فصل 13

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فصل 13

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Thirteen

I One of us … One of us … One of us….”

Three words, endlessly repeated, dinning themselves hour after hour into receptive brains.

Five people—five frightened people. Five people who watched each other, who now hardly troubled to hide their state of nervous tension.

There was little pretence now—no formal veneer of conversation. They were five enemies linked together by a mutual instinct of self-preservation.

And all of them, suddenly, looked less like human beings. They were reverting to more bestial types. Like a wary old tortoise, Mr. Justice Wargrave sat hunched up, his body motionless, his eyes keen and alert. Ex-Inspector Blore looked coarser and clumsier in build. His walk was that of a slow padding animal. His eyes were bloodshot. There was a look of mingled ferocity and stupidity about him. He was like a beast at bay ready to charge its pursuers. Philip Lombard’s senses seemed heightened, rather than diminished. His ears reacted to the slightest sound. His step was lighter and quicker, his body was lithe and graceful. And he smiled often, his lips curling back from his long white teeth.

Vera Claythorne was very quiet. She sat most of the time huddled in a chair. Her eyes stared ahead of her into space. She looked dazed. She was like a bird that has dashed its head against glass and that has been picked up by a human hand. It crouches there, terrified, unable to move, hoping to save itself by its immobility.

Armstrong was in a pitiable condition of nerves. He twitched and his hands shook. He lighted cigarette after cigarette and stubbed them out almost immediately. The forced inaction of their position seemed to gall him more than the others. Every now and then he broke out into a torrent of nervous speech.

“We—we shouldn’t just sit here doing nothing! There must be something—surely, surely there is something that we can do? If we lit a bonfire—?” Blore said heavily:

“In this weather?”

The rain was pouring down again. The wind came in fitful gusts. The depressing sound of the pattering rain nearly drove them mad.

By tacit consent, they had adopted a plan of campaign. They all sat in the big drawing room. Only one person left the room at a time. The other four waited till the fifth returned.

Lombard said:

“It’s only a question of time. The weather will clear. Then we can do something—signal—light fires—make a raft—something!” Armstrong said with a sudden cackle of laughter:

“A question of time—time? We can’t afford time! We shall all be dead….” Mr. Justice Wargrave said and his small clear voice was heavy with passionate determination: “Not if we are careful. We must be very careful.…”

The midday meal had been duly eaten—but there had been no conventional formality about it. All five of them had gone to the kitchen. In the larder they had found a great store of tinned foods. They had opened a tin of tongue and two tins of fruit. They had eaten standing round the kitchen table. Then, herding close together, they had returned to the drawing room—to sit there—sit, watching each other.

And by now the thoughts that ran through their brains were abnormal, feverish, diseased….

“It’s Armstrong … I saw him looking at me sideways just then … his eyes are mad … quite mad … Perhaps he isn’t a doctor at all … That’s it, of course!… He’s a lunatic, escaped from some doctor’s house—pretending to be a doctor … It’s true … shall I tell them? … Shall I scream out? … No, it won’t do to put him on his guard … Besides he can seem so sane … What time is it? … Only a quarter past three!… Oh, God, I shall go mad myself …Yes, it’s Armstrong… He’s watching me now….” “They won’t get me! I can take care of myself … I’ve been in tight places before … Where the hell is that revolver Who took it? … Who’s got it? … Nobody’s got it—we know that. We were all searched … Nobody can have it …But someone knows where it is.…” “They’re going mad … They’ll all go mad … Afraid of death … we’re all afraid of death …I’m afraid of death … Yes, but that doesn’t stop death coming …‘The hearse is at the door, sir.’ Where did I read that? The girl … I’ll watch the girl. Yes, I’ll watch the girl….” “Twenty to four … only twenty to four … perhaps the clock has stopped … I don’t understand—no, I don’t understand … This sort of thing can’t happen …it is happening… Why don’t we wake up? Wake up—Judgment Day—no, not that! If only I could think … My head—something’s happening in my head—it’s going to burst—it’s going to split … This sort of thing can’t happen … What’s the time? Oh, God, it’s only a quarter to four.” “I must keep my head … I must keep my head … If only I keep my head … It’s all perfectly clear—all worked out. But nobody must suspect. It may do the trick. It must! Which one? That’s the question—which one? I think—yes, I rather think—yes—him.” When the clock struck five they all jumped.

Vera said:

“Does anyone—want tea?”

There was a moment’s silence. Blore said:

“I’d like a cup.”

Vera rose. She said:

“I’ll go and make it. You can all stay here.”

Mr. Justice Wargrave said gently:

“I think, my dear young lady, we would all prefer to come and watch you make it.” Vera stared, then gave a short rather hysterical laugh.

She said:

“Of course! You would!”

Five people went into the kitchen. Tea was made and drunk by Vera and Blore. The other three had whisky—opening a fresh bottle and using a siphon from a nailed up case.

The judge murmured with a reptilian smile:

“We must be very careful….”

They went back again to the drawing room. Although it was summer the room was dark. Lombard switched on the lights but they did not come on. He said: “Of course! The engine’s not been run today since Rogers hasn’t been there to see to it.” He hesitated and said:

“We could go out and get it going, I suppose.”

Mr. Justice Wargrave said:

“There are packets of candles in the larder, I saw them, better use those.” Lombard went out. The other four sat watching each other.

He came back with a box of candles and a pile of saucers. Five candles were lit and placed about the room.

The time was a quarter to six.

II

At twenty past six, Vera felt that to sit there longer was unbearable. She would go to her room and bathe her aching head and temples in cold water.

She got up and went towards the door. Then she remembered and came back and got a candle out of the box. She lighted it, let a little wax pour into a saucer and stuck the candle firmly to it. Then she went out of the room, shutting the door behind her and leaving the four men inside. She went up the stairs and along the passage to her room.

As she opened her door, she suddenly halted and stood stock still.

Her nostrils quivered.

The sea … The smell of the sea at St. Tredennick.

That was it. She could not be mistaken. Of course, one smelt the sea on an island anyway, but this was different. It was the smell there had been on the beach that day—with the tide out and the rocks covered with seaweed drying in the sun.

“Can I swim out to the island, Miss Claythorne?”

“Why can’t I swim out to the island? …”

Horrid whiney spoilt little brat! If it weren’t for him, Hugo would be rich … able to marry the girl he loved….

Hugo.…

Surely—surely—Hugo was beside her? No, waiting for her in the room.… She made a step forward. The draught from the window caught the flame of the candle. It flickered and went out….

In the dark she was suddenly afraid….

“Don’t be a fool,” Vera Claythorne urged herself. “It’s all right. The others are downstairs. All four of them. There’s no one in the room. There can’t be. You’re imagining things, my girl.” But that smell—that smell of the beach at St. Tredennick … That wasn’t imagined. It was true.

And there was someone in the room … She had heard something—surely she had heard something….

And then, as she stood there, listening—a cold, clammy hand touched her throat—a wet hand, smelling of the sea….

III

Vera screamed. She screamed and screamed—screams of the utmost terror—wild desperate cries for help.

She did not hear the sounds from below, of a chair being overturned, of a door opening, of men’s feet running up the stairs. She was conscious only of supreme terror.

Then, restoring her sanity, lights flickered in the doorway—candles—men hurrying into the room.

“What the devil?” “What’s happened?” “Good God, what is it?” She shuddered, took a step forward, collapsed on the floor.

She was only half aware of someone bending over her, of someone forcing her head down between her knees.

Then at a sudden exclamation, a quick “My God, look at that!” her senses returned. She opened her eyes and raised her head. She saw what it was the men with the candles were looking at.

A broad ribbon of wet seaweed was hanging down from the ceiling. It was that which in the darkness had swayed against her throat. It was that which she had taken for a clammy hand, a drowned hand come back from the dead to squeeze the life out of her!

She began to laugh hysterically. She said:

“It was seaweed—only seaweed—and that’s what the smell was….”

And then the faintness came over her once more—waves upon waves of sickness. Again someone took her head and forced it between her knees.

Aeons of time seemed to pass. They were offering her something to drink—pressing the glass against her lips. She smelt brandy.

She was just about to gulp the spirit gratefully down when, suddenly, a warning note—like an alarm bell—sounded in her brain. She sat up, pushing the glass away.

She said sharply: “Where did this come from?”

Blore’s voice answered. He stared a minute before speaking. He said:

“I got it from downstairs.”

Vera cried:

“I won’t drink it….”

There was a moment’s silence, then Lombard laughed.

He said with appreciation:

“Good for you, Vera. You’ve got your wits about you—even if you have been scared half out of your life. I’ll get a fresh bottle that hasn’t been opened.” He went swiftly out.

Vera said uncertainly:

“I’m all right now. I’ll have some water.”

Armstrong supported her as she struggled to her feet. She went over to the basin, swaying and clutching at him for support. She let the cold tap run and then filled the glass.

Blore said resentfully:

“That brandy’s all right.”

Armstrong said:

“How do you know?”

Blore said angrily:

“I didn’t put anything in it. That’s what you’re getting at I suppose.” Armstrong said:

“I’m not saying you did. You might have done, or someone might have tampered with the bottle for just this emergency.” Lombard came swiftly back into the room.

He had a new bottle of brandy in his hands and a corkscrew.

He thrust the sealed bottle under Vera’s nose.

“There you are, my girl. Absolutely no deception.” He peeled off the tin foil and drew the cork. “Lucky there’s a good supply of spirits in the house. Thoughtful of U. N. Owen.” Vera shuddered violently.

Armstrong held the glass while Philip poured the brandy into it. He said:

“You’d better drink this, Miss Claythorne. You’ve had a nasty shock.” Vera drank a little of the spirit. The colour came back to her face.

Philip Lombard said with a laugh:

“Well, here’s one murder that hasn’t gone according to plan!”

Vera said almost in a whisper:

“You think—that was what was meant?”

Lombard nodded.

“Expected you to pass out through fright! Some people would have, wouldn’t they, doctor?” Armstrong did not commit himself. He said doubtfully:

“H’m, impossible to say. Young healthy subject—no cardiac weakness. Unlikely. On the other hand—” He picked up the glass of brandy that Blore had brought. He dipped a finger in it, tasted it gingerly. His expression did not alter. He said dubiously: “H’m, tastes all right.” Blore stepped forward angrily. He said:

“If you’re saying that I tampered with that, I’ll knock your ruddy block off.” Vera, her wits revived by the brandy, made a diversion by saying:

“Where’s the judge?”

The three men looked at each other.

“That’s odd… Thought he came up with us.”

Blore said:

“So did I… What about it, doctor, you came up the stairs behind me?” Armstrong said:

“I thought he was following me … Of course, he’d be bound to go slower than we did. He’s an old man.” They looked at each other again.

Lombard said:

“It’s damned odd….”

Blore cried:

“We must look for him.”

He started for the door. The others followed him, Vera last.

As they went down the stairs Armstrong said over his shoulder:

“Of course he may have stayed in the living room.”

They crossed the hall. Armstrong called out loudly:

“Wargrave, Wargrave, where are you?”

There was no answer. A deadly silence filled the house apart from the gentle patter of the rain.

Then in the entrance to the drawing room door, Armstrong stopped dead. The others crowded up and looked over his shoulder.

Somebody cried out.

Mr. Justice Wargrave was sitting in his high-backed chair at the end of the room. Two candles burnt on either side of him. But what shocked and startled the onlookers was the fact that he sat there robed in scarlet with a judge’s wig upon his head….

Dr. Armstrong motioned to the others to keep back. He himself walked across to the silent staring figure, reeling a little as he walked like a drunken man.

He bent forward, peering into the still face. Then, with a swift movement he raised the wig. It fell to the floor revealing the high bald forehead with, in the very middle, a round stained mark from which something had trickled.

Dr. Armstrong lifted the lifeless hand and felt for the pulse. Then he turned to the others.

He said—and his voice was expressionless, dead, far away….

“He’s been shot….”

Blore said:

“God—the revolver!”

The doctor said, still in the same lifeless voice:

“Got him through the head. Instantaneous.”

Vera stooped to the wig. She said, and her voice shook with horror:

“Miss Brent’s missing grey wool….”

Blore said:

“And the scarlet curtain that was missing from the bathroom….”

Vera whispered:

“So this is what they wanted them for….”

Suddenly Philip Lombard laughed—a high unnatural laugh.

“Five little soldier boys going in for law; one got in Chancery and then there were Four. That’s the end of Mr. Bloody Justice Wargrave. No more pronouncing sentence for him! No more putting on of the black cap! Here’s the last time he’ll ever sit in court! No more summing up and sending innocent men to death. How Edward Seton would laugh if he were here! God, how he’d laugh!” His outburst shocked and startled the others.

Vera cried:

“Only this morning you said he was the one!”

Philip Lombard’s face changed—sobered.

He said in a low voice:

“I know I did … Well, I was wrong. Here’s one more of us who’s been proved innocent—too late!”

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