Chapter III. An Unexpected Visitor
 

One morning, after I'd been four whole years at Aunt Emma's, I heard a ring at the bell, and, looking over the stairs, saw a tall and handsome man in a semi-military coat, who asked in a most audible voice for Miss Callingham.

Maria, the housemaid, hesitated a moment.

"Miss Callingham's in, sir," she answered in a somewhat dubious tone; "but I don't know whether I ought to let you see her or not. My mistress is out; and I've strict orders that no strangers are to call on Miss Callingham when her aunt's not here."

And she held the door ajar in her hand undecidedly.

The tall man smiled, and seemed to me to slip a coin quietly into Maria's palm.

"So much the better," he answered, with unobtrusive persistence; "I thought Miss Moore was out. That's just why I've come. I'm an officer from Scotland Yard, and I want to see Miss Callingham--alone--most particularly."

Maria drew herself up and paused.

My heart stood still within me at this chance of enlightenment. I guessed what he meant; so I called over the stairs to her, in a tremor of excitement:

"Show the gentleman into the drawing-room, Maria. I 'll come down to him at once."

For I was dying to know the explanation of the Picture that haunted me so persistently; and as nobody at home would ever tell me anything worth knowing about it, I thought this was as good an opportunity as I could get for making a beginning towards the solution of the mystery.

Well, I ran into my own room as quick as quick could be, and set my front hair straight, and slipped on a hat and jacket (for I was in my morning dress), and then went down to the drawing-room to see the Inspector.

He rose as I entered. He was a gentleman, I felt at once. His manner was as deferential, as kind, and as considerate to my sensitiveness, as anything it's possible for you to imagine in anyone.

"I'm sorry to have to trouble you, Miss Callingham," he said, with a very gentle smile; "but I daresay you can understand yourself the object of my visit. I could have wished to come in a more authorised way; but I've been in correspondence with Miss Moore for some time past as to the desirability of reopening the inquiry with regard to your father's unfortunate death; and I thought the time might now have arrived when it would be possible to put a few questions to you personally upon that unhappy subject. Miss Moore objected to my plan. She thought it would still perhaps be prejudicial to your health--a point in which Dr. Wade, I must say, entirely agrees with her. Nevertheless, in the interests of Justice, as the murderer is still at large, I've ventured to ask you for this interview; because what I read in the newspapers about the state of your health--."

I interrupted him, astonished.

"What you read in the newspapers about the state of my health!" I repeated, thunderstruck. "Why, surely they don't put the state of my health in the newspapers!"

For I didn't know then I was a Psychological Phenomenon.

The Inspector smiled blandly, and pulling out his pocket-book, selected a cutting from a pile that apparently all referred to me.

"You're mistaken," he said, briefly. "The newspapers, on the contrary, have treated your case at great length. See, here's the latest report. That's clipped from last Wednesday's Telegraph."

I remembered then that a paragraph of just that size had been carefully cut out of Wednesday's paper before I was allowed by Aunt Emma to read it. Aunt Emma always glanced over the paper first, indeed, and often cut out such offending paragraphs. But I never attached much importance to their absence before, because I thought it was merely a little fussy result of auntie's good old English sense of maidenly modesty. I supposed she merely meant to spare my blushes. I knew girls were often prevented on particular days from reading the papers.

But now I seized the paragraph he handed me, and read it with deep interest. It was the very first time I had seen my own name in a printed newspaper. I didn't know then how often it had figured there.

The paragraph was headed, "The Woodbury Murder," and it ran something like this, as well as I can remember it:

"There are still hopes that the miscreant who shot Mr. Vivian Callingham at The Grange, at Woodbury, some four years since, may be tracked down and punished at last for his cowardly crime. It will be fresh in everyone's memory, as one of the most romantic episodes in that extraordinary tragedy, that at the precise moment of her father's death, Miss Callingham, who was present in the room during the attack, and who alone might have been a witness capable of recognising or describing the wretched assailant, lost her reason on the spot, owing to the appalling shock to her nervous system, and remained for some months in an imbecile condition. Gradually, as we have informed our readers from time to time, Miss Callingham's intellect has become stronger and stronger; and though she is still totally unable to remember spontaneously any events that occurred before her father's death, it is hoped it may be possible, by describing vividly certain trains of previous incidents, to recall them in some small degree to her imperfect memory. Dr. Thornton, of Welbeck Street, who has visited her from time to time on behalf of the Treasury, in conjunction with Dr. Wade, her own medical attendant, went down to Barton-on-the-Sea on Monday, and once more examined Miss Callingham's intellect. Though the Doctor is judiciously reticent as to the result of his visit, it is generally believed at Barton that he thinks the young lady sufficiently recovered to undergo a regular interrogatory; and in spite of the fact that Dr. Wade is opposed to any such proceeding at present, as prejudicial to the lady's health, it is not unlikely that the Treasury may act upon their own medical official's opinion, and send down an Inspector from Scotland Yard to make inquiries direct on the subject from Miss Callingham in person."

My head swam round. It was all like a dream to me. I held my forehead with my hands, and gazed blankly at the Inspector.

"You understand what all this means?" he said interrogatively, leaning forward as he spoke. "You remember the murder?"

"Perfectly," I answered him, trembling all over. "I remember every detail of it. I could describe you exactly all the objects in the room. The Picture it left behind has burned itself into my brain like a flash of lightning!"

The Inspector drew his chair nearer. "Now, Miss Callingham," he said in a very serious voice, "that's a remarkable expression--like a flash of lightning.' Bear in mind, this is a matter of life and death to somebody somewhere. Somebody's neck may depend upon your answers. Will you tell me exactly how much you remember?"

I told him in a few words precisely how the scene had imprinted itself on my memory. I recalled the room, the box, the green wires, the carpet; the man who lay dead in his blood on the floor; the man who stood poised ready to leap from the window. He let me go on unchecked till I'd finished everything I had to say spontaneously. Then he took a photograph from his pocket, which he didn't show me. Looking at it attentively, he asked me questions, one by one, about the different things in the room at the time in very minute detail: Where exactly was the box? How did it stand relatively to the unlighted lamp? What was the position of the pistol on the floor? In which direction was my father's head lying? Though it brought back the Horror to me in a fuller and more terrible form than ever, I answered all his questions to the very best of my ability. I could picture the whole scene like a photograph to myself; and I didn't doubt the object he held in his hand was a photograph of the room as it appeared after the murder. He checked my statements, one by one as I went on, by reference to the photograph, murmuring half to himself now and again: "Yes, yes, exactly so"; "That's right"; "That was so," at each item I mentioned.

At the end of these inquiries, he paused and looked hard at me.

"Now, Miss Callingham," he said again, peering deep into my eyes, "I want you to concentrate your mind very much, not on this Picture you carry so vividly in your own brain, but on the events that went immediately before and after it. Pause long and think. Try hard to remember. And first, you say there was a great flash of light. Now, answer me this: was it one flash alone, or had there been several?"

I stopped and racked my brain. Blank, blank, as usual.

"I can't remember," I faltered out, longing terribly to cry. "I can recall just that one scene, and nothing else in the world before it."

He looked at me fixedly, jotting down a few words in his note-book as he looked. Then he spoke again, still more slowly:

"Now, try once more," he said, with an encouraging air. "You saw this man's back as he was getting out of the window. But can't you remember having seen his face before? Had he a beard? a moustache? what eyes? what nose? Did you see the shot fired? And if so, what sort of person was the man who fired it?"

Again I searched the pigeon-holes of my memory in vain, as I had done a hundred times before by myself.

"It's no use," I cried helplessly, letting my hands drop by my side. "I can't remember a thing, except the Picture. I don't know whether I saw the shot fired or not. I don't know what the murderer looked like in the face. I've told you all I know. I can recall nothing else. It's all a great blank to me."

The Inspector hesitated a moment, as if in doubt what step to take next. Then he drew himself up and said, still more gravely:

"This inability to assist us is really very singular. I had hoped, after Dr. Thornton's report, that we might at last count with some certainty upon arriving at fresh results as to the actual murder. I can see from what you tell me you're a young lady of intelligence--much above the average--and great strength of mind. It's curious your memory should fail you so pointedly just where we stand most in need of its aid. Recollect, nobody else but you ever saw the murderer's face. Now, I'm going to presume you're answering me honestly, and try a bold means to arouse your dormant memory. Look hard, and hark back.--Is that the room you recollect? Is that the picture that still haunts and pursues you?"

He handed me the photograph he held in his fingers. I took it, all on fire. The sight almost made me turn sick with horror. To my awe and amazement, it was indeed the very scene I remembered so well. Only, of course, it was taken from another point of view, and represented things in rather different relative positions to those I figured them in. But it showed my father's body lying dead upon the floor; it showed his poor corpse weltering helpless in its blood; it showed myself, as a girl of eighteen, standing awestruck, gazing on in blank horror at the sight; and in the background, half blurred by the summer evening light, it showed the vague outline of a man's back, getting out of the window. On one side was the door: that formed no part of my mental picture, because it was at my back; but in the photograph it too was indistinct, as if in the very act of being burst open. The details were vague, in part--probably the picture had never been properly focussed;--but the main figures stood out with perfect clearness, and everything in the room was, allowing for the changed point of view, exactly as I remembered it in my persistent mental photograph.

I drew a deep breath.

"That's my Picture," I said, slowly. "But it recalls to me nothing new. I--I don't understand it."

The Inspector stared at me hard once more.

"Do you know," he asked, "how that photograph was produced, and how it came into our possession?"

I trembled violently.

"No, I don't," I answered, reddening. "But--I think it had something to do with the flash like lightning."

The Inspector jumped at those words like a cat upon a mouse.

"Quite right," he cried briskly, as one who at last, after long search, finds a hopeful clue where all seemed hopeless. "It had to do with the flash. The flash produced it. This is a photograph taken by your father's process.... Of course you recollect your father's process?"

He eyed me close. The words, as he spoke them, seemed to call up dimly some faint memory of my pre-natal days--of my First State, as I had learned from the doctors to call it. But his scrutiny made me shrink. I shut my eyes and looked back.

"I think," I said slowly, rummaging my memory half in vain, "I remember something about it. It had something to do with photography, hadn't it?...No, no, with the electric light....I can't exactly remember which. Will you tell me all about it?"

He leaned back in his chair, and, eyeing me all the time with that same watchful glance, began to describe to me in some detail an apparatus which he said my father had devised, for taking instantaneous photographs by the electric light, with a clockwork mechanism. It was an apparatus that let sensitive-plates revolve one after another opposite the lens of a camera; and as each was exposed, the clockwork that moved it produced an electric spark, so as to represent such a series of effects as the successive positions of a horse in trotting. My father, it seemed, was of a scientific turn, and had just perfected this new automatic machine before his sudden death. I listened with breathless interest; for up to that time I had never been allowed to hear anything about my father--anything about the great tragedy with which my second life began. It was wonderful to me even now to be allowed to speak and ask questions on it with anybody. So hedged about had I been all my days with mystery.

As I listened, I saw the Inspector could tell by the answering flash in my eye that his words recalled something to me, however vaguely. As he finished, I leant forward, and with a very flushed face, that I could feel myself, I cried, in a burst of recollection:

"Yes, yes. I remember. And the box on the table--the box that's in my mental picture, and is not in the photograph--that was the apparatus you've just been describing."

The Inspector turned upon me with a rapidity that fairly took my breath away.

"Well, where are the other ones?" he asked, pouncing down upon me quite fiercely.

"The other what?" I repeated, amazed; for I didn't really understand him.

"Why, the other photographs!" he replied, as if trying to surprise me. "There must have been more, you know. It held six plates. Except for this one, the apparatus, when we found it, was empty."

His manner seemed to crush out the faint spark of recollection that just flickered within me. I collapsed at once. I couldn't stand such brusqueness.

"I don't know what you mean," I answered in despair. "I never saw the plates. I know nothing about them."