- 03 Jun - 09 Jun, 2023
"It's very apt to set him off with the same energy in a much worse direction," answered Fisher; "a pretty endless sort of direction, a bottomless pit as deep as the bottomless well."
Fisher did not see his friend until a fortnight later, when he found himself in the garden at the back of the clubhouse on the opposite side from the links, a garden heavily coloured and scented with sweet semitropical plants in the glow of a desert sunset. Two other men were with him, the third being the now celebrated second in command, familiar to everybody as Tom Travers, a lean, dark man, who looked older than his years, with a furrow in his brow and something morose about the very shape of his black mustache. They had just been served with black coffee by the Arab now officiating as the temporary servant of the club, though he was a figure already familiar, and even famous, as the old servant of the general.
He went by the name of Said, and was notable among other Semites for that unnatural length of his yellow face and height of his narrow forehead which is sometimes seen among them, and gave an irrational impression of something sinister, in spite of his agreeable smile.
"I never feel as if I could quite trust that fellow," said Grayne, when the man had gone away.
"It's very unjust, I take it, for he was certainly devoted to Hastings, and saved his life, they say. But Arabs are often like that, loyal to one man. I can't help feeling he might cut anybody else's throat, and even do it treacherously."
"Well," said Travers, with a rather sour smile, "so long as he leaves Hastings alone the world won't mind much."
There was a rather embarrassing silence, full of memories of the great battle, and then Horne Fisher said, quietly:
"The newspapers aren't the world, Tom. Don't you worry about them. Everybody in your world knows the truth well enough."
"I think we'd better not talk about the general just now," remarked Grayne, "for he's just coming out of the club."
"He's not coming here," said Fisher.
"He's only seeing his wife to the car."
As he spoke, indeed, the lady came out on the steps of the club, followed by her husband, who then went swiftly in front of her to open the garden gate. As he did so she turned back and spoke for a moment to a solitary man still sitting in a cane chair in the shadow of the doorway, the only man left in the deserted club save for the three that lingered in the garden. Fisher peered for a moment into the shadow, and saw that it was Captain Boyle.
The next moment, rather to their surprise, the general reappeared and, remounting the steps, spoke a word or two to Boyle in his turn. Then he signalled to Said, who hurried up with two cups of coffee, and the two men re-entered the club, each carrying his cup in his hand.
The next moment a gleam of white light in the growing darkness showed that the electric lamps had been turned on in the library beyond.
"Coffee and scientific researches," said Travers, grimly.
"All the luxuries of learning and of theoretical research. Well, I must be going, for I have my work to do as well."
And he got up rather stiffly, saluted his companions, and strode away into the dusk.
"I only hope Boyle is sticking to scientific researches," said Horne Fisher.
"I'm not very comfortable about him myself. But let's talk about something else."
They talked about something else longer than they probably imagined, until the tropical night had come and a splendid moon painted the whole scene with silver; but before it was bright enough to see by Fisher had already noted that the lights in the library had been abruptly extinguished. He waited for the two men to come out by the garden entrance, but nobody came.
"They must have gone for a stroll on the links," he said.
"Very possibly," replied Grayne.
"It's going to be a beautiful night."
A moment or two after he had spoken they heard a voice hailing them out of the shadow of the clubhouse, and were astonished to perceive Travers hurrying toward them, calling out as he came,
"I shall want your help, you fellows," he cried.
"There's something pretty bad out on the links."
They found themselves plunging through the club smoking room and the library beyond, in complete darkness, mental as well as material. But Horne Fisher, in spite of his affectation of indifference, was a person of a curious and almost transcendental sensibility to atmospheres, and he already felt the presence of something more than an accident. He collided with a piece of furniture in the library, and almost shuddered with the shock, for the thing moved as he could never have fancied a piece of furniture moving. It seemed to move like a living thing, yielding and yet striking back.
The next moment Grayne had turned on the lights, and he saw he had only stumbled against one of the revolving bookstands that had swung round and struck him; but his involuntary recoil had revealed to him his own subconscious sense of something mysterious and monstrous. There were several of these revolving bookcases standing here and there about the library; on one of them stood the two cups of coffee, and on another a large open book.
It was Budge's book on Egyptian hieroglyphics, with coloured plates of strange birds and flowers, and even as he rushed past, he was conscious of something odd about the fact that this, and not any work of military science, should be open in that place at that moment. He was even conscious of the gap in the well-lined bookshelf from which it had been taken, and it seemed almost to gape at him in an ugly fashion, like a gap in the teeth of some sinister face.
A run brought them in a few minutes to the other side of the ground in front of the bottomless well, and a few yards from it, in moonlight almost as broad as daylight, they saw what they had come to see. The great Lord Hastings lay prone on his face, in a posture in which there was a touch of something strange and stiff, with one elbow erect above his body, the arm being doubled, and his big, bony hand clutching the rank and ragged grass. A few feet away was Boyle, almost as motionless, but supported on his hands and knees, and staring at the body. It might have been no more than shock and accident; but there was something ungainly and unnatural about the quadrupedal posture and the gaping face.
It was as if his reason had fled from him. Behind, there was nothing but the clear blue southern sky, and the beginning of the desert, except for the two great broken stones in front of the well. And it was in such a light and atmosphere that men could fancy they traced in them enormous and evil faces, looking down. Horne Fisher stooped and touched the strong hand that was still clutching the grass, and it was as cold as a stone. He knelt by the body and was busy for a moment applying other tests; then he rose again, and said, with a sort of confident despair,
"Lord Hastings is dead."
There was a stony silence, and then Travers remarked, gruffly:
"This is your department, Grayne; I will leave you to question Captain Boyle.
I can make no sense of what he says."
Boyle had pulled himself together and risen to his feet, but his face still wore an awful expression, making it like a new mask or the face of
"I was looking at the well,"
he said, "and when I turned he had fallen down."
Grayne's face was very dark.
"As you say, this is my affair,"
"I must first ask you to help me carry him to the library and let me examine things thoroughly."
When they had deposited the body in the library, Grayne turned to Fisher and said, in a voice that had recovered its fullness and confidence,
"I am going to lock myself in and make a thorough examination first. I look to you to keep in touch with the others and make a preliminary examination of Boyle. I will talk to him later. And just telephone to headquarters for a policeman, and let him come here at once and stand by till I want him."
Without more words the great criminal investigator went into the lighted library, shutting the door behind him, and Fisher, without replying, turned and began to talk quietly to Travers.
"It is curious," he said, "that the thing should happen just in front of that place."
"It would certainly be very curious," replied Travers, "if the place played any part in it."
"I think," replied Fisher,
"that the part it didn't play is more curious still."
And with these apparently meaningless words he turned to the shaken Boyle and, taking his arm, began to walk him up and down in the moonlight, talking in low tones. Dawn had begun to break abrupt and white when Cuthbert Grayne turned out the lights in the library and came out on to the links. Fisher was lounging about alone, in his listless fashion; but the police messenger for whom he had sent was standing at attention in the background.
"I sent Boyle off with Travers," observed Fisher, carelessly; "he'll look after him, and he'd better have some sleep, anyhow."
"Did you get anything out of him?" asked Grayne.
"Did he tell you what he and Hastings were doing?"
"Yes," answered Fisher, "he gave me a pretty clear account, after all. He said that after Lady Hastings went off in the car the general asked him to take coffee with him in the library and look up a point about local antiquities. He himself was beginning to look for Budge's book in one of the revolving bookstands when the general found it in one of the bookshelves on the wall. After looking at some of the plates they went out, it would seem, rather abruptly, on to the links, and walked toward the old well; and while Boyle was looking into it he heard a thud behind him, and turned round to find the general lying as we found him. He himself dropped on his knees to examine the body, and then was paralysed with a sort of terror and could not come nearer to it or touch it. But I think very little of that; people caught in a real shock of surprise are sometimes found in the queerest postures."
Grayne wore a grim smile of attention, and said, after a short silence:
"Well, he hasn't told you many lies. It's really a creditably clear and consistent account of what happened,
with everything of importance left out."
"Have you discovered anything in there?" asked Fisher.
"I have discovered everything," answered Grayne. Fisher maintained a somewhat gloomy silence, as the other resumed his explanation in quiet and assured tones.
"You were quite right, Fisher, when you said that young fellow was in danger of going down dark ways toward the pit. Whether or not, as you fancied, the jolt you gave to his view of the general had anything to do with it, he has not been treating the general well for some time. It's an unpleasant business, and I don't want to dwell on it; but it's pretty plain that his wife was not treating him well, either. I don't know how far it went, but it went as far as concealment, anyhow; for when Lady Hastings spoke to Boyle it was to tell him she had hidden a note in the Budge book in the library. The general overheard, or came somehow to know, and he went straight to the book and found it. He confronted Boyle with it, and they had a scene, of course. And Boyle was confronted with something else; he was confronted with an awful alternative, in which the life of one old man meant ruin and his death meant triumph and even happiness."
to be continued...