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Title: The Hole In The Glass
Author: Melville Davisson Post
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 1801191h.html
Language: English
Date first posted:  December 2018
Most recent update: December 2018

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The Hole in the Glass


Melville Davisson Post

I looked carefully at the girl as I went up the stairway. I must have delayed my companion, behind me, for I went slowly and with the wish to retain every detail of this picture. It was so conspicuously in life what I had heard of these Americans; this idle, decadent breed of women; soft, steeped in luxury and useless.

The girl sat in the hotel drawing-room, visible through the open door. It was early in the afternoon. The place was nearly deserted. The hunting folk assembled here in Sommerset, were all at a distant meet of the hounds at Haddon; in the saddle from dawn and until the night should fall. But this soft creature sat in a great chair piled up with cushions; and an immense American motor, more luxurious than the state carriage of a Louis, awaited her outside.

She had every aspect of luxury.

The fur coat thrown open among the cushions of the chair must have cost a fortune; the smart gown was from a Paris shop on the Rue de la Paix; the very Pekinese dog in the hollow of her arm was worth the price of a polo pony at Tatterhalls.

It wasn't so much these evidences of luxury that impressed me. One may have the best, if one is able. It was the conspicuous effect of these things on their possessor. The girl was quite young, about twenty, I imagine; a blonde, slender and dainty with big blue eyes and an exquisite mouth. For a doll she was perfect, but for any mortal use as a human woman she was an absurdity. She sat with a cocktail before her on the table and a Turkish cigarette idly in her fingers. I broke out with what I thought when we were in my sitting room on the floor above.

"Did you see that girl, Barclay?"

The big man turned about and looked at me with a rather strange expression; I thought he was going to make some comment. But he evidently decided to reserve it.

"Yes, Sir you know who she is?"

"I know what she is," I replied. "She is a hot-house orchid and about as useful in the world as the Pekinese dog in her lap."

Barclay squinted at me. He is a big man with a face wrinkled by the tropics.

"Don't be deceived about the Pekinese dog, Sir James," he said. "The Pekinese dog's all right. He's kept in every shop in China to warn against thieves...You can't slip in on a Pekinese dog."

"Dash the dog!" I replied. "It's the girl, I mean, of what earthly use could such a soft creature be to anybody!"

Barclay looked down at me. He's an immense bulk of a man. I thought the strange expression on his face was even more peculiar.

"You'd take me to be pretty tough, Sir James...pretty hard to fag out!"

"Surely," I said, "or Marquis wouldn't have taken you into Africa with him. Marquis is no fool, if he is Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department of Scotland Yard. And I wouldn't take you on for this expedition."

Barclay passed his hand slowly over his big square jaw; his fingers look like the coupling pins of a cart.

"You might be mistaken, Sir James!"

He made a sort of vague gesture, as though he included everything I'd said, and it annoyed me.

"I'm pretty good stuff for such a job, Sir James," he went on, "but I'm not the best stuff for it."

I suppose I looked a bit puzzled, and Barclay saw it.

"I mean," he went on, "a silk rope looks soft, and it is soft, but it's the strongest rope there is."

"I don't know what bally rubbish you're talking," I replied. "But I know you're all right or Marquis wouldn't have taken you into Central Africa, and he wouldn't write me now to take you."

Barclay turned at that and went over beyond our big table that was covered with maps. It was an immense table, quite bare except for the maps. I think we had assembled every map in existence on Central Africa. I meant to have a year's big game hunting in the heart of that continent. When I wrote Marquis for a man he indicated Barclay; and I had him down here at this hotel in Sommerset to plan out the route.

"He's the best man left since Stanley," Marquis said, "better get him!" Barclay sat down in a chair beyond the table. But he wasn't thinking of the maps.

"Do you know," he said, "why Sir Henry Marquis went into Central Africa?"

"After young Winton, wasn't he?" I replied. "He'd taken a shot at his uncle, old Brexford, and got out of the country, as I remember. I suppose Marquis thought the reputation of Scotland Yard was at stake. Had to find Winton, you know...did find him?"

Barclay got up, spread out one of the maps and put his finger on a point on it.

"We found him right here, on the old elephant trail. But if we'd been a little late we'd never found him. If he'd got into that immense forest to the south, he'd been out of Marquis's reach. Our expedition was fagged, I had a touch of the sun. We couldn't have gone on."

The man's voice grew firm.

"Nobody has any conception of that hell forest to the south. It's three thousand miles across it. We couldn't have found Winton in it. Marquis knew that. It was a piece of God's luck to have found his camp there on the plateau!...I was all in and Marquis was groggy."

He paused.

"You have got to keep the sun out of your face; a helmet and a spine pad aren't enough—the open road to the brain, for a sun's ray is through the eye and the sponge bones of the face."

He made a sort of bob of the head down-ward toward the drawing-room.

"Ever see this girl before, Sir James?"

"Used to see her at polo at Hurlingham," I replied, "on the days Rugby played. This young Winton was on the team...wanted to marry her, didn't he? Wasn't that the row with old Brexford?"

Barclay continued as though I had not made an answer.

"Yes," he said. "It all started from that. Brexford hated Americans; wouldn't hear of it; went into a devil's fury; stopped at nothing!"

"So young Winton took a pot shot at him, and cleared, eh?"

Barclay didn't seem to regard my comment. He went on in a sort of reflection.

"But there was one thing I couldn't understand. Why didn't he take the girl with him...that is I couldn't understand it at the time."

I laughed.

"I can understand it. She couldn't leave the cushions...she was too soft!" Barclay was looking at me, his mouth open; a sort of vague wonder on his big sun-seamed face.

The pose and the expression of the man annoyed me.

"What's wrong with you?" I said. "What are you gaping at?"

He was silent for some moments. He kept looking at me, in that sort of vague wonder, from the floor up. Finally, he spoke.

"How long have you been out of England, Sir James?"

"Two years," I replied. "In the Andes."

"Then you don't know what's happened."

"About young Winton? No; Marquis had got some rumor of him in Central Africa and was just starting out when I left. The grand jury in Hants had found an indictment against young Winton for assault with intent to murder; and the country had begun to howl—rich man's privilege—letting off the 'toft' and so forth. I suppose Marquis thought he had to get him...Marquis went down to Hants, himself, to see old Brexford, didn't he, and then the public clamor drove him on."

Barclay replied in a rather strange voice.

"Public clamor didn't drive Sir Henry Marquis. It was a sense of duty, a tremendous compelling sense of duty...nothing less would have sent Sir Henry on that awful journey into the heart of Africa."

"Call it what you like," I said, "Marquis had no notion of going out of England, until after he went to see old Brexford in Hants. That stirred up the hornets. The penny press said the uncle would smooth him down. Marquis had to go after that."

"But the uncle was the hottest hornet in the swarm. It was war to the death with him."

"He did die, didn't he?" I said. "I saw some notice of it in the ship's bulletin on the way south."

"Yes," replied Barclay, "he took to his bed the day after Sir Henry Marquis visited him in Hants, and he never got up."

"Like an old man," I said, "adamant against an offending member of his family until it comes to the jail door, and then he goes soft."

Barclay looked again at me, with that strange expression. But he did not speak. He moved the maps about on the table, until he found the one outlining Marquis's expedition. It had been enlarged and traced from Sir Henry Marquis's notes. It was not a printed map. Sir Henry had not made a published report of the expedition, because the Government had not borne the cost of it. I suppose Marquis financed it, he was rich, and his reputation was at stake. It was his boast that Scotland Yard, while he was at the head of its Criminal Investigation Department, would not tire out on the track of any man.

Barclay gathered up all the other maps on the table, folded them carefully, tied them with thin pieces of tape and laid them neatly to one side, then he spread the long tracing out over the whole length of the table. He went about it slowly like a man in some deep reflection. Then he put the query that I had been turning in my mind.

"Do you know who put up the money for this expedition?"

I told him what I have written here, Marquis, of course.

"No," he said, "Sir Henry did not put up the money."

"Then who did?"

"The uncle," he replied, "old Brexford put it up."

I was astonished.

"Then he didn't go soft...he wanted young Winton brought out!"

Barclay replied in the same even voice.

"No," he said, "Brexford didn't want him brought out."

He was smoothing the tracing with his hands, stooping over the table. He did not seem to notice my surprise. He would put the tip of his big finger on a crease of the map and slowly extend it.

"We went in too far north," he said, as in a vague comment. "We should have started in on the East Coast farther down about Mombasa. But the report Sir Henry had, indicated Winton somewhere south of Omdurman, and we went in through Egypt. But he wasn't in Omdurman. The rumor always put him on know about desert rumors; strangely accurate as a rule, and traveling over an immense distance, one can't understand how. But the rumor was correct, he was on south; he had followed the White Nile, along Baker Pasha's route, a little to the west. Sir Henry always hoped to pick him up somewhere along the White Nile. But Sir Henry was going on a wrong hypothesis, he was thinking about the movements of a man who must consider how he will get back, and Winton did not intend to get back."

He paused—a sort of hesitation in the narrative.

"We didn't realize that for a long time...then we had to go on or give up...Sir Henry, went on."

That, of course, abridged Marquis's whole character.

Barclay sat down close against the table where he could still stoop over the map. He went on.

"It was an awful march south. Winton was always just a little ahead. The desert rumors were pretty clear about him until we passed the big bend of the White Nile—you know it goes off west nearly at a right angle about four hundred miles south of Khartum—then the rumors began to get confused, sometimes they put Winton on in our front and sometimes, inexplicably to the rear of us...we couldn't understand it!"

He drummed a moment, with his thick square fingers, on the table.

I sat down. Anything this man had to say about an expedition was of interest to me. He didn't talk much. He went on.

"We thought at first that Winton had doubled back; or that we had passed him. But there was his trail going on ahead! We were profoundly puzzled. It was like a mirage of the mind. We were all feeling the sun...damned queer about the sun! We wore spine pads and helmets with an inch of cork, and the accursed desert bedouins marched nearly naked and with their heads shaven.

"I got uneasy. Sir Henry made no comment, but I knew what he thought; our scouts were beginning to see double—the sun will do anything to you!...But they weren't seeing double; we were being followed...The explanation that occurred to us was that Winton had divided his force and put a part of it in behind us. But the native trackers were positive that the size of the force on in front had not diminished by a man. And they were right. They pointed out a hundred evidences, in Winton's trail, to show that the same number of persons were on ahead."

Barclay paused, and sat a moment looking down at the map.

"We were being followed...I myself heard, faintly, shots in the rear; and the desert rumors began to get definite. There was a white man and a small native force behind and a little to the west of us, paralleling our route...There seemed to be some strange report about this man, current in our camp, that we could not find out. Finally, it seeped through to us...the man had no face!" Barclay passed his hand over his big square jaw.

"I suppose one could have a mirage of the mind. And mystery always breeds wonders...Anyhow that rumor went right on. The leader of the force that dogged our rear had no face...he was white, he was English, his very size and characteristics were given. It was clearly not Winton from these details...Winton's tall and broad shouldered.

"Then a strange thing happened. We stopped and the expedition behind us also stopped. We turned back on our route for a day's march, and it also turned back for a day's march. The thing was like a shadow...That settled it. We were being followed! Sir Henry said nothing and we went on. Winton ahead had gained a little. He didn't stop. There seemed to be no relation between this mysterious expedition and Winton...It wasn't after Winton. It was after us!

"Sir Henry went on. And the man without a face followed. He didn't have an easy time of it any more than we had. He had the sun and he had to beat off the desert marauders.

"There's no law at the head of the White Nile. We heard the firing. We could tell the very arm he used, a high-power magazine rifle made by Jermyn in Pall Mall—he was an Englishman all right. That was the one thing that quieted our concern about him. His mysterious movements might be inexplicable, but he was English and therefore no enemy...We had something to learn about that!"

Barclay made a vague gesture, like one who omits a mass of detail.

"We overtook Winton on the grass plateau beyond Lake Victoria Nyanza, just where the old elephant trail comes out of the immense continent of forest to the south.'

"We sighted his camp at dark and we stopped. He couldn't get away now and there was no hurry. We took our time. The sun had us pretty well crumpled. I could hardly walk and Sir Henry was jerky. But we lost possession of Winton's camp by just the measure of that night. There was a cordon of sentinels around it in the morning and another tent up...No Face had passed round us in the night...We were beaten to our man!

"I cursed under my breath. So the mysterious Englishman was an ally of the man we were after. It was all clear now. He had followed us in with the deliberate purpose of joining Winton against us. But why did he not attack us on the way in. If he were in fact hostile to us—if he didn't want us to find Winton? Of course I was only guessing half right as one always guesses. He did want us to find Winton!

"We were halted by two shots that flecked up the earth on either side of us when we started for his camp that morning and we had to stop. We sent a native on ahead with something white. And he came back to say that Sir Henry and I were to come forward alone to a scrub bush about a hundred yards from the cordon around Winton's camp. It was like a parley in a little hill war!

"I lay down at the bush, but Sir Henry stood. I was keen to know what would happen. We were at last come up with this mysterious Englishman who had hung on our flank all the way down the White Nile.

"It was some moments before we saw him. And then I sat up. He came out from behind a tent, and at the distance, true to the persistent rumor, the figure had no face; the space under the visor of his helmet was blank. I saw Sir Henry start, slightly, and unsling his field glasses and I got mine out.

"Then the mystery disappeared. The man had extended the apron of his helmet—which one wears in the desert to protect the back of the neck—entirely around the headband, to protect the carotid arteries, the sponge bones of the face, and the throat; this apron was fastened down securely from the head band of the helmet to the collar of his tunic."

Barclay paused.

"I afterwards examined it closely," he continued. "It was made of asbestos cloth to keep out the sun and it was fitted with big, thick colored lenses, to protect the eye from the heat rays. It was stitched into the headband of the helmet and buttoned down closely to the tunic collar...Strange no one of us had ever thought about the heat rays on the face, on the carotid arteries and the throat; of course the value of a colored lens for the eye was known; but not the value of a thick colored lens...No Face taught the world something about the sun...and the result was that he had come out of the desert fit, and we were groggy.

"You could see the man was fit by the swing of his body as he walked down from the tents. He was thin, naturally from what he'd gone through, and he wasn't very isn't bulk. I had the bulk and I was down.

"He came out to the cordon of his sentinels about a hundred yards away, as I have said, and stopped; he carried a magazine rifle—we were right, one of Jermyn's in Pall Mall—in the hollow of his arm. There was a native with him. It was the native who addressed us. He spoke a precise English, like a phonograph.

"'The Master says, the first thing to arrange, Sir Henry,' he called, 'is a truce; Lord Winton has a touch of the sun, and your man's down.'

"He indicated me with a gesture. His voice was high; nervous tension usually puts the voice up.

"Marquis did not reply immediately to the point.

"'So your Master knows me,' he said.

"But the stranger was not to be diverted. He spoke to the native.

"'Oh, surely,' the native called back, 'but the truce, Sir Henry; shall you rest up a bit or have it out now?'

"'Have what out?' There wasn't much inquiry in Marquis's voice.

"'Why pretend, Sir Henry?' The native seemed to call out precisely the words spoken to him.

"'You came in to take Lord Winton out and the Master to prevent you,'" Marquis still avoided the point. "'Then why didn't your Master attack me on the White Nile—he could have rushed our camp before we knew about him.'

"'The Master will answer that,' the native called back, 'and then will you come to the point? The Master had to use you to find Lord Winton. He didn't know where he, shall it be a gentleman's agreement; twenty-four hours notice and the camps to remain where they are?'

"Again Sir Henry did not reply to the point.

"'How ill is Winton?' he said.

"'Lord Winton is delirious,' the man replied. 'But it's the heat; only, a day or two in the cool air of this plateau will put him on his feet.'

"Sir Henry made what seemed a casual gesture.

"'Very well,' he said, 'when Winton's able we'll start back.'

"There was a strange shift in the bearing of the white man over beyond Sir Henry Marquis when he replied to that. I can't precisely describe it. He did not seem to change his position, but his posture got somehow a deadly menace in it. He seemed to speak sharply to the native, and that ebony herald repeated it to us.

"'You have your choice, Sir Henry,' he called.

"The inference did not need to be set out in words. It had been stated in the opening of this strange parley. I thought Marquis's reply was pure bravado.

"'Oh, there's no choice!'

"And he turned about and walked past me down the long green slope to our camp."

Barclay sat back from the table and put the fingers of his big hands together. He went on in a reflective comment.

"To tell the truth, I thought Marquis was acting a bit of a fool. It was clear to anybody that this mysterious ally that had joined Winton's camp was not a person to be either baffled or frightened. It was sheer nonsense to go ahead on that notion. There was in fact no choice, as Sir Henry said, but not as he evidently intended our enemy to believe. Winton would not go back to a criminal trial in an English court. We could not fight the two forces now combined; Sir Henry's front was sheer moonshine. I told him what I thought about it when we were back in our camp. The forces now joined against us were double the strength of our own. Lord Winton would be a desperate man, and the one with him had fought seventeen pitched battles in the last month's march, by actual count of the firing in our was all accursed fooling to imagine that we could take Lord Winton back without a fight for it.

"'There'll be no fight!' was all Sir Henry replied to me.

"'Then you won't take him?' I said.

"'Oh, yes,' he answered, 'we shall take Lord Winton back with us!'

"I got up and went out. The grass plateau in the afternoon sun was a heavenly spot be-side what we'd come through. It looked like a county in England, green, well watered; with the distant trees; Winton's camp was like a white cloth laid down on it. The place was a Garden of Eden after the march along the White Nile...Well, it was the last spot any one of us was very likely to see. There would be a rumor creep out in a year or two; the ivory raiders would carry it; or the slave gangs. There would be a brief official entry in the records of the Criminal Investigation Department at Scotland Yard; and a lot of bleached skeletons to remain vaguely white here."

Barclay suddenly got up. He put his big hands on the table and leaned over toward me.

"I guessed what would happen," he said, with a slow deliberate intonation of the words, "an' I guessed wrong!

"Sir Henry Marquis went over into Winton's camp that night, unarmed and with his hands up...and ten days later we started for the Albert Nyanza on the return march...Marquis brought Winton out!"

He thrust his head a little farther across the table toward me.

"It's no use to guess, Sir James; one always guesses wrong!"

I misunderstood the innuendo as my answer indicates.

"How did Marquis manage it?" I said. "I'm not going to guess!" And I too leaned forward in my consuming interest; the thrill of the mystery held me.

Barclay seemed to relax a bit. He stood up, put his hands into the pockets of his coat and began to walk about the room.

"You see," he said, "old Brexford told the grand jury in Hants that he was sitting in his drawing-room reading beside a table. It was Sunday night, his servants had all gone to some frolic in the neighborhood and he was alone. He didn't know Winton was about. They had quarreled bitterly about the marriage with this American girl; Brexford was rich and unmarried and Winton was his heir. There had been a desperate quarrel on Saturday, the day before, a perfect devil of a row, the servants all heard it, and at the end of it old Brexford notified Winton that he would go up to London on Monday and cut him out of his will. It was one of those deadly, bitter, final quarrels in a family that never can be adjusted and Winton left the house."

Barclay walked over to the window then he turned back. He went on. "Brexford told Sir Henry Marquis what he had told the grand jury. He was sitting alone in his drawing-room reading when a shot fired from the darkness outside crashed through the window; it happened just as Brexford leaned forward to get a cigarette from a box on the table. That accident of chance saved Brexford's life, for the bullet passed by his shoulder instead of cutting its way through his chest. An instinct of safety caused the man to fall forward onto the floor and lie there as though he were dead; that saved his life again, for the man outside came up to the window and looked in, and Brexford out of the tail of his eyes, saw that it was young Winton...Winton thought he had killed Brexford and got out of the county."

"So that was it!" I said. "That was the reason Winton was willing to come out, Marquis brought him the assurance that his shot had missed!"

Barclay made a gesture of rejection with his big fingers extended.

"It's no use to guess, Sir guessed on that girl a while ago!"

"Dash the girl," I said.

Barclay's face darkened for an instant, then he went on as though there had been no interruption.

"The first thing Sir Henry Marquis said to Brexford after he had looked over the drawing-room, was:

"'Are you sure the shot was not fired from the other side of this drawingroom?'

"This was impossible and Brexford pointed out at once that it was impossible. True, the casement window directly opposite on that side was open, for it was through this open window that the bullet directed at Brexford passed out of the drawing-room; but the country on that side fell away from the house sharply in a deep hollow, there was no tree or elevation; one to have fired such a shot from this side of the house through the drawing-room at Brexford in his chair would have required an elevation of at least fifty feet, and, as I have said there wasn't even a tree on that side of the house.

"But Sir Henry Marquis refused to be convinced.

"'The shot,' he said, 'came from this side.'

"Brexford lost his temper.

"'That's impossible,' he cried. 'Wasn't I sitting here, didn't I hear the bullet pass me, didn't I see the glass break?'

"Sir Henry only repeated what he'd said.

"'The shot came from this side!'

"Brexford blew up at that.

"Do you think I'm a liar?' he said.

"What Sir Henry Marquis replied was:

"'I know you're a liar!'

"Then he went at him, and before he got through old Brexford admitted that he fired the shot through the window himself from the drawing-room; and Marquis made him put up the money to find young Winton and bring him back to England...that's what took Sir Henry Marquis on that hell journey into Central Africa, justice to young Winton, not justice to the peace and dignity of the county of Hampshire...Young Winton hadn't been near old Brexford that night; he had gone to Christ Church determined to settle matters with this American girl—he was mad about her, she must take him or he would get as far out of the world as he could. He missed her by an accident. She had gone out to tea somewhere in Hants; the motor had broken down and she could not get back; and being Sunday she could not telegraph. Winton took it for intention, because she had given him her word that she would be there, and went on into Central Africa...that was the truth about it."

Barclay had gone over to the window and was looking down on the entrance to the hotel doorway, there was a bit of noise as though some one were going out.

"But the shot—" I said. "How did Marquis know that it was fired from the inside of the drawing-room...You're leaving unfinished explanations in your story?"

"That was simple," he answered. "When a bullet passes through a pane of glass it always breaks off a little rim of chips on the side where it comes out...When Sir Henry Marquis examined that window he saw at once that the rim of chips was on the outside of the pane, and consequently the bullet must have come the other way."

I got up and went over toward the window where Barclay stood.

"And there's another thing," I said. "Who was the mysterious person who followed you in to join Winton?"

Barclay looked up from the window; there was the sound of a motor moving from the door below.

"That was Lady Winton," he said.

I stopped short; the pride of race rising in me.

"An English woman!" I cried. "Right, my friend, one of our women could do that...they have the vigor and the fiber and the tender American pretty-doll carted about in cushions!"

Barclay beckoned me to the window.

"I'll show you Lady Winton," he said.

I crossed to him and looked down.

The big limousine motor was going out, and nestling in its soft upholstery, in an attitude of luxurious languor, was the yellow-haired American girl with the Pekinese dog in her arms!


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