Chapter VIII. My Visitor
 

For long enough after Gatton's departure I sat thinking over our conversation. Despite the lateness of the hour at which he had departed, he had had no thought of rest and was setting out in quest of further evidence to point to the author of Sir Marcus's death. The room was laden with tobacco smoke, for our conference had lasted more than two hours, but dusk was very fully established and when presently as I sat there in the dark contemplating the horrible labyrinth into which my steps had drifted, Coates entered.

"Ah, Coates," I said, "light up."

He switched on the electric light and I saw layers of smoke--clouds drifting from the open window towards the newly opened door.

"Shall you be going out again to-night, sir?" asked Coates, standing rigidly to attention as was his custom when addressing me.

"I think not, Coates," I replied. "I have done enough for one day, but I should be glad if you would ring up the New Avenue Theater and inquire if Miss Merlin will speak to me. It will be about time now for the performance to have finished."

"Very good, sir," said Coates, and proceeded to make the call, whilst I sat listlessly smoking and listening to his voice. Presently:

"Miss Merlin did not appear to-night, sir," he announced: "she is indisposed."

"I thought as much," I muttered. "I could hardly have expected after such a day of horror and excitement that she would have been capable of appearing to-night. Ring up her flat, Coates," I added. "I should like to speak to her, for I know she is in great trouble."

"Indeed, sir," Coates permitted himself to remark. "Is it something to do with the discovery at the docks this morning, sir?"

"It is, Coates," I replied. "It is an utterly damnable business."

"Indeed, sir," said Coates again, and went to the telephone.

Three minutes later I was talking to Isobel.

"I find it utterly impossible to tell you what has happened," she declared, "since I saw you last. I feel incapable of thinking, and of course it was quite out of the question for me to go to the theater to-night. But it is not so bad as it might have been." She hesitated, then: "I was only able to give them very short notice unfortunately, but from a selfish point of view, as you know--I was leaving the stage--very shortly--"

"Yes," I answered dully, "I know; but have you seen the police?"

"I have seen Inspector Gatton," she replied; "but as he told me that he was coming along to you, no doubt you know what took place."

"No," I replied; "he did not mention the visit, but you quite recognize the fact, Isobel, that he does not regard you as being in any way concerned in this ghastly affair."

"He was awfully kind," she admitted; "in fact I quite changed my opinion regarding the methods of the police authorities after my interview with Inspector Gatton; but although he was so extremely tactful with me, I really cannot forgive him his suspicions, which he was at scarcely any pains to disguise, regarding Eric."

"Regarding Eric!" I exclaimed.

"Oh," continued Isobel, "he may have concealed his views from you, as he knows that you are--a friend of Eric's; but he was less careful about concealing them from me. To all intents and purposes Eric is under police surveillance!"

"But this is utterly incredible!" said I. "You don't mean to tell me, Isobel, that Coverly has persisted in his silence respecting his movements last night? If he has done so, in the circumstances he has only himself to thank. Social position and everything else counts for nothing when an inquiry concerning a murder is concerned. He knows that perfectly well."

I think I spoke hotly, and certainly I spoke with a certain indignation, for I very strongly resented Coverly's attitude in the case, which could only add to the difficulties and sorrows of Isobel's position.

Yet a moment afterwards I regretted that I had done so, for:

"Are you going to quarrel with me, too?" she asked pathetically.

"What do you mean? Who has been quarreling with you?"

"Eric quarreled with me fiercely at the solicitors' to-day, and when I begged of him to be frank respecting his movements last night, his attitude became"--she hesitated--"almost unbearable. He did not seem to realize that I was only thinking of him, nor did he seem to realize the construction which I might have placed upon his silence. I mean, Jack, what can he possibly have to conceal?"

Temporarily I felt myself to have become tongue-tied. What could it be that Coverly was concealing? The idea of complicity in the crime I scouted; nothing could have induced me to believe it. Only one explanation presented itself to my mind, as evidently it had presented itself to Isobel's--another woman. However:

"You may depend," I said, endeavoring to speak soothingly, "that he has some good and sufficient reason for this silence, and one which is not in any way discreditable. Nevertheless he will have to reconsider his attitude in the near future. Of course there are times when almost every one of us would be hard put to it to establish an alibi if we were called upon to do so--as regards witnesses of our movements, I mean; but at least we can state roughly where we were during any hour of the day, even if we have to trust to luck to find witnesses to prove the truth of words. His attitude of silence, Isobel, is ridiculous."

"Have you seen the evening papers?" she asked pathetically.

"Some of them," I replied.

"They have got my name in already," she continued, "and my photograph appears in one. It is outrageous how they leap at an opportunity for scandal."

"It will all be cleared up," I said, speaking with as much confidence as I had at my command. "You know and I know that Coverly is innocent and I don't believe that Gatton thinks him guilty."

A while longer we talked and then I returned rather wearily to my chair in the room where the air was still laden with tobacco fumes.

Without believing it to contain any very special significance as I had supposed, but merely attracted by the strangeness of the passage, I remembered how Gatton had harped upon Maspero's description of the attributes of Bast. "Sometimes she plays with her victim as with a mouse," etc. The big book with its fine plates, several of them representing cats similar to that which Gatton had left behind for my more particular examination, still lay open upon the table, and I reread those passages appertaining to the character of the cat-goddess, which I had marked for Gatton's information. Scarce noting what I read--for all the time I was turning over in my mind the manifold problems of the case--I sat there for an hour perhaps, in fact until I was interrupted by the entrance of Coates.

"Shall you require me again to-night, sir?" he inquired.

"No," I replied; "you had better turn in now, as in all probability we shall be early afoot to-morrow, Coates. Inspector Gatton will probably be calling for me."

"Very good. Good-night, sir," said Coates; and performing a smart about-turn, he walked out of the room.

I went on reading, not in quest of any particular information, but in that idle mood when one reads anything, interesting or otherwise. For a time I heard my conscientious batman fastening doors and windows as was his nightly custom; then the door of his own room closed and I heard him no more.

When I first became aware of the howling of distant dogs I know not; but it was with a great start that I was aroused from my semi-reverie by the ringing of the door-bell. I realized that I had sat much longer than I had supposed. It was a quarter to one.

Gatton was my first thought; there must be an unexpected development in the case calling in some way for my services. Coates was a sound sleeper and evidently had not been awakened by the ringing of the bell; therefore, arrayed as I was in pajamas, slippers and bath-robe (for this, during the hot weather was my indoor costume) I walked out along the little corridor, unbolted the front door and opened it.

A woman stood there.

For a moment I thought foolishly that it was Isobel, and my heart gave a great leap. But the delusion was instantly dispelled when my visitor spoke.

Her voice had a totally different tone from that of Isobel--it was a low, almost caressing voice, with a vaguely husky note in it, fascinating in a way, yet although I found myself unable to account for the fact, vaguely uncanny--queer.

"Please excuse me," she said. "You will naturally wonder what has brought a visitor to your door at this hour of the night, and indeed my explanation is a strange one."

She glanced apprehensively over her shoulder as she spoke, out into the darkness of the roadway. I observed that she was apparently in evening dress and wore a very handsome cloak, having a thick silk scarf so draped about her head and shoulders that her face was quite concealed. Very clearly, now, I could hear the howling of dogs.

Instinct is a curious thing, and that which it prompted me to do at the moment when I found myself confronting this strange woman was promptly to awaken Coates! Honestly I was afraid of her and wished for nothing better than to have the closed door between us. This was all the more unaccountable as she had the appearance and manners of a cultured woman, presenting indeed a figure of great elegance as she stood there with her tall slender form outlined by the moonlight which slanted down through the trees to form a scimitar of light upon the path behind her.

Of course I could never have acted upon this singular instinct, but the decision was taken out of my hands; for suddenly my visitor uttered a low cry of fear, swayed dizzily and seemed about to fall.

Perforce I stepped forward to support her and before I knew what had happened, she had tottered into the passage, resting heavily upon my shoulder.

"Close the door!" she said in that low husky voice. "Quick! Quick! I have seen them again!"

An unpleasant chill communicated itself to me.

"The eyes!" she whispered. "Two great eyes have followed me! That was why I knocked at your door. I was afraid."

It was enough, the mention of two great eyes. Leaving my visitor temporarily to take care of herself, I sprang to the door and closed it hurriedly. As I turned, in the light from the partly open study door I saw the woman walking slowly ahead of me. I overtook her, holding the door fully open for her to pass in.

"Please sit down a while," I said. "You have evidently been seriously alarmed."

Still there was no sign from Coates, whose voice would have been welcome music to my ears, for I could not reconcile myself to this woman's presence, strive how I might, nor could I understand how she had come to be wandering alone in such a place at that hour. One bond of sympathy there was between us. I could forgive any one fearing those awful eyes, for I had feared them myself; and I could no longer doubt that some strange apparition was haunting the vicinity.

"Believe me, I quite understand," I said, turning to my visitor. "It is most extraordinary, but I believe there is some unusually large cat frequenting the neighborhood at present."

I stood by the side table and was on the point of pouring out a glass of water when the woman raised her white-gloved hand in a gesture of refusal.

"Thank you," she said, "thank you, but I am quite recovered, and indeed if the cause of my alarm is no more than a cat, as you say, I will proceed."

She laughed, and her laughter was low-pitched, but very musical. In the light of the shaded table-lamp I could see the gleam of white teeth through her veil, but I could not imagine why she swathed herself in that manner. Yet in spite of this enwrapping she could not disguise the fact that she possessed remarkably large and beautiful eyes. She seemed now to have recovered her composure, but I noted that she made no attempt to remove her veil.

"Are you quite sure that you will not be nervous on your way?" I asked.

"Oh, no. I am staying with some friends quite near," she explained, detecting my curiosity; "and I was indiscreet enough to wander out at this hour to post a letter."

Possibly this explanation might have satisfied me; it is even possible that I should have thought little more about the incident at that time when I lived in a constant turmoil of episodes even stranger, but by one of those accidents which sometimes seem to be directed by the hand of an impish fate, I was to learn who or what my visitor was. When I say I was to learn what she was, perhaps I err; more correctly I was to learn what she was not, namely, an ordinary human being.

It was as she rose to depart that the hand of fate intervened. I had only one lamp burning in the room, a table-lamp; and at this moment, preceded by a sudden accession of light due to some flaw of the generating plant, the filament expired, plunging the room into darkness! I stood up with a startled cry. I do not deny that I felt ill at ease in the gloom with my strange visitor; but worse was to come. Looking across the darkened room to the chair upon which she was seated, I saw a pair of blazing eyes regarding me fixedly!

Something in their horrid, luminous watchfulness told me that my slightest movement was perceptible to my uncanny visitor of whom I could see nothing but those two fiery eyes.

What I did or what occurred within the next few seconds I am not prepared to state in detail. I know I uttered a hoarse cry and threw myself back from those dreadful eyes which seemed to be advancing upon me. The cry awakened Coates. I heard the pad of his bare feet upon the floor as he leaped out of bed, and an instant later his door was opened and he came blundering out into the darkened passage.

"Hello, sir!" he cried, in a half-dazed voice. "Here, Coates!" I replied, and my tones were far from normal.

Falling over a chair on his way, Coates came running into the study. An impression I had of a flying shape, and the dimly seen square of the open window (for that side of the cottage lay in shadow) seemed momentarily to become blackened.

"Bring a light, Coates!" I cried. "The lamp has gone out."

"Matches on the table, sir," said Coates.

Instantly I remembered that this was the case, that they lay in fact near to my hand. I struck one, and in its flickering light looked about the room. My visitor had gone--palpably through the window, for certainly the front door had not been opened.

"She has gone, Coates!" I exclaimed.

And on this occasion it was Coates who repeated in an amazed voice:

"She?"

But even as he spoke, my attention had become diverted.

I was staring at that portion of the table upon which Maspero's book lay. Beside it had stood the little Bubastis statuette ... but the statuette was there no longer!