The Art-Music, Literature and Linguistics Forum
April 17, 2024, 06:48:16 am
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  

6: We get a Message from Robin Gaunt

Pages: [1]   Go Down
  Print  
Author Topic: 6: We get a Message from Robin Gaunt  (Read 8 times)
Admin
Administrator
Level 8
*****

Times thanked: 53
Offline Offline

Posts: 4173


View Profile
« on: November 19, 2023, 09:00:26 am »

ROBIN GAUNT! It was his blood-soaked handkerchief that lay in front of us. He too had been thrown into the same cellar where we had spent the night. And where was he now?

I picked up the handkerchief, and a sudden wave of bitterness swept over me. I pictured him, wounded---perhaps dying---scrawling his message down there in the darkness, whilst outside men said vile things about him and papers fanned the flame.

"Your super-vivisector, Inspector," I remarked. "It's damned well not fair."

"But just at present it's necessary, Mr. Stockton," he answered. "By Jove! if only that handkerchief could speak! 3 P  7 A N T . . . What on earth was he trying to write?"

He turned and went briskly out of the room.

"Show me exactly where you found it," he said to his subordinate.

We all trooped after him, and by the light of an electric torch we explored the cellar. The officer pointed to the crack in the wall where he had found the handkerchief, and to the dark stains just below and on the floor.

"I'm thinking," said Drummond gravely, "that the poor devil was in a pretty bad way."

Torch in hand MacIver was carrying out his examination systematically. An opening in one wall led to a smaller cellar, and it was there that three other spraying cisterns, similar to the one upstairs, were standing. They differed in small details, but their method of action was the same. In each design there was a pump for producing the necessary pressure, and a small stopcock at the end of the spraying pipe which allowed the jet of liquid to be turned on or off at will.

The main points of difference lay in the arrangement of the straps for securing the reservoirs to the shoulders, and the shape and size of the reservoirs themselves. Also the rubber piping varied considerably in length in the different models.

"Take these upstairs," said MacIver to the officer, "and put them alongside the other one."

Once more he resumed his examination, only to stop abruptly at the startled exclamation that came from his man. He was standing at the top of the cellar steps tugging at the door.

"It's locked, sir," he cried. "I can't make it budge."

"Locked!" shouted MacIver. "Who the devil locked it?"

"It's been locked from the other side, and the key is not in the keyhole."

MacIver darted up the steps, and switched his torch on to the door.

"Who came in last?" he demanded.

"I did," said Toby Sinclair. "And I left the door wide open. I can swear to it."

In a frenzy of rage the Inspector hurled himself against it, but the result was nil.

"Not in a hundred years, Mac," said Drummond quietly. "No man can open a door as stout as that at the top of a flight of stairs. You can't get any weight behind your shoulder."

"But, damn it, man," cried the other, "we haven't been down here ten minutes. Whoever locked it must be in the house now."

"Bexton is there too, sir," said the officer. "He was exploring upstairs."

"Bexton!" bellowed the Inspector, through the keyhole. "Bexton! Lord! is the man deaf? Bexton---you fool: come here."

But there was no answer.

"Steady, MacIver," said Drummond, "you'll have a rush of blood to the head in a minute. He's possibly up at the top of the house, and we'll get him as soon as he comes down. No good getting needlessly excited."

"But who has locked this door?" demanded the other. "That's what I want to know."

"Precisely, old lad," agreed Drummond soothingly. "That's what we all want to know. But before we have any chance of knowing, we've got to get to the other side. And since we can't blow the blamed thing down there's no good going on shouting. Let's have a look at it: I'm a bit of an authority on doors."

He went up the stairs, and after a brief examination he gave a short laugh.

"My dear Mac---short of a crowbar and a pickaxe we're stung. And since we've none of us got either in our waistcoat pockets there's no good worrying. The bolt goes actually into the brickwork: you can see it there. And the lock on the door has been put on from the other side, so a screwdriver is no good."

He came down again laughing.

"I can't help it---I like these people. They are birds after my own heart. They've bitten us properly, and got away with their expensive set of uppers and lowers completely intact. I shall sit down and ruminate on life, and if anyone feels strong enough to massage my neck, I shall raise no objections. Lord! what a game we'll have when I meet gorse bush again."

He lit a cigarette, and deposited himself on the floor with his back against the wall.

"Mac, if that's our only means of illumination you'd better switch it off. We may want it later---you never know."

"Bexton must be down in a moment or two," said the Inspector angrily.

"True," answered Drummond. "Unless he's down already."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean that there are some people knocking about in this district who are no slouches in the sand-bag game. And I should think it was quite on the cards that the worthy Bexton has already discovered the fact."

"If that's the case we're here for hours."

"Just so," agreed Drummond. "Which is all the more reason for preserving that air of masterly tranquillity which is the hall-mark of the Anglo-Saxon in times of stress. Men have won prizes ranging from bullseyes to grand pianos for sentiments less profound than that. We are stung, Mac: we are locked in, and we shall remain locked in until some kindly soul comes along to let us out. And since the betting is that the key has been dropped down the nearest drain-pipe, and that our Mr. Bexton has taken it good and hard where I took it last night, I think we can resign ourselves to a fairly lengthy period of rest and meditation. . . . Damn my neck!"

"Supposing we all shouted together," I suggested, after we had sat in silence for several minutes. "Somebody must hear surely."

We let out a series of deafening bellows, and at length our efforts were rewarded. A heavy blow was struck on the other side of the door, and an infuriated voice shouted through the keyhole.

"Stop that filthy row. You'll have plenty of time to sing glees when you're breaking stones on Dartmoor. If you do it any more now I'll turn a hose on you."

We heard the sound of retreating footsteps, and MacIver gave a gasp of amazement.

"Am I mad?" he spluttered. "Am I completely insane? That was Fosdick's voice---the man on duty next door."

And then every semblance of self-control left him, and he raved like a lunatic.

"I'll sack the fellow! I'll have him out of the force in disgrace. He's been drinking: the fool's drunk. Fosdick---come here, damn you, Fosdick!"

He went on shouting and beating on the door with one of the tin reservoirs, till once again came a blow from the other side followed by Fosdick's voice.

"Look 'ere, you bally twitterer: I'm getting fair fed up with you. There's a crowd outside the door now asking when the performing hyenas are going to be let out. Now listen to me. Every time I 'ears a sound from any of you, you stops down there another 'alf-hour without your breakfasts. The van when she comes can easily wait, and I ain't in no hurry."

"Listen, you fool," roared MacIver. "You're drunk: you've gone mad. I order you to open the door. It's me---Inspector MacIver."

"Inspector my aunt," came the impassive reply. "Now don't you forget what I said. The van oughtn't to be long now."

"The van," said MacIver weakly, as the footsteps outside departed. "What van? In the name of Heaven, what is the man talking about?"

"Oh! Lord, Mac," cried Drummond helplessly, "don't make me laugh any more. As it is I've got the most infernal stitch."

"I fail to see the slightest humour in the situation," said MacIver acidly. "The only possible conclusion I can come to is that Fosdick has suddenly lost his reason. And in the meantime I, sir, am locked in here at a time when every moment is of value. In the whole of my career such a thing has never happened."

"There's no doubt about it, old man," agreed Drummond in a shaking voice, "that up-to-date our investigations have not yet met with that measure of success which they justly deserve. We can muster between us five stiff necks, one parboiled face, and an excessively uncomfortable floor to sit on."

"The whole thing is entirely owing to your unwarrantable interference," snapped the detective.

"My dear Mac," said Drummond, "if, as you think, your bloke Fosdick has gone off the deep end you really can't blame me. Personally I don't think he has."

"Then perhaps you'd be good enough to explain what he's doing this for," said MacIver sarcastically. "A little game, I suppose."

"Nothing of the sort," answered Drummond. "My dear man, cease going off like a steam-engine and think for a moment. The whole thing is perfectly obvious. The van is to take us to prison."

"What on earth . . ." stuttered MacIver.

"No more and no less," went on Drummond calmly. "Yonder stout-hearted warrior is under the firm impression that he has a band of bloodthirsty criminals safe under lock and key. He sees promotion in store for him: dazzling heights----"

"Inspector MacIver! Inspector MacIver. Are you there?"

It was Fosdick's agitated voice from the other side of the door.

"I should rather think I am," said MacIver grimly. "Open this door, you perishing fool . . ."

"I will, sir, at once. It's all a mistake."

"Damn your mistakes! Open the door."

"But I haven't got the key. Wait a bit, sir, I'll get a screwdriver."

"Hurry," roared MacIver. "May Heaven help that man when I get at him."

"I wouldn't be too hasty if I was you, Mac," said Drummond quietly. "Better men than he have been caught napping."

It was a quarter of an hour before the door was opened and we trooped upstairs, followed by the trembling Fosdick.

"Now, you fool," said MacIver, "will you kindly explain this little jest of yours?"

"Well, sir," answered the man. "I'm very sorry, I'm sure---but I acted for the best."

"Get on with it," stormed the Inspector.

"I was on duty outside Number 10, when I saw you come out of the house."

"You saw me come out of this house? Why, you blithering idiot, I've been locked up in the cellar all the morning."

"I know that now, sir, but at the time I thought it was you. You passed me, sir---at least the man did---and you said to me, 'We've got the whole bunch.' It was your voice, sir; your voice exactly. 'They're in the cellar in Number 12---locked in, and I've got the key. I'm going round to the Yard now, and I'll send a van up for 'em. They can't get out, but they may make a row.' And then you went on---or rather the other man did---'By Jove! this is a big thing. I've got one of 'em in there that the police of Europe and America are looking for. I had him once before---and do you know how he got away? Why, by imitating my voice over the telephone so well that my man thought it was me!'"

"How perfectly gorgeous," said Drummond ecstatically.

"And then you see, sir, when I heard your voice in that there cellar I thought it was this other bloke imitating you."

"I see." Despite himself MacIver's lips were beginning to twitch. "And what finally made you decide that I wasn't imitating my own voice?"

"Well, sir, I waited and waited and the van never came---and then I went upstairs. They've knocked out Bexton, sir; I found him unconscious on the floor in the room above. So then I rang up the Yard: nothing had been heard of you. And then I knew I'd been hoaxed. But I swear, sir, that bloke would have deceived Mrs. MacIver herself."

"He certainly put it across you all right," said MacIver grimly. "I'd give quite a lot to meet the gentleman."

"I wonder what the inducement was," said Drummond. "No man was going to run such an infernal risk for fun."

"By Jove!" cried MacIver, "that cistern is gone. It's lucky I had the handkerchief in my pocket."

"He was carrying a tin with straps on it when he spoke to me," said Fosdick, and MacIver groaned.

"Literally through our fingers," he said. "However, we've got the other three cisterns. Though I'd much sooner have had the man."

"Anyway that's a point cleared up," remarked Drummond cheerfully. "We know why he came here----"

"We don't," snapped MacIver. "The fact that he took the blamed thing is no proof that he came for that purpose."

"True, my dear old policeman," said Drummond. "But it is, as they say, a possible hypothesis. And, as I remarked before, he didn't come here for fun, so in default of further information we may as well assume that he came for the cistern. In the hurry of their departure last night they forgot these little fellows down in the cellar, so someone came back to get them. He found one nicely put out for him on the table, and a personally conducted Cook's party in the cellar inspecting the others. So in addition to taking his property he locked the cellar door. Easy, laddie: easy."

"Yes; isn't it?" said MacIver sarcastically. "And perhaps you'll explain what he'd have done if we hadn't been in the cellar."

"My dear Mac, what's the good of making it harder? I haven't the faintest idea what he'd have done. Stood on his head and given an imitation of a flower-pot. He did find us in the cellar, and that's all we're concerned with. He took a chance---and a darned sporting chance---and it came off. You're up against something pretty warm, old lad. I don't pretend to be a blinking genius, but if my reconstruction of what has happened up to date is right, I take off my hat to 'em for their nerve."

"What is your reconstruction?" said MacIver quietly, and I noticed his look of keen attention. Whatever may have been his official opinion of our interference, it was pretty clear that unofficially he was under no delusions with regard to Drummond. In fact, as he told me many months later, there was no one he knew who had such an uncanny faculty for hitting the nail on the head.

"Well, this is how I see it," said Drummond. "Their first jolt was the fact that Gaunt managed to get through on the telephone to Stockton. Had that not happened they'd have been in clover. It might have been a couple of days before the Australian was found dead in that house. The old woman is deaf, and probably the first thing she'd have known about it was when she showed a prospective lodger a dead man in her best bedroom and a dead dog across the passage. But Gaunt getting through on the 'phone started it all, and everything that has happened since is due, I'm certain, to their endeavour to fit in their previous arrangements with this unexpected development. They brought Gaunt here: that's obvious. Why did they bring Gaunt here particularly? Well---why not? They had to take him somewhere. They couldn't leave him lying about in Piccadilly Circus.

"They brought him here, and then for reasons best known to themselves they decided to murder Stockton. Well, we all know what happened then, and it was another unexpected development for them. The last thing they wanted was your arrival on the scene. And you wouldn't have arrived, Mac---unless you'd followed Stockton. That's what huffed 'em: old Stockton giving his celebrated rendering of a mechanic at the Three Cows. Naturally you suspected him at once: it was without exception the most appalling exhibition of futility I've ever seen."

"Thanks so much," I murmured.

"That's all right, old bean," he said affably. "I expect you're the hell of a lawyer. However, to continue. You arrived, Mac, with most of the police force of London next door---and you can bet your life the people in here began to sweat some. Why didn't they go away at once, you say? I don't know. Instead of their quiet little backwater the whole glare of Scotland Yard was beating on the next-door house. And what was even worse for them was, that not only had they failed to murder Stockton before you came, but one of their own men was dead. Inquests: newspaper publicity. All the more reason for them to go at once. Why didn't they? What was their reason for stopping on when they must have realised their danger? I don't know; but it must have been a pretty strong one. Anyway they chanced it---and, by Jove! they've pulled it off. That's why I take off my hat to 'em. They were ready to go last night, and they went last night, and the last twenty-four hours they spent in this house must have been pretty nerve-racking."

"May I ask what you are doing in my house?" came in an infuriated female voice from the door.

A tall, thin, acidulated woman was standing there regarding us balefully, and MacIver swung round.

"May I ask your name, madam?"

"Simpson is my name, sir. And who may you be?"

"I'm Inspector MacIver from Scotland Yard, and I must ask you to answer a few questions."

"Scotland Yard!" cried Miss Simpson shrilly. "Then you're the very man I want to see. I have been the victim of a monstrous outrage."

"Indeed," remarked MacIver. "I'm sorry about that. What has happened?"

"Three weeks ago a female person called to see me in this house. She wished to know if I would let it furnished for a month. I refused, and told her that I considered her request very surprising, as I had not told any house-agent that I wanted to let. I further asked her why she had picked on my house particularly. She told me that she had just returned from Australia, and was spending a month in London. She further said that before going to Australia she had lived with her father in this house, and that since he was now dead she wished to spend the month under the old roof for remembrance' sake. However, I told her it was impossible, and she went away. Two days afterwards occurred the outrage. Outrage, sir---abominable outrage, and if there is any justice in England the miscreants should be brought to justice. I was kidnapped, sir---abducted by a man."

"Is that so?" said MacIver gravely. "How did it happen, Miss Simpson?"

"In a way, sir, that reflects the gravest discredit on the police. I was returning from the Tube station late in the evening---I had been to a theatre---and as I reached the end of the road a taxi drew up beside me. At the time the road was deserted: as usual no adequate protection by the police was available against gangs of footpads and robbers. From the taxi stepped a man, and before I had time to scream, or even guess their fell intention, I was bundled inside by him and the driver---a handkerchief was bound round my mouth and another round my eyes and we were off."

"You have no idea, of course, who the men were?" said MacIver.

"Absolutely none," she remarked indignantly. "Do you imagine, sir, that I should number among my acquaintances men capable of such a dastardly act?"

"No one who knew you would ever be likely to abduct you," agreed Drummond soothingly. "Er---that is, in such a violent manner, don't you know. What I was going to say"---he went on hurriedly---"is what about the servants? Didn't they start running round in circles when you failed to roll up?"

"That is one of the very points I wish to clear up," she said. "Jane---I keep only one maid---had received a telegram only that morning stating that her mother in Devonshire was ill. So she had gone off, and there was therefore no one in the house. But that was three weeks ago. Surely she must have returned in that time, and if so, when she failed to find me here, why did she say nothing to the police?"

"An interesting point, Miss Simpson," said MacIver, "and one that we will endeavour to clear up. However, let's get on now with what happened to you. I hope these men used no unnecessary violence."

"Beyond forcibly placing me in the car," she conceded, "they did not. And I may say that during the whole period of my imprisonment I was treated very well."

"Where did they take you?" demanded MacIver eagerly.

"I don't know: I can't tell you. It was a house in the country: that's all I can say. It stood by itself amongst some trees---but I was blindfolded the whole way there. And when they brought me back this morning I was again blindfolded. They brought me as far as the Euston Road: whipped off the handkerchief from my eyes, pushed me out on the pavement, and then drove off at a furious rate. Now, sir, what is the meaning of this inconceivable treatment?"

"If you'll come upstairs, Miss Simpson, you'll understand," answered MacIver. "The meaning of the whole thing is that you happened to be living in this house. And it wasn't you they wanted: it was the house. Had you agreed to let it to that woman who called to see you, none of this would have happened."

"But why did they want the house?"

"That's why."

MacIver stepped into the room where Drummond and I had interviewed the bogus invalid, and pointed to an opening in the wall.

"You knew nothing of that, of course?"

"Good Heavens! no." She was staring at it in amazement. "What's through on the other side?"

"The next house: Number 10."

"And that's been there all these years. Why! I might have been murdered in my bed."

"It's a carefully done job, MacIver," said Drummond, and the detective nodded.

The wall of each room consisted of imitation oak boarding, and the opening was made by means of two sliding panels. The brickwork between them had been removed to form the passage, and the opening thus made crowned with a small iron girder. The two panels moved in grooves which had been recently oiled, and when closed it was impossible to notice anything unusual.

"A bolt-hole, Miss Simpson," explained MacIver. "A bolt-hole, the existence of which was known to the gang that abducted you. And a bolt-hole is very useful at times. That's why they wanted your house."

"Do you mean to say that a gang of criminals has been living in my house?"

"That is just what I do mean," said MacIver. "But I don't think they are likely to return. If they intended to do so they wouldn't have let you go. They lived here and they used the empty house next door. The thing I'm going to find out now is the name of your predecessor. Can you tell me the agent through whom you got this house?"

"Paul and Paul in the Euston Road."

"Good. That saves time."

"And now I shall be glad, sir, if you would kindly go," she said. "I presume I may expect to hear in time that the police have a clue to account for my treatment. It would be too much to expect any more. But at the moment my house resembles a bear garden, and I would like to start putting it into some semblance of order----"

And then occurred a most embarrassing incident. It was so sudden and unexpected that it took us all by surprise, and it was over before anyone could intervene.

Drummond became light-headed. We heard a dreadful noise from an adjoining room: he had burst into song. And the next moment---to our horror---he came dancing through the door, and made a bee-line for Miss Simpson.

"My Tootles," he cried jovially. "My little flower of the east."

Miss Simpson screamed: Ted Jerningham gave an uncontrollable guffaw.

"Dance with me, my poppet," chanted Drummond, seizing her firmly round the waist.

Protesting shrilly, the unfortunate woman was dragged round the room, until between us we managed to get hold of Drummond. The poor chap was completely delirious, but fortunately for all concerned not violent. We explained to the almost hysterical woman that he had had a very bad blow on the head the preceding night, from one of the same gang of scoundrels who had abducted her---and that, of course, he was suffering from concussion. And then we got him downstairs and into a taxi. He was still humming gently to himself, and playing with a piece of string, but he offered no resistance.

"Extraordinary thing his going like that so suddenly," I said to Darrell, who was sitting opposite.

"Frightfully so," agreed Drummond. "Just hold that end of the string."

"Good Lord!" I stammered. "Do you mean to say..."

"Hold the end," he said tersely. "I want to see something."

With his fingers outstretched he measured the distance between my end and the point he was holding, whilst I still stared at him in amazement.

"I thought as much," he said quietly. "Tell the taxi to stop at the first small hotel we come to. You go back, Peter, and bring MacIver along there at once. Tell him it's urgent, but don't let that woman hear you."

"Who---Miss Simpson?"

"She's no more Miss Simpson than I am."

The car pulled up, and we all got out.

"Go back in it, Peter: make any old excuse. Say I left my hat---but get MacIver quickly. Now, Stockton---let's have a drink, and think things over."

"I say, Drummond," I said weakly, "do you mind explaining?"

"All in good time, old man---all in good time. I refuse to utter until I've got outside a pint."

"What on earth is the meaning of this?" said MacIver a few minutes later as he came into the room where we were sitting.

"Only that you apologised for my attack of insanity so convincingly that I think the lady believed it. I sincerely hope so at any rate. While you were holding forth, Mac, about the secret opening I went on a little voyage of exploration. And I found a cupboard full of female clothes. They were all marked A. Simpson, and right in front three or four skirts were hanging. I don't know why exactly, but it suddenly occurred to me that the skirts seemed singularly short for the lady. So I took one down and measured it round the waist-band. And allowing the span of my hand to be about ten inches I found that Miss Simpson's waist was approximately forty inches. Now that woman is thinner than my wife---but I thought I'd make sure. I took her measurement with this bit of string when I was dancing with her, and if that is Amelia Simpson she's shrunk thirteen inches round the tum-tum. Laddie---it can't be done. But, by Jove, it was a fine piece of acting. She's got every man jack of us out of the house as easily as peeling a banana."

MacIver rose and walked towards the door.

"What are you going to do?" said Drummond.

"Have that woman identified by somebody," answered the detective. "Ask her some more questions, and if the answers aren't satisfactory, clap her under lock and key at once."

"Far be it from me to call you an ass, dear boy, but that doesn't alter the fact that you are one. At least you will be if you arrest that woman."

"Well, what do you suggest? We'll have got one of them anyway."

"And if you give her sufficient rope, we may get a lot more. Think, man, just think. What did that fellow who impersonated you run his head into a noose for this morning? Not for the pleasure of locking us into a cellar. What has that woman turned up for so quickly, pretending she is the rightful owner? If those garments belong to Miss Simpson---as they surely must do---the two women must be utterly unlike. True, they would assume---and rightly so as it happened---that none of us had ever seen Miss Simpson. All the same, if they hadn't been in a tearing hurry they would surely have sent someone a little less dissimilar. They are in a tearing hurry---but what for? There's something in that house that they want---and want quickly: something they forgot last night when they all flitted. And when that woman finds it---or if she finds it---she'll go with it---to them. And we shall follow her. Do you get me, Steve? We can watch the house in front from Number 10. We can watch it from behind from Number 13, Jersey Street, in which six respectable divinity students have taken rooms for the week. We are the noble half-dozen. Let's get rid of the young army that we've had tracking around up to date, and be nice and matey. But we insist, Mac, on seeing the fun. Out of the kindness of my heart I've put you wise as to what I discovered, and you've got to play the game. You and I and Stockton will go to Number 10; Ted, Peter and Algy to Jersey Street. Toby, you trot back and tell Phyllis what is happening---and tell her to put up some sandwiches and half a dozen Mumm '13. Then come back to Jersey Street, and tell the old geyser there that it's a new form of Apenta Water. And send all the rest of your birds home to bed, Mac."

"It's strictly irregular," he said, grinning, "but, dash it all, Captain Drummond, I'll do it."

"Good fellow!" cried Drummond. "Let's get on with it."

"I'll keep a couple of my men below in 10 to follow her if she goes out," went on MacIver.

"Excellent," said Drummond. "And Toby can tell my chauffeur to bring the Hispano up to Jersey Street. For I'll guarantee to keep in sight of anything in England in her."

And so, once more, we returned to Number 10. No one had entered the house next door during our absence---and no one had come out, at any rate at the front. Of that Fosdick, who was still on duty, was sure. And then there commenced a weary vigil. Personally, I make no bones about it, I dozed through most of the afternoon. We were in the room which communicated with Number 12, but though we pulled back the panel on our side, no sound came from the next house. If she was carrying out her intention of restoring some semblance of order she was being very quiet about it.

Just once we heard the noise of drawers being pulled out, and what sounded like their contents being scattered on the floor; and later on footsteps in the next room caused MacIver to noiselessly slide back the panel into its closed position. But that was all we heard, while the sleepy afternoon drowsed on and the shadows outside grew longer and longer.

I think MacIver was nodding himself when there suddenly came the sound that banished all sleep. It was a scream---a woman's scream---curiously muffled, and it came from Number 12. It was not repeated, and as we dashed open the other panel the house was as silent as before. We rushed through into the passage and thence into the bedrooms: everywhere the same scene of disorder. Clothes thrown here and there: bedclothes ripped off and scattered on the floor.

"She's restored a semblance of order all right," said MacIver grimly, as we went downstairs.

And then he paused: a light was filtering out from the half-opened cellar door.

"The end of the search, Mac," said Drummond. "Go easy."

At first as we stood on the top of the stairs we could see nothing. A solitary candle guttered on the floor, throwing monstrous shadows in all directions: and then we smelt it once again---that strange bitter sweet smell---the smell of death.

MacIver's torch flashed out---to circle round and finally concentrate on something that lay just beyond the buttress wall still stained with Robin Gaunt's blood. And there was no need to ask what that something was: the poison had claimed another victim.

She lay there---the woman who had taken Miss Simpson's place---and the scream we had heard had been with her last breath. The same dreadful distortion: the same staring look of horror in the eyes---everything was just the same as in the other cases. But somehow with a woman it seemed more horrible.

"My God! but it's diabolical stuff," cried MacIver fiercely as he bent over the woman. "How did it happen, I wonder?"

"It's on her hand," said Drummond. "She's cut it on something. Look, man---there's a bit of a broken bottle beside her with liquid in it. For Heaven's sake be careful: the whole place is saturated with the stuff."

"We'll leave the body exactly as it is," said the Inspector, "until Sir John Dallas comes. I'll go and telephone him now. Captain Drummond, will you and Mr. Stockton mount guard until I return?"

"Certainly," answered Drummond, and we followed the Inspector up the stairs.

"So that's what they came to look for," I remarked as the front door closed behind MacIver.

"Seems like it," agreed Drummond, lighting a cigarette thoughtfully. "And yet it's all a little difficult. A fellow may quite easily forget his handkerchief when he goes out, but he ain't likely to forget his trousers. What I mean, Stockton, is this. The whole thing has been done from the very beginning with the sole idea of getting the secret of that poison. Are we really to believe that after committing half-a-dozen murders and a few trifles of that description they went off and left it behind? Is that the only sample in existence? And if it isn't, what is the good of worrying about it? Why send back for it at all? It looked as if it was quite a small bottle.

"There's another point," he went on after a moment. "Where was that bottle this morning? I'll stake my dying oath that it wasn't lying about in the cellar. It was either hidden there somewhere, or that woman took it down there with her. Great Scott! but it's a baffling show!"

We sat on in silence, each busy with his own thoughts. For me it was Robin who filled them: what had happened to him---where was he now? Or had they killed him? Or had he died as the result of his injuries? It was a possible solution to many things.

"If Gaunt is dead, Drummond," I said after a while, "it may account for a lot. It's not likely that he had very large supplies of the stuff in his rooms. And we know anyway that a lot of it was wasted when you shot our friend the night before last. So it seems to me to be perfectly feasible that that bottle down below contained the only existing sample---which in the event of Gaunt's death would become invaluable to them. They may not know his secret: in which case their only hope would be to get a sample."

"But why leave it behind?" he objected. "Why go to the worry and trouble of hiding it in the cellar? For I think it must have been hidden there: the idea that that unfortunate woman should have carried it down there seems pointless. It's just my trouser example, Stockton."

"Each one may have thought the other had it," I said, but he shook his head.

"You may be right," he remarked, "but I don't believe it was that that she was looking for. And my opinion is that the clue to the whole thing is contained in that blood-stained handkerchief, if only one could interpret it. 3 P  7 A N T. It's directions for something: it can't be meaningless."

Once again we relapsed into silence, until the sound of a taxi outside announced the arrival of someone. It was MacIver, and with him was Sir John carrying some guinea-pigs in cases.

"Sorry to have been so long," said the Inspector, "but I couldn't get Sir John on the telephone, so I had to go and find him. Anything happened?"

"Not a thing," said Drummond.

MacIver had brought another torch and several candles, and by their light Sir John proceeded to make his examination. He had donned a pair of stout indiarubber gloves, but even with their protection he handled things very gingerly.

First he poured what was left of the poison into another bottle, and corked it with a rubber cork. Then he took a sample of the dead woman's blood, which he placed in a test-tube and carefully stoppered. And finally, after a minute examination of the cut in her hand and the terrible staring eyes, he rose to his feet.

"We can now carry her upstairs," he remarked. "There is nothing more to be seen here. But on your life don't touch her hand."

We lifted her up, and MacIver gave a sudden exclamation. Underneath where the body had been lying, and so unseen by us until then, was a hole in the floor. It had been made by removing a brick, and the brick, itself, which had been concealed by the body, lay beside the hole. At the bottom of the hole was some broken glass and the neck of the bottle from the base of which Sir John had removed the poison. So it was obviously the place where the poison had been hidden. But who had hidden it---and why?

"Obviously not a member of the gang," said MacIver, "or she would have known where it was and not wasted time ransacking the house."

"Therefore obviously Gaunt himself," said Drummond. "Great Scott! man," he added, "it's the third brick from the wall. Give me your stick, Sir John. The handkerchief, MacIver---3 and 7."

He tapped on the seventh brick, and sure enough it sounded hollow. With growing excitement we crowded round as he endeavoured to prise it up.

"Careful---careful," cried Sir John anxiously. "If there's another bottle we don't want any risk of another casualty. Let me: I've got gloves on."

And sure enough when the seventh brick was removed, a similar hole was disclosed, at the bottom of which lay a small cardboard pill-box. With the utmost care he lifted it out, and removed the lid. It was filled with a white paste, which looked like boracic ointment.

"Hullo!" he said after he'd sniffed it. "What fresh development have we here?"

And suddenly Drummond gave a shout of comprehension.

"I've got it. It's the message on the handkerchief. 3P. The third brick---poison: 7 A N T---the seventh brick, antidote. That's the antidote, Sir John, you've got in your hand; and that's what they've been after. That woman came down to look for it---and she only found the poison. Gaunt must have hidden them both while he was a prisoner down here, and then left that last despairing message of his . . ."

"We'll try at once," said Sir John quietly.

He handed me the pill-box, and took the poison himself.

"Take a little of the ointment on the end of a match," he said, "and I'll take a little of the poison. You hold one of the guinea-pigs, MacIver. Now the instant I have applied the poison, you follow it up with your stuff in the same place, Stockton."

But the experiment was valueless. With a sudden convulsive shudder the little animal died, and when we tried with another the result was the same.

"Not a very effective antidote," said Sir John sarcastically.

"Nevertheless," said Drummond doggedly, "I'll bet you it is the antidote. Couldn't you analyse it, Sir John?"

"Of course I can analyse it," snapped the other. "And I shall analyse it."

He slipped the box into his bag, followed by the bottle of poison.

"I wonder if I might make a suggestion," said Drummond. "I don't want to seem unduly alarmist, but I think we've seen enough to realise that we are up against a pretty tough proposition. Now do you think it's wise to have all one's eggs in one basket, or rather all that snuff in one box? It might get lost: it might be stolen. Wouldn't it be safer, Sir John, to give, say, half of it to MacIver---until at any rate your analysis is concluded? I see you have a spare box in your bag."

We were going up the steps as he spoke and he was in front. And suddenly he paused for a moment or two and stared at the door. Then he went on into the hall, and I noticed that he glanced round him in all directions.

"A most sensible suggestion," said Sir John, "with which I fully agree."

"Then come in here, Sir John," said Drummond. He led the way into one of the downstairs rooms, and shut the door. And it seemed to me that he was looking unduly grave. He watched the transfer of half the paste to another box, and he waited till MacIver had it in his pocket. Then----

"Please send for Fosdick, MacIver."

A little surprised, the Inspector stepped to the window and beckoned to the man outside.

"Anyone been in this house, Fosdick, during the last half-hour?" said Drummond.

"Only Sir John's assistant, sir."

"I haven't got an assistant," snapped Sir John.

"My sainted aunt, Mac," said Drummond grimly, "we're up against the real thing this time. He's gone, I suppose?"

"Yes, sir," said Fosdick. "About ten minutes ago."

"Then I tell you, Sir John, your life is not safe. It's the stuff in the pill-box that they are after. Perhaps we've put it on wrong: perhaps you've got to eat it. Anyway that man who posed as your assistant knows you've got it. I beg of you to put yourself under police protection day and night. If possible, at any rate, until you have analysed the stuff don't go near your house. Remain inside Scotland Yard itself."

But what Sir John lacked in inches he made up for in pugnacity.

"If you imagine, sir," he snapped, "that I am going to be kept out of my own laboratory by a gang of dirty poisoners you're wrong. If the Inspector here considers it necessary he can send one of his men to stand outside the house. But not one jot will I deviate from my ordinary method of life for twenty would-be murderers. Incidentally"---he added curiously---"how did you know a man had been here?"

"The position of the cellar door," answered Drummond. "It's a heavy door, and I know how I left it when we went in. It was a foot farther open when we came out---and there is no draught."

Sir John nodded approvingly.

"Quick: I like quickness. What in the name of fortune have you done to your face?"

"Don't you worry about my face, Sir John," said Drummond quietly: "you concentrate on your own life."

"And you mind your own business, young man," snapped the other angrily. "My life is my own affair."

"It isn't," answered Drummond. "It's the nation's---until you've analysed that stuff. After that, I agree with you: no one is likely to care two hoots."

Sir John turned purple.

"You insolent young puppy," he stuttered.

"Cut it out, you silly little man," said Drummond wearily. "But don't forget---I've warned you. Come on, Stockton: we'll rope in the others and push off. Mount Street finds me, Mac; but I must have some sleep. Let me know how things go, like a good fellow."

"Sorry I lost my temper with the little bloke," he said to me, as he spun the Hispano into the Euston Road. "But really, old man, this stunt of yours is enough to try anybody's nerves."

The other four were behind, all more or less asleep, and I was nodding myself. In fact I hardly noticed where he was taking us until we pulled up in front of his house.

"My warrior can take you round and drop you," he said, yawning prodigiously. "And to-morrow we might resume the good work."

Personally I didn't even get as far as bed. I just fell asleep in an easy-chair in my room, until I woke with a start to find the lights lit and someone shaking me by the shoulder.

It was Drummond, and the look on his face made me sit up quickly.

"They've got him," he said, "as I knew they would. Sir John was stabbed through the heart in his laboratory an hour ago."

"My God!" I muttered. "How do you know?"

"MacIver has just rung up. Stockton---as I've said before---we're up against the real thing this time."

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