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Chapter 14 - Abbershaw Gets His Interview

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« on: December 19, 2022, 12:20:51 pm »

When Abbershaw picked himself up he discovered that he was not in Colonel Coombe’s bedroom as he had supposed, but in a smaller and more luxurious apartment presumably leading off it. It was lined with books, and had been used apparently as a study or library. At a heavy oak table-desk set across one end sat Dawlish, his face mask-like as ever, and his ponderous hands resting among the papers in front of him.

Before him stood Jesse Gideon, looking down at Meggie, who sat on a chair; a man Abbershaw had never seen before leaning over her. She had been crying, but in spite of her evident terror there was a vestige of spirit in her narrow brown eyes, and she held herself superbly.

Abbershaw’s somewhat precipitate entrance startled everybody, and he was on his feet again before Dawlish spoke.

The German’s dull, expressionless eyes rested on his face. ‘You,’ he said, in his peculiarly stilted English. ‘How foolish you are. Since you have come out of your turn you may stay. Sit down.’

As the young man stared at him he repeated the last words violently, but without any movement or gesture. The man was almost unbelievably immobile.

Abbershaw remained where he was. His anger was slowly getting the better of him, and he stood there stiffly, his flaming red hair on end and his round face white and set.

‘I insist that you listen to me,’ he said. ‘This terrorizing of women has got to stop. What are you gaining by it, anyway? Have you learnt anything of value to you from this girl?’ His voice rose contemptuously. ‘Of course you haven’t. You’re making fools of yourselves.’

The German looked at him steadily, unblinkingly, not a muscle of his face moved.

‘Gideon,’ he said, ‘tell me, who is this foolish red-headed young man who so loves to hear his own voice?’

Gideon glided forward obsequiously and stood beside the desk, his grey face and glittering eyes hideous beneath his white hair. He used his hands as he talked, emphasizing his words with graceful fluttering gestures. ‘His name is George Abbershaw,’ he said. ‘He is a doctor of medicine, a pathologist, an expert upon external wounds and abrasions with especial regard to their causes. In this capacity he has been often consulted by Scotland Yard. As a university friend of Wyatt Petrie’s, there is no reason to suppose that he came here with any ulterior motive.’

The German continued to regard Abbershaw steadily. ‘He is not a detective, ja?

‘No.’ Gideon spoke emphatically. ‘That is obvious. English detectives are a race apart. They are evident at the first glance. No one who knew anything about the English Police Force could possibly suspect Dr. Abbershaw of holding any rank in it.’

The German grunted.

‘So,’ he said, and returned to Abbershaw, ‘you are just an ordinary headstrong young man who, like the others downstairs, is under the impression that this affair is a melodrama which has been especially devised in order that they may have the opportunity of posing heroically before the young ladies of your party. This is an old house, suitable for such gaming, but I, one of the chief actors in your theatre, I am not playing.’

He paused, and Abbershaw was conscious of a faint change in his face, although he did not appear to have moved a muscle.

‘What does it matter to me,’ he continued, ‘if you hide yourselves in priestholes or spring upon me out of cupboards? Climb from one room to another, my friend, make yourself dusty in disused passages, attempt to run your motor-cars upon alcohol: it does me no harm. My only interest is in a package I have lost—a thing that can be of no use to anyone but myself and possibly one other man in the world. It is because I believe that there is in this house someone who is in the employ of that other man that I am keeping you all here until I recover my property.’

The dull, rasping voice stopped for a moment, and Abbershaw was about to speak when Dawlish again silenced him.

‘To recover that property,’ he repeated, ‘at whatever cost. I am not playing a game. I am not jumping out of cupboards in an attempt to be heroic. I am not pretending. I think the boy who attempted to drive off in his motor-car and the madman who escaped from the room upstairs where I had locked him understood me. The girl here, too, should begin to understand by now. And the rest of you shall be convinced even as they have been.’

Abbershaw’s anger had by no means died down under this harangue, and when he spoke his voice was frigid and very formal.

‘If you carry out those threats, Herr Eberhard von Faber,’ he said, ‘you will be wasting your time.’

Gideon started violently at the name, but the German did not appear even to have heard.

‘I had your packet,’ Abbershaw continued bitingly.

They were listening intently, and he fancied he discerned a change in Dawlish’s dull eyes.

‘And in the morning before you had the audacity to place us under this restraint I destroyed it in the grate in my bedroom.’ He paused, breathless; the truth was out now, they could do what they liked with him.

The German’s reply came, very cold and as contemptuous as his own. ‘In the present situation you cannot expect to be believed,’ he said. ‘Do not they tell me after every crime in which great public interest is taken at least four or five imbeciles approach the police, confessing to it? Forgive me if I say that you remind me of one of those imbeciles, Dr. Abbershaw.’

He laughed on the last word, and the effect of the deep-throated chuckle emerging from that still expressionless face was curiously inhuman.

Abbershaw thrust his hand into his pocket and drew out the red wallet. To his astonishment neither Dawlish nor his two subordinates betrayed any sign of recognition, and with a feeling approaching dismay he realized that this was not what they had visualized as the container of the thing they sought. He opened it, drew out his own papers, and laid the case upon the desk in front of the German.

‘The papers you were looking for were sewn inside the lining of this wallet,’ he said. ‘I ripped them out and destroyed them.’

There was silence for a moment after he had spoken, and Gideon leant forward and picked up the case in his pale, exquisitely tapering fingers. ‘It is too small,’ he pronounced at last, turning to the German.

Dawlish spoke without taking his eyes off Abbershaw. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.

‘If you are not lying, young man with red hair,’ he said, ‘will you explain to me why you saw fit to destroy the papers that were concealed in that pocket-case? Did you read them?’

‘They were in code,’ said Abbershaw sullenly.

Gideon shot a swift glance at him under his bushy eyebrows, and then turned to Dawlish.

‘Code?’ he said. Still the German did not look at him, but remained staring at Abbershaw unblinkingly.

‘There may have been a code message in the wallet,’ he said, ‘and you may have destroyed it. But I do not think it is likely that it had anything to do with my business down here; unless . . .’

For the first time during that conversation he turned to Gideon. ‘Coombe,’ he said, and there was sullen ferocity in his tone, ‘he may have succeeded at last.’

Gideon started. ‘Double-crossed?’ he said, and his voice died away in a question.

‘We don’t know.’

The German spoke fiercely. ‘I have no faith in this young fool’s story—he’s only concerned with the girl. Is Whitby back yet?’

‘No,’ said Gideon. ‘We can’t expect him yet.’

‘So.’ Dawlish nodded. ‘We must keep them till he comes. He may be able to recognize this case. Whose initials are these?’

‘Mine,’ said Abbershaw. ‘You’ll find that they are clipped on at the back. I put them on myself.’

Gideon smiled. ‘A very singular thing to do, Dr. Abbershaw,’ he said. ‘And may I ask where you got this wallet?’

Abbershaw hesitated. For the moment he was in a quandary. If he told the truth he could hardly help incriminating Campion, and in view of that young man’s present condition it was inhuman to betray him.

‘I found it,’ he said at last, realizing at once how lame the explanation must sound. Gideon shrugged his shoulders. ‘This man is wasting our time,’ he said. ‘No, it is Petrie you should examine, as I have told you all along. He’s just the type they would choose. What shall we do with these two?’

‘Put them in the other room—not the one the young lunatic got out of,’ said Dawlish. ‘You came through the passage from the fire-place in the hall, I suppose,’ he added, turning heavily to Abbershaw, who nodded. ‘We must wait for Whitby to see this case,’ he continued, ‘then we will consider what is to be done.’

The stranger who had been standing at Meggie’s side laid a hand on her shoulder.

‘Come,’ he said, jerking her to her feet.

Abbershaw turned on him furiously, only to find a revolver pressed against his ribs. They were heading towards the staircase behind the fire-place by which he had come, but when they reached the threshold Dawlish spoke again.

‘Dr. Abbershaw,’ he said, ‘come here.’

Unwillingly, the young man turned and stood before the desk, looking down at the florid Teutonic face with the dull corpse-like eyes.

‘So you are an expert often referred to by Scotland Yard.’ The German spoke with curious deliberation. ‘I have heard of you. Your name has been mentioned in several cases which have interested me deeply. You gave evidence in the Waterside-Birbeck murder, didn’t you?’

Abbershaw nodded.

‘And in the Sturges affair?’

‘Yes.’

‘Had it not been for you, Newman would never have been hanged?’

‘Very probably not.’

A slightly deeper colour seemed to flood the expressionless face.

‘Three of my best men,’ he said. ‘I am very glad to have met you, Dr Abbershaw. Put them in the small room, Wendon, and lock the door very carefully. When I have a little more time to speak I have promised myself another interview with you, Dr. Abbershaw.’

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