The Big Four/Chapter 12

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search


The Baited Trap

It was mid-January—a typical English winter day in London, damp and dirty. Poirot and I were sitting in two chairs well drawn up to the fire. I was aware of my friend looking at me with a quizzical smile, the meaning of which I could not fathom.

“A penny for your thoughts,” I said lightly.

“I was thinking, my friend, that at midsummer, when you first arrived, you told me that you proposed to be in this country for a couple of months only.”

“Did I say that?” I asked, rather awkwardly. “I don’t remember.”

Poirot's smile broadened.

“You did, mon ami. Since then, you have changed your plan, is it not so?”

“Er—yes, I have.”

“And why is that?”

“Dash it all, Poirot, you don’t think I’m going to leave you all alone when you're up against a thing like the ‘Big Four,’ do you?”

Poirot nodded gently.

“Just as I thought. You are a staunch friend, Hastings. It is to serve me that you remain on here. And your wife—little Cinderella as you call her, what does she say?”

“I haven’t gone into details, of course, but she understands. She'd be the last one to wish me to turn my back on a pal.”

“Yes, yes, she, too, is a loyal friend. But it is going to be a long business, perhaps.”

I nodded, rather discouraged.

“Six months already,” I mused, “and where are we? You know, Poirot, I can’t help thinking that we ought to—well, to do something.”

“Always so energetic, Hastings! And what precisely would you have me do?”

This was somewhat of a poser, but I was not going to withdraw from my position.

“We ought to take the offensive,” I urged. “What have we done all this time?”

“More than you think, my friend. After all, we have established the identity of Number Two and Number Three, and we have learnt more than a little about the ways and methods of Number Four.”

I brightened up a little. As Poirot put it, things didn’t sound so bad.

“Oh! Yes, Hastings, we have done a great deal. It is true that I am not in a position to accuse either Ryland or Madame Olivier—who would believe me? You remember I thought once I had Ryland successfully cornered? Nevertheless I have made my suspicions known in certain quarters—the highest—Lord Aldington, who enlisted my help in the matter of the stolen submarine plans, is fully cognisant of all my information respecting the Big Four—and while others may doubt, he believes. Ryland and Madame Olivier, and Li Chang Yen himself may go their ways, but there is a searchlight turned on all their movements.”

“And Number Four?” I asked.

“As I said just now—I am beginning to know and understand his methods. You may smile, Hastings—but to penetrate a man’s personality, to know exactly what he will do under any given circumstances—that is the beginning of success. It is a duel between us, and whilst he is constantly giving away his mentality to me, I endeavour to let him know little or nothing of mine. He is in the light, I in the shade. I tell you, Hastings, that every day they fear me the more for my chosen inactivity.”

“They’ve let us alone, anyway,” I observed. “There have been no more attempts on your life, and no ambushes of any kind.”

“No,” said Poirot thoughtfully. “On the whole, that rather surprises me. Especially as there are one or two fairly obvious ways of getting at us which I should have thought certain to have occurred to them. You catch my meaning, perhaps?”

“An infernal machine of some kind?” I hazarded.

Poirot made a sharp click with his tongue expressive of impatience.

“But no! I appeal to your imagination, and you can suggest nothing more subtle than bombs in the fireplace. Well, well, I have need of some matches, I will promenade myself despite the weather. Pardon, my friend, but is it possible that you read The Future of the Argentine, Mirror of Society, Cattle Breeding, The Clue of Crimson and Sport in the Rockies at one and the same time?”

I laughed, and admitted that The Clue of Crimson was at present engaging my sole attention. Poirot shook his head sadly.

“But replace then the others on the bookshelf! Never, never shall I see you embrace the order and the method. Mon Dieu, what then is a bookself for?”

I apologised humbly, and Poirot, after replacing the offending volumes, each in its appointed place, went out and left me to uninterrupted enjoyment of my selected book.

I must admit, however, that I was half asleep when Mrs. Pearson’s knock at the door aroused me.

“A telegram for you, captain.”

I tore the orange envelope open without much interest.

Then I sat as though turned to stone.

It was a cable from Bronsen, my manager out at the South American ranch, and it ran as follows:—

“Mrs. Hastings disappeared yesterday, feared been kidnapped by some gang calling itself big four cable instructions have notified police but no clue as yet Bronsen.”

I waved Mrs. Pearson out of the room, and sat as though stunned, reading the words over and over again. Cinderella—kidnapped! In the hands of the infamous Big Four! God, what could I do?

Poirot! I must have Poirot. He would advise me. He would checkmate them somehow. In a few minutes now, he would be back. I must wait patiently until then. But Cinderella—in the hands of the Big Four!

Another knock. Mrs. Pearson put her head in once more.

“A note for you, captain—brought by a heathen Chinaman. He’s a-waiting downstairs.”

I seized it from her. It was brief and to the point.

“If you ever wish to see your wife again, go with the bearer of this note immediately. Leave no message for your friend or she will suffer.”

It was signed with a big 4.

What ought I to have done? What would you who read have done in my place?

I had no time to think. I saw only one thing—Cinderella in the power of those devils. I must obey—I dare not risk a hair of her head. I must go with this Chinaman and follow whither he led. It was a trap, yes, and it meant certain capture and possible death, but it was baited with the person dearest to me in the whole world, and I dared not hesitate.

What irked me most was to leave no word for Poirot. Once set him on my track, and all might yet be well? Dare I risk it? Apparently I was under no supervision, but yet I hesitated. It would have been so easy for the Chinaman to come up and assure himself that I was keeping to the letter of the command. Why didn’t he? His very abstention made me more suspicious. I had seen so much of the omnipotence of the Big Four that I credited them with almost superhuman powers. For all I know, even the little bedraggled servant girl might be one of their agents.

No, I dared not risk it. But one thing I could do, leave the telegram. He would know then that Cinderella had disappeared, and who was responsible for her disappearance.

All this passed through my head in less time than it takes to tell, and I had clapped my hat on my head and was descending the stairs to where my guide waited, in a little over a minute.

The bearer of the message was a tall impassive Chinaman, neatly but rather shabbily dressed. He bowed and spoke to me. His English was perfect, but he spoke with a slight sing-song intonation.

“You Captain Hastings?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You give me note, please.”

I had foreseen the request, and handed him over the scrap of paper without a word. But that was not all.

“You have telegram to-day, yes? Come along just now? From South America, yes?”

I realised anew the excellence of their espionage system—or it might have been a shrewd guess. Bronsen was bound to cable me. They would wait until the cable was delivered and would strike hard upon it.

No good could come of denying what was palpably true.

“Yes,” I said. “I did get a telegram.”

“You fetch him, yes? Fetch him now.”

I ground my teeth, but what could I do. I ran upstairs again. As I did so, I thought of confiding in Mrs. Pearson, at anyrate as far as Cinderella’s disappearance went. She was on the landing, but close behind her was the little maid servant, and I hesitated. If she was a spy—the words of the note danced before my eyes. “… She will suffer…” I passed into the sitting-room without speaking.

I took up the telegram and was about to pass out again when an idea struck me. Could I not leave some sign which would mean nothing to my enemies but which Poirot himself would find significant. I hurried across to the bookcase and tumbled out four books on to the floor. No fear of Poirot’s not seeing them. They would outrage his eyes immediately—and coming on top of his little lecture, surely he would find them unusual. Next I put a shovelful of coal on the fire and managed to spill four knobs into the grate. I had done all I could—pray Heaven Poirot would read the sign aright.

I hurried down again. The Chinaman took the telegram from me, read it, then placed it in his pocket and with a nod beckoned me to follow him.

It was a long weary march that he led me. Once we took a bus and once we went for some considerable way in a tram, and always our route led us steadily eastward. We went through strange districts, the existence I had never dreamed of. We were down by the docks now, I knew, and I realised that I was being taken into the heart of Chinatown.

In spite of myself I shivered. Still my guide plodded on, turning and twisting through mean streets and byways, until at last he stopped at a dilapidated house and rapped four times upon the door.

It was opened immediately by another Chinaman who stood aside to let us pass in. The clanging to of the door behind me was the knell of my last hopes, I was indeed in the hands of the enemy.

I was now handed over to the second Chinaman. He led me down some rickety stairs and into a cellar which was filled with bales and casks and which exhaled a pungent odour, as of eastern spices, I felt wrapped all round with the atmosphere of the East, tortuous, cunning, sinister——

Suddenly my guide rolled aside two of the casks, and I saw a low tunnel-like opening in the wall. He motioned me to go ahead. The tunnel was of some length, and it was just too low for me to stand upright. At last, however, it broadened out into a passage, and a few minutes later we stood in another cellar.

My Chinaman went forward, and rapped four times on one of the walls. A whole section of the wall swung out, leaving a narrow doorway. I passed through, and to my utter astonishment found myself in a kind of Arabian Nights’ palace. A low long subterranean chamber hung with rich oriental silks, brilliantly lighted and fragrant with perfumes and spices. There five or six silk covered divans, and exquisite carpets of Chinese workmanship covered the ground. At the end of the room was a curtained recess. From behind these curtains came a voice.

“You have brought our honoured guest?”

“Excellency, he is here,” replied my guide.

“Let our guest enter,” was the answer.

At the same moment, the curtains were drawn aside by an unseen hand, and I was facing an immense cushioned divan on which sat a tall thin Oriental dressed in wonderfully embroidered robes, and clearly, by the length of his finger nails, a great man.

“Be seated, I pray you, Captain Hastings,” he said, with a wave of his hand. “You acceded to my request to come immediately, I am glad to see.”

“Who are you?” I asked. “Li Chang Yen?”

“Indeed no, I am but the humblest of the master’s servants. I carry out his behests, that is all—as do other of his servants in other countries—in South America, for instance.”

I advanced a step.

“Where is she? What have you done with her out there?”

“She is in a place of safety—where none will find her. As yet, she is unharmed. You observe that I say—as yet!”

Cold shivers ran down my spine as I confronted this smiling devil.

“What do you want?” I cried. “Money?”

“My dear Captain Hastings. We have no designs on your small savings, I can assure you. Not—pardon me—a very intelligent suggestion on your part. Your colleague would not have made it, I fancy.”

“I suppose,” I said heavily, “you wanted to get me into your toils. Well, you have succeeded. I have come here with my eyes open. Do what you like with me, and let her go. She knows nothing, and she can be no possible use to you. You've used her to get hold of me—you've got me all right, and that settles it.”

The smiling Oriental caressed his smooth cheek, watching me obliquely out of his narrow eyes.

“You go too fast,” he said purringly. “That does not quite—settle it. In fact, to ‘get hold of you’ as you express it, is not really our objective. But through you, we hope to get hold of your friend, M. Hercule Poirot.”

“I’m afraid you won’t do that,” I said, with a short laugh.

“What I suggest is this,” continued the other, his words running on as though he had not heard me. “You will write M. Hercule Poirot a letter, such a letter as will induce him to hasten hither and join you.”

“I shall do no such thing,” I said angrily.

“The consequences of refusal will be disagreeable.”

“Damn your consequences.”

“The alternative might be death!”

A nasty shiver ran down my spine, but I endeavoured to put a bold face upon it.

“It’s no good threatening me, and bullying me. Keep your threats for Chinese cowards.”

“My threats are very real ones, Captain Hastings. I ask you again, will you write this letter?”

“I will not, and what’s more, you daren’t kill me. You’d have the police on your tracks in no time.”

My interlocutor clapped his hands swiftly. Two Chinese attendants appeared as it were out of the blue, and pinioned me by both arms. Their master said something rapidly to them in Chinese, and they dragged me across the floor to a spot in one corner of the big chamber. One of them stooped, and suddenly, without the least warning, the flooring gave beneath my feet. But for the restraining hand of the other man I should have gone down the yawning gap beneath me. It was inky black, and I could hear the rushing of water.

“The river,” said my questioner from his place on the divan. “Think well, Captain Hastings. If you refuse again, you go headlong to eternity, to meet your death in the dark waters below. For the last time, will you write that letter?”

I’m not braver than most men. I admit frankly that I was scared to death, and in a blue funk. That Chinese devil meant business, I was sure of that. It was good-bye to the good old world. In spite of myself, my voice wobbled a little as I answered.

“For the last time, no! To hell with your letter!”

Then involuntarily I closed my eyes and breathed a short prayer.