The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
December 09, 2023, 09:03:31 pm
Welcome, Guest. Please login or register.
Did you miss your activation email?

Login with username, password and session length
News: Here you may discover hundreds of little-known composers, hear thousands of long-forgotten compositions, contribute your own rare recordings, and discuss the Arts, Literature and Linguistics in an erudite and decorous atmosphere full of freedom and delight.
 
  Home Help Search Gallery Staff List Login Register  

3: Some Excellent Advice is Followed

Pages: [1]   Go Down
  Print  
Author Topic: 3: Some Excellent Advice is Followed  (Read 2 times)
Admin
Administrator
Level 8
*****

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 3394


View Profile
« on: November 19, 2023, 03:07:26 am »

THE THREE Cows at Peckham proved an unprepossessing spot. It was a quarter to nine when we entered the public bar, and the place was crowded. The atmosphere reeked of tobacco-smoke and humanity, and in one corner stood one of those diabolical machines in which, for the price of one penny, a large metal disc rotates and delivers itself of an appalling noise.

Involuntarily I hesitated for a moment; then seeing that Drummond had elbowed his way to the bar and that Toby was standing behind him, I reluctantly followed. I really had half a mind to chuck up the whole thing: after all the police were already on the matter. What on earth was the use of this amateur dressing-up business?

"Three of four-'alf, please, Miss," said Drummond, planking down a shilling on the counter. "Blest if you ain't got much thinner since I was last 'ere."

"Come off it," returned the sixteen-stone maiden tersely. "You ain't a blinking telegraph pole yourself. Three whiskies and splash, and a Guinness. All right! All right! I've only got two hands, ain't I?"

She turned away, and I stared round the place with an increasing feeling of disgust. Racing touts, loafers, riff-raff of all descriptions filled the room, and the hoarse hum of conversation, punctuated by the ceaseless popping of corks for the drinkers of Bass, half deafened one. But of either of our friends of the morning there was no sign.

I took a sip out of the glass in front of me. Drummond was engaged with a horsy-looking gentleman spotting winners for next day; on my other side Toby Sinclair, in the intervals of dispassionately picking his teeth, was chaffing the sixteen-stoner's elderly companion. And I wondered if I appeared as completely at ease in my surroundings and as little noticeable as they did. A cigarette might help, I reflected, and I lit one. And a moment or two later Drummond turned round.

"'Ear that," he remarked in a confidential whisper. "Strite from the stables. Why the devil don't you smoke a Corona Corona, you fool! Put out that Turk. And try and look a bit less like a countryman seeing London for the first time. Absolutely strite from the stables. Stargazer---for the two-thirty. 'E can't lose."

"Like to back yer fancy, Mister?" The horsy-looking gent leaned forward with a wink.

"What's that? I mean---er . . ." I broke off, completely bewildered. Mechanically I put out my cigarette. For Drummond's words had confused me. They both laughed.

"'E ain't been long in London, 'ave yer, mate?" said Drummond. "'E comes from up North somewhere. What this gentleman means is that if you'd like to 'ave five bob or 'alf a Bradbury on a 'orse for to-morrer 'e can arrange it for yer."

"And wot's more," said the horsy man, "I can give you the winner of the Derby. As sure as my name is Joe Bloggs I can give you the winner. You may not believe it, but I 'ad it direct from the stewards of the Jockey Club themselves. 'Bloggs,' they says to me, they says, 'it ain't everyone as we'd tell this to. But you're different; we knows you're a gentleman.'"

"Did they now?" said Drummond in an awed voice.

"But wot they said to me was this. 'We don't object to your a passing of it on, if you can find men wot you trust. But it ain't fair to give anyone this information for nothing. We don't want the money, but there are 'orspitals that do. The price to you, Bloggs, is one thick 'un; to be paid to the London 'Orspital.' So I said to 'em, I said---'Done with you, your Graces; a thick 'un it is. And at 'ome, mates, now---locked up along with my marriage lines and the youngster's christening certificate is a receipt for one pound from the London 'Orspital. I shall taike it with me to Epsom, and it'll be a proud day for me if I can taike receipts for two more. It's yer chance, boys. Hand over a couple of Brads, and the hinformation is yours---hinformation which the King himself don't know!"

"I'll bet 'e doesn't," agreed Drummond. "It's a pleasure to 'ave met yer, Mr. Bloggs. 'Ave another gargle? I guess me and my mate 'ere will come in on that little deal. Money for nothing, I calls it."

It was at that moment that I saw them enter the bar---the man who had been in Hatchett's, and another one. Of the squealing little specimen who had been dragged into Toby's room I saw no sign, but doubtless he would come later. However, the great point was that the others had arrived, and I glanced at Drummond to make sure he had noticed the fact.

To my amazement he was leaning over the bar calling for Mother to replenish his glass and that of his new friend. So I dug him in the ribs covertly, at the same time keeping a careful eye on the two new-comers. It was easy to watch them unperceived, as they were talking most earnestly together. And by the most extraordinary piece of good fortune they found a vacant place at the bar itself just beside the horsy man.

Again I dug Drummond in the ribs, and he looked at me knowingly.

"All right, mate, o' course we'll take it. But wot I was just wondering was whether, seeing as 'ow there are the two of us like, this gentleman wouldn't let us 'ave his hinformation for thirty bob. Yer see, guv'nor, it's this way. You tells me the name of the 'orse, and I pays you a quid. Wot's to prevent me passing it on to him for nothing, once I knows it?"

"The 'Orspital, mate. Them poor wasted 'uman beings wot looks to us for 'elp in their sufferings. As the Duke of Sussex said to me, 'Bloggs!' 'e said---'old friend of my youth . . .'"

I could stand it no longer: I leant over and whispered in Drummond's ear---"Do you see who has just come in? Standing next this awful stiff."

He nodded portentously.

"I quite agree with you, mate. Excuse me one moment, Mr. Bloggs."

He turned to me, and his expression never varied an iota.

"Laddie," he murmured wearily, "I saw them ten minutes ago. I felt London shake when you gave your little start of surprise on seeing them yourself. With pain and gloom I have watched you regarding them as a lion regards the keeper at feeding time at the Zoo. All that remains is for you to go up to them and let them know who we are. Then we'll all sing 'Auld Lang Syne' and go home. Well, then, that's agreed. Seeing as 'ow it's for an 'orspital, Mr. Bloggs, my mate 'ere says 'e'll spring a thick 'un."

"Good for both of yer," cried the tipster. "And you may take it from me, boys, that it's dirt cheap at the price."

"Come in 'ere between us, Mr. Bloggs," said Drummond confidentially. "It wouldn't do for no one else to 'ear anything about it. We don't want no shortening of the odds."

"I sees you knows the game, mate," said the other appreciatively as they changed places, thereby bringing Drummond next to our quarry. "You're right: the Duke would never forgive me if we was to do that. 'Spread your money amongst all yer bookmakers, Joe, and keep them damned stiffs from bilking 'onest men like you and me,'---them were his very words."

"Wait a moment, mate," cried Drummond. "Mother---give me a pencil and a bit o' paper, will yer? I've got a shocking memory, Mr. Bloggs, and I'd like to 'ave this 'ere 'orse's name down in writing, seeing as 'ow I'm springing a quid for it. There it is, and now let's 'ear."

He produced a one-pound note which he laid on the bar, from which it disappeared, with a speed worthy of Maskelyne and Cook, into Mr. Bloggs' pocket. And then the momentous secret was whispered in his ear.

"You don't say," said Drummond. "Well, I never did."

"And if yer gets on now yer gets on at 66 to 1," said the tipster triumphantly.

"Lumme! it's like stealing the cat's milk." Drummond seemed suddenly to be struck with an idea. "Why, blow my dickey, if I 'ain't been and forgotten young Isaac. 'E's careful with 'is money, Mr. Bloggs, is Isaac---but for a cert like this 'e might spring a quid too. Isaac---'ere."

"Whath the matter?" said Toby, glancing round.

"Do you want the winner of the Derby 'orse-race, my boy? That's the matter."

"Go on," said Toby suspiciously. "I've heard that stuffh before."

"It's the goods this time, my boy," said Mr. Bloggs impressively. "Strite from my old pal the Duke of Essex---I mean---er---Sussex---'imself."

His back was turned to Drummond, and the movement of Drummond's face was almost imperceptible. But its meaning was clear: Toby was to accept the offer. And for the life of me, as I stood there feeling bored and puzzled, I couldn't make out the object of all this tomfoolery. This palpable fraud had served his purpose; what on earth was the use of losing another pound for no rhyme or reason? The two men behind Drummond were engrossed in conversation, and there was still no sign of the third.

For a moment or two I listened half mechanically to Toby bargaining for better terms, and then something drew my attention to a man seated by himself in a corner. He had a tankard of beer at his side, and his appearance was quite inconspicuous. He was a thick-set burly man, who might have been an engine-driver off duty or something of that sort. And yet he seemed to me to be studying the occupants of the bar in a curiously intent manner. At any ordinary time I probably shouldn't have noticed him; but then at any ordinary time I shouldn't have been in the Three Cows. And after a while I began to watch him covertly, until I grew convinced that my suspicions were correct. He was watching us. Once or twice I caught his eye fixed on me with an expression which left no doubt whatever in my mind that his presence there was not accidental. And though I immediately looked away, lest he should think I had noticed anything, I began to feel certain that he was another of the gang---possibly the very one we had come to find. Moreover, my certainty was increased by the fact that never once, as far as I could see, did the two men standing next to Drummond glance in his direction.

Drummond noticed nothing: he and Toby were still occupied in haggling with the Duke of Sussex's pal. And I couldn't help smiling slightly to myself as I realised the futility of all this ridiculous masquerade. However, I duly paid my pound, as I didn't want to let them down in their little game, and thought out one or two sarcastic phrases to put across at Drummond later. Though I had said nothing at the time I had not been amused by his remark about "Auld Lang Syne."

And then another idea dawned on me---why should I say anything about it? Though I would never have thought it, there was a certain amount of fun in this dressing-up game. And one thing seemed pretty obvious without any suggestion of self-conceit. If Drummond could succeed at it, I certainly could. An excellent fellow doubtless, and one possessed of great strength---but there it ended. And I even began to wonder if he really had spotted the arrival of the two men until I told him. It's easy to be wise after the event, and there is such a thing as jealousy. So I decided that I would have a shot at it myself the following evening. At the moment I was not very busy, and doubtless I'd be able to borrow my present disguise from Drummond. After all he'd offered to lend it to me whenever I wanted it, and even to give me the run of his wardrobe.

"Well, I'm off." It was Toby speaking, and with a nod that included all of us he slouched out of the bar, to be followed shortly afterwards by Mr. Bloggs.

"Don't forget, mate," said that worthy to me earnestly as he put down his empty glass, "that it's the goods: 66 to 1 is the price to-day, so that if yer backs it each way you lands a matter of eighty quid, which is better than being 'it in the eye with a rotten hegg."

I agreed suitably with this profound philosophical fact, and omitted to tell him that I hadn't even heard the name of this fortune-maker, owing to slight deafness in the ear which I had presented to him.

"One of the lads," remarked Drummond, as the swing-doors closed behind Mr. Bloggs and our three quid. "Another of the same, Mother, and a drop of port for yourself."

"Closing time," bellowed a raucous voice, and a general move towards the door took place. The two men next to Drummond finished their drinks, and then, still engrossed in conversation, went out into the street along with the rest, but he made no movement to follow them, which rather surprised me. In fact, he seemed to have completely lost all interest in them, and he stayed on chaffing the two women behind the bar until a general turning down of lights showed that it was closing time in earnest.

And since my principal interest lay in the thick-set burly man, who was one of the last to leave, it suited me very well. In him I felt convinced lay the first clue to what we wanted, and when I saw a second man, whom I had not previously noticed, and who had been sitting in another corner of the bar, whisper something in his ear as he went out, it seemed proof positive. However, true to my decision, I said nothing about what I had discovered, and, smiling inwardly, I waited to hear what Drummond proposed to do.

"Not bad," he remarked in his normal voice, as we strolled towards the nearest Tube station. "Almost too good. In fact---I wonder."

"Whether the London Hospital will benefit to the extent of three pounds," I remarked sarcastically, and he laughed.

"He was one of mother's bright boys, wasn't he? It was a bit too blatant, Stockton. That's the trouble."

"As I'm afraid I didn't even catch the name of the horse I can't argue the point."

"The name of the horse was 10, Ashworth Gardens," he answered.

"What on earth do you mean?" I remarked, staring at him blankly.

"10, Ashworth Gardens," he repeated, "wherever that may be. Shortly we will get into a taxi and follow Toby there."

"I say, do you mind explaining?" I demanded. "Is that what that tout fellow told you?"

He laughed again, and hailed a passing taxi.

"Victoria Station, mate---Brighton Line. And 'op it. Now," he continued, as the man turned his car, "I will endeavour to elucidate. Just before Mr. Joe Bloggs gave me a whisky shower-bath in the ear, and told me that my uncle's horse, which was scratched late this afternoon, was the winner, our two friends on my right mentioned that address. They mentioned it again when I changed my position and stood next to them. Now my experience is that people don't shout important addresses at one another in public---at least not people of that type. That's why I said that it struck me as being a little too blatant. However, it may have been that they thought they were perfectly safe, so that it's worth trying."

He put his head through the window.

"I've changed my mind, mate. I want to go to Hashworth Gardens. Know 'em?"

"Know my face," answered the other. "Of course I do. Up Euston way."

"Well, stop afore you get there, and me and my pal will walk."

"So that was what you wrote on the paper and showed Sinclair," I exclaimed as he resumed his seat.

"Bright lad," said Drummond, and relapsed into silence.

For a while I hesitated as to whether I should tell him of my suspicions, but I still felt a bit riled at what I regarded as his offhand manner. So I didn't, and we sat in silence till Piccadilly Circus and Shaftesbury Avenue were left behind us.

"Look here, Stockton," said Drummond suddenly, "this is your palaver principally, so you'd better decide. We're being followed."

He pointed at the little mirror in front of the driver.

"I rather expected we might be, and now I'm sure. So what do you propose to do? It's only fair to warn you that we may be putting our noses into a deliberate and carefully prepared trap."

"What would you do yourself if I wasn't here?" I remarked.

"Put my nose there, of course," he answered.

"Then mine goes too," I said.

"Good man," he cried. "You'll be one of the firm in no time."

"Tell me," I said, laughing, "do you do this sort of thing often? I mean in this case, for no rhyme or reason as far as I can see, you are running the risk of certain death."

"Oh! I dunno," he answered casually. "Probably not as bad as that. Might lead to a scrap or something of that sort, which helps to pass away the time. And, really, when you come to think of it, Stockton, this show was positively asking for it. When a man whose lunch you have spoilt literally bawls an address in your ear, it's not decent to disregard it. Incidentally, I wonder if little rat face will have the gall to come and demand his fiver to-morrow."

The car pulled up and the driver stuck his head round the door.

"Second on the left up that road," he said, and we watched his red tail lamp disappearing down the almost deserted street. At the far end just before a turn stood another stationary car, and Drummond gave a sudden little chuckle.

"Our followers, unless I'm much mistaken. Let's get a move on, Stockton, and see what there is to be seen before they arrive."

He swung off down the turning, and at the corner of Ashworth Gardens a figure detached itself from the shadows. It was Toby Sinclair.

"Fourth house down on the left, Hugh," he said. "And there's something damned funny going on there. I haven't seen the sign of a soul, but there's the most extraordinary sort of sound coming from a room on the first floor. Just as if a sack was swinging against the blind."

It was an eerie sort of noise, such as you may hear sometimes in old houses in the country when the wind is blowing. Creak, shuffle, thud---creak, shuffle, thud, and every now and then a sort of drumming noise such as a man's heels might make against woodwork. For a while we stood listening, and once it seemed to me that the blind bulged outwards with the pressure of something behind it.

"My God! you fellows," said Drummond quietly, "that's no sack. I'm going in, trap or no trap; there's foul play inside that room."

Without a second's hesitation he walked up the steps and tried the front door. It was open, and Sinclair whistled under his breath.

"It is a trap, Hugh," he whispered.

"Stop here, both of you," he answered. "I'm going to see."

We stood there waiting in the hall, and I have no hesitation in confessing that the back of my scalp was beginning to prick uncomfortably. The silence was absolute: the noise had entirely ceased. Just once a stair creaked above us, and then very faintly we heard the sound of a door opening. Simultaneously the noise began again---thud, shuffle, creak---thud, shuffle, creak, and the next moment we heard Drummond's voice.

"Come up---both of you."

We dashed up the stairs, and into the room with the open door. At first I could hardly see in the faint light from a street lamp outside, and then things became clearer. I made out Drummond holding something in his arms by the window, and then Toby flashed on his torch.

"Cut the rope," said Drummond curtly. "I've freed him from the strain."

It was Toby who cut it: I just stood there feeling dazed and sick. For the sack was no sack, but our rat-faced man of the morning. He was hanging from a hook in the ceiling, and his face was glazed and purple, while his eyes stared horribly. His hands were lashed behind his back and a handkerchief had been thrust into his mouth.

"Lock the door," ordered Drummond, as he laid the poor devil down on the floor. "He's not quite dead, and I'm going to bring him round if every crook in London is in the house. Keep your guns handy and your ears skinned."

He unknotted the rope and pulled out the gag, and after ten minutes or so the breathing grew less stertorous and the face more normal in colour.

"Take a turn, Stockton," said Drummond at length. "Just ordinary artificial respiration. I want to explore a bit."

I knelt down beside the man on the floor and continued the necessary motions mechanically. It was obvious now that he was going to pull round, and if anything was going to be discovered I wanted to be in the fun. Sinclair had lit a cracked incandescent light which hung from the middle of the ceiling, and by its light it was possible to examine the room. There was very little furniture: a drunken-looking horse-hair sofa, two or three chairs and a rickety table comprised the lot. But on one wall, not far from where I knelt, there was hanging a somewhat incongruous piece of stuff. Not that it was valuable, but it seemed to have no reason for its existence. It was the sort of thing one might put up to cover a mark on the wall, or behind a washstand to prevent splashing the paper---but why there? Someone upset the ink, perhaps: someone . . .

My artificial respiration ceased, and my mouth grew dry. For the bit of stuff was moving: it was being pushed aside, and something was appearing round the edge. Something that looked like a small-calibre revolver, and it was pointed straight at me. No, not a revolver: it was a small squirt or syringe, and behind it was a big white disc. Into my mind there flashed the words of Sir John Dallas only that morning---"Something in the nature of a garden syringe"---and with a great effort I forced myself to act. I rolled over towards the window, and what happened then is still more or less a blur in my mind. A thin jet of liquid shot through the air, and hit the carpet just behind where I'd been kneeling, and at the same moment there came the crack of a revolver, followed by a scream and a heavy fall. I looked up to see Drummond ejecting a spent cartridge, and then I scrambled to my feet.

"What the devil," I muttered stupidly.

"Follow it up," snapped Drummond, "and shoot on sight."

He was out in the passage like a flash, with Toby and me at his heels. The door of the next room was locked, but it lasted only one charge of Drummond's. And then for a moment or two we stood peering into the darkness---at least I did. The others did not, which is how one lives and learns. I never heard them: I never even realised they had left me, and when two torches were flashed on from the other side of the room, I shrank back into the passage.

"Come in, man, come in," muttered Drummond. "Never stand in a doorway like that. Ah!"

He drew in his breath sharply as the beam of his torch picked up the thing on the floor. It was the man who had been in Hatchett's that morning, the man who had stood behind him at the Three Cows, and he was dead. The same terrible distortion and rigour was visible: the cause of death was obvious.

"Don't touch him, for Heaven's sake," I cried, as Drummond bent forward. "It's the same death as we saw last night?"

"And you were darned nearly the victim, old man," said Drummond grimly.

"By Jove! Hugh, it was a good shot," said Toby. "You hit the syringe itself, and the stuff splashed on his face. You can see the mark."

It was true: in the middle of his right cheek was an angry red circle, in which it was possible to see an eruption of tiny blisters. And the same strange, sweet smell hung heavily about the air.

On each hand was a white glove of the same type as the one we had found the previous night, and it was evidently that which had seemed to me like a white disc around the syringe.

"So things begin to move," said Drummond quietly. "The whole thing was a trap, as I thought. They evidently seem to want you pretty badly, Stockton."

"But why?" I asked angrily. "What the devil have I got to do with it?"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"They may think you know too much; that Gaunt told you things."

"But why hang that poor little toad in the next room?" said Toby.

"Ask me another," answered Drummond. "Possibly they found out we'd got at him, and they hanged him as a punishment for treachery: possibly to ensure our remaining here some time to bring him round. And incidentally---who hanged him? The occupants of the car that followed us couldn't have got to this house before we did, and he was triced up before Toby arrived here. That means there were people here before, and the occupants of that car have yet to arrive."

Suddenly his torch went out, and I felt his hand on my arm warningly.

"And unless I mistake," he whispered, "they've just come. Stick by me, Stockton: you're new to this game. Get to the window, Toby, and keep against the wall."

A half-breathed "Right" came from the darkness, and I felt myself led somewhere. Once the guiding hand drew me to the right, and I realised that I had just missed a chair. And then I felt the wall at my back, and a faint light coming round the blind showed the window close by. It was shut, and I could see the outline of Drummond's head as he peered through it.

What had caused his sudden action, I wondered? I hadn't heard a sound, and at that time I had yet to find out his almost uncanny gift of hearing. To me the house was in absolute silence; the only sound was the heavy pounding of my own heart. And then a stair creaked as it had creaked when Drummond left us in the hall.

I glanced at Drummond: his hand was feeling for the window-catch. With a little click it went back, and once more he crouched motionless. Again the stair creaked, and yet again, and I thought I heard men whispering outside the door. Suddenly with a crash that almost startled me out of my senses Drummond flung up the sash and the whispering ceased.

"Stand by to jump, when I give the word," muttered Drummond, "and then run like hell. There's about a dozen of 'em."

He was crouching below the level of the windowsill; dimly on his other side I could see Toby Sinclair. And then the whispering started again; men were coming into the room. There was a stifled curse as someone stumbled against a chair, and at that moment Drummond shouted "Jump."

Just for a second I almost obeyed him, for my leg was over the sill. And then I heard him fighting desperately in the room behind. He was covering our retreat, a thing which no man could allow.

There may have been a dozen in all: I know there were three of them on me. Chairs went over as we fought on in the dark, and all the time I was thinking of the liquid on the floor and the dead man's face and what would happen if we touched it. And as if in answer to my thoughts there came Drummond's voice.

"I have one of you here powerless," he said. "In this room is a dead man who died you know how. Unless my other two friends are allowed to go at once I will put this man's hand against the dead man's cheek. And that means death."

"Who is that speaking?" came another voice out of the darkness.

"Great Scott!" Drummond's gasp of surprise was obvious. "Is that you, MacIver?"

"Switch on the lights," returned the other voice angrily.

And there stood my burly thick-set man of the Three Cows.

"What is the meaning of this damned foolishness?" he snarled. He glared furiously at Drummond and then at me. "Why are you masquerading in that rig, Mr. Stockton?" he went on suspiciously. And then his eyes fell on the dead man. "How did this happen?"

But Drummond sprawling in a chair was laughing helplessly.

"Rich," he remarked, "extremely rich. Not to say ripe and fruity, old friend of my youth. Sorry, Mac"---the detective was glowering at him furiously---"but my style of conversation has become infected by a gent with whom I dallied a while earlier in the evening."

"I didn't recognise you at the Three Cows, Captain Drummond," said MacIver ominously.

"Nor I you," conceded Drummond. "Otherwise we'd have had a spot together."

"But I think it's only right to warn you that you're mixing yourself up in a very serious matter. Into Mr. Stockton's conduct I propose to inquire later." Once again he looked at me suspiciously. "Just at the moment, however, I should like to know how this man died."

Drummond nodded and grew serious.

"Quite right, MacIver. We were in the next room---all three of us . . . Good Lord! I wonder what's happened to rat face. You see, an unfortunate little bloke had been hanged in the next room. . . ."

"What?" shouted MacIver, darting out into the passage. We followed, crowding after him, only to stand in amazement at the door. The light was still burning; the rope still lay on the carpet, but of the man we had cut down from the ceiling there was no sign. He had absolutely disappeared.

"Well, I'm damned," muttered Drummond. "This beats cock-fighting. Wouldn't have missed it for a thousand. Look out! Don't go near that pool on the floor. That's some of the juice."

He stared round the room, and then he lit a cigarette.

"There's no good you looking at me like that, MacIver," he went on quietly. "There's the hook, my dear fellow; there's the rope. I'm not lying. We cut him down, and we laid him on the floor just there. He was nearly dead, but not quite. For ten minutes or so I put him through artificial respiration---then Mr. Stockton took it on. And it was while he was doing it---kneeling down beside him---that that bit of curtain stuff moved. I'd be careful how you touch it; there may be some of that liquid on it."

He drew it back, covering his hand with the table-cloth.

"You see there's a hole in the wall communicating with the next room. Through that hole the man who is now lying dead next door let drive with his diabolical liquid at Mr. Stockton. By the mercy of Allah he rolled over in time, and the stuff hit the carpet---you can see it there, that dark stain. So then it was my turn, and I let drive with my revolver."

"We heard a shot," said MacIver.

"That's his syringe, or whatever you like to call the implement," continued Drummond.

"And it obviously wasn't empty, for some of the contents splashed back in his face. The result you see in the next room, and I can't say I regret it."

"But this man whom you say was hanging? What on earth has become of him?"

"Search me," said Drummond. "The only conclusion I can come to is that he recovered after we had left the room, and decided to clear out. When all is said and done he can't have had an overpowering affection for the house, and he probably heard the shindy in the next room and did a bolt."

MacIver grunted: he was obviously in an extremely bad temper. And the presence of his large group of stolid subordinates, who were evidently waiting for orders in a situation that bewildered them, did not tend to soothe him.

"Go and search the house," he snapped. "Every room. And if you find anything suspicious, don't touch it, but call me."

He waited till they had all left the room; then he turned to Drummond.

"Now, sir," he said. "I want to get to the bottom of this. In the first place, what brought you to this house?"

"The bird in the next room shouted the address in my ear," returned Drummond, "that time we were having one at the Three Cows."

"Damn it," exploded MacIver, "what took you to the Three Cows? In disguise too."

"Just vulgar curiosity, Mac," said Drummond airily. "And we felt that our presence in evening clothes might excite rude comment."

"Your presence in that rig excites my comment," snapped the detective.

"Undoubtedly, old lad," said Drummond soothingly. "But there's no law against toddling round in fancy dress as far as I know, and you ought to be very grateful to us for bringing you here. We've presented you with a new specimen, in a better state of preservation than the others you've got. Moreover, he's the only one who deserved his fate. The fact of the matter, MacIver, is that we're up against some pretty unscrupulous swine. Their object to-night was to kill Mr. Stockton, and they very nearly succeeded. Why they should view him with dislike is beyond me, but the fact remains that they do. They set a deliberate trap for us, and we walked into it with our eyes open. You followed on, and in the darkness everybody mistook everybody else."

The detective transferred his gaze to Toby Sinclair.

"You're Mr. Sinclair, ain't you?"

"I am," returned Toby affably.

"I thought you were both of you told not to pass this matter on. How is it that Captain Drummond comes to know of it?"

"My fault entirely, Inspector," said Toby. "I'd already told him before Mr. Stockton returned from the War Office this morning."

"So I thought I'd help you unofficially," murmured Drummond, "the same as I did at the time of the Black Gang."

MacIver's scowl grew positively ferocious.

"I don't want your help," he snarled. "And in future keep out of this matter or you'll find yourself in trouble.

"Well!" He swung round as some of his men came into the room.

"Nothing, sir. The house is empty."

"Then, since the hour is late, I think we'll leave you," remarked Drummond. "You know where to find me, Mac; and you'd better let me know what I'm to say about that bloke's death. From now on, I may say, we shall drop this, and concentrate exclusively on the breeding of white mice."

For a moment I thought MacIver was going to stop us; then apparently he thought better of it. He favoured us with a parting scowl, and with that we left him. By luck we found a taxi, and Drummond gave his own address.

"There are one or two things we might discuss," he said quietly, as we got into the car. "MacIver's arrival is an undoubted complication. I wonder how he spotted you, Stockton."

"That's what beats me," I remarked. "I spotted him---not as MacIver, of course---down at the Three Cows. He struck me as a suspicious character, so I kept my eye on him casually while you were talking to that racing tout."

"Oh! Lord!" Drummond began to laugh. "Then that accounts for it. The effect of your casual eye would make an archbishop feel he'd committed bigamy. It has a sledge-hammer action about it, old man, that would make a nun confess to murder."

"I'm very sorry," I said huffily. "But please remember that this sort of thing is quite new to me. And the practical result seems to be that we've got ourselves into a very nasty hole. Why---that confounded Inspector man suspects me."

"He doesn't really," said Drummond reassuringly. "He was merely as mad as thunder at having made an ass of himself."

And then he started laughing again.

"Poor old Mac! Do you remember when we laid him out to cool on his own doorstep, Toby?"

"I do," returned Sinclair. "And I further noticed that your allusion to the Black Gang was not popular. But, joking apart, Hugh---what's the next move?"

"It rests on a slender hope, old boy," said Drummond. "And even then it may lead to nothing. It rests on the reappearance of little rat face. Of course he may be able to tell us nothing: on the other hand, there must have been some reason for tricing him up. And that reason may throw some light on the situation."

"But are you really going on with it?" I asked.

They both stared at me in amazement.

"Going on with it!" cried Drummond. "What a question, my dear man. Of course we are. Apart altogether from the fact that they're bound to have another shot at you, and probably at us too, there is all the makings of a really sporting show in this affair. Wash out MacIver's unfortunate entrance for the moment, and concentrate on the other aspects of the case. Evidently what I feared this afternoon was correct, and our friend at Hatchett's---now defunct---got on to us at Brook Street. He may have asked the head waiter who I was---that's a detail. He follows us to the Three Cows; he lays a deliberate trap into which we fall---admittedly with our eyes open. The sole object of that plot is to kill you and possibly us. It fails, and somewhat stickily for the originator. But you don't imagine that we can allow the matter to rest there, do you? It wouldn't be decent."

"Still," I persisted, "it seems to me that we may be getting ourselves into hot water with the police if we go on."

Drummond laid his hand reassuringly on my knee.

"It's not the first time, old lad," he remarked. "Mac and I are really bosom friends. Still, if you feel doubtful, you can back out. Personally I propose to continue the good work."

"Oh! if you're going on I'm with you," I said, a little ungraciously. "Only please don't forget I'm reputed to be a lawyer."

"Magnificent," returned Drummond imperturbably. "We'll come to you for legal advice."

The car pulled up in front of his house and we got out.

"Come in and change," he went on, "and we'll have a nightcap."

I noticed that his eyes were searching the street. The hour was two, and as far as I could see it was deserted. And yet I couldn't help a distinct feeling of relief as the stout front door shut behind us. It gave one a feeling of safety and security which had been singularly lacking during the preceding part of the evening: no one could get at us there.

I lit one of my prohibited Turkish cigarettes, and as I did so I saw that Drummond was staring with curious intentness at a letter and a parcel that lay on the hall table. The parcel was about the size of a cigar box, and the label outside proclaimed that it came from Asprey's.

He led the way upstairs, carrying them both with him. And then having drawn himself some beer, and waved his hand at the cask in the corner for us to help ourselves, he slit the envelope open with a paper knife.

"I thought as much," he said after he had read the contents. "But how very crude; and how very untruthful. Though it shows they possess a confidence in their ability, which is not so far justified by results."

We looked over his shoulder at the typewritten slip he held in his hand. It ran as follows:---

"Mr. Stockton is dead because he knew too much: a traitor is dead because he was a traitor. Unless you stop at once, a fool will die because he was a fool."

"How crude," he repeated. "How very crude. I'm afraid our opponents are not very clever. They must have been going to the movies or something. It is rare to find three lies in such a short space. Toby, bring me a basin chock-full of water, will you? There's one in the bathroom."

His eyes were fixed on the parcel, and he was smiling grimly.

"To be certain of success is an admirable trait, Stockton," he murmured, "if you succeed. If, on the contrary, you fail, it is ill-advised to put your convictions on paper. Almost as ill-advised, in fact, as to send live-stock disguised as a cigarette-case."

"What on earth do you mean?" I asked.

"Put your ear against that parcel and listen," he answered shortly.

And suddenly I heard ita faint rustling, and then a gentle scraping noise.

"You're having an excellent blooding to this sort of game," he laughed. "In fact, I've rarely known events come crowding so thick and fast. But crude---oh! so crude, as I said before."

"Here you are, old man. Is there enough water?"

Toby had re-entered the room with the basin.

"Ample," answered Drummond, picking up the parcel and holding it under the surface. "Give me that paper-weight, Stockton, and then we can resume our beer."

Fascinated I watched the bubbles rise to the surface. At first they came slowly, then as the water permeated the wrappings they rose in a steady stream. And then clear and distinct there came a dreadful hissing noise, and the surface of the water became blurred with a faint tremor as if the box itself was shaking.

"A pleasant little pet," murmured Drummond, watching the basin with interest. "There's no doubt about it, you fellows, that the air of rapidity grows more and more marked."

At last the bubbles ceased; the whole parcel was water-logged.

"We'll give it five minutes," said Drummond, "before inspecting Asprey's latest."

We waited, I at any rate with ill-concealed impatience, till the time was up and Drummond took the parcel out of the water. He cut the string and removed the paper. Inside was a wooden box with holes drilled in it, and the water was draining out of it back into the basin.

With the paper-knife he prised open the lid, and even he gave a startled exclamation when he saw what was inside. Personally it filled me with a feeling of nausea, and I saw Toby Sinclair clutch the table.

It was a spider of sorts, but such a spider as I have never dreamed of in my wildest nightmares. Its body was the size of a hen's egg; its six legs the size of a crab's. And it was covered with coarse black hair. Even in death it looked the manifestation of all evil, with its great protruding eyes and short sharp jaws, and with a shudder I turned away.

"A jest I do not like," said Drummond quietly, tipping the corpse out into the basin. "Hullo! Another note."

He was staring at the bottom of the box, and there sure enough was an envelope. It was sodden with water, but the letter inside was legible. And for a while we stared at it uncomprehendingly.

"This is to introduce William. If you decide to keep him, his favourite diet is one of small birds and mice. He is a married man, and since I hated to part him from his wife I have sent her along too. She is addressed to the most suitable person in the house to receive a lady."

As I say, for a moment or two we stared at the note uncomprehendingly, and then Drummond gave a sudden strangled grunt in his throat and dashed from the room.

"Phyllis," he flung at us hoarsely, from the door.

"Good Lord! his wife," cried Toby, and with sick fear in our hearts we followed him.

"It's all right, darling," came his voice from above us, but there was no answer. And when we got to the open door and looked into the room the silence was not surprising.

Cowering in a corner, her eyes dilated with horror, there stood a girl. She was staring at something on the carpet---something that was hidden from us by the bed. Her lips were moving, but no sound came from them, and she never even lifted her eyes to look at her husband.

And I don't wonder. Even now, though eighteen months have passed, my skin still creeps as I recall that moment. If the dead thing below had been horrible, what words can I use for the living? As with many spiders, the female was larger than the male, and the thing which stood on its six great legs about a yard from her feet looked the size of a puppy. It was squat and utterly loathsome, and as Drummond with the poker in his hand dashed towards it, it scuttled under the bed, hissing loudly.

It was I who caught Mrs. Drummond as she pitched forward in a dead faint, and I held her whilst her husband went Berserk. It was my first acquaintance with his amazing strength. He hurled heavy pieces of furniture about as if they were out of a doll's house. The two beds flew apart with a crash and the foul brute he was after sidled under a wardrobe. And then the wardrobe moved like Kipling's piano, save that there was only one man behind and not several.

But at last he had it, and with a grunt of rage he hit it with the poker between the beady staring eyes. He hit it again and again and then he turned round and stared at us.

"If ever I lay hands on the man who sent these brutes," he said quietly, "I will do the same to him."

He took his wife from me and picked her up in his arms.

"Let's go out of here before she comes to," he went on. "Poor kid; poor little kid!"

He carried her downstairs, and a few minutes later she opened her eyes. Stark horror still shone in them, and for a while she sobbed hysterically. But at length she grew calmer, and disjointedly, with many pauses, she told us what had happened.

She'd come in from a dance, and seen the two boxes lying on the hall table. She'd taken hers upstairs, thinking it was a present from her husband. And she'd opened it at her dressing-table. And then she'd seen this awful monster staring at her. Her maid had gone to bed, and suddenly it had scrambled out of the box and flopped off the table on to the floor at her feet.

"I tried to scream, Hugh, and I couldn't. I think I was half mesmerised. I just rushed blindly away, and I went to the wrong corner. Instead of going to the door, I went to the other. And it followed me. And when I stopped it stopped."

She began to shudder uncontrollably; then she pulled herself together again.

"It just squatted there on the floor and its eyes seemed to grow bigger and bigger. And once I found myself bending right forward towards it, as if I was forced against my will. I think if it had touched me I should have gone mad. Who sent it, Hugh: who was the brute who sent it?"

"If ever I find that out," said Drummond grimly, "he will curse the day that he was born. But just now, darling, I want you to take some sleep dope and go to bed."

"I couldn't," she cried. "I couldn't sleep with a double dose."

"Right ho!" he answered. "Then stop down here and talk to us. By the way, you don't know Mr. Stockton, do you? He's really quite good-looking when you see his real face."

"I'm afraid, Mrs. Drummond," I said apologetically, "that I am indirectly responsible for those two brutes being sent to you to-night."

"Two," she cried. "Your parcel had one too?"

"Yes, my dear, it did," said Drummond. "Only I took the precaution of drowning mine before inspecting it."

"Look here, Hugh," cried his wife, "I know you're on the war-path again. Well, I tell you straight I can stand most things---you've already given me three goes of Peterson---but I can't stand spiders. If I get any more of them I shall sue for divorce."

Her husband grinned and she turned to me pathetically.

"You wouldn't believe what he's like, Mr. Stockton, once he gets going."

"I can hazard a pretty shrewd guess," I returned. "We haven't exactly been at a Sunday School treat this evening."

"Life is real and life is earnest," chanted her husband. "And Stockton's becoming one of the boys, my pet. We've had a really first-class show to-night. I've got the winner of the Derby, if it hadn't been scratched a little tactlessly by old Uncle Bob. And MacIver---you remember that shining light of Scotland Yard---has chased us all over London, and is very angry in consequence. And---oh! well, lots of other things. What's that you're grasping in your hand, Toby?"

"Another note, old boy. He's a literary gent, is our spider friend."

"Where did you find it?"

"In the box on Phyllis's dressing-table. And I don't think it will amuse you."

It did not.

"A little nervy? Lost your temper? Well, well! They were quite harmless, both of them, though I admit Mary's claim to beauty must not be judged by ordinary standards. But let that be enough. I don't want meddlers. Next time I shall remove you without mercy. So cease being stupid."

"An amazingly poor judge of human nature," said Drummond softly. "Quite amazingly so. I wonder which of the two it was. I trust with all my heart that it was not our friend of Hatchett's and Ashworth Gardens. I should hate to think we would never meet again."

"But why won't you?" said his wife hopefully.

"Well, we had a little game to-night, darling," answered Drummond. "And he has taken his own excellent advice. He has ceased being stupid."

Report Spam   Logged

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter


Pages: [1]   Go Up
  Print  
 
Jump to:  

Powered by EzPortal
Bookmark this site! | Upgrade This Forum
SMF For Free - Create your own Forum


Powered by SMF | SMF © 2016, Simple Machines
Privacy Policy