From the East Kent Standard:—
A tragic affair, resulting in the death of Mr. Mortimer Colles, the well-known scientist, took place at Reculvers on Monday. It appears that the deceased gentleman and his friend, Mr. Philip Lyne, Professor of Physics at University College, were making a series of experiments on heat with the aid of magnifying glasses. Whatever the peculiar nature of the experiment might be matters little. In the course of the proceedings it became necessary for the two gentlemen to separate, Mr. Colles proceeding some six hundred yards away from his companion in the direction of the sea, the whole business taking place on the cliff.
Nobody appeared to be moving, the cliff line thereabouts being particularly flat, sterile and uninteresting. It would have been difficult for a rabbit to pass without notice. On the verge of the cliff towards which Mr. Colles made his way stand the ruins of a martello tower. The tower is not more than six feet high, and nothing but the bare circular walls remain. At this moment the passing of the sun behind a cloud checked the progress of the trifling experiment. Doubtless in a fit of idle curiosity, Mr. Colles peered into the tower. Ten minutes elapsed, and he failed to emerge. Naturally Mr. Lyne grew somewhat impatient. After hailing his friend without avail, he entered the tower, and thereupon was horrified to find Mr. Colles lying there dead, his throat cut from ear to ear in three distinct places. The clothes of the deceased were torn from his shoulders, or rather cut off in some strange fashion. Death must have been instantaneous. An inquest will be held in due course.
* * * * *
The inquest connected with the above case was held at the Lion Hotel, Reculvers, on Tuesday evening. After evidence of identification and the usual official routine, Mr. Philip Lyne was called.
Questioned by the Coroner, he said that he had known deceased many years. He had always been regarded as a genial and entertaining man, and one, moreover, of great physical and mental strength.
The Coroner: Was Mr. Colles as cheerful lately as usual?
The witness replied that he was bound to say no. He had every reason to believe that the deceased gentleman was worried over a knotty problem of considerable scientific importance, and that he had complained of want of sleep. The nerves of an imaginative man were easily upset.
Dr. Heather was the next witness called. He deposed to the nature of the wounds, and was emphatic in his declaration that they could not have been self-inflicted.
By the Coroner: Were they all fatal wounds?
Witness: Undoubtedly. The cartoid artery was severed in three places. The deep slashes across the throat might have been planned out with a ruler and compass, so mathematically regular were they.
The Coroner: Done with some sharp instrument, doubtless?
Witness: Not particularly sharp. The wounds gave me the impression of having been inflicted by a dull razor handled by some one who possessed great muscular force. More I cannot say. I am strongly of opinion that this is a case of murder, and that this is not the first time an attempt to take the life of the deceased has been made.
The Coroner: You see the importance of proceeding further?
Dr. Heather: Quite so, sir. On examining the body the right breast of the deceased reveals three longs scars, healed some time ago, but evidently the remains of deep scars. There are three of them and the lines have the same mathematical regularity of those which subsequently resulted in death.
The Coroner: Can you tell us any more?
Witness: Unfortunately no. I am as hopelessly fogged as anybody else.
At the conclusion of the inquiry, which lasted upwards of four hours, the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against some person or persons unknown.
Two years passed away, and the public had forgotten the tragic death of Mortimer Colles; indeed, I trust I shall not be accused of callousness when I confess that I had almost forgotten it myself. It remained for Benham Carter to bring the matter back vividly.
He had written to me proposing a visit, with a corollary to the effect that the offer was off provided I had taken to myself a wife in the meantime. The proper assurances being vouchsafed, Carter came in due course. On the very first evening over the walnuts and the wine Colles's name came up.
"It was a great shock to me when I heard it in Paris," said Carter. "I was very fond of Colles. And the poor fellow died before his great discovery could be made public. What a thousand pities!"
"Did you know anything of it?" I asked eagerly.
"No I didn't, I'm sorry to say. Colles promised to tell me everything when he had worked it out to his satisfaction. He dragged me from Wady Halfa to Paris by way of Rome and Berlin searching for Stemitz, the eminent authority on bacteria, whom he desired to see. Give me the details of his death."
I responded at considerable length. Long before I had finished Carter had moved from his seat and was pacing up and down the room.
"Phil," he asked suddenly, "how far is it from here to Reculvers? Could we drive over to-morrow and inspect the scene of the murder?"
"We could—certainly; but what good would that do?"
Carter came over and tapped me significantly on the shoulder.
"To-morrow night," he said impressively, "if things are as I assume them to be, I shall tell how and by what means our friend Colles met with his death."
"You mean to say you know the man?" I cried.
"I am practically certain. I have been face to face with the murderer," said Carter. "No wonder the police have failed to solve the problem. This thing is outside their ken entirely."
Carter's eyes sparkled, and he laughed in a creepy kind of way vastly unpleasant to the ordinary listener. Then he turned to me abruptly.
"The more I think of it the more certain am I that I have solved the mystery," he said. "To-morrow I shall know definitely. Still, so sure of my ground am I, that if you like I will tell you the first volume of the romance this evening. What do you say?"
That my reply was an eager affirmative goes without saying.
"Then I will begin," said Carter, as he proceeded to light one of his peculiar ill-flavored cigars. "It is some two years and odd months ago that Colles came to me with the information that he had made a discovery. We had pushed on some way up the valley of the Nile—we were quite alone—in fact we were prospecting in the idle fashion of men taking a holiday. Colles had wandered off alone from our little camp only to return in the evening in a state of considerable excitement.
"'Carter,' he said, 'I have found the tomb of King Ramin.'
"Now, as you are probably aware, Colles was not in the habit of making rash statements. Neither need I enlarge to you upon the importance of the discovery. The next morning found us in the little valley where stood the pyramids—a miniature copy of the great pyramids—after which Colles proceeded to adduce reason why the pile contained the ashes of King Ramin. The arguments were cogent enough to convince any Egyptologist.
"'And what do you propose to do now?'" I asked.
"'Make the best of our opportunity and explore the place,' Colles responded. 'We'll burgle the tomb and ask permission afterwards if necessary.'
"At the end of an hour we had loosened the stones that sealed the entrance, Colles's unerring judgment picking this out at once, and then we proceeded to crawl along the dark tunnel leading to the heart of the pyramid. Instead of being close and stuffy, the air was quite fresh and sweet.
"When we reached the central chamber the reason for this became apparent. The apex of the pyramid had been left open, so that a circular shaft of light struck down and faintly illuminated the place. On a raised stone pile was a kind of brazen cage, and under this there rested, swathed and bandaged what is known to be the body of King Ramin. What a find! Colles' eyes fairly blazed as he regarded the illustrious mummy.
"'We must have these at any cost!' he muttered.
"Meanwhile I was gazing somewhat curiously around me. One thing that struck me as peculiar was the number of rats creeping like brown shadows over the floor. How did they get there, and still more pregnant question, how did they manage to exist? I could only account for it by the suggestion that there were small unseen egresses from the pyramids which we had not noticed.
"I could get Colles to take no interest in anything but the illustrious mummy inside the brazen cage. Already he had commenced a vigorous attack upon the stonework into which the metal was welded, and in a short time it was possible to move the brazen sarcophagus from its place.
"I was bending forward to assist in this operation when with a loud hiss something big and black and furry shot past me with the force of a catapult, and landed lightly on the summit of the cage.
"It was a huge black cat, Lyne, the biggest I have ever seen. It was certainly as large as a collie dog, and then I recognised that the mystery of the skeleton was solved. The animal that confronted us with almost devilish menace must have been born and bred in the pyramid, the descendant of a pair doubtless placed there thousands of years ago.
"'A dangerous and repulsive brute,' said Colles. 'Just as well to see if there are any more before proceeding further.'
"A careful investigation failed to discover another cat. As we returned to our charge, the brute on the cage hoisted her tail and swore horribly. Colles shot out his arm, and like lightning she was upon it. I was fairly quick with my knife which I promptly buried in the creature's body, but not before she had torn Colles' coat into ribands as if severed with scissors. Then the creature dropped with an almost human cry of pain and vanished into the darkness.
"At the end of an hour the tablets were in Colles' possession. They were indeed a precious find, far the most important ever discovered. In the excitement of the moment, I had almost forgotten that fiend of a cat, and as I live, at the minute Colles laid hand on those tablets, a long howl came out of the darkness, and I saw two great eyes glow like coals.
"'Clap the stone to, and shut the brute in,' said Colles, when at length we emerged from the tomb. 'It seems to have got on my nerves. We'll just do our best to make the place look as if it had not been disturbed. This find is too precious to be spoken of this side of Cairo.'
"Needless to say I heartily agreed. At the end of an hour we removed all traces of our work, and well pleased turned towards our camp. By this time we had forgotten all about the black cat when Colles happened to give an involuntary glance behind him."
"'Look here,' he said, 'give the beast one with your revolver.' Sure enough some 30 yards behind us was the black cat.
"A spasm of rage possessed me. I fired two shots at a fair range, and I saw a black mass of fur bound into the air and roll over into the feather grass along the side of the track.
"'He's settled, thank goodness,' said Colles."
We drove over to Reculvers the next morning, and there we made a close examination of the scene of the mystery, resulting in Colles' lamentable death. Carter left no stone unturned, he asked a thousand questions, he paced off the distance for some hundred yards round the Martello Tower, after which he finally strode away in the direction of the cliffs.
"Are you perfectly satisfied?" I asked.
"That everything is correct, yes," Carter responded without hesitation. "I am absolutely certain of it. Can we get down these cliffs?"
"Certainly not for quite half a mile either way," I said.
"All the same, I'm going to try," said Carter. "These chalk cliffs are a bit dangerous, but I am skilled at this sort of thing. I am a light weight, and I shall come to no harm. Don't be anxious about me."
Still I was anxious till Carter returned. And I was glad to see him safe on terra firma again. There was a subdued but certain triumph on his face that aroused my curiosity. My inquisitional nerve remained on the stretch till after dinner.
It was with a feeling of relief almost that I saw Carter light one of his unspeakable cigars and lean back in his Chair.
"You are doubtless on tenterhooks to hear the completion, of my story," he began. "I should have confided it to you last night, only I could not be absolutely certain of the facts as I am now."
"Then no doubt any longer exists?" I asked.
"None whatever," Carter replied emphatically. "I have solved absolutely beyond question the mystery of poor Colles's death, and the evidence to clinch it I discovered during my climbing expedition this morning.''
"Go on, go on," I cried impatiently.
"'Festina lente,' old man. Before going on I shall have to retrace my steps a little; in fact, I shall have to go back to the time in Paris when I joined Colles, when he was hunting Stemitz. We were staying in a small, old-fashioned hotel not far from the Rue de Rivoli, as both Colles and myself have a rooted dislike to the modern 'Caravanserai.'
"The place was dark and somewhat gloomy. Indeed, along the corridors and in the big dingy bedrooms a score of murders might have been committed with impunity. Colles and I were going upstairs one evening when we found on the landing a waiter or two with a couple of chambermaids simmering with excitement. The cause of the hubbub was found to be the invasion of the house by a huge back cat, which finally had been driven out on the roof by a courageous garcon.
"'But, such an awful brute, monsieur,' said the chambermaid. 'As big as a dog, ma foi, and eyes like pale blue saucers. It must have escaped from the show.'
"'We must lay a trap for the creature,' I said, 'and see that next time we don't make a mistake.'
"I sat on the edge of my bed a little later, lighted a cigar and fell into a reverie. Just as my cigar had burnt down to my fingers and I was drawing the last fragrant whiff, I was startled by a queer, strangled scream. Almost before I could rise to my feet the sound came again. Then I recognised both the voice and the direction of the cry.
"They came unmistakeably from Colles's bedroom!
"Like a flash I tore across the corridor and burst open Colles's door. Colles, stripped to his pyjamas, lay upon his bed fighting and clutching at some black object rolled upon his chest.
"'For heaven's sake, hurry,' he gurgled. 'You'll find my revolver under my pillow. The brute's throttling me.'
"Directly I had that weapon in my hand the cat jumped to the floor, swearing horribly. It came as a great relief to me to find that Colles was not greatly injured.
"The loss of blood was not much to speak of, but Colles was shivering and trembling, his face had the ghastly, blue look of one who has received a great shock, and, as you know, Colles was anything but a coward.
"Colles was not able to leave Paris for a day or two, and in the intervening hours we discussed the black cat from every point of view. How the brute had contrived to follow Colles to Paris was not so much of a mystery after all. A cat can find its way anywhere. It could travel easily on the axle of a railway engine, in the darkness it could easily slink aboard a steamer, and live on the mice and rats in the ship's hold. That part of the problem we had no difficulty in solving.
"I did not accompany Colles to London because you already know I had business elsewhere. I said good-bye to my friend, and his last words were that I should never see him again. I began to fancy so myself when the day before I left Paris I had a brief cable from Colles:—
"'Saw it night Hyde Park. Goodbye, old friend.'"
"The black cat killed Colles?" I asked.
"Assuredly. The brute had followed you on that fateful morning. It must have been lurking behind the Martello tower. A crouching cat does not occupy much room, you understand. Once Colles entered the ruined tower his fate was sealed. That cat must have dropped right on his shoulders, and with those razor-like claws cut his throat in three places, severing the carotid artery instantly. Don't you remember that there were three parallel cuts, exactly similar to those healed ones on the body."
Mine was the silence of consent, and Carter continued.
"At the inquest you stated that you saw, or fancied you saw, a shadow flitting over the cliffs. That shadow was the black cat. To be quite sure of that I made a close investigation of the spot where the murder took place. I even descended the cliffs, and there I was lucky enough to make a remarkable discovery. What do you think it was?"
"My dear fellow, how could I possibly tell?"
"Well, it was nothing more nor less than the skeleton of the black cat."