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Chapter 22 - The Darkest Hour

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« on: December 20, 2022, 09:38:44 am »

‘The time,’ said Mr. Campion, ‘is nine o’clock.’

Chris Kennedy stretched himself wearily. ‘Six hours since that swine left us,’ he said. ‘Do you think we’ve got an earthly?’

There was a stir in the room after he had spoken, and almost everybody looked at the pale-haired bespectacled young man who sat squatting on his haunches in a corner. Jeanne and Prenderby were alone unconscious of what was going on. The little girl still supported the boy’s head in her lap, with her timid little figure crouched over him, her face hidden.

Albert Campion shook his head. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, but there was no hopefulness in his tone, and once again the little group relapsed into the silence that had settled over them after the first outburst which had followed von Faber’s departure. Whatever their attitude had been before, they were all now very much alive to the real peril of their position. Von Faber had not been wasting his time when he had spoken to them, and they had each been struck by the stark callousness which had been visible in him throughout the entire interview.

At last Campion rose to his feet and came across to where Meggie and Abbershaw were seated. Gravely he offered Abbershaw his cigarette-case in which there was a single cigarette neatly cut into two pieces.

‘I did it with a razor blade,’ he said. ‘Rather neat, don’t you think?’

Abbershaw took the half gratefully and they shared a match.

‘I suppose,’ said Campion suddenly, speaking in a quiet and confidential tone, ‘I suppose you did really burn that junk, Doc.’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply. ‘I did,’ he said. ‘God forgive me. When I think what I’m responsible for I feel I shall go mad.’

Mr. Campion shrugged his shoulders. ‘My dear old bird,’ he said, ‘I shouldn’t put too much stress on what our friend von Faber says. He doesn’t seem to me to be a person to be relied upon.’

‘Why? Do you think he’s just trying to frighten us?’

Abbershaw spoke eagerly, and the other shook his head.

‘I’m afraid not, in the sense you mean,’ he said. ‘I think he’s set his heart on this little conflagration scene. The man is a criminal loony, of course. No, I only meant that probably, had someone handed over his million-dollar book of the words, the Guy Fawkes celebrations would have gone forward all the same. I’m afraid he’s just a nasty vindictive person.’

Meggie shuddered but her voice was quite firm. ‘Do you mean to say that you really think he’ll burn the house down with us up here?’ she said.

Campion looked up at her, and then at Abbershaw.

‘Not a nice type is he?’ he murmured. ‘I’m afraid we’re for it, unless by a miracle the villagers see the bonfire before we’re part of it, or the son of our friend in the attic calls earlier than was expected.’

Meggie stiffened. ‘Mrs. Meade,’ she said. ‘I’d forgotten all about her. What will Mr. Dawlish do about her, do you suppose?’

Mr. Campion spoke grimly. ‘I could guess,’ he said, and there was silence for a while after that.

‘But how terrible!’ Meggie burst out suddenly. ‘I didn’t believe that people like this were allowed to exist. I thought we were civilized. I thought this sort of thing couldn’t happen.’

Mr. Campion sighed. ‘A lot of people believe things like that,’ he said. ‘They imagine the world is a well-ordered nursery with Scotland Yard and the British Army standing by to whack anybody who quarrels or uses a naughty word. I thought that at one time, I suppose everybody does, but it’s not like that really, you know. Look at me, for example—who would dream of the cunning criminal brain that lurks beneath my inoffensive exterior?’

The other two regarded him curiously. In any other circumstances they would have been embarrassed. Abbershaw was the first to speak.

‘I say,’ he said, ‘if you don’t mind my asking such a thing, what on earth made you take up your—er—present profession?’

Mr. Campion regarded him owlishly through his enormous spectacles. ‘Profession?’ he said indignantly. ‘It’s my vocation. It seemed to me that I had no talent for anything else, but in this line I can eke out the family pittance with tolerable comfort. Of course,’ he went on suddenly, as he caught sight of Meggie’s face, ‘I don’t exactly “crim”, you know, as I told the doc. here. My taste is impeccable. Most of my commissions are more secret than shady. I occasionally do a spot of work for the Government, though, of course, that isn’t as lucrative as honest crime. This little affair, of course, was perfectly simple. I had only to join this house-party, take a packet of letters from the old gentleman, toddle back to the Savoy, and my client would be waiting for me. A hundred guineas, and all clean fun—no brain-work required.’ He beamed at them. ‘Of course I knew what I was in for,’ he went on. ‘I knew that more or less as soon as I got down here. I didn’t expect anything quite like this, though, I admit. I’m afraid the Gay Career and all that is in the soup.’

He spoke lightly, but there was no callousness in his face, and it suddenly occurred to Abbershaw that he was doing his best to cheer them up, for after a moment or two of silence he remarked suddenly:
‘After all, I don’t see why the place should burn as he says it will, and I know people do escape from burning houses because I’ve seen it on the pictures.’

His remarks were cut short by a thundering blow upon the door, and in the complete silence that followed, a voice spoke slowly and distinctly so that it was audible throughout the entire room. ‘You have another hour,’ it said, ‘in which to restore Mr Dawlish’s property. If it is not forthcoming by that time there will be another of these old country-mansion fires which have been so frequent of late. It is not insured and so it is not likely that anyone will inquire into the cause too closely.’

Martin Watt threw himself against the door with all his strength, and there was a soft amused laugh from outside.

‘We heard your attempts to batter down the door last night,’ said the voice, ‘and Mr. Dawlish would like you to know that although he has perfect faith in it holding, he has taken the precaution to reinforce it considerably on this side. As you have probably found out, the walls, too, are not negotiable and the window won’t afford you much satisfaction.’

‘You dirty swine!’ shouted Chris Kennedy weakly from his corner, and Martin Watt turned slowly upon his heel and came back into the centre of the room, an expression of utter hopelessness on his face.
‘I’m afraid we’re sunk,’ he said slowly and quietly and moved over towards the window, where he stood peering out between the bars.

Wyatt sat propped up against the wall, his chin supported in his hands, and his eyes fixed steadily upon the floor in front of him. For some time he had neither moved nor spoken. As Abbershaw glanced at him he could not help being reminded once again of the family portraits in the big dining-hall, and he seemed somehow part and parcel of the old house, sitting there morosely waiting for the end.

Meggie suddenly lifted her head. ‘How extraordinary,’ she said softly, ‘to think that everything is going on just the same only a mile or two away. I heard a dog barking somewhere. It’s incredible that this fearful thing should be happening to us and no one near enough to get us out. Think of it,’ she went on quietly. ‘A man murdered and taken away casually as if it were a light thing, and then a criminal lunatic’—she paused and her brown eyes narrowed—‘I hope he’s a lunatic—calmly proposes to massacre us all. It’s unthinkable.’

There was silence for a moment after she had spoken, and then Campion looked at Abbershaw. ‘That yarn about Coombe,’ he said quietly. ‘I can’t get over it. Are you sure he was murdered?’

Abbershaw glanced at him shrewdly. It seemed unbelievable that this pleasant, inoffensive-looking young man could be a murderer attempting to cast off any suspicion against himself, and yet, on the face of Mrs. Meade’s story, the evidence looked very black against him.

As he did not reply, Campion went on. ‘I don’t understand it at all,’ he said. ‘The man was so valuable to them . . . he must have been.’

Abbershaw hesitated, and then he said quietly: ‘Are you sure he was—I mean do you know he was?’

Campion’s pale eyes opened to their fullest extent behind his enormous glasses. ‘I know he was to be paid a fabulous sum by Simister for his services,’ he said, ‘and I know that on a certain day next month there was to be a man waiting at a big London hotel to meet him. That man is the greatest genius at disguise in Europe, and his instructions were to give the old boy a face-lift and one or two other natty gadgets and hand him a ticket for the first transatlantic liner, complete with passport, family history, and pretty niece. Von Faber didn’t know that, of course, but even if he did I don’t see why he should stick the old gentleman in the gizzard, do you? The whole thing beats me. Besides, why does he want to saddle us with the nasty piece of work? It’s the sort of thing he’d never convince us about. I don’t see it myself. It can’t be some bright notion of easing his own conscience.’

Abbershaw remained silent. He could not forget the old woman’s strangely convincing story, the likelihood of which was borne out by Campion’s own argument, but the more he thought about the man at his side, the more absurd did an explanation in that direction seem.

A smothered cry of horror from Martin at the window brought them all to their feet. ‘The swine,’ he said bitterly, turning to them, his face pale and his eyes glittering. ‘Look. I saw Dawlish coming out of the garage towards the house. He was carrying petrol cans. He intends to have a good bonfire.’

‘Good God!’ said Chris Kennedy, who had taken his place at the window. ‘Here comes a lad with a faggot. Oh, why can’t I get at ’em!’

‘They’re going to burn us!’

For the first time the true significance of the situation seemed to dawn upon little Jeanne, and she burst into loud hysterical sobbing which was peculiarly unnerving in the tense atmosphere. Meggie crossed over to her and attempted to soothe her, but her self-control had gone completely and she continued to cry violently.

Anne Edgeware, too, was crying, but less noisily, and the tension became intolerable.

Abbershaw felt for his watch, and was about to draw it out when Albert Campion laid a hand over his warningly. As he did so his coat sleeve slipped up and Abbershaw saw the dial of the other’s wrist-watch. It was five minutes to eleven. At the same moment, however, there were footsteps outside the door again, and this time the voice of Jesse Gideon spoke from without.

‘It is your last chance,’ he said. ‘In three minutes we leave the house. You know the rest. What shall I say to Mr. Dawlish?’

‘Tell him to burn and to be damned to him!’ shouted Martin.

‘Very appropriate!’ murmured Mr. Campion, but his voice had lost its gaiety, and the hysterical sobs of the girl drowned the words.

And then, quite suddenly, from somewhere far across the fields there came a sound which everybody in the room recognized. A sound which brought them to their feet, the blood returning to their cheeks, and sent them crowding to the window, a new hope in their eyes. It was the thin far-off call of a hunting horn.

Martin, his head jammed between the bars of the narrow window, let out a whoop of joy. ‘The Hunt, by God!’ he said. ‘Yes—Lord! There’s the pack not a quarter of a mile away! Glory be to God, was that a splodge of red behind that hedge? It was! Here he comes!’

His voice was resonant with excitement, and he struggled violently as if he would force himself through the iron bars.

‘There he is,’ he said again; ‘and yes, look at him—look at him! Half the county behind him! They’re in the park now. Gosh! They’re coming right for us. Quick! Yell to ’em! God! They mustn’t go past! How can we attract them! Yell at ’em! Shout something! They’ll be on us in a minute.’

‘I think,’ murmured a quiet, rather foolish voice that yet had a note of tension in its tone, ‘that in circumstances like this a “view-halloo” would be permissible. Quickly! Now, are you ready, my children? Let her go!’

There was utter silence after the shout died away upon the wind, and then Campion’s voice behind them murmured again: ‘Once more. Put your backs into it.’

The cry rang out wildly, agonizingly, a shout for help, and then again there was stillness.

Martin suddenly caught his breath. ‘They’ve heard,’ he said in a voice strangled with excitement. ‘A chap is coming over here now.’

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