THE BLACK BOX
The first shock was over. Craig’s body had been removed, and the girls had taken Mary, half stunned with grief, to their room. French and Quest were left alone.
“This is some disappointment,” the former remarked gloomily.
“It is a disappointment,” Quest said slowly, “which may clear the way to bigger things.”
“What’s in your mind now?” French enquired.
Quest shook his head.
“A turmoil. First of all, where is the Professor?”
“Must have scooted right away home,” French suggested. “He was looking pretty sick all the time. Guess it must have been a powerful shock for him, and he isn’t so young as he used to be.”
“Give me that paper of Craig’s again,” Quest asked, stretching out his hand.
The Inspector produced the document from his inner pocket, and Quest, stretching it out upon his knee, read it word for word.
“Never to communicate or to have anything to do with any one of the name of Ashleigh, eh?” he remarked, as he handed it back again. “Rather a queer provision, that, French.”
“I’ve been thinking that myself,” the Inspector admitted. “Seems to be rather reversing the positions, doesn’t it?”
Quest glanced at the clock.
“Well,” he said, “if you’re ready, Inspector, we’ll be getting along.”
“Where to?” French demanded.
Quest looked for a moment surprised. Just then Lenora entered the room.
“Are you going out?” she asked Quest.
“The Inspector and I are going to have a look for that black box,” he told her.
“Won’t you want me?”
He shook his head.
“I think you girls have had as much as is good for you of this sort of business,” he declared grimly.
“But it’s all over now,” Lenora protested.
Quest buttoned up his coat and motioned to French to follow him.
“I’m not so sure,” he said. “I’ll ’phone if we want you, Lenora. We shall be at the Professor’s.”
The two men drove to the outskirts of the city almost in silence, while several of the officers followed in another taxi. The Professor’s house seemed more than ever deserted as they drew up at the front door. They entered without ringing and crossed the hall towards the library. On the threshold Quest paused and held up his finger.
“Some one is in there,” he whispered, stepping quickly forward. “Come!”
He threw open the door. The room was empty, yet both Quest and French were conscious of a curious conviction that it had been occupied within the last few seconds. French even shook out the curtains and swung open the doors of a bureau. There was no sign of anybody, however, nor any evidence as to how they could have left the room.
“Queer, but it seemed to me I heard some one,” French muttered.
“I was sure of it,” Quest replied, shaking the curtains at the back of the door.
They stood still for a moment and listened. The silence in the empty house was almost unnatural. Quest turned away with a shrug of the shoulders.
“At any rate,” he said, “Craig’s dying thoughts must have been truthful. Come.”
He led the way to the fireplace, went down on his knees and passed his hands over the bricks. The third one he touched, shook. He tapped it—without a doubt it was hollow. With his penknife he loosened the mortar a little and drew it out easily. The back was open. Inside was the black box.
“Craig’s secret at last!” French muttered hoarsely. “Bring it to the light, quick!”
They were unemotional men but the moment was supreme. The key to the mystery of these tragical weeks was there in their hands! Their eyes almost devoured those few hastily scrawled words buried with so much care:
They looked at one another. They repeated vaguely this most commonplace of messages. As the final result of their strenuous enterprise, these cryptic words seemed pitifully inadequate. Quest’s face darkened. He crumpled the paper in his fingers.
“There must be some meaning in this,” he muttered. “It can’t be altogether a fool’s game we’re on. Wait.”
He moved towards a table which usually stood against the wall, but which had obviously been dragged out recently into the middle of the room. It was covered with bound volumes. Quest glanced at one and exclaimed softly.
“American Medical Journal, 1905! French, there’s something in this message, after all.”
He turned over the pages rapidly. Then he came to a stop. Page 60 was there; page 62 had been neatly removed with a pair of scissors.
“The Professor!” he cried. “The Professor’s been at work here!”
The two men stood looking at one another across the table. Strange thoughts were framing themselves in the brains of both of them. Then there came a startling and in its way a dramatic interlude. Through the empty house came the ringing of the electric bell from the front door, shrill and insistent. Without a moment’s hesitation, Quest hurried out, and French followed him. On the door-step was another surprise. Lenora and Laura were there, the former carrying a small, black-bound volume.
“Don’t be cross,” she begged quickly. “We just had to come. Look! We picked this up underneath the chair where Craig was sitting. It must have slipped from his pocket. You see what is written on it? DIARY OF JOHN CRAIG.”
Quest took it in his hand.
“This ought to be interesting,” he remarked. “Come along in.”
They passed into the library. French lingered behind for a moment and caught up with them just as they were opening the book underneath the electric lamp.
“See what I’ve found!” he exclaimed. “It was just by the side of the wall there. Where’s that journal?”
He spread out the piece of paper—it fitted exactly into the empty space. They all read together:
There was a queer little silence among the company. No one seemed inclined for speech. They looked at one another in dumb, wondering horror. Then Quest drew a penknife from his pocket and with a turn of his wrist forced the lock of the diary. They all watched him with fascinated eyes. It was something to escape from their thoughts. They leaned over as he spread the book out before him. Those first two sentences were almost in the light of a dedication:
Quest closed the volume.
“French,” he decided, “we must find the Professor. Will you have your men search the house and grounds immediately?”
The Inspector left the room like a dazed man. They could hear him giving orders outside.
“The next page,” Lenora begged. “Just one page more!”
Quest hesitated for a moment. Then he turned it over. All three read again:
“Another page,” Lenora faltered.
“No more,” Quest said. “Don’t you see where it is leading us? We have the truth here. Wait!”
He strode hastily to the door. French and one of the plain-clothes men were descending the stairs.
“Well?” Quest asked breathlessly.
“The Professor is not in the house,” French reported. “We are going to search the grounds.”
Quest returned to the library. Lenora clung to his arm. The diary lay still upon the table.
Quest opened the volume slowly. Again they all read together:
“Mrs. Rheinholdt!” Quest muttered. “Wait. I know where that suit is.”
He hastened to a cupboard at the farther end of the room, snatched some garments from it and vanished into the hall.
“One moment, girls,” he said. “I see now how he did it. Wait. I’ll show you.”
They stood quite still, a little terrified. In a moment or two the door reopened. A finger turned out all the electric lights but one. Then there was nothing to be seen but a pair of white hands, which seemed to come floating towards them through the darkness—a pair of white hands and a pair of gleaming eyes. Lenora screamed wildly. Even Laura was unnerved.
“Stop that!” she cried out. “Who are you, anyway?”
The lights were suddenly turned on. Quest threw off his disguise.
“There you are,” he exclaimed triumphantly. “Ingenious, but one ought to have seen through it long ago. The stroke of genius about it was that as soon as he had used a dodge once or twice and set you thinking about it, he dropped it.”
The door was suddenly opened and French entered.
“Beaten!” he exclaimed tersely.
“You haven’t found him?” Quest asked.
French shook his head.
“We’ve searched every room, every cupboard, every scrap of the cellar in the house,” he announced. “We’ve been into every corner of the grounds, searched all the place inside and out. There’s no sign of the Professor.”
Quest pocketed the diary.
“You’re perfectly certain that he is not in this house or anywhere upon the premises?”
“Certain sure!” French replied.
Quest shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, we’d better get back,” he said. “You come, too, French. We’ll sit down and figure out some scheme for finding him.”
They made their way to the front door and crowded into the autos. The two men left with marked reluctance. The two girls had but one idea in their heads—to get away, and get away quickly.
“Do start, please,” Lenora begged. “There’s just one thing in life I want, and that is to be in my own room, to feel myself away from his world of horrible, unnatural mysteries.”
“The kid has the right idea,” Laura agreed. “I’ve had enough myself.”
They were on the point of starting, the chauffeur with his hand upon the starting handle, French with the steering wheel of the police car already in his hand. And then the little party seemed suddenly turned to stone. For a few breathless seconds not one of them moved. Out into the clammy night air came the echoes of a hideous, inhuman, blood-curdling scream. Quest was the first to recover himself. He leaped from his seat and rushed back across the empty hall into the study, followed a little way behind by French and the others. An unsuspected panel door which led into the garden, stood slightly ajar. The Professor, with his hand on the back of a chair, was staring at the fireplace, shaking as though with some horrible ague, his face distorted, his body curiously hunched-up. He seemed suddenly to have dropped his humanity, to have fallen back into the world of some strange creatures. He heard their footsteps, but he did not turn his head. His hands were stretched out in front of him as though to keep away from his sight some hateful object.
“Stop him!” he cried. “Take him away! It’s Craig—his spirit! He came to me in the garage, he followed me through the grounds, he mocked at me when I hid in the tree. He’s there now, kneeling before the fireplace. Why can’t I kill him! He is coming! Stop him, some one!”
No one spoke or moved; no one, indeed, had the power. Then at last Quest found words.
“There is no one in the room, Professor,” he said, “except us.”
The sound of a human voice seemed to produce a strange effect. The Professor straightened himself, shook his head, his hands dropped to his side. He turned around and faced them. He was ghastly pale, but his smile was once more the smile of the amiable naturalist.
“My friends,” he said, “forgive me. I am very old, and the events of these last few hours have unnerved me. Forgive me.”
He groped for a moment and sank into a chair. Quest fetched a decanter and a glass from the sideboard, poured out some wine and held it to his lips. The Professor drank it eagerly.
“My dear friend,” he exclaimed, “you have saved me! I have something to tell you, something I must tell you at once, but not here. I loathe this place. Let me come with you to your rooms.”
“As you please,” Quest answered calmly.
The Professor rose hastily to his feet. As he turned around, he saw French concealing something in his hands. He shivered.
“I don’t need those!” he cried. “What are they? Handcuffs? Ah, no! I am only too anxious to tell you all that I know. Take care of me, Mr. Quest. Take me with you.”
He gripped Quest’s arm. In silence they passed from the room, in silence they took their places once more in the automobiles, in silence they drove without a pause to Quest’s rooms. The Professor seemed to breathe more freely as they left the neighbourhood of his house behind. He walked up the stairs to Quest’s library almost blithely. If he was aware of it, he took no notice of French and the two plain-clothes men behind. As he stepped into the room, he drew a long sigh of relief. He made his way at once to his favourite easy-chair, threw off his overcoat and leaned back.
“Quest,” he pronounced, “you are the best friend I have in my life! It is you who have rid me of my great burden. Tell me—help me a little with my story—have you read that page from the Medical Journal which Craig has kept locked up all these years?”
“We have all read it,” Quest replied.
“It was forged,” the Professor declared firmly, “forged by Craig. All the years since, he has blackmailed me. I have been his servant and his tool. I have been afraid to speak. At last I am free of him. Thank God!”
“Craig, after all,” French muttered.
The Professor sat with a faint, wistful smile upon the corners of his lips, looking around at all of them. His face had become like the face of a child, eager for sympathy and kindness.
“You will trust me, I know,” he continued. “You will believe me. All my life I have laboured for science. I have never been selfish. I have laid up no store of gold or treasure. Knowledge has been my mistress, knowledge has been my heaven. If I had been a wise man, I would have ridden myself of this hideous burden, but I was foolish and afraid. I wanted to pursue my studies, I wanted to be left in peace, so I let that fiend prey upon my fears. But now—now I feel that the burden has rolled away. I shall tell you my story, and afterwards I will do great things yet, great things for science, great things for the world.”
They listened to him, spellbound. Only Lenora stood a little apart with a faint frown upon her forehead. She touched Quest on the shoulder.
“Mr. Quest,” she murmured, “he is lying!”
Quest turned his head. His lips scarcely moved.
“What do you mean?” he whispered.
“He is lying!” Lenora insisted. “I tell you there’s another creature there, something we don’t understand. Let me bring the Electro-thought transference apparatus; let us read his mind. If I am wrong, I will go down on my knees and beg for forgiveness.”
Quest nodded. Lenora hastened to the further end of the room, snatched the cloth from the instrument and wheeled down the little mirror with its coils and levers. The Professor watched her. Slowly his face changed. The benevolence faded away, his teeth for a moment showed in something which was almost a snarl.
“You believe me?” he cried, turning to Quest. “You are not going to try that horrible thing on me—Professor Lord Ashleigh? I am all broken up. I am not fit for it. Look at my hands, how they shake.”
“Professor,” Quest said sternly, “we are surrounded by the shadow of some terrible deeds for which as yet there is no explanation. I do not say that we mistrust you, but I ask you to submit to this test.”
“I refuse!” the Professor replied harshly.
“And I insist,” Quest muttered.
The Professor drew a little breath. He sat back in his chair. His face became still, his lips were drawn closely together. Lenora wheeled up the machine and with deft fingers adjusted the fittings on one side. Quest himself connected it up on the other. The Professor sat there like a figure of stone. The silence in the room was so intense that the ticking of the small clock upon the mantelpiece was clearly audible. The silent battle of wills seemed like a live and visible struggle. The very atmosphere seemed charged with the thrill and wonder of it. Never before had Quest met with resistance so complete and immovable. For the first time the thought of failure oppressed him. Even that slight slackening of his rigid concentration brought relief to the Professor. Without any knowledge as to the source of their conviction, the two girls who watched felt that the Professor was becoming dominant. And then there came a sudden queer change. The intangible triumph of the Professor’s stony poise seemed to fade away. His eyes had sought the corner of the room, his lips quivered. The horror was there again, the horror they had seen before. He crouched a little back. His hands were uplifted as though to keep off some evil thing.
“Craig!” Lenora whispered. “He thinks he sees Craig again!”
Quest held up his hand. He realised that this was his moment. He leaned a little farther forward. Sternly he concentrated the whole of his will power upon his task. Almost at once there was a change. The Professor fell back in the chair. The tense self-control had passed from his features, his lips twitched. Simultaneously, the mirror for a moment was clouded,—then slowly a picture upon it gathered outline and substance. There was a jungle, strange, tall trees, and brushwood so thick that it reached to the waists of the two men who were slowly making their way through it. One was the Professor, clearly recognisable under his white sun helmet; the other a stranger to all of them. Suddenly they stopped. The latter had crept a yard or so ahead, his gun raised to his shoulder, his eyes fixed upon some possible object of pursuit. There was a sudden change in the Professor. They saw him seize his gun by the barrel and whirl it above his head. He seemed suddenly to lose his whole identity. He crouched on his haunches, almost like an animal, and sprang at the other’s throat. They could almost hear the snarl from his lips as the two men went down together into the undergrowth. The picture faded away.
“Dr. Merrill!” Lenora faltered. “Then it was not wild beasts which killed him.”
Almost immediately figures again appeared in the mirror. This time they saw the Professor in bed in a tent, Craig sitting by him, a violin in his hand. A native servant entered with food, which he placed by the bedside with a low obeisance. Slowly the Professor raised himself in bed. His face was distorted, his mouth curved into strange lines. With a sudden spring he seized the native servant by the throat and bore him back upon the floor. Craig passed his arm through his master’s and, exerting all his strength, dragged him away. They saw the man run terrified from the room, they saw Craig soothe the Professor and finally get him back to bed. Then he seized the violin and bent a little forward, playing softly. Slowly the Professor relapsed into what seemed to be a sleep. The scene faded away, to be replaced almost immediately by another. There was a small passage which seemed to lead from the back entrance of a house; the Professor with a black mantle, Craig following him, pleading, expostulating. They saw the conservatory for a minute, and then blackness. The Professor was leaning against a marble basin. There was nothing to be seen of him but his eyes and hands. They saw him listen, for a moment or two in cold, unresponsive silence, then stretch out his hand and push Craig away. The picture glowed and faded and glowed again. Then they saw through the gloom the figure of a woman approach, a diamond necklace around her neck. They saw the hands steal out and encircle her throat—and then more darkness, silence, obscurity. The mirror was empty once more.
“Mrs. Rheinholdt’s jewels!” Lenora cried. “What next? Oh! my God, what next?”
Their eyes ached with the strain but there was not one of them who could even glance away from the mirror. It was Quest’s study which slowly appeared then. The Salvation Army girl was there, talking to the Professor. They saw him leave her, they saw him look back from the door, a strange, evil glance. Then the secretary entered and spoke to her. Once more the door opened. The hands were there, stretching and reaching, a paper-weight gripped in the right-hand fingers. They saw it raised above the secretary’s head, they saw the other hand take the girl by the throat and push her towards the table. A wild scream broke from Lenora’s lips. Quest wavered for a moment. The picture faded out.
“Oh, stop it!” Lenora begged. “Haven’t we seen enough? We know the truth now. Stop!”
The criminologist made no reply. His eyes were still fixed upon the Professor, who showed some signs of returning consciousness. He was gripping at his collar. He seemed to have difficulty with his breathing. Quest suddenly braced himself. He pushed Lenora back.
“One more,” he muttered. “There’s something growing in his mind. I can feel it. Wait!”
Again they all turned towards the mirror. They saw the hallway of Ashleigh House, the pictures upon the walls, they could almost feel the quiet silence of night. They saw the Professor come stealing down the stairs. He was wearing the black velvet suit with the cowl in his hand. They watched him pause before a certain door, draw on the cowl and disappear. Through the opening they could see Lord Ashleigh asleep in bed, the moonlight streaming through the open window across the counterpane. They saw the Professor turn with a strange, horrible look in his face and close the door. Lenora burst into sobs.
“No more!” she begged. “No more, please!”
Suddenly, without any warning, Laura also began to sob hysterically. French mopped his forehead with his handkerchief. His face was unrecognisable. He had lost all his healthy colour, and his lips were twitching. Quest himself was as pale as death, and there were black rims under his eyes.
“We’ve had enough,” he admitted, swaying a little on his feet. “Undo the other band, if you can, Lenora.”
He leaned forward and released their victim. The whole atmosphere of the place seemed immediately to change. Lenora drew a long, convulsive breath and sank into a chair. The Professor sat up, and gazed at them all with the air of a man who had just awakened from a dream. His features relapsed, his mouth once more resolved itself into pleasant and natural lines. He smiled at them cordially.
“Have I, by any chance, slept?” he asked. “Or—”
He never finished his sentence. His eyes fell upon the mirror, the metal band lying by his side. He read the truth in the faces still turned towards him. He rose to his feet. There was another and equally sudden change in his demeanour and tone. He carried himself with the calm dignity of the scientist.
“The end of our struggle, I presume?” he said to Quest, pointing to the metal band. “You will at least admit that I have shown you fine sport?”
No one answered him. Even Quest had barely yet recovered himself. The Professor shrugged his shoulders.
“I recognise, of course,” he said gravely, “that this is the end. A person in extremis has privileges. Will you allow me to write just a matter of twenty lines at your desk?”
Silently Quest assented. The Professor seated himself in the swing chair, drew a sheet of paper towards him, dipped the pen in the ink and began to write. Then he turned round and reached for his own small black bag which lay upon the table. Quest caught him by the wrist.
“What do you want out of that, Professor?” he enquired.
“Merely my own pen and ink,” the Professor expostulated. “If there is anything I detest in the world, it is violet ink. And your pen, too, is execrable. As these are to be the last words I shall leave to a sorrowing world, I should like to write them in my own fashion. Open the bag for yourself, if you will. You can pass me the things out.”
Quest opened the bag, took out a pen and a small glass bottle of ink. He handed them to the Professor, who started once more to write. Quest watched him for a moment and then turned away to French. The Professor looked over his shoulder and suddenly bared his wrist. Lenora seized her employer by the arm.
“Look!” she cried. “What is he going to do?”
Quest swung round, but he was too late. The Professor had dug the pen into his arm. He sat in his chair and laughed as they all hurried towards him. Then suddenly he sprang to his feet. Again the change came into his face which they had seen in the mirror. French dashed forward towards him. The Professor snarled, seemed about to spring, then suddenly once more stretched out his hands to show that he was helpless and handed to Quest the paper upon which he had been writing.
“You have nothing to fear from me,” he exclaimed. “Here is my last message to you, Sanford Quest. Read it—read it aloud. Always remember that this was not your triumph but mine.”
Quest held up the paper. They all read. The Professor’s letters were carefully formed, his handwriting perfectly legible.
Quest looked up quickly.
“What the devil does he mean?” he muttered.
The Professor’s arms shot suddenly above his head. Again that strange, animal look convulsed his features. He burst into a loud, unnatural laugh.
“Mean, you fool?” he cried, holding out his wrist, which was slowly turning black. “Poisoned! That is what it means!”
They all stared at him. Quest seized the ink bottle, revealed the false top and laid it down again with a little exclamation. Then, before they could realize it, the end came. The Professor lay, a crumpled-up heap, upon the floor. The last change of all had taken place in his face. His arms were outstretched, his face deathly white, his lips faintly curved in the half amiable, half supercilious smile of the savant who sees beyond. Quest stooped over him.
“He is dead,” he declared.
Quest swung round in his chair as French entered the room, and held out his left hand.
“Glad to see you, French. Help yourself to a cigar.”
“I don’t know as I want to smoke this morning just at present, thank you,” French replied.
Quest laid down his pen and looked up. French was fidgeting about with his hat in his hand. He was dressed more carefully than usual, but he was obviously ill at ease.
“Nothing wrong, eh?”
“No, there’s nothing wrong,” French admitted. “I just looked in—”
Quest waited for a moment. Then he crossed his legs and assumed a patient attitude.
“What the dickens did you look in for?” he asked.
“The fact of it is,” French explained, “I should like a few words with Miss Laura.”
Quest laughed shortly.
“Why on earth couldn’t you say so?” he observed. “Never knew you bashful before, Inspector. She’s up in the laboratory. I’ll ring for some one to show you the way.”
Quest touched the bell and his new secretary entered almost at once.
“Take Inspector French up into the laboratory,” Quest directed. “See you later, French.”
“Yes—perhaps—I hope so,” the Inspector replied nervously.
Quest watched him disappear, with a puzzled smile.
Then he sat down at his desk, drew a sheet of paper towards him and began to write:
He left the sheet of paper upon the desk and, ringing the bell, sent for Lenora. She appeared in a few moments and came over to his side.
“What is it, Mr. Quest?” she asked.
He gave her the letter without remark. She read it through and, turning slowly around, looked at him expectantly.
“How’s that seem to you?” he asked, reaching out his hand for a cigar.
“Very sensible indeed,” she replied.
“It’s no sort of life, this, for a married man,” Quest declared. “You agree with me there, don’t you, Lenora?”
“Yes!” she admitted, a little faintly.
Quest lit his cigar deliberately. Then he enclosed the letter in an envelope and addressed it to Inspector French.
“You’d better deliver this to the Inspector,” he said, “in case he doesn’t call round here on his way out.”
He handed her the note. For a moment she looked at him, then she turned quickly away.
“He shall have it at once,” she said in a low tone.
Quest watched her cross the room. She opened the door and passed out without a backward glance. Then he shrugged his shoulders, hesitated for a moment, and followed her. He heard the door of her apartment on the next floor close, however, and made his way to the laboratory. He entered the room softly and paused upon the threshold. His presence was altogether unobserved by the two people who were standing at the other end of the apartment.
“I say, Miss Laura,” the Inspector was saying, “this has got to come sometime or other. Why don’t you make up your mind to it? I’m no great hand at love-making, but I’m the right sort of man for you and I think you know it.”
“This,” Quest murmured to himself, “is where Laura boxes the Inspector’s ears!”
Nothing of the sort happened, however. There was a queer, a mystifying change in Laura’s expression. She was looking down at the floor. Suddenly her face was hidden in her hands. The Inspector threw his arms around her.
“That’s all the answer I want,” he declared.
Quest stole softly away. As he regained the door of his study, Lenora, dressed for the street, hurried out. She tried to pass him but he laid his hand upon her shoulder.
“I was just going round to Mr. French’s office,” she explained.
“That’s all right,” Quest replied. “The Inspector’s here. You can leave the note upon the table. Hi, Parkins,” he called out to his secretary in the next room, “get my hat and coat. Come back a moment, Lenora.”
She turned into the room a little unwillingly and leaned against the table. Quest stood by her side.
“Lenora,” he said quietly, “that was kind of a brutal note I told you to give to French, but I thought you’d understand.”
She raised her eyes suddenly to his.
“Understand what?” she whispered.
The secretary entered the room, helped Quest on with his coat and handed him his hat.
“If you are quite ready, Lenora.”
“Ready?” she exclaimed. “Where are we going?”
“Fancy having to explain all these things!” he said, taking her arm. “I just want you to understand, Lenora, that I’ve waited—quite long enough. Parkins,” he added, turning to his secretary, “if any one calls, just say that my wife and I will be back early in the afternoon. And you’d better step upstairs to the laboratory and give my compliments to Inspector French, and say that I hope he and Miss Laura will join us at Delmonico’s for luncheon at one o’clock.”
“Very good, sir,” the man replied.
Lenora’s face was suddenly transformed. She passed her arm through Quest’s. He stooped and kissed her as he led her towards the door.
“You understand now, don’t you?” he whispered, smiling down at her.
“I think so,” she admitted, with a little sigh of content.