a treasure-trove of literature
treasure found hidden with no evidence of ownership
Title: The Gaunt Stranger Author: Edgar Wallace * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 1402661h.html Language: English Date first posted: Oct 2014 Most recent update: Oct 2014 This eBook was produced by Brent Beach and Roy Glashan. Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
GO TO Project Gutenberg Australia HOME PAGE
In collaboration with Sir Gerald Dumaurier, Edgar Wallace dramatised this novel, The Gaunt Stranger, under the title The Ringer. The play premièred at Wyndham's Theatre, London, on May 4, 1926, where it was scheduled for a run of 410 performances. Variety magazine, in a brief review under the title "Drama Gets Over" wrote: "...The Ringer [is] an absorbing melodrama. Blessed with a generally brilliant cast the first performance was more than enthusiastically received."
Wallace rewrote the The Gaunt Stranger on the basis of the dramatisation, and Hodder & Stoughton published the new novel under the title The Ringer in 1926. He dedicated the book to Sir Gerald Dumaurier with the words:
"My dear Gerald, This book is The Gaunt Stranger practically in the form that you and I shaped it for the stage. Herein you will find all the improvements you suggested for The Ringer—which means that this is a better story than The Gaunt Stranger."
Readers who would like to compare the two books can download a copy of the novel The Ringer from this library.
FLANDERS LANE, DEPTFORD, is narrow and dingy. If you crowd the houses of Fitzroy Square into a breathless thoroughfare, wherein two taxis cannot pass one another without danger to paint and certainty of profane exchanges; leave the resplendent woodwork of door and sash to blister in the sun and grow streaky with rain-carried grime; strip the entrance lobbies of their carpets and the rooms of their furniture, and substitute the crazy household gods of the worse than poor; crowd every room with a family—with sometimes more than one; let the stairs be broken and holes gape in the floors and roofing so that on rainy days every wall shows blotches of grey; fill passage and stairs and rooms and the roadway between these kennels with shrieking, whooping children in every stage of uncleanliness, you would have Flanders Lane, that leads crookedly to the Creek Bridge and eventually to Greenwich.
There are certain forms of architecture, just as there are certain types of humanity, from which the pristine beauty of design cannot be wholly worn, and the houses of Flanders Lane maintain something of their faded dignity.
Mr. Evelyn, the diarist, walked the narrow sidewalk and saw the leather-breeched workmen fitting the lead gutterings. Peter the Great, working in a shipyard near-by, got drunk at The Pretty Maid Inn at the corner.
Poverty began to trickle this way in the forties, when the gentry moved up to Blackheath; and poverty, being rat-like, burrowed itself into cellars and basements and could not be ousted; crept gradually upward until it reached the attic rooms, where it stole the lead gutterings, whilst a lower strata removed all superfluous panelling and closet doors and used the wood to kindle its fires.
Here came the police in twos, sometimes carrying their clubs conveniently up their sleeves; here at odd moments in the dusk and the night the screams of women were a disturbance to light sleepers.
Sometimes a big police car would dart into Flanders Lane, disgorging the Flying Squad from head-quarters, and there would be a howling and a yelling in some dark interior, the blubbering sobs of a girl bereft of her man, and the squad car would go silent away, carrying an extra passenger, and as like as not there would be a red-eyed woman waiting at Mr. Meister's forbidding front door long before he was up the next morning.
Mr. Meister's house was most unexpectedly different from all the rest. It stood back from the street and was entirely surrounded by a high wall, which on the Lane side was punctured by a stout black door. Behind this door was a short paved path, protected above by a glass awning invisible from the road. It was a very old house, but was distinct from its fellows in this respect: the windows were clean and neatly curtained. The sashes were painted white, the wooden sunshades a bright green. A fair-sized lawn was spread behind the wall, and two big apple trees foamed with blossom above the May daisies. The little boys of Flanders Lane never stole his apples, or broke the glass of his awning; or yet spoke disrespectfully to the slim girl in black who opened the front door with her key as the clock struck nine every morning. Most of the people in Flanders Lane knew that she was Johnny Lenley's sister, and she had the title to their respect which is offered to the relatives of people in trouble, but this was not the sole reason for her immunity.
Mr. Meister was a lawyer. He was more than this: he was a philanthropist. Many a man had "gone away" and left his wife and children to starve—as they would have starved but for the little allowance they received in Meister's gaunt reception-room on the entrance floor.
He defended clients in the courts and never asked a penny for his services. In some cases he employed great advocates to plead for the liberty of a big man taken in crime. He did this for Johnny Lenley—though Johnny could not, by any stretch of imagination, be called big, for he fell at his second burglary and was sent down to the Awful Place for seven long and bitter years.
Mr. Meister had helped Mary a lot: had made her a substantial allowance, and at last, fearing (as he said) that she fretted after her brother, had her taught shorthand and typewriting and took her into his office at a generous wage.
Flanders Lane did not love him. Nor did Old Mill Lane, nor Little Holland Street, nor other of these ungracious places. But for some reason they were afraid of him. Men who got too fresh with Lewis Meister were often arrested by the police and charged with crimes which they themselves had almost forgotten. It was regarded as unlucky to quarrel with this good man.
There was once a lag who shot a policeman at Eastbourne and got away without leaving so much as a fingerprint. He quarrelled with Meister months after. And the very next day two busy men from head-quarters pulled him. And he was hanged. It was (all agreed) very unlucky to quarrel with a philanthropist who not only charged his clients nothing for defending them, but actually supported their dependents during their regrettable absence.
That you cannot touch pitch without being defiled, is one of the three wisest sayings. His zeal on behalf of unfortunate people had twice brought him into conflict with the Law Society. He had on each occasion nearly escaped expulsion for unprofessional conduct. Other lawyers were jealous of him, since he had the best practice in Deptford. He told friends and clients that this was the cause of his unpopularity with his own cloth, and since the psychology of envy was a phenomenon familiar enough, they thought it was very likely that Mr. Meister stated the fact.
He had one real enemy: one man who actively hated him. All Deptford knew this; the police knew this; Mr. Meister knew it best of all. It was brought home to him one warm autumn day (before Mary Lenley was a regular visitor), when he lounged in a deep cane chair under the grateful shade of an apple tree, a long tumbler filled with sparkling amber and tinkling ice at his side, a new novel on his knees, his soul at peace with the world. A stout and placid man, with a pink face and a slightly bald head, his teeth were clenched on a long cigar when his old housekeeper came hobbling rheumatically into the garden with a telegram.
"Put it down," said Mr. Meister, not raising his eyes from the book.
She had been gone some time when out of the tail of his eye he saw the envelope on the table and caught just a glimpse of a word scrawled across the corner.
Mr. Meister frowned. Telegrams so inscribed are a rarity in England. They come only on Government service. Even Mr. Meister in all his experience had never received one before. He put down his book deliberately, fixed a pair of folding glasses to his nose and tore open the telegram. First came his name and address:
VERY URGENT. CLEAR THE LINE. ON HIS MAJESTY'S SERVICE. BEGINS. HENRY ARTHUR MILTON, A CONVICT UNDER SENTENCE OF FOURTEEN YEARS' PENAL SERVITUDE, ESCAPED FROM PARKHURST CONVICT ESTABLISHMENT LAST EVENING AT 6.35 P.M. STOP..."
Mr. Meister lifted his glass with a shaking hand and drank the contents at a gulp.
SUCCEEDED IN LEAVING THE ISLAND THIS MORNING ON STOLEN MOTOR LAUNCH STOP. MILTON HAS UTTERED THREATS AGAINST YOU AND MAY MAKE FOR YOUR HOUSE STOP. SENDING INSPECTOR ALAN WEMBURY CONSULT WITH YOU. TYLER ASSISTANT COMMISSIONER CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION. MESSAGE ENDS.
The Ringer was free!
The pink of Mr. Meister's countenance had gone; he was all grey. With a groan he got up jerkily to his feet and cast a fearful glance at the high wall. From the street without came the shrill squawks of children at play, and the high-pitched cockney whine of a boy placating an enraged parent who was seeking him.
He had no woman secretary in those days; an elderly clerk lived on the premises, and he, with the housekeeper, who was also cook, and a youthful and homely housemaid, comprised the establishment.
Returning to the room that served as office, study and sitting-room, he found a tall, good-looking man of thirty awaiting him, and in his state of anguish Meister could have fallen on his neck.
"Captain Wembury, isn't it?" he gasped. The hand that grasped Alan Wembury's was cold and damp. "Is there any—any news about ... about ...?"
"You've had a wire, I suppose?" Meister nodded and swallowed. "I doubt if The Ringer will bother you: he has been seen in the neighbourhood of Southampton Docks. At least, a dock policeman, who, we have since discovered, knew the man, was found clubbed insensible behind one of the dock stores. He isn't conscious yet—but we guess The Ringer."
"The Ringer uses a knife—he always uses a knife," said Meister, and his full lower lip trembled.
"Maybe he hasn't a knife," replied Inspector Wembury dryly. "He's an adaptable man. What makes you say he uses a knife?"
He was scrutinising the quaking figure closely.
"I don't know ... what in hell's the use of asking me?" answered Meister, distracted to foolish anger. "They say he ... he killed somebody who tried to shop him?"
"Betray him? Forgive my ignorance of the new argot—I was attached to the Embassy at Washington until a month ago, and my vocabulary has been purified." Wembury laughed softly. "He's that kind of bird, is he?"
"That kind!" Meister almost shrieked the words. "He's a killer—everybody knows that! Everybody except you!"
Then he took a hold of himself and proceeded more calmly.
"I'm sorry ... this fellow gets me rattled. He threatens me! After all I did for him! I defended him in the magistrate's court, fought tooth and nail for him, and when he was sent to trial I engaged the two biggest men at the bar to look after him. And not a cent did I get for it, Wembury! And now he's threatening me. My God, is there any justice in the world, any gratitude?"
He mopped his face; the grey had deepened to an angry red and was moist.
The days that followed remained with Mr. Lewis Meister all his life, a poignant memory. A man respited at the foot of the scaffold might as easily have forgotten the horrid second of time when death leered at him through a dangling noose. And respited Mr. Meister was. Months later the news came through that the escaped prisoner had reached an Australian port. Then Cora Milton disappeared from London, to be seen again on Flemington race-track; and was around, The Ringer was not far away, for she was reputedly his wife, a wild girl from Gary, Indiana.
Flanders Lane, agitated and agog for the moment by his escape, slowly settled back to apathy again. The Ringer would never be caught. He was a master of disguise, the greatest since the passing of Charles Peace, the legendary hero of the street. His very name labelled his graft. He was a ringer of changes.
Forgathering in their frowsy parlours, the Laners talked with hushed voices of the day when The Ringer walked into the Bank of England, an anaemic-looking parson, and walked out again in the uniform of a bank messenger with half a million dollars' worth of American bills taken from under the cashier's nose.
He would never be caught; and as the days went on, Mr. Meister was seen abroad again, and the plain-clothes policemen who guarded his house were withdrawn, and nothing stayed behind except the recollection of a telegram marked "Urgent" and the reeling terror of a second's space of time. That Mr. Meister could not wholly banish from his mind. Not even the grace and charm of Mary Lenley and all his thoughts of her excluded The Ringer from his daily thoughts.
Mary Lenley was regarded by Flanders Lane as being excessively ladylike. The drab women who supported most doorposts on fine mornings and occupied the front steps on warm nights were in agreement, and since she gave smile for smile and nod for nod, "Good morning, Mrs. Timms" for "Good morning, Miss Lenley," the general approval had no reservations as to haughtiness. Invariably she looked as if she had stepped from the show window of Higgins & Jones' Select Mantle House & Ladies' Outfitters, and achieved, in point of appearance, the ideal of every scrawny and sophisticated maiden of Deptford.
She was a pretty, slim-bodied, straight-backed girl, who walked humanly, for she was of a class which neither envied nor copied the mannequin or the chorus girl.
Alan came face to face with her exactly eleven months to the day after their previous meeting, and it was an embarrassing moment for Mr. Wembury, whose lean, tanned face grew redder as the distance between them decreased. He raised his hat and would have passed on, but she stopped.
"Good morning, Mr. Wembury—this is the third time in a month you have tried to 'cut' me!"
Alan Wembury was a little incoherent in his protestation, and she laughed and, laughing, all the pale sadness went out of her face, and she was the mischievous little girl he had known ten—fifteen years ago, when the bracken under the elms of Lenley Court was his favourite playground.
"I saw you in the High Street and I saw you again on the Hilly Fields. And each time you hurried away as though you had a very pressing engagement elsewhere!" she challenged him.
"Well, Miss Lenley"—awkwardly—"I am afraid that is a true bill. Naturally I thought ..."
She nodded and was serious again.
"I understood, of course. But, Alan—do I get arrested for calling a very important police-officer 'Alan'? I used to call you that when I was a very small girl."
"I wish you would continue," he said quietly. "It would make my mind so much easier. I've hated myself ever since that horrible night. And going on to the stand to give evidence against Johnny was torture. Every second I expected to see your face—thank God you weren't in court! I never dreamt you would forgive me."
Her grave eyes were raised to his for a second, and in their grey deeps he saw again for an instant the tragedy of that unforgotten moment when he had walked into her little sitting-room and taken Johnny Lenley for his second burglary.
"It seems very banal and theatrical to say that you only did your duty," she said, smiling faintly. "I know exactly how you hated it when you discovered the man was Johnny." She sighed heavily. "Seven years is a long time, isn't it? Johnny bears no malice, Alan: I had a letter from him a month ago and he asked to be remembered to you if I ever saw you. Walk back with me, won't you? Flanders Lane is all eyes! They will think I am being arrested, and I am in a fair way to being a heroine."
She laughed softly as they turned back towards Mr. Meister's house. For a few paces he was silent, then:
"Do you like it?" he asked abruptly, and she knew what he meant.
"Working for Mr. Meister? Yes, it is rather amusing. It might be more amusing, but I see very little of his clients: I'm afraid they are mostly poor people in trouble, and have a lot to say that they would not like to tell before a third person."
"Do you like him—Meister?" he asked, and he was quick to mark her hesitancy.
"Yes: he has been very good to me. After Johnny went he made me a small allowance, and then, when I told him that I was trying to get some work and was practising on an old typewriter of Johnny's, he paid my fees at a commercial college and I had a three months' intensive course of typing. Fortunately, I learnt shorthand years ago for amusement. It was good of him to take me into his office."
"Yes," said Alan, without conviction.
They had reached the black door: from where they stood Alan could see the high wall, the tall chimney-stacks and shingled roof of the house behind. That and the top of one apple tree swaying in the gentle wind were the only visible portions of Mr. Meister's demesne.
"I want to see Meister," he said suddenly, as the girl's hand was coming out to him. "You have a key?"
"To the outer door," she said, with the old light of amusement in her eyes. "Which is a great concession! The housekeeper lets me into the house. It is rather early for Mr. Meister: he doesn't usually come down before ten unless he has a case in the courts."
"I'll risk the shock of seeing him in his pyjamas," said Alan gravely, and they both laughed.
Mr. Meister was, indeed, in bed. The room on the first floor which overlooked the garden and the leaded roof of a small room built on to the house in the eighteenth century for no apparent reason, since it was never occupied, was close and fusty with the faintly sour nidor of stale cigar smoke. But Mr. Meister was not there.
A big room with high canopied doorways and deep plaster frieze where the worn wood panelling ended. There was one door which never failed to excite the detective's curiosity. It stood between the fire-place and the window overlooking the roof of the superfluous room, and differed from the rest in several respects. In one panel was a tiny trap-door about nine inches square and fastened by a broad steel bar which worked on a pivot at one end and fell into a steel socket at the other. The door was probably locked; three heavy bolts, always shot, made ingress impossible except with the consent and assistance of the inmate.
For the rest the room was undistinguished. It had a more homely appearance than most offices, in spite of its shelves laden with law books and deed boxes. The carpet was old and worn by the feet of criminal generations, for here Mr. Meister interviewed his clients at all hours of the day and night. The place also served him as a study. There was a deep arm-chair in the confined space between the fire-place and his writing-table; the chair had a loose cretonne cover, and there was a hassock for Mr. Meister's slippered feet as he sat in comfort, reading in his evening newspaper the record of a world which was largely populated by men and women who envied their neighbours' goods and did not stop short at envy. Here, if he were an egoistical man, he might reflect complacently upon his own benefactions—his deeds of charity and compassion. For he had helped the widow and the fatherless and had made smooth the path of many a wife whose helpmeet was an unwilling guest of the king's majesty.
There were two empty whisky bottles on the writing-table, as Alan saw; a plate of biscuits and a soiled glass. The grate showed the drear cinders of a fire, and the hearth was littered with cigar ash. The old woman who attended Mr. Meister mumbled an apology for the state of the room as she pulled back the curtain, shot a malignant glance at the girl for bringing a visitor at such an hour, and shuffled off to inform her master.
"She'll hate me for bringing you in," said Mary ruefully, "and my lunch will be late in consequence. No, I don't know her name; I don't think she has one. Mr. Meister never refers to her except as 'the old woman' or 'Mrs. K.' She's a comparatively new-comer; I never met her predecessor. Mr. Meister says he likes old women about the house—they make him feel young."
She looked round the room; evidently its gross untidiness, the smell and fug of it, were not unfamiliar.
"Alan, don't you think Mr. Meister is a very generous man?"
Alan Wembury scratched his thin nose thoughtfully.
"I suppose he is," he said with caution.
"He must pay out an immense sum in the course of a year to these poor people," she went on; "and some of them aren't a bit grateful. I've overheard them wrangling with him as though they had a right to his charity. One woman, Mrs. Haggitt—do you know her?"
"Very well," said Alan grimly, for only the previous week he had been in the magistrate's court when the truculent Mrs. Haggitt was sent to six months' imprisonment for "unlawful wounding," the victim being an equally violent lady friend.
"She was quite abusive," said Mary. "I came into the room in the middle of it. She said that he ought to have a ringer to deal with—"
"The Ringer," interrupted Alan. "He's a hero in these parts. The rarest of criminal types—a killer!"
"How dreadful!" She shivered. "Has he ever been caught?"
"Once. He escaped after nearly murdering one of the guards at Dartmoor. But he's a killer all right—a cold-blooded, logical man, without the slightest respect for human life—or personal property. Happily Mrs. Haggitt will never be able to call upon him for assistance. He is hiding in Australia. And he'll stay hidden. We have a murder charge against him."
Mrs. K. lumbered in at that moment. Surveying the ungainly figure, the lined yellow face and faded eyes, Alan found it difficult to believe that she had ever been a baby; for this was a hobby of his, imagining his unsavoury "customers" in their cradles.
"He'll see you upstairs, inspector," croaked Mrs. K., jerking her thumb to the door. "You must excuse us being a bit untidy this morning: what with my rheumatic arthripus—"
Alan went up the narrow stairs and a half-open door on the landing would have told him Mr. Meister's sleeping-room even if he had not known already.
"Come in, Wembury."
Meister was sitting up in bed; his purple pyjamas an unfortunate accompaniment to a face that was red and swollen from his overnight excesses.
"Sit down—somewhere. Anything wrong?"
Alan sat down gingerly on the edge of the bed.
"You phoned me last night?" he said.
Mr. Meister held his head between his hands, trying to separate the confused realities from the nightmare thoughts which had crowded in upon him during his uneasy sleep.
"Did I?" blankly. And then: "Yes; I saw little Peter last night. The Nose."
Alan nodded. For five years he had been chief of the British police unit which is maintained in Washington. Intercourse with foreign embassies and the federal service had rubbed away most of the familiar argot, and since the cant of the underworld changes every seven years, "nose" had been Greek to him. But you pick up such idioms very easily, and he knew Peter, the police informer.
"Oh, yes, I know Peter. Well?"
Mr. Meister stretched out his hand for a half-emptied glass that stood on the side table and swallowed the yellow contents before he spoke.
"Ah! that's good! Peter comes here with queer stories. I suppose he wanted easy money. He said—heard anything of Cora Milton?"
Wembury had heard; nevertheless, he shook his head. Cora he knew very well. She was one of the O'Hara crowd who had blackmailed Senator Holz, and she and her confederates had got out through the loophole of a faulty indictment. The American police had broken the gang by arresting O'Hara under the Sullivan Act a month after his release. Whether it was true or not that the detectives slipped a gun in his pocket (as he swore) after his arrest, he was found guilty of carrying concealed weapons and was sent down for longer than he could have wished.
After the Washington scandal the girl came into the purview of Alan Wembury, whose duty it was to notify Scotland Yard that the fascinating lady had sailed for Europe. Of her meeting with The Ringer and her marriage to Henry Arthur Milton, he only learnt at third hand. Alan came back to duty on promotion, a week before The Ringer escaped.
"Peter says that she's left Australia—that's all." Meister blinked rapidly. He had a trick of expressing disapproval that way. "Queer thing when the Australian police had her trailed they couldn't pick up The Ringer. It ought to have been easy. That is what women are for, Wembury—police work would be hell if it wasn't for the woman who's always around to lead you to the man you want."
"Nobody has ever seen her with The Ringer," said Alan in defence of his Australian colleagues. "I should think they had never met. She went out to trace him, but The Ringer was too clever."
"Do you mean that they never got into touch—the man was crazy about her?" asked Mr. Meister sceptically.
"No, I don't mean that. The Melbourne police are pretty sure she spoke to him. She had two phone calls through to her room at the hotel in one night soon after she arrived. That was The Ringer. The police arranged to listen in next night, but she was too clever. Cora began to travel about the country, coming and going without warning. She generally sailed in ahead of the police and get the phone working. She never called anybody—somebody called her. She left Australia six weeks ago on the P. & A. boat Mogador."
Again Mr. Meister blinked.
"Can't you expel her? She's American."
"British by marriage," said Alan dryly, and then, with a laugh: "I shouldn't worry about her. She's probably quarrelled with him. Stamina isn't the long suit of the criminal class and a telephone honeymoon would hardly suit Cora."
The man nervously fingered the edge of the silken coverlet.
"Where she is—he is!" he blurted, and Alan rose.
"The day The Ringer arrives in England I'll wire the hangman to put off his holiday," he smiled.
When he went down to Mr. Meister's office the room was empty. Mary's little table held her notebook and the cover was off the typewriter, and Mrs. K. had managed to give the office the illusion of tidiness. He waited at the door, then, when she did not come, walked down the stairs to find her at the front door talking with a sharp-featured man in gold-rimmed spectacles.
"If you'll come back in an hour, Mr. Haggitt -" the girl was saying when Alan appeared.
"Good morning, Haggitt."
To say that the visitor was surprised to see the tall figure emerge from the gloom of the hallway is to understate his emotion. But only for a second did he falter.
"Bless my life and soul!" he said piously. "Fancy meeting you! I've always said there was too many police in London—can't go anywhere without fallin' over 'em. How the taxpayers stand for it I don't know. I was readin' the other day in a paper that every policeman costs the state four hundred an' fifty pounds sterling per annum ..."
"Glad to see you, Haggitt," Alan interrupted good-humouredly. "Not in trouble, I hope?"
Mr. Haggitt sniffed contemptuously.
"Would I go to Meister if I was, after the way he's treated me?" he demanded. "No, when he wants me he sends for me and I come."
"Wonderful man," said Alan.
He did not mention the fact that a fortnight before Mr. Haggitt would not have been in a position to answer the summons without permission of the officer controlling Maidstone Prison, because Mary was an interested audience, and it is not good police work to betray the misfortunes of their "clients."
Alan went out into Flanders Lane, and at the sight of him men melted back into the squalor from which the bright spring sunshine had lured them. And the word ran down Little Ruth Street that there was a "busy" about, and the unwashed larrikins who were playing pitch and toss grabbed their pennies and scattered. Menacing, hateful eyes watched the debonair figure as he passed, greeted by the forced smiles of women to whom he was as an angel of judgment—and not so much of an angel. All Flanders Lane stole or lied or did worse for a living, and Alan stood for the bleakness of desolation that comes to the home when its bread-stealer is sitting at Wormwood Scrubbs sewing mail-bags for the glory and profit of the Empire.
THE Romans who cut the old road through Kent must have established a fort in the place where Mill Lane meets Church Street; for here the street-way bulges northward and there is a comparatively wide open space which is called magnificently "The Broadway," to distinguish it from all other Broadways in the world. Here, on Saturdays particularly, there are fine stalls where the thrifty market, in the mistaken belief that it is cheaper to buy from a trolley than from a shop. On Sundays there are public meetings. Political orators roar, earnest workers for prohibition bellow, sincere Christians gather in knots under the light of an oil-lamp and listen to good men struggling with other people's perversities, or else sing together in thin, reedy voices.
The Athletic Sports Club is in one of the streets leading out of The Broadway, a fairly new building erected by a local patriot who made war goods at a large profit and would have been a rich man to-day if some interfering person had not stopped the war just as he was furnishing his new house on Blackheath. Since the war was, indeed, over, the factory became a superfluity. The actual workshops became a garage, whilst the handsome office buildings fell into the hands of Elijah Sterner, an expert in club management, and the Athletic Sports Club was inaugurated under the auspices of eminent and innocent bigwigs. It was the idea that this should be a centre of sport; that here should be discovered and encouraged the white hopes of the future. When the garage proprietor became bankrupt, following the course of four-fifths of all garage proprietors, a boxing ring was added, and here on Saturdays good lads fought for microscopic purses to the deafening encouragement of the patrons.
Here sport began and ended, if you except the racing which kept three bookmakers busy in the club proper.
Men and women (it was a mixed club) crowded the flashily decorated club-room on the second floor every afternoon when racing was in progress. By ticker and telephone vital news came and was recorded—pandemonium reigned until the tape machine buzzed and the magic words "They're off!" brought an unearthly silence to the members. Somewhere under God's sky, lithe, lean racehorses were rounding the bend for the home stretch—green turf beneath the flying hooves; a shimmer of silken jackets in the sun, a forest of glasses levelled from the stand....
"London Call won!"
Grimy hands, trembling with excitement, are outstretched to the bookmaker, a growl of passionless blasphemy from the losers ...
"Ladies present—moderate your language, gen'l'men." The white-coated barman said this mechanically.
On the wall over the serried ranks of bottles is a printed card:
As a bird is known by
his note, so is a man
by his conversation.
It is a classy proverb, believed to be in the Bible by many.
Racing was over for the day; the track and ticker portion of the club had drifted away. At a long table in the corner of the room Lee Campbell, Li Sterner's manager and partner, held the bank in a forbidden game of baccarat—played according to rules framed by Elijah and his manager.
Elijah, a stout, broad-shouldered man, slumbered noisily in a Windsor chair, his head lolling on his shoulder, his cigar still between his fingers. The barman, wiping the counter with slow, leisurely strokes, had his mind and eyes on the card-players, when there came a faint tinkle of sound and the barman took down the receiver of a wall telephone.
"Who is it?" Li Sterner was awake and on his feet.
For answer the man handed him the receiver.
"Huh? Come right up!"
He swung round to the door as it opened.
The girl who came in would have been fashionably dressed in Park Lane. Deptford might well hold its breath as it did. From the Paris hat on her shapely golden head to the tips of her Fifth Avenue shoes she was exquisite. She brought into the room the elusive fragrance of a perfume unknown to men and women who could do little more than distinguish the tang of synthetic violets from the poison gas of peppermint.
Her features were regular and small, the chin too full for perfection, her eyes a limpid blue. She owed something to art for the clarity of her complexion and the redness of the full lips.
Li took the little white-gloved hand in his and was politely interested rather than enthusiastic.
"Glad to see you back, Cora. You fellers can get on with your game. I don't want any nosing round here." This to the fascinated group at the table. Then, in a lower voice: "You've got a nerve—in daylight, too!"
She dropped into the chair he had vacated a few seconds before and laughed.
"Nobody knows me here—good day, Mike," she nodded to the grinning barman. "There's a new man in charge of this division, they tell me?" He nodded. "Well, unless you boys talk, nobody is going to get mad at me for coming back—nobody knows. I jumped the boat at Genoa and came along overland. Got to London early this morning after the gol-darnest crossing ever! Say, that Dover trip is worse'n a month in the Bight! And they've got nothing on me, Li—the police, I mean. I'm a respectable British citizeness—got my marriage certificate 'n' everything. The police!" She shrugged her dainty shoulders and fished in the jewel-clasped bag she carried. "I've certain got no mean opinion of the police of this or any country. Back home they're cute—I'll hand it to the Fed'ral people. But here—"
She paused to pass a swift pink pad about her nose and cheeks, surveying herself the while in a tiny mirror that hung outward from the bag. Li Sterner was looking at her with pursed lips.
"Is he all right?" he asked.
"Yuh." She did not pause in her toilet.
"Is he there—in Australia?"
"Sure!" in a tone of hurt surprise, as though the barest suggestion that "he" was not in Australia was in some way a reflection upon herself.
"You know they want him for The Big Thing?"
Li could have said "murder" as easily, but his kind are delicate.
She paused, powder pad in hand.
Her hands dropped to her lap.
"That prison guard—did he die?"
"No, it was another case. Years ago, before you knew him."
Under the powder the face whitened and little lines showed under her eyes.
"The dam' fool!" she said softly. He saw the quick play of her breast and realised that he had given her news. "Why didn't he—what's the good of talking? He's him! God, how that man frightens me—frightens me sick! He's got one idea—kill ... kill ... kill!" She breathed the words.
"He'll not come back!"
"Not unless he's crazy. I'll tell you, Li, as much as any man ought to know. I haven't seen him. If I die that's true. He's been ill, too—pleurisy or sump'n'. He wouldn't let me see him; it nearly drove me mad! I've spoken to him a dozen times—and he's passed me in the street twice as close as I am to you. And I didn't know him, though I remembered seeing the man and saw him looking at me—thought he was trying to get fresh. He told me over the phone the same day that it was he! And I didn't know him! If he'd spoken to me on the street I'd have called a copper. Arthur's the clever boy all right—that's what scares me. No man knows how clever he isn't!"
An angry drone of sound from somewhere beneath the counter. The men at the gaming table got up hurriedly. In a second, cards, shoes and counters and the green baize cloth were bundled together and dropped into a convenient chute that led to the basement. A draughts board appeared by magic and the group split up into units, depositing themselves at the small tables which sprinkled the room.
"A police visit." Under his breath Li passed the information.
The girl rose in alarm.
"Where can I go?"
"Stay here," he urged, speaking rapidly. "Sit with your back to the door—Mike, give the lady a glass of lemonade. Here's a paper.... Why, this is a pleasure, Mr. Wembury—come in and make yourself at home."
Alan Wembury shook the proffered hand and glanced at the clock.
"Licensed hours!" said the jovial Li. "Not a drop passes that counter till five. I often say to the members, 'Boys—keep the law and keep your money.' Not for a million pounds would I serve you with the smell of a bottle till the clock strikes—I get it regulated from Greenwich every morning, too. Have one on the house, Mr. Wembury?"
"No, thanks—I'm on duty."
The detective surveyed the room in one glance, then his eyes came back to the elegant figure by the counter.
"Lady friend of mine—she's not a member." Li dropped his voice to a confidential pitch. "Relation of my wife's."
"Indeed?" Alan was polite but incredulous.
"She's just come down from the North—Cumberland—to bury a brother," said Li rapidly, "Walk over and see the view from this window. Mr. Wembury."
"In mourning, too," said the sympathetic officer.
It was true that Cora was wearing black, but it was a gay black—a black that gave back colour in the sunlight that flooded the room.
"And how are you after your long journey, Miss O'Hara?"
Cora Milton had recognised his voice whilst she was still puzzling her head to associate the name with her past.
"Why, Mr. Wembury! Now, isn't it nice to see you! I was going along to the station house to call on you before I left town—and say, my name's Milton, the same as my poor boy's." She tapped her eyes with her handkerchief. "Isn't it too bad about his falling into Sydney Harbour and getting drowned? As God's my judge, Mr. Wembury, I haven't closed my eyes in sleep for nearly three weeks. When the wire came to me in Scotland I just couldn't believe it."
"I shouldn't believe it now if I were you," said the unsmiling Alan. "And when you say 'Scotland' you mean 'Bombay,' don't you? Your ship was there three weeks ago?"
"Did I say Scotland?" Cora made a rapid recovery. "That just shows how my mind's going dippy. Sure, it was Bombay. That's the town with the white houses, ain't it? And when I got to Plymouth—"
"Dover—you came overland from Genoa. You're staying at the Queensbury Hotel, Russell Square—suite 27."
Her red lips curled in a smile.
"Now, isn't that wonderful! Just like a little old sleuth out of a book! My, I didn't know you were such a crime-hound! Suite 27! And the room faces south—you forgot that."
And then the banter went out of her tone and the blue eyes grew hard.
"Why are you trailing me, anyway, Wembury? You don't think Arthur is with me, do you, you poor simp? He's in Australia—even I couldn't find him. And he'll stay right there till he wants to go somewhere else."
"Has he got another wife?"
The insult was deliberate, intended to provoke, and it was successful. In her flaming fury he read her fear—the real fear that was never absent from the mind of this infatuated girl.
"Another wife! He'll get you for that, Wembury—you poor fool! You think you'll work that cheap stuff on me? Go, get him, little policeman—you're so damned clever! Go look for him, and mind he doesn't get you first!"
He took a step closer.
"He's here!" He pointed an accusing finger. "Here in London—ah!"
For a second she was speechless; her lips moved, but no sound came.
"He's here in London—he's come back and I guess why! You don't know where he is—but he's in town, and that is why you've come back, Cora!"
"You're a liar!" she raved, haggard with fear and anger. "He is not—"
The door leading to the street was opening slowly, and now she saw the man in the doorway, bent and thin, a week's growth of beard on his gaunt face. Only for the fraction of a second she saw him, and then she screamed. The door banged tight—there was a sound of swift footsteps on the stairs.
Alan spun round at the sound of the closing door.
"Who went out, Sterner?"
"Nobody," said the club proprietor.
"Somebody went out—you saw him, Cora."
"I saw nobody," she gasped, "nobody—nobody!"
But Wembury did not hear her. He was flying down the stairs in pursuit of the mysterious intruder.
The Ringer was in London!
Death walked at the elbow of every man who had been concerned in his arrest. It hovered above Lewis Meister like a dark and threatening cloud. And Mary Lenley was the daily inmate of Meister's house. This was the thought uppermost in his mind as he hurried to the station house. Ten minutes after his arrival every police station in the metropolis had this message:
Arrest and detain Henry Arthur Milton, alias "The Ringer." Age 33. An escaped convict wanted for murder, attempted murder and prison breaking. Height 66 inches. Fair complexion, light brown hair, grey eyes. May be disguised. Dangerous. Carries firearms.
By some means a copy of this warning came into the possession of The Ringer. He sat in his modest apartment and read the scrawled copy with a little smile.
"May be disguised! I like that!" he chuckled.
It needed something like this to rouse him to genuine laughter. He read the copy again, nodded and went on stropping the knife—stropping knives had been a hobby of his for the greater part of eleven months.
THE policeman on duty at the corner of Creek Road saw the gaunt man pass and noted him in the half-light between dusk and dark as a suspicious character. Yet there was little that was suspicious about him, except his colour of emaciation. Poverty was no suspicious circumstance in Deptford; the stranger appeared to the constable to be one who had come down in the world. His thin frock-coat, buttoned up to his chin though the night was warm, had a shiny and threadbare look. On his head was a soft felt hat, the brim of which was pulled down over his eyes as though he desired to keep the very afterglow of day from his toed eyes. A glimpse of a stubble-grown chin, the bristles of hair on upper lip, these and a sidelong flash from deep, suspicious eyes were all that Constable Harrap saw before the man crossed the swing-bridge and vanished in the gloom.
Slackening his pace as he came nearer to Meister's house, the gaunt stranger crossed the road the better to survey the place. The high wall would present no obstacle to an athletic man.
All the windows except one were unbarred. He stood for a while taking stock of the place, and then he saw Mary Lenley come out, slam the gate behind her and walk towards High Street.
Lenley's sister. She worked late. That might complicate things a little. He rubbed his unshaven chin impatiently. From the western end of Flanders Lane came the sound of shrill voices of women talking across the street to their neighbours. The Lane would be alive now. It was Thursday night, and Thursday is a day of poverty, when no man has the price of a pint. Should he risk a walk through that bottle-neck of curiosity and suspicion? Would any of those sharp eyes recognise him? Quite a number of them had seen him years before. It was worth the test. If he was identified, that might complicate matters too.
He walked leisurely towards the sound, lifting the soft brim of his hat that his face might be better seen. Women and their shirt-sleeved men were sitting on their doorsteps—children played piercingly on the narrow road between. He kept to the sidewalk, stepping over sprawling legs.
Somebody shouted a crude jest after him and the air shook with bellowing laughter. Still he kept on.
Then, out of a black doorway, slipped a snake-like figure—a lank youth with the face of a used-up man. Ferret-eyed, he had seen the stranger at a distance and now barred his progress.
"Hullo, pal—looking for anybody!"
"No.... Stranger round here."
The pouched and furrowed face was thrust closer.
"Got an idea I've seen you somewhere, son."
Deliberately he struck a match and held it so that he could see the face plainly. The gaunt man was not prepared for this ordeal, but he did not flinch. And then the match burnt out and there was darkness.
"Got an idea ...."
"Don't get too many ideas—Screwsman!"
The thin youth took a step back.
"All right ... mate," he said huskily, and the stranger went on to return in a minute and vanish at the respectable end of Flanders Lane.
"Who's he?" somebody asked.
"Don't know," the youth answered with a catch in his voice. "Somebody ... called me a name they used to call me down on the Moor."
He didn't say that in Dartmoor they called him "Screwsman" because he was a friend of warders and a teller of tales. Were that known, life would have been unendurable for him in Flanders Lane.
The gaunt man, who knew most things about the people of the Lane, went back to the house, but it was inexpedient to stop and examine the place again. A figure was standing in the doorway opposite the gate. The stranger guessed him for a police officer before he came abreast of him. It was, indeed, Sergeant Parker, C.I.D.—he recognised him as he passed.
There was nothing to do to-night. He returned to his humble lodging in Mill Lane and spent the rest of the evening thinking out likely disguises and rejecting them one by one. And he had another thought that came into and out of his mind like a wisp of thistledown blown by an errant wind. The girl Lenley. She would be a complication. Especially if she were in the habit of staying late at night.
Usually Mary Lenley finished work early in the evening, but to-day Lewis Meister had been a busy man. Three of his pensioners arrived in the afternoon and this had interrupted the preparation of a brief on which he was engaged. One of his clients was in bad trouble, and his position was made worse because he had refused to reveal where his "stuff" was planted—he had got away with a considerable quantity of Treasury bills. To secure these it had been necessary to half kill a cashier who was carrying the money between the bank and the factory where he was employed—the money was to liquidate the pay-roll on the following day. Mr. Meister's client had undoubtedly taken the money. Yet when he was arrested none was found in his possession. The police searched his house with no better result. It would mean an extra two or three years' lagging for the man unless he spilt the glad tidings. But he would not squeak; Mr. Meister was sure of that. He would go to prison and his wife would come up to the house every week and Mr. Meister, in his generosity and kindness of heart, would pay her sufficient to live upon until the client came out. If by chance he died in prison, as on occasions his clients had most considerately done, then the pension would stop. The dead pay no dividends.
It was nearly ten o'clock when the old housekeeper let Mary into the street, and she was glad to smell the sweet, warm air of evening. She walked up through the Lane, and careless-speaking men, remembering perhaps the injunctions of the printed card (which appeared in most saloons as well as the Athletic Sports Club), gave up their role of swearing parrot and sang as sweet a note as the common sparrow.
"Lenley's sister—him that's doing seven for knockin' off jool'ry."
The loud-mouthed description came to her from the darkness, and then someone said, "S-sh shut up!" and she smiled to herself. She had heard it before. No harm was meant—the initiated were explaining her to the stranger in their midst. There was almost a hint of pride in the voice, as though credit was reflected on Flanders Lane by a convict's sister walking through. They were loud-mouthed because they could not be otherwise; millions were spent yearly to teach them the date of William the Conqueror's arrival and the past participle of the verb To Be, but nobody had spent a cent in teaching them how to talk.
Her flat in Malpas Mansions was small but sufficient. There were two bedrooms, Johnny's and her own; a sitting-room, which was also drawing- and dining-room, and a tiny kitchen. Johnny's room was as he had left it; the gay cotton cover was never lifted, but otherwise the room was cleaned and dusted, his little ornaments, an academician's miniature of his mother that hung over the head of the bed; his little red bag of tools, his stationery rack on the table (it still held sheets of notepaper headed "Lenley Court, Lenley, Somerset," with the Lenley crest) was on the table near the bed. His hunting crop and the mask of the fox that was killed when he was "blooded" by old Lassam, the huntsman, were above the fire-place.
She always opened the door of his room and looked in as soon as she came into the flat and had lit the gas.
"All right, Johnny?"
She told herself that this was a form of insanity, but she gained a little comfort out of the practice; it made Johnny very near—nearer than the years which separated them. Lighting the gas-stove, she put on the big kettle. There was laundry work to do; a blouse or two, handkerchiefs and collars. Ordinarily she would have looked forward to the occupation, but now she was tired.
Johnny's portrait was on the mantel-shelf of her bedroom. She picked it up when she went in to get the wash. A nice-looking man of thirty. The mouth a little weak, the eyes dour and sceptical. Near by was a smaller frame, and it held a newspaper print of a man walking down the steps of the Old Bailey. He was putting his hat on as he walked, and the newspaper photographer had been near enough to snap the frowning trouble in his face. She liked that picture of Alan Wembury; the lens had caught his mood just after Johnny's sentence. Doubt, worry, regret....
She had amused herself one evening writing down all the emotions which his face revealed.
The wash had been deposited in the scullery, the zinc bath half filled with water, when she heard a knock at the door. It was very late, and she knew few people who were likely to call, even at a more propitious hour. It might be a neighbour who had run short of some domestic supply. These crises arise in lordlier dwellings than Malpas Mansions.
The woman who stood on the landing outside when she opened the door was a stranger to her.
"May I see you for a moment?"
Mary was too surprised to return an immediate answer.
"Haven't you made a mistake?" she asked at last. "My name is Lenley."
"I know your name all right." There was a touch of impatience in her reply which the girl resented.
"Will you please come in?"
Cora Milton brushed past her, and the waft of scent that came to Mary's more sophisticated nostrils was a little overpowering.
"Nice little place you've got here, my dear. But that old gas belongs to the Mayflower period."
She took a chair before Mary could invite her, and turned her blue eyes upon the girl in a critical examination.
"You're certainly a good looker—for a brunette. I'm prejudiced in favour of the blonde type, but that's only natural."
"I'm sure you haven't called to pay compliments," she said good-naturedly, "Miss—"
"Mrs.—Mrs. Milton; married at Saint Paul's Church, Deptford. This is kind of a home-town to me. Next to an ash-pit I don't know any place I'd hate worse to be found dead in. Folks over home talk about Limehouse and Whitechapel—they're garden cities compared with this hell-shoot! You know Wembury, don't you?"
The question was fired so unexpectedly that Mary could only stare at the woman in amazement.
"Inspector Wembury? Yes, I know him."
"Pinched your brother? He must be a real nice little fellow!"
Mary Lenley looked at her visitor in speechless astonishment. The woman lolled back in the one comfortable chair, and she was lighting a cigarette with the cool assurance of an old friend. Cora blew out the match and pitched it short of the fire-place.
"He's your sweetie, they tell me?"
The colour came and went in the girl's face.
"How absurd!" she said indignantly. "My sweetheart, you mean? I know Mr. Wembury—that is all. And really, Mrs. Milton, I haven't the time to discuss either my brother or Mr. Wembury. If you will tell me what is your business I shall be glad."
A cone of smoke went up from the red lips. Cora's eyes were examining the ceiling as though she were more interested in the cracked plaster than in John Lenley or the detective.
"He doesn't matter," she said, "and he's your trouble, anyway. You work for Meister—that's why I'm here. Meister has certainly a mean taste." (Mary gathered that this was a compliment and that the "mean" was employed in an ironic sense.) "Do you see all his visitors, young lady?"
The girl's patience was now exhausted.
"I absolutely refuse to discuss Mr. Meister's business either," she said. "A woman of your intelligence should have better taste than to question an employee—"
"Listen!" Mrs. Milton jerked her lithe body upright. "I guess I'd better tell you something. I know all about the 'taste' of it. But I've got too much at stake to worry about my good manners. I'm looking for a man. You say you haven't got a sweetie, and that may be true. I hoped you had, and then you'd have understood me better. I've got a husband, and likely as not he'll be calling on Meister—yes, ma'am. He'll not start anything right away, because that's not Arthur's system. I want to get him before he gets Meister. And I can only do that if I've got a friend in the office who can keep tag on the callers and describe 'em to me day by day. See what I mean, kid? I've got money—Arthur's a gentleman and wouldn't take a cent from a lady—and I'll pay."
"For what?" asked the astonished Mary.
"Information. I'm not asking you to tell me anything about his other business—I get all my knowledge of crooks and shysters first hand. I want you to see me every night and just tell me who's been calling. If you know them you can leave 'em out; it's the unknowns I want to classify."
Mary nodded, and her unwelcome guest evidently accepted this as a sign of agreement with her suggestion, for she got up.
"That's that," she said, and opened her bag. "I'll give you ten pounds on account—"
"I understand what you want," said Mary quietly, "and of course I shall do nothing so dishonest. You had better employ a detective to watch the house if you're anxious to find your husband."
Cora's brows met.
"Is that so?" she asked softly. "Nothing so dishonest, eh? Say, do you want to see Meister in the morgue? Because that's where he's going if you don't help me. And listen, honey: maybe I'm a little too abrupt with you, and I've got you mad. The man I want to keep track of is a sick-looking fellow with—"
Mary shook her head.
"I can't help you," she said definitely, and Cora Milton was silent.
She walked to the door and stood holding the handle, her eyes examining the pattern of the floorcloth.
"Maybe he'll get Wembury too," she said at last; and long after she had gone Mary Lenley stood by the table repeating the words to herself.
A NORMAL girl is neither wholly saint nor wholly materialist. Bread and butter and the comfort of a bed are indispensable requisites for the Joans of Arc and the Guineveres who have existence in a world largely dominated by its animal needs; and the first thought of Mary Lenley when she awoke in the morning was not of the paper photograph, not even of the dainty lady who had so impertinently obtruded herself into her life, but the most important fact that she had returned home too late on the previous night to buy butter. There was a shopping centre in the Lewisham High Road, and she left the kettle over a low-burning gas-ring and hurried out to replenish her larder.
It was eight o'clock, and few of the shops were open. Weary-looking youths were polishing the window of the big outfitters on the hill, and shapeless women in nondescript attire were emptying the debris of the previous day into the huge zinc barrels that stood at the side of the road waiting for the leisurely dustman. The dairies, however, had been open for hours, and she made her purchase and was turning back (her mind on the heating qualities of a low-turned gas-stove) when she saw two men approaching her. The first she recognised at once as Alan, and, for no reason that she could fathom, she went red. The second man looked what he was—a doctor, a dapper man, grey at the temples, with a ridiculous little beard, who gesticulated violently as he talked. A doctor he must be—no other excuse existed for his glossy hat and his well-fitting frock-coat.
Alan saw her and checked his pace, but she had a pound of butter in one hand and a paper bag full of eggs in the other, and she was suddenly panic-stricken at the thought that, in the hurry of dressing, she had left untied that which ought to have been tied, and with a hurried "Good morning," she passed them.
Even Dr. Lomond, Acting Divisional Surgeon, absorbed as he was in the exposition of his theories, was sufficiently interested to turn and look after her.
"That's a pretty girl," he said. "Who is she?"
"Miss Lenley," said Alan shortly. "You were saying—"
"Lenley? Is that one of the Warwickshire Lenleys?"
The doctor, when he was not argumentative and not pursuing his inquiries into the delightful sphere in which he accidentally found himself, was inclined to be a fervent investigator of family trees.
"I knew a John Lenley of Leamington, and there are some Lenleys who have a place near Banbury."
"I don't think she is any of these," said Alan, a little impatiently. He was inwardly cursing the presence of the doctor, which prevented his turning round and accompanying the girl the rest of her way.
"Then probably she's a Sussex Lenley. There was a Felix Lenley who had a big house at Petworth and a shoot in Suffolk, fifteen—twenty years ago. Dear me! How time flies! Yes, a very pretty girl. One of the loveliest I've seen."
"You were offering me your valuable views on police work, doctor," said Alan, a thought resentfully.
It is a fact characteristic of large-minded men that they are susceptible to the minor irritations of life. Alan Wembury possessed a breadth of vision which marked him out as a man destined to hold a high place in his profession. In justice to him it may be said that it was a long time before Dr. Lomond's "but whys?" began to get on his nerves. Some people stop learning at an early stage, but Dr. Lomond was apparently one of those enthusiasts who never passed a new discovery without turning it over with his stick. Moreover, he was full of information, for he took his duties as police surgeon very seriously.
"You say there is no romance in police work," he said. "Well, I'll give you an incident that stimulated my imagination more than anything I can remember. I was passing the Sports Club the other afternoon," he went on, "when I saw one of the loveliest girls—in a sense as pretty as Miss—what's her name again?—Miss Lenley—coming out of that wretched shebeen! I intended telling you before; I think you ought to know this. Probably I see a whole lot of things that never come under your notice. We doctors are observant people. What is more—I hope you won't mind my saying this—we have a mind better trained to the great essentials than the average policeman."
He stopped to take breath, and Alan seized the opportunity.
"Untrained and deficient in mentality as I am, I know Mrs. Milton was at the Sports Club on Thursday afternoon," he said dryly, "partly because I spoke to her there, being on the premises myself, and partly ... but any further explanation is unnecessary."
The doctor's cherubic face fell for a moment, then suddenly he brightened up.
"Perhaps you know this?" he asked triumphantly. "Just after the woman came from, the door, a man rushed out of the club, looked up and down, and tore away as fast as he could run—"
"That was me," said Alan calmly, and chuckled again at the doctor's discomfiture.
"I was too far away to see you," Lomond admitted, "but I am not so certain that there wasn't romance behind that scene. There is romance in everything, and it makes work about twenty times lighter if you have the gift to sort it out from the dust and dirt of life. I don't blame you for not seeing it. Why, there are police officers in Poona, Agra, Quetta, even, who have got so hardened to the game that they regard it very much as the roadmender looks upon his own work...."
The seeker after romance, to Alan's unspeakable relief, left him at the corner of Shardloes Terrace, for he had to take farewell of his chief, the aged Dr. Young, whom asthma was driving to a health resort in the Pyrenees. The old man sitting at the window looked up with a snort as his assistant came dancing in.
"Well, what do you think of Wembury!" he growled. "Good fellow? I saw your almost friendly good-byes."
"Yes, a good fellow," hesitated Lomond, smoothing his grey hair. "Ye-es. Rather limited, as most of these policemen are, by a lack of imagination. It is no use saying 'Pah!' to me, my dear Young. The absence of this divine gift is fatal to every police force in the world. That is why crime is steadily on the increase—"
"Nothing of the sort," snapped the old doctor. "You've got your ideas out of books, my man! Police work is different. In stories and these fool plays any half-witted policeman could pick the criminal in the first chapter. You know all the characters; you're introduced to 'em, their peculiarities are described, and the more innocent they look the more guilty they are. But police work! You drag a man out of the river—no papers, no means of identity, laundry mark on his linen—and that's all. You don't know who were his friends or his enemies, you've just got to go along from house to house and make inquiries. The laundryman thinks the marks identify Mr. B. You find Mr. B. is alive and probably drunk! It may be Mr. C. Mr. C. left his lodgings a month ago, but it is believed he had a married sister in Rochester—or was it Hertford? The Hertford and Rochester police plod around for a month and find that Mr. C.'s married sister is a cousin who hasn't seen him for years, but she knows that he was married to a woman who ran away from him and is now living in Toronto. Then the Royal Canadian Police take up the hunt, and months later the officer in charge gets a long letter. The wife has been found; she says her husband was a gambler, and had a friend living at Greenwich, and so on and so forth. That's police work—knocking at doors and asking to see Mrs. This, That, and the Other. Maybe there's romance in Flanders Lane, but you'll have to wash the dirt off before you find it!"
"I shall find it," said Dr. Lomond with conviction.
"You'll be wearied to death of it long before I'm back from St. Jean," said Young breathlessly. "If you think that police work is fascinating melodrama, there's a shock coming, my boy! It's a job that smells of stale booze, and the most you can hope for in the way of excitement is an occasional cracked head. I've been in this division twenty-seven years, and I can count the thrills on my two thumbs."
Lomond's smile was both tolerant and superior.
"At any rate, for the next two months I shall be realising my ambition—which is to be associated with the police practice of a great city. Now in India ..."
Old Young listened with growing impatience to the stories of dacoits, of evil men who live in the dark bazars of Poona; of queer native crimes that remain undiscovered and unpunished; of feuds handed down from father to son, from uncle to nephew.
"That's all very well," he interrupted testily, "but Poona is Poona, and London is London, and—there's a pretty girl if ever there was one!"
For the second time that morning Lomond saw the face of Alan Wembury's friend.
"Who is she—Mary something?" he asked.
"She's romance!" said the sardonic old man. "Mary Lenley—she works for Meister—"
"And Meister is—"
"A crook lawyer." Dr. Young delivered the libel in a matter-of-fact tone. "You ought to meet him. Wembury thinks he's the biggest receiver in London."
"'Fence' is the word, isn't it? I've been reading—"
"Never mind what you've been reading," interrupted the impatient surgeon. "This is real life. Yes, he's a fence. Negotiable property is passed to him—bank-notes, realisable jewels—stuff that a little man couldn't handle. It is either taken to him direct or else planted. When he goes to consult his client (suppose the thief is caught) the thief tips him off where the stuff is hidden. From the crook's point of view it is a good arrangement. Meister gets the stuff and pays for the best defence at the Central Criminal Court, and, more than this, keeps the crook's relations whilst he's 'inside'—that is, if the loot is big enough. He's a rich man."
"And that girl works for him?"
Dr. Young grunted.
"Yes. Her brother is 'inside' too. It's a tragedy. The Lenleys were big people in Somersetshire, but the old man let the boy run wild. When George Lenley died he left nothing but a bad name and a few thousand pounds' worth of bad debts. He fell into Slicey Quarry and broke his neck one night when he was full of old port—I know the place well: I'm a Somerset man. The boy and girl hadn't a friend in the world. They came up to London, the girl kept house and Johnny loafed around and naturally got into bad company. He did two burglaries and was caught on the second. It was a rum thing that Wembury took him—Wembury is a farmer's son and was born in the shadow of Lenley Court; he played with the children—Johnny is about his age. There is romance—the nearest you'll get to it."
In Dr. Lomond's eyes was a look of infinite sadness.
"'Tragedy' is the better word after all," he said.
When Mary reached Flanders Lane she was astonished to discover unusual signs of activity. The black door of No. 9 was open, and two workmen were moving in a large square grille of steel. One of the men stood aside with a grin to let her pass.
"That's not a bad job to be done in twelve hours, miss," he said, and she gathered from his pride that he was responsible for this rough steel structure.
"Whatever is it for?" she asked in astonishment.
"I don't know, miss: to put on a window, I think," said the man.
The housekeeper gave her a little further information.
"Meister's been like a lunatic since last night," she grumbled. "What with the telephone going and people coming and going, he kept me up till one o'clock, and now I've got to get a room ready for that low man Haggitt."
Astonished, the girl went up to the big room and found Mr. Meister sitting at his desk, an unlighted stump of a cigar between his teeth. He was unshaven and he had dressed in haste, for the vivid stripes of his pyjamas showed beneath his waistcoat. He greeted her with a sickly smile, but his simulated joviality did not deceive her for a moment. Something had happened to disturb his equanimity: something so tremendous as to throw him off the rails.
"I'm having a few alterations made," he said. "The police advise it ... we're too near to the Lane. It occurred to me that I should have better protection for my papers than I have got."
He glanced apprehensively at the large window overlooking the leads. Evidently the workmen had been there, for the raw brick of the wall was exposed.
"They're a terrible lot." He shook his head plaintively. "An ungrateful lot. Haggitt is the best of them. A blackguard, of course, but he's got grit. Haggitt would tackle a man as big as a house. It's a queer thing about these Cockneys, they are fearless."
"Haggitt is the man with the gold-rimmed spectacles, isn't he?"
"Yes.... It is only right that one should help him to make an honest living. I always say that the first duty of the law is to reform rather than to punish. That is how I see it."
The open window was responsible for the unusual freshness of the atmosphere—by the side of his desk she saw three black bottles, empty. Mr. Meister was afraid of something, terribly afraid. His heavy lips trembled, his plump hands moved restlessly over the table, he gave her the impression of an organ player who was not quite certain of his notes. The iron grille, the new bolts she had seen on the door—what was it? Not the Flanders Laners; he held them in the hollow of his hand. No revolting pensioner would dare. None of those who might at some period or other require his assistance would take the risk.
She found herself catching something of his terror, until, with a start, she shook off the shadow which lay upon the house and addressed herself to the work which was waiting. She was in the middle of a letter to a firm of lawyers when Mr. Meister came out of the trance into which he seemed to have fallen on her arrival.
"Mary." It was not the first time he had called her by her Christian name, and whilst she did not welcome the familiarity, there was a paternal quality in the word, as he spoke it, which partly disarmed her. "Take this letter." He licked his dry lips, his dull eyes fixed upon her as she sought for her pencil, and then, impatiently: "I can't raise my voice: come over here."
She pulled a chair up to the desk and sat down.
He was staring past her, his fingers drumming a maddening tattoo upon the blotting-pad.
She moved the chair closer to the desk: in the room was a deep silence. She could hear the rasp of his breath.
"There's a letter to write to Staples," he said. "And make a note that Haggitt is here: he sleeps downstairs.... I told you that before."
Stealthily the plump and tremulous hand was moving towards hers: she did not see the movement until the hand closed over hers. She tried to pull free and half rose. It was then that he released her with a laugh that was three parts nervousness.
"Not frightened of me, are you, Mary?" he stated more than asked.
"I'd rather you did not do that," she said.
The girl was astounded, shocked a little, and a little amused. She had never regarded Mr. Meister in the light of an admirer. And he did not look like a Lothario at the moment. His baldish head was moist, his chin, a plump hillock of flesh, was grey with stubble. The point of one pyjama collar protruded raffishly under his chin.
"Feel sort of lonely, that's all," he said pathetically. "You're the one person in the world I can trust."
"Mr. Meister," she asked, anxious to change the subject, "why are you putting up the bars to the window—really?"
He shrugged his plump shoulders.
"Why am I living in this hell hole?" he asked. "If you build a house in a wolf country, do you leave your door open at nights? I ought to have done this before."
"You're not ... worried about ... anybody ... particularly?"
Before he could answer the door opened and Haggitt strolled into the room. Mary rather liked him on second scrutiny. He was a lathy man with the sharp, inquisitive features of the Cockney crook. The gold-rimmed spectacles lent a certain benignity to his pointed features. About his waist was a green baize apron, in his hand a whisk broom.
"Look here, Meister -" he began, saw the girl and smirked as respectfully as he knew how.
"Knock when you come into my room," Meister's face was as black as thunder. "And I've got a handle to my name."
"Show me where it is and I'll turn it," said Sam Haggitt calmly. "Music always was a speciality of mine. What I want to tell you is this: you can speak a good word to the Queen of Sheba and make her wise to the fact that I'm no maid-of-all-work. A bit of sweepin' I don't mind, but I take no orders from any woman, livin' or dead or like your perishin' housekeeper, neither one thing or the other—"
"Go out now," snapped Meister. "I'll talk to you later. And, Haggitt, I want to see Peter when he comes."
"Peter?" Mr. Haggitt's astonishment took visible shape. "Not the Nose?" he asked incredulously.
The lawyer's eyes narrowed: he was suddenly shaken with suppressed fury.
"Get this right, Haggitt," he said harshly. "I brought you in here because I wanted to give you a chance to go straight—do you understand that? If you imagine that I've asked you to stay in my house for the pleasure I get out of discussing my business, it is time you woke up! I'll tell you this much, that Peter does odd jobs for me, and that's enough for you."
"Peter the Nose!" said the incredulous Mr. Haggitt. "Well, bless my soul! I shouldn't have thought you'd have had him here except to poison him, the dirty little rat!"
Mr. Meister's fat hand waved him out of the room. For a second Haggitt hesitated, as though he were anxious to pursue the subject of the despised Peter in defiance of his master's wishes. But apparently he thought better of it, and, whistling softly, he made his leisurely way from the room.
"Am I allowed to ask who is Peter?" said Mary with a smile.
For a moment she thought that he was about to visit his unspoken wrath upon her, but he swallowed his anger with an effort.
"I have to know and see all kinds of trash," he said, with surprising mildness. "Peter is sometimes useful to me in my profession. It is very essential that I should be on the inside of things, you understand, Mary? I must know the strength of my clients' cases, and they lie most—abominably!"
"What is a 'nose'?" she asked curiously.
Again Mr. Meister shrugged his shoulders. "It is the thieves' name for a police informer. Whether Peter is that, I don't know. Very likely he is. You must have seen him here before; a little man with sandy hair."
She nodded, remembering the pale, pathetic figure who interviewed Mr. Meister at long intervals. She had thought he was one of the lawyer's innumerable clients.
The arrival of the workmen interrupted both the conversation and all possibility of dictation, if Mr. Meister had seriously intended dictating, which was doubtful. The grille, which was carried in with some labour, was to be fixed on the inside of the window and hinged to stout jambs which were to be fitted in the wall so that it could be opened from the inside like a door. The grille folded back against the wall during the daytime, and closed across the window, and at night was to be fastened by two patent locks, affording ample protection against intrusion through the window.
One of the workmen took Mary's typewriter into the tiny room which was used as a dressing-room, and Mr. Meister disappeared upstairs, presumably to dress. The room in which she worked was in the front of the house, and had the one window which commanded a view of the opposite sidewalk. Presently she saw two men coming from the direction of Creek Bridge. The first wore an overcoat which had evidently been made for somebody much larger than he, and she recognised the pallid, irregular features of Peter the spy, and stopped her work to observe him more closely. As he shuffled along, he was met by a typical Laner, a round-shouldered man, his hands thrust in his pockets, his eyes concealed by the big peak of his cap. She saw the Laner turn and snap something at the little man, who passed on unconcerned. Evidently Peter and his peculiar functions were known to Flanders Lane, and the insult which had been flung at him was one to which he was accustomed, for he showed no perturbation or resentment.
Peter passed out of her view as he crossed the road to the house. And then she was conscious that, following him at a respectful distance, was a shabbily dressed stranger. The man stopped opposite the house, then turned and walked slowly back the way he had come. She had a fleeting glimpse of the emaciated face, and then he too passed out of sight.
Mary shivered. There was something about Flanders Lane and its habitues which filled her with a vague feeling of terror. "Wolves," Mr. Meister had called them. It was a description which seemed to fit. Merciless, remorseless figures of fear, who seldom showed in the day, she had seen these strange men slinking to the mouth of their bolt-holes as she passed at night, almost imagined the glare of their animal eyes. Once she found herself speculating upon the kind of life they lived, the environment in which they existed: it was not a speculation to be followed; she knew too much about them.
She went on with her work, and presently Mr. Meister's bell rang. She returned to the big room to find the men had gone, leaving their work unfinished, and that Mr. Meister had in the interval made himself presentable and was, if anything, a little more nervous and irritable than he had been when she left him.
"Gone to their dinner," he almost howled. "I offered them double pay to go on working! This thing has got to be fixed by to-night, if I have every workman in London on the job! The swine! The slugs!"
He paced up and down the room, gesticulating wildly, like a man half demented. Suddenly he spun round on her.
"You think I'm scared, eh, Mary? You think I'm frightened.... They come here with lies just to catch me. They think if they keep me on the jump I'll pay better. But they're wrong—as wrong as hell! I've battled with them all my life. They've tried to show me points and put strokes on me, but I've beaten 'em! They're brainless; they haven't the intelligence of an animal—just the low cunning of wolves and the scent of wolves. They think they smell good meat in me, but I'll show them—I'll show them!"
He wiped the froth from his lips, blinked at her quickly, and then, in a calmer tone:
"Flanders Lane will tell you anything for the sake of making a sensation! They'll believe anything in Flanders Lane if it's fantastic enough."
He was out of breath, trembling in every limb, and was staring at her, an odd mixture of panic and struggling self-assurance. What made her choose that moment to tell him of the interview she had had with Mrs. Milton, she could not for the life of her understand.
"Mr. Meister," she asked suddenly, "do you know a Mrs. Milton?"
If she had struck him in the face he could not have cringed more horribly. He seemed to shrink and dwindle before her eyes. From a man he became something obscenely horrible, mouthing at her, uttering little grunts and squeaks of distress, until, in her alarm, she was making for the door to call Haggitt.
"Wait, wait!" he whispered huskily. "Wait ... Mrs. Milton. ... Who told you? Eh, who told you ...? Sit down."
He pointed a trembling finger at the chair.
"Sit down, will you, when I tell you! Now ... why did you ask? Somebody's put you up to this. You know Wembury, don't you?"
"I know Mr. Wembury, but he has nothing whatever to do with Mrs. Milton," she said. "I'm sorry if I have annoyed you, but she came to my flat last night."
"Mrs. Milton ... a pretty woman, brassy-haired, eh? Lip stick and powder?"
He was ghastly pale but calm, and when she nodded to the unflattering description:
"Ah! What did she want?"
Briefly Mary told him of the interview, suppressing only the covert threat which the woman had uttered against her employer.
"Is that all she said?"
"Yes," she said at last.
"Nothing about me?"
Mary was silent for a moment.
"She suggested that if I told her the names of all the people who came here, I might—I might save your life."
His face twitched.
"She said that? Then she thinks so, too—my God! She thinks so, too! Tell her. She's a wise girl. I'd like to do something for Cora. She doesn't want to get him into any worse trouble, and she's right. You'll do it, Mary, from now on. Find out where she lives. Send every day a list of the people you've seen. You understand? It is part of your work."
She was open-mouthed with astonishment.
"Do you want her to know?" she said incredulously.
"Yes. She's right. Cora was always a clever one, and she knows him better than I."
"Knows whom, Mr. Meister?"
But he did not answer her question.
"It's a lie. She's heard it too and believes it. He's as artful as a burnt cat, that man. Probably he's tired of her, wanted to get her out of the country, and passed that rumour round."
And then it flashed upon the girl what all this fear was about.
"The Ringer!" she asked breathlessly.
Mr. Meister gaped at her.
"Heard about him, have you?" he said dully. "I suppose you have ... you couldn't come in and out of Flanders Lane without hearing of the—The Ringer. I wonder somebody doesn't write a story about him."
He was trying hard to be composed and flippant, but the strain was visible.
"Why shouldn't they! He's a picturesque criminal, isn't he? The only man in the world who can disguise himself so that the proverbial mother wouldn't know him—just like a man out of a book! God! I helped that fellow! I've been his best friend—I have, I swear I have!"
Mary had the impression that he was trying as much to convince himself as to convince her.
"But surely the police -" she said.
"The police!" Meister snapped his fingers. "Brains like Wembury's against brains like his! Why, the police are beaten from the start!"
Again he paced the room in silence, then, without a word, went out, slamming the door behind him, and the girl tried for the next half-hour to concentrate her thoughts on her notebook and the work which lay at her hand. She did not see Meister for the rest of the day. She guessed, from the sounds overhead, that he was in his room.
Haggitt brought her lunch, and it seemed that this man, who had spent a considerable portion of his life in prison, and was at that moment a convict on licence, had taken kindly to his new and more honourable profession.
"How do you get on with Meister!"
He had an easy, friendly way with him that was irresistible. Mr. Haggitt possessed a personality, and he was so blissfully unconscious of his impertinence that Mary found it difficult to be anything but amused, even when he drew up a chair and sat down to watch her eat, commenting upon the superiority of her portion and the difficulty he had to make the "Queen of Sheba" set aside her choicest cut.
"That woman couldn't be cheerful at her uncle's funeral," he said in despair, "not even if he'd left her all his money and a new Ford. How long has she been here, miss?"
"About six months, I believe. She replaced another old woman who left just after I came."
"Never seen anything like her. And yet she's not the jay you'd think she was. She pretends to be deaf, but she's as sharp as mustard."
"How do you like your new work, Mr. Haggitt?"
"It's passable, miss, passable," said Haggitt, taking off his spectacles and polishing them with his green baize apron. "It's not as monotonous as bird—"
"'Bird'?" She frowned.
"'Bird' is prison, miss," said the unabashed Haggitt, in no sense ashamed of his disreputable past. "I've known many a 'bird' that's more comfortable. Ever been to Canada, miss?"
"No," said the girl in surprise.
Haggitt replaced his spectacles carefully.
"They tell me it's a pretty good country. I thought of going out and starting a farm or somethin'. I used to do a bit of potato diggin' when I was down in Dartmoor."
"I believe it is a wonderful life," smiled Mary, "but it costs a lot of money to buy a farm, surely?"
"H'm!" said Mr. Haggitt, whose frankness stopped short at discussing finance.
He had dreamt of Canadian prairies, of waving cornfields, of a snug homestead, where he could sit in the shade of the stoep on a summer day and watch somebody else cutting the golden sheaves. In Mr. Haggitt's dreams the vulgarity of doing a little cutting himself never intruded. He was an optimist, and optimism is largely founded on the faith that other people will do the work.
When she left that night she thought she saw the gaunt-looking man watching the house from a doorway on the opposite side of the road. She hurried through Flanders Lane with an uneasy feeling that she might conceivably be the object of the watcher's observation.
It was raining and there was a rumble of thunder in the distance as she hurried into her flat and closed the door behind her with a sense of thankfulness that at last for another day she had shaken herself free of her ugly environment.
She went into Johnny's room as usual, came out and locked the door, and then, going into the tiny hallway to put out the empty milk bottle, for the first time saw the letter. It had evidently been pushed under the door and had escaped her notice when she had come in. She picked it up wonderingly, and turned it over in her hand. It was addressed to "Miss Lenley" in big, sprawling letters, evidently the hand of a woman who was not too well educated.
"Miss Lenley (the letter began),
I hope you aren't mad at me for what I said last night. I didn't give you my address, so I have put it here. I hope you will keep it to yourself, because I am keeping very quiet, and nobody knows where I am living. Won't you think about what I asked you? I am surely serious. If you change your mind will you write to 21, Graydon Hall Mansions, Battersea?
The letter was signed "Cora Milton." Then it was that Mary remembered the lawyer's instructions, and taking pen and paper, she sat down to describe the suspicious-looking people whom she had seen in the vicinity of the house that day, and for some extraordinary reason she put "Mrs. K." first!
THE RINGER was back. All London knew it. Flanders Lane whispered the news under its breath; carried the tidings to sick men hiding in darkened and foul attics; to men who were not sick but must needs be hidden. And Flanders Lane believed it. The Ringer was back. "God help Meister," said somebody.
They discussed it in low tones, squatting on their steps despite the drizzle.
"He'll use a knife; he always uses a knife. Never known him to use a gun in my life," said one who had the proud distinction of having worked in a minor capacity with the redoubtable criminal.
"What's Haggitt doing down there?" asked a voice in the darkness.
There was a little ripple of laughter.
"Minding," was the laconic reply. "Old Meister's scared. Haggitt's mustard in a rough house. You wouldn't think so ... used to be a boxer when he was a kid, and when they pinched him down at Purley for knocking off silver from the Conservative Club it took four busies and a copper to get him to the station."
The talk drifted irresponsibly to the prowess of Haggitt and the curious fact that the wiry ones were better mixers than the big 'uns. No breath of the talk could reach Mr. Meister across that high wall and the barred door. His slatternly housekeeper moved about the kitchen in her slippers, mumbling to herself. Haggitt sat in his room, smoking a rank pipe and meditating upon a Canadian El Dorado. The gaunt man, watching the house, had his own thoughts interrupted rudely by the soft-footed arrival of a policeman.
"Hullo, young feller, what are you doing here?"
The uniformed man looked suspiciously at the other.
"Just loafing around."
"You've been loafing around here for a few hours: I've been watching you," said Constable Harrap, a notable character in these parts. "What's your lay?"
"I've got no lay." The gaunt man turned to go.
"Here!" An authoritative voice summoned him back. "What are you doing watching this house?"
"Me?" A harsh little laugh. "Oh, I'm a detective."
"A what!" Constable Harrap, who was hardened to bizarre excuses, reached out his hand. "Let me see your card, officer," he said sarcastically.
"Haven't got it with me."
"Private, eh? Now, young man, take a word of advice—hop it!"
Without a word the gaunt man turned and went swiftly down the street and was lost in the shadows. Constable Harrap spent the rest of his duty debating whether or not he should have held the man on suspicion.
The gaunt stranger went over the bridge into Trafalgar Road—Greenwich is loyal to the memory of its great admiral—and turning round by the church where Wolfe is buried, though few know it (it is a long way from the heights of Quebec to the church where the cars stop), crossing the road, went up a little street, and, stopping before the last house, opened the door and went in.
Ten minutes later he came out again, so completely changed in appearance that even Harrap's sharp eyes did not recognise him, though the man passed him at the foot of the bridge. This time the stranger avoided the front of the house. Turning down on the alley, which was flanked on one side by the wall of Mr. Meister's garden and on the other by a row of small houses, he came to Little Holland Street, which runs parallel with Flanders Lane. Here Meister's wall turned abruptly. Half-way up was a high gate, the top bristling with spikes. In olden days this was the entrance to the stables, long since converted into a potting shed. Like most stable entrances, it had a smaller door cut into one of the gates. The stranger looked up and down the dark road.
In point of poverty Little Holland Street had been one grade lower than Flanders Lane until some enterprising property speculator had bought up the cottages and converted them into lock-up garages for the use of tradesmen in the neighbourhood.
All was still and quiet. A light showed at a window half-way up the street; the quarters of some chauffeur who had come home early. Taking a key from his pocket, the stranger tried the door; the lock turned smoothly, and in another second he was in Meister's garden and had closed the door behind him.
He went forward cautiously, feeling for the obstruction of wire or thread, but evidently the lawyer had not yet taken the precaution of wiring his grounds, and in a minute the man stood in view of the house. Mr. Meister was in: the black shadows of the newly-fixed bars showed through the chintz curtains. He heard a raucous voice near at hand singing a popular song in the most doleful manner. Haggitt, he guessed, and presently caught a glimpse of Mr. Meister's new attendant through the barred windows of the scullery.
Keeping close to the shadow of the rhododendrons, he picked his way across the lawn and came at last to the spot beneath the window of the big room. Here a square brick structure protruded from the main building. The top was flat, and formed the leads outside the study window. For the moment he had no desire to make a nearer inspection of Meister.
Keeping close to the wall, he reached a door, and, producing a flash-lamp, he examined the lock carefully. It was the kind of door that had been frequently used. It only needed a short examination to tell him that. He tried key after key unsuccessfully in the patent lock, and at last gave up the attempt.
Crouching, he leapt up and caught the edge of the guttering which surrounded the flat roof, expecting it to give way under his weight. But the guttering held, and with a strength remarkable in so frail a man, he drew himself on to the flat roof and sat down to recover his breath.
From where he sat he could hear the murmur of voices behind the glass, and presently he rose and walked noiselessly till he came to the window. It was fastened, automatically he guessed, and the bars were visible now. The curtain had been drawn over them....
"My dear, to me you're the one bright spot in life ... you're the most wonderful..."
The voice dwindled away into a rumble of sound. It was Meister. He was drunk, or near drunk, the man guessed, and grinned.
Meister had overpowered his terror of The Ringer with strong drink, and could allow his tender fancy wider play, unhampered by the grim spectre which stood at his side.
The eavesdropper listened, expecting to hear the girl's voice, though he was surprised that she should have returned: he had seen her leave. The girl was certainly going to be a complication, he thought. But there was no other voice....
"You're wonderful... you're the loveliest... listen, angel, I'm talking to you. Old Meister, the clever one ... too clever for 'em, dearie. Old Meister ...!"
He heard the click of glass against glass. Meister was alone, and was talking to himself! There was nobody else in the room. He remembered that this was peculiar to the lawyer: a habit which he had never shaken off.
Alone! The stranger showed his teeth in a mirthless grin, and peered more closely at the window fastening. There were no burglar alarms, no wires. But the grille was a sufficient protection. It might be opened after hours, perhaps days, of reconnaissance, and then only if the old fool committed the gross error of leaving his room empty. He had Haggitt sleeping in the house, and it was likely, if he had the brain of a rabbit, that Haggitt would occupy this room after Meister had done with it.
The lawyer was singing quietly to himself, and the listener heard the thud of a bottle falling to the floor, and a burst of stupid laughter.
"... seven years for Johnny. A lot can happen in seven years, my boy ..."
And then his voice grew unintelligible. After listening for another quarter of an hour the man was moving stealthily away, when, without warning, the curtains of the room were wrenched back and he saw the face of Meister staring out into the darkness. As quick as a flash the intruder flung himself face downwards on the roof. Looking out from the lighted room, it would be difficult in any circumstances to detect him, and Meister was under the additional handicap of liquor.
For full five minutes the lawyer stood in silence, gripping the bars and glaring out into the night, and then, as abruptly as he had come, he went, and the curtains were drawn. A few minutes later the lights went out in his room.
The stranger dropped into the garden and hurried into Little Holland Street. Meister was going to be easier than he had thought.
* * *
A free-for-all fight in Mill Lane in the early hours of the morning brought Alan Wembury from his bed, and incidentally gave Dr. Lomond his first peek of romance.
"And it is certainly worse than Young described," he said disgustedly, as he walked back in the cool of the morning with Alan to the station-house. "What cattle these people are! Whilst I was bandaging a man he was trying to bite me!"
Alan smiled to himself, having very few illusions about the romance of police work.
They went into the station-house together, and the night orderly produced two large jugs of coffee, which were very welcome and helped to wash away the taste of the den in which they had spent two hours.
"Anything in, sergeant?"
The desk sergeant closed his eyes and shook his head with gentle melancholy, for he of all men regarded police work as a business which flourished or declined according to the number of arrests a night produced.
"Things are getting so quiet in Deptford that there won't be any policemen here soon," he said regretfully. "I have known the time when you couldn't take the charges fast enough."
He was an elderly man with a white moustache and a figure inclined to corpulence.
"Surely you're glad of that, sergeant?" asked the doctor, sipping his coffee.
"Why should I be, doctor?" demanded the official. "Crime is normal, the condition of all society—I read that bit in a book and it sounds true to me. If crime drops below normal, there's something wrong."
The telephone bell rang and he pulled the instrument towards him with a bored air, and his "Hallo!" had a touch of menace.
"Who is it?"
"Haggitt!" said Alan quickly. "What's the matter with him?" He glanced up at the clock: it was half-past five.
"Whom do you want to talk to?" demanded the sergeant truculently. "And what do you mean by ringing up the police station at this hour of the morning? I thought you were in prison."
He handed the instrument to the patient Wembury.
"What is the matter, Haggitt?"
"He's shouting blue murder in his room and I can't get in," said Haggitt's voice urgently.
"I don't want to get into any trouble over this old law-hound, so I thought I'd ring you up."
"Is anybody there with him? Can you hear other voices?" asked Alan quickly.
"You couldn't hear them if they were there," was the reply. "He's shouting 'murder' and 'fire' and—"
"I'll be round immediately." Alan dropped the instrument and turned to the doctor. "Will you come along?" he asked. "It's Meister, a gentleman of whom you may have heard."
"The name is familiar. I think Dr. Young told me something about him."
But Alan was half-way out of the station-house by now, and Dr. Lomond had to run to overtake him.
In a quarter of an hour Wembury was pressing the bell in the black door. It was opened immediately by Haggitt, dressed in shirt and trousers, his teeth chattering, a look of genuine concern on his face.
"I haven't heard a sound for ten minutes," he said. "He gave me a fright, I can tell you!"
"Is the housekeeper up?" asked Alan as he ran up the stairs.
"She?" said Haggitt contemptuously. "Nothing short of a dynamite charge would wake her!"
The lawyer's bedroom was locked, and Wembury shook the handle.
"Open the door!"
There was no answer. The detective threw his weight against the door, but it did not yield.
"Bolted," said Haggitt. "He had new ones fixed yesterday."
"Have you an axe?" asked Alan.
"You needn't worry about an axe. I got an idea I can get into the room through the window. The room next door is empty, and I think I could reach from one sill to another."
Alan looked at the man keenly.
"Have you been taking a professional survey?" he asked.
"In a sense," said Haggitt, by no means offended. "If you can't keep your hand in, keep your eye in, that's my motto."
They passed into the next room, and Haggitt, throwing up the window, leaned out and made an examination.
"I can do it," he said, and before they realised what had happened he had slipped out, and, gripping the sill with one hand, had swung himself to the next. Alan watched him with some anxiety, although the fall was not a very long one even if he had missed his hold.
But Haggitt was too sure-handed for that to happen. He pulled himself up to the sill level, pushed up the window sash, and in another instant was looking through into Meister's room. Returning to the landing, they heard the bolts shot back.
"He's alive all right," said Haggitt, standing in the doorway.
Mr. Meister lay on his tumbled bed, breathing stertorously, his face purple, his hands clutching at the silken coverlet.
"What kind of romance is this?" asked Alan, after silently surveying the unwholesome sight.
"Drink, I think," said Dr. Lomond, and loosened the pyjama collar.
A commonplace, sordid ending to what promised to be high tragedy, thought Alan.
And at that moment something gripped his heart, as though an instinctive voice whispered tremendously that in this end to his first scare was the beginning of the drama which would involve not only Lewis Meister, but the girl who was to him something more than the little carriage child who passed and who swung on the gate of his father's cottage, something more than the sister of the man he had arrested, something more than he dared confess to himself.
ONCE or twice during the hour of strenuous work which followed, he heard Sam Haggitt's stealthy feet on the stairs, and once caught the glitter of his glasses as he disappeared in a hurry. When he came down it was nearly seven o'clock. Sam, very businesslike in his green baize apron, with a pail of water and a wash-leather in his hand, was industriously cleaning the windows, somewhat hampered by the bars.
"How is he, sir?" he asked.
Alan did not reply. He walked over to the table, picked up one of the two empty bottles, shook the third, which was half empty, and noted the soiled glass which stood on a little table by the side of the arm-chair.
"Dr. Lomond says there is very little the matter with him except this." He examined the bottle critically. "Now, Haggitt, I'd like to ask you a question or two. Why did you telephone to me?"
"I told you," said Sam doggedly. "He was raising Cain. I didn't know it was drink. Drink never affects me that way: it makes me sort of happy and silly. I proposed to my wife when I was drunk. I'd never have got married if I'd been a teetotaller. These Americans are right about booze—it oughtn't to be allowed."
"You called me because you didn't want to be implicated, eh? That's the worst of having a bad record," smiled Wembury, intent upon his inspection of the apartment.
It was the first opportunity he had had of looking around at his leisure.
"The difference between me and Meister is that I've been found out and he hasn't," said Sam grimly; "and as to having a bad character—"
Alan was at the mysterious door, the bolted door that was never opened and led to nowhere. He lifted the steel bars which covered the panel, found a small knob and pulled open the tiny door. It was operated by a spring, and when he released hold of the knob it went back to its place with a crash.
"Where does this door lead?"
Sam Haggitt shook his head. It was a question that had puzzled him, and he had promised himself the pleasure of an inspection the first time he was left alone in the house.
"I don't know: I've never seen it open. Maybe it's where he keeps his money. That fellow must be worth millions, Wembury."
Alan pulled up the bolts and tried the door again. It was locked, and he looked round.
"Is there a key to this?"
Sam hesitated. He had the thief's natural desire to appear in the light of a fool.
"Yes, there is a key," he said at last, his anxiety for information overcoming his inclination towards a reputation for innocence. "It's hanging up over the mantelpiece. I happen to know because—"
"Because you've tried it," said Alan, and Sam protested so violently that he guessed that whatever plan he may have formed had not yet been put into execution.
Wembury took down the key and examined it: there was no sign of dust. There were, on the other hand, many proofs of usage. Snapping back the lock, he pulled open the door and found himself on a bare landing. He looked down into a square hall which seemed to have been erected for no other purpose than to afford the builder an excuse for erecting the staircase, which terminated in a door leading, as he guessed, to the garden. Returning, he examined the trap-door of the panel again.
"Humph! What is this? Do you hold a lodge meeting here or something?"
"Good Templars maybe," said Haggitt, with irony. "I can imagine old Meister bein' anything, if there was money in it."
"Is it the key to the bottom entrance?"
"Didn't know there was a bottom entrance," said Sam.
Alan relocked the mystery door, thrust home the bolts and hung up the key, whistling softly.
"That's a very convenient way into this room," he said. "Did you ever use it, Haggitt?"
"Me, sir?" asked Haggitt innocently. "Why should I use it? As a matter of fact, Meister told me the other day that it was built by the gentleman who owned this house years and years ago, so that he could see his lady friends without anybody being wiser. Maybe he was married," concluded Haggitt on reflection.
Alan walked to the door leading to the room above and listened: he thought he heard Meister talking.
"Why is he drinking so heavily, Haggitt?"
Haggitt shrugged his shoulders.
"How do I know, Mr. Wembury?"
Yet there was a note of uneasiness in his voice, and he watched the detective roaming about the apartment a little anxiously. Alan pulled at the new window grille.
"When were these put up?"
"Yesterday," he said, and over his shoulder Wembury asked an embarrassing question.
"What is he afraid of?"
Mr. Haggitt made an impatient noise.
"What's the use of asking me? I've only been here two days. I don't even know what he likes for breakfast. I've never seen him eat breakfast, anyway."
"What is the general idea of your being here? Are you to be reformed? He's never had a man sleeping in the house before."
"And he won't have much longer," said Mr. Haggitt with emphasis. "He's getting on my nerves. Booze, booze, all the day and all the night! Habits I don't mind, it's customs that get my goat."
He caught Alan's eyes for a moment, coughed and looked elsewhere.
"Whom is he afraid of?" asked Wembury curtly. "You know, I think—The Ringer!"
Haggitt went a shade paler.
"The Ringer?" he stammered. "He's in Australia."
"Did you know him?" asked Wembury.
Sam Haggitt swallowed something.
"I've seen him at a distance. He did swell stuff, cheques and letters of credit. He got his fourteen years for that. Mr. Wembury ... how long did he serve before he escaped? A year, wasn't it!"
"A year." The long face of Sam Haggitt had grown even longer; there were beads of perspiration on his forehead. He wiped them off with his shirt-sleeve. "The Ringer, eh?" And then: "He wouldn't come back here, would he?"
Both men had the same thought. The Ringer would not return except to get the man who had shopped him. Haggitt said as much.
"Shopped him?" said Wembury calmly. "Who told you Meister shopped him?"
Mr. Haggitt had lost something of his air of assurance.
"Everybody knows that," he said impatiently. "I wonder if that is why Meister has brought me in to sleep, and put up bars and locks and everything...." He pulled at his lip, his gloomy eyes surveying the police officer. "If that is the idea," he said slowly, "I know somebody who isn't going to sleep here much longer!"
Dr. Lomond came in at that moment, a quizzical smile on his face.
"He is quite all right," he said. "Too much -" he lifted an imaginary glass. "So this is Meister! What is his profession?"
"Lawyer," said Wembury dryly.
"A lawyer! Good lord, so he is! I'd forgotten."
Alan turned his head towards where Mr. Haggitt was very busy with his wash-leather and duster, and lowered his voice.
"Not to know Meister is almost proof of a man's honesty," he said, half laughing, half serious. "There isn't a crook in London who doesn't know him. Nor a big crook convicted in the last twenty years who hasn't been defended by him. Are you listening very hard, Haggitt?" he demanded.
"Me, sir? Why, no, sir!" Haggitt was virtuous indignation personified.
There was a knock at the lower door and he went out, to return wrapped in an air of mystery.
"Peter the Nose, sir," he said. "Do you want to see him, sir? Your information bureau, if I might use the expression."
"Don't be a fool," said Wembury good-naturedly. "Tell Mr. Meister that I'll come back and see him later on. What time does Miss Lenley come?"
"About nine," said Haggitt. "Shall I tell her you called?" he added blandly.
"That isn't necessary," was the sharp reply.
"I shouldn't have thought," reflected Haggitt, "that you'd have been on speaking terms with her, after you getting her brother sent down for seven."
"There's a whole lot you don't think, Haggitt," said Wembury unpleasantly.
Mary was a little later than usual that morning. She had spent some time finishing off her letter to Johnny, and it was nearly a quarter past nine when she dropped the stout envelope addressed "c/o The Governor, His Majesty's Convict Prison, Princetown" into the mail-box.
And it was by accident that she saw Wembury, and then only for a second, for she was pressed for time and was gone before he could even hint at what had happened that morning. The only thing she noticed that was different when she came to the house in Flanders Lane was that Mr. Haggitt's air and manner had taken on a new importance. It was he who opened the door to her and conducted her up to the study with almost a flourish.
"Mr. Wembury has been here?" she said. "I met him in Lewisham Road and he told me. Why did he come, Mr. Haggitt?"
"The governor was ill," explained Haggitt.
From his tone he seemed to take credit, if not for the illness, at least for the recovery and the stage management of the spectacular event.
"Ill?" she said, startled. "But what has Mr. Wembury to do with that?"
"He brought the doctor along," said Sam. "Personally, though I'm not struck on busies, I can't say that I've any objection to Wembury: he seems a very decent sort of feller."
"'Busies'? Oh, detectives!" She sighed.
"I can't say that I like them very much! But Mr. Wembury is rather different, isn't he?"
Sam laughed bitterly.
"I never noticed any difference. They all look alike to me. The best is the worst, and some are worse than others. As I said to Wembury"—he seated himself in Mr. Meister's sacred chair, between his teeth the half-cigar left over from the previous night—he had discovered this in the waste-paper basket—"I said to Wembury: 'I'm surprised that you've got the nerve to talk to Miss Lenley,' I said. 'The way you pinched her brother—'"
Her glance silenced him.
"I wish you wouldn't discuss me with Mr. Wembury or anybody else," she said, a little frigidly for her. And then she laughed. As she took up her hat and coat to carry them into her little dressing-room: "What did Mr. Wembury say to that?"
"He was crushed," said Haggitt quietly. "The man couldn't look me in the face ... he sort of slunk out of the room."
By this time Mary was really laughing.
QUEER people came to Mr. Meister's office dwelling, but none who enjoyed so universal an unpopularity as Peter Litt. A "nose" he was indeed. Most interested folks suspected this, upbraiding him cruelly whenever they met. The police knew it for certain, regarding him as a news-bringer of extraordinary value. In the years that he had worked for policemen, he had acquired almost an official position. Lawbreakers who suspected men of betraying them—"shopping" was the technical term—would have killed the ordinary informer. But whilst Peter was credited rightly with being in very close touch with the authorities, he was also believed, though this was an error, to exercise certain influences which might react to a prisoner's advantage. It was said that on Peter's word detectives would stand up in the box and speak gently and even favourably of a man waiting sentence; and that in consequence of these eleventh-hour encomia, a judge would sometimes knock as much as three years off a man's sentence. Undoubtedly it suited the police from time to time to say a good word for a criminal, and indeed it was the general policy to find out whatever was favourable to the man under charge, in order that the judge might view his future more knowledgeably. So that Peter the Nose, notorious from Dockhead to Greenwich, from Limehouse to the Broadway, was hatefully tolerated, and there were some men who did not disdain to invite Peter to a quiet bar and spend money upon his liquid refreshment, in the hope that the bread thus cast upon the waters might return tenfold on some stormy day at the Old Bailey.
If fate had blessed him with the necessary physique, and life had given him a few of the chances it had maliciously withheld from him, he might have made a phenomenally successful detective. Peter had struggled through life on the tail of a van and graduated in the slimes and kips of Wapping and Poplar, until he had worked his way into the police service as a mole might work his way into an unknown field, blindly.
Men like Haggitt hated him, and spiced their hatred with a little fear. The police treated him as though he were a pet snake; there was a sort of rough kindness in their dealings with Peter the Nose. It never took any other expression than payment at a scheduled rate. Peter was a veritable storehouse of knowledge; he knew people beyond the ken of the police; had plumbed depths, in his impassive, cold-blooded, sneaking way, which the most hardened detective would have shrunk from exploring. Men and women so utterly depraved that police attentions would have dignified them and their calling, confided their secrets to Peter, sometimes, as he sat before a coke brazier in some crazy riverside hut, sometimes in places less savoury.
He knew men and women who lived on the combing of the river. He had seen and talked with a type of thief who picked the pockets of tramps and down-and-outs curled up asleep on the Embankment. He knew the grave-robbers who stole the metal wreaths and sold them again in Petticoat Lane, re-coloured and re-varnished—all these people were tremendously interesting to Peter. And he never forgot a face: that gift was his misfortune.
He came furtively to Mr. Meister that morning, lifted his lip in what he intended to be a smile as he sidled past the old woman scrubbing in the hall, and tiptoed up the stairs. He did not knock, but turned the handle stealthily and looked in. Mr. Haggitt at that precise moment was tugging gently at one of the locked drawers in Mr. Meister's desk. He spun round violently, the seventh sense of the crook told him that he was overlooked and he made a quick but unconvincing pretence of polishing the face of the desk.
"Hullo, Nose," he said violently, "got your creepers on? There ought to be a law to make people like you carry bells round your necks."
"Just come up to see the governor," said Peter. "You told me to look back in two hours." He had a high, complaining whine of a voice, and all the time seemed to be protesting against some injustice which had been put upon him. He looked around swiftly, and then, in a lower tone:
"What was you doing in Cockspur Street yesterday, Haggitt?" he demanded.
Mr. Haggitt's eyes behind the glasses went cold and murderous.
"I never went to Cockspur Street yesterday or the day before yesterday," he said rapidly. "And if you go following me about—"
"I saw you coming out of the Canadian Pacific office." Peter nodded several times.
"You're a liar!" said Haggitt violently. "If you go nosing on me, Gawd help you!"
"I wasn't nosing on you. I never nose on anybody," whined Peter. "I'll give a hundred million pounds to anybody who can prove I'm a nose—there you are."
"A hundred million pounds!" said Haggitt contemptuously. "Of course you're a nose!"
Again that furtive scrutiny that took in the spaces beneath the chairs, the slight cover that the chintz curtains might offer.
"Who's that young girl who came in a while ago? She's Johnny Lenley's sister, isn't she?"
Mr. Haggitt laughed scornfully.
"Go on, trunk on her, you poor elephant! Find out what she's been doing and go and tell Wembury. He may give you a dollar."
"I don't earn money that way," said Peter.
His ears had heard Meister's feet descending the stairs.
"I'm an honest man, that's what I am, Haggitt, and that's why crooks like you don't like me. I know a gentleman when I see him, and if Mr. Meister ain't a gentleman—"
Here was Mr. Meister, ready to answer for himself. A pallid and a haggard Mr. Meister, dressed roughly over his pyjamas. He always had his breakfast that way and read his paper, retiring as a rule just before Mary Lenley's arrival.
Peter's lip lifted on both sides: it was the nearest approach to geniality that he could command.
"Good morning, sir."
Mr. Meister splashed out some golden liquid into a tumbler and drank it down at a gulp.
"Having his breakfast," commented Haggitt audibly, and Meister turned his head slowly in the direction of his subordinate.
"Who sent for Wembury?" he asked sourly.
"I sent for Wembury—him and me's friends," said Haggitt. "Not snouting friends, like him and Peter, but man to man friends, if you understand me, Meister?"
"Why did you send for him?" roared the lawyer, some of the colour coming back to his cheeks under the influence of anger.
"Because I thought somebody was cutting your throat, that's why," said Haggitt loudly. "I don't want any scandal while I'm in the house, which won't be long. They can cut your throat and welcome after I've gone. As a matter of fact, I was disappointed to find you alive! When a day starts like that my luck's out!"
"God! ... What's that?"
The door through which Peter had come was opening slowly, and Mr. Meister crouched back, his voice vibrant with fear.
"Shut the door—lock it!"
He bellowed the words, and Haggitt, who was startled by the extraordinary happening, moved forward with some reluctance and slammed the door.
"I told you to shut it when you came in!"
He turned savagely to the unoffending Peter.
"I did shut it," whined Peter indignantly. "What are you always getting at me for? What does everybody bullyrag me for? What have I done?"
He caught Mr. Meister's eye and the lawyer beckoned him.
"Well?" Meister was still a little breathless. Peter looked round significantly at the waiting Haggitt. "You needn't wait, Haggitt—get out!"
Haggitt went as far as the other side of the door, at any rate.
"Now, Peter, what is the news?"
Peter shook his head.
"It's one of their lies, eh!" asked Meister eagerly. "I knew it! That crowd believes everything it hears. You're a good boy, Peter ... he isn't here, is he?"
Peter looked up from the tattered cap he was twisting and crumpling in his hand.
"I don't know," he said.
Meister's face changed.
"But you don't think he's here?" he asked anxiously.
"I hope he ain't, though he's got nothing against me. I never had anything to do with The Ringer: he was too big for me."
"He's got nothing against me, has he?" snarled Meister viciously. "If it comes to a question of deserving anything, why, he ought to drop on his knees to me after what I've done for him. He hasn't been seen!"
"No," said Peter slowly, "but he's been heard!"
The lawyer's hand went up to his throat.
"He's been heard?" he asked in a shaky voice. "What do you mean by that?"
Peter glanced at the door. His ears were keen enough to catch the deep breathing of the interested Mr. Haggitt and he dropped his voice to a tantalising level, from Mr. Haggitt's point of view.
"His old landlord heard him in the dark, going up the stairs of the lodgings he used to have—heard his voice. The landlord knew somebody was moving about in the room and came out into the passage in the middle of the night, and when he called up The Ringer's voice answered him."
There was a deathly silence.
"When was this?" asked Meister, finding his voice.
"A month ago. The police know: they've got seven busies looking for him. And Wembury knows: I've had that straight!"
Meister sat down suddenly in his chair.
"They'll never find him!" he groaned. "She was right."
"Mrs. Milton is here."
"I know—I know!"
He put a hand in his pocket and, taking out a bundle of Treasury notes, skinned three and threw them across the table.
"Watch for him, Peter," he said, his voice shaking. "You're not afraid of The Ringer, are you?"
Peter was afraid of him—terribly afraid of him; for Peter moved in a world in which The Ringer's name was like that of an avenging god.
"I don't believe he's here," he compromised. "Maybe he came back for something and then slipped away into Australia again."
A lame and most unconvincing explanation, but Mr. Meister jumped at it.
"Of course he's not here—but you'll watch? Never let up—you're a clever boy, Peter. There's very little that happens in this part of the world that you don't know. He couldn't get past you, could he, Peter?"
He dropped his hand upon the narrow-shouldered spy and Peter winced. Nobody had ever smacked him on the back before without intending to do him grievous bodily harm.
The lawyer rang the table bell and Haggitt came in instantly.
"Where are my letters?" he asked.
"On the mantelpiece?" said Haggitt. "Can't you see 'em?"
Peter was shuffling towards the door.
"Good morning, sir. Good morning, Sam."
Haggitt waved his hand majestically to the door and banged it behind the visitor.
"What did he want?" he demanded.
Meister looked over the letter he was reading.
"I've told you before -" he began.
"I am leaving you to-day," said Haggitt.
"You can go to hell so far as I'm concerned," retorted the other.
"And the next time I'm pinched," Haggitt went on, "I'm going to get another lawyer."
"The next time you're pinched, my man," said Meister warningly, "you'll get a lifer!"
"That's why I'm going to change my lawyer," retorted Haggitt calmly.
Shaking with rage, Meister held up the letter he was reading.
"You're clever! But here's a letter from a man who thought he was clever! He's written asking me to defend him at the next sessions!"
"I don't call that clever," said Haggitt.
"He was a man like you," Meister went on. "He thought he knew it all: he made money and then he got fresh. Defend him! I'd see him dead first!"
He walked to the safe, unlocked it and threw in the letter.
"Personally, I think he'd be better off," said Haggitt. "After all, you know where you are when you're dead!"
"Has Miss Lenley arrived?" growled the lawyer.
Haggitt put down his broom and walked over to the desk, glaring down through his large glasses at the resentful face of his employer.
"See here, Meister, what's the idea of Johnny Lenley's sister working for you? Does Johnny know? ... Have you written to him?"
"You mind your own damned business!" stormed Meister. "Finish your work and get out."
"You owe me two days," said the other promptly. "A pound a day at union rates."
Meister went on writing and did not look up for some time, though he was conscious that Haggitt remained standing by the desk. Presently he put down his pen, and, in a more amiable tone:
"I'll give you a pound a day if you'll stop. You're too ready with your tongue, Haggitt, but so long as you don't interfere with my business, I'm willing to humour you. You can stay as long as you like."
"I'll stop till four o'clock this afternoon and then I'll say good-bye. I wouldn't stay for twenty a day. Last time I was in bird I promised the chaplain I wouldn't keep bad company. He wasn't a bad 'sky' and I hate breaking my word. Besides"—he got to the door before he delivered his Parthian shot—"I'm not up to The Ringer's weight—do your own minding!"
SAM had been in his room a few minutes, making preparation for his departure that afternoon, when the old woman came in.
"There's a man wants to see the governor. You'd better see him first, Haggitt," she said.
Mr. Haggitt looked round loftily.
"What is he—a client or a policeman?"
He went out into the flagged hall. Standing in the doorway was a man above middle height, with a good-looking if somewhat dour face. He was dressed plainly, even shabbily, but carried himself with an air of distinction, so that the poverty of his clothing was not noticeable. Haggitt looked at him open-eyed and gasped.
"Good morning, Haggitt," said the stranger, and in another minute Sam Haggitt had gripped him by the hand.
"Well, if this doesn't beat the band!" he said. "What's happened to you, Johnny? Did you jump it?"
John Lenley smiled crookedly.
"No, I came out through the door," he said. "Is the old man about?"
"He's upstairs. Here, don't go up yet. He's been down for a minute to get his morning ration, but he's in his room now, shaving. How long have you been out?"
"I came out yesterday afternoon," said Lenley, "quite unexpectedly. I didn't get to town until late last night."
"Where were you—on the Moor?"
"Over the Alps, eh?" said Haggitt thoughtfully, and then, with a sort of admiration: "You look well! Dartmoor must be a blooming holiday!"
"You can have my next one, Haggitt," he said, and as the speaker's eyes surveyed Mr. Meister's servitor, taking in the green apron and the rolled shirt-sleeves: "I didn't know you were a friend of his?"
"A friend of Meister's? Of that kind of person? Why, when Meister goes past the Zoo, all the snakes get up and touch their hats to him! A friend! I'd sooner be a friend of the police."
"Then what are you doing working here?"
Johnny Lenley eyed his dubious acquaintance keenly.
"Who doesn't work for Meister? There's no harm in that," asserted Haggitt stoutly. "Why, your—"
And then a thought occurred to him.
"Do you know who else is working here?"
"No, I know very few of your gang. I didn't have time to get acquainted before I was caught." He laughed hardly: he was inclined to be a little sorry for himself.
Haggitt scratched his chin.
"All right," he said after a pause. "You'd better come up."
The two had hardly entered the room before Mary came in. She did not even glance at the men, thinking they were one of the many clients who came to Meister during the day. It was only when she heard the exclamation of amazement that she turned round, and in another second she was in her brother's arms, laughing and crying.
"Johnny! Oh, Johnny! Why didn't you tell me you were coming back! This is a wonderful surprise! Why, I only wrote you this morning...."
He put her away at arm's length and looked into her face.
"Mary, what are you doing in Meister's office?" he asked quietly, and something in his tone chilled her.
"I'm working for him," she said. "I've been here nearly a year. I didn't want you to know that I was working at all, Johnny." And then her hand went up to his face. "It's wonderful to see you—wonderful! Let me look at you. You poor boy, have you had a bad time?"
To the watchful and interested Mr. Haggitt, with whom sentiment was a weak point, this seemed an unnecessary question.
"Not so bad as it might have been," said Johnny carelessly. Then: "Why did you go to work at all? I left money with Meister sufficient to keep you going until now."
Haggitt clicked his lips impatiently.
"Left money with Meister? You're mad!"
But Lenley did not hear.
"Did he stop the allowance?" he asked, his anger rising at the thought.
"No, Johnny, he didn't ... it came to an end. Then he gave me this work: he thought it would occupy my mind, and I'm awfully grateful to him."
The brother nodded.
"I see," he said.
"You're not angry with me, are you, Johnny?" She raised her tearful eyes to his. "I can't believe it is you. Why, I didn't expect you home for an awful long time."
"My sentence was remitted," said Lenley. "A half-lunatic convict attacked a guard, and I saved him from a mauling. I had no idea that the authorities would do more than strike off a few days from my sentence. Yesterday at dinner time the governor sent for me and told me that I was to be released on licence."
Again Mr. Haggitt registered despair. Johnny Lenley's actions had never been as professional as he could have desired them, and here he was admitting without shame that he had saved the life of a warder!
The girl's hands were on her brother's shoulders, her grave eyes searching his face.
"You've finished with that dreadful life, haven't you?" she asked in a low voice. "We're going somewhere out of London to live. I spoke to Mr. Meister about it. He said he'd help you to go straight. Johnny, you wouldn't have had that terrible sentence if you had only followed his advice and told the police where the jewellery was hidden."
John Lenley bit his lip.
"Meister told you that, did he?" he asked slowly. "Do you like him?"
She did not answer.
"Do you like him?"
"He has been kind." She struggled hard to think of some favourable quality of Meister. "He gave me this work, Johnny, and you know how hard work is to get ... you see"—she hesitated—"people know who I am."
"I realise that, dear," he nodded, "but how has he been kind?" And then, seeing her distress, he gripped her shoulders and shook her gently, and the hard face softened, and into the grey, deep-set eyes came the old mother look she had loved in him. "Anyway, you'll work no more."
"Then I must work at once." She laughed, but there was a catch in her throat. "And you must be very patient ... if you want to see Mr. Meister he'll be down soon now."
He watched her as she went back to her table, and then caught Haggitt's eye and jerked his head.
"Sam, what's the idea?"
Mr. Haggitt shrugged.
"I've only been here two days. You're a man of the world, Johnny. Ever seen a tiger being kind to a skinned rabbit? I don't know anything more than that."
"Is that so?" he said.
He had come straight to the lawyer's to liquidate old debts and make an end of an unprofitable association. And then London and the stink and grime of Flanders Lane would know him no more: he would find fields where he could work without the supervision of an over-armed guard, and with the knowledge that peace and comfort lay at his day's end. He stood by the door, talking to Sam, questioning him, never doubting where Meister's "kindness" would ultimately end. And then the lawyer came into the room. His eyes were all for the girl: her nimble fingers flashing amongst the keys. He went round to her and dropped his big hands on her shoulders.
"Ah, there she is, typing her little fingers away! You mustn't work too hard, my dear. I don't like to see it...."
The lawyer spun round, his colour coming and going.
"You!" he croaked. "Out!... I thought..."
Johnny Lenley smiled contemptuously.
"About four years too soon, eh? I'm sorry to disappoint you, but miracles happen, even on Dartmoor—and I'm one."
With a tremendous effort the lawyer recovered his balance and was his old genial self.
"My dear fellow"—he offered a wavering hand, but Lenley apparently did not see it—"sit down, won't you? What an amazing thing to happen! Haggitt, give Mr. Lenley a cigar ... you'll find one in the cupboard ... well, this is a sight for sore eyes!"
Haggitt offered the box, but the other shook his head.
"I'm not smoking," he said.
"Pity," said Mr. Haggitt, and, carrying the box back to the cupboard, openly helped himself to a handful under the outraged eyes of his master.
"So you want to see me, eh? Not in trouble again?" He turned jocosely to Mary. "They know where to come when they're in trouble, the rascals—they trust the poor man's lawyer. Now what is it? I suppose you've something to tell me that you don't want your sister to hear?" he said with a laugh that was an invitation, and after a second Lenley said:
Mary rose hastily.
"Yes, one or two things—just one or two!"
The girl's eyes had hardly left her brother, and now she came to him and took both his hands in hers.
"Johnny, before you speak to Mr. Meister, will you promise me something—that you will go to the police and tell them where the property is hidden—so that this business is wiped clean and we can really make a new start?"
The request almost took his breath away.
"I—promise? Where the property is hidden?" And then, with a half-smile: "I'll talk to you about that later."
He waited until she was out of the room.
"How did you get your ticket?" asked Meister, helping himself to the ever handy bottle.
"The remainder of my sentence was wiped out," said Lenley curtly. "I thought I'd told you that."
The lawyer frowned.
"Oh! Were you the lag who saved the life of a warder? I remember reading about it—brave boy!"
He was trying to get command of the situation. Other men had come blustering into that office, and had poured a torrent of threats over the table, leaving him unmoved.
"Why did you stop my sister's allowance?"
"Because, my dear fellow, I can't afford to be charitable," he said blandly.
"I left you the greater part of four hundred pounds." Lenley's voice was stern and uncompromising.
"You were well defended, weren't you? The best attorney that money could buy? Do you think he worked for the love of it, or that he was one of those poor simpletons who was so convinced of your innocence that he refused a fee?"
"I know the fee," said Lenley quietly. "When you had paid that, there was still the greater part of four hundred left. Why did you stop her allowance?"
The lawyer sat down again in the chair he had vacated, lit a cigar, and did not speak until he saw the match almost burning his finger-tips.
"Well, I'll tell you. I got worried about her. I like you, Johnny; I've always been interested in you and your family. And it struck me that a young girl living alone, with no work to do, wasn't exactly having a fair chance. I thought it would be kinder to you and better for her to give her some sort of employment—keep her mind occupied, you understand, old man? I take a fatherly interest in the kid."
He met the challenging eyes and his own fell before them.
"Keep your fatherly paws to yourself when you're talking to her, will you, Meister?"
The words rang like steel on steel.
"My dear fellow!" protested the other.
"And listen!" Lenley went on. "I know you pretty well, Meister; I've known you for a long time, both by reputation and through personal acquaintance. I know just how much there is in that fatherly interest stuff. If there has been any monkey business, I'll take that nine o'clock walk for you!"
Meister jerked up his head.
"Eh?" he rasped.
"From the cell to the gallows," Lenley went on. "And I'll toe the trap with a good heart. You don't misunderstand me?"
The stout man got up on his trembling legs, breathing heavily.
"Don't try to bully me! Other men have tried it, and where are they now? Where is Bill Palmer? Where is Lew Morley, who was going to do this and that to me? Where is The Ringer—"
"In London," snapped the other, and Meister reeled back.
"That's a lie!" he breathed.
"Here in London!" Lenley's fist came down on the table. "Meister, you know it—I can see the proof in your face!"
Frozen with horror, the lawyer could only lick his lips, the white lips that moved without sound.
"It's a lie," he said at last in a strangled voice. "The Ringer is in Australia—he wouldn't dare show his face in London! What with thirteen years waiting for him, and that's not all—they want him for murder, for the Big Thing. Is he coming back to put his head in the rope you're talking about, eh? Is he mad? The Ringer's too clever...."
"He's here!" Lenley was leaning over the table, his keen face outthrust towards the lawyer. "You know that he's here, but you're trying to deceive yourself into believing that he isn't. Here! How near to you, God knows. He may be at your elbow, and you wouldn't know. You remember him: he could alter his appearance so that you wouldn't know him if you saw him...."
On the other side of the mystery door a man crouched, with his ear against the panel: a thin man, whose emaciated face was pink with silent laughter. Fear amused the gaunt man—he who had never known fear; who had taken graver risks, more terrifying than any of his kind.
"Meister, change your plans!"
The warning ring in John Lenley's voice was unmistakable.
"Change your plans about Mary—or I'll get you before The Ringer."
"You're crazy!" gasped Meister. "What have I to be afraid of? Didn't I look after him—didn't I defend him in the police court, and brief the best attorney at the Old Bailey? Was it my fault he forged letters of credit, eh? He played me dirty, double-crossed me...."
"You shopped him!" said Lenley.
"You're a damned liar!" screamed the man.
"He told me in Dartmoor," John Lenley went on relentlessly. "I know the whole story. You put up the money for the swindles, and were standing in fifty-fifty. After the first few coups he was nearly caught. You got cold feet and passed word to the police. They took him in the Standard Bank—he'll get you, Meister!"
Meister, white and trembling, could only shake his head.
IT was fully ten minutes before the man had recovered sufficiently to talk plain business. John Lenley had come straight to the lawyer's for money.
"How much do you think is due to you!" asked Meister sarcastically.
For answer the caller took from his pocket a small package and opened it on the desk. Inside, wrapped in cotton wool, was a little jewelled bangle.
"I don't know how much is due: this will make it more."
Meister took the bangle and carried the glittering thing to the light.
"What is this?" he asked.
"I collected it on my way here: it was left with a friend of mine. That is all I had for my seven years," he said bitterly. "The man who was working with me got away with the rest. Why did you tell my sister that I knew where it was planted?"
Meister looked at him thoughtfully, and in that second was born his plan.
"Because I know," he said slowly. And then, in a more confidential tone: "Your friend never got away with it."
"He hid it. He told me before I got him off to South Africa. There was an empty house in Camden Crescent—where the burglary was committed—there is still."
Johnny Lenley nodded.
"I know. We went through the house to do the job. Well?"
Meister was thinking quickly.
"He planted the stuff behind the cistern on the roof, and it's there now."
The returned convict fixed his questioning eyes upon the lawyer, but not an eyelid quivered.
"I thought you had had it. Why did you pay my sister an allowance?"
"Because I knew where it was, and that when you came out you'd get it—that's why," he said. "I could have got half a dozen men to lift it—but I didn't trust them."
Irresolution showed in Lenley's face; the weak mouth drooped a little.
"Let it stay where it is," he said, but he did not speak with any great earnestness.
Meister laughed. It was the first genuine laugh of his that the day had brought forth.
"You're a fool," he said in disdain. "You've done your seven, and what have you got for it? This!" He held up the trinket. "If I give you twenty pounds for it I'm robbing myself. There's eight thousand pounds' worth of good stuff behind that tank—yours for the taking. After all, Johnny," he said, adopting a tone of persuasion, "you've paid for it—on the Moor!"
"By God I have!" said the other between his teeth. "I've paid for it all right."
Meister was thinking quickly, planning, cross-planning, organising, in that few seconds of time.
"Knock it off to-night," he suggested, and again Lenley hesitated.
"I'll think about it. If you're trying to shop me—"
Again Meister laughed.
"My dear fellow, I'm trying to do you a good turn and, through you, your sister."
"What is the number of the house! I've forgotten."
Meister knew the number well enough: he forgot nothing.
"Fifty-seven. I'll give you the twenty pounds for this bracelet now."
He opened his desk, took out his cash-box and unlocked it.
"That will do to go on with." Lenley was still undecided: nobody knew that better than the lawyer. "I want full value for the rest if I go after it—or I'll find another 'fence.'"
It was the one word that aroused the lawyer to fury.
"'Fence'! That's not the word to use to me, Johnny."
"You're too sensitive," said his dour client.
"Just because I help you fellows when I ought to be shopping you ..." The lawyer's voice trembled. "Get another 'fence,' will you? Here's your twenty." He threw the money on the table, and Lenley, counting it, slipped it into his pocket. "Going into the country, eh? Taking your little sister away? Afraid I'd be doing her harm?"
"I'd hate to hang for you," said John Lenley, rising.
"Rather have The Ringer hang, eh? You think he'll come back with all that time over his head, with the gallows waiting for him? Is he a lunatic? Anyway—I'm not scared of anything on God Almighty's earth."
The little table phone buzzed, and he picked up the receiver.
"Eh?... Who? ..." He covered the mouthpiece with his hand and jerked his head to the door where the girl had gone. "Beat it—it's Wembury."
Lenley sprang to his feet, frowning at him suspiciously.
"Wembury? What does he want?"
"Does he know you?" asked Meister quickly.
"He was the man who arrested me."
"Then get out. Ask your sister to show you the way down."
He waited till Lenley had left the room, and then:
"Send him up, Haggitt."
When they walked in, Mr. Meister was apparently intent upon the examination of a letter which lay on the blotting-pad before him, and he roused himself with an exaggerated start.
"You're the very man I wanted to see," he said, beaming at the visitor. "I can't thank you enough for coming along this morning—though what made that idiot ring you, I don't know. The fact is, I am subject to very bad dreams. I don't know why it should be so—old age probably. That is a disease from which you are not suffering, and you can't be sufficiently grateful. Now, my boy ..."
Alan Wembury let him talk on, and the interested Mr. Haggitt, who had accompanied the detective into the room, listened with mild amusement, until he remembered the visitor of the morning.
"Who do you think's been here, Wembury?" he began.
"That will do," said Meister loudly. "You can go downstairs, Haggitt: there's no need for you to stay."
Mr. Haggitt closed his eyes in patient resignation.
"You don't give me half a chance to get sweet with the police, do you? Want to do all the kidding yourself?"
Wembury's eyes were twinkling as the door closed upon the indignant man, but Meister was not so much amused.
"That's the worst of having a criminal practice—one has to meet the scum of the earth," he growled.
"You bear up very well. He was trying to tell me that Johnny Lenley is out of prison."
This time Meister's start was not feigned.
"Is that so?" he said.
"Yes." Alan looked at him thoughtfully. "He was in this room a few minutes ago. I saw him come into the house."
And now Meister's discomfiture could not be disguised.
"One doesn't expect a lawyer to betray his clients' secrets, eh, Mr. Meister?"
He pulled up a chair to the table and sat down.
"He's no client of mine, except that I—I helped him when he was in trouble—yes?"
It was Mary Lenley with some papers to sign.
She smiled cheerfully at the detective as she put them before her employer.
"Am I in the way?" she asked.
"Has your brother gone, my dear?" asked Meister archly, and she was embarrassed. "Naturally Wembury knew he was here. The police know everything," chuckled the lawyer. "Wonderful fellows the police!"
He saw by her manner that she had something to say to him, and guessed what that something was.
"Can I see you for one moment, Mr. Meister?"
Alan rose and strolled to the window, fingering the heavy bars reflectively. He hated the girl being in this house, hated her daily association with the man of whose character he had no illusions. The return of John Lenley was in a way providential, for he guessed that this would put a period to Mary Lenley's work in Flanders Lane. Meister had not brought Mary Lenley to the house because he was in need of an assistant. A shrewd judge, he had watched her at her work, and guessed she was anything but an efficient stenographer. There were stories told about the lawyer, frank hints and libellous confidences exchanged between police officers when they met in their hours of relaxation.... Johnny's arrival had merely anticipated, perhaps by a day or so, Alan Wembury's unofficial intrusion into the lawyer's game.
"I want to go early to-day, Mr. Meister—now if I can," she was saying anxiously. "You see, Johnny's back, and there are so many things I have to do for him. His room has to be got ready, and—"
"You can't go." Meister's voice was low but insistent. "Wait till this man's gone and we'll discuss the whole matter. I can't be inconvenienced on a morning like this, when I am expecting some most important letters."
He ended the interview abruptly.
"I'll settle that business later," he said loudly. "I can't be bothered now."
Wembury walked down the room to intercept the girl.
"It was a pleasant surprise for you, wasn't it, Miss Lenley?"
"A wonderful surprise," she said. And then, earnestly: "Alan, you're going to give my brother a chance, aren't you?"
"We spend all our lives giving chances to men, and they spend all their lives not taking them! Why, surely, Miss Lenley, we shan't worry him or harass him, if that is what you mean. It's traditional of the police to give the old lag a chance. Your brother isn't an old lag, but at the same time he's been unfortunate and he's had his lesson."
She nodded gravely.
"I wish you would have a little talk with Johnny, Alan? I think he would listen to you and give your words more value than he would give to mine."
"Pshaw!" Meister guffawed at the suggestion. "Don't be silly, my dear—the inspector has something better to do than run around after your brother. Bless my life! police officers aren't nursery governesses. I'll talk to Johnny."
"I will see him," said Alan, without any seeming notice of what the lawyer had said. "Suppose I come round to your place to-morrow morning? And, Mary, apart from your brother, if you yourself are in any difficulty at any time, you know where to find me? This is a quaint world, operated generally by people who aren't exactly what they appear to be—generally they're something worse!"
She shook his hand and, without a word, went back to her little office; a sudden and unaccountable silence fell upon the two men.
"What difficulties could she have?" said Meister contemptuously.
Alan looked him in the eye.
"I don't know—if you don't know."
Here was a challenge which Meister was not prepared to accept.
"She's a nice girl. Pity her brother is such a bad lot," he said carelessly, as he resumed his unprofitable study of the letter on his desk.
"Is he a bad lot?" asked Wembury. "The story I heard was that he had his first burglary given to him by somebody who worked out the details of the job and got most of the plunder. The master criminal was never caught."
Mr. Meister was amused. The hand that held his cigar trembled a little.
"The master criminal! I thought that phenomenon only occurred in detective stories! You don't believe that?"
"I believe a lot that I never confess," said Alan quietly.
"You're wise," said the other. "He's a wrong 'un is Johnny, dead wrong." He looked down at the pad and examined his cigar attentively. "Why, he's hardly out of prison before he's thinking up another job."
Alan shot a swift, startled glance at him.
"They plan these things in prison, Wembury. Jail is the master criminal. It is not only the master criminal but the college where novices get their education in the art of lifting."
"What sort of a job?"
Mr. Meister returned his cigar to his teeth and sent a ring of smoke whirling up to the ceiling, and watched it until it broke bluely.
"Post a couple of men on the roof of 57, Camden Gardens to-night," he said.
Alan's heart sank.
"Oh, the fool, the imbecile!" he muttered, and as though his words were a reflection upon himself, Meister went on hastily:
"Any lawyer is an officer of the court: you know that, Wembury. If I know a man is about to commit a felony, whether he is a client or whether he isn't, it is my business to inform the police. I have queer people to deal with, but I must preserve my self-respect. I have invariably made it a practice, if any man has told me of an intended crime, to inform the police without delay."
"And to tell your clients that you have informed the police?" asked Wembury savagely.
"N-no, I don't go so far as that. After all, I must earn my living, and I must retain the confidence of my clients. If they are foolish enough and, may I say, wicked enough to give me this kind of information, what am I to do?"
Meister shook his head.
"I don't know."
The detective strolled to the window and stared out. His duty to the State came before all else, before Mary's broken heart or her brother's liberty. Meister had made no mistake in telling him. He could not warn this lunatic of his impending fate. And Johnny Lenley was a clever boy: that was the queerness of it—a clever boy who knew Meister for what he was. Yet he had placed himself in this man's hands ... had risked surrendering his guardianship of the one being in the world he loved.
"You didn't want to see me about anything?" Meister's voice recalled him to the object of his visit.
"Yes, I did." The detective came back with difficulty to the object of his call. "I have arranged for an officer to watch this house."
Meister leapt up from his chair, his face purple with anger.
"What! That will cost you your job, Wembury. Do you think I'm crook—?"
The detective's hand waved him down.
"What I think doesn't matter much. The officer is coming here to protect you."
"Protect me?" The lawyer squealed the words. "From whom?"
Too well he knew.
"From a man who will never be happy until you're dead," said the other slowly.
"You mean ... The Ringer?"
"You think he's here?"
"Yes, I think he's here."
"Peter told you? I don't believe it," cried the stout man violently. "It's a fake story—one of the Laners' bogies that they put up to scare people. The Ringer here! He's in Australia: why should he come back ...? What have I to do ...?"
"You're not to leave this house after dark unless my man accompanies you," said Wembury. "Do you mind ringing the bell?"
Mechanically the lawyer obeyed, and in a few seconds Haggitt answered.
"Send up Sergeant Atkins," said Wembury, and Sam went out to return accompanied by a smart-looking man whom Meister recognised without the introduction which followed.
"This is Sergeant Atkins, C.I.D. You know Mr. Meister?"
"You will keep this house under observation to-day—and after to-day—from dark to daylight, sergeant. If Mr. Meister goes out, you will follow him at six paces. If he rides, you ride with him, either with the driver or in the car in which he travels. You understand?"
"I have permission for you to carry a gun, and you won't hesitate to use it if it comes to real trouble. I'll leave you to decide what kind of trouble is real."
Atkins grinned, and, touching his hat, moved to the door.
"Don't let him go, don't let him go!" said Meister, his teeth chattering. "Why couldn't he stay here? I could give him a little room downstairs. Haggitt can sleep somewhere else."
Alan shook his head.
"No, he must watch the house from outside. There have been one or two people hanging about during the last week. The constable on point reported that a weird-looking stranger who described himself as a private detective, but who was obviously a suspicious character, had been seen in the neighbourhood. You can give Atkins the key of the outer door, so that he can come in if he sees or hears anything suspicious. He will be on duty at night. I will arrange for his relief during the daytime. Have you a key?"
Meister unlocked a drawer of his desk, took out a small cash-box and, throwing out a big wad of bank-notes, rummaged at the bottom and produced a key. Mr. Haggitt was more than an interested spectator: his eyes almost started from his head at the sight of so much real money.
Mr. Haggitt blinked and brought himself to earth. "Yes, sir?"
"Don't look at that money: it isn't good for you."
"Money, sir?" Sam's face was a picture of astonishment. "I thought it was curling paper!"
He watched, fascinated, whilst the box was closed and replaced in the drawer, and Atkins had to touch him on the shoulder before he returned again to the world of poverty-stricken reality.
Alan Wembury's mind was not upon The Ringer, nor upon the imminent danger to this man who, all Deptford knew, had grossly betrayed his fellow thief. He was thinking of Mary Lenley, of the drear years ahead, and of the shocking reaction from her present happiness. Insensibly he said:
"Poor little girl!"
And Meister looked up and a slow smile spread on his pale face.
"You're thinking of that girl, Wembury? She'll be happier without him. In a way she'll be better off. She's in a good job, she has me to look after her—"
Wembury held out his hand with a smile.
"Yes, that's what I'm afraid of. Good morning, Mr. Meister."
THERE were two things which Mr. Lewis Meister dreaded, and the first and greatest of these was physical discomfort. He had courage up to a point: could face without a flicker of eyelid the "client" whom he had defrauded. He could appear in court with every evidence of sincerity and defend the men who owed their arrest to the secret word which he had sent forth. But he dreaded violence of all kinds. The sight of a street fight made him physically ill.
Next in order, he dreaded that life with which his clients were so familiar: the life in the drab prison buildings, where men sit in their lonely cells for sixteen hours out of twenty-four, if they did not go mad. Two men had it in their power to send Lewis Meister before a judge. The first was The Ringer, and for the moment he did not count as an agent of justice; the second was John Lenley. It had required all his ingenuity to persuade Lenley to forsake the thorny path of virtue and become an active instrument of crime. Lewis Meister had been first attracted by the girl, whom he had met by chance in the street, so attracted that he had pursued inquiries which led to his acquaintance with her brother. He was in a fair way to seeing the patient work of years destroyed in a flash.
Ninety-nine out of every hundred men who break the law are victims of some stupid obsession, but there is a kink in the anti-social mind which seems to have been provided by nature for the undoing of its host. Meister's kink was his infatuation for a girl who was young enough to be his daughter, and too good a woman to be anything else.
Police circles were certain that he had "shopped" John Lenley, but police circles did not know the trouble he had had to induce a weak but honest man to take the first step, and in offering that inducement, Meister had betrayed himself hopelessly. Now fate had played into his hands once more. There was no loot behind any cistern on the roof of 57, Camden Gardens. The cistern was there: the man who had brought him the proceeds of the robbery before he had been packed off to Canada had described the place thoroughly. Mr. Meister had been on the roof in his role of lawyer for the prisoner. The idea that the jewellery was still there was an inspiration which came to existence in his need. Johnny was easy. Most crooks were easy—that had been Meister's experience.
Johnny in prison, he could marry the girl at his leisure. He sat with his head in one hand, scribbling aimless arabesques on his blotting-pad, an unwholesome general developing a plan of operations.
All people are simple. Confidence men in London clean up the greater part of a hundred thousand pounds a year through the simplicity of unlawful men—there never was a victim of a confidence trickster who was not a thief at heart. People would believe anything if it was stated with sufficient authority and gravity. Even intelligent people like Mary Lenley.
He went over in his mind every possible story. Some were rejected as too crude, some were retained in spite of their palpable transparency. Rising from his desk, he went to the wall safe, twirled the combination and pulled open the door. The first thing he saw was the blue envelope which had come that morning from a former client. The letter was headed "Brixton Prison." He replaced it in its cover and put it back in the safe.
Now, if that letter had been ... he took it out again. Would she believe it? Would she fall for the old, old story which is the cliche of every raw melodrama that has been played in fifty years?
He rang the bell. Haggitt was a shrewd devil, by nature suspicious and untrusting. Haggitt came in with the stump of one of Meister's cigars in the corner of his face, and his employer overlooked both his ill manners and patent dishonesty.
"Haggitt, I want to tell you something," he said. "When I am out of the house, I'd like you to keep a very close eye upon this room, and especially upon the safe."
He read the distrust in the man's eyes and was secretly amused.
"What's the big idea?" asked Haggitt. "Are you going to try to kid me there's a million pounds in the safe, so that I'll smash it and give you a chance of shopping me?"
"You're a fool," said the other good-humouredly. "No, there's no money in the safe—if there was, I should certainly not tell you. But there is something else." He sorted his papers and did not meet the ex-convict's eye. "There are half a dozen dossiers there—by 'dossier' I mean envelopes containing particulars about some of our friends. There's sufficient evidence in that safe to hang two or three people."
Haggitt was impressed: he saw that out of the corner of his eye. The man scratched his chin, refixed his glasses, and:
"Why do you keep them here?" he asked.
"That's a fool question. In lawyers' offices you keep those kind of documents. You never know when they will be useful."
Mr. Haggitt suddenly felt a personal concern.
"Have you got anything about me?" he asked. "If you have, you can take it out and drop it in the fire!"
Meister could have laughed, so readily did the fish bite.
"You!" he said scornfully. "What dossiers does one have about burglars, except a record of their past offences?"
"That's so," nodded Haggitt, with some pride. "Up in Scotland Yard they've got a drawerful of me. Three folders full. The busy who pinched me last time told me that if I went on the way I was going, they'd have to build a new wing on to the Yard to hold my—what did you call it?—dosher?"
"Dossier," corrected Mr. Meister. "You'll remember, Haggitt? The liberty of some of your friends depends upon strangers being kept out of this room."
"I get you," said Haggitt, experiencing for the first time an identity of interest with his master.
Haggitt accepted the ancient fiction without hesitation. Would Mary? He was on the point of finding out when Haggitt came back with a letter.
"Boy messenger," he said. "I've given him sixpence for himself."
"It will be stopped out of your wages." Mr. Meister was genuinely annoyed at his servant's munificence, for the lawyer was as mean in little as he was in great matters.
At first he thought that the letter was from a client. The handwriting was big and more or less illiterate. But he had a shock when he tore open the envelope and read the first words:
I want you to come to Graydon Hall Mansions, Battersea. Come as soon as you can. I've got something important to say to you. Maybe I'm being a life-saver. I'll expect you at one o'clock.
It was signed "Cora Milton."
Meister's hand went up to his mouth. A trap? It could hardly be that. He knew, from what Mary had told him, that the woman was as ignorant of the whereabouts of her husband as any London policeman. Meister had an instinct for the truth. Cora Milton, he was sure, had not lied.
"Is the boy waiting?" he asked huskily.
"He says there's an answer."
Meister sat down at his table, took a card from the stationery rack and wrote:
"I will be with you at one o'clock."
He did not sign the note, but put it into an envelope and addressed it to the person who sent the message.
"Give this to the boy, and this." He put his hand in his pocket and took out a larger piece of silver than Mr. Haggitt had ever seen him donate. "Tell him to hurry back."
Haggitt took the letter down to the waiting messenger and pocketed the tip with a comfortable feeling that he had not so much stolen Mr. Meister's property as received four hundred per cent, interest on the tip already given.
Meister read the note again and again and looked at his watch. It would be dead easy for The Ringer to be waiting for him. Who knew that he had gone, or where? It was a great mistake not to take somebody into his confidence, and at the thought he pulled the telephone towards him and gave the station-house number. Wembury was on the premises and answered him after a little wait.
"I am going up to see Cora Milton," said Meister. "I have an appointment at one o'clock."
"Tell Atkins," warned Alan.
Mr. Meister had forgotten the watcher, and had a feeling of relief when his existence was recalled.
"Why does she want you?"
"I don't know."
"Read her note to me."
Meister hesitated, read through the note himself to make sure there was nothing that was in any way compromising to him, and then repeated the message over the telephone.
"That is fairly harmless. She wants to see you about her man, I suppose. Give Atkins instructions that if you're not out of the house within half an hour, he is to call for you."
Graydon Hall Mansions were not quite as magnificent as their title led one to expect. Two houses had been converted into flats, and on the top floor, in what was evidently a furnished apartment, he found Cora Milton. He had seen her once before; a century ago, it seemed; so long ago that he was amazed that she had not altered.
"Come right in and shut the door."
She got up from the divan on which she was lying, a cigarette between her lips, a picture-paper at her side (Cora never read anything that hadn't a picture attached) and then, without preliminary:
"Have you seen my Arthur?" and, without waiting for his answer: "I guess you haven't—you're alive! And he hasn't warned you? Arthur plays fair; he'll tip you off before he comes to get you. See here, Meister, I'm not crazy about you, and I'll tell you that I don't worry a bit whether you're alive or dead. But Arthur's my husband, and I'm not going to see him hanged if I can help it."
"Well?" he asked, when she paused.
"Well," she mimicked, "what are you going to do about it?"
"What can I do? He's altogether wrong in thinking that I've done him the slightest harm—"
She checked him.
"What's the use, Meister? You know you shopped him. I guess, if you got what was due to you, one life wouldn't be enough! No, I want to save you the only life you've got, and there's one way to do it. Get out of England."
Meister glared at her.
"I? Get out of England? What do you mean?"
"Go to America—go to Canada—go to any old place in the world. He'll get tired of looking for you, and maybe I can kid him along to drop these great ideas of his. Go to Australia—"
A slow smile dawned on Mr. Meister's face.
"So that's the idea, eh? You want me to go to Australia? The mountain must go to Mahomet—for a killing! I begin to see daylight now, Cora. Your man's in Australia, and all these stories and rumours that have been started are intended to make me jump for the only place where he can get me. I like your nerve!"
She was regarding him with a speculative interest.
"If I had a head like yours, I should change it for an ivory box," she said. And then, in a more serious tone: "Meister, there is danger—Arthur is here. Everybody knows that: the police know it, you know it. You've put a new set of bars on to your window, fixed new bolts on your doors."
"Who told you that?" asked Meister.
"My eyes," she answered curtly. "I've been past your place and seen the workmen going in and out. You've got a man to watch your house, too; he was on duty when the boy took the letter, and you called him in. Have you seen him?"
"Who—Arthur?" He shook his head. "No, of course I haven't. You don't suppose he'd be at liberty if I had?"
"I don't suppose you'd be alive if you had seen him either," she said, with such cold-blooded indifference that he shivered. "They tell me you're a rich man. There's a lot of fun in the world for a rich man, Lew Meister—fun you wouldn't get in Deptford. Try Spain or South America. I've known old birds like you who've had a good time in Shanghai—there are some cute little places just outside the concessions."
He got up, dusted his coat daintily with his gloved fingers.
"Cora, you're a clever woman, but you're not going to push me into the reach of The Ringer. Shanghai! I might as well be in Australia! No, my dear, you can write and tell your young man that I bear him no malice, that if I can help him with money, why, he's only to ask me. But this little country's good enough for me, and Deptford is my ideal home."
He was making for the door when with a quick movement she placed herself between him and the exit.
"You're not going yet. You can take your hand away from your hip, Meister, because there's no rough house coming. If there was, you're fat enough to deal with me with your hands. My boy's a killer, Lew, and he's after you, and will never be a happy man till he gets you. I've talked to him night after night on the phone, trying to persuade him to give up his crazy notion. He wouldn't do it for me, Meister, and he'd do a lot for me. He's somewhere round; I don't know where. I haven't seen him, but I've spoken with him. He was on the phone to me the other night."
The colour was fading from his face ... he almost believed her.
"If I die, that's the truth."
"You're mistaken. Somebody was kidding you," he mumbled.
"Kid me!" Her laugh was shrill derision. "I know every trick of his voice, you poor boob! If he was talking right there on the street I should hear him above all the noise. He's here—he's in London. And he's seen you and passed you in the street maybe, so that he could have put out his hand and touched you."
Meister gripped the back of a chair and in his twitching face she read all that she wanted to know.
"That's all," she said, as she stood aside to open the door. "There's a whole lot of ships and cars and God-knows-what leaving this country every day. Take one, Meister. There's an expedition going up to the North Pole—join it! Or get yourself lost in one of those African forests—there are wilder beasts in Deptford than you'll find in the jungle."
"I don't believe he's here," he said in a low voice and repeated the words as he stumped heavily down the stairs.
Mary was out when he returned. He remembered that he had asked her to take a copy of an affidavit to a neighbouring solicitor. As he had turned into Flanders Lane from the High Street and had passed through the narrow thoroughfare, he was conscious that his appearance had created a mild stir. Ordinarily he could walk in and out of the Lane without exciting more than casual interest. But now, dirty curtains were pulled aside, drawn faces leered at him; there was a rapid opening of doors (where doors still remained in the black openings); grimy women stretched their scrawny necks to look after him. All Deptford knew ... The Ringer was back. Did he himself believe it? He set his teeth and resolutely rejected the evidence of reason.
From the small window at the end of the room he could see Atkins standing on the sidewalk, reading a sporting edition of the evening newspaper, and the sight of this commonplace man brought comfort to him.
Yet Atkins was an advertisement of his fear, and blazoned forth to Flanders Lane and all the world, that terror dwelt behind the high walls and the green jalousies, but Mr. Meister was not particularly affected by the opinion of his fellow-men.
To-night, unless the weakling wavered in his pursuit, Johnny Lenley would go back the way he had come. Still remained the problem of Mary. Eminently desirable, fresh, sweet, clean, like a rose plucked at dawn, the bloom and sparkle of her was refreshing to see even at the distance she maintained between them. She would give him some of her youth, some of her indomitable spirit ... he breathed more quickly at the thought. She would not marry him. He had no doubts on that score. He was too old a man and she did not like him. Mr. Meister let his thoughts run wild. When the girl returned, he was primed with courage for his project.
"I had a long talk with Wembury this morning." It was a sure opening; her interest in Inspector Wembury was apparent.
"About my brother?"
"Yes. Wembury seems to think that Johnny is ... well, just crook. He rather believes that there is something else...."
She looked at him with a frown, and walked slowly towards him.
"I don't quite understand, Mr. Meister. What do you mean—'something else'!"
His reluctance to tell her was not wholly feigned. If his preposterous story failed, then he failed altogether, and he was loath to put it to the test. The more he thought of it, the more ridiculous it seemed to expect her to believe a story so well exposed. Before he had made up his mind, he found himself telling her.
"You see, my dear—" the paternal manner came easily to Mr. Meister, and was not inappropriate, since he was fathering the most stupid of inventions—"before Johnny got into trouble with the police, he had escaped other and worse trouble."
She was looking at him straightly.
"Johnny never told me," she said. "When he was arrested, and I saw him before—before he went away, he said that this was his second burglary. He didn't even conceal the first."
"He wouldn't tell you about the other," said Meister. "It is evidently not so much on his conscience as it is on mine. You see, I am an officer of the court; every lawyer in the country, every solicitor, is that. In other words, I am as much part of the machinery of justice as the judge himself. And it is forbidden to me that I should conceal the knowledge of any felony, any crime, of which I may have heard. Johnny's burglary," he proceeded slowly, "was child's play to his first and greatest offence."
For a second she swayed. Her face had grown suddenly marble white; her hands were clasping and unclasping nervously; but no muscle of her face moved.
"I don't believe that," she said steadily.
Mr. Meister shrugged his shoulders, and threw out his plump hands in a gesture of helplessness.
"I can't expect you to believe anything wrong of Johnny—that is natural," he said. "But I know, and Johnny knows, the full extent of his folly." He opened the safe and drew out the blue envelope and looked at it pensively. "There is a lifer for Johnny in this," he said impressively. In such moments he was a perfect actor. The very simplicity of the words, spoken without conscious effort, without change of tone, made the girl go cold.
"In that ... envelope? I have never seen it before ... I have often been to the safe...."
She believed him. It was incredible. He stood wondering at his own success. The old "proof in the envelope" trick that had served so many poverty-minded dramatists, and she a product of the twentieth century, a woman who had read and reasoned!
"What is it—forgery?"
He neither said yes nor no. He was putting the envelope back in the safe.
"Let me see it, please."
She hurried so quickly towards him that he had to hold her at bay with that fatherly hand of his.
"My dear, you ought not to see it. I'm almost sorry I told you. But it is on my mind ... my conscience. Long before you came here, I had practically decided to pass on my information to the police, hoping that the fact that Johnny was serving a sentence would mitigate against his further punishment. But you changed me ... your presence ... the queer influence you exercised, Mary."
His voice was husky; he was not wholly acting.
"Whilst you're around, I feel I can take risks—you understand? But when you're away, cold reason gets to work, and I ask myself why I should jeopardise my ... liberty by compounding this felony. That's why I don't want you to go away ... into the country. Stupid idea, isn't it! You may think it's a subterfuge of mine, but there's a very real reason behind it."
"I am going to Chichester," she said with an effort. "Can't you be generous, Mr. Meister? Can't you burn these papers?"
He slammed the door, twisting the combination knob, and went slowly back to his desk.
"We'll talk about it, shall we? I can't open my heart to you, Mary, not in a place like this, and at a time like this, when people are coming and going all the while."
Her back was to him and she did not realise his nearness until his hands closed on her arms. He felt her shiver and found a curious satisfaction in the very loathing he aroused.
"Don't talk to Johnny about it, will you? If you do, there will be trouble—well I don't want to do anything that will hurt you, little girl. You know that."
He was rocking her gently to and fro, and she hated it. Suddenly she slipped from his grasp.
"When shall we talk about it?" she said, facing him.
"To-night. Come at about—" He was looking at her steadily—"about twelve."
"Twelve—here! Why, everybody will be in bed."
"We needn't disturb the old woman. Haggitt is going," said Meister. "Come round to the back of the house—you know the way—into Little Holland Street. I'll leave the door open for you, or better still, I'll give you the passkey. You know the garden door and the stairs up?"
He pointed to the mystery door and smiled.
"Many a charming lady has passed up those stairs before you and I were born, my dear—in the days of the frills and the furbelows and the prinking gallants, eh?"
She was slowly shaking her head.
"I can't come. I dare not come. Johnny will be at home. And why couldn't you tell me here, now?"
The flutter of her was very sweet to him.
"If you don't care to come, I'm afraid there'll be no other opportunity. If you would like to examine the proof—I hate using that word, because it sounds like a page torn from a melodrama—there is only one time—my time. Of what are you afraid—The Ringer?" he sneered, and marvelled that the presence of the girl had given him such courage that he could speak the dreadful name without a shudder. This was a happy augury for the future. She would give him just that poise that he could absorb from no other source. "I'll leave you to think it over, my dear." He patted her on the shoulders, his lips for a second brushed a stray strand of the golden-brown hair, and he went up to his room with that queer breathless exhilaration which such heart-thumpings produce in middle age.
Mary stood, numb, and gazed at the door. And then, suddenly, the room began to spin round and she put out her hand and clung to one of the stout door-posts to keep herself from falling.
"NOTHING and nobody," said Sergeant Atkins, in answer to the query. "The only suspicious individual I've seen this day has been Sam Haggitt. I can't understand Sam going honest. It is as unnatural in a thief as it would be for a tailor to become a carpenter, or a ship's captain to give dancing lessons. Haggitt's got some graft."
Wembury shook his head.
"I don't think so. I fancy he is a badly scared man since he learnt that The Ringer was loose. You've seen nothing of the cadaverous gentleman?"
"The fellow that Harrap saw? No. What'll I do when I see him?" he asked dryly.
"It certainly is not an offence to look like a stage villain," admitted Alan, "and unfortunately people do not carry their character in their faces."
"Thank God!" said Atkins piously, for nature had not favoured him in the matter of looks. "The nicest looker I've ever seen murdered his wife and three children and buried them in cement under the kitchen floor. And if you ever saw old Lord Leverthil in the dock, you'd give him ten years on his face alone—and he's done more for infant welfare than any man in the country! Do you know what I often wish, sir?"
Alan suggested increased pay.
"Yes, I could do with that," said Atkins, who was something of a philosopher. "But what I've often thought is, how easy this job would be if things happened like they happen in plays. You know the villain first pop, the moment the curtain goes up; and you know the hero as the first curtain's down. And everybody's the same right through the piece. The heroine never gets a swollen face with toothache, or cusses when the maid drops a milk-jug. She's just the lord's little lady from start to finish."
"You've been talking to Dr. Lomond," said Alan good-humouredly. "Dr. Lomond stole all his ideas from Dr. Young—or, let us say, he adjusted them; only he thinks that police work is easy, given the necessary amount of brains, and he's got a scheme for catching The Ringer—been sitting up all night working it out and reducing it to writing. And he's promised to give me first peek!"
Alan crossed the roadway, rang the bell and was admitted to the house, and he came at a propitious moment.
Mr. Meister had come back to the room and he had taken up the conversation where he had broken it off.
"There's one thing I want to tell you, Mary; you needn't depend so much on Wembury. I've told you Wembury thinks your brother is a crook. He did his best this morning to get me to talk about him."
"Mr. Wembury wouldn't do such a thing!" she cried indignantly. "He promised me he was giving Johnny his chance."
"Promised you!" said the man contemptuously. "A policeman's promise! Good God! where have you lived all your life? That is part of their job, promising this and that ... anything to gain your confidence."
"Don't let us discuss it."
She turned to go, but he caught her by the arm and swung her round. His face was aflame, his eyes were shining.
"Mary," he breathed, "don't you realise I'm the best friend ... your brother could have?"
Tap! ... tap! ... tap!
He dropped his hands as if he had been shot, and swung round.
Tap! ... tap! ... tap!
Somebody was knocking at the mystery door.
His jaw dropped, he could only stare. Then he heard Wembury's voice in the hall below and came rushing to the head of the stairs.
"Come up!" he yelled.
Wembury went up the stairs two at a time.
"What's the matter?"
The man could only gibber and point to the door.
"Somebody's there!" he gasped. "Somebody on the other side of the door!"
Alan slipped back the bolts, took the key from the hook above the fire-place, and the door swung open. The passage was empty.
"There's nobody here. Look for yourself."
But Meister remained rooted to the spot.
"Arthur will give you a warning: He'll play fair!"
The Ringer's knock; the knock that he gave in the old days when he used to come secretly through the garden and up those stairs, and the two men would be closeted together throughout the night, discussing under their breath the plan which was to make them both millionaires. Three deliberate taps on the panel of the door—The Ringer!
Alan came back, slammed the door and shot the bolts home before he turned the key.
"You must have been dreaming."
"Was she dreaming?" The man almost screamed the question, pointing with a shaking finger at Mary Lenley. "She heard it!"
Alan looked at her and she nodded.
"If I was dreaming, it's the kind of dream I never want again. Nobody there!"
He stepped closer to Wembury and thrust his large face up to the detective's.
"There's a footprint in the dust outside the door. I saw it."
Wembury had seen it too, but said nothing.
"There was no place for a man to conceal himself—not a normal-sized man. I'll have a look in the garden," he said. "Do you still use that back door of yours, by the way? I mean the hole through the gate? It was a very popular entrance with some of your clients in the old days, they tell me."
"They'd tell you anything!" said Meister, stung to offensiveness in his agony of mind.
He waited until Alan had gone, then:
"You heard it?"
"I heard it, Mr. Meister—three taps."
"Tap-tap-tap, eh?" He wiped the perspiration from his forehead. "Dreaming!" He laughed. "That got me, sure! Got me rattled. Just as I was beginning to think that with you by my side I should fear nothing—"
"Will you please not discuss that again, Mr. Meister?" pleaded Mary. "I'm sure you really don't mean—"
"I mean that when you're with me, I'm a new man, with a new courage."
Before she realised his intention, his arm was round her, his damp face seeking hers.
Tap! tap! tap!
With a scream he ran to his desk and wrenched open a drawer, and she saw a long-barrelled Browning in his hand. On his face was a grotesque grin of terror.
He tiptoed to the door, lifted the bar of the little trap-door noiselessly and wrenched it open.
For a second he stood frozen to the ground. Framed in the opening another face gave grin for grin; the white, drawn face of a sick man, hairy-lipped and hairy-chinned....
Meister's nerveless fingers slipped and the mouth of the trap crashed back in its place. The girl's scream brought Wembury at a rush, and at the sight of the huddled figure on the floor he gave a gasp of dismay. But The Ringer had not struck—Mr. Meister had fallen into a fainting fit, from which he did not recover for an hour.
DR. LOMOND was writing a book on crime. It was one of those electric decisions to which he confessed and pursued with unrelenting energy. Apparently he wrote in his study, in his bedroom, whilst he was at breakfast, and, with Alan's approval, occupied the inspector's desk in his little office at Harlboro Street when Wembury was absent. An exercise book, its pages covered with the microscopic, execrable writing of one who was born to write prescriptions came Alan's way, and he learnt the nature of the pretentious work from the proud author.
"Certainly you can read it. You may be able to check your own observations with mine. For the moment," confessed the doctor, "I am dealing entirely with Indian crime, and this has some bearing upon The Ringer, because I understand that his wife was born in that delightful country—"
"Indiana is a long way from India," said Alan, with perfect gravity.
The doctor's face fell.
"Still, that really doesn't affect the issue," he said. "Now, let me read you the first bit."
"Thanks, I'd rather read it when I'm alone, doctor," said Alan hastily. He had met other authors anxious to read their literary efforts. "I think you may help me, however," he said. "I've just come from old man Meister, who's in a state of collapse."
"So early? "asked the sympathetic doctor.
"No, it isn't booze this tune; it is sheer, unadulterated funk. The man is in a state of terror, and it only needs just a little push one way or the other to throw him off his balance. I'm going to tell you the story."
And the doctor, settling himself on the edge of his seat, listened with wide-eyed interest to the story of The Killer and his vendetta.
"Hardly seems credible," he said, "in this country. And yet I've known a dozen cases of family feuds that have been handed on from father to son. Take the case of Ahmet Mahomet Ali, who lived—"
"Yes, yes, doctor," said Alan tactfully, "I know that case very well. But this is not the East, and, as you say, it is incredible."
The doctor fingered his little beard and looked wisely through his pince-nez.
"Is it established that The Ringer is in England?"
"Then why not do what we did in India? I know all talk of India sets your teeth on edge, but the case of Ahmet Mahomet Ali, which you most mendaciously claimed to know, may give you a hint. How do you shoot lions by night?"
"I've never shot lions by night or by day," said Alan.
"I'll tell you; you tether a live goat near a tree, and you sit on the tree, and if the mosquitoes will only be reasonable you pot your lion when he's just making a leap at the bleating billy. It seems to me that the goat in this case—if Mr. Meister will not be offended at my describing him as such—is bleating loudly enough to draw the oldest and the deafest of lions; and if you only place him properly, you ought to catch The Ringer."
"In other words, bait a trap for him?"
"Exactly," said the doctor in triumph. "They baited a trap for Ahmet Mahomet with a brother-in-law whom he cordially detested. A wedding was staged in a little hill village, and up turned Ahmet with his bold men and fell into an ambush.... I went to his hanging."
Alan was dubious.
"If you make it too easy for him he'll smell bait and trap. What do you suggest?"
But the doctor was not ready with an immediate solution. He said he would think the matter over that night and deliver a written plan in the morning. Alan thought he would have made an excellent Anglo-Indian official, with his weakness for reducing all human activities to the dead level of a written report.
"Where do you think the blow will fall—what is the most likely place?"
"His own house," replied Wembury promptly. "He's near his friends for one thing. There isn't a Laner who wouldn't give him house-room and risk their own lives to get him away. The Lane is a queer, theatrical sort of place. We raided a house a year ago and, exploring the cellar, found that there was a clear passage-way underground from one end of the street to the other! What we thought were separate cellars were in reality huge stalls, packed tightly with the most appalling specimens of humanity. Visible Flanders Lane is bad enough, but when Flanders Lane gets down to its bolt-holes it is frankly horrible."
Alan greatly desired to interview one man in Deptford, and that man was Peter the Nose. Whilst he was satisfied that no mistake had been made, and that The Ringer was in London, he was anxious to secure the kind of confirmation that only Peter could give; for Peter was a wonderful sorter of truth from fiction, legend from fact. Alan went in search of him, without success. His usual haunts knew him not, and the detective went on to Rotherhithe, to a crazy little riverside warehouse which served as a habitation for an old lady and her ancient son, who made a good living out of combing the river flats for flotsam. Old packing cases, hay bales which had fallen overboard from barges, the body of a suicide or so—the authorities paid seven and sixpence from this reach for a body. Sometimes the scourers found things which were not lost, but it is always very hard to prove a negative. But Peter was not there.
The old lady, sitting before a fire of driftwood, a ragged cigar between her discoloured teeth, thought he had left London. He had a home in Devonshire, it appeared, and stolid and decent farm labourers as his relatives. It was difficult to picture Peter with bucolic associations, but afterwards Alan learnt that this was the truth.
Nor was Peter in the house of the cobbler of Friendly Avenue, who "fenced" petty loot. It looked as though there were some foundation for the theory that Peter had shaken the dust of London from his shoes and had gone out into the clean air of Devonshire.
Coming back along the High Street, he saw Mary Lenley and her brother on the opposite sidewalk. They had been shopping. High Street, Deptford, though farther afield than the Lewisham Road, has a reputation for cheapness. There was a smile on Lenley's face that gave the detective a little pain. Johnny was carrying a bag full of provisions; the girl, her arm in his, was looking up into his face as they passed out of Alan's sight. He shook his head. Rotten work—police work. He had not realised its rottenness before. He turned his thoughts to The Ringer; such was his concern for Mary that the man who was, at that moment, dominating the police mind, performed the humble service of keeping in the background the vision of a girl, stricken with sorrow.
In every station-house throughout the length and breadth of the land the question of The Ringer and his menace was an urgent matter for discussion. The long blue lines of policemen parading for duty stood stiffly at attention whilst inspectors, great and minor, read emphatically the meaningless details of his height, colour and appearance.
On the blackboards before the stations, amidst notices of children abandoned and unknown bodies found, a square sheet had appeared.
WANTED FOR MURDER.
HENRY ARTHUR MILTON, alias The Ringer, aged 34. Height 67 inches, blue or grey eyes, brown hair. May be disguised. Believed to have arrived in this country from Australia. Latest news of him is that he has recently recovered from a bad attack of pleurisy. The man is wanted on charges of murder, prison breaking and murderous assault. Dangerous; carries firearms. The above reward will be paid to any person giving information that will lead to his arrest. Notify Superintendent McFarlane, New Scotland Yard, S.W., or any police officer.
Beneath the line announcing the reward was a photograph, obviously taken in prison. It was a picture of vacuity; there was absolutely no expression in the blank face. The lips were parted, the eyes vacant and without life. The portrait was admitted to be The Ringer's chef d'oeuvre, for without the slightest aid from the instruments of artifice, he had so completely hidden himself from the eye of the camera that even Cora Milton, stopping (as she often did) to examine the picture, could trace no resemblance to her husband. And yet it was he; the prison photographer at Pentonville had taken the photograph. A governor and a chief warder could swear that it was The Ringer who had "sat"—with equal truth they could swear that not one of them could have recognised the prisoner from the print that was made.
In Flanders Lane they pointed to the ears that stood away from the head, and hugged themselves with unholy joy when they related, one to the other, the queer gift of a man whose will commanded even the muscles that in ordinary mortals had no control over those appendages. There was nobody like The Ringer—nobody in the world. Sympathy was general in Flanders Lane. He had half-killed a "screw" and had "done" a snout—but who loves a prison guard or a sneaking police spy? Certainly no Laner. They would have turned out to a man and a woman in his defence—it would have been an honour to die for him.
When Cora Milton found herself picking a way through the litter of the Lane early that evening, she had proof of the glamour which enwrapped the wife of Henry Arthur Milton. A gawky boy, terrier-faced, yelled a derisive comment on her smart appearance. Instantly somebody darted from a doorway, caught the terrified youth by the scruff of his neck and flung him, half stunned, against the area railings with a shrill dissertation upon his dubious ancestry.
She had to wait some time before the door opened, and then she saw a face that was vaguely familiar. He was certainly a "busy." She was conscious of the atmosphere of authority in which he moved.
"Good evening, Mrs. Milton. What can we do for you?"
She frowned into his face.
"Atkins, isn't it?"
Sergeant Atkins nodded.
She winced and her colour changed.
"Nothing wrong with Meister, is there?" she asked sharply.
"You know him better than I," replied the sergeant, and she was relieved by the flippancy of the reply.
"I want to see him," she said.
"Want to see Mr. Wembury, too?"
"If he's here." She saw the smile on the man's features and guessed accurately. He was not. "Am I supposed to be scared at Wembury?"
Sergeant Atkins chuckled and led her along the paved pathway to the door. An old withered face peeped out from the kitchen, but was quickly withdrawn.
"That's his housekeeper. Want to meet her?"
At that moment the door of the kitchen slammed, and there was the unmistakable sound of a key turning in the lock.
"She's not used to visitors," said Atkins. "Maybe she doesn't think it proper for beautiful young ladies to call on the old man after business hours."
"We girls have our peculiarities," said Cora, and followed him up the stairs.
She waited outside the door whilst Atkins went in.
"Who?" she heard Meister say, and then: "Right! Show her in."
He was sitting in his arm-chair, his hands complacently folded over his expansive waistcoat, a newly-lit-cigar in his mouth, and though he did not attempt to rise he was pleasant, even good-humoured.
"You'll be getting me a bad reputation, Cora," he said. "Sit down."
"On the floor or somewhere?" she asked.
He got up with a grunt and found a chair for her.
"Well, have you come to say good-bye to me before I sail for Australia?" he asked humourously, and shook a reproving finger at her. "You're a naughty girl!"
"I had a list of your visitors from that stenographer—I couldn't trace Arthur."
He laughed gently.
"You couldn't trace Arthur, could you? I'll bet you couldn't! You'll trace him in Australia—somewhere in Collins Street, Melbourne. Or you'll pick him up on the track at Flemington. But you won't trace him here, honey."
"I like you best when you're sober, Meister," she said. "You don't talk so prettily. Where is Wembury?"
"Sleeping under my bed." Meister was quite amused at the jest. "I had a pillow and a blanket put for him, and there he sleeps to-night!"
And then she asked a question which took the smile from his face.
"Who was the guy you saw—the man who peeked through the door?"
"Who told you that?" he asked angrily.
"Haggitt," was the calm reply. "That stenographer of yours wasn't talkative enough for me. Now, don't get heated up, Meister. Sam has left you, or I wouldn't have told. Besides, I'm only trying to help you."
"The thieving scum!" he growled. "That fellow couldn't drop straight!"
"Who was the man?" she asked again. "I've seen him once—"
"You've seen him?"
"Yuh, just for a second. I saw him at the Sports Club."
Mr. Meister's hand was out of jurisdiction; it was fumbling at his lips.
"But is it he?" he demanded in a harsh voice.
"I don't know—it might have been. But it is queer ... his being here."
"Fake!" said Meister loudly. "Fake! It's all part of the game to scare me into quitting. But you'll not do it, Cora, neither you nor the gang. I'm too wide, too—too clever for you all."
There was a little table in the centre of the room, covered with a white embroidered cloth. It was a delicate tablecloth and a small settee had been pulled up against it. Her shrewd eyes missed nothing.
"Having a dinner party?" she asked.
Mr. Meister glanced at the table, smiled and recovered some of his lost self-assurance.
"A client, that's all," he said airily.
She walked over to the window and, pulling aside the curtains, examined the grille.
"You don't think he's in England?" she remarked sarcastically. "What's the idea of this? To keep out the rats? Listen, Meister—I've got a feeling here"—she touched her heart—"that there is bad trouble coming to you. Bars won't keep Arthur away from you, nor detectives, nor policemen, nor a whole army. Get that into your mind. I'm giving you a chance, and you hate me for it."
He said nothing, and she mused a while, looking down at the floor, then her eyes again returned to the table.
"That's a mighty pretty stenographer of yours, Meister," she said carelessly, and she saw the ghost of a smirk on his lips. "Are you sure of her?"
His mouth opened in astonishment.
"Of Mary Lenley? What do you mean—sure?"
"I'm only asking. Are you sure of anybody? Are you sure of me?"
As if by magic, a stubby Browning had appeared in her hand. He shrank back against the wall, livid, his hands outflung. For a moment she rocked with silent laughter, and then dropped the gun into her bag.
"You're not sure of much," she said. "I could have killed you then, but I guess that Arthur would have hated me worse than ever, if I had!"
She left Meister in a state of quivering fear. For her own part, she was not altogether free from anxiety. She went into the street, letting herself out, for Atkins, at the sound of the closing door, had passed to his place of observation. She saw him there, nodded a farewell and walked quickly up Flanders Lane into the High Street.
Following her at a distance walked a man who slackened and hastened his pace to match hers. When she stopped before a jeweller's to glance at the window and he passed her, she saw him for a second in a careless glance, but she did not recognise the parson in the horn-rimmed glasses as the man she had momentarily seen in the doorway of the Sports Club.
THERE was an air of serenity about Harlboro Street station-house; a calmness which had been disturbed all that day by the chip and jangle of steel on stone; for the commissioners had belatedly agreed that the charge-room was ill-lit, and a wide gap had appeared in one wall—covered now at the end of the working day, with canvas and laths—and not all the industrious sweepings of the housekeeper had removed the white of plaster from the door.
Station Sergeant Carter had no views on the aesthetic; he was a little tetchy as to tidiness, and held very strong views indeed upon draughts, which blew about his legs as he worked at his high desk. There was a silence in the bare charge-room, broken only by the sober ticking of the clock and an occasional tinkle as a cinder fell in the steel-bottomed fender.
Wembury stood with his back to the fire, an evening newspaper in his hand, his derby hat on the back of his head. He was reading the story of The Ringer. The newspapers had only just awakened to the fact that drama was walking in its midst, and when he returned to the station-house he had found three reporters waiting to be misinformed.
The sergeant dropped his hand on a bell-push and a policeman came through the door leading to the cells.
"Get that sack out of the way," said Sergeant Carter testily, pointing to the offending article that was draped over a trestle. "And push the trestle up to the wall."
As the policeman obeyed, he turned to the twinkling Wembury.
"The place is more like a pig-sty than a charge-room. This is no place for honest working men who only work seven hours a day."
Wembury looked up over his paper.
"Expecting company?" he asked, and the sergeant grunted.
"No. We haven't a good night club in this district, worse luck! Now, when I was up west, you couldn't pass ten minutes without somebody being brought in. Ugh!" He shivered.
Wembury looked at the gap in the wall approvingly.
"It was about time they put in a window. This is the darkest station-house I've ever been in," he said.
"You've had a bit of luck," growled the sergeant. "Personally, I'd rather have a station dark than chilly. There's a draught coming through that hole that's paralysing. Good story, sir?"
Wembury had put the newspaper down and had taken a little book from his pocket and was turning the leaves slowly. He looked up.
Wembury shook his head.
"I don't believe in novel reading. It puts ideas in your head," said the sergeant disparagingly. "I wonder whether the doctor's got any romance out of that job?"
"Where is he?"
"He's in the cells, putting a bandage round the head of a nut who tried to climb a lamppost with a two-seater Rolls. The doctor thinks he's drunk—I certainly had suspicions myself when he wanted to shake hands with me after he was charged. No, he's not a local. Is there anybody in Deptford that owns a two-seater Rolls?" he asked sarcastically. "Said his steering gear went wrong. Maybe he was right—his steering gear! It certainly slipped the drum when he tried to walk across the charge-room."
Wembury was evidently not inclined for conversation. His mind was intent upon the closely-printed pages of the little book. Presently the sergeant put down his pen.
"Do you believe The Ringer's in town, sir?" he asked.
"Do I believe it?" said Alan Wembury in surprise. "Why, of course I believe it! Even Peter thinks so."
The sergeant smiled tolerantly.
"Peter would think anything for a pint of beer," he said. "No, I haven't tried it—beer's dear."
Dr. Lomond came up from the cells a little importantly, and the sergeant, getting down, made room for him at his desk.
"Drunk, doctor?" Alan asked the question with a smile.
"Undoubtedly, in spite of his being a member of two good clubs. He'll probably plead neurasthenia and shell-shock, but for the moment he's vulgarly intoxicated."
"Nothing romantic?" asked Alan innocently and the doctor glared at him over his glasses.
"If you're going to roast me every time I have to examine a boozer -" he began, and then laughed. "I asked for all this trouble. Nevertheless, I hold on to my theory. I believe that if anybody brings about the arrest of The Ringer it will be me!"
Sergeant Carter looked pathetically at his superior, and the doctor, raising his eyes quickly, intercepted the glance.
"You feel almost sorry for me, don't you? But unless I'm greatly mistaken, I'm going to give you clever people the shock of your lives. I'm wasting my time because I'm talking to a wholly sceptical audience," he said reproachfully, and went on with his work.
Alan Wembury resumed his study of the book until:
"The constable wants you, Mr. Wembury," said Sergeant Carter.
Looking across to the open door, Alan saw that the officer on duty was making signs.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Peter, sir. You told me to keep an eye open for him."
Wembury put down the book and walked to the entrance of the police station.
It was not Peter's habit to come direct to headquarters. He was generally satisfied to show himself in the street. Usually he passed by the station, made a signal to the man on the door and walked slowly on, to be followed by any detective who happened to be on duty at the moment. But now, to Alan's surprise, the little man came straight to the steps and mounted them.
"Can I see you a minute, Mr. Wembury?" he muttered as he passed, and Alan followed him into the charge-room. "In your office, sir?"
The inspector nodded, opened the door of the office and they went in together.
"Well, Peter, what have you found?"
"They're going to do that warehouse in Hinton Street to-morrow night—Ben Skoffer's doing the job. Lenley's out; he came up to London this morning."
"I know that."
Peter was nervous—a curious phenomenon in him. These minor details were the merest cloak to hide the real purpose of his coming.
"Sam Haggitt—him that works for Meister, the lawyer—he's hopping it to Canada."
"Going to Canada? When?" asked Alan quickly.
"To-night," was the astounding reply. "I had it from the girl he goes with. She's leaving, too. I saw him yesterday come out of the C.P.B. offices on Cockspur Street."
"Are you sure?" asked Alan incredulously.
"Yes, yes. He's bought his ticket," Peter went on. "He's got the money off Cora Milton for that, but he's got some more coming from somewhere else."
He walked to the door, tried the handle and returned to the table.
"The Ringer's back," he said, lowering his voice. "I've got it straight."
"Anybody seen him?" asked Alan in the same tone.
Peter Litt shook his head.
"No, nobody's likely to see him. But his landlord—"
"I know all about his landlord. He may have been mistaken. One voice sounds very much like another. Besides, The Ringer would 'ring' his voice too, Peter."
The little man looked round the tiny office uncomfortably, nervously.
"I've been looking for you all day," Wembury went on. "You can forget the little thieves and the small burglars—Haggitt and the rest of them—but keep your eyes skinned for this man. There's big money for you if you detect him. Wait!"
Peter had made a protesting noise.
"I don't want you to walk up and lay your hands on him. I hardly imagine you'd be such a fool. But when you see him," he dropped his voice, "go to the nearest phone, call me up and tell me what he looks like."
Peter shook his head vigorously as they passed out into the charge-room.
"I'm not going to nose on The Ringer." He was very definite for Peter. "Meister wanted me to do it, and I kidded him I would. But not me, Mr. Wembury!"
He was shivering stupidly.
"And so would you be if you was me," said Peter, when the detective remarked upon his condition. "The Ringer's death to a nose! Here ... there was a feller who nosed on him once—a feller named Toby Law—ever heard about him?"
"That's right," said the sergeant unnecessarily. "They took Toby out of the river a week later. Found drowned. Is that the murder he's wanted for, Mr. Wembury?"
"They done him down at Silvertown," Peter went on. "All the boys know it, don't they, sergeant?"
"Don't ask me," said the sergeant. "I'm not a 'boy.'"
"We know it, at any rate," said Wembury. "But you need not be afraid that anything like that will happen to you."
"I'll watch that it doesn't," said Peter hurriedly. "I'll be going now."
He was obviously anxious to avoid a repetition of Alan's request. It was not like Peter to come openly to the station-house. He was by nature furtive, had in him something of the cat. But to-night the little man took a view of the station-house which was novel in him. The ugly building with the blue lamp stood for safety and sanctuary. There was a cheering sense of strength in its very grim solidity.
He slunk out of the door again and was lost to view. The sergeant looked at Wembury.
"What do you think about that?" he asked. "I've never seen him in that state before. Maybe he's taken to drugs. All these 'grasshoppers' get that way if they don't drink themselves to death."
The doctor blotted one of the many puzzling forms which he had to fill up, and stepped down from his stool.
"Here is the certificate, sergeant," he said briskly. "Now what about Meister?"
"What about him?" asked Alan, secretly amused.
"I've got a theory," said the doctor, "but I realise I shan't be able to work it out single-handed. You told me yesterday that underneath the Lane is a subterranean passage."
"I told you that the tenants had knocked down the cellar walls and made a run from one end of the road to the other. But that is only on the south side of the Lane."
"Which is the same side as Meister's house," said the doctor promptly. "Where does the passage end?"
Alan wrinkled his brow in thought.
"I think about fifty yards from Meister's house; certainly not nearer."
Dr. Lomond smiled blandly.
"It isn't fifty yards if it's the end house. Exactly twelve feet continuation would bring a man into the passage underneath Meister's garden. I've been to the trouble of going up to the Borough Surveyor's office, and I examined the plans. And I have reached this conclusion: You've got a man outside the house—in my judgment that is perfectly useless. He should be posted inside, midway between the tree and the northern wall. I should have the ground bored—not so thoroughly as you're being bored now!—and unless my judgment is at fault, you'll find that the cellars of the Lane are the best way in for any person who has designs upon our friend's life. When I was district surgeon at Bulalli, we had a party of Tommies who were being held for some civil offence, and they made their way down into a storehouse...."
Alan listened with exemplary patience. But it was always Dr. Lomond's fate to be interrupted in the most interesting portion of his narrative. A telegraph boy came in, looked round somewhat awe-stricken at finding himself in such an unusual and fascinating environment.
"For you, sir," said the sergeant, taking the message.
Wembury opened the envelope and read the two closely-written pages, folded them up and put them in his pocket.
"You can save yourself a great deal of speculation, doctor," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. "The Ringer is in Australia, and the Melbourne police think they will arrest him to-night!"
MARY LENLEY got home later than she expected, to find Johnny dozing in an arm-chair before the fire, for the night was unaccountably cold. A strong northerly wind had brought the chill air from the Pole and, though it was early summer, London was walking about in its overcoats.
As she gently put her hand on his shoulder, he woke with a start and stared up.
"Hallo, dear!" he said, yawned and rose.
In a sense she was thankful that he was not his old alert, watchful self when she had come in. She had time to go to her room and hide the traces of her tears. The last half-hour before she had left Meister had been an agony to the girl—thirty searing minutes. She had been in her little room when Cora Milton had called; the worst part of the interview was after The Ringer's girl had left the house.
She came back to find her brother in the kitchen, brewing the coffee. It was his one contribution to the domestic day. Johnny made coffee well—made it in large quantities, so that it only needed heating when it was required at any hour of the day or night.
She was on the point of telling him that she had to go out again that night, though for the life of her she could not think of one plausible excuse, when he said:
"I've got to go round and see some people, old girl. You won't mind being left alone?"
"Will you be late?" she asked, a fluttering at her heart.
"About eleven; maybe a little later. Why?"
"Because I want to see ... go ... to a sick girl friend...."
She hated herself for the lame lie, and thought he would detect it instantly, but he was so out of touch with her life and her acquaintances that he did not seem to think it strange, was indeed relieved a little.
"Sick, is she? That was the one dread I had when I was away," he said; "that you'd be left with nobody here to look after you. You're leaving Meister—have you told him?"
"We shan't be able to give up this place for a month or so. I want to get fixed up in the country."
He was busy pouring out the coffee.
"Cottages are hard to come by, but I know a man in Hertfordshire who'll find me a corner somewhere. I've had it in my mind for a long time to start a poultry farm. There's a big demand for English birds of the right kind. I met a man in prison who would have made a fortune out of breeding silver foxes, but they got some sort of disease and died...."
He, too, was ill at ease, restless, nervous and could not keep one position for longer than a minute. He was hardly seated at the table before he rose again, went from the room and came back, only to remember that he had left his pipe in the kitchen. When he went out finally, his departure was a little abrupt, and she was not sorry to be alone.
Here and now she had to make her final decision. Was Meister bluffing? Was it possible that he could hold proof, and, if he did, that Johnny could be punished for an ancient crime, however heinous it might be? If she only had somebody to advise her—somebody in whom she could confide! Her mind went instantly to Alan Wembury and to his invitation.
"If you are ever in any kind of difficulty, will you come to me?"
But could she tell him—a police officer? If it was anything else but an old crime of Johnny's, it would have been easy. She was not greatly perturbed by Meister's view of the police and their treachery; she knew he cordially hated them. But Alan Wembury was different.
The clock moved inexorably forward. Time was indeed flying; and as every minute passed, the tension grew, till at last she rose, took down her hat and coat and went out.
Back in the station house, Alan was still engrossed in his book when the telephone bell rang. The sergeant pulled the instrument over to him.
"Hallo!" He looked up at the clock mechanically to time the call in his book. "What's that?" He covered the receiver with his hand. "The night watchman at Cleavers reports there's a man on the roof in Camden Crescent."
Alan thought for a moment.
"Yes, of course. Tell him not to worry, it is a police officer."
"On the roof of Camden Crescent?" asked the sergeant incredulously.
Alan nodded, and the officer addressed himself to his unknown vis-à-vis.
"That's all right, son. He's only one of our men ... eh? He's sweeping the chimney ... yes, we always have policemen sweep chimneys and we usually pick on the night." He hung up the receiver. "What's he doing up there?"
"Looking round," said Alan indifferently.
Dr. Lomond had once said that he felt the police were very hard on little criminals, that they sought crime, and grew callous to all the sufferings attendant upon its detection. Alan wondered if he had grown callous. Perhaps he had not. Perhaps no police officer should. They came to be rather like doctors, who have two personalities, in one of which they can dissociate from themselves all sentiment and human tenderness. And then the object of his thoughts appeared. John Lenley came into the charge-room, nodding to the sergeant.
"I'm reporting here," he said.
He took some papers out of his pocket and laid them on the desk.
"My name's Lenley. I'm a convict on licence."
And then he caught Wembury's eye and came over to him and shook hands.
"I heard you were out, Johnny. I congratulate you."
All the time he was speaking, there was in his mind the picture of that crouching, waiting figure of justice on the roof of Camden Crescent. He had to clench his teeth to inhibit the warning that rose to his lips.
"Yes, I came out yesterday," said Johnny.
"It only seems yesterday you went away," said the sergeant, reaching down his book to take particulars of the "brief."
"To you, but not to me," said John Lenley shortly. "To me, it seems somewhere in the region of twenty million years. Time passes much more quickly in a police station than in Ward C, Dartmoor."
"Your sister was glad to see you?"
"Yes," said Lenley curtly, and seemed disinclined to make any further reference to Mary.
"I'd like to find a job for you, Johnny," said Alan, in desperation. "I think I can."
John Lenley smiled crookedly.
"Prisoners' Aid Society?" he asked. "No, thank you! Or is it the Salvation Army you're thinking of? Paper sorting at twopence a hundredweight. Compulsory service twice a day; they give you a ticket 'please admit bearer,' and if you don't attend you're kicked out! When I get a job, it will be one that a waster can't do, Wembury. I don't want helping, I want leaving alone."
There was a silence, broken by the scratching of the sergeant's pen.
"Where are you going to-night?" asked Alan. At all costs this man must be warned. He thought of Mary Lenley waiting at home. He was almost crazy with the fear that she might in some way conceive the arrest of this man as a betrayal on his part.
John Lenley was looking at him suspiciously.
"I'm going up west. Why do you want to know?"
Alan's indifference was ill-assumed.
"I don't wish to know particularly." And then: "Sergeant, how far is it from here to Camden Crescent?"
He saw Johnny start. The man's eyes were fixed on his.
"Not ten minutes' walk," said the sergeant.
"Not far, is it?" Alan was addressing the ticket-of-leave man. "A mere ten minutes' walk from Camden Crescent to the station house!"
Johnny did not answer.
"I thought of taking a lonely stroll up west," Alan went on. "Would you like to come along and have a chat? There are several things I'd like to talk to you about."
Johnny licked his lips.
"No," he said quietly. "I've got to meet a friend."
Alan picked up his book again and turned the leaves slowly. He did not raise his eyes when he said:
"I wonder if you know whom you're going to meet? You used to be a bit of an athlete in your early days, Lenley—a runner, weren't you? I seem to remember that you took prizes?"
"Yes, I've got a cup or two," he said in a tone of surprise.
"If I were you"—still Alan did not raise his eyes from the book—"I'd run and not stop running until I reached home. And then I'd lock the door to stop myself running out again!"
The desk sergeant was intrigued.
"Why?" he asked.
"He might get another cup or a diploma or something."
Johnny had turned his back on Wembury and was apparently absorbed in the information he was giving to the sergeant.
"Lenley, I thought I saw an old friend of ours in the street the other day—Henry Arthur Milton, the man they call The Ringer."
"Did you?" said Johnny Lenley dourly. "Well, the next time you think you see him, you'd better walk up to him and make sure!"
"You were with him in Dartmoor, weren't you?"
"Yes, for a week or two."
"See much of him?"
"No, I was working in the laundry—he was in one of the shops. I don't admire him particularly. He's in Australia, they tell me!"
"Then how could you have seen him?" Johnny's eyes were hard, and then he laughed a bitter little laugh. "You never lose an opportunity, you fellows, of trying to trip up a man, do you? Is the job you've got for me one connected with this admirable trade of yours?"
Alan shook his head.
"No, you're the last man I should choose for a 'nose.'" And, as the man made for the door: "Good night, Lenley, if I don't see you again."
Johnny spun round.
"Do you expect to see me again?" he asked. "To-night?"
The words were deliberate. It was the nearest to a warning that he could give consistent with his duty; and when, with a shrug, Johnny Lenley went out into the night, the heart of Alan Wembury was sore.
"God! What fools these people are!" he said aloud.
"And a good job too!" returned the sergeant. "If they weren't born suckers, you'd never catch 'em!"
Wembury said nothing. He was standing with his hands behind him, his chin on his chest, his eyes examining a bright nail that showed in the floor.
"Get Meister on the phone," he said. "I want him to ring the station every hour."
It was a few minutes before the call came through, and when Alan took the receiver and heard the oleaginous voice of the man at the other end, he realised that courage had returned, and wondered how big a price the man had paid for that jauntiness of speech.
"Yes, it's Wembury talking. I've had a cable from the Australian police saying that The Ringer is not in England. That may be true, and yet there is the chance that he has sent one of his crowd to deputise for him, so the precautions will continue. I want you to phone me every hour."
"I am coming round to have a look at you, dear boy," said Mr. Meister's voice.
It was a cheerful voice, yet there was a quaver in it, as though, through the haze of alcohol, the underlying ferment of fear was working.
"Tell Atkins," warned Wembury, "don't walk—take a cab and let him ride with you. What's the trouble—anybody been tapping on your door?" He smiled at the answer. "Oh, no, I'm sure you're mistaken. If there had been any person on the landing I should have seen him. I went through the garden immediately afterwards."
He replaced the receiver, returning to his position before the fire, and Sergeant Carter leant back in his high stool and grew speculative.
"I can't understand old Meister," he said. "You wouldn't think that a fellow as wide as he is would have a lag's sister in his office. She's straight enough, of course...."
"I'm glad you put in that qualification," said Alan stiffly, "or I might have been annoyed with you."
"Annoyed with me, sir?" Sergeant Carter was hurt. "Hope I haven't said anything out of place?"
"It is no offence to be the sister of a convict," said the annoyed Alan, "under any law I know—from the laws of the Medes and Persians to the laws of auction bridge."
"Certainly not, sir," said the sergeant. "Miss Lenley couldn't think crooked."
Alan realised that the little grimace which Sergeant Carter made was intended for himself. It said so plainly, "Oh, is that how the land lies!" that he went red.
"If there's anything remarkable about the business, it is why a girl of her character should work for such a brute as Meister."
Once on the subject of Mary, he found it extremely difficult to think or talk of anybody else. When the sergeant said that it was remarkable what women would do for money, he could have murdered him.
The conversation was interrupted by the phone and a formal announcement of a street accident.
"No, sir, not a serious one—at least, it wasn't when it happened, but the constable's giving him first-aid ... he only started learning last week. You were saying about that young lady, sir?" said the old gossip innocently.
Alan pocketed his book.
"I don't want you to get a wrong impression about Miss Lenley. I've known her for some years; she came from the same little village as I. The Lenleys were great people—until the old man got the gambling fever and went broke. And why I should be telling you all this, I don't know."
"No, sir," said the agreeable sergeant, "but if it eases your mind to talk—"
"It doesn't," snapped Wembury. "I don't want to discuss it any more."
"As I often tell my good lady, if a fellow is struck on a girl, it doesn't matter who she is."
"There is no suggestion that anybody is struck on Miss Lenley," said Alan hotly. "I merely know her just as you might know a lady."
Sergeant Carter was instantly virtuous.
"I don't know any ladies, sir," he disclaimed. "I'm a married man myself."
"You're a damned fool," said the irritable Alan.
"Very likely, sir. I've often thought so myself, but she wears very well."
Sergeant Carter was that type of policeman that belongs to the past, to the days of the old regulars, before every amateur in the land thought there was money in burglary and the American invasion began. He could reminisce about burglars by the hour: old broken men, whom he met nowadays, standing miserably at the corner of the street, who had acquired their hundreds with the aid of a jemmy and two inches of candle, and to-day could not raise their bus fares. The big burglars did not trouble Blackheath any more. Poverty was creeping like an autumn mist toward the grand houses, whose sons lay in France. One or two had become boarding-houses; one at least was falling to pieces for want of repair above the heads of its occupants. The up-to-date burglar, who required a lorry to carry his kit, worked north of the river.
"American competition is killing everything," said the sergeant sadly, and doubtless there was something to be said for his point of view.
Wembury would have gone out had it not been for the lawyer's expressed intention of coming to the station-house. He did not want to be around when the inevitable happened and Johnny Lenley was brought in—unless he had taken the hint. Had he? It seemed impossible of belief that he could have the situation so plainly put before him, and yet ignore the warning.
He heard a light patter of feet on the stone steps outside the station, a woman.... He gasped with amazement as he saw the girl who came in. It was Mary Lenley.
SHE came towards him, and from the pallor of her face and her obvious distress he thought that she had discovered her brother's plans.
"May I see you, please?" she said breathlessly. "Alone. I want to talk."
He opened the door of his room, but she shook her head.
"No, I can't stay."
"What on earth are you doing here?" he asked.
She shook her head.
"Has Mr. Meister come?"
"No. Why—is anything wrong? He told me a little time ago that he would call."
"Yes, something is very wrong. I made him very angry to-night.... Oh, I don't know what I'm saying!" She covered her eyes with her hands. He remembered that gesture of hers so well; he had seen it in the days she wore pinafores; the dog had died and she stopped at the cottage gates to tell him.
"Did you know he was coming here?"
"I was in his room when he phoned. I didn't intend going, but something took me there to ask him.... Have you seen my brother?"
"Yes; he was here a little time ago. I wonder you didn't meet him."
Her mouth was dry, her pulses were racing erratically. Acting on the impulse, she had first gone to the house. Atkins had seen her and let her in, and the interview which followed had been valueless. She had found Meister a being exalted, unsteady of foot and vinous of breath; he had grown out of his fear, and when she had begged him to let her off the promise she had made, he had been adamantine. And now, in a last desperate endeavour to save herself and her brother, she had come to tell Alan Wembury what she should have told him at first.
"I want you to advise me, Alan. You told me to come if I was in any difficulty, and I'm in a terrible difficulty. I don't know how to put it to you. Suppose ... suppose that before Johnny went to prison he had done something even worse than burglary?"
Wembury was glancing uneasily at the door, but at her words he concentrated his gaze upon her.
"Won't you come into my room?" he begged.
She shook her head.
"No, I mustn't wait. Johnny will be coming home very soon. I want to see him before I—I go out. I'm working rather late to-night. Alan, suppose Johnny had done something dreadful in the past, could they punish him now? That is what I want to know. You understand what I mean—something he did before he was arrested and sent to prison?"
It was the last question in the world he expected from her, because he thought he knew Johnny Lenley's record rather well.
"It depends upon what the crime was," he said slowly. "You don't know?"
She shook her head.
"If it was serious—more serious than the charge on which he was convicted—they would try him again. But a case of that sort—years old—would take a lot of proving."
"But suppose there were proof?" she said desperately. "Documentary proof?"
He stared at her.
"No, no, no—I don't know. Oh, I oughtn't to be telling you this at all," she wailed, and he took her hand gently in his.
"You have told me nothing as yet. And if you do tell me anything that you'd rather I hadn't known, why, I'm a pretty good forgetter."
Sergeant Carter was pretending to be busy, and had an excuse, for Dr. Lomond had followed the girl into the charge-room and was searching for the fountain-pen which, alternately with his glasses, he was always losing.
"They could punish him, then!" she asked anxiously.
"It depends. I shouldn't think that they would punish him, after his sentence and the way in which he earned remission."
He found it so hard even to offer this grain of comfort, knowing that yet another charge might soon be preferred against the man. The sight of her grief was agony to him, and her next words cut him even a little deeper.
"Oh, how awful!" she whispered. "And he's only just come back from prison! That year has changed him terribly, Alan! It is as if all the humanity had been drawn out of him, and something hard and solid had been put in its place."
"Won't you pretend that I'm not a police officer?" he asked in a low voice. "Give me just a little of your confidence, Mary. What is behind this story of an early crime?"
"I'll—I'll tell you," she said jerkily.
The heavy footfall of Meister came to them; she heard and recognised it, looked wildly round for a way of escape. Before Alan could open the door of his office the lawyer lurched in. His overcoat was open, his silk hat was on the back of his head, an unaccustomed cigarette drooped from his lips. The transition from the dark street to the well-lit charge-room temporarily blinded him. He stared for a long time at the sacking that hid the hole in the wall, and then slowly brought his eyes in the direction of Mary Lenley. Before he could speak to her she confronted him.
"Why have you come?" she asked in a voice that shook. "After I promised you ...?"
Alan saw a slow smile spread upon the vacuous face.
"The little girl doesn't think I'm double-crossing her?" He patted her arm affectionately. "She doesn't trust her old lawyer! Just come to see the inspector," he said soothingly, "about a man I'm defending. What a suspicious little girl you are! I wouldn't do Johnny harm, you know that, even though he's threatened me." He shook his head stupidly. "He'll take the nine o'clock walk to the scaffold, eh? He may take that walk!"
And then, partially sobered by the horror on her face:
"No, no, I didn't mean that, my dear."
"What do you mean?" she asked intensely.
"I don't think you'd better stay here, Miss Lenley." Alan had joined the group, and there was a plea in his voice which was irresistible.
He was in an agony of mind lest at any moment John Lenley should be brought in. He himself had wished to avoid meeting the man; most passionately he desired to save the girl that misery.
"Quite right," said Meister with solemn drunken gravity. "Quite right. The inspector knows."
He drew Alan aside.
"Have they brought him in? I don't think he'd be fool enough to do the job, but he's better away, my dear Wembury, very much better."
"Did you come to find out? You might have saved yourself the trouble by telephoning," said Alan sternly.
The whole mien of Meister suddenly changed. The look that Alan had seen in his eyes before reappeared, and when he spoke his voice was harsh but coherent.
"No, I didn't come for that." He looked round over his shoulder. The policeman had come from the door to the sergeant and was whispering something to him. Even the doctor seemed interested. "Haggitt cleared out and left me alone—the dirty quitter! Alone in the house!"
Up went the hand to his mouth.
"It got on my nerves, Wembury. Every sound I heard, the creak of a chair when I moved, a coal falling from the fire, the rattle of the windows—"
Out of the dark beyond the doorway loomed a figure. Nobody saw it. The three men talking together at the desk least of all. The gaunt man stared into the charge-room for a second and vanished as though he were part of some magician's trick. The policeman at the desk caught a glimpse of him and ran to the door. The sergeant and the doctor followed at a more leisurely pace.
"Every sound brings my heart into my mouth, Wembury. I feel as though I stood in the very presence of doom."
His voice was a husky whine.
"I feel it now—as though somewhere near me, in this very room, death were at my elbow. Oh, God, it's awful—awful!"
He covered his face with his hands.
"Why don't you go abroad—go away?"
Meister looked at him with sour suspicion.
"Go abroad?" sneered the lawyer. "Are you in that game too? I'll stay—I'm not going to be scared of a shadow. If The Ringer is here, it is the duty of the police to detect him—your job! Do you hear, Wembury?" he roared. "Your job!"
Suddenly he swayed, and Alan Wembury caught him just in time. Fortunately the doctor was at hand, and they sat him on a chair whilst Sergeant Carter delved into his desk for an ancient bottle of smelling-salts that had served many a fainting lady, overcome in that room by her temporary misfortunes.
"Now won't you go away, Mary?" Alan asked the question urgently.
"Why is he afraid?" She was looking at the huddled heap in the chair with pity and disgust.
"Some day I'll tell you. But won't you go now?"
All the time his eyes had been on the door, his ears strained to catch the tramp of feet. Then, to his relief, she smiled suddenly and nodded.
"I'll go. Thank you for seeing me."
She caught his hand in both of hers.
"You've told me all I wanted to know."
He shook his head.
"I'm afraid I haven't been much help to you, my dear."
"If there are proofs against Johnny -" she began.
"Let us talk about that to-morrow." He was terrified that the man would come.
"To-morrow!" Again she smiled. "I hope you'll think well of me to-morrow."
For a second their eyes met, and had Alan been less preoccupied with the thought of Johnny Lenley, he would have seen into her heart. He went to the door and watched her until she disappeared, and came back to find that Meister had recovered under the doctor's treatment. He sat with his face screwed up in a grimace of distaste. Lomond had given him one of his most noxious restoratives.
"That's beastly stuff," he said, smacking his lips.
"Then it must be very good," said Lomond. "None of the real tonics of life are sugar-coated, Mr. Meister."
The man staggered to his feet, and for the first time noticed the absence of Mary.
"Where has she gone?" he asked.
"She's gone home—to her own home," said Alan quietly. "I advise you to go home to yours. Let Atkins stay in the house with you; he can sleep in your study."
Meister shot a queer glance at him.
"Yes ... but not to-night."
The slow, sly smile came back to his face.
"I shan't be alone to-night."
There was a pause.
"You won't, eh?" said Alan Wembury softly. "You're having a friend to stay with you?"
"That's it—a very good friend ... if promises mean anything."
"A man friend?" The searching eyes were on the lawyer's face.
"Oh, of course!"
"I can't imagine that you would ask any other kind," said Wembury slowly, "or that you would employ some influence you hold to induce an unwilling ... individual to keep you company."
For a second Meister was taken aback by the accuracy of the detective's guess, and then, with a return to his best judicial manner:
"I don't consult the police about the kind of friends I have to stay with me," he said.
"I'm not talking to you as a policeman." Wembury's face was a shade paler; his voice had the sting of a whip. "I'm talking as a friend of your friend. You're a useful man to us, Meister; you give us very valuable hints. But in the past years we've accumulated quite a lot of information about you."
"Are you threatening me?" bullied Meister.
"I'm warning you! You're the second man I've warned to-night."
The lawyer started to say something, but with an impatient wave of his hand:
"Let me alone. I don't want to quarrel with you. A man has got to find his happiness where he can. You haven't adopted ... a certain person, have you?"
Wembury nodded, and the next second turned his face to the door.
"There he is again!" It was Lomond; he was pointing up the street. Meister gripped the arm of the detective.
"Who is it?"
"He's been watching the station ever since Meister came in," said Lomond, and with a scream of terror the lawyer's knees doubled up under him; this time it took three men to lift and carry him into the inspector's room, where a couch was quickly cleared.
"I'm afraid he's gone right out this time," said Wembury. "Who was it you saw?" he asked the doctor.
"I've seen him before. He's been hanging round all the evening.... This fat man is going to die in one of these fits."
Happily there was a little wash-place in Wembury's room, and running water. As the doctor swabbed the face of the unconscious man and tore off his collar, he proceeded to enlarge upon the psychology of conscience.
"Meister has evidently done something particularly bad in the past," he said, and Alan knew it was useless to agree or disagree, so brought the doctor back to the subject of the mysterious watcher.
"What was he like?"
"I saw just a glimpse of him—in fact, I passed him rather closely. A thin-faced man who looks ill and miserable and, if I may use the word, 'sinister.' I know you imagine I see a ferocious criminal in the most innocent people, but that is how he impressed me."
"What was he doing?"
"Standing on the other side of the road under the lamp-post."
Alan beckoned Atkins, who had accompanied Meister to the station, and sent him out to investigate. He returned in a few minutes to announce that there was no sign of a man, sinister or otherwise, loitering in the street.
Dr. Lomond took a serious view of the happening.
"I've seen him before," he said, "once in the High Street. I had the illusion that he was following me."
"Do you know anybody answering the description?" asked Wembury.
"Yes, sir; he is undoubtedly the man who was challenged by Harrap near Meister's house last night."
"It occurred to me," said Dr. Lomond, lifting the eyelid of the still unconscious Meister, "that it might have been The Ringer—"
"The Ringer!" snapped Alan. "Don't make me laugh! Everybody's seen The Ringer except me! He's like the Russians who came through England at the beginning of the war, with the snow on their boots to prove their nationality!"
"Maybe they did," said the doctor, game to the last. He bent his head over Meister and listened. "I think we can leave him here for a little while; he'll recover as quickly as he went. These fainting fits are mainly digestive derangement." So did this lover of romance reduce tragedy to its lowest denominator. "He ought not to walk home, by the way," he said as they went out of the room together, closing the door.
"I agree," said Alan grimly. "Fortunately you have a cab, Atkins, haven't you?"
The sergeant nodded.
Tramp, tramp, tramp!
His keen ears had caught the sound of the measured march, the peculiar tempo of a man in custody, and he drew a long breath as Johnny Lenley, his arm gripped by a plain-clothes policeman, came through the door and was pushed into the steel dock which was the one imposing feature of the charge-room. There was no preliminary.
"I am Detective-Constable Bell," said the tall man. "This evening I was on the roof of 57, Camden Crescent, and I saw this man come up through a trap-door in the attic of No. 55. I saw him searching behind the cistern of 57, and took him into custody. I charged him with breaking and entering 65, Camden Crescent, and attempting to break and enter No. 57."
Lenley stood with his arm on the steel rail of the dock, looking down at the floor. He scarcely seemed interested in the proceedings, until he raised his head and his eyes found Wembury's, and then he nodded slowly.
"Thank you, Wembury," he said. "If I had the brain of a rabbit I shouldn't be here."
Carter at the desk dipped his pen in the ink.
"What is your name?" he asked automatically.
Silence and a splutter of writing.
"I have no address."
"I am a convict on licence," said Johnny quietly.
The sergeant put down his pen.
"Search him," he said, and Johnny spread out his arms while the tall officer ran his hands through his pockets and carried what he had found to the desk.
"Who put me away, Wembury?"
Alan shook his head.
"That is not a question to ask me," he said. "You know that very well." He nodded to the desk to call the prisoner's attention to the man who was, for the moment, in supreme authority.
"Have you any explanation for your presence on the roof of 57, Camden Gardens?" asked the sergeant.
Johnny Lenley cleared his throat.
"I went after the stuff I got my seven for. It was supposed to be planted behind a cistern, and I went to get it. And it wasn't there. That's all. Who was the snout? You needn't tell me, because I know. Look after my sister, Wembury; she'll want some looking after, and I'd sooner trust you than any man—"
It was unfortunate for all concerned that Mr. Meister chose that moment to make his bedraggled appearance. He stared foolishly at the man in the dock, and Johnny Lenley smiled.
"Hallo, Meister!" he said softly.
The lawyer was staggered.
"Why—why—it's—it's Johnny!" he stammered. "You haven't been getting into trouble again, have you, Johnny?" He raised his hands in a gesture of despair. "What a misfortune! I'll be down at the court to defend you in the morning, my boy." He ambled up to the sergeant's desk. "Any food he wants, let him have it at my expense," he said loudly.
"Meister!" The word came like the clang of steel on steel. "There was no swag behind the cistern!"
Mr. Meister's face was a picture of wonder and amazement.
"No swag behind the cistern? 'Swag'? I don't know what you're talking about, my boy."
Lenley nodded and grinned mirthlessly.
"I came out too soon for you. It interfered with your little scheme, didn't it, Meister? You might have found a less drastic way of clearing me out."
Meister's smile was a blend of pity and amusement.
"Johnny, you're talking nonsense," he said. "A little rest will do you good, anyway. Came out too soon, did you? And now you're going into the country—alone!"
"That will do, Meister." Wembury caught him by the arm and jerked him back angrily. "I am not going to allow you to jeer at a man in trouble. He's going to the country alone, but while Mary Lenley is in London and I am here, she is not alone—do you understand that?"
He beckoned the jailer.
"Take him away," he said.
At that second John Lenley dropped and dived under the rail and before Wembury could realise what was happening, he had the lawyer by the throat. In a second four men were struggling in a heap on the ground.
"Handcuffs!" called Alan.
The sergeant snatched a pair from a hook on the wall and Wembury caught them deftly. In a second he had dived into the scrum, had gripped one strong wrist and snapped the bracelet fast. Before he could reach the other, Lenley, with a superhuman effort, wriggled himself free from the scrum, knocking Atkins backward in his bull-rush. A policeman started for the door to cover that exit, but with one spring John Lenley was through the hole in the wall; there was a sound of rending, tearing and snapping laths, and he was gone!
ONCE in the street, Lenley ran like a deer. Behind him the shrill drone of police whistles; ahead of him he saw a man in uniform appear out of the shadow and into the light of the street lamps, and, checking himself in his run, flung up a narrow alley. At the end further progress was barred by a high wooden paling, but he was over this before the policeman had flashed his light down the dark entry. He was in a poor backyard; he felt the felt-covered roof of a chicken-run sag beneath his weight before he reached the earth. There was a light in one of the upstairs rooms and he heard a door open.
There was no way out, except through the house or over it. He decided upon the latter course. He was on the roof of the scullery and clambering over the slates in a miraculously short space of time. Below him now, as he came down the inverted V of the roof, was a little street, where, with the exception of two children playing noisily at the far end, nobody was in sight. He dropped on to the pavement with the ease of a trained athlete, and, darting across the road to where a lesser street joined the thoroughfare, he had vanished when the first policeman came on the scene.
Alan Wembury had no expectation that the man would be overtaken. Lenley was a runner, and the neighbourhood was full of these little streets and alleys. And he knew that Johnny could climb like a cat. He had only to place a couple of walls between himself and his pursuers to beat them.
He returned to the station-house to issue an all-station message and circulate the description of the escaped man, and then, as was his duty, he made a bee-line for Malpas Mansions. She must know sooner or later, and she might as well learn the tragedy which had come upon the Lenleys from his own lips.
He climbed up the broad stone staircase, stopped outside her flat and knocked. He knocked three times when the door opposite opened (there were four flats on each landing), and a woman peered out at him, for the landing was illuminated by one dimly-burning gas lamp.
"Do you want Miss Lenley? She's not in; she went out a quarter of an hour ago."
"Do you know where?"
"No." The woman shook her head. "But she won't be in till late. I know, because I met her coming down the stairs, and she asked me to slip a note under the door for her brother. To tell you the truth," confessed the garrulous lady, "I didn't even know she had a brother."
"She has a brother all right," said Alan.
There had been no sound or stir within when he had knocked. It was unlikely that Johnny would have come straight home. Where had she gone? He turned cold at the memory of her words. To Meister's? His first business was to continue the search for Johnny Lenley, but for the moment he had a duty which was nearer to him than the call of the State. He posted a plain-clothes officer to watch the mansions and hurried to Flanders Lane. Atkins was outside, with his back to the black door, a pipe between his teeth, as comfortable as a man can be whom duty compelled to remain exposed to the chill of the night. Nobody had been, he said, and Wembury went round to the back of the house and tried the stable door. It was locked.
Crossing the road, he could just see the top of the window in Meister's room. There was a light there and the curtains were drawn. Was it a trick of his imagination, or did he see a shadowy shape silhouetted for a moment against the window? Even as he considered this, he saw a bunch of leaves sweep jerkily into his line of vision and disappear again. It must have been the trees he had seen; the leaves were rustling noisily, every branch was astir, for the norther was reaching gale force. And yet—a shoulder and a head, he could have sworn.
He waited another five minutes, but saw only the recurring toss of leaves and boughs, and he joined Atkins before the house.
"Have you seen Meister lately?"
"Yes," said Atkins. "He wanted me to stay inside. He was his old, jovial self—I helped him to carry a case up from his cellar. Champagne and everything."
Alan bit his lip.
"Where is the housekeeper?"
"Haven't seen her since we came back." Atkins shook his head. "I've got an idea she locks herself in. She sleeps behind the kitchen."
"Now listen, Atkins." Alan Wembury was very earnest. "It may be that Meister will have visitors to-night, or people who want to see him for some reason—for some good reason," he corrected himself. "There is one person I do not want to come into this house, and you have instructions that she is not to be admitted."
"Who is that?" asked Atkins, with interest.
"Miss Mary Lenley."
"I see." Atkins scratched his head. "What happened to Johnny?" he asked, and in a few words Wembury told him of the escape.
"Does she know?"
"No; you had better keep that from her until I see her. If she comes, phone me at the station and I'll be round in three or four minutes. Remember, on no account is Miss Lenley to be admitted to the house."
"We had the divisional surgeon round here this evening, measuring the road." Something amused Atkins and he was laughing softly to himself. "All Flanders Lane turned out to help. When he asked somebody to hold the end of his measure there was a free fight for the honour and glory!"
Alan cursed the doctor under his breath, but the absurdity of it struck him and he laughed, though he was in no laughing mood.
"He was measuring from the end of the Lane to Meister's wall, I suppose?"
"Yes," said the other in surprise; "did you know?"
"I guessed. He has a theory that there is a subterranean passage. If there is or if there isn't, he'll put it in his book. You've not seen our friend with the whiskers?"
"No, sir. I've got an idea Harrap invented him. You haven't seen him, have you?"
"I'm the only one in London who hasn't," said Alan, and went swinging up Flanders Lane. Its cat-eyed population saw him, and only the just were left visible as he stalked past.
He grinned to himself at the thought of the doctor and his tape measure, and wondered what conclusion Flanders Lane had reached at this eccentricity. Possibly they thought that he had a new drainage system in view. Certainly very few of them knew him, or his association with the police might have led to unpleasant consequences.
There was no news at the station when he returned. He had made inquiries about others than Johnny Lenley that night. Mr. Sam Haggitt had disappeared from his usual haunts, and it almost seemed as though Peter the Nose was unusually well informed. Alan had taken the precaution of sending a man to Euston to look over the Canadian boat train. The third-class passengers left that night, and it was possible that Mr. Haggitt would be amongst the number, though it was unlikely; and when Mr. Meister's late servant was mentioned, Alan shook his head.
"Peter may be wrong there," he said. "Haggitt looks as if he'd settled down. He might not like working for Meister, but he'll probably find another job."
"Peter's never wrong," said the sergeant. "If he says Haggitt's going to Canada, then he's going to Canada. It would be a good thing to let him go, too."
"We can't do that," said Alan. "He's a convict on licence for one thing, and he hasn't asked permission. If it's true that he's leaving for Canada, then there's an undiscovered larceny somewhere in the background, and that concerns me much more than his licence. If he wanted to emigrate on his own money I would willingly ask permission, supposing Canada were so foolish as to accept such an unreliable brute, but it's the larceny I'm thinking about."
Sergeant Carter got down from his stool with a wince. Not that he was in pain; most men of his age wince at anything that has the appearance of exertion.
"Peter's generally right," he said again. "He's the best nose I've struck for a very long time. It's a queer thing about Peter, he's never been in prison. Most of these fellows mix it a little, and of course if you want a real good nose you can't beat a fence. I suppose the boys will get him one of these days."
His superior did not seem greatly interested, and the sergeant, a lover of sensation, thought it an appropriate moment to drop his bomb.
"I've got an idea that Peter's seen The Ringer."
Alan looked up sharply.
"Recognised him, you mean?"
"Recognised him," replied the sergeant, "in spite of your wire from Australia. I'll believe they've pinched The Ringer there when they've got him and I see him here or at Bow Street."
"Rubbish! If he'd seen The Ringer he'd have told us."
Alan was prepared to dismiss the fantastic suggestion.
"Would he?" asked the sergeant significantly. "I doubt it. They're all scared of The Ringer, all these little hooks. He's the last man that Peter would betray. He puts the fear of God in every nose since that knifing down at Silvertown."
Here was an idea which had not occurred to Alan. Peter probably knew The Ringer by sight. He was an active investigator in the underworld in The Ringer's palmiest days, and he was a shrewd little fellow. The Ringer enjoyed a fearsome popularity.
"I can't believe that," he said, after considering the possibility. "You seem to forget there's five hundred pounds for the informer. Peter doesn't know there's so much money in the world."
The ticking of the station clock made him raise his eyes. It was a quarter to twelve—nearly time for him to make another call at Malpas Mansions. She must have returned by now, he thought.
"You're nervous to-night, inspector," said the sergeant. "You're not afraid The Ringer will get busy to-night, are you?"
"Not The Ringer; Lenley," said Alan curtly. "If ever I saw murder in a man's eyes it was in Johnny's. The only thing is, he's just a bit too level-headed to take that risk. He'll know we have the house watched—Why, Peter!"
Peter had almost fled into the charge-room, dashing aside the staid and indignant constable on door duty. His face, ordinarily bloodless, was now grey. He stood for a moment staring round like a demented being, until Wembury's voice roused him with a start, and he ran to the inspector and gripped him by the hand.
"I want to see you!"
The whine had gone from his voice: it was a croak now.
"Can you get me out of London, sir?"
Peter's voice held an urgent appeal.
"Out of London? Why?"
"Because I want to go away—that's why. Ain't that a good enough reason, Mr. Wembury?"
He was in a state bordering upon hysteria. As suddenly as he had gripped Wembury's arm he released it, ran to the door and peered fearfully forth, before he came back to press his request.
"I want to get away." He looked up at the clock. "There's time.... Ain't it horrible, Mr. Wembury? There's one bit of me wants to stay, and yet I must go!"
Wembury's arm gripped him by the shoulder and turned him round.
"Look at me, Peter," he said slowly. "You've seen The Ringer!"
The answer was in the staring, horrified eyes.
"I'm not going to talk about The Ringer." Peter's voice was little more than a whisper. "I'd do anything for you, Mr. Wembury—you know that—anything! But you can't expect me ... Get me out of London, can't you?" he pleaded. "I've got relations down in Devonshire, and there's a train at half-past twelve from Paddington.... I'll make it—"
"You've seen The Ringer," said Wembury accusingly. "You've recognised him, and you think he knows you recognised him. You're scared."
"Seared!" Peter's lip went up in a grin that was fearful to see. "That's not the word. My blood's like water, Mr. Wembury. Don't keep me here, sir," he wailed. "I want a couple of pounds—I'll pay you back—I'll do anything for you, but get me out of London to-night!"
The sergeant had left his desk, and now he put his hand paternally upon the informer's shoulder, and at his touch Peter squealed and writhed himself free.
"Now, Peter, there's nothing to be afraid of. Mr. Wembury will look after you. Why don't you be a good boy and tell him what you've seen?"
Peter shook his head.
"I can't, I can't!" he muttered.
"That's silly." The old sergeant was in a fatherly mood. "You're going on like a young lady in a pantomime. Tell the inspector."
"Where did you see him?" asked Wembury.
Peter shook his head.
"Don't be a fool. Come into my room and have a drink."
"No, no, no; I don't want to be chived." His teeth were chattering. "I've got a girl."
"Chived!" said the sergeant contemptuously. "Who's going to put a knife into you, you poor fish?"
"I'm not going to tell, anyway," said Peter doggedly. "I want to go ... into Devonshire."
"You probably made a mistake," said Wembury. "Tell me where you saw him."
But Peter wasn't listening.
"He's a clever feller, too clever for the likes of me," he said, speaking half to himself. "I wouldn't tell you, Mr. Wembury, not for a million. Get me out of London. I'll do anything for you when I come back, but get me out of London now—to-night!"
"See here, Peter, if you're so frightened I'll put you in a cell for the night," said Wembury.
"No, no, no!" shrieked the man, wriggling from his hands. "I don't want to be in London. Don't you understand? I—don't—want—to—be—in—London—to-night!"
The two police officers exchanged glances. Something was going to happen that night, and Peter knew it. Knew it and would not tell. Such was the power that The Ringer wielded, such the terror his name inspired.
Peter's pained eyes went up to the clock.
"Look at the time, look at the time!" he wailed. "Give me the money, sir."
Wembury took the sergeant aside, leaving the man to warm his trembling fingers at the fire.
"What do you make of it?" asked Alan.
The sergeant shook his head despairingly.
"I've never seen him so bad as that, not since he shopped Ike Smith, the fence. You won't get him to talk, you can take that from me, Mr. Wembury."
Alan was in agreement.
"I'll let him go and send a man down to Devonshire to-morrow. He may talk when he gets his nerve back."
He took some money out of his pocket and called the informer to him.
"Here is the fare. What is your address?"
"Lisle Cottage, Liverton, sir."
"Take that down, sergeant. You're being foolish, Peter."
"I'd rather be foolish than dead," shivered Peter. "It ain't that I don't want to stay and find out, Mr. Wembury. I'm lingering about when I ought to be running. Nosin' is in my blood. But I've got to go. I feel as though I'm being hunted just like a rat that's trailed by a weasel."
"Tell me one thing," said Alan. "Where did you see him?"
Peter pointed in silence to the door.
"In this street?" demanded Wembury incredulously, and when the man nodded he whistled.
"I'm not going to tell you any more." Peter was frantic now. "You've been a good friend to me, Mr. Wembury. I'll be thankful to you till my dying day. Good night."
"Good night, Peter."
As quickly as he came he went.
"I don't like that," said Wembury.
"Oh, I don't know. These birds talk about The Ringer as though he were superhuman," said the sergeant.
Alan walked to the door and looked out. In this street....
He wondered why they always built police stations in back streets, and this the most poorly illuminated thoroughfare in London. Along the sidewalk a hundred yards away he saw two men pass under a street lamp; one carried a suitcase, and he turned back to the desk.
"I fear Peter told the truth. Friend Haggitt is coming—and he is not alone!"
IT was no tree or leaf or bough that Alan Wembury had seen. It was, indeed, a reckless man who for one second had ventured his head and shoulders against the light, and, recognising his folly, had instantly drawn back.
Mr. Haggitt had a pressing engagement that night. The rattler [* Argot for "railway train."] left at a quarter-past eleven for Liverpool, and he was one of the merry and optimistic band who were going forth into the boundless spaces of the West to seek the fortune which had been denied him in the old and effete countries of Europe. And that this last reproach should be removed from the older civilisation he was engaged, in the short space of time at his disposal, in salving those souvenirs which might make Europe and the homeland a more tender memory.
The souvenir that Mr. Haggitt most earnestly desired was contained in a metal cash-box in the second drawer of Mr. Meister's desk. That exasperating man had given him little or no opportunity during the day for even examining the lock of the drawer, and Sam Haggitt, usually a chivalrous man, had turned woman-hater when Mary Lenley had occupied the room during the short periods of Meister's absence.
The grille which covered the window offered no barrier; he had cleaned the windows that morning to some purpose, and had baffled the simple mechanism which locked the grille with two pieces of steel wire which had their loose ends, a pull of which would send the spring lock back as easily as if he were in possession of the key. He would have preferred to secure an entrance through the mystery door in the garden gate, but the mystery door was bolted on the inside, and the garden gate was fastened with a patent lock. On the whole the window was best.
He sat crouched, listening to Mr. Meister, and though the lawyer was in his more talkative mood, Sam Haggitt was not entertained. The norther was bringing great spots of rain, wind-blown into small sheets of water that wetted where they touched. There were long intervals of silence in the room, and nearly a quarter of an hour had passed since he had heard Meister lock the door, when, his ear pressed to the lowest pane, he heard a long, rumbling snore of a drunken man. He waited no longer. That morning he had oiled the window sash, and now he raised it without noise, felt for the wires, pulled them gently, and the grille opened a little. He listened: the snores were unchecked, and in an instant he was in the room.
Mr. Meister lay back in his arm-chair, his mouth open, an unpleasant sight. His big blotting-pad was sodden where a glass had overturned, and the room reeked with the smell of whisky. Sam no more than glanced at the little table near the settee which was so obviously set for supper. Tiptoeing across the room, he reached for the switch and turned out the lights.
The fire had burnt low; but he was a famous night worker, and by touch located the drawer, fitted the little instrument he carried into the lock, and pulled. The drawer opened, and his hand groped in the interior. He found the cash-box instantly, but there were other treasures. A small cupboard under the disused buffet held certain priceless articles of Georgian silver. He went back to the window, lifted inside his portmanteau and packed until the case could hold no more. Lifting the suit-case, he stepped softly back towards safety, and was nearly opposite the mystery door when he heard a faint click, and stood, petrified, all his senses alert.
It might have been a cooling cinder in the fire. He moved stealthily, one hand extended before him, an instinctive gesture common to all who work in the dark. He was opposite the mystery door, when suddenly a cold hand closed on his wrist!
He set his teeth, stifled the cry which rose, and then, with a quick jerk, wrenched free. Who was it? He could see nothing, could only hear quick breathing, and darted for the window. In a second he was on the leads and in another he was racing across the lawn, expecting every minute to hear an outcry behind him; but no sound came.
The stable door was locked; he had left it ajar. Perhaps the wind had blown it close. Fumbling in his pocket, he found the key he had secured that day with such labour, and in a few minutes he was walking jauntily down High Street, Deptford, towards the nearest cab-rank. Jauntily he walked, but his heart thumped painfully, and the clammy touch of the cold hand clung to his wrist and could not be removed. He was rubbing his hand impatiently all the way to Euston....
An hour later he came indignantly, almost virtuously, into the charge-room of Harlboro Street in the grip of a detective.
"What's the great idea, Wembury?" he asked indignantly. "Can't a fellow go to see his friends off on the rattler without having a perishin' lot of busies come messing him about? God bless my life and soul—you fellows won't give a man a chance when he's trying to go straight."
The unemotional detective detailed his charge.
"I was on duty at Euston Station and saw this man boarding the Canadian boat train for Liverpool. Knowing he was a convict on licence and that he had no permission to sleep out of London, I asked him to accompany me to the station, and on his refusal I arrested him."
"What, me!" said Sam in surprise. "Going to Canada! Why, I've never heard of such a thing in my life! It's the one country I don't hold with. I went down to Euston to say goodbye to a friend of mine who's been driven out of this country by the perishin' police—"
"Now, now," said Wembury good-naturedly, "give the poor old police a rest."
"Mr. Wembury, you know me," said Haggitt, pained. "Am I the sort of man who'd go to Canada?"
"You're the sort of man who wouldn't go to Canada—not if the Canadians knew you were coming," said Alan with a smile.
Sam turned triumphantly to his captor.
"There you are—an alibi by Wembury himself! The fact is"—he addressed Alan over the rails—"I went to see off a friend of mine, and I was just saying good-bye when up come this busy and pulled me. Is that the truth or is it not? Don't perjure yourself, constable."
Wembury shook his head reproachfully.
"You don't need to take a suit-case to see off your friend, do you, Sam?" and Mr. Haggitt looked at the tell-tale grip in consternation and surprise.
"It's a funny thing about that case -" he began.
"Aha!" said the sergeant satirically.
"What are you 'aha-ing' about? "demanded the indignant Haggitt. "What I was going to say was—"
"That you found it," said Alan. Sam shook his head. "Or that somebody gave it to you."
"That's it," said Sam. "Bless my life, you're a thought-reader! A man came up to me, just as I was going into the station, and said, 'Do you mind holding this?'—"
"Let's see what's inside," said the unimpressed Sergeant Carter.
The first thing revealed was the cash-box. Sam had not had time to throw it away. The sergeant opened it, took out a thick wad of notes and laid them on the desk.
"Old Meister's cash-box!" Sam's tone was one of horror and amazement. "Now how did that get there? There's a mystery for you, Wembury! That ought to be in your memories when you write them for the Sunday newspapers. Strange and mysterious discovery of a cash-box!"
"There's nothing mysterious about it," said Wembury. "Anything else?"
One by one they produced certain silver articles which were very damning.
"And the man gave you this case to hold!" bantered Alan. "A tall, dark man, with patent shoes? I've met him before; he is usually the man who is seen driving away from a murder in a big grey motor-car. A tall, solemn-looking man, eh?"
"With a black moustache," suggested Sam, and shrugged his shoulders. "It's a cop," he said philosophically. "You've spoilt the best honeymoon I'm ever likely to have—that's what you've done, Wembury. Who shopped me! That perishin' little nose, Peter? I saw him in the street just now, hanging about like a young bloodhound."
"Nobody shopped you," said the sergeant, and Haggitt sneered.
"Just put him inside for a little while," Wembury nodded to the jailer. "We'll bring him out and charge him after we've got in touch with Meister."
They were yanking Haggitt out of the pen when he beckoned Wembury.
"No, I won't tell you what I was going to say. You needn't take the trouble to call Meister, sergeant; he's too soused to come, anyway. This is his stuff. Put in a word for me, Wembury. I've been doing honest work, and don't forget I've got a wife and family."
"You seem to have forgotten the fact. Where is your wife, Haggitt?"
"She's doing three months' hard labour in Holloway," said Haggitt calmly. "And as you helped to put her there I don't see why you ask me. My girl's in the workhouse, so they're both provided for."
He went out, complaining to the jailer of the bad ventilation of cells in general and of Harlboro Street cells in particular.
"Get Meister," said Wembury.
Getting Meister was a difficulty. For five minutes the sergeant tried.
"Funny thing the old man hasn't reported his loss."
"He's probably too drunk to notice. Haggitt seems to know that. What number are you calling?"
Wembury was examining the cash-box.
"He kept this box in the drawer of his desk. He must have been pickled if he didn't hear Sam."
"Can't you get that number, miss?" asked the sergeant plaintively. "Well, try 'em again." And then wearily: "Oh, yes, there's somebody there."
As he waited, elbow on desk, receiver at ear, he looked pensively at the ceiling.
"I can't get that little fellow out of my mind—Peter. Lord! I've never seen a man so paralysed with fright. I thought he was going to have a fit. And Meister was almost as bad."
The reference to Peter reminded the detective, and he went out through the door. It was raining heavily now—coming down in sheets, the door policeman warned him.
Yes, there was Peter, not fifty yards away from the station. Wembury's keen eyes recognised the stooping shoulders and the slouch of the informer as he walked. Yet Peter had been so terribly anxious to get away. He was puzzled. Perhaps there was something in what he had said: he had the nose instinct in his blood. Whilst the first law of nature urged him to safety and the sweetness of the Devonshire upland, curiosity, the nose instinct, kept him chained to where danger lurked in every shadow.
He heard the sergeant talking and turned back.
"He's too drunk to hear the bell. I'm calling a little shop at the corner of the street. I made arrangements that they would send a message to Atkins if it was necessary. Peter and Meister are alike—these people are the slaves of their fancies, inspector. In all probability The Ringer's quite a harmless sort of bird."
Wembury was facing the desk, and blotted out from the sergeant's vision the door of the inspector's room. The handle was turning and it was opening slowly. From where he stood, Alan Wembury, had he been looking, would have seen the edge of a threadbare sleeve, a tattered shirt-wrist, a long, bony hand, and no more. A hand, four inches of sleeve and cuff ... and yet an imaginative painter could have sketched the bent head of the gaunt man as he listened.
"I wouldn't call The Ringer harmless," said Wembury dryly. "I don't suppose you would, either. He's a bad man all right. I don't wonder Peter's afraid of him."
"Hallo!" said the sergeant, suddenly brightening up. "It's Sergeant Carter speaking. Will you take a message, please, for Mr. Atkins! ... Thank you. Ask him to find out whether Mr. Meister has lost his cash-box or anything else. Have you got that—whether Mr. Meister has lost his cash-box—you understand? ... And ask the sergeant to ring me up ... thank you very much." He hung up the receiver.
"We shan't get Mr. Meister to-night," said Wembury. "I think it will be safe to charge Haggitt. He has practically confessed."
Even as he turned, his door closed. All visible evidence of the listening man had gone. The sergeant touched a bell.
"Bring up Haggitt," he said.
Mr. Haggitt swaggered into the charge-room and took his place in the steel pen.
Alan at that moment was opening the door of his room. He stepped back with a frown. Switching on the light, he uttered a gasp. The window at the far end of the room was wide open. A strong current of air was blowing through, and had scattered his papers on the floor. He turned to the sergeant.
"Have you been in my room?"
"Somebody has: the window's open."
"The Ringer maybe," said the sergeant, but Alan was not amused.
He closed the window and returned to hear the formal charge of unlawful possession, and learnt that Mr. Haggitt's name was Samuel Johnson Haggitt.
"I'm named after the celebrated poet, but I'm no relation."
He gave his amusing address as Buckingham Palace, and described himself as a painter, until he remembered that winter was near at hand.
"Stoker," he said emphatically. "Do you know what old Meister gave me for minding him? Ten shillings. I'd have chucked it in his eye, only it was paper. That's sweating. No wonder us workers are going Red!"
"Search him," said the sergeant.
"And mind how you do it," warned Haggitt, as the officer ran his hands scientifically down waistcoat and trousers. "I've lost money before in a police station. Count it in front of my eyes." And, when the patient officer obeyed, and demanded with a snarl if he was satisfied, Haggitt looked at him admiringly, and asked him where he had learnt sleight-of-hand.
"You took the stuff?" said Wembury.
"Of course I took it!" said the other contemptuously. "I'd have had more if it hadn't been for the hand."
"I'm going to tell you something that will make you jump, Mr. Wembury," he said.
Slowly and impressively—for Wembury somehow felt that he was speaking the truth—he told the story of the cold hand that had come out of the darkness and gripped his.
"Was it Meister's?"
"Meister's? No, it wasn't his! He was snoring at the fire-place. I'd just the presence of mind to snatch my hand away and get to the window, and I was in the garden before you could say 'knife.' What do you think of that for a story?"
"Is this true?" asked Wembury sternly.
"If I drop dead it's true."
Surely he was speaking the truth. He heard the quick step of the doctor, and when Alan looked round he was hanging up his shining mackintosh.
"Are you interested in the psychic, doctor?" he asked.
"I'm a gross materialist." For once Dr. Lomond was irritable. "I'm so much a materialist that I object to being brought out of bed to certify degrees of intoxication. Where is the inebriated ruffian, sergeant?"
The sergeant shook his head.
"I didn't send for you, doctor."
"It was I," said Alan quietly. "The inebriate was my invention."
"If it is your idea of a practical joke -" began Lomond.
"I'll tell you, doctor," said Wembury earnestly. "I brought you out because I've got a feeling that something is going to happen and that you'll be wanted. Maybe I'm going to earn your curses; I'll not object to a few in advance," he added as he saw Lomond's eyes light up. "My hunch may be wrong and you're for a most unromantic night. But I've a feeling ... indescribable...."
And then he became aware of the presence of Haggitt and stopped.
"Do I get bail?" asked that preposterous man. Before he could answer, the telephone bell rang and the sergeant replied. He talked for a moment, and then, with a serious face:
"It's Atkins, sir. He's been to the house and he can't make Meister hear. His door is locked, and Atkins says there's no sound inside." Wembury looked hard at the prisoner. "Haggitt, they can get no answer from Meister's room," he asked sternly. "What did you do?"
The man was pale, but somehow Alan knew he was speaking the truth.
"If I never move, I didn't touch him, Mr. Wembury. What I told you—happened. He was alive when I was in the room and alive when I left."
"How long ago were you there?"
"Not more than an hour ago. I went straight to the station by taxi."
"We'll see," said Alan. And, to Haggitt's custodian: "I want you to bring this man along. Handcuff him to you so that he doesn't get away!"
"What do you think has happened?" asked Lomond.
"I don't know—I'm afraid to guess." Alan Wembury was troubled. "But I shall want you. It may be the first of the mad goose-chases that I've started you on—I hope to God it is!"
"I told you the truth, Mr. Wembury," protested Haggitt as the detective was snapping the bracelet on his wrist. "Why should I have told you anything?"
"To establish the fact that somebody else was in that room besides yourself," said Alan shortly.
The door policeman, wet and gleaming, had been standing in the shadow of the doorway, taking occasional excursions of inspection into the rain. He came back now with a grin on his face.
"There's a drunk coming to give himself up, sergeant," he said.
What made Alan interest himself in the "drunk" he never knew. Walking to the door, he went out bareheaded into the downpour, and for a long time did not see the figure that was crawling along in the shadow of the wall. Presently it reeled to the side walk, to stagger back again against the wall, and fall on its knees.
In another instant it was up, and then Wembury recognised the figure. It was Peter.
He ran down the steps and caught the man by the arm.
"What's wrong with you, Peter?" he asked. "Have you been drinking?"
Peter made no reply. His chin was on his breast, his head waggled to and fro like a man in a helpless stage of intoxication. Alan assisted him up the steps into the charge-room, and then he crumpled up face downward on the floor with a groan. The sergeant bent over him.
"Get up, Peter. What's the matter with you?"
"Bring him over here," said Wembury, pulling a form away from the wall. "Lift him."
Sergeant Carter was looking queerly at the little man.
"I've seen drunks, but I've never seen a drunk like this," he said. "Good God!"
And then Alan followed the direction of his startled eyes.
"Blood!" he whispered.
In a second he had turned the inanimate figure on its back.
Lomond was already on his knees by the side of the still figure, his quick hands loosening the dirty shirt which hid the wound.
"Ring an ambulance!" snapped Wembury over his shoulder. "Peter! Peter, do you hear me? Who did this? Doctor, for God's sake keep him alive until I get him to talk!"
But Dr. Lomond knew that Peter had nosed for the last time, would speak no more, well or ill, of any man.
THE detective reserves of three divisions were out. Two cars were racing from Scotland Yard to the spot. Police cyclists were flying to every beat to warn the patrol men. Yet Alan knew it was all unnecessary; that the man who killed Peter would not be reached by any of the inquiries which would be set on foot that night.
The knife had been found about fifty yards from the station: a long, straight, butcher's knife. The stroke was The Ringer's own—the left-handed swing inwards and upwards that had settled a certain Toby in Silvertown years before.
"How the man walked the distance from where he was struck will remain a mystery to me till my dying day," said the doctor in tones of wonder. "The blow was fatal; he should have died right where he was struck. And yet he walked ... a dead man! That is inexplicable—one of the many mysteries which come to every surgeon in the course of his practice."
"You're getting your romance, doctor," said Alan quietly, and the doctor made a little face.
"I don't want any more of it, thank you," he said.
Alan looked at his watch. He had already lost time, and Meister's danger now was a terrific one. The police car was waiting at the door and the four men bundled in, and were hardly settled before the machine drew up at Meister's open door. Atkins was waiting under the cover of the glass awning, and had nothing more to report.
"I didn't want to break the door until you came in. There was no sound that I could hear. I went round the back of the house ... there's a light burning in his room, but I could see that, of course, from under his door."
Alan hurried into the house, followed by the manacled Haggitt and his custodian, Atkins and the doctor bringing up the rear. He went up the stairs and knocked at the door heavily. There was no answer. Hammering on the panel with his fist, he shouted the lawyer's name, but still there was no reply.
"Where is the housekeeper?" he asked. "Mrs. K.?"
"In her room, sir. At least, she was there a few hours before. But she's deaf."
"Stone deaf, I should say," said Alan, and then: "Stand back!"
He threw his whole weight against the door and the panel split.
"Have you got your stick?" he asked, and Atkins passed his police baton over his shoulder.
Presently a hole was made big enough to admit Wembury's arm, and groping, he found the key and turned it, and, flinging open the door, ran into the room. Mr. Meister sat in his chair, his mouth open, his hands still clasped, and though he no longer snored, the regular rise and fall of his breast showed that he was alive.
"Phew!" said Alan, and wiped his streaming forehead. "I've heard the expression 'dead to the world,' but this is certainly the first time I've seen a man in that state."
He shook the sleeping lawyer, but he might as well have shaken himself for all the effect it had upon the slumberer.
"Thank Gawd!" said a voice behind. It was Haggitt's trembling voice. "I never thought I'd be glad to see that old bird alive!"
Alan glanced up at the chandelier that hung from the ceiling. Only one light was burning, and he pointed.
"Put on the others," he said. "See if you can wake him, doctor."
Lomond lifted the sleeping man until he sat erect, and then let him fall back with a crash against the padded back of the chair. Mr. Meister mumbled something in his sleep, turned his head and began to snore.
"Have you tried burning his ears?" suggested the helpful Haggitt, and was sternly ordered to be quiet. "Can't a man express his emotions?" asked Mr. Haggitt wrathfully. "There's no law against that, is there? Mr. Wembury, is Peter dead?"
Wembury nodded, remembering that the man had been taken to the cells immediately after the tragedy had been discovered.
"Poor little nose!" said Haggitt with genuine regret. "I'll bet he shopped me, but I don't bear him any malice. That's The Ringer, my lad—you be careful!"
"Haggitt, where were you in this room when you felt the hand?" asked Alan. "Take the cuff off."
The handcuff was unlocked, and Haggitt moved to a place almost opposite the door. Between the door and the small settee was a supper table, which Wembury had seen the moment he came into the room. So Mary had not come: that was an instant cause of relief.
"I was here," said Haggitt. "The hand came from there." He pointed to the mystery door, but Wembury saw that the bolts were shot, the door locked, and the key hung in its place on the wall. It was impossible that anybody could have come into the room from that entrance without Meister's assistance.
He next turned his attention to the window. The chintz curtains had been pulled across; Haggitt had noticed this immediately. He had left them half-drawn and window and grille open.
"Somebody's been here," he said emphatically. "I'm sure the old man hasn't moved. I left the bars unfastened."
The door leading to Mary's little office room was locked. So was the second door, which gave to the private staircase to Meister's own bedroom. He looked at the bolts again, and was certain they had not been touched that night. It was a dusty room; the carpet had not been beaten for months, and every footstep must stir up a little dust cloud. He wetted his finger, touched the knob of the bolt, and although he had handled it that afternoon, there were microscopic specks to tell him that the doorway had not been used.
Atkins was working at the sleeping Meister, shaking him gently, encouraged thereto by the uncomfortable snorts he provoked, but so far his efforts were unsuccessful. Wembury, standing by the supper table, looked at it thoughtfully.
"Supper for two," he said, picked up a bottle of champagne and examined it. "Cordon Rouge '11."
"He was expecting somebody," said Dr. Lomond wisely, and, when Wembury nodded: "A lady!"
"Why a lady?" asked Wembury irritably. "Men drink wine."
The doctor stooped and picked up a small silver dish, piled high with candy.
"But they seldom eat chocolates," he said, and Wembury laughed irritably.
"You're becoming a detective in spite of yourself. Meister has—queer tastes."
There was a small square morocco case under the serviette that the doctor moved. He opened it. From the velvet bed within there came the glitter and sparkle of diamonds.
"Is he the kind of man who gives these things to his—queer friends?" he asked with a quiet smile.
"I don't know." Wembury's answer was brusque to rudeness. "Wake up that man, sergeant."
Under the vigorous shakes of the stalwart police officer Meister opened his eyes and stared round.
"Hallo, people!" he said thickly. "Give me a drink."
He groped out for the bottle on the table, but Wembury moved it aside.
"I think you've had enough drink for one night. Meister. Pull yourself together. I've something unpleasant to tell you."
Meister looked at him stupidly.
"What's the time?" he asked slowly.
The answer partially sobered the man.
"Half-past twelve!" He staggered rockily to his feet. "Is she here?" he asked, holding on to the table.
"Is who here?" demanded Wembury with cold deliberation.
Mr. Meister shook his aching head.
"She said she'd come," he muttered. "She promised faithfully ... twelve o'clock. If she tries to fool me—"
"Who is the 'she,' Meister?" asked Wembury, and the lawyer smiled foolishly.
"Nobody you know," he said.
"She was coming to keep you company, I suppose?" asked Wembury carelessly.
"You've got it.... Give me a drink."
"Peter is dead." It was Alan Wembury who rapped out the words, and the drunken hand went up to his head.
"Dead?" he asked dully. "Peter! Which Peter?"
"Try to understand what I'm saying, Meister. Peter the Nose has been killed."
The man was still dazed, hardly conscious of what was going on around him.
"Good job," he grunted. "Wish they were all dead, every one of 'em—Peter ... The Ringer ... wish they were all dead!"
And then, in his fuddled way, he saw Haggitt.
"You've come back, eh! Well, you can go again!"
"Hear what he says?" asked the eager Haggitt. "He's withdrawn the charge!"
"Have you lost your cash-box?" asked Wembury.
"Eh? Lost ...?" He stumbled towards the drawer and pulled it open. "Gone!" he shrieked. "You took it!" He pointed a trembling finger to Sam. "You dirty thief ...!"
"Steady, now," said Wembury, and caught him as he swayed. "We've got Haggitt; you can charge him in the morning."
"Stole my cash-box!" He was maudlin in his anger and drunkenness. "Bit the hand that fed him!"
Mr. Haggitt's lips curled.
"I like your idea about feeding!" he said scornfully. "Cottage pie and rice puddin'!"
But Meister was not listening.
"Peter is dead ...! Give me a drink."
Wembury moved the bottle farther away.
"Do you realise what this means?" he asked. "The Ringer got Peter."
But he might have been talking to a man of wood.
"Good job," said Meister with drunken gravity, and tried to look at his watch. "Clear out: I've got a friend coming to see me."
"Your friend has a very poor chance of getting in. All the doors of this room are fastened, except where Atkins is on duty, and they will remain fastened."
Meister muttered something, tripped and would have fallen if Wembury had not caught him by the arm and lowered him again into the chair.
"The Ringer got Peter!" Meister sat with his head on his hands. "He'll have to be clever to get me.... I can't think to-night, but tomorrow I'll tell you where you can put your hands on him, Wembury. My boy, you're a smart detective, aren't you?" He chuckled foolishly. "Let's have another drink."
He had hardly spoken the words when two of the three lights in the chandelier went out.
"Who did that?" asked Wembury, turning sharply. "Did anybody touch the board?"
"No, sir," said Atkins, standing at the door and pointing to the switch. "Only I could have touched it."
Haggitt was near the window, examining the curtains, when the light had diverted his attention.
"Come over this side of the room: you're too near that window," said Wembury.
"I was wondering who pulled the curtains, Mr. Wembury," said Haggitt in a troubled voice. "I'll swear it wasn't the old man. He was sleeping when I left him and you couldn't get any answer by telephone, could you?"
He took hold of the curtain and pulled it aside and stared out into a pale face pressed against the pane: a pale, grinning face, that vanished instantly in the darkness.
At Haggitt's scream of terror Alan ran to the window.
"What was it?"
"I don't know," gasped Sam. "Something!"
"I saw something too," said Atkins.
Danger was at hand. There was a creepy feeling in Alan Wembury's spine, a cold shiver that sent the muscles of his shoulders rippling involuntarily.
"Take that man," he said.
Haggitt was hauled back to his position near the door and the handcuff snapped again. And then Alan heard a sound: the soft whimper of a woman crying. He held up his hand to enjoin silence.
"Somebody is crying—on the other side of the door!"
Whence did the sound come? In a fury he turned to the supine figure in the chair.
"Did you hear that, Meister?"
"A woman crying," said Meister, and laughed to himself. "How dam' funny!"
"Where is Mary Lenley?" Alan's hand gripped the lapel of his coat and drew him up. "Where is she? Tell me, Meister."
"Let me go, let me go!" shrilled the man. "What's the good of asking me?"
Alan released his hold.
"She's in this house somewhere. Search that room."
Atkins went into Mary's office and returned with a story of failure.
"Is she there?"
"No, sir," said Atkins, and locked the door after him.
"Meister, you're going to tell me the truth about this: where is Mary Lenley?" asked Alan, turning to the man.
The words were hardly out of his lips when all the lights in the room went out.
"Don't move, anybody!" whispered Alan. "Stand fast! Did you touch the switch, Atkins?"
"Did any of you men touch the switch?"
There was a chorus of Noes.
Somebody had come into the room!
"Atkins, stand by Meister—feel along the table till you find him. Keep quiet, everybody."
Whoever it was, was in the room now. Alan heard the unquiet breathing, the rustle of a soft foot on the carpet, and waited. Suddenly there was a flicker of light. Only for a second it showed a white circle on the door of the safe, and was gone.
An electric hand lamp, and they were working at the safe. Still he did not move, though he was now in a position that would enable him to cut across the intruder's line of retreat.
He moved stealthily, both hands outstretched, his ears strained for the slightest sound. And then suddenly he gripped somebody, and nearly released his hold in his horror and amazement.
A woman! She was struggling frantically.
"Who are you?" he asked hoarsely.
"Let me go!" Only a whispered voice, strained, unrecognisable.
"I want you," he said, and then his knee struck something sharp and hard. It was the corner of the settee, and in the exquisite pain his hold was released. In another second she had escaped ... when he put out his hands he grasped nothing.
"A light, somebody!"
As he spoke, he heard the thud of a closing door. It came from the direction of the mystery door.
"Strike a match. Haven't any of you men torches?" he shouted.
And then the lights came on. They looked at one another in amazement. There was nobody in the room save those who had been there when the lights went out, and the door was locked, bolted, had not been touched; the key still hung on the wall.
Alan stared; and then his eyes, travelling along the wall, were arrested by the sight of an open door. The safe!
"Look at that," he said.
The door was wide open. In the struggle something heavy had dropped on his foot, and now he saw it: a short hand torch. He stooped and picked it up.
"Who was it, sir?" said Atkins.
"It sounded like a woman's voice to me," said Lomond shrewdly. "The safe has been opened!"
"Yes, the safe has been opened."
And then he heard a cry from the doctor and, looking round, saw him bending over the figure of Meister.
"Wembury, quick! My God! look!... He's dead!"
The doctor's hand went down and came back with a knife. He dropped it with a gasp of horror on the blotting-pad.
"Stabbed to the heart," he said. "Murdered ... under our very eyes!"
"It must have been the woman who came into the room," Atkins said in hushed tones.
"That's impossible!" Wembury's voice was harsh and grating. "The woman who came into this room was never out of my hands until she escaped."
"She didn't pass here, sir," said Atkins. "She went through that door." He pointed.
Alan was again looking at the bolts.
"Locked and bolted on the inside," he said.
Then, from somewhere outside the room, came a laugh: a long, continuous, raucous laugh, as at a good joke, and the men listened and shivered, and even the rubicund face of Dr. Lomond changed colour.
THE RINGER had kept his word. Under their very eyes he had come stealthily to his prey and struck.
Somebody was knocking at the door below. Alan was the first to recover his balance.
"Go down and see who that is, Atkins."
Atkins went down and opened the door. A woman stood in the darkness and the rain.
"Who is it?" he asked, and then he recognised Cora's voice, hollow with fear. "Come in, Mrs. Milton," said Atkins sharply, and, taking her up to the landing, called Wembury out.
One look at the drawn face of The Ringer's wife told him that she either knew or guessed. She was white to the lips.
"Has it happened?" she asked.
"What made you think it would happen to-night?"
But she was sobbing and rocking as a woman demented, her head on his shoulder.
"Oh, God! Oh, my God!" she sobbed. "He told me he'd do it! He 'phoned me ... I begged him, I begged him ... Oh, God! Have you got him?"
He felt her quivering from head to foot as she raised her tear-stained face.
"No, we haven't got him—yet," he said.
"I hope you won't, I hope you won't!" she breathed. "Meister wasn't fit to live."
"Every man is fit to live, Cora Milton, unless the law of the land says otherwise," said Alan sternly. "When did you hear from him?"
"An hour ago. He told me he was going to do -" she caught her breath—"do Meister."
"Did he say anything about the other man?"
She stared at him.
"The other man? What other man?"
"He killed Peter," said Alan.
She was open-mouthed, incredulous.
"It couldn't have been Arthur. If it was, then it was an accident. He never told me. Can I come in?"
Wembury shook his head.
"There's a thing here that no woman should see," he said. "Take her down, Atkins. Report straight away to the station-house, Cora: I want to see you."
She nodded and went blindly down the stairs on Atkins's arm, a woman racked with grief and fear.
Alan had opened the bolted ladies' door, and now he understood the mystery of the lights. Outside on the wall within reach of hand was a fuse-box and switch which governed the lights of the room. Evidently it had been placed there because its unsightliness made it unsuitable for the room. He scared the life out of Atkins and the doctor by proving this, and he guessed, when he turned over the long-handled switch, that the lights went out throughout the house.
"It's all right," he said, as he came back to the room. "I was just testing the governor. Whoever it was went this way. The door into the garden is open."
"But how did they get through this door?" demanded Lomond.
"I don't know." He signalled to the second detective to take Haggitt away, and the man went not unwillingly to the less gruesome atmosphere of a police court cell.
"Haggitt is cleared, at any rate: it could not have been he. Wake the housekeeper," he said to Atkins, who came in at that moment, and the sergeant went downstairs, and the sound of his hammering on Mrs. K.'s door was audible. In five minutes Atkins returned.
"She's not in her room," he said. "It wasn't even locked."
"Oh!" said Alan blankly.
Atkins told him that the woman had been complaining that evening about the loneliness of the house, and had talked of going home that night to sleep with some friends she had in Flanders Lane.
"She probably went when Meister and I were at the station," explained Atkins.
The noise of an ambulance pulling up before the door interrupted them, and Wembury was glad of an excuse to hurry away. He was sick of bloodshed, and yet the real tragedy lay not with Peter or with Lewis Meister. He would find it presently in Malpas Mansions.
St. John's Church was booming one when Mary Lenley turned the key in the door of her flat and went in. She slipped the bolts before she realised that Johnny might be still out. But anyway she would hear him; she might not go to bed that night. Never had she felt so wakeful.
She lit the gas and sat down heavily by the table, making no attempt to remove hat or coat, her eyes fixed on the little black bag which lay on her knees. Presently, with a catch of her breath, she opened the bag and took out a blue envelope and put it on the table. That was the only satisfaction to be had out of that horrible experience. She had the proof!
She put her fingers into the envelope, half withdrew the long letter and thrust it back again. Then, rising, she slowly took off her coat and threw it over the back of a chair, her eyes fixed on the blue envelope. Picking it up, she carried it to the fire, which was nearly out, and, poking together the red embers, she stirred a blaze. The envelope was half-way to the fire when she heard a sound coming from the kitchen and turned quickly.
"Is that you, Johnny?" she asked in a low voice.
He was in the doorway before she had finished her question.
"Hallo, darling!" he said.
He kept one hand behind him. He looked strangely dishevelled; there were white patches on the knees of his trousers. His collar was limp, though it was by no means warm that night.
"I didn't hear you come in. You're late?"
"Yes, I—I was detained."
"Is she very ill?" asked Johnny after a pause.
"Who?" The blank astonishment in her face betrayed her.
"You told me you were going to visit a sick friend."
She went red and white.
"I told you a lie," she said quietly, and for some reason he did not seem to resent the deception.
"Did you bolt the hall door?"
Under the cover of her table Mary slipped the envelope back into her bag.
"If anybody comes, I'm not here," he said, and her heart nearly stopped beating.
"What is the matter?"
He did not reply to her question.
"Where is that tool-bag of mine, girlie? You remember, the little red bag—"
"It is in your room, I think."
She went into his room, found the tiny kit-bag and, bringing it back, put it on the table.
"What is wrong, Johnny?"
"Leave it, leave it," he said impatiently, and, turning his back to her, he rummaged in the bag and presently brought out a small, straight key.
"Ah! I thought it was there," he said, and then, looking past his arm, she saw the handcuff, and if she had not held on to the table she would have fallen.
"Johnny—oh!" she said faintly.
In a second he was by her side, and half lifted, half guided her to a chair.
"They took me to-night," he said quickly. "I went after the stuff, supposed to be planted before I went away. Meister told the police and they were on the roof waiting for me."
He put his hand tenderly on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry, old girl," he said.
"How awful!" she breathed.
He walked across to the window and, pulling aside the curtain, peeped down into the deserted street.
"The police are watching the block. I climbed up from the back of the building," he said. "It was pretty easy; there's a service lift runs to this floor. When I go, it will be the same way."
He put his hand in his pocket, took out some money and counted it.
"Fifteen pounds: I think that will get me out."
"Meister told the police!" She was staring into vacancy. "It doesn't seem possible! I thought he would only tell—about the other crime."
"About the other crime?" said the puzzled man. "What other crime?"
"The thing you did a long time ago," she said in a low voice, "the forgery."
"Forgery?" He could hardly believe his ears. "I never committed a forgery in my life."
"This!" She slipped the blue envelope out of her bag and he took it from her hand, examined the address and the date-stamp, and then, drawing out the letter, began to read. "What is this?" he asked.
"The proof that Meister held—the evidence. Burn it, Johnny," she begged, "please burn it!"
"There's nothing here worth burning," he said slowly; "only a letter from a man waiting trial and asking Meister to defend him."
She sprang to her feet, but he pressed her gently down.
"Now just tell me all about this," he said soothingly, and waited till she had governed the tempest of remorse that shook her like an aspen leaf.
"He said he had the evidence to send you to prison for life." She spoke jerkily, holding herself in hand. "Then he threatened to take it to Alan Wembury, only I promised -" She stopped here.
"Yes? You promised—you only promised?"
She nodded. Johnny Lenley laughed contemptuously.
"He's a liar. How did you get this?"
"I took it—to-night."
The reply staggered him.
"You went to his house! Did he expect you—to-night?"
"Yes; I got into the room through the garden and the private staircase. He was to let me in, though I knew and could save him the trouble."
"Well?" he asked, when she checked again.
"I knew he had been drinking. I hoped he would be asleep. I had discovered how the door worked—I found it by accident only to-day—yesterday, wasn't it? I heard him snoring and I waited a long time before I could get the courage. It was horrible, waiting, Johnny. I was crying like a fool, but I had to do it. And then I turned out the lights: there's a fuse-box on the landing. I went in ... opened the safe ..." She covered her eyes with her hands. "It was awful! Alan Wembury was there!"
"Wembury?" he whispered.
"He caught me, but I managed to get away."
"Did he know it was you!"
She threw out her hands, indifferent in her despair.
"I don't know. It was quite dark. I got out of the room and put the lights on again. I had to do that. I wanted a light on the stairs and I had lost my torch."
His arm was round her now, his head against hers.
"Poor little girl!" he said softly.
She pushed him aside gently, got up from the chair and walked to the table and picked up the envelope.
"And it was for nothing—nothing!" she said. "Johnny, he was lying."
Suddenly his face hardened.
"My God! I'll settle with Meister."
She caught his arm as he reached the door.
"Johnny, you mustn't. Wait, wait! Let us be as sensible as we can. I feel half mad myself."
She covered her eyes with her two hands, and that old nervous trick of hers brought a little pang to his heart.
"Yes, you must go," she said. "I've a little money—"
"I've got enough," he interrupted.
"They will be looking for you, Johnny. Every policeman will be watching for you. Can't you disguise yourself, boy? I've heard of men dressing as women—"
He shook his head.
"My dear, I'm not The Ringer!" A little smile lit up his gloomy face for a second. "No, I'll have to take my chance and trust to my natural agility."
In his endeavour to calm her fears he was almost flippant.
"Get me some food, my dear," he said briskly. "I want to get a clear run before daylight. I'll make for the river; I know the skipper of one of the coast barges and perhaps he'll give me a lift."
She hurried out into the kitchen and came back with a tray, to find him sitting on the edge of the chair before the fire, his head between his hands. She saw by his face that his thoughts were unpleasant, and guessed that Meister had been the subject of his reflections.
"Hurry, Johnny," she said nervously, as she began to cut the bread, and the knife was halfway through the loaf when she heard a knock at the door. Brother and sister looked at one another. Johnny snatched up the bread, tore off the uncut slice and put it into his pocket.
"Wait till I open the window of my room," he whispered. "I closed it after I got in for fear of their seeing me from the street."
He took up the handcuffs from the table and dropped them into his pocket.
"Don't worry about me; I can get down the lift rope—"
He went quickly to his room, closed and locked the door, and she heard the sound of the window-sash being raised, and then went out to answer the knock.
She knew it was Alan Wembury before she opened the door, and her surprise was a pitiful simulation.
"Why, Alan! this is a rather late hour for calling, isn't it?"
"May I come in?" he said.
She stood aside to let him pass, and shut the door behind him, following him into the room, her heart in her mouth. She tried hard to appear unconcerned, even smiled at him.
"We don't usually receive callers at one o'clock in the morning," she said. "Won't you sit down, Alan?"
But he did not move his eyes from her, scanning her closely.
"You've just come in?"
"No—no—I've been in some time," she lied bravely.
"One of my men saw you come in a few minutes ago," said Alan.
He was looking now at the coat she had thrown across the back of a chair.
"I—well, I went out to post a letter," she said hastily, loathing herself for the subterfuge.
Alan did not pursue the subject.
"Is your brother here?" he asked.
"My brother? No, he's staying with some friends to-night. Did you want to see him?"
Alan's eyes caught the glitter of something on the table, and he picked it up: something that looked like a clock key.
"Do you know what this is? It's a handcuff key."
She did not answer, and the key fell with a clang on the table. His face was pale and sad, she thought, and wondered if he felt just a little bit unhappy. She hoped that he did, just as she hoped that Meister's story of police treachery was a lie.
Alan dropped his hands gently on her shoulders and compelled her eyes to his.
"Why did you do it?" he asked, in so soft a voice that the man who was listening in the next room did not hear him speak. "Why did you do it?"
"Johnny is my brother -" she began.
"I'm not talking about your brother. I don't care a curse if we never see him again. Why did you go to Meister's house?"
She shrank back under the scrutiny, and the cry she uttered was involuntary. She could only look at him in wonder and fear, in the knowledge that he had recognised her. To her, the worst had happened.
"Let me see your hands," he said.
He held them palms upwards to the light, then gently turned them, inspecting finger by finger.
"Clean, of course!" he whispered. "I knew it could not have been you! You went there for something—I heard you crying."
She was very near to tears now, could not meet his eyes for fear of making a fool of herself.
"I was mad to go," she said.
"What did you expect to find?"
She looked past him at the table. He saw the envelope and letter and, dropping her hands, picked up the missive and read with a frown.
"Yes," she said listlessly. "Don't think I'm mad, but I went to get that—I risked everything for that!"
"Risked the—the supper?" he said.
"You saw the table ... that was the biggest risk of all," she said quietly.
"This," said Alan again, holding the letter at arm's length. "In the name of God, why?"
And then she told him; and as she reduced Meister's invention to words, the utter childishness of the plot seemed so apparent that she wondered if Alan would believe her. Apparently he did.
"You were trying to tell me about it at the station when Meister came in? He used it as a lever?"
"He wanted me to go to him."
"Yes, at midnight."
He put down the letter. The Ringer had succeeded. Meister had doubly failed, and a big load was lifted from his heart.
"How did you get into the room? The door was locked from the inside," he asked, and the wraith of a smile flitted across her pale face.
"It was very easy. I will show you tomorrow." And then: "Mr. Meister knows I took the letter, of course? That was why you came?"
He was looking at her intently.
"When you were in that room"—his slow speech, the deadly earnestness in his tone, frightened her—"did you go anywhere near Meister?"
"I? No." The vague terror of the tragedy unknown but now dimly realised, was upon her.
"Did you take a knife with you?"
"Knife, Alan?" She clung desperately to his arm. "Alan, you're frightening me! What do you mean?"
"I mean that whilst you were in that room, Lewis Meister was murdered."
She put her hand to her mouth to stop the scream.
"Murdered, Alan! Oh, no! Not ... murdered!"
"He was stabbed to death at the very moment you were in the room," said Wembury, "by somebody—"
He spun round. Johnny Lenley was standing in the doorway of his room.
"By me," said Johnny again.
Alan's hand went out quickly.
"I want you, Lenley." He felt stifled, could hardly articulate the words. Johnny Lenley gave that crooked smile of his.
"Don't worry; I am going quietly, and I shall give you no trouble. If Meister is dead, I killed him."
The girl had stood paralysed with horror at the confession, and now she flung herself between the two men.
"It isn't true, it isn't true!" she gasped. "Alan, he's not telling the truth! He thinks he is shielding me, don't you, Johnny? I went alone to Meister's—it was impossible that Johnny could have been there ... he didn't know till I told him just now...."
Very gently her brother put her aside.
"I did it. You needn't take any notice of this crazy girl. I followed her into the room when she put the lights out. I heard Meister talking—that was my guide to him—"
Alan was standing before him now.
"Let me see your hands," he said, and turned them over quickly.
"I washed them when I came in," said Johnny. "You'll find no blood on them."
"You've still got the marks of the handcuff; where is it?"
Lenley took the steel circlet from his pocket, and Alan carried it to the table and examined it closely under the light.
"Did you wash this too?" he asked. "Now listen, Lenley: I'm taking you for burglary and breaking arrest. You were guided to Meister by his voice, were you?"
"You will be interested to learn that he never uttered a sound after the lights went out! I respect you for your chivalry, but you couldn't convince a judge and jury even if you gave evidence against yourself. If it is true that Meister sent you after the loot, you may get away with it—they cannot punish you twice for the same offence, and I'll speak a word for you. But the other story won't go."
Lenley's brows met.
"Do you think she killed Meister?" he asked fiercely.
Alan shook his head.
"No," he said; "I know who killed Meister. Lenley, I'm going to make a fool of myself—as big a fool as you are. I want you to go into that room"—he pointed—"and wait. And whilst you wait, decide whether you will make a run for it, or stand your trial. If you stay, I'll do my best for you. If you run, I shall get an interview with the Chief Commissioner in the morning, and tell him what has happened. He will probably break me, but don't let that stop you."
Mary listened in amazement.
"You mustn't do that, Johnny. You can't possibly do that."
Johnny did not answer; he was looking queerly at the detective.
"You've gone crazy, haven't you?" he said.
"Crazy or sane, that is my offer. Go to your room and think it over. I shan't feel sore with you if you decide to run, though I warn you that I can do nothing more than give you this chance. It is a thousand to one against your escaping from London, and if you'll take those odds you may, so far as I am concerned."
"Why are you doing this? What's the big idea?" asked Lenley suspiciously.
"That is entirely my business," was the stiff reply.
John Lenley pursed his lips and looked from the detective to his sister.
"I'm no great friend of yours, Wembury, but I'll not do it."
"Think it over."
The girl thought she saw her brother waver in his purpose.
"Johnny, you can't ruin Alan Wembury!"
"Think it over," said Alan, and nodded to the door.
Johnny Lenley went slowly from the room; the door shut behind him. The girl stared after him, then brought her tired eyes to the man by the table.
"Alan, we can't accept this sacrifice. Why are you doing this?"
Alan's shrug was no very illuminating answer.
"It looks like lunacy, doesn't it? Well, perhaps it is. I'll tell you why, Mary," he said after a pause. "I knew a girl once who used to pass my father's cottage in Hillboro Village." He was not looking at her, and did not see her wan little smile.
"That isn't a very good reason, is it?" she said gently.
His voice was husky and sounded as if it belonged to somebody else.
"Well, I—I fell in love with that little girl ... it used to be a sort of dream of mine. I suppose we've all got some sort of ideal, but most of us die without seeing our dream-girl come true. I've always wanted to do something for her."
His speech was spasmodic, on the verge of incoherence. He heard her catch her breath, and then:
"I think you're a fool, Alan. After all, no girl is worth a man's career." She shook her head. "No, I can't let you do this. It is very sweet to know that you wanted to help me...." She put out both her hands to him, and he took them. "Alan, is there any danger to you from—The Ringer? Is there?" she asked again.
"Look at me and tell me the truth."
He shook his head.
"Anyway, that is part of my job," he said.
Then he saw the smile light up her eyes.
"Is it part of your job to set Johnny free? If you want to do this because you loved a child—ages and ages ago—"
He met the grave eyes without flinching.
"No," he said quietly, "because I love you."
She dropped her hands suddenly.
"I'm sorry I told you that—I didn't mean to tell you."
"But I wanted to know," she said in a low voice. "I wanted you to tell me!" And then, as he caught her in his arms: "Life's awfully queer, isn't it? And it's such a long way to Hillboro Village, and a million years since ... Wait!"
She pushed him gently back and, walking to Johnny's door, knocked.
There was no answer. She flung open the door and went in, coming back with consternation in her face.
"He's gone!" she cried.
Alan Wembury was shocked. His offer had been genuine enough, and yet somehow he could not believe that Johnny would take him at his word, the more so after his declaration.
"Is that so?" he said.
She had another thought in her mind; she held him by the arms and clung to him.
"Alan, you don't think ... you don't think I knew he was going!" she said wildly. "That I was keeping you ... talking to you ... about ourselves—to give him a chance? You don't think that, do you?" She was shaking him.
"Of course not. And I don't believe that Johnny has gone."
He put her aside and went into the room. The window was open, and the service lift was within the reach of a long-armed man. That was the way he had gone. How far, he wondered. He was soon to learn, for, when he returned, he found the room empty and heard Mary's voice speaking to somebody at the door. She came back in a hurry, a strange light in her face.
"Alan, it is your officer, Mr. Atkins. He says Johnny has given himself up."
Alan drew a long breath of relief.
"Thank God for that!" she said, voicing his own thoughts.
"Can Atkins come in?"
She stepped aside and beckoned the invisible officer.
"What happened, Atkins?"
"He walked up to one of our men and surrendered himself. He asked me to tell you, sir, that he thought he might weaken on it. I don't know what he meant."
"Thank you," he said.
POLICE-CONSTABLE HARRAP, a large and unimaginative man, watched with good-natured contempt the Application of Science to the Detection of Crime. He and Dr. Lomond were alone in Meister's room, and the doctor, with a long builder's tape, was taking careful measurements, sometimes requisitioning the police officer to hold the brass-looped end, sometimes dispensing with his services. On the blotting-pad there was a sprinkle of red blots, as though somebody had been using ink of that colour and had shaken his pen over the table. This was the only evidence that remained of the tragedy which had been enacted less than an hour before. The ambulance had come and gone, and there remained only Constable Harrap in charge of the house, and this energetic amateur.
"A man's normal stride covers twenty-seven inches. A woman's covers twenty-two," said Dr. Lomond impressively.
"That's right, sir," said the constable, whose tone conveyed both agreement and a subtle admiration.
Not that Police-Constable Harrap had the slightest idea what was the normal stride of a man or woman. He thought little on the matter, and cared less. But he had learnt, through many years of service, never to disagree with his superiors.
Dr. Lomond took out his watch, clicked down the control of the chronograph, and stepped cautiously from the door to the desk, aimed an imaginary blow at an imaginary enemy in the chair, and looked at his watch again.
"Three seconds and two-fifths," he said, and jotted down his discovery.
Police-Constable Harrap, who hadn't the foggiest notion what it was all about, raised his eyebrows and looked impressed.
"On a job like this, sir," he said, "it's usual for the officer in charge to say to the constable: 'If you can find a bottle of beer about, help yourself, my lad, and don't be shy.' I'll bet old Meister—poor Mr. Meister," he corrected himself, "has got lashings of beer in the house. I've seen it come in by the case," he added mendaciously. And when the doctor, intent upon his calculations, took no notice: "Of course it's not usual to drink on duty, but a pint of beer never killed any man," said Constable Harrap. "And though I admit Mr. Wembury never mentioned anything about it, I shouldn't be surprised if he didn't say to himself, 'Well, if the constable wants a drink, then he'll mention it to the doctor, and maybe the doctor will prescribe—to use a medical term—a pint or two pints, as the case may be.'"
Dr. Lomond was scratching his chin.
"If we could only measure the distance between the door into the garden and the stable door—"
"I'm not supposed to leave the house," said Harrap quickly. It was raining outside, and the wind was freshening again. "If I was allowed out in the street I could get a pint from the 'Pretty Maid.' The landlord suffers from insom—insumnia, and he's up day and night. We're not supposed to drink when we're on duty, but the Commissioners, being human men, wink at it, if you understand, doctor?"
"Yes, yes," said Dr. Lomond impatiently.
Suddenly he started and looked up at the ceiling. Was it his imagination, or did he hear in the room above the sound of a stealthy footstep?
"Did you hear anything, constable?"
Harrap looked up at the ceiling.
"I thought I heard something," he said cautiously. "Sounded like somebody dropping a bottle of beer—"
"Don't be a fool!"
In three strides the doctor was across the floor. He ran up the stairs leading to Meister's bedroom, switched on the lights and went in. The window was wide open and the wind was blowing in the curtains. He took a look round the apartment, put out the lights and came thoughtfully down the stairs. The sound for the moment had distracted his attention from the serious business of criminal investigation. He wound up his tape, dropped it in his bag and closed the bag with a snap.
He was the reverse of nervous. And yet twice in the last half-hour he had heard a queer sound, that he could not but associate with human movements.
"I'm going to see Mr. Wembury," he said shortly. "I'll leave my bag here."
"Mr. Wembury said he was coming back, sir, if you care to wait," Harrap told him. "The sergeant's going to make a search of the house. There ought to be some queer things found here. Personally," he added, "I'd like to have the job of searching the pantry or the wine-cellar, or wherever he keeps the beer."
But Lomond had something else to think about. The police car had gone when the doctor reached Flanders Lane. He had to walk through the storm to the station-house. Fortunately he was dressed for rough weather; he pulled up the collar of his macintosh and strode up the narrow thoroughfare, swinging his umbrella. He wore shoes with thick rubber heels which deadened the noise of his walking, and this enabled him to hear another sound—a sound that brought him round in a flash. It was a little cough, and it came from immediately behind him. As he turned, he saw a vague figure melt into the shadow of a house. He could have sworn he was not mistaken.
A moment's hesitation, and then he walked back slowly and came abreast of one of the houses. There was no door; that had been removed years ago. The passage was a place of Stygian blackness. Further investigation would mean the disturbance of the many families that were crowded together in this human pigsty. He waited a second, and then continued his journey.
The High Street was better lighted. Late as was the hour, there was quite a large number of people abroad; a knot of them were grouped by a red-painted coffee-stall at the corner of the Street. He saw a constable standing in a doorway, and the policeman touched his hat as he passed. Dr. Lomond felt suddenly important.
Yet he looked back, not once but many times, expecting to find the shadow on his heels; but it was not until he was crossing the Broadway that, looking over his shoulder, he saw a slinking figure hugging the shop fronts on his left, and apparently making for Church Street. He dropped to a slower walk, as he crossed the Broadway, and presently the man came parallel with him thirty or forty yards distant. At the corner of Church Street Dr. Lomond turned abruptly to the left, quickening his pace. The stranger slipped into the dark of Church Street.
Lomond broke into a run. Quick as he went, his quarry was fleeter of foot. Suddenly he disappeared from view; he had dived into one of the little alleys, and the doctor heard the barking of dogs and turned back on his tracks, a very thoughtful man, for he was passionately anxious to meet this gaunt stranger—the man he had seen watching the station before Peter's death.
At the station he found that Alan had been in and gone out again.
"I think he may have gone to Malpas Mansions, doctor," said the sergeant.
"Who lives at Malpas Mansions? Oh, yes, I remember—Miss Lenley. Has her brother been arrested?"
At that moment the sergeant was unaware of Johnny's dramatic arrest, and shook his head.
The doctor retrieved his car from the station yard, and pulled up before Malpas Mansions in time to see Johnny walking away between two men. He was smoking a cigarette, whose glow was reflected in the polished irons about his wrists.
"Wembury is with Miss Lenley, sir," said Atkins. "I'll tell him you're here. Perhaps you'll come up?"
The doctor followed the sergeant into the Lenley household. Presently Mary came out and invited him in.
He had only seen her near at hand once before, at the station, and he was impressed by her pale beauty.
"I've been followed since I left the house," he said, telling of his unpleasant experience; "and if this is going to keep you awake, Miss Lenley, I'll defer telling my dramatic story until I get the inspector by himself."
Mary shook her head.
"I don't think I shall sleep a great deal tonight," she said with a sad little smile.
"Who was the chaser?" asked Alan, interested.
"Our sick-looking friend—I would swear to it. I sprinted after him, but he knows the land better than I, and he got away."
Alan looked thoughtful.
"Did you see his face!"
"No; it's rather guesswork on my part. I never forget the shape of a man. But guess-work or not, I am prepared to go to the witness-stand and testify on oath that the gentleman who has been shadowing me since I left Meister's is the same man I saw hanging about opposite the station-house last night. And if this is police work," he added vehemently, "I'm through with it! I would give three provinces for one hot and comfortable cup of coffee!"
Mary smiled again.
"I won't ask you for your three provinces, doctor," she said. "We always keep coffee made; if you wish, I will heat some up."
He was all apologies, but she was out of the room before his half-hearted protest could be heeded.
"I don't like it, Wembury." The doctor seated himself in the arm-chair and pulled it up nearer to the fire, rubbing his cold hands one over the other. "Those two murders ... uncanny! And who is this horrible bird who's on my track?"
Wembury shook his head.
"I've got so that I think someone is walking behind me all the time," said Lomond, and shivered. "And that laugh ... that terrible laugh! I shall never forget it as long as I live!"
"You mean the laugh we heard after Meister was killed? It was a man in the street—Atkins overtook him. A perfectly innocent and perfectly intoxicated citizen. I was rattled a little myself."
"It sounded in the room," said Lomond with a shudder.
"The end window of the room overlooks the street. Harrap, the man on duty, heard the laugh and saw the man—a Flanders Laner—and cautioned him to be quiet."
The doctor was silent; his mind had switched back to the gaunt shadow, and he glanced uneasily at the long red curtains which hid the window.
Man has gone far from his animal ancestors, but the atavistic premonitions of danger have not been wholly blunted by the refinements of civilisation and the development of reason. Down below, in the dark desert of the street, the gaunt man was crossing the road. Atkins had gone; the watchers had been withdrawn. The stout outer door of the Mansions stood ajar.
The gaunt man scarcely moved the hinges as he wriggled through, and went noiselessly and quickly up the stone steps, stopping at each landing to listen. Even as Lomond spoke, the ear of the shadow was at the door, listening ... listening. Presently he fitted the key that he held into the slot of the lock, with the care and steadiness of one threading a needle. Not a sound reached the two men, though the door which gave into the hall was half open.
"I'll feel safer when that bird is under lock and key," were the words he heard, as he came, like a ghost, into the tiny lobby, and with infinite caution closed the door behind him.
He heard Wembury laugh.
"His furtiveness is his chief offence, I think," said the detective. "There are men like that. Don't you remember Dickens described such a man in 'Martin Chuzzlewit'?"
The doctor was examining his stained cuff pensively. He was a neat man, and any form of disorder or untidiness worried him.
"Two murders in one night!" he said awfully, and in spite of his anxiety Wembury laughed.
"Are your nerves strong enough to let you come back to Meister's place with me? I've told Atkins to meet me there; we're going to make a search of the house. I've seen sufficient already to know the extent of Meister's fencing. There's enough silver plate in that house to stock an hotel!"
Lomond uttered an exclamation of disgust.
"Again to-night? No, thank you! I've only just come from there. I've been taking measurements, with the aid of an unintelligent policeman who thinks in terms of liquid refreshment. I couldn't stick it any longer. The house is full of queer noises."
The whistle of the wind came within that cosy room and suggested an explanation.
"It's the sort of night you hear queer noises," said Alan. "The Ringer couldn't have chosen one more likely to set nerves on edge."
The doctor looked up.
"You still think it was The Ringer? A man and not a woman?"
"To my mind," said the doctor emphatically, "there is no question whatever that a woman struck the blow."
"I repeat," said Alan wearily, "that the person who came into the room never left my hands until she escaped."
"How did she escape?" asked the other. "And even if that is so, after she had freed herself from your hands and got to the door, there was plenty of time to use a knife. I've timed it as closely as I can."
"How did she get through the door?" countered Alan.
The doctor shook his head.
"That puzzled me, I admit. But don't you think as I do, Wembury?"
"No, I don't," said Alan promptly, and the doctor shrugged.
"Oh, well, if I were a police officer I shouldn't look elsewhere. What has happened to Mrs. K., the housekeeper?"
"We have already traced her to a house in Flanders Lane—the court missionary saw her there ... her alibi is complete," said Alan.
Through the lobby door the gaunt man saw the long curtains at the window. It had been a prophetic glance that Dr. Lomond had so apprehensively cast in that direction. Here was the only hiding-place in the room. He peeped through a crack in the door; the men's backs were turned to him. The kitchen door was closed. In a second he had reached the curtained recess.
"Frankly, I'm sceptical about The Ringer." Dr. Lomond made the outrageous statement with the greatest calm.
"I hope you'll never have reason to change your mind," said Alan dryly, and the doctor looked at him sharply. "The Ringer is a very thorough person; he hasn't finished by killing Meister and Peter. Everybody connected with the case is in danger—everybody!"
"I?" gasped Lomond.
"You—I—the woman who was in the room, if he suspects she saw anything. Probably he does. My opinion is he hasn't reckoned on her. She was a complication that intruded at the worst possible moment for him."
Mary came in at that moment with the coffee and set it on the table, handing a cup first to Alan and then to the doctor. Dr. Lomond rose to his feet.
"It is very good of you, Miss Lenley. I am extraordinarily sorry about your brother tonight."
He carried his coffee to the table, helped himself to an abnormal quantity of sugar, and, waiting till Mary was seated, surrendered himself to the luxury of the deep arm-chair.
"You're very tired, Alan?" There was pity in her tone.
"Have you finished your work for the night?"
"Not he!" scoffed Lomond. "He's going back to that wretched house, and wants me to go with him. I'd go like a shot if I thought I could help you."
"You can," said Alan. "Your measurements may be very useful."
"Of what use are they, if you reject the theory that the woman did it—?"
He did not see the sudden pain in the girl's face, and would have gone on, but Wembury tactfully switched his thoughts to another channel.
"Miss Lenley is quite as tired as we are," he said. "I think we'll go along, doctor, and leave this lady to sleep. You won't mind being left alone!"
She shook her head.
"I've been alone for a long time," she said quickly; "and I haven't any cause to fear The Ringer."
Alan thought at that moment that she of all persons had most reason to be afraid of that ruthless man, and he was determined not to sleep that night, or what remained of the night, until he had posted a guard outside the house.
The doctor had gone, and Alan was following him when she called him back.
"You haven't kissed me," she said, and raised her quivering lips to his....
Long after the sound of his footsteps had died away she stood in the hall listening, then slowly came back to the table and sat down, trying to rescue, from the confusion of her mind, some logical sequence of events on which she could build the foundation of reason.
The curtains behind her moved slowly, and the colourless face of the intruder loomed out of the darkness. The silence was complete, unbroken.... She remembered her coffee, reached out her hand mechanically, and her fingers slipped into the china handle. At that moment the hidden man moved from his place of concealment with long, noiseless steps, and his hand closed over hers.
With a scream she rose, stared for a second into the deep eyes, saw the white teeth set in a grin.... Suddenly she went limp; the coffee cup dropped to the floor with a crash; and she lay helpless in his sinewy arms.
"You told me to wait at the station-house for you. I've been hanging around for an hour."
They called at the station-house before going on to Meister's, for Alan had remembered that he had asked The Ringer's wife to meet him there. She was sitting on a form, a disconsolate, broken figure of a woman, when he came in, and leapt up with a startled face at the sound of his footsteps.
"You haven't taken him—haven't caught him?" she asked eagerly.
He shook his head.
"No, not yet. I suppose it's useless to ask you to help us, Cora?"
"To catch him?" She smiled wearily. "Yes, that's a pretty foolish proposition, isn't it? No, I feel I ought to be somewhere around ... in the danger zone. I suppose you'll be pinching me if I give you any trouble, and maybe if I don't! Only ... I promised Arthur something years ago. And I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it!"
"What did you promise him?"
She only answered:
"Something ... I only hope he won't need it, though."
"He won't need the help you've planned, Cora," said Wembury. "That's why I asked you to come. You've got a taxi airplane waiting day and night for you at Croydon—you needn't deny it because we've traced it. We've known all about it for days. But if you go to the Continent, you go alone—understand that! You drive a car, don't you?"
She did not answer.
"There's a big sports car garaged at Bennetts in Deptford. You've had it out once or twice for practice runs. When you make your last trip you'll carry no passenger—is that clear?"
"I hear you," she said.
"I respect you up to a point for wanting to help him, for wishing to keep your promise. But you're not going to have the chance, Cora."
"That wasn't the promise I made," she said sullenly, without raising her eyes from the ground. "It was something else, and you can ask me all night, Wembury, and I wouldn't tell you. Arthur hasn't finished yet."
"I know that," he said quietly.
"He'll get you."
"I know that, too," Alan interrupted. "He may get a whole lot of people, but this you can gamble on, Cora Milton! In the end we will get him! The law is greater than the man, in this country at any rate. And the law isn't represented by a policeman, high or low—the law is the conscience of the people."
She rose and stretched herself painfully. He saw that she was wet through and offered the obvious suggestion.
"No, I'm all right," she said gruffly. "And if I wasn't, I shouldn't want you to mother me! Let up on Arthur, Wembury. I warned Meister, and the fool thought I was bluffing. I'm not bluffing you, and you know it!"
"Let up on Arthur. Give him a clear road. Let him know that he's got a clear road—I'll find ways of reaching him. Meister wasn't worth a decent man's life—not yours, anyway. Open the door and save yourself a whole lot of trouble."
"I wouldn't open the door to save myself from hell," said Wembury, and meant it. "I'll get your Arthur, never fear! And as for the something you're going to do, forget it," he said, and she went out into the rain, past the two-seater which held a very impatient doctor, and Alan guessed that she, too, was making for Flanders Lane.
"Who is the interesting female?" asked Lomond as he sent the machine flying towards the Broadway.
"That was Mrs. Ringer."
"Mrs. Milton? Good Lord!" gasped the doctor. "I should like to have had a talk with her. I rather flatter myself that the law was my true vocation. The art of cross-examination belongs entirely to the psychologist. Now, when I was in Allahabad ..."
Alan listened and dozed. He had hardly closed his eyes before the car stopped, and the doctor jumped down. Police Constable Harrap concealed the pipe he had been surreptitiously smoking at the front door of the house, and went ponderously up to the room before them.
"Has Sergeant Atkins finished the search?"
"No, sir," said P.O. Harrap, with great respect. "He's just taken a lot of silver to the station—you must have passed him. He found it in a cupboard under those back stairs, and he said he was coming back later. Oh, I'd forgotten, sir," he said suddenly. He reached down from a shelf a small wooden box. "Sergeant Atkins has just telephoned through and asked me to give you this the moment you arrive."
Alan opened the box; it was full of papers, seemingly of little importance as he turned them over; but presently he stopped, took out a letter and began to read. As he read, he whistled.
"This is rather a find."
"What is it?" asked Lomond. He had his tape measure in his hand and was preparing to go over again the measurements, particulars of which he seemed to have mislaid.
"Here's a letter from the gentleman himself."
"From The Ringer? Is that a literary curiosity?"
"Because it's the only specimen of his handwriting we have. Usually The Ringer spent his time signing other people's names and using other people's handwriting. Listen to this; it's dated 'His Majesty's Prison, Dartmoor,' and must have been written soon after he got there:
"'My dear Meister, I am here, as you know. When I come out I should like to see you. Lenley is here in the same hall. Did he come for the same reason? Have a good time whilst you can.'"
He looked at the doctor.
"How is that for a threat?"
Dr. Lomond took the letter and examined it.
"He writes an educated hand," he said. "What is the exact value of the letter?"
"The value of this," replied Wembury slowly, "is that, if we can trace any other letters in this handwriting and written since his return to England, we shall be in a fair way to identifying him."
Lomond pushed the letter across the table.
"It sounds very unscientific and haphazard," he said. "A few hours' work with the measuring tape will perhaps be more useful in the long run."
There was no mistaking it this time. Harrap had gone downstairs to resume his watch and his illicit pipe. The two men looked up at the ceiling simultaneously.
"What was that?" asked the doctor. "Did it come from up above?"
Alan seemed doubtful.
"It was the same noise that I heard an hour ago."
Alan went to the door and called Harrap into the room.
"Did you make any kind of noise out there?"
"No, sir," said the man in surprise.
"Just wait here."
He ran up to Meister's room, whence the sound had emanated, and was gone five minutes. When he came back the doctor thought he looked a little paler. It may have been imagination; possibly Wembury was tired.
"It was nothing. The wind had blown over a small table."
He went into Mary's little room and lingered a second or two. Mary was alone in her flat; that was the thought which flashed upon him when he was in the room above and had brought the pallor to his cheeks. The Ringer might be working single-handed; on the other hand, he might have a friend or two. He imparted his fears to the doctor when he returned.
"If he's single-handed, then the danger is in this house."
"Here?" asked Lomond, in a startled voice.
"Here," said Alan curtly. "Don't forget this: if the only possible way The Ringer could escape justice was by destroying half the people of London, they would be dead!"
The two men looked at one another. There was nobody in this house except the officer. Again Constable Harrap's quiet pipe was interrupted; he was called into the room.
"Stay here, Harrap: I'm going on a little tour."
He disappeared, and presently they heard his footfalls in the room overhead.
"Are you on duty in this house all the time?" asked the doctor nervously.
"Yes, sir," said Harrap, "till to-morrow morning."
"A very nasty sort of job, eh?" It was unlike him to feel the impression which had crept over him since his return to the house; less like him to experience a desire for human speech and human association, if a police-constable could be so described.
"Why, yes, sir," said Harrap. "I've had worse. This place is a palace compared with some of the houses I've been in, especially in Flanders Lane."
"It doesn't worry you to know that there's been a murder committed here to-night?" asked . Lomond curiously.
Mr. Harrap wasn't worried at all. If he had any regret, it was that the murder had not been committed in a saloon. He said so pathetically.
"Where are you stationed?"
"Downstairs, sir, in the passage near the front door."
"If you hear any unusual noise—er—you'll come up, won't you?"
Constable Harrap licked very dry lips.
"I'd like to hear a bottle of beer being opened, sir," he said. "That'd bring me up quickly enough."
Lomond looked nervously round.
"One constable doesn't seem to be enough in a lawless neighbourhood like that. Is there any kind of danger, do you think?"
The large red face of Mr. Harrap drooped.
"I shouldn't say so. I've never seen Mr. Wembury drink beer. Bless your life, sir, one policeman's enough. Who's going to break into this house to-night—why, there ain't a man outside of a lunatic asylum who'd attempt to come here. The man who killed Mr. Meister's miles away by now."
"Do you think so?" The doctor seemed comforted by this official assurance.
Wembury came in soon after and sent Harrap down to the door.
"Another table turned over. I've shut the window. Possibly a cat may have got in."
His eyes went again to the mystery door, and it required a conscious effort on his part to open it and search the little room beneath.
"The garden door was locked," he said when he returned and thrust the bolts into their sockets. "There was no sign of any intruder."
"What the devil are you looking for?" asked Lomond irritably.
"For the life of me I couldn't tell you. Have you got your measurements?"
"Yes, I've got them and forgotten them!" He took up the tape from the table, and pursued his useless task. In the midst of his calculations there was a tap at the door and the constable came in.
"Excuse me, sir," he said.
"Come in, Harrap. What is it?"
"As I was standing at the street door I saw somebody getting over the garden wall," was the startling intelligence.
"Into the garden?"
"I don't know, sir, whether he dropped in or out of the garden—if I hadn't been on this duty I'd have gone after him."
"Perhaps he's been hiding in the garden all the time, and got out through the stable gate."
"No, sir," said the constable, "that's impossible. One of the Scotland Yard gentlemen who came down plugged the keyhole."
Wembury's eyes narrowed. He was beginning to understand something which up till then had been inexplicable.
"Was that your cat?" asked Dr. Lomond, sarcastically.
"You didn't see him?" asked Wembury.
"All right, constable. Be on hand."
"Was that your cat?" demanded Lomond again.
"It may have been a reporter. They'd sit on a grave to get a story," said Alan.
The supper table had been removed, but the settee remained with its back to the door, and he sat down wearily.
"Theorise, doctor, for heaven's sake, but theorise interestingly, or I shall go to sleep."
Lomond wound up his tape.
"My theory is a simple one," he said. "When the girl came into the room, she intended, for some reason or other, to rob Meister. You caught her, and she thought that she was in the hands of Meister. I believe you staggered back towards the table—you hit your knee or something?"
"She followed and stabbed at random. She wasn't used to handling knives."
"Why do you think that?" asked the interested detective.
"I'll show you."
The doctor opened his bag on the table, took out a long knife and balanced it on the palm of his hand.
"In India, where the knife is a popular instrument of destruction, an experienced assassin can tell at a glance whether the holder of a knife is an amateur or a professional. I don't profess to be an experienced assassin, but I've learnt enough from these people to enable me to judge from the direction of the stroke whether the blow was intentional or accidental. There is no doubt"—he seated himself beside Alan—"there is no doubt whatever that the blow that killed Peter the Nose was designed. It was a clean stroke, well aimed and effective in every respect."
The mystery door was moving! Not only the door, but the door-posts. Frame and door were slipping slowly round on a central pivot.
The men on the settee neither heard nor saw. The doctor, intent upon his theorising; Alan listening, seemingly with absorbed attention. An inch, two inches, the mystery door swung; a long hand showed at its edge. Presently the gaunt, hungry face of the shadow peered round the opening.
"Now I'll tell you," the doctor was saying, "why I think it was a woman's hand that struck the blow. I'm speaking as a doctor who understands something about woman's psychology ..."
The gaunt man was in the room now; his hand crept to his side pocket and was presently withdrawn, holding something that glittered.
"As she moved towards Meister she must have held the knife rather like a sword—somehow like this. And then -"
"Put up your hands!"
The two men came to their feet, but the automatic was pointed at the doctor.
"I want you," said the gaunt man, "Henry Arthur Milton!"
Behind the haggard stranger were Atkins and two detectives from head-quarters. Lomond's hands went up with a slow smile, and as the handcuffs snapped on his wrists he turned to the waiting Alan.
"Who is your unpleasant-looking friend!" he asked easily.
"Sergeant Wills, of head-quarters. He's been trailing you ever since you arrived in this country. Search him!"
Under "Lomond's" armpits they found an automatic. Strapped to his right calf was a smaller but almost as efficient a one.
"Is Miss Lenley all right?"
The gaunt man looked up from his work and nodded.
"Yes, but he doctored her coffee, as you thought he would, when he was leaning over to help himself to sugar. I spotted that. I'm afraid I gave her a bit of a fright, but I had to stop her drinking it. She's all right now, though."
"She'll get over it. She knows about The Ringer?"
"Yes, I had to tell her," said Sergeant Wills. "And she knew how the door worked, too. I only learnt it the day I caught Haggitt's hand in the dark—Gosh! I was scared!"
He stood up and examined the "doctor" with a proprietorial air.
"Let's have a look at you," he said, and peeled off the grey wig, revealing a head covered with close-cut brown hair.
"Whiskers natural, I suppose? Grew them on the boat, I'll bet!"
"Don't let us have too many personal details," said the other.
"You're Henry Arthur Milton?" said Wembury.
"That is my name."
"You know me?"
"I'm sorry to say I do," smiled the man.
"I am Detective-Inspector Wembury, of the Criminal Investigation Department," said Alan, "and I am taking you into custody on the charge of wilfully murdering Lewis Meister by stabbing him with a knife. Another charge of murder will be preferred. I caution you that what you now may say may be used in evidence against you."
The "doctor" listened with closed eyes.
"I knew you had me, Wembury, when I saw you in the station reading the medical directory of Australia. And of course the cable you got that night at the station-house had nothing whatever to do with The Ringer being caught. It was confirmation of your suspicions, I suppose? You found the real Dr. Lomond? I'll tell you the truth: I bought his diploma; the real Lomond is a drunken down-and-out that I met in a doss-house at Ballarat. And as doctoring has always been a hobby of mine, I borrowed his name, and by the greatest good luck got the temporary job of police surgeon."
"You saw the advertisement for a locum tenens in the Lancet, I suppose?" said Alan, and the man nodded. "Why did you kill Peter?"
The Ringer shrugged his shoulders.
"He spotted me—at least, I think he did. Meister was easy: I was only waiting my chance. It came when your young lady put the lights out. I'd have had you just now, but the noise overhead rattled me. It was one of your men, of course? I suppose the house is full of busies?"
"They were hidden in the next room—it was locked."
"What is the betting I shan't escape again?"
The gaunt man guffawed.
"Don't make me laugh. The hangman's a personal friend of mine! I'd never look him up the face again if I let you go!"
"You've been watching me all this time?"
"I haven't been far away," said the pallid Wills complacently. "Look a bit sick, don't I? I used to be in this division years ago: they called me 'The Bogey Man.' Not a bad name, as names go."
The door opened at that moment and Mary came in. She stopped dead when she saw the handcuffed "doctor" in the custody of the gaunt stranger.
"Which reminds me," said Sergeant Wills, a talkative man when duty was done. "That story of Johnny Lenley's is true. I heard Meister send him along after the swag. I came to the station, through the window of your room, to tell you this, but I couldn't wait."
Wembury was holding the girl's two hands.
"Why did you come here?"
"I had a feeling you were in danger," she said breathlessly.
"And he was," said "Lomond."
He made a sudden dive for the door, but the hands that gripped him were not to be shaken. He went down the stairs laughing, and laughing came out into the dark street, where they stood for a moment whilst the police car was signalled. There was another machine there, a long, black-bodied sports car, and this moved across slowly towards the waiting group. The woman driver bent forward as she came abreast and stopped the car.
"Is that you, Arthur?"
"That's me, honey," said the "doctor." "Haven't forgotten anything, have you?"
There was a sob from the car.
"Good luck, boy!" she said, and raised her hand.
There was a deafening report, the "flick" of a white flame, and Henry Arthur Milton dropped into the detective's hands, dead. Before they could spring on the running-board, the big car was roaring up the street.
Alan heard the shot and came flying down. One glimpse of The Ringer lying on the pavement told him all.
"So that is the 'something' she would do for him! Quick! There's an aeroplane waiting to take her to the Continent, and we gave them instructions there was no objection to her leaving alone."
There was a phone in the lower part of the house—but the aerodrome was disconnected. A tree blown down in the gale had disorganised the Purley service.
"Get after her—if she makes it first you'll lose her. I hope she does!" The last sentence was under his breath.
He went back to the terrified girl and soothed her with a story of a burst tyre. Then he sent for Atkins.
"Get Miss Lenley away by the back—open the big gates. That fool man from the Yard plugged up the keyhole and nearly prevented Wills from getting into the house. They took away the only key of the garden door, too. If the men on the top floor hadn't signalled me and attracted my attention, there might have been a tragedy."
He sent the girl down through the mystery door, which still stood open on its central pivot, and after she had gone he stopped awhile to examine the perfect mechanism. There were two doors in one: the posts, made of solid oak, were suspended by a steel pivot from an overhead beam, so that when the spring was pressed and a catch released, the whole structure turned. He closed the door carefully, picked up the knife that "Lomond" had dropped, and put it into the "doctor's" bag.
"Oh, by the way, Harrap."
"Yes, sir?" said the waiting constable.
"You'll find a pantry along that passage, and several bottles of beer. I seem to have overheard some reference to that pernicious beverage. Pour yourself out a glass. One glass," he added.
"Very good, sir."
Alan had taken a final look round and was buttoning his raincoat when the constable came back. He had a glass in his hand: it was the largest glass he could find.
"Good work, sir," he smiled.
"Yes," said Alan, "good police work."
"Ah!" said Constable Harrap, shaking his head in an ecstasy of self-admiration. "They can't beat us! Good luck, sir!"
He raised the glass to his lips and did not put it down until the enormous quantity had disappeared, and Alan watched him, fascinated.
This site is full of FREE ebooks - Project Gutenberg Australia