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Chapter Thirty-Nine

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« on: July 17, 2023, 07:04:42 am »

SARAH dropped from the window ledge and, steadying herself, looked back. The dining-room was dark behind her. She had closed the door into the hall. She tried now to close the window, and succeeded in pulling it down to within an inch or two of the sill, but there it stuck and there she had to leave it. It did not matter---nobody was likely to come into the room until the morning. She wondered how far the night had worn. Then she turned resolutely and made her way towards the stable yard.

She came soon upon the track which they had trampled down when they came back from the car. She set her feet on it with relief. It was much easier to walk on than the untrampled snow. But there were seven miles of snow between her and Hedgeley.

She stopped thinking about Hedgeley. It did not matter. She thought about the car, and John Wickham lying there in the ditch. And with that she turned the corner of the haunted wing.

A yard away on the frozen track someone moved, tall and black against the white dimness of the snow. John Wickham stood above her and said her name, and when she put out her hands with a soft, desperate cry the hands which took them were living hands. They held her up with a hard, insistent clasp. His voice said, “I was coming for you. Good girl! Now we’ve got to hurry.”

Between one breath and the next everything was changed. The effort of despair was gone. She felt a rushing joy, an invincible sense of life and hope. They went quickly and without words until they were clear of the stable buildings and well away on the cart track. He kept his arm through hers and held it close. Then he said, “I had to get the car out of the ditch. It’s been a job.”

Sarah said in a dreaming voice, “I thought you were dead.”

“Well, I wanted them to think so. Anyhow there was no harm in trying it on. I wasn’t quite sure whether they’d think I was trying to stop you going off with the car, or aiding and abetting, and if they thought that, it was all up with us both. So I thought I’d be a corpse. I really was a bit knocked out to start with, but fortunately I came round before they got a torch on to me, because I was able to do a very useful imitation of a broken neck. I reckoned they would want the smash to look as natural as possible, in which case they would do just what they did do and leave me be without touching me. I let them get well away and then started in getting the car off the bank. The front wheels were hitched up, and I was afraid they’d drop when I began to back her away, so I had to fill in the ditch with snow and ram it down to make a track. I couldn’t go at it too hard---I was afraid of starting that damned scratch again.”

“Are you all right?” She turned to peer at him, seeing only height and blackness against the snow.

He laughed.

“Don’t be a fool! You know, I’m tired of telling you that. I told you it was only a scratch.”

An almost unbearable happiness warmed her.

“I don’t believe everything I’m told.”

And then they were coming out between the pillars on to the road and the car loomed up.

To remember in what desolation she had stood there no more than an hour ago was strange. . . . It must be less than an hour. . . . The earth had broken under her feet and the sky had fallen in. Now she was back in a safe world. It was the nightmare which had broken and let them through.

As the car moved and the hedges began to slide away on either side, she thought, “It’s true---we’re going to get away.” There was nothing to say about it. She leaned back and saw the beam of the hooded light make a shining path for them.

When they came out on the moor she drew a long sighing breath. Now they were safe. Now surely nobody could catch them. This time she spoke her thoughts.

“They can’t catch us now.”

“I don’t know about can’t---they won’t.”

“Where are we going?”

“To Hedgeley, I think. Look here, is there anything you can charge them with if we go to the police? I want them pulled in, and at once, but I don’t want to play my stuff in a local police station. But if they used any force to you----”

Sarah looked straight in front of her.

“They took away my clothes and shut me out in the yard to freeze.”

His left hand came down hard upon her knee.

Sarah!

“They reckoned I’d be unconscious by the morning. When I was almost dead they were going to put me to bed and send Grimsby for a doctor. They weren’t sure how much I knew about those papers. And then of course there was Emily Case. I suppose one of them killed her.”

He nodded.

“Yes---Grimsby. Sarah, have you got those papers? They’re awfully important.”

“Yes, I’ve got them. I threw a sham packet down the well when they were taking me back, and they think they know where they are, so they’re not bothering. I tore some pages out of a book in your room and wrapped them up in the lining-paper out of a drawer and my neck-handkerchief. I threw them down the well, and Mr. Brown laughed and said it was a nice safe place. So then they didn’t bother me any more---they just wanted to be rid of me, and to make sure I’d freeze in the yard.”

He said, “Sarah!” again, and then, “How did you get out?”

She told him.

“Mrs. Grimsby saved me really. You won’t let her go to prison, will you? She thought they’d kill her, but she helped me all the same. John---what is it all about? What are those papers? They tried to kill you for them, and they did kill Emily Case, and they were going to kill me. What is it all about?”

There was a moment’s silence. Then he said, “Can’t you guess?”

She said soberly, “I’ve been guessing ever since Emily put the packet into my bag. Now I want to know.”

“Did you look at the papers?”

“Of course I did---a lot of names and addresses all over the place, and a photograph of a bald man called Paul Black or Blechmann.”

“A photograph of the Reverend Peter Brown.”

Sarah cried out.

“Oh! Joanna said that Wilson called him Paul! But he isn’t bald---he’s simply smothered in hair.”

“You can get away with a hairy wig much better than one with a civilized hair-cut. Paul’s as clever as they’re made. Lots of hair, lots of beard, untidy clothes---beard, tobacco, folk-lore---don’t you see how it all hangs together? Professors and parsons are his long suits. But didn’t you notice that he hadn’t any eyelashes? That’s why he wears glasses. He doesn’t need them, you know---his eyes are as good as mine.”

“Who is he?”

“Head of Hitler’s Fifth Column over here. And the names and addresses are those of his agents---key men. I had a fake attack of influenza and went over to get them. Thanks to another man’s extraordinarily clever work I succeeded. But I hadn’t much start. I passed the packet to Emily Case after I was stabbed, because I wasn’t sure of keeping my senses and I knew they’d be on the look-out for me in Paris. They’d have had me too if a friend of mine hadn’t turned up in the nick of time. As it was, I couldn’t get on until next day, and the first thing I saw when I landed was a headline about Emily Case.”

Sarah took a moment. Then she said, “Who are you---really?”

“Well, my name is John Hamilton, and I expect you can make a guess at my job.”

“Then you didn’t rob a bank?”

“No. The real John Wickham did though.”

“Oh, there was a real John Wickham?”

“Oh, yes---dossier as given you by Wilson Cattermole. He died in prison, and I was discharged in his place. The same general description would fit us both. You see, my employers thought it might be a good thing to keep an eye on Wilson Cattermole. Wilson was all set to give some poor criminal a second chance, so it was arranged that I should be that criminal.”

“Why did he want a criminal? He isn’t a philanthropist.”

“Quite right. He wanted a criminal because he was engaged in shady business. Once a man’s been in prison he’s apt to shun the police. Wilson wanted a chauffeur who could be trusted to shun the police. A man like that would be in his power---if he accused him of stealing, he’d be done for. I was given a pretty strong hint of that sort the first time I took him to Maltings.”

Sarah thought about that.

“He pretended not to know Mr. Brown---they were carrying on a correspondence as strangers----”

“And meeting once a month down here. They’ve got a wireless installation in that haunted wing, you know. Very clever people, but I think we’ve got them now. Well, here’s Hedgeley. We’ll knock up the police and pull a string or two. Let me do all the talking, and don’t say your piece till I give you a lead.”

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