Robert Cairn looked out across the quadrangle. The moon had just arisen, and it softened the beauty of the old college buildings, mellowed the harshness of time, casting shadow pools beneath the cloisteresque arches to the west and setting out the ivy in stronger relief upon the ancient walls. The barred shadow on the lichened stones beyond the elm was cast by the hidden gate; and straight ahead, where, between a quaint chimney-stack and a bartizan, a triangular patch of blue showed like spangled velvet, lay the Thames. It was from there the cooling breeze came.
But Cairn's gaze was set upon a window almost directly ahead, and west below the chimneys. Within the room to which it belonged a lambent light played.
Cairn turned to his companion, a ruddy and athletic looking man, somewhat bovine in type, who at the moment was busily tracing out sections on a human skull and checking his calculations from Ross's Diseases of the Nervous System.
"Sime," he said, "what does Ferrara always have a fire in his rooms for at this time of the year?"
Sime glanced up irritably at the speaker. Cairn was a tall, thin Scotsman, clean-shaven, square jawed, and with the crisp light hair and grey eyes which often bespeak unusual virility.
"Aren't you going to do any work?" he inquired pathetically. "I thought you'd come to give me a hand with my basal ganglia. I shall go down on that; and there you've been stuck staring out of the window!"
"Wilson, in the end house, has got a most unusual brain," said Cairn, with apparent irrelevance.
"Has he!" snapped Sime.
"Yes, in a bottle. His governor is at Bart's; he sent it up yesterday. You ought to see it."
"Nobody will ever want to put your brain in a bottle," predicted the scowling Sime, and resumed his studies.
Cairn relighted his pipe, staring across the quadrangle again. Then—
"You've never been in Ferrara's rooms, have you?" he inquired.
Followed a muffled curse, crash, and the skull went rolling across the floor.
"Look here, Cairn," cried Sime, "I've only got a week or so now, and my nervous system is frantically rocky; I shall go all to pieces on my nervous system. If you want to talk, go ahead. When you're finished, I can begin work."
"Right-oh," said Cairn calmly, and tossed his pouch across. "I want to talk to you about Ferrara."
"Go ahead then. What is the matter with Ferrara?"
"Well," replied Cairn, "he's queer."
"That's no news," said Sime, filling his pipe; "we all know he's a queer chap. But he's popular with women. He'd make a fortune as a nerve specialist."
"He doesn't have to; he inherits a fortune when Sir Michael dies."
"There's a pretty cousin, too, isn't there?" inquired Sime slyly.
"There is," replied Cairn. "Of course," he continued, "my governor and Sir Michael are bosom friends, and although I've never seen much of young Ferrara, at the same time I've got nothing against him. But—" he hesitated.
"Spit it out," urged Sime, watching him oddly.
"Well, it's silly, I suppose, but what does he want with a fire on a blazing night like this?"
"Perhaps he's a throwback," he suggested lightly. "The Ferraras, although they're counted Scotch—aren't they?—must have been Italian originally—"
"Spanish," corrected Cairn. "They date from the son of Andrea Ferrara, the sword-maker, who was a Spaniard. Caesar Ferrara came with the Armada in 1588 as armourer. His ship was wrecked up in the Bay of Tobermory and he got ashore—and stopped."
"Married a Scotch lassie?"
"Exactly. But the genealogy of the family doesn't account for Antony's habits."
"Well, look." Cairn waved in the direction of the open window. "What does he do in the dark all night, with a fire going?"
"Nonsense! You've never been in his rooms, have you?"
"No. Very few men have. But as I said before, he's popular with the women."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean there have been complaints. Any other man would have been sent down."
"You think he has influence—"
"Influence of some sort, undoubtedly."
"Well, I can see you have serious doubts about the man, as I have myself, so I can unburden my mind. You recall that sudden thunderstorm on Thursday?"
"Rather; quite upset me for work."
"I was out in it. I was lying in a punt in the backwater—you know, our backwater."
"To tell you the truth, I was trying to make up my mind whether I should abandon bones and take the post on the Planet which has been offered me."
"Pills for the pen—Harley for Fleet? Did you decide?"
"Not then; something happened which quite changed my line of reflection."
The room was becoming cloudy with tobacco smoke.
"It was delightfully still," Cairn resumed. "A water rat rose within a foot of me and a kingfisher was busy on a twig almost at my elbow. Twilight was just creeping along, and I could hear nothing but faint creakings of sculls from the river and sometimes the drip of a punt-pole. I thought the river seemed to become suddenly deserted; it grew quite abnormally quiet—and abnormally dark. But I was so deep in reflection that it never occurred to me to move.
"Then the flotilla of swans came round the bend, with Apollo—you know Apollo, the king-swan?—at their head. By this time it had grown tremendously dark, but it never occurred to me to ask myself why. The swans, gliding along so noiselessly, might have been phantoms. A hush, a perfect hush, settled down. Sime, that hush was the prelude to a strange thing—an unholy thing!"
Cairn rose excitedly and strode across to the table, kicking the skull out of his way.
"It was the storm gathering," snapped Sime.
"It was something else gathering! Listen! It got yet darker, but for some inexplicable reason, although I must have heard the thunder muttering, I couldn't take my eyes off the swans. Then it happened—the thing I came here to tell you about; I must tell somebody—the thing that I am not going to forget in a hurry."
He began to knock out the ash from his pipe.
"Go on," directed Sime tersely.
"The big swan—Apollo—was within ten feet of me; he swam in open water, clear of the others; no living thing touched him. Suddenly, uttering a cry that chilled my very blood, a cry that I never heard from a swan in my life, he rose in the air, his huge wings extended—like a tortured phantom, Sime; I can never forget it—six feet clear of the water. The uncanny wail became a stifled hiss, and sending up a perfect fountain of water—I was deluged—the poor old king-swan fell, beat the surface with his wings—and was still."
"The other swans glided off like ghosts. Several heavy raindrops pattered on the leaves above. I admit I was scared. Apollo lay with one wing right in the punt. I was standing up; I had jumped to my feet when the thing occurred. I stooped and touched the wing. The bird was quite dead! Sime, I pulled the swan's head out of the water, and—his neck was broken; no fewer than three vertebrae fractured!"
A cloud of tobacco smoke was wafted towards the open window.
"It isn't one in a million who could wring the neck of a bird like Apollo, Sime; but it was done before my eyes without the visible agency of God or man! As I dropped him and took to the pole, the storm burst. A clap of thunder spoke with the voice of a thousand cannon, and I poled for bare life from that haunted backwater. I was drenched to the skin when I got in, and I ran up all the way from the stage."
"Well?" rapped the other again, as Cairn paused to refill his pipe.
"It was seeing the firelight flickering at Ferrara's window that led me to do it. I don't often call on him; but I thought that a rub down before the fire and a glass of toddy would put me right. The storm had abated as I got to the foot of his stair—only a distant rolling of thunder.
"Then, out of the shadows—it was quite dark—into the flickering light of the lamp came somebody all muffled up. I started horribly. It was a girl, quite a pretty girl, too, but very pale, and with over-bright eyes. She gave one quick glance up into my face, muttered something, an apology, I think, and drew back again into her hiding-place."
"He's been warned," growled Sime. "It will be notice to quit next time."
"I ran upstairs and banged on Ferrara's door. He didn't open at first, but shouted out to know who was knocking. When I told him, he let me in, and closed the door very quickly. As I went in, a pungent cloud met me—incense."
"His rooms smelt like a joss-house; I told him so. He said he was experimenting with Kyphi —the ancient Egyptian stuff used in the temples. It was all dark and hot; phew! like a furnace. Ferrara's rooms always were odd, but since the long vacation I hadn't been in. Good lord, they're disgusting!"
"How? Ferrara spent vacation in Egypt; I suppose he's brought things back?"
"Things—yes! Unholy things! But that brings me to something too. I ought to know more about the chap than anybody; Sir Michael Ferrara and the governor have been friends for thirty years; but my father is oddly reticent—quite singularly reticent—regarding Antony. Anyway, have you heard about him, in Egypt?"
"I've heard he got into trouble. For his age, he has a devil of a queer reputation; there's no disguising it."
"What sort of trouble?"
"I've no idea. Nobody seems to know. But I heard from young Ashby that Ferrara was asked to leave."
"There's some tale about Kitchener—"
" By Kitchener, Ashby says; but I don't believe it."
"Well—Ferrara lighted a lamp, an elaborate silver thing, and I found myself in a kind of nightmare museum. There was an unwrapped mummy there, the mummy of a woman—I can't possibly describe it. He had pictures, too—photographs. I shan't try to tell you what they represented. I'm not thin-skinned; but there are some subjects that no man anxious to avoid Bedlam would willingly investigate. On the table by the lamp stood a number of objects such as I had never seen in my life before, evidently of great age. He swept them into a cupboard before I had time to look long. Then he went off to get a bath towel, slippers, and so forth. As he passed the fire he threw something in. A hissing tongue of flame leapt up—and died down again."
"What did he throw in?"
"I am not absolutely certain; so I won't say what I think it was, at the moment. Then he began to help me shed my saturated flannels, and he set a kettle on the fire, and so forth. You know the personal charm of the man? But there was an unpleasant sense of something—what shall I say?—sinister. Ferrara's ivory face was more pale than usual, and he conveyed the idea that he was chewed up—exhausted. Beads of perspiration were on his forehead."
"Heat of his rooms?"
"No," said Cairn shortly. "It wasn't that. I had a rub down and borrowed some slacks. Ferrara brewed grog and pretended to make me welcome. Now I come to something which I can't forget; it may be a mere coincidence, but—. He has a number of photographs in his rooms, good ones, which he has taken himself. I'm not speaking now of the monstrosities, the outrages; I mean views, and girls—particularly girls. Well, standing on a queer little easel right under the lamp was a fine picture of Apollo, the swan, lord of the backwater."
Sime stared dully through the smoke haze.
"It gave me a sort of shock," continued Cairn. "It made me think, harder than ever, of the thing he had thrown in the fire. Then, in his photographic zenana, was a picture of a girl whom I am almost sure was the one I had met at the bottom of the stair. Another was of Myra Duquesne."
"Yes. I felt like tearing it from the wall. In fact, the moment I saw it, I stood up to go. I wanted to run to my rooms and strip the man's clothes off my back! It was a struggle to be civil any longer. Sime, if you had seen that swan die—"
Sime walked over to the window.
"I have a glimmering of your monstrous suspicions," he said slowly. "The last man to be kicked out of an English varsity for this sort of thing, so far as I know, was Dr. Dee of St. John's, Cambridge, and that's going back to the sixteenth century."
"I know; it's utterly preposterous, of course. But I had to confide in somebody. I'll shift off now, Sime."
Sime nodded, staring from the open window. As Cairn was about to close the outer door:
"Cairn," cried Sime, "since you are now a man of letters and leisure, you might drop in and borrow Wilson's brains for me."
"All right," shouted Cairn.
Down in the quadrangle he stood for a moment, reflecting; then, acting upon a sudden resolution, he strode over towards the gate and ascended Ferrara's stair.
For some time he knocked at the door in vain, but he persisted in his clamouring, arousing the ancient echoes. Finally, the door was opened.
Antony Ferrara faced him. He wore a silver-grey dressing gown, trimmed with white swansdown, above which his ivory throat rose statuesque. The almond-shaped eyes, black as night, gleamed strangely beneath the low, smooth brow. The lank black hair appeared lustreless by comparison. His lips were very red. In his whole appearance there was something repellently effeminate.
"Can I come in?" demanded Cairn abruptly.
"Is it—something important?" Ferrara's voice was husky but not unmusical.
"Why, are you busy?"
"Well—er—" Ferrara smiled oddly.
"Oh, a visitor?" snapped Cairn.
"Not at all."
"Accounts for your delay in opening," said Cairn, and turned on his heel. "Mistook me for the proctor, in person, I suppose. Good night."
Ferrara made no reply. But, although he never once glanced back, Cairn knew that Ferrara, leaning over the rail, above, was looking after him; it was as though elemental heat were beating down upon his head.
A week later Robert Cairn quitted Oxford to take up the newspaper appointment offered to him in London. It may have been due to some mysterious design of a hidden providence that Sime 'phoned him early in the week about an unusual case in one of the hospitals.
"Walton is junior house-surgeon there," he said, "and he can arrange for you to see the case. She (the patient) undoubtedly died from some rare nervous affection. I have a theory," etc.; the conversation became technical.
Cairn went to the hospital, and by courtesy of Walton, whom he had known at Oxford, was permitted to view the body.
"The symptoms which Sime has got to hear about," explained the surgeon, raising the sheet from the dead woman's face, "are—"
He broke off. Cairn had suddenly exhibited a ghastly pallor; he clutched at Walton for support.
Cairn, still holding on to the other, stooped over the discoloured face. It had been a pretty face when warm life had tinted its curves; now it was congested—awful; two heavy discolorations showed, one on either side of the region of the larynx.
"What on earth is wrong with you?" demanded Walton.
"I thought," gasped Cairn, "for a moment, that I knew—"
"Really! I wish you did! We can't find out anything about her. Have a good look."
"No," said Cairn, mastering himself with an effort—"a chance resemblance, that's all." He wiped the beads of perspiration from his forehead.
"You look jolly shaky," commented Walton. "Is she like someone you know very well?"
"No, not at all, now that I come to consider the features; but it was a shock at first. What on earth caused death?"
"Asphyxia," answered Walton shortly. "Can't you see?"
"Someone strangled her, and she was brought here too late?"
"Not at all, my dear chap; nobody strangled her. She was brought here in a critical state four or five days ago by one of the slum priests who keep us so busy. We diagnosed it as exhaustion from lack of food—with other complications. But the case was doing quite well up to last night; she was recovering strength. Then, at about one o'clock, she sprang up in bed, and fell back choking. By the time the nurse got to her it was all over."
"But the marks on her throat?"
Walton shrugged his shoulders.
"There they are! Our men are keenly interested. It's absolutely unique. Young Shaw, who has a mania for the nervous system, sent a long account up to Sime, who suffers from a similar form of aberration."
"Yes; Sime 'phoned me."
"It's nothing to do with nerves," said Walton contemptuously. "Don't ask me to explain it, but it's certainly no nerve case."
"One of the other patients—"
"My dear chap, the other patients were all fast asleep! The nurse was at her table in the corner, and in full view of the bed the whole time. I tell you no one touched her!"
"How long elapsed before the nurse got to her?"
"Possibly half a minute. But there is no means of learning when the paroxysm commenced. The leaping up in bed probably marked the end and not the beginning of the attack."
Cairn experienced a longing for the fresh air; it was as though some evil cloud hovered around and about the poor unknown. Strange ideas, horrible ideas, conjectures based upon imaginings all but insane, flooded his mind darkly.
Leaving the hospital, which harboured a grim secret, he stood at the gate for a moment, undecided what to do. His father, Dr. Cairn, was out of London, or he would certainly have sought him in this hour of sore perplexity.
"What in Heaven's name is behind it all!" he asked himself.
For he knew beyond doubt that the girl who lay in the hospital was the same that he had seen one night at Oxford, was the girl whose photograph he had found in Antony Ferrara's rooms!
He formed a sudden resolution. A taxicab was passing at that moment, and he hailed it, giving Sir Michael Ferrara's address. He could scarcely trust himself to think, but frightful possibilities presented themselves to him, repel them how he might. London seemed to grow dark, overshadowed, as once he had seen a Thames backwater grow. He shuddered, as though from a physical chill.
The house of the famous Egyptian scholar, dull white behind its rampart of trees, presented no unusual appearances to his anxious scrutiny. What he feared he scarcely knew; what he suspected he could not have defined.
Sir Michael, said the servant, was unwell and could see no one. That did not surprise Cairn; Sir Michael had not enjoyed good health since malaria had laid him low in Syria. But Miss Duquesne was at home.
Cairn was shown into the long, low-ceiled room which contained so many priceless relics of a past civilisation. Upon the bookcase stood the stately ranks of volumes which had carried the fame of Europe's foremost Egyptologist to every corner of the civilised world. This queerly furnished room held many memories for Robert Cairn, who had known it from childhood, but latterly it had always appeared to him in his daydreams as the setting for a dainty figure. It was here that he had first met Myra Duquesne, Sir Michael's niece, when, fresh from a Norman convent, she had come to shed light and gladness upon the somewhat, sombre household of the scholar. He often thought of that day; he could recall every detail of the meeting—
Myra Duquesne came in, pulling aside the heavy curtains that hung in the arched entrance. With a granite Osiris flanking her slim figure on one side and a gilded sarcophagus on the other, she burst upon the visitor, a radiant vision in white. The light gleamed through her soft, brown hair forming a halo for a face that Robert Cairn knew for the sweetest in the world.
"Why, Mr. Cairn," she said, and blushed entrancingly—"we thought you had forgotten us."
"That's not a little bit likely," he replied, taking her proffered hand, and there was that in his voice and in his look which made her lower her frank grey eyes. "I have only been in London a few days, and I find that Press work is more exacting than I had anticipated!"
"Did you want to see my uncle very particularly?" asked Myra.
"In a way, yes. I suppose he could not manage to see me—"
Myra shook her head. Now that the flush of excitement had left her face, Cairn was concerned to see how pale she was and what dark shadows lurked beneath her eyes.
"Sir Michael is not seriously ill?" he asked quickly. "Only one of the visual attacks—"
"Yes—at least it began with one."
She hesitated, and Cairn saw to his consternation that her eyes became filled with tears. The real loneliness of her position, now that her guardian was ill, the absence of a friend in whom she could confide her fears, suddenly grew apparent to the man who sat watching her.
"You are tired out," he said gently. "You have been nursing him?"
She nodded and tried to smile.
"Who is attending?"
"Sir Elwin Groves, but—"
"Shall I wire for my father?"
"We wired for him yesterday!"
"What! to Paris?"
"Yes, at my uncle's wish."
"Then—he thinks he is seriously ill, himself?"
"I cannot say," answered the girl wearily. "His behaviour is—queer. He will allow no one in his room, and barely consents to see Sir Elwin. Then, twice recently, he has awakened in the night and made a singular request."
"What is that?"
"He has asked me to send for his solicitor in the morning, speaking harshly and almost as though—he hated me. …"
"I don't understand. Have you complied?"
"Yes, and on each occasion he has refused to see the solicitor when he has arrived!"
"I gather that you have been acting as night-attendant?"
"I remain in an adjoining room; he is always worse at night. Perhaps it is telling on my nerves, but last night—"
Again she hesitated, as though doubting the wisdom of further speech; but a brief scrutiny of Cairn's face, with deep anxiety to be read in his eyes, determined her to proceed.
"I had been asleep, and I must have been dreaming, for I thought that a voice was chanting, quite near to me."
"Yes—it was horrible, in some way. Then a sensation of intense coldness came; it was as though some icily cold creature fanned me with its wings! I cannot describe it, but it was numbing; I think I must have felt as those poor travellers do who succumb to the temptation to sleep in the snow."
Cairn surveyed her anxiously, for in its essentials this might be a symptom of a dreadful ailment.
"I aroused myself, however," she continued, "but experienced an unaccountable dread of entering my uncle's room. I could hear him muttering strangely, and—I forced myself to enter! I saw—oh, how can I tell you! You will think me mad!"
She raised her hands to her face; she was trembling. Robert Cairn took them in his own, forcing her to look up.
"Tell me," he said quietly.
"The curtains were drawn back; I distinctly remembered having closed them, but they were drawn back; and the moonlight was shining on to the bed."
"Bad; he was dreaming."
"But was I dreaming? Mr. Cairn, two hands were stretched out over my uncle, two hands that swayed slowly up and down in the moonlight!"
Cairn leapt to his feet, passing his hand over his forehead.
"Go on," he said.
"I—I cried out, but not loudly—I think I was very near to swooning. The hands were withdrawn into the shadow, and my uncle awoke and sat up. He asked, in a low voice, if I were there, and I ran to him."
"He ordered me, very coldly, to 'phone for his solicitor at nine o'clock this morning, and then fell back, and was asleep again almost immediately. The solicitor came, and was with him for nearly an hour. He sent for one of his clerks, and they both went away at half-past ten. Uncle has been in a sort of dazed condition ever since; in fact he has only once aroused himself, to ask for Dr. Cairn. I had a telegram sent immediately."
"The governor will be here tonight," said Cairn confidently. "Tell me, the hands which you thought you saw: was there anything peculiar about them?"
"In the moonlight they seemed to be of a dull white colour. There was a ring on one finger—a green ring. Oh!" she shuddered. "I can see it now."
"You would know it again?"
"Actually, there was no one in the room, of course?"
"No one. It was some awful illusion; but I can never forget it."