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The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 28049

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07

Henry Lennox suffered as he had not suffered even during the horrors of war. For the first time in his life he felt fear. He lowered the unconscious man to the ground, and knew that he was dead, for he had looked on sudden death too often to feel in any doubt. Others, however, were not so ready to credit this, and after he hastened downstairs with his evil message, both Sir Walter and Masters found it hard to believe him.

When he descended, his uncle and May were standing at the dining room door, waiting for him and Peter Hardcastle. Mary had just joined them.

"He's dead!" was all the youth could say; then, thoroughly unnerved, he fell into a chair and buried his face in his hands.

Again through his agency had a dead man been discovered in the Grey Room. In each case his had been the eyes first to confront a tragedy, and his the voice to report it. The fact persisted in his mind with a dark obstinacy, as though some great personal tribulation had befallen him.

Mary stopped with her cousin and asked terrified questions, while Sir Walter, calling to Masters, hastened upstairs, followed by Septimus May. The clergyman was also agitated, yet in his concern there persisted a note almost of triumph.

"It is there!" he cried. "It is close to us, watching us, powerless to touch either you or me. But this unhappy sceptic proved an easy victim."

"Would to God I had listened to you yesterday," said Sir Walter. "Then this innocent man had not perhaps been snatched from life."

"You were directed not to listen. Your heart was hardened. His hour had come."

"I cannot believe it. We may restore him. It is impossible that he can be dead in a moment."

They stood over the detective, and Masters and Fred Caunter, with courage and presence of mind, carried him out into the corridor.

The butler spoke.

"Run for the brandy, Fred," he said. "We must get some down his neck if we can. I don't feel the gentleman's heart, but it may not have stopped. He's warm enough."

The footman obeyed, and Hardcastle was laid upon his back. Then Sir Walter directed Masters.

"Hold his head up. It may be better for him."

They waited, and, during the few moments before Caunter returned, Sir Walter spoke again. His mind wandered backward and seemed for the moment incapable of grasping the fact before him.

"Almost the last thing the man said was to ask me why ghosts haunted the night rather than the day."

"Poor fool-poor fool! He is answered," replied the priest.

All attempts to restore the vanished life proved useless, and they carried Hardcastle downstairs presently. Henry Lennox was already gone for the doctor, and when, within an hour, Mannering joined them, he could only pronounce that the man was dead. No sign of life rewarded their protracted efforts to restore circulation. How he had come by his end, how death had broken into his frame, it was impossible to determine. Not an unusual sign marked the body. It revealed neither wound nor outward evidence of shock. The case seemed parallel with that of Thomas May. Death had struck the man like a flash of lightning and dropped him, where he stood, making his notes by the fireplace.

Whereupon a complication faced Dr. Mannering. Mary came to him, where he spoke in the library with Sir Walter and Henry Lennox. She implored him to use his influence with her father-in-law; for they had forgotten Septimus May, while hastily deliberating as to what telegrams should be dispatched; but now they learned that Mr. May was in the Grey Boom and refused to leave it.

"He is very excited," she said. "He is walking up and down, speaking aloud, quoting texts from Scripture, addressing the spirit that he believes to be listening to him. It would be grotesque were it not so horrible. He must be made to come away."

"He is justified of his faith," declared Sir Walter. "I have withstood him until now, but I can do so no longer."

"Indeed you must. He is playing with death," said Mannering.

They sought Tom's father, to find him, as Mary had said, walking up and down, with fierce joy of battle on his thin, stern face and in his shining eyes.

"Now shall the powers of Light triumph and the will of God be done!" he said to them.

He made no demur, however, when they drew him away.

"The future is mine," he declared, and grew calm. "You cannot stand between me and my duty again, Sir Walter. You have gravely erred, and this is the result of your error. But you will not err a second time."

His excitation ceased, and it was he who proposed that they should return to their forgotten meal. In the matter of the man just dead, he revealed an indifference almost callous.

"His God will justly judge him according to his deserving," he declared. "If he sinned through ignorance and false teaching, his punishment will not be heavy; if he hardened his heart against truth and rejected the faith from pride-but even then the Father of Mercy may pardon him. He has failed, even as I knew he must, and paid a terrible penalty for failure."

Sir Walter, sorely stricken, hardly heard the other. He ate a little at Mary's entreaty, then, driven by some impulse to leave his fellow-creatures and court solitude, excused himself, begged Lennox and Mannering to bring him news when the telegram dispatched to Scotland Yard was answered, and prepared to leave them.

As he rose, he marked his old spaniel standing whimpering by his side.

"What is the matter with Prince?" he asked.

"He has not had his dinner," said Mary.

"Let him be fed at once," answered her father, and went out alone.

She rose to follow him immediately, but Mannering, who had stopped and was with them, begged her not to do so.

"Leave him to himself," he said. "This has shaken your father, as well it may. He's all right. Make him take his bromide to-night, and let nobody do anything to worry him."

The master of Chadlands meantime went afield, walked half a mile to a favorite spot, and sat down upon a seat that he had there erected. A storm was blowing up from the south-west, and the weather of his mind welcomed it. He alternated between bewilderment and indignation. His own life-long philosophy and trust in the ordered foundations of human existence threatened to fail him entirely before this second stroke. It seemed that the punctual universe was suddenly turned upside down, and had emptied a vial of horror upon his innocent head.

Reality was a thing of the past. A nightmare had taken its place, a nightmare from which there was no waking. He considered the stability of his days-a lifetime followed upon high principles and founded on religious convictions that had comforted his sorrows and countenanced his joys. It seemed a trial undeserved, that in his old age he should be thrust upon a pinnacle of publicity, forced into the public eye, robbed of dignity, denied the privacy he esteemed as the most precious privilege that wealth could command. Stability was destroyed; to count upon the morrow seemed impossible. His thought, strung to a new morbidity, unknown till now, ran on and pictured, with painful, vivid stroke upon stroke, the insufferable series of events that lay before him.

Life was become a bizarre and brutal business for a man of fine feeling. He would be thrust into the pitiless mouth of sensation-mongers, called to appear before tribunals, subjected to an inquisition of his fellow-men, made to endure a notoriety infinitely odious even in anticipation. Indeed, Sir Walter's simple intellect wallowed in anticipation, and so suffered much that, given exercise of restraint, he might have escaped altogether. He was brave enough, but personal bravery would not be called for. He sat now staring dumbly at an imaginary series of events abominable and unseemly in every particular to his order of mind. He was so concerned with what the future must hold in store for him that for a time the present quite escaped his thoughts.

He returned to it, however, and it was almost with the shock of a new surprise he remembered that Peter Hardcastle, a man of European repute, had just died in his house. But he could not in the least realize the new tragedy. He had as yet barely grasped the truth of his son-in-law's end, and still often found himself expecting Tom's footfall and his jolly voice. That such an abundant vitality was stilled, that such an infectious laugh would never sound again on mortal ear he yet sometimes found it hard to believe.

But now it seemed that the impact of this second blow rammed home the first. He brooded upon his dead son-in-law, and it was long before he returned to the event of that day. A thought struck him, and though elementary enough, it seemed to Sir Walter an important conclusion. There could be no shadow of doubt that Tom May and Peter Hardcastle had died by the same secret force. He felt that he must remember this.

Again he puzzled, and then decided with himself that, if he meant to keep sane, he must practice faith and trust in God. Septimus May had said that such unparalleled things sometimes happened in the world to try man's faith. Doubtless he was right.

Henceforth the old man determined to stand firmly on the side of the supernatural with the priest. He went further, and blamed his scepticism. It had cost the world a valuable life. He could not, indeed, be censured for that in any court of inquiry. Sceptical men would doubtless say that he had done rightly in refusing Mr. May his experiment. But Sir Walter now convinced himself that he had done wrongly. At such a time, with landmarks vanishing and all accepted laws of matter resolved into chaos, there remained only God to trust. Such a burden as this was not to be borne by any mortal, and Sir Walter determined that he would not bear it.

Were we not told to cast our tribulations before the Almighty? Here, if ever, was a situation beyond the power of human mind to approach, unless a man walked humbly with his hand in his Maker's. Septimus May had been emphatically right. Sir Walter repeated this conviction to himself again and again, like a child.

He descended to details presently. The hidden being, that it had been implicitly agreed could only operate by night in the Grey Room, proved equally potent under noonday sun. But why should it be otherwise? To limit its activities was to limit its powers, and the Almighty alone knew what powers had been granted to it. He shrank from further inquiries or investigations on any but a religious basis. He was now convinced that no natural explanation would exist for what had happened in the Grey Room, and he believed that only through the paths of Christian faith would peace return to him or his house.

Then the present dropped out of his thoughts. They wandered into the past, and he concerned himself with his wife. She it was who had taught him to care for foreign travel. Until his marriage he had hardly left England, save when yachting with friends, and an occasional glimpse of a Mediterranean port was all that Sir Walter knew of the earth outside his own country. But he remembered with gratitude the opportunities won from her. He had taken her round the world, and found himself much the richer in great memories for that experience.

He was still thinking when Mary found him, with his old dog asleep at his feet. She brought him a coat and umbrella, for the threatened storm advanced swiftly under clouds laden with rain. Reluctantly enough he returned to the present. A telegram had been received from London, directing Dr. Mannering to reach the nearest telephone and communicate direct. The doctor was gone to Newton Abbot, and nothing could be done until he came back. Not knowing what had occupied Sir Walter's mind, Mary urged him to leave Chadlands without delay.

"Put the place into the hands of the police and take me with you," she said. "Nothing can be gained by our stopping, and, after this, it is certain the authorities will not rest until they have made a far more searching examination than has ever yet been carried out. They will feel this disaster a challenge."

"Thankfully I would go," he answered. "Most thankfully I would avoid what is hanging over my head. It was terrible enough when your dear husband died; but now we shall be the centre of interest to half England. Every instinct cries to me to get out of it, but obviously that is impossible, even were I permitted to do so. It is the duty of the police to suspect every man and woman under my roof-myself with the rest. These appalling things have occurred in my home, and I must bear the brunt of them and stand up to all that they mean. No Lennox ever ran from his duty, however painful it might be. The death of this man-so eminent in his calling-will attract tremendous attention and be, as you say, a sort of direct challenge to the authorities for whom he worked. They will resent this second tragedy, and with good reason. The poor man, though I cannot pretend that I admired him, was a force for good in the world, and his peculiar genius was devoted to the detection of crime and punishment of criminals-a very worthy occupation, however painful to our ideas."

They sat in the library now, and Henry Lennox spoke to his uncle, with his eye on the window, waiting for the sight of the doctor's car.

"They'll want to tear the place down, very likely. They'll certainly have no mercy on the stones and mortar, any more than they will on us."

"They can spare themselves that trouble, and you your fears," declared Septimus May, who had joined them. "It is impossible that they will be here until to-morrow. Meantime-"

"It is easy to see what they will do," proceeded young Lennox, "and what they will think also. Nor can we prevent them, even if we wanted to. I image their theory will be this. They will suppose that Mr. Hardcastle, left in that room alone, was actually on the track of those responsible for Tom's death. They will guess that, in some

way, or by some accident, he surprised the author of the tragedy, and the assassin, seeing his danger, resorted to the same unknown means of murder as before. They may imagine some hidden lunatic concealed here, whose presence is only known to some of us. They may suspect a homicidal maniac in me, or my uncle, or Masters, or anybody. Certainly they will seek a natural explanation and flout the idea of any other."

The clergyman protested, but Henry was not prepared to traverse the old ground again.

"I have as much right to my opinions as you to yours," he said. "And I am positive this is man's work."

Then Mary announced that Mannering's car was in sight. The library windows opened on the western side of the house and afforded a view of the main drive, along which the doctor's little hooded car came flying, like a dead leaf in a storm. But it was not alone. A hospital motor ambulance followed behind it.

They soon learned of curious things, and the house was first thrown into a great bustle and then restored to peace.

Mannering had spoken for half an hour with London, and received directions that puzzled him not a little by their implication. For a moment he seemed unwilling to speak before Mary. Then he begged her bluntly to leave them for a while.

"It's this way," he said when she was gone. "They're harboring a mad idea in London, though, of course, the facts will presently convince them to the contrary. Surely I must know death when I see it? But a divisional surgeon, or some other medical official, directs me to bring this poor fellow's body to London to-night. Every care must be taken, warmth and air applied, and so on. They've evidently got a notion that, since life appears to go so easily in the Grey Room, and leave no scratch or wound, either life has not gone at all, or that it may be within the power of science to bring it back again. In a sense this is a reflection upon me-as though it were possible that I could make any mistake between death and suspended animation; but I must do as I'm ordered. I travel to town with the dead man to-night, and if they find he is anything but dead as a doornail, I'll-"

The doctor was writing his reminiscences, "The Recollections of a Country Physician," and he could not fail to welcome these events, for they were destined to lend extraordinary attraction to a volume otherwise not destined to be much out of the common.

He spoke again.

"I should be very glad if you would accompany me, Lennox. I shall have a police inspector from Plymouth; but it would be a satisfaction if you could come. Moreover, you would help me in London."

"I'll come up, certainly. You don't mind, Uncle Walter?"

"Not if Mannering wishes it. We owe him more than we can ever repay. Anything that we can do to lessen his labors ought to be done."

"I should certainly welcome your company. A small saloon carriage is to be put on to the Plymouth train that leaves Newton for London before midnight. We shall be met at Paddington by some of their doctors. And as to Chadlands, four men arrive to-morrow morning by the same train that Peter Hardcastle came down in last night. We shall pass them on the way. They will take charge both of the Grey Room and the house as soon as they arrive."

"And they will be welcome. I would myself willingly pull down Chadlands to the foundations if by so doing I could discover the truth."

"It demands no such sacrifice," declared May, who had listened to these facts. "Bricks and mortar, stone and timber are innocent things. One might as soon dissect a thunder-cloud to find the lightning as destroy material substances to discover what is hidden in this house. The unknown being, about his Master's business here, will no more yield its secret to four detectives, or an army of them, than it did to one. 'What I do thou knowest not now.' It is all summed up in that."

He turned to Mannering and asked a sudden question.

"Why did you object to Mary hearing these facts? In what way should they distress her particularly?"

"Can you not see? Indeed, one might fairly have objected to your presence also. But you are a man. There is an implied horror of the darkest sort for poor Mary in the suggestion that Hardcastle may still live. If he can be brought back to life, then she would surely think that perhaps her husband and your son might have been. Imagine the agony of that. I speak plainly; indeed, there is no rational or sentimental reason why I should not, for the truth is, of course, that the signs of death were clearly evident on your poor boy before what we had to do was done. But the bare thought must have shocked Mary. We know emphatically that Hardcastle is dead, and we need not mention to her this fantastic theory from London."

"I appreciate your consideration," said Sir Walter; and the clergyman also acknowledged it.

"There can be no shadow of doubt concerning my son," he said; "nor is there any in the matter of this unfortunate man."

Henry Lennox went to prepare for the journey. Then, obeying the doctor's directions and treating the dead man as though he were merely unconscious, they carried him to the ambulance car. It was an unseemly farce in Mannering's opinion, and he only realized the painful nature of his task when he came to undertake it; but he carried it through in every particular as directed, conveyed the corpse to Newton after dark, and had the ambulance bed, in which it reposed, borne to the saloon carriage when the night mail arrived from Plymouth, between eleven and twelve. He was able to regulate the temperature with hot steam, and kept hot bottles to the feet and sides of the dead.

He felt impatient and resentful; he poured scorn on the superior authority for the benefit of the inspector and Henry Lennox, who accompanied him; but in secret he experienced emotions of undoubted satisfaction that life had broken from its customary monotonous round to furnish him with an adventure so unique. He pointed out a fact to the policeman before they had started.

"You will observe," he said, with satire, "that, despite the heat we are directed to apply to this unfortunate man, rigor mortis has set in. Whether the authority in London regards that as an evidence of death, of course I cannot pretend to say. Perhaps not. I may be behind the times."

Neither Mannering nor Lennox had spared much thought for those left behind them at Chadlands. The extraordinary character of the task put upon them sufficed to fill their minds, and it was not until the small hours, when they sat with their hands in their pockets and the train ran steadily through darkness and storm, that the younger spoke of his cousin.

"I hope those old men won't bully Mary to-night," he said. "I'd meant to ask you to give Uncle Walter a caution. May's not quite all there, in my opinion, and very likely, now you're out of the way, he'll get round Sir Walter about that infernal room."

Mannering became interested.

"D'you mean for an instant he wants to try his luck after what's happened?"

"You forget. Your day has been so full that you forget what did happen."

"I do not, Lennox. Mary begged me to tackle the man. I calmed him, and he came down to his luncheon. He must have thought over the matter since then, and seen that he was playing with death."

"Far from it, 'The future is mine!' That's what he said. And that means he'll try and be in the Grey Room alone to-night."

"I wish to Heaven you'd made this clear before we'd started. But surely we can trust Sir Walter; he knows what this means, even if that superstitious lunatic doesn't."

"I don't want to bother you," answered Henry; "but, looking back, I'm none so sure that we can trust my uncle. He's been pretty wild to-day, and who shall blame him? Things like this crashing into his life leave him guessing. He's very shaken, and has lost his mental grip, too. Reality's played him such ugly tricks that he may be tempted to fall back on unreality now."

"You don't mean he'll let May go into that room to-night?"

"I hope not. He was firm enough last night when the clergyman clamored to do so. In fact, he made me keep watch to see he didn't. But I think he's weakened a lot since Hardcastle came to grief in broad daylight. And I sha'n't be there to do anything."

"All this comes too late," answered the other. "If harm has happened-it has happened. We can only pray they've preserved some sanity among them."

"That's why I say I hope they're not bullying Mary," answered Lennox. "Of course, she'd be dead against her father-in-law's idea. But she won't count. She can't control him if Sir Walter goes over to his side."

"Let us not imagine anything so unreasonable. We'll telegraph to hear if all's well at the first moment we can."

The storm sent a heavy wash of rain against the side of the carriage. It was a famous tempest, that punished the South of England from Land's End to the North Foreland.

They were distracted from their thoughts by the terrific impact of the wind.

"Wonder we can stop on the rails," said Mannering. "This is a fifty-knot gale, or I'm mistaken."

"I'm thinking of the Chadlands trees," answered the other. "It's rum how, in the middle of such an awful business as this, the mind switches off to trifles. Does it on purpose, I suppose, to relieve the strain. Yes, the trees will catch it to-night. I expect I shall hear a grim tale of fallen timber from Sir Walter by the time I get back to-morrow."

"If nothing's fallen but timber, I sha'n't mind," answered Mannering; "but you've made me devilish uneasy now. If anything further went wrong-well, to put it mildly, they would say your uncle ought to have known a great deal better."

"He does know a great deal better. It's only that temporarily he's knocked off his balance. But I hardly feel as anxious as you do. There's Mary against May; and even if my uncle were for him, on a general, vague theory of something esoteric and outside nature, which you can't fairly call unreasonable any more, Mannering, seeing what's happened-even if Sir Walter felt tempted to let him have his way, I don't believe he'd really consent when it came to the point."

"I hope not-I hope not," answered the other. "Such a concession would take a lot of explanation if the result were another of these disasters. There ought to be an official guard over the room."

"After to-morrow there certainly will be," replied Henry. "You may be sure the police won't leave it again till they've satisfied themselves. All the same, I don't see how a dozen of them will be any safer than one-even if it's some material and physical thing that happens, as we must suppose. And for that matter, if it's really supernatural, why should a dozen be safer than one? Obviously they wouldn't. Whatever it is, it can strike as it likes and without being struck back."

But Dr. Mannering did not answer these questions. He was considering a little book in his pocket, which he would hand over to the police in London next morning.

"Poor chap-if he could have begun by taking the problem by the throat, as he has written here. But, instead, it took him by the throat!"

He took Hardcastle's notebook from his pocket and read again the last few pages.

"He was dreaming of his theories to the last, when he should surely have been girt up in every limb to face facts," said Lennox. "He never realized the horrible danger."

Perusal of the detective's data had revealed an interesting fact. It was known by his colleagues that he designed a book on the theory and practice of criminal investigations, and in many of his pocket-books, subsequently examined, were found memoranda and jottings, doubtless destined to be worked out at another time. It was clear that he had, for a few moments, drifted away from the Grey Room in thought when his death overtook him. Past events, not present problems, were apparently responsible for the reflections that occupied his mind. He was not concentrating on the material phenomena actually under his observation when he died, but following some private meditations provoked by his experiences.

"Elimination embraces the secret of success," he had written. "Exercise the full force of your intelligence and spare no pains to eliminate from every case all matter not bearing directly upon the actual problem. Nine times out of ten the issue is direct, and once permit side issues to draw their tracks across it, once admit metaphysical lines of reasoning, the result will be confusion and a problem increasing in complexity at every stage. Only in romances, where a plot is invented and then complicated by deliberate art, shall we find the truth ultimately permitted to appear in some subordinate incident, or individual, studiously kept in the background-that is the craft of telling detective stories. But, in truth, one needs to lay hold of the problem by the throat at the outset. Deception is too much the province of the criminal and too little the business of the investigator; and where it may be possible to creep, like a snake, into a case, unknown for what you truly are, then your opportunities and chances of success are enormously increased. It is, however, the exception when one can start without the knowledge of anybody involved, and the Scotland Yard of the future will pursue its business under very different circumstances from the present. The detective's work should be made easier and not more difficult. None should know who is working on a case. The law's representatives should be disguised and move among the characters surrounding the crime as something other than they really are. They will-"

Here Hardcastle's reflections came to an end. Some previous notes there were of superficial accidents in the Grey Room and a rough ground plan of it; but nothing more. He had evidently, for the time being, broken away from his environment and was merely thinking, with a pen on paper, when he died.

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