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The murder of two brothers at the same time. though six hundred miles apart, is only the first of many mysteries surrounding Ravensdene Court. How could the two brothers have been murdered when they were both on a ship that went down with all hands off the coast of China three years earlier? What was the significance of the etching on the tobacco box that disappeared from the inquest? Why was someone looking for the Chinaman Chuh Fen who supposedly went down on the same ship as the two murdered brothers? Find the answers in this tale of intrigue, mystery, and buried treasure within the pages of ... Ravensdene Court.
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
THE INN ON THE CLIFF
According to an entry in my book of engagements, I left London for Ravensdene Court on March 8th, 1912. Until about a fortnight earlier I had never heard of the place, but there was nothing remarkable in my ignorance of it, seeing that it stands on a remote part of the Northumbrian coast, and at least three hundred miles from my usual haunts. But then, towards the end of February, I received the following letter which I may as well print in full: it serves as a fitting and an explanatory introduction to a series of adventures, so extraordinary, mysterious, and fraught with danger, that I am still wondering how I, until then a man of peaceful and even dull life, ever came safely through them.
"I am told by my friend Mr. Gervase Witherby of Monks Welborough, with whom I understand you to be well acquainted, that you are one of our leading experts in matters relating to old books, documents, and the like, and the very man to inspect, value, and generally criticize the contents of an ancient library. Accordingly, I should be very glad to secure your valuable services. I have recently entered into possession of this place, a very old manor-house on the Northumbrian coast, wherein the senior branch of my family has been settled for some four hundred years. There are here many thousands of volumes, the majority of considerable age; there are also large collections of pamphlets, manuscripts, and broadsheets—my immediate predecessor, my uncle, John Christopher Raven, was a great collector; but, from what I have seen of his collection up to now, I cannot say that he was a great exponent of the art of order, or a devotee of system, for an entire wing on this house is neither more nor less than a museum, into which books, papers, antiques, and similar things appear to have been dumped without regard to classification or arrangement. I am not a bookman, nor an antiquary; my life until recently has been spent in far different fashion, as a Financial Commissioner in India. I am, however, sincerely anxious that these new possessions of mine should be properly cared for, and I should like an expert to examine everything that is here, and to advise me as to proper arrangement and provision for the future. I should accordingly be greatly obliged to you if you could make it convenient to come here as my guest, give me the benefit of your expert knowledge, and charge me whatever fee seems good to you. I cannot promise you anything very lively in the way of amusement in your hours of relaxation, for this is a lonely place, and my family consists of nothing but myself and my niece, a girl of nineteen, just released from the schoolroom; but you may find some more congenial society in another guest of mine, Mr. Septimus Cazalette, the eminent authority on numismatics, who is here for the purpose of examining the vast collection of coins and medals formed by the kinsman I have just referred to. I can also promise you the advantages of a particularly bracing climate, and assure you of a warm welcome and every possible provision for your comfort. In the hope that you will be able to come to me at an early date,
"I am, dear sir,
"Leonard Middlebrook, Esq.,
"35M, Old Buildings, Lincoln's Inn, W. C."
Several matters referred to in this letter inclined me towards going to Ravensdene Court—the old family mansion—the thousands of ancient volumes—the prospect of unearthing something of real note—the chance of examining a collector's harvest—and perhaps more than anything, the genuinely courteous and polite tone of my invitation. I was not particularly busy at that time, nor had I been out of London for more than a few days now and then for several years: a change to the far-different North had its attractions. And after a brief correspondence with him, I arranged to go down to Mr. Raven early in March, and remain under his roof until I had completed the task which he desired me to undertake. As I have said already, I left London on the 8th of March, journeying to Newcastle by the afternoon express from King's Cross. I spent that night at Newcastle and went forward next morning to Alnmouth, which according to a map with which I had provided myself, was the nearest station to Ravensdene Court. And soon after arriving at Alnmouth the first chapter of my adventures opened, and came about by sheer luck. It was a particularly fine, bright, sharply-bracing morning, and as I was under no particular obligation to present myself at Ravensdene Court at any fixed time, I determined to walk thither by way of the coast. The distance, according to my map, was about nine or ten miles. Accordingly, sending on my luggage by a conveyance, with a message to Mr. Raven that I should arrive during the afternoon, I made through the village of Lesbury toward the sea, and before long came in sight of it ... a glorious stretch of blue, smooth that day as an island lake and shining like polished steel in the light of the sun. There was not a sail in sight, north or south or due east, nor a wisp of trailing smoke from any passing steamer: I got an impression of silent, unbroken immensity which seemed a fitting prelude to the solitudes into which my mission had brought me.
I was at that time just thirty years of age, and though I had been closely kept to London of late years, my youth had been spent in lonely places, and I had an innate love of solitudes and wide spaces. I saw at once that I should fall in love with this Northumbrian coast, and once on its headlands I took my time, sauntering along at my leisure: Mr. Raven, in one of his letters, had mentioned seven as his dinner hour: therefore, I had the whole day before me. By noon the sun had grown warm, even summer-like; warm enough, at any rate, to warrant me in sitting down on a ledge of the cliffs while I smoked a pipe of tobacco and stared lazily at the mighty stretch of water across which, once upon a time, the vikings had swarmed from Norway. I must have become absorbed in my meditations—certainly it was with a start of surprise that I suddenly realized that somebody was near me, and looked up to see, standing close by and eyeing me furtively, a man.
It was, perhaps, the utter loneliness of my immediate surroundings just then that made me wonder to see any living thing so near. At that point there was neither a sail on the sea, nor a human habitation on the land; there was not even a sheep cropping the herbage of the headlands. I think there were birds calling about the pinnacles of the cliffs—yet it seemed to me that the man broke a complete stillness when he spoke, as he quietly wished me a good morning.
The sound of his voice startled me; also, it brought me out of a reverie and sharpened my wits, and as I replied to him, I took him in from head to foot. A thick-set middle-aged man, tidily dressed in a blue serge suit of nautical cut, the sort of thing that they sell, ready-made, in sea-ports and naval stations. His clothes went with his dark skin and grizzled hair and beard, and with the gold rings which he wore in his ears. And there was that about him which suggested that he was for that time an idler, lounging.
"A fine morning," I remarked, not at all averse to entering into conversation, and already somewhat curious about him.
"A fine morning it is, master, and good weather, and likely to keep so," he answered, glancing around at sea and sky. Then he looked significantly at my knickerbockers and at a small satchel which I carried over my shoulders. "The right sort o' weather," he added, "for gentlemen walking about the country—pleasuring."
"You know these parts," I suggested.
"No!" he said, with a decisive shake of his head. "I don't, master, and that's a fact. I'm from the south, I am—never been up this way before, and, queerly enough, for I've seen most of the world in my time, never sailed this here sea as lies before us. But I've a sort of connection with this bit of country—mother's side came from hereabouts. And me having nothing particular to do, I came down here to take a cast round, like, seeing places as I've heard of—heard of, you understand, but ain't never seen."
"Then you're stopping in the neighbourhood?" I asked.
He raised one of his brown, hairy hands, and jerked a thumb landwards.
"Stopped last night in a little place, inland," he answered. "Name of Lesbury—a riverside spot. But that ain't what I want—what I want is a churchyard, or it might be two, or it might be three, where there's gravestones what bears a name. Only I don't know where that churchyard—or, again, there may be more than one—is, d'ye see? Except—somewhere between Alnmouth one way and Brandnell Bay, t'other."
"I have a good map, if it's any use to you," I said. He took the map with a word of thanks, and after spreading it out, traced places with the end of his thick forefinger.
"Hereabouts we are, at this present, master," he said, "and here and there is, to be sure, villages—mostly inland. And'll have graveyards to 'em—folks must be laid away somewhere. And in one of them graveyards there'll be a name, and if I see that name, I'll know where I am, and I can ask further, aiming at to find out if any of that name is still flourishing hereabouts. But till I get that name, I'm clear off my course, so to speak."
"What is the name?" I asked him.
"Name of Netherfield," he answered, slowly. "Netherfield. Mother's people—long since. So I've been told. And seen it—in old books, what I have far away in Devonport. That's the name, right enough, only I don't know where to look for it. You ain't seen it, master, in your wanderings round these parts?"
"I've only come into these parts this morning," I replied. "But—if you look closely at that map, you'll observe that there aren't many villages along the coast, so your search ought not to be a lengthy one. I should question if you'll find more than two or three churchyards between here and Brandell Bay—judging by the map."
"Aye, well, Netherfield is the name," he repeated. "Netherfield, mother's side. In some churchyards hereabouts. And there may be some of 'em left—and again there mayn't be. My name being Quick—Salter Quick. Of Devonport—when on land."
He folded up and handed back the map, with an old-fashioned bow. I rose from the ledge of rock on which I had been resting, and made to go forward.
"I hope you'll come across what you're seeking, Mr. Quick," I said. "But I should say you won't have much difficulty. There can't be many churchyards in this quarter, and not many gravestones in any of them."
"I found nothing in that one behind," he answered, jerking his thumb towards Lesbury. "And it's a long time since my mother left these parts. But here I am—for the purpose, d'ye see, master. Time's no object—nor yet expense. A man must take a bit of a holiday some day or other. Ain't had one—me—for thirty odd year."
We walked forward, northing our course, along the headlands. And rounding a sharp corner, we suddenly came in sight of a little settlement that lay half-way down the cliff. There was a bit of a cottage or two, two or three boats drawn up on a strip of yellow sand, a crumbling smithie, and above these things, on a shelf of rock, a low-roofed, long-fronted inn, by the gable of which rose a mast, wherefrom floated a battered flag. At the sight of this I saw a gleam come into my companion's eye, and I was quick to understand it's meaning.
"Do you feel disposed to a glass of ale?" I asked. "I should say we could get one down there."
"Rum," he replied, laconically. "Rum is my drink, master. Used to that—I ain't used to ale. Cold stuff! Give me something that warms a man."
"It's poor ale that won't warm a man's belly," I said with a laugh. "But every man to his taste. Come on, then."
He followed in silence down the path to the lonely inn; once, looking back, I saw that he was turning a sharp eye round and about the new stretch of country that had just opened before us. From the inn and its surroundings a winding track, a merely rough cartway, wound off and upward into the land; in the distance I saw the tower of a church. Salter Quick saw it, too, and nodded significantly in its direction.
"That'll be where I'll make next," he observed. "But first—meat and drink. I ate my breakfast before seven this morning, and this walking about on dry land makes a man hungry."
"Drink you'll get here, no doubt," said I. "But as to meat—doubtful."
His reply to that was to point to the sign above the inn door, to which we were now close. He read its announcement aloud, slowly.
"'The Mariner's Joy. By Hildebrand Claigue. Good Entertainment for Man and Beast,'" he pronounced. "'Entertainment'—that means eating—meat for man; hay for cattle. Not that there's much sign of either in these parts, I think, master."
We walked into the Mariner's Joy side by side, turning into a low-ceilinged, darkish room, neat and clean enough, wherein there was a table, chairs, the model of a ship in a glass case on the mantelpiece, and a small bar, furnished with bottles and glasses, behind which stood a tall, middle-aged man, clean-shaven, spectacled, reading a newspaper. He bade us good morning, with no sign of surprise at the presence of strangers, and looked expectantly from one to the other. I turned to my companion.
"Well?" I said. "You'll drink with me? What is it—rum?"
"Rum it is, master, thanking you," he replied. "But vittals, too, is what I want." He glanced knowingly at the landlord. "You ain't got such a thing as a plateful—a good plateful!—of cold beef, with a pickle—onion or walnut, 'tain't no matter. And bread—a loaf of real home-baked? And a morsel of cheese?"
The landlord smiled as he reached for the rum bottle.
"I daresay we can fit you up, my lad," he answered. "Got a nice round of boiled beef on go—as it happens. Drop of rum first, eh? And—yours sir?"
"A glass of ale if you please," said I. "And as I'm not quite as hungry as our friend here, a crust of bread and a piece of cheese."
The landlord satisfied our demands, and then vanished through a door at the back of his bar. And when he had expressed his wishes for my good health, Salter Quick tasted the rum, smacked his lips over it, and looked about him with evident approval.
"Sort of port that a vessel might put into with security and comfort for a day or two, this, master," he observed. "I reckon I'll put myself up here, while I'm looking round—this will do me very well. And doubtless there'll be them coming in here, night-time, as'll know the neighbourhood, and be able to give a man points as to his bearings."
"I daresay you'll be very comfortable here," I assented. "It's not exactly a desert island."
"Aye, well, and Salter Quick's been in quarters of that sort in his time," he observed, with a glance that suggested infinite meaning. "He has, so! But this ain't no desert island, master. I can see they ain't short of good grub and sound liquor here!"
He made his usual jerk of the thumb—this time in the direction of the landlord, who just then came back with a well-filled tray. And presently, first removing his cap and saying his grace in a devout fashion, he sat down and began to eat with an evidently sharp-set appetite. Trifling with my bread and cheese, I turned to the landlord.
"This is a very lonely spot," I said. "I was surprised to see a licensed house here. Where do you get your customers?"
"Ah, you wouldn't see it as you came along," replied the landlord. "I saw you coming—you came from Alnmouth way. There's a village just behind here—it 'ud be hidden from you by this headland at back of the house—goodish-sized place. Plenty o' custom from that, o' nights. And of course there's folks going along, north and south."
Quick, his weather-stained cheeks bulging with his food, looked up sharply.
"A village, says you!" he exclaimed. "Then if a village, a church. And if a church, a churchyard. There is a churchyard, ain't there?"
"Why, there is a church, and there's a churchyard to it," replied the landlord. "What o' that?"
Quick nodded at me.
"As I been explaining to this gentleman," he said, "churchyards is what I'm looking for. Graves in 'em, you understand. And on them graves, a name. Name of Netherfield. Now I asks you, friendly—ha' you ever seen that name in your churchyard? 'Cause if so I'm at anchor. For the time being."
"Well, I haven't," answered the landlord. "But our churchyard—Lord bless you, there's scores o' them flat stones in it that's covered with long grass—there might be that name on some of 'em, for aught I know; I've never looked 'em over, I'm sure. But——"
Just then there came into the parlour a man, who from his rough dress, appeared to be a cattle-drover or a shepherd. Claigue turned to him with a glance that seemed to indicate him as authority.
"Here's one as lives by that churchyard," he observed. "Jim! ha' you ever noticed the name of Netherfield on any o' them old gravestones up yonder? This gentleman's asking after it, and I know you mow that churchyard grass time and again."
"Never seen it!" answered the new-comer. "But—strange things!—there was a man come up to me the other night, this side o' Lesbury, and asked that very question—not o' these parts, he wasn't. But—"
He stopped at that. Salter Quick dropped his knife and fork with a clatter, and held up his right hand.
It was very evident to Claigue and myself, interested spectators, that the new-comer's announcement, sudden and unexpected as it was, had had the instantaneous effect of making Quick forget his beef and his rum. Indeed, although he was only half-way through its contents, he pushed his plate away from him as if food were just then nauseous to him; his right hand lifted itself in an arresting, commanding gesture, and he turned a startled eye on the speaker, looking him through and through as if in angry doubt of what he had just said.
"What's that?" he snapped out. "What says you? Say it again—no, I'll say it for you—to make sure that my ears ain't deceiving me! You met a man—hereabouts—what asked you if you knew where there was graves with a certain name on 'em? And that name was—Netherfield? Did you say that?—I asks you serious?"
The drover, or shepherd, or whatever he was, looked from Quick to me and then to Claigue, and smiled, as if he wondered at Quick's intensity of manner.
"You've got it all right, mister," he answered. "That's just what I did say. A stranger chap, he was—never seen him in these parts before."
Quick took up his glass and drank. There was no doubt about his being upset, for his big hand trembled.
"Where was this here?" he demanded. "Recent?"
"Two nights ago," replied the man readily. "I was coming home, lateish, from Almwick, and met with this here chap a bit this side o' Lesbury. We walked a piece of the road together, talking. And he asked me what I've told you. Did I know these parts?—was I a native hereabouts?—did I know any churchyards with the name Netherfield on gravestones? And I said I didn't, but that there was such-like places in our parts where you couldn't see the gravestones for the grass, and these might be what he was asking after. And when we came to them cross-roads, where it goes to Denwick one direction and Boulmer the other, he left me, and I ain't seen aught of him since. Nor heard."
Quick pushed his empty glass across the table, with a sign to Claigue to refill it; at the same time he pointed silently to his informant, signifying that he was to be served at his expense. He was evidently deep in thought by that time, and for a moment or two he sat staring at the window and the blue sea beyond, abstracted and pondering. Suddenly he turned again on his informant.
"What like was this here man?" he demanded.
"I couldn't tell you, mister," replied the other. "It was well after dark and I never saw his face. But, for the build of him, a strong-set man, like myself, and just about your height. And now I come to think of it, spoke in your way—not as we do in these quarters. A stranger—like yourself. Seafaring man, I took him for."
"And you ain't heard of his being about?" asked Quick.
"Not a word, mister," affirmed the informant. "He went Denwick way when he left me. That's going inland."
Quick turned to me.
"I would like to see that map of yours again, master, if you please," he said. "I ought to ha' provided myself with one before I came here." He spread the map out before him, and after taking another gulp of his rum, proceeded to trace roads and places with the point of his finger. "Denwick?" he muttered. "Aye I see that. And these places where there's a little cross?—that'll mean there's a church there?"
I nodded an affirmative, silently watching him, and wondering what this desire on the part of two men to find the graves of the Netherfields might mean. And the landlord evidently shared my wonder, for presently he plumped his customer with a direct question.
"You seem very anxious to find these Netherfield gravestones," he remarked, with good-humoured inquisitiveness. "And so, apparently, does another man. Now, I've been in these parts a good many years, and I've never heard of 'em; never even heard the name."
"Nor me!" said the other man. "There's none o' that name in these parts—'twixt Alnmouth Bay and Budle Point. I ain't never heard it!"
"And he's a native," declared the landlord. "Born and bred and brought up here. Wasn't you, Jim?"
"Never been away from it," assented Jim, with a short laugh. "Never been farther north than Belford, south than Warkworth, west than Whittingham. And as for east, I reckon you can't get much further that way than where we are now."
"Not unless you take to the water, you can't," said Claigue. "No—we ain't heard of no Netherfields hereabouts."
Quick seemed indifferent to these remarks. He suddenly folded up the map, returned it to me with a word of thanks, and plunging a hand in his trousers' pocket, produced a fistful of gold coins.
"What's to pay?" he demanded. "Take it out o' that—all we've had, and do you help yourself to a glass and a cigar." He flung a sovereign on the table, and rose to his feet. "I must be stepping along," he continued, looking at me. "If so be as there's another man seeking for——"
But at that he checked himself, remaining silent until Claigue counted out and handed over his change; silently, too, he pocketed it, and turned to the door. Claigue stopped him with an arresting word and motion of his hand.
"I say!" he said. "No business of mine, to be sure, but—don't you show that money of yours over readily hereabouts—in places like this, I mean. There's folk up and down these roads that 'ud track you for miles on the chance of—eh, Jim?"
"Aye—and farther!" assented Jim. "Keep it close, master."
Quick listened quietly—just as quietly he slipped a hand to his hip pocket, brought it back to the front and showed a revolver.
"That and me, together—eh?" he said significantly. "Bad look-out for anybody that came between us and the light."
"They might come between you and the dark," retorted Claigue. "Take care of yourself! 'Tisn't a wise thing to flash a handful of gold about, my lad."
Quick made no remark. He walked out on to the cobbled pavement in front of the inn, and when I had paid Claigue for my modest lunch, and had asked how far it was to Ravensdene Court, I followed him. He was still in a brown study, and stood staring about him with moody eyes.
"Well?" I said, still inquisitive about this apparently mysterious man. "What next? Are you going on with your search?"
He scraped the point of a boot on the cobble-stones for awhile, gazing downwards almost as if he expected to unearth something; suddenly he raised his eyes and gave me a franker look than I had so far had from him.
"Master," he said, in a low voice, and with a side glance at the open door of the inn, "I'll tell you a bit more than I've said before—you're a gentleman, I can see, and such keeps counsel. I've an object—and a particular object!—in finding them graves. That's why I've travelled all this way—as you might say, from one end of England to the other. And now, arriving where they ought to be, I find—another man after what I'm after! Another man!"
"Have you any idea who he may be?" I asked.
He hesitated—and then suddenly shook his head.
"I haven't!" he answered. "No, I haven't, and that's a fact. For a minute or two, in there, I thought that maybe I did know, or, at any rate, had a notion; but it's a fact, I haven't. All the same, I'm going Denwick way, to see if I can come across whoever it is, or get news of him. Is that your road, master?"
"No," I replied. "I'm going some way farther along the headlands. Well—I hope you'll be successful in your search for the family gravestones."
He nodded, very seriously.
"I'm not going out o' this country till I've found 'em!" he asserted determinedly. "It's what I've come three hundred miles for. Good-day, master."
He turned off by the track that led over the top of the headlands, and as long as I watched him went steadily forward without even looking back, or to the right or left of him. And presently I, too, went on my way, and rounding another corner of the cliff left the lonely inn behind me.
But as I went along, following the line of the headlands, I wondered a good deal about Salter Quick and the conversation at the Mariner's Joy. What was it that this hard-bitten, travel-worn man, one who had seen, evidently, much of wind and wave, was really after? I gave no credence to his story of the family relationship—it was not at all likely that a man would travel all the way from Devonshire to Northumberland to find the graves of his mother's ancestors. There was something beyond that—but what? It was very certain that Quick wanted to come across the tombs of the dead and gone Netherfields, however, for whatever purpose—certain, too, that there was another man who had the same wish. That complicated matters, and it deepened the mystery. Why did two men—seafaring men, both of them—arrive in this out-of-the-way spot about the same time, unknown to each other, but each apparently bent on the same object? And what would happen if, as seemed likely, they met? It was impossible to find an answer to these questions; but the mystery was there, all the same.
The afternoon remained fine, and, for the time of year, warm, and I took advantage of it by dawdling along that glorious stretch of sea-coast, taking in to the full its rich stores of romantic scenery and suggestion of long-past ages. Sometimes I sat for a long time, smoking my pipe on the edge of the headlands, staring at the blue of the water, the curl of the waves on the brown sands, conscious most of the compelling silence, and only dimly aware of the calling of the sea-birds on the cliffs. Altogether, the afternoon was drawing to its close when, rounding a bluff that had been in view before me for some time, I came in sight of what I felt sure to be Ravensdene Court, a grey-walled, stone-roofed Tudor mansion that stood at the head of a narrow valley or ravine—dene they call it in those parts, though a dene is really a tract of sand, while these breaks in the land are green and thickly treed—through which a narrow, rock-encumbered stream ran murmuring to the sea. Very picturesque in its old-worldness it looked in the mellowing light; the very place, I thought, which a bookman and an antiquary, such as I had heard the late owner to be, would delight to store with his collections.
A path that led inland from the edge of the cliffs took me after a few minutes' walking to a rustic gate which was set in the boundary wall of a small park; within the wall rose a belt of trees, mostly oak and beech, their trunks obscured by a thick undergrowth. Passing through this, I came out on the park itself, at a point where, on a well-kept green, a girl, whom I immediately took to be the niece, recently released from the schoolroom, of whom Mr. Raven had spoken in his letter, was studying the lie of a golf ball. Behind her, carrying her bag of sticks, stood a small boy, chiefly remarkable for his large boots and huge tam-o'-shanter bonnet, who, as I appeared on the scene, was intently watching his young mistress's putter, wavering uncertainly in her slender hands before she ventured on what was evidently a critical stroke. But before the stroke was made the girl caught sight of me, paused, seemed to remember something, and then, swinging her club, came lightly in my direction—a tallish, elastic-limbed girl, not exactly pretty, but full of attraction because of her clear eyes, healthy skin, and general atmosphere of life and vivacity. Recently released from the schoolroom though she might be, she showed neither embarrassment nor shyness on meeting a stranger. Her hand went out to me with ready frankness.
"Mr. Middlebrook?" she said inquiringly. "Yes, of course—I might have known you'd come along the cliffs. Your luggage came this morning, and we got your message. But you must be tired after all those miles? I'll take you up to the house and give you some tea."
"I'm not at all tired, thank you," I answered. "I came along very leisurely, enjoying the walk. Don't let me take you from your game."
"Oh, that's all right," she said carelessly, throwing her putter to the boy. "I've had quite enough; besides, it's getting towards dusk, and once the sun sets, it's soon dark in these regions. You've never seen Ravensdene Court before?"
"Never," I replied, glancing at the house, which stood some two or three hundred yards before us. "It seems to be a very romantically-situated, picturesque old place. I suppose you know all its nooks and corners?"
She gave her shoulders—squarely-set, well-developed ones—a little shrug, and shook her head.
"No, I don't," she answered. "I never saw it before last month. It's all that you say—picturesque and romantic enough. And queer! I believe it's haunted."
"That adds to its charm," I remarked with a laugh. "I hope I shall have the pleasure of seeing the ghost."
"I don't!" she said. "That is, I hope I shan't. The house is odd enough without that! But—you wouldn't be afraid?"
"Would you?" I asked, looking more closely at her.
"I don't know," she replied. "You'll understand more when you see the place. There's a very odd atmosphere about it. I think something must have happened there, some time. I'm not a coward, but, really, after the daylight's gone——"
"You're adding to its charms!" I interrupted. "Everything sounds delightful!"
She looked at me half-inquiringly, and then smiled a little.
"I believe you're pulling my leg," she said. "However—we'll see. But you don't look as if you would be afraid—and you're not a bit like what I thought you'd be, either."
"What did you think I should be?" I asked, amused at her candour.
"Oh, I don't know—a queer, snuffy, bald-pated old man, like Mr. Cazalette," she replied. "Booky, and papery, and that sort of thing. And you're quite—something else—and young!"
"The frost of thirty winters have settled on me," I remarked with mock seriousness.
"They must have been black frosts, then!" she retorted. "No!—you're a surprise. I'm sure Uncle Francis is expecting a venerable, dry-as-dust sort of man."
"I hope he won't be disappointed," I said. "But I never told him I was dry as dust, or snuffy, or bald——"
"It's your reputation," she said quickly. "People don't expect to find such learning in ordinary young men in tweed suits."
"Am I an ordinary young man, then?" I demanded. "Really——"
"Oh, well, you know what I mean!" she said hastily. "You can call me a very ordinary young woman, if you like."
"I shall do nothing of the sort!" said I. "I have a habit of always calling things by their right names, and I can see already that you are very far from being an ordinary young woman."
"So you begin by paying me compliments?" she retorted with a laugh. "Very well—I've no objection, which shows that I'm human, anyhow. But here is my uncle."
I had already seen Mr. Francis Raven advancing to meet us; a tall, somewhat stooping man with all the marks of the Anglo-Indian about him: a kindly face burnt brown by equatorial suns, old-fashioned, grizzled moustache and whiskers; the sort of man that I had seen more than once coming off big liners at Tilbury and Southampton, looking as if England, seen again after many years of absence, were a strange country to their rather weary, wondering eyes. He came up with outstretched hands; I saw at once that he was a man of shy, nervous temperament.
"Welcome to Ravensdene Court, Mr. Middlebrook!" he exclaimed in quick, almost deprecating fashion. "A very dull and out-of-the-way place to which to bring one used to London; but we'll do our best—you've had a convoy across the park, I see," he added with a glance at his niece. "That's right!"
"As charming a one as her surroundings are delightful, Mr. Raven," I said, assuming an intentionally old-fashioned manner. "If I am treated with the same consideration I have already received, I shall be loth to bring my task to an end!"
"Mr. Middlebrook is a bit of a tease, Uncle Francis," said my guide. "I've found that out already. He's not the paper-and-parchment person you expected."
"Oh, dear me, I didn't expect anything of the sort!" protested Mr. Raven. He looked from his niece to me, and laughed, shaking his head. "These modern young ladies—ah!" he exclaimed. "But come—I'll show Mr. Middlebrook his rooms."
He led the way into the house and up the great stair of the hall to a couple of apartments which overlooked the park. I had a general sense of big spaces, ancient things, mysterious nooks and corners; my own rooms, a bed-chamber and a parlour, were delightful. My host was almost painfully anxious to assure himself that I had everything in them that I was likely to want, and fussed about from one room to the other, seeing to details that I should never have thought of.
"You'll be able to find your way down?" he said at last, as he made for the door. "We dine at seven—perhaps there'll be time to take a little look round before then, after we've dressed. And I must introduce Mr. Cazalette—you don't know him personally?—oh, a remarkable man, a very remarkable man indeed—yes!"
I did not waste much time over my toilet, nor, apparently did Miss Marcia Raven, for I found her, in a smart gown, in the hall when I went down at half-past-six. And she and I had taken a look at its multifarious objects before Mr. Raven appeared on the scene, followed by Mr. Cazalette. One glance at this gentleman assured me that our host had been quite right when he spoke of him as remarkable—he was not merely remarkable, but so extraordinary in outward appearance that I felt it difficult to keep my eyes off him.
THE MORNING TIDE
Miss Raven had already described Mr. Cazalette to me, by inference, as a queer, snuffy bald-pated old man, but this summary synopsis of his exterior features failed to do justice to a remarkable original. There was something supremely odd about him. I thought, at first, that my impression of oddity might be derived from his clothes—he wore a strangely-cut dress-coat of blue cloth, with gold buttons, a buff waistcoat, and a frilled shirt—but I soon came to the conclusion that he would be queer and uncommon in any garments. About Mr. Cazalette there was an atmosphere—and it was decidedly one of mystery. First and last, he looked uncanny.
Mr. Raven introduced us with a sort of old-world formality (I soon discovered, as regards him, that he was so far unaware that a vast gulf lay between the manners and customs of society as they are nowadays and as they were when he left England for India in the 'seventies: he was essentially mid-Victorian) and in order to keep up to it, I saluted Mr. Cazalette with great respect and expressed myself as feeling highly honoured by meeting one so famous as my fellow-guest. Somewhat to my surprise, Mr. Cazalette's tightly-locked lips relaxed into what was plainly a humorous smile, and he favoured me with a knowing look that was almost a wink.
"Aye, well," he said, "you're just about as well known in your own line, Middlebrook, as I am in mine, and between the pair of us I've no doubt we'll be able to reduce chaos into order. But we'll not talk shop at this hour of the day—there's more welcome matters at hand."
He put his snuff box and his gaudy handkerchief out of sight, and looked at his host and hostess with another knowing glance, reminding me somehow of a wicked old condor which I had sometimes seen at the Zoological Gardens, eyeing the keeper who approached with its meal.
"Mr. Cazalette," remarked Miss Raven, with an informing glance at me, "never, on principle, touches bite or sup between breakfast and dinner—and he has no great love of breakfast."
"I'm a disciple of the justly famed and great man, Abernethy," observed Mr. Cazalette. "I'd never have lived to my age nor kept my energy at what, thank Heaven, it is, if I hadn't been. D'ye know how old I am, Middlebrook?"
"I really don't, Mr. Cazalette," I replied.
"Well I'm eighty years of age," he answered with a grin. "And I'm intending to be a hundred! And on my hundredth birthday, I'll give a party, and I'll dance with the sprightliest lassie that's there, and if I'm not as lively as she is I'll be sore out of my calculations."
"A truly wonderful young man!" exclaimed Mr. Raven. "I veritably believe he feels—and is—younger than myself—and I'm twenty years his junior."
So I had now discovered certain facts about Mr. Cazalette. He was an octogenarian. He was uncannily active. He had an almost imp-like desire to live—and to dance when he ought to have been wrapped in blankets and saying his last prayers. And a few minutes later, when we were seated round our host's table, I discovered another fact—Mr. Cazalette was one of those men to whom dinner is the event of the day, and who regard conversation—on their own part, at any rate—as a wicked disturbance of sacred rites. As the meal progressed (and Mr. Raven's cook proved to be an unusually clever and good one) I was astonished at Mr. Cazalette's gastronomic powers and at his love of mad dishes: indeed, I never saw a man eat so much, nor with such hearty appreciation of his food, nor in such a concentrated silence. Nevertheless, that he kept his ears wide open to what was being said around him, I soon discovered. I was telling Mr. Raven and his niece of my adventure of the afternoon, and suddenly I observed that Mr. Cazalette, on the other side of the round table at which we sat, had stopped eating, and that, knife and fork still in his queer, claw-like hands, he was peering at me under the shaded lamps, his black, burning eyes full of a strange, absorbed interest. I paused—involuntarily.
"Go on!" said he. "Did you mention the name Netherfield just then?"
"I did," said I. "Netherfield."
"Well, continue with your tale," he said. "I'm listening. I'm a silent man when I'm busy with my meat and drink, but I've a fine pair of ears."
He began to ply knife and fork again, and I went on with my story, continuing it until the parting with Salter Quick. When I came to that, the footman who stood behind Mr. Cazalette's chair was just removing his last plate, and the old man leaned back a little and favoured the three of us with a look.
"Aye, well," he said, "and that's an interesting story, Middlebrook, and it tempts me to break my rule and talk a bit. It was some churchyard this fellow was seeking?"
"A churchyard—in this neighbourhood," I replied. "Or—churchyards."
"Where there were graves with the name Netherfield on their stones or slabs or monuments," he continued.
"Aye—just so. And those men he foregathered with at the inn, they'd never heard of anything at that point, nor elsewhere?"
"Neither there nor elsewhere," I assented.
"Then if there is such a place," said he, "it'll be one of those disused burial-grounds of which there are examples here in the north, and not a few."
"You know of some?" suggested Mr. Raven.
"I've seen such places," answered Mr. Cazalette. "Betwixt here—the sea-coast—and the Cheviots, westward, there's a good many spots that Goldsmith might have drawn upon for his deserted village. The folks go—the bit of a church falls into ruins—its graveyard gets choked with weeds—the stones are covered with moss and lichen—the monuments fall and are obscured by the grass—underneath the grass and the weed many an old family name lies hidden. And what'll that man be wanting to find any name at all for, I'd like to know!"
"The queer thing to me," observed Mr. Raven, "is that two men should be wanting to find it at the same time."
"That looks as if there were some very good reason why it should be found, doesn't it?" remarked his niece. "Anyway, it all sounds very queer—you've brought mystery with you, Mr. Middlebrook! Can't you suggest anything, Mr. Cazalette? I'm sure you're good at solving problems."
But just then Mr. Cazalette's particular servant put a fresh dish in front of him—a curry, the peculiar aroma of which evidently aroused his epicurean instinct. Instead of responding to Miss Raven's invitation he relapsed into silence, and picked up another fork.
When dinner was over I excused myself from sitting with the two elder men over their wine—Mr. Cazalette, whom by that time I, of course, knew for a Scotchman, turned out to have an old-fashioned taste for claret—and joined Miss Raven in the hall, a great, roomy, shadowy place which was evidently popular. There was a great fire in its big hearth-place with deep and comfortable chairs set about it; in one of these I found her sitting, a book in her hand. She dropped it as I approached and pointed to a chair at her side.
"What do you think of that queer old man?" she asked in a low voice as I sat down. "Isn't there something almost—what is it?—uncanny?—about him?"
"You might call him that," I assented. "Yes—I think uncanny would fit him. A very marvellous man, though, at his age."
"Aye!" she exclaimed, under her breath. "If I could live to see it, it wouldn't surprise me if he lived to be four hundred. He's so queer. Do you know that he actually goes out early—very early—in the morning and swims in the open sea?"
"Any weather?" I suggested.
"No matter what the weather is," she replied. "He's been here three weeks now, and he has never missed that morning swim. And sometimes the mornings have been Arctic—more than I could stand, anyway, and I'm pretty well hardened."
"A decided character!" I said musingly. "And somehow, he seems to fit in with his present surroundings. From what I have seen of it, Mr. Raven was quite right in telling me that this house was a museum."
I was looking about me as I spoke. The big, high-roofed hall, like every room I had so far seen, was filled from floor to ceiling with books, pictures, statuary, armour, curiosities of every sort and of many ages. The prodigious numbers of the books alone showed me that I had no light task in prospect. But Miss Raven shook her head.
"Museum!" she exclaimed. "I should think so! But you've seen nothing—wait till you see the north wing. Every room in that is crammed with things—I think my great-uncle, who left all this to Uncle Francis recently, must have done nothing whatever but buy, and buy, and buy things, and then, when he got them home, have just dumped them down anywhere! There's some order here," she added, looking round, "but across there, in the north wing, it's confusion."
"Did you know your great-uncle?" I asked.
"I? No!" she replied. "Oh, dear me, no! I'd never been in the north until Uncle Francis came home from India some months ago and fetched me from the school where I'd been ever since my father and mother died—that was when I was twelve. No, except my father, I never knew any of the Raven family. I believe Uncle Francis and myself are the very last."
"You must like living under the old family roof?" I suggested.
She gave me a somewhat undecided look.
"I'm not quite sure," she answered. "Uncle Francis is the very soul of kindness—I think he's the very kindest person, man or woman, I ever came across, but—I don't know."
"Don't know—what?" I asked.
"Don't know if I really like this place," she said. "As I said to you this afternoon, this is a very odd house altogether, and there's a strange atmosphere about it, and I think something must have happened here. I—well, personally, I feel as if I were something so very small and insignificant, shut up in immensity."
"That's because it's a little strange, even now," I suggested. "You'll get used to it. And I suppose there's society."
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