There was a savage oath, a snarl of rage from the man whom the Adventurer had addressed as Danglar; then an instant s silence; and then the Adventurer's voice—from the doorway:
"I beg of you not to vent your disappointment on the lady—Danglar. I assure you that she is in no way responsible for my visit here, and, as far as that goes, never saw me before in her life. Also, it is only fair to tell you, in case you should consider leaving here too hurriedly, that I am really not at all a bad shot—even in the dark. I bid you good-night, Danglar—and you my dear lady!"
Danglar's voice rose again in a flood of profane rage. He stumbled and moved around in the dark.
"Damn it!" he shouted. "Where are the matches? Where's the lamp? This cursed candle's put enough to the bad already! Do you hear? Where's the lamp?"
"It's over dere on de floor, bust to pieces," mumbled Rhoda Gray. "Youse'll find the matches on de washstand, an—"
"What's the idea?" There was a sudden, steel-like note dominating the angry tones. "What are you handing me that hog-wash language for? Eh? It's damned queer! There's been damned queer doings around here ever since last night! See? What's the idea?"
Rhoda Gray felt her face whiten in the darkness. It was the slip she had feared; the slip that she had had to take the chance of making, and which, if it were not retrieved, and instantly retrieved, now that it was made, meant discovery, and after that—She shivered a little.
"You needn't lose your head, just because you've lost your temper!" she said tartly, in a guarded whisper. "The door into the hall is still wide open, isn't it?"
"Oh, all right!" he said, his tones a sort of sullen admission that her retort was justified. "But even now your voice sounds off color."
Rhoda Gray bridled.
"Does it?" she snapped at him. "I've got a cold. Maybe you'd get one too, and maybe your voice would be off color, if you had to live in a dump like this, and—"
"Oh, all right, all right!" he broke in hurriedly. "For Heaven's sake don't start a row! Forget it! See? Forget it!" He walked over to the door, peered out, swore savagely to himself, shut the door, held the candle up to circle the garret, and scowled as its rays fell upon the shattered pieces of the lamp in the corner then, returning, he set the candle down upon the chair and began to pace restlessly, three or four steps each way, up and down in front of the bed.
Rhoda Gray, from the edge of the bed, shifted back until her shoulders rested against the wall. Danglar, too, was dressed like a gentleman—but Danglar's face was not appealing. The little round black eyes were shifty, they seemed to possess no pupils whatever, and they roved constantly; there was a hard, unyielding thinness about the lips, and the face itself was thin, almost gaunt, as though the skin had had to accommodate itself to more than was expected of it, and was elastically stretched over the cheek-bones.
"Well, I'm listening!" jerked out the man abruptly. "You knew our game at Skarbolov's was queered. You got the 'seven-three-nine,' didn't you?"
"Yes, of course, I got it," answered Rhoda Gray. "What about it?"
"For two weeks now, yes, more than two weeks"—the man's voice rasped angrily—"things have been going wrong, and some one has been butting in and getting away with the goods under our noses. We know now, from last night, that it must have been the White Moll, for one, though it's not likely she worked all alone. Skeeny dropped to the fact that the police were wise about Skarbolov's, and that's why we called it off, and the 'seven-three-nine' went out. They must have got wise through shadowing the White Moll. See? Then they pinch her, but she makes her get-away, and comes here, and, if the dope I've got is right, you hand Rough Rorke one, and help her to beat it again. It looks blamed funny—doesn't it?—when you come to consider that there's a leak somewhere!"
"Is that so!" Rhoda Gray flashed back. "And did you know before last night that it was the White Moll who was queering our game?"
"If I had," the man gritted between his teeth, "I'd—"
"Well, then, how did you expect me to know it?" demanded Rhoda Gray heatedly. "And if the White Moll happens to know Gypsy Nan, as she knows everybody else through her jellies and custards and fake charity, and happens to be near here when she gets into trouble, and beats it for here with the police on her heels, and asks for help, what do you expect Gypsy Nan's going to do if she wants to stand any chance of sticking around these parts—as Gypsy Nan?"
The man paused in his walk, and, jerking back his hat, drew his hand nervously across his forehead.
"You make me tired!" said Rhoda Gray wearily. "Do you think you could find the door without too much trouble?"
Danglar resumed his pacing back and forth, but more slowly now.
"Oh, I know! I know, Bertha!" he burst out heavily. "I'm talking through my hat. You've got the roughest job of any of us, old girl. Don't mind what I'm saying. Something's badly wrong, and I'm half crazy. It's certain now that the White Moll's the one that's been doing us, and what I really came down here for to-night was to tell you that your job from now on was to get the White Moll. You helped her last night. She doesn't know you are anybody but Gypsy Nan, and so you're the one person in New York she'll dare try to communicate with sooner or later. Understand? That's what I came for, not to talk like a fool—but that fellow I found here started me off. Who is he? What did he want?"
"He wanted the White Moll, too," said Rhoda Gray, with a short laugh.
"Oh, he did, eh!" Danglar's lips twisted into a sudden, merciless smile. "Well, go on! Who is he?"
"I don't know who he is," Rhoda Gray answered a little impatiently. "He said he was an adventurer—if you can make anything out of that. He said he got the White Moll away from Rough Rorke last night, after Rorke had arrested her; and then he doped the rest out the same as you have—that he could find the White Moll again through Gypsy Nan. I don't know what he wanted her for."
"That's better!" snarled Danglar, the merciless smile still on his lips. "I thought she must have had a pal, and we know now who her pal is. It's open and shut that she's sitting so tight she hasn't been able to get into touch with him, and that's what's worrying Mr. Adventurer."
Rhoda Gray, save for a nod of her head, made no answer.
Danglar laughed suddenly, as though in relief; then, coming closer to the bed, plunged his hand into his coat pocket, and tossed handful of jewelry carelessly into Rhoda Gray's lap.
"I feel better than I did!" he said, and laughed again. "It's a cinch now that we'll get them both through you, and it s a cinch that the White Moll won't cut in to-night. Put those sparklers away with the rest until we get ready to 'fence' them."
Rhoda Gray did not speak. Mechanically, as though she were living through some hideous nightmare, she began to scoop up the gems from her lap and allow them to trickle back through her fingers. They flashed and scintillated brilliantly, even in the meager light. They seemed alive with some premonitory, baleful fire.
"Yes, there's some pretty slick stuff there," said Danglar, with an appraising chuckle; "but there'll be something to-night that'll make all that bunch look like chicken-feed. The boys are at work now, and we'll have old Hayden-Bond's necklace in another hour. Skeeny's got the Sparrow tied up in the old room behind Shluker's place, and once we're sure there's no back-fire anywhere, the Sparrow will chirp his last chirp." He laughed out suddenly, and, leaning forward, clapped Rhoda Gray exultantly on the shoulder. "It was like taking candy from a kid! The Sparrow and the old man fell for the sick-mother, needing-her-son-all-night stuff without batting a lid; but the Sparrow hasn't been holding the old lady's hand at the bedside yet. We took care of that."
Again Rhoda Gray made no comment. She wondered, as she gripped at the rings and brooches in hand, so fiercely that the settings pricked into the flesh, if her face mirrored in any way the cold, sick misery that had suddenly taken possession of her soul. The Sparrow! She knew the Sparrow; she knew the Sparrow's sick mother. That part of it was true. The Sparrow did have an old mother who was sick. A fine old lady—finer than the son—Finch, her name was. Indirectly, she knew old Hayden-Bond, the millionaire, and—Almost subconsciously she was aware that Danglar was speaking again.
"I guess luck's breaking our way again," he grinned. "The old boy paid a hundred thousand cold for that necklace. You know how long we've been waiting to get our hooks on it, and we've never had our eyes off his house for two months. Well, it pays to wait, and it pays to do things right. It broke our way at last to-night, all right, all right! To-day's Saturday—and the safety deposit vaults aren't open on Sunday. Mrs. Hayden-Bond's been away all week visiting, but she comes back to-morrow, and there's some swell society fuss fixed for to-morrow night, and she wants her necklace to make a splurge, so she writes Mr. H-hyphen-B, and out it comes from the safety deposit vault, and into the library safe. The old man isn't long on social stunts, and he's got pretty well set in his habits; one of those must-have-nine-hours'-sleep bugs, and he's always in bed by ten—when his wife'll let him. She being away to-night, the boys were able to get to work early. They ought to be able to crack that box without making any noise about it in an hour and a half at the outside." He pulled out his watch-and whistled low under his breath. "It's a quarter after eleven now," he said hurriedly, and moved abruptly toward the door. "I can't stick around here any longer. I've got to be on deck where they can slip me the 'white ones,' and then there's Skeeny waiting for the word to bump off the Sparrow." He jerked his hand suddenly toward the jewels in her lap. "Salt those away before any more adventurers blow in!" he said, half sharply, half jocularly. "And don't let the White Moll slip you—at any cost. Remember! She's bound to come to you again. Play her—and send out the call. You understand, don't you? There's never been a yip out of the police. Our methods are too good for that. Look at the Sparrow to-night. Where there's no chance taken of suspicion going anywhere except where we lead it, there's no chance of any trouble—for us! But this cursed she-fiend's another story. We're not planting plum trees for her to pick any more of the fruit. Understand?"
She answered him mechanically.
"Yes," she said.
"All right, then; that end of it is up to you," he said significantly. "You're clever, clever as the devil, Bertha. Use your brains now—we need 'em. Good-night, old girl. See you later."
"Good-night," said Rhoda Gray dully.
The door closed. The short, ladder-like steps to the hallway below creaked once, and then all was still. Danglar did have on rubber-soled shoes. She sat upright, her hands, clenched now, pressed hard against her throbbing temples. It wasn't true! None of this was true—this hovel of a place, those jewels glinting like evil eyes in her lap; her existence itself wasn't true; it was only her brain now, sick like her soul, that conjured up these ugly phantoms with horrible, plausible ingenuity. And then an inner voice seemed to answer her with a calmness that was hideous in its finality. It was true. All of it was true. Those words of Danglar, and their bald meaning, were true. Men did such things; men made in the image of their Maker did such things. They were going to kill a man to-night—an innocent man whom they had made their pawn.
She swept the jewels from her lap to the blanket, and rising, seized the candle, went to the door, looked out, and, holding the candle high above her head, peered down the stairs. Yes, he was gone. There was no one there.
She locked the door again, returned to the bed, set the candle down upon the chair, and stood there, her face white and drawn, staring with wide, tormented eyes about her. Murder. Danglar had spoken of it with inhuman callousness—and had laughed at it. They were going to take a man's life. And there was only herself, already driven to extremity, already with her own back against the wall in an effort to save herself, only herself to carry the burden of the responsibility of doing something-to save a man's life.
It seemed to plumb the depths of irony and mockery. She could not make a move as Gypsy Nan. It would only result in their turning upon her, of the discovery that she was not Gypsy Nan at all, of the almost certainty that it would cost her her own life without saving the Sparrow's. That way was closed to her from the start. As the White Moll, then? Outside there in the great city, every plain-clothes man, every policeman on every beat, was staring into every woman's face he met—searching for the White Moll.
She wrung her hands in cruel desperation. Even to her own problem she had found no solution, though she had wrestled with it all last night, and all through the day; no solution save the negative one of clinging to this one refuge that remained to her, such as it was, temporarily. She had found no solution to that; what solution was there to this! She had thought of leaving the city as Gypsy Nan, and then somewhere far away, of sloughing off the character of Gypsy Nan, and of resuming her own personality again under an assumed name. But that would have meant the loss of everything she had in life, her little patrimony, the irredeemable stamp of shame upon the name she once had owned; and also the constant fear and dread that at any moment the police net, wide as the continent was wide, would close around her, as, sooner or later, it was almost inevitable that it would close around her. It had seemed that her only chance was to keep on striving to play the role of Gypsy Nan, because it was these associates of Gypsy Nan who were at the bottom of the crime of which she, Rhoda Gray, was held guilty, and because there was always the hope that in this way, through confidences to a supposed confederate, she could find the evidence that would convict those actually guilty, and so prove her own innocence. But in holding to the role of Gypsy Nan for the purpose of receiving those criminal confidences, she had not thought of this—that upon her would rest the moral responsibility of other crimes of which she would have knowledge, and, least of all, that she should be faced with what lay before her now, to-night, at the first contact with those who had been Gypsy Nan's confederates.
What was she to do? Upon her, and upon her alone, depended a man's life, and, adding to her distraction, she knew the man—the Sparrow, who had already done time; that was the vile ingenuity of it all. And there would le corroborative evidence, of course; they would have seen to that. If the Sparrow disappeared and was never heard of again, even a child would deduce the assumption that the proceeds of the robbery had disappeared with him.
Her brain seemed to grow panicky. She was standing here helplessly. And time, the one precious ally that she possessed, was slipping away from her. She could not go to the police as Gypsy Nan—and, much less, as the White Moll! She could not go to the police in any case, for the "corroborative" evidence, that obviously must exist, unless Danglar and those with him were fools, would indubitably damn the Sparrow to another prison term, even supposing that through the intervention of the police his life were saved. What was she to do?
And then, for a moment, her eyes lighted in relief. The Adventurer! She thrust her hand into the pocket of her skirt, and drew out the torn piece of paper, and studied the telephone number upon it—and slowly the hurt and misery came back into her eyes again. Who was he? He had told her. An adventurer. He had given her to understand that he, if she had not been just a few minutes ahead of him, would have taken that money from Skarbolov's escritoire last night. Therefore he was a crook. Danglar had said that some one had been getting in ahead of them lately and snatching the plunder from under their noses; and Danglar now believed that it had been the White Moll. A wan smile came to her lips. Instead of the White Moll, it appeared to be quite obvious that it was the Adventurer. It therefore appeared to be quite as obvious that the man was a professional thief, and an extremely clever one, at that. She dared not trust him. To enlist his aid she would have to explain the gang's plot; and while the Adventurer might go to the Sparrow's assistance, he might also be very much more interested in the diamond necklace that was involved, and not be entirely averse to Danglar's plan of using the Sparrow as a pawn, who, in that case, would make a very convenient scapegoat for the Adventurer—instead of Danglar! She dared not trust the man. She could not absolve her conscience by staking another's life on a hazard, on the supposition that the Adventurer might do this or that. It was not good enough.
She was quick in her movements now. Subconsciously her decision had been made. There was only one way—only one. She gathered up the jewels from the bed and thrust them, with the Adventurer's torn piece of paper, into her pocket. And now she reached for the little notebook that she had hidden under the blanket. It contained the gang's secret code, and she had found it in the cash box in Gypsy Nan's strange hiding place that evening. Half running now, carrying the candle, she started toward the lower end of the attic, where the roof sloped down to little more than shoulder high. "Seven-Three-Nine!" Danglar had almost decoded the message word for word in the course of his conversation. In the little notebook, set against the figures, were the words: "Danger. The game is off. Make no further move." It was only one of many, that arbitrary arrangement of figures, each combination having its own special significance; but, besides these, there was the key to a complete cipher into which any message might be coded, and—But why was her brain swerving off at inconsequential tangents? What did a coder or code book, matter at the present moment?
She was standing under the narrow trap-door in the low ceiling now, and now she pushed it up, and lifting the candle through the opening, set it down on the inner surface of the ceiling, which, like some vast shelf, Gypsy Nan had metamorphosed into that exhaustive storehouse of edibles, of plunder—a curious and sinister collection that was eloquent of a gauntlet long flung down against the law. She emptied the pocket of her skirt, retaining only the revolver, and substituted the articles she had removed with the tin box that contained the dark compound Gypsy Nan, and she herself, as Gypsy Nan, had used to rob her face of youthfulness, and give it the grimy, dissolute and haggard aspect which was so simple and yet so efficient a disguise.
She worked rapidly now, changing her clothes. She could not go, or act, as Gypsy Nan; and so she must go in her own character, go as the White Moll—because that was the lesser danger, the one that held the only promise of success. There wasn't any other way. She could not very well refuse to risk her capture by the police, could she, when by so doing she might save another's life? She could not balance in cowardly selfishness the possibility of a prison term for herself, hideous as that might be, against the penalty of death that the Sparrow would pay if she remained inactive. But she could not leave here as the White Moll. Somewhere, somewhere out in the night, somewhere away from this garret where all connection with it was severed, she must complete the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll. She could only prepare for that now as best she could.
And there was not a moment to lose. The thought made her frantic. Over her own clothes she put on again Gypsy Nan's greasy skirt, and drew on again, over her own silk ones, Gypsy Nan's coarse stockings. She put on Gypsy Nan's heavy and disreputable boots, and threw the old shawl again over her head and shoulders. And then, with her hat—for the small shape of which she breathed a prayer of thankfulness!—and her own shoes under her arm and covered by the shawl, she took the candle again, closed the trap-door, and stepped over to the washstand. Here, she dampened a rag, that did duty as a facecloth, and thrust it into her pocket; then, blowing out the candle, she groped her way to the door, locked it behind her, and without any attempt at secrecy made her way downstairs.
VI. THE RENDEZVOUS
Rhoda Gray's movements were a little unsteady as she stepped out on the sidewalk. Gypsy Nan's accepted inebriety was not without its compensation. It enabled her, as she swayed for a moment, to scrutinize the street in all directions. Were any of Rough Rorke's men watching the house? She did not know; she only knew that as far as she had been able to discover, she had not been followed when she had gone out that afternoon. Up the street, to her right, there were a few pedestrians; to her left, as far as the corner, the block was clear. She turned in the latter direction. She had noticed that afternoon that there was a lane between Gypsy Nan's house and the corner; she gained this and slipped into it unobserved.
And now, in the comparative darkness, she hurried her steps. Somewhere here in the lane she would make the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll complete; it required only some place in which she could with safety leave the garments that she discarded, and—Yes, this would do! A tumble-down old shed, its battered door half open, ample proof that the place was in disuse, intersected the line of high board fence on her right.
She stole inside. It was utterly dark, but she had no need for light. It was a matter of perhaps three minutes; and then, the revolver transferred to the pocket of her jacket, the stains removed from her face by the aid of the damp cloth, her hands neatly gloved in black kid, the skirt, boots, stockings, shawl, spectacles and wig of Gypsy Nan carefully piled together and hidden in a hole under the rotting boards of the floor, behind the door, she emerged as the White Moll, and went on again.
But at the end of the lane, where it met a cross street, and the street lamp flung out an ominous challenge, and, dim though it was, seemed to glare with the brightness of daylight, she faltered for a moment and drew back. She knew where Shluker's place was, because she knew, as few knew it, every nook and cranny in the East Side, and it was a long way to that old junk shop, almost over to the East River, and—and there would be lights like this one here that barred her exit from the lane, thousands of them, lights all the way, and—and out there they were searching everywhere, pitilessly, for the White Moll.
And then, with her lips tightened, the straight little shoulders thrown resolutely back, she slipped from the lane to the sidewalk, and, hugging the shadows of the buildings, started forward.
She was alert now in mind and body, every faculty strained and in tension. It was a long way, and it would take a great while—by wide detours, by lanes and alleyways, for only on those streets that were relatively deserted and poorly lighted would she dare trust herself to the open. And as she went along, now skirting the side of a street, now through some black courtyard, now forced to take a fence, and taking it with the agility born of the open, athletic life she had led with her father in the mining camps of South America, now hiding at the mouth of a lane waiting her chance to cross an intersecting street when some receding footstep should have died away, the terror of delay came gripping at her heart with an icy clutch, submerging the fear of personal peril in the agony of dread that, with her progress so slow, she would, after all, be too late. And at times she almost cried out in her vexation and despair, as once, when crouched behind a door-stoop, a policeman, not two yards from her, stood and twirled his night stick under the street lamp while the minutes sped and raced themselves away.
When she could run, she ran until it seemed her lungs must burst, but it was slow progress at best, and always the terror grew upon her. Had Danglar met the men yet who had looted the millionaire's safe? Had he already joined Skeeny in that old room behind Shluker's place? Had the Sparrow—She would not let her mind frame that question in concrete words. The Sparrow! His real name was Martin, Martin Finch—Marty, for short. Times without number she had visited the sick and widowed mother—while the Sparrow had served a two-years' sentence for his first conviction in safe-breaking. The Sparrow, from a first-class chauffeur mechanic, had showed signs of becoming a first-class cracksman, it was true; but the Sparrow was young, and she had never believed that he was inherently bad. Her opinion had been confirmed when, some six months ago, on his release, listening both to her own pleadings and to those of his mother, the Sparrow had sworn that he would stick to the "straight and narrow." And Hayden-Bond, the millionaire, referred to by a good many people as eccentric, had further proved his claims to eccentricity in the eyes of a good many people by giving a prison bird a chance to make an honest living, and had engaged the Sparrow as his chauffeur. It was a vile and an abominable thing that they were doing, even if they had not planned to culminate it with murder. What chance would the Sparrow have had!
It had taken a long time. She did not know how long, as, at last, she stole unnoticed into a black and narrow driveway that led in, between two blocks of down-at-the-heels tenements, to a courtyard in the rear. Shluker had his junk shop here. Her lips pursed up as though defiant of a tinge of perplexity that had suddenly taken possession of her. She did not know Shluker, or anything about Shluker's place except its locality; but surely "the old room behind Shluker's" was direction enough, and—She had just emerged from the end of the driveway now, and now, startled, she turned her head quickly, as she heard a brisk step turning in from the street behind her. But in the darkness she could see no one, and satisfied, therefore, that she in turn had not been seen, she moved swiftly to one side, and crouched down against the rear wall of one of the tenements. A long moment, that seemed an eternity, passed, and then a man's form came out from the driveway, and started across the courtyard.
She drew in her breath sharply, a curious mingling of relief and a sudden panic fear upon her. It was not so dark in the courtyard as it had been in the driveway, and, unless she were strangely mistaken that form out there was Danglar's. She watched him as he headed toward a small building that loomed up like a black, irregular shadow across the courtyard, and which was Shluker's shop—watched him in a tense, fascinated way. She was in time, then—only—only somehow now her limbs seemed to have become weak and powerless. It seemed suddenly as though she craved with all her soul the protecting shadows of the tenement, and that every impulse bade her cling there, flattened against the wall, until she could make her escape. She was afraid now; she shrank from the next step. It wasn't illogical. She had set out with a purpose in view, and she had not been blind to the danger that she ran, but the prospective and mental encounter with danger did not hold the terror that the tangible, concrete and actual presence of that peril did—and that was Danglar there.
She felt her face whiten, and she felt the tremor of her lips, tightly as they were drawn together. Yes, she was afraid, afraid in every fiber of her being, but there was a difference, wasn't there, between being afraid and being a coward? Her small, gloved hands clenched, her lips parted slightly. She laughed a little now, low, without mirth. Upon what she did or did not do, upon the margin between fear and cowardice as applied to herself, there hung a man's life. Danglar was disappearing around the side of Shluker's shop. She moved out from the wall, and swiftly, silently, crossed the courtyard, gained the side of the junk shop in turn, skirted it, and halted, listening, peering around her, as she reached the rear corner of the building. A door closed somewhere ahead of her; from above, upstairs, faint streaks of light showed through the interstices of a shuttered window.
She crept forward now, hugging the rear wall, reached a door-the one, obviously, through which Danglar had disappeared, and which she had heard as it was closed—tried the door, found it unlocked, and, noiselessly, inch by inch, pushed it open; and a moment later, stepping over the threshold, she closed it softly behind her. A dull glow of light, emanating evidently from an open door above, disclosed the upper portion of a stairway over on her left, but apart from that the place was in blackness, and save that she knew, of course, she was in the rear of Shluker's junk shop, she could form no idea of her surroundings. But she could, at last, hear. Voices, one of which she recognized as Danglar's, though she could not distinguish the words, reached her from upstairs.
Slowly, with infinite care, she crossed to the stairs, and on hands and knees now, lest she should make a sound, began to crawl upward. And a little way up, panic fear seized upon her again, and her heart stood still, and she turned a miserable face in the darkness back toward the door below, and fought against the impulse to retreat again.
And then she heard Danglar speak, and from her new vantage point his words came to her distinctly this time:
"Good work, Skeeny! You've got the Sparrow nicely trussed up, I see. Well, he'll do as he is for a while there. I told the boys to hold off a bit. It's safer to wait an hour or two yet, before moving him away from here and bumping him off."
"Two jobs instead of one!" a surly voice answered. "We might just as well have finished him and slipped him away for keeps when we first got our hooks on him."
"Got a little sick of your wood-carving, while you stuck around by your lonesome and watched him—eh?" Danglar's tones were jocularly facetious. "Don't grouch, Skeeny! We're not killing for fun—it doesn't pay. Supposing anything had broken wrong up the Avenue—eh? We wouldn't have had our friend the Sparrow there for the next time we tried it!"
There was something abhorrently callous in the laugh that followed. It seemed to fan into flame a smoldering fire of passionate anger in Rhoda Gray's soul. And before it panic fled. Her hand felt upward for the next stair-tread, and she crept on again, as a face seemed to rise before her—not the Sparrow's face—a woman's face. It was a face that was crowned with very thin white hair, and its eyes were the saddest she had ever seen, and yet they were brave, steady old eyes that had not lost their faith; nor had the old, care-lined face itself, in spite of suffering, lost its gentleness and sweetness. And then suddenly it seemed to change, that face, and become wreathed in smiles, and happy tears to run coursing down the wrinkled cheeks. Yes, she remembered! It had brought the tears to her own eyes. It was the night that the wayward Sparrow, home from the penitentiary, on his knees, his head buried in his mother's lap, had sworn that he would go straight.
Fear! It seemed as though she never had known, never could know fear—that only a merciless, tigerish, unbridled fury had her in its thrall. And she went on up, step after step, as Danglar spoke again:
"There's nothing to it! The Sparrow there fell for the telephone when Stevie played the doctor. And old Hayden-Bond of course grants his prison-bird chauffeur's request to spend the night with his mother, who the doctor says is taken worse, because the old guy knows there is a mother who really is sick. Only Mr. Hayden-Bond, and the police with him, will maybe figure it a little differently in the morning when they find the safe looted, and that the Sparrow, instead of ever going near the poor old dame, has flown the coop and can't be found. And in case there's any lingering doubt in their minds, that piece of paper with the grease-smudges and the Sparrow's greasy finger-prints on it, that you remember we copped a few days ago in the garage, will set them straight. The Cricket slipped it in among the papers he pulled out of the safe and tossed around on the floor. It looks as though a tool had been wiped with it while the safe was being cracked, and that it got covered over by the stuff that was emptied out, and had been forgotten. I guess they won't be long in comparing the finger-prints with the ones the Sparrow kindly left with them when they measured him for his striped suit the time they sent him up the river—eh?"
Rhoda Gray could see now. Her eyes were on a level with the landing, and diagonally across from the head of the stairs was the open doorway of a lighted room. She could not see all of the interior, but she could see quite enough. Two men sat, side face to her, one at each end of a rough, deal table—Danglar, and an ugly, pock-marked, unshaven man, in a peaked cap that was drawn down over his eyes, who whittled at a stick with a huge jack-knife. The latter was Skeeny, obviously; and the jack-knife and the stick, quite as obviously, explained Danglar's facetious reference to wood-carving. And then her eyes shifted, and widened as they rested on a huddled form that she could see by looking under and beyond the table, and that lay sprawled out against the far wall of the room.
Skeeny pushed the peak of his cap back with the point of his knife-blade.
"What's the haul size up at?" he demanded. "Anything in the safe besides the shiners?"
"A few hundred dollars," Danglar replied. "I don't know exactly how much. I told the Cricket to divide it up among the boys who did the rough work. That's good enough, isn't it, Skeeny? It gives you a little extra. You'll get yours."
Skeeny grunted compliance.
"Well, let's have a look at the white ones, then," he said.
Rhoda Gray was standing upright in the little hallway now, and now, pressed close against the wall, she edged toward the door-jamb. And a queer, grim little smile came and twisted the sensitive lips, as she drew her revolver from her pocket. The merciless, pitiless way in which the newspapers had flayed the White Moll was not, after all, to be wholly regretted! The cool, clever resourcefulness, the years of reckless daring attributed to the White Moll, would stand her in good stead now. Everybody on the East Side knew her by sight. These men knew her. It was not merely a woman ambitiously attempting to beard two men who, perhaps, holding her sex in contempt in an adventure of this kind, might throw discretion to the winds and give scant respect to her revolver, for behind the muzzle of that revolver was the reputation of the White Moll. They would take her at face value—as one who not only knew how to use that revolver, but as one who would not hesitate an instant to do so.
From the room she heard Skeeny whistle low under his breath, as though in sudden and amazed delight—and then she was standing full in the open doorway, and her revolver in her outflung, gloved hand covered the two men at the table.
There was a startled cry from Skeeny, a scintillating flash of light as a magnificent string of diamonds fell from his hand to the table. But Danglar did not move or speak; only his lips twitched, and a queer whiteness came and spread itself over his face.
"Put up your hands-both of you!" she ordered, in a low, tense voice.
It was Skeeny who spoke, as both men obeyed her. "The White Moll, so help me!" he mumbled, and swallowed hard.
Danglar's eyes never seemed to leave her face, and they narrowed now, full of hatred and a fury that lie made no attempt to conceal. She smiled at him coldly. She quite understood! He had already complained that evening that the White Moll for the last few weeks had been robbing them of the fruits of their laboriously planned schemes. And now-again! Well, she would not dispel his illusion! He had given the White Moll that role—and it was the safest role to play.
She stepped forward now, and with her free hand suddenly pulled the table toward her out of their reach; and then, as she picked up the necklace, she appeared for the first time to become aware of the presence of the huddled form on the floor near the wall. She could see that the Sparrow was bound and gagged, and as he squirmed now he turned his face toward her.
"Why, it's the Sparrow, isn't it?" she exclaimed sharply; then, evenly, to the two men: "I had no idea you were so hospitable! Push your chairs closer together—with your feet, not your hands! You are easier to watch if you are not too far apart."
Dangler complied sullenly. Skeeny, over the scraping of his chair legs, cursed in a sort of unnerved abandon, as he obeyed her.
"Thank you!" said Rhoda Gray pleasantly—and calmly tucked the necklace into her bodice.
The act seemed to rouse Danglar to the last pitch of fury. The blood rushed in an angry tide to his face, and, suffusing, purpled his cheeks.
"This isn't the first crack you've made!" he flung out hoarsely. "You've been getting wise to a whole lot lately somehow, you and that dude pal of yours, but you'll pay for it, you female devil! Understand? By God, you'll pay for it! I promise you that you'll pray yet on your bended knees for the chance to take your own life! Do you hear?"
"I hear," said Rhoda Gray coldly.
She picked up the jack-knife from the table, and keeping both men covered, stepped backward to the wall. Here, kneeling, she reached behind her with her left hand, and felt for, and cut the heavy cord that bound the Sparrow's arms; then, pushing the knife into the Sparrow's hands that he might free himself from the rest of his bonds, she stood up again.
A moment more, and the Sparrow, rubbing the circulation back into his wrists, stood beside her. There was a look on the young, white face that was not good to see. He circled dry lips with the tip of his tongue and then his thumb began to feel over the blade of the big jack-knife in a sort of horribly supercritical appraisal of its edge. He spoke thickly for the gag that had been in his mouth.
"You dirty skates!" he whispered. "You were going to bump me off, were you? You planted me cold, did you? Oh, hell!" His laugh, like the laugh of one insane, jangling, discordant, rang through the room. "Well, it's my turn now, and"—his body was coiling itself in a slow, curious, almost snake-like fashion—"and you'll—"
Rhoda Gray laid her hand on the Sparrow's arm.
"Not that way, Marty," she said quietly. She smiled thinly at Danglar, who, with genuinely frightened eyes now, seemed fascinated by the Sparrow's movements. "I wouldn't care to have anything happen to Mr. Danglar—yet. He has been invaluable to me, and I am sure he will be again."
The Sparrow brushed his hands across his eyes, and stared at her. He licked his lips again. He appeared to be obsessed with the knife-blade in his hand—dazed in a strange way to all else.
"There's enough cord there for both of them," said Rhoda Gray crisply. "Tie them in their chairs, Marty."
For a moment the Sparrow hesitated; and then, with a sort of queer reluctancy, he dropped the knife on the table, and went and picked up the strands of cord from the floor.
No one spoke. The Sparrow, with twitching lips as he worked, and worked not gently, bound first Danglar and then Skeeny to their respective chairs. Skeeny for the most part kept his eyes on the floor, casting only furtive glances at Rhoda Gray's revolver muzzle. But Danglar was smiling now. He had very white teeth. There was something of primal, insensate fury in the hard-drawn, parted lips. Somehow he seemed to remind Rhoda Gray of a beast, stung to madness, but impotent behind the bars of its cage, as it showed its fangs.
"We'll go now, Marty," she said softly, as the Sparrow finished.
She motioned the Sparrow with an imperious little nod of her head to the door. And then, following the other, she backed to the door herself, and halted an instant on the threshold.
"It has been a very profitable evening, Mr. Danglar," she said coolly. "I have you to thank for it. When your friends come, which I think I heard you say would be in another hour or so, I hope you will not fail to convey to them my—"
"You she-fiend!" Danglar had found his voice again. "You'll crawl for this! Do you understand? and I'll show you inside of twenty-four hours what you're up against, you—you—" His voice broke in its fury. The veins were standing out on the side of his neck like whipcords. He could just move his forearms a little, and his hands reached out toward her, curved like claws. "I'll—"
But Rhoda Gray had closed the door behind her, and, with the Sparrow, was retreating down the stairs.
VII. FELLOW THIEVES
Reaching the courtyard, Rhoda Gray led the way without a word through the driveway, and finding the street clear, hurried on rapidly. Her mind, strangely stimulated, was working in quick, incisive flashes. Her work was not yet done. The Sparrow was safe, as far as his life was concerned; but her possession of even the necklace would not save the Sparrow from the law. There was the money that was gone from the safe. She could not recover that, but—yes, dimly, she began to see a way. She swerved suddenly from the sidewalk as she came to an alleyway—which had been her objective—and drew the Sparrow in with her out of sight of the street.
The Sparrow gripped at her hand.
"The White Moll!" he whispered brokenly. "God bless the White Moll! I ain't had a chance to say it before. You saved my life, and I—I—"
In the semi-darkness she leaned forward and laid her fingers gently over the Sparrow's lips.
"And there's no time to say it now, Marty," she said quickly. "You are not out of this yet."
He swept his hand across his eyes.
"I know it," he said. "I got to get those shiners back up there somehow, and I got to get that paper they planted on me."
She shook her head.
"Even that wouldn't clear you," she said. "The safe has been looted of money, as well; and you can't replace that. Even with only the money gone, who would they first naturally suspect? You are known as a safe-breaker; you have served a term for it. You asked for a night off to stay with your mother who is sick. You left Mr. Hayden-Bond's, we'll say, at seven or eight o'clock. It's after midnight now. How long would it take them to find out that between eight and midnight you had not only never been near your mother, but could not prove an alibi of any sort? If you told the truth it would sound absurd. No one in their sober senses would believe you."
The Sparrow looked at her miserably.
"My God!" he faltered. He wet his lips. "That's true."
"Marty," she said quietly, "did you read in the papers that I had been arrested last night for theft, caught with the goods on me, but had escaped?"
The Sparrow hesitated.
"Yes, I did," he said. And then, earnestly: "But I don't believe it!"
"It was true, though, Marty—all except that I wasn't a thief," she said as quietly as before. "What I want to know is, in spite of that, would you trust me with what is left to be done to-night, if I tell you that I believe I can get you out of this?"
"Sure, I would!" he said simply. "I don't know how you got wise about all this, or how you got to know about that necklace, but any of our crowd would trust you to the limit. Sure, I'd trust you! You bet your life!"
"Thank you, Marty," she said. "Well, then, how do you get into Mr. Hayden-Bond's house when, for instance, you are out late at night?"
"I've got a key to the garage," he answered. "The garage is attached to the house, though it opens on the side street."
She held Out her hand.
The Sparrow fished in his pocket, and extended the key without hesitation.
"It's for the small door, of course," he explained.
"You haven't got a flashlight, I suppose?" she smiled.
"Sure! There's plenty of 'em! Each car's got one with its tools under the back seat."
"And now, the library," she said. "What part of the house is it in? How is it situated?"
"It's on the ground floor at the back," he told her. "The little short passage from the garage opens on the kitchen, then the pantry, and then there's a little cross hallway, and the dining-room is on the left, and the library on the right. But ain't I going with you?"
She shook her head again.
"You're going home, Marty—after you've sent me a taxicab. If you were seen in that neighborhood now, let alone by any chance seen in the house, nothing could save you. You understand that, don't you? Now, listen! Find a taxi, and send it here. Tell the chauffeur to pick me up, and drive me to the corner of the cross street, one block in the rear of Mr. Hayden-Bond's residence. Don't mention Hayden-Bond's name. Give the chauffeur simply street directions. Be careful that he is some one who doesn't know you. Tell him he will be well paid—and give him this to begin with." She thrust a banknote into the Sparrow's hand. "You're sure to find one at some all-night cabaret around here. And remember, when you go home afterward, not a word to your mother! And not a word to-morrow, or ever-to any one! You've simply done as you told your employer you were going to do—spent the night at home."
"But you," he burst out, and his words choked a little. "I—I can't let you go, and—"
"You said you would trust me, Marty," she said. "And if you want to help me, as well, don't waste another moment. I shall need every second I have got. Quick! Hurry!"
She pushed him toward the street.
"Run!" she said tensely. "Hurry, Marty, hurry!"
She drew back into the shadows. She was alone now. The Sparrow's racing footsteps died away on the pavement. Her mind reverted to the plan that she had dimly conceived. It became detailed, concrete now, as the minutes passed. And then she heard a car coming along the previously deserted street, and she stepped out on the sidewalk. It was the taxi.
"You know where to go, don't you?" she said to the chauffeur, as the cab drew up at the curb, and the man leaned out and opened the door.
"Yes'm," he said.
"Please drive fast, then," she said, as she stepped in.
The taxi shot out from the curb, and rattled forward at a rapid pace. Rhoda Gray settled back on the cushions. A half whimsical, half weary little smile touched her lips. It was much easier, and infinitely safer, this mode of travel, than that of her earlier experience that evening; but, earlier that evening, she had had no one to go to a cab rank for her, and she had not dared to appear in the open and hail one for herself. The smile vanished, and the lips became, pursed and grim. Her mind was back on that daring, and perhaps a little dangerous, plan, that she meant to put into execution. Block after block was traversed. It was a long way uptown, but the chauffeur's initial and generous tip was bearing fruit. The man was losing no time.
Rhoda Gray calculated that they had been a little under half an hour in making the trip, when the taxi finally drew up and stopped at a corner, and the chauffeur, again leaning out, opened the door.
"Wait for me," she instructed, and handed the man another tip—and, with a glance about her to get her location, she hurried around the corner, and headed up the cross street.
She had only a block now to go to reach the Hayden-Bond mansion on the corner of Fifth Avenue ahead—less than that to reach the garage, which opened on the cross street here. She had little fear of personal identification now. Here in this residential section and at this hour of night, it was like a silent and deserted city; even Fifth Avenue, just ahead, for all its lights, was one of the loneliest places at this hour in all New York. True, now and then, a car might race up or down the great thoroughfare, or a belated pedestrian's footsteps ring and echo hollow on the pavement, where but a few hours before the traffic-squad struggled valiantly, and sometimes vainly, with the congestion—but that was all.
She could make out the Hayden-Bond mansion on the corner ahead of her now, and now she was abreast of the rather ornate and attached little building, that was obviously the garage. She drew the key from her pocket, and glanced around her. There was no one in sight. She stepped swiftly to the small door that flanked the big double ones where the cars went in and out, opened it, closed it behind her, and locked it.
For a moment, her eyes unaccustomed to the darkness, she could see nothing; and then a car, taking the form of a grotesque, looming shadow, showed in front of her. She moved toward it, felt her way into the tonneau, lifted up the back seat, and, groping around, found a flashlight. She meant to hurry now. She did not mean to let that nervous dread, that fear, that was quickening her pulse now, have time to get the better of her. She located the door that led to the house, and in another moment, the short passage behind her, she was in the kitchen, the flashlight winking cautiously around her. She paused to listen here. There was not a sound.
She went on again—through a swinging pantry door with extreme care, and into a small hall. "On the right," the Sparrow had said. Yes, here it was; a door that opened on the rear of the library, evidently. She listened again. There was no sound—save the silence, that seemed to grow loud now, and palpitate, and make great noises. And now, in spite of herself, her breath was coming in quick, hard little catches, and the flashlight's ray, that she sent around her, wavered and was not steady. She bit her lips, as she switched off the light. Why should she be afraid of this, when in another five minutes she meant to invite attention!
She pushed the door in front of her open, found it hung with a heavy portiere inside, brushed the portiere aside, stepped through into the room, stood still and motionless to listen once more, and then the flashlight circled inquisitively about her.
It was the library. Her eyes widened a little. At her left, over against the wall, the mangled door of a safe stood wide open, and the floor for a radius of yards around was littered with papers and documents. The flashlight's ray lifted, and she followed it with her eyes as it made the circuit of the walls. Opposite the safe, and quite near the doorway in which she stood, was a window recess, portiered; diagonally across from her was another door that led, presumably, into the main hall of the house; the walls were tapestried, and hung here and there with clusters of ancient trophies, great metal shields, and swords, and curious arms, that gave a sort of barbaric splendor to the luxurious furnishings of the apartment.
She worked quickly now. In a moment she was at the window portieres, and, drawing these aside, she quietly raised the window, and looked out. The window was on the side of the house away from the cross street, and she nodded her head reassuringly to herself as she noted that it gave on a narrow strip of grass, it could not be called lawn, that separated the Hayden-Bond mansion from the house next door; that the window was little more than shoulder-high from the ground; and that the Avenue was within easy and inviting reach along that little strip of grass between the two houses.
She left the window open, and retraced her steps across the room, going now to the littered mass of papers on the floor near the safe. She began to search carefully amongst them. She smiled a little curiously as she came across the plush-lined jeweler's case that had contained the necklace, and which had evidently been contemptuously discarded by the Cricket and his confederates; but it took her longer to find the paper for which she was searching. And then she came upon it—a grease-smeared advertisement for some automobile appliances, a well-defined greasy finger-print at one edge—and thrust the paper into her pocket.
And now suddenly her heartbeat began to quicken again until its thumping became tumultuous. She was ready now. She looked around her, using the flashlight, and her eyes rested appraisingly on one of the great clusters of shields and arms that hung low down on the wall between the window and the door by which she had entered. Yes, that would do. Her lips tightened. It would have been so easy if there had not been that cash to account for! She could replace the necklace, but she could not replace the cash—and one, as far as the Sparrow was concerned, was as bad as the other. But there was a way, and it was simple enough. She whispered to herself that it was not, after all, very dangerous, that the cards were all in her own hands. She had only to pull down those shields with a clatter to the floor, which would arouse some one of the household, and as that some one reached the library door and opened it, she would be disappearing through the window, and the necklace, as though it had slipped from her pocket or grasp in her wild effort to escape, would be lying behind her on the floor. They would see that it was not the Sparrow; and there would be no question as to where the money was gone, since the money had not been dropped. There was the interval, of course, that must elapse between the accident that knocked the shields from the wall and the time it would take any of the inmates to reach the library, an interval in which a thief might reasonably be expected to have had time enough to get away without being seen; but the possibility that she had not fully accomplished her ends when the accident occurred, and that she had stayed to make frantic and desperate efforts to do so right up to the last moment, would account for that.
She moved now to an electric-light switch, and turned on the light. They must be able to see beyond any question of doubt that the person escaping through the window was not the Sparrow. What was she afraid of now, just at the last! There was an actual physical discomfort in the furious thumping of that cowardly little heart of hers. It was the only way. And it was worth it. And it was not so very dangerous. People, aroused out of bed, could not follow her in their night clothes; and in a matter of but a few minutes, before the police notified by telephone could become a factor in the affair, she would have run the block down the Avenue, and then the other block down the cross street, then back to the taxi, and be whirling safely downtown.
Yes, she was ready! She nodded her head sharply, as though in imperative self-command, and running back, her footfalls soundless on the rich, heavy rug, she picked up the plush-lined necklace case. She dropped this again, open, on the floor, halfway between the safe and the window. With the case apparently burst open as it fell, and the necklace also on the floor, the stage would be set! She felt inside her bodice, drew out the necklace—and as she stood there holding it, and as it caught the light and flashed back its fire and life from a thousand facets, a numbness seemed to come stealing over her, and a horror, and a great fear, and a dismay that robbed her of power of movement until it seemed that she was rooted to the spot, and a low, gasping cry came from her lips. Her eyes, wide with their alarm, were fixed on the window. There was a man's face there, just above the sill—and now a man's form swung through the window, and dropped lightly to the floor inside the room. And she stared in horrified fascination, and could not move. It was the Adventurer.
"It's Miss Gray, isn't it? The White Moll?" he murmured amiably. "I've been trying to find you all night. What corking luck! You remember me, don't you? Last night, you know."
She did not answer. His eyes had shifted from her face to the glittering river of gems in her hand.
"I see," he smiled, "that you are ahead of me again. Well, it is the fortune of war, Miss Gray. I do not complain."
She found her voice at last; and, quick as a flash, as he advanced a step, she dropped the necklace into her pocket, and her revolver was in her hand.
"W—what are you doing here?" she whispered.
He shrugged his shoulders expressively.
"I take it that we are both in the same boat," he said pleasantly.
"In the same boat?" she echoed dully. She remembered his conversation with her a few hours ago, when he had believed he was talking to Gypsy Nan. And now he stood before her for the second time a self-confessed thief. In the same boat-fellow-thieves! A certain cold composure came to her. "You mean you came to steal this necklace? Well, you shall not have it! And, furthermore, you have no right to class me with yourself as a thief."
He had a whimsical and very engaging smile. His eyebrows lifted.
"Miss Gray perhaps forgets last night," he suggested.
"No, I do not forget last night," she said slowly, "And I do not forget that I owe you very much for what you did. And that is one reason why I warn you at once that, as far as the necklace is concerned, it will do you no good to build any hopes on the supposition that we are fellow-thieves, and that I am likely either to part with it, or, through gratitude, share it. In spite of appearances last night, I was not a thief."
"And to-night, Miss Gray—in spite of appearances?" he challenged.
He was regarding her with eyes that, while they appraised shrewdly, held a lurking hint of irony in their depths. And somehow, suddenly, self-proclaimed crook though she held him to be, she found herself seized with an absurd, unreasonable, but nevertheless passionate, desire to make good her words.
"Yes, and to-night, too!" she asserted. "I did not steal this necklace. I—never mind how—I—I got it. It was planned to put the theft on an innocent man's shoulders. I was trying to thwart that plan. Whether you believe me or not, I did not come here to steal the necklace; I came here to return it."
"Quite so! Of course!" acknowledged the Adventurer softly. "I am afraid I interrupted you, then, in the act of returning it. Might I suggest, therefore, Miss Gray, that as it's a bit dangerous to linger around here unnecessarily, you carry out your intentions with all possible haste, and get away."
"And you?" she queried evenly.
"Myself, of course, as well." He shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "Under the circumstances, as a gentleman—will you let me say I prefer that word to the one I know you are substituting for it—what else can I do?"
She bit her lips. Was he mocking her? The gray eyes were inscrutable now.
"Then please do not let me detain you!" she said sharply. "And in my turn, let me advise you to go at once. I intend to knock one of those shields down from the wall before I go, in order to arouse the household. I will, however, in part payment for last night, allow you three full minutes from the time you climb out of that window, so that you may have ample time to get away."
He stared at her in frank bewilderment.
"Good Lord!" he gasped. "You—you're joking, Miss Gray."
"No, I am not," she replied coolly. "Far from it! There was money stolen that I cannot replace, and the theft of the money would be put upon the same innocent shoulders. I see no other way than the one I have mentioned. If whoever runs into this room is permitted to get a glimpse of me, and is given the impression that the necklace, which I shall leave on the floor, was dropped in my haste, the supposition remains that, at least, I got away with the money. I am certainly not the innocent man who has been used as the pawn; and if I am recognized as the White Moll, what does it matter—after last night?"
He took a step toward her impetuously—and stopped quite as impetuously. Her revolver had swung to a level with his head.
"Pardon me!" he said.
"Not at all!" she said caustically.
For the first time, as she watched him warily, the Adventurer appeared to lose some of his self-assurance. He shifted a little uneasily on his feet, and the corners of his eyes puckered into a nest of perturbed wrinkles.
"I say, Miss Gray, you can't mean this!" he protested. "You're not serious!"
"I have told you that I am," she answered steadily. "Those three minutes that I gave you are going fast."
"Then look here!" he exclaimed earnestly. "I'll tell you something. I said I had been trying to find you to-night. It was the truth. I went to Gypsy Nan's—and might have been spared my pains. I told her about last night, and that I knew you were in danger, and that I wanted to help you. I mention this so that you will understand that I am not just speaking on the spur of the moment, now that I have an opportunity of repeating that offer in person."
She looked at him impassively for a moment. He had neglected to state that he had also told Gypsy Nan he desired to enter into a partnership with her—in crime.
"It is very kind of you," she said sweetly. "I presume, then, that you have some suggestion to make?"
"Only what any—may I say it?—gentleman would suggest under the circumstances. It is far too dangerous a thing for a woman to attempt; it would be much less dangerous for me. I realize that you are in earnest now, and I will agree to carry out your plan in every detail once I am satisfied that you are safely away."
"The idea being," she observed monotonously, "that, being safely away, and the necklace being left safely on the floor, you are left safely in possession of—the necklace. Well, my answer is—no!"
His face hardened a little.
"I'm sorry, then," he said. "For in that case, in so far as your project is concerned, I, too, must say—no!"
It was an impasse. She studied his face, the strong jaw set a little now, the lips molded in sterner lines, and for all her outward show of composure, she knew a sick dismay. And for a moment she neither moved nor spoke. What he would do next, she did not know; but she knew quite well that he had not the slightest intention of leaving her here undisturbed to carry out her plan, unless—unless, somehow, she could outwit him. She bit her lips again. And then inspiration came. She turned, and with a sudden leap gained the wall, and the next instant, holding him back with her revolver as she reached up with her left hand, she caught at the great metal shield with its encircling cluster of small arms, and wrenched it from its fastenings. It crashed to the floor with a din infernal that, in the night silence, went racketing through the house like the reverberations of an explosion.
"My God, what have you done!" he cried out hoarsely.
"What I said I'd do!" she answered. She was white-faced, frightened at her own act, fighting to maintain her nerve. "You'll go now, I imagine!" she flung at him passionately. "You haven't much time."
"No!" he said. His composure was instantly at command again. "No," he repeated steadily; "not until after you have gone. I refuse—positively—to let you run any such risk as that. It is far too dangerous."
"Yes, you will!" she burst out wildly. "You will! You must! You shall! I—I—" The house itself seemed suddenly to have awakened. From above doors opened and closed. Indistinctly there came the sound of a voice. She clenched her hand in anguished desperation. "Go, you—you coward!" she whispered frantically.
"Miss Gray, for God's sake, do as I tell you!" he said between his teeth. "You don't realize the danger. It's not the pursuit. They are not coming down here unarmed after that racket. I know that you came in by that door there. Go out that way. I will play the game for you. I swear it!"
There were footsteps, plainly audible now, out in the main hall.
"Quick!" he urged. "Are we both to be caught? See!" He backed suddenly toward the window.
"See! I am too far away now to touch that necklace before they get here. Throw it down, and get behind the portiere of the rear door!"
Mechanically she was retreating. They were almost at the other door now, those footsteps outside in the main hall. With a backward spring she reached the portiere. The door handle across the room rattled. She glanced at the Adventurer. He was close to the window. It was true, he could not get the necklace and at the same time hope to escape. She whipped it from her pocket, tossed it from her to the floor near the plush-lined case—and slipped behind the portiere.
The door opposite to her was wrenched violently open. She could see through the corner of the portiere. There was a sharp, excited exclamation, as a gray-haired man, in pajamas, evidently Mr. Hayden-Bond himself, sprang into the room. He was followed by another man in equal dishabille.
And the Adventurer was leaping for the window.
There was a blinding flash, the roar of a report, as the millionaire flung up a revolver and fired; it was echoed by the splatter and tinkle of falling glass. The Adventurer was astride the window sill now, his face deliberately and unmistakably in view.
"A foot too high, and a bit to the right!" said the Adventurer debonairly—and the window sill was empty.
Rhoda Gray stole silently through the doorway behind her. She could hear the millionaire and his companion, the butler, probably, rush across the library to the window. As she gained the pantry, she heard another shot. Tight-lipped, using her flashlight, she ran through the kitchen. In a moment more, she was standing at the garage door, listening, peering furtively outside. The street itself was empty; there were shouts, though, from the direction of the Avenue. She stepped out on the side street, and walking composedly that she might not attract attention, though very impulse urged her to run with frantic haste, she reached the corner and the waiting taxicab. She gave the chauffeur an address that would bring her to the street in the rear of Gypsy Nan's and within reach of the lane where she had left her clothes, and, with an injunction to hurry, sprang into the cab.
And then for a long time she sat there with her hands tightly clasped in her lap. Her mind, her brain, her very soul itself seemed in chaos and turmoil. There was the Sparrow, who was safe; and Danglar, who would move heaven and hell to get her now; and the Adventurer, who—Her mind seemed to grope around in cycles; it seemed to moil on and on and arrive at nothing. The Adventurer had played the game—perhaps because he had had to; but he had not risked that revolver shot in her stead because he had had to. Who was he? How had he come there? How had he found her there? How had he known that she had entered by that rear door behind the portiere? She remembered how that he had offered not a single explanation.
Almost mechanically she dismissed the taxi when at last it stopped; and almost mechanically, as Gypsy Nan, some ten minutes later, she let herself into the garret, and lighted the candle. She was conscious, as she hid the White Moll's clothes away, that she was thankful she had regained in safety even the questionable sanctuary of this wretched place; but, strangely, thoughts of her own peril seemed somehow to be temporarily relegated to the background.
She flung herself down on the bed—it was not Gypsy Nan's habit to undress—and blew out the light. But she could not sleep. And hour after hour in the darkness she tossed unrestfully. It was very strange! It was not as it had been last night. It was not the impotent, frantic rebellion against the horrors of her own situation, nor the fear and terror of it, that obsessed her to-night. It was the Adventurer who plagued her.
VIII. THE CODE MESSAGE
It was strange! Most strange! Three days had passed, and to Gypsy Nan's lodging no one had come. The small crack under the partition that had been impressed into service as a letter-box had remained empty. There had been no messages—nothing—only a sinister, brooding isolation. Since the night Rhoda Gray had left Danglar, balked, almost a madman in his fury, in the little room over Shluker's junk shop, Danglar had not been seen—nor the Adventurer—nor even Rough Rorke. Her only visitant since then had been an ugly premonition of impending peril, which came and stalked like a hideous ghost about the bare and miserable garret, and which woke her at night with its whispering voice—which was the voice of intuition.
Rhoda Gray drew her shawl closer around her shoulders and shivered, as now, from shuffling down the block in the guise of Gypsy Nan, she halted before the street door of what fate, for the moment, had thrust upon her as a home; and shivered again, as, with abhorrence, she pushed the door open and stepped forward into the black, unlighted hallway. Soul, mind and body were in revolt to-night. Even faith, the simple faith in God that she had known since childhood, was wavering. There seemed nothing but horror around her, a mental horror, a physical horror; and the sole means of even momentary relief and surcease from it had been a pitiful prowling around the streets, where even the fresh air seemed to be denied to her, for it was tainted with the smells of squalor that ruled, rampant, in that neighborhood.
And to-night, stronger than ever, intuition and premonition of approaching danger lay heavy upon her, and oppressed her with a sense of nearness. She was not a coward; but she was afraid. Danglar would leave no stone unturned to get the White Moll. He had said so. She remembered the threat he had made—it had lived in her woman's soul ever since that night. Better anything than to fall into Danglar's hands! She caught her breath a little, and shivered again as she groped her way up the dark stairs. But, then, she never would fall into Danglar's power. There was always an alternative. Yes, it was quite as bad as that—death at her own hands was preferable. Balked, outwitted, the plans of the criminal coterie, of which Danglar appeared to be the head, rendered again and again abortive, and believing it all due to the White Moll, all of Danglar's shrewd, unscrupulous cunning would be centered on the task of running her down; and if, added to this, he discovered that she was masquerading as Gypsy Nan, one of their own inner circle, it mean that—She closed her lips in a hard, tight line. She did not want to think of it. She had fought all day, and the days before, against thinking about it, but premonition had crept upon her stronger and stronger, until to-night, now, it seemed as though her mind could dwell on nothing else.
On the landing, she paused suddenly and listened. The street door had opened and closed, and now a footstep sounded on the stairs behind her. She went on again along the hall, feeling her way; and reaching the short, ladder-like steps to the garret, she began to mount them. Who was it there behind her? One of the unknown lodgers on the lower floor, or—? She could not see, of course. It was pitch black. But she could hear. And as she knelt now on the narrow landing, and felt with her fingers along the floor for the aperture, where, imitating the custom of Gypsy Nan, she had left her key when she went out, she heard the footsteps coming steadily on, passing the doors below her, and making toward the garret ladder. And then, stifling a startled little cry, her hand closed on the key, and closed, as it had closed on that first night when she had returned here in the role of Gypsy Nan, on a piece of paper wrapped around the key. The days of isolation were ended with climacteric effect; the pendulum had swung full the other way—to-night there was both a visitor and a message!
The paper detached from the key and thrust into her bodice, she stood up quickly. A form, looming up even in the darkness, showed on the garret stairs. "Who's dere?" she croaked.
"It's all right," a voice answered in low tones. "You were just ahead of me on the street. I saw you come in. It's Pierre."
Pierre! So that was his name! It was only the voice she recognized. Pierre—Danglar! She fumbled for the keyhole, found it, and inserted the key. "Well, how's Bertha to-night?"
There seemed to be a strange exhilaration in the man's voice. He was standing beside her now, close beside her, and now his hand played with a curiously caressing motion on her shoulder. The touch seemed to scorch and burn her. Who was this Danglar, who was Pierre to her, and to whom she was Bertha? Her breath came quickly in spite of herself; there came, too, a frenzy of aversion, and impulsively she flung his hand away, and with the door unlocked now, stepped from him into the garret.
"Feeling a bit off color, eh?" he said with a short laugh, as he followed her, and shut the door behind him. "Well, I don't know as I blame you. But, look here, old girl, have a heart! It's not my fault. I know what you're grouching about—it's because I haven't been around much lately. But you ought to know well enough that I couldn't help it. Our game has been crimped lately at every turn by that she-devil, the White Moll, and that dude pal of hers." He laughed out again—in savage menace now. "I've been busy. Understand, Bertha? It was either ourselves, or them. We've got to go under—or they have. And we won't! I promise you that! Things'll break a little better before long, and I'll make it up to you."
She could not see him in the blackness of the garret. She breathed a prayer of gratitude that he could not see her. Her face, in spite of Gipsy Nan's disguising grime, must be white, white as death itself. It seemed to plumb some infamous depth from which her soul recoiled, this apology of his for his neglect of her. And then her hands at her sides curled into tight-clenched little fists as she strove to control herself. His words, at least, supplied her with her cue.
"Of course!" she said tartly, but in perfect English—the vernacular of Gypsy Nan was not for Danglar, for she remembered only too well how once before it had nearly tripped her up. "But you didn't come here to apologize! What is it you want?"
"Ah, I say, Bertha!" he said appeasingly. "Cut that out! I couldn't help being away, I tell you. Of course, I didn't come here to apologize—I thought you'd understand well enough without that. The gang's out of cash, and I came to tap the reserves. Let me have a package of the long green, Bertha."
It was a moment before she spoke. Her woman's instinct prompted her to let down the bars between them in no single degree, that her protection lay in playing up to the full what Danglar, jumping at conclusions, had assumed was a grouch at his neglect. Also, her mind worked quickly. Her own clothes were no longer in the secret hiding place here in the garret; they were out there in that old shed in the lane. It was perfectly safe, then, to let Danglar go to the hiding place himself, assuming that he knew where it was—which, almost of necessity, he must.
"Oh!" she said ungraciously. "Well, you know where it is, don't you? Suppose you go and get it yourself!"
"All right!" returned Danglar, a sullenness creeping into his voice. "Have it your own way, Bertha! I haven't got time to-night to coax you out of your tantrums. That's what you want, but I haven't got time—to-night."
She did not answer.
A match crackled in Danglar's hand; the flames spurted up through the darkness. Danglar made his way over to the rickety washstand, found the candle that was stuck in the neck of the gin bottle, lighted it, held the candle above his head, and stared around the garret.
"Why the devil don't you get another lamp?" he grumbled—and started toward the rear of the garret.
Rhoda Gray watched him silently. She did not care to explain that she had not replaced the lamp for the very simple reason that it gave far too much light here in the garret to be safe—for her! She watched him, with her hand in the pocket of her greasy skirt clutched around another legacy of Gypsy Nan—her revolver. And now she became conscious that from the moment she had entered the garret, her fingers, hidden in that pocket, had sought and clung to the weapon. The man filled her with detestation and fear; and somehow she feared him more now in what he was trying to make an ingratiating mood, than she had feared him in the full flood of his rage and anger that other night at Shluker's place.
She drew back a little toward the cot bed against the wall, drew back to give him free passage to the door when he should return again, her eyes still holding on the far end of the garret, where, with the slope of the roof, the ceiling was no more than shoulder high. There seemed something horribly weird and grotesque in the scene before her. He had pushed the narrow trap-door in the ceiling upward, and had thrust candle and head through the opening, and the faint yellow light, seeping back and downward in flickering, uncertain rays, suggested the impression of a gruesome, headless figure standing there hazily outlined in the surrounding murk. It chilled her; she clutched at her shawl, drew it more closely about her, and edged still nearer to the wall.
And then Danglar closed the trap-door again, and came back with the candle in one hand, and one of the bulky packages of banknotes from the hiding place in the other. He set the candle down on the washstand, and began to distribute the money through his various pockets.
He was smiling with curious complacency.
"It was your job to play the spider to the White Moll if she ever showed up again here in your parlor," he said. "Maybe somebody tipped her off to keep away, maybe she was too wily; but, anyway, since you have not sent out any word, it is evident that our little plans along that line didn't work, since she has failed to come back to pay a call of gratitude to you. I don't suppose there's anything to add to that, eh, Bertha? No report to make?"
"No," said Rhoda Gray shortly. "I haven't any report to make."
"Well, no matter!" said Danglar. He laughed out shortly. "There are other ways! She's had her fling at our expense; it's her turn to pay now." He laughed again—and in the laugh now there was something both brutal in its menace, and sinister in its suggestion of gloating triumph.
"What do you mean?" demanded Rhoda Gray quickly. "What are you going to do?"
"Get her!" said Danglar. The man's passion flamed up suddenly; he spoke through his closed teeth. "Get her! I made her a little promise. I'm going to keep it! Understand?"
"You've been saying that for quite a long time," retorted Rhoda Gray coolly. "But the 'getting' has been all the other way so far. How are you going to get her?"
Danglar's little black eyes narrowed, and he thrust his head forward and out from his shoulders savagely. In the flickering candle light, with contorted face and snarling lips, he looked again the beast to which she had once likened him.
"Never mind how I'm going to get her!" he flung out, with an oath. "I told you I'd been busy. That's enough! You'll see—"
Rhoda Gray, in the semi-darkness, shrugged her shoulders. Was the man, prompted by rage and fury, simply making wild threats, or had he at last some definite and perhaps infallible plan that he purposed putting into operation? She did not know; and, much as it meant to her, she did not dare take the risk of arousing suspicion by pressing the question. Failing, then, to obtain any intimation of what he meant to do, the next thing most to be desired was to get rid of him.
"You've got the money. That's what you came for, wasn't it?" she suggested coldly.
He stared at her for a moment, and then his face gradually lost its scowl.
"You're a rare one, Bertha!" he exclaimed admiringly. "Yes; I've got the money—and I'm going. In fact, I'm in a hurry, so don't worry! You got the dope, like everybody else, for to-night, didn't you? It was sent out two hours ago."
The dope! It puzzled her for the fraction of a second—and then she remembered the paper she had thrust into the bodice of her dress. She had not read it. She lunged a little in the dark.
"Yes," she said curtly.
"All right!" he said-and moved toward the door. "That explains why I'm in a hurry—and why I can't stop to oil that grouch out of you. But I'll keep my promise to you, too, old girl. I'll make up the last few days to you. Have a heart, eh, Bertha! 'Night!"
She did not answer him. It seemed as though an unutterable dread had suddenly been lifted from her, as he passed out of the door and began to descend the steps to the hall below. Her "grouch," he had called it. Well, it had served its purpose! It was just as well that he should think so! She followed to the door, and deliberately slammed it with a bang. And from below, his laugh, more an amused chuckle, echoed back and answered her.
And then, for a long time she stood there by the door, a little weak with the revulsion of relief upon her, her hands pressed hard against her temples, staring unseeingly about the garret. He was gone. He filled her with terror. Every instinct she possessed, every fiber of her being revolted against him. He was gone. Yes, he was gone—for the time being. But—but what was the end of all this to be?
She shook her head after a moment, shook it helplessly and wearily, as, finally, she walked over to the washstand, took the piece of paper from the bodice of her dress, and spread it out under the candle light. A glance showed her that it was in cipher. There was the stub of a pencil, she remembered, in the washstand drawer, and, armed with this, and a piece of wrapping paper that had once enveloped one of Gypsy Nan's gin bottles, she took up the candle, crossed the garret, and sat down on the edge of the cot, placing the candle on the chair in front of her.
If the last three days had been productive of nothing else, they had at least furnished her with the opportunity of studying the notebook she had found in the secret hiding place, and of making herself conversant with the gang's cipher; and she now set to work upon it. It was a numerical cipher. Each letter of the alphabet in regular rotation was represented by its corresponding numeral; a zero was employed to set off one letter from another, and the addition of the numerals between the zeros indicated the number of the letter involved. Also, there being but twenty-six letters in the alphabet, it was obvious that the addition of three nines, which was twenty-seven, could not represent any letter, and the combination of 999 was therefore used to precede any of the arbitrary groups of numerals which were employed to express phrases and sentences, such as the 739 that she had found scrawled on the piece of paper around her key on the first night she had come here, and which, had it been embodied in a message and not preceded by the 999, would have meant simply the addition of seven, three and nine, that is, nineteen—and therefore would indicate the nineteenth letter of the alphabet, S.
Rhoda Gray copied the first line of the message on the piece of wrapping paper:
Adding the numerals between the zeros, and giving to each its corresponding letter, she set down the result:
6010110505022090405014030509014 f a k e e v i d e n c e i n
It was then but a matter of grouping the letters into words; and, decoded, the first line read:
Fake evidence in......
She worked steadily on. It was a lengthy message, and it took her a long time. It was an hour, perhaps more, after Danglar had gone, before she had completed her task; and then, after that, she sat for still a long time staring, not at the paper on the chair before her, but at the flickering shadows thrown by the candle on the opposite wall.
Queer and strange were the undercurrents and the cross-sections of life that were to be found, amazingly contradictory, amazingly incomprehensible, once one scratched beneath the surface of the poverty and the squalor, and, yes, the crime, amongst the hiving thousands of New York's East Side! In the days—not so very long ago—when, as the White Moll, she had worked amongst these classes, she had on one occasion, when he was sick, even kept old Viner in food. She had not, at the time, failed to realize that the man was grasping, rapacious, even unthankful, but she had little dreamed that he was a miser worth fifty thousand dollars!
Her mind swerved off suddenly at a tangent. The tentacles of this crime octopus, of which Danglar seemed to be the head, reached far and into most curious places to fasten and hold and feed on the progeny of human foibles! She could not help wondering where the lair was from which emanated the efficiency and system that, as witness this code message to-night, kept its members, perhaps widely scattered, fully informed of its every movement.
She shook her head. That was something she had not yet learned; but it was something she must learn if ever she hoped to obtain the evidence that would clear her of the crime that circumstances had fastened upon her. And yet she had made no move in that direction, because—well, because, so far, it had seemed all she could do to protect and safeguard herself in her present miserable existence and surroundings, which, abhorrent as they were, alone stood between her and a prison cell.
Her forehead gathered into little furrows; and, reverting to the code message, her thoughts harked back to a well-known crime, the authorship of which still remained a mystery, and which had stirred the East Side some two years ago. A man—in the vernacular of the underworld a "stage hand"—by the name of Kroner, credited with having a large amount of cash, the proceeds of some nefarious transaction, in his possession on the night in question, was found murdered in his room in an old and tumble-down tenement of unsavory reputation. The police net had gathered in some of the co-tenants on suspicion; Nicky Viner, referred to in the code message, amongst them. But nothing had come of the investigation. There had been no charge of collusion between the suspects; but Perlmer, a shyster lawyer, had acted for them all collectively, and, one and all, they had been discharged. In what degree Perlmer's services had been of actual value had never been ascertained, for the police, through lack of evidence, had been obliged to drop the case; but the underworld had whispered to itself. There was such a thing as suppressing evidence, and Perlmer was known to have the cunning of a fox, and a code of morals that never stood in the way, or restricted him in any manner.
The code message threw a new light on all this. Perlmer must have known that old Nicky Viner had money, for, according to the code message, Perlmer prepared a fake set of affidavits and forged a chain of fake evidence with which he had blackmailed Nicky Viner ever since; and Nicky Viner, known as a dissolute, shady character, innocent enough of the crime, but afraid because his possession of money if made public would tell against him, and frightened because he had already been arrested once on suspicion for that very crime, had whimpered—and paid. And then, somehow, Danglar and the gang had discovered that the old, seedy, stoop-shouldered, bearded, down-at-the-heels Nicky Viner was not all that he seemed; that he was a miser, and had a hoard of fifty thousand dollars—and Danglar and the gang had set out to find that hoard and appropriate it. Only they had not succeeded. But in their search they had stumbled upon Perlmer's trail, and that was the key to the plan they had afoot to-night. If Perlmer's fake and manufactured affidavits were clever enough and convincing enough to wring money out of Viner for Perlmer, they were more than enough to enable Danglar, employed as Danglar would employ them, to wring from Nicky Viner the secret of where the old miser hid his wealth; for Viner would understand that Danglar was not hampered by having to safeguard himself on account of having been originally connected with the case in a legal capacity, or any capacity, and therefore in demanding all or nothing, would have no cause for hesitation, failing to get what he wanted, in turning the evidence over to the police. In other words, where Perlmer had to play his man cautiously and get what he could, Danglar could go the limit and get all. As it stood, then, Danglar and the gang had not found out the location of that hoard; but they had found out where Perlmer kept his spurious papers—stuffed in at the back of the bottom drawer of his desk in his office, practically forgotten, practically useless to Perlmer any more, for, having once shown them to Viner, there was no occasion to call them into service again unless Viner showed signs of getting a little out of hand and it became necessary to apply the screws once more.
For the rest, it was a very simple matter. Perlmer had an office in a small building on lower Sixth Avenue, and it was his custom to go to his office in the evenings and remain there until ten o'clock or so. The plan then, according to the code message, was to loot Perlmer's desk some time after the man had gone home for the night, and then, at midnight, armed with the false documents, to beard old Nicky Viner in his miserable quarters over on the East Side, and extort from the old miser the neat little sum that Danglar estimated would amount to some fifty thousand dollars in cash.
Rhoda Gray's face was troubled and serious. She found herself wishing for a moment that she had never decoded the message. But she shook her head in sharp self-protest the next instant. True, she would have evaded the responsibility that the criminal knowledge now in her possession had brought her; but she would have done so, in that case, deliberately at the expense of her own self-respect. It would not have excused her in her own soul to have sat staring at a cipher message that she was satisfied was some criminal plot, and have refused to decode it simply because she was afraid a sense of duty would involve her in an effort to frustrate it. To have sat idly by under those circumstances would have been as reprehensible—and even more cowardly—than it would be to sit idly by now that she knew what was to take place. And on that latter score to-night there was no argument with herself. She found herself accepting the fact that she would act, and act promptly, as the only natural corollary to the fact that she was in a position to do so. Perhaps it was that way to-night, not only because she had on a previous occasion already fought this principle of duty out with herself, but because to-night, unlike that other night, the way and the means seemed to present no insurmountable difficulties, and because she was now far better prepared, and free from all the perplexing, though enormously vital, little details that had on the former occasion reared themselves up in mountainous aspect before her. The purchase of a heavy veil, for instance, the day after the Hayden-Bond affair, would enable her now to move about the city in the clothes of the White Moll practically at will and without fear of detection. And, further, the facilities for making that change, the change from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll, were now already at hand—in the little old shed down the lane.
And as far as any actual danger that she might incur to-night was concerned, it was not great. She was not interested in the fifty thousand dollars in an intrinsic sense; she was interested only in seeing that old Nicky Viner, unappealing, yes, and almost repulsive both in personality and habits as the man was, was not blackmailed out of it; that Danglar, yes, and hereafter, Perlmer too, should not prey like vultures on the man, and rob him of what was rightfully his. If, therefore, she secured those papers from Perlmer's desk, it automatically put an end to Danglar's scheme to-night; and if, later, she saw to it that those papers came into Viner's possession, that, too, automatically ended Perlmer's persecutions. Indeed, there seemed little likelihood of any danger or risk at all. It could not be quite ten o clock yet; and it was not likely that whoever was delegated by Danglar to rob Perlmer's office would go there much before eleven anyway, since they would naturally allow for the possibility that Perlmer might stay later in his office than usual, a contingency that doubtless accounted for midnight being set as the hour at which they proposed to lay old Nicky Viner by the heels. Therefore, it seemed almost a certainty that she would reach there, not only first, but with ample time at her disposal to secure the papers and get away again without interruption. She might even, perhaps, reach the office before Perlmer himself had left—it was still quite early enough for that—but in that case she need only remain on watch until the lawyer had locked up and gone away. Nor need even the fact that the office would be locked dismay her. In the secret hiding-place here in the garret, among those many other evidences of criminal activity, was the collection of skeleton keys, and—she was moving swiftly around the attic now, physically as active as her thoughts.