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The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 27046

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Before ten o'clock on the following morning Peter Hardcastle, who had travelled by the night train from Paddington, was at Chadlands. A car had gone into Newton Abbot to meet him, as no train ran on the branch line until a later hour.

The history of the detective was one of hard work, crowned at last by a very remarkable success. His opportunity had come, and he had grasped it. The accident of the war and the immense publicity given to his capture of a German secret agent had brought him into fame, and raised him to the heights of his profession. Moreover, the extraordinary histrionic means taken to achieve his purpose, and the picturesqueness of the details, captured that latent love of romance common to all minds. Hardcastle had become a lion; women were foolish about him; he might have made a great match and retired into private life had he desired to do so. At the present time an American heiress ardently wished to wed the man.

But he was not fond of women, and only in love with his business. A hard life in the seamy places of the world had made him something of a cynic. He had always appreciated his own singular powers, and consciousness of ability, combined with a steadfast patience and unconquerable devotion to his "art," as he called it, had brought him through twenty years in the police force. He began at the bottom and reached the top. He was the son of a small shopkeeper, and now that his father was dead his mother still ran a little eating-house for her own satisfaction and occupation.

Peter Hardcastle was forty. He had already made arrangements to leave Scotland Yard and set up, single-handed, as a private inquiry agent. The mystery of Chadlands would be the last case to occupy him as a Government servant. In a measure he regretted the fact, for the death of Captain Thomas May, concerning which every known particular was now in his possession, attracted him, and he knew the incident had been widely published. It was a popular mystery, and, as a man of business, he well understood the professional value of such sensations to the man who resolves the puzzle. His attitude toward the case appeared at the outset, and Sir Walter, who had been deeply impressed by the opinions of the dead man's father, and even unconsciously influenced by them, now found himself in the presence of a very different intellect. There was nothing in the least superstitious about Peter Hardcastle. He uttered the views of a remorseless realist, and at the outset committed himself to certain definite assumptions. The inhabitants of the manor house were informed that a friend of Sir Walter's had come to visit Chadlands, and they saw nothing to make them doubt it. For Peter was a great actor. He had mixed with all classes, and the detective had the imitative cleverness to adapt himself in speech and attire to every society. He even claimed that he could think with the brains of anybody and adapt his inner mind, as well as his outer shape, to the changing environment of his activities. He appreciated the histrionics that operate out of sight, and would adopt the blank purview of the ignorant, the deeper attitude of the cultured, or the solid posture of that class whose education and inherent opinions is based upon tradition. He had made a study of the superficial etiquette and manners and customs of what is called "the best" society, and knew its ways as a naturalist patiently masters the habits of a species.

Chadlands saw a small, fair man with scanty hair, a clean-shaven face, a rather feminine cast of features, a broad forehead, slate-grey eyes, and a narrow, lipless mouth which revealed very fine white teeth when he spoke. It was a colorless face and challenged no attention; but it was a face that served as an excellent canvas, and few professional actors had ever surpassed Peter in the art of making up their features.

Similarly he could disguise his voice, the natural tones of which were low, monotonous, and of no arrestive quality. Mr. Hardcastle surprised Sir Walter by his commonplace appearance and seeming youth, for he looked ten years younger than the forty he had lived. A being so undistinguished rather disappointed his elder, for the master of Chadlands had imagined that any man of such wide celebrity must offer superficial marks of greatness.

But here was one so insignificant and so undersized that it seemed impossible to imagine him a famous Englishman. His very voice, in its level, matter-of-fact tones, added to the suggestion of mediocrity.

Sir Walter found, however, that the detective did not undervalue himself. He was not arrogant, but revealed decision and immense will power. From the first he imposed his personality, and made people forget the accidents of his physical constitution. He said very little during breakfast, but listened with attention to the conversation.

He observed that Henry Lennox spoke seldom, but studied him unobtrusively, as a man concerning whom he specially desired to know more. Hardcastle proved himself well educated; indeed, his reading, studiously pursued, and his intellectual attainments, developed by hard work and ambition, far exceeded those of any present.

The clergyman returned to his own ground, and expressed his former opinions, to which Hardcastle listened without a shadow of the secret surprise they awoke in him.

"The Witchcraft Act assumes that there can be no possible communication between living men and spirits," he said in answer to an assertion; whereon Septimus May instantly took up the challenge.

"A fatuous, archaic assumption, and long since destroyed by actual, human experience," he replied. "It is time such blasphemous folly should be banished from the Statute Book. I say 'blasphemous' because such an Act takes no cognizance of the Word of God. Outworn Acts of Parliament are responsible for a great deal of needless misery in this world, and it is high time these ordinances of another generation were sent to the dust heap."

"In that last opinion I heartily agree with you," declared the detective.

Henry ventured a quotation. He was much interested to learn whether Hardcastle had any views on the ghost theory.

"Goethe says that matter cannot exist without spirit, or spirit without matter. Would you sub-scribe to that, Mr. Hardcastle?"

"Partially. Matter can exist without spirit, which you may prove by getting under an avalanche; but I do most emphatically agree that spirit cannot exist without matter. 'Divorced from matter, where is life?' asks Tyndall, and nobody can answer him."

"You misunderstand Goethe," declared Mr. May. "In metaphysics-"

"I have no use for metaphysics. Believe me, the solemn humbug of metaphysics doesn't take in a policeman for a moment. Juggling with words never advanced the world's welfare or helped the cause of truth. What, for any practical purpose, does it matter how subjectively true a statement may be if it is objectively false? Life is just as real as I am myself-no more and no less-and all the metaphysical jargon in the world won't prevent my shins from bleeding wet, red blood when I bark them against a stone."

"You don't believe in the supernatural then?" asked Mr. May.

"Most emphatically not."

"How extraordinary! And how, if I may ask, do you fill the terrible vacuum in your life that such a denial must create?"

"I have never been conscious of such a vacuum. I was a sceptic from my youth up. No doubt those who were nurtured in superstition, when reason at last conquers and they break away, may experience a temporary blank; but the wonders of nature and the achievements of man and the demands of the suffering world-these should be enough to fill any blank for a reasonable creature."

"If such are your opinions, you will fail here," declared the clergyman positively.

"Why do you feel so sure of that?"

"Because you are faced with facts that have no material explanation. They are supernatural, or supernormal, if you prefer the word."

"'One world at a time,' is a very good motto in my judgment," replied Hardcastle. "We will exhaust the possibilities of this world first, sir."

"They have already been exhausted. Only a simple, straightforward question awaits your reply. Do you believe in another world or do you not?"

"In the endless punishment or the endless happiness of men and women after they are dead?"

"If you like to confuse the issue in that way you are at liberty, of course, to do so. As a Christian, I cannot demur. The problem for the rationalist is this: How does he ignore the deeply rooted and universal conviction that there is a life to come? Is such a sanguine assurance planted in the mind of even the lowest savage for nothing? Where did the aborigines win that expectation?"

"My answer embraces the whole question from my own point of view," replied Hardcastle. "The savages got their idea of dual personality from phenomena of nature which they were unable to explain-from their dreams, from their own shadows on the earth and reflections in water, from the stroke of the lightning and the crash of the thunder, from the echo of their own voices, thrown back to them from crags and cliffs. These things created their superstitions. Ignorance bred terror, and terror bred gods and demons-first out of the forces of nature. That is the appalling mental legacy handed down in varying shapes to all the children of men. We labor under them to this day."

"You would dare to say our most sacred verities have sprung from the dreams of savages?"

Hardcastle smiled.

"It is true. And dreams, we further know, are often the result of indigestion. Early man didn't understand the art of cookery, and therefore no doubt his stomach had a great deal to put up with. We have to thank his bear steaks and wolf chops for a great deal of our cherished nonsense, no doubt."

Sir Walter, marking the clergyman's flashing eyes, changed the subject, and Septimus May, who observed his concern, restrained a bitter answer. But he despaired of the detective from that moment, and proposed to himself a future assault on such detested modern opinions when opportunity occurred.

After breakfast Mr. Hardcastle begged for a private interview with the master of Chadlands, and for two hours sat in his study and took him through the case from the beginning.

He put various questions concerning the members of the recent house party, and presently begged that Henry Lennox might join them.

"I should like to hear the account of what passed on the night between him and Captain May," he said.

Henry joined them, and detailed his experience. While he talked, Hardcastle appraised him, and perceived that certain nebulous opinions, which had begun to crystallize in his own mind, could have no real foundation. The detective believed that he was confronted with a common murder, and on hearing Henry's history, as part of Sir Walter's story with the rest, perceived that the old lover of Mary Lennox had last seen her husband alive, had drunk with him, and been the first to find him dead. Might not Henry have found an eastern poison in Mesopotamia? But his conversation with the young man, and the unconscious revelation of Henry himself, shattered the idea. Lennox was innocent enough.

For a moment, the information of uncle and nephew exhausted, Hardcastle returned to the matter of the breakfast discussion.

"You will, of course, understand that I am quite satisfied a material and physical explanation exists for this unfortunate event," he said. "I need hardly tell you that I am unprepared to entertain any supernatural theory of the business. I don't believe myself in ghosts, because in my experience, and it is pretty wide, ghost stories break down badly under anything like skilled and independent examination. There is a natural reason for what has happened, as there is a natural reason for everything that happens. We talk of unnatural things happening, but that is a contradiction in terms. Nothing can happen that is not natural. What we call Nature embraces every conceivable action or event or possibility. We may fail to fathom a mystery, and we know that a thousand things happen every day and night that seem beyond the power of our wits to explain; but that is only to say our wits are limited. I hold, however, that very few things happen which do not yield an explanation, sooner or later, if approached by those best trained to examine them without predisposition or prejudice. And I earnestly hope that this tragic business will give up its secret."

"May you prove the correctness of your opinions, Mr. Hardcastle," answered Sir Walter. "Would you like to see the Grey Room now?"

"I should; though I tell you frankly it is not in the Grey Room that I shall find what I seek. It does not particularly interest me, and for this reason. I do not associate Captain May's death in any way with the earlier tragedy-that of the hospital nurse, Mrs. Forrester. It is a coincidence, in my opinion, and probably, if physiology were a more perfect science than, in my experience of post-mortem examinations, it has proved to be, the reason for the lady's death would have appeared. And, for that matter, the reason for Captain May's death also. To say there was no reason is, of course, absurd. Nothing ever yet happened, or could happen, without a reason. The springs of action were arrested and the machine instantly ran down. But a man is not a clock, which can be stopp

ed and reveal no sign of the thing that stopped it. Life is a far more complex matter than a watch-spring, and if we knew more we might not be faced with so many worthless post-mortem reports. But Sir Howard Fellowes is not often beaten. I repeat, however, I do not associate the two deaths in the Grey Room or connect them as the result of one and the same cause. I do not state this as a fact beyond dispute, but that, for the present, is my assumption. The gap in time seems too considerable. I suspect other causes, and shall have to make researches into the dead man's past life. I should wish also to examine all his property. He has been in foreign countries, and may have brought back something concerning the nature of which he was ignorant. He may possess enemies, of whom neither you nor Mrs. May have heard anything. Your knowledge of him, recollect, extends over only a short time-eight or ten months, I suppose. I shall visit his ship and his cabin in H. M. S. Indomitable also, and learn all that his fellow officers can tell me."

Sir Walter looked at his watch.

"It is now nearly one o'clock," he said, "and at two we usually take luncheon. What would you wish to do between now and then? None here but ourselves and my butler-an old friend in all my secrets-knows you have come professionally. I concealed the fact and called you 'Forbes,' at your wish, though they cannot fail to suspect, I fear."

"Thank you. I will see the room, then, and look round the place. Perhaps after luncheon, if she feels equal to the task, Mrs. May will give me a private interview. I want to learn everything possible concerning your late son-in-law-his career before Jutland, his philosophy of life, his habits and his friends."

"She will very gladly tell you everything she can."

They ascended to the Grey Room.

"Not the traditional haunt of spooks, certainly," said Peter Hardcastle as they entered the bright and cheerful chamber. The day was clear, and from the southern window unclouded sunshine came.

"Nothing is changed?" he asked.

"Nothing. The room remains as it has been for many years."

"Kindly describe exactly where Captain May was found. Perhaps Mr. Lennox will imitate his posture, if he remembers it?"

"Remember it! I shall never forget it," said Henry. "I first saw him from below. He was looking out of the open window and kneeling here on this seat."

"Let us open the window then."

The situation and attitude of the dead on discovery were imitated, and Hardcastle examined the spot. Then he himself occupied the position and looked out.

"I will ask for a ladder presently, and examine the face of the wall. Ivy, I see. Ivy has told me some very interesting secrets before to-day, Sir Walter."

"I dare say it has."

"If you will remind me at luncheon, I can tell you a truly amazing story about ivy-a story of life and death. A man could easily go and come by this window."

"Not easily I think," said Henry. "It is rather more than thirty-five feet to the ground."

"How do you know that?"

"The police, who made the original inquiry and were stopped, as you will remember, from Scotland Yard, measured it the second morning afterwards-on Monday."

"But they did not examine the face of the wall?"

"I think not. They dropped a measure from the window."

The other pursued his examination of the room. "Old furniture," he said; "very old evidently."

"It was collected in Spain by my grandfather many years ago."

"Valuable, no doubt?"

"I understand so."

"Wonderful carving. And this door?"

"It is not a door, but a cupboard in the solid wall."

Sir Walter opened the receptacle as he spoke. The cupboard-some six and a half feet high-was empty. At the back of it appeared a row of pegs for clothes.

"I can finish with the room for the present at any rate, in an hour, gentlemen," said Hardcastle. "I'll spend the time here till luncheon. Had your son-in-law any interest in old furniture, Sir Walter?"

"None whatever to my knowledge. He was interested, poor fellow, not in the contents, but in the evil reputation of the room. Its bad name dated back far beyond the occupation of my family. Captain May laughed at my mistrust, and, as you know, he came here, contrary to my express wishes, in order that he might chaff me next morning over my superstition. He wanted 'to clear its character,' as he said."

Hardcastle was turning over the stack of old oil-paintings in tarnished frames.

"Family portraits?"


"You mistrusted the room yourself, Sir Walter?"

"After Nurse Forrester's death I did. Not before. But while attaching no importance myself to the tradition, I respected it."

"Nobody else ever spent a night here after the lady's death?"

"Nobody. Of that I am quite certain."

"Have you not left the house since?"

"Frequently. I generally spend March, April, and May on the Continent-in France or Italy. But the house is never closed, and my people are responsible to me. The room is always locked, and when I am not in residence Abraham Masters, my butler, keeps the key. He shares my own feelings so far as the Grey Room is concerned."

The detective nodded. He was standing in the middle of the room with his hands in his pockets.

"A strange fact-the force of superstition," he said. "It seems to feed on night, where ghosts are involved. What, I suppose, credulous people call 'the powers of darkness.' But have you ever asked yourself why the spiritualists must work in the dark?"

"To simplify their operations, no doubt, and make it easier for the spirits."

"And themselves! But why is the night sacred to apparitions and supernatural phenomena generally?"

"Tradition associates them with those hours. Spiritualists say it is easier for spectres to appear in the dark by reason of their material composition. It is then that we find the most authentic accounts of their manifestations."

"Yes; because at that time human vitality is lowest and human reason weakest. Darkness itself has a curious and depressing effect on the minds of many people. I have won my advantage from that more than once. I once proved a very notorious crime by the crude expedient of impersonating the criminal's victim-a murdered woman-and appearing to him at night before a concealed witness. But spirits are doomed. The present extraordinary wave of superstition and the immense prosperity of the dealers in the 'occult' is a direct result of the war. They are profiteers-every one of them-crystal gazers, mediums, fortune tellers, and the rest. They are reaping a rare harvest for the moment. We punish the humbler rogues, but we don't punish the fools who go to see them. If I had my way, the man or woman who visited the modern witch or wizard should get six months in the second division. Fools should be punished oftener for their folly. But education will sweep these things into the limbo of man's ignorance and mental infancy. Ghosts cannot stand the light of knowledge any better than they can operate in the light of day."

"You are very positive, Mr. Hardcastle."

"Not often-on this subject-yes, Sir Walter Lennox. I have seen too much of the practitioners. Metaphysics is largely to blame. Physics, the strong, you will find far too merciful to metaphysics, the weak."

Sir Walter found himself regarding Hardcastle with dislike. He spoke quietly, yet there was something mocking and annoying in his dogmatism.

"You must discuss the subject with Mr. May, who breakfasted with us. He will, I think, have no difficulty in maintaining the contrary opinion."

"They never have any difficulty-clergymen I mean-and argument with them is vain, because we cannot find common ground to start from. What is the reverend gentleman's theory?"

"He believes that the room holds an invisible and conscious presence permitted to exercise powers of a physical character antagonistic to human life. He is guarded, you see, and will not go so far as to say whether this being is working for good or evil."

"But it has done evil, surely?"

"Evil from our standpoint. But since the Supreme Creator made this creature as well as He made us, therefore Mr. May holds that we are not justified in declaring its operations are evil-save from a human standpoint."

"How was he related to Captain Thomas May?"

"His father."

Peter Hardcastle remained silent for a moment; then he spoke again.

"Have you observed how many of the sons of the clergy go into the Navy or Merchant Marine?"

"I have not."

"They do, however."

Sir Walter began to dislike the detective more than before.

"We will leave you now," he said. "You will find me in my study if you want me. That bell communicates with the servants. The lock of the door was broken when we forced our way in, and has not been mended; but you can close the door if you wish to do so. It has been kept open since and the electric light always turned on at night."

"Many thanks. I will consider a point or two here and rejoin you. Was the chimney examined?"

"No. It would not admit a human being."

Then Sir Walter and his nephew left the room, and Hardcastle, waiting until they were out of earshot, shut the door and thrust a heavy chair against it.

They heard no more of him for an hour, and joined Mary and Septimus May, who were walking on the terrace together. The former was eager to learn the detective's opinions, but her husband's father had already warned her that Peter Hardcastle was doomed to fail.

The four walked up and down together, and Prince, Sir Walter's ancient spaniel, went beside them.

Henry told his cousin the nature of their conversation and the direction in which the professional inquiry seemed to turn.

"He wants to see you and hear everything you can tell him about dear Tom's past," he said.

"Of course I will tell him everything; and what I do not know, Mr. May will remember."

"He is very quiet and very open-minded about some things, but jolly positive about others. Your father-in-law won't get far with him. He scoffs at any supernatural explanation of our terrible loss."

Mr. May overheard this remark.

"As I have already told Mary, his failure is assured. He is wasting his time, and I knew he probably would do so before he came. Not to such a man, however clever he may be, will an explanation be vouchsafed. I would rather trust an innocent child to discover these things than such a person. He is lost in his own conceit and harbors vain ideas."

"There is something about him I cordially dislike already," confessed Sir Walter. "And yet it is a most unreasonable dislike on my part, for he is exceedingly well mannered, speaks and conducts himself like a gentleman, and does nothing that can offend the most sensitive."

"A prejudice, Uncle Walter."

"Perhaps it is, Henry; yet I rarely feel prejudice."

"Call it rather an intuition," said the clergyman. "What your antipathetic attitude means is that you already unconsciously know this man is not going to avail, and that his assumption of superiority in the matter of knowledge-his opinions and lack of faith-will defeat him if nothing else does. He approaches his problem in an infidel spirit, and consequently the problem will evade his skill; because such skill is not merely futile in this matter, but actually destructive."

Mary left them, and they discussed the probable chances of the detective without convincing each other. Henry, who had been much impressed by Hardcastle, argued in his favor; but Septimus May was obdurate, and Sir Walter evidently inclined to agree with him.

"The young men think the old men fools, and the old men know the young ones are," said Sir Walter.

"But he is not young, uncle; he's forty. He told me so."

"I thought him ten years less, and he spoke with the dogmatism of youth."

"Only on that subject."

"Which happens to be the one subject of all others on which we have a right to demand an open and reverent mind," said the clergyman.

Henry noticed that Sir Walter spoke almost spitefully.

"Well, at any rate, he thought rather small beer of the Grey Room. He felt quite sure that the secret lay outside it. He was going to exhaust the possibilities of the place in no time."

As he spoke the gong sounded, and Prince, pricking his ears, led the way to the open French window of the dining-room.

"Call our friend, Henry," said his uncle. And young Lennox, glad of the opportunity, entered the house. He desired a word with Hardcastle in private, and ascended to join him.

The door of the Grey Room was still closed, and Henry found some obstacle within that prevented it from yielding to his hand. At once disturbed by this incident, he did not stand upon ceremony. He pushed the door, which gave before him, and he perceived that a heavy chair had been thrust against it. His noisy entrance challenged no response, and, looking round, it appeared for an instant that the room was empty; but, lowering his eyes, he saw first the detective's open notebook and stylograph lying upon the ground, then he discovered Peter Hardcastle himself upon his face with his arms stretched out before him. He lay beside the hearth, motionless.

Lennox stooped, supported, and turned him over. He was still warm and relaxed in every limb, but quite unconscious and apparently dead. An expression of surprise marked his face, and the corner of each open eye had not yet lost its lustre, but the pupil was much dilated.

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