Chapter XVI. The Golden Cat
 

It was a perfect morning and although the sun had not yet attained to its full power it had dispersed the early mist and I knew that in another hour or less the heat would once more have become tropical. During the first part of my walk, and whilst I remained in the neighborhood of Upper Crossleys, I met never a wayfarer, and memories of the green eyes followed me step by step so that I was often tempted to look back over my shoulder by the idea that I should detect, as I had detected once before, the presence of some follower. I resented this impulse, however. I felt that my imagination was adding horrors to those which already actually existed, so that I should presently find myself unable to distinguish the real from the imaginary.

At the end of half an hour's steady tramping I saw before me a place where a wood dipped down to the wayside so that its trees cast a broad shadow across the path. I knew that the entrance to the farm lay just beyond; and, pressing on past the trees, I saw many outbuildings having none of that deserted appearance which characterized the neighboring homesteads of Upper Crossleys. Twenty yards beyond the farm itself appeared in view.

There was some sign of activity about the yard, and, walking briskly forward, I presently found myself looking into a stone-paved place containing numbers of milk-cans. Here a woman was engaged in sweeping the floor, and:

"I have called to see Mr. Edward Hines," I said. "Can you tell me where I shall find him?"

The woman stared at me in a strange and almost stupefied manner.

"Is he a friend of yours?" she inquired.

"He is not exactly a friend of mine," I continued; "but I have very particular business with him."

She continued to stare in that curious way and remained silent for so long that I began to think she was not going to reply, when:

"If Mr. Edward is not expecting you," she said, "I don't know that I should advise you to go in. He is not very well just now--and he is sometimes rather strange."

"I know," I said. "I quite understand; but he will be willing to see me when he knows what I have come about. Shall I find him yonder?"

I pointed towards an open door leading to which was a neat, graveled path lined by well-kept flower-beds, and which I took to be the main entrance to the farm.

"Well, sir," said the woman doubtfully, "they'll tell you there if Mr. Edward is to be seen; but I don't advise it"

"That's all right!" I cried, and proceeded in the direction of the doorway.

I presently obtained a view of a cozily furnished room, where a white-haired old lady was bustling about engaged in some domestic duties. I paused at the threshold.

"My name is Addison," I said. "Would it be possible for me to have a few minutes' conversation with Mr. Edward Hines?"

The old lady (whom I suspected to be the mother of the youth whom I was seeking) paused in the midst of her task and looked at me in a troubled way. It was evident enough that the reputation of Mr. Edward was the same in his home as elsewhere, and it occurred to me that his upbringing must have been a very bad one.

"Well," she replied, after this eloquent pause, "he's up in his room certainly, but he doesn't like to see visitors, I know."

"He will be perfectly willing to see me," I said, confidently. "I have news of importance for him"--and as she continued to look at me in that troubled way: "I know of his present disfigurement," I explained. "You need not be afraid of any unpleasant scenes."

"If I were sure of that," she said hesitatingly, and looked me over with a critical eye. "Does he know you, sir?"

"Oh, yes," I answered; "we have met before. I assure you it will be quite all right if you will just let me walk up and announce myself to him, Mrs. Hines."

If I had had any doubt upon the point I was soon to learn that she was indeed the mother of the notorious Mr. Edwards; for, ere she had time to reply, a high-pitched, querulous voice which I had heard before cried out from somewhere above:

"If that's any one for me, mother, tell him to go away! You know perfectly well I won't see any one."

"There you are, sir," said Mrs. Hines, unable to hide her embarrassment; "I told you he wouldn't see you."

"Please give me permission to go up," I said; "he will change his mind when he hears what I have to say."

"You hear, mother!" came the irritable voice; "I'll break his neck if he comes up here!"

Judging from the sound of the voice, I concluded that the excited young man was located in a room immediately above that at the door of which I stood.

"Don't be alarmed, madam," I said, and, stepping into the room, I placed my hand reassuringly upon the old lady's shoulder.

Without waiting for any further protest I advanced to an open staircase which I had already marked as leading to the apartment above and confidently mounted. The copy-hunting pressman is not readily excluded, and a few moments later I found myself in an extremely untidy bedroom, the walls of which were decorated with sporting prints, Kirchner drawings and photographs of many damsels.

The scarred young man, his face still a mass of sticking-plaster, stood with clenched fists facing me, and:

"Get out!" was his greeting--"before I throw you out."

"My dear sir," I said, "unless you particularly want to figure in a very undignified light as a witness in a trial for murder, sit down and listen to me."

Edward Hines hesitated, opening and closing his hands and glaring at me in a preposterous fury.

"What's the game?" he demanded. "What are you talking about?"

"I am talking of 'the Oritoga mystery,'" I replied.

"The Oritoga mystery?"

His expression changed, and he dropped down into an armchair from which he had evidently arisen upon hearing my voice below. I observed a copy of a daily paper lying upon the carpet, and the conspicuous headline was sufficient to show me that he had actually been reading the latest reports concerning the case at the time of my arrival. I had judged my man pretty accurately by this time, and drawing up another chair which stood near me I sat down facing him, holding out my open cigar-case.

"I quite understand your sensitiveness in the circumstances," I said soothingly; "but there is no occasion to suppose that I have come to remind you of your misfortune. Have a cigar. I want a chat with you."

He continued to watch me in a lowering way, but I was gradually getting him in hand. With very poor grace he accepted a cigar, lighted it, and threw the match away without offering to light mine. I did not appear to notice his churlishness, but immediately approached the matter about which I had come.

"Although I am not a member of the Criminal Investigation Department," I continued, "I am nevertheless in a sense an agent of Scotland Yard, and I must ask you to listen very seriously to what I have to say. You have in your possession a certain gold amulet--"

He was on his feet in a moment, the patches of skin visible between the strapping assuming a purple color. A more choleric young man I had never met.

"Damn you!" he cried. "What has it to do with you?"

"Sit down!" I said sternly. "I have given you one warning; I shall not give you another. You will either answer my questions civilly here and now or answer them in court, whichever you please. I shall not give you another opportunity of choosing. I will repeat my remark: you have in your possession a certain gold amulet in the form, I believe, of a cat."

He was choking and muttering and glaring at me as I spoke, but I stared at him coolly, and finally he resumed his seat and reached out one hand towards a chest-of-drawers which stood beside his chair. Pulling one of the drawers open, he took out a little gold figure of Bast, and holding it towards me:

"Is this the thing you mean?" he jerked uncivilly.

"It is," I replied; "allow me to examine it."

He seemed rather reluctant to do so, but nevertheless I took it from his hand and looked at it closely. Beyond doubt it was of Ancient Egyptian workmanship and probably a genuine Bubastite votive offering. Raising my eyes to him again:

"Without in any way desiring to pry into your affairs," I said, "would you be good enough to tell me how this came into your possession?"

The studied coolness of my manner was having its proper effect, and Edward Hines, although sulkily, replied at once:

"A woman gave it to me."

"What was her name?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know the name of a woman who gave you a costly trinket of this kind?"

A ridiculous look of vanity appeared in his eyes.

"Is it very valuable?" he inquired.

"It may be worth as much as L50," I answered quietly.

"Really!" said he, with something approaching geniality in his tones. "Well, it's an extraordinary thing, but I assure you I don't know her name."

"Of course," I said, with Machiavellian cunning, "I don't expect you to remember the name of every girl who has loved you, but this is an unusual present to receive even from an infatuated woman."

"It's an extraordinary thing, isn't it?" repeated Edward Hines, full of self-esteem. "I can't make out the women at all; they're always giving me presents Look at that picture-frame. I got that from a girl I had only seen three times--and it's solid silver," he added.

I glanced at the memento indicated, and observed that it contained a photograph of Mr. Hines (without the sticking-plaster).

"An excellent likeness of yourself, too," I remarked.

"It's not bad," said he disparagingly; "it was done by one of the big people up in London. The girl paid for it."

"But even that," I pursued--"even that is not so remarkable a gift as this valuable piece of jewelry which I hold in my hand."

"No," said the youth, now restored to the utmost good-humor by my undisguised admiration of his Don Juan-like qualities. "But the fact remains that I don't know her name to this day. What did you mean," he continued, "when you said that I was concerned in some way in 'the Oritoga mystery'?"

"I meant," I explained, "that the police are looking for a woman who answers to the description of your friend."

"Really!" he cried. "A tall woman, very fine figure, beautifully dressed?"

"I think it is probably the same," I said. "Had she any peculiarities of appearance or manner by which you would recognize her again?"

"She had several peculiarities by which I should recognize her," he declared, a note of resentment now proclaiming itself in his voice.

"And they were?"

Mr. Hines leaned forward, tapping me on the knee confidentially.

"I met her by accident, you understand," he confided, "on the London Road one evening about sunset set. She asked me the way to Friar's Park and I could see that I had made an impression at once. It was just an excuse to speak to me of course. I offered to walk that far with her; she agreed, and to cut a long story short--the usual thing, of course; she wanted to meet me again.

"Well," he resumed complacently, "I met her on the following Thursday and we became very good friends, you understand, except that she always seemed particularly anxious to return home before dusk. All this time I never knew who she was, or even where she lived, but of course I could see how the land lay. She was some lady from London staying at one of the big houses about here and had to show up for dinner. That night when we parted she gave me this little gold thing and arranged to see me again."

He paused, knocking ash from his cigar and seemingly reflecting as to how he should word his next communication; but finally:

"The third time I saw her," he said, "I managed to arrange that she could not get in quite so early, you understand; and then--I don't know exactly how to tell you. I am not a chap that gets in a panic very easily; but (I may mention that the scene took place in a wood) she gave me the biggest scare I have ever had in my life."

He bent forward and again tapped me on the knee.

"My dear--Mr. Addison, I think you said your name was?--her eyes lighted up in the dark like a cat's!"

He stared at me with some return of his old truculence as if anticipating ridicule and prepared to resent it, but I nodded sternly, watching him as if enthralled by his narrative, whereupon:

"Yes--like a cat's!" he repeated; "and I'll admit I got in a panic. I don't know if she thought from the way I yelled that I was going to attack her or what, but the next thing I knew she was at my throat."

He uttered a sort of choking sound, tenderly touched the bandages about his neck and fingered the plaster which ornamented his face.

"At your throat?" said I. "You mean she tried to throttle you?"

"Throttle me!" he exclaimed scornfully. "She seized me with her teeth!"

"But," I said, and hesitated, for I feared I might wound his curious susceptibility--"the damage to your face?"

"Damn her!" he cried. "Damn her! I had never seen her without her gloves, you understand, but she must have taken them off that night; for this"--he indicated his plastered countenance--"is what she did with her nails!"

He paused, staring at me dully, and then with a hint of the old ridiculous vanity entering his voice:

"But I scored after all," he said, tossing the little amulet into the drawer from which he had taken it. "If that's worth L50 it will more than pay the doctor's bill, I think!"

Following a brief interval:

"Of course," I said, "you would recognize the woman again?"

"I am not so certain," declared the scarred man. "She always wore some sort of veil; but you may be sure," he added in a tone of supreme condescension, "that she was a very pretty woman, or I shouldn't have been bothering with her."

"You are quite sure of that?" I ventured to remark.

"No doubt about it at all. Most extraordinary eyes--too damned extraordinary by half!"

"Well," I said, "I am much indebted to you for your statement, and you may be confident that it will materially assist the investigation now in progress."

"Don't mention it," said Hines, airily. "If I can ever do anything else for you, just let me know; but--I mean to say I rely upon you not to bring me into it. You understand what I mean?"

"You may be absolutely certain," I replied, "that no hint of this occurrence will ever be made public so far as I am concerned."

I took my departure from Leeways Farm fully satisfied with the result of the first move in the plan of campaign upon which I had decided. Returning to my quarters at the Abbey Inn, I spent the greater part of the afternoon in writing a detailed account of my interview with Edward Hines. Having completed this, I set out for the town, as by posting my report there and not in the wayside box at Upper Crossleys I knew that I could count upon its delivery at New Scotland Yard by the first mail in the morning.

In leisurely fashion I performed the journey, for my next move could not be made until after dusk.