The crime club, p.7
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       The Crime Club, p.7

           W. Holt-White
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  In the outer room he found Melun; he took him by the arm and said veryquickly, "Come along, I want to speak to you."

  Melun gave him one almost quizzical look and accompanied him withoutspeaking.

  As a matter of fact, he found it rather awkward to say anything at all,and did not attempt to break the silence in which Westerham drove backto the hotel.

  Westerham himself was baffled, and yet he had ascertained one thingwhich was likely to be of infinite use to him. He had discovered thatthere was, without doubt, a definite connection between the gamewhich Melun was playing and Bagley's attempt to steal Lady Kathleen'sdiamonds.

  That was sufficient for the night.

  Still his impatience, or perhaps one had better say his desire, to getat the actual facts prompted him to take Melun into Walter's Hotel andsubject him to a close cross-examination.

  Melun, however, had recovered from his perturbation of the nightbefore, and, moreover, was apparently intoxicated by the effect ofrubbing shoulders with the great ones of the earth at the PrimeMinister's reception. Therefore he was in a far less tractable frameof mind than was pleasant to Westerham. The captain, indeed, had gotback that self-possession and cool audacity of which he had made suchgood use on the _Gigantic_. Westerham realised this at once, and at theoutset dealt very gently with Melun.

  "Don't you think," he began softly, "that you had better make a cleanbreast of it?"

  "Not at all," answered Melun. "I have no desire to shock you, and a manwho is disturbed by the yelling of a couple of girls is not likely totake what I might tell him in a particularly cool manner."

  Westerham's bright, sea-green eyes hardened.

  "I have told you," he said in a more menacing tone, "that if you wantto indulge in villainy you have got to keep women out of it. Now,whatever your scheme may be, it cannot be of very particular magnitudeunless it has to do with the Premier. I fail to see where Lady Kathleencomes into the matter at all."

  "Perhaps you do," Melun answered, "but then you are unacquaintedwith the details, and I don't propose to enlighten you. I agreed tobetray the secrets of the prison house, or rather to let you see howmy friends work, but I did not agree to tell you of every piece ofbusiness in which I was engaged."

  "On this occasion, I fancy," said Westerham, "you will find itconvenient to unburden your mind."

  But Captain Melun only laughed. "Not so," he said.

  Westerham was as near to exasperation as he ever allowed himself to get.

  "I don't want to coerce you," he remarked grimly.

  "You had better not try," Melun answered. "There is one thing whichapparently you have not taken into your calculations. You forget thatLord Penshurst--I admit that your suspicions of a tie between us arecorrect--is quite as much interested in keeping me silent as I am inkeeping silent myself."

  Westerham had foreseen this point, and was prepared with an answer.

  "You forget," he said, "that it might suit my convenience to becomeLord Penshurst's friend."

  "Have a care," cried Melun, angrily; "you don't know what you say."

  "What do you mean?" demanded Westerham.

  "I mean," said Melun, softly, "that I can strike back where it will hityou most."

  Instinctively Westerham clenched his hands.

  "Possibly," he said, "but you cannot blackmail me, and though since Imet you first I knew you were a blackmailer, I did not know you aimedso high as to blackmail the Prime Minister."

  He paused for a few moments before he spoke again; when he did hisvoice was even and low; but Melun did not like the ring in it.

  "In fact," Westerham resumed, "I have seen enough to convince me thatwhat you are after must be very big game indeed. What it is, of course,I do not know, and it would simply be idle on my part to pretend thatI did. But I have the capacity of being infinitely patient, and sooneror later I shall find out. I will not press you because I think that Ishould simply land myself into difficulties, which would make mattersharder than they are."

  He rose and walked over to the door, and held it open. "For thepresent," he said, "you may go, but if I were you I would not fail toappear when you are sent for."

  Melun took up his hat and stick and laughed lightly.

  "It suits me very well," he said, "to come when I am bid, but possiblyyou may not find me quite so pliant in the future. Good-night!"

  Going straight up to his room, Westerham slept like a child tillabout six o'clock. He preferred to do his clear thinking in theearly morning. Now he thought long and hard for two hours. He arguedthe matter out with himself in all its respects, and though he haddetermined not to take a bold course with Melun on the previous night,he was now convinced that the only way was to take a bold course withLady Kathleen.

  He had not seen Dunton among the guests at the reception, but, ofcourse, there could be no doubt that Lady Kathleen was well acquaintedwith that entirely charming and honest, if somewhat vacuous, young peer.

  It was therefore with the intention of revealing his identity to LadyKathleen and explaining the whole position to her that about noon hemade his way down Whitehall and rang the queer little bell of No. 10Downing Street.

  As he waited on the door-step, however, he was a little disconcertedto observe that the blinds were drawn down, and immediately the doorwas opened he instinctively knew that the house was, for his purpose atleast, empty.

  None the less, he asked for Lady Kathleen, only to be met with thegrave reply that her ladyship had left that morning by motor car forTrant Hall, in Hertfordshire.

  Without any display of discomposure Westerham nodded the man his thanksfor the information and retraced his steps to the hotel. The departureof Lady Kathleen to some slight extent unsettled his mind. He reflectedthat perhaps he had been a little too hasty in his decision to tell hereverything.

  There was the possibility that she would disbelieve him, and thepossibility, moreover, that she would tell her father; and if she toldher father there was the further possibility that the Premier would beadamant in his refusal to disclose his troubles. And in that case hewould be absolutely baulked. Westerham was a keen judge of character,and he saw that if her father refused to speak Lady Kathleen wouldrefuse to speak too.

  Then indeed he would be in a quandary, for he would be entirely cut offfrom those whom he wished to befriend, even if he did not excite theiractive hostility.

  Upon these reflections he instantly decided to alter his mind,comforting himself on this score with the dictum that it is only thedead who never change.

  But though he decided to withhold his identity, he was resolved to makeone last effort to induce Lady Kathleen to confide in him.

  With this idea he turned back, not to his hotel, but to his roomsin Bruton Street, from which he had been absent for so long withoutexplanation.

  There he was met on the threshold by the entirely immaculate anddiscreet servant with whom the youthful, but worldly-wise, Lord Duntonhad provided him.

  The man's eyes revealed nothing. He merely bowed and waited, with thaturbane silence which characterises the best kind of English servant.

  The man's face, indeed, expressed no surprise even at the rather shabbyclothes which Westerham was wearing, though Westerham himself knew wellenough that he must have remarked them.

  "While I am getting into other things," he said, "you had bettertelephone round for my car."

  The man bowed. It was the first time that his extraordinary newmaster had thought of using the very magnificent motor car which hehad casually bought in the course of an afternoon's walk. In abouttwenty minutes Westerham came out of his room again, looking, if notaltogether a different man, at least a better-dressed one.

  Westerham was conscious that his servant surveyed him with approvalas he offered him lunch. He accepted it, as he was hungry; moreover,he knew that he could reach Trant Hall well within two hours, andhe had no desire to arrive too soon. The chauffeur, also suppliedby Lord D
unton, was the same manner of man as his valet. Westerhamappreciated the fact, but was not as thankful as he became later, whenhe discovered that a silent and discreet and civil chauffeur was adistinctly uncommon type of human being.

  Having made up his mind as to his immediate course of action, Westerhamthought no more about the matter. It was not his habit to think what heshould say when he met a certain man or a certain woman. He believedin the inspiration of the moment; and his inspiration was seldom wrong.

  About four o'clock the chauffeur informed him that they were nearingTrant Hall, and then it occurred to Westerham that it might possibly beunwise to make too bold an entry into the grounds. In consequence hestopped at the lodge and inquired for Lady Kathleen.

  Her ladyship, he was told, had not many minutes before called thereherself. She was believed to be now on her way to the deer park. Havingasked where this lay, Westerham got out of the car and proceeded onfoot down the leafy avenue. At the end of the avenue there was a highwall, in which there was a break. A flight of stone steps led up to thebreak, and these he climbed.

  On the top he paused, being struck by the remarkable beauty of thescene. For from the wall the green turf sloped downwards, while beforehim and on either side stretched a magnificent forest of giant beechtrees.

  He had taken the precaution to inquire whether it were possible forLady Kathleen to return from the deer park by any other route, and hadreceived an answer in the negative. Therefore he decided it would bewaste of time for him to go in search of her, seeing that she must comeback by the same way.

  Meanwhile he sat down on the top of the steps, and, lighting acigarette, gave himself over to patient waiting.

  Some thirty minutes passed before he caught a glimpse of a movingfigure amid some distant trees. The figure grew in size and indistinctness of outline, and then he saw Lady Kathleen coming slowlytowards him.

  Her face was bent on the ground, and her whole figure seemed for themoment old and bowed. Her appearance, indeed, gave him a little pang ofsorrow.

  He realised that when she saw him she must suffer some slight shock.That, however, was inevitable, and so he sat waiting for her to raiseher head.

  Presently, as she came nearer the wall, she lifted up her eyes, and alittle cry escaped her lips as she saw Westerham sitting there. Shestopped dead in her walk and stood still, holding her hand against herheart.

  Westerham knew that she must have time to recover before he spoke, sohe merely removed his hat and, moving forward, stood bareheaded beforeher.

  A little of her old spirit came back to her as she looked up at him.There was almost a glimmer of amusement in her eyes, but whateverhumour she might have felt at his appearance was drowned in her obviousanxiety. She might well have been angry with him, but she kept her sadcomposure.

  "Do you think," she asked, with an appealing gesture of her hands, "itis quite fair to torment me in this way?"

  "You would not ask me that," said Westerham, "if you did believe me tobe an honest man."

  She passed her hand rather wearily across her forehead.

  "I hardly know," she said in a slightly shaky voice, "exactly what tothink."

  She lifted her eyes again to his as though to search him through andthrough.

  "At any rate," asked Westerham, with a smile, "have you a sufficientlygood opinion of me to grant me just a few moments to say something?"

  "It seems I cannot help myself," she said, with a pained little laugh.

  "Lady Kathleen," he answered earnestly, "you are very much upset. Iassure you that if you will only hear me out you will not regret it--atleast you may rest assured that you will be free from any insult orannoyance.

  "It will take me some few minutes to explain," he went on, "and so Ithink it would be best for you to sit down."

  Without waiting for an answer he took her by the hand and led hergently to the steps. She sank down on them with a heavy sigh.

  "The other night," said Westerham, "I was sufficiently honest to saveyou from an awkward situation."

  Lady Kathleen was about to speak, but he would not allow it.

  "No, no!" he urged, "I did not mention it to be thanked again. I havebeen more than thanked already. I only did what any ordinary decent manwould do. I have no desire to dwell on that. Indeed, I simply mentionedit in order that I might convince you that I wish you well."

  "But you knew that man," she cried; "you must have known him."

  Westerham stared at Lady Kathleen with some astonishment.

  "I give you my word that I did not know him then," he said, "even if Iknow him now."

  "Ah!" she darted a look of suspicion at him.

  "Yes, I know Bagley, and I know Melun, and I know a man called Crow."

  Lady Kathleen's face blanched.

  "And what else?" she asked.

  He threw out his arms. "Nothing! I swear to you I know absolutelynothing else, except--and that, of course, is obvious--that you andyour father go in deadly fear of all the three. Why, I cannot tell. Ifyou will only enlighten me a little I may do much to help you."

  "No, no!" she cried, "it is simply out of the question. The secret isnot mine, but my father's."

  "Then let me go to Lord Penshurst," urged Westerham.

  The girl started and thought for a few minutes before she answered."No," she said at last, slowly, "you must not do that. He would notunderstand."

  "You mean," said Westerham, "he would merely regard me as one who mightbe termed 'one of the gang.'"

  The girl nodded.

  "But I assure you," Westerham laughed, "that I am not."

  To his surprise the girl looked him straight in the face. "I wish Ifelt quite sure," she said.

  Westerham flushed with almost a flush of anger.

  "This," he cried, "is an intolerable situation. If you would onlyconfide in me I would confide in you.

  "I am not what I seem. I am no mere man-about-town. I am not one ofMelun's dupes. I am not of a certainty one of his friends--even thoughI may appear to be associated with him.

  "I am a very different man indeed from what I fancy you take me for.My resources are practically limitless, and without boasting I may saythat I hold Melun in the hollow of my hand."

  Again, to his surprise, Kathleen gave him the same keen look ofsuspicion.

  "I fear no consequence as the result of what I will tell you," shesaid quietly, "but Melun declares that you are merely an Americanconfederate."

  "Good Heavens!" cried Westerham, and so great was the sincerity of histones that Lady Kathleen's face softened.

  "But perhaps you are not. I wish I knew."

  She buried her face in her hands and rocked to and fro in her distress.

  "If I tell you who I am," cried Westerham, stung to desperation, "am Inot right in thinking that you would tell your father?"

  Kathleen nodded her assent.

  "And then we should be worse off than ever," he rejoined gloomily. "Farfrom being regarded as a friend, I should be regarded as an interloper,possibly a danger, because I knew of your father's difficulty. Yet whatthe nature of that trouble is I have not the least idea. Why not tellme?"

  The girl leapt to her feet and looked at him with wild eyes. "If you doknow," she cried, "you are as great a fiend as Melun to persecute mein this way, and if you do not know--then Heaven forbid that you evershould.

  "I cannot tell you because if I did I should be a murderess."

  "A murderess!" Westerham drew a step back in horror.

  "A murderess of whom?"

  "Don't ask," cried Kathleen; "I should be a murderess of not one, butmany. As it is I can at least be silent, and if needs be make thesacrifice."

  "What sacrifice?"

  "What sacrifice? Ah, that I cannot tell you now, though I cannot hideit from you always. I fear that there is no hope. That you will have toknow in time unless--unless----"

  "Unless what?"

  "Unless----" cried the girl, and her voice trailed away.

  Westerham took her hands
gently and with great deference.

  "Unless," he said softly, "you allow me to help you."

  She tore her hands away from his and almost screamed at him.

  "Go! Go!" she cried.

  Her whole air was so distraught, she was so obviously on the verge of acomplete breakdown, that Westerham realised it would be mere folly toremain. His offers could only exasperate her the more.

  So he turned away sorrowfully. It cut him to the heart to see herhuddled there upon the steps crying as if her heart would break. Buthe could do nothing. It was with a blind rage against Melun that hestumbled back along the avenue to his car and curtly ordered the man toreturn to London.

  And at every yard of the way he repeated to himself the words:"Murderess!" "Sacrifice!" "Sacrifice!" "Murderess!"

  On a sudden he resolved to call on Mme. Estelle.

  Possibly she could help to solve all this sickening mystery.

  The words "Murderess!" "Sacrifice!" "Murderess!" "Sacrifice!" fittedwith a horrible nicety the throbbing of the engine, and he wasstill muttering to himself "Murderess!" "Sacrifice!" "Sacrifice!""Murderess!" when he reached the narrow door in the wall of the houseof Mme. Estelle.

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