Prester John HTML version

9. The Store At Umvelos'
I sat down on a chair and laboured to collect my thoughts. Laputa had gone, and
would return sooner or later with Henriques. If I was to remain alive till morning,
both of them must be convinced that I was harmless. Laputa was probably of that
opinion, but Henriques would recognize me, and I had no wish to have that
yellow miscreant investigating my character. There was only one way out of it - I
must be incapably drunk. There was not a drop of liquor in the store, but I found
an old whisky bottle half full of methylated spirits. With this I thought I might raise
an atmosphere of bad whisky, and for the rest I must trust to my meagre gifts as
an actor.
Supposing I escaped suspicion, Laputa and Henriques would meet in the
outhouse, and I must find some means of overhearing them. Here I was fairly
baffled. There was no window in the outhouse save in the roof, and they were
sure to shut and bolt the door. I might conceal myself among the barrels inside;
but apart from the fact that they were likely to search them before beginning their
conference, it was quite certain that they would satisfy themselves that I was safe
in the other end of the building before going to the outhouse.
Suddenly I thought of the cellar which we had built below the store. There was an
entrance by a trap-door behind the counter, and another in the outhouse. I had
forgotten the details, but my hope was that the second was among the barrels. I
shut the outer door, prised up the trap, and dropped into the vault, which had
been floored roughly with green bricks. Lighting match after match, I crawled to
the other end and tried to lift the door. It would not stir, so I guessed that the
barrels were on the top of it. Back to the outhouse I went, and found that sure
enough a heavy packing-case was standing on a corner. I fixed it slightly open,
so as to let me hear, and so arranged the odds and ends round about it that no
one looking from the floor of the outhouse would guess at its existence. It
occurred to me that the conspirators would want seats, so I placed two cases at
the edge of the heap, that they might not be tempted to forage in the interior.
This done, I went back to the store and proceeded to rig myself out for my part.
The cellar had made me pretty dirty, and I added some new daubs to my face.
My hair had grown longish, and I ran my hands through it till it stood up like a
cockatoo's crest. Then I cunningly disposed the methylated spirits in the places
most likely to smell. I burned a little on the floor, I spilt some on the counter and
on my hands, and I let it dribble over my coat. In five minutes I had made the
room stink like a shebeen. I loosened the collar of my shirt, and when I looked at
myself in the cover of my watch I saw a specimen of debauchery which would
have done credit to a Saturday night's police cell.
By this time the sun had gone down, but I thought it better to kindle no light. It
was the night of the full moon - for which reason, I supposed, Laputa had
selected it - and in an hour or two the world would be lit with that ghostly
radiance. I sat on the counter while the minutes passed, and I confess I found the
time of waiting very trying for my courage. I had got over my worst nervousness
by having something to do, but whenever I was idle my fears returned. Laputa