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Bat Wing is the prequel to Fire Tongue and is a welcome introduction to the character of Paul Harley, an English consulting detective, more along the literary lines of Poe's C. Auguste Dupin than Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. This well-written mystery deals with Haitian Voodoo, the death sign of a Bat Wing, and the lengths people will go through for vengeance.
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This book is a work of fiction; its contents are wholly imagined.
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Copyright © 2018 www.deaddodopublishing.co.uk
CHAPTER I. PAUL HARLEY OF CHANCERY LANE
CHAPTER II. THE VOODOO SWAMP
CHAPTER III. THE VAMPIRE BAT
CHAPTER IV. CRAY’S FOLLY
CHAPTER V. VAL BEVERLEY
CHAPTER VI. THE BARRIER
CHAPTER VII. AT THE LAVENDER ARMS
CHAPTER VIII. THE CALL OF M’KOMBO
CHAPTER IX. OBEAH
CHAPTER X. THE NIGHT WALKER
CHAPTER XI. THE SHADOW ON THE BLIND
CHAPTER XII. MORNING MISTS
CHAPTER XIII. AT THE GUEST HOUSE
CHAPTER XIV. YSOLA CAMBER
CHAPTER XV. UNREST
CHAPTER XVI. RED EVE
CHAPTER XVII. NIGHT OF THE FULL MOON
CHAPTER XVIII. INSPECTOR AYLESBURY OF MARKET HILTON
CHAPTER XIX. COMPLICATIONS
CHAPTER XX. A SPANISH CIGARETTE
CHAPTER XXI. THE WING OF A BAT
CHAPTER XXII. COLIN CAMBER’S SECRET
CHAPTER XXIII. INSPECTOR AYLESBURY CROSS-EXAMINES
CHAPTER XXIV. AN OFFICIAL MOVE
CHAPTER XXV. AYLESBURY’S THEORY
CHAPTER XXVI. IN MADAME’S ROOM
CHAPTER XXVII. AN INSPIRATION
CHAPTER XXVIII. MY THEORY OF THE CRIME
CHAPTER XXIX. A LEE-ENFIELD RIFLE
CHAPTER XXX. THE SEVENTH YEW TREE
CHAPTER XXXI. YSOLA CAMBER’S CONFESSION
CHAPTER XXXII. PAUL HARLEY’S EXPERIMENT
CHAPTER XXXIII. PAUL HARLEY’S EXPERIMENT CONCLUDED
CHAPTER XXXIV. THE CREEPING SICKNESS
CHAPTER XXXV. AN AFTERWORD
TOWARD THE HOUR OF SIX on a hot summer’s evening Mr. Paul Harley was seated in his private office in Chancery Lane reading through a number of letters which Innes, his secretary, had placed before him for signature. Only one more remained to be passed, but it was a long, confidential report upon a certain matter, which Harley had prepared for His Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department. He glanced with a sigh of weariness at the little clock upon his table before commencing to read.
“Shall detain you only a few minutes, now, Knox,” he said.
I nodded, smiling. I was quite content to sit and watch my friend at work.
Paul Harley occupied a unique place in the maelstrom of vice and ambition which is sometimes called London life. Whilst at present he held no official post, some of the most momentous problems of British policy during the past five years, problems imperilling inter-state relationships and not infrequently threatening a renewal of the world war, had owed their solution to the peculiar genius of this man.
No clue to his profession appeared upon the plain brass plate attached to his door, and little did those who regarded Paul Harley merely as a successful private detective suspect that he was in the confidence of some who guided the destinies of the Empire. Paul Harley’s work in Constantinople during the feverish months preceding hostilities with Turkey, although unknown to the general public, had been of a most extraordinary nature. His recommendations were never adopted, unfortunately. Otherwise, the tragedy of the Dardanelles might have been averted.
His surroundings as he sat there, gaze bent upon the typewritten pages, were those of any other professional man. So it would have seemed to the casual observer. But perhaps there was a quality in the atmosphere of the office which would have told a more sensitive visitor that it was the apartment of no ordinary man of business. Whilst there were filing cabinets and bookshelves laden with works of reference, many of them legal, a large and handsome Burmese cabinet struck an unexpected note.
On closer inspection, other splashes of significant colour must have been detected in the scheme, notably a very fine engraving of Edgar Allan Poe, from the daguerreotype of 1848; and upon the man himself lay the indelible mark of the tropics. His clean-cut features had that hint of underlying bronze which tells of years spent beneath a merciless sun, and the touch of gray at his temples only added to the eager, almost fierce vitality of the dark face. Paul Harley was notable because of that intellectual strength which does not strike one immediately, since it is purely temperamental, but which, nevertheless, invests its possessor with an aura of distinction.
Writing his name at the bottom of the report, Paul Harley enclosed the pages in a long envelope and dropped the envelope into a basket which contained a number of other letters. His work for the day was ended, and glancing at me with a triumphant smile, he stood up. His office was a part of a residential suite, but although, like some old-time burgher of the city, he lived on the premises, the shutting of a door which led to his private rooms marked the close of the business day. Pressing a bell which connected with the public office occupied by his secretary, Paul Harley stood up as Innes entered.
“There’s nothing further, is there, Innes?” he asked.
“Nothing, Mr. Harley, if you have passed the Home Office report?”
Paul Harley laughed shortly.
“There it is,” he replied, pointing to the basket; “a tedious and thankless job, Innes. It is the fifth draft you have prepared and it will have to do.”
He took up a letter which lay unsealed upon the table. “This is the Rokeby affair,” he said. “I have decided to hold it over, after all, until my return.”
“Ah!” said Innes, quietly glancing at each envelope as he took it from the basket. “I see you have turned down the little job offered by the Marquis.”
“I have,” replied Harley, smiling grimly, “and a fee of five hundred guineas with it. I have also intimated to that distressed nobleman that this is a business office and that a laundry is the proper place to take his dirty linen. No, there’s nothing further to-night, Innes. You can get along now. Has Miss Smith gone?”
But as if in answer to his enquiry the typist, who with Innes made up the entire staff of the office, came in at that moment, a card in her hand. Harley glanced across in my direction and then at the card, with a wry expression.
“Colonel Juan Menendez,” he read aloud, “Cavendish Club,” and glanced reflectively at Innes. “Do we know the Colonel?”
“I think not,” answered Innes; “the name is unfamiliar to me.”
“I wonder,” murmured Harley. He glanced across at me. “It’s an awful nuisance, Knox, but just as I thought the decks were clear. Is it something really interesting, or does he want a woman watched? However, his name sounds piquant, so perhaps I had better see him. Ask him to come in, Miss Smith.”
Innes and Miss Smith retiring, there presently entered a man of most striking and unusual presence. In the first place, Colonel Menendez must have stood fully six feet in his boots, and he carried himself like a grandee of the golden days of Spain. His complexion was extraordinarily dusky, whilst his hair, which was close cropped, was iron gray. His heavy eyebrows and curling moustache with its little points were equally black, so that his large teeth gleamed very fiercely when he smiled. His eyes were large, dark, and brilliant, and although he wore an admirably cut tweed suit, for some reason I pictured him as habitually wearing riding kit. Indeed I almost seemed to hear the jingle of his spurs.
He carried an ebony cane for which I mentally substituted a crop, and his black derby hat I thought hardly as suitable as a sombrero. His age might have been anything between fifty and fifty-five.
Standing in the doorway he bowed, and if his smile was Mephistophelean, there was much about Colonel Juan Menendez which commanded respect.
“Mr. Harley,” he began, and his high, thin voice afforded yet another surprise, “I feel somewhat ill at ease to—how do you say it?—appropriate your time, as I am by no means sure that what I have to say justifies my doing so.”
He spoke most fluent, indeed florid, English. But his sentences at times were oddly constructed; yet, save for a faint accent, and his frequent interpolation of such expressions as “how do you say?"—a sort of nervous mannerism—one might have supposed him to be a Britisher who had lived much abroad. I formed the opinion that he had read extensively, and this, as I learned later, was indeed the case.
“Sit down, Colonel Menendez,” said Harley with quiet geniality. “Officially, my working day is ended, I admit, but if you have no objection to the presence of my friend, Mr. Knox, I shall be most happy to chat with you.”
He smiled in a way all his own.
“If your business is of a painfully professional nature,” he added, “I must beg you to excuse me for fourteen days, as I am taking a badly needed holiday with my friend.”
“Ah, is it so?” replied the Colonel, placing his hat and cane upon the table, and sitting down rather wearily in a big leathern armchair which Harley had pushed forward. “If I intrude I am sorry, but indeed my business is urgent, and I come to you on the recommendation of my friend, Senor Don Merry del Val, the Spanish Ambassador.”
He raised his eyes to Harley’s face with an expression of peculiar appeal. I rose to depart, but:
“Sit down, Knox,” said Harley, and turned again to the visitor. “Please proceed,” he requested. “Mr. Knox has been with me in some of the most delicate cases which I have ever handled, and you may rely upon his discretion as you may rely upon mine.” He pushed forward a box of cigars. “Will you smoke?”
“Thanks, no,” was the answer; “you see, I rarely smoke anything but my cigarettes.”
Colonel Menendez extracted a slip of rice paper from a little packet which he carried, next, dipping two long, yellow fingers into his coat pocket, he brought out a portion of tobacco, laid it in the paper, and almost in the twinkling of an eye had made, rolled, and lighted a very creditable cigarette. His dexterity was astonishing, and seeing my surprise he raised his heavy eyebrows, and:
“Practice makes perfect, is it not said?” he remarked.
He shrugged his shoulders and dropped the extinguished match in an ash tray, whilst I studied him with increasing interest. Some dread, real or imaginary, was oppressing the man’s mind, I mused. I felt my presence to be unwelcome, but:
“Very well,” he began, suddenly. “I expect, Mr. Harley, that you will be disposed to regard what I have to tell you rather as a symptom of what you call nerves than as evidence of any agency directed against me.”
Paul Harley stared curiously at the speaker. “Do I understand you to suspect that someone is desirous of harming you?” he enquired.
Colonel Menendez slowly nodded his head.
“Such is my meaning,” he replied.
“You refer to bodily harm?”
“But yes, emphatically.”
“Hm,” said Harley; and taking out a tin of tobacco from a cabinet beside him he began in leisurely manner to load a briar. “No doubt you have good reasons for this suspicion?”
“If I had not good reasons, Mr. Harley, nothing could have induced me to trouble you. Yet, even now that I have compelled myself to come here, I find it difficult, almost impossible, to explain those reasons to you.”
An expression of embarrassment appeared upon the brown face, and now Colonel Menendez paused and was plainly at a loss for words with which to continue.
Harley replaced the tin in the cupboard and struck a match. Lighting his pipe he nodded good humouredly as if to say, “I quite understand.” As a matter of fact, he probably thought, as I did, that this was a familiar case of a man of possibly blameless life who had become subject to that delusion which leads people to believe themselves threatened by mysterious and unnameable danger.
Our visitor inhaled deeply.
“You, of course, are waiting for the facts,” he presently resumed, speaking with a slowness which told of a mind labouring for the right mode of expression. “These are so scanty, I fear, of so, shall I say, phantom a kind, that even when they are in your possession you will consider me to be merely the victim of a delusion. In the first place, then, I have reason to believe that someone followed me from my home to your office.”
“Indeed,” said Paul Harley, sympathetically, for this I perceived was exactly what he had anticipated, and merely tended to confirm his suspicion. “Some member of your household?”
“Did you actually see this follower?”
“My dear sir,” cried Colonel Menendez, excitement emphasizing his accent, “if I had seen him, so much would have been made clear, so much! I have never seen him, but I have heard him and felt him—felt his presence, I mean.”
“In what way?” asked Harley, leaning back in his chair and studying the fierce face.
“On several occasions on turning out the light in my bedroom and looking across the lawn from my window I have observed the shadow of someone—how do you say?—lurking in the garden.”
“Precisely. The person himself was concealed beneath a tree. When he moved his shadow was visible on the ground.”
“You were not deceived by a waving branch?”
“Certainly not. I speak of a still, moonlight night.”
“Possibly, then, it was the shadow of a tramp,” suggested Harley. “I gather that you refer to a house in the country?”
“It was not,” declared Colonel Menendez, emphatically; “it was not. I wish to God I could believe it had been. Then there was, a month ago, an attempt to enter my house.”
Paul Harley exhibited evidence of a quickening curiosity. He had perceived, as I had perceived, that the manner of the speaker differed from that of the ordinary victim of delusion, with whom he had become professionally familiar.
“You had actual evidence of this?” he suggested.
“It was due to insomnia, sleeplessness, brought about, yes, I will admit it, by apprehension, that I heard the footsteps of this intruder.”
“But you did not see him?”
“Only his shadow”
“You can obtain the evidence of all my household that someone had actually entered,” declared Colonel Menendez, eagerly. “Of this, at least, I can give you the certain facts. Whoever it was had obtained access through a kitchen window, had forced two locks, and was coming stealthily along the hallway when the sound of his footsteps attracted my attention.”
“What did you do?”
“I came out on to the landing and looked down the stairs. But even the slight sound which I made had been sufficient to alarm the midnight visitor, for I had never a glimpse of him. Only, as he went swiftly back in the direction from which he had come, the moonlight shining in through a window in the hall cast his shadow on the carpet.”
“Strange,” murmured Harley. “Very strange, indeed. The shadow told you nothing?”
“Nothing at all.”
Colonel Menendez hesitated momentarily, and glanced swiftly across at Harley.
“It was just a vague—do you say blur?—and then it was gone. But—”
“Yes,” said Harley. “But?”
“Ah,” Colonel Menendez blew a cloud of smoke into the air, “I come now to the matter which I find so hard to explain.”
He inhaled again deeply and was silent for a while.
“Nothing was stolen?” asked Harley.
“And no clue was left behind?”
“No clue except the filed fastening of a window and two open doors which had been locked as usual when the household retired.”
“Hm,” mused Harley again; “this incident, of course, may have been an isolated one and in no way connected with the surveillance of which you complain. I mean that this person who undoubtedly entered your house might prove to be an ordinary burglar.”
“On a table in the hallway of Cray’s Folly,” replied Colonel Menendez, impressively—"so my house is named—stands a case containing presentation gold plate. The moonlight of which I have spoken was shining fully upon this case, and does the burglar live who will pass such a prize and leave it untouched?”
“I quite agree,” said Harley, quietly, “that this is a very big point.”
“You are beginning at last,” suggested the Colonel, “to believe that my suspicions are not quite groundless?”
“There is a distinct possibility that they are more than suspicions,” agreed Harley; “but may I suggest that there is something else? Have you an enemy?”
“Who that has ever held public office is without enemies?”
“Ah, quite so. Then I suggest again that there is something else.”
He gazed keenly at his visitor, and the latter, whilst meeting the look unflinchingly with his large dark eyes, was unable to conceal the fact that he had received a home thrust.
“There are two points, Mr. Harley,” he finally confessed, “almost certainly associated one with the other, if you understand, but both these so—shall I say remote?—from my life, that I hesitate to mention them. It seems fantastic to suppose that they contain a clue.”
“I beg of you,” said Harley, “to keep nothing back, however remote it may appear to be. It is sometimes the seemingly remote things which prove upon investigation to be the most intimate.”
“Very well,” resumed Colonel Menendez, beginning to roll a second cigarette whilst continuing to smoke the first, “I know that you are right, of course, but it is nevertheless very difficult for me to explain. I mentioned the attempted burglary, if so I may term it, in order to clear your mind of the idea that my fears were a myth. The next point which I have concerns a man, a neighbour of mine in Surrey. Before I proceed I should like to make it clear that I do not believe for a moment that he is responsible for this unpleasant business.”
Harley stared at him curiously. “Nevertheless,” he said, “there must be some data in your possession which suggest to your mind that he has some connection with it.”
“There are, Mr. Harley, but they belong to things so mystic and far away from ordinary crime that I fear you will think me,” he shrugged his great shoulders, “a man haunted by strange superstitions. Do you say ‘haunted?’ Good. You understand. I should tell you, then, that although of pure Spanish blood, I was born in Cuba. The greater part of my life has been spent in the West Indies, where prior to ‘98 I held an appointment under the Spanish Government. I have property, not only in Cuba, but in some of the smaller islands which formerly were Spanish, and I shall not conceal from you that during the latter years of my administration I incurred the enmity of a section of the population. Do I make myself clear?”
Paul Harley nodded and exchanged a swift glance with me. I formed a rapid mental picture of native life under the governorship of Colonel Juan Menendez and I began to consider his story from a new viewpoint. Seemingly rendered restless by his reflections, he stood up and began to pace the floor, a tall but curiously graceful figure. I noticed the bulldog tenacity of his chin, the intense pride in his bearing, and I wondered what kind of menace had induced him to seek the aid of Paul Harley; for whatever his failings might be, and I could guess at the nature of several of them, that this thin-lipped Spanish soldier knew the meaning of fear I was not prepared to believe.
“Before you proceed further, Colonel Menendez,” said Harley, “might I ask when you left Cuba?”
“Some three years ago,” was his reply. “Because—” he hesitated curiously—"of health motives, I leased a property in England, believing that here I should find peace.”
“In other words, you were afraid of something or someone in Cuba?”
Colonel Menendez turned in a flash, glaring down at the speaker.
“I never feared any man in my life, Mr. Harley,” he said, coldly.
“Then why are you here?”
The Colonel placed the stump of his first cigarette in an ash tray and lighted that which he had newly made.
“It is true,” he admitted. “Forgive me. Yet what I said was that I never feared any man.”
He stood squarely in front of the Burmese cabinet, resting one hand upon his hip. Then he added a remark which surprised me.
“Do you know anything of Voodoo?” he asked.
Paul Harley took his pipe from between his teeth and stared at the speaker silently for a moment. “Voodoo?” he echoed. “You mean negro magic?”
“My studies have certainly not embraced it,” replied Harley, quietly, “nor has it hitherto come within my experience. But since I have lived much in the East, I am prepared to learn that Voodoo may not be a negligible quantity. There are forces at work in India which we in England improperly understand. The same may be true of Cuba.”
“The same is true of Cuba.”
Colonel Menendez glared almost fiercely across the room at Paul Harley.
“And do I understand,” asked the latter, “that the danger which you believe to threaten you is associated with Cuba?”
“That, Mr. Harley, is for you to decide when all the facts shall be in your possession. Do you wish that I proceed?”
“By all means. I must confess that I am intensely interested.”
“Very well, Mr. Harley. I have something to show you.”
From an inside breast pocket Colonel Menendez drew out a gold-mounted case, and from the case took some flat, irregularly shaped object wrapped in a piece of tissue paper. Unfolding the paper, he strode across and laid the object which it had contained upon the blotting pad in front of my friend.
Impelled by curiosity I stood up and advanced to inspect it. It was of a dirty brown colour, some five or six inches long, and appeared to consist of a kind of membrane. Harley, his elbow on the table, was staring down at it questioningly.
“What is it?” I said; “some kind of leaf?”
“No,” replied Harley, looking up into the dark face of the Spanish colonel; “I think I know what it is.”
“I, also, know what it is.” declared Colonel Menendez, grimly. “But tell me what to you it seems like, Mr. Harley?”
Paul Harley’s expression was compounded of incredulity, wonder, and something else, as, continuing to stare at the speaker, he replied:
“It is the wing of a bat.”
OFTEN ENOUGH MY MEMORY HAS recaptured that moment in Paul Harley’s office, when Harley, myself, and the tall Spaniard stood looking down at the bat wing lying upon the blotting pad.
My brilliant friend at times displayed a sort of prescience, of which I may have occasion to speak later, but I, together with the rest of pur-blind humanity, am commonly immune from the prophetic instinct. Therefore I chronicle the fact for what it may be worth, that as I gazed with a sort of disgust at the exhibit lying upon the table I became possessed of a conviction, which had no logical basis, that a door had been opened through which I should step into a new avenue of being; I felt myself to stand upon the threshold of things strange and terrible, but withal alluring. Perhaps it is true that in the great crises of life the inner eye becomes momentarily opened.
With intense curiosity I awaited the Colonel’s next words, but, a cigarette held nervously between his fingers, he stood staring at Harley, and it was the latter who broke that peculiar silence which had fallen upon us.
“The wing of a bat,” he murmured, then touched it gingerly. “Of what kind of bat, Colonel Menendez? Surely not a British species?”
“But emphatically not a British species,” replied the Spaniard. “Yet even so the matter would be strange.”
“I am all anxiety to learn the remainder of your story, Colonel Menendez.”
“Good. Your interest comforts me very greatly, Mr. Harley. But when first I came, you led me to suppose that you were departing from London?”
“Such, at the time, was my intention, sir.” Paul Harley smiled slightly. “Accompanied by my friend, Mr. Knox, I had proposed to indulge in a fortnight’s fishing upon the Norfolk Broads.”
“A peaceful occupation, Mr. Harley, and a great rest-cure for one who like yourself moves much amid the fiercer passions of life. You were about to make holiday?”
Paul Harley nodded.
“It is cruel of me to intrude upon such plans,” continued Colonel Menendez, dexterously rolling his cigarette around between his fingers. “Yet because of my urgent need I dare to do so. Would yourself and your friend honour me with your company at Cray’s Folly for a few days? I can promise you good entertainment, although I regret that there is no fishing; but it may chance that there will be other and more exciting sport.”
Harley glanced at me significantly.
“Do I understand you to mean, Colonel Menendez,” he asked, “that you have reason to believe that this conspiracy directed against you is about to come to a head?”
Colonel Menendez nodded, at the same time bringing his hand down sharply upon the table.
“Mr. Harley,” he replied, his high, thin voice sunken almost to a whisper, “Wednesday night is the night of the full moon.”
“The full moon?”
“It is at the full moon that the danger comes.”
Paul Harley stood up, and watched by the Spanish colonel paced slowly across the office. At the outer door he paused and turned.
“Colonel Menendez,” he said, “that you would willingly waste the time of a busy man I do not for a moment believe, therefore I shall ask you as briefly as possible to state your case in detail. When I have heard it, if it appears to me that any good purpose can be served by my friend and myself coming to Cray’s Folly I feel sure that he will be happy to accept your proffered hospitality.”
“If I am likely to be of the slightest use I shall be delighted,” said I, which indeed was perfectly true.
Whilst I had willingly agreed to accompany Harley to Norfolk I had none of his passion for the piscatorial art, and the promise of novel excitement held out by Colonel Menendez appealed to me more keenly than the lazy days upon the roads which Harley loved.
“Gentlemen"—the Colonel bowed profoundly—"I am honoured and delighted. When you shall have heard my story I know what your decision will be.”
He resumed his seat, and began, it seemed almost automatically, to roll a fresh cigarette.
“I am all attention,” declared Harley, and his glance strayed again in a wondering fashion to the bat wing lying on his table.
“I will speak briefly,” resumed our visitor, “and any details which may seem to you to be important can be discussed later when you are my guests. You must know then that I first became acquainted with the significance belonging to the term ‘Bat Wing’ and to the object itself some twenty years ago.”
“But surely,” interrupted Harley, incredulously, “you are not going to tell me that the menace of which you complain is of twenty years’ standing?”
“At your express request, Mr. Harley,” returned the Colonel a trifle brusquely, “I am dealing with possibilities which are remote, because in your own words it is sometimes the remote which proves to be the intimate. It was then rather more than twenty years ago, at a time when great political changes were taking place in the West Indies, that my business interests, which are mainly concerned with sugar, carried me to one of the smaller islands which had formerly been under—my jurisdiction, do you say? Here I had a house and estate, and here in the past I had experienced much trouble with the natives.
“I do not disguise from you that I was unpopular, and on my return I met with unmistakable signs of hostility. My native workmen were insubordinate. In fact, it was the reports from my overseers which had led me to visit the island. I made a tour of the place, believing it to be necessary to my interests that I should get once more in touch with negro feeling, since I had returned to my home in Cuba after the upheavals in ‘98. Very well.
“The manager of my estate, a capable man, was of opinion that there existed a secret organization amongst the native labourers operating—you understand?—against my interests. He produced certain evidences of this. They were not convincing; and all my enquiries and examinations of certain inhabitants led to no definite results. Yet I grew more and more to feel that enemies surrounded me.”
He paused to light his third cigarette, and whilst he did so I conjured up a mental picture of his “examinations of certain inhabitants.” I recalled hazily those stories of Spanish mismanagement and cruelty which had directly led to United States interferences in the islands. But whilst I could well believe that this man’s life had not been safe in those bad old days in the West Indies, I found it difficult to suppose that a native plot against his safety could have survived for more than twenty years and have come to a climax in England. However, I realized that there was more to follow, and presently, having lighted his cigarette, the Colonel resumed:
“In the neighbourhood of the hacienda which had once been my official residence there was a belt of low-lying pest country—you understand pest country?—which was a hot-bed of poisonous diseases. It followed the winding course of a nearly stagnant creek. From the earliest times the Black Belt—it was so called—had been avoided by European inhabitants, and indeed by the coloured population as well. Apart from the malaria of the swampy ground it was infested with reptiles and with poisonous insects of a greater variety and of a more venomous character than I have ever known in any part of the world.
“I must explain that what I regarded as a weak point in my manager’s theory was this: Whilst he held that the native labourers to a man were linked together under some head, or guiding influence, he had never succeeded in surprising anything in the nature of a negro meeting. Indeed, he had prohibited all gatherings of this kind. His answer to my criticism was a curious one. He declared that the members of this mysterious society met and received their instructions at some place within the poison area to which I have referred, believing themselves there to be safe from European interference.
“For a long time I disputed this with poor Valera—for such was my manager’s name; when one night as I was dismounting from my horse before the veranda, having returned from a long ride around the estate, a shot was fired from the border of the Black Belt which at one point crept up dangerously close to the hacienda.
“The shot was a good one. I had caught my spur in the stirrup in dismounting, and stumbled. Otherwise I must have been a dead man. The bullet pierced the crown of my hat, only missing my skull by an inch or less. The alarm was given. But no search-party could be mustered, do you say?—which was prepared to explore the poison swamp—or so declared my native servants. Valera, however, seized upon this incident to illustrate his theory that there were those in the island who did not hesitate to enter the Black Belt popularly supposed to cast up noxious vapours at dusk of a sort fatal to any traveller.
“That night over our wine we discussed the situation, and he pointed out to me that now was the hour to test his theory. Orders had evidently been given for my assassination and the attempt had failed.
“‘There will be a meeting,’ said Valera, ‘to discuss the next move. And it will take place to-morrow night!’
“I challenged him with a glance and I replied:
“‘To-morrow night is a full moon, and if you are agreeable we will make a secret expedition into the swamp, and endeavour to find the clearing which you say is there, and which you believe to be the rendezvous of the conspirators.’
“Even in the light of the lamp I saw Valera turn pale, but he was a Spaniard and a man of courage.
“‘I agree, señor,’ he replied. ‘If my information is correct we shall find the way.’
“I must explain that the information to which he referred had been supplied by a native girl who loved him. That this clearing was a meeting-place she had denied. But she had admitted that it was possible to obtain access to it, and had even described the path.” He paused. “She died of a lingering sickness.”
Colonel Menendez spoke these last words with great deliberation and treated each of us to a long and significant stare.
“Presently,” he added, “I will tell you what was nailed to the wall of her hut on the night that she fell ill. But to continue my narrative. On the following evening, suitably equipped, Valera and myself set out, leaving by a side door and striking into the woods at a point east of the hacienda, where, according to his information, a footpath existed, which would lead us to the clearing we desired to visit. Of that journey, gentlemen, I have most terrible memories.
“Imagine a dense and poisonous jungle, carpeted by rotten vegetation in which one’s feet sank deeply and from which arose a visible and stenching vapour. Imagine living things, slimy things, moving beneath the tread, sometimes coiling about our riding boots, sometimes making hissing sounds. Imagine places where the path was overgrown, and we must thrust our way through bushes where great bloated spiders weaved their webs, where clammy night things touched us as we passed, where unfamiliar and venomous insects clung to our garments.
“We proceeded onward for more than half an hour guided by the moonlight, but this, although tropically brilliant, at some places scarcely penetrated the thick vapour which arose from the jungle. In those days I was a young and vigorous man; my companion was several years my senior; and his sufferings were far greater than my own. But if the jungle was horrible, worse was yet to come.
“Presently we stumbled upon an open space almost quite bare of vegetation, a poisonous green carpet spread in the heart of the woods. Here the vapour was more dense than ever, but I welcomed the sight of open ground after the reptile-infested thicket. Alas! it was a snare, a death-trap, a sort of morass, in which we sank up to our knees. Pah! it was filthy—vile! And I became aware of great—lassitude, do you say?—whilst Valera’s panting breath told that he had almost reached the end of his resources.
“A faint breeze moved through the clearing and for a few moments we were enabled to perceive one another more distinctly. I uttered an exclamation of horror.
“My companion’s garments were a mass of strange-looking patches.
“Even as I noticed them I glanced rapidly down—and found myself in similar condition. As I did so one of these patches upon the sleeve of my tunic intruded coldly upon my bare wrist. At that I cried out aloud in fear. Valera and I commenced what was literally a fight for life.
“Gentlemen, we were attacked by some kind of blood-red leeches, which came out of the slime! In detaching them one detached patches of skin, and they swarmed over our bodies like ants upon carrion.
“They penetrated beneath our garments, these swollen, lustful, unclean things; and it was whilst we staggered on through the swamp in agony of mind and body that we saw the light of many torches amid the trees ahead of us, and in their smoky glare witnessed the flight of hundreds of bats. The moonlight creeping dimly through the mist, and the torchlight—how do you say?—enflaming the vegetation, created a scene like that of Inferno, in which naked figures danced wildly, uttering animal cries.
“Above the shrieking and howling, which rose and fell in a sort of unholy chorus, I heard one long, wailing sound, repeated and repeated. It was an African word. But I knew its meaning.
“It was ‘Bat Wing!’
“My doubts were dispersed. This was a meeting-place of Devil-worshippers, or devotees of the cult of Voodoo! One man only could I see clearly so as to remember him, a big negro employed upon one of my estates. He seemed to be a sort of high priest or president of the orgies. Attached to his arms were giant imitations of bat wings which he moved grotesquely as if in flight. There were many women in the throng, which numbered fully I should think a hundred people. But the final collapse of my brave, unhappy Valera at this point brought home to me the nature of the peril in which I stood.
“He lay at my feet, moving convulsively, and sinking ever deeper in the swamp, red leeches moving slowly, slowly over his fast-disappearing body.”
Colonel Menendez paused in his appalling narrative and wiped his moist forehead with a silk handkerchief. Neither Harley nor I spoke. I knew not if my friend believed the Spaniard’s story. For my own part I found it difficult to do so. But that the narrator was deeply moved was a fact beyond dispute.
He suddenly commenced again:
“My next recollection is of awakening in my own bed at the hacienda. I had staggered back as far as the veranda, in raving delirium, and in the grip of a strange fever which prostrated me for many months, and which defied the knowledge of all the specialists who could be procured from Cuba and the United States. My survival was due to an iron constitution; but I have never been the same man. I was ordered to leave the West Indies directly it became possible for me to be moved. I arranged my affairs accordingly, and did not return for many years.
“Finally, however, I again took up my residence in Cuba, and for a time all went well, and might have continued to do so, but for the following incident. One night, being troubled by insomnia—sleeplessness—and the heat, I walked out on to the balcony in front of my bedroom window. As I did so, a figure which had been—you say lurking?—somewhere under the veranda ran swiftly off; but not so swiftly that I failed to obtain a glimpse of the uplifted face.
“It was the big negro! Although many years had elapsed since I had seen him wearing the bat wings at those unholy rites, I knew him instantly.
“On a little table close behind me where I stood lay a loaded revolver. I snatched it in a flash and fired shot after shot at the retreating figure.”
Colonel Menendez shrugged his shoulders and selected a fresh cigarette paper.
“Gentlemen,” he continued, “from that moment until this I have gone in hourly peril of my life. Whether I hit my man or missed him, I have never known to this day. If he lives or is dead I cannot say. But—” he paused impressively—"I have told you of something that was nailed to the hut of a certain native girl? Before she died I knew that it was a death-token.
“On the morning after the episode which I have just related attached to the main door of the hacienda was found that same token.”
“And it was??” said Harley, eagerly.
“It was the wing of a bat!
“I am perhaps a hasty man. It is in my blood. I tore the unclean thing from the panel and stamped it under my feet. No one of the servants who had drawn my attention to its presence would consent to touch it. Indeed, they all shrank from me as though I, too, were unclean. I endeavoured to forget it. Who was I to be influenced by the threats of natives?
“That night, just at the hour of sunset, a shot was fired at me from a neighbouring clump of trees, only missing me I think by the fraction of an inch. I realized that the peril was real, and was one against which I could not fight.
“Permit me to be brief, gentlemen. Six attempts of various kinds were made upon my life in Cuba. I crossed to the United States. In Washington, the political capital of the country, an assassin gained access to my hotel apartment and but for the fact that a friend chanced to call me up on the telephone at that late hour of the night, thereby awakening me, I should have received a knife in my heart. I saw the knife in the dim light; I saw the shadowy figure. I leapt out on the opposite side of the bed, seized a table-lamp which stood there, and hurled it at my assailant.
“There was a crash, a stifled exclamation, shuffling, the door opened, and my would-be assassin was gone. But I had learned something, and to my old fears a new one was added.”
“What had you learned?” asked Harley, whose interest in the narrative was displayed by the fact that his pipe had long since gone out.
“Vaguely, vaguely, you understand, for there was little light, I had seen the face of the man. He wore some kind of black cloak doubtless to conceal his movements. His silhouette resembled that of a bat. But, gentlemen, he was neither a negro nor even a half-caste; he was of the white races, to that I could swear.”
Colonel Menendez lighted the cigarette which he had been busily rolling, and fixed his dark eyes upon Harley.
“You puzzle me, sir,” said the latter. “Do you wish me to believe that this cult of Voodoo claims European or American devotees?”
“I wish you to believe,” returned the Colonel, “that although as the result of the alarm which I gave the hotel was searched and the Washington police exerted themselves to the utmost, no trace was ever found of the man who had tried to murder me, except"—he extended a long, yellow forefinger, and pointed to the wing of the bat lying upon Harley’s table—"a bat wing was found pinned to my bedroom door.”
Silence fell for a while; an impressive silence. Truly this was the strangest story to which I had ever listened.
“How long ago was that?” asked Harley.
“Only two years ago. At about the time that the great war terminated. I came to Europe and believed that at last I had found security. I lived for a time in London amidst a refreshing peace that was new to me. Then, chancing to hear of a property in Surrey which was available, I leased it for a period of years, installing—is it correct?—my cousin, Madame de Stämer, as housekeeper. Madame, alas, is an invalid, but"—he kissed his fingers—"a genius. She has with her, as companion, a very charming English girl, Miss Val Beverley, the orphaned daughter of a distinguished surgeon of Edinburg. Miss Beverley was with my cousin in the hospital which she established in France during the war. If you will honour me with your presence at Cray’s Folly to-morrow, gentlemen, you will not lack congenial company, I can assure you.”
He raised his heavy eyebrows, looking interrogatively from Harley to myself.
“For my own part,” said my friend, slowly, “I shall be delighted. What do you say, Knox?”
“But,” continued Harley, “your presence here today, Colonel Menendez, suggests to my mind that England has not proved so safe a haven as you had anticipated?”
Colonel Menendez crossed the room and stood once more before the Burmese cabinet, one hand resting upon his hip; a massive yet graceful figure.
“Mr. Harley,” he replied, “four days ago my butler, who is a Spaniard, brought me—” He pointed to the bat wing lying upon the blotting pad. “He had found it pinned to an oaken panel of the main entrance door.”
“Was it prior to this discovery, or after it,” asked Harley, “that you detected the presence of someone lurking in the neighbourhood of the house?”
“And the burglarious entrance?”
“That took place rather less than a month ago. On the eve of the full moon.”
Paul Harley stood up and relighted his pipe.
“There are quite a number of other details, Colonel,” he said, “which I shall require you to place in my possession. Since I have determined to visit Cray’s Folly, these can wait until my arrival. I particularly refer to a remark concerning a neighbour of yours in Surrey.”
Colonel Menendez nodded, twirling his cigarette between his long, yellow fingers.
“It is a delicate matter, gentlemen,” he confessed.
“I must take time to consider how I shall place it before you. But I may count upon your arrival tomorrow?”
“Certainly. I am looking forward to the visit with keen interest.”
“It is important,” declared our visitor; “for on Wednesday is the full moon, and the full moon is in some way associated with the sacrificial rites of Voodoo.”
AN HOUR HAD ELAPSED SINCE the departure of our visitor, and Paul Harley and I sat in the cosy, book-lined study discussing the strange story which had been related to us. Harley, who had a friend attached to the Spanish Embassy, had succeeded in getting in touch with him at his chambers, and had obtained some few particulars of interest concerning Colonel Don Juan Sarmiento Menendez, for such were the full names and titles of our late caller.
He was apparently the last representative of a once great Spanish family, established for many generations in Cuba. His wealth was incalculable, although the value of his numerous estates had depreciated in recent years. His family had produced many men of subtle intellect and powerful administrative qualities; but allied to this they had all possessed traits of cruelty and debauchery which at one time had made the name of Menendez a by-word in the West Indies. That there were many people in that part of the world who would gladly have assassinated the Colonel, Paul Harley’s informant did not deny. But although this information somewhat enlarged our knowledge of my friend’s newest client, it threw no fresh light upon that side of his story which related to Voodoo and the extraordinary bat wing episodes.
“Of course,” said Harley, after a long silence, “there is one possibility of which we must not lose sight.”
“What possibility is that?” I asked.
“That Menendez may be mad. Remorse for crimes of cruelty committed in his youth, and beyond doubt he has been guilty of many, may have led to a sort of obsession. I have known such cases.”
“That was my first impression,” I confessed, “but it faded somewhat as the Colonel’s story proceeded. I don’t think any such explanation would cover the facts.”
“Neither do I,” agreed my friend; “but it is distinctly possible that such an obsession exists, and that someone is deliberately playing upon it for his own ends.”
“You mean that someone who knows of these episodes in the earlier life of Menendez is employing them now for a secret purpose of his own?”
“It renders the case none the less interesting.”
“I quite agree, Knox. With you, I believe, that even if the Colonel is not quite sane, at the same time his fears are by no means imaginary.”
He gingerly took up the bat wing from the arm of his chair where he had placed it after a detailed examination.
“It seems to be pretty certain,” he said, “that this thing is the wing of a Desmodus or Vampire Bat. Now, according to our authority"—he touched a work which lay open on the other arm of his chair—"these are natives of tropical America, therefore the presence of a living vampire bat in Surrey is not to be anticipated. I am personally satisfied, however, that this unpleasant fragment has been preserved in some way.”
“You mean that it is part of a specimen from someone’s collection?”
“Quite possibly. But even a collection of such bats would be quite a novelty. I don’t know that I can recollect one outside the Museums. To follow this bat wing business further: there was one very curious point in the Colonel’s narrative. You recollect his reference to a native girl who had betrayed certain information to the manager of the estate?”
I nodded rapidly.
“A bat wing was affixed to the wall of her hut and she died, according to our informant, of a lingering sickness. Now this lingering sickness might have been anæmia, and anæmia may be induced, either in man or beast, by frequent but unsuspected visits of a Vampire Bat.”
“Good heavens, Harley!” I exclaimed, “what a horrible idea.”
“It is a horrible idea, but in countries infested by these creatures such things happen occasionally. I distinctly recollect a story which I once heard, of a little girl in some district of tropical America falling into such a decline, from which she was only rescued in the nick of time by the discovery that one of these Vampire Bats, a particularly large one, had formed the habit of flying into her room at night and attaching itself to her bare arm which lay outside the coverlet.”
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