep. Please tell Phil not to disturb me. Tell him I've got one of my worst headaches. You are sure to be back late, and I don't want to be awakened."
She closed her eyes, and Miss Heredith turned to leave the room. As she passed the dressing-table her eyes fell upon a handsome jewel-case. As if struck by a sudden thought, she turned back to the bedside again.
"Violet," she said.
The girl half opened her eyes, and looked up at the elder woman from veiled lids. "Yes?" she murmured.
"Your necklace—I had almost forgotten. Mr. Musard goes back to town early in the morning, and he wishes to take it with him."
"Oh, it will have to wait until the morning. I don't know where the keys are, and I can't be bothered looking for them now." The girl turned her face determinedly away, and buried her head in the pillow, like a spoilt child.
Miss Heredith flushed slightly at the deliberate rudeness of the action, but did not press the request. She left the room, softly closing the door behind her. She walked slowly along the wide passage, hung with bugle tapestry, and paused for a while at a narrow window at the end of the gallery, looking out on the terrace gardens and soft green landscape beyond. The interview with her nephew's wife had tried her, and her reflections were rather bitter. For the twentieth time she asked herself why her nephew had fallen in love with this unknown girl from London, who loathed the country. From Miss Heredith's point of view, a girl who smoked and talked slang lacked all sense of the dignity of the high position to which she had been called, and was in every way unfitted to become the mother of the next male Heredith, if, indeed, she consented to bear an heir at all. It was Miss Heredith's constant regret that Phil had not married some nice girl of the county, in his own station of life, instead of a London girl.
Miss Heredith terminated her reflections with a sigh, and turned away from the window. She was above all things practical, and fully realized the folly of brooding over the inevitable, but the marriage of her nephew was a sore point with her. She proceeded in her stately way down the broad and shallow steps of the old staircase, hung with armour and trophies and family portraits. At the bottom of the stairs she encountered a manservant bearing a tray with sherry decanters and biscuits across the hall.
"Where is Mr. Philip?" she asked.
"I think he is in the billiard room, ma'am," the man replied.
Miss Heredith proceeded with rustling dignity to the billiard room. The click of billiard balls was audible before she reached it. The door was open, and inside the room several young men, mostly in khaki, were watching a game between a dark-haired man of middle age and a young officer. One or two of the men looked up as Miss Heredith entered, but the young officer went on stringing his break together with the mechanical skill of a billiard marker. Miss Heredith mentally characterized his action as another instance of the modern decay of manners. In her young days gentlemen always ceased playing when a lady entered the billiard room. The middle-aged player came forward, cue in hand, and asked her if she wanted anything.
"I am looking for Phil," she said. "I thought he was here."
"He was, but he has just gone to the library. He said he had some letters to write before dinner."
"Thank you." Miss Heredith turned away and walked to the library which, like the billiard room, was on the ground floor. She opened the door, and stepped into a large room with an interior which belonged to the middle ages. There was no intrusion of the twentieth-century in the great gloomy apartment with its faded arabesques and friezes, bronze candelabras, mediaeval fittings, and heavy time-worn furniture.
The young man who sat writing at an ancient writing-table in the room was not out of harmony with the ancient setting. His face was of antique type—long, and narrow, and his long straight dark hair, brushed back from his brow, was in curious contrast to the close crop of a military generation of young men. His eyes were dark, and set rather deeply beneath a narrow high white forehead. He had the Heredith eyebrows and high-bridged nose; but, apart from those traditional features of his line, his rather intellectual face and slight frame had little in common with the portraits of the massive war-like Herediths which hung on the walls around him. He ceased writing and looked up as his aunt entered.
"I have just been to see Violet," Miss Heredith explained. "She says she is no better, and will not be able to accompany us to the Weynes' to-night. I suggested remaining with her, but she would not hear of it. She says she prefers to be alone. Do you think it is right to leave her? I should like to have your opinion. You understand her best, of course."
"I think if Violet desires to be alone we cannot do better than study her wishes," replied Phil. "I know she likes to be left quite to herself when she has a nervous headache."
"In that case we will go," responded Miss Heredith. "I have decided to have dinner a quarter of an hour earlier to enable us to leave here at half-past seven."
"I see," said the young man. "Is Violet having any dinner?"
"No. She has just had some tea and toast, and now she is trying to sleep. She does not wish to be disturbed—she asked me to tell you so." Miss Heredith glanced at her watch. "Dear me, it is nearly half-past six! I must go. Tufnell is so dilatory when quickness is requisite."
"Did you remind Violet about the necklace?" asked Phil, as his aunt turned to leave the library.
"Yes. She said she would send it down in the morning, before Vincent leaves."
Phil nodded, and returned to his letters. Miss Heredith left the room, and proceeded along the corridor to the big dining-room. An elderly man servant, grey and clean-shaven, permitted a faint deferential smile to appear on his features as she entered.
"Is everything quite right, Tufnell?" she asked.
Tufnell, the staid old butler, who had inherited his place from his father, bowed gravely, and answered decorously:
"Everything is quite right, ma'am."
Miss Heredith walked slowly round the spacious table, adjusting a knife here, a fork there, and giving an added touch to the table decorations. There was not the slightest necessity for her to do so, because the appointments were as perfect as they could be made by the hands of old servants who knew their mistress and her ways thoroughly. But it was Miss Heredith's nightly custom, and Tufnell, standing by the carved buffet, watched her with an indulgent smile, as he had done every evening during the last ten years.
While Miss Heredith was thus engaged, the door opened and Sir Philip Heredith entered the room in company with an old family friend, Vincent Musard.
Sir Philip Heredith was a dignified figure of an English country gentleman of the old type. He was tall and thin, aristocratic of mien, with white hair and faded blue eyes. His face was not impressive. At first sight it seemed merely that of a tired old man, weary of the paltry exactions of life, and longing for rest; but, at odd moments, one caught a passing resemblance to a caged eagle in a swift turn of the falcon profile, or in a sudden flash of the old eyes beneath the straight Heredith brows. At such times the Heredith face—the warrior face of a long line of fierce fighters and freebooting ancestors—leaped alive in the ageing features of the last but one of the race.
His companion was a man of about fifty-five. His face was brown, as though from hot suns, his close-cropped hair was silver-grey, and he had the bold, clear-cut features of a man quick to make up his mind and accustomed to command. His eyes were the strangest feature of his dominating personality. They were small and black, and appeared almost lidless, with something in their dark direct gaze like the unwinking glare of a snake. His apparel was unconventional, even for war-time, consisting of a worn brown suit with big pockets in the jacket, and a soft collar, with a carelessly arranged tie. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a ruby ring of noticeable size and lustre.
Vincent Musard was a remarkable personality. He came of a good county family, which had settled in Sussex about the same time that the first Philip Heredith had burnt down the moat-house, but his family tree extended considerably beyond that period. If the name of Here-Deith was inscribed in the various versions of the Roll of Battle Abbey to be seen in the British Museum, the name of Musard was to be found in the French roll of "Les Compagnons de Guillaume a la Conquete de l'Angleterre en 1066," the one genuine and authentic list, which has received the stamp of the French Archaeological Society, and is carved in stone and erected in the Church of Dives on the coast of Normandy. Vincent Musard was the last survivor of an illustrious line, a bachelor, explorer, man of science, and connoisseur in jewels. He had been intended for the Church in his youth, but had quarrelled with it on a question of doctrine. Since then he had led a roving existence in the four corners of the earth, exploring, botanizing, shooting big game, and searching for big diamonds and rubies. He had written books on all sorts of out-of-the-way subjects, such as "The Flora of Chatham Islands," "Poisonous Spiders (genus Latrodectua) of Sardinia," "Fossil Reptilia and Moa Remains of New Zealand," and "Seals of the Antarctic." But his chief and greatest hobby was precious stones, of which he was a recognized expert.
His father had left him a comfortable fortune, but he had made another on his own account by his dealings in gems, which he collected in remote corners of the world and sold with great advantage to London dealers. He was intimately acquainted with all the known mines and pearl fisheries of the world, but his success as a dealer in jewels was largely due to the fact that he searched for them off the beaten track. He had explored Cooper's Creek for white sapphires, the Northern Territory for opals, and had once led an expedition into German New Guinea in search of diamonds, where he had narrowly escaped being eaten by cannibals.
The passage of time had not tamed the fierce restlessness of his disposition. Although he was not quite such a rover as of yore, the discovery of a new diamond field in Brazil, or the news of a new pearl bed in southern seas, was sufficient to set him packing for another jaunt half round the world. He was the oldest friend of the Herediths, and Miss Heredith, in particular, had a high opinion of his qualities. Musard, on his part, made no secret of the fact that he regarded Miss Heredith as the best of living women. It had, indeed, been rumoured in the county a quarter of a century before that Vincent Musard and Alethea Heredith were "going to make a match of it."
It was, perhaps, well for both that the match was never made. Musard had departed for one of his tours into the wilds of the world, not to return to England until five years had elapsed. Their mutual attraction was the attraction of opposites. There was nothing in common except mutual esteem between a wild, tempestuous being like Musard, who rushed through life like a whirlwind, for ever seeking new scenes in primitive parts of the earth, and the tranquil mistress of the moat-house, who had rarely been outside her native county, and revolved in the same little circle year after year, happy in her artless country pursuits and simple pleasures.
Of late years, Musard had spent most of his brief stays in England with the Herediths. He had his own home, which was not far from the moat-house, but he was a companionable man, and preferred the warm welcome and kindly society of his old friends to the solitary existence of a bachelor at Brandreth Hall, as his own place was named.
He had recently returned to England after a year's wanderings in the southern hemisphere, and had arrived at the moat-house on the previous day, bringing with him a dried alligator's head with gaping jaws, a collection of rare stuffed birds and snakeskins for Phil, who had a taste in that direction, and a carved tiki god for Miss Heredith. He had also brought with him his Chinese servant, two kea parrots, and a mat of white feathers from the Solomon Islands, which he used on his bed instead of an eiderdown quilt when the nights were cold. He had left in his London banker's strong room his latest collection of precious stones, after forwarding anonymously to Christie's a particularly fine pearl as a donation towards the British Red Cross necklace.
Musard's present stay at the moat-house was to be a brief one. The British Government, on learning of his return to his native land, had asked him to go over to the front to adjust some trouble which had arisen between the head-men of a Kaffir labour compound. As Musard's wide knowledge of African tribes rendered him peculiarly fitted for such a task, he had willingly complied with the request, and was to go to France on the following day.
Miss Heredith had taken advantage of his brief visit to consult him about the Heredith pearl necklace—a piece of jewellery which was perhaps more famous than valuable, as some of the pearls were nearly three hundred years old. Sir Philip had given it to Violet when she married Phil. But Violet had locked it away in her jewel-case and never worn it. She had said, only the night before, that the setting of the clasp was old-fashioned, and the pearls dull with age. Miss Heredith, although much hurt, had realized that there was some truth in the complaint, and she had asked Musard for his advice. Musard had expressed the opinion that perhaps the pearls were in need of the delicate operation known as "skinning," and had offered to take the necklace to London and obtain the opinion of a Hatton Garden expert of his acquaintance.
Vincent Musard smiled at Miss Heredith in friendly fashion as he entered the dining-room, and Sir Philip greeted his sister with polite, but somewhat vague courtesy. Sir Philip's manner to everybody was distinguished by perfect urbanity, which was so impersonal and unvarying as to suggest that it was not so much a compliment to those upon whom it was bestowed as a duty which he felt he owed to himself to perform with uniform exactitude.
Musard began to talk about the arrangements for his departure the following day, and asked Tufnell about the trains. On learning that the first train to London was at eight o'clock, he expressed his intention of catching it.
"Is it necessary for you to go so early, Vincent?" inquired Miss Heredith. "Could you not take a later train?"
"I daresay I could. Why do you ask?"
"I was thinking about the necklace. Violet was too unwell to give it to me to-night, and she may not be awake so early in the morning. I should like you to take it with you, if it could be managed."
"I can take a later train. It will suit me as well."
"Is Violet unable to go with us to the Weynes' to-night?" said Sir Philip, glancing at his sister.
"Yes; her head is too bad."
"It is a pity we have to go without her, as the party is given in her honour. Of course, we must go."
"Where is her necklace?" asked Musard. "Is it in the safe?"
"No," replied Miss Heredith. "It is in Violet's room, in her jewel-case."
"Well, as Mrs. Heredith will be alone in the house to-night, I think it would be wise if you locked it in the safe," said Musard. "There are many servants in the house."
"I think that is quite unnecessary, Vincent. Our servants are all trustworthy."
"Quite so, but several of your guests have brought their own servants—maids and valets."
"Very well. If you think so, Vincent, I will see to it after dinner."
The conversation was terminated by the sound of the dinner-gong. The guests came down to dinner in ones and twos, and assembled in the drawing-room before proceeding to the dining-room. The men who were not in khaki were dressed for dinner. The gathering formed a curious mixture of modern London and ancient England. The London guests, who were in the majority, consisted of young officers, some young men from the War Office and the Foreign Office, a journalist or two, and the ladies Miss Heredith had entertained at tea on the lawn. These people had been invited because they were friends of the young couple, and not because they were anybody particular in the London social or political world, though one or two of the young men had claims in that direction. Mingled with this very modern group were half a dozen representatives of old county families, who had been invited by Miss Heredith.
The party sat down to dinner. There were one or two murmurs of conventional regret when Miss Heredith explained the reason of Mrs. Heredith's vacant place, but the majority of the London guests—particularly the female portion—recognized the illness as a subterfuge and accepted it with indifference. If Mrs. Heredith was bored with her guests they, on their part, were tired of their visit. The house party had not been a success. The London visitors found the fixed routine of life in a country house monotonous and colourless, and were looking forward to the termination of their visit. The life they had led for the past fortnight was not their way of life. They met each morning for breakfast at nine o'clock—Miss Heredith was a stickler for the mid-Victorian etiquette of everybody sitting down together at the breakfast table. After breakfast the men wandered off to their own devices for killing time: some to play a round of golf, others to go shooting or fishing, generally not reappearing until dinner-time. After dinner they played billiards or auction bridge, and the ladies knitted war socks or sustained themselves till bedtime with copious draughts of the mild stimulant supplied by their favourite lady novelists. At half-past ten o'clock Tufnell entered with a tray of glasses, and the guests partook of a little refreshment. At eleven Miss Heredith bade her visitors a stately good-night, and they retired to their bedrooms. The great lady of the moat-house was a firm believer in the axiom that a woman should be mistress in her own household, and she saw no reason why her guests should not adopt her way of life while under her roof. She was a country woman born and bred, believing in the virtues of an early bed and early rising, and she was not to be put out of her decorous regular way of living by Londoners who turned night into day with theatres, late suppers, night clubs, and other pernicious forms of amusement which Miss Heredith had read about in the London papers.
Dinner at the moat-house was a solemn and ceremonious function. In accordance with the time-honoured tradition of the family, it was served at the early hour of seven o'clock in the big dining-room, an ancient chamber panelled with oak to the ceiling, with a carved buffet, an open fireplace, Jacobean mantelpiece, and old family portraits on the walls. There were sconces on the walls, and a crystal chandelier for wax candles was suspended from the centre of the ceiling above the table. The chandelier was never lit, as the moat-house was illuminated by electric light, but it looked very pretty, and was the apple of Miss Heredith's eye—as the maidservants were aware, to their cost.
The dinner that night was, as usual, very simple, as befitted a patriotic English household in war-time, but the wines made up for the lack of elaborate cooking. Sir Philip Heredith and his sister followed their King's example of abstaining from wine during the duration of war, but it was not in accordance with Sir Philip's idea of hospitality to enforce abstinence on their guests, and the men, at all events, sipped the rare old products of the Heredith cellars with unqualified approval, enhanced by painful recollections of the thin war claret and sugared ports of London clubs. Such wine, they felt, was not to be passed by. Of the young men, Phil Heredith alone drank water, not for the same reason as his father, but because he had always been a water drinker.
Under the influence of the good wine the guests brightened up considerably as the meal proceeded. Sir Philip, in his old-fashioned way, raised his glass of aerated water to one and another of the young men. He was an ideal host, and his unfailing polished courtesy hid the fact that he was looking forward to the break up of the party with a relief akin to that felt by the majority of his guests. Conversation had been confined to monosyllables at first, but became quite flourishing and animated as the dinner went on. Miss Heredith smiled and looked pleased. As a hostess, she liked to see her guests happy and comfortable, even if she did not like her guests.
The conversation was mainly about the war: the Allies' plans and hopes and fears. Several of the young men from London gave their views with great authority, criticising campaigns and condemning generals. Phil Heredith listened to this group without speaking. Two country gentlemen in the vicinity also listened in silence. They were amazed to hear such famous military names, whom they had been led by their favourite newspapers to regard as the hope of the country's salvation, criticised so unmercifully by youngsters.
"And do you think the war will soon be over, Mr. Brimley?" said a feminine voice, rather loudly, during a lull in the conversation. The speaker was a near neighbour and friend of Miss Heredith's, Mrs. Spicer, who was not a member of the house party, but had been invited to dinner that night and was going to the Weynes' afterwards. She was stout and fresh-faced, and looked thoroughly good-natured and kind-hearted.
She addressed her question to a tall young man with prematurely grey hair, prominent eyes, and a crooked nose. His name was Brimley, and he was well-known in London journalism. His portrait occasionally appeared in the picture papers as "one of the young lions of Fleet Street," but his enemies preferred to describe him as one of Lord Butterworth's jackals—Lord Butterworth being the millionaire proprietor of an influential group of newspapers which, during the war, had stood for "the last drop of blood and the last shilling" rallying cry. As one of the foremost of this group of patriots, Mr. Brimley had let his ink flow so freely in the Allies' cause that it was whispered amongst those "in the know" that he was certain for a knighthood, or at least an Empire Order, in the next list of honours.
Mr. Brimley looked at the speaker haughtily, and made an inaudible reply. Although he was a lion of Fleet Street, he did not relish being called upon to roar in the wilds of Sussex.
"Won't the poor German people be delighted when our troops march across the Rhine to deliver them from militarism," continued the old lady innocently.
There was a subdued titter from the younger girls at this, and a young officer sitting near the bottom of the table laughed aloud, then flushed suddenly at his breach of manners.
"Have I said something foolish?" asked the old lady placidly. "Please tell me if I have—I don't mind."
"Not at all," said another young officer, with a beardless sunburnt face. "Personally, I quite agree with you. The Germans ought to be jolly well pleased to be saved from their beastly selves."
"What a number of land girls you have in this part of the world, Miss Heredith," remarked the young officer who had laughed, as though anxious to turn the conversation. "I saw several while I was out shooting to-day, and very charming they looked. I had no idea that sunburn was so becoming to a girl's complexion. I saw one girl who had been riding a horse through the woods, and she looked like what's-her-name—Diana. She had bits of green stuff sticking all over her, and cobwebs in her hair."
"That reminds me of a good story," exclaimed a chubby-faced youth in the uniform of the Flying Corps. "You'll appreciate it, Denison. Old Graham, of the Commissariat, was out golfing the other day, and he turned up at the club all covered with cobwebs. Captain Harding, of our lot, who was just back in Blighty from eighteen months over there, said to him, 'Hullo, Graham, I see you've been down at the War Office.' Ha, ha!"
The other young men in khaki joined in the laugh, but a tall gaunt man with an authoritative glance, the Denison referred to, looked rather angry. Miss Heredith, with a hostess's watchful tact for the suspectibilities of her guests, started to talk about a show for allotment holders which had been held in the moat-house grounds a few weeks before. It seemed that most of the villagers were allotment holders, and the show had been held to stimulate their patriotic war efforts to increase the national food supply. The village had entered into it with great spirit, and some wonderful specimens of fruit, vegetables, poultry and rabbits had been exhibited.
"The best part of it was that Rusher, my own gardener, was beaten badly in every class," put in Sir Philip, with a smile.
"Not in every class," corrected Miss Heredith. "The peaches and nectarines from the walled garden were awarded first prize."
"Rusher was beaten in the vegetable classes—in giant vegetable marrows and cabbages," retorted Sir Philip, with a chuckle. "He hasn't got over it yet. He suspects the vicar of favouritism in awarding the prizes. The fact that his daughter won first prize for rabbits with a giant Belgian did little to console him."
"And we raised quite a respectable sum for the Red Cross by charging threepence admission to see a stuffed menagerie of Phil's," added Miss Heredith.
"A stuffed menagerie! What a curious thing," remarked a young lady.
"Not quite a menagerie," said Sir Philip. "Merely the stuffed remains of some animals Phil used to keep as a youngster. When they died—as they invariably did—he used to skin them and stuff them. He was quite an expert taxidermist."
"Tell them about your museum exhibit, Philip," said Miss Heredith, with quite an animated air.
"We also arranged a little exhibition of—er—old things," continued Sir Philip diffidently. "Armour, miniatures, some old jewels, and things like that. That also brought in quite a respectable sum for the Red Cross."
"From the Heredith collection, I presume?" said Mr. Brimley.
"What wonderful old treasures you must have in this wonderful old house of yours," gushed the young lady who had spoken before. "I am so disappointed in not seeing the Heredith pearl necklace. What a pity dear Mrs. Heredith is ill. She was going to wear the pearls to-night, and now I shall have to go away without seeing them."
Sir Philip bowed. He did not quite relish the trend of the conversation, but he was too well-bred to show it.
"You shall see the pearls in the morning," said Miss Heredith courteously.
"I adore pearls," sighed the guest.
"If you admire pearls, you should see the collection which is being made for the British Red Cross," remarked Vincent Musard. "I had a private view the other day. It is a truly magnificent collection."
All eyes were turned on the speaker. The topic interested every lady present, and they were aware that Musard was one of the foremost living authorities on jewels. The men had all heard of the famous traveller by repute, and they wanted to listen to what he had to say. Musard seemed rather embarrassed to find himself the object of general attention, and went on with his dinner in silence. But some of the ladies were determined not to lose the opportunity of learning something from such a well-known expert on a subject so dear to their hearts, and they plied him with eager questions.
"It must be a wonderful collection," said a slight and slender girl named Garton, with blue eyes and red hair. She was a lady journalist attached to Mr. Brimley's paper. Twenty years ago she would have been called an advanced woman. She believed in equality for the sexes in all things, and wrote articles on war immorality, the "social evil" and kindred topics in a frank unabashed way which caused elderly old-fashioned newspaper readers much embarrassment. Miss Garton was just as eager as the more frivolous members of her sex to hear about the Red Cross pearls, and begged Mr. Musard to give her some details. She would have to do a "write up" about the necklace when she returned to London, she said, and any information from Mr. Musard would be so helpful.
"It is not a single necklace," said Musard. "There are about thirty necklaces. The Red Cross committee have already received nearly 4,000 pearls, and more are coming in every day."
"Four thousand pearls!" "How perfectly lovely!" "How I should love to see them!" These feminine exclamations sounded from different parts of the table.
"I suppose the collection is a very fine and varied one?" observed Sir Philip.
"Undoubtedly. The committee have had the advice of the best experts in London, who have given much time to grading the pearls for the different necklaces. In an ordinary way it takes a long while—sometimes years—to match the pearls for a faultless necklace, but in this case the experts have had such a variety brought to their hands that their task has been comparatively easy. But in spite of the skilful manner in which the necklaces have been graded, it is even now a simple matter for the trained eye to identify a number of the individual pearls. The largest, a white pearl of pear shape, weighing 72 grains, would be recognized by any expert anywhere. There are several other pearls over thirty grains which the trained eye would recognize with equal ease in any setting. The few pink and black pearls are all known to collectors, and it is the same with the clasps. One diamond and ruby clasp is as well-known in jewel history as the State Crown. The diamonds are in the form of a Maltese Cross, set in a circle of rubies."
"That must have been the gift of the Duchess of Welburton," remarked Sir Philip. "She inherited it from her great aunt, Adelina, wife of the third duke. There was a famous pearl necklace attached to the clasp once, but it disappeared about ten years ago at a ball given by the German Ambassador, Prince Litzovny. I remember there was a lot of talk about it at the time, but the necklace was never recovered. The clasp, too, has a remarkable history."
"All great jewels have," said Musard. "In fact, all noteworthy stones have dual histories. Their career as cut and polished gems is only the second part. Infinitely more interesting is the hidden history of each great jewel, from the discovery of the rough stone to the period when it reaches the hands of the lapidary, to be polished and cut for a drawing-room existence. What a record of intrigue and knavery, stabbings and poisonings, connected with some of the greatest jewels in the British Crown—the Black Prince's ruby, for example!"
Musard gazed thoughtfully at the great ruby on his own finger as he ceased speaking. The guests had finished dinner, and Miss Heredith, with a watchful eye on the big carved clock which swung a sedate pendulum by the fireplace, beckoned Tufnell to her and directed him to serve coffee and liqueurs at table.
"What is your favourite stone, Mr. Musard?" said a bright-eyed girl sitting near him, after coffee had been served.
"Personally I have a weakness for the ruby," replied Musard. "Its intrinsic value has been greatly discounted in these days of synthetic stones, but it is still my favourite, largely, I suppose, because a perfect natural ruby is so difficult to find. I remember once journeying three thousand miles up the Amazon in search of a ruby reputed to be as large as a pigeon's egg. But it did not exist—it was a myth."
"What a life yours has been!" said the girl. "How different from the humdrum existence of us stay-at-homes! How I should like to hear some of your adventures. They must be thrilling."
"If you want to hear a real thrilling adventure, Miss Finch, you should get Mr. Musard to tell you how he came by that ruby he is wearing," said Phil Heredith, joining in the conversation.
The eyes of all the guests were directed to the ring which Musard was wearing on the little finger of his left hand. The stone in the plain gold setting was an unusually large one, nearly an inch in length. The stone had been polished, not cut, and glowed rather than sparkled with a deep rich red—the true "pigeon's-blood" tint so admired by connoisseurs.
"Nonsense, Phil"—Musard flushed under his brown skin—"your guests do not want to hear me talk any more about myself. I've monopolized the conversation too long already."
"Oh, please do tell us!" exclaimed several of the guests.
"Really, you know, I'd rather not," responded Musard, in some embarrassment. "It's a long story, for one thing, and it's not quite—how shall I express it—it's a bit on the horrible side to relate in the presence of ladies."
"I do not think that need deter you," remarked one of the young officers drily. "We are all pretty strong-minded nowadays—since the War."
"Oh, we should love to hear it," said the lady journalist, who scented good "copy." "Shouldn't we?" she added, turning to some of the ladies near her.
"Yes, indeed!" chorused the other ladies. "Do tell us."
"Go ahead, Musard—you see you can't get out of it," said Phil.
"Perhaps, Phil, as Mr. Musard does not think it a suitable story—" commenced Miss Heredith tentatively. Her eye was fixed anxiously on the clock, which was verging on twenty minutes past seven, and she feared the relation of her old friend's experience might make them late at the Weynes. But at that moment Tufnell approached his mistress and caught her eye. A slight shade of annoyance crossed her brow as she listened to something he communicated in a low voice, and she turned to her guests.
"I must ask you to excuse me for a few moments," she said.
She rose from her place and left the room. As the door closed behind her the ladies turned eagerly to Musard.
"Now, please, tell us about the ruby," said several in unison.
The explorer glanced at the eager faces looking towards him.
"Very well, I will tell you the story," he said quietly, but with visible reluctance.
"It was before the war. Many strange things have happened in the world before the Boche broke loose with his dream of 'Deutschland ueber Alles.' I had been to Melville Island trying to match a pearl for the Devonshire necklace, and I went from the pearl fisheries to New Zealand, led there by rumours of the discovery of some wonderful black pearls. It was, however, a wild-goose chase. These rumours generally are. One of the experts of the New Zealand Fishery Department had been exploring the Haurakai Gulf, and returned to Auckland with a number of black pearls, which he had found in an oyster-bed on one of the Barrier Islands. He thought his fortune was made, though, being a fishery expert, he ought to have known better. They were black pearls right enough, but they came from edible oysters, and were valueless as jewels—not worth a shilling each.
"I put up at the Royal hotel, Auckland, waiting for a ship to take me back to England. I had arranged to return round the Cape, to look at a parcel of diamonds which were expected to arrive at Capetown from the fields in about six weeks' time. The day before I was due to sail, a rough-looking man named Moynglass, a miner, came to the hotel to see me. He had heard of me as a mining expert, and he had a business proposition which he wanted to place before me.
"He told me he and four others had just returned to Auckland after putting in six weeks among the volcanic beaches of the North Island, searching—'fossicking,' he called it—for fine gold. These black sand volcanic beaches are common in parts of New Zealand. The black sand is derived from the crystals of magnetic iron, and there is frequently a fair amount of fine gold mingled with them. By the continued action of the surf the heavier materials, gold, and ironstone sand, are mingled together between high and low water mark, and what appears as a stratum of black sand is found on the surface or buried under the ordinary sand. The gold is usually very fine, and the trouble of sifting and collecting it is great. A man works for wages, and hard-earned wages at that, who goes in for this kind of mining. But your true miner is ever an adventurer and a gambler, and gold thus won is dearer to his heart than gold which might be earned with less effort and more regularity in the form of sovereigns. You see, there is always the chance of a big find.
"Moynglass and his party had met with fair success along the beaches, but they wanted more than that. Moynglass was anxious to trace the fine gold to its source, and find a fortune. He believed, like most miners, that this fine gold is carried along the beds of the larger rivers and distributed by the action of the sea along the different beaches where it is found. His theory was that if the drift of the gold sands could be traced to their source, a great quartz reef would be found which would make the discoverers wealthy men. But he and his mates knew nothing about geology, and they wanted somebody to go with them who could chart the course, and lead them to the launching point of the gold.
"I had heard this theory before, and was not impressed by it. I should probably have turned down Moynglass's proposition if, in the course of his conversation, he had not produced a sample of ruby quartz from his pocket and showed it to me. He said he had found it while exploring one of the rivers of the Urewera country. I examined the quartz attentively. It was emery rock, and imbedded in the pale green mass were ruby crystals, and true Oriental rubies at that. I realized the valuable nature of the discovery, and questioned the man closely as to where he had obtained the ruby rock, but he became instantly suspicious, and guarded in his replies. If I joined his party—well and good: he would show me the spot, and we would share and share alike, but he would tell me nothing otherwise.
"I decided to go, and the terms were agreed upon. We set out from Auckland, the five of us, a week later. We went by coastal steamer to a little port in the Bay of Plenty, and there we plunged into the Urewera Mountains. My companions thought of nothing but the search for the source of the golden sands, but I was interested only in the ruby rock. There lay the fortune, if I could find it. I carried the specimen of corundum in my waistcoat pocket.
"The river we were ascending to its source was called the Araheoa. It was a rushing, noisy torrent, winding along a deep and narrow gorge, which in places almost met overhead. Some patches of olivine and serpentine encouraged me to think that we should find a heavy belt of the rock somewhere along the upper part of the valley, but my hopes were not realized. Day after day passed, and I found no more of it. When my companions washed the sands of likely stretches of river beach for fine gold, I examined the waste for corundum crystals, but I found no signs of them.
"We followed the river until we reached an inaccessible mountain gorge which seemed to bar our further progress. But, by diverting our course some miles to the northward, we were able to ascend to the upper reaches of the river, and, here, to my delight, I found the banks and rapids studded with great green masses of olivine rocks.
"I was anxious to examine these rocks, which extended up the mountain side, and my companions agreed with me that it was advisable to leave the bed of the river for the spur of the mountains where the river apparently took its rise. We crossed the stream, and commenced a gradual but oblique ascent of the spur. But after climbing for some hours we found our further progress stopped by a wide and deep gully, a sinister place, full of masses of dark green rocks. At the foot of one of the largest of these rocks we came across a large hole descending almost perpendicularly into the earth.
"We lit our lamps and descended. After some scrambling we found ourselves on a landing-place, from which another low passage of an easier gradient led into a large cave in the solid rock.
"The surface underneath our feet was covered with a dust so fine that it slipped from beneath us like sand, and rose in thick clouds about us. The cave was high enough to walk upright in, and seemed to run a great distance, with many lateral passages and smaller recesses off the principal chamber. Moynglass entered one of these passages and disappeared from view. A few moments afterwards we heard him, in a very excited voice, calling us to follow him.
"We proceeded stooping, in Indian file, down the passage, and found Moynglass in a smaller cave at the end of it, staring intently at something which was at first difficult to see in the gloom. Then, by the light of our lamps, we made out a sapling sticking up between two rocks, with a withered human hand impaled on it by a rusty sheath knife.
"As I was examining it, one of my companions, who had been exploring the cave, gave a cry of astonishment which caused me to look round. In a corner of the cave, revealed by his lamp, lay two skeletons side by side. The hand of one skeleton was missing, and in the eye of the other there gleamed a large uncut ruby. We examined the skeletons and searched the cave, but found nothing to throw any light on the mystery or reveal any clue of identity. There was not a vestige of food or clothing around the remains, and not a scrap of writing—only the two crumbling skeletons, the sapling, the sheath knife, and the ruby.
"What had brought about such a tragedy in the dim recesses of that prehistoric cave? Who could say? Perhaps the men had been prospecting together, and one had found the ruby and hidden in the cave, where his companion had found him and cut off his right hand with some primitive idea of making his vengeance fit the crime. Then, perhaps, they had been unable to escape from the cave, and had died together of thirst and hunger. But what is the use of speculating? The secret must ever remain hidden in the cave where the skeletons still lie."
Musard stopped abruptly, and sat staring straight in front of him. His strange eyes had a fixed look, as if gazing into the distance. His brown hand rested lightly on the white tablecloth, and the great ruby on his little finger gleamed fitfully in the light.
"You haven't told us all the story yet," said Phil Heredith quietly.
The other looked doubtfully at the ring of intent faces regarding him. "I left that part untold for a good reason," he admitted. "It is—well, I thought it a little bit too horrible to relate."
"Oh, do tell us," said the lady journalist enthusiastically. "We are all dying to hear it. It is such an unusual and exciting story that it would be cruel to leave us in suspense about the end."
"Very well, then," said Musard, as the other ladies chorused their approval. "We left the cave, and Moynglass, who considered himself the leader of the expedition, put the ruby in his pocket. That night we camped at a wild desolate spot, not far from the edge of a cliff about two hundred feet high, at the foot of which the bitter sulphurous waters of the river flowed into a chasm. In the morning we found Moynglass lying dead in his blanket, with the rusty sheath knife he had brought away from the cave sticking in his breast. The ruby was gone, and, so, also, was the eldest member of our party—an elderly dark-faced Irishman named Doyne, who, the previous day, had angrily disputed Moynglass's right to carry the ruby.
"We searched for Doyne all that day, but could find no trace of him. The next day we tracked across a glacier-like expanse littered with large blocks of sandstone. It was a grim spot. A horrible, stony, treeless waste which might have been the birthplace of the earth and the scene of Creation—a tableland between great mountains, full of masses of rhodonite contorted into grotesque shapes of stone images; a place where our lightest whispers came shouting back out of the profound stillness from the huge castellated black rocks bristling on the edge of a precipice which slit the valley from end to end.
"It was there we found Doyne, staggering along the lip of the gorge. He had gone mad in the solitude, and was wandering along bareheaded, tossing his arms in the air as he walked. When I saw him I thought of Cain trying to escape from the wrath of God after killing Abel. He saw us as soon as we saw him, and started to run. We set out in pursuit, but he fled with great speed, leaping from rock to rock like a mountain goat. He was getting away from us when he slipped and fell into the chasm with a loud cry. We found a path down the precipice and descended, and discovered him at the foot, battered to death, with the ruby clutched in his hand. That ended the expedition. The others insisted on returning to the coast without delay, and when we arrived there they gladly sold their shares in the ruby to me."
There was rather a long silence when the explorer had finished his narration. The long hand of the clock on the mantelpiece was creeping past the half-hour, but the circle round the dining-room table had been so enthralled by the story that nobody had noted the passage of time.
"What a ghastly adventure, Mr. Musard!" began one of the ladies, with a mirthless little laugh. "Did you never discover anything more about the two dead men in the cave?"
"No," replied Musard. "As I said, there were no papers or any clue to throw light on their identity. The skeletons must have lain there for many years, for the bones were crumbling into decay."
"You have never revisited the spot?" asked Sir Philip.
"I was in the Ureweras two years later with a Maori guide, investigating copper deposits for the New Zealand Government, but I did not go back to the valley."
"Would it not have been possible to give the poor things—the skeletons, I mean—Christian burial?" Mrs. Spicer asked timidly.
"It was impossible to dig a grave in the solid rock. Besides, they have a sepulchre of Nature's which will outlast any human grave," replied Musard.
"The thing that puzzles me is how the ruby got into the skeleton's eye," remarked the lady journalist musingly. "If that was the skeleton of the man who killed the other for stealing the ruby, who placed the ruby where you found it? Obviously, he could not have done it himself, for it must have been put there after death. Who, then, could it have been?"
"I have no idea," said Musard, in a tone which suggested that he did not care to discuss the subject further.
"May I look at the ring?" Miss Garton asked.
Musard drew it off his finger and handed it to her in silence. The others wanted to see it, so it was passed from hand to hand round the table, to the accompaniment of many admiring comments on the size and beauty of the stone. One of the young officers, with an air of much interest, asked Musard whether he thought there were other rubies like it to be found near the spot.
"Hardly in that form," replied Musard. "It is a puzzle to me how the men who found the ruby managed to get it out of the ruby rock and partially polish it. They had no tools or instruments of any kind—at least, we found none in the cave. Undoubtedly there are rubies in that part of the world. It was near the valley that Moynglass found his sample of corundum, with a ruby crystal in it. On our way back, at the head of the valley, I came across a belt of magnesian rocks charged with ores of copper and iron, and probably containing the matrix of ruby crystals."
"I wonder you wear the thing," said the chubby-faced youth of the Flying Corps, handing the ring across the table to the explorer.
"Why not?" asked Musard.
"Well, I wouldn't care to wear a ring found in a skeleton's head. I should expect the old bus to flop to the ground while I was doing a stunt, if I had a thing like that on my finger. Aren't you frightened of being haunted by the original owner?"
"Oh, I don't know," replied Musard indifferently. "There's a horrible history attached to most jewels, if it comes to that. I am not superstitious." He replaced the ring on his finger, and added thoughtfully: "I suppose many people would regard it in that light—as a grim sort of relic. Certainly, I shall never forget the valley of rocks where we found it. It was the strangest place I have ever seen—a 'waste howling wilderness.' And sometimes I fancy I can still hear the cry Doyne gave as he slipped or jumped from one of the black rocks into space. I remember how it came ringing back from the cliffs a hundred times repeated. It was—"
He broke off suddenly, as a scream pealed through the moat-house—a wild shrill cry, which, coming from somewhere overhead, seemed to fill the dining-room with the shuddering, despairing intensity of its appeal. It was the shriek of a woman in terror.
The ladies at the dinner table regarded one another with frightened eyes and blanched faces.
"What was that?" several of them whispered together.
"It came from Violet's room! My God, what has happened?" exclaimed Phil. He sprang to his feet in agitation and pushed back his chair. His face was white, his mouth drawn, and he fumbled at his throat with a shaking hand, as though the pressure of his collar impeded his breathing. Musard rose from the table and walked to where the young man was standing.
"Don't get upset needlessly, Phil," he said soothingly, placing a hand on his shoulder.
Sir Philip had also risen from his seat, and for the briefest possible space the three men stood thus, facing each other, as if uncertain how to act. Then the tense silence of the dining-room was broken by the loud report of a fire-arm.
"Let me go!" cried Phil shrilly, shaking off Musard's arm. He turned and limped rapidly towards the door, and as he did so his infirmity of body was apparent. One of his legs was several inches shorter than the other, and he wore a high boot.
Musard reached the door before him in a few rapid strides, and Sir Philip came hurrying after his son. The rest of the male guests followed, flocking towards the door in a body.
The first sight that Musard's eye fell upon as he passed through the doorway was the figure of Miss Heredith, rapidly descending the staircase. By the hall light he could see that her face was pale and agitated. She walked swiftly up to her old friend, and laid a trembling hand on his arm.
"Oh, Vincent, I was just coming for you—something terrible must have happened!" she began, in a broken, sobbing voice. "I was going upstairs to my room, when I heard the scream, and then the shot. They must have come from Violet's room. Will you go up and see, Vincent?"
Musard did not wait for her concluding words. He was already mounting the staircase, taking two or three of the broad shallow stairs in his stride. Phil hobbled after him, and Sir Philip and some of the guests straggled up in their wake.
A shaded light in an alcove at the head of the stairs threw a dim light down the passage which led off the first-floor landing, but Musard felt for the electric switch and pressed it. The light flooded an empty corridor, with the door of the room nearest to him gaping into a dark interior.
Musard stepped inside the open door, struck a match to find the switch, and walked over and turned on the light. As he did so, Phil and his father reached the door and followed him into the room, where, less than two hours before, Miss Heredith had been with Phil's young wife, and left her to sleep. The room seemed as it had been then; there was no sign of any intruder. The cut-glass and silver bottles stood on the small table by the head of the bed; the gold cigarette case was open alongside them; a novel, flung face downward on the pillows, revealed a garish cover and the bold lettering of the title—"What Shall it Profit?"—as though the book had dropped from the hand of some one overcome by sleep. But the white rays of the electric globe, hanging in a shade of rose colour directly overhead, fell with sinister distinctness on the slender figure of the young wife, lying in a huddled heap on the bed, her fashionable rest gown stained with blood, which oozed from her breast in a sluggish stream on the satin quilt. A sharp, pungent odour was mingled with the heavy atmosphere of the room—the smell of a burning fabric. There was no disorder, no weapon, no indication of a struggle. Only the motionless, bleeding figure on the bed revealed to the guests clustering outside the room that somebody had entered and departed as silently as a tiger.
Musard went swiftly to the bedside and bent over the girl.
"She has been shot," he said, in a tone which was little more than a whisper.
"She has been murdered!" It was Phil, pressing close behind Musard, who uttered these words. "Murdered!" he cried, in an unnatural voice, which was dreadful to hear. He made a few steps in the direction of the bed with his arms outstretched, then stopped, and, swinging round, faced the guests who were thronging the corridor outside. "Murdered, I say!" he repeated. "Where is the murderer?"
He stood for a moment, fixing a wild eye on the group of frightened faces in the doorway, as though seeking the murderer among them. Then his face became distorted, and he fell to the ground. His limbs seemed to grow rigid as he lay; his legs were extended stiffly, the upper part of his arms were pressed against his breast, but the forearms inclined forward, with the palms of the hand thrown back, and the fingers wide apart. Even in his unconsciousness he looked as though he were warding off the horror of the sight which had stricken him to the ground.
In the presence of domestic calamity human nature betrays its inherent weakness. At such times the artificial outer covering of civilization falls away, and the soul stands forth, stark, primitive, forlorn, and cries aloud. The strain of the tremendous tragedy which had entered his house, swift-footed and silent, was too much for Sir Philip. He sank on his knees by the side of his unconscious son, whimpering like a child—a weak and helpless old man. There was no trace of the dignity of the Herediths or pride of race in the wrinkled face, now distorted with the pitiful grin of senility, as Sir Philip crouched over his son, stroking his face with feeble fingers.
One or two of the women in the passage became hysterical. The young men looked on awkwardly, with grave faces, not knowing what to do. There was something very English in their shy aloofness; in their dislike of intruding in the room unasked.
Musard, looking round from the bedside, glanced briefly at the prostrate figure of Phil, and then his gleaming eyes travelled to the group at the doorway. He, at all events, was calm, and master of himself.
"The ladies had better go downstairs," he said, speaking in a subdued voice, but with decision. "They can do no good here. And will you two"—he singled out two of the young men with his eye—"carry Phil downstairs? He has only fainted. Please take Sir Philip away also. Telephone for Dr. Holmes immediately, and send for Sergeant Lumbe. And some of you young men search the house thoroughly—at once. No, not this room. Search the house from top to bottom, and the grounds outside. Be quick! There is no time to be lost."
The group in the doorway melted away. The ladies, pale-faced and weeping, went downstairs together like a flock of frightened birds, and the young men, only too glad to obey somebody who showed nerve and resolution at such a moment, dispersed at once to search the house.
Musard was left in the room alone, but not for long. Miss Heredith entered from the corridor almost immediately. Tufnell accompanied her to the door, but stopped there, with staring eyes directed towards the bed. Miss Heredith's face was drawn, but she had recovered her self-control. She walked quickly towards Musard, who was still bending over the bed.
"Vincent!" she cried. "In pity's name tell me what dreadful thing has happened? They have carried Phil downstairs, and they tried to detain me, but I broke away from them and came straight to you. Is Violet——"
Musard sprang to his feet at the first sound of her voice, and wheeled round swiftly, as if trying to impose his body between her and the figure on the bed.
"Go back, Alethea!" he sternly commanded. "Go back, I say! This is no sight for you, and you can do no good."
He still sought to intercept her as she approached, but she gently put aside his detaining hand, and, walking to the bedside, looked down. Then, at that sight, her fingers sought for his with an impulsive feminine movement, and held them tight.
"Do not be afraid for me," she whispered. "See! I am calm—I may be able to help. Is she—dead?"
"Dying," said Musard sadly.
"Is it...?" her voice dropped to nothingness, but her frightened eyes, travelling fearfully into the shadowy corners of the big bedroom, completed the unspoken sentence.
Musard understood her, and bowed his head silently. Then, turning his face to the door, he beckoned Tufnell to approach. The old servant advanced tremblingly into the room, vainly endeavouring to compose his horror-stricken face into a semblance of the impassive mask of the well-trained English servant.
"Go downstairs and get me some hot water," said Musard quietly. "Look sharp—and bring it yourself. I do not want any maidservants here to go into hysterics."
Tufnell hastened away. Musard resumed his place at the bedside, silently watching the figure on the bed. There was blood on his hands and clothes.
"Is there no hope? Can nothing be done to save her?" whispered Miss Heredith.
"Nothing. The lung is penetrated. She is bleeding to death."
His quick eye noticed a change in the figure on the bed. The face quivered ever so slightly, and the blue eyes half opened. Then the stricken girl made an effort as though she wanted to sit up, but a sudden convulsion seized her, and she fell back on her pillow, with one little white hand, glittering with rings, flung above her head, as if she died in the act of invoking the retribution of a God of justice on the assassin who had blotted out her young life in agony and horror.
"She is dead," said Musard gently. "This is a terrible business, and our first duty is to try and capture the monster who committed this foul crime."
They stood there in silence for a moment, looking earnestly at one another. Outside, somewhere in the woodland, there sounded the haunting gush of a night-bird's song, shivering through the quietness like a silver bell. The sweet note finished in a frightened squawk, and was followed by the cry of an owl. The song had betrayed the singer.
Musard turned away from Miss Heredith, and walked restlessly around the bedroom, scanning the heavy pieces of furniture and the faded hangings, and peering into every nook and corner, as if seeking for the murderer's place of concealment. A roomy old wardrobe near the window attracted his eye, and he stopped in front of it and flung its doors open. It contained some articles of the dead girl's apparel—costumes and frocks—hanging on hooks.
His eye wandered to the window, shrouded in the heavy folds of the damask curtains. He walked over to it, and drew the curtains aside. The bottom half of the window was wide open.
Miss Heredith, who was following his movements closely, gave vent to a faint cry of surprise.
"The window!" she exclaimed.
Musard looked round inquiringly.
"The window—what of it?" he asked.
"It was closed when I came in here before dinner to see Violet."
"You are quite sure of that?"
"Oh, yes! At least, I think so."
"I do not understand you."
"I mean that the atmosphere of the room was heavy and thick, as if the window had not been opened all day."
"It has been a still, close day."
"But Violet never had a window open if she could help it. She disliked fresh air. She was always afraid of catching cold."
Musard looked out of the window into the velvet darkness of the night.
"If the window was closed before, the murderer has opened it and escaped through it," he said.
"It is hardly possible."
"Why not?" He turned round and faced her.
"The ground falls on that side. The window is nearly twenty feet from the ground. And—there is the moat to be crossed. There is no bridge on that side of the house, and this window opens on the garden. Don't you remember?"
"I remember now."
"I thought you would."
"Still——" Musard broke off abruptly, and walked away from the window.
Near the window stood the dressing-table. The swing oval mirror reflected its contents—ivory brushes, silver hand mirrors, all the costly bijoutry of a refined woman's toilet. Among them stood Violet's silver jewel-case. Musard strode over and examined the case. It was locked.
"This ought to be put away," he said.
"I was coming up to get it when I heard the scream," whispered his companion.
"Perhaps you will take charge of it now," he said, placing it in her hands. As he did so there flashed across his mind the cynical appropriateness of the old proverb about locking doors after stolen steeds.
There was a restraint and lack of spontaneity about their conversation of which both were acutely conscious. The note was forced, as though from too great an effort to strike the right key. A curious psychological change had swept over both since they stood together by the bedside of the dying woman. It had come with the entry of death. They conversed hurriedly and guardedly, as if they mistrusted each other. In each of them two entities were now apparent—a surface consciousness, which talked and acted mechanically, and a secondary inner consciousness, watchful, and fearful of misinterpretation of the spoken word. The faculties which make up the human mind are different and complex, and mysteriously blended. It may be that when tragedy upsets the frail structure of human life the brute instincts of watchfulness and self-preservation come uppermost, guarding against chance suspicion, or the loud word of accusation. Perhaps through Musard's mind was passing the thought of the strange manner in which the murder had been committed, and how he, by detaining everybody downstairs at the dinner table while he told his story had been an instrument in its accomplishment.
The situation was terminated by the arrival of Tufnell with some hot water. Almost on his heels came the young men who had been searching the house. Musard was relieved by their return, though his impassive face did not reveal his feelings. Miss Heredith left the room with Tufnell, taking the jewel-case with her. Musard met the young men at the threshold.
The tall young officer with the sunburnt face, Major Gardner, informed Musard that they had completed a search of the house from top to bottom, but had found nothing. They had also searched the grounds, without result.
"Mrs. Heredith is dead," Musard gravely informed them. "She died while you have been searching for the miscreant who fired the shot we heard at the dinner table. Gentlemen, he must be found. It seems hardly possible that he has succeeded in getting clear away in so short a time."
"We have searched the place from top to bottom," remarked one of the young men.
"It is a strange, rambling old place, and difficult to explore unless you know it thoroughly," said Musard.
"We have done the best we could."
"I do not doubt it, but there are many old nooks and corners in which a man might hide."
"His first thought, after such a dreadful crime, would be to get away as quickly as possible," said Major Gardner.
"But how did he escape? Certainly not by the staircase, because we rushed out from the dining-room directly we heard the shot, and we should have caught him on his way down."
"Is there not a window in the bedroom? Could he not have escaped that way?"
"The window is nearly twenty feet from the ground."
"An athletic man might jump that distance," remarked Major Gardner thoughtfully.
"I still think it possible he may be concealed about the premises," replied Musard. "There is an old unused staircase at the end of this passage, which opens on the south side of the moat-house. Did you find it? It shuts with a door at the top, and might easily have escaped your notice."
"I opened the door and went down the staircase," said the young flying officer. "Nobody could have escaped that way. The door at the bottom is locked, and there is no key."
The scared face of a maidservant at that moment appeared at the head of the stairs.
"If you please, sir," she said, addressing Musard, "one of the gentlemen downstairs sent me up to tell you that he has been trying for the last ten minutes to ring up the police, but he can't get an answer."
"Send the butler to me at once."
The maid disappeared, and in another moment the butler came hurriedly up the stairs.
"Tufnell," said Musard quickly, "you must go at once to the village and get Sergeant Lumbe and Dr. Holmes. Hurry off, and be as quick as you can. And now, gentlemen," he added, turning to the others, "let us go downstairs. While we are waiting for the police I will help you make another search of the house and grounds. The murderer may escape while we stand here talking. We have wasted too much valuable time already."
The butler left the moat-house at a brisk pace which became almost a run after he crossed the moat bridge. His way across the park lay along the carriage drive, bordered by an avenue of tall trees, between an ornamental lake and some thick game covers, and then through the outer fields to the village.