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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Moon Rock By Arthur J. Rees Characters: 15812

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:05


The twilight had deepened into darkness when Barrant reached Flint House. A faint ray of light flickered from the kitchen window on the giant cliffs, like a taper from a doll's house. He approached the window by a line of rocks which guarded it like sentinels, and looked in.

Within, Mrs. Thalassa sat alone by the table in a drooping attitude of dejection or stupor. Her head was bent over her crossed hands, which rested on the table, and her grey hair, escaping from the back comb which fastened it, fell on both sides of her face. An oil lamp smoked on the table beside her, sending forth a cloud of black vapour like an unbottled genie, but she did not heed it. There was something uncanny in her complete detachment from the restless activity of life. The dead man lying upstairs was not more still.

Had Barrant known her better he would have had matter for surprise and conjecture in the fact that her patience cards stood untouched in their shabby leather case, but knowing nothing of that he fell to wondering what her husband had seen in such a queer little creature to marry her. The consideration of that question led him to the conclusion that perhaps Thalassa had been impelled to his choice by the realization that she was as good-looking a wife as he could afford. Barrant reflected that women resembled horses in value. The mettlesome showy ones were bred to display their paces for rich men only. Serviceable hacks, warranted to work a lifetime, could not be expected to be ornamental as well as useful. So long as they pulled their burdens without jibbing overmuch, one had to be content.

He began to wonder where Thalassa was, and moved closer to the shadow of one of the rocks in case he happened to be prowling around the house. In the silence of the night he listened for the sound of footsteps on the rocks, but could hear nothing except the moan of the sea and the whimper of a rising wind. His eye, glancing upwards, fell upon a chink of shuttered light in the back of the house which looked down on the sea. The light came from the dead man's study, and had not been there a few moments before.

Barrant walked to the kitchen door and tapped lightly. There was no answer, but somewhere within the house a dog howled dismally. The door handle yielded to his touch when he tried it, and he walked in.

The little old woman at the table made a sudden movement at his appearance, but he gave her a reassuring smile and nod. She sat quite still, with a look of fear in her eyes. Above his head he heard someone moving in the study.

"Your husband is upstairs?" he asked in a voice which was little more than a whisper. "I want to see him-I am going up to him."

He did not wait for her to reply, and she watched him out of the room with staring eyes. Stealthily he directed his steps to the staircase, and with infinite precautions for silence commenced to ascend. But midway he stumbled in the dark, and the stair creaked loudly. Above his head a door opened sharply, and when he reached the landing he saw the figure of Thalassa framed in the lighted doorway at the far end of the long passage, listening.

"Who's there?" he cried; then his eye fell on Barrant, advancing swiftly from the darkness towards the light. "What do you want?" he said. "How did you get in?"

Barrant looked past him into the room. There was a litter of papers on the table and shelves, as he had last seen it, but it did not seem to him that anything had been disturbed. The door of the death chamber opposite was closed.

"What are you doing up here?" he said sternly.

Thalassa did not deign to parley. "What do you want?" he repeated, looking steadily at the detective.

"Did you hear what I said to you?" angrily demanded Barrant. "Were you not told not to interfere with these rooms in any way? You have no right up here."

"More right than you have to come into a house like a thief," retorted Thalassa coldly. "I have my work to do. The place must be looked after, whether I'm spied on or not."

"I advise you not to take that tone with me," replied the detective. "As you are here, you had better come into this room again, and shut the door behind you. I have some questions I want to put to you."

Thalassa followed Barrant into the room and stood by the table, the rays of the swinging-lamp throwing his brown face into sharp outline. "What do you want to know?" he asked.

"I want you to tell me everything that happened in this house on the night your master was found dead."

"There's not much to tell," began Thalassa slowly. "When it happened I was down in the cellar, breaking some coal. I heered my wife call out to me from the kitchen. I went up from the cellar, and she was standing at the kitchen door, shaking like a leaf with fright. She said there'd been a terrible crash right over her head in Mr. Turold's study. I took a lamp and went upstairs, and knocked at the door, but I got no reply. I knocked three times as loud as I could, but there wasn't a sound. At that I gets afeered myself, so I put on my hat and coat to go across to the churchtown to fetch Dr. Ravenshaw. Then a knock come to the front door, and when I opened the door there was the doctor and Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton."

"How long was that after the crash upstairs?"

"No longer than it took me to go upstairs, knock at the door, and getting no answer, go downstairs to put on my coat and hat. I was just winding a comforter round my throat when I heered the knock."

"It did not occur to you to break in the door of your master's room when you got no answer and found it locked?"

"No it never, and you wouldn't have done it in my place."

"You heard no sound of a shot?"

"Not down in the cellar. I fancy I heered the sound of the clock falling. It came to me all muffled like, though it frightened her rarely." He pointed downward to the kitchen. "And it frightened the dog, too, started it barking."

"Is that the dog I heard whining downstairs?"

"Maybe it is. I've got it shut up in the cellar."

"Whose dog is it?"

"His." Thalassa's eyes travelled towards Robert Turold's bedroom.

"Is it howling through grief?"

"More like from fright. Dogs are like people, frightened of their own shadows, sometimes. I shut it up because it kept trying to get upstairs to his room. It's a queer surly sort of brute, but fond enough of him. He used to take it out for long walks."

"What kind of dog is it?"

"A retriever."

"So that's all that happened that night, is it?" said Barrant, in a meditative voice. "You have told me all?"

Thalassa nodded. His brown face remained expressionless, but his little dark eyes glittered warily, like a snake's.

"Think again, Thalassa," urged Barrant, in a voice of the softest insistence. "It may be that you have forgotten something-overlooked an incident which may be important."

"I've overlooked nothing," was the sullen response.

"There's just an odd chance that you have," said Barrant, searching the other's face from raised contemplative eyebrows. "The best of memories plays tricks at times. It's always better not to be too sure. Think again, Thalassa, if you haven't something more to tell me."

"I've told you everything," Thalassa commenced, then straightened his long bony frame in a sudden access of anger, and brought his hand sharply down on the table. "What are you trying to badger me for, like this? You'll get nothing more out of me if you question me till Doomsday."

"But why should you keep anything back?" asked Barrant softly.

Thalassa looked at him with a startled air, then recovered himself quickly. "I'm not keeping anything back," he said. "Why should you say that?"

"I did not say it. You said I'd get no more out of you."

"Because there is nothing more to be got. Is that plain enough?"

"Quite. Well then, let us go over the events of this night once

more. Perhaps that will help you to recall something which you have forgotten."

"That's not likely."

"Nevertheless, we will try. You were busy in the coal cellar at the time, I think you said?"

"At what time?" said Thalassa with a quick glance.

"At the time the crash happened upstairs."

"Yes."

"What time was that?"

"How should I know? Do you suppose there's a clock in the coal cellar? It must have been about half-past nine."

"According to the clock upstairs. Did you think I had overlooked that? Then you heard your wife call, and went to the kitchen. Next, you went upstairs, tried your master's door, found it locked, and decided to go for assistance. But before you could do so Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton and Dr. Ravenshaw arrived. Have I got it right?"

"That be right."

"All except one thing, Thalassa."

Thalassa met Barrant's look steadily, with no sense of guilt in his face. "Well?" he said.

"I see that you do not intend to be frank. Let me help your memory a little. Did you have no other visitors-before Mr. and Mrs. Pendleton and Dr. Ravenshaw arrived?"

"Visitors?" There was scorn now in his straight glance, but nothing more. "Is this a place where there's likely to be visitors?"

"Not in the ordinary course of events"-Barrant was still smilingly affable-"but the night your master met his death was not an ordinary night. Somebody may have come to the house."

He paused, again searching for some sign of guilty consciousness in the face revealed in such clear outline near him, but saw none. Again, Thalassa met him with answering look, but remained mute.

"Thalassa"-Barrant's voice remained persuasive, but to an ear attuned to shades, there was a note of menace underlying its softness-"you know there was somebody else here that night."

"Somebody? Who?"

"Your master's daughter-Miss Sisily Turold." Barrant brought it out sharply and angrily.

Thalassa turned a cold glance on him. "If you know that why do you ask me?" he said.

"Because you let her in!"

Thalassa surveyed him with the shadow of a smile on his motionless face. "Do you take me for a fool?" he said. "I let nobody in."

"Thalassa," said the detective earnestly, "let me advise you, for your own sake, to tell the truth now. You may be keeping silence through some mistaken idea of loyalty to your master's daughter, but that will do her no good, nor you either. I know more than you think. If you persist in keeping silent you will put yourself in an awkward position, and it may be the worse for you. You were seen listening at the door of the room downstairs on the day of your master's death."

"So that's it, is it? You think you'll fit a rope round my neck? I'm to say what you want to save it? To hell with you and your policeman's tricks! I don't care that for them." He snapped his long brown fingers in Barrant's face.

"You've a bold tongue, you scoundrel," said Barrant, flushing angrily. "Take care where it leads you. Once more, will you tell me the truth?"

"I've told you all I know."

"Do you mean to tell me that you did not see your master's daughter, or let her into the house?"

"I did not."

"Could anybody have got into the house without your knowledge?"

"Maybe."

"Did you hear anybody?"

"How could I hear anybody when I was down in the coal cellar?"

The open sneer on Thalassa's face suggested that he was not to be caught by verbal traps. Barrant perceived, with a smouldering anger, that the man was too clever to be tricked, and too stout of heart to be frightened. By accident or design he had a ready story which was difficult to demolish without further knowledge of the events of that night. Barrant decided that it would be useless, at that moment, to apply himself to the effort of worming anything out of Thalassa. He had shown his own hand too freely, and placed him on his guard. There was also the bare possibility that he had told the truth, so far as he knew it. One last shot he essayed.

"You are acting very foolishly, but I shall not arrest you-yet," he said impressively. "I shall tell the local police to keep an eye on you."

"Is it the Cornish savage from the churchtown-him with the straw helmit?" said Thalassa, with a harsh laugh.

The last shot had missed fire badly. The lawless spirit of the man was not to be intimidated by a threat of arrest-a threat which the detective had reason for not putting into effect just then. Barrant moved towards the door with the best dignity he could command.

"Light me downstairs to the kitchen," he said. "I want to see your wife."

Thalassa seemed about to say something at that, then thought the better of it, and walked out of the room. Outside in the passage he picked up a small lamp glimmering in a niche of the wall, and led the way downstairs. They reached the kitchen in silence, and went in.

The little grey woman at the table was seated in the same posture as Barrant had last seen her, her hands crossed in front of her, her head bent. She glanced up listlessly as they entered. Barrant crossed the room, and touched her arm. She shook in a pitiful little flurry of fear, then became motionless again.

"Mrs. Thalassa, I want to speak to you," said Barrant, raising his voice, as though to a deaf person. "Is this where you were sitting the night before last, when you heard the crash in your master's room upstairs?"

"Put the knave on the rubbish heap," she muttered without looking up.

"Listen to me, Mrs. Thalassa"-he spoke still louder. "Did you hear the shot before the crash?"

The loud tone seemed to reach the remote consciousness of her being, and she started up in another flurry. … "Coming, coming, sir. Jasper, where's the tray?…" she stood thus for a moment, then dropped back into her chair, her eyes fixed on the opposite wall.

"What's the matter with her?" said Barrant, turning to her husband.

"She's been like it ever since it happened," said Thalassa, in a low tone. "That's how I found her when I came from the cellar."

"Did she hear the shot-or see anything?"

"That's more than I can tell you. When I came from the cellar she seemed mazed with fright, and kept pointing to the ceiling. All I could make out from her was that there'd been a great crash upstairs. When I came down again after trying the door she was lying on the floor in a faint, and I carried her in to her bed. It's floored her wits."

"She's had a very bad shock," said Barrant gravely. He regarded her attentively, her vacant eyes, mouthing lips, trembling hands, her uncanny fixed glance which seemed to behold something unseen. Strange suspicions flowed through his brain as he watched her. What terrible experience had befallen her? What did she know of the mysterious events that had happened in that silent house? He endeavoured to follow the direction of her gaze, but it seemed to be fixed on the row of bells behind the kitchen door. Then, like a half-awakened sleeper released from the horror of a nightmare, she sank back in her previous listless attitude, and fell to muttering again.

As Barrant watched her, Thalassa watched them both with an anxiety which would have aroused Barrant's suspicions if he had seen it. But Thalassa's face was again closely guarded when he did look up.

"You'll get neither rhyme nor reason out of her," said Thalassa, as their glances met.

"I'll try once more," murmured Barrant, almost to himself. He turned to her again, but this time he did not lay his hand on her arm. "Mrs. Thalassa"-he spoke more gently-"will you try and understand me?"

"Red on black … black on red." Her hands moved restlessly.

In a sudden recognition of the futility of trying to gather anything from that clouded brain, Barrant turned abruptly away without another word. And the black gaze of Thalassa followed him through the door and out into the darkness of the night.

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