Bulldog Drummond at Bay - H.C. McNeile - ebook

Bulldog Drummond at Bay ebook

H. C. Mcneile

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Bulldog Drummond at Bay is another story from the famous series of Herman Cyril McNeile. This story is full of mysteries for the reader. Drummond hears cries near his yard, then notices traces of blood there. He meets two guys who claim to be after a madman. The main character is determined to explore in his unique style, but discovers a mysterious message.

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Liczba stron: 377

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Contents

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER I

The mist was low-lying. Above it the tops of the telegraph poles stuck out into the starlit night, marking the line of the road which wound over the desolate fen country. A few isolated houses stood like scattered islands in a sea of white cloud–houses in which the lights had long been extinguished, for it was nearing midnight, and the marsh folk do not sit up late.

One house only proved the exception. In size and shape it was just as the others–a typical fenman’s cottage. But from one side of it a diffused white glow shone faintly towards the line of telegraph posts. Above the mist the top room showed black and clear-cut. No light came from that window: the illumination came from the sitting-room below.

In it was seated a very large young man. Between his knees he held a gun, whilst on the table in front of him lay the usual cleaning materials, flanked on the left by a large hunk of bread and cheese, and on the right by a tankard of ale. Behind him, on the hearth-rug, a spaniel lay curled up asleep. In front of him, and close to the door which communicated with the kitchen, a bulldog in a basket snored majestically: also in front of him, and close to the door which led into the diminutive hall, a wire-haired terrier hunted ecstatically in his dreams.

The blind was up: the window, regardless of the mist which drifted sluggishly in, was open top and bottom. On the table a lamp was burning, and by its light the contents of the room stood revealed. And when those contents were compared with the living occupant the result was somewhat incongruous.

Over the mantelpiece hung several illuminated texts. They were of a depressing character, which a tasteful colour scheme of yellow beads round red letters was powerless to mitigate. Even a wedding group of the early ‘sixties, which filled the place of honour in the centre, seemed unable to give that snap to the wall which the proud owner had doubtless intended. And the rest of the room was in keeping. A horsehair sofa covered with a red counterpane in which were sewn large, round pieces of coloured glass, adorned one wall: a table, complete with cloth to match the counterpane, and a stuffed weasel under a glass dome, adorned another. And in the window, on a small three-legged stool, reposed a Bible of colossal dimensions.

To the expert the solution was obvious on the spot. This was the parlour; that mysterious, unused room which is found in every similar house; that room, which, when the door is suddenly opened on the unwary visitor, exudes a strange and musty smell strongly reminiscent of a not too recent death behind the wainscot: that room which is utterly wasted on the altar of lower class respectability.

On the night when the mist was drifting just ceiling high the room was proving false to its traditions. Gone was the stale smell of ancient bones: even “Prepare to meet thy God” hung at a more rakish angle. The first was due to the open window: the second to the fact that a disreputable cap was slung on one end of the text. But the effect was all to the good. And since the large young man who at the moment was engaged in filling his pipe was presumably responsible for both acts of vandalism, it might be well to turn from the room to its occupant.

His clothes were quite incredibly ancient. Grey flannel trousers: a sweater that had once been white, and an old shooting-coat padded with leather over the shoulders comprised the outer layer. Underneath, grey socks and brown brogues, with a shirt that was open at the neck completed the picture, whilst a collar, made of the same material as the shirt, had been flung carelessly into the coal-scuttle with a tie inside it.

After a while he rose and stretched himself, and it was not until he stood up that it was possible to realise how very large he was. He stood at least six feet in height, and being broad in proportion he seemed almost to fill the room. Only the spaniel noticed his movement and opened one liquid brown eye–an eye which followed him as he sauntered over to the window and peered out. Then he returned to the table and, picking up his empty tankard, he made his way past the snorer to the kitchen. A final pint was indicated before turning in.

It was while he was drawing it that the terrier gave a sudden, sharp, staccato bark, and the large young man returned to the parlour to find that the kennels were awake. The spaniel was sitting up contemplating the window; the bulldog, though still breathing hard, had emerged from his basket, whilst the terrier was following up his one bark with a steady stream of bad language under his breath.

“What is it, fellers?” said the large young man genially. “Does some varlet approach our domain?”

Holding his beer in his hand he again went to the window.

“Shut up, Jock, you ass!” he cried. “How can I hear anything if you’re making that damn fool noise?”

The terrier made a valiant effort which was partially successful; and then the strain proved too great. And this time his master heard it too. From somewhere, not very far away, there came a muffled shout, and Jock proclaimed the fact in no uncertain voice–no just reason, he reflected, for being temporarily winded with a shooting-boot.

The large young man stood motionless, listening intently. The sound was not repeated, but it seemed to him that it had not been so much a cry for help as a call from one man to another indicating that he had found something. But who could be looking for anything at midnight in the fens, with a ground mist lying thick?

The shout had come, so far as he could judge, from the road which passed his own front gate ten yards away. And he was on the point of strolling down the little garden path to investigate further, when a development occurred which was so completely unexpected that for a few moments he could only stare foolishly round the room; whilst even Jock, by this time recovered, forgot to bark. There came a crash of breaking glass, followed by a further crash of still more breaking glass, and the stuffed weasel subsided with a thud on to the carpet.

The large young man had been getting his cap when it happened, otherwise the stone which he now perceived was the cause of the outrage would have spared the weasel and taken him in the pit of the stomach. For the first crash of breaking glass had been the window, which, having been open top and bottom, now had both upper and lower panes smashed. Thence the missile, missing the lamp by a few inches, had smitten the glass dome of the weasel hip and thigh, and ricochetting off the wall had finished up by the bulldog’s basket.

“Hi!” shouted the large young man, when he had recovered himself, “what the devil do you think you’re doing?”

His momentary amazement had given way to anger: someone had deliberately thrown a stone through the window from the road, and it did not strike him as being in the slightest degree funny. Some tramp presumably, or a belated drunk: in any case, whoever it turned out to be, he was going to be thanked in suitable terms in the near future. Indubitably the large young man was not amused.

“Heel! The lot of you.”

He strode down the garden path, and flinging open the little gate stepped into the road.

“Where’s the lousy swine who bunged that brick through my window?” he called out.

There was no answer, and for a moment or two he stood undecided, with the dogs at his heels. He could hear no sound save the cry of a distant night bird, and gradually the difficulty of the position came home to him. The mist, if anything, was thicker; he could see the light from the room he had just left like a dull yellow square in the surrounding whiteness. But the trouble was he had no means of telling which way the stone-thrower had gone after he had done the deed. The fog had swallowed him up completely.

Again he listened intently, and, as he stood there motionless, subconsciously he became aware of the strange silence of the three dogs. He glanced down at them: in the dim light he could see their heads close together over something in the road. He spoke to them and they looked up at him. Between them, in the dust, was a dark patch.

The large young man lit a match and bent down to examine it. And after a while he gave a low whistle. For the patch was still wet, and it was red–that unmistakable red which can only be one thing. It was blood, and why should a tramp or a belated drunk be bleeding?

He straightened up and lit a cigarette: the mystery was becoming stranger and stranger. That the blood was recent was obvious, otherwise it would have dried in the dust. And it therefore seemed fairly conclusive to him that it had come from the man who had thrown the stone. But why should an injured man, who was so badly hurt that he was bleeding, do what he had done? Why hadn’t he come up to the cottage and asked for help?

Suddenly Jock began to growl under his breath, though his master could hear nothing suspicious. Until, a few moments later, he heard very faintly in the distance the unmistakable hum of an engine. A motor-car was coming along the road, and the driver had evidently got into a low gear.

The large young man hesitated; then, with a quick order to his dogs, he stepped back on to the garden path, and, closing the gate, he stood leaning over it. He felt instinctively that this car, nosing its way through the fog, was connected in some way with the unknown stone-thrower who had come out of the night and disappeared into it again, leaving only the ominous red patch to mark his passing.

Gradually the noise of the car grew louder, until with unexpected suddenness two headlights loomed up out of the mist. They came abreast the gate, and then they halted; the driver had stopped the car. Voices sounded over the noise of the engine; then one of the doors opened and shut, and footsteps approached the gate.

The man who had got out had his hand actually on the latch, when the glow of a cigarette within a few inches of his face caused him to start violently.

“Good evening,” said the large young man pleasantly. “Can I be of any assistance?”

He drew hard at his cigarette, and in the glow he got a quick glimpse of the new-comer. The man wore no hat, and his hair was cropped short, whilst his features had that square cut, Teutonic look which branded him at once as a German, even without the muttered “Gott im Himmel„ that he ejaculated under his breath at the shock of finding the gate occupied.

“Have you seen a man?” he began, when once again a door in the car opened and shut, and further footsteps approached the gate. But this time the visitor carried an electric torch which he flashed on to the large young man’s face. From there it travelled downwards, pausing for a moment on oil-stained hands, and finishing up with the incredibly dirty trousers.

“Have you been here long, my man?” said the new arrival curtly, and in the darkness the large young man smiled. Evidently by his clothes he had been judged.

“Nigh on thirty year coom next cherry-picking,” he answered, hoping fervently that his attempt at dialect would pass muster. What dialect it was supposed to be he had no idea, but to his profound relief it seemed to go down.

“I don’t mean that,” snapped the other. “Have you been standing by this gate for long?”

He turned and gave a rapid order to the German beside him, who disappeared back into the car, and the engine stopped.

“Maybe five minutes–maybe more,” said the large young man. “Why do ‘ee ask?”

“Have you seen a man come along the road?”

“Old Gaffer Sheepshank, he coom along round about seven. He wor drunk.”

The other swore under his breath.

“Just recently, I mean. Within the last few minutes.”

“Noa. I ain’t seen no one. What sort of a man do ‘ee mean?”

But a sudden exclamation from the road interrupted their conversation.

“Emil,” called out a harsh voice, “come here at once! Bring your torch.”

The large young man thoughtfully ground out with his heel the cigarette he was smoking, and wondered what was going to happen next. For the gentleman who had called for Emil was now examining with keen interest the patch of blood that had happened to show up clearly in the headlights of the car. And then, after a few moments’ earnest conversation, Emil returned to the gate.

“Now, look here, my man,” he said quietly, “I take it this is your cottage.”

“‘Tis my fayther’s.”

“Is your father here?”

“Not to-night. He be in Norwich.”

“So you’re all alone in the house?”

“That’s right, mister.”

“Are you quite sure?” A sinister note had crept into the speaker’s voice.

“Course I’m sure. Do ‘ee think I’m daft?”

The torch flashed on again, and by its light the large young man saw that he was covered by a revolver.

“Get indoors,” snapped the other. “And get a move on, I’m in a hurry. Now,” he continued, when they were both standing in the parlour, “what have you done with the man who came along this road a few minutes ago?”

“I tell ‘ee I ain’t seen no man,” was the stubborn answer. “And I reckons you’d better put that there toy away or it might go off. A pretty thing this–in a man’s own house.”

The large young man sat down in an arm-chair by the hearth-rug ostensibly to pat the spaniel, but in reality to smuggle his Free Forester tie from the coal-scuttle into his trousers pocket. This man Emil defeated him. His English was perfect, without the suspicion of an accent: to look at he might have been an Englishman. And yet there was something intangible about him that placed him as a foreigner. His clothes were faultless–perhaps a shade too faultless for the country. And on one finger of his left hand he wore a ring with a peculiar blue stone in it.

The tie smuggled successfully into his pocket the young man rose, the picture of aggrieved, bucolic indignation.

“Look ‘ee ‘ere, mister,” he said angrily, “I’m tired of thy fooling. Search the house if it gives thee any satisfaction, and then get thee gone. I’m fair sick of the sight of thy ugly fiz, and if I knew who it was I’d have the law on ‘ee to-morrow.”

But the man called Emil took no notice. His revolver had dropped to his side: his gaze was riveted on the broken window.

“When did that happen?” he said slowly.

“What the ‘ell’s that to do with thee?”

“Silence, you fool!”

His glance wandered to the broken cover of the stuffed weasel, and finally rested on the stone itself, which he bent down and picked up. Then, balancing it in his hand, he fixed the large young man with a pair of dark, penetrating eyes.

“When did this happen?” he repeated softly.

“What’s that to do with thee?”

“Who threw this stone through the window?”

“Danged if I knows, mister.”

“How long ago did it happen?”

For the fraction of a second the young man hesitated: then he made up his mind he would tell the truth. It seemed to him that by doing so he stood a better chance of getting some light thrown on a mystery that was growing more incomprehensible every minute.

“Nigh about ten minutes,” he said. “T’wor that that took me down to gate.”

“So.” The other’s eyes bored into him. “So. And you did not see the man who threw the stone?”

“Noa.”

“Did he call out to you? Speak to you?”

“Noa.”

“What did you do after it happened?”

“Got cap and went to gate with pups.”

“And you saw no sign of him?”

“Noa.”

The man called Emil crossed to the window and shouted, and his companion who had discovered the blood in the road joined him at once. They stood conversing in low voices in a tongue which the large young man recognised as German. One or two stray phrases came to his ear: “dummer Bauer„ (imbecile peasant) ... “Zeitvergeudung„ (waste of time); remarks which he had no difficulty in interpreting. Up to date, at any rate, it was clear that he had bluffed them into thinking he was a local product. But what infuriated him was that he was still as far off as ever from discovering what all the excitement was about. And then suddenly he caught another sentence: “sich versichern„ (better make sure).

Better make sure. Sure of what? He was not left long in doubt. The second man vaulted through the open window and vanished upstairs. His steps could be heard going into each room above: then he came down again and went into the kitchen.

“Nichts„ (nothing), he said, reappearing. “Search him,” ordered his leader, and the large young man recoiled a pace.

“‘Ere–wot do ‘ee think ‘ee be a’doing of?” he cried, only to find the revolver pointing unwaveringly at his heart.

“Put your hands above your head!”

The order was curt, and, after a pause, the large young man obeyed. Not that there was anything incriminating in his pockets, except that confounded Free Forester tie, and his pulse beat a trifle faster when he saw it extracted and thrown on the table. Worse still, it fell in such a position that the name of the shop where it had been bought lay uppermost for all to see, and Norfolk yokels rarely buy their neckwear from Mr. Black, of Jermyn Street. But his luck held; neither man paid any attention to it whatever. Evidently they were looking for something else, and the question which began to hammer at his brain, even before he was allowed to put his hands down, was–what? Assuming that he was a labourer, as they undoubtedly did, what under the sun could they expect to find in his pockets which could possibly prove of the slightest interest to them?

At last the searcher was satisfied, and once again the two men held an earnest conversation. But this time their voices were so low that the listener could hear nothing. Evidently the man who had searched him was urging Emil to do something, and Emil was doubtful. At length, however, he seemed convinced, and having nodded his head two or three times, his companion returned to the car and re-started the engine, leaving Emil and the large young man alone.

“Can you keep your mouth shut, my man?”

The rustle of notes came pleasantly to the ear.

“If so be, mister, that folks make it worth my while.”

“A lunatic has escaped from a private asylum,” said Emil, “and he is the poor fellow who threw the stone through your window. We are trying to find him, but we do not wish it talked about. Here are two pounds which will pay for mending the glass.”

He placed the notes on the table, and the large young man eyed them greedily.

“In a day or two,” continued the other, “I shall be returning this way, and I shall make a point of calling in at the pub. And if I find that no one knows anything about this there will be three more to mend the cover of the stuffed animal. But if I find that people do know, why then–God help you!”

He said the last three words very softly, and the large young man stared at him thoughtfully. For the moment he had forgotten his role of bucolic yokel; he was only conscious that opposite him was standing a very dangerous customer. And as his eyes fell on that tell-tale tie lying on the table he became conscious also of a profound feeling of relief that his vis-à-vis’ cricketing education had been neglected.

“You understand what I say?”

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