Bull-dog Drummond/Chapter 2
IN WHICH HE JOURNEYS TO GODALMING AND THE GAME BEGINS
"I almost think, James, that I could toy with another kidney." Drummond looked across the table at his servant, who was carefully arranging two or three dozen letters in groups. "Do you think it will cause a complete breakdown in the culinary arrangements? I've got a journey in front of me to-day, and I require a large breakfast."
James Denny supplied the deficiency from a dish that was standing on an electric heater.
"Are you going for long, sir?" he ventured.
"I don't know, James. It all depends on circumstances. Which, when you come to think of it, is undoubtedly one of the most fatuous phrases in the English language. Is there anything in the world that doesn't depend on circumstances?"
"Will you be motoring, sir, or going by train?" asked James prosaically. Dialectical arguments did not appeal to him.
"By car," answered Drummond. "Pyjamas and a tooth-brush."
"You won't take evening clothes, sir?"
"No. I want my visit to appear unpremeditated, James, and if one goes about completely encased in boiled shirts, while pretending to be merely out for the afternoon, people have doubts as to one's intellect."
James digested this great thought in silence.
"Will you be going far, sir?" he asked at length, pouring out a second cup of coffee.
"To Godalming. A charming spot, I believe, though I've never been there. Charming inhabitants, too, James. The lady I met yesterday at the Carlton lives at Godalming."
"Indeed, sir," murmured James non-committally.
"You damned old humbug," laughed Drummond, "you know you're itching to know all about it. I had a very long and interesting talk with her, and one of two things emerges quite clearly from our conversation. Either, James, I am a congenital idiot, and don't know enough to come in out of the rain; or we've hit the goods. That is what I propose to find out by my little excursion. Either our legs, my friend, are being pulled till they will never resume their normal shape; or that advertisement has succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
"There are a lot more answers in this morning, sir." Denny made a movement towards the letters he had been sorting. "One from a lovely widow with two children."
"Lovely," cried Drummond. "How forward of her!" He glanced at the letter and smiled. "Care, James, and accuracy are essential in a secretary. The misguided woman calls herself lonely, not lovely. She will remain so, as far as I am concerned, until the other matter is settled."
"Will it take long, sir, do you think?"
"To get it settled?" Drummond lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair. "Listen, James, and I will outline the case. The maiden lives at a house called The Larches, near Godalming, with her papa. Not far away is another house called The Elms, owned by a gentleman of the name of Henry Lakington—a nasty man, James, with a nasty face—who was also at the Carlton yesterday afternoon for a short time. And now we come to the point. Miss Benton—that is the lady's name—accuses Mr. Lakington of being the complete IT in the criminal line. She went even so far as to say that he was the second most dangerous man in England."
"Indeed, sir. More coffee, sir?"
"Will nothing move you, James?" remarked his master plaintively. "This man murders people and does things like that, you know."
"Personally, sir, I prefer a picture-palace. But I suppose there ain't no accounting for 'obbies. May I clear away, sir?"
"No, James, not at present. Keep quite still while I go on, or I shall get it wrong. Three months ago there arrived at The Elms the most dangerous man in England—the IT of ITS. This gentleman goes by the name of Peterson, and he owns a daughter. From what Miss Benton said, I have doubts about that daughter, James." He rose and strolled over to the window. "Grave doubts. However, to return to the point, it appears that some unpleasing conspiracy is being hatched by IT, the IT of ITS, and the doubtful daughter, into which Papa Benton has been unwillingly drawn. As far as I can make out, the suggestion is that I should unravel the tangled skein of crime and extricate papa."
In a spasm of uncontrollable excitement James sucked his teeth. "Lumme, it wouldn't 'alf go on the movies, would it?" he remarked. "Better than them Red Indians and things."
"I fear, James, that you are not in the habit of spending your spare time at the British Museum, as I hoped," said Drummond. "And your brain doesn't work very quickly. The point is not whether this hideous affair is better than Red Indians and things—but whether it's genuine. Am I to battle with murderers, or shall I find a house-party roaring with laughter on the lawn?"
"As long as you laughs like 'ell yourself, sir, I don't see as 'ow it makes much odds," answered James philosophically.
"The first sensible remark you've made this morning," said his master hopefully. "I will go prepared to laugh."
He picked up a pipe from the mantelpiece, and proceeded to fill it, while James Denny still waited in silence.
"A lady may ring up to-day," Drummond continued. "Miss Benton, to be exact. Don't say where I've gone if she does; but take down any message, and wire it to me at Godalming Post Office. If by any chance you don't hear from me for three days, get in touch with Scotland Yard, and tell 'em where I've gone. That covers everything if it's genuine. If, on the other hand, it's a hoax, and the house-party is a good one, I shall probably want you to come down with my evening clothes and some more kit."
"Very good, sir. I will clean your small Colt revolver at once."
Hugh Drummond paused in the act of lighting his pipe, and a grin spread slowly over his face. "Excellent," he said. "And see if you can find that water-squirt pistol I used to have—a Son of a Gun they called it. That ought to raise a laugh, when I arrest the murderer with it."
The 30 h.p. two-seater made short work of the run to Godalming. Under the dickey seat behind lay a small bag, containing the bare necessaries for the night; and as Drummond thought of the two guns rolled up carefully in his pyjamas—the harmless toy and the wicked little automatic—he grinned gently to himself. The girl had not rung him up during the morning, and, after a comfortable lunch at his club, he had started about three o'clock. The hedges, fresh with the glory of spring, flashed past; the smell of the country came sweet and fragrant on the air. There was a gentle warmth, a balminess in the day that made it good to be alive, and once or twice he sang under his breath through sheer lightheartedness of spirit. Surrounded by the peaceful beauty of the fields, with an occasional village half hidden by great trees from under which the tiny houses peeped out, it seemed impossible that crime could exist—laughable. Of course the thing was a hoax, an elaborate leg-pull, but, being not guilty of any mental subterfuge, Hugh Drummond admitted to himself quite truly that he didn't care a damn if it was. Phyllis Benton was at liberty to continue the jest, wherever and whenever she liked. Phyllis Benton was a very nice girl, and very nice girls are permitted a lot of latitude.
A persistent honking behind aroused him from his reverie, and he pulled into the side of the road. Under normal circumstances he would have let his own car out, and as she could touch ninety with ease, he very rarely found himself passed. But this afternoon he felt disinclined to race; he wanted to go quietly and think. Blue eyes and that glorious colouring were a dangerous combination—distinctly dangerous. Most engrossing to a healthy bachelor's thoughts.
An open cream-coloured Rolls-Royce drew level, with five people on board, and he looked up as it passed. There were three people in the back—two men and a woman, and for a moment his eyes met those of the man nearest him. Then they drew ahead, and Drummond pulled up to avoid the thick cloud of dust.
With a slight frown he stared at the retreating car; he saw the man lean over and speak to the other man; he saw the other man look round. Then a bend in the road hid them from sight, and, still frowning, Drummond pulled out his case and lit a cigarette. For the man whose eye he had caught as the Rolls went by was Henry Lakington. There was no mistaking that hard-lipped, cruel face.
Presumably, thought Hugh, the other two occupants were Mr. Peterson and the doubtful daughter, Irma; presumably they were returning to The Elms. And incidentally there seemed no pronounced reason why they shouldn't. But, somehow, the sudden appearance of Lakington had upset him; he felt irritable and annoyed. What little he had seen of the man he had not liked; he did not want to be reminded of him, especially just as he was thinking of Phyllis.
He watched the white dust-cloud rise over the hill in front as the car topped it; he watched it settle and drift away in the faint breeze. Then he let in his clutch and followed quite slowly in the big car's wake.
There had been two men in front—the driver and another, and he wondered idly if the latter was Mr. Benton. Probably not, he reflected, since Phyllis had said nothing about her father being in London. He accelerated up the hill and swung over the top; the next moment he braked hard and pulled up just in time. The Rolls, with the chauffeur peering into the bonnet, had stopped in such a position that it was impossible for him to get by.
The girl was still seated in the back of the car, also the passenger in front, but the two other men were standing in the road apparently watching the chauffeur, and after a while the one whom Drummond had recognised as Lakington came towards him.
"I'm so sorry," he began—and then paused in surprise. "Why, surely it's Captain Drummond?"
Drummond nodded pleasantly. "The occupant of a car is hardly likely to change in a mile, is he?" he remarked. "I'm afraid I forgot to wave as you went past, but I got your smile all right." He leant on his steering-wheel and lit a second cigarette. "Are you likely to be long?" he asked; "because if so, I'll stop my engine."
The other man was now approaching casually, and Drummond regarded him curiously. "A friend of our little Phyllis, Peterson," said Lakington, as he came up. "I found them having tea together yesterday at the Carlton."
"Any friend of Miss Benton's is, I hope, ours," said Peterson with a smile. "You've known her a long time, I expect?"
"Quite a long time," returned Hugh. "We have jazzed together on many occasions."
"Which makes it all the more unfortunate that we should have delayed you," said Peterson. "I can't help thinking, Lakington, that that new chauffeur is a bit of a fool."
"I hope he avoided the crash all right," murmured Drummond politely.
Both men looked at him. "The crash!" said Lakington. "There was no question of a crash. We just stopped."
"Really," remarked Drummond, "I think, sir, that you must be right in your diagnosis of your chauffeur's mentality." He turned courteously to Peterson. "When something goes wrong, for a fellah to stop his car by braking so hard that he locks both back wheels is no bon, as we used to say in France. I thought, judging by the tracks in the dust, that you must have been in imminent danger of ramming a traction engine. Or perhaps," he added judicially, "a sudden order to stop would have produced the same effect." If he saw the lightning glance that passed between the two men he gave no sign. "May I offer you a cigarette? Turkish that side—Virginian the other. I wonder if I could help your man," he continued, when they had helped themselves. "I'm a bit of an expert with a Rolls."
"How very kind of you," said Peterson. "I'll go and see." He went over to the man and spoke a few words.
"Isn't it extraordinary," remarked Hugh, "how the eye of the boss galvanises the average man into activity! As long, probably, as Mr. Peterson had remained here talking, that chauffeur would have gone on tinkering with the engine. And now—look, in a second—all serene. And yet I daresay Mr. Peterson knows nothing about it really. Just the watching eye, Mr. Lakington. Wonderful thing—the human optic."
He rambled on with a genial smile, watching with apparent interest the car in front. "Who's the quaint bird sitting beside the chauffeur? He appeals to me immensely. Wish to Heaven I'd had a few more like him in France to turn into snipers."
"May I ask why you think he would have been a success at the job?" Lakington's voice expressed merely perfunctory interest, but his cold, steely eyes were fixed on Drummond.
"He's so motionless," answered Hugh. "The bally fellow hasn't moved a muscle since I've been here. I believe he'd sit on a hornet's nest, and leave the inmates guessing. Great gift, Mr. Lakington. Shows a strength of will but rarely met with—a mind which rises above mere vulgar curiosity."
"It is undoubtedly a great gift to have such a mind, Captain Drummond," said Lakington. "And if it isn't born in a man, he should most certainly try to cultivate it." He pitched his cigarette away, and buttoned up his coat. "Shall we be seeing you this evening?"
Drummond shrugged his shoulders. "I'm the vaguest man that ever lived," he said lightly. "I might be listening to nightingales in the country; or I might be consuming steak and onions preparatory to going to a night club. So long.… You must let me take you to Hector's one night. Hope you don't break down again so suddenly."
He watched the Rolls-Royce start, but seemed in no hurry to follow suit. And his many friends, who were wont to regard Hugh Drummond as a mass of brawn not too plentifully supplied with brains, would have been puzzled had they seen the look of keen concentration on his face, as he stared along the white dusty road. He could not say why, but suddenly and very certainly the conviction had come to him, that this was no hoax and no leg-pull—but grim and sober reality. In his imagination he heard the sudden sharp order to stop the instant they were over the hill, so that Peterson might have a chance of inspecting him; in a flash of intuition he knew that these two men were no ordinary people, and that he was suspect. And as he slipped smoothly after the big car, now well out of sight, two thoughts were dominant in his mind. The first was that there was some mystery about the motionless, unnatural man who had sat beside the driver; the second was a distinct feeling of relief that his automatic was fully loaded.
At half-past five he stopped in front of Godalming Post Office. To his surprise the girl handed him a wire, and Hugh tore the yellow envelope open quickly. It was from Denny, and it was brief and to the point:
"Phone message received. AAA. Must see you Carlton tea day after to-morrow. Going Godalming now. AAA. Message ends."
With a slight smile he noticed the military phraseology—Denny at one time in his career had been a signaller—and then he frowned. "Must see you." She should—at once.
He turned to the girl and inquired the way to The Larches. It was about two miles, he gathered, on the Guildford road, and impossible to miss. A biggish house standing well back in its own grounds.
"Is it anywhere near a house called The Elms?" he asked.
"Next door, sir," said the girl. "The gardens adjoin."
He thanked her, and having torn up the telegram into small pieces, he got into his car. There was nothing for it, he had decided, but to drive boldly up to the house, and say that he had come to call on Miss Benton. He had never been a man who beat about the bush, and simple methods appealed to him—a trait in his character which many a boxer, addicted to tortuous cunning in the ring, had good cause to remember. What more natural, he reflected, than to drive over and see such an old friend?
He had no difficulty in finding the house, and a few minutes later he was ringing the front-door bell. It was answered by a maidservant, who looked at him in mild surprise. Young men in motor-cars were not common visitors at The Larches.
"Is Miss Benton in? "Hugh asked with a smile which at once won the girl's heart.
"She has only just come back from London, sir," she answered doubtfully. "I don't know whether…"
"Would you tell her that Captain Drummond has called?" said Hugh as the maid hesitated. "That I happened to find myself near here, and came on chance of seeing her?"
Once again the smile was called into play, and the girl hesitated no longer. "Will you come inside, sir?" she said. "I will go and tell Miss Phyllis."
She ushered him into the drawing-room and closed the door. It was a charming room, just such as he would have expected with Phyllis. Big windows, opening down to the ground, led out on to a lawn, which was already a blaze of colour. A few great oak trees threw a pleasant shade at the end of the garden, and, partially showing through them, he could see another house which he rightly assumed was The Elms. In fact, even as he heard the door open and shut behind him, he saw Peterson come out of a small summer-house and commence strolling up and down, smoking a cigar. Then he turned round and faced the girl.
Charming as she had looked in London, she was doubly so now, in a simple linen frock which showed off her figure to perfection. But if he thought he was going to have any leisure to enjoy the picture undisturbed, he was soon disillusioned.
"Why have you come here, Captain Drummond?" she said, a little breathlessly. "I said the Carlton—the day after to-morrow."
"Unfortunately," said Hugh, "I'd left London before that message came. My servant wired it on to the Post Office here. Not that it would have made any difference. I should have come, anyway."
An involuntary smile hovered round her lips for a moment; then she grew serious again. "It's very dangerous for you to come here," she remarked quietly. "If once those men suspect anything, God knows what will happen."
It was on the tip of his tongue to tell her that it was too late to worry about that; then he changed his mind. "And what is there suspicious," he asked, "in an old friend who happens to be in the neighbourhood dropping in to call? Do you mind if I smoke?"
The girl beat her hands together. "My dear man," she cried, "you don't understand. You're judging those devils by your own standard. They suspect everything—and everybody."
"What a distressing habit," he murmured. "Is it chronic, or merely due to liver? I must send 'em a bottle of good salts. Wonderful thing—good salts. Never without some in France."
The girl looked at him resignedly. "You're hopeless," she remarked—"absolutely hopeless."
"Absolutely," agreed Hugh, blowing out a cloud of smoke. "Wherefore your telephone message? What's the worry?" She bit her lip and drummed with her fingers on the arm of her chair. "If I tell you," she said at length, "will you promise me, on your word of honour, that you won't go blundering into The Elms, or do anything foolish like that?"
"At the present moment I'm very comfortable where I am, thanks," remarked Hugh.
"I know," she said; "but I'm so dreadfully afraid that you're the type of person who… who…" She paused, at a loss for a word.
"Who bellows like a bull, and charges head down," interrupted Hugh with a grin. She laughed with him, and just for a moment their eyes met, and she read in his something quite foreign to the point at issue. In fact, it is to be feared that the question of Lakington and his companions was not engrossing Drummond's mind, as it doubtless should have been, to the exclusion of all else.
"They're so utterly unscrupulous," she continued hurriedly, "so fiendishly clever, that even you would be like a child in their hands."
Hugh endeavoured to dissemble his pleasure at that little word "even," and only succeeded in frowning horribly.
"I will be discretion itself," he assured her firmly. "I promise you."
"I suppose I shall have to trust you," she said. "Have you seen the evening papers to-day?"
"I looked at the ones that come out in the morning labelled six p.m. before I had lunch," he answered. "Is there anything of interest?"
She handed him a copy of the Planet. "Read that little paragraph in the second column." She pointed to it, as he took the paper, and Hugh read it aloud.
"Mr. Hiram C. Potts—the celebrated American millionaire—is progressing favourably. He has gone into the country for a few days, but is sufficiently recovered to conduct business as usual." He laid down the paper and looked at the girl sitting opposite. "One is pleased," he remarked in a puzzled tone, "for the sake of Mr. Potts. To be ill and have a name like that is more than most men could stand.… But I don't quite see…"
"That man was stopping at the Carlton, where he met Lakington," said the girl. "He is a multi-millionaire, over here in connection with some big steel trust; and when multi-millionaires get friendly with Lakington, their health frequently does suffer."
"But this paper says he's getting better," objected Drummond. "'Sufficiently recovered to conduct business as usual.' What's wrong with that?"
"If he is sufficiently recovered to conduct business as usual, why did he send his confidential secretary away yesterday morning on an urgent mission to Belfast?"
"Search me," said Hugh. "Incidentally, how do you know he did?"
"I asked at the Carlton this morning," she answered. "I said I'd come after a job as typist for Mr. Potts. They told me at the inquiry office that he was ill in bed and unable to see anybody. So I asked for his secretary, and they told me what I've just told you—that he had left for Belfast that morning and would be away several days. It may be that there's nothing in it; on the other hand, it may be that there's a lot. And it's only by following up every possible clue," she continued fiercely, "that I can hope to beat those fiends and get Daddy out of their clutches."
Drummond nodded gravely, and did not speak. For into his mind had flashed suddenly the remembrance of that sinister, motionless figure seated by the chauffeur. The wildest guess-work certainly—no vestige of proof—and yet, having once come, the thought stuck. And as he turned it over in his mind, almost prepared to laugh at himself for his credulity—millionaires are not removed against their will, in broad daylight, from one of the biggest hotels in London, to sit in immovable silence in an open car—the door opened and an elderly man came in.
Hugh rose, and the girl introduced the two men. "An old friend, Daddy," she said. "You must have heard me speak of Captain Drummond."
"I don't recall the name at the moment, my dear," he answered courteously—a fact which was hardly surprising—"but I fear I'm getting a little forgetful. I am pleased to meet you, Captain Drummond. You'll stop and have some dinner, of course."
Hugh bowed. "I should like to, Mr. Benton. Thank you very much. I'm afraid the hour of my call was a little informal, but being round in these parts, I felt I must come and look Miss Benton up."
His host smiled absent-mindedly, and walking to the window, stared through the gathering dusk at the house opposite, half hidden in the trees. And Hugh, who was watching him from under lowered lids, saw him suddenly clench both hands in a gesture of despair.
It cannot be said that dinner was a meal of sparkling gaiety. Mr. Benton was palpably ill at ease, and beyond a few desultory remarks spoke hardly at all: while the girl, who sat opposite Hugh, though she made one or two valiant attempts to break the long silences, spent most of the meal in covertly watching her father. If anything more had been required to convince Drummond of the genuineness of his interview with her at the Carlton the preceding day, the atmosphere at this strained and silent party supplied it.
As if unconscious of anything peculiar, he rambled on in his usual inconsequent method, heedless of whether he was answered or not; but all the time his mind was busily working. He had already decided that a Rolls-Royce was not the only car on the market which could break down mysteriously, and with the town so far away, his host could hardly fail to ask him to stop the night. And then—he had not yet quite settled how—he proposed to have a closer look at The Elms.
At length the meal was over, and the maid, placing the decanter in front of Mr. Benton, withdrew from the room.
"You'll have a glass of port, Captain Drummond," remarked his host, removing the stopper, and pushing the bottle towards him. "An old pre-war wine which I can vouch for."
Hugh smiled, and even as he lifted the heavy old cut glass, he stiffened suddenly in his chair. A cry—half shout, half scream, and stifled at once—had come echoing through the open windows. With a crash the stopper fell from Mr. Benton' s nerveless fingers, breaking the finger-bowl in front of him, while every vestige of colour left his face.
"It's something these days to be able to say that," remarked Hugh, pouring himself out a glass. "Wine, Miss Benton?" He looked at the girl, who was staring fearfully out of the window, and forced her to meet his eye. "It will do you good."
His tone was compelling, and after a moment's hesitation, she pushed the glass over to him. "Will you pour it out?" she said, and he saw that she was trembling all over.
"Did you—did you hear—anything?" With a vain endeavour to speak calmly, his host looked at Hugh.
"That night-bird?" he answered easily. "Eerie noises they make, don't they? Sometimes in France, when everything was still, and only the ghostly green flares went hissing up, one used to hear 'em. Startled nervous sentries out of their lives." He talked on, and gradually the colour came back to the other man's face. But Hugh noticed that he drained his port at a gulp, and immediately refilled his glass….
Outside everything was still; no repetition of that short, strangled cry again disturbed the silence. With the training bred of many hours in No Man's Land, Drummond was listening, even while he was speaking, for the faintest suspicious sound—but he heard nothing. The soft whispering night-noises came gently through the window; but the man who had screamed once did not even whimper again. He remembered hearing a similar cry near the brickstacks at Guinchy, and two nights later he had found the giver of it, at the edge of a mine-crater, with glazed eyes that still held in them the horror of the final second. And more persistently than ever, his thoughts centred on the fifth occupant of the Rolls-Royce….
It was with almost a look of relief that Mr. Benton listened to his tale of woe about his car.
"Of course you must stop here for the night," he cried. "Phyllis, my dear, will you tell them to get a room ready?"
With an inscrutable look at Hugh, in which thankfulness and apprehension seemed mingled, the girl left the room. There was an unnatural glitter in her father's eyes—a flush on his cheeks hardly to be accounted for by the warmth of the evening; and it struck Drummond that, during the time he had been pretending to look at his car, Mr. Benton had been fortifying himself. It was obvious, even to the soldier's unprofessional eye, that the man's nerves had gone to pieces; and that unless something was done soon, his daughter's worst forebodings were likely to be fulfilled. He talked disjointedly and fast; his hands were not steady, and he seemed to be always waiting for something to happen.
Hugh had not been in the room ten minutes before his host produced the whisky, and during the time that he took to drink a mild nightcap, Mr. Benton succeeded in lowering three extremely strong glasses of spirit. And what made it the more sad was that the man was obviously not a heavy drinker by preference.
At eleven o'clock Hugh rose and said good-night. "You'll ring if you want anything, won't you?" said his host. "We don't have very many visitors here, but I hope you'll find everything you require. Breakfast at nine."
Drummond closed the door behind him, and stood for a moment in silence, looking round the hall. It was deserted, but he wanted to get the geography of the house firmly imprinted on his mind. Then a noise from the room he had just left made him frown sharply—his host was continuing the process of fortification—and he stepped across towards the drawing-room. Inside, as he hoped, he found the girl.
She rose the instant he came in, and stood by the mantelpiece with her hands locked.
"What was it?" she half whispered—"that awful noise at dinner?"
He looked at her gravely for a while, and then he shook his head. "Shall we leave it as a night-bird for the present?" he said quietly. Then he leaned towards her, and took her hands in his own. "Go to bed, little girl," he ordered; "this is my show. And, may I say, I think you're just wonderful. Thank God you saw my advertisement!"
Gently he released her hands, and walking to the door, held it open for her. "If by any chance you should hear things in the night—turn over and go to sleep again."
"But what are you going to do?" she cried.
Hugh grinned. "I haven't the remotest idea," he answered. "Doubtless the Lord will provide."
The instant the girl had left the room Hugh switched off the lights, and stepped across to the curtains which covered the long windows. He pulled them aside, letting them come together behind him; then, cautiously, he unbolted one side of the big centre window. The night was dark, and the moon was not due to rise for two or three hours, but he was too old a soldier to neglect any precautions. He wanted to see more of The Elms and its inhabitants; he did not want them to see more of him.
Silently he dodged across the lawn towards the big trees at the end, and leaning up against one of them, he proceeded to make a more detailed survey of his objective. It was the same type of house as the one he had just left, and the grounds seemed about the same size. A wire fence separated the two places, and in the darkness Hugh could just make out a small wicket-gate, closing a path which connected both houses. He tried it, and found to his satisfaction that it opened silently.
Passing through, he took cover behind some bushes from which he could command a better view of Mr. Lakington's abode. Save for one room on the ground-floor the house was in darkness, and Hugh determined to have a look at that room. There was a chink in the curtains, through which the light was streaming out, which struck him as having possibilities.
Keeping under cover, he edged towards it, and, at length, he got into a position from which he could see inside. And what he saw made him decide to chance it, and go even closer.
Seated at the table was a man he did not recognise; while on either side of him sat Lakington and Peterson. Lying on a sofa smoking a cigarette and reading a novel was a tall dark girl, who seemed completely uninterested in the proceedings of the other three. Hugh placed her at once as the doubtful daughter Irma, and resumed his watch on the group at the table.
A paper was in front of the man, and Peterson, who was smoking a large cigar, was apparently suggesting that he should make use of the pen which Lakington was obligingly holding in readiness. In all respects a harmless tableau, save for one small thing—the expression on the man's face. Hugh had seen it before often—only then it had been called shell-shock. The man was dazed, semi-unconscious. Every now and then he stared round the room, as if bewildered; then he would shake his head and pass his hand wearily over his forehead. For a quarter of an hour the scene continued; then Lakington produced an instrument from his pocket. Hugh saw the man shrink back in terror, and reach for the pen. He saw the girl lie back on the sofa as if disappointed and pick up her novel again; and he saw Lakington's face set in a cold sneer. But what impressed him most in that momentary flash of action was Peterson. There was something inhuman in his complete passivity. By not the fraction of a second did he alter the rate at which he was smoking—the slow, leisurely rate of the connoisseur; by not the twitch of an eyelid did his expression change. Even as he watched the man signing his name, no trace of emotion showed on his face—whereas on Lakington's there shone a fiendish satisfaction.
The document was still lying on the table, when Hugh produced his revolver. He knew there was foul play about, and the madness of what he had suddenly made up his mind to do never struck him: being that manner of fool, he was made that way. But he breathed a pious prayer that he would shoot straight—and then he held his breath. The crack of the shot and the bursting of the only electric-light bulb in the room were almost simultaneous; and the next second, with a roar of "Come on, boys," he burst through the window. At an immense advantage over the others, who could see nothing for the moment, he blundered round the room. He timed the blow at Lakington to a nicety; he hit him straight on the point of the jaw and he felt the man go down like a log. Then he grabbed at the paper on the table, which tore in his hand, and picking the dazed signer up bodily, he rushed through the window on to the lawn. There was not an instant to be lost; only the impossibility of seeing when suddenly plunged into darkness had enabled him to pull the thing off so far. And before that advantage disappeared he had to be back at The Larches with his burden, no light weight for even a man of his strength to carry.
But there seemed to be no pursuit, no hue and cry. As he reached the little gate he paused and looked back, and he fancied he saw outside the window a gleam of white, such as a shirt-front. He lingered for an instant, peering into the darkness and recovering his breath, when with a vicious phut something buried itself in the tree beside him. Drummond lingered no more; long years of experience left no doubt in his mind as to what that something was.
"Compressed-air rifle or electric," he muttered to himself, stumbling on, and half dragging, half carrying his dazed companion. He was not very clear in his own mind what to do next, but the matter was settled for him unexpectedly. Barely had he got into the drawing-room, when the door opened and the girl rushed in.
"Get him away at once," she cried. "In your car…. Don't waste a second. I've started her up."
"Good girl," he cried enthusiastically. "But what about you?"
She stamped her foot impatiently. "I'm all right—absolutely all right. Get him away that's all that matters."
Drummond grinned. "The humorous thing is that I haven't an idea who the bird is except that—" He paused, with his eyes fixed on the man's left thumb. The top joint was crushed into a red, shapeless pulp, and suddenly the meaning of the instrument Lakington had produced from his pocket became clear. Also the reason of that dreadful cry at dinner….
"By God!" whispered Drummond, half to himself, while his jaws set like a steel vice. "A thumbscrew. The devils… the bloody swine…"
"Oh! quick, quick," the girl urged in an agony. "They may be here at any moment." She dragged him to the door, and together they forced the man into the car.
"Lakington won't," said Hugh with a grin. "And if you see him to-morrow—don't ask after his jaw…. Good-night, Phyllis."
With a quick movement he raised her hand to his lips; then he slipped in the clutch and the car disappeared down the drive….
He felt a sense of elation and of triumph at having won the first round, and as the car whirled back to London through the cool night air his heart was singing with the joy of action. And it was perhaps as well for his peace of mind that he did not witness the scene in the room at The Elms.
Lakington still lay motionless on the floor; Peterson's cigar still glowed steadily in the darkness. It was hard to believe that he had ever moved from the table; only the bullet imbedded in a tree proved that somebody must have got busy. Of course, it might have been the girl, who was just lighting another cigarette from the stump of the old one.
At length Peterson spoke. "A young man of dash and temperament," he said genially. "It will be a pity to lose him."
"Why not keep him and lose the girl?" yawned Irma. "I think he might amuse me——"
"We have always our dear Henry to consider," answered Peterson. "Apparently the girl appeals to him. I'm afraid, Irma, he'll have to go … and at once…."
The speaker was tapping his left knee softly with his hand; save for that slight movement he sat as if nothing had happened. And yet ten minutes before a carefully planned coup had failed at the instant of success. Even his most fearless accomplices had been known to confess that Peterson's inhuman calmness sent cold shivers down their backs.