The Three Hostages, by John Buchan

Chapter XVIII

The Night of the First of June

The last two days of May were spent by me in the most miserable restlessness and despondency. I was cut off from all communications with my friends and I did not see how I could reopen them. For Medina, after his late furious busyness, seemed to have leisure again, and he simply never let me out of his sight. I dare say I might have managed a visit to the Club and a telephone message to Mary, but I durst not venture it, for I realised as I had never done before how delicate was the ground I walked on and how one false step on my part might blow everything sky-high. It would have mattered less if I had been hopeful of success, but a mood of black pessimism had seized me. I could count on Mary passing on my news to Macgillivray and on Macgillivray’s taking the necessary steps to hasten the rounding-up; by the second of June Mercot would be restored to his friends, and Miss Victor too, if Mary had got on her track again. But who was arranging all that? Was Mary alone in the business, and where was Sandy? Mercot and Gaudian would be arriving in Scotland, and telegraphing to me any moment, and I could not answer them. I had the maddening feeling that everything was on a knife edge, that the chances of a blunder were infinite, and that I could do nothing. To crown all, I was tortured by the thought of David Warcliff. I had come to the conclusion that Mary’s farewell words at Hill Street had meant nothing: indeed, I couldn’t see how she could have found out anything about the little boy, for as yet we had never hit on the faintest clue, and the thought of him made success with the other two seem no better than failure. Likewise I was paying the penalty for the assurance about Medina which I had rashly expressed to Mary. I felt the terror of the man in a new way; he seemed to me impregnable beyond the hope of assault; and while I detested him I also shuddered at him — a novel experience, for hitherto I had always found that hatred drove out fear.

He was abominable during those two days — abominable but also wonderful. He seemed to love the sight of me, as if I were a visible and intimate proof of his power, and he treated me as an Oriental tyrant might treat a favourite slave. He unbent to me as a relief to his long spiritual tension, and let me see the innermost dreams of his heart. I realised with a shudder that he thought me a part of that hideous world he had created, and — I think for the first time in the business — I knew fear on my own account. If he dreamed I could fail him he would become a ravening beast. . . . I remember that he talked a good deal of politics, but, ye gods! what a change from the respectable conservative views which he had once treated me to — a Tory revival owing to the women and that sort of thing! He declared that behind all the world’s creeds, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and the rest, lay an ancient devil-worship and that it was raising its head again. Bolshevism, he said, was a form of it, and he attributed the success of Bolshevism in Asia to a revival of what he called Shamanism — I think that was the word. By his way of it the War had cracked the veneer everywhere and the real stuff was showing through. He rejoiced in the prospect, because the old faiths were not ethical codes but mysteries of the spirit, and they gave a chance for men who had found the ancient magic. I think he wanted to win everything that civilisation would give him, and then wreck it, for his hatred of Britain was only a part of his hatred of all that most men hold in love and repute. The common anarchist was a fool to him, for the cities and temples of the whole earth were not sufficient sacrifice to appease his vanity. I knew now what a Goth and a Hun meant, and what had been the temper of scourges like Attila and Timour. . . . Mad, you will say. Yes, mad beyond doubt, but it was the most convincing kind of madness. I had to fight hard by keeping my mind firm on my job, to prevent my nerve giving.

I went to bed on the last night of May in something very near despair, comforting myself, I remember, by what I had said to Mary, that one must go on to the finish and trust to luck changing in the last ten minutes. I woke to a gorgeous morning, and when I came down to breakfast I was in a shade better spirits. Medina proposed a run out into the country and a walk on some high ground. “It will give us an appetite for the Thursday dinner,” he said. Then he went upstairs to telephone, and I was in the smoking-room filling my pipe when suddenly Greenslade was shown in.

I didn’t listen to what he had to say, but seized a sheet of paper and scribbled a note: “Take this to the head porter at the Club and he will give you any telegram there is for me. If there is one from Gaudian, as there must be, wire him to start at once and go straight to Julius Victor. Then wire the Duke to meet him there. Do you understand? Now, what have you to tell me?”

“Only that your wife says things are going pretty well. You must turn up to-night at ten-thirty at the Fields of Eden. Also somehow you must get a latch-key for this house, and see that the door is not chained.”

“Nothing more?”

“Nothing more.”

“And Peter John?”

Greenslade was enlarging on Peter John’s case when Medina entered. “I came round to tell Sir Richard that it was all a false alarm. Only the spring fret. The surgeon was rather cross at being taken so far on a fool’s errand. Lady Hannay thought he had better hear it from me personally, for then he could start on his holiday with an easy mind.”

I was so short with him that Medina must have seen how far my thoughts were from my family. As we motored along the road to Tring I talked of the approaching holiday, like a toadying schoolboy who has been asked to stay for a cricket week with some senior. Medina said he had not fixed the place, but it must be somewhere south in the sun — Algiers, perhaps, and the fringes of the desert, or better still some remote Mediterranean spot where we could have both sunlight and blue sea. He talked of the sun like a fire-worshipper. He wanted to steep his limbs in it, and wash his soul in light, and swim in wide warm waters. He rhapsodised like a poet, but what struck me about his rhapsodies was how little sensuous they were. The man’s body was the most obedient satellite of his mind, and I don’t believe he had any weakness of the flesh. What he wanted was a bath of radiance for his spirit.

We walked all day on the hills around Ivinghoe, and had a late lunch in the village inn. He spoke very little, but strode over the thymy downs with his eyes abstracted. Once, as we sat on the summit, he seemed to sigh and his face for a moment was very grave.

“What is the highest pleasure?” he asked suddenly. “Attainment? . . . No. Renunciation.”

“So I’ve heard the parsons say,” I observed.

He did not heed me. “To win everything that mankind has ever striven for, and then to cast it aside. To be Emperor of the Earth and then to slip out of the ken of mankind and take up the sandals and begging-bowl. The man who can do that has conquered the world — he is not a king but a god. Only he must be a king first to achieve it.”

I cannot hope to reproduce the atmosphere of that scene, the bare top of the hill in the blue summer weather, and that man, nearing, as he thought, the summit of success, and suddenly questioning all mortal codes of value. In all my dealings with Medina I was obsessed by the sense of my inferiority to him, that I was like a cab horse compared to an Arab stallion, and now I felt it like a blow in the face. That was the kind of thing Napoleon might have said — and done — had his schemes not gone astray. I knew I was contending with a devil, but I know also that it was a great devil.

We returned to town just in time to dress for dinner, and all my nervousness revived a hundredfold. This was the night of crisis, and I loathed having to screw myself up to emergencies late in the day. Such things should take place in the early morning. It was like going over the top in France; I didn’t mind it so much when it happened during a drizzling dawn, when one was anyhow depressed and only half-awake, but I abominated an attack in the cold-blooded daylight, or in the dusk when one wanted to relax.

That evening I shaved, I remember, very carefully, as if I were decking myself out for a sacrifice. I wondered what would be my feelings when I next shaved. I wondered what Mary and Sandy were doing. . . .

What Mary and Sandy were doing at that precise moment I do not know, but I can now unfold certain contemporary happenings which were then hid from me. . . . Mercot and Gaudian were having a late tea in the Midland express, having nearly broken their necks in a furious motor race to catch the train at Hawick. The former was clean and shaven, his hair nicely cut, and his clothes a fairly well-fitting ready-made suit of flannels. He was deeply sunburnt, immensely excited, and constantly breaking in on Gaudian’s study of the works of Sir Walter Scott.

“Newhover is to be let loose today. What do you suppose he’ll do?” he asked.

“Nothing — yet awhile,” was the answer. “I said certain things to him. He cannot openly go back to Germany, and I do not think he dare come to England. He fears the vengeance of his employer. He will disappear for a little, and then emerge in some new crime with a new name and a changed face. He is the eternal scoundrel.”

The young man’s face lighted up pleasantly. “If I live to be a hundred,” he said, “I can’t enjoy anything half as much as that clip I gave him on the jaw.”

In a room in a country house on the Middlesex and Bucks borders Turpin was talking to a girl. He was in evening dress, a very point-device young man, and she was wearing a wonderful gown, grass-green in colour and fantastically cut. Her face was heavily made up, and her scarlet lips and stained eyebrows stood out weirdly against the dead white of her skin. But it was a different face from that which I first saw in the dancing-hall. Life had come back to it, the eyes were no longer dull like pebbles, but were again the windows of a soul. There was still fear in those eyes and bewilderment, but they were human again, and shone at this moment with a wild affection.

“I am terrified,” she said. “I have to go to that awful place with that awful man. Please, Antoine, please, do not leave me. You have brought me out of a grave, and you cannot let me slip back again.”

He held her close to him and stroked her hair.

“I think it is — how do you say it? — the last lap. My very dear one, we cannot fail our friends. I follow you soon. The grey man — I do not know his name — he told me so, and he is a friend. A car is ordered for me half an hour after you drive off with that Odell.”

“But what does it all mean?” she asked.

“I do not know, but I think — I am sure — it is the work of our friends. Consider, my little one. I am brought to the house where you are, but those who have charge of you do not know I am here. When Odell comes I am warned and locked in my room. I am not allowed out of it. I have had no exercise except sparring with that solemn English valet. He indeed has been most amiable, and has allowed me to keep myself in form. He boxes well, too, but I have studied under our own Jules and he is no match for me. But when the coast is clear I am permitted to see you, and I have waked you from sleep, my princess. Therefore so far it is good. As to what will happen to-night I do not know, but I fancy it is the end of our troubles. The grey man has told me as much. If you go back to that dance place, I think I follow you, and then we shall see something. Have no fear, little one. You go back as a prisoner no more, but as an actress to play a part, and I know you will play the part well. You will not permit the man Odell to suspect. Presently I come, and I think there will be an éclaircissement — also, please God, a reckoning.”

The wooden-faced valet entered and signed to the young man, who kissed the girl and followed him. A few minutes later Turpin was in his own room, with the door locked behind him. Then came a sound of the wheels of a car outside, and he listened with a smile on his face. As he stood before the glass putting the finishing touches to his smooth hair he was still smiling — an ominous smile.

Other things, which I did not know about, were happening that evening. From a certain modest office near Tower Hill a gentleman emerged to seek his rooms in Mayfair. His car was waiting for him at the street corner, but to his surprise as he got into it someone entered also from the other side, and the address to which the car ultimately drove was not Clarges Street. The office, too, which he had left locked and bolted was presently open, and men were busy there till far into the night — men who did not belong to his staff. An eminent publicist, who was the special patron of the distressed populations of Central Europe, was starting out to dine at his club, when he was unaccountably delayed, and had to postpone his dinner. The Spanish copper company in London Wall had been doing little business of late, except to give luncheons to numerous gentlemen, but that night its rooms were lit, and people who did not look like city clerks were investigating its documents. In Paris a certain French count of royalist proclivities, who had a box that night for the opera and was giving a little dinner beforehand, did not keep his appointment, to the discomfiture of his guests, and a telephone message to his rooms near the Champs Elysées elicited no reply. There was a gruff fellow at the other end who discouraged conversation. A worthy Glasgow accountant, an elder of the kirk and a prospective candidate for Parliament, did not return that evening to his family, and the police, when appealed to, gave curious answers. The office, just off Fleet Street, of the Christian Advocate of Milwaukee, a paper which cannot have had much of a circulation in England, was filled about six o’clock with silent preoccupied people, and the manager, surprised and rather wild of eye, was taken off in a taxi by two large gentlemen who had not had previously the honour of his acquaintance. Odd things seemed to be happening up and down the whole world. More than one ship did not sail at the appointed hour because of the interest of certain people in the passenger lists; a meeting of decorous bankers in Genoa was unexpectedly interrupted by the police; offices of the utmost respectability were occupied and examined by the blundering minions of the law; several fashionable actresses did not appear to gladden their admirers, and more than one pretty dancer was absent from the scene of her usual triumphs; a Senator in Western America, a high official in Rome, and four deputies in France found their movements restricted, and a Prince of the Church, after receiving a telephone message, fell to his prayers. A mining magnate in Westphalia, visiting Antwerp on business, found that he was not permitted to catch the train he had settled on. Five men, all highly placed, and one woman, for no cause apparent to their relatives, chose to rid themselves of life between the hours of six and seven. There was an unpleasant occurrence in a town on the Loire, where an Englishman, motoring to the south of France — a typical English squire, well known in hunting circles in Shropshire — was visited at his hotel by two ordinary Frenchmen, whose conversation seemed unpalatable to him. He was passing something from his waistcoat pocket to his mouth, when they had the audacity to lay violent hands on him, and to slip something over his wrists.

It was a heavenly clear evening when Medina and I set out to walk the half-mile to Mervyn Street. I had been so cloistered and harassed during the past weeks that I had missed the coming of summer. Suddenly the world seemed to have lighted up, and the streets were filled with that intricate odour of flowers, scent, hot wood pavements and asphalt which is the summer smell of London. Cars were waiting at house-doors, and women in pretty clothes getting into them; men were walking dinner-wards, with some of whom we exchanged greetings; the whole earth seemed full of laughter and happy movement. And it was shut off from me. I seemed to be living on the other side of a veil from this cheerful world, and I could see nothing but a lonely old man with a tragic face waiting for a lost boy. There was one moment at the corner of Berkeley Square when I accidentally jostled Medina, and had to clench my hands and bite my lips to keep myself from throttling him there and then.

The dining-room in Mervyn Street looked west, and the evening light strove with the candles on the table, and made a fairy-like scene of the flowers and silver. It was a full meeting — fifteen, I think — and the divine weather seemed to have put everybody in the best of spirits. I had almost forgotten Medina’s repute with the ordinary man, and was staggered anew at the signs of his popularity. He was in the chair that evening, and a better chairman of such a dinner I have never seen. He had the right word for everybody, and we sat down to table like a party of undergraduates celebrating a successful cricket-match.

I was on the chairman’s right hand, next to Burminster, with Palliser–Yeates opposite me. At first the talk was chiefly about the Derby and Ascot entries, about which Medina proved uncommonly well posted. He had a lot of inside knowledge from the Chilton stables, and showed himself a keen critic of form; also he was a perfect pundit about the pedigree of race-horses, and made Burminster, who fancied himself in the same line, gape with admiration. I suppose a brain like his could get up any subject at lightning speed, and he thought this kind of knowledge useful to him, for I don’t believe he cared more for a horse than for a cat.

Once, during the Somme battle, I went to dine at a French château behind the lines, as the guest of the only son of the house. It was an ancient place, with fishponds and terraces, and there were only two people in it, an old Comtesse and a girl of fifteen called Simone. At dinner, I remember, a decrepit butler filled for me five glasses of different clarets, till I found the one I preferred. Afterwards I walked in the garden with Simone in a wonderful yellow twilight, watching the fat carp in the ponds, and hearing the grumbling of the distant guns. I felt in that hour the poignant contrast of youth and innocence and peace with that hideous world of battle a dozen miles off. To-night I had the same feeling — the jolly party of clean, hard, decent fellows, and the abominable hinterland of mystery and crime of which the man at the head of the table was the master. I must have been poor company, but happily everybody was talkative, and I did my best to grin at Burminster’s fooling.

Presently the talk drifted away from sport. Palliser–Yeates was speaking, and his fresh boyish colour contrasted oddly with his wise eyes and grave voice.

“I can’t make out what is happening,” he said in reply to a remark of Leithen’s. “The City has suddenly become jumpy, and there’s no reason in the facts that I can see for it. There’s been a good deal of realisation of stocks, chiefly by foreign holders, but there are a dozen explanations of that. No, there’s a kind of malaise about, and it’s unpleasantly like what I remember in June 1914. I was in Whittingtons’ then, and we suddenly found the foundations beginning to crumble — oh yes, before the Serajevo murders. You remember Charlie Esmond’s smash — well, that was largely due to the spasm of insecurity that shook the world. People now and then get a feeling in their bones that something bad is going to happen. And probably they are right, and it has begun to happen.”

“Good Lord!” said Leithen. “I don’t like this. Is it another war?”

Palliser–Yeates did not answer at once. “It looks like it. I admit it’s almost unthinkable, but then all wars are really unthinkable, till you’re in the middle of them.”

“Nonsense!” Medina cried. “There’s no nation on the globe fit to go to war, except half-civilised races with whom it is the normal condition. You forget how much we know since 1914. You couldn’t get even France to fight without provoking a revolution — a middle-class revolution, the kind that succeeds.”

Burminster looked relieved. “The next war,” he said, “will be a dashed unpleasant affair. So far as I can see there will be very few soldiers killed, but an enormous number of civilians. The safest place will be the front. There will be such a rush to get into the army that we’ll have to have conscription to make people remain in civil life. The embusqués will be the regulars.”

As he spoke someone entered the room, and to my amazement I saw that it was Sandy.

He was looking extraordinarily fit and as brown as a berry. He murmured an apology to the chairman for being late, patted the bald patch on Burminster’s head, and took a seat at the other end of the table. “I’ll cut in where you’ve got to,” he told the waiters. “No — don’t bother about fish. I want some English roast beef and a tankard of beer.”

There was a chorus of questions.

“Just arrived an hour ago. I’ve been in the East — Egypt and Palestine. Flew most of the way back.”

He nodded to me, and smiled at Medina and raised his tankard to him.

I was not in a good position for watching Medina’s face, but so far as I could see it was unchanged. He hated Sandy, but he didn’t fear him now, when his plans had practically come to fruition. Indeed he was very gracious to him, and asked in his most genial tones what he had been after.

“Civil aviation,” said Sandy. “I’m going to collar the pilgrim traffic to the Holy Places. You’ve been in Mecca?” he asked Pugh, who nodded. “You remember the hamelidari crowd who used to organise the transport from Mespot. Well, I’m a hamelidari on a big scale. I am prepared to bring the rank of hadji within reach of the poorest and feeblest. I’m going to be the great benefactor of the democracy of Islam, by means of a fleet of patched-up ‘planes and a few kindred spirits that know the East. I’ll let you fellows in on the ground-floor when I float my company. John”— he addressed Palliser–Yeates —“I look to you to manage the flotation.”

Sandy was obviously ragging, and no one took him seriously. He sat there with his merry brown face, looking absurdly young and girlish, so that the most suspicious could have seen nothing more in him than the ordinary mad Englishman who lived for adventure and novelty. Me he never addressed, and I was glad of it, for I was utterly at sea. What did he mean by turning up now? What part was he to play in the events of the night? I could not have controlled the anxiety in my voice if I had been forced to speak to him.

A servant brought Medina a note, which he opened at leisure and read. “No answer,” he said, and stuffed it into his pocket. I had a momentary dread that he might have got news of Macgillivray’s round-up, but his manner reassured me.

There were people there who wanted to turn Sandy to other subjects, especially Fulleylove and the young Cambridge don, Nightingale. They wanted to know about South Arabia, of which at the time the world was talking. Some fellow, I forget his name, was trying to raise an expedition to explore it.

“It’s the last geographical secret left unriddled,” he said, and now he spoke seriously. “Well, perhaps not quite the last. I’m told there’s still something to be done with the southern tributaries of the Amazon. Mornington, you know, believes there’s a chance of finding some of the Inca people still dwelling in the unexplored upper glens. But all the rest have gone. Since the beginning of the century we’ve made a clean sweep of the jolly old mysteries that made the world worth living in. We have been to both the Poles, and to Lhasa, and to the Mountains of the Moon. We haven’t got to the top of Everest yet, but we know what it is like. Mecca and Medina are as stale as Bournemouth. We know that there’s nothing very stupendous in the Brahmaputra gorges. There’s little left for a man’s imagination to play with, and our children will grow up in a dull, shrunken world. Except, of course, the Great Southern Desert of Arabia.”

“Do you think it can be crossed?” Nightingale asked.

“It’s hard to say, and the man who tried it would take almighty risks. I don’t fancy myself pinning my life to milk camels. They’re chancy brutes.”

“I don’t believe there’s anything there,” said Fulleylove, “except eight hundred miles of soft sand.”

“I’m not so sure. I’ve heard strange stories. There was a man I met once in Oman, who went west from the Manah oasis.. .”

He stopped to taste the club madeira, then set down the glass and looked at his watch.

“Great Scott!” he said. “I must be off. I’m sorry, Mr. President, but I felt I must see you all again. You don’t mind my butting in?”

He was half-way to the door, when Burminster asked where he was going.

“To seek the straw in some sequestered grange. . . . Meaning the ten-thirty from King’s Cross. I’m off to Scotland to see my father. Remember, I’m the last prop of an ancient house. Good-bye, all of you. I’ll tell you about my schemes at the next dinner.”

As the door closed on him I had a sense of the blackest depression and loneliness. He was my one great ally, and he came and disappeared like a ship in the night, without a word to me. I felt like a blind bat, and I must have showed my feeling in my face, for Medina saw it and put it down, I dare say, to my dislike of Sandy. He asked Palliser–Yeates to take his place. “It’s not the Scotch express, like Arbuthnot, but I’m off for a holiday very soon, and I have an appointment I must keep.” That was all to the good, for I had been wondering how I was to make an excuse for my visit to the Fields of Eden. He asked me when I would be back and I said listlessly within the next hour. He nodded. “I’ll be home by then, and can let you in if Odell has gone to bed.” Then with a little chaff of Burminster he left, so much at ease that I was positive he had had no bad news. I waited for five minutes and followed suit. The time was a quarter past ten.

At the entrance to the Club in Wellesley Street I expected to have some difficulty, but the man in the box at the head of the stairs, after a sharp glance at me, let me pass. He was not the fellow who had been there on my visit with Archie Roylance and yet I had a queer sense of having seen his face before. I stepped into the dancing-room with its heavy flavour of scent and its infernal din of mountebank music, sat down at a side table and ordered a liqueur.

There was a difference in the place, but at first I could not put my finger on it. Everything seemed the same; the only face I knew was Miss Victor’s, and that had the same mask-like pallor; she was dancing with a boy, who seemed to be trying to talk to her and getting few replies. Odell I did not see, nor the Jew with the beard. I observed with interest the little casement above from which I had looked when I burgled the curiosity shop. There were fewer people to-night, but apparently the same class.

No, not quite the same class. The women were the same, but the men were different. They were older and more — how shall I put it? — responsible-looking, and had not the air of the professional dancing partner or the young man on the spree. They were heavier footed, too, though good enough performers. Somehow I got the notion that most of them were not habitués of this kind of place and were here with a purpose.

As soon as this idea dawned on me I began to notice other things. There were fewer foreign waiters, and their number was steadily decreasing. Drinks would be ordered and would be long in coming; a servant, once he left the hall, seemed to be unaccountably detained. And then I observed another thing. There was a face looking down from the casement above; I could see it like a shadow behind the dirty glass.

Presently Odell appeared, a resplendent figure in evening dress, with a diamond solitaire in his shirt and a red silk handkerchief in his left sleeve. He looked massive and formidable, but puffier than ever, and his small pig’s eyes were very bright. I fancied he had been having a glass or two, just enough to excite him. He swaggered about among the small tables, turning now and then to stare at the girl in green, and then went out again. I looked at my watch, and saw that it was a quarter to eleven.

When I lifted my head Mary had arrived. No more paint and powder and bizarre clothes. She was wearing the pale blue gown she had worn at our Hunt Ball in March, and her hair was dressed in the simple way I loved, which showed all the lights and shadows in the gold. She came in like a young queen, cast a swift glance round the room, and then, shading her eyes with her hand, looking up towards the casement. It must have been a signal, for I saw a hand wave.

As she stood there, very still and poised like a runner, the music stopped suddenly. The few men who were still dancing spoke to their partners and moved towards the door. I observed the bearded Jew hurry in and look round. A man touched him on the arm and drew him away, and that was the last I saw of him.

Suddenly Odell reappeared. He must have had some warning which required instant action. I shall never know what it was, but it may have announced the round-up, and the course to be followed towards the hostages. He signed peremptorily to Miss Victor and went forward as if to take her arm. “You gotta come along,” I heard, when my eyes were occupied with a new figure.

Turpin was there, a pale taut young man with his brows knit, as I remembered them in tight corners in France. The green girl had darted to Mary’s side, and Turpin strode up to her.

“Adela, my dear,” he said, “I think it is time for you to be going home.”

The next I saw was Miss Victor’s hand clutching his arm and Odell advancing with a flush on his sallow face.

“You letta go that goil,” he was saying. “You got no business with her. She’s my goil.”

Turpin was smiling. “I think not, my friend.” He disengaged Adela’s arm and put her behind him, and with a swift step struck Odell a resounding smack on the cheek with the flat of his hand.

The man seemed to swell with fury. “Hell!” he cried, with a torrent of Bowery oaths. “My smart guy, I’ve got something in my mitt for you. You for the sleep pill.”

I would have given a fortune to be in Turpin’s place, for I felt that a scrap was what I needed to knit up my ragged nerves. But I couldn’t chip in, for this was clearly his special quarrel, and very soon I saw that he was not likely to need my help.

Smiling wickedly, he moved round the pug, who had his fists up. “Fiche-moi la paix,” he crooned. “My friend, I am going to massacre you.”

I stepped towards Mary, for I wanted to get the women outside, but she was busy attending to Miss Victor, whom the strain of the evening had left on the verge of swooning. So I only saw bits of the fight. Turpin kept Odell at long range, for infighting would have been fatal, and he tired him with his lightning movements, till the professional’s bad training told and his wind went. When the Frenchman saw his opponent puffing and his cheeks mottling he started to sail in. That part I witnessed, and I hope that Mary and Miss Victor did not understand old Turpin’s language, for he spoke gently to himself the whole time, and it was the quintessence of all the esoteric abuse that the French poilu accumulated during the four years of war. His tremendous reach gave him an advantage, he was as light on his legs as a fencer, and his arms seemed to shoot out with the force of a steam-hammer. I realised what I had never known before, that his slimness was deceptive, and that stripped he would be a fine figure of sinew and bone. Also I understood that a big fellow, however formidable, if he is untrained and a little drunk, will go down before speed and quick wits and the deftness of youth.

They fought for just over six minutes. Turpin’s deadliest blows were on Odell’s body, but the knockout came with one on the point of the chin. The big man crumpled up in a heap, and the back of his head banged on the floor. Turpin wrapped a wisp of a handkerchief round his knuckles, which had suffered from Odell’s solitaire, and looked about him.

“What is to become of this offal?” he asked.

One of the dancers replied. “We will look after him, sir. The whole house is in our hands. This man is wanted on a good many grounds.”

I walked up to the prostrate Odell, and took the latch-key from his waistcoat pocket. Turpin and Adela had gone, and Mary stood watching me. I observed that she was very pale.

“I am going to Hill Street,” I said.

“I will come later,” was her answer. “I hope in less than an hour. The key will let you in. There will be people there to keep the door open for me.”

Her face had the alert and absorbed look that old Peter Pienaar’s used to have when he was after big game. There was no other word spoken between us. She entered a big saloon-car which was waiting in the street below, and I walked to Royston Square to find a taxi. It was not yet eleven o’clock.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32