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Chapter XLIV - A Midnight Excursion to the Suburbs

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Author Topic: Chapter XLIV - A Midnight Excursion to the Suburbs  (Read 22 times)
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« on: December 07, 2022, 06:16:34 am »

During the earlier part of the evening, since we had left the hotel, my companion had shown no disposition to talk. On the contrary, his silence amounted almost to moroseness, and he had not always answered my questions. But immediately we had started on this new expedition his manner underwent a complete change. He seemed to lay himself out with feverish eagerness to entertain me and to absorb my attention.

“I hope you’re not tired,” he said suddenly, at the end of one of his anecdotes. “We have rather a long drive before us.”

“Not in the least,” I assured him. “What is the place we are going to?”

“A sort of private club. In confidence, I’ll tell you why it is so far out of the way. Some of the members are fond of playing a little high, and have started a roulette board. That sort of thing is best kept quiet, you know.”

“The place is a gambling-club, then?”

“Something of that sort,” he acknowledged. “I shouldn’t dream of taking you there if it wasn’t for the sake of meeting Marx. You understand?”

“Perfectly, thanks. Save for that reason I shouldn’t think of going.”

“What an infernal night!” he exclaimed, looking out of the carriage for a moment; “almost enough to give one the miserables. Come, we’ll shut it out.” He struck a match and, turning round, lit a lamp which was fixed at the back of the carriage. Then he quietly pulled down the blinds and began to tell me a story, of which I heard not a word. My thoughts were engrossed by another matter. M. de Cartienne’s action, coupled with the strangeness of his manner, could bear but one interpretation.

He had some reason for keeping me as much as possible in the dark as to the route we were taking.

For a few moments I felt, to put it mildly, uneasy. Then several possible explanations of such conduct occurred to me, and my apprehensions grew weaker. What more natural, after all, than that M. de Cartienne should desire to keep secret from me the exact whereabouts of an establishment which, by his own admission, was maintained contrary to the law? The more I considered it, the more reasonable such an explanation appeared to me. I began to wonder, even, that he had not asked me for some pledge of secrecy. But there was time enough for that.

By degrees the rattling of vehicles around us grew less and less, until at last all traffic seemed to have died away. Once, during a pause in the conversation, I raised the blind a little way and looked out. We had left even the region of suburban semi-detached villas; and, blurred though the prospect was by the mud which the fast-rolling wheels drew incessantly into the air and on to the window-panes, I could just distinguish the dim outline of hedges and fields beyond.

I looked at the carriage-clock and found that we had been already an hour and a quarter on our journey. From the furious pace at which we were travelling we must have come nearly fifteen miles.

“This place is a long way out,” I remarked.

The Count laughed and lit a cigarette. “Oh, there’s a good reason for that. But the men don’t drive here from town—at least, not in the winter. There’s a railway-station only a mile away.”

“We’re almost there now, then, I suppose?”

He let the blind up with a spring and looked out.

“Nearer than I imagined,” he remarked. “We shall be there in three minutes.”

He was just drawing in his head when he gave a visible start and leaned right out of the window, with his face upturned to the beating rain, listening intently.

Suddenly he withdrew it, and, snatching at the check-string, pulled it violently. I looked at him in amazement. His face was ghastly pale, but his thin lips were set firmly together and his features rigid with determination. It was the face of a brave, desperate man preparing to meet some terrible danger.

The carriage pulled up with a jerk and he leaped down into the road. He did not speak to me, so, after a second’s hesitation, I followed him and stood by his side. There was no mistaking the sound which had alarmed him. Behind, at no very great distance, was the sound of galloping horses and the rumble of smoothly-turning wheels.

Round the corner it came, a small brougham drawn by a pair of great thoroughbred horses, whose heavy gallop, even at fifty yards’ distance, seemed to shake the ground beneath us. M. de Cartienne snatched one of the carriage-lamps from the bracket and, stepping into the middle of the road, waved it backwards and forwards over his head. His action had the desired effect.

Quivering and plunging with fear, the horses, bathed in foam and mud, came to a standstill before us, and a tall, fair man, with a long fur coat thrown hurriedly over his evening-clothes, leaped out into the road. The Count was by his side in a moment.

I remained a little apart, of course, out of earshot, but with my eyes fixed upon the two men.

They could scarcely have spoken a hundred words before their colloquy was at an end. The new-comer returned to his carriage and M. de Cartienne followed his example. I looked at him as he stepped in, anxious to see what effect the other’s news had had upon him. Apparently it was not so bad as he had feared, for, although he still looked anxious and pale, his face had lost its ghastly hue.

We drove on in the same direction as before. When we had started he turned to me.

“Do you know what a police raid is?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“Well, I can’t stop to explain,” he went on rapidly. “Sir Fred—my friend there, has just brought down word of some strange rumours about the clubs to-night. It seems the police have got to hear of this place and are going to pay it an uninvited visit. They won’t be here for an hour, though, so if you like just to come inside and see whether Marx is there or not, you will have time.”

We had turned off the road into a bare, grass-grown avenue, leading up to a red-brick house, unilluminated by a single light.

We were barely a minute driving up this uninviting approach and pulling up at the grim, closed door. The carriage had scarcely come to a standstill before the Count was on the doorstep, fitting a curiously-shaped key into the lock. It yielded at once and we both stepped inside, followed by the man in the fur overcoat, whose carriage had pulled up close behind ours.

We were in perfect darkness and no one seemed to be stirring in the house, although the mat under our feet, in some way connected with an electric alarm bell, was giving shrill notice of our arrival. Then we heard swift feet approaching and a tall, hard-featured woman in a plain black gown, and holding a lamp high over her head, appeared before us.

M. de Cartienne took her by the arm and led her on one side. The other man, who was making vain attempts to appear at his ease and composed, sank into a chair, palpably trembling. Of the real nature of the danger which was imminent I could form only the slightest idea; but that it was something very much to be feared I could easily gather from his agitation and de Cartienne’s manner.

Suddenly the latter turned round.

“Ackland,” he said quickly to the man in the chair, eyeing him keenly and with a shade of contempt in his tone, “you are not fit for any of the serious work, I can see. Listen! Light up the club-room and the smoke-room, stir up the fires, bring out the cards and wine-glasses, empty some tobacco-ash about, make the place look habitable for us when we come. Ferdinand is on the watch outside and will give you notice of our visitors. Ring all three alarm-bells at once if he gives the signal. Morton, I want you to wait for me. I’ll send you away all right before anything happens; but don’t go unless you see me again—unless you’re frightened.”

He turned on his heel and, without waiting for any answer from either of us, hurried away down the passage. The man whom he had called Ackland rose from his seat and, striking a match, lighted the gas-brackets all around the hall and the burners of a candelabra which hung from the roof.

My companion then threw open a door and I followed him into a luxuriously-appointed room, furnished with a suite of lounges and easy-chairs corresponding with those in the hall.

Whilst I was looking round, he hastily began moving the chairs about, as though they had been recently used, poking the fire and generally making the place look inhabited. Having done this, he crossed the hall and entered the opposite room. It was a little smaller, but similarly appointed and decorated, save that a long table, covered with a white cloth and laid for dinner, stood in the centre, and a smaller one, with a green baize covering at the further end. My companion threw a pack of cards and some counters upon the latter and drew it closer up to the fire. Then, having placed some chairs around it, he went back into the hall again and I followed.

All the while we had been moving about, strange noises had been going on under our feet. Now and then the sound of hurrying footsteps and of hoarse voices reached us, and, more often still, the steady rumbling of heavy articles being moved about. I looked at my companion for an explanation, but he did not seem inclined to offer one.

“What’s going on underneath?” I asked at last.

“Bowls!” he answered curtly, “Don’t talk, please, I want to listen!”

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