Chapter XXIII. The Face in the Orchid-House
 

Dr. Cairn walked to the window, with its old-fashioned leaded panes. A lamp stood by the bedside, and he had tilted the shade so that it shone upon the pale face of the patient--Myra Duquesne.

Two days had wrought a dreadful change in her. She lay with closed eyes, and sunken face upon which ominous shadows played. Her respiration was imperceptible. The reputation of Dr. Bruce Cairn was a well deserved one, but this case puzzled him. He knew that Myra Duquesne was dying before his eyes; he could still see the agonised face of his son, Robert, who at that moment was waiting, filled with intolerable suspense, downstairs in Mr. Saunderson's study; but, withal, he was helpless. He looked out from the rose-entwined casement across the shrubbery, to where the moonlight glittered among the trees.

Those were the orchid-houses; and with his back to the bed, Dr. Cairn stood for long, thoughtfully watching the distant gleams of reflected light. Craig Fenton and Sir Elwin Groves, with whom he had been consulting, were but just gone. The nature of Myra Duquesne's illness had utterly puzzled them, and they had left, mystified.

Downstairs, Robert Cairn was pacing the study, wondering if his reason would survive this final blow which threatened. He knew, and his father knew, that a sinister something underlay this strange illness--an illness which had commenced on the day that Antony Ferrara had last visited the house.

The evening was insufferably hot; not a breeze stirred in the leaves; and despite open windows, the air of the room was heavy and lifeless. A faint perfume, having a sort of sweetness, but which yet was unutterably revolting, made itself perceptible to the nostrils. Apparently it had pervaded the house by slow degrees. The occupants were so used to it that they did not notice it at all.

Dr. Cairn had busied himself that evening in the sick-room, burning some pungent preparation, to the amazement of the nurse and of the consultants. Now the biting fumes of his pastilles had all been wafted out of the window and the faint sweet smell was as noticeable as ever.

Not a sound broke the silence of the house; and when the nurse quietly opened the door and entered, Dr. Cairn was still standing staring thoughtfully out of the window in the direction of the orchid-houses. He turned, and walking back to the bedside, bent over the patient.

Her face was like a white mask; she was quite unconscious; and so far as he could see showed no change either for better or worse. But her pulse was slightly more feeble and the doctor suppressed a groan of despair; for this mysterious progressive weakness could only have one end. All his experience told him that unless something could be done--and every expedient thus far attempted had proved futile--Myra Duquesne would die about dawn.

He turned on his heel, and strode from the room, whispering a few words of instruction to the nurse. Descending the stairs, he passed the closed study door, not daring to think of his son who waited within, and entered the dining-room. A single lamp burnt there, and the gaunt figure of Mr. Saunderson was outlined dimly where he sat in the window seat. Crombie, the gardener, stood by the table.

"Now, Crombie," said Dr. Cairn, quietly, closing the door behind him, "what is this story about the orchid-houses, and why did you not mention it before?"

The man stared persistently into the shadows of the room, avoiding Dr. Cairn's glance.

"Since he has had the courage to own up," interrupted Mr. Saunderson, "I have overlooked the matter: but he was afraid to speak before, because he had no business to be in the orchid-houses." His voice grew suddenly fierce--"He knows it well enough!"

"I know, sir, that you don't want me to interfere with the orchids," replied the man, "but I only ventured in because I thought I saw a light moving there--"

"Rubbish!" snapped Mr. Saunderson.

"Pardon me, Saunderson," said Dr. Cairn, "but a matter of more importance than the welfare of all the orchids in the world is under consideration now."

Saunderson coughed dryly.

"You are right, Cairn," he said. "I shouldn't have lost my temper for such a trifle, at a time like this. Tell your own tale, Crombie; I won't interrupt."

"It was last night then," continued the man. "I was standing at the door of my cottage smoking a pipe before turning in, when I saw a faint light moving over by the orchid-houses--"

"Reflection of the moon," muttered Saunderson. "I am sorry. Go on, Crombie!"

"I knew that some of the orchids were very valuable, and I thought there would not be time to call you; also I did not want to worry you, knowing you had worry enough already. So I knocked out my pipe and put it in my pocket, and went through the shrubbery. I saw the light again--it seemed to be moving from the first house into the second. I couldn't see what it was."

"Was it like a candle, or a pocket-lamp?" jerked Dr. Cairn.

"Nothing like that, sir; a softer light, more like a glow-worm; but much brighter. I went around and tried the door, and it was locked. Then I remembered the door at the other end, and I cut round by the path between the houses and the wall, so that I had no chance to see the light again, until I got to the other door. I found this unlocked. There was a close kind of smell in there, sir, and the air was very hot--"

"Naturally, it was hot," interrupted Saunderson.

"I mean much hotter than it should have been. It was like an oven, and the smell was stifling--"

"What smell?" asked Dr. Cairn. "Can you describe it?"

"Excuse me, sir, but I seem to notice it here in this room to-night, and I think I noticed it about the place before--never so strong as in the orchid-houses."

"Go on!" said Dr. Cairn.

"I went through the first house, and saw nothing. The shadow of the wall prevented the moonlight from shining in there. But just as I was about to enter the middle house, I thought I saw--a face."

"What do you mean you thought you saw?" snapped Mr. Saunderson.

"I mean, sir, that it was so horrible and so strange that I could not believe it was real--which is one of the reasons why I did not speak before. It reminded me of the face of a gentleman I have seen here--Mr. Ferrara--"

Dr. Cairn stifled an exclamation.

"But in other ways it was quite unlike the gentleman. In some ways it was more like the face of a woman--a very bad woman. It had a sort of bluish light on it, but where it could have come from, I don't know. It seemed to be smiling, and two bright eyes looked straight out at me."

Crombie stopped, raising his hand to his head confusedly.

"I could see nothing but just this face--low down as if the person it belonged to was crouching on the floor; and there was a tall plant of some kind just beside it--"

"Well," said Dr. Cairn, "go on! What did you do?"

"I turned to run!" confessed the man. "If you had seen that horrible face, you would understand how frightened I was. Then when I got to the door, I looked back."

"I hope you had closed the door behind you," snapped Saunderson.

"Never mind that, never mind that!" interrupted Dr. Cairn.

"I had closed the door behind me--yes, sir--but just as I was going to open it again, I took a quick glance back, and the face had gone! I came out, and I was walking over the lawn, wondering whether I should tell you, when it occurred to me that I hadn't noticed whether the key had been left in or not."

"Did you go back to see?" asked Dr. Cairn.

"I didn't want to," admitted Crombie, "but I did--and--"

"Well?"

"The door was locked, sir!"

"So you concluded that your imagination had been playing you tricks," said Saunderson grimly. "In my opinion you were right."

Dr. Cairn dropped into an armchair.

"All right, Crombie; that will do."

Crombie, with a mumbled "Good-night, gentlemen," turned and left the room.

"Why are you worrying about this matter," inquired Saunderson, when the door had closed, "at a time like the present?"

"Never mind," replied Dr. Cairn wearily. "I must return to Half-Moon Street, now, but I shall be back within an hour."

With no other word to Saunderson, he stood up and walked out to the hall. He rapped at the study door, and it was instantly opened by Robert Cairn. No spoken word was necessary; the burning question could be read in his too-bright eyes. Dr. Cairn laid his hand upon his son's shoulder.

"I won't excite false hopes, Rob," he said huskily. "I am going back to the house, and I want you to come with me."

Robert Cairn turned his head aside, groaning aloud, but his father grasped him by the arm, and together they left that house of shadows, entered the car which waited at the gate, and without exchanging a word en route, came to Half-Moon Street.