The Times' Red Cross Story Book/Life-Like
By Martin Swayne
Royal Army Medical Corps
Colonel Wedge was a quiet, genial bachelor. If there was anything that seemed to distinguish him from the familiar type of retired officer, it was his great breadth of shoulder. He was well over fifty, but still vigorous and active. On the day after his arrival in Paris, whither he had come on a week's visit, he breakfasted at nine and spent the morning in visiting some public places of interest. He lunched at a restaurant near the Porte St. Martin, where he found himself in a typically Parisian atmosphere, and after smoking a cigar began to stroll idly along the streets. Chance directed his steps in a northerly direction, and about three in the afternoon he found himself in the Montmartre district.
He walked along in a casual manner, his hands clasped behind his back, watching everything with infinite relish. While passing up a side street his eye fell on a flamboyant advertisement outside a cinematograph show. The Colonel was not averse to cinematograph shows, and it struck him that here, perhaps, he might see something out of the ordinary. The poster was certainly lurid. It represented a man being attacked by snakes, and Wedge understood enough French to read the statement underneath that the representation was absolutely life-like, and that the death-agony was a masterpiece of acting.
"Rattlesnakes," reflected the Colonel, eyeing the poster. "It's wonderful what they do in the way of films nowadays. Of course, they've taken out the poison glands."
He stood for a short time studying the poster, which was extremely realistic, and then decided to enter. He went up to the ticket-office, which stood on the pavement, and paid the entrance fee. It was obvious that the establishment was not of the first order. A couple of rickety wine-shops flanked it one on either side, and the ticket-office was apparently an old sentry-box with a hole cut in the back.
Wedge took his ticket and glanced up the street. It was a day of brilliant sunshine. At the far end of the narrow road there was a glimpse of the white domes of the Sacre Cœur, standing on its rising ground and looking like an Oriental palace. Only a few people were about, and the wine-shops were empty.
A shaft of sunlight fell on the poster of the man fighting with rattlesnakes, and the Colonel looked at it again. It attracted him in some mysterious way, probably because physical problems interested him.
"Seems to be in a kind of pit," he thought. "Otherwise he could run for it. It is certainly life-like."
He turned away, ticket in hand. A man standing before a faded plush curtain beckoned to him, and Wedge passed from the bright light of day into the darkness behind the curtain.
He could see nothing. Someone took his arm and led him forward. The Colonel blinked, but the darkness was complete. Somewhere on his left he could hear the familiar clicking of a cinematograph.
The hand on his arm piloted him gently along, and he had the impression of walking in a curve. But it seemed an intolerably long curve. Since he could not speak French, he was unable to ask how much farther he had to go. He felt vaguely that people were round him, close to him, and naturally concluded he was passing down the room where the performance was being held.
But where was the screen?
He could not see a ray of light. Heavy, impenetrable darkness was before him, and seemed to press on his eyelids like a cloth. Suddenly the hand on his arm was lifted. Wedge stopped, blinking.
"Look here," he said, with a feeling of irritation, "where am I?"
There was no answer. He waited, listening. He could hear nothing. The clicking of the cinematograph was no longer audible.
Deeply perplexed, he held out his arms before him and took a step forward. His outstretched foot descended on—nothing.
Wedge fell forward and downwards with a sharp cry. His fall was brief, but it seemed endless to him. He landed, sprawling, on something soft. Before he could move he was caught and held down with his face pressed against the soft mass that felt like a heap of pillows. A suffocating, pungent odour assailed his nostrils, and gradually consciousness slipped away.
When Colonel Wedge came to his senses he found himself in a small room lit by an oil-lamp hung against the wall. He was lying on a heap of mattresses, bound hand and foot. At first he stared vaguely upwards. Directly overhead was a circular mark in the ceiling. The sound of voices struck on his ears, and, looking round, he saw a group of men talking at a table near by.
With startling suddenness memory came back. He glanced up at the ceiling. There was no doubt that the circular mark was the outline of the trap-door through which he had fallen. He did not attempt to struggle, but lay passively searching in his mind for some explanation of his position.
The men at the table were talking in loud voices, but they spoke in French. He could not understand what they said.
He looked round at them. Five of them—there were half a dozen—were roughly dressed, with blue or red handkerchiefs knotted round their throats; but one of them was of a different type, and looked like a prosperous business man. He was the spokesman and leader of the group, and Wedge noticed that he had a peculiarly evil, energetic type of face. He spoke rapidly, occasionally nodding towards the heap of mattresses and employing violent gestures. From time to time he thumped the table before him. Finally he rose and crossed the room.
"My name is Dance," he said. He stuck the cigar he was smoking into the corner of his mouth and went on speaking between his teeth. "I'm an Englishman by birth, and wonderfully fond of my fellow-countrymen. That's why you are here. You're just the man I was wanting, and when I saw you looking at that poster I could have hugged myself. What did you think of it? Good, eh? Sorry you didn't see the film."
He chuckled to himself.
Wedge looked at him steadily and made no reply. The other shrugged his shoulders and turned away. Some further discussion followed, and then all six left the room.
Wedge waited until the sound of their footsteps had died away in the passage without, and then raised himself. Owing to the way in which he was bound he could not stand up. He looked around keenly. There was only one door and no window. The walls were of rough brick, and it was clear the place was a kind of cellar. Save for the table and chairs there was no furniture. The stone floor was damp, and from one dark corner Wedge could hear the trickling of water. After the first scrutiny of his prison he lay back again on the mattresses and tried to think. He could hear no sound of the traffic or footsteps from the road, and guessed that it would be useless to shout. Save for the trickle of water and the occasional hissing and spurting of the lamp, the place was absolutely silent.
The atmosphere was thick and close. The flame of the lamp grew smaller and smaller, and finally expired. Wedge lay in the darkness, open-eyed, listening to the beating of his heart. He was thirsty. His throat was dry and his head ached, and the cords round his wrists and feet bit into the flesh. He made several powerful attempts to burst them, but in vain.
For what purpose did they want him? If it was simply a question of robbery, why was he kept prisoner? An eternity seemed to pass. In despair, he tried to sleep. But the question as to why he was in this prison repeated itself and made sleep impossible.
Wedge was a man of tried courage, but there was something sinister in his position that caused disagreeable thrills to pass down his back. The trap-door, the chloroform, the cords, the group of evil-looking men were not reassuring incidents. Moreover, the isolation in complete darkness with the monotonous trickling of water unnerved him.
An hour went by, and he made another violent attempt to release himself. His breath came in gasps. Before his shut eyes he saw sheets of red flame. But his efforts were useless. Thoroughly exhausted he lay still again, staring upwards.
Owing to some trick of vision, possibly because the strong sunlight had intensified the colouring of the poster while he was studying it, he saw a shadowy picture of the man fighting for his life in the pit full of rattlesnakes hovering before him in the darkness. He thought grimly that it would be some time before he would have the pleasure of seeing the representation of that film—perhaps never. The latter event was more likely. It was not probable that they would let him go free, because his freedom would mean their arrest.
They want me for some purpose," he muttered. "But what it is, Heaven knows. It can't be simple robbery. There's no point in murdering me. I'm not a person of any importance, so I don't see where the object of kidnapping comes in. Their game beats me, unless they've mistaken me for someone else."
A step outside interrupted his reflections. He heard the door open. Something that sounded like a plate was put on the floor, and the steps retreated down the passage. After a few minutes they became audible again, and a light showed in the doorway. A man appeared holding a candle. Colonel Wedge realised that it was the intention of his captors that he should take some nourishment, and decided that to do so would be the wisest course. There was no reason why he should weaken himself by abstinence.
He submitted to being fed by his jailer, and eagerly drank the harsh red wine that was offered to him. When the meal was finished he was left alone again, but the candle was put on the table. By watching its rate of decrease in length Wedge gained some idea of the passage of time. By a calculation based on the number of his heart-beats, which were normally sixty to the minute, he deduced that the candle would last for about four hours. As a matter of fact, Wedge's deduction was wrong. The candle burned for three hours. Wedge was unaware that his heart was beating eighty to the minute.
Months seemed to elapse before the candle shot up in a last flare. The Colonel stared at the walls, at the rough, unfaced bricks, at the trap-door in the ceiling. He closed his eyes and tried to sleep. He sat up at intervals and looked round him. He rolled from one side to another. But nothing helped to make the time pass more quickly, and when he was left again in darkness he felt for the first time in his life how easy it would be to go mad.
The tramp of feet roused him from a drowsy, half-conscious condition. The door was flung open and a lantern shone in Wedge's eyes. The men who had sat at the table had returned. Two of them cut the cords round his ankles and pulled him on to his feet. He stood with difficulty, for his legs were numb.
The man Dance, who had previously spoken to him, whose evil face had made an impression on the Colonel's mind, sat down at the table, and Wedge was placed before him.
"Speak no French?" he inquired.
The man nodded, and played with a thick gold ring on one of his fingers. His eyes were fixed on the Colonel's face.
"What am I here for?" asked Wedge, quietly.
"You'll see soon."
"Do you want my money?"
"We've taken that already."
They looked at each other steadily. The others in the cellar shuffled uneasily. They did not seem to be so certain of themselves as the man at the table.
"You're an English officer, aren't you?"
"And you've seen some fighting?"
The Colonel shrugged his shoulders and said nothing. He refused to submit to a cross-examination at the hands of this scoundrel.
"All right," said the other. "Don't get angry. I promise you that you'll see some more fighting before you die."
Something in the man's expression made Wedge take a quick step towards the table.
"What do you mean? Are you going to kill me?"
There was no answer, but the silence was enough. Wedge relaxed his attitude slowly.
"Is it money you need?" he asked, after a pause.
"What's the good of offering us money? Once you got out of this place, you would give us away to the police. Yes, we need money, but not from you."
One thought dominated Wedge's mind. It was clear that the situation did not demand any unnecessary heroism. If anything could effect his escape he was perfectly justified in making use of it.
"I will give you a thousand pounds, and will promise not to put the affair in the hands of the police," he said.
"He offers money, and gives his word of honour to say nothing to the police!" exclaimed the other, looking at the men behind Wedge.
There was an outburst of violent opposition. They were wildly excited. They were all round Wedge, shouting and gesticulating and brandishing their fists in his face. He stood impassively in the centre of them with his hands bound. What was this riot? Why did the eyes of these men shine so strangely?
"Two thousand," he said steadily.
"Impossible!" The man at the table jumped up. "This is only a waste of time."
He caught up the lantern and went out. The others, pushing Wedge before them, followed. They passed through a long stone corridor, down some narrow steps, and stopped before an iron door. Wedge heard the fumbling of keys, the creak of a rusty lock, and the door swung open. The interior was dark.
Dance stood by the door, holding the lantern aloft. In obedience to a brief command Wedge's hands were released.
"Hand him the club."
A stout cudgel of twisted wood, with a heavy nobbed end, was thrust into his hands. But Wedge was a man of action, and he saw in a flash that if he was to escape from his unknown fate the opportunity had come. They were trying to push him through the door into the dark interior.
"Vite! Il est dangereux!" exclaimed the man with the lantern.
But Wedge was too quick. He swung the club swiftly round, and the lantern fell, smashed to atoms. In a moment he was seized by half a dozen hands. He fought powerfully, but they hung on to him grimly, and little by little he was thrust forward. He had not enough space to use the club. He dropped it and used his fists, and more than once struck the stone walls in the confusion of the struggle in the dark. Then someone got hold of his throat, while the others fastened on his arms, and he was thrown backwards. He heard the clang of the iron door and lay gasping on the floor.
A blinding white light suddenly shone down on him. He staggered to his feet and looked round, shading his eyes with his hands from the dazzling glare. He was in a circular space bounded by smooth white walls. The floor was sanded. Above him burned half a dozen arc-lamps, whose brilliant rays were reflected directly downwards by polished metal discs. The upper part of the place was in shadow, but he could make out an iron balcony running partly round the wall, about fifteen feet above the sanded floor.
Colonel Wedge went to the wall and began to examine its surface. It was smooth, and seemed made of painted iron. The outline of the door through which he had been flung was visible on one side, but directly opposite there was the outline of another door. He went towards it. It was also made of iron like the surrounding structure, and apparently opened outwards. He pushed at it, but it was shut.
A sound of something falling on the floor made him turn. The wooden cudgel had been thrown down from the iron platform above. Looking up, he could dimly see a number of faces staring down at him, and also a couple of box-like instruments, one at either end of the platform. It was difficult to see clearly, for the light of the arc-lamps was intense. He stared up, shielding his eyes, and then suddenly he saw what they were. A couple of cinematograph machines were trained on the floor below!
It was not until then that Wedge fully realised his position. The picture of the man fighting the rattlesnakes was suddenly explained. He remembered the pit. He walked to the centre and stood with clenched fists. Here was the pit. Extremely life-like!
He stooped and picked up the cudgel. At any rate, whatever he had to face, he would make a fight for it.
Mechanically he found himself watching the second door. It was through that door that the menace of death would come.
Up on the platform they were whispering together.
His brain was clear, and he felt calm. He knew that whatever came out from behind that door would have the intention to kill. And he knew, also, that it was not the wish of the onlookers that he should triumph. It would not be a fair fight. In the moments of suspense he wondered in a kind of deliberate, leisurely way what was coming. They would not repeat the rattlesnake picture. That had already had its victim. In this arena one man had acted the part of fear with marvellous realism—perhaps others as well.
Cudgel in hand, ready and braced, with his free hand at his moustache, Colonel Wedge waited, his eyes fixed on the door.
"Ah, I think you understand now," said a voice out of the shadows above. "We hope that this will make a fine film, the finest of this series that we have done yet."
Wedge did not move a muscle.
"We rely on you to do your best for us."
Somewhere at the bottom of his heart the Colonel registered a vow that if he ever got out of that place alive he would kill Dance.
A chuckle followed and then silence, except for the sizzling of the arc-lamps. Then he heard a sound of clicking. The cinematograph machines had begun.
Wedge took his breath slowly. The door was opening. He saw a gap of blackness widening in the white circular wall. The hand that was at his moustache fell to his side. The cudgel rose a trifle, and the muscles of his right arm stiffened. Inch by inch, without a creak, the door swung outwards until it stood widely open.
For a few seconds nothing appeared. The suspense was becoming unendurable, and Wedge had just made up his mind to approach when he saw an indistinct form moving in the background of the shadowy interior, and next moment a big yellow beast slipped out and stood blinking in the strong light. He recognised the flat diamond head and tufted ears in a moment. The door clanged behind it.
"Puma," he muttered, with his eyes on the brute, and a spark of hope glowed in his heart. There were worse brutes to face single-handed than pumas, and he knew something of the capriciousness of the animal. It was just possible——
His thoughts ceased abruptly. The beast was moving. It slunk on its belly to the wall, and began to walk slowly round and round. Wedge, turning as it moved, always faced it. It quickened its pace into a trot, and as it ran it looked only occasionally at the man in the centre. It seemed more interested in the wall. At times it stretched its head and peered upwards.
In its lean white jaw and yellow eyes there was no message of hatred for the moment. Suddenly it stopped and listened. The clicking of the cinematograph had attracted it. It stood up against the wall, clawing at the paint. Then it squatted on its haunches, with its back to Wedge, and blinked up at the platform overhead.
The heavy fetid odour of the beast filled the air. Wedge relaxed himself a little, but the puma heard the movement, for it looked round swiftly. It behaved as if it had seen him for the first time, and began to pace round and round again, eyeing him. It came to a halt near the door from which it had emerged, and lay down flat, with its paws outstretched, watching Wedge. He caught the sheen of its eyes. He remained still, for at the slightest movement the brute quivered.
As yet he could read nothing vindictive in its look, but he knew that at any moment it might change into a raging, snarling demon and spring. Being a believer in the idea that animals are in some way conscious of the emotional state in others and act accordingly, he tried to banish all sense of fear and all sense of ill-will from his mind, and look at it calmly and indifferently.
The puma, with its fore-paws extended on the sand and its head raised, blinked lazily at him. It seemed half asleep by its attitude. Sometimes the brilliant eyes were almost shut.
"Mordieu!" said a voice above. "He wants rousing."
In a flash the animal was on its feet, rigid and glaring up. Apparently the platform overhead roused its anger. Its tail began to whip from side to side, and its lip lifted at one corner in a vicious snarl, uncovering the white fang.
A clamour of voices broke out. The whole aspect of the beast changed. Its eyes blazed. It stooped on its belly, glaring upwards. Was it possible it recognised an old enemy amongst the spectators?
Wedge waited anxiously, and the sweat began to break out on his brow.
With bared claws, the animal crouched, still looking upwards. It seemed to have forgotten Wedge. The men were shouting at it and stamping with their feet on the iron floor of the platform. The beast put one paw out and crept forward. The muscles rippled and bulged under the skin.
"It's going to spring," thought Wedge. "But it's not looking at me."
Slowly step by step the beast advanced. It passed scarcely two feet away from Wedge, and went on without looking at him. When it was almost directly under the platform it stopped and snarled upwards.
Then someone threw a lighted match on its back, and straightway it became transformed into the devil-cat of tradition.
Wedge was never quite clear as to its movements after that, for it flashed round the arena like a streak of yellow lightning. He raised his club, but the brute was not after him. It went twice, and then a third time, round the white walls, and stopped for an instant, taut and low on the sandy floor. And then it shot up in a magnificent leap towards the shadows above the arc-lamps.
The shouts from the platform ceased suddenly, and then a wild hubbub broke out.
Wedge heard the rattling and scraping of the beast's claws against the railings above and a shriek of terror. There was a stampede of feet. A loud series of snarls followed and the sound of a body falling heavily.
Wedge stood for a moment dazed. Then he dashed across to the door through which the beast had entered, and flung all his weight against it. He tried again and again with all the weight of his powerful shoulders. It yielded with a crash, and he fell flat into the cage on the other side, amongst the foul straw.
He was up in an instant. By the light of the arc-lamps in the arena he could make out that the cage had an iron grating on one side closed by a bolt. He thrust his hand through the bars and worked back the bolt. Next moment he was out of the cage and running down a dark stone corridor, cudgel in hand, and determined to brain anyone who stood in his path. At the top of a flight of steps he came to a door barred from the inside. He flung aside the fastenings and staggered out into the sweet night air.
When the police raided the cellars under the cinematograph show a few hours later, led by Wedge, they found the puma asleep in its open cage, and above, on the iron platform, all that was left of Mr. Dance, inventor and producer of life-like films.
It was not until daylight came that Wedge discovered they had blackened his eyebrows and drawn disfiguring lines across his face.