The Final Count - H.C. McNeile - ebook

The Final Count ebook

H. C. Mcneile

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Opis

Drummond was a hard muscular and most powerful man. He was a magnificent boxer, a lightning and a deadly shot with a revolver, and utterly lovable. There is a person in the world who has a colossal brain, unshakable nerve and unlimited ambitions. However, there is a kink in his brain, which has turned him into a completely unfair criminal. For him, killing means nothing more than some kind of fun. Drummond must defeat such a criminal.

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Liczba stron: 377

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Contents

INTRODUCTION

I. IN WHICH I HEAR A CRY IN THE NIGHT

II. IN WHICH I MEET HUGH DRUMMOND

III. IN WHICH SOME EXCELLENT ADVICE IS FOLLOWED

IV. IN WHICH HUGH DRUMMOND DISCOVERS A NEW AUNT

V. IN WHICH WE PAY THE AUNT AN INFORMAL VISIT

VI. IN WHICH WE GET A MESSAGE FROM ROBIN GAUNT

VII. IN WHICH I APPEAR TO BECOME IRRELEVANT

VIII. IN WHICH WE COME TO BLACK MINE

IX. IN WHICH WE ARE ENTERTAINED STRANGELY IN BLACK MINE

X. IN WHICH WE READ THE NARRATIVE OF ROBIN GAUNT

XI. IN WHICH WE READ THE DIARY OF ROBIN GAUNT

XII. IN WHICH THE FINAL COUNT TAKES PLACE

XIII. IN WHICH I LAY DOWN MY PEN

INTRODUCTION

In endeavouring to put before the public for the first time the truth concerning the amazing happenings of the summer of 1927, I feel myself to be at a disadvantage. In the first place I am no storyteller: so maybe my presentation of the facts will fail to carry conviction. Nay, further: it is more than likely that what I am about to write down will be regarded as a tissue of preposterous lies. And yet to those who condemn me offhand I would say one thing. Take the facts as you know them, and as they appeared in the newspapers, and try to account for them in any other way. You may say that in order to write a book–gain, perhaps, a little cheap notoriety–I have taken the ravings of a madman around which to build a fantastic and ridiculous story. You are welcome to your opinion. I can do no more than tell you what I know: I cannot make you believe me.

In one respect, however, I feel that I am in a strong position: my own part was a comparatively small one. And it is therefore from no reason of self-aggrandisement that I write. To one man, and one man only, is praise and honour due, and that is the man who led us–Hugh Drummond. But if unbelievers should go to him for confirmation, it is more than probable they will be disappointed. He will burble at them genially, knock them senseless with a blow of greeting on the back, and then resuscitate them with a large tankard of ale. And the doubter may well be pardoned for continuing to doubt: I, myself, when I first met Drummond was frankly incredulous as to his capabilities of being anything but a vast and good-natured fool. I disbelieved, politely, the stories his friends told me about him: to be candid, his friends were of very much the same type as himself. There were four of them whom I got to know intimately: Algy Longworth, a tall young man with a slight drawl and an eyeglass; Peter Darrell, who usually came home with the milk each morning, but often turned out to play cricket for Middlesex; Ted Jerningham, who fell in love with a different girl daily; and finally Toby Sinclair, who was responsible for introducing me into the circle.

Finally, there was Drummond himself of whom a few words of description may not be amiss. He stood just six feet in his socks, and turned the scales at over fourteen stone. And of that fourteen stone not one ounce was made up of superfluous fat. He was hard muscle and bone clean through, and the most powerful man I have ever met in my life. He was a magnificent boxer, a lightning and deadly shot with a revolver, and utterly lovable. Other characteristics I discovered later: his complete absence of fear (though that seemed common to all of them); his cool resourcefulness in danger; and his marvellous gift of silent movement, especially in the dark.

But those traits, as I say, I only found out later: just at first he seemed to me to be a jovial, brainless creature who was married to an adorable wife.

It was his face and his boxing abilities that had caused him to be nicknamed Bulldog. His mouth was big, and his nose was small, and he would not have won a prize at a beauty show. In fact, it was only his eyes–clear and steady with a permanent glint of lazy humour in them–that redeemed his face from positive ugliness.

So much, then, for Hugh Drummond, D.S.O., M.C., who was destined to play the leading part in the events of that summer, and to meet again, and for the last time, the devil in human form who was our arch-enemy. And though it is not quite in chronological order, yet I am tempted to say a few words here concerning that monstrous criminal. Often in the earlier stages of our investigations did I hear Drummond mention his name–a name which conveyed nothing to me, but which required no explanation to the others or to his wife. And one day I asked him point blank what he meant.

He smiled slightly, and a dreamy look came into his eyes.

‘What do I mean, by saying that I seem to trace the hand of Carl Peterson? I’ll tell you. There is a man alive in this world today–at least he’s alive as far as I know–who might have risen to any height of greatness. He is possessed of a stupendous brain, unshakable nerve, and unlimited ambition. There is a kink, however, in his brain, which has turned him into an utterly unscrupulous criminal. To him murder means no more than the squashing of a wasp means to you.’

He looked at me quietly.

‘Understand me: that remark is the literal truth. Three times in the past have he and I met: I’m just wondering if this will prove to be the fourth; if, way back, at the foundation of this ghastly affair, there sits Carl Peterson, or Edward Blackton, or the Comte de Guy, or whatever he calls himself, directing, controlling, organising everything. I haven’t seen him now or heard of him for three years, and as I say–I wonder.’

At the time, of course, it was Greek to me; but now that the thing is over and the terror is finished, it may be of interest to those who read to know before I start what we did not know at the time: to know that fighting against us with every force at his command was that implacable devil whom I will call Carl Peterson.

I say, we did not know it, but I feel that I must mitigate that statement somewhat. Looking back now I think–and Drummond himself admits it–that deep down in his mind there was a feeling almost of certainty that he was up against Peterson. He had no proof: he says that it was just a guess without much foundation–but he was convinced that it was so. And it was that conviction that kept him at it during those weary weeks in London, when all traces seemed to be lost. For if he had relaxed then, as we others did: if he had grown bored, thinking that all was over, a thing would have occurred unparalleled in the annals of crime.

But enough of this introduction: I will begin my story. And in telling it I shall omit nothing: even at the risk of boring my readers I shall give in their proper place extracts from the newspapers of the day which dealt with that part of the affair which is already known to the public. If there is to be a record, let it be a complete one.

I. IN WHICH I HEAR A CRY IN THE NIGHT

It was on a warm evening towards the end of April 1927 that the first act took place, though it is safe to say that there has never been any connection in the public mind up till this day between it and what came after. I was dining at Prince’s with Robin Gaunt, a young and extremely brilliant scientist, and a very dear friend of mine. We had been at school together and at Cambridge; and though we had lost sight of one another during the war, the threads of friendship had been picked up again quite easily at the conclusion of that foolish performance. I had joined the Gunners, whilst he, somewhat naturally, had gravitated towards the Royal Engineers. For a year or two, doubtless bearing in mind his really extraordinary gifts, the powers that be ordained that he should make roads, a form of entertainment of which he knew less than nothing. And Robin smiled thoughtfully and made roads. At least he did so officially: in reality he did other things, whilst a sergeant with a penchant for rum superintended the steam roller. And then one day came a peremptory order from G.H.Q. that Lieutenant Robin Gaunt, R. E., should cease making roads, and should report himself at the seats of the mighty at once. And Robin, still smiling thoughtfully, reported himself. As I have said, he had been doing other things during that eighteen months, and the fruits of his labours, sent direct and not through the usual official channels, lay on the table in front of the man to whom he reported.

From then on Robin became a mysterious and shadowy figure. I met him once on the leave boat going home, but he was singularly uncommunicative. He was always a silent sort of fellow, though on the rare occasions when he chose to talk he could be brilliant. But during that crossing he was positively taciturn.

He looked ill and I told him so.

‘Eighteen hours a day, old John, for eleven months on end. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I’m tired.’

He lit a cigarette and stared over the water.

‘Can you take it easy now?’ I asked him.

He gave a weary little smile.

‘If you mean by that, have I finished, then I can–more or less. But if you mean, can I take it easy from a mental point of view, God knows. I’ll not have to work eighteen hours a day any more, but there are worse things than physical exhaustion.’

And suddenly he laid his hand on my arm.

‘I know they’re Huns,’ he said tensely: ‘I know it’s just one’s bounden duty to use every gift one has been given to beat ‘em. But, damn it, John–they’re men too. They go back to their women-kind, just as all these fellows on this boat are going back to theirs.’

He paused, and I thought he was going to say something more. But he didn’t: he just gave a short laugh and led the way through the crowd to the bar.

‘A drink, John, and forget what I’ve been saying.’

That was in July ‘18, and I didn’t see him again till after the Armistice. We met in London, and at lunch I started pulling his leg over his eighteen hours’ work a day. He listened with a faint smile, and for a long while refused to be drawn. And it was only when the waiter went off to get change for the bill that he made a remark which for many months stuck in my mind.

‘There are a few things in my life that I’m thankful for, John,’ he said quietly. ‘And the one that I’m most thankful for is that the Boches broke when they did. For if they hadn’t...’

‘Well–if they hadn’t?’

‘There wouldn’t have been any Boches left to break.’

‘And a damned good thing too,’ I exclaimed.

He shrugged his shoulders.

‘They’re men too, as I said before. However, in Parliamentary parlance the situation does not arise. Wherefore, since it’s Tuesday today and Wednesday tomorrow, we might have another brandy.’

And with that the conversation closed. Periodically during the next few months that remark of his came back to my mind.

‘There wouldn’t have been any Boches left to break.’

An exaggeration, of course: a figure of speech, and yet Robin Gaunt was not given to the use of vain phrases. Years of scientific training had made him meticulously accurate in his use of words; and, certainly, if one-tenth of the wild rumours that circulated round the military Hush-Hush department was true, there might be some justification for his remark. But after a time I forgot all about it, and when Robin alluded to the matter at dinner on that evening in April I had to rack my brains to remember what he was talking about.

I’d suggested a play, but he had shaken his head.

‘I’ve an appointment, old man, tonight which I can’t break. Remember my eighteen hours’ work a day that you were so rude about?’

It took me a second or two to get the allusion.

‘Great Scott!’ I laughed, ‘that was the war to end war, my boy. To make the world safe for heroes to live in, with further slush ad nauseam. You don’t mean to say that you are still dabbling in horrors?’

‘Not exactly, John,’ he said gravely. ‘When the war was over I put the whole of that part of my life behind me. I hoped, as most of us did, that a new era had dawned: now I realise, as all of us realise, that we’ve merely gone back a few centuries. You know as well as I do that it is merely a question of time before the hatred of Germany for France boils up and cannot be restrained. Any thinking German will tell you so. Don’t let’s worry about whose fault it is: we’re concerned more with effects than causes. But when it does happen, there will be a war which for unparalleled ferocity has never before been thought of. Don’t let’s worry as to whether we go in, or on whose side we go in: those are problems that don’t concern us. Let us merely realise that primitive passions are boiling and seething in Europe, backed by inventions which are the last word in science. Force is the sole arbiter today: force and blazing hate, covered for diplomacy’s sake with a pitifully thin veneer of honeyed phrases. I tell you, John, I’ve just come back from Germany and I was staggered, simply staggered. The French desire for revanche in 1870 compared to German feeling today is as a tallow dip to the light of the sun.’

He lit a cigar thoughtfully.

‘However, all that is neither here nor there. Concentrate on that one idea, that force is the only thing that counts today: concentrate also on the idea that frightfulness in war is inevitable. I’ve come round to that way of thinking, you know. The more the thing drags on, the more suffering and sorrow to the larger number. Wherefore, pursuing the argument to a logical conclusion, it seems to me that it might be possible to arm a nation with a weapon so frightful, that by its very frightfulness war would be impossible because no other country would dare to fight.’

‘Frightfulness only breeds frightfulness,’ I remarked. ‘You’ll always get counter-measures.’

‘Not always,’ he said slowly. ‘Not always.’

‘But what’s your idea, Robin? What nation would you put in possession of such a weapon–granting for the moment that the weapon is there?’

He looked at me surprised. It was a silly remark, but I was thinking of France and Germany.

‘My dear old man–our own, of course. Who else? The policeman of the world. Perhaps America too: the English-speaking peoples. Put them in such a position, John, that they can say, should the necessity arise–“You shall not fight. You shall not again blacken the world with the hideous suffering of 1914. And since we can’t prevent you fighting by words, we’ll do it by force.”‘

His eyes were gleaming, and I stared at him curiously. That he was in dead earnest was obvious, but the whole thing seemed to me to be preposterous.

‘You can’t demonstrate the frightfulness of any weapon, my dear fellow,’ I objected, ‘unless you go to war yourself. So what the devil is the good of it anyway?’

‘Then, if necessary, go to war. Go to war for one day–against both of them. And at the end of that day say to them–“Now will you stop? If you don’t, the same thing will happen to you tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, until you do!”‘

‘But what will happen to them?’ I cried.

‘Universal, instantaneous death over as large or as small an area as is desired.’

I think it was at that moment that I first began to entertain doubts as to Robin’s sanity. Not that people dining near would have noticed anything amiss with him: his voice was low-pitched and quiet. But the whole idea was so utterly far-fetched and fantastic that I couldn’t help wondering if his brilliant brain hadn’t crossed that tiny bridge which separates genius from insanity. I knew the hideous loathing he had always felt for war: was it possible that continual brooding on the idea had unhinged him?

‘It was ready at Armistice time,’ he continued, ‘but not in its present form. Today it is perfected.’

‘But, damn it all, Robin,’ I said, a little irritably, ‘what is this IT?’

He smiled and shook his head.

‘Not even to you, old man, will I tell that. If I could I would keep it entirely to myself, but I realise that that is impossible. At the moment there is only one other being in this world who knows my secret–the great-hearted pacifist who has financed me. He is an Australian who lost both his sons in Gallipoli, and for the last two years he has given me ceaseless encouragement. Tonight I am meeting him again–I haven’t seen him for three months–to tell him that I’ve succeeded. And tomorrow I’ve arranged to give a secret demonstration before the Army Council.’

He glanced at his watch and stood up.

‘I must be off, John. Coming my way?’

Not wanting to go back so early I declined, and I watched his tall spare figure threading its way between the tables. Little did I dream of the circumstances in which I was next to meet him: a knowledge of the future has mercifully been withheld from mortal man. My thoughts as I sat on idly at the table finishing my cigar were confined to what he had been saying. Could it be possible that he had indeed made some stupendous discovery? And if he had, was it conceivable that it could be used in the way he intended and achieve the result he desired? Reason answered in the negative, and yet reason didn’t seem quite conclusive.

‘Universal, instantaneous death.’

Rot and rubbish: it was like the wild figment of a sensational novelist’s brain. And yet–I wasn’t satisfied.

‘Hullo, Stockton! how goes it? Has she left you all alone?’

I glanced up to see Toby Sinclair grinning at me from the other side of the table.

‘Sit down and have a spot, old man,’ I said. ‘And it wasn’t a she, but a he.’

For a while we sat on talking, and it was only when the early supper people began to arrive that we left. We both had rooms in Clarges Street, and for some reason or other–I forget why–Sinclair came into mine for a few minutes before going on to his own. I mention it specially, because on that simple little point there hung tremendous issues. Had he not come in–and I think it was the first time he had ever done so: had he not been with me when the telephone rang on my desk, the whole course of events during the next few months would have been changed. But he did come in, so there is no good speculating on what might have happened if he hadn’t.

He came in and he helped himself to a whisky-and-soda and he sat down to drink it. And it was just as I was following his example that the telephone went. I remember wondering as I took up the receiver who could be ringing me up at that hour, and then came the sudden paralysing shock.

‘John! John! Help. My rooms. Oh! my God.’

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