“You cursed dolt, you infernal fool!” stormed the detective, catching Billy by the collar and shaking him like a rat. “Do you mean to tell me that you had one of the Four Just Men in your hand, and did not even take the trouble to look at him?”
Billy wrenched himself free.
“You leave me alone!” he said defiantly. “How was I to know it was one of the Four Just Men, and how do you know it was?” he added with a cunning twist of his face. Billy’s mind was beginning to work rapidly. He saw in this staggering statement of the detective a chance of making capital out of the position which to within a few minutes he had regarded as singularly unfortunate.
“I did get a bit of a glance at ’em,” he said, “they——”
“Them—they?” said the detective quickly. “How many were there?”
“Never mind,” said Billy sulkily. He felt the strength of his position.
“Billy,” said the detective earnestly, “I mean business; if you know anything you’ve got to tell us!’
“Ho!” cried the prisoner in defiance. “Got to, ’ave I? Well, I know the lor as well as you—you can’t make a chap speak if he don’t want. You can’t——”
The detective signalled the other police officers to retire, and when they were out of earshot he dropped his voice and said:
“Harry Moss came out last week.”
Billy flushed and lowered his eyes.
“I don’t know no Harry Moss,” he muttered doggedly.
“Harry Moss came out last week,” continued the detective shortly, “after doing three years for robbery with violence—three years and ten lashes.”
“I don’t know anything about it,” said Marks in the same tone.
“He got clean away and the police had no clues,” the detective went on remorselessly, “and they might not have caught him to this day, only—only ‘from information received’ they took him one night out of his bed in Leman Street.”
Billy licked his dry lips, but did not speak.
“Harry Moss would like to know who he owes his three stretch to—and the ten. Men who’ve had the cat have a long memory, Billy.”
“That’s not playing the game, Mr. Falmouth,” cried Billy thickly. “I—I was a bit hard up, an’ Harry Moss wasn’t a pal of mine—and the p’lice wanted to find out—”
“And the police want to find out now,” said Falmouth.
Billy Marks made no reply for a moment.
“I’ll tell you all there is to be told,” he said at last, and cleared his throat. The detective stopped him.
“Not here,” he said. Then turning to the officer in charge:
“Sergeant, you may release this man on bail—I will stand sponsor.” The humorous side of this appealed to Billy at least, for he grinned sheepishly and recovered his former spirits.
“First time I’ve been bailed out by the p’lice,” he remarked facetiously.
The motor-car bore the detective and his charge to Scotland Yard, and in Superintendent Falmouth’s office Billy prepared to unburden himself.
“Before you begin,” said the officer, “I want to warn you that you must be as brief as possible. Every minute is precious.”
So Billy told his story. In spite of the warning there were embellishments, to which the detective was forced to listen impatiently.
At last the pickpocket reached the point.
“There was two of ‘em, one a tall chap and one not so tall. I heard one say ‘My dear George’—the little one said that, the one I took the ticker from and the pocketbook. Was there anything in the notebook?” Billy asked suddenly.
“Go on,” said the detective.
“Well,” resumed Billy, “I follered ‘em up to the end of the street, and they was waitin’ to cross towards Charing Cross Road when I lifted the clock, you understand?”
“What time was this?”
“’Arf past ten—or it might’ve been eleven.”
“And you did not see their faces?”
The thief shook his head emphatically.
“If I never get up from where I’m sittin’ I didn’t, Mr Falmouth,” he said earnestly.
The detective rose with a sigh.
“I’m afraid you’re not much use to me, Billy,” he said ruefully. “Did you notice whether they wore beards, or were they clean-shaven, or——”
Billy shook his head mournfully.
“I could easily tell you a lie, Mr Falmouth,” he said frankly, “and I could easily pitch a tale that would take you in, but I’m playin’ it square with you.”
The detective recognised the sincerity of the man and nodded.
“You’ve done your best, Billy,” he said, and then: “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do. You are the only man in the world who has ever seen one of the Four Just Men—and lived to tell the story. Now, although you cannot remember his face, perhaps if you met him again in the street you would know him—there may be some little trick of walking, some habit of holding the hands that you cannot recall now, but if you saw again you would recognise. I shall therefore take upon myself the responsibility of releasing you from custody until the day after to-morrow. I want you to find this man you robbed. Here is a sovereign; go home, get a little sleep, turn out as early as you can and go west.” The detective went to his desk, and wrote a dozen words on a card. “Take this: if you see the man or his companion, follow them, show this card to the first policeman you meet, point out the man, and you’ll go to bed a thousand pounds richer than when you woke.”
Billy took the card.
“If you want me at any time you will find somebody here who will know where I am. Good-night,” and Billy passed into the street, his brain in a whirl, and a warrant written on a visiting-card in his waistcoat pocket.
The morning that was to witness great events broke bright and clear over London. Manfred, who, contrary to his usual custom, had spent the night at the workshop in Carnaby Street, watched the dawn from the flat roof of the building.
He lay face downwards, a rug spread beneath him, his head resting on his hands. Dawn with its white, pitiless light, showed his strong face, seamed and haggard. The white streaks in his trim beard were accentuated in the light of morning. He looked tired and disheartened, so unlike his usual self that Gonsalez, who crept up through the trap just before the sun rose, was as near alarmed as it was possible for that phlegmatic man to be. He touched him on the arm and Manfred started.
“What is the matter?” asked Leon softly.
Manfred’s smile and shake of head did not reassure the questioner.
“Is it Poiccart and the thief?”
“Yes,” nodded Manfred. Then speaking aloud, he asked: “Have you ever felt over any of our cases as you feel in this?”
They spoke in such low tones as almost to approach whispering. Gonsalez stared ahead thoughtfully.
“Yes,” he admitted, “once—the woman at Warsaw. You remember how easy it all seemed, and how circumstance after circumstance thwarted us … till I began to feel, as I feel now, that we should fail.”
“No, no, no!” said Manfred fiercely. “There must be no talk of failure, Leon, no thought of it.”
He crawled to the trap-door and lowered himself into the corridor, and Gonsalez followed.
“Thery?” he asked.
They were entering the studio, and Manfred had his hand on the door handle when a footstep sounded on the bottom floor.
“Who’s there?” cried Manfred, and a soft whistle from below sent him flying downstairs.
“Poiccart!” he cried.
Poiccart it was, unshaven, dusty, weary.
“Well?” Manfred’s ejaculation was almost brutal in its bluntness.
“Let us go upstairs,” said Poiccart shortly. The three men ascended the dusty stairway, not a word being spoken until they had reached the small living-room.
Then Poiccart spoke:
“The very stars in their courses are fighting against us,” he said, throwing himself into the only comfortable chair in the room, and flinging his hat into a corner. “The man who stole my pocket-book has been arrested by the police. He is a well-known criminal of a sneak-thief order, and unfortunately he had been under observation during the evening. The pocket-book was found in his possession, and all might have been well, but an unusually smart police officer associated the contents with us.
“After I had left you I went home and changed, then made my way to Downing Street. I was one of the curious crowd that stood watching the guarded entrance. I knew that Falmouth was there, and I knew, too, if there was any discovery made it would be communicated immediately to Downing Street. Somehow I felt sure the man was an ordinary thief, and that if we had anything to fear it was from a chance arrest. Whilst I was waiting a cab dashed up, and out an excited man jumped. He was obviously a policeman, and I had just time to engage a hansom when Falmouth and the new arrival came flying out. I followed them in the cab as fast as possible without exciting the suspicion of the driver. Of course, they outdistanced us, but their destination was evident. I dismissed the cab at the corner of the street in which the police station is situated, and walked down and found, as I had expected, the car drawn up at the door.
“I managed to get a fleeting glance at the charge room—I was afraid that any interrogation there might be would have been conducted in the cell, but by the greatest of good luck they had chosen the charge room. I saw Falmouth, and the policeman, and the prisoner. The latter, a mean-faced, long- jawed man with shifty eyes—no, no, Leon, don’t question me about the physiognomy of the man—my view was for photographic purposes—I wanted to remember him.
“In that second I could see the detective’s anger, the thief’s defiance, and I knew that the man was saying that he could not recognise us.”
“Ha!” It was Manfred’s sigh of relief that put a period to Poiccart’s speech.
“But I wanted to make sure,” resumed the latter. “I walked back the way I had come. Suddenly I heard the hum of the car behind me, and it passed me with another passenger. I guessed that they were taking the man back to Scotland Yard.
“I was content to walk back; I was curious to know what the police intended doing with their new recruit. Taking up a station that gave me a view of the entrance of the street, I waited. After a while the man came out alone. His step was light and buoyant. A glimpse I got of his face showed me a strange blending of bewilderment and gratification. He turned on to the Embankment, and I followed close behind.”
“There was a danger that he was being shadowed by the police, too,” said Gonsalez.
“Of that I was well satisfied,” Poiccart rejoined. “I took a very careful survey before I acted. Apparently the police were content to let him roam free. When he was abreast of the Temple steps he stopped and looked undecidedly left and right, as though he were not quite certain as to what he should do next. At that moment I came abreast of him, passed him, and then turned back, fumbling in my pockets.
“‘Can you oblige me with a match?’ I asked.
“He was most affable; produced a box of matches and invited me to help myself.
“I took a match, struck it, and lit my cigar, holding the match so that he could see my face.”
“That was wise,” said Manfred gravely.
“It showed his face too, and out of the corner of my eye I watched him searching every feature. But there was no sign of recognition and I began a conversation. We lingered where we had met for a while and then by mutual consent we walked in the direction of Blackfriars, crossed the bridge, chatting on inconsequent subjects, the poor, the weather, the newspapers. On the other side of the bridge is a coffee-stall. I determined to make my next move. I invited him to take a cup of coffee, and when the cups were placed before us, I put down a sovereign. The stall-keeper shook his head, said he could not change it. ‘Hasn’t your friend any small change?’ he asked.
“It was here that the vanity of the little thief told me what I wanted to know. He drew from his pocket, with a nonchalant air—a sovereign. ‘This is all that I have got,’ he drawled. I found some coppers—I had to think quickly. He had told the police something, something worth paying for —what was it? It could not have been a description of ourselves, for if he had recognised us then, he would have known me when I struck the match and when I stood there, as I did, in the full glare of the light of the coffee- stall. And then a cold fear came to me. Perhaps he had recognised me, and with a thief’s cunning was holding me in conversation until he could get assistance to take me.”
Poiccart paused for a moment, and drew a small phial from his pocket; this he placed carefully on the table.
“He was as near to death then as ever he has been in his life,” he said quietly, “but somehow the suspicion wore away. In our walk we had passed three policemen—there was an opportunity if he had wanted it.
“He drank his coffee and said, ‘I must be going home.’
“‘Indeed!’ I said. ‘I suppose I really ought to go home too—I have a lot of work to do tomorrow.’ He leered at me. ‘So have I,’ he said with a grin, ‘but whether I can do it or not I don’t know.’
“We had left the coffee-stall, and now stopped beneath a lamp that stood at the corner of the street.
“I knew that I had only a few seconds to secure the information I wanted—so I played bold and led directly to the subject. ‘What of these Four Just Men?’ I asked, just as he was about to slouch away. He turned back instantly. ‘What about them?’ he asked quickly. I led him on from that by gentle stages to the identity of the Four. He was eager to talk about them, anxious to know what I thought, but most concerned of all about the reward. He was engrossed in the subject, and then suddenly he leant forward, and, tapping me on the chest, with a grimy forefinger, he commenced to state a hypothetical case.”
Poiccart stopped to laugh—his laugh ended in a sleepy yawn.
“You know the sort of questions,” said he, “and you know how very naïve the illiterate are when they are seeking to disguise their identities by elaborate hypotheses. Well, that is the story. He—Marks is his name—thinks he may be able to recognise one of us by some extraordinary trick of memory. To enable him to do this, he has been granted freedom—to-morrow he would search London, he said.”
“A full day’s work,” laughed Manfred.
“Indeed,” agreed Poiccart soberly, “but hear the sequel. We parted, and I walked westward perfectly satisfied of our security. I made for Covent Garden Market, because this is one of the places in London where a man may be seen at four o’clock in the morning without exciting suspicion.
“I had strolled through the market, idly watching the busy scene, when, for some cause that I cannot explain, I turned suddenly on my heel and came face to face with Marks! He grinned sheepishly, and recognised me with a nod of his head.
“He did not wait for me to ask him his business, but started in to explain his presence.
“I accepted his explanation easily, and for the second time that night invited him to coffee. He hesitated at first, then accepted. When the coffee was brought, he pulled it to him as far from my reach as possible, and then I knew that Mr Marks had placed me at fault, that I had underrated his intelligence, that all the time he had been unburdening himself he had recognised me. He had put me off my guard.”
“But why——?” began Manfred.
“That is what I thought,” the other answered. “Why did he not have me arrested?” He turned to Leon, who had been a silent listener. “Tell us, Leon, why?”
“The explanation is simple,” said Gonsalez quietly: “why did not Thery betray us?——cupidity, the second most potent force of civilisation. He has some doubt of the reward. He may fear the honesty of the police— most criminals do so; he may want witnesses.” Leon walked to the wall, where his coat hung. He buttoned it thoughtfully, ran his hand over his smooth chin, then pocketed the little phial that stood on the table.
“You have slipped him, I suppose?” he asked.
“At 700 Red Cross Street, in the Borough—it is a common lodging-house.”
Leon took a pencil from the table and rapidly sketched a head upon the edge of a newspaper.
“Like this?” he asked.
Poiccart examined the portrait.
“Yes,” he said in surprise; “have you seen him?”
“No,” said Leon carelessly, “but such a man would have such a head.”
He paused on the threshold.
“I think it is necessary.” There was a question in his assertion. It was addressed rather to Manfred, who stood with his folded arms and knit brow staring at the floor.
For answer Manfred extended his clenched fist. Leon saw the down-turned thumb, and left the room.
Billy Marks was in a quandary. By the most innocent device in the world his prey had managed to slip through his fingers. When Poiccart, stopping at the polished doors of the best hotel in London, whither they had strolled, casually remarked that he would not be a moment and disappeared into the hotel, Billy was nonplussed. This was a contingency for which he was not prepared. He had followed the suspect from Blackfriars; he was almost sure that this was the man he had robbed. He might, had he wished, have called upon the first constable he met to take the man into custody; but the suspicion of the thief, the fear that he might be asked to share the reward with the man who assisted him restrained him. And besides, it might not be the man at all, argued Billy, and yet——
Poiccart was a chemist, a man who found joy in unhealthy precipitates, who mixed evil-smelling drugs and distilled, filtered, carbonated, oxydized, and did all manner of things in glass tubes, to the vegetable, animal, and mineral products of the earth. Billy had left Scotland Yard to look for a man with a discoloured hand. Here again, he might, had he been less fearful of treachery, have placed in the hands of the police a very valuable mark of identification.
It seems a very lame excuse to urge on Billy’s behalf that this cupidity alone stayed his hand when he came face to face with the man he was searching for. And yet it was so. Then again there was a sum in simple proportion to be worked out. If one Just Man was worth a thousand pounds, what was the commercial value of four? Billy was a thief with a business head.
So that when Poiccart disappeared within the magnificent portals of the Royal Hotel in Northumberland Avenue, Billy was hipped. He realised in a flash that his captive had gone whither he could not follow without exposing his hand; that the chances were he had gone for ever. He looked up and down the street; there was no policeman in sight. In the vestibule, a porter in shirt sleeves was polishing brasses. It was still very early; the streets were deserted, and Billy, after a few moment’s hesitation, took a course that he would not have dared at a more conventional hour.
He pushed open the swing doors and passed into the vestibule. The porter turned on him as he entered and favoured him with a suspicious frown.
“What do you want?” asked he, eyeing the tattered coat of the visitor in some disfavour.
“Look ’ere, old feller,” began Billy, in his most conciliatory tone.
Just then the porter’s strong right arm caught him by the coat collar, and Billy found himself stumbling into the street.
“Outside—you,” said the porter firmly.
It needed this rebuff to engender in Marks the necessary self-assurance to carry him through.
Straightening his ruffled clothing, he pulled Falmouth’s card from his pocket and returned to the charge with dignity.
“I am a p’lice officer,” he said, adopting the opening that he knew so well, “and if you interfere with me, look out! young feller!”
The porter took the card and scrutinized it.
“What do you want?” he asked in more civil tones. He would have added “sir,” but somehow it stuck in his throat. If the man is a detective, he argued to himself, he is very well disguised.
“I want that gentleman that came in before me,” said Billy. The porter scratched his head.
“What is the number of his room?” he asked.
“Never mind about the number of his room,” said Billy rapidly. “Is there any back way to this hotel—any way a man can get out of it? I mean, besides through the front entrance?”
“Half a dozen,” replied the porter.
“Take me round to one of them, will you?” he asked. And the porter led the way.
One of the tradesmen’s entrances was from a small back street; and here it was that a street scavenger gave the information that Marks had feared. Five minutes before a man answering to the description had walked out, turned towards the Strand and, picking up a cab in the sight of the street cleaner, had driven off.
Baffled, and with the added bitterness that had he played boldly he might have secured at any rate a share of a thousand pounds, Billy walked slowly to the Embankment, cursing the folly that had induced him to throw away the fortune that was in his hands. With hands thrust deep into his pockets, he tramped the weary length of the Embankment, going over again and again the incidents of the night and each time muttering a lurid condemnation of his error. It must have been an hour after he had lost Poiccart that it occurred to him all was not lost. He had the man’s description, he had looked at his face, he knew him feature by feature. That was something, at any rate. Nay, it occurred to him that if the man was arrested through his description he would still be entitled to the reward—or a part of it. He dared not see Falmouth and tell him that he had been in company with the man all night without effecting his arrest. Falmouth would never believe him, and, indeed, it was curious that he should have met him.
This fact struck Billy for the first time. By what strange chance had he met this man? Was it possible—the idea frightened Marks—that the man he had robbed had recognised him, and that he had deliberately sought him out with murderous intent?
A cold perspiration broke upon the narrow forehead of the thief. These men were murderers, cruel, relentless murderers: suppose——?
He turned from the contemplation of the unpleasant possibilities to meet a man who was crossing the road towards him. He eyed the stranger doubtingly. The newcomer was a young-looking man, clean-shaven, with sharp features and restless blue eyes. As he came closer, Marks noted that first appearance had been deceptive; the man was not so young as he looked. He might have been forty, thought Marks. He approached, looked hard at Billy, then beckoned him to stop, for Billy was walking away.
“Is your name Marks?” asked the stranger authoritatively.
“Yes, sir,” replied the thief.
“Have you seen Mr Falmouth?”
“Not since last night,” replied Marks in surprise. “Then you are to come at once to him.”
“Where is he?”
“At Kensington Police Station—there has been an arrest, and he wants you to identify the man.”
Billy’s heart sank.
“Do I get any of the reward?” he demanded, “that is if I recognise ’im?”
The other nodded and Billy’s hopes rose.
“You must follow me,” said the newcomer, “Mr Falmouth does not wish us to be seen together. Take a first-class ticket to Kensington and get into the next carriage to mine—come.”
He turned and crossed the road toward Charing Cross, and Billy followed at a distance.
He found the stranger pacing the platform and gave no sign of recognition. A train pulled into the station and Marks followed his conductor through a crowd of workmen the train had discharged. He entered an empty first- class carriage, and Marks, obeying instructions, took pos session of the adjoining compartment, and found himself the solitary occupant.
Between Charing Cross and Westminster Marks had time to review his position. Between the last station and St James’s Park, he invented his excuses to the detective; between the Park and Victoria he had completed his justification for a share of the reward. Then as the train moved into the tunnel for its five minutes’ run to Sloane Square, Billy noticed a draught, and turned his head to see the stranger standing on the foot-board of the swaying carriage, holding the half-opened door.
Marks was startled.
“Pull up the window on your side,” ordered the man, and Billy, hypnotised by the authoritative voice, obeyed. At that moment he heard the tinkle of broken glass.
He turned with an angry snarl.
“What’s the game?” he demanded.
For answer the stranger swung himself clear of the door and, closing it softly, disappeared.
“What’s his game?” repeated Marks drowsily. Looking down he saw a broken phial at his feet, by the phial lay a shining sovereign. He stared stupidly at it for a moment, then, just before the train ran into Victoria Station, he stooped to pick it up….