Chapter XXX. The Catastrophe

The first faint spears of morning creeping through the trees which surrounded Hillside revealed two figures upon a rustic bench in the little orchard adjoining the house. A pair incongruous enough--this dark-eyed Eastern woman, wrapped in a long fur cloak, and Nicol Brinn, gaunt, unshaven, fantastic in his evening dress, revealed now in the gray morning light.

"Look!" whispered Naida. "It is the dawn. I must go!"

Nicol Brinn clenched his teeth tightly but made no reply.

"You promised," she said, and although her voice was very tender she strove to detach his arm, which was locked about her shoulders.

He nodded grimly.

"I'll keep my word. I made a contract with hell with my eyes open, and I'll stick to it." He stood up suddenly. "Go back, Naida!" he said. "Go back! You have my promise, now, and I'm helpless. But at last I see a way, and I'm going to take it."

"What do you mean?" she cried, standing up and clutching his arm.

"Never mind." His tone was cool again. "Just go back."

"You would not--" she began.

"I never broke my word in my life, and even now I'm not going to begin. While you live I stay silent."

In the growing light Naida looked about her affrightedly. Then, throwing her arms impulsively around Brinn, she kissed him--a caress that was passionate but sexless; rather the kiss of a mother who parts with a beloved son than that which a woman bestows upon the man she loves; an act of renunciation.

He uttered a low cry and would have seized her in his arms but, lithely evading him, she turned, stifling a sob, and darted away through the trees toward the house.

For long he stood looking after her, fists clenched and his face very gray in the morning light. Some small inner voice told him that his new plan, and the others which he had built upon it, must crumble and fall as a castle of sand. He groaned and, turning aside, made his way through the shrubbery to the highroad.

He was become accessory to a murder; for he had learned for what reason and by what means Sir Charles Abingdon had been assassinated. He had even learned the identity of his assassin; had learned that the dreaded being called Fire-Tongue in India was known and respected throughout the civilized world as His Excellency Ormuz Khan!

Paul Harley had learned these things also, and now at this very hour Paul Harley lay a captive in Hillside. Naida had assured him that Paul Harley was alive and safe. It had been decided that his death would lead to the destruction of the movement, but pressure was being brought upon him to ensure his silence.

Yes, he, Nicol Brinn, was bound and manacled to a gang of assassins; and because his tongue was tied, because the woman he loved better than anything in the world was actually a member of the murderous group, he must pace the deserted country lanes inactive; he must hold his hand, although he might summon the resources of New Scotland Yard by phoning from Lower Claybury station!

Through life his word had been his bond, and Nicol Brinn was incapable of compromising with his conscience. But the direct way was barred to him. Nevertheless, no task could appal the inflexible spirit of the man, and he had registered a silent vow that Ormuz Khan should never leave England alive.

Not a soul was astir yet upon the country roads, and sitting down upon a grassy bank, Nicol Brinn lighted one of his black cigars, which in times of stress were his food and drink, upon which if necessary he could carry-on for forty-eight hours upon end.

In connection with his plan for coercing Harley, Ormuz Khan had gone to London by rail on the previous night, departing from Lower Claybury station at about the time that Colonel Lord Wolverham came out of the Cavalry Club to discover his Rolls Royce to be missing. This same Rolls Royce was now a source of some anxiety to Nicol Brinn, for its discovery by a passing labourer in the deserted barn seemed highly probable.

However, he had matters of greater urgency to think about, not the least of these being the necessity of concealing his presence in the neighbourhood of Hillside. Perhaps his Sioux-like face reflected a spirit allied in some respects to that of the once great Indian tribe.

His genius for taking cover, perfected upon many a big-game expedition, enabled him successfully to accomplish the feat; so that, when the limousine, which he had watched go by during the morning, returned shortly after noon, the lack-lustre eyes were peering out through the bushes near the entrance to the drive.

Instinct told him that the pretty girl with whom Ormuz Khan was deep in conversation could be none other than Phil Abingdon, but the identity of her companion he could not even guess. On the other hand, that this poisonously handsome Hindu, who bent forward so solicitously toward his charming travelling companion, was none other than the dreaded Fire-Tongue, he did not doubt.

He returned to a strategic position which he had discovered during the night. In a measure he was nonplussed. That the presence of the girl was primarily associated with the coercion of Paul Harley, he understood; but might it not portend something even more sinister?

When, later, the limousine departed again, at great risk of detection he ran across a corner of the lawn to peer out into the lane, in order that he might obtain a glimpse of its occupant. This proved to be none other than Phil Abingdon's elderly companion. She had apparently been taken ill, and a dignified Hindu gentleman, wearing gold-rimmed pince-nez, was in attendance.

Nicol Brinn clenched his jaws hard. The girl had fallen into a trap. He turned rapidly, facing the house. Only at one point did the shrubbery approach the wall, but for that point he set out hot foot, passing from bush to bush with Indian cleverness, tense, alert, and cool in despite of his long vigil.

At last he came to the shallow veranda with its four sightless windows backed by fancifully carven screens. He stepped up to the first of these and pressed his ear against the glass.

Fate was with him, for almost immediately he detected a smooth, musical voice speaking in the room beyond. A woman's voice answered and, listening intently, he detected the sound of a closing door.

Thereupon he acted: with the result, as has appeared, that Phil Abingdon, hatless, without her furs, breathless and more frightened than she had ever been in her life, presently found herself driving a luxurious Rolls Royce out of a roofless barn on to the highroad, and down the slope to Claybury station.

It was at about this time, or a little later, that Paul Harley put into execution a project which he had formed. The ventilator above the divan, which he had determined to be the spy-hole through which his every movement was watched, had an ornamental framework studded with metal knobs. He had recently discovered an electric bell-push in the centre panel of the massive door of his prison.

Inwardly on fire, imagining a thousand and one horrors centring about the figure of Phil Abingdon, but retaining his outward calm by dint of a giant effort, he pressed this bell and waited.

Perhaps two minutes elapsed. Then the glass doors beyond the gilded screen were drawn open, and the now-familiar voice spoke:

"Mr. Paul Harley?"

"Yes," he replied, "I have made my final decision."

"And that is?

"I agree."

"You are wise," the voice replied. "A statement will be placed before you for signature. When you have signed it, ring the bell again, and in a few minutes you will be free."

Vaguely he detected the speaker withdrawing. Thereupon, heaving a loud sigh, he removed his coat, looked about him as if in quest of some place to hang it, and finally, fixing his gaze upon the studded grating, stood upon the divan and hung his coat over the spy-hole! This accomplished, he turned.

The table was slowly sinking through the gap in the floor beneath.

Treading softly, he moved forward and seated himself cross-legged upon it! It continued to descend, and he found himself in absolute darkness.

Nicol Brinn ran on to the veranda and paused for a moment to take breath. The window remained open, as Phil Abingdon had left it. He stepped into the room with its elegant Persian appointments. It was empty. But as he crossed the threshold, he paused, arrested by the sound of a voice.

"A statement will be placed before you," said the voice, "and when you have signed it, in a few minutes you will be free."

Nicol Brinn silently dropped flat at the back of a divan, as Rama Dass, coming out of the room which communicated with the golden screen, made his way toward the distant door. Having one eye raised above the top of the cushions, Nicol Brinn watched him, recognizing the man who had accompanied the swooning lady. She had been deposited, then, at no great distance from the house.

He was to learn later that poor Mrs. McMurdoch, in her artificially induced swoon, had been left in charge of a hospitable cottager, while her solicitous Oriental escort had sped away in quest of a physician. But at the moment matters of even greater urgency engaged his attention.

Creeping forward to the doorway by which Rama Dass had gone out, Nicol Brinn emerged upon a landing from which stairs both ascended and descended. Faint sounds of footsteps below guided him, and although from all outward seeming he appeared to saunter casually down, his left hand was clutching the butt of a Colt automatic.

He presently found himself in a maze of basements--kitchens of the establishment, no doubt. The sound of footsteps no longer guided him. He walked along, and in a smaller deserted pantry discovered the base of a lift shaft in which some sort of small elevator worked. He was staring at this reflectively, when, for the second time in his adventurous career, a silken cord was slipped tightly about his throat!

He was tripped and thrown. He fought furiously, but the fatal knee pressure came upon his spine so shrewdly as to deprive him of the strength to raise his hands.

"My finish!" were the words that flashed through his mind, as sounds like the waves of a great ocean beat upon his ears and darkness began to descend.

Then, miraculously, the pressure ceased; the sound of great waters subsided; and choking, coughmg, he fought his way back to life, groping like a blind man and striving to regain his feet.

"Mr. Brinn!" said a vaguely familiar voice. "Mr. Brinn!"

The realities reasserted themselves. Before him, pale, wide-eyed, and breathing heavily, stood Paul Harley; and prone upon the floor of the pantry lay Rama Dass, still clutching one end of the silken rope in his hand!

"Mr. Harley!" gasped Brinn. "My God, sir!" He clutched at his bruised throat. "I have to thank you for my hfe."

He paused, looking down at the prone figure as Harley, dropping upon his knees, turned the man over.

"I struck him behind the ear," he muttered, "and gave him every ounce. Good heavens!"

He had slipped his hand inside Rama Dass's vest, and now he looked up, his face very grim.

"Good enough!" said Brinn, coolly. "He asked for it; he's got it. Take this." He thrust the Colt automatic into Harley's hand as the latter stood up again.

"What do we do now?" asked Harley.

"Search the house," was the reply. "Everything coloured you see, shoot, unless I say no."

"Miss Abingdon?"

"She's safe. Follow me."

Straight up two flights of stairs led Nicol Brinn, taking three steps at a stride. Palpably enough the place was deserted. Ormuz Khan's plans for departure were complete.

Into two rooms on the first floor they burst, to find them stripped and bare. On the threshold of the third Brinn stopped dead, and his gaunt face grew ashen. Then he tottered across the room, arms outstretched.

"Naida," he whispered. "My love, my love!"

Paul Harley withdrew quietly. He had begun to walk along the corridor when the sound of a motor brought him up sharply. A limousine was being driven away from the side entrance! Not alone had he heard that sound. His face deathly, and the lack-lustre eyes dully on fire, Nicol Brinn burst out of the room and, not heeding the presence of Harley, hurled himself down the stairs. He was as a man demented, an avenging angel.

"There he is!" cried Harley--"heading for the Dover Road!"

Nicol Brinn, at the wheel of the racer--the same in which Harley had made his fateful journey and which had afterward been concealed in the garage at Hillside--scarcely nodded.

Nearer they drew to the quarry, and nearer. Once--twice--and again, the face of Ormuz Khan peered out of the window at the rear of the limousine.

They drew abreast; the road was deserted. And they passed slightly ahead.

Paul Harley glanced at the granite face of his companion with an apprehension he was unable to conceal. This was a cool madman who drove. What did he intend to do?

Inch by inch, Nicol Brinn edged the torpedo body nearer to the wheels of the racing limousine. The Oriental chauffeur drew in ever closer to the ditch bordering the roadside. He shouted hoarsely and was about to apply the brakes when the two cars touched!

A rending crash came--a hoarse scream--and the big limousine toppled over into the ditch.

Harley felt himself hurled through space.

"Shall I follow on to Lower Claybury, sir?" asked Inspector Wessex, excitedly.

Phil Abingdon's message had come through nearly an hour before, and a party had been despatched in accordance with Brinn's instructions. Wessex had returned to New Scotland Yard too late to take charge, and now, before the Assistant Commissioner had time to reply, a 'phone buzzed.

"Yes?" said the Assistant Commissioner, taking up one of the several instruments: "What!"

Even this great man, so justly celebrated for his placid demeanour, was unable to conceal his amazement.

"Yes," he added. "Let him come up!" He replaced the receiver and turning to Wessex: "Mr. Nicol Brinn is here!" he informed him.

"What's that!" cried the inspector, quite startled out of his usual deferential manner.

Footsteps sounded in the corridor. Came a rap at the door.

"Come in," said the Assistant Commissioner.

The door was thrown open and Nicol Brinn entered. One who knew him well would have said that he had aged ten years. Even to the eye of Wessex he looked an older man. He wore a shoddy suit and a rough tweed cap and his left arm was bandaged.

"Gentlemen," he said, without other greeting, "I'm here to make a statement. I desire that a shorthand-writer attend to take it down."

He dropped weakly into a chair which Wessex placed for him. The Assistant Commissioner, doubtless stimulated by the manner of his extraordinary visitor, who now extracted a cigar from the breast pocket of his ill-fitting jacket and nonchalantly lighted it, successfully resumed his well-known tired manner, and, pressing a bell:

"One shall attend, Mr. Brinn," he said.

A knock came at the door and a sergeant entered.

"Send Ferris," directed the Assistant Commissioner. "Quickly."

Two minutes later a man came in carrying a note book and fountain pen. The Assistant Commissioner motioned him to a chair, and:

"Pray proceed, Mr. Brinn," he said.