I had been installed as curate at Cowleton only about six months when, after a long day’s tramp over the moors, where I had been visiting the parishioners, I returned to my lodgings to find awaiting me a telegram from my old friend Demers, who was still on the staff of the Morning Call. The message read:
Come at once. Interesting case on hand.
It was Monday evening, and I was free for the week, so I scribbled a note to the vicar, replaced my clericals with a tweed suit, took my automatic pistol—the one presented to me after the solution of the Silver Bullet case—and made for the station.
Demers, short, fat, jolly, and busy as ever, met me at Waterloo, and we took a cab to Mount joy Hill, where he and I had roomed together for nearly three years. It was late, and Demers was on an important assignment for the morning issue, so he soon left me and I turned in.
The next morning at breakfast, Demers gave me an outline of his “interesting case,” and I found that even his enthusiasm did not overestimate the interest of it. We had been boyhood chums; we had lived together in London after Demers, by his wonderful work in distancing Scotland Yard in the solution of the Explosive Pearl case, had secured his present place on the Call, and we had traced together the intricacies of crime in a number of causes celebres, but none had more mysterious features than the one which had now been assigned to him to unravel.
“That's all we have to go on, so far. But Mr. Ivors is coming at ten, and he will tell you the whole thing, and then you will understand it better.”
As he spoke, the bell rang, and we heard Mrs. Gammie letting in a visitor. We went across the hall to the room which Demers had fitted up as a chemical laboratory, and it was there that I first saw Mr. Harrison Ivors. Demers removed a box of test tubes from the only chair, and begged his visitor to be seated. I found a place on a trunk, and Demers perched on the edge of the sink. Mr. Ivors was a man of about forty-five, tall and distinguished in appearance, naturally of a nervous temperament, now accentuated by the evident strain under which he was laboring, but with such self-command that he was able to tell his story with a straightforward simplicity. His quiet voice and manner showed him to he a person of culture, and he gave evidence of being a man of very strong will.
“Two years ago,” he began, “my eldest son, Gerald, was found dead on the morning of his fifteenth birthday. The night before, he had gone to a party, given by a cousin, in honor of the event, and his mother and I supposed he had decided to stay all night. We found afterward that he had made some excuse to leave his cousin’s house before midnight. In the morning, his body was found lying at the foot of an oak tree in my grounds, clothed in a woman’s silk dressing gown, tied about the waist with a piece of greenish-yellow whipcord. There was absolutely, no sign of a wound or of poison, and he lay quietly, as though asleep. We never learned how or why he died.
“Yesterday morning, the tragedy was repeated in the person of my youngest son, Jack, and again it was on the morning of his birthday. I had become acquainted with the great success Mr. Demers has had in solving such problems, and I have put the case in his hands. I implore you and your friend, if he will be so good, to help me, and bring to justice, if there be such a thing as justice for such diabolical crimes, the fiend who has murdered my sons. Expense does not matter, and I give you a free hand in every way.”
Demers sat silent for some minutes. Presently he washed out a new test tube, carefully shaped a spatula from a piece of cedar, and selected a stick of wax. “Well, perhaps we’d better take a look over the ground first, Mr. Ivors, and if you will show us the way, we will start at once.’"
As we drove through the busy streets, Demers asked him if Jack had been found dressed in the same sort of silk dressing gown as Gerald had worn, and was answered, “Yes.”
The carriage stopped at Mr. Ivors’ gate. The house stood far in from the street, and was approached by a gravel walk which wound in and out among beds of flowers. Along the street was a high iron fence with a spiked top, and the sides and back were enclosed by a stone wall at least eight feet high. To the left of the entrance gate stood a group of oaks, and Mr. Ivors was leading us toward them to point out the exact spot where his boys had been laid, but Demers held us back.
“Don’t go near there yet,” he said; “we’ll see that later.” Beyond the oaks was a splendid tennis court, and in the far comer a little summerhouse.
We went up the front steps, and Mr. Ivors let us in. In the hall we met Mrs. Ivors, a dark-eyed brunette, handsome in face and figure, evidently some years younger than her husband; and the daughter, Doris, who, strangely enough, was very fair and blue-eyed. She was about seven years old. After introductions, Mrs. Ivors, who was obviously quite unstrung, besought Demers to do his utmost to dispel the shadow which was so heavy upon them. Then she burst into tears and left the room, taking Doris with her.
“Let me see the dressing gown first,” said Demers, and Ivors brought it from a closet in the library. It was the whipcord that he handed to me, and as I examined it, something struggled in my memory. It was a greenish-yellow in color, like an unripe lemon, and roughly tanned. It had been cut, seemingly with scissors, from a wider piece. I felt I had come across similar material before, but my memory refused to make the connection. Demers, meanwhile, was going over the blue silk with a lens, and he now called to me.
“Don’t touch it,” he said, “but look at it. What do you think of it?”
“I think it is about the clumsiest bit of sewing I ever saw, for one thing, and the lace around the throat is of the cheapest, in contrast with such expensive silk.”
“Right. A man made it—a man who did not dare to have it made by a seamstress, for that would provide a clew. Now, Mr. Ivors, will you pardon us if we ask you to leave us alone here with the body of your son for a little while?”
Mr. Ivors had hardly closed the door when Demers had the lid pushed back from the casket which held the remains of the unfortunate boy, and we looked upon the face of Jack Ivors, a handsome lad, the picture of his father. The pity of his early and tragic death surged over us both as we looked at him, and it was some minutes before we could bear to continue. Then Demers stretched upon the body the dressing gown, to ascertain, as I discovered, the approximate position on which the different parts of it would lie.
“Near enough,” he said directly. “Hold my lens, and these,” handing me the test tube and spatula; and he began to undress the body. It is not pleasant work, sometimes, that of an investigator of crime, but it has to be done. When Demers had bared Jack’s legs, he laid the body tenderly down, took the magnifying glass, and examined the knees with extreme care. Presently he looked up.
“If I were out on your moors at Cowleton, I would yell for joy like a maniac,” was his characteristic remark. “Look here.”
I bent over the coffin. Demers very cautiously seized the skin just above the left knee, and, ordering me to hold the glass so that he could look through it, he began to press the skin gently, then more firmly. As I watched, I saw a thin film, shiny like the slime of a snail, break suddenly, and from under it there oozed out in two places a minute drop of a colorless syrup.
“Yes, I’d yell; I’d yell like a maniac! I’d yell, I’d yell. I’d yell!”
It was Demers’ way to mutter some silly thing like that when he was strongly excited. He carefully scraped the drops from the skin with the cedar spatula, dropped it in the test tube, sealed it, and gave it to me. In a few moments the body was dressed, the cover replaced, and we were ready to depart. Mr. Ivors was waiting to show us out.
“Advertise your house and grounds for sale, Mr. Ivors,” said my friend. “Put a prominent notice in both the morning and evening papers that for personal reasons you must dispose of the place within a week. You don’t have to accept any of the offers that may be made, but it will enable me to carry out my plans.”
Mr. Ivors assented, though he did not relish the extra publicity to which it would expose his name. As he was closing the door, my recalcitrant memory suddenly was in operating order again, and almost before I knew what I was saying, I had asked Mr. Ivors, “Were you ever in Canada?”
The question obviously was unexpected. He paused a moment before replying, “No,” that his only trip out of England had been to India.
Demers and I walked to Paley’s Lane, where he left me. “You can walk around to Smellie’s and leave that test tube for analysis. I’ll be back for luncheon. Why did you ask Ivors about Canada?”
“I was trying to remember where I had seen whipcord like that before. I suddenly recollected my visit to Quebec. The leather is the kind the Indians and habitants there call babiche. They use it for their moccasins and snowshoes. I wonder how that piece came over here?”
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Three days later, when Ivors’ announcement of the sale of his property had begun to attract the attention of realty agents, Demers—who had not said a word to me about the case in the meantime; in fact, I had hardly seen him; there was a big dock strike at the time—asked me, after we had lunched together at Toni’s, to go with him to Melton Road, where Ivors lived.
When we got there, by arrangement, Mr. Ivors met us and showed us through the house and then over the grounds, as he had already that day conducted three other parties around. I soon saw the meaning of the advertisement. Of course, if the house were for sale, no notice would be taken of a couple of prying detectives who were ostensibly buyers. We had gone over all the grounds, which were not very large, and inspected the back wall, where the only opening was a tradesmen’s gate, opening on a lane connecting the two side streets.
As we stood for a moment in the lane, we heard a man behind the opposite wall, which was back of the house facing on the next street, parallel to Melton Road, indulging in an enthusiastic and awesome address to the universe on the general subject of vandalism, fools, and trees. We listened to the flood of invective, and then Demers, by a running jump, managed to catch the top of the wall and draw himself up where he could see the unknown orator.
“What’s wrong?” he shouted.
The hidden speaker told him with fervor and profane fluency what was wrong. “Here I go away to Brest for ten days, and when I come home I find some scoundrel has taken the liberty of coming in and sawing off one of the biggest branches of my only oak. Look at it! What sort of pruning do you call that? It’s a nice-looking tree now, isn’t it? And two years ago I was away just two days at the Hook, and again some kindly rascal provided me with free fuel by cutting off a branch on the same side. It’s a lovely state of affairs when a man can’t grow a tree in his back garden without his neighbors interfering with it.”
Demers dropped back into the lane, and I could tell by the gleam in his eye that he had an idea of a new sort. We had purposely avoided, till now, approaching the fatal oaks in Ivors’ grounds, but now Demers led me directly there and seated himself in the exact place where the bodies had been found, asking me to sit near him.
“Now take this newspaper and hold it up as though you were inspecting a map—there—a little higher—there, stay there!”
Demers was gazing intently through a small field glass over the top of the paper I held. Presently he said: “Change places with me. You will see a brick house straight east of here. Look at the middle upper window and tell me what you see.” I did as he bade me, but, though I looked at all the upper windows of the house he had indicated, I could see nothing but the blinds tightly drawn down. The blind in the middle window appeared to have a round hole cut in it. I told Demers what I had seen, and he seemed satisfied.
“And you will notice,” he said, “that our profane neighbor’s oak almost prevented your seeing that middle window, and that if the branch he is lamenting had not been cut off, you could not have seen it at all.”
On our way home, we discussed how a body could be brought into the grounds over the high walls and fence, when all three gates—the carriage entrance, the front and back gates—were fastened. Demers was impatient at the question. “That can easily be settled afterward. What we’re after now is the man. There’s nothing very difficult in getting through a gate if one has a little ingenuity. Here is the street where the house stands which we were scrutinizing. Here it is—No. 14, I see. You go up and ask if Mr. Jackson Byers lives there. I’ll go on slowly.”
I turned in at No. 14. It was a big house, standing in very neglected, weed-infested grounds. I pushed the bell button repeatedly before the door was opened by an old man, ugly, unkempt, and frightened looking.
“Does Mr. Jackson Byers live here?” I inquired.
The old man pulled out a card on which was printed: “I am deaf and dumb. Master is not at home.” So I wrote my question on a slip of paper, and he replied in the negative. When I had rejoined Demers and told him how I had been received, he nodded.
“Evidently ‘Master’ is never at home if he has that information printed for the benefit of all who come to his door. Therefore, no friends, or perhaps one or two who give a private signal when they arrive. A deaf-and-dumb servant, eh? What a man can’t hear he can’t tell. We have a clever gentleman to deal with, Alton, but we'll see what can be done. As I went by I took a look at the house and its surroundings, and I see where we can get in, and in we go tonight.”
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Mr. Ivors’ Oaks
We set out from the Mountjoy Hill chambers about eleven o’clock, and walked till we came to Morning Street. It was not a well-lighted street at the best, and No. 14 was as dark as a cave. We kept in the shadows by the front wall till we came to the corner of the grounds, when it was the work of a moment to leap over the wall, and we were in the weedy lawn. Luck was on our side that night. We were making for the south side of the house, and had just reached the corner when we heard the door open, and in the dim light of the hall jet we could see the “Master” stand for a second before closing the door—a tall, fashionably dressed gentleman. He descended the steps, rapidly made his way to the street, and disappeared.
“Now for it!” whispered Demers. “Follow me, and quietly.”
By the side of the house was a yew tree, and Demers said one of the branches would get us to an upper window. Up he went, and I followed as quickly as I could. By our combined weight we managed to bend the branch far enough for Demers to insert a jimmy under the lower window sash. With a sudden effort, the inner fastening broke, and the entrance was open. In another moment we were in the room, and Demers produced his flash lamp.
The room was unfurnished and full of dust. We opened the door into the corridor. Demers led the way across the passage, opened a door, and we were in a room quite as dusty. Near the window was a chair—“You will notice there is no dust on it,” said Demers—and in front of the chair a small telescope was mounted on a tripod, facing a hole, about three inches in diameter, cut in the blind.
“If it were daylight, do you know what you would see through that telescope?” asked Demers.
“Mr. Ivors’ oaks!”
Closing the door, we went down the stairs to the next landing. A door was ajar, and we peeped in. It was a luxuriously furnished bedroom, and seemed to be in actual use. Demers stepped in, flashing his lamp here and there. Suddenly he began to mutter: “I’m sure; yes, I’m sure; certainly I’m sure; surely I’m certain.” It was his queer way of communing with himself when excited. He had opened a wardrobe door, and displayed to me still another blue silk dressing gown, identical with the others and with the strip of babiche hanging beside it. “So there’s to be another victim?” I said.
“Looks like it,” growled Demers, “but we’ll try to anticipate that. Now for the lower floor, though we have evidence enough now to hang forty men.”
After listening for a few minutes at the top of the stairway, we started down. The gas was turned down very low. On our left, at the bottom, was an open door. Demers used his flash lamp just long enough to take a glance at the windows, all heavily curtained. “Everything is safe. Here’s the gas, and we’ll have a little light.” He struck a match, and we looked around curiously. It was a large, uncarpeted room, with well-filled bookcases on the walls, evidently the study of some literary man. The floor was a bizarre design in squares and triangles, done in various colored hard woods.
By one window, almost behind the door as it stood ajar, was a small writing desk with a heavy swivel chair behind it, and a smaller chair in front.
There was absolutely no other furniture in the room. On the wall directly facing the swivel chair hung conspicuously the only picture the room contained. It was a portrait by a German artist, with the title: “Sin.” It represented a luxuriant woman, with pale- amber face, framed in raven locks—a young woman whose shining eyes were touched with a smile at once startled and sick with longing—while the cold body of a serpent pressed its heavy coils round her body. It was a terrible picture; and, a little overcome by its powerful suggestiveness, I turned and seated myself in the desk chair. “Come,” said Demers, “we must not waste time here. The man may be back any minute.”
I started to rise, when suddenly a part of the floor directly beneath the picture gave way, and, seemingly actuated by the same impulse, a heavy sheet of clear glass was projected out from the firm part of the floor so as to cover the space, about four feet square, where the floor had dropped away.
Demers and I sprang forward. Through the glass we saw a large chamber built of brick and illuminated by a strong light which seemed to be directly beneath the place where we stood. The walls were circular, and they and the floor of the cell were painted a brilliant white.
“Our first business now is to find how to close this up, so that our presence here won’t be known,” said Demers. “One of us has touched some actuating mechanism, perhaps stepped on a cunningly contrived loose board. Anyway, let me see if this will work.”
Demers inserted the edge of the steel jimmy between the wall and the glass. The glass moved back easily, and at the same time the missing square of the floor began to swing up into its place. By moving the glass still farther back, we discovered that the powerful illumination of the chamber was extinguished. We pulled the glass out again, and once more the light blazed in the mysterious cell. We could see that the walls were solid, except that one brick was missing on the lowest tier. We were not long left in doubt as to the purpose of that, for almost immediately there glided through the opening a thick, brown snake, with a peculiarly marked head.
“The gentleman keeps a cobra for a pet,” said Demers.
I watched the horrid creature curiously. It went around the cell two or three times, raising itself and expanding its hood as though to strike, then disappeared again through the wall.
Demers pulled back the glass; the floor came up and caught in place with a snap, and we arose from our knees. “Evidently the picture is the bait for this infernal trap,” I suggested. “The glass enables the owner of the snake to watch his victim’s death, and at the same time prevents all possibility of his screams being heard.”
“Well,” answered Demers, “we’ve seen all we need see here; let’s get away upstairs.”
We reached the room by whose window we had entered the house, but decided not to leave till we heard the master of the house come in, lest we should run across him as we left the grounds. Presently we heard him fumbling at the front door. In a moment I was out on the friendly branch of the tree. Demers followed, letting down the window carefully as he came. We made our way safely from the grounds, and returned to Demers’ rooms.
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When I awoke next morning, Demers was standing by my bed, fully dressed.
“I have just been called away to Guildford,” he said. “Sanderson is going with me, and we will not be back till tomorrow evening. Unless something extraordinary turns up, don’t worry about the Ivors case. You might go down, if you like, and see if Smellie has analyzed that syrup you left him.”
And he was off.
I stayed in the chambers all morning, expecting, or at least hoping, that Mr. Ivors would come in. I examined all of Demers’ strange souvenirs of cases he had finished. I opened nearly every book in the study. I tried some experiments over the sink, but Mr. Ivors did not come. I resolved to spend the afternoon making some calls, and visit Ivors’ house in the evening. I did so, and about ten o’clock that night I set out for Melton Road. As I reached the curb in front of my own door, a woman’s voice hailed me from a cab. It was Mrs. Ivors who drew up near me.
“Oh, Mr. Ivors has gone out, and I am so frightened!”
“Why are you afraid? Where has he gone?”
“I don’t know. Inspector Sanderson telephoned about six o’clock, asking him to meet him somewhere, and saying that he would not only learn how his boys had died, but see the author of their deaths as well. Mr. Ivors left me a note in just those words, and I am so frightened,” she repeated. “Tomorrow is “ And she stopped.
I thought over the situation. The telephone message, of course, was a trap, for Sanderson was in Guildford with Demers; but she did not know that, and I began to see that she had grave reason to be fearful for her husband’s safety. The only thing for me to do was to attempt to prevent the carrying out of what I now saw was the last stage of a plot, already fiendish enough.
Asking her to wait in the cab, I rushed up to my room, seized my pistol, and rejoined her. As we drove to her home, I tried to assure her that her husband was safe, and told her I thought I should be able to find him without any difficulty.
“Mrs. Ivors, if you expect to see your husband alive again, you must not conceal from me any fact that might help. You do fear some individual, do you not?”
“Is it a man or a woman?”
“What is his name?” She hesitated, but I repeated my question firmly.
“And this man Wynn has come into the lives of you or your husband before? For he knew the exact dates of the boys’ birthdays. Is that true?”
“Why do you fear him? Perhaps I have no right to ask that. But tell me, do you think he is insane, or has he some reason which he may consider a valid one for doing any of your family an injury?”
“He may have a reason, but I do not think he is insane, unless being a murderer is evidence of insanity.”
“What is ‘tomorrow?’ “ At this question Mrs. Ivors broke down completely, and I could not learn anything further.
I had not much heart for my task, for it was now drawing on to midnight and I knew that every moment lessened my chance of ever seeing Ivors alive. I concealed my anxiety while I helped Mrs. Ivors into the house. The instant that was done, I was out again and in the street. I ran down to the corner, made my way at top speed to the second street back, and raced for No. 14. Not a constable was in sight, and I had no time to search for one, though I did not relish going alone on such an errand.
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In the Interest of Harrison Ivors
No. 14 was the fourth house from the corner, and as I approached I slackened my pace. It was useless to try to enter the house except by stealth. The gate was open. I slipped around to the side of the house, intending to climb the tree to the window by which Demers and I had entered the night before, but there was a dim light burning in the room. It would have to be one of the basement windows.
Unluckily I had forgotten my flash lamp, but I felt around in the darkness along the wall of the house, and presently discovered a narrow window. It was fastened. I was disheartened and irritated by the accumulation of delays. Was not Ivors possibly facing death at that very instant?
I gave the glass a smart stroke with the butt of my pistol, reached through and dropped the catch, and crawled in feet first. I dropped only a few inches, and found myself on the clay floor of the cellar. I struck a match to find my way about. Directly in front there was the huge brick chamber standing by itself in the midst of the cave where I was. It was fitted with a low steel door with a combination lock like a safe. It was the door of the white cell. Where was the cobra? My match suddenly flickered out, and I stood, not daring to move, for one step might bring me square upon its brown body. Perhaps even now it was creeping upon me in the darkness. After what seemed like an hour of agony, I found another match and looked about.
The floor was bare and clean on all sides, and I breathed freely again. I went up to the white cell and examined it carefully. At one side, opposite the steel door, was a large iron box, set close to the brickwork and covered with a close mesh of wire netting. Lighting another match, I looked into the box. The cobra was lying in one corner. At sight of me, he raised himself and tried to strike the wires, but they were too high.
All this had taken but a moment or two, and now I turned to find the way of ascent to the floor above. I soon discovered the steps and started up.
Now had come the most difficult and dangerous part of my task, and I should have to observe the most extreme caution. I took off my boots on the top step and I pushed open the door very slowly till I could see a light through the crack; a little farther, and I could see the deaf-and-dumb servant sitting before the kitchen fire. His back was toward me, so there was no danger of being seen; but I could not proceed on my quest without attracting his notice.
By this time my anxiety had become unbearable. I drew my pistol and started toward him, but his eyes were closed and he was asleep. Resolved to lose no time, I hastily opened two or three doors which gave into the kitchen, pantry, back stairs, passage leading to the front hall. I was for advancing straight down the front hall to the study when I heard the tinkling of an electric bell and at the same time a green incandescent bulb in the kitchen began to flash, the flash recurring with each sound of the bell. It was the master’s device for summoning his servant. The bell, I suppose, was to warn himself if visitors came.
I had barely time to open the door to the back stairs and close it behind me when the dumb man was aroused by the flashing of the light, and I could hear his steps as he went to admit his master. So Wynn—for I was sure of my man now—had been out for a walk while I thought he and Ivors were together in the ominous house!
Where, then, could Ivors have gone? And how was I to conceal myself? I ran softly up the stairs till my eyes were on a level with the upper corridor floor, and in the dim light of the hall I could see the top of the front stairway. If Wynn came up those stairs, instead of entering his study, should I suddenly confront him, or run the risk of being discovered ? I was in an awkward predicament. I could, of course, hear no sound of voices. If there were any conversation, it was in the sign language. I heard the servant returning to the kitchen. I was still on the flight of steps, my eyes on a level with the floor, and I watched the front stairs, expecting every moment to see Wynn’s head appear. The light was still on in the lower hall; I should see him easily enough; but I was soon convinced that he was not coming up. I advanced cautiously till I was standing on the floor, and then made my way forward till I could see the whole front stairway. No one was in sight. I heard the scratch of a match in the study. What now? I had been so sure that Ivors was in the house, that now I knew Wynn was alone, I felt I had no motive for remaining. It would be better to slip away quietly and set the police to find Ivors, if he had not returned.
Catching the scent of tobacco, I decided that Wynn would be quiet for a while, and I would have a chance to get out of the house some other way. I tiptoed along the passage to get to the second flight of stairs, and was about to start up when the last flicker of my match showed me something that stopped me. Surely that was Ivors’ cane, which had a most uncommon head carved on it? Another match. Near the cane, all neatly folded in a corner, was a suit of clothes. I lifted the coat, from which dropped three letters, all addressed: “Harrison Ivors, esquire.”
I saw it all now. I had come just too late. Ivors had come—and gone; but between his coming and his going, another frightful crime had been committed. Ivors was probably lying now on the grass in his own grounds, dressed in the mocking, blue silk dressing gown, with his life stilled forever.
For a few moments I was stupefied with the horror of it all; then—the murderer was calmly smoking in the room below. If I had not proofs enough now of his guilt, I never should have. But I must be careful, for I realized that I had a very dangerous and cunning man to deal with, one who would hesitate at nothing to protect himself. I was now at the top of the front stairs again. I went down slowly, and the thick carpet drowned my steps. Twice I was stopped by hearing a most peculiar noise from the study, the door of which was half open. On the bottom step I paused, and heard again the strange sound which broke the deathly stillness of the house. I turned down the hall and crept along the wall till I was at the edge of the door.
If, as I expected, Wynn was in the swivel chair lay the window, his back would be toward me. Very slowly I moved forward till I could see part of the room. No one was in sight. I stepped just within the door, still keeping behind it. Again that weird sound. I was now able to look around the edge of the door, and I saw Wynn sitting at his desk, his head bowed and hidden in his hands, and even while I watched, again a great sob broke from him.
“Where is Mr. Harrison Ivors?” I had stepped out from behind the door, and stood confronting him with my pistol.
At my first word, Wynn bounded from his chair with a sharp cry and stood glaring at me. He was a tall man, with an intellectual cast of countenance. His hair was slightly gray, but his fine blue eyes made him appear almost youthful.
“Who are you? What do you want here?”
“As I said, I am here in the interest of Harrison Ivors. I have come here to find him.”
“He is not here. He left the house over an hour ago.” The frightened look was gone now. Wynn had dropped into a pleasant, nonchalant manner, which seemed his natural one, and addressed me in the friendliest tones possible.
“He was here, then?”
“I ran across some information which I thought he desired, in regard to the death of his sons. Though I live so near him, I only learned of that tragedy from the newspapers, for I go out very little. He spoke of a Mr. Demers—I suppose you are he—who was investigating the unfortunate affair. You will be glad to know that before he left Mr. Ivors learned how his sons had died. Doubtless he is awaiting you now at his house.”
All this was spoken in a clear, well-modulated voice, in which there was no trace of emotion, unless it were pleasure at having been of service to a fellow being. And his story was so obviously probable that I had difficulty in remembering that, after all, we were standing directly above the white cell and its deadly occupant.
“How did you enter, Mr. Demers? I did not hear the bell. And will you not put up that pistol? Firearms make me nervous.”
“By the cellar, Mr. Wynn.” But I kept the pistol in my hand. My knowledge of his name seemed to startle him, and I fancied his hand was approaching one of the drawers of the desk. “You have a very dangerous serpent in your cellar.” Wynn’s hand was resting on the drawer handle. “A cobra, isn’t it? I have suspected Jack Ivors came to his death by a cobra bite, and
I think you will have to come—”
“Did Mr. Ivors walk from this house, or was he carried?” Demers stepped suddenly into the room and shot the question at Wynn, who was hardly more startled than I was at his sudden entry upon the scene.
“He walked, of course, just as he had come.”
“Mr. Wynn, as I heard you called, it may interest you to know that Mr. Ivors is dead in precisely the same circumstances as his two sons.”
Wynn stood before us for a moment, bending forward as a man bends to shelter his face from a harsh wind. Presently he recovered himself.
“Will you sit down and let me tell you about it? I see you know the truth. I am responsible for the death of Ivors’ sons, and now he has followed the boys to the hell where he belongs. Let me tell you my story. No one knows it now but myself and Mrs. Ivors. When I come to trial, I shall not open my lips, let the law do with me what it will. But I should like to have one person hear my side of all this tragedy, that I may be judged aright. All the world will have its own opinion of me. Will you listen and judge?”
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We assented. There was a pathetic eagerness in his voice, and I, for one, could not resist. Besides, I was curious to know what were his reasons for his crimes. Was Ivors, after all, not the man he had seemed, but one himself so guilty, so treacherous, that even Wynn’s atrocities had a semblance of justification? It was entirely possible. Who knows the dark and unplumbed depths in the inner spirit, even of the most guileless and innocent? We seated ourselves, I taking the swivel chair and Wynn the other chair, Demers remarking significantly that he preferred to stand.
“You caught me weeping. Do not think that my weakness was due to remorse. For five years I have lived for this night of the eighth of June, and yet now that it is all over, memories of other days came over me so powerfully that I was not quite myself. You will understand soon.
“Ivors and I were boys together. He was a couple of years older than I, but we were inseparable companions, were in the same form at Eton, and entered Cambridge the same day. When we left the university, Ivors married and entered the army, and seemed likely to remain there. I did not settle down for a year or two, and then resolved to study for the bar. In due course I was admitted, but clients were long in coming, and I was devilish poor. With all my poverty and wretched prospects, in those days I was hopeful and confident, with a good-natured belief in men and women. The world was a good old world, after all—you know the attitude. In the midst of it all I fell deeply, passionately in love with Edith Somerville, sister of one of my fellow barristers, a chap whose cases were as scarce as mine, only he had his family behind him, you see. And Miss Somerville seemed to be as deeply in love with me as I undoubtedly was with her. If she had only known her own heart then! She was beautiful, attractive with that mysterious charm that even other women love to look upon. There was an unclouded frankness about her brown eyes that made me believe her a loyal, royal soul. I did not disguise my poverty. She hardly knew what the word meant, and thought it would be jolly fun to try living on three pounds a week.
“I need not go into the story of our hardships; you can know that there were hardships, and how they would press on my wife’s young life. But she bore herself bravely, and there was no complaint. This went on for nearly two years, and I was beginning to make better progress in my profession when one day I received word that an uncle employed in the Russian secret service had died and left everything to me. I should have to leave for St. Petersburg at once—that is, as soon as I could borrow enough to take me there. Where could I leave my wife meanwhile? Her own people were in France for the winter. I thought of Ivors. He had been invalided home shortly before, and was living with his two boys at the home of his widowed sister, for his wife had died a couple of years before. It was soon arranged that my wife and my infant girl, Doris, should stay with Mrs. Raleigh, and I set out for Russia.
“My windfall proved to be worth about eight hundred pounds a year, but I had great difficulty in proving identity and conforming to a host of legal refinements that our code knows nothing about; so that it was quite seven months before I could set out for home. How my mind pictured the greeting I should receive, and the pleasure and relief my little fortune would procure! I was proud as any king—I was young then—at the thought that I now had it in my power to make up in some degree for the privations my wife had undergone for my sake. When, on the last day of May, five years ago, I reached Ivors’ house, Mrs. Raleigh met me at the door and burst into tears.
“‘Where are Ethel and Doris ?’ I cried. She did not answer me, but gave me a letter addressed in Ivors’ hand, which read:
“Ethel and I have decided to cut along and start life somewhere else. Greenway is my solicitor. There will be no defense. The sooner you sue, the better. Ivors.
“There was a little note from my wife:
“Will you forgive your wife? Life has been too hard, too dull. I can’t stand it any longer. Ethel.
“‘When did they leave?’
“I need not waste your time telling you about my agony of mind at the disclosures made to me. I did not blame Ethel; I knew Ivors, with his powerful, magnetic personality and his abundant means, would have been a temptation to women more experienced and with happier prospects than my poor wife. I did not know what to do. I had plenty of money in my pockets now, and resolved to follow them. For so many weeks I had dwelt on the glad picture of my home-coming and the happiness of displaying to my wife the means of our release from poverty that somehow the feeling still possessed me that I must even yet find her and tell her. It did not take much ingenuity to discover that they had sailed for India via Canada. I followed on the next steamer; and even during the brooding loneliness of those long days and nights on board ship, I could not clearly define to myself what I would say or do when I confronted my wife. But I wanted to see her again, and my little child.
“At length, on June 9th, I reached Quebec, two days behind the Moronic, on which Ivors had crossed. I searched the register of guests in two hotels before I found, at the Hotel Montmorenci, the names: ‘Henry Ivors, wife, and child.’ The clerk told me the numbers of their rooms, but said Mr. Ivors had stepped out. It was my chance.
“I went up the broad staircase and found the rooms by the numbers on the doors. As I stood for a moment, I heard a low voice sing a lullaby; Doris was being put to sleep. I pushed open the door and entered, and was greeted only with a startled exclamation. My wife was dressed in a blue silk dressing gown, with a belt of leather. The girdle was loosely fastened, and fell off. I reached for it and put it in my pocket—probably you gentlemen have seen pieces of it. I crossed the room and looked at my baby asleep upon the bed—and went out.
“So tumultuous and perplexed had my emotions been that I did not realize till long afterward that I had not spoken a single word to my wife. During the harrowing minutes we were together, we seemed to understand one another without the aid of speech. I followed them during their whole trip. I was seen only once—at Nagpore, where my wife caught a glimpse of me. It was the day I bought my cobras—there were three, but two have died.
“Gradually, and in a very dull way, I began to formulate my future. I closed up the house in which we had lived after our marriage, and for a time took chambers. I managed, by careful saving, to buy this house. One day I found this picture.” And he pointed to the portrait, wonderful in its beauty, horrible in its suggestiveness, which hung over the fatal chamber. “I bought it, and one day I knelt here and prayed to all the evil and deceit and murderous lust that is portrayed there to sustain me in my purpose of revenge. I have even burned candles before that seductive image, in my mad worship.”
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The Encouragement of Sin
Wynn’s eyes were gleaming now, and I could notice an insane passion gradually creeping over him as memory brought up the past. His flushed face and twitching hands warned us that he was becoming dangerously affected by his recital. Demers and I watched him narrowly, expecting every moment that his nervous control would give way, and we should have to deal with a maniac. Suddenly he arose and stood before the picture.
“You have encouraged me and upheld me even until now,” he whispered to it, “and I am thankful and content.” He raised his hands before it as a suppliant. Intensely responsive to the whole shocking scene, I leaned forward in the swivel chair, when to my horror the floor beneath Wynn gave way and he was precipitated, even as his victims had been, into the brilliance of the white cell. The heavy glass closed over the opening so suddenly that we scarcely heard his shriek of terror.
In a moment Demers and I were prying at the glass to get it open again, but in some way it had fastened itself too firmly, and it resisted every effort to break it. Demers rushed away for a hammer, and I continued pounding the glass with the butt of my pistol. It was of no avail.
I saw a brown head and an agile body appear upon the floor of the cell. It raised itself gently and moved its horrid head back and forth, now and again spreading out the curiously marked hood in token of growing rage. Wynn had backed to the wall as far as possible from his deadly instrument of vengeance. The snake began to advance toward him. I could tell by the contortions of Wynn’s face that he was suffering the tortures of the damned. Once he screamed, but it came to my ears only as a whisper. He never raised his eyes, but his hands were high above his head. The serpent was advancing and stopping. Presently it was within striking distance. Still it remained as though undecided.
Wynn was absolutely motionless. I saw his tongue slip across his lips. The cobra raised itself a little, drew back its head, and distended its spectacled hood. Its mouth opened—and it struck. Wynn still stood as he was, and the snake struck again, then turned to the hole whence it had come. Wynn’s arms dropped to his sides, but he remained upright.
And when the police and the coroner arrived, an hour later, he was still standing in the blazing glare of the white cell.
I hurriedly explained the circumstance to Doctor Smellie.
“Yes,” he said, “sometimes when persons die while at the climax of a powerful emotion, their muscles retain the rigor in which they were held. By the way, Demers, that was cobric acid you left for me to analyze.”
~ The End ~
Voodoo On The Riviera
A Dixon Hawke Mystery
(50 min read)
Dixon Hawke Library | May 31, 1941 | No. 561
Up against the fearsome forces of Caribean voodoo, can Hawke and his assistant Tommy Burke defeat the forces of dark magic?
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