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Authors: Sax Rohmer

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"If it comes here"—she raised one delicate white hand—"you may have
five years to live; if in the foot, ten, or more. But"—she sank her
voice dramatically—"the nearer it is to the heart, the less are the
days that remain to you of life."

"You mean that it recurs?" asked Harley.

"Perhaps in a week, perhaps not for another year, it comes again, that
quick agony. This time in the shoulder, in the knee. It is the second
warning. Three times it may come, four times, but at last"—she laid
her hand upon her breast—"it comes here, in the heart, and all is
finished."

She paused as if exhausted, closing her eyes again, whilst we three who
listened looked at one another in an awestricken silence, until the
vibrant voice resumed:

"There is only one man in Europe who understands this thing, this
Creeping Sickness. He is a Frenchman who lives in Paris. To him Juan
had been, and he had told him, this clever man, 'If you are very quiet
and do not exert yourself, and only take as much exercise as is
necessary for your general health, you have one year to live—'"

"My God!" groaned Harley.

"Yes, such was the verdict. And there is no cure. The poor sufferer
must wait and wait, always wait, for that sudden pang, not knowing if
it will come in his heart and be the finish. Yes. This living death,
then, and revenge, were the things ruling Juan's life at the time of
which I tell you. He had traced Ysola de Valera to England. A chance
remark in a London hotel had told him that a Chinaman had been seen in
a Surrey village and of course had caused much silly chatter. He
enquired at once, and he found out that Colin Camber, the man who had
taken Ysola from him, was living with her at the Guest House, here, on
the hill. How shall I tell you the rest?"

"Merciful Heaven!" exclaimed Harley, his glance set upon her, with a
sort of horror in his gray eyes, "I think I can guess."

She turned to him rapidly.

"M. Harley," she said, "you are a clever man. I believe you are a
genius. And I have the strength to tell you because I am happy to-
night. Because of his great wealth Juan succeeded in buying Cray's
Folly from Sir James Appleton to whom it belonged. He told everybody he
leased it, but really he bought it. He paid him more than twice its
value, and so obtained possession.

"But the plan was not yet complete, although it had taken form in that
clever, wicked brain of his. Oh! I could tell you stories of the
Menendez, and of the things they have done for love and revenge, which
even you, who know much of life, would doubt, I think. Yes, you would
not believe. But to continue. Shall I tell you upon what terms he had
returned to me, eh? I will. Once more he would suffer that pang of
death in life, for he had courage, ah! such great courage, and then,
when the waiting for the next grew more than even his fearless heart
could bear, I, who also had courage, and who loved him, should—" She
paused, "Do you understand?"

Harley nodded dumbly, and suddenly I found Val Beverley's little
fingers twined about mine.

"I agreed," continued the deep voice. "It was a boon which I, too,
would have asked from one who loved me. But to die, knowing another
cherished the woman who had been torn from him, was an impossibility
for Juan Menendez. What he had schemed to do at first I never knew. But
presently, because of our situation here, and because of that which he
had asked of me, it came, the great plan.

"On the night he told me, a night I shall never forget, I drew back in
horror from him—I, Marie de Stämer, who thought I knew the blackest
that was in him. I shrank. And because of that scene it came to him
again in the early morning—the moment of agony, the needle pain, here,
low down in his left breast.

"He pleaded with me to do the wicked thing that he had planned, and
because I dared not refuse, knowing he might die at my feet, I
consented. But, my friends, I had my own plan, too, of which he knew
nothing. On the next day he went to Paris, and was told he had two
months to live, with great, such great care, but perhaps only a week, a
day, if he should permit his hot passions to inflame that threatened
heart. Very well.

"I said yes, yes, to all that he suggested, and he began to lay the
trail—the trail to lead to his enemy. It was his hobby, this
vengeance. He was like a big, cruel boy. It was he, himself, Juan
Menendez, who broke into Cray's Folly. It was he who nailed the bat
wing to the door. It was he who bought two rifles of a kind of which so
many millions were made during the war that anybody might possess one.
And it was he who concealed the first of these, one cartridge
discharged, under the floor of the hut in the garden of the Guest
House. The other, which was to be used, he placed—"

"In the shutter-case of one of the tower rooms," continued Paul Harley.
"I know! I found it there to-night."

"What?" I asked, "you found it, Harley?"

"I returned to look for it," he said. "At the present moment it is
upstairs in my room."

"Ah, M. Harley," exclaimed Madame, smiling at him radiantly, "I love
your genius. Then it was," she continued, "that he thought himself
ready, ready for revenge and ready for death. He summoned you, M.
Harley, to be an expert witness. He placed with you evidence which
could not fail to lead to the arrest of M. Camber. Very well. I allowed
him to do all this. His courage,
mon Dieu
, how I worshipped his
courage!

"At night, when everyone slept, and he could drop the mask, I have seen
what he suffered. I have begged him, begged him upon my knees, to allow
me to end it then and there; to forget his dream of revenge, to die
without this last stain upon his soul. But he, expecting at any hour,
at any minute, to know again the agony which cannot be described, which
is unlike any other suffered by the flesh—refused, refused! And I"—
she raised her eyes ecstatically—"I have worshipped this courage of
his, although it was evil—bad.

"The full moon gives the best light, and so he planned it for the night
of the full moon. But on the night before, because of some scene which
he had with you, M. Harley, nearly I thought his plans would come to
nothing. Nearly I thought the last act of love which he asked of me
would never be performed. He sat there, up in the little room which he
liked best, the coldness upon him which always came before the pang,
waiting, waiting, a deathly dew on his forehead, for the end; and I, I
who loved him better than life, watched him. And, so Fate willed it,
the pang never came."

"You watched him?" I whispered.

Harley turned to me slowly.

"Don't you understand, Knox?" he said, in a voice curiously unlike his
own.

"Ah, my friend," Madame de Stämer laid her hand upon my arm with that
caressing gesture which I knew, "you do understand, don't you? The
power to use my limbs returned to me during the last week that I lived
in Nice."

She bent forward and raised her face, in an almost agonized appeal to
Val Beverley.

"My dear, my dear," she said, "forgive me, forgive me! But I loved him
so. One day, I think"—her glance sought my face—"you will know. Then
you will forgive."

"Oh, Madame, Madame," whispered the girl, and began to sob silently.

"Is it enough?" asked Madame de Stämer, raising her head, and looking
defiantly at Paul Harley. "Last night, you, M. Harley, who have genius,
nearly brought it all to nothing. You passed the door in the shrubbery
just when Juan was preparing to go out. I was watching from the window
above. Then, when you had gone, he came out—smoking his last
cigarette.

"I went to my place, entering the tower room by the door from that
corridor. I opened the window. It had been carefully oiled. It was
soundless. I was cold as one already dead, but love made me strong. I
had seen him suffer. I took the rifle from its hiding-place, the heavy
rifle which so few women could use. It was no heavier than some which I
had used before, and to good purpose."

Again she paused, and I saw her lips trembling. Before my mind's eye
the picture arose which I had seen from Harley's window, the picture of
Colonel Juan Menendez walking in the moonlight along the path to the
sun-dial, with halting steps, with clenched fists, but upright as a
soldier on parade. Walking on, dauntlessly, to his execution. Out of a
sort of haze, which seemed to obscure both sight and hearing, I heard
Madame speaking again.

"He turned his head toward me. He threw me a kiss—and I fired. Did you
think a woman lived who could perform such a deed, eh? If you did not
think so, it is because you have never looked into the eyes of one who
loved with her body, her mind, and with her soul. I think, yes, I think
I went mad. The rifle I remember I replaced. But I remember no more.
Ah!"

She sighed in a resigned, weary way, untwining her arm from about Val
Beverley, and falling back upon her pillows.

"It is all written here," she said; "every word of it, my friends, and
signed at the bottom. I am a murderess, but it was a merciful deed. You
see, I had a plan of which Juan knew nothing. This was my plan." She
pointed to the heap of manuscript. "I would give him relief from his
agonies, yes. For although he was an evil man, I loved him better than
life. I would let him die happy, thinking his revenge complete. But
others to suffer? No, no! a thousand times no! Ah, I am so tired."

She took up the little medicine bottle, poured its contents into the
glass, and emptied it at a draught.

Paul Harley, as though galvanized, sprang to his feet. "My God!" he
cried, huskily, "Stop her, stop her!" Val Beverley, now desperately
white, clutched at me with quivering fingers, her agonized glance set
upon the smiling face of Madame de Stämer.

"No fuss, dear friends," said Madame, gently, "no trouble, no nasty
stomach-pumps; for it is useless. I shall just fall asleep in a few
moments now, and when I wake Juan will be with me."

Her face was radiant. It became lighted up magically. I knew in that
grim hour what a beautiful woman Madame de Stämer must have been. She
rested her hand upon Val Beverley's head, and looked at me with her
strange, still eyes.

"Be good to her, my friend," she whispered. "She is English, but not
cold like some. She, too, can love."

She closed her eyes and dropped back upon her pillows for the last
time.

Chapter XXXV - An Afterword
*

This shall be a brief afterword, for I have little else to say. As
Madame had predicted, all antidotes and restoratives were of no avail.
She had taken enough of some drug which she had evidently had in her
possession for this very purpose to ensure that there should be no
awakening, and although Dr. Rolleston was on the spot within half an
hour, Madame de Stämer was already past human aid.

There are perhaps one or two details which may be of interest. For
instance, as a result of the post-mortem examination of Colonel
Menendez, no trace of disease was discovered in any of the organs, but
from information supplied by his solicitors, Harley succeeded in
tracing the Paris specialist to whom Madame de Stämer had referred; and
he confirmed her statement in every particular. The disease, to which
he gave some name which I have forgotten, was untraceable, he declared,
by any means thus far known to science.

As we had anticipated, the bulk of Colonel Don Juan's wealth he had
bequeathed to Madame de Stämer, and she in turn had provided that all
of which she might die possessed should be divided between certain
charities and Val Beverley.

I thus found myself at the time when all these legal processes
terminated engaged to marry a girl as wealthy as she was beautiful.
Therefore, except for the many grim memories which it had left with me,
nothing but personal good fortune resulted from my sojourn at Cray's
Folly, beneath the shadow of that Bat Wing which had had no existence
outside the cunning imagination of Colonel Juan Menendez.

* * *

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