The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 19

THE round - faced chauffeur was standing in the open doorway, smoking.

"Where is Mrs Cody?" asked Cody sharply, his face going dark at the sight of the man's insolent indifference.

"Upstairs."

"Go and tell her I want her."

"Go and tell her yourself," said the man, without troubling to turn his head.

Cody's face went purple. It was evident that this was not by any means the first of their encounters. He mastered his rage with an effort, and, in a milder tone:

"Go down to the village for me, will you, Tom? I want some postage stamps."

"I'll be going down later," said Tom, unmoved by his olive - branch. "Where is that girl?"

"Girl? Which girl?" asked the other, in a tone of innocent surprise.

"The girl you had in to tea. Don't tell me she has just gone out, because I've been standing here for ten minutes, and I heard you talking when I was in the hall."

Mr Cody drew a long breath.

"She's resting. The young lady is not very well. I've given her treatment - -"

"Oh, shut up!" said the other contemptuously. "You ain't a medicine doctor, you're a doctor of laws - and Gawd knows some of 'em want doctorin' from what I've seen of 'em! When's she going home? I've got the machine ready."

"She may not go home tonight, Tom." Mr Cody was mildness itself now. "It was arranged that she should stay tonight."

Tom scratched his cheek irritably.

"She didn't know anything about it," he said. "When she got out she asked me if there wasn't another way back to town, because she wanted to call in to see a friend."

This latter was sheer mendacity on the part of Tom Cawler, and it was a slight coincidence that Mr Cody had been twice deceived in half an hour.

"She's not well, I tell you," he said sharply. "And whilst we're on the subject, your place is in the kitchen. I've stood about as much of you as I'm likely to stand, Cawler. You don't think because I married your aunt that you own this place, do you? Because, if that's your idea, you're going to get a shock. I've endured quite enough insolence from you, and you can go."

Tom nodded.

"I know I can go," he said. "Because why? Because nobody could stop me if I wanted to go. I could go this very minute if I liked - I don't like! This is a good job and I'm not going to lose it. I don't know what your dirty business is - -"

Mr Cody exploded in anger.

"You - you scoundrel!" he spluttered. "You dare accuse your aunt of being - -"

"I've got a great respect for my aunt." Tom Cawler was still staring at the ground. "I owe a lot to my aunt. I got all my crook blood from her side of the family, and you couldn't lay out any scheme for getting money quick that I wouldn't think she had a hand in." He glowered at the man for a second and then his eyes dropped.

"Yes, she's been a good aunt to me, Cody! Ever heard tell of my twin brother Johnny? I've been dreaming about him lately. I see him as plain as if he was standing before my very eyes. And I was only seven when he went away - -"

"When he died," suggested Cody with unexpected mildness.

"Yuh - when he died. We used to sit under a tree in Selford - I was brought up on this estate - and sing 'Poor Jenny is a - weepin'.' Seven years." His eyes, raised suddenly, were like burning fires, and the little man wilted under the gaze.

"Good kind aunt! I've seen her lick that little boy till he couldn't stand. She's lucky to be a woman. You tell her that one day. If she'd 'a' been a man, she'd have got hers long ago. I'm going round to get that car ready. You have that young lady waiting for me when I come back." There was menace in his tone which was unmistakable.

Without another word he lurched off, his hands in his pockets, a cigarette still drooping limply, and, turning, Mr Cody flew up the stairs and burst into the room where his better half was sitting. He slammed the door behind him, and for ten minutes there was the sound of angry voices. Presently Mrs Cody came out alone, and, going downstairs, unlocked the library and went in.

Sybil Lansdown was sitting up on the sofa, her head between her hands. Without a word, the woman gripped her arm and supported her out of the room and up the stairs. From this floor two flights of narrow stairs led, in one case to the servants' quarters, and in the other to a spare bedroom which was used also as a box - room, and it was into this apartment that the girl was pushed.

Sybil was almost unconscious. She never recalled that journey up the stairs. When she woke, with a splitting headache, she was lying on a large oak bed that sagged in the middle. A little wax nightlight was burning under a glass, for by this time the light was fading from the sky.

She sat up, her head reeling, and tried hard to think consecutively. Near the bed was a small table with a glass of water and two tiny pellets, which she might have ignored, but the aspirin bottle stood open beside them. Her head was splitting. Oblivious to danger, and realizing in a dull way that these were intended to counteract the effect of the drug she had taken, she swallowed the two pellets and drank every drop of the water without taking the glass from her lips. With a groan she lay down on the bed, covering her eyes with her hands, and was sensible enough to make her mind as much of a blank as her throbbing brain would allow until the restorative took effect.

It was half an hour before the pain ceased and she ventured to lift her head again. She was dizzy, and with every movement the room swam round and round. But after a while she grew calmer, more her normal self, and she could think consecutively.

There was only a tiny window, and that was a skylight in the sloping roof. It was padlocked and covered with a stout wire netting. She tried the door, without expecting that her attempt to leave the room by that way would be of any avail. Going back to the bed, she sat down and tried hard to review her position without allowing her terror to overcome her.

She must have been mad to have gone alone with that woman (to that vain conclusion she naturally returned), but she was so confident of herself, and the counsel of perfection was very hard to follow, even in the most perfect of beings. The excuse was so flimsy, she told herself. Not a London child would have been deceived by this promise of family revelations. She dared not let herself think of her mother.

She tried the door again. It was heavily locked and probably bolted as well, for it resisted her strength at every point of its surface. It was very old and had the appearance of being something of a misfit, for there was a gap of an inch and a half between its bottom and the floor.

She walked back to the bed and sat down, trying to order her thoughts. The key! Was her detention remotely connected with that strip of steel? She was puzzled, but she would not allow herself to be utterly bewildered. She argued, as coldly as the circumstances would allow her, that, for some reason which she could not define, the key had something to do with her tragic situation.

She pulled up a chair and, mounting it, reached up to the skylight, but it resisted all her efforts, and, supposing she could force the window, it was utterly impossible that she could displace the three iron bars which covered the window.

As she was standing on the chair, she heard a footstep m the passage, firm and heavy, and, getting down to the floor, she turned to face the man who came in. It was some little time before the door was opened. As she rightly surmised, it was fastened with bolts, and these had to be shot before, with a click, the key turned and Cody came in. He was one large, affable smile.

"My dear young lady, I'm afraid you have had a bad time. Do you have these attacks very often?"

"I don't know what attacks you mean. Dr. Cody," she answered steadily.

"Very sad, very sad," he murmured, shaking his head mournfully. "I was really afraid for your life. Is there insanity in your family?"

The audacity of the question took her breath away. "I don't suggest there is," he went on, "only I must say that your conduct is a little strange. You probably remember your screaming fit. No? Ah, I did not expect you would. It was very lamentable." . .

"Mr Cody" - she tried to keep her voice even, but it required a great effort - "I want to go home to my mother."

He looked hard at her for a long time.

"I suppose you do," he mused. "I suppose you do. But you need have no fear, my dear young lady; your mother has been notified and is already on her way."

There was a little table in the corner of the room, and he drew it to the centre and put down upon it the small black portfolio he was carrying under his arm. From this he took a folded sheet of paper, smoothed it gently, took out his fountain pen, unscrewed the top and fixed it.

"The position," he began, in his old oracular manner, is a little irregular. It is not customary for me to receive young ladies who fall into hysterics, and I confess that I was considerably alarmed - my dear wife is prostrate with anxiety. She said, and very rightly: 'The position is a very awkward one for you, Bertram. Suppose this young lady suggests that you administered to her some noxious drug, and that you are detaining her against her will - although you and I are well aware that her illness was brought about by - um - natural causes, a censorious world may well look sceptically upon our explanation.'"

Sybil waited, knowing full well that, if Mrs Cody had made any kind of speech, it would not have been in those terms.

"Therefore, it has occurred to me," Mr Cody went on, "that it would be an excellent idea if you of your own free will, made a statement to this effect, that I, Bertram Cody, Doctor of Literature and Law, have behaved with the greatest kindness and propriety, and that I placed you in this locked room only for one purpose - namely, to restrain you from doing a serious injury to yourself."

She glanced at the paper on the table.

"I can hardly confess that I'm mad," she said, with a half smile.

"I do not expect you to do, that," said Mr Cody hastily. "That reference to your condition of mind does not appear in this document. It is merely a - um - certificate of my probity, very dear to me. A mere whim of mine, but I am a whimsical person." He smiled broadly, picked up the pen, gave it to her.

"Can I read the document?" she asked.

"Is it necessary?" He was almost reproachful. "If you will sign this, I will see that you are conducted at once to your mother."

"You told me my mother was on her way," interrupted Sybil suspiciously.

"My idea," the man went on, calmness itself, "was to meet her halfway. I have telephoned, asking her to stay at the Mitre Inn, Dorking."

He handed the pen to the girl, and again she hesitated. The document was written on a quarto sheet and was closely typewritten. His large hand covered the paper, leaving her only the space to write. She was anxious to be gone, and, in her fear, clutched at any hope of freedom. The point of the pen had touched the paper when she saw a line visible through his extended fingers which arrested her movement.

'Should the said Sybil Ellen Lansdown predecease the said Bertram Albert Cody… '

"What is this paper?" she asked.

"Sign it!" His voice was harsh, his manner changed as suddenly as a tropical sky.

"I shall not sign any document that I haven't read," she replied, and laid down the pen.

The smile left his face hard and menacing. "You will sign that, or, by God, I'll - " He checked himself with an effort, and strove again to recover the appearance of geniality.

"My dear young lady," he said, with a queer admixture of irritation and blandness, "why trouble your pretty little head about the wording of legal documents? I swear to you that this letter merely exculpates me from any - -"

"I will not sign it," she said.

"You won't, eh?"

He gathered up the document and thrust it into his pocket. She shrank back as he advanced towards her. Suddenly she darted to the door and tried to pull it open. Before she could succeed, he had caught her by the waist and flung her back.

"You'll wait here, my young lady, till you change your mind. You will wait without food. If I had my way, without sleep. I've given you a chance for your life, you poor fool, and you haven't had the sense to grasp it. Now you can stay here until you recover your reason!"

In another second he had passed through the door, slamming it after him. She heard the bolts shot home with a sinking heart.

For a time she was too paralysed by her discovery to make any fresh attempt to escape. But after a while she took hold of herself and regained a little of her self - possession, though she so trembled that, when she stood upon the chair to try the skylight again, she could scarcely maintain her balance.

When she saw that escape by that way was impossible, she made preparations to keep the door against an intruder. She tried to pull the bed from the wall, but it was a heavy oaken affair and beyond her strength. A rickety washstand was the only prop she could find, and the back of this she wedged beneath the door handle and sat down to wait.

Hour followed hour, and there was no sound in the house, and at last, overcome by weariness, she lay down on the bed and, in spite of all her efforts to keep awake, was soon fast asleep.

She woke with a wildly beating heart and sat up. She had heard a sound in the passage outside; a shuffling, stealthy sound, which her guardian senses had heard in her deepest slumber. What was it? She listened, and for a long time there was nothing to break the silence. Then, from somewhere below, she heard a dull crash, as though something heavy had fallen. She listened, her hand on her heart, striving to check her racing pulse.

"Ow - w - w!"

She shuddered and almost fainted with horror. It was a squeal she heard, the squeal of a terror - stricken animal - another, deeper, guttural, horrible!

She listened at the door, her senses tense, and heard a faint, deep sobbing, then heard no more. Ten minutes passed, a quarter of an hour, and then there came to her ears the noise which had first aroused her - the shuffling of bare feet upon a hard, smooth surface. She had caught a glimpse of the passage when Dr Cody had opened the door. She knew it was covered with oilcloth, and it was on this that the feet were moving. Nearer and nearer they came, and then stopped. Somebody turned the handle of the door and drew back the bolts. She was frozen with terror; could not move, could only stand staring blankly at the door, waiting for the apparition which would be revealed to her.

Again the handle turned, but the door did not move. Whoever it was had not the key. There was a silence. Somebody was trying to break in the door and she caught a glimpse of a huge, misshapen toe in the space between the door and the floor. Then, from under the door, came three huge, squat fingers. They were wet and red with blood. The hand gripped the bottom of the door and strove to lift it. At the sight of that obscene hand the spell was broken, and she screamed, and, turning, fled in desperate panic to the chair beneath the skylight. As she looked up she saw a face staring down at her through the window - the white face of Cawler, the chauffeur.

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