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   Chapter 22 No.22

The Slave of Silence By Fred M. White Characters: 11848

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


Sartoris sat in his chair without expressing any opinion or emotion of any kind. There was just a faint suggestion of a smile on his face as if he were getting a little more pleasure than usual out of his cigarette. He glanced quite casually in the direction of the doorway, and he moved his chair just a little. Then his left hand stole quietly to his side.

"The battle is not always to the strong," he said in quite a gentle tone of voice. "But since you will not give me your word, I must do without it. If you want to go, there is no reason why I should detain you any longer. Good night, sir, and pleasant dreams to you."

Though the words were uttered in quite a simple fashion, there was a ring about them that Berrington did not altogether like. He wanted to flatter himself that he had conquered this murderous ruffian by sheer force of will, as he had done more than once with certain native tribes that he had been sent out against.

But he could not think that he had any kind of right to the feeling. These people had really got the best of him, for they had spirited away that mysterious parcel, and what was more to the point, he had betrayed the fact that he had a pretty good idea of what that parcel was. Why, then, was there this sudden change of front on the part of Carl Sartoris? The thought was uppermost in Berrington's mind as he laid a hand on the door.

Then he reeled back as if struck by some stupendous unseen force. A great pain gripped him from head to foot, his brain seemed to be on fire. In vain he strove to release his hand on the door knob; it seemed welded to the metal. From head to foot the shooting agony went on. With his teeth ripping his lower lip till the blood came, Berrington tried to fight down the yell of pain that filled his throat, but the effort was beyond human power. A long piteous wail of agony and entreaty came from him. It was only when the third or fourth cry was torn from him and he felt the oppression of a hideous death, that the thing suddenly ceased and Sartoris's gentle, mocking laughter took the place of the agony.

"You are not feeling very well," Sartoris called out. "If you are not altogether in a state of physical collapse, will you kindly walk this way. A little brandy will about fit the case."

Berrington was past protest and past flight, for the moment. He seemed to be sick to the soul. There came back to him the vivid recollection of the time when he had lain out in the jungle all night, with a bullet through his lungs, waiting wearily for death in the morning. He flung himself exhaustedly into a chair and gasped for breath. Sartoris watched him as some cold-blooded scientist might have watched the flaying of a live animal.

"Your heart is not nearly so bad as you think," he said. "When the pressure goes from your lungs you will be much better. That is a little dodge of mine which is built upon a pretty full knowledge of electricity. Up to now I have not had an opportunity of giving it a good trial. Are you feeling any better?"

Berrington nodded. The colour was coming back to his cheeks now, the painful feeling at his chest was abating. The brandy was going to the right place.

"You malignant little fiend," he gasped. "I should be doing the world a service if I took you by the throat and squeezed the life out of you."

"Well, the remedy is in your hands, though I doubt whether or not a judge and jury would take the same sanguine view of the case. But you are free to try if you like. I am only a mere miserable bag of bones, and you are a strong man. Get to work."

The cackling challenge passed unheeded. Actually there was something about the strange little man to be afraid of. He took up the thread of conversation again.

"You will find that every exit is guarded in the same way," he said. "I have only to set the whole machinery in motion and you are powerless. You are in my hands. If you had touched me when I asked you just now, you would have been dead at my feet. But strange as it may seem, I have a heart hidden in this crooked little body of mine somewhere. I was not always bad, as you know. There was a time when I was another man."

"Never," Berrington said dispassionately. "The seeds of evil were always there."

"Well, let that pass, if you like. A bad man and a bad woman and a dreadful accident have reduced me to what you see. What took place here to-night is beside the mark. The fact remains that you know too much. You stand between us and a scheme that I have been plotting for years. Whether that scheme is connected with Sir Charles Darryll matters nothing. The great point, as I said before, is that you know too much. What are you going to do?"

"Wait my chance and publish my knowledge to the world," Berrington cried.

"And lose Mary for ever? Oh, I know that you are still in love with her, I know that you will never be happy till she is your wife. But you seem to lose sight of the fact that she is strongly attached to me. And if harm comes to me through you, Mary will never become Mrs. Berrington. She will love you and leave you as they do in the stories."

"You cannot detain me here for any length of time," Berrington said coldly.

"I can keep you here till I have finished my campaign," Sartoris replied. "I could murder you, and nobody be any the wiser."

Berrington thought of Field, and smiled. Hitherto he had not tried diplomacy. His contempt and hatred for this man, his knowledge of his own strength and courage, had sufficed for the present. Now it seemed time to resort to strategy.

"You are quite correct, so far," he said. "I know much, I know a great deal more than you imagine. But in taking the risks I took to-night I did not do so blindly. I had my own reasons for attending to the work privately. But I recognized my danger and the man I had to deal with. So, indeed, I would proceed to make my retreat safe. Did

you ever hear of sealed orders?"

"Naturally I have. But what have they to do with the present case?"

"Everything. When an admiral detaches a part of his fleet in war time, he sends the detached part away with sealed orders which are to be opened under certain circumstances. If those said circumstances do not arise, then the sealed orders are destroyed. As I do not desire my second in command to know too much, I gave him sealed orders. If I do not return by a certain time, those orders are to be opened. I should say that they are being opened about now. You understand me?"

Sartoris nodded; it was quite clear that he understood perfectly well. But his dry little face did not change in the slightest.

"That was clever," he said; "but not quite clever enough. I should have gone a little further if I had been in your position. What you say merely induces me to get rid of you altogether. But let us go into my room and discuss the matter quietly. Kindly turn my chair around, no, not that way. Grip the handle at the back and push me--"

Berrington heard no more. As his hands came in contact with the brass rail at the back of the chair there came a tremendous blow at the base of the brain, a cold feeling of sudden death, and the crisis was past. When Berrington came to himself again he was lying on a bed in a small room; there was a lamp on a table by his side. He had no feeling whatever that he had suffered from violence of any kind, his head was clear and bright, his limbs felt as elastic and virile as ever. He was like a man who had suddenly awakened from a long sleep; he was just as fresh and vigorous. The bed on which he was lying completed the illusion.

"What new devil's work is this?" Berrington muttered. "Oh, I recollect."

The room was small but comfortably furnished. There was a fire ready laid in the grate; on the ceiling was a three-branch electrolier, but the switch by the door had been removed for some reason or other.

On the table by the bed was a very liberal supper, flanked by a decanter of whisky and a syphon of soda water, also a box of cigarettes and another of cigars. A silver match-box invited the prisoner to smoke. He took a cigarette.

Clearly he was a prisoner. The window was shuttered with iron, and a small round ventilator; high up, inside the door, was another sheet of iron. There was perhaps a little consolation in the fact that no personal violence was intended. For a long time Berrington reviewed the situation. At any rate he could see no way out of the mess for the present. He smoked his cigarette and ate his supper, and that being done, a feeling of fatigue stole over him. Looking at his watch, he saw that it was past one o'clock in the morning, a very late hour for him.

"I'll go to bed," Berrington told himself. "Perhaps I shall be able to see a way out in the morning. On the whole my diplomacy does not seem to have been a success. It would have been much better if I had not hinted that I had taken somebody else into my confidence."

Despite his danger Berrington slept soundly. Bright sunshine was pouring into the room through the little porthole in the iron shutter as he came to himself. By his side was a cold breakfast, with a spirit lamp for the purpose of making coffee. Berrington had hardly finished and applied a match to a cigarette before he was startled by the scream of a whistle. Looking around to see whence the sound came, his eyes fell upon a speaking tube. His heart gave a great leap as it occurred to the prisoner that perhaps Mary Sartoris was calling him. He crossed over and pulled out the whistle at his end and answered promptly.

"Glad to hear that you have had a good night's rest," came the dry voice of Sartoris. "The bed is comfortable, the sheets well aired, and I can vouch for the quality of the cigars. By the way, as I have seen nothing of your confederate I am confirmed in my previous judgment that you were trying to bluff me. Is not that so?"

Berrington said nothing, silence giving consent. On the whole it occurred to him it would be far better to let Sartoris conclude that he was alone in the business.

"Very good," the dry voice went on; "you are like the curly-headed boy in the song who never-or hardly ever-told a lie. Now there is one little thing that I am going to ask you to do. And if you refuse I shall be under the painful necessity of causing you a great deal of physical suffering. On the table by the side of your bed you will find writing paper, pen and ink. You will be so good as to write a letter to Miss Beatrice Darryll or to Mrs. Richford-whatever you prefer to style her-asking her to call upon you at the address which is stamped on the head of the paper. You are to tell Miss Darryll that she is not to say anything to anybody about the visit-that she is to come at ten o'clock to-night or later. Tell her also that she is to bring the little bunch of keys that she will find in her father's dressing-case. You may take it from me that no harm whatever is intended to the young lady. When the letter is finished you will be so good as to push it under the door of your room."

"It is an excellent programme for you," Berrington said drily. "There is only one flaw in the little arrangement that I can see-I decline to do anything of the kind. You may do whatever you like and treat me in any way you please, but I shall decline to write that letter. And you may whistle up the tube all day, so far as I am concerned."

An oath came up the tube, then the voice of Sartoris, as if talking to somebody else. The whistle was clapped on, but almost immediately it was removed and another voice whispered the name of Berrington. His heart gave a great leap. Mary was speaking.

"For heaven's sake, write that letter," came the agonized whisper. "I pledge you my word--"

The voice stopped and the whistle was clapped into the tube again.

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