Burboyne," said Smith, now turning to the secretary, "but Inspector Weymouth will tell you that I act with authority. I understand that Sir Crichton was—seized with illness in his study?"
"Yes—at half-past ten. I was working here in the library, and he inside, as was our custom."
"The communicating door was kept closed?"
"Yes, always. It was open for a minute or less about ten-twenty-five, when a message came for Sir Crichton. I took it in to him, and he then seemed in his usual health."
"What was the message?"
"I could not say. It was brought by a district messenger, and he placed it beside him on the table. It is there now, no doubt."
"And at half-past ten?"
"Sir Crichton suddenly burst open the door and threw himself, with a scream, into the library. I ran to him but he waved me back. His eyes were glaring horribly. I had just reached his side when he fell, writhing, upon the floor. He seemed past speech, but as I raised him and laid him upon the couch, he gasped something that sounded like 'The red hand!' Before I could get to bell or telephone he was dead!"
Mr. Burboyne's voice shook as he spoke the words, and Smith seemed to find this evidence confusing.
"You do not think he referred to the mark on his own hand?"
"I think not. From the direction of his last glance, I feel sure he referred to something in the study."
"What did you do?"
"Having summoned the servants, I ran into the study. But there was absolutely nothing unusual to be seen. The windows were closed and fastened. He worked with closed windows in the hottest weather. There is no other door, for the study occupies the end of a narrow wing, so that no one could possibly have gained access to it, whilst I was in the library, unseen by me. Had someone concealed himself in the study earlier in the evening—and I am convinced that it offers no hiding-place—he could only have come out again by passing through here."
Nayland Smith tugged at the lobe of his left ear, as was his habit when meditating.
"You had been at work here in this way for some time?"
"Yes. Sir Crichton was preparing an important book."
"Had anything unusual occurred prior to this evening?"
"Yes," said Mr. Burboyne, with evident perplexity; "though I attached no importance to it at the time. Three nights ago Sir Crichton came out to me, and appeared very nervous; but at times his nerves—you know? Well, on this occasion he asked me to search the study. He had an idea that something was concealed there."
"Some THING or someone?"
"'Something' was the word he used. I searched, but fruitlessly, and he seemed quite satisfied, and returned to his work."
"Thank you, Mr. Burboyne. My friend and I would like a few minutes' private investigation in the study."
SIR CRICHTON DAVEY'S study was a small one, and a glance sufficed to show that, as the secretary had said, it offered no hiding-place. It was heavily carpeted, and over-full of Burmese and Chinese ornaments and curios, and upon the mantelpiece stood several framed photographs which showed this to be the sanctum of a wealthy bachelor who was no misogynist. A map of the Indian Empire occupied the larger part of one wall. The grate was empty, for the weather was extremely warm, and a green-shaded lamp on the littered writing-table afforded the only light. The air was stale, for both windows were closed and fastened.
Smith immediately pounced upon a large, square envelope that lay beside the blotting-pad. Sir Crichton had not even troubled to open it, but my friend did so. It contained a blank sheet of paper!
"Smell!" he directed, handing the letter to me. I raised it to my nostrils. It was scented with some pungent perfume.
"What is it?" I asked.
"It is a rather rare essential oil," was the reply, "which I have met with before, though never in Europe. I begin to understand, Petrie."
He tilted the lamp-shade and made a close examination of the scraps of paper, matches, and other debris that lay in the grate and on the hearth. I took up a copper vase from the mantelpiece, and was examining it curiously, when he turned, a strange expression upon his face.
"Put that back, old man," he said quietly.
Much surprised, I did as he directed.
"Don't touch anything in the room. It may be dangerous."
Something in the tone of his voice chilled me, and I hastily replaced the vase, and stood by the door of the study, watching him search, methodically, every inch of the room—behind the books, in all the ornaments, in table drawers, in cupboards, on shelves.
"That will do," he said at last. "There is nothing here and I have no time to search farther."
We returned to the library.
"Inspector Weymouth," said my friend, "I have a particular reason for asking that Sir Crichton's body be removed from this room at once and the library locked. Let no one be admitted on any pretense whatever until you hear from me." It spoke volumes for the mysterious credentials borne by my friend that the man from Scotland Yard accepted his orders without demur, and, after a brief chat with Mr. Burboyne, Smith passed briskly downstairs. In the hall a man who looked like a groom out of livery was waiting.
"Are you Wills?" asked Smith.
"It was you who heard a cry of some kind at the rear of the house about the time of Sir Crichton's death?"
"Yes, sir. I was locking the garage door, and, happening to look up at the window of Sir Crichton's study, I saw him jump out of his chair. Where he used to sit at his writing, sir, you could see his shadow on the blind. Next minute I heard a call out in the lane."
"What kind of call?"
The man, whom the uncanny happening clearly had frightened, seemed puzzled for a suitable description.
"A sort of wail, sir," he said at last. "I never heard anything like it before, and don't want to again."
"Like this?" inquired Smith, and he uttered a low, wailing cry, impossible to describe. Wills perceptibly shuddered; and, indeed, it was an eerie sound.
"The same, sir, I think," he said, "but much louder."
"That will do," said Smith, and I thought I detected a note of triumph in his voice. "But stay! Take us through to the back of the house."
The man bowed and led the way, so that shortly we found ourselves in a small, paved courtyard. It was a perfect summer's night, and the deep blue vault above was jeweled with myriads of starry points. How impossible it seemed to reconcile that vast, eternal calm with the hideous passions and fiendish agencies which that night had loosed a soul upon the infinite.
"Up yonder are the study windows, sir. Over that wall on your left is the back lane from which the cry came, and beyond is Regent's Park."
"Are the study windows visible from there?"
"Oh, yes, sir."
"Who occupies the adjoining house?"
"Major-General Platt-Houston, sir; but the family is out of town."
"Those iron stairs are a means of communication between the domestic offices and the servants' quarters, I take it?"
"Then send someone to make my business known to the Major-General's housekeeper; I want to examine those stairs."
Singular though my friend's proceedings appeared to me, I had ceased to wonder at anything. Since Nayland Smith's arrival at my rooms I seemed to have been moving through the fitful phases of a nightmare. My friend's account of how he came by the wound in his arm; the scene on our arrival at the house of Sir Crichton Davey; the secretary's story of the dying man's cry, "The red hand!"; the hidden perils of the study; the wail in the lane—all were fitter incidents of delirium than of sane reality. So, when a white-faced butler made us known to a nervous old lady who proved to be the housekeeper of the next-door residence, I was not surprised at Smith's saying: