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   Chapter 21 No.21

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11230

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


To go back for a space to Berrington. Heedless of his promise, he had burst headlong into the dining-room whence the cry came. He had forgotten altogether about Field. The fact half crossed his mind that nobody knew of the presence of the inspector in the house, so that anyway the latter's personal safety was not jeopardized.

It had been a foolish thing to do, as Berrington realised almost as soon as his mind cleared. He had been somewhat badly mauled in the preliminaries, and now it seemed to him that he was a prisoner in the hands of these people. The only consolation that was left to him was the fact that Field would come to his rescue in good time.

But Berrington was by no means done for yet. To begin with, there was not the slightest trace of fear in his heart. He had been in too many tight places before to have any emotion of that kind. He fell back against the wall, panting for breath; he looked around him again for some avenue of escape, but he could see none.

It was a curious scene, altogether, the elegantly furnished room, the litter of glasses and china and crystal in one corner, the mysterious outlined figure on the table. The glare of electric lights shone on the faces of the men there, on the impudent features of the woman who had posed as the Countess de la Moray, and on the pale, supplicating face of Mary Sartoris. For a little time nobody said anything.

It was Mary Sartoris who was the first to speak. She crossed over to her brother and held out her hand with a gesture of passionate supplication.

"It is all a mistake," she cried. "Colonel Berrington is under a misapprehension. He imagines that something wrong is taking place here; he has acted on the spur of the moment. He did not come to the house to see anybody but me."

Sartoris grinned in evil fashion. Just for the moment he looked half convinced.

"He comes in strange fashion," he said. "All the same, I have not the least doubt of the value of Colonel Berrington's friendship so far as you are concerned. But that is not the point. Did you admit your friend Colonel Berrington to the house?"

For the fraction of a second a bold lie trembled on Mary's lips. But she could not utter it. She looked down in confusion, and her face trembled. Sartoris grinned in the same wicked fashion. A black rage was rising in his heart.

"Good girl," he sneered. "Always tell the truth. It is the proper thing to do, and it will bring its own reward in the end. Only it is attended with personal inconvenience at times, such as the present, for instance. How did Colonel Berrington get here?"

"I will save your sister the trouble of replying," Berrington cried. "I came here, acting on certain information that had come to my knowledge. I came here to discover if I could learn some facts bearing on the disappearance of Sir Charles Darryll's body. And I am not disposed to think that my efforts are altogether in vain."

It was a bold speech and not without its effect. The woman called Cora turned a shade paler, and the clean-shaven man by her side winced. The only one who seemed disposed to a mild course of policy was Bentwood.

"For heaven's sake don't let us have any violence," he said hoarsely. "There has been too much of that already. I mean there is no necessity for anything of the kind. If Colonel Berrington knows anything of any of us--"

"I know everything," Berrington replied. It seemed to him that a bold course of action was the best to be taken under the circumstances. "For instance, I have a pretty accurate knowledge of the checkered past of Dr. Bentwood and the malignant scoundrel who calls himself Carl Sartoris. Of Miss Mary Sartoris I will say nothing. There are others here, too, whose past is not altogether wrapped in mystery. There are General Gastang and Countess de la Moray, for instance. And once I am outside these walls--"

Sartoris pushed his chair close to the speaker. He was seething with passionate rage, his face was livid with anger. For the moment he could do nothing; he only thirsted for the blood of the bold Berrington.

"You are not outside these walls," he said. "You are not likely to be outside these walls for some time to come. You have described us in language that you have spared no trouble to render abusive. You know too much. And we have our own way here of dealing with enemies of ours who know too much."

There was no mistaking the dreadful threat that underlay the hoarse speech. There was underground murder in the eyes of Sartoris. Berrington smiled scornfully.

"I know exactly what you mean," he said; "indeed, I know more than you give me credit for. And I will make my suspicions certainties."

Berrington advanced swiftly to the table and laid a hand on the sheet that covered the still, silent form there. Another instant, and the whole mystery would have been exposed. But Sartoris propelled his chair forward and grabbed Berrington by the arm.

"You cowards," he yelled. "If I were not cursed by these crippled bones of mine, I would have plucked that fellow's heart from his body. Don't stand there like a lot of mummies. Pull him back, I say, pull him back."

The harsh, ringing command seemed to restore the other listeners to a sense of what they owed to themselves. With a cry, the man called Reggie was on Berrington, though Mary Sartoris had fallen and clasped him around the knees. With an oath, Bentwood darted forward and flung himself upon Berrington's shoulders. The struggle was a hot one, for the Colonel fought well, but the odds were too many for him, and he was borne at length heavi

ly to the ground. His head came in contact with the floor, and he lay there just a minute dazed and giddy.

He had failed, too, which was the most humiliating part of the business. He had, at any cost, resolved to make assurance doubly sure. He could see the grinning triumph on the face of Sartoris, as he scrambled to his feet; he could see the tears in Mary's eyes. For the personal danger to himself he cared nothing.

"Let's make an end of it," Sartoris cried. "He's too dangerous to live. Let us make an end of him. Dead men tell no tales."

"No, no," Mary cried. "You shall not do it. No, no."

"Then go and fetch the police," Sartoris said with a little laugh. "Fetch them in, I say. Let them come here and investigate, and after that you can stand in the dock and give evidence against your own brother. My child, you are free to depart as soon as you like. Go now!"

Mary Sartoris stood there trembling and hesitating. Sartoris wheeled his chair rapidly and dexterously across to her, and then raised his fist in a threatening manner. For a moment it seemed as if he meant to strike the girl.

"Go now!" He repeated his command harshly. "Go at once! Go out of my house and never come back again, you white-faced mewling cat. Pah, you dare not do anything. You are not to stay in the room. Go!"

The girl seemed dazed and unable to exercise her own will. She crept with faltering steps to the door. As she was going out, she turned an eye of affection on Berrington.

"If you will only promise me that there will be no violence," she said, "I--"

"I promise that," Bentwood said in a cringing voice. He was the only man there who seemed to be restless and uneasy and anxious. "There is going to be no violence so long as I am here. Why should there be any violence at all?"

The man asked the question with an eye on Berrington. For some reason or other he seemed very desirous of pleasing the soldier, and yet not offending his comrades. Sartoris laughed.

"Cautious man," he said. "Always be on the safe side. Hang the girl, is she going to stay here all night? Go, I tell you; take your white face from me. Go."

The door closed behind Mary Sartoris, and something like a sob came from the hall. With a sudden fury and new strength Berrington darted to the table again. Once more he might have been successful, but the keen eye of Sartoris was upon him; the cripple seemed to read his thoughts. Like a flash the invalid chair caught Berrington on the shin, and sent him sprawling across the floor; the chair sped on and there was a sudden click and the room was in darkness. Berrington had a quick mental picture of where different objects were-and he made a dash for the switch. Some great force seemed to grip him by the hands, he was powerless to move; he heard what seemed to him to be the swing and jolt of machinery. Somebody was laughing much as if a funny play was being performed before delighted eyes, with Berrington for the third man of the company, and then the light came up again.

Angry and baffled and disappointed as Berrington was, all these feelings gave way to amazement as he looked around the room. Every sign of a body had disappeared, the room was empty save for Sartoris, who sat smoking a cigarette, with a sardonic smile on his face. All the others had gone, and the body was gone from the table; on the latter was a dark crimson cloth surmounted by a mass of flowers arranged tastefully around an electric stand. Sartoris laughed in an easy, mocking way.

"Miracles whilst you wait," he said. "I just press a button and there you are. You say that you saw a lot of people here and some object on the table. You would swear to that?"

"Being in full possession of my faculties, I would," Berrington said grimly.

"And where are they? There was no lady, there were no people, only my humble, sweet self always glad to see my distinguished friend Colonel Berrington."

Berrington made no reply for a moment. It seemed hopeless to try to cope with the little fiend who appeared to have all the powers of hell behind him. He looked down at the floor as if to find evidence of magic there, but the pattern of the turkey carpet was intact, the big brass-headed nails were in the corners and along the fireplace.

"'There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,'" Sartoris quoted. "As a rule your soldier is a dull man and not gifted with much imagination. And so you have taken this matter up on the principle that Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do. You see that I am in a mood to quote to-night. But on the whole you are not what the world calls a bad fellow. On the contrary, I am. And that being the case, and as I am not supposed to be in the least scrupulous in my methods, it stands to reason that I am likely to get the better of you. Now you are a man of honour, and if you give your word it is as good as your bond. Give me your word that not one suggestion of what has taken place here to-night shall be spoken, and you are free to go."

Berrington laughed as he looked around him.

"Who is going to stop me?" he asked. "You seem to be sure of your ground. If you were not a cripple I would give you the most perfect specimen of a thrashing that you ever had in your life. My word will be passed to worthier stuff than you."

"So you are going to take advantage of my weakness and walk out of the house?" Sartoris asked.

"That is part of the programme," Berrington said. "I feel perfectly sure that a bold front would dismay your friends. I wish you good night."

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