The Sleep Walker
Bein« a relation of the divers strange adventures which befell one Parley Kempton when the latter, .sorely troubled with sleeplessness, ventured forth at. midnight along the highways and byways of Manhattan.
Author of “The Prairie Wife,” "The Hand of Peril,” "The Door of Dread," “The Silver Poppy.”
EPISODE It. THE STRANGE ADVENTURE OF THE OX-BLOOD VASE
IT was a week later, and well after two, in the dullest ebb of earth’s deadest hour, when Benson lifted the portiere and stepped into my room.
I put down the book at which my brain had been scratching, like a dog scratching at a closed door. It was a volume of Gautier’s “Nouvelles.” I had just reached that mildly assuaging point in “Une Nuit de Cleopatrc” where the mysterious arrow, whistling through the palace window of a queen who was bored almost to extinction, buries itself quivering in the cedar wainscoting above her couch.
But the incident, this time seemed to have lost its appeal. The whole thing sounded very empty and old, very foolish ' and far away. The thrill of drama, I cogitated, is apt to leak out of a situation when it comes to one over a circuit of two thousand mouldering years. So I looked up at my servant a little listlessly and yet a little puzzled by what was plainly a studied calmness of appearance.
“Benson, why aren’t you in bed?”
“If you will pardon me, sir,” began the intruder, “I’ve a gentleman here.”
He was so extraordinarily cool about it that I rose like a fish at the flash of something unusual.
“At this time of night?” I inquired.
“But what kind of gentleman, Benson?” Benson hesitated; it was the sort of hesitation that is able to translate silence into an apology.
“I think, sir, it’s a burglar.”
“A what?” I demanded, incredulous. “The fact is, sir, I ’appened to hear him at the lock. When he forced the door, sir, not being able to work the lock, I was waiting for him.”
The dropped aspirate was an unfailing sign of mental disturbance in Benson. I closed my book and tossed it aside. It was only drama of the second dimension, as old and musty as a mummy. And here, apparently, was adventure of the first water, something of my own world and
“This sounds rather interesting, Benson. Be so good as to show the gentleman up.”
I sat down, with a second look at the dragging hands of the French clock. But Benson still seemed a trifle ill at ease.
“I—I took the liberty of tying him up a trifle, sir,” explained the servant, “being compelled, as it were, to use a bit of force.”
“Of course. Then untie him as much as necessary, and fetch him here. And you might bring up a bottle of Lafitte and a bite to eat. For two, if you please.”
“Yes, sir,” he answered. But still he hesitated. “The revolver, sir, is in the cabinet drawer on your left” There were times when old Benson could almost make me laugh; times when the transparency of his obliquities made them almost respectable. “We won’t need the revolver, Benson. What I most need, I fancy, is amusement, distraction, excitement anything — anything to get me through this endless hell ,of a night.”
T COULD feel my voice -*• rise on the closing words, like the uprear of a terrified racehorse. It was not a good sign. I got up and paced the rug, like a castaway pacing some barren and empty island. But here, I told myself, was a timely foot-print. I waited, as breathless as a Crusoe awaiting his Fri-
I waited so long that I was beginning to dread some mishap. Then the portiere parted for the second time, and Benson led the burglar into the room.
1 experienced, as I looked at him, a distinct sense of disappointment. He was not at all what I expected. He wore no black mask, and was neither burly nor ferocious. The thing that first impressed me was his slenderness—an almost feline sort of slenderness. The fact I next remarked was that he was very badly frightened, so frightened, in fact, that his face was the tint of a rather soiled white glove. It could never have been a ruddy face. But its present startling pallor, I assumed, must have been largely due to Benson’s treatment, although I was still puzzled by that look of abject terror which gave the captive’s eyes their animal-like glitter. He stood before me for all the world as though a hospital interne had been practising abstruse bandaging feats on his body, so neatly and yet so firmly had the redoubtable Benson hobbled him, and swathed his arms in a halfdozen of my best Irish linen table napkins. Over these again had been wound and buckled a trunk-strap. Benson had not skimped his job. His burglar was wrapped as securely as a butcher wraps a honed rib-roast.
My hope for diverting talk along the more picturesque avenues of life was depressingly short-lived. The man remained both sullen and silent. His sulky speechlessness was plainly that of a low order of mind menaced by vague uncertainties and mystified by new surroundings. Blood still dripped slowly down the back of his soiled collar, where Benson’s neat whelp had abraded the scalp.
Yet his eyes, all the time, were alert enough. They seemed to take on a wisdom that was uncanny, the inarticulate wisdom of a reptile, bewildering me, for all their terror, with some inner sense of vicious security. To fire questions at him was as futile as throwing pebbles at an alligator. He had determined, apparently, not to open his lips; though his glance, all this time, was never an idle or empty one.
“Frisk him,” I told the waiting Benson.
As that underworld phrase was new to those respectable Anglian ears, I had to translate it. “See if he’s carrying a gun. Search his pockets—every one of them.”
THIS Benson did, with an affecting mingling of muffled caution and open repugnance. He felt from pocket to
pocket, as gingerly as small boys feel into ferret holes, and with one eye always on the colorless and sphinx-like face beside
The result of that search was quite encouraging. From one pocket came an ugly, short-barrelled Colt. From another came two skeleton keys and a few inches of copper wire bent into a coil. From still another came a small electric flashlight. Under our burglar’s coat, with one end resting in his left-hand waistcoat pocket, was a very attractive tool, not unlike a long and extremely slender stove lifter, with a tip-tilted end. I found it suggestive of tremendous leverage-power, tempting one to test its strength. It proved as inviting to the hand as a golfer’s wellbalanced “driver.”
From the right-hand waistcoat pocket Benson produced a lady’s gold watch, two finger rings, a gold barrette, and a foot or two of old-fashioned locket-chain of solid gold. There was nothing to show who the owner of this jewellery might be.
“I suppose you just bought this at Tiffany’s?” I enquired. But the needle of antiphrasis had no effect on his indurated hide. His passivity was beginning to get on my nerves. He might have been a wax figure in the Eden Musée were it not for those reptiliously alert and ever exasperating eyes. I stood up and confronted him.
“I want to know where this stuff came
The white-faced burglar still looked at me out of those sullen and rebellious eyes. But not a word passed his lips.
“Then we’ll investigate a little farther,” I said, eyeing his somewhat protuberant breast-bone. “Go on with the search, Benson, and get everything.” For it was plain that our visitor, before honoring us that night, had called at other homes.
I watched Benson with increased interest as his fastidiously exploring hand went down inside the burglar’s opened waistcoat. I saw him feel there, and as he did so I caught a change of expression on our prisoner’s face. He looked worried and harassed by this time; he seemed to have lost his tranquil and snake-like assurance. His small, lean head with the pathetically eager eyes took on a rat-like look. I knew then the end towards which my mind had been groping. The man was not snake-like. He was like a cornered rat. Rat seemed written all over him.
BUT at that moment my eyes went back to Benson, for I had seen his hand bringing away a small vase partly wrapped in a pocket-handkerchief. This handkerchief was extremely dirty.
I took the vase from his hand, drawing away the rag that screened it. Only by an effort, as I did so, was I able to conceal my surprise.
For one glance at that slender little column of sang-de-boenf porcelain told me what it was. There was no possibility of mistake. One glimpse of it was enough. It was from the Gubtill collection, for once before my fingers had caressed the same glaze and the same tender contours. Once before, and under vastly different circumstances I had weighed that delicate tube of porcelain in my contemplative hands.
I sat back and looked at it more carefully. I examined the crackled groundwork, with its brilliant mottled tones, and its pale ruby shades that deepened into crimson. I peered down at the foot of enamelled white with its slowly deepening tinge of pale green. Then I looked up at the delicate lip, the lip that had once been injured and artfully banded with a
ring of gold. It was a vase of the Kangshi Period, a rare and beautiful specimen among the Lang Yao monochromes. And history said that thirty years before it had been purchased from the sixth Prince of Pekin, and had always been known as “The Flame.”
Both Anthony Gubtill and I had bid for that vase. Our contest for it had been a spirited one, and had even been made the subject of a paragraph or two in the morning papers. But an inexplicably reckless mood had overtaken that parsimonious old collector, and he had won, though the day after the Graves sale I had been a member of that decorously appreciative dinner party which witnessed its installation between a rather valuable peach-bloom amphora of haricot-red groundwork, with rose spots accentuated by the usual clouds of apple-green, and a taller and, to my mind, much more valuable ashes-of-roses cylindrical Lang Yao with a carved ivory base.
We had looked on the occasion as somewhat of an event, for such things naturally are not picked up every day. So the mere sight of the vase took me back to
the Gubtill home, to that rich and spacious house on lower Fifth Avenue where I had spent not a few happy evenings. And that in turn took my thoughts back to a certain Volpi sale and an old Italian tablecover of blue velvet. From the tablecover they flashed on to Mary Lockwood and the remembered loveliness of her face as we stood side by side staring down at the gold galloon along the borders of that old vestment. Then I drew memory up short, with a wince, as I suddenly realized that the wanderer had been penetrating into strictly forbidden paths.
I PUT the vase down on my table and turned away from it, not caring to betray my interest in it, nor to give to the rat-like eyes still watching me any inkling of my true feelings. Yet the thought of such beauty being in the hands of a brute like that sickened nie. I was angered by the very idea that such grace and delicacy should be outraged by the foul rags and the even fouler touch of a low-browed sneak-thief. I resented the indignity, just as any normal mind would resent a jungle ape’s abduction of a delicate child.
I turned and looked the criminal up and down. I noticed, for the first time, that his face was beaded with sweat.
“Might I inquire just what you intend doing with this?” I asked, gazing back, against my will, at that fragile little treasure known as “The Flame.”
The man moved uneasily, and for the first time. For the first time, too, he spoke.
“Give it to its owner,” he said.
“And who is its owner?”
He looked from me to the vase, and then back again.
“It belongs to a pal o’ mine over t’ First Avenue,” he had the effrontery to assert.
“And where did you get it?”
“Out o’ hock!”
I couldn’t restrain a touch of impatience as my glance fell on the all too eloquent implements of burglary.
“And you expect me to swallow that?” I demanded.
“I don’t give a dam’ what you swallow. I know the trut’ when I’m sayin’ it!”
“And you’re telling me the truth?” I found it hard to keep my anger within bounds.
“Sure,” was his curt answer.
“That’s a cowardly lie!” I cried out again. You’re a coward and a liar, like all your sneaking kind, that skulk about dark comers, and crawl under beds, and arm yourself to the teeth, and stand ready to murder innocent women, to strike them down in the dark, rather than be found out! It’s cowardice, the lowest and meanest kind of cowardice!”
The sweat stood out on his face in glistening drops.
“What’s eatin’ you, anyway?” he demanded. “What ’ve I done?”
I pushed the cluster of women’s jewellery closer to him.
“You’ve done some of the meanest and dirtiest work a man can stoop to. You’ve skulked and crawled and slunk through the dark to rob women and children!”
“Who’s given you a licence to call me a coward?”
“Do you dare to intimate there's anything but low and arrant cowardice in work like this?”
“Just try it,” he said with a grin that made his face hideous.
“Why should I try it?” I demanded.
“Do you suppose because 1 don’t carry a jimmy and gun that I can’t face honest danger when I need to?”
I GLANCED round at my den walls, studded with trophies as they were, from the bull-moose head over the fireplace to the leopard pelt under my heels. The other man followed my glance, but with a lip-curl of contempt. He had jumped to the conclusion, of course, that those relics of encounter in the open stood as a sort of object-lesson of bravery which belonged to me in person.
“Bah,” he said, apparently glad to crowd me off into some less personal sideissue, “that's all play-actin’! Get up against what I have, and you’d tone down your squeal. Then you’d walk into the real thing.”
“The real thing, black-jacking chambermaids and running like a pelted cur at the sight of a brass button!”
I could see his sudden wince, and that it took an effort for him to speak.
“You’d find it took nerve, all right, all right,” he retorted. “And the kind o’ nerve that ain’t a cuff-shooter’s long suit.” My movement of contempt brought him a step or two nearer. But it was Benson who spoke first.
“Hadn’t we better have the police, sir?" he suggested. The burglar, with his eyes on my face, stepped still closer, as though to shoulder any such suggestion as Benson’s out of the issue.
“You just go out in the middle of the night,” he went on, with derisive volubility. “Go out at night and look at a house. Stand off, and look at it good and plenty. Then ask yourself who’s inside, and what’s doin’ behind them brick walls, and who’s awake, and where a shot’s goin’ to come from, and what chances of a getaway you’ll have, and the size of the bit you’ll get if you’re pinched! Just stand there and tell yourself you’ve got to get inside that house, and make your haul and get away with the goods, that you’ve got to do it or go away with empty guts! Try it, and see if it takes nerve.”
I must have touched his professional pride. I had trifled with that ethical totem-pole that is known as honor among thieves.
“All right,” I said, suddenly turning on him as the inspiration came to me. “We’ll try it, and we’ll try it together. For I’m going to make you take this stuff back, and take it back to-night.”
I COULD see his face cloud. Then a sudden change came over it. His rat-like eyes actually began to twinkle.
“I think we ought to have the police, sir,” reiterated Benson, remembering, doubtless, his encounter below stairs. “He’s an uncommon tricky one, sir.”
I saw, on more sober second thought, that it would be giving my friend too much rope, too many chances for treachery. And he would not be over-nice in his methods, I knew, now that I had him cornered. A second idea occurred to me, a rather intoxicating one. I suddenly felt like a Crusader saving from pollution a sacred relic. I could catch the whimper of some unkennelled sense of drama in the affair.
“Benson,” I said, “I’m going to leave this worthy gentleman here with you. And while you look after him, I’m going to return this ox-blood vase to its owner.” “He ain’t in town to-night,” broke in my troubled burglar.
“And to demonstrate to his somewhat cynical cast of mind that there’s nothing extraordinary in his particular line of
“Dont move!" commanded the man with the revolver.
activity, I propose to return it in the same manner that it was taken.”
Benson look troubled.
“I beg pardon, sir, but mightn’t it get us all into a bit of trouble? Couldn’t we leave it until morning, sir, and talk it over quiet-like with your friend, Mr. McCooey, or the gentleman from the Pinkerton office?”
“And have a cuff-shooter running for help over such a triviality? Never, Benson, never! You will make yourself comfortable here with this gallant gentleman of the black-jack, and keep this handsome Colt of his quite close about you while you’re doing it. For I’m going to take this piece of porcelain back where it belongs, even though I have to face a dozen lap-dogs and frighten every housemaid of Twelfth Street into hysterics.”
NOBODY, I have often contended, is altogether sane after midnight. This belief came back to me as I stood before that gloomy-fronted Fifth Avenue house, in that ebb-tide hour of the night when even Broadway is empty, wondering what lay behind the brownstone mask, asking myself what dangers lurked about that inner gloom, speculating as to what sleepers stirred and what eyes, even as I stood there, might be alert and watching.
As Benson had suggested, I might have waited decorously until daylight, or I might have quietly ascended the wide stone steps and continued to ring the electric push-bell until a sleepy servant answered it. But that, after all, seemed absurdly tame and commonplace. It was without the slightest tang of drama, and I was as waywardly impatient to try that enticing tip-tilted instrument of steel on an opposing door as a boy with a new knife is to whittle on the nursery wood-
There was a tingle of novelty even in standing before a grimly substantial and altogether forbidding-looking house, and being conscious of the fact that you had decided on its secret invasion. I could no longer deny that it took a certain crude form of nerve. I was convinced of this, indeed, as I saw the approaching figure of a patrolman on his rounds. It caused me, as I felt the jimmy like a stay-bone against my ribs, and the flashlight like a torpedo-head in my pocket, to swing promptly about into Twelfth Street and walk towards Sixth Avenue. I experienced a distinct glow of satisfaction as the patrolling footsteps passed northward up the quietness of the avenue.
But the house itself seemed as impregnable as a fortress. It disheartened me a little to find that not even a basement grill had been disturbed. For the second time I turned and sauntered slowly towards Sixth Avenue. As I swung eastward again I found that the last house on the side-street, the house abutting the Fifth Avenue mansion which was the object of my attack, was vacant. Of that there could be no doubt. Its doors and windows were sealed with neatly painted shutters.
This, it occurred to me, might mark a possible line of approach. But here again I faced what seemed an impregnable position. I was backing away a little, studying that boarded and coffin-like front, when my heel grated against the iron covering of a coal-shute. This coal-shute stood midway between the curb and the area railing. I looked down at it for a moment or two. Then something prompted me to test its edge with the toe of my shoe. Then, making quite sure that the street was empty, I stooped down and clutched at the edge of the iron disc. It
was quite heavy. But one tug at it showed me that its lock-chain had been forced
T T took but a moment to lift the metal 1 shield to one side of the shute-head. It took but another moment to lower myself into the shute itself. I could see that it was a somewhat ignominious beginning. But I felt buoyantly sure that I was on the right track. It took an effort to work the iron disc back over the opening. It also required many strange contortions of the body to worm my way down into that narrow and dirty tunnel.
My rather peremptory advent into the coal-bin resulted in a startling amount of noise, noise enough to wake the soundest of sleepers. So I crouched there for several seconds, inhaling dust, and listening and wondering whether or not the walls above me harbored a caretaker. Then I took out the pocket searchlight, and, with the pressure of a finger, directed my ray of illumination against a wooden partition bisected by a painted wooden
A distinct sense of disappointment swept through me as I stooped down to examine this door, and found that it had already been forced open. I knew, however, that I was following in the footsteps of my more experienced predecessor. Then came a store-room, and then a laundry-room, with another jimmied door at the head of the stairway leading to the first floor.
Here I stoqd waiting and listening for some time. But still again nothing but darkness and silence and that musty aroma peculiar to unoccupied houses surrounded me. I felt more at home by this time, and was more leisurely in my survey of the passage upward. I was, of course, confronted by nothing more disturbing than ghost-like furniture covered with ticking and crystal-hung chandeliers encased in cheesecloth. I began to admire my friend the burglar’s astuteness in choosing so circuitous and yet so protected a path. There was almost genius in it. His advance, I felt sure, was towards the roof. As I had expected, I found the scuttle open. The lock, I could see, had been quite cleverly picked. And, so far there had not been a mishap.
Once out on the house-top, however, I foresaw that I would have to be more careful. As I clambered up to the higher coping-tiles that marked the line of the next roof, I knew that I had actually broken into the enemy’s lines. Yet the way still seemed clear enough. For, as I came to the roof-scuttle of the second house I found that it, too, remained unlocked. My predecessor had made things almost disappointingly easy for me. Yet, in another way, he had left things doubly dangerous. I had to bear the brunt of any mis-step he may have made. I was being called to face the responsibility of both his intrusion and my own.
SO it was with infinite precaution that I lifted the scuttle and leaned over that little well of darkness, inhaling the warmer air that seeped up in my face. With it came an odor quite different to that of the house I had just left. There was something expository in it, something more vital and electric, eloquent of a place inhabited, of human beings and their lairs and trails, of movement and life and vaguely defined menaces. It was, I fancied, a good deal like that man-smell which comes down-wind to a stalked and wary elk.
I stepped down on the iron ladder that led into the uncertain darkness, covering
the trap after me. I began to feel, as I groped by way downward, that the whole thing was becoming more than a game. I was disturbed by the thought of how deep I had ventured into an uncertainty. I began to be oppressed by the thought of how complicated my path was proving. I felt intimidated by the undetermined intricacies that still awaited me. A new anxiety was taking possession of me, a sort of low fever of fear, an increasing impatience to replace my precious porcelain, and end my mission, and make my escape to the open.
It began to dawn on me, as I groped lower and lower down through the darkness, that a burglar’s calling was not all beer and skittles. I began to feel a little ashamed of my heroics of an hour before.
Then I drew up, suddenly, for a sound had crept to my ears. The tingle that ran through my body was not wholly one of fright. Yet as I stood there in the darkness with one hand against the wall I caught the rhythm of a slow and muffled snoring. There was something oddly reassuring in that reiterated vibration, even though it served to emphasize the dangers that surrounded me. It was not unlike the sound of a bell-buoy floating up to a fog-wrapped liner’s bridge.
I was no longer a prey to any feeling of hesitancy. I was already too deep in the woods to think of turning back. My one passion now was to complete the circuit, to emerge on the other side.
I began to wonder, as I felt for the stair bannister and groped my cautio^ way down the treads, just how the burglar himself had effected that final exit from the house. And the sooner I got away from the sleeping quarters, I felt, the safer I would be. Every bedroom was a shoal of dangers, and not all of them, I very well knew, would be coupled with the same generous whistling-buoy as that I had just left behind me. There was, too, something satisfying in the knowledge that I was at least getting nearer and nearer the ground-floor. This was due, not so much to the fact that I was approaching a part of the house with which I was more or less familiar, but more to the fact that my descent marked an approach to some possible pathway of escape. For that idea was now uppermost in my mind, and no aviator with a balky motor ever ached to get to earth more eagerly than I.
THE utter darkness and silence of the lower halls were beginning to get on my nerves. I was glad to feel the newelpost, which assured me that I had reached the last step in my descent. I was relieved to be able to turn carefully and silently about to the left, to grope towards a door which I knew stood before me in the gloom, and then cautiously to turn the knob and step inside.
I knew at once, even before I took the flashlight from my pocket, that I was in the library. And the room that opened off this, I remember, half cabinet-lined study and half informal exhibition-room, was the chamber wherein Anthony Gubtill treasured his curios. It would take but a minute or two, I knew, to replace his priceless little porcelain. And another minute or two, I felt, ought to see me safely out and on my way home.
I stood with my back to the door, determined that no untimely blunder should mar the end of my adventure. My first precaution was to thrust out my flashlight and make sure of my path. I let the incandescent ray finger interrogatively about the massively furnished room, resting for a moment on marble and metal and
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glass-fronted book-shelf. I remembered, with almost a smile of satisfaction the little Clytie above the fireplace, and the Hebe in bronze that stood beside the heavy reading lamp. This lamp, Gubtill had once told me, had come from Munich; and I remembered his chuckle over the fact that it had come in a “sleeper” trunk and evaded duty.
Then I let the wavering light travel towards the end of the glimmering and dark-wooded reading-table. I stood there, picking out remembered object after object, remarking them with singular detachment of mind as my light continued to circle the end of the room.
Then I quietly made my way to the open door in the rear, and bisecting that second room with my spear of light, satisfied myself that the space between the peachbloom amphora and the ashes-of-roses Yang Lao with the ivory base was indeed empty.
I stood listening to the exotic tick of a brazen-dialled Roumanian clock. I lingered there, letting my bald light-shaft root like a hog's snout along that shelf so crowded with delicate tones and contours. I sighed a little enviously as I turned towards the other end of the
THEN, of a sudden, 1 stopped breathing. Automatically I let my thumb lift from the current-spring of my storage-lamp and the light at once went out. I stood there with every nerve of my body on edge. I crouched forward, tingling and peering into the darkness before me. For I had suddenly discovered that I was not alone in the room.
There, facing me, picked out as distinctly as a baby spot-light picks out an actor’s face, I had seen the owner of the house himself, not ten paces from me. He was sitting in a high-backed armchair of green leather. He must have been watching me from the first, every moment and every movement. He had made no effort to interrupt or intercept me. He had been too sure of his position.
1 waited for what seemed an interminable length of time. But not a sound, beyond the querulous tick of the clock, came to my ears. Not even a movement took place in the darkness.
The undefined menace of this silence was too much for me. The whole thing grew into something strangely like a nightmare. I moved away, involuntarily, wondering what I should say, and after what fashion I should begin my foolish explanation. I crouched low and backed off obliquely, as though some value lay in the intervention of space, and as though something venomous were confronting me. I fell slowly back, pawing frenziedly about me for some sustaining tangibility to which to cling. As I did so my body came in contact with some article of furniture—just what I could not tell. But I shied away from it in a panic, as a colt shies at a fallen newspaper.
My sudden movement threw over a second piece of furniture. It must have been some sort of collapsible screen, for it fell to the floor with an echoing crash. I waited, holding my breath, with horripilations of fear nettling every limb of
my body, knowing only too well that this must indeed mark the end.
But there was no movement, no word spoken, no slightest sound. I stared through the darkness, still half expectant. I tried to tell myself that it may have been mere hallucination, that expectant attention had projected into my line of vision a purely imaginary figure. I still waited, with my heart pounding. Then the tension became more than I could endure. I actually crept forward a step or two, still peering blindly through the darkness, still listening and waiting.
Then I caught my breath with a sudden new suspicion, with a quick fear that crashed, bullet-like, through the film of consciousness. It was followed by a sickening sense of shock, amounting almost to physical nausea.
I ONCE more raised the flashlight. This time my hand shook perceptibly as I turned the electric ray directly in front of me. I let the minute circle of illumination arrow through the darkness, direct to the white face that seemed to be awaiting it. Then I let it come to a rest.
I remember falling back a step or two. I may have called out, but of that I am not sure. Yet of one thing I was only too certain.
There before me sat Anthony Gubtill. He was quite dead!
My first feeling was not altogether one of terror. It was accompanied by a surge of indignation at the injustice, at the brutality, of it all. I was able to make note of the quilted dressing-gown that covered the relaxed body. I was collected enough to assume that he had overheard the intruder, had come to investigate, and had been struck down and cunningly thrust into a chair. This inference was followed by a flash of exultation as I remembered that his murderer was known, that the crime could easily be proven against him, that even at the present moment he was safe in Benson’s custody.
I moved towards the dead man, fortified by the knowledge of a vast new obligation. It was only after I had examined the face for a second time, and seen how death had been caused by a cruelly heavy blow dealt by some blunt instrument, that the enormity of my own intrusion into that house of horror came home to me. I felt a sudden need for light, for sobering and rationalizing light. Even the ticking from the brazen-faced clock had become something phantasmal and unnerving.
I groped feverishly and blindly about in search of an electric switch-button. Then, of a sudden, I stopped again, my movements arrested by a sound.
I KNEW, as I stood and listened, that it was only the purr of an automobile, faint and muffled from the street outside. But it suddenly brought home to me the awkwardness of my position. To be found in that house, or even to be seen leaving it, was no longer a desirable thing. My fool-hardy caprice, before an actuality so overawing, dwindled into something worse than absurdity. And thought came back at a bound to the porcelain in my pocket. I recalled the old-time rivalry between the dead man and myself for “the Flame.” I recalled the details of my advent between these walls where I stood. And my blood went cold. It was not a matter of awkwardness; it was a matter of peril. For who, I again asked myself, would belive a story so absurd, or accept an excuse so extravagant?
The clock ticked on accusingly. The sound of the automobile stopped. I had just noted this with relief when the thud
of a quietly closed door came to my startled ears. Then came the murmur of voices. There was no longer any doubt about the matter. A motor had come to the door, and from it certain persons had entered the house.
I crept to the library and listened. Then I tip-toed back and closed the door of the inner room. I felt more secure with even a half-inch panel between me and what that inner room held.
Then I listened. I began to hear the padded tread of feet. Then came the sound of another opened door, and then the snap of a light-switch. There was nothing secret about the new invasion. I knew, as I shrank back behind four highbacked library chairs, that the front of the house was already illuminated.
Then came the sound of a calling voice, apparently from the head of the stairs. It was a cautious and carefully modulated voice; I took it for that of a young man of about twenty.
“Is that you, Caddy?”
Then came a silence.
“I say, is that you, Orrie?” was demanded in a somewhat sommnolent stagewhisper. There was something strangely reassuring in that commonplace, boyish voice. Anthony Gubtill, I knew, had no immediate family. I could vaguely remember, however, some talk of a Canadian nephew and niece who had at times visited him.
“Ss-s-sh!” said a woman’s voice from the lower hall. “Don’t wake Uncle Anthony.”
It must have been a young woman. Her voice sounded pensive, like that of a girl who might be coming home tired from a dance at Sherry’s. Yet, knowing what I did, its girlish weariness took on a pathos indescribly poignant.
“It’s an awful hour, isn’t it?” asked a second man’s voice from the lower hall. There were sounds that seemed to imply that wraps were being removed.
“Almost four,” came the answer from above. “Had a good time, Caddy?”
I heard a stifled yawn.
“Rather,” answered the girl’s voice.
“I say, Orrie, bring up the Pall Malls for a puff, will you?” requested the youth from above, still in a stage-whisper. “And, Caddy, be sure the latch is on.”
“On what?” demanded Orrie.
“The door, you idiot!” was the sleepily good-natured retort.
THEN I suddenly ducked low behind my chair-back, for the young man called Orrie had flung open the library door. He came into the room gropingly, without switching on the electrics. I could see his trim young shoulders, and the white blur of his shirt-front. Behind him, framed in the doorway, stood a young girl of about twenty, a blonde in pale blue, with bare arms and bare shoulders. Her skin looked very soft and baby-like in the strong sidelight. I could not repress something that was almost a shudder at the thought of this careless gaiety and youth so close to the grim tragedy behind me, so unconscious of the awakening that might come to them at any moment.
“Do hurry!” said the tired girl, as the young man fumbled about the table-end. I realized, as I peered out at her, that my first duty would be to keep those round young eyes from what might confront them in that inner room.
“I’ve got 'em!” answered the man. He stood a moment without moving. Then he turned and walked out of the room, quietly closing the door behind him.
I emitted a gasp of relief and stood up once more. Nothing alive or dead, I de-
termined, would now keep me in that house. Yet for all that new-born ecstasy of impatience I was still compelled to wait, for I could hear the occasional sound of feet and a whisper or two from behind the closed door. Then all sound died away; the gloom and silence again engulfed me.
I took the Yang Lao porcelain from my pocket, unwrapped it, and crept back to the inner room. I groped along the wall in the darkness, circling wide about the green-leather chair in the centre. I put the vase back on its cabinet, without as much as flashing my light. Then I circled back along the wall, felt for the library door, and groped cautiously across the perilous breadth of the furniture-crowded chamber. It took me several seconds to find the door that opened into the hallway. Once through it and across the hall I knew only a spring-latch stood between me and the street. So I lost no time as I turned the knob and swung back the door.
BUT I did not pass through it. For, instead of darkness, I found myself confronted by a blaze of light. In that blaze of light stood three waiting and expectant figures. What most disturbed me was the fact that the man called Orrie held in his hand a revolver that seemed the size of a toy-cannon. This was levelled directly at my blinking eyes. The other youth, in cerise pyjamas wijdi orange colored frogs and a dressing-gown tied at the waist with a silk girdle, stood just behind him, holding an extremely wicked-looking Savage, of the magazine make. Behind this youth again, close by the newel-post, stood the girl in blue, all the sleepiness gone out of her face.
The sight of that wide-eyed and eager trio irritated me beyond words. There was no longer any thrill in the thing. I had gone through too much; I could not react to this newer emergency. I kept wondering if the idiot with the Colt realized just how delicate a pressure would operate the trigger on which I could see his finger shaking. But that shake, it was plain, was more from excitement than fear.
“We’ve got him!” cried the youth in the cerise pyjamas. I might have been a somewhat obstinate black bass wheedled into his landing-net, from the way he spoke.
“Don't move!” commanded the older of the two, wrinkling his brow into a frown of youthful determination. “Don’t you dare move one inch, or I’ll put a hole through you.”
I had no intention of moving. ‘ .
“Watch his hands,” prompted the younger man. “He ought to put ’em up.” “Yes, Orrie, he ought to put them up,” echoed the girl by the newel-post. She reminded me, with her delicate whites and pinks and blues, of the cabinet of por-l celain at which I had so recently stared.
“Back up through the door," cried Orrie. “Come on—back up!”
I wearily obeyed this somewhat equine order. Then he commanded me to hold my hands above my head. I did so without hesitation; I had no wish to argue while that Colt was staring me in the eyes.
They followed me, Indian file, into the room. It was the girl who closed the door as Orrie switched on the lights. She stood with her back to it, studying my face. I could see that I rather interested them all. But in that interest I detected no touch of either friendliness or respfect. The only one I seemed to mystify was the girl at the door.
“Have you anything to say?” demanded Orrie, squaring his shoulders.
“Yes, I have a great deal to say,” I told him. “But 1 prefer saying it to you alone.” I could see his movement of disdain. “And if you will be so good as to stop poking that pistol in my face,” I continued with some heat, “and then send these children out of the room, I shall say what I have to, and do it very briefly.”
“Children!” came in an indignant gasp from the girl at the door.
“We’ll stick by you, old man,” assured the youthful hero in cerise, with his heels well apart.
“And just why should I closet myself with a burglar?” inquired the astute Orrie, staring at me with the utmost insolence. Yet I could see that at least the precision of my articulation was puzzling him a bit.
"That’s asinine,” 1 retorted. “I’m not a burglar, and you ought to know it.”
To my astonishment, a little tripartite ripple of laughter greeted this statement.
“Then what are you?” asked the incredulous Orrie.
I knew there was no further use beating about the bush.
“Yes, who are you?” demanded the other youth.
He still held the magazine-revolver balanced in his right hand. The truth had to come out.
“I’m Parley Kempton.” I told them, as steadily as I could. “Kempton, of Gramercy Park West.”
I GAVE him the number. I could see the trio exchange glances; they were plainly glances of amusement. My young friends, I could see, wore enjoying a home melodrama, a melodrama in which I was obviously the most foolish of villains. I began to feel a good deal like a phonograph grinding out a comic record.
“And with that face!” ejaculated the man called Orrie.
The quiet contempt of his glance caused me to shift about, so I could catch a glimpse of myself in the Venetian mirror between the bookshelves. That glimpse was indeed a startling one. I had quite forgotten the transit through the coalhole. I could not even remember how or when I broke my hat-crown. I had remained as unconscious of the scratch across my cheek as I was of the garret cobwebs that festooned my clothing. I saw, as peeped into the mirror, only a sickly-hued and grimy-looking footpad with dirty hands and a broken hat. It was no wonder they laughed. My environment for the last hour had not been one that tended towards consciousness of attire. I was about to remove my disgracefully disfiguring headgear when the younger man swung about on me with the Savage thrust point-blank in my face.
“Don’t try any of that!” he gasped. “You keep up those hands.”
The whole situation was so beside the mark, was so divorced from the sterner problem confronting both them and myself, that it dispirited and angered me.
“We’ve had about enough of this tommy-rot!” I protested.
“Yes, we’ll cut out the tommy-rot and get him tied,” proclaimed the man with the Colt.
“Then search him first,” prompted the younger man. “Take Orrie’s Colt, Caddy, while he goes through him,” he commanded, in the chest-tones of a newlyacquired savagery, “and if he tries to move, ,wing him !”
The girl, wide-eyed and reluctant, took the heavy revolver. Then Orrie advanced on me, though in an altogether deter-
mined and tight-lipped manner. To continue my protests, I saw, would be only to waste my breath. There was nothing to do but submit to the farce.
I said nothing as he produced the telltale flashlight. I also remained silent as he triumphantly unearthed the jimmy and the damnatory skeleton keys. I could see the interchange of exultant glances as these were tossed out on the polished table-top.
“Get the straps from the golf bags!” suggested the youth with the Savage. I could not help remembering how this scene was parallelling another of the same nature and the same night’ when Benson and I had been the masters of the situa-
' I ' HE man called Orrie seemed a .little non-plussed at the fact that he had found no valuables in my outer pockets, but he did not give up. He grimly ignored my protests as he explored still deeper and dug out my monogramed wallet, and then a gold cigarette-case, on which my name was duly inscribed. He turned them over in his hand a couple of. times. Then a great light seemed to come to him. He succumbed, as ever his elders have done, to a sudden sense of drama.
I saw him dart to the outer room and catch up a telephone directory. He riffled through the pages with quick and impatient fingers. Then he strode back, and looked me up and down.
“I know what this man’s done,’’ he cried, his eyes alight with conviction.
“What?” demanded the younger man.
“He’s visited more than this house tonight! He’s gone through Parley Kempton’s as well. He’s taken these things from there. And now it’s up to us to take him back with them!”
I could see the sheer theatricality of the situation clutch at his two listeners. I could see them surrender to it, although the girl still seemed to hesitate.
“Hadn’t 1 better call Uncle Anthony?” she suggested.
At one breath her words brought me back to both the tragedy that lay so close at hand, and the perilous complexity of
my own position.
“No; that’s foolish !” cut in Orrie. “The car’s still outside. Caddy, I think you’ll have to come along. You can sit with Jansen on the driving-seat.”
The hero of the manœuvre turned back to me. I was thinking mostly of the softeyed girl with the baby-white skin, and how I could get her safely away.
“Will you come quietly?” my captor demanded of me.
“Yes,” I answered, without looking up, “I’ll come quietly.1”
It was the girl’s voice, a little shrill with excitement, that next broke the silence.
“Orrie, he’s not a burglar!” she cried out, in her treble-noted conviction.
“Then what is he?”
“He’s a gentleman.”
“What makes you think so?" demanded the indifferent Orrie as he motioned me, with a curt movement of his Colt-barrel, towards the hall door.
“I know by his nails!” was her inconsequential yet quite definite reply.
“Then you’d give tea and macaroons to every burglarous barber out of SingSing,” he scoffed. “And our real answer's waiting for us in Gramercy Square.”
ÎT seemed to take but a minute or two in the car to swing us from Twelfth Street up to Twentieth, and then eastward into the stillness of the square.
My captors had insisted that I should not talk. “Not a word!” commanded Orrie, and I could feel his insolent gun-barrel against my ribs as he gave the command for the second time. They were drunk, I could see, with the intoxication of their exploit. They were preoccupied with inhaling their subtle sense of drama. With the dictatorial self-sufficiency of true inebriety they had enjoined me from every effort at explanation. The bubble, they felt, was far too pretty a one to be pricked.
They alighted, one in front of me and one behind me, still carrying their foolish and murderous-looking firearms. The girl remained in her seat. Then the three of us grimly ascended my steps.
“It’s needless to ring the bell,” 1 wearily explained. “My pass-key will admit you.”
“But I insist on ringing,” said Orrie as I fitted the key to the lock.
"I shall be compelled, in that case, to call the officer who is watching us from the corner,” was my quiet response.
“Call and be hanged, then!” was the younger man’s ultimatum.
One word over their shoulders brought my old friend McCooey, the patrolman, across the corner and up the steps. 1 swung open the door as he joined us. Then I turned on the hall lamps and faced my two captors.
“Officer, I want you to look at me very carefully, and then assure these gentlemen that I am Parley Kempton, the owner and occupant of this house.”
“Sure he’s Kempton,” said the unperturbed McCooey. “But what’s the throuble this time?”
“Something more serious than these gentlemen dream of. But if the three of you will go quietly upstairs, you’ll find my man Benson there. You’ll also find another man, tied up with half a dozen—” McCooey, from the doorway, cut me short
“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t be stayin’ to see your joke out.”
“But you’ve got to!”
“Fact is, sir,” he explained, in a lowered voice, “Creegan, av Headquarters, has a Sing-Sing lifer bottled up in this block, and I’m holdin’ wan end av the p’lice lines —a jail-breaker, sir, and a tricky wan, called Pip Foreman, the Rat!”
“The Rat?” I echoed.
“The same, sir. But I must be off.” “Don’t go,” I said, closing the door. “Your man’s upstairs, waiting for gold" “Waitin’ for me?” demanded the incredulous McCooey. “What man is waitin’ for me?”
■ “The man they call the Rat,” I tried to explain to him. “And I’ll be greatly obliged to you, McCooey, if you’ll make as short work of this situation as you can, for the truth of the matter is I feel rather tired, and fancy there’s five or six hours of good honest sleep awaiting me!”