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Title: The White Spot Author: Fred M. White * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1100091h.html Language: English Date first posted: Aug 2014 Most recent update: Aug 2014 This eBook was produced by Maurie Mulcahy and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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RAYBOULD bit savagely into his cigarette. It was hard work to choke down the words of passionate contempt that rose to his lips.
"Oh, I know," he said, "perhaps it would be better for us to be quite candid. I came to you a year ago with a patent for a new electric heating apparatus. I proposed to supersede coal altogether at a fifth of the price. You have stolen my idea, and now offer me a beggarly sum by way of compensation."
"Ten thousand pounds," the junior partner in the House of Merides said, softly. "A pretty price for a little more than a year's work!"
Raybould could not repress a smile. There was nothing subtle about the business at all. This precious pair were millionaires; both of them on the verge of the grave, and without kith or kin, were just as keen about this piece of robbery as if it had been of vital importance to them, and Raybould was perfectly helpless—he did not need these rascally Greeks to tell him that.
Raybould took another cigarette and sat calmly smoking and taking in the beauty of the place in which the interview was proceeding.
Perhaps their taste had been inherited from a long line of ancestors going back to the old days of Praxiteles and the like, for there was no denying the exquisite artistic feeling of those choice scoundrels. The house at Staines was a variable dream of beauty; not the least attractive portion was the Winter Garden, which was situated in the centre of Staines' Court. It was like some great glass house, with a huge dome in the centre. The whole had been filled with graceful and luxurious ferns gathered from all parts of the world. The scheme of decoration was something novel, for, as far as Raybould could see, the tender green foliage climbed riotously up the pillars and shafts which were raised to the roof, and just for a moment, Raybould could not see from whence the ferns derived their nourishment. To all appearances the delicate tracery climbed upwards of its own volition. The light from outside came filtered through as if the great dome had been covered with a diaphanous curtain. Peter Merides seemed to divine what Raybould was thinking about, for he began to speak of the Winter Garden in tones of almost tender enthusiasm. He must have a heart somewhere under his crust of worldly guile, or his little black eyes would not have become so distinctly and favourably human.
"How do those ferns live?" Raybould asked.
"It is very simple," Merides chuckled. "Our idea was to have a kind of bower of glass literally smothered with graceful ferns. If you examine those iron columns, you will find they are quite moist. They are hollow and slightly porous, so that by forcing water through them it is possible to keep the roots of the ferns wet. If you will look into the dome, you will notice that the lower surface is concave, thus forming a natural tank of water between it and the summit. As for the filtered light that is quite easy, seeing that the whole of the outside of the conservatory had been coated with paint."
"Which wants renewing, by the way," the younger Merides said. "The recent rains have washed some of the paint from the dome. But we are wasting time, Mr. Raybould."
"Are we?" Raybould said between his teeth. "I will come over here tomorrow just before luncheon and let you have my final decision."
* * * * *
With dogged determination and helpless rage in his heart, Raybould made his way the next morning in the direction of Staines Court. Those worldly old sinners had been quite right; he had to think of his debts and his wife, and after a sleepless night he had made up his mind to accept the ten thousand pounds in exchange for an idea that meant a colossal fortune.
Other inventors had suffered at the hands of unscrupulous capitalists, but Raybould found small consolation in this reflection. The bitter smile on his face deepened as he followed the manservant into a small office where Manfred Merides was seated. The latter looked up, and smiled shrewdly in the face of his visitor.
"I felt sure you would think better of our offer," he said. "I will go and fetch my brother. He is in the conservatory."
Raybould nodded as Manfred Merides left the room. The house was very silent: no sound could be heard but the twittering of the birds outside. A moment later and there arose a loud startled cry that ended in a piercing scream. It was worse than the call of a woman in distress, it was the hoarse cackling shriek of a strong man beside himself with terror. At the same moment the brilliant sunshine was wiped off the face of the landscape by one of the passing clouds. Raybould dashed off hurriedly in the direction of the unearthly sound. He could hear once again the hideous tumult which seemed to him to come from the direction of the Winter Garden. There he could see Merides bending over an iron chair, lined with cushions, in which reposed a huddled heap of humanity represented by Peter Merides. The whole place was filled with a sickening smell of burning flesh, a little cloud of blue vapour was curling up to the great dome.
"In heaven's name, what is the matter?" Raybould asked. "What dreadful thing has happened here?"
Manfred Merides staggered back, and would have fallen if Raybould had not caught him. His face was ghastly white, with eyes starting from his head in terror.
"Don't ask me," he whispered. "I do not know. I cannot tell, but I found him like this, my brother. You are a man of science—tell me what it all means."
Stifling a feeling of physical repulsion, Raybould bent over the body lying limp and lifeless in the iron arm-chair. It required no profound surgical knowledge to see that Peter Merides was dead. But he had not died in any way known to medical science. At the first blush it looked as if he had been struck by a flash of lightning, for the great dome-like head had been utterly denuded of all fleshy tissue, and the skull lay exposed. There was no face to speak of, all that had been burnt away, as was the clothing nearly as far down as the waist. If Peter Merides had been plunged headlong into some firey furnace he could not have been more horribly burnt and scarred than he was.
Raybould crossed the room and rang the bell. He gave an intimation to the servant who answered, saying that Mr. Peter Merides was ill and required a doctor without delay. The doctor came presently, but he was utterly unable to throw any light upon the manner in which the Greek financier had met his death. There was nothing for it, he said, but to remove the body to the house, pending the inquest which would have to be held. The doctor was still busy making his arrangements, so that Raybould had an opportunity of inspecting the scene of the extraordinary catastrophe. So far he could see, everything was exactly as it had been on the day before. The iron armchairs were scattered about the tiled floor, a pair of small tables stood there with cigars and cigarettes upon them. There was nothing here to indicate one of the most sickening phenomena that had ever taken place in the history of modern fatalities. Very carefully Raybould examined the seat in which the dead man had been reclining. So far as he could see, the cushions were intact, there was not the slightest sign of singeing or burning about them, and yet, the unfortunate man had been burnt to death beyond a shadow of a doubt. He had presented the appearance of a body so badly scalded as actually to remove the flesh from the bones. Raybould put aside at once the idea of personal violence. To begin with, there was no trace of anything whatever on the damp tiles. They were perfectly clean, and there was no hint of a footmark to be seen. Again, it was impossible to enter the Winter Garden except from the house. Raybould glanced up into the dome, but he could see nothing there besides the graceful feathery ferns climbing so luxuriously upwards. The whole thing was inexplicable, mysterious, horrible—a terrible visitation of God which would probably never be explained.
"I cannot grasp it at all," the doctor said, as he walked back towards Staines with Raybould. "Of course, the inquest to-morrow will only be a formal opening of the inquiry to give us time to thoroughly investigate this ghastly business. We shall want cleverer heads than mine before the affair is explained."
As Doctor Martin had forecasted, the tragic death of Peter Merides occupied public attention to the conclusion of almost everything else. The inquest on the body was a formal one, and almost immediately adjourned for further inquiries to be made. The Scotland Yard authorities frankly owned that they could find no trace of anything criminal in the matter. It appeared the Merides' domestic staff had been in the brothers' employ for some considerable time, and no possible suspicion could attach to them. The footman, who had admitted Raybould to the house gave evidence to the effect that he had answered his master's bell not more than five minutes before the discovery of the tragedy, and he was emphatically sure that there was nothing whatever the matter with his master at that time. He was also quite sure that no one besides himself had entered the Winter Garden. This simple and direct evidence only tended to deepen the mystery. There was nothing for it, the coroner said, but to adjourn the inquiry for a week, and invite the assistance of the College of Surgeons and other highly scientific bodies to aid in the solution of this terrible calamity.
"Nothing will be done, and nothing will ever be discovered," Martin said to Raybould as the two entered the Winter Garden together. "It seems strange to think that so lovely a place as this should be connected with so loathsome a tragedy."
Raybould said nothing. He stood looking upwards watching the play of the light filtering through the roof where the spot of paint had been washed off, and noting how the spot disappeared with the passing of the fleecy clouds. Just for a moment the white spot was almost blinding on the floor, then it vanished as quickly as it had come. In a mechanical way, Raybould proceeded to pick a handful of the choicer ferns. His wife was very fond of ferns, he explained to Dr. Martin, and some of the fronds would be quite new to her. As he said this he stood in the centre of the garden holding up the handful of graceful foliage, so that the sun might shine upon it.
"Are they not lovely," he said "Don't you—"
Raybould broke off, suddenly dazed and confused, for quick as a flash the great, green, feathery mass vanished, and but a few dried, blackened, stalks remained in Raybould's fingers.
"What is it?" he cried. "What devil's work is this? Come out of this, Martin—I don't feel safe here."
* * * * *
Raybould stood with his hands pressed upon the table and glaring at Manfred Merides opposite him. It was strange that both men should look as if they had been through come terribly trying crisis. For some time neither spoke. They seemed to avoid one another's eyes as if perchance they were sharing some guilty secret between them. It was Merides who spoke at length.
"Why did you not come before?" he asked. "It is five days since I wrote you a letter imploring you to come and see me, and yet you took no notice whatever. Why not?"
There was a curious hesitation about Raybould. He might have been on the verge of a confession by the way in which he averted his eyes from his companion. He could see that Merides was haggard and grey; the Greek did not fail to note how pinched and worn Raybould's features were.
'"We will come to that presently," Raybould said at length. "I stayed away because I was afraid. A fortnight has elapsed since the tragedy of the Winter Garden, and we are no nearer to the solution of the mystery than we were at the beginning. You have had the advantage of consulting some of the greatest scientists of the day—men whose opinion carried weight—"
"Scientists," Merides sneered. "Dolts, idiots, fools, they worry me with their jargon, they make calculations, and yet they tell me nothing that is material. I tell you the thing maddens me. I wake in the night, dripping from head to foot. I am giving way to a habit which I have never fallen into before. There is only one consolation, and it is there."
Merides pointed with a shaking hand to the sideboard on which stood a half-empty brandy bottle.
"Perhaps it is Fate," he said. "Perhaps it is a judgment upon us for the way we served you."
"A conscience," Raybould laughed, bitterly. "Another Daniel come to judgment. It is good to know that you realise how shabbily you treated me. But that is not why you asked me to come and see you. You have some proposal to make to me."
"Well, yes," Merides admitted. "The more I think of it, the more sure am I that it is a judgment. I am afraid to move. I am afraid to go into the Winter Garden where my brother perished so horribly. I look in there sometimes. I pause on the doorstep, and yet I dare not go inside. Mind you, I am no coward—ask any man in the City and he will tell you the same thing. Only yesterday I stood there and saw that accursed white spot dancing on the floor—the same white spot that you told me of in the evening of the day on which my brother died."
Raybould looked up with some show of interest. There was just a dash of colour on his pale, pinched face.
"So you noticed that," he said. "Strange that you should have seen it so recently. When the thing comes to be explained, that dreaded spot will be found to be at the bottom of everything."
"I believe you," Merides said. "I believe you have found it out. If you will name your price—"
"The price has already been named for me," Raybould interrupted. "Give me back the child of my brain, and I will ask no more. But you are to put it in writing, or I do not trust you. I would not trust you though you mean every word you say for the moment. Take your pen and paper and reassign to me my patent."
With trembling hands, Merides dashed off some sort of a document, which apparently satisfied Raybould, for he nodded curtly as he put it in his pocket. Merides turned to him with an eagerness that was almost childish.
"Now, come along," he said. "Come and show me at once how the thing was done. Mind you, I am not going to be satisfied with mere explanations—I want a practical demonstration. I shall know no peace till I have seen it."
By way of reply Raybould opened the window and looked out. A long, trailing cloud was passing lazily over the sun. With his watch in his hand, the scientist seemed to be making some calculation.
"You are safe for at least five minutes," he said, "probably more, but I see you are mystified. Still, there is no danger so long as yonder cloud obscures the sun. Now come along."
Merides seemed to accept the assurance, for he followed Raybould without further expostulation. There was nothing in the dim beauty of the Winter Garden to indicate the scene of an appalling tragedy. The graceful ferns twined upwards round the pillars, the subdued light filtered through on to the feathery fronds and trailing sprays. Raybould's quick eye noted a patch of brown stain near the centre of the tiled floor.
"What is this?" he asked. "It certainly was not here on the last occasion that I visited the place."
Merides shuddered from head to foot. He swayed like a man who suffers from some physical sickness.
"I had forgotten that," he whispered.
"It was my brother's dog. He used to sit here at Peter's feet. We could not keep him out after his master died. It was the fourth day after the tragedy that one of the servants heard the dog suddenly cry out and whine as if in pain. A few minutes later and the footman came in to find that there was no dog at all—nothing but a calcined bone or two and a tuft of singed hair. As the master had died so the poor dog had perished. It is horrors like these that take all the life and soul out of a man. I would give half my fortune to know how these things can be avoided in the future."
Raybould made no reply, he was evidently impressed by Merides' latest story, for his hand was shaking, and he looked up furtively from time to time as if foreseeing some danger in the dome overhead. Then again he consulted his watch and proceeded to measure out a circle in the centre of the floor with the aid of a foot rule. Around this circle he drew a thick, black mark with a carpenter's pencil. Merides watched with the most intense interest.
"What is that for?" he asked.
"That is the danger zone," Raybould explained. "Inside there is death, hideous, and instantaneous, outside you are as safe as if you were in your bedroom. But perhaps I had better make the circle a little larger in case of accidents. There, I think that is all right. Now I we have only to wait for the Sunshine. When the sun comes everything will be cleared before you."
Gradually and slowly the long trailing clouds began to slide over the face of the sun until the brilliant light burst out suddenly and the great glass dome changed from a dull pink to a vivid yellow. With the last vestige of disappearing cloud there appeared at the feet of the two watchers a great dancing white spot some ten inches in diameter which flickered and trembled on the tiled floor. It seemed as if the scientist had chained the spot there, for it did not move outside the black circle. Merides fairly clung to Raybould in his excitement and terror.
"I have seen that spot often," he whispered. "I mean often during the last two or three days, but never before my brother's death. Is it dangerous in itself or—"
"It is death," Raybould said, "yet so long as you stand even a hair's breadth outside that circle there is no danger whatever. In these circumstances, the white spot is like a cobra behind a glass case. See here."
Raybould took up an old newspaper from a table hard by and folded it into a square. Very cautiously he advanced the sheet in the direction of the glaring white, there was a little sobing puff, a pale circle of flame and the paper was no more. Just three flakes of white ash rose towards the dome, a second later and the white spot had vanished from the charmed circle.
"What is it?" Merides almost screamed. "What does it mean? And why has it vanished in that mysterious manner?"
By the way of reply. Raybould pointed upwards to the dome which had changed colour once more, and was now a pallid pink hue.
"I thought you would have guessed," he said. "The sun has vanished for a moment, therefore it is impossible to pursue our experiment until this cloud has passed away. Meanwhile, I shall be glad if you will procure me a block of wood—I mean a good-sized log, such as one uses in old-fashioned fireplaces. Do you think you could get one for me?"
"Certainly," Merides replied. His teeth were chattering, he was breathing hard with excitement. "There are one or two large logs in the hall fireplace. I will get one."
The log was procured at length and carefully laid by Raybould in the centre of the circle. He watched it closely until the sun flashed out again and the white disc once more danced and quivered within the prosaic ring of blacklead on the floor. Then he gripped Merides arm and pointed to the log of wood. As the white, dazzling light struck it, the Winter Garden was full of the smell of charcoal, the great log seemed to split and fly asunder, almost in the twinkling of an eye it was no more than a heap of powder.
"There you have it," Raybould said. He was quite himself by this time, calm and self-possessed. "There you have the whole thing in a nutshell. As you saw for yourself, that heap of black powder was a minute ago a sound honest English oak log, fourteen inches in diameter by eighteen inches long. It comes under the direct influence of the white spot, and in less than it takes to tell, it is reduced to nothingness. That is how your brother died, by sheer misfortune his seat was placed where the white spot could fall upon him—he was touched by the devilish thing, and his soul was shrivelled out of his body. Precisely the same thing happened in the case of the dog. After seeing how that log was wiped out of existence, you can understand not only the magnitude of the tragedy, but how it came about. You see how simple it all is."
"But I do not see how simple it all is!" Merides protested. "The effect of the thing is before me. As to the cause I know nothing. I told you a fortnight ago that this Winter Garden has been built for nearly three years. During the whole time there was no suggestion of tragedy, that white spot was never once seen. We have had days of sunshine—many, many of them without bringing a curse like this. You say it is necessary that there should be sunshine to bring about—"
"Yes—and powerful sunshine at that," Raybould interrupted. "You have just reminded me of how you described the building of this garden. Let me recall to your recollection my query to your brother as to how you get the soft, subdued light which is so essential to delicate fern-life. You will remember his telling me that the whole place was painted outside. Do you mind that?"
"Yes," Merides said. "But I fail to see what that has to do with it. A coat or two of paint could make no difference."
"It makes all the difference in the world," Raybould went on. "If there had been more paint there would have been no tragedy, and I should have been the poorer by an invention that means a fortune to me. Cast your mind back again to that fateful interview. When your brother told me the means by which you obtained the subdued light, you reminded him that part of the dome wanted re-painting. He demurred to your suggestion on the ground of expense. I presume he was a man who never wasted a penny where a halfpenny would do."
"He was very economical," Merides muttered.
"Precisely. He would rather have risked a score or two of ferns than spend a pound or two necessary to repair the damage to the dome, probably caused by frost and rain. If you will wait a moment I will show you exactly what I mean. Now is the time."
Once more the sun crept behind the trailing clouds so that it was possible to look upwards to the dome from whence the paint had been worn by time and stress of weather. The disc was perfectly round and exactly in the centre of the dome. It was possible, by looking upward, to see the trailing cloud across the sun.
"Now fix your eye well upon that," Raybould said, "for there is the cause of all the mischief. Three pennyworth of paint dabbed on that disc would make everything as safe as it was before. So long as the sun does not shine there is no peril. But gradually the elements have rubbed that disc smooth and clear, so that it forms the eye of a gigantic lens. Don't you see now that this black circle here is the focus of one of the strongest burning glasses in the world. In other words, the catastrophe—"
"I see, I see," Merides cried. "Everything is clear at last. In the dome is the concave tank of water which is forced up there to find its way down by gravitation to the left hand side of the Garden, and thus feed the pillars clinging to the right."
"That is it," Raybould said. "You have up there a huge lens some six feet in diameter and three feet thick. That is a lens about five times the size of any one used in modern telescopes. When you come to think of it a lens of half an inch diameter is big enough to light a man's pipe. What, then, would be the effect of a huge cylinder like the one in the dome? By some means or another the paint had worn away from the summit, and there you have your focus to concentrate the burning rays on the floor. Mind you, this could only happen during certain times in the summer when the sun is high and powerful. A month sooner or later and the angle of the sun would be different, and therefore, would only cast itself sideways on the big lens, and, consequently, would be harmless. It is a good thing, perhaps, that I hit upon this solution, for a few days later it would have been impossible to have put my theory to the test, and gradually the catastrophe would have been forgotten. Even now, so long as you keep the dome properly painted, no danger can arise. Still, in my case, I should have that deadly water tank removed altogether. And now sir, it seems to me that I have earned my reward. If you think—"
Raybould stepped back suddenly, for the sun had flashed out again, and he was standing unthinkingly within the blacklead circle. He shuddered as he looked upwards and remembered how near he had been to death himself on the day when he had gathered those few ferns. He turned to Merides, but the latter had disappeared. The Greek came back a moment later carrying a rifle in his hands. His lips were compressed and his eyes determined. Pointing the gun upwards, he pressed the trigger. There was a loud report following a blinding flash, and then the clattering smash of falling glass followed by a deluge of water.
"It was the best way," Merides said, "the only way to get rid of that white spot."
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