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The Case of Sir Alister Moeran

- Editor C. Arthur Pearson

"Ethne?" My aunt looked at me with raised brows and smiled. "My dear Maurice, hadn't you heard? Ethne went abroad directly after Christmas, with the Wilmotts, for a trip to Egypt. She's having a glorious time!"

I am afraid I looked as blank as I felt. I had only landed in England three days ago, after two years' service in India, and the one thing I had been looking forward to was seeing my cousin Ethne again.

"Then, since you did not know she was away, you, of course, have not heard the other news?" went on my aunt.

"No," I answered in a wooden voice. "I've heard nothing."

She beamed. "The dear child is engaged to a Sir Alister Moeran, whom she met in Luxor. Everyone is delighted, as it is a splendid match for her. Lady Wilmott speaks most highly of him, a man of excellent family and position, and perfectly charming to boot."

I believe I murmured something suitable, but it was absurd to pretend to be overjoyed at the news. The galling part of it was that Aunt Linda knew, and was chuckling, so to speak, over my discomfiture.

"If you are going up to Wimberley Park," she went on sweetly, "you will probably meet them both, as your Uncle Bob has asked us all there for the February house-party. He cabled an invitation to Sir Alister as soon as he heard of the engagement. Wasn't it good of him?"

I replied that it was; then, having heard quite enough for one day of the charms of Ethne's fiancé, I took my leave.

That night, after cursing myself for a churl, I wrote and wished her good luck. The next morning I received a letter from Uncle Bob asking me to go to Wimberley; and early in the following week I travelled up to Cumberland. I received a warm welcome from the old General. As a boy I used to spend the greater part of my holidays with him, and being childless himself, he regarded me more or less as a son.

On February 16th Ethne, her mother, and Sir Alister Moeran arrived. I motored to the station to meet them. The evening was cold and raw and so dark that it was almost impossible to distinguish people on the badly lighted little platform. However, as I groped my way along, I recognised Ethne's voice, and thus directed, hurried towards the group. As I did so two gleaming, golden eyes flashed out at me through the darkness.

"Hullo!" I thought. "So she's carted along the faithful Pincher!" But the next moment I found I was mistaken, for Ethne was holding out both hands to me in greeting. There was no dog with her, and in the bustle that followed, I forgot to seek further for the solution of those two fiery lights.

"It was good of you to come, Maurice," Ethne said with unmistakable pleasure, then, turning to the man at her side, "Alister, this is my cousin, Captain Kilvert, of whom you have heard me speak."

We murmured the usual formalities in the usual manner, but as my fingers touched his, I experienced the most curious sensation down the region of my spine. It took me back to Burma and a certain very uncomfortable night that I once passed in the jungle. But the impression was so fleeting as to be indefinable, and soon I was busy getting everyone settled in the car.

So far, except that he possessed an exceptionally charming voice, I had no chance of forming an opinion of my cousin's fiancé. It was half-past seven when we got back to the house, so we all went straight up to our rooms to dress for dinner.

Everyone was assembled in the drawing-room when Sir Alister Moeran came in, and I shall never forget the effect his appearance made. Conversation ceased entirely for an instant. There was a kind of breathless pause, which was almost audible as my uncle rose to greet him. In all my life I had never seen a handsomer man, and I don't suppose anyone else there had either. It was the most startling, arresting style of beauty one could possibly imagine, and yet, even as I stared at him in admiration, the word "Black!" flashed into my mind.

Black! I pulled myself up sharply. We English, who have lived out in the East, are far too prone to stigmatise thus anyone who shows the smallest trace of being a "half breed"; but in Sir Alister's case there was not even a suspicion of this. He was no darker than scores of men of my own nationality, and besides, he belonged, I knew, to a very old Scottish family. Yet, try as I would to strangle the idea, all through the evening the same horrible, unaccountable notion clung to me.

That he was the personality of the gathering there was not the slightest doubt. Men and women alike seemed attracted by him, for his individuality was on a par with his looks.

Several times during dinner I glanced at Ethne, but it was easy to see that all her attention was taken up by her lover. Yet, oddly enough, I was not jealous in the ordinary way. I saw the folly of imagining that I could stand a chance against a man like Moeran, and, moreover, he interested me too deeply. His knowledge of the East was extraordinary, and later, when the ladies had retired, he related many curious experiences.

"Might I ask," said my uncle's friend, Major Faucett, suddenly, "whether you were in the Service, or had you a Government appointment out there?"

Sir Alister smiled, and under his moustache I caught the gleam of strong, white teeth.

"As a matter of fact, neither. I am almost ashamed to say I have no profession, unless I may call myself an explorer."

"And why not?" put in Uncle Bob. "Provided your explorations were to some purpose and of benefit to the community in general, I consider you are doing something worth while."

"Exactly," Sir Alister replied. "From my earliest boyhood I have always had the strangest hankering for the East. I say strange, because to my parents it was inexplicable, neither of them having the slightest leaning in that direction, though to me it seemed the most natural desire in the world. I was like an alien in a foreign land, longing to get home. I recollect, as a child, my nurse thought me a beastly uncanny kid because I loved to lie in bed and listen to the cats howling and fighting outside. I used to put my head half under the blankets and imagine I was in my lair in the jungle, and those were the jackals and panthers prowling around outside."

"I suppose you'd been reading adventure books," Uncle Bob said, with a laugh. "I played at much the same game when I was a youngster, only in my case it was Redskins."

"Possibly," Sir Alister answered with a slight shrug, "only mine wasn't a game that I played with any other boys, it was a gnawing desire, which simply had to be satisfied; and the opportunity came. When I was fourteen, the father of a school friend of mine, who was going out to India, asked me to go out with him and the boy for the trip. Of course, I went."

"I wonder," the Major remarked, "that you ever came back once you got there, since you were so frightfully keen."

"I was certain I should return," he replied grimly.

A pause followed his last words, then Uncle Bob rose and led the way to the drawing-room, where for the remainder of the evening Sir Alister was chiefly monopolised by the ladies.

"Well, Maurice," Uncle Bob said, when on the following evening I was sitting in his study having my usual before-dinner chat with him, "and how do you like Ethne's future husband?"

I hesitated. "I—I really don't know," I replied.

"Come, boy," he said, with his whimsical smile, "why not be frank and own to a very natural jealousy?"

"Because," I answered simply, "the feeling Sir Alister Moeran inspires in me is not jealousy, curiously enough. It's something else, something indefinable that comes over me now and again. Dogs don't like him, and that's always a bad sign, to my thinking."

My uncle's bushy eyebrows went up slightly.

"When did you make this discovery?"

"This morning," I replied. "You know I took him and Ethne round the place. Well, the first thing I noticed was that Mike refused to come with us, although both Ethne and I called him. As we passed through the hall he slunk away into the library. I thought it a bit strange, as he's usually so frantic to go out with me. Still, I didn't attach any significance to the matter until later, when we visited the kennels. I don't know why, but one takes it for granted that a man is keen on dogs somehow and——"

"Isn't Sir Alister?"

"They are not keen on him, anyhow," I answered grimly. "They had heard my voice as we approached and were all barking with delight, but directly we entered the place there was a dead silence, save for a few ominous growls from Argo. It was a most extraordinary sight. They all bristled up, so to speak, sniffing the air though on the scent of something. I let Bess and Fritz loose, but instead of jumping up, as they usually do, they hung back and showed the whites of their eyes in a way I've never seen before. I actually had to whistle to them sharply several times before they came, and then it was in a slinking manner, taking good care to put Ethne and me between themselves and Moeran, and looking askance at him the whole while."

"H'm!" murmured the General with puckered brows. "That was certainly odd, very odd!"

"It was," I agreed, warming to the subject, "but there's odder still to come. I dare say you'll think it all my fancy, but the minute those animals put their heads up and sniffed in that peculiar way, I distinctly smelt the musky, savage odour of wild beasts. You know it well, anyone who has been through a jungle does."

Uncle Bob nodded. "I know it, too; 'Musky' is the very word—the smell of sun-warmed fur. Jove, how it carries me back! I remember once, years ago, coming upon a litter of lion cubs, in a cave, when I was out in Africa——"

"Yes! Yes!" I cried eagerly. "And that is what I smelt this morning. Those dogs smelt it, too. They felt that there was something alien, abnormal in their midst."

"That something being—Sir Alister Moeran?"

I felt myself flush up under his gaze. I got up and walked about the room.

"I don't understand it," I said doggedly. "I tell you plainly, Uncle Bob, I don't understand. My impression of the man last night was 'black,' but he's not black, I know that perfectly well, no more than you or I are, and yet I can't get over the behaviour of those hounds. It wasn't only one of 'em, it was the whole lot. They seemed to regard him as their natural enemy! And that smell! I'm sure Ethne detected it too, for she kept glancing about her in a startled, mystified way."

"And Sir Alister?" queried the General. "Do you mean to say he did not notice anything amiss?"

I shrugged my shoulders. "He didn't appear to. I called attention myself to the singular attitude of the hounds, and he said quite casually: 'Dogs never do take to me much.'"

Uncle Bob gave a short laugh. "Our friend is evidently not sensitive." He paused and rubbed his chin thoughtfully, then added: "It certainly is rather curious, but, for Heaven's sake, boy, don't get imagining all sorts of things!"

This nettled me and made me wish I had held my tongue. I was quite aware that my story might have sounded somewhat fantastic from a stranger; still, he ought to have known me better than to accuse me of imagination. I abruptly changed the subject, and shortly after left the room.

But I could not banish from my mind the incident of the morning. I could not forget the appealing faces of those dogs. Ethne and Sir Alister had left me there and returned to the house together, and, after their departure, those poor, dumb beasts had gathered round me in a way that was absolutely pathetic, licking and fondling my hands, as though apologising for their previous misconduct. Still, I understood. That bristling up their spines was precisely the same sensation I had experienced when I first met Sir Alister Moeran.

As I was slowly mounting the stairs on my way up to dress, I heard someone running up after me, and turned round to find Ethne beside me.

"Maurice," she said, rather breathlessly, "tell me, you did not punish Fritz and Bess for not coming at once when you called them this morning?"

"No," I answered.

She gave a nervous little laugh. "I'm glad of that. I thought perhaps——" She stopped short, then rushed on, "You know how queer mother is about cats—can't bear one in the room, and how they always fly out directly she comes in? Well, dogs are the same with Alister. He—he told me so himself. It seems funny to me, and I suppose to you, because we're so fond of all kinds of animals; but I don't really see why it should be any more extraordinary to have an antipathy for dogs than for cats, and no one thinks anything of it if you dislike cats."

"That is so," I said thoughtfully.

"Anyway," she went on, "it is not our own fault if a certain animal does not instinctively take to us."

"Of course not," I replied stoutly. "You're surely not worrying about it, are you?"

She hastened to assure me that she was not, but I could see that my indorsing her opinion was a great relief to her. She had been afraid that I should think it unnatural. I did for that matter, but I could not, of course, tell her so.

That night Sir Alister and I sat up late talking after the other men had retired. We had got on the subject of India and had been comparing notes as to our different adventures. From this we went on to discussing perilous situations and escapes, and it was then that he narrated to me a very curious incident.

"It happened when I was only twenty-one," he said, "the year after my father died. I think I told you that as soon as ever I became my own master, I packed up and was off to the East. I had a friend with me, a boy who had been my best pal at school. They used to call us 'Black and White.' He was fair and girlish-looking, and his name was Buchanan. He was just as keen on India as I was, and purposed writing a book afterwards on our experiences.

"Our intention was to explore the wildest, most savage districts, and as a start we selected the province of Orissa. The forests there are wonderful, and it is there, if anywhere, that the almost extinct Indian lion is still to be found. We engaged two sturdy hillmen to accompany us and pushed our way downwards from Calcutta over mountains, rivers and through some of the densest jungles I've ever traversed. It was on the outskirts of one of the latter that the tragedy took place. We had pitched our tents one evening after a long, tiring day, and turned in early to sleep, Buchanan and I in one, and the two Bhils in the other."

Sir Alister paused for a few moments, toying with his cigar in an abstracted manner, then continued in the same clear, even voice:

"When I awoke next morning, I found my friend lying beside me dead, and blood all round us! His throat was torn open by the teeth of some wild beast, his breast was horribly mauled and lacerated, and his eyes were wide, staring open, and their expression was awful. He must have died a hideous death and known it!"

Again he stopped, but I made no comment, only waited with breathless interest till he went on.

"I called the two men. They came and looked, and for the first time I saw terror written on their faces. Their nostrils quivered as though scenting something; then 'Tiger!' they gasped simultaneously.

"One of them said he had heard a stifled scream in the night, but had thought it merely some animal in the jungle. The whole thing was a mystery. How I came to sleep undisturbed through it all, how I escaped the same fate, and why the tiger did not carry off his prey——"

"You are sure it was a tiger?" I put in.

"I think there was no doubt of it," Sir Alister replied. "The Bhils swore the teeth-marks were unmistakable, and not only that, but I saw another case seven years later. The body of a young woman was found in the compound outside my bungalow, done to death in precisely the same way. And several of the natives testified as to there being a tiger in that vicinity, for they had found three or four young goats destroyed in similar fashion."

"Who was the girl?" I asked.

Moeran slowly turned his lucent, amber eyes upon me as he answered. "She was a German, a sort of nursery governess at the English doctor's. He was naturally frightfully upset about it, and a regular panic sprang up in the neighbourhood. The natives got a superstitious scare—thought one of their gods was wroth about something and demanded sacrifice; but the white people were simply out to kill the tiger."

"And did they?" I queried eagerly.

Sir Alister shook his head. "That I can't say, as I left the place very soon afterwards and went up to the mountains."

A long silence followed, during which I stared at him in mute fascination. Then an unaccountable impulse made me say abruptly: "Moeran, how old are you?"

His finely-marked eyebrows went up in surprise at the irrelevance of my question, but he smiled.

"Funny you should ask! It so happens that it's my birthday to-morrow. I shall be thirty-five."

"Thirty-five!" I repeated. Then with a shiver I rose from my seat. The room seemed to have turned suddenly cold.

"Come," I said, "let's go to bed."

Next night at dinner I proposed Sir Alister's health, and we all drank to him and his "bride-to-be." They had that day definitely settled the date of their marriage for two months ahead; Ethne was looking radiant and everyone seemed in the best of spirits.

We danced and romped and played rowdy games like a pack of children. Nothing was too silly for us to attempt. While a one-step was in full swing some would-be wag suddenly turned off all the lights. It was then that for a moment I caught sight of a pair of glowing, fiery eyes shining through the darkness. Instantly my thoughts flew back to that meeting at the station, when I had fancied that Ethne had her dog in her arms. A chill, sinister feeling crept over me, but I kept my gaze fixed steadily in the same direction. The next minute the lights went up, and I found myself staring straight at Sir Alister Moeran. His arm was round Ethne's waist and she was smiling up into his face. Almost immediately they took up the dance again, and I and my partner followed suit. But all my gaiety had departed. An indefinable oppression seized me and clung to me for the rest of the evening.

As I emerged from my room next morning I saw old Giles, the butler, hurrying down the corridor towards me.

"Oh, Mr. Maurice—Captain Kilvert, sir!" he burst out, consternation in every line of his usually stolid countenance. "A dreadful thing has happened! How it's come about I can't for the life of me say, and how we're going to tell the General, the Lord only knows!"

"What?" I asked, seizing him by the arm. "What is it?"

"The dawg, sir," he answered in a hoarse whisper, "Mike—in the study——"

I waited to hear no more, but strode off down the stairs, Giles hobbling beside me as fast as he could, and together we entered the study.

In the middle of the floor lay the body of Mike. A horrible foreboding gripped me, and I quickly knelt down and raised the dog's head. His neck was torn open, bitten right through to the windpipe, the blood still dripping from it into a dark pool on the carpet.

A cold, numbing sensation stole down my spine and made my legs grow suddenly weak. Beads of perspiration gathered on my forehead as I slowly rose to my feet and faced Giles.

"What's the meaning of it, sir?" he asked, passing his hand across his brow in utter bewilderment. "That dawg was as right as possible when I shut up last night, and he couldn't have got out."

"No," I answered mechanically, "he couldn't have got out."

"Looks like some wild beast had attacked him," muttered the old man, in awed tones, as he bent over the lifeless body. "D'ye see the teeth marks, sir? But it's not possible—not possible."

"No," I said again, in the same wooden fashion. "It's not possible."

"But how're we going to account for it to the General?" he cried brokenly. "Oh, Mr. Maurice, sir, it's dreadful!"

I nodded. "You're right, Giles! Still, it isn't your fault, nor mine. Leave the matter to me. I'll break it to my uncle."

It was a most unenviable task, but I did it. Poor Uncle Bob! I shall never forget his face when he saw the mutilated body of the dog that for years had been his faithful companion. He almost wept, only rage and resentment against the murderer were so strong in him that they thrust grief for the time into the background. The mysterious, incomprehensible manner of the dog's death only added to his anger, for there was apparently no one on whom to wreak his vengeance.

The news caused general concern throughout the house, and Ethne was frightfully upset.

"Oh, Alister, isn't it awful?" she exclaimed, tears standing in her pretty blue eyes. "Poor, darling Mike!"

"Yes," he answered rather absently. "It's most unfortunate. Valuable dog, too, wasn't it?"

I walked away. The man's calm, handsome face filled me suddenly with unspeakable revulsion. The atmosphere of the room seemed to become heavy and noisome. I felt compelled to get out into the open to breathe.

I found the General tramping up and down the drive in the rain, his chin sunk deep into the collar of his overcoat, his hat pulled low down over his eyes. I joined him without speaking, and in silence we paced side by side for another quarter of an hour.

"Uncle Bob," I said abruptly at last, "take my advice. Have one of the hounds indoors to-night—Princep, he's a good watch-dog."

The General stopped short in his walk and looked at me.

"You've something on your mind, boy. What is it?"

"This," I answered grimly. "Whoever, or whatever killed Mike was in the house last night, or got in, after Giles shut up. It may still be there for all we know. In the dark, dark deeds are done, and—well, I think it's wise to take precautions."

"Good God, Maurice, if there is any creature in hiding, we'll soon have it out! I'll have the place searched now. But the thing's impossible, absurd!"

I shrugged my shoulders. "Then Mike died a natural death?"

"Natural?" he echoed fiercely. "Don't talk rubbish!"

"In that case," I said quietly, "you'll agree to let one of the dogs sleep in."

He gave me a long, troubled, searching look, then said gruffly: "Very well, but don't make any fuss about it. Women are such nervous beings and we don't want to upset anyone."

"You needn't be afraid of that," I replied, "I'll manage it all right."

There was no further talk of Mike that day. The visitors, seeing how distressed the General was, by tacit consent avoided the subject, but everyone felt the dampening effect.

That night, before I retired to my room, I took a lantern, went out to the kennels and brought in Princep, a pure-bred Irish setter. He was a dog of exceptional intelligence, and when I spoke to him, explaining the reason of his presence indoors, he seemed to know instinctively what was required of him.

As I passed the study I noticed a light coming from under the door. Somewhat surprised, I turned the handle and looked in. My uncle was seated before his desk in the act of loading a revolver. He glanced up sharply as I entered.

"Oh, it's you, is it? Got the dog in?"

"Yes," I replied, "I've left him in the library with the door open."

He regarded the revolver pensively for a few moments, then laid it down in front of him.

"You've no theory as to this—this business?"

I shook my head, I could offer no explanation. Yet all the while there lurked, deep down in my heart, a hideous suspicion, a suspicion so monstrous that had I voiced it, I should probably have been considered mad. And so I held my peace on the subject and merely wished my uncle good-night.

It was about one o'clock when I got into bed, but my brain was far too agitated for sleep. Something I had heard years ago, some old wives' tales about a man's life changing every seven years, kept dinning in my head. I was striving to remember how the story went, when a slight sound outside caught my ear. In a second I was out of bed and had silently opened the door. As I did so, someone passed close by me down the corridor.

Cautiously, with beating heart, I crept out and followed. However, I almost exclaimed aloud in my amazement, for the light from a window fell full on the figure ahead of me, and I recognised my cousin Ethne. She was sleep-walking, a habit she had had from her childhood, and which apparently she had never outgrown.

For some minutes I stood there, undecided how to act, while she passed on down the stairs, out of sight. To wake her I knew would be wrong. I knew, also, that she had walked thus a score of times without coming to any harm. There was, therefore, no reason why I should not return to my room and leave her to her wandering, yet still I remained rooted to the spot, all my senses strained, alert. And then suddenly I heard Princep whine. A series of low, stertorous growls followed, growls that made my blood run cold! With swift, noiseless steps, I stole along to the minstrel's gallery which overlooked that portion of the hall that communicated with the library. As I did so, there arose from immediately below me a succession of sharp snarls, such as a dog gives when he is in deadly fear or pain.

A shaft of moonlight fell across the polished floor, and by its aid I was just able to distinguish the form of Princep crouched against the wainscoting. He was breathing heavily, his head turned all the while towards the opposite side of the room. I looked in the same direction. Out of the darkness gleamed two fiery, golden orbs, two eyes that moved slowly to and fro, backwards and forwards, as though the Thing were prowling round and round. Now it seemed to crouch as though ready to spring, and I could hear the savage growling as of some beast of prey.

As I watched, horrified, fascinated, a portière close by was lifted, and the white-robed figure of Ethne appeared. All heedless of danger she came on across the hall, and the Thing, with soft, stealthy tread, came after her. I knew then that there was not an instant to be lost, and like a flash I darted along the gallery and down the stairs. But ere I gained the hall a piercing scream rent the air, and I was just in time to see Ethne borne to the ground by a great, dark form, which had sprung at her like a tiger.

Half frantic, I dashed forward, snatching as I did so a rapier from the wall, the only weapon handy. But before I reached the spot, a voice from the study doorway called: "Stop!" and the next moment the report of a pistol rang out.

"Good God!" I cried. "Who have you shot?"

"Not the girl," answered the grim voice of my uncle, "you may trust my aim for that! I fired at the eyes of the Thing. Here, quick, get lights and let's see what has happened."

But my one and only thought was for Ethne. Moving across to the dark mass on the floor, I stretched out my hand. My fingers touched a smooth, fabric-like cloth, but the smell was the smell of fur, the musky, sun-warmed fur of the jungle! With sickening repugnance, I seized the Thing by its two broad shoulders and rolled it over. Then I carefully raised Ethne from the ground. At that moment Giles and a footman appeared with candles. In silence my uncle took one and came towards me, the servants with scared, blanched countenances following.

The light fell full upon the dead, upturned face of Sir Alister Moeran. His upper lip was drawn back, showing the strong, white teeth. The two front ones were tipped with blood. Instantly my eyes turned to Ethne's throat, and there I saw deep, horrible marks, like the marks of a tiger's fangs; but, thank God, they had not penetrated far enough to do any serious injury! My uncle's shot had come just in time to save her.

"Merely fainted, hasn't she?" he asked anxiously.

I nodded. My relief at finding this was so, was too great for words.

"Heaven be praised!" I heard him mutter. Then lifting my beautiful, unconscious burden in my arms, I carried her upstairs to her room.

Can I explain, can anyone explain, the mysterious vagaries of atavism? I only know that there are amongst us, rare instances fortunately, but existent nevertheless—men with the souls of beasts. They may be cognisant of the fact or otherwise. In the case of Sir Alister I feel sure it was the latter. He had probably no more idea than I what far-reaching, evil strain it was that came out in his blood and turned him, every seven years, practically into a vampire.