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   Chapter 11 PRINCE DJEM

The Grey Room By Eden Phillpotts Characters: 29276

Updated: 2017-11-28 00:07


The master of Chadlands was both drawn and repelled by his guest. Signor Mannetti revealed a type of mind entirely beyond the other's experience, and while he often uttered sentiments with which Sir Walter found himself in cordial agreement, he also committed himself to a great many opinions that surprised and occasionally shocked the listener. Sir Walter was also conscious that many words uttered flew above his understanding. The old Italian could juggle with English almost as perfectly as he was able to do with his own language. He had his country's mastery of the phrase, the ironies, the double meanings, half malicious, half humorous, the outlook on humanity that delights to surprise-the compliment that, on closer examination, proves really to be the reverse. Mary's father voiced his emotions when the visitor had gone to bed.

"If it didn't seem impossible," he told Henry, "I could almost imagine that Signor Mannetti was trying to pull my leg sometimes."

"He tries, and succeeds," answered young Lennox. "He is built that way. His mind is as agile as a monkey, despite his age. He's a sly old bird; his thoughts move a thousand times faster than ours, and they're a thousand times more subtle."

"But he's very fascinating," declared Mary.

"He's a gentleman," answered Henry-"an Italian gentleman. They're different from us in their ideas of good form, that's all. Good form is largely a matter of geography-like most other manners and customs."

"I believe in him, anyway."

"So do I, Mary. I don't think he would ever have put himself to such extraordinary trouble if he hadn't felt pretty hopeful."

But Sir Walter doubted.

"He's old and his mind plays him tricks sometimes. No doubt he's immensely clever; but his cleverness belongs to the past. He has not moved with the times any more than I have."

"His eye flashes still, and you know he has claws, but, like a dear old Persian cat, he would never dream of using them."

"I think he would," answered her cousin. "He might spring on anybody-from behind."

"He is, at any rate, too old to understand democracy."

"He understands it only too well," replied Sir Walter. "Like myself, he knows that democracy is only autocracy turned inside out. Human nature isn't constructed to bear any such ideal. It might suit sheep and oxen-not men."

"He is an aristocrat, a survival, proud as a peacock under his humility, as kind-hearted as you are yourself, father."

"I rather doubt his kindness of heart," said Henry. "Latins are not kind. But I don't doubt his cleverness. One must be on one's guard against first impressions, Mary."

"No, no one mustn't, when they're so pleasant. There is nothing small or peddling about him. It was angelic of such an old man to take so much trouble."

Henry Lennox reminded them of practical considerations.

"The first thing is to get the room opened for him. He is going to see Uncle Walter at eleven o'clock, and he'll want to visit the Grey Room afterwards. If we get Chubb and a man or two from the village the first thing in the morning, they can help Caunter to open the room and have it ready for him after lunch."

Sir Walter rang and directed that workmen should be sent for at the earliest hour next day.

"I feel doubtful as to what the authorities would say, however," he told Henry, when his orders had been taken.

"What can they say, but be well pleased if the infernal thing is cleared up?"

"It is too good to be true."

"So I should think, but I share Mary's optimism. I honestly believe that Signor Mannetti knows a great deal more about the Grey Room than he has let us imagine."

"How can he possibly do that?" asked his uncle.

"Time will show; but I'm going to back him." At eleven o'clock on the following morning the visitor appeared. He walked with a gold-headed, ebony cane and dressed in a fashion of earlier days. He was alert and keen; his mind had no difficulty in concentrating on his subject. It appeared that he had all particulars at his fingers' ends, and he went back into the history of the Grey Room as far as Sir Walter was able to take him.

"We are dealing with five victims to our certain knowledge," he said, "for there is very little doubt that all must have suffered the same death and under the same circumstances."

"Four victims, signor."

"You forget your aged relative-the lady who came to spend Christmas with your father, when you were a boy, and was found dead on the floor. Colonel Vane, however, recollected her, because you had mentioned her when telling the story of Mrs. Forrester-Nurse Forrester."

"I never associated my aged aunt with subsequent tragedies-nobody did."

"Nevertheless, it was not old age and a good dinner that ended her life. She, too, perished by an assassin."

"You still speak of crime."

"If I am not mistaken, then 'crime' is the only word."

"But, forgive me, is it imaginable that the same criminal could destroy three men last year and kill an old woman more than sixty years ago?"

"Quite possible. You do not see? Then I hope to have the privilege of showing you presently."

"It would seem, then, that the malignant thing is really undying-as poor May believed-a conscious being hidden there, but beyond our sight and knowledge?"

"No, no, my friend. Let me be frank. I have no theory that embraces either a good or evil spirit. Believe me, there are fewer things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy. Man has burdened his brain with an infinite deal of rubbish of his own manufacture. Much of his principle and practice is built on myths and dreams. He is a credulous creature, and insanely tenacious to tradition; but I say to you, suspect tradition at every turn, and the more ancient the tradition, the more mistrust it. We harbor a great deal too much of the savage still in us-we still carry about far more of his mental lumber and nonsense than we imagine. Intellect should simplify rather than complicate, and those to come will look back with pity to see this generation, like flies, entangled in the webs of thought their rude forefathers spun. But the eternal verities are few; a child could count them. We are, however, a great deal too fond of believing what our ancestors believed. Alas, nobody sins more in this respect than I. Let us, then, throw overboard the supernatural, once and for all, so far as the Grey Room is concerned. No ghost haunts it; no succubus or succuba is hidden there, to harry the life out of good men and women."

"It is strange that you should take almost the identical line of thought that poor Peter Hardcastle took. I hope to God you are right!"

"So far I am most certainly in the right. We can leave the other world out of our calculations."

He asked various questions, many of which did not appear to bear on the subject, but he made no suggestions as yet, and advanced no theories. He suspected that Peter Hardcastle might have arrived at a conclusion had not death cut short his inquiry. From time to time he lifted his hand gently for silence, and permitted a reply to penetrate his mind.

"I think very slowly about new things now," he said. "An idea must sink in gradually and find its place. That is the worst of new ideas. There is so little room for them when you are eighty. The old and settled opinions fill the space, and are jealous and resent newcomers."

Sir Walter explained to him presently that the room was being opened, and would be ready after luncheon. Whereupon he expressed concern for the workers.

"Let them have a care," he said, "for, if I am right, the danger is still present. Let them work with despatch, and not loiter about."

"No harm has ever undertaken more than one, when in the room alone. The detectives saw and felt nothing."

"Nevertheless, the assassin was quite equal to smudging out the detectives, believe me, Sir Walter."

The day was fine, and Signor Mannetti expressed a wish to take the air. They walked on the terrace presently, and Mary joined them. He asked for her arm, and she gave it.

Prince padded beside her, and the visitor declared interest in him.

"Like myself, your dog is on the verge of better things," he said. "He will do good deeds in the happy hunting grounds, be sure."

They told him the feats of Prince, and he appeared to be interested.

"Nevertheless, the faithful creature ought to die now. He is blind and paralysis is crippling his hinder parts."

Sir Walter patted the head of his ancient favorite.

"He dies on Friday," he said. "The vet will come then. I assure you the thought gives me very genuine pain."

"He has earned euthanasia, surely. What is that fine tree with great white flowers? I have seen the like before, but am sadly ignorant of horticulture."

"A tulip-tree," said Mary. "It's supposed to be the finest in Devonshire."

"A beautiful object. But all is beautiful here. An English spring can be divine. I shall ask you to drive me to primroses presently. Those are azaleas-that bank of living fire-superb!"

He praised the scene, and spoke about the formal gardens of Italy.

Then, when luncheon was finished and he had smoked a couple of cigarettes, Signor Mannetti rose, bowed to Sir Walter, and said:

"Now, if you please."

They accompanied and watched him silently, while his eyes wandered round the Grey Room.

The place was unchanged, and the dancing cherubs on the great chairs seemed to welcome daylight after their long darkness.

The visitor wandered slowly from end to end of the chamber, nodded to himself, and became animated. Then he checked his gathering excitement, and presently spoke.

"I think I am going to help you, Sir Walter," he said.

"That is great and good news, signor."

Then the old man became inconsequent, and turned from the room to the contents. If, indeed, he had found a clue, he appeared in no haste to pursue it. He entered now upon a disquisition concerning the furniture, and they listened patiently, for he had showed that any interruption troubled him. But it seemed that he enjoyed putting a strain upon their impatience.

"Beautiful pieces," he said, "but not Spanish, as you led me to suppose. Spanish chestnut wood, but nothing else Spanish about them. They are of the Italian Renaissance, and it is most seemly that Italian craftsmanship of such high order should repose here, under an Italian ceiling. Strange to say, my sleeping apartment at Rome closely resembles this room. I live in a villa that dates from the fifteenth century, and belonged to the Colonna. My chests are more superb than these; but your suite-the bed and chairs-I confess are better than mine. There is, however, a reason for that. Let us examine them for the sake of Mrs. May. Are these carved chairs, with their reliefs of dancing putti, familiar to her-the figures, I mean?"

Mary shook her head.

"Then it is certain that in your Italian wanderings you did not go to Prato. These groups of children dancing and blowing horns are very cleverly copied from Donatello's famous pulpit in the duomo. The design is carried on from the chairs to the footboard of the bed; but in their midst upon the footboard is let in this oval, easel-picture, painted on wood. It is faded, and the garlands have withered in so many hundred years, as well they might; but I can feel the dead color quite well, and I also know who painted it."

"Is it possible, signor-this faint ghost of a picture?"

"There exists no doubt at all. You see a little Pinturicchio. Note the gay bands of variegated patterns, the arabesques and fruits. Their hues have vanished, but their forms and certain mannerisms of the master are unmistakable. These dainty decorations were the sign manual of such quattrocento painters as Gozzoli and Pinturicchio; and to these men he, for whom these works of art were created, assigned the painting and adornment of the Vatican. We will come to him directly. It was for Michelangelo to make the creations of these artists mere colored bubbles and froth, when seen against the immensity and intellectual grandeur of his future masterpieces in the Sistine. But that was afterwards. We are concerned with the Pope for whom these chairs and this bed were made. Yes, a Pope, my friends-no less a personage than Alexander VI.!"

He waited, like a skilled actor, for the tremendous sensation he expected and deserved. But it did not come. Unhappily for Signor Mannetti's great moment, his words conveyed no particular impression to anybody.

Sir Walter asked politely:

"And was he a good, or a bad Pope? I fear many of those gentlemen had little to their credit."

But the signor felt the failure of his great climax. At first he regretted it, and a wave of annoyance, even contempt, passed unseen through his mind; then he was glad that the secret should be hidden for another four-and-twenty hours, to gain immensely in dramatic sensation by delay. Already he was planning the future, and designing wonderful histrionics. He could not be positive that he was right; though now the old man felt very little doubt.

He did not answer Sir Walter's question, but asked one himself.

"The detectives examined this apartment with meticulous care, you say?"

"They did indeed."

"And yet what can care and zeal do; what can the most conscientious student achieve if his activities are confounded by ignorance? The amazing thing to me is that nobody should have had the necessary information to lead them at least in the right direction. And yet I run on too fast. After all, who shall be blamed, for it is, of course, the Grey Room and nothing but the Grey Room we are concerned with. Am I right? The Grey Room has the evil fame?"

"Certainly it has."

"And yet a little knowledge of a few peculiar facts-a pinch of history-yet, once again, who shall be blamed? Who can be fairly asked to possess that pinch of history which means so much in this room?"

"How could history have helped us, signor?" asked Henry Lennox.

"I shall tell you. But history is always helpful. There is history everywhere around us-not only here, but in every other department of this noble house. Take these chairs. By the accident of training, I read in them a whole chapter of the beginnings of the Renaissance; to you they are only old furniture. You thought them Spanish because they were bought in Spain-at Valencia, as a matter of fact. You did not know that, Sir Walter; but your grandfather purchased them there-to the despair and envy of another collector. Yes, these chairs have speaking faces to me, just as the ceili

ng over them has a speaking face also. It, too, is copied. History, in fact, breathes its very essence in this home. If I knew more history than I do, then other beautiful things would talk to me as freely as these chairs-and as freely as the trophies of the chase and the tiger skins below no doubt talk to Sir Walter. But are we not all historical-men, women, even children? To exist is to take your place in history, though, as in my case, the fact will not be recorded save in the 'Chronicles' of the everlasting. Yes, I am ancient history now, and go far back, before Italy was a united kingdom. Much entertaining information will be lost for ever when I die. Believe me, while the new generation is crying forth the new knowledge and glorying in its genius, we of the old guard are sinking into our graves and taking the old knowledge with us. Yet they only rediscover for themselves what we know. Human life is the snake with its tail in its mouth-Nietzsche's eternal recurrence and the commonplaces of our forefathers are echoed on the lips of our children as great discoveries."

Henry Lennox ventured to bring him back to the point.

"What knowledge-what particular branch of information should a man possess, signor, to find out what you have found?"

"Merely an adornment, my young friend, a side branch of withered learning, not cultivated, I fear, by your Scotland Yard. Yet I have known country gentlemen to be skilled in it. The practice of heraldry. I marked your arms on your Italian gates. I must look at those gates again-they are not very good, I fear. But the arms-a chevron between three lions-a fine coat, yet probably not so ancient as the gates."

"It was such a thing as bothered me in Florence," said Sir Walter. "I'd seen it before somewhere, but where I know not-a bull's head of gold on a red field."

Signor Mannetti started and laughed.

"Ha-ha! We will come to the golden bull presently, Sir Walter. You shall meet him, I promise you!"

Then he broke off and patted his forehead.

"But I go too quickly-far too quickly indeed. I must rest my poor brain now, or it will rattle in my head like a dry walnut. When it begins to rattle, I know that I have done enough for the present. May I walk in the garden again-not alone, but with your companionship?"

"Of course, unless you would like to retire and rest for a while."

"Presently I shall do so. And please permit nobody to enter the Grey Room but myself. Not a soul must go or come without me."

Sir Walter spoke.

"You still believe the peril is material then-an active, physical thing, controlled by a conscious human intelligence?"

"If I am right, it certainly is active enough."

They went into the garden, and Signor Mannetti, finding a snug seat in the sun, decided to stop there. Henry and his uncle exchanged glances, and the latter found his faith weakening, for the Italian's mind appeared to wander. He became more and more irrelevant, as it seemed. He spoke again of the old dog who was at his master's feet.

"Euthanasia for the aged. Why not? For that matter, I have considered it for myself in dark moments. Have you ever wondered why we destroy our pets, for love of them, yet suffer our fellow creatures to exist and endure to the very dregs Nature's most fiendish methods of dissolution? Again one of those terrible problems where mercy and religion cannot see eye to eye."

They uttered appropriate sentiments, and again the old man changed the subject and broke new ground.

"There was a prince-not your old dog-but a royal lad of the East-Prince Djem, the brother of the Sultan Bajazet. Do you know that story? Possibly not-it is unimportant enough, and to this day the sequel of the incident is buried in a mystery as profound as that of the Grey Room. Our later historians whitewash Alexander VI. concerning the matter of Prince Djem; but then it is so much the habit of later historians to whitewash everybody. A noble quality in human nature perhaps-to try and see the best, even while one can only do so by ignoring the worst. Certainly, as your poet says, 'Distance makes the heart grow fonder'; or, at any rate, softer. There is a tendency to side with the angels where we are dealing with historic dead. Nero, Caligula, Calvin, Alva, Napoleon, Torquemada-all these monsters and portents, and a thousand such blood-bespattered figures are growing whiter as they grow fainter. They will have wings and haloes presently. Yet not for me. I am a good hater, my friends. But Prince Djem-I wander so. You should be more severe with me and keep me to my point. Sultan Bajazet wanted his younger brother out of the way, and he paid the Papacy forty thousand ducats a year to keep the young fellow a prisoner in Italy. It was a gilded captivity and doubtless the dissolute Oriental enjoyed himself quite as well at Rome as he would have done in Constantinople. But after Alexander had achieved the triple tiara, Bajazet refused to pay his forty thousand ducats any longer. The Pope, therefore, wrote strongly to the Sultan, telling him that the King of France designed to seize Prince Djem and go to war on his account against the Turks. This does not weary you?"

"No, indeed," declared Mary.

"Alexander added, that to enable him to resist the French and spare Bajazet's realms the threatened invasion, a sum of forty thousand ducats must be immediately forthcoming. The Sultan, doubtless appalled by such a threat, despatched the money with a private letter. He was as great a diplomat as the Pope himself, and saw a way to evade this gigantic annual impost by compounding on the death of Djem. Unfortunately for him, however, both the papal envoy and Bajazet's own messenger were captured upon their return journey by the brother of Cardinal della Rovere-Alexander's bitterest enemy. Thus the contents of the secret letter became known, and the Christian world heard with horror how Bajazet had offered the occupant of St. Peter's throne three hundred thousand ducats to assassinate Prince Djem!

"Time passed, and the Pope triumphed over his enemies. He prepared to abandon the person of the young Turk to Charles of France, and effectively checkmated the formidable Rovere for a season. But then, as we know, Prince Djem suddenly perished, and while latest writers declare that he actually reached France, only to die there, ruined by his own debaucheries, I, for one, have not accepted that story. He never reached France, my friends, for be sure Alexander VI. was not the man to let any human life stand between his treasury and three hundred thousand ducats."

Signor Mannetti preserved silence for a time, then he returned in very surprising fashion to the subject that had brought him to Chadlands. He had been reflecting and now proceeded with his thoughts aloud.

"You must, however, restrain your natural impatience a little longer, until another night has passed. I will, if you please, myself spend some hours in the Grey Room after dark, and learn what the medieval spirits have to tell me. Shall I see the wraith of Prince Djem, think you? Or the ghost of Pinturicchio hovering round his little picture? Or those bygone, cunning workers in plaster who built the ceiling? They will at least talk the language of Tuscany, and I shall be at home among them."

Sir Walter protested.

"That, indeed, is the last thing I could permit, signor," he said.

"That is the first thing that must happen, nevertheless," replied the old gentleman calmly. "You need not fear for me, Sir Walter. I jest about the spirits. There are no spirits in the Grey Room, or, if there are, they are not such as can quarrel with you, or me. There is, however, something much worse than any spirit lurking in the heart of your house-a potent, sleepless, fiendish thing; and far from wondering at all that has happened, I only marvel that worse did not befall. But I have the magic talisman, the 'open sesame.' I am safe enough even if I am mistaken. Though my fires are burning low, it will take more than your Grey Room to extinguish them. I hold the clue of the labyrinth, and shall pass safely in and out again. To-morrow I can tell you if I am right."

"I confess that any such plan is most disagreeable to me. I have been specially directed by the authorities to allow no man to make further experiments alone."

Vergilio Mannetti showed a trace of testiness. "Forgive me, but your mind moves without its usual agility, my friend. Have I not told you everything? What matters Scotland Yard, seeing that it is entirely in the dark, while I have the light? Let them hear that they are bats and owls, and that one old man has outwitted the pack of them!"

"You have, as you say, told us much, my dear signor, and much that you have said is deeply interesting. In your mind it may be that these various facts are related, and bring you to some sort of conclusion bearing on the Grey Room; but for us it is not so. These statements leave us where they find us; they hang on nothing, not even upon one another in our ears. I speak plainly, since this is a matter for plain speaking. It is natural that you should not feel as we feel; but I need not remind you that what to you is merely an extraordinary mystery, to us is much more. You have imagination, however, far more than I have, and can guess, without being told, the awful suffering the past has brought to my daughter and myself."

"Our slow English brains cannot flash our thoughts along so quickly as yours, signor," said Mary. "It is stupid of us, but-"

"I stand corrected," answered the other instantly. He rose from his seat, and bowed to them with his hand on his heart.

"I am a withered old fool, and not quick at all. Forgive me. But thus it stands. Since you did not guess, through pardonable ignorance of a certain fact, then, for the pleasure of absolute proof, I withhold my discovery a little longer. There is drama here, but we must be skilled dramatists and not spoil our climax, or anticipate it. To-morrow it shall be-perhaps even to-night. You are not going to be kept long in suspense. Nor will I go alone and disobey Scotland Yard. Your aged pet-this spaniel dog-shall join me. Good Prince and I will retire early and, if you so desire it, we shall be very willing to welcome you in the Grey Room-say some six or seven hours later. I do not sleep there, but merely sustain a vigil, as all the others did. But it will be briefer than theirs. You will oblige me?"

Mary spoke, seeing the pain on her father's face. She felt certain that the old man knew perfectly what he was talking about. She had spoken aside to Henry, and he agreed with her. Mannetti had solved the mystery; he had even enabled them to solve it; but now, perhaps to punish them for their stupidity, he was deliberately withholding the key, half from love of effect, half in a spirit of mischief. He was planning something theatrical. He saw himself at the centre of the stage in this tragic drama, and it was not unnatural that he should desire to figure there effectively after taking so much trouble. Thus, while Sir Walter still opposed, he was surprised to hear Mary plead on the visitor's behalf, and his nephew support her.

"Signor Mannetti is quite right, father; I am positive of it," she said. "He is right; and because he is right, he is safe."

"Admirably put!" cried the Italian. "There you have the situation in a nutshell, my friends. Trust a clever woman's intuition. I am indeed right. Never was consciousness of right so impressed upon my mind-prone as I am always to doubt my own conclusions. I am, in fact, right because I cannot be wrong. Trust me. My own safety is absolutely assured, for we are concerned with the operations of men like ourselves-at least, I hope very different from ourselves, but men, nevertheless. It was your fate to revive this horror; it shall be my privilege to banish it out of the earth. At a breath the cunning of the ungodly shall be brought to nought. And not before it is time. But the mills of God grind slowly. Our achievement will certainly resound to the corners of the civilized world."

"I'm as positive as the signor himself that he is safe, uncle," said Henry Lennox.

"Let us go to tea," replied Sir Walter. "These things are far too deep for a plain man. I only ask you to consider all this must mean to me who am the master of Chadlands and responsible to the authorities. Reflect if ill overtook you."

"It is impossible that it can."

"So others believed. And where are they? Further trouble would unhinge my mind, signor."

"You have endured enough to make you speak so strongly, and your brave girl also. But fear nothing whatever. I am far too deeply concerned and committed on your behalf to add a drop to the bitter drink of the past, my dear Sir Walter. I am as safe in that room as I should be at the altar steps of St. Peter's. Trust old Prince, if you cannot trust me. I rely largely on your blind pet to aid me. He has good work to do yet, faithful fellow."

"The detectives took animals into the room, but they were not hurt," said Lennox.

"Neither shall the dog be hurt."

He patted the sleeping spaniel, and they rose and went into the house together.

Mannetti evidently assumed that his wishes were to be granted.

"I will go and sleep awhile," he said. "Until an early dinner, excuse me, and let Mrs. May and Mr. Lennox convince you, as they are themselves convinced. These events have immensely excited my vitality. I little guessed that, at the end of my days, a sensation so remarkable lay in store for me. I must conserve my strength for to-night. I am well-very well-and supported by the consciousness of coming triumph. Such an achievement would have rewarded my long journey and these exertions, even had not your acquaintance been ample reward already. I will, then, sleep until dinner-time, and so be replenished to play my part in a wonderful though melancholy romance. Let us dine at seven, if you please."

His excitement and natural levity strove with the gloomy facts. He resembled a mourner at a funeral who experiences pleasant rather than painful emotions but continually reminds himself to behave in a manner appropriate to the occasion.

They sent for his man, and, on Stephano's arm, the old gentleman withdrew.

He returned for a moment, however, and spoke again.

"You will do exactly as I wish and allow no human being to enter the Grey Room. Keep the key in your pocket, Sir Walter; and do not go there yourself either. It is still a trap of death for everybody else in the world but myself."

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