Chapter XXVI. In Madame's Room
 

Madame de Staemer's apartment was a large and elegant one. From the window-drapings, which were of some light, figured satiny material, to the bed-cover, the lampshades and the carpet, it was French. Faintly perfumed, and decorated with many bowls of roses, it reflected, in its ornaments, its pictures, its slender-legged furniture, the personality of the occupant. In a large, high bed, reclining amidst a number of silken pillows, lay Madame de Staemer. The theme of the room was violet and silver, and to this everything conformed. The toilet service was of dull silver and violet enamel. The mirrors and some of the pictures had dull silver frames, There was nothing tawdry or glittering. The bed itself, which I thought resembled a bed of state, was of the same dull silver, with a coverlet of delicate violet I hue. But Madame's decollete robe was trimmed with white fur, so that her hair, dressed high upon her head, seemed to be of silver, too.

Reclining there upon her pillows, she looked like some grande dame of that France which was swept away by the Revolution. Immediately above the dressing-table I observed a large portrait of Colonel Menendez dressed as I had imagined he should be dressed when I had first set eyes on him, in tropical riding kit, and holding a broad-brimmed hat in his hand. A strikingly handsome, arrogant figure he made, uncannily like the Velasquez in the library.

At the face of Madame de Staemer I looked long and searchingly. She had not neglected the art of the toilette. Blinds tempered the sunlight which flooded her room; but that, failing the service of rouge, Madame had been pale this morning, I perceived immediately. In some subtle way the night had changed her. Something was gone out of her face, and something come into it. I thought, and lived to remember the thought, that it was thus Marie Antoinette might have looked when they told her how the drums had rolled in the Place de la Revolution on that morning of the twenty-first of January.

"Oh, M. Knox," she said, sadly, "you are there, I see. Come and sit here beside me, my friend. Val, dear, remain. Is this Inspector Aylesbury who wishes to speak to me?"

The Inspector, who had entered with all the confidence in the world, seemed to lose some of it in the presence of this grand lady, who was so little impressed by the dignity of his office.

She waved one slender hand in the direction of a violet brocaded chair.

"Sit down, Monsieur l'inspecteur," she commanded, for it was rather a command than an invitation.

Inspector Aylesbury cleared his throat and sat down.

"Ah, M. Knox!" exclaimed Madame, turning to me with one of her rapid movements, "is your friend afraid to face me, then? Does he think that he has failed? Does he think that I condemn him?"

"He knows that he has failed, Madame de Staemer," I replied, "but his absence is due to the fact that at this hour he is hot upon the trail of the assassin."

"What!" she exclaimed, "what!"--and bending forward touched my arm. "Tell me again! Tell me again!"

"He is following a clue, Madame de Staemer, which he hopes will lead to the truth."

"Ah! if I could believe it would lead to the truth," she said. "If I dared to believe this."

"Why should it not?"

She shook her head, smiling with such a resigned sadness that I averted my gaze and glanced across at Val Beverley who was seated on the opposite side of the bed.

"If you knew--if you knew."

I looked again into the tragic face, and realized that this was an older woman than the brilliant hostess I had known. She sighed, shrugged, and:

"Tell me, M. Knox," she continued, "it was swift and merciful, eh?"

"Instantaneous," I replied, in a low voice.

"A good shot?" she asked, strangely.

"A wonderful shot," I answered, thinking that she imposed unnecessary torture upon herself.

"They say he must be taken away, M. Knox, but I reply: not until I have seen him."

"Madame," began Val Beverley, gently.

"Ah, my dear!" Madame de Staemer, without looking at the speaker, extended one hand in her direction, the fingers characteristically curled. "You do not know me. Perhaps it is a good job. You are a man, Mr. Knox, and men, especially men who write, know more of women than they know of themselves, is it not so? You will understand that I must see him again?"

"Madame de Staemer," I said, "your courage is almost terrible."

She shrugged her shoulders.

"I am not proud to be brave, my friend. The animals are brave, but many cowards are proud. Listen again. He suffered no pain, you think?"

"None, Madame de Staemer."

"So Dr. Rolleston assures me. He died in his sleep? You do not think he was awake, eh?"

"Most certainly he was not awake."

"It is the best way to die," she said, simply. "Yet he, who was brave and had faced death many times, would have counted it"----she snapped her white fingers, glancing across the room to where Inspector Aylesbury, very subdued, sat upon the brocaded chair twirling his cap between his hands. "And now, Inspector Aylesbury," she asked, "what is it you wish me to tell you?"

"Well, Madame," began the Inspector, and stood up, evidently in an endeavour to recover his dignity, but:

"Sit down, Mr. Inspector! I beg of you be seated," cried Madame. "I will not be questioned by one who stands. And if you were to walk about I should shriek."

He resumed his seat, clearing his throat nervously.

"Very well, Madame," he continued, "I have come to you particularly for information respecting a certain Mr. Camber."

"Oh, yes," said Madame.

Her vibrant voice was very low.

"You know him, no doubt?"

"I have never met him."

"What?" exclaimed the Inspector.

Madame shrugged and glanced at me eloquently.

"Well," he continued, "this gets more and more funny. I am told by Pedro, the butler, that Colonel Menendez looked upon Mr. Camber as an enemy, and Miss Beverley, here, admitted that it was true. Yet although he was an enemy, nobody ever seems to have spoken to him, and he swears that he had never spoken to Colonel Menendez."

"Yes?" said Madame, listlessly, "is that so?"

"It is so, Madame, and now you tell me that you have never met him."

"I did tell you so, yes."

"His wife, then?"

"I never met his wife," said Madame, rapidly.

"But it is a fact that Colonel Menendez regarded him as an enemy?"

"It is a fact-yes."

"Ah, now we are coming to it. What was the cause of this?"

"I cannot tell you."

"Do you mean that you don't know?"

"I mean that I cannot tell you."

"Oh," said the Inspector, blankly, "I see. That's not helping me very much, is it?"

"No, it is no help," said Madame, twirling a ring upon her finger.

The Inspector cleared his throat again, then:

"There had been other attempts, I believe, at assassination?" he asked.

Madame nodded.

"Several."

"Did you witness any of these?"

"None of them."

"But you know that they took place?"

"Juan--Colonel Menendez--had told me so."

"And he suspected that there was someone lurking about this house?"

"Yes."

"Also, someone broke in?"

"There were doors unfastened, and a great disturbance, so I suppose someone must have done so."

I wondered if he would refer to the bat wing nailed to the door, but he had evidently decided that this clue was without importance, nor did he once refer to the aspect of the case which concerned Voodoo. He possessed a sort of mulish obstinacy, and was evidently determined to use no scrap of information which he had obtained from Paul Harley.

"Now, Madame," said he, "you heard the shot fired last night?"

"I did."

"It woke you up?"

"I was already awake."

"Oh, I see: you were awake?"

"I was awake."

"Where did you think the sound came from?"

"From back yonder, beyond the east wing."

"Beyond the east wing?" muttered Inspector Aylesbury. "Now, let me see." He turned ponderously in his chair, gazing out of the windows. "We look out on the south here? You say the sound of the shot came from the east?"

"So it seemed to me."

"Oh." This piece of information seemed badly to puzzle him. "And what then?"

"I was so startled that I ran to the door before I remembered that I could not walk."

She glanced aside at me with a tired smile, and laid her hand upon my arm in an oddly caressing way, as if to say, "He is so stupid; I should not have expressed myself in that way."

Truly enough the Inspector misunderstood, for:

"I don't follow what you mean, Madame," he declared. "You say you forgot that you could not walk?"

"No, no, I expressed myself wrongly," Madame replied in a weary voice. "The fright, the terror, gave me strength to stagger to the door, and there I fell and swooned."

"Oh, I see. You speak of fright and terror. Were these caused by the sound of the shot?"

"For some reason my cousin believed himself to be in peril," explained Madame. "He went in dread of assassination, you understand? Very well, he caused me to feel this dread, also. When I heard the shot, something told me, something told me that--" she paused, and suddenly placing her hands before her face, added in a whisper--"that it had come."

Val Beverley was watching Madame de Staemer anxiously, and the fact that she was unfit to undergo further examination was so obvious that any other than an Inspector Aylesbury would have withdrawn. The latter, however, seemed now to be glued to his chair, and:

"Oh, I see," he said; "and now there's another point: Have you any idea what took Colonel Menendez out into the grounds last night?"

Madame de Staemer lowered her hands and gazed across at the speaker.

"What is that, Monsieur l'inspecteur?"

"Well, you don't think he might have gone out to talk to someone?"

"To someone? To what one?" demanded Madame, scornfully.

"Well, it isn't natural for a man to go walking about the garden at midnight, when he's unwell, is it? Not alone. But if there was a lady in the case he might go."

"A lady?" said Madame, softly. "Yes--continue."

"Well," resumed the Inspector, deceived by the soft voice, "the young lady sitting beside you was still wearing her evening dress when I arrived here last night. I found that out, although she didn't give me a chance to see her."

His words had an effect more dramatic than he could have foreseen.

Madame de Staemer threw her arm around Val Beverley, and hugged her so closely to her side that the girl's curly brown head was pressed against Madame's shoulder. Thus holding her, she sat rigidly upright, her strange, still eyes glaring across the room at Inspector Aylesbury. Her whole pose was instinct with challenge, with defiance, and in that moment I identified the illusive memory which the eyes of Madame so often had conjured up in my mind.

Once, years before, I had seen a wounded tigress standing over her cubs, a beautiful, fearless creature, blazing defiance with dying eyes upon those who had destroyed her, the mother-instinct supreme to the last; for as she fell to rise no more she had thrown her paw around the cowering cubs. It was not in shape, nor in colour, but in expression and in their stillness, that the eyes of Madame de Staemer resembled the eyes of the tigress.

"Oh, Madame, Madame," moaned the girl, "how dare he!"

"Ah!" Madame de Staemer raised her head yet higher, a royal gesture, that unmoving stare set upon the face of the discomfited Inspector Aylesbury. "Leave my apartment." Her left hand shot out dramatically in the direction of the door, but even yet the fingers remained curled. "Stupid, gross fool!"

Inspector Aylesbury stood up, his face very flushed.

"I am only doing my duty, Madame," he said.

"Go, go!" commanded Madame, "I insist that you go!"

Convulsively she held Val Beverley to her side, and although I could not see the girl's face, I knew that she was weeping.

Those implacable flaming eyes followed with their stare the figure of the Inspector right to the doorway, for he essayed no further speech, but retired.

I, also, rose, and:

"Madame de Staemer," I said, speaking, I fear, very unnaturally, "I love your spirit."

She threw back her head, smiling up at me. I shall never forget that look, nor shall I attempt to portray all which it conveyed--for I know I should fail.

"My friend!" she said, and extended her hand to be kissed.