The Clue of the Twisted Candle

by Edgar Wallace

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Chapter X

She felt her knees shake under her and thought she was going to swoon. She put out her disengaged hand to steady herself, and if the face which was turned to him was pale, there was a steadfast resolution in her dark eyes.

"Let me relieve you of that, Miss Holland," said Kara, in his silkiest tones.

He wrenched rather than took the box from her hand, replaced it carefully in the drawer, pushed the drawer to and locked it, examining the key as he withdrew it. Then he closed the safe and locked that.

"Obviously," he said presently, "I must get a new safe."

He had not released his hold of her wrist nor did he, until he had led her from the room back to the library. Then he released the girl, standing between her and the door, with folded arms and that cynical, quiet, contemptuous smile of his upon his handsome face.

"There are many courses which I can adopt," he said slowly. "I can send for the police - when my servants whom you have despatched so thoughtfully have returned, or I can take your punishment into my own hands."

"So far as I am concerned," said the girl coolly, "you may send for the police."

She leant back against the edge of the desk, her hands holding the edge, and faced him without so much as a quaver.

"I do not like the police," mused Kara, when there came a knock at the door.

Kara turned and opened it and after a low strained conversation he returned, closing the door and laid a paper of stamps on the girl's table.

"As I was saying, I do not care for the police, and I prefer my own method. In this particular instance the police obviously would not serve me, because you are not afraid of them and in all probability you are in their pay - am I right in supposing that you are one of Mr. T. X. Meredith's accomplices!"

"I do not know Mr. T. X. Meredith," she replied calmly, "and I am not in any way associated with the police."

"Nevertheless," he persisted, "you do not seem to be very scared of them and that removes any temptation I might have to place you in the hands of the law. Let me see," he pursed his lips as he applied his mind to the problem.

She half sat, half stood, watching him without any evidence of apprehension, but with a heart which began to quake a little. For three months she had played her part and the strain had been greater than she had confessed to herself. Now the great moment had come and she had failed. That was the sickening, maddening thing about it all. It was not the fear of arrest or of conviction, which brought a sinking to her heart; it was the despair of failure, added to a sense of her helplessness against this man.

"If I had you arrested your name would appear in all the papers, of course," he said, narrowly, "and your photograph would probably adorn the Sunday journals," he added expectantly.

She laughed.

"That doesn't appeal to me," she said.

"I am afraid it doesn't," he replied, and strolled towards her as though to pass her on his way to the window. He was abreast of her when he suddenly swung round and catching her in his arms he caught her close to him. Before she could realise what he planned, he had stooped swiftly and kissed her full upon the mouth.

"If you scream, I shall kiss you again," he said, "for I have sent the maid to buy some more stamps - to the General Post Office."

"Let me go," she gasped.

Now for the first time he saw the terror in her eyes, and there surged within him that mad sense of triumph, that intoxication of power which had been associated with the red letter days of his warped life.

"You're afraid!" he bantered her, half whispering the words, "you're afraid now, aren't you? If you scream I shall kiss you again, do you hear?"

"For God's sake, let me go," she whispered.

He felt her shaking in his arms, and suddenly he released her with a little laugh, and she sank trembling from head to foot upon the chair by her desk.

"Now you're going to tell me who sent you here," he went on harshly, "and why you came. I never suspected you. I thought you were one of those strange creatures one meets in England, a gentlewoman who prefers working for her living to the more simple business of getting married. And all the time you were spying - clever - very clever!"

The girl was thinking rapidly. In five minutes Fisher would return. Somehow she had faith in Fisher's ability and willingness to save her from a situation which she realized was fraught with the greatest danger to herself. She was horribly afraid. She knew this man far better than he suspected, realized the treachery and the unscrupulousness of him. She knew he would stop short of nothing, that he was without honour and without a single attribute of goodness.

He must have read her thoughts for he came nearer and stood over her.

"You needn't shrink, my young friend," he said with a little chuckle. "You are going to do just what I want you to do, and your first act will be to accompany me downstairs. Get up."

He half lifted, half dragged her to her feet and led her from the room. They descended to the hall together and the girl spoke no word. Perhaps she hoped that she might wrench herself free and make her escape into the street, but in this she was disappointed. The grip about her arm was a grip of steel and she knew safety did not lie in that direction. She pulled back at the head of the stairs that led down to the kitchen.

"Where are you taking me?" she asked.

"I am going to put you into safe custody," he said. "On the whole I think it is best that the police take this matter in hand and I shall lock you into my wine cellar and go out in search of a policeman."

The big wooden door opened, revealing a second door and this Kara unbolted. She noticed that both doors were sheeted with steel, the outer on the inside, and the inner door on the outside. She had no time to make any further observations for Kara thrust her into the darkness. He switched on a light.

"I will not deny you that," he said, pushing her back as she made a frantic attempt to escape. He swung the outer door to as she raised her voice in a piercing scream, and clapping his hand over her mouth held her tightly for a moment.

"I have warned you," he hissed.

She saw his face distorted with rage. She saw Kara transfigured with devilish anger, saw that handsome, almost godlike countenance thrust into hers, flushed and seamed with malignity and a hatefulness beyond understanding and then her senses left her and she sank limp and swooning into his arms.

When she recovered consciousness she found herself lying on a plain stretcher bed. She sat up suddenly. Kara had gone and the door was closed. The cellar was dry and clean and its walls were enamelled white. Light was supplied by two electric lamps in the ceiling. There was a table and a chair and a small washstand, and air was evidently supplied through unseen ventilators. It was indeed a prison and no less, and in her first moments of panic she found herself wondering whether Kara had used this underground dungeon of his before for a similar purpose.

She examined the room carefully. At the farthermost end was another door and this she pushed gently at first and then vigorously without producing the slightest impression. She still had her bag, a small affair of black moire, which hung from her belt, in which was nothing more formidable than a penknife, a small bottle of smelling salts and a pair of scissors. The latter she had used for cutting out those paragraphs from the daily newspapers which referred to Kara's movements.

They would make a formidable weapon, and wrapping her handkerchief round the handle to give it a better grip she placed it on the table within reach. She was dimly conscious all the time that she had heard something about this wine cellar - something which, if she could recollect it, would be of service to her.

Then in a flash she remembered that there was a lower cellar, which according to Mrs. Beale was never used and was bricked up. It was approached from the outside, down a circular flight of stairs. There might be a way out from that direction and would there not be some connection between the upper cellar and the lower!

She set to work to make a closer examination of the apartment.

The floor was of concrete, covered with a light rush matting. This she carefully rolled up, starting at the door. One half of the floor was uncovered without revealing the existence of any trap. She attempted to pull the table into the centre of the room, better to roll the matting, but found it fixed to the wall, and going down on her knees, she discovered that it had been fixed after the matting had been laid.

Obviously there was no need for the fixture and, she tapped the floor with her little knuckle. Her heart started racing. The sound her knocking gave forth was a hollow one. She sprang up, took her bag from the table, opened the little penknife and cut carefully through the thin rushes. She might have to replace the matting and it was necessary she should do her work tidily.

Soon the whole of the trap was revealed. There was an iron ring, which fitted flush with the top and which she pulled. The trap yielded and swung back as though there were a counterbalance at the other end, as indeed there was. She peered down. There was a dim light below -the reflection of a light in the distance. A flight of steps led down to the lower level and after a second's hesitation she swung her legs over the cavity and began her descent.

She was in a cellar slightly smaller than that above her. The light she had seen came from an inner apartment which would be underneath the kitchen of the house. She made her way cautiously along, stepping on tip-toe. The first of the rooms she came to was well-furnished. There was a thick carpet on the floor, comfortable easy-chairs, a little bookcase well filled, and a reading lamp. This must be Kara's underground study, where he kept his precious papers.

A smaller room gave from this and again it was doorless. She looked in and after her eyes had become accustomed to the darkness she saw that it was a bathroom handsomely fitted.

The room she was in was also without any light which came from the farthermost chamber. As the girl strode softly across the well-carpeted room she trod on something hard. She stooped and felt along the floor and her fingers encountered a thin steel chain. The girl was bewildered-almost panic-stricken. She shrunk back from the entrance of the inner room, fearful of what she would see. And then from the interior came a sound that made her tingle with horror.

It was a sound of a sigh, long and trembling. She set her teeth and strode through the doorway and stood for a moment staring with open eyes and mouth at what she saw.

"My God!" she breathed, "London' . . . . in the twentieth century . . . !"

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It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.