Chapter XVII. Night of the Full Moon
 

I stood at Harley's open window--looking down in the Tudor garden. The moon, like a silver mirror, hung in a cloudless sky. Over an hour had elapsed since I had heard Pedro making his nightly rounds. Nothing whatever of an unusual nature had occurred, and although Harley and I had listened for any sound of nocturnal footsteps, our vigilance had passed unrewarded. Harley, unrolling the Chinese ladder, had set out upon a secret tour of the grounds, warning me that it must be a long business, since the brilliance of the moonlight rendered it necessary that he should make a wide detour, in order to avoid possible observation from the windows. I had wished to join him, but:

"I count it most important that one of us should remain in the house," he had replied.

As a result, here was I at the open window, questioning the shadows to right and left of me, and every moment expecting to see Harley reappear. I wondered what discoveries he would make. It would not have surprised me to learn that there were lights in many windows of Cray's Folly to-night.

Although, when we had rejoined the ladies for half an hour, after leaving Colonel Menendez's room, there had been no overt reference to the menace overhanging the house, yet, as we separated for the night, I had detected again in Val Beverley's eyes that look of repressed fear. Indeed, she was palpably disinclined to retire, but was carried off by the masterful Madame, who declared that she looked tired.

I wondered now, as I gazed down into the moon-bathed gardens, if Harley and I were the only wakeful members of the household at that hour. I should have been prepared to wager that there were others. I thought of the strange footsteps which so often passed Miss Beverley's room, and I discovered this thought to be an uncomfortable one.

Normally, I was sceptical enough, but on this night of the full moon as I stood there at the window, the horrors which Colonel Menendez had related to us grew very real in my eyes, and I thought that the mysteries of Voodoo might conceal strange and ghastly truths, "The scientific employment of darkness against light." Colin Camber's words leapt unbidden to my mind; and, such is the magic of moonlight, they became invested with a new and a deeper significance. Strange, that theories which one rejects whilst the sun is shining should assume a spectral shape in the light of the moon.

Such were my musings, when suddenly I heard a faint sound as of footsteps crunching upon gravel. I leaned farther out of the window, listening intently. I could not believe that Harley would be guilty of such an indiscretion as this, yet who else could be walking upon the path below?

As I watched, craning from the window, a tall figure appeared, and, slowly crossing the gravel path, descended the moss-grown steps to the Tudor garden.

It was Colonel Menendez!

He was bare-headed, but fully dressed as I had seen him in the smoking- room; and not yet grasping the portent of his appearance at that hour, but merely wondering why he had not yet retired, I continued to watch him. As I did so, something in his gait, something unnatural in his movements, caught hold of my mind with a sudden great conviction. He had reached the path which led to the sun-dial, and with short, queer, ataxic steps was proceeding in its direction, a striking figure in the brilliant moonlight which touched his gray hair with a silvery sheen.

His unnatural, automatic movements told their own story. He was walking in his sleep! Could it be in obedience to the call of M'kombo?

My throat grew dry and I knew not how to act. Unwillingly it seemed, with ever-halting steps, the figure moved onward. I could see that his fists were tightly clenched and that he held his head rigidly upright. All horrors, real and imaginary, which I had ever experienced, culminated in the moment when I saw this man of inflexible character, I could have sworn of indomitable will, moving like a puppet under the influence of some unnameable force.

He was almost come to the sun-dial when I determined to cry out. Then, remembering the shock experienced by a suddenly awakened somnambulist, and remembering that the Chinese ladder hung from the window at my feet, I changed my mind. Checking the cry upon my lips, I got astride of the window ledge, and began to grope for the bamboo rungs beneath me. I had found the first of these, and, turning, had begun to descend, when:

"Knox! Knox!" came softly from the opening in the box hedge, "what the devil are you about?"

It was Paul Harley returned from his tour of the building.

"Harley!" I whispered, descending, "quick! the Colonel has just gone into the Tudor garden!"

"What!" There was a note of absolute horror in the exclamation. "You should have stopped him, Knox, you should have stopped him!" cried Harley, and with that he ran off in the same direction.

Disentangling my foot from the rungs of the ladder which lay upon the ground, I was about to follow, when it happened--that strange and ghastly thing toward which, secretly, darkly, events had been tending.

The crack of a rifle sounded sharply in the stillness, echoing and re- echoing from wing to wing of Cray's Folly and then, more dimly, up the wooded slopes beyond! Somewhere ahead of me I heard Harley cry out:

"My God, I am too late! They have got him!"

Then, hotfoot, I was making for the entrance to the garden. Just as I came to it and raced down the steps I heard another sound the memory of which haunts me to this day.

Where it came from I had no idea. Perhaps I was too confused to judge accurately. It might have come from the house, or from the slopes beyond the house, But it was a sort of shrill, choking laugh, and it set the ultimate touch of horror upon a scene macabre which, even as I write of it, seems unreal to me.

I ran up the path to where Harley was kneeling beside the sun-dial. Analysis of my emotions at this moment were futile; I can only say that I had come to a state of stupefaction. Face downward on the grass, arms outstretched and fists clenched, lay Colonel Menendez. I think I saw him move convulsively, but as I gained his side Harley looked up at me, and beneath the tan which he never lost his face had grown pale. He spoke through clenched teeth.

"Merciful God," he said, "he is shot through the head."

One glance I gave at the ghastly wound in the base of the Colonel's skull, and then swayed backward in a sort of nausea. To see a man die in the heat of battle, a man one has known and called friend, is strange and terrible. Here in this moon-bathed Tudor garden it was a horror almost beyond my powers to endure.

Paul Harley, without touching the prone figure, stood up. Indeed no examination of the victim was necessary. A rifle bullet had pierced his brain, and he lay there dead with his head toward the hills.

I clutched at Harley's shoulder, but he stood rigidly, staring up the slope past the angle of the tower, to where a gable of the Guest House jutted out from the trees.

"Did you hear--that cry?" I whispered, "immediately after the shot?"

"I heard it."

A moment longer he stood fixedly watching, and then:

"Not a wisp of smoke," he said. "You note the direction in which he was facing when he fell?"

He spoke in a stern and unnatural voice.

"I do. He must have turned half right when he came to the sun-dial."

"Where were you when the shot was fired?"

"Running in this direction."

"You saw no flash?"

"None."

"Neither did I," groaned Harley; "neither did I. And short of throwing a cordon round the hills what can be done? How can I move?"

He had somewhat relaxed, but now as I continued to clutch his arm, I felt the muscles grow rigid again.

"Look, Knox!" he whispered--"look!"

I followed the direction of his fixed stare, and through the trees on the hillside a dim light shone out. Someone had lighted a lamp in the Guest House.

A faint, sibilant sound drew my glance upward, and there overhead a bat circled--circled--dipped--and flew off toward the distant woods. So still was the night that I could distinguish the babble of the little stream which ran down into the lake. Then, suddenly, came a loud flapping of wings. The swans had been awakened by the sound of the shot. Others had been awakened, too, for now distant voices became audible, and then a muffled scream from somewhere within Cray's Folly.

"Back to the house, Knox," said Harley, hoarsely. "For God's sake keep the women away. Get Pedro, and send Manoel for the nearest doctor. It's useless but usual. Let no one deface his footprints. My worst anticipations have come true. The local police must be informed."

Throughout the time that he spoke he continued to search the moon- bathed landscape with feverish eagerness, but except for a faint movement of birds in the trees, for they, like the swans on the lake, had been alarmed by the shot, nothing stirred.

"It came from the hillside," he muttered. "Off you go, Knox."

And even as I started on my unpleasant errand, he had set out running toward the gate in the southern corner of the garden.

For my part I scrambled unceremoniously up the bank, and emerged where the yews stood sentinel beside the path. I ran through the gap in the box hedge just as the main doors were thrown open by Pedro.

He started back as he saw me.

"Pedro! Pedro!" I cried, "have the ladies been awakened?"

"Yes, yes! there is terrible trouble, sir. What has happened? What has happened?"

"A tragedy," I said, shortly. "Pull yourself together. Where is Madame de Staemer?"

Pedro uttered some exclamation in Spanish and stood, pale-faced, swaying before me, a dishevelled figure in a dressing gown. And now in the background Mrs. Fisher appeared. One frightened glance she cast in my direction, and would have hurried across the hall but I intercepted her.

"Where are you going, Mrs. Fisher?" I demanded. "What has happened here?"

"To Madame, to Madame," she sobbed, pointing toward the corridor which communicated with Madame de Staemer's bedchamber.

I heard a frightened cry proceeding from that direction, and recognized the voice of Nita, the girl who acted as Madame's maid. Then I heard Val Beverley.

"Go and fetch Mrs. Fisher, Nita, at once--and try to behave yourself. I have trouble enough."

I entered the corridor and pulled up short. Val Beverley, fully dressed, was kneeling beside Madame de Staemer, who wore a kimono over her night-robe, and who lay huddled on the floor immediately outside the door of her room!

"Oh, Mr. Knox!" cried the girl, pitifully, and raised frightened eyes to me. "For God's sake, what has happened?"

Nita, the Spanish girl, who was sobbing hysterically, ran along to join Mrs. Fisher.

"I will tell you in a moment," I said, quietly, rendered cool, as one always is, by the need of others. "But first tell me--how did Madame de Staemer get here?"

"I don't know, I don't know! I was startled by the shot. It has awakened everybody. And just as I opened my door to listen, I heard Madame cry out in the hall below. I ran down, turned on the light, and found her lying here. She, too, had been awakened, I suppose, and was endeavouring to drag herself from her room when her strength failed her and she swooned. She is too heavy for me to lift," added the girl, pathetically, "and Pedro is out of his senses, and Nita, who was the first of the servants to come, is simply hysterical, as you can see."

I nodded reassuringly, and stooping, lifted the swooning woman. She was much heavier than I should have supposed, but, Val Beverley leading the way, I carried her into her apartment and placed her upon the bed.

"I will leave her to you," I said. "You have courage, and so I will tell you what has happened."

"Yes, tell me, oh, tell me!"

She laid her hands upon my shoulders appealingly, and looked up into my eyes in a way that made me long to take her in my arms and comfort her, an insane longing which I only crushed with difficulty.

"Someone has shot Colonel Menendez," I said, in a low voice, for Mrs. Fisher had just entered.

"You mean--"

I nodded.

"Oh!"

Val Beverley opened and closed her eyes, clutching at me dizzily for a moment, then:

"I think," she whispered, "she must have known, and that was why she swooned. Oh, my God! how horrible."

I made her sit down in an armchair, and watched her anxiously, but although every speck of colour had faded from her cheeks, she was splendidly courageous, and almost immediately she smiled up at me, very wanly, but confidently.

"I will look after her," she said. "Mr. Harley will need your assistance."

When I returned to the hall I found it already filled with a number of servants incongruously attired. Carter the chauffeur, who lived at the lodge, was just coming in at the door, and:

"Carter," I said, "get a car out quickly, and bring the nearest doctor. If there is another man who can drive, send him for the police. Your master has been shot."