Bat Wing/Chapter XI

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Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XI


CHAPTER XI
THE SHADOW ON THE BLIND


PERHAPS   it was childish on my part, but I accepted this curt dismissal very ill-humouredly. That Harley, for some reason of his own, wished to be alone, was evident enough, but I resented being excluded from his confidence, even temporarily. It would seem that he had formed a theory in the prosecution of which my coöperation was not needed. And what with profitless conjectures concerning its nature, and memories of Val Beverley’s pathetic parting glance as we had bade one another good-night, sleep seemed to be out of the question, and I stood for a long time staring out of the open window.

The weather remained almost tropically hot, and the moon floated in a cloudless sky. I looked down upon the closely matted leaves of the box hedge, which rose to within a few feet of my window, and to the left I could obtain a view of the close-hemmed courtyard before the doors of Cray’s Folly. On the right the yews began, obstructing my view of the Tudor garden, but the night air was fragrant, and the outlook one of peace.

After a time, then, as no sound came from the adjoining room, I turned in, and despite all things was soon fast asleep.

Almost immediately, it seemed, I was awakened. In point of fact, nearly four hours had elapsed. A hand grasped my shoulder, and I sprang up in bed with a stifled cry, but:

“It’s all right, Knox,” came Harley’s voice. “Don’t make a noise.”

“Harley!” I said. “Harley! what has happened?”

“Nothing, nothing. I am sorry to have to disturb your beauty sleep, but in the absence of Innes I am compelled to use you as a dictaphone, Knox. I like to record impressions while they are fresh, hence my having awakened you.”

“But what has happened?” I asked again, for my brain was not yet fully alert.

“No, don’t light up!” said Harley, grasping my wrist as I reached out toward the table-lamp.

His figure showed as a black silhouette against the dim square of the window.

“Why not?”

“Well, it’s nearly two o’clock. The light might be observed.”

“Two o’clock?” I exclaimed.

“Yes. I think we might smoke, though. Have you any cigarettes? I have left my pipe behind.”

I managed to find my case, and in the dim light of the match which I presently struck I saw that Paul Harley’s face was very fixed and grim. He seated himself on the edge of my bed, and:

“I have been guilty of a breach of hospitality, Knox,” he began. “Not only have I secretly had my own car sent down here, but I have had something else sent, as well. I brought it in under my coat this evening.”

“To what do you refer, Harley?”

“You remember the silken rope-ladder with bamboo rungs which I brought from Hongkong on one occasion?”

“Yes—”

“Well, I have it in my bag now.”

“But, my dear fellow, what possible use can it be to you at Cray’s Folly?”

“It has been of great use,” he returned, shortly.

“It enabled me to descend from my window a couple of hours ago and to return again quite recently without disturbing the household. Don’t reproach me, Knox. I know it is a breach of confidence, but so is the behaviour of Colonel Menendez.”

“You refer to his reticence on certain points?”

“I do. I have a reputation to lose, Knox, and if an ingenious piece of Chinese workmanship can save it, it shall be saved.”

“But, my dear Harley, why should you want to leave the house secretly at night?”

Paul Harley’s cigarette glowed in the dark, then:

“My original object,” he replied, “was to endeavour to learn if any one were really watching the place. For instance, I wanted to see if all lights were out at the Guest House.”

“And were they?” I asked, eagerly.

“They were. Secondly,” he continued, “I wanted to convince myself that there were no nocturnal prowlers from within or without.”

“What do you mean by within or without?”

“Listen, Knox.” He bent toward me in the dark, grasping my shoulder firmly. “One window in Cray’s Folly was lighted up.”

“At what hour?”

“The light is there yet.”

That he was about to make some strange revelation I divined. I detected the fact, too, that he believed this revelation would be unpleasant to me; and in this I found an explanation of his earlier behaviour. He had seemed distraught and ill at ease when he had joined Madame de Stämer, Miss Beverley, and myself in the drawing room. I could only suppose that this and the abrupt parting with me outside my door had been due to his holding a theory which he had proposed to put to the test before confiding it to me. I remember that I spoke very slowly as I asked him the question:

“Whose is the lighted window, Harley?”

“Has Colonel Menendez taken you into a little snuggery or smoke-room which faces his bedroom in the southeast corner of the house?”

“No, but Miss Beverley has mentioned the room.”

“Ah. Well, there is a light in that room, Knox.”

“Possibly the Colonel has not retired?”

“According to Madame de Stämer he went to bed several hours ago, you may remember.”

“True,” I murmured, fumbling for the significance of his words.

“The next point is this,” he resumed. “You saw Madame retire to her own room, which, as you know, is on the ground floor, and I have satisfied myself that the door communicating with the servants’ wing is locked.”

“I see. But to what is all this leading, Harley?”

“To a very curious fact, and the fact is this: The Colonel is not alone.”

I sat bolt upright.

“What?” I cried.

“Not so loud,” warned Harley.

“But, Harley—”

“My dear fellow, we must face facts. I repeat, the Colonel is not alone.”

“Why do you say so?”

“Twice I have seen a shadow on the blind of the smoke-room.”

“His own shadow, probably.”

Again Paul Harley’s cigarette glowed in the darkness.

“I am prepared to swear,” he replied, “that it was the shadow of a woman.”

“Harley——”

“Don’t get excited, Knox. I am dealing with the strangest case of my career, and I am jumping to no conclusions. But just let us look at the circumstances judicially. The whole of the domestic staff we may dismiss, with the one exception of Mrs. Fisher, who, so far as I can make out, occupies the position of a sort of working housekeeper, and whose rooms are in the corner of the west wing immediately facing the kitchen garden. Possibly you have not met Mrs. Fisher, Knox, but I have made it my business to interview the whole of the staff and I may say that Mrs. Fisher is a short, stout old lady, a native of Kent, I believe, whose outline in no way corresponds to that which I saw upon the blind. Therefore, unless the door which communicates with the servants’ quarters was unlocked again to-night—to what are we reduced in seeking to explain the presence of a woman in Colonel Menendez’s room? Madame de Stämer, unassisted, could not possibly have mounted the stairs.”

“Stop, Harley!” I said, sternly. “Stop.”

He ceased speaking, and I watched the steady glow of his cigarette in the darkness. It lighted up his bronzed face and showed me the steely gleam of his eyes.

“You are counting too much on the locking of the door by Pedro,” I continued, speaking very deliberately. “He is a man I would trust no farther than I could see him, and if there is anything dark underlying this matter you depend that he is involved in it. But the most natural explanation, and also the most simple, is this—Colonel Menendez has been taken seriously ill, and someone is in his room in the capacity of a nurse.”

“Her behaviour was scarcely that of a nurse in a sick-room,” murmured Harley.

“For God’s sake tell me the truth,” I said. “Tell me all you saw.”

“I am quite prepared to do so, Knox. On three occasions, then, I saw the figure of a woman, who wore some kind of loose robe, quite clearly silhouetted upon the linen blind. Her gestures strongly resembled those of despair.”

“Of despair?”

“Exactly. I gathered that she was addressing someone, presumably Colonel Menendez, and I derived a strong impression that she was in a condition of abject despair.”

“Harley,” I said, “on your word of honour did you recognize anything in the movements, or in the outline of the figure, by which you could identify the woman?”

“I did not,” he replied, shortly. “It was a woman who wore some kind of loose robe, possibly a kimono. Beyond that I could swear to nothing, except that it was not Mrs. Fisher.”

We fell silent for a while. What Paul Harley’s thoughts may have been I know not, but my own were strange and troubled. Presently I found my voice again, and:

“I think, Harley,” I said, “that I should report to you something which Miss Beverley told me this evening.”

“Yes?” said he, eagerly. “I am anxious to hear anything which may be of the slightest assistance. You are no doubt wondering why I retired so abruptly to-night. My reason was this: I could see that you were full of some story which you had learned from Miss Beverley, and I was anxious to perform my tour of inspection with a perfectly unprejudiced mind.”

“You mean that your suspicions rested upon an inmate of Cray’s Folly?”

“Not upon any particular inmate, but I had early perceived a distinct possibility that these manifestations of which the Colonel complained might be due to the agency of someone inside the house. That this person might be no more than an accomplice of the prime mover I also recognized, of course. But what did you learn to-night, Knox?”

I repeated Val Beverley’s story of the mysterious footsteps and of the cries which had twice awakened her in the night.

“Hm,” muttered Harley, when I had ceased speaking. “Assuming her account to be true——”

“Why should you doubt it?” I interrupted, hotly.

“My dear Knox, it is my business to doubt everything until I have indisputable evidence of its truth. I say, assuming her story to be true, we find ourselves face to face with the fantastic theory that some woman unknown is living secretly in Cray’s Folly.”

“Perhaps in one of the tower rooms,” I suggested, eagerly. “Why, Harley, that would account for the Colonel’s marked unwillingness to talk about this part of the house.”

My sight was now becoming used to the dusk, and I saw Harley vigorously shake his head.

“No, no,” he replied; “I have seen all the tower rooms. I can swear that no one inhabits them. Besides, is it feasible?”

“Then whose were the footsteps that Miss Beverley heard?”

“Obviously those of the woman who, at this present moment, so far as I know, is in the smoking-room with Colonel Menendez.”

I sighed wearily.

“This is a strange business, Harley. I begin to think that the mystery is darker than I ever supposed.”

We fell silent again. The weird cry of a night hawk came from somewhere in the valley, but otherwise everything within and without the great house seemed strangely still. This stillness presently imposed its influence upon me, for when I spoke again, I spoke in a low voice.

“Harley,” I said, “my imagination is playing me tricks. I thought I heard the fluttering of wings at that moment.”

“Fortunately, my imagination remains under control,” he replied, grimly; “therefore I am in a position to inform you that you did hear the fluttering of wings. An owl has just flown into one of the trees immediately outside the window.”

“Oh,” said I, and uttered a sigh of relief.

“It is extremely fortunate that my imagination is so carefully trained,” continued Harley; “otherwise, when the woman whose shadow I saw upon the blind to-night raised her arms in a peculiar fashion, I could not well have failed to attach undue importance to the shape of the shadow thus created.”

“What was the shape of the shadow, then?”

“Remarkably like that of a bat.”

He spoke the words quietly, but in that still darkness, with dawn yet a long way off, they possessed the power which belongs to certain chords in music, and to certain lines in poetry. I was chilled unaccountably, and I peopled the empty corridors of Cray’s Folly with I know not what uncanny creatures; nightmare fancies conjured up from memories of haunted manors.

Such was my mood, then, when suddenly Paul Harley stood up. My eyes were growing more and more used to the darkness, and from something strained in his attitude I detected the fact that he was listening intently.

He placed his cigarette on the table beside the bed and quietly crossed the room. I knew from his silent tread that he wore shoes with rubber soles. Very quietly he turned the handle and opened the door.

“What is it, Harley?” I whispered.

Dimly I saw him raise his hand. Inch by inch he opened the door. My nerves in a state of tension, I sat there watching him, when without a sound he slipped out of the room and was gone. Thereupon I arose and followed as far as the doorway.

Harley was standing immediately outside in the corridor. Seeing me, he stepped back, and: “Don’t move, Knox,” he said, speaking very close to my ear. “There is someone downstairs in the hall. Wait for me here.”

With that he moved stealthily off, and I stood there, my heart beating with unusual rapidity, listening—listening for a challenge, a cry, a scuffle—I knew not what to expect.

Cavernous and dimly lighted, the corridor stretched away to my left. On the right it branched sharply in the direction of the gallery overlooking the hall.

The seconds passed, but no sound rewarded my alert listening—until, very faintly, but echoing in a muffled, church-like fashion around that peculiar building, came a slight, almost sibilant sound, which I took to be the gentle closing of a distant door.

Whilst I was still wondering if I had really heard this sound or merely imagined it:

“Who goes there?” came sharply in Harley’s voice.

I heard a faint click, and knew that he had shone the light of an electric torch down into the hall.

I hesitated no longer, but ran along to join him. As I came to the head of the main staircase, however, I saw him crossing the hall below. He was making in the direction of the door which shut off the servants’ quarters. Here he paused, and I saw him trying the handle. Evidently the door was locked, for he turned and swept the white ray all about the place. He tried several other doors, but found them all to be locked, for presently he came upstairs again, smiling grimly when he saw me there awaiting him.

“Did you hear it, Knox?” he said.

“A sound like the closing of a door?”

Paul Harley nodded.

“It was the closing of a door,” he replied; “but before that I had distinctly heard a stair creak. Someone crossed the hall then, Knox. Yet, as you perceive for yourself, it affords no hiding-place.”

His glance met and challenged mine.

“The Colonel’s visitor has left him,” he murmured. “Unless something quite unforeseen occurs, I shall throw up the case to-morrow.”