Weird Tales/Volume 24/Issue 3/The Trail of the Cloven Hoof
|||Trail of the Cloven Hoof|
A startling weird mystery story, of strange deaths on the desolate Moor of Exham, and the mysterious creature known as "The terror of the Moor"
The Story Thus Far
While on a tramping vacation on Exmoor, Hugh Trenchard discovers an old recluse, Silas Marle, lying unconscious after having been attacked by a mysterious thing which, though speaking with a human voice, leaves behind it a trail of footprints shaped like a cloven hoof.
Seeking help at the nearest house, a private hospital, Hugh meets Professor Felger, the proprietor, a sinister figure whose features are hidden beneath a surgeon's gauze mask. The professor tries to prevent Hugh phoning the police, but he gets the message through by a stratagem, afterward making his escape.
Ronnie Brewster, a former
|This is the third installment of a fascinating book-length serial story by Arlton Eadie, a British master of weird fiction, whose skill in building up eery plots and gripping suspense is rapidly winning him a well-deserved fame and making new friends for his stories. If you have not yet read the preceding installments of this thrilling weird mystery novel, then you should begin reading it with this issue, for otherwise you will be missing a real treat. For your convenience we preface this installment of "The Trail of the Cloven Hoof" with a synopsis of the chapters which have gone before.|
The police have been notified, however, and when Sergeant Jopling arrives he finds that Joan has gone, but lying on the bed is the body of Silas Marle, stabbed to the heart with a dagger whose hilt is shaped like a cloven hoof. Later that night the body is found to be missing, and the only clue to its disappearance is a trail of cloven hoofs beneath the bedroom window.
Andrew Shale, Marle's lawyer, requests an interview with Hugh, and informs him that Marle has signed a letter of attorney, giving Hugh the benefit of his fortune, conditional on his giving a solemn undertaking to use his utmost endeavor to destroy the supernatural monster which is referred to as "The Terror of the Moor."
There was a long pause after the lawyer had made his startling announcement. He carefully folded the document, laid it on the pile by his side, then once more leant forward on his desk, his chin resting on his interlocked fingers, his shrewd eyes fixed on the young man's face.
Hugh Trenchard, on his part, found himself utterly at a loss for words. The news of the unexpected legacy—for legacy it was, in spite of the lawyer's respect for legal nicety of expression—followed so swiftly by the fantastic, knight-errant task on which it was conditional, filled him with an amazement too deep to be expressed by the usual commonplaces of speech. His mind groped in vain for a rational explanation. Was it the mere desire for revenge that had induced Silas Marle to offer his fortune as a reward for the destruction of the mysterious thing that had caused his death? Or was there another, a deeper motive?
"Well, Doctor Trenchard," the voice of the lawyer snapped his train of thought. "I suppose you would like a little time in which to think over things, before coming to a decision?"
"It certainly seems to call for a little serious thought," Hugh answered with a smile.
The smile was reflected on Shale's features as he shrugged his shoulders.
"I should imagine that the answer to that depends on your own belief in matters supernatural. If you are convinced that this so-called 'Terror of the Moor' exists only in the imagination of my client, you may be inclined to settle the matter by accepting right now. It would not be a very dangerous or difficult task to rid the earth of a thing which is non-existent."
"That's very true, Mr. Shale. But I fear the matter is not to be so easily disposed of. In my own mind I am quite certain that the moor is haunted by a—well, for the want of a more definite name, let us call it a monster, which, though not necessarily supernatural in the general meaning of the word, is certainly unknown to science. I had already made up my mind to get to the bottom of the mystery, and intended to take lodgings in the nearest village so as to be as near the scene as possible. But that will not be necessary now, as you inform me that Moor Lodge is my property. Would there be any objection to my taking up my residence there immediately?"
Andrew Shale shook his head.
"Your claim to the estate is incontestable, the more so in view of the fact that Mr. Marle has no living relatives. The legal formalities may take a day or two, but I will hand you the keys of the house now, if you wish to take possession immediately. I think you may rest assured that no one will dispute your presence there"—Mr. Shale paused and a slow smile twisted his parchment-like features—"unless it be the fabled 'Terror of the Moor'!"
A few minutes later the interview terminated, and Hugh hurried back to tell his friend of the new and unexpected development that had taken place.
Ronnie was profuse in his congratulations.
"Well, if you're not the luckiest lad ever!" he exclaimed. "You can't even get lost in a fog without barging up against a millionaire with a fortune to give away!"
"What makes you think that Silas Marle was a millionaire?"
Ronnie laughed gayly.
"I know because I've been using the highly specialized gray matter which I carry beneath my hat. My mode of deduction would do credit to the superest super-sleuth that ever sleuthed. Listen, and I will expound: I have sufficient knowledge of the habits of my fellow-bipeds to know that when a man wears a suit as old and as shabby as that of Silas Marie's, he's either very rich or very poor. Silas Marie could not have been poor, or he could not have bequeathed you anything. Therefore he was a very rich man, A millionaire is a very rich man, therefore Silas Marie was a millionaire. Q. E. D., as my friend Euclid used to say."
"I only hope you're right," said Hugh, laughing. "But you seem to forget that I shall have to do something for the money."
"Slay one full-sized dragon," nodded Ronnie. "Saint George up to date! What a pity Miss Endean has disappeared—she could have fitted in with the general scheme of things by taking the role of the Enchanting Princess! But you are surely not taking that Terror stuff seriously, are you?"
Hugh drew meditatively at his pipe.
"Upon my word, old chap, I hardly know whether I do or not," he said presently, a look of indecision on his tanned face. "Sometimes the whole affair seems so fantastic that it would be a positive relief if I could think it was all a nightmare. But I can't, and that's the trouble."
"But hang it all! this is the Twentieth Century—not the Dark Ages!" expostulated his friend. "What data have you got? A few footprints made by a cloven hoof—footprints which the Harborer of the Staghounds, a man who has grown gray on these moors, declares to have been the slot of an old stag."
Hugh Trenchard shook his head.
"I would only be too glad to accept that explanation if I could, Ronnie. But I know well enough that it was no stag that I encountered the night Marle was attacked."
"Then what on earth was it?"
"That's what I'm going to find out—and before long, too." Hugh started to his feet and began to pace the room restlessly. His lean jaws were tightly clenched and there was a light of battle in his eyes. "There must be some explanation—a natural and logical explanation that will fit the facts as we know them. The trouble is that I've grasped the tangled skein haphazard, and every attempt to straighten out the snarl only makes the confusion worse. Once the end of a thread is in my hands, the whole tangle may straighten out with one pull——"
"You remind me of my old granny soliloquizing over her knitting!" Ronnie interrupted flippantly. "What do you say to getting the car out and having a look at your new home? You may pick up a few clues, you know," he added with a grin.
Hugh needed no second invitation. Ten minutes later he was seated in Ronnie's small but powerful car, being piloted through the winding lanes which led to the great uplands of the Moor. Each was busy with his own thoughts, and it was not until half the distance had been covered that Ronnie broke the silence.
"So you have really decided to take up your residence at Moor Lodge?"
Hugh glanced round in some surprize.
"Of course. What better center could I have for my investigations?"
"Ho, ho!—investigations?" His friend chuckled as he repeated the word with exaggerated dramatic emphasis. "That seems as if you're going into the detective business in real earnest. But surely you can't be thinking of living at that allforsaken place like Robinson Crusoe on his island?"
"Well, I had thought of asking you to act as my Man Friday for a bit, but it's not fair to make you neglect your practise."
Ronnie Brewster gave a somewhat rueful laugh.
"Up to the present my practise is still in the nebulous stage of development," he confessed. "If Moor Lodge were connected with the town by phone I would almost as easily make my calls from there. But it wouldn't be worth while to run a line out here——"
"Why not install a couple of wireless sets?" Hugh made the suggestion half in jest, but to his surprize Ronnie jumped at the idea.
"The very thing!" he exclaimed. "It ought not to be difficult to get a transmitting license, and then we could be in touch with each other even when I was not stopping at your place. And it would be very handy to be able to send out an S. O. S. if you happened to wake up in the night and find a gentleman with a cloven foot leaning over the bed-rail, asking you if it is to be roast or boiled."
Ronnie was on his favorite subject now, and he kept on in the same vein of half-cynical banter until they came in sight of the red-tiled gables and quaint, twisted chimneys of Moor Lodge softly outlined against the grayish-purple sweep of the distant hills.
"Creepy-looking shack, isn't it?" was his final comment as they alighted. "If there isn't a genuine, blown-in-the-glass, dyed-in-the-wool family spook on the premises—well, all I can say is that the builder ought to be prosecuted for obtaining shudders under false pretenses."
"Obtaining shutters?" Hugh repeated, in a tone which showed his thoughts had been wandering from the other's light-hearted chatter.
"Wake up!" cried the indignant Ronnie. "Who said anything about shutters? I was talking about shudders—s-h-u-d-d-e-r-s—two 'd's,' and the 'h' is silent, as in 'pudding.'"
"I get you," laughed his friend. "What a lad you are for a joke, Ronnie! You really must take up your quarters here—the murmur of your baby prattle will be like a ray of sunshine in this gloomy old house."
"Anything to oblige, old bean," Ronnie smirked with the air of one acknowledging a well-deserved compliment. But the next moment his grin vanished as he laid his hand on the other man's shoulder. "But, seriously, Hugh, I hope you don't mind my silly nonsense," he went on in an altered voice. "You see, I have to be so preternaturally wise and solemn when I've got my bedside manner on, that it's quite a relief to blow the cork out now and again."
"Come and stay with me," invited Hugh Trehchard, "and you never need put the cork in at all."
Ronnie gave a laugh and smacked his lips with mock gusto.
"That sounds alluringly festive. I'll think it over."
Hugh had not been jesting when he had described the house as a "gloomy old place," for it looked almost as eery in the bright sunshine as it had looked in the mist-dimmed moonlight when he had first seen it. It was a structure of tolerable antiquity, and had probably been built as a lodge for one of the Yeoman Rangers when Exmoor was one of the royal preserves. One had not to look very closely to detect the marks imprinted by the passing years. The tiles of the high-pitched roof were toned to a deep, mellow red; the oaken beams of the half-timbered walls were weathered to a grayish drab; the intersecting plaster was in places stained a sickly green by the drippings from the eaves, and its whole surface starred and cracked until it resembled the face of a wrinkled hag. There are some houses upon which the hand of Time seems to have been laid with benign touch—gray havens of peace and quietude, or stout old manor-houses whose wide hearths remind one of the crackling of Yule logs; whose cheerful, panelled walls still seem to retain a kindly echo of the songs and laughter of top-booted, red-faced squires; oak-roofed halls which still seem to ring with the merry strains of Sir Roger de Coverly; painted and gilded salons where one seems to catch the measured rhythm of viols and harpsichord, and the light tapping of red-heeled shoes in the stately minuet.
But there are others whose dusty chambers are shadowy, aloof, and mysterious—fit settings for whispered plots, cloaked and masked figures flitting like sinister shadows, or stealthy deeds which shunned the light of day. And of such was the house of which Hugh Trenchard had come to take possession.
The footsteps of Hugh and his companion echoed eerily as they passed along the passage on the ground floor, entering each room in turn and throwing back the curtains which shrouded the windows. Passing through the darkest part of the passage, Hugh's left-hand sleeve caught in something which projected from the wall. He drew his hand over the surface of the panelling and uttered an exclamation as he felt an unmistakable doorknob.
"Hullo! I never noticed a door here before. I wonder where it leads to?"
"If it leads to the wine-cellar I'll give an unsolicited testimonial to your detective abilities right now!" laughed Ronnie. "Come on, let's see what sort of a tap the old boy kept."
"It's locked," said Hugh, tugging in vain at the handle.
"Try some of the keys that Shale gave you," suggested his friend. "If they fail we'll have to try a little gentle persuasion with the kitchen poker."
But there was no need for the burglarious proposals to be put into operation, for the lock clicked smoothly back when Hugh inserted the third key on the bunch.
"Ah-ha! the mystery deepens!" Ronnie exclaimed dramatically, as he peered through the open doorway. "Who would expect to find an up-to-date chemical laboratory in the wilds of Exmoor?"
Hugh nodded in silent agreement. The room in which they found themselves could have been used for no other purpose. The whole of one wall was covered with glass-fronted cupboards, and inside could be seen row upon row of jars, bottles and phials. Standing against another wall was a long, breast-high bench bearing an orderly array of retorts, test-tubes, scales and recording-instruments. A powerful electric battery stood in one corner, flanked, in the opposite angle of the room, by a large and very modern-looking safe. A roll-top desk and a filing-cabinet occupied the center of the room, and toward these Ronnie gave an expressive nod.
"There ought to be plenty of data for your investigations here," he observed with a smile. "There seem to be enough papers and memoranda to clear up a thousand mysteries. And the desk is not even locked—or the cabinet, either. See here!"
He thrust back the cover of the desk and began to rummage among the papers, only to give vent to a grunt of disappointment.
"Nothing that is likely to help us here," he declared. "Bills, invoices for chemicals and apparatus supplied—the old boy seems to have been a whale for experimental chemistry. Stop a moment, though!" he added suddenly as he opened the lowest drawer. "Here's something that may shed a little light on our darkness. Just run your eagle eye over these——"
Glancing at the official-looking documents which Ronnie spread on the desk, Hugh saw that one was a printed form bearing the royal arms at its head. It was an official certificate of discharge, and the words which had been filled in by hand intimated that MARLE, Silas James, had been employed in the INVESTIGATION BRANCH of THE RESEARCH LABORATORIES of the ROYAL ARSENAL, WOOLWICH, from April the 23rd, 1915, to October the 11th, 1918, being discharged therefrom at his own request. Another was a well-worn pass, enclosed in a leather case, authorizing the same MARLE, Silas James, to enter the area of the "Danger Buildings" at the royal arsenal.
"Evidently our friend was a retired expert in explosives," Ronnie remarked. "I don't think there's much to be gathered from these papers beyond that not very interesting fact."
Trenchard did not answer immediately. He was staring at the blue-gray papers, his mind working rapidly. At length he turned to Brewster with an unexpected question.
"Does the date, April the 23rd, 1915, suggest anything to you?"
The other man thought for a few moments, then shook his head.
"Of course the War was on at that time—that accounts for Marle being employed in manufacturing, or inventing, explosives——"
"But he need not have had anything to do with explosives at all," Hugh broke in excitedly. "It was on April the 23rd that the first German attack was made in which they used asphyxiating gas! Silas Marle may have been employed in evolving retaliatory counter-measures."
Ronnie Brewster received his chum's suggestion with a careless shrug.
"Interesting, but scarcely informative," was his comment. "I flatter myself I'm not particularly slow in the uptake, but I'm hanged if I can see any connection between a retired government chemist and that precious cloven-hoofed Terror of yours. Why not see what is in the safe?"
Hugh nodded and, selecting the likeliest-looking key on the ring, inserted it in the brass-rimmed keyhole. It fitted—it turned—the ponderous bolts slid back. Grasping the handle, Hugh gave it a half-turn and the heavy door swung open, and as it did so, a loud gasp of amazement escaped his lips.
Until that moment he had scarcely paused to consider what a safe of these dimensions might contain; for all he knew he might be confronted with the dead body of Marle in a repulsive state of decomposition. But the object which met his gaze was less gruesome, though not less surprizing.
The sole content of the safe was a long, bulky, sealed packet, in every respect the counterpart of the one given to him by Joan Endean!
A look of the blankest mystification spread over Hugh's features as his eyes fell on the duplicate sealed packet. For it was an exact duplicate, not only in its general size and bulk, but down to such details as the peculiar texture of the paper and the heraldic device which adorned the large red seal. Such a likeness could not possibly be accidental. Either the packet lying before him was the same one that had been stolen from him in the Valley of Rocks, or else this was the genuine packet which the decoy one—containing nothing but blank papers—had been intended to safeguard. In any case, the presence of the latter in Marle's safe formed a strange and unexpected link between him and the mysterious Joan Endean.
"What's wrong, old man?" Ronnie's voice, tinged with a note of amused surprize, brought Hugh's speculations to an abrupt end. "You've been staring at that letter as though you were expecting to see it vanish in a whiff of brimstone. I believe the greedy beggar is disappointed because the safe wasn't packed tight with wads of banknotes!"
"Scarcely that." Hugh forced a smile as he shook his head. "But that letter happens to be a perfect facsimile of"—he paused, suddenly calling to mind Joan's stipulation of secrecy; adding, a trifle lamely—"of—of another letter that I have seen."
"Nothing wonderful in that," was the other's careless rejoinder. "Most letters have a family likeness on the outside—it's what is inside them that makes all the difference between a tender missive of love and a curt intimation that a check by return mail will oblige."
Trenchard picked up the letter and balanced it thoughtfully in his hand as he read the superscription:
To Hugh Trenchard, M. D.
Beneath, apparently written by the same hand, though in weak and shaky characters, was the injunction: Only to be opened in the event of the Death or Disappearance of Mr. Silas Marle.
"Pardon my idle curiosity," said Ronnie, trying to speak indifferently in spite of his impatience at his friend's tardiness. "Aren't you going to open the thing?"
Hugh again weighed the letter in his hand; then he shook his head.
"Not here, old chap. Judging by the weight, this is a somewhat lengthy communication. I think it would be more cheerful and comfortable to read it before a nice bright fire. Besides"—Hugh pointed to the single window of the laboratory, already dimming in the early dusk—"probably it will be dark in here before I've finished, and—unless I'm very much mistaken—the contents of this packet will not sound any the better for being read in the gloaming."
Returning to the library, they lighted the lamp, drew the curtains and set a match to the fire which was ready laid in the grate. Then and then only did Hugh break the seal, draw forth several closely written sheets of foolscap, and commence to read:
"When you read these lines I shall be dead (or I shall have disappeared, which practically amounts to the same thing) and you may regard what I have to state as a revelation coming from the grave. Considering the very short time I have known you, it will undoubtedly come as a surprize to you that I should single you out as my confidant. But you may believe me when I say that I have not reposed this trust in you because my time is short and I have little choice in the matter. I flatter myself that I am a keen and accurate judge of character, and I know that your acceptance of the strange task which I have imposed on you will not be actuated by the mere sordid desire to possess my money. Moreover, I have travelled in the East long enough to have my mentality tinged and more than tinged, with the fatalism of the Orient. I do not believe that it was mere blind chance that led your footsteps through the mist, guiding you to me in my hour of need, sending in you a champion, young, clear-thinking, with sound nerves and a healthy body. Surely it was Fate—maybe a Power even higher—that ordained the appearance, at the very moment I was stricken down, of the very man whom I should have chosen out of all the world as the one best fitted to carry on the work I had begun. That the work is not free from danger, my own fate will be sufficient proof; whether the end justifies the risk you must judge for yourself. But this much I will say here—no mail-clad Crusader knight ever rode forth on a holier or more righteous cause than the one you will follow in ridding the earth of the Terror of the Moor.
"It would be both tedious and unnecessary to give even a brief account of my eventful life; suffice to say that the outbreak of war in 1914 found me a lecturer on chemistry at a university in the North of England. I soon found my post a sinecure, however, for the whole of the students joined the army in a body one afternoon, and I was left facing rows of empty benches. I myself was too old for military service; so I transferred my activities to a munition factory that had been newly opened in the neighborhood, and for the next six months or so I was employed in the simple routine work of checking the purity of the various chemicals used in the manufacture of explosives. The work, though of course responsible and fairly dangerous, was not hard in itself, and I frequently found myself compelled to wait for hours in the great, well-equipped laboratory with nothing whatever to do.
"It was during these periods that I began to make a few experiments on my own account, and as a result I was able to suggest some minor improvements both in the mode of handling and the actual proportions of the ingredients used. But beyond a mere formal acknowledgment of my communications, the War Office took no notice, and I quite thought that my letters were reposing in some dusty pigeon-hole, when, on the twenty-third of April, 1915, I received an urgent and imperative order to proceed to London.
"Upon my arrival at King's Cross Station I was met by an eminent statesman, a man whose features the cartoonist and camera-man have made familiar to every inhabitant of the Kingdom.
"'Professor Marle, I presume?' he said, coming forward with outstretched hand.
"In the shock of surprize I blurted out his name, but he immediately shook his head in smiling remonstrance.
"'I fear I can not lay claim to such a famous name'—even at the time I noted the ambiguous nature of his disclaimer—'A moment's reflection should convince you that you have been misled by a chance resemblance.' He spoke coolly, but the twinkle in his eye told me that I was not intended to take his word too literally. "As a matter of fact, you must consider me as belonging to the good old Welsh family of "Jones."'
"'An extensive clan,' I said, falling in with his humor. And what might your business be with me, Mr. Jones?'
"'Important, but in no way official. I hope you understand that perfectly.' He repeated the words slowly and emphatically, 'in no way official. You must make up your mind to regard me as merely being a certain Mr. Jones, a private and undistinguished Englishman who has the welfare of his country at heart. Is that quite clear?'
"'Then be pleased to follow me.'
"A big limousine was waiting a few yards away, the door held open by a liveried footman whose stature quite dwarfed my companion. As we emerged into the station courtyard, two other cars started into motion, taking up their position one ahead and one behind the car we were in, and my wonder grew as I noted the burly forms and watchful eyes of their occupants. 'Mr. Jones' might modestly proclaim himself an ordinary private citizen, but it was evident that he had the resources of Scotland Yard at his beck and call.
"The three cars turned west, zigzagging through the mean streets which lie between King's Cross and New Oxford Street", and as we headed south I made sure that we were bound for Downing Street. But we skirted the north side of Trafalgar Square, swinging down the darkened Mall, leaving Buckingham Palace on our right. There was a traffic block opposite Victoria Station, but a brief, silent signal from the leading car cleared a way as if by magic, and a few minutes later we were heading down the King's Road at racing speed. I caught a glimpse of the river as we passed over Putney Bridge, but lost my bearings completely in the dimly lighted suburban roads beyond. When at last we pulled up before a large country mansion, I knew that I must be somewhere in the neighborhood of Richmond, but that was all.
"The door swung open as we ascended the front steps, and I was ushered into a cheerful dining-room where a meal lay already spread. Mr. Jones was a brilliant talker, and throughout the meal he kept up a flow of interesting conversation, without, however, once hinting at the nature of the business which he had brought me there to discuss. It was only when we had adjourned to the smoking-room, with one detective patrolling the gravel walk in front of the windows and another keeping watch in the passage outside the door, that he placed his hand in his pocket and produced a small sheet of paper.
"'Did you write that?' he asked in a conversational tone.
"I nodded, wondering what was coming next. For the thing was merely one of the letters that I had sent to the Ministry of Munitions, suggesting a quite minor and unimportant modification of the formula of one of the stock explosives. But before I could frame the question that was in my mind, he turned the sheet over and pointed to some chemical symbols scribbled in pencil on the back.
"'And this too, I presume?' he went on, watching me keenly the while.
"I took the paper in my hand and read: C4H7N3O2. C6H12O6. C216H338N51S5O68. C12H14O4(NO3)6. C3H5(NO3)3. There was a sixth combination of symbols, but this I must not divulge, even to you; so, for the purpose of this narrative, I will refer to it simply as the 'X Formula.'
"In a flash I realized what had happened. I must have been jotting down some notes respecting my experiments, and I had inadvertently used the same sheet of paper on which to write my letter to the ministry.
"'Yes,' I was forced to admit, 'that is my handwriting. But I certainly had no idea that there was anything on the back of that sheet when I sent that letter to you.'
"'I can well believe that!' Mr. Jones smiled somewhat grimly. "It's extremely fortunate that the communication did not fall into other hands. However, I have not brought you here to call you over the coals for being so careless. It is rather to ask you for a friendly explanation of what was in your mind when you made those notes.'
"'You know the meaning of the formulæ?'
"Mr. Jones nodded his gray head. 'Naturally, in these days, when every newspaper is full of the spy peril, we should not allow a set of mysterious-looking letters and figures to pass through our hands without wanting to know the meaning of it. Within an hour of its receipt, that letter was in the hands of a government analyst. But his report only seemed to deepen the mystery. He states that the first three formulas respectively represent creatine, inosite, and albumen—three organic substances which are to be found in every human body; while the last three combinations of symbols represent gun-cotton, nitro-glycerin, and the newly invented devastite—three of the most powerful explosives known to science.'
"'Yet the same chemical elements occur in each!' I said slowly. 'Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen—combined in certain proportions they form substances, not only innocuous in themselves, but substances that are absolutely vital to the human organism. Combine the same elements in different proportions, and you have the deadliest explosives!'
"'My God!—you mean to say——'
"'That every human being is a potential living bomb!'
"The effect of my words was electrical. The man who would have faced a hostile House without a tremor now sank into his chair, deathly white and unnerved. It did not need more explanation to enable his keen, far-seeing brain to visualize the awful possibilities of my discovery. Yet I could see that he was struggling to disbelieve me.
"'It—it's incredible!' he gasped at last. 'Why, if what you say is true——'
"'Why waste words? Words may sway the thoughts and actions of men, but the most transcendent eloquence is powerless to affect the elements of nature. Compare those sets of symbols, and tell me honestly if you—without the assistance of a chemical expert—could say offhand which represents, say, creatine, the crystalline substance which is contained in your own muscles at this present moment, and the high explosive which goes by the name of devastite. Consider again that the very air we breathe consists of four-fifths of nitrogen—and it is scarcely necessary to remind a man occupying your post that nitrogen forms the basic principle of almost every explosive known. Then ask yourself whether it is beyond the power of modern science to make practical use of those facts. I know that you will probably remind me, in your turn, that the use of that particular explosive, devastite, has been discontinued because it has been found liable to detonate spontaneously through decomposition. But my answer is, that such a defect is a defect only so long as the explosive is within our lines—the moment it is within the enemy lines, the more easily it explodes the better! Each soldier in the vast armies arrayed against us contains within himself the means of his own destruction. It but needs one single element, harmless in itself, to be incorporated in a gas and sent over the enemy trenches, and the next few hours would see a holocaust such as the world has never known.'
"For a long time my companion looked at me without speaking. 'So that was your idea?'
"I felt myself flush at his tone. 'It certainly was my idea, but I abandoned it.'
"'Why?' he asked quickly.
"'It was too horrible, too fiendish, too frightful——'
"'Frightful?' He pounced on the word like a swooping hawk. 'Do you know who has taught us that word? Who has advocated the doctrine of ruthless frightfulness, backing it up with specious arguments that the most terrible weapons are the most merciful because they make the struggle of opposing nations shorter? Our foes have taught us that—and now they shall be confounded by their own text—"hoist with their own petard" in real earnest! Put whatever price you please on your own services—we must have that gas! I hope, I pray that we may never need to employ it, but we must have it—or the knowledge of its preparation—to use as a last resort.'
"I will not weary you with a recapitulation of the arguments he employed before I consented to renew my researches. But I made one stipulation. The secret of the gas must remain in my own possession, contained in a sealed envelope that would only be handed to him when I was convinced that no other alternative remained than the complete destruction of the British Empire. But fortunately I was not called upon to make that momentous decision, for when the United States of America became our allies there was very little doubt as to the ultimate result of the war.
"The peril has passed—but has it passed for all time? If I could have answered that question with an unhesitant affirmative, I would have committed the secret to the flames. But ever at the back of my mind there lurked a fear that the world might be confronted with another, even graver, crisis, when the possession of my secret would be the deciding factor between victory and defeat. For you may rest assured that whoever holds the sealed packet, which I hereby give into your hands, holds in his hands the destiny of mankind. Guard it, I entreat you, as a sacred trust; as something even dearer than life. For, once it falls into the hands of the emissaries of a nation whose ambition is the domination of the world, carnage and hideous chaos will follow as surely as the night follows day, and——"
A harsh command cut through Trenchard's voice like the stroke of an ax:
"Up with your hands—both of you!"
Three shadowy figures, each holding a levelled revolver, stood in the doorway.
The grim command, backed as it was by muzzles of three weapons trained with such deadly accuracy as to make them appear like so many circles of steel, left no alternative but to obey. Hugh and Ronnie raised their hands above their heads.
"Keep 'em there, and don't move except as I tell you," said the man who had spoken before; to his companions he added, but without turning his head: "Keep the red-headed chap covered, Dawson; I'll see that the other one behaves himself. Regan, give 'em a frisk."
One of the men stepped forward and ran his hands lightly over Hugh's clothing. In a very few seconds he had found and removed the revolver which Hugh had carried in his hip pocket ever since the death of Silas Marle.
"Well heeled, eh?" The spokesman of the party took up the weapon with his disengaged hand and glanced at the conical bullets which nestled in the chambers of the cylinder. "See what sort of artillery the red-headed chap's got in the back of his pants——"
"Look here, old sport," remonstrated Ronnie, "not so much of the 'red-headed chap.' I know I'm not exactly a brunette, but——"
"Shut up! You'll have plenty of time to squawk when——" The rest of his remark was drowned in Ronnie's sudden cackle of laughter as the searcher inserted his fingers beneath his armpits. "What's the game now? Getting hysterical?"
"No—ticklish. I never could bear any one to touch me there. If you do not desist, I shall give one long scream and bite your face. I will—if it poisons me!"
"Stow your jaw," ordered the searcher roughly. "Where do you pack your gat?"
Ronnie looked pained.
"Gat? What vulgarity of terminology! We always refer to it as a 'lethal weapon' in our set. Well, if you're going to probe my anatomy until you find one, you'll wear your fingers into fists before you get the gat I haven't got. If you manage to find anything on me more deadly than a fountain-pen I'll present you with a fiver for your trouble."
The searcher paused and glanced round at the man who appeared to be the leader of the party.
"You heard that, sir?" he asked in a tone of virtuous triumph. "I call on you to witness that he offered me a bribe in the execution of my duty."
"Your duty?" gasped Hugh, a light beginning to dawn on him. "You don't mean to tell me that you are policemen?"
"By no means," was the answer, given somewhat stiffly. "We are detectives belonging to the Special Investigation Branch of Scotland Yard. I am Detective-Inspector Renshaw, and it is my duty to take you into custody for being on enclosed premises at night for a supposed unlawful purpose. And it is my duty to warn you that anything you may say may be taken down and——"
"Oh, my sacred aunt!" wailed Ronnie, suddenly collapsing in the nearest chair and hiding his face in his hands.
"——used in evidence." The inspector produced a note-book. "I'll trouble you for your names and the last addresses at which you slept."
Ronnie's shoulders ceased shaking as he rose to his feet.
"Put down the red-headed chap as Auburn Harry, of Wapping," he said gravely. "You know—the man who strangled five policemen with his bare hands. My accomplice in crime—'pal' is the correct term, I believe—is Cross-eyed Dick, of Shadwell——"
"Shut up, you ass!" Hugh interrupted; then he turned to the detectives. "I'm afraid there have been mistakes on both sides, inspector. You apparently took us for a couple of crooks, and your dramatic entry certainly made us think you were three gentlemen of the same kidney. As a matter of fact, I am Doctor Trenchard, the present owner of this house, and this is my friend, Doctor Brewster."
Inspector Renshaw looked at him half incredulously. "I suppose you have some proof of what you say?" he asked at length.
"Not here, I'm afraid. But Mr. Andrew Shale, Marle's solicitor, will vouch for me, as will also Sergeant Jopling of the local police."
The inspector did not verbally intimate that the explanation was satisfactory, but his action was eloquent. He handed the revolver back to Hugh.
"Hope we didn't scare you with our gun-play, sir."
"Oh, I'm getting used to scares since coming down here for a quiet holiday."
"The rest cure hasn't been a success, eh?" Inspector Renshaw nodded in a manner that was intended to convey sympathy. "We've heard all about the funny business that has been going on here, and for the past few days the place has been under observation. When my man reported that he'd seen two men enter, I rushed over at once, and thought I'd got a capture."
"You must have hustled," Ronnie put in, speaking in a tone of admiring respect. "Unless you were camping somewhere on the Moor, you must have started soon after we entered this house. I am rather curious to know how your man managed to tip you off so promptly."
The inspector shrugged and permitted himself a cryptic smile.
"Oh, we have our methods, sir," he said with an air of mystery. "Some people are very fond of sneering at us and hinting that the mental development of the C. I. D. got atrophied somewhere in the Mid-Victorian era. They are apt to remember our failures and forget the fact that Scotland Yard delivers the goods—in the shape of the wanted man—nine times out of ten. We don't advertise every new invention we adopt, but I can tell you this—at one hour's notice I could get enough men here to search every square yard of this Moor, big as it is."
"That's the stuff to give 'em!" cried Ronnie approvingly. "I bet you've got a wireless set, and a few airplanes, and half-a-dozen tanks up your sleeve somewhere! I thought I and my friend were going to enjoy a nice little spook-hunt all on our own, but now you've come in, all we'll have to do is sit tight and read all about it in the papers. Of course you have a theory?"
Inspector Renshaw gave a non-committal shrug.
"I don't set much store on theories when I can get hold of solid facts. You seem to have got hold of a few," he made a gesture toward the sheets of manuscript on the table. "I suppose you have been going through the dead man's papers?"
"As he had a perfect right to do," Ronnie interposed briskly, "seeing that the whole of Silas Marie's property devolves on him——"
"Of course, of course," Inspector Renshaw hastened to say. "My remark was not intended as a criticism of your action, Doctor Trenchard. I was merely anxious to know if you have found anything that will shed light on the mysterious happenings here."
"Well, not directly," Hugh answered, after a pause during which he did some hard thinking. "The only salient facts contained in the papers I have already read are that Marie was a chemist who had made a special study of the chemical warfare which the late War brought into being, and had invented a novel and—at any rate theoretically—effective method of wholesale slaughter. You are quite welcome to hear the remainder of his narrative, but I warn you I shall skip any passage which appears to be of a private or personal nature."
"That's fair enough," assented Renshaw. To his subordinates he added: "You two keep watch outside and see that we are not disturbed."
When they had the room to themselves, Hugh took up the thread of Silas Marie's story:
"My conditions were accepted without the slightest demur. I was to be given an absolutely free hand in making my re- searches, but, merely as a matter of form, I was entered on the pay-roll of the laboratory staff of the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich. But it was very seldom that I entered the gates of that establishment, for I quickly realized that my work was too hazardous to be carried on in the same vicinity where large quantities of explosives were being manufactured and stored. I looked out for a spot, lonely and remote from human habitations, and at last I decided to buy a dilapidated and reputedly ghost-haunted house known as Moor Lodge, situated on the most desolate part of Exmoor.
"Needless to say, I did not go out of my way to refute the grisly legends respecting the old house, for I counted on them ensuring me the seclusion I so much desired. One of the rooms I fitted up as a laboratory, and there I labored to convert my dream into a tangible, practicable reality.
"No galley-slave ever toiled harder at his oar than I toiled at my bench during the first three months. We lived here alone, my dear wife and I, and sometimes whole weeks would go by without either of us seeing a strange face. She knew that I was engaged in confidential work for the government, but little did she guess the nature of that work!
"But gradually the strain began to tell on me. I was far from being a young man, and in addition to my experiments I was obliged to perform the rough work of the house; for my wife was not strong physically, though nothing could have exceeded her love and devotion to me. It was almost impossible to hire a domestic servant at that time, when the prospect of earning high wages was tempting every able-bodied girl to the munition factories; even in normal times I doubt whether any local girl would have consented to spend a single night in a house with such a ghostly reputation as Moor Lodge. I even journeyed to Plymouth and interviewed several discharged soldiers and sailors who had been disabled in the war. But they all seemed too intelligent for my purpose—I simply dared not risk having a man on the premises who might so much as guess at the nature of the work on which I was employed. Things were at a deadlock when Fate brought to my door the very man I needed.
"No doubt you will call to mind how severe the weather was in the winter of '16-'17. It was by far the worst winter in the war. The ponds and wells were frozen solid, and the very earth seemed blighted with the intense cold. Toward evening, on one of the bitterest days, I was working in the laboratory when there came a light, timid tap on the front door. The sound was so unusual in that desolate region that for a moment I attributed it to a fall of half-melted snow from the roof; but presently there came another tap, this time accompanied by a low, half-articulate moan. I caught up the nearest weapon handy—which happened to be a short iron bar which I had been using as a poker for my furnace—and made my way to the door. Outside was a man dressed in a ragged and mud-plastered khaki uniform. The badges and buttons had been roughly torn off, so that the tunic was open, showing the gray shirt beneath. He wore no cap, and his hands and face were blue with the cold.
"'Hullo!' I said, staring at him.
"He was leaning against the door-post, as though for support, and at the sound of my voice he raised two deeply sunken, lack-luster eyes to mine.
"'Hullo, matey,' he responded weakly.
"'What are you doing here?' I demanded. 'You'll catch your death of cold if you go about half dressed in this weather.'
"'I'm half dead already, matey;' and as though to prove his words, he staggered forward and would have fallen if I had not caught him in time.
"When I put my arms round him I got a shock. The man was nothing but skin and bone, and when I lifted him he weighed no heavier than a large child. He was starved—not 'starved with the cold,' as they say hereabouts, but literally starved with hunger. I got him into the living-room, pulled him round with a stiff glass of brandy, then ransacked the larder and watched him eat. Eat!—I thought he would never stop eating, and as he wolfed the platefuls I took a good look at him.
His age could not have been more than eighteen or twenty, but he was tall and big-made and when in his usual health he must have been unusually strong. His hair was fair and inclined to be curly, and I judged by its length that some considerable time had elapsed since it had last received the attentions of a military barber. His features were prominent, but not unpleasing—indeed, had it not been for the curious expression in his eyes he might have been considered handsome. I find it difficult to convey that expression in words. It was at once wary, alert, shifting, and restless. But the only way in which I can make my meaning clear is to describe it as an animal look—not that which one sees in the eyes of an intelligent dog, or even a cat, or any domesticated animal; rather was it the look of instinctive hostility and distrust which one may see in the eyes of a wild beast, untamed and untamable, as it roams its native wilds. I took but little heed of this strange trait at the time, naturally attributing it to the hardships which he had obviously undergone. Later on I had good reason to recall it to mind.
"When he had cleared his plate for the third time, I began to put a few questions:
"'What's your name?'
"'Jake what?' The length of the pause which followed my question warned me that the answer was likely to be a lie.
"'Jake Thomas Smith.'
"'Have you any more names?' I queried sarcastically, and to my surprize he nodded.
"'The blokes in my platoon call me "Crazy Jake",' he informed me solemnly.
"I looked hard at him, suspecting that I was being paid back in my own coin. But he went on unconcernedly finishing up the remaining scraps of food, cracking the bones with his strong teeth, the canines of which were unusually long and pointed. When he licked up every scrap of gravy off his plate, just like a dog, I began to glimpse something of the truth. He was one of those rare examples of extreme atavism, a throw-back to primitive types, an unlucky being who had been cursed with more than his fair share of the thin streak of animalism which is the compulsory legacy of the human race. Later on, when I had the opportunity of examining him more closely, I found that he was able to exercise those muscles (represented in the normal man as mere rudimentary survivals) which move the ears; his sense of smell was unusually keen; his eyes possessed the power of reflecting the light in exactly the same manner as the eyes of certain species of carnivores. It came as something of a shock to think that such a man had been accepted for military service, but, after all, there was nothing wrong with him in a physical sense. On the contrary, as is so often the case with these reversions, the man was exceptionally strong and active, and his peculiar mental traits might well have passed unnoticed in the perfunctory examination to which recruits were subjected in the latter days of the war.
"By degrees I got his story from him. Of course he was a deserter, though to do him bare justice he seemed quite unconscious of the gravity of his offense—or, indeed, that he had committed any offense at all. He had simply got tired of his surroundings, and the irksome restraints on his liberty, and had wandered off, his instinct drawing him to the great open moors, living on herbs and roots, and scraps that he could find or steal, until the intense cold had beaten him.
"'And what do you intend to do?' I asked him when he had finished his vague and rambling tale.
"He gave me a vacant stare. 'I dunno,' was the extent of his future plans.
"'Do you know what they'll do to you if they catch you, Jake?'
"'Make me slope arms by numbers?' His accompanying grimace was eloquent of his distaste for that form of exercise.
"'They'll do more than that, my poor lad. They will shoot you.'
"'Me?' he cried with a sort of simple wonder. 'Shoot me dead?'
"'Dead as mutton,' I had to tell him.
"'Why?' he demanded in an aggrieved tone. 'I never hurt 'em—I never hurt a fly.'
"'That's just the trouble, Jake. You became a soldier in order to hurt people. That's what a soldier is for in time of war—to hurt soldiers wearing another sort of uniform—or to get hurt by them.' I tried to explain the matter as best I could, but after I had finished I very much doubted whether the enormity of his offense had penetrated his intelligence. Not that he was an idiot in the ordinary sense of the word; I classed him as a 'mattoid,' a man whose brain could not be gaged by comparison with ordinary standards. He might be trained, and taught to perform certain tasks, much in the same manner as an intelligent dog goes through certain tricks. More than that, he might be capable of having certain fixed and elementary ideas instilled into him by simple repetition; for later on I had good reason to know that he possessed an unusually retentive memory. But beyond that, and as far as original and self-conscious thought and reasoning were concerned, his mind was an absolute blank. And as I realized the fact, I knew that here was the very servant I had been praying for—strong, willing, docile, and no more capable of understanding the work on which I was engaged than was a horse or a dog.
"I sat up late that night, watching Jake sleeping curled up on the floor in front of the fire, debating with myself whether I should turn him over to the military authorities or keep him myself. In the end I decided that he would be serving his country more effectively by doing the menial work of Moor Lodge than by endangering his own life, and the lives of all around him, by handling a loaded rifle and experimenting with Mills's bombs. In the morning I put the matter to him, and he was only too glad to stay with me. He soon picked up the routine of his simple duties, and for a time all went well. My experiments proceeded apace. I succeeded in isolating the missing element and gasefying it in a form that could not be detected when mingled with the ordinary atmosphere. Complete success was within my very grasp when I was brought up short by an unexpected and disquieting discovery.
"You must understand that I had never attempted to keep Jake confined to the house—indeed, I doubt whether he would have obeyed me had I forbidden him to leave it. I had provided him with a suit of clothes such as might be worn by a lad working on a farm, and he was accustomed to spend his hours off duty roaming freely about the Moor. One evening he came home at dusk, after having been absent most of the day, took off his coat, and began to sweep out the laboratory where I was still working. At first I took no notice of him, but presently I began to see that he was not giving much attention to what he was doing. Every now and then he would stop sweeping and furtively take something from his trousers pocket, glance at it, polish it on his sleeve, examine it again, and then transfer it to his pocket and go on sweeping. Secretly amused, I watched his antics for a while out of the corner of my eye, and when he was admiring the thing for the umteenth time, I purposely made a sudden movement. Jake tried to conceal his treasure, but in his hurry to replace it in his pocket the thing slipped out of his hand, falling on the stone floor with a jingle that was unmistakable. It was a brightly polished five-shilling piece.
"'Hullo, Jake,' I laughed. 'I didn't know you were a moneyed man. Where did you get that from? Have you been robbing a bank or something?' For I knew well enough that he had not had any money when he arrived.
"Instead of saying that he'd found it—which I quite thought he had—he jibbed at my question and stood silent, his hands fumbling with the broom-handle while he shifted his feet uneasily, the very picture of conscious guilt.
"'Where did you get that money from?' I repeated more sternly. 'Did you steal it?'
"He bridled up at that. 'Jake is not a thief!' he declared, looking me full in the face.
"'Then where did you get it from?'
"'Some one give it me,' he said at length.
"'Who's the some one?'
"'The man that lives in the big house.'
"His evident reluctance to answer only increased my suspicions that something was wrong. I kept questioning him until I learnt that 'the big house' was the place which is now known as 'The Torside Private Sanatorium.' Turning this piece of information over in my mind, I handed him back his coin, and as he dropped it into his pocket I heard it jingle against other money.
"'Ah, have you got many of those pretty bits of silver, Jake?' I asked carelessly, pretending to resume my work as though the matter were of no importance.
"He fell into the trap at once. He was unable to count, but he proudly held up the outstretched fingers of one hand.
"'Five, eh?' I commented with forced geniality. 'He must be a nice, kind man to give away all that money. Do you think he might give me some?'
"'Not all at once,' Jake explained innocently. 'He only gives me one at a time.'
"Oh-ho! thought I, so he has been at the 'big house' four times before today. The mystery was deepening!
"'I think I'll have to pay a visit to this kind gentleman who gives money away,' I smiled. 'I've been wanting to meet some one like that all my life.'
"'You'll have to sing first,' said Jake, eyeing me as though doubtful as to my vocal abilities.
"'What?' I cried.
"'I always have to sing before he gives me anything.'
"'And what on earth do you sing?' I asked, utterly bewildered.
"'Songs,' grunted Jake.
"'Sing one to me,' I said, struck by a sudden idea, 'and I'll give you another five shillings.'
"He needed no further inducement, but immediately put down the broom and struck up one of the very unofficial marching tunes that he'd learnt in camp. But it wasn't the tune that caused the color to drain away from my face and my heart to be filled with a sickening horror—it was the doggerel words which he had adopted in place of the quasi-French of the original. They were a crude but recognizable parody of the chemical equation which represented the composition of my secret explosive!
"In a flash I realized what had happened. Underrating the creature's intelligence and forgetting his marvelously retentive memory, I had not troubled to keep my notes out of sight. Somebody had got hold of him and bribed him to learn them off by heart—and who was likely to do such a thing except a secret enemy agent? Cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I saw how narrowly irretrievable disaster had been averted. Once the secret of the gas was in the hands of the enemy, it would be a mere matter of days—perhaps only hours—before their immense and well-equipped system of gas-producing factories would enable them to wipe out the Allied Armies en masse. At that time it was known in official circles that the German guns were firing more than fifty per cent of gas and war-chemical shells, besides using their apparatus for cloud attacks and batteries of short-range Liven's projectors. Was it likely they would refuse to use this new and terrible weapon when once it lay ready to their hands?
"Steadying myself with an effort, I turned to the innocent cause of all the trouble:
"'So that was the song you sang to the nice gentleman at the big house, eh? Did he seem to think that it was worth the money?'
"Jake shook his head. 'No, he was angry and said I must have learnt it wrong. He said he wanted to hear the last song that was in that book,' and he pointed to the large note-book in which I entered the results of my experiments.
"A wave of relief swept over me as I realized that the fool had not yet betrayed the secret; yet he must now know the final and ultimate formula, for he had just repeated it to me. But the explanation was not far to seek: he had taken another look at the book and memorized the last formula since he had returned that evening. So far, my secret was safe; but how long would it remain so after Jake had paid another visit to the ’big house'?
"That visit must be prevented at all costs. But how? If he chose to quit the house that minute, I had no power to stop him, How could I ensure the silence of a creature of such mentality unless I silenced him for ever? For ever! I felt myself trembling as a thought flashed through my mind as a blinding electric flash traverses a vacuum tube. Within the reach of my arm was a phial containing a liquid preparation of the deadly formula. So far it had never been tried on a living organism, but here—forced on me by circumstances over which I had had no control—was the opportunity to test its efficiency in a practical manner and at the same time ensure the silence of the only man likely to betray it to the enemy.
"Averting my head lest my very expression should betray the sinister project I had in mind, I addressed Jake: 'When have you arranged to see the kind gentleman again?' I asked as carelessly as I could.
"'Tonight, after supper,' he answered, and with those words he sealed his own fate.
"There could be no turning back now; one man must be sacrificed in order that humanity might be spared a scourge such as has never fallen on it since the world was evolved. What was one single life—and such a life!—compared with the millions of clear-minded, sentient beings who would dissolve in smoke and flame if he were allowed to reach the big house that night? During the hour which elapsed before supper-time I probed my soul as I had never probed it before, weighing the matter, sifting each argument for or against, as meticulously as did any judge before assuming the black cap. I shrunk from my task with horror, but I went through with it to the bitter end.
"Its actual accomplishment was simplicity itself. A few drops of the colorless liquid poured into the mug of cider that he always drank at supper, and the thing was done. It only remained to get him well away from the house without delay.
"'Your friend will be waiting for you, Jake,' I reminded him.
"'Aye, so he will.' He rose and took up his cap. 'Good-night, sir.'
"'Good-bye, Jake,' I answered, adding under my breath, 'and God help you!'
"I allowed him five minutes' start, then hurried on my overcoat and followed. Outside, the night was dark and forbidding, with the sky overcast by a murky veil of cloud which shrouded the face of the moon. Before me stretched the Moor, a waste of empty blackness, devoid of even a film of low-lying mist to denote the winding combes which ran between the rocky tors. As I made my way along the well-defined track I seemed to be walking through an infinity of shadows. The only sounds which broke the eery stillness were the slight crunching of the gravel beneath my hurrying footsteps and the far-off mournful cries of a flock of wandering sea-gulls.
"When the slope of the ground told me that I had passed the brow of the ridge, I glanced at the illuminated dial of my watch and saw that twenty minutes had elapsed since I had administered the drug to Jake. This told me little, for I had not the slightest idea how long the stuff would take to work. I walked more slowly down the slope, and only quickened my pace to mount the farther side of the combe in order to get a view of the path ahead. Not that I could see anything in that pall of darkness as yet, but I wanted to have an uninterrupted view of what was about to happen. Of course, I had not caught sight of Jake since quitting the house, but I knew that the path I had followed was the only means of his reaching 'the big house.' Somewhere in the darkness ahead he must be hurrying along, his poor brain filled with childish delight at the prospect of soon possessing another big, shining coin; as blissfully unconscious of his impending fate as are the microscopic infusoria before the drop of sterilizing solution wipes them out of existence.
"At last I reached the summit of the high tor from which I knew I could command a view almost to the gates of the house for which Jake was making. I paused and glanced at my watch again. I started when I saw that a full hour had elapsed without anything happening. Had the experiment failed? Was the whole thing nothing but an empty, impracticable dream? Had my days and nights of labor been wasted in a quest as useless and futile as those of the madman who strove to square the circle or evolve a system of perpetual motion? Throwing aside all caution in my desire to know what had happened, I pressed onward almost at a run. Nor did I pause or slacken speed when my onward progress brought into sight a single pinpoint of light, telling me that the inmates of the Sanatorium were awake and stirring.
"Then, slowly but inexorably, the conviction was forced on me that my experiment had failed—that, though theoretically flawless, it had proved useless when subjected to the acid test of practise—and I can truthfully say that my first emotion was a feeling of profound relief.
"'Thank God, the formula is harmless!' I cried, and laughed aloud in the darkness. 'Let him tell the spy the secret—and much good may it do him! I have failed—but again I thank God and am content. At least, humanity has been spared the menace of——'
"Coming from a spot barely a hundred yards ahead, a flash of blood-red fire stabbed the night, and the fraction of a second later a dull, muffled concussion smote my ears. It was the death-knell of Crazy Jake!—that was my one conscious thought as I stood, stunned by the awful manner in which my theory had been proved. It was some minutes before I could pull myself together.
"Prudence warned me to leave the spot as soon as possible, for it was but a short distance to the spy's house and he could not have failed to hear the explosion. Yet a horrible fascination, an irresistible desire to look upon my fell handiwork, drew me onward as a magnet draws a needle. Almost before I was aware of what I was doing—the danger I was courting in risking being seen near the spot—I found myself running forward, my eyes following the dancing beam of my flashlight as it searched the ground.
"I will not harrow your feelings by describing the sight which finally met my eyes. Sufficient to say that the explosion had expended its force downward, in precisely the same manner as dynamite does. The whole of the lower portion of his body had been blown to atoms, but the upper part of his chest, his arms and head, were comparatively uninjured. One look was enough—more than enough! I snapped off my flashlight and fled. . . .
"You can well imagine the eagerness with which I scanned the first newspapers I could get hold of. But there was no account in the morning paper of a mutilated body being found, nor in the next morning's, nor the next. As the days lengthened into weeks without a single hint of the tragedy, my relief gave place to wonder, and finally to a vague, nameless fear. Had I not seen the uninjured half of Jake's body lying in the roadway, I should have dismissed the matter with the assumption that it had been completely destroyed by the explosion. But the Moor is not so utterly deserted that such an object could remain unnoticed in the public highway for any length of time. It must have been removed on the same night when the tragedy occurred. But by whom? And for what purpose? But as the months went by without a single hint or rumor of the affair being brought to light I could only come to the conclusion—a fantastic one, maybe, but the only theory that would explain the facts—that the remains had been carried off and devoured by some prowling animal. Gradually my fears became lulled into a sense of security. Whether his remains were above ground or below, Crazy Jake was dead and unrecognizable by this time, I argued with myself, and his secret had perished with him. My fears slept so soundly that the rude shock of their awakening almost unsettled my reason.
"It happened like this: It was a night in winter, six months, almost to the very day, after the affair that I have just described. It was intensely cold, and the snow, which had fallen heavily throughout the day, lay thick upon the ground. But I was cozy enough, sitting in my easy-chair in front of a roaring fire in the library of Moor Lodge, with my pipe alight and a recently published scientific volume on my lap. My wife had retired early in consequence of a slight chill, and I was alone.
"A faint, fumbling sound at the window made me glance up, though there was nothing more in my mind than a mere idle curiosity as to the origin of the sound. But the moment I rested my eyes on the casement I felt my limbs grow stiff with stark, paralyzing terror.
"Gazing fixedly at me through the glass, his face and figure clear and unmistakable in the bright rays of the moon, was Crazy Jake—the man whom I had last seen a hideously maimed corpse, blown literally in halves by the terrible fulminator whose secret he had been about to betray!"
Professor Felger's attempts to obtain possession of the formula make next month's installment of this story one of many thrills. Don't miss it.