The Spider Strikes/Chapter 15
|The gigantic crime was revealed to Wentworth as he lay in the hall.|
At the top of the stairs the man, who seemed to be carrying something, turned away from the entrance to the bedroom where Wentworth stood and entered the library, through the open doorway of which the soft glow of an electric lamp suddenly shone. Immediately Wentworth advanced toward the library door, placing his feet so delicately upon the floor that no sound warned of his approach. Carefully he peered into the library, his hand upon the pistol in his pocket.
The strange man was seated with his back to the door, and Wentworth stood watching, ready to step aside into the shadows at any moment. There came to him the familiar sound of a telephone being dialed, and Wentworth knew that the man had a telephone in his lap, although he could not see it.
While he waited for the connection to be made, Wentworth observed what the man had carried upstairs. A large Gladstone bag lay open before the iron safe, from which the drapery had been thrown back. The bag lay upon the floor in such a way that he could look into it, and he saw that it was quite empty. When a man brings a bag to a safe, he brings it for the purpose of putting something into the safe or the purpose of taking something out of the safe. Since the Gladstone bag was empty Wentworth felt certain that the man was about to remove something.
But how could a man open the door of a safe from which a deadly gas exuded slightly even when that door was closed? The answer was simple and in plain view. A gas mask lay upon the floor beside the bag. Wentworth frowned. He wanted to open that safe himself.
Presently the strange man was speaking over the telephone in a low voice. "This is Dr. Quornelle," the man said. Then his voice dropped so low that Wentworth could not distinguish the words. Listening very intently, he could only gather the impression that the conversation was not to the satisfaction of the doctor. The indistinguishable words seemed to carry irritation and even suppressed anger.
In the dark hall Wentworth silently stretched himself upon the floor close to the wall by the library door and advanced his head so that he could see into the room and hear as much as possible. He was in such a position that he could withdraw his head instantly; and a head close to the floor was less apt to be detected than if it were at the height of a man.
He struggled to recognize the voice and almost thought he did so, but could not be sure. The fact that the man was Dr. Quornelle did not prove that he was the great criminal.
Then, unexpectedly, Dr. Quornelle raised his voice at the telephone, and Wentworth heard his own name. He heard more, so much more that all doubt was swept from his mind.
"Blunton is dead," Dr. Quornelle said over the telephone, his voice raised in anger. "He was killed by Richard Wentworth who covered his tracks by using the 'Spider' seal. Nobody else could have done it."
At last Wentworth knew that he was close to the man he wanted. His hand felt the pistol in his pocket, but he hesitated to attack. To do so now might make it impossible to prove the innocence of Dorothy Canfield's sweetheart. It was necessary for him to learn much more before he struck.
"If Wentworth discovered Blunton's real mission, he may try to block us." Dr. Quornelle was speaking again. "Have steam up on the Molly Ann tonight at ten o'clock. We will have to go ahead without Blunton's diagram of the ship's strong room. We will meet the ship with the foreign debt payment two days out to sea, lie across her bow to windward and snuff out everybody on board with our gas. With the gold bars in our hold, we need never again bother about such little things as pay-rolls, diamonds or stocks and bonds. This is my great venture and it must succeed."
The gigantic crime was revealed to Wentworth as he lay in the hall. It was nothing less than the stealing of a huge foreign-debt payment that was on the ocean on its way to America. In the pitiless heart of the doctor was the calm intention to murder everyone on the great ship by the use of lethal gas... It was human brutality almost beyond belief.
Again Wentworth felt the pistol in his pocket, and again he resisted the urge to kill such a man without delay. It would be a grand climax to fight this murderous criminal aboard his own ship on the eve of the colossal crime. And, in the meantime, he had other things to do. Wentworth's hand came away from the pistol in his pocket.
Dr. Quornelle replaced the receiver impatiently and set the instrument on the table by his side. With his back to Wentworth, lying by the door, he seemed to be gazing at the iron safe. Abruptly, as if the telephone conversation had altered his plans, he reached to the floor and picked up the gas mask, placing it in the drawer of a table upon the other side of his chair. Then he leaned forward and pulled the drapery back over the safe.
Not once had he turned so that his face could be seen from the doorway, and the high back of his chair even concealed his head. Undoubtedly he had decided against the immediate opening of the safe.
Wentworth waited patiently, watching, listening intently. The gloomy house, with its boarded up windows, seemed lifelessly silent. The high back of the chair in the library completely concealed the man in that chair from Wentworth's view. He almost had the feeling that Dr. Quornelle was no longer there, but the fragrance of the Havana continued and some of the cigar smoke drifted under the shade of the small lamp which stood upon the table. And into that smoke by the lamp a hand rose presently from the chair, touched the dangling chain of the lamp, pulled it. The room was plunged into darkness.
For half an hour then there was silence. The fragrance of the cigar died down. The man in the library did not move.
Suddenly the silence was broken by a short burst of laughter. It was cruel laughter, almost insane, and it concluded as abruptly as it had commenced. Dr. Quornelle had risen from his chair. Wentworth heard him coming toward the doorway and drew back his head just in time to escape a stab of light from a flash in the hand of the advancing man.
Dr. Quornelle came into the hall, his foot within an inch of Wentworth's head as he passed through the library doorway. He stood by the banister of the stairs and shot a beam from his flashlight down into the hall below. Still Wentworth was unable to obtain a view of the man's face.
After the single flash of light into the hall below, Dr. Quornelle stood still in the darkness. Apparently he was thinking and, if so, the result of his thought was not very pleasant. Again came a burst of hideous laughter, laughter which might find its cause in pain or death, sadist laughter perhaps.
The figure, which Wentworth could just distinguish in the darkness, moved away from the banister and became indistinguishable. Presently there was the sound of a key in a lock, and Wentworth knew that Dr. Quornelle was entering the locked room at the rear of the house. He heard the door open and close, and then he heard the sound of the key in the lock.
Very cautiously Wentworth groped his way to the locked door. He placed his eye to the keyhole and saw daylight dimly, but could not discern any objects except what appeared to be a row of bottles upon a bench or long table.
Kneeling upon the floor, Wentworth turned his head sidewise and placed an ear flat against a panel of the door. He could hear the doctor moving around and suddenly he was surprised to hear him talking. Was it possible that someone, a prisoner perhaps, was in that locked room with the doctor?
Wentworth listened intently, but could hear no answering voice when the doctor ceased speaking. He seemed to be talking to himself or to a person who refused to reply. Through the door it was impossible to understand what was being said, but the tone of voice carried cruelty and hatred.
The doctor stopped talking and presently Wentworth heard him grunt as if he were exerting himself physically. Through the keyhole Wentworth caught a glimpse of his bent back. He seemed to be lifting some heavy object. There was the distinct thud of the object being set down after being lifted.
There came then another burst of the horrid laughter, and the key rattled unexpectedly in the lock. Wentworth just had time to regain the cover of the bedroom doorway.
Dr. Quornelle emerged from the locked room, slammed the door behind him and locked it again. He seemed very much excited, throwing the beam from his flashlight erratically around the hall and chuckling horridly to himself. Again he came very close to Wentworth, and suddenly halted as if he sensed something, perhaps another presence. Wentworth held his breath, but the doctor moved on and began to descend the stairs. His chuckling ceased and he began to go quietly, stealthily. Behind him Wentworth followed cautiously and as closely as he dared.
Dr. Quornelle reached the main floor and descended to the basement. Wentworth, following with expert stealth, saw him make his exit by means of the rear door which opened on the back yard. Not once had he been able to obtain a view of the doctor's face.
As soon as he dared he opened the back door gently and peered out. The yard was empty, the doctor, evidently, having crossed quickly to the door in the wall and passed out.
Wentworth retraced his steps to the second floor, his memory serving him so well that he did not need the aid of his flashlight. There were two things which aroused his interest, the iron safe and the locked room at the rear of the house. Each would seem to contain a secret to be discovered.
The situation appealed to his fancy in the extreme, and he was thoroughly enjoying himself. He decided to investigate the locked room first, since opening the safe, if the gas were as deadly as he anticipated, might render further work in the house uncomfortable if not actually dangerous.
The locked door gave him little trouble. He opened it almost as quickly as Dr. Quornelle had done with the regular key. There was considerable daylight in the room due to the fact that a board had been wrenched off the boarding of a window. What Wentworth saw was a small laboratory. There were the usual shelves of bottles, sinks, racks of test tubes, reports and scales for analysis. Against the wall on one side of the room was a long fume chamber, a glass compartment for the carrying out of chemical experiments or operations which gave off obnoxious gases. Such chambers are fairly air tight except that they have ducts for the entrance of air at the bottom when a fan is used to draw off the fumes through a vent at the top.
Wentworth swept the laboratory with his eyes, then sprang quickly to the fume chamber. Inside the long, box-like structure was a man.
He was lying on his back, bound and gagged, and one glance was sufficient to inform him that he had found Jack Selwyn. Notwithstanding the gag, Wentworth recognized the face as that of the photograph upon the back of which little Dorothy Canfield had so unwisely written the new name and address of her sweetheart.
Swiftly Wentworth threw up the long, sliding front of the fume chamber, then staggered back. Gas flowed out upon him, illuminating gas from a number of Bunsen burners inside the chamber. The fiendish method of death was apparent. It was apparent too, that Selwyn was the object which Dr. Quornelle had struggled to lift and that the one-sided conversation had been due to the gag in Selwyn's mouth.
With unbelievable cruelty the doctor had probably taunted his victim while he lifted him into the fume chamber. He had then turned on the gas, closed the contraption and callously left the house chuckling with glee. Such a cruel and unnecessary form of death could only be the result of a diseased mind.
Cursing himself for not having investigated the locked room when he first entered the house, Wentworth held his breath while he leaned into the fume chamber and lifted Selwyn in his arms. He carried him across the room and deposited him upon the floor under the window from which part of the boarding had been removed. Rapidly he returned to the fume chamber and closed its sliding front, stopping the escape of further gas into the room. Then he knelt by the insensible man, swiftly cutting the bindings and removing the gag.
Jack Selwyn was a large and powerful man, but there was no strength left in his body. His chest was motionless, giving no sign of breathing. Wentworth pressed a wrist with his fingers, feeling for the pulse. There was no pulse.
Richard Wentworth had an attractive face. But, as he sat beside the man on the floor, that face contorted with so much anger that it became almost frightful. Here was the one thing which was unbearable to him— defeat! He had set out to bring happiness to a young couple he did not even know, a boy and girl in great trouble. The excitement and the danger enthralled him, but deep in his heart, unspoken to his friends, was the urge to bring happiness, romance to others. And now, beside him, lay heartbreak for little Dorothy.
Abruptly the anger left his face and in its place came grim determination. He refused to accept defeat even when the heart had stopped beating.
Rapidly he removed Selwyn's coat and vest and turned the limp body upon its face, pulling one arm directly forward and bending the other at the elbow so that the cheek rested on the back of the hand, mouth toward the finger tips. Then he knelt, straddling one of Selwyn's legs at the thigh.
For an instant Wentworth hesitated then sent a fist crashing through the window to admit more air. He placed his hands on each side of Selwyn's back, just above the belt line, with his wrists four inches apart, thumb and fingers together; the little fingers over and following the line of the lowest rib; the tips of the fingers just out of his sight. For a second he swung the weight of his body forward until his shoulders were directly over his hands. Then he snapped his hands sidewise off his patient and swung his relaxed body to a resting position on his heels for a couple of seconds.
Over and over again he repeated this operation, twelve to fifteen times per minute, forcing some air into and out of the lungs each time. He worked steadily, grimly. Minute followed minute, and half an hour passed. Still there was no sign of life. He continued the operation with the endurance of a great gymnast, knowing that it must be continued without a break for four hours or more before all hope was gone. His right hand, bleeding from the broken glass of the window, left Selwyn's shirt bloody. But Wentworth paid no attention to his own wound.
Each time that Wentworth relaxed, sitting upon his heels for two seconds, his head came on a level with the window so that he could see into the backyard below. Almost directly below him, so that he could just catch a glimpse of it each time he sat upright on his heels, was the door in the wall which surrounded the yard. Automatically he watched that door as he worked, counting the seconds to maintain the regularity of the life-restoring operation.
An hour passed, and the muscles of the working man were tense with fatigue. There was no one to relieve him. To stop the operation was to rob young Selwyn of the slight chance which he might have to live and, also, to rob Wentworth, himself, of the slight chance of turning his seeming defeat into victory. He worked on, paying no attention to his wounded hand which was now encrusted with blood.
Then suddenly, as he sat upright upon his heels, tired and aching, the door in the wall opened. A man came through and strode toward the house. He was visible to Wentworth only for a few seconds and, seen from almost directly above, his face was hidden by the brim of his hat. But the man walked with a very slight limp, and Wentworth knew that Dr. Quornelle was returning to the house.
Not for a second did Wentworth relax his efforts, not even when he jerked his pistol out of his pocket and dropped it beside him upon the floor. Nor would he break the rhythm of his operation at any cost. He would shoot it out with his enemy while he worked, freeing one hand perhaps for an instant's use of the pistol...
- (Editor's note: We have asked the author to give this description in full. If all our readers memorized it, many additional lives would be saved.)