The Tempting of Tavernake by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter XIX. Tavernake Intervenes
Tavernake had the feelings of a man suddenly sobered as he turned once more into the Adelphi Terrace. Waiting until no one was in sight, he opened the door of the empty house with the Yale key which he had kept, and carefully closed it. He struck a match and listened for several minutes intently; not a sound from anywhere. He moved a few yards further to the bottom of the stairs, and listened again; still silence. He turned the handle of the ground floor apartment and commenced a fresh search. Room by room he examined by the light of his rapidly dwindling matches. This time he meant to leave behind him no possibility of any mistake. He even measured the depths of the walls for any secret hiding place. From room to room he passed, leisurely, always on the alert, always listening. Once, as he opened a door on the third floor there was a soft scurrying as though of a skirt across the floor. He struck a match quickly, to find a great rat sitting up and looking at him with black, beady eyes. It was the only sign of life he found in the whole building.
When he had finished his search, he came down to the ground floor and entered the room corresponding with the one from which he had heard voices in the adjoining house. He crouched here upon the dusty boards for some time, listening. Now and then he fancied that he could still hear voices on the other side of the wall, but he was never absolutely certain.
At last he rose to stretch himself, and almost as he did so a fresh sound from outside attracted his notice. A motor-car had turned into the Terrace. He walked to the uncurtained window and stood there, sure of being himself unseen. Then his heart gave a great leap. Unemotional though he was, this was a happening which might well have excited a more phlegmatic individual. A motor-car which he remembered very well, although it was driven now by a man in dark livery, had stopped at the next house. A woman and two men had descended. Tavernake never glanced at the latter; his eyes were fastened upon their companion. She was wrapped in a long cloak, but she lifted her skirts as she crossed the pavement, and he saw the flash of her silver buckles. Her carriage, her figure, were unmistakable. It was Elizabeth who was paying this early morning visit next door! Already the little party had disappeared. They did not even ring the bell. The door must have been opened silently at their coming. The motor-car glided off. Once more the Terrace was deserted.
Tavernake felt sure that he knew now the solution,--there was a way from this house into the next one. He struck another match and, standing back a few yards, looked critically at the dividing wall. In ancient days this had evidently been a dwelling-house of importance, elaborately decorated, as the fresco work upon the ceiling still indicated. The wall had been divided into three panels, with a high wainscoting. Inch by inch he examined it from one end to the other; he started from the back and came toward the front. About three-quarters of the way there, he paused. It was very simple, after all. The solid wall for a couple of feet suddenly ceased, and the design was continued with an expanse of stretched canvas, which yielded easily to his finger. He leaned his ear against it; he could hear now distinctly the sound of voices--he heard even the woman's laughter. For the height of about four feet the wall had been bodily removed. He made a small hole in the canvas--there was still darkness. He enlarged the hole until he could thrust his hand through--there was nothing but canvas the other side. He knew now where he was. There was only that single thickness of canvas between him and the room. He had but to make the smallest hole in it and he would be able to see through. Even now, with the removal of the barrier on his side, the voices were more distinct. A complete section of the wall had evidently been taken out and replaced by a detachable framework of wood covered with stretched canvas. He stood back for a moment and felt with his finger; he could almost trace the spot where the woodwork fitted upon hinges. Then he went on his hands and knees again, and with his penknife in his hand he paused to listen. He could hear the man Crease talking--a slow, nasal drawl. Then he heard Pritchard's voice, followed by what seemed to be a groan. There was a silence, then Elizabeth seemed to ask a question. He heard her low laugh and some note in it sent a shiver through his body. Pritchard was speaking fiercely now. Then, in the middle of his sentence, there was silence once more, followed by another groan. He could almost feel the people in that room holding their breaths.
Tavernake was rapidly forgetting all caution. The point of his knife was through the canvas. Slowly he worked it round until a small piece, the size of a half-crown, was partially cut through. With infinite pains he got his head and shoulders into the small recess and for the first time looked into the room. Pritchard was sitting almost in the middle of the apartment; his arms seemed to be bound to the chair and his legs were tied together. A few yards away, Elizabeth, her fur coat laid aside, was lounging back in an easy-chair, her dress all glittering with sequins, a curious light in her eyes, a cruel smile parting her lips. By her side--sitting, in fact, on the arm of her chair --was Crease, his long, worn face paler, even, than usual; his lips curled in a smile of cynical amusement. Major Post was there, carefully dressed as though he had been attending some social gathering, standing upon the hearth-rug with his coat-tails under his arms. The professor, in whose face seemed written the most abject terror, was talking. Tavernake now could hear every word distinctly.
"My dear Elizabeth! My dear Crease! You are both too precipitate! I tell you that I protest--I protest most strongly. Mr. Pritchard, I am sure, with a little persuasion, will listen to reason. I will not be a party to any such proceeding as--as this. You understand, Crease? We have gone quite far enough as it is. I will not have it."
Elizabeth laughed softly.
"My dear father," she said, "you will really have to take something for your nerves. Nothing need happen to Mr. Pritchard at all unless he asks for it. He has his chance--. no one should expect more."
"You are right, my dear Elizabeth," declared Crease, speaking very slowly and with his usual drawl. "This question of his health for the future--at any rate, for the immediate future--is entirely in Pritchard's own hands. There is no one who has received so many warnings as he. Bramley was cautioned twice; Mallison was warned three times and burned to death; Forsith had word from us only once, and he was shot in a drunken brawl. This man Pritchard has been warned a dozen times, he has escaped death twice. The time has come to show him that we are in earnest. Threats are useless; the time has come for deeds. I say that if Pritchard refuses this trifling request of ours, let us see that he leaves this house in such a state that he will not be able to do us any harm for some time at least."
"But he will give his word!" the professor cried excitedly. "I am quite sure that if you allow me to talk to him reasonably, he will pledge his word to go back to the States and interfere no longer with your affairs."
Pritchard turned his head slightly. He was a little pale, and the blood was dropping slowly on to the floor from a wound in his temple, but his tone was contemptuous.
"I will give you my word, Professor, and you, Elizabeth Gardner, and you, Jim Post, and you, Walter Crease, that crippled, or straight, in evil or good health, from the very jaws of death I will hang on to life until you have paid your just debts. You understand that, all of you? I don't know what sort of a show this is. You may be in earnest, or you may be trying a rag. In any case, let me assure you of this. You won't get me to beg for mercy. If you force me to drink that stuff you are talking about, I'll find the antidote, and as sure as there's a prison in America, so surely I'll make you suffer for it! If you take my advice," he went on slowly, "and I know what I'm talking about, you'll cut these ropes and set open your front door. You 'll live longer, all of you."
"An idiot," Elizabeth remarked pleasantly, "can do but little harm in the world. The word of a person of weak intellect is not to be relied upon. For my part, I am very tired of our friend, Mr. Pritchard. If you others had been disposed to go to much greater lengths, if you had said 'Hang him from the ceiling,' I should have been well pleased."
Pritchard made a slight movement in his chair--it was certainly not a movement of fear.
"Madam," he said, "I admire your candor. Let me return it. I don't believe there's one of you here has the pluck to attempt to do me any serious injury. If there is, get on with it. You hear, Mr. Walter Crease? Bring out that bottle of yours."
Crease removed his cigar from his lips and rose slowly to his feet. From his waistcoat pocket he produced a small phial, from which he drew the cork.
"Seems to me it's up to us to do the trick," he remarked languidly. "Catch hold of his forehead, Jimmy."
The man known as Major Post threw away his cigarette, and coming round behind Pritchard's chair, suddenly bent the man's head backward. Crease advanced, phial in hand. Then all Hell seemed to be let loose in Tavernake. He stepped back in his place and marked the extent of that wooden partition. Then, setting his teeth, he sprang at it, throwing the great weight of his massive shoulder against the framework door. Scratched and bleeding, but still upon his feet, he burst into the room, with the noise of bricks falling behind,--an apparition so unexpected that the little company gathered there seemed turned into some waxwork group from the Chamber of Horrors--motionless, without even the power of movement.
Tavernake, in those few moments, was like a giant among a company of degenerates. He was strong, his muscles were like whipcord, and his condition was perfect. Walter Crease went over like a log before his fist; Major Post felt the revolver at which he had snatched struck from his hand, and he himself remembered nothing more till he came to his senses some time afterwards. A slash and a cut and Pritchard was free. The professor stood wringing his hands. Elizabeth had risen to her feet. She was pale, but she was still more nearly composed than any other person in the room. Tavernake and Pritchard were masters of the situation. Pritchard leaned toward the mirror and straightened his tie.
"I am afraid," he said looking down at Walter Crease's groaning figure, "that our hosts are scarcely in fit condition to take leave of us. Never mind, Mrs. Gardner, we excuse ourselves to you. I cannot pretend to be sorry that my friend's somewhat impetuous entrance has disturbed your plans for the evening, but I do hope that you will realize now the fatuousness of such methods in these days. Good-night! It is time we finished our stroll together, Tavernake."
They moved towards the door--there was no one to stop them. Only the professor tried to say a few words.
"My dear Mr. Pritchard--my dear Pritchard, if you will allow me to call you so," he exclaimed, "let me beg of you, before you leave us, not to take this trifling adventure too seriously! I can assure you that it was simply an attempt to coerce you, not in the least an affair to be taken seriously!"
"Professor," he said, "and you, Walter Crease, and you, Jimmy Post, if you're able to listen, listen to me.
You have played the part of children to-night. So surely as men and women exist who live as you do, so surely must the law wait upon their heels. You cannot cheat justice. It is as inexorable as Time itself. When you try these little tricks, you simply give another turn to the wheel, add another danger to life. You had better learn to look upon me as necessary, all of you, for I am certainly inevitable."
They passed backwards through the door, then they went down the silent hall and out into the street. Even as they did so, the clock struck a quarter to two.
"My friend Tavernake," Pritchard declared, lighting a cigarette with steady fingers, "you are a man. Come into the club with me while I bathe my forehead. After all, we'll have that drink together before we say goodnight."