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The Black Bag Part 8

Before him, as he lingered at the door, vaguely disclosed by a wan illumination penetrating a dusty and begrimed fan-light, a broad hall stretched indefinitely towards the rear of the building, losing itself in blackness beyond the foot of a flight of stairs. Save for a few articles of furniture,--a hall table, an umbrella-stand, a tall dumb clock flanked by high-backed chairs,--it was empty. Other than Kirkwood's own restrained respiration not a sound throughout the house advertised its inhabitation; not a board creaked beneath the pressure of a foot, not a mouse rustled in the wainscoting or beneath the floors, not a breath of air stirred sighing in the stillness.

And yet, a tremendous racket had been raised at the front door, within the sixty seconds past! And yet, within twenty minutes two persons, at least, had preceded Kirkwood into the building! Had they not heard? The speculation seemed ridiculous. Or had they heard and, alarmed, been too effectually hobbled by the coils of their nefarious designs to dare reveal themselves, to investigate the cause of that thunderous summons? Or were they, perhaps, aware of Kirkwood's entrance, and lying _perdui_, in some dark corner, to ambush him as he passed?

True, that were hardly like the girl. True, on the other hand, it were possible that she had stolen away while Kirkwood was hanging in irresolution by the passage to Quadrant Mews. Again, the space of time between Kirkwood's dismissal and his return had been exceedingly brief; whatever her errand, she could hardly have fulfilled it and escaped. At that moment she might be in the power and at the mercy of him who had followed her; providing he were not friendly. And in that case, what torment and what peril might not be hers?

Spurred by solicitude, the young man put personal apprehensions in his pocket and forgot them, cautiously picking his way through the gloom to the foot of the stairs. There, by the newel-post, he paused. Darkness walled him about. Overhead the steps vanished in a well of blackness; he could not even see the ceiling; his eyes ached with futile effort to fathom the unknown; his ears rang with unrewarded strain of listening. The silence hung inviolate, profound.

Slowly he began to ascend, a hand following the balusters, the other with his cane exploring the obscurity before him. On the steps, a carpet, thick and heavy, muffled his footfalls. He moved noiselessly. Towards the top the staircase curved, and presently a foot that groped for a higher level failed to find it. Again he halted, acutely distrustful.

Nothing happened.

He went on, guided by the balustrade, passing three doors, all open, through which the undefined proportions of a drawing-room and boudoir were barely suggested in a ghostly dusk. By each he paused, listening, hearing nothing.

His foot struck with a deadened thud against the bottom step of the second flight, and his pulses fluttered wildly for a moment. Two minutes--three--he waited in suspense. From above came no sound. He went on, as before, save that twice a step yielded, complaining, to his weight.

Toward the top the close air, like the darkness, seemed to weigh more heavily upon his consciousness; little drops of perspiration started out on his forehead, his scalp tingled, his mouth was hot and dry, he felt as if stifled.

Again the raised foot found no level higher than its fellows. He stopped and held his breath, oppressed by a conviction that some one was near him.

Confirmation of this came startlingly--an eerie whisper in the night, so close to him that he fancied he could feel the disturbed air fanning his face.

"_Is it you, Eccles_?"

He had no answer ready. The voice was masculine, if he analyzed it correctly. Dumb and stupid he stood poised upon the point of panic.

"_Eccles, is it you_?"

The whisper was both shrill and shaky. As it ceased Kirkwood was half blinded by a flash of light, striking him squarely in the eyes.

Involuntarily he shrank back a pace, to the first step from the top.

Instantaneously the light was eclipsed.

"_Halt or--or I fire_!"

By now he realized that he had been scrutinized by the aid of an electric hand-lamp. The tremulous whisper told him something else--that the speaker suffered from nerves as high-strung as his own. The knowledge gave him inspiration. He cried at a venture, in a guarded voice, "_Hands up_!"--and struck out smartly with his stick. Its ferrule impinged upon something soft but heavy. Simultaneously he heard a low, frightened cry, the cane was swept aside, a blow landed glancingly on his shoulder, and he was carried fairly off his feet by the weight of a man hurled bodily upon him with staggering force and passion. Reeling, he was borne back and down a step or two, and then,--choking on an oath,--dropped his cane and with one hand caught the balusters, while the other tore ineffectually at wrists of hands that clutched his throat. So, for a space, the two hung, panting and struggling.

Then endeavoring to swing his shoulders over against the wall, Kirkwood released his grip on the hand-rail and stumbled on the stairs, throwing his antagonist out of balance. The latter plunged downward, dragging Kirkwood with him. Clawing, kicking, grappling, they went to the bottom, jolted violently by each step; but long before the last was reached, Kirkwood's throat was free.

Throwing himself off, he got to his feet and grasped the railing for support; then waited, panting, trying to get his bearings. Himself painfully shaken and bruised, he shrewdly surmised that his assailant had fared as ill, if not worse. And, in point of fact, the man lay with neither move nor moan, still as death at the American's feet.

And once more silence had folded its wings over Number 9, Frognall Street.

More conscious of that terrifying, motionless presence beneath him, than able to distinguish it by power of vision, he endured interminable minutes of trembling horror, in a witless daze, before he thought of his match-box.

Immediately he found it and struck a light. As the wood caught and the bright small flame leaped in the pent air, he leaned forward, over the body, breathlessly dreading what he must discover.

The man lay quiet, head upon the floor, legs and hips on the stairs. One arm had fallen over his face, hiding the upper half. The hand gleamed white and delicate as a woman's. His chin was smooth and round, his lips thin and petulant. Beneath his top-coat, evening dress clothed a short and slender figure. Nothing whatever of his appearance suggested the burly ruffian, the midnight marauder; he seemed little more than a boy old enough to dress for dinner. In his attitude there was something pitifully suggestive of a beaten child, thrown into a corner.

Conscience-smitten and amazed Kirkwood stared on until, without warning, the match flickered and went out. Then, straightening up with an exclamation at once of annoyance and concern, he rattled the box; it made no sound,--was empty. In disgust he swore it was the devil's own luck, that he should run out of vestas at a time so critical. He could not even say whether the fellow was dead, unconscious, or simply shamming. He had little idea of his looks; and to be able to identify him might save a deal of trouble at some future time,--since he, Kirkwood, seemed so little able to disengage himself from the clutches of this insane adventure! And the girl--. what had become of her? How could he continue to search for her, without lights or guide, through all those silent rooms, whose walls might inclose a hundred hidden dangers in that house of mystery?

But he debated only briefly. His blood was young, and it was hot; it was quite plain to him that he could not withdraw and retain his self-respect.

If the girl was there to be found, most assuredly, he must find her. The hand-lamp that had dazzled him at the head of the stairs should be his aid, now that he thought of it,--and providing he was able to find it.

In the scramble on the stairs he had lost his hat, but he remembered that the vesta's short-lived light had discovered this on the floor beyond the man's body. Carefully stepping across the latter he recovered his head-gear, and then, kneeling, listened with an ear close to the fellow's face. A softly regular beat of breathing reassured him. Half rising, he caught the body beneath the armpits, lifting and dragging it off the staircase; and knelt again, to feel of each pocket in the man's clothing, partly as an obvious precaution, to relieve him of his advertised revolver against an untimely wakening, partly to see if he had the lamp about him.

The search proved fruitless. Kirkwood suspected that the weapon, like his own, had existed only in his victim's ready imagination. As for the lamp, in the act of rising he struck it with his foot, and picked it up.

It felt like a metal tube a couple of inches in diameter, a foot or so in length, passably heavy. He fumbled with it impatiently. "However the dickens," he wondered audibly, "does the infernal machine work?" As it happened, the thing worked with disconcerting abruptness as his untrained fingers fell hapchance on the spring. A sudden glare again smote him in the face, and at the same instant, from a point not a yard away, apparently, an inarticulate cry rang out upon the stillness.

Heart in his mouth, he stepped back, lowering the lamp (which impishly went out) and lifting a protecting forearm.

"Who's that?" he demanded harshly.

A strangled sob of terror answered him, blurred by a swift rush of skirts, and in a breath his shattered nerves quieted and a glimmer of common sense penetrated the murk anger and fear had bred in his brain. He understood, and stepped forward, catching blindly at the darkness with eager hands.

"Miss Calendar!" he cried guardedly. "Miss Calendar, it is I--Philip Kirkwood!"

There was a second sob, of another caliber than the first; timid fingers brushed his, and a hand, warm and fragile, closed upon his own in a passion of relief and gratitude.

"Oh, I am so g-glad!" It was Dorothy Calendar's voice, beyond mistake.

"I--I didn't know what t-to t-think.... When the light struck your face I was sure it was you, but when I called, you answered in a voice so strange,--not like yours at all! ... Tell me," she pleaded, with palpable effort to steady herself; "what has happened?"

"I think, perhaps," said Kirkwood uneasily, again troubled by his racing pulses, "perhaps you can do that better than I."

"Oh!" said the voice guiltily; her fingers trembled on his, and were gently withdrawn. "I was so frightened," she confessed after a little pause, "so frightened that I hardly understand ... But you? How did you--?"

"I worried about you," he replied, in a tone absurdly apologetic. "Somehow it didn't seem right. It was none of my business, of course, but ... I couldn't help coming back. This fellow, whoever he is--don't worry; he's unconscious--slipped into the house in a manner that seemed to me suspicious. I hardly know why I followed, except that he left the door an open invitation to interference ..."

"I can't be thankful enough," she told him warmly, "that you did interfere.

You have indeed saved me from ..."

"Yes?"

"I don't know what. If I knew the man--"

"You don't _know_ him?"

"I can't even guess. The light--?"

She paused inquiringly. Kirkwood fumbled with the lamp, but, whether its rude handling had impaired some vital part of the mechanism, or whether the batteries through much use were worn out, he was able to elicit only one feeble glow, which was instantly smothered by the darkness.

"It's no use," he confessed. "The thing's gone wrong."

"Have you a match?"

"I used my last before I got hold of this."

"Oh," she commented, discouraged. "Have you any notion what he looks like?"

Kirkwood thought briefly. "Raffles," he replied with a chuckle. "He looks like an amateurish and very callow Raffles. He's in dress clothes, you know."

"I wonder!" There was a nuance of profound bewilderment in her exclamation.

Chapter end

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