LONDON C. ARTHUR PEARSON, LIMITED HENRIETTA STREET, W.C. 1916
Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note. Dialect spellings have been retained. The oe ligature has been transcribed as [oe].
I. THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY 7
II. THE ARMLESS MAN 19
III. THE TOMTOM CLUE 33
IV. THE CASE OF SIR ALISTER MOERAN 43
V. THE KISS 63
VI. THE GOTH 73
VII. THE LAST ASCENT 88
VIII. THE TERROR BY NIGHT 97
IX. THE TRAGEDY AT THE "LOUP NOIR" 113
THE UNKNOWN QUANTITY
Professor William James Maynard was in a singularly happy and contented mood as he strolled down the High Street after a long and satisfactory interview with the solicitor to his late cousin, whose sole heir he was.
It was exactly a month by the calendar since he had murdered this cousin, and everything had gone most satisfactorily since. The fortune was proving quite as large as he had expected, and not even an inquest had been held upon the dead man. The coroner had decided that it was not necessary, and the Professor had agreed with him.
At the funeral the Professor had been the principal mourner, and the local paper had commented sympathetically on his evident emotion. This had been quite genuine, for the Professor had been fond of his relative, who had always been very good to him. But still, when an old man remains obstinately healthy, when his doctor can say with confidence that he is good for another twenty years at least, and when he stands between you and a large fortune which you need, and of which you can make much better use in the cause of science and the pursuit of knowledge, what alternative is there? It becomes necessary to take steps. Therefore, the Professor had taken steps.
Looking back to-day on that day a month ago, and the critical preceding week, the Professor felt that the steps he had taken had been as judicious as successful. He had set himself to solve a problem in higher mathematics. He had found it easier to solve than many he was obliged to grapple with in the course of his studies.
A policeman saluted as the Professor passed, and he acknowledged it with the charming old world courtesy that made him so popular a figure in the town. Across the way was the doctor who had certified the cause of death. The Professor, passing benevolently on, was glad he had now enough money to carry out his projects. He would be able to publish at once his great work on "The Secondary Variation of the Differential Calculus," that hitherto had languished in manuscript. It would make a sensation, he thought; there was more than one generally accepted theory he had challenged or contradicted in it. And he would put in hand at once his great, his long projected work, "A History of the Higher Mathematics." It would take twenty years to complete, it would cost twenty thousand pounds or more, and it would breathe into mathematics the new, vivid life that Bergson's works have breathed into metaphysics.
The Professor thought very kindly of the dead cousin, whose money would provide for this great work. He wished greatly the dead man could know to what high use his fortune was designed.
Coming towards him he saw the wife of the vicar of his parish. The Professor was a regular church-goer. The vicar's wife saw him, too, and beamed. She and her husband were more than a little proud of having so well known a man in their congregation. She held out her hand and the Professor was about to take it when she drew it back with a startled movement.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed, distressed, as she saw him raise his eyebrows. "There is blood on it."
Her eyes were fixed on his right hand, which he was still holding out. In fact, on the palm a small drop of blood showed distinctly against the firm, pink flesh. Surprised, the Professor took out his handkerchief and wiped it away. He noticed that the vicar's wife was wearing white kid gloves.
"Oh, I beg your pardon!" she said again. "It—it startled me somehow. I thought you must have cut yourself. I hope it's not much?"
"Some scratch, I suppose," he said. "It's nothing."
The vicar's wife, still slightly discomposed, launched out into some parochial matter she had wished to mention to him. They chatted a few moments and then parted. The Professor took an opportunity to look at his hand. He could detect no sign of any cut or abrasion, the skin seemed whole everywhere. He looked at his handkerchief. There was still visible on it the stain where he had wiped his hand, and this stain seemed certainly blood.
"Odd!" he muttered as he put the handkerchief back in his pocket. "Very odd!"
His thoughts turned again to his projected "A History of the Higher Mathematics," and he forgot all about the incident till, as it happened that day month, the first of the month by the calendar, when he was sitting in his study with an eminent colleague to whom he was explaining his great scheme.
"If you are able to carry it out," the colleague said slowly, "your book will mark an epoch in human thought. But the cost will be tremendous."
"I estimate it at twenty thousand pounds," answered the Professor calmly. "I am fully prepared to spend twice as much. You know I have recently inherited forty thousand pounds from a relative?"
The eminent colleague nodded and looked very impressed.
"It is magnificent," he said warmly, "magnificent." He added: "You've cut yourself, do you know?"
"Cut myself?" the Professor echoed, surprised.
"Yes," answered the eminent colleague, "there is blood upon your hand—your right hand."
In fact a spot of blood, slightly larger than that which had appeared before, showed plainly upon the Professor's right hand. He wiped it away with his handkerchief, and went on talking eagerly, for he was deeply interested. He did not think of the matter again till just as he was getting into bed, when he noticed a red stain upon his handkerchief. He frowned and examined his hand carefully. There was no sign of any wound or cut from which the blood could have come, and he frowned again.
"Very odd!" he muttered.
A calendar hanging on the wall reminded him that it was the first of the month.
The days passed, the incident faded from his memory, and four weeks later he came down one morning to breakfast in an unusually good temper. There was a certain theory he had worked on the night before he meant to write to a friend about. It seemed to him his demonstration had been really brilliant, and then, also, he was already planning out with great success the details of the scheme for his great work.
He was making an excellent breakfast, for his appetite was always good, and, needing some more cream, he rang the bell. The maid appeared, he showed her the empty jug, and as she took it she dropped it with a sudden cry, smashing it to pieces on the floor. Very pale, she stammered out:
"Beg pardon, sir, your hand—there is blood upon your hand."
In fact, on the Professor's right hand there showed a drop of blood, perceptibly larger this time than before. The Professor stared at it stupidly. He was sure it had not been there a moment before, and he noticed by the heading of the newspaper at the side of his plate that this was the first of the month.
With a hasty movement of his napkin he wiped the drop of blood away. The maid, still apologising, began to pick up the pieces of the jug she had broken; but the Professor had no further appetite for his breakfast. He silenced her with a gesture, and, leaving a piece of toast half-eaten on his plate, he got up and went into his study.
All this was trivial, absurd even. Yet somehow it disturbed him. He got out a magnifying glass and examined his hand under it. There was nothing to account for the presence of the drop of blood he and the maid had seen. It occurred to him that he might have cut himself in shaving; but when he looked in the mirror he could find no trace of even the slightest wound.
He decided that, though he had not been aware of it, his nerves must be a little out of order. That was disconcerting. He had not taken his nerves into consideration for the simple reason that he had never known that he possessed any. He made up his mind to treat himself to a holiday in Switzerland. One or two difficult ascents might brace him up a bit.
Three days later he was in Switzerland, and a few days later again he was on the summit of a minor but still difficult peak. It had been an exhilarating climb, and he had enjoyed it. He said something laughingly to the head guide to the effect that climbing was good sport and a fine test for the nerves. The head guide agreed, and added politely that if the nerves of monsieur the Professor had shown signs of failing on the lower glacier, for example, they might all have been in difficulties. The Professor thrilled with pleasure at the head guide's implied praise. He was glad to know on such good authority that his nerves were all right, and the incidents that had driven him there began to fade in his memory.
Nevertheless, he found himself watching the calendar with a certain interest, and when he woke on the morning of the first day of the next month he glanced quickly at his right hand. There was nothing there.
He dressed and spent, as he had planned, a quiet day, busy with his correspondence. His spirits rose as the day passed. He was still watchful, but more confident; and, after dinner, though he had meant to go straight to his room, he agreed to join in a suggested game of bridge. They were cutting for partners when one of the ladies who was to take part in the game dropped with a little cry the card she had just lifted.
"Oh, there is blood upon your hand," she cried, "on your right hand, Professor!"
Upon the Professor's right hand there showed now a drop of blood, larger still then those other three had been. Yet the very moment before it had not been there. The Professor put down his cards without a word, and left the room, going straight upstairs.
The drop of blood was still standing on his hand. He soaked it up carefully with some cotton-wool he had, and was not surprised to find beneath no sign or trace of any cut or wound. The cotton-wool he made up carefully into a parcel and addressed it to an analytical chemist he knew, inclosing with it a short note.
He rang the bell, sent the parcel to the post, and then he got out pen and paper and set himself to solve this problem, as in his life he had solved so many others.
Only this time it seemed somehow as though the data were insufficient.
Idly his pen traced upon the paper in front of him a large X, the sign of the unknown quantity.
But how, in this case, to find out what was the unknown quantity? His hand, his firm and steady hand, shook so that he could no longer hold his pen. He rang the bell again and ordered a stiff whisky-and-soda. He was a man of almost ascetic habits, but to-night he felt that he needed some stimulant.
Neither did he sleep very well.
The next day he returned to England. Almost at once he went to see his friend, the analytical chemist, to whom he had sent the parcel from Switzerland.
"Mammalian blood," pronounced the chemist, "probably human—rather a curious thing about it, too."
"What's that?" asked the Professor.
"Why," his friend answered, "I was able to identify the distinctive bacillus——" He named the rare bacillus of an unusual and obscure disease. And this disease was that from which the Professor's cousin had died.
The professor was a man interested in all phenomena. In other circumstances he would have observed keenly that which now occurred, when the hair of his head underwent a curious involuntary stiffening and bristling process that in popular but sufficiently accurate terms, might be described as "standing on end." But at the moment he was in no state for scientific observations.
He got out of the house somehow. He said he did not feel well, and his friend, the chemist, agreed that his holiday in Switzerland did not seem to have done him much good.
The Professor went straight home and shut himself up in his study. It was a fine room, ranged all round with books. On the shelves nearest to his hand stood volumes on mathematics, the theory of mathematics, the study of mathematics, pure mathematics, applied mathematics. But there was not any one of these books that told him anything about such a thing as this. Though, it is true, there were many references in them, here and there, to X, the unknown quantity.
The Professor took his pen and wrote a large X upon the sheet of paper in front of him.
"An unknown quantity!" he muttered. "An unknown—quantity!"
The days passed peacefully. Nothing was out of the ordinary except that the Professor developed an odd trick of continually glancing at his right hand. He washed it a good deal, too. But the first of the month was not yet.
On the last day of the month he told his housekeeper that he was feeling a little unwell. She was not surprised, for she had thought him looking ill for some time past. He told her he would probably spend the next day in bed for a thorough rest, and she agreed that that would be a very good idea. When he was in his own room and had undressed, he bandaged his right hand with care, tying it up carefully and thoroughly with three or four of his large linen handkerchiefs.
"Whatever comes, shall now show," he said to himself.
He stayed in bed accordingly the next day. His housekeeper was a little uneasy about him. He ate nothing and his eyes were strangely bright and feverish. She overheard him once muttering something to himself about "the unknown quantity," and that made her think that he had been working too hard.
She decided he must see the doctor. The Professor refused peremptorily. He declared he would be quite well again in the morning. The housekeeper, an old servant, agreed, but sent for the doctor all the same; and when he had come the Professor felt he could not refuse to see him without appearing peculiar. And he did not wish to appear peculiar. So he saw the doctor, but declared there was nothing much the matter, he merely felt a little unwell and out of sorts and tired.
"You have hurt your hand?" the doctor asked, noticing how it was bandaged.
"I cut it slightly—a trifle," the Professor answered.
"Yes," the doctor answered, "I see there is blood on it."
"What?" the Professor stammered.
"There is blood upon your hand," the doctor repeated.
The Professor looked. In fact, a deep, wide stain showed crimson upon the bandages in which he had swathed his hand. Yet he knew that the moment before the linen had been fair and white and clean.
"It is nothing," he said quickly, hiding his hand beneath the bed clothes.
The doctor, a little puzzled, took his leave, but had not gone ten yards when the housekeeper flew screaming after him. It seemed she had heard a fall, and when she had gone into the Professor's bedroom she had found him lying there dead upon the hearthrug. There was a razor in his hand, and there was a ghastly gash across his throat.
The doctor went back at a run, but there was nothing he or any man could do. One thing he noticed, with curiosity, was that the bandage had been torn away from the dead man's hand and that oddly enough there seemed to be on the hand no sign of any cut or wound. There was a large solitary drop of blood on the palm, at the root of the thumb; but, of course, that was no great wonder, for the wound the dead man had dealt himself had bled freely.
Apparently death had not been quite instantaneous, for with a last effort the Professor seemed to have traced an X upon the floor in his own blood with his forefinger. The doctor mentioned this at the inquest—the coroner had decided at once that in this case an inquest was certainly necessary—and he suggested that it showed the Professor had worked too hard and was suffering from overwork which had disturbed his mental balance.
The coroner took the same view, and in his short address to the jury adduced the incident as proof of a passing mental disturbance.
"Very probably," said the coroner, "there was some problem that had worried him, and that he was still endeavouring to work out. As you are aware, gentlemen, the sign X is used to symbolise the unknown quantity."
An appropriate verdict was accordingly returned, and the Professor was duly interred in the same family vault as that in which so short a time previously his cousin had been laid to rest.
THE ARMLESS MAN
I first met Bob Masters in the hotel at a place called Fourteen Streams, not very far from Kimberley.
I had for some months been trying to find gold or diamonds by digging holes in the veldt. But since this has little or nothing to do with the story, I pass by my mining adventures and come back to the hotel. I came to it very readily that afternoon, for I was very thirsty.
A tall man standing at the bar turned his head as I entered and said "Good-day" to me. I returned the compliment, but took no particular notice of him at first.
Suddenly I heard the man say to the barman:
"I'm ready for another drink."
That surprised me, because his glass was still three-quarters full. But I was still more startled by the action of the barman who lifted up the glass and held it whilst the man drank.
Then I saw the reason. The man had no arms.
You know the easy way in which Englishmen chum together anywhere out of England, whilst in their native country nothing save a formal introduction will make them acquainted? I made some remark to Masters which led to another from him, and in five minutes' time we were chatting on all sorts of topics.
I learnt that Masters, bound for England, had come in to Fourteen Streams to catch the train from Kimberley, and, having a few hours to wait, had strolled up to the collection of tin huts calling itself a town.
I was going down to Kimberley too, so of course we went together, and were quite old friends by the time we reached that city.
We had a wash and something to eat, and then we walked round to the post-office. I used to have my letters addressed there, poste restante, and call in for them when I happened to be in Kimberley.
I found several letters, one of which altered the whole course of my life. This was from Messrs. Harvey, Filson, and Harvey, solicitors, Lincoln's Inn Fields. It informed me that the sudden death of my cousin had so affected my uncle's health that he had followed his only son within the month. The senior branch of the family being thus extinct the whole of the entailed estate had devolved on me.
The first thing I did was to send off two cablegrams to say that I was coming home by the first available boat, one to the solicitors, the other to Nancy Milward.
Masters and I arranged to come home together and eventually reached Cape Town. There we had considerable trouble at the shipping office. It was just about the time of year when people who live in Africa to make money, come over to England to spend it, and in consequence the boats were very crowded. Masters demanded a cabin to himself, a luxury which was not to be had, though there was one that he and I could share. He made a tremendous fuss about doing this, and I thought it very strange, because I had assisted him in many ways which his mutilation rendered necessary. However, he had to give way in the end, and we embarked on the Castle liner.
On the voyage he told me how he had lost his arms. It seemed that he had been sent up country on some Government job or other, and had had the ill-fortune to be captured by the natives. They treated him quite well at first, but gave him to understand that he must not try to escape. I suppose that to most men such a warning would be a direct incitement to make the attempt. Masters made it and failed. They cut off his right arm as a punishment. He waited until the wound was healed and tried again. Again he failed. This time they cut off his other arm.
"Good Lord," I cried. "What devils!"
"Weren't they!" he said. "And yet, you know, they were quite good-tempered chaps when you didn't cross them. I wasn't going to be beaten by a lot of naked niggers though, and I made a third attempt.
"I succeeded all right that time, though, of course, it was much more difficult. I really don't know at all how I managed to worry through. You see, I could only eat plants and leaves and such fruit as I came across; but I'd learnt as much as I could of the local botany in the intervals."
"Was it worth while?" I asked. "I think the first failure and its result would have satisfied me."
"Yes," he said slowly, "it was worth while. You see, my wife was waiting for me at home, and I wanted to see her again very badly—you don't know how badly."
"I think I can imagine," I said. "Because there is a girl waiting for me too at home."
"I saw her before she died," he continued.
"Died?" I said.
"Yes," he answered. "She was dying when I reached home at last, but I was with her at the end. That was something, wasn't it?"
I do hate people to tell me this sort of thing. Not because I do not feel sorry for them; on the contrary, I feel so sorry that I absolutely fail to find words to express my sympathy. I tried, however, to show it in other ways, by the attentions I paid him and by anticipating his every wish.
Yet there were many things that were astonishing about his actions, things that I wonder now I did not realise must have been impossible for him to do for himself, and that yet were done. But he was so surprisingly dexterous with his lips, and feet too, when he was in his cabin that I suppose I put them down to that.
I remember waking up one night and looking out of my bunk to see him standing on the floor. The cabin was only faintly lit by a moonbeam which found its way through the porthole. I could not see clearly, but I fancied that he walked to the door and opened it, and closed it behind him. He did it all very quickly, as quickly as I could have done it. As I say, I was very sleepy, but the sight of the door opening and shutting like that woke me thoroughly. Sitting up I shouted at him.
He heard me and opened the door again, easily, too, much more easily than he seemed to be able to shut it when he saw me looking at him.
"Hullo! Awake, old chap?" he said. "What is it?"
"Er—nothing," I said. "Or rather I suppose I was only half awake; but you seemed to open that door so easily that it quite startled me."
"One does not always like to let others see the shifts to which one has to resort," was all the answer he gave me.
But I worried over it. The thing bothered me, because he had made no attempt to explain.
That was not the only thing I noticed.
Two or three days later we were sitting together on deck. I had offered to read to him. I noticed that he got up out of his chair. Suddenly I saw the chair move. It gave me a great shock, for the chair twisted apparently of its own volition, so that when he sat down again the sunlight was at his back and not in his eyes, as I knew it had been previously. But I reasoned with myself and managed to satisfy myself that he must have turned the chair round with his foot. It was just possible that he could have done so, for it had one of those light wicker-work seats.
We had a lovely voyage for three-quarters of the way, and the sea was as calm as any duck-pond. But that was all altered when we passed Cape Finisterre. I have done a lot of knocking about on the ocean one way and another, but I never saw the Bay of Biscay deserve its reputation better.
I'd much rather see what is going on than be cooped up below, and after lunch I told Bob I was going up on deck.
"I'll only stay there for a bit," I said. "You make yourself comfortable down here."
I filled his pipe, put it in his mouth, and gave him a match; then I left him.
I made my way up and down the deck for a time, clutching hold of everything handy, and rather enjoyed it, though the waves drenched me to the skin.
Presently I saw Masters come out of the companion-way and make his way very skilfully towards me. Of course it was fearfully dangerous for him.
I staggered towards him, and, putting my lips to his ear, shouted to him to go below at once.
"Oh, I shall be all right!" he said, and laughed.
"You'll be drowned—drowned," I screamed. "There was a wave just now that—well, if I hadn't been able to cling on with both hands like grim death, I should have gone overboard. Go below."
He laughed again and shook his head.
And then what I dreaded happened. A vast mountain of green water lifted up its bulk and fell upon us in a ravening cataract. I clutched at Masters, but trying to save him and myself handicapped me badly. The strength of that mass of water was terrible. It seemed to snatch at everything with giant hands, and drag all with it. It tossed a hen-coop high, and carried it through the rails.
I felt the grip of my right hand loosen, and the next instant was carried, still clutching Masters with my left, towards that gap in the bulwark.
I managed to seize the end of the broken rail. It held us for a moment, then gave, and for a moment I hung sheer over the vessel's side.
In that instant I felt fingers tighten on my arm, tighten till they bit into the flesh, and I was pulled back into safety.
Together we staggered back, and got below somehow. I was trembling like a leaf, and the sweat dripped from me. I almost screamed aloud.
It was not that I was frightened of death. I've seen too much of that in many parts of the earth to dread it greatly. It was the thought of those fingers tightening on me where no fingers were.
Masters did not speak a word, nor did I, until we found ourselves in the cabin.
I tore the wet clothes off me and turned my arm to the mirror. I knew I could not have been mistaken when I felt them.
There on the upper arm, above the line of sunburn that one gets from working with sleeves rolled up, there on the white skin showed the red marks of four slender fingers and a thumb! I sat down suddenly at sight of them, and pulling open a drawer, found a flask of neat brandy, and gulped it down, emptied it in one gulp.
Then I turned to him and pointed to the marks.
"In God's name, how came these here?" I said. "What—what happened up there on deck?"
He looked at me very gravely.
"I saved you," he said, "or rather I didn't, for I could not. But she did."
"What do you mean?" I stammered.
"Let me get these clothes off," he said, "and some dry ones on; and I'll tell you."
Words fail to describe my feelings as I watched the clothes come off him and dry ones go on just as if hands were arranging them.
I sat and shuddered. I tried to close my eyes, but the weird, unnatural sight drew them as a lodestone.
"I'm sorry that you should have had this shock," he said. "I know what it must have been like, though it was not so bad for me when they seemed to come, for they came gradually as time went on."
"What came gradually?" I asked.
"Why, these arms! They're what I'm telling you about. You asked me to tell you, I thought?"
"Did I?" I said. "I don't know what I'm saying or asking. I think I'm going mad, quite mad."
"No," he said, "you're as sane as I am, only when you come across something strange, unique for that matter, you are naturally terrified. Well, it was like this. I told you about my adventures with the niggers up country. That was quite true. They cut off both my arms—you can see the stumps for that matter. And I told you that I came home to find my wife dying. Her heart had always been weak, I'd known that, and it had gradually grown more feeble. There must have been, indeed there was, a strange sort of telepathy between us. She had had fearful attacks of heart failure on both occasions when the niggers had mutilated me, I learnt on comparing notes.
"But I had known too, somehow, that I must escape at all costs. It was the knowledge that made me try again after each failure. I should have gone on trying to escape as long as I had lived, or rather as long as she had lived. I knelt beside her bed and she put out her arms and laid them round my neck.
"'So you have come back to me before I go,' she said. 'I knew you must, because I called you so. But you have been long in coming, almost too long. But I knew I had to see you again before I died.'
"I broke down then. I was sorely tried. No arms even to put round her!
"'Darling, stay with me for a little, only for a little while!' I sobbed.
"She shook her head feebly. 'It is no use, my dear,' she said, 'I must go.'
"'I'll come with you,' I said, 'I'll not live without you.'
"She shook her head again.
"'You must be brave, Bob. I shall be watching you afterwards just as much as if I still lived on earth. If only I could give you my arms! A poor, weak woman's arms, but better than none, dear.'
"She died some weeks later. I spent all the time at her bedside, I hardly left her. Her arms were round me when she died. Shall I ever feel them round me again? I wonder! You see, they are mine now.
"They came to me gradually. It was very strange at first to have arms and hands which one couldn't see. I used to keep my eyes shut as much as possible, and try to fancy that I had never lost my arms.
"I got used to them in time. But I have always been careful not to let people see me do things that they would know to be impossible for an armless man. That was what took me to Africa again, because I could get lost there and do things for myself with these hands."
"'And they twain shall be one flesh,'" I muttered.
"Yes," he said, "I think the explanation must be something of that sort. There's more than that in it, though; these arms are other than flesh."
He sat silent for a time with his head bowed on his chest. Then he spoke again:
"I got sick of being alone at last, and was coming back when I met you at Fourteen Streams. I don't know what I shall do when I do get home. I can never rest. I have—what do they call it—Wanderlust?"
"Does she ever speak to you from that other world?" I asked him.
He shook his head sadly.
"No, never. But I know she lives somewhere beyond this world of ours. She must, because these arms live. So I try always to act as if she watches everything. I always try to do the right thing, but, anyway, these arms and hands would do good of their own accord. Just now up on the deck I was very frightened. I'd have saved myself at any cost almost, and let you go. But I could not do that. The hands clutched you. It is her will, so much stronger and purer than mine, that still persists. It is only when she does not exert it that I control these arms."
That was how I learnt the strangest tale that ever a man was told, and knew the miracle to which I owed my life.
It may be that Bob Masters was a coward. He always said that he was. Personally I do not believe it, for he had the sweetest nature I ever met.
He had nowhere to go to in England and seemed to have no friends. So I made him come down with me to Englehart, that dear old country seat of my family in the Western shires which was now mine.
Nancy lived in that country, too.
There was no reason why we should not get married at once. We had waited long enough.
I can see again the old, ivy-grown church where Nancy and I were wed, and Bob Masters standing by my side as best man.
I remember feeling in his pocket for the ring, and as I did so, I felt a hand grasp mine for a moment.
Then there was the reception afterwards, and speech-making—the usual sort of thing.
Later Nancy and I drove off to the station.
We had not said good-bye to Bob, for he'd insisted on driving to the station with the luggage; said he was going to see the last of us there.
He was waiting for us in the yard when we reached it, and walked with us on to the platform.
We stood there chatting about one thing and another, when I noticed that Nancy was not talking much and seemed rather pale. I was just going to remark on it when we heard the whistle of the train. There is a sharp curve in the permanent way outside the station, so that a train is on you all of a sudden.
Suddenly to my horror I saw Nancy sway backwards towards the edge of the platform. I tried vainly to catch her as she reeled and fell—right in front of the oncoming train. I sprang forward to leap after her, but hands grasped me and flung me back so violently that I fell down on the platform.
It was Bob Masters who took the place that should have been mine, and leapt upon the metals.
I could not see what happened then. The station-master says he saw Nancy lifted from before the engine when it was right upon her. He says it was as if she was lifted by the wind. She was quite close to Masters. "Near enough for him to have lifted her, sir, if he'd had arms." The two of them staggered for a moment, and together fell clear of the train.
Nancy was little the worse for the awful accident, bruised, of course, but poor Masters was unconscious.
We carried him into the waiting-room, laid him on the cushions there, and sent hot-foot for the doctor.
He was a good country practitioner, and, I suppose, knew the ordinary routine of his work quite well. He fussed about, hummed and hawed a lot.
"Yes, yes," he said, as if he were trying to persuade himself. "Shock, you know. He'll be better presently. Lucky, though, that he had no arms."
I noticed then, for the first time, that the sleeves of the coat had been shorn away.
"Doctor," I said, "how is he? Surely, if he isn't hurt he would not look like that. What exactly do you mean by shock?"
"Hum—er," he hesitated, and applied his stethoscope to Masters' heart again.
"The heart is very weak," he said at length. "Very weak. He's always very anaemic, I suppose?"
"No," I answered. "He's anything but that. He's——Good Lord, he's bleeding to death! Put ligatures on his arms. Put ligatures on his arms."
"Please keep quiet, Mr. Riverston," the doctor said. "It must have been a dreadful experience for you, and you are naturally very upset."
I raved and cursed at him. I think I should have struck him, but the others held me. They said they would take me away if I did not keep quiet.
Bob Masters opened his eyes presently, and saw them holding me.
"Please let him go," he said. "It's all right, old man. It's no use your arguing with them, they would not understand. I could never explain to them now, and they would never believe you. Besides, it's all for the best. Yes, the train went over them and I'm armless for the second time. But—not for long!"
I knelt by his side and sobbed. It all seemed so dreadful, and yet, I don't think that then I would have tried to stay his passing. I knew it was best for him.
He looked at me very affectionately.
"I'm so sorry that this should happen on your wedding-day," he said. "But it would have been so much worse for you if she had not helped."
His voice grew fainter and died away.
There was a pause for a time, and his breath came in great sighing sobs.
Then suddenly he raised himself on the cushions until he stood upright on his feet, and a smile broke over his face—a smile so sweet that I think the angels in Paradise must look like that.
His voice came strong and loud from his lips.
"Darling!" he cried. "Darling, your arms are round me once again! I come! I come!"
* * * * *
"One of the most extraordinary cases I have ever met with," the doctor told the coroner at the inquest. "He seemed to have all the symptoms of excessive haemorrhage."
THE TOMTOM CLUE
I had just settled down for a comfortable evening over the fire in a saddle-bag chair drawn up as close to the hearth as the fender would allow, with a plentiful supply of literature and whisky, and pipe and tobacco, when the telephone bell rang loudly and insistently. With a sigh I rose and took up the receiver.
"That you?" said a voice I recognised as that of Jack Bridges. "Can I come round and see you at once? It's most important. No, I can't tell you now. I'll be with you in a few minutes."
I hung the receiver up again, wondering what business could fetch Jack Bridges round at that time of the evening to see me. We had been the greatest of pals at school and at the 'Varsity, and had kept the friendship up ever since, despite my intermittent wanderings over the face of the globe. But during the last few days or so Jack had become engaged to Miss Glanville, the daughter of old Glanville, of South African fame, and as a love-sick swain I naturally expected to see very little of him, until after the wedding at any rate.
At this time of the evening, according to my ideas of engaged couples, he should be sitting in the stalls at some theatre, and not running round to see bachelor friends with cynical views on matrimony.
I had not arrived at a satisfactory solution when the door opened and Jack walked in. One glance at his face told me that he was in trouble, and without a word I pushed him into my chair and handed him a drink. Then I sat down on the opposite side of the fire and waited for him to begin, for a man in need of sympathy does not want to be worried by questions.
He gulped down half his whisky and sat for a moment gazing into the fire.
"Jim, old man," he said at length, "I've had awful news."
"Not connected with Miss Glanville?" I asked.
"In a way, yes. It's broken off, but there's worse than that—far worse. I can hardly realise it; I feel numbed at present; it's too horrible. You remember that when you and I were at Winchester together my father was killed during the Matabele War?"
"Well," continued Jack, "I heard to-day that he was not killed by the Matabele, but was hanged in Bulawayo for murder. In other words, I am the son of a murderer."
"Hanged for murder!" I exclaimed in horror. "Surely there's some mistake?"
"No," groaned Jack, "it's true enough. I've seen the newspaper cutting of the time, and I'm the son of a murderer, who was also a forger, a thief, and a card-sharper. Old Glanville told me this evening. It was then that our engagement was broken off."
"Your mother?" I asked. "Have you seen her?"
"Poor little woman!" he groaned. "She has known all along, and her one aim and object in life has been to keep the awful truth from me. That was why I was told he died an honourable death during the war. I've often wondered why the little mother was always so sad, and so weighed down by trouble. Now I know. Good God, what her life must have been!"
He rose from his chair and paced up and down the room for a minute; then he stopped and stood in front of me, his face working with emotion.
"But I don't believe it, Jim," he said, and there was a ring in his voice. "I don't believe it, and neither does the little mother. It's impossible to reconcile the big, bluff man with the heart of a child, that I remember as my father, with murder, forgery, or any other crime. And yet, according to Glanville and the old newspapers he showed me, Richard Bridges was one of the most unscrupulous ruffians in South Africa. In my heart of hearts I know he didn't do it, and though on the face of it there's no doubt, I'm going to try and clear his name. I am sailing for South Africa on Friday."
"Sailing for South Africa!" I exclaimed. "What about your work?"
"My work can go hang!" replied Jack heatedly. "I want to wipe away the stain from my father's name, and I mean to do it somehow. That's why I've run round to see you, old pal, for I want you to come with me. Knowing Rhodesia as you do, you're just the man to help me. Say you'll come?" he pleaded.
It seemed quite the forlornest hope I had ever heard of, but Jack's distress was so acute that I hadn't the heart to refuse.
"All right, Jack," I said, "I'm with you. But don't foster any vain hopes. Remember, it's twenty years ago. It will be a pretty tough job to prove anything after all these years."
During the voyage out we had ample time to go through the small amount of information about the long-forgotten case that Jack had been able to collect from the family solicitors.
In the year 1893, Richard Bridges, who was a mining engineer of some standing, had made a trip to Rhodesia with a view to gold and diamond prospecting. He had been accompanied by a friend, Thomas Symes, who, so far as we could ascertain, was an ex-naval officer; and the two, after a short stay at Bulawayo, had gone northward across the Guai river into what was in those days a practically unknown land. In a little over a year's time Bridges had returned alone—his companion having been, so he stated, killed by the Matabele, and for six months or so he led a dissolute life in Bulawayo and the district, which ended ultimately in his execution for murder. There was no doubt whatever about the murder, or the various thefts and forgeries that he was accused of, as he had made a confession at his trial, and we seemed to be on a wild-goose chase of the worst variety so far as I could see; but Jack, confident of his father's innocence, would not hear of failure.
"It's impossible to make surmises at this stage," he said. "On the face of it there appears to be little room for doubt, but no one who knew my father could possibly connect him with any sort of crime. Somehow or other, Jim, I've got to clear his name."
My memory went back to a tall, sunburnt man with a kindly manner who had come down to the school one day and put up a glorious feed at the tuck shop to Jack and his friends. Afterwards, at his son's urgent request, he had bared his chest to show us his tattooing of which Jack had, boy-like, often boasted to us. I recalled how we had gazed admiringly at the skilfully worked picture of Nelson with his empty sleeve and closed eye and the inscription underneath: "England expects that every man this day will do his duty." Jack had explained with considerable pride that this did not constitute all, as on his father's back was a wonderful representation of the Victory, and on other parts of his body a lion, a snake, and other fauna, but Richard Bridges had protested laughingly and refused to undress further for our delectation.
We reached Bulawayo, but no one in the city appeared to recall the case at all; indeed, Bulawayo had grown out of all recognition since Richard Bridges had passed through it on his prospecting trip. It was difficult to know where to start. Even the police could not help, and had no knowledge of where the murderer had been buried. No one but an old saloon-keeper and a couple of miners could recollect the execution even, and they, so far as they could remember, had never met Richard Bridges in the flesh, though his unsavoury reputation was well known to them.
In despair, Jack suggested a trek up country towards Barotseland, which was the district that Bridges and Symes had proposed to prospect, though, according to all accounts, Symes had been murdered by the Matabele before they reached the Guai river.
For the next month we trekked steadily northwards, having very fair sport; but, as I expected, extracting no information whatever from the natives about the two prospectors who had passed that way years before. At length, Jack became more or less reconciled to failure, and realising the futility of further search suggested a return to Bulawayo. As our donkey caravan was beginning to suffer severely from the fly, I concurred, and we started to travel slowly back to Bulawayo, shooting by the way.
One night after a particularly hard trek we inspanned at an old kraal, the painted walls of which told that at one time it had served as a royal residence, and as I had shot an eland cow that afternoon, which provided far more meat than we could consume, we invited the induna and his tribe to the feast. Not to be outdone in hospitality, the old chief produced the kaffir beer of the country, a liquid which has nothing to recommend it beyond the fact that it intoxicates rapidly.
A meat feast and a beer drink is a great event in the average kaffir's life, and as the evening wore on a general jollification started to the thump of tomtoms and the squeak of kaffir fiddles. There was one very drunk old Barotse, who sat close to me, and, accompanying himself with thumps on his tomtom, sang in one droning key a song about a man who kept snakes and lions inside him, and from whose chest the evil eye looked out. At least, so far as I could gather that was roughly the gist of the song; but as his tomtom was particularly large and most obnoxious I politely took it away from him, and Jack and I used it as a table for our gourds of kaffir beer, which we were pretending to consume in large quantities.
A gourd, however, is a top-heavy sort of drinking vessel, and in a very short time I had succeeded in spilling half a pint or so of my drink on the parchment of the drum. Not wishing to spoil the old gentleman's plaything, which he evidently valued above all things, I mopped up the beer with my handkerchief, and in doing so removed from the parchment a portion of the accumulated filth of ages.
"Hullo!" said Jack, taking the instrument from me and holding it up to the firelight. "There's a picture of some sort here. It looks like a man in a cocked hat."
He rubbed it hard with his pocket handkerchief, and the polishing brought more of the picture to light, till, plain enough in places and faded in others, there stood out, the portrait of a man in an old-fashioned naval uniform with stars on his breast, and underneath some letters in the form of a scroll.
"That's not native work," I exclaimed. "These are English letters," for I could distinctly make out the word "man" followed by a "t" and an "h." "Rub it hard, Jack."
The grease on the parchment refused to give way to further polishing, however, and remembering a bottle of ammonia I kept for insect bites, I mixed some with kaffir beer and poured it on the head of the tomtom. One touch of the handkerchief was sufficient once the strong alkali got to work, and out came the grand old face of Nelson and underneath his motto:
"England expects that every man this day will do his duty."
Jack dropped the drum as if it had bitten him.
"What does it mean?" he gasped. "My father had this on his chest. I remember it well!"
I was, however, too busy with the reverse end of the drum to heed him. On the other side the ammonia brought out a picture of the Victory, with the head of a roaring lion below it.
"Good God!" exclaimed Jack. "My father had that on his back. Quick, Jim, rub hard! There should be the family crest to the right—an eagle with a snake in its talons and R. B. underneath."
I rubbed in the spot indicated, and out came the crest and initials exactly as Jack had described them. There was something horribly uncanny and gruesome in finding the tattoo marks of the dead man on the parchment of a Barotse tomtom two hundred miles north of the Zambesi, and for a moment I was too overcome with astonishment to grasp exactly what it meant. Then it came to my mind in a flash that the parchment was nothing else than human skin, and Richard Bridges' skin at that. I put it down with sudden reverence, and, beckoning to its owner, demanded its full history. At first he showed signs of fear, but promising him a waist length of cloth if he told the truth, he squatted on his hams before us and began.
"Many, many moons ago, before the white men came to trade across the Big Water as they do now, two white baases came into this country to look for white stones and gold. One baas was bigger than the other, and on his chest and on his body were pictures of birds, and beasts, and strange things. On his chest was a great inkoos with one eye covered, and on his back a hut with trees growing straight up into the air from it. On his loins was a lion of great fierceness, and coiled round his waist was a hissing mamba (snake). We were sore afraid, for the white baas told us he was bewitched, and that if harm came to either he would uncover the closed eye of the great inkoos upon his chest, which was the Evil Eye, and command him to blast the Barotse and their land for ever.
"So the white men were suffered to come and go in peace, for we dreaded the Evil Eye of the great inkoos. They toiled, these white baases, digging in the hillside and searching the riverbed; and then one day it came to pass that they quarrelled and fought, and the baas with the pictures was slain. We knew then that his medicine was bad medicine, otherwise the white baas without the pictures could not have killed him. So we were wroth and made to slay the other baas, but he shot us down with a fire stick and returned to his own country in haste. Then did I take the skin from the dead baas, for I loved him for his pictures, and I made them into a tomtom. I have spoken."
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Jack when I had translated the story. "Then my father was killed here in Barotseland, and it was Symes, his murderer, who went back to Bulawayo. It was that fiend Symes, also, who took my father's name, probably to draw any money that might have been left behind, and who, as Richard Bridges, was hanged for murder. Poor old dad," he added brokenly, "murdered, and his body mutilated by savages! But how glad I am to know that he died an honest man!"
With the evidence at hand it was easy to prove the identity of the murderer of twenty years ago, and, having settled the matter satisfactorily and cleared the dead man's name, Jack and I returned to England, where a few weeks later I had to purchase wedding garments in order that I might play the part of best man at Jack's wedding.
THE CASE OF SIR ALISTER MOERAN
"Ethne?" My aunt looked at me with raised brows and smiled. "My dear Maurice, hadn't you heard? Ethne went abroad directly after Christmas, with the Wilmotts, for a trip to Egypt. She's having a glorious time!"
I am afraid I looked as blank as I felt. I had only landed in England three days ago, after two years' service in India, and the one thing I had been looking forward to was seeing my cousin Ethne again.
"Then, since you did not know she was away, you, of course, have not heard the other news?" went on my aunt.
"No," I answered in a wooden voice. "I've heard nothing."
She beamed. "The dear child is engaged to a Sir Alister Moeran, whom she met in Luxor. Everyone is delighted, as it is a splendid match for her. Lady Wilmott speaks most highly of him, a man of excellent family and position, and perfectly charming to boot."
I believe I murmured something suitable, but it was absurd to pretend to be overjoyed at the news. The galling part of it was that Aunt Linda knew, and was chuckling, so to speak, over my discomfiture.
"If you are going up to Wimberley Park," she went on sweetly, "you will probably meet them both, as your Uncle Bob has asked us all there for the February house-party. He cabled an invitation to Sir Alister as soon as he heard of the engagement. Wasn't it good of him?"
I replied that it was; then, having heard quite enough for one day of the charms of Ethne's fiance, I took my leave.
That night, after cursing myself for a churl, I wrote and wished her good luck. The next morning I received a letter from Uncle Bob asking me to go to Wimberley; and early in the following week I travelled up to Cumberland. I received a warm welcome from the old General. As a boy I used to spend the greater part of my holidays with him, and being childless himself, he regarded me more or less as a son.
On February 16th Ethne, her mother, and Sir Alister Moeran arrived. I motored to the station to meet them. The evening was cold and raw and so dark that it was almost impossible to distinguish people on the badly lighted little platform. However, as I groped my way along, I recognised Ethne's voice, and thus directed, hurried towards the group. As I did so two gleaming, golden eyes flashed out at me through the darkness.
"Hullo!" I thought. "So she's carted along the faithful Pincher!" But the next moment I found I was mistaken, for Ethne was holding out both hands to me in greeting. There was no dog with her, and in the bustle that followed, I forgot to seek further for the solution of those two fiery lights.
"It was good of you to come, Maurice," Ethne said with unmistakable pleasure, then, turning to the man at her side, "Alister, this is my cousin, Captain Kilvert, of whom you have heard me speak."
We murmured the usual formalities in the usual manner, but as my fingers touched his, I experienced the most curious sensation down the region of my spine. It took me back to Burma and a certain very uncomfortable night that I once passed in the jungle. But the impression was so fleeting as to be indefinable, and soon I was busy getting everyone settled in the car.
So far, except that he possessed an exceptionally charming voice, I had no chance of forming an opinion of my cousin's fiance. It was half-past seven when we got back to the house, so we all went straight up to our rooms to dress for dinner.
Everyone was assembled in the drawing-room when Sir Alister Moeran came in, and I shall never forget the effect his appearance made. Conversation ceased entirely for an instant. There was a kind of breathless pause, which was almost audible as my uncle rose to greet him. In all my life I had never seen a handsomer man, and I don't suppose anyone else there had either. It was the most startling, arresting style of beauty one could possibly imagine, and yet, even as I stared at him in admiration, the word "Black!" flashed into my mind.
Black! I pulled myself up sharply. We English, who have lived out in the East, are far too prone to stigmatise thus anyone who shows the smallest trace of being a "half breed"; but in Sir Alister's case there was not even a suspicion of this. He was no darker than scores of men of my own nationality, and besides, he belonged, I knew, to a very old Scottish family. Yet, try as I would to strangle the idea, all through the evening the same horrible, unaccountable notion clung to me.
That he was the personality of the gathering there was not the slightest doubt. Men and women alike seemed attracted by him, for his individuality was on a par with his looks.
Several times during dinner I glanced at Ethne, but it was easy to see that all her attention was taken up by her lover. Yet, oddly enough, I was not jealous in the ordinary way. I saw the folly of imagining that I could stand a chance against a man like Moeran, and, moreover, he interested me too deeply. His knowledge of the East was extraordinary, and later, when the ladies had retired, he related many curious experiences.
"Might I ask," said my uncle's friend, Major Faucett, suddenly, "whether you were in the Service, or had you a Government appointment out there?"
Sir Alister smiled, and under his moustache I caught the gleam of strong, white teeth.
"As a matter of fact, neither. I am almost ashamed to say I have no profession, unless I may call myself an explorer."
"And why not?" put in Uncle Bob. "Provided your explorations were to some purpose and of benefit to the community in general, I consider you are doing something worth while."
"Exactly," Sir Alister replied. "From my earliest boyhood I have always had the strangest hankering for the East. I say strange, because to my parents it was inexplicable, neither of them having the slightest leaning in that direction, though to me it seemed the most natural desire in the world. I was like an alien in a foreign land, longing to get home. I recollect, as a child, my nurse thought me a beastly uncanny kid because I loved to lie in bed and listen to the cats howling and fighting outside. I used to put my head half under the blankets and imagine I was in my lair in the jungle, and those were the jackals and panthers prowling around outside."
"I suppose you'd been reading adventure books," Uncle Bob said, with a laugh. "I played at much the same game when I was a youngster, only in my case it was Redskins."
"Possibly," Sir Alister answered with a slight shrug, "only mine wasn't a game that I played with any other boys, it was a gnawing desire, which simply had to be satisfied; and the opportunity came. When I was fourteen, the father of a school friend of mine, who was going out to India, asked me to go out with him and the boy for the trip. Of course, I went."
"I wonder," the Major remarked, "that you ever came back once you got there, since you were so frightfully keen."
"I was certain I should return," he replied grimly.
A pause followed his last words, then Uncle Bob rose and led the way to the drawing-room, where for the remainder of the evening Sir Alister was chiefly monopolised by the ladies.
* * * * *
"Well, Maurice," Uncle Bob said, when on the following evening I was sitting in his study having my usual before-dinner chat with him, "and how do you like Ethne's future husband?"
I hesitated. "I—I really don't know," I replied.
"Come, boy," he said, with his whimsical smile, "why not be frank and own to a very natural jealousy?"
"Because," I answered simply, "the feeling Sir Alister Moeran inspires in me is not jealousy, curiously enough. It's something else, something indefinable that comes over me now and again. Dogs don't like him, and that's always a bad sign, to my thinking."
My uncle's bushy eyebrows went up slightly.
"When did you make this discovery?"
"This morning," I replied. "You know I took him and Ethne round the place. Well, the first thing I noticed was that Mike refused to come with us, although both Ethne and I called him. As we passed through the hall he slunk away into the library. I thought it a bit strange, as he's usually so frantic to go out with me. Still, I didn't attach any significance to the matter until later, when we visited the kennels. I don't know why, but one takes it for granted that a man is keen on dogs somehow and——"
"Isn't Sir Alister?"
"They are not keen on him, anyhow," I answered grimly. "They had heard my voice as we approached and were all barking with delight, but directly we entered the place there was a dead silence, save for a few ominous growls from Argo. It was a most extraordinary sight. They all bristled up, so to speak, sniffing the air though on the scent of something. I let Bess and Fritz loose, but instead of jumping up, as they usually do, they hung back and showed the whites of their eyes in a way I've never seen before. I actually had to whistle to them sharply several times before they came, and then it was in a slinking manner, taking good care to put Ethne and me between themselves and Moeran, and looking askance at him the whole while."
"H'm!" murmured the General with puckered brows. "That was certainly odd, very odd!"
"It was," I agreed, warming to the subject, "but there's odder still to come. I dare say you'll think it all my fancy, but the minute those animals put their heads up and sniffed in that peculiar way, I distinctly smelt the musky, savage odour of wild beasts. You know it well, anyone who has been through a jungle does."
Uncle Bob nodded. "I know it, too; 'Musky' is the very word—the smell of sun-warmed fur. Jove, how it carries me back! I remember once, years ago, coming upon a litter of lion cubs, in a cave, when I was out in Africa——"
"Yes! Yes!" I cried eagerly. "And that is what I smelt this morning. Those dogs smelt it, too. They felt that there was something alien, abnormal in their midst."
"That something being—Sir Alister Moeran?"
I felt myself flush up under his gaze. I got up and walked about the room.
"I don't understand it," I said doggedly. "I tell you plainly, Uncle Bob, I don't understand. My impression of the man last night was 'black,' but he's not black, I know that perfectly well, no more than you or I are, and yet I can't get over the behaviour of those hounds. It wasn't only one of 'em, it was the whole lot. They seemed to regard him as their natural enemy! And that smell! I'm sure Ethne detected it too, for she kept glancing about her in a startled, mystified way."
"And Sir Alister?" queried the General. "Do you mean to say he did not notice anything amiss?"
I shrugged my shoulders. "He didn't appear to. I called attention myself to the singular attitude of the hounds, and he said quite casually: 'Dogs never do take to me much.'"
Uncle Bob gave a short laugh. "Our friend is evidently not sensitive." He paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then added: "It certainly is rather curious, but, for Heaven's sake, boy, don't get imagining all sorts of things!"
This nettled me and made me wish I had held my tongue. I was quite aware that my story might have sounded somewhat fantastic from a stranger; still, he ought to have known me better than to accuse me of imagination. I abruptly changed the subject, and shortly after left the room.
But I could not banish from my mind the incident of the morning. I could not forget the appealing faces of those dogs. Ethne and Sir Alister had left me there and returned to the house together, and, after their departure, those poor, dumb beasts had gathered round me in a way that was absolutely pathetic, licking and fondling my hands, as though apologising for their previous misconduct. Still, I understood. That bristling up their spines was precisely the same sensation I had experienced when I first met Sir Alister Moeran.
As I was slowly mounting the stairs on my way up to dress, I heard someone running up after me, and turned round to find Ethne beside me.
"Maurice," she said, rather breathlessly, "tell me, you did not punish Fritz and Bess for not coming at once when you called them this morning?"
"No," I answered.
She gave a nervous little laugh. "I'm glad of that. I thought perhaps——" She stopped short, then rushed on, "You know how queer mother is about cats—can't bear one in the room, and how they always fly out directly she comes in? Well, dogs are the same with Alister. He—he told me so himself. It seems funny to me, and I suppose to you, because we're so fond of all kinds of animals; but I don't really see why it should be any more extraordinary to have an antipathy for dogs than for cats, and no one thinks anything of it if you dislike cats."
"That is so," I said thoughtfully.
"Anyway," she went on, "it is not our own fault if a certain animal does not instinctively take to us."
"Of course not," I replied stoutly. "You're surely not worrying about it, are you?"
She hastened to assure me that she was not, but I could see that my indorsing her opinion was a great relief to her. She had been afraid that I should think it unnatural. I did for that matter, but I could not, of course, tell her so.
That night Sir Alister and I sat up late talking after the other men had retired. We had got on the subject of India and had been comparing notes as to our different adventures. From this we went on to discussing perilous situations and escapes, and it was then that he narrated to me a very curious incident.
"It happened when I was only twenty-one," he said, "the year after my father died. I think I told you that as soon as ever I became my own master, I packed up and was off to the East. I had a friend with me, a boy who had been my best pal at school. They used to call us 'Black and White.' He was fair and girlish-looking, and his name was Buchanan. He was just as keen on India as I was, and purposed writing a book afterwards on our experiences.
"Our intention was to explore the wildest, most savage districts, and as a start we selected the province of Orissa. The forests there are wonderful, and it is there, if anywhere, that the almost extinct Indian lion is still to be found. We engaged two sturdy hillmen to accompany us and pushed our way downwards from Calcutta over mountains, rivers and through some of the densest jungles I've ever traversed. It was on the outskirts of one of the latter that the tragedy took place. We had pitched our tents one evening after a long, tiring day, and turned in early to sleep, Buchanan and I in one, and the two Bhils in the other."
Sir Alister paused for a few moments, toying with his cigar in an abstracted manner, then continued in the same clear, even voice:
"When I awoke next morning, I found my friend lying beside me dead, and blood all round us! His throat was torn open by the teeth of some wild beast, his breast was horribly mauled and lacerated, and his eyes were wide, staring open, and their expression was awful. He must have died a hideous death and known it!"
Again he stopped, but I made no comment, only waited with breathless interest till he went on.
"I called the two men. They came and looked, and for the first time I saw terror written on their faces. Their nostrils quivered as though scenting something; then 'Tiger!' they gasped simultaneously.
"One of them said he had heard a stifled scream in the night, but had thought it merely some animal in the jungle. The whole thing was a mystery. How I came to sleep undisturbed through it all, how I escaped the same fate, and why the tiger did not carry off his prey——"
"You are sure it was a tiger?" I put in.
"I think there was no doubt of it," Sir Alister replied. "The Bhils swore the teeth-marks were unmistakable, and not only that, but I saw another case seven years later. The body of a young woman was found in the compound outside my bungalow, done to death in precisely the same way. And several of the natives testified as to there being a tiger in that vicinity, for they had found three or four young goats destroyed in similar fashion."
"Who was the girl?" I asked.
Moeran slowly turned his lucent, amber eyes upon me as he answered. "She was a German, a sort of nursery governess at the English doctor's. He was naturally frightfully upset about it, and a regular panic sprang up in the neighbourhood. The natives got a superstitious scare—thought one of their gods was wroth about something and demanded sacrifice; but the white people were simply out to kill the tiger."
"And did they?" I queried eagerly.
Sir Alister shook his head. "That I can't say, as I left the place very soon afterwards and went up to the mountains."
A long silence followed, during which I stared at him in mute fascination. Then an unaccountable impulse made me say abruptly: "Moeran, how old are you?"
His finely-marked eyebrows went up in surprise at the irrelevance of my question, but he smiled.
"Funny you should ask! It so happens that it's my birthday to-morrow. I shall be thirty-five."
"Thirty-five!" I repeated. Then with a shiver I rose from my seat. The room seemed to have turned suddenly cold.
"Come," I said, "let's go to bed."
* * * * *
Next night at dinner I proposed Sir Alister's health, and we all drank to him and his "bride-to-be." They had that day definitely settled the date of their marriage for two months ahead; Ethne was looking radiant and everyone seemed in the best of spirits.
We danced and romped and played rowdy games like a pack of children. Nothing was too silly for us to attempt. While a one-step was in full swing some would-be wag suddenly turned off all the lights. It was then that for a moment I caught sight of a pair of glowing, fiery eyes shining through the darkness. Instantly my thoughts flew back to that meeting at the station, when I had fancied that Ethne had her dog in her arms. A chill, sinister feeling crept over me, but I kept my gaze fixed steadily in the same direction. The next minute the lights went up, and I found myself staring straight at Sir Alister Moeran. His arm was round Ethne's waist and she was smiling up into his face. Almost immediately they took up the dance again, and I and my partner followed suit. But all my gaiety had departed. An indefinable oppression seized me and clung to me for the rest of the evening.
As I emerged from my room next morning I saw old Giles, the butler, hurrying down the corridor towards me.
"Oh, Mr. Maurice—Captain Kilvert, sir!" he burst out, consternation in every line of his usually stolid countenance. "A dreadful thing has happened! How it's come about I can't for the life of me say, and how we're going to tell the General, the Lord only knows!"
"What?" I asked, seizing him by the arm. "What is it?"
"The dawg, sir," he answered in a hoarse whisper, "Mike—in the study——"
I waited to hear no more, but strode off down the stairs, Giles hobbling beside me as fast as he could, and together we entered the study.
In the middle of the floor lay the body of Mike. A horrible foreboding gripped me, and I quickly knelt down and raised the dog's head. His neck was torn open, bitten right through to the windpipe, the blood still dripping from it into a dark pool on the carpet.
A cold, numbing sensation stole down my spine and made my legs grow suddenly weak. Beads of perspiration gathered on my forehead as I slowly rose to my feet and faced Giles.
"What's the meaning of it, sir?" he asked, passing his hand across his brow in utter bewilderment. "That dawg was as right as possible when I shut up last night, and he couldn't have got out."
"No," I answered mechanically, "he couldn't have got out."
"Looks like some wild beast had attacked him," muttered the old man, in awed tones, as he bent over the lifeless body. "D'ye see the teeth marks, sir? But it's not possible—not possible."
"No," I said again, in the same wooden fashion. "It's not possible."
"But how're we going to account for it to the General?" he cried brokenly. "Oh, Mr. Maurice, sir, it's dreadful!"
I nodded. "You're right, Giles! Still, it isn't your fault, nor mine. Leave the matter to me. I'll break it to my uncle."
It was a most unenviable task, but I did it. Poor Uncle Bob! I shall never forget his face when he saw the mutilated body of the dog that for years had been his faithful companion. He almost wept, only rage and resentment against the murderer were so strong in him that they thrust grief for the time into the background. The mysterious, incomprehensible manner of the dog's death only added to his anger, for there was apparently no one on whom to wreak his vengeance.
The news caused general concern throughout the house, and Ethne was frightfully upset.
"Oh, Alister, isn't it awful?" she exclaimed, tears standing in her pretty blue eyes. "Poor, darling Mike!"
"Yes," he answered rather absently. "It's most unfortunate. Valuable dog, too, wasn't it?"
I walked away. The man's calm, handsome face filled me suddenly with unspeakable revulsion. The atmosphere of the room seemed to become heavy and noisome. I felt compelled to get out into the open to breathe.
I found the General tramping up and down the drive in the rain, his chin sunk deep into the collar of his overcoat, his hat pulled low down over his eyes. I joined him without speaking, and in silence we paced side by side for another quarter of an hour.
"Uncle Bob," I said abruptly at last, "take my advice. Have one of the hounds indoors to-night—Princep, he's a good watch-dog."
The General stopped short in his walk and looked at me.
"You've something on your mind, boy. What is it?"
"This," I answered grimly. "Whoever, or whatever killed Mike was in the house last night, or got in, after Giles shut up. It may still be there for all we know. In the dark, dark deeds are done, and—well, I think it's wise to take precautions."
"Good God, Maurice, if there is any creature in hiding, we'll soon have it out! I'll have the place searched now. But the thing's impossible, absurd!"
I shrugged my shoulders. "Then Mike died a natural death?"
"Natural?" he echoed fiercely. "Don't talk rubbish!"
"In that case," I said quietly, "you'll agree to let one of the dogs sleep in."
He gave me a long, troubled, searching look, then said gruffly: "Very well, but don't make any fuss about it. Women are such nervous beings and we don't want to upset anyone."
"You needn't be afraid of that," I replied, "I'll manage it all right."
There was no further talk of Mike that day. The visitors, seeing how distressed the General was, by tacit consent avoided the subject, but everyone felt the dampening effect.
That night, before I retired to my room, I took a lantern, went out to the kennels and brought in Princep, a pure-bred Irish setter. He was a dog of exceptional intelligence, and when I spoke to him, explaining the reason of his presence indoors, he seemed to know instinctively what was required of him.
As I passed the study I noticed a light coming from under the door. Somewhat surprised, I turned the handle and looked in. My uncle was seated before his desk in the act of loading a revolver. He glanced up sharply as I entered.
"Oh, it's you, is it? Got the dog in?"
"Yes," I replied, "I've left him in the library with the door open."
He regarded the revolver pensively for a few moments, then laid it down in front of him.
"You've no theory as to this—this business?"
I shook my head, I could offer no explanation. Yet all the while there lurked, deep down in my heart, a hideous suspicion, a suspicion so monstrous that had I voiced it, I should probably have been considered mad. And so I held my peace on the subject and merely wished my uncle good-night.
It was about one o'clock when I got into bed, but my brain was far too agitated for sleep. Something I had heard years ago, some old wives' tales about a man's life changing every seven years, kept dinning in my head. I was striving to remember how the story went, when a slight sound outside caught my ear. In a second I was out of bed and had silently opened the door. As I did so, someone passed close by me down the corridor.
Cautiously, with beating heart, I crept out and followed. However, I almost exclaimed aloud in my amazement, for the light from a window fell full on the figure ahead of me, and I recognised my cousin Ethne. She was sleep-walking, a habit she had had from her childhood, and which apparently she had never outgrown.
For some minutes I stood there, undecided how to act, while she passed on down the stairs, out of sight. To wake her I knew would be wrong. I knew, also, that she had walked thus a score of times without coming to any harm. There was, therefore, no reason why I should not return to my room and leave her to her wandering, yet still I remained rooted to the spot, all my senses strained, alert. And then suddenly I heard Princep whine. A series of low, stertorous growls followed, growls that made my blood run cold! With swift, noiseless steps, I stole along to the minstrel's gallery which overlooked that portion of the hall that communicated with the library. As I did so, there arose from immediately below me a succession of sharp snarls, such as a dog gives when he is in deadly fear or pain.
A shaft of moonlight fell across the polished floor, and by its aid I was just able to distinguish the form of Princep crouched against the wainscoting. He was breathing heavily, his head turned all the while towards the opposite side of the room. I looked in the same direction. Out of the darkness gleamed two fiery, golden orbs, two eyes that moved slowly to and fro, backwards and forwards, as though the Thing were prowling round and round. Now it seemed to crouch as though ready to spring, and I could hear the savage growling as of some beast of prey.
As I watched, horrified, fascinated, a portiere close by was lifted, and the white-robed figure of Ethne appeared. All heedless of danger she came on across the hall, and the Thing, with soft, stealthy tread, came after her. I knew then that there was not an instant to be lost, and like a flash I darted along the gallery and down the stairs. But ere I gained the hall a piercing scream rent the air, and I was just in time to see Ethne borne to the ground by a great, dark form, which had sprung at her like a tiger.
Half frantic, I dashed forward, snatching as I did so a rapier from the wall, the only weapon handy. But before I reached the spot, a voice from the study doorway called: "Stop!" and the next moment the report of a pistol rang out.
"Good God!" I cried. "Who have you shot?"
"Not the girl," answered the grim voice of my uncle, "you may trust my aim for that! I fired at the eyes of the Thing. Here, quick, get lights and let's see what has happened."
But my one and only thought was for Ethne. Moving across to the dark mass on the floor, I stretched out my hand. My fingers touched a smooth, fabric-like cloth, but the smell was the smell of fur, the musky, sun-warmed fur of the jungle! With sickening repugnance, I seized the Thing by its two broad shoulders and rolled it over. Then I carefully raised Ethne from the ground. At that moment Giles and a footman appeared with candles. In silence my uncle took one and came towards me, the servants with scared, blanched countenances following.
The light fell full upon the dead, upturned face of Sir Alister Moeran. His upper lip was drawn back, showing the strong, white teeth. The two front ones were tipped with blood. Instantly my eyes turned to Ethne's throat, and there I saw deep, horrible marks, like the marks of a tiger's fangs; but, thank God, they had not penetrated far enough to do any serious injury! My uncle's shot had come just in time to save her.
"Merely fainted, hasn't she?" he asked anxiously.
I nodded. My relief at finding this was so, was too great for words.
"Heaven be praised!" I heard him mutter. Then lifting my beautiful, unconscious burden in my arms, I carried her upstairs to her room.
* * * * *
Can I explain, can anyone explain, the mysterious vagaries of atavism? I only know that there are amongst us, rare instances fortunately, but existent nevertheless—men with the souls of beasts. They may be cognisant of the fact or otherwise. In the case of Sir Alister I feel sure it was the latter. He had probably no more idea than I what far-reaching, evil strain it was that came out in his blood and turned him, every seven years, practically into a vampire.
The quiet of the deserted building incircled the little, glowing room as the velvet incircles the jewel in its case. Occasionally faint sounds came from the distance—the movements of cleaners at work, a raised voice, the slamming of a door.
The man sat at his desk, as he had sat through the busy day, but he had turned sideways in his seat, the better to regard the other occupant of the room.
She was not beautiful—had no need to be. Her call to him had been the saner call of mind to mind. That he desired, besides, the passing benediction of her hands, the fragrance of her corn-gold hair, the sight of her slenderness: this she had guessed and gloried in. Till now, he had touched her physical self neither in word nor deed. To-night, she knew, the barriers would be down; to-night they would kiss.
Her quiet eyes, held by his during the spell that had bound them speechless, did not flinch at the breaking of it.
"The Lord made the world and then He made this rotten old office," the man said quietly. "Into it He put you—and me. What, before that day, has gone to the making and marring of me, and the making and perfecting of you, is not to the point. It is enough that we have realised, heart, and soul, and body, that you are mine and I am yours."
"Yes," she said.
He fell silent again, his eyes on her hungrily. She felt them and longed for his touch. But there came only his voice.
"I want you. The first moment I saw you I wanted you. I thought then that, whatever the cost, I would have you. That was in the early days of our talks here—before you made it so courageously clear to me that it would never be possible for you to ignore my marriage and come to me. That is still so, isn't it?"
She moved slightly, like a dreamer in pain, as again she faced the creed she had hated through many a sleepless night.
"It is so," she agreed. "And because it is so, you are going away to-morrow."
They looked at each other across the foot or two of intervening space. It was a look to bridge death with. But even beneath their suffering, her eyes voiced the tremulous waiting of her lips.
At last he found words.
"You are the most wonderful woman in the world—the pluckiest, the most completely understanding; you have the widest charity. I suppose I ought to thank you for it all; I can't—that's not my way. I have always demanded of you, demanded enormously, and received my measure pressed down and running over. Now I am going to ask this last thing of you: will you, of your goodness, go away—upstairs, anywhere—and come back in ten minutes' time? By then I shall have cleared out."
She looked at him almost incredulously, lips parted. Suddenly she seemed a child.
"You—I——" she stammered. Then rising to her feet, with a superb simplicity: "But, you must kiss me before you go. You must! You—simply must."
For the space of a flaming moment it seemed that in one stride he would have crossed to her side, caught and held her.
"For God's sake——!" he muttered, in almost ludicrous fear of himself. Then, with a big effort, he regained his self-control.
"Listen," he said hoarsely. "I want to kiss you so much that I daren't even get to my feet. Do you understand what that means? Think of it, just for a moment, and then realise that I am not going to kiss you. And I have kissed many women in my time, too, and shall kiss more, no doubt."
"But it's not because of that——?"
"That I'm holding back? No. Neither is it because I funk the torture of kissing you once and letting you go. It's because I'm afraid—for you."
"Listen. You have unfolded your beliefs to me and, though I don't hold them—don't attempt to live up to your lights—the realisation of them has given me a reverence for you that you don't dream of. I have put you in a shrine and knelt to you; every time you have sat in that chair and talked with me, I have worshipped you."
"It would not alter—all that," the girl said faintly, "if you kissed me."
"I don't believe that; neither do you—no, you don't! In your heart of hearts you admit that a woman like you is not kissed for the first and last time by a man like me. Suppose I kissed you now? I should awaken something in you as yet half asleep. You're young and pulsing with life, and there are—thank Heaven!—few layers of that damnable young-girl shyness over you. The world would call you primitive, I suppose."
"But I don't——"
"Oh, Lord, you must see it's all or nothing! You surely understand that after I had left you you would not go against your morality, perhaps, but you would adjust it, in spite of yourself, to meet your desires! I cannot—safely—kiss you."
"But you are going away for good!"
"For good! Child, do you think my going will be your safeguard? If you wanted me so much that you came to think it was right and good to want me, wouldn't you find me, send for me, call for me? And I should come. God! I can see the look in your eyes now, when the want had been satisfied, and you could not drug your creed any more."
Her breath came in a long sigh. Then she tried to speak; tried again.
"It is so, isn't it?" he asked.
She nodded. Speech was too difficult. With the movement a strand of the corn-gold hair came tumbling down the side of her face.
"Then, that being the case," said the man, with infinite gentleness, his eyes on the little, tumbling lock, "I shall not attempt so much as to touch your hand before you leave the room."
At the door she turned.
"Tell me once again," she said. "You want to kiss me?"
He gripped the arms of his chair; from where she stood, she could see the veins standing out on his hands.
"I want to kiss you," he said fiercely. "I want to kiss you. If there were any way of cutting off to-morrow—all the to-morrows—with the danger they hold for us—I would kiss you. I would kiss you, and kiss you, and kiss you!"
Where her feet took her during the thousand, thousand years that was his going she could never afterwards say; but she found herself at last at the top of the great building, at an open window, leaning out, with the rain beating into her eyes.
Far below her the lights wavered and later she remembered that echoes of a far-off tumult had reached her as she sat. But her ears held only the memory of a man's footsteps—the eager tread that had never lingered so much as a second's space on its way to her; that had often stumbled slightly on the threshold of her presence; that she had heard and welcomed in her dreams; that would not come again.
The raindrops lay like tears upon her face.
She brushed them aside, and, rising, put up her hands to feel the wet lying heavy on her hair. The coldness of her limbs surprised her faintly. Downstairs she went again, the echoes mocking every step.
She closed the door of the room behind her and idly cleared a scrap of paper from a chair. Mechanically her hands went to the litter on his desk and she had straightened it all before she realised that there was no longer any need. To-morrow would bring a voice she did not know; would usher a stranger into her room to take her measure from behind a barrier of formality. For the rest there would be work, and food, and sleep.
These things would make life—life that had been love.
She put on her hat and coat. The room seemed smaller somehow and shabbier. The shaded lights that had invited, now merely irritated; the whimsical disorder of books and papers spoke only of an uncompleted task. Gone was the glamour and the promise and the good comradeship. He had taken them all. She faced to-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow empty-handed—in her heart the memory of words that had seared and healed in a breath, and the dead dream of a kiss. Her throat ached with the pain of it.
And then suddenly she heard him coming back!
She stiffened. For one instant, mind and body, she was rigid with the sheer wonder of it. Then, as the atmosphere of the room surged back, tense with vitality, her mind leapt forward in welcome. He was coming back, coming back! The words hammered themselves out to the rhythm of the eager tread that never lingered so much as a second's space on its way to her, that stumbled slightly on the threshold of her presence.
By some queer, reflex twist of memory, her hands brushed imaginary raindrops from her face and strayed uncertainly to where the wet had lain on her hair.
The door opened and closed behind him.
"I've come back. I've come back to kiss you. Dear—dear!"
Her outflung hand checked him in his stride towards her. Words came stammering to her lips.
"Why—but—this isn't—I don't understand! All you said—it was true, surely? It was cruel of you to make me know it was true and then come back!"
"Let me kiss you—let me, let me!" He was overwhelming her, ignoring her resistance. "I must kiss you, I must kiss you." He said it again and again.
"No, no, you shan't—you can't play with me! You said you were afraid for me, and you made me afraid, too—of my weakness—of the danger—of my longing for you——"
"Let me kiss you! Yes, you shall let me; you shall let me." His arms held her, his face touched hers.
"Aren't you afraid any more? Has a miracle happened—may we kiss in spite of to-morrow?"
Inch by inch she was relaxing. All thought was slipping away into a great white light that held no to-morrows, nor any fear of them, nor of herself, nor of anything. The light crept to her feet, rose to her heart, her head. Through the radiance came his words.
"Yes, a miracle. Oh, my dear—my little child! I've come back to kiss you, little child."
"Kiss me, then," she said against his lips.
Hazily she was aware that he had released her; that she had raised her head; that against the rough tweed of his shoulder there lay a long, corn-gold hair.
She laughed shakily and her hand went up to remove it; but he caught her fingers and held them to his face. And with the movement and his look there came over her in a wave the shame of her surrender, a shame that was yet a glory, a diadem of pride. She turned blindly away.
"Please," she heard herself saying, "let me go now. I want to be alone. I want to—please don't tell me to-night. To-morrow——"