Chapter XXII. Colin Camber's Secret
 

"I brought this bat wing from Haiti," he explained, replacing it in the tray. "It was found beneath the pillow of a negro missionary who had died mysteriously during the night."

He returned the tray to the drawer, closed the latter, and, standing erect, raised clenched hands above his head.

"With no thought of blasphemy," he said, "but with reverence, I thank God from the bottom of my heart that Juan Menendez is dead."

He reseated himself, whilst Harley regarded him silently, then:

"'The evil that men do lives after them,'" he murmured. He rested his chin upon his hand. "A bat wing," he continued, musingly, "a bat wing was nailed to Menendez's door." He stared across at Harley. "Am I to believe, sir, that this was the clue which led you to the Guest House?"

Paul Harley nodded.

"It was."

"I understand. I must therefore take no more excursions into my special subject, but must endeavour to regard the matter from the point of view of the enquiry. Am I to assume that Menendez was acquainted with the significance of this token?"

"He had seen it employed in the West Indies."

"Ah, the black-hearted devil! But I fear I am involving myself more deeply in suspicion. Perhaps, Mr. Harley, the ends of justice would be better served if you were to question me, and I to confine myself to answering you."

"Very well," Harley agreed: "when and where did you meet the late Colonel Menendez?"

"I never met him in my life."

"Do you mean that you had never spoken to him?"

"Never."

"Hm. Tell me, Mr. Camber, where were you at twelve o'clock last night?"

"Here, writing."

"And where was Ah Tsong?"

"Ah Tsong?" Colin Camber stared uncomprehendingly. "Ah Tsong was in bed."

"Oh. Did anything disturb you?"

"Yes, the sound of a rifle shot."

"You knew it for a rifle shot?"

"It was unmistakable."

"What did you do?"

"I was in the midst of a most important passage, and I should probably have taken no steps in the matter but that Ah Tsong knocked upon the study door, to inform me that my wife had been awakened by the sound of the shot. She is somewhat nervous and had rung for Ah Tsong, asking him to see if all were well with me."

"Do I understand that she imagined the sound to have come from this room?"

"When we are newly awakened from sleep, Mr. Harley, we retain only an imperfect impression of that which awakened us."

"True," replied Paul Harley; "and did Ah Tsong return to his room?"

"Not immediately. Permit me to say, Mr. Harley, that the nature of your questions surprises me. At the moment I fail to see their bearing upon the main issue. He returned and reported to my wife that I was writing, and she then requested him to bring her a glass of milk. Accordingly, he came down again, and going out into the kitchen, executed this order."

"Ah. He would have to light a candle for that purpose, I suppose?"

"A candle, or a lamp," replied Colin Camber, staring at Paul Harley. Then, his expression altering: "Of course!" he cried. "You saw the light from Cray's Folly? I understand at last."

We were silent for a while, until:

"How long a time elapsed between the firing of the shot and Ah Tsong's knocking at the study door?" asked Harley.

"I could not answer definitely. I was absorbed in my work. But probably only a minute or two."

"Was the sound a loud one?"

"Fairly loud. And very startling, of course, in the silence of the night."

"The shot, then, was fired from somewhere quite near the house?"

"I presume so."

"But you thought no more about the matter?"

"Frankly, I had forgotten it. You see, the neighbourhood is rich with game; it might have been a poacher."

"Quite," murmured Harley, but his face was very stern. "I wonder if you fully realize the danger of your position, Mr. Camber?"

"Believe me," was the reply, "I can anticipate almost every question which I shall be called upon to answer."

Paul Harley stared at him in a way which told me that he was comparing his features line for line with the etching of Edgar Allen Poe which hung in his office in Chancery Lane, and:

"I do believe you," he replied, "and I am wondering if you are in a position to clear yourself?"

"On the contrary," Camber assured him, "I am only waiting to hear that Juan Menendez was shot in the grounds of Cray's Folly, and not within the house, to propose to you that unless the real assassin be discovered, I shall quite possibly pay the penalty of his crime."

"He was shot in the Tudor garden," replied Harley, "within sight of your windows."

"Ah!" Colin Camber resumed the task of stuffing shag into his corn-cob. "Then if it would interest you, Mr. Harley, I will briefly outline the case against myself. I had never troubled to disguise the fact that I hated Menendez. Many witnesses can be called to testify to this. He was in Cuba when I was in Cuba, and evidence is doubtless obtainable to show that we stayed at the same hotels in various cities of the United States prior to my coming to England and leasing the Guest House. Finally, he became my neighbour in Surrey."

He carefully lighted his pipe, whilst Harley and I watched him silently, then:

"Menendez had the bat wing nailed to the door of his house," he continued. "He believed himself to be in danger, and associated this sign with the source of his danger. Excepting himself and possibly certain other members of his household it is improbable that any one else in Surrey understands the significance of the token save myself. The unholy rites of Voodoo are a closed book to the Western nations. I have opened that book, Mr. Harley. The powers of the Obeah man, and especially of the arch-magician known and dreaded by every negro as 'Bat Wing,' are familiar to me. Since I was alone at the time that the shot was fired, and for some few minutes afterward, and since the Tudor garden of Cray's Folly is within easy range of the Guest House, to fail to place me under arrest would be an act of sheer stupidity."

He spoke the words with a sort of triumph. Like the fakir, he possessed the art of spiritual detachment, which is an attribute of genius. From an intellectual eminence he was surveying his own peril. Colin Camber in the flesh had ceased to exist; he was merely a pawn in a fascinating game.

Paul Harley glanced at his watch.

"Mr. Camber," he said, "I have just sustained the most crushing defeat of my career. The man who had summoned me to his aid was killed almost before my eyes. One thing I must do or accept professional oblivion."

"I understand." Colin Camber nodded. "Apprehend his murderer?"

"Ultimately, yes. But, firstly, I must see that to the assassination of Colonel Menendez a judicial murder is not added."

"You mean--?" asked Camber, eagerly.

"I mean that if you killed Menendez, you are a madman, and I have formed the opinion during our brief conversation that you are brilliantly sane."

Colin Camber rose and bowed in that old-world fashion which was his.

"I am obliged to you, Mr. Harley," he replied. "But has Mr. Knox informed you of my bibulous habits?"

Paul Harley nodded.

"They will, of course, be ascribed," continued Camber, "and there are many suitable analogies, to deliberate contemplation of a murderous deed. I would remind you that chronic alcoholism is a recognized form, of insanity."

His mood changed again, and sighing wearily, he lay back in the chair. Over his pale face crept an expression which I knew, instinctively, to mean that he was thinking of his wife.

"Mr. Harley," he said, speaking in a very low tone which scorned to accentuate the beauty of his voice, "I have suffered much in the quest of truth. Suffering is the gate beyond which we find compassion. Perhaps you have thought my foregoing remarks frivolous, in view of the fact that last night a soul was sent to its reckoning almost at my doors. I revere the truth, however, above all lesser laws and above all expediency. I do not, and I cannot, regret the end of the man Menendez. But for three reasons I should regret to pay the penalty of a crime which I did not commit, These reasons are--one," he ticked them off upon his delicate fingers--"It would be bitter to know that Devil Menendez even in death had injured me; two--My work in the world, which is unfinished; and, three--My wife."

I watched and listened, almost awed by the strangeness of the man who sat before me. His three reasons were illuminating. A casual observer might have regarded Colin Camber as a monument of selfishness. But it was evident to me, and I knew it must be evident to Paul Harley, that his egotism was quite selfless. To a natural human resentment and a pathetic love for his wife he had added, as an equal clause, the claim of the world upon his genius.

"I have heard you," said Paul Harley, quietly, "and you have led me to the most important point of all."

"What point is that, Mr. Harley?"

"You have referred to your recent lapse from abstemiousness. Excuse me if I discuss personal matters. This you ascribed to domestic troubles, or so Mr. Knox has informed me. You have also referred to your undisguised hatred of the late Colonel Juan Menendez. I am going to ask you, Mr. Camber, to tell me quite frankly what was the nature of those domestic troubles, and what had caused this hatred which survives even the death of its object?"

Colin Camber stood up, angular, untidy, but a figure of great dignity.

"Mr. Harley," he replied, "I cannot answer your questions."

Paul Harley inclined his head gravely.

"May I suggest," he said, "that you will be called upon to do so under circumstances which will brook no denial."

Colin Camber watched him unflinchingly.

"'The fate of every man is hung around his neck,'" he replied.

"Yet, in this secret history which you refuse to divulge, and which therefore must count against you, the truth may lie which exculpates you."

"It may be so. But my determination remains unaltered."

"Very well," answered Paul Harley, quietly, but I could see that he was exercising a tremendous restraint upon himself. "I respect your decision, but you have given me a giant's task, and for this I cannot thank you, Mr. Camber."

I heard a car pulled up in the road outside the Guest House. Colin Camber clenched his hands and sat down again in the carved chair.

"The opportunity has passed," said Harley. "The police are here."