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4: Hugh Drummond Discovers a new Aunt

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« on: November 19, 2023, 06:27:17 am »

AND AT this point I feel that I owe my readers an apology. In fact, Hugh Drummond, who has just read the last chapter, insists on it.

"What an appalling song and dance about nothing at all," is the tenor of his criticism. "My dear fellow, concentrate on the big thing."

Well, I admit that in comparison with what was to come it was nothing at all. And yet I don't know. After all, the first shell that bursts near one affects the individual more than a bombardment later on. And the events I have described constituted my first shell, so that on that score alone I crave indulgence.

But there is another reason too which, in my opinion, renders it impossible to concentrate only on the big thing. Had these words been penned at the time, much that I am writing now would have been dismissed in a few lines, simply because the position of certain episodes in the chain of events would not have been obvious. But now looking back, and armed with one's present knowledge, it is easy to see how they all fitted in; and how the two chains of events, the big one and the one that Drummond calls little, ran side by side till they finally met. And so I will give them both, merely remarking that if certain things appear obscure to the reader, they appeared even more obscure to us at the time.

We were confronted then, on the morning after our visit to the Three Cows, with the following position of affairs. The secret of a singularly deadly poison had been stolen, and in the process of the theft the inventor of the poison had disappeared, his dog had been killed, and the man who, according to his own story, had not only been his friend but had also been financing his experiments, had been murdered. The death of the constable was an extraneous matter, and therefore did not affect the position, save that it afforded proof, if further proof was needed, of the deadliness of the poison.

Sinclair and I, owing to the fact that we had come to Gaunt's rooms, had been followed; and, of the two of us, I was regarded as the more dangerous. So much the more dangerous, in fact, that my death had been deliberately decided on under circumstances which our enemies imagined did not admit of failure.

They had clearly added Drummond to our list, probably, as he surmised, owing to the incident at Hatchett's. And the fact that the head waiter knew him rendered his efforts to throw them off his track abortive. We were undoubtedly followed to the Three Cows, with the idea of inveigling us to Ashworth Gardens. MacIver was there simply and solely because he knew it was the pub in which the taxi-driver had been drugged the night before, and he hoped to pick up a thread to follow.

And there came our first query. Did MacIver recognise the two men, and did they recognise him? To the first of these questions we unhesitatingly answered---No. There was no reason that he should know them at all as far as we could see; and the fact that MacIver's worst suspicions were at once concentrated on me rendered it less probable that he would notice them. To the other question we again answered---No, but with less certainty. It didn't appear a very important one, anyway, but it struck us that it would be taking an unnecessary and dangerous risk on their part to carry on with their programme if they thought they were being watched. And human nature being what it is, they would, with their guilty conscience, if they had recognised MacIver, have assumed he was after them.

As far as we were concerned they didn't care---in fact, they wanted to be recognised. They wanted us to assume that they didn't know us---that our disguises were perfect. And so what more natural than that they should discuss things openly in our hearing? In fact, they had been very sure of themselves, had those two gentlemen.

All that was clear: it was over the subsequent events that there rested the fog of war. Why hang the poor little brute when obviously they had a supply of the poison? If they wished to kill him, that would have been a far surer and more efficacious method. And why the spiders?

We were holding a council of war, I remember, at which I met Peter Darrell and Algy Longworth for the first time, and we discussed those two points from every angle. And it was Drummond who stuck out for the simplest explanation.

"You're being too deep, old lads," he remarked. "The whole of this thing has been done with one idea, and one idea only---to frighten us. They think I'm a positive poop---a congenital what-not. They intended to kill Stockton, whom they are afraid knows too much; and they intended to inspire in me a desire to hire two nurses and a bath-chair and trot up and down the front at Bournemouth. The mere fact that they have brought off a double event in the bloomer line doesn't alter the motive."

He rose and pressed the bell, and in a moment or two his butler entered.

"Did you take in those two parcels from Asprey's last night, Denny?"

"I did, sir."

"What time did they come?"

"About midnight, sir."

"Who brought 'em?"

"A man, sir."

"You blithering juggins, I didn't suppose it was a tame rhinoceros. What sort of a man?"

"Don't know that I noticed him particularly, sir. He just handed 'em in and said you'd understand."

Drummond dismissed him with a wave of his hand.

"No help there," he remarked. "Except as to time. Obviously they had everything prepared. As soon as they saw we were going to Ashworth Gardens, one of them came here, and the other followed us."

"Granted all that, old bean," said Toby. "But why hang rat face? that's what beats me."

Drummond lit a cigarette before replying.

"There's a far more interesting point than that," he remarked. "And I mentioned it last night. Who hanged him? There were people in that house before we got there: men don't hang themselves as a general rule. Those people left that house before we arrived there, just as the man who tried to murder Stockton got there after we arrived there. And on one thing I'll stake my hat: the latter gentleman did not come up the stairs, or I'd have heard him. If he didn't come up the stairs he entered by some unusual method: presumably the same as that by which the others left, or else Toby would have seen them. And houses with unusual entrances always interest me."

"There's generally a back door," said Algy Longworth.

"But only one staircase, laddie," returned Drummond. "And the man I killed did not come up that staircase. No: the old brain has seethed, and I'm open to a small bet that what they intended to do is clear. They meant to kill Stockton, and then they assumed that Toby and I would dash into the next room to catch the fellow who did it. Owing to the door being locked he would have time to get away. Then probably we should go for the police. And when we got back I'm wondering if we would have found either body there. On the other hand, we should have had to admit that we were masquerading in disguise, and doubts as to our sanity if nothing worse would be entertained. That, coupled with the spiders, they thought would put me off. Instead of that, however, he didn't kill Stockton and got killed himself. Moreover, the police came without our asking, and found a dead body."

"But look here, Hugh," interrupted Peter Darrell, "you said he'd have time to get away. How? The door is off, and if he'd jumped out of the window you could have followed him."

Drummond grinned placidly.

"The window was shut and bolted, Peter. That's why I think I shall return to Ashworth Gardens in the very near future."

"You mean to go back to the house?" I cried.

"No---not to Number 10," he answered. "I'm going to Number 12---next door. And there's very little time to be lost."

He stood up and his eyes were glistening with anticipation.

"It's clear, boys: it must be. Either I'm a damned fool, or those blokes belong to the genus. If only old MacIver hadn't arrived last night we could have followed it through then. There must be a means of communication between the two houses, and in Number 12 we may find some amusement. Anyway it's worth trying. But, as I say, there's no time to be lost. They've brought the police down on themselves in a way that shows no traces of insanity on our part, and they'll change their quarters. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if they've done so already."

"You aren't coming to the inquest?" said Toby.

Drummond shook his head.

"I haven't been warned to attend. And when it comes to the turn of our friend last night, doubtless MacIver will tell me what to say."

The door opened and Denny entered.

"Inspector MacIver would like to see you, sir."

"Show him up. Dash it all---that's a nuisance. It means more delay."

However, his smile was geniality itself as the detective entered.

"Good-morning, Inspector. Just in time for a spot of ale."

But our visitor was evidently in no mood for spots of ale.

"Look here, Captain Drummond," he said curtly, "have you been up to your fool tricks again?"

"Good Lord! what's happened now?" said Drummond, staring at him in surprise.

"The body of the man you killed last night has completely disappeared," answered MacIver, and Drummond whistled softly.

"The devil it has," he muttered. And then he began to laugh. "You don't imagine, do you, my dear fellow, that I've got it lying about in the bathroom here? But how did it happen?"

"If I knew that I shouldn't be here," snapped the Inspector, and then, with the spot of ale literally forced on him, he proceeded to tell all that he did know.

Three of his men had been left in the house, and owing to the smell from the poison they had none of them been in the room with the dead man. Also the window had been left open and the door locked. MacIver had left to ring up Sir John Dallas, but he was out of London. And when he finally got through to the house of a well-known scientist in Hampshire where Sir John was staying for the night, in order, as it transpired, to discuss the very matter of this poison, it was nearly five o'clock in the morning. And Sir John had decided that so much time had already elapsed that the chances of his being able to discover anything new were remote. So he had adhered to his original plan and come up by an early train, which the Inspector met at Waterloo. Together they went to 10, Ashworth Gardens, and MacIver unlocked the door. And the room was empty: the body had disappeared.

The three men who had been left behind all swore that they hadn't heard a sound. The front door had been locked all the night, and the men had patrolled the house at intervals.

"'Pon my soul," cried MacIver, "this case is getting on my nerves. That house is like a cupboard at a conjuring show. Whatever you put inside disappears."

I glanced at Drummond, and I thought I detected a certain suppressed excitement in his manner. But there was no trace of it in his voice.

"It is possible, of course," he remarked, "that the man wasn't dead. He came to: found the door locked and escaped through the window."

MacIver nodded his head portentously.

"That point of view naturally suggests itself. And, taking everything into account, I am inclined to think that it must be the solution."

"You didn't think of finding out if the blokes next door heard anything?" said Drummond casually.

"My dear Captain Drummond!" MacIver smiled tolerantly. "Of course I made inquiries about the occupants of neighbouring houses."

"You did, did you?" said Drummond softly.

"On one side is a clerk in Lloyd's with his wife and two children; on the other is an elderly maiden lady. She is an invalid, and, at the moment, has a doctor actually in the house."

"Which is in Number 12?" asked Drummond.

"She is: her name is Miss Simpson. However, the point is this, Captain Drummond. There will now, of course, be no inquest as far as the affair of last night is concerned."

"Precisely," murmured Drummond. "That is the point, as you say."

"So there will be no necessity . . ."

"For us to concoct the same lie," said Drummond, smiling. "Just as well, old policeman, don't you think? It's really saved everyone a lot of bother."

MacIver frowned, and finished his beer.

"At the same time you must clearly understand that Scotland Yard will not tolerate any further activities on your part."

"From now on I collect butterflies," said Drummond gravely. "Have some more beer?"

"I thank you---no," said MacIver stiffly, and with a curt nod to us all he left the room.

"Poor old MacIver's boots are fuller of feet than usual this morning," laughed Drummond as the door closed. "He simply doesn't know which end up he is."

"A rum development that, Hugh," said Sinclair.

"Think so, old man? I don't know. Once you've granted what I maintain---namely, that there's some means of communication between the two houses---I don't think it's at all rum. Just as MacIver said---the point is that there will be no inquest. Inquests mean notoriety: newspaper reporters, crowds of people standing outside the house staring at it. If I'm right that's the one thing that the occupants of Number 12 want to avoid."

"But dash it all, Hugh," cried Darrell, "you don't suggest that the invalid Miss Simpson----"

"To blazes with the invalid," said Drummond. "How do we know it's an invalid? They may have killed the old dear, for all we know, and buried her under the cucumber frame. Of course, that man was dead: I've never seen a deader. Well, dead bodies don't walk. Either he went out through the window, or he went into Number 12. The first would be an appalling risk, seeing it was broad daylight; in fact, without making the devil of a shindy it would be an impossibility. So that's where I get the bulge on MacIver. I can go into Number 12, and he can't without a warrant. That's so, isn't it, lawyer man?"

"He certainly can't enter the house without a warrant," I agreed. "But I don't see that you can go at all."

"My dear old lad," he answered, "I am Miss Simpson's long-lost nephew from Australia. If she is all that she pretends to be, I shall buy her some muscatel grapes, kiss her heartily on each cheek and fade gracefully away. But if she isn't . . ."

"Well," I said curiously. "If she isn't?"

"Then there will be two damned liars in the house, and that's always a sound strategical position if you're the lesser of them. So-long, boys. Tell me all about the inquest, and stand by for a show to-night."

He lounged out of the room, and I sat looking after him a little helplessly. His complete disregard for any normal methods of procedure, his absolute lack of any conventionality, nonplussed me. And yet I couldn't help admitting to myself that what he said was perfectly correct. If she was the genuine article he merely retired gracefully: if she wasn't, he held the whip hand, since the last thing the occupants of the house could do was to send for the police. And after a time I began to find myself hoping that she would prove to be an impostor, and that there would be another show to-night. It struck me as being more exciting than the legal profession. . . .

But at this point, in order to keep to the sequence of events, I must digress for the moment and allude to the inquest. It was an affair of surpassing dullness, chiefly remarkable for the complete suppression of almost all the facts that mattered. I realised, of course, that it was part of the prearranged plan: though even I, knowing as I did that there is a definite understanding between the coroner and the police in all inquests where murder has occurred, was surprised at the result when compared to the facts.

But bald as that result was, the reporters got hold of it. The few central facts which concerned the death of the policeman and the finding of the dead bodies of the dog and the Australian had to come out. Also the disappearance of Robin Gaunt. (In fact, as anyone who cares to look up the account can see for himself, no mention occurred of the War Office or things military throughout the whole of the proceeding. I saw Major Jackson in the body of the court, but, since he was in mufti, he was indistinguishable from any ordinary spectator.)

I told of the cry over the telephone; and, in short, I told with the omissions I have mentioned the story I have already put down in these pages up to the moment when Inspector MacIver arrived. And Toby Sinclair confirmed it.

Then Sir John Dallas gave his evidence, which consisted of a series of statements of fact. The deaths had been due to an unknown poison administered externally: he was unable to say how it had been applied. He could give no opinion as to the nature of the poison, beyond saying that it punctured the skin and passed up an artery to the heart. He was continuing his experiments in the hopes of isolating it.

Then MacIver was called, and I must say that I admired the almost diabolical cunning with which he slurred over the truth, and advanced the theory that had been decided upon. He didn't say much, but the reporters seized it with avidity, and turned it from a weakly infant into a lusty child.

"No trace has been discovered of Mr. Gaunt?" said the coroner.

"None," admitted MacIver.

Though naturally a full description had been circulated all over the country.

The verdict, as may be remembered, was "Wilful murder by some person or persons unknown" in the case of the Australian---David Gayton: and "Death by misadventure" in the case of the constable. And in the latter case expressions of sympathy were tendered to his widow.

"Well done, Stockton." Major Jackson and I went out of the court together.

"I suppose you know they had a shot at me last night," I said.

"The devil they did," he remarked, looking thoughtful. "Where?"

"It's too long a story to tell," I answered. "Have you heard anything about the selling of the secret abroad?"

"Couldn't have yet," he said. "Of course, strictly between ourselves, we're on to it in every country that counts. But the devil of it all is that unless old Dallas can isolate this poison, the mere fact of finding out that some other Power has got the secret isn't going to help, because we can't make it ourselves. We've given him all the data we possess at the War House, but he says it isn't enough. He maintains, in fact, that if that formula represents the whole of Gaunt's discovery at the time of the Armistice, then it would have been a failure."

"Gaunt said he'd perfected it," I remarked.

"Quite," answered Jackson. "But, according to Dallas, it isn't merely a process of growth along existing lines, but the introduction of something completely new. I'm no chemist, so I can't say if the old boy is talking out of the back of his neck or not."

He hailed a passing taxi.

"It's serious, Stockton; deuced serious. Our only hope lies, as the General said yesterday, in the fact that the distribution question may defeat them. Because we've gone through every single available paper of Gaunt's, and that point doesn't appear anywhere. You see"---his voice dropped to a whisper---"aeroplanes are impracticable---they travel too fast, and they couldn't take up sufficient bulk. And a dirigible---well, you remember sausage balloons, don't you, falling in flames like manna from the heavens in France? One incendiary bullet---and finish. That's the point, but don't pass it on. Has he solved that? If so . . ."

With a shrug of his shoulders he left his sentence uncompleted, and I stood watching the car as it drove away towards Whitehall.

"Universal, instantaneous death."

Robin's words came back to me, and they continued to come back to me all through the day, when, for very shame's sake, I was making a pretence of work. They danced between my eyes and the brief in front of me, till in despair I gave up trying to concentrate on it.

"Universal, instantaneous death."

I lit a pipe and fell to reviewing the events of the past few days. And after a time the humour of the situation struck me. My elderly clerk, I felt, regarded me with displeasure: evidently he thought that a man of law displayed carelessness in getting mixed up in such a matter. As a set-off against that, however, I realised that I had seriously jeopardised Douglas Fairbanks in the office boy's estimation.

But the point I had to consider was my own future action. It was all very well for Hugh Drummond and a crowd of his irresponsible friends to go about committing breaches of the peace if they chose to: it was a very different matter for me. And Inspector MacIver had definitely told him that such activities were to cease. Yet, dash it all . . .

I took a pull at myself and lit another pipe. Undoubtedly it was folly on my part to continue. The police had it in hand: almost certainly I should be getting myself into trouble. Yes, I'd be firm: I'd point out exactly to Drummond and the others how matters stood: my reputation as a lawyer and the impossibility of my countenancing such irregularities. Besides, this brief . . .

And at that stage of my deliberations I heard a loud and well-known voice in the office outside.

"Is Mr. Stockton in? I can't help it if he is busy. I've just killed my grandmother and I want his advice."

I went to the door and opened it. Drummond stood there beaming cheerfully at my outraged clerk, and as soon as he saw me he waved his hand.

"Bolted the badger," he cried. "My boy, I must have words with you. Yonder stout-hearted lad says you're busy."

"A brief," I said a little doubtfully, "which I ought to get on with. However, come in."

"Blow your old brief," he answered. "Give the poor girl custody of the children and be done with it."

He sat down and put his legs on the desk, whilst I, with a glance at my clerk's face of scandalised horror, hurriedly shut the door.

"Look here, Stockton," said Drummond, lowering his voice. "I thought I'd rout you out here, because it was a bit too long to say over the telephone. And since you're really the principal in this affair, you ought to know at once. To start at the end of the matter, I haven't the faintest doubt in my own mind now that my suspicions about Number 12 are correct."

He lit a cigarette and I felt my determination weakening. At any rate I wasn't committed to anything by hearing what he had to say.

"As you know," he continued, "I went up to see my long-lost aunt---Miss Simpson. I put on a slouch hat, and made one or two slight alterations in my appearance. The first thing I did was to call at one or two of the local food shops, and at the greengrocer's who supplied the house. I discovered her name was Amelia. Apparently she sometimes paid by cheque---in fact, they'd had one only last week."

"Well, that was a bit of a jolt to start off with: however, I thought I'd have a shot at it since I'd got so far. So off I strolled to Number 12. Two of the most obvious policemen I've ever seen in my life are watching Number 10, but they paid no attention to me as I went past.

"I rang the bell, and for some time nothing happened. And then a curtain in the room next the front door moved slightly. I was being inspected, so I rang again to show there was no ill-feeling. An unpleasant-looking female opened the door about four inches, and regarded me balefully.

"'Good-morning,' I remarked, getting my foot wedged in that four inches. 'I've come to see Aunt Amelia.'

"'Who are you?' she said suspiciously.

"'Aunt Amelia's nephew,' I answered. 'It's ten years now since my father---that's her brother Harry---died, and his last words to me were, "'Wallie, my boy, if ever you go back to England, you look up sister Amelia."'

"You see, Stockton, I'd already decided that if it was a genuine show I'd get out of it by pretending that it must be another Miss Simpson.

"'Miss Amelia's ill,' said the woman angrily.

"'Too bad,' I said. 'I reckon that seeing me will be just the thing to cheer her up.'

"'She's not seeing anyone, I tell you,' she went on.

"'She'll see little Wallie,' I said. 'Why, according to my father, she was clean gone on me when I was a child. Used to give me my bath, and doses of dill-water. Fair potty about me was Aunt Amelia. Besides, I've got a little memento for her that my father gave me to hand over to her.'

"As a matter of fact I'd bought a small pearl necklace on the way up.

"'I tell you she can't see you,' snapped the woman. 'She's ill. You come back next week and she may be better.'

"Well, there was nothing for it: I leaned against the door and the door opened. And I tell you, Stockton, I got the shock of my life. Standing at the foot of the stairs was a man with the most staggering face I've ever thought of. Tufts of hair sprouted from it like whin bushes on a seaside links: he was the King Emperor of Beavers. But it wasn't that that stopped me in my tracks, it was the look of diabolical fury in his eyes. He came towards me---and he was a heavy-weight all right---with a pair of great black hairy fists clenched at his sides. And what he resembled most was a dressed-up gorilla.

"'What the devil do you want?' he snarled at me from the range of about a foot.

"'Aunt Amelia,' I said, staring him in the eyes. 'And I reckon you're not the lady in question.'

"I saw the veins beginning to swell in his neck, and the part of his face not covered with vegetation turned a rich magenta.

"'You infernal puppy,' he shouted. 'Didn't you hear that Miss Simpson was ill?'

"'The fact is hardly to be wondered at with you about the house,' I retorted, getting ready, I don't mind telling you, Stockton, for the father and mother of scraps.

"But he didn't hit me: he made a desperate effort and controlled himself.

"'I am Miss Simpson's doctor,' he said, 'and I will tell her of your visit. If you leave your address I will see that you are communicated with as soon as she is fit to receive visitors.'

"Now that told one beyond dispute that there was something wrong. If he really had been the old lady's doctor: if she really was ill upstairs, my intentionally insulting remark could only have been received as vulgar and gratuitous impertinence. So I thought I'd try another.

"'If this is a sample of your bedside manner,' I said, 'she won't be fit to receive visitors for several years.'

"And once again I thought he was going to hit me, but he didn't.

"'If you come back to-morrow morning at this hour,' he remarked, 'I think your aunt may be fit to receive you. At the moment I fear I must forbid it.'

"Well, I did some pretty rapid thinking. In the first place I knew the man was lying: he probably wasn't a doctor at all. No man with a face like that could be a doctor: all his patients would have died of shock. In the second place I'd had a fleeting glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a couple of men upstairs who were examining me through a mirror hanging on the wall---a mirror obviously placed for that very purpose with regard to visitors.

"And another thing stuck out a yard: throughout the whole of our conversation he had kept between me and the stairs. Of course it might have been accidental: on the other hand, it might not. The way it struck me, however, was that he was afraid, seeing that I was obviously a breezy customer, that I might make a dash for it. And I damned nearly did, Stockton---damned nearly.

"However, not quite. I'd seen two men upstairs and there might be more: moreover, the bird I was talking to---if he was as strong as he looked---would have been an ugly customer by himself. And even if I'd got to the top and been able to explore the rooms, it wouldn't have done much good. I couldn't have tackled the show single-handed.

"So I pulled myself together, and did my best to appear convinced.

"'Well, I'm real sorry Aunt Amelia's so sick,' I said. 'And I'll come round to-morrow as you say, Doctor. Just give her my love, will you, and on my way back I'll call in and tell 'em to send along some grapes.'

"His mouth cracked in what I presume was a genial smile.

"'That is very good of you,' he answered. 'I feel sure Miss Simpson will appreciate your kind attention.'

"And with that I hopped it, sent up some grapes, and that's that."

He lit a cigarette and stared at me with a smile.

"But didn't you tell the police?" I cried excitedly.

"Tell 'em what?" he answered.

"Why, that there's foul play going on there," I almost shouted.

"Steady, old man," he said quietly. "Your lad outside will die of a rush of blood to the head if he hears you."

"No, but look here, Drummond," I said, lowering my voice, "you may have hit on the key of the whole affair."

"I think it's more than probable that I have," he answered calmly. "But that seems to me to be quite an unnecessary reason to go trotting off to the police."

"But I say, old man," I began feebly, mindful of my previous resolutions. And then the darned fellow grinned at me in that lazy way of his, and I laughed.

"What do you propose to do?" I said at length.

"Anticipate the visit to Aunt Amelia by some nine or ten hours, and go there to-night. Are you on?"

"Confound you," I said, "of course I am."

"Good fellow," he cried. "I knew you'd do it."

He took his feet off the desk and leaned towards me.

"Stockton," he said quietly, "we're hot on the track. I know we are. Whether or not we shall find that unfortunate old lady upstairs I haven't a notion. True she signed a cheque quite recently, but there's such a thing in this world as forgery. And murder. What induced them to select that particular house and her I know not. But one thing I do know. To-night is going to be a pretty stiff show. Be round in Brook Street at eight o'clock."

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