The next few days were a very nightmare of horror and gloom. Of course, I repudiated my acceptance of the decree of banishment that Ruth had passed upon me. I was her friend, at least, and in time of peril my place was at her side. Tacitly—though thankfully enough, poor girl!—she had recognized the fact and made me once more free of the house.
For there was no disguising the situation. Newspaper boys yelled the news up and down Fleet Street from morning to night; soul-shaking posters grinned on gaping crowds; and the newspapers fairly wallowed in the "Shocking details."
It is true that no direct accusations were made; but the original reports of the disappearance were reprinted with such comments as made me gnash my teeth with fury.
The wretchedness of those days will live in my memory until my dying day. Never can I forget the dread that weighed me down, the horrible suspense, the fear that clutched at my heart as I furtively scanned the posters in the streets. Even the wretched detectives who prowled about the entrances to Nevill's Court became grateful to my eyes, for, embodying as they did the hideous menace that hung over my dear lady, their presence at least told me that the blow had not yet fallen. Indeed, we came, after a time, to exchange glances of mutual recognition, and I thought that they seemed to be sorry for her and for me, and had no great liking for their task. Of course, I spent most of my leisure at the old house, though my heart ached more there than elsewhere; and I tried, with but poor success, I fear, to maintain a cheerful, confident manner, cracking my little jokes as of old, and even essaying to skirmish with Miss Oman. But this last experiment was a dead failure; and when she had suddenly broken down in a stream of brilliant repartee to weep hysterically on my breast, I abandoned the attempt and did not repeat it.
A dreadful gloom had settled down upon the old house. Poor Miss Oman crept silently but restlessly up and down the ancient stairs with dim eyes and a tremulous chin, or moped in her room with a parliamentary petition (demanding, if I remember rightly, the appointment of a female judge to deal with divorce and matrimonial causes) which lay on her table languidly awaiting signatures that never came. Mr. Bellingham, whose mental condition at first alternated between furious anger and absolute panic, was fast sinking into a state of nervous prostration that I viewed with no little alarm. In fact the only really self-possessed person in the entire household was Ruth herself, and even she could not conceal the ravages of sorrow and suspense and overshadowing peril. Her manner was almost unchanged; or rather, I should say, she had gone back to that which I had first known—quiet, reserved, taciturn, with a certain bitter humor showing through her unvarying amiability. When she and I were alone, indeed, her reserve melted away and she was all sweetness and gentleness. But it wrung my heart to look at her, to see how, day by day, she grew ever more thin and haggard; to watch the growing pallor of her cheek; to look into her solemn gray eyes, so sad and tragic and yet so brave and defiant of fate.
It was a terrible time; and through it all the dreadful questions haunted me continually: When will the blow fall? What is it that the police are waiting for? And when they do strike, what will Thorndyke have to say?
So things went on for four dreadful days. But on the fourth day, just as the evening consultations were beginning and the surgery was filled with waiting patients, Polton appeared with a note, which he insisted, to the indignation of Adolphus, on delivering into my own hands. It was from Thorndyke, and was to the following effect:
"I learn from Dr. Norbury that he has recently heard from Herr Lederbogen, of Berlin—a learned authority on Oriental antiquities—who makes some reference to an English Egyptologist whom he met in Vienna about a year ago. He cannot recall the Englishman's name, but there are certain expressions in the letter which make Dr. Norbury suspect that he is referring to John Bellingham.
"I want you to bring Mr. and Miss Bellingham to my chambers this evening at 8.30, to meet Dr. Norbury and talk over his letter; and in view of the importance of the matter, I look to you not to fail me."
A wave of hope and relief swept over me. It was still possible that this Gordian knot might be cut; that the deliverance might come before it was too late. I wrote a hasty note to Thorndyke and another to Ruth, making the appointment; and having given them both to the trusty Polton, returned somewhat feverishly to my professional duties. To my profound relief, the influx of patients ceased, and the practise sank into its accustomed torpor; whereby I was able without base and mendacious subterfuge to escape in good time to my tryst.
It was near upon eight o'clock when I passed through the archway into Nevill's Court. The warm afternoon light had died away, for the summer was running out apace. The last red glow of the setting sun had faded from the ancient roofs and chimney stacks, and down in the narrow court the shades of evening had begun to gather in nooks and corners. I was due at eight, and, as it still wanted some minutes to the hour, I sauntered slowly down the court, looking reflectively on the familiar scene and the well-known friendly faces.
The day's work was drawing to a close. The little shops were putting up their shutters; lights were beginning to twinkle in parlor windows; a solemn hymn arose in the old Moravian chapel, and its echoes stole out through the dark entry that opens into the court under the archway.
Here was Mr. Finneymore (a man of versatile gifts, with a leaning toward paint and varnish) sitting, white-aproned and shirt-sleeved, on a chair in his garden, smoking his pipe with a complacent eye on his dahlias. There at an open window a young man, with a brush in his hand and another behind his ear, stood up and stretched himself while an older lady deftly rolled up a large map. The barber was turning out the gas in his little saloon; the greengrocer was emerging with a cigarette in his mouth and an aster in his buttonhole, and a group of children were escorting the lamplighter on his rounds.
All these good, homely folk were Nevill's Courtiers of the genuine breed; born in the court, as had been their fathers before them for generations. And of such to a great extent was the population of the place. Miss Oman herself claimed aboriginal descent and so did the sweet-faced Moravian lady next door—a connection of the famous La Trobes of the old Conventicle, whose history went back to the Gordon Riots; and as to the gentleman who lived in the ancient timber-and-plaster house at the bottom of the court, it was reported that his ancestors had dwelt in that very house since the days of James the First.
On these facts I reflected as I sauntered down the court, on the strange phenomenon of an old-world hamlet with its ancient population lingering in the very heart of the noisy city; an island of peace set in an ocean of unrest, an oasis in a desert of change and ferment.
My meditations brought me to the shabby gate in the high wall, and as I raised the latch and pushed it open, I saw Ruth standing at the door of the house talking to Miss Oman. She was evidently waiting for me, for she wore her somber black coat and hat and a black veil, and when she saw me she came out, closing the door after her, and holding out her hand.
"You are punctual," said she. "St. Dunstan's clock is striking now."
"Yes," I answered. "But where is your father?"
"He has gone to bed, poor old dear. He didn't feel well enough to come, and I did not urge him. He is really very ill. This dreadful suspense will kill him if it goes on much longer."
"Let us hope it won't," I said, but with little conviction, I fear, in my tone.
It was harrowing to see her torn by anxiety for her father, and I yearned to comfort her. But what was there to say? Mr. Bellingham was breaking up visibly under the stress of the terrible menace that hung over his daughter, and no words of mine could make the fact less manifest.
We walked silently up the court. The lady at the window greeted us with a smiling salutation, Mr. Finneymore removed his pipe and raised his cap, receiving a gracious bow from Ruth in return, and then we passed through the covered way into Fetter Lane, where my companion paused and looked about her.
"What are you looking for?" I asked.
"The detective," she answered quietly. "It would be a pity if the poor man should miss me after waiting so long. However, I don't see him." And she turned away toward Fleet Street. It was an unpleasant surprize to me that her sharp eyes detected the secret spy upon her movements; and the dry, sardonic tone of her remark pained me too, recalling, as it did, the frigid self-possession that had so repelled me in the early days of our acquaintance. And yet I could not but admire the cool unconcern with which she faced her horrible peril.
"Tell me a little more about this conference," she said, as we walked down Fetter Lane. "Your note was rather more concise than lucid; but I suppose you wrote it in a hurry."
"Yes, I did. And I can't give you any details now. All I know is that Doctor Norbury has had a letter from a friend of his in Berlin, an Egyptologist, as I understand, named Lederbogen, who refers to an English acquaintance of his and Norbury's whom he saw in Vienna about a year ago. He cannot remember the Englishman's name, but from some of the circumstances Norbury seems to think that he is referring to your Uncle John. Of course, if this should turn out to be really the case, it would set everything straight; so Thorndyke was anxious that you and your father should meet Norbury and talk it over."
"I see," said Ruth. Her tone was thoughtful but by no means enthusiastic.
"You don't seem to attach much importance to the matter," I remarked.
"No. It doesn't seem to fit the circumstances. What is the use of suggesting that poor Uncle John is alive—and behaving like an imbecile, which he certainly was not—when his dead body has actually been found?"
"But," I suggested lamely, "there may be some mistake. It may not be his body after all."
"And the ring?" she asked, with a bitter smile.
"That may be just a coincidence. It was a copy of a well-known form of antique ring. Other people may have had copies made as well as your uncle. Besides," I added with more conviction, "we haven't seen the ring. It may not be his at all."
She shook her head. "My dear Paul," she said quietly, "it is useless to delude ourselves. Every known fact points to the certainty that it is his body. John Bellingham is dead: there can be no doubt of that. And to every one except his unknown murderer and one or two of my own loyal friends, it must seem that his death lies at my door. I realized from the beginning that the suspicion lay between George Hurst and me; and the finding of the ring fixes it definitely on me. I am only surprised that the police have made no move yet."
The quiet conviction of her tone left me for a while speechless with horror and despair. Then I recalled Thorndyke's calm, even confident, attitude, and I hastened to remind her of it.
"There is one of your friends," I said, "who is still undismayed. Thorndyke seems to anticipate no difficulties."
"And yet," she replied, "he is ready to consider a forlorn hope like this. However, we shall see."
I could think of nothing more to say, and it was in gloomy silence that we pursued our way down Inner Temple Lane and through the dark entries and tunnel-like passages that brought us out, at length, by the Treasury.
"I don't see any light in Thorndyke's chambers," I said, as we crossed King's Bench Walk; and I pointed out the row of windows all dark and blank.
"No; and yet the shutters are not closed. He must be out."
"He can't be after making an appointment with you and your father. It is most mysterious. Thorndyke is so, very punctilious about his engagements."
The mystery was solved, when we reached the landing, by a slip of paper fixed by a tack on the iron-bound "oak."
"A note for P. B. is on the table," was the laconic message: on reading which I inserted my key, swung the heavy door outward, and opened the lighter inner door. The note was lying on the table and I brought it out to the landing to read by the light of the staircase lamp.
"Apologize to our friends," it ran, "for the slight change of programme. Norbury is anxious that I should get my experiments over before the Director returns, so as to save discussion. He has asked me to begin to-night and says he will see Mr. and Miss Bellingham here, at the Museum. Please bring them along at once. I think some matters of importance may transpire at the interview—J. E. T."
"I hope you don't mind," I said apologetically, when I had read the note to Ruth.
"Of course I don't," she replied. "I am rather pleased. We have so many associations with the dear old Museum, haven't we?" She looked at me for a moment with a strange and touching wistfulness and then turned to descend the stone stairs.
At the Temple gate I hailed a hansom, and we were soon speeding westward and north to the soft twinkle of the horse's bell.
"What are these experiments that Doctor Thorndyke refers to?" she asked presently.
"I can only answer you vaguely," I replied. "Their object, I believe, is to ascertain whether the penetrability of organic substances by the X-rays becomes altered by age; whether, for instance, an ancient block of wood is more or less transparent to the rays than a new block of the same size."
"And of what use would the knowledge be, if it were obtained?"
"I can't say. Experiments are made to obtain knowledge without regard to its utility. The use appears when the knowledge has been acquired. But in this case, if it should be possible to determine the age of any organic substance by its reaction to X-rays, the discovery might be found of some value in legal practise—as in demonstrating a new seal on an old document, for instance. But I don't know whether Thorndyke has anything definite in view; I only know that the preparations have been on a most portentous scale."
"How do you mean?"
"In regard to size. When I went into the workshop yesterday morning, I found Polton erecting a kind of portable gallows about nine feet high, and he had just finished varnishing a pair of enormous wooden trays each over six feet long. It looked as if he and Thorndyke were contemplating a few private executions with subsequent post-mortems on the victims."
"What a horrible suggestion!"
"So Polton said, with his quaint, crinkly smile. But he was mighty close about the use of the apparatus all the same. I wonder if we shall see anything of the experiments, when we get there. This is Museum Street, isn't it?"
"Yes." As she spoke, she lifted the flap of one of the little windows in the back of the cab and peered out. Then, closing it with a quiet, ironic smile, she said:
"It is all right; he hasn't missed us. It will be quite a nice little change for him."
The cab swung round into Great Russell Street, and, glancing out as it turned, I saw another hansom following; but before I had time to inspect its solitary passenger, we drew up at the Museum gates.
The gate porter, who seemed to expect us, ushered us up the drive to the great portico and into the Central Hall, where he handed us over to another official.
"Doctor Norbury is in one of the rooms adjoining the Fourth Egyptian Room," the latter stated in answer to our inquiries: and, providing himself with a wire-guarded lantern, he prepared to escort us thither.
Up the great staircase, now wrapped in mysterious gloom, we passed in silence with bitter-sweet memories of that day of days when we had first trodden its steps together; through the Central Saloon, the Medieval Room and the Asiatic Saloon, and so into the long range of the Ethnographical Galleries.
It was a weird journey. The swaying lantern shot its beams abroad into the darkness of the great, dim galleries, casting instantaneous flashes on the objects in the cases, so that they leaped into being and vanished in the twinkling of an eye. Hideous idols with round, staring eyes started forth from the darkness, glared at us for an instant and were gone. Grotesque masks, suddenly revealed by the shimmering light, took on the semblance of demon faces that seemed to mow and gibber at us as we passed. As for the life-sized models—realistic enough by daylight—their aspect was positively alarming; for the moving light and shadow endowed them with life and movement, so that they seemed to watch us furtively, to lie in wait and to hold themselves in readiness to steal out and follow us. The illusion evidently affected Ruth as well as me, for she drew nearer to me and whispered:
"These figures are quite startling. Did you see that Polynesian? I really felt as if he were going to spring out on us."
"They are rather uncanny," I admitted, "but the danger is over now. We are passing out of their sphere of influence."
We came out on a landing as I spoke and then turned sharply to the left along the North Gallery, from the center of which we entered the Fourth Egyptian Room.
Almost immediately, a door in the opposite wall opened; a peculiar, high-pitched humming sound became audible, and Jervis came out on tiptoe with his hand raised.
"Tread as lightly as you can," he said. "We are just making an exposure."
The attendant turned back with his lantern, and we followed Jervis into the room from whence he had come. It was a large room, and little lighter than the galleries, for the single glow-lamp that burned at the end where we entered left the rest of the apartment in almost complete obscurity. We seated ourselves at once on the chairs that had been placed for us, and, when the mutual salutations had been exchanged, I looked about me. There were three people in the room besides Jervis: Thorndyke, who sat with his watch in his hand, a gray-headed gentleman whom I took to be Dr. Norbury, and a smaller person at the dim farther end—undistinguishable, but probably Polton. At our end of the room were the two large trays that I had seen in the workshop, now mounted on trestles and each fitted with a rubber drain-tube leading down to a bucket. At the farther end of the room the sinister shape of the gallows reared itself aloft in the gloom; only now I could see that it was not a gallows at all. For affixed to the top cross-bar was a large, bottomless glass basin, inside which was a glass bulb that glowed with a strange green light; and in the heart of the bulb a bright spot of red.
It was all clear enough so far. The peculiar sound that filled the air was the hum of the interrupter; the bulb was, of course, a Crookes tube, and the red spot inside it, the glowing red-hot disc of the anti-cathode. Clearly an X-ray photograph was being made; but of what? I strained my eyes, peering into the gloom at the foot of the gallows, but though I could make out an elongated object lying on the floor directly under the bulb, I could not resolve the dimly seen shape into anything recognizable. Presently, however, Dr. Norbury supplied the clue.
"I am rather surprized," said he, "that you chose so composite an object as a mummy to begin on. I should have thought that a simpler object, such as a coffin or a wooden figure, would have been more instructive."
"In some ways it would," replied Thorndyke, "but the variety of materials that the mummy gives us has its advantages. I hope your father is not ill, Miss Bellingham."
"He is not at all well," said Ruth, "and we agreed that it was better for me to come alone. I knew Herr Lederbogen quite well. He stayed with us for a time when he was in England."
"I trust," said Dr. Norbury, "that I have not troubled you for nothing. Herr Lederbogen speaks of 'our erratic English friend with the long name that I can never remember,' and it seemed to me that he might be referring to your uncle."
"I should hardly have called my uncle erratic," said Ruth.
"No, no. Certainly not," Dr. Norbury agreed hastily. "However, you shall see the letter presently and judge for yourself. We mustn't introduce irrelevant topics while the experiment is in progress, must we, Doctor?"
"You had better wait until we have finished," said Thorndyke, "because I am going to turn out the light. Switch off the current, Polton."
The green light vanished from the bulb, the hum of the interrupter swept down an octave or two and died away. Then Thorndyke and Dr. Norbury rose from their chairs and went toward the mummy, which they lifted tenderly while Polton drew from beneath it what presently turned out to be a huge black paper envelope. The single glow-lamp was switched off, leaving the room in total darkness until there burst out suddenly a bright orange red light immediately above one of the trays.
We all gathered round to watch, as Polton—the high priest of these mysteries—drew from the black envelope a colossal sheet of bromide paper, laid it carefully in the tray and proceeded to wet it with a large brush which he had dipped in a pail of water.
"I thought you always used plates for this kind of work," said Dr. Norbury.
"We do, by preference; but a six-foot plate would be impossible, so I had a special paper made to the size."
There is something singularly fascinating in the appearance of a developing photograph; in the gradual, mysterious emergence of the picture from the blank, white surface of plate or paper. But a skiagraph, or X-ray photograph, has a fascination all its own. Unlike the ordinary photograph, which yields a picture of things already seen, it gives a presentment of objects hitherto invisible; and hence, when Polton poured the developer on the already wet paper, we all craned over the tray with the keenest curiosity.
The developer was evidently a very slow one. For fully half a minute no change could be seen in the uniform surface. Then, gradually, almost insensibly, the marginal portion began to darken, leaving the outline of the mummy in pale relief. The change, once started, proceeded apace. Darker and darker grew the margin of the paper until from slaty gray it had turned to black; and still the shape of the mummy, now in strong relief, remained an enlongated patch of bald white. But not for long. Presently the white shape began to be tinged with gray, and, as the color deepened, there grew out of it a paler form that seemed to steal out of the enshrouding gray like an apparition, spectral, awesome, mysterious. The skeleton was coming into view.
"It is rather uncanny," said Dr. Norbury. "I feel as if I were assisting at some unholy rite. Just look at it now!"
The gray shadow of the cartonnage, the wrappings and the flesh was fading away into the background and the white skeleton stood out in sharp contrast. And it certainly was rather a weird spectacle.
"You'll lose the bones if you develop much farther," said Dr. Norbury.
"I must let the bones darken," Thorndyke replied, "in case there are any metallic objects. I have three more papers in the envelope."
The white shape of the skeleton now began to gray over and, as Dr. Norbury had said, its distinctness became less and yet less. Thorndyke leaned over the tray with his eyes fixed on a point in the middle of the breast and we all watched him in silence. Suddenly he rose. "Now, Polton," he said sharply; "get the hypo on as quickly as you can."
Polton, who had been waiting with his hand on the stop-cock of the drain-tube, rapidly ran off the developer into the bucket and flooded the paper with the fixing solution.
"Now we can look at it at our leisure," said Thorndyke. After waiting a few seconds, he switched on one of the glow-lamps, and as the flood of light fell on the photograph, he added: "You see we haven't quite lost the skeleton."
"No." Dr. Norbury put on a pair of spectacles and bent down over the tray; and at this moment I felt Ruth's hand touch my arm, lightly at first, and then with a strong nervous grasp; and I could feel that her hand was trembling. I looked round at her anxiously and saw that she had turned deathly pale.
"Would you rather go out into the gallery?" I asked; for the room with its tightly shut windows was close and hot.
"No," she replied quietly. "I will stay here. I am quite well." But still she kept hold of my arm.
Thorndyke glanced at her keenly and then looked away as Dr. Norbury turned to ask him a question.
"Why is it, think you, that some of the teeth show so much whiter than others?"
"I think the whiteness of the shadows is due to the presence of metal," Thorndyke replied.
"Do you mean that the teeth have metal fillings?" asked Dr. Norbury.
"Really! This is very interesting. The use of gold stoppings—and artificial teeth, too—by the ancient Egyptians is well known, but we have no examples in this Museum. This mummy ought to be unrolled. Do you think all those teeth are filled with the same metal? They are not equally white."
"No," replied Thorndyke. "Those teeth that are perfectly white are undoubtedly filled with gold, but that grayish one is probably filled with tin."
"Very interesting," said Dr. Norbury. "Very interesting! And what do you make of that faint mark across the chest, near the top of the sternum?"
It was Ruth who answered his question.
"It is the Eye of Osiris!" she exclaimed in a hushed voice.
"Dear me!" exclaimed Dr. Norbury, "so it is. You are quite right. It is the Utchat—the Eye of Horus—or Osiris, if you prefer to call it so. That, I presume, will be a gilded device on some of the wrappings."
"No; I should say it is a tattoo mark. It is too indefinite for a gilded device. And I should say further that the tattooing is done in vermilion, as carbon tattooing could cast no visible shadow."
"I think you must be mistaken about that," said Dr. Norbury, "but we shall see, if the Director allows us to unroll the mummy. By the way, those little objects in front of the knees are metallic, I suppose?"
"Yes, they are metallic. But they are not in front of the knees; they are in the knees. They are pieces of silver wire which have been used to repair fractured kneecaps."
"Are you sure of that?" exclaimed Dr. Norbury, peering at the little white marks with ecstasy; "because if you are, and if these objects are what you say they are, the mummy of Sebek-hotep is an absolutely unique specimen."
"I am quite certain of it," said Thorndyke.
"Then," said Dr. Norbury, "we have made a discovery, thanks to your inquiring spirit. Poor John Bellingham! He little knew what a treasure he was giving us! How I wish he could have known! How I wish he could have been here with us to-night!"
He paused once more to gaze in rapture at the photograph. And then Thorndyke, in his quiet, impassive way, said:
"John Bellingham is here, Doctor Norbury. This is John Bellingham."
Dr. Norbury started back and stared at Thorndyke in speechless amazement.
"You don't mean," he exclaimed, after a long pause, "that this mummy is the body of John Bellingham!"
"I do indeed. There is no doubt of it."
"But it is impossible! The mummy was here in the gallery a full three weeks before he disappeared."
"Not so," said Thorndyke. "John Bellingham was last seen alive by you and Mr. Jellicoe on the fourteenth of October, more than three weeks before the mummy left Queen Square. After that date he was never seen alive or dead by any person who knew him and could identify him."
Dr. Norbury reflected a while in silence. Then, in a faint voice, he asked:
"How do you suggest that John Bellingham's body came to be inside that cartonnage?"
"I think Mr. Jellicoe is the most likely person to be able to answer that question," Thorndyke replied dryly.
There was another interval of silence, and then Dr. Norbury asked suddenly:
"But what do you suppose has become of Sebek-hotep? The real Sebek-hotep, I mean?"
"I take it," said Thorndyke, "that the remains of Sebek-hotep, or at least a portion of them, are at present lying in the Woodford mortuary awaiting an adjourned inquest."
As Thorndyke made this statement a flash of belated intelligence, mingled with self-contempt, fell on me. Now that the explanation was given, how obvious it was! And yet I, a competent anatomist and physiologist and actually a pupil of Thorndyke's, had mistaken those ancient bones for the remains of a recent body!
Dr. Norbury considered the last statement for some time in evident perplexity. "It is all consistent enough, I must admit," said he, at length, "and yet—are you quite sure there is no mistake? It seems so incredible."
"There is no mistake, I assure you," Thorndyke answered. "To convince you, I will give you the facts in detail. First, as to the teeth. I have seen John Bellingham's dentist and obtained particulars from his case-book. There were in all five teeth that had been filled. The right upper wisdom tooth, the molar next to it, and the second lower molar on the left side, had all extensive gold fillings. You can see them all quite plainly in the skiagraph. The lower left lateral incisor had a very small gold filling, which you can see as a nearly circular white dot. In addition to these, a filling of tin amalgam had been inserted while the deceased was abroad, in the second left upper bicuspid, the rather gray spot that we have already noticed. These would, by themselves, furnish ample means of identification. But in addition, there is the tattooed device of the Eye of Osiris——"
"Horus," murmured Dr. Norbury.
"Horus, then—in the exact locality in which it was borne by the deceased and tattooed, apparently, with the same pigment. There are, further, the suture wires in the knee-caps; Sir Morgan Bennett, having looked up the notes of the operation, informs me that he introduced three suture wires into the left patella and two into the right; which is what the skiagraph shows. Lastly, the deceased had an old Pott's fracture on the left side. It is not very apparent now, but I saw it quite distinctly just now when the shadows of the bones were whiter. I think that you make [Transcriber's note: may?] take it that the identification is beyond all doubt or question."
"Yes," agreed Dr. Norbury, with gloomy resignation, "it sounds, as you say, quite conclusive. Well, well, it is a most horrible affair. Poor old John Bellingham! it looks uncommonly as if he had met with foul play. Don't you think so?"
"I do," replied Thorndyke. "There was a mark on the right side of the skull that looked rather like a fracture. It was not very clear, being at the side, but we must develop the negative to show it."
Dr. Norbury drew his breath in sharply through his teeth. "This is a gruesome business, Doctor," said he. "A terrible business. Awkward for our people, too. By the way, what is our position in the matter? What steps ought we to take?"
"You should give notice to the coroner—I will manage the police—and you should communicate with one of the executors of the will."
"No, not Mr. Jellicoe, under the peculiar circumstances. You had better write to Mr. Godfrey Bellingham."
"But I rather understood that Mr. Hurst was the co-executor," said Dr. Norbury.
"He is, surely, as matters stand," said Jervis.
"Not at all," replied Thorndyke. "He was as matters stood; but he is not now. You are forgetting the condition of clause two. That clause sets forth the conditions under which Godfrey Bellingham shall inherit the bulk of the estate and become the co-executor and those conditions are: 'that the body of the testator shall be deposited in some authorized place for the reception of the bodies of the dead, situate within the boundaries of, or appertaining to some place of worship within, the parish of St. George, Bloomsbury, and St. Giles in the Fields, or St. Andrew above the Bars and St. George the Martyr.' Now Egyptian mummies are bodies of the dead, and this Museum is an authorized place for their reception; and this building is situate within the boundaries of the parish of St. George, Bloomsbury. Therefore the provisions of clause two have been duly carried out and therefore Godfrey Bellingham is the principal beneficiary under the will, and the co-executor, in accordance with the wishes of the testator. Is that quite clear?"
"Perfectly," said Dr. Norbury; "and a most astonishing coincidence—but, my dear young lady, had you not better sit down? You are looking very ill."
He glanced anxiously at Ruth, who was pale to the lips and was now leaning heavily on my arm.
"I think, Berkeley," said Thorndyke, "you had better take Miss Bellingham out into the gallery, where there is more air. This has been a tremendous climax to all the trials she has borne so bravely. Go out with Berkeley," he added gently, laying his hand on her shoulder, "and sit down while we develop the other negatives. You mustn't break down now, you know, when the storm has passed and the sun is beginning to shine." He held the door open and as we passed out his face softened into a smile of infinite kindness. "You won't mind my locking you out," said he; "this is a photographic dark-room at present."
The key grated in the lock and we turned away into the dim gallery. It was not quite dark, for a beam of moonlight filtered in here and there through the blinds that covered the skylights. We walked on slowly, her arm linked in mine, and for a while neither of us spoke. The great rooms were very silent and peaceful and solemn. The hush, the stillness, the mystery of the half-seen forms in the cases around, were all in harmony with the deeply-felt sense of a great deliverance that filled our hearts.
We had passed through into the next room before either of us broke the silence. Insensibly our hands had crept together, and as they met and clasped with mutual pressure, Ruth exclaimed: "How dreadful and tragic it is! Poor, poor Uncle John! It seems as if he had come back from the world of shadows to tell us of this awful thing. But, O God! what a relief it is!"
She caught her breath in one or two quick sobs and pressed my hand passionately.
"It is over, dearest," I said. "It is gone for ever. Nothing remains but the memory of your sorrow and your noble courage and patience."
"I can't realize it yet," she murmured. "It has been like a frightful, interminable dream."
"Let us put it away," said I, "and think only of the happy life that is opening."
She made no reply, and only a quick catch in her breath, now and again, told of the long agony that she had endured with such heroic calm.
We walked on slowly, scarcely disturbing the silence with our soft footfalls, through the wide doorway into the second room. The vague shapes of mummy-cases standing erect in the wall-cases, loomed out dim and gigantic, silent watchers keeping their vigil with the memories of untold centuries locked in their shadowy breasts. They were an awesome company. Reverend survivors from a vanished world, they looked out from the gloom of their abiding-place, but with no shade of menace or of malice in their silent presence; rather with a solemn benison on the fleeting creatures of to-day.
Half-way along the room a ghostly figure, somewhat aloof from its companions, showed a dim, pallid blotch where its face would have been. With one accord we halted before it.
"Do you know who this is, Ruth?" I asked.
"Of course I do," she answered. "It is Artemidorus."
We stood, hand in hand, facing the mummy, letting our memories fill in the vague silhouette with its well-remembered details. Presently I drew her nearer to me and whispered:
"Ruth! do you remember when we last stood here?"
"As if I could ever forget!" she answered passionately. "Oh, Paul! The sorrow of it! The misery! How it wrung my heart to tell you! Were you very unhappy when I left you?"
"Unhappy! I never knew, until then, what real heart-breaking sorrow was. It seemed as if the light had gone out of my life for ever. But there was just one little spot of brightness left."
"What was that?"
"You made me a promise, dear—a solemn promise; and I felt—at least I hoped—that the day would come, if I only waited patiently, when you would be able to redeem it."
She crept closer to me and yet closer, until her head nestled on my shoulder and her soft cheek lay against mine.
"Dear heart," I whispered, "is it now? Is the time fulfilled?"
"Yes, dearest," she murmured softly. "It is now—and for ever."
Reverently I folded her in my arms; gathered her to the heart that worshiped her utterly. Henceforth no sorrows could hurt us, no misfortune vex; for we should walk hand in hand on our earthly pilgrimage and find the way all too short.
Time, whose sands run out with such unequal swiftness for the just and the unjust, the happy and the wretched, lagged, no doubt, with the toilers in the room that we had left. But for us its golden grains trickled out apace, and left the glass empty before we had begun to mark their passage. The turning of a key and the opening of a door aroused us from our dream of perfect happiness. Ruth raised her head to listen, and our lips met for one brief moment. Then, with a silent greeting to the friend who had looked on our grief and witnessed our final happiness, we turned and retraced our steps quickly, filling the great empty rooms with chattering echoes.
"We won't go back into the dark-room—which isn't dark now," said Ruth.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because—when I came out I was very pale; and I'm—well, I don't think I am very pale now. Besides, poor Uncle John is in there—and—I should be ashamed to look at him with my selfish heart overflowing with happiness."
"You needn't be," said I. "It is the day of our lives and we have a right to be happy. But you shan't go in, if you don't wish to," and I accordingly steered her adroitly past the beam of light that streamed from the open door.
"We have developed four negatives," said Thorndyke, as he emerged with the others, "and I am leaving them in the custody of Doctor Norbury, who will sign each when they are dry, as they may have to be put in evidence. What are you going to do?"
I looked at Ruth to see what she wished.
"If you won't think me ungrateful," said she, "I should rather be alone with my father to-night. He is very weak, and——"
"Yes, I understand," I said hastily. And I did. Mr. Bellingham was a man of strong emotions and would probably be somewhat overcome by the sudden change of fortune and the news of his brother's tragic death.
"In that case," said Thorndyke, "I will bespeak your services. Will you go on and wait for me at my chambers, when you have seen Miss Bellingham home?"
I agreed to this, and we set forth under the guidance of Dr. Norbury (who carried an electric lamp) to return by the way we had come; two of us, as least, in a vastly different frame of mind. The party broke up at the entrance gates, and as Thorndyke wished my companion "Good-night," she held his hand and looked up in his face with swimming eyes.
"I haven't thanked you, Doctor Thorndyke," she said, "and I don't feel that I ever can. What you have done for me and my father is beyond all thanks. You have saved his life and you have rescued me from the most horrible ignominy. Good-by! and God bless you!"
The hansom that bowled along eastward—at most unnecessary speed—bore two of the happiest human beings within the wide boundaries of the town. I looked at my companion as the lights of the street shone into the cab, and was astonished at the transformation. The pallor of her cheek had given place to a rosy pink; the hardness, the tension, the haggard self-repression that had aged her face, were all gone, and the girlish sweetness that had so bewitched me in the early days of our love had stolen back. Even the dimple was there when the sweeping lashes lifted and her eyes met mine in a smile of infinite tenderness.
Little was said on that brief journey. It was happiness enough to sit, hand clasped in hand, and know that our time of trial was past; that no cross of Fate could ever part us now.
The astonished cabman set us down, according to instructions, at the entrance to Nevill's Court, and watched us with open mouth as we vanished into the narrow passage. The court had settled down for the night, and no one marked our return; no curious eye looked down on us from the dark house-front as we said "Good-by," just inside the gate.
"You will come and see us to-morrow, dear, won't you?" she asked.
"Do you think it possible that I could stay away, then?"
"I hope not, but come as early as you can. My father will be positively frantic to see you; because I shall have told him, you know. And, remember, that it is you who have brought us this great deliverance. Good-night, Paul."
She put up her face frankly to be kissed and then ran up to the ancient door; whence she waved me a last good-by. The shabby gate in the wall closed behind me and hid her from my sight; but the light of her love went with me and turned the dull street into a path of glory.