Chapter X. The Night Walker
If luncheon had seemed extravagant, dinner at Cray's Folly proved to be a veritable Roman banquet. To associate ideas of selfishness with Miss Beverley was hateful, but the more I learned of the luxurious life of this queer household hidden away in the Surrey Hills the less I wondered at any one's consenting to share such exile. I had hitherto counted an American freak dinner, organized by a lucky plunger and held at the Cafe de Paris, as the last word in extravagant feasting. But I learned now that what was caviare in Monte Carlo was ordinary fare at Cray's Folly.
Colonel Menendez was an epicure with an endless purse. The excellence of one of the courses upon which I had commented led to a curious incident.
"You approve of the efforts of my chef?" said the Colonel.
"He is worthy of his employer," I replied.
Colonel Menendez bowed in his cavalierly fashion and Madame de Staemer positively beamed upon me.
"You shall speak for him," said the Spaniard. "He was with me in Cuba, but has no reputation in London. There are hotels that would snap him up."
I looked at the speaker in surprise.
"Surely he is not leaving you?" I asked.
The Colonel exhibited a momentary embarrassment.
"No, no. No, no," he replied, waving his hand gracefully, "I was only thinking that he--" there was a scarcely perceptible pause--"might wish to better himself. You understand?"
I understood only too well; and recollecting the words spoken by Paul Harley that afternoon, respecting the Colonel's will to live, I became conscious of an uncomfortable sense of chill.
If I had doubted that in so speaking he had been contemplating his own death, the behaviour of Madame de Staemer must have convinced me. Her complexion was slightly but cleverly made up, with all the exquisite art of the Parisienne, but even through the artificial bloom I saw her cheeks blanch. Her face grew haggard and her eyes burned unnaturally. She turned quickly aside to address Paul Harley, but I knew that the significance of this slight episode had not escaped him.
He was by no means at ease. In the first place, he was badly puzzled; in the second place, he was angry. He felt it incumbent upon him to save this man from a menace which he, Paul Harley, evidently recognized to be real, although to me it appeared wildly chimerical, and the very person upon whose active cooeperation he naturally counted not only seemed resigned to his fate, but by deliberate omission of important data added to Harley's difficulties.
How much of this secret drama proceeding in Cray's Folly was appreciated by Val Beverley I could not determine. On this occasion, I remember, she was simply but perfectly dressed and, in my eyes, seemed the most sweetly desirable woman I had ever known. Realizing that I had already revealed my interest in the girl, I was oddly self-conscious, and a hundred times during the progress of dinner I glanced across at Harley, expecting to detect his quizzical smile. He was very stern, however, and seemed more reserved than usual. He was uncertain of his ground, I could see. He resented the understanding which evidently existed between Colonel Menendez and Madame de Staemer, and to which, although his aid had been sought, he was not admitted.
It seemed to me, personally, that an almost palpable shadow lay upon the room. Although, save for this one lapse, our host throughout talked gaily and entertainingly, I was obsessed by a memory of the expression which I had detected upon his face that morning, the expression of a doomed man.
What, in Heaven's name, I asked myself, did it all mean? If ever I saw the fighting spirit looking out of any man's eyes, it looked out of the eyes of Don Juan Sarmiento Menendez. Why, then, did he lie down to the menace of this mysterious Bat Wing, and if he counted opposition futile, why had he summoned Paul Harley to Cray's Folly?
With the passing of every moment I sympathized more fully with the perplexity of my friend, and no longer wondered that even his highly specialized faculties had failed to detect an explanation.
Remembering Colin Camber as I had seen him at the Lavender Arms, it was simply impossible to suppose that such a man as Menendez could fear such a man as Camber. True, I had seen the latter at a disadvantage, and I knew well enough that many a genius has been also a drunkard. But although I was prepared to find that Colin Camber possessed genius, I found it hard to believe that this was of a criminal type. That such a character could be the representative of some remote negro society was an idea too grotesque to be entertained for a moment.
I was tempted to believe that his presence in the neighbourhood of this haunted Cuban was one of those strange coincidences which in criminal history have sometimes proved so tragic for their victims.
Madame de Staemer, avoiding the Colonel's glances, which were pathetically apologetic, gradually recovered herself, and:
"My dear," she said to Val Beverley, "you look perfectly sweet to- night. Don't you think she looks perfectly sweet, Mr. Knox?"
Ignoring a look of entreaty from the blue-gray eyes:
"Perfectly," I replied.
"Oh, Mr. Knox," cried the girl, "why do you encourage her? She says embarrassing things like that every time I put on a new dress."
Her reference to a new dress set me speculating again upon the apparent anomaly of her presence at Cray's Folly. That she was not a professional "companion" was clear enough. I assumed that her father had left her suitably provided for, since she wore such expensively simple gowns. She had a delightful trick of blushing when attention was focussed upon her, and said Madame de Staemer:
"To be able to blush like that I would give my string of pearls--no, half of it."
"My dear Marie," declared Colonel Menendez, "I have seen you blush perfectly."
"No, no," Madame disclaimed the suggestion with one of those Bernhardt gestures, "I blushed my last blush when my second husband introduced me to my first husband's wife."
"Madame!" exclaimed Val Beverley, "how can you say such things?" She turned to me. "Really, Mr. Knox, they are all fables."
"In fables we renew our youth," said Madame.
"Ah," sighed Colonel Menendez; "our youth, our youth."
"Why sigh, Juan, why regret?" cried Madame, immediately. "Old age is only tragic to those who have never been young."
She directed a glance toward him as she spoke those words, and as I had felt when I had seen his tragic face on the veranda that morning I felt again in detecting this look of Madame de Staemer's. The yearning yet selfless love which it expressed was not for my eyes to witness.
"Thank God, Marie," replied the Colonel, and gallantly kissed his hand to her, "we have both been young, gloriously young."
When, at the termination of this truly historic dinner, the ladies left us:
"Remember, Juan," said Madame, raising her white, jewelled hand, and holding the fingers characteristically curled, "no excitement, no billiards, no cards."
Colonel Menendez bowed deeply, as the invalid wheeled herself from the room, followed by Miss Beverley. My heart was beating delightfully, for in the moment of departure the latter had favoured me with a significant glance, which seemed to say, "I am looking forward to a chat with you presently."
"Ah," said Colonel Menendez, when we three men found ourselves alone, "truly I am blessed in the autumn of my life with such charming companionship. Beauty and wit, youth and discretion. Is he not a happy man who possesses all these?"
"He should be," said Harley, gravely.
The saturnine Pedro entered with some wonderful crusted port, and Colonel Menendez offered cigars.
"I believe you are a pipe-smoker," said our courteous host to Harley, "and if this is so, I know that you will prefer your favourite mixture to any cigar that ever was rolled."
"Many thanks," said Harley, to whom no more delicate compliment could have been paid.
He was indeed an inveterate pipe-smoker, and only rarely did he truly enjoy a cigar, however choice its pedigree. With a sigh of content he began to fill his briar. His mood was more restful, and covertly I watched him studying our host. The night remained very warm and one of the two windows of the dining room, which was the most homely apartment in Cray's Folly, was wide open, offering a prospect of sweeping velvet lawns touched by the magic of the moonlight.
A short silence fell, to be broken by the Colonel.
"Gentlemen," he said, "I trust you do not regret your fishing excursion?"
"I could cheerfully pass the rest of my days in such ideal surroundings," replied Paul Harley.
I nodded in agreement.
"But," continued my friend, speaking very deliberately, "I have to remember that I am here upon business, and that my professional reputation is perhaps at stake."
He stared very hard at Colonel Menendez.
"I have spoken with your butler, known as Pedro, and with some of the other servants, and have learned all that there is to be learned about the person unknown who gained admittance to the house a month ago, and concerning the wing of a bat, found attached to the door more recently."
"And to what conclusion have you come?" asked Colonel Menendez, eagerly.
He bent forward, resting his elbows upon his knees, a pose which he frequently adopted. He was smoking a cigar, but his total absorption in the topic under discussion was revealed by the fact that from a pocket in his dinner jacket he had taken out a portion of tobacco, had laid it in a slip of rice paper, and was busily rolling one of his eternal cigarettes.
"I might be enabled to come to one," replied Harley, "if you would answer a very simple question."
"What is this question?"
"It is this--Have you any idea who nailed the bat's wing to your door?"
Colonel Menendez's eyes opened very widely, and his face became more aquiline than ever.
"You have heard my story, Mr. Harley," he replied, softly. "If I know the explanation, why do I come to you?"
Paul Harley puffed at his pipe. His expression did not alter in the slightest.
"I merely wondered if your suspicions tended in the direction of Mr. Colin Camber," he said.
As the Colonel spoke the name either I became victim of a strange delusion or his face was momentarily convulsed. If my senses served me aright then his pronouncing of the words "Colin Camber" occasioned him positive agony. He clutched the arms of his chair, striving, I thought, to retain composure, and in this he succeeded, for when he spoke again his voice was quite normal.
"Have you any particular reason for your remark, Mr. Harley?"
"I have a reason," replied Paul Harley, "but don't misunderstand me. I suggest nothing against Mr. Camber. I should be glad, however, to know if you are acquainted with him?"
"We have never met."
"You possibly know him by repute?"
"I have heard of him, Mr. Harley. But to be perfectly frank, I have little in common with citizens of the United States."
A note of arrogance, which at times crept into his high, thin voice, became perceptible now, and the aristocratic, aquiline face looked very supercilious.
How the conversation would have developed I know not, but at this moment Pedro entered and delivered a message in Spanish to the Colonel, whereupon the latter arose and with very profuse apologies begged permission to leave us for a few moments.
When he had retired:
"I am going upstairs to write a letter, Knox," said Paul Harley. "Carry on with your old duties to-day, your new ones do not commence until to- morrow."
With that he laughed and walked out of the dining room, leaving me wondering whether to be grateful or annoyed. However, it did not take me long to find my way to the drawing room where the two ladies were seated side by side upon a settee, Madame's chair having been wheeled into a corner.
"Ah, Mr. Knox," exclaimed Madame as I entered, "have the others deserted, then?"
"Scarcely deserted, I think. They are merely straggling."
"Absent without leave," murmured Val Beverley.
I laughed, and drew up a chair. Madame de Staemer was smoking, but Miss Beverley was not. Accordingly, I offered her a cigarette, which she accepted, and as I was lighting it with elaborate care, every moment finding a new beauty in her charming face, Pedro again appeared and addressed some remark in Spanish to Madame.
"My chair, Pedro," she said; "I will come at once."
The Spanish butler wheeled the chair across to the settee, and lifting her with an ease which spoke of long practice, placed her amidst the cushions where she spent so many hours of her life.
"I know you will excuse me, dear," she said to Val Beverley, "because I feel sure that Mr. Knox will do his very best to make up for my absence. Presently, I shall be back."
Pedro holding the door open, she went wheeling out, and I found myself alone with Val Beverley.
At the time I was much too delighted to question the circumstances which had led to this tete-a-tete, but had I cared to give the matter any consideration, it must have presented rather curious features. The call first of host and then of hostess was inconsistent with the courtesy of the master of Cray's Folly, which, like the appointments of his home and his mode of life, was elaborate. But these ideas did not trouble me at the moment.
Suddenly, however, indeed before I had time to speak, the girl started and laid her hand upon my arm.
"Did you hear something?" she whispered, "a queer sort of sound?"
"No," I replied, "what kind of sound?"
"An odd sort of sound, almost like--the flapping of wings."
I saw that she had turned pale, I saw the confirmation of something which I had only partly realised before: that her life at Cray's Folly was a constant fight against some haunting shadow. Her gaiety, her lightness, were but a mask. For now, in those wide-open eyes, I read absolute horror.
"Miss Beverley," I said, grasping her hand reassuringly, "you alarm me. What has made you so nervous to-night?"
"To-night!" she echoed, "to-night? It is every night. If you had not come--" she corrected herself--"if someone had not come, I don't think I could have stayed. I am sure I could not have stayed."
"Doubtless the attempted burglary alarmed you?" I suggested, intending to sooth her fears.
"Burglary?" She smiled unmirthfully. "It was no burglary."
"Why do you say so, Miss Beverley?"
"Do you think I don't know why Mr. Harley is here?" she challenged. "Oh, believe me, I know--I know. I, too, saw the bat's wing nailed to the door, Mr. Knox. You are surely not going to suggest that this was the work of a burglar?"
I seated myself beside her on the settee.
"You have great courage," I said. "Believe me, I quite understand all that you have suffered."
"Is my acting so poor?" she asked, with a pathetic smile.
"No, it is wonderful, but to a sympathetic observer only acting, nevertheless."
I noted that my presence reassured her, and was much comforted by this fact.
"Would you like to tell me all about it," I continued; "or would this merely renew your fears?"
"I should like to tell you," she replied in a low voice, glancing about her as if to make sure that we were alone. "Except for odd people, friends, I suppose, of the Colonel's, we have had so few visitors since we have been at Cray's Folly. Apart from all sorts of queer happenings which really"--she laughed nervously--"may have no significance whatever, the crowning mystery to my mind is why Colonel Menendez should have leased this huge house."
"He does not entertain very much, then?"
"Scarcely at all. The 'County'--do you know what I mean by the 'County?'--began by receiving him with open arms and ended by sending him to Coventry. His lavish style of entertainment they labelled 'swank'--horrible word but very expressive! They concluded that they did not understand him, and of everything they don't understand they disapprove. So after the first month or so it became very lonely at Cray's Folly. Our foreign servants--there are five of them altogether-- got us a dreadfully bad name. Then, little by little, a sort of cloud seemed to settle on everything. The Colonel made two visits abroad, I don't know exactly where he went, but on his return from the first visit Madame de Staemer changed."
"Changed?--in what way?"
"I am afraid it would be hopeless to try to make you understand, Mr. Knox, but in some subtle way she changed. Underneath all her vivacity she is a tragic woman, and--oh, how can I explain?" Val Beverley made a little gesture of despair.
"Perhaps you mean," I suggested, "that she seemed to become even less happy than before?"
"Yes," she replied, looking at me eagerly. "Has Colonel Menendez told you anything to account for it?"
"Nothing," I said, "He has left us strangely in the dark. But you say he went abroad on a second and more recent occasion?"
"Yes, not much more than a month ago. And after that, somehow or other, matters seemed to come to a head. I confess I became horribly frightened, but to have left would have seemed like desertion, and Madame de Staemer has been so good to me."
"Did you actually witness any of the episodes which took place about a month ago?"
Val Beverley shook her head.
"I never saw anything really definite," she replied.
"Yet, evidently you either saw or heard something which alarmed you."
"Yes, that is true, but it is so difficult to explain."
"Could you try to explain?"
"I will try if you wish, for really I am longing to talk to someone about it. For instance, on several occasions I have heard footsteps in the corridor outside my room."
"Yes, at night."
"That is the uncanny part of it. You know how familiar one grows with the footsteps of persons living in the same house? Well, these footsteps were quite unfamiliar to me."
"And you say they passed your door?"
"Yes. My rooms are almost directly overhead. And right at the end of the corridor, that is on the southeast corner of the building, is Colonel Menendez's bedroom, and facing it a sort of little smoke-room. It was in this direction that the footsteps went."
"To Colonel Menendez's room?"
"Yes. They were light, furtive footsteps."
"This took place late at night?"
"Quite late, long after everyone had retired."
She paused, staring at me with a sort of embarrassment, and presently:
"Were the footsteps those of a man or a woman?" I asked.
"Of a woman. Someone, Mr. Knox," she bent forward, and that look of fear began to creep into her eyes again, "with whose footsteps I was quite unfamiliar."
"You mean a stranger to the house?"
"Yes. Oh, it was uncanny." She shuddered. "The first time I heard it I had been lying awake listening. I was nervous. Madame de Staemer had told me that morning that the Colonel had seen someone lurking about the lawns on the previous night. Then, as I lay awake listening for the slightest sound, I suddenly detected these footsteps; and they paused-- right outside my door."
"Good heavens!" I exclaimed. "What did you do?"
"Frankly, I was too frightened to do anything. I just lay still with my heart beating horribly, and presently they passed on, and I heard them no more."
"Was your door locked?"
"No." She laughed nervously. "But it has been locked every night since then!"
"And these sounds were repeated on other nights?"
"Yes, I have often heard them, Mr. Knox. What makes it so strange is that all the servants sleep out in the west wing, as you know, and Pedro locks the communicating door every night before retiring."
"It is certainly strange," I muttered.
"It is horrible," declared the girl, almost in a whisper. "For what can it mean except that there is someone in Cray's Folly who is never seen during the daytime?"
"But that is incredible."
"It is not so incredible in a big house like this. Besides, what other explanation can there be?"
"There must be one," I said, reassuringly. "Have you spoken of this to Madame de Staemer?"
Val Beverley's expression grew troubled.
"Had she any explanation to offer?"
"None. Her attitude mystified me very much. Indeed, instead of reassuring me, she frightened me more than ever by her very silence. I grew to dread the coming of each night. Then--" she hesitated again, looking at me pathetically--"twice I have been awakened by a loud cry."
"What kind of cry?"
"I could not tell you, Mr. Knox. You see I have always been asleep when it has come, but I have sat up trembling and dimly aware that what had awakened me was a cry of some kind."
"You have no idea from whence it proceeded?"
"None whatever. Of course, all these things may seem trivial to you, and possibly they can be explained in quite a simple way. But this feeling of something pending has grown almost unendurable. Then, I don't understand Madame and the Colonel at all."
She suddenly stopped speaking and flushed with embarrassment.
"If you mean that Madame de Staemer is in love with her cousin, I agree with you," I said, quietly.
"Oh, is it so evident as that?" murmured Val Beverley. She laughed to cover her confusion. "I wish I could understand what it all means."
At this point our tete-a-tete was interrupted by the return of Madame de Staemer.
"Oh, la la!" she cried, "the Colonel must have allowed himself to become too animated this evening. He is threatened with one of his attacks and I have insisted upon his immediate retirement. He makes his apologies, but knows you will understand."
I expressed my concern, and:
"I was unaware that Colonel Menendez's health was impaired," I said.
"Ah," Madame shrugged characteristically. "Juan has travelled too much of the road of life on top speed, Mr. Knox." She snapped her white fingers and grimaced significantly. "Excitement is bad for him."
She wheeled her chair up beside Val Beverley, and taking the girl's hand patted it affectionately.
"You look pale to-night, my dear," she said. "All this bogey business is getting on your nerves, eh?"
"Oh, not at all," declared the girl. "It is very mysterious and annoying, of course."
"But M. Paul Harley will presently tell us what it is all about," concluded Madame. "Yes, I trust so. We want no Cuban devils here at Cray's Folly."
I had hoped that she would speak further of the matter, but having thus apologized for our host's absence, she plunged into an amusing account of Parisian society, and of the changes which five years of war had brought about. Her comments, although brilliant, were superficial, the only point I recollect being her reference to a certain Baron Bergmann, a Swedish diplomat, who, according to Madame, had the longest nose and the shortest memory in Paris, so that in the cold weather, "he even sometimes forgot to blow his nose."
Her brightness I thought was almost feverish. She chattered and laughed and gesticulated, but on this occasion she was overacting. Underneath all her vivacity lay something cold and grim.
Harley rejoined us in half an hour or so, but I could see that he was as conscious of the air of tension as I was. All Madame's high spirits could not enable her to conceal the fact that she was anxious to retire. But Harley's evident desire to do likewise surprised me very greatly; for from the point of view of the investigation the day had been an unsatisfactory one. I knew that there must be a hundred and one things which my friend desired to know, questions which Madame de Staemer could have answered. Nevertheless, at about ten o'clock we separated for the night, and although I was intensely anxious to talk to Harley, his reticent mood had descended upon him again, and:
"Sleep well, Knox," he said, as he paused at my door. "I may be awakening you early."
With which cryptic remark and not another word he passed on and entered his own room.