The Hand in the Dark - Arthur J. Rees - ebook

The Hand in the Dark ebook

Arthur J. Rees

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An ancient English country house with a storied and bloody history is the setting for this intriguing mystery. The new Mrs. Meredith has invited all her friends from her freer, wilder life in London to meet with her at her husband’s family home. However, she is seemingly taken ill and can’t accompany the party on their final jaunt to a neighbor’s house after dinner. Later she is dead of a gunshot wound, an heirloom pearl necklace is missing, and Scotland Yard is homing in on possibly the wrong suspect. Can the famous private detective Mr. Colwyn bring the murderer to justice? From the Golden Age of Detective Fiction comes a neatly plotted thriller in which atmosphere and mystery mix to produce a tight and satisfying tale.

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Liczba stron: 533

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

CHAPTER XXVII

CHAPTER XXVIII

CHAPTER I

Seen in the sad glamour of an English twilight, the old moat-house, emerging from the thin mists which veiled the green flats in which it stood, conveyed the impression of a habitation falling into senility, tired with centuries of existence. Houses grow old like the race of men; the process is not less inevitable, though slower; in both, decay is hastened by events as well as by the passage of Time.

The moat-house was not so old as English country-houses go, but it had aged quickly because of its past. There was a weird and bloody history attached to the place: an historical record of murders and stabbings and quarrels dating back to Saxon days, when a castle had stood on the spot, and every inch of the flat land had been drenched in the blood of serfs fighting under a Saxon tyrant against a Norman tyrant for the sacred catchword of Liberty.

The victorious Norman tyrant had killed the Saxon, taken his castle, and tyrannized over the serfs during his little day, until the greater tyrant, Death, had taught him his first–and last–lesson of humility. After his death some fresh usurper had pulled down his stolen castle, and built a moat-house on the site. During the next few hundred years there had been more fighting for restless ambition, invariably connected with the making and unmaking of tyrants, until an English king lost his head in the cause of Liberty, and the moat-house was destroyed by fire for the same glorious principle.

It was rebuilt by the freebooter who had burnt it down; one Philip Heredith, a descendant of Philip Here-Deith, whose name is inscribed in the Domesday Book as one of the knights of the army of Duke William which had assembled at Dives for the conquest of England. Philip Heredith, who was as great a fighter as his Norman ancestor, established his claim to his new estate, and avoided litigation concerning it, by confining the Royalist owner and his family within the walls of the moat-house before setting it on fire. He afterwards married and settled down in the new house with his young wife. But the honeymoon was disturbed by the ghost of the cavalier he had incinerated, who warned him that as he had founded his line in horror it would end in horror, and the house he had built would fall to the ground.

Philip Heredith, like many other great fighters, was an exceedingly pious man, with a profound belief in the efficacy of prayer. He endeavoured to thwart the ghost’s curse by building a church in the moat-house grounds, where he spent his Sundays praying for the eternal welfare of the gentleman he had cut off in the flower of his manhood. Perhaps the prayers were heard, for, when Philip Heredith in the course of time became the first occupant of the brand-new vault he had built for himself and his successors, he left behind him much wealth, and a catalogue of his virtues in his own handwriting. The wealth he left to his heirs, but he expressly stipulated that the record of his virtues was to be carved in stone and placed as an enduring tablet, for the edification of future generations, inside the church he had built.

It was a wise precaution on his part. The dead are dumb as to their own merits, and the living think only of themselves. Time sped away, until the first of the Herediths was forgotten as completely as though he had never existed; even his dust had been crowded off the shelf of his own vault to make room for the numerous descendants of the prolific and prosperous line he had founded. But the tablet remained, and the old moat-house he had built still stood.

It was a wonderful old place and a delight to the eye, this mediæval moat-house of mellow brick, stone facings, high-pitched roof, with terraced gardens and encircling moat. It had defied Time better than its builder, albeit a little shakily, with signs of decrepitude here and there apparent in the crow’s-feet cracks of the brickwork, and decay only too plainly visible in the crazy angles of the tiled roof. But the ivy which covered portions of the brickwork hid some of the ravages of age, and helped the moat-house to show a brave front to the world, a well-preserved survivor of an ornamental period in a commonplace and ugly generation.

The place looked as though it belonged to the past and the ghosts of the past. To cross the moat bridge was to step backward from the twentieth century into the seventeenth. The moss-grown moat walls enclosed an old-world garden, most jealously guarded by high yew hedges trimmed into fantastic shapes of birds and animals; a garden of parterres and lawns, where tritons blew stone horns, and naked nymphs bathed in marble fountains; with an ancient sundial on which the gay scapegrace Suckling had once scribbled a sonnet to a pair of blue eyes–a garden full of sequestered walks and hidden nooks where courtly cavaliers and bewitching dames in brocades and silks, patches and powder, had played at the great game of love in their day. That day was long since dead. The tritons and nymphs remained, to remind humanity that stone and marble are more durable than flesh and blood, but the lords and ladies had gone, never to return, unless, indeed, their spirits walked the garden in the white stillness of moonlit nights. They may well have done so. It was easy to imagine such light-hearted beauties visiting again the old garden to revive dead memories of love and laughter: shadowy forms stealing forth to assignations on the blanched, dew-laden lawn, their roguish faces and bright eyes–if ghosts have eyes–peeping out of ghostly hoods at gay ghostly cavaliers; coquetting and languishing behind ghostly fans; perhaps even feeding, with ghostly little hands, the peacocks which still kept the terrace walk above the moat.

The spectacle of a group of modern ladies laughing and chatting at tea in the cloistered recesses of the terrace garden struck a note as sharply incongruous as a flock of parrots chattering in a cathedral.

It was the autumn of 1918, and with one exception the ladies seated at the tea-tables on the lawn represented the new and independent type of womanhood called into existence by the national exigencies of war. The elder of them looked useful rather than beautiful, as befitted patriotic Englishwomen in war-time; the younger ones were pretty and charming, but they were all workers, or pretended workers, in the task of helping England win the war, and several of them wore the khaki or blue of active service abroad. They were all very much at ease, laughing and talking as they drank their tea and threw cake to the peacocks perched on the high terrace walk above their heads.

The ladies were the guests of Sir Philip Heredith. Some months before, his only son Philip, then holding a post in the War Office, had fallen in love with the pretty face of a girl employed in one of the departments of Whitehall. He married her soon afterwards, and brought her home to the moat-house. It was the young husband who had suggested that they should liven up the old moat-house by inviting some of their former London friends down to stay with them. Violet Heredith, who found herself bored with country life after the excitement of London war work, caught eagerly at the idea, and the majority of the ladies at tea were the former Whitehall acquaintances of the young wife, with whom she had shared matinée tickets and afternoon teas in London during the last winter of the war.

The hostess of the party, Miss Alethea Heredith, sister of the present baronet, Sir Philip Heredith, and mistress of the moat-house since the death of Lady Heredith, belonged to a bygone and almost extinct type of Englishwoman, the provincial great lady, local society leader, village patroness, sportswoman, and church-woman in one, a type exclusively English, taking several centuries to produce in its finished form. Miss Heredith was an excellent, if somewhat terrific, specimen of the class. She was tall and massive, with a large-boned face, tanned red with country air, shrewd grey eyes looking out beneath thick eyebrows which met across her forehead in a straight line (the Heredith eyebrows) and a strong, hooked nose (the Heredith falcon nose). But in spite of her massive frame, red face, hooked nose, and countrified attire, she looked more in place with the surroundings than the frailer and paler specimens of womanhood to whom she was dispensing tea. There was a stiff and stately grace in her movements, a slow ceremoniousness, in her politeness to her guests, which seemed to harmonize with the seventeenth-century setting of the moat-house garden.

At the moment the ladies were discussing an event which had been arranged for that night: a country drive, to be followed by a musical evening and dance. The invitations had been issued by the Weynes, a young couple who had recently made their home in the county. The husband was a popular novelist, who had left the distractions of London in order to win fame in peace and quietness in the country. Mrs. Weyne, who had been slightly acquainted with Mrs. Heredith before her marriage, was delighted to learn she was to have her for a neighbour. She had arranged the evening on her behalf, and had asked Miss Heredith to bring all her guests. The event was to mark the close of the house party, which was to break up on the following day. Unfortunately, Mrs. Heredith had fallen ill a few hours previously, and it was doubtful whether she would be able to join in the festivity.

“I hope you will all remember that dinner is to be a quarter of an hour earlier to-night,” said Miss Heredith, as she handed a cup of tea to one of her guests. “It is a long drive to the Weynes’ place, so I shall order the cars for half-past seven.”

The guests glanced at their hostess and murmured polite assent.

“I am looking forward to the visit so much,” said the lady to whom Miss Heredith had handed the cup. “It will be so romantic–a country dance in a lonely house on a hill. What an adorable cup, dear Miss Heredith! I love Chinese egg-shell porcelain, but this is simply beyond anything! It’s––”

“Whatever induced Dolly Weyne to bury herself in the country?” abruptly exclaimed a young woman with cropped hair and khaki uniform. “She loathed the country before she was married.”

“Mrs. Weyne is a wife, and it is her duty to like her husband’s home,” said Miss Heredith a little primly. She disapproved of the speaker, whose khaki uniform, close-cropped hair, crossed legs, and arms a-kimbo struck her as everything that was modern and unwomanly.

“Then what induced Teddy Weyne to bury himself alive in the wilds? I’m sure it must be terrible living up there alone, with nothing but earwigs and owls for company.”

“Mr. Weyne is a writer,” rejoined Miss Heredith. “He needs seclusion.”

“My husband doesn’t,” said a little fair-haired woman. “He says newspaper men can write anywhere. And we know another writer, a Mr. Harland, I think his name is, who writes long articles in the Sunday newspapers––”

“I don’t think his name is Harland, dear,” interrupted another lady. “Something like it, but not Harland. Dear me, what is it?”

“Oh, the name doesn’t matter,” retorted her friend. “The point is that he writes long articles in his London office. Why can’t Mr. Weyne do the same?”

“Mr. Weyne is a novelist–not a journalist. It’s quite a different thing.”

“Is it?” responded the other doubtfully. “All writing is the same, isn’t it? Harry says Mr. Harland’s articles are dreadfully clever. He sometimes reads bits of them to me.”

“Mrs. Weyne feels a little lonely sometimes,” said Miss Heredith. “She has been looking forward to meeting Violet again. It will be pleasant for both of them to renew their acquaintance.”

“I should think she and Violet would get on well together,” remarked the young lady with the short hair. “They both have a good many tastes in common. Neither likes the country, for one thing.” The other ladies looked at one another, and the speaker, realizing that she had been tactless, stopped abruptly. “How is Violet?” she added lamely. “Do you think she will be well enough to go to-night?”

“I still hope she may be well enough to go,” replied Miss Heredith. “I will ask her presently. Will anyone have another cup of tea?”

Nobody wanted any more tea. The meal was finished; but the groups of ladies at the little tables sat placidly talking, enjoying the peaceful surroundings and the afternoon sun. Some of the girls produced cigarette-cases, and lit cigarettes.

There was a sound of footsteps on the gravel walk. A tall, good-looking young officer was seen walking across the garden from the house. As he neared the tea-tables he smilingly raised a finger to his forehead in salute.

“I’ve come to say good-bye,” he announced.

The ladies clustered around him. It was evident from their manner that he was a popular figure among them. Several of the younger girls addressed him as “Dick,” and asked him to send them trophies from the front. The young officer held his own amongst them with laughing self-possession. When he had taken his farewell of them he approached Miss Heredith, and held out his hand with a deferential politeness which contrasted rather noticeably with the easy familiarity of his previous leave-taking.

“I am sorry you are compelled to leave us, Captain Nepcote,” said Miss Heredith, rising with dignity to accept his outstretched hand. “Do you return immediately to the front?”

“To-night, I expect.”

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