Chapter XVIII. Inspector Aylesbury of Market Hilton
 

"Now, gentlemen," said Inspector Aylesbury, "I will take evidence."

Dawn was creeping grayly over the hills, and the view from the library windows resembled a study by Bastien-Lepage. The lamps burned yellowly, and the exotic appointments of the library viewed in that cold light for some reason reminded me of a stage set seen in daylight. The Velasquez portrait mentally translated me to the billiard room where something lay upon the settee with a white sheet drawn over it; and I wondered if my own face looked as wan and comfortless as did the faces of my companions, that is, of two of them, for I must except Inspector Aylesbury.

Squarely before the oaken mantel he stood, a large, pompous man, but in this hour I could find no humour in Paul Harley's description of him as resembling a walrus. He had a large auburn moustache tinged with gray, and prominent brown eyes, but the lower part of his face, which terminated in a big double chin, was ill-balanced by his small forehead. He was bulkily built, and I had conceived an unreasonable distaste for his puffy hands. His official air and oratorical manner were provoking.

Harley sat in the chair which he had occupied during our last interview with Colonel Menendez in the library, and I had realized--a realization which had made me uncomfortable--that I was seated upon the couch on which the Colonel had reclined. Only one other was present, Dr. Rolleston of Mid-Hatton, a slight, fair man with a brisk, military manner, acquired perhaps during six years of war service. He was standing beside me smoking a cigarette.

"I have taken all the necessary particulars concerning the position of the body," continued the Inspector, "the nature of the wound, contents of pockets, etc., and I now turn to you, Mr. Harley, as the first person to discover the murdered man."

Paul Harley lay back in the armchair watching the speaker.

"Before we come to what happened here to-night I should like to be quite clear about your own position in the matter, Mr. Harley. Now"-- Inspector Aylesbury raised one finger in forensic manner--"now, you visited me yesterday afternoon, Mr. Harley, and asked for certain information regarding the neighbourhood."

"I did," said Harley, shortly.

"The questions which you asked me were," continued the Inspector, slowly and impressively, "did I know of any negro or coloured people living in, or about, Mid-Hatton, and could I give you a list of the residents within a two-mile radius of Cray's Folly. I gave you the information which you required, and now it is your turn to give me some. Why did you ask those questions?"

"For this reason," was the reply--"I had been requested by Colonel Menendez to visit Cray's Folly, accompanied by my friend, Mr. Knox, in order that I might investigate certain occurrences which had taken place here."

"Oh," said the Inspector, raising his eyebrows, "I see. You were here to make investigations?"

"Yes."

"And these occurrences, will you tell me what they were?"

"Simple enough in themselves," replied Harley. "Someone broke into the house one night."

"Broke into the house?"

"Undoubtedly."

"But this was never reported to us."

"Possibly not, but someone broke in, nevertheless. Secondly, Colonel Menendez had detected someone lurking about the lawns, and thirdly, the wing of a bat was nailed to the main door."

Inspector Aylesbury lowered his eyebrows and concentrated a frowning glance upon the speaker.

"Of course, sir," he said, "I don't want to jump to conclusions, but you are not by any chance trying to be funny at a time like this?"

"My sense of humour has failed me entirely," replied Harley. "I am merely stating bald facts in reply to your questions."

"Oh, I see."

The Inspector cleared his throat.

"Someone broke into Cray's Folly, then, a fact which was not reported to me, a suspicious loiterer was seen in the grounds, again not reported, and someone played a silly practical joke by nailing the wing of a bat, you say, to the door. Might I ask, Mr. Harley, why you mention this matter? The other things are serious, but why you should mention the trick of some mischievous boy at a time like this I can't imagine."

"No," said Harley, wearily, "it does sound absurd, Inspector; I quite appreciate the fact. But, you see, Colonel Menendez regarded it as the most significant episode of them all."

"What! The bat wing nailed on the door?"

"The bat wing, decidedly. He believed it to be the token of a negro secret society which had determined upon his death, hence my enquiries regarding coloured men in the neighbourhood. Do you understand, Inspector?"

Inspector Aylesbury took a large handkerchief from his pocket and blew his nose. Replacing the handkerchief he cleared his throat, and:

"Am I to understand," he enquired, "that the late Colonel Menendez had expected to be attacked?"

"You may understand that," replied Harley. "It explains my presence in the house."

"Oh," said the Inspector, "I see. It looks as though he might have done better if he had applied to me."

Paul Harley glanced across in my direction and smiled grimly.

"As I had predicted, Knox," he murmured, "my Waterloo."

"What's that you say about Waterloo, Mr. Harley?" demanded the Inspector.

"Nothing germane to the case," replied Harley. "It was a reference to a battle, not to a railway station."

Inspector Aylesbury stared at him dully.

"You quite understand that you are giving evidence?" he said.

"It were impossible not to appreciate the fact."

"Very well, then. The late Colonel Menendez thought he was in danger from negroes. Why did he think that?"

"He was a retired West Indian planter," replied Harley, patiently, "and he was under the impression that he had offended a powerful native society, and that for many years their vengeance had pursued him. Attempts to assassinate him had already taken place in Cuba and in the United States."

"What sort of attempts?"

"He was shot at, several times, and once, in Washington, was attacked by a man with a knife. He maintained in my presence and in the presence of my friend, Mr. Knox, here, that these various attempts were due to members of a sect or religion known as Voodoo."

"Voodoo?"

"Voodoo, Inspector, also known as Obeah, a cult which has spread from the West Coast of Africa throughout the West Indies and to parts of the United States. The bat wing is said to be a sign used by these people."

Inspector Aylesbury scratched his chin.

"Now let me get this thing clear," said he: "Colonel Menendez believed that people called Voodoos wanted to kill him? Before we go any farther, why?"

"Twenty years ago in the West Indies he had shot an important member of this sect."

"Twenty years ago?"

"According to a statement which he made to me, yes."

"I see. Then for twenty years these Voodoos have been trying to kill him? Then he comes and settles here in Surrey and someone nails a bat wing to his door? Did you see this bat wing?"

"I did. I have it upstairs in my bag if you would care to examine it."

"Oh," said the Inspector, "I see. And thinking he had been followed to England he came to you to see if you could save him?"

Paul Harley nodded grimly.

"Why did he go to you in preference to the local police, the proper authorities?" demanded the Inspector.

"He was advised to do so by the Spanish ambassador, or so he informed me."

"Is that so? Well, I suppose it had to be. Coming from foreign parts. I expect he didn't know what our police are for." He cleared his throat. "Very well, I understand now what you were doing here, Mr. Harley. The next thing is, what were you doing tonight, as I see that both you and Mr. Knox are still in evening dress?"

"We were keeping watch," I replied.

Inspector Aylesbury turned to me ponderously, raising a fat hand. "One moment, Mr. Knox, one moment," he protested. "The evidence of one witness at a time."

"We were keeping watch," said Harley, deliberately echoing my words.

"Why?"

"More or less we were here for that purpose. You see, on the night of the full moon, according to Colonel Menendez, Obeah people become particularly active."

"Why on the night of the full moon?"

"This I cannot tell you."

"Oh, I see. You were keeping watch. Where were you keeping watch?"

"In my room."

"In which part of the house is your room?"

"Northeast. It overlooks the Tudor garden."

"At what time did you retire?"

"About half-past ten."

"Did you leave the Colonel well?"

"No, he had been unwell all day. He had remained in his room."

"Had he asked you to sit up?"

"Not at all; our vigil was quite voluntary."

"Very well, then, you were in your room when the shot was fired?"

"On the contrary, I was on the path in front of the house."

"Oh, I see. The front door was open, then?"

"Not at all. Pedro had locked up for the night."

"And locked you out?"

"No; I descended from my window by means of a ladder which I had brought with me for the purpose."

"With a ladder? That's rather extraordinary, Mr Harley."

"It is extraordinary. I have strange habits."

Inspector Aylesbury cleared his throat again and looked frowningly across at my friend.

"What part of the grounds were you in when the shot was fired?" he demanded.

"Halfway along the north side."

"What were you doing?"

"I was running."

"Running?"

"You see, Inspector, I regarded it as my duty to patrol the grounds of the house at nightfall, since, for all I knew to the contrary, some of the servants might be responsible for the attempts of which the Colonel complained. I had descended from the window of my room, had passed entirely around the house east to west, and had returned to my starting-point when Mr. Knox, who was looking out of the window, observed Colonel Menendez entering the Tudor garden."

"Oh. Colonel Menendez was not visible to you?"

"Not from my position below, but being informed by my friend, who was hurriedly descending the ladder, that the Colonel had entered the garden, I set off running to intercept him."

"Why?"

"He had acquired a habit of walking in his sleep, and I presumed that he was doing so on this occasion."

"Oh, I see. So being told by the gentleman at the window that Colonel Menendez was in the garden, you started to run toward him. While you were running you heard a shot?"

"I did."

"Where do you think it came from?"

"Nothing is more difficult to judge, Inspector, especially when one is near to a large building surrounded by trees."

"Nevertheless," said the Inspector, again raising his finger and frowning at Harley, "you cannot tell me that you formed no impression on the point. For instance, was it near, or a long way off?"

"It was fairly near."

"Ten yards, twenty yards, a hundred yards, a mile?"

"Within a hundred yards. I cannot be more exact."

"Within a hundred yards, and you have no idea from which direction the shot was fired?"

"From the sound I could form none."

"Oh, I see. And what did you do?"

"I ran on and down into the sunken garden. I saw Colonel Menendez lying upon his face near the sun-dial. He was moving convulsively. Running up to him, I that he had been shot through the head."

"What steps did you take?"

"My friend, Mr. Knox, had joined me, and I sent him for assistance."

"But what steps did you take to apprehend the murderer?"

Paul Harley looked at him quietly.

"What steps should you have taken?" he asked.

Inspector Aylesbury cleared his throat again, and:

"I don't think I should have let my man slip through my fingers like that," he replied. "Why! by now he may be out of the county."

"Your theory is quite feasible," said Harley, tonelessly.

"You were actually on the spot when the shot was fired, you admit that it was fired within a hundred yards, yet you did nothing to apprehend the murderer."

"No," replied Harley, "I was ridiculously inactive. You see, I am a mere amateur, Inspector. For my future guidance I should be glad to know what the correct procedure would have been."

Inspector Aylesbury blew his nose.

"I know my job," he said. "If I had been called in there might have been a different tale to tell. But he was a foreigner, and he paid for his ignorance, poor fellow."

Paul Harley took out his pipe and began to load it in a deliberate and lazy manner.

Inspector Aylesbury turned his prominent eyes in my direction.