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Dead Men's Money(Chapter33)

2006-08-28 23:41

  Chapter XXXIII. The Old Tower

  My mother was at her knitting, in her easy-chair, in her own particular corner of the living-room when I rushed in, and though she started at the sight of me, she went on knitting as methodically as if all the world was regular as her own stitches.

  "So you've come to your own roof at last, my man!" she said, with a touch of the sharpness that she could put into her tongue on occasion. "There's them would say you'd forgotten the way to it, judging by experience——why did you not let me know you were not coming home last night, and you in the town, as I hear from other folks?"

  "Oh, mother!" I exclaimed. "How can you ask such questions when you know how things are!——it was midnight when Mr. Lindsey and I got in from Newcastle, and he would make me stop with him——and we were away again to Edinburgh first thing in the morning."

  "Aye, well, if Mr. Lindsey likes to spend his money flying about the country, he's welcome!" she retorted. "But I'll be thankful when you settle down to peaceful ways again. Where are you going now?" she demanded. "There's a warm supper for you in the oven!"

  "I've had my supper at Mr. Lindsey's, mother," I said, as I dragged my bicycle out of the back-place. "I've just got to go out, whether I will or no, and I don't know when I'll be in, either——do you think I can sleep in my bed when I don't know where Maisie is?"

  "You'll not do much good, Hugh, where the police have failed," she answered. "There's yon man Chisholm been here during the evening, and he tells me they haven't come across a trace of her, so far."

  "Chisholm's been here, then?" I exclaimed. "For no more than that?"

  "Aye, for no more than that," she replied. "And then this very noon there was that Irishwoman that kept house for Crone, asking at the door for you."

  "What, Nance Maguire!" I said. "What did she want?"

  "You!" retorted my mother. "Nice sort of people we have coming to our door in these times! Police, and murderers, and Irish——"

  "Did she say why she wanted me?" I interrupted her.

  "I gave her no chance," said my mother. "Do you think I was going to hold talk with a creature like that at my steps?"

  "I'd hold talk with the devil himself, mother, if I could get some news of Maisie!" I flung back at her as I made off. "You're as bad as Andrew Dunlop!"

  There was the house door between her and me before she could reply to that, and the next instant I had my bicycle on the road and my leg over the saddle, and was hesitating before I put my foot to the pedal. What did Nance Maguire want of me? Had she any news of Maisie? It was odd that she should come down——had I better not ride up the town and see her? But I reflected that if she had any news——which was highly improbable——she would give it to the police; and so anxious was I to test what Scott had hinted at, that I swung on to my machine without further delay or reflection and went off towards Hathercleugh.

  And as I crossed the old bridge, in the opening murmur of a coming storm, I had an illumination which came as suddenly as the first flash of lightning that followed just afterwards. It had been a matter of astonishment to me all day long that nobody, with the exception of the one man at East Ord, had noticed Maisie as she went along the road between Berwick and Mindrum on the previous evening——now I remembered, blaming myself for not having remembered it before, that there was a short cut, over a certain right-of-way, through the grounds of Hathercleugh House, which would save her a good three miles in her journey. She would naturally be anxious to get to her aunt as quickly as possible; she would think of the nearest way——she would take it. And now I began to understand the whole thing: Maisie had gone into the grounds of Hathercleugh, and——she had never left them!

  The realization made me sick with fear. The idea of my girl being trapped by such a villain as I firmly believed the man whom we knew as Sir Gilbert Carstairs to be was enough to shake every nerve in my body; but to think that she had been in his power for twenty-four hours, alone, defenceless, brought on me a faintness that was almost beyond sustaining. I felt physically and mentally ill——weak. And yet, God knows! there never was so much as a thought of defeat in me. What I felt was that I must get there, and make some effort that would bring the suspense to an end for both of us. I was beginning to see how things might be——passing through those grounds she might have chanced on something, or somebody, or Sir Gilbert himself, who, naturally, would not let anybody escape him that could tell anything of his whereabouts. But if he was at Hathercleugh, what of the tale which Hollins had told us the night before?——nay, that very morning, for it was after midnight when he sat there in Mr. Lindsey's parlour. And, suddenly, another idea flashed across me——Was that tale true, or was the man telling us a pack of lies, all for some end? Against that last notion there was, of course, the torn scrap of letter to be set; but——but supposing that was all part of a plot, meant to deceive us while these villains——taking Hollins to be in at the other man's game——got clear away in some totally different direction? If it was, then it had been successful, for we had taken the bait, and all attention was being directed on Glasgow, and none elsewhere, and——as far as I knew——certainly none at Hathercleugh itself, whither nobody expected Sir Gilbert to come back.

  But these were all speculations——the main thing was to get to Hathercleugh, acting on the hint I had just got from Scott, and to take a look round the old part of the big house, as far as I could. There was no difficulty about getting there——although I had small acquaintance with the house and grounds, never having been in them till the night of my visit to Sir Gilbert Carstairs. I knew the surroundings well enough to know how to get in amongst the shrubberies and coppices——I could have got in there unobserved in the daytime, and it was now black night. I had taken care to extinguish my lamp as soon as I got clear of the Border Bridge, and now, riding along in the darkness, I was secure from the observation of any possible enemy. And before I got to the actual boundaries of Hathercleugh, I was off the bicycle, and had hidden it in the undergrowth at the roadside; and instead of going into the grounds by the right-of-way which I was convinced Maisie must have taken, I climbed a fence and went forward through a spinny of young pine in the direction of the house. Presently I had a fine bit of chance guidance to it——as I parted the last of the feathery branches through which I had quietly made my way, and came out on the edge of the open park, a vivid flash of lightning showed me the great building standing on its plateau right before me, a quarter of a mile off, its turrets and gables vividly illuminated in the glare. And when that glare passed, as quickly as it had come, and the heavy blackness fell again, there was a gleam of light, coming from some window or other, and I made for that, going swiftly and silently over the intervening space, not without a fear that if anybody should chance to be on the watch another lightning flash might reveal my advancing figure.

  But there had been no more lightning by the time I reached the plateau on which Hathercleugh was built; then, however, came a flash that was more blinding than the last, followed by an immediate crash of thunder right overhead. In that flash I saw that I was now close to the exact spot I wanted——the ancient part of the house. I saw, too, that between where I stood and the actual walls there was no cover of shrubbery or coppice or spinny——there was nothing but a closely cropped lawn to cross. And in the darkness I crossed it, there and then, hastening forward with outstretched hands which presently came against the masonry. In the same moment came the rain in torrents. In the same moment, too, came something else that damped my spirits more than any rains, however fierce and heavy, could damp my skin——the sense of my own utter helplessness. There I was——having acted on impulse——at the foot of a mass of grey stone which had once been impregnable, and was still formidable! I neither knew how to get in, nor how to look in, if that had been possible; and I now saw that in coming at all I ought to have come accompanied by a squad of police with authority to search the whole place, from end to end and top to bottom. And I reflected, with a grim sense of the irony of it, that to do that would have been a fine long job for a dozen men——what, then, was it that I had undertaken single-handed?

  It was at this moment, as I clung against the wall, sheltering myself as well as I could from the pouring rain, that I heard through its steady beating an equally steady throb as of some sort of machine. It was a very subdued, scarcely apparent sound, but it was there——it was unmistakable. And suddenly——though in those days we were only just becoming familiar with them——I knew what it was——the engine of some sort of automobile; but not in action; the sound came from the boilers or condensers, or whatever the things were called which they used in the steam-driven cars. And it was near by——near at my right hand, farther along the line of the wall beneath which I was cowering. There was something to set all my curiosity aflame!——what should an automobile be doing there, at that hour——for it was now nearing well on to midnight——and in such close proximity to a half-ruinous place like that? And now, caring no more for the rain than if it had been a springtide shower, I slowly began to creep along the wall in the direction of the sound.

  And here you will understand the situation of things better, if I say that the habitable part of Hathercleugh was a long way from the old part to which I had come. The entire mass of building, old and new, was of vast extent, and the old was separated from the new by a broken and utterly ruinous wing, long since covered over with ivy. As for the old itself, there was a great square tower at one corner of it, with walls extending from its two angles; it was along one of these walls that I was now creeping. And presently——the sound of the gentle throbbing growing slightly louder as I made my way along——I came to the tower, and to the deep-set gateway in it, and I knew at once that in that gateway there was an automobile drawn up, all ready for being driven out and away.

  Feeling quietly for the corner of the gateway, I looked round, cautiously, lest a headlight on the car should betray my presence. But there was no headlight, and there was no sound beyond the steady throb of the steam and the ceaseless pouring of the rain behind me. And then, as I looked, came a third flash of lightning, and the entire scene was lighted up for me——the deep-set gateway with its groined and arched roof, the grim walls at each side, the dark massive masonry beyond it, and there, within the shelter, a small, brand-new car, evidently of fine and powerful make, which even my inexperienced eyes knew to be ready for departure from that place at any moment. And I saw something more during that flash——a half-open door in the wall to the left of the car, and the first steps of a winding stair.

  As the darkness fell again, blacker than ever, and the thunder crashed out above the old tower, I stole along the wall to that door, intending to listen if aught were stirring within, or on the stairs, or in the rooms above. And I had just got my fingers on the rounded pillar of the doorway, and the thunder was just dying to a grumble, when a hand seized the back of my neck as in a vice, and something hard, and round, and cold pressed itself insistingly into my right temple. It was all done in the half of a second; but I knew, just as clearly as if I could see it, that a man of no ordinary strength had gripped me by the neck with one hand, and was holding a revolver to my head with the other.

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