THE BLACK BOX
THE INHERITED SIN
“Getting kind of used to these courthouse shows, aren’t you, Lenora?” Quest remarked, as they stepped from the automobile and entered the house in Georgia Square.
Lenora shrugged her shoulders. She was certainly a very different-looking person from the tired, trembling girl who had heard Macdougal sentenced not many weeks ago.
“Could anyone feel much sympathy,” she asked, “with those men? Red Gallagher, as they all called him, is more like a great brute animal than a human being. I think that even if they had sentenced him to death I should have felt that it was quite the proper thing to have done.”
“Too much sentiment about those things,” Quest agreed, clipping the end off a cigar. “Men like that are better off the face of the earth. They did their best to send me there.”
“Here’s a cablegram for you!” Lenora exclaimed, bringing it over to him. “Mr. Quest, I wonder if it’s from Scotland Yard!”
Quest tore it open. They read it together, Lenora standing on tiptoe to peer over his shoulder:
“Good for Scotland Yard!” Quest declared. “So they’ve got him, eh? All the same, that fellow’s as slippery as an eel. Lenora, how should you like a trip across the ocean, eh?”
“I should love it,” Lenora replied. “Do you mean it really?”
“The fellow’s fooled me pretty well,” he continued, “but somehow I feel that if I get my hands on him this time, they’ll stay there till he stands where Red Gallagher did to-day. I don’t feel content to let anyone else finish off the job. Got any relatives over there?”
“I have an aunt in London,” Lenora told him, “the dearest old lady you ever knew. She’d give anything to have me make her a visit.”
Quest moved across to his desk and took up a sailing list. He studied it for a few moments and turned back to Lenora.
“Send a cable off at once to Scotland Yard,” he directed. “Say—‘Am sailing on Lusitania to-morrow. Hold prisoner. Charge very serious. Have full warrants.’”
Lenora wrote down the message and went to the telephone to send it off. As soon as she had finished, Quest took up his hat again.
“Come on,” he invited. “The machine’s outside. We’ll just go and look in on the Professor and tell him the news. Poor old chap, I’m afraid he’ll never be the same man again.”
“He must miss Craig terribly,” Lenora observed, as they took their places in the automobile, “and yet, Mr. Quest, it does seem to me a most amazing thing that a man so utterly callous and cruel as Craig must be, should have been a devoted and faithful servant to anyone through all these years.”
“I am beginning to frame a theory about that. You see, all the time Craig has lived with the Professor, he has been a sort of dabbler with him in his studies. Where the Professor’s gone right into a thing and understood it, Craig, you see, hasn’t managed to get past the first crust. His brain wasn’t educated enough for the subjects into the consideration of which the Professor may have led him. See what I’m driving at?”
“You mean that he may have been mad?” Lenora suggested.
“Something of that sort,” Quest assented. “Seems to me the only feasible explanation. The Professor’s a bit of a terror, you know. There are some queer stories about the way he got some of his earlier specimens in South America. Science is his god. What he has gone through in some of those foreign countries, no one knows. Quite enough to unbalance any man of ordinary nerves and temperament.”
“The Professor himself is remarkably sane,” Lenora observed.
“Precisely,” Quest agreed, “but then, you see, his brain was big enough, to start with. It could hold all there was for it to hold. It’s like pouring stuff into the wrong receptacle when a man like Craig tries to follow him. However, that’s only a theory. Here we are, and the front door wide open. I wonder how our friend’s feeling to-day.”
They found the Professor on his hands and knees upon a dusty floor. Carefully arranged before him were the bones of a skeleton, each laid in some appointed place. He had a chart on either side of him, and a third one on an easel. He looked up a little impatiently at the sound of the opening of the door, but when he recognised Quest and his companion the annoyance passed from his face.
“Are we disturbing you, Mr. Ashleigh?” Quest enquired.
The Professor rose to his feet and brushed the dust from his knees.
“I shall be glad of a rest,” he said simply. “You see what I am doing? I am trying to reconstruct from memory—and a little imagination, perhaps—the important part of my missing skeleton. It’s a wonderful problem which those bones might have solved, if I had been able to place them fairly before the scientists of the world. Do you understand much about the human frame, Mr. Quest?”
Quest shook his head promptly.
“Still life doesn’t interest me,” he declared. “Bones are bones, after all, you know. I don’t even care who my grandfather was, much less who my grandfather a million times removed might have been. Let’s step into the study for a moment, Professor, if you don’t mind,” he went on. “Lenora here is a little sensitive to smell, and a spray of lavender water on some of your bones wouldn’t do them any harm.”
The Professor ambled amiably towards the door.
“I never notice it myself,” he said. “Very likely that is because I see beyond these withered fragments into the prehistoric worlds whence they came. I sit here alone sometimes, and the curtain rolls up, and I find myself back in one of those far corners of South America, or even in a certain spot in East Africa, and I can almost fancy that time rolls back like an unwinding reel and there are no secrets into which I may not look. And then the moment passes and I remember that this dry-as-dust world is shrieking always for proofs—this extraordinary conglomeration of human animals in weird attire, with monstrous tastes and extraordinary habits, who make up what they call the civilized world. Civilized!”
They reached the study and Quest produced his cigar case.
“Can’t imagine any world that existed before tobacco,” he remarked cheerfully. “Help yourself, Professor. It does me good to see you human enough to enjoy a cigar!”
The Professor smiled.
“I never remember to buy any for myself,” he said, “but one of yours is always a treat. Miss Lenora, I am glad to see, is completely recovered.”
“I am quite well, thank you, Mr. Ashleigh,” Lenora replied. “I am even forgetting that I ever had nerves. I have been in the courthouse all the morning, and I even looked curiously at your garage as we drove up.”
“Very good—very good, my dear!” the Professor murmured. “At the courthouse, eh? Were those charming friends of yours from Bethel being tried, Quest?”
“Red Gallagher and his mate! Yes, they got it in the neck, too.”
“Personally,” the Professor exclaimed, his eyes sparkling with appreciation of his own wit, “I think that they ought to have got it round the neck! However, let us be thankful that they are disposed of. Their attack upon you, Mr. Quest, introduced rather a curious factor into our troubles. Even now I find it a little difficult to follow the workings of our friend French’s mind. It seems hard to believe that he could really have imagined you guilty.”
“French is all right,” Quest declared. “He fell into the common error of the detective without imagination.”
“What about that unhappy man Craig?” the Professor asked gloomily. “Isn’t the Durham almost due now?”
Quest took out the cablegram from his pocket and passed it over. The Professor’s fingers trembled a little as he read it. He passed it back, however, without immediate comment.
“You see, they have been cleverer over there than we were,” Quest remarked.
“Perhaps,” the Professor assented. “They seem, at least, to have arrested the man. Even now I can scarcely believe that it is Craig—my servant Craig—who is lying in an English prison. Do you know that his people have been servants in the Ashleigh family for some hundreds of years?”
Quest was clearly interested. “Say, I’d like to hear about that!” he exclaimed. “You know, I’m rather great on heredity, Professor. What class did he come from then? Were his people just domestic servants always?”
The Professor’s face was for a moment troubled. He moved to his desk, rummaged about for a time, and finally produced an ancient volume.
“This really belongs to my brother, Lord Ashleigh,” he explained. “He brought it over with him to show me some entries concerning which I was interested. It contains a history of the Hamblin estate since the days of Cromwell, and here in the back, you see, is a list of our farmers, bailiffs and domestic servants. There was a Craig who was a tenant of the first Lord Ashleigh and fought with him in the Cromwellian Wars as a trooper and since those days, so far as I can see, there has never been a time when there hasn’t been a Craig in the service of our family. A fine race they seem to have been, until—”
“Until when?” Quest demanded.
The look of trouble had once more clouded the Professor’s face. He shrugged his shoulders slightly.
“Until Craig’s father,” he admitted. “I am afraid I must admit that we come upon a bad piece of family history here. Silas Craig entered the service of my father in 1858, as under game-keeper. Here we come upon the first black mark against the name. He appears to have lived reputably for some years, and then, after a quarrel with a neighbour about some trivial matter, he deliberately murdered him, a crime for which he was tried and executed in 1867. John Craig, his only son, entered our service in 1880, and, when I left England, accompanied me as my valet.”
There was a moment’s silence. Quest shook his head a little reproachfully.
“Professor,” he said, “you are a scientific man, you appreciate the significance of heredity, yet during all this time, when you must have seen for yourself the evidence culminating against Craig, you never mentioned this—this—damning piece of evidence.”
The Professor closed the book with a sigh.
“I did not mention it, Mr. Quest,” he acknowledged, “because I did not believe in Craig’s guilt and I did not wish to further prejudice you against him. That is the whole and simple truth. Now tell me what you are going to do about his arrest?”
“Lenora and I are sailing to-morrow,” Quest replied. “We are taking over the necessary warrants and shall bring Craig back here for trial.”
The Professor smoked thoughtfully for some moments. Then he rose deliberately to his feet. He had come to a decision. He announced it calmly but irrevocably.
“I shall come with you,” he announced. “I shall be glad of a visit to England, but apart from that I feel it to be my duty. I owe it to Craig to see that he has a fair chance, and I owe it to the law to see that he pays the penalty, if indeed he is guilty of these crimes. Is Miss Laura accompanying you, too?”
Quest shook his head.
“From what the surgeons tell us,” he said, “it will be some weeks before she is able to travel. At the same time, I must tell you that I am glad of your decision, Professor.”
“It is my duty,” the latter declared. “I cannot rest in this state of uncertainty. If Craig is lost to me, the sooner I face the fact the better. At the same time I will be frank with you. Notwithstanding all this accumulated pile of evidence I feel in my heart the urgent necessity of seeing him face to face, of holding him by the shoulders and asking him whether these things are true. We have faced death together, Craig and I. We have done more than that—we have courted it. There is nothing about him I can accept from hearsay. I shall go with you to England, Mr. Quest.”
The Professor rose from his seat in some excitement as the carriage passed through the great gates of Hamblin Park. He acknowledged with a smile the respectful curtsey of the woman who held it open.
“You have now an opportunity, my dear Mr. Quest,” he said, “of appreciating one feature of English life not entirely reproducible in your own wonderful country. I mean the home life and surroundings of our aristocracy. You see these oak trees?” he went on, with a little wave of his hand. “They were planted by my ancestors in the days of Henry the Eighth. I have been a student of tree life in South America and in the dense forests of Central Africa, but for real character, for splendour of growth and hardiness, there is nothing in the world to touch the Ashleigh oaks.”
“They’re some trees,” the criminologist admitted.
“You notice, perhaps, the smaller ones, which seem dwarfed. Their tops were cut off by the Lord of Ashleigh on the day that Lady Jane Grey was beheaded. Queen Elizabeth heard of it and threatened to confiscate the estate. Look at the turf, my friend. Ages have gone to the making of that mossy, velvet carpet.”
“Where’s the house?” Quest enquired.
“A mile farther on yet. The woods part and make a natural avenue past the bend of the river there,” the Professor pointed out. “Full of trout, that river, Quest. How I used to whip that stream when I was a boy!”
They swept presently round a bend in the avenue. Before them on the hill-side, surrounded by trees and with a great walled garden behind, was Hamblin House. Quest gave vent to a little exclamation of wonder as he looked at it. The older part and the whole of the west front was Elizabethan, but the Georgian architect entrusted with the task of building a great extension had carried out his work in a manner almost inspired. Lines and curves, sweeping everywhere towards the same constructive purpose, had been harmonised by the hand of time into a most surprising and effectual unity. The criminologist, notwithstanding his unemotional temperament, repeated his exclamation as he resumed his place in the carriage.
“This is where you’ve got us beaten,” he admitted. “Our country places are like gew-gaw palaces compared to this. Makes me kind of sorry,” he went on regretfully, “that I didn’t bring Lenora along.”
The Professor shook his head.
“You were very wise,” he said. “My brother and Lady Ashleigh have recovered from the shock of poor Lena’s death in a marvellous manner, I believe, but the sight of the girl might have brought it back to them. You have left her with friends, I hope, Mr. Quest?”
“She has an aunt in Hampstead,” the latter explained. “I should have liked to have seen her safely there myself, but we should have been an hour or two later down here, and I tell you,” he went on, his voice gathering a note almost of ferocity, “I’m wanting to get my hands on that fellow Craig! I wonder where they’re holding him.”
“At the local police-station, I expect,” the Professor replied. “My brother is a magistrate, of course, and he would see that proper arrangements were made. There he is at the hall door.”
The carriage drew up before the great front, a moment or two later. Lord Ashleigh came forward with outstretched hands, the genial smile of the welcoming host upon his lips. In his manner, however, there was a distinct note of anxiety.
“Edgar, my dear fellow,” he exclaimed, “I am delighted! Welcome back to your home! Mr. Quest, I am very happy to see you here. You have heard the news, of course?”
“We have heard nothing!” the Professor replied.
“You didn’t go to Scotland Yard?” Lord Ashleigh asked.
“We haven’t been to London at all,” Quest explained. “We got on the boat train at Plymouth, and your brother managed to induce one of the directors whom he saw on the platform to stop the train for us at Hamblin Road. We only left the boat two hours ago. There’s nothing wrong with Craig, is there?”
Lord Ashleigh motioned them to follow him.
“Please come this way,” he invited.
He led them across the hall—which, dimly-lit and with its stained-glass windows, was almost like the nave of a cathedral,—into the library beyond. He closed the door and turned around.
“I have bad news for you both,” he announced. “Craig has escaped.”
Neither the Professor nor Quest betrayed any unusual surprise. So far as the latter was concerned, his first glimpse at Lord Ashleigh’s face had warned him of what was coming.
“Dear me!” the Professor murmured, sinking into an easy-chair. “This is most unexpected!”
“We’ll get him again,” Quest declared quickly. “Can you let us have the particulars of his escape, Lord Ashleigh? The sooner we get the hang of things, the better.”
Their host turned towards the butler, who was arranging a tray upon the sideboard.
“You must permit me to offer you some refreshments after your journey,” he begged. “Then I will tell you the whole story. I think you will agree, when you hear it, that no particular blame can be said to rest upon any one’s shoulders. It was simply an extraordinary interposition of chance. There is tea, whisky and soda, and wine here, Mr. Quest. Edgar, I know you’ll take some tea.”
“English tea for me,” the Professor remarked, watching the cream.
“Whisky and soda here,” Quest decided.
Lord Ashleigh himself attended to the wants of his guests. Then, at his instigation, they made themselves comfortable in easy-chairs and he commenced his narration.
“You know, of course,” he began, “that Craig was arrested at Liverpool in consequence of communications from the New York police. I understand that it was with great difficulty he was discovered, and it is quite clear that some one on the ship had been heavily bribed. However, he was arrested, brought to London, and then down here for purposes of identification. I would have gone to London myself, and in fact offered to do so, but on the other hand, as there are many others on the estate to whom he was well-known, I thought that it would be better to have more evidence than mine alone. Accordingly, they left London one afternoon, and I sent a dogcart to the station to meet them. They arrived quite safely and started for here, Craig handcuffed to one of the Scotland Yard men on the back seat, and the other in front with the driver. About half a mile from the south entrance to the park, the road runs across a rather desolate strip of country with a lot of low undergrowth on one side. We have had a little trouble with poachers, as there is a sort of gipsy camp on some common land a short distance away. My head-keeper, to whom the very idea of a poacher is intolerable, was patrolling this ground himself that afternoon, and caught sight of one of these gipsy fellows setting a trap. He chased him, and more, I am sure, to frighten him than anything else, when he saw that the fellow was getting away he fired his gun, just as the dog-cart was passing. The horse shied, the wheel caught a great stone by the side of the road, and all four men were thrown out. The man to whom Craig was handcuffed was stunned, but Craig himself appears to have been unhurt. He jumped up, took the key of the handcuffs from the pocket of the officer, undid them, and slipped off into the undergrowth before either the groom or the other Scotland Yard man had recovered their senses. To cut a long story short, that was last Thursday, and up till now not a single trace of the fellow has been discovered.”
Quest rose abruptly to his feet.
“I’d like to take this matter up right on the spot where Craig disappeared,” he suggested. “Couldn’t we do that?”
“By all means,” Lord Ashleigh agreed, touching a bell. “We have several hours before we change for dinner. I will have a car round and take you to the spot.”
The Professor acquiesced readily, and very soon they stepped out of the automobile on to the side of a narrow road, looking very much as it had been described. Further on, beyond a stretch of open common, they could see the smoke from the gipsy encampment. On their left-hand side was a stretch of absolutely wild country, bounded in the far distance by the grey stone wall of the park. Lord Ashleigh led the way through the thicket, talking as he went.
“Craig came along through here,” he explained. “The groom and the Scotland Yard man who had been sitting by his side followed him. They searched for an hour but found no trace of him at all. Then they returned to the house to make a report and get help. I will now show you how Craig first eluded them.”
He led the way along a tangled path, doubled back, plunged into a little spinney and came suddenly to a small shed.
“This is an ancient gamekeeper’s shelter,” he explained, “built a long time ago and almost forgotten now. What Craig did, without a doubt, was to hide in this. The Scotland Yard man who took the affair in hand found distinct traces here of recent occupation. That is how he made his first escape.”
“Sure!” he murmured. “Well now, what about your more extended search?”
“I was coming to that,” Lord Ashleigh replied. “As Edgar will remember, no doubt, I have always kept a few bloodhounds in my kennels, and as soon as we could get together one or two of the keepers and a few of the local constabulary, we started off again from here. The dogs brought us without a check to this shed, and started off again in this way.”
They walked another half a mile, across a reedy swamp. Every now and then they had to jump across a small dyke, and once they had to make a detour to avoid an osier bed. They came at last to the river.
“Now I can show you exactly how that fellow put us off the scent here,” their guide proceeded. “He seems to have picked up something, Edgar, in those South American trips of yours, for a cleverer thing I never saw. You see all these bullrushes everywhere—clouds of them, all along the river?”
“We call them tules,” Quest muttered. “Well?”
“When Craig arrived here,” Lord Ashleigh continued, “he must have heard the baying of the dogs in the distance and he knew that the game was up unless he could put them off the scent. He cut a quantity of these bullrushes from a place a little further behind those trees there, stepped boldly into the middle of the water, waded down to that spot where, as you see, the trees hang over, stood stock still and leaned them all around him. It was dusk when the chase reached the river bank, and I have no doubt the bullrushes presented quite a natural appearance. At any rate, although the dogs came without a check to the edge of the river, where he stepped off, they never picked the scent up again either on this side or the other. We tried them for four or five hours before we took them home. The next morning, while the place was being thoroughly searched, we came upon the spot where these bullrushes had been cut down, and we found them caught in the low boughs of a tree, drifting down the river.”
The Professor’s tone was filled with something almost like admiration.
“I must confess,” he declared, “I never realised for a single moment that Craig was a person of such gifts. In all the small ways of life, in campaigning, camping out, dealing with natural difficulties incidental to our expeditions, I have found him invariably a person of resource, ready-witted and full of useful suggestions. But that he should be able to apply his gifts with such infinite cunning, to a suddenly conceived career of crime, I must admit amazes me.”
Quest had lit a fresh cigar and was smoking vigorously.
“What astonishes me more than anything,” he pronounced, as he stood looking over the desolate expanse of country, “is that when one comes face to face with the fellow he presents all the appearance of a nerveless and broken-down coward. Then all of a sudden there spring up these evidences of the most amazing, the most diabolical resource…. Who’s this, Lord Ashleigh?”
The latter turned his head. An elderly man in a brown velveteen suit, with gaiters and thick boots, raised his hat respectfully.
“This is my head-keeper, Middleton,” his master explained. “He was with us on the chase.”
The Professor shook hands heartily with the newcomer.
“Not a day older, Middleton!” he exclaimed. “So you are the man who has given us all this trouble, eh? This gentleman and I have come over from New York on purpose to lay hands on Craig.”
“I am very sorry, sir,” the man replied. “I wouldn’t have fired my gun if I had known what the consequences were going to be, but them poaching devils that come round here rabbiting fairly send me furious and that’s a fact. It ain’t that one grudges them a few rabbits, but my tame pheasants all run out here from the home wood, and I’ve seen feathers at the side of the road there that no fox nor stoat had nothing to do with. All the same, sir, I’m very sorry,” he added, “to have been the cause of any inconvenience.”
“It is rather worse than inconvenience, Middleton,” the Professor said gravely. “The man who has escaped is one of the worst criminals of these days.”
“He won’t get far, sir,” the gamekeeper remarked, with a little smile. “It’s a wild bit of country, this, and I admit that men might search it for weeks without finding anything, but those gentlemen from Scotland Yard, sir, if you’ll excuse my making the remark, and hoping that this gentleman,” he added, looking at Quest, “is in no way connected with them—well, they don’t know everything, and that’s a fact.”
“This gentleman is from the United States,” Lord Ashleigh reminded him, “so your criticism doesn’t affect him. By-the-by, Middleton, I heard this morning that you’d been airing your opinions down in the village. You seem to rather fancy yourself as a thief-catcher.”
“I wouldn’t go so far as that, my lord,” the man replied respectfully, “but still, I hope I may say that I’ve as much common sense as most people. You see, sir,” he went on, turning to Quest, “the spots where he could emerge from this track of country are pretty well guarded, and he’ll be in a fine mess, when he does put in an appearance, to show himself upon a public road. Yet by this time I should say he must be nigh starved. Sooner or later he’ll have to come out for food. I’ve a little scheme of my own, sir, I don’t mind admitting,” the man concluded, with a twinkle in his keen brown eyes. “I’m not giving it away. If I catch him for you, that’s all that’s wanted, I imagine, and we shan’t be any the nearer to it for letting any one into my little secret.”
His master smiled.
“You shall have your rise out of the police, if you can, Middleton,” he observed. “It seems queer, though, to believe that the fellow’s still in hiding round here.”
As though by common consent, they all stood, for a moment, perfectly still, looking across the stretch of marshland with its boggy places, its scrubby plantations, its clustering masses of tall grasses and bullrushes. The grey twilight had become even more pronounced during the last few minutes. Little wreaths of white mist hung over the damp places. Everywhere was a queer silence. The very air seemed breathless. The Professor shivered and turned away.
“My nerves,” he declared, “are scarcely what they were. I have listened in a primeval forest, listened for the soft rustling of a snake in the undergrowth, or the distant roar of some beast of prey. I have listened then with curiosity. I have not known fear. It seems to me, somehow, that in this place there is something different afoot. I don’t like it, George—I don’t like it. We will go home, if you please.”
They made their way, single file, to the road and up to the house. Lord Ashleigh did his best to dispel a queer little sensation of uneasiness which seemed to have arisen in the minds of all of them.
“Come,” he said, “we must put aside our disappointment for the present, and remember that after all the chances are that Craig will never make his escape alive. Let us forget him for a little while…. Mr. Quest,” he added, a few minutes later, as they reached the hall, “Moreton here will show you to your room and look after you. Please let me know if you will take an aperitif. I can recommend my sherry. We dine at eight o’clock. Edgar, you know your way. The blue room, of course. I am coming up with you myself. Her ladyship back yet, Moreton?”
“Not yet, my lord.”
“Lady Ashleigh,” her husband explained, “has gone to the other side of the county to open a bazaar. She is looking forward to the pleasure of welcoming you at dinner-time.”
Dinner, served, out of compliment to their transatlantic visitor, in the great banqueting hall, was to Quest especially a most impressive meal. They sat at a small round table lit by shaded lights, in the centre of an apartment which was large in reality, and which seemed vast by reason of the shadows which hovered around the unlit spaces. From the walls frowned down a long succession of family portraits—Ashleighs in the queer Tudor costume of Henry the Seventh; Ashleighs in chain armour, sword in hand, a charger waiting, regardless of perspective, in the near distance; Ashleighs befrilled and bewigged; Ashleighs in the Court dress of the Georges—judges, sailors, statesmen and soldiers. A collection of armour which would have gladdened the eye of many an antiquarian, was ranged along the black-panelled walls. Everything was in harmony, even the grave precision of the solemn-faced butler and the powdered hair of the two footmen. Quest, perhaps for the first time in his life, felt almost lost, hopelessly out of touch with his surroundings, an alien and a struggling figure. Nevertheless, he entertained the little party with many stories. He struggled all the time against that queer sensation of anachronism which now and then became almost oppressive.
The Professor’s pleasure at finding himself once more amongst these familiar surroundings was obvious and intense. The conversation between him and his brother never flagged. There were tenants and neighbours to be asked after, matters concerning the estate on which he demanded information. Even the very servants’ names he remembered.
“It was a queer turn of fate, George,” he declared, as he held out before him a wonderfully chased glass filled with amber wine, “which sent you into the world a few seconds before me and made you Lord of Ashleigh and me a struggling scientific man.”
“The world has benefited by it,” Lord Ashleigh remarked, with more than fraternal courtesy. “We hear great things of you over here, Edgar. We hear that you have been on the point of proving most unpleasant things with regard to our origin.”
“Oh! there is no doubt about that,” the Professor observed. “Where we came from and where we are going to are questions which no longer afford room for the slightest doubt to the really scientific mind. What sometimes does elude us is the nature of our tendencies while we are here on earth.”
“Mine, I fancy, are obvious enough,” Lord Ashleigh interposed.
“Superficially, I grant it,” his brother acknowledged. “As a matter of scientific fact, I recognize the probability of your actually being a person utterly different from what you appear. Man becomes what he is according to the circumstances by which he is assailed. Now your life here, George, must be a singularly uneventful one.”
“Not during the last six months,” Lord Ashleigh remarked, with a sigh. “Even these last few days have been exciting enough. I must confess that they have left me with a queer sort of nervousness. I find myself listening intently sometimes,—conscious, as it were, of the influence or presence of some indefinite danger.”
“Very interesting,” the Professor murmured. “Spiritualism, as an exact science, has always interested me very much.”
Lady Ashleigh made a little grimace.
“Don’t encourage George,” she begged. “He is much too superstitious, as it is.”
There was a brief silence. The port had been placed upon the table and coffee served. The servants, according to the custom of the house, had departed. The great apartment was empty. Even Quest was impressed by some peculiar significance in the long-drawn-out silence. He looked around him uneasily. The frowning regard of that long line of painted warriors seemed somehow to be full of menace. There was something grim, too, in the sight of those empty suits of armour.
“I may be superstitious,” Lord Ashleigh said, “but there are times, especially just lately, when I seem to find a new and hateful quality in silence. What is it, I wonder? I ask you but I think I know. It is the conviction that there is some alien presence, something disturbing lurking close at hand.”
He suddenly rose to his feet, pushed his chair back and walked to the window, which opened level with the ground. He threw it up and listened. The others came over and joined him. There was nothing to be heard but the distant hooting of an owl, and farther away the barking of some farmhouse dog. Lord Ashleigh stood there with straining eyes, gazing out across the park.
“There was something here,” he muttered, “something which has gone. What’s that? Quest, your eyes are younger than mine. Can you see anything underneath that tree?”
Quest peered out into the grey darkness.
“I fancied I saw something moving in the shadow of that oak,” he muttered. “Wait.”
He crossed the terrace, swung down on to the path, across a lawn, over a wire fence and into the park itself. All the time he kept his eyes fixed on a certain spot. When at last he reached the tree, there was nothing there. He looked all around him. He stood and listened for several moments. A more utterly peaceful night it would be hard to imagine. Slowly he made his way back to the house.
“I imagine we are all a little nervous to-night,” he remarked. “There’s nothing doing out there.”
They strolled about for an hour or more, looking into different rooms, showing their guest the finest pictures, even taking him down into the wonderful cellars. They parted early, but Quest stood, for a few moments before retiring, gazing about him with an air almost of awe. His great room, as large as an apartment in an Italian palace, was lit by a dozen wax candles in silver candlesticks. His four-poster was supported by pillars of black oak, carved into strange forms, and surmounted by the Ashleigh coronet and coat of arms. He threw his windows open wide and stood for a moment looking out across the park, more clearly visible now by the light of the slowly rising moon. There was scarcely a breeze stirring, scarcely a sound even from the animal world. Nevertheless, Quest, too, as reluctantly he made his preparations for retiring for the night, was conscious of that queer sensation of unimagined and impalpable danger.