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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Dark Star - Chapter 15. The Locked House
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The Dark Star - Chapter 15. The Locked House Post by :Eliot_Proud Category :Long Stories Author :Robert W. Chambers Date :May 2012 Read :2799

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The Dark Star - Chapter 15. The Locked House

CHAPTER XV. THE LOCKED HOUSE

From the road, just before he descended to cross the bridge into Brookhollow, he caught a gleam of light straight ahead. For a moment it did not occur to him that there was anything strange in his seeing a light in the old Carew house. Then, suddenly, he realised that a light ought not to be burning behind the lowered shades of a house which was supposed to be empty and locked.

His instant impulse was to put on his brakes then and there, but the next moment he realised that his car must already have been heard and seen by whoever had lighted that shaded lamp. The car was already on the old stone bridge; the Carew house stood directly behind the crossroads ahead; and he swung to the right into the creek road and sped along it until he judged that neither his lights nor the sound of his motor could be distinguished by the unknown occupant of the Carew house.

Then he ran his car out among the tall weeds close to the line of scrub willows edging the creek; extinguished his lights, including the tail-lamp; left his engine running; stood listening a moment to the whispering whirr of his motor; then, taking the flash light from his pocket, he climbed over the roadside wall and ran back across the pasture toward the house.

As he approached the old house from the rear, no crack of light was visible, and he began to think he might have been mistaken--that perhaps the dancing glare of his own acetylenes on the windows had made it seem as though they were illuminated from within.

Cautiously he prowled along the rear under the kitchen windows, turned the corner, and went to the front porch.

He had made no mistake; a glimmer was visible between the edge of the lowered shade and the window casing.

Was it some impudent tramp who had preempted this lonely house for a night's lodging? Was it, possibly, a neighbour who had taken charge in return for a garden to cultivate and a place to sleep in? Yet, how could it be the latter when he himself had the keys to the house? Moreover, such an arrangement could scarcely have been made by Rue Carew without his being told of it.

Then he remembered what the Princess Mistchenka had said in her cable message, that somebody might break into the house and steal the olive-wood box unless he hastened to Brookhollow and secured it immediately.

Was this what was being done now? Had somebody broken in for that purpose? And who might it be?

A slight chill, not entirely agreeable, passed over Neeland. A rather warm sensation of irritation succeeded it; he mounted the steps, crossed the verandah, went to the door and tried the knob very cautiously. The door was locked; whoever might be inside either possessed a key that fitted or else must have entered by forcing a window.

But Neeland had neither time nor inclination to prowl around and investigate; he had a duty to fulfil, a train to catch, and a steamer to connect with the next morning. Besides, he was getting madder every second.

So he fitted his key to the door, careless of what noise he made, unlocked and pushed it open, and started to cross the threshold.

Instantly the light in the adjoining room grew dim. At the same moment his quick ear caught a sound as though somebody had blown out the turned-down flame; and he found himself facing total darkness.

"Who the devil's in there!" he called, flashing his electric pocket lamp. "Come out, whoever you are. You've no business in this house, and you know it!" And he entered the silent room.

His flash light revealed nothing except dining-room furniture in disorder, the doors of a cupboard standing open--one door still gently swinging on its hinges.

The invisible hand that had moved it could not be far away. Neeland, throwing his light right and left, caught a glimpse of another door closing stealthily, ran forward and jerked it open. His lamp illuminated an empty passageway; he hurried through it to the door that closed the farther end, tore it open, and deluged the sitting-room with his blinding light.

Full in the glare, her face as white as the light itself, stood a woman. And just in time his eyes caught the glitter of a weapon in her stiffly extended hand; and he snapped off his light and ducked as the level pistol-flame darted through the darkness.

The next second he had her in his grasp; held her writhing and twisting; and, through the confused trample and heavy breathing, he noticed a curious crackling noise as though the clothing she wore were made of paper.

The struggle in pitch darkness was violent but brief; she managed to fire again as he caught her right arm and felt along it until he touched the desperately clenched pistol. Then, still clutching her closed fingers, he pulled the flash light from his side pocket and threw its full radiance straight into her face.

"Let go your pistol," he breathed.

She strove doggedly to retain it, but her slender fingers slowly relaxed under his merciless grip; the pistol fell; and he kicked the pearl-handled, nickel-plated weapon across the dusty board floor.

They both were panting; her right arm, rigid, still remained in his powerful clutch. He released it presently, stepped back, and played the light over her from head to foot.

She was deathly white. Under her smart straw hat, which had been pushed awry, the contrast between her black hair and eyes and her chalky skin was startling.

"What are you doing in this house?" he demanded, still breathing heavily from exertion and excitement.

She made an effort:

"Is it your house?" she gasped.

"It isn't yours, is it?" he retorted.

She made no answer.

"Why did you shoot at me?"

She lifted her black eyes and stared at him. Her breast rose and fell with her rapid breathing, and she placed both hands over it as though to quiet it.

"Come," he said, "I'm in a hurry. I want an explanation from you----"

The words died on his lips as she whipped a knife out of her bosom and flew at him. Through the confusion of flash light and darkness they reeled, locked together, but he caught her arm again, jerking it so violently into the air that he lifted her off her feet.

"That's about all for tonight," he panted, twisting the knife out of her helpless hand and flinging it behind him. Without further ceremony, he pulled out his handkerchief, caught her firmly, reached for her other arm, jerked it behind her back, and tied both wrists. Then he dragged a chair up and pushed her on it.

Her hat had fallen off, and her hair sagged to her neck. The frail stuff of which her waist was made had been badly torn, too, and hung in rags from her right shoulder.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

As she made no reply, he went over and picked up the knife and the pistol. The knife was a silver-mounted Kurdish dagger; the engraved and inlaid blade appeared to be dull and rusty. He examined it for a few moments, glanced inquiringly at her where she sat, pale and mute on the chair, with both wrists tied behind her.

"You seem to be a connoisseur of antiques," he said. "Your dagger is certainly a collector's gem, and your revolver is equally out of date. I recommend an automatic the next time you contemplate doing murder."

Walking up to her he looked curiously into her dark eyes, but he could detect no expression in them.

"Why did you come here?" he demanded.

No answer.

"Did you come to get an olive-wood box bound with silver?"

A slight colour tinted the ashy pallor under her eyes.

He turned abruptly and swept the furniture with his searchlight, and saw on a table her coat, gloves, wrist bag, and furled umbrella; and beside them what appeared to be her suitcase, open. It had a canvas and leather cover: he walked over to the table, turned back the cover of the suitcase and revealed a polished box of olive wood, heavily banded by some metal resembling silver.

Inside the box were books, photographs, a bronze Chinese figure, which he recognised as the Yellow Devil, a pair of revolvers, a dagger very much like the one he had wrested from her. _But there were no military plans there.

He turned to his prisoner:

"Is everything here?" he asked sharply.

"Yes."

He picked up her wrist bag and opened it, but discovered only some money, a handkerchief, a spool of thread and packet of needles.

There was a glass lamp on the table. He managed to light it finally; turned off his flash light, and examined the contents of the box again thoroughly. Then he came back to where she was seated.

"Get up," he said.

She looked at him sullenly without moving.

"I'm in a hurry," he repeated; "get up. I'm going to search you."

At that she bounded to her feet.

"What!" she exclaimed furiously.

But he caught hold of her, held her, untied the handkerchief, freeing her wrists.

"Now, pull out those papers you have concealed under your clothing," he said impatiently. And, as she made no motion to comply: "If you don't, I'll do it for you!"

"You dare lay your hand on me!" she flamed.

"You treacherous little cat, do you think I'll hesitate?" he retorted. "Do you imagine I retain any respect for you or your person? Give me those papers!"

"I have no papers!"

"You are lying. Listen to me once for all; I've a train to catch and a steamer to catch, and I'm going to do both. And if you don't instantly hand out those papers you've concealed I'll have no more compunction in taking them by force than I'd have in stripping an ear of corn! Make up your mind and make it up quick!"

"You mean you'd strip--_me_!" she stammered, scarlet to her hair.

"That's what I mean, you lying little thief. That's just what I mean. Kick and squall as you like, I'll take those papers with me if I have to take your clothing too!"

Breathless, infuriated, she looked desperately around her, caught sight of the Kurdish dagger, leaped at it; and for the third time found herself struggling in his arms.

"Don't!" she gasped. "Let me go! I--I'll give you what you want----"

"Do you mean it?"

"Yes."

He released the dishevelled girl, who shrank away from him. But the devil himself glowed in her black eyes.

"Go out of the room," she said, "if I'm to get the papers for you!"

"I can't trust you," he answered. "I'll turn my back." And he walked over to the olive-wood box, where the weapons lay.

Standing there he heard, presently, the rustle of crumpling papers, heard a half-smothered sob, waited, listening, alert for further treachery on her part.

"Hurry!" he said.

A board creaked.

"Don't move again!" he cried. The floor boards creaked once more; and he turned like a flash to find her in her stocking feet, already halfway to where he stood. In either hand she held out a bundle of papers; and, as they faced each other, she took another step toward him.

"Stand where you are," he warned her. "Throw those papers on the floor!"

"I----"

"Do you hear!"

Looking him straight in the eyes she opened both hands; the papers fell at her feet, and with them dropped the two dagger-like steel pins which had held her hat.

"Now, go and put on your shoes," he said contemptuously, picking up the papers and running over them. When he had counted them, he came back to where she was standing.

"Where are the others?"

"What others?"

"The remainder of the papers! You little devil, they're wrapped around your body! Go into that pantry! Go quick! Undress and throw out every rag you wear!"

She drew a deep, quivering breath, turned, entered the pantry and closed the door. Presently the door opened a little and her clothing dropped outside in a heap.

There were papers in her stockings, papers stitched to her stays, basted inside her skirts. A roll of drawings traced on linen lay on the floor, still retaining the warmth of her body around which they had been wrapped.

He pulled the faded embroidered cover from the old piano and knocked at the pantry door.

"Put that on," he said, "and come out."

She emerged, swathed from ankle to chin, her flushed face shadowed by her fallen mass of dark hair. He turned his flash light on the cupboard, but discovered nothing more. Then he picked up her hat, clothes, and shoes, laid them on the pantry shelf, and curtly bade her go back and dress.

"May I have the lamp and that looking glass?"

"If you like," he said, preoccupied with the papers.

While she was dressing, he repacked the olive-wood box. She emerged presently, carrying the lamp, and he took it from her hurriedly, not knowing whether she might elect to throw it at his head.

While she was putting on her jacket he stood watching her with perplexed and sombre gaze.

"I think," he remarked, "that I'll take you with me and drop you at the Orangeville jail on my way to town. Be kind enough to start toward the door."

As she evinced no inclination to stir he passed one arm around her and lifted her along a few feet; and she turned on him, struggling, her face convulsed with fury.

"Keep your insolent hands off me," she said. "Do you hear?"

"Oh, yes, I hear." He nodded again toward the door. "Come," he repeated impatiently; "move on!"

She hesitated; he picked up the olive-wood box, extinguished the lamp, opened his flash, and motioned with his head, significantly. She walked ahead of him, face lowered.

Outside he closed and locked the door of the house.

"This way," he said coldly. "If you refuse, I'll pick you up and carry you under my arm. I think by this time you realise I can do it, too."

Halfway across the dark pasture she stopped short in her tracks.

"Have I _got to carry you?" he demanded sharply.

"Don't have me locked up."

"Why not?"

"I'm not a--a thief."

"Oh! Excuse me. What are you?"

"You know. Don't humiliate me."

"Answer my question! What are you if you're not a lady crook?"

"I'm employed--as _you are! Play the game fairly." She halted in the dark pasture, but he motioned her to go forward.

"If you don't keep on walking," he said, "I'll pick you up as I would a pet cat and carry you. Now, then, once more, who are you working for? By whom are you employed, if you're not a plain thief?"

"The--Turkish Embassy."

"What!"

"You knew it," she said in a low voice, walking through the darkness beside him.

"What is your name?" he insisted.

"Dumont."

"What else?"

"Ilse Dumont."

"That's French."

"It's Alsatian German."

"All right. Now, why did you break into that house?"

"To take what you took."

"To steal these papers for the Turkish Embassy?"

"To _take them."

"For the Turkish Ambassador!" he repeated incredulously.

"No; for his military attache."

"What are you, a spy?"

"You knew it well enough. You are one, also. But you have treated me as though I were a thief. You'll be killed for it, I hope."

"You think I'm a spy?" he asked, astonished.

"What else are you?"

"A spy?" he repeated. "Is _that what _you are? And you suppose me to be one, too? That's funny. That's extremely----" He checked himself, looked around at her. "What are you about?" he demanded. "What's that in your hand?"

"A cigarette."

They had arrived at the road. He got over the wall with the box; she vaulted it lightly.

In the darkness he caught the low, steady throbbing of his engine, and presently distinguished the car standing where he had left it.

"Get in," he said briefly.

"I am not a thief! Are you going to lay that charge against me?"

"I don't know. Is it worse than charging you with three separate attempts to murder me?"

"Are you going to take me to jail?"

"I'll see. You'll go as far as Orangeville with me, anyhow."

"I don't care to go."

"I don't care whether you want to go or not. Get into the car!"

She climbed to the seat beside the wheel; he tossed in the olive-wood box, turned on his lamps, and took the wheel.

"May I have a match for my cigarette?" she asked meekly.

He found one, scratched it; she placed a very thick and long cigarette between her lips and he lighted it for her.

Just as he threw in the clutch and the car started, the girl blew a shower of sparks from the end of her cigarette, rose in her seat, and flung the lighted cigarette high into the air. Instantly it burst into a flare of crimson fire, hanging aloft as though it were a fire balloon, and lighting up road and creek and bushes and fields with a brilliant strontium glare.

Then, far in the night, he heard a motor horn screech three times.

"You young devil!" he said, increasing the speed. "I ought to have remembered that every snake has its mate.... If you offer to touch me--if you move--if you as much as lift a finger, I'll throw you into the creek!"

The car was flying now, reeling over the dirt road like a drunken thing. He hung grimly to the wheel, his strained gaze fixed on the shaft of light ahead, through which the road streamed like a torrent.

A great wind roared in his ears; his cap was gone. The car hurled itself forward through an endless tunnel of darkness lined with silver. Presently he began to slow down; the furious wind died away; the streaking darkness sped by less swiftly.

"Have you gone mad?" she cried in his ear. "You'll kill us both!"

"Wait," he shouted back; "I'll show you and your friends behind us what speed really is."

The car was still slowing down as they passed over a wooden bridge where a narrow road, partly washed out, turned to the left and ran along a hillside. Into this he steered.

"Who is it chasing us?" he asked curiously, still incredulous that any embassy whatever was involved in this amazing affair.

"Friends."

"More Turks?"

She did not reply.

He sat still, listening for a few moments, then hastily started his car down the hill.

"Now," he said, "I'll show you what this car of mine really can do! Are you afraid?"

She said between her teeth:

"I'd be a fool if I were not. All I pray for is that you'll kill yourself, too."

"We'll chance it together, my murderous little friend."

The wind began to roar again as they rushed downward over a hill that seemed endless. She clung to her seat and he hung to his wheel like grim death; and, for one terrible instant, she almost lost consciousness.

Then the terrific pace slackened; the car, running swiftly, was now speeding over a macadam road; and Neeland laughed and cried in her ear:

"Better light another of your hell's own cigarettes if you want your friends to follow us!"

Slowing, he drove with one hand on the wheel.

"Look up there!" he said, pointing high at a dark hillside. "See their lights? They're on the worst road in the Gayfield hills. We cut off three miles this way."

Still driving with one hand, he looked at his watch, laughed contentedly, and turned to her with the sudden and almost friendly toleration born of success and a danger shared in common.

"That was rather a reckless bit of driving," he admitted. "Were you frightened?"

"Ask yourself how you'd feel with a fool at the wheel."

"We're all fools at times," he retorted, laughing. "You were when you shot at me. Suppose I'd been seized with panic. I might have turned loose on you, too."

For a while she remained silent, then she looked at him curiously:

"Were you armed?"

"I carry an automatic pistol in my portfolio pocket."

She shrugged.

"You were a fool to come into that house without carrying it in your hand."

"Where would you be now if I had done that?"

"Dead, I suppose," she said carelessly.... "What _are you going to do with me?"

He was in excellent humour with himself; exhilaration and excitement still possessed him, keyed him up.

"Fancy," he said, "a foreign embassy being mixed up in a plain case of grand larceny!--robbing with attempt to murder! My dear but bloodthirsty young lady, I can hardly comprehend it."

She remained silent, looking straight in front of her.

"You know," he said, "I'm rather glad you're not a common thief. You've lots of pluck--plenty. You're as clever as a cobra. It isn't every poisonous snake that is clever," he added, laughing.

"What do you intend to do with me?" she repeated coolly.

"I don't know. You are certainly an interesting companion. Maybe I'll take you to New York with me. You see I'm beginning to like you."

She was silent.

He said:

"I never before met a real spy. I scarcely believed they existed in time of peace, except in novels. Really, I never imagined there were any spies working for embassies, except in Europe. You are, to me, such a rare specimen," he added gaily, "that I rather dread parting with you. Won't you come to Paris with me?"

"Does what you say amuse you?"

"What _you say does. Yes, I think I'll take you to New York, anyway. And as we journey toward that great metropolis together you shall tell me all about your delightful profession. You shall be a Scheherazade to me! Is it a bargain?"

She said in a pleasant, even voice:

"I might as well tell you now that what you've been stupid enough to do tonight is going to cost you your life."

"What!" he exclaimed laughingly. "More murder? Oh, Scheherazade! Shame on your naughty, naughty behaviour!"

"Do you expect to reach Paris with those papers?"

"I do, fair houri! I do, Rose of Stamboul!"

"You never will."

"No?"

"No." She sat staring ahead of her for a few moments, then turned on him with restrained impatience:

"Listen to me, now! I don't know who you are. If you're employed by any government you are a novice----"

"Or an artist!"

"Or a consummate artist," she admitted, looking at him uncertainly.

"I _am an artist," he said.

"You have an excellent opinion of yourself."

"No. I'm telling you the truth. My name is Neeland--James Neeland. I draw little pictures for a living--nice little pictures for newspapers and magazines."

His frankness evidently perplexed her.

"If that is so," she said, "what interests you in the papers you took from me?"

"Nothing at all, my dear young lady! _I'm not interested in them. But friends of mine are."

"Who?"

He merely laughed at her.

"_Are you an agent for any government?"

"Not that I know of."

She said very quietly:

"You make a terrible mistake to involve yourself in this affair. If you are not paid to do it--if you are not interested from patriotic motives--you had better keep aloof."

"But it's too late. I _am mixed up in it--whatever it may mean. Why not tell me, Scheherazade?"

His humorous badinage seemed only to make her more serious.

"Mr. Neeland," she said quietly, "if you really are what you say you are, it is a dangerous and silly thing that you have done tonight."

"Don't say that! Don't consider it so tragically. I'm enjoying it all immensely."

"Do you consider it a comedy when a woman tries to kill you?"

"Maybe you are fond of murder, gentle lady."

"Your sense of humour seems a trifle perverted. I am more serious than I ever was in my life. And I tell you very solemnly that you'll be killed if you try to take those papers to Paris. Listen!"--she laid one hand lightly on his arm--"Why should you involve yourself--you, an American? This matter is no concern of yours----"

"What matter?"

"The matter concerning those papers. I tell you it does not concern you; it is none of your business. Let me be frank with you: the papers are of importance to a foreign government--to the German Government. And in no way do they threaten your people or your country's welfare. Why, then, do you interfere? Why do you use violence toward an agent of a foreign and friendly government?"

"Why does a foreign and friendly government employ spies in a friendly country?"

"All governments do."

"Is that so?"

"It is. America swarms with British and French agents."

"How do you know?"

"It's my business to know, Mr. Neeland."

"Then that _is your profession! You really are a spy?"

"Yes."

"And you pursue this ennobling profession with an enthusiasm which does not stop short of murder!"

"I had no choice."

"Hadn't you? Your business seems to be rather a deadly one, doesn't it, Scheherazade?"

"Yes, it might become so.... Mr. Neeland, I have no personal feeling of anger for you. You offered me violence; you behaved brutally, indecently. But I want you to understand that no petty personal feeling incites me. The wrong you have done me is nothing; the injury you threaten to do my country is very grave. I ask you to believe that I speak the truth. It is in the service of my country that I have acted. Nothing matters to me except my country's welfare. Individuals are nothing; the Fatherland everything.... Will you give me back my papers?"

"No. I shall return them to their owner."

"Is that final?"

"It is."

"I am sorry," she said.

A moment later the lights of Orangeville came into distant view across the dark and rolling country.

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