I was genuinely tired when I got back to the office, that Wednesday afternoon, for it had been a trying day—the last of the series of trying days which had marked the progress of the Minturn case; and my feeling of depression was increased by the fact that our victory had not been nearly so complete as I had hoped it would be. Besides, there was the heat; always, during the past ten days, there had been the heat, unprecedented for June, with the thermometer climbing higher and higher and breaking a new record every day.
As I threw off coat and hat and dropped into the chair before my desk, I could see the heat-waves quivering up past the open windows from the fiery street below. I turned away and closed my eyes, and tried to evoke a vision of white surf falling upon the beach, of tall trees swaying in the breeze, of a brook dropping gently between green banks.
"Fountains that frisk and sprinkle
The moss they overspill;
Pools that the breezes crinkle,"…
and then I stopped, for the door had opened. I unclosed my eyes to see the office-boy gazing at me in astonishment. He was a well-trained boy, and recovered himself in an instant.
"Your mail, sir," he said, laid it at my elbow, and went out.
I turned to the letters with an interest the reverse of lively. The words of Henley's ballade were still running through my head—
"Vale-lily and periwinkle;
Wet stone-crop on the sill;
The look of leaves a-twinkle
Again I stopped, for again the door opened, and again the office-boy appeared.
"Mr. Godfrey, sir," he said, and close upon the words, Jim Godfrey entered, looking as fresh and cool and invigorating as the fountains and brooks and pools I had been thinking of.
"How do you do it, Godfrey?" I asked, as he sat down.
"Keep so fit."
"By getting a good sleep every night. Do you?"
I groaned as I thought of the inferno I called my bedroom.
"I haven't really slept for a week," I said.
"Well, you're going to sleep to-night. That's the reason I'm here. I saw you in court this afternoon—one glance was enough."
"Yes," I assented; "one glance would be. But what's the proposition?"
"I'm staying at a little place I've leased for the summer up on the far edge of the Bronx. I'm going to take you up with me to-night and I'm going to keep you there till Monday. That will give you five nights' sleep and four days' rest. Don't you think you deserve it?"
"Yes," I agreed with conviction, "I do;" and I cast my mind rapidly over the affairs of the office. With the Minturn case ended, there was really no reason why I should not take a few days off.
"You'll come, then?" said Godfrey, who had been following my thoughts. "Don't be afraid," he added, seeing that I still hesitated. "You won't find it dull."
I looked at him, for he was smiling slightly and his eyes were very bright.
"No," he said, "for I've discovered certain phenomena in the neighbourhood which I think will interest you."
"All right," I said; "I'll come."
"Good. I'll call for you at the Marathon about ten-thirty. That's the earliest I can get away," and in another moment he was gone.
So was my fatigue, and I turned with a zest to my letters and to the arrangements necessary for a three days' absence. Then I went up to my rooms, put a few things into a suit-case, got into fresh clothes, mounted to the Astor roof-garden for dinner, and a little after ten was back again at the Marathon. I had Higgins bring my luggage down, and sat down in the entrance-porch to wait for Godfrey.
Just across the street gleamed the lights of the police-station where he and I had had more than one adventure. For Godfrey was the principal police reporter of the Record; it was to him that journal owed those brilliant and glowing columns in which the latest mystery was described and dissected in a way which was a joy alike to the intellect and to the artistic instinct. For the editorial policy of theRecord, for its attitude toward politics, Wall Street, the trusts, "society," I had only aversion and disgust; but whenever the town was shaken with a great criminal mystery, I never missed an issue.
Godfrey and I had been thrown together first in the Holladay case, and that was the beginning of a friendship which had strengthened with the years. Then came his brilliant work in solving the Marathon mystery, in which I had also become involved. I had appealed to him for help in connection with that affair at Elizabeth; and he had cleared up the remarkable circumstances surrounding the death of my friend, Philip Vantine, in the affair of the Boule cabinet. So I had come to turn to him instinctively whenever I found myself confronting one of those intricate problems which every lawyer has sometimes to untangle.
Reciprocally, Godfrey sometimes sought my assistance; but, of course, it was only with a very few of his cases that I had any personal connection. The others I had to be content to follow, as the general public did, in the columns of the Record, certain that it would be the first to reach the goal. Godfrey had a peculiar advantage over the other police reporters in that he had himself, years before, been a member of the detective force, and had very carefully fostered and extended the friendships made at that time. He was looked on rather as an insider, and he was always scrupulously careful to give the members of the force every bit of credit they deserved—sometimes considerably more than they deserved.
In consequence, he had the entree at times when other reporters were rigorously barred.
It was nearly eleven o'clock before Godfrey arrived that evening, but I was neither surprised nor impatient. I knew how many and unexpected were the demands upon his time; and I always found a lively interest in watching the comings and goings at the station across the way—where, alas, the entrances far exceeded the exits! But finally, a car swung in from the Avenue at a speed that drew my eyes, and I saw that Godfrey was driving it.
"Jump in," he said, pushing out his clutch and pausing at the curb; and as I grabbed my suit-case and sprang to the seat beside him, he let the clutch in again and we were off. "No time to lose," he added, as he changed into high, and turned up Seventh Avenue.
At the park, he turned westward to the Circle, and then northward again out Amsterdam Avenue. There was little traffic, and we were soon skimming along at a speed which made me watch the cross-streets fearfully. In a few minutes we were across the Harlem and running northward along the uninteresting streets beyond. At this moment, it occurred to me that Godfrey was behaving singularly as though he were hastening to keep an appointment; but I judged it best not to distract his attention from the street before us, and restrained the question which rose to my lips.
At last, the built-up portion of the town was left behind; we passed little houses in little yards, then meadows and gardens and strips of woodland, with a house only here and there. We were no longer on a paved street, but on a macadam road—a road apparently little used, for our lamps, sending long streamers of light ahead of us, disclosed far empty stretches, without vehicle of any kind. There was no moon, and the stars were half-obscured by a haze of cloud, while along the horizon to the west, I caught the occasional glow of distant lightning.
And then the sky was suddenly blotted out, and I saw that we were running along an avenue of lofty trees. The road at the left was bordered by a high stone wall, evidently the boundary of an important estate. We were soon past this, and I felt the speed of the car slacken.
"Hold tight!" said Godfrey, turned sharply through an open gateway, and brought the car to a stop. Then, snatching out his watch, he leaned forward and held it in the glare of the side-lamp. "Five minutes to twelve," he said. "We can just make it. Come on, Lester."
He sprang from the car, and I followed, realising that this was no time for questions.
"This way," he said, and held out a hand to me, or I should have lost him in the darkness. We were in a grove of lofty trees, and at the foot of one of these, Godfrey paused. "Up with, you," he added; "and don't lose any time," and he placed my hand upon the rung of a ladder.
Too amazed to open my lips, I obeyed. The ladder was a long one, and, as I went up and up, I could feel Godfrey mounting after me. I am not expert at climbing ladders, even by daylight, and my progress was not rapid enough to suit my companion, for he kept urging me on. But at last, with a breath of relief, I felt that I had reached the top.
"What now?" I asked.
"Do you see that big straight limb running out to your right?"
"Yes," I said, for my eyes were growing accustomed to the darkness.
"Sit down on it, and hold on to the ladder."
I did so somewhat gingerly, and in a minute Godfrey was beside me.
"Now," he said, in a voice low and tense with excitement, "look out, straight ahead. And remember to hold on to the ladder."
I could see the hazy mist of the open sky, and from the fitful light along the horizon, I knew that we were looking toward the west. Below me was a mass of confused shadows, which I took for clumps of shrubbery.
Then I felt Godfrey's hand close upon my arm.
"Look!" he said.
For an instant, I saw nothing; then my eyes caught what seemed to be a new star in the heavens; a star bright, sharp, steel blue—
"Why, it's moving!" I cried.
He answered with a pressure of the fingers.
The star was indeed moving; not rising, not drifting with the breeze, but descending, descending slowly, slowly… . I watched it with parted lips, leaning forward, my eyes straining at that falling light.
"Falling" is not the word; nor is "drifting." It did not fall and it did not drift. It deliberately descended, in a straight line, at a regular speed, calmly and evenly, as though animated by some definite purpose. Lower and lower it sank; then it seemed to pause, to hover in the air, and the next instant it burst into a shower of sparks and vanished.
And those sparks fell upon the shoulders of two white-robed figures, standing apparently in space, their arms rigidly extended, their faces raised toward the heavens.