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Title: Smothered in Corpses Author: Ernest Bramah * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0700291h.html Language: English Date first posted: February 2007 Date most recently updated: September 2009 This eBook was produced by: Jon Jermey Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html
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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.
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 wept 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 scat 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!
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 re-locking 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.
Little more remains to be told.
I changed cars seventeen times between London and the coast. The loss of time was considerable, but it wiled 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.
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