The Door with Seven Locks

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Chapter 26

IT SEEMED to Captain Sneed that there was little excuse for his sometime subordinate taking the girl in his arms unless he was properly engaged to her; for Mr Sneed was a stickler for the proprieties, and though during his life he had appeared a score of times in the role of rescuer, he had never felt it necessary either to embrace (he called it 'cuddle' vulgarly) or to hold the hand of the rescued.

"Don't tell me now," said Dick. "We'll get you some food. Poor child. You must be famished!"

"Wait!"

His hand was gripping the long steel bellpull when she caught it.

"There's somebody in there," she said rapidly and almost incoherently. "A strange man. I saw him through the window."

Disjointedly she described what she had seen, and he did not betray his concern.

"Some tramp," he suggested when she had finished. "Were any of the windows open?"

She shook her head. She was disappointed that he took her news so calmly.

"No, I haven't seen an open window."

"It may be a friend of the caretaker's," said Dick, and pulled the bell.

The hollow clang came back to him faintly.

"Anybody asleep in the house will hear that."

His arm was about the girl. She was still trembling violently and was on the verge of a breakdown, he guessed. His hand was raised to ring again when he heard a sound of feet in the stone hall and a voice demanded:

"Who is there?"

"Mr Martin and Miss Lansdown," said Dick, recognizing the caretaker's voice.

Chains rattled, a lock was turned, and the door opened. The caretaker was dressed in his shirt and trousers, and had evidently come straight from his bed. He blinked owlishly at the party and asked the time.

"Come in, sir," he said. "Is anything wrong?"

"Have you any friends staying with you?" asked Dick the moment he was inside the door.

"Me, sir?" said he man in surprise. "No," and with unconscious humour, "only my wife. And you'd hardly call her a friend."

"Any man, I mean."

"No, sir," said the caretaker. "Wait a minute; I'll get a light."

Selford Manor was illuminated by an old - fashioned system of acetylene lamps, and the caretaker turned on a burner, emitting a whiff of evil - smelling gas, before he lit a jet that illuminated the hall very effectively.

The detective's first thought was of the room in which the girl had seen the stranger, and this he entered, but when the lights were lit there was no sign of any bearded man, and as this door was the only exit and had been locked and bolted on the outside, his first thought was that the over - wrought girl had imagined the incident. Bur an examination of the wide chimney - place caused him to change his mind. Leaning against the brick wall of the fire recess, he found an old ashplant walking - stick, its knob glossy with use.

"Is this yours?"

The caretaker shook his head.

"No, sir; and it wasn't there last night. I swept up this room before I went to bed. I do one room a week, and I've been rather busy today in the garden and hadn't time until after tea."

"I suppose this house is full of secret passages?" asked Dick ironically. He had a detective's proper contempt for these inventions of romantic novelists.

To his surprise the man replied in the affirmative. "There's a Jesuit room somewhere in the house, according to all I've heard," he said. "I've never seen it myself - the old housekeeper told me about it, but I don't think she'd seen it either."

Dick went along the walls, tapping each panel, but they seemed solid enough. He threw the light of his lamp up the chimney. It was fairly narrow, considering the age of the house, and there were iron rungs placed at intervals, up which the chimney-sweeps of old times had climbed to perform their duties. He examined the wall of the fireplace carefully; there was no sign of recent scratching, and it seemed impossible that the intruder could have escaped in that direction. Carrying the stick to the light, he examined the ferrule; there was earth on it, new and moist.

"What do you make of it?" asked Sneed.

Dick was scowling at the fireplace. "I'm blest if I know what to make of it."

He was anxious to be alone with the girl, to hear from her the story of her escape, and, cutting short his investigations, he took her into the room in which they had been received on their first night and settled her before the fire which the caretaker had lighted.

Although the night was by no means chilly, Sybil was cold and shivering, and he saw that she was nearer to collapse than he had at first supposed. Not until the caretaker came back from the kitchen with a steaming bowl of coffee and toasted bread did he attempt to question her about the night's adventures. She ate and drank ravenously, for now she realized that she had eaten nothing since the previous day's luncheon.

The two men, sitting one on each side of her on the settee, which had been pulled up to the fire, listened without comment until she had finished her story. Only once did Dick interrupt, and that was to ask a question about the red pellets. She had thrown them away in her flight, however.

"That doesn't matter. We shall find the bottle when we take Stalletti," said Sneed impatiently. "Go on, Miss Lansdown."

At last she finished.

"It sounds to you like the ravings of a madwoman," she said ruefully. "I don't know why Mr Cody kept me. Did anything happen to him?" she asked quickly.

Dick did not answer at once.

"I heard someone scream - it was terrible! " She shuddered. "Was it anything to do with Mr Cody?"

"Possibly." Dick evaded the question. "You say that Cawler is still in the park? You saw somebody following you—did you hear any sound of a struggle?"

She nodded, and he walked to the window and pulled back the curtains. The dawn was here, and to search the grounds would be a simple matter in daylight.

As he looked, two bright lights came into view. It was a motor-car coming up the long drive.

"Did you send for more police?" he asked Sneed over his shoulder.

"No," said Sneed in surprise. "There is no phone attached to this old-fashioned mansion, and I could not have sent if I wanted. Seems to me I know the sound of that flivver."

They walked out to the portico as the dust-covered car came to a standstill before the door and Mr Havelock jumped out.

"Is everything all right?" he asked anxiously. "Is Miss Lansdown here?"

"Yes; how did you know?"

"Is she safe?" insisted the lawyer.

"Quite safe. Come in." Dick was mystified, as the tall man followed him into the hall. "Why did you come?" he asked.

For answer, Havelock searched his waistcoat pocket, and taking out a folded sheet of paper, handed it to the detective. It was a letter bearing the embossed crest of the Ritz-Carlton, and was written in a hand with which he was, by now, familiar.

DEAR HAVELOCK,

I cannot explain all I have to tell in this letter. But I beg of you to go immediately to Selford Manor. Somewhere in the neighbourhood is my cousin, Sybil Lansdown, and she is in deadly peril. So is everybody associated with her - so also are you. For God's sake get the girl to the house and keep her there until I arrive. I cannot possibly get to you until the early hours of tomorrow morning. Again I implore you not to allow Miss Lansdown or her friends to leave Selford Park until I arrive.

SELFORD.

"My front door bell rang about one o'clock in the morning, and rang so persistently that I got out of bed to discover who was the caller. I found this in my letter box, but no messenger. At first I thought it was a hoax, and I was going back to bed when Selford rang me up and asked me if I had the message. When I said 'Yes' he implored me to do as he asked, and before I could question him, he had hung up on me."

Dick examined the writing. It was in the same hand as all the letters he had seen.

"And then," Havelock went on, "I had the good sense to call up Mrs Lansdown, and learned for the first time of her daughter's disappearance."

"Did you communicate with Scotland Yard?"

"No, I didn't," confessed Havelock irritably. "I suppose I should have done, but when I found that our excellent friend, Mr Martin, had gone out in search of the young lady, I supposed that he would have taken every precaution to secure assistance. She is here, you say?"

Dick opened the door and ushered in the unexpected caller. It was daylight now, to the girl's intense relief, and with every familiar face she felt herself growing in courage. The shock of her adventure had been for a while paralysing to her mind and body, and had left her tired and incapable of grasping the full significance of her night's experience. It was light enough to search the grounds, Dick decided, and, refusing Sneed's assistance, he went alone through the farmyard towards the tombs. Ten minutes' walk brought him to the iron grille. It was locked, and obviously there was nothing to be gained by searching the vaults, for Stalletti would have made his getaway immediately after the girl's escape. The only thing to be done now was to go back by the way the girl had come and which she had described well enough to allow him to follow.

A quarter of an hour's walk brought him to the place where, as nearly as he could guess, Tom Cawler had stayed behind to meet his attacker. He quartered the ground carefully. A struggle on grass would leave few signs except to the careful observer. Presently he found what he was seeking - a torn tuft of turf, the mark of a rubber heel, a depression in the grass, where somebody had lain. He went round the spot in circles, expecting to find signs of a heavy body having been dragged across the ground, but to his surprise this clue was not visible. If Cawler had been killed, and he did not doubt he had been killed, what had been done with the body? To search the innumerable clumps of wood which dotted the park was out of the question. He went back to report his failure.

When he came into the room, the lawyer and Sneed were discussing something in a low tone.

"Mr Havelock is rather worried about the man whom the young lady saw," explained Sneed. "He thinks he is still in the house. That isn't my belief."

"Where is this Jesuit room?" asked Dick, and Havelock, despite his anxiety, was amused.

"The Jesuit room is a myth!" he said. "I heard that story a year ago and had an architect down to square up the house, he told me there was no space unaccounted for, and the plans prove this. Most of these Tudor houses have some sort of secret apartment, but so far as we know, there is nothing mysterious about Selford Manor except its smelly system of gas - lighting!"

"What do you intend doing?" asked Havelock after the pause which followed.

"My inclination is to return to town. Miss Lansdown must, of course, go back to her mother," said Dick.

The elder man shook his head gravely.

"I hope Miss Lansdown will agree to stay," he said. "Possibly - and naturally - she may object, but there is more in Selford's letter than I dare understand."

"You mean about not leaving the Manor for twenty - four hours?"

Havelock nodded.

"I take a very serious view of this warning," he said. "I believe there is a terrible danger lurking somewhere in the background, and I suggest - and I suppose you'll think I am a scared old man - that we stay here until tomorrow, and that Mr Sneed brings down a dozen men to patrol the grounds tonight."

Dick stared at him.

"Do you really mean this?" he asked.

"I do," said Mr Havelock, and there was no mistaking his earnestness. "Mr Sneed is of the same opinion. There have been one or two happenings in the history of this family which I think you ought to know. I won't be so melodramatic as to suggest that there is a curse overhanging the house of Selford, but it is a fact that, with the exception of the late Lord Selford, five earlier holders of the title have died violently, and in each case the death has been preceded by happenings almost as remarkable as those we have witnessed recently."

Dick smiled.

"But we're not members of the Selford family," he said.

"I think for the moment we may regard ourselves as being identical with the Selford interests," Havelock answered quickly. "There is a something very sinister in Selford's continued absence - I never realized that fact so clearly as I do now, I have been a fool to allow - and, I am afraid, to abet his wanderings. All sorts of things may have happened to him."

Not by so much as a twitch of face did Dick Martin betray his knowledge of the absent Lord Selford's secret.

"But I can't allow Miss Lansdown to stay here - - " he began.

"I have thought of that, and my idea is to ask her mother to come down. The house is well stocked in the matter of furniture, and I dare say we could get temporary servants from the village. The caretaker knows everybody hereabouts."

Dick glanced at Sneed and saw, by the fat man's face, that he agreed.

"I'll go into the village and get on the phone," he said. "Anyway, I'd prefer to sleep here today than go back to town. I'm all in."

It was not so astonishing that Sybil fell in with this view, though Selford's letter had no influence on her decision. The reaction after such a night was painfully evident. She was tired to the point of exhaustion and could hardly keep awake.

Sneed drew his friend aside.

"This will suit us all right. I shall get a few hours' sleep, and we are pretty near to Cody's place. I'm afraid we shall have an all - day session there."

Dick started violently. He had almost forgotten the horror in his anxiety for the girl. Eventually it was agreed that Havelock should go up to town in his car and bring Mrs Lansdown down with him.

The news of her daughter's safety had already been conveyed to her, and after the lawyer had left Dick went to the village and telephoned to her. She was eager to come at once, but he asked her to wait for Havelock's arrival.

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