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Chapter 15 - Doctor Abbershaw’s Deductions

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Author Topic: Chapter 15 - Doctor Abbershaw’s Deductions  (Read 17 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 02:30:38 am »

The room into which Meggie and Abbershaw were thrust so unceremoniously in the middle of the night was one of the three which opened out on to the small winding staircase leading down to Colonel Coombe’s study. It was comparatively empty, containing only a pile of disused tapestries and old curtains, two or three travelling trunks and a chair.

Here, as in the other room, the window was high up in the wall and iron-barred. There was a second door in the room but it appeared to be heavily bolted on the other side. Abbershaw made a thorough investigation of the room with his torch, and then decided that escape was impossible, and they sat down on the tapestry in silence.

Until now they had not spoken very much, save for a brief account from Abbershaw of his interview with Campion and his journey through the passage from his cupboard. Meggie’s story was simpler. She had been seized on her way up to her room and dragged off through the green-baize door to be questioned.

Neither felt that much was to be gained from talking. The German had convinced them of the seriousness of their position, and Abbershaw was overcome with self-reproach for what he could only feel was his own fault. Meggie was terrified but much too plucky to show it. As the utter silence of the darkness descended upon them, however, the girl laid her hand on Abbershaw’s arm. ‘We’ll be all right,’ she murmured. ‘It was wonderful of you to come and get me out like that.’

Abbershaw laughed bitterly. ‘I didn’t get you very far,’ he said.

The girl peered at him through the shadow. ‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s better up here than it was down there.’

Abbershaw took her hand and spoke with unusual violence. ‘My God, they didn’t hurt you?’ he said.

‘Oh no, nothing much.’

It was evident from her voice that she was trying to make light of a terrible experience. ‘I was frightened more than hurt,’ she said, ‘but it was good to see you. Who are they, George? What are they doing here? What’s it all about?’

Abbershaw covered his face with his hands and groaned in the darkness. ‘I could kick myself,’ he said. ‘It’s all my fault. I did an absurd, a foolhardy, lunatic thing when I destroyed those papers. I didn’t realize whom we were up against.’

The girl caught her breath. ‘Then what you said was true?’ she said. ‘You did destroy what they are looking for?’

‘Yes.’ Abbershaw spoke savagely. ‘I’ve behaved like an idiot all the way through,’ he said. ‘I’ve been too clever by half, and now I’ve got you, of all people—the person I’d rather die than see any harm come to—into this appalling situation. I hit on the truth,’ he went on, ‘but only half of it, and like a fool I acted upon my belief without being sure. Oh, my God, what a fool I’ve been!’

The girl stirred beside him and laid her head on his shoulders, her weight resting in the hollow of his arm. ‘Tell me,’ she said.

Abbershaw was only too glad to straighten out his own thoughts in speech, and he began softly, keeping his voice down lest there should be listeners on the landing behind the bolted door.

‘It was Colonel Coombe’s murder that woke me up,’ he said. ‘And then, when I saw the body and realized that the plate across his face was unneeded and served as a disguise, I realized then that it was crooks we had to deal with, and casting about in my mind I arrived at something—not quite the truth—but very near it.’

He paused and drew the girl closer to him.

‘It occurred to me that Dawlish and Gideon might very well be part of the famous Simister gang—the notorious bank thieves of the States. The descriptions of two of the leaders seemed to tally very well, and like a fool I jumped to the conclusion that they were the Simister gangsters. So that when the documents came into my hands I guessed what they were.’

The girl looked at him. ‘What were they?’ she said.

Abbershaw hesitated.

‘I don’t want to lay down the law this time,’ he said, ‘but I don’t see how I can be wrong. In these big gangs of crooks the science of thieving has been brought to such perfection that their internal management resembles a gigantic business concern more than anything else. Modern criminal gangs are not composed of amateurs—each man has his own particular type of work at which he is an expert. That is why the police experience such difficulty in bringing to justice the man actually responsible for a crime, and not merely capturing the comparatively innocent catspaw who performs the actual thieving.’

He paused, and the girl nodded in the darkness. ‘I see,’ she said.

Abbershaw went on, his voice sunk to a whisper. ‘Very big gangs, like Simister’s, carry this co-operative spirit to an extreme,’ he continued, ‘and in more cases than one a really big robbery is planned and worked out to the last detail by a man who may be hundreds of miles away from the scene of the crime when it is committed. A man with an ingenious criminal brain, therefore, can always sell his wares without being involved in any danger whatsoever. The thing I found was, I feel perfectly sure, a complete crime, worked out to the last detail by the hand of a master. It may have been a bank robbery, but of that I’m not sure. It was written in code, of course, and it was only from the few plans included in the mass of written matter—and my suspicions—that I got a hint of what it was.’

Meggie lifted her head. ‘But would they write it down?’ she said. ‘Would they risk that?’

Abbershaw hesitated. ‘I admit that worried me at first,’ he said, ‘but consider the circumstances. Here is an organization, enormous in its resources, but every movement of which is bound to be carried out in absolute secrecy. A lot of people sneer at the efficiency of Scotland Yard, but not those who have ever had cause to come up against it. Imagine an organization like this, captained by a mind simple, forceful, and eminently sensible. A mind that only grasps one thing at a time, but which deals with that one thing down to the last detail, with the thoroughness of a Hun.’

‘Dawlish?’ said Meggie.

Abbershaw nodded in the darkness. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Mr Benjamin Dawlish is one of his names.’ He paused, and then went on again with new enthusiasm, ‘Then imagine the brains of his gang,’ he continued, ‘the man with the mind of a genius plus just that one crooked kink which makes him a criminal instead of a diplomat. It is most important that this one man of all others shall evade the police.’

Meggie nestled closer to him. ‘Go on,’ she said.

Abbershaw continued, his voice hardly raised above a whisper, but intense and vehement in the quietness. ‘He must be kept away from the gang then, at all costs,’ he said. ‘So why not let him live at some out-of-the-way spot in the guise of an innocent old gentleman, an invalid, going out for long drives in his ramshackle old car for his health’s sake; but in reality changing his personality on the road and becoming for a few hours an entirely different person? Not always the same man, you understand,’ he explained, ‘but adopting whatever guise seemed most suitable for the actual detail in hand. A respectable suburban householder eager to open a small account when it was necessary to inspect a certain bank manager’s office; an insurance man when a watchman was to be interviewed; a jovial, open-handed man-about-town when clerks were to be pumped. And all these different personalities vanishing into thin air as soon as their work was done, each one of them merging into the quiet inoffensive old invalid driving about in his joke of a car.’

His voice died away in the darkness, and Meggie stiffened. ‘The Colonel,’ she whispered.

‘Yes,’ murmured Abbershaw. ‘I’m sure of it. He was the designer of the crimes. Dawlish organized them, and a carefully trained gang carried them out. The arrangements had to be written out,’ he went on, ‘because otherwise it would entail the Colonel spending some considerable time with the gang explaining his schemes, whereas it was much better that they should not know him, or he them. You see,’ he went on suddenly, ‘that’s what Dawlish had to guard against—double-crossing. Old Coombe’s plans had a definite market value. They were worth money to any criminal gang who could get hold of them, and, as I have said, to minimize any danger of this, Coombe was kept here, practically as a prisoner, by Dawlish. I dare say the only time he saw any member of the gang was when Gideon and some other member as witness came down here to collect the finished scheme for one robbery, or to discuss the next. On such occasions it was Coombe’s practice to invite Wyatt to bring down a house-party as a blind to distract attention from any of his other visitors, who may in some cases have been characters “known to the police”.’ He stopped and sighed. ‘So far,’ he said, ‘I was practically right, but I had made one tremendous error.’

‘And that?’ The girl’s voice quivered with excitement.

‘That,’ said Abbershaw gravely, ‘was the fatal one of taking Dawlish for Simister. Simister is a rogue about whom there are as many pleasant stories as unpleasant ones, but about Eberhard von Faber no one ever laughs. He is, without exception, the most notorious, unsavoury villain this era has produced. And I have pitched us all—you too—into his hands.’

The girl repressed a shudder, but she clung to Abbershaw confidently. ‘But why,’ she said suddenly, ‘why didn’t they succeed? Why didn’t the Colonel give Dawlish the papers and the whole thing work out according to plan?’

Abbershaw stirred. ‘It would have done,’ he said, ‘but there was double-crossing going on. The Colonel, in spite of his body-guard—Whitby and the butler—must have got into communication with Simister’s gang and made some arrangement with them. I’m only guessing here, of course, but I should say that the Colonel’s plans were never allowed outside the house and that his attitude towards Simister must have been, “I will sell them if you can get them without implicating me”. So Simister employed our friend, Mr Campion, to smuggle himself into Wyatt’s party without being recognized by Dawlish.’

Meggie sat up. ‘I see,’ she said, ‘but then, George, who murdered the Colonel?’

‘Oh one of the gang, of course—evidently. When they discovered that he had double-crossed them.’

The girl was silent for a moment, then, ‘They were very quick,’ she said thoughtfully.

Abbershaw jerked his chin up. This was a point which it had never occurred to him to question. ‘What do you mean?’ he demanded.

Meggie repeated her former observation. ‘They were very quick,’ she said. ‘If the Colonel didn’t have a heart attack he was murdered when we were playing with the dagger. Before I had the thing in my hand, in fact. Did they see the old man part with the papers? And if so why did they kill him and not Albert Campion?’

Abbershaw was silent. This point of view had not occurred to him. As far as he knew, apart from the single affair on the landing, they had not spotted Albert Campion at all.

‘Besides,’ said Meggie, ‘if you remember, Dawlish seemed to be surprised when something you said suggested that Coombe had double-crossed them.’

Abbershaw nodded: the incident returned to his mind. Meggie went on speaking, her voice very low.

‘So Albert Campion was the murderer,’ she said.

Abbershaw started. ‘Oh, no,’ he said. ‘I don’t think that for a moment. In fact I’m sure of it,’ he went on, as he remembered the scene—it seemed incredible that it was only that afternoon—when Mr. Campion had heard of the Colonel’s murder. ‘I’m sure of it,’ he repeated, ‘and besides,’ he added, as the extenuating circumstances occurred to him, ‘why should von Faber have taken all those precautions to conceal someone else’s crime?’

Meggie was silent at this, and Abbershaw continued. ‘There’s no doubt that the Colonel intended to cheat the gang,’ he said. ‘The documents were exquisite pieces of work, written on the finest paper in a hand so small that it would have taken a reading glass to follow the words. It was in code—not one I know, either—and it was only the tiny plans that gave the clue to what it was. All sewn into the lining of a pocket-book which Dawlish didn’t recognize when I showed it to him. Oh, what a fool I was to destroy it!’

The regret in his tone was very poignant, and for some seconds the girl did not speak. Then she moved a little nearer to him as if to compensate him for any embarrassment her question might cause him. ‘Why did you?’ she said at last.

Abbershaw was silent for some time before he spoke. Then he sighed deeply. ‘I was a crazy, interfering, well-meaning fool,’ he said, ‘and there’s no more dangerous creature on the face of the earth. I acted partly on impulse and partly because it really seemed to me to be the best thing to do at the moment. I had no idea whom we were up against. In the first place I knew that if I destroyed it I should probably be preventing a crime at least; you see, I had no means, and no time, to decipher it and thereby obtain enough information to warn Scotland Yard. I didn’t even know where the bank to be robbed was situated, or if indeed it was a bank. I knew we were up against pretty stiff customers, for one man had already been murdered, presumably on account of the papers, but I had no idea that they would dream of attempting anything so wholesale as this.’

He paused and shook his head.

‘I didn’t realize then,’ he continued, ‘that there had been any double-crossing going on, and I took it for granted that the pocket-book would be recognized instantly. Situated as we were then, too, it was reasonable to suppose that I could not hold out against the whole gang, and it was ten chances to one that they would succeed in getting back their plans and the scheme would go forward with me powerless to do anything. Acting entirely upon the impulse of the moment, therefore, I stuffed the plans into the grate and set fire to them. That was just before I went down to speak to you in the garden. Now, of course, Dawlish won’t believe me, and if he did, I’m inclined to believe he would take his revenge upon all of us. In fact, we’re in a very nasty mess. If we get out of here we can’t get out of the house, and that Hun is capable of anything. Oh, my dear, I wish you weren’t here.’

The last words broke from him in an agony of self reproach. Meggie nestled closed to his shoulder.
‘I’m very glad I am,’ she said. ‘If we’re in for trouble let’s go through it together. Look, we’ve been talking for hours—the dawn’s breaking. Something may turn up today. Don’t these people ever have postmen or milkmen or telegram-boys or anything?’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘I’ve thought of that,’ he said, ‘but I think everyone like that is stopped at the lodge, and anyhow today’s Sunday. Of course,’ he added brightly, ‘in a couple of days there’ll be inquiries after some of us, but it’s what von Faber may do before then that’s worrying me.’

Meggie sighed. ‘I don’t want to think,’ she said. ‘Oh, George,’ she added pitifully, ‘I’m so terribly tired.’

On the last word her head lolled heavily against his breast, and he realized with sudden surprise that she was still a child who could sleep in spite of the horror of the situation. He sat there with his back against the wall supporting her in his arms, staring out across the fast-brightening room, his eyes fixed and full of apprehension.

Gradually the room grew lighter and lighter, and the sun, pale at first, and then brilliant, poured in through the high window with that warm serenity that is somehow peculiar to a Sunday morning. Outside he heard the far-away lowing of the cattle and the lively bickering of the birds.

He must have dozed a little in spite of his disturbing thoughts, for he suddenly came to himself with a start and sat up listening intently, his ears strained, and an expression of utter bewilderment on his face. From somewhere close at hand, apparently in the room with the bolted door, there proceeded a curious collection of sounds. It was a hymn, sung with a malicious intensity, unequalled by anything Abbershaw had ever heard in his life before. The voice was a feminine one, high and shrill; it sounded like some avenging fury. He could make out the words, uttered with a species of ferocious glee underlying the religious fervour.

    ‘Oh vain all outward sign of grief,
      And vain the form of prayer,
    Unless the heart implore relief
      And Penitence be there.’

And then with still greater emphasis:

   ‘We smite the breast, we weep in vain,
       In vain in ashes mourn,
    Unless with penitential pain—’

The quavering crescendo reached a pinnacle of self-righteous satisfaction that can never be known to more forgiving spirits.

   ‘Unless with penitential pain
     The smitten soul be torn.’

The last note died away into silence, and a long drawn-out ‘Ah-ha-Ha-men’ followed it. Then all was still.

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