The first instalment of a fascinating mystery serial by the author of “A Little Way Ahead"
Wanted as Private Secretary by scientist. Young gentleman without personal obligations of any sort. Good ancestry. Must be of perfect physical condition with no hereditary taint. Excellent salary. Apply in person only to A.B., Monk’s Mount, Hoddesdon, Herts.
BUNK!” scoffed young Court over his bacon and eggs.
He settled down to breakfast, champing his food with the gusto of a healthy young animal—which indeed he was. In between quantities of tea and toast, he ferreted out other advertisements, regarding them with the brightly curious eye of a youthful Crusader who is ready for anything. They were of all kinds, but unfortunately most of them required qualifications that he was not in a position to produce.
He could go to a stock farm in Malaya; go as assistant bookkeeper on the Gold Coast; go as estimator on public works in Hongkong; go as companion to a gentleman about to investigate irrigation in Australia; go almost anywhere if . . .
The “if” brought him up short in each case, and rather enjoying the situation, he harked back to the top of the column, going over the points one by one and delivering his replies to the now empty teapot. Obligations—well—say twenty pounds, because he hated debt. The matter of ancestry made him grin. Ancestry to burn, but it wasn’t the sort of thing one gassed about, though there had been Courts in Hampshire when, as he put it, Bill the Conqueror had started the DoverCalais service. Physical condition—here his eye roved to a mantel burdened with cups, bowls and cigarette boxes, the loot of many athletic arenas. Hereditary taint; he wrinkled a smooth brow at that and didn’t half like it. Too beastly personal, though he was shining clear of anything of the sort. What the devil was the man driving at? It sounded like some brute of a vivisectionist. Excellent salary—at this he gave an expansive smile, revealing remarkably strong and even teeth, and addressed his other self with studied formality:
“My friend, you have three hundred a year, or just enough to make you want more. You’re not in love, and have no wish to be. You’re straight bred, not cross bred. You’ve most of the goods this party at Hoddesdon seems to be looking for. You can’t type, you can’t do the shorthand trick, but you can be very, very private. Your physical condition is Al plus, and again some. At twelve stone, you’re the quickest man on your feet in England. Also you need this money. Hector, my friend, you’re for it.”
He cut out the advertisement, fastened it to a visiting card, rang for an A.B.C., and contemplated the drabness of Ebury Street on a foggy November morning. His eye roved reminiscently to the glittering collection on the mantel. At that he took a half sheet of paper, and laboriously compiled a few biographical notes. These he read over with a mildly astonished air.
“Gad!” he murmured, “didn’t think I had so much to show for my wasted youth.”
ABOUT mid-forenoon he alighted at Hoddesdon Station, learned that Monk’s Mount was two miles distant, out Hertford way, and set off swinging a stick. In half an hour he halted opposite a stone-built lodge commanding a pair of large iron gates.
Beyond the gates a driveway curved out of sight between masses of rhododendron bushes. This road ran roproximately north, and east and west was a thick growth of timber. The ground sloped in the direction in which he looked, and the farthest view was of the horizon only, nor could one tell where or how distantly the house might lie. On each side of the lodge stretched a high brick wall, its unbroken sweep investing the invisible mansion with an atmosphere of severe seclusion. Here, twenty miles from London, patches of fog still trailed slowly across the damp earth, and there was a chill in the air. This, coupled with the uncommunicative aspect of the property, gave young Court a fleeting moment of depression. Then he knocked at the lodge door.
It was opened by a very old man, his spine so bent with rheumatism that his beaded chin was pressed stiffly down against his sunkenfbhest. It was only by twisting the upper part of his body that he could look up, and when he did so, it was a sidewise leer that seemed almost sinister. He stood, thin legs bowed like a jockey’s, naked skull sheathed in a small black cap—an attentive gnome on his doorstep. Hector experienced the swift, congenital aversion that strident youth has at all times entertained against aged deformity.
‘‘Is this Monk’s Mount?”
The gnome curved his spine a shade further.
“Then I’d like to see Mr. A.B. . . . whatever his name is.”
A curious thing now happened. The sagging wrinkled lids opened more fully, and Hector found himself confronted by a pair of very shrewd if faded eyes. Their expression changed. At first hard, they became tempered with interest, then with a quality that almost approached pity. They seemed to explore the young man, seemed to like him. One could imagine that age signalled something to youth—and trusted youth to understand. Hector, too surprised to speak, did not stir. Presently the lids lowered again, occulting the old eyes’ softened gleam as the revolving shutter of a lighthouse cuts off the full, plangent ray.
The ancient, swiftly and visibly, withdrew again into himself.
“Mr. A.B. . . . whoever he is.” This with a sort of dry cackle, startling in its suddenness.
“Aye, whoever he is! I often wonder that myself, or it might be whatever he is. You’ll be from London, young master?”
“A fine place, London; a grand place. Why d’ye leave it?” He shot this out abruptly, then seemed to regret having said it.
“Perhaps I’ll tell you some day. Now can I see this gentleman?”
“Aye, ’twill be Mr. Absalom.” The gnome took his card, cackled again, and with another oblique look at the young man unlocked the gates. “Follow to the house, and the rest is easy. Maybe too easy.”
“Dotty!” murmured Hector, and walked on up the spongy drive.
The ground was soaked with autumnal rains and thick with dead leaves. Moisture glistened on the crooked black branches of the rhododendrons, and there opened sodden vistas through glades that stretched away across the large, heavily timbered area of the property. They carried the eye to a considerable distance, and Monk’s Mount was evidently an important holding. Hector covered a full half mile before a turn in the drive exposed the house itself.
A big, brick place, painted a yellowish white. The proportions of the windows, the columns at the entrance, the heavily timbered eaves and flat roof proclaimed its Georgian origin. To the east there had been added quite recently a small wing of one story. This threw the front elevation out of design, and had obviously been erected for purely utilitarian purposes. A formal lawn extended on three sides of the house, and some scattered, neglected looking beds displayed a few chrysanthemums and Christmas roses.
Hector halted for a moment with the curiosity of one to whom this habitation might mean much. It had no particular features, but was suggestive of something— perhaps isolation. What would a private secretary do with his spare time in a place like this? Just as well if there were little spare time. The smoke trailed from several chimneys, yet Monk’s Mount looked vacant, with the blankness that certain houses seem to wear on all occasions.
Coming nearer, he scanned the windows, and in the first story perceived a woman’s figure. Too far for any detail. While he looked, the blind was jerked swiftly down. Why should anyone do that? Was it, perhaps, Mrs. Absalom who had stationed herself there to inspect the oncoming tide of possible private secretaries. There would be a tide. No doubt of that. Absalom! One would hate to be called that oneself.
On the porch he paused, hand outstretched to the bell. The sort of moment he knew he would always remember. The bell might wake something that would tinkle down his life for years with a significance all its own. He imagined it hanging, dusty and asleep, waiting for its call, a secret mystical bell. This was a curious thought, the first of its kind for him. No fear in it—or premonition. But a very definite anticipation, and a curiosity that he must certainly gratify. Then he rang, and could not hear the bell at all. Only the slap of a wire.
The man must have been waiting for him, so quickly did the door open, waiting at the handle, ready to twist. It took Hector a little aback. The man was smooth, suave, a butler in approved butler’s morning dress; tail coat, fancy vest, striped trousers. All very correct considering this isolated country house. Very quiet of eye. Quieter still of manner. Hector knew his type, but had not expected to find it here.
But there was something else. He looked subdued beyond the normal, even in a butler; reduced to a sort of plastic, semi-animate image. He might have sensations, emotions, impulses, but it was hard to imagine it. His eye was politely interrogative. It betrayed nothing.
Hector produced his card and the advertisement. “I came to see Mr. Absalom in connection with this.”
The man glanced at the pasteboard, then looked up with a sudden straight stare that was almost recognition. A faint color rose in the large sallow cheeks, and his expression changed.
“Might I ask if you are the Mr. Hector Court, sir?”
“I don’t know anyone else of my name. Why?”
“Did you play for the Gentlemen at Lord’s last year, sir?” This with a rising note in the bland voice.
“I did—but what’s that got to do with it?”
The man regarded him with a sort of homage.
“And you won the amateur middleweight last winter, sir—that was at Queen’s Hall?”
Hector’s brows went up a shade. “What on earth are you driving at? I came here to see Mr. Absalom. Is he in?”
The butler choked a little and made no attempt to conceal his growing admiration. The mask had evaporated, another man peeped out from within, and for a moment Hector saw him, as he had seen many a thousand of his kind, leaning forward, face tense, muscles braced, missing not the pitch of a single ball, the click of a single stroke, or the exchange of a single blow inside the ropes at the N.S.C. English—British—the blood was there, and it was bound to tell.
Just as he was about to speak, a voice sounded in the hall, quick, foreign, sibilant. It was not understandable to Hector, but in that instant the man reverted to his former self.
“Mr. Absalom: certainly, sir. Will you please come this way?”
Hector followed, curiosity very wide awake. He was at once aware that this house was perfectly heated— perhaps overheated. The hall was carpeted with rugs in which his feet made no sound. At the far end stood an Oriental servant with turbaned head and baggy white trousers. He wore sandals and white socks. Behind him a wide staircase led to a halfway landing, lighted through a large square of colored leaded glass.
At the foot of these stairs the butler led the way through a passage, and brought the young man to a small, sparely furnished room in which there were two doors. He judged that now he was in the new wing. This was confirmed by the one window that fronted the curving drive.
“If you will please wait here, sir, I will tell Mr. Absalom.”
Hector yielded to a growing sense of unreality. The man disappeared, and there was a complete silence in which sounded very faintly a slow almost imperceptible stroke whose even rhythm suggested a pump in distant action. Water supply, said the visitor to himself, and examined the room closely. It told him nothing. He hazarded what sort of a scientist Absalom might be, and had turned musingly to the window when the butler re-entered. He had been, away, perhaps five minutes. Opening the other door, he made a gesture.
“Mr. Absalom will see you now, sir.”
Hector found himself standing directly opposite a man who sat at a huge polished table on which numerous papers were methodically arranged. He was smallish, rather sparely built. His very smooth and delicate skin had a sort of transparency. At first sight he gave the impression of youthfulness. Looking closer, one got a suggestion of age. Then a queer conflict between the two. His gray eyes seemed oddly dry, as though lacking a normal lubrication. His brown hair, flat and lustreless, resembled a wig. To this strange aspect a final and startling touch was given by his thick brows in which the hairs grew vertically upright, plastered, so to speak, against the forehead, and investing him with an extraordinary look of frozen curiosity.
Hector, taken off his guard by the unexpected revelation of so strange an individual, started when he heard a quiet, toneless voice. It might have come from a Tussaud waxwork.
“Good morning, Mr. Court. Please sit down.”
Absalom made no motion of offering his hand. He seemed immobile, and save for a flicker of interest in the dry eyes, he looked galvanized. He indicated a chair close to the table, and his features relaxed into a curious smile, not forced, not welcoming, but expressing a sort of satisfaction.
“You have, no doubt, studied the wording of my advertisement, Mr. Court?” Hector nodded. He had a feeling of not desiring to speak till he had to.
“Then I will begin with a few questions which, I hope, you may not consider too personal.”
The voice was peculiar, with little inflection and practically no variation in tone. It sounded clear but thin, lacking any racial or local accent.
“I am quite ready, sir.”
“I require a secretary without personal obligations of any sort. Are you engaged to be married?”
“Heavens, no! Haven’t dreamed of it. Couldn’t afford it anyway.”
“Nor, if I may ask it, have you any understanding of that nature for the immediate future?”
Hector throttled a laugh. “Equally expensive as I see it.”
Absalom, seeming pleased, rested his waxen finger tips on the polished table. “Your age?”
“Twenty-five next March.”
“You are, I take it, entirely free in other ways—that is, you are not expected by your family or others to follow any given pursuit?”
Hector grinned in the most friendly fashion possible. “The family—composed solely of my grandfather—had certain views on that subject, but he gave them up some time ago.”
“Might I ask why?”
“Well—er—you see I’ve been rather fond of sport— games and things. That’s —ah—why I’m here—what you said, you know. Fact is,” he added cheerfully, “I’m not much good at anything else. I can’t type or do the shorthand trick, so—well—upon my soul, sir—I don’t see myself as the ordinary secretary at all. However here we are.”
He rid himself of this with a smile of extreme candor, it being something that had to be said anyway. If, in spite of it, the long chance came off, and he did get the job, there would be no cause for self-reproach in the future. In the next minute he was glad he had said it. Absalom was leaning forward, his eyes distinctly brighter, his interest in his visitor visibly sharpened by the frank confession.
“Mr. Court, that does you considerable credit, and let me add something to reassure you. I do not require the services of the ordinary private secretary. If you have a good memory, can write a fair hand, if—” here he paused for an impressive moment—“if you are ready to give your undertaking that you will divulge nothing of what you may learn here, I think you will prove very suitable.”
“Divulge nothing!” That rather stuck, and Hector, turning a little red, felt uncomfortable.
“I hope it won’t sound like cheek on my part, sir; but—well—hang it all—I suppose I may take it that —er—!”
“I like you better for that.” Here the waxwork face betrayed a growing amusement. “No—you need have no anxiety. I am British born, and my father’s name was Absalom. That may possibly answer some unspoken question. I do not forge or counterfeit; I am not a spy; I do not manufacture gold from lead; nor distribute drugs. Politics do not interest me. I am not wanted by the police of this or any other country.” He nodded, and gave a satirical laugh. “Does that relieve your doubts?”
“It does.” This with a stiff youthful formality and no trace of a smile.
“Then this much more. I am a scientist. My work, which is very technical,” at this point the ageless voice acquired a haunting tone, “needs no skilled assistance. I merely propose the presence of an acceptable and congenial young man, whose greatest service will lie in just by being here. I have reached a time of life when association with youth is, in my opinion, beneficial, but it must be the type of youth that, I think, you represent. Your build and appearance would indicate that you are an athlete. Am I correct?’
Hector produced the sheet over which his brows had wrinkled that morning.
“I—er—stuck this down in case you might be interested. Got the silverware at home to show for it. Fact is, that’s about all I’ve got to say for myself. We’re Hampshire people—place just outside Basingstokerented. Couldn’t afford to live in it if I wanted to. My father was killed in the war, and my mother died soon afterward—couldn’t live without him. My grandfather is eighty-seven and doesn’t miss much at that. His father lived to ninety-three. I’ve got three hundred a year of my own, with no strings on it, but it’s either too much for my good, or not enough. And—er—I don’t seem to think of anything else.”
Mr. Absalom made a little circle with his fingertip. This seemed to be in lieu of immediate answer, and he looked at the young man with a baffling expression. Satisfaction was in it, and, obviously, he mentally moved on, covering point after point with deliberate analysis. This process eliminated young Court for the moment, yet seemed to refer to him as the starting focus of the whole cycle.
It was queer to be thus set aside, yet included. But one could only wait, and Hector, vividly aware of the voiceless scrutiny, examined the room in which he sat. One wall was lined with books. Another had a large window commanding the lawn, so this would be the east end of the new wing. The north wall which interested the visitor most, had two doors, one of ordinary make, the other so heavily built and massively bolted that it might have been the entrance to a strong room. A terrestrial globe stood in a corner. Beneath it lay a large iron dumb-bell, a prodigious thing that seemed to mock Absalom’s delicate proportions. Absalom sat facing south, the natural light over his left shoulder. The table held no ash trays; so, evidently, he was not a smoker. Beside him were several books on anthropology.
Young Court noted these details with photographic exactness, and was wondering what branch of science Absalom pursued, when there appeared from beneath the table the strangest cat he had ever seen. It stood looking up at him with huge, globular, yellow eyes, their black pupils expanding and contracting with slow but regular pulsations. The animal was grizzled, save for a faded tawny ruff that completely encircled its neck. In the middle of its breast was a yellow patch. Its black nose was wrinkled, its pads, wide and flat, left the iron gray claws fully revealed, and Hector, who loathed cats, was at once convinced that never before had he seen so old a beast.
Of the feline world, in an odd way, it was something more. In some grotesque fashion it appeared to be linked mysteriously with Absalom himself. Something about Absalom supplied what the cat liked, and Hector could not imagine it living outside the precincts of the chemically faced man at the big table.
Its eyes, glowing and occulting, expressed a formidable and contemptuous secrecy, and Hector, staring at it with healthy aversion, found himself wishing that he knew what this aged and repulsive animal appeared to know. The cat turned stiffly and stalked out of sight. There came a soft chuckle from Absalom.
“That is Maktai, an old retainer of mine. I should have introduced you. Mr. Court, I have been considering the matter, and if you can pass a very simple physical examination, I will make you a proposal.”
There was nothing mysterious about that, and Hector welcomed it. But why, and again why, was so much stress laid on physical condition?
“All right, sir.”
“That weight in the corner, for instance. Could you lift it?”
Court picked it up, left-handed, and stood grinning.
“And just possibly put it over your head?”
The bell went up instantly.
“Ah!” A new note came into the voice. “I suppose one could hardly hold it at arms’ length?”
Hector grunted, spread his feet a little, and the mass was poised horizontally at shoulder height. Absalom gave an exclamation—the most human sound that escaped him that morning—took out his watch, and counted the seconds.
“Thanks—thanks—quite enough. Put it down gently, please. Now may I test your heart—at once?”
He produced a stethoscope. Hector got an extraordinary sensation in looking down at the head of this stranger close to his breast. The brown hair was thin, but so carefully arranged as to appear thick. Absalom’s skin seemed at this range to have been overlaid with wax parchment, the surface of which, not reached by the circulation of blood, formed a sort of sheathing. It explained the effect of transparency so noticeable at first sight. There was nothing wrinkled or warped in his make-up, yet he produced the impression of— of . . .
Hector had got thus far when, ear still tojiis instrument, Absalom gave a decisive nod.
“Very remarkable indeed. Your heart-beat is already normal.”
“Thanks awfully, but matter of fact, sir, I don’t see that all this has anything to do with the job.”
“Ah—the job—yes; it’s more than possible that you don’t, but—” here he spread his fingers in a curious manner—“I’m perfectly able to pay for my little whims. So what do you say to five hundred a year to start with?”
Hector blinked at him. “It’s a lot more than I expected.”
“So much the better, and we’ll call it that. Now, is there anything you care to ask me?”
There was, but in view of what had just transpired a certain difficulty occurred in putting it forward. This house was lonely. Absalom, one might assume, lived in solitude, too plunged in his science to care for anything else. At a glance he was no sportsman. He gave a definite impression of safeguarding himself against most things. So what was a secretary to do with his spare time in Monk’s Mount? One might eat one’s heart out here, and the world be none the wiser.
The aspect of the place had depressed him. These damp trees; these hundreds of sodden acres; the high brick wall; nothing unusual about this, yet it began to take on a formless but significant meaning. The silence of the house; the sallow mask of the butler’s face; the Oriental servants; against these the vitality of splendid youth registered its protest. It objected to signing away freedom—even for five hundred á year.
“There was something,” he murmured, turning a little red; “but probably ...”
Absalom sent him a galvanized smile.
“One moment—one important point I overlooked giving you. I am a widower, but do not live alone here. My stepdaughter is with me. I think that you and she will find each other very companionable.
Permit me to introduce you.”
He touched a bell. The butler answered immediately.
“Hervey, ask Miss Anthea to come here a moment.” When they were alone, he continued with a subtle change in his voice.
“My first wife died—a good many years ago. Later, I remarried with a lady who had one daughter. The mother did not survive long, but I am happy that her daughter is still with me. She will welcome to this house one so near her own age. I hope you will become very good friends.”
He paused here, showing a touch of uncertainty, and Hector experienced a mild confusion. Why all these details? And did anything other than hospitality lie behind them? He was puzzling over it when the butler returned.
“Miss Anthea is not in the house, sir.”
Absalom sat up very straight. “Are you sure?” “Quite certain, sir. She was here half an hour ago, but not now.”
“Did she leave any word?” This with a steely snap. “No, sir.” The butler was exhibiting a growing nervousness.
For a moment nothing happened, but Hector, now keenly alert, saw that the white fingers had gripped the arms of the chair, and Absalom’s body took on a strange rigidity. The vertical brows seemed to bristle, the gray eyes sharpened to points, and a slow color mounted under the waxen skin. He did not stir, but fought visibly with the onrush of a flood of anger, the battle transforming him into something new, strange and menacing. Then, in a breath, he looked actually frightened and gave an unnatural laugh.
“Well, well, it doesn’t matter. That will do.”
The butler vanished thankfully, the door closed, and there came another note in the voice of the master of Monk’s Mount.
“I must apologize, but sometimes I get a touch of vertigo. Too much blood in the head. I would have been glad to introduce you to-day, so shall we call it but a pleasure postponed?”
Hector fumbled for words. Ten minutes ago he would have accepted forthwith, but the vision of another Absalom was not to be put aside. He was still hesitating when the great yellow-eyed cat stepped softly out and stood staring at him, back curved, the lambent, unwinking gaze expressing again that secret knowledge, with the same contemptuous indifference. At this he became in a ridiculous way convinced that the beast was allied with Absalom—who he knew was also staring—in some unholy and furtive alliance. Absalom and Maktai needed each other. But why did they need him?
“Would it be all right, sir, if I let you know in a
The mask descended over Absalom’s face. “I would much prefer an answer now.”
“I’d like to —er—think it over, sir.”
“Yes; but I suggest that there will be no difficulty in finding what I want at the salary.”
Hector, admitting that this was true, visualized the trek of husky youth that would set out for Monk’s Mount before the day had passed.
“Is there any point on which you desire more information?” Absalom spoke quietly, patiently. “My own work, for instance, though you would have no responsibility there, is anthropology.”
That might mean much—or nothing—and Hector explored his own brain. Something warned him to let this five hundred go, let the other fellow have it. He felt the nearness of the unhealthy, the sinister, the incredible.
“It’s not that,” he jerked out; “but I just want to think it over. Awfully decent of you to tell me as much as you have, but I’ve certain things to consider on my own side. If I took the job I’d do my best. If you don’t want to wait, please don’t consider me at all.”
“I quite understand, but—” here Absalom shrugged his narrow shoulders—“I think I prefer to wait. Will you let me know within four days?”
Hector extended a muscular hand. “Very good, sir. I’ll write—and thanks very much.”
Absalom put out a slender palm, and, just too late, lowered it a fraction. Engulfed in the young man’s bone and sinew, it collapsed softly, without resistance. He gave an exclamation, jerked it back, and bent on the visitor the strangest possible look of blended admiration, satisfaction and pain. It must have been the pain that moistened his eyes. Then, deliberately, he straightened the crumpled fingers one by one.
“Frightfully sorry, sir. I’ve been warned about that before.”
“Mr. Court,” he said, slowly exercising his numb joints, “just one word more. I want you here—not anyone else—and it is not a matter of salary. A few hundred a year more or less means nothing to me. Without your being aware of it, you have demonstrated that you can fill this post better than any other applicant I am likely to find. Whatever you want when you get here, you shall have. Your time won’t drag—I can promise that. Can we not settle this matter on the spot?”
Into Hector’s memory flashed one of the few Latin proverbs he could ever recall. “I fear the Greeks even when bringing their gifts.” And if Absalom was not a Greek, the impression was the same. So the young man shook his head like an amiable mastiff. “Four days, sir, if you don’t mind.” “Frankly, I do mind, but have it your own way. I shall be surprised if you don’t turn up. No—we won’t shake hands again.” He pressed the bell. This time an Indian servant opened the door. Absalom glanced at him sharply, frowned, and said something in a foreign tongue.
“Au revoir, Mr. Court. Four days.”
The front door of Monk’s Mount closed without sound, and Hector, fifty yards down the drive, glanced back at the windows of that silent mansion. They were untenanted. Was it the girl, Anthea, who stood watching him an hour ago? If so, and he grinned at the thought, she wasn’t attracted by his appearance.
And why was it that Absalom’s last appeal left him so cold? Why had the crookbacked lodgekeeper chuckled at Absalom’s name, and said “Whatever he is?” Why was the butler one man in one minute, and another the next? Why was Absalom so keen about the body and indifferent as to the brain?
He strode on, angry with himself for being puzzled, then, halfway between mansion and house, and out of sight of both, came a low whistle close by. The butler stepped into the drive.
“Mr. Court, sir—just a minute!”
This stealthy appearance matched with everything else. It fitted, and Hector felt only a mild surprise. But the man himself was under tension, with the air of one forced to the point of speech, whatever the consequences. Apprehensively he glanced back toward the house.
“Mr. Court, are you coming here?” The voice creaked a little.
“Don’t know—probably not—haven’t decided yet. I say, what sort of a place is this anyway?”
Fear, or some hidden influence that had the weight of fear, settled on the man. His natural self receded as it had before.
“Mr. Court,” he said in a hoarse whisper, “if you do, it will be a stiffer thing than you’ve tackled yet. I’ve seen you fight like a lion, but it’s another sort of courage that’s needed here.”
A step was audible coming up the drive, and he darted out of sight in the direction of Monk’s Mount.
On the way back to Hoddesdon the young man made what enquiries seemed possible, gleaning bits of information here and there. But when strung together they produced nothing at all definite.
Absalom had bought Monk’s Mount some ten years previously, and immediately added the east wing. He was seldom seen outside the grounds, though his stepdaughter, described as a very attractive young lady, frequently went to London. Visitors came to Monk’s Mount, many of them foreign, and did not stay there long. The Indian servants—and local imagination had full play here— never left the property. There was good shooting at Monk’s Mount, but Absalom never shot, and the coverts were overfull of game. Nor did he hunt. To general belief he was rich. Young people never came to the house, and Absalom’s friends all seemed much older than himself.
All this was unusual, decided Hector, but not helpful. He had no personal acquaintances in the neighborhood whom he could question further, so he journeyed back to town, staring dubiously at the drab country that lies to the north of Liverpool Street Station. The affair both attracted and repelled, and a salary that, apparently, he might fix for himself was no small incentive. But “courage of another sort” baffled him completely. And was it possible in this twentieth century that a man put his butler under oath of silence?
The thing stuck. Next morning it still stuck. He was wrestling with it when the telephone rang, and at once he recognized the very brisk and pleasant voice of Mrs. Baxter, an admirable friend, and old enough to be his grandmother. She entertained constantly in her big house in St. James Square, and stood out prominently in the social world of London.
“It’s you, Hector?”
“Then I want to-morrow night—dinner —quite small—sort of dinner you said you liked.”
“Awfully sorry, Mrs. Baxter, but can’t do it—booked since last month. Frightfully good of you.”
“Don’t talk rot. You’ve got to come —really.”
“But, you dear old thing, how can I without putting my feet in it elsewhere. That’s the trouble. Understand, don’t you?”
“Ye-es,” she said plaintively, “perhaps I do, but, Hector, this time I want you to be very rude to someone else—no, don’t tell me who it is—and very charming to me. I’ve never expected you to do such a thing before, have I?”
He admitted that. She had been extraordinarily kind to him and all of the younger set, kept open house, was a discerning hostess, never asked questions and, altogether, had made a name for herself, even in London. That she should now urge him to do a thing which, had it been done to herself would be hotly resented, struck him as not a little surprising. And at one day’s notice!
“I—hang it all—you’ve been so frightfully decent—well—”
“You’re a dear boy,” she broke in, “and I don’t think you’ll be sorry. Eight fifteen.”
“Anyone special coming?”
“My small dinners are always handpicked,” she said with a laugh. “Till to-morrow, then.”
T_TE FELT moody all morning, knowing that he was going to decline Absalom’s offer, and attacking himself for throwing away a good thing. He would not confess that he was afraid of what he might find, and fear, he argued, had no part in it. It was rather an intuitive drawing away from—from . . .
At lunch he met a young man, clever, traveled, a good linguist, private secretary to a member of Parliament. He got three hundred and fifty a year for this. At dinner he learned that professional men were rarely self-supporting before twenty-six or -seven. At breakfast he noted that Absalom’s advertisement was withdrawn. This suggested the army of hopeful youth that must have visited Hoddesdon. In the afternoon he played rackets at the Bath Club, losing every game, and decided to emigrate to Canada.
In consequence, his mental condition had not clarified when he arrived at St. James Square, and Mrs. Baxter, with a very special smile, introduced him to a Miss Reichert.
In the case of men like young Court, who are both of and in society, there is rarely such a thing as love at first sight. The eye is too experienced, their youth is too coolly poised. Love, when they arrive at that stage, is a condition as much as a passion. It is apt to be deliberate and decidedly selective. It is preceded by disturbances, of which the symptoms are well-known and form the subject of amazingly free discussions. The preliminary to these disturbances is, generally, the noticing of a difference.
Thus with Hector. He felt aware of a pleasing variation. The Reichert girl was tall, dark, and of a quieter type than one usually found at Mrs. Baxter’s. She was not beautiful, but beautifully made. When he was introduced, he wondered vaguely whether they had not met before. He hazarded this.
“No, I’m sure we haven’t. I’ve been at Mrs. Baxter’s several times, but you weren’t here.”
“Then somewhere else?”
She was quite positive, and when he learned that she was to he in town only for a day or two, he felt disappointed. By the time they went in to dinner, he was interested. He caught Mrs. Baxter’s eye fixed on them, and surmised that she had taken up matchmaking in her old age. But he couldn’t afford that game—and she knew it.
“You don’t live in London, then?” he said.
Queer that she should be so abrupt, but it rather intrigued him. Something foreign about her, yet voice and manner were definitely English. At times he thought she was nervous, and shy at others, but she expressed that which somehow attracted him. Her eyes were restless, roving frequently from himself to Mrs. Baxter.
“I’m London,” he said, “and Hampshire. Not much Hants about it now. What’s the most interestin’ thing you’ve done lately?”
Miss Reichert was afraid that life had offered nothing very interesting.
“I went there yesterday to a place near Hoddesdon—funny old hole, Hoddesdon —to see a chap who’d advertised for a well-muscled private secretary.”
“Oh !” Her voice had lifted a little.
“Rum sort of Johnny when I found him, and I’ve been guessing ever since.” He breezed on with the cheerful assurance of youth, describing Monk’s Mount, its mysterious butler, and the chemically faced man he found in the study.
“Now I ask you what you would make of all that?” he concluded.
She touched his arm, and gave him an extraordinary look.
“Mr. Court, please forgive me for not telling you before. You—you are talking about my stepfather!”
It was amazing—incredible. He turned very red—stammered out something, and looked at her miserably.
“I—er—Miss Reichert—I’m frightfully sorry—no end of an ass. But how on earth was I to—?”
He broke off, still floundering. The girl was not vexed—not offended. There was a faint smile on her lips, and her face was wistful. He had not known that a face could be so wistful. It seemed that she sympathized and understood perfectly and wanted to say something herself but could not. Then, oddly, his glance was drawn to Mrs. Baxter, and he met that lady’s eye squarely. It seemed that she must have overheard and was interested.
“I never knew of such a coincidence,” he floundered on. “Mr. Absalom told me he had a stepdaughter and wanted me to meet her, but she had gone out.” He paused, thinking it wiser to say nothing of Absalom’s expression when he learned that. “So that was you—and you’re Anthea?”
She nodded. Then, as though to anticipate what he might say next: “I saw you coming up the drive. Did you see me?” “Just for a second. And I know why you went out.” He chuckled reminiscently. “Look here, this beats anything I ever heard of.”
He paused again, full of sudden desire to ask her a thousand things. The butler —Maktai—Absalom and his science— she was in the midst of this. He wanted to ask what a secretary could do with his spare time, but now, curiously, this point seemed less pressing. He wondered if he could persuade her, later, to tell him enough to clear the Monk’s Mount fog from his brain.
“That place had me beat,” he ventured, watching her closely. “Mr. Absalom seemed keen to engage me—very liberal about salary and all that—so much so that I couldn’t see why he wanted me at the price. And there isn’t much I can do for him—from what he told me himself.” “There isn’t a great deal,” she answered in a small voice.
“So it seemed. Then he asked me to do stunts with a dumbbell, and listened to my heart. That had me guessing. I say,” he went on frankly, “perhaps it’s silly to ask you, but do you think I ought to take it on? And oh—Maktai—do you like that beast?”
She shuddered a little. “I hate it !”
“It gave me the creeps. Fact is,” he went on with increasing disregard for his dinner, “I wish I could ask you a heap of things, but you being you makes it impossible. Known Mrs. Baxter long?” “For several years: she’s a close friend of Mr. Absalom. She comes ...”
Her voice receded, faded to the merest whisper, and died. Her face had turned a dead white. It looked fear-smitten, almost haunted.
“I say, steady there: drink your wine— a lot of it—that’s right—now hold your breath as long as you can and stick your head down a bit ! Good ! Feel better?” “Yes,” she murmured gratefully; “now please don’t notice me. I’ll be all right.” He turned to the woman on his left, talking generalities with small success. There was also the impression that Mrs. Baxter had missed nothing. At that end of the table were the usual badinage and laughter, but her glance wandered frequently to the girl with a suggestion of half-smothered excitement. No mistaking it. Presently Anthea joined in and Hector felt better. It was after dinner, in a corner of the music room that they came together again—and alone.
“You really think of coming to Monk’s Mount?” she said lightly. “It isn’t so lonely as it looks, and we have plenty of visitors. Mrs. Baxter often runs down in her car.”
“I’m rather up against it. I came away from there, wanting to know a heap of things I couldn’t very well ask. Your stepfather didn’t— well—didn’t exactly invite questions.”
“Then why not ask me?” She said this hurriedly—in a tone suggesting that she hardly expected him to ask.
“Well, at the risk of sounding like an idiot, the place gave me a silly sort of discomfort. Mr. Absalom was ...”
He stopped, realizing the futility of the moment, nor was it possible to express to her a fraction of what he felt. It was absurd to talk to this girl of some nameless horror—there was no other word for it—he imagined existing in Monk’s Mount. She lived there. She breathed the very air from which he had recoiled, this slight delicate creature who already exercised so unescapable an appeal.
“You’re afraid to come,” she said in a low, clear voice.
He frowned at her, for here was cold, naked truth. So far, he had been a stranger to fear. Uncertainty he had known—but not fear. And now it stood stripped bare by a girl whose home was where he shrank from going.
“It would be nice if you did come,” she added, looking at him in a strangely earnest manner. Mr. Absalom is really the kindest man in the world. He’s hot tempered, but gets over it at once. He’s frightfully generous. We have horses, and I ride a good deal in the park, though it’s lonely sometimes. And there’s golf close by.”
The fog in his brain began to clear. Had she put things in another way, had there been anything warmer than a very simple friendliness in her attitude, he could not have felt so reassured. But this was sane, healthy and out-of-doors. Monk’s Mount seemed now infinitely less of a mystery.
“I say, I believe I’ve been a bit of an ass.’;
He hoped she would smile at that, but there was no smile, only a sort of hope in the large dark eyes. He berated himself caustically as an imaginative fool who didn’t know a good thing when he saw it. With this he felt the promptings of a new sense of protection. There was nothing of love in it. but a kind of shame, and the cryptic warning of the butler about another sort of courage began to sound like a challenge.
“You’re sure you’d like me to come?” He looked at her very straight.
“Does it turn on that?” This so faintly that he just caught it.
He nodded. “I can’t very well explain -—now—but it does. If I do come I’d like to be told some things I can’t ask till we know each other a good deal better.”
She sat very still, and he could hear Mrs. Baxter’s chatter in the drawingroom. The Embassy—they were all going to the Embassy to dance. Ordinarily he would have liked this, but to-night the Embassy seemed beside the mark, and he had again the strange sensation of imminence that came when he put a hand to the bell at Monk’s Mount. Two days ago it seemed that the decision lay solely with him—that none but himself was involved. Now the dimensions of life had changed, embracing other angles, other considerations.
“Yes,” he repeated, “it turns or. that.”
She put her hand on his arm as though driven by some blind, impelling force.
“If it turns on me, I’d like you to come.”
She said this very gently, then grew rather white, and leaned back seemingly exhausted. Her eyes did not meet his, and she had a hunted look that moved him deeply. She was subdued—weighted— oppressed—as the butler had been subdued when he opened the door of Monk’s Mount. At this the fighting man reasserted himself, and he revolted at the thought of being inactive in this baffling affair.
“Well, that settles it. I’ll write tomorrow.”
There was no time for more. Mrs. Baxter sailed in from the drawing-room, took one swift glance at the two, and gave a chirpy little laugh.
“What a solemn young couple! It isn’t good for either of you, so come to the Embassy. Anthea, my maid has your things ready. Hector, one smile to oblige a lady.”
The girl vanished hurriedly, and Hector explained. The expression on Mrs. Baxter’s face rather puzzled him while he told her of his visit to Hoddesdon, omitting everything out of the ordinary.
“Mrs. Baxter,” he said earnestly, “some day I want a straight talk with you about Mr. Absalom.”
“My dear boy, I’ll be asking you for information in a month. Here’s Anthea now. Come along, children.”
It was a strange evening. The two danced together several times, but not in any way did Anthea refer to what had taken place. She appeared distrait. He caught her looking at him with an extraordinary expression, eyes eloquent of he knew not what—not the look of a companion, but, as it struck him, of one burdened with the future. She danced divinely, yet was remote even in his arms, like one who moved in a dream.
Nor did he feel that he could say much. Her manner, though not unfriendly, excluded Monk’s Mount, yet she seemed to have accepted him, and to be trusting to his understanding. Her whole air was that of a woman who regards herself with an intensely searching scrutiny. And the rest of that evening passed in unreality.
They were alone for a moment in the corridor to Bond Street, when he held out his hand.
“Good night—and I haven't got over the surprise yet. Shall I see you at Monk’s Mount the day after to-morrow?” She gave a little gasp, and her fingers closed over his own with convulsive strength. Then her lips trembled, and her.eyes, large and terrified, stared up at him in an agony of petition.
“Don’t come!” she pleaded. “Forget everything I said. Don’t—don’t come!” He heard flying steps, the slam of a door, and the purr of Mrs. Baxter’s car as it slid toward Piccadilly.
CERTAIN natures react to contraries, and it needs but the suggestion of a negative to rouse in them the stirring of opposition. There was a streak of this in young Court. Outwardly very amiable, and with the slow, easy good temper of the physically perfect animal, he hid beneath this a vein of doggedness that had served him well in the past.
In the previous year it had won him the middleweight championship. Swaying back to his corner battered and bruised, he overheard a whisper between his seconds. They believed him beaten. That whisper stung like a whip. It seared his brain. Going deeper than the brain, it penetrated to the innermost core of the panting young giant, till it reached the central animating essence that lies somewhere in every man—though most men let it languish through disuse.
In young Court it waked with a start. It uncovered a secret reservoir of strength and courage. The reeling brain and dull vision both cleared. The deadly creeping weakness left him. The slack sinews turned to steel. The pounding heart slowed its trip-hammer beat. The championship was already his, when at the stroke of the gong he leaped forward, hard of eye, steady of nerve, a fighting man who welcomes the final and merciless struggle.
It was in much the same fashion that he took Anthea’s passionate ultimatum. What lay behind it, he did not stop to ask, for in his present mood that was only of future interest. She had asked if he were afraid to come—confessed that she wanted him to come—and finally demanded that he should not come. It would have been impossible to create a situation more likely to make him come.
more likely come. He wrote to Absalom next morning, receiving a telephoned reply from the butler the same afternoon. “Mr. Absalom’s compliments—he was pleased to learn Mr. Court’s decision—could Mr. Court make it convenient to arrive in time for lunch next day? If he would telephone his train a car would meet him at the station.”
A car, reflected Hector, not the car. So Absalom didn’t keep one!
A GARAGE car met him at Hoddesdon. The big iron gates were open when he reached them, and the gnome made a sweeping salute with a clawlike hand. He did not look up. Then Monk’s Mount, with Hervey at the door. No particular expression on his face as he led Hector upstairs.
The bedroom, with a small sittingrcom off it, was in the west end of the house. Miss Reichert, explained Hervey, had the front, with Mr. Absalom to the east. Mr. Court would have his own bathroom. Breakfast was served individually upstairs, lunch at one fifteen, dinner at s^ven thirty. A dressing'gong sounded at seven. Was there anything Mr. Court wanted now?
There was not. Hervey went on to say that the house servants were Hindus, who did not speak English, but understood it sufficiently to take simple orders. The man who would valet Mr. Court was Ram Sid, a Bengali. And lunch would be ready in half an hour.
He went off, and Hector examined his apartments. A great improvement on Ebury Street, with large windows, high ceilings, and admirably warmed by central heating. Again he noted the remarkable freshness of the air. It had almost a taste, and gave one a sort of physical exhilaration. He had not known about Hertfordshire before, and Monk’s Mount could not be at any considerable elevation. Then Ram Sid entered with a salaam — rather nice, that sort of thing—and he set about unpacking with a deft swiftness, face, hands and body all long, thin and agile. His large observant eyes rolled easily in their sockets.
Then the dining room, with Absalom standing by the fireplace. He made no motion of shaking hands, whereat Hector smiled, and ate sparely of a perfectly cooked meal. Anthea did not appear, nor did he mention her, but talked generalities till they were alone. He drank nothing. When they had the room to themselves he looked at the young man with his mechanical smile.
“I hope your rooms are comfortable.” “Very, thanks; and the house seems wonderfully heated.”
“I think it is fairly good: there are no draughts, and all rooms and halls have exactly the same temperature.” He pushed over a box of cigarettes. “I don’t smoke, but please help yourself. Now, Mr. Court, just a word or two to help you acclimatize yourself. Do you shoot?” “Very fond of it, sir, but I don’t get much. Shoots are a bit expensive for the guest as well as the host.”
“I can imagine that, but it will cost you nothing here. My keeper has orders to put himself at your disposal.”
“That’s frightfully kind.” Hector was vastly pleased. “Do you have big shoots?” “I do not follow the sport myself, and have no friends in the neighborhood. But there are plenty of pheasants—for you— and a few partridge. My views in this matter may strike you as peculiar, but I ask you to make a promise. You may shoot as much and as often as you like— but it must be alone with the keeper. He will not use a gun, naturally. Beaters and all that, of course, but no other guns.” Hector blinked at him. “I’m to go it alone!”
“Exactly, and the only shots fired in Monk’s Mount must be fired by you. Furthermore, when and if you get invitations to shoot elsewhere, you will not accept.”
It was all very quiet, very measured and deliberate—which made it the more remarkable. Hector pictured himself a solitary gun in coverts that were stuffed with game—and failed to imagine it. But he stammered something about respecting Mr. Absalom’s wishes, and looked foolish.
“It’s your shoot, sir—your gamekeeper.”
“Mr. Court, perhaps I had better say here and now that from time to time while you are in my employ you will be asked to comply with stipulations that strike you as being rather strange. If they do, I can only remind you that I said I was able to pay for my whims. In other words I propose to make your recompense as secretary such that the whims will not be unsupportable. Is that clear?”
“Quite clear,” said Hector, wondering what was coming next.
“Then we’ll regard the shooting matter as settled. The keeper has gun and ammunition. Such birds as are not needed here will be sent to any of your friends you care to mention. Do you ride?”
“Rather keen on it, sir. But there again it’s the same thing. I’m lent a mount now and then, not often. But I love hunting.”
“There are excellent horses in the stables,” replied the metallic voice, “but in this case also there is a proviso. I will ask you not to hunt.”
“Not hunt, sir!” It was like telling a man he must not breathe.
“Please—no. I have some eight hundred acres—ample for exercising man and horse. So it is not necessary to hunt.” “You mean I’m not to take a horse outside the grounds, sir?”
“Precisely. Ride here as often as you please, and I’m sure my stepdaughter will be glad to ride with you. But only at Monk’s Mount. Is that clear?”
“Your horses, sir.” said Hector, thinking very hard. “Sort of sheltered life, isn’t it?”
Absalom’s brows twitched ever so slightly. “You might call it so. I understand that you met Anthea—we will drop the formality—in London?”
He said this with so bland and casual a look that Hector acquitted him of any duplicity in the affair. But it was the first time he had mentioned Anthea, and since he knew that they had met, it meant one of two things. Either Anthea had returned—or she or Mrs. Baxter had communicated from London. In either case it was natural enough that Absalom should know. But if Anthea had returned, where was she now?
“Yes, we met at Mrs. Baxter’s. A mutual friend, I’m told?”
“We have known each other for some years, and she comes here occasionally. Anthea got back last night, but rather used up. I think she has been doing too much.” He paused for a moment, adding: “A sheltered life, you said. Well, you might call it that, but there are worse things-—even at your age. At mine” — here he gave an elusive smile—“there are few better. Mr. Court, I lay emphasis on the importance of your keeping fit.”
“I always have, sir.” Hector began to question whether he was here for reasons of anthropology. Did the man want to experiment with him? And Absalom seemed equipped with a great deal that he did not use.
“Don’t you ride yourself?”
“No, but I have visitors, mostly from abroad, who like horses. Now one word more. I told you that I would require from the gentleman I engaged, his undertaking that he would not, under any circumstances, divulge anything he might learn here. I convinced you, I think that your honor would not be involved in giving such a promise. I do not know—” here the dry gray eyes were very remote—“that you will learn anything whatever, but, if you do, where do I stand?”
This sounded serious, and Absalom looked gravely in earnest. Strange that he should be ready to take the word of a man of whom he could know but little, yet he was ready. He sat there, waiting for his answer, invested with just the same unapproachable manner that Anthea had had two evenings before. And the effect no Hector was exactly the same. He was piqued, attracted, puzzled, repelled and challenged all at once.
“I may tell you this much,” continued the scientist, weighing his words with extreme care. “I am in the middle of certain investigations of enormous importance to the world at large—even to you. In some circles, mostly continental, a little is known about my work, but only a little. Mr. Court, to know what I know —to be able to do what I have done—the most powerful men of this age would give millions. Millions indeed have been . .
At this point his voice, which had lifted into a triumphant hoarseness, cut off abruptly. He checked himself with a swift and visible jerk, paler than usual, the vertical brows twitching violently. His lips were contorted. Hector stared at him in frank astonishment.
In the next second came the former dry impassionate accents, and the chemical features resolved themselves into their customary mask. So composed, so perfectly self-controlled had he become that the past moment already seemed incredible.
“One forgets one’s own precepts,” he said cynically. “Please excuse me. Some day—yes—I hope soon—you will have learned enough to forgive a little outburst. But my work is so exacting, it demands such concentrated application, that I am forced to make certain demands. Those about me must contribute to the required atmosphere. There must be nothing disturbing or annoying in life at Monk’s Mount. Does this sound reasonable?”
It was a little labored, but very clear. And not unreasonable. Absalom was only a rich crank—perhaps a little mad—a slave to his science, and rebelling against anything that infringed, as he thought, on his peace of mind. Perhaps a bit of a bully, yet quixotic enough to pay a large salary for very slight service. There were some who did not like others doing what they could not do themselves—such as shoot and ride, but he was free of that narrowness.
“No, sir, its not unreasonable. I’ll contribute all I can.”
“Very sensible of you. Now I’ll give you some letters in the study.”
They made a sort of trinity, Absalom, Hector and Maktai, while the gray beast examined the newcomer with a semihuman, semi-animal intelligence. Absalom took no notice of her except that occasionally his small white hand stole down and rubbed the top of the grizzled head. The cat looked dried out, like its master. When he picked up the first letter, turning so that it was readable only by himself, Hector had a spasm of nervousness.
“Mr. Court,” he said, “my methods of correspondence are not the usual ones. I will dictate to you only the bodies of the replies. You have nothing to do with names and addresses. I will fill those out. You will number and date each transcription you make. I will address the envelopes, and it is Hervey’s duty to take the mailbag—which is locked—to the post office.”
“I—er—that’s all right, sir.” The thing seemed childish, and Hector wanted to laugh. It was like an elderly child hugging some exaggerated and unimportant secret of its own.
Speaking very slowly, he dictated a dozen letters; all had to do with some request, and conveyed in most cases a refusal. His answers showed not the slightest indication of what the request might be. Where consent was given, a date was suggested, these dates extending over the next few months.
The tone of these letters was th?t of an autocrat—almost a despot—and it struck Hector that between the wording of the replies and that of the appeals which occasioned them there was a startling difference. This was confirmed when one letter in a woman’s writing slipped to the floor, and he could not but see two scrawling lines.
“I implore you to say yes. Dimitri has just been here, and he told me . .
Hector withdrew his glance just in time. Absalom recovered the letter—it was the last to be answered—dictated his refusal —put the originals into a drawer and locked it methodically.
“You’ll be free of Monk’s Mount when you’ve finished,” he said.
That was all. The work—it was child’s play—lay on the table two hours later, a dozen nameless letters in a big bold script. Absalom glanced at the uppermost with the air of one whose mind is preoccupied with something else.
“Thank you, and I shall need nothing more to-day. If you care to shoot, Hervey will show you where the keeper’s cottage is. Good sport.”
Hector removed himself. At four o’clock he stood banging away, with a leather-gaitered, fresh-faced, middle-aged man at his elbow. The birds were handreared, overfed and too tame, running up to the edges of the coverts, and waiting to be kicked up by beaters at the last moment.
Presently he seemed to be shooting in a dream over mysterious ground with phantom birds hurtling toward him from imaginary coverts—the birds being people hurrying from afar. He himself was Absalom, and he might kill or let live as he saw fit. At that he gave his gun to the keeper, and walked very thoughtfully toward Monk’s Mount.
Hands deep in pockets, chin a bit outthrust as was his wont, he explored the property, taking a wide curve, and coming finally to the house from the east. He saw that behind Absalom’s study was an unroofed area about thirty feet square, surrounded by a high brick wall. On top of the wall a spiked iron guard, projecting inward. The windows overlooking this space—windows that must be in Absalom’s section of the house—had been bricked up.
It was while he puzzled over the purpose of this enclosure that there reached him a throaty cough that might have been made by a big man with a heavy cold. It came but once, and with it a faint odor, not quite animal, not quite human, but of a slightly acrid and markedly penetrating character. It suggested some large living thing, old and—yes—unwashed.
He stood for a moment, wrinkling his nose. The enclosure might have been a pen. The odor—already it had evaporated—reminded him of something—he knew not what; and it was at this point of uncertainty that he remembered the massive door in the north wall of Absalom’s study. That door must command this enclosure. He was staring at the wall when some instinct caused him to turn, and he saw Maktai immediately behind him. Close behind Maktai was Absalom. “Well, Court, any luck?”
The voice was as impersonal, as lacking in inflection, as ever, but his gaze, not so calm, held little points of light. His head, inclined forward, gave his glance an upward angle. He looked annoyed. Maktai, the gray back curved into a repulsive hump, set his globular eyes on the young man in a blank stare—a sort of unhuman inquisition. Hector, thus doubly scrutinized, felt it possible that the cat had found him first, then brought her master to investigate for himself.
“Yes,” he said awkwardly, “all the birds one could want.”
“Doing a little exploring, eh?”
“I understood that I was free of the property, sir. But if—”
“You are—quite free. I assume you’re wondering what this place is for?”
This was definite, and Hector welcomed it. “Well, yes, I was.”
“That,” said Absalom very deliberately, “has to do with my research work. Later, perhaps, if all goes well, I will show it to you. Meantime, if I were you I’d be content to acquire my local knowledge very gradually, and not bother your head about this part of it. So far as it concerns you, anything I might say would be premature. Now, if you will go to the drawing-room you’ll find tea.”
Hector swallowed his discomfort, concealed his surprise, and decided that more than anything he wanted tea. And when he reached the drawing-room he found Anthea.
They stood, these two, examining each other with the frank unconcealment of youth.
Now, meeting her face to face in this strange mansion of which she must comprehend the secret, he felt the stirring of a faint antagonism.
“So you would come!” she said in a low, strained voice.
“I—er—I thought I’d better. Five hundred a year, you know—perhaps more.”
That hurt her, as he had meant it to hurt. He could see her wince. But she must not infer that he had come for her sake.
“Don’t say anything you don’t feel safe in saying. You see you let me explore you—but you haven’t explored me.” She hesitated a moment, then, with a straight glance: “Don’t think me worthy of any confidence till you are very, very sure.”
She had hit it—hit it at once. How much was he safe in saying—or asking? That had been paramount in his mind ever since entering the house.
“I begged you not to agree to Mr. Absalom’s offer,” she continued earnestly, “begged you not to come here at all. But you would! You ask yourself now why, when you told me it turned on me, I said I’d like you to come. Well, it’s right and fair you should ask that. But it was one me who said yes—and another, the real one, who spoke last.”
“Perhaps, but how was I to distinguish between the two? Anyway, that part of it doesn’t matter now. I’m booked for a year.”
She leaned forward, a great petition in her eyes. “Can you give me your word that I had nothing to do with your coming?”
That cornered him. He could not, and was vexed because of it. Also he began to feel that his attitude was—well—a shade ungallant.
“I’ll tell you,” he said stubbornly; “if you’ll tell me whether you’re glad or sorry I’m here.”
The lifted hand trembled, and she gave an uncertain little laugh. “Two’s company and one is none, Mr. Court. If you weren’t here I should be having tea alone.”
“Look here,” he exploded, “we’re not getting anywhere, and I hate that—with anybody. You’ve known Mr. Absalom most of your life, and are in his family. I’m an employee of three days acquaintance. Under those circumstances am I justified in asking you anything at all? If you think not, I won’t.”
He finished his tea, putting down the cup with a gesture of decision.
“You know a lot about Monk’s Mount —you must. I know nothing. I’m here because—well, never mind why—and you must have some idea of what I’m heading for—so you’ve only to tell me that everything is all right, and I’ll drive on, and not bother you again.”
“You ask me to tell you that?” she said in a very low voice.
“With all respect I do. I’d sooner have your word than that of anyone else here.”
She searched his face, finding it full of honesty and bright candor. Such a man was a stranger to lies, deceit, even evasion, and she saw that his kind lived on truth as the meat of their spiritual existence. They did not know how to be otherwise.
Then, while he waited, an extraordinary thing happened. She began to cry in a soundless passion of distress that brought great tears running down her cheeks. She did not sob, but sat there quite motionless, the large dark eyes blurred, lips parted, while the shining fountains of her soul unsealed themselves before him. No storm, no wringing of hands; just those great glistening tears.