Bat Wing/Chapter XVI
OVER the remainder of that afternoon I will pass in silence. Indeed, looking backward now, I cannot recollect that it afforded one incident worthy of record. But because great things overshadow small, so it may be that whereas my recollections of quite trivial episodes are sharp enough up to a point, my memories from this point onward to the horrible and tragic happening which I have set myself to relate are hazy and indistinct. I was troubled by the continued absence of Val Beverley. I thought that she was avoiding me by design, and in Harley’s gloomy reticence I could find no shadow of comfort.
We wandered aimlessly about the grounds, Harley staring up in a vague fashion at the windows of Cray’s Folly; and presently, when I stopped to inspect a very perfect rose bush, he left me without a word, and I found myself alone.
Later, as I sauntered toward the Tudor garden, where I had hoped to encounter Miss Beverley, I heard the clicking of billiard balls; and there was Harley at the table, practising fancy shots.
He glanced up at me as I paused by the open window, stopped to relight his pipe, and then bent over the table again.
“Leave me alone, Knox,” he muttered; “I am not fit for human society.”
Understanding his moods as well as I did, I merely laughed and withdrew.
I strolled around into the library and inspected scores of books without forming any definite impression of the contents of any of them. Manoel came in whilst I was there and I was strongly tempted to send a message to Miss Beverley, but common sense overcame the inclination.
When at last my watch told me that the hour for dressing was arrived, I heaved a sigh of relief. I cannot say that I was bored, my ill-temper sprang from a deeper source than this. The mysterious disappearance of the inmates of Cray’s Folly, and a sort of brooding stillness which lay over the great house, had utterly oppressed me.
As I passed along the terrace I paused to admire the spectacle afforded by the setting sun. The horizon was on fire from north to south and the countryside was stained with that mystic radiance which is sometimes called the Blood of Apollo. Turning, I saw the disk of the moon coldly rising in the heavens. I thought of the silent birds and the hovering hawk, and I began my preparations for dinner mechanically, dressing as an automaton might dress.
Paul Harley’s personality was never more marked than in his evil moods. His power to fascinate was only equalled by his power to repel. Thus, although there was a light in his room and I could hear him moving about, I did not join him when I had finished dressing, but lighting a cigarette walked downstairs.
The beauty of the night called to me, although as I stepped out upon the terrace I realized with a sort of shock that the gathering dusk held a menace, so that I found myself questioning the shadows and doubting the rustle of every leaf. Something invisible, intangible yet potent, brooded over Cray’s Folly. I began to think more kindly of the disappearance of Val Beverley during the afternoon. Doubtless she, too, had been touched by this spirit of unrest and in solitude had sought to dispel it.
So thinking, I walked on in the direction of the Tudor garden. The place was bathed in a sort of purple half-light, lending it a fairy air of unreality, as though banished sun and rising moon yet disputed for mastery over earth. This idea set me thinking of Colin Camber, of Osiris, whom he had described as a black god, and of Isis, whose silver disk now held undisputed sovereignty of the evening sky.
Resentment of the treatment which I had received at the Guest House still burned hotly within me, but the mystery of it all had taken the keen edge off my wrath, and I think a sort of melancholy was the keynote of my reflections as, descending the steps to the sunken garden, I saw Val Beverley, in a delicate blue gown, coming toward me. She was the spirit of my dreams, and the embodiment of my mood. When she lowered her eyes at my approach, I knew by virtue of a sort of inspiration that she had been avoiding me.
“Miss Beverley,” I said, “I have been looking for you all the afternoon.”
“Have you? I have been in my room writing letters.”
I paced slowly along beside her.
“I wish you would be very frank with me,” I said.
She glanced up swiftly, and as swiftly lowered her lashes again.
“Do you think I am not frank?”
“I do think so. I understand why.”
“Do you really understand?”
“I think I do. Your woman’s intuition has told you that there is something wrong.”
“In what way?”
“You are afraid of your thoughts. You can see that Madame de Stämer and Colonel Menendez are deliberately concealing something from Paul Harley, and you don’t know where your duty lies. Am I right?”
She met my glance for a moment in a startled way, then:
“Yes,” she said, softly; “you are quite right. How have you guessed?”
“I have tried very hard to understand you,” I replied, “and so perhaps up to a point I have succeeded.”
“Oh, Mr. Knox.” She suddenly laid her hand upon my arm. “I am oppressed with such a dreadful foreboding, yet I don’t know how to explain it to you.”
“I understand. I, too, have felt it.”
“You have?” She paused, and looked at me eagerly. “Then it is not just morbid imagination on my part. If only I knew what to do, what to believe. Really, I am bewildered. I have just left Madame de Stämer——”
“Yes?” I said, for she had paused in evident doubt.
“Well, she has utterly broken down.”
“She came to my room and sobbed hysterically for nearly an hour this afternoon.”
“But what was the cause of her grief?”
“I simply cannot understand.”
“Is it possible that Colonel Menendez is dangerously ill?”
“It may be so, Mr. Knox, but in that event why have they not sent for a physician?”
“True,” I murmured; “and no one has been sent for?”
“Have you seen Colonel Menendez?”
“Not since lunch-time.”
“Have you ever known him to suffer in this way before?”
“Never. It is utterly unaccountable. Certainly during the last few months he has given up riding practically altogether, and in other ways has changed his former habits, but I have never known him to exhibit traces of any real illness.”
“Has any medical man attended him?”
“Not that I know of. Oh, there is something uncanny about it all. Whatever should I do if you were not here?”
She had spoken on impulse, and seeing her swift embarrassment:
“Miss Beverley,” I said, “I am delighted to know that my company cheers you.”
Truth to tell my heart was beating rapidly, and, so selfish is the nature of man, I was more glad to learn that my company was acceptable to Val Beverley than I should have been to have had the riddle of Cray’s Folly laid bare before me.
Those sweetly indiscreet words, however, had raised a momentary barrier between us, and we walked on silently to the house, and entered the brightly lighted hall.
The silver peal of a Chinese tubular gong rang out just when we reached the veranda, and as Val Beverley and I walked in from the garden, Madame de Stämer came wheeling through the doorway, closely followed by Paul Harley. In her the art of the toilette amounted almost to genius, and she had so successfully concealed all traces of her recent grief that I wondered if this could have been real.
“My dear Mr. Knox,” she cried, “I seem to be fated always to apologize for other people. The Colonel is truly desolate, but he cannot join us for dinner. I have already explained to Mr. Harley.”
Harley inclined his head sympathetically, and assisted to arrange Madame in her place.
“The Colonel requests us to smoke a cigar with him after dinner, Knox,” he said, glancing across to me. “It would seem that troubles never come singly.”
“Ah,” Madame shrugged her shoulders, which her low gown left daringly bare, “they come in flocks, or not at all. But I suppose we should feel lonely in the world without a few little sorrows, eh, Mr. Harley?”
I loved her unquenchable spirit, and I have wondered often enough what I should have thought of her if I had known the truth. France has bred some wonderful women, both good and bad, but none I think more wonderful than Marie de Stämer.
If such a thing were possible, we dined more extravagantly than on the previous night. Madame’s wit was at its keenest; she was truly brilliant. Pedro, from the big bouffet at the end of the room, supervised this feast of Lucullus, and except for odd moments of silence in which Madame seemed to be listening for some distant sound, there was nothing, I think, which could have told a casual observer that a black cloud rested upon the house.
Once, interrupting a tête-à-tête between Val Beverley and Paul Harley:
“Do not encourage her, Mr. Harley,” said Madame, “she is a desperate flirt.”
“Oh, Madame,” cried Val Beverley and blushed deeply.
“You know you are, my dear, and you are very wise. Flirt all your life, but never fall in love. It is fatal, don’t you think so, Mr. Knox?”—turning to me in her rapid manner.
I looked into her still eyes, which concealed so much.
“Say, rather, that it is Fate,” I murmured.
“Yes, that is more pretty, but not so true. If I could live my life again, M. Knox,” she said, for she sometimes used the French and sometimes the English mode of address, “I should build a stone wall around my heart. It could peep over, but no one could ever reach it.”
Oddly enough, then, as it seems to me now, the spirit of unrest seemed almost to depart for awhile, and in the company of the vivacious Frenchwoman time passed very quickly up to the moment when Harley and I walked slowly upstairs to join the Colonel.
During the latter part of dinner an idea had presented itself to me which I was anxious to mention to Harley, and:
“Harley,” I said, “an explanation of the Colonel’s absence has occurred to me.”
“Really!” he replied; “possibly the same one that has occurred to me.”
“What is that?”
Paul Harley paused on the stairs, turning to me.
“You are thinking that he has taken cover from the danger which he believes particularly to threaten him to-night?”
“You may be right,” he murmured, proceeding upstairs.
He led the way to a little smoke-room which hitherto I had never visited, and in response to his knock:
“Come in,” cried the high voice of Colonel Menendez.
We entered to find ourselves in a small and very cosy room. There was a handsome oak bureau against one wall, which was littered with papers of various kinds, and there was also a large bookcase occupied almost exclusively by French novels. It occurred to me that the Colonel spent a greater part of his time in this little snuggery than in the more formal study below. At the moment of our arrival he was stretched upon a settee near which stood a little table; and on this table I observed the remains of what appeared to me to have been a fairly substantial repast. For some reason which I did not pause to analyze at the moment I noted with disfavour the presence of a bowl of roses upon the silver tray.
Colonel Menendez was smoking a cigarette, and Manoel was in the act of removing the tray.
“Gentlemen,” said the Colonel, “I have no words in which to express my sorrow. Manoel, pull up those armchairs. Help yourself to port, Mr. Harley, and fill Mr. Knox’s glass. I can recommend the cigars in the long box.”
As we seated ourselves:
“I am extremely sorry to find you indisposed, sir,” said Harley.
He was watching the dark face keenly, and probably thinking, as I was thinking, that it exhibited no trace of illness.
Colonel Menendez waved his cigarette gracefully, settling himself amid the cushions.
“An old trouble, Mr. Harley,” he replied, lightly; “a legacy from ancestors who drank too deep of the wine of life.”
“You are surely taking medical advice?”
Colonel Menendez shrugged slightly.
“There is no doctor in England who would understand the case,” he replied. “Besides, there is nothing for it but rest and avoidance of excitement.”
“In that event, Colonel,” said Harley, “we will not disturb you for long. Indeed, I should not have consented to disturb you at all, if I had not thought that you might have some request to make upon this important night.”
“Ah!” Colonel Menendez shot a swift glance in his direction. “You have remembered about to-night?”
“Your interest comforts me very greatly, gentlemen, and I am only sorry that my uncertain health has made me so poor a host. Nothing has occurred since your arrival to help you, I am aware. Not that I am anxious for any new activity on the part of my enemies. But almost anything which should end this deathly suspense would be welcome.”
He spoke the final words with a peculiar intonation. I saw Harley watching him closely.
“However,” he continued, “everything is in the hands of Fate, and if your visit should prove futile, I can only apologize for having interrupted your original plans. Respecting to-night”—he shrugged—“what can I say?”
“Nothing has occurred,” asked Harley, slowly, “nothing fresh, I mean, to indicate that the danger which you apprehend may really culminate to-night?”
“Nothing fresh, Mr. Harley, unless you yourself have observed anything.”
“Ah,” murmured Paul Harley, “let us hope that the threat will never be fulfilled.”
Colonel Menendez inclined his head gravely.
“Let us hope so,” he said.
On the whole, he was curiously subdued. He was most solicitous for our comfort and his exquisite courtesy had never been more marked. I often think of him now—his big but graceful figure reclining upon the settee, whilst he skilfully rolled his eternal cigarettes and chatted in that peculiar, light voice. Before the memory of Colonel Don Juan Sarmiento Menendez I sometimes stand appalled. If his Maker had but endowed him with other qualities of mind and heart equal to his magnificent courage, then truly he had been a great man.