Michael Quigley had a fair working knowledge of perverse humanity, having acquaintance with burglars, the better class of confidence man, professional forgers, long firm operators, swindlers, ingenious and naive, bank workers, bucket-shop keepers and pickpockets. He did not know White Face because nobody knew him, but that was a pleasure deferred. Sooner or later, the lone operator would make a mistake and come within the purview of a crime reporter.
Michael knew almost everybody at Scotland Yard and addressed chief constables by their first names. He had spent week-ends with Dumont, the hangman, and had helped him through an attack of delirium tremens. He had in his room signed photographs of ci-devant royalties, heavy-weight champions and leading ladies. He knew just how normal and abnormal people would behave in almost any circumstances. But personal experience failed him in the case of Janice Harman, although lie had heard of such cases.
He could understand why a girl with no responsibilities (since she was an orphan) and three thousand pounds a year should want to do something useful in life and should choose to become a nurse in an East End clinic; other girls had allowed their enthusiasm for humanity to lead them into similar vocations, and Janice only differed from the majority in that she had not wearied of her philanthropy.
She was very lovely, though he could never analyse the qualities which made for loveliness. She had amazingly clear eyes and a mouth that was red and sensitive—perhaps it was the quality of her skin. He was never sure—the only thing he was certain about was that he could look at her for hours and wanted to look at her for ever.
The one quality in her which made him wriggle uncomfortably was her cursed motherliness. He could never bridge the gulf which separated her from his twenty-seven years.
She was twenty-three and, as she often told him, a woman of twenty-three was at least twenty years older than a man of the same age. But twenty-three can be motherly or cruel. One night she told him something that struck all the colour out of life. It was the night they went to supper at the Howdah Club—the night of Michael's pay-day.
He knew, of course, about her romantic correspondent. Had sneered at him, raved at him, grown wearily amused about it all. The correspondence started in the most innocent fashion. One day a letter had come to Janice's flat in Bury Street, asking if she would be kind enough to place the writer in touch with his old nurse, who had fallen on evil times. This was a few months after she had begun her work in Dr. Marford's clinic and one of the newspapers had found a good story in the "rich young society woman" who had given her life to good works. The letter was written from South Africa and enclosed five pounds, which the writer begged her to hand to his old nurse if she found her, or to the funds of the clinic if she did not.
"How do you know this fellow isn't working a confidence trick on you?" demanded Michael.
"Don't be stupid," said Janice scornfully. "Because you are a wretched crime reporter you think that the world is made up of criminals."
"And I'm right," said Michael.
That the unknown stranger had arrived in England Michael did not know until ten days later. She called him up, asked him to take her to supper: she had some important things to tell him.
"You're one of the oldest friends I have, Michael," she said, speaking rather breathlessly. "And I feel that I ought to tell you."
He listened, stunned.
She might have seen how pale his face was, but she purposely did not look at him, fixing her eyes on the dancing couples on the floor.
"I want you to meet him—you may not think he is wonderful, but I've always known… from his letters, I mean… he has lived a terrible life in the wilds of Africa; I'll be terribly sorry to leave Dr. Marford… I shall have to tell him, of course… "
She was incoherent, a little hysterical.
"Let me get this right, Janice. I'll try to forget that I love you and that I was only waiting until I got my salary raised before I told you." His voice was very steady, so unemotional that there was every encouragement to look at him. Nevertheless she kept her eyes steadily averted.
"This isn't unusual—I have heard of such cases. A girl starts a correspondence with a man she has never seen. The correspondence grows more intimate, more friendly. She weaves around him a net of romance. And then she meets him and is either—disillusioned, or else falls for him. I've heard of happy marriages which started that way—I've heard of others. I can't believe it is true—but obviously it is, and I don't exactly know what to do or say."
It was at this moment that he missed something from her hand—a long oval-shaped ruby ring that she had worn since he had first known her.
Instantly she knew what he was looking for and dropped her hand out of sight.
"Where is your ring?" he asked bluntly.
She had gone very red: the question was almost unnecessary.
"I've—I don't see what it has to do with you?"
He drew a long breath.
"Nothing has to do with me—but I'm curious. An exchange of love tokens?"
He was very tactless to-night.
"It was my ring and I refuse to be cross-examined by a—by somebody who hasn't any right. You're being horrible."
"Am I?" He nodded slowly. "I suppose I am, and I know I've no right to be horrid or anything else. I won't ask you to show me what you got in exchange. A bead necklace perhaps—"
She started at this chance shot.
"How did you know? I mean, it is very valuable."
He looked long and earnestly at the girl.
"I want to vet this fellow, Janice."
She saw his face now and was in a panic—not on his behalf, but on her own.
"Vet—I don't know what you mean?"
He tried, with a smile, to minimise the offensiveness of what he had to say.
"Well, make inquiries about him. You vet a horse before you buy him—"
"I'm not buying him—he is a rich man—well, he has two farms." Her manner was cold. There was a touch of resentment in her voice. "Vet him! You'll find he is a criminal, of course; if you can't find this, your fertile imagination will invent something. Perhaps he is White Face! He is one of your specialities, isn't he?"
He groaned miserably. Yet here was an opportunity to escape from a maddening topic.
"He is not an invention; he's a fact. Ask Gasso."
Gasso, the slim maitre d'hotel, was near the table. Mike beckoned him.
"Ah! That White Face! Where is your so-called police? My poor friend Bussini has his restaurant ruined by the fellow."
It was to Bussini's restaurant that White Face had come in the early hours of a morning and, stepping to the side of Miss Angela Hillingcote, had relieved her of six thousand pounds worth of jewels before the dancers realised that the man in the white mask, who had appeared from nowhere, was not a guest in fancy dress. It was all over in a second or two and he was gone. A policeman at the corner of Leicester Square saw a man fly past on a motor cycle. The cycle had been seen on the Embankment going eastward. It was the third and most spectacular appearance of White Face in the West End of London.
"My patrons are nervous—who is not?" Gasso apparently shared their nervousness. "Fortunately they are refined people—" He stopped suddenly and stared at the entrance of the room. "She should not come!" he almost shrieked and darted forward to meet an unwanted guest.
This was a blonde lady who called herself Dolly de Val. It was found for her by an imaginative film agent, who thought—and rightly—that it sounded more pretentious than Annie Gootch, which name she had borne in the days of her poverty. She was not a good actress, because she could never quite remember all that the producer told her, and more often than not she was the only girl in the front line who kicked with her right leg when she should have kicked with her left. And frequently she was not in the line at ail.
But there were quite a lot of people who found her attractive, and in the course of the years she became very rich, and packed a considerable amount of her fortune into platinum settings, so that in all the fashionable night clubs of London she was known as "Diamond Dolly."
Managers of such clubs and fashionable cabaret restaurants grew a little nervous after the Hillingcote affair, and when Dolly booked a supper table table they rang up Scotland Yard and Superintendent Mason, who was in control of "C" area, but had an executive post at head-quarters, would delegate a couple of detectives arrayed like festive gentlemen, but looking remarkably like detectives, to the club or restaurant favoured by her dazzling display, and these were generally to be found lounging in the vestibule or drinking surreptitious glasses of beer in the manager's office.
But sometimes Dolly did not notify her intentions beforehand. And she would glitter into the club surrounded by handsome young men, and a hasty table would be wedged impossibly on the packed floor and waiters would lay the table with extraordinary enthusiasm, conveying the impression that this was a favoured position for a table.
She came this night unheralded into the Howdah Club and Gasso, who was Latin and entirely without self-control, threw up his hands to the ceiling, stiff with cupids, and said things in Italian which sounded very romantic to people who only understood English.
"No room—don't be stupid, Gasso! Of course there's room. Anywhere will do, won't it, boys?"
So they put a table near the door, and Dolly sat and ordered consomme Julienne, chicken a la Maryland.
"I don't like you to seet here, madam," said Gasso fearfully, "with so much beautiful jewellery… Miss 'Illingcote—ah, what a disaster! This fellow with the white face—"
"Oh, shut up, Gasso!" Dolly snapped. "And, after that, we'll have coupe Jacques and coffee… "
The Russian dancers had taken the floor and had made their exit after the third encore, when—"Bail up—you!"
Dolly, who had seen the face of her escort suddenly blanch, half turned in her chair.
The man in the doorway wore a long black coat that reached to his heels, his face was covered by a white cloth in which two eye-holes had been cut.
He carried an automatic in his gloved hand, with the other, which was bare, he reached out.
There was a "snick"—the long diamond chain about Dolly's neck parted. She stood frozen with fear and saw the glittering thing vanish into his pocket.
Men had risen from the tables, women were screaming, the band stood ludicrously grouped. "After him!" yelled a voice.
But the man in the white mask was gone and the cowering footmen, who had bolted on his entrance, came out from cover.
"Don't move—I'll get you out in a minute." Mike's voice was urgent, but she heard him like one in a dream. "I'll take you home; I must get through to my paper. If you faint, I'll be rough with you!"
"I'm not going to faint," she quavered.
He got her out before the police came, and found a cab.
"It was dreadful; who is he?"
"I don't know," he answered shortly. Then—"What's this romantic lover's name—you've never told me?"
Her nerves were on edge; she needed the stimulant of righteous anger to recover her poise and here was an excuse.
Mike Quigley listened unmoved to her tirade.
"A good looker, I'll bet; not a gaunt-faced, tow-haired brute like me," he said savagely. "O God, what a fool you are, Janice! I'm going to meet him. Where is he staying?"
"You'll not meet him." She could have wept. "And I won't tell you where he is staying. I hope I never see you again!"
She declined the hand he offered to assist her out of the cab; did not answer his "good night."
Mr. Quigley went raging back to Fleet Street, and all the vicious things he wrote about White Face he meant for the handsome and romantic stranger from South Africa.