Chapter XX. Gatton's Story
 

"It's no good going in now," said Gatton, in a weary voice; "in fact it might be dangerous. We have to consider the possibility of fire, however," he added.

Voices of sleepers awakened and cries of inquiry sounded now from all over the inn; for naturally the household had been aroused by the tremendous noise of the explosion. For my own part I was altogether too dazed to conjecture what had happened. But that Gatton had saved me from some deadly peril I was well convinced. Stirrings and the noise of footsteps came from an adjoining room, and presently in his night attire Martin appeared, very bemused.

"Mr. Addison," he began, and stared from me to my companion.

"Let no one leave their rooms," said Gatton decisively, "until I give them permission."

"Eh," began Martin heavily.

"I am a police officer," added Gatton; "and you will all do as I direct. Does any one sleep on the same floor as Mr. Addison?"

"No, sir," replied Martin, who was not yet more than half awake, but who nevertheless had been impressed by the Inspector's authoritative manner.

Sounds of footsteps from the floor above now became audible, whereupon:

"Order every one to remain in their rooms!" repeated Gatton.

Martin, raising his voice, obeyed him.

"What are your arrangements in the case of fire?" continued the Inspector.

Several betousled heads were peeping down from the landing above but no one spoke until Martin collected his ideas sufficiently to reply:

"There's buckets in the stables--and there's the well. Wilkins sleeps over the stables--"

"Can you make him hear without going downstairs?"

"I can try," was the answer.

Martin walked to a window which lighted the landing, and threw it widely open. Leaning out:

"Wilkins!" he roared--"Wilkins!"

"Aye, aye, boss!" came faintly from somewhere below.

"Tell him to stand by with fire-buckets, but not to leave the yard without orders from me," directed Gatton.

Martin issued these instructions in a voice which must have been audible at Leeways, and then stood scratching his head stupidly.

But indeed of all the bewildered company who gathered that night beneath the roof of the Abbey Inn, I think I was the most nonplused of all, and turning to Gatton:

"For God's sake tell me what it all means!" I said.

"It means," he answered, and even through his disguise I recognized the old grim smile, "that only a match stood between you and eternity! Even now, we cannot afford to sit down, but I am not anxious to pass your door for a few minutes. As we both have much to say, let us find a room where we can talk."

Accordingly we went up to a large empty room at the back of the inn. Through the open doorway I could hear the excited voices of the entire staff of the establishment, who had congregated in Martin's room across the landing. Never in the history of the Abbey Inn had such doings taken place.

"Perhaps," continued Gatton, "it will save time if you tell me exactly what you have done first."

"Very well," I said; "but before I begin--when did you arrive?"

"An hour and a half after receiving your code telegram! I came by car. The car is at Manton now."

"Why this disguise?"

"I will explain in a moment. But meanwhile--your own story."

At that, although consumed with impatience, I quickly outlined my movements from the time of my arrival at Upper Crossleys, the Inspector following me closely. The tale concluded:

"Now, Gatton!" I cried--"for heaven's sake tell me what it all means!"

"I will tell you all I know," he replied slowly. "In the first place I had two reasons for suggesting the visit to Friar's Park. I had formed an opinion that the 'cat-woman' was interested in you. Whether because she regarded you as dangerous or from some other cause I could not determine. And I thought of a plan for finding out if she was by any chance associated with Friar's Park. It was to send you down here (a) to make straightforward inquiries, and (b) to 'draw the cat'!"

"Very good of you!" I murmured.

"I warned you it was dangerous!" said Gatton grimly. "But I am pleased to say the plan worked to perfection. Your own inquiries have been highly satisfactory and you have also 'drawn the cat'! Now just to show you how dramatic your discoveries really were I will explain my second and more important reason and the one which primarily had prompted me to turn my attention to Friar's Park. A few hours before you came to the Yard the other morning--to see the bag dropped in the water by Eric Coverly--I had been in touch with the solicitors who had acted for the late Sir Burnham."

"Ah!" I exclaimed--"what had they to say?"

"I was seeking information of course respecting the entail; in short, trying to fathom the mystery of what Eric Coverly would have had to gain by getting his cousin out of the way. I learned that financially he gained nothing but a bundle of debts. Friar's Park was mortgaged to the hilt. Furthermore, Lady Burnham Coverly had a life interest in the property under the will of her husband.

"Next, from the senior partner, a solicitor of the old school who still retained pleasant memories of Sir Burnham's port, I learned a number of very significant details."

He paused, staring at me oddly; and the familiar expression beneath the unfamiliar disguise was very curious. Then:

"About seven or eight years ago," he resumed, "shortly after his return from Egypt, according to Mr. Hardacre, the solicitor, something occurred which made a changed man of his client, Sir Burnham. You will note, Mr. Addison, shortly after his return from Egypt. He realized upon quantities of securities, and raised a big sum of ready money, which he disposed of in some way which has always remained a mystery to Mr. Hardacre. In short, within a period of three years or less, from being a wealthy man, he became a poor one.

"Next, he sent Mr. Roger Coverly, his only child, then a mere lad, abroad in care of a tutor; Mr. Hardacre never knew for what reason as there was apparently nothing wrong with the boy's health! He began to dismiss his servants. The greater part of Friar's Park was shut up and allowed to fall into decay. Finally, to Mr. Hardacre's surprise and grief, Sir Burnham mortgaged the property. But it was the terms of the mortgage--which I was privileged to inspect--which aroused my curiosity.

"In brief, the mortgagee agreed, in the event of Sir Burnham's death, to allow the widow to retain possession of the property for life, whether payments fell in arrears or otherwise!"

"But this--" I exclaimed.

"Is, as a friend of yours once remarked, as mad as 'Alice in Wonderland'! I agree. But to continue. At the time that this extraordinary agreement was drawn up, Mr. Hardacre went down to Friar's Park, of course; and he was a witness of several most singular and significant occurrences. For instance, on the evening of his arrival, whilst he was dressing for dinner, Sir Burnham came running to his room and begged of him to lock his door and to remain in his room until his host gave him permission to come out! He was particularly warned against admitting any one who might knock in the interval!"

"Good heavens!" I cried--"and did any one knock?"

"No one; but about half an hour later Sir Burnham came and released him. Mr. Hardacre was unspeakably distressed to observe that Sir Burnham looked white and ill; in fact, in Mr. Hardacre's own words, five years older! Again, quite by accident, on the same night, he came upon his host kneeling in the chapel--in those days it still boasted a roof--deep in prayer. An atmosphere of indescribable horror, he declared, had settled upon Friar's Park, and although, as he confessed, he had no evidence to prove the correctness of his theory, he nevertheless traced this to the person of the mortgagee. For it seemed to correspond roughly with the appearance in the neighborhood of this man--whom he now met for the first time."

Again Gatton paused, taking out his pipe and pouch, and:

"Who was this person?" I asked.

"A certain Dr. Damar Greefe!"

"Good God!" I cried--"where is all this leading us, Gatton?"

"It is leading us slowly to the truth, Mr. Addison, and that truth, when we come to it, is going to be more horrible than we even suspect. Passing over much of Mr. Hardacre's evidence, I come to the death, in Switzerland, of Mr. Roger Coverly, under circumstances so obscure that I fear we shall never know the particulars. Of one thing, however, I am assured: there was foul play."

"You mean that Roger Coverly was--murdered?"

"I really don't doubt it," replied Gatton, who, having filled his pipe, now lighted it "I believe he was the first victim."

"The first victim?"

"Mr. Addison, I agree with the late Sir Burnham's solicitor, that the spider at the heart of this web is Dr. Damar Greefe. The shock of his son's premature death led to a collapse from which Sir Burnham never recovered, and Friar's Park entered upon the final phase during which it was occupied by Lady Burnham who seems to have been wholly under the influence of this Eurasian doctor."

"But, my dear Gatton!" I cried--"where is Lady Burnham?"

"In my opinion, dead!" he answered solemnly. "Oh, it sounds preposterous, but in the case of this lonely woman who had apparently no living relatives and who was estranged from Sir Marcus and the other members of her husband's family, it was no very difficult matter to hush up the fact of her death."

"But, Gatton, you don't mean that she, too, met with foul play?"

"Most certainly I don't! It is as clear as day that the whole object of this elaborate secrecy was to hide the fact of her death! She was infinitely more useful alive than dead, Mr. Addison; and they hoped to keep up the solemn farce until--"

"Yes?"

"Until Sir Eric was hanged for the murder of his cousin!"

"Gatton! What do you mean?"

"He is the last of the Coverlys!" answered Gatton simply. "There would be no further danger of any one paying off the mortgage."

"Danger?"

"Exactly. There is some secret at Friar's Park--- or at the Bell House--which necessitates the property remaining in the possession of Dr. Damar Greefe--as it has virtually remained since Sir Burnham's death! So much is clear, and although Eric Coverly has persisted in his obstinate silence, one of my assistants who has been at work on the late Sir Marcus's papers made a discovery yesterday, which together with what I had learned from Mr. Hardacre and your code message, brought me down to Crossleys post haste."

"What was this discovery?"

"An invitation from Dr. Damar Greefe, dated only a short time after the death of Sir Burnham, to Sir Marcus, asking him to visit Friar's Park! The doctor explained that the state of Lady Coverly's health made it impossible for her to entertain, but he assured Sir Marcus that she was anxious to see him and to heal any breach which might exist between them. Most significant of all, the Eurasian proposed that Sir Marcus should put up here!"

"At the Abbey Inn?"

"Exactly. Now the 'best room' of the inn is that which you have been occupying--and it is that which Sir Marcus would have occupied had he accepted the doctor's invitation. Listen then: all these clews seemed to point to Friar's Park, but the receipt of your message mentioning one Damar Greefe as being a suspicious party, and asking me to look up his record, quite tipped the scales. I saw, frankly, that you had made a false move, but nevertheless it served my purpose, and I determined to look into the Crossleys end of the inquiry personally, without giving Dr. Damar Greefe reason to suspect that I was in any way associated with the matter.

"I picked up one or two hints from the county police as to the geography as well as the 'notables' of the neighborhood; and the plan which you put into execution to-night, I had adopted last night!"

"What! You visited Friar's Park?"

"I did. But I did not enter through the French window. It never occurred to me that it would be unfastened! I had come provided with a neat set of burglars' tools (and a warrant for use if necessary) and I broke into the kitchen! I found, as you afterwards found, that the place had obviously been deserted for a long time. I was badly puzzled. But my search was more detailed than yours. I climbed up to the top of the tower!"

"To the top of the tower!"

"Yes. I'll tell you what I found there in a minute. But, briefly, beyond learning that the story of the invalid Lady Coverly was a myth, I discovered nothing likely to help the inquiry. I seriously debated the idea of putting Dr. Damar Greefe under arrest; but finally I determined to watch him for a time without showing my hand. I had the good fortune to meet him this morning here at the Abbey Inn! Also, I saw your mysterious lady visitor! Lastly, I got into conversation with the man, Hawkins, who was accompanied by your friend, the mute!

"Leaving this dangerous pair, I made a rush for the Bell House, thinking I saw my opportunity to examine it unmolested. I was too late, though. One of my assistants warned me of the Eurasian's return just as I was about to enter.

"I watched the house all day. But it was not until some time after dusk that the Eurasian came out. He went to Friar's Park--and I followed him!"

"What! You were there to-night!"

"I was! I dogged Dr. Damar Greefe, determined to learn the nature of the business which brought him to Friar's Park at such an hour. I may add that it was only by the merest accident or good luck that I fathomed it after all. I had no idea into what part of the building he had gone, but, knowing that he was somewhere inside, I watched from the shrubbery. In fact, I was still in the grounds when you arrived!"

"Then it was you I saw on the tower!"

"Oh, no, it was not! I had thoroughly examined the tower on my previous visit, and what I found there had puzzled me badly. In fact it was not until your admirable withdrawal from Friar's Park to-night that the horrible explanation dawned upon me ...and I realized that the object of inviting Sir Marcus to Upper Crossleys was to 'remove' him! The first plan failed, of course; he never came. He went back again on duty to Russia, I believe--for a time. But when he returned--a second was adopted, at the Red House. However--the murder-machine erected in accordance with the earlier plan was still there--"

"Where?" I cried in bewilderment.

"On the tower of Friar's Park! It was the appearance of Damar Greefe on the platform of the tower, armed with binoculars, which awakened me to the ghastly truth. The device, never used in the case of Sir Marcus, was not to be wasted, but was to be employed to remove a dangerous obstacle from the conspirator's path! I had left the car near Crossleys, you see, and never in my life have I run as I ran after you to-night!"

"But, Gatton, what did you find on the tower--and what connection exists between the tower and the explosion which occurred here to-night?"

"This: a sort of small howitzer--I think of Krupp's manufacture, but you would be better able to judge than I--is mounted on the platform of the tower! I examined it, Mr. Addison, last night, and like a fool concluded that it had been used at some time for a local celebration and never dismounted! It was trained--as I remembered nearly too late--and laid at a certain elevation in such a way that it was evidently never meant to be moved. Yet at the time the significance of this did not strike me. How the range was found so exactly we shall probably never know; but the truth suddenly burst upon me as you made off through the bushes and as Dr. Damar Greefe came out and began to peer through his glasses--that it was mechanically set in such a manner that it could drop a projectile into the window above the porch of the Abbey Inn!"

"Good God! It's hardly credible!"

"It isn't, I admit. But weather conditions favored him; there wasn't a breath of wind. And that he succeeded is proved by the fact that at the present moment your room below is probably still full of poison gas! Of course, it may not have been a gas-shell; he may have relied, as well he might do, on the burst! But I'm taking no chances. You can well imagine that failing a knowledge of the arrangement on the tower, no explanation of the mystery would ever have been found! A thunder-bolt would be the popular theory, and if any fragments of shell were found who would ever know from where it had been fired?"

"Gatton," I said, "I owe you my life. But why did this fiend try to murder me?"

Gatton smiled.

"I have a theory, Mr. Addison," he replied, "and it is this: I believe he thought that the indiscretion of a certain mysterious lady would bring about his ruin. If I am not mistaken, she has already gone far to put his neck in a halter; and he was determined to nip this latest adventure in the bud by removing the object of her--"

I felt myself changing color, and:

"For heaven's sake say no more!" I interrupted. "It is a gruesome and horrible thought! Yet, perhaps you are right. What must we do, Gatton? These people have rendered the neighborhood uninhabitable for themselves, now, and--"

Dimly to my ears came the sound of a gun-shot.

"And have fled!" cried Gatton, springing up. "Quick! we must chance the gas!"

"Why? What was that shot?"

"A signal! Dr. Damar Greefe and 'the cat' have escaped!"

He raced out across the landing, amid a chorus of frightened inquiries from the inn staff. I followed him into a front room, and:

"This comes of turning my attention elsewhere for half an hour!" he cried angrily. "I seem to be cursed with fools for assistants!"

Throwing up the window, he leaned out. I stood at his elbow; and as I looked I saw a great red glow rising from the distant woods. The sound of a car approaching at headlong speed reached my ears, and at the same moment I saw the headlights.

"Hullo, there!" cried Gatton. "Blythe! Petersham!"

The car stopped, and a cry came back:

"We've lost him, sir!... and the Bell House is in flames!"