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   Chapter 16 No.16

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11759

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

Cool and collected as he usually was, even Field was excited now. He crept as near to the drawing room door as he dared, and peeped into the ring of light, eagerly. He popped back hurriedly as the man called Reggie and the Rajah came into the hall and proceeded to enter a room opposite, under the direction of the little cripple. Richford seemed to be vague and irritated.

"What the deuce is the good of all this mystery?" he asked. "Why don't you come to the point, Sartoris? But no, you must always be so infernally close, just as if you were the only one of us who rejoices in the possession of brains."

"Well, so I am," Sartoris said, without the least display of temper. "You don't delude yourself that you are a person of intellect, surely? Cunning you have of a low order, the mean, vulgar cunning that enables people to make money in the city. But that is not intellect, my dear friend-intellect is quite another matter. We very nearly landed ourselves in a serious mess because I did not care to trust you too far. And when we were face to face with that mess, what good were you? What good was anybody besides myself? Where was the brain that schemed out everything and made success certain? True, I had allies upon whom I could depend-Reggie and Cora, for example. But they could have done nothing without me. And now we have the thing in our hands again. Come along, then."

Richford subsided, muttering to himself. From the room opposite came the sound of somebody moving a heavy package of some kind, and presently the man called Reggie and the Rajah appeared shuffling a big case between them. The box scraped over the polished parquet floor, leaving deep scratches as it went; amidst a strained, breathing silence it was pushed into the dining-room. Sartoris watched these proceedings with a curious gleam in his eyes.

"So far, so good," he said. "All we want now is Bentwood. He's very late. Go out and see if you can make anything of him, Reggie. If that fellow has dared to get drunk to-night, I'll give him a lesson that will last him for the rest of his life."

The little man's voice grew harsh and grating. Evidently he was a man that it would be dangerous to trifle with. A curious silence fell over the little group; the whole room grew so still that Field could hear his companion breathing. They were perfectly safe up to now, but if anybody happened to go into the drawing-room for anything, and they were discovered, each knew that his life was not worth a minute's purchase. Very steadily Sartoris steered his chair to the side of the big case on the floor, and his hands began to fumble with the strings.

The front door opened with a bang that startled everybody, for nerves were strung up to high tension and the least noise came with a startling force. The door burst open, only to be as quietly closed, and a big man, with a red face and small red eyes, reeled across the hall and almost collapsed in a heap on the floor.

"Night," he said unsteadily, "night, all of you. You may say that I've been drinking. Nothing of the kind. The man who says I've been drinking lies. Experiment. Nothing in the world but a lot of experiments which a braver man than I would shrink from. Sartoris, if you say I am drunk, then I say that you are a liar."

"I should be a liar if I agreed with you," Sartoris said. "The whole place reeks of drink."

"So it does," the newcomer said with amiability. "Upon my word, you yourselves seem to be doing remarkably well while I've been working for the good of the community. Give me a bottle of champagne, to begin with. Poor stuff, champagne, only fit for women. But then, there appears to be nothing else-why--"

The big red-faced man reached his hand out and Sartoris caught him a savage blow on the knuckles. The little man's face was livid with fury, his eyes flashed like electric points.

"Pig, beast, drunken hound," he screamed. "Have you no sense of shame or duty? After to-night I will give you a lesson. After to-night you shall know what it is to play with me."

The man called Bentwood lapsed into sudden dignity.

"Very well," he said. "Have it your own way. When you say that I am drunk you outrage my feelings. You don't seem to understand that you can't get on without me. If I like to snap my fingers in your face you are powerless. But I do nothing of the kind-such is not my nature. Give me a glass of brandy and I shall be myself again."

Just for a moment Sartoris seemed to be fighting down the rage that consumed him. It was evidently a big struggle, but the mastery came.

"Very well," he said. "I'll do as you want. Wait a moment."

The invalid carriage rolled rapidly across the room and down a long passage to the back of the house. When Sartoris came back again he had a glass in his hand and a cup of black coffee balanced on the chair before him. Bentwood snatched eagerly at the glass and drained it at a gulp. Then he pressed his hand to his heart and staggered back.

"My God, you have poisoned me," he gasped. "The pain! The pain! I can't breathe."

"You'll be all right in a moment," Sartoris said. "I don't profess to your wonderful medical knowledge, but some things I know, and one of them is how to treat a man in your condition. What you regard as poison is a strong dose of sal-volatile-as strong a dose as I dare venture to give even to a powerful man like you. Now drink this coffee."

There was a ring of command in the tone which was not to be disobeyed. As soon as Bentwood had regained his power of speech, he drank his coffee. After the harsh, astringent drug, the flavour was soothing and gratifying. In a marvellously short space of time the big man grew quiet and a little ashamed of himself. His face was less red, he became more quiet and subdued in his manner.

"I am truly sorry, Sartoris," he said. "I'm afraid I was

very drunk and rude just now. But I was not entirely to blame. Would any man be entirely to blame who had led a life like mine! The things that I have seen, the things that I should like to find out! Then the madness comes on me and I must drink or destroy myself. I fought for the possession of myself to-day until I was a mere nervous rag of a man, if I had fought much longer I should have blown my brains out. And what would you have done then?"

The man's tone was eager, almost passionate. Sartoris bent his head down so that the expression of his face could not be seen by anyone.

"Say no more about it," he said. "You are quite sober now, which is the important part of the case. I will discuss the other matter with you on a future occasion."

The speaker's tones were smooth enough, but his eyes gleamed like coals of fire. He was bending again and fumbling with the straps of the great packing case. Field, watching everything intently, asked Berrington what he thought of it all.

"I hardly know what to think," the latter whispered. "This has been a night of surprises-therefore you will be prepared to hear that I know the man Bentwood well."

"You mean that you knew him in India?" Field asked.

"Yes, years ago. He was an army surgeon, and quite the cleverest man at his profession that I ever had the privilege to meet. He might have made a large fortune in England, but he got into some trouble and had to leave the country. It was much the same in India. Bentwood had a positive genius for the occult and underground. After a time very few white people cared to associate with him and he became the companion of the dervishes and the mullahs and all that class, whose secrets he learned. I believe he is the only European who ever went through the process of being buried alive. That secret was never betrayed before, and yet yonder fellow got to the bottom of it. Also he learned all the secret poisons that they use out yonder, and we were pretty sure that he was mixed up in the great scandal that followed the sad death of the Rajah of Abgalli. You recollect that?"

Field nodded. He had a fine memory for all stories of that kind.

"We always said that Bentwood was the actual culprit, and that he experimented with certain poisons that produced quite new results. Some said that the Rajah committed suicide. Perhaps the poison administered to him took that form. Anyway, Bentwood disappeared, and it was generally understood that he met his death by falling out of a boat when shooting sea fowl. That was the story that one of his servants brought back, but we could never ascertain how far that fellow was in his master's pay. Anyway, a year later one of our men came back from his long leave, saying that he had seen Bentwood at Monte Carlo, and that he appeared to be bursting with money. Another of ours was reported to have seen him after that, almost in rags, in London. Anyway, he is an amazingly clever man, and perhaps one of the greatest scamps that ever lived. Still, if we get any luck to-night, he will almost have shot his bolt."

"I think you may safely reckon upon that," Field said drily. "It's exceedingly lucky for me that I ran up against you in this way, Colonel. But for that accident I should have been utterly at fault. Anyway, I should not be here at this moment."

There was no chance for further talk, for by this time Sartoris had released the straps of the packing case and raised the lid. The others stood around him, looking white and anxious, with the exception of Bentwood, who was smoking a cigarette quite carelessly. With an impatient gesture, Sartoris pointed to the case by his side.

"Now, then," he said curtly, "are you people going to keep me waiting all night? Do you think that a cripple like me can do everything? Give a hand here, you men, whilst one of the others clears the table. Pull the cloth off."

There was a clatter of china and glass and a clink of bottles, at the sound of which Bentwood looked around with a sudden spasmodic grin on his face. But Sartoris scowled at him furiously, and he turned his watery gaze in another direction. The table was clear now, and the Rajah, with the help of the man called Reggie, and Richford, raised some inanimate object from the trunk. It was limp and heavy, it was swathed in sheets, like a lay figure or a mummy. As the strange thing was opened out it took the outlines of a human body, a dread object, full of the suggestion of crime and murder and violence. Berrington breathed hard as he watched.

"If we only dared to do something," he muttered. "I suppose it is easy to guess what they have there?"

"Easy enough, indeed, sir," Field said between his teeth. "It's the body of Sir Charles Darryll. There is a deeper mystery here than we are as yet aware of. They are laying the body out on that table as if for some operation. I don't know what to think; I--"

"Shut that door," Sartoris commanded in a hard high voice. "There is a deuce of a draught coming in from somewhere. You don't want that, eh, Bentwood!"

Bentwood muttered that it was the last thing he did desire. The door closed with a bang, there was a long silence, broken at last by a feeble cry of pain, a cry something like that of a child who suffers under some drug. Berrington leaped to his feet. As he would have crossed the hall a figure came along-the figure of a woman in a grey dress. It was the grey lady that Beatrice had seen on that fateful evening, the woman who had sat by the side of Mark Ventmore in the Paris theatre. She wrung her hands in silent grief.

"Oh, if only there was somebody to help me," she said. "If God would only give to me and send to me a friend at this moment, I would pray--"

Berrington stepped out into the light of the hall.

"Your prayer has been answered," he said quietly. "I am here to help you, Mary."

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