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CHAPTER XVI.

THE NOISE WHICH CAME FROM THE PASSAGE.

Smash, crash, smash! Pollie had thrust me aside. She was battering at the door with her poker, issuing, as she did so, her instructions to me.

“Light a match, you idiot! light a match!”

I did. She paused to enable her to learn, by the aid of its uncertain flicker, what effect her blows had had upon the door.

“Give it to me. Light another! Do as I tell you, keep on lighting one. I’ll do all that there is to do; all you have to do is to keep a light upon the scene. Do you hear?—I thought that poker would be equal to a wooden door.”

She had broken in one of the panels, leaving a hole almost large enough for her to put her hand through.

“Give me another match; as many as you can; as fast as you can!”

I gave her them as quickly as I could get them lighted. She held half a dozen between her fingers at a time. Keeping her face close to the break in the panel she endeavoured, by their light, to see what was without.

“Now, Mr. Bogey-man, where are you? Step to the front, don’t be shy! Let’s see what kind of an article you are. It’s only Pollie Blyth, you pretty thing; you’re not afraid of Pollie Blyth? Perhaps you’re the father of the daughter of the gods; if so, I’m sure I should like to have a peep at you, you must be so good-looking. You see that I’m obeying. When I reach you I’ll show you how to do some obeying on your own. I’ll thank you properly for treating the mistress of the house as if she were the dirt beneath your feet. Emily, my dear, there’s nothing and no one to be seen; move faster with those matches do! I’m afraid Mr. Bogey-man is a cur and a coward. He has a big voice, but that’s all that’s big about him. Perhaps he suspects that this poker is harder than his head; and, between you, I, and the door post, I shouldn’t be surprised if he finds he’s right. Keep lively with those matches. I don’t fancy there’ll be much trouble in dealing with this curiosity in locks; but I should like to have some idea of what I’m doing. Now then, stand clear! Here’s to you, Mr. Bogey-man.”

She brought down the poker with a force of which I had never supposed her capable; this was a new Pollie, whose existence was becoming for the first time known to me. I wondered what they would have thought of her at Cardew and Slaughter’s! The rotten old lock started from its fastenings; the door itself was shaken to its foundations.

“That’s one. There’s not much about this job to try your strength on. I think we shall manage it in three. Here’s to our early meeting, Mr. Bogey-man.”

She managed it in three. At the third blow the door was open. I had not expected it so soon. Taken unawares, before I had time to shield the light the draught had blown it out. Of course Pollie turned to rend me.

“That’s you all over; such a sensible thing to do. Don’t let us have a light when we want it most. How do you suppose that we are going to see Mr. Bogey-man when we can’t see anything?”

As it happened, her reproach was premature. Just then we could see a good deal; all that there was to see. As the door swung open the landing was illumined by a faint white light, which was yet strong enough to throw all objects into distinct relief. It seemed to ascend from below. Pollie rushed to the banisters; to discover nothing.

“More tricks, I suppose. What a box of tricks somebody seems to have. Reminds you of the Egyptian Hall, doesn’t it, my dear? Thank you, whoever you are, for this magic lantern effect; and for allowing us to see that there is nothing to be seen. It’s so good of you to show a trifle of light upon the situation; isn’t it, my sweet?”

She paused; as if for an answer. None came. The light continued. She turned to me, speaking at the top of her voice, with the obvious intention of making her words audible to whomsoever the house might contain.

“Tell me, Emily, what you would advise me to do. Shall I go straight away to a police station; say that in two rooms in this house are hidden a pack of thieves; return with an adequate police force, have the rooms broken open and their inmates arrested? or shall I address myself to the persons whom we know are in concealment; tell them that I am Pollie Blyth, the rightful owner of this house; appeal to their better natures; assuring them that if they will trust in me they shall not have cause to complain of misplaced confidence; and that I will do all that an honest woman may to shield them from the consequences of any offences of which they have been guilty. Which of these two courses would you advise me to take?”

I hesitated before replying. When I spoke it was in a voice which was very many tones lower than hers. She objected to its gentleness.

“I would suggest——

“Speak up. You’re not afraid of being overheard.”

I was, though I was not disposed to admit as much. Clearing my throat, I tried to speak a little louder. Although the loudness of my voice startled me. It did not come within miles of her stentorian utterances.

“I think you had better go straight away to the police station; I feel sure you had.”

“I believe you are right. But as that would probably mean that anyone found hiding on my premises would be sent to prison for life; and I do not wish to have even the worst characters hauled into jail without giving them a chance to clear themselves, I will listen to the dictates of mercy first of all. Do you understand?”

Going to the closed door which adjoined the bedroom we had just quitted she beat a tattoo on it with the end of the poker.

“You may be sure that what I say I mean, so if you are wise you will be warned in time. Come out, and make a clean breast of why you have been trying to hide in such a ridiculous manner from the rightful owner of these premises, and all may yet be well with you. I’m a forgiving sort of person when I’m taken in the right way. But if you won’t come out, I’ll have you dragged out by the head and heels, and then all will be ill with you, very ill indeed. For I’m the hardest nut you ever cracked if I’m taken in the wrong way. Do you hear, you daughter of the gods, or whoever you are?”

The inquiry was emphasised by another tattoo with the end of the poker. At its close she paused for a reply. None came. She was evidently dissatisfied that her eloquence should have met with so bald a result.

“Very well, Emily, you will bear me witness that I gave them due and proper warning. It will be all nonsense for them to pretend that they haven’t heard. They couldn’t help but hear. See how I’ve shouted. Oh yes, they’ve all heard right enough! Now they must take the consequences of their own stupidity. Their blood will be on their own heads. They’ll have to suffer. Oh, won’t you just have to suffer!”

Another salute from the end of the poker. While she was still hammering at the door, the mysterious light which had continued hitherto to illumine the staircase, without any sort of notice died away.

“Emily!—a match!—quick! I think I hear someone moving.”

I also had thought that I heard a movement; which was not rats. I struck a light as rapidly as my blundering fingers would permit.

“Come to the banisters, hurry! If anyone is going to act upon my excellent advice, and is coming up the stairs, let’s have a chance of seeing who it is.”

In my anxiety not to baulk her impatience I hastened towards her before the match had properly ignited; as a result, with a little splutter, it went out.

“You idiot! Don’t you know that life and death may hang upon your being able to keep a match alight?”

I knew it as well as she did. The knowledge did not tend to steady my nerves; especially when it was emphasised in such a fashion. I made several ineffectual efforts to induce a match to burn; with one accord they refused to do anything. Uttering an angry ejaculation Pollie struck one of her own.

“Emily, there is someone moving; but they’re not coming up, they’re going down. Then if they won’t come to me I must go to them, that’s all. Mr. Bogey-man, or Miss Daughter-of-the-gods, or whoever you are, if you please, I want a word with you.”

Without giving me a hint of what she intended to do she rushed down the stairs, half-a-dozen at a time. Of course the match she carried was immediately extinguished. I could hear her, undeterred by its extinction, plunging blindly down through the darkness. I succeeded in getting one of my matches to burn. I leaned over the banisters to let her have the benefit of any radiance it might afford. I could see nothing of her. She was on the flight below.

“Pollie! Pollie!” I cried. “Do be careful what you’re doing.”

I could not tell if she heard me. The warning went unheeded if she did. My match went out. Before I could strike another there arose, through the darkness, from the passage below, the most dreadful tumult I had ever heard. Shriek after shriek from Pollie; shrieks as of mortal terror. A growling noise, as of some wild animal in sudden rage. The din of a furious struggle. How long the uproar lasted I cannot say. On a sudden there came a wilder, more piercing scream from Pollie than any which had gone before; the growling grew more furious; there was the sound of a closing door, and all was still.

The death-like silence which followed was of evil omen. The contrast to the discord of a moment back was frightfully significant. I clung to the banisters to help me stand. What had happened to Pollie? What, shortly—at any second! might happen to me? I did not dare to try and think. I felt the handrail slipping from my grasp. Merciful oblivion swept over me. I was conscious of nothing more.