Beaumaroy Home from the Wars
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Mike's fingers squeezed his arm tighter, evidently again claiming his attention. "My hat, we needn't look far for the stuff!" he whispered. An uneasy whisper it was; the whole place looked queer, and that hole was uncanny – it and its contents.
Yet they approached nearer; they came to the edge and stood looking in. As though he could not believe the mere sight of his eyes, big Neddy crouched down, reached out his hand, and took up Mr. Saffron's sceptre. With a look of half-scared amazement he held it up for his companion's inspection. Mike eyed it uneasily, but his thoughts were getting back to business. He stole softly off to the door, with intent to see whether it was locked; he stooped down to examine it and perceived that it was not. It would be well, then, to barricade it, and he turned round to look for some heavy bit of furniture suitable for his purpose, something that would delay the entrance of an intruder and give them notice of the interruption.
As he turned, his body suddenly stiffened; only his trained instinct prevented him from crying out. There was an occupant of the room – there, in the great chair between the tall candlesticks on the dais. An old man sat – half lay – there; asleep, it seemed; his eyes were shut. The colour of his face struck gentleman Mike as being peculiar. But everything in that place was peculiar; like a great tomb – a blooming mausoleum – the whole place was. Though he had the reputation of being an esprit fort, Mike felt uncomfortable. Cold and clammy too, the beastly place was!
Still – business is business. Letting the matter of the unlocked door wait for the moment, he began to steal catlike across the floor towards the dais. He had to investigate; also he really ought to put out those candles; it was utterly unprofessional to leave them alight. But he could not conquer a feeling that the place would seem still more peculiar when they were put out.
Big Neddy's eyes had not followed his comrade to the door; they had been held by the queer hole and its queer contents – by the gleaming gold that strewed its floor, by the mock symbol of majesty which he had lifted from it and still held in his hand, by the oddly suggestive shape and dimensions of the hole itself. But now he raised his eyes from these things and looked across at Mike, mutely asking what he thought of matters. He saw Mike stealing across the floor, looking very, very hard at – something.
Mute as Neddy's inquiry was, Mike seemed somehow aware of it. He raised his hand, as though to enjoin silence, and then pointed it in front of him, raised to the level of his head. Neddy turned round to look in the direction indicated. He saw the throne and its silent occupant – the waxen-faced old man who sat there, seeming to preside over the scene, whose head was turned towards him, whose closed eyes would open directly on his face if their lids were lifted.
Neddy feared no living man; so he was accustomed to boast, and with good warrant.But was that man living? How came he up there? And what had he to do with the queer-shaped hole that had all that gold in it? And the thing he held in his own hand? Did that belong to the old man up there? Had he flung it into the hole? Or (odd fancies began to assail big Neddy) had he left it behind him when he got out? And would he, by chance, come down to look for it?
Mike's hand, stretched out from his body towards his friend, now again enjoined silence. He was at the foot of the dais; he was going up its steps. He was no good in a scrap, but he had a nerve in some things! He was up the steps now, and leaning forward; he was looking hard in the old man's face; his own was close to it. He laid hold of one of the old man's arms – it happened to be that left arm of Mr. Saffron's – lifted it, and let it fall again; it fell back just in the position from which he had lifted it. Then he straightened himself up, looking a trifle green perhaps, but reassured, and called out to Mike, in a penetrating whisper, "He's a stiff 'un all right!"
Yes! But then – what of the grave? Because it was a grave and nothing else; there was no getting away from it. What of the grave, and – what about the sceptre?
And what was Mike going to do now? He was tiptoeing to the edge of the dais. He was moving towards one of the high candlesticks, the top of which was a little below the level of his head, as he stood raised on the dais beside the throne. He leant forward towards the candles; his intent was obvious.
But big Neddy was not minded that he should carry it out – could not suffer him to do it. With the light of the candles – well, at all events you could see what was happening; you could see where you were, and where anybody else was. But in the dark – left to torches which illuminated only bits of the place, and which perhaps you mightn't switch on in time or turn in the right direction – if you were left like that, anybody might be anywhere – and on to you before you knew it!
"Let them lights alone, Mike!" he whispered hoarsely. "I'll smash your 'ead in if you put them lights out!"
Mike had conquered his own fit of nerves, not without some exercise of will, and had not given any notice to his companion's, which was considerably more acute; perhaps the constant use of that roomy flask had contributed to that, though lack of a liberal education (such as Mike had enjoyed and misused) must also bear its share of responsibility. He was amazed at this violent and threatening interruption. He gave a funny little skip backwards on the dais; his heel came thereby in contact with the high hassock on which Mr. Saffron's feet rested. The hassock was shifted; one foot fell from it on to the dais, and Mr. Saffron's body fell a little forward from out of the deep recess of his great chair. To big Neddy's perturbed imagination it looked as if Mr. Saffron had set one foot upon the floor of the dais and was going to rise from his seat, perhaps to come down from the dais, to come nearer to his grave – to ask for his sceptre.
It was too much for Neddy. He shuddered – he could not help it; and the sceptre dropped from his hand. It fell from his hand back into the grave again; under its impact the gold coins in the grave again jangled.
Beaumaroy had, by this time, been standing close outside the door for about two minutes; he had lighted a cigarette from the candle on the parlour table. The sounds that he thought he heard were not conclusive; creaks and cracks did sometimes come from the boarded-up window and the rafters of the roof. But the sound of the jangling gold was conclusive; it must be due in some way to human agency; and in the circumstances human agency must mean a thief.
Beaumaroy's mind leapt to the Sergeant. Ten to one it was the Sergeant! He had long been after the secret; he had at last sniffed it out, and was helping himself! It seemed to Beaumaroy a disgusting thing to do, with the dead man sitting there. But that was sentiment. Sentiment was not to be expected of the Sergeant, and disgusting things were.
Then he suddenly recalled Alec Naylor's story of the two men, one tall and slight, one short and stumpy, who had reconnoitred Tower Cottage. The Sergeant had an accomplice, no doubt. He listened again. He heard the scrape of metal on metal, as when a man gathers up coins in his hand out of a heap. Yet he stood where he was, smoking still. Thoughts were passing rapidly through his brain, and they brought a smile to his lips.
Let them take it! Why not? It was no care to him now! Doctor Mary had to tell the truth about it, and so, consequently, had he himself. It belonged to the Radbolts. Oh, damn the Radbolts! He would have risked his life for it if the old man had lived, but he wasn't going to risk his life for the Radbolts. Let the rascals get off with the stuff, or as much as they could carry! He was all right. Doctor Mary could testify that he hadn't taken it. Let them carry off the infernal stuff! Incidentally he would be well rid of the Sergeant, and free from any of his importunities – from whines and threats alike; it was not an unimportant, if a minor, consideration.
Yet it was a disgusting thing to do – it certainly was; and the Sergeant would think that he had scored a triumph. Over his benefactor too, his protector, Beaumaroy reflected with a satiric smile. The Sergeant certainly deserved a fright – and, if possible, a licking. These administered, he could be kicked out – perhaps – oh, yes, poor brute! – with a handful of the Radbolts' money. They would never miss it, as they did not know how much there was, and such a diversion of their legal property in no way troubled Beaumaroy's conscience.
And the accomplice? He shrugged his shoulders. The Sergeant was, as he well knew from his military experience of that worthy man, an arrant coward. He would show no fight. If the accomplice did, Beaumaroy was quite in the mood to oblige him. But while he tackled one fellow, the other might get off with the money – with as much as he could carry. For all that it was merely Radbolt money now, in the end Beaumaroy could not stomach the idea of that – the idea that either of the dirty rogues in there should get off with the money. And it was foolish to attack them on the front on which they expected to be attacked. Quickly his mind formed another plan. He turned, stole softly out of the parlour, and along the passage towards the front door of the cottage.
After Neddy had dropped Mr. Saffron's sceptre into Captain Duggle's grave (Had he known that it was Captain Duggle's, and not been a prey to the ridiculous but haunting fancy that it had been destined for, or even – oh, these errant fancies! – already occupied by, Mr. Saffron himself, Neddy would have been less agitated) Mike dealt with him roundly. In bitter hissing whispers, and in language suited thereto, he pointed out the folly of vain superstitions, of childish fears and sick imaginings which interfered with business and threatened its success. His eloquent reasoning, combined with a lively desire to get out of the place as soon as possible, so far wrought on Neddy that he produced the sack which he had brought with him, and held its mouth open, though with trembling hands, while Mike scraped up handful after handful of gold coins and poured them into it. They were busily engaged on their joint task as Beaumaroy stole along the passage and, reaching the front door, again stood listening.
The Sergeant was still keeping his vigil before the door. He had no doubt that it was locked; did not Beaumaroy see Mrs. Wiles and himself out of it every evening – the back door to the little house led only on to the heath behind and gave no direct access to the road – and lock it after them with a squeaking key? He would have warning enough if anyone turned the key now. He was looking towards the road – a surprise was more possible from that quarter; his back was towards the door and only a very little way from it.
But when Beaumaroy had entered with Doctor Mary, he had not relocked the door; he opened it now very gently and cautiously, and saw the Sergeant's back – there was no mistaking it. Without letting his surprise – for he had confidently supposed the Sergeant to be in the Tower – interfere with the instant action called for by the circumstances, he flung out his long right arm, caught the Sergeant round the neck with a throttling grip, and dragged him backwards into the house. The man was incapable of crying out; no sound escaped from him which could reach the Tower. Beaumaroy set him softly on the floor of the passage. "If you stir or speak, I'll strangle you!" he whispered. There was enough light from the passage lamp to enable the Sergeant to judge, by the expression of his face, that he spoke sincerely. The Sergeant did not dare even to rub his throat, though it was feeling very sore and uncomfortable.
There was a row of pegs on the passage wall, just inside the door. On them, among hats, caps, and coats – and also Mr. Saffron's grey shawl – hung two long neck-scarves, comforters that the keen heath winds made very acceptable on a walk. Beaumaroy took them, and tied his prisoner hand and foot. He had just completed this operation, in the workman-like fashion which he had learnt on service, when he heard a footstep on the stairs. Looking up, he saw Doctor Mary standing there.
Her waiting in the room above had seemed long to her. Her ears had been expecting the sound of Beaumaroy's tread as he mounted the stairs, laden with his burden. That sound had not come; instead, there had been the soft, just audible, plop of the Sergeant's body as it dropped on the floor of the passage. It occurred to her that Beaumaroy had perhaps had some mishap with his burden, or found difficulty with it. She was coming downstairs to offer her help. Seeing what she saw now, she stood still in surprise.
Beaumaroy looked up at her and smiled. "No cause for alarm," he said, "but I've got to go out for a minute. Keep an eye on this rascal, will you? Oh, and, Doctor Mary, if he tries to move or untie himself, just take the parlour poker and hit him over the head! Thanks. You don't mind, do you? And you, Sergeant, remember what I said!"
With these words Beaumaroy slipped out of the door, and softly closed it behind him.