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Title: Smothered in Corpses
Author: Ernest Bramah
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0700291.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: February 2007
Date most recently updated: September 2009

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Title: Smothered in Corpses
Author: Ernest Bramah



The author of the following story deems it permissible to himself to
explain that the work was projected, and, indeed, almost completed, as a
120,000 word serial of feuilleton scope, when a much-advertised
competition for stories of not more than 4000 words in length came under
his notice. Not to be deterred by the conditions, he at once set himself
to the formidable task of reducing his manuscript to one-thirtieth of its
original length. The result must, of course, be regarded purely on its
merits, but in the writer's own opinion the process of compression has,
if anything, keyed up the action to an even tenser pitch, without in any
way detracting from the interest of the plot or circumscribing the wealth
of incident.



I. THE END OF THE BEGINNING


Where had it come from?

I, John Beveledge Humdrum, general practitioner, of 305A, Hammersmith
Road, Kensington, had come down to breakfast on that eventful July
morning expecting nothing more exciting than eggs and bacon with which my
excellent man Perkins had regularly provided me on similar occasions for
the past eleven years.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, on throwing open the door of the
book-case that contained my sparse collection of medical works, in order
to consult Abernethy on Biscuits, to be confronted by the doubled-up
corpse of a young man of distinguished appearance, wearing a suit of
evening clothes of the most expensive cut.

My thoughts flew back to the events of the previous evening in an attempt
to unravel the mystery. Had anything remarkable happened? And then I
remembered an incident, trivial enough in itself, which might supply a
clue. At about eight o'clock I had received a professional summons,
notable as being the first in my career. A heavily-veiled woman
wearing a complete set of massive ermines had descended from a
magnificently-appointed motor-car before my door. In response to her
impassioned appeal, delivered with a marked Castilian accent, I had
accompanied her to a miserable tenement dwelling in a sordid Limehouse
slum. Here, after I had reluctantly given a pledge of secrecy and
permitted myself to be blindfolded (even to this day the mingled aroma of
Enigma Vanishing Cream and frying spaghetti vividly recalls the scene), I
was taken to the bedside of my patient, a fair-haired boy of three or
four. A villainous-looking Chinaman who was in attendance gave me to
understand, partly by signs and partly in pidgin English, that the child
had swallowed a bone button. Being unacquainted with the exact treatment
of such a case, I recommended his removal to the nearest hospital. As
there was nothing more to detain me I left at once, overwhelmed by the
passionate gratitude of my mysterious caller; but as I glanced back at
the corner of the disreputable street, I saw a face charged with
diabolical hatred watching me from the grimy window of the room I had
just quitted. It was the visage of the aged Chinaman, who, but a moment
before, had been bowing to me with true Oriental deference. As I looked,
rather puzzled to account for his strage behaviour, a terrible explosion
shook the ground, the front of the house disappeared, and a singed
pigtail fell at my feet.

Recalling all this I was on the point of ringing for Perkins in order to
question him, when something caused me to hesitate.

It was well that I did so. The next moment the double doors of the French
window that overlooked the bustling turmoil of Kensington's busiest
thoroughfare were flung frantically open, and there sprang into the room
a young girl whose dazzling beauty was, if possible, heightened
heightened by the breathless excitement under which she was labouring.

"Dr. Humdrum," she exclaimed, throwing aside the luxuriant crimson opera
cloak that had hitherto concealed the supple perfection of her lithe
form, "save me! Help me!" and a look of baffling terror swept across her
mobile features.

"Certainly," I stammered, bewildered for the moment by this strange
intrusion into the dull routine of my commonplace existence, "but first
let me have your name and address for entering into my caller's book."

For reply she dragged from her finger a ring set with a cluster of
diamonds that had once, as I was afterwards to learn, graced the crown of
an Eastern potentate, and with impulsive generosity flung it into the
coal-scuttle.

"Call me Erratica," she murmured, with a slightly different look of
terror contorting her lovely features. (And here, for the sake of
brevity, I would remark that during the first seven weeks of our strange
friendship she either shook with terror or shivered with apprehension
whenever she spoke to me or I to her.) "Seek to know no more. Only save
me!"

I was at my wits' end. She had already, with a gesture of loathing,
hurled out of the window the glass of sal volatile which I had poured out
for her, and that exhausted the first-aid remedies with which I was
familiar.

"Save you from what?"

"From my enemies. I saw them knocking at your door. That is why I came in
by the window."

"Would it not have been more prudent--" I began.

"Hush!" she whispered, tapping her exquisitely-modelled musical comedy
teeth with her shapely Italian forefinger. "They are at hand. Play your
part well." Then, with unsuspected strength and a knowledge of the
arrangements of my modest apartment that staggered me, she tore open the
door of the book-case, flung the corpse that it contained on to my
dissecting table, and without a moment's hesitation took its place and
pulled the door to after her.

"Open in the name of the law!"

Rather perturbed as to what the fair creature required me to do, I obeyed
the summons and was relieved to see before me the burly form of Inspector
Badger of the Detective Service, an officer with whom I was well
acquainted.

"Rum case, that of the murdered prima-donna, Dr. Humdrum," he remarked
affably. As he spoke he took a seat on the corner of the dissecting table
and thus, luckily enough, overlooked its grim burden in the glance of
keen professional scrutiny that he cast round the room. "I thought that
I'd just look you up and see if you knew anything about it before I
ordered any arrests."

"Murdered prima-donna!" I stammered. "I haven't even heard of it. Surely
you don't suspect--?"

"Suspect you?" said the Inspector with a hearty laugh. "Why, no, sir; but
as it happens a bone button, wrapped in a sheet of paper bearing one of
your prescriptions, had been used to gag the poor creature with. That and
the yard of pigtail tied round her neck are our only clues as yet."

At the mention of these details, I could not repress a start, which would
scarcely have escaped Badger's notice had he not been engaged at the
moment in taking a wax impression of my boots.

"Tell me all about it," I remarked, with all the nonchalance I could
muster. "I have heard nothing. Who is she?"

"Senora Rosamunda de Barcelona, the celebrated Spanish singer," replied
the Inspector. "She left Covent Garden at half-past eleven last night,
alone and wearing a crimson opera cloak."

"Surely that was rather late to be shopping," I interposed, with the
happy inspiration of diverting his attention. "Would not the market then
be closed?"

"I understand that there is a sort of play-house there, where a lot of
these foreigners appear," he replied guardedly. "By the way now--"

Possibly the compromising garment lying on the floor between us would not
have caught Badger's eye had I not endeavoured to kick it beneath the
table. However, the thing was done.

"Ah, my old M.D. gown of the University of Ploughhandle, Ga., USA," I
explained, with a readiness that astonishes me to this day, as I followed
the direction of his glance. "I use it as a dressing-gown."

"Very natty too," he remarked. "Well, at seven this morning the Senora
was discovered propped up in the vestibule of the Hotel Majestic, stabbed
in eleven places."

"And the opera cloak?" I felt impelled to ask.

"The opera cloak had disappeared."

I rose to indicate that the instalment was almost complete. The Inspector
took the hint.

"I'll look you up later in the day if anything really baffling turns up,"
he promised as he walked towards the door. Suddenly he paused and faced
the bookcase.

"What was that, sir? Didn't you hear a noise in the cupboard?"

"Search it by all means if you wish, Badger," I replied with the utmost
sangfroid, "but it only contains my zinc ointment, ammoniated quinine
and--er--a little bundle of odds and ends. As for the noise--they have the
chimney-sweep in next door."

"I shouldn't think of doubting your word, sir," said the Inspector. Then
very coolly he locked the cupboard door without opening it and slipped
the key into his pocket. "A mere formality, but just as well to be on the
safe side," he observed.

When I returned to the room--I accompanied Badger to the outer door
myself--I stood for a moment considering the new complication.

"Deuced awkward!" I muttered, walking towards the book-case.

"That will be all right, sir," interposed the soft voice of Perkins
behind me. "The key of my wardrobe fits all the locks in your
sitting-room--except that of the tantalus, I should say," and he held
out the indicated object for me to take. Under what circumstances my
exemplary man had made the discovery I did not stop to investigate, but I
have no doubt that he had conscientiously listened to every word of one
if not of both conversations that morning.

I did not lose a moment in unlocking the door of the book-case and
throwing it widely open to release my fair visitor.

But the many-clawed hand of improbability had by no means relaxed its
grip on my shoulder.

The cupboard was empty!

In speechless bewilderment my gaze went round the room from one familiar
object to another in a vain attempt to solve the mystery. There was only
one possible place of concealment there. I snatched away the coverlet
that hid the stark outline on the dissecting table. Imagine my surprise
to see before me the corpse of the elderly Italian anarchist who had
offered me a throat pastille on the grand stand at Hurlingham a month ago!



II. IN THE THICK OF IT


In spite of the passionate insistence with which Sybil (as I had now
grown to call her) had reiterated that I should think of her no more,
there were very few hours of the day or night that she was absent from my
thoughts.

The all-too-brief moment that I had held her in my arms when I rescued
her from the burning dope den in Montmorency Square had settled my fate
for ever. The emotion that swept over me when I found that we had been
decoyed together into the abandoned radium mine in Cornwall had, if
anything, deepened the conviction; and when I discovered that it was she
and no other who, at such tremendous risk to herself, had sent me the
anonymous warning that saved me from being drugged and tattooed beyond
recognition in the Bond Street beauty specialist's salon, I admitted that
something stronger than myself was shaping our destinies.

The baffling enigma of Sybil's identity would alone have been sufficient
to keep her continually in my mind, even if I had been disposed to
forget. One morning, after I had vainly sought for a week, I discovered
her. She was in charge of a novelty counter in the bargain basement of
Harridge's stores, and so perfectly in harmony with her surroundings that
it seemed impossible to suspect her of playing a part. Yet the same
evening I caught her demure look of recognition across the table of a
Cabinet Minister at a dinner given in honour of a popular Ambassador. And
had not Slavonski, on the memorable occasion of the Incog. Club raid,
referred to her as "our trusty associate Mademoiselle Zero"? but, on the
other hand, Inspector Badger had placed himself unreservedly under her
guidance when she steered the river-police motor-launch in pursuit of the
desperate "Hi-Hi!" gang. It was all very puzzling to me, plain John
Humdrum, M.D., and when I now look back over that period I see that
Sybil's friendship kept me very busy indeed.

Possibly something of the sort flashed across my mind one morning when I
found on my breakfast table a note addressed in Sybil's characteristic
hand. It was postmarked "Express Aerial Service. Tokio to Aberdeen," and
franked "Urgent and Frantic" in violet ink. Stamps of the highest
possible value were affixed wherever there was an inch of space in the
dear girl's usual lavish manner. The enclosure, like all her business
messages, was brief but decided.

"A great danger threatens," it ran. "Meet me at twelve to-night in the
Mummy Room, British Museum.--Sybil."

Unfortunately it was not dated.

It was, therefore, in a rather doubtful frame of mind that I presented
myself, shortly before midnight, at the formidable closed gates in Great
Russell Street. A printed notice, read uncertainly by an adjacent street
lamp, informed me that the galleries closed at six. As I stood there
in indecision an official emerged stealthily from the shadow of an angle
in the wall, where he had evidently been awaiting me.

"That's all right, sir," was his welcome assurance, after he had flashed
the light of an electric torch several times all over me. "The young lady
has arranged everything."

Without further explanation he led the way across the broad moonlit
forecourt and then through several lofty galleries. Pausing before a
massive door he unlocked it, pushed me inside, and I heard the fastening
close to again with a soft metallic click.

Never before had the mysterious gloom of that ghostly rendezvous of the
long-forgotten dead seemed so shadow-laden.

Sybil--it was she--came towards me with a glad cry. "You are here!" she
exclaimed. "How splendid; but I never for a moment doubted it."

"But why here?" I ventured to inquire, in my obtuse blundering wav.
"Would not Moggridge's or the Azalea Court of the Frangipane have been
more up-to-date?"

She gave me a reproachful glance.

"Surely by this time you know that I am the most hunted woman in Europe,
my good man," she answered with a touch of aristocratic insouciance. "My
footsteps are being dogged by anarchists, vendettaists, Bolsheviks,
Czecho-Slovaks, Black Hands, Hidden Hands, Scotland Yard, the Northcliffe
Press and several of the more ambitious special constables. This is
literally the one spot in London where we are safe from observation."

"How wonderful you are!" was wrung from me. "But will you not tell me
what it all means?"

In her usual cryptic fashion, Sybil answered one question by another.

"Will you do something for me?"

"Can you doubt it?" I asked reproachfully.

"I don't," she replied. "But all so far is insignificant compared with
this. It will demand the reticence of a Government official combined with
the resourcefulness of a District Messenger boy. This packet must be
delivered to-night to the Admiral of the Fleet, stationed at Plyhampton.
The fate of the navy, the army and the air service are all bound up in
its safe arrival."

"I am ready," I said simply.

"A yellow motor-car, with one headlight green and the other red, will be
waiting for you at the corner of Tottenham Court Road and Oxford Street,"
she proceeded rapidly. "You will recognize it by the driver wearing a
crimson opera hat--that being the secret badge of the male members of our
Society. Get in and the rest is easy."

Even as she spoke a sudden look of terror swept across her features.

I followed her agonized glance to the nearest mummy case. It was, the
label stated, that of an Egyptian priest of Mut, named Amen-Phat, but the
pair of steely eyes that I encountered looking out of the painted mask
were those of the Hindoo waiter who had upset the discarded toothpicks
into the poisoned dish of caviare at the Grand Duke's reception.

I turned to convey my suspicions to Sybil, but to my surprise she had
disappeared, and when I looked again the gilt face of Amen-Phat it had
resumed its accustomed placid stare.

One thing was clear. In my hand I held the fateful packet directed to the
Admiral of the Fleet, and my duty was to find the driver of the yellow
car and to make a dash for the coast at all hazard.

As I strode towards the door I recalled the ominous sound of relocking
that had followed my entrance. Was I in a trap?

Whatever had taken place, however, the door was no longer locked. It
yielded to the pressure of my hand, but only for a few inches. Something
was holding it from the other side. I exerted my strength and in another
moment I had made a sufficient opening to allow my passage. The nature of
the obstruction was then revealed. At my feet lay the body of a man. A
ray of green light fell upon his features, rendering them ghastly and
distorted, but it needed no second glance to assure me that the corpse
was that of the mysterious Ethiopian "minstrel" who had so inexplicably
greeted me as "Uncle Sam" in the Empire promenade on boat-race night.



III. THE BEGINNING OF THE END


Little more remains to be told.

I changed cars seventeen times between London and the coast. The loss of
time was considerable, but it whiled away the monotony of the journey, and
as a precaution, together with the badness of the road, it was effectual
in throwing our pursuers off the track. Their overturned car was found
the next morning in a lime quarry below the road near Dorsham. Beneath it
was the body of the Greek curio-dealer with the Scotch accent who had
sold me the cinquecento dagger with the phial of cholera microbes
concealed in the handle. By his side lay the form of the old-looking
young gallery first-nighter. Even to this day my frontal bone carries the
scar of his well-aimed opera-glasses, on that occasion when, in the
stalls of the Hilaric during the Royal performance, nothing but Sybil's
presence of mind in flinging open her umbrella had saved me from a fatal
blow. Both were crushed almost beyond recognition.

Dawn was within an hour of breaking when my seventeenth car--a taxi-cab
of obsolete pattern--broke down in the quaint old High Street of
Plyhampton. Leaving it to its fate, I went on alone to make inquiries,
and soon learned, to my delight, that the superdreadnought Stalactite,
the flag-ship of the Admiral, was lying at that moment moored to the end
of the pier. Truly fate, which had played us many sorry tricks in the
past, was on our side that night.

Despite the earliness of the hour, the Admiral, Sir Slocombe
Colqumondeley, received me at once in his state-room, a magnificent
apartment upholstered in green and gold. As his eyes rested on the
superscription of the packet I handed him he could not repress a slight
start, but before he had finished the reading of the message his face had
grown strangely tense. For a few minutes he paced the salon in deep
thought, then turning to an instrument he transmitted a series of
commands in quick succession. I have since learned, though I little
suspected it at the time, that the tenor of these orders was for every
ship of the fleet to clear for action.

Shaking off his preoccupation, Sir Slocombe turned to me with an engaging
smile.

"So you are my daughter Sybil's young man, Dr. Humdrum?" he exclaimed,
with bluff sailor-like heartiness. "Well, well; we must see what we can
arrange after this business is over. How would Surgeon-Major of the Fleet
suit you; eh, what?"

A few minutes later I was leaving the pier, more bewildered by the turn
events had taken than I would care to admit, when a tall, dignified
officer, with grey mutton-chop side-whiskers, approached me.

"Pardon me, but did you enter Plyhampton in a taxi-cab numbered XYZ 999?"
he inquired courteously.

"I did," I replied, referring to the details which I had taken the
precaution to jot down on my cuff.

"Then it is my duty, as Warden of the Port, to put you in irons," and he
beckoned to a master of marines.

"On what charge?" I demanded with some hauteur.

"The driver of the taxi has been found stabbed to death with his own
speed lever," he explained gravely. "Inside the vehicle was the dead body
of the notorious international spy known to the secret police as 'Mr. A.'
He was disguised as an elderly Chinese seaman, and was wearing, beneath
his tunic, a forged Order of the Crimson Hat of Siam."

"Is it possible?" I gasped.

"Well, frankly, it doesn't sound it," he admitted with unofficial
candour; "but that isn't my affair."

"I am Dr. Humdrum," I said, producing my stethoscope, "and I live at 305A
Hammersmith Road, Kensington. Surely--"

"That is quite satisfactory," he replied, throwing the handcuffs into a
lee scupper that stood open. "Accept my apology. Hold an inquest on the
bodies as soon as you conveniently can and you have my assurance that you
will hear nothing further of this unpleasant business."

We are seated in the Piazzo d'Esperanto at Mentone. Sybil's head is
nestling on my shoulder.

"Had we better not explain to them now, darling, exactly what it was all
about?" I venture to suggest.

"No, dearest; I don't think we better had," replies Sybil, watching the
play of the deep blue against the distant haze.



THE END




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