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   Chapter 9 THE NIGHT WATCH

The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 22757

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


Though a room had been prepared for Dr. Mannering, he did not occupy it long. The early hours of night found him in a bad temper, and suffering from considerable exacerbation of nerves. He troubled little for himself, and still less concerning the police, for he was human, and their indifference to his advice annoyed him; but for Sir Walter he was perturbed, and did not like the arrangements that he had planned. The doctor, however, designed to go and come and keep an eye upon the old man, and he hoped that the master of Chadlands would presently sleep, if only in his study chair. For himself he suffered a somewhat unpleasant experience toward midnight, but had himself to thank for it. He rested for an hour in his bedroom, then went downstairs, to find Mary and her father sitting quietly together in the great library. They were both reading, while at the farther end, where a risen moon already frosted the lofty windows above him, lay Septimus May in his coffin. Mary had plucked a wealth of white hothouse flowers, which stood in an old Venetian bowl at his feet.

Sir Walter was solicitous for the doctor.

"Not in bed!" he exclaimed. "This is too bad, Mannering. We shall have you ill next. You have been on your feet for countless hours and much lies before you to-morrow. Do be sensible, my dear fellow, and take some rest-even if you cannot sleep."

"There is no sleep to-night for me. Lord knows how soon I may be wanted by those fools playing with fire upstairs."

"We cannot interfere. For myself a great peace has descended upon me, now that initiative and the need for controlling and directing is taken out of my hands. I began to feel this when poor Hardcastle arrived; but that composure was sadly shattered. I am even prepared for the needful publicity now. I can face it. If I erred in the matter of this devoted priest, I shall not question the judgment of my fellow-men upon me."

"Fear nothing of that sort," answered Mannering. "Your fellow-man has no right to judge you, and the law, with all its faults, appreciates logic. Who can question your right to believe that this is a matter outside human knowledge? Your wisdom may be questioned, but not your right. Plenty would have felt the same. When the mind of man finds itself groping in the dark, you will see that, in the huge majority of cases, it falls back upon supernatural explanations for mystery. This fact has made fortunes for not a few who profit by the credulity of human nature. Faiths are founded on it. May carried too many guns for you. He honestly convinced you that his theory of his son's death was the correct theory; and I, for one, though I deplore the fact that you came to see with his eyes, and permitted him to do what he believed was his duty, yet should be the last to think your action open to judicial blame. No Christian judge, at any rate, would have the least right to question you. In a word, there is no case yet against anybody. The force responsible for these things is utterly unknown, and if ill betides the men upstairs, that is only another argument for you."

Sir Walter put down his book-a volume of pious meditations. Events had drawn him into a receptive attitude toward religion. He was surprised at Dr. Mannering.

"I never thought to hear you admit as much as that. How strangely the currents of the mind ebb and flow, Mannering. Here are you with your scepticism apparently weakening, while I feel thankfully assured, at any rate for the moment, that only a material reason accounts for these disasters."

"Why?" asked the physician.

"Because against the powers of any dark spirit Septimus May was safe. Even had he been right and his prayer had freed such a being and cast it out of my house, would the Almighty have permitted it to rend and destroy the agent of its liberation? May could not have suffered death by any conscious, supernatural means if our faith is true; but, as he himself said, when he came here after the death of his boy, he did not pretend that faith in God rendered a human being superior to the laws of matter. If, as was suggested at dinner to-day, there is somebody in this house with a mind unhinged who has discovered a secret of nature by which human life can be destroyed and leave no sign, then this dead clergyman was, of course, as powerless against such a hideous danger as any other human being."

"But surely such a theory is quite as wild as any based on supernatural assumptions? You know the occupants of this house-every one of them, Sir Walter. Mary knows them, Henry knows them. I have attended most of them at one time or another. Is there one against whom such a suspicion can be entertained?"

"Not one indeed."

"Could the war have made a difference?" asked Mary. "We know how shell shock and wounds to a poor man's head had often left him apparently sound, yet in reality weakened as to his mind."

"Yes, that is true enough. And when the unfortunate men get back into everyday life from the hospitals, or endeavor to resume their old work, the weakness appears. I have seen cases. But of all the men in Chadlands there are only three examples of any such catastrophe. I know a few in the village-none where one can speak of actual insanity, however. Here there is only Fred Caunter, who was hurt about the head on board ship, but the injury left no defect."

"Fred is certainly as sane as I am-perhaps saner," admitted Sir Walter.

"Don't think I really imagine there is anything of the kind here," added Mannering. "But if these four men are in a condition to proceed with their work to-morrow, you must expect them to make a searching examination of everybody in the house. And they may find a good number of nervous and hysterical women, if not men. It is not their province, however, to determine whether people are weak in the head, and I know, as well as you do, that none in this house had any hand in these disasters."

"Never was a family with fewer secrets than mine," declared Sir Walter.

"The morning may bring light," said Mary.

"I feel very little hope that it will," answered Mannering. "The inquiry will proceed, whatever happens to-night, and we may all have to go to London to attend it. After they have turned Chadlands and everybody in it upside down, as they surely will, then we may be called, if they arrive at no conclusion."

"I am prepared to be. I shall not leave the country, of course, until I receive permission to do so. It must be apparent to everybody that I am, of all men, if not the most involved, at least the most anxious to clear this mystery-that nobody can doubt."

"Then you must conserve your strength and be guided," said Mannering. "I do beg of you to retire now, and insist upon Mary doing the same. Nothing can be gained by the dead, and necessary energy is lost to the living by this irrational vigil. It is far past midnight; I beg you to retire, Sir Walter, and Mary, too. There is nothing that should keep you out of bed, and I urge you to go to it."

But the elder refused.

"Few will sleep under this roof to-night," he said. "There is a spirit of human anxiety and distress apparent, and naturally so. I will stay here with this good man. He is better company than many of the living. I feel a great peace here. The dead sustains me."

He joined Mannering, however, in an appeal to his daughter, and, satisfied that their friend would not be far off at any time, Mary presently left them. She declared herself as not anxious or nervous. She had never believed that anything but natural causes were responsible for her husband's death, and felt an assurance that morning would bring some measure, at least, of explanation. She went out of the room with Mannering, and, promising her to keep a close watch on her father, the doctor left Mary, lighted his pipe, and strolled to the billiard-room. Presently he patrolled the hall and pursued his own reflections. Where his thoughts bent, there his body unconsciously turned, and, forgetting the injunction of the silent men aloft-indeed, forgetting them also for a moment-Mannering ascended the stairs and proceeded along the corridor toward the Grey Room. But he did not get far. Out of the darkness a figure rose and stopped him. The man turned an electric torch on Dr. Mannering, and recognized him. It appeared that while one detective kept guard outside, the others watched within. At the sound of voices the door of the Grey Room opened, and in the bright light that streamed from it a weird figure stood-a tall, black object with huge and flashing eyes and what looked like an elephant's trunk descending from between them. The watchers, wearing hoods and gas masks, resembled the fantastic demons of a Salvator Rosa, or Fuselli. Their chief now accosted the doctor somewhat sharply. He knew his name and received his apology, but bade him leave the corridor at once. "I must, however, search you first," said Frith. "You were wrong to come," he continued. "This is no time to distract us. Explain to-morrow, please."

The doctor, after holding up his hands and submitting to a very close scrutiny, departed and swore at his own inadvertence. He had forgotten that, in common with everybody else involved, he must bear the brunt of suspicion, and he perceived that his approach to the Grey Room, after it was clearly understood that none should on any account attempt to do so, must attract unpleasant attention to himself. And he could offer no better excuse than that he had forgotten the order. He apprehended an unpleasantness on the following day, and wondered at himself that he could have done anything so open to question. Brain fag was a poor excuse, but he had none better.

In an hour he returned to Sir Walter, hoping to find him asleep; but the master of Chadlands was still reading, and in a frame of mind very quiet and peaceful. He regretted the forgetfulness that had taken his friend into the forbidden gallery.

"I am concerned for Mary," he said. "She is only keeping up at a terrible cost of nervous power. It is more than time that she was away; but she will not go until I am able to accompany her."

"It should not be long. We must hope they will get to the bottom of it soon, if not to-night. I am most anxious for both of you to be off."

"We design to go to Italy. She shrinks from the Riviera and longs for Florence, or some such peaceful place."

"It will be cold there."

"Cold won't hurt us."

"Shall you shut up Chadlands?"

"Impossible. It is the only home of half my elder people. But, if nothing is discovered and we are still left without an explanation, I shall seal the Grey Room-windows, door, and hearth-unless the authorities direct otherwise. I wish I could fill the place with solid stone or concrete, so that it would cease to be a room at all."

"That you can't do," answered the practical doctor. "Such a weight would bring down the ceiling beneath. But you can make it fast and block it up if the thing beats them."

"We are like the blind moving in regions unfamiliar to their touch," said Sir Walter. "I had hoped so much from the prayer of that just man. He, indeed, has gone to his reward. He is with the boy he loved better than anything on earth; but for us is left great sorrow and distress. Still, prayers continue to be answered, Mannering. I have prayed for p

atience, and I find myself patient. The iron has entered my soul. The horror of publicity-the morbid agony I experienced when I knew my name must be dragged through every newspaper in England-these pangs are past. My life seems to have ended in one sense, and, looking back, I cannot fail to see how little I grasped the realities of existence, how I took my easy days as a matter of course and never imagined that for me, too, extreme suffering and misery were lying in wait. Each man's own burden seems the hardest to bear, I imagine, and to me these events have shrivelled the very marrow in my bones. They scorched me, and the glare, thrown from the larger world into the privacy of my life, made me feel that I could call on the hills to cover me. But now I can endure all."

"You must not look at it so, Sir Walter. Everybody knows that you have done no wrong, and if your judgment is questioned, what is it? Only the fate every man-great or small, famous or insignificant-has to bear. You can't escape criticism in this world, any more than you can escape calumny. It is something that you can now speak so steadfastly, preserve such patience, and see so clearly, too. But, for my part, clear seeing only increases my anxiety to-night. I don't personally care a button for the welfare of those men, since they declined to take my advice; but I am human, and as I suffer with a sick patient and rejoice when he recovers, so I cannot help suffering at the thought of the risk these four are running. They sit there, I suppose, or else walk about. They wear gas masks, and carry weapons in their hands. But if we are opposed to a blind, deaf, unreasoning force, which acts unconsciously and inevitably, then the fate of ten men would be just as uncertain as the fate of one. The thing operates by day or night-that much has been proved-and, since it is probably acting automatically, as lightning or steam, how can they escape?"

"This invisible death-dealing force may be in the control of a human mind, remember."

"It is beyond the bounds of possibility, Sir Walter."

"You are a rash man to affirm anything so definite, after what you have gone through with the rest of us. Let me, in my turn, urge you to go to your rest. These things have told upon you. You are only flesh and blood, not iron, as you fancy. The men are all right so far."

"I'll get something to eat and drink," said Mannering, "and leave you in peace for a while."

"Do. You will find all you need in the dining-room. I directed Masters to leave ample there, in case the detectives might want food."

"Shall I bring you something-a whisky, and a biscuit?"

"No, no. I need nothing."

The doctor went his way, and passed an hour with meat and drink. Then he felt an overpowering desire to sleep, but resisted it, lighted his pipe again, and, resumed his march in the hall. He listened presently at the library door, and was gratified to hear a gentle but steady snore. The sound pleased Mannering well.

He padded about once more, resolved to keep awake until the vigil was ended. Then he would go to bed and sleep. It was now past three o'clock on a still, winter night-a lull and interval between yesterday's storm and rough weather yet to come. The doctor went out of doors for a time and tramped the terrace. A waning moon had risen, and the night was mild and cloudy.

Bright light shot out like fans into the murk from the east and south windows of the Grey Room. Returning to the house, the watcher listened at the foot of the staircase, and heard the mumble of men's voices and the sound of feet. They were changing the guard, and the detective in the corridor gave up his place to one from inside. All was well so far.

Then Mannering went to the billiard-room, lolled on the settee for a time, and drowsed through another hour. For a few minutes he lost consciousness, started up to blame his weakness, and looked at his watch. But he had only slumbered for five minutes.

At six o'clock he told himself that it was morning, and went in again to Sir Walter. The old man had wakened, and was sitting in quiet reflection until daylight should outline the great window above the dead.

"The night has been one of peace," he declared. "The spirit of poor May seemed near me, and I felt, too, as though his son were not far off, either. Is all well with the watchers?"

"I leave you to inquire, but don't go too near them. Night fades over the woods, so the day can be said to have begun."

"Doubtless the household will be stirring. I shall go and inquire, if they will permit me to do so. Oblige me by staying here a few minutes until I call my daughter. I do not want our poor friend to be alone until he leaves us."

"I will stay here for the present. But don't let Mary be called if she is sleeping, and turn in yourself for a few hours now."

"I have slept off and on."

Sir Walter left him and ascended to the corridor. Already light moved wanly in the windows.

He stood at the top of the staircase and raised his voice.

"Is all well, gentlemen?" he asked loudly; but he received no answer.

"Is all well?" he cried again.

And then from the gloom emerged Inspector Frith. He had doffed his gas mask.

Sir Walter switched on an electric light.

"Nothing, I trust, has happened?"

"Nothing whatever, Sir Walter. No sign or sound of anything out of the common can be recorded."

"Thank Heaven-thank Heaven for that!"

"Though we had exhausted the possibilities of such a thing, we none the less expected gas," explained the detective. "That seemed the only conceivable means by which life might be destroyed in that room. Therefore we wore gas masks of the latest pattern, supposed to defy any gaseous combination ever turned out of a laboratory. It is well known that new, destructive gases were discovered just before the end of the war-gases said to be infinitely more speedy and deadly than any that were employed. As to that, and whether the Government has the secret of them, I cannot say. But no gas was liberated in the Grey Room last night. Otherwise a rat in a trap and birds in a cage, which we kept by us, would have felt it. The room is pure enough."

Sir Walter followed him down the corridor, and chatted with the other men also. They had left the Grey Room and taken off their masks; they looked weary and haggard in the waxing, white light of day.

"You've done your duty, and I am beyond measure thankful that no evil has overtaken you. What can now be prepared for you in the way of food?"

They thanked him, and declared that in an hour they would be glad of breakfast. Then Sir Walter went to his own apartments, rang, and gave the needful directions. He joined Mary soon afterwards, and she shared his thanksgivings. She was already dressed, and descended immediately to Dr. Mannering.

Henry Lennox also appeared soon afterwards. He had already learned from Fred Caunter that the watchers were safely through the night.

Chadlands was the scene of another inquest, and again a coroner's jury declared that Septimus May, as his son before him, had died by the Hand of God. Later in the day the dead man was conveyed to his own parish, and two days later Sir Walter and Mary, with her cousin, attended the funeral.

Meantime, the detectives began their serious work. They proceeded with system and upon their own plan. They omitted to question not the least of the persons who dwelt at Chadlands, and inquired also privately concerning every member of the house party there assembled when Tom May died. Into the sailor's private life they also searched, and so gradually investigated every possible line of action and point of approach to his death. The cause of this they were content to disregard, arguing that if an assassin could be traced, his means of murder would then be learned; but, from the first, no sort of light illumined their activities, and nothing to be regarded as a clue could be discovered, either in Tom May's relations with the world, or in the history and character of anyone among the many who were subject for inquiry.

Concerning the house party, only Ernest Travers and his wife had met the sailor before, on the occasion of his wedding; while as to the staff at Chadlands, nothing transpired to indicate that any had ever had occasion to feel affronted by an act of his. They were, moreover, loyal to a man and woman. They furnished no peculiarities, and gave no ground for the least suspicion. The case, in Frith's opinion, was unique, because, despite the number of persons it was necessary to study and consider, in none of their relations with the family involved could there be found a shadow of unfriendly intercourse, a harbored grudge, or a suggestion of ill-feeling. The people were all simple and ingenuous. They declared and displayed nothing but regard for their employer, and many of them had succeeded their own parents in their present employment. It was a large household, very closely united by ties of tradition and affection. Henry Lennox also proved above suspicion, though his former attachment to Mary was not concealed. It needed no great student of character, however, to appreciate his transparent honesty under examination, a remark that extended to Dr. Mannering, whose incautious advent in the corridor on the night of their vigil had offended the watchers.

For three weeks they worked industriously-without vision, but to the best of their experience and intellectual powers. In the familiar phrase, they left no stone unturned; and following their report, which frankly admitted absolute failure, a small commission instituted a further inquiry on the evidence, and invited those chiefly concerned to attend it.

Sir Walter, his daughter, Henry Lennox, and Dr. Mannering were examined with sympathy and consideration. But they could offer no opinions, throw no light, and suggest no other lines of inquiry than those already pursued.

For the world the mystery died like a new star, which was blazed into fame only to retreat or diminish and disappear once more. Fresh problems and new sensations filled the newspapers, and a time at last came when, to his relief, Sir Walter could open his morning journal and find no mention of Chadlands therein. Architects examined the room a second time, and the authorities also gave permission to certain notable spiritualists to make further nocturnal and diurnal vigils therein, though no solitary watcher was permitted. Three came and passed a day and a night in the Grey Room. They were rewarded with no phenomena whatever.

The master of Chadlands was at length informed that he might leave England, but directed to set a seal on the Grey Room, and to treat it in such a manner that it should no longer be capable of entrance.

The red tape that had wound itself about the tragedy was thus unloosed at last, and the suffering pair made all haste to get away. Its owner undertook to treat the Grey Room as directed on his return from abroad, and meanwhile had both door and window boarded up with heavy timbers.

The household was long since restored to self-possession and even cheerfulness. Some felt pride in their passing publicity, and none expressed any fear of remaining. But Sir Walter guessed that few feet would tread the great corridor until a day was near for his return.

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