STRYCHNINE IN THE SOUP
FROM the moment the Draught Stout entered the bar-parlour of the Anglers' Rest, it had been obvious that he was not his usual cheery self. His face was drawn and twisted, and he sat with bowed head in a distant corner by the window, contributing nothing to the conversation, which, with Mr. Mulliner as its centre, was in progress around the lire. From time to lime he heaved a hollow sigh
A sympathetic Lemonade and Angostura, putting down his glass, went across and laid a kindly hand on the sufferer's shoulder.
"What is it, old man?" he asked. "Lost a friend?"
"Worse," said the Draught Stout. "A mystery novel. Got half-way through it on the journey down here, and left it in the train."
"My nephew Cyril, the interior decorator," said Mr Mulliner, "once did the very same thing. These menial lapses arc not infrequent."
"And now," proceeded the Draught Stout, "I'm going to have a sleepless night, wondering who poisoned Sir Geoffrey Tuttle, Ran."
"The Bart. Was poisoned, was he?"
"You never said a truer word Personally. I think it was the Vicar who did him in, He was known to be interested in strange poisons."
Mr. Mulliner smiled indulgently
"It was not the Vicar," he said. "I happen to have read 'The Murglow Manor Mystery'. The guilty man was the plumber."
"The one who comes in chapter two to mend the shower-bath. Sir Geoffrey had wronged his aunt in the year '96, so he fastened a snake in the nozzle of the shower-bath with glue; and when Sir Geoffrey turned on the stream the hot water melted the glue. Tins released the snake, which dropped through one of the holes, bit the Baronet in the leg, and disappeared down the waste-pipe "
"But that can't be right," said the Draught Stout "Between chapter two and the murder there was an interval of several days."
"The plumber forgot his snake and had to go back for it," explained Mr. Mulliner "I trust that this revelation will prove sedative''
"I feel a new man." said the Draught Stout. "I'd have lain awake worrying about that murder all night "
“I suppose you would. My nephew Cyril was just the same. Nothing in the modern life of ours" said Mr. Mulliner, taking a sip of his hot Scotch and lemon, "is more remarkable than the way in which the mystery novel has gripped the public. Your true enthusiast, deprived of his favourite reading, will slop at nothing in order to get it. He is like a victim of the drug habit when withheld from cocaine. My nephew Cyri——"
"Amazing the things people will leave in trains," said a Small Lager. "Bags . .. umbrellas . . . even stuffed chimpanzees, occasionally, I've been told. I heard a story the other day——"
My nephew Cyril (said Mr. Mulliner) had a greater passion for mystery stories than anyone I have ever met. I attribute this to the fact that, like so many interior decorators, he was a fragile, delicate young fellow, extraordinarily vulnerable to any ailment that happened to be going the rounds. Every lime he caught mumps or influenza or German measles or the like he occupied the period of convalescence in reading mystery stories. And, as (he appetite grows by what it feeds on, he had become, at the time at which this narrative opens, a confirmed addict. Not only did he devour every volume of (this type on which he could lay his hands but he was also to be found at any theatre which was offering the kind of drama where skinny arms come unexpectedly out of the chiffonier and the audience feels a mild surprise if the lights stay on for ten consecutive minutes
And it was during a performance of "The Grey Vampire" at the St. James's that he found himself silting next to Amelia Bassett, the girl whom he was to love with all the stored-up fervour of a nun who hitherto had been inclined rather to edge away when in the presence of the other sex
He did not know her name was Amelia Bassett. He had never seen her before All he knew was that at last he had met his fate, and tor the whole of the first act he was pondering the problem of how he was to make her acquaintance.
It was us the lights went up for the first intermission that he was aroused from his thoughts by a sharp pain in the right leg. He was just wondering whether 11 was gout or sciatica when, glancing down, he perceived that what had happened was that his neighbour, absorbed by the drama, had absent-mindedly collected a handful of his flesh and was twisting it in an ecstasy of excitement.
It seemed to Cyril a good point d'appui.
"Excuse me," he said.
The gill turned. Her eyes were glowing, and the tip of her nose still quivered. "I beg your pardon?"
"My leg said Cyril. "Might I have it back, if you've finished with it?"
The girl looked down She started visibly. "I'm awfully sorry," she gasped
"Not at all," said Cyril. "Only too glad to have been of assistance."
"I got carried away."
"You are evidently fond of mystery plays."
"I love them."
"So do I. And mystery novels?"
"Have you read 'Blood on the Banisters'?"
"Oh, yes! I thought it was better than 'Severed Throats'."
"So did I," said Cyril. "Much better. Brighter murders, subtler detectives, crisper clues … better in every way."
The two twin souls gazed into each other's eyes. There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.
"My name is Amelia Bassett," said the girl.
"Mine is Cyril Mulliner. Bassett?" He frowned thoughtfully. "The name seems familiar."
"Perhaps you have heard of my mother. Lady Bassett. She's rather a well-known big-game hunter and explorer. She tramps through jungles and things She's gone out to the lobby for a smoke. By the way"—she hesitated—"if she finds us talking, will you remember that we met at the Polterwoods'?"
"I quite understand."
"You see, mother doesn't like people who talk to me without a formal introduction And. when mother doesn't like anyone, she is so apt to hit them over the head with some hard instrument."
"I see," said Cyril "Like the Human Ape in "Gore by the Gallon'."
"Exactly. Tell me," said the girl, changing the subject, "if you were a millionaire, would you rather be slabbed in the back with a paperknife or found (lend without a mark on you, staring with blank eyes at some appalling sight?"
Cyril was about to reply when, looking past her, he found himself virtually in the later position. A woman of extraordinary formidableness had lowered herself into the scat beyond and was scrutinising him keenly through a tortoiseshell lorgnette. She reminded Cyril of Wallace Beery.
"Friend of yours, Amelia?" she said.
"This is Mr. Mulliner, mother. We met at the Polterwoods'"
"Ah?" said Lady Bassett.
She inspected Cyril through her lorgnette.
"Mr. Mulliner," she said, "is a little like the chief of the Lower Issi— though of course, he was darker and had a ring through his nose. A dear, good fellow," she continued reminiscently, "but inclined to become familiar under the influence1 of trade gin, I shot him in the leg."
"Er—why?" asked Cyril.
"He was not behaving like a gentleman," said Lady Bassett primly.
"After taking your treatment." said Cyril, awed, "I'll bet he could have written a Book of Etiquette."
"I believe he did," said Lady Bassett carelessly. "You must come and call on us some afternoon, Mr. Mulliner. I'm in the telephone book. If you are interested in man-eating pumas, I can show you some nice heads."
The curtain rose on act two, and Cyril returned to his thoughts. Love, he felt jouously, had come into his life at last. But then, so he had to admit, had Lady Basset. There is, he reflected, always something.
I will pass lightly over the period of Cyril's wooing. Suffice it to say that his progress was rapid. From the moment he told Amelia that he had once Dorothy Sayers, he never looked back. And one afternoon, calling and finding Lady Bassett was away in the country, he took the girl's hand in his and told his love.
For a while all was well. Amelia's reactions proved satisfactory to a degree. She checked up enthusiastically on his proposition. Falling into his arms, she admitted specifically that he was her Dream Man.
Then came the jarring note.
"But it's no use," she said, her lovely eyes tilling with tears. "Mother will never give her consent."
"Why not?" said Cyril, stunned. "What is it she objects to about me?"
"I don't know. But she generally alludes to you as 'that pipsqueak'."
"Pipsqueak?" said Cyril. "What is a pipsqueak?"
"I'm not quite sure, but it's something mother doesn't like very much. It's a pity she ever found out that you are an interior decorator."
"An honourable profession," said Cyril, a little stiflly.
"I know; but what she admires are men who have to do with the great open spaces."
"Well, I also design ornamental gardens."
"Yes," said the girl doubtfully, "but still-
"And, dash it," said Cyril indiginantly, "this isn't the Victorian age. All that business of Mother's Consent went out twenty years ago."
"Yes, but no one told mother."
"It's preposterous!" cried Cyril. "I never heard such rot. Let's just slip off and get married quietly and send her a picture postcard from Venice or some-where, with a cross and a ‘This is our room. Wish you were with us' on it."
The girl shuddered.
She would be with us," she said. "You don't know mother. The moment she got the picture postcard, she would come over to wherever we were and put you across her knee and spank you with a hair-brush. I don't think I could ever feel the same towards you if I saw you lying across mother's knee, being spanked with a hair-brush. It would spoil the honeymoon."
Cyril frowned. But a man who has spent most of his life trying out a series of patent medicines is always an optimist.
"There is only one thing to be done," he said. "I shall see your mother and try to make her listen to reason. Where is she now?"
“She left this morning for a visit to the Winghams in Sussex."
"Excellent! I know the Winghams In fact, I have a standing invitation to go and stay with them whenever I like. I'll send them a wire and push down this evening. I will oil up to your mother sedulously and try to correct her present unfavourable impression of me. Then, choosing my moment, I will shoot her the news. It may work. It may not work. But at any rate I consider it a fair sporting venture."
"But you are so diffident, Cyril. So shrinking. So retiring and shy. How can you carry through such a task?"
"Love will nerve me."
"Enough, do you think? Remember what mother is. Wouldn't a good, strong drink be more help?"
Cyril looked doubtful.
"My doctor has always forbidden me alcoholic stimulants. He says they increase the blood pressure."
"Well, when you meet mother, you will need all the blood pressure you can get. I really do advise you to fuel up a little before you see her."
“Yes," agreed Cyril, nodding thoughtfully. "I think you're right. It shall be as you say. Good-bye, my angel one."
"Good-bye, Cyril, darling. You will think of me every minute while you're gone?"
"Every single minute. Well, practically every single minute. You see, I have just got Horatio Slingsby's latest honk, 'Strychnine in the Soup', and I shall be dipping into that from time to time. Hut all the rest of the while . . . Have you read it, by the way?"
"Not yet. I had a copy, but mother took it with her."
"Ah? Well, if I am to catch a train that will get me to Barkley for dinner, I must be going. Good-bye, sweetheart, and never forget that Gilbert Glendale in 'The Missing Toe' won the girl he loved in spite of being up against two mysterious strangers and the entire Black Moustache gang."
He kissed her fondly, and went off to pack.
Barkley Towers, the country seat of Sir Mortimer and Lady Wingham, was two hours from London by rail Thinking of Amelia and reading the opening chapters of Horatio Slingsby's powerful story, Cyril found the journey pass rapidly. In fact, so preoccupied was he that it was only as the train started to draw out of Barkley Regis station that he realized where he was. He managed to hurl himself on to the platform just in time.
As he had taken the five-seven express, stopping only at Gluebury Peveril, he arrived at Barkley Towers at an hour which enabled him not only to be on hand for dinner but also to take part in the life-giving distribution of cocktails which preceded the meal.
The house-party, he perceived on entering the drawing-room, was a small one. Besides Lady Bassett and himself, the only visitors were a nondescript couple of the name of Simpson and a tall, bronzed, handsome man with flashing eyes who, his hostess informed him in a whispered aside, was Lester Mapledurham (pronounced Mum), the explorer and big-game hunter.
Perhaps it was the oppressive sensation of being in the same room with two explorers and big-game hunters that brought home to Cyril the need for following Amelia's advice as quickly as possible. But probably the mere sight of Lady Bassett alone would have been enough to make him break a lifelong abstinence. To her normal resemblance to Wallace Beery she appeared now to have added a distinct suggestion of Victor McLaglen, and the spectacle was sufficient to send Cyril leaping toward the cocktail tray.
After three rapid glasses he felt a better and a braver man. And so lavishly did he irrigate the ensuing dinner with hock, sherry, champagne, old brandy and port, that at the conclusion of the meal he was pleased to find that his diffidence had completely vanished. He rose from the table feeling equal to asking a dozen Lady Bassetts for their consent to marry a dozen daughters.
In fact, as he confided to the butler, prodding him genially in the ribs as he spoke, if Lady Bassett attempted to put on any dog with him, he would know what to do about it. He made no threats, he explained to the butler, he simply stated that he would know what to do about it. The butler said "Very good, sir. Thank you, sir", and the incident closed.
It had been Cyril's intention—feeling, as he did, in this singularly uplifted and dominant frame of mind—to get hold of Amelia's mother and start oiling up to her immediately after dinner. But, what with falling into a doze in the smoking-room and then getting into an argument on theology with one of the under-footmen whom he met in the hall, he did not reach the drawing-room until nearly half-past ten. And he was annoyed, on walking in with a merry cry of "Lady Bassett Call for Lady Bassett I" on his lips, to discover that she had retired to her room.
Had Cyril's mood been even slightly less elevated, this news might have acted as a check on his enthusiasm. So generous, however, had been Sir Mortimer's hospitality that he merely nodded eleven times, to indicate comprehension, and then, having ascertained that his quarry was roosting in the Blue Room, sped thither with a brief "Tally-ho!"
Arriving at the Blue Room, he banged heartily on the door and breezed in. He found Lady Bassett propped up with pillows. She was smoking a cigar and reading a book. And the book, Cyril saw with intense surprise and resentment was none other than Horatio Slingsby's "Strychnine in the Soup".
The spectacle brought him to an abrupt halt.
"Well, I'm dashed!" he cried. "Well, I'm blowed! What do you mean by punching my book?"
Lady Bassett had lowered her cigar. She now raised her eyebrows.
"What are you doing in my room, Mr. Mulliner?"
"It's a little hard," said Cyril, trembling with self-pity. "I go to enormous expense to buy detective stories, and no sooner is my back turned than people rush about the place sneaking them."
"This book belongs to my daughter Amelia." "Good old Amelia!" said Cyril cordially. "One of the best" "I borrowed it to read in the train. Now will you kindly tell me what doing in my room, Mr. Mulliner?" Cyril smote his forehead.
"Of course, I remember now. It all comes back to me. She told me you had taken it. And, what's more, I've suddenly recollected something, which clears you completely. I was hustled and bustled at the end of the journey. I sprang to my feet, hurled bags on to the platform—in a word, lost my head. And, like a chump, I went and left my copy of "Strychnine in the Soup' in the train. Well I can only apologise."
"You can not only apologise. You can also tell me what you are doing in my mom."
"What I am doing in your room?"
"Ah!" said Cyril, sitting down on the bed. "You may well ask '
"I have asked. Three times."
Cyril closed his eyes. For some reason, his mind seemed cloudy and not at its best.
"If you are proposing to go to sleep here, Mr. Mulliner," said Lady Bassett, "tell me, and I shall know what to do about it."
The phrase touched a chord in Cyril's memory. He recollected now his reasons for being where he was. Opening his eyes, he fixed them on her.
"Lady Rassett," he said, "you arc, I believe, an explorer?"
"In the course of your explorations, you have wandered through many a jungle in many a distant land?"
"Tell me, Lady Bassett," said Cyril keenly, "while making a pest of yourself to
the denizens of those jungles, did you notice one thing? I allude to the fact that Love is everywhere—aye, even in the jungle. Love, independent of bounds and frontiers, of nationality and species, works its spell on every living thing. So that, no matter whether an individual be a Congo native, an American song-writer a jaguar, an armadillo, a bespoke tailor, or a tsetse-tsetse fly, he will infallibly seek his mate So why shouldn't an interior decorator and designer of gardens? I put this to you Lady Bassett."
"Mr. Mulliner" said his room-mate, "you are blotto!"
Cyril waved his hand in a spacious gesture, and fell off the bed.
"Blotto I may be," he said, resuming his seat, "but, none the less, argue as you will, you can't get away from the fact that I love your daughter Amelia."
There was a tense pause.
"What did you say?" cried Lady Bassett.
"When?" said Cyril absently, for he had fallen into a day-dream and, as far as intervening blankets would permit, was playing "This little pig went to
market" with his companion's toes.
"Did I hear you say ... my daughter Amelia?"
"Grey-eyed girl, medium height, son of browny-red hair," said Cyril, to
assist her memory. "Dash it, you must know Amelia. She goes everywhere. And let me tell you something, Mrs. -- I've forgotten your name. We're going to be married, if I can obtain her foul mother's consent. Speaking as an old friend, what would you say the chances were?"
"Seeing that I am Amelia's mother . . ."
Cyril blinked, genuinely surprised.
"Why, so you are! I didn't recognise you. Have you been there all the lime?"
Suddenly Cyril's gaze hardened, He drew himself up stiffly.
"What are you doing in my bed?" he demanded.
"This is not your bed."
"Then whose is it?"
Cyril shrugged his shoulders helplessly.
"Well, it all looks very funny to me," he said. "I suppose I must believe your story, but, I repeat, I consider the whole thing odd, and I propose to institute very strict enquiries. I may tell you that I happen to know the ringleaders. I wish you a very hearty good night."
It was perhaps an hour later that Cyril, who had been walking on the terrace in deep thought, repaired once more to the Blue Room in quest of information. Running over the details of the recent interview in his head, he had suddenly discovered that there was a point, which had not been satisfactorily cleared up.
"I say," he said.
Lady Bassett looked up from her book, plainly annoyed.
“Have you no bedroom of your own, Mr Mulliner?"
"Oh yes," said Cyril. "They've bedded me out in the Moat Room. But there was something I wanted you to tell me." “Well?"
"Did you say I might or mightn't ?"
"Might or mightn't what?"
"No. You may not."
"Oh!" said Cyril "Well, pip-pip once more."
It was a moody Cyril Mulliner who withdrew to the Moat Room He now realised the position of affairs. The mother of the girl he loved refused to accept him as an eligible suitor. A dickens of a situation to be in, felt Cyril, sombrely unshoeing himself.
Then he brightened a little. His life, he reflected, might be wrecked, but he still had two-thirds of "Strychnine in the Soup" to read.
At the moment when the train reached Barkley Regis station, Cyril had just got to the hit where Detective Inspector Mould looks through the half-open cellar door and, drawing in his breath with a sharp, hissing sound, recoils in horror. It was obviously going to be good. He was just about to proceed to the dressing-table where, he presumed, the footman had placed the book on unpacking his hag, when an icy stream seemed to flow down the centre of his spine and the room and its contents danced before him.
Once more he had remembered that he had left the volume in the train.
He uttered an animal cry and tottered to a chair.
The subject of bereavement is one that has often been treated powerfully by poets, who have run the whole gamut of the emotions while laying bare for us the agony of those who have lost parents, wives, children, gazelles, money, fame, dogs, cats, doves, sweethearts, horses and even collar-studs. Rut no poet has yet treated of the most poignant bereavement of all—that of the man half-way through a detective-story who finds himself at bedtime without the book
Cyril did not care to think of the night that lay before him. Already his brain was lashing itself from side to side like a wounded snake as it sought for some explanation of Inspector Mould's strange behaviour. Horatio Slingsby was an author who could be relied on to keep faith with his public. He was not the sort of man to fob the reader off in the next chapter with the statement that what had made Inspector Mould look horrified was the fact that he had suddenly remembered that he had forgotten all about the letter his wife had given him to post. If looking through cellar doors disturbed a Slingsby detective, it was because a dismembered corpse lay there, or at least a severed hand.
A soft moan, as of some thing in torment, escaped Cyril. What to do? What to do? Even a makeshift substitute for "Strychnine in the Soup" was beyond his reach He knew so well what he would find if he went to the library in search of something to read Sir Mortimer Wingham was heavy and country-squire-ish
His wife affected strange religions. Their literature was in keeping with their tastes In the library there would be books on Ba-ha-ism, volumes in old leather of the Rural Encyclopedia, "My Two Years in Sunny Ceylon", by the Rev. Orlo Waterbury . . . but of anything that would interest Scotland Yard, of anything with a hit of blood in it and a corpse or two into which a fellow could get his teeth, not a trace.
What, then, coming right back to it, to do?
And suddenly, as if in answer to the question, came the solution. Electrified, he saw the way out.
The hour was now well advanced. By this time Lady Bassett must surely be asleep. "Strychnine in the Soup" would be lying on the table beside her bed. All he had to do was to creep in and grab it.
The more he considered the idea, the better it looked. It was not as if he did not know the way to Lady Bassett's room or the topography of it when he got there. It seemed to him as if most of his later life had been spent in Lady Bassett's room. He could find his way about it with his eyes shut.
He hesitated no longer. Donning a dressing-gown, he left his room and hurried along the passage.
Pushing open the door of the Blue Room and closing it softly behind him, Cyril stood for a moment full of all those emotions, which come to a man revisiting some long-familiar spot. There the dear old room was, just the same as ever. How it all came back to him! The place was in darkness, but that did not deter him. He knew where the bed-table was, and he made for it with stealthy steps.
In the manner in which Cyril Mulliner advanced towards the bed-table there was much which would have reminded Lady Bassett, had she been an eyewitness, of the furtive prowl of the Lesser Iguanodon tracking its prey. In only one respect did Cyril and this creature of the wild differ in their technique. Iguanodons—and this applies not only to the Lesser but to the Larger Iguanodon —seldom, if ever, trip over cords on the floor and bring the lamps to which they are attached crashing to the ground like a ton of bricks.
Cyril did. Scarcely had he snatched up the book and placed it in the pocket of his dressing-gown, when his foot became entangled in the trailing cord and the lamp on the table leaped nimbly into the air and, to the accompaniment of a sound not unlike that made by a hundred plates coming apart simultaneously in the hands of a hundred scullery-maids, nose-dived to the floor and became a total loss.
At the same moment, Lady Bassett, who had been chasing a bat out of the window, stepped in from the balcony and switched on the lights.
To say that Cyril Mulliner was taken aback would be to understate the facts Nothing like his recent misadventure had happened to him since his eleventh year, when, going surreptitiously to his mother's cupboard for jam, he had jerked three shelves down on his head, containing milk, butter, home-made preserves, picklers, cheese, eggs, cakes, and potted-meat. His feelings on the occasion closely paralleled that boyhood thrill
Lady Bussett also appeared somewhat discomposed
"You!" she said.
Cyril nodded, endeavouring the while to smile in a reassuring manner.
"Hullo!" he said.
His hostess's manner was now one of unmistakable displeasure.
"Am I not to have a moment of privacy, Mr. Mulliner?" she asked severly "I am, I trust, a broad-minded woman, but I cannot approve of this idea of communal bedrooms."
Cyril made an effort to be conciliatory.
"I do keep coming in, don't I?" he said.
"You do," agreed Lady Bassett. "Sir Mortimer informed me, on learning that I had been given this room, that it was supposed to be haunted. Had I known that it was haunted by you, Mr. Mulliner, I should have packed up and gone to the local inn."
Cyril bowed his head. The censure, he could not but feel, was deserved.
"I admit" he said, "that my conduct has been open to criticism. In extenuation, I can but plead my great love. This is no idle social call, Lady Bassett. I looked, in because I wished to take up again this matter of my marrying your daughter Amelia. You say I can't. Why can't I? Answer me that, Lady Bassett."
"I have other views for Amelia," said Lady Bassett stiffly. "When my daughter gets married it will not he to a spineless, invertebrate product of our modern hothouse civilisation, but to a strong, upstanding, keen-eyed, two-fisted he-man of the open spaces. I have no wish to hurt your feelings, Mr. Mulliner," she continued, more kindly, "but you must admit that you arc, when all is said and done, a pipsqueak."
"I deny it," cried Cyril warmly. "I don't even know what a pipsqueak is."
"A pipsqueak is a man who has never seen the sun rise beyond the reaches of the Lower Zambezi; who would not know what to do if faced by a charging rhinoceros. What, pray, would you do if faced by a charging rhinoceros, Mr. Mulliner?"
"I am not likely," said Cyril, "to move in the same social circles as charging
"Or take another simple case, such as happens every day. Suppose you are crossing a rude bridge over a stream in Equatorial Africa. You have been thinking of a hundred trifles and are in a reverie. From this you wake to discover that in the branches overhead a python is extending its fangs towards you. At the same time, you observe that at one end of the bridge is a crouching puma; at the other arc two head hunters—call them Pat and Mike—with poisoned blowpipes to their lips Below, half hidden in the stream, is an alligator. What would you do in such a case, Mr. Mulliner?"
Cyril weighed the point.
"I should feel embarrassed," he had to admit. "I shouldn't know where to look."
Lady Bassett laughed an amused, scornful little laugh.
"Precisely. Such a situation would not, however, disturb Lester Mapledurham."
"The man who is to marry my daughter Amelia. He asked me for her hand shortly after dinner.
Cyril reeled. The blow, falling so suddenly and unexpectedly, had made him feel boneless. And yet, he felt, he might have expected this. These explorers and big-game hunters stick together.
"In a situation such as I have outlined, Lester Mapledurham would simply drop from the bridge, wait till the alligator made its rush, insert a stout stick between its jaws, and then hit it in the eye with a spear, being careful to avoid its lashing trail. He would then drift down-stream and land at some safer spot. That is the type of man I wish for as a son-in-law."
Cyril left the room without a word. Not even the fact that he now had "Strychnine in the Soup" in his possession could cheer his mood of unrelieved blackness. Back in his room, he tossed the book moodily on to the bed and began to pace the floor. And he had scarcely completed two laps when the door opened.
For an instant, when he heard the click of the latch, Cyril supposed that his visitor must be Lady Bassett, who, having put two and two together on discovering her loss, had come to demand her property back. And he cursed the rashness, which had led him to fling it so carelessly upon the bed, in full view.
But it was not Lady Bassett. The intruder was Lester Mapledurham. Clad in a suit of pyjamas which in their general colour scheme reminded Cyril of a boudoir he had recently decorated for a Society poetess, he stood with folded arms, his keen eyes fixed menacingly on the young man.
"Give me those jewels!" said Lester Mapledurham.
Cyril was at a loss.
Lester Mapledurham tossed his head impatiently.
"I don't know what jewels. They may be the Wingham Pearls or the Bassett Diamonds or the Simpson Sapphires. I'm not sure which room it was I saw you coming out of."
Cyril began to understand.
"Oh, did you sec me coming out of a room?"
"I did. I heard a crash and, when I looked out, you were hurrying along the corridor."
"I can explain everything," said Cyril "I had just been having a char with Lady Basset on a personal matter Nothing to do with diamonds"
"You're sure?" said Mapledurham.
"Oh, rather," said Cyril "We talked about rhinoceri and pythons and her daughter Amelia and alligators and all that sort of thing, and then I came away."
Lester Mapledurham seemed only half convinced.
"H'm!" he said. "Well, if anything is missing in the morning, I shall know what to do about it." His eyes fell on the bed. "Hullo!" he went on, with sudden animation "Slingsby's latest? Well, well! I've been warning to get hold of this I hear it's good. The Leeds Mercury says: 'These gripping pages …'"
He turned to the door, and with a hideous pang of apony Cyril perceived that it was plainly his intention to take the hook with him. It was swinging lightly from a bronzed hand about the size of a medium ham.
"Here!" he cried, vehemently.
Lester Mapledurham turned.
"Oh, nothing," said Cyril. "Just good night."
He flung himself face downwards on the bed as the door closed, cursing himself for the craven cowardice, which had kept him from snatching the book from the explorer. There had been a moment when he had almost nerved himself to the deed, but it was followed by another moment in which he had caught the other's eye. And it was as if he found himself exchanging glances with Lady Bassett's charging rhinoceros.
And now, thanks to this pusillanimity, he was once more "Strychnine in the Soup"-less.
How long Cyril lay there, a prey to the gloomiest thoughts, he could not have said. He was aroused from his meditations, by the sound of the door opening again.
Lady Bassett stood before him. It was plain that she was very deeply moved. In addition to resembling both Wallace Beery and Victor McLaglen, she now had a distinct look of George Bancroft
She pointed a quivering finger at Cyril
"You hound!" she cried. "Give me that hook!"
Cyril maintained his poise with a strong effort.
"The hook you sneaked out of my room!"
"Has someone sneaked a hook out of your room?" Cyril struck his forehead. "Great heavens!" he cried.
"Mr. Milliner," said Lady Bassett coldly, "more book and less gibbering!"
Cyril raised a hand.
"I know who's got your bonk. Lester Mapledurham!"
"Don't be absurd."
"He has, I tell you. As I was on my way to your room just now, I saw him coming out, carrying something in a furtive manner. I remember wondering a bit at the time. He's in the Clock Room. If we pop along there: now, we shall just catch him red-handed."
Lady Bassett reflected.
"It is impossible," she said at length. "He is incapable of such an act. Lester Mapledurham is a man who once killed a lion with a sardine-opener."
"The very worst sort," said Cyril. "Ask anyone."
"And he is engaged to my daughter." Lady Bassett paused. "Well, he won't be long, if I find that what you say is true. Come, Mr. Mulliner!"
Together the two passed down the silent passage. At the door of the Clock Room they paused. A light streamed from beneath it. Cyril pointed silently to this sinister evidence of reading in bed, and noted that his companion stillened and said something to herself in an undertone in what appeared to be some sort of native dialect.
The next moment she had flung the door open and, with a spring like that of a crouching zebu, had leaped to the bed and wrenched the book from Lester Mapledurham's hands.
"So!" said Lady Bassett.
"So!" said Cyril, feeling that he could not do better than follow the lead of such a woman.
"Hullo!" said Lester Mapledurham, surprised. "Something the matter?"
"So it was you who stole my book!"
"Your book?" said Lester Mapledurham. "I borrowed this from Mr. Mulliner there."
"A likely story!" said Cyril. "Lady Bassett is aware that I left my copy of 'Strychnine in the Soup' in the train."
"Certainly," said Lady Bassett. "It's no use talking, young man, I have caught you with the goods. And let me tell you one thing that may be of interest If you think that, after a dastardly act like this, you are going to marry Amelia, forget it!"
"Wipe it right out of your mind," said Cyril.
"I will not listen. Come, Mr. Mulliner."
She left the room, followed by Cyril. For some moments they walked in silence.
"A merciful escape," said Cyril.
"For Amelia. My gosh, think of her tied to a man like that. Must be a relief to you to feel that she's going to marry a respectable interior decorator."
Lady Bassett halted. They were standing outside the Moat Room now. She looked at Cyril, her eyebrows raised.
"Are you under the impression, Mr. Mulliner," she said, "that, on the strength of what has happened, I intend to accept you as a son-in-law?"
Something inside Cyril seemed to snap. Recklessness descended upon him. He became for a space a thing of courage and tire, like the African leopard in the mating season.
"Oh!" he said.
And, deftly whisking "Strychnine in the Soup" from his companion's hand he darted into his room, banged the door, and bolted it.
It was Lady Bassett's voice, coming pleadingly through the woodwork It was plain that she was shaken to the core, and Cyril smiled sardonically. He was now in a position to dictate terms.
"Give me that book, Mr. Mulliner!"
"Certainly not," said Cyril. "I intend to read it myself. I hear good reports of it on every side. The Peebles Intelligencer says: 'Vigorous and absorbing.' "
A low wail from the other side of the door answered him.
"Of course," said Cyril, suggestively, "if it were my future mother-in-law who was speaking, her word would naturally be law."
There was a silence outside.
"Very well," said Lady Bassett.
"I may marry Amelia?''
"You may." Cyril unbolted the door.
"Come—Mother," he said. in a soft, kindly voice. "We will read it together, down in the library."
Lady Bassett was still shaken.
"I hope I have acted for the best," she said.
"You have," said Cyril.
"You will make Amelia a good husband?"
"Grade A," Cyril assured her.
"Well, even if you don't," said Lady Bassett resignedly, "I can't go to bed without that honk. I had just got to the bit where Inspector Mould is trapped in the underground den of the Faceless Fiend."
"Is there a Faceless Fiend?'' he cried.
"There are two Faceless Fiends," said Lady Bassett.
"My gosh!" said Cyril. "Let's hurry."