CASE OF THE WHISPERING POPLARS
One afternoon Moris Klaw walked into my office and announced that “owing to alterations” he had temporarily suspended business at the Wapping emporium, and thus had found time to give me a call. I always welcomed a chat with that extraordinary man, and although I could conceive of no really useful “alteration” to his unsavoury establishment other than that of setting fire to it, I made no inquiries, but placed an easy chair for him and offered a cigar.
Moris Klaw removed his caped overcoat and dropped it upon the floor. Upon this sartorial wreckage he disposed his flat-topped brown bowler, and from it extracted the inevitable scent-spray. He sprayed his dome-like brow and bedewed his toneless beard with verbena.
“So refreshing,” he explained, “a custom of the Romans, Mr. Searles. It is a very warm day.”
I admitted that this was so.
“My daughter Isis,” continued Klaw, “has taken advantage of the alterations and decorations to run over so far as Paris.”
I made some commonplace remark, and we drifted into a conversation upon a daring robbery which at that time was flooding the press with copy. We were so engaged when, to my great surprise (for I had thought him at least a thousand miles away), Shan Haufmann was announced. As my old American friend entered, Moris Klaw modestly arose to depart. But I detained him and made the two acquainted.
Haufmann hailed Klaw cordially, exhibiting none of the illbred surprise which so often greeted my eccentric acquaintance of singular aspect. Haufmann had all that bonhomie which overlooks the clothes and welcomes the man. He glanced apologetically at his right hand which hung in a sling.
“Can’t shake, Mr. Klaw,” said the big American, a goodhumoured smile on his tanned, clean-shaven face. “I stopped some lead awhile back and my right is still off duty.”
Naturally I was anxious at once to know how he had come by the hurt; and he briefly explained that in the discharge of certain official duties he had run foul of a bad gang, two of whom he had been instrumental in convicting of murder, whilst the third had shot him in the arm and escaped.
“Three dagoes,” he explained in his crisply picturesque fashion, “been wanted for years. Helped themselves to a bunch of my colts this Fall; killed one of the boys and left another for dead. So I went after them hot and strong. We rounded them up on the Mexican border, and got two, Schwart Sam and one of the Costas; but the younger Costa—we call him Corpus Chris—broke away and found me in the elbow with a lump of lead!”
“So you’ve come for a holiday?”
“Mostly,” replied Haufmann. “Greta hustled me here. She got real ill when I said I wouldn’t come. So we came! I’m centring in London for six months. Brought the girls over for a look round. I’m not stopping at a hotel. We’ve rented a house a bit outside; it’s Lal’s idea. Settled yesterday. All fixed. Expect you to dinner to-night! You, too, Mr. Klaw! Is it a bet?”
Moris Klaw was commencing some sort of a reply, but what it was never transpired, for Haufmann, waving his sound hand cheerily, quitted the office as rapidly as he had entered, calling back:
“Dine seven-thirty. Girls expecting you!”
That was his way; but so infectious was his real geniality that few could fail to respond to it.
“He is a good fellow, that Mr. Haufmann,” rumbled Moris Klaw. “Yes, I love such natures. But he has forgotten to tell us where he lives!”
It was so! Haufmann, in his hurry and impetuosity, had overlooked that important matter; but I thought it probable that he would recall the oversight and communicate, so prevailed upon Klaw to remain. At last, however, I glanced at my watch, and found it to be nearly six o’clock, whereupon I looked blankly at Moris Klaw. That eccentric shrugged his shoulders and took up the caped coat. Then the ’phone-bell rang. It was Haufmann.
I was glad to hear his familiar accent as he laughingly apologised for his oversight. Rapidly he acquainted me with the whereabouts of The Grove—for so the house was called.
“Come now,” he said. “Don’t stop to dress; you’ve only just got time,” and rang off.
I thought Moris Klaw stared oddly through his pince-nez when I told him the address, but concluded, as he made no comment, that I had been mistaken. There was just time to catch our train, and from the station where we alighted it was only a short drive to the house. Haufmann’s car was waiting for us, and in less than three-quarters of an hour from our quitting the Strand, we were driving up to The Grove, through the most magnificent avenue of poplar I had ever seen.
“By Jove!” I cried, “what fine trees!”
Moris Klaw nodded and looked around at the towering trunks with a peculiar expression, which I was wholly at a loss to account for. However, ere I had leisure to think much about the matter, we found ourselves in the hall, where Haufmann and his two fascinating daughters were waiting to greet us. I do not know which of the girls looked the more charming; Lilian with her bright mass of curls and blue eyes dancing with vivacity, or Greta in her dark and rather mystic beauty. At any rate, they were dangerous acquaintances for a susceptible man. Even old Moris Klaw showed unmistakably that his mind was not so wholly filled with obscure sciences as to be incapable of appreciating the society of a pretty woman.
Greta I noticed looking thoughtfully at him, and during dinner she suddenly asked him if he had read a book called Psychic Angles.
Rather unwillingly, as it seemed to me, Klaw admitted that he had, and the girl displayed an immediate and marked interest in psychical matters. Klaw, however, though usually but too willing to discuss this, his pet subject, foiled her attempt to draw him into a technical discussion, and rather obviously steered the conversation into a more general channel.
“Don’t let her get away on the bogey tack, Mr. Klaw,” said Haufmann, approvingly. “She’s a perfect demon for haunted chambers and so on.”
Laughingly the girl pleaded guilty to an interest in ghostly subjects. “But I’m not frightened about them!” she added in pretended indignation. “I should just love to see a ghost.”
“O Greta!” cried her sister. “What a horrid idea.”
“You have perhaps investigated cases yourself, Mr. Klaw?” asked Greta.
“Yes,” rumbled Klaw, “perhaps so. Who knows?”
Since he thus clearly showed his wish to drop the subject, the girl made a little humourously wry face, whereat her father laughed boisterously; and no more was said during the evening about ghosts. I could not well avoid noticing two things, however, in regard to Moris Klaw: one, his evident interest in Greta; and the other a certain preoccupation which claimed him every now and again.
We left at about ten o’clock, declining the offer of the car, as we had ample time to walk to the station. Haufmann wanted to come along, but we dissuaded him, with the assurance that we could find the way without any difficulty. Klaw, especially, was very insistent on the point, and when at last we swung sharply down the avenue and, rounding the bend, lost sight of the house, he pulled up and said:
“For this opportunity, Mr. Searles, I have been waiting. It may not, of course, matter, but this house where the good Haufmann resides was formerly known as The Park.”
“What of that?” I asked, turning on him sharply.
“It is,” he replied, “celebrated as what foolish people call a haunted house. No doubt that is the reason why the name has been changed. As The Park it has been dealt with many times in the psychical journals.”
“The Park”—I mused. “Is it not included in that extraordinary work on the occult—Psychic Angles—of which Miss Haufmann spoke to-night—the place where the monk was supposed to have been murdered, where an old antiquary died, and some young girl, too, if I remember rightly?”
“Yes,” replied Moris Klaw, “yes. I will tell you a secret. Psychic Angles is a little book of my own, and so, of course, I know about this place.”
His words surprised me greatly, for the book was being generally talked about. He peered around him into the shadows and seemed to sniff the air suspiciously.
“Setting aside the question of any supernatural menace,” I said, “directly the servants find out, as they are sure to do from others in the neighbourhood, they will leave en bloc. It is a pleasant way servants have in such cases.”
“We must certainly tell him, the good Haufmann,” agreed Klaw, “and he will perhaps arrange to quit the place without letting the ladies to know of its reputation. That Miss Greta she has the sympathetic mind”—he tapped his forehead—“the plate so sensitive, the photo film so delicate! For her it is dangerous to remain. There is such a thing, Mr. Searles, as sympathetic suicide! That girl she is mediumistic. From The Park she must be removed.”
“There is no time to lose,” I said. “We must decide what to do to-night. Suppose you come along to my place?”
Moris Klaw agreed, and we resumed our walk through the poplar grove.
Although the night was very still, an eerie whispering went on without pause or cessation along the whole length of the avenue. Against the star-spangled sky the tall trees reared their shapes in a manner curiously suggestive of dead things. Or this fancy may have had birth in the associations of the place. It was a fatally easy matter mentally to fashion one of the poplars into the gaunt form of a monk; and no one, however unimaginative, being acquainted with the history of The Grove, could fail to find, in the soft and ceaseless voices of the trees, something akin to a woman’s broken sighs. In short, I was not sorry when the gate was passed, and we came out upon the high road.
Later, seated in my study, we discussed the business thoroughly. From my book-case I took down Psychic Angles and passed it to Moris Klaw.
“There we are,” he rumbled, turning over the leaves. I read: “On August 8th, 1858, a Fra Giulimo, of a peculiar religious brotherhood who occupied this house from 1851 to 1858, was found strangled at the foot of a poplar close by the entrance gate.” “I could never find out much about them, this brotherhood,” he added, looking up; “but they were, I believe, decent people. They left the place almost immediately after the crime. No arrest was ever made. Then” (referring to the book), “ ‘about the end of February or early in the March of 1863, a Mr. B——J——took the house. He was an antiquarian of European repute and a man of retired habits. With only two servants—an old soldier and his wife—he occupied The Park’—(that is The Grove)—‘from the spring of ’63 to the autumn of ’65.’ Then follow verbatim reports by the well-known Pepley of interviews with people who had heard Mr. J——declare that a hushed voice sometimes called upon him by name in the night, from the poplar grove. Also, an interview with his man-servant and with wife of latter, corroborating other statements. Mr. B——J——was found one September morning dead in the grove. Cause of death never properly established. The house next enters upon a period of neglect. It is empty; it is shunned. From ’65 right up to ’88 it stood so empty. It was then taken by a Mr. K——; but he only occupied it for two months, this K——. Three other tenants subsequently rented the place. Only one of them actually occupied it—for a week; the other, hearing we presume, of its evil repute, never entered into residence. Seventeen years ago the last tragedy connected with the unpleasant Grove took place. An eccentric old bachelor took the house and, in the summer of ’03, had a niece there to stay with him. The evidence clearly indicates to me that this unhappy one was highly neurotic—oh, clearly; so that the tragedy explains itself. She fell, or sprang, from her bedroom window to the drive one night in June, and was picked up quite dead at the foot of the first poplar in the Grove. Sacré! it is a morgue, that house!”
He returned the book and sat watching me in silence for some moments.
“Did you spend any time in the house, yourself?” I asked.
“On four different occasions, Mr. Searles! It is only from certain of the rooms that the whispering is audible, and then only if the windows are open. You will notice, though, that all the tragedies occurred in the warm months when the windows would be so open.”
“Did you note anything supernormal in this whispering?”
“Nothing. You have read my explanation.”
Haufmann looked rather blank when we told him.
“Just my luck!” he commented. “Greta’s read your book, Mr. Klaw, and if she hasn’t fixed it yet she’s sure to come to it that The Park and The Grove are one and the same. It was largely because of her I arranged this trip,” he added. “The trouble I’ve told you about got on her nerves and she had the idea some guy was tracking her around. The medicos said it was a common enough symptom and ordered a change. Anyhow, I quitted, to give her a chance to tone up. Confound this business!”
He ultimately left quite determined to change his place of residence. But so averse was his practical mind from the idea of inconveniencing onself on such ghostly grounds, that two weeks slipped by, and still the Haufmanns occupied The Grove. The decoration of Moris Klaw’s establishment being presumably still in progress, Klaw accompanied me on more than one other occasion to visit Shan Haufmann and the girls. At last, one afternoon, Greta asked him point-blank if he thought the house to be that dealt with in Psychic Angles.
Of course, he had to admit that it was so; but far from exhibiting any signs of alarm, the girl appeared to be delighted.
“How dense I have been!” she cried. “I should have known it from the description! As a matter of fact I might never have found out, but this morning the servants resigned unanimously!”
Klaw looked at me significantly. All was befalling as we had foreseen.
“They told you, then!” he said. “Yes? No?”
“They said the house was haunted,” she replied, “but they didn’t seem to know much more about it. That simple fact was enough for them!”
Haufmann came in and in answer to our queries declared himself helpless.
“Lal and Greta won’t wait,” he declared; “so what’s to do? I’ve cabled for servants from home. Meanwhile we’re at the mercy of day-girls and char-women!”
The concern evinced by Moris Klaw was very great. He seized an early opportunity of taking Haufmann aside and questioning him relative to the situation of the rooms occupied by the family.
“My room overlooks the avenue,” replied Haufmann, “and so does Greta’s. Lal’s is on the opposite side. Come up and see them!”
Klaw and I accompanied him. It was a beautiful, clear day, and from his window we gazed along the majestic ranks of poplars, motionless as a giant guard in the still summer air. It was difficult to conjure up a glamour of the uncanny, with the bright sunlight pouring gladness upon trees, flowers, shrubs and lawn.
“This is the room from which the whisper is the most clearly audible!” said Moris Klaw. “I could tell you—ah! I spent several nights here!”
“The devil you did,” rapped Haufmann. “I must sleep pretty soundly. I’ve never heard a thing. Greta’s room is next on the right. She has said nothing.”
Klaw looked troubled.
“There is no sound unusual to hear,” he answered. “I quite convinced myself of that. But it is the tradition that speaks, Mr. Haufmann! In those silent watches, even so insensible an old fool as I can imagine almost anything, aided by such gruesome memories. Excepting the monk, who probably fell foul of a prowler-thief, the tragedies are easily to be explained. The old antiquity died of syncope, and the poor girl, in all probability, fell from the balcony in her sleep. She had a tremendously neurotic temperament.”
“It’s bad, now Greta knows,” mused Haufmann. “Her nerves are all unstrung. It’s just the thing I wanted to avoid!”
“Can’t you induce her at any rate to change her room?” I suggested.
“No! She’s as obstinate as a pony! Her poor mother was the same. It’s the Irish blood!”
Such was the situation when we left. No development took place for a couple of days or so, then that befell which we had feared and half expected.
Haufmann walked into my office with—
“It’s started! Greta says she hears it every night!”
Prepared though I had been for the news, his harshly spoken words sent a cold shudder through me.
“Haufmann!” I said sternly. “There must be no more of this. Get the girls away at once. On top of her previous nerve trouble this morbid imagining may affect her mind.”
“You haven’t heard me out,” he went on, more slowly than was his wont. “You talk of morbid imagining. What about this: I’ve heard it!”
I stared at him blankly.
“That’s one on you!” he said, with a certain grim triumph. “After Greta said there was something came in the night that wasn’t trees rustling, I sat up and smoked. First night I read and nothing happened. Next night I sat in the dark. There was no breeze and I heard nothing for my pains. Third night I stayed in the dark again, and about twelve o’clock a breeze came along. All mixed up with the rustling and sighing of the leaves I heard a voice calling as plain as I ever heard anything in my life! And it called me!”
“It blame-well called me! I’d take my oath before a jury on it!”
“This is almost incredible!” I said. “I wish Moris Klaw were here.”
“Where is he?”
“He is in Paris. He will be away over the weekend.”
“I met a man curiously enough,” continued Haufmann, “just outside the Charing Cross Tube, on my way here, who’s coming down to have a look into the business; a hot man on mysteries.” He mentioned the name of a celebrated American detective agency. “I’m afraid it’s right outside his radius, but he volunteered and I was glad to have him. I’d like Klaw down though.”
“What about the girls?”
“I was going to tell you. They’re at Brighton for awhile. Greta didn’t want to quit, but poor Lal was dead scared! Anyway I got them off.”
The uncanny business claimed entire possession of my mind, and further work was out of the question. I accordingly accompanied Haufmann to the hotel where the detective was lodged and made the acquaintance of Mr. J. Shorter Ottley. He was a typical New Yorker, clean-shaven and sallow complexioned with good, grey eyes and an inflexible mouth.
“We don’t deal in ghosts!” he said, smilingly; “I never met a ghost that couldn’t stop a bullet if it came his way!”
“I’ll make a confession to you,” remarked Haufmann. “When I heard that soft voice calling, I hadn’t the sand to go and look out! How’s that for funk?”
“Not funk at all,” replied Ottley, quietly. “Maybe it was wisdom!”
“How do you mean?”
“I’ve got an idea about it, that’s all. Did Miss Haufmann hear it the same night?”
“Not the same night I did—no. She seems to have dozed off.”
“When she did hear it, was it calling you?”
“She couldn’t make out what it called!”
“Did she go to the window?”
“Yes, but she only looked out from behind the blind.”
“I should have very much liked an interview with her,” said Ottley, thoughtfully.
“She could tell you no more than I have.”
“About that no! There’s something else I would like to ask her.”
That evening we all three dined at The Grove, dinner being prepared by a woman who departed directly we were finished. A desultory game of billiards served to pass the time between twilight and darkness, and the detective and I departed, leaving Haufmann alone in the house. This was prearranged by Ottley, who had some scheme in hand. Side by side we tramped down the poplar avenue, went out by the big gate, and closed it behind us. We then skirted the grounds to a point on the side opposite the gate, and, scaling the wall, found ourselves in a wilderness of neglected kitchen garden. Through this the American cautiously led the way towards the house, visible through the tangle of bushes and trees in sharp silhouette against the sky. On all fours we crossed a little yard and entered a side-door which had been left ajar for the purpose, closing it softly behind us. So, passing through the kitchen, we made our way upstairs and rejoined Haufmann.
A post had been allotted to me in the room next to his and I was enjoined to sit in the dark and watch for anything moving among the trees. Haufmann departed to a room on the west front with similar injunctions, and the detective remained in Haufmann’s room.
As I crept cautiously to the window, avoiding the broad moonbeam streaming in, I saw a light on my left. Ottley was acting as Haufmann would have done if he had been retiring for the night. Three minutes later the light vanished, and the nervous vigil was begun.
There was very little breeze, but sufficient to send up and down the poplar ranks waves of that mysterious whispering which Klaw and I had previously noted. The moon, though invisible from that point, swam in an absolutely cloudless sky, and the shadow of the house lay black beneath me, its edge tropically sharp. A broad belt of moonbright grass and grave succeeded, and this merged into the light-patched gloom of the avenue. On the right of the poplars lay a shrubbery, and beyond that a garden stretching to the east wall. Just to the left, an outbuilding gleamed whitely. Some former occupant had built it for a coach-house and it now housed Haufmann’s car. The apartments above were at present untenanted.
I cannot say with certainty when I first detected, mingled with the whistling of the branches, something that was not caused by the wind. But ultimately I found myself listening for this other sound. With my eyes fixed straight ahead and peering into the shadows of the poplars I crouched, every nerve at high tension. A slight sound on my left told of a window softly opened. It was Ottley creeping out on to the balcony. He, too, had heard it!
Then, with awful suddenness, the inexplicable happened.
A short, shrill cry broke the complete silence, succeeding one of those spells of whispering. A shot followed hot upon it—then a second. Somebody fell with a muffled thud upon the drive—and I leapt to the window, threw it widely open and stepped out on the balcony.
“Ottley!” I cried. “Haufmann!”
A door banged somewhere and I heard Haufmann’s muffled voice:
“Downstairs! Come down!”
I ran across the room, out on to the landing, and down into the hall. Haufmann was unfastening the bolts. His injured arm was still stiff, and I hastened to assist him.
“My God!” he cried, turning a pale face toward me. “It’s Ottley gone! Did you see anything?”
“No! Did you?”
“Curse it! No! I had just slipped away from the window to get my repeater! You heard the voice?”
The door was thrown open and we ran out into the drive.
There was no sign of Ottley, and we stood for a moment, undecided how we should act. Then, just inside the shadow belt we found the detective lying.
Thinking him dead, we raised and dragged him back to the house. Having re-fastened the door, we laid him on a sofa in the morning-room. His face was deathly and blood flowed from a terrible wound on his skull. Strangest of all, though, he had a gaping hole just above the right wrist. The skin about it was discoloured as if with burning. Neither of us could detect any sign of life, and we stood, two frankly frightened men, looking at one another over the body.
“It’s got to be done!” said Haufmann slowly. “One of us has to stay here and do what he can for him, and one has to go for a doctor! There’s no telephone!”
“Where’s the nearest doctor?” I asked.
“There’s one at the corner of the first road on the right.”
“I’ll go!” I said.
Without shame I confess that from the moment the door closed behind me, I ran my hardest down the poplar avenue until I had passed the gate! And it was not anxiety that spurred me, for I did not doubt that Ottley was dead, but stark fear!
Moris Klaw deposited a large grip and a travelling-rug upon the verandah.
“Good-day, Mr. Haufmann! Good-day, Mr. Searles!” At an open window the white-aproned figure of a nurse appeared. “Good-day, Nurse! I am direct from Paris. This is a case which cannot be dealt with under the head of the Cycle of Crime, and I do not think it has any relation with the history of The Park. But thoughts are things, Mr. Haufmann. How helpful that is!”
Forty-eight hours had elapsed since Haufmann and I had picked up Ottley for dead in the poplar avenue. Now he lay in a bed made up in the billiard-room, hovering between this world and another. I had a shrewd suspicion that the doctor who attended him was mystified by some of the patient’s symptoms.
Haufmann stared oddly at Moris Klaw, not altogether comprehending the drift of his words.
“If only Ottley could tell us!” he muttered.
“He will tell us nothing for many a day,” I said; “if, indeed, he ever speaks again.”
“Ah,” interrupted Moris Klaw, “to me he will speak! How? With the mind! Something—we have yet to learn what—struck him down that night. The blow, if it was a blow, made so acute an impression upon his brain that no other has secured admittance yet! Good! That blow, it still resides within his mind. To-night, I shall sleep beside his bed. I shall be unable odically to sterilise myself, but we must hope. From amid the phantasms which that sick brain will throw out upon the astral film—upon the surrounding ether—I must trust that I find the thought, the last thought before delirium came!”
Haufmann looked amazed. I had prepared him, to some extent, for Klaw’s theories, but nevertheless he was tremendously surprised. Klaw, however, paid no attention to this. He looked around at the trees.
“I am glad,” he rumbled impressively, “that you managed to hush up. Distinctly, we have now a chance.”
“A chance of what?” I cried. “The thing seems susceptible of no ordinary explanation! How can you account for what happened to Ottley and for his condition? What incredible thing came out from the poplars?”
“No thing!” answered Moris Klaw. “No thing, my good friend!”
“Then what did he fire at?”
“At the coach-house!”
I met the gaze of his peculiar eyes, fixed upon me through the pince-nez.
“If you will look at the coach-house chimney,” he continued, “you will see it—the hole made by his bullet!”
I turned quickly, and even from that considerable distance the hole was visible; a triangular break on the red-tiled rim.
“What on earth does it mean?” I asked, more hopelessly mystified than ever.
“It means that Ottley is a clever man, who knows his business; and it means, Mr. Searles, that we must take up this so extraordinary affair where the poor Ottley dropped it!”
“What do you propose?”
“I propose that you invite yourself to a few days’ holiday, as I have done. You stay here. Do not allow even the doctor to know that you are in the house. The nurse you will have to confide in, I suppose. Mr. Haufmann”—he turned to the latter—“you will occupy your old room. Do not, I beg of you, go outside after dusk upon any consideration. If either of you shall hear it again—the evil whispering—come out by the front door, and keep in the shadow. Carry no light. Above all, do not come out upon the balcony!”
“Then you,” I said, “will be unable to stay?”
“I shall be so unable,” was the reply; “for I go to Brighton to secure the interview with Miss Greta which the poor Ottley so much required!”
“You don’t suggest that she knows— —”
“She knows no more than we do, Mr. Searles! But I think she holds a clue and does not know that she holds a clue! For an hour I shall slumber—I, who, like the tortoise, know that to sleep is to live—I shall slumber beside the sick man’s bed. Then, we shall see!”
It was a quarter to seven when Moris Klaw entered the sickroom. Ottley lay in a trance-like condition, and the eccentric investigator, of whose proceedings the nurse strongly disapproved, settled himself in a split-cane armchair by the bedside and waving his hand in dismissal to Haufmann and myself, placed a large silk handkerchief over his sparsely covered skull and composed himself for slumber.
We left him, and tiptoed from the room.
“If you hadn’t told me what he’s done in the past,” whispered Haufmann, “I should say our old friend was mad a lot!”
The great empty house was eerily silent, and during the time that we sat smoking and awaiting the end of Moris Klaw’s singular telepathic experiment, neither of us talked very much. At eight o’clock the man whose proceedings savoured so much of charlatanry, but whom I knew for one of the foremost criminologists of the world, emerged, spraying his face with verbena.
“Ah, gentlemen,” he said, coming in to us, “I have recovered some slight impression”—he tapped his moist forehead—“of that agonising thought which preceded the unconsciousness of Ottley. I depart. Some time to-night will come Sir Bartram Vane from Half-Moon Street, the specialist, to confer with the physician who is attending here. Mr. Searles, remain concealed. Not even he must know of your being here; no one outside the house must know. Remember my warnings. I depart.”
Behind the thick pebbles his eyes gleamed with some excitement repressed. By singular means, he would seem to have come upon a clue.
“Good-night, Mr. Haufmann,” he said. “Good-night, Mr. Searles. To the nurse I have said good-night and she only glared. She thinks I am the mad old fool!”
He departed, curtly declining company, and carrying his huge plaid rug and heavy grip. As his slouching footsteps died away along the avenue, Haufmann and I looked grimly at one another.
“Seems we’re left!” said my friend. “You won’t desert me, Searles?”
“Most certainly I shall not! You are tied here by the presence of poor Ottley, in any event, and you can rely upon me to keep you company.”
At about ten o’clock Sir Bartram Vane drove up bringing with him the local physician who was attending upon Ottley. I kept well out of sight, but learnt, when the medical men had left, that the course of treatment had been entirely changed.
Thus commenced our strange ordeal; how it terminated you presently shall learn.
Moris Klaw, in pursuit of whatever plan he had formed never appeared on the scene, but evidence of his active interest reached us in the form of telegraphic instructions. Once it was a wire telling Haufmann to detain the American servants in London should they arrive and to go on living as we were. Again it was a warning not to go out on the balcony after dusk, and, again, that we should not desert our posts for one single evening. On the fourth day the doctor pronounced a slight improvement in Ottley’s condition, and Haufmann determined to run down to Brighton on the following morning, returning in the afternoon.
That night we again heard the voice.
The house was very still, and Haufmann and I had retired to our rooms, when I discerned above the subdued rustling whisper of the leaves, that other sound that no leaf ever made. In an instant I was crouching by the open window. A lull followed. Then, again, I heard the soft voice calling. I could not detect the words, but in obedience to the instructions of Klaw, I picked up the pistol which I had brought for the purpose, and ran to the door. The idea that the whispering menace was something that could be successfully shot at, robbed it of much of its eerie horror, and I relished the prospect of action after the dreary secret sojourn in the upper rooms of the house.
I groped my way down to the hall. As we had carefully oiled the bolts, I experienced no difficulty in silently opening the door. Inch by inch I opened it, listening intently.
Again I heard the queer call.
Now, by craning my neck, I could see the moon-bright front of the house; and looking upward, I was horrified to see Shan Haufmann, a conspicuous figure in his light pyjama suit, crouching on the balcony! The moonlight played vividly on the nickelled barrel of the pistol he carried, as he rose slowly to his feet.
Though I did not know what danger threatened, nor from whence it would proceed, I knew well that Klaw’s was no idle warning. I could not imagine what madness had prompted Haufmann to neglect it, and was about to throw wide the door and call to him, when a series of strange things happened in bewildering succession.
An odd, strumming sound came from somewhere in the outer darkness. Haufmann dropped to his knees (I learnt, afterwards, that the loose slippers he wore had tripped him). The glass of the window behind him was shattered with a great deal of noise.
A shot!… a spurt of flame in the black darkness of the poplar avenue!… a shriek from somewhere on the west front… and I ran out on to the drive.
With a tremendous crash a bulky form rolled down the sloping roof of the coach-house, to fall with a sickening thud to the ground!
Then, out into the moonlight, Moris Klaw came running, his yet smoking pistol in his hand!
“Haufmann!” he cried, and again: “Haufmann!”
The big American peered down from the balcony hauling in something which seemed to be a line, but which I was unable to distinguish in the darkness.
“Good boy!” he panted. “I was a fool to do it! But I saw him lying behind the chimney and thought I could drop him!”
Moris Klaw ran, ungainly, across to the coach-house, and I followed him. The figure of a tall, lithe man, wearing a blue serge suit, lay face downwards on the gravel. As we turned him over, Haufmann, breathing heavily, joined us. The moonlight fell on a dark saturnine face.
“Gee!” came the cry. “It’s Corpus Chris!”
“Where did I get hold upon the clue?” asked Moris Klaw, when he, Haufmann, and I sat, in the grey dawn, waiting for the police to come and take away the body of Costa. “It was from the brain of Ottley! His poor mind” (he waved long hands circularly in the air) “goes round and round about the thing that happened to him on the balcony.”
“And what was that?” demanded Haufmann, eagerly. “Same as happened to me?”
“It was something—something that his knowledge of strange things tells him is venomous—which struck his wrist as he raised his revolver! What did he do? I can tell you; because he is doing it over and over again in his poor feverish mind. He clapped to the injured wrist the barrel of his revolver, and fired! Then, swooning, he toppled over and fell among the bushes. The wound that so had puzzled all becomes explained. It was self-inflicted—a precaution—a cauterising; and it saved his life. For I saw Sir Bartram Vane to-day and he had spoken with the other doctor on the telephone. The new treatment succeeds.”
“I am still in the dark!” confessed Haufmann.
“Yes?” rumbled Moris Klaw. “So? Why do I go to Brighton? I go to ask Miss Greta what Ottley would have asked her.”
“And that is?”
“What she feared, that made her so very anxious to get you away from your home. To me she admitted that she had received from the man Costa impassioned appeals, such as, foolish girl, she had been afraid to show to you—her father!”
“Good Heavens! the scamp!”
“The canaille! But no matter, he is dead canaille! After you got the brother hanged, this Corpus Chris (it was Fate that named him!) sent to your daughter a mad letter, swearing that if she does not fly with him, he will kill you if he has to follow you around the world! Yes, he was insane, I fancy; I think so. But he was a man of very great culture. He held a Cambridge degree! You did not know? I thought not. He tracked you to Europe and right to this house. Its history he learned in some way and used for his own ends. Probably, too, he had no opportunity of getting at you otherwise, without leaving behind a clue or being seen and pursued.”
Moris Klaw picked up an Indian bow which lay upon the floor beside him.
“A bow of the Sioux pattern,” he rumbled impressively.
He stooped again, picking up a small arrow to which a length of thin, black twine was attached.
“One standing on the balcony in the moonlight,” he continued, “what a certain mark if the wind be not too high! And you will remember that on gently blowing nights the whispering came!”
He raised the point of the arrow. It was encrusted in some black, shining substance. Moris Klaw lowered his voice.
“Curari!” he said, hoarsely, “the ancient arrow-poison of the South American tribes! This small arrow would make only a tiny wound, and it could be drawn back again by means of the twine attached. Costa, of course, mistook Ottley for you, Mr. Haufmann. Ah, a clever fellow! I spent three evenings up the second tree in the avenue waiting for him. I need not have shot him if you had followed my instructions and not come out on the balcony. We could have captured him alive!”
“I’m not crying about it!” said Haufmann.
“Neither do I weep,” rumbled Moris Klaw, and bathed his face with perfume. “But I loathe it, this curari—it smells of death. Ah! the canaille!”