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   Chapter 14 No.14

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 12108

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Inspector Field took up his hat and gloves from the chair where he had deposited them. He was satisfied, and more than satisfied with the interview. In a short time he had achieved excellent results.

"We will not trouble Mrs. Richford any more at present," he said. "It may be some consolation to her to know that I agree with all her reasonings. But there is plenty of work to do."

Field bowed himself out, followed by Berrington. The latter asked what the inspector was going to do.

"In the first place I am going down to the Yard," Field explained. "I am then going to get rid of my correspondence and have my dinner. After that till it gets dark I propose to pursue what Lord Beaconsfield called a policy of masterly inactivity for a time. Once it is really dark, I intend to go as far as Wandsworth Common, and learn something of the gentleman who is lame and has a private hansom painted black. You see, sir, the scene of the story is changed. The next act must be played out at Wandsworth."

"You have some settled plan in your mind?" Berrington asked.

"Indeed I have not, sir. I may make no more than a few simple inquiries and come home again. On the other hand, before morning I may find myself inside the house. I may even return with the lame gentleman as my prisoner. It is all in the air."

"By Jove," Berrington cried. "I should like to go with you. As an old campaigner, and one with some little knowledge of strategy I may be useful. Anything is better than sitting here doing nothing. Would you very much mind, Inspector?"

Field regarded the brown, eager, clever face and steadfast eyes of the questioner shrewdly.

"I shall be delighted, sir," he said heartily, "with one proviso-that you regard me as your senior officer and commander in this business. Military strategy is one thing, the hunting of criminals quite a different thing. I shall start from the Yard before ten o'clock, and even then I shall not make my way to Wandsworth direct. We are dealing with an exceedingly clever lot, and it is just possible that I may be watched. Therefore I shall disguise myself, and you had better do the same. Then you can meet me at eleven o'clock where you like."

"That's a bargain," Berrington said eagerly. "I'll go over to Wandsworth pretty early and try to see my police friend, Macklin. At eleven o'clock I shall be under the trees opposite Audley Place, waiting for you. Probably I shall assume the disguise of a sailor."

"Um, not a bad idea," Field remarked. "We will both be sailors just paid off from a ship and with money in our pockets. Sailors, in that condition who have assimilated a fair amount of liquid refreshment, do strange things. Oh, we shall be all right. Merchant seamen let us be, from the ship Severn, just home from South America. Good afternoon, sir."

It was nearly ten before Berrington reached the rendezvous. He was perfectly disguised as a sailor fresh from a tramp steamer, his clothes were dirty and grimy, and the cap in his hand had a decided naval cock. So far as he could judge there were no lights visible at No. 100, opposite. He waited for Macklin to come along, which presently he did. The police officer looked suspiciously at the figure in a slumbering attitude on the seat, and passed before him.

"The police officer looked suspiciously at the figure." Page 107.

"Now, then," he said sharply. "What are you doing here? Come out of that."

Berrington came unsteadily to his feet and blinked into the lane of light made by the policeman's lantern. He was rather proud of his disguise and the way in which it was passing scrutiny.

"All right, Macklin," he said in his natural voice. "It's Colonel Berrington. Not quite the same sort of disguise that I tried to pass into the Madi Halfa camp with when you were on guard that night. Still it took you in, didn't it?"

"It did indeed, sir," Macklin said, not without admiration. "And might I beg to ask what manner of game the Colonel of my old regiment is up to in London at this hour?"

"We need not go into details, Macklin," Berrington said. "Regard me as your senior officer for a moment, and answer my questions without comment. As I told you yesterday, I am interested in that house opposite. Have you found out anything?"

"Nothing worth speaking about, sir," Macklin replied. "They seem to be just respectable people who have plenty of money and very few visitors. Last night about half past eleven the old gentleman went out in a cab, and came back about half past two with a friend who had a big box on the top of the cab. That's all I can tell you."

"Ah, perhaps that is more important than it seems," Berrington muttered. "Anything to-day?"

"Nothing to-day, sir. Oh, yes, there is. The parlourmaid reported to the man who is doing day duty here this week that the house would be closed till Saturday, and that the police were to keep an eye on the place at night. Looks as if they've gone, sir."

Berrington swore quietly and under his breath. It seemed to him as if he and Field were going to have their trouble for their pains. No. 100 was not the kind of house where people are unduly economical on the score of lights, and there was not one to be seen.

"I should like to go and have a prowl around," Berrington said, after a pause. "I suppose if I did, I shouldn't have any officious policeman to reckon with."

"Well, sir, I'm not quite sure," Macklin said dubiously. "Of course I know you to be a gentleman as wouldn't do anything in the least wrong, but there's my sergeant to consider. Still, as this is on my beat, no other officer is likely to see you."

"Good," Berrington exclaimed. "What time will you be back here again?"

Macklin calculated that he would reach the same spot again an hour or so later,-about eleven o'clock, to be exact. The hour tallied precisely with the coming of Field, and in the meantime Berrington was free to make what he could of the house opposite.

But there was precious little to be gained in that respect. The house was all f

astened up, there were shutters to the windows on the ground floor; the garden was tried next, but there was no litter anywhere such as might have been caused by a hasty removal. Clearly if the house was closed up it was only for a day or two, as the parlourmaid had told the policeman.

At the end of an hour Berrington was not a whit wiser than before.

He crossed over the road and there on a seat under the trees was a sailor like himself. Field did not assume to be asleep but was pulling at a short clay pipe.

"Come and sit down, sir," he said. "I've just come. As I anticipated, I am being watched. But I managed to give my shadowers quite a wrong impression and I passed from the house, where I keep a few stock disguises, under their very noses. They imagine that they are following me up West by this time."

"I am afraid all the trouble has been wasted," Berrington said irritably. "The birds have flown."

"Indeed, sir. And who did you get that valuable piece of information from?"

"From my friend the policeman that I told you about. The house is shut up for a few days and the authorities have been informed of the fact. I have been all around the house and it is as silent as the grave."

"Well, that might be merely a blind, after all," Field said cheerfully. "When did they go?"

"So far as I can gather from Macklin, they departed early this morning."

Field chuckled but said nothing. A little while later there was a thud of heavy boots on the pavement, and Macklin and his sergeant came, together. The latter was about to say something but Field produced his card and the effect was instantaneous.

"No, we don't want any assistance at all," the Scotland Yard official said. "All you can do is to go about your work as if nothing was taking place. You may notice something suspicious presently at No. 100, across the road, but you are to ignore it. You understand?"

The sergeant nodded and touched his helmet; he understood perfectly well. The two passed on together and the sham sailors crossed the road. Very quietly Field proceeded to the back of the house. It was a little dark here, and he guided himself by pressing his fingers to the walls. Presently he stopped, and a low chuckle came from his lips.

"Discovery the first, sir," he said. "Press your hand on the wall here. What do you notice?"

But Berrington noticed nothing beyond the fact that the wall was quite warm. He said so, and the inspector chuckled once more. He seemed to be pleased about something.

"That should tell you a story, sir," he said. "That house is supposed to be empty; nobody has been here since early this morning. If you will look up, you will see that the blank wall terminates in a high chimney-obviously the kitchen chimney. This wall is quite hot, it is the back of the kitchen fireplace-so obviously, if those people went early to-day there would be very little fire, in fact the range would have been out long ago. And what do we find? A hot wall that tells of a good fire all day, a good fire at this moment, or these bricks would have cooled down before now. If you listen you will hear the boiler gently simmering."

It was all exactly as Field had said. Perhaps the servants had been sent away for a day or two, indeed, it was very probable that they had. But there was the big fire testifying to the fact that somebody was in the house at that very moment.

"We are going to take risks," Field whispered. "If we are discovered we shall be given into custody as two drunken sailors, given into the custody of your friend Macklin and his sergeant, from whom we shall probably escape. You may be very sure that we shall not be charged, for the simple reason that the people here don't want their names or anything about them to get into the papers; in fact, the less they see of the police the better they will be pleased. Come along."

Field strode around to the kitchen window. The shutters were up, but not so in the larder, which had no bars, and was only protected by a square of perforated zinc. The inspector took a tool from his pocket and with great care and dexterity, and without making the least noise, removed the zinc from its place. Then a lantern flamed out.

"Come along," said Field, "we can easily get through here. We shall be safe in the kitchen, for we know that the maids are not in the house."

For the present everything was absolutely plain sailing. And as Field had anticipated there was nobody in the kitchen and nobody in the corridor leading to the better part of the house. All the same, a big fire, recently made up, was roaring in the range, showing that the place was not quite deserted. And yet it was as silent as the grave.

It was the same in the hall, and the same in the living-rooms, where no lights gleamed. From somewhere upstairs came a sound as if somebody was gently filing some soft metal. The noise ceased presently to be followed by the rattle of a typewriter, or so it seemed. The two adventurers stood in the darkness of the dining-room listening; it seemed to them as if that rattle was getting closer. Field flashed a light into the room, but it was quite empty; the polished mahogany of the table reflected the flowers on it.

Then suddenly the rattle grew louder, and Field hid his light under the slide. As suddenly as his light had faded out, the dining-room glowed in a perfect bank of shaded yellow light, as if by magic the table stood with a perfect meal, a dainty cold supper with glass and silver and crystal and gold-topped bottles upon it; the whole thing seemed a most wonderful piece of conjuring. At the same instant there was the rattle of a latch-key in the front door. Field pulled his companion into the darkness of the drawing-room doorway. A man came in, peeled off his coat, and entered the dining-room. Field gasped.

"What is the matter?" Berrington asked. "Do you know who it is?"

"Rather," Field replied, "I should say that I do. Why! that's no other than the Rajah of Ahbad! Well, if this doesn't beat all!"

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