THE BLACK BOX
”A BOLT FROM THE BLUE”
There was a peculiar, almost a foreboding silence about the camp that morning when Laura returned from her early ride. The only living person to be seen was the Chinaman, sitting on a stool in front of the wagon, with a dish of potatoes between his knees.
“Say, where’s every one?” Laura sung out, after she had looked into Lenora’s tent and found it empty.
The Chinaman continued to peel potatoes. He took no notice of the question. Laura touched her horse with the whip and cantered over to his side. At the last moment the animal swerved a little. The Chinaman, trying to draw back hastily, let the bowl slip between his knees. He gazed at the broken pieces of the dish in dismay.
“Never mind your silly potatoes!” Laura exclaimed. “Tell me where every one’s gone to, can’t you?”
The Chinaman looked up at her malevolently. He rose and made a stealthy movement forward. Laura backed her horse. The purpose which had gleamed for a moment in the man’s narrowed eyes seemed to fade away.
“All gone,” he announced. “Cowboy gone workee. Missee gone hurry up find Mr. Quest.”
Laura hesitated, puzzled. Just then the Professor came cantering in with a bundle of grass in his hand. He glanced down at the Chinaman.
“Good morning, Miss Laura!” he said. “You don’t seem to be getting on with our friend here,” he added in an undertone. “If you would permit me to offer you just a word of advice, it really doesn’t pay to annoy these Chinese too much. They never forget. I didn’t like the way that fellow was looking at you. I was watching him all the way from the rise there.”
“Pshaw!” she answered. “Who cares what a Chink thinks! The fellow’s an idiot. I’m worried, Professor. Lenora’s gone out after Mr. Quest and the Inspector. She wasn’t fit to ride a horse. I can’t make out why she’s attempted it.”
The Professor unslung some field-glasses from his shoulder and gazed steadily southward.
“It is just possible,” he said softly, “that she may have received a warning of that.”
He pointed with his forefinger, and Laura peered forward. Something which seemed to be just a faint cloud hung over the horizon. The Professor handed her his glasses.
“Why, it’s a fire!” she cried.
The Professor nodded.
“Just a prairie fire,” he replied,—“very dangerous, though, these dry seasons. The flames move so quickly that if you happen to be in a certain position you might easily get cut off.”
Laura turned her horse round.
“Come on, Professor!” she exclaimed. “That’s what it is. Lenora’s gone to try and warn the others.”
“She is a very brave young lady,” the Professor declared, as he touched his pony with the spurs. “All the same, Miss Laura, you take my advice and leave that Chinaman alone.”
They rode to the very edge of the tract of country which was temporarily enveloped with smoke and flame. Here they pulled in their horses, and the Professor looked thoughtfully through his field-glasses.
“The road straight on is the ordinary way to the depot,” he said, “but, as you can see, at the bend there it is becoming almost impassable. The thing is, what did Lenora do? When she got as far as this, she must have seen that further progress was dangerous.”
Laura gave a little cry and pointed with her riding-whip. About twenty yards further on, by the side of the road, was a small white object. She cantered on, swung herself from her horse and picked it up.
“Lenora’s handkerchief!” she cried.
The Professor waved his arm westward.
“Here come Quest and the Inspector. They are making a circuit to avoid the fire. The cowboy with them must have shown them the way. We’d better hurry up and find out if they’ve seen anything of Miss Lenora.”
They galloped across the rough country towards the little party, who were now clearly in sight.
“Lenora isn’t with them,” Laura declared anxiously, “and look—what’s that?”
From the centre of one of the burning patches they saw a riderless horse gallop out, stop for a moment with his head almost between its fore-legs, shake himself furiously, and gallop blindly on again.
“It’s Lenora’s horse!” Laura cried. “She must have been thrown. Come!”
Laura would have turned her horse, but the Professor checked her.
“Let us wait for Quest,” he advised. “They are close here.”
The cowboy, riding a little behind the two others, had unlimbered his lariat, and, while they watched, swung it over his head and secured the runaway. Quest galloped up to where Laura and the Professor were waving frantically.
“Say, that’s some fire!” Quest exclaimed. “Did you people come out to see it?”
“No, we came to find Lenora!” Laura answered breathlessly. “That’s her horse. She started to meet you. She must be somewhere—”
“Lenora?” Quest interrupted fiercely. “What do you mean?”
“When I got back to the camp,” Laura continued rapidly, “there wasn’t a soul there except the Chinaman. He told me that Lenora had ridden off a few minutes before to find you. We came to look for her. We found her handkerchief on the road there, and that’s her horse.”
Quest did not wait for another word. He jumped a rough bush of scrub on the right-hand side, galloped over the ground, which was already hot with the coming fire, and followed along down the road by which Lenora had passed. When he came to the first bend, he could hear the roar of flames in the trees. A volume of smoke almost blinded him; his horse became wholly unmanageable. He slipped from the saddle and ran on, staggering from right to left like a drunken man. About forty yards along the road, Lenora was lying in the dust. A volume of smoke rushed over her. The tree under which she had collapsed was already afire. A twig fell from it as Quest staggered up, and her skirt began to smoulder. He tore off his coat, wrapped it around her, beat out the fire which was already blazing at her feet, and snatched her into his arms. She opened her eyes for a moment.
“Where are we?” she whispered. “The fire!”
“That’s all right,” Quest shouted. “We’ll be out of it in a moment. Hold tight to my neck.”
He braced himself for a supreme effort and ran along the pathway. His feet were blistered with the heat; there was a great burn on one of his arms. At last, however, he passed out of the danger zone and staggered up to where the Professor, the Inspector and Laura were waiting.
“Say, that was a close shave,” he faltered, as he laid Lenora upon the ground. “Another five minutes—well, we won’t talk about it. Let’s lift her on to your horse, Laura, and get back to the camp.”
The Professor laid down his book and gazed with an amiable smile towards Quest and Lenora.
“I fear,” he remarked dolefully, “that my little treatise on the fauna of the Northern Orinoco scarcely appeals to you, Mr. Quest.”
Quest, whose arm was in a sling but who was otherwise none the worse for his recent adventure, pointed out of the tent.
“Don’t you believe it, Professor,” he begged. “I’ve been listening to every word. But say, Lenora, just look at Laura and French!”
They all three peered anxiously out of the opening of the tent. Laura and the Inspector were very slowly approaching the cook wagon. Laura was carrying a large bunch of wild flowers, one of which she was in the act of fastening in French’s buttonhole.
“That fellow French has got grit,” Quest declared. “He sticks to it all the time. He’ll win out with Laura in the end, you mark my words.”
“I hope he will,” Lenora said. “She’s a dear girl, although she has got an idea into her head that she hates men and love-making. I think the Inspector’s just the man for her.”
The two had paused outside the cook wagon. Laura held out the flowers to the Chinaman.
“Can’t you find me a bowl for these?” she asked.
He looked slowly up at her.
“No bowlee for flowers,” he answered. “All want for eatee.”
Laura leaned over and shook him by the shoulder.
“Well, I’ll eatee off the ground,” she said. “Give me a bowl, you slant-eyed old idiot.”
“Why don’t you obey the lady?” French intervened.
Very slowly the Chinaman rose to his feet, disappeared inside the cook wagon and reappeared with a basin, which he handed to Laura. She thanked him carelessly, and they passed on. From where they stood, both Quest and Lenora saw the look which for a moment flashed from the Chinaman’s eyes. Lenora shivered.
“I’ll be glad when we get away from here,” she declared, clinging to Quest’s arm. “That Chinaman hates Laura like poison, and I’m afraid of him.”
“She does seem to have put his back up,” he agreed. “As to going on, I think we might just as well move tomorrow. My arm’s all right.”
“And I’m quite well,” Lenora asserted eagerly.
“We’ve wired for them to meet Craig,” Quest said. “I only hope they don’t let him slip through their fingers. I haven’t much faith in his promise to turn up at the Professor’s. Let’s see what Laura and French have to say.”
“Can’t see any sense in staying on here any longer,” was French’s immediate decision, “so long as you two invalids feel that you can stand the journey. Besides, we’re using up these fellows’ hospitality.”
“We’ll get everything in order to-night,” Laura decided, “and start first thing to-morrow.”
They busied themselves for the next hour or two in making preparations. After their evening meal, the two men walked with Lenora and Laura to their tent.
“I think you girls had better go to bed,” Quest suggested. “Try and get a long night’s sleep.”
“That’s all very well,” French remarked, “but it’s only eight o’clock. What about a stroll, Miss Laura, just up to the ridge?”
Laura hesitated for a moment and glanced towards Lenora.
“Please go,” the latter begged. “I really don’t feel like going to sleep just yet.”
“I’ll look after Lenora,” Quest promised. “You have your walk. There’s the Professor sitting outside his tent. Wouldn’t you like to take him with you?”
Laura glanced indignantly at him as they strolled out, and Lenora laughed softly.
“How dared you suggest such a thing!” she murmured to Quest. “Do look at them. The Inspector wants her to take his watch, and she can’t quite make up her mind about it. Why, Laura’s getting positively frivolous.”
“Guess we’d better not watch them any longer,” Quest decided. “What about a game of bezique?”
“I should love it!” Lenora assented. “You’ll find the cards in that satchel.”
They sat and played for half an hour by the light of a lantern. Suddenly Quest paused in the act of dealing and glanced over his shoulder.
“What the mischief was that?” he muttered.
“Sounded as though the tent flapped,” Lenora replied.
Quest rose, and with the lantern in his hand walked to the other side of the tent. The flap was open, but there was no sign of any one in sight. He looked around and came back.
“Queer thing!” he exclaimed. “It sounded just as though some one had pulled the flap of the tent back. The flap’s open, but there isn’t a soul in sight.”
“I expect it was fancy,” Lenora remarked. “Still, there isn’t a breath of wind, is there?”
Quest returned to his place, and they recommenced the game. Just at that moment the entrance to the tent was lifted and Laura ran in. She plumped down upon her bed with her hands on either side of her.
“If that man—” she began.
Suddenly she sprang up with a little cry which turned almost into a scream. From a look of humorous indignation, her face suddenly assumed an expression of absolute terror. She shrank away.
“There’s something soft in the bed!” she shrieked. “I felt it with my hand!”
They all looked towards the cot. Quest held up the lantern. They distinctly saw a movement under the bedclothes. The Inspector, stooping down, suddenly entered the tent.
“Say, what’s wrong here?” he demanded.
“There’s something in Laura’s bed,” Quest muttered. “Here, give me the camp-stool.”
He stole towards the bed, gripping the camp-stool firmly with his right hand, and slowly turning down the bedclothes with the feet of the chair. Suddenly there was a piercing scream. A huge snake, coiled and quivering for the spring, lifted its head. Even Quest seemed for the moment nerveless. Then from the doorway came the sharp report of a revolver, and the snake fell, a limp, inert thing. They all looked at the Professor as though fascinated. He came a step farther into the tent, the revolver still smoking in his hand. Standing over the snake, he deliberately fired again and again into the body.
“I think,” he remarked, in his usual calm tones, “that we may consider the creature now beyond any power of doing harm. You will be interested to hear,” he continued, bending over the remains of the creature, “that this is an exceedingly rare species, a sort of second cousin to the rattlesnake found only in this part of the world and fatally poisonous.”
“But how could it have got there?” Lenora faltered.
The Professor shook his head gravely.
“I am afraid,” he said, “that there can be no doubt about that. I saw the Chinaman whom Laura is so fond of sneaking away from this tent a few minutes ago, and I suspected some devilry. That is why I went and fetched my revolver.”
There was a roar of anger from French. He snatched the weapon from the Professor’s hand.
“I’ll kill that yellow dog!” he shouted. “Where is he?”
He dashed across the open space towards the camp wagon. His teeth were set, and there was murder in his blazing eyes.
“Where’s that Chinaman?” he yelled at the top of his voice.
The cowboys struggled to their feet. The Chinaman, who was sitting inside the cook wagon, poring over a book by the light of a lantern, recognised the note of fury in French’s tone and raised his head, startled. A paroxysm of fear seized him. The very moment that French threw open the door of the wagon, he kicked the lantern across the floor and plunged at the canvas sides of the vehicle, slipping underneath until he reached the ground. French, left in darkness, groped around for a moment and then emerged. The cowboys had gathered together outside.
“Say, Mr. Inspector French,” one of them demanded, “what’s wrong with John Chinaman? You folks seem to have a sort of grudge against our cooks. What’s the Oriental been doing, eh?”
“Tried to commit a filthy murder,” French shouted. “Brought a snake and put it into the bed of one of the young women.”
They hesitated no longer.
“Come on, boys,” one of them cried. “We’ll have to see this matter through.”
They found the spot where the Chinaman had escaped from the wagon, but even at that moment they heard the sound of a horse’s hoofs and saw a flying figure in the distance.
“Said he couldn’t ride!” French shouted. “Told the young lady so when she wanted him to go and warn us of the fire. Look at him now!”
“Come on, all of you,” one of the cowboys yelled, as they rushed for the horse. “Bring your lariats. We’ll have him, sure.”
French, with his start, was the first to reach a horse. The cowboys galloped off through the shadows. Dimly visible, they now and then caught a glimpse of their quarry; sometimes he faded out of sight altogether.
“We’ll have him through that patch of brush,” Long Jim shouted. “He won’t dare to ride the pace there.”
They saw him for a moment bending low over his horse, but they did not see him slip easily from its back, roll over into the brushwood, and lie there concealed. They heard the thunder of hoofs ahead, and they galloped by. When they were out of sight, the Chinaman stole away into the darkness. Nearly an hour later, the little party caught up with the riderless horse. The language of the cowboys was picturesque.
“Spread out, boys. We’ll round him up going back, if we can,” Long Jim directed. “If he was spilled off, we’ll get him, sure. But if the dirty coyote has tricked us and slipped off into the brush, it’s good night. We’ll never find him.”
French’s hand tightened upon his revolver, and his eyes pierced the darkness to right and to left as he rode slowly back.
“There’ll be no trial if I can get the drop on him,” he muttered.
Away in the distance, John Chinaman was reaching Allguez, and the little party of cowboys rode into the camp without having seen a sign of him. French was narrating his failure to the three others, when Quest in silence handed him a cablegram, a messenger had just brought.
French swore softly for a moment. Then he dropped into a chair, exhausted.
“This,” he declared, “is our unlucky evening.”
The woman who had just laid the cloth for a homely evening meal, smiled across at the girl who stood at the window.
“It’s all ready now directly your uncle comes home,” she announced. “Say, you never seem to tire of looking out of that window.”
The girl turned around with a smile. She was very young and dressed in deep mourning.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before, Mrs. Malony,” she said. “It was quite quiet where we lived in London, and here, with the street cars and the elevated railways and the clanging of bells, there never seems to be a moment’s peace.”
Mrs. Malony came to the girl’s side.
“Your poor uncle looks as though a little peace would do him good,” she remarked.
The girl sighed.
“If only I could do something for him!” she murmured.
“He’s in some kind of trouble, I think,” Mrs. Malony observed. “He is not what you might call a communicative person, but it’s easy to see that he is far from being happy in himself. You’ll ring when you’re ready, Miss Mary?”
The door was suddenly opened, and Craig entered. He was very pale and a little out of breath. Before he closed the door, he listened for a moment.
“Just as we were speaking about you, Mr. Craig,” the landlady continued. “I was saying to the young lady that there was only one thing I could wish for you both, and that was that you weren’t quite so worried like.”
Craig seemed scarcely to hear her.
“Look across the road,” he begged. “Tell me if there is a man in a blue serge suit and a bowler hat, smoking a cigar, looking across here.”
Mrs. Malony and the girl both obeyed. The girl was the first to speak.
“Yes!” she announced. “He is looking straight at these windows.”
Craig groaned and sank down upon a chair.
“Leave us, if you please, Mrs. Malony,” he ordered. “I’ll ring when I’m ready.”
Mrs. Malony hesitated with the door-knob in her hand.
“I’m not wishing to say anything that might sound offensive,” she observed slowly, “but if it’s a case of trouble of any sort with the police, Mr. Craig—”
“That will do,” Craig interrupted. “It isn’t anything of the sort you think. You are not likely to suffer by having me here, Mrs. Malony, or by looking after my niece when I have gone.”
The landlady left the room silently. The girl came over to her uncle and threw her arm around his neck.
“Please don’t talk about going away, uncle,” she pleaded. “I have been so happy since I have been with you.”
He patted her head, felt in his pocket, and drew out a little paper bag, from which he shook a bunch of violets. The girl pinned them to her frock with a little cry of pleasure.
“How kind you are to me!” she exclaimed. “You think of everything!”
“If I had had you for a little longer, Mary,” he said, “perhaps I should have been a better man. Go to the window, please, and tell me if that man is still there.”
She crossed the room with light footsteps. Presently she returned.
“He is just crossing the street,” she announced. “I think that he seems to be coming here.”
Craig took the girl for a minute into his arms.
“Good-bye, dear,” he said. “I want you to take this paper and keep it carefully. You will be cared for always, but I must go.”
“But where must you go?” she asked bewildered.
“I have an appointment at Professor Ashleigh’s,” he told her. “I cannot tell you anything more than that. Good-bye!”
He kissed her for a moment passionately. Then suddenly he tore himself away. She heard him run lightly down the stairs. Some instinct led her to the back window. She saw him emerge from the house and pass down the yard. Then she went to the front. The man in the blue serge suit was talking to the landlady below. She sank into a chair, puzzled and unhappy. Then she heard heavy footsteps. The door was opened. The man in the blue serge suit entered, followed by the protesting landlady.
“There’s no sense in coming here to worry the young lady,” Mrs. Malony declared irritably. “As for Mr. Craig, I told you that he’d gone out.”
“Gone out, eh?” the man repeated, speaking in a thick, disagreeable tone. “Why, I watched him in here not ten minutes ago. Now then, young lady, guess you’d better cough up the truth. Where’s this precious uncle of yours?”
“My uncle has gone out,” the girl replied, drawing herself up. “He left five minutes ago.”
“Sneaked out by the back way, maybe,” the man sneered.
“If there was any fear of your stopping to speak to him, I should think he would,” the girl retorted boldly. “My uncle is rather particular about his acquaintances.”
The man laughed.
“What’s that in your hand?” he demanded.
“Something my uncle gave me before he went out,” the girl replied. “I haven’t looked at it yet myself.”
“Give it here,” he ordered.
She spread it out upon the table.
“You may look at it if you choose,” she agreed. “My uncle did not tell me not to show it to any one.”
They read it together. The few lines seemed to be written with great care. They took, indeed, the form of a legal document, to which was affixed the seal of a notary and the name of a witness.—
The man folded up the paper.
“I’ll take care of this,” he said. “It’s yours, right enough. We’ll just need to borrow it for a time. Go and get your hat and coat on, miss.”
“I shall not,” the girl objected. “My uncle told me, if anything happened to him, that I was to remain here.”
“And remain here she shall, so long as she likes,” Mrs. Malony insisted. “I’ve given my promise, too, to look after her, and Mr. Craig knows that I am an honest woman.”
“You may be that,” the man replied, “but it’s just as well for you both to understand this. I’m from the police, and what I say goes. No harm will come to the girl, Mrs. Malony, and she shall come back here, but for the present she is going to accompany me to headquarters. If you make any trouble, I only have to blow my whistle and I can fill your house with policemen.”
“I’ll go,” the girl whispered.
In silence she put on her hat and coat, in silence she drove with him to the police-station, where she was shown at once into an inspector’s office. The man who had brought her whispered for a moment or two with his chief and handed him the paper. Inspector French read it and whistled softly. He took up the telephone by his side.
“Say, you’ve something of a find here,” he remarked to the plain-clothes man. “Put me through to Mr. Quest, please,” he added, speaking into the receiver.
The two men whispered together. The girl stole from her place and turned over rapidly the pages of a directory which was on the round table before her. She found the “A’s” quickly. Her eye fell upon the name of Ashleigh. She repeated the address to herself and glanced around. The two men were still whispering. For the moment she was forgotten. She stole on tiptoe across the room, ran down the stone steps, and hastened into the street.
The Professor, who was comfortably seated in Quest’s favourite easy-chair, glanced at his watch and shook his head.
“I am afraid, my friend,” he said, “that Craig’s nerve has failed him. A voluntary surrender was perhaps too much to hope for.”
Quest smoked for a moment in silence.
“Can’t understand those fellows letting him give them the slip,” he muttered. “He ought to have been under close surveillance from the moment he set foot in New York. What’s that?” he added, turning to the door.
His servant entered, bearing a note.
“This was left a few minutes ago, sir,” he announced, “by a messenger boy. There was no answer required.”
The man retired and Quest unfolded the sheet of paper. His expression suddenly changed.
“Listen!” he exclaimed.
The Professor sat for a moment speechless.
“Then he meant it, after all!” he exclaimed at last.
“Seems like it,” Quest admitted. “I’ll just telephone to French.”
The Professor rose to his feet, knocked the ash from his cigar, struggled into his coat, and took up his hat. Then he waited until Quest had completed his conversation. The latter’s face had grown grave and puzzled. It was obvious that he was receiving information of some importance. He put down the instrument at last with a curt word of farewell.
“Let me send a couple of men up with you, Professor,” he begged. “You don’t want to run any risk of having Craig there before we arrive.”
The Professor smiled.
“My friend,” he said, “it is seldom in my life that I have had to have recourse to physical violence, but I flatter myself that there is no man who would do me any harm. We will meet, then, at my house. You will bring the young ladies?”
“Sure!” Quest replied. “I am just sending word up to them now.”
The Professor moved towards the door.
“If only this may prove to be the end!” he sighed.
Quest spent the next hour or so in restless deliberations. There were still many things which puzzled him. At about a quarter past nine Lenora and Laura arrived, dressed for their expedition. Quest threw open the window and looked out across the city. A yellowish haze which, accompanied by a sulphurous heat, had been brooding over the city all day long, had suddenly increased in density. The air was stifling.
“I’m afraid we are in for a bad thunderstorm, girls,” Quest remarked.
“Who cares? The automobile’s there, Mr. Quest.”
“Let’s go, then,” he replied.
They descended into the street and drove to the Professor’s house in silence. Even Laura was feeling the strain of these last hours of anxiety. On the way they picked up French and a plain-clothes man, and the whole party arrived at their destination just as the storm broke. The Professor met them in the hall. He, too, seemed to have lost to some extent his customary equanimity.
“Come this way, my friends,” he invited. “If Craig keeps his word, he will be here now within a few minutes. This way.”
They followed him into the library. Chairs were arranged around the table in the middle of the room, and they all sat down. The Professor took out his watch. It was five minutes to ten.
“In a few minutes,” he continued solemnly, “this weight is to be lifted from the minds of all of us. I have come to the conclusion that on this occasion Craig will keep his word. I am not sure, mind, but I believe that he is in the house at this present moment. I have heard movements in the room which belonged to him. I have not interfered. I have been content to wait.”
“At least he has not tried to escape,” Quest remarked. “French here brought news of him. He has been living with his niece very quietly, but without any particular attempt at concealment or any signs of wishing to leave the city.”
“I had that girl brought to my office,” French remarked, “barely an hour ago, but she slipped away while we were talking. Say, what’s that?”
They all rose quickly to their feet. In a momentary lull of the storm, they could hear distinctly a girl’s shrill call from outside, followed by the clamour of angry voices.
“I bet that’s the girl,” French exclaimed. “She’s been looking up the Professor’s address in a directory.”
They all hurried out into the hall. The plain-clothes man whom they had left on guard was standing there with his hand upon Craig’s collar. The girl, sobbing bitterly, was clinging to his arm. Craig was making desperate efforts to escape. Directly he saw the little party issue from the library, however, the strength seemed to pass from his limbs. He remained in the clutches of his captor, limp and helpless.
“I caught the girl trying to make her way into the house,” the latter explained. “She called out, and this man came running down-stairs, right into my arms.”
“It is quite all right,” the Professor said, in a dignified tone. “You may release them both. Craig was on his way to keep an appointment here at ten o’clock. Quest, will you and the Inspector bring him in? Let us resume our places at the table.”
The little procession made its way down the hall. The girl was still clinging to her uncle.
“What are they going to do to you, these people?” she sobbed. “They shan’t hurt you! They shan’t!”
Lenora passed her arm around the girl.
“Of course not, dear,” she said soothingly. “Your uncle has come of his own free will to answer a few questions, only I think it would be better if you would let me—”
Lenora never finished her sentence. They had reached the entrance now to the library. The Professor was standing in the doorway with extended hand, motioning them to take their places at the table. Then, with no form of warning, the room seemed suddenly filled with a blaze of blue light. It came at first in a thin flash from the window to the table, became immediately multiplied a thousand times, and played round the table in sparks which suddenly expanded to sheets of leaping, curling flame. The roar of thunder shook the very foundations of the house—and then silence. For several seconds not one of them seemed to have the power of speech. An amazing thing had happened. The oak table in the middle of the room was a charred fragment, the chairs were every one blackened remnants.
“A thunderbolt!” French gasped at last.
Quest was the first to cross the room. From the table to the outside window was one charred, black line which had burnt its way through the carpet. He threw open the window. The wire whose course he had followed ended there with a little lump of queer substance. He broke it off from the end of the wire, which was absolutely brittle, and brought it into the room.
“What is it?” Lenora faltered.
“What have you got there?” French echoed.
Quest examined the strange-looking lump of metal steadily. The most curious thing about it seemed to be that it was absolutely sound and showed no signs of damage. He turned to the Professor.
“I think you are the only one who will be able to appreciate this, Professor,” he remarked. “Look! It is a fragment of opotan—a distinct and wonderful specimen of opotan.”
Every one looked puzzled.
“But what,” Lenora enquired, “is opotan?”
“It is a new metal,” Quest explained gravely, “towards which scientists have been directing a great deal of attention lately. It has the power of collecting all the electricity from the air around us. There are a dozen people, at the present moment, conducting experiments with it for the purpose of cheapening electric lights. If we had been in the room ten seconds sooner—”
He paused significantly. Then he swung round on his heel. Craig, a now pitiful object, his hands nervously twitching, his face ghastly, was cowering in the background.
“Your last little effort, Craig?” he demanded sternly.
Craig made no reply. The Professor, who had disappeared for a moment, came back to them.
“There is a smaller room across the hall,” he said, “which will do for our purpose.”
Craig suddenly turned and faced them.
“I have changed my mind,” he said. “I have nothing to tell you. Do what you will with me. Take me to the Tombs, deal with me any way you choose, but I have nothing to say.”
French smiled a little grimly.
“We may make you change your mind when we get you there,” he remarked.
“No one will ever make me change my mind,” the man replied. “This is my last word.”
Quest pointed a threatening finger at him.
“Your last voluntary word, perhaps,” he said, “but science is still your master, Craig. Science has brought many criminals to their doom. It shall take its turn with you. Bring him along, French, to my study. There is a way of dealing with him.”
Quest felt his forehead and found it damp. There were dark rims under his eyes. Before him was Craig, with a little band around his forehead and the mirror where they could all see it. The Professor stood a little in the background. Laura and French were side by side, gazing with distended eyes at the blank mirror, and Lenora was doing her best to soothe the terrified niece. Twice Quest’s teeth came together and once he almost reeled.
“It’s the fight of his life,” he muttered at last, “but I’ve got him.”
Almost as he spoke, they could see Craig’s resistance begin to weaken. The tenseness of his form relaxed; Quest’s will was triumphing. Slowly in the mirror they saw a little picture creeping from outline into definite form, a picture of the Professor’s library. Craig himself was there with mortar and trowel, and a black box in his hand.
“It’s coming!” Lenora moaned.
Quest stood perfectly tense. The picture suddenly flashed into brilliant clearness. They saw Craig’s features with almost lifelike detail. From the corner of that room where the Professor was standing, came a smothered groan. It was a terrifying, a paralysing moment. Even the silence seemed charged with awful things. Then suddenly, without any warning, the picture faded completely away. A cry which was almost a howl of anger broke from Quest’s lips. Craig had fallen sideways from his chair. There was an ominous change in his face. Something seemed to have passed from the atmosphere of the room, some tense and nameless quality. Quest moved forward and laid his hand on Craig’s heart. The girl was on her knees, crying.
“Take her away,” Quest whispered to Lenora.
“What about him?” French demanded, as Lenora led the girl from the room.
“He fought too hard,” Quest said gravely. “He is dead. Professor,—”
They all looked around. The spot where he had been standing was empty. The Professor had gone.