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Chapter 21 - The Point of View of Benjamin Dawlish

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Author Topic: Chapter 21 - The Point of View of Benjamin Dawlish  (Read 17 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 09:24:41 am »

It was all over very quickly. There was no way of telling if the cold merciless voice behind the blinding lights was speaking truth or no, but in the circumstances it was impossible not to regard it. The little party stood there, hands raised above their heads; then hurrying footsteps echoed down the stone corridor behind them and their erstwhile prisoners surrounded them. The German had lied when he spoke of his assistant, then. The man must have slipped into the house by the other door and released the men in the brewhouse.

‘You will now go up to a room on the top floor to which my men will lead you. Anyone who makes the least attempt to escape will be shot instantly. By “shot” I mean shot dead.’

The voice of Benjamin Dawlish came clearly to them from behind the wall of light. The icy tonelessness which had made the voice so terrible on the first hearing was still there and Abbershaw had a vision of the expressionless face behind it, heavy and without life, like a mask.

The spirit of the little group was momentarily broken. They had made their attempt and failed in the very moment when their success seemed assured. Again unarmed, they were forced back into the house and placed in a room on the top floor at the far end of the long gallery where Albert Campion had had his fight with the butler. It was a long narrow room, oak-panelled, but without a fire-place, and lighted only from a single narrow iron-barred window.

Even as Abbershaw entered it, a feeling of misgiving overcame him. Other rooms had possibilities of escape; this held none. It was completely empty, and the door was of treble oak, iron-studded. It had doubtless been used at one time as a private chapel, possibly in those times when it was wisest to hold certain religious ceremonies behind barred doors.

The only light came from a hurricane lantern which one of the men had brought up with him. He set it on the floor now so that the room was striped with grotesque shadows. The prisoners were herded down to the end of the room, two men keeping them covered the whole time. Martin Watt set Prenderby down in a corner, and Jeanne, still crying quietly, squatted down beside him and took his head in her lap.

Abbershaw darted forward towards their captors. ‘This is absurd,’ he said bitterly. ‘Either let us interview Mr. Dawlish downstairs or let him come up to us. It’s most important that we should come to a proper understanding at last.’

One of the men laughed. ‘I’m afraid you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he said in a curiously cultured voice. ‘As a matter of fact I believe Mr Dawlish is coming up to talk to you in a moment or so. But I’m afraid you’ve got a rather absurd view of the situation altogether. You don’t seem to realize the peculiar powers of our chief.’

Wyatt leaned against the oak panelling, his arms folded and his chin upon his breast. Ever since the incident in the brewhouse he had been peculiarly morose and silent. Mr. Campion also was unusually quiet, and there was an expression on his face that betrayed his anxiety. Meggie and Anne stood together. They were obviously very frightened, but they did not speak or move. Chris Kennedy fumed with impotent rage, and Martin Watt was inclined to be argumentative.

‘I don’t know what the damn silly game is,’ he said, ‘but whatever it is it’s time we stopped playing. Your confounded “Chief” may be the great Pooh-Bah himself for all I care, but if he thinks he can imprison nine respectable citizens for an indefinite period on the coast of Suffolk without getting himself into serious trouble he’s barmy, that’s all there is to it. What’s going to happen when inquiries start being made?’

The man who had spoken before did not answer, but he smiled, and there was something very unpleasant and terrifying about that smile.

Further remarks from Martin were cut short by steps in the corridor outside and the sudden appearance of Mr. Benjamin Dawlish himself, followed by Gideon, pale and stiff from his adventure, but smiling sardonically, his round eyes veiled, and his wicked mouth drawn all over to one side in the ‘O’ which so irritated Abbershaw.

‘Now look here, sir.’ It was Martin Watt who spoke. ‘It’s time you had a straight talk with us. You may be a criminal, but you’re behaving like a lunatic, and—’

‘Stop that, young man.’ Dawlish’s deep unemotional voice sounded heavily in the big room, and instantly the boy found that he had the muzzle of a revolver pressed against his ribs.

‘Shut up,’ a voice murmured in his ear, ‘or you’ll be plugged as sure as hell.’

Martin relapsed into helpless silence, and the German continued. He was still unblinking and expressionless, his heavy red face deeply shadowed in the fantastic light. He looked at them steadily from one to the other as if he had been considering them individually, but there was no indication from his face or his manner to betray anything of his conclusions.

‘So,’ he said, ‘when I look at you I see how young you all are, and it does not surprise me any longer that you should be so foolish. You are ignorant, that is why you are so absurd.’

‘If you’ve come here to be funny—’ Martin burst out, but the gun against his ribs silenced him, and the German went on speaking in his inflexible voice as if there had been no interruption.

‘Before I explain to you what exactly I have ordained shall happen,’ he said, ‘I have decided to make everything quite clear to you. I do this because it is my fancy that none of you should consider I have behaved in any way unreasonably. I shall begin at the beginning. On Friday night Colonel Coombe was murdered in this house while you were playing in the dark with that ancient dagger which hangs in the hall. It was with that dagger that he was killed.’

This announcement was news to some of his hearers, and his quick eyes took in the expressions of the little group before him. ‘I concealed that murder,’ he continued deliberately, ‘because at that time there were several very excellent reasons why I should do so. It would have been of very great inconvenience to me if there had been an inquest upon Coombe, as he was in my employ, and I do not tolerate any interference, private or official, in my affairs. Apart from that, however, the affair had very little interest for me, but I should like to make it clear now that although I do not know his identity, the person who killed Gordon Coombe is in this room facing me. I say this advisedly because I know that no one entered the house from outside that night, nor has any stranger left it since, and even had they not perfect alibis there is no reason why I should credit it to one of my own people.’

His inference was clear, and there was a moment of resentment among the young people, although no one spoke. The German went on with inexorable calm.

‘But as I have said,’ he repeated, in his awkward pedantic English, ‘that does not interest me. What is more important to me is this. Either the murderer stole a packet of papers off the body of his victim, or else Colonel Coombe handed them at some time or other in that evening to one of you. Those papers are mine. I think I estimate their value to me at something over half one million pounds. There is one other man in the world to whom they would be worth something approaching the same value. I assume that one of you here is a servant of that man.’

Again he paused, and again his small round eyes scrutinized the faces before him. Then, apparently satisfied, he continued. ‘You will admit that I have done everything in my power to obtain possession of these papers without harming anyone. From the first you have behaved abominably. May I suggest that you have played hide-and-seek about the house like school-children? And at last you have annoyed me. There are also one or two among you’—he glanced at Abbershaw—‘with whom I have old scores to settle. You have been searched, and you have been watched, yet no trace of my property has come to light. Therefore I give you one last chance. At eleven o’clock tomorrow morning I leave this house with my staff. We shall take the side roads that will lead us on to the main Yarmouth motor way without passing through any villages. If I have my property in my possession when I go, I will see that you can contrive your release for yourselves. If not—’

He paused, and they realized the terrible thing that was coming a full second before the quiet words left his lips.

‘I shall first set fire to the house. To shoot you direct would be dangerous—even charred skeletons may show traces of bullet fractures. No, I am afraid I must just leave you to the fire.’

In the breathless silence that followed his announcement Jeanne’s sobs became suddenly very audible, and Abbershaw, his face pale and horror-stricken, leapt forward. ‘But I told you,’ he said passionately. ‘I told you. I burnt those papers. I described them to you. I burnt them—the ashes are probably in my bedroom grate now.’

A sound that was half a snarl, half a cry, broke from the German, and for the second time they saw the granite composure of his face broken, and had a vision of the livid malevolence behind the mask.

‘If I could believe, Dr. Abbershaw,’ he said, ‘that you could ever be so foolish—so incredibly foolish—as to destroy a packet of papers, a portion of whose value must have been evident to you, then I could believe also that you could deserve no better fate than the singularly unpleasant death which most certainly awaits you and your friends unless I am in possession of my property by eleven o’clock tomorrow morning. Good night, ladies and gentlemen. I leave you to think it over.’

He passed out of the room on the last words, the smirking Gideon on his heels. His men backed out after him, their guns levelled. Abbershaw dashed after them just as the great door swung to. He beat upon it savagely with his clenched fists, but the oak was like a rock.

‘Burn?’ Martin’s voice broke the silence, and it was almost wondering. ‘But the place is stone—it can’t burn.’

Wyatt raised his eyes slowly. ‘The outer walls are stone,’ he said, and there was a curious note in his voice which sent a thrill of horror through everyone who heard it. ‘The outer walls are stone, but the rest of it is oak, old, well-seasoned oak. It will burn like kindling wood in a grate.’

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