The Green Eyes of Bast by Sax Rohmer
Chapter XIX. The Man on the Tower
I quitted Friar's Park unobserved--as I had entered it; walking quickly across to the shrubbery, I began to work my way back to the point at which I must strike westward in order to reach the weed-grown kitchen-garden. At the risk of encountering man-traps I gave the lodge a wide berth and came out in sight of the wall at a point much nearer the lawns of the house than that from which I had entered.
What it was that prompted me to turn and take a final look at the house I cannot say, but before commencing to make my way through the wilderness of the kitchen-garden, I know that I stood and looked back towards the ancient Saxon tower which uprose, silvered by the moonlight, above the trees that obscured from my view all the rest of the house.
Right to the embrasured crest it was sharply outlined by the brilliant moon--and as I looked I felt my heart leap suddenly; and then, almost holding my breath, I crouched, distrusting the very shadows which afforded me shelter.
For leaning out through one of the embrasures at the top of the tower, I clearly saw the figure of a man!
At first so whitely was his face lighted up by the moon that I had no doubt of the figure being that of a man, but he remained so still, seeming always to look in a fixed way in the same direction, that now, momentarily I doubted, until a slight movement betrayed the fact that my first impression had been correct.
Who he was I could not possibly tell from that distance, but of his occupation I became assured at the moment that he moved; for the moonlight glittered brightly on the lenses of the binoculars through which he had been surveying some point visible only from that elevation.
Still I watched, and again I saw the man of the tower raise his glasses and resume his scrutiny of that distant object which so closely engaged his attention. Remembering that a patch of light touched the top of the wall, spearlike, at the point where I must cross it in order to reach the fir tree, I abandoned my former precautions and hurried through the tangled weeds towards the fir which was my sailing mark.
Hastily I scrambled up the natural ladder formed by the vine, and without pause climbed down again to the edge of the dry ditch beyond. To have looked back over the wall would have been useless, since from that point the tower would have been invisible. Nor indeed had I any desire to pause in my precarious journey.
That I had avoided man-traps in that hurried retreat through the weeds, I knew not whether to ascribe to good luck or to the fact that none were set there, but now in the more open ground, thickly bestrewn, however, with clumps of undergrowth, I resumed all my old vigilance, and carefully retraced the path, so well as I could remember it, by which I had first arrived at the friendly fir.
When at last I found myself once more upon the highroad and free of the ground of Friar's Park, I stood a while and wondered to find myself bathed in perspiration.
There was something very eerie in the thought that I had explored those numerous rooms of the deserted house and had moreover encircled the entire building habitable and otherwise, whilst that mysterious watcher all the time had been lurking up there in the tower! I wondered what his survey portended. If it signified that he had detected my presence at the moment that I had left the house, why was his gaze focused upon the distance and not upon the surrounding grounds? If he had not seen or heard me, then I must compliment myself upon a very successful burglarious feat.
But assuming the latter explanation to be the correct one, how much darker became the mystery of the man's presence and purpose. Who was he? And what did he do at this hour in deserted Friar's Park?
Since I had left the game-keeper deeply engaged in his packing operations at the lodge, I dismissed the idea that the figure on the tower might have been that of Hawkins, nor was I in any way assisted in my attempts to solve the mystery by what I had seen of the man, for the distance had been too great to allow of my perceiving his face with anything like clearness.
Presently, then, I set out upon my return journey to the Abbey Inn, turning over in my mind this added perplexity which had entered the case. As Gatton had quite recently observed, every new piece of evidence which came to light in this most bewildering affair seemed merely to plunge the issue in greater obscurity than ever. My feet once set upon the slope which led to Upper Crossleys, I allowed this mood of abstraction to have its way, and the problem with which I found myself principally engaged was that of the disappearance of Lady Burnham Coverly.
As I remembered the suave assurances of Dr. Damar Greefe that the ill-health of Lady Burnham rendered it impossible for her to receive visitors, I wondered anew at the complex villainy of this formidable Eurasian. The state of the rooms in Friar's Park clearly demonstrated the fact that neither Lady Coverly nor any other had resided there for many months, perhaps many years. What then did it all mean? What was the purpose of the watch and ward kept by the gipsy game-keeper over the grounds and approaches to the house?
It could only mean that this was a device of Dr. Damar Greefe's to prevent any of the neighbors from seeking admittance to the house and thus learning the strange secret which its emptiness revealed.
Here, in fact, in this old monastic establishment, would seem to reside the very genius of that spirit of desolation which had touched me unpleasantly in the hour of my arrival in Crossleys. I determined to ascertain by inquiries amongst the local tradespeople, none of whom I had hitherto met, by what means the fact that no one resided at Friar's Park was concealed from those whose ordinary business activities would demand their presenting themselves at the house for orders, etc. But even as the plan suggested itself to me, I thought I perceived an answer to my question; in all probability, I determined, Dr. Damar Greefe or the Hawkins's, who were palpably his creatures, acted as a barrier between the tradespeople and the missing lady of the Park.
But what it could all portend was a problem beyond the power of my imagination or deductive reasoning. If Lady Coverly had changed her residence for some reason, with what object did the Eurasian continue to lead every one in the neighborhood to suppose that she still resided at Friar's Park?
It was all a hopeless tangle, and the more I thought about it the more discouraged did I become. I seemed to get further, too, from that link for which I sought--the link connecting the mystery with that other which I always associated with the Red House. The luminous eyes afforded the visible link; this I could not doubt. But what relation to the death of Sir Marcus did the disappearance of Lady Burnham Coverly bear? Secondly, what was Dr. Damar Greefe's place in the scheme? And thirdly (the most appalling mystery of all) who or what was the woman with the cat's eyes?
At this point in my meditations I discovered that I had arrived before the Abbey Inn, now plunged in darkness, and believing that I detected the sound of footsteps behind me I became eventually the victim of a sort of panic which perhaps will be forgiven me under the circumstances. For emerging from these unpleasant reflections and hearing or believing that I heard sounds of pursuit from the lonely moon-patched road behind, I know that I hurried forward to the side door and silently prayed that I should find it unfastened as Martin had assured me that it would be.
In this particular I was speedily reassured, for the door opened to my touch--and I became conscious of a wish that there might be some means of fastening it from within. However, I could find none, but hurrying upstairs, I determined to take a precaution which hitherto I had not adopted and that night to lock my bedroom door.
Entering the room, I fumbled for a box of matches in my pocket and presently discovering them struck one and looked about me for the candle which usually stood upon a little cabinet beside the bed. To-night, however, it had been moved for some reason, and put over by the window on the dressing-table. As I made this discovery the match smoldered out, and at the moment I was about to strike another the sound of footsteps which I had formerly detected grew louder and nearer, so that I could no longer doubt that some one was running along the road towards the Abbey Inn.
A great curiosity respecting this person seized me, and without striking a match as I had intended to do, I walked to the window and looked out into the road. Twenty yards away I saw the figure of a man who seemed to be come almost to the end of his resources; for I could hear him panting as he ran. Nor did my wonder decrease when, as he came nearer and stared up in my direction, I recognized him for the shabby-looking person whom I had observed that morning sitting on the bench before the inn door.
Wondering what his presence might portend--for clearly his business was with me--I leaned out of the window, and as he came up to the door of the inn I saw him stagger and clutch at the post which supported the sign-board, swaying dizzily. He was clearly almost exhausted, and his voice when he spoke was a husky whisper:
"Don't light your candle!" he said.
Now, this remark, coming at such a time and in these circumstances, struck me as so ludicrous that at first I was tempted to laugh; but the man's earnest sincerity, as evidenced by his exhausted condition and the urgency of his manner, did not fail to impress me, and:
"Why not?" I asked, still leaning out of the window and filled with a great wonderment.
"Never mind," he panted. "Don't! Can I come up?"
Something now in the breathless speech of the man below struck me as oddly familiar. But yet so dense was I that I failed to recognize the truth of the matter, and:
"Certainly," I said. "I will bring a light down to show you the way, if you have business with me."
"No light!" he cried hoarsely. "If you value your life, don't strike a match!"
By this time so bewildered had I become that I scarce knew whether to descend to meet this apparent madman or to remain where I was.
"Don't hesitate, Mr. Addison!" he cried, now beginning to recover his breath. "Do exactly as I tell you!"
"Good God!" I exclaimed.
I turned and ran to the door and on downstairs. For at last I had recognized the voice of this midnight runner. Throwing open the door, I held out my hand and the shabby-looking man extended his in return.
"Gatton!" I cried excitedly. "Gatton! What on earth does this mean? Why have you been masquerading in this fashion? I saw you here this morning and you never gave me the slightest sign of acknowledgment!"
"I never intended to!" panted the Inspector, staggering rather than walking up the stairs. "But I have performed one of the hardest tasks of my life to-night and have only succeeded by a few seconds!"
We were now at the door of my room, but:
"Don't go in!" said Gatton shortly. "Let me think what we must do."
"But I don't understand at all!"
"You will understand in a moment!" was the grim reply. "You would have understood already if you had lighted your candle."
Words failed me altogether. At that we stood in the passage for some moments in silence; then:
"We have got to risk it," said Gatton, "if my theory is to be put to the test"
"Oh! I can assure you of the risk," he declared. "It will be touch-and-go. Are you game?"
"Well," I said, laughing in a very forced fashion, "this has been a night of such intense surprises that I think I can survive one more."
"Very well," replied the Inspector; and there was something strange in hearing the familiar voice and dimly discerning in the reflected moonlight, which shone in at a window further along the passage, the unfamiliar figure before me.
"What have we to do?"
"We have to take a chance of sudden death!" he answered, "but we will minimize it as much as possible."
Seeing me about to give voice to one of the many questions which literally burned upon my tongue:
"Explanations can come later," said he. "Where can I find a candle?"
"There is one on the dressing-table just to the left of the window. I will get it--"
But he grasped my arm roughly, and:
"This is my business! Wait here for me," he rapped tersely.
He heard the rasp of the match upon the box, as I struck a light to guide him in his search. Whereupon:
"I thought I warned you!" he cried, and struck the match from my hand. "No light!"
With that he pushed open the door, and I saw his square figure outlined against the moon-bright open window as he crossed the room. Since he had referred to the peril which hung over us, it was with bated breath that I awaited his return, not in the least knowing what to expect. A few moments later he returned with the candlestick.
"Now," said he, carefully reclosing the door, "light the candle."
Awed by something in his voice and manner, I did as he directed without demur, noting with amazement, in the light thus created, how simple yet how effective was the disguise which my friend had adopted.
He gave me no time for comment, however, but:
"Listen," said he. "I'm going to put this candle in your room and then you and I are going to run."
"Run?" I cried.
"Exactly. Run for our lives! Preferably upstairs. Is there any vacant room above from which we can look out in the same direction as from your window?"
"The room above is vacant," I replied, "and probably we shall find the door unlocked."
"We'll risk that, then," said Gatton. "You might start and lead the way."
"Can I use my electric torch?" I asked.
"On the stairs," replied Gatton; "but you must extinguish it when we enter the room above."
With that he thrust open the door of my bedroom, ran in and ran out again, banging the door behind him as though pursued by devils!
Then the pair of us were racing up the stairs madly for the room above, I vaguely wondering if my companion had taken leave of his senses. Yet of the verity of the peril which he dreaded came speedy confirmation.
At the very moment that my hand touched the knob of the door above, and ere I could open it, the whole fabric of the Abbey Inn was convulsed--the floor rocked beneath my feet; and there ensued the sound of a deafening explosion from the room below! An echo, or what sounded like an echo, sharp and staccato, came from the distant hills!