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Chapter 5 - The Mask

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« on: December 19, 2022, 06:44:15 am »

Abbershaw made his way quietly down the corridor to Wyatt’s room. The young man had taken him into it himself earlier in the day, and he found it without difficulty. There was no light in the crack of the door, and he hesitated for a moment before he knocked, as if undecided whether he would disturb its occupant or not, but at length he raised his hand and tapped on the door.

There was no reply, and after waiting a few minutes he knocked again. Still no one answered him, and obeying a sudden impulse, he lifted the latch and went in. He was in a long, narrow room with a tall window in the wall immediately facing him, giving out on to a balcony. The place was in darkness save for the faint light of a newly risen moon, which streamed in through the window.

He saw Wyatt at once. He was in his dressing-gown, standing in the window, his arms outstretched, his hands resting on either side of the frame. Abbershaw spoke to him, and for a moment he did not move. Then he turned sharply, and for an instant the moonlight fell upon his face and the long slender lines of his sensitive hands. Then he turned round completely and came towards his friend.

But Abbershaw’s mood had changed: he was no longer so determined. He seemed to have changed his mind. ‘I’ve just heard,’ he said, with real sympathy in his tone. ‘I’m awfully sorry. It was a bit of a shock, coming now, I suppose? Anything I can do, of course . . .’

Wyatt shook his head. ‘Thanks,’ he said, ‘but the old boy’s doctor had been expecting it for years. I believe all the necessary arrangements have been made for some time. It may knock the life out of the party pretty thoroughly, though, I’m afraid.’

‘My dear man.’ Abbershaw spoke hastily. ‘We’ll all sheer off first thing tomorrow morning, of course. Most people have got cars.’

‘Oh, don’t do that.’ Wyatt spoke with sudden insistence. ‘I understand my uncle was very anxious that the party should go on,’ he said. ‘Really, you’d be doing me a great service if you’d stay on till Monday and persuade the others to do the same. After all, it isn’t even as if it was his house. It’s mine, you know. It passed to me on Aunt’s death, but my uncle, her husband, was anxious to go on living here, so I rented it to him. I wish you’d stay. He would have liked it, and there’s no point in my staying down here alone. He was no blood relative of mine, and he had no kin as far as I know.’ He paused, and added, as Abbershaw still looked dubious, ‘The funeral and cremation will take place in London. Gideon has arranged about that; he was his lawyer, you know, and a very close friend. Stay if you can, won’t you? Good night. Thanks for coming down.’

Abbershaw went slowly back to his room, a slightly puzzled expression in his eyes. He had meant to tell Wyatt his discoveries, and even now he did not know quite why he had not done so. Instinct told him to be cautious. He felt convinced that there were more secrets in Black Dudley that night than the old house had ever known. Secrets that would be dangerous if they were too suddenly brought to light.

He found Prenderby sitting up for him, the ash-tray at his side filled with cigarette-stubs.

‘So you’ve turned up at last,’ he said peevishly. ‘I wondered if they’d done a sensational disappearing act with you. This house is such a ghostly old show I’ve been positively sweltering with terror up here. Anything transpired?’

Abbershaw sat down by the fire before he spoke. ‘I signed the certificate,’ he said at last. ‘I was practically forced into it. They had the whole troupe there, old Uncle Tom Beethoven and all.’

Prenderby leant forward, his pale face becoming suddenly keen again. ‘They are up to something, aren’t they?’ he said.

‘Oh, undoubtedly.’ Abbershaw spoke with authority. ‘I saw the corpse’s face. There was no heart trouble there. He was murdered—stuck in the back, I should say.’ He paused, and hesitated as if debating something in his mind.

Prenderby looked at him curiously. ‘Of course, I guessed as much,’ he said, ‘but what’s the other discovery? What’s on your mind?’

Abbershaw looked up at him, and his round grey-blue eyes met the boy’s for an instant. ‘A darned queer thing, Prenderby,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand it at all. There’s more mystery here than you’d think. When I twitched back the sheet and looked at the dead man’s face it was darkish in that four-poster, but there was light enough for me to see one thing. Extreme loss of blood had flattened the flesh down over his bones till he looked dead—very dead—and that plate he wore over the top of his face had slipped out of place and I saw something most extraordinary.’

Prenderby raised his eyes inquiringly. ‘Very foul?’ he said.

‘Not at all. That was the amazing part of it.’ Abbershaw leaned forward in his chair and his eyes were very grave and hard. ‘Prenderby, that man had no need to wear that plate. His face was as whole as yours or mine!’

‘Good God!’ The boy sat up, the truth slowly dawning on him. ‘Then it was simply—’

Abbershaw nodded.

‘A mask,’ he said.

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