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The Black Bag Part 9

Then: "He knocked against something in the hall--a chair, I presume; at all events, I heard that and put out the light. I was ... in the room above the drawing-room, you see. I stole down to this floor--was there, in the corner by the stairs when he passed within six inches, and never guessed it. Then, when he got on the next floor, I started on; but you came in. I slipped into the drawing-room and crouched behind a chair. You went on, but I dared not move until ... And then I heard some one cry out, and you fell down the stairs together. I hope you were not hurt--?"

"Nothing worth mention; but _he_ must have got a pretty stiff knock, to lay him out so completely." Kirkwood stirred the body with his toe, but the man made no sign. "Dead to the world ... And now, Miss Calendar?"

If she answered, he did not hear; for on the heels of his query banged the knocker down below; and thereafter crash followed crash, brewing a deep and sullen thundering to rouse the echoes and send them rolling, like voices of enraged ghosts, through the lonely rooms.

V

THE MYSTERY OF A FOUR-WHEELER

"What's that?" At the first alarm the girl had caught convulsively at Kirkwood's arm. Now, when a pause came in the growling of the knocker, she made him hear her voice; and it was broken and vibrant with a threat of hysteria. "Oh, what can it mean?"

"I don't know." He laid a hand reassuringly over that which trembled on his forearm. "The police, possibly."

"Police!" she iterated, aghast. "What makes you think--?"

"A man tried to stop me at the door," he answered quickly. "I got in before he could. When he tried the knocker, a bobby came along and stopped him.

The latter may have been watching the house since then,--it'd be only his duty to keep an eye on it; and Heaven knows we raised a racket, coming head-first down those stairs! Now we are up against it," he added brightly.

But the girl was tugging at his hand. "Come!" she begged breathlessly.

"Come! There is a way! Before they break in--"

"But this man--?" Kirkwood hung back, troubled.

"They--the police are sure to find and care for him."

"So they will." He chuckled, "And serve him right! He'd have choked me to death, with all the good will in the world!"

"Oh, do hurry!"

Turning, she sped light-footed down the staircase to the lower hall, he at her elbow. Here the uproar was loudest--deep enough to drown whatever sounds might have been made by two pairs of flying feet. For all that they fled on tiptoe, stealthily, guilty shadows in the night; and at the newel-post swung back into the unbroken blackness which shrouded the fastnesses backward of the dwelling. A sudden access of fury on the part of the alarmist at the knocker, spurred them on with quaking hearts. In half a dozen strides, Kirkwood, guided only by instinct and the _frou-frou_ of the girl's skirts as she ran invisible before him, stumbled on the uppermost steps of a steep staircase; only a hand-rail saved him, and that at the last moment. He stopped short, shocked into caution. From below came a contrite whisper: "I'm so sorry! I should have warned you."

He pulled himself together, glaring wildly at nothing. "It's all right--"

"You're not hurt, truly? Oh, do come quickly."

She waited for him at the bottom of the flight;--happily for him, for he was all at sea.

"Here--your hand--let me guide you. This darkness is dreadful ..."

He found her hand, somehow, and tucked his into it, confidingly, and not without an uncertain thrill of satisfaction.

"Come!" she panted. "Come! If they break in--"

Stifled by apprehension, her voice failed her.

They went forward, now less impetuously, for it was very black; and the knocker had fallen still.

"No fear of that," he remarked after a time. "They wouldn't dare break in."

A fluttering whisper answered him: "I don't know. We dare risk nothing."

They seemed to explore, to penetrate acres of labyrinthine chambers and passages, delving deep into the bowels of the earth, like rabbits burrowing in a warren, hounded by beagles.

Above stairs the hush continued unbroken; as if the dumb Genius of the Place had cast a spell of silence on the knocker, or else, outraged, had smitten the noisy disturber with a palsy.

The girl seemed to know her way; whether guided by familiarity or by intuition, she led on without hesitation, Kirkwood blundering in her wake, between confusion of impression, and dawning dismay conscious of but one tangible thing, to which he clung as to his hope of salvation: those firm, friendly fingers that clasped his own.

It was as if they wandered on for an hour; probably from start to finish their flight took up three minutes, no more. Eventually the girl stopped, releasing his hand. He could hear her syncopated breathing before him, and gathered that something was wrong. He took a step forward.

"What is it?"

Her full voice broke out of the obscurity startlingly close, in his very ear.

"The door--the bolts--I can't budge them."

"Let me ..."

He pressed forward, brushing her shoulder. She did not draw away, but willingly yielded place to his hands at the fastenings; and what had proved impossible to her, to his strong fingers was a matter of comparative ease.

Yet, not entirely consciously, he was not quick. As he tugged at the bolts he was poignantly sensitive to the subtle warmth of her at his side; he could hear her soft dry sobs of excitement and suspense, punctuating the quiet; and was frightened, absolutely, by an impulse, too strong for ridicule, to take her in his arms and comfort her with the assurance that, whatever her trouble, he would stand by her and protect her.... It were futile to try to laugh it off; he gave over the endeavor. Even at this critical moment he found himself repeating over and over to his heart the question: "Can this be love? Can this be love? ..."

Could it be love at an hour's acquaintance? Absurd! But he could not laugh--nor render himself insensible to the suggestion.

He found that he had drawn the bolts. The girl tugged and rattled at the knob. Reluctantly the door opened inwards. Beyond its threshold stretched ten feet or more of covered passageway, whose entrance framed an oblong glimmering with light. A draught of fresh air smote their faces. Behind them a door banged.

"Where does this open?"

"On the mews," she informed him.

"The mews!" He stared in consternation at the pallid oval that stood for her face. "The mews! But you, in your evening gown, and I--"

"There's no other way. We must chance it. Are you afraid?"

Afraid? ... He stepped aside. She slipped by him and on. He closed the door, carefully removing the key and locking it on the outside; then joined the girl at the entrance to the mews, where they paused perforce, she as much disconcerted as he, his primary objection momentarily waxing in force as they surveyed the conditions circumscribing their escape.

Quadrant Mews was busily engaged in enjoying itself. Night had fallen sultry and humid, and the walls and doorsteps were well fringed and clustered with representatives of that class of London's population which infests mews through habit, taste, or force of circumstance.

On the stoops men sprawled at easy length, discussing short, foul cutties loaded with that rank and odoriferous compound which, under the name and in the fame of tobacco, is widely retailed at tuppence the ounce. Their women-folk more commonly squatted on the thresholds, cheerfully squabbling; from opposing second-story windows, two leaned perilously forth, slanging one another across the square briskly in the purest billingsgate; and were impartially applauded from below by an audience whose appreciation seemed faintly tinged with envy. Squawking and yelling children swarmed over the flags and rude cobblestones that paved the ways. Like incense, heavy and pungent, the rich effluvia of stable-yards swirled in air made visible by its faint burden of mist.

Over against the entrance wherein Kirkwood and the girl lurked, confounded by the problem of escaping undetected through this vivacious scene, a stable-door stood wide, exposing a dimly illumined interior. Before it waited a four-wheeler, horse already hitched in between the shafts, while its driver, a man of leisurely turn of mind, made lingering inspection of straps and buckles, and, while Kirkwood watched him, turned attention to the carriage lamps.

The match which he raked spiritedly down his thigh, flared ruddily; the succeeding paler glow of the lamp threw into relief a heavy beefy mask, with shining bosses for cheeks and nose and chin; through narrow slits two cunning eyes glittered like dull gems. Kirkwood appraised him with attention, as one in whose gross carcass was embodied their only hope of unannoyed return to the streets and normal surroundings of their world. The difficulty lay in attracting the man's attention and engaging him without arousing his suspicions or bringing the population about their ears. Though he hesitated long, no favorable opportunity presented itself; and in time the Jehu approached the box with the ostensible purpose of mounting and driving off. In this critical situation the American, forced to recognize that boldness must mark his course, took the girl's fate and his own in his hands, and with a quick word to his companion, stepped out of hiding.

The cabby had a foot upon the step when Kirkwood tapped his shoulder.

"My man--"

Chapter end

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