Bull-dog Drummond/Chapter 7
IN WHICH HE SPENDS AN HOUR OR TWO ON A ROOF
Drummond paused for a moment at the door of the sitting-room, then with a slight shrug he stepped past Peterson. During the last few days he had grown to look on this particular room as the private den of the principals of the gang. He associated it in his mind with Peterson himself, suave, impassive, ruthless; with the girl Irma, perfectly gowned, lying on the sofa, smoking innumerable cigarettes, and manicuring her already faultless nails; and in a lesser degree, with Henry Lakington's thin, cruel face, and blue, staring eyes.
But to-night a different scene confronted him. The girl was not there: her accustomed place on the sofa was occupied by an unkempt-looking man with a ragged beard. At the end of the table was a vacant chair, on the right of which sat Lakington regarding him with malevolent fury. Along the table on each side there were half a dozen men, and he glanced at their faces. Some were obviously foreigners; some might have been anything from murderers to Sunday-school teachers. There was one with spectacles and the general appearance of an intimidated rabbit, while his neighbour, helped by a large red scar right across his cheek, and two bloodshot eyes, struck Hugh as being the sort of man with whom one would not share a luncheon basket.
"I know he'd snatch both drumsticks and gnaw them simultaneously," he reflected, staring at him fascinated; "and then he'd throw the bones in your face."
Peterson's voice from just behind his shoulder roused him from his distressing reverie.
"Permit me, gentlemen, to introduce to you Captain Drummond, D.S.O., M.C., the originator of the little entertainment we have just had."
Hugh bowed gravely.
"My only regret is that it failed to function," he remarked. "As I told you outside, I'd quite forgotten your menagerie. In fact"—his glance wandered slowly and somewhat pointedly from face to face at the table—"I had no idea it was such a large one."
"So this is the insolent young swine, is it?" The bloodshot eyes of the man with the scarred face turned on him morosely. "What I cannot understand is why he hasn't been killed by now."
Hugh waggled an accusing finger at him.
"I knew you were a nasty man as soon as I saw you. Now look at Henry up at the end of the table; he doesn't say that sort of thing. And you do hate me, don't you, Henry? How's the jaw?"
"Captain Drummond," said Lakington, ignoring Hugh and addressing the first speaker, "was very nearly killed last night. I thought for some time as to whether I would or not, but I finally decided it would be much too easy a death. So it can be remedied to-night."
If Hugh felt a momentary twinge of fear at the calm, expressionless tone, and the half-satisfied grunt which greeted the words, no trace of it showed on his face. Already the realisation had come to him that if he got through the night alive he would be more than passing lucky, but he was too much of a fatalist to let that worry him unduly. So he merely stifled a yawn, and again turned to Lakington.
"So it was you, my little one, whose fairy face I saw pressed against the window. Would it be indiscreet to ask how you got the dope into us?"
Lakington looked at him with an expression of grim satisfaction on his face.
"You were gassed, if you want to know. An admirable invention of my friend Kauffner's nation."
A guttural chuckle came from one of the men, and Hugh looked at him grimly.
"The scum certainly would not be complete," he remarked to Peterson, "without a filthy Boche in it."
The German pushed back his chair with an oath, his face purple with passion.
"A filthy Boche," he muttered thickly, lurching towards Hugh. "Hold him the arms of, and I will the throat tear out…"
The intimidated rabbit rose protestingly at this prospect of violence; the scarred sportsman shot out of his chair eagerly, the lust of battle in his bloodshot eyes. The only person save Hugh who made no movement was Peterson, and he, very distinctly, chuckled. Whatever his failings, Peterson had a sense of humour.…
It all happened so quickly. At one moment Hugh was apparently intent upon selecting a cigarette, the next instant the case had fallen to the floor; there was a dull, heavy thud, and the Boche crashed back, overturned a chair, and fell like a log to the floor, his head hitting the wall with a vicious crack. The bloodshot being resumed his seat a little limply; the intimidated bunny gave a stifled gasp and breathed heavily; Hugh resumed his search for a cigarette.
"After which breezy interlude," remarked Peterson, "let us to business get."
Hugh paused in the act of striking a match, and for the first time a genuine smile spread over his face.
"There are moments, Peterson," he murmured, "when you really appeal to me."
Peterson took the empty chair next to Lakington.
"Sit down," he said shortly. "I can only hope that I shall appeal to you still more before we kill you."
Hugh bowed and sat down.
"Consideration," he murmured, "was always your strong point. May I ask how long I have to live?"
Peterson smiled genially.
"At the very earnest request of Mr. Lakington you are to be spared until to-morrow morning. At least, that is our present intention. Of course, there might be an accident in the night: in a house like this one can never tell. Or"—he carefully cut the end off a cigar—"you might go mad, in which case we shouldn't bother to kill you. In fact, it would really suit our book better if you did: the disposal of corpses, even in these days of advanced science, presents certain difficulties—not insuperable—but a nuisance. And so, if you go mad, we shall not be displeased."
Once again he smiled genially.
"As I said before, in a house like this, you never can tell…."
The intimidated rabbit, still breathing heavily, was staring at Hugh, fascinated; and after a moment Hugh turned on him with a courteous bow.
"Laddie," he remarked, "you've been eating onions. Do you mind deflecting the blast in the opposite direction?"
His calm imperturbability seemed to madden Lakington, who with a sudden movement rose from his chair and leaned across the table, while the veins stood out like whipcord on his usually expressionless face.
"You wait," he snarled thickly; "you wait till I've finished with you. You won't be so damned humorous then…."
Hugh regarded the speaker languidly.
"Your supposition is more than probable," he remarked, in a bored voice. "I shall be too intent on getting into a Turkish bath to remove the contamination to think of laughing."
Slowly Lakington sank back in his chair, a hard, merciless smile on his lips; and for a moment or two there was silence in the room. It was broken by the unkempt man on the sofa, who, without warning, exploded unexpectedly.
"A truce to all this fooling," he burst forth in a deep rumble; "I confess I do not understand it. Are we assembled here to-night, comrades, to listen to private quarrels and stupid talk?"
A murmur of approval came from the others, and the speaker stood up waving his arms.
"I know not what this young man has done: I care less. In Russia such trifles matter not. He has the appearance of a bourgeois, therefore he must die. Did we not kill thousands—aye, tens of thousands of his kidney, before we obtained the great freedom? Are we not going to do the same in this accursed country?" His voice rose to the shrill, strident note of the typical tub-thumper. "What is this wretched man," he continued, waving a hand wildly at Hugh, "that he should interrupt the great work for one brief second? Kill him now—throw him in a corner, and let us proceed."
He sat down again, amidst a further murmur of approval in which Hugh joined heartily.
"Splendid," he murmured. "A magnificent peroration. Am I right, sir, in assuming that you are what is vulgarly known as a Bolshevist?"
The man turned his sunken eyes, glowing with the burning fires of fanaticism, on Drummond.
"I am one of those who are fighting for the freedom of the world," he cried harshly, "for the right to live of the proletariat. The workers were the bottom dogs in Russia till they killed the rulers. Now—they rule, and the money they earn goes into their own pockets, not those of incompetent snobs." He flung out his arms. He seemed to shrivel up suddenly,as if exhausted with the violence of his passion. Only his eyes still gleamed with the smouldering madness of his soul.
Hugh looked at him with genuine curiosity; it was the first time he had actually met one of these wild visionaries in the flesh. And then the curiosity was succeeded by a very definite amazement; what had Peterson to do with such as he?
He glanced casually at his principal enemy, but his face showed nothing. He was quietly turning over some papers; his cigar glowed as evenly as ever. He seemed to be no whit surprised by the unkempt one's outburst: in fact, it appeared to be quite in order. And once again Hugh stared at the man on the sofa with puzzled eyes.
For the moment his own deadly risk was forgotten; a growing excitement filled his mind. Could it be possible that here, at last, was the real object of the gang; could it be possible that Peterson was organising a deliberate plot to try and Bolshevise England? If so, where did the Duchess of Lampshire's pearls come in? What of the American, Hiram Potts? Above all, what did Peterson hope to make out of it himself? And it was as he arrived at that point in his deliberation that he looked up to find Peterson regarding him with a faint smile.
"It is a little difficult to understand, isn't it, Captain Drummond?" he said, carefully flicking the ash off his cigar. "I told you you'd find yourself in deep water." Then he resumed the contemplation of the papers in front of him, as the Russian burst out again.
"Have you ever seen a woman skinned alive?" he howled wildly, thrusting his face forward at Hugh. "Have you ever seen men killed with the knotted rope; burned almost to death and then set free, charred and mutilated wrecks? But what does it matter provided only freedom comes, as it has in Russia. To-morrow it will be England: in a week the world…Even if we have to wade through rivers of blood up to our throats, nevertheless it will come. And in the end we shall have a new earth."
Hugh lit a cigarette and leaned back in his chair.
"It seems a most alluring programme," he murmured. "And I shall have much pleasure in recommending you as manager of a babies' crèche. I feel certain the little ones would take to you instinctively."
He half closed his eyes, while a general buzz of conversation broke out round the table. Tongues had been loosened, wonderful ideals conjured up by the Russian's inspiring words; and for the moment he was forgotten. Again and again the question hammered at his brain—what in the name of Buddha had Peterson and Lakington to do with this crowd? Two intensely brilliant, practical criminals mixed up with a bunch of ragged-trousered visionaries, who, to all intents and purposes, were insane….
Fragments of conversation struck his ears from time to time. The intimidated rabbit, with the light of battle in his watery eye, was declaiming on the glories of Workmen's Councils; a bullet-headed man who looked like a down-at-heels racing tout was shouting an inspiring battle-cry about no starvation wages and work for all.
"Can it be possible," thought Hugh grimly, "that such as these have the power to control big destinies?" And then, because he had some experience of what one unbalanced brain, whose owner could talk, was capable of achieving; because he knew something about mob psychology, his half-contemptuous amusement changed to a bitter foreboding.
"You fool," he cried suddenly to the Russian and everyone ceased talking. "You poor damned boob! You—and your new earth! In Petrograd to-day bread is two pounds four shillings a pound; tea, fifteen pounds a pound. Do you call that freedom? Do you suggest that we should wade to that, through rivers of blood?" He gave a contemptuous laugh. "I don't know which distresses me most, your maggoty brain or your insanitary appearance."
Too surprised to speak, the Russian sat staring at him; and it was Peterson who broke the silence with his suave voice.
"Your distress, I am glad to say, is not likely to be one of long duration," he remarked. "In fact, the time has come for you to retire for the night, my young friend."
He stood up smiling; then walked over to the bell behind Hugh and rang it.
"Dead or mad—I wonder which." He threw the end of his cigar into the grate as Hugh rose. "While we deliberate down here on various matters of importance we shall be thinking of you upstairs—that is to say, if you get there. I see that Lakington is even now beginning to gloat in pleasant anticipation."
Not a muscle on the soldier's face twitched; not by the hint of a look did he show the keenly watching audience that he realised his danger. He might have been an ordinary guest preparing to go to bed; and in Peterson's face there shone for a moment a certain unwilling admiration. Only Lakington's was merciless, with its fiendish look of anticipation, and Hugh stared at him with level eyes for a while before he turned towards the door.
"Then I will say 'Good night,'" he remarked casually. "Is it the same room that I had last time?"
"No," said Peterson. "A different one—specially prepared for you. If you get to the top of the stairs a man will show you where it is." He opened the door and stood there smiling. And at that moment all the lights went out.
The darkness could be felt, as real darkness inside a house always can be felt. Not the faintest glimmer even of greyness showed anywhere, and Hugh remained motionless, wondering what the next move was going to be. Now that the night's ordeal had commenced, all his nerve had returned to him. He felt ice cold; and as his powerful hands clenched and unclenched by his sides, he grinned faintly to himself.
Behind him in the room he could hear an occasional movement in one of the chairs, and once from the hall outside he caught the sound of whispering. He felt that he was surrounded by men, thronging in on him from all sides, and suddenly he gave a short laugh. Instantly silence settled; strain as he would he could not hear a sound. Then very cautiously he commenced to feel his way towards the door.
Outside a car went by honking discordantly, and with a sort of cynical amusement he wondered what its occupants would think if they knew what was happening in the house so near them. And at that moment someone brushed past him. Like a flash Hugh's hand shot out and gripped him by the arm. The man wriggled and twisted, but he was powerless as a child, and with another short laugh Hugh found his throat with his other hand. And again silence settled on the room….
Still holding the unknown man in front of him, he reached the foot of the stairs, and there he paused. He had suddenly remembered the mysterious thing which had whizzed past his head that other night, and then clanged sullenly into the wall beside him. He had gone up five stairs when it had happened, and now with his foot on the first he started to do some rapid thinking.
If, as Peterson had kindly assured him, they proposed to try and send him mad, it was unlikely that they would kill him on the stairs. At the same time it was obviously an implement capable of accurate adjustment, and therefore it was more than likely that they would use it to frighten him. And if they did—if they did… The unknown man wriggled feebly in his hands, and a sudden unholy look came on to Hugh's face.
"It's the only possible chance," he said to himself, "and if it's you or me, laddie, I guess it's got to be you."
With a quick heave he jerked the man off his feet, and lifted him up till his head was above the level of his own. Then clutching him tight, he commenced to climb. His own head was bent down, somewhere in the regions of the man's back, and he took no notice of the feebly kicking legs.
Then at last he reached the fourth step, and gave a final adjustment to his semiconscious burden. He felt that the hall below was full of men, and suddenly Peterson's voice came to him out of the darkness.
"That is four, Captain Drummond. What about the fifth step?"
"A very good-looking one as far as I remember," answered Hugh. "I'm just going to get on to it."
"That should prove entertaining," remarked Peterson. "I'm just going to switch on the current."
Hugh pressed his head even lower in the man's back and lifted him up another three inches.
"How awfully jolly!" he murmured. "I hope the result will please you."
"I'd stand quite still if I were you," said Peterson suavely. "Just listen."
As Hugh had gambled on, the performance was designed to frighten. Instead of that, something hit the neck of the man he was holding with such force that it wrenched him clean out of his arms. Then came the clang beside him, and with a series of ominous thuds a body rolled down the stairs into the hall below.
"You fool." He heard Lakington's voice, shrill with anger. "You've killed him. Switch on the light…." But before the order could be carried out Hugh had disappeared, like a great cat, into the darkness of the passage above. It was neck or nothing; he had at the most a minute to get clear. As luck would have it the first room he darted into was empty, and he flung up the window and peered out.
A faint, watery moon showed him a twenty-foot drop on to the grass, and without hesitation he flung his legs over the sill. Below a furious hubbub was going on; steps were already rushing up the stairs. He heard Peterson's calm voice, and Lakington's hoarse with rage, shouting inarticulate orders. And at that moment something prompted him to look upwards.
It was enough—that one look; he had always been mad, he always would be. It was a dormer window, and to an active man access to the roof was easy. Without an instant's hesitation he abandoned all thoughts of retreat; and when two excited men rushed into the room he was firmly ensconced, with his legs astride of the ridge of the window, not a yard from their heads.
Securely hidden in the shadow he watched the subsequent proceedings with genial toleration. A raucous bellow from the two men announced that they had discovered his line of escape; and in half a minute the garden was full of hurrying figures. One, calm and impassive, his identity betrayed only by the inevitable cigar, stood by the garden door, apparently taking no part in the game; Lakington, blind with fury, was running round in small circles, cursing everyone impartially.
"The car is still there." A man came up to Peterson, and Hugh heard the words distinctly.
"Then he's probably over at Benton's house. I will go and see."
Hugh watched the thick-set, massive figure stroll down towards the wicket gate, and he laughed gently to himself. Then he grew serious again, and with a slight frown he pulled out his watch and peered at it. Half-past one…two more hours before dawn. And in those two hours he wanted to explore the house from on top; especially he wanted to have a look at the mysterious central room of which Phyllis had spoken to him—the room where Lakington kept his treasures. But until the excited throng below went indoors, it was unsafe to move. Once out of the shadow, anyone would be able to see him crawling over the roof in the moonlight.
At times the thought of the helpless man for whose death he had in one way been responsible recurred to him, and he shook his head angrily. It had been necessary, he realised: you can carry someone upstairs in a normal house without him having his neck broken—but still… And then he wondered who he was. It had been one of the men who sat round the table—of that he was tolerably certain. But which…? Was it the frightened bunny, or the Russian, or the gentleman with the bloodshot eye? The only comfort was that whoever it had been, the world would not be appreciably the poorer for his sudden decease. The only regret was that it hadn't been dear Henry… He had a distaste for Henry which far exceeded his dislike of Peterson.
"He's not over there." Peterson's voice came to him from below. "And we've wasted time enough as it is."
The men had gathered together in a group, just below where Hugh was sitting, evidently awaiting further orders.
"Do you mean to say we've lost the young swine again?" said Lakington angrily.
"Not lost—merely mislaid," murmured Peterson. "The more I see of him, the more do I admire his initiative."
"It was that damned fool Ivolsky's own fault," he snarled; "why didn't he keep still as he was told to do?"
"Why, indeed?" returned Peterson, his cigar glowing red. "And I'm afraid we shall never know. He is very dead." He turned towards the house. "That concludes the entertainment, gentlemen, for to-night. I think you can all go to bed."
"There are two of you watching the car, aren't there?" demanded Lakington.
"Rossiter and Le Grange," answered a voice.
Peterson paused by the door.
"My dear Lakington, it's quite unnecessary. You underrate that young man…."He disappeared into the house, and the others followed slowly. For the time being Hugh was safe, and with a sigh of relief he stretched his cramped limbs and lay back against the sloping roof. If only he had dared to light a cigarette….
It was half an hour before Drummond decided that it was safe to start exploring. The moon still shone fitfully through the trees, but since the two car watchers were near the road on the other side of the house, there was but little danger to be apprehended from them. First he took off his shoes, and tying the laces together, he slung them round his neck. Then, as silently as he could, he commenced to scramble upwards.
It was not an easy operation; one slip and nothing could have stopped him slithering down and finally crashing into the garden below, with a broken leg, at the very least, for his pains. In addition, there was the risk of dislodging a slate, an unwise proceeding in a house where most of the occupants slept with one eye open. But at last he got his hands over the ridge of the roof, and in another moment he was sitting straddle-wise across it.
The house, he discovered, was built on a peculiar design. The ridge on which he sat continued at the same height all round the top of the roof, and formed, roughly, the four sides of a square. In the middle the roof sloped down to a flat space from which stuck up a glass structure, the top of which was some five or six feet below his level. Around it was a space quite large enough to walk in comfort; in fact, on two sides there was plenty of room for a deck chair. The whole area was completely screened from view, except to anyone in an aeroplane. And what struck him still further was that there was no window that he could see anywhere on the inside of the roof. In fact, it was absolutely concealed and private. Incidentally, the house had originally been built by a gentleman of doubtful sanity, who spent his life observing the spots in Jupiter through a telescope, and having plunged himself and his family into complete penury, sold the house and observatory complete for what he could get. Lakington, struck with its possibilities for his own hobby, bought it on the spot; and from that time Jupiter spotted undisturbed.
With the utmost caution Hugh lowered himself to the full extent of his arms; then he let himself slip the last two or three feet on to the level space around the glass roof. He had no doubt in his mind that he was actually above the secret room, and, on tip-toe, he stole round looking for some spot from which he could get a glimpse below. At the first inspection he thought his time had been wasted; every pane of glass was frosted, and in addition there seemed to be a thick blind of some sort drawn across from underneath, of the same type as is used by photographers for altering the light.
A sudden rattle close to him made him start violently, only to curse himself for a nervous ass the next moment, and lean forward eagerly. One of the blinds had been released from inside the room, and a pale, diffused light came filtering out into the night from the side of the glass roof. He was still craning backwards and forwards to try and find some chink through which he could see, when, with a kind of uncanny deliberation, one of the panes of glass slowly opened. It was worked on a ratchet from inside, and Hugh bowed his thanks to the unseen operator below. Then he leant forward cautiously, and peered in.…
The whole room was visible to him, and his jaw tightened as he took in the scene. In an armchair, smoking as unconcernedly as ever, sat Peterson. He was reading a letter, and occasionally underlining some point with a pencil. Beside him on a table was a big ledger, and every now and then he would turn over a few pages and make an entry. But it was not Peterson on whom the watcher above was concentrating his attention; it was Lakington—and the thing beside him on the sofa.
Lakington was bending over a long bath full of some light-brown liquid from which a faint vapour was rising. He was in his shirt sleeves, and on his hands he wore what looked like rubber gloves, stretching right up to his elbows. After a while he dipped a test-tube into the liquid, and going over to a shelf he selected a bottle and added a few drops to the contents of the tube. Apparently satisfied with the result, he returned to the bath and shook in some white powder. Immediately the liquid commenced to froth and bubble, and at the same moment Peterson stood up.
"Are you ready?" he said, taking off his coat and picking up a pair of gloves similar to those the other was wearing.
"Quite," answered Lakington abruptly. "We'll get him in."
They approached the sofa; and Hugh, with a kind of fascinated horror, forced himself to look. For the thing that lay there was the body of the dead Russian, Ivolsky.
The two men picked him up and, having carried the body to the bath, they dropped it into the fuming liquid. Then, as if it was the most normal thing in the world, they peeled off their long gloves and stood watching. For a minute or so nothing happened, and then gradually the body commenced to disappear. A faint, sickly smell came through the open window, and Hugh wiped the sweat off his forehead. It was too horrible, the hideous deliberation of it all. And whatever vile tortures the wretched man had inflicted on others in Russia, yet it was through him that his dead body lay there in the bath, disappearing slowly and relentlessly…
Lakington lit a cigarette and strolled over to the fire-place.
"Another five minutes should be enough," he remarked. "Damn that cursed soldier!"
Peterson laughed gently, and resumed the study of his ledger.
"To lose one's temper with a man, my dear Henry, is a sign of inferiority. But it certainly is a nuisance that Ivolsky is dead. He could talk more unmitigated drivel to the minute than all the rest of 'em put together.…I really don't know who to put in the Midland area."
He leaned back in his chair and blew out a cloud of smoke. The light shone on the calm, impassive face; and with a feeling of wonder that was never far absent from his mind when he was with Peterson, Hugh noted the high, clever forehead, the firmly moulded nose and chin, the sensitive, humorous mouth. The man lying back in the chair watching the blue smoke curling up from his cigar might have been a great lawyer or an eminent divine; some well-known statesman, perhaps, or a Napoleon of finance. There was power in every line of his figure, in every movement of his hands. He might have reached to the top of any profession he had cared to follow…. Just as he had reached to the top in his present one…. Some kink in the brain, some little cog wrong in the wonderful mechanism, and a great man had become a great criminal. Hugh looked at the bath: the liquid was almost clear.
"You know my feelings on the subject," remarked Lakington, taking a red velvet box out of a drawer in the desk. He opened it lovingly, and Hugh saw the flash of diamonds. Lakington let the stones run through his hands, glittering with a thousand flames, while Peterson watched him contemptuously.
"Baubles," he said scornfully. "Pretty baubles. What will you get for them?"
"Ten, perhaps fifteen thousand," returned the other. "But it's not the money I care about; it's the delight in having them, and the skill required to get them."
Peterson shrugged his shoulders.
"Skill which would give you hundreds of thousands if you turned it into proper channels."
Lakington replaced the stones, and threw the end of his cigarette into the grate.
"Possibly, Carl, quite possibly. But it boils down to this, my friend, that you like the big canvas with broad effects, I like the miniature and the well-drawn etching."
"Which makes us a very happy combination," said Peterson, rising and walking over to the bath. "The pearls, don't forget, are your job. The big thing"—he turned to the other, and a trace of excitement came into his voice—"the big thing is mine." Then with his hands in his pockets he stood staring at the brown liquid. "Our friend is nearly cooked, I think."
"Another two or three minutes," said Lakington, joining him. "I must confess I pride myself on the discovery of that mixture. Its only drawback is that it makes murder too easy…."
The sound of the door opening made both men swing round instantly; then Peterson stepped forward with a smile.
"Back, my dear? I hardly expected you so soon."
Irma came a little way into the room, and stopped with a sniff of disgust.
"What a horrible smell!" she remarked. "What on earth have you been doing?"
"Disposing of a corpse," said Lakington. "It's nearly finished."
The girl threw off her opera cloak, and coming forward, peered over the edge of the bath.
"It's not my ugly soldier?" she cried.
"Unfortunately not," returned Lakington grimly; and Peterson laughed.
"Henry is most annoyed, Irma. The irrepressible Drummond has scored again."
In a few words he told the girl what had happened, and she clapped her hands together delightedly.
"Assuredly I shall have to marry that man," she cried. "He is quite the least boring individual I have met in this atrocious country." She sat down and lit a cigarette. "I saw Walter to-night."
"Where?" demanded Peterson quickly. "I thought he was in Paris."
"He was this morning. He came over especially to see you. They want you there for a meeting at the Ritz."
"It's most inconvenient," he remarked with a shade of annoyance in his voice. "Did he say why?"
"Amongst other things I think they're uneasy about the American," she answered. "My dear man, you can easily slip over for a day."
"Of course I can," said Peterson irritably; "but that doesn't alter the fact that it's inconvenient. Things will be shortly coming to a head here, and I want to be on the spot. However—" He started to walk up and down the room, frowning thoughtfully.
"Your fish is hooked, mon ami," continued the girl to Lakington. "He has already proposed three times; and he has introduced me to a dreadful-looking woman of extreme virtue, who has adopted me as her niece for the great occasion."
"What great occasion?" asked Lakington, looking up from the bath.
"Why, his coming of age," cried the girl. "I am to go to Laidley Towers as an honoured guest of the Duchess of Lampshire." She threw back her head and laughed. "What do you think of that, my friend? The old lady will be wearing pearls and all complete, in honour of the great day, and I shall be one of the admiring house party."
"How do you know she'll have them in the house?" said Lakington.
"Because dear Freddie has told me so," answered the girl. "I don't think you're very bright to-night, Henry. When the young Pooh-ba comes of age, naturally his devoted maternal parent will sport her glad rags. Incidentally, the tenants are going to present him with a loving cup, or a baby giraffe, or something. You might like to annex that too." She blew two smoke rings and then laughed.
"Freddie is really rather a dear at times. I don't think I've ever met anyone who is so nearly an idiot without being one. Still," she repeated thoughtfully, "he's rather a dear."
Lakington turned a handle underneath the bath, and the liquid, now clear and still, commenced to sink rapidly. Fascinated, Hugh watched the process; in two minutes the bath was empty—a human body had completely disappeared without leaving a trace. It seemed to him as if he must have been dreaming, as if the events of the whole night had been part of some strange jumbled nightmare. And then, having pinched himself to make sure he was awake, he once more glued his eyes to the open space of the window.
Lakington was swabbing out the bath with some liquid on the end of a mop; Peterson, his chin sunk on his chest, was still pacing slowly up and down; the girl, her neck and shoulders gleaming white in the electric light, was lighting a second cigarette from the stump of the first. After a while Lakington finished his cleaning operations and put on his coat.
"What," he asked curiously, "does he think you are?"
"A charming young girl," answered Irma demurely, "whose father lost his life in the war, and who at present ekes out a precarious existence in a government office. At least, that's what he told Lady Frumpley—she's the woman of unassailable virtue. She was profoundly sentimental and scents a romance, in addition to being a snob and scenting a future duke, to say nothing of a future duchess. By the mercy of Allah she's on a committee with his mother for distributing brown-paper under-clothes to destitute Belgians, and so Freddie wangled an invite for her. Voilà tout."
"Splendid!" said Lakington slowly. "Splendid! Young Laidley comes of age in about a week, doesn't he?"
"Monday, to be exact, and so I go down with my dear aunt on Saturday."
Lakington nodded his head as if satisfied, and then glanced at his watch.
"What about bed?" he remarked.
"Not yet," said Peterson, halting suddenly in his walk. "I must see the Yank before I go to Paris. We'll have him down here now."
"My dear Carl, at this hour?" Lakington stifled a yawn.
"Yes. Give him an injection, Henry—and, by God, we'll make the fool sign. Then I can actually take it over to the meeting with me."
He strode to the door, followed by Lakington; and the girl in the chair stood up and stretched her arms above her head. For a moment or two Hugh watched her; then he too stood upright and eased his cramped limbs.
"Make the fool sign." The words echoed through his brain, and he stared thoughtfully at the grey light which showed the approach of dawn. What was the best thing to do? "Make" with Peterson generally implied torture if other means failed, and Hugh had no intention of watching any man tortured. At the same time something of the nature of the diabolical plot conceived by Peterson was beginning to take a definite shape in his mind, though many of the most important links were still missing. And with this knowledge had come the realisation that he was no longer a free agent. The thing had ceased to be a mere sporting gamble with himself and a few other chosen spirits matched against a gang of criminals; it had become—if his surmise was correct—a national affair. England herself—her very existence—was threatened by one of the vilest plots ever dreamed of in the brain of man. And then, with a sudden rage at his own impotence, he realised that even now he had nothing definite to go on. He must know more; somehow or other he must get to Paris; he must attend that meeting at the Ritz. How he was going to do it he hadn't the faintest idea; the farthest he could get as he stood on the roof, watching the first faint streaks of orange in the east, was the definite decision that if Peterson went to Paris, he would go too. And then a sound from the room below brought him back to his vantage point. The American was sitting in a chair, and Lakington, with a hypodermic syringe in his hand, was holding his arm.
He made the injection, and Hugh watched the millionaire. He was still undecided as to how to act, but for the moment, at anyrate, there was nothing to be done. And he was very curious to hear what Peterson had to say to the wretched man, who, up to date, had figured so largely in every round.
After a while the American ceased staring vacantly in front of him, and passed his hand dazedly over his forehead. Then he half rose from his chair and stared at the two men sitting facing him. His eyes came round to the girl, and with a groan he sank back again, plucking feebly with his hands at his dressing-gown.
"Better, Mr. Potts?" said Peterson suavely.
"I——I————" stammered the other. "Where am I?"
"At The Elms, Godalming, if you wish to know."
"I thought——I thought————" He rose swaying. "What do you want with me? Damn you!"
"Tush, tush," murmured Peterson. "There is a lady present, Mr. Potts. And our wants are so simple. Just your signature to a little agreement, by which in return for certain services you promise to join us in our——er——labours, in the near future."
"I remember," cried the millionaire. "Now I remember. You swine——you filthy swine, I refuse … absolutely."
"The trouble is, my friend, that you are altogether too big an employer of labour to be allowed to refuse, as I pointed out to you before. You must be in with us, otherwise you might wreck the scheme. Therefore I require your signature. I lost it once, unfortunately—but it wasn't a very good signature; so perhaps it was all for the best."
"And when you've got it," cried the American, "what good will it be to you? I shall repudiate it."
"Oh, no! Mr. Potts," said Peterson with a thoughtful smile; "I can assure you, you won't. The distressing malady from which you have recently been suffering will again have you in its grip. My friend Mr. Lakington is an expert on that particular illness. It renders you quite unfit for business."
For a while there was silence, and the millionaire stared round the room like a trapped animal.
"I refuse!" he cried at last. "It's an outrage against humanity. You can do what you like."
"Then we'll start with a little more thumbscrew," remarked Peterson, strolling over to the desk and opening a drawer. "An astonishingly effective implement, as you can see if you look at your thumb." He stood in front of the quivering man, balancing the instrument in his hands. "It was under its influence you gave us the first signature, which we so regrettably lost. I think we'll try it again…."
The American gave a strangled cry of terror, and then the unexpected happened. There was a crash as a pane of glass splintered and fell to the floor close beside Lakington; and with an oath he sprang aside and looked up.
"Peep-bo," came a well-known voice from the skylight. "Clip him one over the jaw, Potts, my boy, but don't you sign."