MURDER IN THE DARK
Jack Reid crept out from the thick bushes that grew down right to the edge of the lake. Crouching low among the tall bulrushes, he looked furtively around.
A dank, unhealthy smell hung over the shallow reedy waters, and an evil mist, engendered by the heat of the day and night cooling, rose from the surface. A sombre pile rose from the lake, the ancient Abbey of Severinge, silent and forbidding.
The bright moonlight flooded the water with a silvery iridescence, like fairy glamour; but the walls of the building in contrast were in deep shadow, where the full moon shone splendid and serene above the roofs.
The man sank back among the bushes—it would be madness to cross the bright water until the moon sank behind the gabled roof, and, moreover, he had plenty of time at his disposal.
He lit his pipe, and went thoughtfully over his carefully planned preparations. Every detail had been worked out; he had turned up at the village of Evenden, posing as an idle dilettante artist searching for beauty spots, and had been attracted by the quiet grandeur of the Abbey. He had put up at the Bull Inn, and made friends with Hucks, the landlord; and from that it had been easy to strike up a friendship with Colindale, the agent for the estate, and obtain Sir Henry Severinge’s permission to paint the Abbey.
The offer to rent a cottage on the estate had given him the opportunity of prolonging his visit, and an invitation to paint a picture of the central courtyard had enabled him to become well acquainted with the interior. He chuckled as he recalled his meeting at the ‘Bull’ with a real artist who luckily had done all the talking and had not asked to see his pictures. He took from his pocket a plan he had made of the place, and studied it by the light of the moon.
Opposite to the place where he was sitting was the dining-room, and above that Sir Henry’s bedroom suite. Away to the right, in the tower above the gateway, was Lady Severinge’s sitting-room, and beyond that her bedroom. He smiled to himself; he had heard all about this grouping of rooms. The square tower showed up gaunt and black against the sky, with the tiny flag-pole like a pencil, only used on special occasions—for Sir Henry was most punctilious in these matters.
The bridge, which alone connected the Abbey with the grounds, cast a shadow on the water, breaking up the silvery surface.
The small barred window opposite, scarcely three feet above the water, opened from a cellar—too damp for use—where old lumber was stored. He had explored that place, and had loosened the old rusty bars from their sockets in the crumbling stonework. Yes! Everything was in order.
Out of the clear night a faint, eerie, bell-like sound came to his ears, and a heavy frown clouded his face. Reid knew that sound only too well—Colonel Graham’s bloodhounds. He had seen them at exercise; their horrible reddened eyes and foaming heavy jowls, and the fierce lifting of the head when they ‘found’ and gave tongue. He had considered that danger, and had taken precautions. They would find nothing of his from which to draw a scent.
He had worked out his scheme. First he would go to the chapel. The jewelled cross was renowned throughout the world, and there were the gold candlesticks and vessels. Sir Henry, with perverse indifference, had never allowed them to be removed from the altar. After that there was the valuable old family plate in the safe. That matter had been neatly arranged. He had got the key from the butler’s room and taken an impression. Now in his pocket he had a duplicate key. There were several articles of value in the study and dining-room that he would pick up on his way out.
A shadow crossed his face as though a veil had been drawn, and he saw that the moon had disappeared behind the humped mass of the house and the lake lay in deep shadow. The night was strangely still—not a sound from bird or beast. He unslung a large canvas bag from his shoulder, and took out a wading-suit that came up to his neck and fastened with two buttons. Cautiously removing his coat and waistcoat he placed them in the bushes, and slipped silently into the water up to his armpits. Half wading and half swimming he made his way across, and the ripples spread out from him like the opening of a fan.
Once across the water he felt along the slimy wall to the low window, for it was dark in the shadow. The bars yielded, and he drew his dripping body through the aperture. No one would be likely to think of this old cellar, and the bars could be replaced when he had finished his job.
He removed the wading-suit and put on a pair of heelless shoes and black india rubber gloves, and then felt his way up the stone stairs. There would be no tell-tale finger-prints left behind, or foot-marks, for the shoes had list soles, and were shapeless.
At the head of the stairs he emerged into a corridor that ran round the whole of the inner court and had once formed the cloisters of the monks in the days when the place had been a real Abbey. The moonlight pervaded the corridor from the slit lancet windows, showing as a patchwork along the stone floor.
He cast one glance into the central courtyard, stone-flagged except in the centre, where one solitary yew tree lifted its ancient head, black as pitch with the moonlight behind it. He turned to the left and proceeded along the silent passage, and then to the right, where before him was the small square ante-chapel. He looked askance at the corner where, guarded by an iron rail, stone steps led down to the grisly crypt below the chapel where the dead Severinges lay in their lead-lined coffins.
He had a key of the chapel, made from an impression taken while painting a picture of the interior, and unlocked the massive doors. He entered the place cautiously and stood within the entrance, listening. The chapel was in almost total darkness, only a faint gleam came from the oriel above the altar. He made his way up the aisle, holding his electric torch ready, but preferring the darkness. For a moment he fancied he heard a slight noise and stood stock still, holding his breath, but nothing except the beating of his own heart was audible.
He went on; two stone steps led up to the altar-rail of wrought ironwork, and the gold of the ornaments on the altar shone with a faint gleam.
The sound was repeated—ominous to one engaged in his occupation, and a feeling came to him that he was not alone in the chapel. His nerves were inured by many such adventures, and he had no superstitious dread; but the question of discovery was another matter and a more tangible danger. He cast a rapid glance round, and his quick eye noted a space in the apse behind the beautifully worked silk altar-curtain. Here he concealed himself, peering round the corner into the dim chapel. Suddenly he became rigid, and stared at the floor in front of the altar steps, where a thin band of light had appeared. It grew wider in jerks, and a square of light showed as though a flagstone were being pushed up until it stood on end.
Reid gripped himself tightly—for below the chapel was the crypt, and why should any living thing come that way? Someone else beside himself had business in the chapel that night.
The light suddenly went out without warning, and for a moment the darkness baffled him; but he seemed to make out a dim figure emerging from below, and he heard a dull metallic boom as though a heavy weight had been dropped. He waited, peering into the darkness, but could see nothing—yet his strained nerves sensed that there was another in the chapel with him, perhaps even now stealing upon him.
Reid never carried any weapon on his expeditions, trusting to his skill and agility. How long he waited he never knew—the strain was getting so great that he had almost made up his mind to make a dash for it, when a faint sound, the pad, pad of shuffling feet, broke the stillness. Softly, in slow progress, the steps came nearer along the passage outside and presently through the palpitating darkness a glimmer of light showed in the doorway of the chapel. There was a pause; someone was fumbling with the door—and then a flood of light, dazzling in contrast to the darkness, showed in the entrance.
Sir Henry Severinge stood there, clothed only in pyjamas, and holding a silver candlestick in his hand. The man behind the altar drew himself back and shuddered at some nameless sense of horror. Sir Henry came slowly up the aisle, holding his candle steadily, and moving in short, shuffling steps in his bedroom slippers. Reid longed to shout—to warn him, but his tongue refused its office. He could neither move nor speak, but with horrified eyes watched the slow progress of the baronet as he might have watched a man going to the gallows in a nightmare.
Sir Henry was now standing in front of the altar, holding the lighted candle before him with a strange look of perplexity on his face. It was difficult to follow exactly what happened, for the light was between the watching man and the baronet, but something stepped quickly from behind; there was a swift movement, and Sir Henry gave a sudden cry which sounded like “Escort”, and with a gasp that ended in a stifled cough lurched forward on the stones. The candle fell from his hands with a crash and rolled on the floor. Blackness came down on the scene, and bright spots swam before Reid’s eyes.
For a moment he felt sick and giddy, and leant against the wall; then his courage returned, and he sprang down the steps, flashing his torch as he did so. There was no one to be seen; only the body of the baronet lying sprawled before the altar, his face horribly twisted, and blood was trickling from the corners of his half-open mouth.
In his chest was the hilt of a knife or dagger buried deep in his body.
One glance was sufficient—the baronet was dead beyond all doubt. Reid saw he could be of no use here. The chapel was empty as far as he could see, but he never stayed to make a search; his own position was too precarious. He hurried through the chapel and closed the door, locking it in feverish haste. He felt safer with the massive locked doors between him and whatever lurked in the chapel, but his glance was cast uneasily at the stair that led down to the crypt. No sound broke the stillness.
Cool now, he went cautiously along the corridor, listening intently for any sound, but the whole house was silent with a brooding stillness. His list slippers made no sound on the polished stones of the old passageway—stones worn by the feet of the monks who trod the cloisters in silent meditation in the monastic days.
He reached the entrance to the cellar and paused again. Safety lay in instant flight, but a curious inclination to see whether any alarm might follow delayed him. The pure moonlight flooded the open courtyard, and he glanced out of the lancet window and stared with cold intensity. The moon was shining full upon the opposite side of the ancient building, showing every stone and the creeper that clung to the walls.
A window on the first floor was open, and a girl was gazing out from the lattice with a look of unutterable horror on her beautiful face. Seen in her white night attire, with the neck thrown open, as though she were stifling, she looked like a young saint in distress. He had never seen a fairer sight. He knew the girl by sight—Sylvia Lawrence—and had met her in the grounds with her two charges, the Severinge twins, but had taken no particular notice of her—women did not interest him. Here was a vision that would remain with him to his last day. A holy virgin transfigured by the moonlight—but one in an agony of apprehension. Reid tore himself away, and descended the cellar steps with the vision of that lovely, distressed face before him.
He picked up the wading-suit and stuffed it into his bag with the gloves and slippers, adding some bits of stone from the junk scattered about the place. Then he went head first through the aperture and slid noiselessly into the lake, replacing the iron bars carefully after him.
His ears were strained for some sound from the house—some awful cry in the night—but none came, and he swam to the middle in the shadow. The croaking of frogs from the reeds and a faint greenish tinge in the sky betokened the coming of dawn, and a chill wind had sprung up. He dropped his bag, first pulling the running cord at the mouth tight. Then he swam and waded to the shore, and reached for an overhanging branch. Once hidden in the foliage he lay panting. He was safe now, and could think out his position.
The silent, mysterious death, without warning or even a struggle, was appalling; but he laughed cynically as he speculated on the possible discovery of his bag, and the delight of some enterprising young Sherlock Holmes at the find. There were no marks to identify the owner either of the suit or sack. There was absolutely nothing to connect him with the crime, or any article of his that might set those bloodhounds on the track. He picked up his coat and waistcoat and boots and walked along the edge of the lake in the shallow water till he came to firm ground, and then proceeded across an open field of rough grass in his stockinged feet to his cottage.
If his burglary had been successful he would have returned to his cottage in any case, for he was too old a hand to leave the village. Now that things had turned out differently, he would stay and watch events. He took off his wet clothes and pulled on a pair of pyjamas and a worn dressing-gown. In the homely surroundings of his room the horror was less acute, and he could review the situation calmly. He helped himself to a stiff whisky to keep out the cold, and wrung out his wet clothes in the old sink in the corner of the small kitchen and hung them to dry. Then he returned to his sitting-room.
He smiled cynically as he thought of all his careful preparation. A giant oak, a monster in decay, stood about fifty yards from the cottage. He had found out all about that oak; nothing escaped his fertile mind. It was bare of branches to a height of about ten feet, and then forked into three mighty stems. He had climbed up to the fork and found exactly what he wanted. Between the stems the inside was hollow and rotten; no one would guess it seeing it from below. Into this cavity he had intended to let down his catch, and cover it carefully with rotting wood.
There it would remain for a year at least, for he was no novice at the game. Even if he had been suspected and the police had come to search! He could picture them digging up the garden, probing in the old thatch, and going down the well—all the old-fashioned places of concealment. Hadn’t he gone over it a score of times? Police and plain-clothes officers interrogating him while he told his simple story. How he had stayed at the inn till closing time, gossiping with Hucks, the landlord, and walked home with Dick Noakes, a farm-hand, and then slept till the morning. All quite straight and aboveboard. It had been his method for years.
There had been many similar cunningly devised caches scattered over the land where his hauls had lain hidden for years, maturing like good wine until he could safely turn them into cash. No hasty disposals or dealings with a ‘fence’ for him.
As a parson on a visit to Devonshire, blameless and almost blind, he had obtained quite a good haul, and a small cavity in the rocks held the plunder safely for months till the hue and cry was over.
Who was he, and what was his origin? He would have given much to know. He had been found as a four-months-old baby abandoned on Wimbledon Common, with no sign or mark to show what woman had left him there. A woman, surely, for he had been placed in a conspicuous position and warmly wrapped in blankets in a basket, with two pound notes pinned on the cover. So much they had told him at the orphanage when he was old enough to be informed that he was there by charity, and had no parents or relatives in the world. No one had adopted him—perhaps he had not been an attractive infant, and he had never known any home but that institute.
There he had grown to consciousness as a child. The scanty food, the drab uniform, and stern discipline had been his daily surroundings. He had known nothing of the outside world.
Almost as soon as he could walk he had been told that his was to be no idle life. He was set to work at menial jobs in the spare time when he was not being instructed. Work, he had been informed, was for him a necessity, and as soon as he was old enough some useful job must be found for him to get him away from the institution. It was almost an insult that he should take so long in growing up.
His name had been written on the slip of paper, a name he had tried to forget, and had borne many aliases since then. Some efforts by the police had been made to discover his origin, but after futile inquiries they had dismissed the matter as a common case of an unwanted child, and no more trouble was taken. The people at the institution had merely called him Jack, and the old name had remained dormant in his brain and almost forgotten. But with the power of reading came knowledge and the wild longing of a caged thing for liberty. He was a wiry, active youngster, with restless dark eyes and a mop of black hair, and hungry—always hungry, he remembered.
And then he had run away—quite easily, and the institution knew him no more.
He mixed with men—good and evil, and learnt much. His quickness and easy address found him small jobs. He gave his age as fourteen and invented different stories to suit the occasion. He had been no idler and no beggar. He had known the underworld—had been taught to thieve or keep watch while others did; honesty and dishonesty came alike to him, as long as he could fill his stomach and have small sums to spend.
Later he read voraciously, in free libraries and in the houses where he got employment as boots or messenger boy—a quick, handsome youth, well mannered and outwardly docile, though a raging unrest was eating him up.
At seventeen he knew more than most men do at twenty-five, and had come to realize through mixing with all classes that he came of a good stock—his face and figure and the delicate artist's hands told him that as surely as his instinctive dread of vulgarity and dirt. Perhaps with a knowledge of a moral code he might have become a steady, industrious clerk and married and lived in the suburbs; but he knew nothing of the laws of meum and tuum.
Why should some people have homes and motors, relations and friends, money to spend, when he had none? The old eternal questions, and there was no one to teach him that his proper station in life was to be willing and obedient, and not to speculate about these high matters. Sexually, he kept clean from a rather proud indifference to the noisy, loud-mouthed girls with whom he came in contact. He studied deeply, watched his chances, read everything in the papers and in books. He worked his own plans out with a thoroughness that would have given him a good place in business.
His looks and manners got him jobs in crowd work in studios, and walking-on parts at theatres, but never a permanent position anywhere. Then he experimented—very carefully. He was clever. Small sums of money at first. Like a wise schoolboy who, when searching the hedgerow, comes across a tit’s nest, takes only a few eggs and leaves the rest, so he never emptied a purse or bag, but took a coin or two, leaving the owner to wonder whether he had dropped two half-crowns by mistake or miscounted his money.
His needs were simple; he lived in a bed-sitting-room in Pimlico, and cooked his own meals over a gas-ring. He hadn’t a friend in the world, and had no intention of making any. He saved every penny and placed it in the Post-Office Savings Bank.
The game he was playing was exciting—he was pitting his wits against those of the Law. Some of his exploits had revealed a high level of artistry. When Fronstein, the American millionaire, had arrived in England with a large number of dollar bills concealed in the double bottom of one of his trunks—the rate of exchange at the time being greatly in favour of the dollar—he had been furious on finding that his trunk had been tampered with and a portion of his bills extracted. No suspicion had fallen on the good-looking young lift attendant, quiet and well-mannered. When the millionaire had departed and the furore had died down, the young attendant sought out the manager and explained that he had been offered a good position as a steward on board a ship, and received an excellent testimonial for honesty and industry. The dollar bills he changed in America, and returned with English notes.
Lady Raleigh-Pope’s diamonds had been sent to the jewellers in Bond Street in a sealed packet in charge of her young chauffeur, who had obtained a receipt for the same. When the parcel was opened and found to contain very good imitations there had been a terrible fuss. The Bond Street jeweller and his assistant both stated emphatically that the packet was absolutely intact when it arrived, and the seals unbroken, and hinted that a trick had been played on them with imitation jewellery, while Lady Raleigh-Pope became the laughing-stock of her friends, but no suspicion rested on the bright young chauffeur.
A strange being, working alone, for he would not trust a soul, and avoided women above all—they had a way of worming secrets from men. If he were found dead on the road, there would be no mark or trace by which to identify him, not a letter nor a scrap of paper; no name tape or washing mark. He would be a one-day’s sensation, perhaps, in the papers, and for the first and only time be mentioned in the news bulletin for millions to hear.
“Police notice. An unknown man was found dead,” etc. And then, “If any person can give any information about this man, please communicate with Scotland Yard, telephone number Whitehall 1212.” And then he would be buried at the expense of the local parish after twelve good men and true had solemnly puzzled over him at an inquest.
He was tired of it all: the loneliness, the sordid life and surroundings. Honest work was not for him, with no character, and nothing but that awful institution to give as his educational advantages, and he had run away from that.
He had decided to throw everything up, take all his money from the savings bank, and seek a new world. And then one day he had read an account of Severinge Abbey and the description of the wonderful Severinge cross which had been stolen by a former Severinge from a South American cathedral, when serving under Sir Francis Drake—that prince of burglars. The idea of taking this priceless relic had appealed to him as a fitting consummation of his present career.
As Jack Reid, an artist, he had wandered into Sussex, enjoying the country-side as only a town-bred man can do. Well, the experiment, as far as the cross was concerned, had turned out a dismal failure, but had led to something more exciting—a mysterious and horrible murder under his very eyes; but about this he could say nothing. He would certainly stay and follow it up, if only for curiosity, he thought.
But though mentally he made this his excuse, he knew that the real reason was the vision he had seen at the window in the moonlight, that floated before his eyes as he fell asleep and haunted his dreams.