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The Riddle of the Night

The Riddle of the Night

Thomas W. Hanshew

Update: 2020-04-22

Chapter 1 A MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR

  • It was half-past eleven on the night of Wednesday, April 14th, when the well- known red limousine of Mr. Maverick Narkom, superintendent of Scotland Yard, came abruptly to the head of Mulberry Lane, which, as you may possibly know, is a narrow road skirting one of the loneliest and wildest portions o_imbledon Common.
  • Lennard, the chauffeur, put on the brake with such suddenness that the ca_eemed actually to rise from the earth, performed a sort of buzzing an_norting semicircle, and all but collided with the rear wall of Wutherin_range before coming to a halt in the narrow road space which lay between tha_all and the tree-fringed edge of the great Common.
  • Under ordinary circumstances one might as soon have expected to run foul of _pecimen of the great auk rearing a family in St. Paul's churchyard, as t_ind Mr. Narkom's limousine in the neighbourhood of Mulberry Lane at any hou_f the day or the night throughout the whole cycle of the year.
  • For a reason which will be made clear in the course of events, however, th_uperintendent had been persuaded to go considerably out of his way befor_eturning to town after mingling duty with pleasure in taking part in th_estivities attendant upon the coming of age of his friend Sir Phili_lavering's son and heir, and, incidentally, in seeing, too, that Petrie an_ammond, two of his sergeants, kept a watchful eye upon the famous Claverin_ervice of gold plate which had been brought out of the bank vault for th_ccasion.
  • All three were sitting serenely back among the cushions of the limousine a_he period when Lennard brought it to this abrupt and startling halt, th_esult of which was to fairly jerk them out of their seats and send the_prawling over one another in a struggling heap.
  • There was a moment of something like absolute confusion, for mist and darknes_nveloped both the road and the Common, and none of the three could se_nything from the windows of the car which might decide whether they ha_ollided with some obstruction or were hovering upon the brink of som_angerous and unexpected pitfall.
  • Nor were their fears lessened by perceiving—through the glass screen—tha_ennard had started up from his seat, and, with a hastily produced electri_orch in one upraised hand, was leaning forward and wildly endeavouring t_iscern something through the all-enfolding mist. Mr. Narkom hastily unlatche_he door and leaned out.
  • "What is it? What's gone wrong?" he inquired in the sharp staccato o_xcitement. "Anything amiss?"
  • "Lord, yessir! I heard a shot and a cry. A pistol shot … and a police whistle … and a cry of murder, sir. Up the lane ahead of us!" began Lennard, in _uaking voice; then he uttered a cry of fright, for, of a sudden, the darknes_as riven by the screaming note of a police whistle—of two police whistles i_act: shrilling appeal and answer far up the lonely lane.
  • Hard on this came a man's voice shouting: "Head him off there, whoever yo_re! Don't let him get by you. Look sharp! He's making for the railway arch!"
  • "All right, mate. I'm here!" another male voice flung back. "He won't get pas_e, the blighter!"
  • Instantly there struck out the swift-measured sound of heavily shod fee_acing at top speed up the mist-shrouded lane, and rapidly increasing th_istance between the unseen runner and the standing limousine.
  • No need to tell either Narkom or his men that the man whose steps they hear_as a constable, for there is a distinctive note, to ears that are trained, rung out by the heavy, cumbersome boots which folly accords to the Britis_oliceman.
  • Catching the ring of that telltale note now, Narkom shouted out at the top o_is voice: "All right, Constable! Stick to him! Help coming!"
  • Then with a word of command to Lennard he pulled in his head, slammed th_oor, and the chauffeur, dropping back to his seat, threw open the clutch an_ent the limousine bounding up the lane at a fifty-mile clip.
  • To-night, with the trees shadowing it and the mist crowding in, shoulder high, from the adjacent Common, the lane was a mere dark funnel; but to Lennard, whose boyhood had been passed within hailing distance of the place, i_ossessed no mysteries that the night or the vapour could hide.
  • He knew that it ran on for some seven or eight hundred feet, with the hig_rick wall which marked the rear boundary of Wuthering Grange on one side o_t and straggling trees and matted gorse bushes shutting it in on the other, until it dipped down a steadily increasing incline, and ran straightwa_hrough an old brick-walled, brick-roofed arch of a long-abandoned Wimbledo_oop line.
  • Some two hundred feet upon the other side of this it divided into a sort of
  • "Y," one branch swerving to the left forming a right of way across the meadow_o the public highway, whilst the other struck out over the Common to th_ight, crossed Beverly Brook, and merged at length into the road which lead_o Coombe Wood, and thence, through picturesque ways, to Kingston and th_iver.
  • The limousine took those seven or eight hundred feet between the head of th_ane and the old railway arch at such a stupendous pace that it seemed to hav_o more than started before the distance was eaten up and it came to hal_gain; but this time, in such a din and babel of struggling and shouting tha_ennard seemed to have reached the very gateway of Sheol.
  • Narkom and his men were out of the vehicle almost as the brake fell int_lace, and clicking their electric pocket torches into sudden flame, rushe_eadlong into the black opening of the arch, into which they had taken bu_alf a dozen steps, when they came upon a startling sight.
  • Snarling and yapping like a couple of fighting dogs and crying out in concert:
  • "Got you, you blighter! Got you fast!" were two men, locked tight in eac_ther's arms, reeling and swaying—one wearing the official badge of a_ppointed Common keeper, the other in the helmet and tunic of an ordinar_onstable.
  • "Lend a hand, gov'ner, for Gawd's sake!" rapped out the former. "Name'_awson, sir—keeper on the Common— Number four, sir. Got the blackguard!
  • Murder, sir—got him red handed!"
  • "Good Lord!" little more than gulped the man he held.
  • The two pairs of gripping hands dropped, the struggling figures fell apart, and the two men who but an instant before had been locked in an angry embrac_tood staring at each other in open-mouthed amazement.
  • "What kind of a game is this?" demanded Narkom, as with his allies he crowde_orward. "You two people are paid to keep the peace, not to break it, das_ou!"
  • "My word!" exclaimed the Common keeper, finding his voice suddenly. "A copper, is it?—a copper! when I thought… . Gawd's truth, Constable, wot have you don_ith him? He run in here with me on his blessed heels. You didn't let him ge_ast you, did you?"
  • "No fear!" snapped out the constable indignantly. "I stood her_aiting—waiting and shouting to you—until you ran smack into my blessed arms; and if anybody but you come in _your_ side of the arch, he never come out o'
  • mine, I'll take my solemn oath!"
  • "Then where's he gone? Wot's become of him?" shouted the Common keepe_xcitedly. "I tell you I was on the very heels of him from the moment I firs_histled and called out to you to head him off. I could a-most have touche_im when he dashed in here; and—and his footsteps never stopped soundin' fo_ne second the whole blessed time. Murder is wot he's done—murder!—and I'v_een on his heels from the very moment he fired the shot."
  • Narkom and his allies lost not an instant in revealing their identity an_isplaying their insignia of office to the two men.
  • "Murder is it, Keeper?" exclaimed the superintendent, remembering all at onc_hat Lennard had said about hearing the cry and the shot. "When and how? Lea_e to the body."
  • "Lor' bless you, sir, I aren't 'ad no time nor chanct to look after any body,"
  • replied the keeper. "All's I can tell you is that I was out there in m_helter on the Common when I heard the first cry—like as some one was callin'
  • for help whiles some one else had 'em by the windpipe, sir; so I dashes ou_nd cuts through the mist and gorse as fast as my blessed legs could carry me.
  • Jist as I gets to the edge of the lane, sir, 'Bang!' goes a revolver shot jist
  • 'arf a dozen feet in front of me, and a man, wot I couldn't see 'ide nor 'ai_f on account of the mist, nicks out o' somewheres, and cuts off down the lan_ike a blessed race 'orse. I outs with me whistle and blows it as 'ard as _ould, and cuts off after him. He never stopped runnin' for a blessed instant.
  • He never doubled on me, never turned to the right nor to the left, gov'ner, but jist dashes into this arch—straight in front of me, sir, and me running o_lmost within reachin' distance, until I runs smack into the arms of thi_onstable here, and grabs _him_ , thinkin' I'd got my man for sure. Whereve_e's got to since, I tell you he come in here, sir—smack _in_!—and me afte_im; and if he didn't get past the constable——"
  • "He didn't— I've told you so once, and I'll stick to it!" interrupted th_onstable himself, with some show of heat. "What do you take me for—an ol_oman? Look here, Mr. Narkom, sir, my name's Mellish. It's true I've only bee_n the force a little over a week, sir, but my sergeant will tell you I've go_y wits about me and aren't in the least likely to let a man slip past me i_he manner that this chap thinks. _Nothing_ went past me—nothing the size of _at, let alone a man, sir—and if the party in question really _did_ come i_ere——"
  • "I'll soon settle that question!" rapped in Narkom sharply.
  • He flung a hurried command to Lennard, waved Petrie and Hammond aside, and a_nstant later the limousine moved swiftly up out of the mist until its bul_illed the entrance of the arch and its blazing acetylene lamps were sweepin_t with light from end to end. Smooth as a rifle bore, its damp walls an_urving roof shone out in the sudden glare—not a brick displaced, not _revice big enough to shelter a rat much less a human being—and of the man th_ommon keeper had been chasing, not a sign nor a trace anywhere!
  • "Whatever the fellow did or wherever he went, he can't have gone far, so loo_harp, my lads!" commanded Narkom. "If we're quick we're sure to nab him. Com_long, Constable, come along, Keeper. Lennard, you stop where you are an_uard the exit from the arch, so if he doubles on us he can't get by _you_!"
  • "Right you are, sir!" responded Lennard, as the superintendent and the fou_en made a dash toward that end of the arch through which the keeper was s_ositive the fugitive had come.
  • "I say, Mr. Narkom!" he added, raising his voice and shouting after them.
  • "Eyes sharp to the left, all of you, when you get outside this arch. Know th_eighbourhood like a book, sir. Lane forks out into a 'Y' after you get abou_ifty yards on. Branches off on the left where there's an old house calle_leer Cottage, sir, that hasn't been tenanted for years and years. Walle_arden—tool house—stable. Great place for man to hide, sir!"
  • "Good boy! Thanks!" flung back Narkom. "Come on, my lads! Lively!"
  • Then they swung out of the arch with a rush, and the last that Lennard saw o_hem before the shrouding mist took them and blotted them from his view, the_ere pelting up the lane at top speed and making headlong for the branching
  • "Y" to which he had directed them, their footsteps sounding on the mois_urface of the road and their electric torches emitting every now and again _park like a glowworm flashing.
  • Five minutes passed—the click of their flying steps had dropped off int_ilence; the flash of their torches had vanished in the distance and the mist; even the blurred sound of their excited voices was stilled; and neither ea_or eye could now detect anything but the soft drip of the moisture from th_oof of the arch and the white oblivion of the close-pressing, ever-thickenin_ist.
  • Still he sat there, waiting—alert, watchful, keen—looking straight before hi_nd keeping a close watch on the unobstructed end of the miniature tunne_hose entire length was still flooded with the glare from the motor's lamps.
  • If a mouse had crawled down its damp walls he must have seen it; if even s_uch as a shadow had come up out of that wilderness of mist and crept into th_lace, he must have detected, it. But there was nothing; neither man no_east, neither shade nor shadow; only the loneliness and the mist and the soft
  • "plick-plick!" of the dropping moisture.
  • The five minutes became eight, ten, a dozen, without the slightest change i_nything. Then, all of a sudden, Lennard's tense nerves gave a sort of jum_nd a swift prickle flashed up his spine and through his hair. A sound ha_ome—a rustle—a step—a movement. Not from the direction in which he wa_ooking, however, but from the lane beyond the arch and _behind_ th_imousine.
  • He jumped to his feet and rising on tiptoe on his driver's seat flashed th_ight of his electric torch back over the top of the vehicle; what he saw too_ll the breath out of him and set his heart and pulses hammering furiously.
  • Against that thick blanket of mist the penetrating power of the torch's glea_as so effectually blunted that it could do nothing more than throw a pale, weak circle of light a few feet into the depths of a crowding vapour, leavin_ll beyond and upon either side doubly dark in contrast.
  • Yet as the light streamed out and flung that circle into the impinging mist, there moved across it the figure of a woman, young and fair, with a scarf o_ace thrown over her head, from beneath which fell a glory of unbound hair, thick and lustrous, over shoulders that were wrapped in ermine—ermine in mid- April!
  • A woman! Here! At this hour! In this time of violence and evil doing! Th_hing was so uncanny, so unnatural, so startlingly unexpected, that Lennard'_ead swam.
  • She was gone so soon—just glimmering across the circle of light and the_anishing into the mist as suddenly as she had appeared—that for a moment o_wo he lost his nerve and his wits, and ducked down under the screen of th_otor's top, remembering all the tales he had ever heard of ghosts an_pparitions, and, in a moment of folly, half believing he had looked upon one.
  • But of a sudden his better sense asserted itself, and realizing that for _oman— _any_ woman, no matter how dressed, no matter how young and fair an_ood to look upon—to be moving stealthily about this place, at this hour, whe_here was talk of murder, was at least suspicious, he laid hands upon th_heel, and being unable to turn the vehicle in the arch and go after _her_ , put on full power and went after Narkom and his men. A swift whizz carried hi_hrough the arch and up the lane, and, once in the open, he laid hand upon th_ulb of the motor horn and sent blast after blast hooting through th_tillness, shouting at the top of his voice as he scorched over the ground:
  • "Mr. Narkom! Mr. Narkom! This way, sir, this way! This way!"