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Chapter 17 - In the Evening

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Author Topic: Chapter 17 - In the Evening  (Read 17 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 06:54:04 am »

The disturbing discovery which Meggie and Abbershaw had made in Mrs Meade’s story silenced them for some time. Until the old woman’s extraordinary announcement ten minutes before, the division between the sheep and the goats had been very sharply defined. But now the horrible charge of murder was brought into their own camp. On the face of it, either Albert Campion or one of the young people in the house-party must be the guilty person.

Of course there was always the saving hope that in his haste Campion had locked one of the servants out instead of confining them all to their quarters as he had intended. But even so, neither Abbershaw nor the girl could blind themselves to the fact that in the light of present circumstances the odds were against the murderer lying in that quarter.

The entire staff of the house was employed by von Faber or his agents, that is to say that they were actually of the gang themselves. Coombe was an asset to them—it was not in their interests to kill him. And yet, on the other hand, if the gang had not committed the murder they certainly covered up all traces of it. Mrs Meade’s story had deepened the mystery instead of destroying it.

Meggie looked at Abbershaw. ‘If we could only get out,’ she murmured. Abbershaw nodded briskly. Conjectures and theories could wait until afterwards; the main business in hand at the moment was escape, if not out of the house at least back to the others.

He turned to the old woman. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance of getting out through there?’ he suggested, indicating the inner room in the doorway of which she still stood.

She shook her head. ‘There’s nobbut a fire-place and a door,’ she said, ‘and you’ll not get through the door because I’ve bolted it and he’s locked it. You can have a look at the fire-place if you like, but the chimney’ll only land you up on the roof even if you could get up it; best wait till Wednesday till my son comes.’

Abbershaw was inclined to enlighten her on the chances her son was likely to have against the armed Herr von Faber, but he desisted, and contented himself by shaking his head. Meggie, ever practical, came forward with a new question. ‘But do you eat? Have you been starved all this time?’ she said.

Mrs Meade looked properly aggrieved. ‘Oh, they bring me my victuals,’ she said: ‘naturally.’

Apparently the event of her being starved out of her stronghold had not occurred to her. ‘Lizzie Tiddy brings me up a tray night and morning.’

‘Lizzie Tiddy?’ Abbershaw looked up inquiringly. ‘Who’s that?’

A smile, derisive and unpleasant, spread over the wrinkled face. ‘She’s a natural,’ she said, and laughed.

‘A natural?’

‘She’s not right in her head. All them Tiddys are a bit crazed. Lizzie is the wust.’

‘Does she work here?’ Meggie’s face expressed her disapproval.

Mrs Meade’s smile broadened into a grin, and her quick eyes rested on the girl. ‘That’s right. No one else wouldn’t ha’ had her. She helps Mrs. Browning, the housekeeper, washes up and such-like.’

‘And brings up the food?’ There was an eagerness in Abbershaw’s tone. An idiot country girl was not likely to offer much resistance if they made an attempt to escape as soon as she opened the door.

Mrs. Meade nodded. ‘Ah, Lizzie brings up the tray,’ she said. ‘She sets it on the floor while she unlocks my door, then I pull the bolts back and open it ever such a little, and then I pull the tray in.’

It was such a simple procedure that Abbershaw’s spirits rose. ‘When does this happen?’ he said. ‘What time of day?’

‘Half after eight in the morning and half after eight at night.’

He glanced at his watch. ‘She’s due now, then, practically?’

Mrs. Meade glanced up at the window. ‘Shouldn’t be at all surprised,’ she agreed. ‘Light looks about right. I’ll go back to my own room, then, if you don’t mind. Best not to let anybody know that I’ve been havin’ any truck wi’ you.’

On the last word she turned her back on him, and after closing the door, connecting the two rooms, silently, they heard her softly pressing the bolts home.

‘What an extraordinary old woman,’ whispered Meggie. ‘Is she mad, do you think?’

Abbershaw shook his head. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I almost wish she were. But she’s certainly not crazy, and I believe every word of her story is absolutely true. My dear girl, consider—she certainly hasn’t the imagination to invent it.’

The girl nodded slowly. ‘That’s true,’ she said, and added suddenly, ‘but, George you don’t really believe that those dreadful men didn’t kill Colonel Coombe?’

Abbershaw looked at her seriously. ‘I don’t see why they should, do you?’ he asked. ‘Think of it in the light of what we know.’

‘Then that means that either Albert Campion or—oh, George, it’s horrible!’

Abbershaw’s face grew even more serious. ‘I know,’ he said, and was silent for a minute or so. ‘But that is not what is worrying me at the moment,’ he went on suddenly, as though banishing the thought from his mind. ‘I’ve got you into this appalling mess, and I’ve got to get you out of it—and that, unless I’m mistaken, is Lizzie Tiddy coming up the stairs now.’

The girl held her breath, and for a moment or two they stood silent, listening. There was certainly the sound of footsteps on the stone landing outside, and the uneasy rattle of crockery on an unsteady tray. Abbershaw’s hand closed round the girl’s arm.

‘Now,’ he whispered, ‘keep behind me, and at your first opportunity nip out of here into the room immediately on your left and go straight for the chest I told you of. You can’t miss it. It’s in the corner and enormous. I’ll follow you.’

The girl nodded, and at the same moment the key turned in the lock, and whatever hopes Abbershaw had entertained vanished immediately. The door opened some two inches, and there appeared in the aperture the muzzle of a revolver.

Abbershaw groaned. He might have known, he told himself bitterly, that her captors were not absolute fools. The girl clung to him and he could feel her heart beating against his arm. Gradually the door opened wider, and a face appeared above the gun. It was the stranger whom Dawlish had addressed as Wendon on the day before. He stood grinning in at them, the gun levelled directly at Meggie.

‘Any monkey-tricks and the girl goes first,’ he said. ‘It’s the Guvnor’s orders. He’s reserving you, mate, for ’is own personal attention. That’s one of the reasons why he’s feeding you. Now then, my girl, push the tray under and hurry about it.’

The last remark was addressed to someone behind him, although he never for a moment took his eyes off Abbershaw and the girl. There was a scuffling in the passage outside, and then a narrow tray appeared upon the floor. It came sliding towards them through the crack in the door. And Abbershaw was suddenly conscious of a pair of idiot eyes, set in a pale, vacant face, watching him from behind it.

His impulse was to leap forward and risk the revolver, but the man had him helpless since it was Meggie whom he covered. Slowly the door closed, and on the moment that the gun disappeared Abbershaw sprang forward fiercely, but it was a forlorn hope. The heavy door slammed to, and they heard the lock shoot home.

There was food on the tray: a pile of sandwiches, and a jug of water. Meggie stood listening for a moment, then she whispered sharply: ‘George, they don’t take the same precautions with her. Perhaps if we got in there we could get past them.’

Abbershaw darted across the room to the other door, then his face changed. ‘She’s bolted us out, of course,’ he said, ‘and besides, we’re too late now. We must wait till they come this evening. Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry I got you into all this.’

The girl smiled at him, but she did not reply, and presently, since in spite of their precarious position they were very hungry, they sat down and began to eat.

And then the long weary day dragged on. Mrs. Meade did not seem to be inclined for further conversation, and they knew that sooner or later Dr. Whitby and the man who had driven him must return, and the red-leather wallet be identified. What would happen then they could only conjecture, but since Dawlish was already prejudiced against Abbershaw he was not likely to be unmoved when he discovered the story of the burning of the papers to be true.

But it was Meggie’s position that chiefly disturbed Abbershaw. Whatever they did to him, they were not likely to let her return to civilization knowing what she did about them. The others, after all, so far as Dawlish knew, realized little or nothing of the true position. Campion had succeeded in convincing them that he was no more than the fool he looked, and they knew nothing of his disclosures to Abbershaw and Prenderby.

The chances, therefore, were against them releasing the girl, and Abbershaw’s brain sickened at the thought of her possible fate. Escape was impossible, however, and there was nothing in the room that could in any way be manufactured into a weapon. The window, even had it been large enough to permit a man’s climbing through it, looked out on to a sheer drop of seventy feet on to the flags below.

There seemed nothing for it but to settle down and wait for Dawlish to make the next move.

As the morning passed and then afternoon without any change, save for a few martial and prophetic hymns from Mrs. Meade, their spirits sank deeper than ever; and it grew dark.

Clearly Whitby had not yet returned, and Abbershaw reflected that he might quite possibly have experienced some trouble with the cremation authorities, in which case there were distinct chances of the police coming to their rescue. He wondered, if that occasion should arise, what Dawlish would do—if he would remove Meggie and himself, or simply make a dash for it with his own gang, risking detection afterwards.

On the face of it, he reflected, as he considered what he knew of the man, both from what he had heard and his own experience, the chances were against Meggie and himself being left to tell their story. The prospects looked very black.

And then, quite suddenly, something happened that set his heart beating wildly with new hope, and made him spring to his feet with Meggie at his side, their eyes fixed upon the door, their ears strained to catch every sound.

From inside the room where Mrs. Meade had fortified herself, there came an extraordinary sound. A gentle scraping followed by a burst of shrill indignation from the old woman herself, and the next moment, clear and distinct, a slightly nervous falsetto voice said briskly, ‘It’s all right, my dear madam, I’m not from the assurance company.’

Meggie grasped Abbershaw’s arm. ‘Albert Campion!’ she said.

Abbershaw nodded: the voice was unmistakable, and he moved over to the inner door and tapped upon it gently. ‘Campion,’ he called softly, ‘we’re in here.’

‘That’s all right, old bird, I’m coming. You couldn’t call the old lady off, could you?’ Campion’s voice sounded a little strained. ‘She seems to think I’m not the sort of person you ought to know. Can’t you tell her that many a true heart beats beneath a ready-made suit?’

‘Mrs. Meade.’ Abbershaw raised his voice a little. ‘Mr. Campion is a friend of ours. Could you let him in to us?’

‘You keep strange company,’ came the woman’s strident voice from the other side of the door. ‘A man that creeps down a chimney upon a body isn’t one that I’d put up with.’

Abbershaw and Meggie exchanged glances. Apparently Mr. Campion had descended from the skies.

Then the absurd voice came out to them again, raised a little in indignation. ‘But even if your son is coming, my dear old bird,’ he was saying, ‘there’s really no reason why my friends and I should not meet before that happy moment. After all, I too have a mother.’ The exact significance of his last remark was not apparent, but it seemed to work like a charm upon the old woman, and with a few mumbled words she opened the door, and Albert Campion stood upon the threshold, beaming at them.

‘I don’t think I’ll come in,’ he said cheerfully. ‘This lady seems crazy for me to meet her son and I’m afraid that she may compel me to do so by locking me in with you if I get far enough out of the room for her to shut this door. And as the laddie is not expected to call till Wednesday, I don’t want him to get his diploma from me in person. I think if you’re both ready, we’ll all go back the way I came.’

‘Down the chimney?’ said Meggie, in some trepidation.

‘Through the chimney,’ corrected Campion, with pride. ‘I’ve been fooling about all day trying to find the “money-back” handle—and now I’ve got the two coppers,’ he added brightly, grinning at the two red-headed young people before him. ‘You can’t possibly dislike puns more than I do,’ he went on hastily. ‘Let’s get back, shall we? This is an unhealthy spot.’

They followed him into the old woman’s room. She stood glaring at them suspiciously with her little bright eyes.

‘Where are you going?’ she demanded. ‘I don’t know as ’ow I ought to let ye go.’

‘Aren’t you coming with us?’ said Meggie quickly. ‘Surely you want to get away from those dreadful men at once? You’ll be much safer with us.’

‘What? And miss seeing my son beat ’em up?’ said Mrs Meade contemptuously. ‘Not me, miss. Besides,’ she added sharply, ‘I don’t know as I’m not safer with the German gentleman than I am with a natural.’ She pointed to Campion suggestively. ‘Lizzie Tiddy’s not the only half-wit in this house. Chimney-climbing—!’ Her remark reminded them, as they turned to where an old stone fire-place, wide and primitive, stood on one side of the small room. It seemed at first utterly impracticable as a means of exit, but Campion led them over to it with a certain pride.

‘Look,’ he said. ‘It’s so simple when you think of it. The same chimney serves for both this room and the room behind it, which is no other, ladies and gentlemen, than the one which Mr. Campion performed his now famous disappearing trick in. Admission fourpence. Roll up in your hundreds. In fact,’ he went on more seriously, ‘virtually speaking, both rooms have the same fire-place separated only by this little wall arrangement—quite low, you see—to divide the two grates, and topped by a thin sheet of iron to separate the flames.’

He paused, and surveyed them owlishly through his horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘I discovered, all by myself and with no grown-up aid, that this natty device was removable. I lifted it out, and stepped deftly into the presence of this lady on my right, whose opening remark rather cooled my ardour.’

‘I said “The wicked shall be cast into hell”,’ put in Mrs. Meade, ‘and so they shall. Into a burning fiery furnace, same as if that grate there was piled up with logs and you atop of them.’

This remark was addressed to Abbershaw, but she turned with tremendous agility upon Campion. ‘And the fools,’ she said, ‘the Lord ’isself couldn’t abide fools.’

Campion looked a little hurt. ‘Something tells me,’ he said in a slightly aggrieved tone, ‘that I am not, as it were, a popular hero. Perhaps it might be as well if we went. You’ll bolt your door again, won’t you?’ he added, turning to the old woman.

‘You may lay I will,’ said she meaningly.

‘Are you sure you won’t come with us?’ It was Meggie who spoke, and the old woman eyed her less fiercely than she had done the others.

‘Thank you, I’ll bide where I am,’ she said. ‘I know what I’m up to, which is more than you do, I reckon, trapezing round with a pair of gorbies.’

Campion touched the girl’s arm. ‘Come,’ he said softly. ‘I thought I heard someone. I’ll go first, then you follow me.’

He stepped up on the stone hob as he spoke, and then swung his leg over the brick back of the grate which they now saw was little over three feet high, and disappeared out of sight. Meggie followed him, and Abbershaw sprang after her. Within three minutes they had emerged into the box-room and Campion raised the lid of the chest in the far corner. Meggie suffered herself to be led down the dusty passage, Campion in front of her, and Abbershaw behind.

As they went, they heard the cracked voice of Mrs. Meade chanting vigorously to herself:

   ‘While the wicked are confounded
   Doomed to flames of woe unbounded,
   Call me with Thy saints surrounded.
         Ah-ha-Ha-ha-men.’

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