Part 4 out of 4
though he still looked a little like a baby. But it was one of
those old and venerable babies, and the baby had soft gray hair.
Everything about him was soft, to his speech and his way of walking;
but over and above that his chief function seemed to be sleep.
People left alone with him got so used to his eyes being
closed that they were almost startled when they realized in
the stillness that the eyes were wide open, and even watching.
One thing at least would always make the old gentleman open his eyes.
The one thing he really cared for in this world was his hobby
of armored weapons, especially Eastern weapons, and he would
talk for hours about Damascus blades and Arab swordmanship.
Lord James Herries, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was a short,
dark, sturdy man with a very sallow face and a very sullen manner,
which contrasted with the gorgeous flower in his buttonhole
and his festive trick of being always slightly overdressed.
It was something of a euphemism to call him a well-known man about town.
There was perhaps more mystery in the question of how a man who
lived for pleasure seemed to get so little pleasure out of it.
Sir David Archer, the Foreign Secretary, was the only one of them who was
a self-made man, and the only one of them who looked like an aristocrat.
He was tall and thin and very handsome, with a grizzled beard;
his gray hair was very curly, and even rose in front in two
rebellious ringlets that seemed to the fanciful to tremble like
the antennae of some giant insect, or to stir sympathetically
with the restless tufted eyebrows over his rather haggard eyes.
For the Foreign Secretary made no secret of his somewhat
nervous condition, whatever might be the cause of it.
"Do you know that mood when one could scream because a mat is crooked?"
he said to March, as they walked up and down in the back garden below
the line of dingy statues. "Women get into it when they've worked
too hard; and I've been working pretty hard lately, of course.
It drives me mad when Herries will wear his hat a little crooked--
habit of looking like a gay dog. Sometime I swear I'll knock it off.
That statue of Britannia over there isn't quite straight;
it sticks forward a bit as if the lady were going to topple over.
The damned thing is that it doesn't topple over and be done with it.
See, it's clamped with an iron prop. Don't be surprised if I get up
in the middle of the night to hike it down."
They paced the path for a few moments in silence and then he continued.
"It's odd those little things seem specially big when there are bigger
things to worry about. We'd better go in and do some work."
Horne Fisher evidently allowed for all the neurotic possibilities
of Archer and the dissipated habits of Herries; and whatever his faith
in their present firmness, did not unduly tax their time and attention,
even in the case of the Prime Minister. He had got the consent
of the latter finally to the committing of the important documents,
with the orders to the Western armies, to the care of a less
conspicuous and more solid person--an uncle of his named Horne Hewitt,
a rather colorless country squire who had been a good soldier,
and was the military adviser of the committee. He was charged
with expediting the government pledge, along with the concerted
military plans, to the half-mutinous command in the west;
and the still more urgent task of seeing that it did not fall into
the hands of the enemy, who might appear at any moment from the east.
Over and above this military official, the only other person present
was a police official, a certain Doctor Prince, originally a police
surgeon and now a distinguished detective, sent to be a bodyguard
to the group. He was a square-faced man with big spectacles and a
grimace that expressed the intention of keeping his mouth shut.
Nobody else shared their captivity except the hotel proprietor,
a crusty Kentish man with a crab-apple face, one or two of his servants,
and another servant privately attached to Lord James Herries. He was
a young Scotchman named Campbell, who looked much more
distinguished than his bilious-looking master, having chestnut
hair and a long saturnine face with large but fine features.
He was probably the one really efficient person in the house.
After about four days of the informal council, March had come
to feel a sort of grotesque sublimity about these dubious figures,
defiant in the twilight of danger, as if they were hunchbacks
and cripples left alone to defend a town. All were working hard;
and he himself looked up from writing a page of memoranda
in a private room to see Horne Fisher standing in the doorway,
accoutered as if for travel. He fancied that Fisher looked
a little pale; and after a moment that gentleman shut the door
behind him and said, quietly:
"Well, the worst has happened. Or nearly the worst."
"The enemy has landed," cried March, and sprang erect out of his chair.
"Oh, I knew the enemy would land," said Fisher, with composure.
"Yes, he's landed; but that's not the worst that could happen.
The worst is that there's a leak of some sort, even from
this fortress of ours. It's been a bit of a shock to me,
I can tell you; though I suppose it's illogical. After all,
I was full of admiration at finding three honest men in politics.
I ought not to be full of astonishment if I find only two."
He ruminated a moment and then said, in such a fashion that March
could hardly tell if he were changing the subject or no:
"It's hard at first to believe that a fellow like Herries, who had
pickled himself in vice like vinegar, can have any scruple left.
But about that I've noticed a curious thing. Patriotism is not
the first virtue. Patriotism rots into Prussianism when you pretend
it is the first virtue. But patriotism is sometimes the last virtue.
A man will swindle or seduce who will not sell his country.
But who knows?"
"But what is to be done?" cried March, indignantly.
"My uncle has the papers safe enough," replied Fisher,
"and is sending them west to-night; but somebody is trying
to get at them from out. side, I fear with the assistance
of somebody in. side. All I can do at present is to try
to head off the man outside; and I must get away now and do it.
I shall be back in about twenty-four hours. While I'm away I want
you to keep an eye on these people and find out what you can.
Au revoir." He vanished down the stairs; and from the window
March could see him mount a motor cycle and trail away toward
the neighboring town.
On the following morning, March was sitting in the window seat of the old
inn parlor, which was oak-paneled and ordinarily rather dark; but on
that occasion it was full of the white light of a curiously clear morning--
the moon had shone brilliantly for the last two or three nights.
He was himself somewhat in shadow in the corner of the window seat;
and Lord James Herries, coming in hastily from the garden behind,
did not see him. Lord James clutched the back of a chair, as if to
steady himself, and, sitting down abruptly at the table, littered with
the last meal, poured himself out a tumbler of brandy and drank it.
He sat with his back to March, but his yellow face appeared in a round
mirror beyon and the tinge of it was like that of some horrible malady.
As March moved he started violently and faced round.
"My God!" he cried, "have you seen what's outside?"
"Outside?" repeated the other, glancing over his shoulder
at the garden.
"Oh, go and look for yourself," cried Herries in a sort of fury.
"Hewitt's murdered and his papers stolen, that's all."
He turned his back again and sat down with a thud; his square
shoulders were shaking. Harold March darted out of the doorway
into the back garden with its steep slope of statues.
The first thing he saw was Doctor Prince, the detective,
peering through his spectacles at something on the ground;
the second was the thing he was peering at. Even after the
sensational news he had heard inside, the sight was something
of a sensation.
The monstrous stone image of Britannia was lying prone and face downward
on the garden path; and there stuck out at random from underneath it,
like the legs of a smashed fly, an arm clad in a white shirt sleeve
and a leg clad in a khaki trouser, and hair of the unmistakable
sandy gray that belonged to Horne Fisher's unfortunate uncle.
There were pools of blood and the limbs were quite stiff in death.
"Couldn't this have been an accident?" said March, finding words at last.
"Look for yourself, I say," repeated the harsh voice of Herries,
who had followed him with restless movements out of the door.
"The papers are gone, I tell you. The fellow tore the coat
off the corpse and cut the papers out of the inner pocket.
There's the coat over there on the bank, with the great
slash in it."
"But wait a minute," said the detective, Prince, quietly.
"In that case there seems to be something of a mystery.
A murderer might somehow have managed to throw the statue down
on him, as he seems to have done. But I bet he couldn't easily
have lifted it up again. I've tried; and I'm sure it would
want three men at least. Yet we must suppose, on that theory,
that the murderer first knocked him down as he walked past,
using the statue as a stone club, then lifted it up again,
took him out and deprived him of his coat, then put him back
again in the posture of death and neatly replaced the statue.
I tell you it's physically impossible. And how else could
he have unclothed a man covered with that stone monument?
It's worse than the conjurer's trick, when a man shuffles a coat
off with his wrists tied."
"Could he have thrown down the statue after he'd stripped
the corpse?" asked March.
"And why?" asked Prince, sharply. "If he'd killed his
man and got his papers, he'd be away like the wind.
He wouldn't potter about in a garden excavating the pedestals
of statues. Besides--Hullo, who's that up there?"
High on the ridge above them, drawn in dark thin lines against the sky,
was a figure looking so long and lean as to be almost spidery.
The dark silhouette of the head showed two small tufts like horns;
and they could almost have sworn that the horns moved.
"Archer!" shouted Herries, with sudden passion, and called to him
with curses to come down. The figure drew back at the first cry,
with an agitated movement so abrupt as almost to be called an antic.
The next moment the man seemed to reconsider and collect himself,
and began to come down the zigzag garden path, but with
obvious reluctance, his feet falling in slower and slower rhythm.
Through March's mind were throbbing the phrases that this man himself
had used, about going mad in the middle of the night and wrecking
the stone figure. just so, he could fancy, the maniac who had done
such a thing might climb the crest of the hill, in that feverish
dancing fashion, and look down on the wreck he had made.
But the wreck he had made here was not only a wreck of stone.
When the man emerged at last on to the garden path, with the full
light on his face and figure, he was walking slowly indeed,
but easily, and with no appearance of fear.
"This is a terrible thing," he said. "I saw it from above;
I was taking a stroll along the ridge."
"Do you mean that you saw the murder?" demanded March, "or the accident?
I mean did you see the statue fall?"
"No," said Archer, "I mean I saw the statue fallen."
Prince seemed to be paying but little attention; his eye was riveted
on an object lying on the path a yard or two from the corpse.
It seemed to be a rusty iron bar bent crooked at one end.
"One thing I don't understand,' he said, "is all this blood.
The poor fellow's skull isn't smashed; most likely his neck is broken;
but blood seems to have spouted as if all his arteries were severed.
I was wondering if some other instrument . . . that iron thing,
for instance; but I don't see that even that is sharp enough.
I suppose nobody knows what it is."
"I know what it is," said Archer in his deep but somewhat shaky voice.
"I've seen it in my nightmares. It was the iron clamp or prop on
the pedestal, stuck on to keep the wretched image upright when it began
to wabble, I suppose. Anyhow, it was always stuck in the stonework there;
and I suppose it came out when the thing collapsed."
Doctor Prince nodded, but he continued to look down at the pools
of blood and the bar of iron.
"I'm certain there's something more underneath all this,"
he said at last. "Perhaps something more underneath the statue.
I have a huge sort of hunch that there is. We are four men
now and between us we can lift that great tombstone there."
They all bent their strength to the business; there was a silence save
for heavy breathing; and then, after an instant of the tottering and
staggering of eight legs, the great carven column of rock was rolled away,
and the body lying in its shirt and trousers was fully revealed.
The spectacles of Doctor Prince seemed almost to enlarge with a restrained
radiance like great eyes; for other things were revealed also.
One was that the unfortunate Hewitt had a deep gash across the jugular,
which the triumphant doctor instantly identified as having been made
with a sharp steel edge like a razor. The other was that immediately
under the bank lay littered three shining scraps of steel, each nearly
a foot long, one pointed and another fitted into a gorgeously jeweled
hilt or handle. It was evidently a sort of long Oriental knife,
long enough to be called a sword, but with a curious wavy edge;
and there was a touch or two of blood on the point.
"I should have expected more blood, hardly on the point,"
observed Doctor Prince, thoughtfully, "but this is certainly
the instrument. The slash was certainly made with a weapon shaped
like this, and probably the slashing of the pocket as well.
I suppose the brute threw in the statue, by way of giving him
a public funeral."
March did not answer; he was mesmerized by the strange stones
that glittered on the strange sword hilt; and their possible
significance was broadening upon him like a dreadful dawn.
It was a curious Asiatic weapon. He knew what name was
connected in his memory with curious Asiatic weapons.
Lord James spoke his secret thought for him, and yet it startled
him like an irrelevance.
"Where is the Prime Minister?" Herries had cried, suddenly, and somehow
like the bark of a dog at some discovery.
Doctor Prince turned on him his goggles and his grim face;
and it was grimmer than ever.
"I cannot find him anywhere," he said. "I looked for him
at once, as soon as I found the papers were gone.
That servant of yours, Campbell, made a most efficient search,
but there are no traces."
There was a long silence, at the end of which Herries uttered another cry,
but upon an entirely new note.
"Well, you needn't look for him any longer," he said, "for here
he comes, along with your friend Fisher. They look as if they'd
been for a little walking tour."
The two figures approaching up the path were indeed those of Fisher,
splashed with the mire of travel and carrying a scratch
like that of a bramble across one side of his bald forehead,
and of the great and gray-haired statesman who looked like a
baby and was interested in Eastern swords and swordmanship.
But beyond this bodily recognition, March could make neither
head nor tail of their presence or demeanor, which seemed
to give a final touch of nonsense to the whole nightmare.
The more closely he watched them, as they stood listening
to the revelations of the detective, the more puzzled he was by
their attitude--Fisher seemed grieved by the death of his uncle,
but hardly shocked at it; the older man seemed almost openly
thinking about something else, and neither had anything to suggest
about a further pursuit of the fugitive spy and murderer, in spite
of the prodigious importance of the documents he had stolen.
When the detective had gone off to busy himself with that
department of the business, to telephone and write his report,
when Herries had gone back, probably to the brandy bottle,
and the Prime Minister had blandly sauntered away toward
a comfortable armchair in another part of the garden,
Horne Fisher spoke directly to Harold March.
"My friend," he said, "I want you to come with me at once;
there is no one else I can trust so much as that. The journey
will take us most of the day, and the chief business cannot be done
till nightfall. So we can talk things over thoroughly on the way.
But I want you to be with me; for I rather think it is my hour."
March and Fisher both had motor bicycles; and the first half
of their day's journey consisted in coasting eastward amid
the unconversational noise of those uncomfortable engines.
But when they came out beyond Canterbury into the flats
of eastern Kent, Fisher stopped at a pleasant little public
house beside a sleepy stream; and they sat down to cat
and to drink and to speak almost for the first time.
It was a brilliant afternoon, birds were singing in the wood behind,
and the sun shone full on their ale bench and table;
but the face of Fisher in the strong sunlight had a gravity
never seen on it before.
"Before we go any farther," he said, "there is something
you ought to know. You and I have seen some mysterious
things and got to the bottom of them before now; and it's
only right that you should get to the bottom of this one.
But in dealing with the death of my uncle I must begin
at the other end from where our old detective yarns began.
I will give you the steps of deduction presently, if you want
to listen to them; but I did not reach the truth of this by steps
of deduction. I will first of all tell you the truth itself,
because I knew the truth from the first. The other cases I
approached from the outside, but in this case I was inside.
I myself was the very core and center of everything."
Something in the speaker's pendent eyelids and grave gray eyes
suddenly shook March to his foundations; and he cried, distractedly,
"I don't understand!" as men do when they fear that they do understand.
There was no sound for a space but the happy chatter of the birds,
and then Horne Fisher said, calmly:
"It was I who killed my uncle. If you particularly want more,
it was I who stole the state papers from him."
"Fisher!" cried his friend in a strangled voice.
"Let me tell you the whole thing before we part,"
continued the other, "and let me put it, for the sake of clearness,
as we used to put our old problems. Now there are two things
that are puzzling people about that problem, aren't there?
The first is how the murderer managed to slip off the dead man's coat,
when he was already pinned to the ground with that stone incubus.
The other, which is much smaller and less puzzling,
is the fact of the sword that cut his throat being slightly
stained at the point, instead of a good deal more stained at
the edge. Well, I can dispose of the first question easily.
Horne Hewitt took off his own coat before he was killed.
I might say he took off his coat to be killed."
"Do you call that an explanation?" exclaimed March. "The words
seem more meaningless, than the facts."
"Well, let us go on to the other facts," continued Fisher, equably.
"The reason that particular sword is not stained at the edge with Hewitt's
blood is that it was not used to kill Hewitt.
"But the doctor," protested March, "declared distinctly that the wound
was made by that particular sword."
"I beg your pardon," replied Fisher. "He did not declare that it
was made by that particular sword. He declared it was made by a sword
of that particular pattern."
"But it was quite a queer and exceptional pattern," argued March;
"surely it is far too fantastic a coincidence to imagine--"
"It was a fantastic coincidence," reflected Horne Fisher.
"It's extraordinary what coincidences do sometimes occur.
By the oddest chance in the world, by one chance in
a million, it so happened that another sword of exactly
the same shape was in the same garden at the same time.
It may be partly explained, by the fact that I brought them
both into the garden myself . . . come, my dear fellow;
surely you can see now what it means. Put those two things together;
there were two duplicate swords and he took off his coat for himself.
It may assist your speculations to recall the fact that I am
not exactly an assassin."
"A duel!" exclaimed March, recovering himself. "Of course I ought
to have thought of that. But who was the spy who stole the papers?"
"My uncle was the spy who stole the papers," replied Fisher,
"or who tried to steal the papers when I stopped him--in the only
way I could. The papers, that should have gone west to reassure
our friends and give them the plans for repelling the invasion,
would in a few hours have been in the hands of the invader.
What could I do? To have denounced one of our friends at this moment
would have been to play into the hands of your friend Attwood,
and all the party of panic and slavery. Besides, it may be that a
man over forty has a subconscious desire to die as he has lived,
and that I wanted, in a sense, to carry my secrets to the grave.
Perhaps a hobby hardens with age; and my hobby has been silence.
Perhaps I feel that I have killed my mother's brother, but I
have saved my mother's name. Anyhow, I chose a time when I knew
you were all asleep, and he was walking alone in the garden.
I saw all the stone statues standing in the moonlight;
and I myself was like one of those stone statues walking.
In a voice that was not my own, I told him of his treason and
demanded the papers; and when he refused, I forced him to take
one of the two swords. The swords were among some specimens sent
down here for the Prime Minister's inspection; he is a collector,
you know; they were the only equal weapons I could find.
To cut an ugly tale short, we fought there on the path in front
of the Britannia statue; he was a man of great strength, but I
had somewhat the advantage in skill. His sword grazed my forehead
almost at the moment when mine sank into the joint in his neck.
He fell against the statue, like Caesar against Pompey's,
hanging on to the iron rail; his sword was already broken.
When I saw the blood from that deadly wound, everything else
went from me; I dropped my sword and ran as if to lift him up.
As I bent toward him something happened too quick for me to follow.
I do not know whether the iron bar was rotted with rust and came
away in his hand, or whether he rent it out of the rock with his
apelike strength; but the thing was in his hand, and with his dying
energies he swung it over my head, as I knelt there unarmed beside him.
I looked up wildly to avoid the blow, and saw above us the great
bulk of Britannia leaning outward like the figurehead of a ship.
The next instant I saw it was leaning an inch or two more than usual,
and all the skies with their outstanding stars seemed to be leaning
with it. For the third second it was as if the skies fell;
and in the fourth I was standing in the quiet garden, looking down on
that flat ruin of stone and bone at which you were looking to-day.
He had plucked out the last prop that held up the British goddess,
and she had fallen and crushed the traitor in her fall.
I turned and darted for the coat which I knew to contain the package,
ripped it up with my sword, and raced away up the garden
path to where my motor bike was waiting on the road above.
I had every reason for haste; but I fled without looking back
at the statue and the. body; and I think the thing I fled from
was the sight of that appalling allegory.
"Then I did the rest of what I had to do. All through the night
and into the daybreak and the daylight I went humming through
the villages and markets of South England like a traveling bullet,
till I came to the headquarters in the West where the trouble was.
I was just in time. I was able to placard the place, so to speak,
with the news that the government had not betrayed them, and that they
would find supports if they would push eastward against the enemy.
There's no time to tell you all that happened; but I tell you it
was the day of my life. A triumph like a torchlight procession,
with torchlights that might have been firebrands. The mutinies
simmered down; the men of Somerset and the western counties came
pouring into the market places; the men who died with Arthur
and stood firm with Alfred. The Irish regiments rallied to them,
after a scene like a riot, and marched eastward out of the town
singing Fenian songs. There was all that is not understood,
about the dark laughter of that people, in the delight with which,
even when marching with the English to the defense of England,
they shouted at the top of their voices, 'High upon the gallows
tree stood the noble-hearted three . . . With England's cruel cord
about them cast.' However, the chorus was 'God save Ireland,'
and we could all have sung that just then, in one sense or another.
"But there was another side to my mission. I carried the plans
of the defense; and to a great extent, luckily, the plans
of the invasion also. I won't worry you with strategics;
but we knew where the enemy had pushed forward the great battery
that covered all his movements; and though our friends from the West
could hardly arrive in time to intercept the main movement,
they might get within long artillery range of the battery
and shell it, if they only knew exactly where it was.
They could hardly tell that unless somebody round about here
sent up some sort of signal. But, somehow, I rather fancy
that somebody will."
With that he got up from the table, and they remounted their
machines and went eastward into the advancing twilight of evening.
The levels of the landscape Were repeated in flat strips of
floating cloud and the last colors of day clung to the circle
of the horizon. Reced. ing farther and farther behind them
was the semicircle of the last hills; and it was quite suddenly
that they saw afar off the dim line of the sea. It was not a strip
of bright blue as they had seen it from the sunny veranda, but of
a sinister and smoky violet, a tint that seemed ominous and dark.
Here Horne Fisher dismounted once more.
"We must walk the rest of the way," he said, "and the last bit
of all I must walk alone."
He bent down and began to unstrap something from his bicycle.
It was something that had puzzled his companion all the way in spite
of what held him to more interesting riddles; it appeared to be
several lengths of pole strapped together and wrapped up in paper.
Fisher took it under his arm and began to pick his way across
the turf. The ground was growing more tum. bled and irregular
and he was walking toward a mass of thickets and small woods;
night grew darker every moment. "We must not talk any more,"
said Fisher. "I shall whisper to you when you are to halt.
Don't try to follow me then, for it will only spoil the show;
one man can barely crawl safely to the spot, and two would
certainly be caught."
"I would follow you anywhere," replied March, "but I would halt, too,
if that is better."
"I know you would," said his friend in a low voice.
"Perhaps you're the only man I ever quite trusted in this world."
A few paces farther on they came to the end of a great ridge or mound
looking monstrous against the dim sky; and Fisher stopped with a gesture.
He caught his companion's hand and wrung it with a violent tenderness,
and then darted forward into the darkness. March could faintly see his
figure crawling along under the shadow of the ridge, then he lost sight
of it, and then he saw it again standing on another mound two hundred
yards away. Beside him stood a singular erection made apparently
of two rods. He bent over it and there was the flare of a light;
all March's schoolboy memories woke in him, and he knew what it was.
It was the stand of a rocket. The confused, incongruous memories still
possessed him up to the very moment of a fierce but familiar sound;
and an instant after the rocket left its perch and went up into endless
space like a starry arrow aimed at the stars. March thought suddenly
of the signs of the last days and knew he was looking at the apocalyptic
meteor of something like a Day of judgment.
Far up in the infinite heavens the rocket drooped and sprang into
scarlet stars. For a moment the whole landscape out to the sea and back
to the crescent of the wooded hills was like a lake of ruby light,
of a red strangely rich and glorious, as if the world were steeped
in wine rather than blood, or the earth were an earthly paradise,
over which paused forever the sanguine moment of morning.
"God save England!" cried Fisher, with a tongue like the peal
of a trumpet. "And now it is for God to save."
As darkness sank again over land and sea, there came another sound;
far away in the passes of the hills behind them the guns spoke
like the baying of great hounds. Something that was not a rocket,
that came not hissing but screaming, went over Harold March's
head and expanded beyond the mound into light and deafening din,
staggering the brain with unbearable brutalities of noise.
Another came, and then another, and the world was full of uproar
and volcanic vapor and chaotic light. The artillery of the West
country and the Irish had located the great enemy battery,
and were pounding it to pieces.
In the mad excitement of that moment March peered through the storm,
looking again for the long lean figure that stood beside the stand
of the rocket. Then another flash lit up the whole ridge.
The figure was not there.
Before the fires of the rocket had faded from the sky,
long before the first gun had sounded from the distant hills,
a splutter of rifle fire had flashed and flickered all around from
the hidden trenches of the enemy. Something lay in the shadow at
the foot of the ridge, as stiff as the stick of the fallen rocket;
and the man who knew too much knew what is worth knowing.