Bat Wing/Chapter XV
I SAT in Paul Harley’s room. Luncheon was over, and although, as on the previous day, it had been a perfect repast, perfectly served, the sense of tension which I had experienced throughout the meal had made me horribly ill at ease.
That shadow of which I have spoken elsewhere seemed to have become almost palpable. In vain I had ascribed it to a morbid imagination: persistently it lingered.
Madame de Stämer’s gaiety rang more false than ever. She twirled the rings upon her slender fingers and shot little enquiring glances all around the table. This spirit of unrest, from wherever it arose, had communicated itself to everybody. Madame’s several bon mots one and all were failures. She delivered them without conviction like an amateur repeating lines learned by heart. The Colonel was unusually silent, eating little but drinking much. There was something unreal, almost ghastly, about the whole affair; and when at last Madame de Stämer retired, bearing Val Beverley with her, I felt certain that the Colonel would make some communication to us. If ever knowledge of portentous evil were written upon a man’s face it was written upon his, as he sat there at the head of the table, staring straightly before him. However:
“Gentlemen,” he said, “if your enquiries here have led to no result of, shall I say, a tangible character, at least I feel sure that you must have realized one thing.”
Harley stared at him sternly.
“I have realized, Colonel Menendez,” he replied, “that something is pending.”
“Ah!” murmured the Colonel, and he clutched the edge of the table with his strong brown hands.
“But,” continued my friend, “I have realized something more. You have asked for my aid, and I am here. Now you have deliberately tied my hands.”
“What do you mean, sir?” asked the other, softly.
“I will speak plainly. I mean that you know more about the nature of this danger than you have ever communicated to me. Allow me to proceed, if you please, Colonel Menendez. For your delightful hospitality I thank you. As your guest I could be happy, but as a professional investigator whose services have been called upon under most unusual circumstances, I cannot be happy and I do not thank you.”
Their glances met. Both were angry, wilful, and self-confident. Following a few moments of silence:
“Perhaps, Mr. Harley,” said the Colonel, “you have something further to say?”
“I have this to say,” was the answer: “I esteem your friendship, but I fear I must return to town without delay.”
The Colonel’s jaws were clenched so tightly that I could see the muscles protruding. He was fighting an inward battle; then:
“What!” he said, “you would desert me?”
“I never deserted any man who sought my aid.”
“I have sought your aid.”
“Then accept it!” cried Harley. “This, or allow me to retire from the case. You ask me to find an enemy who threatens you, and you withhold every clue which could aid me in my search.”
“What clue have I withheld?”
Paul Harley stood up.
“It is useless to discuss the matter further, Colonel Menendez,” he said, coldly.
The Colonel rose also, and:
“Mr. Harley,” he replied, and his high voice was ill-controlled, “if I give you my word of honour that I dare not tell you more, and if, having done so, I beg of you to remain at least another night, can you refuse me?”
Harley stood at the end of the table watching him.
“Colonel Menendez,” he said, “this would appear to be a game in which my handicap rests on the fact that I do not know against whom I am pitted. Very well. You leave me no alternative but to reply that I will stay.”
“I thank you, Mr. Harley. As I fear I am far from well, dare I hope to be excused if I retire to my room for an hour’s rest?”
Harley and I bowed, and the Colonel, returning our salutations, walked slowly out, his bearing one of grace and dignity. So that memorable luncheon terminated, and now we found ourselves alone and faced with a problem which, from whatever point one viewed it, offered no single opening whereby one might hope to penetrate to the truth.
Paul Harley was pacing up and down the room in a state of such nervous irritability as I never remembered to have witnessed in him before.
I had just finished an account of my visit to the Guest House and of the indignity which had been put upon me, and:
“Conundrums! conundrums!” my friend exclaimed. “This quest of Bat Wing is like the quest of heaven, Knox. A hundred open doors invite us, each one promising to lead to the light, and if we enter where do they lead?—to mystification. For instance, Colonel Menendez has broadly hinted that he looks upon Colin Camber as an enemy. Judging from your reception at the Guest House to-day, such an enmity, and a deadly enmity, actually exists. But whereas Camber has resided here for three years, the Colonel is a newcomer. We are, therefore, offered the spectacle of a trembling victim seeking the sacrifice. Bah! it is preposterous.”
“If you had seen Colin Camber’s face to-day, you might not have thought it so preposterous.”
“But I should, Knox! I should! It is impossible to suppose that Colonel Menendez was unaware when he leased Cray’s Folly that Camber occupied the Guest House.”
“And Mrs. Camber is a Cuban,” I murmured.
“Don’t, Knox!” my friend implored. “This case is driving me mad. I have a conviction that it is going to prove my Waterloo.”
“My dear fellow,” I said, “this mood is new to you.”
“Why don’t you advise me to remember Auguste Dupin?” asked Harley, bitterly. “That great man, preserving his philosophical calm, doubtless by this time would have pieced together these disjointed clues, and have produced an elegant pattern ready to be framed and exhibited to the admiring public.”
He dropped down upon the bed, and taking his briar from his pocket, began to load it in a manner which was almost vicious. I stood watching him and offered no remark, until, having lighted the pipe, he began to smoke. I knew that these “Indian moods” were of short duration, and, sure enough, presently:
“God bless us all, Knox,” he said, breaking into an amused smile, “how we bristle when someone tries to prove that we are not infallible! How human we are, Knox, but how fortunate that we can laugh at ourselves.”
I sighed with relief, for Harley at these times imposed a severe strain even upon my easy-going disposition.
“Let us go down to the billiard room,” he continued. “I will play you a hundred up. I have arrived at a point where my ideas persistently work in circles. The best cure is golf; failing golf, billiards.”
The billiard room was immediately beneath us, adjoining the last apartment in the east wing, and there we made our way. Harley played keenly, deliberately, concentrating upon the game. I was less successful, for I found myself alternately glancing toward the door and the open window, in the hope that Val Beverley would join us. I was disappointed, however. We saw no more of the ladies until tea-time, and if a spirit of constraint had prevailed throughout luncheon, a veritable demon of unrest presided upon the terrace during tea.
Madame de Stämer made apologies on behalf of the Colonel. He was prolonging his siesta, but he hoped to join us at dinner.
“Is the Colonel’s heart affected?” Harley asked.
Madame de Stämer shrugged her shoulders and shook her head, blankly.
“It is mysterious, the state of his health,” she replied. “An old trouble, which began years and years ago in Cuba.”
Harley nodded sympathetically, but I could see that he was not satisfied. Yet, although he might doubt her explanation, he had noted, and so had I, that Madame de Stämer’s concern was very real. Her slender hands were strangely unsteady; indeed her condition bordered on one of distraction.
Harley concealed his thoughts, whatever they may have been, beneath that mask of reserve which I knew so well, whilst I endeavoured in vain to draw Val Beverley into conversation with me.
I gathered that Madame de Stämer had been to visit the invalid, and that she was all anxiety to return was a fact she was wholly unable to conceal. There was a tired look in her still eyes, as though she had undertaken a task beyond her powers to perform, and, so unnatural a quartette were we, that when presently she withdrew I was glad, although she took Val Beverley with her.
Paul Harley resumed his seat, staring at me with unseeing eyes. A sound reached us through the drawing room which told us that Madame de Stämer’s chair was being taken upstairs, a task always performed when Madame desired to visit the upper floors by Manoel and Pedro’s daughter, Nita, who acted as Madame’s maid. These sounds died away, and I thought how silent everything had become. Even the birds were still, and presently, my eye being attracted to a black speck in the sky above, I learned why the feathered choir was mute. A hawk was hovering loftily overhead.
Noting my upward glance, Paul Harley also raised his eyes.
“Ah,” he murmured, “a hawk. All the birds are cowering in their nests. Nature is a cruel mistress, Knox.”