Chapter Fifteen. The Sign of the Bat




But Dale could bear it no longer. The sight of her lover, beaten, submissive, his head bowed, waiting obediently like a common criminal for the detective to lock his wrists in steel broke down her last defenses. She rushed into the center of the room, between Bailey and the detective, her eyes wild with terror, her words stumbling over each other in her eagerness to get them out.

"Oh, no! I can't stand it! I'll tell you everything!" she cried frenziedly. "He got to the foot of the stair-case - Richard Fleming, I mean," she was facing the detective now, "and he had the blue-print you've been talking about. I had told him Jack Bailey was here as the gardener and he said if I screamed he would tell that. I was desperate. I threatened him with the revolver but he took it from me. Then when I tore the blue-print from him - he was shot - from the stairs - "

"By Bailey!" interjected Beresford angrily.

"I didn't even know he was in the house!" Bailey's answer was as instant as it was hot. Meanwhile, the Doctor had entered the room, hardly noticed, in the middle of Dale's confession, and now stood watching the scene intently from a post by the door.

"What did you do with the blue-print?" The detective's voice beat at Dale like a whip.

"I put it first in the neck of my dress - " she faltered. "Then, when I found you were watching me, I hid it somewhere else."

Her eyes fell on the Doctor. She saw his hand steal out toward the knob of the door. Was he going to run away on some pretext before she could finish her story? She gave a sigh of relief when Billy, re-entering with the key to the front door, blocked any such attempt at escape.

Mechanically she watched Billy cross to the table, lay the key upon it, and return to the hall without so much as a glance at the tense, suspicious circle of faces focused upon herself and her lover.

"I put it - somewhere else," she repeated, her eyes going back to the Doctor.

"Did you give it to Bailey?"

"No - I hid it - and then I told where it was - to the Doctor - " Dale swayed on her feet. All turned surprisedly toward the Doctor. Miss Cornelia rose from her chair.

The Doctor bore the battery of eyes unflinchingly. "That's rather inaccurate," he said, with a tight little smile. "You told me where you had placed it, but when I went to look for it, it was gone."

"Are you quite sure of that?" queried Miss Cornelia acidly.

"Absolutely," he said. He ignored the rest of the party, addressing himself directly to Anderson.

"She said she had hidden it inside one of the rolls that were on the tray on that table," he continued in tones of easy explanation, approaching the table as he did so, and tapping it with the box of sleeping-powders he had brought for Miss Cornelia.

"She was in such distress that I finally went to look for it. It wasn't there."

"Do you realize the significance of this paper?" Anderson boomed at once.

"Nothing, beyond the fact that Miss Ogden was afraid it linked her with the crime." The Doctor's voice was very clear and firm.

Anderson pondered an instant. Then -

"I'd like to have a few minutes with the Doctor alone," he said somberly.

The group about him dissolved at once. Miss Cornelia, her arm around her niece's waist, led the latter gently to the door. As the two lovers passed each other a glance flashed between them - a glance, pathetically brief, of longing and love. Dale's finger tips brushed Bailey's hand gently in passing.

"Beresford," commanded the detective, "take Bailey to the library and see that he stays there."

Beresford tapped his pocket with a significant gesture and motioned Bailey to the door. Then they, too, left the room. The door closed. The Doctor and the detective were alone.

The detective spoke at once - and surprisingly.

"Doctor, I'll have that blue-print!" he said sternly, his eyes the color of steel.

The Doctor gave him a wary little glance.

"But I've just made the statement that I didn't find the blue-print," he affirmed flatly.

"I heard you!" Anderson's voice was very dry. "Now this situation is between you and me, Doctor Wells." His forefinger sought the Doctor's chest. "It has nothing to do with that poor fool of a cashier. He hasn't got either those securities or the money from them and you know it. It's in this house and you know that, too!"

"In this house?" repeated the Doctor as if stalling for time.

"In this house! Tonight, when you claimed to be making a professional call, you were in this house - and I think you were on that staircase when Richard Fleming was killed!"

"No, Anderson, I'll swear I was not!" The Doctor might be acting, but if he was, it was incomparable acting. The terror in his voice seemed too real to be feigned.

But Anderson was remorseless.

"I'll tell you this," he continued. "Miss Van Gorder very cleverly got a thumbprint of yours tonight. Does that mean anything to you?"

His eyes bored into the Doctor - the eyes of a poker player bluffing on a hidden card. But the Doctor did not flinch.

"Nothing," he said firmly. "I have not been upstairs in this house in three months."

The accent of truth in his voice seemed so unmistakable that even Anderson's shrewd brain was puzzled by it. But he persisted in his attempt to wring a confession from this latest suspect.

"Before Courtleigh Fleming died - did he tell you anything about a Hidden Room in this house?" he queried cannily.

The Doctor's confident air of honesty lessened, a furtive look appeared in his eyes.

"No," he insisted, but not as convincingly as he had made his previous denial.

The detective hammered at the point again.

"You haven't been trying to frighten these women out of here with anonymous letters so you could get in?"

"No. Certainly not." But again the Doctor's air had that odd mixture of truth and falsehood in it.

The detective paused for an instant.

"Let me see your key ring!" he ordered. The Doctor passed it over silently. The detective glanced at the keys - then, suddenly, his revolver glittered in his other hand.

The Doctor watched him anxiously. A puff of wind rattled the panes of the French windows. The storm, quieted for a while, was gathering its strength for a fresh unleashing of its dogs of thunder.

The detective stepped to the terrace door, opened it, and then quietly proceeded to try the Doctor's keys in the lock. Thus located he was out of visual range, and Wells took advantage of it at once. He moved swiftly toward the fireplace, extracting the missing piece of blue-print from an inside pocket as he did so. The secret the blue-print guarded was already graven on his mind in indelible characters - now he would destroy all evidence that it had ever been in his possession and bluff through the rest of the situation as best he might.

He threw the paper toward the flames with a nervous gesture of relief. But for once his cunning failed - the throw was too hurried to be sure and the light scrap of paper wavered and settled to the floor just outside the fireplace. The Doctor swore noiselessly and stooped to pick it up and make sure of its destruction. But he was not quick enough. Through the window the detective had seen the incident, and the next moment the Doctor heard his voice bark behind him. He turned, and stared at the leveled muzzle of Anderson's revolver.

"Hands up and stand back!" he commanded.

As he did so Anderson picked up the paper and a sardonic smile crossed his face as his eyes took in the significance of the print. He laid his revolver down on the table where he could snatch it up again at a moment's notice.

"Behind a fireplace, eh?" he muttered. "What fireplace? In what room?"

"I won't tell you!" The Doctor's voice was sullen. He inched, gingerly, cautiously, toward the other side of the table.

"All right - I'll find it, you know." The detective's eyes turned swiftly back to the blue-print. Experience should have taught him never to underrate an adversary, even of the Doctor's caliber, but long familiarity with danger can make the shrewdest careless. For a moment, as he bent over the paper again, he was off guard.

The Doctor seized the moment with a savage promptitude and sprang. There followed a silent, furious struggle between the two. Under normal circumstances Anderson would have been the stronger and quicker, but the Doctor fought with an added strength of despair and his initial leap had pinioned the detective's arms behind him. Now the detective shook one hand free and snatched at the revolver - in vain - for the Doctor, with a groan of desperation, struck at his hand as its fingers were about to close on the smooth butt and the revolver skidded from the table to the floor. With a sudden terrible movement he pinioned both the detective's arms behind him again and reached for the telephone. Its heavy base descended on the back of the detective's head with stunning force. The next moment the battle was ended and the Doctor, panting with exhaustion, held the limp form of an unconscious man in his arms.

He lowered the detective to the floor and straightened up again, listening tensely. So brief and intense had been the struggle that even now he could hardly believe in its reality. It seemed impossible, too, that the struggle had not been heard. Then he realized dully, as a louder roll of thunder smote on his ears, that the elements themselves had played into his hand. The storm, with its wind and fury, had returned just in time to save him and drown out all sounds of conflict from the rest of the house with its giant clamor.

He bent swiftly over Anderson, listening to his heart. Good - the man still breathed; he had enough on his conscience without adding the murder of a detective to the black weight. Now he pocketed the revolver and the blue-print - gagged Anderson rapidly with a knotted handkerchief and proceeded to wrap his own muffler around the detective's head as an additional silencer. Anderson gave a faint sigh.

The Doctor thought rapidly. Soon or late the detective would return to consciousness - with his hands free he could easily tear out the gag. He looked wildly about the room for a rope, a curtain - ah, he had it - the detective's own handcuffs! He snapped the cuffs on Anderson's wrists, then realized that, in his hurry, he had bound the detective's hands in front of him instead of behind him. Well - it would do for the moment - he did not need much time to carry out his plans. He dragged the limp body, its head lolling, into the billiard room where he deposited it on the floor in the corner farthest from the door.

So far, so good - now to lock the door of the billiard room. Fortunately, the key was there on the inside of the door. He quickly transferred it, locked the billiard room door from the outside, and pocketed the key. For a second he stood by the center table in the living-room, recovering his breath and trying to straighten his rumpled clothing. Then he crossed cautiously into the alcove and started to pad up the alcove stairs, his face white and strained with excitement and hope.

And it was then that there happened one of the most dramatic events of the night. One which was to remain, for the next hour or so, as bewildering as the murder and which, had it come a few moments sooner or a few moments later, would have entirely changed the course of events.

It was preceded by a desperate hammering on the door of the terrace. It halted the Doctor on his way upstairs, drew Beresford on a run into the living-room, and even reached the bedrooms of the women up above.

"My God! What's that?" Beresford panted.

The Doctor indicated the door. It was too late now. Already he could hear Miss Cornelia's voice above; it was only a question of a short time until Anderson in the billiard room revived and would try to make his plight known. And in the brief moment of that resumee of his position the knocking came again. But feebler, as though the suppliant outside had exhausted his strength.

As Beresford drew his revolver and moved to the door, Miss Cornelia came in, followed by Lizzie.

"It's the Bat," Lizzie announced mournfully. "Good-by, Miss Neily. Good-by, everybody. I saw his hand, all covered with blood. He's had a good night for sure!"

But they ignored her. And Beresford flung open the door.

Just what they had expected, what figure of horror or of fear they waited for, no one can say. But there was no horror and no fear; only unutterable amazement as an unknown man, in torn and muddied garments, with a streak of dried blood seaming his forehead like a scar, fell through the open doorway into Beresford's arms,

"Good God!" muttered Beresford, dropping his revolver to catch the strange burden. For a moment the Unknown lay in his arms like a corpse. Then he straightened dizzily, staggered into the room, took a few steps toward the table, and fell prostrate upon his face - at the end of his strength.

"Doctor!" gasped Miss Cornelia dazedly and the Doctor, whatever guilt lay on his conscience, responded at once to the call of his profession.

He bent over the Unknown Man - the physician once more - and made a brief examination.

"He's fainted!" he said, rising. "Struck on the head, too."

"But who is he?" faltered Miss Cornelia.

"I never saw him before," said the Doctor. It was obvious that he spoke the truth. "Does anyone recognize him?"

All crowded about the Unknown, trying to read the riddle of his identity. Miss Cornelia rapidly revised her first impressions of the stranger. When he had first fallen through the doorway into Beresford's arms she had not known what to think. Now, in the brighter light of the living-room she saw that the still face, beneath its mask of dirt and dried blood, was strong and fairly youthful; if the man were a criminal, he belonged, like the Bat, to the upper fringes of the world of crime. She noted mechanically that his hands and feet had been tied, ends of frayed rope still dangled from his wrists and ankles. And that terrible injury on his head! She shuddered and closed her eyes.

"Does anyone recognize him?" repeated the Doctor but one by one the others shook their heads. Crook, casual tramp, or honest laborer unexpectedly caught in the sinister toils of the Cedarcrest affair - his identity seemed a mystery to one and all.

"Is he badly hurt?" asked Miss Cornelia, shuddering again.

"It's hard to say," answered the Doctor. "I think not." The Unknown stirred feebly - made an effort to sit up. Beresford and the Doctor caught him under the arms and helped him to his feet. He stood there swaying, a blank expression on his face.

"A chair!" said the Doctor quickly. "Ah - " He helped the strange figure to sit down and bent over him again.

"You're all right now, my friend," he said in his best tones of professional cheeriness. "Dizzy a bit, aren't you?"

The Unknown rubbed his wrists where his bonds had cut them. He made an effort to speak.

"Water!" he said in a low voice.

The Doctor gestured to Billy. "Get some water - or whisky - if there is any - that'd be better."

"There's a flask of whisky in my room, Billy," added Miss Cornelia helpfully.

"Now, my man," continued the Doctor to the Unknown. "You're in the hands of friends. Brace up and tell us what happened!"

Beresford had been looking about for the detective, puzzled not to find him, as usual, in charge of affairs. Now, "Where's Anderson? This is a police matter!" he said, making a movement as if to go in search of him.

The Doctor stopped him quickly.

"He was here a minute ago - he'll be back presently," he said, praying to whatever gods he served that Anderson, bound and gagged in the billiard room, had not yet returned to consciousness.

Unobserved by all except Miss Cornelia, the mention of the detective's name had caused a strange reaction in the Unknown. His eyes had opened - he had started - the haze in his mind had seemed to clear away for a moment. Then, for some reason, his shoulders had slumped again and the look of apathy come back to his face. But, stunned or not, it now seemed possible that he was not quite as dazed as he appeared.

The Doctor gave the slumped shoulders a little shake.

"Rouse yourself, man!" he said. "What has happened to you?"

"I'm dazed!" said the Unknown thickly and slowly. "I can't remember." He passed a hand weakly over his forehead.

"What a night!" sighed Miss Cornelia, sinking into a chair. "Richard Fleming murdered in this house - and now - this!"

The Unknown shot her a stealthy glance from beneath lowered eyelids. But when she looked at him, his face was blank again.

"Why doesn't somebody ask his name?" queried Dale, and, "Where the devil is that detective?" muttered Beresford, almost in the same instant.

Neither question was answered, and Beresford, increasingly uneasy at the continued absence of Anderson, turned toward the hall.

The Doctor took Dale's suggestion.

"What's your name?"

Silence from the Unknown - and that blank stare of stupefaction.

"Look at his papers." It was Miss Cornelia's voice. The Doctor and Bailey searched the torn trouser pockets, the pockets of the muddied shirt, while the Unknown submitted passively, not seeming to care what happened to him. But search him as they would - it was in vain.

"Not a paper on him," said Jack Bailey at last, straightening up.

A crash of breaking glass from the head of the alcove Stairs put a period to his sentence. All turned toward the stairs - or all except the Unknown, who, for a moment, half-rose in his chair, his eyes gleaming, his face alert, the mask of bewildered apathy gone from his face.

As they watched, a rigid little figure of horror backed slowly down the alcove stairs and into the room - Billy, the Japanese, his Oriental placidity disturbed at last, incomprehensible terror written in every line of his face.

"Billy!"

"Billy - what is it?"

The diminutive butler made a pitiful attempt at his usual grin.

"It - nothing," he gasped. The Unknown relapsed in his chair - again the dazed stranger from nowhere.

Beresford took the Japanese by the shoulders.

"Now see here!" he said sharply. "You've seen something! What was it!"

Billy trembled like a leaf.

"Ghost! Ghost!" he muttered frantically, his face working.

"He's concealing something. Look at him!" Miss Cornelia stared at her servant.

"No, no!" insisted Billy in an ague of fright. "No, no!"

But Miss Cornelia was sure of it.

"Brooks, close that door!" she said, pointing at the terrace door in the alcove which still stood ajar after the entrance of the Unknown.

Bailey moved to obey. But just as he reached the alcove the terrace door slammed shut in his face. At the same moment every light in Cedarcrest blinked and went out again.

Bailey fumbled for the doorknob in the sudden darkness.

"The door's locked!" he said incredulously. The key's gone too. Where's your revolver, Beresford?"

"I dropped it in the alcove when I caught that man," called Beresford, cursing himself for his carelessness.

The illuminated dial of Bailey's wrist watch flickered in the darkness as he searched for the revolver - as round, glowing spot of phosphorescence.

Lizzie screamed. "The eye! The gleaming eye I saw on the stairs!" she shrieked, pointing at it frenziedly.

"Quick - there's a candle on the table - light it somebody. Never mind the revolver, I have one!" called Miss Cornelia.

"Righto!" called Beresford cheerily in reply. He found the candle, lit it -

The party blinked at each other for a moment, still unable quite to co-ordinate their thoughts.

Bailey rattled the knob of the door into the hall.

"This door's locked, too!" he said with increasing puzzlement. A gasp went over the group. They were locked in the room while some devilment was going on in the rest of the house. That they knew. But what it might be, what form it might take, they had not the remotest idea. They were too distracted to notice the injured man, now alert in his chair, or the Doctor's odd attitude of listening, above the rattle and banging of the storm.

But it was not until Miss Cornelia took the candle and proceeded toward the hall door to examine it that the full horror of the situation burst upon them.

Neatly fastened to the white panel of the door, chest high and hardly more than just dead, was the body of a bat.

Of what happened thereafter no one afterward remembered the details. To be shut in there at the mercy of one who knew no mercy was intolerable. It was left for Miss Cornelia to remember her own revolver, lying unnoticed on the table since the crime earlier in the evening, and to suggest its, use in shattering the lock. Just what they had expected when the door was finally opened they did not know. But the house was quiet and in order; no new horror faced them in the hall; their candle revealed no bloody figure, their ears heard no unearthly sound.

Slowly they began to breathe normally once more. After that they began to search the house. Since no room was apparently immune from danger, the men made no protest when the women insisted on accompanying them. And as time went on and chamber after chamber was discovered empty and undisturbed, gradually the courage of the party began to rise. Lizzie, still whimpering, stuck closely to Miss Cornelia's heels, but that spirited lady began to make small side excursions of her own.

Of the men, only Bailey, Beresford, and the Doctor could really be said to search at all. Billy had remained below, impassive of face but rolling of eye; the Unknown, after an attempt to depart with them, had sunk back weakly into his chair again, and the detective, Anderson, was still unaccountably missing.

While no one could be said to be grieving over this, still the belief that somehow, somewhere, he had met the Bat and suffered at his hands was strong in all of them except the Doctor. As each door was opened they expected to find him, probably foully murdered; as each door was closed again they breathed with relief.

And as time went on and the silence and peace remained unbroken, the conviction grew on them that the Bat had in this manner achieved his object and departed; had done his work, signed it after his usual fashion, and gone.

And thus were matters when Miss Cornelia, happening on the attic staircase with Lizzie at her heels, decided to look about her up there. And went up.



Art of Worldly Wisdom Daily
In the 1600s, Balthasar Gracian, a jesuit priest wrote 300 aphorisms on living life called "The Art of Worldly Wisdom." Join our newsletter below and read them all, one at a time.
Email:
Sonnet-a-Day Newsletter
Shakespeare wrote over 150 sonnets! Join our Sonnet-A-Day Newsletter and read them all, one at a time.
Email: