This tale begins among a tangle of tales round a name that is at once recent and legendary. The name is that of Michael O’Neill, popularly called Prince Michael, partly because he claimed descent from ancient Fenian princes, and partly because he was credited with a plan to make himself prince president of Ireland, as the last Napoleon did of France. He was undoubtedly a gentleman of honorable pedigree and of many accomplishments, but two of his accomplishments emerged from all the rest. He had a talent for appearing when he was not wanted and a talent for disappearing when he was wanted, especially when he was wanted by the police. It may be added that his disappearances were more dangerous than his appearances. In the latter he seldom went beyond the sensational — pasting up seditious placards, tearing down official placards, making flamboyant speeches, or unfurling forbidden flags. But in order to effect the former he would sometimes fight for his freedom with startling energy, from which men were sometimes lucky to escape with a broken head instead of a broken neck. His most famous feats of escape, however, were due to dexterity and not to violence. On a cloudless summer morning he had come down a country road white with dust, and, pausing outside a farmhouse, had told the farmer’s daughter, with elegant indifference, that the local police were in pursuit of him. The girl’s name was Bridget Royce, a somber and even sullen type of beauty, and she looked at him darkly, as if in doubt, and said, “Do you want me to hide you?” Upon which he only laughed, leaped lightly over the stone wall, and strode toward the farm, merely throwing over his shoulder the remark, “Thank you, I have generally been quite capable of hiding myself.” In which proceeding he acted with a tragic ignorance of the nature of women; and there fell on his path in that sunshine a shadow of doom.
While he disappeared through the farmhouse the girl remained for a few moments looking up the road, and two perspiring policemen came plowing up to the door where she stood. Though still angry, she was still silent, and a quarter of an hour later the officers had searched the house and were already inspecting the kitchen garden and cornfield behind it. In the ugly reaction of her mood she might have been tempted even to point out the fugitive, but for a small difficulty that she had no more notion than the policemen had of where he could possibly have gone. The kitchen garden was inclosed by a very low wall, and the cornfield beyond lay aslant like a square patch on a great green hill on which he could still have been seen even as a dot in the distance. Everything stood solid in its familiar place; the apple tree was too small to support or hide a climber; the only shed stood open and obviously empty; there was no sound save the droning of summer flies and the occasional flutter of a bird unfamiliar enough to be surprised by the scarecrow in the field; there was scarcely a shadow save a few blue lines that fell from the thin tree; every detail was picked out by the brilliant day light as if in a microscope. The girl described the scene later, with all the passionate realism of her race, and, whether or no the policemen had a similar eye for the picturesque, they had at least an eye for the facts of the case, and were compelled to give up the chase and retire from the scene. Bridget Royce remained as if in a trance, staring at the sunlit garden in which a man had just vanished like a fairy. She was still in a sinister mood, and the miracle took in her mind a character of unfriendliness and fear, as if the fairy were decidedly a bad fairy. The sun upon the glittering garden depressed her more than the darkness, but she continued to stare at it. Then the world itself went half-witted and she screamed. The scarecrow moved in the sun light. It had stood with its back to her in a battered old black hat and a tattered garment, and with all its tatters flying, it strode away across the hill.
She did not analyze the audacious trick by which the man had turned to his advantage the subtle effects of the expected and the obvious; she was still under the cloud of more individual complexities, and she noticed most of all that the vanishing scarecrow did not even turn to look at the farm. And the fates that were running so adverse to his fantastic career of freedom ruled that his next adventure, though it had the same success in another quarter, should increase the danger in this quarter. Among the many similar adventures related of him in this manner it is also said that some days afterward another girl, named Mary Cregan, found him concealed on the farm where she worked; and if the story is true, she must also have had the shock of an uncanny experience, for when she was busy at some lonely task in the yard she heard a voice speaking out of the well, and found that the eccentric had managed to drop himself into the bucket which was some little way below, the well only partly full of water. In this case, however, he had to appeal to the woman to wind up the rope. And men say it was when this news was told to the other woman that her soul walked over the border line of treason.
Such, at least, were the stories told of him in the countryside, and there were many more — as that he had stood insolently in a splendid green dressing gown on the steps of a great hotel, and then led the police a chase through a long suite of grand apartments, and finally through his own bedroom on to a balcony that overhung the river. The moment the pursuers stepped on to the balcony it broke under them, and they dropped pell-mell into the eddying waters, while Michael, who had thrown off his gown and dived, was able to swim away. It was said that he had carefully cut away the props so that they would not support anything so heavy as a policeman. But here again he was immediately fortunate, yet ultimately unfortunate, for it is said that one of the men was drowned, leaving a family feud which made a little rift in his popularity. These stories can now be told in some detail, not because they are the most marvelous of his many adventures, but because these alone were not covered with silence by the loyalty of the peasantry. These alone found their way into official reports, and it is these which three of the chief officials of the country were reading and discussing when the more remarkable part of this story begins.
Night was far advanced and the lights shone in the cottage that served for a temporary police station near the coast. On one side of it were the last houses of the straggling village, and on the other nothing but a waste moorland stretching away toward the sea, the line of which was broken by no landmark except a solitary tower of the prehistoric pattern still found in Ireland, standing up as slender as a column, but pointed like a pyramid. At a wooden table in front of the window, which normally looked out on this landscape, sat two men in plain clothes, but with something of a military bearing, for indeed they were the two chiefs of the detective service of that district. The senior of the two, both in age and rank, was a sturdy man with a short white beard, and frosty eyebrows fixed in a frown which suggested rather worry than severity.
His name was Morton, and he was a Liverpool man long pickled in the Irish quarrels, and doing his duty among them in a sour fashion not altogether unsympathetic. He had spoken a few sentences to his companion, Nolan, a tall, dark man with a cadaverous equine Irish face, when he seemed to remember something and touched a bell which rang in another room. The subordinate he had summoned immediately appeared with a sheaf of papers in his hand.
“Sit down, Wilson,” he said. “Those are the depositions, I suppose.”
“Yes,” replied the third officer. “I think I’ve got all there is to be got out of them, so I sent the people away.”
“Did Mary Cregan give evidence?” asked Morton, with a frown that looked a little heavier than usual.
“No, but her master did,” answered the man called Wilson, who had flat, red hair and a plain, pale face, not without sharpness. “I think he’s hanging round the girl himself and is out against a rival. There’s always some reason of that sort when we are told the truth about anything. And you bet the other girl told right enough.”
“Well, let’s hope they’ll be some sort of use,” remarked Nolan, in a somewhat hopeless manner, gazing out into the darkness.
“Anything is to the good,” said Morton, “that lets us know anything about him.”
“Do we know anything about him?” asked the melancholy Irishman.
“We know one thing about him,” said Wilson, “and it’s the one thing that nobody ever knew before. We know where he is.”
“Are you sure?” inquired Morton, looking at him sharply.
“Quite sure,” replied his assistant. “At this very minute he is in that tower over there by the shore. If you go near enough you’ll see the candle burning in the window.”
As he spoke the noise of a horn sounded on the road outside, and a moment after they heard the throbbing of a motor car brought to a standstill before the door. Morton instantly sprang to his feet.
“Thank the Lord that’s the car from Dublin,” he said. “I can’t do anything without special authority, not if he were sitting on the top of the tower and putting out his tongue at us. But the chief can do what he thinks best.”
He hurried out to the entrance and was soon exchanging greetings with a big handsome man in a fur coat, who brought into the dingy little station the indescribable glow of the great cities and the luxuries of the great world.
For this was Sir Walter Carey, an official of such eminence in Dublin Castle that nothing short of the case of Prince Michael would have brought him on such a journey in the middle of the night. But the case of Prince Michael, as it happened, was complicated by legalism as well as lawlessness. On the last occasion he had escaped by a forensic quibble and not, as usual, by a private escapade; and it was a question whether at the moment he was amenable to the law or not. It might be necessary to stretch a point, but a man like Sir Walter could probably stretch it as far as he liked.
Whether he intended to do so was a question to be considered. Despite the almost aggressive touch of luxury in the fur coat, it soon became apparent that Sir Walter’s large leonine head was for use as well as ornament, and he considered the matter soberly and sanely enough. Five chairs were set round the plain deal table, for who should Sir Walter bring with him but his young relative and secretary, Horne Fisher. Sir Walter listened with grave attention, and his secretary with polite boredom, to the string of episodes by which the police had traced the flying rebel from the steps of the hotel to the solitary tower beside the sea. There at least he was cornered between the moors and the breakers; and the scout sent by Wilson reported him as writing under a solitary candle, perhaps composing another of his tremendous proclamations. Indeed, it would have been typical of him to choose it as the place in which finally to turn to bay. He had some remote claim on it, as on a family castle; and those who knew him thought him capable of imitating the primitive Irish chieftains who fell fighting against the sea.
“I saw some queer-looking people leaving as I came in,” said Sir Walter Carey. “I suppose they were your witnesses. But why do they turn up here at this time of night?”
Morton smiled grimly. “They come here by night because they would be dead men if they came here by day. They are criminals committing a crime that is more horrible here than theft or murder.”
“What crime do you mean?” asked the other, with some curiosity.
“They are helping the law,” said Morton.
There was a silence, and Sir Walter considered the papers before him with an abstracted eye. At last he spoke.
“Quite so; but look here, if the local feeling is as lively as that there are a good many points to consider. I believe the new Act will enable me to collar him now if I think it best. But is it best? A serious rising would do us no good in Parliament, and the government has enemies in England as well as Ireland. It won’t do if I have done what looks a little like sharp practice, and then only raised a revolution.”
“It’s all the other way,” said the man called Wilson, rather quickly. “There won’t be half so much of a revolution if you arrest him as there will if you leave him loose for three days longer. But, anyhow, there can’t be anything nowadays that the proper police can’t manage.”
“Mr. Wilson is a Londoner,” said the Irish detective, with a smile.
“Yes, I’m a cockney, all right,” replied Wilson, “and I think I’m all the better for that. Especially at this job, oddly enough.”
Sir Walter seemed slightly amused at the pertinacity of the third officer, and perhaps even more amused at the slight accent with which he spoke, which rendered rather needless his boast about his origin.
“Do you mean to say,” he asked, “that you know more about the business here because you have come from London?”
“Sounds funny, I know, but I do believe it,” answered Wilson. “I believe these affairs want fresh methods. But most of all I believe they want a fresh eye.”
The superior officers laughed, and the redhaired man went on with a slight touch of temper:
“Well, look at the facts. See how the fellow got away every time, and you’ll understand what I mean. Why was he able to stand in the place of the scarecrow, hidden by nothing but an old hat? Because it was a village policeman who knew the scarecrow was there, was expecting it, and therefore took no notice of it. Now I never expect a scarecrow. I’ve never seen one in the street, and I stare at one when I see it in the field. It’s a new thing to me and worth noticing. And it was just the same when he hid in the well. You are ready to find a well in a place like that; you look for a well, and so you don’t see it. I don’t look for it, and therefore I do look at it.”
“It is certainly an idea,” said Sir Walter, smiling, “but what about the balcony? Balconies are occasionally seen in London.”
“But not rivers right under them, as if it was in Venice,” replied Wilson.
“It is certainly a new idea,” repeated Sir Walter, with something like respect. He had all the love of the luxurious classes for new ideas. But he also had a critical faculty, and was inclined to think, after due reflection, that it was a true idea as well.
Growing dawn had already turned the window panes from black to gray when Sir Walter got abruptly to his feet. The others rose also, taking this for a signal that the arrest was to be undertaken. But their leader stood for a moment in deep thought, as if conscious that he had come to a parting of the ways.
Suddenly the silence was pierced by a long, wailing cry from the dark moors outside. The silence that followed it seemed more startling than the shriek itself, and it lasted until Nolan said, heavily:
“’Tis the banshee. Somebody is marked for the grave.”
His long, large-featured face was as pale as a moon, and it was easy to remember that he was the only Irishman in the room.
“Well, I know that banshee,” said Wilson, cheerfully, “ignorant as you think I am of these things. I talked to that banshee myself an hour ago, and I sent that banshee up to the tower and told her to sing out like that if she could get a glimpse of our friend writing his proclamation.”
“Do you mean that girl Bridget Royce?” asked Morton, drawing his frosty brows together. “Has she turned king’s evidence to that extent?”
“Yes,” answered Wilson. “I know very little of these local things, you tell me, but I reckon an angry woman is much the same in all countries.”
Nolan, however, seemed still moody and unlike himself. “It’s an ugly noise and an ugly business altogether,” he said. “If it’s really the end of Prince Michael it may well be the end of other things as well. When the spirit is on him he would escape by a ladder of dead men, and wade through that sea if it were made of blood.”
“Is that the real reason of your pious alarms?” asked Wilson, with a slight sneer.
The Irishman’s pale face blackened with a new passion.
“I have faced as many murderers in County Clare as you ever fought with in Clapham Junction, Mr. Cockney,” he said.
“Hush, please,” said Morton, sharply. “Wilson, you have no kind of right to imply doubt of your superior’s conduct. I hope you will prove yourself as courageous and trustworthy as he has always been.”
The pale face of the red-haired man seemed a shade paler, but he was silent and composed, and Sir Walter went up to Nolan with marked courtesy, saying, “Shall we go outside now, and get this business done?”
Dawn had lifted, leaving a wide chasm of white between a great gray cloud and the great gray moorland, beyond which the tower was outlined against the daybreak and the sea.
Something in its plain and primitive shape vaguely suggested the dawn in the first days of the earth, in some prehistoric time when even the colors were hardly created, when there was only blank daylight between cloud and clay. These dead hues were relieved only by one spot of gold — the spark of the candle alight in the window of the lonely tower, and burning on into the broadening daylight. As the group of detectives, followed by a cordon of policemen, spread out into a crescent to cut off all escape, the light in the tower flashed as if it were moved for a moment, and then went out. They knew the man inside had realized the daylight and blown out his candle.
“There are other windows, aren’t there?” asked Morton, “and a door, of course, somewhere round the corner? Only a round tower has no corners.”
“Another example of my small suggestion,” observed Wilson, quietly. “That queer tower was the first thing I saw when I came to these parts; and I can tell you a little more about it — or, at any rate, the outside of it. There are four windows altogether, one a little way from this one, but just out of sight. Those are both on the ground floor, and so is the third on the other side, making a sort of triangle. But the fourth is just above the third, and I suppose it looks on an upper floor.”
“It’s only a sort of loft, reached by a ladder, said Nolan. “I’ve played in the place when I was a child. It’s no more than an empty shell.” And his sad face grew sadder, thinking perhaps of the tragedy of his country and the part that he played in it.
“The man must have got a table and chair, at any rate,” said Wilson, “but no doubt he could have got those from some cottage. If I might make a suggestion, sir, I think we ought to approach all the five entrances at once, so to speak. One of us should go to the door and one to each window; Macbride here has a ladder for the upper window.”
Mr. Horne Fisher languidly turned to his distinguished relative and spoke for the first time.
“I am rather a convert to the cockney school of psychology,” he said in an almost inaudible voice.
The others seemed to feel the same influence in different ways, for the group began to break up in the manner indicated. Morton moved toward the window immediately in front of them, where the hidden outlaw had just snuffed the candle; Nolan, a little farther westward to the next window; while Wilson, followed by Macbride with the ladder, went round to the two windows at the back. Sir Walter Carey himself, followed by his secretary, began to walk round toward the only door, to demand admittance in a more regular fashion.
“He will be armed, of course,” remarked Sir Walter, casually.
“By all accounts,” replied Horne Fisher, “he can do more with a candlestick than most men with a pistol. But he is pretty sure to have the pistol, too.”
Even as he spoke the question was answered with a tongue of thunder. Morton had just placed himself in front of the nearest window, his broad shoulders blocking the aperture. For an instant it was lit from within as with red fire, followed by a thundering throng of echoes. The square shoulders seemed to alter in shape, and the sturdy figure collapsed among the tall, rank grasses at the foot of the tower. A puff of smoke floated from the window like a little cloud. The two men behind rushed to the spot and raised him, but he was dead.
Sir Walter straightened himself and called out something that was lost in another noise of firing; it was possible that the police were already avenging their comrade from the other side. Fisher had already raced round to the next window, and a new cry of astonishment from him brought his patron to the same spot. Nolan, the Irish policeman, had also fallen, sprawling all his great length in the grass, and it was red with his blood. He was still alive when they reached him, but there was death on his face, and he was only able to make a final gesture telling them that all was over; and, with a broken word and a heroic effort, motioning them on to where his other comrades were besieging the back of the tower. Stunned by these rapid and repeated shocks, the two men could only vaguely obey the gesture, and, finding their way to the other windows at the back, they discovered a scene equally startling, if less final and tragic. The other two officers were not dead or mortally wounded, but Macbride lay with a broken leg and his ladder on top of him, evidently thrown down from the top window of the tower; while Wilson lay on his face, quite still as if stunned, with his red head among the gray and silver of the sea holly. In him, however, the impotence was but momentary, for he began to move and rise as the others came round the tower.
“My God! it’s like an explosion!” cried Sir Walter; and indeed it was the only word for this unearthly energy, by which one man had been able to deal death or destruction on three sides of the same small triangle at the same instant.
Wilson had already scrambled to his feet and with splendid energy flew again at the window, revolver in hand. He fired twice into the opening and then disappeared in his own smoke; but the thud of his feet and the shock of a falling chair told them that the intrepid Londoner had managed at last to leap into the room. Then followed a curious silence; and Sir Walter, walking to the window through the thinning smoke, looked into the hollow shell of the ancient tower. Except for Wilson, staring around him, there was nobody there.
The inside of the tower was a single empty room, with nothing but a plain wooden chair and a table on which were pens, ink and paper, and the candlestick. Halfway up the high wall there was a rude timber platform under the upper window, a small loft which was more like a large shelf. It was reached only by a ladder, and it seemed to be as bare as the bare walls. Wilson completed his survey of the place and then went and stared at the things on the table. Then he silently pointed with his lean forefinger at the open page of the large notebook. The writer had suddenly stopped writing, even in the middle of a word.
“I said it was like an explosion,” said Sir Walter Carey at last. “And really the man himself seems to have suddenly exploded. But he has blown himself up somehow without touching the tower. He’s burst more like a bubble than a bomb.”
“He has touched more valuable things than the tower,” said Wilson, gloomily.
There was a long silence, and then Sir Walter said, seriously: “Well, Mr. Wilson, I am not a detective, and these unhappy happenings have left you in charge of that branch of the business. We all lament the cause of this, but I should like to say that I myself have the strongest confidence in your capacity for carrying on the work. What do you think we should do next?”
Wilson seemed to rouse himself from his depression and acknowledged the speaker’s words with a warmer civility than he had hitherto shown to anybody. He called in a few of the police to assist in routing out the interior, leaving the rest to spread themselves in a search party outside.
“I think,” he said, “the first thing is to make quite sure about the inside of this place, as it was hardly physically possible for him to have got outside. I suppose poor Nolan would have brought in his banshee and said it was supernaturally possible. But I’ve got no use for disembodied spirits when I’m dealing with facts. And the facts before me are an empty tower with a ladder, a chair, and a table.”
“The spiritualists,” said Sir Walter, with a smile, “would say that spirits could find a great deal of use for a table.”
“I dare say they could if the spirits were on the table — in a bottle,” replied Wilson, with a curl of his pale lip. “The people round here, when they’re all sodden up with Irish whisky, may believe in such things. I think they want a little education in this country.”
Horne Fisher’s heavy eyelids fluttered in a faint attempt to rise, as if he were tempted to a lazy protest against the contemptuous tone of the investigator.
“The Irish believe far too much in spirits to believe in spiritualism,” he murmured. “They know too much about ’em. If you want a simple and childlike faith in any spirit that comes along you can get it in your favorite London.”
“I don’t want to get it anywhere,” said Wilson, shortly. “I say I’m dealing with much simpler things than your simple faith, with a table and a chair and a ladder. Now what I want to say about them at the start is this. They are all three made roughly enough of plain wood. But the table and the chair are fairly new and comparatively clean. The ladder is covered with dust and there is a cobweb under the top rung of it. That means that he borrowed the first two quite recently from some cottage, as we supposed, but the ladder has been a long time in this rotten old dustbin. Probably it was part of the original furniture, an heirloom in this magnificent palace of the Irish kings.”
Again Fisher looked at him under his eyelids, but seemed too sleepy to speak, and Wilson went on with his argument.
“Now it’s quite clear that something very odd has just happened in this place. The chances are ten to one, it seems to me, that it had something specially to do with this place. Probably he came here because he could do it only here; it doesn’t seem very inviting otherwise. But the man knew it of old; they say it belonged to his family, so that altogether, I think, everything points to something in the construction of the tower itself.”
“Your reasoning seems to me excellent,” said Sir Walter, who was listening attentively. “But what could it be?”
“You see now what I mean about the ladder,” went on the detective; “it’s the only old piece of furniture here and the first thing that caught that cockney eye of mine. But there is something else. That loft up there is a sort of lumber room without any lumber. So far as I can see, it’s as empty as everything else; and, as things are, I don’t see the use of the ladder leading to it. It seems to me, as I can’t find anything unusual down here, that it might pay us to look up there.”
He got briskly off the table on which he was sitting (for the only chair was allotted to Sir Walter) and ran rapidly up the ladder to the platform above. He was soon followed by the others, Mr. Fisher going last, however, with an appearance of considerable nonchalance.
At this stage, however, they were destined to disappointment; Wilson nosed in every corner like a terrier and examined the roof almost in the posture of a fly, but half an hour afterward they had to confess that they were still without a clew. Sir Walter’s private secretary seemed more and more threatened with inappropriate slumber, and, having been the last to climb up the ladder, seemed now to lack the energy even to climb down again.
“Come along, Fisher,” called out Sir Walter from below, when the others had regained the floor. “We must consider whether we’ll pull the whole place to pieces to see what it’s made of.”
“I’m coming in a minute,” said the voice from the ledge above their heads, a voice somewhat suggestive of an articulate yawn.
“What are you waiting for?” asked Sir Walter, impatiently. “Can you see anything there?”
“Well, yes, in a way,” replied the voice, vaguely. “In fact, I see it quite plain now.”
“What is it?” asked Wilson, sharply, from the table on which he sat kicking his heels restlessly.
“Well, it’s a man,” said Horne Fisher.
Wilson bounded off the table as if he had been kicked off it. “What do you mean?” he cried. “How can you possibly see a man?”
“I can see him through the window,” replied the secretary, mildly. “I see him coming across the moor. He’s making a bee line across the open country toward this tower. He evidently means to pay us a visit. And, considering who it seems to be, perhaps it would be more polite if we were all at the door to receive him.” And in a leisurely manner the secretary came down the ladder.
“Who it seems to be!” repeated Sir Walter in astonishment.
“Well, I think it’s the man you call Prince Michael,” observed Mr. Fisher, airily. “In fact, I’m sure it is. I’ve seen the police portraits of him.”
There was a dead silence, and Sir Walter’s usually steady brain seemed to go round like a windmill.
“But, hang it all!” he said at last, “even supposing his own explosion could have thrown him half a mile away, without passing through any of the windows, and left him alive enough for a country walk — even then, why the devil should he walk in this direction? The murderer does not generally revisit the scene of his crime so rapidly as all that.”
“He doesn’t know yet that it is the scene of his crime,” answered Horne Fisher.
“What on earth do you mean? You credit him with rather singular absence of mind.”
“Well, the truth is, it isn’t the scene of his crime,” said Fisher, and went and looked out of the window.
There was another silence, and then Sir Walter said, quietly: “What sort of notion have you really got in your head, Fisher? Have you developed a new theory about how this fellow escaped out of the ring round him?”
“He never escaped at all,” answered the man at the window, without turning round. “He never escaped out of the ring because he was never inside the ring. He was not in this tower at all, at least not when we were surrounding it.”
He turned and leaned back against the window, but, in spite of his usual listless manner, they almost fancied that the face in shadow was a little pale.
“I began to guess something of the sort when we were some way from the tower,” he said. “Did you notice that sort of flash or flicker the candle gave before it was extinguished? I was almost certain it was only the last leap the flame gives when a candle burns itself out. And then I came into this room and I saw that.”
He pointed at the table and Sir Walter caught his breath with a sort of curse at his own blindness. For the candle in the candlestick had obviously burned itself away to nothing and left him, mentally, at least, very completely in the dark.
“Then there is a sort of mathematical question,” went on Fisher, leaning back in his limp way and looking up at the bare walls, as if tracing imaginary diagrams there. “It’s not so easy for a man in the third angle to face the other two at the same moment, especially if they are at the base of an isosceles. I am sorry if it sounds like a lecture on geometry, but — ”
“I’m afraid we have no time for it,” said Wilson, coldly. “If this man is really coming back, I must give my orders at once.”
“I think I’ll go on with it, though,” observed Fisher, staring at the roof with insolent serenity.
“I must ask you, Mr. Fisher, to let me conduct my inquiry on my own lines,” said Wilson, firmly. “I am the officer in charge now.”
“Yes,” remarked Horne Fisher, softly, but with an accent that somehow chilled the hearer. “Yes. But why?”
Sir Walter was staring, for he had never seen his rather lackadaisical young friend look like that before. Fisher was looking at Wilson with lifted lids, and the eyes under them seemed to have shed or shifted a film, as do the eyes of an eagle.
“Why are you the officer in charge now?” he asked. “Why can you conduct the inquiry on your own lines now? How did it come about, I wonder, that the elder officers are not here to interfere with anything you do?”
Nobody spoke, and nobody can say how soon anyone would have collected his wits to speak when a noise came from without. It was the heavy and hollow sound of a blow upon the door of the tower, and to their shaken spirits it sounded strangely like the hammer of doom.
The wooden door of the tower moved on its rusty hinges under the hand that struck it and Prince Michael came into the room. Nobody had the smallest doubt about his identity. His light clothes, though frayed with his adventures, were of fine and almost foppish cut, and he wore a pointed beard, or imperial, perhaps as a further reminiscence of Louis Napoleon; but he was a much taller and more graceful man that his prototype. Before anyone could speak he had silenced everyone for an instant with a slight but splendid gesture of hospitality.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “this is a poor place now, but you are heartily welcome.”
Wilson was the first to recover, and he took a stride toward the newcomer.
“Michael O’Neill, I arrest you in the king’s name for the murder of Francis Morton and James Nolan. It is my duty to warn you — ”
“No, no, Mr. Wilson,” cried Fisher, suddenly. “You shall not commit a third murder.”
Sir Walter Carey rose from his chair, which fell over with a crash behind him. “What does all this mean?” he called out in an authoritative manner.
“It means,” said Fisher, “that this man, Hooker Wilson, as soon as he had put his head in at that window, killed his two comrades who had put their heads in at the other windows, by firing across the empty room. That is what it means. And if you want to know, count how many times he is supposed to have fired and then count the charges left in his revolver.”
Wilson, who was still sitting on the table, abruptly put a hand out for the weapon that lay beside him. But the next movement was the most unexpected of all, for the prince standing in the doorway passed suddenly from the dignity of a statue to the swiftness of an acrobat and rent the revolver out of the detective’s hand.
“You dog!” he cried. “So you are the type of English truth, as I am of Irish tragedy — you who come to kill me, wading through the blood of your brethren. If they had fallen in a feud on the hillside, it would be called murder, and yet your sin might be forgiven you. But I, who am innocent, I was to be slain with ceremony. There would be long speeches and patient judges listening to my vain plea of innocence, noting down my despair and disregarding it. Yes, that is what I call assassination. But killing may be no murder; there is one shot left in this little gun, and I know where it should go.”
Wilson turned quickly on the table, and even as he turned he twisted in agony, for Michael shot him through the body where he sat, so that he tumbled off the table like lumber.
The police rushed to lift him; Sir Walter stood speechless; and then, with a strange and weary gesture, Horne Fisher spoke.
“You are indeed a type of the Irish tragedy,” he said. “You were entirely in the right, and you have put yourself in the wrong.”
The prince’s face was like marble for a space then there dawned in his eyes a light not unlike that of despair. He laughed suddenly and flung the smoking pistol on the ground.
“I am indeed in the wrong,” he said. “I have committed a crime that may justly bring a curse on me and my children.”
Horne Fisher did not seem entirely satisfied with this very sudden repentance; he kept his eyes on the man and only said, in a low voice, “What crime do you mean?”
“I have helped English justice,” replied Prince Michael. “I have avenged your king’s officers; I have done the work of his hangman. For that truly I deserve to be hanged.”
And he turned to the police with a gesture that did not so much surrender to them, but rather command them to arrest him.
This was the story that Horne Fisher told to Harold March, the journalist, many years after, in a little, but luxurious, restaurant near Piccadilly. He had invited March to dinner some time after the affair he called “The Face in the Target,” and the conversation had naturally turned on that mystery and afterward on earlier memories of Fisher’s life and the way in which he was led to study such problems as those of Prince Michael. Horne Fisher was fifteen years older; his thin hair had faded to frontal baldness, and his long, thin hands dropped less with affectation and more with fatigue. And he told the story of the Irish adventure of his youth, because it recorded the first occasion on which he had ever come in contact with crime, or discovered how darkly and how terribly crime can be entangled with law.
“Hooker Wilson was the first criminal I ever knew, and he was a policeman,” explained Fisher, twirling his wine glass. “And all my life has been a mixed-up business of the sort. He was a man of very real talent, and perhaps genius, and well worth studying, both as a detective and a criminal. His white face and red hair were typical of him, for he was one of those who are cold and yet on fire for fame; and he could control anger, but not ambition. He swallowed the snubs of his superiors in that first quarrel, though he boiled with resentment; but when he suddenly saw the two heads dark against the dawn and framed in the two windows, he could not miss the chance, not only of revenge, but of the removal of the two obstacles to his promotion. He was a dead shot and counted on silencing both, though proof against him would have been hard in any case. But, as a matter of fact, he had a narrow escape, in the case of Nolan, who lived just long enough to say, ‘Wilson’ and point. We thought he was summoning help for his comrade, but he was really denouncing his murderer. After that it was easy to throw down the ladder above him (for a man up a ladder cannot see clearly what is below and behind) and to throw himself on the ground as another victim of the catastrophe.
“But there was mixed up with his murderous ambition a real belief, not only in his own talents, but in his own theories. He did believe in what he called a fresh eye, and he did want scope for fresh methods. There was something in his view, but it failed where such things commonly fail, because the fresh eye cannot see the unseen. It is true about the ladder and the scarecrow, but not about the life and the soul; and he made a bad mistake about what a man like Michael would do when he heard a woman scream. All Michael’s very vanity and vainglory made him rush out at once; he would have walked into Dublin Castle for a lady’s glove. Call it his pose or what you will, but he would have done it. What happened when he met her is another story, and one we may never know, but from tales I’ve heard since, they must have been reconciled. Wilson was wrong there; but there was something, for all that, in his notion that the newcomer sees most, and that the man on the spot may know too much to know anything. He was right about some things. He was right about me.”
“About you?” asked Harold March in some wonder.
“I am the man who knows too much to know anything, or, at any rate, to do anything,” said Horne Fisher. “I don’t mean especially about Ireland. I mean about England. I mean about the whole way we are governed, and perhaps the only way we can be governed. You asked me just now what became of the survivors of that tragedy. Well, Wilson recovered and we managed to persuade him to retire. But we had to pension that damnable murderer more magnificently than any hero who ever fought for England. I managed to save Michael from the worst, but we had to send that perfectly innocent man to penal servitude for a crime we know he never committed, and it was only afterward that we could connive in a sneakish way at his escape. And Sir Walter Carey is Prime Minister of this country, which he would probably never have been if the truth had been told of such a horrible scandal in his department. It might have done for us altogether in Ireland; it would certainly have done for him. And he is my father’s old friend, and has always smothered me with kindness. I am too tangled up with the whole thing, you see, and I was certainly never born to set it right. You look distressed, not to say shocked, and I’m not at all offended at it. Let us change the subject by all means, if you like. What do you think of this Burgundy? It’s rather a discovery of mine, like the restaurant itself.”
And he proceeded to talk learnedly and luxuriantly on all the wines of the world; on which subject, also, some moralists would consider that he knew too much.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52