The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 19

Treachery

In the chill grey gloom of the fields — damp, depressing, and misty — with the wreckage of the airship piled up around him, and the insensible woman lying at his feet, Dan stood bewildered, his nerves jangling like ill-tuned bells. The twenty feet fall had not harmed him in limb or body; but the violent contact with the earth, broken in some measure by the fact that his enemy’s aeroplane had been underneath, resulted in a displacement of his normal powers. He felt battered and bruised, deadly sick and wished to lie on the wet grass, indifferent to everything and everyone. But with a dangerous creature at his elbow, this was not to be thought of, even though that same creature was unable to exercise her wicked will. Moreover, The Grange was only a stone’s throw distant, and doubtless Mrs. Jarsell had been watching for the coming of her friend. If this were the case, she would come out with help — for Queen Beelzebub that is. How Halliday would be treated he was much too muddled in his brain to consider. Finally, he dropped on his knees, longing for brandy to pull him together, and began to think with difficulty.

This woman was not Mrs. Jarsell, but Miss Armour. Seeing that he knew her to be old, feeble, and paralysed, this was most remarkable. Curberry had called her Queen Beelzebub, so Miss Armour, and not Mrs. Jarsell, was the head of the Society of Flies, and the cause of all the trouble. In a weak way, Dan considered that she evidently was not so old as she had made herself out to be, and certainly she was not paralysed. No woman without the use of her limbs could have escaped so swiftly, or have worked the aeroplane so dexterously. Miss Armour, the delicate, kind-hearted old lady, was the infernal Queen Beelzebub who had spoken behind the mask when in the darkness the scarlet light had made an accursed halo round her head. And now she was dead — stone dead.

A moment’s reflection assured him that he could not be certain on this point without examination, so he tore open her dress, and laid his hand on her heart. It beat feebly, so he knew that she was still alive, although she was crumpled up in a heap amidst the wreckage. This knowledge restored Halliday more positively to his senses. She was so dangerous that, even helpless as she appeared to be, he could not tell what devilry she might not make use of to get the upper hand. She still had the piece of steel tipped with the deadly snake poison, and even a feeble woman could inflict death with that. The idea made Dan search in her pockets to secure the subtle weapon of defence, but even while he fumbled and hunted, he was pulled violently backward.

“Mr. Halliday!” gasped Mrs. Jarsell, holding a lantern to his white face; “hold him,” she added to a couple of men who were beside her.

“I’ve — I’ve caught Queen Beelzebub red-handed,” muttered Dan, striving to get on his feet, and thinking in a muddled way that Mrs. Jarsell had seen the arrival of the aeroplanes, the battle in the air, and the catastrophe. She must have come stealthily across the intervening fields with her myrmidons, and thus he had been caught unawares. He knew well that once in her grip, since she was an accomplice of Queen Beelzebub’s he could expect no mercy, and what was worse, Lillian would be in danger. He therefore in a weak way, fought his best to escape. If he could only reach Mrs. Pelgrin’s hotel he would be safe. But the men were too strong for him, and he was beaten to his knees. Then, what with the hunger that gnawed him, the bitter cold, the fall, and the general surprise of the situation, his senses left him. He uttered a weary sigh, and slipped to the ground, limp and unconscious.

Then again, as had happened when Penn had drugged him in the taxi-cab, he felt himself swallowed up in gloom; felt himself falling interminably, and lost sight of the physical world and its surroundings. To all intents and purposes he was dead, and from the moment he closed his eyes in that misty meadow he remembered nothing more.

When his eyes opened again, they shut at once, for the blaze of light was painful. Dimly he fancied that he heard a telephonic voice give an order, and he felt that some ardent spirit was being poured down his throat. The fiery liquor put new life into him; his heart began to beat more strongly, and he felt that his weak limbs were regaining a fictitious strength. With a thankful sigh he opened his eyes again, and a bewildered look round made him understand that he was in the barbaric sitting-room of The Grange. He saw the violent contrasts of red and yellow and black; he realised the glare and glitter and oppressive splendour of the many lamps, and his nostrils were filled with the well-known Sumatra scent. Reason came back to him with a rush, and he knew in what a dangerous position he was placed. Here he was in the power of Queen Beelzebub and her factotum, Mrs. Jarsell — at their mercy completely, as it were, although he was assured that he would receive none at all. He had hunted down the gang; he was breaking up the gang; and now in his hour of triumph he was at the mercy of the gang. Queen Beelzebub was top, tail, and bottom of the society, and he was in her grip. She would not relax it, he knew very well, until the life was squeezed out of him.

The realisation of his danger and the memory of what his helplessness meant to Lillian, nerved him to recover full control of his consciousness. While there was life there was hope, and as his captors had not murdered him while he was insensible, Dan concluded that they would not do so when he had recovered his wits. Queen Beelzebub would play with him, he fancied, as a cat plays with a mouse, and in that case he might find some means of escape. So far he had beaten her all along the line, and he might beat her still, although she certainly held the winning cards at the moment. As these things flashed across his brain, he yawned and stretched himself, looking round in a leisurely way as he did so. Still feeling a trifle stiff and sore, his thinking powers were nevertheless in good working order, as they at once responded to the command of his indomitable will. Therefore, with wonderful self-control, he smiled amiably, and stared into every corner, in order to spy out the weakness of the land. But he was being watched, as he soon knew, and his thoughts were read.

“No,” snarled a silvery voice, higher in tone than that of Mrs. Jarsell, “I have you and I mean to keep you.”

Queen Beelzebub, alive and well, and as completely in possession of her senses as he was, sat in her big carved chair near the open fireplace just as she had sat when he paid that long distant visit with Freddy Laurance and Mildred. Her face was as wrinkled as ever, but instead of being of the ivory hue which had impressed him on a former occasion, it was deadly white, and looked particularly venomous. Her white hair had been smoothly brushed and she wore a loose cloak of scarlet velvet, which fell to her feet. But in the fall she had suffered, since Dan noticed that her right arm was bound up in bandages and splints, resting in a black silk scarf against her breast. His eyes fastened on this, and Miss Armour laughed in a thin, spiteful manner, which hinted at the wrath that consumed her.

“Yes,” she said, in answer to his mute query, “I have broken my arm, thanks to you, Mr. Halliday. You smashed my aeroplane and sent me to the ground.”

“That is what you tried to do with me,” said Dan, drily, and settling himself comfortably in his chair, since he felt convinced that he was in no immediate danger. “Tit for tat, Queen Beelzebub, or shall I call you Miss Armour?”

“The real name or the feigned name, doesn’t matter,” rejoined the lady, very coolly, “you can call me what you like for the time you have to live.”

“Oh!” said Halliday, equally coolly, and aware that the cat-and-mouse torment was beginning, “so that’s it, is it?”

Mrs. Jarsell stood beside her friend’s chair, and was handing her food in an anxious manner. The large and ponderous woman looked like a child overcome with terror. Her eyes were sunken, her cheeks were hollow, and the immense vitality she possessed appeared to be at a very low ebb. She was arrayed in white as usual, but her garb was not so colourless as her face. She even looked smaller than formerly, and was shrunken in her clothes. There was something pitiful in the spectacle of this large phlegmatic female broken down, worn out, and overcome with dread of the future. As she attended to Miss Armour the tears rolled down her face, which had so suddenly grown old. The sight seemed to irritate the other woman, who was much more frail, but who had a much more powerful will. Dan saw in a flash that he had been mistaken in thinking that Mrs. Jarsell was strong. Her strength lay in her imposing looks; but she was the mere tool of that fragile, delicate old lady, whose glittering eyes revealed the iron will, which dominated her weak age-worn body. Here, indeed, was the true Queen Beelzebub, driven into a corner and prepared to fight to the last. Halliday felt, with a creeping of the flesh, that he had come to grips with an evil power, which it would be desperately hard to conquer. Miss Armour saw the shadow in his eyes.

“You’re afraid,” she taunted him.

Dan agreed. “Not physically, you understand,” he said quietly, “but you seem to be so thoroughly wicked that the spiritual part of myself quails for the moment. But it doesn’t matter much, you know, seeing that you have much more cause to fear that I may shoot you at sight,” and he fumbled in his pocket for Curberry’s revolver which he had picked up when leaving the room.

“I removed that when you were insensible,” gasped Mrs. Jarsell, wiping her eyes and turning a heavy white face in his direction.

“Of course,” said Miss Armour, in a hard voice. “I ordered the search to be made in case you had any weapons. Now you are quite defenceless, and at my mercy, you meddling ape.”

“How long have I been insensible?” asked Dan, ignoring the feminine spite which led her to call him names.

“For quite an hour!” sighed Mrs. Jarsell, whose great body was shaking, as if with the ague. “I had you brought here along with Miss Armour. You were both in a kind of faint. Now you are all right, and —”

“And I am all right,” finished Miss Armour, imperiously, “which is much more to the purpose. Better had you died when you fell from the aeroplane, Mr. Halliday, than have recovered so completely as you seem to have done.”

“You mean mischief?”

“Oh, yes, I mean mischief,” replied Queen Beelzebub, amiably, “and I mean torture, such as will make you wince. I’ll prove what sort of a man you are.”

“You had better make haste then,” said Dan, with a shrug, and bracing up his courage to beat this fiend with her own weapons, “by this time the police know all about Curberry.”

“What’s that to me? The police can’t connect me with his death?”

“Not so far as you know, but as my friend Laurance promised to take action at five o’clock if he did not hear from me, I expect with the Blackheath and Hampstead inspectors he is now in Lord Curberry’s house. An explanation from Laurance will soon bring the authorities to this den.”

Mrs. Jarsell burst into hysterical tears. “I knew there was great danger,” she wailed. “I knew that the end had come!” and she sank at Miss Armour’s feet in a fit of despair, the picture of a beaten woman.

“Oh, shut up, Eliza!” said Queen Beelzebub savagely, and her eyes glittered more venomously than ever, “you always play the fool when wits are needed to keep things straight.”

“You can’t keep them straight,” said Dan, calmly, lounging in his chair, “your career is at an end, Miss Armour.”

“We’ll see about that, Mr. Halliday. Oh, you needn’t look at me in that way, my friend! I still have the snake-poisoned lancet, you know, and if you try to spring on me, even though my arm is broken, you will meet with a sudden and unpleasant death.”

“I don’t want to touch you,” retorted Halliday. “I shall leave the hangman to finish you off.”

“That he never shall do,” snapped Miss Armour, her eyes flashing and her nostrils dilating, “not one member of that glorious society I have founded shall ever be done to death by those accursed people in authority. I, and my subjects who obey me so loyally, will vanish.”

“Will you? Not while the ports and railway stations are watched,” sneered Halliday, with contempt, “and I don’t think your friend Vincent can supply aeroplanes in sufficient quantity for you all to get away. Even if you did by some extraordinary chance, the world would be hunted for you.”

“It can be hunted from the North Pole to the South, Mr. Halliday, but neither the members of the Society of Flies nor its queen will be discovered. We will be as if we had never been,” she concluded triumphantly, and as she spoke, the big woman, sobbing at her feet, shivered and shook, and uttered a muffled cry of terror.

Queen Beelzebub kicked her. “Get up, Eliza, you fool!” she said, contemptuously, “you know quite well that I have made ready for everything this long time.”

“But I don’t want to —”

“If you say another word,” interrupted Miss Armour, viciously, “you shall afford sport for the society, as this meddling beast shall do.”

Dan laughed gaily, determined not to show the white feather, although his heart was filled with fear. He did not mind a clean, short, sharp death, but he did not wish to be tortured and mutilated, as he believed this incarnate demon intended he should be. Curiously enough, his laugh instead of exciting Queen Beelzebub to further wrath seemed to extort her unwilling admiration.

“You are a brave man, Mr. Halliday,” she muttered, reluctantly; then burst out furiously, “Oh, you young fool, why did you not accept the offer I made you?”

“The offer you prophesied in this very room would be made,” said Halliday, complacently; “well, you see, Miss Armour, or Queen Beelzebub, or whatever you like to call yourself, I happen to have a conscience.”

“That is your weakness,” said the woman, calmly, “throw it on the rubbish heap, my friend. It is useless.”

“Now it is, so far as joining your infernal organisation is concerned, I am quite sure. To-morrow the police will be here, and the Society of Flies will cease to exist.”

“That is possible, and yet may not be probable, Mr. Halliday. If the society does cease to exist, it will not do so in the way you contemplate. Eliza!” added Miss Armour, impatiently, “if you will sniff and howl, go and do so in some other room. I can’t stand you just now. My nerves are shaken, and my arm is hurting me. Go away.”

“And leave you with —” Mrs. Jarsell cast a terrified look at Dan.

“Pooh!” cried Queen Beelzebub, contemptuously, “you don’t think that I am afraid of him. I have the lancet with the snake poison, and if he tries to get out of the door or the window you know very well that every exit is watched. Go away and employ your time better than sobbing and moaning. You know what you have to do, you poor silly fool?”

“Yes,” sighed Mrs. Jarsell, and stumbled towards the door like a rebuked infant. “I’ll send the telegrams before eight. But the village post-office will learn too much if I send them.”

“Never mind. The whole world will learn too much before tomorrow night, my dear Eliza. However, neither you nor I, nor any one else concerned, will be here to get into trouble.”

Mrs. Jarsell threw her hands above her head. “The end has come; the end has come,” she wailed tearfully, “we are lost, lost, lost!”

“I know that as well as you do,” said Miss Armour, cheerfully, “thanks to this idiot here. However, he shall pay for his meddling.”

“But if the police —”

“If you don’t get out,” interrupted Queen Beelzebub, in a cold fury, “I shall prick you with the lancet — you know what that means.”

“It would be better than the other thing,” moaned Mrs. Jarsell, clinging to the door, which she had opened.

“What other thing?” inquired Halliday, on the alert for information.

Queen Beelzebub replied. “You shall know before you die! Eliza, will you go and send those telegrams, you silly fool? If you don’t obey me —” the woman’s face took on such a wicked expression that Mrs. Jarsell, with a piteous cry, fled, hastily closing the door after her. Then Miss Armour drank a little of the wine that was on the table beside her and looked smilingly at her prisoner. “I never could make anything of Eliza,” she explained, “always a whimpering cry-baby. I wouldn’t have had her in the society but that I wished to use this house, which belongs to her, and of course when we started her money was useful.”

Halliday being alone, glanced around to see if he could escape. He could not attack Miss Armour, old and feeble as she was, because of the poisoned piece of steel which she had concealed about her. He had seen the effects on Sir Charles Moon, and did not wish to risk so sudden a death. For the sake of Lillian it was necessary that he should live, since, if he did not, there was no one left to protect her; therefore he did not think of meddling with Queen Beelzebub, but cast an anxious look at windows and door. Escape that way was equally impossible, as all were guarded. There seemed to be nothing for it but to wait and take what chance offered itself later. He could see none at the moment. The position was unpleasant, especially when he remembered that he was to be tortured, but his manhood prevented his showing the least sign of fear. To intimate that he cared nothing for her threats he took out his pipe and tobacco pouch.

“Do you mind my smoking, Miss Armour?”

“Not at all, unless you would rather eat. There’s food on the table behind you. Oh,” she laughed, when she saw the expression on his face, as he glanced round, “don’t be alarmed, I don’t intend to poison you! That death will be too easy. You can eat and drink and smoke with perfect safety. I intend to end your life in a less merciful manner.”

“Well,” said Dan, going to the table, and taking a sandwich together with a glass of port wine, “I think you are spiteful enough to give me a bad time before dying, so I am quite sure that I can eat and drink with safety!”

“Oh, what a pity; what a pity,” said Miss Armour, thoughtfully, when the young man returned to his seat and began to make a hurried meal.

“What’s a pity?” asked Dan, carelessly.

“That you and I should be enemies. I gave you the chance to be friendly with me, you know, but you wouldn’t take it. Yet I admire you, and have always admired you. You have courage, brains, coolness, and persistence. These are valuable qualities such as I needed for a member of my society. If I had not seen that you possessed them and wished to make use of them by binding you to my society, I should have ended your life long ago.”

“As Sir Charles Moon’s life was ended; as Durwin’s life was cut short; as Penn was disposed of, and as Lord Curberry was dispatched.”

“Well, no. Curberry poisoned himself because he feared that everything was about to come out.”

“As it will.”

“Probably,” said Queen Beelzebub, indifferently, “but there are yet some hours before the end. No, my friend, you will not die like those you have mentioned. Your cleverness demands a more ingenious death.”

“You are a very clever woman,” said Dan, finishing his glass of port.

“I am. You will admire my cleverness when you —” she checked herself and laughed. “I knew a Chinese mandarin once and he told me many things, Mr. Halliday. You can guess what he told me.”

“Something about torture?” said Dan, lighting his pipe, “quite so. You go to the Chinese to learn how to hurt a man. I thought you were more original.”

Miss Armour sneered. “Isn’t this indifference rather overdone, Mr. Halliday?”

“Well, it is a trifle. I’m in a blue funk, and can you blame me,” he shuddered; “a man doesn’t like to die by inches, you know. However, as we understand one another, suppose we while away the time by your telling me how you came to start this damned gang of yours.”

“My dear young friend, I admire your courage so much, that I can refuse you nothing,” mocked Miss Armour, wincing as she moved her broken arm. “I really should be in bed with my hurt.”

“You’ll get feverish if you don’t lay up,” Dan advised her.

“Oh, I don’t think so. I know about other drugs than the Sumatra scent, Mr. Halliday. Of course, a broken arm,” she added with a sigh, “can’t be mended by all the drugs in the world. Time alone can put it right, and, thanks to you, I shan’t have time to get cured. If you had only fought with me intead of against me, this would not have happened. Well, my society —”

“Yes. What about your society?” questioned Dan, politely and easily.

Queen Beelzebub cast an admiring look in his direction and began to speak in a quiet lady-like manner, as though she were presiding at a tea-table, and the subject of conversation was quite an ordinary one. “I was left an orphan at an early age,” she said leisurely, “poor and honest and friendless. For years I led what you fools call a decent life, earning my bread by going out as a governess. But poverty and honesty did not please me, especially since the first was the outcome of the last. I never wished to marry, as I did not care for men. I did not wish for society, or fame, or flirtation, or indeed anything a woman usually longs for. I desired power!” and as she uttered the last word an infernal expression of pride came over her white and delicate face.

“Power for a bad purpose?”

“Well, you see, Mr. Halliday, I could not get power for a good one. The sole way in which I could obtain my ends was to appeal to people’s self-love. I read of those Italian societies, and the way in which they terrorised the world. Whatever the members of those societies want they get, because they work by blackmail, by threats, by the knife, and with poison. I always wished to found a society of that sort, but I noticed how frequently things went wrong because the members of various societies got mixed up with women, or drank too much, or gave themselves away in a moment of profligacy.”

“Ah,” Dan smoked calmly, “now I understand why your rules were so stringent.”

“You speak of them in the past tense,” said Miss Armour, curiously.

“Well,” Dan pressed down the tobacco in his pipe, “the society is done for; it’s gastados, used up, bust, and all the rest of it. Well?”

“Well,” echoed the woman, passing over his remark with a sneer. “I wished to collect a body of men and women who were to live like saints and use all the power such self-denial gave them to gain all they wanted for themselves.”

“A devilishly clever scheme.”

“But not original, like my tortures,” Queen Beelzebub assured him. “In Australia — Sydney, New South Wales — I fancy there are societies who have the same rules. They call such an organisation there a ‘Push!’ I think.”

Dan nodded. “I have heard of such things.”

“Well, then — to make a long story short, as I want to go to bed, and can’t enjoy your delightful society much longer — I intended to work on those lines. Years and years ago Mrs. Jarsell was a favourite pupil of mine. We parted and she married a man with money. He died,” Miss Armour laughed, “in fact, since he treated Eliza badly, I got rid of him.”

“Oh, so that is the hold you have on her.”

“Quite so. I met her again and got rid of the husband. He left her his money and I came to live with Eliza as a companion. For a time we went into London society, and I soon managed to get a few people together by appealing to their egotism. Some kicked at my ideas — others did not, and in the end I collected quite a large number. Then I made Eliza take this house as it struck me that aeroplanes might be utilised for criminal purposes. I don’t say that when this idea came to me aeroplanes were so good as they are now, but I believed that aviation would improve, and that the air would be conquered. Chance brought Vincent into my life. He became a member of the Society of Flies, and manufactured the machines. He also learned me how to handle them —”

“I am bound to say that he had an excellent pupil,” put in Dan, politely.

“Thank you,” Miss Armour smiled and nodded. “I fancy I am pretty good. But you see that by using an aeroplane I was able to get up and down to London without people knowing. I was, so to speak, in two places at once, by travelling fast, and so could prove an alibi easily.”

“Then Durwin?”

“No. Eliza murdered him. She went up in an aeroplane along with Vincent, since she is too silly to handle one herself. To kill Moon — that was my work because he learned too much and refused to join me — I went to town by train in the character of the false Mrs. Brown. Penn was killed by Curberry, who had to obey me, or suffer himself. Oh, I assure you I am quite autocratic, Mr. Halliday,” finished the woman merrily.

“I quite believe that,” said Halliday, drily, “but did all this villainy give you pleasure?”

“Oh, yes,” Miss Armour’s nostrils again dilated, and her eyes again flashed triumphantly, “think of the power I held until you interfered. I pretended for greater safety to be paralysed, and no one ever connected a poor invalid lady with Queen Beelzebub.”

“I did not, I assure you. I believed Queen Beelzebub to be Mrs. Jarsell.”

“Eliza,” Miss Armour scoffed, “why, she’s a poor weak fool, and only did what I ordered her to do because I implicated her along with myself in the murder of her husband. However, she has been useful, as without her money I could not have started the business. Power!” she repeated, “yes, I have a great power. High or low, rich or poor, there was no one I could not remove if I chose. My subjects worked for me willingly, or unwillingly.”

“You are a kind of ‘Old Woman of the Mountains’, like the gentleman of that name who invented the Assassins — that gang about the time of the Crusades.”

“Quite so, although it is not polite of you to call me an old woman. By the way, I got Curberry his title by getting rid of his uncle and cousin.”

“Yes. So he told me,” said Dan, marvelling that the woman could speak so calmly about her wickedness.

“Oh, you are shocked,” she laughed gaily, “what a fool you are! I could tell you much concerning many murders and disappearances which the police knew nothing about. For some years I have ruled like a despot, and — and — well,” she yawned, “it’s all over. Oh, what a pity!”

“I think not. People will sleep quieter when they know Queen Beelzebub and her demons are harmless.”

“Harmless,” she echoed the word with a laugh, and touched a silver bell that stood at her elbow, “we shall all be harmless enough tomorrow, if indeed you speak truly, and your friend Laurance is coming up here with the police.”

“He is, I assure you,” said Dan, wondering why she rang the bell; “but who are the members of your gang?”

“You’ll see them tomorrow, when you afford sport for them,” said Queen Beelzebub in a weary way, and looked fagged out; “meanwhile, I must have you safely locked up,” and as she spoke, two big men entered the room.

“Hang you, I shan’t!” began Dan, and sprang to his feet. But the two men had their hands on him; and shortly he was trussed up like a Christmas turkey.

“You are less clever than I thought,” said Queen Beelzebub, sneering, “or you would not fight against impossibilities. Good night! Take him away.”

And as they were commanded, the two big men took him away in silence.

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