Bat Wing/Chapter XIV
I FIND it difficult, now, to recapture my first impression of that meeting. About the woman, hesitating before me, there was something unexpected, something wholly unfamiliar. She belonged to a type with which I was not acquainted. Nor was it wonderful that she should strike me in this fashion, since my wanderings, although fairly extensive, had never included the West Indies, nor had I been to Spain; and this girl—I could have sworn that she was under twenty—was one of those rare beauties, a golden Spaniard.
That she was not purely Spanish I learned later.
She was small, and girlishly slight, with slender ankles and exquisite little feet; indeed I think she had the tiniest feet of any woman I had ever met. She wore a sort of white pinafore over her dress, and her arms, which were bare because of the short sleeves of her frock, were of a child-like roundness, whilst her creamy skin was touched with a faint tinge of bronze, as though, I remember thinking, it had absorbed and retained something of the Southern sunshine. She had the swaying carriage which usually belongs to a tall woman, and her head and neck were Grecian in poise.
Her hair, which was of a curious dull gold colour, presented a mass of thick, tight curls, and her beauty was of that unusual character which makes a Cleopatra a subject of deathless debate. What I mean to say is this: whilst no man could have denied, for instance, that Val Beverley was a charmingly pretty woman, nine critics out of ten must have failed to classify this golden Spaniard correctly or justly. Her complexion was peach-like in the Oriental sense, that strange hint of gold underlying the delicate skin, and her dark blue eyes were shaded by really wonderful silken lashes.
Emotion had the effect of enlarging the pupils, a phenomenon rarely met with, so that now as she entered the room and found a stranger present they seemed to be rather black than blue.
Her embarrassment was acute, and I think she would have retired without speaking, but:
“Ysola,” said Colin Camber, regarding her with a look curiously compounded of sorrow and pride, “allow me to present Mr. Malcolm Knox, who has honoured us with a visit.”
He turned to me.
“Mr. Knox,” he said, “it gives me great pleasure that you should meet my wife.”
Perhaps I had expected this, indeed, subconsciously, I think I had. Nevertheless, at the words “my wife” I felt that I started. The analogy with Edgar Allan Poe was complete.
As Mrs. Camber extended her hand with a sort of appealing timidity, it appeared to me that she felt herself to be intruding. The expression in her beautiful eyes when she glanced at her husband could only be described as one of adoration; and whilst it was impossible to doubt his love for her, I wondered if his colossal egotism were capable of stooping to affection. I wondered if he knew how to tend and protect this delicate Southern girl wife of his.
Remembering the episode of the Lavender Arms, I felt justified in doubting her happiness, and in this I saw an explanation of the mingled sorrow and pride with which Colin Camber regarded her. It might betoken recognition of his own shortcomings as a husband.
“How nice of you to come and see us, Mr. Knox,” she said.
She spoke in a faintly husky manner which was curiously attractive, although lacking the deep, vibrant tones of Madame de Stämer’s memorable voice. Her English was imperfect, but her accent good.
“Your husband has been carrying me to enchanted lands, Mrs. Camber,” I replied. “I have never known a morning to pass so quickly.”
“Oh,” she replied, and laughed with a childish glee which I was glad to witness. “Did he tell you all about the book which is going to make the world good? Did he tell you it will make us rich as well?”
“Rich?” said Camber, frowning slightly. “Nature’s riches are health and love. If we hold these the rest will come. Now that you have joined us, Ysola, I shall beg Mr. Knox, in honour of this occasion, to drink a glass of wine and break a biscuit as a pledge of future meetings.”
I watched him as he spoke, a lean, unkempt figure invested with a curious dignity, and I found it almost impossible to believe that this was the same man who had sat in the bar of the Lavender Arms, sipping whisky and water. The resemblance to the portrait in Harley’s office became more marked than ever. There was an air of high breeding about the delicate features which, curiously enough, was accentuated by the unshaven chin. I recognized that refusal would be regarded as a rebuff, and therefore:
“You are very kind,” I said.
Colin Camber inclined his head gravely and courteously.
“We are very glad to have you with us, Mr. Knox,” he replied.
He clapped his hands, and, silent as a shadow, Ah Tsong appeared. I noted that although it was Camber who had summoned him, it was to Mrs. Camber that the Chinaman turned for orders. I had thought his yellow face incapable of expression, but as his oblique eyes turned in the direction of the girl I read in them a sort of dumb worship, such as one sees in the eyes of a dog.
She spoke to him rapidly in Chinese.
“Hoi, hoi,” he muttered, “hoi, hoi,” nodded his head, and went out.
I saw that Colin Camber had detected my interest, for:
“Ah Tsong is really my wife’s servant,” he explained.
“Oh,” she said in a low voice, and looked at me earnestly, “Ah Tsong nursed me when I was a little baby so high.” She held her hand about four feet from the floor and laughed gleefully. “Can you imagine what a funny little thing I was?”
“You must have been a wonder-child, Mrs. Camber,” I replied with sincerity; “and Ah Tsong has remained with you ever since?”
“Ever since,” she echoed, shaking her head in a vaguely pathetic way. “He will never leave me, do you think, Colin?”
“Never,” replied her husband; “you are all he loves in the world. A case, Mr. Knox,” he turned to me, “of deathless fidelity rarely met with nowadays and only possible, perhaps, in its true form in an Oriental.”
Mrs. Camber having seated herself upon one of the few chairs which was not piled with books, her husband had resumed his place by the writing desk, and I sought in vain to interpret the glances which passed between them.
The fact that these two were lovers none could have mistaken. But here again, as at Cray’s Folly, I detected a shadow. I felt that something had struck at the very root of their happiness, in fact, I wondered if they had been parted, and were but newly reunited for there was a sort of constraint between them, the more marked on the woman’s side than on the man’s. I wondered how long they had been married, but felt that it would have been indiscreet to ask.
Even as the idea occurred to me, however, an opportunity arose of learning what I wished to know. I heard a bell ring, and:
“There is someone at the door, Colin,” said Mrs. Camber.
“I will go,” he replied. “Ah Tsong has enough to do.”
Without another word he stood up and walked out of the room.
“You see,” said Mrs. Camber, smiling in her naïve way, “we only have one servant, except Ah Tsong, her name is Mrs. Powis. She is visiting her daughter who is married. We made the poor old lady take a holiday.”
“It is difficult to imagine you burdened with household responsibilities, Mrs. Camber,” I replied. “Please forgive me but I cannot help wondering how long you have been married?”
“For nearly four years.”
“Really?” I exclaimed. “You must have been married very young?”
“I was twenty. Do I look so young?”
I gazed at her in amazement.
“You astonish me,” I declared, which was quite true and no mere compliment. “I had guessed your age to be eighteen.”
“Oh,” she laughed, and resting her hands upon the settee leaned forward with sparkling eyes, “how funny. Sometimes I wish I looked older. It is dreadful in this place, although we have been so happy here. At all the shops they look at me so funny, so I always send Mrs. Powis now.”
“You are really quite wonderful,” I said. “You are Spanish, are you not, Mrs. Camber?”
She slightly shook her head, and I saw the pupils begin to dilate.
“Not really Spanish,” she replied, haltingly. “I was born in Cuba.”
“Then it was in Cuba that you met Mr. Camber?”
She nodded again, watching me intently.
“It is strange that a Virginian should settle in Surrey.”
“Yes?” she murmured, “you think so? But really it is not strange at all. Colin’s people are so proud, so proud. Do you know what they are like, those Virginians? Oh! I hate them.”
“You hate them?”
“No, I cannot hate them, for he is one. But he will never go back.”
“Why should he never go back, Mrs. Camber?”
“Because of me.”
“You mean that you do not wish to settle in America?”
“I could not—not where he comes from. They would not have me.”
Her eyes grew misty, and she quickly lowered her lashes.
“Would not have you?” I exclaimed. “I don’t understand.”
“No?” she said, and smiled up at me very gravely. “It is simple. I am a Cuban, one, as they say, of an inferior race—and of mixed blood.”
She shook her golden head as if to dismiss the subject, and stood up, as Camber entered, followed by Ah Tsong bearing a tray of refreshments.
Of the ensuing conversation I remember nothing. My mind was focussed upon the one vital fact that Mrs. Camber was a Cuban Creole. Dimly I felt that here was the missing link for which Paul Harley was groping. For it was in Cuba that Colin Camber had met his wife, it was from Cuba that the menace of Bat Wing came.
What could it mean? Surely it was more than a coincidence that these two families, both associated with the West Indies, should reside within sight of one another in the Surrey Hills. Yet, if it were the result of design, the design must be on the part of Colonel Menendez, since the Cambers had occupied the Guest House before he had leased Cray’s Folly.
I know not if I betrayed my absentmindedness during the time that I was struggling vainly with these maddening problems, but presently, Mrs. Camber having departed about her household duties, I found myself walking down the garden with her husband.
“This is the summer house of which I was speaking, Mr. Knox,” he said, and I regret to state that I retained no impression of his having previously mentioned the subject. “During the time that Sir James Appleton resided at Cray’s Folly, I worked here regularly in the summer months. It was Sir James, of course, who laid out the greater part of the gardens and who rescued the property from the state of decay into which it had fallen.”
I aroused myself from the profitless reverie in which I had become lost. We were standing before a sort of arbour which marked the end of the grounds of the Guest House. It overhung the edge of a miniature ravine, in which, over a pebbly course, a little stream pursued its way down the valley to feed the lake in the grounds of Cray’s Folly.
From this point of vantage I could see the greater part of Colonel Menendez’s residence. I had an unobstructed view of the tower and of the Tudor garden.
“I abandoned my work-shop,” pursued Colin Camber, “when the—er—the new tenant took up his residence. I work now in the room in which you found me this morning.”
He sighed, and turning abruptly, led the way back to the house, holding himself very erect, and presenting a queer figure in his threadbare dressing gown.
It was now a perfect summer’s day, and I commented upon the beauty of the old garden, which in places was bordered by a crumbling wall.
“Yes, a quaint old spot,” said Camber. “I thought at one time, because of the name of the house, that it might have been part of a monastery or convent. This was not the case, however. It derives its name from a certain Sir Jaspar Guest, who flourished, I believe, under King Charles of merry memory.”
“Nevertheless,” I added, “the Guest House is a charming survival of more spacious days.”
“True,” returned Colin Camber, gravely. “Here it is possible to lead one’s own life, away from the noisy world,” he sighed again wearily. “Yes, I shall regret leaving the Guest House.”
“What! You are leaving?”
“I am leaving as soon as I can find another residence, suited both to my requirements and to my slender purse. But these domestic affairs can be of no possible interest to you. I take it, Mr. Knox, that you will grant my wife and myself the pleasure of your company at lunch?”
“Many thanks,” I replied, “but really I must return to Cray’s Folly.”
As I spoke the words I had moved a little ahead at a point where the path was overgrown by a rose bush, for the garden was somewhat neglected.
“You will quite understand,” I said, and turned.
Never can I forget the spectacle which I beheld.
Colin Camber’s peculiarly pale complexion had assumed a truly ghastly pallor, and he stood with tightly clenched hands, glaring at me almost insanely.
“Mr. Camber,” I cried, with concern, “are you unwell?”
He moistened his dry lips, and:
“You are returning—to Cray’s Folly?” he said, speaking, it seemed, with difficulty.
“I am, sir. I am staying with Colonel Menendez.”
He clutched the collar of his pyjama jacket and wrenched so strongly that the button was torn off. His passion was incredible, insane. The power of speech had almost left him.
“You are a guest of—of Devil Menendez,” he whispered, and the speaking of the name seemed almost to choke him. “Of—Devil Menendez. You—you—are a spy. You have stolen my hospitality—you have obtained access to my house under false pretences. God! if I had known!”
“Mr. Camber,” I said, sternly, and realized that I, too, had clenched my fists, for the man’s language was grossly insulting, “you forget yourself.”
“Perhaps I do,” he muttered, thickly; “and therefore”—he raised a quivering forefinger—“go! If you have any spark of compassion in your breast, go! Leave my house.”
Nostrils dilated, he stood with that quivering finger outstretched, and now having become as speechless as he, I turned and walked rapidly up to the house.
“Ah Tsong! Ah Tsong!” came a cry from behind me in tones which I can only describe as hysterical—“Mr. Knox’s hat and stick. Quickly.”
As I walked in past the study door the Chinaman came to meet me, holding my hat and cane. I took them from him without a word, and, the door being held open by Ah Tsong, walked out on to the road.
My heart was beating rapidly. I did not know what to think nor what to do. This ignominious dismissal afforded an experience new to me. I was humiliated, mortified, but above all, wildly angry.
How far I had gone on my homeward journey I cannot say, when the sound of quickly pattering footsteps intruded upon my wild reverie. I stopped, turned, and there was Ah Tsong almost at my heels.
“Blinga chit flom lilly missee,” he said, and held the note toward me.
I hesitated, glaring at him in a way that must have been very unpleasant; but recovering myself I tore open the envelope, and read the following note, written in pencil and very shakily:
Please forgive him. If you knew what we have suffered from Señor Don Juan Menendez, I know you would forgive him. Please, for my sake.
The Chinaman was watching me, that strangely pathetic expression in his eyes, and:
“Tell your mistress that I quite understand and will write to her,” I said.
Ah Tsong turned, and ran swiftly off, as I pursued my way back to Cray’s Folly in a mood which I shall not attempt to describe.