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- The Devil's Paw - 3/44 -


CHAPTER II

Julian, notwithstanding his deliberate intention of abandoning himself to an hour's complete repose, became, after the first few minutes of solitude, conscious of a peculiar and increasing sense of restlessness. With the help of a rubber-shod stick which leaned against his chair, he rose presently to his feet and moved about the room, revealing a lameness which had the appearance of permanency. In the small, white-ceilinged apartment his height became more than ever noticeable, also the squareness of his shoulders and the lean vigour of his frame. He handled his gun for a moment and laid it down; glanced at the card stuck in the cheap looking glass, which announced that David Grice let lodgings and conducted shooting parties; turned with a shiver from the contemplation of two atrocious oleographs, a church calendar pinned upon the wall, and a battered map of the neighbourhood, back to the table at which he had been seated. He selected a cigarette and lit it. Presently he began to talk to himself, a habit which had grown upon him during the latter years of a life whose secret had entailed a certain amount of solitude.

"Perhaps," he murmured, "I am psychic. Nevertheless, I am convinced that something is happening, something not far away."

He stood for a while, listening intently, the cigarette burning away between his fingers. Then, stooping a little, he passed out into the narrow passage and opened the door into the kitchen behind, from which the woman who came to minister to their wants had some time ago departed. Everything was in order here and spotlessly neat. He climbed the narrow staircase, looked in at Furley's room and his own, and at the third apartment, in which had been rigged up a temporary bath. The result was unilluminating. He turned and descended the stairs.

"Either," he went on, with a very slight frown, "I am not psychic, or whatever may be happening is happening out of doors."

He raised the latch of the door, under which a little pool of water was now standing, and leaned out. There seemed to be a curious cessation of immediate sounds. From somewhere straight ahead of him, on the other side of that black velvet curtain of darkness, came the dull booming of the wind, tearing across the face of the marshes; and beyond it, beating time in a rhythmical sullen roar, the rise and fall of the sea upon the shingle. But near at hand, for some reason, there was almost silence. The rain had ceased, the gale for a moment had spent itself. The strong, salty moisture was doubly refreshing after the closeness of the small, lamplit room. Julian lingered there for several moments.

"Nothing like fresh air," he muttered, "for driving away fancies."

Then he suddenly stiffened. He leaned forward into the dark, listening. This time there was no mistake. A cry, faint and pitiful though it was, reached his ears distinctly.

"Julian! Julian!"

"Coming, old chap," he shouted. "Wait until I get a torch."

He stepped quickly back into the sitting room, drew an electric torch from the drawer of the homely little chiffonier and, regardless of regulations, stepped once more out into the darkness, now pierced for him by that single brilliant ray. The door opened on to a country road filled with gleaming puddles. On the other side of the way was a strip of grass, sloping downwards; then a broad dyke, across which hung the remains of a footbridge. The voice came from the water, fainter now but still eager. Julian hurried forward, fell on his knees by the side of the dyke and, passing his hands under his friend's shoulders, dragged him out of the black, sluggish water.

"My God!" he exclaimed. "What happened, Miles? Did you slip?"

"The bridge gave way when I was half across," was the muttered response. "I think my leg's broken. I fell in and couldn't get clear--just managed to raise my head out of the water and cling to the rail."

"Hold tight," Julian enjoined. "I'm going to drag you across the road. It's the best I can do."

They reached the threshold of the sitting room.

"Sorry, old chap," faltered Furley--and fainted.

He came to himself in front of the sitting-room fire, to find his lips wet with brandy and his rescuer leaning over him. His first action was to feel his leg.

"That's all right," Julian assured him. "It isn't broken. I've been over it carefully. If you're quite comfortable, I'll step down to the village and fetch the medico. It isn't a mile away."

"Don't bother about the doctor for a moment," Furley begged. "Listen to me. Take your torch--go out and examine that bridge. Come back and tell me what's wrong with it."

"What the dickens does that matter?" Julian objected. "It's the doctor we want. The dyke's flooded, and I expect the supports gave way."

"Do as I ask," Furley insisted. "I have a reason."

Julian rose to his feet, walked cautiously to the edge of the dyke, turned on his light, and looked downwards. One part of the bridge remained; the other was caught in the weeds, a few yards down, and the single plank which formed its foundation was sawn through, clean and straight. He gazed at it for a moment in astonishment. Then he turned back towards the cottage, to receive another shock. About forty yards up the lane, drawn in close to a straggling hedge, was a small motor-car, revealed to him by a careless swing of his torch. He turned sharply towards it, keeping his torch as much concealed as possible. It was empty--a small coupe of pearl-grey--a powerful two-seater, with deep, cushioned seats and luxuriously fitted body. He flashed his torch on to the maker's name and returned thoughtfully to his friend.

"Miles," he confessed, as he entered the sitting room, "there are some things I will never make fun of again. Have you a personal enemy here?"

"Not one," replied Furley. "The soldiers, who are all decent fellows, the old farmer at the back, and your father and mother are the only people with whom I have the slightest acquaintance in these parts."

"The bridge has been deliberately sawn through," Julian announced gravely.

Furley nodded. He seemed prepared for the news.

"There is something doing in this section, then," he muttered. "Julian, will you take my job on?"

"Like a bird," was the prompt response. "Tell me exactly what to do?"

Furley sat up, still nursing his leg.

"Put on your sea boots, and your oilskins over your clothes," he directed. "You will want your own stick, so take that revolver and an electric torch. You can't get across the remains of the bridge, but about fifty yards down to the left, as you leave the door, the water's only about a foot deep. Walk through it, scramble up the other side, and come back again along the edge of the dyke until you come to the place where one lands from the broken bridge. Is that clear?"

"Entirely."

"After that, you go perfectly straight along a sort of cart track until you come to a gate. When you have passed through it, you must climb a bank on your lefthand side and walk along the top. It's a beastly path, and there are dykes on either side of you."

"Pooh!" Julian exclaimed. "You forget that I am a native of this part of the world."

"You come to a sort of stile at the end of about three hundred yards," Furley continued. "You get over that, and the bank breaks up into two. You keep to the left, and it leads you right down into the marsh. Turn seaward. It will be a nasty scramble, but there will only be about fifty yards of it. Then you get to a bit of rough ground--a bank of grass-grown sand. Below that there is the shingle and the sea. That is where you take up your post."

"Can I use my torch," Julian enquired, "and what am I to look out for?"

"Heaven knows," replied Furley, "except that there's a general suggestion of communications between some person on land and some person approaching from the sea. I don't mind confessing that I've done this job, on and off, whenever I've been down here, for a couple of years, and I've never seen or heard a suspicious thing yet. We are never told a word in our instructions, either, or given any advice. However, what I should do would be to lie flat down on the top of that bank and listen. If you hear anything peculiar, then you must use your discretion about the torch. It's a nasty job to make over to a pal, Julian, but I know you're keen on anything that looks like an adventure."

"All over it," was the ready reply. "What about leaving you alone, though, Miles?"

"You put the whisky and soda where I can get at it," Furley directed, "and I shall be all right. I'm feeling stronger every moment. I expect your sea boots are in the scullery. And hurry up, there's a good fellow. We're twenty minutes behind time, as it is."

Julian started on his adventure without any particular enthusiasm. He found the crossing, returned along the side of the bank, trudged along the cart track until he arrived at the gate, and climbed up on the dyke without misadventure. From here he made his way more cautiously, using his stick with his right hand, his


The Devil's Paw - 3/44

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