Chapter XVIII. The Secret of Friar's Park
 

Glancing into the bar-parlor as I entered, I observed that it was empty. Martin sat behind the counter, and he seemed to be immersed in the contents of a newspaper which was spread open before him. Going up to my room, I put on a pair of puttees--which, although useless and indeed injurious for general wear, are ideal for traversing bramble-land--took my thick stick, and further looked to the condition and readiness of my pistol. Finally, slipping an electric torch into my pocket, I set out.

The bar was closing when I came downstairs. Martin stared at me dully.

"I'm going for a moonlight ramble," I explained. "Will any one be up to let me in or should you prefer to give me the key of the side door?"

"Never locked," was the laconic reply; "come in when you like."

To a town-dweller, such a piece of information must have sounded alarming, but knowing something of the ways of these country communities, it did not greatly surprise me; and bidding the landlord "good night," I set out.

The false move made by Dr. Damar Greefe had advanced the inquiry further than any unaided endeavors of mine could well have done. Clearly enough, the Eurasian regarded my presence as inimical to his safety. In admitting so much he had admitted guilt of some kind. In fact I felt assured that he was determined at all costs to prevent my visiting Friar's Park.

Having failed in his unmistakable endeavor to remove me entirely--for so I construed the Nubian's instructions--he would undoubtedly recognize that the game was up. He was clearly a desperate man and I recognized that the only hope I had of foiling him lay in acting with despatch.

This was a perfect night with never a cloud to mar the blue serenity of the sky, but in spite of its beauty I was more than ever conscious of that sense of loneliness and desolateness which seemed to be the most marked characteristic of the country hereabouts. I met never a soul upon the highway, nor indeed did I encounter any evidence of life whatever, until, turning into a narrow lane which would bring me to that road in the valley upon which stood the deserted lodge belonging to the Bell House, an owl hooted in the trees above my head.

Keenly alert to the possibility that my movements might be watched, I paused, wondering if the sound--which had proceeded from a low bough directly above me--had really been made by an owl or by a human mimic. For the hoot of an owl, being easy to imitate, is much favored for signaling purposes. Taking my electric torch from my pocket, I directed its ray upward into the close foliage of the oak tree; whereupon, with a ghostly fluttering of dark wings, an owl flew away.

I proceeded confidently down the sloping road amid a silence so intense that my steps seemed to create a positive clamor. Coming to the corner, I looked along to the left where the lane, alternate patches of silver and ebony, showed deserted as far as I could see. This was the direction of the gate of the Bell House, and the road, which sloped gently downwards on that side rose in a rather sharper activity on my right. It was at this point that I had mistaken the way on my first journey to Friar's Park.

Therefore I proceeded to the right, seeking the entrance, which I was convinced I should find somewhere within the next two hundred yards. The lane inclined gently leftward, and presently, as I had anticipated, I came upon a lodge, overgrown with ivy and but partly visible beyond the gates which barred the end of the drive.

That this was the entrance to Friar's Park I felt assured, but I had no intention of seeking admittance in the usual way. Pursuing a high wall, evidently of great age, which divided the grounds from the road, I walked on for fully three hundred yards. Here the wall, which enclosed what had once been the kitchen garden of the monastery, gave place to a lofty hedge in which I presently discovered a gap wide enough to allow of my making my way through.

Entering, I found myself in a sort of parkland, boasting many majestic and venerable trees, elms for the most part. Where the parkland ended and the woods began it was impossible to make out, but away to my left I could follow the high wall to where, clearly visible in the moonlight which at this point was unobstructed by trees, a gate appeared.

Towards this I made my way, keeping a sharp lookout for those man-traps of which I had heard, and equally on the alert for any hidden human presence. Without meeting with any obstacle, however, I reached the gate--only to find that it was closed and fastened with a stout padlock.

There was a dry ditch bordering the wall, and I followed this back towards the highroad, hoping that somewhere I might chance upon a means of scaling the wall. I made slow progress, for presently I came upon a quantity of undergrowth which I distrusted keenly as it would afford admirable cover for traps. In this way I had come nearly back to the hedge lining the road before I discovered what I was looking for.

Here a fir-tree grew sufficiently close to the ditch to serve my purpose. Its lower branches were within easy reach whilst further up I espied one which stretched out across the top of the wall. Looping over my wrist the thong attached to my stick, I scrambled up into the tree and soon found myself astride the wall.

Beneath me was a neglected orchard and beyond to the right a wilderness which once had been an extensive kitchen-garden. Directly before me lay the lodge, but the house was invisible from where I sat, being evidently situated somewhere beyond a dense coppice into which I perceived the drive to lead, for patched here and there by the moonlight I could trace it running ribbon-like through the trees.

A vine grew upon the wall beneath me, its aged tendrils of the thickness of ropes, and it afforded a natural ladder whereby I made my descent. Arrived in the miniature jungle which at some period had been a flower-bed, I set out towards the lodge, prompted to do so by the presence of a light shining out from one of the windows through a network of leaves.

I knew not if I should look for man-traps within the place enclosed by the wall, but nevertheless I neglected no precaution, picking my way through the forest of weeds which had supplanted the vegetables and sweet herbs to which doubtless this land had once been sacred. Observing even greater precaution as I neared the building, I presently found myself looking in at the lighted window, and only concealed from the occupants of the room by the presence of a tangled bush which formed a sort of natural curtain.

The room into which I was peering presented a scene of great disorder. It was a poorly furnished apartment characteristic of the rustic workman's dwelling, and was evidently the living room of the lodge-keeper. It was in process of being dismantled; cupboards and chests stood open and my acquaintance Hawkins was engaged in packing various belongings into a large wooden box set in the center of the floor. Upon the bare wooden table stood the oil lamp whose light I had seen shining out of the window, and bending over a number of papers, apparently engaged in making up some sort of an account, was a gipsy-looking woman whom I took to be the wife of the game-keeper.

She had oily black hair and a very lowering and unpleasant cast of countenance; whilst the large earrings which she wore added to her gipsy appearance. An argument of some kind was in progress between the two, for ever and anon the woman would raise her eyes from her task and dart venomous glances at the man, who knelt upon the floor packing the big box. Fragments of the conversation reached me through the partly open window, and although it was difficult to follow I gathered that the woman was reproaching her husband with some alleged indiscretion which had necessitated the departure for which they were preparing. Hawkins retorted with a savage energy which displayed the darker side of the man's character and the one which I had suspected to lie beneath his rather sinister merriment.

Having satisfied myself that the pair were deeply occupied with their personal affairs, I crept out upon the drive and began to approach the house. I had formed a rough idea of the distance at which it lay from the road and this was proved to have been about correct. The drive swung round in a wide semi-circle and presently, majestic in the moonlight, with some of its mediaeval charm restored by the magic of night, I saw Friar's Park before me.

It was a low, rambling building, bespeaking the monastery in some of its severe outlines and showing a succession of cloisteresque arches on the left, terminated by a chapel beyond which rose the ancient tower visible from the inn-window--a wonderful example of Saxon architecture, and closely resembling that at Earl's Barton. There was no light in any of the windows, and indeed as I peered more closely across the wide space intervening between the end of the drive and the main entrance of the house, it seemed to me that the place was more of a ruin than a habitable establishment.

Unaware of what eyes might be watching me from any one of the numerous windows, I stepped into the shrubbery beneath the trees bordering the drive, and set out to make a detour of the house without, if possible, revealing my presence to any one who might be watching from within.

In the prosecution of this plan, I met with not a little difficulty; several times, in fact, I had to show myself in the moonlight upon the edge of the unkempt lawns, but by this device and that, I finally achieved my purpose and returned to the spot from whence I had set out, without having attracted any visible notice. Here I paused to consider what I had learned.

The most notable thing was this: only one wing of Friar's Park--that remote from the tower--exhibited any evidence of occupation, indeed of being habitable at all. In other words, the greater part of the building was no more than a majestic ruin. Eyeless windows there were and crumbling arches, whilst the chapel which had looked so picturesque from a distance proved on closer inspection to be a mere shell. A dense shrubbery grew right up to the walls of the east wing, that which was terminated by the tower, and I had been enabled to peer right in at the window of the chapel and out at a window at the other side; for the place was roofless and its floor carpeted with weeds. I could not help wondering how much of this decay dated from the days of Sir Burnham, for certainly I could not reconcile it with the character of the man as depicted by the local people.

My inquiry then was considerably narrowed down, for of the habitable apartments of Friar's Park I had only been enabled to count seven or eight, although two of these appeared to be of great extent, one of them, I fancy, being the old refectory of the monastery. My next discovery was this: that the likeliest point of entry to the house was afforded by either one of two French windows which opened upon a small lawn some twenty yards beyond the drive. But in order to approach them I should have to expose myself in the brilliant moonlight which bathed that side of the house.

I stood there listening intently, and wondering if I dared attempt the venture. Not a sound could I detect, however, and the night was so still that scarce a leaf stirred about me. I determined upon the plunge; and walking boldly forward, I approached the more easterly of the two windows.

Three stone steps led up to it and linen blinds were drawn down within, but strengthened by the memory of the inn door which was "never locked," and hoping that the same trustfulness prevailed in Friar's Park, I turned the handle whose brassy glitter I had previously perceived from the corner of the shrubbery.

It operated smoothly, and upon giving a gentle push the window opened and I found myself standing upon a polished oak floor. I stood stock-still, listening; but there was never a sound; and partly reclosing the window, I pressed the button of my electric torch and looked about me.

I stood in a long lofty room which I supposed to have been a drawing-room. It was empty, containing not a single item of furniture. From my pocket I took two pairs of thick woolen socks and drew them one over the other on to my boots to deaden my footfalls. The door of this empty and desolate room was open, and, stepping softly, I walked out into a wide corridor, my mind filled with terrifying recollections of the Red House.

Three other rooms I explored, and although in two of them some items of massive furniture remained, covered with dust-sheets, no sign of habitation did I come upon. The whole of the ground floor proved to be vacant and a broad uncarpeted stair suggested that the floors above were also deserted by their occupants.

I mounted softly, but the stairs creaked in a horrible fashion, so that I became hotly apprehensive before I gained the top. I had nothing to fear, however, for again empty rooms alone rewarded my search. My most significant discovery in the upper part of the house was that of a bedroom which was still almost completely furnished and in which even the bed-linen yet remained untidily strewn about the bed. But there were thick spiders' webs stretching from the coverlet to the canopy, and a coating of dust lay everywhere.

When I finally returned to the empty drawing-room, I had convinced myself of that which I had come to seek.

Friar's Park was uninhabited!