Chapter XXIV. A Conference--Interrupted
 

"The case has narrowed down," said Gatton, "from my point of view, into the quest of one man--"

"Dr. Damar Greefe!"

"Precisely. You have asked me what I found at Friar's Park and the Bell House, and I can answer you very briefly. Nothing! The latter place, had quite obviously been fired in a systematic and deliberate way. I suspect that the contents of the rooms had been soaked with petrol. It burned to a shell and then collapsed. At the present moment it is merely a mound of smoking ashes.

"Of course, the local fire-brigade was hopelessly ill-equipped, but even with the most up-to-date appliances I doubt if the conflagration could have been extinguished. The men watching the house were thrown quite off their guard when flames began to leap out of the windows: hence, the escape of Damar Greefe."

"You are sure he did escape?"

Gatton stared at me grimly.

"To whom do you suppose you are indebted for the telephone trick?" he asked. "Besides--Blythe, the fool, actually heard the car at the moment that it came out on to the highroad! Oh, they bungled the thing villainously. My Marathon feat saved your life, Mr. Addison, but it looks like losing me the case! We have the Hawkins couple. But, although a graceless pair, they were more dupes than knaves. I am convinced, personally, that neither of them suspected that Lady Burnham Coverly was dead. Damar Greefe had represented to them that she had lost her reason."

"Good heavens! what a scheme!"

"What a scheme, indeed. Hawkins seems to have considered that his duty--which was merely to keep intruders out of the park--was dictated by necessity. He thought that if Lady Coverly's real condition became known she would be removed to a madhouse! He also thought that a nurse was in attendance."

"A nurse!"

"Yes. He assured me that he had heard and seen her! Mrs. Hawkins also was certain on the point. Neither of them were ever allowed in the house, by the way. But Damar Greefe paid them well--and they were satisfied. The identity of the 'nurse' is evident, I think?"

"Perfectly evident But how was poor Lady Coverly disposed of--and why this elaborate secrecy?"

"Well," replied Gatton slowly--"out of the multitude of notes which I have compiled upon the case, I have worked out a sort of summary, and it amounts to this: The whole series of outrages turns upon something in the financial arrangements of the late Sir Burnham of benefit to the Eurasian doctor. It may be that Damar Greefe had some secret locked up in the Bell House which he could not very well remove, and that the greatest peril he feared was the taking over of the Park property by an heir. I assume he had complete authority over the late Lady Burnham; and his object in concealing her death (for our investigations at Friar's Park have definitely established the fact that no one had resided there for twelve months at least) was clearly this: he hoped to carry on the pretense of attending upon the invalid until--"

"Until there was no heir to the property remaining alive!" I interrupted excitedly. "Exactly, Gatton! That is my own theory, too!

"We have now received," continued the Inspector, "some particulars concerning the circumstances of Roger Coverly's death in Basle. Whilst there was no direct evidence of foul play (and at that time at any rate no reason to suspect it) I am convinced that the local physician who attended him at the hotel and the specialist who was sent for post-haste from Zurich were by no means agreed as to the cause of death.

"The symptoms were apparently not unlike those which would be caused by a snake-bite, for instance; but naturally one does not look for poisonous snakes in Switzerland. There was some sort of inflammation of the skin apparently"--he consulted a page of his note-book--"which might have been eczema or something similar, of course, but which according to medical evidence had no apparent connection with the cause of his death. This was given in the certificate simply as syncope--although there did not appear to be any hereditary cardiac trouble or anything of the kind to account for a young fellow of that age dying suddenly of heart failure. And there had been nothing in his life during his sojourn at Basle which would help to clear up the mystery.

"However, no doubt seems to have arisen at the time, as you can well understand; nevertheless, I, personally, count the death of Roger Coverly as the first of the outrages to be laid to the credit of Dr. Damar Greefe!"

"The object of the whole thing is still completely dark to me," I declared.

"In a sense it is dark to me," replied Gatton; "but considering that the boy died at a time when the health of his father, Sir Burnham, was already giving cause for anxiety, I maintain that he was removed because his inheritance of Friar's Park was feared--by some one. The invitation from Dr. Damar Greefe to Sir Marcus is a very significant piece of evidence, of course; and when we consider that it reached Sir Marcus within a very short time of his return from Russia, the conclusion is obvious.

"He inherited the title on the death of Sir Burnham, whilst he was on service in Archangel. Being in Russia, I conclude that he was not accessible from the Eurasian doctor's point of view. Directly he became accessible, this invitation arrived; and it is perfectly clear that the fate intended for him was that which so nearly befell yourself! Remember, I have seen the gun mounted on the tower of Friar's Park and I assure you it was not placed there yesterday. In short, I have no doubt that it was put there in anticipation of Sir Marcus's visit and only employed in your case as a sort of afterthought.

"The Red House plot was the next move on the part of the Eurasian, and it succeeded almost faultlessly. The accident at the docks prevented the scheme being carried out in all its details, but it did not entirely dislocate the murderer's arrangements, for it left us with no better clew to his identity than the statuette of the cat."

"The presence of that statuette calls for some explanation, Gatton," I said.

Gatton very carefully lighted his pipe.

"That is true," he admitted, "but I will come to this side of the case later; at present I am summing up the evidence against Damar Greefe--who is certainly the acting partner in this series of outrages against the members of the house of Coverly. Observe the ingenuity of the Red House plot.

"He hoped by this not only to bring about the death of Sir Marcus, but also, by conviction for his murder, the death of the next heir, Mr. Eric Coverly! In fact, so well was his plan conducted, that even now--although we know poor Sir Eric to have been innocent--you will note that he has been unable to establish an alibi even by a full confession of his movements on the night of the crime! In other words, if he had not fallen a victim to the precipitancy of his enemies, to-day his name would be under as black a cloud as ever. It was with the idea of clearing him that I caused those paragraphs to be distributed to the press, in which I anticipated the existence of such a confession as he had actually made--but, I may add, of one more convincing than that which we heard Miss Merlin read."

"Do you mean, Gatton," I said, looking hard at him, "that by professing to have established the innocence of Eric Coverly, you hoped to draw down upon him the renewed activities of his enemies?"

Gatton looked rather guilty, but:

"I do admit it!" he said. "Nevertheless he did not fall a victim to this trap which I had laid for him in his own best interests. After all, you must admit that his death was an accident; for he suffered the penalty of your misdeeds."

"My misdeeds!" I cried.

Gatton smiled grimly.

"I say misdeeds," he continued--"although they were not conscious on your part. But it is fairly evident, I think, that whereas the unknown partner of Dr. Damar Greefe was an active enemy of the Coverlys (witness the evidence of 'the voice' and of the cat statuette), it is to Dr. Damar Greefe himself that you are indebted for the three attempts on your life; the first two at Upper Crossleys and the third here in your own home by the simple but deadly expedient of substituting for your own 'phone the duplicate one which previously had been employed so successfully at the Red House! He hoped to remove a dangerous obstacle from his path and a menace to this safety."

"But, my dear Gatton, why should he regard me as a menace more deadly than you, for instance?"

"The reason is very plain," answered Gatton. "I don't think he paid you the compliment of regarding your investigations as likely to prove more successful than my own, but I do think that he apprehended danger from the indiscretions of his lady accomplice."

"Do you refer to the woman who visited me at the Abbey Inn?"

"I do," said Gatton shortly, "and to the woman who visited you here and stole the statuette of Bast! The history of Edward Hines and his predecessor, which you have so admirably summarized, points to the presence in the Upper Crossleys neighborhood of such a character as we have been seeking ever since your experience here (I refer to the cat-eyes which looked in through the window)."

"I begin to see, Gatton," I said slowly.

"With what object this unknown woman visited you at the Abbey Inn I cannot conjecture, but doubtless this would have been revealed had not her visit been interrupted and terminated by the appearance of the Eurasian doctor upon the scene. From your own account she recognized that she had committed an indiscretion by coming there, and of the doctor's anger--- which he was quite unable to conceal--you have told me. Note also that the next episode was your being followed by Cassim, the Nubian, undoubtedly with murderous intent. Then, recognizing that he had hopelessly compromised himself, the Eurasian took desperate means to silence you for ever."

"He did," I said, "and came very near to succeeding. But to return, Gatton, to this problem of the image of Bast. You see, the figure of a cat was painted upon the case in which Sir Marcus's body was found and the image of a cat was discovered inside the case. Then, you will not have overlooked the significance of the fact that Edward Hines was the recipient of a present from his unknown friend which also took the form of a gold figure of a cat, and which I found, when I examined it, to be of ancient Egyptian workmanship."

"Right!" said Gatton, and emphatically bringing his open hand down upon the table: "I said at the very beginning of the case, Mr. Addison, that it turned upon the history of this Egyptian goddess, and I think my theory has been substantiated at every point."

"It has, Inspector," I agreed; "but I don't know that the fact enlightens us very much; for it merely indicates that the man whom you declare to be the central figure of the conspiracy is only a secondary figure, and that all we know about the person whom we may regard as the prime mover is that she is a woman--apparently possessing supernormal eyes which glitter in the dark. She is also associated in some way with the figure of Bast. What is her relation to Dr. Damar Greefe and in what way is she interested in the destruction of the Coverly family?"

Gatton smoked in silence for a while, staring at me reflectively, then:

"If we knew that, Mr. Addison," he said, "we should know all there is to know about 'the Oritoga mystery.' But I think we should have advanced a long step towards this information if we could apprehend the Eurasian. Of course we have gathered up all the ragged details of the Red House incident: I refer to the carter who delivered the crate and collected it in the morning, of the caterer who supplied the supper and so forth. As I had fully expected, none of the evidence helped us at all."

"'The voice,'" I began.

"Exactly! The same 'voice' beyond a doubt, and the whole thing worked through the means of district messengers and others, telephonically instructed. No one appeared throughout, Mr. Addison."

"Yet," I said deliberately, "there was one point at which some one must have appeared--"

"Yes," he interrupted, "some one dragged the body out of that supper-room, down to the garage, and packed it in the crate."

"You have definitely convinced yourself that the telephone device was practiced there?"

"Beyond question. Haven't you seen the exchange number? That plug where at some time a gas-fitting had been fixed up in the wall--you remember?--proved on investigation to communicate with an empty room adjoining. The gas cylinder was placed there of course, and the telephone in the recess of the supper-room, where, fastened in by the velvet curtain, any one using the poison installation would be suffocated almost immediately."

"Good God, Gatton!" I cried. "It's a horrible business, and for my own part I have no idea what the next step should be."

"I'm a bit doubtful, myself," admitted Gatton; "but you know the line of reasoning which has led me to the conclusion that these people possess a base of operations somewhere in this district. I am having the neighborhood scoured pretty thoroughly, and I think it is merely a question of time, now, for us to hem in the wanted man--"

"And the wanted woman!" I added.

We were interrupted by a knock at the study door, and Coates came in with the evening mail.

"Excuse me, Gatton," I said--for I had observed that one of the letters was from Isobel.

Eagerly I tore open the envelope ... and what I read struck a sudden chill to my heart. Looking up:

"Gatton!" I cried--"Miss Merlin has received, by post, a small statuette of Bast!"

"What!"

"From her brief description I am almost tempted to believe that it is the one which was stolen from here! She is dreadfully frightened, naturally."

The Inspector stood up.

"We must see it," he said rapidly, "at once; and we must see the wrapping it came in and the postmark. It is maddening," he burst out angrily, "to think that Dr. Damar Greefe may be somewhere within less than half a mile of us as we sit here now, that we could ring him up if we knew his number; but that even with all the resources of the Criminal Investigation Department at work we may yet be unable to find him! Even an outside suburb like this is a very big place to search and the job is something like looking for a needle in a haystack!"

My own frame of mind was one of horrible doubt and indecision. I knew not what to do for the best; and Gatton had begun to pace up and down like a caged wild beast. Therefore:

"Fill your pipe," I said wearily. "A lot may depend upon our next move. To make a false one would perhaps be fatal."

Gatton stared at me almost savagely, then threw himself back into the armchair from which he had arisen, and was just reaching out for the tobacco-jar which I had pushed before him, when a bell rang. I heard Coates opening the front door, and wondering whom this late visitor could be, I stared questioningly at the Inspector.

Came a tap upon the door.

"Come in," I cried.

Coates entered, and standing stiffly in the doorway:

"Dr. Damar Greefe!" he announced.

Unmoved, he stood aside; and whilst Gatton and I slowly rose from our chairs in a state of utter stupefaction, the Eurasian doctor entered, and stood, a tall, gaunt figure, towering over the burly form of Coates in the doorway!

His hawk eyes blazed feverishly and his face was drawn and haggard, whilst I observed with a sort of horrified wonder that he seemed to be almost too weak to stand. For, as Gatton and I came finally to our feet, he clutched at the edge of a bookcase, but recovered himself, bowed in that stately fashion which immediately translated me in spirit to the strange library in the Bell House, and:

"Gentlemen," he said, and his harsh voice rose scarcely above a whisper--"pray resume your seats. I shall not detain you long."