Bat Wing/Chapter XXI
FOR a long time our knocking and ringing elicited no response. The brilliant state of the door-brass afforded evidence of the fact that Ah Tsong had arisen, even if the other members of the household were still sleeping, and Harley, growing irritable, executed a loud tattoo upon the knocker. This had its effect. The door opened and Ah Tsong looked out.
“Tell your master that Mr. Paul Harley has called to see him upon urgent business.”
“Master no got,” replied Ah Tsong, and proceeded to close the door.
Paul Harley thrust his hand against it and addressed the man rapidly in Chinese. I could not have supposed the face of Ah Tsong capable of expressing so much animation. At the sound of his native tongue his eyes lighted up, and:
“Tchée, tchée,” he said, turned, and disappeared.
Although he had studiously avoided looking at me, that Ah Tsong would inform his master of the identity of his second visitor I did not doubt. If I had doubted I should promptly have been disillusioned, for:
“Tell them to go away!” came a muffled cry from somewhere within. “No spy of Devil Menendez shall ever pass my doors again!”
The Chinaman, on retiring, had left the door wide open, and I could see right to the end of the gloomy hall. Ah Tsong presently re-appeared, shuffling along in our direction. Unemotionally:
“Master no got,” he repeated.
Paul Harley stamped his foot irritably.
“Good God, Knox,” he said, “this unreasonable fool almost exhausts my patience.”
Again he addressed Ah Tsong in Chinese, and although the man’s wrinkled ivory face exhibited no trace of emotion, a deep understanding was to be read in those oblique eyes; and a second time Ah Tsong turned and trotted back to the study. I could hear a muttered colloquy in progress, and suddenly the gaunt figure of Colin Camber burst into view.
He was shaved this morning, but arrayed as I had last seen him. Whilst he was not in that state of incoherent anger which I remembered and still resented, he was nevertheless in an evil temper.
He strode along the hallway, his large eyes widely opened, and fixing a cold stare upon the face of Harley.
“I learn that your name is Mr. Paul Harley,” he said, entirely ignoring my presence, “and you send me a very strange message. I am used to the ways of Señor Menendez, therefore your message does not deceive me. The gateway, sir, is directly behind you.”
Harley clenched his teeth, then:
“The scaffold, Mr. Camber,” he replied, “is directly in front of you.”
“What do you mean, sir?” demanded the other, and despite my resentment of the treatment which I had received at his hands, I could only admire the lofty disdain of his manner.
“I mean, Mr. Camber, that the police are close upon my heels.”
“The police? Of what interest can this be to me?”
Harley’s keen eyes were searching the pale face of the man before him.
“Mr. Camber,” he said, “the shot was a good one.”
Not a muscle of Colin Camber’s face moved, but slowly he looked Paul Harley up and down, then:
“I have been called a hasty man,” he replied, coldly, “but I can scarcely be accused of leaping to a conclusion when I say that I believe you to be mad. You have interrupted me, sir. Good morning.”
He stepped back, and would have closed the door, but:
“Mr. Camber,” said Paul Harley, and the tone of his voice was arresting.
Colin Camber paused.
“My name is evidently unfamiliar to you,” Harley continued. “You regard myself and Mr. Knox as friends of the late Colonel Menendez——”
At that Colin Camber started forward.
“The late Colonel Menendez?” he echoed, speaking almost in a whisper.
But as if he had not heard him Harley continued:
“As a matter of fact, I am a criminal investigator, and Mr. Knox is assisting me in my present case.”
Colin Camber clenched his hands and seemed to be fighting with some emotion which possessed him, then:
“Do you mean,” he said, hoarsely—“do you mean that Menendez is—dead?”
“I do,” replied Harley. “May I request the privilege of ten minutes’ private conversation with you?”
Colin Camber stood aside, holding the door open, and inclining his head in that grave salutation which I knew, but on this occasion, I think, principally with intent to hide his emotion.
Not another word did he speak until the three of us stood in the strange study where East grimaced at West, and emblems of remote devil-worship jostled the cross of the Holy Rose. The place was laden with tobacco smoke, and scattered on the carpet about the feet of the writing table lay twenty or more pages of closely written manuscript. Although this was a brilliant summer’s morning, an old-fashioned reading lamp, called, I believe, a Victoria, having a nickel receptacle for oil at one side of the standard and a burner with a green glass shade upon the other, still shed its light upon the desk. It was only reasonable to suppose that Colin Camber had been at work all night.
He placed chairs for us, clearing them of the open volumes which they bore, and, seating himself at the desk:
“Mr. Knox,” he began, slowly, paused, and then stood up, “I accused you of something when you last visited my house, something of which I would not lightly accuse any man. If I was wrong, I wish to apologize.”
“Only a matter of the utmost urgency could have induced me to cross your threshold again,” I replied, coldly. “Your behaviour, sir, was inexcusable.”
He rested his long white hands upon the desk, looking across at me.
“Whatever I did and whatever I said,” he continued, “one insult I laid upon you more deadly than the rest: I accused you of friendship with Juan Menendez. Was I unjust?”
He paused for a moment.
“I had been retained professionally by Colonel Menendez,” replied Harley without hesitation, “and Mr. Knox kindly consented to accompany me.”
Colin Camber looked very hard at the speaker, and then equally hard at me.
“Was it at behest of Colonel Menendez that you called upon me, Mr. Knox?”
“It was not,” said Harley, tersely; “it was at mine. And he is here now at my request. Come, sir, we are wasting time. At any moment——”
Colin Camber held up his hand, interrupting him.
“By your leave, Mr. Harley,” he said, and there was something compelling in voice and gesture, “I must first perform my duty as a gentleman.”
He stepped forward in my direction.
“Mr. Knox, I have grossly insulted you. Yet if you knew what had inspired my behaviour I believe you could find it in your heart to forgive me. I do not ask you to do so, however; I accept the humiliation of knowing that I have mortally offended a guest.”
He bowed to me formally, and would have returned to his seat, but:
“Pray say no more,” I said, standing up and extending my hand. Indeed, so impressive was the man’s strange personality that I felt rather as one receiving a royal pardon than as an offended party being offered an apology. “It was a misunderstanding. Let us forget it.”
His eyes gleamed, and he seized my hand in a warm grip.
“You are generous, Mr. Knox, you are generous. And now, sir,” he inclined his head in Paul Harley’s direction, and resumed his seat.
Harley had suffered this odd little interlude in silence but now:
“Mr. Camber,” he said, rapidly, “I sent you a message by your Chinese servant to the effect that the police would be here within ten minutes to arrest you.”
“You did, sir,” replied Colin Camber, drawing toward him a piece of newspaper upon which rested a dwindling mound of shag. “This is most disturbing, of course. But since I have not rendered myself amenable to the law, it leaves me moderately unmoved. Upon your second point, Mr. Harley, I shall beg you, to enlarge. You tell me that Don Juan Menendez is dead?”
He had begun to fill his corn-cob as he spoke the words, but from where I sat I could just see his face, so that although his voice was well controlled, the gleam in his eyes was unmistakable.
“He was shot through the head shortly after midnight.”
Colin Camber dropped the corn-cob and stood up again, the light of a dawning comprehension in his eyes.
“Do you mean that he was murdered?”
“Good God,” whispered Camber, “at last I understand.”
“That is why we are here, Mr. Camber, and that is why the police will be here at any moment.”
Colin Camber stood erect, one hand resting upon the desk.
“So this was the meaning of the shot which we heard in the night,” he said, slowly.
Crossing the room, he closed and locked the study door, then, returning, he sat down once more, entirely master of himself. Frowning slightly he looked from Harley in my direction, and then back again at Harley.
“Gentlemen,” he resumed, “I appreciate the urgency of my danger. Preposterous though I know it to be, nevertheless it is perhaps no more than natural that suspicion should fall upon me.”
He was evidently thinking rapidly. His manner had grown quite cool, and I could see that he had focussed his keen brain upon the abyss which he perceived to lie in his path.
“Before I commit myself to any statements which might be used as evidence,” he said, “doubtless, Mr. Harley, you will inform me of your exact standpoint in this matter. Do you represent the late Colonel Menendez, do you represent the law, or may I regard you as a perfectly impartial enquirer?”
“You may regard me, Mr. Camber, as one to whom nothing but the truth is of the slightest interest. I was requested by the late Colonel Menendez to visit Cray’s Folly.”
“To endeavour to trace the origin of certain occurrences which had led him to believe his life to be in danger.”
Harley paused, staring hard at Colin Camber.
“Since I recognize myself to be standing in the position of a suspect,” said the latter, “it is perhaps unfair to request you to acquaint me with the nature of these occurrences?”
“The one, sir,” replied Paul Harley, “which most intimately concerns yourself is this: Almost exactly a month ago the wing of a bat was nailed to the door of Cray’s Folly.”
“What?” exclaimed Colin Camber, leaning forward eagerly—“the wing of a bat? What kind of bat?”
“Of a South American Vampire Bat.”
The effect of those words was curious. If any doubt respecting Camber’s innocence had remained with me at this time I think his expression as he leaned forward across the desk must certainly have removed it. That the man was intellectually unusual, and intensely difficult to understand, must have been apparent to the most superficial observer, but I found it hard to believe that these moods of his were simulated. At the words “A South American Vampire Bat” the enthusiasm of the specialist leapt into his eyes. Personal danger was forgotten. Harley had trenched upon his particular territory, and I knew that if Colin Camber had actually killed Colonel Menendez, then it had been the act of a maniac. No man newly come from so bloody a deed could have acted as Camber acted now.
“It is the death-sign of Voodoo!” he exclaimed, excitedly.
Yet again he arose, and crossing to one of the many cabinets which were in the room, he pulled open a drawer and took out a shallow tray.
My friend was watching him intently, and from the expression upon his bronzed face I could deduce the fact that in Colin Camber he had met the supreme puzzle of his career. As Camber stood there, holding up an object which he had taken from the tray, whilst Paul Harley sat staring at him, I thought the scene was one transcending the grotesque. Here was the suspected man triumphantly producing evidence to hang himself.
Between his finger and thumb Camber held the wing of a bat!