The Female of the Species - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Female of the Species ebook

H. C. Mcneile

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The story revolves around revenge. First, the main character, Bulldog Drummond, kills his stormy enemy, Carl Peterson. And his mistress wants revenge for Peterson. Suddenly, Drummond’s wife is kidnapped, but the criminal leaves traces. By which the main character is trying to find his wife. This chase takes place all over England, leading to an ominous house and a torture chamber.

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Liczba stron: 391

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Contents

I. IN WHICH I MAKE DRUMMOND'S ACQUAINTANCE

II. IN WHICH I FIND A DESERTED MOTOR CAR

III. IN WHICH I GET IT IN THE NECK

IV. IN WHICH WE GET THE SEMBLANCE OF A CLUE

V. IN WHICH THE LETTER ARRIVES

VI. IN WHICH I GET THE SECOND CLUE

VII. IN WHICH WE COME TO THE MERE

VIII. IN WHICH WE EXPLORE THE MERE

IX. IN WHICH WE GET THE SECOND CLUE

X. IN WHICH THE THIRD CLUE IS SOLVED

XI. IN WHICH I GO TO FRIAR'S HEEL BY DAY

XII. IN WHICH I WRITE MY MIND TO DRUMMOND

XIII. IN WHICH I GO TO FRIAR'S HEEL BY NIGHT

XIV. IN WHICH I MEET MRS DRUMMOND

XV. IN WHICH SOME OF THE OTHERS JOIN ME

XVI. IN WHICH WE HAVE A REHEARSAL

XVII. IN WHICH THE CURTAIN RINGS DOWN

I. IN WHICH I MAKE DRUMMOND’S ACQUAINTANCE

Even now, after three months’ calm thought, I sometimes feel that I must have dreamed the whole thing. I say to myself that this is England: that I am sitting at lunch in my club hoping that that gluttonous lawyer Seybourne will not take all the best part of the Stilton: that unless I get a move on I shall be very late at Lord’s. I say all that just as I always used to say it–particularly about Seybourne. And then it suddenly comes over me–the events of those amazing days.

I don’t suppose anybody will believe me: I wouldn’t believe the story myself if somebody else told it to me. As I say, I sometimes think it must be a dream. And then I turn back my left sleeve nearly to the elbow and look at a three-inch scar, still red and angry, though it’s healing nicely now. And I know it was no dream.

Was it a joke? If so, it was the grimmest and most desperate jest that has ever been cracked, and one wherein the humour was difficult to find. Moreover, it was a joke that would have brought the propounder of it to the gallows–had we but been able to catch her. For there was a woman at the bottom of it, and women can suffer the death penalty in England for murder.

No it was no dream: no jest. It was grim, stern reality played for a stake sufficient to crack the nerve of the principal player on our side had he been possessed of nerves to crack. A game played against time: a game where one mistake might have proved fatal.

Personally I am a peace-loving individual of mild appearance: I like my rubber of bridge at the club and my round of golf: I am not averse to letting people know that I was wounded in the leg in France. Moreover, I fail to see why I should gratuitously add the information that I was in the horse lines at the time, and Heaven alone knows where the bullet came from. I mention these points merely to show that I am just a very ordinary sort of person, and not at all of the type which seems to attract adventure. In fact, until that amazing Whitsun, the only thing in any way out of the ordinary which had ever happened to me was when I, on one occasion, tried to stop a runaway horse. And the annoying thing then was that the driver assured me he had the horse under control. Three weeks had elapsed, and I was still in hospital, so I didn’t argue the point.

The truth is that I am not one of those enviable men who are at their best when in a tight corner, or when confronted with the need for immediate action. If, as I read somewhere once, men consist of two classes–those who can stop a dog fight and those who can’t–honesty compels me to admit that I belong to the latter. In fact, put in a nutshell, I am a rabbit.

And yet I wouldn’t have missed that adventure for anything. I can’t flatter myself that I did very much: indeed, there were times when I fear I was merely in the way. For all that, never once did a single member of the extraordinary bunch of men who were playing on our side say any word of reproach or irritation. They never let me feel that I was a passenger even when the strain was greatest.

However, enough of this preamble. I will start at the beginning. For many years it has been my custom to spend a few days round Whitsuntide with some old friends of mine called Tracey. They have a charming house not far from Pangbourne–Elizabethan, and standing in delightful grounds. There is generally a small party–perhaps a dozen in all–and I may say that the keyword to the atmosphere of the house is peace. It may be that I am a little old-fashioned, but the pleasure to be derived from what is sometimes described as an evening’s jolly seems to me to be overrated.

As usual I went to them this year, arriving on the Thursday before Whitsuntide. The motor met me at the station, and, having shaken Jenkins, the chauffeur, by the hand, I got in. Somewhat to my surprise, he did not at once drive off: he appeared to be waiting for someone else.

“Captain Drummond, sir,” he said to me, “who is stopping at the house, came down to get a paper.”

“Captain Drummond, Jenkins,” I mused. “Do I know him?”

“I think not, sir,” he answered, and it seemed to me that a very faint smile twitched round his lips. In fact, there was a sort of air of expectancy about Jenkins–excitement almost–that was most unusual. Jenkins I have always regarded as a model servant.

“Five to one, my trusty lad. That’s better than breaking your false teeth on a plum stone.”

I turned at this somewhat astounding utterance and regarded the speaker. He was still immersed in the paper, and for the moment I couldn’t see his face.

“Put anything on Moongazer?”

“‘Alf a dollar each way, sir,” said Jenkins, so far forgetting himself as to suck his teeth in his excitement.

“You’ll get your money back. Second at fours. That’s not so bad for the old firm.”

“Pity about cook, sir,” said Jenkins earnestly. “She don’t ‘old with backing both ways. Moongazer–win only–she was.” He consulted a small notebook, apparently to verify the statement.

“That sheds a bit of gloom over the afternoon, Jenkins.”

Captain Drummond lowered the paper, and seemed to become aware of my existence for the first time. “Hullo! hullo! hullo!” he exclaimed. “The new arrival. Home, Jenkins–and for God’s sake don’t break it to the cook till after dinner.”

He got into the car, and it struck me that I had seldom seen a larger individual.

“Do you think it is quite wise to encourage the servants to bet?” I inquired a little pointedly as we started.

“Encourage, old lad?” he boomed. “They don’t want any encouragement. You have to keep ‘em off it with a field gun.”

He waved a friendly hand at an extremely pretty girl on the pavement, and I took off my hat.

“Who was that?” he said, turning to me.

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I thought you waved at her.”

“But you took off your hat.”

“Because you waved at her.”

He pondered deeply.

“I follow your reasoning,” he conceded at length. “The false premise, if I may say so, is your conclusion that a friendly gesture of the right hand betokens previous acquaintance. I regret to say I do not know the lady: I probably never shall. Still, we have doubtless planted hope in her virginal bosom.” He relapsed into silence, while I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. A strange individual, I reflected: one, somehow, I could hardly place at the Traceys’. Now that he was sitting beside me he seemed larger than ever–evidently a very powerful man. Moreover, his face was rather of the type that one associates with pugilism. He certainly had no claims to good looks, and yet there was something very attractive about his expression.

“The Cat and Custard Pot,” he remarked suddenly, and Jenkins touched his hat.

“It’s nearly an hour,” he said, turning to me, “since I lowered any ale. And I don’t really know Bill Tracey well enough to reason with him about his. The damned stuff isn’t fit to drink.”

The car pulled up outside a pub, and my companion descended. I refused his invitation to join him–ale is not a favourite beverage of mine–and remained sitting in the car. The afternoon was warm, the air heavy with the scent of flowers from a neighbouring garden. And in the distance one got a glimpse of the peaceful Thames. Peaceful–the mot juste: everything was peaceful in that charming corner of England. And with a feeling of drowsy contentment I lay back and half closed my eyes.

I don’t know what drew my attention to them first–the two men who were sitting at one of the little tables under a tree. Perhaps it was that they didn’t seem quite to fit in with their surroundings. Foreigners, I decided, and yet it was more from the cut of their clothes than from their actual faces that I came to the conclusion. They weren’t talking, but every now and then they stole a glance at the door by which Drummond had gone in. And then one of them turned suddenly and stared long and earnestly at me.

“Who are those two men, Jenkins?” I said, leaning forward.

“Never seen ‘em before today, sir,” he answered. “But they was ‘ere when the Captain stopped for his pint on the way down. Lumme–look there.”

I looked, and I must admit that for a moment or too I began to have doubts as to Drummond’s sanity. He had evidently come out by some other door, and he was now standing behind the trunk of the tree under which the men were sitting. They were obviously quite unaware of his presence, and if such a thing hadn’t been inconceivable I should have said he was deliberately eavesdropping. Anyway, the fact remains that for nearly half a minute he stood there absolutely motionless, whilst I watched the scene in frank amazement. Then one of the two men happened to glance at me, and I suppose my face must have given something away. He nudged his companion, and the two of them rose to their feet just as Drummond stepped out from behind the tree.

“Good afternoon, my pretties,” he burbled genially. “Are we staying long in Pangbourne’s happy clime–or are we not?”

“Who the devil are you, sir?” said one of the men, speaking perfect English, except for a slightly guttural accent.

Drummond took out his case and selected a cigarette with care.

“Surely,” he remarked pleasantly, “your incompetence cannot be as astounding as all that. Tush! tush!–”; he lifted a hand like a leg of mutton as the man who had spoken started forward angrily. “I will push your face in later, if necessary, but just at the moment I would like a little chat. And since the appearance of you both is sufficient to shake any man to the foundations, let us not waste time over unnecessary questions.”

“Look here,” snarled the other angrily, “do you want a rough house, young man?”

“Rough house?” said Drummond mildly. “What is a rough house? Surely you cannot imagine for one minute that I would so far demean myself as to lift my hand in anger against my neighbour.”

And then the most extraordinary thing happened. I was watching the strange scene very closely, wondering really whether I ought not to interfere–yet even so I didn’t see how it was done. It was so incredibly quick, and as far as I could tell, Drummond never moved.

The two men seemed to close in on him suddenly with the idea obviously of hustling him out of the garden. And they didn’t hustle him out of the garden. Far from it. There came a noise as of two hard bodies impinging together, and the gentleman who had not yet spoken recoiled a pace, holding his nose and cursing.

I sympathized with him: it is a singularly painful thing to hit one’s nose hard on somebody else’s head. In fact, the only completely unmoved person was Drummond himself.

“You shouldn’t kiss in public places, laddies,” he remarked sadly. “It might make the barmaid jealous. And I do declare his little nosey-posey is beginning to bleed. If you ask the chauffeur nicely he might lend you a spanner to put down your back.”

The two men stood there glaring at him, and they were not a prepossessing pair. And then the one who had done the talking drew his friend of the damaged nose on one side, and spoke to him in a low tone. He seemed to be urging some course on the other which the latter was unwilling to accept.

“My God, sir,” muttered Jenkins to me, “the bloke with the bleeding nose has got a knife.”

“Look out. Captain Drummond,” I called out. “That man has a knife.”

“I know, old lad,” he answered. “He’s been playing at pirates. Not going, surely? Why, we’ve never had our little chat.”

But without a backward glance, the two men passed through the gate and started walking rapidly down the road in the direction of the station. And after a time Drummond sauntered over to the car and got in.

“After which breezy little interlude,” he murmured, “the powerful car again swung forward, devouring mile after mile.”

“Would you very much mind explaining?” I remarked dazedly.

“Explaining?” he said. “What is there to explain?”

“Do you usually go about the country molesting perfect strangers? Who are those men?”

“I dunno,” he answered. “But they knew me all right.” He was staring at the road ahead and frowning. “It’s impossible,” he muttered at length. “And yet–”

He relapsed into silence, while I still gazed at him in amazement. “But,” I cried, “it’s astounding. If I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I couldn’t have believed it possible.”

He grinned suddenly. “I suppose it was a bit disconcerting,” he answered. “But we’re moving in deep waters, laddie–or, rather, I am. And I tell you frankly I don’t quite know where I am. Why should those two blokes have followed me down here?”

“Then you have seen them before?”

He shook his head. “No. At least, I saw them when I stopped for some ale on the way down to the station. And they aren’t very clever at it.”

“Clever at what?”

“The little game of observing without being observed. Apart from their appearance, which made them stick out a mile when seen in an English country inn, the man whose nose suffered slightly positively hissed into the other’s ear when he first saw me. In fact, I very nearly dealt with them then and there, only I was afraid I’d be late for your train.”

“But why should they follow you?” I persisted. “What’s the idea?”

“I wish to God I knew,” he answered gravely. “I don’t think I’m losing my nerve, or anything of that sort–but I’m absolutely in the dark. Almost as much as you are, in fact. I loathe this waiting game.”

“Of course,” I remarked resignedly, “I suppose I am not insane. I suppose there is some sense in all this, though at the moment I’m damned if I can see it.”

“Presumably you read Kipling?” he said suddenly. I stared at him in silence–speech was beyond me. “A month ago,” he continued calmly, “I received this.”

From his breast pocket he took a slip of paper, and handed it to me. On it some lines were written in an obviously feminine hand.

When the Himalayan peasant meets the he-bear in his pride,He shouts to scare the monster, who will often turn aside.But the she-bear, thus accosted, rends the peasant tooth and nail.And the point, I warn you, Drummond, is discovered in the tail.

I handed the paper back to him.

“What do you make of it?” he asked.

“It looks like a stupid joke,” I said. “Do you know the writing?”

He shook his head.

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