The crime club, p.25
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       The Crime Club, p.25

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER XXV

  THE LAST FIGHT

  As the car ran southwards and came to Oxford Street, Westerham thrustPatmore on to the floor and sat holding him between his knees.

  Without pity, he again seized the shrinking man's neck in his greathands.

  "Understand," he said in a low voice, "that if you attempt to cry outyou will be strangled."

  Patmore made a choking noise to indicate that he understood, and thecar went on at a great pace through Regent Street across Piccadilly,and so reached Whitehall.

  Westerham had decided that, apart from the necessity of giving LordPenshurst the good news, it would be better to take the Premier withthem to the farm in Kent at which Westerham had learned Kathleen wasimprisoned.

  It was close on midnight when Lowther brought the car to a standstillin Downing Street. Mendip, who had abandoned his obviously futilewatching in Queen Victoria Street, had returned some time before, andnow rushed out to meet them.

  "He's inside," said Lowther, jerking his head back, and Mendip thrusthis head through the window peering into the gloom in search ofWesterham.

  "It is all right," said Westerham, quietly. "Don't rouse anybody, butget Lord Penshurst out here at once. I have got a man in here with meand my hands are full."

  He gave Patmore's back a by no means tender squeeze as a furtherindication that he had no intention of relinquishing his grip.

  Mendip ran inside, and finding the Premier, brought him to the car.

  "Well," he said eagerly, "have you news at last?"

  "Yes," answered Westerham. "I have discovered Lady Kathleen'swhereabouts, and I think we shall be just in time. But we must startat once, and you had better come with us. Mendip, get Lord Penshurst ahat."

  They were off again in a few minutes, Mendip riding beside Lowther, andthe Premier beside Westerham in the body of the car.

  He inquired eagerly as to the man whom Westerham still held between hisknees, and Westerham, to Patmore's shame, briefly outlined what hadpassed since he had kept the appointment at St. Paul's.

  There were some things which he did not tell the Premier, and Patmore,wincing under yet another squeeze from Westerham's ruthless fingers,held his peace.

  The man had given them fairly accurate directions as to the road whichthey must take, and Lowther made good speed through New Cross and so toBromley. They kept on down the main road till they passed Farnborough,where, in accordance with Patmore's instructions, he branched off tothe left, and leaving Cudham behind them, he swept down the hill toWesterham, the place from which Sir Paul took his name.

  They were now, indeed, travelling along the same route which Melun hadtaken when he had kidnapped Lady Kathleen in Richmond Park.

  As they ran through Sevenoaks Westerham lowered the windows and madePatmore kneel on the front of the seat, so that he could the betterpoint out the way to Lowther.

  Lowther knew the district fairly well, and whistled to himself asPatmore directed him to turn up to the right before they reachedHildenborough.

  The car was now heading for Edenbridge, and he knew they were racingalong the foot of that great range of hills, the southern slopes ofwhich are almost as precipitous and desolate as the moors of Devon.

  Before long Patmore directed Lowther to turn to the right again, and hehad to put the car on to her second and then on to her third speed asthe hill rose up almost sheer before them.

  "How much further is it?" he asked over his shoulder as the engines ofthe motor complained bitterly at the ascent.

  "About another half-mile. Then you get on to a sort of plateau. Thereyou must turn to the left."

  "How far will the turning be from the house?" asked Westerham.

  "I'm not sure," replied Patmore, "but I should think about five hundredyards. You will have to drive through what is practically a bridle-pathand take it gently. It is an awkward place on a dark night."

  The man was in considerable pain as the result of the treatment he hadmet with at Finchley, and now and again he groaned so pitifully that atlast Westerham let him slide down from the seat on to the floor of thecar again.

  Lord Penshurst asked what ailed him. And Patmore would have spoken hadnot Westerham dug his fingers into his ribs. Patmore knew well enoughwhat that dig in his ribs meant, and wisely kept silent.

  As the car groaned and snorted her way up the hill Westerham tookcounsel with himself. He was doubtful as to the wisdom of running up tothe door, lest the noise of the car's approach should give Melun andthe other inmates of the farm warning of their approach. He reflected,however, that the warning would be very slight, and that, for all hecould tell, every moment might count. So he held on, and as they turnedinto the bridle-path he urged Lowther to use all the speed he dared.

  It was intensely dark beneath the trees, and Westerham sitting in theblackness of the body of the car, could hear light boughs and sometimesheavy branches scrape along the sides.

  Suddenly the car stopped and, looking out of the window, Westerham,whose eyes were used to the darkest night, could discern that they werein a little clearing.

  He jumped out and, turning round, he took out a spare revolver which hehad brought with him and placed it in Lord Penshurst's hand.

  "Lord Penshurst," Westerham said, "it is necessary for someone to keepan eye on this man. I have no idea how many of Melun's gang may bewaiting for us. I am told probably not more than two; but one cannottake anything of that sort on trust, and to avoid all unnecessary risksI shall want Mendip and Lowther with me."

  The Premier, whom the drive and the near approach of danger hadrendered alert and almost cheerful, nodded at Westerham in the darkness.

  "All right," he said, and his gnarled but still sinewy hand took a firmgrip on Patmore's collar.

  "You had better sit still," he said, and Patmore cringed at thePremier's knees. His spirit was entirely broken by the agony he was nowenduring.

  The ray from one of the lamps outlined the shape of a gate.

  "Here we are," cried Westerham in a low voice, and in a second hehad jumped forward and pulled the iron catch back and taken a strideforward. But his eager foot found no foothold. His hand was torn fromits grasp of the gate, and he pitched forward, to find himself plungedup to the neck in icy water.

  So great was the shock that he cried out a little as he spluttered andblew the water from his mouth. A couple of strokes brought him back tothe gate again, and as he clutched it he looked up at the silent house.

  Even as he did so he caught a little spit of flame from one of thewindows and a bullet splashed into the water beside his head. There wasanother spit of flame, and he felt his knuckles tingle as though theyhad been rapped with a red-hot iron.

  Then Mendip gripped him by the collar, and with his aid he scrambled upon to the path.

  Lowther, who had been quick to see the necessity of instant action,was by this time firing back at the place from which the little spitsof flame had come far above them. In the darkness he answered shot forshot.

  After the sound of the shots came a complete silence, and Westerham, ashe stood stock-still beside the gate, which was now swinging idly overthe pond, could hear the patter of the water on the path as it drippedfrom his clothes.

  Mendip, as soon as he had seen that Westerham was safe, had run alongthe hedge, and now he gave a shout.

  "This is the gate we want," he cried.

  But a third spit of flame came from the darkness overhead, andWesterham heard Mendip swearing softly under his breath. Whoever theirunknown assailant might be, he was no mean marksman.

  Westerham and Lowther ran to Mendip's aid.

  "What's up?" asked Westerham.

  "Nothing," answered Mendip, and he got the gate opened. The three mendashed up the path and reached the door of the farmhouse; but it wasmade of stout oak, and securely fastened within.

  They thrust their shoulders against it without avail, and then stoodlooking at one another, panting, and for the moment baffled.

  It was then that We
sterham's quick ear caught a woman's voice. Hewhipped round and looked across the sheet of water. His eyes were nowwell accustomed to the gloom, and he saw the form of a woman leaningfar out of a window and gesticulating wildly.

  He held up his hand to the others for silence, and then once morecame a voice which he instantly recognised. It was the voice of Mme.Estelle.

  "Be quick! Be quick!" she cried. "If you don't wish to be too late, youmust swim the pond, the door is barred."

  Westerham cast a quick glance behind him, and his eyes fell on the gate.

  "Use that as a battering ram," he ordered, and then his jaws closedover the butt of his revolver.

  Without hesitation he waded in, and a few strong strokes brought himbeneath the window out of which Mme. Estelle leant and waved.

  He knew instinctively by her accents that she was terrified beyondmeasure and that he need not expect treachery from her.

  With one hand he clutched the sill, with the other he reached up andshifting the safety-cap on with his thumb, let his revolver fall intothe room.

  Soaked as he was with water, it was not an easy task to hoist himselfup and clamber through the window, and when at last he stood within theroom he leant against the wall partially exhausted and breathing hard.

  Mme. Estelle stood before him wringing her hands.

  "Be quick!" she said again. "Be quick! be quick! or you will be toolate. That fiend Melun is at his work."

  By the light of the candles which flickered on the mantelpieceWesterham made his way to the door.

  Seizing the handle, he turned it, but the lock held fast. He examinedit swiftly, and to his joy saw that it opened outwards. He drew back ayard, and then sent the whole of his great weight crashing against thepanels. And with good fortune the door of the room, although stoutlybuilt, was partially rotten. It burst wide open before his weight andsent him sprawling on to his face in the passage.

  As he lay there half-stunned his pulses throbbed again as the noisewhich came from the main entrance told him that Lowther and Mendip weremaking good use of the gate.

  He dragged himself up to his knees, still clutching his revolver, andat the same moment the outer door gave up its resistance, and Lowtherand Mendip came headlong into the hall-way.

  He heard them give a warning shout as he struggled to his feet,steadying himself by the pillars of the banisters.

  Looking up the stairs, he saw the brutal face of Crow on the landing,his strong, yellow teeth bared in a vicious snarl.

  Westerham heard the sound of a shot, and at the same time felt thehands of Mme. Estelle give him a push.

  Her intention was unselfish, almost heroic; she saved Westerham's life,but lost her own.

  She pitched forward with a little gasping sigh and lay still, huddledon the stairs. Westerham heard a second shot rap out from behind hisback, and saw Crow stagger on the landing. The man reeled for a coupleof paces and then fell heavily.

  Westerham had by this time fully got back his senses and his breath;and now he heard coming from somewhere high above him scream afterscream of dreadful terror.

  He plunged up the staircase, and stepping across the body of Crow as itlay on the landing, raced up the second flight of stairs. For a momenthe paused, in order to make doubly sure whence the dreadful screamingcame.

  Then he had no doubt, and dashed on, up to the third flight, till hecame to the topmost landing.

  Here he was confronted by a door, and he groaned within himself. He wasliving in some awful nightmare at which a door faced him at every turn.

  He emptied his revolver in the lock and hurled himself in frenzyagainst this further obstruction; it gave way, and he tottered into theroom, the lights of which for a moment dazzled him.

  His half-blinded eyes were greeted by the sight which he had dreadedever since he had come to the farm on the hill.

  Kathleen was fighting desperately, and for life, with Melun.

  With a great cry Westerham leapt forward, but he was too late toexercise that vengeance which had now full possession of his soul.

  Melun flung Kathleen to one side, and for a second turned his pallidface, in which his eyes were burning like a madman's, full on Westerhamas he dashed on him.

  Then without a sound he leapt aside, and vaulting on to the sill of theopen window, jumped out.

  Instinctively Westerham knew what was coming, and catching Kathleento him, held her head against his breast, stopping her ears withhis hands. As his palms closed upon them his heart grew sick as heremembered the dreadful thing which had come to Downing Street earlierin the day.

  But to his unutterable joy--joy which was almost a shock--his handstold him that Melun's hideous warning had been but a brutal hoax.

  Kathleen was never told of it.

  Then as he stood there with his eyes bent on her hair, he heard thesickening sound of Melun's body thud on to the stones below.

  Releasing Kathleen's ears, he put his hand under her chin and liftedup her face. He marvelled that she had not fainted, but the dreadfulhorror in her eyes struck into his heart like a blow.

  He had to hold her to prevent her falling to the floor, and so he stoodfor some few seconds with Kathleen limp and shivering in his arms.

  Bracing himself for one last effort, Westerham lifted Kathleen up andbore her out of the room. Half-dazed, he stumbled down the stairs withher until he reached the hall.

  In the doorway he saw Lord Penshurst, still clinging grimly toPatmore's collar, but at the sight of Kathleen the Premier released hishold and came running forward with outstretched arms.

  "Just a minute," said Westerham, quickly, and he walked into the room,the door of which he had shattered.

  In the meantime Mendip and Lowther had picked up Mme. Estelle andcarried her into the same room, and now she lay on the couch, her facegrowing grey with the shadows of death, and her breath coming fast andfeebly. Her eyes stared up at the ceiling with an intense and horriblefixity.

  Westerham pushed an armchair round with his foot and set Kathleen downon it so that her back was turned to the dying woman.

  Lord Penshurst fell on his knees beside the chair, and seizing hisdaughter's hands, held them against his breast, and for a little whilewept quietly.

  Westerham crossed over to Mme. Estelle and stood over her. He put hishand against her heart and listened to her breathing.

  "I am afraid," he said in a low voice to Mendip, "that we can donothing for her. It is a bad business. Heaven forgive her for anythingshe has done amiss! She did her best to make amends."

  Then he drew Lowther out of the room and told him to fetch a lamp fromthe car. Patmore was sitting on the stairs with his face hidden in hishands.

  "Never mind him," said Westerham, as Lowther gave the man a glance, "weshall have no more trouble from that quarter."

  When Lowther had fetched the lamp Westerham took it and began rapidlyto examine round the ground floor of the rambling building. He wasseeking for the courtyard into which Melun had fallen.

  At last they found it, and found, too, all that remained of Melun. Hewas battered and crushed and bruised almost beyond recognition.

  Westerham set his face and straightened the twisted and distorted bodyout. Then began the grim task of searching the dead man's clothes. Heturned out every pocket, and with a knife ripped open every lining. Butthe papers which he sought were not there.

  He straightened himself, and picking up the lamp led the way back intothe house.

  By this time Kathleen, though very pale and still shaken, was quitecomposed. Indeed, she was now more self-possessed than the Premier. Shewas doing her utmost to quiet his still painful agitation.

  Westerham looked into Kathleen's face, and seeing how strong andresolute it was, felt no hesitation in speaking before her.

  "Lord Penshurst," he said, very quietly, "Melun is dead."

  The Premier glanced at him quickly and then turned to his daughter.

  "Thank heaven!" he cried.

  "Hush," said Kathleen, gently,
and taking her father by the arm shepointed to Mme. Estelle.

  Mendip had done what he could, and the unhappy woman had, to someextent, come back to consciousness.

  She was indeed sufficiently alive to catch Westerham's words. Shebrought her fast fading eyes down from the ceiling and searchedWesterham's face.

  "Melun!" she muttered to herself: "Melun!"

  Westerham drew near and knelt down by the couch. He took one of herhands, which was even then growing cold.

  "Melun?" she asked again in a voice scarcely above a whisper.

  Westerham put his mouth down to her ear and said slowly, "He is dead."

  The shock of the news acted on the woman in a most extraordinary way.With a convulsive movement she suddenly gathered herself together andsat bolt upright on the couch. She would have fallen back again had notWesterham caught her in his arms.

  "The papers!" she gasped.

  "Yes?" said Westerham, kindly and soothingly. "Where are they?"

  With a faint movement she pointed towards Westerham's feet. "There!"she gasped.

  To Westerham it seemed as if she were already beginning to wander inher mind, but he said still kindly and soothingly, "Yes, yes, I know!But where?"

  The woman opened her mouth and made two or three efforts before shespoke again, and then she only breathed the word "Boots!"

  Westerham's gaze wandered over the sideboard.

  "See if you can find any brandy," he said to Mendip.

  Mendip could find no brandy, but brought some almost neat whisky overin a glass.

  Westerham took the glass from Mendip's hand and pressed it to Mme.Estelle's lips. She revived a little, and suddenly spoke clearly and inalmost her normal voice.

  "Sir Paul," she said, "the papers are in your boots!"

  For a moment Westerham stared into the dying woman's face, under theimpression that her reason had departed from her. But with a start heremembered how he had awoke in St. John's Wood, after being drugged,to find himself dressed in strange clothes and in new footgear. Andfor the first time the real significance of the removal of all hisapparel from his rooms in Bruton Street struck him with full force. Heremembered, too, that from the night he had left Mme. Estelle, Melun,by one swift action after another, had kept him constantly on themove, so that it had been impossible for him so much as to order freshclothes.

  To the astonishment of Lord Penshurst and Kathleen, and to thewonderment of Lowther and Mendip, Westerham propped Mme. Estelle upagainst the pillows and began rapidly to remove his boots.

  Comfortable though they had been, it had always struck him that theywere unnaturally deep between the outer and the inner sole. The meaningof that came clearly home to him now.

  No sooner had he pulled off his boots than he took a knife and began torip feverishly at the heels. He succeeded in detaching them, and wasthen able easily to rip open the soles.

  He was now fully prepared for any turn of events, but he could notrepress an exclamation, as in tearing away the upper layers of leather,his eyes fell on a dozen neatly-folded sheets of tissue paper.

  He drew them out, and with a cry Lord Penshurst snatched them from hishand.

  Westerham saw at a glance that the Premier had regained the papershe had lost--the papers which had jeopardised, not only the peace ofnations, but his own and his daughter's honour.

  Westerham seized the other boot, but Mme. Estelle shook her head. "Lookafterwards," she gasped, "not now."

  Westerham held the whisky to her lips again, and again she ralliedslightly.

  "The papers," she said faintly, "were deposited at the poste-restante,St. Martin's-le-Grand, in my name. But Melun really thought you haddiscovered where they were and took them away. There was not a singleplace in which we could hope to hide them safely. It was I who thoughtof your boots.

  "I did it," she said, with a wan little smile at Westerham, "partly tosave you. I knew that so long as you were safe the papers were safe.

  "Melun was so certain that he would win," she went on wearily, "Idon't think he really thought of doing you any injury. It struck himthat it would be an immense joke after he had got his way to tell LordPenshurst that the man who was trying to find the papers had them inhis possession all the time. I think sometimes he was mad."

  Madame paused, and her eyes contracted as though with pain.

  "Forgive!" she gasped. Then her eyes became fixed and staring.

  It was Westerham who drew the dead woman's eyelids down.

  * * * * *

  It was long past dawn when they reached Downing Street, and LordPenshurst at once sent in cipher a short message to the Czar, informinghis Majesty of the recovery of the papers.

  Afterwards, in the Premier's own room, Westerham sat for a short whilewith Kathleen and Lord Penshurst. But little was said, for, just assome sorrows are too deep for tears, so there is some gratitude beyondthanks.

  "Westerham," said the Premier, earnestly, "it is simply impossiblethat I shall ever be able to repay you the great service you haverendered me. But, believe me, if there is anything in the world it iswithin my power to give you, you have but to ask to receive it."

  Westerham looked across at Kathleen, but said nothing. The time hadnot yet come when he could ask Lord Penshurst for that which would athousand times repay him.

  THE END

  * * * * *

  Transcriber's note:

  What appeared to be clear typographical errors were corrected; anyother mistakes or inconsistencies were retained.

  Paragraphs that were separated by an illustration were rejoined and theimage placed before or after the paragraph.

  All quotation marks have been retained as they appear in the originalpublication.

  Text enclosed by underscores is in italics (_italics_).

  Small capital text has been replaced with all capitals.

 
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