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Copyright © 2016 by Edgar Wallace
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CHAPTER THE LAST
INTRODUCING MALCOLM HAY
IF A MAN IS not eager for adventure at the age of twenty-two, the enticement of romantic possibilities will never come to him.
The chairman of the Ukraine Oil Company looked with a little amusement at the young man who sat on the edge of a chair by the chairman’s desk, and noted how the eye of the youth had kindled at every fresh discouragement which the chairman had put forward. Enthusiasm, reflected the elder man, was one of the qualities which were most desirable in the man who was to accept the position which Malcolm Hay was at that moment considering.
“Russia is a strange country,” said Mr. Tremayne. “It is one of the mystery places of the world. You hear fellows coming back from China who tell you amazing stories of the idiosyncrasies of the Chink. But I can tell you, from my own personal observations, that the Chinaman is an open book in words of one syllable compared with the average Russian peasant. By the way, you speak Russian, I understand?”
“Oh, yes, sir,” he said, “I have been talking Russian ever since I was sixteen, and I speak both the dialects.”
“Good!” nodded Mr. Tremayne. “Now, all that remains for you to do is to think both dialects. I was in Southern Russia attending to our wells for twenty years. In fact, long before our wells came into being, and I can honestly say that, though I am not by any means an unintelligent man, I know just as little about the Russian to-day as I did when I went there. He’s the most elusive creature. You think you know him two days after you have met him. Two days later you find that you have changed all your opinions about him; and by the end of the first year, if you have kept a careful note of your observations and impressions in a diary, you will discover that you have three hundred and sixty-five different views—unless it happens to be a leap year.”
“What happens in a leap year?” asked the innocent Hay.
“You have three hundred and sixty-six views,” said the solemn Mr. Tremayne.
He struck a bell.
“We shan’t want you to leave London for a week or two,” he said, “and in the meantime you had better study up our own special literature. We can give you particulars about the country—that part of the country in which the wells are situated—which you will not find in the guidebooks. There are also a few notable personages whom it will be advisable for you to study.”
“I know most of them,” said the youth with easy confidence. “As a matter of fact, I got the British Consul to send me a local directory and swotted it.”
Mr. Tremayne concealed a smile.
“And what did the local directory say about Israel Kensky?” he asked innocently.
“Israel Kensky?” said the puzzled youth. “I don’t remember that name.”
“It is the only name worth remembering,” said the other dryly, “and, by the way, you’ll be able to study him in a strange environment, for he is in London at this moment.”
A clerk had answered the bell and stood waiting in the doorway.
“Get Mr. Hay those books and pamphlets I spoke to you about,” said Tremayne. “And, by the way, when did M. Kensky arrive?”
“To-day,” said the clerk.
“In fact,” he said, “London this week will be filled with people whose names are not in your precious directory, and all of whom you should know. The Yaroslavs are paying a sort of state visit.”
“The Yaroslavs?” repeated Hay. “Oh, of course——”
“The Grand Duke and his daughter,” added Mr. Tremayne.
“Well,” smiled the young man, “I’m not likely to meet the Grand Duke or the Grand Duchess. I understand the royal family of Russia is a little exclusive.”
“Everything is likely in Russia,” said the optimistic Mr. Tremayne. “If you come back in a few years’ time and tell me that you’ve been appointed an admiral in the Russian Navy, or that you’ve married the Grand Duchess Irene Yaroslav, I shall not for one moment disbelieve you. At the same time, if you come back from Russia without your ears, the same having been cut off by your peasant neighbours to propitiate the ghost of a martyr who died six hundred years ago, I shall not be surprised either. That is the country you’re going to—and I envy you.”
“I’m a little surprised at myself,” admitted Malcolm, “it seems almost incredible. Of course, sir, I have a lot to learn and I’m not placing too much reliance upon my degree.”
“Your science degree?” said Tremayne. “It may be useful, but a divinity degree would have been better.”
“A divinity degree?”
“It is religion you want in Russia, and especially local religion. You’ll have to do a mighty lot of adapting when you’re out there, Hay, and I don’t think you could do better than get acquainted with the local saints. You’ll find that the birth or death of four or five of them are celebrated every week, and that your workmen will take a day’s holiday for each commemoration. If you’re not pretty smart, they’ll whip in a few saints who have no existence, and you’ll get no work done at all—that will do.”
He ended the interview with a jerk of his head, and as the young man got to his feet to go, added: “Come back again to-morrow. I think you ought to see Kensky.”
“Who is he?” asked Hay courteously. “A local magnate?”
“In a sense he is and in a sense he’s not,” said the careful Mr. Tremayne. “He’s a big man locally, and from a business point of view, I suppose he is a magnate. However, you’ll be able to judge for yourself.”
Malcolm Hay went out into the teeming streets of London, walking on air. It was his first appointment—he was earning money, and it seemed rather like a high-class dream.
In Maida Vale there are many little side streets, composed of shabby houses covered with discoloured stucco, made all the more desolate and gloomy in appearance by the long and narrow strip of “garden” which runs out to the street. In one of these, devoted to the business of a boarding-house, an old man sat at a portable bench, under the one electric light which the economical landlady had allowed him. The room was furnished in a typically boarding-house style.
But both the worker at the bench, and the woman who sat by the table, her chin on her palms, watching him, seemed unaffected by the poverty of their surroundings. The man was thin and bent of back. As he crouched over the bench, working with the fine tools on what was evidently intended to be the leather cover of a book, his face lay in the shadow, and only the end of his straggling white beard betrayed his age.
Presently he looked up at the woman and revealed himself as a hawk-nosed man of sixty. His face was emaciated and seamed, and his dark eyes shone brightly. His companion was a woman of twenty-four, obviously of the Jewish type, as was the old man; what good looks she possessed were marred by the sneer on her lips.
“If these English people see you at work,” she said presently, “they will think you are some poor man, little father.”
Israel Kensky did not stop his work.
“What book are you binding?” she asked after awhile. “Is it the Talmud which Levi Leviski gave you?”
The old man did not answer, and a dark frown gathered on the woman’s heavy face. You might not guess that they were father and daughter, yet such was the case. But between Sophia Kensky and her father there was neither communion of spirit nor friendship. It was amazing that she should accompany him, as she did, wherever he went, or that he should be content to have her as his companion. The gossips of Kieff had it that neither would trust the other out of sight; and it may be that there was something in this, though a stronger motive might be suspected in so far as Sophia’s actions were concerned.
Presently the old man put down his tools, blinked, and pushed back his chair.
“It is a design for a great book,” he said, and chuckled hoarsely. “A book with steel covers and wonderful pages.” He smiled contemptuously. “The Book of All-Power,” he said.
“Little father, there are times when I think you are mad. For how can you know the secrets which are denied to others? And you who write so badly, how can you fill a great book with your writings?”
“The Book of All-Power,” repeated the man, and the smile on the woman’s face grew broader.
“A wonderful book!” she scoffed, “filled with magic and mystery and spells—do you wonder that we of Kieff suspect you?”
“We of Kieff?” he repeated mockingly, and she nodded.
“We of Kieff,” she said.
“So you are with the rabble, Sophia!” He lifted one shoulder in a contemptuous little gesture.
“You are also of the rabble, Israel Kensky,” she said. “Do you take your dinner in the Grand Duke’s palace?”
He was gathering together the tools on the table, and methodically fitting each graver into a big leather purse.
“The Grand Duke does not stone me in the street, nor set fire to my houses,” he said.
“Nor the Grand Duchess,” said the girl meaningly, and he looked at her from under his lowered brows.
“The Grand Duchess is beyond the understanding of such as you,” he said harshly, and the woman laughed.
“There will come a day when she will be on her knees to me,” she said prophetically, and she got up from the table with a heavy yawn. “That I promise myself, and with this promise I put myself to sleep every night.”
She went on and she spoke without heat.
“I see her sweeping my floors and eating the bread I throw to her.”
Israel Kensky had heard all this before, and did not even smile.
“You are an evil woman, Sophia,” he said. “God knows how such a one could be a daughter of mine. What has the Grand Duchess done to you that you should harbour such venom?”
“I hate her because she is,” said the woman evenly. “I hate her not for the harm she has done me, but for the proud smile she gives to her slaves. I hate her because she is high and I am low, and because all the time she is marking the difference between us.”
“You are a fool,” said Israel Kensky as he left the room.
“Perhaps I am,” said the woman, his daughter. “Are you going to bed now?”
He turned in the doorway.
“I am going to my room. I shall not come down again,” he said.
“Then I will sleep,” she yawned prodigiously. “I hate this town.”
“Why did you come?” he asked. “I did not want you.”
“I came because you did not want me,” said Sophia Kensky.
Israel went to his room, closed the door and locked it. He listened and presently he heard the sound of his daughter’s door close also and heard the snap of the key as it turned. But it was a double snap, and he knew that the sound was intended for him and that the second click was the unlocking of the door. She had locked and unlocked it in one motion. He waited, sitting in an arm-chair before a small fire, for ten minutes, and then, rising, crossed the room softly and switched out the light. There was a transom above the door, so that anybody in the passage outside could tell whether his light was on or off. Then he resumed his seat, spreading his veined hands to the fire, and listened.
He waited another quarter of an hour before he heard a soft creak and the sound of breathing outside the door. Somebody was standing there listening. The old man kept his eyes fixed on the fire, but his senses were alive to every sound. Again he heard the creaking, this time louder. A jerry-built house in Maida Vale does not offer the best assistance to the furtive business in which Sophia Kensky was engaged. Another creak, this time farther away and repeated at intervals, told him that she was going down the stairs. He walked to the window and gently pulled up the blind, taking his station so that he could command a view of the narrow strip of garden. Presently his vigil was rewarded. He saw her dark figure walk along the flagged pavement, open the gate and disappear into the darkened street.
Israel Kensky went back to his chair, stirred the fire and settled down to a long wait, his lined face grave and anxious.
The woman had turned to the right and had walked swiftly to the end of the street. The name of that street, or its pronunciation, were beyond her. She neither spoke English, nor was she acquainted with the topography of the district in which she found herself. She slowed her pace as she reached the main road and a man came out of the shadows to meet her.
“Is it you, little mother?” he asked in Russian.
“Thank God you’re here! Who is this?” asked Sophia breathlessly.
“Boris Yakoff,” said the other, “I have been waiting for an hour, and it is very cold.”
“I could not get away before,” she said as she fell in beside him. “The old man was working with his foolery and it was impossible to get him to go to bed. Once or twice I yawned, but he took no notice.”
“Why has he come to London?” asked her companion. “It must be something important to bring him away from his money-bags.”
To this the woman made no reply. Presently she asked:
“Do we walk? Is there no droski or little carriage?”
“Have patience, have patience!” grinned the man good humouredly. “Here in London we do things in grand style. We have an auto-car for you. But it was not wise to bring it so close to your house, little mother. The old man——”
“Oh, finish with the old man,” she said impatiently; “do not forget that I am with him all the day.”
The antipathy between father and daughter was so well known that the man made no apology for discussing the relationship with that frankness which is characteristic of the Russian peasant. Nor did Sophia Kensky resent the questions of a stranger, nor hesitate to unburden herself of her grievances. The “auto-car” proved to be a very common-place taxi-cab, though a vehicle of some luxury to Yakoff.
“They say he practises magic,” said that garrulous man, as the taxi got on its way; “also that he bewitches you.”
“That is a lie,” said the woman indifferently: “he frightens me sometimes, but that is because I have here"—she tapped her forehead—"a memory which is not a memory. I seem to remember something just at the end of a thread, and I reach for it, and lo! it is gone!”
“That is magic,” said Yakoff gravely. “Evidently he practises his spells upon you. Tell me, Sophia Kensky, is it true that you Jews use the blood of Christian children for your beastly ceremonies?”
The woman laughed.
“What sort of man are you that you believe such things?” she asked contemptuously. “I thought all the comrades in London were educated?”
Yakoff made a little clicking noise with his mouth to betray his annoyance. And well he might resent this reflection upon his education, for he held a university degree and had translated six revolutionary Russian novels into English and French. This, he explained with some detail, and the girl listened with little interest. She was not surprised that an educated man should believe the fable of human sacrifices, which had gained a certain currency in Russia. Only it seemed to her just a little inexplicable.
The cab turned out of the semi-obscurity of the side street into a brilliantly lighted thoroughfare and bowled down a broad and busy road. A drizzle of rain was falling and blurred the glass; but evenhad the windows been open, she could not have identified her whereabouts.
“To what place are you taking me?” she asked. “Where is the meeting?”
Yakoff lowered his voice to a husky whisper.
“It is the café of the Silver Lion, in a place called Soho,” he said. “Here we meet from day to day and dream of a free Russia. We also play bagatelle.” He gave the English name for the latter. “It is a club and a restaurant. To-night it is necessary that you should be here, Sophia Kensky, because of the great happenings which must follow.”
She was silent for awhile, then she asked whether it was safe, and he laughed.
“Safe!” he scoffed. “There are no secret police in London. This is a free country, where one may do as one wishes. No, no, Sophia Kensky, be not afraid.”
“I am not afraid,” she answered, “but tell me, Yakoff, what is this great meeting about?”
“You shall learn, you shall learn, little sister,” said Yakoff importantly.
He might have added that he also was to learn, for as yet he was in ignorance.
They drove into a labyrinth of narrow streets and stopped suddenly before a doorway. There was no sign of a restaurant, and Yakoff explained, before he got out of the cab, that this was the back entrance to the Silver Lion, and that most of the brethren who used the club also used this back door.
He dismissed the cab and pressed a bell in the lintel of the door. Presently it was opened and they passed in unchallenged. They were in a small hallway, lighted with a gas-jet. There was a stairway leading to the upper part of the premises, and a narrower stairway, also lighted by gas, at the foot leading to the cellar; and it was down the latter that Yakoff moved, followed by the girl.
They were now in another passage, whitewashed and very orderly. A gas-jet lit this also, and at one end the girl saw a plain, wooden door. To this Yakoff advanced and knocked. A small wicket, set in the panel, was pushed aside, and after a brief scrutiny by the door’s custodian, it was opened and the two entered without further parley.
A GUN-MAN REFUSES WORK
IT WAS A BIG underground room, the sort of basement dining-room one finds in certain of the cafés in Soho, and its decorations and furniture were solid and comfortable. There were a dozen men in this innocent-looking saloon when the girl entered. They were standing about talking, or sitting at the tables playing games. The air was blue with tobacco smoke.
Her arrival seemed to be the signal for the beginning of a conference. Four small tables were drawn from the sides and placed together, and in a few seconds she found herself one of a dozen that sat about the board.
The man who seemed to take charge of the proceedings she did not know. He was a Russian—a big, clean-shaven man, quietly and even well-dressed. His hair was flaming red, his nose was crooked. It was this crooked nose which gave her a clue to his identity. She remembered in Kieff, where physical peculiarities could not pass unnoticed, some reference to “twist nose,” and racked her brains in an effort to recall who that personage was. That he knew her he very quickly showed.
“Sophia Kensky,” he said, “we have sent for you to ask you why your father is in London.”
“If you know my father,” she replied, “you know also that I, his daughter, do not share his secrets.”
The man at the head of the table nodded.
“I know him,” he said grimly, “also I know you, Sophia. I have seen you often at the meetings of our society in Kieff.”
Again she frowned, trying to recall his name and where she had seen him. It was not at any of the meetings of the secret society—of that she was sure. He seemed to read her thoughts, for he laughed—a deep, thunderous laugh which filled the underground room with sound.
“It is strange that you do not know me,” he said, “and yet I have seen you a hundred times, and you have seen me.”
A light dawned on her.
“Boolba, the buffet-schek of the Grand Duke!” she gasped.
He nodded, absurdly pleased at the recognition.
“I do not attend the meetings in Kieff, little sister, for reasons which you will understand. But here in London, where I have come in advance of Yaroslav, it is possible. Now, Sophia Kensky, you are a proved friend of our movement?”
She nodded, since the statement was in the way of a question.
“It is known to you, as to us, that your father, Israel Kensky, is a friend of the Grand Duchess.”
Boolba, the President, saw the sullen look on her face and drew his own conclusions, even before she explained her antipathy to the young girl who held that exalted position.
“It is a mystery to me, Boolba,” she said, “for what interest can this great lady have in an old Jew?”
“The old Jew is rich,” said Boolba significantly.
“So also is Irene Yaroslav,” said the girl. “It is not for money that she comes.”
“It is not for money,” agreed the other, “it is for something else. When the Grand Duchess Irene was a child, she was in the streets of Kieff one day in charge of her nurse. It happened that some Caucasian soldiers stationed in the town started a pogrom against the Jews. The soldiers were very drunk; they were darting to and fro in the street on their little horses, and the nurse became frightened and left the child. Your father was in hiding, and the soldiers were searching for him; yet, when he saw the danger of the Grand Duchess, he ran from his hiding-place, snatched her up under the hoofs of the horses, and bore her away into his house.”
“I did not know this,” said Sophia, listening open-mouthed. Her father had never spoken of the incident, and the curious affection which this high-born lady had for the old usurer of Kieff had ever been a source of wonder to her.
“You know it now,” said Boolba. “The Grand Duke has long since forgotten what he owes to Israel Kensky, but the Grand Duchess has not. Therefore, she comes to him with all her troubles—and that, Sophia Kensky, is why we have sent for you.”
There was a silence.
“I see,” she said at last, “you wish me to spy upon Israel Kensky and tell you all that happens.”
“I want to know all that passes between him and the Grand Duchess,” said Boolba. “She comes to London to-morrow with her father, and it is certain she will seek out Israel Kensky. Every letter that passes between them must be opened.”
“But——” she began.
“There is no ‘but,’” roared Boolba. “Hear and obey; it is ordered!”
He turned abruptly to the man on his left.
“You understand, Yaroslav arrives in London to-morrow. It is desirable that he should not go away.”
“But, but, Excellency,” stammered the man on his left, “here in London!”
“But, Excellency,” wailed the man, “in London we are safe; it is the one refuge to which our friends can come. If such a thing should happen, what would be our fate? We could not meet together. We should be hounded down by the police from morning until night; we should be deported—it would be the ruin of the great movement.”
“Nevertheless, it is an order,” said Boolba doggedly; “this is a matter beyond the cause. It will gain us powerful protectors at the court, and I promise you that, though the commotion will be great, yet it will not last for very long, and you will be left undisturbed.”
“But——” began one of the audience, and Boolba silenced him with a gesture.
“I promise that none of you shall come to harm, my little pigeons, and that you shall not be concerned in this matter.”
“But who will do it, Excellency?” asked another member.
“That is too important to be decided without a meeting of all the brethren. For my part, I would not carry out such an order unless I received the instructions of our President.”
“I promise that none of you shall take a risk,” sneered Boolba. “Now speak, Yakoff!”
The man who had accompanied Sophia Kensky smiled importantly at the company, then turned to Sophia.
“Must I say this before Sophia Kensky?” he asked.
“Speak,” said Boolba. “We are all brothers and sisters, and none will betray you.”
Yakoff cleared his throat.
“When your Excellency wrote to me from Kieff, asking me to find a man, I was in despair,” he began—an evidently rehearsed speech, “I tore my hair, I wept——”
“Tell us what you have done,” said the impatient Boolba. “For what does it matter, in the name of the saints and the holy martyrs” (everyone at the table, including Boolba, crossed himself) “whether your hair was torn or your head was hammered?”
“It was a difficult task, Excellency,” said Yakoff in a more subdued tone, “but Providence helped me. There is a good comrade of ours who is engaged in punishing the bourgeoisie by relieving them of their goods——”
“A thief, yes,” said Boolba.
“Through him I learnt that a certain man had arrived in England and was in hiding. This man is a professional assassin.”
They looked at him incredulously, all except Boolba, who had heard the story before.
“An assassin?” said one. “Of what nationality?”
“American,” said Yakoff, and there was a little titter of laughter.
“It is true,” interrupted Boolba. “This man, whom Yakoff has found, is what is known in New York as a gun-man. He belongs to a gang which was hunted down by the police, and our comrade escaped.”
“But an American!” persisted one of the unconvinced.
“An American,” said Yakoff. “This man is desired by the police on this side, and went in hiding with our other comrade, who recognized him.”
“A gun-man,” said Boolba thoughtfully, and he used the English word with some awkwardness. “A gun-man. If he would only—is he here?” he demanded, looking up.
“Does he know——”
“I have told him nothing, Excellency,” said Yakoff, rising from the table with alacrity, “except to be here, near the entrance to the club, at this hour. Shall I bring him down?”
Boolba nodded, and three minutes later, into this queer assembly, something of a fish out of water and wholly out of his element, strode Cherry Bim, that redoubtable man.
He was a little, man, stoutly built and meanly dressed. He had a fat, good-humoured face and a slight moustache, and eyes that seemed laughing all the time.
Despite the coldness of the night, he wore no waistcoat, and as a protest against the conventions he had dispensed with a collar. As he stood there, belted about his large waist, a billycock hat on the back of his head, he looked to be anything from a broken-down publican to an out-of-work plumber.
He certainly did not bear the impress of gun-man.
If he was out of his element, he was certainly not out of conceit with himself. He gave a cheery little nod to every face that was turned to him, and stood, his hands thrust through his belt, his legs wide apart, surveying the company with a benevolent smile.
“Good evening, ladies and gents,” he said. “Shake hands with Cherry Bim! Bim on my father’s side and Cherry by christening—Cherry Bim, named after the angels.” And he beamed again.
This little speech, delivered in English, was unintelligible to the majority of those present, including Sophia Kensky, but Yakoff translated it. Solemnly he made a circuit of the company and as solemnly shook hands with every individual, and at last he came to Boolba; and only then did he hesitate for a second.
Perhaps in that meeting there came to him some premonition of the future, some half-revealed, half-blurred picture of prophecy. Perhaps that picture was one of himself, lying in the darkness on the roof of the railway carriage, and an obscene Boolba standing erect in a motor-car on the darkened station, waving his rage, ere the three quick shots rang out.
Cherry Bim confessed afterwards to a curious shivery sensation at his spine. The hesitation was only for a second, and then his hand gripped the big hand of the self-constituted chairman.