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Authors: Sax Rohmer

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Many topics were discussed, I remember, and beyond doubt the colonel's
cousin-housekeeper dominated the debate. She possessed extraordinary
force of personality. Her English was not nearly so fluent as that
spoken by the colonel, but this handicap only served to emphasize the
masculine strength of her intellect. Truly she was a remarkable woman.
With her blanched hair and her young face, and those fine, velvety eyes
which possessed a quality almost hypnotic, she might have posed for the
figure of a sorceress. She had unfamiliar gestures and employed her
long white hands in a manner that was new to me and utterly strange.

I could detect no family resemblance between the cousins, and I
wondered if their kinship were very distant. One thing was evident
enough: Madame de Stämer was devoted to the Colonel. Her expression
when she looked at him changed entirely. For a woman of such intense
vitality her eyes were uncannily still; that is to say that whilst she
frequently moved her head she rarely moved her eyes. Again and again I
found myself wondering where I had seen such eyes before. I lived to
identify that memory, as I shall presently relate.

In vain I endeavoured to define the relationship between these three
people, so incongruously set beneath one roof. Of the fact that Miss
Beverly was not happy I became assured. But respecting her exact
position in the household I was reduced to surmises.

The Colonel improved on acquaintance. I decided that he belonged to an
order of Spanish grandees now almost extinct. I believed he would have
made a very staunch friend; I felt sure he would have proved a most
implacable enemy. Altogether, it was a memorable meal, and one notable
result of that brief companionship was a kind of link of understanding
between myself and Miss Beverley.

Once, when I had been studying Madame de Stämer, and again, as I
removed my glance from the dark face of Colonel Menendez, I detected
the girl watching me; and her eyes said, "You understand; so do I."

Some things perhaps I did understand, but how few the near future was
to show.

The signal for our departure from table was given by Madame de Stämer.
She whisked her chair back with extraordinary rapidity, the contrast
between her swift, nervous movements and those still, basilisk eyes
being almost uncanny.

"Off you go, Juan," she said; "your visitors would like to see the
garden, no doubt. I must be away for my afternoon siesta. Come, my
dear"—to the girl—"smoke one little cigarette with me, then I will
let you go."

She retired, wheeling herself rapidly out of the room, and my glance
lingered upon the graceful figure of Val Beverley until both she and
Madame were out of sight.

"Now, gentlemen," said the Colonel, resuming his seat and pushing the
decanter toward Paul Harley, "I am at your service either for business
or amusement. I think"—to Harley—"you expressed a desire to see the
tower?"

"I did," my friend replied, lighting his cigar, "but only if it would
amuse you to show me."

"Decidedly. Mr. Knox will join us?"

Harley, unseen by the Colonel, glanced at me in a way which I knew.

"Thanks all the same," I said, smiling, "but following a perfect
luncheon I should much prefer to loll upon the lawn, if you don't
mind."

"But certainly I do not mind," cried the Colonel. "I wish you to be
happy."

"Join you in a few minutes, Knox," said Harley as he went out with our
host.

"All right," I replied, "I should like to take a stroll around the
gardens. You will join me there later, no doubt."

As I walked out into the bright sunshine I wondered why Paul Harley had
wished to be left alone with Colonel Menendez, but knowing that I
should learn his motive later, I strolled on through the gardens, my
mind filled with speculations respecting these unusual people with whom
Fate had brought me in contact. I felt that Miss Beverley needed
protection of some kind, and I was conscious of a keen desire to afford
her that protection. In her glance I had read, or thought I had read,
an appeal for sympathy.

Not the least mystery of Cray's Folly was the presence of this girl.
Only toward the end of luncheon had I made up my mind upon a point
which had been puzzling me. Val Beverley's gaiety was a cloak. Once I
had detected her watching Madame de Stämer with a look strangely like
that of fear.

Puffing contentedly at my cigar I proceeded to make a tour of the
house. It was constructed irregularly. Practically the entire building
was of gray stone, which created a depressing effect even in the
blazing sunlight, lending Cray's Folly something of an austere aspect.
There were fine lofty windows, however, to most of the ground-floor
rooms overlooking the lawns, and some of those above had balconies of
the same gray stone. Quite an extensive kitchen garden and a line of
glasshouses adjoined the west wing, and here were outbuildings, coach-
houses and a garage, all connected by a covered passage with the
servants' quarters.

Pursuing my enquiries, I proceeded to the north front of the building,
which was closely hemmed in by trees, and which as we had observed on
our arrival resembled the entrance to a monastery.

Passing the massive oaken door by which we had entered and which was
now closed again, I walked on through the opening in the box hedge into
a part of the grounds which was not so sprucely groomed as the rest. On
one side were the yews flanking the Tudor garden and before me uprose
the famous tower. As I stared up at the square structure, with its
uncurtained windows, I wondered, as others had wondered before me, what
could have ever possessed any man to build it.

Visible at points for many miles around, it undoubtedly disfigured an
otherwise beautiful landscape.

I pressed on, noting that the windows of the rooms in the east wing
were shuttered and the apartments evidently disused. I came to the base
of the tower, To the south, the country rose up to the highest point in
the crescent of hills, and peeping above the trees at no great distance
away, I detected the red brick chimneys of some old house in the woods.
North and east, velvet sward swept down to the park.

As I stood there admiring the prospect and telling myself that no
Voodoo devilry could find a home in this peaceful English countryside,
I detected a faint sound of voices far above. Someone had evidently
come out upon the gallery of the tower. I looked upward, but I could
not see the speakers. I pursued my stroll, until, near the eastern base
of the tower, I encountered a perfect thicket of rhododendrons. Finding
no path through this shrubbery, I retraced my steps, presently entering
the Tudor garden; and there strolling toward me, a book in her hand,
was Miss Beverley.

"Holloa, Mr. Knox," she called; "I thought you had gone up the tower?"

"No," I replied, laughing, "I lack the energy."

"Do you?" she said, softly, "then sit down and talk to me."

She dropped down upon a grassy bank, looking up at me invitingly, and I
accepted the invitation without demur.

"I love this old garden," she declared, "although of course it is
really no older than the rest of the place. I always think there should
be peacocks, though."

"Yes," I agreed, "peacocks would be appropriate."

"And little pages dressed in yellow velvet."

She met my glance soberly for a moment and then burst into a peal of
merry laughter.

"Do you know, Miss Beverley," I said, watching her, "I find it hard to
place you in the household of the Colonel."

"Yes?" she said simply; "you must."

"Oh, then you realize that you are—"

"Out of place here?"

"Quite."

"Of course I am."

She smiled, shook her head, and changed the subject.

"I am so glad Mr. Paul Harley has come down," she confessed.

"You know my friend by name, then?"

"Yes," she replied, "someone I met in Nice spoke of him, and I know he
is very clever."

"In Nice? Did you live in Nice before you came here?"

Val Beverley nodded slowly, and her glance grew oddly retrospective.

"I lived for over a year with Madame de Stämer in a little villa on the
Promenade des Anglaise," she replied. "That was after Madame was
injured."

"She sustained her injuries during the war, I understand?"

"Yes. Poor Madame. The hospital of which she was in charge was bombed
and the shock left her as you see her. I was there, too, but I luckily
escaped without injury."

"What, you were there?"

"Yes. That was where I first met Madame de Stämer. She used to be very
wealthy, you see, and she established this hospital in France at her
own expense, and I was one of her assistants for a time. She lost both
her husband and her fortune in the war, and as if that were not bad
enough, lost the use of her limbs, too."

"Poor woman," I said. "I had no idea her life had been so tragic. She
has wonderful courage."

"Courage!" exclaimed the girl, "if you knew all that I know about her."

Her face grew sweetly animated as she bent toward me excitedly and
confidentially.

"Really, she is simply wonderful. I learned to respect her in those
days as I have never respected any other woman in the world; and when,
after all her splendid work, she, so vital and active, was stricken
down like that, I felt that I simply could not leave her, especially as
she asked me to stay."

"So you went with her to Nice?"

"Yes. Then the Colonel took this house, and we came here, but—"

She hesitated, and glanced at me curiously.

"Perhaps you are not quite happy?"

"No," she said, "I am not. You see it was different in France. I knew
so many people. But here at Cray's Folly it is so lonely, and Madame
is—"

Again she hesitated.

"Yes?"

"Well," she laughed in an embarrassed fashion, "I am afraid of her at
times."

"In what way?"

"Oh, in a silly, womanish sort of way. Of course she is a wonderful
manager; she rules the house with a rod of iron. But really I haven't
anything to do here, and I feel frightfully out of place sometimes.
Then the Colonel—Oh, but what am I talking about?"

"Won't you tell me what it is that the Colonel fears?"

"You know that he fears something, then?"

"Of course. That is why Paul Harley is here."

A change came over the girl's face; a look almost of dread.

"I wish I knew what it all meant."

"You are aware, then, that there is something wrong?"

"Naturally I am. Sometimes I have been so frightened that I have made
up my mind to leave the very next day."

"You mean that you have been frightened at night?" I asked with
curiosity.

"Dreadfully frightened."

"Won't you tell me in what way?"

She looked up at me swiftly, then turned her head aside, and bit her
lip.

"No, not now," she replied. "I can't very well."

"Then at least tell me why you stayed?"

"Well," she smiled rather pathetically, "for one thing, I haven't
anywhere else to go."

"Have you no friends in England?"

She shook her head.

"No. There was only poor daddy, and he died over two years ago. That
was when I went to Nice."

"Poor little girl," I said; and the words were spoken before I realized
their undue familiarity.

An apology was on the tip of my tongue, but Miss Beverley did not seem
to have noticed the indiscretion. Indeed my sympathy was sincere, and I
think she had appreciated the fact.

She looked up again with a bright smile.

"Why are we talking about such depressing things on this simply
heavenly day?" she exclaimed.

"Goodness knows," said I. "Will you show me round these lovely
gardens?"

"Delighted, sir!" replied the girl, rising and sweeping me a mocking
curtsey.

Thereupon we set out, and at every step I found a new delight in some
wayward curl, in a gesture, in the sweet voice of my companion. Her
merry laugh was music, but in wistful mood I think she was even more
alluring.

The menace, if menace there were, which overhung Cray's Folly, ceased
to exist—for me, at least, and I blessed the lucky chance which had
led to my presence there.

We were presently rejoined by Colonel Menendez and Paul Harley, and I
gathered that my surmise that it had been their voices which I had
heard proceeding from the top of the tower to have been only partly
accurate.

"I know you will excuse me, Mr. Harley," said the Colonel, "for
detailing the duty to Pedro, but my wind is not good enough for the
stairs."

He used idiomatic English at times with that facility which some
foreigners acquire, but always smiled in a self-satisfied way when he
had employed a slang term.

"I quite understand, Colonel," replied Harley. "The view from the top
was very fine."

"And now, gentlemen," continued the Colonel, "if Miss Beverley will
excuse us, we will retire to the library and discuss business."

"As you wish," said Harley; "but I have an idea that it is your custom
to rest in the afternoon."

Colonel Menendez shrugged his shoulders. "It used to be," he admitted,
"but I have too much to think about in these days."

"I can see that you have much to tell me," admitted Harley; "and
therefore I am entirely at your service."

Val Beverley smiled and walked away swinging her book, at the same time
treating me to a glance which puzzled me considerably. I wondered if I
had mistaken its significance, for it had seemed to imply that she had
accepted me as an ally. Certainly it served to awaken me to the fact
that I had discovered a keen personal interest in the mystery which
hung over this queerly assorted household.

I glanced at my friend as the Colonel led the way into the house. I saw
him staring upward with a peculiar expression upon his face, and
following the direction of his glance I could see an awning spread over
one of the gray-stone balconies. Beneath it, reclining in a long cane
chair, lay Madame de Stämer. I think she was asleep; at any rate, she
gave no sign, but lay there motionless, as Harley and I walked in
through the open French window followed by Colonel Menendez.

BOOK: Bat-Wing
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