The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 18

The Flight

“Poison!” echoed Dan, startled out of his composure, for he was far from expecting such a word, “the doctor —”

“No doctor can do me any good,” sobbed Curberry lifting his haggard face, and looking up with wild, despairing eyes, “there is no antidote to this drug I have taken. It is painless more or less, and in an hour I shall be dead, as it works but slowly. Time enough for me to speak.”

“Let me get a doctor,” insisted Halliday, for so distraught did the man look that he was not surprised that the servant had been uncomfortable, “you must not die without —”

Curberry struggled to his feet, and laid hands on his visitor. “No, no! I am ready to die,” he said in a harsh, strained voice; “why should I be kept alive to be hanged — to be disgraced — to be-”

“Then you admit —”

“I admit everything in this — this,” he touched a few loose sheets of paper lying on the desk, “this confession. Like Penn, I have made one.”

“You must have a doctor,” said Halliday, and ran to the bell.

Curberry, with a wonderful strength, seeing how ill he looked, rose swiftly, and sprang after him. “If you call a doctor, I shall shoot myself,” he said, hoarsely, and pulled out a small revolver. “I would rather die by means of the poison I have taken, since it is more painless. But sooner than be taken by the police, I shall shoot myself — and you too — and you too.”

Halliday waved aside this threat. “You won’t see the police —”

“The doctor would try and save me,” insisted Curberry, fiercely, “and I will not be saved only to be hanged. Stay here and listen to me. I have something to say. Touch the button of the bell and I shoot!” As he spoke, he levelled the revolver. “Quick, quick, what will you do?”

“Have your own way,” agreed Halliday, and moved to the desk, where he sat down on a convenient chair. Curberry, with a groan, returned to his seat, and laid the revolver on the blotting-paper, ready for instant use should necessity arise. Even as yet he did not wholly trust Halliday.

And there was cause for this suspicion. Since Dan was unarmed, he could do nothing against a man with a quick-firing weapon, but he made up his mind to snatch at the revolver the moment Curberry was off his guard. Yet, even as he decided upon this course, he said to himself that it was foolish. The man’s recovery, supposing a doctor did arrive, meant the man’s arrest, and in Dan’s opinion, as in Curberry’s, death was better than disgrace. It was a most uncomfortable situation, but Halliday did not see anything to do but to listen to what his host had to say. The poor wretch had poisoned himself, and was keeping all help at bay with his revolver. He would be dead in an hour, or half an hour, as he hinted, so the best thing was to hear his story in the hope that by its means those who had brought him to this pass, could be punished. But it was a weird experience to sit beside a tormented man, who declined to be saved from a tragic death.

“Did Queen Beelzebub give you the poison?” asked Halliday, shivering at the grey pinched look on Curberry’s face.

“Long ago; long ago; not now,” muttered the man, groaning. “Every member of the Society of Flies has this poison to escape arrest, should there be danger. It is a painless poison, more or less, and acts slowly, and — but I have told you all this before. There is not much time,” he pressed his hands on his heart, “while I retain my strength and my senses, listen!”

“But where is this woman you call Queen Beelzebub?” demanded Dan, looking round anxiously. “I saw her arrive in an aeroplane.”

“She did; she came to tell me that you knew all about our society.”

“You belong to it?”

“Yes, curse it! and those who dragged me into the matter. I was getting on all right in the law, when I was tempted and fell.”

“Your uncle and your cousin —”

“Yes, yes!” broke in Curberry, with another groan; “she said that if I joined the society they could be got rid of. They were got rid of because I wished for the title and the money.”

“But for what reason?”

“So that I could marry Lillian. Moon refused to listen to me so long as I was merely a struggling barrister. But when I became wealthy, and — and — oh, this pain! The poison is a lie like all the rest of the business. She declared it was painless, and now — and now —” He broke off, to wipe the perspiration from his face.

Dan half rose. “Let me call assistance. It may not be too late —”

Curberry pointed his revolver at him as he moved.

“It is too late,” he said, setting his teeth, “if I do not die, I must face the worst. You — you have brought me to this.”

“I!” echoed Halliday, sitting down again, “in what way?”

“You meddled and meddled, and — and you sent that telegram.”

“I did not.”

“Then your meddling has brought the police into the matter. That telegram may have been sent by a friend or an enemy; in either case it is true, for all is discovered. I was —” Curberry gasped with pain again, and moistened his dry lips. “I was sitting with it, wondering if it was best to end things or to wait and see if the warning was a true one. Then she came in through yonder door,” he nodded towards the entrance from the terrace into the library. “she told me that you — that you — oh — oh!” he groaned and rocked himself from side to side, yet kept a grip on the revolver, lest Dan should call or ring for assistance, or endeavour to secure the weapon.

“So you took the poison?” said Halliday, wondering how he could manage to evade being shot and yet summon a doctor.

“When she said that all was known, I did. Then she — she —”

“Queen Beelzebub, you mean?”

“Curse her, yes! Like Eve she tempted me, and like Adam I fell.”

“Where is she?”

“Up in Penn’s old rooms, searching for any further confessions he may have left. Oh,” Curberry rocked and moaned, “I thought when I snatched it from you, and burnt it, that all evidence was destroyed.”

“I saved a few sheets.”

“Do they contain mention of my name?”

“Yes. They do, and —”

“I thought so. I thought so. It’s just as well that I took the poison. The title and money I paid such a price to obtain will go to my cousin, who is at Oxford — a young fool, with no brains. Oh, to lose all, when everything was so bright. I could have married Lillian and served my country, and —”

“You could not have married Lillian,” interrupted Dan, positively, “for she loves me and me only. As to serving your country, how could you with an easy conscience, when you have broken its law by taking the lives of your uncle and cousin?”

“I did not. The society saw to that,” gasped Curberry with a twisted grin.

“You engaged the society to end their lives, you — you — murderer.”

“Don’t call names,” moaned the man, “at least I have not murdered you, although I have every reason to. You meddled with matters which do not concern you.”

“I meddled in matters which concern every honest man who loves law and order, Lord Curberry,” said Dan sternly; “apart from the death of Sir Charles Moon, which I was bound to avenge for Lillian’s sake, it was my duty to stop this wholesale murder. Perhaps you had Moon killed yourself.”

“I didn’t; I didn’t. It was to my interest that he should live, for if he had I should have been married to his daughter by this time. Queen Beelzebub murdered him because he was offered a chance of belonging to the society and refused.”

“In that,” said Dan, still sternly, “acting as an honest man.”

“He acted as a foolish man. For learning too much, he sent for Durwin to reveal what he knew. Penn found out his intended treachery, and told the Queen. She came — you saw her when she came — and she killed him.”

“She killed Durwin?”

“Yes,” gasped Curberry, who was growing whiter and more haggard every moment.

“And Marcus Penn?”

“I killed him. I had to, or be killed myself. He betrayed too much to you.”

“Only out of fear,” said Dan, looking at the murderer more with pity than with anger, for he was suffering greatly.

“Not even fear should have made him reveal anything about the scent. He confessed his folly and was doomed to death. I went away on that day, and then came back secretly, having ordered Penn to meet me by the ornamental water, to speak about the society. He suspected something, because he wrote that confession and let Lillian know where it was concealed. But he came, and I managed to stupefy him with the Sumatra scent, after which I thrust him under water, and when I was sure he was dead, I got away secretly, returning openly to hear that his body had been found.”

“You wicked wretch,” said Dan, scarcely able to restrain his disgust, although he felt he should not be too hard on one already being severely punished for his crimes.

“Don’t call names,” said Curberry, with an attempt at a laugh, “after all, I am better than you think, since I am trying to save you. I want you to live and marry Lillian, and use this confession,” he laid his hands on the loose sheets of paper, “from Queen Beelzebub, so that you can put an end to her wicked doings. Hide the papers when she comes back, or she will destroy them.”

As this was very probable, Dan stretched out his hand for the papers. Curberry feverishly gathered them together, speaking in a halting manner, as he did so. “Wait till I put them together,” he said, painfully; “this is a full account of my connection with the society and its evil doings. It accounts for the death of Moon, of Durwin, of Penn, and of myself. But take care, Halliday, for Queen Beelzebub will not give in without a fight.”

“She can do nothing,” said Dan, watching Curberry pinning the loose papers together. “Laurance holds what remains of Penn’s confession, and will inform the police shortly. If you would only let me get a doctor.”

“No, no, no! I refuse to live and face the reward of my wickedness. I prefer to pay the cost of my folly in joining the society. My name is disgraced, but I won’t be on earth to suffer for the disgrace. That brainless young fool who succeeds me will not trouble so long as he gets the money and the title, which he is certain to. But marry Lillian, and take care of her. Queen Beelzebub will strike at you through her.”

“She dare not while I hold the confession of Penn,” said Dan, grimly; “sooner or later she shall stand in the dock.”

“That she never will, believe me. She has a means of escape if the worst comes to the worst. Oh,” Curberry half rose, and then fell back in his chair, “the end is coming; my eyes are growing dim, and — and — and — ah,” he uttered a shriek, “save yourself!” and with a shaking hand he grasped the revolver.

As Curberry’s eyes were looking past him, Dan, with the subconscious instinct of self-preservation, had just time to rise and swerve to one side, when a hand grazed his shoulder. The young man gripped his chair, and swung it up as a barrier between himself and a stout woman, who was immediately behind him. She was dressed in a long, black cloak, with a close-fitting cloth cap, and wore a heavy veil of the motor style, with pieces of mica let in as eye-holes. Not a word did she say, but seeing Dan’s action, drew back with a deep, indrawn breath like the hiss of a baffled snake.

“Take care; take care; she has — the serpent poison,” gasped Curberry, who was sitting loosely in his chair, gripping his revolver.

Halliday remembered the wicked wound on Sir Charles Moon’s neck and his flesh grew cold, for the slightest touch of that morsel on shining steel in Queen Beelzebub’s hand meant swift death. “You fiend!” he shouted, and with a cry of anger, flung the heavy chair fairly at her.

With the leap of a pantheress, she sprang to one side, and the chair crashed against the opposite wall while the woman glided rapidly round to the open door leading on to the terrace. A shot rang out as she reached it, and Dan knew that the dying man had fired on his enemy. Apparently the bullet did not reach its mark, for Queen Beelzebub still moved on silent, sinister, and dangerous. Halliday flung himself forward to get between her and the door, so as to prevent her escape, but with a faint snarl like a beast at bay she stabbed at him with the death-tipped piece of steel. He leaped back to save himself from being scratched, while Curberry dragged himself painfully to the bell-button near the fire-place, and pressed it with his remaining strength. “I’m done for — call the police. You — you, oh!” He fell prone on the hearth-rug, and the revolver dropped beside him.

Halliday ran forward on the impulse of the moment to offer aid, hastily picking up the weapon meanwhile, and as he did so, Queen Beelzebub sprang through the door into the open. “she’s making for the aeroplane,” cried Dan, and would have followed on the instant, but that Curberry gripped him fast.

“Stay, stay! A priest, a clergyman. I’m dying,” and a deadly fear became apparent in his glazed eyes, “get a — a — a — Help!”

As he cried, retaining Dan’s coat in a grip of iron, the door of the room opened, and the butler with the footman beside him rushed in. The shot, as well as the ringing of the bell, had brought them immediately to the spot. Trying to disengage himself, Dan gave hasty orders. “send for a doctor; send for a clergyman; send for the police. That woman has murdered your master.”

“Catch her; stop her — oh — oh!” Curberry’s grip loosened, and he rolled over with a moan. Whether he was dead or alive, Dan did not wait to see. Every moment was precious, if he intended to stay the flight of Queen Beelzebub. The terrified men came to assist their dying master, and more servants, attracted by the noise, poured in at the library door. A backward glance showed Dan that Curberry was being attended to, and then he sped along the terrace towards the lawn at the side of the house. Here he arrived, just a moment too late, for already the aeroplane, propelled by two grooms, was spinning along the turf, with Queen Beelzebub in the pilot’s seat. Like the wicked fairy of nursery tale, she was escaping in her dragon-car, and even in that hour of success she did not utter a sound. Silent and menacing she mounted into the air, and Halliday dashed forward with a cry of rage as she lifted above his reach.

There was not a moment to be lost, and without another glance at the men who had so innocently assisted, he raced down the avenue, and sprang through the entrance gates. Queen Beelzebub might make for her lair in Hillshire, or it might be that she would cross the Channel to seek safety on the Continent; but, wherever she went, Dan intended to follow. She would not escape him this time, and he flew like an arrow from the bow across the open space outside the park, to where his man still stood guard by his own machine. The little crowd around had their faces turned heavenward, and were shouting at the sight of the biplane, now dwindling to a black dot, as it receded swiftly from Blackheath. Dan felt a throb of satisfaction as he saw that Queen Beelzebub was making for the north.

“Out of the way; out of the way!” gasped the young man, charging through the throng, and it scattered at his approach; “let her go, let her go!” and he sprang into the pilot’s seat to start the engine.

Immediately the screw began to spin, slowly at first, but gathering in speed every second. The aeroplane moved, and ran with bird-like swiftness along the ground, then soared with the hum of a giant bee. Halliday swept in a vast circle, like an actor taking the stage, then turned the nose of his machine in the direction of the black dot. This was to be his pole-star towards which he was to continually direct his course, until the goal, wherever it might be, was attained. The many men, women and children standing round the Blackheath shed shouted and cheered, thinking that they were witnessing the start of an exciting race; but they little knew that it was a chase dealing with the serious issues of life and death. Halliday heard the thin sound of their voices reach him faintly, then settled down to handle his biplane in a masterly manner. Since both aeroplanes were made by Vincent, it was probable that both were equal in durability and speed. But Queen Beelzebub had gained a very fair start, and Dan knew that it would require all his knowledge of aviation to catch her up. Her escape or capture depended entirely upon the dexterity with which he manoeuvred the delicate structure which bore him. On her part, the woman would use all her knowledge to get away safely, but Dan did not believe that her capability as an aeronaut was equal to his own. In this contest it was science against despair, and given the machines as equal, yet the pilots as unequal, it was hard to say what would be the result. Halliday, racing to save Lillian’s life, and to gain her as his wife, believed that the final victory would remain with him.

It was an unusually pleasant day, with a pale blue sky, lightly sprinkled with feathery white clouds. A gentle wind was blowing, which was not sufficiently strong to impede the speed of the aeroplanes. Yet it was chilly in these high altitudes, and in his haste Dan had not put on his overcoat. Before the end of the chase he grimly expected to be well-nigh frozen, but did not mind so uncomfortable a prospect so long as he gained his aim. Before him fled the woman he was determined to capture and place in the criminal dock to answer for her manifold sins. Thinking of what she had done, and how her path was strewn with victims, the young man set his teeth and tried his best to force the pace. But this was useless, as the biplane could not do more than it was intended to do. Although he had now been racing northward for over an hour, the distance between pursuer and pursued appeared to be much the same, and the receding black dot did not seem to be growing larger. Dan was irritated, yet felt that even though he was not gaining, he was not losing, and that was much, taking all things into account. There was always the chance that Queen Beelzebub’s machine might break down, and then she would be as helpless as a bird with a broken wing. Also — and Dan did not blind himself to this possibility — his own aeroplane might come to grief, as it had done during the London to York race. But benefiting by his former experience he did not try any fancy-flying, and held to a straight, undeviating course. Both machines were making a bee-line for the goal, which Halliday now guessed very plainly was The Grange in Sheepeak, Hillshire.

It had been about two o’clock when the chase started, but already those taking part in it were miles upon miles distant from London, since the aeroplanes were flying at the rate of between fifty and sixty miles an hour. Harrow, St. Albans, Luton, Bedford, and Northampton had long since dropped behind, and Queen Beelzebub, swerving to the left, was making for Rugby, so as to get into the straight line for Hillshire, and particularly for Thawley. Passing over the famous school-town, her pace slackened somewhat, and Dan managed to secure the advantage of a few miles. But when her machine lifted Birmingham, she increased her speed, a fact which made Dan curse. He had been under the impression that she was running short of oil and petrol, but apparently this was not the case. She had simply reduced her speed so as to nurse her resources, since she could take this bold step because of the start she had gained at the outset. Halliday grudgingly confessed to himself that the woman knew her business, as she wasted no time. Her machine neither rose nor fell, nor deviated to right or left over-much, and all she did was to hold to a straight line at a moderate height above the earth, humouring her engine, and straining as little as might be the wings, spars, bolts, and such-like gear of the biplane. Vincent had taught her admirably, and Dan no longer undervalued her as an antagonist. She was dexterous, bold, resourceful, and venturesome. His admiration, now freely given, was mixed with pity that so clever a human being should debase her gifts to harry mankind. Such qualities as she possessed made her more dangerous, as she was an intellectual animal, slaying with taught skill rather than with instinctive cunning.

As the afternoon drew on, and the chase still continued, the night began to shut down. Gliding over Derby the town was veiled in the grey mists of swiftly-falling dusk, and when Nottingham came in sight it was distinguished by a thousand glittering pin-points of light, the usual nightly illumination. Matlock and Mansfield, Holdbrook and Wayleigh, gleamed beneath like jewelled crowns, and when the stars began to appear the aeroplanes were flying between two firmaments, radiant with multi-coloured orbs of light.

At last Thawley rose into view burning like a furnace under its veil of smoke and the dim shroudings of twilight, while a vague murmur like the swarming of bees came muffled to the ears of those who drove the machines. Yet at these heights the coming dark was not yet very intense, and Queen Beelzebub’s aeroplane beginning to slacken speed, Dan was able to keep it well in view. He saw it rather vaguely closer at hand, a shadow against the shadow of the grey sky. Minute by minute he drew nearer and began to discern the outlines more or less clearly. But it must be admitted that at the best the clearness was not quite that which deserved the use of such a word. However, Dan, cold, hungry, and weary with the strain on his nerves, could think of none better at the moment.

Queen Beelzebub was decidedly losing speed. Her machine seemed to falter after it left Thawley, as if it was doubtful how to find its way home in this world of shadows. But at Beswick the woman made a last effort, as it seemed, like a wounded animal dragging itself faster homeward as it neared its den, and her aeroplane towered aloft to the vast tableland of the moors. Halliday was close behind, and when they hovered over Sheepeak the two biplanes were only a stone throw from one another. He exulted, for now he had driven the woman to her citadel, and for her there was no escape even by her machine, as that was — so to speak — worn out. She was at her last gasp, and would have to fight or yield. She elected to fight when the airships swung in the foggy air over the fields near The Grange. If she alighted, Queen Beelzebub knew that her pursuer would alight also and capture her, so she described a rapid circle with what motive power was left her, and plunged downward on her enemy to ram his machine.

Dan saw the movement, and with his hand on the steering gear, swerved to one side, dropping lower as he did so. The other machine swooped harmlessly overhead, but, recovering quickly, once more came down with the dip of a hawk on a heron. Halliday dodged again, then thinking that two could play at the dangerous game, he watched his chance and rushed straightly at his prey. Queen Beelzebub saw him coming, and adopted his tactics — that is, she dropped below his onset, and Dan’s aeroplane swept on without result. Once more he came down to her level, and by this time the machines were only twenty feet from the ground. This time, as he dashed forward, the woman was not dexterous enough to get out of the way, and the two clashed violently with a ripping, breaking, smashing sound. With the engines still spinning, but with broken wings, the biplanes dropped to the earth, tangled together, Dan’s uppermost, clutching at its prey, so to speak, like a hawk clutching a partridge. Down they came, and the rising earth met them with a smashing blow.

Halliday was shaken, but did not become unconscious. Clearing his feet and arms from the tangle of ropes and canvas, he emerged from the confused heap, and dragged out the woman by her dress, which fluttered out from the wreckage. To tear off her veil and light a match took a single minute.

“Miss Armour!” cried Dan, greatly amazed. And Miss Armour it was, quite senseless.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 16:42