The thing wouldn't have happened if any other constable than Collins had been put on point duty at Blackfriars Bridge that morning. For Collins was young, good-looking, and—knew it. Nature had gifted him with a susceptible heart and a fond eye for the beauties of femininity. So when he looked round and saw the woman threading her way through the maze of vehicles at "Dead Man's Corner," with her skirt held up just enough to show two twinkling little feet in French shoes, and over them a graceful, willowy figure, and over that an enchanting, if rather too highly tinted face, with almond eyes and a fluff of shining hair under the screen of a big Parisian hat—that did for him on the spot.
He saw at a glance that she was French—exceedingly French—and he preferred English beauty, as a rule. But, French or English, beauty is beauty, and here undeniably was a perfect type, so he unhesitatingly sprang to her assistance and piloted her safely to the kerb, revelling in her voluble thanks, and tingling as she clung timidly but rather firmly to him.
"Sair, I have to give you much gratitude," she said in a pretty, wistful sort of way, as they stepped on to the pavement. Then she dropped her hand from his sleeve, looked up at him, and shyly drooped her head, as if overcome with confusion and surprise at the youth and good looks of him. "Ah, it is nowhere in the world but Londres one finds these delicate attentions, these splendid sergeants de ville," she added, with a sort of sigh. "You are wonnerful—you are mos' wonnerful, you Anglais poliss. Sair, I am a stranger; I know not ze ways of this city of amazement, and if monsieur would so kindly direct me where to find the Abbey of the Ves'minster—"
Before P.C. Collins could tell her that if that were her destination, she was a good deal out of her latitude; indeed, even before she concluded what she was saying, over the rumble of the traffic there rose a thin, shrill piping sound, which to ears trained to the call of it possessed a startling significance.
It was the shrilling of a police whistle, far off down the Embankment.
"Hullo! That's a call to the man on point!" exclaimed Collins, all alert at once. "Excuse me, mum. See you presently. Something's up. One of my mates is a-signalling me."
"Mates, monsieur? Mates? Signalling? I shall not understand the vords. But yes, vat shall that mean—eh?"
"Good Lord, don't bother me now! I—I mean, wait a bit. That's the call to 'head off' someone, and—By George! There he is now, coming head on, the hound, and running like the wind!"
For of a sudden, through a break in the traffic, a scudding figure had sprung into sight—the figure of a man in a grey frock-coat and a shining "topper," a well-groomed, well-set-up man, with a small, turned-up moustache and hair of that peculiar purplish-red one sees only on the shell of a roasted chestnut. As he swung into sight, the distant whistle shrilled again; far off in the distance voices sent up cries of "Head him off!" "Stop that man!" et cetera; then those on the pavement near to the fugitive took up the cry, joined in pursuit, and in a twinkling, what with cabmen, tram-men, draymen, and pedestrians shouting, there was hubbub enough for Hades.
"A swell pickpocket, I'll lay my life," commented Collins, as he squared himself for an encounter and made ready to leap on the man when he came within gripping distance. "Here! get out of the way, madmazelly. Business before pleasure. And, besides, you're like to get bowled over in the rush. Here, chauffeur!"—this to the driver of a big, black motor-car which swept round the angle of the bridge at that moment, and made as though to scud down the Embankment into the thick of the chase—"pull that thing up sharp! Stop where you are! Dead still. At once, at once, do you hear? We don't want you getting in the way. Now, then"—nodding his head in the direction of the running man—"come on you bounder; I'm ready for you!"
And, as if he really heard that invitation, and really was eager to accept it, the red-headed man did "come on" with a vengeance. And all the time, "madmazelly," unheeding Collins's advice, stood calmly and silently waiting.
Onward came the runner, with the whole roaring pack in his wake, dodging in and out among the vehicles, "flooring" people who got in his way, scudding, dodging, leaping, like a fox hard pressed by the hounds—until, all of a moment he spied a break in the traffic, leapt through it, and—then there was mischief. For Collins sprang at him like a cat, gripped two big, strong-as-iron hands on his shoulders, and had him tight and fast.
"Got you, you ass!" snapped he, with a short, crisp, self-satisfied laugh. "None of your blessed squirming now. Keep still. You'll get out of your coffin, you bounder, as soon as out of my grip. Got you—got you! Do you understand?"
The response to this fairly took the wind out of him.
"Of course I do," said the captive, gaily; "it's part of the programme that you should get me. Only, for Heaven's sake, don't spoil the film by remaining inactive, you goat! Struggle with me—handle me roughly—throw me about. Make it look real; make it look as though I actually did get away from you, not as though you let me. You chaps behind there, don't get in the way of the camera—it's in one of those cabs. Now, then, Bobby, don't be wooden! Struggle—struggle, you goat, and save the film!"
"Save the what?" gasped Collins. "Here! Good Lord! Do you mean to say—?"
"Struggle—struggle—struggle!" cut in the man impatiently. "Can't you grasp the situation? It's a put-up thing: the taking of a kinematograph film—a living picture—for the Alhambra to-night! Heavens above, Marguerite, didn't you tell him?"
"Non, non! There was not ze time. You come so quick, I could not. And he—ah, le bon Dieu!—he gif me no chance. Officair, I beg, I entreat of you, make it real! Struggle, fight, keep on ze constant move. Zere!"—something tinkled on the pavement with the unmistakable sound of gold—"zere, monsieur, zere is the half-sovereign to pay you for ze trouble, only, for ze lof of goodness, do not pick it up while the instrument—ze camera—he is going. It is ze kinematograph, and you would spoil everything!"
The chop-fallen cry that Collins gave was lost in a roar of laughter from the pursuing crowd.
"Struggle—struggle! Don't you hear, you idiot?" broke in the red-headed man irritably. "You are being devilishly well paid for it, so for goodness' sake make it look real. That's it! Bully boy! Now, once more to the right, then loosen your grip so that I can push you away and make a feint of punching you off. All ready there, Marguerite? Keep a clear space about her, gentlemen. Ready with the motor, chauffeur? All right. Now, then, Bobby, fall back, and mind your eye when I hit out, old chap. One, two, three—here goes!"
With that he pushed the chop-fallen Collins from him, made a feint of punching his head as he reeled back, then sprang toward the spot where the Frenchwoman stood, and gave a finish to the adventure that was highly dramatic and decidedly theatrical. For "mademoiselle," seeing him approach her, struck a pose, threw out her arms, gathered him into them—to the exceeding enjoyment of the laughing throng—then both looked back and behaved as people do on the stage when "pursued," gesticulated extravagantly, and, rushing to the waiting motor, jumped into it.
"Many thanks, Bobby; many thanks, everybody!" sang out the red-headed man. "Let her go, chauffeur. The camera men will pick us up again at Whitehall, in a few minutes' time."
"Right you are, sir," responded the chauffeur gaily. Then "toot-toot" went the motor-horn as the gentleman in grey closed the door upon himself and his companion, and the vehicle, darting forward, sped down the Embankment in the exact direction whence the man himself had originally come, and, passing directly through that belated portion of the hurrying crowd to whom the end of the adventure was not yet known, flew on and—vanished.
And Collins, stooping to pick up the half-sovereign that had been thrown him, felt that after all it was a poor price to receive for all the jeers and gibes of the assembled onlookers.
"Smart capture, Bobby, wasn't it?" sang out a deriding voice that set the crowd jeering anew. "You'll git promoted, you will! See it in all the evenin' papers—oh, yus! ''Orrible hand-to-hand struggle with a desperado. Brave constable has 'arf a quid's worth out of an infuriated ruffin!' My hat! won't your missis be proud when you take her to see that bloomin' film?"
"Move on, now, move on!" said Collins, recovering his dignity, and asserting it with a vim. "Look here, cabby, I don't take it kind of you to laugh like that; they had you just as bad as they had me. Blow that Frenchy! She might have tipped me off before I made such an ass of myself. I don't say that I'd have done it so natural if I had known, but—Hullo! What's that? Blowed if it ain't that blessed whistle again, and another crowd a-pelting this way; and—no!—yes, by Jupiter!—a couple of Scotland Yard chaps with 'em. My hat! what do you suppose that means?"
He knew in the next moment. Panting and puffing, a crowd at their heels, and people from all sides stringing out from the pavement and trooping after them, the two "plain-clothes" men came racing through the grinning gathering and bore down on P.C. Collins.
"Hullo, Smathers, you in this, too?" began he, his feelings softened by the knowledge that other arms of the law would figure on that film with him at the Alhambra to-night. "Now, what are you after, you goat? That French lady, or the red-headed party in the grey suit?"
"Yes, yes, of course I am. You heard me signal you to head him off, didn't you?" replied Smathers, looking round and growing suddenly excited when he realized that Collins was empty-handed, and that the red-headed man was not there. "Heavens! you never let him get away, did you? You grabbed him, didn't you—eh?"
"Of course I grabbed him. Come out of it. What are you giving me, you josser?" said Collins with a wink and a grin. "Ain't you found out even yet, you silly? Why, it was only a faked-up thing—the taking of a kinematograph picture for the Alhambra. You and Petrie ought to have been here sooner and got your wages, you goats. I got half a quid for my share when I let him go."
Smathers and Petrie lifted up their voices in one despairing howl.
"When you what?" fairly yelled Smathers. "You fool! You don't mean to tell me that you let them take you in like that—those two? You don't mean to tell me that you had him—had him in your hands—and then let him go? You did? Oh! you seventy-seven kinds of a double-barrelled ass! Had him—think of it!—had him, and let him go! Did yourself out of a share in a reward of two hundred quid when you'd only to shut your hands and hold on to it!"
"Two hundred quid? Two hun—W-what are you talking about? Wasn't it true? Wasn't it a kinematograph picture, after all?"
"No, you fool, no!" howled Smathers, fairly dancing with despair. "Oh, you blithering idiot! You ninety-seven varieties of a fool! Do you know who you had in your hands? Do you know who you let go? It was that devil 'Forty Faces'—'The Vanishing Cracksman'—the man who calls himself 'Hamilton Cleek'; and the woman was his pal, his confederate, his blessed stool-pigeon—'Margot, the Queen of the Apache'; and she came over from Paris to help him in that clean scoop of Lady Dresmer's jewels last week!"
"Heavens!" gulped Collins, too far gone to say anything else, too deeply dejected to think of anything but that he had had the man for whom Scotland Yard had been groping for a year—the man over whom all England, all France, all Germany wondered—close shut in the grip of his hands and then had let him go. The biggest and boldest criminal the police had ever had to cope with, the almost supernatural genius of crime, who defied all systems, laughed at all laws, mocked at all the Vidocqs, and Dupins, and Sherlock Holmeses, whether amateur or professional, French or English, German or American, that ever had been or ever could be pitted against him, and who, for sheer devilry, for diabolical ingenuity and for colossal impudence, as well as for a nature-bestowed power that was simply amazing, had not his match in all the universe.
Who or what he really was, whence he came, whether he was English, Irish, French, German, Yankee, Canadian, Italian or Dutchman, no man knew and no man might ever hope to know unless he himself chose to reveal it. In his many encounters with the police he had assumed the speech, the characteristics, and, indeed, the facial attributes of each in turn, and assumed them with an ease and a perfection that were simply marvellous, and had gained for him the sobriquet of "Forty Faces" among the police, and of "The Vanishing Cracksman" among the scribes and reporters of newspaperdom. That he came, in time, to possess another name than these was due to his own whim and caprice, his own bald, unblushing impudence; for, of a sudden, whilst London was in a fever of excitement and all the newspapers up in arms over one of the most daring and successful coups, he chose to write boldly to both editors and police complaining that the title given him by each was both vulgar and cheap.
"You would not think of calling Paganini a 'fiddler,'" he wrote; "why, then, should you degrade me with the coarse term of 'cracksman'? I claim to be as much an artist in my profession as Paganini was in his, and I claim also a like courtesy from you. So, then, if in the future it becomes necessary to allude to me—and I fear it often will—I shall be obliged if you do so as 'The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.' In return for that courtesy, gentlemen, I promise to alter my mode of procedure, to turn over a new leaf, as it were, to give you at all times hereafter distinct information, in advance, of such places as I elect for the field of my operations, and of the time when I shall pay my respects to them, and, on the morning after each such visit, to bestow some small portion of the loot upon Scotland Yard as a souvenir of the event."
And to that remarkable programme he rigidly adhered from that time forth—always giving the police twelve hours' notice, always evading their traps and snares, always carrying out his plans in spite of them, and always, on the morning after, sending some trinket or trifle to Superintendent Narkom at Scotland Yard, in a little pink cardboard box, tied up with rose-coloured ribbon, and marked "With the compliments of The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek."
The detectives of the United Kingdom, the detectives of the Continent, the detectives of America—each and all had measured swords with him, tried wits with him, spread snares and laid traps for him, and each and all had retired from the field vanquished.
And this was the man that he—Police Constable Samuel James Collins—had actually had in his hands; nay, in his very arms, and then had given up for half a sovereign and let go!
"Oh, so help me! You make my head swim, Smathers, that you do!" he managed to say at last. "I had him—I had the Vanishing Cracksman—in my blessed paws—and then went and let that French hussy—But look here; I say, now, how do you know it was him? Nobody can go by his looks; so how do you know?"
"Know, you footler!" growled Smathers, disgustedly. "Why shouldn't I know when I've been after him ever since he left Scotland Yard half an hour ago?"
"Left what? My hat! You ain't a-going to tell me that he's been there? When? Why? What for?"
"To leave one of his blessed notices, the dare-devil. What a detective he'd a made, wouldn't he, if he'd only a-turned his attention that way, and been on the side of the law instead of against it? He walked in bold as brass, sat down, and talked with the superintendent over some cock-and-bull yarn about a 'Black Hand' letter that he said had been sent to him, and asked if he couldn't have police protection whilst he was in town. It wasn't until after he'd left that the super he sees a note on the chair where the blighter had been sitting, and when he opened it, there it was in black and white, something like this:
"'The list of presents that have been sent for the wedding to-morrow of Sir Horace Wyvern's eldest daughter make interesting reading, particularly that part which describes the jewels sent—no doubt as a tribute to her father's position as the greatest brain specialist in the world—from the Austrian Court and the Continental principalities. The care of such gems is too great a responsibility for the bride. I propose, therefore, to relieve her of it to-night, and to send you the customary souvenir of the event to-morrow morning. Yours faithfully,
"'The Man Who Calls Himself Hamilton Cleek.
"That's how I know, dash you! Superintendent sent me out after him, hot foot; and after a bit I picked him up in the Strand, toddling along with that French hussy as cool as you please. But, blow him! he must have eyes all round his head, for he saw me just as soon as I saw him, and he and Frenchy separated like a shot. She hopped into a taxi and flew off in one direction; he dived into a crowd and bolted in another, and before you could say Jack Robinson he was doubling and twisting, jumping into cabs and jumping out again—all to gain time, of course, for the woman to do what he'd put her up to doing—and leading me the devil's own chase through the devil's own tangle till he was ready to bunk for the Embankment. And you let him go, you blooming footler! Had him and let him go, and chucked away a third of L200 for the price of half a quid!"
And long after Smathers and Petrie had left him, and the wondering crowd had dispersed, and point duty at "Dead Man's Corner" was just point duty again and nothing more, P.C. Collins stood there, chewing the cud of bitter reflection over those words, and trying to reckon up just how many pounds and how much glory had been lost to him.