Lady Belinda Crabtree had, like her mother, observed the policemen coming up the drive. She had half-hoped that they would ask for her, but apparently it was the Countess they wished to see. That situation should have an eye kept on it, Belinda decided, but first she would go up to her quarters- and don The Rationals.
This pair of pants, or bloomers, was a secret project of Lady Belinda’s. She had made them herself, since Lord Cadblister would never have permitted the purchase of such a garment. Since Lady Belinda was not very skilled in The Womanly Arts, they had ended up looking rather odd, and clung with indelicate closeness to the figure- but Belinda was very delighted with them all the same. And she wanted to wear them today especially, in order to keep that eye on the activities of the police to which we have already alluded.
Rationals donned, Belinda eased the door of her room open a crack and applied her eye to the gap. No one was coming along the hallway. Good. She left her room at a dead run, crossed the hall, and, in less time than it takes to tell, was disappearing behind a particular panel, behind which was one of the many secret passages of Cadblister Hall. Confidently, almost idly, her hand strayed towards the lantern that she and her brother always kept at the heads of all secret passages (growing up, their main rainy-day diversion had been the locating and exploring of secret passages, and they had quickly realized that light was needed immediately upon entering a secret passage, and had thus made it a point of honour always to have a lantern and a supply of candles at each entrance).
But the lantern was not there. She pawed at the inky darkness, in wonderment and terror. No lantern. She clawed in mild panic at the wall behind her, but could not locate the catch that would open the passage back to the light of the hall. The sound of men in the hall outside (this was the police and Doctor Brandwood, on their way into Aunt Theodolinda’s sick-room) put an abrupt halt to this random clawing. It was another point of honour between Belinda and her brother not to reveal the location, or even the existence, of any secret passage by any action of theirs. Belinda froze, making no sound, barely breathing, until the men had passed. By then, she found that her eyes were to some extent adjusting to the dark.
And that, Belinda realized, was really rather odd. The secret passages were well-constructed and did not admit any light. Her eyes therefore should not be adjusting, since eyes do seem to require at least a little light to see at all. And yet- she could see. There was the long and narrow passage; there, dimly discernable, was the point at which the passage abruptly terminated in a flight of steps.
And suddenly Belinda Saw All. We do not mean this literally- in a physical sense, Belinda’s sight was, as has been said, quite limited. But, in a different, truer, and more exact sense, Belinda Saw All- that is, she solved two small mysteries (the missing lantern and the fact that her eyes were adjusting to what ought to have been pitch darkness) at once.
“Someone,” thought Belinda, “has taken the lantern and is now somewhere ahead of me in the passage.” And she walked forward with confidence, for who could the someone be but her brother?
The stairs in this particular secret passage take a sharp turn half-way down; it was at this point that Belinda saw the lantern, shining merrily, on the floor of the passage below her. Standing near the lantern, she could just make out the shape of a man, running his hands over the wall.
And it was upon the next step that the man must have heard her. The figure moved; a hand went to a pocket.
“Don’t try anything,” the figure advised, “I’m armed.”
And, Belinda realized, her heart pounding in, it seemed, her throat, the man Was Not Gerald. Gerald did not have an American accent.
“Mr. Ermyntrude? Is that you?”
“Stay back, Countess. I am a damn good shot.”
“But it isn’t the Countess! It’s Lady Belinda,” cried that lady, feeling slightly giddy as well as a good deal alarmed.
“Nice try,” said the voice, clearly Not Believing a Damn Word.
“Listen,” said Belinda, desperately, “Let me come closer to the lantern. Then you can see who I am, and you’ll also have a better chance of shooting me, if that’s really your idea of a nice thing to do.”
“Hold on,” said the man. He moved a bit farther down the hall. “Okay. Come along.” And Belinda came along, down the dark hall, and at every step she expected to hear a bullet discharged, or simply to feel it hit. But soon she stood in the light of the lantern, unshot, and called into the blackness.
“Can you see me now, Mr. Ermyntrude?”
“You’re wearing pants!”
“Yes. I like pants.”
“Oh. All right by me, I guess.” The voice fell silent. “Okay. I see that you’re Lady Belinda. Now can you tell me why in Hell you’re running around behind the walls in pants without a light?”
“Are you still pointing a gun at me?”
The voice laughed. “That was all horsefeathers about the gun. They wouldn’t let me bring mine into England.”
“Oh.” Belinda grabbed the lantern and extinguished the flame with her fingers. “Now, Mr. Ermyntrude,” she said, “I believe I know these passages fairly well. I also have a box of lucifers in my pocket. You are a stranger, and probably don’t even have matches. You will therefore tell me what you are doing in our secret passage.”
“Your mother shoved me in.”
“I heard you. I just don’t believe you,” explained Belinda.
“One minute, we were waiting for the police to get back from the old lady’s sick-room, and she was inviting me in that icily polite way of hers to examine some damn carving or other on the drawing-room wall; the next minute, I was falling into blackness and hearing something slam shut behind me.”
“And why,” asked Belinda, with Hauteur, “would my mother do such a thing, Mr. Ermyntrude?”
“Hey, you’re not up on the latest, I guess. It isn’t Ermyntrude. Richard Crabtree, at your service.”
“Oh, ha ha ha,” said Belinda, sticking her tongue out at her interlocutor in the darkness.
“Say, I guess you aren’t in a believing mood. But to answer your question, I figure it this way: the police told us that if either of us left the house before they got back, they’d take that as a confession. So- well, it isn’t a comfortable thought, but what would the cops think if I vanished and was never seen again? I did a vanishing act once; I guess your mother thought the police would think I’d just gone and done it again.”
And it was at this point that Belinda became terribly afraid. It did sound like her mother trying to get herself out of a bad mess. In fact, Belinda discovered that she believed the story utterly. Only- only the man was telling lies- that Richard Crabtree stuff must be a lie- so he was probably lying about the Countess, too. And there was another thing.
“How, then,” asked Belinda, “did you get your hands on the lantern?”
“Well, let me tell you. After I’d finished pounding and groping at the wall, I decided I’d try to find another exit and see if I had any better luck with it. Well, I left my hat at the place where I’d come in, in case I needed to try there again. Then I groped along the passage, went up some stairs, and found myself at a dead end. Flailing around in the dark, I found the lantern. And I do, as it happens, carry matches, so I lit it and tried to get out at the dead end for a while. But I couldn’t. So I came back to my hat.”
Belinda located the hat on the floor. Frowning, she then felt along the nearby wall. “But Mr. Ermyntrude,” she said, “this isn’t the right spot! I mean, I know the passage you mean, the one that leads to this passageway from the drawing room- but the wall there is made of smooth stone. This stone is quite rough.”
Mr. Ermyntrude’s voice was thick with tension when he replied. “Then, unless your secret passages are subject to sudden strong winds,” he said, “someone moved my hat.”
“Nonsense,” said Belinda, her voice a bit unsteady. “Who on earth-”
“Shh!” Said Mr. Ermyntrude. Belinda strained her ears- and heard – something. Was it the sound of a single footstep in the passage somewhere beyond where Mr. Ermyntrude stood in a rigid and sweating silence? Was it Mr. Ermyntrude himself, stirring restlessly or treacherously in the dark? Was it a sound existing merely in Belinda’s own mind? She was not sure. It was time, Belinda decided, to re-light the lantern. It would at any rate put the terrors of the imagination to flight. Slowly and silently, Belinda reached in her pocket and felt for her matches.
And then Mr. Herman T. Ermyntrude screamed.
“Mr. Ermyntrude?” Belinda called into the darkness. “Mr. Ermyntrude?” There was a noise, but Belinda could not characterize it. A groan? The scream of a hinge? A retreat down a hall? She did not know. She lit the lantern. By its light, she saw Mr. Herman T. Ermyntrude, lying on the floor of the passage, perhaps twenty feet from where she stood. He seemed to be lying in a pool of shining liquid. And, Belinda realized, this liquid was coming from a wound, from somewhere on the person of Herman T. Ermyntrude. She ran to him.
“Mr. Ermyntrude?” She said as she knelt over him. The only answer was a groan. He was not, then, dead.
She had just reached this conclusion when the scene was flooded with light. Her mother stood in the door, staring down at her daughter, and at the bleeding man over whom her daughter was crouching. The Countess opened her mouth- but, when a voice came, it was not hers.
“Colonel Crabbit,” said Sneakfork, from the drawing room door. And the Chief Constable came in- and Belinda stood up- and a knife clattered down to the floor of the secret passage.