THE affair of Mary Keen was never forgotten by Robert Karl Kressholm. He was a good hater, as Mr. J. G. Reeder was to say of him one day.
Yet it was an odd circumstance that Mary, dead and buried in Westbury Churchyard, should remain as a raw place in the mind of a man who was, to all appearance and certainly by protestation, madly in love with a child—she was little more—who was twenty years his junior. But Bob Kressholm was like that. He was vain, had complete and absolute confidence in his own excellences. He might congratulate himself that he was young at thirty-seven and looked younger; that he was good-looking in an instantly impressing way and looked little older than at eighteen, when Mary had chosen Red Joe Brady in preference to himself.
Mary was dead of a broken heart—she passed three days after Joe had been released from a short-term sentence in Dartmoor. If Bob could have found her he would have offered consolation of sorts, but Joe had very carefully hidden her and his boy.
Kressholm never went to prison. He was too clever for that. Banks and jewellers' stores might become impoverished in a night, but "the Guv'nor" could not be associated with the happening. He was, he believed with reason, the greatest organiser in what is picturesquely described as "The Underworld." Nobody had ever brought a mind like his to the business of burglary. He had his own office and plant in Antwerp for the reconstruction of stolen goods. In Vienna a respectable broker handled such bonds and negotiable stock as came his way. He could boast to such intimates as Red Joe that he was "squawk-proof" and was justified in the claim. He came down to Exeter, where Haddin's Amusement Park was operating, partly to see and partly to dazzle Joe out of his dull but respectable mode of living. A big Rolls limousine was an advertisement of his own prosperity.
He did not see the balloon ascent, but the parachute dropped square in the road before his car, and the chauffeur had just time to pull up on the very edge of a tangled mass of cord, silk envelope and laughing girlhood.
"Where the devil did you come from?"
"Out of the everywhere," she mocked him.
She wore a boy's trousers, a blue silk shirt and a beret—an unusual head-dress in those days—and she was lovely: golden-haired, fair-skinned and supple.
This was Wenna, daughter of Lew Haddin.
He drove her to the fair and delivered her to her father. Having come for the day, he stayed for the week; Red Joe had a bed put for him in his own caravan. Joe had a second van—a motor caravan, but this was not in the fair-ground. It was garaged in the town. His guest heard about this and drew his own conclusions—at the moment he was not interested in Red Joe's dangerous hobby.
And every day he grew more and more fascinated by the girl. He brought flowers to her, which she accepted, a jewelled bracelet, which she refused. Fat Lew Haddin offered lame apologies, for he was a good-natured man who gave things away rather readily and would have married off his daughter to almost anybody rather than worry.
Red Joe added to his unpopularity and stirred up all the smouldering embers of hatred by speaking very plainly to his guest.
"She's only a kid, Bob, and what have you and I to give any woman? The certainty of getting her a pass on visiting day and the privilege of writing her a letter once a month."
Kressholm answered coldly:
"Personally I've never been in stir, and I don't know what the regulations are about wives visiting husbands, and that sort of thing. Are you after her?"
"She's about the same age as my boy," said Joe wrathfully.
"Oh, you want her for the family, eh? You think you've got a call on all the women in the world. You're getting bourgeois, Red, since you've become a monkey dealer."
Red Joe wasn't quite sure what "bourgeois" meant, but he guessed it was applied offensively. Bob lived mostly in Paris and spoke two or three languages rather well. He was more than a little proud of his education, which was the basis of his superiority complex. Wenna, who had been a woman at twelve, had no doubts about Mr. Kressholm.
"What am I to do with this feller, Joe? The old man is no protection for an innocent maiden; he wanted me to go riding with his lordship yesterday, and saw nothing wrong in the idea that I should go up to London for a week and stay with Kressholm's friends. Fathers are not what they used to be."
Joe did not want to quarrel with his former associate; there were very special reasons why he should not. But before he could discuss the matter with Bob Kressholm, the girl had settled the affair.
There were two slaves of hers in the circus—Swedish gymnasts, who would have strangled Bob Kressholm and sat up all night to bury him, but she did not ask for outside help.
It happened in a little wood near the grounds on the last evening of the fair. She gave nobody the details of the encounter, not even Red Joe. All he knew was that Kressholm had left Exeter very hurriedly just as soon as the knife wound on his shoulder was dressed and cauterised by a local surgeon.
Wenna had learned quite a lot about knife play from one of her Swedish gymnasts, who had left his country as a result of his dexterity in this direction.
Thereafter Bob Kressholm had another grievance to nourish. A few months after he returned to Paris he learned that Mr. J. G. Reeder was interesting himself in a new issue of "slush" which, in the argot of the initiated, means forged money. And then he remembered the locked motor caravan which was Joe Brady's, but which he never slept in, or even brought to the fair ground. He returned to London on the very day Mr. Reeder had reached a certain conclusion.