Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke - R. Austin Freeman - ebook

Pontifex, Son and Thorndyke ebook

R. Austin Freeman

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Opis

Dr.Thornedyke’s methods of detection are characterised by investigations of apparently irrelevant facts and lengthy explanations of his train of hypothetical reasoning. In this novel, Dr. Thorndyke’s ability to identify fish scales and rope material sets his investigation in motion. The crime is the murder of an aristocrat staged to look like a suicide. There are really two stories alternating, which eventually become one. We watch Dr. Thorndyke follow a thin and improbable trail of forensic evidence. And we observe the seemingly unrelated adventures of a stationer’s delivery boy, who innocently gets in the way of a cutthroat gang. Dr. Thorndyke calls Jasper after hearing his amazing story. The complex, gripping and rather romantic plot once again demonstrates the greatness of A. Austin Freeman as a writer of totally engaging and original crime fiction.

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Liczba stron: 462

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Contents

I. DESTINY IN AN EGG-CHEST

II. TREASURE TROVE

III. A MYSTERY AND A DISAPPEARANCE

IV. MR. BRODRIBB’S PERPLEXITIES

V. FINE FEATHERS MAKE FINE BIRDS

VI. A VISIT TO STRATFORD ATTE BOW

VII. NUMBER FIVE PIPER’S ROW

VIII. SIR EDWARD HARDCASTLE, BART., DECEASED

IX. THE CROWNER’S QUEST

X. A SUMMARY OF THE EVIDENCE

XI. ASHDOD REVISITED

XII. OF A HANSOM CAB AND A BLACK EAGLE

XIII. MR. BRODRIBB’S DISCOVERY

XIV. NEW LIGHT ON THE PROBLEM

XV. THORNDYKE’S PLAN OF ATTACK

XVI. MRS. DAVID HARDCASTLE

XVII. SOME STATEMENTS AND A TRAGEDY

XVIII. THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE

I. DESTINY IN AN EGG-CHEST

(JASPER GRAY’S NARRATIVE)

A CRAB of mature age and experience is represented by an ancient writer as offering advice to his son somewhat in these terms: “My son, I have observed in you a most regrettable tendency to walk with ungraceful and unbecoming sidelong steps. Pray endeavour to conquer this pernicious habit and to adopt a straightforward and direct mode of progression.”

Excellent advice! Though the gait of the existing generation of crabs leads one to fear that it failed to take effect.

The ancient parable was brought to my mind by the cigarette that I was lighting; for I had been the recipient of some most excellent paternal advice on the subject of cigarettes, coupled with the same on Irish whisky. My revered parent had, in fact, actually removed a choice Egyptian from his mouth the better to expound the subject; and, pointing to the accumulated ends on the hearth and the half empty bottle on the mantelpiece, had explained with his admirable lucidity that these unsubstantial gauds were the inefficient substitutes for bacon for breakfast.

And yet I smoked. I did not consume Irish whisky, though I was perhaps restrained by reasons that were economic rather than ethical. But I smoked cigarettes; and recently I had started a pipe, having made the interesting discovery that the paternal cigarette ends were capable of reincarnation in a pipe-bowl.

I lit my cigarette and reflected on life and its problems. I was at the moment seated on a folded sack in an up-ended two-wheeled truck or hand-cart. In that truck I had conveyed a heavy bale of stationery from my employers, Messrs. Sturt and Wopsall, to a customer at Mile End; after which I had drawn the empty truck into a quiet yard, up-ended it and taken my seat in it as aforesaid. Since that day I have sat in many a more luxurious seat; in club divans, in hansom cabs, yea! even in the chariots of the mighty. But never have I found one quite equal to an up-ended truck with its floor turned to windward and a folded sack interposed between its tail and my own. There is much to be said for the simple life.

At this time I was just turned seventeen, and needless to say, I was quite poor. But poor boy as I was, there were many things for which I had to be thankful. In the first place I enjoyed the supreme advantage of having escaped education–or rather, I should say, the particular brand that is supplied by the State. Other boys of like indigence were hauled off to Board Schools, where they contracted measles, chicken-pox, ringworm and a most hideous accent, which would cling to them and, socially speaking, damn them hopelessly for ever, even though they should subsequently rise–or sink–to millionairedom.

From this curse I was exempt. My accent was that of the upper middle-class, my vocabulary that of the man of culture; I could manage my aitches and express myself in standard speech. If the present was meagre, the future held untold potentialities; and this was the priceless gift of circumstance.

My father was a clergyman; or rather, I should say, he had been a clergyman. Why he had ceased to be a clergyman I never knew, though I associated the cessation of pastoral activities directly or indirectly with his complexion. When I knew him he was what he called a classical tutor and other people called a crammer; and the “crammees” being mostly of humble station, though ambitious, his income was meagre and precarious even at that.

But he was a wonderful man. He could construe the most difficult passages from the ancient authors and work out intricate problems in spherical trigonometry, when, from causes which I need not dwell upon, the functions of his legs were in temporary abeyance; on which occasions he would sit on the floor, for the excellent reason–as he lucidly explained–that “the direction of the force of gravity being geocentric, it was impossible to fall off.” Yes, he was a remarkable man, and should surely have attained to distinction in the church. Not, to be sure, that you can conveniently sit on the floor to conduct morning service; but what I mean is that a man must be accounted more than ordinarily gifted in whom, once more to adopt his admirable phraseology, “the effect of alcoholic stimulation is merely to induce motor inco-ordination unaccompanied by psychical confusion.”

I must not, however, allow mere family pride to lead me into digressions of unreasonable length. To return to the present incident. The cigarette had dwindled to about an inch and a half, and I was beginning to consider the resumption of locomotive activities, when a man stopped at the entrance of the yard and then slowly advanced towards me. I thought he was going to order me to move on. But he did not. He sauntered down the yard, and, halting opposite the truck, surveyed me attentively until I became quite embarrassed and a little annoyed.

“Want a job, young feller?” he asked at length.

“No, thank you,” I replied. “I’ve got one.”

“So I see. Looks a pretty soft one, too. How much do they pay yer for sittin’ in that truck?”

Of course it was no concern of his; but I was a civil youth and replied simply: “Ten shillings a week.”

“And are they going to give yer a pension?”

“They may if I sit here long enough,” I answered.

He pondered this statement thoughtfully and then resumed: “Sure yer don’t want a job? Wouldn’t care to earn five bob, for instance?”

Now this was a different matter. Five shillings was half my weekly wage. I was not pressed for time, for I had run all the way with the loaded truck and was entitled to loiter on the return journey.

“‘What sort of job is it?” I asked, “and how long will it take?”

“It’s to carry a case from Mansell Street to Byleses Wharf. Take yer about ‘arf a hour.”

“Very well,” said I. “Five shillings is agreed upon, is it?”

“Five bob it is; to be paid on delivery. You cut along to Mansell Street, right ‘and side next door to the ‘bacca shop what’s got the image of a nigger outside. I’ll just mizzle on ahead and tell ‘em you’re coming.”

He turned and left the yard at a much more sprightly pace than that at which he had entered, and immediately vanished from my sight. But he evidently discharged his mission, for, when I arrived at the house indicated, a seedy-looking man accosted me.

“Are you the bloke what’s come for that case of eggs?”

“I’ve come for a case that’s to go to Byles Wharf,” I replied.

“That’s right,” said he. “And mind you’re careful with that there case. J’ever hear about Humpty Dumpty what sat on a wall?”

I replied that I was quite familiar with the legend.

“Very well,” said he. “There’s two thousand of ‘em in that case, so you go slow and don’t get a-joltin’ ‘em. We don’t want ‘em made into omlicks before their time. Now then; just hold that truck steady.”

As he spoke, two men came out of the house carrying a large, oblong case on the top side, of which was pasted an enormous label inscribed, “Fragile. This side up.” I steadied the truck by its pole and they slid the case into position with extraordinary care while the seedy person stood by to superintend and admonish. Having settled it securely, they wiped their hands on the backs of their trousers and retired into the house, when the seedy one administered a final caution.

“Remember what I told yer, young covey. Don’t you go a-gallopin’ that there case over the cobbles or a-bangin’ it aginst lamp-posts, and you’d best take the back ways so as not to get run into by fire-ingines or sechlike. D’ye ogle?”

I assured him that I ogled perfectly and he then requested me to skedaddlle; which I did with the air and at the pace of one conducting a modest funeral.

But my circumspect manner and elaborate care seemed only to invite assaults from without. In Upper East Smithfield a van, attempting to pass me at a wobbling canter, caught the corner of the precious case a bang that was enough to have turned the whole consignment into “omlicks”; and any that remained whole were like to have been addled by the van-driver’s comments. Then in Pennington Street a man came running round a corner with a barrowful of empty casks; and I only escaped being capsized by turning quickly and receiving the impact of the collision on the back of the case. And, finally, an intoxicated Swedish seaman insisted on accompanying me down nearly the entire length of Old Gravel Lane, performing warlike music on the end of the case with a ship-wright’s mallet.

As I turned into the gateway of Byles Wharf I looked anxiously at my charge, rather expecting to find some oozing of yellow liquid from its joints. But no such traces of its stormy passage were visible and I ventured to hope that the packing was better than I had been led to believe. Just inside the yard I encountered, somewhat to my surprise, the seedy stranger of Mansell Street, with another even seedier.

“Here you are then, young covey,” said the former. “I hope you’ve been careful with them eggs.”

I assured him that I had been most careful but I did not think it necessary to mention that some other people had not. After all, you can’t mend eggs, so the less said the better.

“Very well,” said he; “you stay here a minute while I go and see if they’re ready.”

The two men went away and disappeared round the corner of a shed, leaving me holding the pole of the truck. Now the act of standing still and holding the pole of a truck soon becomes monotonous, especially to a youth of seventeen. Half unconsciously I began, presently, to vary the monotony by working the pole up and down like a pump-handle. That couldn’t hurt the eggs, and it produced a measured creak of the truck-springs that was interesting and pleasing.

Suddenly there smote on my ear a hoarse and muffled voice, which exclaimed fiercely: “Keep still, can’t yer!”

I stopped instantly and looked around me. I had not noticed anyone near, and I didn’t see anyone now. Could there be a ventriloquist hiding somewhere in the yard? The idea set my youthful curiosity aflame. I couldn’t see him. But perhaps I could induce him to speak again and then I might locate the sound.

I renewed my application to the pump-handle with increased vigour, and the truck-springs squeaked joyously. The experiment was a perfect success. At the fourth or fifth squeak a savage but muffled voice exclaimed, rather louder than before: “Keep still, I tell yer, yer young blighter!”

The mystery was solved. There was no doubt this time as to where the voice came from. It came from inside the case. Eggs indeed! And then I thought of the Swedish sailor and I am afraid I grinned.

The joy of a youth of my age at this romantic discovery may easily be imagined. Instantly my mind began to evolve speculations as to the identity of the imprisoned man. He seemed to take his incarceration in a philosophic spirit, though the Swedish mariner must have been a trial, to say nothing of the other incidents. But at this point my reflections were cut short by the reappearance of the two seedy strangers.

“Now, young shaver,” said my original employer; “bring them eggs along this way.”

He preceded me round the corner to the quay, alongside of which lay a barge with a hoisting tackle rigged from the end of a mast-derrick. There I was directed to halt and my two friends proceeded to lift the case tenderly out of the truck.

“Now you can mizzle,” said the seedier of the two.

“I want my five shillings,” said I.

The man put his hand in his pocket and produced a half-crown, which he presented to me. I examined it critically and held it out to him.

“This is no use,” I said. “It’s pewter. Besides, I was to have five shillings.”

He was about to argue the point when the other man broke in impatiently: “Don’t play the goat, Jim. Give the cove his dibs”; on which the first man produced–from another pocket–five shillings of undoubtedly official origin. I pocketed them after careful scrutiny and offered him the “snide” half-crown. But he waved it aside magnanimously.

“You can keep that,” said he. “‘T’ain’t no good to me if it’s a wrong ‘un. And now you can cut your lucky.”

My “lucky” took me about a dozen yards along the quay, where I drew up behind a pile of bales to watch the progress of this stirring drama. The barge’s tackle-rope had a sling hooked on the end, and this was now carefully passed round the case. The fall of the rope was put on the mast-winch, and, when all was ready, the word was given to “heave away.” The men at the winch according hove away. The pawls clinked merrily, the rope tightened, the case rose clear of the ground and swung out like the bob of an enormous pendulum.

And then came the disaster. The barge was secured to two mooring-posts and was about ten feet away from the quay, so that the derrick had to be hauled over by guy-ropes. But the case had not been properly balanced in the sling; and no sooner had it swung clear of the edge of the quay than it began to slip through the rope loop.

“Look alive!” roared someone on the quay. “She’s a-slippin’!”

One of the men left the winch and rushed for the guy-rope. But it was too late. Slowly, inexorably, the case slid through the loop and fell with a resounding plop! into the water.

An agonised yell arose from the quay and a furious stampede among the onlookers. The bargees snatched up boat-hooks and setting-poles and scrambled along the deck. But, alas! A swift tide was running, and the case, gyrating and dancing like a cork in a mill race, was out of reach before the first boat-hook could be got over the side.

A barge’s dinghy was made fast at the foot of a ladder hard by. Abandoning the truck, I slithered down the ladder, closely followed by a barge-boy, and we met in the boat with mutual recriminations. But there was no time to argue. The boy cast off the painter, and snatching up the paddle, dropped it in the transom-notch and began to scull furiously down stream. Ahead of us, we could see the case dancing along on the tide, turning round and round, vanishing and reappearing among the tiers of shipping. Presently, too, I saw another boat start in pursuit and recognised my two friends among its occupants.

But the case had got a flying start and pursuit was difficult among the crowded shipping. We were beginning to overhaul it when it disappeared behind a cargo steamer, and when we next saw it, it had been neatly snared by a couple of ropes and was being hoisted by hand through the gangway of a little Welsh schooner that was just hauling out of the tiers. The barge-boy and I approached the schooner on the off shore side and climbed on board unnoticed; for the other boat, containing my seedy acquaintances had just arrived on the in-shore side. My employer proceeded to state his claim. “Hi, Captain! That there’s my case.”

The captain leaned over the bulwark and regarded him with an affable smile.

“D’y’ear,” my friend repeated. “That case belongs to me.”

The captain’s smile broadened. “Belonged,” he corrected blandly.

“What d’yer mean?” demanded the seedy one. “You ain’t going to try to stick to my property?”

The captain maintained his affable manner. “This is a case of salvage,” said he.

“Git out,” rejoined the other. “It’s a case of eggs; and they’re my eggs.”

“Did you lay ‘em yourself?” enquired the captain (a good deal nearer the mark than he thought). The question seemed to irritate my seedy friend, for he replied angrily: “Never you mind ‘oo laid ‘em. You just hand that case over.”

At this moment there came a diversion. One of the sailors, who had been closely examining the case as it lay dribbling on the deck, suddenly started back, like a cat who has inadvertently smelt a hedgehog.

“Golly wores!” he exclaimed. “There’s some-think alive inside!”

“Hey! what’s that?” demanded the captain.

“There is, sir, swelp me! I ‘eard it a-movin’ about.”

The captain looked sharply over the bulwark. “Here you, mister!” he sang out, “you haven’t been sitting on those eggs, have you?”

“Sittin’ on ‘em? What d’yer mean?”

“Because they seem to have hatched themselves and the chickens are running about inside the case.”

“Yes, and they’re usin’ the most shockin’ langwidge, too,” said an elderly seaman who had been pressing his ear to a crack in the case.

This report, reaching the occupants of the boat, caused very evident dismay. But my late employer made a last effort.

“Don’t talk nonsense,” he said, sulkily. “Pass that case over and I’ll pay what’s doo for salvage in reason.”

“Not me,” replied the captain. “I’m goin’ to broach that case and see what’s inside.”

The effect of this decision was rather curious. The men in the boat consulted together hurriedly; then their craft was turned about and rowed away rapidly in the direction whence they had come.

Meanwhile the captain and his myrmidons proceeded to operate on the case. Producing one or two small crow-bars, they neatly prised up the lid and threw it back; when there rose from the case, some what after the fashion of the obsolete toy known as “Jack-in-the-box,” no less a person than the man who had originally chartered my truck. He stepped out sullenly and confronting the group of grinning seamen, remarked, in, perhaps justifiably, emphatic terms, that he had had enough of that mode of travelling for the present.

The captain looked at him attentively, and he looked at the captain; and then ensued a whispered conversation between them, which was interrupted by one of the crew remarking:

“Looks like the police boat, don’t it?”

The passenger turned and stared wildly in the direction indicated. A police gig was approaching slowly but doggedly over the strong tide; and besides the amphibious officials were two men in civilian garb who sat in the stern-sheets and kept their eyes ominously glued on the schooner.

The passenger bobbed down behind the high bulwark and gazed about him despairingly; and suddenly his eye lighted on me.

“Here, boy,” he said, “get into that case.”

“No thank you,” said I.

He dived his hand frantically into his pocket and brought it out with a shining, yellow burden that clinked musically.

“Here, boy,” he pleaded. “Here’s five quid for you if you’ll get into that case and let ‘em nail it up.”

Five sovereigns! It was a fortune to a lad in my position. And there really was no particular risk. I examined the coins–I was a fairly expert judge of money from my occupation, which often included “payment on delivery”–and found them genuine; and I succumbed. Stowing the money in an inside pocket, I stepped into the case and hunched myself up so as to occupy comfortably the rather limited accommodation.

“Don’t you drop the case into the water again!” I said.

“Right-o, Sonny!” the captain answered. “We’ll handle you carefully. Now there, look sharp!”

The lid was clapped on, a few smart but not noisy blows of a hammer drove home the nails, and I began to earn my magnificent wage. The interior of the case was unpleasantly damp and stuffy, though a sufficiency of air and a few streaks of light came through the chinks of the lid. Sounds from without also reached me freely and consisted, for the present, chiefly of suppressed laughter from the sailors and admonitions from the captain.

“Stow that chap down in the lazarette, Fred,” said the latter; “and you men, don’t stand about laughing like a lot o’ fools. Get that tow-rope ready for the tug. Here comes the police boat.”

There was a pause after this with some scuffling about the deck and a good deal of sniggering. Then I heard a sharp, official voice. “What’s this case, Captain?”

“I don’t know,” was the reply. “Belongs to those men that you see running up them steps. They hooked it when they saw your boat coming.”

“That’s Jim Trout,” said another voice; “and Tommy Bayste with him. What’s in the case, Captain?”

“Can’t say. Seems to be something alive in it.”

“There!” said the first official. “What did I tell you, Smith. It’s Powis right enough. We’d better get him out of the case and clap the darbies on him.”

“Not on my ship, you won’t,” said the captain. “I can’t have any criminals let loose here just as I’m hauling out to go to sea. You’d better take the case ashore and open it there.”

“Gad!” exclaimed Smith; “the Captain’s right, Sergeant. We’d better drop the case into the boat and take it ashore. Powis is an ugly customer to handle. He might capsize us all into the river.”

“That’s true,” agreed the sergeant. “We’ll take him as he is if the Captain will have the case let down into our boat.”

The captain was most willing for certain private reasons not entirely unconnected with the lazarette. I heard and felt a rope sling passed round the case and my heart was brought into my mouth by the squeal of tackle-blocks. For a few seconds the case swung horribly in mid-air; then, to my unspeakable relief, I felt it subside on to the floor of the boat.

A good deal of laughter and facetious talk mingled with the measured sound of the oars as I was borne away. Suddenly the sergeant laughed out boisterously like a man who has had a funny idea. And apparently he had.

“I’ll tell you what, Smith,” he chuckled; “we won’t open the case till we get to Holloway. We’ll take it right into the reception ward. Ha! Ha!”

The joke was highly appreciated by Mr. Smith and his colleagues–a good deal more than it was by me; for I had had enough of my quarters already–and they were still in full enjoyment of it when another voice sang out: “Keep clear of that tug, West. She’ll be right on top of us. Hi! Tug ahoy! Look out! Where the dev–”

Here there came an alarming bump and a confused chorus of shouts arose. The case canted over sharply, there was a fearful splash, and immediately, to my horror, water began to ooze in through the cracks between the boards. Two or three minutes of dreadful suspense followed. A loud churning noise sounded close at hand, waves seemed to be breaking over the case, and I had a sensation as if my residence were being dragged swiftly through the water.

It didn’t last very long. Presently I felt the case run aground. Then it was lifted on to what I judged to be a barrow; which immediately began to move off over an abominably rough road at a pace which may have been necessary but was excessively uncomfortable to me.

Hitherto very little had been said. A few muttered directions were all that I had been able to catch. But now a newcomer appeared to join our procession, and I began to gather a few particulars of the rescue.

“Any of the coppers drowned, d’ye think, Bill?”

“Not as I knows of. I see ‘em all a-crawlin’ up on to a dumb barge.”

“Where’s the tug now?”

“Islington, I should think. We left ‘er on the mud with ‘er propeller goin’ round like blazes.”

“What are you going to do with Powis, Bill?”

“We’re going to shove the case into Ebbstein’s crib and then nip off to Spitalfields with the barrer. And we’ve got to look slippery, or we’ll have the coppers on our heels, to say nothin’ of them tug blokes. They’ll be wantin’ our scalps, I reckon, when they find their craft on the mud.”

This conversation was by no means reassuring. I was certainly out of the frying-pan but it remained to be seen what sort of fire I had dropped into.

Meanwhile I carefully stowed my treasure in a secret receptacle inside the back of my waistcoat and braced myself as well as I could to resist the violent jolting and bumping caused by the combined effects of speed, indifferent springs and an abominably rough road. It was during a readjustment of my position after a more than usually violent joggle that my hand, seeking a more secure purchase on the wet surface, came into contact with a small body which felt somewhat like a flat button. I took it between my fingers and tried by the sense of touch to determine what it was, but could make out no more than that it was hard and smooth, flat and oval in shape and about half an inch long. This did not tell me much, and indeed I was not acutely interested in the question as to what the thing might be; but eventually, on the bare chance that it might turn out to be something of value, I deposited it in my secret pocket for examination on some more favourable occasion. Then I wedged myself afresh and awaited further developments.

I had not long to wait. Presently the barrow stopped. I felt the case lifted off and carried away. The light ceased to filter in through the cracks of the lid and was replaced by a curious, sour smell. A muttered conversation with someone who spoke very imperfect English was followed by another brief journey and then the case came to rest on a wooden floor and the smell grew more intense. A confused jabbering in an uncouth foreign tongue seemed to pervade the foul air, but this was soon interrupted by the unmistakable English voice that I had heard before.

“I’ll soon ‘ave it open, Ebbstein, if you’ve got a jemmy. That’s the ticket, mate. Look out, there, inside!”

The beak of the jemmy drove in under the top edge; one or two quick jerks dislodged the nails, the lid was lifted clear and I popped up as the last occupant had done. A swift, comprehensive glance showed me an ill-lighted frowsy room with a coke fire on which a tailor’s “goose” was heating; a large work-board on which were piled a quantity of unfinished clothing, and three wild-looking women, each holding a half-made garment and all motionless like arrested clockwork figures, with their eyes fixed on me. Besides these, and a barrel filled with herrings and cut cabbage floating in a clear liquid, were the two men who confronted me; of whom one was a common, stubbly-haired English East-Ender while the other was a pale, evil-looking foreigner, with high cheek-bones, black, up-standing hair and a black beard that looked like a handful of horsehair stuffing.

“Blimey!” ejaculated the Englishman, as I rose into view; “‘t’aint Powis at all! Who the blazes are you?”

“Who is he!” hissed the foreigner, glaring at me fiercely, “I will tell you. He is a bolice spy!” and his hand began to creep under his coat-skirt.

The Englishman held up his hand. “Now none o’ that, Ebbstein,” said he. “You foreigners are so bloomin’ excitable. Tell us who you are, young un.”

I told them all I knew, including the name of the schooner–the Gladwys of Cardiff–and I could see that Ebbstein rejected the whole story as a manifest fable. Not so the Englishman. After a moment’s reflection, he asked sharply: “How much did he give you for getting into that case?”

“Five shillings and a duffer,” I replied promptly, having anticipated the question.

“Where’s the five bob?” he asked; and I indicated my left trouser’s pocket. Instantly and with remark able skill, he slipped his hand into the pocket and fished out the three coins.

“Right you are,” said he, spreading them out on his palm; “one for you, Ebb, one for me and one for yourself, young un,” and here, with a sly grin, he returned me the pewter half-crown, which I pocketed.

“And now,” he continued, “the question is what we’re to do with this young toff. We can’t let him run loose just now. He might mention our address.” Ebbstein silently placed one finger under his beard; but the other man shook his head impatiently.

“That’s the worst of you foreigners,” said he; “you’re so blooming unconstitootional. This ain’t Russian Poland. Don’t you understand that this boy was seen to get into that case and that the coppers’ll be askin’ for him presently? You’d look a pretty fine fool if they was to come here for him and you’d only got cold meat to offer ‘em. Have you got a empty room?”

“Dere is der top room, vere Chonas vorks,” said Ebbstein.

“Very well. Shove him in there and lock him in. And you take my tip, young feller, and don’t give Mr. Ebbstein no trouble.”

“Are you going away?” I asked anxiously.

“I’m going to see what’s happened to my pal; but you’ll see me back here some time to-night.”

After a little further discussion, the pair hustled me up the grimy, ruinous stairs to the top of the house and introduced me to an extraordinarily filthy garret, where, after a brief inspection of the window, they left me, locking the door and removing the key.

The amazing folly of the ordinary criminal began to dawn on me when I proceeded to lighten the tedium of confinement by examining my prison. I was shut up here, presumably, because I knew too much; and behold! I was imprisoned in a room which contained incriminating objects connected with at least two different kinds of felony. An untidy litter of plaster moulds, iron ladles, battered pewter pots and crude electrical appliances let me into the secret at once. For, young as I was, I had learned a good deal about the seamy side of London life, and I knew a coiner’s outfit when I saw it. So, too, a collection of jemmies, braces, bits and skeleton keys was quite intelligible; these premises were used by a coiner–presumably Mr. ‘Chonas’–and a burglar, who was possibly Ebbstein himself.

I examined all the tools and appliances with boyish curiosity, and was quite interested for a time, especially when I discovered the plaster mould of a half-crown, very sharp and clear and coated with polished black lead, which seemed to correspond with the ‘Duffer’ in my pocket. The resemblance was so close that I brought forth the coin and compared it with the mould, and was positively thrilled when they proved to be one and the same coin.

Then it suddenly occurred to me that Ebbstein probably had forgotten about the moulds, and that if he should realise the position he would come up and secure his safety by those “unconstitootional” methods that he had hinted at. The idea was most alarming. No sooner had it occurred to me than I resolved to make myself scarce at all costs.

There was not much difficulty at the start. The window was fixed with screws, but there were tools with which to unscrew it; and outside was a parapet. I began by sticking the end of one jemmy in a crack in the floor and jamming the other end against the door; which was as effective as a bolt. Then I extracted the screws from the window with a turn-screw bit, softly slid up the bottom sash and looked out. Exactly opposite was the opening of a mews or stable yard, but it was unoccupied at the moment. The coast seemed quite clear, the house was not overlooked, and the parapet ran along the whole length of the street. Arming myself with a two-foot jemmy, I crawled out on to the broad gutter enclosed by the parapet, shut the window and hesitated for a moment, considering whether I should turn to the right or the left. Providence guided me to the left, and I began to crawl away along the gutter, keeping below the parapet as far as possible.

As I passed the dormer window of the next house, curiosity led me to peep in; but at the first glance my caution fled, and I rose boldly to press my face against the glass. I looked into an unfurnished room tenanted by one person only; a handsome–nay a beautiful girl of about my own age. Her limbs were pinioned with thinnish rope, and she was further secured with the same rope to a heavy chair. A single glance told me that she was no East-End girl; she was obviously a young lady; and my premature knowledge of the seamy side of life enabled me to hazard a guess as to what she was doing here.

She had already seen me and turned her deathly pale face to me in mute appeal. In a moment I had my big clasp-knife out, and, thrusting it up between the sashes, pushed back the catch; when I quietly pulled down the top sash and climbed over into the room. She looked at me with mingled hope and apprehension and exclaimed imploringly:

“Oh! Take me away from this dreadful place–” but I cut her short.

“Don’t speak,” I whispered; “they might hear you. I’m going to take you away.”

I was about to cut the rope when it occurred to me that it might be useful, as there seemed to be a considerable length of it. So I untied the knot and unwound the coils, recoiling the rope and throwing it round my neck. As the young lady rose stiffly and stretched herself, I silently carried the chair to the door, where I stuck its low back under the handle and jammed the back legs against the floor. No one could now get into the room without breaking the door off its hinges.

“Can you follow me along the parapet, Miss?” I asked with some misgiving.

“I will do anything you tell me,” she answered, “if you will only take me away from this place.”

“Then,” I said, “follow me, Miss, if you please,” and climbing back out of the window, I reached in and took her hands to haul her up after me. She was an active, plucky girl, and I had her out on the gutter behind the parapet in a twinkling; and then, having softly shut the window, in case it should be noticed from outside, I crouched down in the gutter and motioned to her to do the same.

In the gathering dusk, we began to crawl slowly away, I leading; but we had advanced only a few yards when I heard her utter a low cry, and at the same time felt her grasp the skirt of my jacket. Turning back, I saw her peering with an expression of terror through a hole in the parapet that opened into a rain-hopper, and, backing as best I could, I applied my eye to the hole, but failed to see anything more alarming than a woman on the opposite side of the street, who was looking at the houses on our side as if searching for a number. To be sure, she was not a pleasant-looking woman. Tall and gaunt, with dead black hair and a dead white face, and pale grey eyes that struck a discord with her hair, and were not quite a match in colour–for the left eye looked considerably darker than the right–she impressed me somehow as evil-looking and abnormal with a suggestion of disguise or make-up; a suggestion that was heightened by her dress. For she wore the uniform of a hospital nurse, and I found myself instinctively rejecting it as a masquerade.

Still, unprepossessing as she was, I could see nothing terrifying in her aspect until my companion whispered in my ear: “She is coming to fetch me.” Then I vaguely understood and shared her alarm. But the greater the danger, the greater the need to escape as quickly as possible. Accordingly, with a few whispered words of encouragement, I started forward again, crawling as fast as the confined space permitted. I looked up at the windows as we passed, but did not venture to peep in; but near the end of the row, I made out on one the words “To let,” written with soap or whitewash, and on this, I raised my head and looked in. The appearance of the empty room with its open door confirmed the inscription, and I made bold, after a cautious look round, to slip back the catch with my knife, lower the top sash and enter. A very brief inspection showed that the house was really empty, so I returned, and quickly helping my protégée in through the window, slid up the sash.

While we were exploring the empty house, the young lady told me her story. That very morning her governess had left her for a few minutes to call at an office, and while she was waiting in the Strand, the woman whom we had just seen had come to her to tell her that the governess had been run over and taken to the hospital. She was then hurried into a cab by the nurse and driven to the house in which I had found her.

There was no time, however, for detailed explanations. We were by no means out of the wood yet. All the outside doors, front and back, were locked, and though I could have broken out with the jemmy, it was not a very safe plan on account of the noise that I should make. But there was another plan that looked more feasible. This particular house had no back yard, but gave directly on a narrow court; into which it would be fairly easy to drop from the first-floor window by the aid of the rope.

No sooner had I conceived the idea than I proceeded to execute it. Raising the bottom sash of the back first-floor window, I passed the cord through the bars of the fireplace.

“Shall I go first, Miss?” I asked. “The rope is rather short, and I had better be there to catch you if you have to drop.”

She agreed eagerly, and, after a careful look up and down the court, I took the doubled rope in my hand, climbed out of the window, and, slipping down easily until I was near the ends of the rope, let go and dropped on the pavement.

Looking up, I saw the young lady, without a moment’s delay, seize the rope and climb out of the window. But instead of grasping the two parts of the rope together, she had taken one in each hand, which made the descent much less easy; and as she apparently held one part more tightly than the other, the more loosely-held part began to slip up as the “bight” ran through the bars of the grate above. Finally, she let go with one hand, when the released end flew up and she came down “by the run” holding on to the other. I stepped forward as she dropped the last few feet and caught her without difficulty; and as I set her on her feet, the rope came down by its own weight and fell in a confused coil on top of us. Half unconsciously, I picked it up and flung it round my neck as I glanced about in search of the exit from the court.

At this moment a man came, treading softly, round a bend of the narrow passage; a foreigner, evidently, and so like Ebbstein that, for a moment, I really thought it was that villain himself. He stopped short and looked at me with scowling inquisitiveness. Then, suddenly, he seemed to recognise the young lady, for he uttered a sort of snarl and stepped forward. At the sound she turned and saw the man; and the low, trembling cry that she gave, and the incredulous horror that froze upon her face, will be fresh and vivid in my memory though I should live for a century.

“You shall come back with me now,” the wretch exclaimed, and rushed at her with his foul hands spread out like talons. My gorge rose at the brute. The blood surged noisily in my ears and my teeth clenched tightly. The jemmy in my hand seemed to whirl aloft of itself. I was dimly aware of a strong muscular effort and a dull-sounding blow; of a limp fall and a motionless figure on the pavement. Perhaps the man was dead. I didn’t know and I didn’t particularly care. At any rate I did not stop to ascertain. Taking my companion by the hand, I drew her swiftly down the court, grasping the jemmy tightly and quite ready to use it again if need be.

We were obviously in great danger. Even as David, when he went down into Ashdod, we walked in the midst of enemies. There were few people in the ill lighted street into which we emerged, but those few eyed us with sinister glances and whispered together ominously. We walked on quickly but without appearing to hurry, and presently turned into a street that was quite deserted save for a hansom cab that had drawn up outside a small public house. I stepped forward joyfully, remembering the golden bribe that I could, and would willingly, offer for a safe passage; but my companion suddenly seized my arm and dragged me into a deep doorway.

“Don’t let him see us!” she exclaimed breathlessly. “He is the man who brought me here, and he is one of them. I heard the nurse call him Louis.”

We pressed back into the doorway and I watched the man putting on the horse’s nose-bag. He certainly was a villainous-looking rascal; pale, black-eyed, with crisp, curly, black hair; the very opposite of the English horsey type. When he had secured the nose-bag, he turned and entered the public house; and at the same moment I made up my mind. Advancing quickly, I deliberately took off the horse’s nose-bag and threw it down.

“Jump into the cab!” I said to my companion; flinging the coil of rope and the jemmy down on the foot-board; and she stepped in without a word. I led the horse forward a few paces clear of the house, and then I climbed quickly to the driver’s seat and took the reins. My experience of driving was small, but I had driven our van once or twice under the carman’s supervision, and knew how to handle the ‘ribbons’. A gentle shake of them now started the horse at a walk and I had just plucked the whip out of its socket when there rose from the direction of the court a shout of alarm and a confused noise of many voices. I shook the whip, and the horse broke into a trot. The voices drew nearer, and, just as I turned the corner, a loud yell from behind us announced that the cabman had discovered his loss. I gave the horse a sharp cut and he broke into a canter.

On we rattled through one after another of the short and narrow slum streets, turning the sharp corners on one wheel and shaving the treacherous posts; and always the roar of angry voices seemed to pursue us, gathering in volume and seeming to draw nearer. The cab swayed, men leaped aside with curses, women and children sprang from the kennels screaming, windows were flung up and people yelled at us from doorways. And still the roar from behind seemed to draw nearer; and still I sat with clenched teeth, grasping the reins convulsively and thinking only of the posts at the corners.

Presently we entered a longer street and I whipped up the horse afresh. At the end of this street we came out into a broad road and I took a deep breath. Now I knew where I was: Commercial Road East. Ashdod was behind us with the gibbering crowd of our enemies. I lashed the horse into a gallop and rattled gaily along the broad road, westward. The police might stop me if they pleased; I cared not a fig for them. My lady was safe from those vampires, and that was all that mattered.

As we approached Whitechapel High Street, I stopped and raised the trap to ask where I should drive my fare. The address she gave was 63, Dorchester Square; and having obtained this, I drove on once more. But I went more soberly now that the danger was over and avoided the main streams of traffic. Years of experience in the delivery of parcels had made me almost as familiar with London as a fully qualified cabman, and I threaded my way through quiet squares and by-streets with no difficulty beyond that of driving the cab straight and keeping clear of other traffic. In less than an hour I turned into Dorchester Square, and, slowing down to read the numbers, at length drew up before a large house.

I climbed down quickly, and, snatching off my cap, helped my fare to alight. She stood by the cab, still holding my hand and looking earnestly into my face; and her eyes filled.

“I want to thank you,” she said with a little catch in her breath, “and I can’t. But my mother will. I will send someone out to hold the horse in a minute.”

She ran up the steps and rang the bell. The great door opened. It was opened by a tall footman who seemed to be prematurely grey; in fact his hair was perfectly white, though he looked quite young. He stared at the young lady for a second or two as if stupefied; then he let off a most undignified yell. “Miss Stella’s come back!”

So her name was Stella. A pretty name and a fit one for a lovely young lady. But I liked not that footman. And the great house, with its unfamiliar pomp, cast a chill on me. I felt a sudden shyness, which may have been pride.

Why should I see her mother? There was nothing more to do. “Miss Stella had come back,” and there was an end of it.

I led the horse a few yards farther on to a lamp-post and taking the reins, which had fallen down, I secured them to the post with what our packer calls a clove hitch. Thriftily, I gathered up the coil of rope from the footboard–the jemmy had jolted off–and then I walked away across the Square.

I looked in at Sturt and Wopsalls, though the premises were shut. But the foreman, who lived there, told me that my truck had been brought home by the police; and when he had heard my story he advised me to leave all explanations to him; which I did. Of course I said nothing about the young lady.

To my revered parent I was even more reticent. Experience had taught me to maintain a judicious silence about any pecuniary windfall until some periodical financial crisis called forth my savings. But he was singularly incurious about the details of my daily life. Even the coil of rope which I brought home on my arm, drew from him no comment or question. And as the frugal supper was on the table and we were both pretty sharp set, conversation tended for a while to be spasmodic, with the result that the story of my adventures remained untold.

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