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5 - 5

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« on: August 23, 2023, 12:42:18 pm »

5 - 5

I SHOULD be hard put to it if I were asked to say, definitely, what I ate or drank that evening. My chief difficulty, all through dinner, was to avoid glancing at the two men in whom I was now so anxiously interested. And though I was by that time a professional investigator of crimes and mysteries, and should---according to the story books---have been as cool as the proverbial cucumber, I was far more nervous and excited than my host. Once or twice, indeed, Halstead had to give me a word of warning.

‘Keep your eyes this way, Camberwell!’ he muttered. ‘They’re straying across the room. Don’t bother yourself, now---I’ll see that those two don’t escape us, while they’re in this club, at any rate. Eat your dinner---they’re fixed, for the time being.’

I followed his orders as well as I could. But my brain was a-whirl with conflicting and speculative thoughts. Were we, at last, near a solution of the mystery? Was Craye really Crowther? Was he the actual murderer of Hannington, and of Mrs. Crowther, and of Mrs. Goodge, and of the Hindu student? What was this now evident close association with Paley? I had never seen anything during my visits to Cheverdale Lodge to indicate that Craye and Paley were close friends, yet what we were now seeing seemed to show that they were. Was it possible that they were accomplices? And, anyway, what would be the next move in this now---for me---tensely exciting game?

The next move came from Paley. When he and Craye rose from their table, Paley came across the room to Halstead and myself. There was an assumption of friendliness in his manner and a question in his eyes, but I was hardly prepared for what he put into words.

‘Would you and your friend care for a game of pool, Camberwell?’ he asked. ‘Craye and I want to make up a party of four.’

I glanced at Halstead. He gave me a kick under the table and his eyes telegraphed an instant assent.

‘Very kind of you,’ I answered. ‘I daresay we should.’

Paley turned and motioned Craye nearer: he came along, hands in pockets, looking from one to the other.

‘Not acquainted with your friend’s name, Camberwell,’ said Paley, interrogatively. ‘So many members here----’

Before I could speak, Halstead intervened quickly.

‘My name’s Horton,’ he said.

‘Pleased to meet you,’ responded Paley. He went through the ceremony of introduction, and we all walked out of the dining-room together. But instead of going towards the billiard-room, Paley headed us in another direction.

‘There’s a private room upstairs,’ he said. ‘We’ll get that---much more comfortable there. This way!’

We went some way upstairs, coming at last to a closed door. Craye suddenly paused and turned.

‘I’ll fetch my own cue from the billiard-room,’ he said. ‘Shan’t be two minutes.’

He ran back down the stairs; Paley opened the door and ushered Halstead and myself into a large, handsomely appointed room in the centre of which stood a billiard table. There was no attendant there, and Paley switched on the lights.

‘Rattling good table, this,’ he said, leading us up to it. ‘And a particularly good cloth. If you don’t care about pool, we can play billiards. But I’m fond of pool. So’s Craye. I’d better ring for a marker.’

He turned away from the table, over which all three of us had bent, and made for a bell between the fireplace and the door. But with three quick strides he was past the bell and out of the door, and the next instant we heard the key turned on us. We were trapped!

Halstead and I, turning from the table, looked at each other. There was a second’s questioning silence. Then he gave a short, sharp laugh---cynical enough.

‘Clever!’ he said. ‘Damned clever! I’d never thought of---of the possibility of that! Men of resource, those two, Camberwell. They’d fixed this while they dined. Write me down an ass!’

‘What’s to be done?’ I asked. ‘They’ll be off, of course.’

‘You may be sure that Craye’s off already, and that Paley’s going,’ he answered. ‘And they’ll both depart in such a fashion that your friends and associates outside will see neither of ’em! They’ve done us---beautifully.’

‘But we can’t stay locked up in here!’ I said.

‘We shan’t stay locked up in here---for ever,’ he replied. ‘But it’ll take some little time to get out, and five minutes law was quite enough for those two. However, the next thing is to ring this bell.’

He put a firm finger on the bell and kept it there. And while he did that I went over to the window, and drawing aside the heavy curtains, looked out. We were high above Pall Mall: I could hear the subdued murmur of the traffic and catch a glimpse of the street lamps. And somewhere down there, no doubt, Craye and Paley were slipping off as quietly as possible---where?

Suddenly a sharp knock sounded on the panels of the door. Then came a voice---muffled, for the door was stout and heavy and close fitting.

‘Hullo! Hullo!’

Halstead went close to the door.

‘Hullo, there, outside! Open the door!’

I could just hear the reply.

‘Door’s locked, sir!’

‘Isn’t the key there?’

‘No, sir---key’s gone!’

‘Find somebody to open the door, then. We’re locked in!’

Then silence. Halstead turned to me.

‘This means waiting,’ he said. ‘Are you a philosopher, Camberwell?’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘If you aren’t, I am!’ he answered. ‘And I suggest that as this appears to be a billiard-room, and those seem to be cues, and these to be balls, we play billiards. Come on!---pick up a cue.’

We began to play. We were both pretty good players, for amateurs, and as we soon found, very fairly matched. When the scores showed about 30 all we heard sounds outside the door which showed that a locksmith was at work. But they had reached 150 to Halstead and 139 to me before the door suddenly flew open, and revealed a group of astonished folk outside. A club official stepped in. He evidently knew Halstead well.

‘How did you get locked in, Mr. Halstead?’ he asked eagerly. ‘Some trick, sir? Practical joke?’

Halstead put aside his cue and began putting his coat on.

‘Ah, very likely!’ he said. ‘Practical joke’s a very good idea. I hadn’t thought of that. But the practical joker shouldn’t have taken the key away with him, should he? Come on, Camberwell.’

He shouldered his way past official, locksmith, waiters, and made for the stairs: I hastened after him: it seemed to me that at this juncture Halstead was assuming command and direction. Before we reached the main entrance hall, he paused, turning to me.

‘Those people of yours?’ he said. ‘Will they be outside?’

‘They ought to be,’ I answered. ‘Unless they’re already after those two.’

He shook his head at that.

‘Those two, Camberwell, will have slipped them, as sure as fate!’ he said. ‘Come on, let’s get our coats and hats and go out.’

We went out. It was somewhat misty in Pall Mall: despite the lights, it was not easy to see clearly. There was the usual passing to-and-fro of pedestrians; there were motor-cars and taxi-cabs ranged up in front of the club; men were going in and out. For a moment we stood on the steps, in the full glare of the entrance lamps: I looked about and saw no one that I wanted. But descending to the pavement and walking along a little way, I suddenly felt a tap on my elbow and turned to find Chaney there. And in another moment Doxford was there, and then Windover, and so all of a sudden there was a group of us, myself, Halstead, Windover, Doxford, Chaney, all bundled together, and all staring at each other in a questioning silence. But---there was something missing! What was it? All in a flash I knew what it was---where was Chippendale?

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