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Our Library => Cyril McNeile - The Final Count (1926) => Topic started by: Admin on November 20, 2023, 04:02:04 am

Title: 9: We are Entertained Strangely in Black Mine
Post by: Admin on November 20, 2023, 04:02:04 am
"YOU'RE CERTAIN of that?" muttered Drummond tensely, for even his iron nerves had been shaken for the moment.

"Absolutely," I answered. "That cry came from Robin Gaunt."

"Then that finally proves that we're on to 'em. Let's get busy: there's no time to lose."

We made fast the rope, and then lay peering over the edge of the cliff as he went down hand over hand. For a moment the light gleamed out as he drew aside the screen, and then we heard his whispered "Come on." One after another we followed him till all five of us were standing in the cave. Behind us a curtain of stout sacking, completely covering the entrance, was all that separated us from a hundred-feet fall into the Atlantic: in front---what lay in front? What lay round the corner ten yards away? Even now, though many months have elapsed since that terrible night, I can still feel the pricking at the back of my scalp during the few seconds we stood there waiting.

Suddenly Drummond stooped down and sniffed at something that lay on the floor. Then he beckoned significantly to me. It was the end of the tubing which we had seen the man paying out, and from it came the unmistakable scent of the poison. More confirmation of the presence of the gang: and another piece in this strange and inexplicable jig-saw.

I straightened up to see that Drummond had reached the corner and was peering cautiously round it. He was flattened against the rough wall, and his revolver was in his hand. Inch by inch he moved forward with Jerningham just behind him, and the rest of us following in single file.

The passage went on bending to the left and sloping downwards. The floor was smooth and made of cement, but the walls and roof were left in their natural condition just as they had been blasted out. It was not new except for the floor, and as we crept forward I wondered for what purpose, and by whom it had been originally made. The illumination came from somewhere in front, and it was obvious through the light getting brighter that that somewhere was very close.

Suddenly Drummond became motionless: just ahead of us a man had laughed.

"Damned if I see what there is to laugh at," snarled a harsh voice. "I'm sick to death of this performance."

"You won't be when you get your share of the stuff," came the answer.

"It's an infernal risk, Dubosc."

"You don't handle an amount like that without running risks," answered the other. "What's come over you to-night? We've been here four months and now, when we're clearing out, you're as jumpy as a cat with kittens."

"It's this damned place, I suppose. No report in from the sentries? No one about?"

"Of course there's no one about. Who would be about in this God-forsaken stretch of country if he hadn't got to be?"

"There was that sketching fellow this morning. And Vernier swears that he was lying there on the hill examining the place for an hour through glasses."

"What if he was? He couldn't see anything."

"I know that. But it means he suspected something."

"It's about time you took a tonic," sneered the other. "We've gone through four months in this place without being discovered; and now, when we've got about four more hours to go at the most, you go and lose your nerve because some stray artist looks at the place through field-glasses. You make me tired. Devil take it, man, it's a tin mine, with several perfectly genuine miners tinning in it."

He laughed once again, and we heard the tinkle of a glass.

"There was every excuse if you like for being windy when we were in London. And it served that cursed fool Turgovin right. What did we want anyway with that man---what was his name---Stockton, wasn't it? What was the good of killing him, even if the fool had done it, and not got killed himself? I tell you that when I saw the Chief a week later, he was still apoplectic with rage. And if Turgovin hadn't been dead, the Chief would have killed him, himself. We ought to have done what Helias said, and cleared out as soon as we got Gaunt."

"What are we going to do with that madman when we go?"

"Kill him," said the other callously. "If he hadn't gone mad, and suffered from his present delusion, he'd have been killed weeks ago. Hullo, here he is. Why ain't you tucked up in the sheets, looney?"

And then I heard old Robin's voice.

"Surely it's over by now, isn't it?"

"Surely what's over? Oh! the war. No: that's not over. The Welsh have gained a great victory over the English and driven 'em off the top of Snowdon. Your juice doesn't seem to be functioning quite as well as it ought to."

"It must succeed in time," said Robin, and his voice was the vacant voice of madness. "How many have been killed by it?"

"A few hundred thousand," answered the other. "But they're devilish pugnacious fighters, these Englishmen. And the General won't give up until he's got that leg of Welsh mutton for his dinner. By the way, looney, you'll be getting slogged in the neck and hurt if I hear you making that infernal noise again. Your face is bad enough without adding that filthy shindy to it."

"That's so," came in a new deep voice. I saw Drummond's hand clench and he glanced round at me. Doctor Helias had come on the scene. "If it occurs again, Gaunt, I shall hang you up head downwards as I did before."

A little whimpering cry came from Robin, and suddenly the veins stood out on Drummond's neck. For a moment I thought he was going to make a dash for them then and there, which would have been a pity. Sooner or later it would have to come: in the meantime, incomprehensible though much of it was, we wanted to hear everything we could.

"Get out, you fool," snarled Helias.

There was the sound of a heavy blow, and a cry of pain from Robin.

"Let him be, Helias," said one of the others. "He's been useful."

"His period of utility is now over," answered Helias. "I'm sick of the sight of him."

"But there isn't enough," wailed Gaunt. "Too much has gone into the sea, and it is the air that counts."

"It's all right, looney; there's plenty for to-night. Go and put your pretty suit on so as to be ready when he comes."

A door closed and for a time there was silence save for the rustling of some papers. And then Helias spoke again.

"You've neither of you left anything about, have you?"

"No. All cleared up."

"We clear the instant the job is finished. Dubosc---you're detailed to fill the tank with water as soon as it's empty. I'll deal with the madman."

"Throw him over the cliff, I suppose."

"Yes; it's easiest. You might search his room, Gratton: I want no traces left. Look at the fool there peering at his gauge to see if there's enough to stop the war."

"By Jove! this is going to be a big job, Helias."

"A big job with a big result. The Chief is absolutely confident. Lester and Degrange are in charge of the group on board the Megalithic, and Lester can be trusted not to bungle."

"Boss! Boss! Vernier is lying bound and gagged on the hill outside there."

Someone new had come dashing in and Drummond gave us a quick look of warning. Discovery now was imminent.

"What's that?" We heard a chair fall over as Helias got up. "Vernier gagged. Where are the others?"

"Don't know, boss. Couldn't see them. But I was going out to relieve Vernier, and I stumbled right on him. He's unconscious. So I rushed back to give the warning."

"Rouse everyone," said Helias curtly. "Post the danger signal in the roof. And if you see any stranger, get him dead or alive."

"Terse and to the point," remarked Drummond. "Just for the moment, however, stand perfectly still where you are."

He had stepped forward into the room, and the rest of us ranged up alongside him.

"Well, gorse bush---we meet again. I see you've removed your face fungus. Very wise: the police were so anxious to find you."

"By God! it's the Australian," muttered Helias. He was standing by the table in the centre of the room, and his eyes were fixed on Drummond.

"Have it that way if you like," answered Drummond. "The point is immaterial. What my friends and I are principally interested in is you, Doctor Helias. And when we're all quite comfortable we propose to ask you a few questions. First of all, you three go and stand against that wall, keeping your hands above your heads."

Dazedly they did as they were told: our sudden appearance seemed to have cowed them completely.

"Feel like sitting down, do you, Doctor? All right. Only put both your hands on the table."

He pulled up a chair and sat down facing Helias.

"Now then: to begin at the end. Saves time, doesn't it? What exactly is the game? What are you doing here?"

"I refuse to say," answered the other.

"That's a pity," said Drummond. "It would have saved so much breath. Let's try another. Why have you got Gaunt here, and why has he gone mad?"

"Ask him yourself."

"Look here," said Drummond quietly, "let us be perfectly clear on one point, Doctor Helias. I know you, if not for a cold-blooded murderer yourself, at any rate for a man who is closely connected with several of the worst. I've got you and you're going to the police. What chance you will have then you know best. But if you get my goat you may never get as far as the police. For only a keen sense of public duty restrains me from plugging you where you sit, you ineffable swine."

"In which case you would undoubtedly hang for it," snarled the other. His great hairy hands kept clenching and unclenching on the table: his eyes, venomous with hatred, never left Drummond's face.

"I think not," said Drummond. "However, at present the point does not arise. Now another question, Helias. Who was the woman who impersonated the wretched Miss Simpson the first time?"

"I refuse to say."

"She knew me, didn't she? I see you start. You forget that Stockton was not unconscious like the rest of us. Helias---do you know a man called Carl Peterson?"

He fired the question out suddenly, and this time there was no mistaking the other's agitation.

"So," said Drummond quietly. "You do. Where is he, Helias? Is he at the bottom of all this? Though it's hardly necessary to ask that. Where is he?"

"You seem to know a lot," said Helias slowly.

"I want to know just that one thing more," answered Drummond. "Everything else can wait. Where is Carl Peterson?"

"Supposing I told you, would you let me go free?"

Drummond stared at him thoughtfully.

"If I had proof positive---and I would not accept your word only---as to where Peterson is, I might consider the matter."

"I will give you proof positive. To do so, however, I must go to that cupboard."

"You may go," said Drummond. "But I shall keep you covered, and shoot without warning on the slightest suspicion of trickery."

"I am not a fool," answered the other curtly. "I know when I'm cornered."

He rose and walked to the cupboard, and I noticed he was wearing a pair of high white rubber boots.

"Been paddling in your filthy poison, I suppose," said Drummond. "You deserve to be drowned in a bath of it."

The other took no notice. He was sorting out some papers, and apparently oblivious of Drummond's revolver pointing unwaveringly at the base of his skull.

"Strange how one never can find a thing when one wants to," he remarked conversationally. "Ah! I think this is it."

He came back to the table, with two or three documents in his hand.

"I have your word," he said, "that if I give you proof positive you will let me go."

"You have my word that I will at any rate think about it," answered Drummond. "Much depends on the nature of the proof."

Helias had reseated himself at the table opposite Drummond, who was looking at the papers that had been handed to him.

"But this has got nothing to do with it," cried Drummond after a while. "Are you trying some fool trick, Helias?"

"Is it likely?" said the other. "Read on."

"Keep him covered, Ted."

And then suddenly Drummond sniffed the air.

"There's a strong smell of that poison of yours, Helias."

I caught one glimpse on Helias's face of unholy triumph, and the next moment I saw it.

"Lift your legs, Drummond," I yelled. "Lift them off the floor."

The advancing wave had actually reached his chair; another second would have been too late. I have said that the passage sloped down abruptly from the opening in the cliff to the room, and pouring down it was a stream of the liquid. It came surging over the smooth floor and in an instant there ensued a scene of wild confusion. Drummond had got on the table: Toby Sinclair and I scrambled on to chairs, and Jerningham and Darrell just managed to reach a wooden bench.

"You devil," shouted the man Dubosc, "turn off the stopcock. We're cut off."

Helias laughed gratingly from the passage into which he had escaped in the general scramble. And then for the first tune we noticed the three other members of the gang. They were standing against the wall---completely cut off, as they said. Owing to some irregularity in the floor they were surrounded by the liquid, which still came surging into the room.

And then there occurred the most dreadful scene I have ever witnessed. They screamed and fought like wild beasts for the central position---the place which the poison would reach last. It was three inches deep now under our chairs, and it was within a yard of the place where the three men struggled.

Suddenly the first of them went. He slipped and fell right into the foul stuff, and as he fell he died. Without heeding him the other two fought on. What good they could do by it was beside the point: the frenzied instinct of self-preservation killed all reason. And forgetful of our own danger we watched them, fascinated.

It was Dubosc who managed to wrap his legs round the other's waist, at the same time clutching him round the neck with his arms.

"Carry me to the cupboard, you fool," he screamed. "It's the only chance."

But the other man had completely lost his head. In a last frenzied attempt to get rid of his burden he stumbled and fell. And with an ominous splash they both landed in the oncoming liquid. It was over; and we stared at the three motionless bodies in stupefied silence.

"I don't like people who interfere with my plans," came the voice of Helias from the passage. "Unfortunately I shan't have the pleasure of seeing you die because the thought of your revolver impels me to keep out of sight. But I will just explain the situation. In the cupboard is a stopcock. In the building beyond you is a very large tank containing some tons of this poison. We use the stopcock to allow the liquid to pass through the pipe down to the sea---on occasions. Now, however, the end of the pipe is in the passage, which, as you doubtless observed, slopes downwards into the room where you are. And so the liquid is running back into the room, and will continue to do so until the stopcock is turned off or the tank is empty. It ought to rise several feet, I should think. I trust I make myself clear."

We looked round desperately: we were caught like rats in a trap. Already the liquid was so deep that the three dead men were drifting about in it sluggishly, and the smell of it was almost overpowering.

"There's only one thing for it," said Drummond at length. His voice was quite steady, and he was tucking his trousers into his socks as he spoke.

"You're not going to do it, Hugh," shouted Jerningham. "We'll toss."

"No, we won't, old lad. I'm nearest."

He stood up and measured the distance to the cupboard with his eye.

"Cheer oh! old lads---and all that sort of rot," he remarked. "Usual messages, don't you know. It's my blithering fault for having brought you here."

And Peter Darrell was crying like a child.

"Don't!" we shouted. "For God's sake, man---there's another way. There must be."

And our shout was drowned by the crack of a revolver. It was Drummond who had fired, and the shot was followed by the sound of a fall.

"I thought he might get curious," he said grimly. "He did. Poked his foul face round the corner."

"Is he dead?" cried Ted.

"Very," said Drummond. "I plugged him through the brain."

"Good Lord! old man," said Peter shakily. "I thought you meant that other stuff."

"Dear old Peter," Drummond smiled: "I did. And I do. But I'm glad to have paid the debt first. You might---er---just tell---er---you know, Phyllis and all that."

For a moment his voice faltered: then with that wonderful cheery grin of his he turned to face certain death. And it wasn't only Peter who was sobbing under his breath.

His knees were bent: he was actually crouching for the jump when the apparition appeared in the door.

"Hugh," shouted Ted. "Wait."

It was the figure of a man clothed from head to foot in a rubber garment. His legs were encased in what looked like high fishing waders: his body and hands were completely covered with the same material. But it was his head that added the finishing touch. He wore a thing that resembled a diver's helmet, save that it was much less heavy and clumsy. Two pieces of glass were fitted for his eyes, and just underneath there was a device to allow him to breathe.

He stood there for a moment with the liquid swirling round his legs, and then he gave a shout of rage.

"The traitor: the traitor. There will not be enough for the air."

It was Robin Gaunt, and with sudden wild hope we watched him stride to the cupboard. Of us he took no notice: he did not even pause when one of the bodies bumped against him. He just turned off the stopcock, and then stood there muttering angrily whilst we wiped the sweat from our foreheads and breathed again. At any rate for the moment we were reprieved.

"The traitor. But I'll do him yet. I'll cheat him."

He burst into a shout of mad laughter.

"I'll do him. There shall be enough."

Still taking no notice of us, he waded back to the door and disappeared up the passage. What wild delusion was in the poor chap's brain we knew not: sufficient for us at the moment that the liquid had ceased to rise.

Half-an-hour passed---an hour with no further sign of Gaunt. And the same thought was in all our minds. Had we merely postponed the inevitable? The fumes from the poison were producing a terrible nausea, and once Darrell swayed perilously on his bench. Sooner or later we should all be overcome, and then would come the end. One thing---it would be quick. Just a splash---a dive . . .

"Stockton," roared Drummond. "Wake up."

With a start I pulled myself together and stared round stupidly.

"We must keep awake, boys," said Drummond urgently. "In an hour or two it will be daylight, and there may be someone about who will hear us shout. But if you sleep---you die."

And as he spoke we heard Gaunt's voice outside raised in a shout of triumph.

"He is coming: he is coming. And there will be enough."

We pulled ourselves together: hope sprang up again in our minds; though Heaven knows what we hoped for. Whoever this mysterious he proved to be, it was hardly likely that he would provide us with planks or ladders by which we could walk over the liquid.

"What's that noise?" cried Toby.

It sounded like a motor bicycle being ridden over undulating ground, or a distant aeroplane on a gusty day. It was the drone of an engine---now loud, now almost dying away, but all the time increasing in volume. Shout after shout of mad laughter came from Gaunt, and once he rushed dancing into the room with arms outstretched above his head.

"He comes," he cried. "And the war will cease."

And now the noise of the engine was loud and continuous and seemed to come from close at hand. Gaunt in a frenzy of joy was shouting meaningless phrases whilst we stood there marooned in his foul poison, utterly bewildered. For the moment intense curiosity had overcome all other thoughts.

Suddenly Gaunt reappeared again, staggering and lurching with something in his arms. It was a pipe similar to the one which had so nearly caused our death, and he dropped the nozzle in the liquid.

"I'll cheat him," chuckled Gaunt. "The traitor."

It was Drummond who noticed it first, and his voice almost broke in his excitement.

"It's sinking, you fellows: it's sinking."

It was true: the level of the liquid was sinking fast. Hardly daring to believe our eyes we watched it disappearing: saw first one and then another of the dead men come to rest on the floor and lie there sodden and dripping. And all the time Robin Gaunt stood there chuckling and muttering.

"Go on, pump: go on. I will give you the last drop."

"But where's it being pumped to?" said Jerningham dazedly. "I suppose we aren't mad, are we? This is really happening. Great Scott! look at him now."

Holding the pipe in his hands, Gaunt went to pool after pool of the poison as they lay scattered on the uneven floor. His one obsession was to get enough, but at last he seemed satisfied.

"You shall have more," he cried. "The tank is still half full."

He lurched up the passage with the piping, and a few seconds later we heard a splash.

"Go on," came his shout. "Pump on: there is more."

"Devil take it," cried Drummond. "What is happening? I wonder if it's safe to cross this floor."

"Be careful, old man," said Jerningham. "Hadn't we better let it dry out a bit more? Everything is still ringing wet."

"I know that. But what's happening? We're missing it all. Who has pumped up this stuff?"

He gave a sudden exclamation.

"I've got it. Chuck me a handkerchief, someone. These two books will do."

He sat down on the table, and tied a book to the sole of each of his shoes. Then he cautiously lowered himself to the ground.

"On my back---each of you in turn," he cried.

And thus did we escape from that ghastly room, to be met with a sight that drove every other thought out of our mind. Floating above the wooden hut so low down that it shut out the whole sky was a huge black shape. It was Wilmot's dirigible.

Standing by the tank of which Helias had spoken was Robin Gaunt, and the piping which had drained the liquid from the room was now emptying the main reservoir.

"Enough: there will be enough," he kept on saying. "And this time he will succeed. The war will stop. Instantaneous, universal death. And I shall have done it."

"But there isn't any war, Robin," I cried.

He stared at me vacantly through his goggles.

"Instantaneous, universal death," he repeated. "It is better so---more merciful."

We could see the details of the airship now: pick out the two central gondolas and the keel which formed the main corridor of the vessel. And once I thought I saw a man peering down at us---a man covered with just such a garment as Robin was wearing.

"Pumping it into a ballast tank," said Toby, going to the door. "You see that: they're letting water out as this stuff goes in."

He pointed to the stern of the vessel, and in the dim light it was just possible to see a stream of liquid coming out of the airship.

"To think," he went on dazedly, "that ten days ago I went for one of Wilmot's Celebrated Six-hour Trips and had Lobster à l'Américain for lunch."

Suddenly the noise of the engine increased, and the airship began to move. I glanced at Robin and he was nodding his head triumphantly.

"I knew there would be enough," he cried. "Go: go, and stop the senseless slaughter."

The poor devil stood there, his arms thrown out dramatically while the great vessel gathered speed and swung round in a circle. Then she flew eastwards, and five minutes later was lost to sight.

"Well, I'm damned," said Jerningham, sitting down on the grass and scratching his head.

"You're certain it was Wilmot's?" said Drummond.

"Absolutely," said Toby. "There's no mistaking her."

"Can't we get any sense out of Gaunt?" cried Jerningham.

"Where is he anyway?"

And just then he appeared. He had taken off his suit of indiarubber, and I gave an exclamation of horror as I saw his face. From chin to forehead ran a huge red scar; the blow that gave it to him must have well-nigh split his head open. He came towards us as we sat on the ground, and stopped a few yards away, peering at us curiously.

"Who are you?" he said. "I don't know you."

"Don't you know me, Robin?" I said gently. "John Stockton."

For a while he stared at me: then he shook his head.

"It doesn't matter," I went on. "Tell us why your poison is pumped up into the airship."

"To stop the war," he said instantly. "It flies over the place where they are fighting and sprays the poison down. And everyone touched by the poison dies."

"It sounds fearfully jolly," remarked Drummond. "And what happens if a shell bursts in the airship; or an incendiary bullet?"

A sudden look of cunning came on Robin's face.

"That would not matter," he answered. "Not one: nor even two. And an incendiary bullet is useless. Just death. Instantaneous, universal death."

He stared out over the sea, and Drummond shrugged his shoulders hopelessly.

"Or better still, as I have told them all," went on Robin dreamily, "is a big city. The rain of death. Think of it! Think of it in London. . . ."

"Good God!" With a sudden gasp Drummond got to his feet. "What are you saying, man? What do you mean?"

"The rain of death coming down from the sky. That would stop the war."

"But there isn't a war," shouted Drummond, and Robin cringed back in terror.

"Steady, Drummond," I said. "Don't frighten him. What do you mean, Robin? Is that airship going to spray your poison on London?"

"I don't know," he said. "Perhaps if the war doesn't stop he will do it. I have asked him to."

He wandered away a few paces, and Jerningham shook his head.

"Part of the delusion," he said. "Why, damn it, Wilmot is trying to float a company."

"I know that," said Drummond. "But why has he got that poison on board?"

"It's possible," I remarked, "that he is taking the stuff over to some foreign Power to sell it."

"Then why not make it over there and save bother?"

To which perfectly sound criticism there was no answer.

"Anyway," said Drummond, "there is obviously only one thing to do. Get out of this, and notify the police. I should think they would like a little chat with Mr. Wilmot." And then suddenly he stared at us thoughtfully. "Wilmot! Can it be possible that Wilmot himself is Peterson?"

He shook both his fists in the air suddenly.

"Oh! for a ray of light in this impenetrable fog. Who was down there last night? Whom did we see signalling from the sea? Why did they want the poison? Why does the airship want it? In fact, what the devil does it all mean? Hullo! What's Ted got hold of?"

Jerningham was coming towards us waving some papers in his hand.

"Just been into another room," he cried, "and found these. Haven't examined them yet, but they might help."

With a scream of rage Robin, who had been standing vacantly beside us, sprang at Jerningham and tried to snatch the papers away.

"They're mine," he shouted. "Give them to me."

"Steady, old man," said Drummond, though it taxed all his strength to hold the poor chap in his mad frenzy. "No one is going to hurt them."

"It's gibberish," I said, peering over Jerningham's shoulder. He was turning over the sheets, on which disconnected words and phrases were scrawled. They had been torn out of a cheap note-book and there seemed to be no semblance of order or meaning. Stray chemical formulæ were mixed up with sentences such as "Too much to the sea. I have told him."

"Just mad gibberish," I repeated. "What else can one expect?"

I turned away, and as I did so Jerningham gave a cry of triumph.

"Is it?" he said. "That's where you're wrong. It may not help us much, but this isn't gibberish."

In his hand he held a number of sheets of paper covered with Robin's fine handwriting. He glanced rapidly over one or two, and gave an excited exclamation.

"Written before he lost his reason," he cried. "It's sense, you fellows---sense."

And the man who had written sense before he lost his reason was crying weak tears of rage as he still struggled impotently in Drummond's grip.