The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 16

AT HALF PAST nine that night Dick Martin's car pulled up by the side of the road half a mile short of Gallows Cottage, and, dimming his lights, he sat down to wait for the arrival of the police car. He heard the whir of it long before its bright headlamps came into sight, and, starting up his engine, he waited for it to fly past before he followed. The car ahead slowed and turned abruptly into the drive, Dick's machine immediately behind. By the light of his headlamps he saw that the hole under the hedge had been filled up.

The first car nearly collided with the thickset hedge where the little road turned towards the house, and the driver had a narrow squeak of slipping into the deep ditch that ran immediately under.

Gallows Cottage was in darkness, as it had been when Dick had come before. By the time he came up to Sneed, the inspector was knocking at the door, and three of the half - dozen men the car had contained were making their way to the rear of the premises.

The answer to the knock came quickly. A light showed in the transom above the door and it was jerked open. It was Stalletti, as sallow and grimed as ever. He stood there, a quaint and sinister figure, his stained hands stroking his long, black beard, whilst Sneed explained in a few words the object of this call.

"Oh yes, I now know you," said the man, apparently unperturbed by this array of force. "You are Sneed. And your friend behind you is the gentleman who lost his petrol the other night. How careless! Enter, my friends, to this home of science!"

He stood aside with an extravagant gesture of welcome, and the five men crowded into the hall.

"My drawing - room you would wish to see, I am sure?" said Stalletti, flinging open the door of the room in which he had received Dick.

"I'll see that workroom of yours," said Sneed, and, as the man was leading them back to the back of the house: "No, not the place at the back - the one upstairs."

Stalletti shrugged his shoulders, hesitated for a second, and with another shrug led the way up the uncarpeted stairs, at the head of which was a small room, the door of which he threw open as he was passing. A smaller flight led to a broad landing, on which were three doors. Dick and Sneed entered the room on the left. It was a poorly furnished room; an old truckle bed in the corner, a battered and grimy washstand, one leg of which had been broken and repaired, and a deep old arm - chair was all the furniture it contained.

The next room was evidently Stalletti's office and bedroom. It was overcrowded with furniture, and was in a state of disorder that beggared description. In one corner near the window was a tall nest of steel drawers. Stalletti pulled one open with an extravagant smile.

"You would like to see in the drawers?" he asked sardonically

Sneed did not reply. He looked under the bed, opened a bureau, ordered the tenant of the house to unlock a cupboard, and directed his attention to the third room, which was also a bedroom, this with two beds, if a heap of old rugs in each corner could be so called.

"Ah, you are disappointed, my Sneed," said Stalletti, as they went down the stairs. "You expected to find some of your little babies here? Possibly you said to yourself, 'Ah, that Stalletti has been up to his old tricks, and is again trying to create big, strong, human men from the puny little things that will grow up to smoke cigarettes and study algebra. Ach!"

"You're pretty talkative tonight, Stalletti."

"Should I not be?" asked the bearded man gaily. "It is so seldom I have a party. Realize, my friend, that I do not sometimes speak for weeks, or yet hear the sound of a human voice. I live frugally; there is no need for a cook, for I have raw food, which is natural in the carnivora. I hear your motor - cars spinning by, filled with flat - chested little men smoking cigarettes and evil - thinking women, planning treacheries, and I am still gladder that I am a silent carnivora. Now, my laboratory.'

He opened the door at the back of the house and showed a long room, which had evidently been built upon the cottage. There were only two windows to the place, and they were in the roof. There was a very large table, littered with papers and books in every modern language; two long shelves running down one side of the room, containing jars and bottles no two of which were alike (Dick saw a soda - water bottle half filled with a red fluid and corked with cottonwool); a bench covered with recording instruments, scales, microscopes of varying sizes; an old, patched - up operating - table, and a chest of shallow drawers containing surgical instruments; test - tubes by the hundred; and, in a cleared space on the table, a dead rat, pinned out flat by its feet.

"Behold the recreation of a poor scientist! said Stalletti. "No, no, my friend," as Sneed bent over the table, "our rat is dead. I do not vivisect any more because of your foolish laws. What pleasure is here you cannot conceive! Could you find happiness in a week's study of chemical reactions?"

"Who else is in the house, Stalletti?" asked Sneed. Professor Stalletti smiled. "I live alone; you have seen for yourself. Nobody comes here."

"Mr Martin heard a scream the night he came."

"Imagination," said Stalletti coolly.

"He was also attacked in the drive by a half - naked man. Was that imagination?"

"A typical case," said the doctor, meeting his eyes without flinching.

"Somebody else sleeps upstairs; you've beds for four people."

A broad smile wrinkled the yellow face.

"I never lose hope of friends coming to me, but, alas! they do not arrive. I am alone. Stay here for a week - a month - and see for yourself. Leave one of your so - clever officers to watch me. It should not be difficult to prove my loneliness."

"All right," said Sneed, after a pause, and, turning, walked out of the house.

The professor stood on the doorstep and watched the car till it disappeared, then, locking and bolting the heavy door, he went leisurely up the stairs to his room. Opening a drawer of his desk, he took out a long dog - whip and whistled the lash in the air. Then he crossed to the steel nest of drawers and pushed home the one that had come out - the only one, in fact, that would come out. Pressing one of the knobs of the false drawers, the whole of the front swung open like a door.

"Come to your bed. It is late," said Stalletti.

He spoke in Greek. The thing that was crouching in the darkness came shuffling forth, blinking at the light. It was more than a head taller than the bearded man, and, save for the ragged pair of breeches it wore about its waist, it was unclothed.

"Go to your room. I will bring milk and food for you."

Stalletti, standing at a distance from his creation, cracked his whip, and the big man with the blank face went trotting through the door across the landing into the room with one bed. Stalletti pulled the door tight and locked it; then he went down the stairs, through the laboratory, and out by a small door to the grounds at the back of the house. He still carried his whip and swung the lash as he walked, humming a little tune. He passed through a fringe of fir - trees and, stopping under a spreading oak, whistled. Something dropped from the bough above almost at his feet, and sat crouching, its knuckles on the ground.

"Room - milk - sleep," he said to the figure, and cracked his whip when the listening shape moved too slowly. At the snap of it the strange thing that had dropped from the tree broke into a jog - trot, disappearing through the laboratory door, and Stalletti followed at his leisure.

He went upstairs a little later, carrying two huge bowls of milk and two plates of meat on a tray. When he had fed his creatures and locked them in their dens, he went back to his workroom, dismissing slaves and detectives from his mind, utterly absorbed in his present studies.

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