The Mystery Queen, by Fergus Hume

Chapter 20

Queen Beelzebub’s End

Unable to resist superior force Dan ceased to struggle, thinking it was best to play a waiting game, until chance afforded him the opportunity of escape. Hitherto his good fortune had saved him from grave perils, and he trusted that finally it would prove strong enough to extricate him from this last difficulty. He was taken down a short flight of damp steps and thrust into what he took to be a disused coal-cellar. Here the two big men released him from his bonds and retired, locking the door behind them. Once or twice he asked questions, but receiving no reply he asked no more. They left a lantern for his use, and the light, although only that of a candle, was very acceptable in the cimmerian darkness of this underground dungeon. When left alone the prisoner stretched himself, swung his arms and stamped with his feet to get warm, after which he made an examination of his surroundings.

Halliday found that the cellar was small with stone floor, stone roof, and stone walls, all more or less humid. Light and air came through a shaft on the right of the entrance, which was too narrow to permit of escape. Evidently the place had been used before as a prison, and no doubt for refractory members of the society, since there was some spare furniture. In one corner was a low bed, in another a deal table, in a third a wash-stand, and finally there was one kitchen chair on which Dan took his seat to think over matters. He had eaten, so did not feel hungry, and solaced himself with his pipe, a luxury for which he felt very grateful. It could not be said that his thoughts were pleasant; they could scarcely be so, under the circumstances, as there was no denying he was in a most uncomfortable plight.

So Miss Armour, the delicate maiden lady, was Queen Beelzebub, and the imposing Mrs. Jarsell was only her tool. Dan was surprised when he reflected on this, and could not help admiring the infernal cunning of the woman who had arranged matters. Miss Armour was without doubt a born criminal, who much preferred doing evil to doing good. As Mrs. Jarsell’s companion, she could have led a blameless existence, surrounded by attention and comfort and luxury, but her craving for power had led her into dark paths. For all her care, she might have guessed that in a law-abiding country the truth of her murderous association would come to the notice of the authorities sooner or later. And when the knowledge had become public, with all her cunning she was unable to cope with the situation. Like the fox in the fable, her many wiles had proved useless, and here she was driven into a corner. What she intended to do Dan could not think. He did not see in what way she could escape punishment.

Of course the young man was perfectly satisfied that Freddy was moving in the matter down south. According to instructions he must have gone to Lord Curberry’s house at Blackheath when he failed to receive news of his friend, and what he discovered there would assure him that it was time to take public action and inform the police of what was going on. The servants would be questioned and Curberry’s body would be examined, while the visit of the veiled woman and her flight in the aeroplane would be explained. Laurance would guess at once that the unknown lady was Queen Beelzebub attending to her iniquitous business, and an inquiry at the shed would soon inform him of the pursuit. Halliday believed that on the morrow Laurance, together with the police, would arrive at Sheepeak, and then the end would come. Meanwhile he was in great danger unless Freddy appeared in time to rescue him, for Miss Armour was very spiteful and her last act of power would undoubtedly be to murder him for the action he had taken in bringing about her downfall. But this had to be faced, and if death was certain, he hoped that it would be immediate, since even his brave nature quailed at the idea of suffering ingenious Chinese tortures. As to Lillian, Dan was quite sure she would not be harmed, because Queen Beelzebub had her hands full and would not have time to kill her. Indeed, if she decided to do so, it would not be easy for her to find anyone to execute her commands, for every member of the Society of Flies must by this time have become aware of the danger which threatened their organisation. Halliday believed that the telegrams alluded to by Miss Armour and which were to be sent by Mrs. Jarsell were intended to summon the members to a conference. Yet what use such a meeting would be, the young man could not think. The net of the law would capture the entire gang without doubt. And yet Queen Beelzebub was so infernally cunning that Dan could not be sure she would not find some means of saving herself and her subjects, even at the eleventh hour.

In thoughts such as these the night passed slowly and the hours seemed interminable. The candle in the lantern burned itself out, and he found himself in complete darkness, while the silence was only broken by the drip of water from the walls, or by his own breathing and restless movements. Dan felt as though he were in a tomb, and his lively imagination conjured up all kinds of horrors until, worn out, physically and mentally, he fell into a profound slumber. When he opened his eyes again it was dawn, for he saw the cold light streaming down through the air shaft. A glance at his watch assured him that it was seven o’clock, and he wondered if food would be brought to him shortly. As he had only eaten a sandwich and drank a glass of port wine since yesterday morning’s breakfast, he felt most uncommonly hungry, and in spite of the peril in which he stood he longed ardently for food. In the meantime, for comfort, he lighted his pipe again, sat on his bed, and watched the thin beam of sunlight move slowly across the stone floor of his cell. This was an unexpected adventure sure enough, and unpleasant as it was now, it promised to be still more unpleasant before it was concluded. All that Halliday could hope for was that Laurance with the police would arrive in time to save his life, and deliver him from imprisonment.

At ten o’clock — Dan looked again at his watch when the door opened — Mrs. Jarsell entered with a tray, on which were two boiled eggs, bread and butter, and coffee. Placing this on the table she was about to leave, as she had entered, in silence, when Dan caught her dress. At once with a shiver she drew back and displayed the lancet tipped with the serpent-poison.

“If you try to escape, I shall kill you,” she said in her heavy voice.

Dan looked at her curiously, and saw that she was less imposing than ever for all her massive looks. All her self-restraint was gone, her eyes were red; her face was disfigured with tears; and her big body looked flabby and inert. A greater collapse or a more pitiful spectacle can scarcely be imagined, and Dan felt quite sorry for her, even though he knew she was banded against him with others to bring him to a cruel death. “I shall not try to escape,” he said, slowly; “that is, I shan’t try just now.”

Pausing at the door, Mrs. Jarsell, still on guard with the lancet, looked at him sorrowfully. “You can never escape,” she said brokenly, “try as you may, for the house is guarded by four men, who are sworn to obey Miss Armour.”

“Queen Beelzebub, you mean,” said Halliday with a shrug.

“I wish I had never heard the name,” cried Mrs. Jarsell with a sob.

“I quite believe that. I am very sorry for you.”

“You have every need to be. Thanks to you, we are all caught in a trap, and there is no means of escape.”

“Really. I thought that Miss Armour —”

Mrs. Jarsell shuddered. “she has an idea, but I hope it will not be necessary for her to carry out her idea. After all, things may not be so bad as they seem, Mr. Halliday.”

“If you mean the police, I am afraid they are,” he retorted with another shrug and with great emphasis; “by this time my friend Laurance has informed the Scotland Yard authorities of what we know.”

“What do you know?” demanded Mrs. Jarsell, with a gasp, and she was forced to lean against the door for support.

“Everything,” said Dan, briefly, “so with your permission I shall have my breakfast, Mrs. Jarsell,” and he began to eat with a good appetite.

“Oh, how can you; how can you?” cried the big woman, convulsively, “think of the danger you stand in!”

“I shall escape!”

“Escape, and from Queen Beelzebub? Nobody has ever escaped her.”

“I shall, and you will be the means of my escaping.”

“Me!” Mrs. Jarsell used bad grammar in her astonishment, “how can I—”

“That is your affair,” broke in Halliday, pouring out the coffee.

“Why should I help you to escape?”

“Because you are a woman and not a fiend. Miss Armour is one, I admit, but I can see very plainly that you are a most unwilling accomplice.”

“I am, I am,” cried Mrs. Jarsell, vehemently, “years ago I was a decent woman, a good woman. She came into my life again and poisoned my existence. She worked on my jealousy and on my fear and —”

“I know; I know. She enabled you to get rid of your husband.”

“Ah!” Mrs. Jarsell reeled back as though she had been struck, “she told you that, did she?”

“She told me everything.”

“Then you will never escape; she would never let you go free with the knowledge you have of her secrets. You are doomed. As to my husband,” Mrs. Jarsell appeared to be speaking more to herself than to Dan, “he was a wicked and cruel wretch. He starved me, he beat me, he was unfaithful to me, and led me such a life as no woman could endure. Miss Armour showed me how to rid myself of him, when I was distraught with misery and passion. I thought it was sympathy with me that made her help me. It was not. All she desired was to gain some hold over me, and use my money for her own vile ends.”

“You don’t appear to love her,” said Halliday, coolly.

The woman closed the door, placed her back against it and clenched her hands in a cold fury. “I hate her; I loathe her; I detest her!” she cried, in a guttural voice, evidently consumed with rage. “For years and years and years I have been her slave. After I killed my husband, under her directions — although I don’t deny but what he deserved death — there was no retreat for me, as she could have, and would have, informed the police. I should have been hanged. She made use of her power to use my money in order to create this wicked society. It murders and slays and blackmails and —”

“I know; I know,” said Dan soothingly, “she told me all about it.”

“Then you know how evil she is. I have had to commit crimes from which my better self shrank at her command.”

“Such as the murder of Durwin,” put in Dan, quickly.

“That is only one out of many. Deeper and deeper I have sunk into the mire and now the end has come. I am glad of it.”

“Why not turn king’s evidence, and denounce this woman and her gang? Then you would be pardoned.”

“There is no pardon for my wickedness,” said Mrs. Jarsell, in a sombre tone, “I have sown, and I must reap as I have sown. It is too late. I know that your friend will come with the police. They will find the whole wicked lot of criminals here, which constitute the Society of Flies.”

“Ah! those telegrams?”

“Yes. I sent off thirty last night, for now Penn and Curberry are dead there are just thirty members. To-day all will come up since the danger to everyone is so great. I sent the wires last night, and I am confident that the members have started for Sheepeak this morning. This afternoon every one will be under this roof. All the worse for you.”

Dan quailed. “Does she really mean to torture me?” he asked nervously, and it was little to be wondered at that such a prospect did make him feel sick.

“Yes, she does,” rejoined Mrs. Jarsell, gloomily, “when the members find that there is no escape, they will be delighted to see the man who had brought this danger upon them mutilated and done to death by inches.”

“A pleasant set of people,” muttered Dan, bracing himself to meet the worst, “but I think you would not care to see me tortured.”

“No, I wouldn’t. You are brave, and young, and clever, and handsome —”

“And,” added Dan, quickly, thinking of a means to move her to help him, “I am to marry Lillian Moon. Surely you have some sympathy with me and with her?”

“Supposing I have, what can I do?”

“Help me to escape,” said Dan, persuasively.

“It’s impossible,” she growled, and went suddenly away, closing the door after her with a bang that sounded in Dan’s ears like his death-warrant.

All the same, with the courage of a brave nature, and the hopefulness inseparable from youth, he went on with his meal hoping for the best. Mrs. Jarsell was moved by his plight; he saw that, and, deeply stained as she was with compulsory crimes, she might think to atone for them by doing one good act. At the eleventh hour she might set him free, and undoubtedly she would think over what he had said. This woman, unlike the others, was not entirely evil, and the seeds of good in her breast might bring forth repentance and consequent help. Dan knew that he was clinging to a straw, but in his present dilemma there was nothing else to cling to.

After breakfast he lay down again, and again began to smoke. For hours he waited to hear his fate, sometimes stretched on his bed, sometimes seated in the chair and occasionally walking up and down the confined space of his cell. He could not disguise from himself that things were desperate. His sole hope of escape lay with Mrs. Jarsell, and that was but a slight one. Even though her remorse might wish to aid him, her terror of Queen Beelzebub might be too strong to let her move in the matter. Halliday was uncommonly brave, and extraordinarily hopeful, yet the perspiration beaded his forehead, and he shivered at the prospect of torture. Without doubt he was in hell, and the devils presided over by the infernal queen were waiting to inflict pains and penalties on him. It terrified him to think that —

“But this won’t do,” said Dan to himself, as he heard the key grate in the lock late in the afternoon. “I must pull myself together and smile. Whatever these beasts do to me, I must die game. But — but — Lillian.”

With a quiet smile he turned to greet Mrs. Jarsell, who did not look him in the face, nor did she even speak. With a gesture, he was invited to come out and for the moment had a wild idea of escape as soon as he reached the upper portion of that wicked house. But the sight of the lancet in her hand prevented him from making a dash for liberty. He knew that the merest scratch would make him a corpse, so it was not worth while to risk the attempt. Only when he was at the door of the barbaric sitting-room he whispered to Mrs. Jarsell, “You will help me to escape. I know you will. Even now you are thinking of ways and means.”

“Perhaps,” she gasped, in a low whisper, then hastily flung open the door and pushed him into the room.

With that word of hope ringing in his ears, Halliday faced his judges with a smile on his lips. The room was filled with people who greeted his entrance with a roar of anger. He was spat upon, struck at, kicked and shaken by those despairing creatures whom he had brought to book. Queen Beelzebub, seated in her big chair, at the end of the apartment, smiled viciously when she saw his reception, but did not interfere for some moments. Then she waved her hand.

“Let him be; let him be,” she said, in her malicious silvery voice, “you shall have all the revenge you desire. But let everything be done in order.”

Left alone by the furies, Halliday stood with his back to the door, and with Mrs. Jarsell on guard beside him. He glanced round at the pallid faces and thought that he had never seen such an assemblage of terror. There were old men, and young men, mixed with women of the higher and lower classes. Some were well-dressed, while others were badly clothed; some were handsome and others were ugly. But one and all bore the mark of despair written on their white faces and in their agonised eyes. It was like a gathering of the damned and only the individual who had damned them, one and all, seemed to be unmoved. Queen Beelzebub appeared calm and unshaken, looking at her prisoner quietly and speaking in a tranquil manner. Dan found himself wondering if this creature was indeed a human being or a fiend.

“We are all here,” said Miss Armour, in a dignified manner, and waving her hand again, this time to indicate the assembly; “this is the Society of Flies which you see face to face for the first and the last time. You have brought us together for an unpleasant purpose —”

“To torture and murder me, I suppose,” said Halliday, with studied insolence, and bracing his courage with the memory of Mrs. Jarsell’s whispered word.

“No. That part of our business is pleasant,” Queen Beelzebub assured him. “I look forward to enjoyment when I see you writhing in torment. But the unpleasant purpose is the disbanding of our society.”

A wail of terror arose from those present. Some dropped on their knees and beat the ground with their foreheads; others stood stiff and terror-struck, while a few dropped limply on the floor, grovelling in despair. Since all these people were criminals, who had inflicted death and sorrow on others, it was strange how they hated a dose of their own medicine. Even in the midst of his fears Dan found himself wondering at the illogicality of the degenerate mob, who expected to do evil and yet enjoy peace. Then he remembered that cruelty always means cowardice, and no longer marvelled at the expression of dread and fear on every ghastly face.

“How I propose to disband our society,” went on Queen Beelzebub, quite unmoved by that agonised wail, “there is no need for you to know. It may be that we shall break up, and each one will go here, there, and the other place. It is certain that we cannot keep together since I have received news that the police are after us.”

“Headed by Laurance.”

“Exactly. Headed by your friend Laurance. I should like to punish him, but there is no time, so you will have to bear his punishment as well as your own, Mr. Halliday. What have you to say why we should not torture you and kill you, and force you to die by inches?”

Fists were shaken, feet were stamped, and a dozen voices asked the same question. Dan looked round at his foes calmly, and shrugged his shoulders in contempt. There was a burst of jeering laughter. “You won’t look like that,” said Queen Beelzebub, significantly, “when —” she broke off with a dreadful laugh and glanced at the fire-place.

There Dan saw irons of curious shape, pincers and files and tongs, and what was worst of all, in the centre of the flames reddened a circle of steel. He could not help turning pale as he guessed that this would be placed on his head, and again he comforted himself with the memory that Mrs. Jarsell, even at the eleventh hour, might help him. When he changed colour there was a second burst of laughter, and Halliday glared fiercely round.

“Are you human beings or fiends?” he asked, “to think of torturing me. Kill me if you will, but shame as men and women should prevent you from mutilating a man, who has done you no harm.”

“No harm,” it was Queen Beelzebub who spoke while her subjects snarled like ill-fed beasts, “you dare to say that, when you have brought us to this pass?”

“I acted in the cause of law and order,” said Dan boldly.

“We despise law and order.”

“Yet you are now being brought to book by what you despise,” retorted the prisoner, and again there came that unhuman snarl.

“The more you speak in that way the worse it will be for you,” said Miss Armour, coldly, “yet you can escape some tortures if you will tell us all how you came to learn the truth about us?”

“I don’t care a damn about your tortures,” said Dan, valiantly, “and I will explain what you ask just to show that clever as your organisation is, it cannot escape discovery. Nor has it. You are all snared here like rats in a trap, and should you venture out of this house you will be caught by the authorities to be hanged as you deserve.”

A howl of rage went up, and Queen Beelzebub waved her hand once more. “All in good time,” she said quietly, “let us hear what he has to explain.”

“It was the Sumatra scent on the body of Sir Charles Moon which put me on the track,” declared Dan, folding his arms. “I traced it to Penn, who told me a lie about it. I believed him at the moment and disbelieved him when I smelt the same perfume in this very room.”

“Here?” questioned Miss Armour, and for the first time her face wore an expression of dismay, as if she had been caught napping.

“Yes. If you remember, I spoke about your cards being scented. You told me a lie about it. But that clue connected you with Moon’s murder. I watched you and I watched Mrs. Jarsell. I saw her face in a cinematograph which was taken on the day of the London to York race when Durwin was murdered.”

“Oh!” Mrs. Jarsell gasped and moaned, and Dan could hear some of the men in impotent fury grind their teeth. Queen Beelzebub was as calm as ever.

“Penn told me much when I was taking him for that flight in which I said I would throw him overboard unless he confessed. Then I was taken to the headquarters of your society in London, and again smelt the perfume. I believed that Queen Beelzebub was Mrs. Jarsell, and was astonished when I found Miss Armour playing that part. Penn’s confession was not all destroyed, and my friend Laurance has by this time shown what remains of it to the police.”

“And the telegram which Curberry received?” demanded Queen Beelzebub.

“Laurance sent that in vague terms so as to frighten Curberry. It did, and he committed suicide after declaring to me that he murdered Penn by your damned order, Miss Armour. Then —”

“Thank you, we know the rest,” she said in a quiet tone, which was infinitely sinister in its suggestion, “you followed me in the aeroplane, and smashed us both up.”

“He broke my machines, the two of them,” said a hoarse voice of wrath, and Dan looked sideways to see Vincent glaring at him furiously.

“Well, you have fallen into your own trap,” said Queen Beelzebub, savagely. “I caught you, and I hold you, and after we have had a conference as to how you will be tortured, you will expiate your crimes.”

“Crimes,” echoed Dan, “that’s a nice way to put the matter. I have done a service to the State by ridding the world of all you devils. You can’t escape hanging, not one of you,” and he looked defiantly round the room.

“We shall all escape,” said Queen Beelzebub quietly, “those who think that they will not, have no trust in me.” She rose and stretched out her arms. “I have never failed you; never, never. I shall not fail you now. I swear that not a single one of you will suffer on the gallows.”

Apparently her sway over the society was great and they believed that she could accomplish even impossibilities, for the faces of all cleared as if by magic. The look of dread, the expression of terror disappeared, and there only remained an uneasy feeling, as though none felt themselves quite safe until Queen Beelzebub performed her promise. For his part, Dan believed that the woman was lying, as he could not see how any could win free of the net which was even now being cast over the house.

“You are a set of fools, as well as a pack of wolves,” cried the young man, in a vehement manner, “the police know too much for you to escape them. My friend Laurance will lead them here; he knows this house; you are safely trapped, say what that woman will. Thieves, rogues, liars, murderers —”

“Lawyers, doctors, actors, soldiers,” scoffed Queen Beelzebub, “they all belong to the Society of Flies, and you can see them here, Mr. Halliday. Some of those ladies are in society; some are in shops; some are married, and others are not. But both men and women have acted for the good of the society, which I have founded to give each and every one what he or she desires.”

“You are all devils,” raged Dan, his wrath getting the better of his discretion, “red-handed criminals. The only decent one amongst you is Mrs. Jarsell.”

“I am decent?” gasped Mrs. Jarsell, looking up surprised.

“Yes. Because you were driven by that fiend,” he pointed to the smiling Miss Armour, “to compulsory crimes. You feel remorse —”

“Does she,” cried Queen Beelzebub, gaily, “and what good does that do, my very dear Eliza, when you know what you have to do?”

Mrs. Jarsell looked at her companion with a long and deadly look of hate, such as Dan had never thought a face was capable of expressing. “I loathe and detest you,” she said, slowly, “but for you, I would have been a good woman. I have been driven to sin by you.”

“And I shall still drive you,” shouted Queen Beelzebub, furiously; “take that man away until we decide what tortures we will inflict on him. Then when he is dead and punished for his meddling, you will either do what I have commanded you to do, or you shall be tortured also!”

The assembly, now quite certain that in some way their necks would be delivered from the rope of the law, shouted joyfully, glad to think that two people would be done to death instead of one. Mrs. Jarsell smiled in a faint, bitter manner.

“You shall be obeyed,” she said, slowly; “come, Mr. Halliday!”

“And say your prayers,” cried Queen Beelzebub as the door opened to let the pair out, “you’ll need them,” and as the door closed with Dan and Mrs. Jarsell on the outside, the young man heard again that cruel laughter.

“They are all in there,” whispered the woman catching Dan’s wrist and speaking hurriedly, “the men who captured you included. The house is quite empty outside that room. Come!”

“Where will you take me?” inquired Dan, hanging back and wincing, for now his fate hung in the balance, indeed.

“Outside. I am setting you free. Run away and probably you will meet your friend and the police. And pray for me; pray for me,” she ended vehemently.

“Why not come also?” said Dan, when he found himself at the entrance door of The Grange, “you are a good woman, and —”

“I am not good. I am wicked, and may God forgive me. But I am doing one decent thing, and that is to set you free to marry Lillian Moon. When you leave this house, I shall do another decent deed.”

“And that is?” Dan stepped outside, yet lingered to hear her answer.

“You shall see. Tell the police not to come too near the house,” and in a hurry she pushed him away and bolted the door.

Halliday ran for all he was worth from that wicked dwelling. On the high road he saw a body of men approaching, and was certain that here were the police and Laurance coming to save him. Shouting with glee at his escape he hastened towards them, when he heard a sullen heavy boom like distant thunder. He looked back at The Grange and saw a vast column of smoke towering into the sunlight. Then came a rain of debris. At last the Society of Flies were disbanded, for the house and its wicked inhabitants were shattered into infinitesimal fragments.

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