Chapter XVII. The Nubian Mute
 

I returned from the little market town beneath a sky of tropical brilliance. The landscape was bathed in a radiance of perfect moonlight, and under the trees which thickly lined the way, the shadows had a velvet quality rarely met with in England, their edges showing more sharply defined than I ever remembered to have noticed them before. But ere long I grew oblivious even of the beauty of the night, becoming absorbed in reflections respecting this most extraordinary case.

Every new datum acquired, instead of serving to elucidate, seemed only more completely to obscure the issue. Mystery revealed itself within mystery, and this was indeed a labyrinth, to the heart of which I sometimes despaired of penetrating. Who was this woman whose elusive figure appeared at every turn in the case? Was she one and the same with the visitor to my cottage who had purloined the green enameled statuette--and could it be that I had actually sat in conversation with her in the coffee-room of the Abbey Inn and had failed to recognize her for what she was?

Beyond doubt she had extraordinary cleverness and was a weaver of spells, so that in a sense she could temporarily disguise her personality. Whilst at one moment she was a repellent, half-animal creature, at another she was a fascinating woman of the world versed in strange lores and a most entertaining companion. What object underlay her diverse activities? Assuming that she was concerned in the murder of Sir Marcus Coverly, the purpose of her visit to my cottage was not far to seek; she had come to recover incriminating evidence and had been aided, it seemed, by the hand of fate.

But why had she come to visit me at the Abbey Inn and what had she gained by this interview? Perhaps--I reflected, as I plodded along the deserted country road--she had been interrupted on that occasion by the inopportune appearance of Dr. Damar Greefe. Again, why had he appeared there at that moment if not because he had suspected her presence at the Inn; and what was the relationship existing between these two singular people?

That the strange story related to me by the idiotic Edward Hines simply resolved itself into an idle adventure on the part of the mysterious woman, which she had been forced to terminate (somewhat ferociously, I admit) by the uncouth ardor of this rustic swain I seemed to perceive. But unless her visit to the Abbey Inn portended that she had selected me as Mr. Edward Hines' successor, I failed to fit it into the scheme.

I began to long for the presence of Inspector Gatton, for the assistance of his trained mind in plumbing these depths which defied my single efforts. Who this woman could be I failed to imagine; and assuming that she had been concerned in the death of the late baronet, in what way she stood to profit by it was utterly beyond my comprehension, as was the position of Dr. Damar Greefe in the matter.

On I walked and on, unconsciously increasing my pace as is my way when I am lost in abstraction; and, perhaps stimulated to greater mental clarity by the exercise, some of my doubts were dispersed and I became convinced at last that the shadowy figure which had dogged my footsteps on the night of the crime--the owner of those blazing eyes which had watched me from my garden--- the woman who had stolen the amulet from my writing-table, and the woman who had mutilated Edward Hines, were one and the same as my visitor at the Abbey Inn--and the unseen speaker who had conversed beneath my window on the night of my arrival at Upper Crossleys!

Here then was a definite chain linking the Red House with Friar's Park, or at least with its vicinity, and now so clearly did my ideas fit themselves each into its correct place, that I determined upon the identity of that other speaker who had stood in the shadows opposite the Inn when I had awakened in the night. Mentally I recaptured the high, rather coarse tones of his voice, and remembering how, touched by the spell which had seemed to lie upon the whole country-side, I had thought of him as Asmodeus, the master of the witches' revels, I determined that my judgment had been not inexact. For now I identified the speaker as Dr. Damar Greefe!

So far my meditations had proceeded and I suppose I was about half-way on my journey towards the Abbey Inn, when all at once I became aware again of that uncomfortable feeling of surveillance. As on that night when returning from the Red House to my cottage I had experienced a conviction that I was followed, so now a like conviction impressed itself upon my mind. But whereas on the former occasion I had been less fearful than curious, now I was aware of a positive dread of this follower whose presence I had detected, by what sense I know not, and of a certainty of a very grave menace.

Accordingly, I determined upon a certain plan which I proceeded to put into execution without delay. I was traversing a stretch of moon-bathed road at the moment that I first fell a victim to this unpleasant suspicion which indeed was more than a suspicion, when ahead of me I observed a patch, some twenty yards in extent, which was entirely overshadowed by trees. For at this point the woods, clothing a slope which ran right down to the road, closely impinged upon the highway; and I had noticed something at this spot, on my outward journey, which I now proposed to employ to my advantage.

Into this patch of darkness I walked then, my steps sounding crisply along the road. On I went for some twenty yards until I found the particular spot for which I was seeking. This was a sort of little bay or inlet where until quite recently a heap of stones used by roadmenders had lain, and into this I marched, never once altering my pace. But having gained it I performed an about-turn and continued to mark time there, whilst surveying the moon-bathed road behind me.

The object of this trick will be evident enough; for whilst the sound of my footsteps would lead one in pursuit to suppose that I was proceeding upon my way through the shadows, actually I was staring intently back in quest of the pursuer of whose presence I had become assured.

Perhaps in spite of the cautious manner in which he had advanced, he had made some slight sound which, subconsciously detected, had nevertheless intruded upon my reverie and in this way had acquainted me with his presence. For now, continuing that steady beat, but watching intently, I saw him.

Taking every advantage of the shade cast by the hedge on the right of the road, a softly-moving figure was coming towards me!

That the tracker was desirous of avoiding observation the manner of his approach sufficiently proved; and if I had had any doubts respecting his purpose they would have been resolved in a manner painful to myself had I not had the good fortune to detect him in time.

A piece of road there was, which because of a gap in the hedge afforded no shadow, and as the gliding shape reached this point and passed it, I obtained a momentary but clear view of my pursuer.

I was being tracked by a Nubian mute!

That one glance was sufficient to convince me of the horrible truth. The man was stripped to the waist, in order no doubt that his movements might not be impeded, and I beheld a torso like that of some Milo wrought in ebony! The cruel, animal face, the blubber lips, the partly bared teeth--all spoke of the fate designed for me. I knew the type and knew what scant mercy I could look for at his hands. Indubitably this was a mute such as is sometimes attached to the harems of great Eastern houses to this day; and even if I had known nothing of the functions of such a servitor, the fact that he carried something in his left hand would have enlightened me.

It was a strangling-cord!

I smiled grimly. Respecting the identity of my would-be assassin there was little room for doubt; he was the black servant of Dr. Damar Greefe. Now, as he passed the bright patch of roadway and began to glide silently nearer through the shadows, I marked time with a lighter step, the more deeply to confuse him. Of the strange Nubian dialect I knew nothing, but taking it for granted that the man was familiar with Arabic, I raised my voice in a mournful cry, and (in the Arab tongue):

"Cassim! Cassim!" I wailed--"Satan is calling for you!"

I think I have never witnessed such an exhibition of panic fright as I now beheld. Cassim was less than ten yards away--and I could hear his teeth chattering!

"Cassim!" I cried again--"Fly! fly! Satan is here!"

A horrible tongueless babbling answered the cry. There came a scuffling--and I saw the Nubian's gleaming body leap out into the lighted roadway as he fled.

"Faster! faster! Cassim!" I wailed. "He is behind you! Ah! he is in front!"

Cassim staggered, turned and then stood still, looking this way and that in a perfect delirium of fear. Finally he whirled around to the right, shrieking wildly (I think some nocturnal insect had brushed against him), plunged babbling up the bank to the hedge and heedless of the fact that it contained many thorns which must have cruelly lacerated his bare body, scrambled half through it and half over it into the plowed field beyond!

Against such an enemy there is no more potent weapon than superstition. Nevertheless I kept my hand upon the pistol in my pocket and proceeded at an increased pace during the latter half of my journey; nor am I ashamed to admit that the lights of the Abbey Inn were a welcome sight, and it was with a feeling of relief that, leaving the highroad behind me, I found myself again in the village street of Upper Crossleys.

What to expect next, I knew not. The other party had made a false move, for I now had definite evidence of the antagonism of Dr. Damar Greefe and of his intent to cause my murder through the agency of his Nubian servant.

My plan of nocturnal operations, already sufficiently dangerous, now promised to lead me into extreme peril. I would have given much for the company of Gatton, but, if I must act alone--alone I would set out. If I am slow in planning, at least I can state with truth that I am tenacious in execution. But here, now, was open warfare: and I must look for an enemy prepared.