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Chapter 19 - Mr. Campion’s Conjuring Trick

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« on: December 20, 2022, 08:13:11 am »

The six young people went down to the big dining-hall with a certain amount of trepidation. Jeanne clung to Prenderby, the other two girls stuck together, and Abbershaw was able to have a word or two with Mr Campion. ‘You don’t like the idea?’ he murmured.

The other shrugged his shoulders.

‘It’s the risk, my old bird,’ he said softly. ‘Our pugilistic friend doesn’t realize that we’re not up against a gang of racecourse thugs. I tried to point it out to him but I’m afraid he just thought I was trying to be funny. People without humour always have curious ideas on that subject. However, it may come off. It’ll be the last thing he’ll expect us to do, anyway, and if you really have burnt that paper it’s the best thing we could do.’

‘I suppose you think I’m a fool,’ said Abbershaw, a little defiantly. Campion grinned.

‘On the contrary, young sir, I think you’re a humorist. A trifle unconscious, perhaps, but none the worse for that.’

Their conversation ended abruptly, for they had reached the foot of the staircase and were approaching the dining-room.

The door stood open, and they went in to find the table set for all nine of them, and the two men who had acted as footmen during the week-end awaiting their coming. They sat down at the table. ‘The others won’t be a moment, but we’ll start, please,’ said Campion, and the meal began.

For some minutes it seemed as if the funereal atmosphere which surrounded the whole house was going to damp any attempt at bright conversation that anyone might feel disposed to make, but Mr. Campion sailed nobly into the breach.

Abbershaw was inclined to wonder at him until he realized with a little shock that considering the man’s profession the art of talking rubbish in any circumstances might be one of his chief stock-in-trades.

At the moment he was speaking of food. His high voice worked up to a pitch of enthusiasm, and his pale eyes widened behind his horn-rimmed spectacles.

‘It all depends what you mean by eating,’ he was saying. ‘I don’t believe in stuffing myself, you know, but I’m not one of those people who are against food altogether. I knew a woman once who didn’t believe in food—thought it was bad for the figure—so she gave it up altogether. Horrible results, of course; she got so thin that no one noticed her around—husband got used to being alone—estrangement, divorce—oh, I believe in food. I say, have you seen my new trick with a napkin and a salt-cellar—rather natty, don’t you think?’

He covered a salt-cellar with his napkin as he spoke, made several passes over it, a solemn expression on his face, and then, whisking the napery away, disclosed nothing but shining oak beneath.

His mind still on Mr Campion’s profession, Abbershaw was conscious of a certain feeling of apprehension. The salt-cellar was antique, probably worth a considerable sum.

Mr Campion’s trick was not yet over, however. A few more passes and the salt-cellar was discovered issuing from the waistcoat of the man-servant who happened to be attending to him at the time.

‘There!’ he said. ‘A pretty little piece of work, isn’t it? All done by astrology. For my next I shall require two assistants, any live fish, four aspidistras, and one small packet of Gold Flake.’ As he uttered the last words he turned sharply to beam around the table, and his elbow caught Meggie’s glass and sent it crashing to the floor.

A little breathless silence would have followed the smash had not he bounded up from his chair immediately and bent down ostensibly to gather up the fragments, jabbering the whole time. ‘What an idiot! What an idiot! Have I splashed your dress, Miss Oliphant? All over the floor! What a mess, what a mess! Come here, my man, here: bring a dust-pan and broom with you.’ He was making such a fuss and such a noise that no one had noticed the door open, and the somewhat self-conscious entry of Chris Kennedy’s little band. No one, that is, save Campion, who from his place of vantage half-way under the table had an excellent view of the feet.

At the moment when Martin Watt leapt forward at the man by the carving table, Campion threw his arms round the other man-servant’s legs just below the knees, and jerked him back on to the flags with an almost professional neatness. Within two seconds he was seated astride the man’s chest, his knees driven into the fleshy part of his arms, whilst he stuffed a handkerchief into his mouth. Abbershaw and Prenderby hurried to his assistance and between them they strapped the man into a chair, where he sat glaring at them, speechless and impotent.

Kennedy’s party, though less neat, had been quite as successful, and Chris himself, flushed with excitement, now stood with his man’s loaded revolver in his hand. ‘Have you got his gun?’ he said, in a voice which sounded hoarse even to himself, as he indicated Campion’s captive.

‘No,’ said Abbershaw, and began his search. Two minutes later he looked up, disappointed. ‘He hasn’t one,’ he said at last, and even the man himself seemed surprised.

Kennedy swore softly and handed the gun which he held to Martin.

‘You’d better have it,’ he said. ‘I’m hopeless with my right arm gone. Now, then, Campion, will you go upstairs with the girls? Abbershaw, you’d better go with them. As soon as you’ve seen them safely locked in the room, come back to us. We’re making for the servants’ quarters.’

They obeyed in silence, and Abbershaw led Campion and the three girls quietly out of the room, across the hall, and up the wide staircase. On the first landing they paused abruptly. Two figures were looming towards them through the dimness ahead. It was Jesse Gideon and the heavy, red-faced man whom Abbershaw had encountered outside Dawlish’s door in his search for Meggie. They would have passed in silence had not Gideon spoken suspiciously in his smooth silken voice.

‘Dinner is over early?’ he said, fixing his narrow glittering eyes on Meggie.

She replied coldly that it was, and made as if to pass on up the stairs, but Gideon evidently intended to prolong the conversation, for he glided in front of her so that he and the surly ruffian beside him barred her progress up the stairs from the step above the one on which she was standing.

‘You are all so eager,’ Gideon continued softly, ‘that it almost looks like an expedition to me. Or perhaps it is one of your charming games of hide-and-seek which you play so adroitly,’ he added, and the sneer on his unpleasant face was very obvious. ‘You will forgive me saying so I am sure,’ he went on, still in the same soothing obsequious voice, ‘but don’t you think you are trying Mr Dawlish’s patience a little too much by being so foolish in your escapades? If you are wise you will take my advice and keep very quiet until it pleases him to release you.’

He spoke banteringly, but there was no mistaking the warning behind his words, and it was with some eagerness that Abbershaw took Meggie’s arm and piloted her between the two men. His one aim at the moment was to get the girl safely to her room.

‘We understand you perfectly, Mr Gideon,’ he murmured. Gideon’s sneer deepened into a contemptuous smile and he moved aside a little to let them pass. Abbershaw deliberately ignored his attitude. He wanted no arguments till the girls were safe. They were passing silently therefore, when suddenly from somewhere beneath them there sounded, ugly and unmistakable, a revolver shot.

Instantly Gideon’s smiling contempt turned to a snarl of anger as all his suspicions returned—verified.
‘So it is an expedition, is it?’ he said softly. ‘A little explanation, if you please.’

Abbershaw realized that once again they were caught, and a feeling of utter dejection passed over him.

Suddenly from the darkness behind him a high, rather foolish voice that yet had a certain quality of sternness in it said quickly, ‘Don’t talk so much. Put ’em up!’

While Abbershaw stood looking at them, Gideon and his burly companion, with mingled expressions of rage and amazement on their faces, raised their hands slowly above their heads.

‘Quick, man, get their guns!’

The words were uttered in Abbershaw’s ear by a voice that was still vaguely foolish. He obeyed it instantly, removing a small, wicked little weapon from Gideon’s hip pocket and a heavy service revolver from the thug’s.

‘Now then, turn round. Quick march. Keep ’em right up. I’m a dangerous man and I shoot like hell.’

Abbershaw glanced round involuntarily, and saw what Gideon and his companion must have done some minutes before—Albert Campion’s pleasant, vacuous face, pale and curiously in earnest in the faint light, as he peered at them from behind the gleaming barrel of a heavy Webley.

‘Shove the girls in their room. Give Miss Oliphant the little pistol, and then come with me,’ he murmured to Abbershaw, as the strange procession set off up the stairs.

‘Steady,’ he went on in a louder voice to the two men in front of him. ‘No fancy work. Any noise either of you makes will be voluntary suicide for the good of the cause. It’ll mean one man less to tie up, anyway. I’m taking them up to my room,’ he murmured to Abbershaw. ‘Follow me there. They’re slippery beggars and two guns are better than one.’

Abbershaw handed Gideon’s little revolver to Meggie, which she took eagerly. ‘We’ll be all right,’ she whispered. ‘Go on after him. They’re terrible people.’

‘For God’s sake wait here till we come, then,’ he whispered back. She nodded, and for a moment her steady brown eyes met his.

‘We will, old dear. Don’t worry about us. We’re all right.’

She disappeared into the room with Jeanne and Anne Edgeware, and Abbershaw hurried after Campion considerably reassured. Meggie was a wonderful girl.

He reached Campion just in time to get the bedroom door open and to assist him to get the two into the room. ‘Now,’ said Campion, ‘it’s getting infernally dark, so we’ll have to work fast. Abbershaw, will you keep watch over these two gentlemen. I’m afraid you may have to fire at the one on the right, he’s swearing so horribly—while I attend to Mr Gideon’s immediate needs. That worthy enthusiast, Chris Kennedy, has pinched all my straps, and though I hate to behave as no guest should, I’m afraid there’s no help for it. The Black Dudley linen will have to go.’

As he spoke he stripped the clothes from the great four-poster bed, and began to tear the heavy linen sheets into wide strips. ‘If you could persuade Mr. Gideon to stand with his back against the post of this bed,’ he remarked at length, ‘I think something might be done for him. Hands still up, please.’

Ten minutes later, a silent mummy-like figure, stretched against the bedpost, arms bandaged to the wood high above his head, an improvised gag in his mouth, was all that remained of the cynical little foreigner.

Mr. Campion seemed to have a touch of the professional in all he did. He stood back to survey his handiwork with some pride, then he glanced at their other captive. ‘Heavy, unpleasant-looking bird,’ he remarked. ‘I’m afraid he’s too heavy for the bed. Isn’t there something we can shove him into?’

He glanced round the room as he spoke, and their captive fancied that Abbershaw’s eyes followed his, for he suddenly lunged forward and caught the doctor, who was unused to such situations, round the ankles, sending him sprawling. The heavy gun was thrown out of Abbershaw’s hand and the thug reached out a great hairy fist for it.

He was quick, but Campion was before him. With a sudden cat-like movement he snatched up the weapon, and as the other came for him, lunging forward, all his ponderous weight behind his fist, Campion stepped back lightly and then, raising his arm above his head, brought down the butt of the pistol with all his strength upon the close-shaven skull.

The man went down like a log as Abbershaw scrambled to his feet, breathless and apologetic. ‘My dear old bird, don’t lose your Organizing Power, Directive Ability, Self-Confidence, Driving Force, Salesmanship, and Business Acumen,’ chattered Mr Campion cheerfully. ‘In other words, look on the bright side of things. This fruity affair down here, for instance, has solved his own problem. All we have to do now is to stuff him in a cupboard and lock the door. He won’t wake up for a bit yet.’

Abbershaw, still apologetic, assisted him to lift the heavy figure into a hanging cupboard, where they deposited him, shutting the door and turning the key.

‘Well, now I suppose we’d better lend a hand with the devilry downstairs,’ said Mr. Campion, stretching himself. ‘I haven’t heard any more shots, have you?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Abbershaw. ‘I fancied I heard something while you were dealing with—er—that last customer. And I say, Campion, I haven’t liked to ask you before now, but where the devil did you get that gun from?’

Mr. Campion grinned from behind his enormous spectacles. ‘Oh, that,’ he said, ‘that was rather fortunate as it happened. I had a notion things might be awkward, so I was naturally anxious that the guns, or at least one of them, should fall into the hands of someone who knew something about bluff at any rate.’

‘Where did you get it from?’ demanded Abbershaw. ‘I thought only one of those men in the dining-room had a gun?’

‘Nor had they when we tackled ’em,’ agreed Mr Campion. ‘I relieved our laddie of this one earlier on in the meal, while I was performing my incredible act with the salt-cellar, in fact. It was the first opportunity I’d had, and I couldn’t resist it.’

Abbershaw stared at him. ‘By Jove,’ he said, with some admiration, ‘while you were doing your conjuring trick you picked his pocket.’

Mr. Campion hesitated, and Abbershaw had the uncomfortable impression that he reddened slightly. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘in a way, yes, but if you don’t mind—let’s call it leger de main, shall we?’

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