“So I came to a dead end, Mr. Holmes. There was no getting past it. I could only pretend to accept the situation and register a vow inwardly that I would never rest until my friend’s fate had been cleared up. It was a dull evening. We dined quietly, the three of us, in a gloomy, faded old room. The lady questioned me eagerly about her son, but the old man seemed morose and depressed. I was so bored by the whole proceeding that I made an excuse as soon as I decently could and retired to my bedroom. It was a large, bare room on the ground floor, as gloomy as the rest of the house, but after a year of sleeping upon the veldt, Mr. Holmes, one is not too particular about one’s quarters. I opened the curtains and looked out into the garden, remarking that it was a fine night with a bright half-moon. Then I sat down by the roaring fire with the lamp on a table beside me, and endeavoured to distract my mind with a novel. I was interrupted, however, by Ralph, the old butler, who came in with a fresh supply of coals.
“‘I thought you might run short in the night-time, sir. It is bitter weather and these rooms are cold.’
“He hesitated before leaving the room, and when I looked round he was standing facing me with a wistful look upon his wrinkled face.
“‘Beg your pardon, sir, but I could not help hearing what you said of young Master Godfrey at dinner. You know, sir, that my wife nursed him, and so I may say I am his foster-father. It’s natural we should take an interest. And you say he carried himself well, sir?’
“‘There was no braver man in the regiment. He pulled me out once from under the rifles of the Boers, or maybe I should not be here.’
“The old butler rubbed his skinny hands.
“‘Yes, sir, yes, that is Master Godfrey all over. He was always courageous. There’s not a tree in the park, sir, that he has not climbed. Nothing would stop him. He was a fine boy–and oh, sir, he was a fine man.’
“I sprang to my feet.
“‘Look here!’ I cried. ‘You say he was. You speak as if he were dead. What is all this mystery? What has become of Godfrey Emsworth?’
“I gripped the old man by the shoulder, but he shrank away.
“‘I don’t know what you mean, sir. Ask the master about Master Godfrey. He knows. It is not for me to interfere.’
“He was leaving the room, but I held his arm
“‘Listen,’ I said. ‘You are going to answer one question before you leave if I have to hold you all night. Is Godfrey dead?”
“He could not face my eyes. He was like a man hypnotized The answer was dragged from his lips. It was a terrible and unexpected one.
“‘I wish to God he was!’ he cried, and, tearing himself free he dashed from the room.
“You will think, Mr. Holmes, that I returned to my chair in no very happy state of mind. The old man’s words seemed to me to bear only one interpretation. Clearly my poor friend had become involved in some criminal or, at the least, disreputable transaction which touched the family honour. That stern old man had sent his son away and hidden him from the world lest some scandal should come to light. Godfrey was a reckless fellow. He was easily influenced by those around him. No doubt he had fallen into bad hands and been misled to his ruin. It was a piteous business, if it was indeed so, but even now it was my duty to hunt him out and see if I could aid him. I was anxiously pondering the matter when I looked up, and there was Godfrey Emsworth standing before me.”
My client had paused as one in deep emotion.
“Pray continue,” I said. “Your problem presents some very unusual features.”
“He was outside the window, Mr. Holmes, with his face pressed against the glass. I have told you that I looked out at the night. When I did so I left the curtains partly open. His figure was framed in this gap. The window came down to the ground and I could see the whole length of it, but it was his face which held my gaze. He was deadly pale–never have I seen a man so white. I reckon ghosts may look like that; but his eyes met mine, and they were the eyes of a living man. He sprang back when he saw that I was looking at him, and he vanished into the darkness.
“There was something shocking about the man, Mr. Holmes. It wasn’t merely that ghastly face glimmering as white as cheese in the darkness. It was more subtle than that–something slinking, something furtive, something guilty–something very unlike the frank, manly lad that I had known. It left a feeling of horror in my mind.
“But when a man has been soldiering for a year or two with brother Boer as a playmate, he keeps his nerve and acts quickly. Godfrey had hardly vanished before I was at the window. There was an awkward catch, and I was some little time before I could throw it up. Then I nipped through and ran down the garden path in the direction that I thought he might have taken.
“It was a long path and the light was not very good, but it seemed to me something was moving ahead of me. I ran on and called his name, but it was no use. When I got to the end of the path there were several others branching in different directions to various outhouses. I stood hesitating, and as I did so I heard distinctly the sound of a closing door. It was not behind me in the house, but ahead of me, somewhere in the darkness. That was enough, Mr. Holmes, to assure me that what I had seen was not a vision. Godfrey had run away from me, and he had shut a door behind him. Of that I was certain.