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Chapter 18 - Mr. Kennedy’s Council

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« on: December 20, 2022, 07:39:30 am »

When Albert Campion and his two refugees crawled out at the far end of the passage, they found the cupboard door open and the entire crowd assembled in the bedroom without, waiting for them. Anne Edgeware threw herself across the room towards Meggie with a little squeaky cry that was part sympathy, part relief. Prenderby’s little Jeanne had not been a reassuring companion.

The strain of the last twenty-four hours had told upon them all. The atmosphere in the wide, old-fashioned room was electric, and Campion’s somewhat foolish voice and fatuous expression struck an incongruous note.

‘Goods as per instructions,’ he said brightly, as he scrambled out of the cupboard. ‘Sign along the dotted line please.’

As soon as they were all in the room, however, he shut the cupboard door carefully, betraying that he was especially anxious that no sound should percolate through into the little box-room they had just left.

Chris Kennedy was the first to speak. He was a little flushed, and there was an air of suppressed excitement about him that showed that his wounded arm no longer damped his spirits. ‘Now we’re all here,’ he said, ‘we can get right down to this thing and work out a scheme to get us out of here and those customers what they deserve. I’m for a fight.’

‘Here, I say, hold on a minute, my son,’ drawled Martin Watt, ‘let’s all start fair. What have you two lost souls been up to, first of all?’ he went on, turning to Meggie and Abbershaw. ‘How did our little Albert get hold of you? No bickering, I hope?’

‘No, all done by kindness,’ said Mr. Campion cheerfully; ‘there was only one dragon in my path, a female of the species, and full of good words. Most of them new to me,’ he added thoughtfully. The portion of Abbershaw’s story which the little doctor felt inclined to tell did not take very long. The others also had had their adventures; Martin Watt seemed to have instituted himself spokesman, and as soon as the other had finished he began.

‘We’ve had sport, too, in our own way. Old Dachshund Dawlish has had us up one at a time, you know, heard our catechism and our family history, searched our pockets and let us go again. He has also locked us all up in the central big hall and had another go at our rooms. Old Prenderby tried to square a servant and got the business end of a gun in his tummy by way of retort. The girls have been overhauled by a ghastly old housekeeper woman and a loony maid. And last but not least, we had a confidential lecture from Gideon, who gave us the jolliest little character-sketch of his pal that one can imagine.’

He paused, and a faint smile at the recollection passed over his indolent face. ‘According to him, the old boy is a cross between Mr. Hyde, Gilles de Rais, and Napoleon, but without the finesse of any of the three. On the whole I’m inclined to agree with him,’ he continued, ‘but a fat lot of good it’s doing him or us, for that matter, because he can’t find his package and we can’t get home to our mommas. I told him that, but he didn’t seem to see the argument. I’m afraid he’s rather a stupid man.’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘Perhaps he is,’ he said, ‘but at the same time he’s a very dangerous one. I may as well tell you fellows,’ he went on, with sudden determination in his grey eyes, ‘there’s something that’s on my conscience. I had those papers—they were papers, as a matter of fact—the first morning we were down here, and I burnt them. I told him what I’d done when I went in to see him yesterday, but he wouldn’t believe me.’

He paused and looked round him. Campion’s pale eyes were goggling behind his enormous spectacles, and Wyatt met Abbershaw’s appealing glance sympathetically. The rest were more surprised than anything else, and, on the whole, approving.

Campion voiced the general thought. ‘Do you know what they were—the papers, I mean?’ he said, and there was something very like wonderment in his tone. Abbershaw nodded.

‘They were all written in code, but I had a pretty shrewd idea,’ he said, and he explained to them the outline of his ideas on the subject.

Campion listened to him in silence, and when he had finished glanced across and spoke softly. ‘You burnt them?’ he said dreamily, and then remarked, as if he had switched on to an entirely new subject, ‘I wonder if the smoke from five hundred thousand pounds in notes looks any different from any other sort of firing.’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply. ‘Five hundred thousand pounds?’ he said.

‘Why not?’ said Campion lightly. ‘Half a crown here, half a crown there, you know. It soon tells up.’

The others turned to him, attributing the remark to his usual fatuity, but Abbershaw met the pale eyes behind the big spectacles steadily and his apprehension increased. It was not likely that Mr Campion would be far out in his estimation since he knew so much about the affair.

Five hundred thousand pounds. The colossal sum brought home to him the extent of the German’s loss, and he understood the crook’s grim determination to recover the lost plans. He had not thought that the men were playing for such great stakes. In a flash he saw the situation as it really was, and his next words were sharp and imperative.

‘It’s more important than I can say that we should get out of here,’ he said. ‘In fact we’ve got to get out of here at once. Of course I know it’s been the idea all along, but now it’s imperative. At any moment now Whitby may return, and Dawlish will be convinced that I told him the truth yesterday. And then heaven only knows what he will do. Our one hope is to get out before Whitby comes back.’

‘There’s only one way, I’ve been saying it all along.’ It was Chris Kennedy who spoke. He was seated on the end of the bed, his knees crossed, and his young face alert and eager. ‘We shall have to make a straight fight for it,’ he said. ‘It’s our only hope. No one trying to sneak out on his own to inform the local Bobby would have an earthly. I’ve thought of that. They’d spot us and we know they don’t mind shooting.’

‘There’s a suit of armour in the hall,’ suggested Campion suddenly. ‘I’ll put it on and toddle forth into the night, if you like. They could pot at me as much as they pleased. How about that?’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply, but there was no trace of a sneer on the pleasant vacuous face, and he looked abashed when Kennedy spoke a little brutally.

‘Sorry,’ he said, without looking round, ‘we haven’t got time for that sort of stuff now. We’re in a devilish unpleasant situation and we’ve got to get the girls and ourselves out of it. I tell you, a straight fight is the only thing for it. Look here, I’ve got it all taped. We’ve got our first chance coming in a moment. We’ve had dinner every night so far, so I expect we can reasonably suppose that we’ll get it again tonight. Two fellows wait on us then. They’re both armed, we know, and judging from the way they treated Michael they know how to use their guns all right.’

‘Why, they’re not very tricky, are they?’ said Mr. Campion, a faint expression of surprise appearing in his face. ‘I understood you just pressed the trigger and—pop!—off it went.’

Chris Kennedy granted him one withering look and went on with his scheme. ‘There’s only one way to handle these customers, therefore,’ he said. ‘The first thing is to overpower those two and get their guns. Six of us ought to be able to do that. Then the two best shots had better take those revolvers and scout round for the others. The important thing is, of course, that the first bit of work is done in absolute silence. I believe that once we get those two guns we can lay ’em all by the heels. We shall be prepared, we shall be organized—they won’t. What do you say?’

There was a moment or two of silence. Martin Watt was the first to speak. ‘Well, I’m for it,’ he said.

‘So am I,’ said Wyatt quietly.

Abbershaw hesitated, and Prenderby too was silent, whilst Albert Campion remained mild and foolish-looking as if he were looking in on the scene from outside.

Abbershaw was thinking of Meggie. Prenderby too had his fiancée clinging to his arm. Mr. Campion appeared to be thinking of nothing at all.

‘After all, it does seem to be our only chance.’ It was Prenderby who spoke, and the words stirred Abbershaw.

What the boy said was perfectly true. He turned to Kennedy. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘I’m with you.’

Kennedy looked pointedly at Albert. ‘And you?’ he said.

Albert shook his head. ‘Oh, I’m not standing out,’ he said. ‘I don’t like these rough games, but I don’t shirk them when they’re thrust on me. What do we all do?’

Mr. Kennedy appeared to have the whole plan clear in his mind. ‘It’s quite simple,’ he said, leaning his chin in his unwounded hand and bending forward, an intent expression in his eyes.

‘Let me shape your career for you!’ quoted Mr. Campion brightly. Kennedy reddened angrily and dropped the pose, but he went on doggedly.

‘My idea,’ he said, ‘is that three go down to dinner with the girls. I’m afraid they’ll have to come or the men will smell a rat. They start food, and the other three fellows wait outside the door until one of their laddies is at work on the side table and the other serving the dishes at the big table. At that moment someone knocks a glass on to the flags. That’s the signal. Then the blokes outside the door charge in and seize the carver. One of ’em gets his arm. Another stuffs a hanky in his mouth, and the third stands by to slog him over the head if necessary. Hang it, we can’t go wrong like that. The only thing is they mustn’t suspect us. We’ve got to take them by surprise. It’s the simplest thing going as long as we don’t make a row.’

‘Yes,’ said Mr. Campion, standing up with sudden solemnity. ‘A very clever idea, but what we have to ask ourselves is: Is it quite fair! Three men on to one. Come, come, we must remember that we are British, and all that. Perhaps we could each tie a hand behind our backs—or shall I offer them single combat instead?’

Chris Kennedy rose to his feet, and walking across to Mr. Campion spoke quietly but vigorously.

Mr. Campion blushed. ‘I didn’t think you’d take it like that. You will have it your own way, of course. I shan’t say anything.’

‘You’d better not,’ said Kennedy, and walked back to his seat. ‘Abbershaw, you, Michael, and Mr. Campion had better go down with the girls, and Wyatt, Martin, and I will wait for the signal of the broken glass. Who’s going to do that? It had better be a girl. Miss Oliphant, will you do it?’

Meggie nodded. ‘As soon as one man is at the carving-table and the other serving us,’ she said.

Kennedy smiled at her. ‘That’s it,’ he said. ‘Now is that clear?’ he went on, glancing around him, his eyes dancing with excitement. ‘Abbershaw, you get the bloke’s arms, Prenderby, you’re responsible for gagging the sportsman!—’

‘Yes?’ said Campion, who was apparently gibbering with excitement. ‘And what can I do?’

‘You stand by,’ said Kennedy, with something suspiciously like a sneer on his handsome young face.

‘Oh, very well,’ said Mr. Campion, looking considerably disappointed. ‘I’ll stand ready to dot the fellow with a bottle if necessary.’

‘That’s the idea,’ agreed Chris Kennedy somewhat grudgingly, and returned to the others. ‘Of course,’ he said, ‘it’ll be a bit of a shock for the two lackey-thugs to see you all turning up bright and happy after your adventures; still, I think the idea is to walk in as if nothing had ever happened. You can indulge in a certain amount of bright conversation if you like, to put them off the scent. That’s where you’ll come in useful,’ he added, turning to Campion. ‘Talk as much as you like. That’s the time to be funny.’

‘Righto,’ said Mr. Campion, brightening visibly. ‘I’ll show them my two-headed penny. I’ll be awfully witty. “They laughed when I sat down at the piano, but when I began to play they knew at once that I had taken Kennedy’s Patent Course. How they cheered me on—” ’

‘Oh, shut up,’ said Martin Watt, grinning good-naturedly. ‘The fun starts at dinner, then. Oh, and by the way, when we’ve pinched these fellows’ guns, what do we do with the laddies? Leave them lying about?’

‘I’ve thought of that,’ said the indefatigable Kennedy; ‘we tie ’em up. I’ve been collecting portmanteau straps. That’ll do it, you’ll find. We’ll lash ’em both into chairs and leave ’em there.’

‘Yes,’ said Martin, ‘and next? When we’ve fixed up all that, what happens next?’

‘Then somebody takes charge of the girls,’ said Kennedy. ‘They lock themselves in some safe room—Miss Oliphant’s bedroom just at the head of the stairs, for instance. Then the rest of us form into two parties with a revolver each and storm the servants’ quarters, where, with a certain amount of luck, we shall get another gun or two. Then we can let out at some of these lads who amble round keeping an eye on us after dinner. We’ll tie ’em up and raid old Dawlish’s quarters.’

He paused and looked round him, smiling.

‘As soon as we’ve got everyone accounted for, we get the girls and sheer out of the house in a body. How’s that?’

‘Sounds lovely,’ said Mr. Campion, adding after a pause, ‘so simple. It’ll be rather awkward if someone makes a noise, though, won’t it? I mean you might have the entire gang down on you at the one-gun-per-three-men stage.’

Kennedy snapped at him. He was thoroughly tired of Mr. Campion’s helpful suggestions. ‘There just hasn’t got to be any noise,’ he said, ‘that’s the point. And by the way, I think you’re the man to stay with the girls.’

There was no mistaking his inference, but to Abbershaw’s surprise Mr. Campion seemed to jump at the idea.

‘Righto,’ he said, ‘I shall be delighted.’

Chris Kennedy’s answering remark was cut short, rather fortunately, Abbershaw felt, by a single and, in the circumstances, highly dramatic sound—the deep booming of the dinner gong.

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