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Chapter 13 - Abbershaw Sees Red

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« on: December 19, 2022, 11:57:56 am »

‘My God, Abbershaw, he was right! They’ve got her!’

Ten minutes after Mr. Campion had first suggested that Meggie might be the next victim, Prenderby ran into Abbershaw in the corridor outside the girl’s room. ‘I’ve been all over the house,’ he said. ‘The girls say that she went up to her room an hour ago to lie down. Now there’s not a sign of her about.’

Abbershaw did not speak.

In the last few minutes his face had lost much of its cherubic calm. An entirely new emotion had taken possession of him. He was wildly, unimaginably angry.

Never, in all his life before, had he experienced anything that could compare with it, and even as Prenderby watched him he saw the last traces of the cautious methodical expert vanish and the new, impulsive, pugnacious fighter come into being.

‘Michael,’ he said suddenly, ‘keep an eye on Campion. His story may be absolutely true—it sounds like it—but we can’t afford to risk anything. Keep him up in my room so that he can hide in the passage if need be. You’ll have to smuggle food up to him somehow. Cheer the others up if you can.’ Prenderby looked at him anxiously.

‘What are you going to do?’ he said.

Abbershaw set his teeth.

‘I’m going to see them,’ he said. ‘There’s been enough of this mucking about. There is going to be some sort of understanding, anyway. Damn it all! They’ve got my girl!’ Turning on his heel he strode off down the passage.

A green-baize door cut off that portion of the house where Dawlish had established his headquarters. He passed through it without any interruption, and reached the door of the room that had once been Colonel Coombe’s bed-chamber.

He tapped on it loudly, and it was opened immediately by a man he had never seen before, a heavy bull of a fellow whom he guessed to be one of the servants.

‘What do you want?’ he demanded suspiciously.

‘Mr Dawlish,’ said Abbershaw, and attempted to push past him.

A single blow, violent as a mule kick, sent him flying back against the opposite wall of the corridor, and the giant glowered at him.

‘Nobody comes in ’ere,’ he said. ‘Mr Dawlish isn’t seeing anybody for another hour at least,’ he added with a laugh that sent Abbershaw cold as he grasped its inference.

‘Look here,’ he said, ‘this is very important. I must get in to Mr Dawlish. Does this interest you?’

He drew a notecase from his pocket as he spoke. The man advanced towards him and stood glaring down at him, his heavy red face darker than ever with anger.

Suddenly his hand shot out and Abbershaw’s throat was encased in a band of steel.

‘You just ’aven’t realized, you and your lot downstairs, what you’re playing about wiv,’ he said. ‘This ’ere isn’t no Sunday School hunt-the-thimble-set-out. There’s nine of us, we’re armed, and he isn’t jokin’.’ The hand round Abbershaw’s throat tightened as the thug thrust his face close against his victim’s.

‘ ’E ain’t ordered about by nobody. Makes ’is own laws, ’e does. As you’ll soon find out. At the moment ’e’s busy—talking to a lady. And when ’e’s done wiv ’er I’ll take your message in to ’im and not before. Now get out—if I ’aven’t killed yer.’

On the last words he flung the half-strangled Abbershaw away from him as if he had been a terrier, and, re-entering the room, slammed the door behind him, shooting home the bolts.

Abbershaw scrambled to his feet, flung himself against the door, beating it with his hands, in a paroxysm of fury.

At last he paused in despair: the heavy oak would have withstood a battering ram. He stood back, helpless and half-maddened with apprehension for Meggie’s safety.

Then from somewhere far away he fancied he heard a muffled cry.

The effect upon him was instantaneous. His impotent fury vanished and he became once more cold and reasoning. His one chance of saving her was to get round the other way: to break in upon Dawlish’s inquisition from an unguarded point, and, once there, declare all he knew about the red wallet and the fate of its contents, regardless of the revenge the German would inevitably take.

Campion had been imprisoned conceivably somewhere near the room where Dawlish had dealt with him. It was just possible, therefore, that the passage through the cupboard would lead him to Meggie.

He turned quickly: there was no time to be lost; even now Dawlish might be trying some of the same methods of urging a confession as he had employed upon Campion earlier in the day. The thought sickened him and he dashed down the passage into his own room.

Brushing the astonished Campion aside, he threw open the cupboard door and pressed against the back of the shelf steadily.

It gave before his weight and swung open, revealing a dark cavity behind.

He took out his pocket torch and flashed it in front of him. The passage was wood-lined and very dusty. Doubtless it had not been used for years before Campion stumbled upon it by chance that afternoon.

It was narrow also, admitting only just enough space for a man to pass along it, crawling on his hands and knees. But Abbershaw set off down it eagerly.

The air was almost unbearably musty, and there was a scuttling of rats in front of him as he crawled on, shining the torch ahead of him as he went. At length he reached the steps of which Campion had spoken. They were steep and solid, leading straight up into the darkness which had opened above his head.

He mounted them cautiously, and a moment later found himself cut off by an apparently solid floor over him.

A closer examination, however, showed a catch, which, upon being released, allowed the trap to drop slowly open, so that he had to retreat some steps in order to avoid its catching him.

The machinery which Campion had referred to as a ‘piece of old bicycle’ was in fact an ancient iron device, worked with a pedal, for opening the trap. As soon as he had lifted this hatch, Abbershaw hauled himself into the open space above it which he knew must be the chest itself. The lid was down, and he waited for some moments, breathless, listening. He could hear nothing, however, save the scuffling of the rats behind him, and at length, very cautiously, he put his hands above his head, pressed the lid up an inch or two, and peered out.

No one appeared to be about, and he climbed silently out of the box. He was in a longish vaulted room, one of the relics of the days when Black Dudley had been a monastery. Its stone walls were unpanelled, and a small window high up was closely barred. It was, as Campion had said, used as a box-room, and filled with lumber of every description.

Abbershaw looked round eagerly for a door, and saw it built almost next door to the fire-place in the wall opposite him.

It was small, iron, hinged, and very heavy.

He tried it cautiously, and found to his relief that it was unlocked. So Campion’s escape had been discovered, he reflected, and went warily. He let himself out cautiously; he had no desire to be apprehended before he reached Dawlish himself.

The door opened out on to a small stone landing in which were two similar doors. A steep spiral staircase descended almost at his feet.

He listened attentively, but there was no sound, and he decided that Dawlish’s inquisition could not be taking place on that floor. He turned down the steps, therefore, treading softly and hugging the wall. Once round the first bend, he heard a sound which made him stiffen and catch his breath—the muffled murmur of voices somewhere quite close. He went on eagerly, his ears strained to catch the first recognizable word.

The stairs ended abruptly in a small oak door, to the right of which a narrow passage led off into the darkness.

Through the door he could hear clearly Dawlish’s deep German voice raised menacingly.

Abbershaw took a deep breath, and pressing up the latch, carefully pushed the door open. It swung silently on well-greased hinges, and he passed through it expecting to find himself in the Colonel’s bedroom.

To his surprise he came out into what appeared to be a large cupboard. The air in it was insufferably hot, and it dawned upon him that he was in one of those hiding-places that are so often to be found in the sides of ancient fire-places. Doubtless it was just such another cache that had swallowed up Campion when he disappeared off the hearth-rug in the hall. Perhaps the mysterious passage behind him led directly down to that great sombre room.

From where he stood, every sound in the room without was distinctly audible.

Dawlish’s voice, bellowing with anger, sounded suddenly quite near to where he stood.

‘Speak!’ it said. ‘What do you know? All of it—all of it. Keep nothing back.’ And then, explosively, as if he had turned back to someone else in the room—‘Stop her crying—make her speak.’

There was a soft, short, unmistakable sound, and Meggie screamed. A blinding flash of red passed before Abbershaw’s eyes, and he hurled himself against the wooden panel nearest him. It gave way before him, and he shot out into the midst of Dawlish’s inquiry like a hand grenade.

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