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SLOWLY BUT RELENTLESSLY THE mist was creeping over the moor. It moved in little eddies; then it would make a surge forward like a great silent wave breaking on the shore and not receding. One by one the landmarks were blotted out, until only some of the highest tors stuck up like rugged islands from a sea of white.
As yet it had not reached Merridale Hall, which stood on highish ground, some hundred yards from the main road to Yelverton, though already it was drifting sluggishly round the base of the little hill on which the house was built. Soon it would be covered: it would become a place cut off from the outside world, a temporary prison of stones and mortar whose occupants must perforce rely upon themselves. And it is possible that a dreamer standing at the smoking-room window, and gazing over the billowing landscape of cotton wool, might have pondered on the different dramas even then being enacted in all the other isolated dwellings. Strange stories of crime, of passion; tragedies of hate and love; queer figments of imagination would perhaps have passed in succession through his mind, always provided that the dreamer was deaf. For if possessed of normal hearing, the only possible idea that could have occupied his brain would have been how to preserve it.
Twice already had the butler entered, only to retire defeated from the scene. The cook, who had been trying to obtain a little well-earned rest herself, had then advanced into the hall and dropped a fusillade of saucepans one after another on the tiled floor without the slightest success. And finally, in despair, the staff had barricaded itself in the pantry and turned on the gramophone.
There was something majestic about the mighty cadence. The higher note caused the window to rattle slightly: the lower one seemed to come from the deep places of the earth and dealt with the rest of the room. And ever and anon a half-strangled snort shook the performer with a dreadful convulsion. In short, Hugh Drummond was enjoying a post-prandial nap.
His hands were thrust deep in his trouser pockets, his legs were stretched out straight in front of him.
Between them, her head on one knee, sat Bess, his black cocker spaniel. Unperturbed by the devastating roars that came from above her, she, too, slept, trembling every now and then in an ecstasy of dream hunting. And the mist rolled slowly by outside, mounting nearer and nearer to the house.
Suddenly, so abruptly that it seemed as if a sound-proof door had been shut, the noise ceased.
And had the mystical dreamer by the window been really present, he would have seen a rather surprising sight. For the man who the fraction of a second before had been sound asleep was now sitting up in his chair with every sense alert. The dog, too, after one look at her master's face, was sitting rigid with her eyes fixed on the window. Volleys of saucepans might be of no avail, but the sound which had caused this instantaneous change was different. For from the direction of the main road had come the crack of a rifle.
Still with his hands in his pockets, the man got up and crossed to the window. The mist was not more than twenty yards away, and for a while he stared down the drive. Who could be firing on a day like that? And yet he knew that he had not imagined that shot.
Suddenly his eyes narrowed: the figure of a man running at top speed came looming out of the fog. He raced towards the house, and on his face was a look of abject terror. And the next moment he heard the front door open and shut, and the sound of footsteps in the hall outside.
"Down, girl!" he ordered quietly, as Bess began to growl. "It would seem that there are doings abroad."
Drummond strode to the door and stepped into the hall. Cowering in a corner was a young man, whose breath still came in great choking gasps, and whose trembling hands gave away the condition he was in. For a moment or two he stared at Drummond fearfully; then, getting up, he rushed over to him and seized his arm.
"For God's sake save me!" he stammered. "They're after me."
"Who are after you?" asked Drummond quietly, and even as he spoke there came a ring at the door, accompanied by an imperative tattoo on the knocker.
"Quick: tell me," he went on, but he spoke to empty air. For with a cry of terror, the youngster had darted into the smoking-room and shut himself in.
There came a further loud knocking, and with a shrug of his great shoulders Drummond crossed the hall and opened the front door. Outside stood two men in uniform, each with a rifle slung over his back, and he recognised them at once as warders from Dartmoor.
"Good afternoon," he said affably. "What can I do for you?"
The senior touched his cap. "Do you mind if we search your outbuildings, sir?" he said. "A man we're after disappeared up your drive, and got away in the fog. But he must have come here: there ain't nowhere else he could have gone."
"Who is this fellow you're looking for?" asked Drummond.
"A mighty dangerous customer, sir," said the warder. "You look as if you could take care of yourself all right, but there are a good many people round here who won't sleep happy in their beds till we've got him under lock and key again. It's Morris, sir, the Sydenham murderer: escaped in the mist this morning. An a more brutal devil never breathed."
Drummond raised his eyebrows: anyone less like a brutal murderer than the frightened youngster who had taken sanctuary in the house it would have been hard to imagine.
"Very near killed a warder this morning," went on the officer. "And then dodged away across the moors. Of course, with a face like his he never had a chance from the beginning, but if he is here, sir, as we think, we'll take him along with us."
"What is the peculiarity about his face?" demanded Drummond.
"He's got a great red scar down one cheek," said the warder.
"I see," said Drummond. "Look here, officer, there has evidently been some error. It is perfectly true that a man dashed into this house just before you arrived and implored me to hide him. But it is equally true that from your description he is not Morris. So we will elucidate the matter. Come in."
He crossed the hall to the smoking-room, with the two warders at his heels.
"Now then, young feller," he cried, as he flung open the door, "what's all this song and dance about? I presume this is not the man you want."
He turned to the warders, who were staring in a bewildered way at the panic-stricken youth cowering behind a chair.
"Never seen the gentleman before in my life, sir," said one of them at length.
"Get up, man!" remarked Drummond contemptuously. "No one is going to hurt you. Now then," he continued, as the youth slowly straightened himself and came out into the room, "let's hear what happened."
"Well, sir," said the one who was obviously the senior of the two officers, "it was this way. My mate and I were patrolling the road just by where your drive runs into it. Suddenly behind the gate-post we saw someone move, someone who it seemed to me had been hiding there. In this fog one can't see much, and it wasn't possible to make out the face. But when he sprang to his feet and rushed away it naturally roused our suspicions. So I fired a shot wide, as a warning, and we followed him up here."
"But surely you could have seen he wasn't in convict's kit," said Drummond.
"The first thing an escaped man does, sir, is to steal a suit of civvies. He either lays out some bloke he meets and strips him, or he breaks into a house. And a man like Morris, who is as powerful as they make 'em, and is absolutely desperate into the bargain, wouldn't stick at either course. I'm sorry, sir," he continued to the youngster, "if I've given you a fright. But you must admit that your behaviour was hardly that of a man who had nothing to fear."
"I quite agree," said Drummond tersely. He was covertly examining the youngster as he spoke, and there were times when those somewhat lazy eyes of his could bore like gimlets. But his next remark gave no indication of his thoughts.
"A drink, my stouthearted sportsmen," he boomed cheerfully. "And good hunting to you. By the way," he went on, as he produced glasses and a tantalus, "you say this man is a murderer. Then why didn't they hang him?"
"Don't you remember the case, sir? About four years ago. An old man was found with his head bashed in, in some small street in Sydenham. They caught this fellow Morris and they found him guilty. And then at the last moment the Home Secretary reprieved him and he got a lifer. Some legal quibble, and he got the benefit of the doubt."
The warder smiled grimly. "It's not for the likes of me to criticise the decision," he went on, "but I'd willingly bet my chances of a pension that he did it."
"That's so," agreed his mate.
"A more callous brutal swine of a man never drew breath. Well, sir, we must be getting along. Here's your very good fortune." The two warders raised their glasses. "And if I might make so bold as to advise you, sir, I'd have a pretty sharp look round to-night. As I said before, from the looks of you Mister Morris would find he'd met his match. For all that, he's a desperate man, and he might get at you while you were asleep."
He put down his empty glass.
"And as for you, sir," he went on, turning to the youngster, into whose cheeks a little colour had returned, "all I can say is, once again, that I'm sorry. But it's a dangerous thing to run from an armed warder, in a fog, down these parts, when a convict has escaped that very day. Good afternoon, gentlemen: thanking you very much again."
The two men picked up their hats, and Drummond went with them to the front door. Then he returned to the smoking-room, and having lit a cigarette, he threw himself into an arm-chair, and signed to the youngster to do likewise.
"Now, young feller," he said quietly, "it strikes me that there is rather more in this affair than meets the eye. You wake me from a refreshing doze by dashing into the house with a remark that they are after you, and it then turns out to be a completely false alarm. Why should you think that two warders were after you?"
"In the mist I didn't realise they were warders," stammered the other.
And once again Drummond stared at him thoughtfully.
"I see," he remarked. "And who, may I ask, did you mean by 'they'?"
"I can't tell you," muttered the other. "I daren't."
"As you will," said Drummond casually. "I must confess, however, to a certain mild curiosity as to the identity of people who can reduce anyone to such a condition of pitiable funk as you were in. Also as to why you should anticipate meeting them on Dartmoor in a fog. Incidentally, my name is Drummond—Captain Drummond: what's yours?"
"Marton," said the other, fumbling in his pocket for his cigarette-case.
For a while Drummond looked at him in silence. The youngster was clearly a gentleman: his age he put down at about twenty-one or two. His face was good looking in a weak sort of way, and though he had the build and frame of a big man, he was obviously in rotten condition. In fact, it would have been impossible to produce a better specimen of the type that he utterly despised. If fit, Marton would have been big enough and strong enough for anything on two legs; as he was, one good punch and he would have split like a rotten apple.
Drummond watched him light a cigarette with a trembling hand, and then his glance travelled over his clothes. Well cut: evidently a West-End tailor, but equally evident West-End clothes. And why should a man go careering about Dartmoor dressed as he was and in fear of his life? Was it just some ordinary case of a youngster absconding with cash, whose nerves had brought him to the condition he was in? Or could it be that there was something more in it than that? And at the bare thought of such a possibility his eyes began to glisten.
Life had been intolerably dull of late: in fact, since the affair with the masked hunchback on Romney Marsh nothing had happened to make it even bearable. He had shot, and fished, and consumed innumerable kippers in night clubs, but beyond that nothing—positively nothing. And now could it be possible that as the result of a sudden whim which had caused him to spend a week with Ted Jerningham something amusing was going to happen? The chances were small, he reflected sadly, as he again looked at Marton: still, it was worth trying. But the youngster would have to be handled carefully if anything was to be got out of him.
"Look here, Marton," he said, not unkindly, "it seems to me that you're in a condition when it will do you no harm to shoot your mouth to somebody. I'm considerably older than you, and I'm used to handling tough situations. In fact, I like 'em. Now what's all the trouble about?"
"There's no trouble," answered the other sullenly. "At least none where anyone else can help."
"Two statements that hardly tally," remarked Drummond. "And since the first is obviously a lie, we will confine ourselves to the second. Now, might I ask what you are doing in that rig down here, hiding behind the gate-post of this house?"
"I tell you I saw them looming out of the fog," cried the other wildly. "And I thought—I thought—"
"What did you think?"
"I just lost my head and bolted. And then when one of them fired —" He broke off and stared round the room. "What is this house?"
"Merridale Hall," said Drummond quietly. "Now out with it, young feller. What—have you been up to? Pinching boodle or what?"
"I wish it was only that." He lit another cigarette feverishly, and Drummond waited in silence. If he was trying to bring himself up to the point of telling his story, it would be better to let him do it in his own way. "God! What a fool I've been."
"You're not the first person to say that," Drummond remarked.
"But in what particular line have you been foolish?"
His curiosity was increasing now that any question of money was ruled out. However poor a specimen Marton might be, there must be something pretty seriously wrong to produce such a result on his nerves. So once again he waited, but after a while the other shook his head.
"I can't tell you," he muttered. "I daren't."
"You damned young fool," said Drummond contemptuously, losing his patience. "What on earth is there to be frightened of? Your affairs don't interest me in the slightest, but you've made a confounded nuisance of yourself this afternoon, and frankly I've had enough of you. So unless you can pull yourself together and cease quivering like a frightened jelly, you'd better push on to wherever you're going."
He had no intention whatever of turning him out of the house, but it struck him that the threat might produce some coherence in the other. And his surprise was all the greater at the unexpected answer he received. For the youngster for the first time pulled himself together and spoke with a certain quiet dignity.
"I'm sorry. Captain Drummond," he said. "And I apologise for the exhibition I've made of myself. I know my nerves are all to hell, and though it was my fault in the beginning, it hasn't been entirely so since. And so, if I might ask you for a whisky and soda, I'll be getting on."
"Now," said Drummond cheerily, "you're beginning to talk. I was trying to get you into some semblance of coherence, that's all. There can be no question whatever of your leaving to-night: you'd be lost in this fog in half a minute. And I know that my pal Jerningham, whose house this is, will agree with me when he gets back—that is, if he gets back at all: with this weather he'll very likely stay the night in Plymouth. So here's a drink, young feller, and again I tell you candidly that if you're wise you won't bottle this thing up any more. Whatever it is, I won't give you away, and, unless it's something dirty, I may be able to help you."
Marton drained his glass, and into his eyes there came a look of dawning hope.
"Good Lord!" he cried, "If only you could. But I'm afraid it's beyond anyone: I've got to go through with it myself. Still, it will be an awful relief to get it off my chest. Do you go much to London?"
"I live there," said Drummond.
"And do you go about a good deal?"
"I trot round," remarked the other with a faint smile, "the same as most of us do."
"Have you ever run across a woman called Comtessa Bartelozzi?"
Excerpted from Bulldog Drummond Returns by H. C. McNeile. Copyright © 2014 MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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