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Chapter 20 - The Round-Up

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« on: December 20, 2022, 09:15:37 am »

As Abbershaw and Campion made their way slowly down the staircase to the first floor, the house seemed to be unnaturally silent. The candles in the iron sconces had not been lighted, and the corridors were quite dark save for a faint greyness here and there when the open doors of a room permitted the faint light of the stars to penetrate into the gloom.

Abbershaw touched his companion’s arm.

‘How about going through the cupboard passage to the box-room and then down the staircase into Dawlish’s room through the fire-place door?’ he whispered. ‘We might take him by surprise.’ Mr Campion appeared to hesitate. Then his voice, high and foolish as ever, came softly through the thick darkness.

‘Not a bad notion, doctor,’ he said, ‘but we’re too late for that, I’m afraid. Hang it all, our friends’ target practice downstairs must have given the old boy a hint that something was up. It’s only natural. I think we’d better toddle downstairs to see how the little ones progress. Walk softly, keep your gun ready, and for heaven’s sake don’t shoot unless it’s a case of life or sleep perfect sleep.’

On the last word he moved forward so that he was a pace or two ahead of Abbershaw, and they set off down the long corridor in single file.

They reached the head of the staircase without hindrance and paused for a moment to listen. All beneath them was silent, the husky, creaky quiet of an old house at night, and Abbershaw was conscious of an uneasy sensation in the soles of his feet and a tightening of his collar band.

After what seemed an interminable time Campion moved on again, hugging the extra shadow of the wall, and treading so softly that the ancient wood did not creak beneath him. Abbershaw followed him carefully, the gun clenched in his hand. This sort of thing was manifestly not in his line, but he was determined to see it through as creditably as he was able. He might lack experience, but not courage.

A sudden stifled exclamation from Mr. Campion a pace or so ahead of him made him start violently, however; he had not realized how much the experience of the past forty-eight hours had told on his nerves.

‘Look out!’ Campion’s voice was barely audible. ‘Here’s a casualty.’

He dropped silently as he spoke, and the next moment a little pin-prick of light from a minute electric torch fell upon the upturned face of the body upon the stairs.

Abbershaw felt the blood rise and surge in his ears as he looked down and recognized Chris Kennedy, very pale from a gash over his right temple. ‘Dotted over the beam with the familiar blunt instrument,’ murmured Campion sadly. ‘He was so impetuous. Boys will be boys, of course, but—well, well, well.’

‘Is he dead?’ Abbershaw could not see the extent of the damage, and he hardly recognized his own voice, it was so strained and horror-stricken.

‘Dead?’ Mr. Campion seemed to be surprised. ‘Oh, dear me, no—he’s only out of action for a bit. Our friends here are artists in this sort of thing, and I rather fancy that so far Daddy Dawlish has decided against killing off his chicks. Of course,’ he went on softly, ‘what his attitude will be now that we’ve taken up the offensive deliberately I don’t like to suggest. On the whole I think our present policy of complete caution is to be maintained. Hop over this—he’s as safe here as anywhere—and come on.’

Abbershaw stepped carefully over the recumbent figure, and advanced softly after the indefatigable Mr Campion.

They had hardly reached the foot of the staircase, and Abbershaw was speculating upon Campion’s plan of campaign, when their direction was suddenly decided for them. From the vicinity of the servants’ quarters far below them on their left there came a sudden crash which echoed dully over the entire house, followed by a volley of shots and a hoarse scream as of a man in pain or terror.

Albert Campion paused abruptly. ‘That’s done it!’ he said. ‘Now we’ve got to lick ’em! Come on, Doc.’ On the last word he darted forward, Abbershaw at his heels. The door in the recess under the stairs was shut but unlocked, and on opening it they found themselves in a narrow stone corridor with a second door at the far end.

The noise was increasing; it sounded to Abbershaw as if a pitched battle were taking place somewhere near at hand.

The second door disclosed a great stone kitchen lit by two swinging oil lamps. At first Abbershaw thought it was deserted, but a smothered sound from the far end of the room arrested him, and he turned to see a heavy, dark-eyed woman and an hysterical weak-faced girl gagged and bound to wooden kitchen chairs in the darkest corner of the room.

These must be Mrs. Browning and Lizzie Tiddy; the thought flitted through his mind and was forgotten, for Mr. Campion was already at the second door, a heavy iron-studded structure behind which pandemonium seemed to have broken loose. Mr. Campion lifted the iron latch, and then sprang aside as the door shot open to meet him, precipitating the man who had been cowering against it headlong into the room. It was Wendon, the man who had visited Meggie and Abbershaw in their prison room early that morning.

He struggled to his feet and sprang at the first person he caught sight of, which unfortunately for him was Campion himself. His object was a gun, but Mr. Campion, who seemed to have a peculiar aversion to putting a revolver to its right use, extricated himself from the man’s hold with an agility and strength altogether surprising in one of such a languid appearance, and, to use his own words, ‘dotted the fellow’.

It was a scientific tap, well placed and of just adequate force; Wendon’s eyes rolled up, he swayed forward and crashed. Abbershaw and Campion darted over him into the doorway.

The scene that confronted them was an extraordinary one. They were on the threshold of a great vaulted scullery or brewhouse, in which the only light came from a single wall lamp and a blazing fire in the sunken hearth. What furniture there had been in the room, a rickety table and some benches, was smashed to firewood, and lay in splinters all over the stone floor.

There were seven men in the room. Abbershaw recognized the two he had last seen bound and gagged in the dining-hall, two others were strangers to him, and the remaining three were of his own party.

Even in the first moment of amazement he wondered what had happened to their guns. The two prisoners of the dining-room had been relieved of theirs, he knew, but then Martin Watt should be armed. Wendon, too, had had a revolver that morning, and the other two, quick-footed Cockneys with narrow suspicious eyes, should both have had weapons, surely.

Besides, there were the shots he had just heard. There was evidence of gunfire also. Michael Prenderby lay doubled up on a long, flat stone sink which ran the whole length of the place some three feet from the floor. Martin Watt, every trace of his former languidness vanished, was fighting like a maniac with one of the erstwhile prisoners in the shadow at the extreme end of the room; but it was Wyatt who was the central figure in the drama.

He stood balanced on the edge of the sink in front of Michael. The flickering firelight played on the lines of his lank figure, making him seem unnaturally tall. His longish hair was shaken back from his forehead, and his clothes were blood-stained and wildly dishevelled; but it was his face that most commanded attention. The intellectual, clever, and slightly cynical scholar had vanished utterly, and in its place there had appeared a warrior of the Middle Ages, a man who had thrown his whole soul into a fight with fanatical fury.

In his two hands he wielded a wooden pole tipped at the end with a heavy iron scoop, such as are still used in many places to draw water up out of wells. It was clearly the first thing that had come to his hand, but in his present mood it made him the most formidable of weapons. He was lashing out with it with an extraordinary fury, keeping the three men at bay as if they had been yelping dogs, and as an extra flicker from the fire lit up his face afresh it seemed to Abbershaw that it was transformed; he looked more like the Avenging Angel than a scholar with a well scoop.

Campion whipped out his gun, and his quiet high voice sounded clearly through the noise. ‘Now then, now then! Put ’em up!’ he said distinctly. ‘There’s been enough fun here for this evening. Put ’em up! I’m firing,’ he added quietly, and at the same moment a bullet flashed past the head of the man nearest Wyatt and struck the stone wall behind him. The effect was instantaneous. The noise ceased, and slowly the four members of Dawlish’s gang raised their hands above their heads.

Gradually Wyatt’s uplifted weapon sank to the ground and he dropped down off the sink and collapsed, his head between his knees, his arms hanging limply by his sides.

Martin Watt came reeling into the circle of light by the fire, somewhat battered and dishevelled but otherwise unhurt. ‘Thank God you’ve come,’ he said breathlessly, and grinned. ‘I thought our number was up.’

Mr. Campion herded his captives into a straight line along one wall. ‘Now if you fellows will hold them up,’ he said pleasantly, ‘I will repeat my celebrated rope trick. For this performance I shall employ nothing less than actual rope, which I see is all ready waiting for me.’

As he spoke he was unfastening the hank of clothes line which hung ready for use near the fire. He handed Martin his gun, while Abbershaw, more alert this time, held up their captives. As he corded up the four, Martin Watt, still breathless, recounted briefly the events which had led up to the scene they had just witnessed.

‘We got into the kitchen first,’ he said. ‘There didn’t seem to be a soul about except the women. They started to scream the place down though, so we tied ’em up. It wasn’t till we’d done that that we realized that Chris wasn’t with us. We guessed he’d met trouble, so we started to go back. We hadn’t got half-way across the room, though, before the door burst open and a man came in.’

He paused and took a deep breath.

‘I told him to put up his hands or I’d fire at him,’ he went on jerkily, ‘but he didn’t. He just came for me, so I did fire. I didn’t hit him, of course—I didn’t mean to—but the noise seemed to start things up generally. There seemed to be footsteps all round us. We didn’t know where to shove the cove. The door into here seemed handy and we’d just got him inside when these four charged in on us from the kitchen passage. Michael had got the first fellow’s gun by that time. He lost his head a bit, I guess, and blazed at them—shooting wildly over their heads most of the time. Then one of the fellows got him and he curled up on the sink over there with his gun underneath him. By this time, however, I’d got ’em fairly well under control, God knows how.’

The boy spoke modestly, but there were indications of ‘how’ upon the faces of their captives. ‘I got them to stick up their hands,’ he continued, ‘and then I yelled to Wyatt to get their guns.’

He paused, and glanced at the silent figure hunched up on the flags.

‘Poor old chap,’ he said. ‘I think he went barmy—almost ran amok. He got the guns all right—there were only two of them—and before I could stop him or yell at him even, he had chucked them into that bricked-up place over there. See what it is? A darn great well—I heard them splash ages after they went in. I bawled at him, but he yelled out what sounded like “Sweet Seventeen” or something equally potty, grabbed that scoop, and began to lay about with it like a loony.’ He shook his head and paused for breath. ‘Then a foul thing happened,’ he went on suddenly. ‘One of them came for me—and I warned him I’d shoot, and finally I tried to, but the thing only clicked in my hand. The shot I had already fired must have been the last. Then we closed. When you came in the other three were trying to get at Prenderby for his gun—he was knocked out, you know—and old Wyatt was lashing round like the flail of the Lord. Then, of course, you just finished things off for us.’

‘A very pretty tale of love and war,’ murmured Mr. Campion, some of his old inanity returning. ‘ “Featuring Our Boys. Positively for One Night Only.” I’ve finished with the lads now, Doc—you might have a look at the casualties.’

Abbershaw lowered his revolver, and approached Prenderby with some trepidation. The boy lay on the stone sink dangerously doubled up, his face hidden. A hasty examination, however, disclosed only a long superficial scalp wound. Abbershaw heaved a sigh of relief. ‘He’s stunned,’ he said briefly. ‘The bullet grazed along his temple and put him out. We ought to get him upstairs, though, I think.’

‘Well, I don’t see why we shouldn’t,’ said Martin cheerfully. ‘Hang it, our way is fairly clear now. Gideon and a thug are upstairs, you say, safely out of the way; we have four sportsmen here and one outside; that’s seven altogether. Then the doctor lad and his shover are still away presumably, so there’s only old Dawlish himself left. The house is ours.’

‘Not so eager, not so eager!’ Albert Campion strolled over to them as he spoke. ‘Old Daddy Dawlish is an energetic bit of work, believe me. Besides, he has only to get going with his Boy Scout’s ever-ready, self-expanding, patent pocket-knife and the fun will begin all over again. No, I think that the doc. had better stay here with his gun, his patient and the prisoners, while you come along with me. I’ll take Prenderby’s gun.’

‘Righto,’ said Martin. ‘What’s the idea, a tour of the works?’

‘More or less,’ Campion conceded. ‘I want you to do a spot of ambulance work. The White Hope of our side is draped tastefully along the front stairs. While you’re gathering up the wreckage I’ll toddle round to find Poppa von Faber, and on my way back after the argument I’ll call in for the girls, and we’ll all make our final exit en masse. Dignity, Gentlemen, and British Boyhood’s Well-known Bravery, Coolness, and Distinction are the passwords of the hour.’

Martin looked at him wonderingly. ‘Do you always talk bilge?’ he said.

‘No,’ said Mr. Campion lightly, ‘but I learnt the language reading advertisements. Come on.’

He led the way out of the brewhouse into the kitchen, Martin following. On the threshold he paused suddenly, and an exclamation escaped him.

‘What’s happened?’ Abbershaw darted after them, and the next moment he, too, caught his breath.

Wendon, the man Campion had laid out not ten minutes before, and left lying an inert mass on the fibre matting, had vanished utterly. Campion spoke softly, and his voice was unusually grave.

‘He didn’t walk out of here on his own,’ he said. ‘There’s not a skull on earth that would withstand that tap I gave him. No, my sons, he was fetched.’ And while they looked at him he grinned. ‘To be continued—evidently,’ he said, and added lightly, ‘Coming, Martin?’

Abbershaw returned to his post in the brewhouse, and, after doing all he could for the still unconscious Prenderby, settled down to await further developments. He had given up reflecting upon the strangeness of the circumstances which had brought him, a sober, respectable London man, into such an extraordinary position, and now sat staring ahead, his eyes fixed on the grey stone wall in front of him.

Wyatt remained where he had collapsed; the others had not addressed him, realizing in some vague subconscious way that he would rather that they left him alone.

Abbershaw had forgotten him entirely, so that when he raised himself suddenly and staggered to his feet the little red-haired doctor was considerably startled. Wyatt’s face was unnaturally pale, and his dark eyes had become lacklustre and without expression. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said quietly. ‘I had a brain storm, I think—I must get old Harcourt Gieves to overhaul me if we ever get back to London again.’

‘If we ever get back?’ The words started out of Abbershaw’s mouth. ‘My dear fellow, don’t be absurd! We’re bound to get back some time or other.’ He heard his own voice speaking testily in the silence of the room, and then with a species of forced cheerfulness foreign to him. ‘But now I think we shall be out of the house in an hour or so, and I shall be delighted to inform the county police of this amazing outrage.’

Even while he spoke he wondered at himself. The words and the voice were those of a small man speaking of a small thing—he was up against something much bigger than that.

Further conversation was cut short by the arrival of Martin with the now conscious but still dazed Kennedy. The four prisoners remained quiet, and after the first jerky word of greeting and explanation there was no sound in the brewhouse, save the crackling of the fire in the great hearth.

It was Abbershaw himself who first broke the silence. It seemed that they had waited an age, and there was still no audible movement in the house above them. ‘I hope he’s all right,’ he said nervily.

Martin Watt looked up. ‘An extraordinary chap,’ he said slowly. ‘What is he?’

Abbershaw hesitated. The more he thought about Mr. Albert Campion’s profession the more confused in mind he became. It was not easy to reconcile what he knew of the man with his ideas on con-men and that type of shady character in general. There was even a possibility, of course, that Campion was a murderer, but the farther away his interview with Mrs. Meade became, the more ridiculous and absurd that supposition seemed. He did not answer Martin’s question, and the boy went on lazily, almost as if he were speaking to himself.

‘The fellow strikes one as a congenital idiot,’ he said. ‘Even now I’m not sure that he’s not one; yet if it hadn’t been for him we’d all be in a nasty mess at the present moment. It isn’t that he suddenly stops fooling and becomes serious, though,’ he went on, ‘he’s fooling the whole time all right—he is a fool, in fact.’

‘He’s an amazing man,’ said Abbershaw, adding as though in duty bound, ‘and a good fellow.’ But he would not commit himself further, and the silence began again. Yet no one heard the kitchen door open, or noticed any approach, until a shadow fell over the bright doorway, and Mr. Campion, inoffensive and slightly absurd as ever, appeared on the threshold.

‘I’ve scoured the house,’ he murmured, ‘not a soul about. Old Daddy Hun and his pal are not the birds I took them for. They appear to have vamoosed—I fancy I heard a car. Ready?’

‘Did you get the women?’ It was Abbershaw who spoke. Campion nodded. ‘They’re here behind me, game as hell. Bring Prenderby over your shoulder, Watt. We’ll all hang together, women in the centre, and the guns on the outside; I don’t think there’s anyone around, but we may as well be careful. Now for the wide open spaces!’

Martin hoisted the unconscious boy over his shoulder and Abbershaw and Wyatt supported Kennedy, who was now rapidly coming to himself, between them. The girls were waiting for them in the kitchen. Jeanne was crying quietly on Meggie’s shoulder, and there was no trace of colour in Anne Edgeware’s round cheeks, but they showed no signs of panic. Campion marshalled the little force into advancing order, placing himself at the head, Meggie and Jeanne behind him, with Abbershaw on one side and Martin and Anne on the other, while Wyatt and Kennedy were behind.

‘The side door,’ said Campion. ‘It takes us nearest the garage—there may be some juice about now. If not, we must toddle of course. The tour will now proceed, visiting the Albert Memorial, Ciro’s, and the Royal Ophthalmic Hospital . . .’

As he spoke he led them down the stone passage-way, out of the door under the stairs, and down the corridor to the side door, through which Abbershaw had gone to visit the garage on the fateful night of the Dagger Ritual.

‘Now,’ he said, as with extraordinarily silent fingers he manœuvred the ponderous bars and locks on the great door, ‘this is where the orchestra begins to play soft music and the circle shuffles for its hats as we fall into one another’s arms—that’s done it!’

On the last word the hinges creaked faintly as the heavy door swung inwards. The night was pitch dark but warm and pleasant, and they went out eagerly on the gravel, each conscious of an unspeakable relief as the realization of freedom came to them.

‘My God!’ The words were uttered in a sob as Campion started forward.

At the same moment the others caught a shadowy glimpse of the radiator of a great car not two yards ahead of them. Then they were enveloped in the glare of enormous head-lights, which completely blinded them. They stood dazed and helpless for an instant, caught mercilessly and held by the glare.

A quiet German voice spoke out of the brightness, cold, and inexplicably horrible in its tonelessness.
‘I have covered the girl with red hair with my revolver; my assistant has the woman on the left as his aim. If there is any movement from anybody other than those I shall command, we shall both fire. Put your hands over your heads. Everybody! . . . So.’

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