Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Adventures of Jimmie Dale Part 2( Chapter 4)

Chapter IV: The Innocent Bystander

There was not a sound. That stillness, weird, unnerving, that permeated, as it were, everywhere through that mysterious house, was, if that were possible, accentuated now. The four masked men in evening dress, five including their leader, for the man who had appeared in that other room with the rabbit was not here, were as silent, as motionless, as the dead man who was lashed there in the chair. And to Jimmie Dale it seemed at first as though his brain, stunned and stupefied at the shock, refused its functions, and left him groping blindly, vaguely, with only a sort of dull, subconscious realisation of menace and a deadly peril, imminent, hanging over him.
He tried to rouse himself mentally, to prod his brain to action, to pit it in a fight for life against these self-confessed criminals and murderers with their mask of culture, who surrounded him now. Was there a way out? What was it the Tocsin had said–"the most powerful and pitiless organisation of criminals the world has ever known–the stake a fortune of millions–her life!” There had, indeed, been no overemphasis in the words she had used! They had taken pains themselves to make that ominously clear, these men! Every detail of the strange house, with its luxurious furnishings, its cleverly contrived appointments, breathed a horribly suggestive degree of power, a deadly purpose, and an organisation swayed by a master mind; and, grim evidence of the merciless, inexorable length to which they would go, was the ghastly white face of the dead chauffeur, bound hand and foot, in the chair before him!
That EMPTY glass in the hand of one of the men! He could not take his eyes from it–except as his eyes were drawn magnetically to that FULL glass in the hand of one of the others. What height of sardonic irony! He was to drink that other glass, to die because he refused to answer questions that for years, with every resource at his command, risking his liberty, his wealth, his name, his life, with everything that he cared for thrown into the scales, he had struggled to solve–and failed!
And then the leader spoke.
“Mr. Dale,” he said, with cold significance, “I regret to admit that your pseudo taxicab driver was so ill-advised as to refuse to answer the SAME questions that I have put to you.”
Five to one! That was the only way out–and it was hopeless. It was the only way out, because, convinced that he could answer those questions if he wanted to, these men were in deadly earnest; it was hopeless, because they were–five to one! And probably there were as many more, twice or three times as many more within call. But what did it matter how many more there were! He could fight until he was overpowered, that was all he could do, and the five could accomplish that. Still, if he could knock the full glass out of that man’s hand, and gain the door, then perhaps–he turned quickly, as the door opened. It was as though they had read his thoughts. A number of men were grouped outside in the corridor, then the door closed again with a cordon ranged against it inside the room; and at the same instant his arms and wrists were caught in a powerful grasp by the two men immediately behind him, who all along had enacted the role of guards.
Again the leader spoke.
“I will repeat the questions,” he said sharply. “Where is the woman whose ring was found on that man there in the chair? And where is the package that you two men had with you in the taxicab to-night?”
Jimmie Dale glanced from the tall, straight, immaculately clothed figure of the speaker, from the threatening smile on the set lips that just showed under the edge of the mask, to the dead man in the chair. He had faced the prospect of death before many times, but it had come with the heat of passion accompanying it, it had come quickly, abruptly, with every faculty called into action to combat it, without time to dwell upon it, to sift, weigh, or measure its meaning, and if there had been fear it had been subordinate to other emotions. But it was different now. He could not, of course, answer those questions; nor, he was doggedly conscious, would he have answered them if he could–and there was no middle course.
Death, within the next few moments, stared him in the face; and it seemed curiously irrelevant that, in a sort of unnatural calmness, he should be attempting to analyse his feelings and emotions concerning it. All his life it had seemed to him that the acme of human mental torture was the cell of a condemned criminal, with the horror of its hopelessness, with the time to dwell upon it; and that the acme of that torture itself must be that awful moment immediately preceding execution, when anticipation at last was to merge into soul-sickening reality.
Strange that thought should come! Strange that he should be framing a brain picture of such a scene, vivid, minute in detail! No–not strange. He was picturing himself. The analogy was not perfect, it was true, he had not had the months, weeks, days and hours of suspense; but it was perfect enough to bring home to him with appalling force the realisation of his position. He was standing as a condemned man might stand in those last, final moments, those moments which he had imagined must be the most terrible that could exist in life; but that dismay of soul, the horror, the terror were not his–there was, instead, a smouldering fury, a passionate amazement that it was his own life that was threatened. It seemed impossible that it could be his voice that was speaking now in such quiet, measured tones.
“Is it worth while, will it convince you now, any more than before, to repeat that there is some mistake here? I am no more able to answer your questions than you are yourselves. I never saw that man in the chair there in my life until the moment that I hailed him in his cab to-night. I do not know who the woman is to whom that ring belongs, much less do I know where she is. And if there was a package of any sort in the taxicab, as you state, I never saw it.”
The lips under the mask curved into a lupine smile.
“Think well, Mr. Dale!” The man’s voice was low, menacing. “Ethically, if you so choose to consider it, your refusal may be the act of a brave man; practically, it is the act of–a fool. Now– your answer!”
“I have answered you,” said Jimmie Dale–and, relaxing the muscles in his arms, let them hang limply for an instant in the grip of the two men behind him. “I have no other answer.”
It was only a sign, a motion of the leader’s hand–but with it, quick as a lightning flash, Jimmie Dale was in action. The limp arms tautened into steel as he wrenched them loose, and, whirling around, he whipped his fist to the chin of one of the two guards.
In an instant, with the blow, as the man staggered backward, the room was in pandemonium. There was a rush from the door, and two, three, four leaping forms hurled themselves upon Jimmie Dale. He shook them off–and they came again. There was no chance ultimately, he knew that; it was only the elemental within him that rose in fierce revolt at the thought of tame submission, that bade him sell his life as dearly as he could. Panting, gasping for breath, dragging them by sheer strength as they clung to him, he got his back to the wall, fighting with the savage fury and abandon of a wild cat.
But it could not last. Where one man went down before him, two remorselessly appeared–the room seemed filled with men–they poured in through the door–he laughed at them in a half-demented way–more and more of them came–there was no play for his arms, no room to fight–they seemed so close around him, so many of them upon him, that he could not breathe–and he was bending, being crushed down as by an intolerable weight. And then his feet were jerked from beneath him, he crashed to the floor, and, in another moment, bound hand and foot, he was tied into a chair beside that other chair whose grim occupant sat in such ghastly apathy of the scene.
The room cleared instantly of all but the original five. His head was drawn suddenly, violently backward, and clamped in that position; and a metal instrument, forced into his mouth, while his lips bled in their resistance, pried jaws apart and held them open.
“One drop!” the leader ordered curtly.
The man with the full glass bent over him, and dipped a glass rod into the liquid. The drop glistened a ruby red on the end of the rod–and fell with a sharp, acrid, burning sensation upon Jimmie Dale’s tongue.
For a moment Jimmie Dale’s animation, mental and physical, seemed swept away from him in, as it were, a hiatus of hideous suspense. What was it to be like this passing? Why did it not act at once, as it had acted on the rabbit they had showed him in the other room? Yes, he remembered! It took more than one drop for a man; and besides, this was diluted. One drop had no effect on a man; it required– Good God, ONE DROP EVEN OF THIS WAS ENOUGH? He strained forward in the chair until the sweat in great beads sprang from his forehead, strained and fought and tore at his bonds in a paroxysm of madness to free himself while there still remained a little strength. There was something filming before his eyes, a numbed feeling was creeping through his limbs, robbing them, sapping them of their vitality and power. He felt himself slipping away into a state of utter weakness, and his brain began to grow confused.
A voice seemed to float in the air near him: “For the last time– will you answer?”
With a supreme effort, Jimmie Dale strove to rally his tottering senses. Did they not understand the stupendous mockery of their questions? Did they not understand that he did not know? He had told them so–perhaps he had better tell them so again.
“I–” He tried to speak, and found the words thick upon his tongue. “I–do not–know.”
The glass itself was thrust abruptly between his lips. Some of the contents spilled and trickled upon his chin, and then a flood of it, burning, fiery, poured down his throat. A flood of it–and it needed but THREE drops and there had been TEN in the glass!
So this was death–a hazy, nebulous thing! There was no pain. It was like–like–nothingness. And out of the nothingness SHE came. Strange that she should come! Alone she had fought these fiends and outwitted them for–how long was it? Three years! She would be more than ever alone now. Pray God she did not finally fall into their clutches!
How it burned now, that fatal draught they had forced down his throat, and how it gripped at him and seemed to eat and bore its way into the very tissues! It was the end, and–no! It was STIMULATING him! Strength seemed to be returning to his limbs; it seemed as though he were being carried, as though the bonds about him were being loosened; and now his brain seemed to be growing clearer.
He roused up with a startled exclamation. He was back in the same room in which he had first returned to consciousness after the accident. He was on the same couch. The same masked figure was at the same desk. Had he been dreaming? Was this then only some horrible, ghastly nightmare through which he had passed?
No, it had been real enough; his clothes, rent and torn, and the blood upon his hands, where the skin had been scraped from his knuckles in the fight, bore evidence to that. He must then have lost consciousness for a while, though it seemed to him that at no moment, hazy, irrational though his brain might have been, had he become entirely oblivious to what was taking place around him. And yet it must have been so!
The eyes from behind the mask were fixed steadily upon him, and below the mask there was the hard, unpleasant set to the lips that Jimmie Dale had grown accustomed to expect.
The man spoke abruptly.
“That you find yourself alive, Mr. Dale,” he said grimly, “is no confession of weakness upon the part of those with whom you have had to deal here. To bear witness to that there is one who is not alive, as you have seen. That man we knew. With you it was somewhat different. Your presence in the taxicab was only suspicious. There was always the possibility that you might be one of those ubiquitous ’innocent bystanders.’ Your name, your position, the improbability that you could have anything in common with–shall we say, the matter that so deeply interests us?–was all in your favour. However, presumption and probability are the tools of fools. We do not depend upon them–we apply the test. And having applied the test, we are convinced that you have told the truth–that is all.”
He rose from his chair brusquely. “I shall not apologise to you for what has happened. I doubt very much if you are in a frame of mind to accept anything of the sort. I imagine, rather, that you are promising yourself that we shall pay, and pay dearly, for this– that, among other things, we shall answer for the murder of that man in the other room. All this will be quite within your province, Mr. Dale–and quite fruitless. To-morrow morning the story that you are preparing to tell now would sound incredible even in your own ears; furthermore, as we shall take pains to see that you leave this place with as little knowledge of its location as you obtained when you arrived, your story, even if believed, would do little service to you and less harm to us. I think of nothing more, Mr. Dale, except–" There was a whimsical smile on the lips now. “Ah, yes, the matter of your clothes. We can, and shall be glad to make reparation to you to the slight extent of offering you a new suit before you go.”
Jimmie Dale scowled. Sick, shaken, and weak as he was, the cool, imperturbable impudence of the man was fast growing unbearable.
The man laughed. “I am sure you will not refuse, Mr. Dale–since we insist. The condition of the clothes you have on at present might– I say ’might’–in a measure support your story with some degree of tangible evidence. It is not at all likely, of course; but we prefer to discount even so remote a possibility. When you have changed, you will be motored back to your home. I bid you good- night, Mr. Dale.”
Jimmie Dale rubbed his eyes. The man was gone–through a door at the rear of the desk, a door that he had not noticed before, that was not even in evidence now, that was simply a movable section of the wall panelling–and for an instant Jimmie Dale experienced a sense of sickening impotence. It was as though he stood defenceless, unarmed, and utterly at the mercy of some venomous power that could crush what it would remorselessly and at will in its might.
The place was a veritable maze, a lair of hellish cleverness. He had no illusions now, he laboured under no false estimate of either the ingenuity or the resources of this inhuman nest of vultures to whom murder was no more than a matter of detail. And it was against these men that henceforth he was to match his wits! There could be no truce, no armistice. It was their lives, or hers, or his! Well, he was alive now, the first round was over, and so far he had won. His brows furrowed suddenly. Had he? He was not so sure, after all. He was conscious of a disquieting, premonitory intuition that, in some way which he could not explain, the honours were not entirely his.
He was apparently–the “apparently” was a mental reservation–quite alone in the room. He got up from the couch and walked shakily across the floor to the desk. A revolver lay invitingly upon the blotting pad. It was his own, the one they had taken from him after the accident. Jimmie Dale picked it up, examined it–and smiled a little sarcastically at himself for his trouble. It was unloaded, of course. He was twirling it in his hand, as a man, masked as every one in the house was masked, and carrying a neatly folded suit over his arm, entered from the corridor.
“The car is ready as soon as you are dressed,” announced the other briefly. He laid the clothes upon the couch–and settled himself significantly in a chair.
Jimmie Dale hesitated. Then, with a shrug of his shoulders, recrossed the room, and began to remove his torn garments. What was the use! They would certainly have their own way in the end. It wasn’t worth another fight, and there was nothing to be gained by a refusal except to offer a sop to his own exasperation.
He dressed quickly, in what proved to be an exceedingly well-fitting suit; and finally turned tentatively to the man in the chair.
The other stood up, and produced a heavy black silk scarf.
“If you have no objections,” he said curtly, “I’ll tie this over your eyes.”
Again Jimmie Dale shrugged his shoulders.
“I am glad enough to get out on any conditions,” he answered caustically.
“’Fortunate’ would be the better word,” rejoined the other meaningly–and, deftly knotting the scarf, led Jimmie Dale blindfolded from the room.

 

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