Chapter XV. I Receive Visitors
 

Over my breakfast, on the following morning, I began to formulate that plan which was to lead to an extraordinary discovery. I breakfasted in my own room, and just as I had finished and was about to light my pipe, Mr. Martin, the landlord, knocked at the door.

"Come in," I cried.

He entered, and:

"A lady has called to see you, sir," he announced.

The manner in which he made the statement evidenced a curious mixture of disapproval and respect. For my own part it is perhaps unnecessary for me to say that my first thought, as always, was Isobel! In the very moment, however, that this idea visited me (the wish being father of the thought) I recognized its folly.

"A lady," I repeated; "but I know no one here. Are you certain that it was for me she asked?"

"Quite, sir," replied the landlord, who was evidently flurried out of his usual calm by what I gathered to be an episode unprecedented in his memories of the Abbey Inn. "Mr. Addison, she asked for. She is waiting in the coffee-room, sir."

Wholly at a loss to understand who my visitor could be, I made my way to the little apartment at the side of the bar-parlor which Mr. Martin had dignified with the title of coffee-room. I observed upon the bench before the door a shabby-looking fellow whom I might have taken to be some local tradesman except that he appeared to be a chance visitor and was evidently unacquainted with Martin. He was reading a newspaper and I saw a cup of coffee set upon the bench beside him.

This was a hazy morning, which I thought betokened another hot day, and as I entered the "coffee-room" I found it to be pervaded by a curious half-light, not unlike that of summer twilight. The glow of the sun peering redly through the mist added warmth to this soft illumination, but since the room boasted only one small window it was badly lighted even at noon.

From a little horse-hair-covered sofa set before this window my visitor rose to greet me, and with my hand upon the knob of the door I paused. For certainly this was a stranger who stood before me!

She was tall and very slender, attired with great elegance, and in her whole appearance there was something markedly foreign--or perhaps I should say exotic. She wore a small hat which I judged to be Parisian and expensive, and from its brim depended a figured veil which effectually disguised her features, without being able or perhaps without being intended to disguise her brilliant, almond-shaped eyes. For one moment, a dreadful idea presented itself to me; but the most appalling memory which I retained of those other witch-eyes around which so much mystery clustered was their brilliant greenness. The eyes of my visitor, although unusually large and brilliant, were totally different in shape, being long and narrow, and apparently of a wonderful amber color.

When she spoke her voice was very cultured and soft; yet I started and I know I must have been staring very hard and very rudely. There was a faint huskiness in its tone, a caress in its accents, which irresistibly reminded me of the scene in my study which had resulted, in the loss of the image of Bast.

I think I have already indicated that I am one of those who arrive at a decision somewhat laboriously; and now convinced that my memory of the luminous eyes was threatening to become an obsession, so that I looked to find them blazing out at me from the face of every stranger whom I encountered, I forced myself to believe that a chance resemblance in my visitor's voice to the voice of that other visitor had tricked me.

"Mr. Addison," she said, "I'm afraid you will think this call somewhat unconventional, but"--she paused almost imperceptibly--"I am staying at Friar's Park, and Lady Coverly has heard from Dr. Greefe that you wish to see the house."

"Really," I murmured, "it was good of you to take so much trouble, but--"

"It was no trouble at all," she declared. "I had occasion to come this way and Lady Coverly asked me to call and tell you that whilst she is not well enough to receive visitors, you are quite welcome to inspect the older parts of the house."

"I am much indebted," I said.

Having so spoken, I ceased and was aware of a kind of embarrassment. For whilst I was naturally anxious to avoid unpleasant suspicions regarding a lady who apparently had gone out of her way to perform an act of courtesy, yet I could not place this elegant figure in the household of Friar's Park as that household had been depicted by my old gossip of "The Threshers."

I mentally determined there and then to question Martin, and if possible Hawkins, upon the point, directly an opportunity arose, and the former immediately my visitor had departed. But she seemed to be in no hurry to depart.

"You have never visited this neighborhood before?" she continued, in the soft, caressing voice which persistently awakened memories of that evening in my cottage.

She re-seated herself upon the sofa, leaving me no alternative but to sit down in the only chair which the coffee-room boasted. I could not fail to notice, however, that although she addressed me as Mr. Addison, she did not volunteer her own name. Furthermore, she remained throughout with her back to the window.

"Never," I replied; "it is very interesting in many ways, I believe."

"You will find Friar's Park most fascinating," she assured me. "It stands upon the site of one of the oldest and largest monasteries in the south of England. Indeed, some parts of the house, notably the chapel and the west tower, which is visible from here, I think, are remains of the original building."

She was palpably trying to interest me; and conscious that my somewhat frigid attitude was churlish, if she was really what she professed to be--namely, a friend of Lady Coverly's--I endeavored in turn to display an intelligent interest in the history of the old monastic house.

I do not regret that I did so. I think that I have never heard the dry bones of history clothed so fascinatingly. The knowledge displayed by my unknown visitor of the history of that old monkish corner of England was truly amazing. The Coverlys, it appeared, had played their part in that history right back to the misty times of Saxon England. The scenes conjured up by my first sight of the curiously wild country which lay between the village and the distant parkland were presented now with all the color and truth of real life. This woman seemingly was acquainted with almost every act of importance of every Coverly since the days of Canute and with the doings of all the abbots who had ever ruled over Croix-de-Lis.

Finally, while I listened in ever growing wonder, fascinated by the extent of this strange woman's knowledge and in part, too, by the husky music of her voice, she seemed to become conscious of the passage of time and, rising suddenly, she laughed; and her laughter again awakened a memory.

"How perfectly absurd of me, Mr. Addison!" she said. "You will certainly think I am more than eccentric to sit here fulfilling the part of a local guide."

Even as she spoke the words, a sound intruded from the road outside. A heavy footstep came first, the footstep of one who approached the door of the inn; then:

"Martin!" I heard; "a moment, please."

It was Dr. Damar Greefe!

If the sound of his voice had startled me, its effect upon my visitor was truly singular. Taking a swift step towards me, she grasped my arm with her strangely slender gloved hand. Now that she stood so close to me, I realized that she was even taller than I had supposed, nearly as tall as myself, in fact. Her swift, lithe movements possessed an indescribable grace which, as I thought, and experienced a sudden revulsion, were oddly uncanny--cat-like.

"Oh, Mr. Addison," she said, and drew even nearer, so that I could feel her breath upon my cheek, "I fear that man as one fears a snake. I am going to ask a favor of you. I see that there is another door to this room, and I have a particular reason for wishing to avoid him. I don't know where that doorway leads to, but I can doubtless find my way out."

Her grasp upon my arm tightened.

"Dare I ask you," she added pleadingly, "to conceal from him if necessary the fact that I have been here?"

"But Martin knows that you have been here," I protested, my mind in a whirl at this sudden turn of affairs; "and the man sitting on the bench outside must have seen you come in also."

"He did not," she replied rapidly, "and Martin does not know who I am."

It was on the tip of my tongue to say, "Neither do I," but:

"Please," she pleaded; "it is not much to ask, but it means so much to me."

Thereupon, without waiting for my answer, she turned and ran out through the little doorway, which opened as a matter of fact into the larder of the inn, from which there was an exit into a kitchen-garden.

I could hear Martin, the landlord, talking to the Eurasian doctor in the passage outside the coffee-room, and before I had time to open the door, there came a peremptory rap, the door was opened from the outside and Dr. Damar Greefe entered.

In spite of the already great heat of the morning he wore a heavy black overcoat, and his white hair showed in startling relief beneath a wide-brimmed black felt hat. If I had been surprised at the tallness of the woman who had so suddenly departed, the stature of the Eurasian was curiously illustrated by the fact that he had to lower his head in order to enter the little doorway.

"Ah!" he exclaimed, peering towards me where I stood in the badly lighted room--"Mr. Addison, I believe?"

"At your service, Dr. Greefe," I replied.

"I understood that my niece was here?"

"Your niece!" I exclaimed, and my astonishment was quite unfeigned.

"Precisely."

That peremptory manner which I had previously resented in him evinced itself now; and even had I lacked reasons other than personal for foiling him I should certainly have returned a reply far from pacific.

"I was not aware," he continued, his voice high-pitched and harsh, "that you were acquainted. Inform me."

All the time he was peering about the room suspiciously, and:

"I inform you that we are not!" I said. "But if we were, I cannot conceive that our acquaintance would concern you in any way."

"You are rude, sir!" he cried, and bent towards me so that I could see the fierce hawk face set in a vicious scowl.

"I should be sorry to think so," I said indifferently; for the Eurasian's behavior transcended the merely annoying and was that of a lunatic. "I would not willingly provoke a sick man, and the tone and manner of your address forcibly suggest to me that your temperature is not normal."

A moment he stood bending towards me, his pose that of one about to spring, then:

"Ah," he exclaimed, "yes, you are right, Mr. Addison. I live much alone and I fear my manner grows brusk. Overlook it. She has gone, then?"

"If you refer to a lady who called upon me half an hour ago--yes, she is gone."

He drew himself upright again and stood there, gigantic in the little room--a great, gaunt figure.

"Ah! And she was not my niece?"

"I lack the pleasure of your niece's acquaintance, Dr. Greefe."

"Yes. You said so. Good day, Mr. Addison."

He turned, lowered his head, and walked out of the room. When I, in turn, emerged into the passage, I saw him striding out of the inn. Martin was standing by the door of the bar-parlor looking very confused; and as I joined him, intent upon a chat, I observed that the shabby-looking stranger had departed.

"Hullo, Martin!" I exclaimed. "I thought I saw a customer here."

"When you came in there was. He went off with Cassim and Hawkins. They was goin' to show him the road to Manton."

"Cassim?"

"Aye."

Martin growled and walked behind the bar-counter.

"You have some curious residents in this neighborhood."

"Too curious by half."

"Cassim, for instance, is not an English name."

Martin indulged in that rumbling sound which was his only form of laughter.

"English!" he said. "He's as black as your hat!"

My hat chanced to be gray, but I followed the idea nevertheless, and:

"What!" I exclaimed, "a negro?"

"A blackamoor. That's all I know or care; and dumb!"

"Dumb! and a friend of Hawkins?"

"God knows. Things ain't right."

"Do you know if--a lady--resides with Dr. Greefe?"

"Maybe--maybe not. There is tales told."

Substantially this was all I learned from mine host; but, having lighted my pipe, I sat down on the bench before the door and set my mind to work in an endeavor to marshal all the facts into some sort of order.

The reputation locally enjoyed by Dr. Damar Greefe I could afford to ignore, I thought, but from my personal observation of the man I had come to the conclusion that there was much about him which I did not and could not understand. In the first place, for any man to choose to live, solitary, in such an abode as the Bell House was remarkable. Why had the masterful Eurasian retired to that retreat in company with his black servitor? I thought of my own case, but it did not seem to afford a strict analogy.

Then, who was the "niece" so closely guarded by Dr. Greefe? And if she was none other than my late elegant visitor why had she sought the interview? Not even my natural modesty, which in such matters I have sometimes thought to be excessive, could conceal from me the fact that she had found my society pleasing. But, since I had never seen her before, did this theory account for her visit? Recalling again that huskily caressing voice, I asked myself the question: Had I seen her before?

Perhaps the apparition of green eyes looking up to my window from the lane below, which on the night of my arrival I had relegated to the limbo of dreamland, had been verity and not phantasm. If that were so, then the uncanny visitant to my cottage had pursued me to Upper Crossleys!

Or could it be the fact that she had preceded me? Perhaps Gatton had not confided the whole of his ideas to me--perhaps, as I had already suspected, the heart of "the Oritoga mystery" lay here and not in London.

The result of my meditations was that I determined, in pursuit of my original plan, first to call upon Mr. Edward Hines; and having inquired of Martin the way to Leeways Farm, I took my stick and set out.