COUNT RUPERT GAVANNI rose from the long table where the whole of the day he had been slaving over his clay models and stretched himself wearily. He splashed hot and cold water into the marble basin in the corner of the studio and washed those long, slim hands of his that seemed to drip red blood. They were beautiful hands, nervous and slender, with flexible wrists elastic as those of Paganini, as indeed they should be, for they belonged to the greatest sculptor of his time. And, indeed, Gavanni was something more than that—he was a poet and a painter, the last representative of an old. Italian family and possessor of a great fortune to boot.
For the most part he lived at that mediaeval palace of his at Hampstead, where he worked and dreamt and entertained the celebrities of Europe, from Royalty downwards.
The house was crammed with art treasures gathered from all parts of the world. The great studio, probably the finest building of its kind in Europe, occupied the whole of the north front and had access to the gardens by four long windows. Beyond the gardens again was a thick fringe of woods, and in the centre of these the lake—a large sheet of water where, in the summer time, Gavanni spent a good deal of his spare hours drifting about the lily-strewn waters in his Canadian canoe. When he was at work, as he was now, on an important group in gold bronze, it was his mood to shut himself off from the rest of the world except for an occasional bosom friend who knew him well and was in sympathy with his irregular habits.
He passed into the dining—room now where Scott Ogilvie was awaiting him, the only guest in the house on that glorious summer night early in ]uly.
Ogilvie was home from India on furlough. He was high up in the Indian police; a quiet man with a logical mind and a clear, grey eye, which was supposed to have seen further into the tortuous ramifications of the Indian mind than any other man who had ever been east of Suez.
"Well, have you finished for to-night?" Ogilvie asked.
"I have been modelling since breakfast," Gavanni declared. "But on the whole it has been a wasted day, for the rascally model I expected this morning did not turn up. I am sending him a postcard that ought to bring him to his senses. A good model gets so dreadfully spoilt. You might drop this card in the pillar-box down the road when you go for your stroll presently. And now let's have some supper."
Ogilvie slipped the card into his pocket and followedy his host to the dining-room. And there, for an hour or more, they sat over their supper in the oak-panelled room filled with historic pictures.
"Are you working to-morrow?" Ogilvie asked, when at length the cigarettes and coffee were on the table.
"All this week, I hope," Gavanni said. "If you find it dull you can easily run up to town.
"Not I," Ogilvie smiled. "The peace and quiet of this old house suit my complaint exactly. I came home for a rest, and I am getting it. For five years I have been carrying on a long battle of wits with the Oriental mind, and I am tired out. By the way, what are you working on now? Anything ambitious?"
"Well, yes," the sculptor said. "You know that line of Kipling's, 'East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet'? I'm weaving that into a kind of allegory in bronze, and after infinite trouble I have found the model for the Pathan that I wanted. That's the man who ought to have been here to-day. As a matter of fact, I've had the thing in my mind ever since I stayed with you in Benares two years ago. There's something in the East that has always appealed to me, and Benares fairly set my imagination on fire."
"You left it suddenly enough, anyhow," Ogilvie replied. "I never could quite understand why you turned your back on me there in so abrupt a fashion."
"Ah, then you never guessed?" Gavanni asked.
"Well, I had my suspicions, of course. I suppose that girl Serena Ran had something to do with it?"
Gavanni exhaled a mouthful of cigarette smoke thoughtfully.
"Well, yes," he said. "I had meant to tell you, but I never had the opportunity. Do you know, my dear chap, I came very near to making an everlasting fool of myself over that girl. For three days I was on the point of making her my wife. There was nothing wrong, you understand, merely certain love passages between us; but you are my oldest friend, and I will tell you the truth. I have only been really in love with one girl in my life, and she was Serena Ran. I loved her with a passion that you cold-blooded English know nothing of. She was the one woman only who could play upon my emotions like so many harpstrings. How beautiful she was you know. And we should have been happy enough up to a certain time, but East is East and West is West, and—I packed up my bag and came West instead. I tell you, Ogilvie, I ran away like a coward."
"I suspected something of this," Ogilvie said. "But you could not have married her though her father was an Englishman. Probably the greatest blackguard that was ever in the Indian Civil Service. A fascinating man and fiendishly clever, but a wrong 'un through and through. Anyway, he's dead now, and no doubt his sins lie lightly on his grave. And pretty little Serena is forgotten-——"
"No, by Heaven, she isn't!" Gavanni said, with a quiver in his voice. "She never will be forgotten, though what has become of her I haven't the remotest idea. Probably married to some fat Hindu who ill-treats her. But forgotten, no!"
"This is a strange way for a man to talk who is going to be married in the autumn to Lady Ida Montcrieff. What would the duchess say if she could hear you? And yet Lady Ida is rightly called the most beautiful girl in England."
"She is superb," Gavanni said, with the exact criticism of the artist for the concrete beautiful. "She is a perfect perfume. She carries her own atmosphere with her. She is coldly beautiful, a statue that Praxiteles might have worshipped. She will make a perfect hostess, the most beautiful piece of furniture in my house. And, in a way, I am fond of her. But—"
The speaker paused eloquently and helped himself to a fresh cigarette. It was getting dark by this time, and the dew was beginning to fall like pearly shadows over the gardens. Gavanni rose restlessly and walked towards the window.
"I think I'll take a turn on the lake for an hour," he said. "You won't mind being left alone?"
Ogilvie raised no objection. He never interfered with these moods of his host's. And he knew perfectly well that whenever Gavanni was busy on some important work he usually spent an hour or so most evenings drifting about the lake when the weather was favourable. No doubt the great sculptor did most of his planning out on these excursions.
"All right," Ogilvie said. "You won't be more than an hour or so, I suppose? By the way, I never could quite understand why you erected that bronze statue of Hercules in the centre of your lake. A gem like that unearthed from Pompeii was worthy of a better fate. Why don't you use that statue as a model for the bronze you have in your mind now?"
"There are sculptors who might do so," Gavanni said, contemptuously. "But where would the touch of originality, which is the other word for genius, my friend, come in? I had thought of it only to dismiss the idea at once. No, the Hercules is best where he is. A great work by a great unknown master, standing in splendid isolation in the centre of four hundred acres of water. What more fitting pedestal could you find? But then. of course, you are not an artist."
"No, I am not," Ogilvie said. "I am a mathematician with a practical mind. But go on, don't mind me. Moon about on your lake, and when you have finished you will find me in the smoking—room. Now, off you go."
Gavanni passed down the grass path and through the belt of trees to the lake. The moon was rising behind the belt of trees and throwing silver pencils of light here and there along the face of the water. Between the bands of flame were broad strips of darkness, all the more intense by contrast with the lanes of light. Against the murky background the bronze Hercules loomed up, mystic and ·symbolical, like a thing of life. Gavanni pushed off his canoe and drifted idly hither and thither on the face of the waters. He put the world entirely behind him now, he had one thought only, and that was for the work that filled him to the exclusion of everything else. Almost unconsciously he dipped his paddle in the liquid. moonbeams, and almost as unconsciously pushed on to the centre of the lake. He was close to the statue now, a shadowy form that loomed above him, brown and hard and motionless. Just for a moment the sculptor allowed his eye to roam over those perfect outlines, the play of muscle and sinuousness of form that represented almost a lost art. For great in his line as Gavanni was, he was by no means blind to his limitations. Something like a sigh escaped him.
"If I could only get the spirit of life like that," he murmured. "There is the divine fire in every line and curve, the real afflatus."
It was perhaps an hour or more later, nearly midnight, that Ogilvie became conscious of the flight of time, and woke to the knowledge that he was still alone. It was not Gavanni's way to stay on the lake so late; usually he was back long before now. Not that Ogilvie was in the least anxious. He knew that a Canadian canoe was a frail craft and liable to trouble in the hands of a novice. But then Gavanni was no novice, and in no place was the lake more than five feet deep. At one time the bottom was thick with mud, but a year or two ago it had been cleaned out and the whole basin lined with concrete. So Ogilvie lighted another cigarand waited calmly.
Then the stillness of the night and the serene tranquillity of the smoking-room was broken by a sudden hoarse outcry and the noise of someone hammering on one of the French windows leading to the gardens. Ogilvie jumped to his feet and hastily threw back the long half of the sash.
A man stood there, obviously a gardener in his Sunday clothes. Ogilvie could see that his hands and face were wet; he had lost his hat, and his face was pale and agitated.
"Thank goodness you have not gone to bed, sir," the man gasped. "I saw a light in the window, so I came this way. I am Rogers, the gardener. It is my duty to look after the orchid-houses the other side of the lake. I've got some young plants just coming into bloom, and I generally come along about this time to have a last look at them. About an hour ago I saw the master in his canoe, and when I came away just now the canoe was still in the same place. And when I looked at it again in the moonlight I saw that the boat was empty. At least, I thought so. It seemed strange to see it drifting about there, so I took a punt to fetch it back. And the canoe wasn't empty."
The man shuddered, and his lips quivered.
"The master was lying inside on his face. At first I thought he was asleep. But when I got the canoe to the side and put my hand on his shoulder to wake him up I saw that he wasn't asleep, but that he was dead."
"Good heavens!" Ogilvie cried. "Are you sure, man?"
"Aye, that I am, sir. I'm an old soldier, an' I've seen too many dead bodies not to know. The count's dead, and what's more, it looks as if he had met with foul play. I was too stunned to do anything for a minute or two; but come along, sir, and see for yourself. It's as light as day outside."
Ogilvie waited for nothing more. He raced across the gardens and dashed through the belt of trees until he came to the edge of the lake. There was the canoe anchored. close to the grass path, and in it a dark, sinister object that looked ominously still and rigid in the light of the moon. Gavanni lay there flat upon his face——he had evidently fallen forward from his seat in the stern of the canoe, for he was stretched out on the cushions as if some blow had laid him out, and as if he had never moved afterwards. And there was no hope in Ogilvie's mind; he had looked upon death too often in the dim East yonder not to know it when he saw it, even if the face of the spectre was turned away from him. He knew that Gavanni was dead. And a moment later he knew something else.
"Your master has been murdered," he said, hoarsely. "See that mark at the base of the skull, and that red band below his collar? There has been foul play here beyond a doubt. But come, we are wasting time, and every moment is precious. As an old policeman myself, I know the value of time in cases like this. Now help me to carry the body up to the house, and I will telephone to Scotland Yard and inform the authorities what has happened. Wake up, man; don't stand staring at me in that stupid fashion!"
It was nearly daylight before Ogilvie stumbled sleepily to bed. They had been pretty crowded hours, but so far the investigations at Scotland Yard had proved futile. It was quite clear that nobody in the house could throw any light upon the mystery. And for the moment, at any rate, Ogilvie could see no motive for the crime. That robbery formed no part of the motive an examination of Gavanni's effects clearly showed. Nothing was missing, for the watch and chain had been found on the body, and the count's cigarette-case was discovered in the canoe.
Tired as he was, Ogilvie turned out his pockets and placed his dress clothes carefully away. On his dressing-table lay two or three letters and the postcard that Gavanni had entrusted to him. Apparently he had forgotten all about it; he had dropped off to sleep in the billiard—room after dinner, having intended to go out later on. Not that it mattered very much now. It was a mere trifle, but to a man of Ogilvie's training there were no such things as trifles. He read the address on the postcard, and just for a moment the tired look faded from his eyes. Then he put the whole thing out of his mind, and slept soundly far into the following morning.
Naturally enough the tragic death of Gavanni caused a profound sensation in London. And as the days went on and no arrest was made, public opinion grew impatient. But meanwhile one man, at any rate, had not been idle; Ogilvie was leaving no stone unturned with a view to getting to the bottom of the mystery. By this time he had formed something like a theory. On his own responsibility, and without consulting the police, he decided to empty the lake—nodifficult matter in view of the fact that it was fed by a small stream, and that the opening of the floodgate by the boat—house would drain away the water in the course of a few hours. Ogilvie stood there watching the slow process, his eyes turned upon the mystic figure in bronze in the centre of the basin. It was the figure of Hercules with his club, doubtless in the act of slaying the Hydra. And as Ogilvie turned his eyes intently on the object the plan took more definite shape in his mind.
"I wonder," he murmured to himself; "the odds are a hundred to one against it, but I wonder."
He came back towards the evening when the work was finished, and walked across the empty basin in the direction of the pedestal.
There was no mud here, nothing but a thin, green slime, little thicker than a coat of varnish, and every inch of this, within a few yards of the base of the statue, Ogilvie examined carefully. There was one thing to reward his search in the shape of a heavy knobbed club loaded with lead at one end. There were lines, too, irregular lines and scratches in the slime, that looked very much as if somebody had been tracing a rude pattern there with the point of a walking stick, which, no doubt, had been done before the lake was empty, for there had been no chance of this since, for Ogilvie had taken good care of that. His had been the first footstep inside the empty basin.
"We're getting warmer," he whispered.
"There is something in my theory after all. At any rate, this discovery goes a long way to prove that my theory is right. And I am the one man hi England who knows how to grapple with it."
Early next morning Ogilvie returned to town and made his way to his lodgings in Dover Street. A little time later he called at a house in Stamford Street, Waterloo Bridge Road, under a pretence of finding a bed- and sitting-room for the next two or three days. He gathered from the apartments-card over the fanlight that there would be no diiiiculty in this respect, and so it proved. The landlady was quite willing to accommodate him—indeed eagerly so.
"I shall be out most of the day," Ogilvie said. "I shall want no meals, not even breakfast. And I shall not need the rooms for more than a week, so I'll pay you in advance. Are there any other lodgers in the house?"
"Only one other party, sir," the landlady said. "A troop of performers who 'ave a month's engagement at the Pantheon Music-hall in Lambeth Road. They are natives of some kind, but they are very quiet, and they won't disturb you."
By a singular coincidence the following night saw Ogilvie seated in the cheap stalls of the Pantheon Music-hall, watching the performance with the air of a man who is simply killing time. It was the usual dreary music-hall show, and not till nearly the end did Ogilvie display any sign of interest.
But a clever performance of an Eastern group of artistes seemed to move him almost to enthusiasm. It was quite an intelligent display in its way, clean and refined, and, Ogilvie would have thought, far over the heads of the audience. Yet there was a section of people there who applauded the tableaux vigorously, but there was no man present who followed the doings of those bronzed Orientals with the vivid interest that Ogilvie was feeling in every nerve of his body.
The next morning he was back at Hampstead again. The house, of course, was in the hands of the police, but he was known by name to the inspector in charge, and consequently he had no difliculty in going over Gavanni's papers. Late that evening—just after midnight, in fact—he made his way back to Stamford Street and lighted the gas in his sitting-room.
"Have those other lodgers of yours come in yet?" he asked the landlady. "Oh, they have. Then would you go upstairs and ask the man who calls himself Ran Seri if he will come down here a moment, as I have a message for him from Ogilvie Sahib? Just tell him that, and ask him to come this way."
A minute or two later and a Eurasian, white-clad from his snowy turban to his flowing skirts, came into the room and made a low obeisance.
"Your Excellency sent for me," he said. "The sahib desires to see me. But they did not tell me that it was Sahib Ogilvie himself."
Ogilvie shut the door discreetly and lighted a cigarette. Ran Seri stood there, erect and motionless, a magnificent specimen of humanity, tall and powerful and muscular. His manner was respectful enough, but obviously his nerves were at high tension, for he seemed to be watching some unseen danger that lurked in the background behind OgiIvie's head.
"You did not expect to see me?" the latter asked.
"It is a happiness beyond my hopes," the man said, humbly enough. "It must be three years now since the sahib deigned to extend his protection to the humblest of his slaves. But Ran Seri has not forgotten. And if there is anything I can do for the all-highest protector of the poor—"
"Only one thing," Ogilvie said, calmly. "Tell me why you murdered Count Gavanni."
The Eurasian quivered from head lo foot as if some unseen hand had struck him a mortal blow. But there was no sign of fight in his dark eyes, no suggestion of violence on his part. He took it with all the fatalism of his race.
"The highest knows what he is speaking of?" he asked.
"The highest most certainly does," Ogilvie said, grimly. "You went over to Hampstead on Sunday night of last week and you killed the count when he was sitting in his canoe. I am not going to say that I saw you do it, but I am as sure of it as if I had been there and saw the blow struck. You may speak if you like, or you may remain silent. But there is no hope for you, no chance of escape. In any case, you will be in the hands of the police. before morning. Now, then!"
Ran Seri made a step forward towards a chair, and hesitated.
"Yes," Ogilvie said. "You have my permission to sit down."
The Eurasian dropped into the chair. He gave no sign; if he was feeling deeply he did not betray his feeling by even so much as the quiver of an eyelid.
"There is nothing hidden from the sahib," he said. "There is nothing he does not know. It was the same in Benares, where the evil-doer trembled before a glance of the sahib's eye. And if I had known that the highest was in England I would have come to him the next day and told him the truth."
"Then you are going to confess?" Ogilvie asked.
"Who is the worm Ran Seri that he should set up the thing he calls his mind against the white gods who sit and whisper in the ear of the sahib? The sahib knows everything. Therefore it is not for me to speak."
"Perhaps not," Ogilvie said. "But I like to know that I am right. Now let me see if I can tell you exactly what happened. You came to England with the intention of finding Count Gavanni and killing him."
"Even so, sahib. That thing I did without malice in my mind, and because my gods so ordained it. I am but as a humble instrument in their hands."
"No doubt. But at the same time you had no intention of risking your skin if you could help it. And it was in your favour that you and the count had never met. It was not for him to know that you are half-brother to the girl that the count made love to two years ago in Benares. He did not know that Serena Ran ever had a brother. It is only I who was aware of that because I was head of the police there, and it was with my connivance that you managed to escape from India. But I am merely wasting your time by telling you this. Let us get on. You came to England as the humble instrument of the gods, as you say. But, unfortunately, that kind of thing is not regarded with any marked favour in this country. Of course I can sympathize, to a certain extent, with your point of view, because I have spent twenty years in India. Anyway, you came to England, you found your man, and you laid your plans for his death. He wanted a model for some figures in bronze he was working on, and when you offered yourself he deemed himself fortunate, little dreaming who you really were.
"Well, you went into his service, you had the run of the studio at Hampstead, and by degrees you learnt all you wanted to know. You learnt, for instance, that most fine nights the count was in the habit of paddling about on the lake in the moonlight or in the darkness, working out his designs. And, because you are an Oriental and have the subtle mind and imagination of your race, you began to see your way to one of those dark and mysterious crimes which are the delight of the Eastern criminal. Possibly you might have killed the count in a commonplace fashion, but he was a powerful man, too, and you might have been killed yourself instead. Night after night you watched your opportunities almost under the shadow of that bronze figure in the centre of the lake, and then the inspiration came to you.
"You saw that the count never passed a night on the water without spending a few moments in close contemplation of that work of art, and here was your opportunity ready to your hand. It was no difficult matter for you to strip off your clothing and hide it in a wood, and then, protected by your dark skin, swim as far as the statue. And it was equally easy for a man of your physique to lift the hollow bronze Hercules from its pedestal and drop it into the water, whilst you assumed the place of the statue with a club in your hand ready to deal the count a mortal blow at the first opportunity. I have no doubt that you posed more than once, waiting for the chanoe to come. Then it was no difiicult matter to replace the statue on its base and assume your clothing, with nobody any the wiser. I am as much convinced that this happened on Sunday week as if I had been in the canoe with the count and had seen the crime happen."
"His Excellency is high in favour with his own gods," Ran Seri said. "The gods that never fail him. Doubtless they came to his mightiness in the darkness of the night and showed him all this in a vision."
"Doubtless they did nothing of the sort," Ogilvie said. "I happen to know you of old, and I knew your sister, too. You were in America then. But the count was staying with I me, and it was I who was mainly responsible for bringing him and your sister together. And there was no one who more bitterly regrets it than myself. I am sure there was nothing wrong, only the old story of a man amusing himself in his idle hours and leaving the trusting girl to suffer afterwards. And these stories are not confined to India, my friend. I suppose your sister wrote to you and told you all about her coming happiness, and doubtless she told you, too, afterwards, that her dream was ended. Is she married yet?"
Ran Seri moved for the first time.
"She is dead," he said. "And now you know. She died of what you call a broken heart."
"I am grieved to hear it," Ogilvie replied. "I might have guessed something of this. But for some hours after the count's death I suspected nothing but a vulgar crime. And then I found a postcard that the count had written to you telling you that if you did not put in appeaance on Monday he would have no further use for your services, and I began to see daylight. You would have been wiser to have changed your name. I knew then that you were an enemy in the house, and I knew that you had come all this way to avenge the slight on your sister. But even then I could not quite see how you had managed it until I tracked you here and found out what you were doing. I have seen your performance, I have seen those living bronzes at the Pantheon Music-hall, and I have seen the statue of Hercules in the middle of the lake at Hampstead. And when I had seen those two things everything became plain before me. But I have seen more than that; I have seen the scratches on the pedestal of the statue, and the marks made in the bottom of the lake where you placed the statue when you were posing on the pedestal in its place. I have even found the weapon with which the crime was committed. And with that I have finished. If there is anything you would like to say—"
"A few words, sahib," the Eurasian said, calmly, as if he were repeating something he had learnt by heart. "It is all just as the sahib says. It is as if he had seen everything in a vision arranged before his eyes by the gods. When that little sister of mine, whom I loved to the tips of my finger-nails, wrote to me and told me all her troubles, the gods whispered in my ear that I must find the man and kill him. They whispered day and night until the voices nearly drove me mad. So I came back to Benares, and, behold! the lovely child was dead—dead as if a hand had slain her. And the gods were at my ear the whole time. I had nothing to guide me but a photograph, but in the end that was enough. It took me a year to find the man, but I did find him—I even entered his service, and he none the wiser. In all my spare time I watched him: watched him in his garden and on the lake till the plan came into my mind. I could do it better than most men, for is not my skin the same colour as the statue, and have I not for two years been posing before the public with my brothers until I could stand for hours without the quiver of an eyelid?
"I knew that sooner or later my chance would come to me, and it came. Four Sundays did I wait—for Sunday is the only day I have free—and at last my chance came. He sat there within a yard of me speaking to the statue as if it had been alive. Then he wished me good night, and drifted away so near that I could have touched him with my hand. It was then that I reached forward and smote him with that heavy club on the back of the head, so that he fell on his face and never moved again. It is the decree of the gods that the sahib should be in England now and that his vast intelligence should see in a flash of an eye all that I would have hidden from the world. And if the sahib asks me if I am sorry or that I regret, then I say, no. For, behold, I am an instrument, a sword in the hand of the avenging deities who have used my unworthy body so that justice might be done. And once there were white men who tried to convert me to your creed, and in a book they gave me I read that there should be an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. And therefore can the sahib bring himself to blame me because I have learnt the lesson written in the Talmud of his own forefathers? Sahib, I have finished."
The Eurasian bent his head upon his breast and folded his hands before him. He sat there, the embodiment of Fate, the incarnation of a creed beyond the grip of Western imagination.
Ogilvie rose to his feet and rang the bell.