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Title: The Death Room
Author: Edgar Wallace
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Language: English
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The Death Room

by

Edgar Wallace

Cover Image

First published in Cassell's Magazine, March 1923



I

'DO you believe in spiritualism, Mr Gillette?'

Detective-Inspector John Gillette now frowned a little terrifyingly at the girl who sat on the opposite side of his desk. When an official of Scotland Yard receives a newspaper reporter he does not expect to be cross-examined on his hobbies. And spiritualism was a hobby of this dour man.

'You see,' Ella Martin broke in eagerly, 'I have taken up a case for the paper. The editor did not like the idea at all, and said that my job was to write nice, chatty little pars about what Lady So-and-So wore at the Devonshire House ball, and all that sort of thing, but I rather insisted.'

John Gillette concealed a smile—and he very seldom felt the inclination to smile. She was very young and very pretty, and very unlike any newspaper reporter he had ever seen.

'How did you know I was interested in spooks?' he asked.

'From the evidence you gave in the Marriot case years and years ago. It was amongst the cuttings in the library.'

Detective-Inspector John Gillette was not an easy man to interview. Against that, however, was the fact that very few, other than those officials at police headquarters whose business brought them in touch with him, regarded him as worth interviewing. His name rarely appeared in print, for he was an 'office man' and a consultant rather than a practitioner in the art of crime detection.

He was a man of thirty, and a bachelor in a double sense of the word, for he held a degree from the London University.

'Spiritualism?' he repeated slowly, 'Well, yes and no. Certain phenomena are inexplicable. Animal instinct, for example. I have seen sheep terrified before the door of a new slaughter-house, and one that has never been used before. I have known dogs to be frantic with fear hours before an earthquake. In fact, I have seen my old terrier shivering with fright three hours before a raid warning was received. Explain that! It is as easy to explain as spirit manifestations. There is a something. The mediums feel it, and, dissatisfied with its faint message, they must interpret the whisper as a shout! They see things dimly, and in their impatience or enthusiasm they insist that you shall see plainly. With this result—that they fake. They rip along ahead of the thing they should pursue, and are mad with you when you prove that all that is following them is their own silly shadows! But why are you so interested? It doesn't seem a very healthy subject for a young lady to discuss with a police officer! What is the stunt behind your question?'

She smiled.

'Have you ever heard of Mr Jean Bonnet?' she asked.

The inspector's forehead puckered.

'Bonnet! Do you mean the stockbroker?'

She nodded.

'That is the gentleman. He is a millionaire, and has a big, rambling place, Tatton Corners, near Reading.'

Gillette pushed himself back from the table and frowned again.

'A Russian died there the other day. I remember! So that is your stunt? What were the circumstances of the death? All the details were not in the newspapers, and I wasn't very much interested.'

'So I gather,' said the girl, with a little smile. 'Otherwise you would not ask why I want to know something about spiritualism. The Russian's name was Dimitri Nicoli, a financier, who was associated with Mr Bonnet. Nicoli, who lived in Paris, seems to have been a furtive, secretive man. He had no relations and very few friends, certainly nobody who enjoyed his confidence. He had a leaning towards the shadier side of finance, and undoubtedly during the War he dabbled in one or two questionable enterprises which yielded him a huge profit. About four weeks ago Nicoli came to London, and to a man who knew him and who remembered him in town, he confided the fact that he was engaged in a transaction with Mr. Bonnet which would yield him "milliards." The character of the transaction he never discussed, and the next day he left for Tatton Corners, where he arrived and was entertained by Mr Bonnet. He spent a week there, talking over some business. Mr Bonnet says it was the flotation of a culture pearl company on an extensive scale; at any rate, Nicoli left at the end of the week for Paris.

'He returned in the early part of last week, and, at his own request, was put in what the servants at Tatton Corners call "the haunted room".'

'The haunted room?' repeated Gillette. 'Of course! I remember now. There was a headline about it in your newspaper.'

She nodded.

'Apparently one of the rooms—and, curiously enough, it is one of the newest rooms in the most modern wing of the house—is believed to be haunted. Mr Bonnet, who studies spiritualism, and who, like so many people who take up the study, is a hard-headed business man'—she shot a swift glance at Gillette, and for the second time he smiled—'told our reporter that he has seen dark shapes come and go down the corridor, and even through the closed door of the room. He has never mentioned the fact before for fear of frightening the servants.

'The morning after Nicoli's return he was found dead in his bed, and had the appearance of a man who had been strangled, though there were no marks at all upon his body. Suspicion immediately fell upon a mysterious Frenchman, or, at any rate, a man of foreign appearance, who had arrived in the neighbourhood at the same time as Nicoli, and who stayed at the little inn in the village and spent his nights wandering about the country, and was seen by Mr Bonnet's gardener in the grounds of Tatton Corners itself.'

John Gillette tapped the table impatiently.

'You will think we are asleep at Scotland Yard, but I had forgotten all about it! I remember now. But the local police were perfectly satisfied that nothing was wrong. Could this foreigner have reached Nicoli through the window?'

She shook her head.

'I have seen the plans of the house. That wing is newly built, and it is almost impossible for anybody to have got into the room without leaving some trace.'

'And the mysterious Frenchman?'

'Has disappeared entirely. He gave the name of Binot. And now comes the remarkable part of the story. Mr Bonnet sent for one of our reporters yesterday and told him that he had had a communication with the dead man, who had appeared to him that night by the side of his bed with the news that Binot was the murderer!'

'H'm!' growled the detective, settling back in his chair. 'That sounds to me like a disordered digestive apparatus, aggravated by an attack of nerves. I shouldn't take that too seriously if I were you, Miss Martin. Your editor, now—was he interested?'

'Not very,' said the girl; 'but it occurred to me that there might be a bigger story behind it all.'

Detective-Inspector John Gillette was silent for a while, absorbed in his own thoughts.

'I should like to see this haunted room,' he said at length, and her eyes lit up.

'I hoped you would,' she said. 'You see, Mr Gillette, I am not frantically impressed by the spirit theory; whilst I can't help feeling that there is something just a little uncanny, I am certain that there is also something scientific behind it too. And science rattles me.'

The detective looked at the eager face and his heart went out to the girl. There was something very naive and appealing in her youth, something that stirred a chord in his nature that had never been touched before.

'Briefly, what is the stunt?' he asked, and she hesitated.

'I was going to do it myself, and then I got a little frightened and realized that detective work isn't as easy as it seems. I thought I would go to Tatton Corners, pretending that I was a fellow countryman of Mr Nicoli—a niece who was interested in his fate. They say Mr Bonnet is awfully kind and unsuspicious.' She hesitated again.

'And when you have taken advantage of his innocence and secured an entry to his house, what then?' asked Gillette, with a twinkle in his eyes.

She pulled a little face.

'I don't know,' she said vaguely. 'Probably get permission to sleep in the haunted room.'

It was Inspector Gillette who hesitated now. He really was not interested in a newspaper mystery which was probably no mystery at all, but he was very much interested in Ella Martin.

'I hate helping the Press,' he said, 'but I'll go with you, though I've an uncomfortable feeling that I'm being a fool. Of course, nobody will invite you to stay, and probably I shouldn't let you if they did. It's a mad adventure, and I look like being turned out of the Force for helping you!'

II

A BITTERLY cold wind was blowing, and there was a smell of snow in the air when they arrived at Tatton Corners. In their assumed character of Russians they were wearing fur coats and hats.

Mr Bonnet, a slight, sad-looking man, was playing patience in his drawing- room when the station fly clattered up the drive. The thin, almost aesthetic-looking face of the financier, the high forehead and the straight grey eyebrows, held the detective's attention. It was the face of a dreamer, of the spiritualist rather than one who had been the shrewdest financier in the country.

Mr Bonnet listened in sympathetic silence whilst the girl (with a glibness which amazed the detective) explained the object of the visit.

'A relation?' asked Mr Bonnet gravely, and she nodded. 'I would, of course, do anything for a relative of my poor friend Nicoli,' said Mr Bonnet with a little sigh, 'though it saddens me even to discuss the tragedy. Perhaps Mr—' He looked at the inspector inquiringly.

'Gillette,' said that gentleman, and Mr Bonnet bowed.

'I had a fear at first that you were reporters, although I am hardened to that now,' said the financier, as he led the way out of the room into the chill of the garden. 'I seem to have lived in the company of policemen and newspaper reporters all my life. Here is the room.'

Tatton Corners was a sixteenth-century farmhouse, to which its owner had made certain ruthless additions, none of which was calculated to improve it from the point of view of the artist. The new wing was of red brick, and some half-hearted attempt had been made to keep the annexe in harmony with the remainder of the structure.

Gillette looked up. A broad window, the top sash of which had been dropped down a foot, a window box, and—

'What is that red square underneath the window?' he asked.

'That is a ventilator,' replied Mr Bonnet. 'I had the new wing built on the soundest hygienic principles, and I fixed these patent ventilators in every room. There is another, you will notice.' He pointed to a window.

He led them round the grounds, which must have been beautiful in summer, and all the time Gillette's eyes did not seem to leave the house.

'You are utilitarian at the cost of good architecture,' he laughed. He pointed to a large red tank which the girl had mistaken for a turret structure.

'I hoped nobody would ever notice that,' said the melancholy Mr Bonnet. 'The water supply here isn't sufficient, and we are inclined to dry up during the summer. So I store my rainwater, and at that height we can get sufficient pressure to reach the farthest part of the grounds.'

They passed into the house, and Mr Bonnet led the way to the haunted room. It lay at the end of a passage, from which opened two other doors, leading, as the host showed them, to spare bedrooms. The door was unlocked, and Bonnet flung it open wide.

The detective saw a very ordinary bedroom, comfortably furnished. Beside the bed in the corner there was a dressing-table, a writing-desk, two or three chairs and a small but handsome Persian rug upon the polished floor.

'There, you see, is the other side of the ventilator.' Mr Bonnet pointed to the grille in the wall. 'It is a curious thing that this room should be haunted, because it has rather haunted me.' He smiled pathetically. 'I intended this to be my own sitting-room, but somehow I could never work in it. I experimented with every kind of lighting.' He pointed to the electrolier fastened to the ceiling (a little too rich, the girl thought, for so commonplace a room). 'First I tried lighting it from the walls, and then from the roof; then I tried hand lamps, but somehow I could never settle down to work here, and so I turned it into a spare bedroom. The view sometimes tempts me to come up, or used to tempt me'—he shivered—'until this hideous tragedy got rid of any desire I had to spend my afternoons here.'

Absent-mindedly John Gillette fingered the silver electric switches near the door. Suddenly the light blazed in the roof. He turned another switch, but there was no further illumination.

'The wall lamp is out of order. I am going to have it wired,' said Mr Bonnet. 'I feel I don't wish to do anything to this room now that my poor friend—' He turned away his head.

Ella Martin found herself ushered into the passage and into the hall, and felt for a moment desperate. She had come determined to stay the night, but the absence of women servants, no less than the failure of her host to issue an invitation, made the plan look just a little mad—as mad as Gillette thought it was.

Mr Bonnet accompanied them to the waiting fly.

'I was hoping,' he said, 'that you good people would have stayed the night. But I am very lonely here; half my servants have left, and the new ones are already terror-stricken.'

The detective, with one foot on the step, turned and looked at Ella thoughtfully.

'It would be no great hardship, staying a night in this lovely house. And the hotel doesn't seem to be a very inviting one. Perhaps we can lay the ghost.'

Ella hesitated. For a moment her courage forsook her. The adventure had lost a little of its attractiveness. A glimpse of Gillette's face decided her.

'I'll send the driver back to the hotel to bring a suit-case,' said Gillette. 'I'm glad you asked me. I would rather like to stay here. By the way, are you making a rockery garden, Mr Bonnet?'

'Yes,' said the other in surprise. 'Why?'

'I saw a heap of broken marble at the back of the house,' said the detective. 'But why rockery gardens should not have gravel under foot, and must have unpleasantly sharpened, pointed marble pebbles, heaven only knows!'

They talked of gardens and gardening, and the evening passed so quickly that the girl was surprised to discover it was eleven o'clock.

'I am afraid you will have to be accommodated in the haunted wing,' said Mr Bonnet, smiling for the first time. 'I hope your nerves are good.'

'Excellent,' said the detective. 'I undertake to lay any ghost I find.'

The other became instantly grave.

'I don't think I should speak slightingly of these things, if I were you, Mr Gillette,' he said. 'I am only a child in the science, but I have seen amazing things happen.' He seemed to stop himself with an effort, as though he were afraid of placing too great a strain upon their credulity.

'And the young lady?' He looked at the girl dubiously.

'The young lady...' Ella found her breath coming more quickly; she had to force the words.

'The young lady would like to sleep in the haunted room itself,' she said a little unsteadily, and Mr Bonnet stared at her.

'In the haunted room?' he gasped. 'Impossible, my dear young friend! Why, you would be frightened.'

He looked appealingly at Gillette, and then beckoned him aside.

'I do not know, sir, in what relationship you stand with this young woman,' he said in a low voice, 'but I beg that you persuade her to change her mind.'

An hour before the detective would have been in a dilemma. Now, however, his mind was very clear on all matters except Miss Ella Martin.

'I think I should allow the young lady to sleep where she wishes,' he said calmly, and Mr Bonnet was obviously nonplussed.

'Very good,' he said with a shrug. 'But I must prepare the room—no servant will go into it after dark.'

For a moment the girl's resolution wavered, but her host was gone before she could change her mind.

'I'm scared to death,' she said in a low voice.

'Don't be,' said Gillette, and tapped three times on the table.

'You hear that?—remember it, and when you hear that sound on your bedroom door open and let me in. You'll stay up all night, of course?'

'But—' she began, bewildered.

'You wanted an adventure,' he said grimly, 'and you wanted ghosts. You have bewitched a respectable police officer into acting the fool to that end, and I rather fancy that—'

He had heard Mr Bonnet's footsteps in the room above the library where they were talking, and then:

'Whoo-oo-oo!'

It was a moan that rose to a wail, and then to a shrill shriek ... and silence.

And at that moment Mr Bonnet came slowly down the stairs towards them.

It was Gillette who asked the question.

Mr Bonnet shook his head.

'I don't know,' he said simply. 'I hear it often—it is the sound which frightens the servants. Your room is ready, Miss Nicoli,' he said, using the name she had given. And with reluctant feet she walked upstairs.

The bed had been made and she sat down, looking fearfully about the room. It was nearly twelve o'clock before a tap brought her heart to her mouth, and she opened the door to admit the detective. He seemed to be amused at something as he turned and locked the door. He carried a bag in his hand, and this he opened and took out a small black cardboard box. From this he extracted two tin candlesticks, into which he fitted two short candle lengths.

'Are you preparing for the lights to go out?' she said in a whisper.

'Not exactly. I am preparing for their coming on,' said the other. 'Will you oblige me by sitting bolt upright, Miss Martin. Sit on a pillow and keep very, very quiet, because this ghost hates noise.'

He walked to the window and tried to open the lower sash, but it had been fastened, and he remembered Mr Bonnet apprising him of the fact. The top sash, however, he pulled down.

'Not that it will be much use,' he said.

He took off the silken shade from the wall bracket.

'Why, there is no electric bulb in it,' said the girl in surprise. 'That is why it doesn't light.'

'I didn't think there would be,' said the other, replacing the silk shade.

Pulling down the blind he lit the two candles and placed them on the floor; then he switched out the light.

'Watch the candles,' he whispered.

III

THE girl sat, watching and watching, until there seemed a dozen dancing candles, until her very head ached from weariness. No sound broke the stillness of the night; the faint roar and rattle of distant trains came to them at intervals, but there was no other sound. Once Gillette turned his head and looked at the wall bracket, but that was the only movement he made, and then, for no reason whatever, one of the candles went out.

The girl stared at the remaining light. Whilst she looked that too went out.

'Don't move!' hissed Gillette.

Suddenly there was the flash of an electric torch.

'Hold that,' he whispered. He took a box of matches out of his pocket, lit one, steadied it until the flame had taken hold and then slowly lowered the light toward the candle. An inch from the top of the wick the light went out.

'Take off your shoes,' whispered the detective, and switched on the lights. 'No, no, don't stoop, put your feet up on the bed. That's right.'

Tiptoeing to the door he turned the key softly and pushed. The door did not give by so much as a millimetre. She saw the frown gather on his face as he turned the handle.

'The ghost has bolted us in,' he said nonchalantly. 'I was a fool not to look for bolts.'

He lit the candles again and slowly lowered one to the floor. It went out just below the bed level.

'I always carry candles in my kit,' he said conversationally. 'I wish I carried an axe.'

He went to the window and examined the panes.

'Toughened glass strengthened by wire,' he said. 'We must have time.'

She saw him glance up at the wall bracket, and then, kneeling on the bed, he screwed up a piece of paper and leisurely plugged the open end of the fixture.

Over the open window sash he vaulted, lowering himself to the ledge without.

'Come here and bring your scarf,' he ordered, and, wondering, she obeyed.

'Hold up one hand.'

In an instant he had knotted an end of the scarf about her wrist, and drew up the slack until the strain on her arm was almost painful. Then he fastened the other end to the hinge of the outside shutter.

'What are you doing?' she gasped.

'Women faint,' said Mr Gillette coolly, 'and I particularly wish you not to faint until I return.'

A second later he disappeared.

Her wrist pained her; the agony was almost as much as she could bear, and she seemed in danger of fulfilling his prophecy when she heard the rasp of wood against the window ledge and he appeared.

'A ladder,' he said, and helped her over the open sash.

She saw nothing, but he guided her to the ladder's head.

How she got down she could never remember. She was trembling in every limb when at last she reached the ground. Still she could see nothing. The night was pitch black. Large, wet snowflakes brushed against her cheek, and an icy wind swept through the tree-tops, filling the night with a dismal sound, and chilled her to the bone despite her heavy fur coat.

'I'm afraid I shall have to carry the ladder, but in a little while your eyes will get used to the darkness,' he said, 'and you will see ahead.'

He shouldered the ladder, and she followed blindly. No light showed in the house, but presently they came to a corner which was, she remembered, the corner where first she had seen the red tank.

'Will you stay here or come with me?' he asked in a low voice.

'Where are you going?' she whispered fearfully.

'Looking for ghosts,' was the grim reply, and then she laughed a little hysterically.

'I think I had better see them too,' she said.

He was planting the ladder against a wall unbroken by windows. Presently she heard the grate of his feet on the rungs. Biting her trembling lip she gripped the sides of the ladder and began to climb. Half-way up an attack of vertigo almost brought her down, and the man above her must have been possessed of supernatural senses, for, even as she swayed, he caught her.

'A little farther,' he whispered, and with his aid she scrambled to the top.

She could see now clearly; she was on a flat leaded roof.

'Take off your shoes,' he whispered, and she obeyed.

They crept forward to the very middle of the oblong patch, and there she discerned something which looked like a small platform raised a few inches above the roof level.

'This may not be the place at all,' he whispered in her ear, 'but I've been drawing a mental plan of the house, and I imagine my guess is right.'

Stooping, he gripped the edge of the platform and drew it up an inch. No light showed, and, peering down, he saw that the trap covered a glass fanlight. Cautiously he lifted the trap still farther and laid it back, the girl at his side. Then from the room below came a sudden brilliant flash of light, and they looked down speechless, for in that flash was revealed the hideous paraphernalia of destruction.

The room was long and narrow, lined with white-glazed brick. In the centre was a large retort, near which was a heap of those marble chips that they had seen in the garden that afternoon. Attached to a pipe leading from the retort was a small electric pump which worked ceaselessly.

The girl could only stare in amazement. The significance of the retort and the working pump did not come to her. Her eyes were fixed upon a bearded man who lay, strapped to a narrow table, gagged and helpless.

'Binot!' she gasped.

The detective gripped her arm so fiercely that she winced. His eyes were on Bonnet, who stood in his shirt-sleeves, his hands thrust in his pockets, a smile of sardonic amusement upon his face, as he caught the glaring eyes of the prisoner on the table.

He was saying something, but the sound did not penetrate through the glass, or rise above the moan of the wind.

Gillette stooped and felt desperately for the edge of the fanlight. To his surprise it was not locked, but came up in his hands, and the queer, sickening odour of the room struck him in the face and made him choke.

'My friend,' Bonnet was saying in French, 'I suffer from a plague of detectives. First there was you, whom our admirable friend Nicoli brought to Tatton Corners because he feared, very rightly, that I would steal the eight million francs he brought with him. And you, I admit, were difficult! Then we have the admirable Detective-Inspector Gillette, accompanied by a girl who has a cock-and-bull story of being a relative of Nicoli.'

He laughed softly, and took up the long knife that lay upon a table near the bench and felt the edge with his finger. Then he laughed again.

'Our Gillette is dead by now,' he said calmly. 'I watched him join his young lady, and it is better to be dead than compromised. The beauty of it is that nobody will ever discover—'

He walked across to where the glaring Frenchman lay, and tried his knife again ...

Gillette flung open the fanlight and leapt upon the madman.

IV

'BEFORE I came upon this perilous adventure I looked up Mr Bonnet in an old work of reference, and I found that his hobby was chemistry,' said Inspector Gillette, as they were travelling back to town, 'and when I discovered that the electric wall lamp was fixed on the end of a hollow pipe I began to wonder where the pipe led to. Obviously in building the wing, and for this especial room, Bonnet connected the wall bracket with a hollow pipe which led to his laboratory. Bonnet must have planned the murder some time ago; he had been in correspondence with Nicoli, an old confederate of his, for more than a year. That is to say, before the builders put trowel to brick on the new annexe.

'By some means which we may discover, but very likely shall never know, he persuaded Nicoli to bring an enormous sum of money to London, and the bait must have been a fairly golden one. Nicoli mistrusted his former friend, or else had no desire to travel with so much money without an escort, and he engaged Binot to follow him and watch him. When Binot found his master was dead, and there was no mention of the money, instead of getting back and reporting to Paris to the French authorities he decided to wait and investigate independently. I am not imputing any motive to Binot,' said Gillette, shaking his head, 'but human nature being what it is, I should imagine Binot wanted to get the money that his master had. He came, was captured, and he has been a prisoner for a month.

'To-night Bonnet decided to kill three birds with one stone. I am not sure,' said Gillette thoughtfully, 'whether it was just carbonic acid gas, or whether it was carbon monoxide. They are both very heavy gasses. They are both odourless, tasteless, and they could both be poured into a room while a man was sleeping or sitting.'

'But the moaning ghost?' asked the girl.

Gillette chuckled.

'The moaning ghost put me on to it. Obviously it was an electric fan placed behind the ventilator and operated from Bonnet's room. He turned a switch and the fan began to revolve. He touched a switch and it stopped. The fan, of course, was to clear the room of the gas, so that any person coming in afterwards would not detect the slightest trace of it. The other ventilators were fakes. The death room was designed for Nicoli and his millions—how many millions we may never know.

'Last night I had a talk with Bonnet, and dropped a hint that I knew his game, without exactly intimating that I understood the method he adopted. I did mention the fact that a fairly deadly gas can be made from marble chips treated with hydrochloric acid, and I guess that hit home, for he is sane enough to be annoyed by the ease with which he was bowled over. There would have been a sad accident last night, my young friend, if you had gone to sleep in that room without the warning candle—nothing burns in either carbonic acid or carbon monoxide—and without the knowledge that our dear friend was spending the night profitably in generating the real spirit of the death room.

'I hope I shall see you again,' said Gillette at parting, and held her hand. 'I can't promise you ghosts, and I won't advise you to look round the Black Museum. Do you ever write stories?'

'Sometimes,' she smiled.

'Tell me, is it a convention of literature that a girl marries the man who rescues her from—er—death and all that sort of thing?'

She went very red, but did not take her eyes from his.

'It is a convention—in detective stories,' she said.

Which seemed to Gillette, in the circumstances, a completely satisfactory answer.


THE END

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