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Another gripping novel from Classic Detective Presents…Something between Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel and a jolly good read.
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The Affair of the Man Who Vanished
Mr. Maverick Narkom, Superintendent at Scotland Yard, flung aside the paper he was reading and wheeled round in his revolving desk-chair, all alert on the instant, like a terrier that scents a rat.
He knew well what the coming of the footsteps toward his private office portended; his messenger was returning at last.
Good! Now he would get at the facts of the matter, and be relieved from the sneers of carping critics and the pin pricks of overzealous reporters, who seemed to think that the Yard was to blame, and all the forces connected with it to be screamed at as incompetents if every evildoer in London was not instantly brought to book and his craftiest secrets promptly revealed.
Gad! Let them take on his job, then, if they thought the thing so easy! Let them have a go at this business of stopping at one’s post until two o’clock in the morning trying to patch up the jumbled fragments of a puzzle of this sort, if they regarded it as such child’s play—finding an assassin whom nobody had seen and who struck with a method which neither medical science nor legal acumen could trace or name. Then, by James....
The door opened and closed, and Detective Sergeant Petrie stepped into the room, removing his hat and standing at attention.
“Well?” rapped out the superintendent, in the sharp staccato of nervous impatience. “Speak up! It was a false alarm, was it not?”
“No, sir. It’s even worse than reported. Quicker and sharper than any of the others. He’s gone, sir.”
“Gone? Good God! you don’t mean dead?”
“Yes, sir. Dead as Julius Cæsar. Total collapse about twenty minutes after my arrival and went off like that”—snapping his fingers and giving his hand an outward fling. “Same way as the others, only, as I say, quicker, sir; and with no more trace of what caused it than the doctors were able to discover in the beginning. That makes five in the same mysterious way, Superintendent, and not a ghost of a clue yet. The papers will be ringing with it to-morrow.”
“Ringing with it? Can they ‘ring’ any more than they are doing already?” Narkom threw up both arms and laughed the thin, mirthless laughter of utter despair. “Can they say anything worse than they have said? Blame any more unreasonably than they have blamed? It is small solace for the overburdened taxpayer to reflect that he may be done to death at any hour of the night, and that the heads of the institution he has so long and so consistently supported are capable of giving his stricken family nothing more in return than the “Dear me! dear me!” of utter bewilderment; and to prove anew that the efficiency of our boasted police-detective system may be classed under the head of “Brilliant Fiction.” That sort of thing, day after day—as if I had done nothing but pile up failures of this kind since I came into office. No heed of the past six years’ brilliant success. No thought for the manner in which the police departments of other countries were made to sit up and to marvel at our methods. Two months’ failure and that doesn’t count! By the Lord Harry! I’d give my head to make those newspaper fellows eat their words—gad, yes!”
“Why don’t you, then, sir?” Petrie dropped his voice a tone or two and looked round over the angle of his shoulder as he spoke; then, recollecting the time and the improbability of anybody being within earshot, took heart of grace and spoke up bolder. “There’s no use blinking the fact, Mr. Narkom; it was none of us—none of the regular force, I mean—that made the record of those years what it was. That chap Cleek was the man that did it, sir. You know that as well as I. I don’t know whether you’ve fallen out with him or not; or if he’s off on some secret mission that keeps him from handling Yard matters these days. But if he isn’t, take my advice, sir, and put him on this case at once.”
“Don’t talk such rot!” flung out Narkom, impatiently. “Do you think I’d have waited until now to do it if it could be done? Put him on the case, indeed! How the devil am I to do it when I don’t know where on earth to find him? He cleared out directly after that Panther’s Paw case six months ago. Gave up his lodgings, sacked his housekeeper, laid off his assistant, Dollops, and went the Lord knows where and why.”
“My hat! Then that’s the reason we never hear any more of him in Yard matters, is it? I wondered! Disappeared, eh? Well, well! You don’t think he can have gone back to his old lay—back to the wrong ’uns and his old ‘Vanishing Cracksman’s’ tricks, do you, sir?”
“No, I don’t. No backslider about that chap, by James! He’s not built that way. Last time I saw him he was out shopping with Miss Ailsa Lorne—the girl who redeemed him—and judging from their manner toward each other, I rather fancied—well, never mind! That’s got nothing to do with you. Besides, I feel sure that if they had, Mrs. Narkom and I would have been invited. All he said was that he was going to take a holiday. He didn’t say why, and he didn’t say where. I wish to heaven I’d asked him. I could have kicked myself for not having done so when that she-devil of a Frenchwoman managed to slip the leash and get off scot free.”
“Mean that party we nabbed in the house at Roehampton along with the Mauravanian baron who got up that Silver Snare fake, don’t you, sir? Margot, the Queen of the Apaches. Or, at least, that’s who you declared she was, I recollect.”
“And that’s who I still declare she was!” rapped in Narkom, testily, “and what I’ll continue to say while there’s a breath left in me. I never actually saw the woman until that night, it is true, but Cleek told me she was Margot; and who should know better than he, when he was once her pal and partner? But it’s one of the infernal drawbacks of British justice that a crook’s word’s as good as an officer’s if it’s not refuted by actual proof. The woman brought a dozen witnesses to prove that she was a respectable Austrian lady on a visit to her son in England; that the motor in which she was riding broke down before that Roehampton house about an hour before our descent upon it, and that she had merely been invited to step in and wait while the repairs were being attended to by her chauffeur. Of course such a chauffeur was forthcoming when she was brought up before the magistrate; and a garage-keeper was produced to back up his statement; so that when the Mauravanian prisoner ‘confessed’ from the dock that what the lady said was true, that settled it. Icouldn’t swear to her identity, and Cleek, who could, was gone—the Lord knows where; upon which the magistrate admitted the woman to bail and delivered her over to the custody of her solicitors pending my efforts to get somebody over from Paris to identify her. And no sooner is the vixen set at large than—presto!—away she goes, bag and baggage, out of the country, and not a man in England has seen hide nor hair of her since. Gad! if I could but have got word to Cleek at that time—just to put him on his guard against her. But I couldn’t. I’ve no more idea than a child where the man went—not one.”
“It’s pretty safe odds to lay one’s head against a brass farthing as to where the woman went, though, I reckon,” said Petrie, stroking his chin. “Bunked it back to Paris, I expect, sir, and made for her hole like any other fox. I hear them French ’tecs are as keen to get hold of her as we were, but she slips ’em like an eel. Can’t lay hands on her, and couldn’t swear to her identity if they did. Not one in a hundred of ’em’s ever seen her to be sure of her, I’m told.”
“No, not one. Even Cleek himself knows nothing of who and what she really is. He confessed that to me. Their knowledge of each other began when they threw in their lot together for the first time, and ceased when they parted. Yes, I suppose she did go back to Paris, Petrie—it would be her safest place; and there’d be rich pickings there for her and her crew just now. The city is en fête, you know.”
“Yes, sir. King Ulric of Mauravania is there as the guest of the Republic. Funny time for a king to go visiting another nation, sir, isn’t it, when there’s a revolution threatening in his own? Dunno much about the ways of kings, Superintendent, but if there was a row coming up in my house, you can bet all you’re worth I’d be mighty sure to stop at home.”
“Diplomacy, Petrie, diplomacy! he may be safer where he is. Rumours are afloat that Prince What’s-his-name, son and heir of the late Queen Karma, is not only still living, but has, during the present year, secretly visited Mauravania in person. I see by the papers that that ripping old royalist, Count Irma, is implicated in the revolutionary movement and that, by the king’s orders, he has been arrested and imprisoned in the Fort of Sulberga on a charge of sedition. Grand old johnny, that—I hope no harm comes to him. He was in England not so long ago. Came to consult Cleek about some business regarding a lost pearl, and I took no end of a fancy to him. Hope he pulls out all right; but if he doesn’t—oh, well, we can’t bother over other people’s troubles—we’ve got enough of our own just now with these mysterious murders going on, and the newspapers hammering the Yard day in and day out. Gad! how I wish I knew how to get hold of Cleek—how I wish I did!”
“Can’t you find somebody to put you on the lay, sir? some friend of his—somebody that’s seen him, or maybe heard from him since you have?”
“Oh, don’t talk rubbish!” snapped Narkom, with a short, derisive laugh. “Friends, indeed! What friends has he outside of myself? Who knows him any better than I know him—and what do I know of him, at that? Nothing—not where he comes from; not what his real name may be; not a living thing but that he chooses to call himself Hamilton Cleek and to fight in the interest of the law as strenuously as he once fought against it. And where will I find a man who has ‘seen’ him, as you suggest—or would know if he had seen him—when he has that amazing birth gift to fall back upon? You never saw his real face—never in all your life. I never saw it but twice, and even I—why, he might pass me in the street a dozen times a day and I’d never know him if I looked straight into his eyes. He’d come like a shot if he knew I wanted him—gad, yes! But he doesn’t; and there you are.”
Imagination was never one of Petrie’s strong points. His mind moved always along well-prepared grooves to time-honoured ends. It found one of those grooves and moved along it now.
“Why don’t you advertise for him, then?” he suggested. “Put a Personal in the morning papers, sir. Chap like that’s sure to read the news every day; and it’s bound to come to his notice sooner or later. Or if it doesn’t, why, people will get to knowing that the Yard’s lost him and get to talking about it and maybe he’ll learn of it that way.”
Narkom looked at him. The suggestion was so bald, so painfully ordinary and commonplace, that, heretofore, it had never occurred to him. To associate Cleek’s name with the banalities of the everyday Agony Column; to connect him with the appeals of the scullery and the methods of the raw amateur! The very outrageousness of the thing was its best passport to success.
“By James, I believe there’s something in that!” he said, abruptly. “If you get people to talking.... Well, it doesn’t matter, so that he hears—so that he finds out I want him. You ring up the Daily Mail while I’m scratching off an ad. Tell ’em it’s simply got to go in the morning’s issue. I’ll give it to them over the line myself in a minute.”
He lurched over to his desk, drove a pen into the ink pot, and made such good haste in marshalling his straggling thoughts that he had the thing finished before Petrie had got farther than “Yes; Scotland Yard. Hold the line, please; Superintendent Narkom wants to speak to you.”
The Yard’s requests are at all times treated with respect and courtesy by the controlling forces of the daily press, so it fell out that, late as the hour was, “space” was accorded, and, in the morning, half a dozen papers bore this notice prominently displayed:
“Cleek—Where are you? Urgently needed. Communicate at once.—Maverick Narkom.”
The expected came to pass; and the unexpected followed close upon its heels. The daily press, publishing the full account of the latest addition to the already long list of mysterious murders which, for a fortnight past, had been adding nervous terrors to the public mind, screamed afresh—as Narkom knew that it would—and went into paroxysms of the Reporters’ Disease until the very paper was yellow with the froth of it. The afternoon editions were still worse—for, between breakfast and lunch time, yet another man had fallen victim to the mysterious assassin—and sheets pink and sheets green, sheets gray and sheets yellow were scattering panic from one end of London to the other. The police-detective system of the country was rotten! The Government should interfere—must interfere! It was a national disgrace that the foremost city of the civilized world should be terrorized in this appalling fashion and the author of the outrages remain undetected! Could anything be more appalling?
It could, and—it was! When night came and the evening papers were supplanting the afternoon ones, that something “more appalling”—known hours before to the Yard itself—was glaring out on every bulletin and every front page in words like these:
LONDON’S REIGN OF TERROR
APPALLING ATROCITY IN
Clarges Street! The old “magic” street of those “magic” old times of Cleek, and the Red Limousine, and the Riddles that were unriddled for the asking! Narkom grabbed the report the instant he heard that name and began to read it breathlessly.
It was the usual station advice ticked through to headquarters and deciphered by the operator there, and it ran tersely, thus:
“4:28 P. M. Attempt made by unknown parties to blow up house in Clarges Street, Piccadilly. Partially successful. Three persons injured and two killed. No clue to motive. Occupants, family from Essex. Only moved in two days ago. House been vacant for months previously. Formerly occupied by retired seafaring man named Capt. Horatio Burbage, who——”
Narkom read no farther. He flung the paper aside with a sort of mingled laugh and blub and collapsed into his chair with his eyes hidden in the crook of an upthrown arm, and the muscles of his mouth twitching.
“Now I know why he cleared out! Good old Cleek! Bully old Cleek!” he said to himself; and stopped suddenly, as though something had got into his throat and half choked him. But after a moment or two he jumped to his feet and began walking up and down the room, his face fairly glowing; and if he had put his thoughts into words they would have run like this:
“Margot’s crew, of course. And he must have guessed that something of the sort would happen some time if he stopped there after that Silver Snare business at Roehampton—either from her lot or from the followers of that Mauravanian johnnie who was at the back of it. They were after him even in that little game, those two. I wonder why? What the dickens, when one comes to think of it, could have made the Prime Minister of Mauravania interest himself in an Apache trick to ‘do in’ an ex-cracksman? Gad! she flies high, sometimes, that Margot! Prime Minister of Mauravania! And the fool faced fifteen years hard to do the thing and let her get off scot free! Faced it and—took it; and is taking it still, for the sake of helping her to wipe off an old score against a reformed criminal. Wonder if Cleek ever crossed him in something? Wonder if he, too, was on the ‘crooked side’ once, and wanted to make sure of its never being shown up? Oh, well, he got his medicine. And so, too, will this unknown murderer who’s doing the secret killing in London, now that this Clarges Street affair is over. Bully old Cleek! Slipped ’em again! Had their second shot and missed you! Now you’ll come out of hiding, old chap, and we shall have the good old times once more.”
His eye fell upon the ever-ready telephone. He stopped short in his purposeless walking and nodded and smiled to it.
“We’ll have you singing your old tune before long, my friend,” he said, optimistically. “I know my man—gad, yes! He’ll let no grass grow under his feet now that this thing’s over. I shall hear soon—yes, by James! I shall.”
His optimism was splendidly rewarded. Not, however, from the quarter nor in the manner he expected. It had but just gone half-past seven when a tap sounded, the door of his office swung inward, and the porter stepped into the room.
“Person wanting to speak with you, sir, in private,” he announced. “Says it’s about some Personal in the morning paper.”
“Send him in—send him in at once!” rapped out Narkom excitedly. “Move sharp; and don’t let anybody else in until I give the word.”
Then, as soon as the porter had disappeared, he crossed the room, twitched the thick curtains over the window, switched on the electric light, wheeled another big chair up beside his desk and, with face aglow, jerked open a drawer and got out a cigarette box which had not seen the light for weeks.
Quick as he was, the door opened and shut again before the lid of the box could be thrown back, and into the room stepped Cleek’s henchman—Dollops.
“Hullo! You, is it, you blessed young monkey?” said Narkom gayly, as he looked up and saw the boy. “Knew I’d hear to-day—knew it, by James! Sent you for me, has he, eh? Is he coming himself or does he want me to go to him? Speak up, and—Good Lord! what’s the matter with you? What’s up? Anything wrong?”
Dollops had turned the colour of an under-baked biscuit and was looking at him with eyes of absolute despair.
“Sir,” he said, moving quickly forward and speaking in the breathless manner of a spent runner—“Sir, I was a-hopin’ it was a fake, and to hear you speak like that—Gawd’s truth, guv’ner, you don’t mean as it’s real, sir, do you? That you don’t know either?”
“Know? Know what?”
“Where he is—wot’s become of him? Mr. Cleek, the guv’ner, sir. I made sure that you’d know if anybody would. That’s wot made me come, sir. I’d ’a’ gone off me bloomin’ dot if I hadn’t—after you a-puttin’ in that Personal and him never a-turnin’ up like he’d ort. Sir, do you mean to say as you don’t know where he is, and haven’t seen him even yet?”
“No, I’ve not. Good Lord! haven’t you?”
“No, sir. I aren’t clapped eyes on him since he sent me off to the bloomin’ seaside six months ago. All he told me when we come to part was that Miss Lorne was goin’ out to India on a short visit to Cap’n and Mrs. ’Awksley—Lady Chepstow as was, sir—and that directly she was gone he’d be knockin’ about for a time on his own, and I wasn’t to worry over him. I haven’t seen hide nor hair of him, sir, since that hour.”
“Nor heard from him?” Narkom’s voice was thick and the hand he laid on the chair-back hard shut.
“Oh, yes, sir, I’ve heard—I’d have gone off my bloomin’ dot if I hadn’t done that. Heard from him twice. Once when he wrote and gimme my orders about the new place he’s took up the river—four weeks ago. The second time, last Friday, sir, when he wrote me the thing that’s fetched me here—that’s been tearin’ the heart out of me ever since I heard at Charing Cross about wot’s happened at Clarges Street, sir.”
“And what was that?”
“Why, sir, he wrote that he’d jist remembered about some papers as he’d left behind the wainscot in his old den, and that he’d get the key and drop in at the old Clarges Street house on the way ’ome. Said he’d arrive in England either yesterday afternoon or this one, sir; but whichever it was, he’d wire me from Dover before he took the train. And he never done it, sir—my Gawd! he never done it in this world!”
“Good God!” Narkom flung out the words in a sort of panic, his lips twitching, his whole body shaking, his face like the face of a dead man.
“He never done it, I tell you!” pursued Dollops in an absolute tremble of fright. “I haven’t never had a blessed line; and now this here awful thing has happened. And if he done what he said he was a-goin’ to do—if he come to town and went to that house——”
If he said more, the clanging of a bell drowned it completely. Narkom had turned to his desk and was hammering furiously upon the call gong. A scurry of flying feet came up the outer passage, the door opened in a flash, and the porter was there. And behind him Lennard, the chauffeur, who guessed from that excited summons that there would be a call forhim.
“The limousine—as quick as you can get her round!” said Narkom in the sharp staccato of excitement. “To the scene of the explosion in Clarges Street first, and if the bodies of the victims have been removed, then to the mortuary without an instant’s delay.”
He dashed into the inner room, grabbed his hat and coat down from the hook where they were hanging, and dashed back again like a man in a panic.
“Come on!” he said, beckoning to Dollops as he flung open the door and ran out into the passage. “If they’ve ‘done him in’—him!—if they’ve ‘got him’ after all——Come on! come on!”
Dollops “came on” with a rush; and two minutes later the red limousine swung out into the roadway and took the distance between Scotland Yard and Clarges Street at a mile-a-minute clip.
Arrival at the scene of the disaster elicited the fact that the remains—literally “remains,” since they had been well-nigh blown to fragments—had, indeed, been removed to the mortuary; so thither Narkom and Dollops followed them, their fears being in no wise lightened by learning that the bodies were undeniably those of men. As the features of both victims were beyond any possibility of recognition, identification could, of course, be arrived at only through bodily marks; and Dollops’s close association with Cleek rendered him particularly capable of speaking with authority regarding those of his master. It was, therefore, a source of unspeakable delight to both Narkom and himself, when, after close and minute examination of the remains, he was able to say, positively, “Sir, whatever’s become of him, praise God, neither of these here two dead men is him, bless his heart!”
“So they didn’t get him after all!” supplemented Narkom, laughing for the first time in hours. “Still, it cannot be doubted that whoever committed this outrage was after him, since the people who have suffered are complete strangers to the locality and had only just moved into the house. No doubt the person or persons who threw the bomb knew of Cleek’s having at one time lived there as ‘Captain Burbage’—Margot did, for one—and finding the house still occupied, and not knowing of his removal—why, there you are.”
“Margot!” The name brought back all Dollops’ banished fears. He switched round on the superintendent and laid a nervous clutch on his sleeve. “And Margot’s ‘lay’ is Paris. Sir, I didn’t tell you, did I, that it was from there the guv’ner wrote those two letters to me?”
“Cinnamon! From Paris?”
“Yes, sir. He didn’t say from wot part of the city nor wot he was a-doin’ there, anyways, but—my hat! listen here, sir. They’re there—them Mauravanian johnnies—and the Apaches and Margot there, too, and you know how both lots has their knife into him. I dunno wot the Mauravanians is got against him, sir (he never tells nothin’ to nobody, he don’t), but most like it’s summink he done to some of ’em that time he went out there about the lost pearl; but they’re after him, and the Apaches is after him, and between the two!... Guv’ner!”—his voice rose thin and shrill—“guv’ner, if one lot don’t get him, the other may; and—sir—there’s Apaches in London this very night. I know! I’ve seen ’em.”
“Seen them? When? Where?”
“At Charing Cross station, sir, jist before I went to the Yard to see you. As I hadn’t had no telegram from the guv’ner, like I was promised, I went there on the off chance, hopin’ to meet him when the boat train come in. And there I see ’em, sir, a-loungin’ round the platform where the Dover train goes out at nine to catch the night boat back to Calais, sir. I spotted ’em on the instant—from their walk, their way of carryin’ of theirselves, their manner of wearin’ of their bloomin’ hair. Laughin’ among themselves they was and lookin’ round at the entrance every now and then like as they was expectin’ some one to come and join ’em; and I see, too, as they was a-goin’ back to where they come from, ’cause they’d the return halves of their tickets in their hatbands. One of ’em, he buys a paper at the bookstall and sees summink in it as tickled him wonderful, for I see him go up to the others and point it out to ’em, and then the whole lot begins to larf like blessed hyenas. I spotted wot the paper was and the place on the page the blighter was a-pointin’ at, so I went and bought one myself to see wot it was. Sir, it was that there Personal of yours. The minnit I read that, I makes a dash for a taxi, to go to you at once, sir, and jist as I does so, a newsboy runs by me with a bill on his chest tellin’ about the explosion; and then, sir, I fair went off me dot.”
They were back on the pavement, within sight of the limousine, when the boy said this. Narkom brought the car to his side with one excited word, and fairly wrenched open the door.
“To Charing Cross station—as fast as you can streak it!” he said, excitedly. “The last train for the night boat leaves at nine sharp. Catch it, if you rack the motor to pieces.”
“Crumbs! A minute and a half!” commented Lennard, as he consulted the clock dial beside him; then, just waiting for Narkom and Dollops to jump into the vehicle, he brought her head round with a swing, threw back the clutch, and let her go full tilt.
But even the best of motors cannot accomplish the impossible. The gates were closed, the signal down, the last train already outside the station when they reached it, and not even the mandate of the law might hope to stay it or to call it back.
“Plenty of petrol?” Narkom faced round as he spoke and looked at Lennard.
“All right—beat it! The boat sails from Dover at eleven. I’ve got to catch it. Understand?”
“Yes, sir. But you could wire down and have her held over till we get there, Superintendent.”
“Not for the world! She must sail on time; I must get aboard without being noticed—without some persons I’m following having the least cause for suspicion. Beat that train—do you hear me?—beat it! I want to get there and get aboard that boat before the others arrive. Do you want any further incentive than that? If so, here it is for you: Mr. Cleek’s in Paris! Mr. Cleek’s in danger!”
“Mr. Cleek? God’s truth! Hop in sir, hop in! I’ll have you there ahead of that train if I dash down the Admiralty Pier in flames from front to rear. Just let me get to the open road, sir, and I’ll show you something to make you sit up.”
He did. Once out of the track of all traffic, and with the lights of the city well at his back, he strapped his goggles tight, jerked his cap down to his eyebrows, and leaned over the wheel.
“For Mr. Cleek—do you hear?” he said, addressing the car as if it were a human being. “Now, then, show what you’re made of! There! Take your head! Now go, you vixen! GO!”
There was a sudden roar, a sudden leap; then the car shot forward as though all the gales of all the universe were sweeping it on, and the wild race to the coast began.
Narkom jerked down the blinds, turned on the light, and flung open the locker, as they pounded on.
“Dip in. Get something that can be made to fit you,” he said to Dollops. “We can’t risk any of those fellows identifying you as the chap who was hanging round the station to-night. Toss me over that wig—the gray one—in the far corner there. God knows what we’re on the track of, but if it leads to Cleek I’ll follow it to the end of time!” Then, lifting his voice until it sounded above the motor’s roar, “Faster, Lennard, faster!” he called. “Give it to her! give it to her! We’ve got to beat that train if it kills us!”
They did beat it. The engine’s light was not even in sight when the bright glare of the moon on the Channel’s waters flashed up out of the darkness before them; nor was the sound of the train’s coming even faintly audible as yet, when, a few minutes later, the limousine swung down the incline and came to a standstill within a stone’s throw of the entrance to the pier, at whose extreme end the packet lay, with gangways down and fires up and her huge bulk rising and falling with the movements of the waves.
“Beat her, you see, sir,” said Lennard, chuckling as he got down and opened the door for the superintendent to alight. “Better not go any nearer, sir, with the car. There’s a chap down there standing by the gangplank and he seems interested in us from the way he’s watching. Jumped up like a shot and came down the gangplank the instant he heard us coming. Better do the rest of the journey afoot, sir, and make a pretence of paying me—as if I was a public taxi. What’ll I do? Stop here until morning?”
“Yes. Put up at a garage; and if I don’t return by the first boat, get back to town. Meantime, cut off somewhere and ring up the Yard. Tell ’em where I’ve gone. Now then, Dollops, come on!”
A moment later the limousine had swung off into the darkness and disappeared, and what might properly have been taken for a couple of English curates on their way to a Continental holiday moved down the long pier between the glimmering and inadequate lamps to the waiting boat. But long before they reached it the figure at the gangplank—the tall, erect figure of a man whom the most casual observer must have recognized as one who had known military training—had changed its alert attitude and was sauntering up and down as if, when they came nearer and the light allowed him to see what they were, he had lost all interest in them and their doings. Narkom gave the man a glance from the tail of his eye as they went up the gangplank and boarded the boat, and brief as that glance was, it was sufficient to assure him of two things: First, that the man was not only strikingly handsome but bore himself with an air which spoke of culture, birth, position; second, that he was a foreigner, with the fair hair and the slightly hooked nose which was so characteristic of the Mauravanians.
With Dollops at his side, Narkom slunk aft, where the lights were less brilliant and the stern of the boat hung over the dark, still waters, and pausing there, turned and looked back at the waiting man.
A French sailor was moving past in the darkness. He stopped the man and spoke to him.
“Tell me,” he said, slipping a shilling into the fellow’s hand, “do you happen to know who that gentleman is, standing on the pier there?”
“Yes, m’sieur. He is equerry to his Majesty King Ulric of Mauravania. He has crossed with us frequently during his Majesty’s sojourn in Paris.”
“Gawd’s truth, sir,” whispered Dollops, plucking nervously at the superintendent’s sleeve as the sailor, after touching his cap with his forefinger, passed on. “Apaches at one end and them Mauravanian johnnies at the other! I tell you they’re a-workin’ hand in hand for some reason—workin’ against him!”
Narkom lifted a silencing hand and turned to move away where there would be less likelihood of anything they might say being overheard; for at that moment a voice had sounded and from a most unusual quarter. Unnoticed until now, a fisher’s boat, which for some time had been nearing the shore, swept under the packet’s stern and grazed along the stone front of the pier.
“Voila, m’sieur,” said, in French, the man who sailed it. “Have I not kept my word and brought your excellency across in safety and with speed?”
“Yes,” replied the passenger whom the fisher addressed. He spoke in perfect French, and with the smoothness of a man of the better class. “You have done well indeed. Also it was better than waiting about at Calais for the morning boat. I can now catch the very first train to London. Fast is she? There is your money. Adieu!”
Then came the sound of some one leaving the boat and scrambling up the water stairs, and hard on the heels of it the first whistle of the coming train. Narkom, glancing round, saw a slouching, ill-clad fellow whose appearance was in distinct contrast with his voice and manner of speaking, come into view upon the summit of the pier. His complexion was sallow, his matted hair seemed to have gone for years uncombed; a Turkish fez, dirty and discoloured, was on his head, and over his arm hung several bits of tapestry and shining stuff which betokened his calling as that of a seller of Oriental draperies.
This much Narkom saw and would have gone on his way, giving the fellow no second thought, but that a curious thing happened. Moving away toward the footpath which led from the pier to the town, the pedler caught sight suddenly of the man standing at the gangplank; he halted abruptly, looked round to make sure that no one was watching, then, without more ado, turned round suddenly on his heel, walked straightway to the gangplank and boarded the boat. The Mauravanian took not the slightest heed of him, nor he of the Mauravanian. Afterward, when the train had arrived, Narkom thought he knew why. For the present he was merely puzzled to understand why this dirty, greasy Oriental pedler who had been at the pains to cross the Channel in a fisher’s boat should do so for the apparent purpose of merely going back on the packet to Calais.
By this time the train had arrived, the pier was alive with people, porters were running back and forth with luggage, and there was bustle and confusion everywhere. Narkom looked along the length of the vessel to the teeming gangway. The Mauravanian was still there, alert as before, his fixed eyes keenly watching.
A crowd came stringing along, bags and bundles done up in gaudy handkerchiefs in their hands, laughing, jostling, jabbering together in low-class French.
“Here they are, guv’ner—the Apaches!” said Dollops in a whisper. “That’s the lot, sir. Keep your eye on them as they come aboard, and if they are with him—Crumbs! Not a sign; not a blessed one!” For the Apaches, stringing up the gangplank by twos and threes and coming within brushing distance of the waiting man, passed on as the Oriental pedler had passed on, taking no notice of him, nor he of them, nor yet of how, as they advanced, the pedler slouched forward and slipped into the thick of them.
“By James! one of them—that’s what the fellow is!” said Narkom, as he observed this. “If during the voyage the Mauravanian speaks to one man of the lot——”
He stopped and sucked in his breath and let the rest of the sentence go by default. For of a sudden there had come into sight upon the pier a dapper little French dandy, fuzzy of moustache, mincing of gait, with a flower in his buttonhole and a shining “topper” on his beautifully pomaded head; and it came upon Narkom with a shock of remembrance that he had seen this selfsame living fashion plate pass by Scotland Yard twice that very day!
Onward he came, this pretty monsieur, with his jaunty air and his lovely “wine-glass waist,” onward, and up the gangway and aboard the packet; and there the Mauravanian still stood, looking out over the crowd and taking no more heed of him than he had taken of anybody else. But with the vanishing of this exquisite, to whom he had paid no heed, his alertness and his interest seemed somehow to evaporate; for he turned now and again to watch the sailors and the longshoremen at their several duties, and strolled leisurely aboard and stood lounging against the rail of the lower deck when the call of “All ashore that’s going!” rang through the vessel’s length, and was still lounging there when the packet cast off her mooring, and swinging her bows round in the direction of France, creamed her way out into the Channel and headed for Calais.
A wind, unnoticed in the safe shelter of the harbour, played boisterously across the chopping waves as the vessel forged outward, sending clouds of spray sweeping over the bows and along the decks, and such passengers as refrained from seeking the shelter of the saloon and smoke-room sought refuge by crowding aft.
“Come!” whispered Narkom, tapping Dollops’ arm. “We can neither talk nor watch here with safety in this crowd. Let us go ‘forrard.’ Better a drenching in loneliness than shelter with a crowd like this. Come along!”
The boy obeyed without a murmur, following the larger and heavier built “curate” along the wet decks to the deserted bows, and finding safe retreat with him there in the dark shadow cast by a tarpaulin-covered lifeboat. From this safe shelter they could, by craning their necks, get a half view of the interior of the smoke-room through its hooked-back door; and their first glance in that direction pinned their interest, for the pretty “Monsieur” was there, smoking a cigarette and sipping now and again at a glass of absinthe which stood on a little round table at his elbow. But of the Mauravanian or the Apaches or of the Oriental pedler, there was neither sight nor sound, nor had there been since the vessel started.
“What do you make of it?” queried Narkom, when at the end of an hour the dim outlines of the French coast blurred the clear silver of the moonlit sky. “Have we come on a wild goose chase, do you think? What do you suppose has become of the Apaches and of the pedler chap?”
“Travellin’ second class,” said Dollops, after stealing out and making a round of the vessel and creeping back into the shadow of the lifeboat unseen. “Pallin’ with ’em, he is, sir. Makin’ a play of sellin’ ’em things for their donahs—for the sake of appearances. One of ’em, he is; and if either that Frenchy or that Mauravanian johnny is mixed up with them—lay low! Smeller to the ground, sir, and eyes and ears wide open! We’ll know wot’s wot now!”
For of a sudden the Mauravanian had come into view far down the wet and glistening promenade deck and was whistling a curious, lilting air as he strolled along past the open door of the smoke-room.
Just the mere twitch of “Monsieur’s” head told when he heard that tune. He finished his absinthe, flung aside his cigarette, and strolled leisurely out upon the deck. The Mauravanian was at the after end of the promenade—a glance told him that. He set his face resolutely in the direction of the bows and sauntered leisurely along. He moved on quietly, until he came to the very end of the covered promenade where the curving front of the deckhouse looked out upon the spray-washed forward deck, then stopped and planted his back against it and stood silently waiting, not ten feet distant from where Narkom and Dollops crouched.
A minute later the Mauravanian, continuing what was to all appearances a lonely and aimless promenade round the vessel, came abreast of that spot and of him.
And then, the deluge!
“Monsieur” spoke out—guardedly, but in a clear, crisp tone that left no room for doubt upon one point, at least.
“Mon ami, it is done—it is accomplished,” that crisp voice said. “You shall report that to his Majesty’s ministers. Voila, it is done!”
“It is not done!” replied the Mauravanian, in a swift, biting, emphatic whisper. “You jump to conclusions too quickly. Here! take this. It is an evening paper. The thing was useless—he was not there!”
“Not there! Grande Dieu!”
“Sh-h! Take it—read it. I will see you when we land. Not here—it is too dangerous. Au revoir!”
Then he passed on and round the curve of the deckhouse to the promenade on the other side; and “Monsieur,” with the paper hard shut in the grip of a tense hand, moved fleetly back toward the smoke-room.
But not unknown any longer.
“Gawd’s truth—a woman!” gulped Dollops in a shaking voice.
“No, not a woman—a devil!” said Narkom through his teeth. “Margot, by James! Margot, herself! And what is he—what is Cleek?—that a king should enter into compact with a woman to kill him? Margot, dash her! Well, I’ll have you now, my lady—yes, by James, I will!”
“Guv’ner! Gawd’s truth, sir, where are you going?”
“To the operator in charge of the wireless—to send a message to the chief of the Calais police to meet me on arrival!” said Narkom in reply. “Stop where you are. Lay low! Wait for me. We’ll land in a dozen minutes’ time. I’ll have that Jezebel and her confederates and I’ll rout out Cleek and get him beyond the clutches of them if I tear up all France to do it.”
“Gawd bless you, sir, Gawd bless you and forgive me!” said Dollops with a lump in his throat and a mist in his eyes. “I said often you was a sosidge and a muff, sir, but you aren’t—you’re a man!”
Narkom did not hear. He was gone already—down the deck to the cabin of the wireless operator. In another moment he had passed in, shut the door behind him, and the Law at sea was talking to the Law ashore through the blue ether and across the moonlit waves.
It was ten minutes later. The message had gone its way and Narkom was back in the lifeboat’s shadow again, and close on the bows the lamps of Calais pier shone yellow in the blue-and-silver darkness. On the deck below people were bustling about and making for the place where the gangplank was to be thrust out presently, and link boat and shore together. On the quay, customs officials were making ready for the coming inspection, porters were scuttling about in their blue smocks and peaked caps, and, back of all, the outlines of Calais Town loomed, shadowy and grim through the crowding gloom.
The loneliness of the upper deck offered its attractions to the Mauravanian and to Margot, and in the emptiness of it they met again—within earshot of the lifeboat where Narkom and the boy lay hidden—for one brief word before they went ashore.
“So, you have read: you understand how useless it was?” the Mauravanian said, joining her again at the deckhouse, where she stood with the crumpled newspaper in her hand. “His Majesty’s purse cannot be lightened of all that promised sum for any such bungle as this. Speak quickly; where may we go to talk in safety? I cannot risk it here—I will not risk it in the train. Must we wait until we reach Paris, mademoiselle? Or have you a lair of your own here?”
“I have ‘lairs,’ as you term them, in half the cities of France, Monsieur le Comte,” she answered with a vicious little note of resentment in her voice. “And I do not work for nothing—no, not I! I paid for my adherence to his Majesty’s Prime Minister and I intend to be paid for my services to his Majesty’s self, even though I have this once failed. It must be settled, that question, at once and for all—now—to-night.”
“I guessed it would be like that,” he answered, with a jerk of his shoulders. “Where shall it be, then? Speak quickly. They are making the landing and I must not be seen talking with you after we go ashore. Where, then?”
“At the Inn of the Seven Sinners—on the Quai d’Lorme—a gunshot distant. Any cocher will take you there.”
“Is it safe?”
“All my ‘lairs’ are safe, monsieur. It overhangs the water. And if strangers come, there is a trap with a bolt on the under side. One way: to the town and the sewers and forty other inns. The other: to a motor boat, always in readiness for instant use. You could choose for yourself should occasion come. You will not find the place shut—my ‘lairs’ never are. A password? No, there is none—for any but the Brotherhood. Nor will you need one. You remember old Marise of the ‘Twisted Arm’ in Paris? Well, she serves at the Seven Sinners now. I have promoted Madame Serpice to the ‘Twisted Arm’. She will know you, will Marise. Say to her I am coming shortly. She and her mates will raise the roof with joy, and—la! la! The gangway is out. They are calling all ashore. Look for me and my lads close on your heels when you arrive. Au revoir.”
“Au revoir,” he repeated, and slipping by went below and made his way ashore.
She waited that he might get well on his way—that none might by any possibility associate them—then turning, went down after him and out to the pier, where her crew were already forgathering; and when or how she passed the word to them that it was not Paris to-night but the Inn of the Seven Sinners, neither Narkom nor Dollops could decide, close as they came on after her, for she seemed to speak to no one.
“No Inn of the Seven Sinners for you to-night, my lady, if my friend M. Ducroix has attended to that wireless message properly,” muttered Narkom as he followed her. “Look sharp, Dollops, and if you see a Sergeant de Ville let me know. They’ve no luggage, that lot, and, besides, they are natives, so they will pass the customs in a jiffy. Hullo! there goes that pedler chap—and without his fez or his draperies, b’gad! Through the customs like a flash, the bounder! And there go the others, too. And she after them—she, by James! God! Where are Ducroix and his men? Why aren’t they here?”—looking vainly about for some sign of the Chief of Police. “I can’t do anything without him—here, on foreign soil. Why in heaven’s name doesn’t the man come?”
“Maybe he hasn’t had time, guv’ner—maybe he wasn’t on hand when the message arrived,” hazarded Dollops. “It’s not fifteen minutes all told since it was dispatched. So if——”
“There she goes! there she goes! Passed, and through the customs in a wink, the Jezebel!” interposed Narkom, in a fever of excitement, as he saw Margot go by the inspector at the door and walk out into the streets of the city. “Lord! if she slips me now——”
“She shan’t!” cut in Dollops, jerking down his hat brim and turning up his collar. “Wait here till the cops come. I’ll nip out after her and see where she goes. Like as not the cops’ll know the place when you mention it; but if they don’t—watch out for me; I’ll come back and lead ’em.”
Then he moved hurriedly forward, passed the inspector, and was gone in a twinkling.
For ten wretched minutes after he, too, had passed the customs and was at liberty to leave, Narkom paced up and down and fretted and fumed before a sound of clanking sabres caught his ear and, looking round, he saw M. Ducroix enter the place at the head of a detachment of police. He hurried to him and in a word made himself known.
“Ten million pardons, m’sieur; but I was absent when the message he shall be deliver,” exclaimed Ducroix in broken English. “I shall come and shall bring my men as soon as he shall be receive. M’sieur, who shall it be this great criminal you demand of me to arrest? Is he here?”
“No, no. A moment, Ducroix. Do you know a place called the Inn of the Seven Sinners?”
“Perfectly. It is but a stone’s throw distant—on the Quai d’Lorme.”
“Come with me to it, then. I’ll make you the most envied man in France, Ducroix: I’ll deliver into your hands that witch of the underworld, Margot, the Queen of the Apaches!”
Ducroix’s face lit up like a face transfigured.
“M’sieur!” he cried. “That woman? You can give me that woman? You know her? You can recognize her? But, yes, I remember! You shall have her in your hands once in your own country, but she shall slip you, as she shall slip everybody!”
“She won’t slip you, then, I promise you that!” said Narkom. “Reward and glory, both shall be yours. I have followed her across the channel, Ducroix. I know where she is to be found for a certainty. She is at the Inn of the Seven Sinners. Just take me there and I’ll turn the Jezebel over to you.”
Ducroix needed no urging. The prospect of such a capture made him fairly beside himself with delight. In twenty swift words he translated this glorious news to his men—setting them as wild with excitement as he was himself—then with a sharp, “Come, m’sieur!” he turned on his heel and led the breathless race for the goal.
Halfway down the narrow, ink-black street that led to the inn they encountered Dollops pelting back at full speed.
“Come on, guv’ner, come on, all of you!” he broke out as he came abreast of them. “She’s there—they’re all there—kickin’ up Meg’s diversions, sir, and singin’ and dancin’ like mad. And, sir, he’s there, too—the pedler chap! I see him come up and sneak in with the rest. Come on! This way, all of you.”
If they had merely run before, they all but flew now; for this second assurance that Margot, the great and long-sought-for Margot, was actually within their reach served to spur every man to outdo himself; so that it was but a minute or two later when they came in sight of the inn and bore down upon it in a solid phalanx. And then—just then—when another minute would have settled everything—the demon of mischance chose to play them a scurvy trick.
All they knew of it was that an Apache coming out of the building for some purpose of his own looked up and saw them, then faced round and bent back in the doorway; that of a sudden a very tornado of music and laughter and singing and dancing rolled out into the night, and that when they came pounding up to the doorway, the fellow was lounging there serenely smoking; and, inside, his colleagues were holding a revel wild enough to wake the dead.
In the winking of an eye he was carried off his feet and swept on by this sudden inrush of the law; the door clashed open, the little slatted barrier beyond was knocked aside, and the police were pouring into the room and running headlong into a spinning mass of wild dancers.
The band ceased suddenly as they appeared, the dancers cried out as if in a panic of alarm, and at Ducroix’s commanding “Surrender in the name of the Law!” a fat woman behind the bar flung up her arms and voiced a despairing shriek.
“Soul of misfortune! for what, m’sieur—for what?” she cried. “It is no sin to laugh and dance. We break no law, my customers and I. What is it you want that you come in upon us like this?”
Ah, what indeed? Not anything that could be seen. A glance round the room showed nothing and no one but these suddenly disturbed dancers, and of Margot and the Mauravanian never a sign.
“M’sieur!” began Ducroix, turning to Narkom, whose despair was only too evident, and who, in company with Dollops, was rushing about the place pushing people here and there, looking behind them, looking in all the corners, and generally deporting themselves after the manner of a couple of hounds endeavouring to pick up a lost scent. “M’sieur, shall it be an error, then?”
Narkom did not answer. Of a sudden, however, he remembered what had been said of the trap and, pushing aside a group of girls standing over it, found it in the middle of the floor.
“Here it is—this is the way she got out!” he shouted. “Bolted, by James! bolted on the under side! Up with it, up with it—the Jezebel got out this way.” But though Ducroix and Dollops aided him, and they pulled and tugged and tugged and pulled, they could not budge it one inch.
“M’sieur, no—what madness! He is not a trap—? no, he is not a trap at all!” protested old Marise. “It is but a square where the floor broke and was mended! Mother of misfortune, it is nothing but that.”
What response Narkom might have made was checked by a sudden discovery. Huddling in a corner, feigning a drunken sleep, he saw a man lying with his face hidden in his folded arms. It was the pedler. He pounced on the man and jerked up his head before the fellow could prevent it or could dream of what was about to happen.
“Here’s one of them at least!” he cried, and fell to shaking him with all his force. “Here’s one of Margot’s pals, Ducroix. You shan’t go empty-handed after all.”
A cry of consternation fluttered through the gathering as he brought the man’s face into view. Evidently they were past masters of the art of acting, these Apaches, for one might have sworn that every man and every woman of them was taken aback by the fellow’s presence.
“Mother of Miracles! who shall the man be?” exclaimed Marise. “Messieurs, I know him not. I have not seen him in all my life before. Cochon, speak up! Who are you, that you come in like this and get a respectable widow in trouble, dog? Eh?”
The man made a motion first to his ears, then to his mouth, then fell to making movements in the sign language, but spoke never a word.
“La, la! he is a deaf mute, m’sieur,” said Ducroix. “He hears not and speaks not, poor unfortunate.”
“Oh, doesn’t he?” said Narkom with an ugly laugh. “He spoke well enough a couple of hours back, I promise you. My young friend here and I heard him when he paid off the fisherman who had carried him over to Dover just before he sneaked aboard the packet to come back with Margot and the Mauravanian.”
The eyes of the Apaches flew to the man’s face with a sudden keen interest which only they might understand; but he still stood, wagging his great head either drunkenly or idiotically, and pointing to ears and mouth.
“Lay hold of him—run him in!” said Narkom, whirling him across into the arms of a couple of stalwart Sergeants de Ville. “I’ll go before the magistrate and lay a charge against him in the morning that will open your eyes when you hear it. One of a bloodthirsty, dynamiting crew, the dog! Lay fast hold of him! don’t let him get away on your lives! God! to have lost that woman! to have lost her after all!”
It was a sore blow, certainly, but there was nothing to do but to grin and bear it; for to seek Margot at any of the inns which might communicate with the sewer trap, or to hunt for her and a motor boat on the dark water’s surface, was in very truth like looking for a needle in a haystack, and quite as hopeless. He therefore, decided to go, for the rest of the night, to the nearest hotel; and waiting only to see the pedler carried away in safe custody, and promising to be on hand when he was brought up before the local magistrate in the morning, took Dollops by the arm and dejectedly went his way.
The morning saw him living up to his promise; and long before the arrival of the magistrate or, indeed, before the night’s harvest of prisoners was brought over from the lockup and thrust into the three little “detention rooms” below the court, he was there with Dollops and Ducroix, observing with wonder that groups of evil-looking fellows of the Apache breed were hanging round the building as he approached, and that later on others of the same kidney slipped in and took seats in the little courtroom and kept constantly whispering one to the other while they waited for the morning session to begin.
“Gawd’s truth, guv’ner, look at ’em—the ’ole blessed place is alive with the bounders,” whispered Dollops. “Wot do you think they are up to, sir? Makin’ a rush and settin’ the pedler free when he comes up before the Beak? There’s twenty of ’em waitin’ round the door if there’s one.”
Narkom made no reply. The arrival of the magistrate focussed all eyes on the bench and riveted his attention with the rest.
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