Roy Glashan's Library
Non sibi sed omnibus
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A STRANGE, weird sort of place was Corbie Hall. There was an eeriness about it that was calculated to make one shudder. For years it had been practically a ruin, and tenantless.
Although an old place, it was without any particular history, except a tradition that a favourite of Queen Mary had once lived there, and suddenly disappeared in a mysterious way. He was supposed to have been murdered and buried secretly.
The last tenant was one Robert Crease, a wild roisterer, who had travelled much beyond the seas, scraped money together, purchased the Hall, surrounded himself with a number of boon companions, and turned night into day. Corbie Hall stood just to the north of Blackford Hill, as those who are old enough will remember.
In Rob Crease's time it was a lonely enough place; but he and his brother roisterers were not affected by the solitude, and many were the curious tales told about their orgies.
However, Rob came to grief one night. He had been into the town for some purpose, and, staggering home in a storm of wind and rain with a greater burden of liquor than he could comfortably carry, he missed his way, pitched headlong into a quarry, and broke his neck.
He left the place to a person whom he described as his nephew. But the heir could not be found, nor could his death be proved. Then litigation had ensued, and there had been fierce wrangles; bitterness was engendered, and bad blood made. The place, however, remained empty and lonely year after year, until, as might have been expected, it got an evil reputation. People said it was haunted. They slimmed it. The wildest possible stories were told about it. It fell into dilapidation. The winter rains and snows soaked through the roof. The window-frames rotted; the grounds became a wilderness of weeds.
At last the heir was found. His name was Raymond Balfour. He was the only son of Crease's only sister, who had married a ne'er-do-well of a fellow, who came from no one knew where, and where he went to no one cared. He treated his wife shamefully.
Her son was born in Edinburgh, and when he was little more than a baby she fled with him and obtained a situation of some kind in Deeside. She managed to give her boy a decent education, and he was sent to Edinburgh to study law.
He seemed, however, to have inherited some of his father's bad qualities, and fell into disgrace. His mother dying before he was quite out of his teens, he found himself friendless and without resources.
His mother in marrying had alienated herself from her relatives, what few she had; and when she died no one seemed anxious to own kindredship with Raymond, whose conduct and 'goings on' were described as 'outrageous.' So the young fellow snapped his lingers at everyone, declared his intention of going out into the world to seek his fortune, and disappeared.
After many years of wandering in all parts of the world, and when in mid-life, he returned to Edinburgh, for the university declared that, of all the cities he had seen, it was the most beautiful, the most picturesque.
He was a stalwart, sunburnt, handsome fellow, though with a somewhat moody expression and a cold, distant, reserved manner. He had heard by mere chance of his inheritance, and, having legally established his claim, took possession of his property.
Although nobody could learn anything at all of his affairs, it was soon made evident that he had plenty of money. He brought, with him from India, or somewhere else, a native servant, who appeared to be devoted to him. This servant was simply known as Chunda.
He was a strange, fragile-looking being, with restless, dreamy eyes, thin, delicate hands, and a hairless, mobile face, that was more like the face of a woman than a man. Yet the strong light of the eyes, and somewhat square chin, spoke of determination and a passionate nature. When he first came he wore his native garb, which was exceedingly picturesque; but in a very short time he donned European clothes, and never walked abroad without a topcoat on, even in what Edinburgh folk considered hot weather.
When it became known that the wanderer had returned, apparently a wealthy man, those who years before had declared his conduct to be 'outrageous,' and declined to own him, now showed a disposition to pay the most servile homage.
But he would have none of them. It was his hour of triumph, and he closed his doors against all who came to claim kinship with him.
Very soon it was made manifest that Raymond Balfour was in the way to distinguish himself as his predecessor and kinsman, Crease, had done.
Corbie Hall was turned into a place of revel and riot, and strange, even startling, were the stories that came into currency by the vulgar lips of common rumour. Those whose privilege it was to be the guests at Corbie Hall were not people who, according to Edinburgh ethics, were entitled to be classed amongst the elect, or who were numbered within the pale of so-called 'respectable society' They belonged rather to that outer fringe which was considered to be an ungodly Bohemia.
It was true that in their ranks were certain young men who were supposed to be seriously pursuing their studies in order that they might ultimately qualify for the Church, the Law, and Medicine.
But their chief sin, perhaps, was youth, which, as the years advanced, would be overcome. Nevertheless, the frowns of the 'superior people' were directed to them, and they were solemnly warned that Corbie Hall was on the highroad to perdition; that, as it had always been an unlucky place, it would continue to be unlucky; in short, that it was accursed.
Raymond Balfour's guests were not all of the sterner sex. Ladies occasionally graced his board. One of them was a Maggie Stiven, who rejoiced in being referred to as the best hated woman in Edinburgh.
She was the daughter of a baker carrying on business in the High Street; but Maggie had quarrelled with her parents, and taken herself off to her only brother, who kept a public-house in College Street.
He, too, had quarrelled with his people, so that he not only welcomed Maggie, but was glad of her assistance in his business.
Maggie bore the proud reputation of being the prettiest young woman in Edinburgh. Her age was about three-and-twenty, and it was said she had turned the heads of half the young fellows in the town. She was generally regarded as a heartless coquette, a silly flirt, who had brains for nothing else but dress.
She possessed a will of her own, however, and seemed determined to shape her course and order her life exactly as it pleased her to do.
She used to say that, if 'the grand folk' turned up their noses at her, she knew how to turn up her nose at them.
When she found out that a rumour was being bandied from lip to lip, which coupled her name with the name of Raymond Balfour—in short, that he and she were engaged to be married—she was intensely delighted; but, while she did not deny it, she would not admit it. It was only in accordance with human nature that some spiteful things should be said.
'It's no for his guid looks nor his moral character that Maggie Stiven's fastening herself on to the reprobate of Corbie Hall,' was the sneering comment. 'It's his siller she's thinking of. She's aye ready to sell her body and soul for siller. Well, when he's married on to her he'll sune find that it taks mair than a winsome face tae make happiness. But fules will aye be fules, and he maun gang his ain way.'
It is pretty certain that Maggie was not affected by this sort of tittle-tattle. She knew the power of her 'winsome face,' and made the most of it. She knew also that the scathing things that were said about her came from her own sex.
She could twist men round her little finger. They were her slaves. That is where her triumph came in. She could make women mad, and bring men to their knees.
Whether or not there was any truth in the rumour at this time, that she was likely to wed the master of Corbie Hall, there was no doubt at all that she was a frequent visitor there.
Sometimes she went with her brother, who supplied most of the liquor consumed in the Hall—and it was a pretty good source of income to him—and sometimes she went alone.
Scarcely a night passed that Mr. Balfour was without company; and Maggie was often there three or four nights a week. She had even been seen driving about with him in his dogcart.
It seemed, therefore, as if there was some justification for the surmise as to the probable match and the ultimate wedding.
These preliminary particulars about Maggie and the new owner of Corbie Hall will pave the way to the series of extraordinary events that has now to be described.
It was New Year's Eve. Raymond Balfour had then been in possession of his property for something like nine months, and during that period had made the most of his time.
He had gone the pace, as the saying is; and the old house, after years of mouldiness and decay, echoed the shouts of revelry night after night. There were wild doings there, and sedate people were shocked.
On the New Year's Eve in question there was a pretty big party in the Hall. During the week following Christmas, large stores of supplies had been sent out from the town in readiness for the great feast that was to usher in the New Year.
Some fifteen guests assembled in the house altogether, including Maggie Stiven and four other ladies, and in order to minister to the wants of this motley crowd, three or four special waiters were engaged to come from Edinburgh.
The day had been an unusually stormy one. A terrific gale had lashed the Firth, and there had been much loss of life and many wrecks. The full force of the storm was felt in Edinburgh, and numerous accidents had occurred through the falling of chimney- cans and pots. Windows were blown in, hoardings swept away, and trees uprooted as if they had been mere saplings.
The wind was accompanied by hail and snow, while the temperature was so low that three or four homeless, starving wretches were found frozen to death.
As darkness set in the wind abated, but snow then began to fall, and in the course of two or three hours roads and railways were blocked, and the streets of the city could only be traversed with the greatest difficulty. Indeed, by seven o'clock all vehicular traffic had ceased, and benighted wayfarers despaired of reaching their homes in safety.
The storm, the darkness, the severity of the weather, the falling snow, did not affect the spirits nor the physical comfort of the guests assembled at Corbie Hall.
To the south of Edinburgh the snow seemed to fall heavier than it did in the city itself. In exposed places it lay in immense drifts, but everywhere it was so deep that the country roads were obliterated, landmarks wiped out, and hedges buried.
In the lonely region of Blackford Hill, Corbie Hall was the only place that gave forth any signs of human life. Light and warmth were there, and the lights streaming from the windows must have shone forth as beacons of hope to anyone in the neighbourhood who might by chance have been battling with the storm and struggling to a place of safety.
But no one was likely to be abroad on such a night; and the guests at the Hall, when they saw the turn the weather had taken, knew that they would be storm-stayed at the Hall until the full light of day returned. But that prospect did not concern them.
They were there to see the old year out and the new one in; and so long as the 'meal and the malt' did not fail they would be in no hurry to go.
From all the evidence that was collected, they were a wild party, and did full justice to the stock of eatables and drinkables—especially the drinkables—that were so lavishly supplied by the host.
When twelve o'clock struck there was a scene of wild uproar, and everyone who was sober enough to do so toasted his neighbour. During the whole of the evening Balfour had openly displayed great partiality for Maggie Stiven.
He insisted on her sitting next to him, and he paid her marked attention. When the company staggered to their feet to usher in the new year, Raymond Balfour Hung his arms suddenly round her neck, and, kissing her with great warmth, he droned out a stanza of a love-ditty, and then in husky tones exclaimed:
'Maggie Stiven's the bonniest lass that ever lived, and I'm going to marry her.'
About half-past one only a few of the roisterers were left at the table. The others had succumbed to the too-seductive influences of the wine and whisky, and had ceased to take any further interest in the proceedings. Suddenly there resounded through the house a shrill, piercing scream. It was a scream that seemed to indicate intense horror and great agony.
Consternation and silence fell upon all who heard it. In a few moments Raymond Balfour rose to his feet and said:
'Don't be alarmed. Sit still. I'll go and see what's the matter.'
He left the room with unsteady gait, and nobody showed any disposition to follow him. Something like a superstitious awe had taken possession of the revellers, and they conversed with each other subduedly.
Amongst them was a tough, bronzed seafaring man, named Jasper Jarvis. He was captain of the barque Bonnie Scotland, which had arrived at Leith a few weeks before from the Gold Coast with a cargo of palm-oil and ivory.
Jarvis, who seems to have been quite in his sober senses, got up, threw an extra log on the fire, and in order to put heart into his companions, began to troll out a nautical ditty; but it had not the inspiriting effect that he expected, and somebody timidly suggested that he should go in search of the host.
To this he readily assented, but before he could get from his seat, Maggie Stiven jumped up and exclaimed:
'You people all stay here. I'll go and look for Raymond.'
Captain Jarvis offered no objection, and no one else interposed, so Maggie hurriedly left the room. From this point the narrative of what followed can best be told in the skipper's own words.
WHEN Maggie had gone we were six all told. The four ladies had previously gone to bed. Two out of the six were so muddled that they seemed incapable of understanding anything that was going on.
The other three appeared to be under the spell of fear. They huddled together round the fire, and all became silent.
It is curious that they should have been so affected by the scream; and vet, perhaps, it wasn't, for somehow or other it didn't seem natural at all. Hut the fact is, we had all been so jolly and happy, and the cry broke in upon us so suddenly, that it impressed us more than it would have done otherwise.
And then another thing was, it was difficult to tell whether it was a woman or a man who had screamed. It was too shrill for a man's cry, and vet it wasn't like the scream of a woman.
When Maggie Stiven had been gone about ten minutes—it seemed much longer than that to us—Rab Thomson, who was one of three men who sat by the fire, looked at me with white face, and said:
'Skipper, you go and look after them. I don't feel easy in my mind. I've a sort of feeling something queer has happened.'
On that I rose, saying I would soon find out, and went to the door. As I opened it I heard a sigh, and then a sort of prolonged groan, and I saw, or fancied I saw, a shadowy figure flit up the stair.
The hall was in darkness, save for the light that fell through the doorway as I held the door partly open. I'm ashamed to say it, but when I saw—if I did see it—that ghostly figure glide up the stairs, and heard the sigh and the groan, I shut the door quickly and drew back into the room.
Like most sailor men, I'm not without some belief in signs, omens, wraiths, and those kind of things; though nobody can say, and nobody must say, I'm wanting in pluck.
I've been at sea for thirty-two years, and during that time I've faced death in a thousand forms, and never had any feeling of fear. Rut, to be straight, I don't like anything that's uncanny. I like to be able to get a grip of things, and to understand them.
When I started back into the room, Rah Thomson rose to his feet and asked me what I'd seen. I told him I had seen a shadowy figure glide up the stairs, and had heard a sigh and a groan.
He laughed, but it wasn't a real kind of laugh. He was as white as death, and I heard his teeth chatter, and with a sudden movement he went to one of the long windows, pulled aside the heavy curtain, and, pressing his face to the glass, peered out.
I think his intention was to get out of the window and go home; but he saw what an awful night it was. The snow was still falling heavily; it was piled up against the window, and no one but a madman or a fool would have dreamed of going forth in such a storm, for it was all but certain he would have lost his life in the drifts.
Rab let the curtain fall, and, drawing back, filled himself a measure of whisky, and, tossing it off, said to me:
'Why don't you go and see what's the matter, man? Surely, you are no' frightened?' 'No,' I said, 'but you are.'
And I walked to the door again, Hung it open wide, so that the light streamed forth, and as I did so I saw a woman lying huddled up on the mat at the foot of the stairs.
I recognised her at once by the dress, which was a kind of pink silk, with a lot of fluffy lace all round the neck part of it, as Maggie Stiven, and, thinking she had fainted, I rushed forward, lifted her up with ease—for I am a powerful man, and she was a lightly-built little woman—and carried her to a big chair that stood empty near the fire. As I put her in the chair I noticed that her head fell forward on to her bosom with a strange kind of limpness, and her face was of a greenish, chalky kind of hue.
I felt frightened, and called out to the others to rouse up James Macfarlane, who had been studying medicine, but had nearly finished his course, and expected to get his diploma the next session.
Jamie had stowed away too much liquor in his hold in the early part of the evening, and had foundered, so somebody had rolled him up in a rug and put him on a couch, where he had been sleeping for hours. Notwithstanding that fact, it took a long time to waken him.
In the meanwhile I chafed Maggie's hand, and Rab tried to get brandy down her throat, but it flowed out of her mouth again.
When James Macfarlane realized that something was wrong, he pulled himself together at once, and having felt Maggie's pulse, he exclaimed with a horrified expression on his face:
'My God, boys, she's dead!'
This was only a confirmation of my own fears; nevertheless, the definite assertion by one who was qualified to tell was an awful shock to us.
A little more than a quarter of an hour before, Maggie, radiant with health and spirits, and looking very bonnie—she was one of the prettiest girls I think I've ever seen—had run out of the room; and now she was there in the chair, dead.
At Macfarlane's suggestion we laid her flat on her back on the rug before the fire, and he tried to force a little brandy down her throat, but failed; and as he rose to his feet again, he said sadly:
'There's no mistake about it, boys: she's dead as a herring.'
Our first thought now was of our host. What had become of him? I and Rab, who had recovered from his fright by this time, undertook to go in search of him. We lit the swinging lamp in the hall, and, taking candles with us, went upstairs to his room; but he was not there, and there were no signs of his having been there. Then we went to the room of the black fellow, Chunda.
The door was locked, and we had to shake and hammer it pretty hard before we roused him up. As he opened the door and stood before us in his night-clothes, he looked dazed, as one does when just wakened from sound sleep.
He did not speak English, but I could manage a little Hindustani, having been much in India, and I asked him if he had seen his master lately, and he answered 'No.' I told him he must come with me and look for him, as he knew the run of the house better than I did.
He only stopped to slip on some of his clothes and wrap a heavy rug round his shoulders, for he felt the cold very much.
Then we roused up the other three house-servants and the temporary servants, who had retired soon after midnight, and we went from room to room, passage to passage; in fact, we searched the house from top to bottom, but all in vain; not a trace of our friend could we get.
Our next step was to ascertain if he had gone out. But all the doors and windows were fastened. Nevertheless, I undertook to search the grounds, and, having been provided with a horn lantern, we got the big hall door opened; but the snow had drifted against it to such an extent that a great mass of it fell into the hall.
The night was pitch-dark, the air thick with snow. I made some attempt to go forth, but sank up to my waist, and was forced to return.
We then tried the back of the house, where there was a stable- yard. The snow was pretty heavy there, but not so heavy as in the front. Two men slept over the stable. I roused them up, got the keys of the stable, and went in. Balfour kept three horses, and they were in their stalls all right.
The stable-yard gate was barred, and it was very clear no one had been out that way.
I returned to the house, half frozen and very depressed. We then consulted together, and decided that nothing-could be done until daylight.
It was an awful ending to our merry meeting, and the mystery of the whole affair weighed upon us like a nightmare.
The ladies of our party, who had gone to bed soon after we had drunk in the New Year, got up and dressed themselves. In the meantime we carried Maggie Stiven's body into another room, where it was laid out on a table.
James Macfarlane's opinion was that she had died from a sudden shock of fright; and when that was taken in connection with the eldritch scream which had so startled us, and the mysterious disappearance of our host, we felt that there was something uncanny about the whole business.
The rest of the night was wearily passed. The others of our party, having been o'er fu' when they went to sleep, continued to sleep through it all, and knew nothing of the tragic ending until they awoke in the morning.
With the coming of the morning our spirits revived a little, though we still felt miserable enough. It had almost ceased to snow, but the whole country was buried, and round about the house the drift was piled up until it reached to the lower windows.
As soon as it was broad daylight we made another careful search of the house, but not a sign of Raymond Balfour could we see.
Chunda helped us in our search. He was terribly cut up, and became so ill from grief and the cold that he was obliged to go to bed.
The only reasonable theory that we could find to account for Balfour's strange disappearance was that, by some means we could not determine, he had managed to leave the house, and had perished in the snow.
As it had continued to snow all night, and at eight o'clock was still falling lightly, all traces were, of course, obliterated.
Every one of the visitors was now anxious to get away, but before anyone went, I drew up a statement which was duly signed. James Macfarlane and I then undertook to report the matter to the police in Edinburgh.
Before any of us could leave, we had to clear the snow away from the door and dig a path out. And even then it was no easy matter to get clear.
We were a sorrowful enough party, as may be imagined, and we all felt that the New Year had commenced badly for us.
The death of Maggie Stiven was a terrible business, and I confess to feeling surprised that she should have died from fright, for she was by no means a nervous girl. Indeed, I think she was as plucky as any woman I have ever known, and I was certain that if fright had really killed her she must have seen something very awful.
With reference to this, nobody, I think, liked to put his thoughts into words, but somehow we seemed to divine that each believed Satan had spirited Raymond Balfour away and frightened poor Maggie to death. Any way, the mystery was beyond our solving, and we were silent and melancholy as we straggled into Edinburgh, where armies of labourers were busy clearing the streets of snow.
It was an awful day. The cold was intense, and overhead the sky was like one vast sheet of lead. Except the labourers, few people were abroad, and those few looked pinched up, draggled, and miserable.
God knows, we were miserable enough ourselves! I know that my heart was like a stone; for I was not so wanting in sense as not to see that trouble was bound to come out of the business, and I fairly shuddered when I thought of poor Balfour's end, for it seemed impossible to hope that he was still alive.
Look at the matter whichever way I would, it was a mystery which absolutely appalled me, and it had all come about with such awful suddenness that, speaking for myself, I felt stunned.
I WAS in Liverpool, engaged on a rather delicate matter, when I received a telegram from the chief of the police in Edinburgh, telling me to return by the next train. I wasn't at all pleased by this recall, for it was wretched weather, and the prospect of a night journey to the North was far from agreeable.
The date was January 3. During the whole of New Year's Eve there had been a violent storm, which seems to have been general all over the country. The result was a breakdown of telegraph- wires and serious interruption to traffic.
The telegram sent to me was five hours on the road; and as the 'next train' meant the night mail, I had no alternative but to bundle my traps together and start.
When we reached Carlisle a thaw had set in, and on arriving at Edinburgh I thought I had never seen Auld Reekie look so glum and dour. The streets were ankle-deep in slush.
Snow was slipping from the roofs everywhere in avalanches, necessitating considerable wariness on the part of pedestrians.
Horses panted, groaned, and steamed as they toiled with their loads through the filthy snow, and overhead the sky hung like a dun pall.
On reaching the head office, I was at once instructed to proceed to Corbie Hall to investigate a case of murder, and endeavour to trace the whereabouts of one Raymond Balfour, who, according to the statement of a Captain Jasper Jarvis, corroborated by James Macfarlane, medical student at the Edinburgh College, had mysteriously disappeared soon after midnight on January 1. The remarkably sudden and unaccountable death of Maggie Stiven necessitated a legal inquiry, and Dr. Wallace Bruce was sent to examine the body and report on the cause of death.
On removing the clothes, he noticed that the linen that had been next to the chest was slightly blood-stained, and an examination revealed a very small blue puncture, slightly to the left of the sternum, and immediately over the heart.
On probing this puncture with his finger, he felt something hard. He therefore proceeded to open the chest, assisted by a colleague, Dr. James Simpson, the well-known Edinburgh surgeon. To their astonishment, they found the puncture was due to a thrust from a very fine stiletto, which had pierced the heart on the left side. The stiletto had broken off, and four inches of the steel remained in the wound. This, acting as a plug, had prevented outward bleeding to any extent, but there had been extensive internal haemorrhage. There was nothing else to account for death.
The girl was exceedingly well developed, well nourished, and without any sign or trace of organic disease. As she could not have driven the stiletto into her chest in such a way herself, it was obviously a case of murder.
When I reached Corbie Hall, the country round about was still white with snow, and Blackford Hill was like a miniature Alp, although the thaw was making its influence felt.
The Hall was a curious, rambling sort of place, with every appearance of age. It was a stone building, flanked by a small turreted tower at each end. It stood in about an acre of ground that was partly walled and partly fenced round. Two cast-iron gates of good design, hung on pillars, each surmounted by a carved greyhound, admitted to a carriage-drive that swept in a semicircle to the main entrance.
Passing through the doorway—the door itself was a massive structure—I found myself in a large square, paved hall, and immediately in front a broad flight of oak stairs led up to the first landing, where there was a very fine stained- glass window.
On the left was a long dining-room, which communicated by means of folding doors with another room of almost equal dimensions.
On the opposite side of the passage, and close to the foot of the stairs, was the door of the drawing-room, which was a counterpart almost of the dining-room.
Between the banisters of the stairs and the partition wall of the dining-room, the passage was continued to a door that gave access to a passage communicating with the kitchen and back premises.
The recess underneath the stairs was used for hanging up coats, hats, and other things. From the second landing the stairs struck off at an acute angle, and rose to the second story, where there were at least a dozen rooms, large and small.
Under the guidance of Chunda, the black servant, who seemed very ill and much depressed, I made a thorough inspection of the house. As he could not speak English, we had to communicate in signs, which was rather awkward. In addition to this Indian, Mr. Balfour had kept a cook and a small girl to help her, also a housemaid. Besides these, he employed a groom and a coachman. The coachman lived over the stables at the back with his wife and daughter, a girl of eighteen, and she and her mother both assisted in the house when necessary. The groom had a room to himself above the coach-house.
I questioned each of these servants individually and apart from the others as to whether they had heard the scream alluded to by Captain Jarvis. The three women living in the house said that they heard it, but those who lived over the stables did not. The ones who heard it slept in the right-hand tower. They did not retire until after the New Year had come in. Although the master had given them some hot drink, they were quite sober when they went upstairs.
As they were in the habit of doing every night, they extinguished the hall lamp and a lamp that stood on the bracket at the top of the stairs, thus leaving that part of the house in darkness. They did not attach any importance to the scream, as they thought it was some of the visitors larking, for they had all been very frisky during the evening.
The cook, however—her name was Mary Kenway—opened her door, which commanded in perspective a full view of the corridor leading to the top of the stairs, and she saw, or thought she saw, a shadowy figure standing in this corridor near the top of the stairs. Feeling a bit nervous, she shut the door hurriedly, and said to her fellow-servants, who shared the room with her:
'One of those fools is playing at ghosts or something. Well, when the wine's in, the wit's out.'
She and her companions then got into bed, and some time afterwards were startled by a loud knocking at their door. The cook hurriedly procured a light, and on asking who was there, and being informed it was Captain Jarvis, and that he was searching for the master, who had disappeared, she slipped on her clothes and opened the door.
The temporary servants, of whom there were three, were sleeping in a room above her. They had indulged somewhat too freely, and it was a considerable time before they could be made to understand that something dreadful had happened.
With these details, and the statement of Captain Jarvis, I felt I was in a position to begin my researches.
If Captain Jarvis's statement was true, and there wasn't the slightest reason to doubt it, for it was in the main corroborated by Robert Thomson and others, the whole affair was shrouded in considerable mystery. Indeed, I think it was one of the strangest cases I ever had to do with. Maggie Stiven had been foully done to death by some subtle, deft, and treacherous assassin. She had been struck with great force, and the breaking of the weapon showed the fury with which her murderer had done his damnable work.
The skipper's statement that when he opened the dining room door he heard a sigh and sort of groan was compatible with the nature of the wound, for though the heart was injured, the fact of the piece of steel remaining in the wound would prevent a sudden emptying of the heart, and she might have lived after being struck five to ten minutes. The shadowy figure which Jarvis said he saw 'gliding' up the stairs was no doubt the assassin, although Jarvis—his imagination having been fired— thought it a supernatural appearance.
The cook also spoke of 'a shadowy figure,' and thought that some of the guests were 'playing at ghosts.' This independent testimony suggested that there was something curious and out of the common about the figure, and I was led to infer that the person who had done the deed was small, light of foot, and agile of movement. When he struck Maggie down he had probably been lurking in the drawing-room, the door of which, as I have already described, was just at the foot of the stairs, or he may have been concealed in the recess under the stairs. Whichever way it was, the girl had not mounted the stairs, and must have been stabbed the moment she reached the mat where the body was found, and before she had time to get her feet on the stairs to go up.
Now came the question, Why was she killed? Her going in search of Raymond Balfour was quite unpremeditated, and the assassin could hardly have known that she was coining out of the room.
Why, then, did he kill her? On the face of it, it seemed to be an unprovoked and brutal crime without any reason. But a little pondering, and a careful weighing of all the pros and cons, led me to the conclusion that the deed was not as purposeless as it seemed. If it was the result of madness, there was certainly method in the madness.
Some people expressed the opinion that Balfour himself had murdered the girl, but that opinion would not hold water.
Firstly, he himself was induced to leave the room by a scream or cry that was described as 'uncanny.' Did he arrange for that cry to be uttered in order that he might have an excuse for going out, knowing that the girl would follow him?
Secondly, if he was the slayer, why did he choose to kill the girl in his own house? for very little reflection must have shown him that to escape detection would be an impossibility.
No. It was only too evident that he did not kill Maggie Stiven, and his extraordinary disappearance led me to believe that he also had fallen a victim to the assassin. But if that was so, where was his body? It was, of course, of the highest importance that he should be discovered, dead or alive.
I caused a search to be made of the house from top to bottom. There wasn't a room missed, not a cupboard overlooked, not a recess but what was scrutinized. Every box or trunk large enough to contain a man's body was opened without result.
Every hole and corner, every chimney, every likely and unlikely place, was examined, but not a trace, not a sign, of the missing man was brought to light.
His bedroom was the largest and most important room in the house. It was panelled with dark oak panelling. The ceiling was carved wood, and there was a very large carved oak mantelpiece, which was considered a work of art. Two lattice-paned windows were in keeping with the place, which had also been furnished with a view to its character.
A massive four-post bedstead occupied one corner, and near it was an unusually large clothes-press of oak. This press was spacious enough to have held the bodies of three or four men, but Balfour's body was not there.
From this room a small door gave access to a short, narrow passage, leading to another door at the foot of a stone staircase of about twenty steps, by which the top of the tower at that end of the building was gained. From the roof of the tower a very beautiful view was obtained. I need scarcely say I critically examined the doors, the passage, the stairs, the tower itself.
The locks of both doors were very rusty, and it was evident they had not been opened for some time. In the one at the foot of the tower stairs there was no key, and it was only after considerable search that one was found to fit it. And even then the lock could not be turned until it had been well oiled.
The dust on the stone stairs was the accumulation of months, and bore not the faintest trace of footprints. It was obvious that no one had passed that way for a very long time.
Having thus exhausted the interior of the building, I now proceeded to search outside.
Skipper Jarvis declared that, when he and Bob Thomson went through the house on the night of the tragedy, they looked to every door and window, but all were properly secured, and unless Balfour had squeezed himself through a keyhole or a cranny, he could not have left the building. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that the man must have got out in some way; otherwise, if he were dead, how was it we had failed to find his body in the house? So thorough had been the search that a dead mouse could not have escaped me.
There was still a great deal of snow on the ground, especially in the hollows and ravines; but it was soft and slushy owing to the rise in temperature.
Aided by half a dozen men—mostly gamekeepers—and several dogs, we commenced systematically to examine the grounds, the country round about, the burns, the woods, but all to no purpose. Every inch of Braid Glen was gone over; what is now the Waverley curling pond was dragged; the Jordan and Braid streams examined; all the quarries in the neighbourhood—of which there are many—were looked into; the Braid Hill and all round about the Braid Hill was paced; but the result was the same. Raymond Balfour was not found.
When our failure became known, the excitement increased greatly, especially amongst ignorant and stupid people, who stoutly maintained that the master of Corbie Hall had been spirited away by the Evil One, who had also killed Maggie Stiven. These good folks failed to explain why the Evil One should have stabbed Maggie with a stiletto, and have left more than half the blade in the wound, when he might have deprived her of life so much more easily. I found that even Captain Jarvis was not without some belief in this absurd theory.
'If there is not something uncanny about the whole business, how is it you have failed to get trace of the man?' asked Jarvis, with the air of one who felt he was putting a poser which was absolutely unanswerable. 'You see,' pursued the skipper, with an insistency of tone that was very amusing,'you see, we were a bad lot. We'd just come there for an orgy, and the meat and drink that we wasted would have kept many poor wretches from starving on that awful night.'
'Do you consider that Raymond Balfour was an exceptionally wicked man?' asked Jarvis.
'Well, no,' he answered seriously; 'I shouldn't like to say that. But he was a wild fellow.'
'What do you mean by wild?'
'Well, he was a little too fond of liquor and the ladies.'
'Have you known him long?'
'Yes, several years. I first met him in Madras. I saw a good deal of him later in Calcutta. He was a very wild boy then, I can tell you.'
'But still no worse than tens of thousands of other people?' I suggested.
'Oh no; I don't say he was,' Jarvis answered quickly, and in a way that suggested he was anxious his friend should not be painted too black.
'Now, I want you to tell me this, Captain Jarvis,' I said somewhat solemnly, as I wished to impress him with the importance of the question: 'was there any love-making between Raymond Balfour and Maggie Stiven?'
The skipper did not answer immediately. He seemed to be revolving the matter in his mind. Then, with a thoughtful stroking of his chin, he replied:
'Balfour was fond of Maggie.'
'Did he allow that fondness to display itself before others?'
'When he was a bit gone in his cups he did,' answered the captain, with obvious reluctance.
'And was she fond of him?'
'Yes—I think so'—the same reluctance showing itself.
'Did she show her partiality?'
'Maggie wasn't considered to be very stanch to anyone, was she?'
'Well, she'd a good many admirers. She was an awful good- looking lass, you see. And lads will always run after a pretty girl.'
'That scarcely answers my question, captain,' I said. 'I want to know if she openly—that is, before others—showed that she liked Balfour better than any other body?'
'You see, Mr. Brodie, I'm not altogether competent to answer that,' said the skipper, as though he was anxious to shirk the question.
'But did she do so on the New Year's Eve, when you were all so jovial?'
'How did she display her liking?'
'She sat on his knee several times. She kissed him, and he kissed her.'
'That was before the company?'
'Did he make any remark, or did she? I mean, any remark calculated to engender a belief that this spooning was serious, and not a mere flirtation, the result of a spree?'
'Well—I—I heard him say two or three times, "Mag, old girl, I'm going to marry you."'
'He had been drinking then, I suppose?'
'He had, a good deal.'
'And what did she reply?'
'As near as I mind, she said, "All right, old man. We are just suited to each other, and we'll make a match of it."'
'I must now ask you one or two other questions, captain. There were several men present, were there not?'
'They were all young men?'
'And belonged to Edinburgh or its immediate neighbourhood?'
'Consequently they were all more or less well acquainted with Maggie?'
'Yes. I don't think there was a man there who didn't ken her. You see, in her way she was a kind of celebrity in Edinburgh. Certain folk said hard things about her, and that made her mad sometimes, so that she took a delight in just showing how she could lead the lads by the nose.'
'Now, I want you to give me an answer to this question, captain. Is it within your knowledge that out of her many admirers there was one who had been emboldened by her to think that he had the best claim upon her?'
'I couldn't say for certain; but it's likely enough.'
'Has it occurred to you to ask yourself if that favoured one was among Raymond Balfour's guests on New Year's Eve?'
The question seemed to startle Captain Jarvis. He looked at me searchingly and inquiringly, and it was some moments before he spoke, while his expression gave every indication that he fully understood the drift of my inquiry. At last he replied, hesitatingly and cautiously:
'You see, Mr. Brodie, I wasn't the keeper of Maggie's conscience. She didn't make me her confidant. Nor was I one of her favoured suitors. I'm an old married man, and she preferred young fellows.'
'You've avoided my question now,' I remarked, a little sharply, as it seemed to me he was prevaricating.
'I'm trying to think,' he said, with a preoccupied air. Then, after a pause, he added: 'I can't answer you, because I don't know. What your question suggests is that some chap who was madly jealous of her murdered her.'
'You are correct in your surmise,' I answered.
'Then, all I've got to say is this: It was impossible for anyone to have left the room and committed the crime without my being aware of it. I say again, it would have been impossible. She couldn't have been out of the room two minutes before she was struck. You see, she had even been unable to get up the stair. Her going out was quite unpremeditated; and until she jumped up from her seat, and said she would go and look for Balfour, nobody knew she was going out of the room. No, Mr. Brodie, I'm convinced that no man of that company did the deed.'
I had every reason to think that Captain Jarvis was perfectly right in his conclusions. The logic of his argument was unanswerable. I had already taken means to ascertain some particulars about every person who had been present on the fateful night, including the extra servants; and I saw nothing and heard nothing calculated in any way to justify a suspicion being entertained against any particular individual. Nevertheless, I had them under surveillance.
What I had to deal with was the broad, plain, hard fact that Maggie Stiven had been brutally and suddenly murdered, while Raymond Balfour had disappeared as effectually as if the earth had suddenly opened and swallowed him, leaving not a trace behind. If he went forth from the house after quitting his guests, where had he gone to?
The state of the country, owing to the snow, made it physically impossible that he could have travelled far on that awful night; and had he perished in the snow near the house, his body must have been discovered, so thorough had been our search.
Then, again, assuming that he had got away, there would surely have been some indication of his mode of exit—an unfastened window, an unlocked door. But the most exhaustive inquiry satisfied me there was neither one nor the other.
But if Balfour was not out of the house, he must be in the house; and if he was in the house, it was as a dead man. And where was his body?
It seemed unreasonable to suppose that a human body could be disposed of so quickly and so effectually as to leave not a trace behind.
Then, again, granting that he was murdered, who murdered him, and why was he murdered? Who raised the unearthly cry, and was it raised purposely to draw him from the room in order that he might be immediately struck down?
Such was the problem with which I was confronted, and I freely confess that at this stage I felt absolutely baffled. I saw no clue, and nothing likely to lead me to a clue; but though baffled, I was not beaten. The mystery was profound, and the whole case so strange, so startling, that I was not surprised at ignorant people attributing it to supernatural agency. It had about it all the elements of some wild, weird story of monkish superstition, lifted from the pages of a mediaeval romance. It was no romance, however, no legend, but a hard, dry fact of the nineteenth century that had to be accounted for by perfectly human means.
There was one point, however, which made itself clear through the darkness. It was that the author of the deed was a person of such devilish cunning, such bridal ferocity, such crafty ingenuity, that he would occupy a niche all to himself for evermore in the gallery of criminals.
As I have already said, though I was baffled, I was not beaten, and I felt sure I should ultimately succeed in the task set me. I had in my possession the broken blade of the stiletto, and I knew that might prove of value as a clue; and having done all that it was practical to do for the moment, I set to work to define a motive for the crime, and to construct a theory that would aid me in my efforts to solve the problem.
PETER BRODIE stood very high in his profession. He had made his mark as a detective, and had solved some very complicated problems. In recalling him from Liverpool, whither he had been sent on important business, the authorities felt that if the Corbie Hall mystery was to be cleared up he was the man to do it. They saw from the first that it was a very difficult case, when all the circumstances were considered, but they were sure that Brodie was the one man likely to tackle it successfully.
It seemed as if the evil reputation of Corbie Hall was never to pass away, and after this new tragedy people recalled how Peter Crease, the drunken owner of it, and uncle of Balfour, had broken his neck in a quarry; how, following that, the gloomy house had fallen into dilapidation, until it was shunned as a haunted place. When the rightful heir turned up, they thought he would put things right; but instead of that he proved himself to be as big a reprobate as his relative had been: and now his mysterious disappearance, and Maggie Stiven's murder, realized the croakings of the wiseacres, who had said that a curse hung over the house, and that anyone who went to live in the Hall would come to grief.
Of course, the tradition that a favourite of Queen Mary's who had once lived there mysteriously disappeared, and was never heard of again, was also recalled; and the sages predicted that as that mystery was never cleared up, so would Balfour's disappearance go down to posterity as an unsolved mystery. Possibly it might have done if Peter Brodie had not brought his intellect to bear upon it.
On the fourth day after his arrival the thaw had been so thorough that the land was quite clear of snow, and a second search was made for Balfour, but it only ended in failure, as the first had done.
Brodie was now convinced that the unfortunate man had never left the house; and yet, having regard to the critical way in which it had been examined from top to bottom, it was difficult to conceive where he could be hidden. Nevertheless, Peter stuck to his guns; for as Balfour had not gone out of the house, he must be in it, and if so, time and patient search might reveal his hiding-place.
With a view to learning as much as possible about Balfour's habits, Brodie had a long talk with Chunda, Captain Jarvis acting as interpreter. The native stated that he had travelled with his master extensively through India. He had found him rather a peculiar man. He was very secretive, and given to fits of moodiness. Although Chunda was exceedingly fond of him, he did not wish to accompany him to Scotland, but yielded on the master pressing him. Now he bitterly regretted having come, for not only did he feel crushed by his master's strange disappearance, but the cold and dampness of the climate made him very ill, and he intended to leave immediately for Southampton, so as to get a ship for India, as he yearned to return to his own warm, sunny land. He was dying for the want of sun and warmth.
Asked if his master was much given to flirtations, Chunda, with flashing eves and an angry expression in his dark face, said that he was, and he had frequently got into trouble through it.
After this interview, Brodie came to the conclusion that the motive of the crime was undoubtedly jealousy. That is to say, someone had been jealous of Balfour, someone who considered Maggie a rival.
If this was correct, the someone must be a woman—no ordinary woman, for no ordinary woman would have been capable of carrying out such a terrible revenge. Besides Maggie Stiven, there had been four other young women in the party.
One was a married woman named MacLauchlan. Her husband kept a grocer's shop in the High Street, but he and his wife didn't get on well together. He had no idea, however, that she was in the habit of visiting at Corbie Hall.
Brodie dismissed her from suspicion. He felt sure she didn't commit the deed. She was rather good-looking, but a mild, lackadaisical, phlegmatic, brainless creature, without the nerve necessary for such a crime.
Another of the ladies was Jean Smith. She was twenty years of age, and Maggie Stiven's bosom friend, and since the night of the crime had been seriously ill in bed from the shock.
A third was Mary Johnstone. Until New Year's Eve she had never met Balfour before in her life. She had gone to the Hall in company with her sweetheart, James Macfarlane, the medical student.
The fourth was Kate Thomson, cousin to Rab Thomson. She was a woman about thirty years of age, strong and well knit, but was a good-tempered, genial sort of creature. She, too, was almost a stranger to Balfour, and was engaged to be married to a man named Robert Murchison, who was factor to a Mr. Rennie of Perth.
Brodie was absolutely certain, after studying them all, that not one of these four women had done the deed. Nor was there the slightest reason for harbouring a suspicion against the female servants.
He was, therefore, puzzled, but not disconcerted, and he stuck to his theory that a jealous woman had committed the crime.
That, of course, only made the mystery more mysterious, so to speak. For who was the woman? Where did she come from? How did she get into the house? Where did she go to?
These questions were inevitable if the theory was maintained. It did not seem easy then to answer them.
As Brodie revolved all these things in his mind, he remembered that, though he had subjected the house to a very careful search, he had done little more than look into Chunda's room, the reason being that the native was ill in bed at the time.
The room adjoined Balfour's, and at one time was connected by a communicating door, but for some reason or other the door had been nailed up and papered over. While less in size than Balfour's, it was still a fairly large room, also wainscoted, and with a carved wooden ceiling. It was lighted by one window, which commanded a good view over Blackford Hill.
To this room Brodie went one evening when Chunda happened to be absent from it. It reeked with the faint, sickly odour of some Indian perfume.
On a sideboard stood a small gilt Indian idol, and various Indian knick-knacks were scattered about. As in Balfour's room, there was a massive carved oak mantelpiece, with a very capacious fireplace; and on each side of the fireplace was a deep recess.
The floor was oak, polished, and dark in colour either by staining or time. The only carpet on it was a square in the centre. A clothes-press stood in a corner. It was the only place in which a man could be concealed. Brodie opened the door, and found nothing but clothes there. The mystery, therefore, was as far from solution as ever, apparently, as now there wasn't a corner of the house that had not been examined thoroughly and exhaustively.
As Brodie was in the act of leaving the room, his eye was attracted by something glittering on the hearthstone, where the cold, white ashes of a wood-fire still remained. He stooped down and picked from the hearth a scrap, a mere morsel of cloth. It was all burnt round the edges, and was dusty with the ash; but he found on examination that it was a fragment of Indian cloth, into which gold threads had been worked; and it was these gold threads which, in spite of the dust, had reflected the light and attracted his notice.
Taking out his pocket-book, he deposited that scrap of charred cloth carefully between the leaves, then went down on his knees and subjected the ashes to critical examination, with the result that he obtained unmistakable evidence of a considerable amount of cloth having been destroyed by fire. There were patches here and there of white, or rather gray, carbonized, filmy fragments of cobweb-like texture. As everyone knows, cloth burnt in a fire leaves a ghostlike wrack behind, that, unless disturbed, will remain for some time.
Brodie rose and fell into deep thought, and he mentally asked himself why the cloth had been burnt. It was reasonable to presume it was some portion of clothing, and if so, why should anyone have been at the trouble to consume it in the flames unless it was to hide certain evidences of guilt.
'What would those evidences of guilt be?' Brodie muttered to himself, as he reflected on the singular discovery he had made. And suddenly it seemed to him— of course, it was purely fancy—that a voice whispered in his ear:
'Blood! blood P
Although but fancy, the voice seemed so real to him that he fairly started, and at that instant the door opened and Chunda entered. He seemed greatly surprised to find the detective in the room, and muttered something in Hindustani.
As Brodie did not understand him and could not converse with him, he made no response, but passed out, and, hurrying to Edinburgh, called on Professor Dunbar, the eminent microscopist, and asked that gentleman to place the fragment of cloth found on the hearthstone under a powerful microscope.
The Professor did as requested, and, after a careful examination, he said he could not detect anything suggestive of blood. The cloth was evidently of Indian workmanship, and the bright threads running through it were real gold.
Brodie did not return to Corbie Hall until the following day. By that time Maggie Stiven's body had been removed by her friends for burial, and he was informed by the servants that Chunda had gone out to attend the funeral. He was rather surprised at that, and still more surprised when he found, on going to Chunda's room, that the door was locked.
He hurried back to Edinburgh, and was in time to be present at Maggie's burial in the Grey friars Churchyard, but he saw nothing of Chunda; the native was not there, and nobody had seen him. Captain Jarvis was amongst the mourners, and when the funeral was over he and Brodie left together.
'Do you know how long Chunda has been in Balfour's service?' the detective asked, as they strolled along.
'I believe a considerable time, but I don't know from absolute knowledge. As I have already told you, Balfour was a curious sort of fellow, and particularly close in regard to his own affairs. He was one of those sort of men it is difficult to get to the bottom of. You may try to probe them as much as you like, but nothing comes of it.'
'You possibly were as familiar with him as anyone,' suggested Brodie.
'Yes, I should say I was.'
'And if he had wanted a confidant, he would probably have chosen you?'
'I think it is very likely he would. So far as such a man would make a confidant of anyone, he made one of me.'
'Do you know why he brought Chunda from India with him?'
'No. What I do know is this: Chunda had been with him for some time, and when Balfour returned to Scotland, he thought he was only going to make a temporary stay here.'
'Was he fond of Chunda?'
'I cannot tell you whether he was or was not.'
'Can you tell me this: Has Chunda been in the habit of always wearing European clothes since he came to Edinburgh?'
'I don't know that. You see, I only came into port with my vessel four weeks ago. When I first called at Corbie Hall, the fellow was wearing European clothes.
'Did you see much of Chunda on New Year's Eve?'
'He came into the room now and again. In fact, I think he was in and out pretty often. Balfour used occasionally to smoke an opium pipe and Chunda always filled it for him.'
'How was the native dressed that night?'
'He had trousers and vest, and wore a sort of fancy Indian jacket.'
'Was there gold embroidery on it?'
'I believe there was a sort of gold thread, or something of that kind. But, really, I didn't take much notice. We were all pretty jolly, and I didn't look to see how anyone was dressed.'
'But, still, you have no doubt that Chunda did wear a jacket or robe similar to that you describe?'
'Oh yes, I'm sure about that part of the business. It was conspicuous enough.'
When Brodie parted from the skipper, he felt that he had struck a trail, although he could not make much of it just then. But it will readily be gathered that he had begun to suspect Chunda of having committed the crime.
It was difficult to understand why Chunda should have burnt his gown or jacket unless it was to destroy traces of guilt. If there was blood on his jacket, and it was the blood of one of the victims, he would know that it might prove a ghastly piece of evidence if detected; and so he had committed it to the flames as the most effectual means of getting rid of it.
Now, assuming this surmise of Brodie's was correct, it was obvious that it was not Maggie Stiven's blood, because the nature of the wound that brought about her death was such that there was only very little outward bleeding. But if Balfour, when he went upstairs to ascertain the cause of the scream, was suddenly attacked and stabbed to death by the native, was it not reasonable to suppose that he bled so profusely as to dye the garments of his murderer?
This chain of reasoning threw a new light on the affair, and Brodie, who had made up his mind that he would read the riddle if it could be read, returned once more to Corbie Hall. He learnt that Chunda had been back about half an hour, and had given the other servants to understand that he was ill and half frozen, and was going to bed. Whereupon the detective furnished himself with a lamp, and proceeded to carefully examine the stair carpet and the landings for suggestive stains, but saw nothing that aroused his suspicions. As he could not talk to Chunda, he did not disturb him, but the next morning, quite early, he went down to the Hall again in company with Jarvis.
Chunda told the skipper, in answer to questions put to him, that he had not gone out on the previous day to attend the funeral, as stated, but to make arrangements for taking his departure from the country. He could not endure the climate; it made him very ill. Besides that, he felt that he would go mad if he stayed there, for there wasn't a soul he could talk to, and his loneliness was terrible. He therefore intended to start on the following day for Southampton, and two days later would sail in a P. and O. steamer for India.
All that he had said seemed very feasible, and that he was ill and did suffer from the cold was evident.
Nevertheless, Brodie's suspicions were not allayed. It was not easy to allay them when once they were thoroughly aroused; and having reasoned the case out from every possible point of view, he had come to the conclusion that Chunda was in a position to let in light where there was now darkness if he chose to speak. That is to say, he knew something of the crime, though, of course, at this stage there wasn't a scrap of evidence against the native that would have justified his arrest. Moreover, Brodie found himself confronted with a huge difficulty in the way of making his theory fit in. If Chunda had really murdered Balfour, how had he managed to dispose of the body? That question was certainly a poser, and no reasonable answer could be given to it.
It must not be forgotten that, from the moment of the scream being first heard to the discovery of Maggie Stiven's body on the mat at the foot of the stairs, not more than half an hour at the outside had elapsed. In that brief space of time Balfour had been so effectually got rid of that there was not a trace of him. It was bewildering to try and understand how that disappearance had been accomplished, unless it was with the aid of some devilish art and unholy magic. But as Brodie had no belief in that kind of thing, he was convinced that, sooner or later, what was then an impenetrable mystery would be explained by perfectly rational, though probably startling, causes. Be that as it might, having got his fangs fixed, to use a figure of speech, he held on with bulldog tenacity, and he was not disposed to exonerate Chunda until he felt convinced that his suspicions were unfounded.
'Do you know, captain, if there are any balls of any kind in the house?' he asked abruptly of Jarvis, who looked at him with some astonishment, for the question seemed so irrelevant and out of place.
'What sort of balls?' said Jarvis, expressing his surprise by his manner and voice.
'Oh, any sort—billiard-balls, golf-balls, balls of any kind.'
'There are plenty of golf-balls. But why do you ask?
'I want you to get two or three of the balls,' said Brodie for answer. 'Put them into your pocket, ask Chunda to accompany you into the dining-room, and make him sit down in a chair opposite to you. Engage him in conversation for a few minutes; then, suddenly taking the balls from your pocket, tell him to catch them, and pitch them to him. Do you understand me?'
Captain Jarvis stared at the detective as though he could hardly believe the evidence of his ears. Then, as he broke into a laugh, he asked:
'Do you mean that seriously?'
'Of course I mean it.'
'And what's the object?'
'Never mind the object. Do what I ask you.'
'And where will you be?'
'In the dining-room, too. But take no notice whatever of me.'
'Well, it's a daft-like sort of proceeding, any way; but I'll do it:
Then, having procured some golf-balls, he addressed himself to Chunda in Hindustani, and in a few moments they went together into the dining-room.
Brodie followed shortly after, and, taking a book from a little shelf that hung on the wall, he threw himself on to a lounge and appeared to be reading.
In a short while Jarvis took the balls from his pocket, and, saying something to Chunda, who sat on a chair by the window, he threw one ball after another at him, and the native held forth his hands to catch them; but, not being in a playful humour, he did not cast the balls back, but very soon got up and went out, looking very much annoyed.
'Well, what does that tomfoolery mean?' asked Jarvis.
'A good deal to me. I've learnt a startling fact by it.
The skipper would have been glad to have had an explanation, for naturally his curiosity was greatly aroused, and he couldn't conceive what the ball-throwing could possibly have indicated. But Brodie resolutely refused to satisfy him.
'You have rendered me a service,' he said. 'Now, that's enough for the present. If I succeed in fitting the pieces of this strange puzzle together, you shall know what my motive was. Rest assured I do nothing without a motive. But I am going to exact a further service from you now. I want you to stay here all night, as I myself intend to stay. Chunda talked of leaving to-morrow. He must not leave, and, if necessary, you must find some means of detaining him.'
'Do you mean to say you suspect Chunda of having committed the crime?'—his amazement growing.
'Frankly, I do.'
'Well, all I've got to say, Brodie, is this,' answered the skipper decisively: 'you are on the wrong tack.'
'How do you know I am?'
'I am sure of it.'
'Give me your reasons for being sure.'
'Why, I tell you, man,' exclaimed the skipper warmly, 'the nigger is as harmless as a kitten, and no more likely to commit a crime of this kind than a new-born baby.'
'That is simply your opinion, Captain Jarvis.'
'It is my opinion, and it's a common-sense one. You are doing the fellow a wrong. I never saw a native servant so attached to Balfour as Chunda was to his master. I tell you, Brodie, you are on the wrong scent.'
'All right, we shall see,' he said carelessly.
'But in the name of common-sense,' cried Jarvis, who was argumentatively inclined, 'if there's any reason in your suspicions, how on earth do you suppose this nigger chap got rid of Balfour? Where has he stowed him, do you think? Do you suppose he swallowed him?'
'Ah! an answer to that question is not easily framed. Perhaps before many hours have passed I may be able to tell you.'
'Do you think because he's black he's the devil, and has spirited Balfour away?' pursued the skipper, with a defiant air, for he honestly considered that Chunda was being wronged, and he was ready to champion him.
'No, I don't think so,' answered Brodie, with a smile, 'because if he had been the devil he wouldn't have committed such a clumsy crime as this.'
'Well, clumsy as it is, it's defied you,' said Jarvis, by no means satisfied or convinced.
'For the time being it has. But it won't continue to do so much longer, unless I'm very much mistaken. But it's no use continuing the argument. A man is judged by his acts, not by his words. If I am wrong, I must abide by the penalty which attaches to failure. If I am right, I shall take credit for some amount of cleverness. You will stay here to-night, won't you?'
The skipper scratched his head, and looked as though he wasn't comfortable.
'Well, upon my word! I don't know what to say. I'm not a coward, but I'm blowed if I like the idea of passing another night in this uncanny place.'
'Why?' Brodie asked with a smile.
'I should be afraid of seeing Maggie Stiven's ghost.'
'And what if you did? A ghost couldn't do you any harm.'
'Perhaps not, but I'd rather not see one.'
'Nor are you likely to, except as a product of your own heated imagination. However, to cut the matter short, you'll stay, won't you? You've got your pipe and tobacco, and I've no doubt the cook will be able to provide us with some creature comforts. We'll have another log put on the fire, and make ourselves comfortable; and, if you like, I'll give you a hand at cribbage.'
The skipper yielded, and the matter was settled.
'Before we settle down, I want you to entertain Chunda here for half an hour during my absence,' continued Brodie.
'You are not going out, are you?' asked Jarvis quickly, and with some nervousness displaying itself in his manner, indicating evidently that he did not wish to be left alone.
'Well, no, not out of the house. But you understand, Captain Jarvis, I am doing my best to unravel this mystery; you must let me act in my own way, and take such steps as I think are necessary to the end I have in view. You can aid me, and I want you to aid me; but you can best do that by refraining from questioning, and in doing exactly as I request you to do.'
'All right,' said Jarvis. 'I've nothing more to say. You must sail your own ship, whether you come to grief or whether you don't.'
'Precisely. Now, I'll send one of the servants up for Chunda, and you'll keep him engaged in talk for half an hour, or until I come back into the room. Don't talk about the crime, and don't say a word that would lead him to think I suspect him. Do you understand me?'
'Yes, of course I do.'
'And will carry out my wishes? It is most important that you should.'
'To the letter.'
The business being thus arranged, Brodie left the room, and ten minutes later Chunda entered it. Brodie was absent nearly three-quarters of an hour before he returned. There was a look of peculiar satisfaction on his face. Chunda was dismissed; and the two men, having, through the cook, secured something in the way of eatables and drinkables, satisfied their wants in that respect, and then engaged in cribbage, and continued their game until a late hour.
At last Jarvis retired. It was arranged he was to sleep in Balfour's bedroom, but Brodie said he would stow himself on a couch in the dining-room, which was warm and comfortable.
He dozed for three or four hours, and exactly at five rose, and made his way to the stable-yard, where, according to prearrangement, the groom was ready with a horse and trap, and Brodie drove rapidly into Edinburgh. He was back again soon after eight, with two constables in plain clothes, who were for the time confined to the kitchen, until their services might be required.
Jarvis did not rise until after nine. He was a good and sound sleeper, and neither ghosts nor anything else had disturbed him. He was kept in ignorance of Brodie's journey into Edinburgh.
A few minutes before ten Chunda made his appearance. He was ready to start, and he enlisted the aid of the other servants to bring his luggage down into the hall. Again Brodie requested the skipper to detain the native in conversation, while he himself went upstairs to Chunda's room, where he shut himself in and locked the door. Then he began to tap with his knuckles the wainscoted walls, going from panel to panel.
When he reached the deep recess near the fireplace, already described, he started, as his taps produced a hollow sound. He tapped again and again, putting his ear to the woodwork. There was no mistake about it. The wall there was hollow. He tried to move the hollow panel, but only after many trials and much examination did he succeed. The panel slid on one side, revealing a dark abyss, from which came a strange, cold, earthy, clammy smell.
He closed the panel, went down stairs, and told the constables the time for action had come. They filed into the dining-room, and Jarvis was asked to tell Chunda that he would be arrested on a charge of having murdered Raymond Balfour and Maggie Stiven.
If it is possible for a black person to turn pale, then Chunda did so. Any way, the announcement was like an electric shock to him. He staggered; then clapped his hands to his face, and moaned and whined.
Brodie went upstairs once more—this time in company with one of the constables. They were provided with lanterns, and when the panel in Chunda's room was opened again, the light revealed a narrow flight of stone steps descending between the walls; and at the bottom of the steps lay something huddled up. It was unmistakably a human body, the body of Raymond Balfour.
Chunda was at once conveyed to Edinburgh, and other men were sent out from the town to the house. Then the decomposed body was got up. It was Balfour, sure enough. He had been stabbed in the chest, and the heart had been pierced through.
At the bottom of the stone steps there was also found the other portion of the long stiletto.
All this, however, was not proof that Chunda had done the deed. But there was something else that was.
The dead man's right hand was tightly clenched, and when it was opened by the doctor who was called in to examine the remains, a piece of cloth was released from the death grip. It was a piece of Indian cloth, interwoven with gold threads, and identical with the scrap that Brodie had found in the ashes.
The dead hand afforded the necessary clue; it forged the last link. The dead hand smote the destroyer. It proved beyond doubt that Chunda was the murderer. He had by some means discovered the secret panel. He had inveigled Balfour into the room. There he had stabbed him. In his dying agony the wretched man had clutched at his murderer, and had torn out a piece of the gold-threaded jacket he was wearing. That jacket must have been deeply stained with blood, and Chunda had cast it upon the fire. But murder will out, and the unconsumed fragment gave the sharp-eyed Brodie the first clue. The dead hand itself of the murdered man afforded the last.
Chunda was the murderer, or, rather, the murderess; for Chunda was a woman. Brodie had begun to suspect this from a peculiarity of voice, from the formation of her neck and shoulders, and from other signs, and his suspicions were confirmed when he resorted to the ball test.
When the balls were thrown, Chunda did not, as a man would have done, close his knees, but spread them open. A woman invariably does this when she is in a sitting posture and anything is thrown at her lap.
Chunda subsequently proved to be a woman, sure enough, and the murder was the result—as Brodie had also correctly divined—of jealousy.
The wretched creature succeeded in strangling herself before she was brought to trial, and she left behind her a paper written in excellent English, in which she confessed the crime. She declared that she was the wife of Balfour, who had espoused her in India. She represented a very old and high-caste family. Her father was a Rajah, and Balfour had been in his employ. He succeeded in winning her affections, and when he returned to his own country she determined to accompany him. He treated her very badly, and twice he attempted to poison her. His flirtation with Maggie Stiven excited her to madness, but it was, nevertheless, a very cunning mildness. She had previously discovered by chance the sliding panel and the secret stairs.
On New Year's Eve she opened the panel, went to the top of the stairs, and uttered that eerie screech or scream that had so alarmed the company. She felt sure it would bring her husband to her. She told him that she had received a horrible fright in her room; that part of the wall had opened, revealing a dark abyss, from which strange noises issued. As soon as he was in the room she stabbed him with a long Indian stiletto. It then suddenly struck her that, when he didn't return, it was very likely Maggie Stiven would go in search of him. So she hurried down the stairs and hid underneath them, and as soon as Maggie appeared she sprang upon her and stabbed her with such fury that the blade of the dagger broke.
Although her husband had treated her so badly, she had yielded to his earnest entreaties to conceal her identity and continue to pass as a man. She spoke and wrote English fluently, although he had made her promise not to let this fact be known.
Such was the story she told, and there was no doubt it was substantially correct. She considered that she had managed the crime so well that suspicion would never rest upon her, and, having carried out her deed of awful vengeance, she would be able to return to her own sun-scorched land.
That she would have succeeded in this was likely enough had Peter Brodie not been brought upon the scene. He had worked out the problem line by line, and at last, when it struck him that if Balfour was murdered he must have been murdered in Chunda's room, he proceeded to examine the floor carefully on the night when he asked Jarvis to keep Chunda in conversation for half an hour. That examination revealed unmistakable traces of blood on the boards. Then it occurred to him that, as the house was an old one, it was more than likely there was some secret closet or recess in which the body had been hidden.
Chunda had evidently been well educated. In a postscript to her confession she said that, out of the great love she bore the man who had so cruelly deceived her, she had, at his suggestion, consented to pass herself off as his servant. He had assured her that it would only be for a short time, and that when he had his affairs settled, and sold his property, he would go back with her to India, and they would live in regal splendour to the end of their days.
That she loved him was pretty certain. That he shamefully deceived her was no less certain; and that love of hers, and that deception, afforded some palliation for her bloodthirsty deed of vengeance.
For some time after the double crime Corbie Hall remained desolate and lonely. It was now looked upon as a doubly-accursed place, and nobody could be found who would take it, so at last it was razed to the ground, and is known no more.
In pulling it down it was discovered that in Balfour's room was a secret panel corresponding to the one in the next room, and that the stone stairs had at one time led to a subterraneous passage, which had an opening somewhere in Blackford Glen. It had no doubt originally been constructed to afford the inmates of the house means of escape in the stormy times when the building was first reared.