The House of the Arrow


The Secret House

A.E.W. Mason

IT WAS a dark, clear night, the air very still and warm, and the sky bright with innumerable stars. The small company penetrated into the town by the backways and narrow alleys. Daunay going on ahead, Patinot the last by some thirty yards, and Moreau keeping upon the opposite side of the street. Once they had left behind them the lights of the station square, they walked amongst closed doors and the blind faces of unlit houses. Frobisher’s heart raced within his bosom. He strained his eyes and ears for some evidence of spies upon their heels. But no one was concealed in any porch, and not the stealthiest sound of a pursuit was borne to their hearing.

“On a night like this,” he said in tones which, strive as he might to steady them, were still a little tremulous, “one could hear a footstep on the stones a quarter of a mile away, and we hear nothing. Yet, if there is a gang, it can hardly be that we are unwatched.”

Hanaud disagreed. “This is a night for alibis,” he returned, lowering his voice; “good, sound, incontestable alibis. All but those engaged will be publicly with their friends, and those engaged do not know how near we are to their secrets.” They turned into a narrow street and kept on its left-hand side.

“Do you know where we are?” Hanaud asked. “No? Yet we are near to the Maison Grenelle. On the other side of these houses to our left runs the street of Charles-Robert.”

Jim Frobisher stopped dead. “It was here, then, that you came last night after I left you at the Prefecture,” he exclaimed.

“Ah, you recognized me, then!” Hanaud returned imperturbably. “I wondered whether you did when you turned at the gates of your house.”

On the opposite side of the street the houses were broken by a high wall, in which two great wooden doors were set. Behind the wall, at the end of a courtyard, the upper storey and the roof of a considerable house rose in a steep ridge against the stars.

Hanaud pointed towards it. “Look at that house, Monsieur! There Madame Raviart came to live whilst she waited to be set free. It belongs to the Maison Grenelle. After she married Simon Harlowe, they would never let it, they kept it just as it was, the shrine of their passion—that strange romantic couple. But there was more romance in that, to be sure. It has been unoccupied ever since.”

Jim Frobisher felt a chill close about his heart. Was that house the goal to which Hanaud was leading him with so confident a step? He looked at the gates and the house. Even in the night it had a look of long neglect and decay, the paint peeling from the doors and not a light in any window.

Someone in the street, however, was awake, for just above their heads, a window was raised with the utmost caution and a whisper floated down to them.

“No one has appeared.”

Hanaud took no open notice of the whisper. He did not pause in his walk, but he said to Frobisher:

“And, as you hear, it is still unoccupied.”

At the end of the street Daunay melted away altogether. Hanaud and Frobisher crossed the road and, with Moreau just ahead, turned down a passage between the houses to the right.

Beyond the passage they turned again to the right into a narrow lane between high walls; and when they had covered thirty yards or so, Frobisher saw the branches of leafy trees over the wall upon his right. It was so dark here under the shade of the boughs that Frobisher could not even see his companions; and he knocked against Moreau before he understood that they had come to the end of their journey. They were behind the garden of the house in which Madame Raviart had lived and loved.

Hanaud’s hand tightened upon Jim Frobisher’s arm, constraining him to absolute immobility. Patinot had vanished as completely and noiselessly as Daunay. The three men left stood in the darkness and listened. A sentence which Ann Upcott had spoken in the garden of the Maison Grenelle, when she had been describing the terror with which she had felt the face bending over her in the darkness, came back to him. He had thought it false then. He took back his criticism now. For he, too, imagined that the beating of his heart must wake all Dijon.

They stood there motionless for the space of a minute, and then, at a touch from Hanaud, Nicolas Moreau stooped. Frobisher heard the palm of his hand sliding over wood and immediately after the tiniest little click as a key was fitted into a lock and turned. A door in the wall swung silently open and let a glimmer of light into the lane. The three men passed into a garden of weeds and rank grass and overgrown bushes. Moreau closed and locked the door behind them. As he locked the door the clocks of the city struck the half-hour. Hanaud whispered in Frobisher’s ear:

“They have not yet reached the Val Terzon. Come.”

They crept over the mat of grass and weeds to the back of the house. A short flight of stone steps, patched with mould, descended from a terrace; at the back of the terrace were shuttered windows. But in the corner of the house, on a level with the garden, there was a door. Once more Moreau stooped, and once more a door swung inwards without a sound. But whereas the garden door had let through some gleam of twilight, this door opened upon the blackness of the pit. Jim Frobisher shrank back from it, not in physical fear but in an appalling dread that some other man than he, wearing his clothes and his flesh, would come out of that door again. His heart came to a standstill, and then Hanaud pushed him gently into the passage. The door was closed behind them; an almost inaudible sound told him that now the door was locked.

“Listen!” Hanaud whispered sharply. His trained ear had caught a sound in the house above them. And in a second Frobisher heard it too, a sound regular and continuous and very slight, but in that uninhabited house filled with uttermost blackness, very daunting. Gradually the explanation dawned upon Jim.

“It’s a clock ticking,” he said under his breath. “Yes! A clock ticking away in the empty house!” returned Hanaud. And though his answer was rather breathed than whispered, there was a queer thrill in it the sound of which Jim could not mistake. The hunter had picked up his spoor. Just beyond the quarry would come in view.

Suddenly a thread of light gleamed along the passage, lit up a short flight of stairs and a door on the right at the head of them, and went out again. Hanaud slipped his electric torch back into his pocket and, passing Moreau, took the lead. The door at the head of the stairs opened with a startling whine of its hinges. Frobisher stopped with his heart in his throat, though what he feared he could not have told even himself. Again the thread of light shone, and this time it explored. The three found themselves in a stone-flagged hall.

Hanaud crossed it, extinguished his torch and opened a door. A broken shutter, swinging upon a hinge, enabled them dimly to see a gallery which stretched away into the gloom. The faint light penetrating from the window showed them a high double door leading to some room at the back of the house. Hanaud stole over the boards and laid his ear to the panel. In a little while he was satisfied; his hand dropped to the knob and a leaf of the door opened noiselessly. Once more the torch glowed. Its beam played upon the high ceiling, the tall windows shrouded in heavy curtains of red silk brocade, and revealed to Frobisher’s amazement a room which had a look of daily use. All was orderly and clean, the furniture polished and in good repair; there were fresh flowers in the vases, whose perfume filled the air; and it was upon the marble chimney-piece of this room that the clock ticked.

The room was furnished with lightness and elegance, except for one fine and massive press, with double doors in marquetry, which occupied a recess near to the fireplace. Girandoles with mirrors and gilt frames, now fitted with electric lights, were fixed upon the walls, with a few pictures in water-colour. A chandelier glittering with lustres hung from the ceiling, an Empire writing-table stood near the window, a deep-cushioned divan stretched along the wall opposite the fireplace. So much had Frobisher noticed when the light again went out. Hanaud closed the door upon the room again.

“We shall be hidden in the embrasure of any of these windows,” Hanaud whispered, when they were once more in the long gallery. “No light will be shown here with that shutter hanging loose, we may be sure. Meanwhile let us watch and be very silent.”

They took their stations in the deep shadows by the side of the window with the broken shutter. They could see dimly the courtyard and the great carriage doors in the wall at the end of it, and they waited; Jim Frobisher under such a strain of dread and expectancy that each second seemed an hour, and he wondered at the immobility of his companions. The only sound of breathing that he heard came from his own lungs.

In a while Hanaud laid a hand upon his sleeve, and the clasp of the hand tightened and tightened. Motionless though he stood like a man in a seizure, Hanaud too was in the grip of an intense excitement. For one of the great leaves of the courtyard door was opening silently. It opened just a little way and as silently closed again. But someone had slipped in—so vague and swift and noiseless a figure that Jim would have believed his imagination had misled him but for a thicker blot of darkness at the centre of the great door. There someone stood now who had not stood there a minute before, as silent and still as any of the watchers in the gallery, and more still than one. For Hanaud moved suddenly away on the tips of his toes into the deepest of the gloom and, sinking down upon his heels, drew his watch from his pocket. He drew his coat closely about it and for a fraction of a second flashed his torchlight on the dial. It was now five minutes past twelve.

“It is the time,” he breathed as he crept back to his place. “Listen now!”

A minute passed and another. Frobisher found himself shivering as a man shivers at a photographer’s when he is told by the operator to keep still. He had a notion that he was going to fall. Then a distant noise caught his ear, and at once his nerves grew steady. It was the throb of a motor-cycle, and it grew louder and louder. He felt Hanaud stiffen at his side. Hanaud had been right, then! The conviction deepened in his mind. When all had been darkness and confusion to him, Hanaud from the first had seen clearly. But what had he seen? Frobisher was still unable to answer that question, and whilst he fumbled amongst conjectures a vast relief swept over him. For the noise of the cycle had ceased altogether. It had roared through some contiguous street and gone upon its way into the open country. Not the faintest pulsation of its engine was any longer audible. That late-faring traveller had taken Dijon in his stride.

In a revulsion of relief he pictured him devouring the road, the glow of his lamp putting the stars to shame, the miles leaping away behind him; and suddenly the pleasant picture was struck from before his vision and his heart fluttered up into his throat. For the leaf of the great coach-door was swung wider, and closed again, and the motor-cycle with its side-car was within the courtyard. The rider had slipped out his clutch and stopped his engine more than a hundred yards away in the other street. His own impetus had been enough and more than enough to swing him round the corner along the road and into the courtyard. The man who had closed the door moved to his side as he dismounted. Between them they lifted something from the side-car and laid it on the ground. The watchman held open the door again, the cyclist wheeled out his machine, the door was closed, a key turned in the lock. Not a word had been spoken, not an unnecessary movement made. It had all happened within the space of a few seconds. The man waited by the gate, and in a little while from some other street the cyclist’s engine was heard once more to throb. His work was done.

Jim Frobisher wondered that Hanaud should let him go. But Hanaud had eyes for no one but the man who was left behind and the big package upon the ground under the blank side wall. The man moved to it, stooped, raised it with an appearance of effort, then stood upright holding it in his arms. It was something shapeless and long and heavy. So much the watchers in the gallery could see, but no more.

The man in the courtyard moved towards the door without a sound; and Hanaud drew his companions back from the window of the broken shutter. Quick as they were, they were only just in time to escape from that revealing twilight. Already the intruder with his burden stood within the gallery. The front door was unlatched, that was clear. It had needed but a touch to open it. The intruder moved without a sound to the double door, of which Hanaud had opened one leaf. He stood in front of it, pushed it with his foot and both the leaves swung inwards. He disappeared into the room. But the faint misty light had fallen upon him for a second, and though none could imagine who he was, they all three saw that what he carried was a heavy sack.

Now, at all events, Hanaud would move, thought Frobisher. But he did not. They all heard the man now, but not his footsteps. It was just the brushing of his clothes against furniture: then came a soft, almost inaudible sound, as though he had laid his burden down upon the deep-cushioned couch: then he himself reappeared in the doorway, his arms empty, his hat pressed down upon his forehead, and a dim whiteness where his face should be. But dark as it was, they saw the glitter of his eyes.

“It will be now,” Frobisher said to himself, expecting that Hanaud would leap from the gloom and bear the intruder to the ground.

But this man, too, Hanaud let go. He closed the doors again, drawing the two leaves together, and stole from the gallery. No one heard the outer door close, but with a startling loudness some metal thing rang upon stone, and within the house. Even Jim Frobisher understood that the outer door had been locked and the key dropped through the letter-slot. The three men crept back to their window. They saw the intruder cross the courtyard, open one leaf of the coach door, peer this way and that and go. Again a key tinkled upon stones. The key of the great door had been pushed or kicked underneath it back into the courtyard. The clocks suddenly chimed the quarter. To Frobisher’s amazement it was a quarter past twelve. Between the moment when the cyclist rode his car in at the doors and now, just five minutes had elapsed. And again, but for the three men, the house was empty. Or was it empty?

For Hanaud had slipped across to the door of the room and opened it; and a slight sound broke out of that black room, as of some living thing which moved uneasily. At Jim Frobisher’s elbow Hanaud breathed a sigh of relief. Something, it seemed, had happened for which he had hardly dared to hope; some great dread he knew with certainty had not been fulfilled. On the heels of that sigh a sharp loud click rang out, the release of a spring, the withdrawal of a bolt. Hanaud drew the door swiftly to and the three men fell back. Someone had somehow entered that room, someone was moving quietly about it. From the corner of the corridor in which they had taken refuge, the three men saw the leaves of the door swing very slowly in upon their hinges. Someone appeared upon the threshold, and stood motionless, listening, and after a few seconds advanced across the gallery to the window. It was a girl—so much they could determine from the contour of her head and the slim neck. To the surprise of those three a second shadow flitted to her side. Both of them peered from the window into the courtyard. There was nothing to tell them there whether the midnight visitors had come and gone or not yet come at all. One of them whispered:

“The key!”

And the other, the shorter one, crept into the hall and returned with the key which had been dropped through the letter-slot in her hand. The taller of the two laughed, and the sound of it, so clear, so joyous like the trill of a bird, it was impossible for Jim Frobisher even for a second to mistake. The second girl standing at the window of this dark and secret house, with the key in her hand to tell her that all that had been plotted had been done, was Betty Harlowe. Jim Frobisher had never imagined a sound so sinister, so alarming, as that clear, joyous laughter lilting through the silent gallery. It startled him, it set his whole faith in the world shuddering.

“There must be some good explanation,” he argued, but his heart was sinking amidst terrors. Of what dreadful event was that laughter to be the prelude?

The two figures at the window flitted back across the gallery. It seemed that there was no further reason for precautions.

“Shut the door, Francine,” said Betty in her ordinary voice. And when this was done, within the room the lights went on. But time and disuse had warped the doors. They did not quite close, and between them a golden strip of light showed like a wand.

“Let us see now!” cried Betty. “Let us see,” and again she laughed; and under the cover of her laughter the three men crept forward and looked in: Moreau upon his knees, Frobisher stooping above him, Hanaud at his full height behind them all.

The House of the Arrow - Contents    |     XXII - The Corona Machine

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