TWO men, the one an architect and the other an archaeologist, met on the step_f the great house at Prior's Park; and their host, Lord Bulmer, in his breez_ay, thought it natural to introduce them. It must be confessed that he wa_azy as well as breezy, and had no very clear connection in his mind, beyon_he sense that an architect and an archaeologist begin with the same series o_etters. The world must remain in a reverent doubt as to whether he would, o_he same principles, have presented a diplomatist to a dipsomaniac or _atiocinator to a rat catcher. He was a big, fair, bull-necked young man, abounding in outward gestures, unconsciously flapping his gloves an_lourishing his stick.
"You two ought to have something to talk about," he said, cheerfully. "Ol_uildings and all that sort of thing; this is rather an old building, by th_ay, though I say it who shouldn't. I must ask you to excuse me a moment; I'v_ot to go and see about the cards for this Christmas romp my sister'_rranging. We hope to see you all there, of course. Juliet wants it to be _ancy-dress affair—abbots and crusaders and all that. My ancestors, I suppose, after all."
"I trust the abbot was not an ancestor," said the archaeological gentleman, with a smile.
"Only a sort of great-uncle, I imagine," answered the other, laughing; the_is rather rambling eye rolled round the ordered landscape in front of th_ouse; an artificial sheet of water ornamented with an antiquated nymph in th_enter and surrounded by a park of tall trees now gray and black and frosty, for it was in the depth of a severe winter.
"It's getting jolly cold," his lordship continued. "My sister hopes we shal_ave some skating as well as dancing."
"If the crusaders come in full armor," said the other, "you must be carefu_ot to drown your ancestors."
"Oh, there's no fear of that," answered Bulmer; "this precious lake of ours i_ot two feet deep anywhere." And with one of his flourishing gestures he stuc_is stick into the water to demonstrate its shallowness. They could see th_hort end bent in the water, so that he seemed for a moment to lean his larg_eight on a breaking staff.
"The worst you can expect is to see an abbot sit down rather suddenly," h_dded, turning away. "Well, au revoir; I'll let you know about it later."
The archaeologist and the architect were left on the great stone steps smilin_t each other; but whatever their common interests, they presented _onsiderable personal contrast, and the fanciful might even have found som_ontradiction in each considered individually. The former, a Mr. James Haddow, came from a drowsy den in the Inns of Court, full of leather and parchment, for the law was his profession and history only his hobby; he was indeed, among other things, the solicitor and agent of the Prior's Park estate. But h_imself was far from drowsy and seemed remarkably wide awake, with shrewd an_rominent blue eyes, and red hair brushed as neatly as his very neat costume.
The latter, whose name was Leonard Crane, came straight from a crude an_lmost cockney office of builders and house agents in the neighboring suburb, sunning itself at the end of a new row of jerry-built houses with plans i_ery bright colors and notices in very large letters. But a serious observer, at a second glance, might have seen in his eyes something of that shinin_leep that is called vision; and his yellow hair, while not affectedly long, was unaffectedly untidy. It was a manifest if melancholy truth that th_rchitect was an artist. But the artistic temperament was far from explainin_im; there was something else about him that was not definable, but which som_ven felt to be dangerous. Despite his dreaminess, he would sometimes surpris_is friends with arts and even sports apart from his ordinary life, lik_emories of some previous existence. On this occasion, nevertheless, h_astened to disclaim any authority on the other man's hobby.
"I mustn't appear on false pretences," he said, with a smile. "I hardly eve_now what an archaeologist is, except that a rather rusty remnant of Gree_uggests that he is a man who studies old things."
"Yes," replied Haddow, grimly. "An archaeologist is a man who studies ol_hings and finds they are new."
Crane looked at him steadily for a moment and then smiled again.
"Dare one suggest," he said, "that some of the things we have been talkin_bout are among the old things that turn out not to be old?"
His companion also was silent for a moment, and the smile on his rugged fac_as fainter as he replied, quietly:
"The wall round the park is really old. The one gate in it is Gothic, and _annot find any trace of destruction or restoration. But the house and th_state generally—well the romantic ideas read into these things are ofte_ather recent romances, things almost like fashionable novels. For instance, the very name of this place, Prior's Park, makes everybody think of it as _oonlit mediaeval abbey; I dare say the spiritualists by this time hav_iscovered the ghost of a monk there. But, according to the only authoritativ_tudy of the matter I can find, the place was simply called Prior's as an_ural place is called Podger's. It was the house of a Mr. Prior, a farmhouse, probably, that stood here at some time or other and was a local landmark. Oh, there are a great many examples of the same thing, here and everywhere else.
This suburb of ours used to be a village, and because some of the peopl_lurred the name and pronounced it Holliwell, many a minor poet indulged i_ancies about a Holy Well, with spells and fairies and all the rest of it, filling the suburban drawing-rooms with the Celtic twilight. Whereas anyon_cquainted with the facts knows that 'Hollinwall' simply means 'the hole i_he wall,' and probably referred to some quite trivial accident. That's what _ean when I say that we don't so much find old things as we find new ones."
Crane seemed to have grown somewhat inattentive to the little lecture o_ntiquities and novelties, and the cause of his restlessness was soo_pparent, and indeed approaching. Lord Bulmer's sister, Juliet Bray, wa_oming slowly across the lawn, accompanied by one gentleman and followed b_wo others. The young architect was in the illogical condition of mind i_hich he preferred three to one.
The man walking with the lady was no other than the eminent Prince Borodino, who was at least as famous as a distinguished diplomatist ought to be, in th_nterests of what is called secret diplomacy. He had been paying a round o_isits at various English country houses, and exactly what he was doing fo_iplomacy at Prior's Park was as much a secret as any diplomatist coul_esire. The obvious thing to say of his appearance was that he would have bee_xtremely handsome if he had not been entirely bald. But, indeed, that woul_tself be a rather bald way of putting it. Fantastic as it sounds, it woul_it the case better to say that people would have been surprised to see hai_rowing on him; as surprised as if they had found hair growing on the bust o_ Roman emperor. His tall figure was buttoned up in a tight-waisted fashio_hat rather accentuated his potential bulk, and he wore a red flower in hi_uttonhole. Of the two men walking behind one was also bald, but in a mor_artial and also a more premature fashion, for his drooping mustache was stil_ellow, and if his eyes were somewhat heavy it was with languor and not wit_ge. It was Horne Fisher, and he was talking as easily and idly abou_verything as he always did. His companion was a more striking, and even mor_inister, figure, and he had the added importance of being Lord Bulmer'_ldest and most intimate friend. He was generally known with a sever_implicity as Mr. Brain; but it was understood that he had been a judge an_olice official in India, and that he had enemies, who had represented hi_easures against crime as themselves almost criminal. He was a brown skeleto_f a man with dark, deep, sunken eyes and a black mustache that hid th_eaning of his mouth. Though he had the look of one wasted by some tropica_isease, his movements were much more alert than those of his loungin_ompanion.
"It's all settled," announced the lady, with great animation, when they cam_ithin hailing distance. "You've all got to put on masquerade things and ver_ikely skates as well, though the prince says they don't go with it; but w_on't care about that. It's freezing already, and we don't often get such _hance in England."
"Even in India we don't exactly skate all the year round," observed Mr. Brain.
"And even Italy is not primarily associated with ice," said the Italian.
"Italy is primarily associated with ices," remarked Mr. Horne Fisher. "I mea_ith ice cream men. Most people in this country imagine that Italy is entirel_opulated with ice cream men and organ grinders. There certainly are a lot o_hem; perhaps they're an invading army in disguise."
"How do you know they are not the secret emissaries of our diplomacy?" aske_he prince, with a slightly scornful smile. "An army of organ grinders migh_ick up hints, and their monkeys might pick up all sort of things."
"The organs are organized in fact," said the flippant Mr. Fisher. "Well, I'v_nown it pretty cold before now in Italy and even in India, up on th_imalayan slopes. The ice on our own little round pond will be quite cozy b_omparison."
Juliet Bray was an attractive lady with dark hair and eyebrows and dancin_yes, and there was a geniality and even generosity in her rather imperiou_ays. In most matters she could command her brother, though that nobleman, like many other men of vague ideas, was not without a touch of the bully whe_e was at bay. She could certainly command her guests, even to the extent o_ecking out the most respectable and reluctant of them with her mediaeva_asquerade. And it really seemed as if she could command the elements also, like a witch. For the weather steadily hardened and sharpened; that night th_ce of the lake, glimmering in the moonlight, was like a marble floor, an_hey had begun to dance and skate on it before it was dark.
Prior's Park, or, more properly, the surrounding district of Holinwall, was _ountry seat that had become a suburb; having once had only a dependen_illage at its doors, it now found outside all its doors the signals of th_xpansion of London. Mr. Haddow, who was engaged in historical researches bot_n the library and the locality, could find little assistance in the latter.
He had already realized, from the documents, that Prior's Park had originall_een something like Prior's Farm, named after some local figure, but the ne_ocial conditions were all against his tracing the story by its traditions.
Had any of the real rustics remained, he would probably have found som_ingering legend of Mr. Prior, however remote he might be. But the new nomadi_opulation of clerks and artisans, constantly shifting their homes from on_uburb to another, or their children from one school to another, could have n_orporate continuity. They had all that forgetfulness of history that goe_verywhere with the extension of education.
Nevertheless, when he came out of the library next morning and saw the wintr_rees standing round the frozen pond like a black forest, he felt he migh_ell have been far in the depths of the country. The old wall running roun_he park kept that inclosure itself still entirely rural and romantic, and on_ould easily imagine that the depths of that dark forest faded awa_ndefinitely into distant vales and hills. The gray and black and silver o_he wintry wood were all the more severe or somber as a contrast to th_olored carnival groups that already stood on and around the frozen pool. Fo_he house party had already flung themselves impatiently into fancy dress, an_he lawyer, with his neat black suit and red hair, was the only modern figur_mong them.
"Aren't you going to dress up?" asked Juliet, indignantly shaking at him _orned and towering blue headdress of the fourteenth century which framed he_ace very becomingly, fantastic as it was. "Everybody here has to be in th_iddle Ages. Even Mr. Brain has put on a sort of brown dressing gown and say_e's a monk; and Mr. Fisher got hold of some old potato sacks in the kitche_nd sewed them together; he's supposed to be a monk, too. As to the prince, he's perfectly glorious, in great crimson robes as a cardinal. He looks as i_e could poison everybody. You simply must be something."
"I will be something later in the day," he replied. "At present I am nothin_ut an antiquary and an attorney. I have to see your brother presently, abou_ome legal business and also some local investigations he asked me to make. _ust look a little like a steward when I give an account of my stewardship."
"Oh, but my brother has dressed up!" cried the girl. "Very much so. No end, i_ may say so. Why he's bearing down on you now in all his glory."
The noble lord was indeed marching toward them in a magnificent sixteenth- century costume of purple and gold, with a gold-hilted sword and a plumed cap, and manners to match. Indeed, there was something more than his usua_xpansiveness of bodily action in his appearance at that moment. It almos_eemed, so to speak, that the plumes on his hat had gone to his head. H_lapped his great, gold-lined cloak like the wings of a fairy king in _antomime; he even drew his sword with a flourish and waved it about as he di_is walking stick. In the light of after events there seemed to be somethin_onstrous and ominous about that exuberance, something of the spirit that i_alled fey. At the time it merely crossed a few people's minds that he migh_ossibly be drunk.
As he strode toward his sister the first figure he passed was that of Leonar_rane, clad in Lincoln green, with the horn and baldrick and sword appropriat_o Robin Hood; for he was standing nearest to the lady, where, indeed, h_ight have been found during a disproportionate part of the time. He ha_isplayed one of his buried talents in the matter of skating, and now that th_kating was over seemed disposed to prolong the partnership. The boisterou_ulmer playfully made a pass at him with his drawn sword, going forward wit_he lunge in the proper fencing fashion, and making a somewhat too familia_hakespearean quotation about a rodent and a Venetian coin.
Probably in Crane also there was a subdued excitement just then; anyhow, i_ne flash he had drawn his own sword and parried; and then suddenly, to th_urprise of everyone, Bulmer's weapon seemed to spring out of his hand int_he air and rolled away on the ringing ice.
"Well, I never!" said the lady, as if with justifiable indignation. "You neve_old me you could fence, too."
Bulmer put up his sword with an air rather bewildered than annoyed, whic_ncreased the impression of something irresponsible in his mood at the moment; then he turned rather abruptly to his lawyer, saying:
"We can settle up about the estate after dinner; I've missed nearly all th_kating as it is, and I doubt if the ice will hold till to-morrow night. _hink I shall get up early and have a spin by myself."
"You won't be disturbed with my company," said Horne Fisher, in his wear_ashion. "If I have to begin the day with ice, in the American fashion, _refer it in smaller quantities. But no early hours for me in December. Th_arly bird catches the cold."
"Oh, I shan't die of catching a cold," answered Bulmer, and laughed.
* * *
A considerable group of the skating party had consisted of the guests stayin_t the house, and the rest had tailed off in twos and threes some time befor_ost of the guests began to retire for the night. Neighbors, always invited t_rior's Park on such occasions, went back to their own houses in motors or o_oot; the legal and archeological gentleman had returned to the Inns of Cour_y a late train, to get a paper called for during his consultation with hi_lient; and most of the other guests were drifting and lingering at variou_tages on their way up to bed. Horne Fisher, as if to deprive himself of an_xcuse for his refusal of early rising, had been the first to retire to hi_oom; but, sleepy as he looked, he could not sleep. He had picked up from _able the book of antiquarian topography, in which Haddow had found his firs_ints about the origin of the local name, and, being a man with a quiet an_uaint capacity for being interested in anything, he began to read i_teadily, making notes now and then of details on which his previous readin_eft him with a certain doubt about his present conclusions. His room was th_ne nearest to the lake in the center of the woods, and was therefore th_uietest, and none of the last echoes of the evening's festivity could reac_im. He had followed carefully the argument which established the derivatio_rom Mr. Prior's farm and the hole in the wall, and disposed of an_ashionable fancy about monks and magic wells, when he began to be consciou_f a noise audible in the frozen silence of the night. It was not _articularly loud noise, but it seemed to consist of a series of thuds o_eavy blows, such as might be struck on a wooden door by a man seeking t_nter. They were followed by something like a faint creak or crack, as if th_bstacle had either been opened or had given way. He opened his own bedroo_oor and listened, but as he heard talk and laughter all over the lowe_loors, he had no reason to fear that a summons would be neglected or th_ouse left without protection. He went to his open window, looking out ove_he frozen pond and the moonlit statue in the middle of their circle o_arkling woods, and listened again. But silence had returned to that silen_lace, and, after straining his ears for a considerable time, he could hea_othing but the solitary hoot of a distant departing train. Then he reminde_imself how many nameless noises can be heard by the wakeful during the mos_rdinary night, and shrugging his shoulders, went wearily to bed.
He awoke suddenly and sat up in bed with his ears filled, as with thunder, with the throbbing echoes of a rending cry. He remained rigid for a moment, and then sprang out of bed, throwing on the loose gown of sacking he had wor_ll day. He went first to the window, which was open, but covered with a thic_urtain, so that his room was still completely dark; but when he tossed th_urtain aside and put his head out, he saw that a gray and silver daybreak ha_lready appeared behind the black woods that surrounded the little lake, an_hat was all that he did see. Though the sound had certainly come in throug_he open window from this direction, the whole scene was still and empty unde_he morning light as under the moonlight. Then the long, rather lackadaisica_and he had laid on a window sill gripped it tighter, as if to master _remor, and his peering blue eyes grew bleak with fear. It may seem that hi_motion was exaggerated and needless, considering the effort of common sens_y which he had conquered his nervousness about the noise on the previou_ight. But that had been a very different sort of noise. It might have bee_ade by half a hundred things, from the chopping of wood to the breaking o_ottles. There was only one thing in nature from which could come the soun_hat echoed through the dark house at daybreak. It was the awful articulat_oice of man; and it was something worse, for he knew what man.
He knew also that it had been a shout for help. It seemed to him that he ha_eard the very word; but the word, short as it was, had been swallowed up, a_f the man had been stifled or snatched away even as he spoke. Only th_ocking reverberations of it remained even in his memory, but he had no doub_f the original voice. He had no doubt that the great bull's voice of Franci_ray, Baron Bulmer, had been heard for the last time between the darkness an_he lifting dawn.
How long he stood there he never knew, but he was startled into life by th_irst living thing that he saw stirring in that half-frozen landscape. Alon_he path beside the lake, and immediately under his window, a figure wa_alking slowly and softly, but with great composure—a stately figure in robe_f a splendid scarlet; it was the Italian prince, still in his cardinal'_ostume. Most of the company had indeed lived in their costumes for the las_ay or two, and Fisher himself had assumed his frock of sacking as _onvenient dressing gown; but there seemed, nevertheless, something unusuall_inished and formal, in the way of an early bird, about this magnificent re_ockatoo. It was as if the early bird had been up all night.
"What is the matter?" he called, sharply, leaning out of the window, and th_talian turned up his great yellow face like a mask of brass.
"We had better discuss it downstairs," said Prince Borodino.
Fisher ran downstairs, and encountered the great, red-robed figure enterin_he doorway and blocking the entrance with his bulk.
"Did you hear that cry?" demanded Fisher.
"I heard a noise and I came out," answered the diplomatist, and his face wa_oo dark in the shadow for its expression to be read.
"It was Bulmer's voice," insisted Fisher. "I'll swear it was Bulmer's voice."
"Did you know him well?" asked the other.
The question seemed irrelevant, though it was not illogical, and Fisher coul_nly answer in a random fashion that he knew Lord Bulmer only slightly.
"Nobody seems to have known him well," continued the Italian, in level tones.
"Nobody except that man Brain. Brain is rather older than Bulmer, but I fanc_hey shared a good many secrets."
Fisher moved abruptly, as if waking from a momentary trance, and said, in _ew and more vigorous voice, "But look here, hadn't we better get outside an_ee if anything has happened."
"The ice seems to be thawing," said the other, almost with indifference.
When they emerged from the house, dark stains and stars in the gray field o_ce did indeed indicate that the frost was breaking up, as their host ha_rophesied the day before, and the very memory of yesterday brought back th_ystery of to-day.
"He knew there would be a thaw," observed the prince. "He went out skatin_uite early on purpose. Did he call out because he landed in the water, do yo_hink?"
Fisher looked puzzled. "Bulmer was the last man to bellow like that because h_ot his boots wet. And that's all he could do here; the water would hardl_ome up to the calf of a man of his size. You can see the flat weeds on th_loor of the lake, as if it were through a thin pane of glass. No, if Bulme_ad only broken the ice he wouldn't have said much at the moment, thoug_ossibly a good deal afterward. We should have found him stamping and damnin_p and down this path, and calling for clean boots."
"Let us hope we shall find him as happily employed," remarked the diplomatist.
"In that case the voice must have come out of the wood."
"I'll swear it didn't come out of the house," said Fisher; and the tw_isappeared together into the twilight of wintry trees.
The plantation stood dark against the fiery colors of sunrise, a black fring_aving that feathery appearance which makes trees when they are bare the ver_everse of rugged. Hours and hours afterward, when the same dense, bu_elicate, margin was dark against the greenish colors opposite the sunset, th_earch thus begun at sunrise had not come to an end. By successive stages, an_o slowly gathering groups of the company, it became apparent that the mos_xtraordinary of all gaps had appeared in the party; the guests could find n_race of their host anywhere. The servants reported that his bed had bee_lept in and his skates and his fancy costume were gone, as if he had rise_arly for the purpose he had himself avowed. But from the top of the house t_he bottom, from the walls round the park to the pond in the center, there wa_o trace of Lord Bulmer, dead or alive. Horne Fisher realized that a chillin_remonition had already prevented him from expecting to find the man alive.
But his bald brow was wrinkled over an entirely new and unnatural problem, i_ot finding the man at all.
He considered the possibility of Bulmer having gone off of his own accord, fo_ome reason; but after fully weighing it he finally dismissed it. It wa_nconsistent with the unmistakable voice heard at daybreak, and with man_ther practical obstacles. There was only one gateway in the ancient and loft_all round the small park; the lodge keeper kept it locked till late in th_orning, and the lodge keeper had seen no one pass. Fisher was fairly sur_hat he had before him a mathematical problem in an inclosed space. Hi_nstinct had been from the first so attuned to the tragedy that it would hav_een almost a relief to him to find the corpse. He would have been grieved, but not horrified, to come on the nobleman's body dangling from one of his ow_rees as from a gibbet, or floating in his own pool like a pallid weed. Wha_orrified him was to find nothing.
He soon become conscious that he was not alone even in his most individual an_solated experiments. He often found a figure following him like his shadow, in silent and almost secret clearings in the plantation or outlying nooks an_orners of the old wall. The dark-mustached mouth was as mute as the deep eye_ere mobile, darting incessantly hither and thither, but it was clear tha_rain of the Indian police had taken up the trail like an old hunter after _iger. Seeing that he was the only personal friend of the vanished man, thi_eemed natural enough, and Fisher resolved to deal frankly with him.
"This silence is rather a social strain," he said. "May I break the ice b_alking about the weather?—which, by the way, has already broken the ice. _now that breaking the ice might be a rather melancholy metaphor in thi_ase."
"I don't think so," replied Brain, shortly. "I don't fancy the ice had much t_o with it. I don't see how it could."
"What would you propose doing?" asked Fisher.
"Well, we've sent for the authorities, of course, but I hope to find somethin_ut before they come," replied the Anglo-Indian. "I can't say I have much hop_rom police methods in this country. Too much red tape, habeas corpus and tha_ort of thing. What we want is to see that nobody bolts; the nearest we coul_et to it would be to collect the company and count them, so to speak.
Nobody's left lately, except that lawyer who was poking about fo_ntiquities."
"Oh, he's out of it; he left last night," answered the other. "Eight hour_fter Bulmer's chauffeur saw his lawyer off by the train I heard Bulmer's ow_oice as plain as I hear yours now."
"I suppose you don't believe in spirits?" said the man from India. After _ause he added: "There's somebody else I should like to find, before we g_fter a fellow with an alibi in the Inner Temple. What's become of that fello_n green—the architect dressed up as a forester? I haven't seem him about."
Mr. Brain managed to secure his assembly of all the distracted company befor_he arrival of the police. But when he first began to comment once more on th_oung architect's delay in putting in an appearance, he found himself in th_resence of a minor mystery, and a psychological development of an entirel_nexpected kind.
Juliet Bray had confronted the catastrophe of her brother's disappearance wit_ somber stoicism in which there was, perhaps, more paralysis than pain; bu_hen the other question came to the surface she was both agitated and angry.
"We don't want to jump to any conclusions about anybody," Brain was saying i_is staccato style. "But we should like to know a little more about Mr. Crane.
Nobody seems to know much about him, or where he comes from. And it seems _ort of coincidence that yesterday he actually crossed swords with poo_ulmer, and could have stuck him, too, since he showed himself the bette_wordsman. Of course, that may be an accident and couldn't possibly be calle_ case against anybody; but then we haven't the means to make a real cas_gainst anybody. Till the police come we are only a pack of very amateu_leuthhounds."
"And I think you're a pack of snobs," said Juliet. "Because Mr. Crane is _enius who's made his own way, you try to suggest he's a murderer withou_aring to say so. Because he wore a toy sword and happened to know how to us_t, you want us to believe he used it like a bloodthirsty maniac for no reaso_n the world. And because he could have hit my brother and didn't, you deduc_hat he did. That's the sort of way you argue. And as for his havin_isappeared, you're wrong in that as you are in everything else, for here h_omes."
And, indeed, the green figure of the fictitious Robin Hood slowly detache_tself from the gray background of the trees, and came toward them as sh_poke.
He approached the group slowly, but with composure; but he was decidedly pale, and the eyes of Brain and Fisher had already taken in one detail of the green- clad figure more clearly than all the rest. The horn still swung from hi_aldrick, but the sword was gone.
Rather to the surprise of the company, Brain did not follow up the questio_hus suggested; but, while retaining an air of leading the inquiry, had als_n appearance of changing the subject.
"Now we're all assembled," he observed, quietly, "there is a question I wan_o ask to begin with. Did anybody here actually see Lord Bulmer this morning?"
Leonard Crane turned his pale face round the circle of faces till he came t_uliet's; then he compressed his lips a little and said:
"Yes, I saw him."
"Was he alive and well?" asked Brain, quickly. "How was he dressed?"
"He appeared exceedingly well," replied Crane, with a curious intonation. "H_as dressed as he was yesterday, in that purple costume copied from th_ortrait of his ancestor in the sixteenth century. He had his skates in hi_and."
"And his sword at his side, I suppose," added the questioner. "Where is you_wn sword, Mr. Crane?"
"I threw it away."
In the singular silence that ensued, the train of thought in many minds becam_nvoluntarily a series of colored pictures.
They had grown used to their fanciful garments looking more gay and gorgeou_gainst the dark gray and streaky silver of the forest, so that the movin_igures glowed like stained-glass saints walking. The effect had been mor_itting because so many of them had idly parodied pontifical or monasti_ress. But the most arresting attitude that remained in their memories ha_een anything but merely monastic; that of the moment when the figure i_right green and the other in vivid violet had for a moment made a silve_ross of their crossing swords. Even when it was a jest it had been somethin_f a drama; and it was a strange and sinister thought that in the gra_aybreak the same figures in the same posture might have been repeated as _ragedy.
"Did you quarrel with him?" asked Brain, suddenly.
"Yes," replied the immovable man in green. "Or he quarreled with me."
"Why did he quarrel with you?" asked the investigator; and Leonard Crane mad_o reply.
Horne Fisher, curiously enough, had only given half his attention to thi_rucial cross-examination. His heavy-lidded eyes had languidly followed th_igure of Prince Borodino, who at this stage had strolled away toward th_ringe of the wood; and, after a pause, as of meditation, had disappeared int_he darkness of the trees.
He was recalled from his irrelevance by the voice of Juliet Bray, which ran_ut with an altogether new note of decision:
"If that is the difficulty, it had best be cleared up. I am engaged to Mr.
Crane, and when we told my brother he did not approve of it; that is all."
Neither Brain nor Fisher exhibited any surprise, but the former added, quietly:
"Except, I suppose, that he and your brother went off into the wood to discus_t, where Mr. Crane mislaid his sword, not to mention his companion."
"And may I ask," inquired Crane, with a certain flicker of mockery passin_ver his pallid features, "what I am supposed to have done with either o_hem? Let us adopt the cheerful thesis that I am a murderer; it has yet to b_hown that I am a magician. If I ran your unfortunate friend through the body, what did I do with the body? Did I have it carried away by seven flyin_ragons, or was it merely a trifling matter of turning it into a milk-whit_ind?"
"It is no occasion for sneering," said the Anglo-Indian judge, with abrup_uthority. "It doesn't make it look better for you that you can joke about th_oss."
Fisher's dreamy, and even dreary, eye was still on the edge of the woo_ehind, and he became conscious of masses of dark red, like a stormy sunse_loud, glowing through the gray network of the thin trees, and the prince i_is cardinal's robes reemerged on to the pathway. Brain had had half a notio_hat the prince might have gone to look for the lost rapier. But when h_eappeared he was carrying in his hand, not a sword, but an ax.
The incongruity between the masquerade and the mystery had created a curiou_sychological atmosphere. At first they had all felt horribly ashamed at bein_aught in the foolish disguises of a festival, by an event that had only to_uch the character of a funeral. Many of them would have already gone back an_ressed in clothes that were more funereal or at least more formal. Bu_omehow at the moment this seemed like a second masquerade, more artificia_nd frivolous than the first. And as they reconciled themselves to thei_idiculous trappings, a curious sensation had come over some of them, notabl_ver the more sensitive, like Crane and Fisher and Juliet, but in some degre_ver everybody except the practical Mr. Brain. It was almost as if they wer_he ghosts of their own ancestors haunting that dark wood and dismal lake, an_laying some old part that they only half remembered. The movements of thos_olored figures seemed to mean something that had been settled long before, like a silent heraldry. Acts, attitudes, external objects, were accepted as a_llegory even without the key; and they knew when a crisis had come, when the_id not know what it was. And somehow they knew subconsciously that the whol_ale had taken a new and terrible turn, when they saw the prince stand in th_ap of the gaunt trees, in his robes of angry crimson and with his lowerin_ace of bronze, bearing in his hand a new shape of death. They could not hav_amed a reason, but the two swords seemed indeed to have become toy swords an_he whole tale of them broken and tossed away like a toy. Borodino looked lik_he Old World headsman, clad in terrible red, and carrying the ax for th_xecution of the criminal. And the criminal was not Crane.
Mr. Brain of the Indian police was glaring at the new object, and it was _oment or two before he spoke, harshly and almost hoarsely.
"What are you doing with that?" he asked. "Seems to be a woodman's chopper."
"A natural association of ideas," observed Horne Fisher. "If you meet a cat i_ wood you think it's a wildcat, though it may have just strolled from th_rawing-room sofa. As a matter of fact, I happen to know that is not th_oodman's chopper. It's the kitchen chopper, or meat ax, or something lik_hat, that somebody has thrown away in the wood. I saw it in the kitche_yself when I was getting the potato sacks with which I reconstructed _ediaeval hermit."
"All the same, it is not without interest," remarked the prince, holding ou_he instrument to Fisher, who took it and examined it carefully. "A butcher'_leaver that has done butcher's work."
"It was certainly the instrument of the crime," assented Fisher, in a lo_oice.
Brain was staring at the dull blue gleam of the ax head with fierce an_ascinated eyes. "I don't understand you," he said. "There is no—there are n_arks on it."
"It has shed no blood," answered Fisher, "but for all that it has committed _rime. This is as near as the criminal came to the crime when he committe_t."
"What do you mean?"
"He was not there when he did it," explained Fisher. "It's a poor sort o_urderer who can't murder people when he isn't there."
"You seem to be talking merely for the sake of mystification," said Brain. "I_ou have any practical advice to give you might as well make it intelligible."
"The only practical advice I can suggest," said Fisher, thoughtfully, "is _ittle research into local topography and nomenclature. They say there used t_e a Mr. Prior, who had a farm in this neighborhood. I think some detail_bout the domestic life of the late Mr. Prior would throw a light on thi_errible business."
"And you have nothing more immediate than your topography to offer," sai_rain, with a sneer, "to help me avenge my friend?"
"Well," said Fisher, "I should find out the truth about the Hole in the Wall."
* * *
That night, at the close of a stormy twilight and under a strong west win_hat followed the breaking of the frost, Leonard Crane was wending his way i_ wild rotatory walk round and round the high, continuous wall that inclose_he little wood. He was driven by a desperate idea of solving for himself th_iddle that had clouded his reputation and already even threatened hi_iberty. The police authorities, now in charge of the inquiry, had no_rrested him, but he knew well enough that if he tried to move far afield h_ould be instantly arrested. Horne Fisher's fragmentary hints, though he ha_efused to expand them as yet, had stirred the artistic temperament of th_rchitect to a sort of wild analysis, and he was resolved to read th_ieroglyph upside down and every way until it made sense. If it was somethin_onnected with a hole in the wall he would find the hole in the wall; but, a_ matter of fact, he was unable to find the faintest crack in the wall. Hi_rofessional knowledge told him that the masonry was all of one workmanshi_nd one date, and, except for the regular entrance, which threw no light o_he mystery, he found nothing suggesting any sort of hiding place or means o_scape. Walking a narrow path between the winding wall and the wild eastwar_end and sweep of the gray and feathery trees, seeing shifting gleams of _ost sunset winking almost like lightning as the clouds of tempest scudde_cross the sky and mingling with the first faint blue light from a slowl_trengthened moon behind him, he began to feel his head going round as hi_eels were going round and round the blind recurrent barrier. He had thought_n the border of thought; fancies about a fourth dimension which was itself _ole to hide anything, of seeing everything from a new angle out of a ne_indow in the senses; or of some mystical light and transparency, like the ne_ays of chemistry, in which he could see Bulmer's body, horrible and glaring, floating in a lurid halo over the woods and the wall. He was haunted also wit_he hint, which somehow seemed to be equally horrifying, that it all ha_omething to do with Mr. Prior. There seemed even to be something creepy i_he fact that he was always respectfully referred to as Mr. Prior, and that i_as in the domestic life of the dead farmer that he had been bidden to see_he seed of these dreadful things. As a matter of fact, he had found that n_ocal inquiries had revealed anything at all about the Prior family.
The moonlight had broadened and brightened, the wind had driven off the cloud_nd itself died fitfully away, when he came round again to the artificial lak_n front of the house. For some reason it looked a very artificial lake; indeed, the whole scene was like a classical landscape with a touch o_atteau; the Palladian facade of the house pale in the moon, and the sam_ilver touching the very pagan and naked marble nymph in the middle of th_ond. Rather to his surprise, he found another figure there beside the statue, sitting almost equally motionless; and the same silver pencil traced th_rinkled brow and patient face of Horne Fisher, still dressed as a hermit an_pparently practicing something of the solitude of a hermit. Nevertheless, h_ooked up at Leonard Crane and smiled, almost as if he had expected him.
"Look here," said Crane, planting himself in front of him, "can you tell m_nything about this business?"
"I shall soon have to tell everybody everything about it," replied Fisher,
"but I've no objection to telling you something first. But, to begin with, will you tell me something? What really happened when you met Bulmer thi_orning? You did throw away your sword, but you didn't kill him."
"I didn't kill him because I threw away my sword," said the other. "I did i_n purpose—or I'm not sure what might have happened."
After a pause he went on, quietly: "The late Lord Bulmer was a very breez_entleman, extremely breezy. He was very genial with his inferiors, and woul_ave his lawyer and his architect staying in his house for all sorts o_olidays and amusements. But there was another side to him, which they foun_ut when they tried to be his equals. When I told him that his sister and _ere engaged, something happened which I simply can't and won't describe. I_eemed to me like some monstrous upheaval of madness. But I suppose the trut_s painfully simple. There is such a thing as the coarseness of a gentleman.
And it is the most horrible thing in humanity."
"I know," said Fisher. "The Renaissance nobles of the Tudor time were lik_hat."
"It is odd that you should say that," Crane went on. "For while we wer_alking there came on me a curious feeling that we were repeating some scen_f the past, and that I was really some outlaw, found in the woods like Robi_ood, and that he had really stepped in all his plumes and purple out of th_icture frame of the ancestral portrait. Anyhow, he was the man in possession, and he neither feared God nor regarded man. I defied him, of course, an_alked away. I might really have killed him if I had not walked away."
"Yes," said Fisher, nodding, "his ancestor was in possession and he was i_ossession, and this is the end of the story. It all fits in."
"Fits in with what?" cried his companion, with sudden impatience. "I can'_ake head or tail of it. You tell me to look for the secret in the hole in th_all, but I can't find any hole in the wall."
"There isn't any," said Fisher. "That's the secret." After reflecting _oment, he added: "Unless you call it a hole in the wall of the world. Loo_ere; I'll tell you if you like, but I'm afraid it involves an introduction.
You've got to understand one of the tricks of the modern mind, a tendency tha_ost people obey without noticing it. In the village or suburb outside there'_n inn with the sign of St. George and the Dragon. Now suppose I went abou_elling everybody that this was only a corruption of King George and th_ragoon. Scores of people would believe it, without any inquiry, from a vagu_eeling that it's probable because it's prosaic. It turns something romanti_nd legendary into something recent and ordinary. And that somehow makes i_ound rational, though it is unsupported by reason. Of course some peopl_ould have the sense to remember having seen St. George in old Italia_ictures and French romances, but a good many wouldn't think about it at all.
They would just swallow the skepticism because it was skepticism. Moder_ntelligence won't accept anything on authority. But it will accept anythin_ithout authority. That's exactly what has happened here.
"When some critic or other chose to say that Prior's Park was not a priory, but was named after some quite modern man named Prior, nobody really teste_he theory at all. It never occurred to anybody repeating the story to ask i_here _was_ any Mr. Prior, if anybody had ever seen him or heard of him. A_ matter of fact, it was a priory, and shared the fate of most priories—tha_s, the Tudor gentleman with the plumes simply stole it by brute force an_urned it into his own private house; he did worse things, as you shall hear.
But the point here is that this is how the trick works, and the trick works i_he same way in the other part of the tale. The name of this district i_rinted Holinwall in all the best maps produced by the scholars; and the_llude lightly, not without a smile, to the fact that it was pronounce_oliwell by the most ignorant and old-fashioned of the poor. But it is spelle_rong and pronounced right."
"Do you mean to say," asked Crane, quickly, "that there really was a well?"
"There is a well," said Fisher, "and the truth lies at the bottom of it."
As he spoke he stretched out his hand and pointed toward the sheet of water i_ront of him.
"The well is under that water somewhere," he said, "and this is not the firs_ragedy connected with it. The founder of this house did something which hi_ellow ruffians very seldom did; something that had to be hushed up even i_he anarchy of the pillage of the monasteries. The well was connected with th_iracles of some saint, and the last prior that guarded it was something lik_ saint himself; certainly he was something very like a martyr. He defied th_ew owner and dared him to pollute the place, till the noble, in a fury, stabbed him and flung his body into the well, whither, after four hundre_ears, it has been followed by an heir of the usurper, clad in the same purpl_nd walking the world with the same pride."
"But how did it happen," demanded Crane, "that for the first time Bulmer fel_n at that particular spot?"
"Because the ice was only loosened at that particular spot, by the only ma_ho knew it," answered Horne Fisher. "It was cracked deliberately, with th_itchen chopper, at that special place; and I myself heard the hammering an_id not understand it. The place had been covered with an artificial lake, i_nly because the whole truth had to be covered with an artificial legend. Bu_on't you see that it is exactly what those pagan nobles would have done, t_esecrate it with a sort of heathen goddess, as the Roman Emperor built _emple to Venus on the Holy Sepulchre. But the truth could still be trace_ut, by any scholarly man determined to trace it. And this man was determine_o trace it."
"What man?" asked the other, with a shadow of the answer in his mind.
"The only man who has an alibi," replied Fisher. "James Haddow, th_ntiquarian lawyer, left the night before the fatality, but he left that blac_tar of death on the ice. He left abruptly, having previously proposed t_tay; probably, I think, after an ugly scene with Bulmer, at their lega_nterview. As you know yourself, Bulmer could make a man feel prett_urderous, and I rather fancy the lawyer had himself irregularities t_onfess, and was in danger of exposure by his client. But it's my reading o_uman nature that a man will cheat in his trade, but not in his hobby. Haddo_ay have been a dishonest lawyer, but he couldn't help being an hones_ntiquary. When he got on the track of the truth about the Holy Well he had t_ollow it up; he was not to be bamboozled with newspaper anecdotes about Mr.
Prior and a hole in the wall; he found out everything, even to the exac_ocation of the well, and he was rewarded, if being a successful assassin ca_e regarded as a reward."
"And how did you get on the track of all this hidden history?" asked the youn_rchitect.
A cloud came across the brow of Horne Fisher. "I knew only too much about i_lready," he said, "and, after all, it's shameful for me to be speakin_ightly of poor Bulmer, who has paid his penalty; but the rest of us haven't.
I dare say every cigar I smoke and every liqueur I drink comes directly o_ndirectly from the harrying of the holy places and the persecution of th_oor. After all, it needs very little poking about in the past to find tha_ole in the wall, that great breach in the defenses of English history. I_ies just under the surface of a thin sheet of sham information an_nstruction, just as the black and blood-stained well lies just under tha_loor of shallow water and flat weeds. Oh, the ice is thin, but it bears; i_s strong enough to support us when we dress up as monks and dance on it, i_ockery of the dear, quaint old Middle Ages. They told me I must put on fanc_ress; so I did put on fancy dress, according to my own taste and fancy. I pu_n the only costume I think fit for a man who has inherited the position of _entleman, and yet has not entirely lost the feelings of one."
In answer to a look of inquiry, he rose with a sweeping and downward gesture.
"Sackcloth," he said; "and I would wear the ashes as well if they would sta_n my bald head."