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Authors: Sax Rohmer

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Odd and unimportant details sometimes linger long in the memory. And I
remember noticing that a needle of sunlight, piercing a crack in the
gaily-striped awning rested upon a ring which Madame wore, so that the
diamonds glittered like sparks of white-hot fire.

Chapter VI - The Barrier
*

Colonel Menendez conducted us to a long, lofty library in which might
be detected the same note of un-English luxury manifested in the other
appointments of the house. The room, in common with every other which I
had visited in Cray's Folly, was carried out in oak: doors, window
frames, mantelpiece, and ceiling representing fine examples of this
massive woodwork. Indeed, if the eccentricity of the designer of Cray's
Folly were not sufficiently demonstrated by the peculiar plan of the
building, its construction wholly of granite and oak must have remarked
him a man of unusual if substantial ideas.

There were four long windows opening on to a veranda which commanded a
view of part of the rose garden and of three terraced lawns descending
to a lake upon which I perceived a number of swans. Beyond, in the
valley, lay verdant pastures, where cattle grazed. A lark hung
carolling blithely far above, and the sky was almost cloudless. I could
hear a steam reaper at work somewhere in the distance. This, with the
more intimate rattle of a lawn-mower wielded by a gardener who was not
visible from where I stood, alone disturbed the serene silence, except
that presently I detected the droning of many bees among the roses.
Sunlight flooded the prospect; but the veranda lay in shadow, and that
long, oaken room was refreshingly cool and laden with the heavy perfume
of the flowers.

From the windows, then, one beheld a typical English summer-scape, but
the library itself struck an altogether more exotic note. There were
many glazed bookcases of a garish design in ebony and gilt, and these
were laden with a vast collection of works in almost every European
language, reflecting perhaps the cosmopolitan character of the
colonel's household. There was strange Spanish furniture upholstered in
perforated leather and again displaying much gilt. There were suits of
black armour and a great number of Moorish ornaments. The pictures were
fine but sombre, and all of the Spanish school.

One Velasquez in particular I noted with surprise, reflecting that,
assuming it to be an authentic work of the master, my entire worldly
possessions could not have enabled me to buy it. It was the portrait of
a typical Spanish cavalier and beyond doubt a Menendez. In fact, the
resemblance between the haughty Spanish grandee, who seemed about to
step out of the canvas and pick a quarrel with the spectator, and
Colonel Don Juan himself was almost startling. Evidently, our host had
imported most of his belongings from Cuba.

"Gentlemen," he said, as we entered, "make yourselves quite at home, I
beg. All my poor establishment contains is for your entertainment and
service."

He drew up two long, low lounge chairs, the arms provided with
receptacles to contain cooling drinks; and the mere sight of these
chairs mentally translated me to the Spanish Main, where I pictured
them set upon the veranda of that hacienda which had formerly been our
host's residence.

Harley and I became seated and Colonel Menendez disposed himself upon a
leather-covered couch, nodding apologetically as he did so.

"My health requires that I should recline for a certain number of hours
every day," he explained. "So you will please forgive me."

"My dear Colonel Menendez," said Harley, "I feel sure that you are
interrupting your siesta in order to discuss the unpleasant business
which finds us in such pleasant surroundings. Allow me once again to
suggest that we postpone this matter until, shall we say, after
dinner?"

"No, no! No, no," protested the Colonel, waving his hand deprecatingly.
"Here is Pedro with coffee and some curaçao of a kind which I can
really recommend, although you may be unfamiliar with it."

I was certainly unfamiliar with the liqueur which he insisted we must
taste, and which was contained in a sort of square, opaque bottle
unknown, I think, to English wine merchants. Beyond doubt it was potent
stuff; and some cigars which the Spaniard produced on this occasion and
which were enclosed in little glass cylinders resembling test-tubes and
elaborately sealed, I recognized to be priceless. They convinced me, if
conviction had not visited me already, that Colonel Don Juan Sarmiento
Menendez belonged to that old school of West Indian planters by whom
the tradition of the Golden Americas had been for long preserved in the
Spanish Main.

We discussed indifferent matters for a while, sipping this wonderful
curaçao of our host's. The effect created by the Colonel's story faded
entirely, and when, the latter being unable to conceal his drowsiness,
Harley stood up, I took the hint with gratitude; for at that moment I
did not feel in the mood to discuss serious business or indeed business
of any kind.

"Gentlemen," said the Colonel, also rising, in spite of our protests,
"I will observe your wishes. My guests' wishes are mine. We will meet
the ladies for tea on the terrace."

Harley and I walked out into the garden together, our courteous host
standing in the open window, and bowing in that exaggerated fashion
which in another might have been ridiculous but which was possible in
Colonel Menendez, because of the peculiar grace of deportment which was
his.

As we descended the steps I turned and glanced back, I know not why.
But the impression which I derived of the Colonel's face as he stood
there in the shadow of the veranda was one I can never forget.

His expression had changed utterly, or so it seemed to me. He no longer
resembled Velasquez' haughty cavalier; gone, too, was the debonnaire
bearing, I turned my head aside swiftly, hoping that he had not
detected my backward glance.

I felt that I had violated hospitality. I felt that I had seen what I
should not have seen. And the result was to bring about that which no
story of West Indian magic could ever have wrought in my mind.

A dreadful, cold premonition claimed me, a premonition that this was a
doomed man.

The look which I had detected upon his face was an indefinable, an
indescribable look; but I had seen it in the eyes of one who had been
bitten by a poisonous reptile and who knew his hours to be numbered. It
was uncanny, unnerving; and whereas at first the atmosphere of Colonel
Menendez's home had seemed to be laden with prosperous security, now
that sense of ease and restfulness was gone—and gone for ever.

"Harley," I said, speaking almost at random, "this promises to be the
strangest case you have ever handled."

"Promises?" Paul Harley laughed shortly. "It
is
the strangest
case, Knox. It is a case of wheels within wheels, of mystery crowning
mystery. Have you studied our host?"

"Closely."

"And what conclusion have you formed?"

"None at the moment; but I think one is slowly crystalizing."

"Hm," muttered Harley, as we paced slowly on amid the rose trees. "Of
one thing I am satisfied."

"What is that?"

"That Colonel Menendez is not afraid of Bat Wing, whoever or whatever
Bat Wing may be."

"Not afraid?"

"Certainly he is not afraid, Knox. He has possibly been afraid in the
past, but now he is resigned."

"Resigned to what?"

"Resigned to death!"

"Good God, Harley, you are right!" I cried. "You are right! I saw it in
his eyes as we left the library."

Harley stopped and turned to me sharply.

"You saw this in the Colonel's eyes?" he challenged.

"I did."

"Which corroborates my theory," he said, softly; "for
I
had seen
it elsewhere."

"Where do you mean, Harley?"

"In the face of Madame de Stämer."

"What?"

"Knox"—Harley rested his hand upon my arm and looked about him
cautiously—"
she knows.
"

"But knows what?"

"That is the question which we are here to answer, but I am as sure as
it is humanly possible to be sure of anything that whatever Colonel
Menendez may tell us to-night, one point at least he will withhold."

"What do you expect him to withhold?"

"The meaning of the sign of the Bat Wing."

"Then you think he knows its meaning?"

"He has told us that it is the death-token of Voodoo."

I stared at Harley in perplexity.

"Then you believe his explanation to be false?"

"Not necessarily, Knox. It may be what he claims for it. But he is
keeping something back. He speaks all the time from behind a barrier
which he, himself, has deliberately erected against me."

"I cannot understand why he should do so," I declared, as he looked at
me steadily. "Within the last few moments I have become definitely
convinced that his appeal to you was no idle one. Therefore, why should
he not offer you every aid in his power?"

"Why, indeed?" muttered Harley.

"The same thing," I continued, "applies to Madame de Stämer. If ever I
have seen love-light in a woman's eyes I have seen it in hers, to-day,
whenever her glance has rested upon Colonel Menendez. Harley, I believe
she literally worships the ground he walks upon."

"She does, she does!" cried my companion, and emphasized the words with
beats of his clenched fist. "It is utterly, damnably mystifying. But I
tell you, she knows, Knox, she knows!"

"You mean she knows that he is a doomed man?"

Harley nodded rapidly.

"They both know," he replied; "but there is something which they dare
not divulge."

He glanced at me swiftly, and his bronzed face wore a peculiar
expression.

"Have you had an opportunity of any private conversation with Miss Val
Beverley?" he enquired.

"Yes," I said. "Surely you remember that you found me chatting with her
when you returned from your inspection of the tower."

"I remember perfectly well, but I thought you might have just met. Now
it appears to me, Knox, that you have quickly established yourself in
the good books of a very charming girl. My only reason for visiting the
tower was to afford you just this opportunity! Don't frown. Beyond
reminding you of the fact that she has been on intimate terms with
Madame de Stämer for some years, I will not intrude in any way upon
your private plans in that direction."

I stared at him, and I suppose my expression was an angry one.

"Surely you don't misunderstand me?" he said. "A cultured English girl
of that type cannot possibly have lived with these people without
learning something of the matters which are puzzling us so badly. Am I
asking too much?"

"I see what you mean," I said, slowly. "No, I suppose you are right,
Harley."

"Good," he muttered. "I will leave that side of the enquiry in your
very capable hands, Knox."

He paused, and began to stare about him.

"From this point," said he, "we have an unobstructed view of the
tower."

We turned and stood looking up at the unsightly gray structure, with
its geometrical rows of windows and the minaret-like gallery at the
top.

"Of course"—I broke a silence of some moments duration—"the entire
scheme of Cray's Folly is peculiar, but the rooms, except for a
uniformity which is monotonous, and an unimaginative scheme of
decoration which makes them all seem alike, are airy and well lighted,
eminently sane and substantial. The tower, however, is quite
inexcusable, unless the idea was to enable the occupant to look over
the tops of the trees in all directions."

"Yes," agreed Harley, "it is an ugly landmark. But yonder up the slope
I can see the corner of what seems to be a very picturesque house of
some kind."

"I caught a glimpse of it earlier to-day," I replied. "Yes, from this
point a little more of it is visible. Apparently quite an old place."

I paused, staring up the hillside, but Harley, hands locked behind him
and chin lowered reflectively, was pacing on. I joined him, and we
proceeded for some little distance in silence, passing a gardener who
touched his cap respectfully and to whom I thought at first my
companion was about to address some remark. Harley passed on, however,
still occupied, it seemed, with his reflections, and coming to a gravel
path which, bordering one side of the lawns, led down from terrace to
terrace into the valley, turned, and began to descend.

"Let us go and interview the swans," he murmured absently.

Chapter VII - At the Lavender Arms
*

In certain moods Paul Harley was impossible as a companion, and I, who
knew him well, had learned to leave him to his own devices at such
times. These moods invariably corresponded with his meeting some
problem to the heart of which the lance of his keen wit failed to
penetrate. His humour might not display itself in the spoken word, he
merely became oblivious of everything and everybody around him. People
might talk to him and he scarce noted their presence, familiar faces
appear and he would see them not. Outwardly he remained the observant
Harley who could see further into a mystery than any other in England,
but his observation was entirely introspective; although he moved amid
the hustle of life he was spiritually alone, communing with the
solitude which dwells in every man's heart.

Presently, then, as we came to the lake at the foot of the sloping
lawns, where water lilies were growing and quite a number of swans had
their habitation, I detected the fact that I had ceased to exist so far
as Harley was concerned. Knowing this mood of old, I pursued my way
alone, pressing on across the valley and making for a swing gate which
seemed to open upon a public footpath. Coming to this gate I turned and
looked back.

Paul Harley was standing where I had left him by the edge of the lake,
staring as if hypnotized at the slowly moving swans. But I would have
been prepared to wager that he saw neither swans nor lake, but mentally
was far from the spot, deep in some complex maze of reflection through
which no ordinary mind could hope to follow him.

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