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Chapter 23 - An Error in Taste

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Author Topic: Chapter 23 - An Error in Taste  (Read 17 times)
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« on: December 20, 2022, 11:24:11 am »

‘What shall I shout to him?’ said Martin nervously, as the solitary horseman came cantering across the turf towards the house. ‘I can’t blab out the whole story.’

‘Yell, “We’re prisoners,” ’ suggested Kennedy, ‘and, “Get us out for the love of Mike.” ’

‘It’s a young chap,’ murmured Martin. ‘Sits his horse well. Must be a decent cove. Here goes.’

He thrust his head as far out of the window as the bars would permit, and his clear young voice echoed out across the grass.

‘Hello! Hello! Hell-o! Up here—top window! Up here! I say, we’re prisoners. A loony in charge is going to burn the house down. For God’s sake give the alarm and get us out.’

There was a period of silence, and then Martin spoke over his shoulder to the others: ‘He can’t hear. He’s coming closer. He seems to be a bit of an ass.’

‘For heaven’s sake get him to understand,’ said Wyatt. ‘Everything depends on him.’

Martin nodded, and strained out of the window again. ‘We’re locked in here. Prisoners, I tell you. We—’ he broke off suddenly and they heard him catch his breath.

‘Dawlish!’ he said. ‘The brute’s down there talking to him quietly as if nothing were up.’

‘We’re imprisoned up here, I tell you,’ he shouted again. ‘That man is a lunatic—a criminal. For heaven’s sake don’t take any notice of him.’

He paused breathless, and they heard the heavy German voice raised a little as though with suppressed anger. ‘I tell you I am a doctor. These unfortunate people are under my care. They are poor imbeciles. You are exciting them. You will oblige me by going away immediately. I cannot have you over my grounds.’

And then a young voice with an almost unbelievable county accent spoke stiffly: ‘I am sorry. I will go away immediately, of course. I had no idea you—er—kept lunatics. But they gave the “view-halloo” and naturally I thought they’d seen.’

Martin groaned. ‘The rest of the field’s coming up. The pack will be past in a moment.’

Mr. Campion’s slightly falsetto voice interrupted him. He was very excited. ‘I know that voice,’ he said wildly. ‘That’s old “Guffy” Randall. Half a moment.’

On the last word he leapt up behind Martin and thrust his head in through the bars above the boy’s.
‘Guffy!’ he shouted. ‘Guffy Randall! Your own little Bertie is behind these prison bars in desperate need of succour. The old gentleman on your right is a fly bird—look out for him.’

‘That’s done it!’

Martin’s voice was triumphant. ‘He’s looking up. He’s recognized you, Campion. Great Scott! The Hun is getting out his gun.’

At the same moment the German’s voice, bellowing now in his fury, rose up to them. ‘Go away. You are trespassing. I am an angry man, sir. You are more than unwise to remain here.’

And then the other voice, well bred and protesting. ‘My dear sir, you have a friend of mine apparently imprisoned in your house. I must have an explanation.’

‘Good old Guff—’ began Mr. Campion, but the words died on his lips as the German’s voice again sounded from the turf beneath them.

‘You fool! Can none of you see when I am in earnest? Will that teach you?’ A pistol shot followed the last word, and Martin gasped.

‘Good God! He hasn’t shot him?’ The words broke from Abbershaw in horror.

Martin remained silent, and then a whisper of horror escaped the flippant Mr. Campion. ‘Shot him?’ he said. ‘No. The unmitigated arch-idiot has shot one of the hounds. Just caught the tail end of the pack. Hullo! Here comes the huntsman with the field bouncing up behind him like Queen Victoria rampant. Now he’s for it.’

The noise below grew to a babel, and Albert Campion turned a pink, excited face towards the anxious group behind him. ‘How like the damn fool Guffy,’ he said. ‘So upset about the hound he’s forgotten me.’

He returned to his look-out, and the next moment his voice resounded cheerfully over the tumult. ‘I think they’re going to lynch Poppa von Faber. I say, I’m enjoying this.’

Now that the danger was less imminent, the spirits of the whole party were reviving rapidly. There was an excited guffaw from Martin. ‘Campion,’ he said, ‘look at this.’

‘Coo!’ said Mr. Campion idiotically, and was silent.

‘The most militant old dear I’ve ever seen in all my life,’ murmured Martin aloud. ‘Probably a Lady Di-something-or-other. Fourteen stone if she weighs an ounce, and a face like her own mount. God, she’s angry. Hullo! She’s dismounting.’

‘She’s coming for him,’ yelped Mr. Campion. ‘Oh, Inky-Pinky! God’s in His Heaven, all’s right with the world. She’s caught him across the face with her crop. Guffy!’ The last word was bellowed at the top of his voice, and the note of appeal in it penetrated through the uproar.

‘Get us out! And take care for yourselves. They’re armed and desperate.’

‘With you, my son.’

The cheering voice from outside thrilled them more than anything had done in their lives before, and Martin dropped back from the window, breathless and flushed. ‘What a miracle,’ he said. ‘What a heaven-sent glorious miracle. Looks as if our Guardian Angel had a sense of humour.’

‘Yes, but will they be able to get to us?’ Meggie spoke nervously. ‘After all, they are armed, and—’

‘My dear girl, you haven’t seen!’ Martin turned upon her. ‘He can’t murder half the county. There’s a crowd outside the house that makes the place look like the local horse show. Daddy Dawlish’s stunt for putting the fear of God into Campion’s little friend has brought the entire Hunt down upon him thirsting for his blood. Looks as if they’ll get it now, too. Hullo! Here they come.’

His last words were occasioned by the sound of footsteps outside, and then a horrified voice said clearly: ‘Good heavens! What’s the smell of kerosene?’

Several heavy blows outside followed. Then there was the grating of bolts and the heavy door swung open.

On the threshold stood Guffy Randall, a pleasant, horsy young man with a broken nose and an engaging smile. He was backed by half a dozen or so eager and bewildered horsemen.

‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, without further introduction, ‘what’s up? The passage out here is soaked with paraffin, and there’s a small mountain of faggots on the stairs.’

Martin Watt grasped his arm.

‘All explanations later, my son,’ he said. ‘The one thing we’ve got to do now is to prevent Uncle Boche from getting away. He’s got a gang of about ten, too, but they’re not so important. He’s the lad we want, and a little sheeny pal of his.’

‘Righto. We’re with you. Of course the man’s clean off the bean. Did you see that hound?’

‘Yes,’ said Martin soothingly. ‘But it’s the chappie we want now. He’ll make for his car.’

‘He won’t get to it yet awhile,’ said the new-comer grimly. ‘He’s surrounded by a tight hedge composed of the oldest members, and they’re all seeing red—but still, we’ll go down.’

Campion turned to Abbershaw. ‘I think the girls had better come out,’ he said. ‘We don’t want any mistakes at this juncture. Poor old Prenderby too, if we can bring him. The place is as inflammable as gun-cotton. I’ll give you a hand with him.’

They carried the boy downstairs between them.

As Randall had said, the corridors smelt of paraffin and there were enormous faggots of dry kindling wood in advantageous positions all the way down to the hall. Clearly Herr von Faber had intended to leave nothing to chance.

‘What a swine!’ muttered Abbershaw. ‘The man must be crazy, of course.’

Albert Campion caught his eye. ‘I don’t think so, my son,’ he said. ‘In fact I shouldn’t be at all surprised if at this very moment our friend Boche wasn’t proving his sanity pretty conclusively . . . Did it occur to you that his gang of boy friends have been a little conspicuous by their absence this morning?’

Abbershaw halted suddenly and looked at him. ‘What are you driving at?’ he demanded.

Mr. Campion’s pale eyes were lazy behind his big spectacles. ‘I thought I heard a couple of cars sneaking off in the night,’ he said. ‘We don’t know if old Whitby and his Dowager Daimler have returned—see what I mean?’

‘Are you suggesting Dawlish is here alone?’ said Abbershaw.

‘Not exactly alone,’ conceded Campion. ‘We know Gideon is still about, and that county bird with the face like a thug also, but I don’t expect the others are around. Consider it! Dawlish has us just where he wants us. He decides to make one last search for his precious package, which by now he realizes is pretty hopelessly gone. Then he means to make the place ready for his firework display, set light to it and bunk for home and mother; naturally he doesn’t want all his pals standing by. It’s not a pretty bit of work even for those lads. Besides, even if they do use the side roads, he doesn’t want three cars dashing from the scene at the same time, does he?’

Abbershaw nodded. ‘I see,’ he said slowly. ‘And so, now—’

The rest of his sentence was cut short by the sound of a shot from the turf outside, followed by a woman’s scream that had more indignation than fear in it. Abbershaw and Campion set down their burden in the shadow of the porch and left him to the tender ministrations of Jeanne while they dashed out into the open.

The scene was an extraordinary one. Spread out in front of the gloomy, forbidding old house was all the colour and pageantry of the Monewdon Hunt. Until a moment or two before, the greater part of the field had kept back, leaving the actual interviewing of the offender to the Master and several of the older members, but now the scene was one of utter confusion.

Apparently Herr von Faber had terminated what had proved to be a lengthy and heated argument with a revolver shot which, whether by accident or by design, had pinked a hole through the Master’s sleeve, and sent half the horses in the field rearing and plunging; and then, under cover of the excitement, had fled for the garage, his ponderous form and long grey hair making him a strange, grotesque figure in the cold morning sun.

When Abbershaw and Campion burst upon the scene the first moment of stupefied horror was barely over. Martin Watt’s voice rang out clearly above the growing murmur of anger. ‘The garage . . . quickly!’ he shouted, and almost before the last word had left his lips there was the sound of an engine ‘revving’ violently. Then the great doors were shattered open, and the big Lanchester dived out like a torpedo. There were three men in it, the driver, Dawlish, and Gideon. Guffy Randall sprang into his saddle, and, followed by five or six of the younger spirits, set off at a gallop across the turf. Their intention was obvious. With reasonable luck they could expect to cut off the car at a point some way up the drive.

Campion shouted to them warningly, but his voice was lost in the wind of their speed, and he turned to Abbershaw, his face pale and twisted with horror. ‘They don’t realize!’ he said, and the doctor was struck with the depth of feeling in his tone. ‘Von Faber won’t stop for anything—those horses! God! Look at them now!’

Guffy Randall and his band had drawn their horses up across the road in the way of the oncoming car.
Campion shouted to them wildly, but they did not seem to hear. Every eye in the field was upon them as the great grey car shot on, seeming to gather speed at every second.

Campion stood rigidly, his arm raised above his head. ‘He’ll charge ’em,’ he murmured, and suddenly ducked as though unable to look any longer. Abbershaw, too, in that moment when it seemed inevitable that men and horseflesh must be reduced to one horrible bloody mêlée, blinked involuntarily. They had reckoned without horsemanship, however; just when it seemed that no escape were possible the horses reared and scattered, but as the car swept between them Guffy’s lean young form shot down and his crop caught the driver full across the face.

The car leapt forward, swerved over the narrow turf border into a small draining ditch, and, with a horrible sickening grind of smashing machinery, overturned.

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