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Of the many thousands of utterly ordinary-looking individuals who journeyed into the city from various suburban retreats every workday morning Limmis was, by a long way, the most ordinary and least likely to attract attention. He was the sort of young man whom no one would have ever troubled to look at twice. If you happened to look at Limmis once you knew—if you really happened to think about the thing at all—that you could see his like a hundred times in the next half mile of crowded street. He was inconspicuous, colourless, common—as common as peas or potatoes... I Against Time II The Earl, the Warder and the Wayward Heiress III The Fifteenth-Century Crozier IV The Yellow Dog V Room 53 VI The Secret of the Barbican VII The Silhouette VIII Blind Gap Moor IX St. Morkil’s Isle X Extra-Judicial XI The Second Capsule XII The Way to Jericho XIII Patent No. 33 XIV The Selchester Missal XV The Murder in the Mayor’s Parlour
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Classic Crime Stories
J. S. (Joseph Smith) Fletcher (1863-1935)
The Earl, the Warder and the Wayward Heiress
The Fifteenth-Century Crozier
The Yellow Dog
The Secret of the Barbican
Blind Gap Moor
St. Morkil’s Isle
The Second Capsule
The Way to Jericho
Patent No. 33
The Selchester Missal
The Murder in the Mayor’s Parlour
At five minutes to one o’clock on that spring Saturday afternoon, Ledbitter, senior clerk at Watson & Metcalfe’s, contractors, of Walford, had no other idea in his mind than that of joy that the week-end interval was near at hand. He was a hard-working, cheerfully energetic young man, who never shirked his job from Monday to Saturday—but he was always thankful when Saturday arrived. Saturday meant so much. Ledbitter was a husband of three years’ standing, and there was a youthful Ledbitter at home, who was just beginning to walk and talk. On Saturday afternoons Ledbitter took him out in the Park, guiding his tottering steps, and conversing with him about the ducks and wild-fowl on the ponds. Moreover, Saturday heralded Sunday. On Sunday you could stay in bed an hour longer and eat all your meals without hurrying; on Sunday Mr. and Mrs. Ledbitter took the rising hope to see his grandparents. Oh, yes, Saturday and Sunday were oases in the desert of labour—splendid days of rest and leisure. No fear, said Ledbitter, of a man like himself failing to appreciate them. Three minutes more, and the clock would strike one, and he would be free to race home, and——
Sharman, the manager, came across to Ledbitter’s desk as the clerk was locking it up.
“You posted that tender of Steel & Cardyke’s all right yesterday?” he asked.
“Yesterday, yes!” answered Ledbitter. “Last night it was.”
“Registered it, of course?” said Sharman.
“Yes, it was registered,” replied Ledbitter.
Sharman took up a book that lay on the desk and turned it over.
“I don’t see the receipt,” he remarked. “Haven’t you pasted it up?”
“It’s in another waistcoat pocket at home,” answered Ledbitter. “I’ll bring it Monday.”
“Don’t forget,” said Sharman. “You should always paste these receipts up at once. It’s all we’ve got to show the governors that a tender’s been sent.”
He turned away to his own desk, and Ledbitter said good-morning and hurried out. He was glad to get out, glad that Sharman had not kept him talking—had not looked at him. For in the very act of telling Sharman that he had posted the tender to London, and that the receipt for it was at home, Ledbitter suddenly remembered that he had neither posted it nor had any receipt for it, and he went away from the office curiously afraid.
Ledbitter was one of those wise young men who know when they have got a good job, and who would rather do anything than lose it. He had been with Watson & Metcalfe seven years, and his salary was four pounds per week, and it was steadily increasing. He was a good servant, and he had good masters, and up to now he never remembered making a mistake since he picked up a pen in Watson & Metcalfe’s service. But here was a bad one. He had forgotten to post a tender which involved a sum of half a million of money! It was no formidable document in appearance, to be sure. The tender, a mere matter of round figures, was written—by Watson himself—on an ordinary sheet of office notepaper and enclosed in an ordinary office envelope, sealed and blue pencilled.
If it had only been a big, heavy document, Ledbitter would never have forgotten it. But, being as small as it was, he had slipped it within an inside pocket of a winter waistcoat which he was wearing on the previous morning, intending to register it when he went home to dinner—and it had escaped his memory. How he could have been so forgetful he could not think. But he did remember that on going home he had found that winter waistcoat becoming much too warm, and had changed it for a lighter one. Of course, the tender was safe enough—he would hurry home and get it off. And, after all, it would be in time. The tenders which Steel & Cardyke were inviting had to be delivered, by post or by hand, at their office in London by four o’clock on the following Monday. Heaps of time—if he got the tender off at once, as he would take care to do. The only thing he was afraid of was that Sharman, if he inspected the post-office receipt, might notice that the letter had not been handed in on Friday, but on Saturday. However, Sharman would be satisfied, most likely, to hear that the receipt had been pasted up in the book kept for that purpose, and would not even glance at it. And the great thing was to get the tender off so that it would be in London first thing on Monday morning.
Ledbitter lived in a small bandbox of a house, just outside the centre of the town. There was a pleasant odour of beefsteak and onions in the hall when he opened the door, and his wife, on hearing his step, immediately called to him that dinner was ready.
But Ledbitter self-denyingly shouted an entreaty for delay, and darted up the stairs to his bedroom. He dashed at a wardrobe wherein he kept his garments, and a moment later began to yell over the top of the staircase:
“Fanny, where’s that winter waistcoat of mine?” he vociferated. “Where’s it got to? You know, the one I took off yesterday noon when I came home to dinner.”
Mrs. Ledbitter looked out of the back-parlour door.
“Bless me, Herbert,” she exclaimed, “you must be losing your memory! Don’t you remember that you told me a fortnight ago, that you’d about done with that old waistcoat, and that when you left it off this spring I could sell it with a lot of other old clothes of yours? I sold a whole bundle of stuff yesterday afternoon. And, by the by——”
Ledbitter let out a groan that seemed to shake the house. He made two leaps down the stairs. His wife opened her lips to scream, but the scream died as she caught a full sight of his white face.
“You—you sold it!” he stammered hoarsely. “Good heavens! To whom?”
“Milson’s, of course!” answered Mrs. Ledbitter. “But, as I was saying——”
Ledbitter was already at the door. He was quite deaf and half blind as he dashed at the gate of the little garden and darted into the street. His wife’s cry might as well have been addressed to the paving-stones.
“Herbert, Herbert, come back! I say, Herbert!” she called after him. “If you’re wanting——”
But Ledbitter was utterly obsessed by one idea, and he ran madly away towards the town.
Milson was well known in Walford. He dealt—extensively—in second-hand clothing. He would buy every and any article, no matter what its age and condition. He gave good prices for what he bought. That was one side of his business. The other was his selling side. It was a mystery to the curious what Milson did with the cast-off garments that he purchased. But there was this fact, that he had always in stock an enormous quantity of second-hand clothes, at ridiculously cheap figures, which looked almost as good as new. Cast-off garments went into one department at Milson’s, passed through some extraordinary transformation in another, and emerged in a third looking quite spick and span, carefully cleaned and pressed, and ticketed at prices which encouraged purchasers to buy half a dozen suits at once.
Ledbitter dashed into Milson’s main shop and ran up against Milson himself—a little podgy man with a goatee beard and a large cable chain of heavy gold across his ample girth. He buttonholed him without ceremony, and made an effort to get his breath.
“You bought some cast-off clothes from my wife yesterday!” he gasped. “Mrs. Ledbitter, Acacia Terrace—you know.”
“Quite right, my boy,” answered Milson affably. “Price quite satisfactory, I hope?”
“Hang the price!” said Ledbitter. “I want a certain winter waistcoat that was amongst those things—a dark red ground with black spots in it, flannel-lined. Must have it. She shouldn’t have sold it.”
“Very sorry, my boy, but it’s impossible,” replied the second-hand clothes dealer, rubbing his beringed hands. “Odd, now, but I sold that there waistcoat as soon as I’d bought it. I put your wife’s little lot down on that very counter to sort ’em out when I came in from calling on her, and just then there was a feller walked in as took a fancy to that waistcoat, and bought it straight off—with other warm things what he’d come special for. He was a feller, my boy, as was just going to emigrate, d’ye see, to Canada.”
“Canada!” exclaimed Ledbitter. “Is—is he off?”
Milson removed a large cigar from the corner of his lips and waved it in the air expansively.
“I should say he might by now, my boy,” he answered. “It runs in my mind that he said he was going to-day. He was a feller, d’ye see, that was going what they call going prospecting, in the old regions of ice and snow, where the bitter winds do blow, my boy, and he thought it ’ud be a good notion to take a nice bundle of warm stuff out with him. Which,” concluded Milson, digging his hands into his pockets and rattling his money—“which, my boy, I sold him with pleasure. And with profit—mutual, of course.”
Ledbitter had grown deadly calm. For the first time in his life he began to know what book-writing folk mean when they talk about the calmness of despair.
“You don’t know where this man lived in Walford?” he asked.
“You’re wrong, my boy, for I do!” replied Milson. “Or I should say did, for, as I observed previous, I should think he’s gone. He was a navvy feller, d’ye see, and his name was Terry, and his address was Barcoe’s lodging-house, round the corner in Mill Street. I sent him his parcel there last night. And what might you be wanting that particular waistcoat for, Mr. Ledbitter, now? Because——”
But Ledbitter was out of the door and running across the road towards Mill Street. That was a narrow alley in the poorest quarter of the town, and it was celebrated for its registered lodging-houses. Ledbitter looked for Barcoe’s as he might have looked for something of inexpressible value. He caught sight of the name at last, in white letters on a black board, and he dashed through a group of men, sitting on the door-steps, into a white-washed passage, to find himself confronting the deputy, a big, bullying-looking fellow who scowled at him as if he took him for an unwelcome visitor.
“Now, then, mister?” demanded this person.
“Have you got a man named Terry here?” panted Ledbitter. “He was here yesterday, I know. Milson, the clothes-dealer, says he was here. I want him—at once.”
“Do yer?” sneered the deputy. “Don’t you wish yer may get him, then! He’s off, mister.”
“Where?” demanded Ledbitter.
“Canada,” retorted the deputy. “That’s where he’s gone. ’Taint exactly next door, neither.”
“But—which way?” entreated Ledbitter. “Where−-you know what I mean—what place is he sailing from?”
The deputy folded his enormous arms, bared to the shoulders, and scratched his elbows. He sized Ledbitter up.
“What do you want to know for?” he growled. “I ain’t going to give my customers’ private business away to no strangers. You ain’t a ’tec.—I knows that, but you might be a lawyer’s clerk by the look of yer.”
Ledbitter rose to the occasion—gladly.
“That’s it!” he exclaimed. “We want this Terry—something to his advantage—bit of money, you know. If I can catch him before he sails, eh?”
He slipped a half-crown into the deputy’s hand, and the deputy relaxed.
“Oh, if that’s it, mister!” he said. “Well, he went off to Liverpool this morning—him and a mate of his name of Scaby. They expected to sail late to-night or early to-morrow, didn’t know which, so they went in good time. On the Starnatic they was going, so I heard ’em say—steerage, ov course. You ain’t ever seen this Terry? Big, red-haired chap—”
But Ledbitter was off again. He leapt through the idlers at the door, ran down the street, and made for the Central Station. As he ran three names beat themselves on his aching brain like unappeasable steam-hammers: Terry—Liverpool—Starnatic! Starnatic—Liverpool—Terry! Liverpool—Terry—Starnatic! Everything else in the world was blotted out. He had no home, no wife, no baby, no nothing! He never would have anything until he seized that infernal letter.
He dashed into the booking-office of the big station and clapped a sovereign on the ledge of the ticket window, hoarsely demanding to be booked to Liverpool.
“How—how soon is there a train?” he faltered. “Soon?”
The clerk turned an unconcerned eye at the clock.
“If you do double time up No. 6,” he answered, as he pushed ticket and change across the ledge, “you’ll just catch or just miss one.”
Ledbitter ran. He was dimly aware of colliding with various moving bodies in his progress. Some of them were soft and yielding, and they cried out. Some were hard, and they hurt him. Then a guard used severe language, and threw him into some receptacle, where he fell into a corner. Presently he looked up, and found himself in an otherwise empty carriage. The train was moving. Outside its windows he caught a glimpse of the big dome of Walford Town Hall. It slid away. So did the spire of the parish church. So did the roofs and chimneys of the last outskirts of Walford. Then Ledbitter realised matters, and he put his throbbing head in his hands and groaned heavily.
Ledbitter’s first proceeding, on recovering his breath, was to form an accurate idea of where he was and what he was after. That took rather more time than might be thought. He got a clear conception at last. He was at the beginning of a hundred mile run between Walford and Liverpool. It would take nearly three hours; he would reach Liverpool, then, by say, five o’clock. Once there, he had to find a ship called the Starnatic. She would probably have a few hundred passengers on her books—he had to find a man named Terry, a steerage passenger. There might be a score of Terrys. Also, by the time he found the Starnatic, or, rather, got to hear of her, she might have sailed. In that case, he, Ledbitter, was ruined for life, and might as well drown himself in the Mersey. But the deputy had said, “Late to-night or early in the morning.” There was hope—much hope. Let him hope—and meanwhile he counted his money.
Ledbitter realized that money would be an immense factor in the successful prosecution of this enforced campaign against fate; he did not know where he might not have to go before he recovered that letter. So he turned out his purse. He had had seven shillings in it when he went to the office that morning, and to that he had added his week’s salary—four pounds. He had given the lodging-house man half-a-crown, and paid eight shillings and ninepence for his ticket to Liverpool. So he had three pounds fifteen shillings and ninepence on him. He could do a lot on that. And then he suddenly remembered that he had left his wife without anything. Instead of handing over the usual house-keeping money to her—his invariable proceeding on Saturdays—he had rushed away after that beastly waistcoat. Well, it was no great matter. She would be all right, perfectly all right—she had money in a box. But he realised that he must send her a wire as soon as he reached his journey’s end.
Ledbitter by this time was enormously hungry. He had had nothing to eat since eight o’clock that morning. Now that he had nothing to do but sit still and be carried on to events at which he could only guess, his hunger asserted itself to the exclusion of all other feelings. He began to wonder if the train—an express—would run right through. Some trains, he knew, did make a non-stop run between Walford and Liverpool. But fortunately the train did stop—for a few minutes—at Manchester, and he ran to the nearest refreshment room, swallowed a glass of ale, and grabbed a bag of sandwiches. And as the train moved off again Ledbitter satisfied his hunger in some degree and concocted the necessary telegram.
That telegram, Ledbitter decided, must be sent as soon as he set foot on the Liverpool platform. He foresaw that he might not be able to present himself at the office first thing on Monday morning. His notion was that if he recovered the tender that night, or on Sunday, he would make sure of its delivery by taking it to London himself. His money would just enable him to do that. But until he could assure his employers that he had repaired his failure to post the tender, and that it had been duly handed in, he did not want them to know what was happening. Therefore, he must wire careful instructions to his wife.
The train ran into the Exchange Station on time—5.15—and Ledbitter immediately made his way to the telegraph office. And after further cogitation he got off the longest private message he had ever sent in his life:
“After waistcoat. If not home by breakfast-time Monday morning, send excuse to firm. Say suddenly called away, family affliction. No account mention where I am nor what after. Love.
That, with the address, came to thirty-six words, and cost Ledbitter one and ninepence. He picked up the coppers which remained out of a two-shilling piece, and went forth from the big station—a compound of misery and hope. The active part of his quest had begun.
Ledbitter had never been in Liverpool before. He had never had occasion to think of Liverpool, or to formulate any idea of it. He was troubled to find it was such a big place. Nevertheless, he kept his wits. And, picking out a man who looked like a seafaring person, he asked him if he could tell him where he would be likely to find a ship called the Starnatic.
“Starnatic!” said the man. “That’ll be the North Canada Line. Go down Water Street, and you’ll see their office—big place; you can’t miss it.”
He obligingly showed the way to Water Street, and Ledbitter set forward. And presently he found himself in a palatial building amid much plate glass and mahogany counter, and he began to realize that a shipping office in these days is something more than a mere shed on a quay-side.
A clerk came forward to attend to Ledbitter’s requirements, and Ledbitter, having been a clerk himself ever since he left school, and seeing good-humour in this fellow-clerk’s face unburdened himself—fully. He told of his unaccountable lapse of memory, of what it meant to him to recover that letter and its important enclosure—told it all. And the shipping clerk comprehended, and smiled, and sympathized—and shook his head.
“You’ve a nice job on, old man!” he said, with evident fellow-feeling. “There are five or six hundred emigrants going out on that boat. Like looking for a needle in a bottle of hay!”
“But I know the man’s name!” said Ledbitter.
“Pooh!” answered the clerk. “Names! Some of ’em are Smiths when they leave home and Brown by the time they strike Liverpool. And if you boarded the Starnatic and the word was passed for Terry, ten to one Terry wouldn’t respond—he’d think he was wanted. See?”
“What’s to be done?” asked Ledbitter miserably.
“The Starnatic,” answered the clerk, who was obviously anxious to assist, “is in the river. She’s lying off the landing-stage—black funnels with green bands. She won’t go out before one o’clock Sunday afternoon—probably about twelve-thirty, as a matter of fact. You can board her this evening, if you like. But I don’t think that’ll be much good, you know.”
“For heaven’s sake, why?” demanded Ledbitter. “I understand the man’s going to sail on her.”
The clerk shrugged his shoulders.
“Ay, just so,” he answered. “And, like many or most of ’em, he’ll join her at the last minute! If they like, these emigrants can sleep on board to-night. Some of ’em will—they’ll be the lot that have no money to waste on shore. But most of ’em’ll have a last night of it in old England, and they’ll be scrambling aboard up to the very last second. Some, of course, never will get aboard. See?”
Ledbitter saw——and groaned. He had never anticipated this awful possibility.
“What’s to be done?” he asked again. “I thought I should have nothing to do but walk on to the ship, ask for this man, and——”
“No doubt, but you thought wrong,” said the clerk. “Well, I’ll tell you what you must do. I’ll give you a line to the purser. You board the boat pretty late to-night, and tell the purser all you’ve told me. If the man’s aboard then, he’ll find him. If not, go back at noon to-morrow. I tell you this man you want mayn’t board the Starnatic till last thing!”
Ledbitter thanked his informant gratefully, took the note he gave him, and went away. It was scarcely six o’clock, and he had nothing to do for hours. He wandered about. He went down to the landing stage and picked out the Starnatic by her black funnel and green bands. He turned into a cheap restaurant, and fed himself—cheaply. All the evening he hung about the landing-stage, examining every likely-looking face, to see if he could recognise the description of Terry. And at ten o’clock he hired a boat and was rowed across to the ship. It had begun to rain; it was very cold—Ledbitter had no overcoat; he was thoroughly miserable.
The purser, a fat man, who was drinking rum in his cabin, asked Ledbitter if he and the writer of the letter thought he was going to spend the whole night and all Sunday forenoon asking the names of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who was then in or would come into the steerage. But, when Ledbitter had pressed half a sovereign into his palm and had told his woeful story, the purser relented. He treated his shivering visitor to a glass of good Jamaica, and told him that he would give him the best of advice. Let him go ashore and get a bed and a good night’s sleep. Let him come aboard at precisely twelve o’clock next day. By that time he—the purser—would have ascertained if Terry was aboard; if not, Ledbitter could watch the gangway and scrutinize every arrival until the Starnatic tooted a farewell to the Mersey.
Ledbitter had no option but to do as he was told. He went ashore again. He got a cheap bed at a riverside inn; he indulged in more Jamaica before retiring, but his spirits were very low when he sought his couch. He was doubtful, anxious, miserable. And all night the steamers in the river hooted and whistled, and kept him awake. When he did sleep a little, in the early morning, it was to dream that the Starnatic had escaped him, that she was steaming at fifty knots an hour down the Mersey, and that a big, red-haired man was standing in the stern, waving a waistcoat at him with shouts of derisive laughter.
The riverside inn folk, cheap as they were, gave Ledbitter a good, solid breakfast that Sunday morning. It cheered him up. He went out into a beautiful sunshiny day and felt mightily encouraged. And from half-past nine until half-past eleven he haunted the landing-stage, watching.
He saw various boatloads put off to the Starnatic, but he saw no big, red-haired man. And at twenty minutes to twelve he himself bargained with a boatman, and went off on his forlorn hope.
The purser shook his head at Ledbitter.
“There ain’t no such man on board—yet,” he said. “I’ve seen to it myself. Now I’ll put you in touch with every steerage passenger that sets foot on our decks from this out—and I can’t do more!”
He stationed Ledbitter at a certain railed-in place near the gangway, and left him. And Ledbitter, whose heart was beating as fiercely as the engines were about to beat, watched and watched. Scores of men and women came from tenders and tugs and boats—had to pass him—and not a man had red hair!
The purser came along, too, and whispered:
“We’re off in ten minutes!” he said. “You’ll have to go presently. If he isn’t here with this last lot——”
Just then Ledbitter was aware of a big, Milesian-looking, roughly-dressed fellow, who came swaggering and smiling along the deck, one big bundle under his arm, another slung over his shoulder. His hair was—but red was a modest term to apply to it.
Ledbitter seized his man with the grip of despair.
“You’re name’s Terry!” he exclaimed. “You’re from Walford?”
The fiery-haired one looked down from his six-foot three with all the ease of conscious innocence.
“And phwat’s if that’s me name, misther?” he asked gaily. “Ye have it very pat on yer tongue, I’m thinkin’!”
“You bought a waistcoat from Milson on Friday,” said Ledbitter hurriedly, but with extraordinary clearness. “A dark red ground with black spots. My wife sold it to Milson. There’s a letter in it—of importance. I’ve followed you to get that letter. Have you found it—have you got it? Get the waistcoat out of your bundles. I’ll give you half a sovereign for that letter!”
The red-haired giant dropped his bundles and scratched his head.
“I’d give ye the letther for nothing, misther, if I had it!” he exclaimed. “But I never seen it, and I haven’t the weskut. ’Twas this way, d’ye see,” he went on, as Ledbitter almost fainted. “When I got here to Liverpool yisterda’ afthernoon, I overhauled me kit. And some of it I sold to a fellow at the lodgin’ house, and the weskut among the rest. Shure, it was too small! So—I haven’t it!”
“What lodging-house? What fellow?” gasped Ledbitter. “Quick!”
“Brannigan’s Lodgin’-House, Orange Court,” said Terry. “But the feller’s name—ah, I niver heard no name of him! A little weeshy feller——”
“Now, then, come on, you!” bawled a man in Ledbitter’s ear. “All ashore! We’re off!”
“With a bad squint in one eye of him, misther!” shouted Terry, as Ledbitter was forced down the gangway. “Ye’d easy find him by the squint he has on him. Good luck to ye, misther!”
When Ledbitter became fully alive again, he was on the landing-stage once more. He glanced across the river—the Starnatic had already gone half a mile on her way towards Canada. And Ledbitter was still on his way in search of the waistcoat. But which way now? He turned towards the city muttering.
“Brannigan’s Lodging-House, Orange Court,” he repeated over and over again. “A little weeshy feller with a bad squint on him! Great Scott!”
Ledbitter strolled along, almost aimlessly, sick at heart, until, on the wide, open space beyond the landing-stage, he ran up against a policeman. That gave him an idea.
“Can you tell me where Orange Court is?” he asked.
The policeman immediately pointed along the road which flanked the line of docks.
“Third to your right, second to the left o’ that,” he answered. “Nice place, too!”
“Dangerous?” asked Ledbitter, almost indifferently.
“Roughish part down there,” said the policeman. “What might you be wanting, now, if it’s a fair question?”
Ledbitter was so hungry for human sympathy that he gave this casual acquaintance a brief account of his trouble. The policeman whistled.
“Nice job!” he remarked. “Well, you might find this man. And, again, you mightn’t. Some of ’em’s there for a night, and then the world swallows ’em up again. Come and go, d’ye see, in a manner of speaking. But I’ll give you a tip: Don’t you go pulling your money out inside Brannigan’s. If you find this man get him to walk up into the main road there with you. Don’t let him see what you’ve got about you—in Brannigan’s at any rate.”
Ledbitter thanked his informant and went off in the direction indicated. He was presently plunged into a network of unsavoury courts and alleys, and when he eventually found Brannigan’s he felt uncommonly timid about crossing its threshold. But a man who stood at the door in his shirt sleeves, smoking his pipe and reading the Sunday newspaper, eyed him as with authority.
“Wanting somebody in here, Mister?” he demanded cautiously. “You ain’t a police chap, I know, ’cause yer wouldn’t be alone if you were. What’s your game? Scripcher reader? Mission’ry?”
“Are you the lodging-house keeper?” asked Ledbitter.
“That’s me, guv’nor,” admitted the man. “And I asks again—what might you be?”
Ledbitter thought it best to be candid. He told his story, carefully insisting on the fact that the letter contained nothing of any value, not even a postal-order. But—“was that man there?”
The lodging-house keeper pocketed Ledbitter’s half-crown, and nodded.
“Shifty!” he said. “That’s the bloke! Shifty so called ’cause he squints. Don’t know no other name for him. He’s here now, asleep. Make it another half-dollar, guv’nor, and I’ll have him out to you in a jiffy!”
Ledbitter parted with a further two-and-sixpence, and waited on the flags outside the lodging-house. And presently there emerged a little, suspicious, furtive-eyed rat of a man, who looked his visitor well over from top to toe before he drew near him. Ledbitter had to reassure him at some yards distance before he would approach. It was for all the world like coaxing a wild animal who fears a trap.
But eventually he persuaded the man to walk up the court with him, and to convince him that all he wanted was the waistcoat which he had bought from the red-haired stranger the day before. And then, for the second time that morning Ledbitter nearly fainted when Shifty replied that he hadn’t got the much-desired garment.
Ledbitter stood like a statue of despair while Shifty explained matters. He, Shifty, had been in funds when Terry was overhauling his kit and offering some of its contents for sale, and he had bought a few articles, the waistcoat amongst them. But later he and some of his mates had got playing pitch-and-toss, and he had lost his money. Therefore to see him over the Sunday, he had bundled up his purchases, repaired to the pawnbroker’s, and raised four bob on them.
Accordingly, the waistcoat was now at Mr. Mordecai Aaron’s establishment round the second corner.
“Which, guv’nor, is a safe place,” concluded Shifty. “So your bit of a letter can’t come to no harm. Only”—here he paused and regarded his interviewer with a squint of extraordinary strength—“pawnbrokers isn’t open on Sundays. And I’m off Wigan way to-night. Got a job there at six to-morrow morning.”
“I must have that waistcoat?” said Ledbitter firmly. “Can’t you stop?”
“There’s a way, guv’nor,” interrupted Shifty, squinting more than ever. “I can’t stop, nohow. But you buys that pawn-ticket off of me! See? Then to-morrow morning you goes and takes them things out o’ pawn, and you gets your letter. How’s that guv’nor?”
Supplementing this, Shifty put his hand somewhere inside his clothing and drew out a pawn-ticket. He held it before Ledbitter’s eyes, pointing to various items.
“Pair o’ cloth trousers,” he said, “weskit—that’s your’n, guv’nor—knitted cardigan—three on ’em. Pawned for four bob. Now, as yer p’r’aps don’t know, guv’nor, a pawnbroker never lends more nor one-fourth the vally of a article. Accordingly, them things is worth sixteen bob. Then, of course, there’s my loss of ’em. I should ha’ took ’em out next time I was in Liverpool. So make it a quid, guv’nor, and the ticket’s yours.”
Ledbitter had to give way. He extracted a sovereign from his decreasing store, took the pawn-ticket and hurried off to more salubrious regions. And when he reached a respectable street he turned into the first respectable tavern he saw, and spent fourpence on a bottle of ale, with intense joy. He would get it first thing Monday morning; he would catch the next train to London with it.
At this point he suddenly thought of his financial resources, and he sat down in the corner of the saloon bar into which he had wandered, and with a bit of pencil and a scrap of paper did a little reckoning. He had set out from home with £4 7s. Up to that moment, what with various expenses—boatmen, the tips to the purser and to the lodging-house keeper, and the sovereign paid for the pawn-ticket—he had laid out £2 15s.; he had accordingly had £1 12s. left. Out of that he had to find himself in food and lodgings until next morning; there would be four shillings and a copper or two to pay at the pawnbroker’s; he would have to reserve at least a sovereign for his fare to London. So it came to this—he had about four shillings whereon to live, to eat, drink, sleep until next day. Of course he could do it—he would have to do it—he must do it. Only let him get that letter; only let him get to London and to Steel and Cardyke’s office, there, by four o’clock on Monday afternoon, and all would be well. As to getting home again from London to Walford—well, he would trust to luck. Nothing mattered but the handing in of the tender by the specified time.
That was the most miserable Sunday Ledbitter had ever spent in his life. The sea air blowing off the Irish Channel made him hungry, and he dared not eat—at least to satisfaction. He lunched off bread and cheese and beer; he spent the afternoon wandering about Liverpool. He indulged in a meat tea in a cheap restaurant when evening came. He wandered about again, and went supperless to bed in a place where you could stop the night for a shilling. He had another sleepless night. Next morning he breakfasted at a coffee-stall for threepence. And at nine o’clock he was at Mordecai Aaron’s establishment, and by five minutes past had explained matters, produced the pawn-ticket, and put down the necessary principal and interest. Two minutes later the much-desired waistcoat was in his hands. Trembling with excitement, he plunged his fingers into the inner pocket.
“Th’elp me if I thought ath how you’d find anythink, mithter,” said the Jew youth to whom Ledbitter had explained matters. “Afther pathing through all them handth wathn’t likely ath how you would find it, wath it, now?”
Ledbitter made certain. Then he flung the redeemed articles down and turned on his heel.
“Wath to be done with theeth, mithter?” asked the Jew youth.
But Ledbitter walked out without answering, and he had gone a good mile away from that shop before he realized that he had really left it. Then he suddenly woke up from his abstraction and saw that he was at the Exchange Station.
It was all over now. Of course he was ruined. The firm would sack him at once. He would never get another job. He and his wife and the kid would all have to go the poor-house. All right. It was fate. No, it was his own confounded carelessness. No, something had gone wrong with his beastly head. No, it was—he did not know what it was. But it had happened. It was all over. He was down—deep, deep, deep down—and out.
And suddenly he realized that there would be no going to London and that the sovereign which he had reserved for that purpose was in his pocket. He realized something else, too; he was ravenously hungry. And the fare home to Walford was only eight-and-nine.
Without a word he walked into the station restaurant. Magnificent in his acceptance of defeat, he ordered a waiter to bring him two boiled eggs and a couple of thick mutton chops. Then he picked up a newspaper, and for an hour ate and drank and trifled with the news. There was an account in the newspaper of the execution of a criminal—the unfortunate man, it said, ate a hearty breakfast before walking to his doom. Ledbitter understood him.
He felt better after that breakfast, but he had to go home. And after trifling about a bit, and wondering whether he had better not sneak into Walford at night, he took heart and boarded an express.
At three o’clock that afternoon he quietly walked into his own parlour, and found his wife calmly sewing a new pinafore for the baby.
Mrs. Ledbitter screamed, and threw her arms round him. Ledbitter gently disengaged her, sat down and fixed her with a look.
“Fanny,” he said, “we’re ruined! There was a letter in that waistcoat which I’d forgotten to post. I’ve been to Liverpool after it, and it’s—lost. To-morrow morning I shall get the sack. I——”
Mrs. Ledbitter, not to be repressed, threw her arms round him again.
“Herbert!” she exclaimed. “Oh, if you’d only waited one second when you rushed off! I called you back, and you wouldn’t look round. Milson called you back when you ran away from his shop. He came up to tell me, guessing what you were after, but you wouldn’t listen to him. I found the letter when I sold him the things, Friday, and I went out and posted and registered it at once. Here’s the receipt. I forgot all about it on Friday and Saturday, too, because of baby’s teeth. And you needn’t bother at all about the firm. I sent them a note this morning, saying you were in bed with a sick headache.”
Ledbitter took the scrap of paper, looked at it to reassure himself, and then lifted his hand and shook his fist. He was about to swear that he would have Milson’s blood for not pursuing him to the station, when he suddenly remembered that out of the wreck of his week’s money he had bought his wife and the baby a box of chocolates. In that remembrance the recollection of his week-end misery floated into thin air.
The Earl of Normanstowe flung away the newspaper which had just been handed to him, and looked defiantly round the semi-circle of faces, all eager and youthful as his own, which surrounded his armchair, set in a corner of the smoking-room which at that, his pet club, was regarded as the peculiar preserve of himself and his set.
“I will lay any man an even ten thousand pounds,” he said in calm but forceful accents, “that I walk out of this club to-night and hide myself in London for the space of one month without being found, let whatever efforts to find me be made by whoever likes to make ’em! Who takes me?”
The attendant faces slowly withdrew themselves from the contemplation of Lord Normanstowe’s healthy countenance and gave themselves to turning elsewhere. From the lips of one came a deep sigh.
“Wish I’d got ten thousand to lay at that game,” said their owner. “I guess I’d ferret you out in less than a month, Normanstowe.”
“I repeat that I’ll lay any man ten thousand pounds,” said Lord Normanstowe. “But—there’ll be conditions.”
“What conditions?” asked a member of the group. “Stiff ’uns, of course.”
“No, easy ones. All I would ask is 16 hours’ start. To be plain and matter-of-fact, I’ll put it like this: I’ll engage to walk out of this room at precisely 8 o’clock this evening and disappear in my own way. Whoever takes my bet engages not to do anything in the way of searching for me until 12 noon to-morrow. That’s giving me the 16 hours’ start I asked for, isn’t it?”
“And when the search begins, is the searcher to have a free hand? Can he do what he pleases? Employ the police, for instance,” asked somebody else. “Can he offer a reward? Can he stick up bills, placards?”
“He can do whatever he jolly well likes! He can offer a reward in hundreds or in thousands. He can subsidize all the private detectives, inquiry agents and investigation offices in London. He can get the whole of Scotland Yard at his back if it’s possible. All I say is that I’ll lay ten thousand to his ten thousand that I disappear at 8 o’clock to-night, and that I’m not found until I walk into this room at 8 o’clock in the evening precisely one month hence.”
“And you wouldn’t go out of town.”
“I wouldn’t go out of town.”
“What’s town to mean?” inquired a dark-visaged young gentleman who sat in a tilted chair in the corner. “Radius of one mile from St. James’ Street, say?”
“Rot!” answered Lord Normanstowe. “Radius of five miles from Charing Cross.”
“That’s a lot of country to cover,” remarked the young man in the corner. “There are thick coverts and deep woods within that bit.”
“It’s London, anyhow,” said Normanstowe. “What is it we’ve been talking about? Here’s an account in the newspaper about a chap walking out of a club in Pall Mall and disappearing so effectually that he can’t be found. You fellows say it’s impossible for any man of note to disappear in London except by collusion and design. I say that’s nonsense. I believe I’m pretty well known in more ways than one. Very good. But I say that without any help from anybody I will disappear for the space of a month. That’s my conviction. And I’ll back it to the extent of ten thousand.”
The dark-visaged young gentleman tilted his chair a little more.
“I’ll take you,” he said.
The semblance of a gentle sigh ran round the semi-circle. Normanstowe, phlegmatic as ever, half-turned towards a table furnished with writing materials.
“Good!” he said. “We’ll put it down in formal fashion. Chisholm, how did they do these things in the days of our grandfathers?”
“In the days of our grandfathers,” replied the man addressed, who was also the eldest of the group, “they kept a book in these places and entered up individual bets. As we don’t possess such an iniquitous thing here, we must make a half-sheet of the club notepaper suffice.”
He reached over to the table, and took paper and pen and laid a blotting pad on his knee.
“I’ll write it down,” he said. “I think I remember the phrasing of the old-time wagers. This is about it.” And he read slowly, as he wrote:
“ ‘Lord Normanstowe bets Sir Charles Wrigge ten thousand pounds that he, Lord Normanstowe, walks out of the Melatherium Club at 8 o’clock p.m., on October 20, 1904, disappears, and is not found by Sir Charles Wrigge nor by any person Sir Charles Wrigge employs to search for him, before he walks into the club at 8 o’clock p.m. on November 20, 1904. Lord Normanstowe engages not to go out of a radius of five miles from Charing Cross during the time of his disappearance.’ How’s that?” concluded Chisholm.
“All right, as regards me,” replied Normanstowe. “But now for Wrigge.”
“Oh, that’s similarly worded, with small differences,” said Chisholm, continuing to write, “This is it: ‘Sir Charles Wrigge bets Lord Normanstowe ten thousand pounds that he, Sir Charles, or persons employed by him, will find Lord Normanstowe, dead or alive, within the time and under the conditions specified in the bet made by Lord Normanstowe with him. Sir Charles Wrigge engages to give Lord Normanstowe 16 hours start dating from 8 o’clock p.m. on October 20, 1904.’ Now, if you’ll both initial this sheet of paper,” concluded Chisholm, “I’ll put it in my pocketbook, and the thing’s done.”
Wrigge laughed as he took and carefully put away his bit of paper.
“I shall find you before a fortnight’s up, Normanstowe,” he said, confidently.
“I’ll lay you another ten thousand you don’t,” exclaimed Normanstowe, with equal confidence. “Won’t have it? All right.” He pulled out his watch. “It’s 6.30. I’m going to make my preparations. When they are made, I shall dine here, comfortably, quietly. At precisely 8 o’clock I shall walk out of the dining-room and the house and into the street. And you will see me no more for one month.”
“During which time all London will ring with your name and fame,” remarked Chisholm. “Get your preparations made and we’ll all dine together.”
Lord Normanstowe’s preparations were of a simple and an elementary character. He went over to a quiet corner and wrote a note to his sister, Lady Trementower, who enjoyed a widespread reputation as being the most gossipy woman in London. It was a brief and a characteristic epistle.
“My dear Gabble: For reasons of my own, I am about to disappear from the world—I mean our world—for the space of one month from to-night. My disappearance will naturally cause much comment. It will also give you something new to talk about. You may expatiate on several hypotheses—that I may have gone into retreat, to meditate on my sins, or be writing an epic poem in a Bloomsbury attic, or have disguised myself as a crossing sweeper in order to study life. The only reason I have for writing this note, is to privately assure you that I shall be quite well and happy, and that I shall reappear to a much-concerned world at 8 o’clock on the evening of November 20 next.
“Your affectionate brother,
This communication Lord Normanstowe laid aside for posting later in the evening. Meanwhile he proceeded upstairs to a bedroom, which was perpetually reserved for him, and wherein he kept various suits of clothes, changes of linen, and articles of toilet. Before dressing for dinner he looked out a small and well-worn kit-bag and into this he packed an old tweed suit of a nondescript grey which he had carefully preserved from the hands of his valet because it possessed certain sentimental associations. Also he packed in the kit bag a shaving outfit, a pair of brogues and a couple of fairly heavy dumb-bells. Locking up the bag he made his evening toilet. And that accomplished, he went downstairs to take an early dinner.
It was remarked by those who dined with Lord Normanstowe that evening, that his appetite was noticeable. He ate with great gusto; he was particular in selecting a certain burgundy for which the cellar of the Melatherium is justly famous. Yet while he ate and drank with such relish, he was careful to leave himself time to smoke an excellent cigar after dinner. He sighed once or twice as he sniffed its fragrance and sipped his coffee. But at precisely five minutes to 8 o’clock he jumped to his feet with alacrity, threw away the cigar, and left the room. At one minute to eight he reappeared at the door, wearing a dark coat over his evening dress, and carrying the small kit bag. The men who were in the secret, headed by Sir Charles Wrigge and Chisholm, joined him in the hall.
“It seems, somehow,” said one, “as if we were about to assist at an execution. You are really off, Normanstowe?”
Normanstowe smiled affectionately upon the group, gripped his kit bag, and, as the hall clock struck eight, walked down the steps into St. James’s Street. The men whom he left behind saw him disappear in the shadows. One of them remarked, quite unnecessarily: “He’s gone!”
Normanstowe, carrying his kit bag, walked up the street in leisurely fashion until he reached Piccadilly. At the corner he signalled to the driver of a passing taxicab.
“Take me,” said Normanstowe, as he entered, “to Paddington railway station.”
The driver observed nothing in his fare’s manner or speech that could cause him to hesitate. To him the young earl seemed to be no more than an ordinary young gentleman of the superior classes who might be inclined to put half-a-crown into his hand at the end of the journey, without any unnecessary words or reference to the state of the meter. In this pleasant conjecture the driver proved to be right; when he pulled up at the first-class booking office at Paddington, his fare duly presented him with the coin in question before lounging slowly into the station. A porter standing near suddenly started, and, touching his cap, made for the small kit bag.
“No, thank you, my man,” said Normanstowe.
He passed forward, and the rebuffed porter looked at the driver, who was pouching his half-crown before attending to his meter.
“Know ’im?” asked the porter.
“Not from Adam,” answered the driver.
“Lord Normanstowe, thet is,” said the porter with pride. “Hearl of Normanstowe, y’know—’im wot done thet there charge with the Imperial Yeomanry at one of them scraps in the Boe-er war. Know him well ’ere, we do—got a plice dahn the line.”
“Oh—that ’im?” said the driver. He pulled out the half-crown and spat on it before returning it to his pocket and moving off. And the porter, looking round, and into the booking office, saw Lord Normanstowe approach the ticket window.
Normanstowe had purposely thrown open his overcoat as he entered the booking office.
The clerk who dispensed first class tickets, and knew him well, recognized him as he demanded a first single for a certain station beyond Newbury, which was in close proximity to Normanstowe Park. He saw him stroll off in the direction of the train—he remembered all this, two days later, when the news of the young peer’s unaccountable disappearance began to be noised abroad. It was the opinion of that clerk that his lordship went to join a train which was about to leave for the West of England.
Normanstowe, however, joined no trains. He went out of the booking office by its western exit, lingered a moment at the bookstall, passed along the platform, and going downstairs to the dressing rooms, engaged one, paid for it, and locked himself within its privacy. That done, he set down his bag on the toilet table, and took a careful look at himself.
What Normanstowe saw in the glass was the apparition of a very ordinary type of young man. He had neither grace of figure nor distinction of feature. His hair was inclined—very much inclined—to be red; his face was a homely one; he possessed a snub nose and a wide smile, and his eyes were of that indefinite blue which is commonly associated with people who are called Smith or Robinson. He wore a moustache which was rather lighter in colour than his hair; he also wore small side whiskers—a vulgar habit which he had adopted out of sheer contrariness. And as he looked at himself in the dressing mirror, he grinned with what might have seemed to a beholder (had there been one present) a fatuous and a foolish delight.
“Common!” he murmured. “As common as ever they make ’em! The sort of young man who calls with a note book and a pencil to inspect the gas meter or take orders for the grocer. And the whiskers and moustache—or, rather, the disappearance of them—will make all the difference in the world.”
These conclusions led him to divest himself of his dinner jacket, waistcoat, and dress shirt, and to shave his face as clean as that of a schoolboy who has been asked out to dinner. The disappearance of the moustache and the whiskers made him a very inconspicuous person indeed; with them all suggestion of a long line of ancestors seemed to disappear. He grinned again—more fatuously than before. That done, he drew off his trousers, kicked off his elegant boots, and took the old tweed suit, a coloured shirt, and a noncommittal necktie from the kit bag.
In ten minutes Normanstowe, looking at the results of his labours in the mirror, saw the reflection of a good, typical specimen of the very ordinary young man. He had kept his eyes open in his journey through his twenty-eight years of life, and he knew that you could meet just such a young man as he now looked to be by the thousand; you passed them in the streets, you saw them in the pits of the theatres, they were massed together in the shilling enclosures of the football fields; they huddled against the railings on the race-courses. He grinned again with increased delight.
“A very ordinary type indeed!” he said. “Excellent!”
Then, with a last glance at himself, he turned to the garments which he had discarded. He packed every one of them into the kit bag. There was money in the pockets of the trousers—gold, silver and copper. He took it in his hand and gazed thoughtfully at it. In the end he selected a shilling, a sixpence, four pennies and a halfpenny, and put them in the watch pocket of his vest; the rest of the money he restored to his dress clothes. Then he packed up the shaving outfit and the discarded white shirt and tie; finally he crammed the overcoat and the two dumb-bells into the kit bag, which he proceeded to lock. He glanced around him; no, he had not overlooked anything. Normanstowe’s idea had been to walk out of Paddington Station to the canal which runs at the side of it and to drop his weighted bag into that part of the dismal waterway which is spanned by a bridge at the end of Warwick Avenue. He had once or twice been up that way, seeing home a sprightly lady who was associated with musical comedy, and who lived in that neighbourhood, and it had struck him as being a likely spot for getting rid of his present encumbrances. But, upon reflection, he thought that he might go one better—he would deposit his bag at the cloak room. They had a trick, these fellows, he said to himself, of dragging canals for dead bodies, and though the kit bag had neither name nor initials upon it, he knew that its contents would speedily be recognized. But it would remain in the cloak room, comfortably lost, for a long time.
Through sheer habit Normanstowe pulled out his watch. At the sight of it he whistled, not from any surprise in connection with the time, but because he suddenly recognized his own stupidity. Go where he meant to go with a valuable watch on which his initials and crest were enamelled! That would never do! He hastily took it off, and, unlocking the bag once more, put the watch safely inside. Then he remembered that the sleeve links in the cuffs of his coloured shirt were also ornamented with his initials, and he took them off, too. But when he had relocked the bag, he breathed freely, for he remembered that his undergarments and his shirt and his handkerchief and collar were all unmarked—he had once sent out for a supply of such things from the club in a hurry and these were part of that supply, and there was nothing upon them that could betray him. He was denuded of everything.
He presently opened the door, looked cautiously around him, and, seeing nobody about, seized the bag and marched off. He passed two men and one lady on the platform with whom he was on intimate terms of friendship—not one of them knew him. So he marched still more confidently forward and slammed the bag down on the counter of the cloak room.
“Name?” demanded the person in attendance, beginning to fill out the ticket.
“Smith—John,” answered Normanstowe, readily enough. He put down sixpence and presently took up fourpence in coppers, and walked off. “Now for it!” he muttered, and turned out of the station into the covered entrance-way.
Normanstowe knew exactly what he was going to do. For a young gentleman of his rank his knowledge of London was extensive and peculiar. Knowing what he wanted, he went straight to his object. That was the police station in the Harrow Road, close to Paddington Green. Five minutes walk brought him to it. He put his hands in his pockets and looked at its lighted windows. He sauntered past the open door and saw uniformed individuals moving about inside. And, having thus prospected, he walked around the corner by Paddington town hall and filled the pockets of his jacket with stones which he kicked out of the road surface with the help of toe and heel.
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