The Green Eyes of Bast/Chapter 13

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AS the crow flies Friar's Park was less than two miles from the Abbey Inn; but the road, which according to a sign-board led "to Hainingham," followed a tortuous course through the valley, and when at last I came to what I assumed to be the gate-lodge, a thunderous ebony cloud crested the hill-top above, and its edge, catching the burning rays of the sun, glowed fiercely like the pall of Avalon in the torchlight. Through the dense ranks of firs cloaking the slopes a breeze presaging the coming storm whispered evilly, and here in the hollow the birds were still.

I stared rather blankly at the ivy-covered lodge, which, if appearances were to be trusted, was unoccupied. But I pushed open the iron gate and tugged at a ring which was suspended from the wall. A discordant clangor rewarded my efforts, the cracked note of a bell which spoke from somewhere high up in the building, that seemed to be buffeted to and fro from fir to fir, until it died away, mournfully, in some place of shadows far up the slope.

In the voice of the bell there was something lonesome, something akin to the atmosphere of desertion which seemed to lie upon the whole neighborhood—something fearful, too, as though the bell would whisper: "Return! Beware of disturbing the dwellers in this place."

The house, one wing of which I have said was visible from the inn window, could not be seen at all from the gate. Indeed I had lost sight of it at the moment that I had set out and had never obtained a glimpse of it since.

Ten minutes before, I had inquired the way from a farm-laborer whom I had met on the road, and he had answered me with a curiosity but thinly veiled. His directions had been characterized by that rustic vagueness which assumes in the inquirer an intimate knowledge of local landmarks. But nevertheless I believed I had come aright. I gathered from its name that Friar's Park was in part at least a former monastic building, and certainly the cracked bell spoke with the voice of ancient monasteries, and had in it the hush of cloisters and the sigh of renunciation.

Although I had mentioned nothing of the purpose of my journey to mine host of the Abbey Inn or to any of his cronies—and these were few in number—I had hoped to find Hawkins at the lodge; and a second time I awoke the ghostly bell-voice. But nothing responded to its call; man, bird and beast had seemingly deserted Friar's Park.

Faintly I detected the lowing of cattle in some distant pasture; the ranks of firs whispered secretly one to another; and the pall above the hills grew blacker and began to stretch out over the valley.

Amid this ominous stillness of nature I began to ascend the cone-strewn path. Evidently enough the extensive grounds had been neglected for years, and that few pedestrians and fewer vehicles ever sought Friar's Park was demonstrated by the presence of luxurious weeds in the carriage-way. Having proceeded for some distance, until the sheer hillside seemed to loom over me like the wall of a tower, I paused, peering about in the ever growing darkness. I was aware of a physical chill; certainly no ray of sunlight ever penetrated to this tunnel through the firs. Could I have mistaken the path and be proceeding, not towards the house, but away from it, and into the gloom of the woods? Or perhaps the deserted lodge was that of some other, empty establishment.

There was something uncomfortable in this reflection; momentarily I knew a childish fear of the dim groves. I thought of the "darkness 'broidered with luminous eyes," and I walked forward rapidly, self-assertively. Ten paces brought me to one of the many bends in the winding road—and there, far ahead, as though out of some cavern in the very hillside, a yellow light shone.

I pressed on with greater assurance, until the house became visible. Now I perceived that I had indeed strayed from the carriage sweep in some way, for the path that I was following terminated at the foot of a short flight of moss-covered steps. I mounted the steps and found myself at the bottom of a terrace. The main entrance was far to my left and separated from the terrace by a neglected lawn. That portion of the place was Hanoverian and ugly, whilst the wing nearest to me was Tudor and picturesque. Excepting the yellow light shining out from a window on the right of the porch, no illuminations were visible about the house, although the brewing storm had already plunged the hollow into premature night.

My conception of Friar's Park had been wide of the reality—and there was no sign of occupancy about this strange-looking mansion, which might have hidden forgotten for centuries in the horse-shoe of the hills. The stillness of the place was of that sort which almost seems to be palpable; that can be seen and felt. A humid chill arose apparently from the terrace, with its stone pavings outlined in moss, and crept up from the wilderness below and down from the fir woods above.

I had crossed the terrace and the lawn, and now stood looking through the open French window from which light had proceeded into a room that evidently adjoined the hall. A great still darkness had come, and on a littered table in this room a reading-lamp was burning.

The room was furnished as a library. Every available foot of wall space was occupied by laden bookcases. The volumes were nearly all old and many of them were in strange, evidently foreign, bindings. Items of chemical apparatus and cases of specimens were visible also as well as an amazing collection of Egyptian relics strewn about the place in the utmost disorder.

At the table a man was seated, deep in study of a huge leather-bound volume. He was strangely gaunt, and apparently very tall. His clean-shaven face resembled that of Anubis, the hawk-headed god of Ancient Egypt, and his hair, which was growing white, he wore long and brushed back from his bony brow. His skin was of a dull, even yellow color, and his long thin brown hands betrayed to me the fact that the man was a Eurasian. The crunching of a piece of gravel under foot revealed my presence. The man looked up swiftly.

I started. Those widely-opened black eyes were truly hawk-like in their dark intensity of gaze, and the uncanny resemblance to Anubis was heightened by them. More than ever convinced that I had made a mistake:

"Forgive me for so rudely disturbing you," I said, "but I was under the impression that this was Friar's Park, whereas I fear I have trespassed."

The intense gaze never left my face for a moment, but:

"There is no trespass," answered the man at the table, speaking in a high harsh voice and with a marked but evasive accent. "All visitors are welcome—chance ones, or otherwise. But you have certainly lost your way; this is the Bell House."

"And am I far from Friar's Park?"

"No great distance. May I ask if Lady Coverly knew of your proposed visit?"

"She did not," I said with surprise.

"Then I fear your journey has been fruitless. She is an invalid and can receive no one."

There was something peremptory and imperious in his manner which I resented, and evidently perceiving this resentment:

"I am Lady Coverly's medical adviser," added the Eurasian. "Possibly I can afford you some assistance. In any event I fear you will have to accept my poor hospitality for the nonce. The alternative is a drenching."

Even as he spoke, the hollow was illuminated by a blinding flash of lightning, and indeed his last words were drowned in the thunder that boomed and crashed in deepening peals over the hills.

In a sudden tropical torrent the rain descended, and I stepped forward into the room. Its occupant rose to his great height to greet me.

"I am Dr. Damar Greefe," he said, and bowed formally.

I made myself known to him in turn, and with a sort of stately courtesy he set a high-backed chair for me and himself resumed his former seat.

"You are a stranger to this neighborhood, I gather?" he continued.

Now, in spite of his polished courtesy, there was that about Dr. Damar Greefe which I did not and could not like. The voice was the voice of a gentleman, but the face was a mask—a mask of Anubis; and seated there in that strange untidy apartment, amid varied relics of the past and obscure experiments possibly designed to pry into the future, whilst thunder boomed high over the Bell House, I determined to withhold from Dr. Damar Greefe the true nature of my mission. In fact already I regretted having told him my name—although to have given a fictitious one would have been a gross violation of hospitality unhesitatingly offered.

Even now I find it hard to explain the mingled sentiments which claimed me on the occasion of this my first meeting with a very singular man.

"I am taking a brief rest cure," I replied; "and as I am given to understand that Friar's Park is of much historical interest, I had purposed seeking permission to look over the place and if possible to take a few photographs."

Dr. Damar Greefe inclined his head gravely.

"A former monastic house, Mr. Addison," he replied. "And as you say, of great archæological interest. But the regrettably poor health of Lady Coverly makes it impossible for her to entertain visitors."

Something in the tone of his voice, which now he had lowered so that some of its natural harshness was disguised, set me wondering where I had heard it before. It needed no further scrutiny of the hawk face to convince me that I had never hitherto met Dr. Damar Greefe; but I certainly believed that I had previously heard his voice, although I quite failed to recall where and under what circumstances.

"Sir Burnham has been dead for several years, I believe?" I asked tentatively.

"For several years, yes."

Without returning to the peremptory tone which had distinguished his earlier manner, Dr. Damar Greefe coldly but courteously blocked my path to discussion of the Coverly family; and after several abortive attempts to draw him out upon the point, I recognized this deliberate design and abandoned the matter.

The storm was moving westward, and although brilliant flashes of lightning several times lighted up the queer room, gleaming upon the gayly-painted lid of an Egyptian sarcophagus or throwing into horrid relief some anatomical specimen in one of the cases, the thunder crashed no more over the house. But its booming reached my ears from away upon a remote spur of the hills. I became aware of a growing uneasiness in the company of my chance host, who sat by the oddly littered table, watching me with those birdlike eyes.

"Surely," I said, "the rain has ceased?"

"Temporarily," he replied, glancing toward the terrace. "But I should advise you to delay a few minutes longer. There is every threat of a concluding downpour to come ere long."

"Many thanks," I returned; "I'll risk it. I have already trespassed unwarrantably upon your time, Dr. Greefe. It was good of you to give me shelter."

He rose, a tall thin figure, vaguely repellent, upon realizing that I was set on departure, and conducted me out by way of the front door. Standing in the porch:

"At any time that you chance to be again in my neighborhood, Mr. Addison," he said, "I beg of you to call. I have few visitors."

By what process, whether of reasoning or intuition, I came to the conclusion, I know not; but as I turned the bend of the tree-roofed drive and saw the deserted lodge ahead, I knew beyond any possibility of doubt that Dr. Damar Greefe had not returned to his studies, but had swiftly passed along some path through the trees so as to head me off! His purpose in so doing I knew not, but that he had cherished this purpose and proposed to act upon it I had divined in some way at the moment that I had left him in the porch.

Now, hastening my steps, I began to wonder if his design was to intercept me or merely to watch which way I should turn on gaining the main road. That it was the latter I presently learned; for although my unpleasant imagination pictured the gaunt hawk-like figure lurking amid the shadows which hemmed me in, I played the part of innocence and never once looked back.

Coming out into the highroad, I turned sharply left, retracing the route by which I had come to the Eurasian doctor's abode. If he had suspected that I had intended to call at Friar's Park despite his assurance that such a visit would prove futile, then he was disappointed. A new and strange theory to account for "the Oritoga mystery" had presented itself to me—a horrible theory, yet, so far as my present data went, a feasible one. Above all, I realized that I had committed a strategical error in openly seeking an interview with Lady Coverly. But I had not, when I had formed that plan, known of the existence of Dr. Damar Greefe.

I uttered a sigh of relief upon emerging upon the highroad. The certainty that the white-haired Eurasian was dogging me through the trees was an unpleasant one. And now I perceived that several courses presented themselves; but first I must obtain more information. I perceived a mystery within a mystery; for I was not likely to forget that in Dr. Damar Greefe's collection I had noted a number of Bubastite cats.