"Our friend, here, evidently has one up against Mr. Tom Brian!" muttered Dunbar aside to Sowerby.
"Wotcher say, guv'nor?" inquired the cabman, looking from one to the other.
"I say, no doubt you can save us the trouble of looking out Brian's license, and give us his private address?" replied Dunbar.
"Course I can. 'E lives hat num'er 36 Forth Street, Brixton, and 'e's out o' the big Brixton depot."
"Oh!" said Dunbar, dryly. "Does he owe you anything?"
"Wotcher say, guv'nor?"
"I say, it's very good of you to take all this trouble and whatever it has cost you in time, we shall be pleased to put right."
Mr. Hamper spat in his right palm, and rubbed his hands together, appreciatively.
"Make it five bob!" he said.
"Wait downstairs," directed Dunbar, pressing a bell-push beside the door. "I'll get it put through for you."
"Right 'o!" rumbled the cabman, and went lurching from the room as a constable in uniform appeared at the door. "Good mornin', guv'nor. Good mornin'!"
The cabman having departed, leaving in his wake a fragrant odor of fourpenny ale:—
"Here you are, Sowerby!" cried Dunbar. "We are moving at last! This is the address of the late Mrs. Vernon's maid. See her; feel your ground, carefully, of course; get to know what clothes Mrs. Vernon took with her on her periodical visits to Scotland."
"That's the idea; it is important. I don't think the girl was in her mistress's confidence, but I leave it to you to find out. If circumstances point to my surmise being inaccurate—you know how to act."
"Just let me glance over your notes, bearing on the matter," said Sowerby, "and I'll be off."
Dunbar handed him the bulging notebook, and Sergeant Sowerby lowered his inadequate eyebrows, thoughtfully, whilst he scanned the evidence of Mr. Debnam. Then, returning the book to his superior, and adjusting the peculiar bowler firmly upon his head, he set out.
Dunbar glanced through some papers—apparently reports—which lay upon the table, penciled comments upon two of them, and then, consulting his notebook once more in order to refresh his memory, started off for Forth Street, Brixton.
Forth Street, Brixton, is a depressing thoroughfare. It contains small, cheap flats, and a number of frowsy looking houses which give one the impression of having run to seed. A hostelry of sad aspect occupies a commanding position midway along the street, but inspires the traveler not with cheer, but with lugubrious reflections upon the horrors of inebriety. The odors, unpleasantly mingled, of fried bacon and paraffin oil, are wafted to the wayfarer from the porches of these family residences.
Number 36 proved to be such a villa, and Inspector Dunbar contemplated it from a distance, thoughtfully. As he stood by the door of the public house, gazing across the street, a tired looking woman, lean and anxious-eyed, a poor, dried up bean-pod of a woman, appeared from the door of number 36, carrying a basket. She walked along in the direction of the neighboring highroad, and Dunbar casually followed her.
For some ten minutes he studied her activities, noting that she went from shop to shop until her basket was laden with provisions of all sorts. When she entered a wine-and-spirit merchant's, the detective entered close behind her, for the place was also a post-office. Whilst he purchased a penny stamp and fumbled in his pocket for an imaginary letter, he observed, with interest, that the woman had purchased, and was loading into the hospitable basket, a bottle of whisky, a bottle of rum, and a bottle of gin.
He left the shop ahead of her, sure, now, of his ground, always provided that the woman proved to be Mrs. Brian. Dunbar walked along Forth Street slowly enough to enable the woman to overtake him. At the door of number 36, he glanced up at the number, questioningly, and turned in the gate as she was about to enter.
He raised his hat.
"Have I the pleasure of addressing Mrs. Brian?"
Momentarily, a hard look came into the tired eyes, but Dunbar's gentleness of manner and voice, together with the kindly expression upon his face, turned the scales favorably.
"I am Mrs. Brian," she said; "yes. Did you want to see me?"
"On a matter of some importance. May I come in?"
She nodded and led the way into the house; the door was not closed.
In a living-room whereon was written a pathetic history—a history of decline from easy circumstance and respectability to poverty and utter disregard of appearances—she confronted him, setting down her basket on a table from which the remains of a fish breakfast were not yet removed.
"Is your husband in?" inquired Dunbar with a subtle change of manner.
"He's lying down."
The hard look was creeping again into the woman's eyes.
"Will you please awake him, and tell him that I have called in regard to his license?"
He thrust a card into her hand:—
C. I. D.
NEW SCOTLAND YARD. S. W.
THE MAN IN BLACK
Mrs. Brian started back, with a wild look, a trapped look, in her eyes.
"What's he done?" she inquired. "What's he done? Tom's not done anything!"
"Be good enough to waken him," persisted the inspector. "I wish to speak to him."
Mrs. Brian walked slowly from the room and could be heard entering one further along the passage. An angry snarling, suggesting that of a wild animal disturbed in its lair, proclaimed the arousing of Taximan Thomas Brian. A thick voice inquired, brutally, why the sanguinary hell he (Mr. Brian) had had his bloodstained slumbers disturbed in this gory manner and who was the vermilion blighter responsible.
Then Mrs. Brian's voice mingled with that of her husband, and both became subdued. Finally, a slim man, who wore a short beard, or had omitted to shave for some days, appeared at the door of the living-room. His face was another history upon the same subject as that which might be studied from the walls, the floor, and the appointments of the room. Inspector Dunbar perceived that the shadow of the neighboring hostelry overlay this home.
"What's up?" inquired the new arrival.
The tone of his voice, thickened by excess, was yet eloquent of the gentleman. The barriers passed, your pariah gentleman can be the completest blackguard of them all. He spoke coarsely, and the infectious Cockney accent showed itself in his vowels; but Dunbar, a trained observer, summed up his man in a moment and acted accordingly.
"Come in and shut the door!" he directed. "No"—as Mrs. Brian sought to enter behind her husband—"I wish to speak with you, privately."
"Hop it!" instructed Brian, jerking his thumb over his shoulder—and Mrs. Brian obediently disappeared, closing the door.
"Now," said Dunbar, looking the man up and down, "have you been into the depot, to-day?"
"But you have heard that there's an inquiry?"
"I've heard nothing. I've been in bed."
"We won't argue about that. I'll simply put a question to you: Where did you pick up the fare that you dropped at Palace Mansions at twelve o'clock last night?"
"Palace Mansions!" muttered Brian, shifting uneasily beneath the unflinching stare of the tawny eyes. "What d'you mean? What Palace Mansions?"
"Don't quibble!" warned Dunbar, thrusting out a finger at him. "This is not a matter of a loss of license; it's a life job!"
"Life job!" whispered the man, and his weak face suddenly relaxed, so that, oddly, the old refinement shone out through the new, vulgar veneer.
"Answer my questions straight and square and I'll take your word that you have not seen the inquiry!" said Dunbar.
"Dick Hamper's done this for me!" muttered Brian. "He's a dirty, low swine! Somebody'll do for him one night!"
"Leave Hamper out of the question," snapped Dunbar. "You put down a fare at Palace Mansions at twelve o'clock last night?"
For one tremendous moment, Brian hesitated, but the good that was in him, or the evil—a consciousness of wrongdoing, or of retribution pending—respect for the law, or fear of its might—decided his course.
"It was a man?"
Again Brian, with furtive glance, sought to test his opponent; but his opponent was too strong for him. With Dunbar's eyes upon his face, he chose not to lie.
"It was a woman."
"How was she dressed?"
"In a fur motor-coat—civet fur."
The man of culture spoke in those two words, "civet fur"; and Dunbar nodded quickly, his eyes ablaze at the importance of the evidence.
"Was she alone?"
"What fare did she pay you?"
"The meter only registered eightpence, but she gave me half-a-crown."
"Did she appear to be ill?"
"Very ill. She wore no hat, and I supposed her to be in evening dress. She almost fell as she got out of the cab, but managed to get into the hall of Palace Mansions quickly enough, looking behind her all the time."
Inspector Dunbar shot out the hypnotic finger again.
"She told you to wait!" he asserted, positively. Brian looked to right and left, up and down, thrusting his hands into his coat pockets, and taking them out again to stroke his collarless neck. Then:—
"She did—yes," he admitted.
"But you were bribed to drive away? Don't deny it! Don't dare to trifle with me, or by God! you'll spend the night in Brixton Jail!"
"It was made worth my while," muttered Brian, his voice beginning to break, "to hop it."
"Who paid you to do it?"
"A man who had followed all the way in a big car."
"That's it! Describe him!"
"I can't! No, no! you can threaten as much as you like, but I can't describe him. I never saw his face. He stood behind me on the near side of the cab, and just reached forward and pushed a flyer under my nose."
Inspector Dunbar searched the speaker's face closely—and concluded that he was respecting the verity.
"How was he dressed?"
"In black, and that's all I can tell you about him."
"You took the money?"
"I took the money, yes"...
"What did he say to you?"
"Simply: 'Drive off.'"
"Did you take him to be an Englishman from his speech?"
"No; he was not an Englishman. He had a foreign accent."
"No," said Brian, looking up and meeting the glance of the fierce eyes. "Asiatic!"
Inspector Dunbar, closely as he held himself in hand, started slightly.
"Are you sure?"
"Certainly. Before I—when I was younger—I traveled in the East, and I know the voice and intonation of the cultured Oriental."
"Can you place him any closer than that?"
"No, I can't venture to do so." Brian's manner was becoming, momentarily, more nearly that of a gentleman. "I might be leading you astray if I ventured a guess, but if you asked me to do so, I should say he was a Chinaman."
"A CHINAMAN?" Dunbar's voice rose excitedly.
"I think so."
"What occurred next?"
"I turned my cab and drove off out of the Square."
"Did you see where the man went?"
"I didn't. I saw nothing of him beyond his hand."
"And his hand?"
"He wore a glove."
"And now," said Dunbar, speaking very slowly, "where did you pick up your fare?"
"In Gillingham Street, near Victoria Station."
"From a house?"
"Yes, from Nurse Proctor's."
"Nurse Proctor's! Who is Nurse Proctor?"
Brian shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant manner, which obviously belonged to an earlier phase of existence.
"She keeps a nursing home," he said—"for ladies."
"Do you mean a maternity home?"
"Not exactly; at least I don't think so. Most of her clients are society ladies, who stay there periodically."
"What are you driving at?" demanded Dunbar. "I have asked you if it is a maternity home."
"And I have replied that it isn't. I am only giving you facts; you don't want my surmises."
"Who hailed you?"
"The woman did—the woman in the fur coat. I was just passing the door very slowly when it was flung open with a bang, and she rushed out as though hell were after her. Before I had time to pull up, she threw herself into my cab and screamed: 'Palace Mansions! Westminster!' I reached back and shut the door, and drove right away."
"When did you see that you were followed?"
"We were held up just outside the music hall, and looking back, I saw that my fare was dreadfully excited. It didn't take me long to find out that the cause of her excitement was a big limousine, three or four back in the block of traffic. The driver was some kind of an Oriental, too, although I couldn't make him out very clearly."
"Good!" snapped Dunbar; "that's important! But you saw nothing more of this car?"...
"I saw it follow me into the Square."
"Then where did it wait?"
"I don't know; I didn't see it again."
Inspector Dunbar nodded rapidly.
"Have you ever driven women to or from this Nurse Proctor's before?"
"On two other occasions, I have driven ladies who came from there. I knew they came from there, because it got about amongst us that the tall woman in nurse's uniform who accompanied them was Nurse Proctor."
"You mean that you didn't take these women actually from the door of the house in Gillingham Street, but from somewhere adjacent?"
"Yes; they never take a cab from the door. They always walk to the corner of the street with a nurse, and a porter belonging to the house brings their luggage along."
"The idea is secrecy?"
"No doubt. But as I have said, the word was passed round."
"Did you know either of these other women?"
"No; but they were obviously members of good society."
"And you drove them?"
"One to St. Pancras, and one to Waterloo," said Brian, dropping back somewhat into his coarser style, and permitting a slow grin to overspread his countenance.
"To catch trains, no doubt?"
"Not a bit of it! To MEET trains!"
"I mean that their own private cars were waiting for them at the ARRIVAL platform as I drove 'em up to the DEPARTURE platform, and that they simply marched through the station and pretended to have arrived by train!"
Inspector Dunbar took out his notebook and fountain-pen, and began to tap his teeth with the latter, nodding his head at the same time.
"You are sure of the accuracy of your last statement?" he said, raising his eyes to the other.
"I followed one of them," was the reply, "and saw her footman gravely take charge of the luggage which I had just brought from Victoria; and a pal of mine followed the other—the Waterloo one, that was."
Inspector Dunbar scribbled busily. Then:—
"You have done well to make a clean breast of it," he said. "Take a straight tip from me. Keep off the drink!"
THE GREAT UNDERSTANDING
It was in the afternoon of this same day—a day so momentous in the lives of more than one of London's millions—that two travelers might have been seen to descend from a first-class compartment of the Dover boat-train at Charing Cross.
They had been the sole occupants of the compartment, and, despite the wide dissimilarity of character to be read upon their countenances, seemed to have struck up an acquaintance based upon mutual amiability and worldly common sense. The traveler first to descend and gallantly to offer his hand to his companion in order to assist her to the platform, was the one whom a casual observer would first have noted.
He was a man built largely, but on good lines; a man past his youth, and somewhat too fleshy; but for all his bulk, there was nothing unwieldy, and nothing ungraceful in his bearing or carriage. He wore a French traveling-coat, conceived in a style violently Parisian, and composed of a wonderful check calculated to have blinded any cutter in Savile Row. From beneath its gorgeous folds protruded the extremities of severely creased cashmere trousers, turned up over white spats which nestled coyly about a pair of glossy black boots. The traveler's hat was of velour, silver gray and boasting a partridge feather thrust in its silken band. One glimpse of the outfit must have brought the entire staff of the Tailor and Cutter to an untimely grave.
But if ever man was born who could carry such a make-up, this traveler was he. The face was cut on massive lines, on fleshy lines, clean-shaven, and inclined to pallor. The hirsute blue tinge about the jaw and lips helped to accentuate the virile strength of the long, flexible mouth, which could be humorous, which could be sorrowful, which could be grim. In the dark eyes of the man lay a wealth of experience, acquired in a lifelong pilgrimage among many peoples, and to many lands. His dark brows were heavily marked, and his close-cut hair was splashed with gray.
Let us glance at the lady who accepted his white-gloved hand, and who sprang alertly onto the platform beside him.
She was a woman bordering on the forties, with a face of masculine vigor, redeemed and effeminized, by splendid hazel eyes, the kindliest imaginable. Obviously, the lady was one who had never married, who despised, or affected to despise, members of the other sex, but who had never learned to hate them; who had never grown soured, but who found the world a garden of heedless children—of children who called for mothering. Her athletic figure was clothed in a "sensible" tweed traveling dress, and she wore a tweed hat pressed well on to her head, and brown boots with the flattest heels conceivable. Add to this a Scotch woolen muffler, and a pair of woolen gloves, and you have a mental picture of the second traveler—a truly incongruous companion for the first.
Joining the crowd pouring in the direction of the exit gates, the two chatted together animatedly, both speaking English, and the man employing that language with a perfect ease and command of words which nevertheless failed to disguise his French nationality. He spoke with an American accent; a phenomenon sometimes observable in one who has learned his English in Paris.
The irritating formalities which beset the returning traveler—and the lady distinctly was of the readily irritated type—were smoothed away by the magic personality of her companion. Porters came at the beck of his gloved hand; guards, catching his eye, saluted and were completely his servants; ticket inspectors yielded to him the deference ordinarily reserved for directors of the line.
Outside the station, then, her luggage having been stacked upon a cab, the lady parted from her companion with assurances, which were returned, that she should hope to improve the acquaintance.
The address to which the French gentleman politely requested the cabman to drive, was that of a sound and old-established hotel in the neighborhood of the Strand, and at no great distance from the station.
Then, having stood bareheaded until the cab turned out into the traffic stream of that busy thoroughfare, the first traveler, whose baggage consisted of a large suitcase, hailed a second cab and drove to the Hotel Astoria—the usual objective of Americans.
Taking leave of him for the moment, let us follow the lady.
Her arrangements were very soon made at the hotel, and having removed some of the travel-stains from her person and partaken of one cup of China tea, respecting the quality whereof she delivered herself of some caustic comments, she walked down into the Strand and mounted to the top of a Victoria bound 'bus.
That she was not intimately acquainted with London, was a fact readily observable by her fellow passengers; for as the 'bus went rolling westward, from the large pocket of her Norfolk jacket she took out a guide-book provided with numerous maps, and began composedly to consult its complexities.
When the conductor came to collect her fare, she had made up her mind, and was replacing the guidebook in her pocket.
"Put me down by the Storis, Victoria Street, conductor," she directed, and handed him a penny—the correct fare.
It chanced that at about the time, within a minute or so, of the American lady's leaving the hotel, and just as red rays, the harbingers of dusk, came creeping in at the latticed widow of her cozy work-room, Helen Cumberly laid down her pen with a sigh. She stood up, mechanically rearranging her hair as she did so, and crossed the corridor to her bedroom, the window whereof overlooked the Square.
She peered down into the central garden. A common-looking man sat upon a bench, apparently watching the labors of the gardener, which consisted at the moment of the spiking of scraps of paper which disfigured the green carpet of the lawn.
Helen returned to her writing-table and reseated herself. Kindly twilight veiled her, and a chatty sparrow who perched upon the window-ledge pretended that he had not noticed two tears which trembled, quivering, upon the girl's lashes. Almost unconsciously, for it was an established custom, she sprinkled crumbs from the tea-tray beside her upon the ledge, whilst the tears dropped upon a written page and two more appeared in turn upon her lashes.
The sparrow supped enthusiastically, being joined in his repast by two talkative companions. As the last fragments dropped from the girl's white fingers, she withdrew her hand, and slowly—very slowly—her head sank down, pillowed upon her arms.
For some five minutes she cried silently; the sparrows, unheeded, bade her good night, and flew to their nests in the trees of the Square. Then, very resolutely, as if inspired by a settled purpose, she stood up and recrossed the corridor to her bedroom.
She turned on the lamp above the dressing-table and rapidly removed the traces of her tears, contemplating in dismay a redness of her pretty nose which did not prove entirely amenable to treatment with the powder-puff. Finally, however, she switched off the light, and, going out on to the landing, descended to the door of Henry Leroux's flat.
In reply to her ring, the maid, Ferris, opened the door. She wore her hat and coat, and beside her on the floor stood a tin trunk.
"Why, Ferris!" cried Helen—"are you leaving?"
"I am indeed, miss!" said the girl, independently.
"But why? whatever will Mr. Leroux do?"
"He'll have to do the best he can. Cook's goin' too!"
"What! cook is going?"
"I am!" announced a deep, female voice.
And the cook appeared beside the maid.
"But whatever—" began Helen; then, realizing that she could achieve no good end by such an attitude: "Tell Mr. Leroux," she instructed the maid, quietly, "that I wish to see him."
Ferris glanced rapidly at her companion, as a man appeared on the landing, to inquire in an abysmal tone, if "them boxes was ready to be took?" Helen Cumberly forestalled an insolent refusal which the cook, by furtive wink, counseled to the housemaid.
"Don't trouble," she said, with an easy dignity reminiscent of her father. "I will announce myself."
She passed the servants, crossed the lobby, and rapped upon the study door.
"Come in," said the voice of Henry Leroux.
Helen opened the door. The place was in semidarkness, objects being but dimly discernible. Leroux sat in his usual seat at the writing-table. The room was in the utmost disorder, evidently having received no attention since its overhauling by the police. Helen pressed the switch, lighting the two lamps.
Leroux, at last, seemed in his proper element: he exhibited an unhealthy pallor, and it was obvious that no razor had touched his chin for at least three days. His dark blue eyes the eyes of a dreamer—were heavy and dull, with shadows pooled below them. A biscuit-jar, a decanter and a syphon stood half buried in papers on the table.
"Why, Mr. Leroux!" said Helen, with a deep note of sympathy in her voice—"you don't mean to say"...
Leroux rose, forcing a smile to his haggard face.
"You see—much too good," he said. "Altogether—too good."...
"I thought I should find you here," continued the girl, firmly; "but I did not anticipate"—she indicated the chaos about—"this! The insolence, the disgraceful, ungrateful insolence, of those women!"
"Dear, dear, dear!" murmured Leroux, waving his hand vaguely; "never mind—never mind! They—er—they... I don't want them to stop... and, believe me, I am—er—perfectly comfortable!"
"You should not be in—THIS room, at all. In fact, you should go right away."...
"I cannot... my wife may—return—at any moment." His voice shook. "I—am expecting her return—hourly."...
His gaze sought the table-clock; and he drew his lips very tightly together when the pitiless hands forced upon his mind the fact that the day was marching to its end.
Helen turned her head aside, inhaling deeply, and striving for composure.
"Garnham shall come down and tidy up for you," she said, quietly; "and you must dine with us."
The outer door was noisily closed by the departing servants.
"You are much too good," whispered Leroux, again; and the weary eyes glistened with a sudden moisture. "Thank you! Thank you! But—er—I could not dream of disturbing"...
"Mr. Leroux," said Helen, with all her old firmness—"Garnham is coming down IMMEDIATELY to put the place in order! And, whilst he is doing so, you are going to prepare yourself for a decent, Christian dinner!"
Henry Leroux rested one hand upon the table, looking down at the carpet. He had known for a long time, in a vague fashion, that he lacked something; that his success—a wholly inartistic one—had yielded him little gratification; that the comfort of his home was a purely monetary product and not in any sense atmospheric. He had schooled himself to believe that he liked loneliness—loneliness physical and mental, and that in marrying a pretty, but pleasure-loving girl, he had insured an ideal menage. Furthermore, he honestly believed that he worshiped his wife; and with his present grief at her unaccountable silence was mingled no atom of reproach.
But latterly he had begun to wonder—in his peculiarly indefinite way he had begun to doubt his own philosophy. Was the void in his soul a product of thwarted ambition?—for, whilst he slaved, scrupulously, upon "Martin Zeda," he loathed every deed and every word of that Old Man of the Sea. Or could it be that his own being—his nature of Adam—lacked something which wealth, social position, and Mira, his wife, could not yield to him?
Now, a new tone in the voice of Helen Cumberly—a tone different from that compound of good-fellowship and raillery, which he knew—a tone which had entered into it when she had exclaimed upon the state of the room—set his poor, anxious heart thrumming like a lute. He felt a hot flush creeping upon him; his forehead grew damp. He feared to raise his eyes.
"Is that a bargain?" asked Helen, sweetly.
Henry Leroux found a lump in his throat; but he lifted his untidy head and took the hand which the girl had extended to him. She smiled a bit unnaturally; then every tinge of color faded from her cheeks, and Henry Leroux, unconsciously holding the white hand in a vice-like grip, looked hungrily into the eyes grown suddenly tragic whilst into his own came the light of a great and sorrowful understanding.
"God bless you," he said. "I will do anything you wish."
Helen released her hand, turned, and ran from the study. Not until she was on the landing did she dare to speak. Then:—
"Garnham shall come down immediately. Don't be late for dinner!" she called—and there was a hint of laughter and of tears in her voice, of the restraint of culture struggling with rebellious womanhood.
PRESENTING M. GASTON MAX
Not venturing to turn on the light, not daring to look upon her own face in the mirror, Helen Cumberly sat before her dressing-table, trembling wildly. She wanted to laugh, and wanted to cry; but the daughter of Seton Cumberly knew what those symptoms meant and knew how to deal with them. At the end of an interval of some four or five minutes, she rang.
The maid opened the door.
"Don't light up, Merton," she said, composedly. "I want you to tell Garnham to go down to Mr. Leroux's and put the place in order. Mr. Leroux is dining with us."
The girl withdrew; and Helen, as the door closed, pressed the electric switch. She stared at her reflection in the mirror as if it were the face of an enemy, then, turning her head aside, sat deep in reflection, biting her lip and toying with the edge of the white doily.
"You little traitor!" she whispered, through clenched teeth. "You little traitor—and hypocrite"—sobs began to rise in her throat—"and fool!"
Five more minutes passed in a silent conflict. A knock announced the return of the maid; and the girl reentered, placing upon the table a visiting-card:—
ATELIER 4, RUE DU COQ D'OR,
Helen Cumberly started to her feet with a stifled exclamation and turned to the maid; her face, to which the color slowly had been returning, suddenly blanched anew.
"Denise Ryland!" she muttered, still holding the card in her hand, "why—that's Mrs. Leroux's friend, with whom she had been staying in Paris! Whatever can it mean?"
"Shall I show her in here, please?" asked the maid.
"Yes, in here," replied Helen, absently; and, scarcely aware that she had given instructions to that effect, she presently found herself confronted by the lady of the boat-train!
"Miss Cumberly?" said the new arrival in a pleasant American voice.
"Yes—I am Helen Cumberly. Oh! I am so glad to know you at last! I have often pictured you; for Mira—Mrs. Leroux—is always talking about you, and about the glorious times you have together! I have sometimes longed to join you in beautiful Paris. How good of you to come back with her!"
Miss Ryland unrolled the Scotch muffler from her throat, swinging her head from side to side in a sort of spuriously truculent manner, quite peculiarly her own. Her keen hazel eyes were fixed upon the face of the girl before her. Instinctively and immediately she liked Helen Cumberly; and Helen felt that this strong-looking, vaguely masculine woman, was an old, intimate friend, although she had never before set eyes upon her.
"H'm!" said Miss Ryland. "I have come from Paris"—she punctuated many of her sentences with wags of the head as if carefully weighing her words—"especially" (pause) "to see you" (pause and wag of head) "I am glad... to find that... you are the thoroughly sensible... kind of girl that I... had imagined, from the accounts which... I have had of you."...
She seated herself in an armchair.
"Had of me from Mira?" asked Helen.
"Yes... from Mrs. Leroux."
"How delightful it must be for you to have her with you so often! Marriage, as a rule, puts an end to that particular sort of good-time, doesn't it?"
"It does... very properly... too. No MAN... no MAN in his ... right senses... would permit... his wife... to gad about in Paris with another... girl" (she presumably referred to herself) "whom HE had only met... casually... and did not like"...
"What! do you mean that Mr. Leroux doesn't like you? I can't believe that!"
"Then the sooner... you believe it... the better."
"It can only be that he does not know you, properly?"
"He has no wish... to know me... properly; and I have no desire... to cultivate... the... friendship of such... a silly being."
Helen Cumberly was conscious that a flush was rising from her face to her brow, and tingling in the very roots of her hair. She was indignant with herself and turned, aside, bending over her table in order to conceal this ill-timed embarrassment from her visitor.
"Poor Mr. Leroux!" she said, speaking very rapidly; "I think it awfully good of him, and sporty, to allow his wife so much liberty."
"Sporty!" said Miss Ryland, head wagging and nostrils distended in scorn. "Idi-otic... I should call it."
Helen Cumberly, perfectly composed again, raised her clear eyes to her visitor.
"You seem so... thoroughly sensible, except in regard to... Harry Leroux;—and ALL women, with a few... exceptions, are FOOLS where the true... character of a MAN is concerned—that I will take you right into my confidence."
Her speech lost its quality of syncopation; the whole expression of her face changed; and in the hazel eyes a deep concern might be read.
"My dear," she stood up, crossed to Helen's side, and rested her artistic looking hands upon the girl's shoulder. "Harry Leroux stands upon the brink of a great tragedy—a life's tragedy!"
Helen was trembling slightly again.
"Oh, I know!" she whispered—"I know—"
There was surprise in Miss Ryland's voice.
"Yes, I have seen them—watched them—and I know that the police think"...
"Police! What are you talking about—the police?"
Helen looked up with a troubled face.
"The murder!" she began...
Miss Ryland dropped into a chair which, fortunately, stood close behind her, with a face suddenly set in an expression of horror. She began to understand, now, a certain restraint, a certain ominous shadow, which she had perceived, or thought she had perceived, in the atmosphere of this home, and in the manner of its occupants.
"My dear girl," she began, and the old nervous, jerky manner showed itself again, momentarily,—"remember that... I left Paris by ... the first train, this morning, and have simply been... traveling right up to the present moment."...
"Then you have not heard? You don't know that a—murder—has been committed?"
"Not any one connected with Mr. Leroux; no, thank God! but it was done in his flat."...
Miss Ryland brushed a whisk of straight hair back from her brow with a rough and ungraceful movement.
"My dear," she began, taking a French telegraphic form from her pocket, "you see this message? It's one which reached me at an unearthly hour this morning from Harry Leroux. It was addressed to his wife at my studio; therefore, as her friend, I opened it. Mira Leroux has actually visited me there twice since her marriage—"
"Twice!" Helen rose slowly to her feet, with horrified eyes fixed upon the speaker.
"Twice I said! I have not seen her, and have rarely heard from her, for nearly twelve months, now! Therefore I packed up post-haste and here I am! I came to you, because, from what little I have heard of you, and of your father, I judged you to be the right kind of friends to consult."...
"You have not seen her for twelve months?"
Helen's voice was almost inaudible, and she was trembling dreadfully.
"That's a fact, my dear. And now, what are we going to tell Harry Leroux?"
It was a question, the answer to which was by no means evident at a glance; and leaving Helen Cumberly face to face with this new and horrible truth which had brought Denise Ryland hotfoot from Paris to London, let us glance, for a moment, into the now familiar room of Detective-Inspector Dunbar at Scotland Yard.
He had returned from his interrogation of Brian; and he received the report of Sowerby, respecting the late Mrs. Vernon's maid. The girl, Sergeant Sowerby declared, was innocent of complicity, and could only depose to the fact that her late mistress took very little luggage with her on the occasions of her trips to Scotland. With his notebook open before him upon the table, Dunbar was adding this slight item to his notes upon the case, when the door opened, and the uniformed constable entered, saluted, and placed an envelope in the Inspector's hand.
"From the commissioner!" said Sowerby, significantly.
With puzzled face, Dunbar opened the envelope and withdrew the commissioner's note. It was very brief:—
"M. Gaston Max, of the Paris Police, is joining you in the Palace Mansions murder case. You will cooperate with him from date above."
"MAX!" said Dunbar, gazing astoundedly at his subordinate.
Certainly it was a name which might well account for the amazement written upon the inspector's face; for it was the name of admittedly the greatest criminal investigator in Europe!
"What the devil has the case to do with the French police?" muttered Sowerby, his ruddy countenance exhibiting a whole history of wonderment.
The constable, who had withdrawn, now reappeared, knocking deferentially upon the door, throwing it open, and announcing:
"Mr. Gaston Max, to see Detective-Inspector Dunbar."
Bowing courteously upon the threshold, appeared a figure in a dazzling check traveling-coat—a figure very novel, and wholly unforgettable.
"I am honored to meet a distinguished London colleague," he said in perfect English, with a faint American accent.
Dunbar stepped across the room with outstretched hand, and cordially shook that of the famous Frenchman.
"I am the more honored," he declared, gallantly playing up to the other's courtesy. "This is Detective-Sergeant Sowerby, who is acting with me in the case."
M. Gaston Max bowed low in acknowledgment of the introduction.
"It is a pleasure to meet Detective-Sergeant Sowerby," he declared.
These polite overtures being concluded then, and the door being closed, the three detectives stood looking at one another in momentary silence. Then Dunbar spoke with blunt directness:
"I am very pleased to have you with us, Mr. Max," he said; "but might I ask what your presence in London means?"
M. Gaston Max shrugged in true Gallic fashion.
"It means, monsieur," he said, "—murder—and MR. KING!"
It will prove of interest at this place to avail ourselves of an opportunity denied to the police, and to inquire into the activities of Mr. Soames, whilom employee of Henry Leroux.
Luke Soames was a man of unpleasant character; a man ever seeking advancement—advancement to what he believed to be an ideal state, viz.: the possession of a competency; and to this ambition he subjugated all conflicting interests—especially the interests of others. From narrow but honest beginnings, he had developed along lines ever growing narrower until gradually honesty became squeezed out. He formed the opinion that wealth was unobtainable by dint of hard work; and indeed in a man of his limited intellectual attainments, this was no more than true.
At the period when he becomes of interest, he had just discovered himself a gentleman-at-large by reason of his dismissal from the services of a wealthy bachelor, to whose establishment in Piccadilly he had been attached in the capacity of valet. There was nothing definite against his character at this time, save that he had never remained for long in any one situation.
His experience was varied, if his references were limited; he had served not only as valet, but also as chauffeur, as steward on an ocean liner, and, for a limited period, as temporary butler in an American household at Nice.
Soames' banking account had increased steadily, but not at a rate commensurate with his ambitions; therefore, when entering his name and qualifications in the books of a certain exclusive employment agency in Mayfair he determined to avail himself, upon this occasion, of his comparative independence by waiting until kindly Fate should cast something really satisfactory in his path.
Such an opening occurred very shortly after his first visit to the agent. He received a card instructing him to call at the office in order to meet a certain Mr. Gianapolis. Quitting his rooms in Kennington, Mr. Soames, attired in discreet black, set out to make the acquaintance of his hypothetical employer.
He found Mr. Gianapolis to be a little and very swarthy man, who held his head so low as to convey the impression of having a pronounced stoop; a man whose well-cut clothes and immaculate linen could not redeem his appearance from a constitutional dirtiness. A jet black mustache, small, aquiline features, an engaging smile, and very dark brown eyes, viciously crossed, made up a personality incongruous with his sheltering silk hat, and calling aloud for a tarboosh and a linen suit, a shop in a bazaar, or a part in the campaign of commercial brigandage which, based in the Levant, spreads its ramifications throughout the Orient, Near and Far.
Mr. Gianapolis had the suave speech and smiling manner. He greeted Soames not as one greets a prospective servant, but as one welcomes an esteemed acquaintance. Following a brief chat, he proposed an adjournment to a neighboring saloon bar; and there, over cocktails, he conversed with Mr. Soames as one crook with another.
Soames was charmed, fascinated, yet vaguely horrified; for this man smilingly threw off the cloak of hypocrisy from his companion's shoulders, and pretended, with the skill of his race, equally to nudify his own villainy.
"My dear Mr. Soames!" he said, speaking almost perfect English, but with the sing-song intonation of the Greek, and giving all his syllables an equal value—"you are the man I am looking for; and I can make your fortune."
This was entirely in accordance with Mr. Soames' own views, and he nodded, respectfully.
"I know," continued Gianapolis, proffering an excellent Egyptian cigarette, "that you were cramped in your last situation—that you were misunderstood"...
Soames, cigarette in hand, suppressed a start, and wondered if he were turning pale. He selected a match with nervous care.
"The little matter of the silver spoons," continued Gianapolis, smiling fraternally, "was perhaps an error of judgment. Although"—patting the startled Soames upon the shoulder—"they were a legitimate perquisite; I am not blaming you. But it takes so long to accumulate a really useful balance in that petty way. Now"—he glanced cautiously about him—"I can offer you a post under conditions which will place you above the consideration of silver spoons!"
Soames, hastily finishing his cocktail, sought for words; but Gianapolis, finishing his own, blandly ordered two more, and, tapping Soames upon the knee, continued:
"Then that matter of the petty cash, and those trifling irregularities in the wine-bill, you remember?—when you were with Colonel Hewett in Nice?"...
Soames gripped the counter hard, staring at the newly arrived cocktail as though it were hypnotizing him.
"These little matters," added Gianapolis, appreciatively sipping from his own glass, "which would weigh heavily against your other references, in the event of their being mentioned to any prospective employer"...
Soames knew beyond doubt that his face was very pale indeed.
"These little matters, then," pursued Gianapolis, "all go to prove to ME that you are a man of enterprise and spirit—that you are the very man I require. Now I can offer you a post in the establishment of Mr. Henry Leroux, the novelist. The service will be easy. You will be required to attend to callers and to wait at table upon special occasions. There will be no valeting, and you will have undisputed charge of the pantry and wine-cellar. In short, you will enjoy unusual liberty. The salary, you would say? It will be the same as that which you received from Mr. Mapleson"...
Soames raised his head drearily; he felt himself in the toils; he felt himself a mined man.
"It isn't a salary," he began, "which"...
"My dear Mr. Soames," said Gianapolis, tapping him confidentially upon the knee again—"my dear Soames, it isn't the salary, I admit, which you enjoyed whilst in the services of Colonel Hewett in a similar capacity. But this is not a large establishment, and the duties are light. Furthermore, there will be—extras."
Mr. Soames' eye brightened, and under the benignant influence of the cocktails his courage began to return.
"I do not refer," smiled Mr. Gianapolis, "to perquisites! The extras will be monetary. Another two pounds per week"...
"Bringing your salary up to a nice round figure; the additional amount will be paid to you from another source. You will receive the latter payment quarterly"...
"From me!" said Mr. Gianapolis, smiling radiantly. "Now, I know you are going to accept; that is understood between us. I will give you the address—Palace Mansions, Westminster—at which you must apply; and I will tell you what little services will be required from you in return for this additional emolument."
Mr. Soames hurriedly finished his second cocktail. Mr. Gianapolis, in true sporting fashion, kept pace with him and repeated the order.
"You will take charge of the mail!" he whispered softly, one irregular eye following the movements of the barmaid, and the other fixed almost fiercely upon the face of Soames. "At certain times—of which you will be notified in advance—Mrs. Leroux will pay visits to Paris. At such times, all letters addressed to her, or re-addressed to her, will not be posted! You will ring me up when such letters come into your possession—they must ALL come into your possession!—and I will arrange to meet you, say at the corner of Victoria Street, to receive them. You understand?"
Mr. Soames understood, and thus far found his plastic conscience marching in step with his inclinations.
"Then," resumed Gianapolis, "prior to her departure on these occasions, Mrs. Leroux will hand you a parcel. This also you will bring to me at the place arranged. Do you find anything onerous in these conditions?"
"Not at all," muttered Soames, a trifle unsteadily; "it seems all right"—the cocktails were beginning to speak now, and his voice was a duet—"simply perfectly all right—all square."
"Good!" said Mr. Gianapolis with his radiant smile; and the gaze of his left eye, crossing that of its neighbor, observed the entrance of a stranger into the bar. He drew his stool closer and lowered his voice:
"Mrs. Leroux," he continued, "will be in your confidence. Mr. Leroux and every one else—EVERY ONE else—must not suspect the arrangement"...
"Certainly—I quite understand"...
"Mrs. Leroux will engage you this afternoon—her husband is a mere cipher in the household—and you will commence your duties on Monday. Later in the week, Wednesday or Thursday, we will meet by appointment, and discuss further details."
"Where can I see you?"
"Ring up this number: 18642 East, and ask for Mr. King. No! don't write it down; remember it! I will come to the telephone, and arrange a meeting."
Shortly after this, then, the interview concluded; and later in the afternoon of that day Mr. Soames presented himself at Palace Mansions.
He was received by Mrs. Leroux—a pretty woman with a pathetically weak mouth. She had fair hair, not very abundant, and large eyes; which, since they exhibited the unusual phenomenon, in a blonde, of long dark lashes (Mr. Soames judged their blackness to be natural), would have been beautiful had they not been of too light a color, too small in the pupils, and utterly expressionless. Indeed, her whole face lacked color, as did her personality, and the exquisite tea-gown which she wore conveyed that odd impression of slovenliness, which is often an indication of secret vice. She was quite young and indisputably pretty, but this malproprete, together with a certain aimlessness of manner, struck an incongruous note; for essentially she was of a type which for its complement needs vivacity.
Mr. Soames, a man of experience, scented an intrigue and a neglectful husband. Since he was engaged on the spot without reference to the invisible Leroux, he was immediately confirmed in the latter part of his surmise. He departed well satisfied with his affairs, and with the promise of the future, over which Mr. Gianapolis, the cherubic, radiantly presided.
THE DRAFT ON PARIS
For close upon a month Soames performed the duties imposed upon him in the household of Henry Leroux. He was unable to discover, despite a careful course of inquiry from the cook and the housemaid, that Mrs. Leroux frequently absented herself. But the servants were newly engaged, for the flat in Palace Mansions had only recently been leased by the Leroux. He gathered that they had formerly lived much abroad, and that their marriage had taken place in Paris. Mrs. Leroux had been to visit a friend in the French capital once, he understood, since the housemaid had been in her employ.
The mistress (said the housemaid) did not care twopence-ha'penny for her husband; she had married him for his money, and for nothing else. She had had an earlier love (declared the cook) and was pining away to a mere shadow because of her painful memories. During the last six months (the period of the cook's service) Mrs. Leroux had altered out of all recognition. The cook was of opinion that she drank secretly.
Of Mr. Leroux, Soames formed the poorest opinion. He counted him a spiritless being, whose world was bounded by his book-shelves, and whose wife would be a fool if she did not avail herself of the liberty which his neglect invited her to enjoy. Soames felt himself, not a snake in the grass, but a benefactor—a friend in need—a champion come to the defense of an unhappy and persecuted woman.
He wondered when an opportunity should arise which would enable him to commence his chivalrous operations; almost daily he anticipated instructions to the effect that Mrs. Leroux would be leaving for Paris immediately. But the days glided by and the weeks glided by, without anything occurring to break the monotony of the Leroux household.
Mr. Soames sought an opportunity to express his respectful readiness to Mrs. Leroux; but the lady was rarely visible outside her own apartments until late in the day, when she would be engaged in preparing for the serious business of the evening: one night a dance, another, a bridge-party; so it went. Mr. Leroux rarely joined her upon these festive expeditions, but clung to his study like Diogenes to his tub.
Great was Mr. Soames' contempt; bitter were the reproaches of the cook; dark were the predictions of the housemaid.
At last, however, Soames, feeling himself neglected, seized an opportunity which offered to cement the secret bond (the TOO secret bond) existing between himself and the mistress of the house.
Meeting her one afternoon in the lobby, which she was crossing on the way from her bedroom to the drawing-room, he stood aside to let her pass, whispering:
"At your service, whenever you are ready, madam!"
It was a non-committal remark, which, if she chose to keep up the comedy, he could explain away by claiming it to refer to the summoning of the car from the garage—for Mrs. Leroux was driving out that afternoon.
She did not endeavor to evade the occult meaning of the words, however. In the wearily dreamy manner which, when first he had seen her, had aroused Soames' respectful interest, she raised her thin hand to her hair, slowly pressing it back from her brow, and directed her big eyes vacantly upon him.
"Yes, Soames," she said (her voice had a faraway quality in keeping with the rest of her personality), "Mr. King speaks well of you. But please do not refer again to"—she glanced in a manner at once furtive and sorrowful, in the direction of the study-door—"to the ... little arrangement of"...
She passed on, with the slow, gliding gait, which, together with her fragility, sometimes lent her an almost phantomesque appearance.
This was comforting, in its degree; since it proved that the smiling Gianapolis had in no way misled him (Soames). But as a man of business, Mr. Soames was not fully satisfied. He selected an evening when Mrs. Leroux was absent—and indeed she was absent almost every evening, for Leroux entertained but little. The cook and the housemaid were absent, also; therefore, to all intents and purposes, Soames had the flat to himself; since Henry Leroux counted in that establishment, not as an entity, but rather as a necessary, if unornamental, portion of the fittings.
Standing in the lobby, Soames raised the telephone receiver, and having paused with closed eyes preparing the exact form of words in which he should address his invisible employer, he gave the number: East 18642.
Following a brief delay:—
"Yes," came a nasal voice, "who is it?"
"Soames! I want to speak to Mr. King!"
The words apparently surprised the man at the other end of the wire, for he hesitated ere inquiring:—
"What did you say your name was?"
Soames, with closed eyes, and holding the receiver to his ear, silently rehearsed again the exact wording of his speech. Then:—
"Hullo!" came another voice—"is that Mr. Soames?"
"Yes! Is that Mr. Gianapolis speaking?"
"It is, my dear Soames!" replied the sing-song voice; and Soames, closing his eyes again, had before him a mental picture of the radiantly smiling Greek.
"Yes, my dear Soames," continued Gianapolis; "here I am. I hope you are quite well—perfectly well?"
"I am perfectly well, thank you; but as a man of business, it has occurred to me that failing a proper agreement—which in this case I know would be impossible—a trifling advance on the first quarter's"...
"On your salary, my dear Soames! On your salary? Payment for the first quarter shall be made to you to-morrow, my dear Soames! Why ever did you not express the wish before? Certainly, certainly!"...
"Will it be sent to me?"
"My dear fellow! How absurd you are! Can you get out to-morrow evening about nine o'clock?"
"Then I will meet you at the corner of Victoria Street, by the hotel, and hand you your first quarter's salary. Will that be satisfactory?"
"Perfectly," said Soames, his small eyes sparkling with avarice. "Most decidedly, Mr. Gianapolis. Many thanks."...
"And by the way," continued the other, "it is rather fortunate that you rang me up this evening, because it has saved me the trouble of ringing you up."
"What?"—Soames' eyes half closed, from the bottom lids upwards:—"there is something"...
"There is a trifling service which I require of you—yes, my dear Soames."
"We will discuss the matter to-morrow evening. Oh! it is a mere trifle. So good-by for the present."
Soames, with the fingers of his two hands interlocked before him, and his thumbs twirling rapidly around one another, stood in the lobby, gazing reflectively at the rug-strewn floor. He was working out in his mind how handsomely this first payment would show up on the welcome side of his passbook. Truly, he was fortunate in having met the generous Gianapolis....
He thought of a trifling indiscretion committed at the expense of one Mr. Mapleson, and of the wine-bill of Colonel Hewett; and he thought of the apparently clairvoyant knowledge of the Greek. A cloud momentarily came between his perceptive and the rosy horizon.
But nearer to the foreground of the mental picture, uprose a left-hand page of his pass book; and its tidings of great joy, written in clerkly hand, served to dispel the cloud.
Soames sighed in gentle rapture, and, soft-footed, passed into his own room.
Certainly his duties were neither difficult nor unpleasant. The mistress of the house lived apparently in a hazy dream-world of her own, and Mr. Leroux was the ultimate expression of the non-commercial. Mr. Soames could have robbed him every day had he desired to do so; but he had refrained from availing himself even of those perquisites which he considered justly his; for it was evident, to his limited intelligence, that greater profit was to be gained by establishing himself in this household than by weeding-out five shillings here, and half-a-sovereign there, at the risk of untimely dismissal.
Yet—it was a struggle! All Mr. Soames' commercial instincts were up in arms against this voice of a greater avarice which counseled abstention. For instance: he could have added half-a-sovereign a week to his earnings by means of a simple arrangement with the local wine merchant. Leroux's cigars he could have sold by the hundreds; for Leroux, when a friend called, would absently open a new box, entirely forgetful of the fact that a box from which but two—or at most three—cigars had been taken, lay already on the bureau.
Mr. Soames, in order to put his theories to the test, had temporarily abstracted half-a-dozen such boxes from the study and the dining-room and had hidden them. Leroux, finding, as he supposed, that he was out of cigars, had simply ordered Soames to get him some more.
"Er—about a dozen boxes—er—Soames," he had said; "of the same sort!"
Was ever a man of business submitted to such an ordeal? After receiving those instructions, Soames had sat for close upon an hour in his own room, contemplating the six broken boxes, containing in all some five hundred and ninety cigars; but the voice within prevailed; he must court no chance of losing his situation; therefore, he "discovered" these six boxes in a cupboard—much to Henry Leroux's surprise!
Then, Leroux regularly sent him to the Charing Cross branch of the London County and Suburban Bank with open checks! Sometimes, he would be sent to pay in, at other times to withdraw; the amounts involved varying from one guinea to 150 pounds! But, as he told himself, on almost every occasion that he went to Leroux's bank, he was deliberately throwing money away, deliberately closing his eyes to the good fortune which this careless and gullible man cast in his path. He observed a scrupulous honesty in all these dealings, with the result that the bank manager came to regard him as a valuable and trustworthy servant, and said as much to the assistant manager, expressing his wonder that Leroux—whose account occasioned the bank more anxiety, and gave it more work, than that of any other two depositors—had at last engaged a man who would keep his business affairs in order!
And these were but a few of the golden apples which Mr. Soames permitted to slip through his fingers, so steadfast was he in his belief that Gianapolis would be as good as his word, and make his fortune.
Leroux employed no secretary; and his MSS. were typed at his agent's office. A most slovenly man in all things, and in business matters especially, he was the despair, not only of his banker, but of his broker; he was a man who, in professional parlance, "deserved to be robbed." It is improbable that he had any but the haziest ideas, at any particular time, respecting the state of his bank balance and investments. He detested the writing of business letters, and was always at great pains to avoid anything in the nature of a commercial rendezvous. He would sign any document which his lawyer or his broker cared to send him, with simple, unquestioned faith.
His bank he never visited, and his appearance was entirely unfamiliar to the staff. True, the manager knew him slightly, having had two interviews with him: one when the account was opened, and the second when Leroux introduced his solicitor and broker—in order that in the future he might not be troubled in any way with business affairs.
Mr. Soames perceived more and more clearly that the mild deception projected was unlikely to be discovered by its victim; and, at the appointed time, he hastened to the corner of Victoria Street, to his appointment with Gianapolis. The latter was prompt, for Soames perceived his radiant smile afar off.
The saloon bar of the Red Lion was affably proposed by Mr. Gianapolis as a suitable spot to discuss the business. Soames agreed, not without certain inward qualms; for the proximity of the hostelry to New Scotland Yard was a disquieting circumstance.
However, since Gianapolis affected to treat their negotiations in the light of perfectly legitimate business, he put up no protest, and presently found himself seated in a very cozy corner of the saloon bar, with a glass of whisky-and-soda on a little table before him, bubbling in a manner which rendered it an agreeable and refreshing sight in the eyes of Mr. Soames.
"You know," said Gianapolis, the gaze of his left eye bisecting that of his right in a most bewildering manner, "they call this 'the 'tec's tabernacle!'"
"Indeed," said Soames, without enthusiasm; "I suppose some of the Scotland Yard men do drop in now and then?"
"Beyond doubt, my dear Soames."
Soames responded to his companion's radiant smile with a smile of his own by no means so pleasant to look upon. Soames had the type of face which, in repose, might be the face of an honest man; but his smile would have led to his instant arrest on any racecourse in Europe: it was the smile of a pick-pocket.
"Now," continued Gianapolis, "here is a quarter's salary in advance."
From a pocket-book, he took a little brown paper envelope and from the brown paper envelope counted out four five-pound notes, five golden sovereigns, one half-sovereign, and ten shillings' worth of silver. Soames' eyes glittered, delightedly.
"A little informal receipt?" smiled Gianapolis, raising his eyebrows, satanically. "Here on this page of my notebook I have written: 'Received from Mr. King for service rendered, 26 pounds, being payment, in advance, of amount due on 31st October 19—' I have attached a stamp to the page, as you will see," continued Gianapolis, "and here is a fountain-pen. Just sign across the stamp, adding to-day's date."
Soames complied with willing alacrity; and Gianapolis having carefully blotted the signature, replaced the notebook in his pocket, and politely acknowledged the return of the fountain-pen. Soames, glancing furtively about him, replaced the money in the envelope, and thrust the latter carefully into a trouser pocket.
"Now," resumed Gianapolis, "we must not permit our affairs of business to interfere with our amusements."
He stepped up to the bar and ordered two more whiskies with soda. These being sampled, business was resumed.
"To-morrow," said Gianapolis, leaning forward across the table so that his face almost touched that of his companion, "you will be entrusted by Mr. Leroux with a commission."...
Soames nodded eagerly, his eyes upon the speaker's face.
"You will accompany Mrs. Leroux to the bank," continued Gianapolis, "in order that she may write a specimen signature, in the presence of the manager, for transmission to the Credit Lyonnais in Paris."...
Soames nearly closed his little eyes in his effort to comprehend.
"A draft in her favor," continued the Greek, "has been purchased by Mr. Leroux's bank from the Paris bank, and, on presentation of this, a checkbook will be issued to Mrs. Leroux by the Credit Lyonnais in Paris to enable her to draw at her convenience upon that establishment against the said order. Do you follow me?"
Soames nodded rapidly, eager to exhibit an intelligent grasp of the situation.
"Now"—Gianapolis lowered his voice impressively—"no one at the Charing Cross branch of the London County and Suburban Bank has ever seen Mrs. Leroux!—Oh! we have been careful of that, and we shall be careful in the future. You are known already as an accredited agent of Leroux; therefore"—he bent yet closer to Soames' ear—"you will direct the chauffeur to drop you, not at the Strand entrance, but at the side entrance. You follow?"
Soames, almost holding his breath, nodded again.
"At the end of the court, in which the latter entrance is situated, a lady dressed in the same manner as Mrs. Leroux (this is arranged) will be waiting. Mrs. Leroux will walk straight up the court, into the corridor of Bank Chambers by the back entrance, and from thence out into the Strand. YOU will escort the second lady into the manager's office, and she will sign 'Mira Leroux' instead of the real Mira Leroux."...
Soames became aware that he was changing color. This was a superior felony, and as such it awed his little mind. It was tantamount to burning his boats. Missing silver spoons and cooked petty cash were trivialities usually expiable at the price of a boot-assisted dismissal; but this—!
"You understand?" Gianapolis was not smiling, now. "There is not the slightest danger. The signature of the lady whom you will meet will be an exact duplicate of the real one; that is, exact enough to deceive a man who is not looking for a forgery. But it would not be exact enough to deceive the French banker—he WILL be looking for a forgery. You follow me? The signature on the checks drawn against the Credit Lyonnais will be the SAME as the specimen forwarded by the London County and Suburban, since they will be written by the same lady—the duplicate Mrs. Leroux. Therefore, the French bank will have no means of detecting the harmless little deception practised upon them, and the English bank, if it should ever see those checks, will raise no question, since the checks will have been honored by the Credit Lyonnais."
Soames finished his whisky-and-soda at a gulp.
"Finally," concluded Gianapolis, "you will escort the lady out by the front entrance to the Strand. She will leave you and walk in an easterly direction—making some suitable excuse if the manager should insist upon seeing her to the door; and the real Mrs. Leroux will come out by the Strand end of Bank Chambers' corridor, and walk back with you around the corner to where the car will be waiting. Perfect?"
"Quite," said Soames, huskily....
But when, some twenty minutes later, he returned to Palace Mansions, he was a man lost in thought; and he did not entirely regain his wonted composure, and did not entirely shake off the incubus, Doubt, until in his own room he had re-counted the contents of the brown paper envelope. Then:—
"It's safe enough," he muttered; "and it's worth it!"
Thus it came about that, on the following morning, Leroux called him into the study and gave him just such instructions as Gianapolis had outlined the evening before.
"I am—er—too busy to go myself, Soames," said Leroux, "and—er—Mrs. Leroux will shortly be paying a visit to friends in—er—in Paris. So that I am opening a credit there for her. Save so much trouble—and—such a lot of—correspondence—international money orders—and such worrying things. Mr. Smith, the manager, knows you and you will take this letter of authority. The draft I understand has already been purchased."
Mr. Soames was bursting with anxiety to learn the amount of this draft, but could find no suitable opportunity to inquire. The astonishing deception, then, was carried out without anything resembling a hitch. Mrs. Leroux went through with her part in the comedy, in the dreamy manner of a somnambulist; and the duplicate Mrs. Leroux, who waited at the appointed spot, had achieved so startling a resemblance to her prototype, that Mr. Soames became conscious of a craving for a peg of brandy at the moment of setting eyes upon her. However, he braced himself up and saw the business through.
As was to be expected, no questions were raised and no doubts entertained. The bank manager was very courteous and very reserved, and the fictitious Mrs. Leroux equally reserved, indeed, cold. She avoided raising her motor veil, and, immediately the business was concluded, took her departure, Mr. Smith escorting her as far as the door.
She walked away toward Fleet Street, and the respectful attendant, Soames, toward Charing Cross; he rejoined Mrs. Leroux at the door of Bank Chambers, and the two turned the corner and entered the waiting car. Soames was rather nervous; Mrs. Leroux quite apathetic.
Shortly after this event, Soames learnt that the date of Mrs. Leroux's departure to Paris was definitely fixed. He received from her hands a large envelope.
"For Mr. King," she said, in her dreamy fashion; and he noticed that she seemed to be in poorer health than usual. Her mouth twitched strangely; she was a nervous wreck.
Then came her departure, attended by a certain bustle, an appointment with Mr. Gianapolis; and the delivery of the parcel into that gentleman's keeping.
Mrs. Leroux was away for six days on this occasion. Leroux sent her three postcards during that time, and re-addressed some ten or twelve letters which arrived for her. The address in all cases was:
c/o Miss Denise Ryland, Atelier 4, Rue du Coq d'Or, Montmartre, Paris.
East 18642 was much in demand that week; and there were numerous meetings between Soames and Gianapolis at the corner of Victoria Street, and numerous whiskies-and-sodas in the Red Lion; for Gianapolis persisted in his patronage of that establishment, apparently for no other reason than because it was dangerously near to Scotland Yard, and an occasional house of call for members of the Criminal Investigation Department.
Thus did Mr. Soames commence his career of duplicity at the flat of Henry Leroux; and for some twelve months before the events which so dramatically interfered with the delightful scheme, he drew his double salary and performed his perfidious work with great efficiency and contentment. Mrs. Leroux paid four other visits to Paris during that time, and always returned in much better spirits, although pale and somewhat haggard looking. It fell to the lot of Soames always to meet her at Charing Cross; but never once, by look or by word, did she proffer, or invite, the slightest exchange of confidence. She apathetically accepted his aid in conducting this intrigue as she would have accepted his aid in putting on her opera-cloak.
The curious Soames had read right through the telephone directory from A to Z in quest of East 18642—only to learn that no such number was published. His ingenuity not being great, he could think of no means to learn the address of the mysterious Mr. King. So keenly had he been impressed with the omniscience of that shadowy being who knew all his past, that he feared to inquire of the Eastern Exchange. His banking account was growing handsomely, and, above all things, he dreaded to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Then came the night which shattered all. Having rung up East 18642 and made an appointment with Gianapolis in regard to some letters for Mrs. Leroux, he had been surprised, on reaching the corner of Victoria Street, to find that Gianapolis was not there! He glanced up at the face of Big Ben. Yes—for the first time during their business acquaintance, Mr. Gianapolis was late!
For close upon twenty minutes, Soames waited, walking slowly up and down. When, at last, coming from the direction of Westminster, he saw the familiar spruce figure.
Eagerly he hurried forward to meet the Greek; but Gianapolis—to the horror and amazement of Soames—affected not to know him! He stepped aside to avoid the stupefied butler, and passed. But, in passing, he hissed these words at Soames:—
"Follow to Victoria Street Post Office! Pretend to post letters at next box to me and put them in my hand!"
He was gone!
Soames, dazed at this new state of affairs, followed him at a discreet distance. Gianapolis ran up the Post Office steps briskly, and Soames, immediately afterwards, ascended also—furtively. Gianapolis was taking out a number of letters from his pocket.
Soames walked across to the "Country" box on his right, and affected to scrutinize the addresses on the envelopes of Mrs. Leroux's correspondence.
Gianapolis, on the pretense of posting a country letter, reached out and snatched the correspondence from Soames' hand. The gaze of his left eye crookedly sought the face of the butler.
"Go home!" whispered Gianapolis; "be cautious!"
In a pitiable state of mind, Soames walked away from the Post Office. Gianapolis had hurried off in the direction of Victoria Station. Something was wrong! Some part of the machine, of the dimly divined machine whereof he formed a cog, was out of gear. Since the very nature of this machine—its construction and purpose, alike—was unknown to Soames, he had no basis upon which to erect surmises for good or ill.
His timid inquiries into the identity of East 18642 had begun and terminated with his labored perusal of the telephone book, a profitless task which had occupied him for the greater part of an evening.
The name, Gianapolis, did not appear at all; whereas there proved to be some two hundred and ninety Kings. But, oddly, only four of these were on the Eastern Exchange; one was a veterinary surgeon; one a boat-builder; and a third a teacher of dancing. The fourth, an engineer, seemed a "possible" to Soames, although his published number was not 18642; but a brief—a very brief—conversation, convinced the butler that this was not his man.
He had been away from the flat for over an hour, and he doubted if even the lax sense of discipline possessed by Mr. Leroux would enable that gentleman to overlook this irregularity. Soames had a key of the outer door, and he built his hopes upon the possibility that Leroux had not noticed his absence and would not hear his return.
He opened the door very quietly, but had scarcely set his foot in the lobby ere the dreadful, unforgettable scene met his gaze.
For more years than he could remember, he had lived in dread of the law; and, in Luke Soames' philosophy, the words Satan and Detective were interchangeable. Now, before his eyes, was a palpable, unmistakable police officer; and on the floor...
Just one glimpse he permitted himself—and, in a voice that seemed to reach him from a vast distance, the detective was addressing HIM!...
Slinking to his room, with his craven heart missing every fourth beat, and his mind in chaos, Soames sank down upon the bed, locked his hands together and hugged them, convulsively, between his knees.
It was come! He had overstepped that almost invisible boundary-line which divides indiscretion from crime. He knew now that the voice within him, the voice which had warned him against Gianapolis and against becoming involved in what dimly he had perceived to be an elaborate scheme, had been, not the voice of cowardice (as he had supposed) but that of prudence.
And it was too late. The dead woman, he told himself—he had been unable to see her very clearly—undoubtedly was Mrs. Leroux. What in God's name had happened! Probably her husband had killed her... which meant? It meant that proofs—PROOFS—were come into his possession; and who should be involved, entangled in the meshes of this fallen conspiracy, but himself, Luke Soames!
As must be abundantly evident, Soames was not a criminal of the daring type; he did not believe in reaching out for anything until he was well assured that he could, if necessary, draw back his hand. This last venture, this regrettable venture—this ruinous venture—had been a mistake. He had entered into it under the glamour of Gianapolis' personality. Of what use, now, to him was his swelling bank balance?
But in justice to the mental capacity of Soames, it must be admitted that he had not entirely overlooked such a possibility as this; he had simply refrained, for the good of his health, from contemplating it.
Long before, he had observed, with interest, that, should an emergency arise (such as a fire), a means of egress had been placed by the kindly architect adjacent to his bedroom window. Thus, his departure on the night of the murder was not the fruit of a sudden scheme, but of one well matured.
Closing and locking his bedroom door, Soames threw out upon the bed the entire contents of his trunk; selected those things which he considered indispensable, and those which might constitute clues. He hastily packed his grip, and, with a last glance about the room and some seconds of breathless listening at the door, he attached to the handle a long piece of cord, which at some time had been tied about his trunk, and, gently opening the window, lowered the grip into the courtyard beneath. The light he had already extinguished, and with the conviction dwelling in his bosom that in some way he was become accessory to a murder—that he was a man shortly to be pursued by the police of the civilized world—he descended the skeleton lift-shaft, picked up his grip, and passed out under the archway into the lane at the back of Palace Mansions and St. Andrew's Mansions.
He did not proceed in the direction which would have brought him out into the Square, but elected to emerge through the other end. At exactly the moment that Inspector Dunbar rushed into his vacated room, Mr. Soames, grip in hand, was mounting to the top of a southward bound 'bus at the corner of Parliament Street!
He was conscious of a need for reflection. He longed to sit in some secluded spot in order to think. At present, his brain was a mere whirligig, and all things about him seemingly danced to the same tune. Stationary objects were become unstable in the eyes of Soames, and the solid earth, burst free of its moorings, no longer afforded him a safe foothold. There was a humming in his ears; and a mist floated before his eyes. By the time that the motor-'bus was come to the south side of the bridge, Soames had succeeded in slowing down his mental roundabout in some degree; and now he began grasping at the flying ideas which the diminishing violence of his brain storm enabled him, vaguely, to perceive.
The first fruits of his reflections were bitter. He viewed the events of the night in truer focus; he saw that by his flight he had sealed his fate—had voluntarily outlawed himself. It became frightfully evident to him that he dared not seek to draw from his bank, that he dared not touch even his modest Post Office account. With the exception of some twenty-five shillings in his pocket, he was penniless!
How could he hope to fly the country, or even to hide himself, without money?
He glanced suspiciously about the 'bus; for he perceived that an old instinct had prompted him to mount one which passed the Oval—a former point of debarkation when he lived in rooms near Kennington Park. Someone might recognize him!
Furtively, he scanned his fellow passengers, but perceived no acquaintance.
What should he do—where should he go? It was a desperate situation.
The inspector who had cared to study that furtive, isolated figure, could not have failed to mark it for that of a hunted man.
At Kennington Gate the 'bus made a halt. Soames glanced at the clock on the corner. It was close upon one A. M. Where in heaven's name should he go? What a fool he had been to come to this district where he was known!
Stay! There was one man in London, surely, who must be almost as keenly interested in the fate of Luke Soames as Luke Soames himself ... Gianapolis!
Soames sprang up and hurried off the 'bus. No public telephone box would be available at that hour, but dire need spurred his slow mind and also lent him assurance. He entered the office of the taxicab depot on the next corner, and, from the man whom he found in charge, solicited and obtained the favor of using the telephone. Lifting the receiver, he asked for East 18642.
The seconds that elapsed, now, were as hours of deathly suspense to the man at the telephone. If the number should be engaged!... If the exchange could get no reply!...
"Hullo!" said a nasal voice—"who is it?"
"It is Soames—and I want to speak to Mr. King!"
He lowered his tone as much as possible, almost whispering his own name. He knew the voice which had answered him; it was the same that he always heard when ringing up East 18642. But would Gianapolis come to the telephone? Suddenly—
"Is that Soames?" spoke the sing-song voice of the Greek.
"Where are you?"
"Are they following you?"
"No—I don't think so, at least; what am I to do? Where am I to go?"
"Get to Globe Road—near Stratford Bridge, East, without delay. But whatever you do, see that you are not followed! Globe Road is the turning immediately beyond the Railway Station. It is not too late, perhaps, to get a 'bus or tram, for some part of the way, at any rate. But even if the last is gone, don't take a cab; walk. When you get to Globe Road, pass down on the left-hand side, and, if necessary, right to the end. Make sure you are not followed, then walk back again. You will receive a signal from an open door. Come right in. Good-by."
Soames replaced the receiver on the hook, uttering a long-drawn sigh of relief. The arbiter of his fortunes had not failed him!
"Thank you very much!" he said to the man in charge of the office, who had been bending over his books and apparently taking not the slightest interest in the telephone conversation. Soames placed twopence, the price of the call, on the desk. "Good night."
He hastened out of the gate and across the road. An electric tramcar which would bear him as far as the Elephant-and-Castle was on the point of starting from the corner. Grip in hand, Soames boarded the car and mounted to the top deck. He was in some doubt respecting his mode of travel from the next point onward, but the night was fine, even if he had to walk, and his reviving spirits would cheer him with visions of a golden future!
His money!—That indeed was a bitter draught: the loss of his hardly earned savings! But he was now established—linked by a common secret—in partnership with Gianapolis; he was one of that mysterious, obviously wealthy group which arranged drafts on Paris—which could afford to pay him some hundreds of pounds per annum for such a trifling service as juggling the mail!
Mr. King!—If Gianapolis were only the servant, what a magnificent man of business must be hidden beneath the cognomen, Mr. King! And he was about to meet that lord of mystery. Fear and curiosity were oddly blended in the anticipation.
By great good fortune, Soames arrived at the Elephant-and-Castle in time to catch an eastward bound motor-'bus, a 'bus which would actually carry him to the end of Globe Road. He took his seat on top, and with greater composure than he had known since his dramatic meeting with Gianapolis in Victoria Street, lighted one of Mr. Leroux's cabanas (with which he invariably kept his case filled) and settled down to think about the future.
His reflections served apparently to shorten the journey; and Soames found himself proceeding along Globe Road—a dark and uninviting highway—almost before he realized that London Bridge had been traversed. It was now long past one o'clock; and that part of the east-end showed dreary and deserted. Public houses had long since ejected their late guests, and even those argumentative groups, which, after closing-time, linger on the pavements, within the odor Bacchanalian, were dispersed. The jauntiness was gone, now, from Soames' manner, and aware of a marked internal depression, he passed furtively along the pavement with its long shadowy reaches between the islands of light formed by the street lamps. From patch to patch he passed, and each successive lamp that looked down upon him found him more furtive, more bent in his carriage.
Not a shop nor a house exhibited any light. Sleeping Globe Road, East, served to extinguish the last poor spark of courage within Soames' bosom. He came to the extreme end of the road without having perceived a beckoning hand, without having detected a sound to reveal that his advent was observed. In the shadow of a wall he stopped, resting his grip upon the pavement and looking back upon his tracks.
No living thing moved from end to end of Globe Road.
Shivering slightly, Soames picked up the bag and began to walk back. Less than half-way along, an icy chill entered into his veins, and his nerves quivered like piano wires, for a soft crying of his name came, eerie, through the silence, and terrified the hearer.
Soames stopped dead, breathing very rapidly, and looking about him right and left. He could hear the muted pulse of sleeping London. Then, in the dark doorway of the house before which he stood, he perceived, dimly, a motionless figure. His first sensation was not of relief, but of fear. The figure raised a beckoning hand. Soames, conscious that his course was set and that he must navigate it accordingly, opened the iron gate, passed up the path and entered the house to which he thus had been summoned....
He found himself surrounded by absolute darkness, and the door was closed behind him.
"Straight ahead, Soames!" said the familiar voice of Gianapolis out of the darkness.
Soames, with a gasp of relief, staggered on. A hand rested upon his shoulder, and he was guided into a room on the right of the passage. Then an electric lamp was lighted, and he found himself confronting the Greek.
But Gianapolis was no longer radiant; all the innate evil of the man shone out through the smirking mask.
"Sit down, Soames!" he directed.
Soames, placing his bag upon the floor, seated himself in a cane armchair. The room was cheaply furnished as an office, with a roll-top desk, a revolving chair, and a filing cabinet. On a side-table stood a typewriter, and about the room were several other chairs, whilst the floor was covered with cheap linoleum. Gianapolis sat in the revolving chair, staring at the lowered blinds of the window, and brushing up the points of his black mustache.
With a fine white silk handkerchief Soames gently wiped the perspiration from his forehead and from the lining of his hat-band. Gianapolis began abruptly:—
"There has been an—accident" (he continued to brush his mustache, with increasing rapidity). "Tell me all that took place after you left the Post Office."
Soames nervously related his painful experiences of the evening, whilst Gianapolis drilled his mustache to a satanic angle. The story being concluded:
"Whatever has happened?" groaned Soames; "and what am I to do?"
"What you are to do," replied Gianapolis, "will be arranged, my dear Soames, by—Mr. King. Where you are to go, is a problem shortly settled: you are to go nowhere; you are to stay here."...
Soames gazed drearily about the room.
"Not exactly here—this is merely the office; but at our establishment proper in Limehouse."...
"Certainly. Although you seem to be unaware of the fact, Soames, there are some charming resorts in Limehouse; and your duties, for the present, will confine you to one of them."
"But—but," hesitated Soames, "the police"...
"Unless my information is at fault," said Gianapolis, "the police have no greater chance of paying us a visit, now, than they had formerly."...
"But Mrs. Leroux"...
Gianapolis twirled around in the chair, his eyes squinting demoniacally:—"Mrs. Leroux!"
"What about Mrs. Leroux?"
"Isn't she dead?"
"Dead! Mrs. Leroux! You are laboring under a strange delusion, Soames. The lady whom you saw was not Mrs. Leroux."
Soames' brain began to fail him again.
"Then who," he began....
"That doesn't concern you in the least, Soames. But what does concern you is this: your connection, and my connection, with the matter cannot possibly be established by the police. The incident is regrettable, but the emergency was dealt with—in time. It represents a serious deficit, unfortunately, and your own usefulness, for the moment, becomes nil; but we shall have to look after you, I suppose, and hope for better things in the future."
He took up the telephone.
"East 39951," he said, whilst Soames listened, attentively. Then:—
"Is that Kan-Suh Concessions?" he asked. "Yes—good! Tell Said to bring the car past the end of the road at a quarter-to-two. That's all."
He hung up the receiver.
"Now, my dear Soames," he said, with a faint return to his old manner, "you are about to enter upon new duties. I will make your position clear to you. Whilst you do your work, and keep yourself to yourself, you are in no danger; but one indiscretion—just one—apart from what it may mean for others, will mean, for YOU, immediate arrest as accessory to a murder!"