A. A. Milne ~ The Red House Mystery

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CHAPTER I. Mrs. Stevens is Frightened

In the drowsy heat of the summer afternoon the Red House was taking its siesta. There was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the tops of the elms. From distant lawns came the whir of a mowing-machine, that most restful of all country sounds; making ease the sweeter in that it is taken while others are working.

It was the hour when even those whose business it is to attend to the wants of others have a moment or two for themselves. In the housekeeper’s room Audrey Stevens, the pretty parlour-maid, re-trimmed her best hat, and talked idly to her aunt, the cook-housekeeper of Mr. Mark Ablett’s bachelor home.

“For Joe?” said Mrs. Stevens placidly, her eye on the hat. Audrey nodded. She took a pin from her mouth, found a place in the hat for it, and said, “He likes a bit of pink.”

“I don’t say I mind a bit of pink myself,” said her aunt. “Joe Turner isn’t the only one.”

“It isn’t everybody’s colour,” said Audrey, holding the hat out at arm’s length, and regarding it thoughtfully. “Stylish, isn’t it?”

“Oh, it’ll suit you all right, and it would have suited me at your age. A bit too dressy for me now, though wearing better than some other people, I daresay. I was never the one to pretend to be what I wasn’t. If I’m fifty-five, I’m fifty-five—that’s what I say.”

“Fifty-eight, isn’t it, auntie?”

“I was just giving that as an example,” said Mrs. Stevens with great dignity.

Audrey threaded a needle, held her hand out and looked at her nails critically for a moment, and then began to sew.

“Funny thing that about Mr. Mark’s brother. Fancy not seeing your brother for fifteen years.” She gave a self-conscious laugh and went on, “Wonder what I should do if I didn’t see Joe for fifteen years.”

“As I told you all this morning,” said her aunt, “I’ve been here five years, and never heard of a brother. I could say that before everybody if I was going to die to-morrow. There’s been no brother here while I’ve been here.”

“You could have knocked me down with a feather when he spoke about him at breakfast this morning. I didn’t hear what went before, naturally, but they was all talking about the brother when I went in—now what was it I went in for—hot milk, was it, or toast?—well, they was all talking, and Mr. Mark turns to me, and says—you know his way—’Stevens,’ he says, ‘my brother is coming to see me this afternoon; I’m expecting him about three,’ he says. ‘Show him into the office,’ he says, just like that. ‘Yes, sir,’ I says quite quietly, but I was never so surprised in my life, not knowing he had a brother. ‘My brother from Australia,’ he says—there, I’d forgotten that. From Australia.”

“Well, he may have been in Australia,” said Mrs. Stevens, judicially; “I can’t say for that, not knowing the country; but what I do say is he’s never been here. Not while I’ve been here, and that’s five years.”

“Well, but, auntie, he hasn’t been here for fifteen years. I heard Mr. Mark telling Mr. Cayley. ‘Fifteen years,’ he says. Mr. Cayley having arst him when his brother was last in England. Mr. Cayley knew of him, I heard him telling Mr. Beverley, but didn’t know when he was last in England—see? So that’s why he arst Mr. Mark.”

“I’m not saying anything about fifteen years, Audrey. I can only speak for what I know, and that’s five years Whitsuntide. I can take my oath he’s not set foot in the house since five years Whitsuntide. And if he’s been in Australia, as you say, well, I daresay he’s had his reasons.”

“What reasons?” said Audrey lightly.

“Never mind what reasons. Being in the place of a mother to you, since your poor mother died, I say this, Audrey—when a gentleman goes to Australia, he has his reasons. And when he stays in Australia fifteen years, as Mr. Mark says, and as I know for myself for five years, he has his reasons. And a respectably brought-up girl doesn’t ask what reasons.”

“Got into trouble, I suppose,” said Audrey carelessly. “They were saying at breakfast he’d been a wild one. Debts. I’m glad Joe isn’t like that. He’s got fifteen pounds in the post-office savings’ bank. Did I tell you?”

But there was not to be any more talk of Joe Turner that afternoon. The ringing of a bell brought Audrey to her feet—no longer Audrey, but now Stevens. She arranged her cap in front of the glass.

“There, that’s the front door,” she said. “That’s him. ‘Show him into the office,’ said Mr. Mark. I suppose he doesn’t want the other ladies and gentlemen to see him. Well, they’re all out at their golf, anyhow—Wonder if he’s going to stay—P’raps he’s brought back a lot of gold from Australia—I might hear something about Australia, because if anybody can get gold there, then I don’t say but what Joe and I—”

“Now, now, get on, Audrey.”

“Just going, darling.” She went out.

To anyone who had just walked down the drive in the August sun, the open door of the Red House revealed a delightfully inviting hall, of which even the mere sight was cooling. It was a big low-roofed, oak-beamed place, with cream-washed walls and diamond-paned windows, blue-curtained. On the right and left were doors leading into other living-rooms, but on the side which faced you as you came in were windows again, looking on to a small grass court, and from open windows to open windows such air as there was played gently. The staircase went up in broad, low steps along the right-hand wall, and, turning to the left, led you along a gallery, which ran across the width of the hall, to your bedroom. That is, if you were going to stay the night. Mr. Robert Ablett’s intentions in this matter were as yet unknown.

As Audrey came across the hall she gave a little start as she saw Mr. Cayley suddenly, sitting unobtrusively in a seat beneath one of the front windows, reading. No reason why he shouldn’t be there; certainly a much cooler place than the golf-links on such a day; but somehow there was a deserted air about the house that afternoon, as if all the guests were outside, or—perhaps the wisest place of all—up in their bedrooms, sleeping. Mr. Cayley, the master’s cousin, was a surprise; and, having given a little exclamation as she came suddenly upon him, she blushed, and said, “Oh, I beg your pardon, sir, I didn’t see you at first,” and he looked up from his book and smiled at her. An attractive smile it was on that big ugly face. “Such a gentleman, Mr. Cayley,” she thought to herself as she went on, and wondered what the master would do without him. If this brother, for instance, had to be bundled back to Australia, it was Mr. Cayley who would do most of the bundling.

“So this is Mr. Robert,” said Audrey to herself, as she came in sight of the visitor.

She told her aunt afterwards that she would have known him anywhere for Mr. Mark’s brother, but she would have said that in any event. Actually she was surprised. Dapper little Mark, with his neat pointed beard and his carefully curled moustache; with his quick-darting eyes, always moving from one to the other of any company he was in, to register one more smile to his credit when he had said a good thing, one more expectant look when he was only waiting his turn to say it; he was a very different man from this rough-looking, ill-dressed colonial, staring at her so loweringly.

“I want to see Mr. Mark Ablett,” he growled. It sounded almost like a threat.

Audrey recovered herself and smiled reassuringly at him. She had a smile for everybody.

“Yes, sir. He is expecting you, if you will come this way.”

“Oh! So you know who I am, eh?”

“Mr. Robert Ablett?”

“Ay, that’s right. So he’s expecting me, eh? He’ll be glad to see me, eh?”

“If you will come this way, sir,” said Audrey primly.

She went to the second door on the left, and opened it.

“Mr. Robert Ab—” she began, and then broke off. The room was empty. She turned to the man behind her. “If you will sit down, sir, I will find the master. I know he’s in, because he told me that you were coming this afternoon.”

“Oh!” He looked round the room. “What d’you call this place, eh?”

“The office, sir.”

“The office?”

“The room where the master works, sir.”

“Works, eh? That’s new. Didn’t know he’d ever done a stroke of work in his life.”

“Where he writes, sir,” said Audrey, with dignity. The fact that Mr. Mark “wrote,” though nobody knew what, was a matter of pride in the housekeeper’s room.

“Not well-dressed enough for the drawing-room, eh?”

“I will tell the master you are here, sir,” said Audrey decisively.

She closed the door and left him there.

Well! Here was something to tell auntie! Her mind was busy at once, going over all the things which he had said to her and she had said to him—quiet-like. “Directly I saw him I said to myself—” Why, you could have knocked her over with a feather. Feathers, indeed, were a perpetual menace to Audrey.

However, the immediate business was to find the master. She walked across the hall to the library, glanced in, came back a little uncertainly, and stood in front of Cayley.

“If you please, sir,” she said in a low, respectful voice, “can you tell me where the master is? It’s Mr. Robert called.”

“What?” said Cayley, looking up from his book. “Who?”

Audrey repeated her question.

“I don’t know. Isn’t he in the office? He went up to the Temple after lunch. I don’t think I’ve seen him since.”

“Thank you, sir. I will go up to the Temple.”

Cayley returned to his book.

The “Temple” was a brick summer-house, in the gardens at the back of the house, about three hundred yards away. Here Mark meditated sometimes before retiring to the “office” to put his thoughts upon paper. The thoughts were not of any great value; moreover, they were given off at the dinner-table more often than they got on to paper, and got on to paper more often than they got into print. But that did not prevent the master of The Red House from being a little pained when a visitor treated the Temple carelessly, as if it had been erected for the ordinary purposes of flirtation and cigarette-smoking. There had been an occasion when two of his guests had been found playing fives in it. Mark had said nothing at the time, save to ask with a little less than his usual point—whether they couldn’t find anywhere else for their game, but the offenders were never asked to The Red House again.

Audrey walked slowly up to the Temple, looked in and walked slowly back. All that walk for nothing. Perhaps the master was upstairs in his room. “Not well-dressed enough for the drawing-room.” Well, now, Auntie, would you like anyone in your drawing-room with a red handkerchief round his neck and great big dusty boots, and—listen! One of the men shooting rabbits. Auntie was partial to a nice rabbit, and onion sauce. How hot it was; she wouldn’t say no to a cup of tea. Well, one thing, Mr. Robert wasn’t staying the night; he hadn’t any luggage. Of course Mr. Mark could lend him things; he had clothes enough for six. She would have known him anywhere for Mr. Mark’s brother.

She came into the house. As she passed the housekeeper’s room on her way to the hall, the door opened suddenly, and a rather frightened face looked out.

“Hallo, Aud,” said Elsie. “It’s Audrey,” she said, turning into the room.

“Come in, Audrey,” called Mrs. Stevens.

“What’s up?” said Audrey, looking in at the door.

“Oh, my dear, you gave me such a turn. Where have you been?”

“Up to the Temple.”

“Did you hear anything?”

“Hear what?”

“Bangs and explosions and terrible things.”

“Oh!” said Audrey, rather relieved. “One of the men shooting rabbits. Why, I said to myself as I came along, ‘Auntie’s partial to a nice rabbit,’ I said, and I shouldn’t be surprised if—”

“Rabbits!” said her aunt scornfully. “It was inside the house, my girl.”

“Straight it was,” said Elsie. She was one of the housemaids. “I said to Mrs. Stevens—didn’t I, Mrs. Stevens?—’That was in the house,’ I said.”

Audrey looked at her aunt and then at Elsie.

“Do you think he had a revolver with him?” she said in a hushed voice.

“Who?” said Elsie excitedly.

“That brother of his. From Australia. I said as soon as I set eyes on him, ‘You’re a bad lot, my man!’ That’s what I said, Elsie. Even before he spoke to me. Rude!” She turned to her aunt. “Well, I give you my word.”

“If you remember, Audrey, I always said there was no saying with anyone from Australia.” Mrs. Stevens lay back in her chair, breathing rather rapidly. “I wouldn’t go out of this room now, not if you paid me a hundred thousand pounds.”

“Oh, Mrs. Stevens!” said Elsie, who badly wanted five shillings for a new pair of shoes, “I wouldn’t go as far as that, not myself, but—”

“There!” cried Mrs. Stevens, sitting up with a start. They listened anxiously, the two girls instinctively coming closer to the older woman’s chair.

A door was being shaken, kicked, rattled.

“Listen!”

Audrey and Elsie looked at each other with frightened eyes.

They heard a man’s voice, loud, angry.

“Open the door!” it was shouting. “Open the door! I say, open the door!”

“Don’t open the door!” cried Mrs. Stevens in a panic, as if it was her door which was threatened. “Audrey! Elsie! Don’t let him in!”

“Damn it, open the door!” came the voice again.

“We’re all going to be murdered in our beds,” she quavered. Terrified, the two girls huddled closer, and with an arm round each, Mrs. Stevens sat there, waiting.

CHAPTER II. Mr. Gillingham Gets Out at the Wrong Station

Whether Mark Ablett was a bore or not depended on the point of view, but it may be said at once that he never bored his company on the subject of his early life. However, stories get about. There is always somebody who knows. It was understood—and this, anyhow, on Mark’s own authority—that his father had been a country clergyman. It was said that, as a boy, Mark had attracted the notice, and patronage, of some rich old spinster of the neighbourhood, who had paid for his education, both at school and university. At about the time when he was coming down from Cambridge, his father had died; leaving behind him a few debts, as a warning to his family, and a reputation for short sermons, as an example to his successor. Neither warning nor example seems to have been effective. Mark went to London, with an allowance from his patron, and (it is generally agreed) made acquaintance with the money-lenders. He was supposed, by his patron and any others who inquired, to be “writing”; but what he wrote, other than letters asking for more time to pay, has never been discovered. However, he attended the theatres and music halls very regularly—no doubt with a view to some serious articles in the “Spectator” on the decadence of the English stage.

Fortunately (from Mark’s point of view) his patron died during his third year in London, and left him all the money he wanted. From that moment his life loses its legendary character, and becomes more a matter of history. He settled accounts with the money-lenders, abandoned his crop of wild oats to the harvesting of others, and became in his turn a patron. He patronized the Arts. It was not only usurers who discovered that Mark Ablett no longer wrote for money; editors were now offered free contributions as well as free lunches; publishers were given agreements for an occasional slender volume, in which the author paid all expenses and waived all royalties; promising young painters and poets dined with him; and he even took a theatrical company on tour, playing host and “lead” with equal lavishness.

He was not what most people call a snob. A snob has been defined carelessly as a man who loves a lord; and, more carefully, as a mean lover of mean things—which would be a little unkind to the peerage if the first definition were true. Mark had his vanities undoubtedly, but he would sooner have met an actor-manager than an earl; he would have spoken of his friendship with Dante—had that been possible—more glibly than of his friendship with the Duke. Call him a snob if you like, but not the worst kind of snob; a hanger-on, but to the skirts of Art, not Society; a climber, but in the neighbourhood of Parnassus, not Hay Hill.

His patronage did not stop at the Arts. It also included Matthew Cayley, a small cousin of thirteen, whose circumstances were as limited as had been Mark’s own before his patron had rescued him. He sent the Cayley cousin to school and Cambridge. His motives, no doubt, were unworldly enough at first; a mere repaying to his account in the Recording Angel’s book of the generosity which had been lavished on himself; a laying-up of treasure in heaven. But it is probable that, as the boy grew up, Mark’s designs for his future were based on his own interests as much as those of his cousin, and that a suitably educated Matthew Cayley of twenty-three was felt by him to be a useful property for a man in his position; a man, that is to say, whose vanities left him so little time for his affairs.

Cayley, then, at twenty-three, looked after his cousin’s affairs. By this time Mark had bought the Red House and the considerable amount of land which went with it. Cayley superintended the necessary staff. His duties, indeed, were many. He was not quite secretary, not quite land-agent, not quite business-adviser, not quite companion, but something of all four. Mark leant upon him and called him “Cay,” objecting quite rightly in the circumstances to the name of Matthew. Cay, he felt was, above all, dependable; a big, heavy-jawed, solid fellow, who didn’t bother you with unnecessary talk—a boon to a man who liked to do most of the talking himself.

Cayley was now twenty-eight, but had all the appearance of forty, which was his patron’s age. Spasmodically they entertained a good deal at the Red House, and Mark’s preference—call it kindliness or vanity, as you please—was for guests who were not in a position to repay his hospitality. Let us have a look at them as they came down to that breakfast, of which Stevens, the parlour-maid, has already given us a glimpse.

The first to appear was Major Rumbold, a tall, grey-haired, grey-moustached, silent man, wearing a Norfolk coat and grey flannel trousers, who lived on his retired pay and wrote natural history articles for the papers. He inspected the dishes on the side-table, decided carefully on kedgeree, and got to work on it. He had passed on to a sausage by the time of the next arrival. This was Bill Beverly, a cheerful young man in white flannel trousers and a blazer.

“Hallo, Major,” he said as he came in, “how’s the gout?”

“It isn’t gout,” said the Major gruffly.

“Well, whatever it is.”

The Major grunted.

“I make a point of being polite at breakfast,” said Bill, helping himself largely to porridge. “Most people are so rude. That’s why I asked you. But don’t tell me if it’s a secret. Coffee?” he added, as he poured himself out a cup.

“No, thanks. I never drink till I’ve finished eating.”

“Quite right, Major; it’s only manners.” He sat down opposite to the other. “Well, we’ve got a good day for our game. It’s going to be dashed hot, but that’s where Betty and I score. On the fifth green, your old wound, the one you got in that frontier skirmish in ’43, will begin to trouble you; on the eighth, your liver, undermined by years of curry, will drop to pieces; on the twelfth—”

“Oh, shut up, you ass!”

“Well, I’m only warning you. Hallo; good morning, Miss Norris. I was just telling the Major what was going to happen to you and him this morning. Do you want any assistance, or do you prefer choosing your own breakfast?”

“Please don’t get up,” said Miss Norris. “I’ll help myself. Good morning, Major.” She smiled pleasantly at him. The Major nodded.

“Good morning. Going to be hot.”

“As I was telling him,” began Bill, “that’s where—Hallo, here’s Betty. Morning, Cayley.”

Betty Calladine and Cayley had come in together. Betty was the eighteen-year-old daughter of Mrs. John Calladine, widow of the painter, who was acting hostess on this occasion for Mark. Ruth Norris took herself seriously as an actress and, on her holidays, seriously as a golfer. She was quite competent as either. Neither the Stage Society nor Sandwich had any terrors for her.

“By the way, the car will be round at 10.30,” said Cayley, looking up from his letters. “You’re lunching there, and driving back directly afterwards. Isn’t that right?”

“I don’t see why we shouldn’t have—two rounds,” said Bill hopefully.

“Much too hot in the afternoon,” said the Major. “Get back comfortably for tea.”

Mark came in. He was generally the last. He greeted them and sat down to toast and tea. Breakfast was not his meal. The others chattered gently while he read his letters.

“Good God!” said Mark suddenly.

There was an instinctive turning of heads towards him. “I beg your pardon, Miss Norris. Sorry, Betty.”

Miss Norris smiled her forgiveness. She often wanted to say it herself, particularly at rehearsals.

“I say, Cay!” He was frowning to himself—annoyed, puzzled. He held up a letter and shook it. “Who do you think this is from?”

Cayley, at the other end of the table, shrugged his shoulders. How could he possibly guess?

“Robert,” said Mark.

“Robert?” It was difficult to surprise Cayley. “Well?”

“It’s all very well to say ‘well?’ like that,” said Mark peevishly. “He’s coming here this afternoon.”

“I thought he was in Australia, or somewhere.”

“Of course. So did I.” He looked across at Rumbold. “Got any brothers, Major?”

“No.”

“Well, take my advice, and don’t have any.”

“Not likely to now,” said the Major.

Bill laughed. Miss Norris said politely: “But you haven’t any brothers, Mr. Ablett?”

“One,” said Mark grimly. “If you’re back in time you’ll see him this afternoon. He’ll probably ask you to lend him five pounds. Don’t.”

Everybody felt a little uncomfortable.

“I’ve got a brother,” said Bill helpfully, “but I always borrow from him.”

“Like Robert,” said Mark.

“When was he in England last?” asked Cayley.

“About fifteen years ago, wasn’t it? You’d have been a boy, of course.”

“Yes, I remember seeing him once about then, but I didn’t know if he had been back since.”

“No. Not to my knowledge.” Mark, still obviously upset, returned to his letter.

“Personally,” said Bill, “I think relations are a great mistake.”

“All the same,” said Betty a little daringly, “it must be rather fun having a skeleton in the cupboard.”

Mark looked up, frowning.

“If you think it’s fun, I’ll hand him over to you, Betty. If he’s anything like he used to be, and like his few letters have been—well, Cay knows.”

Cayley grunted.

“All I knew was that one didn’t ask questions about him.”

It may have been meant as a hint to any too curious guest not to ask more questions, or a reminder to his host not to talk too freely in front of strangers, although he gave it the sound of a mere statement of fact. But the subject dropped, to be succeeded by the more fascinating one of the coming foursome. Mrs. Calladine was driving over with the players in order to lunch with an old friend who lived near the links, and Mark and Cayley were remaining at home—on affairs. Apparently “affairs” were now to include a prodigal brother. But that need not make the foursome less enjoyable.

At about the time when the Major (for whatever reasons) was fluffing his tee-shot at the sixteenth, and Mark and his cousin were at their business at the Red House, an attractive gentleman of the name of Antony Gillingham was handing up his ticket at Woodham station and asking the way to the village. Having received directions, he left his bag with the station-master and walked off leisurely. He is an important person to this story, so that it is as well we should know something about him before letting him loose in it. Let us stop him at the top of the hill on some excuse, and have a good look at him.

The first thing we realize is that he is doing more of the looking than we are. Above a clean-cut, clean-shaven face, of the type usually associated with the Navy, he carries a pair of grey eyes which seem to be absorbing every detail of our person. To strangers this look is almost alarming at first, until they discover that his mind is very often elsewhere; that he has, so to speak, left his eyes on guard, while he himself follows a train of thought in another direction. Many people do this, of course; when, for instance, they are talking to one person and trying to listen to another; but their eyes betray them. Antony’s never did.

He had seen a good deal of the world with those eyes, though never as a sailor. When at the age of twenty-one he came into his mother’s money, 400 pounds a year, old Gillingham looked up from the “Stockbreeders’ Gazette” to ask what he was going to do.

“See the world,” said Antony.

“Well, send me a line from America, or wherever you get to.”

“Right,” said Antony.

Old Gillingham returned to his paper. Antony was a younger son, and, on the whole, not so interesting to his father as the cadets of certain other families; Champion Birket’s, for instance. But, then, Champion Birket was the best Hereford bull he had ever bred.

Antony, however, had no intention of going further away than London. His idea of seeing the world was to see, not countries, but people; and to see them from as many angles as possible. There are all sorts in London if you know how to look at them. So Antony looked at them—from various strange corners; from the view-point of the valet, the newspaper-reporter, the waiter, the shop-assistant. With the independence of 400 pounds a year behind him, he enjoyed it immensely. He never stayed long in one job, and generally closed his connection with it by telling his employer (contrary to all etiquette as understood between master and servant) exactly what he thought of him. He had no difficulty in finding a new profession. Instead of experience and testimonials he offered his personality and a sporting bet. He would take no wages the first month, and—if he satisfied his employer—double wages the second. He always got his double wages.

He was now thirty. He had come to Waldheim for a holiday, because he liked the look of the station. His ticket entitled him to travel further, but he had always intended to please himself in the matter. Waldheim attracted him, and he had a suit-case in the carriage with him and money in his pocket. Why not get out?

The landlady of ‘The George’ was only too glad to put him up, and promised that her husband would drive over that afternoon for his luggage.

“And you would like some lunch, I expect, sir.”

“Yes, but don’t give yourself any trouble about it. Cold anything-you’ve-got.”

“What about beef, sir?” she asked, as if she had a hundred varieties of meat to select from, and was offering him her best.

“That will do splendidly. And a pint of beer.”

While he was finishing his lunch, the landlord came in to ask about the luggage. Antony ordered another pint, and soon had him talking.

“It must be rather fun to keep a country inn,” he said, thinking that it was about time he started another profession.

“I don’t know about fun, sir. It gives us a living, and a bit over.”

“You ought to take a holiday,” said Antony, looking at him thoughtfully.

“Funny thing your saying that,” said the landlord, with a smile. “Another gentleman, over from the Red House, was saying that only yesterday. Offered to take my place ‘n all.” He laughed rumblingly.

“The Red House? Not the Red House, Stanton?”

“That’s right, sir. Stanton’s the next station to Waldheim. The Red House is about a mile from here—Mr. Ablett’s.”

Antony took a letter from his pocket. It was addressed from “The Red House, Stanton,” and signed “Bill.”

“Good old Bill,” he murmured to himself. “He’s getting on.”

Antony had met Bill Beverley two years before in a tobacconist’s shop. Gillingham was on one side of the counter and Mr. Beverley on the other. Something about Bill, his youth and freshness, perhaps, attracted Antony; and when cigarettes had been ordered, and an address given to which they were to be sent, he remembered that he had come across an aunt of Beverley’s once at a country-house. Beverley and he met again a little later at a restaurant. Both of them were in evening-dress, but they did different things with their napkins, and Antony was the more polite of the two. However, he still liked Bill. So on one of his holidays, when he was unemployed, he arranged an introduction through a mutual friend. Beverley was a little inclined to be shocked when he was reminded of their previous meetings, but his uncomfortable feeling soon wore off, and he and Antony quickly became intimate. But Bill generally addressed him as “Dear Madman” when he happened to write.

Antony decided to stroll over to the Red House after lunch and call upon his friend. Having inspected his bedroom which was not quite the lavender-smelling country-inn bedroom of fiction, but sufficiently clean and comfortable, he set out over the fields.

As he came down the drive and approached the old red-brick front of the house, there was a lazy murmur of bees in the flower-borders, a gentle cooing of pigeons in the tops of the elms, and from distant lawns the whir of a mowing-machine, that most restful of all country sounds….

And in the hall a man was banging at a locked door, and shouting, “Open the door, I say; open the door!”

“Hallo!” said Antony in amazement.

CHAPTER III. Two Men and a Body

Cayley looked round suddenly at the voice.

“Can I help?” said Antony politely.

“Something’s happened,” said Cayley. He was breathing quickly. “I heard a shot—it sounded like a shot—I was in the library. A loud bang—I didn’t know what it was. And the door’s locked.” He rattled the handle again, and shook it. “Open the door!” he cried. “I say, Mark, what is it? Open the door!”

“But he must have locked the door on purpose,” said Antony. “So why should he open it just because you ask him to?”

Cayley looked at him in a bewildered way. Then he turned to the door again. “We must break it in,” he said, putting his shoulder to it. “Help me.”

“Isn’t there a window?”

Cayley turned to him stupidly.

“Window? Window?”

“So much easier to break in a window,” said Antony with a smile. He looked very cool and collected, as he stood just inside the hall, leaning on his stick, and thinking, no doubt, that a great deal of fuss was being made about nothing. But then, he had not heard the shot.

“Window—of course! What an idiot I am.”

He pushed past Antony, and began running out into the drive. Antony followed him. They ran along the front of the house, down a path to the left, and then to the left again over the grass, Cayley in front, the other close behind him. Suddenly Cayley looked over his shoulder and pulled up short.

“Here,” he said.

They had come to the windows of the locked room, French windows which opened on to the lawns at the back of the house. But now they were closed. Antony couldn’t help feeling a thrill of excitement as he followed Cayley’s example, and put his face close up to the glass. For the first time he wondered if there really had been a revolver shot in this mysterious room. It had all seemed so absurd and melodramatic from the other side of the door. But if there had been one shot, why should there not be two more?—at the careless fools who were pressing their noses against the panes, and asking for it.

“My God, can you see it?” said Cayley in a shaking voice. “Down there. Look!”

The next moment Antony saw it. A man was lying on the floor at the far end of the room, his back towards them. A man? Or the body of a man?

“Who is it?” said Antony.

“I don’t know,” the other whispered.

“Well, we’d better go and see.” He considered the windows for a moment. “I should think, if you put your weight into it, just where they join, they’ll give all right. Otherwise, we can kick the glass in.”

Without saying anything, Cayley put his weight into it. The window gave, and they went into the room. Cayley walked quickly to the body, and dropped on his knees by it. For the moment he seemed to hesitate; then with an effort he put a hand on to its shoulder and pulled it over.

“Thank God!” he murmured, and let the body go again.

“Who is it?” said Antony.

“Robert Ablett.”

“Oh!” said Antony. “I thought his name was Mark,” he added, more to himself than to the other.

“Yes, Mark Ablett lives here. Robert is his brother.” He shuddered, and said, “I was afraid it was Mark.”

“Was Mark in the room too?”

“Yes,” said Cayley absently. Then, as if resenting suddenly these questions from a stranger, “Who are you?”

But Antony had gone to the locked door, and was turning the handle. “I suppose he put the key in his pocket,” he said, as he came back to the body again.

“Who?”

Antony shrugged his shoulders.

“Whoever did this,” he said, pointing to the man on the floor. “Is he dead?”

“Help me,” said Cayley simply.

They turned the body on to its back, nerving themselves to look at it. Robert Ablett had been shot between the eyes. It was not a pleasant sight, and with his horror Antony felt a sudden pity for the man beside him, and a sudden remorse for the careless, easy way in which he had treated the affair. But then one always went about imagining that these things didn’t happen—except to other people. It was difficult to believe in them just at first, when they happened to yourself.

“Did you know him well?” said Antony quietly. He meant, “Were you fond of him?”

“Hardly at all. Mark is my cousin. I mean, Mark is the brother I know best.”

“Your cousin?”

“Yes.” He hesitated, and then said, “Is he dead? I suppose he is. Will you—do you know anything about—about that sort of thing? Perhaps I’d better get some water.”

There was another door opposite to the locked one, which led, as Antony was to discover for himself directly, into a passage from which opened two more rooms. Cayley stepped into the passage, and opened the door on the right. The door from the office, through which he had gone, remained open. The door, at the end of the short passage was shut. Antony, kneeling by the body, followed Cayley with his eyes, and, after he had disappeared, kept his eyes on the blank wall of the passage, but he was not conscious of that at which he was looking, for his mind was with the other man, sympathizing with him.

“Not that water is any use to a dead body,” he said to himself, “but the feeling that you’re doing something, when there’s obviously nothing to be done, is a great comfort.”

Cayley came into the room again. He had a sponge in one hand, a handkerchief in the other. He looked at Antony. Antony nodded. Cayley murmured something, and knelt down to bathe the dead man’s face. Then he placed the handkerchief over it. A little sigh escaped Antony, a sigh of relief.

They stood up and looked at each other.

“If I can be of any help to you,” said Antony, “please let me.”

“That’s very kind of you. There will be things to do. Police, doctors—I don’t know. But you mustn’t let me trespass on your kindness. Indeed, I should apologise for having trespassed so much already.”

“I came to see Beverley. He is an old friend of mine.”

“He’s out playing golf. He will be back directly.” Then, as if he had only just realized it, “They will all be back directly.”

“I will stay if I can be of any help.”

“Please do. You see, there are women. It will be rather painful. If you would—” He hesitated, and gave Antony a timid little smile, pathetic in so big and self-reliant a man. “Just your moral support, you know. It would be something.”

“Of course.” Antony smiled back at him, and said cheerfully, “Well, then, I’ll begin by suggesting that you should ring up the police.”

“The police? Y-yes.” He looked doubtfully at the other. “I suppose—”

Antony spoke frankly.

“Now, look here, Mr.—er—”

“Cayley. I’m Mark Ablett’s cousin. I live with him.”

“My name’s Gillingham. I’m sorry, I ought to have told you before. Well now, Mr. Cayley, we shan’t do any good by pretending. Here’s a man been shot—well, somebody shot him.”

“He might have shot himself,” mumbled Cayley.

“Yes, he might have, but he didn’t. Or if he did, somebody was in the room at the time, and that somebody isn’t here now. And that somebody took a revolver away with him. Well, the police will want to say a word about that, won’t they?”

Cayley was silent, looking on the ground.

“Oh, I know what you’re thinking, and believe me I do sympathize with you, but we can’t be children about it. If your cousin Mark Ablett was in the room with this”—he indicated the body—”this man, then—”

“Who said he was?” said Cayley, jerking his head up suddenly at Antony.

“You did.”

“I was in the library. Mark went in—he may have come out again—I know nothing. Somebody else may have gone in—”

“Yes, yes,” said Antony patiently, as if to a little child. “You know your cousin; I don’t. Let’s agree that he had nothing to do with it. But somebody was in the room when this man was shot, and—well, the police will have to know. Don’t you think—” He looked at the telephone. “Or would you rather I did it?”

Cayley shrugged his shoulders and went to the telephone.

“May I—er—look round a bit?” Antony nodded towards the open door.

“Oh, do. Yes.” He sat down and drew the telephone towards him. “You must make allowances for me, Mr. Gillingham. You see, I’ve known Mark for a very long time. But, of course, you’re quite right, and I’m merely being stupid.” He took off the receiver.

Let us suppose that, for the purpose of making a first acquaintance with this “office,” we are coming into it from the hall, through the door which is now locked, but which, for our special convenience, has been magically unlocked for us. As we stand just inside the door, the length of the room runs right and left; or, more accurately, to the right only, for the left-hand wall is almost within our reach. Immediately opposite to us, across the breadth of the room (some fifteen feet), is that other door, by which Cayley went out and returned a few minutes ago. In the right-hand wall, thirty feet away from us, are the French windows. Crossing the room and going out by the opposite door, we come into a passage, from which two rooms lead. The one on the right, into which Cayley went, is less than half the length of the office, a small, square room, which has evidently been used some time or other as a bedroom. The bed is no longer there, but there is a basin, with hot and cold taps, in a corner; chairs; a cupboard or two, and a chest of drawers. The window faces the same way as the French windows in the next room; but anybody looking out of the bedroom window has his view on the immediate right shut off by the outer wall of the office, which projects, by reason of its greater length, fifteen feet further into the lawn.

The room on the other side of the bedroom is a bathroom. The three rooms together, in fact, form a sort of private suite; used, perhaps, during the occupation of the previous owner, by some invalid, who could not manage the stairs, but allowed by Mark to fall into disuse, save for the living-room. At any rate, he never slept downstairs.

Antony glanced at the bathroom, and then wandered into the bedroom, the room into which Cayley had been. The window was open, and he looked out at the well-kept grass beneath him, and the peaceful stretch of park beyond; and he felt very sorry for the owner of it all, who was now mixed up in so grim a business.

“Cayley thinks he did it,” said Antony to himself. “That’s obvious. It explains why he wasted so much time banging on the door. Why should he try to break a lock when it’s so much easier to break a window? Of course he might just have lost his head; on the other hand, he might—well, he might have wanted to give his cousin a chance of getting away. The same about the police, and—oh, lots of things. Why, for instance, did we run all the way round the house in order to get to the windows? Surely there’s a back way out through the hall. I must have a look later on.”

Antony, it will be observed, had by no means lost his head.

There was a step in the passage outside, and he turned round, to see Cayley in the doorway. He remained looking at him for a moment, asking himself a question. It was rather a curious question. He was asking himself why the door was open.

Well, not exactly why the door was open; that could be explained easily enough. But why had he expected the door to be shut? He did not remember shutting it, but somehow he was surprised to see it open now, to see Cayley through the doorway, just coming into the room. Something working sub-consciously in his brain had told him that it was surprising. Why?

He tucked the matter away in a corner of his mind for the moment; the answer would come to him later on. He had a wonderfully retentive mind. Everything which he saw or heard seemed to make its corresponding impression somewhere in his brain; often without his being conscious of it; and these photographic impressions were always there ready for him when he wished to develop them.

Cayley joined him at the window.

“I’ve telephoned,” he said. “They’re sending an inspector or some one from Middleston, and the local police and doctor from Stanton.” He shrugged his shoulders. “We’re in for it now.”

“How far away is Middleston?” It was the town for which Antony had taken a ticket that morning—only six hours ago. How absurd it seemed.

“About twenty miles. These people will be coming back soon.”

“Beverley, and the others?”

“Yes. I expect they’ll want to go away at once.”

“Much better that they should.”

“Yes.” Cayley was silent for a little. Then he said, “You’re staying near here?”

“I’m at ‘The George,’ at Waldheim.”

“If you’re by yourself, I wish you’d put up here. You see,” he went on awkwardly, “you’ll have to be here—for the—the inquest and—and so on. If I may offer you my cousin’s hospitality in his—I mean if he doesn’t—if he really has—”

Antony broke in hastily with his thanks and acceptance.

“That’s good. Perhaps Beverley will stay on, if he’s a friend of yours. He’s a good fellow.”

Antony felt quite sure, from what Cayley had said and had hesitated to say, that Mark had been the last to see his brother alive. It didn’t follow that Mark Ablett was a murderer. Revolvers go off accidentally; and when they have gone off, people lose their heads and run away, fearing that their story will not be believed. Nevertheless, when people run away, whether innocently or guiltily, one can’t help wondering which way they went.

“I suppose this way,” said Antony aloud, looking out of the window.

“Who?” said Cayley stubbornly.

“Well, whoever it was,” said Antony, smiling to himself. “The murderer. Or, let us say, the man who locked the door after Robert Ablett was killed.”

“I wonder.”

“Well, how else could he have got away? He didn’t go by the windows in the next room, because they were shut.”

“Isn’t that rather odd?”

“Well, I thought so at first, but—” He pointed to the wall jutting out on the right. “You see, you’re protected from the rest of the house if you get out here, and you’re quite close to the shrubbery. If you go out at the French windows, I imagine you’re much more visible. All that part of the house—” he waved his right hand—”the west, well, north-west almost, where the kitchen parts are—you see, you’re hidden from them here. Oh, yes! he knew the house, whoever it was, and he was quite right to come out of this window. He’d be into the shrubbery at once.”

Cayley looked at him thoughtfully.

“It seems to me, Mr. Gillingham, that you know the house pretty well, considering that this is the first time you’ve been to it.”

Antony laughed.

“Oh, well, I notice things, you know. I was born noticing. But I’m right, aren’t I, about why he went out this way?”

“Yes, I think you are.” Cayley looked away—towards the shrubbery. “Do you want to go noticing in there now?” He nodded at it.

“I think we might leave that to the police,” said Antony gently. “It’s—well, there’s no hurry.”

Cayley gave a little sigh, as if he had been holding his breath for the answer, and could now breathe again.

“Thank you, Mr. Gillingham,” he said.

CHAPTER IV. The Brother from Australia

Guests at the Red House were allowed to do what they liked within reason—the reasonableness or otherwise of it being decided by Mark. But when once they (or Mark) had made up their minds as to what they wanted to do, the plan had to be kept. Mrs. Calladine, who knew this little weakness of their host’s, resisted, therefore, the suggestion of Bill that they should have a second round in the afternoon, and drive home comfortably after tea. The other golfers were willing enough, but Mrs. Calladine, without actually saying that Mr. Ablett wouldn’t like it, was firm on the point that, having arranged to be back by four, they should be back by four.

“I really don’t think Mark wants us, you know,” said the Major. Having played badly in the morning, he wanted to prove to himself in the afternoon that he was really better than that. “With this brother of his coming, he’ll be only too glad to have us out of the way.”

“Of course he will, Major.” This from Bill. “You’d like to play, wouldn’t you, Miss Norris?”

Miss Norris looked doubtfully at the hostess.

“Of course, if you want to get back, dear, we mustn’t keep you here. Besides, it’s so dull for you, not playing.”

“Just nine holes, mother,” pleaded Betty.

“The car could take you back, and you could tell them that we were having another round, and then it could come back for us,” said Bill brilliantly.

“It’s certainly much cooler here than I expected,” put in the Major.

Mrs. Calladine fell. It was very pleasantly cool outside the golf-house, and of course Mark would be rather glad to have them out of the way. So she consented to nine holes; and the match having ended all-square, and everybody having played much better than in the morning, they drove back to the Red House, very well pleased with themselves.

“Halo,” said Bill to himself, as they approached the house, “isn’t that old Tony?”

Antony was standing in front of the house, waiting for them. Bill waved, and he waved back. Then as the car drew up, Bill, who was in front with the chauffeur, jumped down and greeted him eagerly.

“Hallo, you madman, have you come to stay, or what?” He had a sudden idea. “Don’t say you’re Mark Ablett’s long-lost brother from Australia, though I could quite believe it of you.” He laughed boyishly.

“Hallo, Bill,” said Antony quietly. “Will you introduce me? I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”

Bill, rather sobered by this, introduced him. The Major and Mrs. Calladine were on the near side of the car, and Antony spoke to them in a low voice.

“I’m afraid I’m going to give you rather a shock,” he said. “Robert Ablett, Mr. Mark Ablett’s brother, has been killed.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “In the house.”

“Good God!” said the Major.

“Do you mean that he has killed himself?” asked Mrs. Calladine. “Just now?”

“It was about two hours ago. I happened to come here,”—he half-turned to Beverley and explained—”I was coming to see you, Bill, and I arrived just after the—the death. Mr. Cayley and I found the body. Mr. Cayley being busy just now—there are police and doctors and so on in the house—he asked me to tell you. He says that no doubt you would prefer, the house-party having been broken up in this tragic way, to leave as soon as possible.” He gave a pleasant apologetic little smile and went on, “I am putting it badly, but what he means, of course, is that you must consult your own feelings in the matter entirely, and please make your own arrangements about ordering the car for whatever train you wish to catch. There is one this evening, I understand, which you could go by if you wished it.”

Bill gazed with open mouth at Antony. He had no words in his vocabulary to express what he wanted to say, other than those the Major had already used. Betty was leaning across to Miss Norris and saying, “Who’s killed?” in an awe-struck voice, and Miss Norris, who was instinctively looking as tragic as she looked on the stage when a messenger announced the death of one of the cast, stopped for a moment in order to explain. Mrs. Calladine was quietly mistress of herself.

“We shall be in the way, yes, I quite understand,” she said; “but we can’t just shake the dust of the place off our shoes because something terrible has happened there. I must see Mark, and we can arrange later what to do. He must know how very deeply we feel for him. Perhaps we—” she hesitated.

“The Major and I might be useful anyway,” said Bill. “Isn’t that what you mean, Mrs. Calladine?”

“Where is Mark?” said the Major suddenly, looking hard at Antony.

Antony looked back unwaveringly—and said nothing.

“I think,” said the Major gently, leaning over to Mrs. Calladine, “that it would be better if you took Betty back to London to-night.”

“Very well,” she agreed quietly. “You will come with us, Ruth?”

“I’ll see you safely there,” said Bill in a meek voice. He didn’t quite know what was happening, and, having expected to stay at the Red House for another week, he had nowhere to go to in London, but London seemed to be the place that everyone was going to, and when he could get Tony alone for a moment, Tony no doubt would explain.

“Cayley wants you to stay, Bill. You have to go anyhow, to-morrow, Major Rumbold?”

“Yes. I’ll come with you, Mrs. Calladine.”

“Mr. Cayley would wish me to say again that you will please not hesitate to give your own orders, both as regard the car and as regard any telephoning or telegraphing that you want done.” He smiled again and added, “Please forgive me if I seem to have taken a good deal upon myself, but I just happened to be handy as a mouthpiece for Cayley.” He bowed to them and went into the house.

“Well!” said Miss Norris dramatically.

As Antony re-entered the hall, the Inspector from Middleston was just crossing into the library with Cayley. The latter stopped and nodded to Antony.

“Wait a moment, Inspector. Here’s Mr. Gillingham. He’d better come with us.” And then to Antony, “This is Inspector Birch.”

Birch looked inquiringly from one to the other.

“Mr. Gillingham and I found the body together,” explained Cayley.

“Oh! Well, come along, and let’s get the facts sorted out a bit. I like to know where I am, Mr. Gillingham.”

“We all do.”

“Oh!” He looked at Antony with interest. “D’you know where you are in this case?”

“I know where I’m going to be.”

“Where’s that?”

“Put through it by Inspector Birch,” said Antony with a smile.

The inspector laughed genially.

“Well, I’ll spare you as much as I can. Come along.”

They went into the library. The inspector seated himself at a writing-table, and Cayley sat in a chair by the side of it. Antony made himself comfortable in an armchair and prepared to be interested.

“We’ll start with the dead man,” said the Inspector. “Robert Ablett, didn’t you say?” He took out his notebook.

“Yes. Brother of Mark Ablett, who lives here.”

“Ah!” He began to sharpen a pencil. “Staying in the house?”

“Oh, no!”

Antony listened attentively while Cayley explained all that he knew about Robert. This was news to him. “I see. Sent out of the country in disgrace. What had he done?”

“I hardly know. I was only about twelve at the time. The sort of age when you’re told not to ask questions.”

“Inconvenient questions?”

“Exactly.”

“So you don’t really know whether he had been merely wild or—or wicked?”

“No. Old Mr. Ablett was a clergyman,” added Cayley. “Perhaps what might seem wicked to a clergyman might seem only wild to a man of the world.”

“I daresay, Mr. Cayley,” smiled the Inspector. “Anyhow, it was more convenient to have him in Australia?”

“Yes.”

“Mark Ablett never talked about him?”

“Hardly ever. He was very much ashamed of him, and—well, very glad he was in Australia.”

“Did he write Mark sometimes?”

“Occasionally. Perhaps three or four times in the last five years.”

“Asking for money?”

“Something of the sort. I don’t think Mark always answered them. As far as I know, he never sent any money.”

“Now your own private opinion, Mr. Cayley. Do you think that Mark was unfair to his brother? Unduly hard on him?”

“They’d never liked each other as boys. There was never any affection between them. I don’t know whose fault it was in the first place—if anybody’s.”

“Still, Mark might have given him a hand?”

“I understand,” said Cayley, “that Robert spent his whole life asking for hands.”

The inspector nodded.

“I know that sort. Well, now, we’ll go on to this morning. This letter that Mark got—did you see it?”

“Not at the time. He showed it to me afterwards.”

“Any address?”

“No. A half-sheet of rather dirty paper.”

“Where is it now?”

“I don’t know. In Mark’s pocket, I expect.”

“Ah!” He pulled at his beard. “Well, we’ll come to that. Can you remember what it said?”

“As far as I remember, something like this: ‘Mark, your loving brother is coming to see you to-morrow, all the way from Australia. I give you warning so that you will be able to conceal your surprise, but not I hope, your pleasure. Expect him at three, or thereabouts.'”

“Ah!” The inspector copied it down carefully. “Did you notice the postmark?”

“London.”

“And what was Mark’s attitude?”

“Annoyance, disgust—” Cayley hesitated.

“Apprehension?”

“N-no, not exactly. Or, rather, apprehension of an unpleasant interview, not of any unpleasant outcome for himself.”

“You mean that he wasn’t afraid of violence, or blackmail, or anything of that sort?”

“He didn’t appear to be.”

“Right…. Now then, he arrived, you say, about three o’clock?”

“Yes, about that.”

“Who was in the house then?”

“Mark and myself, and some of the servants. I don’t know which. Of course, you will ask them directly, no doubt.”

“With your permission. No guests?”

“They were out all day playing golf,” explained Cayley. “Oh, by the way,” he put in, “if I may interrupt a moment, will you want to see them at all? It isn’t very pleasant for them now, naturally, and I suggested—” he turned to Antony, who nodded back to him. “I understand that they want to go back to London this evening. There’s no objection to that, I suppose?”

“You will let me have their names and addresses in case I want to communicate with them?”

“Of course. One of them is staying on, if you would like to see him later, but they only came back from their golf as we crossed the hall.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Cayley. Well, now then, let’s go back to three o’clock. Where were you when Robert arrived?”

Cayley explained how he had been sitting in the hall, how Audrey had asked him where the master was, and how he had said that he had last seen him going up to the Temple.

“She went away, and I went on with my book. There was a step on the stairs, and I looked up to see Mark coming down. He went into the office, and I went on with my book again. I went into the library for a moment, to refer to another book, and when I was in there I heard a shot. At least, it was a loud bang, I wasn’t sure if it was a shot. I stood and listened. Then I came slowly to the door and looked out. Then I went back again, hesitated a bit, you know, and finally decided to go across to the office, and make sure that it was all right. I turned the handle of the door and found it was locked. Then I got frightened, and I banged at the door, and shouted, and—well, that was when Mr. Gillingham arrived.” He went on to explain how they had found the body.

The inspector looked at him with a smile.

“Yes, well, we shall have to go over some of that again, Mr. Cayley. Mr. Mark, now. You thought he was in the Temple. Could he have come in, and gone up to his room, without your seeing him?”

“There are back stairs. He wouldn’t have used them in the ordinary way, of course. But I wasn’t in the hall all the afternoon. He might easily have gone upstairs without my knowing anything about it.”

“So that you weren’t surprised when you saw him coming down?”

“Oh, not a bit.”

“Well, did he say anything?”

“He said, ‘Robert’s here?’ or something of the sort. I suppose he’d heard the bell, or the voices in the hall.”

“Which way does his bedroom face? Could he have seen him coming down the drive?”

“He might have, yes.”

“Well?”

“Well, then, I said ‘Yes,’ and he gave a sort of shrug, and said, ‘Don’t go too far away, I might want you'; and then went in.”

“What did you think he meant by that?”

“Well, he consults me a good deal, you know. I’m his sort of unofficial solicitor in a kind of way.”

“This was a business meeting rather than a brotherly one?”

“Oh, yes. That’s how he regarded it, I’m sure.”

“Yes. How long was it before you heard the shot?”

“Very soon. Two minutes, perhaps.”

The inspector finished his writing, and then regarded Cayley thoughtfully. Suddenly he said:

“What is your theory of Robert’s death?”

Cayley shrugged his shoulders.

“You’ve probably seen more than I’ve seen,” he answered. “It’s your job. I can only speak as a layman—and Mark’s friend.”

“Well?”

“Then I should say that Robert came here meaning trouble, and bringing a revolver with him. He produced it almost at once, Mark tried to get it from him, there was a little struggle perhaps, and it went off. Mark lost his head, finding himself there with a revolver in his hand and a dead man at his feet. His one idea was to escape. He locked the door almost instinctively, and then, when he heard me hammering at it, went out of the window.”

“Y-yes. Well, that sounds reasonable enough. What do you say, Mr. Gillingham?”

“I should hardly call it ‘reasonable’ to lose your head,” said Antony, getting up from his chair and coming towards them.

“Well, you know what I mean. It explains things.”

“Oh, yes. Any other explanation would make them much more complicated.”

“Have you any other explanation?”

“Not I.”

“Are there any points on which you would like to correct Mr. Cayley?—anything that he left out after you arrived here?”

“No, thanks. He described it all very accurately.”

“Ah! Well now, about yourself. You’re not staying in the house, I gather?”

Antony explained his previous movements.

“Yes. Did you hear the shot?”

Antony put his head on one side, as if listening. “Yes. Just as I came in sight of the house. It didn’t make any impression at the time, but I remember it now.”

“Where were you then?”

“Coming up the drive. I was just in sight of the house.”

“Nobody left the house by the front door after the shot?”

Antony closed his eyes and considered.

“Nobody,” he said. “No.”

“You’re certain of that?”

“Absolutely,” said Antony, as though rather surprised that he could be suspected of a mistake.

“Thank you. You’re at ‘The George,’ if I want you?”

“Mr. Gillingham is staying here until after the inquest,” explained Cayley.

“Good. Well now, about these servants?”

CHAPTER V. Mr. Gillingham Chooses a New Profession

As Cayley went over to the bell, Antony got up and moved to the door.

“Well, you won’t want me, I suppose, inspector,” he said.

“No, thank you, Mr. Gillingham. You’ll be about, of course?”

“Oh, yes.”

The inspector hesitated.

“I think, Mr. Cayley, it would be better if I saw the servants alone. You know what they are; the more people about, the more they get alarmed. I expect I can get at the truth better by myself.”

“Oh, quite so. In fact, I was going to ask you to excuse me. I feel rather responsible towards these guests of ours. Although Mr. Gillingham very kindly—” He smiled at Antony, who was waiting at the door, and left his sentence unfinished.

“Ah, that reminds me,” said the Inspector. “Didn’t you say that one of your guests—Mr. Beverley was it?—a friend of Mr. Gillingham’s, was staying on?”

“Yes; would you like to see him?”

“Afterwards, if I may.”

“I’ll warn him. I shall be up in my room, if you want me. I have a room upstairs where I work—any of the servants will show you. Ah, Stevens, Inspector Birch would like to ask you a few questions.”

“Yes, sir,” said Audrey primly, but inwardly fluttering. The housekeeper’s room had heard something of the news by this time, and Audrey had had a busy time explaining to other members of the staff exactly what he had said, and what she had said. The details were not quite established yet, but this much at least was certain: that Mr. Mark’s brother had shot himself and spirited Mr. Mark away, and that Audrey had seen at once that he was that sort of man when she opened the door to him. She had passed the remark to Mrs. Stevens. And Mrs. Stevens—if you remember, Audrey—had always said that people didn’t go away to Australia except for very good reasons. Elsie agreed with both of them, but she had a contribution of her own to make. She had actually heard Mr. Mark in the office, threatening his brother.

“You mean Mr. Robert,” said the second parlour-maid. She had been having a little nap in her room, but she had heard the bang. In fact, it had woken her up—just like something going off, it was.

“It was Mr. Mark’s voice,” said Elsie firmly.

“Pleading for mercy,” said an eager-eyed kitchen-maid hopefully from the door, and was hurried out again by the others, wishing that she had not given her presence away. But it was hard to listen in silence when she knew so well from her novelettes just what happened on these occasions.

“I shall have to give that girl a piece of my mind,” said Mrs. Stevens. “Well, Elsie?”

“He said, I heard him say it with my own ears, ‘It’s my turn now,’ he said, triumphant-like.”

“Well, if you think that’s a threat, dear, you’re very particular, I must say.”

But Audrey remembered Elsie’s words when she was in front of Inspector Birch. She gave her own evidence with the readiness of one who had already repeated it several times, and was examined and cross-examined by the Inspector with considerable skill. The temptation to say, “Never mind about what you said to him,” was strong, but he resisted it, knowing that in this way he would discover best what he said to her. By this time both his words and the looks he gave her were getting their full value from Audrey, but the general meaning of them seemed to be well-established.

“Then you didn’t see Mr. Mark at all.”

“No, sir; he must have come in before and gone up to his room. Or come in by the front door, likely enough, while I was going out by the back.”

“Yes. Well, I think that’s all that I want to know, thank you very much. Now what about the other servants?”

“Elsie heard the master and Mr. Robert talking together,” said Audrey eagerly. “He was saying—Mr. Mark, I mean—”

“Ah! Well, I think Elsie had better tell me that herself. Who is Elsie, by the way?”

“One of the housemaids. Shall I send her to you, sir?”

“Please.”

Elsie was not sorry to get the message. It interrupted a few remarks from Mrs. Stevens about Elsie’s conduct that afternoon which were (Elsie thought) much better interrupted. In Mrs. Stevens’ opinion any crime committed that afternoon in the office was as nothing to the double crime committed by the unhappy Elsie.

For Elsie realized too late that she would have done better to have said nothing about her presence in the hall that afternoon. She was bad at concealing the truth and Mrs. Stevens was good at discovering it. Elsie knew perfectly well that she had no business to come down the front stairs, and it was no excuse to say that she happened to come out of Miss Norris’ room just at the head of the stairs, and didn’t think it would matter, as there was nobody in the hall, and what was she doing anyhow in Miss Norris’ room at that time? Returning a magazine? Lent by Miss Norris, might she ask? Well, not exactly lent. Really, Elsie!—and this in a respectable house! In vain for poor Elsie to plead that a story by her favourite author was advertised on the cover, with a picture of the villain falling over the cliff. “That’s where you’ll go to, my girl, if you aren’t careful,” said Mrs. Stevens firmly.

But, of course, there was no need to confess all these crimes to Inspector Birch. All that interested him was that she was passing through the hall, and heard voices in the office.

“And stopped to listen?”

“Certainly not,” said Elsie with dignity, feeling that nobody really understood her. “I was just passing through the hall, just as you might have been yourself, and not supposing they was talking secrets, didn’t think to stop my ears, as no doubt I ought to have done.” And she sniffed slightly.

“Come, come,” said the Inspector soothingly, “I didn’t mean to suggest—”

“Everyone is very unkind to me,” said Elsie between sniffs, “and there’s that poor man lying dead there, and sorry they’d have been, if it had been me, to have spoken to me as they have done this day.”

“Nonsense, we’re going to be very proud of you. I shouldn’t be surprised if your evidence were of very great importance. Now then, what was it you heard? Try to remember the exact words.”

Something about working in a passage, thought Elsie.

“Yes, but who said it?”

“Mr. Robert.”

“How do you know it was Mr. Robert? Had you heard his voice before?”

“I don’t take it upon myself to say that I had had any acquaintance with Mr. Robert, but seeing that it wasn’t Mr. Mark, nor yet Mr. Cayley, nor any other of the gentlemen, and Miss Stevens had shown Mr. Robert into the office not five minutes before—”

“Quite so,” said the Inspector hurriedly. “Mr. Robert, undoubtedly. Working in a passage?”

“That was what it sounded like, sir.”

“H’m. Working a passage over—could that have been it?”

“That’s right, sir,” said Elsie eagerly. “He’d worked his passage over.”

“Well?”

“And then Mr. Mark said loudly—sort of triumphant-like—’It’s my turn now. You wait.'”

“Triumphantly?”

“As much as to say his chance had come.”

“And that’s all you heard?”

“That’s all, sir—not standing there listening, but just passing through the hall, as it might be any time.”

“Yes. Well, that’s really very important, Elsie. Thank you.”

Elsie gave him a smile, and returned eagerly to the kitchen. She was ready for Mrs. Stevens or anybody now.

Meanwhile Antony had been exploring a little on his own. There was a point which was puzzling him. He went through the hall to the front of the house and stood at the open door, looking out on to the drive. He and Cayley had run round the house to the left. Surely it would have been quicker to have run round to the right? The front door was not in the middle of the house, it was to the end. Undoubtedly they went the longest way round. But perhaps there was something in the way, if one went to the right—a wall, say. He strolled off in that direction, followed a path round the house and came in sight of the office windows. Quite simple, and about half the distance of the other way. He went on a little farther, and came to a door, just beyond the broken-in windows. It opened easily, and he found himself in a passage. At the end of the passage was another door. He opened it and found himself in the hall again.

“And, of course, that’s the quickest way of the three,” he said to himself. “Through the hall, and out at the back; turn to the left and there you are. Instead of which, we ran the longest way round the house. Why? Was it to give Mark more time in which to escape? Only, in that case—why run? Also, how did Cayley know then that it was Mark who was trying to escape? If he had guessed—well, not guessed, but been afraid—that one had shot the other, it was much more likely that Robert had shot Mark. Indeed, he had admitted that this was what he thought. The first thing he had said when he turned the body over was, ‘Thank God! I was afraid it was Mark.’ But why should he want to give Robert time in which to get away? And again—why run, if he did want to give him time?”

Antony went out of the house again to the lawns at the back, and sat down on a bench in view of the office windows.

“Now then,” he said, “let’s go through Cayley’s mind carefully, and see what we get.”

Cayley had been in the hall when Robert was shown into the office. The servant goes off to look for Mark, and Cayley goes on with his book. Mark comes down the stairs, warns Cayley to stand by in case he is wanted, and goes to meet his brother. What does Cayley expect? Possibly that he won’t be wanted at all; possibly that his advice may be wanted in the matter, say, of paying Robert’s debts, or getting him a passage back to Australia; possibly that his physical assistance may be wanted to get an obstreperous Robert out of the house. Well, he sits there for a moment, and then goes into the library. Why not? He is still within reach, if wanted. Suddenly he hears a pistol-shot. A pistol-shot is the last noise you expect to hear in a country-house; very natural, then, that for the moment he would hardly realize what it was. He listens—and hears nothing more. Perhaps it wasn’t a pistol-shot after all. After a moment or two he goes to the library door again. The profound silence makes him uneasy now. Was it a pistol-shot? Absurd! Still—no harm in going into the office on some excuse, just to reassure himself. So he tries the door—and finds it locked!

What are his emotions now? Alarm, uncertainty. Something is happening. Incredible though it seems, it must have been a pistol-shot. He is banging at the door and calling out to Mark, and there is no answer. Alarm—yes. But alarm for whose safety? Mark’s, obviously. Robert is a stranger; Mark is an intimate friend. Robert has written a letter that morning, the letter of a man in a dangerous temper. Robert is the tough customer; Mark the highly civilized gentleman. If there has been a quarrel, it is Robert who has shot Mark. He bangs at the door again.

Of course, to Antony, coming suddenly upon this scene, Cayley’s conduct had seemed rather absurd, but then, just for the moment, Cayley had lost his head. Anybody else might have done the same. But, as soon as Antony suggested trying the windows, Cayley saw that that was the obvious thing to do. So he leads the way to the windows—the longest way.

Why? To give the murderer time to escape? If he had thought then that Mark was the murderer, perhaps, yes. But he thinks that Robert is the murderer. If he is not hiding anything, he must think so. Indeed he says so, when he sees the body; “I was afraid it was Mark,” he says, when he finds that it is Robert who is killed. No reason, then, for wishing to gain time. On the contrary, every instinct would urge him to get into the room as quickly as possible, and seize the wicked Robert. Yet he goes the longest way round. Why? And then, why run?

“That’s the question,” said Antony to himself, as he filled his pipe, “and bless me if I know the answer. It may be, of course, that Cayley is just a coward. He was in no hurry to get close to Robert’s revolver, and yet wanted me to think that he was bursting with eagerness. That would explain it, but then that makes Cayley out a coward. Is he? At any rate he pushed his face up against the window bravely enough. No, I want a better answer than that.”

He sat there with his unlit pipe in his hand, thinking. There were one or two other things in the back of his brain, waiting to be taken out and looked at. For the moment he left them undisturbed. They would come back to him later when he wanted them.

He laughed suddenly, and lit his pipe.

“I was wanting a new profession,” he thought, “and now I’ve found it. Antony Gillingham, our own private sleuthhound. I shall begin to-day.”

Whatever Antony Gillingham’s other qualifications for his new profession, he had at any rate a brain which worked clearly and quickly. And this clear brain of his had already told him that he was the only person in the house at that moment who was unhandicapped in the search for truth. The inspector had arrived in it to find a man dead and a man missing. It was extremely probable, no doubt, that the missing man had shot the dead man. But it was more than extremely probable, it was almost certain that the Inspector would start with the idea that this extremely probable solution was the one true solution, and that, in consequence, he would be less disposed to consider without prejudice any other solution. As regards all the rest of them—Cayley, the guests, the servants—they also were prejudiced; in favour of Mark (or possibly, for all he knew, against Mark); in favour of, or against, each other; they had formed some previous opinion, from what had been said that morning, of the sort of man Robert was. No one of them could consider the matter with an unbiased mind.

But Antony could. He knew nothing about Mark; he knew nothing about Robert. He had seen the dead man before he was told who the dead man was. He knew that a tragedy had happened before he knew that anybody was missing. Those first impressions, which are so vitally important, had been received solely on the merits of the case; they were founded on the evidence of his senses, not on the evidence of his emotions or of other people’s senses. He was in a much better position for getting at the truth than was the Inspector.

It is possible that, in thinking this, Antony was doing Inspector Birch a slight injustice. Birch was certainly prepared to believe that Mark had shot his brother. Robert had been shown into the office (witness Audrey); Mark had gone in to Robert (witness Cayley); Mark and Robert had been heard talking (witness Elsie); there was a shot (witness everybody); the room had been entered and Robert’s body had been found (witness Cayley and Gillingham). And Mark was missing. Obviously, then, Mark had killed his brother: accidentally, as Cayley believed, or deliberately, as Elsie’s evidence seemed to suggest. There was no point in looking for a difficult solution to a problem, when the easy solution had no flaw in it. But at the same time Birch would have preferred the difficult solution, simply because there was more credit attached to it. A “sensational” arrest of somebody in the house would have given him more pleasure than a commonplace pursuit of Mark Ablett across country. Mark must be found, guilty or not guilty. But there were other possibilities. It would have interested Antony to know that, just at the time when he was feeling rather superior to the prejudiced inspector, the Inspector himself was letting his mind dwell lovingly upon the possibilities in connection with Mr. Gillingham. Was it only a coincidence that Mr. Gillingham had turned up just when he did? And Mr. Beverley’s curious answers when asked for some account of his friend. An assistant in a tobacconist’s, a waiter! An odd man, Mr. Gillingham, evidently. It might be as well to keep an eye on him.

CHAPTER VI. Outside Or Inside?

The guests had said good-bye to Cayley, according to their different manner. The Major, gruff and simple: “If you want me, command me. Anything I can do—Good-bye”; Betty, silently sympathetic, with everything in her large eyes which she was too much overawed to tell; Mrs. Calladine, protesting that she did not know what to say, but apparently finding plenty; and Miss Norris, crowding so much into one despairing gesture that Cayley’s unvarying “Thank you very much” might have been taken this time as gratitude for an artistic entertainment.

Bill had seen them into the car, had taken his own farewells (with a special squeeze of the hand for Betty), and had wandered out to join Antony on his garden seat.

“Well, this is a rum show,” said Bill as he sat down.

“Very rum, William.”

“And you actually walked right into it?”

“Right into it,” said Antony.

“Then you’re the man I want. There are all sorts of rumours and mysteries about, and that inspector fellow simply wouldn’t keep to the point when I wanted to ask him about the murder, or whatever it is, but kept asking me questions about where I’d met you first, and all sorts of dull things like that. Now, what really happened?”

Antony told him as concisely as he could all that he had already told the Inspector, Bill interrupting him here and there with appropriate “Good Lords” and whistles.

“I say, it’s a bit of a business, isn’t it? Where do I come in, exactly?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, everybody else is bundled off except me, and I get put through it by that inspector as if I knew all about it—what’s the idea?”

Antony smiled at him.

“Well, there’s nothing to worry about, you know. Naturally Birch wanted to see one of you so as to know what you’d all been doing all day. And Cayley was nice enough to think that you’d be company for me, as I knew you already. And well, that’s all.”

“You’re staying here, in the house?” said Bill eagerly. “Good man. That’s splendid.”

“It reconciles you to the departure of some of the others?”

Bill blushed.

“Oh, well, I shall see her again next week, anyway,” he murmured.

“I congratulate you. I liked her looks. And that grey dress. A nice comfortable sort of woman.”

“You fool, that’s her mother.”

“Oh, I beg your pardon. But anyhow, Bill, I want you more than she does just now. So try and put up with me.”

“I say, do you really?” said Bill, rather flattered. He had a great admiration for Antony, and was very proud to be liked by him.

“Yes. You see, things are going to happen here soon.”

“Inquests and that sort of thing?”

“Well, perhaps something before that. Hallo, here comes Cayley.”

Cayley was walking across the lawn towards them, a big, heavy-shouldered man, with one of those strong, clean-shaven, ugly faces which can never quite be called plain. “Bad luck on Cayley,” said Bill. “I say, ought I to tell him how sorry I am and all that sort of thing? It seems so dashed inadequate.”

“I shouldn’t bother,” said Antony.

Cayley nodded as he came to them, and stood there for a moment.

“We can make room for you,” said Bill, getting up.

“Oh, don’t bother, thanks. I just came to say,” he went on to Antony, “that naturally they’ve rather lost their heads in the kitchen, and dinner won’t be till half-past eight. Do just as you like about dressing, of course. And what about your luggage?”

“I thought Bill and I would walk over to the inn directly, and see about it.”

“The car can go and fetch it as soon as it comes back from the station.”

“It’s very good of you, but I shall have to go over myself, anyhow, to pack up and pay my bill. Besides, it’s a good evening for a walk. If you wouldn’t mind it, Bill?”

“I should love it.”

“Well, then, if you leave the bag there, I’ll send the car round for it later.”

“Thanks very much.”

Having said what he wanted to say, Cayley remained there a little awkwardly, as if not sure whether to go or to stay. Antony wondered whether he wanted to talk about the afternoon’s happenings, or whether it was the one subject he wished to avoid. To break the silence he asked carelessly if the Inspector had gone.

Cayley nodded. Then he said abruptly, “He’s getting a warrant for Mark’s arrest.”

Bill made a suitably sympathetic noise, and Antony said with a shrug of the shoulders, “Well, he was bound to do that, wasn’t he? It doesn’t follow that—well, it doesn’t mean anything. They naturally want to get hold of your cousin, innocent or guilty.”

“Which do you think he is, Mr. Gillingham?” said Cayley, looking at him steadily.

“Mark? It’s absurd,” said Bill impetuously.

“Bill’s loyal, you see, Mr. Cayley.”

“And you owe no loyalty to anyone concerned?”

“Exactly. So perhaps I might be too frank.”

Bill had dropped down on the grass, and Cayley took his place on the seat, and sat there heavily, his elbows on his knees, his chin on his hands, gazing at the ground.

“I want you to be quite frank,” he said at last. “Naturally I am prejudiced where Mark is concerned. So I want to know how my suggestion strikes you who have no prejudices either way.”

“Your suggestion?”

“My theory that, if Mark killed his brother, it was purely accidental as I told the Inspector.”

Bill looked up with interest.

“You mean that Robert did the hold-up business,” he said, “and there was a bit of a struggle, and the revolver went off, and then Mark lost his head and bolted? That sort of idea?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, that seems all right.” He turned to Antony. “There’s nothing wrong with that, is there? It’s the most natural explanation to anyone who knows Mark.”

Antony pulled at his pipe.

“I suppose it is,” he said slowly. “But there’s one thing that worries me rather.”

“What’s that?” Bill and Cayley asked the question simultaneously.

“The key.”

“The key?” said Bill.

Cayley lifted his head and looked at Antony. “What about the key?” he asked.

“Well, there may be nothing in it; I just wondered. Suppose Robert was killed as you say, and suppose Mark lost his head and thought of nothing but getting away before anyone could see him. Well, very likely he’d lock the door and put the key in his pocket. He’d do it without thinking, just to gain a moment’s time.”

“Yes, that’s what I suggest.”

“It seems sound enough,” said Bill. “Sort of thing you’d do without thinking. Besides, if you are going to run away, it gives you more of a chance.”

“Yes, that’s all right if the key is there. But suppose it isn’t there?”

The suggestion, made as if it were already an established fact, startled them both. They looked at him wonderingly.

“What do you mean?” said Cayley.

“Well, it’s just a question of where people happen to keep their keys. You go up to your bedroom, and perhaps you like to lock your door in case anybody comes wandering in when you’ve only got one sock and a pair of braces on. Well, that’s natural enough. And if you look round the bedrooms of almost any house, you’ll find the keys all ready, so that you can lock yourself in at a moment’s notice. But downstairs people don’t lock themselves in. It’s really never done at all. Bill, for instance, has never locked himself into the dining-room in order to be alone with the sherry. On the other hand, all women, and particularly servants, have a horror of burglars. And if a burglar gets in by the window, they like to limit his activities to that particular room. So they keep the keys on the outside of the doors, and lock the doors when they go to bed.” He knocked the ashes out of his pipe, and added, “At least, my mother always used to.”

“You mean,” said Bill excitedly, “that the key was on the outside of the door when Mark went into the room?”

“Well, I was just wondering.”

“Have you noticed the other rooms—the billiard-room, and library, and so on?” said Cayley.

“I’ve only just thought about it while I’ve been sitting out here. You live here—haven’t you ever noticed them?”

Cayley sat considering, with his head on one side.

“It seems rather absurd, you know, but I can’t say that I have.” He turned to Bill. “Have you?”

“Good Lord, no. I should never worry about a thing like that.”

“I’m sure you wouldn’t,” laughed Antony. “Well, we can have a look when we go in. If the other keys are outside, then this one was probably outside too, and in that case well, it makes it more interesting.”

Cayley said nothing. Bill chewed a piece of grass, and then said, “Does it make much difference?”

“It makes it more hard to understand what happened in there. Take your accidental theory and see where you get to. No instinctive turning of the key now, is there? He’s got to open the door to get it, and opening the door means showing his head to anybody in the hall—his cousin, for instance, whom he left there two minutes ago. Is a man in Mark’s state of mind, frightened to death lest he should be found with the body, going to do anything so foolhardy as that?”

“He needn’t have been afraid of me,” said Cayley.

“Then why didn’t he call for you? He knew you were about. You could have advised him; Heaven knows he wanted advice. But the whole theory of Mark’s escape is that he was afraid of you and of everybody else, and that he had no other idea but to get out of the room himself, and prevent you or the servants from coming into it. If the key had been on the inside, he would probably have locked the door. If it were on the outside, he almost certainly wouldn’t.”

“Yes, I expect you’re right,” said Bill thoughtfully. “Unless he took the key in with him, and locked the door at once.”

“Exactly. But in that case you have to build up a new theory entirely.”

“You mean that it makes it seem more deliberate?”

“Yes; that, certainly. But it also seems to make Mark out an absolute idiot. Just suppose for a moment that, for urgent reasons which neither of you know anything about, he had wished to get rid of his brother. Would he have done it like that? Just killed him and then run away? Why, that’s practically suicide—suicide whilst of unsound mind. No. If you really wanted to remove an undesirable brother, you would do it a little bit more cleverly than that. You’d begin by treating him as a friend, so as to avoid suspicion, and when you did kill him at last, you would try to make it look like an accident, or suicide, or the work of some other man. Wouldn’t you?”

“You mean you’d give yourself a bit of a run for your money?”

“Yes, that’s what I mean. If you were going to do it deliberately, that is to say and lock yourself in before you began.”

Cayley had been silent, apparently thinking over this new idea. With his eyes still on the ground, he said now: “I hold to my opinion that it was purely accidental, and that Mark lost his head and ran away.”

“But what about the key?” asked Bill.

“We don’t know yet that the keys were outside. I don’t at all agree with Mr. Gillingham that the keys of the down-stairs rooms are always outside the doors. Sometimes they are, no doubt; but I think we shall probably find that these are inside.”

“Oh, well, of course, if they are inside, then your original theory is probably the correct one. Having often seen them outside, I just wondered that’s all. You asked me to be quite frank, you know, and tell you what I thought. But no doubt you’re right, and we shall find them inside, as you say.

“Even if the key was outside,” went on Cayley stubbornly, “I still think it might have been accidental. He might have taken it in with him, knowing that the interview would be an unpleasant one, and not wishing to be interrupted.”

“But he had just told you to stand by in case he wanted you; so why should he lock you out? Besides, I should think that if a man were going to have an unpleasant interview with a threatening relation, the last thing he would do would be to barricade himself in with him. He would want to open all the doors and say, ‘Get out of it'”

Cayley was silent, but his mouth looked obstinate. Antony gave a little apologetic laugh and stood up.

“Well, come on, Bill,” he said; “we ought to be stepping.” He held out a hand and pulled his friend up. Then, turning to Cayley, he went on, “You must forgive me if I have let my thoughts run on rather. Of course, I was considering the matter purely as an outsider; just as a problem, I mean, which didn’t concern the happiness of any of my friends.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Gillingham,” said Cayley, standing up too. “It is for you to make allowances for me. I’m sure you will. You say that you’re going up to the inn now about your bag?”

“Yes.” He looked up at the sun and then round the parkland stretching about the house. “Let me see; it’s over in that direction, isn’t it?” He pointed southwards. “Can we get to the village that way, or must we go by the road?”

“I’ll show you, my boy,” said Bill.

“Bill will show you. The park reaches almost as far as the village. Then I’ll send the car round in about half an hour.”

“Thanks very much.”

Cayley nodded and turned to go into the house. Antony took hold of Bill’s arm and walked off with him in the opposite direction.

CHAPTER VII. Portrait of a Gentleman

They walked in silence for a little, until they had left the house and gardens well behind them. In front of them and to the right the park dipped and then rose slowly, shutting out the rest of the world. A thick belt of trees on the left divided them from the main road.

“Ever been here before?” said Antony suddenly.

“Oh, rather. Dozens of times.”

“I meant just here where we are now. Or do you stay indoors and play billiards all the time?”

“Oh Lord, no!”

“Well, tennis and things. So many people with beautiful parks never by any chance use them, and all the poor devils passing by on the dusty road think how lucky the owners are to have them, and imagine them doing all sorts of jolly things inside.” He pointed to the right. “Ever been over there?”

Bill laughed, as if a little ashamed.

“Well, not very much. I’ve often been along here, of course, because it’s the short way to the village.”

“Yes…. All right; now tell me something about Mark.”

“What sort of things?”

“Well, never mind about his being your host, or about your being a perfect gentleman, or anything like that. Cut out the Manners for Men, and tell me what you think of Mark, and how you like staying with him, and how many rows your little house-party has had this week, and how you get on with Cayley, and all the rest of it.”

Bill looked at him eagerly.

“I say, are you being the complete detective?”

“Well, I wanted a new profession,” smiled the other.

“What fun! I mean,” he corrected himself apologetically, “one oughtn’t to say that, when there’s a man dead in the house, and one’s host—” He broke off a little uncertainly, and then rounded off his period by saying again, “By Jove, what a rum show it is. Good Lord!”

“Well?” said Antony. “Carry on, Mark.”

“What do I think of him?”

“Yes.”

Bill was silent, wondering how to put into words thoughts which had never formed themselves very definitely in his own mind. What did he think of Mark? Seeing his hesitation, Antony said:

“I ought to have warned you that nothing that you say will be taken down by the reporters, so you needn’t bother about a split infinitive or two. Talk about anything you like, how you like. Well, I’ll give you a start. Which do you enjoy more a week-end here or at the Barrington’s, say?”

“Well; of course, that would depend—”

“Take it that she was there in both cases.”

“Ass,” said Bill, putting an elbow into Antony’s ribs. “It’s a little difficult to say,” he went on. “Of course they do you awfully well here.”

“Yes.”

“I don’t think I know any house where things are so comfortable. One’s room—the food—drinks—cigars—the way everything’s arranged: All that sort of thing. They look after you awfully well.”

“Yes?”

“Yes.” He repeated it slowly to himself, as if it had given him a new idea: “They look after you awfully well. Well, that’s just what it is about Mark. That’s one of his little ways. Weaknesses. Looking after you.”

“Arranging things for you?”

“Yes. Of course, it’s a delightful house, and there’s plenty to do, and opportunities for every game or sport that’s ever been invented, and, as I say, one gets awfully well done; but with it all, Tony, there’s a faint sort of feeling that well, that one is on parade, as it were. You’ve got to do as you’re told.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, Mark fancies himself rather at arranging things. He arranges things, and it’s understood that the guests fall in with the arrangement. For instance, Betty—Miss Calladine—and I were going to play a single just before tea, the other day. Tennis. She’s frightfully hot stuff at tennis, and backed herself to take me on level. I’m rather erratic, you know. Mark saw us going out with our rackets and asked us what we were going to do. Well, he’d got up a little tournament for us after tea—handicaps all arranged by him, and everything ruled out neatly in red and black ink—prizes and all—quite decent ones, you know. He’d had the lawn specially cut and marked for it. Well, of course Betty and I wouldn’t have spoilt the court, and we’d have been quite ready to play again after tea—I had to give her half-fifteen according to his handicap—but somehow—” Bill stopped and shrugged his shoulders.

“It didn’t quite fit in?”

“No. It spoilt the effect of his tournament. Took the edge off it just a little, I suppose he felt. So we didn’t play.” He laughed, and added, “It would have been as much as our place was worth to have played.”

“Do you mean you wouldn’t have been asked here again?”

“Probably. Well, I don’t know. Not for some time, anyway.”

“Really, Bill?”

“Oh, rather! He’s a devil for taking offence. That Miss Norris, did you see her? She’s done for herself. I don’t mind betting what you like that she never comes here again.”

“Why?”

Bill laughed to himself.

“We were all in it, really—at least, Betty and I were. There’s supposed to be a ghost attached to the house. Lady Anne Patten. Ever heard of her?”

“Never.”

“Mark told us about her at dinner one night. He rather liked the idea of there being a ghost in his house, you know; except that he doesn’t believe in ghosts. I think he wanted all of us to believe in her, and yet he was annoyed with Betty and Mrs. Calladine for believing in ghosts at all. Rum chap. Well, anyhow, Miss Norris—she’s an actress, some actress too—dressed up as the ghost and played the fool a bit. And poor Mark was frightened out of his life. Just for a moment, you know.”

“What about the others?”

“Well, Betty and I knew; in fact, I’d told her—Miss Norris I mean—not to be a silly ass. Knowing Mark. Mrs. Calladine wasn’t there—Betty wouldn’t let her be. As for the Major, I don’t believe anything would frighten him.”

“Where did the ghost appear?”

“Down by the bowling-green. That’s supposed to be its haunt, you know. We were all down there in the moonlight, pretending to wait for it. Do you know the bowling-green?”

“No.”

“I’ll show it to you after dinner.”

“I wish you would…. Was Mark very angry afterwards?”

“Oh, Lord, yes. Sulked for a whole day. Well, he’s just like that.”

“Was he angry with all of you?”

“Oh, yes sulky, you know.”

“This morning?”

“Oh, no. He got over it he generally does. He’s just like a child. That’s really it, Tony; he’s like a child in some ways. As a matter of fact, he was unusually bucked with himself this morning. And yesterday.”

“Yesterday?”

“Rather. We all said we’d never seen him in such form.”

“Is he generally in form?”

“He’s quite good company, you know, if you take him the right way. He’s rather vain and childish well, like I’ve been telling you and self-important; but quite amusing in his way, and—” Bill broke off suddenly. “I say, you know, it really is the limit, talking about your host like this.”

“Don’t think of him as your host. Think of him as a suspected murderer with a warrant out against him.”

“Oh! but that’s all rot, you know.”

“It’s the fact, Bill.”

“Yes, but I mean, he didn’t do it. He wouldn’t murder anybody. It’s a funny thing to say, but well, he’s not big enough for it. He’s got his faults, like all of us, but they aren’t on that scale.”

“One can kill anybody in a childish fit of temper.”

Bill grunted assent, but without prejudice to Mark. “All the same,” he said, “I can’t believe it. That he would do it deliberately, I mean.”

“Suppose it was an accident, as Cayley says, would he lose his head and run away?”

Bill considered for a moment.

“Yes, I really think he might, you know. He nearly ran away when he saw the ghost. Of course, that’s different, rather.”

“Oh, I don’t know. In each case it’s a question of obeying your instinct instead of your reason.”

They had left the open land and were following a path through the bordering trees. Two abreast was uncomfortable, so Antony dropped behind, and further conversation was postponed until they were outside the boundary fence and in the high road. The road sloped gently down to the village of Waldheim a few red-roofed cottages, and the grey tower of a church showing above the green.

“Well, now,” said Antony, as they stepped out more quickly, “what about Cayley?”

“How do you mean, what about him?”

“I want to see him. I can see Mark perfectly, thanks to you, Bill. You were wonderful. Now let’s have Cayley’s character. Cayley from within.”

Bill laughed in pleased embarrassment, and protested that he was not a blooming novelist.

“Besides,” he added, “Mark’s easy. Cayley’s one of these heavy, quiet people, who might be thinking about anything. Mark gives himself away…. Ugly, black-jawed devil, isn’t he?”

“Some women like that type of ugliness.”

“Yes, that’s true. Between ourselves, I think there’s one here who does. Rather a pretty girl at Jallands” he waved his left hand “down that way.”

“What’s Jallands?”

“Well, I suppose it used to be a farm, belonging to a bloke called Jalland, but now it’s a country cottage belonging to a widow called Norbury. Mark and Cayley used to go there a good deal together. Miss Norbury—the girl—has been here once or twice for tennis; seemed to prefer Cayley to the rest of us. But of course he hadn’t much time for that sort of thing.”

“What sort of thing?”

“Walking about with a pretty girl and asking her if she’s been to any theatres lately. He nearly always had something to do.”

“Mark kept him busy?”

“Yes. Mark never seemed quite happy unless he had Cayley doing something for him. He was quite lost and helpless without him. And, funnily enough, Cayley seemed lost without Mark.”

“He was fond of him?”

“Yes, I should say so. In a protective kind of way. He’d sized Mark up, of course his vanity, his self-importance, his amateurishness and all the rest of it but he liked looking after him. And he knew how to manage him.”

“Yes…. What sort of terms was he on with the guests—you and Miss Norris and all of them?”

“Just polite and rather silent, you know. Keeping himself to himself. We didn’t see so very much of him, except at meals. We were here to enjoy ourselves, and well, he wasn’t.”

“He wasn’t there when the ghost walked?”

“No. I heard Mark calling for him when he went back to the house. I expect Cayley stroked down his feathers a bit, and told him that girls will be girls….—Hallo, here we are.”

They went into the inn, and while Bill made himself pleasant to the landlady, Antony went upstairs to his room. It appeared that he had not very much packing to do, after all. He returned his brushes to his bag, glanced round to see that nothing else had been taken out, and went down again to settle his bill. He had decided to keep on his room for a few days; partly to save the landlord and his wife the disappointment of losing a guest so suddenly, partly in case he found it undesirable later on to remain at the Red House. For he was taking himself seriously as a detective; indeed, he took himself seriously (while getting all the fun out of it which was possible) at every new profession he adopted; and he felt that there might come a time after the inquest, say when he could not decently remain at the Red House as a guest, a friend of Bill’s, enjoying the hospitality of Mark or Cayley, whichever was to be regarded as his host, without forfeiting his independent attitude towards the events of that afternoon. At present he was staying in the house merely as a necessary witness, and, since he was there, Cayley could not object to him using his eyes; but if, after the inquest, it appeared that there was still work for a pair of independent and very keen eyes to do, then he must investigate, either with his host’s approval or from beneath the roof of some other host; the landlord of ‘The George,’ for instance, who had no feelings in the matter.

For of one thing Antony was certain. Cayley knew more than he professed to know. That is to say, he knew more than he wanted other people to know he knew. Antony was one of the “other people”; if, therefore, he was for trying to find out what it was that Cayley knew, he could hardly expect Cayley’s approval of his labours. It would be ‘The George,’ then, for Antony after the inquest.

What was the truth? Not necessarily discreditable to Cayley, even though he were hiding something. All that could be said against him at the moment was that he had gone the longest way round to get into the locked office and that this did not fit in with what he had told the Inspector. But it did fit in with the theory that he had been an accessory after the event, and that he wanted (while appearing to be in a hurry) to give his cousin as much time as possible in which to escape. That might not be the true solution, but it was at least a workable one. The theory which he had suggested to the Inspector was not.

However, there would be a day or two before the inquest, in which Antony could consider all these matters from within The Red House. The car was at the door. He got in with Bill, the landlord put his bag on the front seat next to the chauffeur, and they drove back.

CHAPTER VIII. “Do You Follow Me, Watson?”

Anthony’s bedroom looked over the park at the back of the house. The blinds were not yet drawn while he was changing his clothes for dinner, and at various stages of undress he would pause and gaze out of the window, sometimes smiling to himself, sometimes frowning, as he turned over in his mind all the strange things that he had seen that day. He was sitting on his bed, in shirt and trousers, absently smoothing down his thick black hair with his brushes, when Bill shouted an “Hallo!” through the door, and came in.

“I say, buck up, old boy, I’m hungry,” he said.

Antony stopped smoothing himself and looked up at him thoughtfully.

“Where’s Mark?” he said.

“Mark? You mean Cayley.”

Antony corrected himself with a little laugh. “Yes, I mean Cayley. Is he down? I say, I shan’t be a moment, Bill.” He got up from the bed and went on briskly with his dressing. “Oh, by the way,” said Bill, taking his place on the bed, “your idea about the keys is a wash-out.”

“Why, how do you mean?”

“I went down just now and had a look at them. We were asses not to have thought of it when we came in. The library key is outside, but all the others are inside.”

“Yes, I know.”

“You devil, I suppose you did think of it, then?”

“I did, Bill,” said Antony apologetically.

“Bother! I hoped you’d forgotten. Well, that knocks your theory on the head, doesn’t it?”

“I never had a theory. I only said that if they were outside, it would probably mean that the office key was outside, and that in that case Cayley’s theory was knocked on the head.”

“Well, now, it isn’t, and we don’t know anything. Some were outside and some inside, and there you are. It makes it much less exciting. When you were talking about it on the lawn, I really got quite keen on the idea of the key being outside and Mark taking it in with him.”

“It’s going to be exciting enough,” said Antony mildly, as he transferred his pipe and tobacco into the pocket of his black coat. “Well, let’s come down; I’m ready now.”

Cayley was waiting for them in the hall. He made some polite inquiry as to the guest’s comfort, and the three of them fell into a casual conversation about houses in general and The Red House in particular.

“You were quite right about the keys,” said Bill, during a pause. He was less able than the other two, perhaps because he was younger than they, to keep away from the subject which was uppermost in the minds of them all.

“Keys?” said Cayley blankly.

“We were wondering whether they were outside or inside.”

“Oh! oh, yes!” He looked slowly round the hall, at the different doors, and then smiled in a friendly way at Antony. “We both seem to have been right, Mr. Gillingham. So we don’t get much farther.”

“No.” He gave a shrug. “I just wondered, you know. I thought it was worth mentioning.”

“Oh, quite. Not that you would have convinced me, you know. Just as Elsie’s evidence doesn’t convince me.”

“Elsie?” said Bill excitedly. Antony looked inquiringly at him, wondering who Elsie was.

“One of the housemaids,” explained Cayley. “You didn’t hear what she told the Inspector? Of course, as I told Birch, girls of that class make things up, but he seemed to think she was genuine.”

“What was it?” said Bill.

Cayley told them of what Elsie had heard through the office door that afternoon.

“You were in the library then, of course,” said Antony, rather to himself than to the other. “She might have gone through the hall without your hearing.”

“Oh, I’ve no doubt she was there, and heard voices. Perhaps heard those very words. But—” He broke off, and then added impatiently, “It was accidental. I know it was accidental. What’s the good of talking as if Mark was a murderer?” Dinner was announced at that moment, and as they went in, he added, “What’s the good of talking about it at all, if it comes to that?”

“What, indeed?” said Antony, and to Bill’s great disappointment they talked of books and politics during the meal.

Cayley made an excuse for leaving them as soon as their cigars were alight. He had business to attend to, as was natural. Bill would look after his friend. Bill was only too willing. He offered to beat Antony at billiards, to play him at piquet, to show him the garden by moonlight, or indeed to do anything else with him that he required.

“Thank the Lord you’re here,” he said piously. “I couldn’t have stood it alone.”

“Let’s go outside,” suggested Antony. “It’s quite warm. Somewhere where we can sit down, right away from the house. I want to talk to you.”

“Good man. What about the bowling-green?”

“Oh, you were going to show me that, anyhow, weren’t you? Is it somewhere where we can talk without being overheard?”

“Rather. The ideal place. You’ll see.”

They came out of the front door and followed the drive to the left. Coming from Waldheim, Antony had approached the house that afternoon from the other side. The way they were going now would take them out at the opposite end of the park, on the high road to Stanton, a country town some three miles away. They passed by a gate and a gardener’s lodge, which marked the limit of what auctioneers like to call “the ornamental grounds of the estate,” and then the open park was before them.

“Sure we haven’t missed it?” said Antony. The park lay quietly in the moonlight on either side of the drive, wearing a little way ahead of them a deceptive air of smoothness which retreated always as they advanced.

“Rum, isn’t it?” said Bill. “An absurd place for a bowling green, but I suppose it was always here.”

“Yes, but always where? It’s short enough for golf, perhaps, but—Hallo!”

They had come to the place. The road bent round to the right, but they kept straight on over a broad grass path for twenty yards, and there in front of them was the green. A dry ditch, ten feet wide and six feet deep, surrounded it, except in the one place where the path went forward. Two or three grass steps led down to the green, on which there was a long wooden beach for the benefit of spectators.

“Yes, it hides itself very nicely,” said Antony. “Where do you keep the bowls?”

“In a sort of summer house place. Round here.”

They walked along the edge of the green until they came to it a low wooden bunk which had been built into one wall of the ditch.

“H’m. Jolly view.”

Bill laughed.

“Nobody sits there. It’s just for keeping things out of the rain.”

They finished their circuit of the green “Just in case anybody’s in the ditch,” said Antony and then sat down on the bench.

“Now then,” said Bill, “We are alone. Fire ahead.”

Antony smoked thoughtfully for a little. Then he took his pipe out of his mouth and turned to his friend.

“Are you prepared to be the complete Watson?” he asked.

“Watson?”

“Do-you-follow-me-Watson; that one. Are you prepared to have quite obvious things explained to you, to ask futile questions, to give me chances of scoring off you, to make brilliant discoveries of your own two or three days after I have made them myself all that kind of thing? Because it all helps.”

“My dear Tony,” said Bill delightedly, “need you ask?” Antony said nothing, and Bill went on happily to himself, “I perceive from the strawberry-mark on your shirt-front that you had strawberries for dessert. Holmes, you astonish me. Tut, tut, you know my methods. Where is the tobacco? The tobacco is in the Persian slipper. Can I leave my practice for a week? I can.”

Antony smiled and went on smoking. After waiting hopefully for a minute or two, Bill said in a firm voice:

“Well then, Holmes, I feel bound to ask you if you have deduced anything. Also whom do you suspect?”

Antony began to talk.

“Do you remember,” he said, “one of Holmes’s little scores over Watson about the number of steps up to the Baker Street lodging? Poor old Watson had been up and down them a thousand times, but he had never thought of counting them, whereas Holmes had counted them as a matter of course, and knew that there were seventeen. And that was supposed to be the difference between observation and non-observation. Watson was crushed again, and Holmes appeared to him more amazing than ever. Now, it always seemed to me that in that matter Holmes was the ass, and Watson the sensible person. What on earth is the point of keeping in your head an unnecessary fact like that? If you really want to know at any time the number of steps to your lodging, you can ring up your landlady and ask her. I’ve been up and down the steps of the club a thousand times, but if you asked me to tell you at this moment how many steps there are I couldn’t do it. Could you?”

“I certainly couldn’t,” said Bill.

“But if you really wanted to know,” said Antony casually, with a sudden change of voice, “I could find out for you without even bothering to ring up the hall-porter.”

Bill was puzzled as to why they were talking about the club steps, but he felt it his duty to say that he did want to know how many they were.

“Right,” said Antony. “I’ll find out.”

He closed his eyes.

“I’m walking up St James’ Street,” he said slowly. “Now I’ve come to the club and I’m going past the smoking-room—windows-one-two three four. Now I’m at the steps. I turn in and begin going up them. One-two-three-four-five-six, then a broad step; six-seven-eight-nine, another broad step; nine-ten-eleven. Eleven I’m inside. Good morning, Rogers. Fine day again.” With a little start he opened his eyes and came back again to his present surroundings. He turned to Bill with a smile. “Eleven,” he said. “Count them the next time you’re there. Eleven and now I hope I shall forget it again.”

Bill was distinctly interested.

“That’s rather hot,” he said. “Expound.”

“Well, I can’t explain it, whether it’s something in the actual eye, or something in the brain, or what, but I have got rather an uncanny habit of recording things unconsciously. You know that game where you look at a tray full of small objects for three minutes, and then turn away and try to make a list of them. It means a devil of a lot of concentration for the ordinary person, if he wants to get his list complete, but in some odd way I manage to do it without concentration at all. I mean that my eyes seem to do it without the brain consciously taking any part. I could look at the tray, for instance, and talk to you about golf at the same time, and still get my list right.”

“I should think that’s rather a useful gift for an amateur detective. You ought to have gone into the profession before.”

“Well, it is rather useful. It’s rather surprising, you know, to a stranger. Let’s surprise Cayley with it, shall we?”

“How?”

“Well, let’s ask him—” Antony stopped and looked at Bill comically, “let’s ask him what he’s going to do with the key of the office.”

For a moment Bill did not understand.

“Key of the office?” he said vaguely. “You don’t mean—Tony! What do you mean? Good God! do you mean that Cayley—But what about Mark?”

“I don’t know where Mark is—that’s another thing I want to know—but I’m quite certain that he hasn’t got the key of the office with him. Because Cayley’s got it.”

“Are you sure?”

“Quite.”

Bill looked at him wonderingly.

“I say,” he said, almost pleadingly, “don’t tell me that you can see into people’s pockets and all that sort of thing as well.”

Antony laughed and denied it cheerfully.

“Then how do you know?”

“You’re the perfect Watson, Bill. You take to it quite naturally. Properly speaking, I oughtn’t to explain till the last chapter, but I always think that that’s so unfair. So here goes. Of course, I don’t really know that he’s got it, but I do know that he had it. I know that when I came on him this afternoon, he had just locked the door and put the key in his pocket.”

“You mean you saw him at the time, but that you’ve only just remembered it—reconstructed it in the way you were explaining just now?”

“No. I didn’t see him. But I did see something. I saw the key of the billiard-room.”

“Where?

“Outside the billiard-room door.”

“Outside? But it was inside when we looked just now.”

“Exactly.”

“Who put it there?”

“Obviously Cayley.”

“But—”

“Let’s go back to this afternoon. I don’t remember noticing the billiard-room key at the time; I must have done so without knowing. Probably when I saw Cayley banging at the door I may have wondered subconsciously whether the key of the room next to it would fit. Something like that, I daresay. Well, when I was sitting out by myself on that seat just before you came along, I went over the whole scene in my mind, and I suddenly saw the billiard-room key there outside. And I began to wonder if the office-key had been outside too. When Cayley came up, I told you my idea and you were both interested. But Cayley was just a shade too interested. I daresay you didn’t notice it, but he was.”

“By Jove!”

“Well, of course that proved nothing; and the key business didn’t really prove anything, because whatever side of the door the other keys were, Mark might have locked his own private room from the inside sometimes. But I piled it on, and pretended that it was enormously important, and quite altered the case altogether, and having got Cayley thoroughly anxious about it, I told him that we should be well out of the way for the next hour or so, and that he would be alone in the house to do what he liked about it. And, as I expected, he couldn’t resist it. He altered the keys and gave himself away entirely.”

“But the library key was still outside. Why didn’t he alter that?”

“Because he’s a clever devil. For one thing, the Inspector had been in the library, and might possibly have noticed it already. And for another—” Antony hesitated.

“What?” said Bill, after waiting for him to go on.

“It’s only guesswork. But I fancy that Cayley was thoroughly upset about the key business. He suddenly realized that he had been careless, and he hadn’t got time to think it all over. So he didn’t want to commit himself definitely to the statement that the key was either outside or inside. He wanted to leave it vague. It was safest that way.”

“I see,” said Bill slowly.

But his mind was elsewhere. He was wondering suddenly about Cayley. Cayley was just an ordinary man—like himself. Bill had had little jokes with him sometimes; not that Cayley was much of a hand at joking. Bill had helped him to sausages, played tennis with him, borrowed his tobacco, lent him a putter…. and here was Antony saying that he was what? Well, not an ordinary man, anyway. A man with a secret. Perhaps a murderer. No, not a murderer; not Cayley. That was rot, anyway. Why, they had played tennis together.

“Now then, Watson,” said Antony suddenly. “It’s time you said something.”

“I say, Tony, do you really mean it?”

“Mean what?”

“About Cayley.”

“I mean what I said, Bill. No more.”

“Well, what does it amount to?”

“Simply that Robert Ablett died in the office this afternoon, and that Cayley knows exactly how he died. That’s all. It doesn’t follow that Cayley killed him.”

“No. No, of course it doesn’t.” Bill gave a sigh of relief. “He’s just shielding Mark, what?”

“I wonder.”

“Well, isn’t that the simplest explanation?”

“It’s the simplest if you’re a friend of Cayley and want to let him down lightly. But then I’m not, you see.”

“Why isn’t it simple, anyhow?”

“Well, let’s have the explanation then, and I’ll undertake to give you a simpler one afterwards. Go on. Only remember the key is on the outside of the door to start with.”

“Yes; well, I don’t mind that. Mark goes in to see his brother, and they quarrel and all the rest of it, just as Cayley was saying. Cayley hears the shot, and in order to give Mark time to get away, locks the door, puts the key in his pocket and pretends that Mark has locked the door, and that he can’t get in. How’s that?”

“Hopeless, Watson, hopeless.”

“Why?”

“How does Cayley know that it is Mark who has shot Robert, and not the other way round?”

“Oh!” said Bill, rather upset. “Yes.” He thought for a moment, “All right. Say that Cayley has gone into the room first, and seen Robert on the ground.”

“Well?”

“Well, there you are.”

“And what does he say to Mark? That it’s a fine afternoon; and could he lend him a pocket-handkerchief? Or does he ask him what’s happened?”

“Well, of course, I suppose he asks what happened,” said Bill reluctantly.

“And what does Mark say?”

“Explains that the revolver went off accidentally during a struggle.”

“Whereupon Cayley shields him by doing what, Bill? Encouraging him to do the damn silliest thing that any man could possibly do—confess his guilt by running away!”

“No, that’s rather hopeless, isn’t it?” Bill thought again. “Well,” he said reluctantly, “suppose Mark confessed that he’d murdered his brother?”

“That’s better, Bill. Don’t be afraid of getting away from the accident idea. Well then, your new theory is this. Mark confesses to Cayley that he shot Robert on purpose, and Cayley decides, even at the risk of committing perjury, and getting into trouble himself, to help Mark to escape. Is that right?”

Bill nodded.

“Well then, I want to ask you two questions. First, is it possible, as I said before dinner, that any man would commit such an idiotic murder—a murder that puts the rope so very tightly round his neck? Secondly, if Cayley is prepared to perjure himself for Mark (as he has to, anyway, now), wouldn’t it be simpler for him to say that he was in the office all the time, and that Robert’s death was accidental?”

Bill considered this carefully, and then nodded slowly again.

“Yes, my simple explanation is a wash-out,” he said. “Now let’s have yours.”

Antony did not answer him. He had begun to think about something quite different.

CHAPTER IX. Possibilities of a Croquet Set

“What’s the matter?” said Bill sharply.

Antony looked round at him with raised eyebrows.

“You’ve thought of something suddenly,” said Bill. “What is it?”

Antony laughed.

“My dear Watson,” he said, “you aren’t supposed to be as clever as this.”

“Oh, you can’t take me in!”

“No…. Well, I was wondering about this ghost of yours, Bill. It seems to me—”

“Oh, that!” Bill was profoundly disappointed. “What on earth has the ghost got to do with it?”

“I don’t know,” said Antony apologetically. “I don’t know what anything has got to do with it. I was just wondering. You shouldn’t have brought me here if you hadn’t wanted me to think about the ghost. This is where she appeared, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” Bill was distinctly short about it.

“How?”

“What?”

“I said, ‘How?'”

“How? How do ghosts appear? I don’t know. They just appear.”

“Over four or five hundred yards of open park?”

“Well, but she had to appear here, because this is where the original one—Lady Anne, you know—was supposed to walk.”

“Oh, never mind Lady Anne! A real ghost can do anything. But how did Miss Norris appear suddenly over five hundred yards of bare park?”

Bill looked at Antony with open mouth.

“I—I don’t know,” he stammered. “We never thought of that.”

“You would have seen her long before, wouldn’t you, if she had come the way we came?”

“Of course we should.”

“And that would have spoilt it rather. You would have had time to recognize her walk.”

Bill was interested now.

“That’s rather funny, you know, Tony. We none of us thought of that.”

“You’re sure she didn’t come across the park when none of you were looking?”

“Quite. Because, you see, Betty and I were expecting her, and we kept looking round in case we saw her, so that we should all be playing with our backs to her.”

“You and Miss Calladine were playing together?”

“I say, however do you know that?”

“Brilliant deductive reasoning. Well, then you suddenly saw her?”

“Yes, she walked across that side of the lawn.” He indicated the opposite side, nearer to the house.

“She couldn’t have been hiding in the ditch? Do you call it the moat, by the way?”

“Mark does. We don’t among ourselves. No, she couldn’t. Betty and I were here before the others, and walked round a bit. We should have seen her.”

“Then she must have been hiding in the shed. Or do you call it the summer-house?”

“We had to go there for the bowls, of course. She couldn’t have been there.”

“Oh!”

“It’s dashed funny,” said Bill, after an interval for thought. “But it doesn’t matter, does it? It has nothing to do with Robert.”

“Hasn’t it?”

“I say, has it?” said Bill, getting excited again.

“I don’t know. We don’t know what has, or what hasn’t. But it has got something to do with Miss Norris. And Miss Norris—” He broke off suddenly.

“What about her?”

“Well, you’re all in it in a kind of way. And if something unaccountable happens to one of you a day or two before something unaccountable happens to the whole house, one is well, interested.” It was a good enough reason, but it wasn’t the reason he had been on the point of giving.

“I see. Well?”

Antony knocked out his pipe and got up slowly.

“Well then, let’s find the way from the house by which Miss Norris came.”

Bill jumped up eagerly.

“By Jove! Do you mean there’s a secret passage?”

“A secluded passage, anyway. There must be.”

“I say, what fun! I love secret passages. Good Lord, and this afternoon I was playing golf just like an ordinary merchant! What a life! Secret passages!”

They made their way down into the ditch. If an opening was to be found which led to the house, it would probably be on the house side of the green, and on the outside of the ditch. The most obvious place at which to begin the search was the shed where the bowls were kept. It was a tidy place as anything in Mark’s establishment would be. There were two boxes of croquet things, one of them with the lid open, as if the balls and mallets and, hoops (neatly enough put away, though) had been recently used; a box of bowls, a small lawn-mower, a roller and so forth. A seat ran along the back of it, whereon the bowls-players could sit when it rained.

Antony tapped the wall at the back.

“This is where the passage ought to begin. It doesn’t sound very hollow, does it?”

“It needn’t begin here at all, need it?” said Bill, walking round with bent head, and tapping the other walls. He was just too tall to stand upright in the shed.

“There’s only one reason why it should, and that is that it would save us the trouble of looking anywhere else for it. Surely Mark didn’t let you play croquet on his bowling-green?” He pointed to the croquet things.

“He didn’t encourage it at one time, but this year he got rather keen about it. There’s really nowhere else to play. Personally I hate the game. He wasn’t very keen on bowls, you know, but he liked calling it the bowling-green, and surprising his visitors with it.”

Antony laughed.

“I love you on Mark,” he said. “You’re priceless.”

He began to feel in his pockets for his pipe and tobacco, and then suddenly stopped and stiffened to attention. For a moment he stood listening, with his head on one side, holding up a finger to bid Bill listen too.

“What is it?” whispered Bill.

Antony waved him to silence, and remained listening. Very quietly he went down on his knees, and listened again. Then he put his ear to the floor. He got up and dusted himself quickly, walked across to Bill and whispered in his ear:

“Footsteps. Somebody coming. When I begin to talk, back me up.”

Bill nodded. Antony gave him an encouraging pat on the back, and stepped firmly across to the box of bowls, whistling loudly to himself. He took the bowls out, dropped one with a loud bang on the floor, said, “Oh, Lord!” and went on:

“I say, Bill, I don’t think I want to play bowls, after all.”

“Well, why did you say you did?” grumbled Bill.

Antony flashed a smile of appreciation at him.

“Well, I wanted to when I said I did, and now I don’t want to.”

“Then what do you want to do?”

“Talk.”

“Oh, right-o!” said Bill eagerly.

“There’s a seat on the lawn—I saw it. Let’s bring these things along in case we want to play, after all.”

“Right-o!” said Bill again. He felt safe with that, not wishing to commit himself until he knew what he was wanted to say.

As they went across the lawn, Antony dropped the bowls and took out his pipe.

“Got a match?” he said loudly.

As he bent his head over the match, he whispered, “There’ll be somebody listening to us. You take the Cayley view,” and then went on in his ordinary voice, “I don’t think much of your matches, Bill,” and struck another. They walked over to the seat and sat down.

“What a heavenly night!” said Antony.

“Ripping.”

“I wonder where that poor devil Mark is now.”

“It’s a rum business.”

“You agree with Cayley that it was an accident?”

“Yes. You see, I know Mark.”

“H’m.” Antony produced a pencil and a piece of paper and began to write on his knee, but while he wrote, he talked. He said that he thought Mark had shot his brother in a fit of anger, and that Cayley knew, or anyhow guessed, this and had tried to give his cousin a chance of getting away.

“Mind you, I think he’s right. I think it’s what any of us would do. I shan’t give it away, of course, but somehow there are one or two little things which make me think that Mark really did shoot his brother I mean other than accidentally.”

“Murdered him?”

“Well, manslaughtered him, anyway. I may be wrong. Anyway, it’s not my business.”

“But why do you think so? Because of the keys?”

“Oh, the keys are a wash-out. Still, it was a brilliant idea of mine, Wasn’t it? And it would have been rather a score for me if they had all been outside.”

He had finished his writing, and now passed the paper over to Bill. In the clear moonlight the carefully printed letters could easily be read:

“GO ON TALKING AS IF I WERE HERE. AFTER A MINUTE OR TWO, TURN ROUND AS IF I WERE SITTING ON THE GRASS BEHIND YOU, BUT GO ON TALKING.”

“I know you don’t agree with me,” Antony went on as Bill read, “but you’ll see that I’m right.”

Bill looked up and nodded eagerly. He had forgotten golf and Betty and all the other things which had made up his world lately. This was the real thing. This was life. “Well,” he began deliberately, “the whole point is that I know Mark. Now, Mark—”

But Antony was off the seat and letting himself gently down into the ditch. His intention was to crawl round it until the shed came in sight. The footsteps which he had heard seemed to be underneath the shed; probably there was a trap-door of some kind in the floor. Whoever it was would have heard their voices, and would probably think it worth while to listen to what they were saying. He might do this merely by opening the door a little without showing himself, in which case Antony would have found the entrance to the passage without any trouble to himself. But when Bill turned his head and talked over the back of the seat, it was probable that the listener would find it necessary to put his head outside in order to hear, and then Antony would be able to discover who it was. Moreover, if he should venture out of his hiding-place altogether and peep at them over the top of the bank, the fact that Bill was talking over the back of the seat would mislead the watcher into thinking that Antony was still there, sitting on the grass, no doubt, behind the seat, swinging his legs over the side of the ditch.

He walked quickly but very silently along the half-length of the bowling-green to the first corner, passed cautiously round, and then went even more carefully along the width of it to the second corner. He could hear Bill hard at it, arguing from his knowledge of Mark’s character that this, that and the other must have happened, and he smiled appreciatively to himself. Bill was a great conspirator worth a hundred Watsons. As he approached the second corner he slowed down, and did the last few yards on hands and knees. Then, lying at full length, inch by inch his head went round the corner.

The shed was two or three yards to his left, on the opposite side of the ditch. From where he lay he could see almost entirely inside it. Everything seemed to be as they left it. The bowls-box, the lawn-mower, the roller, the open croquet-box, the—

“By Jove!” said Antony to himself, “that’s neat.”

The lid of the other croquet-box was open, too. Bill was turning round now; his voice became more difficult to hear. “You see what I mean,” he was saying. “If Cayley—”

And out of the second croquet-box came Cayley’s black head.

Antony wanted to shout his applause. It was neat, devilish neat. For a moment he gazed, fascinated, at that wonderful new kind of croquet-ball which had appeared so dramatically out of the box, and then reluctantly wriggled himself back. There was nothing to be gained by staying there, and a good deal to be lost, for Bill showed signs of running down. As quickly as he could Antony hurried round the ditch and took up his place at the back of the seat. Then he stood up with a yawn, stretched himself and said carelessly, “Well, don’t worry yourself about it, Bill, old man. I daresay you’re right. You know Mark, and I don’t; and that’s the difference. Shall we have a game or shall we go to bed?”

Bill looked at him for inspiration, and, receiving it, said, “Oh, just let’s have one game, shall we?”

“Right you are,” said Antony.

But Bill was much too excited to take the game which followed very seriously. Antony, on the other hand, seemed to be thinking of nothing but bowls. He played with great deliberation for ten minutes, and then announced that he was going to bed. Bill looked at him anxiously.

“It’s all right,” laughed Antony. “You can talk if you want to. Just let’s put ’em away first, though.”

They made their way down to the shed, and while Bill was putting the bowls away, Antony tried the lid of the closed croquet-box. As he expected, it was locked.

“Now then,” said Bill, as they were walking back to the house again, “I’m simply bursting to know. Who was it?”

“Cayley.”

“Good Lord! Where?”

“Inside one of the croquet-boxes.”

“Don’t be an ass.”

“It’s quite true, Bill.” He told the other what he had seen.

“But aren’t we going to have a look at it?” asked Bill, in great disappointment. “I’m longing to explore. Aren’t you?”

“To-morrow and to-morrow and to-morrow. We shall see Cayley coming along this way directly. Besides, I want to get in from the other end, if I can. I doubt very much if we can do it this end without giving ourselves away. Look, there’s Cayley.”

They could see him coming along the drive towards them. When they were a little closer, they waved to him and he waved back.

“I wondered where you were,” he said, as he got up to them. “I rather thought you might be along this way. What about bed?”

“Bed it is,” said Antony.

“We’ve been playing bowls,” added Bill, “and talking, and—and playing bowls. Ripping night, isn’t it?”

But he left the rest of the conversation, as they wandered back to the house, to Antony. He wanted to think. There seemed to be no doubt now that Cayley was a villain. Bill had never been familiar with a villain before. It didn’t seem quite fair of Cayley, somehow; he was taking rather a mean advantage of his friends. Lot of funny people there were in the world funny people with secrets. Look at Tony, that first time he had met him in a tobacconist’s shop. Anybody would have thought he was a tobacconist’s assistant. And Cayley. Anybody would have thought that Cayley was an ordinary decent sort of person. And Mark. Dash it! one could never be sure of anybody. Now, Robert was different. Everybody had always said that Robert was a shady fellow.

But what on earth had Miss Norris got to do with it? What had Miss Norris got to do with it? This was a question which Antony had already asked himself that afternoon, and it seemed to him now that he had found the answer. As he lay in bed that night he reassembled his ideas, and looked at them in the new light which the events of the evening threw upon the dark corners in his brain.

Of course it was natural that Cayley should want to get rid of his guests as soon as the tragedy was discovered. He would want this for their own sake as well as for his. But he had been a little too quick about suggesting it, and about seeing the suggestion carried out. They had been bustled off as soon as they could be packed. The suggestion that they were in his hands, to go or stay as he wished, could have been left safely to them. As it was, they had been given no alternative, and Miss Norris, who had proposed to catch an after-dinner train at the junction, in the obvious hope that she might have in this way a dramatic cross-examination at the hands of some keen-eyed detective, was encouraged tactfully, but quite firmly, to travel by the earlier train with the others. Antony had felt that Cayley, in the tragedy which had suddenly befallen the house, ought to have been equally indifferent to her presence or absence. But he was not; and Antony assumed from this that Cayley was very much alive to the necessity for her absence.

Why?

Well, that question was not to be answered off-hand. But the fact that it was so had made Antony interested in her; and it was for this reason that he had followed up so alertly Bill’s casual mention of her in connection with the dressing-up business. He felt that he wanted to know a little more about Miss Norris and the part she had played in the Red House circle. By sheer luck, as it seemed to him, he had stumbled on the answer to his question.

Miss Norris was hurried away because she knew about the secret passage.

The passage, then, had something to do with the mystery of Robert’s death. Miss Norris had used it in order to bring off her dramatic appearance as the ghost. Possibly she had discovered it for herself; possibly Mark had revealed it to her secretly one day, never guessing that she would make so unkind a use of it later on; possibly Cayley, having been let into the joke of the dressing-up, had shown her how she could make her appearance on the bowling-green even more mysterious and supernatural. One way or another, she knew about the secret passage. So she must be hurried away.

Why? Because if she stayed and talked, she might make some innocent mention of it. And Cayley did not want any mention of it.

Why, again? Obviously because the passage, or even the mere knowledge of its existence, might provide a clue.

“I wonder if Mark’s hiding there,” thought Antony; and he went to sleep.

CHAPTER X. Mr. Gillingham Talks Nonsense

Antony came down in a very good humour to breakfast next morning, and found that his host was before him. Cayley looked up from his letters and nodded.

“Any word of Mr. Ablett—of Mark?” said Antony, as he poured out his coffee.

“No. The inspector wants to drag the lake this afternoon.”

“Oh! Is there a lake?”

There was just the flicker of a smile on Cayley’s face, but it disappeared as quickly as it came.

“Well, it’s really a pond,” he said, “but it was called ‘the lake.'”

“By Mark,” thought Antony. Aloud he said, “What do they expect to find?”

“They think that Mark—” He broke off and shrugged his shoulders.

“May have drowned himself, knowing that he couldn’t get away? And knowing that he had compromised himself by trying to get away at all?”

“Yes; I suppose so,” said Cayley slowly.

“I should have thought he would have given himself more of a run for his money. After all, he had a revolver. If he was determined not to be taken alive, he could always have prevented that. Couldn’t he have caught a train to London before the police knew anything about it?”

“He might just have managed it. There was a train. They would have noticed him at Waldheim, of course, but he might have managed it at Stanton. He’s not so well-known there, naturally. The inspector has been inquiring. Nobody seems to have seen him.”

“There are sure to be people who will say they did, later on. There was never a missing man yet but a dozen people come forward who swear to have seen him at a dozen different places at the same time.”

Cayley smiled.

“Yes. That’s true. Anyhow, he wants to drag the pond first.” He added dryly, “From what I’ve read of detective stories, inspectors always do want to drag the pond first.”

“Is it deep?”

“Quite deep enough,” said Cayley as he got up. On his way to the door he stopped, and looked at Antony. “I’m so sorry that we’re keeping you here like this, but it will only be until to-morrow. The inquest is to-morrow afternoon. Do amuse yourself how you like till then. Beverley will look after you.”

“Thanks very much. I shall really be quite all right.”

Antony went on with his breakfast. Perhaps it was true that inspectors liked dragging ponds, but the question was, did Cayleys like having them dragged? Was Cayley anxious about it, or quite indifferent? He certainly did not seem to be anxious, but he could hide his feelings very easily beneath that heavy, solid face, and it was not often that the real Cayley peeped out. Just a little too eager once or twice, perhaps, but there was nothing to be learnt from it this morning. Perhaps he knew that the pond had no secrets to give up. After all, inspectors were always dragging ponds.

Bill came in noisily.

Bill’s face was an open book. Excitement was written all over it.

“Well,” he said eagerly, as he sat down to the business of the meal, “what are we going to do this morning?”

“Not talk so loudly, for one thing,” said Antony. Bill looked about him apprehensively. Was Cayley under the table, for example? After last night one never knew.

“Is er—” He raised his eyebrows.

“No. But one doesn’t want to shout. One should modulate the voice, my dear William, while breathing gently from the hips. Thus one avoids those chest-notes which have betrayed many a secret. In other words, pass the toast.”

“You seem bright this morning.”

“I am. Very bright. Cayley noticed it. Cayley said, ‘Were it not that I have other business, I would come gathering nuts and may with thee. Fain would I gyrate round the mulberry-bush and hop upon the little hills. But the waters of Jordan encompass me and Inspector Birch tarries outside with his shrimping-net. My friend William Beverley will attend thee anon. Farewell, a long farewell to all—thy grape-nuts.’ He then left up-centre. Enter W. Beverley, R.”

“Are you often like this at breakfast?”

“Almost invariably. Said he with his mouth full. ‘Exit W. Beverley, L.”

“It’s a touch of the sun, I suppose,” said Bill, shaking his head sadly.

“It’s the sun and the moon and the stars, all acting together on an empty stomach. Do you know anything about the stars, Mr. Beverley? Do you know anything about Orion’s Belt, for instance? And why isn’t there a star called Beverley’s Belt? Or a novel? Said he masticating. Re-enter W. Beverley through trap-door.”

“Talking about trap-doors—”

“Don’t,” said Antony, getting up. “Some talk of Alexander and some of Hercules, but nobody talks about—what’s the Latin for trap-door?—Mensa a table; you might get it from that. Well, Mr. Beverley,”—and he slapped him heartily on the back as he went past him—”I shall see you later. Cayley says that you will amuse me, but so far you have not made me laugh once. You must try and be more amusing when you have finished your breakfast. But don’t hurry. Let the upper mandibles have time to do the work.” With those words Mr. Gillingham then left the spacious apartment.

Bill continued his breakfast with a slightly bewildered air. He did not know that Cayley was smoking a cigarette outside the windows behind him; not listening, perhaps; possibly not even overhearing; but within sight of Antony, who was not going to take any risks. So he went on with his breakfast, reflecting that Antony was a rum fellow, and wondering if he had dreamed only of the amazing things which had happened the day before.

Antony went up to his bedroom to fetch his pipe. It was occupied by a housemaid, and he made a polite apology for disturbing her. Then he remembered.

“Is it Elsie?” he asked, giving her a friendly smile.

“Yes, sir,” she said, shy but proud. She had no doubts as to why it was that she had achieved such notoriety.

“It was you who heard Mr. Mark yesterday, wasn’t it? I hope the inspector was nice to you?”

“Yes, thank you, sir.”

“‘It’s my turn now. You wait,'” murmured Antony to himself.

“Yes, sir. Nasty-like. Meaning to say his chance had come.”

“I wonder.”

“Well, that’s what I heard, sir. Truly.”

Antony looked at her thoughtfully and nodded.

“Yes. I wonder. I wonder why.”

“Why what, sir?”

“Oh, lots of things, Elsie…. It was quite an accident your being outside just then?”

Elsie blushed. She had not forgotten what Mrs. Stevens had said about it.

“Quite, sir. In the general way I use the other stairs.”

“Of course.”

He had found his pipe and was about to go downstairs again when she stopped him.

“I beg your pardon, sir, but will there be an inquest?”

“Oh, yes. To-morrow, I think.”

“Shall I have to give my evidence, sir?”

“Of course. There’s nothing to be frightened of.”

“I did hear it, sir. Truly.”

“Why, of course you did. Who says you didn’t?”

“Some of the others, sir, Mrs. Stevens and all.”

“Oh, that’s just because they’re jealous,” said Antony with a smile.

He was glad to have spoken to her, because he had recognized at once the immense importance of her evidence. To the Inspector no doubt it had seemed only of importance in that it had shown Mark to have adopted something of a threatening attitude towards his brother. To Antony it had much more significance. It was the only trustworthy evidence that Mark had been in the office at all that afternoon.

For who saw Mark go into the office? Only Cayley. And if Cayley had been hiding the truth about the keys, why should he not be hiding the truth about Mark’s entry into the office? Obviously all Cayley’s evidence went for nothing. Some of it no doubt was true; but he was giving it, both truth and falsehood, with a purpose. What the purpose was Antony did not know as yet; to shield Mark, to shield himself, even to betray Mark it might be any of these. But since his evidence was given for his own ends, it was impossible that it could be treated as the evidence of an impartial and trustworthy onlooker. Such, for instance, as Elsie appeared to be.

Elsie’s evidence, however, seemed to settle the point. Mark had gone into the office to see his brother; Elsie had heard them both talking; and then Antony and Cayley had found the body of Robert…. and the Inspector was going to drag the pond.

But certainly Elsie’s evidence did not prove anything more than the mere presence of Mark in the room. “It’s my turn now; you wait.” That was not an immediate threat;—it was a threat for the future. If Mark had shot his brother immediately afterwards it must have been an accident, the result of a struggle, say, provoked by that “nasty-like” tone of voice. Nobody would say “You wait” to a man who was just going to be shot. “You wait” meant “You wait, and see what’s going to happen to you later on.” The owner of the Red House had had enough of his brother’s sponging, his brother’s blackmail; now it was Mark’s turn to get a bit of his own back. Let Robert just wait a bit, and he would see. The conversation which Elsie had overheard might have meant something like this. It couldn’t have meant murder. Anyway not murder of Robert by Mark.

“It’s a funny business,” thought Antony. “The one obvious solution is so easy and yet so wrong. And I’ve got a hundred things in my head, and I can’t fit them together. And this afternoon will make a hundred and one. I mustn’t forget this afternoon.”

He found Bill in the hall and proposed a stroll. Bill was only too ready. “Where do you want to go?” he asked.

“I don’t mind much. Show me the park.”

“Righto.”

They walked out together.

“Watson, old man,” said Antony, as soon as they were away from the house, “you really mustn’t talk so loudly indoors. There was a gentleman outside, just behind you, all the time.”

“Oh, I say,” said Bill, going pink. “I’m awfully sorry. So that’s why you were talking such rot.”

“Partly, yes. And partly because I do feel rather bright this morning. We’re going to have a busy day.”

“Are we really? What are we going to do?”

“They’re going to drag the pond—beg its pardon, the lake. Where is the lake?”

“We’re on the way to it now, if you’d like to see it.”

“We may as well look at it. Do you haunt the lake much in the ordinary way?”

“Oh, no, rather not. There’s nothing to do there.”

“You can’t bathe?”

“Well, I shouldn’t care to. Too dirty.”

“I see…. This is the way we came yesterday, isn’t it? The way to the village?”

“Yes. We go off a bit to the right directly. What are they dragging it for?”

“Mark.”

“Oh, rot,” said Bill uneasily. He was silent for a little, and then, forgetting his uncomfortable thoughts in his sudden remembrance of the exciting times they were having, said eagerly, “I say, when are we going to look for that passage?”

“We can’t do very much while Cayley’s in the house.”

“What about this afternoon when they’re dragging the pond? He’s sure to be there.”

Antony shook his head.

“There’s something I must do this afternoon,” he said. “Of course we might have time for both.”

“Has Cayley got to be out of the house for the other thing too?”

“Well, I think he ought to be.”

“I say, is it anything rather exciting?”

“I don’t know. It might be rather interesting. I daresay I could do it at some other time, but I rather fancy it at three o’clock, somehow. I’ve been specially keeping it back for then.”

“I say, what fun! You do want me, don’t you?”

“Of course I do. Only, Bill don’t talk about things inside the house, unless I begin. There’s a good Watson.”

“I won’t. I swear I won’t.”

They had come to the pond—Mark’s lake—and they walked silently round it. When they had made the circle, Antony sat down on the grass, and relit his pipe. Bill followed his example.

“Well, Mark isn’t there,” said Antony.

“No,” said Bill. “At least, I don’t quite see why you know he isn’t.”

“It isn’t ‘knowing,’ it’s ‘guessing,'” said Antony rapidly. “It’s much easier to shoot yourself than to drown yourself, and if Mark had wanted to shoot himself in the water, with some idea of not letting the body be found, he’d have put big stones in his pockets, and the only big stones are near the water’s edge, and they would have left marks, and they haven’t, and therefore he didn’t, and oh, bother the pond; that can wait till this afternoon. Bill, where does the secret passage begin?”

“Well, that’s what we’ve got to find out, isn’t it?”

“Yes. You see, my idea is this.”

He explained his reasons for thinking that the secret of the passage was concerned in some way with the secret of Robert’s death, and went on:

“My theory is that Mark discovered the passage about a year ago—the time when he began to get keen on croquet. The passage came out into the floor of the shed, and probably it was Cayley’s idea to put a croquet-box over the trap-door, so as to hide it more completely. You know, when once you’ve discovered a secret yourself, it always seems as if it must be so obvious to everybody else. I can imagine that Mark loved having this little secret all to himself and to Cayley, of course, but Cayley wouldn’t count and they must have had great fun fixing it up, and making it more difficult for other people to find out. Well then, when Miss Norris was going to dress-up, Cayley gave it away. Probably he told her that she could never get down to the bowling-green without being discovered, and then perhaps showed that he knew there was one way in which she could do it, and she wormed the secret out of him somehow.”

“But this was two or three days before Robert turned up.”

“Exactly. I am not suggesting that there was anything sinister about the passage in the first place. It was just a little private bit of romance and adventure for Mark, three days ago. He didn’t even know that Robert was coming. But somehow the passage has been used since, in connection with Robert. Perhaps Mark escaped that way; perhaps he’s hiding there now. And if so, then the only person who could give him away was Miss Norris. And she of course would only do it innocently not knowing that the passage had anything to do with it.”

“So it was safer to have her out of the way?”

“Yes.”

“But, look here, Tony, why do you want to bother about this end of it? We can always get in at the bowling-green end.”

“I know, but if we do that we shall have to do it openly. It will mean breaking open the box, and letting Cayley know that we’ve done it. You see, Bill, if we don’t find anything out for ourselves in the next day or two, we’ve got to tell the police what we have found out, and then they can explore the passage for themselves. But I don’t want to do that yet.”

“Rather not.

“So we’ve got to carry on secretly for a bit. It’s the only way.” He smiled and added, “And it’s much more fun.”

“Rather!” Bill chuckled to himself.

“Very well. Where does the secret passage begin?”

CHAPTER XI. The Reverend Theodore Ussher

“There’s one thing, which we have got to realize at once,” said Antony, “and that is that if we don’t find it easily, we shan’t find it at all.”

“You mean that we shan’t have time?”

“Neither time nor opportunity. Which is rather a consoling thought to a lazy person like me.”

“But it makes it much harder, if we can’t really look properly.”

“Harder to find, yes, but so much easier to look. For instance, the passage might begin in Cayley’s bedroom. Well, now we know that it doesn’t.”

“We don’t know anything of the sort,” protested Bill.

“We—know for the purposes of our search. Obviously we can’t go tailing into Cayley’s bedroom and tapping his wardrobes; and obviously, therefore, if we are going to look for it at all, we must assume that it doesn’t begin there.”

“Oh, I see.” Bill chewed a piece of grass thoughtfully. “Anyhow, it wouldn’t begin on an upstairs floor, would it?”

“Probably not. Well, we’re getting on.”

“You can wash out the kitchen and all that part of the house,” said Bill, after more thought. “We can’t go there.”

“Right. And the cellars, if there are any.”

“Well, that doesn’t leave us much.”

“No. Of course it’s only a hundred-to-one chance that we find it, but what we want to consider is which is the most likely place of the few places in which we can look safely.”

“All it amounts to,” said Bill, “is the living-rooms downstairs—dining-room, library, hall, billiard-room and the office rooms.”

“Yes, that’s all.”

“Well, the office is the most likely, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Except for one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, it’s on the wrong side of the house. One would expect the passage to start from the nearest place to which it is going. Why make it longer by going under the house first?”

“Yes, that’s true. Well, then, you think the dining-room or the library?”

“Yes. And the library for choice. I mean for our choice. There are always servants going into dining-rooms. We shouldn’t have much of a chance of exploring properly in there. Besides, there’s another thing to remember. Mark has kept this a secret for a year. Could he have kept it a secret in the dining-room? Could Miss Norris have got into the dining-room and used the secret door just after dinner without being seen? It would have been much too risky.”

Bill got up eagerly.

“Come along,” he said, “let’s try the library. If Cayley comes in, we can always pretend we’re choosing a book.”

Antony got up slowly, took his arm and walked back to the house with him.

The library was worth going into, passages or no passages. Antony could never resist another person’s bookshelves. As soon as he went into the room, he found himself wandering round it to see what books the owner read, or (more likely) did not read, but kept for the air which they lent to the house. Mark had prided himself on his library. It was a mixed collection of books. Books which he had inherited both from his father and from his patron; books which he had bought because he was interested in them or, if not in them, in the authors to whom he wished to lend his patronage; books which he had ordered in beautifully bound editions, partly because they looked well on his shelves, lending a noble colour to his rooms, partly because no man of culture should ever be without them; old editions, new editions, expensive books, cheap books, a library in which everybody, whatever his taste, could be sure of finding something to suit him.

“And which is your particular fancy, Bill?” said Antony, looking from one shelf to another. “Or are you always playing billiards?”

“I have a look at ‘Badminton’ sometimes,” said Bill.

“It’s over in that corner there.” He waved a hand.

“Over here?” said Antony, going to it.

“Yes.” He corrected himself suddenly.—”Oh, no, it’s not. It’s over there on the right now. Mark had a grand re-arrangement of his library about a year ago. It took him more than a week, he told us. He’s got such a frightful lot, hasn’t he?”

“Now that’s very interesting,” said Antony, and he sat down and filled his pipe again.

There was indeed a “frightful lot” of books. The four walls of the library were plastered with them from floor to ceiling, save only where the door and the two windows insisted on living their own life, even though an illiterate one. To Bill it seemed the most hopeless room of any in which to look for a secret opening.

“We shall have to take every blessed book down,” he said, “before we can be certain that we haven’t missed it.”

“Anyway,” said Antony, “if we take them down one at a time, nobody can suspect us of sinister designs. After all, what does one go into a library for, except to take books down?”

“But there’s such a frightful lot.”

Antony’s pipe was now going satisfactorily, and he got up and walked leisurely to the end of the wall opposite the door.

“Well, let’s have a look,” he said, “and see if they are so very frightful. Hallo, here’s your ‘Badminton.’ You often read that, you say?”

“If I read anything.”

“Yes.” He looked down and up the shelf. “Sport and Travel chiefly. I like books of travel, don’t you?”

“They’re pretty dull as a rule.”

“Well, anyhow, some people like them very much,” said Antony, reproachfully. He moved on to the next row of shelves. “The Drama. The Restoration dramatists. You can have most of them. Still, as you well remark, many people seem to love them. Shaw, Wilde, Robertson—I like reading plays, Bill. There are not many people who do, but those who do are usually very keen. Let us pass on.”

“I say, we haven’t too much time,” said Bill restlessly.

“We haven’t. That’s why we aren’t wasting any. Poetry. Who reads poetry nowadays? Bill, when did you last read ‘Paradise Lost’?”

“Never.”

“I thought not. And when did Miss Calladine last read ‘The Excursion’ aloud to you?”

“As a matter of fact, Betty—Miss Calladine—happens to be jolly keen on what’s the beggar’s name?”

“Never mind his name. You have said quite enough. We pass on.”

He moved on to the next shelf.

“Biography. Oh, lots of it. I love biographies. Are you a member of the Johnson Club? I bet Mark is. ‘Memories of Many Courts’ I’m sure Mrs. Calladine reads that. Anyway, biographies are just as interesting as most novels, so why linger? We pass on.” He went to the next shelf, and then gave a sudden whistle. “Hallo, hallo!”

“What’s the matter?” said Bill rather peevishly.

“Stand back there. Keep the crowd back, Bill. We are getting amongst it. Sermons, as I live. Sermons. Was Mark’s father a clergyman, or does Mark take to them naturally?”

“His father was a parson, I believe. Oh, yes, I know he was.”

“Ah, then these are Father’s books. ‘Half-Hours with the Infinite’ I must order that from the library when I get back. ‘The Lost Sheep,’ ‘Jones on the Trinity,’ ‘The Epistles of St. Paul Explained.’ Oh, Bill, we’re amongst it. ‘The Narrow Way, being Sermons by the Rev. Theodore Ussher’ hal-LO!”

“What is the matter?”

“William, I am inspired. Stand by.” He took down the Reverend Theodore Ussher’s classic work, looked at it with a happy smile for a moment, and then gave it to Bill.

“Here, hold Ussher for a bit.”

Bill took the book obediently.

“No, give it me back. Just go out into the hall, and see if you can hear Cayley anywhere. Say ‘Hallo’ loudly, if you do.”

Bill went out quickly, listened, and came back.

“It’s all right.”

“Good.” He took the book out of its shelf again. “Now then, you can hold Ussher. Hold him in the left hand so. With the right or dexter hand, grasp this shelf firmly so. Now, when I say ‘Pull,’ pull gradually. Got that?”

Bill nodded, his face alight with excitement.

“Good.” Antony put his hand into the space left by the stout Ussher, and fingered the back of the shelf. “Pull,” he said.

Bill pulled.

“Now just go on pulling like that. I shall get it directly. Not hard, you know, but just keeping up the strain.”

His fingers went at it again busily.

And then suddenly the whole row of shelves, from top to bottom, swung gently open towards them.

“Good Lord!” said Bill, letting go of the shelf in his amazement.

Antony pushed the shelves back, extracted Ussher from Bill’s fingers, replaced him, and then, taking Bill by the arm, led him to the sofa and deposited him in it. Standing in front of him, he bowed gravely.

“Child’s play, Watson,” he said; “child’s play.”

“How on earth—”

Antony laughed happily and sat down on the sofa beside him.

“You don’t really want it explained,” he said, smacking him on the knee; “you’re just being Watsonish. It’s very nice of you, of course, and I appreciate it.”

“No, but really, Tony.”

“Oh, my dear Bill!” He smoked silently for a little, and then went on, “It’s what I was saying just now—a secret is a secret until you have discovered it, and as soon as you have discovered it, you wonder why everybody else isn’t discovering it, and how it could ever have been a secret at all. This passage has been here for years, with an opening at one end into the library, and at the other end into the shed. Then Mark discovered it, and immediately he felt that everybody else must discover it. So he made the shed end more difficult by putting the croquet-box there, and this end more difficult by—” he stopped and looked at the other “by what, Bill?”

But Bill was being Watsonish.

“What?”

“Obviously by re-arranging his books. He happened to take out ‘The Life of Nelson’ or ‘Three Men in a Boat,’ or whatever it was, and by the merest chance discovered the secret. Naturally he felt that everybody else would be taking down ‘The Life of Nelson’ or ‘Three Men in a Boat.’ Naturally he felt that the secret would be safer if nobody ever interfered with that shelf at all. When you said that the books had been re-arranged a year ago just about the time the croquet-box came into existence; of course, I guessed why. So I looked about for the dullest books I could find, the books nobody ever read. Obviously the collection of sermon-books of a mid-Victorian clergyman was the shelf we wanted.”

“Yes, I see. But why were you so certain of the particular place?”

“Well, he had to mark the particular place by some book. I thought that the joke of putting ‘The Narrow Way’ just over the entrance to the passage might appeal to him. Apparently it did.”

Bill nodded to himself thoughtfully several times. “Yes, that’s very neat,” he said. “You’re a clever devil, Tony.”

Tony laughed.

“You encourage me to think so, which is bad for me, but very delightful.”

“Well, come on, then,” said Bill, and he got up, and held out a hand.

“Come on where?”

“To explore the passage, of course.”

Antony shook his head.

“Why ever not?”

“Well, what do you expect to find there?”

“I don’t know. But you seemed to think that we might find something that would help.”

“Suppose we find Mark?” said Antony quietly.

“I say, do you really think he’s there?”

“Suppose he is?”

“Well, then, there we are.”

Antony walked over to the fireplace, knocked out the ashes of his pipe, and turned back to Bill. He looked at him gravely without speaking.

“What are you going to say to him?” he said at last.

“How do you mean?”

“Are you going to arrest him, or help him to escape?”

“I—I—well, of course, I—” began Bill, stammering, and then ended lamely, “Well, I don’t know.”

“Exactly. We’ve got to make up our minds, haven’t we?”

Bill didn’t answer. Very much disturbed in his mind, he walked restlessly about the room, frowning to himself, stopping now and then at the newly discovered door and looking at it as if he were trying to learn what lay behind it. Which side was he on, if it came to choosing sides—Mark’s or the Law’s?

“You know, you can’t just say, ‘Oh er hallo!’ to him,” said Antony, breaking rather appropriately into his thoughts.

Bill looked up at him with a start.

“Nor,” went on Antony, “can you say, ‘This is my friend Mr. Gillingham, who is staying with you. We were just going to have a game of bowls.'”

“Yes, it’s dashed difficult. I don’t know what to say. I’ve been rather forgetting about Mark.” He wandered over to the window and looked out on to the lawns. There was a gardener clipping the grass edges. No reason why the lawn should be untidy just because the master of the house had disappeared. It was going to be a hot day again. Dash it, of course he had forgotten Mark. How could he think of him as an escaped murderer, a fugitive from justice, when everything was going on just as it did yesterday, and the sun was shining just as it did when they all drove off to their golf, only twenty-four hours ago? How could he help feeling that this was not real tragedy, but merely a jolly kind of detective game that he and Antony were playing?

He turned back to his friend.

“All the same,” he said, “you wanted to find the passage, and now you’ve found it. Aren’t you going into it at all?”

Antony took his arm.

“Let’s go outside again,” he said. “We can’t go into it now, anyhow. It’s too risky, with Cayley about. Bill, I feel like you—just a little bit frightened. But what I’m frightened of I don’t quite know. Anyway, you want to go on with it, don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Bill firmly. “We must.”

“Then we’ll explore the passage this afternoon, if we get the chance. And if we don’t get the chance, then we’ll try it to-night.”

They walked across the hall and out into the sunlight again.

“Do you really think we might find Mark hiding there?” asked Bill.

“It’s possible,” said Antony. “Either Mark or—” He pulled himself up quickly. “No,” he murmured to himself, “I won’t let myself think that—not yet, anyway. It’s too horrible.”

 

The second half of A.A. Milne’s The Red House Mystery will appear tomorrow 26 Apr in DM du Jour.

old book smell

R L Swihart ~ William Tell Remix

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1.

Their Cioranian nights begin outside the Latin Quarter

and outside of France, in a large American beach city

marking time with manic brown waves

2.

Remission isn’t as forgiving as the dictionary would have it—

In lieu of an apple, an apple, they take aim at the heart, the heart—

but both parties survive the verbal buckshot and the happenstance art

(a headboard scatterplot with no correlation, working title:

Folie à deux) is soon to appear at the Getty

R L Swihart currently lives in Long Beach, CA, and teaches high school mathematics in Los Angeles. His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in various online and print journals, including Rhino, Right Hand Pointing, 1110, decomP, and Pebble Lake Review. His first collection of poems, The Last Man, was published in 2012 by Desperanto Press.

DM 91 Publicite 1

John Jay Flicker ~ The Never Ending Topiary

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The roses on your voice turned to chamomile
taking choices of betterment over aims of soft temper.
Ever mindful of the blue and black occlusions
You took it all. You kept it for yourself.

I had hoped you would pick a better venue
sparing the raucous chorus for the vernal spring
when the sky was coated in clouds
hanging on the mountains like mists:
The only meaningful friendships in Eden.

I was doting on the little cracks inside the concrete,
head held hanging in the wind chimes of Winter
The Never Ending Topiary: The trimming
of all the loose ends. All the obligations to another.

 

John Jay Flicker writes out of the bitumen under the buildings of Los Angeles. He has previously published poetry in Haggard & Halloo, Egg Poetry, Carcinogenic Poetry and LabLit Publications. He currently works in the veterinary industry as a doctor’s assistant and holds a bachelor’s degree in molecular and cell biology from the University of California Merced.
More of John’s poetry will appear in DM 91 Kinderszenen upcoming on Fri 8 May 2015.

ol2

Herman Michael Iglic ~ A Well Lit Green Dress

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The Guanacaste Castle resort was open year round. If you had money, you could be its guest anytime. Drunks, prostitutes, drug dealers, even kids were allowed in. It’s main attraction was the beach located on the resort’s west side. The beach was connected to a stone walkway that led to each of the resort’s other buildings. It was lit up by vintage Costa Rican streetlights all the way to the resort’s main building. The main building included the lobby, the rooms, and the bar. Benjamin sat behind the wooden bar every other day, covering the late hours of the day with his wisdom and charm. He looked to be in his late fifties, with his balding head and grey beard. During the nights that he did not serve drunk or soon to be drunk people, he stayed in his hotel room. It was small by his American standards, but sufficient for writing. It had a bathroom, a kitchen, and a two seat sofa. On the sofa laid a laptop that he would use to write tales from his youth, or articles for random magazines. The articles never paid more than ten dollars a piece, but they kept him busy.

On this Friday night, he was stuck behind the bar, mindlessly wiping the wooden counter with a soggy dishrag. Each wipe left a drizzle of the translucent buildup of water, coke, beer, wine, gin, vodka, and whatever else the guests would spill. He wiped, however, in the hope that it would allow his conscious mind to be focused on a menial task, so his subconscious mind could give him ideas. The ideas were usually memories of his younger self, memories that he would turn into short stories to either publish or read to kids within his extended family. As he wiped, he stared at the ground. No matter how much he wiped, no ideas came. He’d lived life to the fullest, yet he couldn’t remember any of it. The alcohol drank, and time passed were sure contributors to such a poor memory, he thought.

He stopped wiping, and looked in front of him. A thirty something man had sat down on a stool with his arms on the counter. He too had a look that combined confusion and hopelessness.

“Can I get you something?”

“Yeah,” the man said, his right hand pressed on his cheek, “I’d like a gin martini.”

Benjamin nodded. He grabbed a green bottle of dry gin, a green bottle of vermouth, and poured a little bit of each into a glass full of ice.

“Stirred, please,” the man added.

Benjamin nodded once more, and stirred the alcoholic concoction. After stirring for what he felt was thirty seconds, he grabbed a julep strainer, and strained what was now a gin martini into a wide martini glass. He handed it over to the man. The man handed Benjamin a twenty dollar bill. Due to the resort being all-inclusive, receiving money was unusual for Benjamin.

“Hello, sir,” he said, holding the bill in between his fingers, “the drink is part of the all-inclusive pricing. You don’t need to pay.”

“I know. That’s a tip. You seem like a good bartender — and I won’t be needing it for much longer.”

“Why is that?”

“Well, where do I start,” said the man, now pressing the top of the bridge of his nose, “I’ve been feeling like no matter what I do, I remain incomplete. I have an expensive car, an expensive house, and an expensive wife. Even with all of that, I’m unhappy.”

Benjamin had gone through a similar problem, the problem of having a thirst for something more.

Benjamin felt compelled to say something, “I haven’t had any interesting stories to tell my family in a long time, so I don’t feel all that well, either. My name’s Benjamin, by the way.”

“Ron”, the man replied.

With Ron on one corner, a pair of women approached the other corner of the ‘L’ shaped bar. The lights that hung from behind the Benjamin shun bright on one of the woman’s green dress. The other wore a white dress. The bride’s dress had ruffles and ribbons that covered the corset that did a poor job at making her look slim, while her friend’s flat green dress had a stain on the woman’s right hip. The bride had tear marks running down her face, while the woman in green had a worried look on hers. As the bride sat down on the now flimsy wooden stool, she snapped her fingers at Benjamin. The snap drew Ron’s attention, too, but only long enough for him to notice the woman in green. He smiled. There was something magical about seeing an attractive Latin woman to a mid westerner. In between blinks, he became content.

“What’s the drink with the highest percentage of alcohol?” the bride asked.

“Well,” Benjamin thought, “there’s a drink called Cocoroco. It’s ninety-three percent alcohol, it comes from–”

“That one,” she said, holding back tears.

“And what about you?” Benjamin asked, looking at the woman in green.

“I’d like a cocktail,” she said, preventing herself from mentioning the cocktails inappropriate name, “A cocktail with vodka, orange juice, cranberry, and peach schnapps.”

Benjamin nodded with a smile.

As he prepared their drinks, the bride cried into the woman’s green dress, while the woman in green tried to console her.

Benjamin looked at the woman in green, motioning his head towards the bride, as a way of asking what happened.

“This is my friend. I met her earlier this week outside the resort, and was invited to her wedding. My friend caught her new husband lying beside another woman on a lawn chair at the beach,” she revealed, “they married earlier this week.” She spoke with a mild, yet noticeable central American accent.

“I can’t say I’ve ever heard of something like that happening before.”

“Neither could I,” the woman in green said, looking at a thin hole on the bar’s counter top, “some men are just awful.”

Ron took a break from sipping on his martini, and looked over, “just men?”

“Well, I’m sure some women are just as bad.”

“You’re damn right they are,” the man said.

They both sighed. While Ron’s gaze moved on to his drink, the woman’s gaze remained on Ron.
The women got their drinks.

“You have no idea what it’s like to have a man cheat on you with some skank,” the bride said, “especially a few days after getting married.”

While Ron’s life felt meaningless, the bride felt like hers was worse. Getting cheated on within a week of marriage was much worse than living life without meaning, she thought, since all meaning came from marriage.

“Do you know who that woman is?” asked Benjamin.

“No,” she said, taking rapid sips of her drink, “I just know that she was wearing a dark green dress. She had is wrapped around her head as she ran away. Kind of like an elongated turban.”

Benjamin raised his eyebrows. Not being a fan of marriage, he found the bride’s tale more interesting than sad. In fifteen years of bartending, he’d never seen someone get cheated on during their tropical marriage. It made him smile. He didn’t get joy out of people’s misery, he got joy in spite of people’s misery. Dramatic stories like these were rarities in non-fictional life.

Ron put his glass on the counter, “did this happen at night?”

“Yes,” the bride replied, quieting her sobs, “just half an hour ago. Why?”

“Well,” Ron said, now making eye contact with the bride, “since the beach is unlit at night, a light green dress would look dark green. Whoever had sex with your husband was wearing a light green dress.”

The bride looked to her right, noticing her new friend’s dress was light green. In a matter of seconds, her sobs were gone, and she became furious. She began to look the woman up and down, until she found a stain on her Costa Rican friend’s right hip. The stain was without colour, but not transparent. It managed to darken the fabric slightly, much like water. They exchanged some words in the form of loud whispers. Benjamin and Ron looked on with depraved smiles on their faces, waiting in anticipation.

“I know it’s weird, but I feel better already. Watching what’s likely going to happen – interests me. I haven’t felt anything so real in a long time,” Ron said, his martini now finished.

“Huh,” Benjamin added, “I feel better as well.”

oh3

George Sylvester Viereck THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE {III}

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XXII

The last rays of the late afternoon sun fell slanting through Ernest’s window. He was lying on his couch, in a leaden, death-like slumber that, for the moment at least, was not even perturbed by the presence of Reginald Clarke.

The latter was standing at the boy’s bedside, calm, unmoved as ever. The excitement of his conversation with Ethel had left no trace on the chiselled contour of his forehead. Smilingly fastening an orchid of an indefinable purple tint in his evening coat, radiant, buoyant with life, he looked down upon the sleeper. Then he passed his hand over Ernest’s forehead, as if to wipe off beads of sweat. At the touch of his hand the boy stirred uneasily. When it was not withdrawn his countenance twitched in pain. He moaned as men moan under the influence of some anæsthetic, without possessing the power to break through the narrow partition that separates them from death on the one side and from consciousness on the other. At last a sigh struggled to his seemingly paralysed lips, then another. Finally the babbling became articulate.

“For God’s sake,” he cried, in his sleep, “take that hand away!”

And all at once the benignant smile on Reginald’s features was changed to a look of savage fierceness. He no longer resembled the man of culture, but a disappointed, snarling beast of prey. He took his hand from Ernest’s forehead and retired cautiously through the half-open door.

Hardly had he disappeared when Ernest awoke. For a moment he looked around, like a hunted animal, then sighed with relief and buried his head in his hand. At that moment a knock at the door was heard, and Reginald re-entered, calm as before.

“I declare,” he exclaimed, “you have certainly been sleeping the sleep of the just.”

“It isn’t laziness,” Ernest replied, looking up rather pleased at the interruption. “But I’ve a splitting headache.”

“Perhaps those naps are not good for your health.”

“Probably. But of late I have frequently found it necessary to exact from the day-hours the sleep which the night refuses me. I suppose it is all due to indigestion, as you have suggested. The stomach is the source of all evil.”

“It is also the source of all good. The Greeks made it the seat of the soul. I have always claimed that the most important item in a great poet’s biography is an exact reproduction of his menu.”

“True, a man who eats a heavy beefsteak for breakfast in the morning is incapable of writing a sonnet in the afternoon.”

“Yes,” Reginald added, “we are what we eat and what our forefathers have eaten before us. I ascribe the staleness of American poetry to the griddle-cakes of our Puritan ancestors. I am sorry we cannot go deeper into the subject at present. But I have an invitation to dinner where I shall study, experimentally, the influence of French sauces on my versification.”

“Good-bye.”

“Au revoir.” And, with a wave of the hand, Reginald left the room.

When the door had closed behind him, Ernest’s thoughts took a more serious turn. The tone of light bantering in which the preceding conversation had taken place had been assumed on his part. For the last few weeks evil dreams had tortured his sleep and cast their shadow upon his waking hours. They had ever increased in reality, in intensity and in hideousness. Even now he could see the long, tapering fingers that every night were groping in the windings of his brain. It was a well-formed, manicured hand that seemed to reach under his skull, carefully feeling its way through the myriad convolutions where thought resides.

And, oh, the agony of it all! A human mind is not a thing of stone, but alive, horribly alive to pain. What was it those fingers sought, what mysterious treasures, what jewels hidden in the under-layer of his consciousness? His brain was like a human gold-mine, quaking under the blow of the pick and the tread of the miner. The miner! Ah, the miner! Ceaselessly, thoroughly, relentlessly, he opened vein after vein and wrested untold riches from the quivering ground; but each vein was a live vein and each nugget of gold a thought!

No wonder the boy was a nervous wreck. Whenever a tremulous nascent idea was formulating itself, the dream-hand clutched it and took it away, brutally severing the fine threads that bind thought to thought. And when the morning came, how his head ached! It was not an acute pain, but dull, heavy, incessant.

These sensations, Ernest frequently told himself, were morbid fancies. But then, the monomaniac who imagines that his arms have been mangled or cut from his body, might as well be without arms. Mind can annihilate obstacles. It can also create them. Psychology was no unfamiliar ground to Ernest, and it was not difficult for him to seek in some casual suggestion an explanation for his delusion, the fixed notion that haunted him day and night. But he also realized that to explain a phenomenon is not to explain it away. The man who analyses his emotions cannot wholly escape them, and the shadow of fear—primal, inexplicable fear—may darken at moments of weakness the life of the subtlest psychologist and the clearest thinker.

He had never spoken to Reginald of his terrible nightmares. Coming on the heel of the fancy that he, Ernest, had written “The Princess With the Yellow Veil,” a fancy that, by the way, had again possessed him of late, this new delusion would certainly arouse suspicion as to his sanity in Reginald’s mind. He would probably send him to a sanitarium; he certainly would not keep him in the house. Beneficence itself in all other things, his host was not to be trifled with in any matter that interfered with his work. He would act swiftly and without mercy.

For the first time in many days Ernest thought of Abel Felton. Poor boy! What had become of him after he had been turned from the house? He would not wait for any one to tell him to pack his bundle. But then, that was impossible; Reginald was fond of him.

Suddenly Ernest’s meditations were interrupted by a noise at the outer door. A key was turned in the lock. It must be he—but why so soon? What could have brought him back at this hour? He opened the door and went out into the hall to see what had happened. The figure that he beheld was certainly not the person expected, but a woman, from whose shoulders a theatre-cloak fell in graceful folds,—probably a visitor for Reginald. Ernest was about to withdraw discreetly, when the electric light that was burning in the hallway fell upon her face and illumined it.

Then indeed surprise overcame him. “Ethel,” he cried, “is it you?”

XXIII

Ernest conducted Ethel Brandenbourg to his room and helped her to remove her cloak.

While he was placing the garment upon the back of a chair, she slipped a little key into her hand-bag. He looked at her with a question in his eyes.

“Yes,” she replied, “I kept the key; but I had not dreamed that I would ever again cross this threshold.”

Meanwhile it had grown quite dark. The reflection of the street lanterns without dimly lit the room, and through the twilight fantastic shadows seemed to dance.

The perfume of her hair pervaded the room and filled the boy’s heart with romance. Tenderness long suppressed called with a thousand voices. The hour, the strangeness and unexpectedness of her visit, perhaps even a boy’s pardonable vanity, roused passion from its slumbers and once again wrought in Ernest’s soul the miracle of love. His arm encircled her neck and his lips stammered blind, sweet, crazy and caressing things.

“Turn on the light,” she pleaded.

“You were not always so cruel.”

“No matter, I have not come to speak of love.”

“Why, then, have you come?”

Ernest felt a little awkward, disappointed, as he uttered these words.

What could have induced her to come to his rooms? He loosened his hold on her and did as she asked.

How pale she looked in the light, how beautiful! Surely, she had sorrowed for him; but why had she not answered his letter? Yes, why?

“Your letter?” She smiled a little sadly. “Surely you did not expect me to answer that?”

“Why not?” He had again approached her and his lips were close to hers. “Why not? I have yearned for you. I love you.”

His breath intoxicated her; it was like a subtle perfume. Still she did not yield.

“You love me now—you did not love me then. The music of your words was cold—machine-made, strained and superficial. I shall not answer, I told myself: in his heart he has forgotten you. I did not then realise that a dangerous force had possessed your life and crushed in your mind every image but its own.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Do you think I would have come here if it were a light matter? No, I tell you, it is a matter of life and death to you, at least as an artist.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Have you done a stroke of work since I last saw you?”

“Yes, let me see, surely, magazine articles and a poem.”

“That is not what I want to know. Have you accomplished anything big? Have you grown since this summer? How about your novel?”

“I—I have almost finished it in my mind, but I have found no chance to begin with the actual writing. I was sick of late, very sick.”

No doubt of it! His face was pinched and pale, and the lines about the mouth were curiously contorted, like those of a man suffering from a painful internal disease.

“Tell me,” she ventured, “do you ever miss anything?”

“Do you mean—are there thieves?”

“Thieves! Against thieves one can protect oneself.”

He stared at her wildly, half-frightened, in anticipation of some dreadful revelation. His dream! His dream! That hand! Could it be more than a dream? God! His lips quivered.

Ethel observed his agitation and continued more quietly, but with the same insistence: “Have you ever had ideas, plans that you began without having strength to complete them? Have you had glimpses of vocal visions that seemed to vanish no sooner than seen? Did it ever seem to you as if some mysterious and superior will brutally interfered with the workings of your brain?”

Did it seem so to him! He himself could not have stated more plainly the experience of the last few months. Each word fell from her lips like the blow of a hammer. Shivering, he put his arm around her, seeking solace, not love. This time she did not repulse him and, trustingly, as a child confides to his mother, he depicted to her the suffering that harrowed his life and made it a hell.

As she listened, indignation clouded her forehead, while rising tears of anger and of love weighed down her lashes. She could bear the pitiful sight no longer.

“Child,” she cried, “do you know who your tormentor is?”

And like a flash the truth passed from her to him. A sudden intimation told him what her words had still concealed.

“Don’t! For Christ’s sake, do not pronounce his name!” he sobbed. “Do not breathe it. I could not endure it. I should go mad.”

XXIV

Very quietly, with difficulty restraining her own emotion so as not to excite him further, Ethel had related to Ernest the story of her remarkable interview with Reginald Clarke. In the long silence that ensued, the wings of his soul brushed against hers for the first time, and Love by a thousand tender chains of common suffering welded their beings into one.

Caressingly the ivory of her fingers passed through the gold of his hair and over his brow, as if to banish the demon-eyes that stared at him across the hideous spaces of the past. In a rush a thousand incidents came back to him, mute witnesses of a damning truth. His play, the dreams that tormented him, his own inability to concentrate his mind upon his novel which hitherto he had ascribed to nervous disease—all, piling fact on fact, became one monstrous monument of Reginald Clarke’s crime. At last Ernest understood the parting words of Abel Felton and the look in Ethel’s eye on the night when he had first linked his fate with the other man’s. Walkham’s experience, too, and Reginald’s remarks on the busts of Shakespeare and Balzac unmistakably pointed toward the new and horrible spectre that Ethel’s revelation had raised in place of his host.

And then, again, the other Reginald appeared, crowned with the lyric wreath. From his lips golden cadences fell, sweeter than the smell of many flowers or the sound of a silver bell. He was once more the divine master, whose godlike features bore no trace of malice and who had raised him to a place very near his heart.

“No,” he cried, “it is impossible. It’s all a dream, a horrible nightmare.”

“But he has himself confessed it,” she interjected.

“Perhaps he has spoken in symbols. We all absorb to some extent other men’s ideas, without robbing them and wrecking their thought-life. Reginald may be unscrupulous in the use of his power of impressing upon others the stamp of his master-mind. So was Shakespeare. No, no, no! You are mistaken; we were both deluded for the moment by his picturesque account of a common, not even a discreditable, fact. He may himself have played with the idea, but surely he cannot have been serious.”

“And your own experience, and Abel Felton’s and mine—can they, too, be dismissed with a shrug of the shoulder?”

“But, come to think of it, the whole theory seems absurd. It is unscientific. It is not even a case of mesmerism. If he had said that he hypnotised his victims, the matter would assume a totally different aspect. I admit that something is wrong somewhere, and that the home of Reginald Clarke is no healthful abode for me. But you must also remember that probably we are both unstrung to the point of hysteria.”

But to Ethel his words carried no conviction.

“You are still under his spell,” she cried, anxiously.

A little shaken in his confidence, Ernest resumed: “Reginald is utterly incapable of such an action, even granting that he possessed the terrible power of which you speak. A man of his splendid resources, a literary Midas at whose very touch every word turns into gold, is under no necessity to prey on the thoughts of others. Circumstances, I admit, are suspicious. But in the light of common day this fanciful theory shrivels into nothing. Any court of law would reject our evidence as madness. It is too utterly fantastic, utterly alien to any human experience.”

“Is it though?” Ethel replied with peculiar intonation.

“Why, what do you mean?”

“Surely,” she answered, “you must know that in the legends of every nation we read of men and women who were called vampires. They are beings, not always wholly evil, whom every night some mysterious impulse leads to steal into unguarded bedchambers, to suck the blood of the sleepers and then, having waxed strong on the life of their victims, cautiously to retreat. Thence comes it that their lips are very red. It is even said that they can find no rest in the grave, but return to their former haunts long after they are believed to be dead. Those whom they visit, however, pine away for no apparent reason. The physicians shake their wise heads and speak of consumption. But sometimes, ancient chronicles assure us, the people’s suspicions were aroused, and under the leadership of a good priest they went in solemn procession to the graves of the persons suspected. And on opening the tombs it was found that their coffins had rotted away and the flowers in their hair were black. But their bodies were white and whole; through no empty sockets crept the vermin, and their sucking lips were still moist with a little blood.”

Ernest was carried away in spite of himself by her account, which vividly resembled his own experience. Still he would not give in.

“All this is impressive. I admit it is very impressive. But you yourself speak of such stories as legends. They are unfounded upon any tangible fact, and you cannot expect a man schooled in modern sciences to admit, as having any possible bearing upon his life, the crude belief of the Middle Ages!”

“Why not?” she responded. “Our scientists have proved true the wildest theories of mediæval scholars. The transmutation of metals seems to-day no longer an idle speculation, and radium has transformed into potential reality the dream of perpetual motion. The fundamental notions of mathematics are being undermined. One school of philosophers claims that the number of angles in a triangle is equal to more than two right angles; another propounds that it is less. Even great scientists who have studied the soul of nature are turning to spiritism. The world is overcoming the shallow scepticism of the nineteenth century. Life has become once more wonderful and very mysterious. But it also seems that, with the miracles of the old days, their terrors, their nightmares and their monsters have come back in a modern guise.”

Ernest became even more thoughtful. “Yes,” he observed, “there is something in what you say.” Then, pacing the room nervously, he exclaimed: “And still I find it impossible to believe your explanation. Reginald a vampire! It seems so ludicrous. If you had told me that such creatures exist somewhere, far away, I might have discussed the matter; but in this great city, in the shadow of the Flatiron Building—no!”

She replied with warmth: “Yet they exist—always have existed. Not only in the Middle Ages, but at all times and in all regions. There is no nation but has some record of them, in one form or another. And don’t you think if we find a thought, no matter how absurd it may seem to us, that has ever occupied the minds of men—if we find, I say, such a perennially recurrent thought, are we not justified in assuming that it must have some basis in the actual experience of mankind?”

Ernest’s brow became very clouded, and infinite numbers of hidden premature wrinkles began to show. How wan he looked and how frail! He was as one lost in a labyrinth in which he saw no light, convinced against his will, or rather, against his scientific conviction, that she was not wholly mistaken.

“Still,” he observed triumphantly, “your vampires suck blood; but Reginald, if vampire he be, preys upon the soul. How can a man suck from another man’s brain a thing as intangible, as quintessential as thought?”

“Ah,” she replied, “you forget, thought is more real than blood!”

XXV

Only three hours had passed since Ethel had startled Ernest from his sombre reveries, but within this brief space their love had matured as if each hour had been a year. The pallor had vanished from his cheeks and the restiveness from his eyes. The intoxication of her presence had rekindled the light of his countenance and given him strength to combat the mighty forces embodied in Reginald Clarke. The child in him had made room for the man. He would not hear of surrendering without a struggle, and Ethel felt sure she might leave his fate in his own hand. Love had lent him a coat of mail. He was warned, and would not succumb. Still she made one more attempt to persuade him to leave the house at once with her.

“I must go now,” she said. “Will you not come with me, after all? I am so afraid to think of you still here.”

“No, dear,” he replied. “I shall not desert my post. I must solve the riddle of this man’s life; and if, indeed, he is the thing he seems to be, I shall attempt to wrest from him what he has stolen from me. I speak of my unwritten novel.”

“Do not attempt to oppose him openly. You cannot resist him.”

“Be assured that I shall be on my guard. I have in the last few hours lived through so much that makes life worth living, that I would not wantonly expose myself to any danger. Still, I cannot go without certainty—cannot, if there is some truth in our fears, leave the best of me behind.”

“What are you planning to do?”

“My play—I am sure now that it is mine—I cannot take from him; that is irretrievably lost. He has read it to his circle and prepared for its publication. And, no matter how firmly convinced you or I may be of his strange power, no one would believe our testimony. They would pronounce us mad. Perhaps we are mad!”

“No; we are not mad; but it is mad for you to stay here,” she asserted.

“I shall not stay here one minute longer than is absolutely essential. Within a week I shall have conclusive proof of his guilt or innocence.”

“How will you go about it?”

“His writing table—”

“Ah!”

“Yes, perhaps I can discover some note, some indication, some proof—”

“It’s a dangerous game.”

“I have everything to gain.”

“I wish I could stay here with you,” she said. “Have you no friend, no one whom you could trust in this delicate matter?”

“Why, yes—Jack.”

A shadow passed over her face.

“Do you know,” she said, “I have a feeling that you care more for him than for me?”

“Nonsense,” he said, “he is my friend, you, you—immeasurably more.”

“Are you still as intimate with him as when I first met you?”

“Not quite; of late a troubling something, like a thin veil, seems to have passed between us. But he will come when I call him. He will not fail me in my hour of need.”

“When can he be here?”

“In two or three days.”

“Meanwhile be very careful. Above all, lock your door at night.”

“I will not only lock, but barricade it. I shall try with all my power to elucidate this mystery without, however, exposing myself to needless risks.”

“I will go, then. Kiss me good-bye.”

“May I not take you to the car?”

“You had better not.”

At the door she turned back once more. “Write me every day, or call me up on the telephone.”

He straightened himself, as if to convince her of his strength. Yet when at last the door had closed behind her, his courage forsook him for a moment. And, if he had not been ashamed to appear a weakling before the woman he loved, who knows if any power on earth could have kept him in that house where from every corner a secret seemed to lurk!

There was a misgiving, too, in the woman’s heart as she left the boy behind,—a prey to the occult power that, seeking expression in multiple activities, has made and unmade emperors, prophets and poets.

As she stepped into a street car she saw from afar, as in a vision, the face of Reginald Clarke. It seemed very white and hungry. There was no human kindness in it—only a threat and a sneer.

XXVI

For over an hour Ernest paced up and down his room, wildly excited by Ethel’s revelations. It required an immense amount of self-control for him to pen the following lines to Jack: “I need you. Come.”

After he had entrusted the letter to the hall-boy, a reaction set in and he was able to consider the matter, if not with equanimity, at least with a degree of calmness. The strangest thing to him was that he could not bring himself to hate Reginald, of whose evil influence upon his life he was now firmly convinced. Here was another shattered idol; but one—like the fragment of a great god-face in the desert—intensely fascinating, even in its ruin. Then yielding to a natural impulse, Ernest looked over his photographs and at once laid hold upon the austere image of his master and friend. No—it was preposterous; there was no evil in this man. There was no trace of malice in this face, the face of a prophet or an inspired madman, a poet. And yet, as he scrutinised the picture closely a curious transformation seemed to take place in the features; a sly little line appeared insinuatingly about Reginald’s well-formed mouth, and the serene calm of his Jupiter-head seemed to turn into the sneak smile of a thief. Nevertheless, Ernest was not afraid. His anxieties had at last assumed definite shape; it was possible now to be on his guard. It is only invisible, incomprehensible fear, crouching upon us from the night, that drives sensitive natures to the verge of madness and transforms stern warriors into cowards.

Ernest realised the necessity of postponing the proposed investigation of Reginald’s papers until the morning, as it was now near eleven, and he expected to hear at any moment the sound of his feet at the door. Before retiring he took a number of precautions. Carefully he locked the door to his bedroom and placed a chair in front of it. To make doubly sure, he fastened the handle to an exquisite Chinese vase, a gift of Reginald’s, that at the least attempt to force an entrance from without would come down with a crash.

Then, although sleep seemed out of the question, he went to bed. He had hardly touched the pillow when a leaden weight seemed to fall upon his eyes. The day’s commotion had been too much for his delicate frame. By force of habit he pulled the cover over his ear and fell asleep.

All night he slept heavily, and the morning was far advanced when a knock at the door that, at first, seemed to come across an immeasurable distance, brought him back to himself. It was Reginald’s manservant announcing that breakfast was waiting.

Ernest got up and rubbed his eyes. The barricade at the door at once brought back to his mind with startling clearness the events of the previous evening.

Everything was as he had left it. Evidently no one had attempted to enter the room while he slept. He could not help smiling at the arrangement which reminded him of his childhood, when he had sought by similar means security from burglars and bogeys. And in the broad daylight Ethel’s tales of vampires seemed once more impossible and absurd. Still, he had abundant evidence of Reginald’s strange influence, and was determined to know the truth before nightfall. Her words, that thought is more real than blood, kept ringing in his ears. If such was the case, he would find evidence of Reginald’s intellectual burglaries, and possibly be able to regain a part of his lost self that had been snatched from him by the relentless dream-hand.

But under no circumstances could he face Reginald in his present state of mind. He was convinced that if in the fleeting vision of a moment the other man’s true nature should reveal itself to him, he would be so terribly afraid as to shriek like a maniac. So he dressed particularly slowly in the hope of avoiding an encounter with his host. But fate thwarted this hope. Reginald, too, lingered that morning unusually long over his coffee. He was just taking his last sip when Ernest entered the room. His behaviour was of an almost bourgeois kindness. Benevolence fairly beamed from his face. But to the boy’s eyes it had assumed a new and sinister expression.

“You are late this morning, Ernest,” he remarked in his mildest manner. “Have you been about town, or writing poetry? Both occupations are equally unhealthy.” As he said this he watched the young man with the inscrutable smile that at moments was wont to curl upon his lips. Ernest had once likened it to the smile of Mona Lisa, but now he detected in it the suavity of the hypocrite and the leer of the criminal.

He could not endure it; he could not look upon that face any longer. His feet almost gave way under him, cold sweat gathered on his brow, and he sank on a chair trembling and studiously avoiding the other man’s gaze.

At last Reginald rose to go. It seemed impossible to accuse this splendid impersonation of vigorous manhood of cunning and underhand methods, of plagiarisms and of theft. As he stood there he resembled more than anything a beautiful tiger-cat, a wonderful thing of strength and will-power, indomitable and insatiate. Yet who could tell whether this strength was not, after all, parasitic. If Ethel’s suspicions were justified, then, indeed, more had been taken from him than he could ever realise. For in that case it was his life-blood that circled in those veins and the fire of his intellect that set those lips aflame!

XXVII

Reginald Clarke had hardly left the room when Ernest hastily rose from his seat. While it was likely that he would remain in undisturbed possession of the apartment the whole morning, the stake at hand was too great to permit of delay.

Palpitating and a little uncertain, he entered the studio where, scarcely a year ago, Reginald Clarke had bidden him welcome. Nothing had changed there since then; only in Ernest’s mind the room had assumed an aspect of evil. The Antinous was there and the Faun and the Christ-head. But their juxtaposition to-day partook of the nature of the blasphemous. The statues of Shakespeare and Balzac seemed to frown from their pedestals as his fingers were running through Reginald’s papers. He brushed against a semblance of Napoleon that was standing on the writing-table, so that it toppled over and made a noise that weirdly re-echoed in the silence of the room. At that moment a curious family resemblance between Shakespeare, Balzac, Napoleon—and Reginald, forcibly impressed itself upon his mind. It was the indisputable something that marks those who are chosen to give ultimate expression to some gigantic world-purpose. In Balzac’s face it was diffused with kindliness, in that of Napoleon sheer brutality predominated. The image of one who was said to be the richest man of the world also rose before his eyes. Perhaps it was only the play of his fevered imagination, but he could have sworn that this man’s features, too, bore the mark of those unoriginal, great absorptive minds who, for better or for worse, are born to rob and rule. They seemed to him monsters that know neither justice nor pity, only the law of their being, the law of growth.

Common weapons would not avail against such forces. Being one, they were stronger than armies; nor could they be overcome in single combat. Stealth, trickery, the outfit of the knave, were legitimate weapons in such a fight. In this case the end justified the means, even if the latter included burglary.

After a brief and fruitless search of the desk, he attempted to force open a secret drawer, the presence of which he had one day accidentally discovered. He tried a number of keys to no account, and was thinking of giving up his researches for the day until he had procured a skeleton key, when at last the lock gave way.

The drawer disclosed a large file of manuscript. Ernest paused for a moment to draw breath. The paper rustled under his nervous fingers. And there—at last—his eyes lit upon a bulky bundle that bore this legend: “Leontina, A Novel.”

It was true, then—all, his dream, Reginald’s confession. And the house that had opened its doors so kindly to him was the house of a Vampire!

Finally curiosity overcame his burning indignation. He attempted to read. The letters seemed to dance before his eyes—his hands trembled.

At last he succeeded. The words that had first rolled over like drunken soldiers now marched before his vision in orderly sequence. He was delighted, then stunned. This was indeed authentic literature, there could be no doubt about it. And it was his. He was still a poet, a great poet. He drew a deep breath. Sudden joy trembled in his heart. This story set down by a foreign hand had grown chapter by chapter in his brain.

There were some slight changes—slight deviations from the original plan. A defter hand than his had retouched it here and there, but for all that it remained his very own. It did not belong to that thief. The blood welled to his cheek as he uttered this word that, applied to Reginald, seemed almost sacrilegious.

He had nearly reached the last chapter when he heard steps in the hallway. Hurriedly he restored the manuscript to its place, closed the drawer and left the room on tiptoe.

It was Reginald. But he did not come alone. Someone was speaking to him. The voice seemed familiar. Ernest could not make out what it said. He listened intently and—was it possible? Jack? Surely he could not yet have come in response to his note! What mysterious power, what dim presentiment of his friend’s plight had led him hither? But why did he linger so long in Reginald’s room, instead of hastening to greet him? Cautiously he drew nearer. This time he caught Jack’s words:

“It would be very convenient and pleasant. Still, some way, I feel that it is not right for me, of all men, to take his place here.”

“That need not concern you,” Reginald deliberately replied; “the dear boy expressed the desire to leave me within a fortnight. I think he will go to some private sanitarium. His nerves are frightfully overstrained.”

“This seems hardly surprising after the terrible attack he had when you read your play.”

“That idea has since then developed into a monomania.”

“I am awfully sorry for him. I cared for him much, perhaps too much. But I always feared that he would come to such an end. Of late his letters have been strangely unbalanced.”

“You will find him very much changed. In fact, he is no longer the same.”

“No,” said Jack, “he is no longer the friend I loved.”

Ernest clutched for the wall. His face was contorted with intense agony. Each word was like a nail driven into his flesh. Crucified upon the cross of his own affection by the hand he loved, all white and trembling he stood there. Tears rushed to his eyes, but he could not weep. Dry-eyed he reached his room and threw himself upon his bed. Thus he lay—uncomforted and alone.

XXVIII

Terrible as was his loneliness, a meeting with Jack would have been more terrible. And, after all, it was true, a gulf had opened between them.

Ethel alone could bring solace to his soul. There was a great void in his heart which only she could fill. He hungered for the touch of her hand. He longed for her presence strongly, as a wanton lusts for pleasure and as sad men crave death.

Noiselessly he stole to the door so as not to arouse the attention of the other two men, whose every whisper pierced his heart like a dagger. When he came to Ethel’s home, he found that she had gone out for a breath of air. The servant ushered him into the parlor, and there he waited, waited, waited for her.

Greatly calmed by his walk, he turned the details of Clarke’s conversation over in his mind, and the conviction grew upon him that the friend of his boyhood was not to blame for his course of action. Reginald probably had encircled Jack’s soul with his demoniacal influence and singled him out for another victim. That must never be. It was his turn to save now. He would warn his friend of the danger that threatened him, even if his words should be spoken into the wind. For Reginald, with an ingenuity almost satanic, had already suggested that the delusion of former days had developed into a monomania, and any attempt on his part to warn Jack would only seem to confirm this theory. In that case only one way was left open. He must plead with Reginald himself, confront at all risks that snatcher of souls. To-night he would not fall asleep. He would keep his vigil. And if Reginald should approach his room, if in some way he felt the direful presence, he must speak out, threaten if need be, to save his friend from ruin. He had fully determined upon this course when a cry of joy from Ethel, who had just returned from her walk, interrupted his reverie. But her gladness changed to anxiety when she saw how pale he was. Ernest recounted to her the happenings of the day, from the discovery of his novel in Reginald’s desk to the conversation which he had accidentally overheard. He noticed that her features brightened as he drew near the end of his tale.

“Was your novel finished?” she suddenly asked.

“I think so.”

“Then you are out of danger. He will want nothing else of you. But you should have taken it with you.”

“I had only sufficient presence of mind to slip it back into the drawer. To-morrow I shall simply demand it.”

“You will do nothing of the kind. It is in his handwriting, and you have no legal proof that it is yours. You must take it away secretly. And he will not dare to reclaim it.”

“And Jack?”

She had quite forgotten Jack. Women are invariably selfish for those they love.

“You must warn him,” she replied.

“He would laugh at me. However, I must speak to Reginald.”

“It is of no avail to speak to him. At least, you must not do so before you have obtained the manuscript. It would unnecessarily jeopardise our plans.”

“And after?”

“After, perhaps. But you must not expose yourself to any danger.”

“No, dear,” he said, and kissed her; “what danger is there, provided I keep my wits about me? He steals upon men only in their sleep and in the dark.”

“Be careful, nevertheless.”

“I shall. In fact, I think he is not at home at this moment. If I go now I may be able to get hold of the manuscript and hide it before he returns.”

“I cannot but tremble to think of you in that house.”

“You shall have no more reason to tremble in a day or two.”

“Shall I see you to-morrow?”

“I don’t think so. I must go over my papers and things so as to be ready at any moment to leave the house.”

“And then?”

“Then—”

He took her in his arms and looked long and deeply into her eyes.

“Yes,” she replied—”at least, perhaps.”

Then he turned to go, resolute and happy. How strangely he had matured since the summer! Her heart swelled with the consciousness that it was her love that had effected this transformation.

“As I cannot expect you to-morrow, I shall probably go to the opera, but I shall be at home before midnight. Will you call me up then? A word from you will put me at ease for the night, even if it comes over the telephone.”

“I will call you up. We moderns have an advantage over the ancients in this respect: the twentieth-century Pyramus can speak to Thisbe even if innumerable walls sever his body from hers.”

“A quaint conceit! But let us hope that our love-story will end less tragically,” she said, tenderly caressing his hair. “Oh, we shall be happy, you and I,” she added, after a while. “The iron finger of fate that lay so heavily on our lives is now withdrawn. Almost withdrawn. Yes, almost. Only almost.”

And then a sudden fear overcame her.

“No,” she cried, “do not go, do not go! Stay with me; stay here. I feel so frightened. I don’t know what comes over me. I am afraid—afraid for you.”

“No, dear,” he rejoined, “you need not be afraid. In your heart you don’t want me to desert a friend, and, besides, leave the best part of my artistic life in Reginald’s clutch.”

“Why should you expose yourself to God knows what danger for a friend who is ready to betray you?”

“You forget friendship is a gift. If it exacts payment in any form, it is no longer either friendship or a gift. And you yourself have assured me that I have nothing to fear from Reginald. I have nothing to give to him.”

She rallied under his words and had regained her self-possession when the door closed behind him. He walked a few blocks very briskly. Then his pace slackened. Her words had unsettled him a little, and when he reached home he did not at once resume his exploration of Reginald’s papers. He had hardly lit a cigarette when, at an unusually early hour, he heard Reginald’s key in the lock.

Quickly he turned the light out and in the semi-darkness, lit up by an electric lantern below, barricaded the door as on the previous night. Then he went to bed without finding sleep.

Supreme silence reigned over the house. Even the elevator had ceased to run. Ernest’s brain was all ear. He heard Reginald walking up and down in the studio. Not the smallest movement escaped his attention. Thus hours passed. When the clock struck twelve, he was still walking up and down, down and up, up and down.

One o’clock.

Still the measured beat of his footfall had not ceased. There was something hypnotic in the regular tread. Nature at last exacted its toll from the boy. He fell asleep.

Hardly had he closed his eyes when again that horrible nightmare—no longer a nightmare—tormented him. Again he felt the pointed delicate fingers carefully feeling their way along the innumerable tangled threads of nerve-matter that lead to the innermost recesses of self….

A subconscious something strove to arouse him, and he felt the fingers softly withdrawn.

He could have sworn that he heard the scurrying of feet in the room. Bathed in perspiration he made a leap for the electric light.

But there was no sign of any human presence. The barricade at the door was undisturbed. But fear like a great wind filled the wings of his soul.

Yet there was nothing, nothing to warrant his conviction that Reginald Clarke had been with him only a few moments ago, plying his horrible trade. The large mirror above the fireplace only showed him his own face, white, excited,—the face of a madman.

XXIX

The next morning’s mail brought a letter from Ethel, a few lines of encouragement and affection. Yes, she was right; it would not do for him to stay under one roof with Reginald any longer. He must only obtain the manuscript and, if possible, surprise him in the attempt to exercise his mysterious and criminal power. Then he would be in the position to dictate terms and to demand Jack’s safety as the price of his silence.

Reginald, however, had closeted himself that day in his studio busily writing. Only the clatter of his typewriter announced his presence in the house. There was no chance for conversation or for obtaining the precious manuscript of “Leontina.”

Meanwhile Ernest was looking over his papers and preparing everything for a quick departure. Glancing over old letters and notes, he became readily interested and hardly noticed the passage of the hours.

When the night came he only partly undressed and threw himself upon the bed. It was now ten. At twelve he had promised Ethel to speak to her over the telephone. He was determined not to sleep at all that night. At last he would discover whether or not on the previous and other nights Reginald had secretly entered his room.

When one hour had passed without incident, his attention relaxed a little. His eyes were gradually closing when suddenly something seemed to stir at the door. The Chinese vase came rattling to the floor.

At once Ernest sprang up. His face had blanched with terror. It was whiter than the linen in which they wrap the dead. But his soul was resolute.

He touched a button and the electric light illuminated the whole chamber. There was no nook for even a shadow to hide. Yet there was no one to be seen. From without the door came no sound. Suddenly something soft touched his foot. He gathered all his will power so as not to break out into a frenzied shriek. Then he laughed, not a hearty laugh, to be sure. A tiny nose and a tail gracefully curled were brushing against him. The source of the disturbance was a little Maltese cat, his favourite, that by some chance had remained in his room. After its essay at midnight gymnastics the animal quieted down and lay purring at the foot of his bed.

The presence of a living thing was a certain comfort, and the reservoir of his strength was well nigh exhausted.

He dimly remembered his promise to Ethel, but his lids drooped with sheer weariness. Perhaps an hour passed in this way, when suddenly his blood congealed with dread.

He felt the presence of the hand of Reginald Clarke—unmistakably—groping in his brain as if searching for something that had still escaped him.

He tried to move, to cry out, but his limbs were paralysed. When, by a superhuman effort, he at last succeeded in shaking off the numbness that held him enchained, he awoke just in time to see a figure, that of a man, disappearing in the wall that separated Reginald’s apartments from his room….

This time it was no delusion of the senses. He heard something like a secret door softly closing behind retreating steps. A sudden fierce anger seized him. He was oblivious of the danger of the terrible power of the older man, oblivious of the love he had once borne him, oblivious of everything save the sense of outraged humanity and outraged right.

The law permits us to shoot a burglar who goes through our pockets at night. Must he tolerate the ravages of this a thousand times more dastardly and dangerous spiritual thief? Was Reginald to enjoy the fruit of other men’s labour unpunished? Was he to continue growing into the mightiest literary factor of the century by preying upon his betters? Abel, Walkham, Ethel, he, Jack, were they all to be victims of this insatiable monster?

Was this force resistless as it was relentless?

No, a thousand times, no!

He dashed himself against the wall at the place where the shadow of Reginald Clarke had disappeared. In doing so he touched upon a secret spring. The wall gave way noiselessly. Speechless with rage he crossed the next room and the one adjoining it, and stood in Reginald’s studio. The room was brilliantly lighted, and Reginald, still dressed, was seated at his writing-table scribbling notes upon little scraps of paper in his accustomed manner.

At Ernest’s approach he looked up without evincing the least sign of terror or surprise. Calmly, almost majestically, he folded his arms over his breast, but there was a menacing glitter in his eyes as he confronted his victim.

XXX

Silently the two men faced each other. Then Ernest hissed:

“Thief!”

Reginald shrugged his shoulders.

“Vampire!”

“So Ethel has infected you with her absurd fancies! Poor boy! I am afraid…. I have been wanting to tell you for some time…. But I think…. We have reached the parting of our road!”

“And that you dare to tell me!”

The more he raged, the calmer Reginald seemed to become.

“Really,” he said, “I fail to understand…. I must ask you to leave my room!”

“You fail to understand? You cad!” Ernest cried. He stepped to the writing-table and opened the secret drawer with a blow. A bundle of manuscripts fell on the floor with a strange rustling noise. Then, seizing his own story, he hurled it upon the table. And behold—the last pages bore corrections in ink that could have been made only a few minutes ago!

Reginald smiled. “Have you come to play havoc with my manuscripts?” he remarked.

“Your manuscripts? Reginald Clarke, you are an impudent impostor! You have written no word that is your own. You are an embezzler of the mind, strutting through life in borrowed and stolen plumes!”

And at once the mask fell from Reginald’s face.

“Why stolen?” he coolly said, with a slight touch of irritation. “I absorb. I appropriate. That is the most any artist can say for himself. God creates; man moulds. He gives us the colours; we mix them.”

“That is not the question. I charge you with having wilfully and criminally interfered in my life; I charge you with having robbed me of what was mine; I charge you with being utterly vile and rapacious, a hypocrite and a parasite!”

“Foolish boy,” Reginald rejoined austerely. “It is through me that the best in you shall survive, even as the obscure Elizabethans live in him of Avon. Shakespeare absorbed what was great in little men—a greatness that otherwise would have perished—and gave it a setting, a life.”

“A thief may plead the same. I understand you better. It is your inordinate vanity that prompts you to abuse your monstrous power.”

“You err. Self-love has never entered into my actions. I am careless of personal fame. Look at me, boy! As I stand before you I am Homer, I am Shakespeare … I am every cosmic manifestation in art. Men have doubted in each incarnation my individual existence. Historians have more to tell of the meanest Athenian scribbler or Elizabethan poetaster than of me. The radiance of my work obscured my very self. I care not. I have a mission. I am a servant of the Lord. I am the vessel that bears the Host!”

He stood up at full length, the personification of grandeur and power. A tremendous force trembled in his very finger tips. He was like a gigantic dynamo, charged with the might of ten thousand magnetic storms that shake the earth in its orbit and lash myriads of planets through infinities of space….

Under ordinary circumstances Ernest or any other man would have quailed before him. But the boy in that epic moment had grown out of his stature. He felt the sword of vengeance in his hands; to him was intrusted the cause of Abel and of Walkham, of Ethel and of Jack. His was the struggle of the individual soul against the same blind and cruel fate that in the past had fashioned the ichthyosaurus and the mastodon.

“By what right,” he cried, “do you assume that you are the literary Messiah? Who appointed you? What divine power has made you the steward of my mite and of theirs whom you have robbed?”

“I am a light-bearer. I tread the high hills of mankind … I point the way to the future. I light up the abysses of the past. Were not my stature gigantic, how could I hold the torch in all men’s sight? The very souls that I tread underfoot realise, as their dying gaze follows me, the possibilities with which the future is big…. Eternally secure, I carry the essence of what is cosmic … of what is divine…. I am Homer … Goethe … Shakespeare…. I am an embodiment of the same force of which Alexander, Cæsar, Confucius and the Christos were also embodiments…. None so strong as to resist me.”

A sudden madness overcame Ernest at this boast. He must strike now or never. He must rid humanity of this dangerous maniac—this demon of strength. With a power ten times intensified, he raised a heavy chair so as to hurl it at Reginald’s head and crush it.

Reginald stood there calmly, a smile upon his lips…. Primal cruelties rose from the depth of his nature…. Still he smiled, turning his luminous gaze upon the boy … and, behold … Ernest’s hand began to shake … the chair fell from his grasp…. He tried to call for help, but no sound issued from his lips…. Utterly paralysed he confronted … the Force….

Minutes—eternities passed.

And still those eyes were fixed upon him.

But this was no longer Reginald!

It was all brain … only brain … a tremendous brain-machine … infinitely complex … infinitely strong. Not more than a mile away Ethel endeavoured to call to him through the night. The telephone rang, once, twice, thrice, insistingly. But Ernest heard it not. Something dragged him … dragged the nerves from his body dragged, dragged, dragged…. It was an irresistible suction … pitiless … passionless … immense.

Sparks, blue, crimson and violet, seemed to play around the living battery. It reached the finest fibres of his mind…. Slowly … every trace of mentality disappeared…. First the will … then feeling … judgment … memory … fear even…. All that was stored in his brain-cells came forth to be absorbed by that mighty engine….

The Princess With the Yellow Veil appeared … flitted across the room and melted away. She was followed by childhood memories … girls’ heads, boys’ faces…. He saw his dead mother waving her arms to him…. An expression of death-agony distorted the placid features…. Then, throwing a kiss to him, she, too, disappeared. Picture on picture followed…. Words of love that he had spoken … sins, virtues, magnanimities, meannesses, terrors … mathematical formulas even, and snatches of songs. Leontina came and was swallowed up…. No, it was Ethel who was trying to speak to him … trying to warn…. She waved her hands in frantic despair…. She was gone…. A pale face … dark, dishevelled hair…. Jack…. How he had changed! He was in the circle of the vampire’s transforming might. “Jack,” he cried. Surely Jack had something to explain … something to tell him … some word that if spoken would bring rest to his soul. He saw the words rise to the boy’s lips, but before he had time to utter them his image also had vanished. And Reginald … Reginald, too, was gone…. There was only the mighty brain … panting … whirling…. Then there was nothing…. The annihilation of Ernest Fielding was complete.

Vacantly he stared at the walls, at the room and at his master. The latter was wiping the sweat from his forehead. He breathed deeply…. The flush of youth spread over his features…. His eyes sparkled with a new and dangerous brilliancy…. He took the thing that had once been Ernest Fielding by the hand and led it to its room.

XXXI

With the first flush of the morning Ethel appeared at the door of the house on Riverside Drive. She had not heard from Ernest, and had been unable to obtain connection with him at the telephone. Anxiety had hastened her steps. She brushed against Jack, who was also directing his steps to the abode of Reginald Clarke.

At the same time something that resembled Ernest Fielding passed from the house of the Vampire. It was a dull and brutish thing, hideously transformed, without a vestige of mind.

“Mr. Fielding,” cried Ethel, beside herself with fear as she saw him descending.

“Ernest!” Jack gasped, no less startled at the change in his friend’s appearance.

Ernest’s head followed the source of the sound, but no spark of recognition illumined the deadness of his eyes. Without a present and without a past … blindly … a gibbering idiot … he stumbled down the stairs.

 

THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE
by
George Sylvester Viereck

Originally published September 1907
by
Moffat, Yard & Company, New York, NY

John_Henry_Fuseli - The Nightmare

George Sylvester Viereck THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE {II}

Standard

XI

The music of Reginald Clarke’s intonation captivated every ear. Voluptuously, in measured cadence, it rose and fell; now full and strong like the sound of an organ, now soft and clear like the tinkling of bells. His voice detracted by its very tunefulness from what he said. The powerful spell charmed even Ernest’s accustomed ear. The first page gracefully glided from Reginald’s hand to the carpet before the boy dimly realised that he was intimately familiar with every word that fell from Reginald’s lips. When the second page slipped with seeming carelessness from the reader’s hand, a sudden shudder ran through the boy’s frame. It was as if an icy hand had gripped his heart. There could be no doubt of it. This was more than mere coincidence. It was plagiarism. He wanted to cry out. But the room swam before his eyes. Surely he must be dreaming. It was a dream. The faces of the audience, the lights, Reginald, Jack—all phantasmagoria of a dream.

Perhaps he had been ill for a long time. Perhaps Clarke was reading the play for him. He did not remember having written it. But he probably had fallen sick after its completion. What strange pranks our memories will play us! But no! He was not dreaming, and he had not been ill.

He could endure the horrible uncertainty no longer. His overstrung nerves must find relaxation in some way or break with a twang. He turned to his friend who was listening with rapt attention.

“Jack, Jack!” he whispered.

“What is it?”

“That is my play!”

“You mean that you inspired it?”

“No, I have written it, or rather, was going to write it.”

“Wake up, Ernest! You are mad!”

“No, in all seriousness. It is mine. I told you—don’t you remember—when we returned from Coney Island—that I was writing a play.”

“Ah, but not this play.”

“Yes, this play. I conceived it, I practically wrote it.”

“The more’s the pity that Clarke had preconceived it.”

“But it is mine!”

“Did you tell him a word about it?”

“No, to be sure.”

“Did you leave the manuscript in your room?”

“I had, in fact, not written a line of it. No, I had not begun the actual writing.”

“Why should a man of Clarke’s reputation plagiarise your plays, written or unwritten?”

“I can see no reason. But—”

“Tut, tut.”

For already this whispered conversation had elicited a look like a stab from a lady before them.

Ernest held fast to the edge of a chair. He must cling to some reality, or else drift rudderless in a dim sea of vague apprehensions.

Or was Jack right?

Was his mind giving way? No! No! No! There must be a monstrous secret somewhere, but what matter? Did anything matter? He had called on his mate like a ship lost in the fog. For the first time he had not responded. He had not understood. The bitterness of tears rose to the boy’s eyes.

Above it all, melodiously, ebbed and flowed the rich accents of Reginald Clarke.

Ernest listened to the words of his own play coming from the older man’s mouth. The horrible fascination of the scene held him entranced. He saw the creations of his mind pass in review before him, as a man might look upon the face of his double grinning at him from behind a door in the hideous hours of night.

They were all there! The mad king. The subtle-witted courtiers. The sombre-hearted Prince. The Queen-Mother who had loved a jester better than her royal mate, and the fruit of their shameful alliance, the Princess Marigold, a creature woven of sunshine and sin.

Swiftly the action progressed. Shadows of impending death darkened the house of the King. In the horrible agony of the rack the old jester confessed. Stripped of his cap and bells, crowned with a wreath of blood, he looked so pathetically funny that the Princess Marigold could not help laughing between her tears.

The Queen stood there all trembling and pale. Without a complaint she saw her lover die. The executioner’s sword smote the old man’s head straight from the trunk. It rolled at the feet of the King, who tossed it to Marigold. The little Princess kissed it and covered the grinning horror with her yellow veil.

The last words died away.

There was no applause. Only silence. All were stricken with the dread that men feel in the house of God or His awful presence in genius.

But the boy lay back in his chair. The cold sweat had gathered on his brow and his temples throbbed. Nature had mercifully clogged his head with blood. The rush of it drowned the crying voice of the nerves, deadening for a while both consciousness and pain.

XII

Somehow the night had passed—somehow in bitterness, in anguish. But it had passed.

Ernest’s lips were parched and sleeplessness had left its trace in the black rings under the eyes, when the next morning he confronted Reginald in the studio.

Reginald was sitting at the writing-table in his most characteristic pose, supporting his head with his hand and looking with clear piercing eyes searchingly at the boy.

“Yes,” he observed, “it’s a most curious psychical phenomenon.”

“You cannot imagine how real it all seemed to me.”

The boy spoke painfully, dazed, as if struck by a blow.

“Even now it is as if something has gone from me, some struggling thought that I cannot—cannot remember.”

Reginald regarded him as a physical experimenter might look upon the subject of a particularly baffling mental disease.

“You must not think, my boy, that I bear you any malice for your extraordinary delusion. Before Jack went away he gave me an exact account of all that has happened. Divers incidents recurred to him from which it appears that, at various times in the past, you have been on the verge of a nervous collapse.”

A nervous collapse! What was the use of this term but a euphemism for insanity?

“Do not despair, dear child,” Reginald caressingly remarked. “Your disorder is not hopeless, not incurable. Such crises come to every man who writes. It is the tribute we pay to the Lords of Song. The minnesinger of the past wrote with his heart’s blood; but we moderns dip our pen into the sap of our nerves. We analyse life, love art—and the dissecting knife that we use on other men’s souls finally turns against ourselves.

“But what shall a man do? Shall he sacrifice art to hygiene and surrender the one attribute that makes him chiefest of created things? Animals, too, think. Some walk on two legs. But introspection differentiates man from the rest. Shall we yield up the sweet consciousness of self that we derive from the analysis of our emotion, for the contentment of the bull that ruminates in the shade of a tree or the healthful stupidity of a mule?”

“Assuredly not.”

“But what shall a man do?”

“Ah, that I cannot tell. Mathematics offers definite problems that admit of a definite solution. Life states its problems with less exactness and offers for each a different solution. One and one are two to-day and to-morrow. Psychical values, on each manipulation, will yield a different result. Still, your case is quite clear. You have overworked yourself in the past, mentally and emotionally. You have sown unrest, and must not be surprised if neurasthenia is the harvest thereof.”

“Do you think—that I should go to some sanitarium?” the boy falteringly asked.

“God forbid! Go to the seashore, somewhere where you can sleep and play. Take your body along, but leave your brain behind—at least do not take more of it with you than is necessary. The summer season in Atlantic City has just begun. There, as everywhere in American society, you will be much more welcome if you come without brains.”

Reginald’s half-bantering tone reassured Ernest a little. Timidly he dared approach once more the strange event that had wrought such havoc with his nervous equilibrium.

“How do you account for my strange obsession—one might almost call it a mania?”

“If it could be accounted for it would not be strange.”

“Can you suggest no possible explanation?”

“Perhaps a stray leaf on my desk a few indications of the plot, a remark—who knows? Perhaps thought-matter is floating in the air. Perhaps—but we had better not talk of it now. It would needlessly excite you.”

“You are right,” answered Ernest gloomily, “let us not talk of it. But whatever may be said, it is a marvellous play.”

“You flatter me. There is nothing in it that you may not be able to do equally well—some day.”

“Ah, no,” the boy replied, looking up to Reginald with admiration. “You are the master.”

XIII

Lazily Ernest stretched his limbs on the beach of Atlantic City. The sea, that purger of sick souls, had washed away the fever and the fret of the last few days. The wind was in his hair and the spray was in his breath, while the rays of the sun kissed his bare arms and legs. He rolled over in the glittering sand in the sheer joy of living.

Now and then a wavelet stole far into the beach, as if to caress him, but pined away ere it could reach its goal. It was as if the enamoured sea was stretching out its arms to him. Who knows, perhaps through the clear water some green-eyed nymph, or a young sea-god with the tang of the sea in his hair, was peering amorously at the boy’s red mouth. The people of the deep love the red warm blood of human kind. It is always the young that they lure to their watery haunts, never the shrivelled limbs that totter shivering to the grave.

Such fancies came to Ernest as he lay on the shore in his bathing attire, happy, thoughtless,—animal.

The sun and the sea seemed to him two lovers vying for his favor. The sudden change of environment had brought complete relaxation and had quieted his rebellious, assertive soul. He was no longer a solitary unit but one with wind and water, herb and beach and shell. Almost voluptuously his hand toyed with the hot sand that glided caressingly through his fingers and buried his breast and shoulder under its glittering burden.

A summer girl who passed lowered her eyes coquettishly. He watched her without stirring. Even to open his mouth or to smile would have seemed too much exertion.

Thus he lay for hours. When at length noon drew nigh, it cost him a great effort of will to shake off his drowsy mood and exchange his airy costume for the conventional habilaments of the dining-room.

He had taken lodgings in a fashionable hotel. An unusual stroke of good luck, hack-work that paid outrageously well, had made it possible for him to idle for a time without a thought of the unpleasant necessity of making money.

One single article to which he signed his name only with reluctance had brought to him more gear than a series of golden sonnets.

“Surely,” he thought, “the social revolution ought to begin from above. What right has the bricklayer to grumble when he receives for a week’s work almost more than I for a song?”

Thus soliloquising, he reached the dining-room. The scene that unfolded itself before him was typical—the table over-loaded, the women over-dressed.

The luncheon was already in full course when he came. He mumbled an apology and seated himself on the only remaining chair next to a youth who reminded him of a well-dressed dummy. With slight weariness his eyes wandered in all directions for more congenial faces when they were arrested by a lady on the opposite side of the table. She was clad in a silk robe with curiously embroidered net-work that revealed a nervous and delicate throat. The rich effect of the net-work was relieved by the studied simplicity with which her heavy chestnut-colored hair was gathered in a single knot. Her face was turned away from him, but there was something in the carriage of her head that struck him as familiar. When at last she looked him in the face, the glass almost fell from his hand: it was Ethel Brandenbourg. She seemed to notice his embarrassment and smiled. When she opened her lips to speak, he knew by the haunting sweetness of the voice that he was not mistaken.

“Tell me,” she said wistfully, “you have forgotten me? They all have.”

He hastened to assure her that he had not forgotten her. He recollected now that he had first been introduced to her in Walkham’s house some years ago, when a mere college boy, he had been privileged to attend one of that master’s famous receptions. She had looked quite resolute and very happy then, not at all like the woman who had stared so strangely at Reginald in the Broadway restaurant.

He regarded this encounter as very fortunate. He knew so much of her personal history that it almost seemed to him as if they had been intimate for years. She, too, felt on familiar ground with him. Neither as much as whispered the name of Reginald Clarke. Yet it was he, and the knowledge of what he was to them, that linked their souls with a common bond.

XIV

It was the third day after their meeting. Hour by hour their intimacy had increased. Ethel was sitting in a large wicker-chair. She restlessly fingered her parasol, mechanically describing magic circles in the sand. Ernest lay at her feet. With his knees clasped between his hands, he gazed into her eyes.

“Why are you trying so hard to make love to me?” the woman asked, with the half-amused smile with which the Eve near thirty receives the homage of a boy. There is an element of insincerity in that smile, but it is a weapon of defence against love’s artillery.

Sometimes, indeed, the pleading in the boy’s eyes and the cry of the blood pierces the woman’s smiling superiority. She listens, loves and loses.

Ethel Brandenbourg was listening, but the idea of love had not yet entered into her mind. Her interest in Ernest was due in part to his youth and the trembling in his voice when he spoke of love. But what probably attracted her most powerfully was the fact that he intimately knew the man who still held her woman’s heart in the hollow of his hand. It was half in play, therefore, that she had asked him that question.

Why did he make love to her? He did not know. Perhaps it was the irresistible desire to be petted which young poets share with domesticated cats. But what should he tell her? Polite platitudes were out of place between them.

Besides he knew the penalty of all tender entanglements. Women treat love as if it were an extremely tenuous wire that can be drawn out indefinitely. This is a very expensive process. It costs us the most precious, the only irretrievable thing in the universe—time. And to him time was song; for money he did not care. The Lord had hallowed his lips with rhythmic speech; only in the intervals of his singing might he listen to the voice of his heart—strangest of all watches, that tells the time not by minutes and hours, but by the coming and going of love.

The woman beside him seemed to read his thoughts.

“Child, child,” she said, “why will you toy with love? Like Jehovah, he is a jealous god, and nothing but the whole heart can placate him. Woe to the woman who takes a poet for a lover. I admit it is fascinating, but it is playing va banque. In fact, it is fatal. Art or love will come to harm. No man can minister equally to both. A genuine poet is incapable of loving a woman.”

“Pshaw! You exaggerate. Of course, there is a measure of truth in what you say, but it is only one side of the truth, and the truth, you know, is always Janus-faced. In fact, it often has more than two faces. I can assure you that I have cared deeply for the women to whom my love-poetry was written. And you will not deny that it is genuine.”

“God forbid! Only you have been using the wrong preposition. You should have said that it was written at them.”

Ernest stared at her in child-like wonder.

“By Jove! you are too devilishly clever!” he exclaimed.

After a little silence he said not without hesitation: “And do you apply your theory to all artists, or only to us makers of rhyme?”

“To all,” she replied.

He looked at her questioningly.

“Yes,” she said, with a new sadness in her voice, “I, too, have paid the price.”

“You mean?”

“I loved.”

“And art?”

“That was the sacrifice.”

“Perhaps you have chosen the better part,” Ernest said without conviction.

“No,” she replied, “my tribute was brought in vain.”

This she said calmly, but Ernest knew that her words were of tragic import.

“You love him still?” he observed simply.

Ethel made no reply. Sadness clouded her face like a veil or like a grey mist over the face of the waters. Her eyes went out to the sea, following the sombre flight of the sea-mews.

In that moment he could have taken her in his arms and kissed her with infinite tenderness.

But tenderness between man and woman is like a match in a powder-magazine. The least provocation, and an amorous explosion will ensue, tumbling down the card-houses of platonic affection. If he yielded to the impulse of the moment, the wine of the springtide would set their blood afire, and from the flames within us there is no escape.

“Come, come,” she said, “you do not love me.”

He protested.

“Ah!” she cried triumphantly, “how many sonnets would you give for me? If you were a usurer in gold instead of in rhyme, I would ask how many dollars. But it is unjust to pay in a coin that we value little. To a man starving in gold mines, a piece of bread weighs more than all the treasures of the earth. To you, I warrant your poems are the standard of appreciation. How many would you give for me? One, two, three?”

“More.”

“Because you think love would repay you with compound interest,” she observed merrily.

He laughed.

And when love turns to laughter the danger is passed for the moment.

XV

Thus three weeks passed without apparent change in their relations. Ernest possessed a personal magnetism that, always emanating from him, was felt most deeply when withdrawn. He was at all times involuntarily exerting his power, which she ever resisted, always on the alert, always warding off.

When at last pressure of work made his immediate departure for New York imperative, he had not apparently gained the least ground. But Ethel knew in her heart that she was fascinated, if not in love. The personal fascination was supplemented by a motherly feeling toward Ernest that, sensuous in essence, was in itself not far removed from love. She struggled bravely and with external success against her emotions, never losing sight of the fact that twenty and thirty are fifty.

Increasingly aware of her own weakness, she constantly attempted to lead the conversation into impersonal channels, speaking preferably of his work.

“Tell me,” she said, negligently fanning herself, “what new inspiration have you drawn from your stay at the seaside?”

“Why,” he exclaimed enthusiastically, “volumes and volumes of it. I shall write the great novel of my life after I am once more quietly installed at Riverside Drive.”

“The great American novel?” she rejoined.

“Perhaps.”

“Who will be your hero—Clarke?”

There was a slight touch of malice in her words, or rather in the pause between the penultimate word and the last. Ernest detected its presence, and knew that her love for Reginald was dead. Stiff and cold it lay in her heart’s chamber—beside how many others?—all emboxed in the coffin of memory.

“No,” he replied after a while, a little piqued by her suggestion, “Clarke is not the hero. What makes you think that he casts a spell on everything I do?”

“Dear child,” she replied, “I know him. He cannot fail to impress his powerful personality upon all with whom he comes in contact, to the injury of their intellectual independence. Moreover, he is so brilliant and says everything so much better than anybody else, that by his very splendor he discourages effort in others. At best his influence will shape your development according to the tenets of his mind—curious, subtle and corrupted. You will become mentally distorted, like one of those hunchback Japanese trees, infinitely wrinkled and infinitely grotesque, whose laws of growth are not determined by nature, but by the diseased imagination of the East.”

“I am no weakling,” Ernest asserted, “and your picture of Clarke is altogether out of perspective. His splendid successes are to me a source of constant inspiration. We have some things in common, but I realise that it is along entirely different lines that success will come to me. He has never sought to influence me, in fact, I never received the smallest suggestion from him.” Here the Princess Marigold seemed to peer at him through the veil of the past, but he waved her aside. “As for my story,” he continued, “you need not go so far out of your way to find the leading character?”

“Who can it be?” Ethel remarked, with a merry twinkle, “You?”

“Ethel,” he said sulkingly, “be serious. You know that it is you.”

“I am immensely flattered,” she replied. “Really, nothing pleases me better than to be immortalised in print, since I have little hope nowadays of perpetuating my name by virtue of pencil or brush. I have been put into novels before and am consumed with curiosity to hear the plot of yours.”

“If you don’t mind, I had rather not tell you just yet,” Ernest said. “It’s going to be called Leontina—that’s you. But all depends on the treatment. You know it doesn’t matter much what you say so long as you say it well. That’s what counts. At any rate, any indication of the plot at this stage would be decidedly inadequate.”

“I think you are right,” she ventured. “By all means choose your own time to tell me. Let’s talk of something else. Have you written anything since your delightful book of verse last spring? Surely now is your singing season. By the time we are thirty the springs of pure lyric passion are usually exhausted.”

Ethel’s inquiry somehow startled him. In truth, he could find no satisfactory answer. A remark relative to his play—Clarke’s play—rose to the threshold of his lips, but he almost bit his tongue as soon as he realised that the strange delusion which had possessed him that night still dominated the undercurrents of his cerebration. No, he had accomplished but little during the last few months—at least, by way of creative literature. So he replied that he had made money. “That is something,” he said. “Besides, who can turn out a masterpiece every week? An artist’s brain is not a machine, and in the respite from creative work I have gathered strength for the future. But,” he added, slightly annoyed, “you are not listening.”

His exclamation brought her back from the train of thoughts that his words had suggested. For in his reasoning she had recognised the same arguments that she had hourly repeated to herself in defence of her inactivity when she was living under the baneful influence of Reginald Clarke. Yes, baneful; for the first time she dared to confess it to herself. In a flash the truth dawned upon her that it was not her love alone, but something else, something irresistable and very mysterious, that had dried up the well of creation in her. Could it be that the same power was now exerting its influence upon the struggling soul of this talented boy? Rack her brains as she might, she could not definitely formulate her apprehensions and a troubled look came into her eyes.

“Ethel,” the boy repeated, impatiently, “why are you not listening? Do you realise that I must leave you in half an hour?”

She looked at him with deep tenderness. Something like a tear lent a soft radiance to her large child-like eyes.

Ernest saw it and was profoundly moved. In that moment he loved her passionately.

“Foolish boy,” she said softly; then, lowering her voice to a whisper: “You may kiss me before you go.”

His lips gently touched hers, but she took his head between her hands and pressed her mouth upon his in a long kiss.

Ernest drew back a little awkwardly. He had not been kissed like this before.

“Poet though you are,” Ethel whispered, “you have not yet learned to kiss.”

She was deeply agitated when she noticed that his hand was fumbling for the watch in his vest-pocket. She suddenly released him, and said, a little hurt: “No, you must not miss your train. Go by all means.”

Vainly Ernest remonstrated with her.

“Go to him,” she said, and again, “go to him.”

With a heavy heart the boy obeyed. He waved his hat to her once more from below, and then rapidly disappeared in the crowd. For a moment strange misgivings cramped her heart, and something within her called out to him: “Do not go! Do not return to that house.” But no sound issued from her lips. Worldly wisdom had sealed them, had stifled the inner voice. And soon the boy’s golden head was swallowed up in the distance.

XVI

While the train sped to New York, Ethel Brandenbourg was the one object engaging Ernest’s mind. He still felt the pressure of her lips upon his, and his nostrils dilated at the thought of the fragrance of her hair brushing against his forehead.

But the moment his foot touched the ferry-boat that was to take him to Manhattan, the past three weeks were, for the time being at least, completely obliterated from his memory. All his other interests that he had suppressed in her company because she had no part in them, came rushing back to him. He anticipated with delight his meeting with Reginald Clarke. The personal attractiveness of the man had never seemed so powerful to Ernest as when he had not heard from him for some time. Reginald’s letters were always brief. “Professional writers,” he was wont to say, “cannot afford to put fine feeling into their private correspondence. They must turn it into copy.” He longed to sit with the master in the studio when the last rays of the daylight were tremulously falling through the stained window, and to discuss far into the darkening night philosophies young and old. He longed for Reginald’s voice, his little mannerisms, the very perfume of his rooms.

There also was a deluge of letters likely to await him in his apartment. For in his hurried departure he had purposely left his friends in the dark as to his whereabouts. Only to Jack he had dropped a little note the day after his meeting with Ethel.

He earnestly hoped to find Reginald at home, though it was well nigh ten o’clock in the evening, and he cursed the “rapid transit” for its inability to annihilate space and time. It is indeed disconcerting to think how many months, if not years, of our earthly sojourn the dwellers in cities spend in transportation conveyances that must be set down as a dead loss in the ledger of life. A nervous impatience against things material overcame Ernest in the subway. It is ever the mere stupid obstacle of matter that weights down the wings of the soul and prevents it from soaring upward to the sun.

When at last he had reached the house, he learned from the hall-boy that Clarke had gone out. Ruffled in temper he entered his rooms and went over his mail. There were letters from editors with commissions that he could not afford to reject. Everywhere newspapers and magazines opened their yawning mouths to swallow up what time he had. He realised at once that he would have to postpone the writing of his novel for several weeks, if not longer.

Among the letters was one from Jack. It bore the postmark of a little place in the Adirondacks where he was staying with his parents. Ernest opened the missive not without hesitation. On reading and rereading it the fine lines on his forehead, that would some day deepen into wrinkles, became quite pronounced and a look of displeasure darkened his face. Something was wrong with Jack, a slight change that defied analysis. Their souls were out of tune. It might only be a passing disturbance; perhaps it was his own fault. It pained him, nevertheless. Somehow it seemed of late that Jack was no longer able to follow the vagaries of his mind. Only one person in the world possessed a similar mental vision, only one seemed to understand what he said and what he left unsaid. Reginald Clarke, being a man and poet, read in his soul as in an open book. Ethel might have understood, had not love, like a cloud, laid itself between her eyes and the page.

It was with exultation that Ernest heard near midnight the click of Reginald’s key in the door. He found him unchanged, completely, radiantly himself. Reginald possessed the psychic power of undressing the soul, of seeing it before him in primal nakedness. Although no word was said of Ethel Brandenbourg except the mere mention of her presence in Atlantic City, Ernest intuitively knew that Reginald was aware of the transformation that absence had wrought in him. In the presence of this man he could be absolutely himself, without shame or fear of mis-understanding; and by a strange metamorphosis, all his affection for Ethel and Jack went out for the time being to Reginald Clarke.

XVII

The next day Ernest wrote a letter of more or less superficial tenderness to Ethel. She had wounded his pride by proving victorious in the end over his passion and hers; besides, he was in the throes of work. When after the third day no answer came, he was inclined to feel aggrieved. It was plain now that she had not cared for him in the least, but had simply played with him for lack of another toy. A flush of shame rose to his cheeks at the thought. He began to analyse his own emotions, and stunned, if not stabbed, his passion step by step. Work was calling to him. It was that which gave life its meaning, not the love of a season. How far away, how unreal, she now seemed to him. Yes, she was right, he had not cared deeply; and his novel, too, would be written only at her. It was the heroine of his story that absorbed his interest, not the living prototype.

Once in a conversation with Reginald he touched upon the subject. Reginald held that modern taste no longer permitted even the photographer to portray life as it is, but insisted upon an individual visualisation. “No man,” he remarked, “was ever translated bodily into fiction. In contradiction to life, art is a process of artificial selection.”

Bearing in mind this motive, Ernest went to work to mould from the material in hand a new Ethel, more real than life. Unfortunately he found little time to devote to his novel. It was only when, after a good day’s work, a pile of copy for a magazine lay on his desk, that he could think of concentrating his mind upon “Leontina.” The result was that when he went to bed his imagination was busy with the plan of his book, and the creatures of his own brain laid their fingers on his eyelid so that he could not sleep.

When at last sheer weariness overcame him, his mind was still at work, not in orderly sequence but along trails monstrous and grotesque. Hobgoblins seemed to steal through the hall, and leering incubi oppressed his soul with terrible burdens. In the morning he awoke unrested. The tan vanished from his face and little lines appeared in the corners of his mouth. It was as if his nervous vitality were sapped from him in some unaccountable way. He became excited, hysterical. Often at night when he wrote his pot-boilers for the magazines, fear stood behind his seat, and only the buzzing of the elevator outside brought him back to himself.

In one of his morbid moods he wrote a sonnet which he showed to Reginald after the latter’s return from a short trip out of town. Reginald read it, looking at the boy with a curious, lurking expression.

O gentle Sleep, turn not thy face away,
But place thy finger on my brow, and take
All burthens from me and all dreams that ache;
Upon mine eyes a cooling balsam lay,
Seeing I am aweary of the day.
But, lo! thy lips are ashen and they quake.
What spectral vision sees thou that can shake
Thy sweet composure, and thy heart dismay?
Perhaps some murderer’s cruel eye agleam
Is fixed upon me, or some monstrous dream
Might bring such fearful guilt upon the head
Of my unvigilant soul as would arouse
The Borgian snake from her envenomed bed,
Or startle Nero in his golden house.

“Good stuff,” Reginald remarked, laying down the manuscript; “when did you write it?”

“The night when you were out of town,” Ernest rejoined.

“I see,” Reginald replied.

There was something startling in his intonation that at once aroused Ernest’s attention.

“What do you see?” he asked quickly.

“Nothing,” Reginald replied, with immovable calm, “only that your state of nerves is still far from satisfactory.”

XVIII

After Ernest’s departure Ethel Brandenbourg’s heart was swaying hither and thither in a hurricane of conflicting feelings. Before she had time to gain an emotional equilibrium, his letter had hurled her back into chaos. A false ring somewhere in Ernest’s words, reechoing with an ever-increasing volume of sound, stifled the voice of love. His jewelled sentences glittered, but left her cold. They lacked that spontaneity which renders even simple and hackeneyed phrases wonderful and unique. Ethel clearly realised that her hold upon the boy’s imagination had been a fleeting midsummer night’s charm, and that a word from Reginald’s lips had broken the potency of her spell. She almost saw the shadow of Reginald’s visage hovering over Ernest’s letter and leering at her from between the lines in sinister triumph. Finally reason came and whispered to her that it was extremely unwise to give her heart into the keeping of a boy. His love, she knew, would have been exacting, irritating at times. He would have asked her to sympathise with every phase of his life, and would have expected active interest on her part in much that she had done with long ago. Thus, untruth would have stolen into her life and embittered it. When mates are unequal, Love must paint its cheeks and, in certain moods at least, hide its face under a mask. Its lips may be honeyed, but it brings fret and sorrow in its train.

These things she told herself over and over again while she penned a cool and calculating answer to Ernest’s letter. She rewrote it many times, and every time it became more difficult to reply. At last she put her letter aside for a few days, and when it fell again into her hand it seemed so unnatural and strained that she destroyed it.

Thus several weeks had passed, and Ernest no longer exclusively occupied her mind when, one day early in September, while glancing over a magazine, she came upon his name in the table of contents. Once more she saw the boy’s wistful face before her, and a trembling something stirred in her heart. Her hand shook as she cut the pages, and a mist of tears clouded her vision as she attempted to read his poem. It was a piece of sombre brilliance. Like black-draped monks half crazed with mystic devotion, the poet’s thoughts flitted across the page. It was the wail of a soul that feels reason slipping from it and beholds madness rise over its life like a great pale moon. A strange unrest emanated from it and took possession of her. And again, with an insight that was prophetic, she distinctly recognised behind the vague fear that had haunted the poet the figure of Reginald Clarke.

A half-forgotten dream, struggling to consciousness, staggered her by its vividness. She saw Clarke as she had seen him in days gone by, grotesquely transformed into a slimy sea-thing, whose hungry mouths shut sucking upon her and whose thousand tentacles encircled her form. She closed her eyes in horror at the reminiscence. And in that moment it became clear to her that she must take into her hands the salvation of Ernest Fielding from the clutches of the malign power that had mysteriously enveloped his life.

XIX

The summer was brief, and already by the middle of September many had returned to the pleasures of urban life. Ethel was among the first-comers; for, after her resolve to enter the life of the young poet once more, it would have been impossible for her to stay away from the city much longer. Her plan was all ready. Before attempting to see Ernest she would go to meet Reginald and implore him to free the boy from his hideous spell. An element of curiosity unconsciously entered her determination. When, years ago, she and Clarke had parted, the man had seemed, for once, greatly disturbed and had promised, in his agitation, that some day he would communicate to her what would exonerate him in her eyes. She had answered that all words between them were purposeless, and that she hoped never to see his face again. The experience that the years had brought to her, instead of elucidating the mystery of Reginald’s personality, had, on the contrary, made his behaviour appear more and more unaccountable. She had more than once caught herself wishing to meet him again and to analyse dispassionately the puzzling influences he had exerted upon her. And she could at last view him dispassionately; there was triumph in that. She was dimly aware that something had passed from her, something by which he had held her, and without which his magnetism was unable to play upon her.

So when Walkham sent her an invitation to one of his artistic “at homes” she accepted, in the hope of meeting Reginald. It was his frequentation of Walkham’s house that had for several years effectively barred her foot from crossing the threshold. It was with a very strange feeling she greeted the many familiar faces at Walkham’s now; and when, toward ten o’clock, Reginald entered, politely bowing in answer to the welcome from all sides, her heart beat in her like a drum. But she calmed herself, and, catching his eye, so arranged it that early in the evening they met in an alcove of the drawing-room.

“It was inevitable,” Reginald said. “I expected it.”

“Yes,” she replied, “we were bound to meet.”

Like a great rush of water, memory came back to her. He was still horribly fascinating as of old—only she was no longer susceptible to his fascination. He had changed somewhat in those years. The lines about his mouth had grown harder and a steel-like look had come into his eyes. Only for a moment, as he looked at her, a flash of tenderness seemed to come back to them. Then he said, with a touch of sadness: “Why should the first word between us be a lie?”

Ethel made no answer.

Reginald looked at her half in wonder and said: “And is your love for the boy so great that it overcame your hate of me?”

Ah, he knew! She winced.

“He has told you?”

“Not a word.”

There was something superhuman in his power of penetration. Why should she wear a mask before him, when his eyes, like the eyes of God, pierced to the core of her being?

“No,” she replied, “it is not love, but compassion for him.”

“Compassion?”

“Yes, compassion for your victim.”

“You mean?”

“Reginald!”

“I am all ear.”

“I implore you.”

“Speak.”

“You have ruined one life.”

He raised his eyebrows derogatively.

“Yes,” she continued fiercely, “ruined it! Is not that enough?”

“I have never wilfully ruined any one’s life.”

“You have ruined mine.”

“Wilfully?”

“How else shall I explain your conduct?”

“I warned you.”

“Warning, indeed! The warning that the snake gives to the sparrow helpless under its gaze.”

“Ah, but who tells you that the snake is to blame? Is it not rather the occult power that prescribes with blood on brazen scroll the law of our being?”

“This is no solace to the sparrow. But whatever may be said, let us drop the past. Let us consider the present. I beg of you, leave this boy—let him develop without your attempting to stifle the life in him or impressing upon it the stamp of your alien mind.”

“Ethel,” he protested, “you are unjust. If you knew—” Then an idea seemed to take hold of him. He looked at her curiously.

“What if I knew?” she asked.

“You shall know,” he said, simply. “Are you strong?”

“Strong to withstand anything at your hand. There is nothing that you can give me, nothing that you can take away.”

“No,” he remarked, “nothing. Yes, you have changed. Still, when I look upon you, the ghosts of the past seem to rise like live things.”

“We both have changed. We meet now upon equal grounds. You are no longer the idol I made of you.”

“Don’t you think that to the idol this might be a relief, not a humiliation? It is a terrible torture to sit in state with lips eternally shut. Sometimes there comes over the most reticent of us a desire to break through the eternal loneliness that surrounds the soul. It is this feeling that prompts madmen to tear off their clothes and exhibit their nakedness in the market-place. It’s madness on my part, or a whim, or I don’t know what; but it pleases me that you should know the truth.”

“You promised me long ago that I should.”

“To-day I will redeem my promise, and I will tell you another thing that you will find hard to believe.”

“And that is?”

“That I loved you.”

Ethel smiled a little sceptically. “You have loved often.”

“No,” he replied. “Loved, seriously loved, I have, only once.”

XX

They were sitting in a little Italian restaurant where they had often, in the old days, lingered late into the night over a glass of Lacrimæ Christi. But no pale ghost of the past rose from the wine. Only a wriggling something, with serpent eyes, that sent cold shivers down her spine and held her speechless and entranced.

When their order had been filled and the waiter had posted himself at a respectful distance, Reginald began—at first leisurely, a man of the world. But as he proceeded a strange exultation seemed to possess him and from his eyes leaped the flame of the mystic.

“You must pardon me,” he commenced, “if I monopolise the conversation, but the revelations I have to make are of such a nature that I may well claim your attention. I will start with my earliest childhood. You remember the picture of me that was taken when I was five?”

She remembered, indeed. Each detail of his life was deeply engraven on her mind.

“At that time,” he continued, “I was not held to be particularly bright. The reason was that my mind, being pre-eminently and extraordinarily receptive, needed a stimulus from without. The moment I was sent to school, however, a curious metamorphosis took place in me. I may say that I became at once the most brilliant boy in my class. You know that to this day I have always been the most striking figure in any circle in which I have ever moved.”

Ethel nodded assent. Silently watching the speaker, she saw a gleam of the truth from afar, but still very distant and very dim.

Reginald lifted the glass against the light and gulped its contents. Then in a lower voice he recommenced: “Like the chameleon, I have the power of absorbing the colour of my environment.”

“Do you mean that you have the power of absorbing the special virtues of other people?” she interjected.

“That is exactly what I mean.”

“Oh!” she cried, for in a heart-beat many things had become clear to her. For the first time she realised, still vaguely but with increasing vividness, the hidden causes of her ruin and, still more plainly, the horrible danger of Ernest Fielding.

He noticed her agitation, and a look of psychological curiosity came into his eyes.

“Ah, but that is not all,” he observed, smilingly. “That is nothing. We all possess that faculty in a degree. The secret of my strength is my ability to reject every element that is harmful or inessential to the completion of my self. This did not come to me easily, nor without a struggle. But now, looking back upon my life, many things become transparent that were obscure even to me at the time. I can now follow the fine-spun threads in the intricate web of my fate, and discover in the wilderness of meshes a design, awful and grandly planned.”

His voice shook with conviction, as he uttered these words. There was something strangely gruesome in this man. It was thus that she had pictured to herself the high-priest of some terrible and mysterious religion, demanding a human sacrifice to appease the hunger of his god. She was fascinated by the spell of his personality, and listened with a feeling not far removed from awe. But Reginald suddenly changed his tone and proceeded in a more conversational manner.

“The first friend I ever cared for was a boy marvellously endowed for the study of mathematics. At the time of our first meeting at school, I was unable to solve even the simplest algebraical problem. But we had been together only for half a month, when we exchanged parts. It was I who was the mathematical genius now, whereas he became hopelessly dull and stuttered through his recitations only with a struggle that brought the tears to his eyes. Then I discarded him. Heartless, you say? I have come to know better. Have you ever tasted a bottle of wine that had been uncorked for a long time? If you have, you have probably found it flat—the essence was gone, evaporated. Thus it is when we care for people. Probably—no, assuredly—there is some principle prisoned in their souls, or in the windings of their brains, which, when escaped, leaves them insipid, unprofitable and devoid of interest to us. Sometimes this essence—not necessarily the finest element in a man’s or a woman’s nature, but soul-stuff that we lack—disappears. In fact, it invariably disappears. It may be that it has been transformed in the processes of their growth; it may also be that it has utterly vanished by some inadvertence, or that we ourselves have absorbed it.”

“Then we throw them away?” Ethel asked, pale, but dry-eyed. A shudder passed through her body and she clinched her glass nervously. At that moment Reginald resembled a veritable Prince of Darkness, sinister and beautiful, painted by the hand of a modern master. Then, for a space, he again became the man of the world. Smiling and self-possessed, he filled the glasses, took a long sip of the wine and resumed his narrative.

“That boy was followed by others. I absorbed many useless things and some that were evil. I realised that I must direct my absorptive propensities. This I did. I selected, selected well. And all the time the terrible power of which I was only half conscious grew within me.”

“It is indeed a terrible power,” she cried; “all the more terrible for its subtlety. Had I not myself been its victim, I should not now find it possible to believe in it.”

“The invisible hand that smites in the dark is certainly more fearful than a visible foe. It is also more merciful. Think how much you would have suffered had you been conscious of your loss.”

“Still it seems even now to me that it cannot have been an utter, irreparable loss. There is no action without reaction. Even I—even we—must have received from you some compensation for what you have taken away.”

“In the ordinary processes of life the law of action and reaction is indeed potent. But no law is without exception. Think of radium, for instance, with its constant and seemingly inexhaustible outflow of energy. It is a difficult thing to imagine, but our scientific men have accepted it as a fact. Why should we find it more difficult to conceive of a tremendous and infinite absorptive element? I feel sure that it must somewhere exist. But every phenomenon in the physical world finds its counterpart in the psychical universe. There are radium-souls that radiate without loss of energy, but also without increase. And there are souls, the reverse of radium, with unlimited absorptive capacities.”

“Vampire-souls,” she observed, with a shudder, and her face blanched.

“No,” he said, “don’t say that.” And then he suddenly seemed to grow in stature. His face was ablaze, like the face of a god.

“In every age,” he replied, with solemnity, “there are giants who attain to a greatness which by natural growth no men could ever have reached. But in their youth a vision came to them, which they set out to seek. They take the stones of fancy to build them a palace in the kingdom of truth, projecting into reality dreams, monstrous and impossible. Often they fail and, tumbling from their airy heights, end a quixotic career. Some succeed. They are the chosen. Carpenter’s sons they are, who have laid down the Law of a World for milleniums to come; or simple Corsicans, before whose eagle eye have quaked the kingdoms of the earth. But to accomplish their mission they need a will of iron and the wit of a hundred men. And from the iron they take the strength, and from a hundred men’s brains they absorb their wisdom. Divine missionaries, they appear in all departments of life. In their hand is gathered to-day the gold of the world. Mighty potentates of peace and war, they unlock new seas and from distant continents lift the bars. Single-handed, they accomplish what nations dared not hope; with Titan strides they scale the stars and succeed where millions fail. In art they live, the makers of new periods, the dreamers of new styles. They make themselves the vocal sun-glasses of God. Homer and Shakespeare, Hugo and Balzac—they concentrate the dispersed rays of a thousand lesser luminaries in one singing flame that, like a giant torch, lights up humanity’s path.”

She gazed at him, open-mouthed. The light had gone from his visage. He paused, exhausted, but even then he looked the incarnation of a force no less terrible, no less grand. She grasped the immensity of his conception, but her woman’s soul rebelled at the horrible injustice to those whose light is extinguished, as hers had been, to feed an alien flame. And then, for a moment, she saw the pale face of Ernest staring at her out of the wine.

“Cruel,” she sobbed, “how cruel!”

“What matter?” he asked. “Their strength is taken from them, but the spirit of humanity, as embodied in us, triumphantly marches on.”

XXI

Reginald’s revelations were followed by a long silence, interrupted only by the officiousness of the waiter. The spell once broken, they exchanged a number of more or less irrelevant observations. Ethel’s mind returned, again and again, to the word he had not spoken. He had said nothing of the immediate bearing of his monstrous power upon her own life and that of Ernest Fielding.

At last, somewhat timidly, she approached the subject.

“You said you loved me,” she remarked.

“I did.”

“But why, then—”

“I could not help it.”

“Did you ever make the slightest attempt?”

“In the horrible night hours I struggled against it. I even implored you to leave me.”

“Ah, but I loved you!”

“You would not be warned, you would not listen. You stayed with me, and slowly, surely, the creative urge went out of your life.”

“But what on earth could you find in my poor art to attract you? What were my pictures to you?”

“I needed them, I needed you. It was a certain something, a rich colour effect, perhaps. And then, under your very eyes, the colour that vanished from your canvases reappeared in my prose. My style became more luxurious than it had been, while you tortured your soul in the vain attempt of calling back to your brush what was irretrievably lost.”

“Why did you not tell me?”

“You would have laughed in my face, and I could not have endured your laugh. Besides, I always hoped, until it was too late, that I might yet check the mysterious power within me. Soon, however, I became aware that it was beyond my control. The unknown god, whose instrument I am, had wisely made it stronger than me.”

“But why,” retorted Ethel, “was it necessary to discard me, like a cast-off garment, like a wanton who has lost the power to please?”

Her frame shook with the remembered emotion of that moment, when years ago he had politely told her that she was nothing to him.

“The law of being,” Reginald replied, almost sadly, “the law of my being. I should have pitied you, but the eternal reproach of your suffering only provoked my anger. I cared less for you every day, and when I had absorbed all of you that my growth required, you were to me as one dead, as a stranger you were. There was between us no further community of interest; henceforth, I knew, our lives must move in totally different spheres. You remember that day when we said good-bye?”

“You mean that day when I lay before you on my knees,” she corrected him.

“That day I buried my last dream of personal happiness. I would have gladly raised you from the floor, but love was utterly gone. If I am tenderer to-day than I am wont to be, it is because you mean so much to me as the symbol of my renunciation. When I realised that I could not even save the thing I loved from myself, I became hardened and cruel to others. Not that I know no kindly feeling, but no qualms of conscience lay their prostrate forms across my path. There is nothing in life for me but my mission.”

His face was bathed in ecstasy. The pupils were luminous, large and threatening. He had the look of a madman or a prophet.

After a while Ethel remarked: “But you have grown into one of the master-figures of the age. Why not be content with that? Is there no limit to your ambition?”

Reginald smiled: “Ambition! Shakespeare stopped when he had reached his full growth, when he had exhausted the capacity of his contemporaries. I am not yet ready to lay down my pen and rest.”

“And will you always continue in this criminal course, a murderer of other lives?”

He looked her calmly in the face. “I do not know.”

“Are you the slave of your unknown god?”

“We are all slaves, wire-pulled marionettes: You, Ernest, I. There is no freedom on the face of the earth nor above. The tiger that tears a lamb is not free, I am not free, you are not free. All that happens must happen; no word that is said is said in vain, in vain is raised no hand.”

“Then,” Ethel retorted, eagerly, “if I attempted to wrest your victim from you, I should also be the tool of your god?”

“Assuredly. But I am his chosen.”

“Can you—can you not set him free?”

“I need him—a little longer. Then he is yours.”

“But can you not, if I beg you again on my knees, at least loosen his chains before he is utterly ruined?”

“It is beyond my power. If I could not rescue you, whom I loved, what in heaven or on earth can save him from his fate? Besides, he will not be utterly ruined. It is only a part of him that I absorb. In his soul are chords that I have not touched. They may vibrate one day, when he has gathered new strength. You, too, would have spared yourself much pain had you striven to attain success in different fields—not where I had garnered the harvest of a lifetime. It is only a portion of his talent that I take from him. The rest I cannot harm. Why should he bury that remainder?”

His eyes strayed through the window to the firmament, as if to say that words could no more bend his indomitable will than alter the changeless course of the stars.

Ethel had half-forgotten the wrong she herself had suffered at his hands. He could not be measured by ordinary standards, this dazzling madman, whose diseased will-power had assumed such uncanny proportions. But here a young life was at stake. In her mind’s eye she saw Reginald crush between his relentless hands the delicate soul of Ernest Fielding, as a magnificent carnivorous flower might close its glorious petals upon a fly.

Love, all conquering love, welled up in her. She would fight for Ernest as a tiger cat fights for its young. She would place herself in the way of the awful force that had shattered her own aspirations, and save, at any cost, the brilliant boy who did not love her.

 

TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR CHAPTERS 22 – 31 OF
George Sylvester Viereck’s
THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE

E Bathory ... Countess Dracula

George Sylvester Viereck ~ THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE

Standard

I

The freakish little leader of the orchestra, newly imported from Sicily to New York, tossed his conductor’s wand excitedly through the air, drowning with musical thunders the hum of conversation and the clatter of plates.

Yet neither his apish demeanour nor the deafening noises that responded to every movement of his agile body detracted attention from the figure of Reginald Clarke and the young man at his side as they smilingly wound their way to the exit.

The boy’s expression was pleasant, with an inkling of wistfulness, while the soft glimmer of his lucid eyes betrayed the poet and the dreamer. The smile of Reginald Clarke was the smile of a conqueror. A suspicion of silver in his crown of dark hair only added dignity to his bearing, while the infinitely ramified lines above the heavy-set mouth spoke at once of subtlety and of strength. Without stretch of the imagination one might have likened him to a Roman cardinal of the days of the Borgias, who had miraculously stepped forth from the time-stained canvas and slipped into twentieth century evening-clothes.

With the affability of complete self-possession he nodded in response to greetings from all sides, inclining his head with special politeness to a young woman whose sea-blue eyes were riveted upon his features with a look of mingled hate and admiration.

The woman, disregarding his silent salutation, continued to stare at him wild-eyed, as a damned soul in purgatory might look at Satan passing in regal splendour through the seventy times sevenfold circles of hell.

Reginald Clarke walked on unconcernedly through the rows of gay diners, still smiling, affable, calm. But his companion bethought himself of certain rumours he had heard concerning Ethel Brandenbourg’s mad love for the man from whose features she could not even now turn her eyes. Evidently her passion was unreciprocated. It had not always been so. There was a time in her career, some years ago in Paris, when it was whispered that she had secretly married him and, not much later, obtained a divorce. The matter was never cleared up, as both preserved an uncompromising silence upon the subject of their matrimonial experience. Certain it was that, for a space, the genius of Reginald Clarke had completely dominated her brush, and that, ever since he had thrown her aside, her pictures were but plagiarisms of her former artistic self.

The cause of the rupture between them was a matter only of surmise; but the effect it had on the woman testified clearly to the remarkable power of Reginald Clarke. He had entered her life and, behold! the world was transfixed on her canvases in myriad hues of transcending radiance; he had passed from it, and with him vanished the brilliancy of her colouring, as at sunset the borrowed amber and gold fade from the face of the clouds.

The glamour of Clarke’s name may have partly explained the secret of his charm, but, even in circles where literary fame is no passport, he could, if he chose, exercise an almost terrible fascination. Subtle and profound, he had ransacked the coffers of mediæval dialecticians and plundered the arsenals of the Sophists. Many years later, when the vultures of misfortune had swooped down upon him, and his name was no longer mentioned without a sneer, he was still remembered in New York drawing-rooms as the man who had brought to perfection the art of talking. Even to dine with him was a liberal education.

Clarke’s marvellous conversational power was equalled only by his marvellous style. Ernest Fielding’s heart leaped in him at the thought that henceforth he would be privileged to live under one roof with the only writer of his generation who could lend to the English language the rich strength and rugged music of the Elizabethans.

Reginald Clarke was a master of many instruments. Milton’s mighty organ was no less obedient to his touch than the little lute of the troubadour. He was never the same; that was his strength. Clarke’s style possessed at once the chiselled chasteness of a Greek marble column and the elaborate deviltry of the late Renaissance. At times his winged words seemed to flutter down the page frantically like Baroque angels; at other times nothing could have more adequately described his manner than the timeless calm of the gaunt pyramids.

The two men had reached the street. Reginald wrapped his long spring coat round him.

“I shall expect you to-morrow at four,” he said.

The tone of his voice was deep and melodious, suggesting hidden depths and cadences.

“I shall be punctual.”

The younger man’s voice trembled as he spoke.

“I look forward to your coming with much pleasure. I am interested in you.”

The glad blood mounted to Ernest’s cheeks at praise from the austere lips of this arbiter of literary elegance.

An almost imperceptible smile crept over the other man’s features.

“I am proud that my work interests you,” was all the boy could say.

“I think it is quite amazing, but at present,” here Clarke drew out a watch set with jewels, “I am afraid I must bid you good-bye.”

He held Ernest’s hand for a moment in a firm genial grasp, then turned away briskly, while the boy remained standing open-mouthed. The crowd jostling against him carried him almost off his feet, but his eyes followed far into the night the masterful figure of Reginald Clarke, toward whom he felt himself drawn with every fiber of his body and the warm enthusiasm of his generous youth.

II

With elastic step, inhaling the night-air with voluptuous delight, Reginald Clarke made his way down Broadway, lying stretched out before him, bathed in light and pulsating with life.

His world-embracing intellect was powerfully attracted by the Giant City’s motley activities. On the street, as in the salon, his magnetic power compelled recognition, and he stepped through the midst of the crowd as a Circassian blade cleaves water.

After walking a block or two, he suddenly halted before a jeweller’s shop. Arrayed in the window were priceless gems that shone in the glare of electricity, like mystical serpent-eyes—green, pomegranate and water-blue. And as he stood there the dazzling radiance before him was transformed in the prism of his mind into something great and very wonderful that might, some day, be a poem.

Then his attention was diverted by a small group of tiny girls dancing on the sidewalk to the husky strains of an old hurdy-gurdy. He joined the circle of amused spectators, to watch those pink-ribboned bits of femininity swaying airily to and fro in unison with the tune. One especially attracted his notice—a slim olive-coloured girl from a land where it is always spring. Her whole being translated into music, with hair dishevelled and feet hardly touching the ground, the girl suggested an orange-leaf dancing on a sunbeam. The rasping street-organ, perchance, brought to her melodious reminiscences of some flute-playing Savoyard boy, brown-limbed and dark of hair.

For several minutes Reginald Clarke followed with keen delight each delicate curve her graceful limbs described. Then—was it that she grew tired, or that the stranger’s persistent scrutiny embarrassed her?—the music oozed out of her movements. They grew slower, angular, almost clumsy. The look of interest in Clarke’s eyes died, but his whole form quivered, as if the rhythm of the music and the dance had mysteriously entered into his blood.

He continued his stroll, seemingly without aim; in reality he followed, with nervous intensity, the multiform undulations of the populace, swarming through Broadway in either direction. Like the giant whose strength was rekindled every time he touched his mother, the earth, Reginald Clarke seemed to draw fresh vitality from every contact with life.

He turned east along Fourteenth street, where cheap vaudevilles are strung together as glass-pearls on the throat of a wanton. Gaudy bill-boards, drenched in clamorous red, proclaimed the tawdry attractions within. Much to the surprise of the doorkeeper at a particularly evil-looking music hall, Reginald Clarke lingered in the lobby, and finally even bought a ticket that entitled him to enter this sordid wilderness of décolleté art. Street-snipes, a few workingmen, dilapidated sportsmen, and women whose ruined youth thick layers of powder and paint, even in this artificial light, could not restore, constituted the bulk of the audience. Reginald Clarke, apparently unconscious of the curiosity, surprise and envy that his appearance excited, seated himself at a table near the stage, ordering from the solicitous waiter only a cocktail and a programme. The drink he left untouched, while his eyes greedily ran down the lines of the announcement. When he had found what he sought, he lit a cigar, paying no attention to the boards, but studying the audience with cursory interest until the appearance of Betsy, the Hyacinth Girl.

When she began to sing, his mind still wandered. The words of her song were crude, but not without a certain lilt that delighted the uncultured ear, while the girl’s voice was thin to the point of being unpleasant. When, however, she came to the burden of the song, Clarke’s manner changed suddenly. Laying down his cigar, he listened with rapt attention, eagerly gazing at her. For, as she sang the last line and tore the hyacinth-blossoms from her hair, there crept into her voice a strangely poignant, pathetic little thrill, that redeemed the execrable faultiness of her singing, and brought the rude audience under her spell.

Clarke, too, was captivated by that tremour, the infinite sadness of which suggested the plaint of souls moaning low at night, when lust preys on creatures marked for its spoil.

The singer paused. Still those luminous eyes were upon her. She grew nervous. It was only with tremendous difficulty that she reached the refrain. As she sang the opening lines of the last stanza, an inscrutable smile curled on Clarke’s lips. She noticed the man’s relentless gaze and faltered. When the burden came, her singing was hard and cracked: the tremour had gone from her voice.

III

Long before the appointed time Ernest walked up and down in front of the abode of Reginald Clarke, a stately apartment-house overlooking Riverside Drive.

Misshapen automobiles were chasing by, carrying to the cool river’s marge the restlessness and the fever of American life. But the bustle and the noise seemed to the boy only auspicious omens of the future.

Jack, his room-mate and dearest friend, had left him a month ago, and, for a space, he had felt very lonely. His young and delicate soul found it difficult to grapple with the vague fears that his nervous brain engendered, when whispered sounds seemed to float from hidden corners, and the stairs creaked under mysterious feet.

He needed the voice of loving kindness to call him back from the valley of haunting shadows, where his poet’s soul was wont to linger overlong; in his hours of weakness the light caress of a comrade renewed his strength and rekindled in his hand the flaming sword of song.

And at nightfall he would bring the day’s harvest to Clarke, as a worshipper scattering precious stones, incense and tapestries at the feet of a god.

Surely he would be very happy. And as the heart, at times, leads the feet to the goal of its desire, while multicoloured dreams, like dancing-girls, lull the will to sleep, he suddenly found himself stepping from the elevator-car to Reginald Clarke’s apartment.

Already was he raising his hand to strike the electric bell when a sound from within made him pause half-way.

“No, there’s no help!” he heard Clarke say. His voice had a hard, metallic clangour.

A boyish voice answered plaintively. What the words were Ernest could not distinctly hear, but the suppressed sob in them almost brought the tears to his eyes. He instinctively knew that this was the finale of some tragedy.

He withdrew hastily, so as not to be a witness of an interview that was not meant for his ears.

Reginald Clarke probably had good reason for parting with his young friend, whom Ernest surmised to be Abel Felton, a talented boy, whom the master had taken under his wings.

In the apartment a momentary silence had ensued.

This was interrupted by Clarke: “It will come again, in a month, in a year, in two years.”

“No, no! It is all gone!” sobbed the boy.

“Nonsense. You are merely nervous. But that is just why we must part. There is no room in one house for two nervous people.”

“I was not such a nervous wreck before I met you.”

“Am I to blame for it—for your morbid fancies, your extravagance, the slow tread of a nervous disease, perhaps?”

“Who can tell? But I am all confused. I don’t know what I am saying. Everything is so puzzling—life, friendship, you. I fancied you cared for my career, and now you end our friendship without a thought!”

“We must all follow the law of our being.”

“The laws are within us and in our control.”

“They are within us and beyond us. It is the physiological structure of our brains, our nerve-cells, that makes and mars our lives.

“Our mental companionship was so beautiful. It was meant to last.”

“That is the dream of youth. Nothing lasts. Everything flows—panta rei. We are all but sojourners in an inn. Friendship, as love, is an illusion. Life has nothing to take from a man who has no illusions.”

“It has nothing to give him.”

They said good-bye.

At the door Ernest met Abel.

“Where are you going?” he asked.

“For a little pleasure trip.”

Ernest knew that the boy lied.

He remembered that Abel Felton was at work upon some book, a play or a novel. It occurred to him to inquire how far he had progressed with it.

Abel smiled sadly. “I am not writing it.”

“Not writing it?”

“Reginald is.”

“I am afraid I don’t understand.”

“Never mind. Some day you will.”

IV

“I am so happy you came,” Reginald Clarke said, as he conducted Ernest into his studio. It was a large, luxuriously furnished room overlooking the Hudson and Riverside Drive.

Dazzled and bewildered, the boy’s eyes wandered from object to object, from picture to statue. Despite seemingly incongruous details, the whole arrangement possessed style and distinction.

A satyr on the mantelpiece whispered obscene secrets into the ears of Saint Cecilia. The argent limbs of Antinous brushed against the garments of Mona Lisa. And from a corner a little rococo lady peered coquettishly at the gray image of an Egyptian sphinx. There was a picture of Napoleon facing the image of the Crucified. Above all, in the semi-darkness, artificially produced by heavy draperies, towered two busts.

“Shakespeare and Balzac!” Ernest exclaimed with some surprise.

“Yes,” explained Reginald, “they are my gods.”

His gods! Surely there was a key to Clarke’s character. Our gods are ourselves raised to the highest power.

Clarke and Shakespeare!

Even to Ernest’s admiring mind it seemed almost blasphemous to name a contemporary, however esteemed, in one breath with the mighty master of song, whose great gaunt shadow, thrown against the background of the years has assumed immense, unproportionate, monstrous dimensions.

Yet something might be said for the comparison. Clarke undoubtedly was universally broad, and undoubtedly concealed, with no less exquisite taste than the Elizabethan, his own personality under the splendid raiment of his art. They certainly were affinities. It would not have been surprising to him to see the clear calm head of Shakespeare rise from behind his host.

Perhaps—who knows?—the very presence of the bust in his room had, to some extent, subtly and secretly moulded Reginald Clarke’s life. A man’s soul, like the chameleon, takes colour from its environment. Even comparative trifles, the number of the house in which we live, or the colour of the wallpaper of a room, may determine a destiny.

The boy’s eyes were again surveying the fantastic surroundings in which he found himself; while, from a corner, Clarke’s eyes were watching his every movement, as if to follow his thoughts into the innermost labyrinth of the mind. It seemed to Ernest, under the spell of this passing fancy, as though each vase, each picture, each curio in the room, was reflected in Clarke’s work. In a long-queued, porcelain Chinese mandarin he distinctly recognised a quaint quatrain in one of Clarke’s most marvellous poems. And he could have sworn that the grin of the Hindu monkey-god on the writing-table reappeared in the weird rhythm of two stanzas whose grotesque cadence had haunted him for years.

At last Clarke broke the silence. “You like my studio?” he asked.

The simple question brought Ernest back to reality.

“Like it? Why, it’s stunning. It set up in me the queerest train of thought.”

“I, too, have been in a whimsical mood to-night. Fancy, unlike genius, is an infectious disease.”

“What is the peculiar form it assumed in your case?”

“I have been wondering whether all the things that environ us day by day are, in a measure, fashioning our thought-life. I sometimes think that even my little mandarin and this monkey-idol which, by the way, I brought from India, are exerting a mysterious but none the less real influence upon my work.”

“Great God!” Ernest replied, “I have had the identical thought!”

“How very strange!” Clarke exclaimed, with seeming surprise.

“It is said tritely but truly, that great minds travel the same roads,” Ernest observed, inwardly pleased.

“No,” the older man subtly remarked, “but they reach the same conclusion by a different route.”

“And you attach serious importance to our fancy?”

“Why not?”

Clarke was gazing abstractedly at the bust of Balzac.

“A man’s genius is commensurate with his ability of absorbing from life the elements essential to his artistic completion. Balzac possessed this power in a remarkable degree. But, strange to say, it was evil that attracted him most. He absorbed it as a sponge absorbs water; perhaps because there was so little of it in his own make-up. He must have purified the atmosphere around him for miles, by bringing all the evil that was floating in the air or slumbering in men’s souls to the point of his pen.

“And he”—his eyes were resting on Shakespeare’s features as a man might look upon the face of a brother—”he, too, was such a nature. In fact, he was the most perfect type of the artist. Nothing escaped his mind. From life and from books he drew his material, each time reshaping it with a master-hand. Creation is a divine prerogative. Re-creation, infinitely more wonderful than mere calling into existence, is the prerogative of the poet. Shakespeare took his colours from many palettes. That is why he is so great, and why his work is incredibly greater than he. It alone explains his unique achievement. Who was he? What education did he have, what opportunities? None. And yet we find in his work the wisdom of Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh’s fancies and discoveries, Marlowe’s verbal thunders and the mysterious loveliness of Mr. W.H.”

Ernest listened, entranced by the sound of Clarke’s mellifluous voice. He was, indeed, a master of the spoken word, and possessed a miraculous power of giving to the wildest fancies an air of vraisemblance.

V

“Yes,” said Walkham, the sculptor, “it’s a most curious thing.”

“What is?” asked Ernest, who had been dreaming over the Sphinx that was looking at him from its corner with the sarcastic smile of five thousand years.

“How our dreams of yesterday stare at us like strangers to-day.”

“On the contrary,” remarked Reginald, “it would be strange if they were still to know us. In fact, it would be unnatural. The skies above us and the earth underfoot are in perpetual motion. Each atom of our physical nature is vibrating with unimaginable rapidity. Change is identical with life.”

“It sometimes seems,” said the sculptor, “as if thoughts evaporated like water.”

“Why not, under favorable conditions?”

“But where do they go? Surely they cannot perish utterly?”

“Yes, that is the question. Or, rather, it is not a question. Nothing is ever lost in the spiritual universe.”

“But what,” inquired Ernest, “is the particular reason for your reflection?”

“It is this,” the sculptor replied; “I had a striking motive and lost it.”

“Do you remember,” he continued, speaking to Reginald, “the Narcissus I was working on the last time when you called at my studio?”

“Yes; it was a striking thing and impressed me very much, though I cannot recall it at the moment.”

“Well, it was a commission. An eccentric young millionaire had offered me eight thousand dollars for it. I had an absolutely original conception. But I cannot execute it. It’s as if a breeze had carried it away.”

“That is very regrettable.”

“Well, I should say so,” replied the sculptor.

Ernest smiled. For everybody knew of Walkham’s domestic troubles. Having twice figured in the divorce court, he was at present defraying the expenses of three households.

The sculptor had meanwhile seated himself at Reginald’s writing-table, unintentionally scanning a typewritten page that was lying before him. Like all artists, something of a madman and something of a child, he at first glanced over its contents distractedly, then with an interest so intense that he was no longer aware of the impropriety of his action.

“By Jove!” he cried. “What is this?”

“It’s an epic of the French Revolution,” Reginald replied, not without surprise.

“But, man, do you know that I have discovered my motive in it?”

“What do you mean?” asked Ernest, looking first at Reginald and then at Walkham, whose sanity he began to doubt.

“Listen!”

And the sculptor read, trembling with emotion, a long passage whose measured cadence delighted Ernest’s ear, without, however, enlightening his mind as to the purport of Walkham’s cryptic remark.

Reginald said nothing, but the gleam in his eye showed that this time, at least, his interest was alert.

Walkham saw the hopelessness of making clear his meaning without an explanation.

“I forget you haven’t a sculptor’s mind. I am so constituted that, with me, all impressions are immediately translated into the sense of form. I do not hear music; I see it rise with domes and spires, with painted windows and Arabesques. The scent of the rose is to me tangible. I can almost feel it with my hand. So your prose suggested to me, by its rhythmic flow, something which, at first indefinite, crystallised finally into my lost conception of Narcissus.”

“It is extraordinary,” murmured Reginald. “I had not dreamed of it.”

“So you do not think it rather fantastic?” remarked Ernest, circumscribing his true meaning.

“No, it is quite possible. Perhaps his Narcissus was engaging the sub-conscious strata of my mind while I was writing this passage. And surely it would be strange if the undercurrents of our mind were not reflected in our style.”

“Do you mean, then, that a subtle psychologist ought to be able to read beneath and between our lines, not only what we express, but also what we leave unexpressed?”

“Undoubtedly.”

“Even if, while we are writing, we are unconscious of our state of mind? That would open a new field to psychology.”

“Only to those that have the key, that can read the hidden symbols. It is to me a matter-of-course that every mind-movement below or above the threshold of consciousness must, of a necessity, leave its imprint faintly or clearly, as the case may be, upon our activities.”

“This may explain why books that seem intolerably dull to the majority, delight the hearts of the few,” Ernest interjected.

“Yes, to the few that possess the key. I distinctly remember how an uncle of mine once laid down a discussion on higher mathematics and blushed fearfully when his innocent wife looked over his shoulder. The man who had written it was a roué.”

“Then the seemingly most harmless books may secretly possess the power of scattering in young minds the seed of corruption,” Walkham remarked.

“If they happen to understand,” Clarke observed thoughtfully. “I can very well conceive of a lecherous text-book of the calculus, or of a reporter’s story of a picnic in which burnt, under the surface, undiscoverable, save to the initiate, the tragic passion of Tristram and Iseult.”

VI

Several weeks had elapsed since the conversation in Reginald Clarke’s studio. The spring was now well advanced and had sprinkled the meadows with flowers, and the bookshelves of the reviewers with fiction. The latter Ernest turned to good account, but from the flowers no poem blossomed forth. In writing about other men’s books, he almost forgot that the springtide had brought to him no bouquet of song. Only now and then, like a rippling of water, disquietude troubled his soul.

The strange personality of the master of the house had enveloped the lad’s thoughts with an impenetrable maze. The day before Jack had come on a flying visit from Harvard, but even he was unable to free Ernest’s soul from the obsession of Reginald Clarke.

Ernest was lazily stretching himself on a couch, waving the smoke of his cigarette to Reginald, who was writing at his desk.

“Your friend Jack is delightful,” Reginald remarked, looking up from his papers. “And his ebon-coloured hair contrasts prettily with the gold in yours. I should imagine that you are temperamental antipodes.”

“So we are; but friendship bridges the chasm between.”

“How long have you known him?”

“We have been chums ever since our sophomore year.”

“What attracted you in him?”

“It is no simple matter to define exactly one’s likes and dislikes. Even a tiny protoplasmic animal appears to be highly complex under the microscope. How can we hope to analyse, with any degree of certitude, our souls, especially when, under the influence of feeling, we see as through a glass darkly.”

“It is true that personal feeling colours our spectacles and distorts the perspective. Still, we should not shrink from self-analysis. We must learn to see clearly into our own hearts if we would give vitality to our work. Indiscretion is the better part of literature, and it behooves us to hound down each delicate elusive shadow of emotion, and convert it into copy.”

“It is because I am so self-analytical that I realise the complexity of my nature, and am at a loss to define my emotions. Conflicting forces sway us hither and thither without neutralising each other. Physicology isn’t physics. There were many things to attract me to Jack. He was subtler, more sympathetic, more feminine, perhaps, than the rest of my college-mates.”

“That I have noticed. In fact, his lashes are those of a girl. You still care for him very much?”

“It isn’t a matter of caring. We are two beings that live one life.”

“A sort of psychic Siamese twins?”

“Almost. Why, the matter is very simple. Our hearts root in the same soil; the same books have nourished us, the same great winds have shaken our being, and the same sunshine called forth the beautiful blossom of friendship.”

“He struck me, if you will pardon my saying so, as a rather commonplace companion.”

“There is in him a hidden sweetness, and a depth of feeling which only intimate contact reveals. He is now taking his post-graduate course at Harvard, and for well-nigh two months we have not met; yet so many invisible threads of common experience unite us that we could meet after years and still be near each other.”

“You are very young,” Reginald replied.

“What do you mean?”

“Ah—never mind.”

“So you do not believe that two hearts may ever beat as one?”

“No, that is an auditory delusion. Not even two clocks beat in unison. There is always a discrepancy, infinitesimal, perhaps, but a discrepancy nevertheless.”

A sharp ring of the bell interrupted the conversation. A moment later a curly head peeped through the door.

“Hello, Ernest! How are you, old man?” the intruder cried, with a laugh in his voice. Then, noticing Clarke, he shook hands with the great man unceremoniously, with the nonchalance of the healthy young animal bred in the atmosphere of an American college.

His touch seemed to thrill Clarke, who breathed heavily and then stepped to the window, as if to conceal the flush of vitality on his cheek.

It was a breath of springtide that Jack had brought with him. Youth is a Prince Charming. To shrivelled veins the pressure of his hand imparts a spark of animation, and middle age unfolds its petals in his presence, as a sunflower gazing at late noon once more upon its lord.

“I have come to take Ernest away from you,” said Jack. “He looks a trifle paler than usual, and a day’s outing will stir the red corpuscles in his blood.”

“I have no doubt that you will take very good care of him,” Reginald replied.

“Where shall we go?” Ernest asked, absent-mindedly.

But he did not hear the answer, for Reginald’s scepticisms had more deeply impressed him than he cared to confess to himself.

VII

The two boys had bathed their souls in the sea-breeze, and their eyes in light.

The tide of pleasure-loving humanity jostling against them had carried their feet to the “Lion Palace.” From there, seated at table and quenching their thirst with high-balls, they watched the feverish palpitations of the city’s life-blood pulsating in the veins of Coney Island, to which they had drifted from Brighton Beach.

Ernest blew thoughtful rings of smoke into the air.

“Do you notice the ferocious look in the mien of the average frequenter of this island resort?” he said to Jack, whose eyes, following the impulse of his more robust youth, were examining specimens of feminine flotsam on the waves of the crowd.

“It is,” he continued, speaking to himself for want of an audience, “the American who is in for having a ‘good time.’ And he is going to get it. Like a huntsman, he follows the scent of happiness; but I warrant that always it eludes him. Perhaps his mad race is only the epitome of humanity’s vain pursuit of pleasure, the eternal cry that is never answered.”

But Jack was not listening. There are times in the life of every man when a petticoat is more attractive to him than all the philosophy of the world.

Ernest was a little hurt, and it was not without some silent remonstrance that he acquiesced when Jack invited to their table two creatures that once were women.

“Why?”

“But they are interesting.”

“I cannot find so.”

They both had seen better times—of course. Then money losses came, with work in shop or factory, and the voice of the tempter in the commercial wilderness.

One, a frail nervous little creature, who had instinctively chosen a seat at Ernest’s side, kept prattling in his ear, ready to tell the story of her life to any one who was willing to treat her to a drink. Something in her demeanour interested him.

“And then I had a stroke of luck. The manager of a vaudeville was my friend and decided to give me a trial. He thought I had a voice. They called me Betsy, the Hyacinth Girl. At first it seemed as if people liked to hear me. But I suppose that was because I was new. After a month or two they discharged me.”

“And why?”

“I suppose I was just used up, that’s all.”

“Frightful!”

“I never had much of a voice—and the tobacco smoke—and the wine—I love wine.”

She gulped down her glass.

“And do you like your present occupation?”

“Why not? Am I not young? Am I not pretty?”

This she said not parrotwise, but with a simple coquettishness that was all her own.

On the way to the steamer a few moments later, Ernest asked, half-reproachfully: “Jack—and you really enjoyed this conversation?”

“Didn’t you?”

“Do you mean this?”

“Why, yes; she was—very agreeable.”

Ernest frowned.

“We’re twenty, Ernest. And then, you see, it’s like a course in sociology. Susie—”

“Susie, was that her name?”

“Yes.”

“So she had a name?”

“Of course.”

“She shouldn’t. It should be a number.”

“They may not be pillars of society; still, they’re human.”

“Yes,” said Ernest, “that is the most horrible part of it.”

VIII

The moon was shining brightly.

Swift and sure the prow of the night-boat parted the silvery foam.

The smell of young flesh. Peals of laughter. A breathless pianola. The tripping of dancing-feet. Voices husked with drink and voices soft with love. The shrill accents of vulgarity. Hustling waiters. Shop-girls. Bourgeois couples. Tired families of four and upward. Sleeping children. A boy selling candy. The crying of babies.

The two friends were sitting on the upper deck, muffled in their long rain-coats.

In the distance the Empire City rose radiant from the mist.

“Say, Ernest, you should spout some poetry as of old. Are your lips stricken mute, or are you still thinking of Coney Island?”

“Oh, no, the swift wind has taken it away. I am clean, I am pure. Life has passed me. It has kissed me, but it has left no trace.”

He looked upon the face of his friend. Their hands met. They felt, with keen enjoyment, the beauty of the night, of their friendship, and of the city beyond.

Then Ernest’s lips moved softly, musically, twitching with a strange ascetic passion that trembled in his voice as he began:

“Huge steel-ribbed monsters rise into the air
Her Babylonian towers, while on high,
Like gilt-scaled serpents, glide the swift trains by,
Or, underfoot, creep to their secret lair.
A thousand lights are jewels in her hair,
The sea her girdle, and her crown the sky;
Her life-blood throbs, the fevered pulses fly.
Immense, defiant, breathless she stands there.

“And ever listens in the ceaseless din,
Waiting for him, her lover, who shall come,
Whose singing lips shall boldly claim their own,
And render sonant what in her was dumb,
The splendour, and the madness, and the sin,
Her dreams in iron and her thoughts of stone.”

He paused. The boat glided on. For a long time neither spoke a word.

After a while Jack broke the silence: “And are you dreaming of becoming the lyric mouth of the city, of giving utterance to all its yearnings, its ‘dreams in iron and its thoughts of stone’?”

“No,” replied Ernest, simply, “not yet. It is strange to what impressions the brain will respond. In Clarke’s house, in the midst of inspiring things, inspiration failed me. But while I was with that girl an idea came to me—an idea, big, real.”

“Will it deal with her?”

Ernest smiled: “Oh, no. She personally has nothing to do with it. At least not directly. It was the commotion of blood and—brain. The air—the change. I don’t know what.”

“What will it be?” asked Jack, with interest all alert.

“A play, a wonderful play. And its heroine will be a princess, a little princess, with a yellow veil.”

“What of the plot?”

“That I shall not tell you to-day. In fact, I shall not breathe a word to any one. It will take you all by surprise—and the public by storm.”

“So it will be playable?”

“If I am not very much mistaken, you will see it on Broadway within a year. And,” he added graciously, “I will let you have two box-seats for the first night.”

They both chuckled at the thought, and their hearts leaped within them.

“I hope you will finish it soon,” Jack observed after a while. “You haven’t done much of late.”

“A similar reflection was on my mind when you came yesterday. That accounts for the low spirits in which you found me.”

“Ah, indeed,” Jack replied, measuring Ernest with a look of wonder. “But now your face is aglow. It seems that the blood rushes to your head swifter at the call of an idea than at the kiss of a girl.”

“Thank God!” Ernest remarked with a sigh of relief. “Mighty forces within me are fashioning the limpid thought. Passion may grip us by the throat momentarily; upon our backs we may feel the lashes of desire and bathe our souls in flames of many hues; but the joy of activity is the ultimate passion.”

IX

It seemed, indeed, as if work was to Ernest what the sting of pleasure is to the average human animal. The inter-play of his mental forces gave him the sensuous satisfaction of a woman’s embrace. His eyes sparkled. His muscle tightened. The joy of creation was upon him.

Often very material reasons, like stone weights tied to the wings of a bird, stayed the flight of his imagination. Magazines were waiting for his copy, and he was not in the position to let them wait. They supplied his bread and butter.

Between the bread and butter, however, the play was growing scene by scene. In the lone hours of the night he spun upon the loom of his fancy a brilliant weft of swift desire—heavy, perfumed, Oriental—interwoven with bits of gruesome tenderness. The thread of his own life intertwined with the thread of the story. All genuine art is autobiography. It is not, however, necessarily a revelation of the artist’s actual self, but of a myriad of potential selves. Ah, our own potential selves! They are sometimes beautiful, often horrible, and always fascinating. They loom to heavens none too high for our reach; they stray to yawning hells beneath our very feet.

The man who encompasses heaven and hell is a perfect man. But there are many heavens and more hells. The artist snatches fire from both. Surely the assassin feels no more intensely the lust of murder than the poet who depicts it in glowing words. The things he writes are as real to him as the things that he lives. But in his realm the poet is supreme. His hands may be red with blood or white with leprosy: he still remains king. Woe to him, however, if he transcends the limits of his kingdom and translates into action the secret of his dreams. The throng that before applauded him will stone his quivering body or nail to the cross his delicate hands and feet.

Sometimes days passed before Ernest could concentrate his mind upon his play. Then the fever seized him again, and he strung pearl on pearl, line on line, without entrusting a word to paper. Even to discuss his work before it had received the final brush-strokes would have seemed indecent to him.

Reginald, too, seemed to be in a turmoil of work. Ernest had little chance to speak to him. And to drop even a hint of his plans between the courses at breakfast would have been desecration.

Sunset followed sunset, night followed night. The stripling April had made room for the lady May. The play was almost completed in Ernest’s mind, and he thought, with a little shudder, of the physical travail of the actual writing. He felt that the transcript from brain to paper would demand all his powers. For, of late, his thoughts seemed strangely evanescent; they seemed to run away from him whenever he attempted to seize them.

The day was glad with sunshine, and he decided to take a long walk in the solitude of the Palisades, to steady hand and nerve for the final task.

He told Reginald of his intention, but met with little response. Reginald’s face was wan and bore the peculiar pallor of one who had worked late at night.

“You must be frightfully busy?” Ernest asked, with genuine concern.

“So I am,” Reginald replied. “I always work in a white heat. I am restless, nervous, feverish, and can find no peace until I have given utterance to all that clamours after birth.”

“What is it that is so engaging your mind, the epic of the French Revolution?”

“Oh, no. I should never have undertaken that. I haven’t done a stroke of work on it for several weeks. In fact, ever since Walkham called, I simply couldn’t. It seemed as if a rough hand had in some way destroyed the web of my thought. Poetry in the writing is like red hot glass before the master-blower has fashioned it into birds and trees and strange fantastic shapes. A draught, caused by the opening of a door may distort it. But at present I am engaged upon more important work. I am modelling a vessel not of fine-spun glass, but of molten gold.”

“You make me exceedingly anxious to know what you have in store for us. It seems to me you have reached a point where even you can no longer surpass yourself.”

Reginald smiled. “Your praise is too generous, yet it warms like sunshine. I will confess that my conception is unique. It combines with the ripeness of my technique the freshness of a second spring.”

Ernest was bubbling with anticipated delights. His soul responded to Reginald’s touch as a harp to the winds. “When,” he cried, “shall we be privileged to see it?”

Reginald’s eyes were already straying back to his writing table. “If the gods are propitious,” he remarked, “I shall complete it to-night. To-morrow is my reception, and I have half promised to read it then.”

“Perhaps I shall be in the position soon to let you see my play.”

“Let us hope so,” Reginald replied absent-mindedly. The egotism of the artist had once more chained him to his work.

X

That night a brilliant crowd had gathered in Reginald Clarke’s house. From the studio and the adjoining salon arose a continual murmur of well-tuned voices. On bare white throats jewels shone as if in each a soul were imprisoned, and voluptuously rustled the silk that clung to the fair slim forms of its bearers in an undulating caress. Subtle perfumes emanated from the hair and the hands of syren women, commingling with the soft plump scent of their flesh. Fragrant tapers, burning in precious crystal globules stained with exquisite colours, sprinkled their shimmering light over the fashionable assemblage and lent a false radiance to the faces of the men, while in the hair and the jewels of the women each ray seemed to dance like an imp with its mate.

A seat like a throne, covered with furs of tropic beasts of prey, stood in one corner of the room in the full glare of the light, waiting for the monarch to come. Above were arranged with artistic raffinement weird oriental draperies, resembling a crimson canopy in the total effect. Chattering visitors were standing in groups, or had seated themselves on the divans and curiously-fashioned chairs that were scattered in seeming disorder throughout the salon. There were critics and writers and men of the world. Everybody who was anybody and a little bigger than somebody else was holding court in his own small circle of enthusiastic admirers. The Bohemian element was subdued, but not entirely lacking. The magic of Reginald Clarke’s name made stately dames blind to the presence of some individuals whom they would have passed on the street without recognition.

Ernest surveyed this gorgeous assembly with the absent look of a sleep-walker. Not that his sensuous soul was unsusceptible to the atmosphere of culture and corruption that permeated the whole, nor to the dazzling colour effects that tantalised while they delighted the eye. But to-night they shrivelled into insignificance before the splendour of his inner vision. A radiant dreamland palace, his play, had risen from the night of inchoate thought. It was wonderful, it was real, and needed for its completion only the detail of actual construction. And now the characters were hovering in the recesses of his brain, were yearning to leave that many-winded labyrinth to become real beings of paper and ink. He would probably have tarried overlong in this fanciful mansion, had not the reappearance of an unexpected guest broken his reverie.

“Jack!” he exclaimed in surprise, “I thought you a hundred miles away from here.”

“That shows that you no longer care for me,” Jack playfully answered. “When our friendship was young, you always had a presentiment of my presence.”

“Ah, perhaps I had. But tell me, where do you hail from?”

“Clarke called me up on the telephone—long-distance, you know. I suppose it was meant as a surprise for you. And you certainly looked surprised—not even pleasantly. I am really head-over-heels at work. But you know how it is. Sometimes a little imp whispers into my ears daring me to do a thing which I know is foolish. But what of it? My legs are strong enough not to permit my follies to overtake me.”

“It was certainly good of you to come. In fact, you make me very glad. I feel that I need you to-night—I don’t know why. The feeling came suddenly—suddenly as you. I only know I need you. How long can you stay?”

“I must leave you to-morrow morning. I have to hustle somewhat. You know my examinations are taking place in a day or two and I’ve got to cram up a lot of things.”

“Still,” remarked Ernest, “your visit will repay you for the loss of time. Clarke will read to us to-night his masterpiece.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. I only know it’s the real thing. It’s worth all the wisdom bald-headed professors may administer to you in concentrated doses at five thousand a year.”

“Come now,” Jack could not help saying, “is your memory giving way? Don’t you remember your own days in college—especially the mathematical examinations? You know that your marks came always pretty near the absolute zero.”

“Jack,” cried Ernest in honest indignation, “not the last time. The last time I didn’t flunk.”

“No, because your sonnet on Cartesian geometry roused even the math-fiend to compassion. And don’t you remember Professor Squeeler, whose heart seemed to leap with delight whenever he could tell you that, in spite of incessant toil on your part, he had again flunked you in physics with fifty-nine and a half per cent.?”

“And he wouldn’t raise the mark to sixty! God forgive him,—I cannot.”

Here their exchange of reminiscences was interrupted. There was a stir. The little potentates of conversation hastened to their seats, before their minions had wholly deserted them.

The king was moving to his throne!

Assuredly Reginald Clarke had the bearing of a king. Leisurely he took his seat under the canopy.

A hush fell on the audience; not a fan stirred as he slowly unfolded his manuscript.

 

TUNE IN TOMORROW FOR CHAPTERS 11 – 21 OF
George Sylvester Viereck’s
THE HOUSE OF THE VAMPIRE

Munch_vampire