The crime club, p.20
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       The Crime Club, p.20

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER XX

  THE FARM ON THE HILL

  For a while Kathleen was too bewildered to say anything, but soon oneugly fact stood out hard and convincing. She had been betrayed.

  Slowly she gathered all her mental resources together and slowly shelooked from Melun to Marie Estelle and back to Melun.

  During the past few weeks she had learned to expect infamy and eventreachery, but she had not looked for any action so villainous as this.

  As the car went bounding down the hill at an ever-increasing rate ofspeed Kathleen saw Melun give an appreciative nod to the woman at herside, and she watched a little smile of triumph flit across the woman'smouth.

  Kathleen could only dimly wonder what this new move meant. That shehad been kidnapped she could not doubt, but for precisely what purposeshe could not understand, though she judged that she had been takenprisoner with the idea of hurrying Lord Penshurst to a decision.

  The first shock of Melun's entry over, Kathleen steeled herself againstall fear, and calling her pride to her assistance disdained to ask anyquestions.

  The silence in the electric-lighted car became, indeed, so oppressivethat Melun, who had been waiting for some passionate outburst onKathleen's part, could bear it no longer.

  "I suppose," he said, looking at her with an insolent sneer, "that Iowe you an apology for being compelled to treat you in this way?"

  But Kathleen made no answer; she only looked at him with scorn.

  "As a matter of fact, I consider it was well and neatly done,"continued Melun. "Excellently planned and excellently carried out. Mycongratulation to you," and again he gave Mme. Estelle a little nod.

  Once more there was silence, but it was Kathleen who broke it now. Shewas determined to carry the war into the enemy's camp. If she couldachieve nothing else, she could at least, by showing a mingled boldnessand resignation, cause Melun considerable uneasiness.

  "I suppose you have put up these things"--and she tapped lightly withher fingers against the blind shutters--"because you were afraid that Imight scream or struggle?"

  "That is precisely the case," said Melun.

  "You need have no fear of that," returned Kathleen. "I give you my wordthat I will neither call out nor attempt to escape. The women of myfamily are in the habit of acting bravely and openly."

  She intended this as a covert hit at Mme. Estelle, and apparently theshot went home, for she saw the woman redden a little and slightly turnaway her head.

  Melun gave Kathleen one quick, shrewd glance and then lowered theshutters; and Kathleen, looking almost lazily out of the window, sawthat they were now almost clear of the park, and, so far as she couldjudge by the position of the sun, were running towards the southwest.

  The drive continued in complete silence. Mme. Estelle remained redand awkward, Melun was morose and ill at ease. Kathleen alone wasself-possessed, though pale. She even forbore to ask whither they werebound, for though sadly tempted to do so, she checked herself with therather sad reflection that she would know sooner or later.

  By-and-by they drew near to a considerable town, and Melun, in spite ofKathleen's promise, drew the blind shutters up once more.

  He had, however, the grace to be moderately apologetic.

  "It is not because I distrust your word, Lady Kathleen," he said, "butbecause I have to take precautions. One does not know who might happento look into the car."

  It was not long before Melun lowered the shutters again, and Kathleen'sheart gave a little thump, for looking out on the country she realisedthat she was on a familiar road. She recognised the high hedges betweenwhich they were running as those which border the long lane runningbetween Croydon and Hayes Common.

  The car began to shoot up-hill, and they went over a breezy heath,subsequently running down into the valley, as Kathleen judged, ofFarnborough.

  For a little while they kept to the main road and then turned off tothe left again. Half an hour's run brought them to Westerham--fromwhich place Sir Paul took his title.

  As the car turned to the left once more Kathleen had little doubt thatthey were bound for Sevenoaks; nor was she wrong.

  But the car did not stop here; it swept past the Royal Crown Hotel,past the old Grammar School, past the wooded stretch of Knole Park,down the steep and tortuous River Hill.

  At Hildenborough the car turned up to the right and raced throughthe Weald of Kent. This was all familiar ground to Kathleen, and sherealised that to some extent they were doubling on their tracks, makinga zigzag course along the valley at the base of Ide and Toys Hill.

  Suddenly the car stopped, and Kathleen, looking through the openwindow, saw the chauffeur get down from the seat and open a gate whichapparently led to a more private path.

  Through this the car passed and was swallowed up in a wood. But thejolting and rattling over ruts soon ceased, the road widened and becamesmooth, and they began to climb in curves up the face of a steep hill.

  By-and-by they came to a small plateau on the edge of which was an oldfarmhouse. The ground dropped almost sheer away from it at the southernend, while almost the whole of the front of it was washed by a muddyand apparently deep pool.

  As they drew up before the little low doorway Kathleen heard severalgreat dogs baying at different points.

  The chauffeur got down from his seat again and drew near to open thedoor. Then for the first time Kathleen, with a sinking of her heart,recognised the man as Crow.

  The short winter's day had now drawn to a close, and as he entered thehouse Melun ordered the lamps to be lit.

  Mme. Estelle led the way into a not ill-furnished dining-room, thewindow of which projected over the vast cliff.

  To reach this room they had traversed a long passage, and Kathleenappreciated the fact that the house was very curiously built. Itconsisted, indeed, of two portions, which were linked together by along stone-flagged corridor.

  Melun helped himself liberally to neat brandy. Mme. Estelle sent forCrow and told him to order tea.

  Kathleen had been filled with an intense foreboding as she entered thehouse, a foreboding which increased as she slowly recognised that sheand Mme. Estelle were apparently the only women in the place.

  For the tea was brought in by a man, not a farmhand or an honestcountryman, but a villainous-looking individual with a pock-marked faceand little gold earrings in the lobes of his frost-bitten ears. Hewalked with his feet wide apart, and with a slightly rolling gait. Hehad an immense bull neck, and the hands with which he grasped the traywere large, grimy and hairy. Kathleen set him down as a sailor; nor wasshe wrong.

  When tea was over Melun lit a cigarette, and drawing Mme. Estelle onone side conversed with her for some time in whispers.

  At the end of the whispered conference between Melun and Mme. Estellethe woman left the room without so much as a word to Kathleen or even aglance in her direction.

  Melun turned round with a baleful light in his eyes.

  "Now, my lady," he said, "we can have this matter out."

  Kathleen's afflictions had only increased her old habit of command andher natural dignity. Though in reality she was the prisoner, she mighthave been the captor.

  "Before you speak, Captain Melun," she said, "I also have something tosay. How long do you intend to keep me here? I ask this, not for my ownsake, but for my father's."

  "That," said Melun, with a malicious grin, "depends entirely on yourfather."

  "By this time, of course," Kathleen continued, "a great hue-and-crywill have been raised after me in London. Do you intend to return thereto-night? Again I ask this question for my father's sake. He should beinformed of my whereabouts at once; for you must remember that he is anold man and will probably take this very much to heart."

  "He will not be informed of this to-night," said Melun, shortly."Because," he continued, with a villainous leer, "I am only cruel to bekind. I want to have all the details of your ransom and our marriagesettled as soon as possible. A night of waiting will soften your dearold father's hea
rt, and he will probably listen to reason in themorning."

  Kathleen shuddered and drew a little further away from Melun. "Youcoward," she said, and looked at him with infinite contempt.

  Again a dangerous light leapt into Melun's eyes.

  "Have a care," he shouted, "what names you call me here. I do not wishto be compelled to make you feel your position. But if necessary Ishall----"

  Kathleen did not take her scornful eyes from his face, and Melun atlast looked shiftily away.

  As he apparently did not intend to speak again, Kathleen put to himanother question:

  "Who is the woman," she asked, "you employed to get me here?"

  "That is no business of yours," snarled Melun, "though you can, if youwish to speak to or allude to her, call her Mme. Estelle."

  "I merely asked," said Kathleen, "because I was curious to know how shecame to make use of the name of Russia."

  "It was simple, perfectly simple. It was largely a matter of guesswork.It was only natural to suppose that you would be doing what you couldto smooth matters over with the Czar."

  Kathleen nodded a little to herself. There were apparently few detailsof her father's secret with which Melun was not acquainted.

  "Now," said the captain, changing his tone and attempting to be briskand businesslike, "let us for a moment consider the essential points ofthe case. Of the ransom, of course, there can be no question. I shallincrease the sum because of the obstinate way in which your father hasrefused my overtures. That, however, will be all the better for us."

  He said this with an insinuating air for which Kathleen loathed him.

  "The only remaining obstacle is yourself. But you, perhaps, will nolonger refuse the hand which I so considerately offer you in marriage."

  "Captain Melun," said Kathleen, coldly, "you are at liberty to discussthe business side of this matter as much as you please. But I declinealtogether to allow you to insult me. After all, it is unnecessary, forI have nothing to say on the matter, and must refer you to my father."

  "I had hoped," said Melun, "that I might be able to gladden his heartwith the news of your consent."

  Kathleen turned her back on him, and Melun swore at her withoutdisguise. But she paid no heed.

  Presently he walked round the room so that he could come face to facewith her.

  "It is early," he said, "but early hours will do you good. If you willbe so kind as to accompany me I will show you to your room."

  He led the way up three flights of stairs till they came to a smalllanding. Out of this there opened only one door, and through this Melunpassed.

  Kathleen now found herself in a large, square room, simply and yetfairly well furnished, partly as a bedroom and partly as a sitting-room.

  "It is here," said Melun, "that I am unfortunately compelled toask you to await your father's decision. However, I release youunconditionally from your promise neither to scream nor to attemptescape.

  "You are at perfect liberty to scream to your heart's content. There isno one here who will mind in the least. You are also at perfect libertyto make what efforts at escape you choose. I fear that you will onlyfind them futile."

  He went out quickly and closed the door after him. Kathleen, listeningin the badly-lighted room, could hear a key grate in the lock and boltsshot in both at the top and the bottom of the door.

  Quickly and methodically she made an examination of her prison. Shelooked into the cupboards and into the drawers and the massive bureau.But there was nothing about the room of the remotest interest to herwhich offered the faintest suggestion, sinister or otherwise.

  It was, indeed, only when she looked out of the windows, of which therewere three, that she discovered to the full how utterly helpless washer position.

  The window on the south side was apparently over the window of thedining-room, and, as she peeped over the sill, looked sheer down theface of the precipice beneath her.

  The west window, she found, looked down into a stone courtyard, whilethe window on the east overhung the pond. Apparently she was imprisonedin a tower.

  When Melun had reached the ground floor he sought out Mme. Estelle.

  "I have not had much opportunity of saying anything to you," heremarked as he entered the room in which she was sitting, "but I shouldlike to tell you now how splendidly you have done."

  Madame was restless and ill at ease.

  "If I had seen that girl before to-day," she said, "I should neverhave brought her here."

  "Then you would have been a fool," said Melun, rudely.

  "Possibly, but still, even at the risk of your displeasure, there are afew things which I do not care to do."

  Melun glanced at her sharply.

  "Of course," she continued, "it is too late now. I have made up mymind, and we will go through with it, but frankly, I don't like thisbusiness."

  "Never mind," said Melun; "it will not last for ever. To-morrow oughtto settle it. I shall go back to town the first thing, starting atabout five o'clock, as I shall have to make a _detour_. I have changedthe number of the car, but still it is hard to say what Westerham maybe up to. If he finds that his precious motor has not come back to townhe may take to advertising it as stolen--which would be awkward."

  Madame at this point bade Melun good-night, and the captain sentfor Crow. To him he gave instructions to have the car ready at fiveo'clock, but told him that he should drive it back to town himself.

  "You can serve a better purpose by remaining here," he said. "For,mark you, I will have no hanky-panky games in this house in my absence.And, mark you, too, I have no desire to have Mme. Estelle and LadyKathleen becoming too friendly. You never can rely on women. Theyare funny creatures, and Madame is far too sympathetic with the girlalready. So I shall look to you to stop anything of that sort.

  "For the rest, you will know what to do if certain contingencies shouldarise. I have not brought the dogs here for nothing." He broke off andshuddered a little himself as at some short distance from the house hecould hear the baying of the great hounds.

  "They are loose, I suppose?" he asked.

  Crow nodded.

  "Then Heaven help the stranger," he rejoined with a cruel laugh, andpulling a rug over himself he lay down to sleep on the sofa.

  He was up betimes in the morning, and had, indeed, been gone four hourswhen Mme. Estelle came lazily down to breakfast.

  Melun had left no instructions in regard to Kathleen's food, andas she did not consider it advisable to let the unfortunate girlstarve, Madame, after she had herself breakfasted, set a tray with theintention of carrying it up to Kathleen's room.

  Before she could do this, however, it was necessary to send for Crow inorder to obtain the key.

  When she asked for it, Crow shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.

  "I have very strict orders," he said.

  "What do you mean?" Madame demanded sharply. "What do you mean?"

  "Simply that the master said that you and the young lady were not toget talking too much. He said nothing about food, or of waiting on herladyship, and it didn't occur to me until this morning that it was abit of a rum job for a chap like myself to wait on her.

  "However," he added, with a smirk, "I don't so much mind."

  But Crow's clumsy utterances had again aroused all Madame's sleepingsuspicions. There was, moreover, no reason why she should keep silencenow. Her treachery was a different matter altogether. The way wassmooth for asking Kathleen the question the answer to which meant somuch to her.

  She laughed in Crow's face.

  "It was hardly necessary for the captain to give you any orders, seeingthat he gave certain instructions to me. He said that as there was noother woman in the house it would be my place to take Lady Kathleenanything that she actually needed. I am going to take up her breakfastnow. Give me the key."

  Crow hesitated a moment, but finally handed over the key. Madame put iton the breakfast tray and went upstairs.

  Kathleen, as she heard the bolts drawn back
and the key turned in thelock, suffered fresh apprehension. For she had caught the rustle ofMadame's skirts outside, and she would rather have faced Melun than thewoman.

  With very little apology Mme. Estelle entered, and, setting thebreakfast down, immediately withdrew. Her impatience to ask thequestion was great, but she schooled herself to waiting.

  In half an hour's time she went up for the tray, and then she facedKathleen boldly and looked her in the eyes.

  "Lady Kathleen," she said, "I am really ashamed to have brought youhere in such a treacherous way. I will not ask you to forgive me, foryou will not understand. I can only tell you that I am a very lovingand jealous woman."

  Mme. Estelle paused, and was conscious that Kathleen looked at her ingreat surprise.

  "I want," she continued, "to ask you a question which means much to me.Is it, or is it not, one of Captain Melun's conditions that you shallmarry him before he returns your father's secret?"

  "Yes," answered Kathleen, very quietly, "it is."

  Madame's rather flushed face grew white, and her eyes blazed withpassion. She clenched her fists and beat the air with them.

  "Oh, the liar!" she cried, "the liar! Oh! it is hard to be treated likethis when I have done so much for him."

  Kathleen drew back, startled and amazed.

  "I assure you that you need have no fear so far as I am concerned. Bothmy father and myself have refused to comply with that condition, and weshall refuse to the end."

  Madame, however, paid but little heed to Kathleen; she was besideherself with rage.

  "Ah, ah!" she cried, "wait till he returns! I'll kill him! I'll killhim!"

  So distorted with fury was the woman's face that Kathleen becamealarmed for her sanity. She drew near to her and endeavoured to catchher hands in her own, imploring her to be calm.

  By-and-by Mme. Estelle listened to her, and in a sudden revulsion offeeling fell on her knees, sobbing bitterly.

  Kathleen bent over her, doing her best to console her, and presently,as the woman grew calmer, she endeavoured to turn the situation to herown and her father's advantage.

  "The best way to defeat Captain Melun's scheme, so far as I amconcerned," she urged, "is to release me."

  But at that Mme. Estelle leaped to her feet again and her face washideous in its cunning.

  "Ah! not that," she cried, "not that! If I distrust him, I distrust youstill more. Your pretty face may look sad and sorrowful, and you maydeclare to me that you will never consent; but I will wait and see.I'll wait until Melun returns and confront you with him. Then perhaps Ishall learn the real truth."

  Kathleen made a little despairing gesture with her hands; argument, shesaw, would be useless.

  Gathering herself together, Madame blundered, half blind with tears,out of the room, and Kathleen with a sinking heart heard the boltsdrawn again.

  All through the day Madame sat brooding, sending Kathleen's lunch andtea up to her by Crow.

  All the evening she still sat and brooded, until as eleven o'clockdrew near and there were still no signs of the captain she had workedherself up into a hysteria of rage.

  Twelve o'clock struck, and still the captain was absent. Anotherhalf-hour dragged slowly by, and then she heard his car grating its wayup the hill-side.

  She was at the door to meet him, and would have plunged straightwayinto the matter which absorbed her but for the sight of his face.

  It was haggard and pale as death. His eyes were blazing in theirsockets, and his straggling hair lent him altogether a distraught andterrifying aspect.

  "Melun!" cried the woman, stretching out her hand, "what is it?"

  "I don't know," he said hoarsely; "I wish I did, but the Premier'sgone."

  "Gone! What do you mean?"

  "He is lost. Westerham kidnapped him."

  "Impossible!"

  "Impossible, you fool!" shouted the captain, irritably. "It'strue--perfectly true!"

  He walked into the hall and sank exhausted into a chair. "As for me,"he grumbled, "I have had the narrowest escape I ever had."

  "So that's all, is it?" cried Mme. Estelle, remembering her owngrievance. "So that's all!

  "But what of me? What do you think I have gone through? What do youthink I have suffered? What do you think I have found out?"

  Melun rose unsteadily from his chair and looked at her in alarm.

  "Is it Lady Kathleen?" he asked; "is she safe?"

  "Safe! Oh, yes, she is safe," she cried, with a peal of uncannylaughter. "Safe for your kisses and for your caresses. Oh, you liar!you liar! I have been true to you in all respects, and you have beenfalse to me in everything that mattered. So you will marry the prettyLady Kathleen, will you? Oh, but you won't! Never! Never!"

  She rushed at Melun as though to strike him, but Melun, jaded though hewas, was quick and strong.

  He caught her brutally, as he might a dog, by the neck, and threwher into the dining-room, the door of which stood open, and, utterlycareless as to what harm he might do to her, sent the unhappy womansprawling on to the floor. In a second he had banged the door to andturned the key in the lock. He sank down on to the bench trembling andexhausted.

  He heard Marie pick herself up and hurl herself in blind and impotentfury against the door.

  He listened, shaking like a leaf, as shriek after shriek of frenzyreached his ears.

  Up in the tower Kathleen heard these shrieks too, and shuddered. Ahorrible fear took possession of her heart that there was murder beingdone below.

  She sat on the edge of her bed with her hands pressed to her heart,listening in fascinated horror.

  The shrieks died away, and there was complete silence in the house forfull half an hour.

  Then Kathleen heard a sudden shout, a crashing of glass and ascrambling, tearing noise, the hideous bay of the boarhounds in thecourtyard, a scream, and a thud.

  Stabbing the other noise with sharp precision came the sound of shots.

 
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