Bat Wing by Sax Rohmer - HTML preview
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8. The Call Of M'kombo
Of tea upon the veranda of Cray's Folly that afternoon I retain several notable memories. I got into closer touch with my host and hostess, without achieving anything like a proper understanding of either of them, and I procured a new viewpoint of Miss Val Beverley. Her repose was misleading. She deliberately subjugated her own vital personality to that of Madame de Staemer, why, I knew not, unless she felt herself under an obligation to do so. That her blue-gray eyes could be wistful was true enough, they could also be gay; and once I detected in them a look of sadness which dispelled the butterfly illusion belonging to her dainty slenderness, to her mobile lips, to the vagabond curling hair of russet brown.
Paul Harley's manner remained absent, but I who knew his moods so well recognized that this abstraction was no longer real. It was a pose which he often adopted when in reality he was keenly interested in his surroundings. It baffled me, however, as effectively as it baffled others, and whilst at one moment I decided that he was studying Colonel Menendez, in the next I became convinced that Madame de Staemer was the subject upon his mental dissecting table.
That he should find in Madame a fascinating problem did not surprise me. She must have afforded tempting study for any psychologist. I could not fathom the nature of the kinship existing between herself and the Spanish colonel, for Madame de Staemer was French to her fingertips. Her expressions, her gestures, her whole outlook on life proclaimed the fashionable Parisienne.
She possessed a vigorous masculine intelligence and was the most entertaining companion imaginable. She was daringly outspoken, and it was hard to believe that her gaiety was forced. Yet, as the afternoon wore on, I became more and more convinced that such was the case.
I thought that before affliction visited her Madame de Staemer must have been a vivacious and a beautiful woman. Her vivacity remained and much of her beauty, so that it was difficult to believe her snow-white hair to be a product of nature. Again and again I found myself regarding it as a powdered coiffure of the Pompadour period and wondering why Madame wore no patches.
That a deep and sympathetic understanding existed between herself and Colonel Menendez was unmistakable. More than once I intercepted glances from the dark eyes of Madame which were lover-like, yet laden with a profound sorrow. She was playing a role, and I was convinced that Harley knew this. It was not merely a courageous fight against affliction on the part of a woman of the world, versed in masking her real self from the prying eyes of society, it was a studied performance prompted by some deeper motive.
She dressed with exquisite taste, and to see her seated there amid her cushions, gesticulating vivaciously, one would never have supposed that she was crippled. My admiration for her momentarily increased, the more so since I could see that she was sincerely fond of Val Beverley, whose every movement she followed with looks of almost motherly affection. This was all the more strange as Madame de Staemer whose age, I supposed, lay somewhere on the sunny side of forty, was of a type which expects, and wins, admiration, long after the average woman has ceased to be attractive.
One endowed with such a temperament is as a rule unreasonably jealous of youth and good looks in another. I could not determine if Madame's attitude were to be ascribed to complacent self-satisfaction or to a nobler motive. It sufficed for me that she took an unfeigned joy in the youthful sweetness of her companion. "Val, dear," she said, presently, addressing the girl, "you should make those sleeves shorter, my dear."
She had a rapid way of speaking, and possessed a slightly husky but fascinatingly vibrant voice.
"Your arms are very pretty. You should not hide them."
Val Beverley blushed, and laughed to conceal her embarrassment.
"Oh, my dear," exclaimed Madame, "why be ashamed of arms? All women have arms, but some do well to hide them."
"Quite right, Marie," agreed the Colonel, his thin voice affording an odd contrast to the deeper tones of his cousin. "But it is the scraggy ones who seem to delight in displaying their angles."
"The English, yes," Madame admitted, "but the French, no. They are too clever, Juan."
"Frenchwomen think too much about their looks," said Val Beverley, quietly. "Oh, you know they do, Madame. They would rather die than be without admiration." Madame shrugged her shoulders.
"So would I, my dear," she confessed, "although I cannot walk. Without admiration there is"--she snapped her fingers--"nothing. And who would notice a linnet when a bird of paradise was about, however sweet her voice? Tell me that, my dear?"
Paul Harley aroused himself and laughed heartily.
"Yet," he said, "I think with Miss Beverley, that this love of elegance does not always make for happiness. Surely it is the cause of half the domestic tragedies in France?"
"Ah, the French love elegance," cried Madame, shrugging, "they cannot help it. To secure what is elegant a Frenchwoman will sometimes forget her husband, yes, but never forget herself."
"Really, Marie," protested the Colonel, "you say most strange things!"
"Is that so, Juan?" she replied, casting one of her queer glances in his direction; "but how would you like to be surrounded by a lot of drabs, eh? That man, Mr. Knox," she extended one white hand in the direction of Colonel Menendez, the fingers half closed, in a gesture which curiously reminded me of Sarah Bernhardt, "that man would notice if a parlourmaid came into the room with a shoe unbuttoned. Poof! if we love elegance it is because without it the men would never love us."
Colonel Menendez bent across the table and kissed the white fingers in his courtier-like fashion.
"My sweet cousin," he said, "I should love you in rags."
Madame smiled and flushed like a girl, but withdrawing her hand she shrugged.
"They would have to be pretty rags!" she added.
During this little scene I detected Val Beverley looking at me in a vaguely troubled way, and it was easy to guess that she was wondering what construction I should place upon it. However:
"I am going into the town," declared Madame de Staemer, energetically." Half the things ordered from Hartley's have never been sent."
"Oh, Madame, please let me go," cried Val Beverley.
"My dear," pronounced Madame, "I will not let you go, but I will let you come with me if you wish."
She rang a little bell which stood upon the tea-table beside the urn, and Pedro came out through the drawing room.
"Pedro," she said, "is the car ready?" The Spanish butler bowed.
"Tell Carter to bring it round. Hurry, dear," to the girl, "if you are coming with me. I shall not be a minute."
Thereupon she whisked her mechanical chair about, waved her hand to dismiss Pedro, and went steering through the drawing room at a great rate, with Val Beverley walking beside her.
As we resumed our seats Colonel Menendez lay back with half-closed eyes, his glance following the chair and its occupant until both were swallowed up in the shadows of the big drawing room.
"Madame de Staemer is a very remarkable woman," said Paul Harley. "Remarkable?" replied the Colonel. "The spirit of all the old chivalry of France is imprisoned within her, I think."
He passed cigarettes around, of a long kind resembling cheroots and wrapped in tobacco leaf. I thought it strange that having thus emphasized Madame's nationality he did not feel it incumbent upon him to explain the mystery of their kinship. However, he made no attempt to do so, and almost before we had lighted up, a racy little two-seater was driven around the gravel path by Carter, the chauffeur who had brought us to Cray's Folly from London.
The man descended and began to arrange wraps and cushions, and a few moments later back came Madame again, dressed for driving. Carter was about to lift her into the car when Colonel Menendez stood up and advanced.
"Sit down, Juan, sit down!" said Madame, sharply.
A look of keen anxiety, I had almost said of pain, leapt into her eyes, and the Colonel hesitated.
"How often must I tell you," continued the throbbing voice, "that you must not exert yourself."
Colonel Menendez accepted the rebuke humbly, but the incident struck me as grotesque; for it was difficult to associate delicacy with such a fine specimen of well-preserved manhood as the Colonel.
However, Carter performed the duty of assisting Madame into her little car, and when for a moment he supported her upright, before placing her among the cushions, I noted that she was a tall woman, slender and elegant.
All smiles and light, sparkling conversation, she settled herself comfortably at the wheel and Val Beverley got in beside her. Madame nodded to Carter in dismissal, waved her hand to Colonel Menendez, cried "Au revoir!" and then away went the little car, swinging around the angle of the house and out of sight. Our host stood bare-headed upon the veranda listening to the sound of the engine dying away among the trees. He seemed to be lost in reflection from which he only aroused himself when the purr of the motor became inaudible.
"And now, gentlemen," he said, and suppressed a sigh, "we have much to talk about. This spot is cool, but is it sufficiently private? Perhaps, Mr. Harley, you would prefer to talk in the library?"
Paul Harley flicked ash from the end of his cigarette.
"Better still in your own study, Colonel Menendez," he replied.
"What, do you suspect eavesdroppers?" asked the Colonel, his manner becoming momentarily agitated.
He looked at Harley as though he suspected the latter of possessing private information.
"We should neglect no possible precaution," answered my friend. "That agencies inimical to your safety are focussed upon the house your own statement amply demonstrates."
Colonel Menendez seemed to be on the point of speaking again, but he checked himself and in silence led the way through the ornate library to a smaller room which opened out of it, and which was furnished as a study.
Here the motif was distinctly one of officialdom. Although the Southern element was not lacking, it was not so marked as in the library or in the hall. The place was appointed for utility rather than ornament. Everything was in perfect order. In the library, with the blinds drawn, one might have supposed oneself in Trinidad; in the study, under similar conditions, one might equally well have imagined Downing Street to lie outside the windows. Essentially, this was the workroom of a man of affairs.
Having settled ourselves comfortably, Paul Harley opened the conversation. "In several particulars," said he, "I find my information to be incomplete."
He consulted the back of an envelope, upon which, I presumed during the afternoon, he had made a number of pencilled notes.
"For instance," he continued, "your detection of someone watching the house, and subsequently of someone forcing an entrance, had no visible association with the presence of the bat wing attached to your front door?"
"No," replied the Colonel, slowly, "these episodes took place a month ago." "Exactly a month ago?"
"They took place immediately before the last full moon."
"Ah, before the full moon. And because you associate the activities of Voodoo with the full moon, you believe that the old menace has again become active?" The Colonel nodded emphatically. He was busily engaged in rolling one of his eternal cigarettes.
"This belief of yours was recently confirmed by the discovery of the bat wing?"
"I no longer doubted," said Colonel Menendez, shrugging his shoulders. "How could I?"
"Quite so," murmured Harley, absently, and evidently pursuing some private train of thought. "And now, I take it that your suspicions, if expressed in words would amount to this: During your last visit to Cuba you (a) either killed some high priest of Voodoo, or (b) seriously injured him? Assuming the first theory to be the correct one, your death was determined upon by the sect over which he had formerly presided. Assuming the second to be accurate, however, it is presumably the man himself for whom we must look. Now, Colonel Menendez, kindly inform me if you recall the name of this man?"
"I recall it very well," replied the Colonel. "His name was M'kombo, and he was a Benin negro."
"Assuming that he is still alive, what, roughly, would his age be to- day?"
The Colonel seemed to meditate, pushing a box of long Martinique cigars across the table in my direction.
"He would be an old man," he pronounced. "I, myself, am fifty-two, and I should say that M'kombo if alive to-day would be nearer to seventy than sixty."
"Ah," murmured Harley, "and did he speak English?"
"A few words, I believe."
Paul Harley fixed his gaze upon the dark, aquiline face.
"In short," he said, "do you really suspect that it was M'kombo whose shadow you saw upon the lawn, who a month ago made a midnight entrance into Cray's Folly, and who recently pinned a bat wing to the door?"
Colonel Menendez seemed somewhat taken aback by this direct question. "I cannot believe it," he confessed.
"Do you believe that this order or religion of Voodooism has any existence outside those places where African negroes or descendents of negroes are settled?"
"I should not have been prepared to believe it, Mr. Harley, prior to my experiences in Washington and elsewhere."
"Then you do believe that there are representatives of this cult to be met with in Europe and America?"
"I should have been prepared to believe it possible in America, for in America there are many negroes, but in England----"
Again he shrugged his shoulders.
"I would remind you," said Harley, quietly, "that there are also quite a number of negroes in England. If you seriously believe Voodoo to follow negro migration, I can see no objection to assuming it to be a universal cult."
"Such an idea is incredible."
"Yet by what other hypothesis," asked Harley, "are we to cover the facts of your own case as stated by yourself? Now," he consulted his pencilled notes, "there is another point. I gather that these African sorcerers rely largely upon what I may term intimidation. In other words, they claim the power of wishing an enemy to death."
He raised his eyes and stared grimly at the Colonel.
"I should not like to suppose that a man of your courage and culture could subscribe to such a belief."
"I do not, sir," declared the Colonel, warmly. "No Obeah man could ever exercise his will upon me!"
"Yet, if I may say so," murmured Harley, "your will to live seems to have become somewhat weakened."
"What do you mean?"
Colonel Menendez stood up, his delicate nostrils dilated. He glared angrily at Harley.
"I mean that I perceive a certain resignation in your manner of which I do not approve."
"You do not approve?" said Colonel Menendez, softly; and I thought as he stood looking down upon my friend that I had rarely seen a more formidable figure.
Paul Harley had roused him unaccountably, and knowing my friend for a master of tact I knew also that this had been deliberate, although I could not even dimly perceive his object.
"I occupy the position of a specialist," Harley continued, "and you occupy that of my patient. Now, you cannot disguise from me that your mental opposition to this danger which threatens has become slackened. Allow me to remind you that the strongest defence is counter-attack. You are angry, Colonel Menendez, but I would rather see you angry than apathetic. To come to my last point. You spoke of a neighbour in terms which led me to suppose that you suspected him of some association with your enemies. May I ask for the name of this person?"
Colonel Menendez sat down again, puffing furiously at his cigarette, whilst beginning to roll another. He was much disturbed, was fighting to regain mastery of himself.
"I apologize from the bottom of my heart," he said, "for a breach of good behaviour which really was unforgivable. I was angry when I should have been grateful. Much that you have said is true. Because it is true, I despise myself."
He flashed a glance at Paul Harley.
"Awake," he continued, "I care for no man breathing, black or white; but asleep"-- he shrugged his shoulders. "It is in sleep that these dealers in unclean things obtain their advantage."
"You excite my curiosity," declared Harley.
"Listen," Colonel Menendez bent forward, resting his elbows upon his knees. Between the yellow fingers of his left hand he held the newly completed cigarette whilst he continued to puff vigorously at the old one. "You recollect my speaking of the death of a certain native girl?"
Paul Harley nodded.
"The real cause of her death was never known, but I obtained evidence to show that on the night after the wing of a bat had been attached to her hut, she wandered out in her sleep and visited the Black Belt. Can you doubt that someone was calling her?"
"Mr. Harley, she was obeying the call of M'kombo!"
"The call of M'kombo? You refer to some kind of hypnotic suggestions?"
"I illustrate," replied the Colonel, "to help to make clear something which I have to tell you. On the night when last the moon was full--on the night after someone had entered the house--I had retired early to bed. Suddenly I awoke, feeling very cold. I awoke, I say, and where do you suppose I found myself?"
"I am all anxiety to hear."
"On the point of entering the Tudor garden--you call it Tudor garden?-- which is visible from the window of your room!"
"Most extraordinary," murmured Harley; "and you were in your night attire?" "I was."
"And what had awakened you?"
"An accident. I believe a lucky accident. I had cut my bare foot upon the gravel and the pain awakened! me."
"You had no recollection of any dream which had prompted you to go down into the garden?" "None whatever."
"Does your room face in that direction?"
"It does not. It faces the lake on the south of the house. I had descended to a side door, unbarred it, and walked entirely around the east wing before I awakened."
"Your room faces the lake," murmured Harley.
Their glances met, and in Paul Harley's expression there seemed to be a challenge.
"You have not yet told me," said he, "the name of your neighbour."
Colonel Menendez lighted his new cigarette.
"Mr. Harley," he confessed, "I regret that I ever referred to this suspicion of mine. Indeed it is hardly a suspicion, it is what I may call a desperate doubt. Do you say that, a desperate doubt?"
"I think I follow you," said Harley.
"The fact is this, I only know of one person within ten miles of Cray's Folly who has ever visited Cuba."
"I have no other scrap of evidence to associate him I with my shadowy enemy. This being so, you will pardon me if I ask you to forget that I ever referred to his existence."
He spoke the words with a sort of lofty finality, and accompanied them with a gesture of the hands which really left Harley no alternative but to drop the subject.
Again their glances met, and it was patent to me that underlying all this conversation was something beyond my ken. What it was that Harley suspected I could not imagine, nor what it was that Colonel Menendez desired to conceal; but tension was in the very air. The Spaniard was on the defensive, and Paul Harley was puzzled, irritated.
It was a strange interview, and one which in the light of after events I recognized to possess extraordinary significance. That sixth sense of Harley's was awake, was prompting him, but to what extent he understood its promptings at that hour I did not know, and have never known to this day. Intuitively, I believe, as he sat there staring at Colonel Menendez, he began to perceive the shadow within a shadow which was the secret of Cray's Folly, which was the thing called Bat Wing, which was the devilish force at that very hour alive and potent in our midst.