Chapter VII. The Cat of Bubastis
 

"She belongs to the innumerable family of cats which suddenly came forth from the ruins of Tell Bastah in 1878," I wrote, Sir Gaston Maspero's "Egyptian Art" lying before me on the table, "and were in a few years scattered over the whole world."

"She is Bast, a goddess of good family, the worship of whom flourished especially in the east of the delta, and she is very often drawn or named on the monuments, although they do not tell us enough of her myths or her origin. She was allied or related to the Sun, and was now said to be his sister or wife, now his daughter. She sometimes filled a gracious and beneficent role, protecting men against contagious diseases or evil spirits, keeping them off by the music of her sistrum: she had also her hours of treacherous perversity, during which she played with her victim as with a mouse, before finishing him off with a blow of her claws. She dwelt by preference in the city that bore her name, Poubastit, the Bubastis of classical writers. Her temple, at which Cheops and Chephren had worked while building their pyramids, was rebuilt by the Pharaohs of the 22nd Dynasty, enlarged by those of the 26th; when Herodotus visited it in the middle of the fifth century B.C. he considered it one of the most remarkable he had seen in the parts of Egypt through which he had traveled.

"The fetes of Bast attracted pilgrims from all parts of Egypt, as at the present day those of Sidi Ahmed el-Bedawee draw people to the modern fair of Tantah. The people of each village crowded into large boats to get there, men and women pell-mell, with the fixed intention of enjoying themselves on the journey, a thing they never failed to do. They accompanied the slow progress of navigation with endless songs, love songs rather than sacred hymns, and there were also to be found among them flute-players and castanet-players to support or keep time to the voices. Whenever they passed by a town they approached the bank as near as they could without landing, and then, while the orchestra redoubled its noise, the passengers threw volleys of insults and coarse remarks at the women standing on the banks; they retorted, and when they had exhausted words ..."

I finished my notes at this point; the improper behavior of the Ancient Egyptians mentioned by the great Egyptologist having no possible bearing upon the matter in hand, I thought. I then proceeded to add some facts directly relating to the votive offerings laid at the feet of the goddess.

"The greater number of pilgrims, before returning home, left a souvenir of their visit at the feet of Bast. It was a votive stele with a fine inscription, and a picture showing the donor worshiping his goddess; or a statuette in blue or green pottery, or if they were wealthy, in bronze, silver, or sometimes gold: the goddess would be standing, seated, crouching, with a woman's body and a cat's head, a sistrum or an aegis in her hand. During the Greek period the figures were in bronze or in painted or gilded wood surmounted by a cat's head in bronze, many were life-size and modeled with elaborate art; they had eyes of enamel and amulets on the forehead."

The learned authority went on to explain that these accumulated offerings were after a time stored by the priests in cellars or in pits dug expressly for them, "veritable favissae similar to those of classical times." They accumulated in thousands, large and small, some intact and fresh as when just made, others already out of shape and of no value. The places of concealment were soon forgotten, and the stores hidden therein reposed beyond the reach of men until the day when the chances of excavation brought them to light.

My notes completed, I turned my attention to the little image of green enamel ware which Gatton had left with me for examination. It was not possible to determine the period at which it was buried, but judging from the contours and general forms, together with the aspect of the enamel, I thought I recognized the style of the second Saite Period, and attributed the piece to the early Ptolemies, or the fourth century B.C. It was the time when the worship of Bast and her subordinate forms, Pakh, Mait, was most popular, the period when the most extensive cemetery of cats was established in Egypt. The execution of the little figure was pure Egyptian, and in no way betrayed Greek influence.

So far had my studies proceeded when I heard the door-bell ring, and Coates entered the room.

"Detective-Inspector Gatton to see you, sir."

Gatton came in looking if anything more puzzled than when I had left him at the Red House; also I thought he looked tired, and:

"Mix yourself a drink, Inspector," I said, pointing to a side-table upon which refreshments were placed.

"Thanks," replied Gatton. "I have not had time to stop for a drink or even a smoke since I left you; but evidence is coming in quickly enough now."

He helped himself to a whisky and soda, being an old visitor and one used to the Bohemian ways of my household; then setting his glass upon a corner of my writing-table, he dropped into the armchair and began in leisurely fashion to fill his pipe.

Although the hour was growing late, sunset was still a long way off and the prospect visible through the window was bathed in golden light. From where I sat I could catch a glimpse of the tree-lined road, and for the first time since that strange experience had befallen me, I found myself wondering if the vaguely-perceived follower whom I had detected on the previous night and those blazing feline eyes which had looked out at me from beneath the shadow of the hedge could have had any possible connection with the tragedy which at about the same hour was being enacted in the Red House. I determined presently to confide the strange particulars to my friend, but first I was all anxiety to learn what evidence Marie had given; and that this evidence, to which he had referred had done little more than to increase Gatton's perplexity was clear enough from his expression. Therefore:

"Tell me about Marie," I said.

Gatton smiled grimly, took a drink from his glass, and then:

"She began of course as I had anticipated, by denying all knowledge of the matter, but recognizing that she was in a tight corner, she presently changed her tactics, and although every available plan was tried to induce her to change her ground, she afterwards stuck to the extraordinary story which we first extracted from her. Briefly it was this:

"The late Sir Marcus had been paying unwelcome attention to Miss Merlin for a long time, and Marie had instructions that he was to be discouraged as much as possible. In fact I am pleased to say that your theory of Miss Merlin's ignorance respecting the murder plot is borne out by the testimony of her maid. On several occasions, it appears, when he sent his card to the dressing-room, Marie returned equivocal messages and did not even inform her mistress of Sir Marcus's visit. This had been going on for some time when one night whilst Miss Merlin was on the stage a telephone call came for Marie and a certain proposal was made to her.

"It was this: if on the following night Sir Marcus should present himself she was to tell him that Miss Merlin would take supper in his company after the performance, but that he was to observe every possible precaution. Marie, according to her account, at first declined to entertain the proposal, but being informed that it was merely intended to play a practical joke upon the baronet, she ultimately consented. I may add that the promise of a ten-pound note undoubtedly hastened her decision and it was on her receipt of the amount by post on the following morning that she determined to carry out her part of the bargain.

"Her instructions had been explicit. She was to tell Sir Marcus that Miss Merlin would see him after the performance, then when he presented himself, to inform him that her mistress had decided it would be more prudent for him to proceed to the rendezvous alone, where she would join him in a quarter of an hour. She was to give him the door key (which had arrived with the money) and to direct him to enter and wait in the room on the right of the hall. A cabman who knew the address would be waiting at the stage door."

Gatton paused, puffing slowly at his pipe, then: "Unknown to Miss Merlin," he continued, "this scheme was carried out. Sir Marcus presented himself at ten o'clock and received Marie's message; he returned about eleven and she told him, as she had been instructed, that her mistress would join him in a quarter of an hour. Curiosity respecting the joke which she believed was being played upon the baronet prompted her to go outside the stage-door to see if there was actually a cab waiting. There was, and she heard Sir Marcus ask the man if he knew the address to which he was to drive.

"The cabman replied that he did, and Marie claims to know no more about the matter, except that Sir Marcus drove off in the cab, and that her mistress returned to her flat alone about a quarter of an hour later. Next point. Inquiries for the cabman have been made at all the ranks since early this morning, and he turned up at the Yard about a couple of hours ago. His story is simple enough; some one called up the rank where he chanced to be standing that evening, instructing him to call for Sir Marcus at the stage-door of the New Avenue Theater and to drive him to--"

He paused:

"Yes?"

"To the Red House!"

"At last we have it!" I cried excitedly.

"There is no doubt of it," answered Gatton; "the cabman drove him there, and it was certainly at the Red House that he met his death. Indeed the cabby appears to be the last witness who spoke to the murdered man. He inquired his way to the Red House from a chance pedestrian, a tramp, whom he met at the corner of College Road. He has even described this person to us, but I don't think his evidence of sufficient importance to justify our searching for him. On reaching the Red House the cabman and his fare found it to be vacant. Sir Marcus, however, who had a very brusk manner with his inferiors, having paid the cabman, curtly dismissed him, and the man, who admits having bargained for a double fare for the journey, because it was such an out-of-the-way spot, drove away vaguely curious, but not so curious as another might have been, since London cabmen are used to strange jobs."

"We are getting near the heart of the mystery."

"H'm," said Gatton, "I'm not so sure. The deeper we go the darker it gets. A man has been scouring the neighborhood all day in quest of the carter who delivered the crate to the docks, but so far without results. I consider it a very important point that we should learn not only how and when the crate was collected, but when and by whom it was delivered at the garage."

"Another question," I said: "although I believe I know the answer. Was it a man or a woman who ordered the cab?"

"Both in the case of Marie and in the case of the cab-rank," replied Gatton, "it was a woman's voice that spoke."

"Thank God, one doubt is resolved!" I said. "It cannot possibly have been Isobel in either of these cases!"

"Right!" agreed Gatton, promptly. "I am as glad as you are. There is clearly a second woman in the case; yet I can't bring myself to believe that this elaborate scheme was the work of a woman."

"Not of a jealous woman?" I suggested.

"Not of any woman," he replied. "Besides--who put the body into the crate? What kind of a woman would it be who could do a deed like that?"

"In other words," said I, "you are still without a ghost of a clew to the identity of the person who committed the murder, and to the means employed?"

Resting his pipe upon an ash-tray, the Inspector took up from my writing-table the little image of Bast and held it up between finger and thumb.

"We always come back to the green cat," he said slowly. "I will trouble you now, Mr. Addison, for the history of such a little image as this."

"Yes," I replied abstractedly. "But there is a matter about which I have not spoken to you hitherto because quite frankly I had doubted if it had any existence outside my imagination; but every new development of the case is so utterly fantastic that I no longer regard my experience as being in the least degree outside the province of possibility. Before we go further, therefore, into the purely archaeological side of the inquiry (and I have still serious doubt respecting the usefulness of such a quest) let me relate a peculiar experience which I had last night after I had left Bolton."

Gatton listened in silence whilst I gave him an account of that evasive shadow which I had perceived behind me, and then of the great cat's eyes which had looked in through the window.

His expression of naive wonderment was almost funny; and when I had concluded:

"Well, Mr. Addison," said he, "if you had told me this story before I had taken up 'the Oritoga mystery,' for so I observe--" drawing an evening paper from his pocket--"the press has agreed to entitle the case, I should have suggested that your peculiar studies had begun to tell upon your nerves; but this voice on the 'phone and this empty house in which only one room was furnished, finally the green cat painted on the packing-case and the green cat which stands there upon the table have prepared me for even stranger things than your adventure of last night."

"Yet," I urged, "there is no visible connection between the episodes of the case and this strange apparition which I saw in the garden last night."

"There was no visible connection between Sir Marcus's body in a packing-case in the hold of the Oritoga and the garage of the house in College Road until we found one," retorted Gatton. "Anyway I am glad you mentioned the matter to me; I will take a note of it, for it may prove to provide a link in the chain. And now"--taking out a note-book and pencil--"for the history of these cat things."

I sighed rather wearily as I crossed the room to my bookcase and took down the volume of Gaston Maspero, the same which I had been reading but had returned to its shelf as Gatton had been admitted.

"We have it here in a nutshell," I said.

Gatton methodically noted the passages which I read to him. The task concluded:

"H'm," he muttered, scanning his notes, "very strange, very strange indeed. 'She had also her hours of treacherous perversity, during which she played with her victim as with a mouse, before finishing him off with a blow of her claws.'"

He raised his eyes and stared at me strangely.

"She played with her victim as with a mouse," he murmured, "before finishing him off with a blow--"