THE BLACK BOX
THE HIDDEN HANDS
Sanford Quest and Lenora stood side by side upon the steps of the Courthouse, waiting for the automobile which had become momentarily entangled in a string of vehicles. A little crowd of people were elbowing their way out on to the sidewalk. The faces of most of them were still shadowed by the three hours of tense drama from which they had just emerged. Quest, who had lit a cigar, watched them curiously.
“No need to go into Court,” he remarked. “I could have told you, from the look of these people, that Macdougal had escaped the death sentence. They have paid their money—or rather their time, and they have been cheated of the one supreme thrill.”
“Imprisonment for life seems terrible enough,” Lenora whispered, shuddering.
“Can’t see the sense of keeping such a man alive myself,” Quest declared, with purposeful brutality. “It was a cruel murder, fiendishly committed.”
Lenora shivered. Quest laid his fingers for a moment upon her wrist. His voice, though still firm, became almost kind.
“Never be afraid, Lenora,” he said, “to admit the truth. Come, we have finished with Macdougal now. Imprisonment for life will keep him from crossing your path again.”
Lenora sighed. She was almost ashamed of her feeling of immense relief.
“I am very sorry for him,” she murmured. “I wish there were something one could do.”
“There is nothing,” Quest replied shortly, “and if there were, you would not be allowed to undertake it. You didn’t happen to notice the way he looked at you once or twice, did you?”
Once more the terror shone out of Lenora’s eyes.
“You are right,” she faltered. “I had forgotten.”
They were on the point of crossing the pavement towards the automobile when Quest felt a touch upon his shoulder. He turned and found Lord Ashleigh standing by his side. Quest glanced towards Lenora.
“Run and get in the car,” he whispered. “I will be there in a moment.”
She dropped her veil and hastened across the pavement. The Englishman’s face grew sterner as he watched her.
“Macdougal’s accomplice,” he muttered. “We used to trust that girl, too.”
“She had nothing whatever to do with the actual crime, believe me,” Quest assured him. “Besides, you must remember that it was really through her that the man was brought to justice.”
“I harbour no ill-feelings towards the girl,” Lord Ashleigh replied. “Nevertheless, the sight of her for a moment was disconcerting…. I would not have stopped you just now, Mr. Quest, but my brother is very anxious to renew his acquaintance with you. I think you met years ago.”
Sanford Quest held out his hand to the man who had been standing a little in the background. Lord Ashleigh turned towards him.
“This is Mr. Quest, Edgar. You may remember my brother—Professor Ashleigh—as a man of science, Quest? He has just returned from South America.”
The two shook hands, curiously diverse in type, in expression, in all the appurtenances of manhood. Quest was dark, with no sign of greyness in his closely-trimmed black hair. His face was an epitome of forcefulness, his lips hard, his eyes brilliant. He was dressed with the utmost care. His manner was self-possessed almost to a fault. The Professor, on the other hand, though his shoulders were broad, lost much of his height and presence through a very pronounced stoop. His face was pale, his mouth sensitive, his smile almost womanly in its sweetness. His clothes, and a general air of abstraction, seemed rather to indicate the clerical profession. His forehead, however, disclosed as he lifted his hat, was the forehead of a scholar.
“I am very proud to make your acquaintance again, Professor,” Quest said. “Glad to know, too, that you hadn’t quite forgotten me.”
“My dear sir,” the Professor declared, as he released the other’s hand with seeming reluctance, “I have thought about you many times. Your doings have always been of interest to me. Though I have been lost to the world of civilisation for so long, I have correspondents here in New York to keep me in touch with all that is interesting. You have made a great name for yourself, Mr. Quest. You are one of those who have made science your handmaiden in a wonderful profession.”
“You are very kind, Professor,” Quest observed, flicking the ash from his cigar.
“Not at all,” the other insisted. “Not at all. I have the greatest admiration for your methods.”
“I am sorry,” Quest remarked, “that our first meeting here should be under such distressing circumstances.”
The Professor nodded gravely. He glanced towards his brother, who was talking to an acquaintance a few feet away.
“It has been a most melancholy occasion,” he admitted, his voice shaking with emotion. “Still, I felt it my duty to support my brother through the trial. Apart from that, you know, Mr. Quest, a scene such as we have just witnessed has a peculiar—I might almost say fascination for me,” the Professor continued, with a little glint in his eyes. “You, as a man of science, can realise, I am sure, that the criminal side of human nature is always of interest to an anthropologist.”
“That must be so, of course,” Quest agreed, glancing towards the automobile in which Lenora was seated. “If you’ll excuse me, Professor, I think I must be getting along. We shall meet again, I trust.”
“One moment,” the Professor begged eagerly. “Tell me, Mr. Quest—I want your honest opinion. What do you think of my ape?”
“Of your what?” Quest enquired dubiously.
“Of my anthropoid ape which I have just sent to the museum. You know my claim? But perhaps you would prefer to postpone your final decision until after you have examined the skeleton itself.”
A light broke in upon the criminologist.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “For the moment, Professor, I couldn’t follow you. You are talking about the skeleton of the ape which you brought home from South America, and which you have presented to the museum here?”
“Naturally,” the Professor assented, with mild surprise. “To what else? I am stating my case, Mr. Quest, in the North American Review next month. I may tell you, however, as a fellow scientist, the great and absolute truth. My claim is incontestable. My skeleton will prove to the world, without a doubt, the absolute truth of Darwin’s great theory.”
“You must go and see it,” the Professor insisted, keeping by Quest’s side as the latter moved towards the automobile. “You must go and see it, Mr. Quest. It will be on view to the public next week, but in the meantime I will telephone to the curator. You must mention my name. You shall be permitted a special examination.”
“Very kind of you,” Quest murmured.
“We shall meet again soon, I hope,” the Professor concluded cordially. “Good morning, Mr. Quest!”
The two men shook hands, and Quest took his seat by Lenora’s side in the automobile. The Professor rejoined his brother.
“George,” he exclaimed, as they walked off together, “I am disappointed in Mr. Quest! I am very disappointed indeed. You will not believe what I am going to tell you, but it is the truth. He could not conceal it from me. He takes no interest whatever in my anthropoid ape.”
“Neither do I,” the other replied grimly.
The Professor sighed as he hailed a taxicab.
“You, my dear fellow,” he said gravely, “are naturally not in the frame of mind for the consideration of these great subjects. Besides, you have no scientific tendencies. But in Sanford Quest I am disappointed. I expected his enthusiasm—I may say that I counted upon it.”
“I don’t think that Quest has much of that quality to spare,” his brother remarked, “for anything outside his own criminal hunting.”
They entered the taxicab and were driven almost in silence to the Professor’s home—a large, rambling old house, situated in somewhat extensive but ill-kept grounds on the outskirts of New York. The Englishman glanced around him, as they passed up the drive, with an expression of disapproval.
“A more untidy-looking place than yours, Edgar, I never saw,” he declared. “Your grounds have become a jungle. Don’t you keep any gardeners?”
The Professor smiled.
“I keep other things,” he said serenely. “There is something in my garden which would terrify your nice Scotch gardeners into fits, if they found their way here to do a little tidying up. Come into the library and I’ll give you one of my choice cigars. Here’s Craig waiting to let us in. Any news, Craig?”
The man-servant in plain clothes who admitted them shook his head.
“Nothing has happened, sir,” he replied. “The telephone is ringing in the study now, though.”
“I will answer it myself,” the Professor declared, bustling off.
He hurried across the bare landing and into an apartment which seemed to be half museum, half library. There were skeletons leaning in unexpected corners, strange charts upon the walls, a wilderness of books and pamphlets in all manner of unexpected places, mingled with quaintly-carved curios, gods from West African temples, implements of savage warfare, butterfly nets. It was a room which Lord Ashleigh was never able to enter without a shudder.
The Professor took up the receiver from the telephone. His “Hello” was mild and enquiring. He had no doubt that the call was from some admiring disciple. The change in his face as he listened, however, was amazing. His lips began to twitch. An expression of horrified dismay overspread his features. His first reply was almost incoherent. He held the receiver away from him and turned towards his brother.
“George,” he gasped, “the greatest tragedy in the world has happened! My ape is stolen!”
His brother looked at him blankly.
“Your ape is stolen?” he repeated.
“The skeleton of my anthropoid ape,” the Professor continued, his voice growing alike in sadness and firmness. “It is the curator of the museum who is speaking. They have just opened the box. It has lain for two days in an anteroom. It is empty!”
Lord Ashleigh muttered something a little vague. The theft of a skeleton scarcely appeared to his unscientific mind to be a realisable thing. The Professor turned back to the telephone.
“Mr. Francis,” he said, “I cannot talk to you. I can say nothing. I shall come to you at once. I am on the point of starting. Your news has overwhelmed me.”
He laid down the receiver. He looked around him like a man in a nightmare.
“The taxicab is still waiting, sir,” Craig reminded him.
“That is most fortunate,” the Professor pronounced. “I remember now that I had no change with which to pay him. I must go back. Look after my brother. And, Craig, telephone at once to Mr. Sanford Quest. Ask him to meet me at the museum in twenty minutes. Tell him that nothing must stand in the way. Do you hear?”
The man hesitated. There was protest in his face.
“Mr. Sanford Quest, sir?” he muttered, as he followed his master down the hall.
“The great criminologist,” the Professor explained eagerly. “Certainly! Why do you hesitate?”
“I was wondering, sir,” Craig began.
The Professor waved his servant on one side.
“Do as you are told,” he ordered. “Do as you are told, Craig. You others—you do not realise. You cannot understand what this means. Tell the taxi man to drive to the museum. I am overcome.”
The taxicab man drove off, glad enough to have a return fare. In about half-an-hour’s time the Professor strode up the steps of the museum and hurried into the office. There was a little crowd of officials there whom the curator at once dismissed. He rose slowly to his feet. His manner was grave but bewildered.
“Professor,” he said, “we will waste no time in words. Look here.”
He threw open the door of an anteroom behind his office. The apartment was unfurnished except for one or two chairs. In the middle of the uncarpeted floor was a long wooden box from which the lid had just been pried.
“Yesterday, as you know from my note,” the curator proceeded, “I was away. I gave orders that your case should be placed here and I myself should enjoy the distinction of opening it. An hour ago I commenced the task. That is what I found.”
The Professor gazed blankly at the empty box.
“Nothing left except the smell,” a voice from the open doorway remarked.
They glanced around. Quest was standing there, and behind him Lenora. The Professor welcomed them eagerly.
“This is Mr. Quest, the great criminologist,” he explained to the curator. “Come in, Mr. Quest. Let me introduce you to Mr. Francis, the curator of the museum. Ask him what questions you will. Mr. Quest, you have the opportunity of earning the undying gratitude of a brother scientist. If my skeleton cannot be recovered, the work of years is undone.”
Quest strolled thoughtfully around the room, glancing out of each of the windows in turn. He kept close to the wall, and when he had finished he drew out a magnifying-glass from his pocket and made a brief examination of the box. Then he asked a few questions of the curator, pointed out one of the windows to Lenora and whispered a few directions to her. She at once produced what seemed to be a foot-rule from the bag which she was carrying, and hurried into the garden.
“A little invention of my own for measuring foot-prints,” Quest explained. “Not much use here, I am afraid.”
“What do you think of the affair so far, Mr. Quest?” the Professor asked eagerly.
The criminologist shook his head.
“Incomprehensible,” he confessed. “Can you think, by-the-bye, of any other motive for the theft besides scientific jealousy?”
“There could be no other,” the Professor declared sadly, “and it is, alas! too prevalent. I have had to suffer from it all my life.”
Quest stood over the box for a moment or two and looked once more out of the window. Presently Lenora returned. She carried in her hand a small object, which she brought silently to Quest. He glanced at it in perplexity. The Professor peered over his shoulder.
“It is the little finger!” he cried,—“the little finger of my ape!”
Quest held it away from him critically.
“From which hand?” he asked.
“The right hand.”
Quest examined the fastenings of the window before which he had paused during his previous examination. He turned away with a shrug of the shoulders.
“See you later, Mr. Ashleigh,” he concluded laconically. “Nothing more to be done at present.”
The Professor followed him to the door.
“Mr. Quest,” he said, his voice broken with emotion, “it is the work of my lifetime of which I am being robbed. You will use your best efforts, you will spare no expense? I am rich. Your fee you shall name yourself.”
“I shall do my best,” Quest promised, “to find the skeleton. Come, Lenora. Good morning, gentlemen!”
With his new assistant, Quest walked slowly from the museum and turned towards his home.
“Make anything of this, Lenora?” he asked her.
“Of course not,” she answered. “It looks as though the skeleton had been taken away through that window.”
“Marvellous!” he murmured.
“You are making fun of me,” she protested.
“Not I! But you see, my young friend, the point is this. Who in their senses would want to steal an anthropoid skeleton except a scientific man, and if a scientific man stole it out of sheer jealousy, why in thunder couldn’t he be content with just mutilating it, which would have destroyed its value just as well—What’s that?”
He stopped short. A newsboy thrust the paper at them. Quest glanced at the headlines. Lenora clutched at his arm. Together they read in great black type—
ESCAPE OF CONVICTED PRISONER!
The windows of Mrs. Rheinholdt’s town house were ablaze with light. A crimson drugget stretched down the steps to the curbstone. A long row of automobiles stood waiting. Through the wide-flung doors was visible a pleasant impression of flowers and light and luxury. In the nearer of the two large reception rooms Mrs. Rheinholdt herself, a woman dark, handsome, and in the prime of life, was standing receiving her guests. By her side was her son, whose twenty-first birthday was being celebrated.
“I wonder whether that professor of yours will come,” she remarked, as the stream of incoming guests slackened for a moment. “I’d love to have him here, if it were only for a moment. Every one’s talking about him and his work in South America.”
“He hates receptions,” the boy replied, “but he promised he’d come. I never thought, when he used to drill science into us at the lectures, that he was going to be such a tremendous big pot.”
Mrs. Rheinholdt’s plump fingers toyed for a moment complacently with the diamonds which hung from her neck.
“You can never tell, in a world like this,” she murmured. “That’s why I make a point of being civil to everybody. Your laundry woman may become a multimillionaire, or your singing master a Caruso, and then, just while their month’s on, every one is crazy to meet them. It’s the Professor’s month just now.”
“Here he is, mother!” the young man exclaimed suddenly. “Good old boy! I thought he’d keep his word.”
Mrs. Rheinholdt assumed her most encouraging and condescending smile as she held out both hands to the Professor. He came towards her, stooping a little more than usual. His mouth had drooped a little and there were signs of fatigue in his face. Nevertheless, his answering smile was as delightful as ever.
“This is perfectly sweet of you, Professor,” Mrs. Rheinholdt declared. “We scarcely ventured to hope that you would break through your rule, but Philip was so looking forward to have you come. You were his favourite master at lectures, you know, and now—well, of course, you have the scientific world at your feet. Later on in the evening, Professor,” she added, watching some very important newcomers, “you will tell me all about your anthropoid ape, won’t you? Philip, look after Mr. Ashleigh. Don’t let him go far away.”
Mrs. Rheinholdt breathed a sigh of relief as she greeted her new arrivals.
“Professor Ashleigh, brother of Lord Ashleigh, you know,” she explained. “This is the first house he has been to since his return from South America. You’ve heard all about those wonderful discoveries, of course….”
The Professor made himself universally agreeable in a mild way, and his presence created even more than the sensation which Mrs. Rheinholdt had hoped for. In her desire to show him ample honour, she seldom left his side.
“I am going to take you into my husband’s study,” she suggested, later on in the evening. “He has some specimens of beetles—”
“Beetles,” the Professor declared, with some excitement, “occupied precisely two months of my time while abroad. By all means, Mrs. Rheinholdt!”
“We shall have to go quite to the back of the house,” she explained, as she led him along the darkened passage.
The Professor smiled acquiescently. His eyes rested for a moment upon her necklace.
“You must really permit me, Mrs. Rheinholdt,” he exclaimed, “to admire your wonderful stones! I am a judge of diamonds, and those three or four in the centre are, I should imagine, unique.”
She held them out to him. The Professor laid the end of the necklace gently in the palm of his hand and examined them through a horn-rimmed eyeglass.
“They are wonderful,” he murmured,—“wonderful! Why—”
He turned away a little abruptly. They had reached the back of the house and a door from the outside had just been opened. A man had crossed the threshold with a coat over his arm, and was standing now looking at them.
“How extraordinary!” the Professor remarked. “Is that you, Craig?”
For a moment there was no answer. The servant was standing in the gloom of an unlit portion of the passage. His eyes were fixed curiously upon the diamonds which the Professor had just been examining. He seemed paler, even, than usual.
“Yes, sir!” he replied. “There is a rain storm, so I ventured to bring your mackintosh.”
“Very thoughtful,” the Professor murmured approvingly. “I have a weakness,” he went on, turning to his hostess, “for always walking home after an evening like this. In the daytime I am content to ride. At night I have the fancy always to walk.”
“We don’t walk half enough.” Mrs. Rheinholdt sighed, glancing down at her somewhat portly figure. “Dixon,” she added, turning to the footman who had admitted Craig, “take Professor Ashleigh’s servant into the kitchen and see that he has something before he leaves for home. Now, Professor, if you will come this way.”
They reached a little room in the far corner of the house. Mrs. Rheinholdt apologised as she switched on the electric lights.
“It is a queer little place to bring you to,” she said, “but my husband used to spend many hours here, and he would never allow anything to be moved. You see, the specimens are in these cases.”
The Professor nodded. His general attitude towards the forthcoming exhibition was merely one of politeness. As the first case was opened, however, his manner completely changed. Without taking the slightest further notice of his hostess, he adjusted a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles and commenced to mumble eagerly to himself. Mrs. Rheinholdt, who did not understand a word, strolled around the apartment, yawned, and finally interrupted a little stream of eulogies, not a word of which she understood, concerning a green beetle with yellow spots.
“I am so glad you are interested, Professor,” she said. “If you don’t mind, I will rejoin my guests. You will find a shorter way back if you keep along the passage straight ahead and come through the conservatory.”
“Certainly! With pleasure!” the Professor agreed, without glancing up.
His hostess sighed as she turned to leave the room. She left the door ajar. The Professor’s face was almost touching the glass case in which reposed the green beetle with yellow spots.
Mrs. Rheinholdt’s reception, notwithstanding the temporary absence of its presiding spirit, was without doubt an unqualified success. In one of the distant rooms the younger people were dancing. There were bridge tables, all of which were occupied, and for those who preferred the more old-fashioned pastime of conversation amongst luxurious surroundings, there was still ample space and opportunity. Philip Rheinholdt, with a pretty young débutante upon his arm, came out from the dancing room and looked around amongst the little knots of people.
“I wonder where mother is,” he remarked.
“Looking after some guests somewhere, for certain,” the girl replied. “Your mother is so wonderful at entertaining, Philip.”
“It’s the hobby of her life,” he declared. “Never so happy as when she can get hold of somebody every one’s talking about, and show him off. Can’t think what she’s done with herself now, though. She told me—”
The young man broke off in the middle of his sentence. He, too, like many others in the room, felt a sudden thrill almost of horror at the sound which rang without warning upon their ears—a woman’s cry, a cry of fear and horror, repeated again and again. There was a little rush towards the curtained space which led into the conservatories. Before even, however, the quickest could reach the spot, the curtains were thrown back and Mrs. Rheinholdt, her hands clasping her neck, her splendid composure a thing of the past, a panic-stricken, terrified woman, stumbled into the room. She seemed on the point of collapse. Somehow or other, they got her into an easy-chair.
“My jewels!” she cried. “My diamonds!”
“What do you mean, mother?” Philip Rheinholdt asked quickly. “Have you lost them?”
“Stolen!” Mrs. Rheinholdt shrieked. “Stolen there in the conservatory!”
They gazed at her open-mouthed, incredulous. Then a still, quiet voice from the outside of the little circle intervened.
“Instruct your servants, Mr. Rheinholdt, to lock and bar all the doors of the house,” the Professor suggested. “No one must leave it until we have heard your mother’s story.”
The young man obeyed almost mechanically. There was a general exodus of servants from the room. Some one had brought Mrs. Rheinholdt a glass of champagne. She sipped it and gradually recovered her voice.
“I had just taken the Professor into the little room my husband used to call the museum,” she explained, her voice still shaking with agitation. “I left him there to examine some specimens of beetles. I thought that I would come back through the conservatory, which is the quickest way. I was about half-way across it when suddenly I heard the switch go behind me and all the electric lights were turned out. I couldn’t imagine what had happened. While I hesitated, I saw—I saw—”
She broke down again. There was no doubt about the genuineness of her terror. She seemed somehow to have shrunken into the semblance of a smaller woman. The pupils of her eyes were distended, she was white almost to the lips. When she recommenced her story, her voice was fainter.
“I saw a pair of hands—just hands—no arms—nothing but hands—come out of the darkness! They gripped me by the throat. I suppose it was just for a second. I think—I lost consciousness for a moment, although I was still standing up. The next thing I remember is that I found myself shrieking and running here—and the jewels had gone!”
“You saw no one?” her son asked incredulously. “You heard nothing?”
“I heard no footsteps. I saw no one,” Mrs. Rheinholdt repeated.
The Professor turned away.
“If you will allow me,” he begged, “I am going to telephone to my friend Mr. Sanford Quest, the criminologist. An affair so unusual as this might attract him. You will excuse me.”
The Professor hurried from the room. They brought Mrs. Rheinholdt more champagne and she gradually struggled back to something like her normal self. The dancing had stopped. Every one was standing about in little groups, discussing the affair. The men had trooped towards the conservatory, but the Professor met them on the portals.
“I suggest,” he said courteously, “that we leave the conservatory exactly as it is until the arrival of Mr. Sanford Quest. It will doubtless aid him in his investigations if nothing is disturbed. All the remaining doors are locked, so that no one can escape if by any chance they should be hiding.”
They all agreed without dissent, and there was a general movement towards the buffet to pass the time until the coming of Mr. Sanford Quest. The Professor met the great criminologist and his assistant in the hall upon their arrival. He took the former at once by the arm.
“Mr. Quest,” he began, “in a sense I must apologise for my peremptory message. I am well aware that an ordinary jewel robbery does not interest you, but in this case the circumstances are extraordinary. I ventured, therefore, to summon your aid.”
Sanford Quest nodded shortly.
“As a rule,” he said, “I do not care to take up one affair until I have a clean slate. There’s your skeleton still bothering me, Professor. However, where’s the lady who was robbed?”
“I will take you to her,” the Professor replied. Mrs. Rheinholdt’s story, by frequent repetition, had become a little more coherent, a trifle more circumstantial, the perfection of simplicity and utterly incomprehensible. Quest listened to it without remark and finally made his way to the conservatory. He requested Mrs. Rheinholdt to walk with him through the door by which she had entered, and stop at the precise spot where the assault had been made upon her. There were one or two plants knocked down from the tiers on the right-hand side, and some disturbance in the mould where some large palms were growing. Quest and Lenora together made a close investigation of the spot. Afterwards, Quest walked several times to each of the doors leading into the gardens.
“There are four entrances altogether,” he remarked, as he lit a cigar and glanced around the place. “Two lead into the gardens—one is locked and the other isn’t—one connects with the back of the house—the one through which you came, Mrs. Rheinholdt, and the other leads into your reception room, into which you passed after the assault. I shall now be glad if you will permit me to examine the gardens outside for a few minutes, alone with my assistant, if you please.”
For almost a quarter of an hour, Quest and Lenora disappeared. They all looked eagerly at the criminologist on his return, but his face was sphinxlike. He turned to Mrs. Rheinholdt, who with her son, the butler, and the Professor were the only occupants of the conservatory.
“It seems to me,” he remarked, “that from the back part of the house the quickest way to reach Mayton Avenue would be through this conservatory and out of that door. There is a path leading from just outside straight to a gate in the wall. Does any one that you know of use this means of exit?”
Mrs. Rheinholdt shook her head.
“The servants might occasionally,” she remarked doubtfully, “but not on nights when I am receiving.”
The butler stepped forward. He was looking a little grave.
“I ought, perhaps, to inform you, madam, and Mr. Quest,” he said, “that I did, only a short time ago, suggest to the Professor’s servant—the man who brought your mackintosh, sir,” he added, turning to the Professor—“that he could, if he chose, make use of this means of leaving the house. Mr. Craig is a personal friend of mine, and a member of a very select little club we have for social purposes.”
“Did he follow your suggestion?” Sanford Quest asked.
“Of that I am not aware, sir,” the butler replied. “I left Mr. Craig with some refreshment, expecting that he would remain until my return, but a few minutes later I discovered that he had left. I will enquire in the kitchen if anything is known as to his movements.”
He hurried off. Quest turned to the Professor.
“Has he been with you long, this man Craig, Professor?” he asked.
The Professor’s smile was illuminating, his manner simple but convincing.
“Craig,” he asserted, “is the best servant, the most honest mortal who ever breathed. He would go any distance out of his way to avoid harming a fly. I cannot even trust him to procure for me the simplest specimens of insect or animal life. Apart from this, he is a man of some property which he has no idea what to do with. He is, I think I may say, too devoted to me to dream of ever leaving my service.”
“You think it would be out of the question, then,” Quest asked, “to associate him with the crime?”
The Professor’s confidence was sublime.
“I could more readily associate you, myself, or young Mr. Rheinholdt here with the affair,” he declared.
His words carried weight. The little breath of suspicion against the Professor’s servant faded away. In a moment or two the butler returned.
“It appears, madam,” he announced, “that Mr. Craig left when there was only one person in the kitchen. He said good-night and closed the door behind him. It is impossible to say, therefore, by which exit he left the house, but personally I am convinced that, knowing of the reception here to-night, he would not think of using the conservatory.”
“Most unlikely, I should say,” the Professor murmured. “Craig is a very shy man. He is at all times at your disposal, Mr. Quest, if you should desire to question him.”
Quest nodded absently.
“My assistant and I,” he announced, “would be glad to make a further examination of the conservatory, if you will kindly leave us alone.”
They obeyed without demur. Quest took a seat and smoked calmly, with his eyes fixed upon the roof. Lenora went back to her examination of the overturned plants, the mould, and the whole ground within the immediate environs of the assault. She abandoned the search at last, however, and came back to Quest’s side. He threw away his cigar and rose.
“Nothing there?” he asked laconically.
“Not a thing,” Lenora admitted.
Quest led the way towards the door.
“Lenora,” he decided, “we are up against something big. There’s a new hand at work somewhere.”
“No theories yet, Mr. Quest?” she asked, smiling.
“Not the ghost of one,” he admitted gloomily.
Along the rain-swept causeway of Mayton Avenue, keeping close to the shelter of the houses, his mackintosh turned up to his ears, his hands buried in his pockets, a man walked swiftly along. At every block he hesitated and looked around him. His manner was cautious, almost furtive. Once the glare of an electric light fell upon his face, a face pallid with fear, almost hopeless with despair. He walked quickly, yet he seemed to have little idea as to his direction. Suddenly he paused. He was passing a great building, brilliantly lit. For a moment he thought that it was some place of entertainment. The thought of entering seemed to occur to him. Then he felt a firm touch upon his arm, a man in uniform spoke to him.
“Step inside, brother,” he invited earnestly, almost eagerly, notwithstanding his monotonous nasal twang. “Step inside and find peace. Step inside and the Lord will help you. Throw your burden away on the threshold.”
The man’s first impulse at being addressed had seemed to be one of terror. Then he recognised the uniform and hesitated. The light which streamed out from the building seemed warm and pleasant. The rain was coming down in sheets. They were singing a hymn, unmusical, unaccompanied, yet something in the unison of those human voices, one quality—the quality of earnestness, of faith—seemed to make an irresistible appeal to the terrified wanderer. Slowly he moved towards the steps. The man took him by the arm and led him in. There were the best part of a hundred people taking their places after the singing of the hymn. A girl was standing up before them on a platform. She was commencing to speak but suddenly broke off. She held out her arms towards where the Professor’s confidential servant stood hesitating.
“Come and tell us your sins,” she called out. “Come and have them forgiven. Come and start a new life in a new world. There is no one here who thinks of the past. Come and seek forgiveness.”
For a moment this waif from the rain-swamped world hesitated. The light of an infinite desire flashed in his eyes. Then he dropped his head. These things might be for others. For him there was no hope. He shook his head to the girl but sank into the nearest seat and on to his knees.
“He repents!” the girl called out. “Some day he will come! Brothers and sisters, we will pray for him.”
The rain dashed against the windows. The only other sound from outside was the clanging of the street cars. The girl’s voice, frenzied, exhorting, almost hysterical, pealed out to the roof. At every pause, the little gathering of men and women groaned in sympathy. The man’s frame was shaken with sobs.