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Chapter 11 - One Explanation

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« on: December 19, 2022, 11:00:05 am »

That evening, after tea had been served in ominous silence by the same two men-servants who had waited at lunch, Michael Prenderby crossed the room and spoke confidentially to Abbershaw.

‘I say,’ he said awkwardly, ‘poor old Jeanne has got the wind up pretty badly. Do you think we’ve got an earthly chance of making a bolt for it?’ He paused, and then went on again quickly, ‘Can’t we hatch out a scheme of some sort? Between you and me, I’m feeling a bit desperate.’

Abbershaw frowned.

‘We can’t do much at the moment, I’m afraid,’ he said slowly; but added, as the boy’s expression grew more and more perturbed, ‘Look here, come up and smoke a cigarette with me in my room and we’ll talk it over.’

‘I’d like to.’ Prenderby spoke eagerly, and the two men slipped away from the others and went quietly up to Abbershaw’s room.

As far as they could ascertain, Dawlish and the others had their headquarters in the vast old apartment which had been Colonel Coombe’s bedroom and the rooms immediately above and below it, into which there seemed no entrance from any part of the house that they knew.

Even Wyatt could not help them with the geography of Black Dudley. The old house had been first monastery, then farmstead, and finally a dwelling-house, and in each period different alterations had been made.

Besides, before the second marriage of his aunt, the enormous old place had been shut up, and it was not until shortly before her death that Wyatt first stayed at the place. Since then his visits had been infrequent and never of a long enough duration to allow him to become familiar with the numberless rooms, galleries, passages, and staircases of which the place was composed.

Prenderby was getting nerves, his fiancée’s terror was telling on him, and, of course, he knew considerably more of the ugly facts of the situation than anyone of the party save Abbershaw himself.

‘The whole thing seemed almost a joke this morning,’ he said petulantly. ‘That old Hun might have been a music-hall turn then, but I don’t mind confessing that I’ve got the wind up now. Hang it all,’ he went on bitterly, ‘we’re as far away from civilization here as we should be if this was the seventeenth century. The modern “Majesty of the Law” and all that has made us so certain of our own safety that when a trap like this springs we’re fairly caught. Damn it, Abbershaw, brute force is the only real power, anyway.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Abbershaw guardedly, ‘but it’s early yet. Some opportunity is bound to crop up within the next twelve hours. I think we shall see our two troublesome friends in gaol before we’re finished.’

Prenderby glanced at him sharply.

‘You’re very optimistic, aren’t you?’ he said. ‘You talk as if something distinctly promising had happened. Has it?’

George Abbershaw coughed.

‘In a way, yes,’ he said, and was silent. Now, he felt, was not the moment to announce his engagement to Meggie.

They had reached the door of the bedroom by this time, and further inquiries on Prenderby’s part were cut short by a sudden and arresting phenomenon.

From inside the room came a series of extraordinary sounds—long, high-pitched murmurs, intermingled with howls and curses, and accompanied now and then by a sound of scuffling.

‘My God!’ said Prenderby. ‘What in the name of good fortune is that?’

Abbershaw did not answer him.

Clearly the move which he had been expecting had been made.

With all his new temerity he seized the door-latch and was about to fling it up, when Prenderby caught his arm.

‘Go carefully! Go carefully!’ he said, with a touch of indignation in his voice. ‘You don’t want to shove your head in it, whatever it is. They’re armed, remember.’

The other nodded, and raising the latch very cautiously he thrust the door gently open.

Prenderby followed him; both men were alert and tingling with expectation.

The noise continued; it was louder than before, and sounded peculiarly unearthly in that ghostly house.

Abbershaw was the first to peer round the door and look in.

‘Good Lord!’ he said at last, glancing back over his shoulder at Prenderby, ‘there’s not a soul here.’

The two men burst into the room, and the noise, although muffled, became louder still.

‘I say!’ said Prenderby, suddenly startled out of his annoyance, ‘it’s in there!

Abbershaw followed the direction of his hand and gasped.

The extraordinary sounds were indubitably proceeding from the great oak press at the far end of the room—the wardrobe which he had locked himself not two hours before and the key of which was still heavy in his pocket. He turned to Michael.

‘Shut the door,’ he said. ‘Lock it, and take the key.’ Then he advanced towards the cupboard.

Michael Prenderby stood with his back against the door of the room, waiting.

Very gingerly Abbershaw fitted the huge iron key into the cupboard, turned over the lock, and wrenched the door open, starting back instantly.

The noise stopped abruptly.

There was a smothered exclamation from Prenderby and both men stood back in utter amazement.

There, seated upon a heavy oaken shelf in a square cavity just large enough to contain him, his hair over his eyes, his clothes dishevelled, his inane face barely recognizable, was Mr. Albert Campion.

For several seconds he did not move, but sat blinking at them through the lank strands of yellow hair over his eyes. Then it was that Abbershaw’s memory revived.

In a flash it came to him where he had seen that vacuous, inoffensive face before, and a slow expression of wonderment came into his eyes.

He did not speak, however, for at that moment Campion stirred, and climbed stiffly out into the room.

‘No deception, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, with a wan attempt at his own facetiousness. ‘All my own work.’

‘How the devil did you get in there?’ The words were Prenderby’s; he had come forward, his eyes fixed upon the forlorn figure in child-like astonishment.

‘Oh—influence, mostly,’ said Campion, and dropped into a chair. But it was evident that a great deal of his spirit had left him. Obviously he had been badly handled, there were crimson marks round his wrists, and his shirt showed ragged beneath his jacket.

Prenderby opened his mouth to speak again, but a sign from Abbershaw silenced him.

‘Dawlish got you, of course?’ he said, with an unwonted touch of severity in his tone.

Mr. Campion nodded.

‘Did they search you?’ Abbershaw persisted.

‘Search me?’ said he. A faintly weary expression came into the pale eyes behind the large spectacles. ‘My dear sir, they almost had my skin off in their investigations. That Hun talks like comic opera but behaves like the Lord High Executioner. He nearly killed me.’ He took his coat off as he spoke, and showed them a shirt cut to ribbons and stained with blood from great weals across his back.

‘Good God!’ said Abbershaw. ‘Thrashed!’ Instantly his magisterial manner vanished and he became the professional man with a case to attend to.

‘Michael,’ he said, ‘there’s a white shirt amongst my things in that cupboard, and water and boracic on the washstand. What happened?’ he continued briefly, as Prenderby hurried to make all preparations for dressing the man’s injuries.

Mr. Campion stirred painfully.

‘As far as I can remember,’ he said weakly, ‘about four hundred years ago I was standing by the fire-place talking to Anne What’s-her-name, when suddenly the panel I was leaning against gave way, and the next moment I was in the dark with a lump of sacking in my mouth.’ He paused. ‘That was the beginning,’ he said. ‘Then I was hauled up before old Boanerges and he put me through it pretty thoroughly; I couldn’t convince him that I hadn’t got his packet of love-letters or whatever it is that he’s making such a stink about. A more thorough old bird in the questioning line I never met.’

‘So I should think,’ murmured Prenderby, who had now got Campion’s shirt off and was examining his back.

‘When they convinced themselves that I was as innocent as a new-born babe,’ continued the casualty, some of his old cheerfulness returning, ‘they gave up jumping on me and put me into a box-room and locked the door.’ He sighed. ‘I sleuthed round for a bit,’ he went on, while they listened to him eagerly. ‘The window was about two thousand feet from the ground with a lot of natty ironwork on it—and finally, looking round for a spot soft enough for me to lie down without yowling, I perceived an ancient chest, under the other cardboard whatnots and fancy basketwork about the place, and I opened it.’ He paused, and drank the tooth-glass of water which Prenderby handed to him.

‘I thought some grandmotherly garment might be there,’ he continued. ‘Something I could make a bed of. All I found, however, was something that I took to be a portion of an ancient bicycle—most unsuitable for my purpose. I was so peeved that I jumped on it with malicious intent, and immediately the whole show gave way and I made a neat but effective exit through the floor. When I got the old brain working again, I discovered that I was standing on the top of a flight of steps, my head still half out of the chest. The machinery was the ancients’ idea of a blind, I suppose. So I shut the lid of the trunk behind me, and lighting a match toddled down the steps.’

He stopped again. The two men were listening to him intently.

‘I don’t see how you got into the cupboard, all the same,’ said Prenderby.

‘Nor do I, frankly,’ said Mr. Campion. ‘The steps stopped after a bit and I was in a sort of tunnel—a ratty kind of place; the little animals put the wind up me a bit—but eventually I crawled along and came up against a door which opened inwards, got it open, and sneaked out into your cupboard. That didn’t help me much,’ he added dryly. ‘I didn’t know where I was, so I just sat there reciting “The Mistletoe Bough” to myself, and confessing my past life—such sport!’ He grinned at them and stopped. ‘That’s all,’ he said.

Abbershaw, who had been watching him steadily as he talked, came slowly down the room and stood before him.

‘I’m sorry you had such a bad time,’ he said, and added very clearly and distinctly, ‘but there’s really no need to keep up this bright conversation, Mr. Mornington Dodd.’

For some seconds Mr. Campion’s pale eyes regarded Abbershaw blankly. Then he started almost imperceptibly, and a slow smile spread over his face.

‘So you’ve spotted me,’ he said, and, to Abbershaw’s utter amazement, chucked inanely. ‘But,’ went on Mr. Campion cheerfully, ‘I assure you you’re wrong about my magnetic personality being a disguise. There is absolutely no fraud. I’m like this—always like this—my best friends could tell me.’

This announcement took the wind out of Abbershaw’s sails; he had certainly not expected it.

Mr. Campion’s personality was a difficult one to take seriously; it was not easy, for instance, to decide when he was lying and when he was not. Abbershaw had reckoned upon his thrust going home, and although it had obviously done so he did not seem to have gained any advantage by it.

Prenderby, however, was entirely in the dark, and now he broke in upon the conversation with curiosity.

‘Here, I say, I don’t get this,’ he said. ‘Who and what is Mr. Mornington Dodd?’

Abbershaw threw out his hand, indicating Mr. Albert Campion.

‘That gentleman,’ he said, ‘is Mornington Dodd.’

Albert Campion smiled modestly. In spite of his obvious pain he was still lively.

‘In a way yes, and in a way no,’ he said, fixing his eyes on Abbershaw. ‘Mornington Dodd is one of my names. I have also been called the “Honourable Tootles Ash”, which I thought was rather neat when it occurred to me. Then there was a girl who used to call me “Cuddles” and a man at the Guards Club called me something quite different—’

‘Campion, this is not a joke,’ Abbershaw spoke sternly. ‘However many and varied your aliases have been, now isn’t the time to boast of them. We are up against something pretty serious now.’

‘My dear man, don’t I know it?’ said Mr. Campion peevishly, indicating the state of his shoulders. ‘Even better than you do, I should think,’ he said dryly.

‘Now look here,’ said Abbershaw, whose animosity could not but be mollified by this extraordinary naïveté, ‘you know something about this business, Campion—that is your name, I suppose?’

‘Well—er—no,’ said the irrepressible young man. ‘But,’ he added, dropping his voice a tone, ‘my own is rather aristocratic, and I never use it in business. Campion will do quite well.’

Abbershaw smiled in spite of himself.

‘Very well, then, Mr. Campion,’ he said, ‘as I remarked before, you know something about this business, and you’re going to tell us here and now. But my dear lad, consider,’ he went on as the other hesitated, ‘we’re all in the same boat. You, I presume, are as anxious to get away as anyone. And whereas I am intensely interested in bringing Dawlish and his confederates to justice, there is no other delinquency that I am concerned with. I am not a policeman.’

Mr. Campion beamed. ‘Is that so?’ he inquired.

‘Certainly it is,’ said Abbershaw. ‘I am a consultant only as far as the Yard is concerned.’

Mr. Campion looked vastly relieved.

‘That’s rather cheered me up,’ he said. ‘I liked you. When I saw you pottering with your car I thought, “There’s a little joss who might be quite good fun if he once got off the lead”, and when you mentioned Scotland Yard just now all that good impression just faded away.’

He paused, and Abbershaw cut in quickly.

‘This doesn’t get us very far,’ he said quietly, ‘does it? You know the explanation of this extraordinary outrage. Let’s have it.’

Mr. Campion regarded him frankly.

‘You may not believe me,’ he said, ‘but I don’t know quite what they’re driving at even now. But there’s something pretty serious afoot, I can tell you that.’

It was obvious that he was telling the truth, but Abbershaw was not satisfied.

‘Well, anyway, you know one thing,’ he said. ‘Why are you here? You just admitted yourself it was on business.’

‘Oh, it was,’ agreed Campion, ‘most decidedly. But not my business. Let me explain.’

‘I wish to God you would,’ said Prenderby, who was utterly out of his depth.

‘Well then, chicks, Uncle Albert speaking.’ Campion leant forward, his expression more serious than his words. ‘Perhaps I ought to give you some little idea of my profession. I live, like all intelligent people, by my wits, and although I have often done things that mother wouldn’t like, I have remembered her parting words and have never been vulgar. To cut it short, in fact, I do almost anything within reason—for a reasonable sum, but nothing sordid or vulgar—quite definitely nothing vulgar.’

He glanced at Abbershaw, who nodded, and then went on.

‘In this particular case,’ he said, ‘I was approached in London last week by a man who offered me a very decent sum to get myself included as unobtrusively as possible into the house-party this week-end and then to seize the first opportunity I could get to speaking to my host, the Colonel, alone. I was to make sure that we were alone. Then I was to go up to him, murmur a password in his ear, and receive from him a package which I was to bring to London immediately—unopened. I was warned, of course,’ he continued, looking up at Abbershaw. ‘They told me I was up against men who would have no compunction in killing me to prevent me getting away with the package, but I had no idea who the birds were going to be or I shouldn’t have come for any money. In fact when I saw them at dinner on the first night I nearly cut the whole job right out and bunked back to town.’

‘Why? Who are they?’ said Abbershaw.

Mr. Campion looked surprised.

‘Good Lord, don’t you know?’ he demanded. ‘And little George a Scotland Yard expert, too. Jesse Gideon calls himself a solicitor. As a matter of fact he’s rather a clever fence. And the Hun is no one else but Eberhard von Faber himself.’

Prenderby still looked blank, but Abbershaw started.

‘The “Trois Pays” man?’ he said quickly.

‘And “Der Schwarzbund”. And “The Chicago Junker”, and now our own little “0072” at the Yard,’ said Mr. Campion, and there was no facetiousness in his tone.

‘This means nothing to me,’ said Prenderby.

Mr. Campion opened his mouth to speak, but Abbershaw was before him.

‘It means, Michael,’ he said, with an inflection in his voice which betrayed the gravity in which he viewed the situation, ‘that this man controls organized gangs of crooks all over Europe and America, and he has the reputation of being utterly ruthless and diabolically clever. It means we are up against the most dangerous and notorious criminal of modern times.’

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