I COULD see that her face had grown quite colorless.
“I want you to know this, so that you will know the kind of man who is your enemy. I told him certain things. It was the end—the end of everything—between me and the Inner Circle.”
“What is this final stroke to be?” I asked, a little too promptly, I fear; for the very roots of my being seemed to stir and revolt against MacGirr’s satanic baseness.
“To strike you and me down together now, if they can, at one blow. They know that it can never be safe for them now, even with what MacGirr calls his Tammany pull. They are to meet to-night to talk things over, at Schmidlapp’s.”
My spirits brightened up a bit at this last information, though I succeeded in keeping my own counsel. I felt reluctant, for some reason, to explain my system of espionage on Schmidlapp’s back-room arsenal. It would sound a little ignoble, I feared, to confess that I had hired an empty room, removed a part of the flooring, and quietly attached a microphone apparatus to the gas-pipe of the chandelier below, for the sake of overhearing what was not intended for outside ears. And I dreaded the thought of ever appearing ignoble in the eyes of Elvira Sabouroff.
“It would be better for you to leave New York until this MacGirr nonsense has been put a stop to,” I suggested.
“I have friends in Paterson,” said the girl at my side, after several paces of silent thought. “One of them was secretary to Emma Goldman before she was deported. They secure translating for me to do now and then.”
“You will pardon my asking, but is that how you have supported yourself?”
SHE had long since risen above the little hypocrisies of her sex. The calm deliberation of her reply showed that my question had not been resented.
“Partly by that, partly by teaching. I do library research work also, and occasionally translate articles from the German scientific papers. Then I write a weekly letter for a journal in Rome, a Socialist journal, which pays me eighteen dollars a month.”
"That seems very little.”
“It can always keep me from starving.”
“But life owes you more than that—more than being kept from starving, as you put it.”
“I’m not sure of that,” she answered, with her gravely wise smile of derogation. “I have seen so many people who were not even owed that by life.”
“Do you like your library work?'
“Yes, better than any other, except reading to my factory classes. I brought over from Austria the idea of reading to garment-workers while they sewed. But the American superintendents have never taken kindly to it.”
“Would you care to undertake cataloguing a library of mine, and tabulating a pile of old curios I’ve been gathering about me for the last five or six years? It would be a couple of months’ hard work—perhaps three months—I hardly know what I’ve got packed away in my home out at Beaumaris. But it’s all in great disorder.”
Her dark-gray, sober eyes, luminous with unspoken gratitude, were lifted to mine. I wondered, with what was almost a pang of jealousy, if Cono Di Marco had often brought that look into her face in the past. Then I pondered how love itself would transfigure that pale and troubled face, how the softer and homelier things of life would crown her wistful abstraction with contentment. I felt suddenly envious of all her past, of all the years of her youth that had been lost to me.
“Yes, I could do it, I think,” she was saying to me. "I must do something until I can arrange to go abroad."
“Yes, until I can get back to Rome.”
“But you must not go abroad.”
“Why not?” she asked. I was studying the black rings around the pupils of her eyes as she looked at me.
“There’s so much you can do here,” I answered vaguely, scarcely knowing what to say. Yet I saw that she was thinking the matter over quite seriously.
“Yes,” she agreed; “it would be cowardly.
“And I feel sure this cataloguing of mine will keep you busy until Spring—if you’d care to do it.”
“I would,” she answered without equivocation. I noticed your Rhodian wall-tiles. And I saw your Leynier tapestries and the Italian Renaissance panels. They made my heart ache. It’s wrong, I know; but I love old things.”
“I love them too. That's why I live in an old-fashioned shaded building without elevators and onyx pillars and gilded burlap. I always like my own things about me.”
I NOTICED the shadow that suddenly crept into her face.
“But it may be impossible,” she cried. “It may already be too late. We have forgotten the Inner Circle!"
I tried to laugh away her fears. I wheeled about on the footpath of the bridge, still holding her hand on my arm and pointed to the sober walls and orderly streets of the city.
“Does that look like a town where Terrorists rule?” I demanded. “Can a half-mad jailbird like MacGirr make that a medieval Sicily?”
“He has made it worse than a medieval Sicily for me,” was the girl’s response. “He is half-mad. That alone makes me afraid.”
“Then, to prove that it’s still safe, we are going to eat luncheon in the very heart of it.”
She did not answer me, but I could feel her hand suddenly tighten on my arm. I misinterpreted the actual meaning of that pressure, until I glanced down and caught sight of her face.
She was looking guardedly back along the foot-path to where a sharp-nosed, short-bodied man in a black cape overcoat, with the collar turned up high about his chin, walked slowly and impassively along in the direction in which we were going.
“We are being followed!” she whispered. “Don’t look back. It is Pavel Sitnikov, a Russian Jew Bolshevik who was deported from Paterson. He works for the Inner Circle. They call him Max. He’s watching and shadowing us, even now!”
“Then we’ll give him a run for his money,” I declared, as we moved on toward the New York end of the bridge and passed into its vaulted caverns of unrest. “We’ll see that it costs the Circle several copècks to keep on our trail!”
Turning into the hurrying crowds of Park Row, I signalled to an idle taxicab and instructed the driver to take us to the Pennsylvania Perry. From there we doubled through to Park Place, rattled up Broadway to Canal Street, circled westward again, turned north, sought lonely side streets where even the sound of a street-car was unknown, détoured up through Washington Place and University Place, and rattled into Broadway again at Seventeenth Street.
Then we scurried up that crowded artery of traffic to Madison Square, and from the Square swept into Fifth Avenue, coming to a stop with a jolt before my own studio apartments building.
“There is more than one way, you see, to escape the Inner Circle,” I exclaimed triumphantly, as I helped her alight. But my words seemed almost frivolous to me when I caught a clearer glimpse of her disquieted and tragic face.
The Threads of Intrigue
AS I made my way to the Suffolk Street room that evening I experienced the feeling which sometimes used to creep over me in big-game shooting. It was the feeling of expectancy which every hunter knows when he makes his “blind”—the beginning of the game which marks the battle of instinct and fear against intelligence and force. Like most game-stalking, too, it had its discomforts; for the room was penetratingly cold. Its air was as cheerless and depressing as a vault.
MacGirr, after all, seemed to me little more than an animal. But I knew that it was his privilege as an animal to be free from any sentiment of pity. So my one concern was to reach the little room above the printing-shop without being detected or intercepted. I no longer felt ashamed of my carefully worked-out plan for spying on that back-room bomb-factory. The amenities of ordinary life no longer held good. It was now a case of ambush and counter-ambush, of victory to the intelligence which constructed the subtler covert and struck the more unexpected blow.
Schmidlapp came first to the little printing-shop. He must have slunk back and let himself into his old quarters with the utmost caution, for no sound of his actual arrival crept up to my ears. All I heard, even with my microphone apparatus attached to his gas-pipe and the receiver held close to my ear, was the quiet closing of the door which separated the printing-shop proper from the backroom beneath me.
Then I heard the sound of an electric light-switch, and a low grunt of approval from Schmidlapp himself as, apparently, he examined the room and saw that everything remained as he had left it. I could hear his cautious footsteps as he moved guardedly about. I knew, from the sound, that he had tested the fastenings of the window opening on the fire-escape at the back of the room.
The precision with which my little instrument caught and registered every sound that arose from the room below did not surprise me, when I remembered how even an ordinary microphone will make the scraping of a fly’s leg on a sheet of paper as audible as the sound of a file rasping on sheet-iron, or how in the ordinary telephone-receiver it magnifies the tap of a pencil against a transmitter-diaphragm into what seems almost like a blow against the ear-drum of the listener. My one regret was that I could not see what was taking place beyond the lath and plaster which shut me off from the restlessly moving Schmidlapp.
I assumed, however, that he was busying himself with packing away some of his apparatus—perhaps the fulminates themselves. I could hear the occasional click of metal, the clink of glass, the rustle of wrapping-paper.
His wait was a long one. It must have been almost an hour before the familiar cipher-like knocking sounded on the printing-shop door. This was followed by Schmidlapp’s cautious advance to the centre of the room, where apparently he reached up and turned out the light. Then cautiously he opened the back door of the printing-shop and stood just inside the street door, either peering out or listening; for the cipher-like knocking was repeated, this time more impatiently. Schmidlapp turned the key in the heavy lock, slid back a bolt, and admitted a second person. Not a word was spoken until the door was relocked and the electrics were once more lighted in the back room. Then I heard the sound of an impatient oath on the lips of MacGirr.
“This is worse than stir itself!” he ejaculated, as he flung down something, presumably his hat.
“It’s a wonder Creegan didn’t spot me right at that door! I could’ve grabbed his night-stick as he went by.”
“Not so loud!” cautioned Schmidlapp.
“It’s too much for my nerves,” protested MacGirr. “I can’t keep on buckin’ up against this much longer! I tell you, I’m going to make my coup and make it quick! And when I get enough money to travel, I’ll travel fast—straight down to N’ Orl’ans and on to Rio again!”
“For the love of Heaven, then, get busy and quit beefin’ and chewin’!” was Schmidlapp’s apathetic retort.
“I got to have money.”
“So do I,” said Schmidlapp.
“But I’m goin’ to get busy,” said MacGirr in a more triumphant tone. “I got my pipes laid, and I’m goin’ to get my two birds with one stone!”
“I suppose that means I’ve got to beat it, too?” suggested the half-disgusted maker of bombs.
“We’ve both got to beat it, Beansy, and beat it quick. But we’ll leave a few souvenirs as we go, I guess.”
THE ex-convict laughed quietly. It seemed to me, though, that the laugh was almost a sob.
“I’m sick o’ this! There’s nothin’ in keepin’ up this night-crawlin’ act!”
“What have I got to do?” demanded Schmidlapp. “Beansy, you got to fix me up a soup-bag with a timer-squib attached. Then you got to dope me up a box of giant-caps with a bottle of sulphuric to make ’em do the job. Then I jump the dead-line and enter society again.”
“You’re still goin’ to get that old mug, aren’t you, no matter what happens?” remarked Beansy, with just a touch of mockery in his heavy voice.
“I’m goin’ to get him if I have to go to the chair for it!” declared MacGirr, with sudden passion.
“Not so loud!” cautioned Schmidlapp, “or you won’t even get that far.”
“I came here for oil, Beansy, not advice.”
“And you’re going to get Woodruff and the woman?” continued the other, ignoring MacGirr’s sarcasm.
“At one crack out of the box!” gloated the ex-convict.
One of the unique experiences of a man’s career is sitting still and overhearing a fellow-man calmly explaining how he intends to end that career. So I listened with considerable interest, though there were times when I could not grasp all of Schmidlapp’s questions or catch every detail of MacGirr’s replies to them. Much of their talk was by sign and gesture. But what most impressed me was the calmness with which the two Reds sat planning out their crimes. It verified my once vague impression that all criminals were essentially egotists as well as egoists, that their ever-narrowing aura of consciousness left no room for what saner men would call the imaginative faculties. It was simply wolflike stealth and foxlike cunning, untouched by those altruistic feelings which make the normal man a social being.
I began to feel like a hunter watching above the lair of two wild animals.
“Then it’s Weirhauser’s or Sheeney Chi’s in May the first week in May?” MacGirr was asking.
This seemed so much Greek to me, until I remembered from certain talks with Lefty Boyle that “Chi” was criminals' argot for Chicago. The two men, apparently, were appointing some future place of meeting.
For several moments their talk was again too enigmatic for me to follow. Some of it was whispered, some of it must have been in motions and signs, and some of it was in a thieves’ patois still unknown to me. Only occasionally could I catch an intelligible word or a sentence with any shadow of meaning. I heard “time-fuses” mentioned once or twice, something said about “nitro-soup,” and one reference to “rod”—which I knew to mean a revolver. But I could not quite catch what would happen to “that Paladino snitch.” I gleaned, however, the information that MacGirr was sore on “the Woodruff rumble,” which meant my own interference with his activities, and that he intended to “hit the old duck’s harnessed box” before he took his departure.
BEANSY SCHMIDLAPP interrupted at this point to inquire just what “pipes” the other had laid.
“I’ve got that ground covered all right, all right,” was MacGirr’s contented reply. “Max is goin’ to work it with me. I got Sitnikov on the other job. All he does is handle the oil—that ferret-eyed little Russian’s just whimperin’ to get his hand on a bomb-case!”
Again I heard MacGirr’s quiet and easy laugh. “He’ll get his dose of it while I’m workin’ the old duck’s joint. And crowbarrin’ a little rhino out of a capitalist aint goin’ to be against the ideals o’ your Inner Circle, I guess.”
“You tried that game once,” cautioned Schmidlapp, impassively.
The other man did not seem disturbed by his companion’s criticism.
“There won’t be any raw Black Hand business about this coup,” declared MacGirr. “It’s goin’ to be a combination of overhead guerilla and porch-climber work, with a few extra frills.”
“What are the frills?” asked Schmidlapp.
“I got the layout o’ the house. He’s alone there, you might say, every night. His family’s down South somewhere. His boy’s heatin’ the pavement and foolin’ ’round with a sea-goin’ yacht. All the old mug keeps at the house is a dough-faced English butler and his own valet. The valet’s a Frenchman, or a Belgian who talks French. I’m gettin’ him out o’ the way with the old till-tapper trick, sendin’ him kitin’ over to Brooklyn where his sister’s s’posed to be dyin’. Little Trudeau’s doped me out the letter for it, in French, s’posed to come from the girl’s landlady over there in Lonely Town. Then I’m goin' up to that gilt-edged mansion with a pump and a gas company uniform. The dough-faced butler won’t be there; he sleeps out. But, if he does happen to be in, I got to persuade him that his pipes must be pumped out. The rest is easy, once I get in the house. The old duck himself won’t land until late.”
“I’ll make my haul and get away before the blow-up.”
"Schmidlapp grunted—a grunt of derision, it seemed to me.
“I never yet saw much in this revenge graft,” he exclaimed.
“No; there’s no meal-ticket in it, Beansy. But we aint all stomach, you know. By which I mean there may still be a lot o’ spiritual satisfaction in it for me,” was MacGirr’s placid retort.
“Mac,” said the slow-spoken Schmidlapp, with a prophetic solemnity in his voice, “you’re going to get pinched at that job!”
MacGirr laughed again.
“That job’s goin’ to turn my luck,” he averred. In his next words, however, I could realize the bitter and desperate malignity of the man. “And even if it’s the last kick, I’ll make it a hell of a good kick. I’ll get my man, anyway. I tell you, Beansy, I’m sick o’ bein’ hounded and pounded by every sapper who swings a night-stick. I’m sick o’ this street—cat life and dodgin’ from garbage-barrel to garbage-barrel. I can’t stand it. And if I can get the man who sent me up there and spoiled my life for me before I begin the lake-o’-fire-and-brimstone act, I guess I’m gettin’ enough.”
There was little pathos in the words themselves; but, for some reason which I could not fathom, the dead and sullen voice in which they were uttered made them indescribably pathetic. It was the pathos of barren ignorance and blindness, of a life of warping malevolence flowering into one vindictive curse that was only a wail. It was the futile and foolish pathos of the teased rattler, turning and sinking a fang into its own side.
I LISTENED intently, for Beansy was speaking again.
“Mac, you’re dippy on that old sucker. It wasn’t him who sent you up to dump, and you know it. It was yourself. But you’re throwin’ over your chances for a getaway just to bomb a man who don’t even remember your name. I tell you, Mac, you’re just as dippy on this as Cono Di Marco.”
MacGirr only laughed again.
“Didn’t I tell you I was goin’ to crack his keister on the way?” he asked.
An audible sniff came from Schmidlapp.
“And get Pinkertoned out of America for it, no matter what your haul is! You can’t come this game on a man like that and expect it to be lived down in the same century. You can’t do it.”
“It’s too late to have any amount of chewin’ stop me from doin’ it,” averred MacGirr.
“Well, that’s your own funeral,” was Schmidlapp’s answer. “All I know is that I’m going to shut up this little shop for good, and beat it! I’m goin’ to beat it, and beat it quick!”
“Then fix me up with that oil and some giant caps, and climb on to your rattler knowin’ you eased down a dippy man with the only dope that could make him sleep well.” Again MacGirr’s quiet laugh sounded up out of the stillness of the room below.
“Oh, I’ll do up the soup and stuff for you,” said Beansy, with the deprecatory generosity of a nurse indulging a fretful patient. “But I hate to see you gettin’ off your trolley like this.”
There was a silence for several seconds. Then I could hear the chink of glass against glass, the slow shuffle of feet, the running of tap-water, a soft scraping as of a spoon against a metal basin, the mouselike squeak of a drawn cork, the clink of glass again, and the sound of nails being hammered into wood, then once more the unbroken silence persisted. I knew that in that arsenal of fulminates directly below me Schmidlapp was tranquilly and deliberately preparing the explosive for MacGirr’s two bombs while the latter waited.
“How about a smoke?” I heard MacGirr inquire fretfully.
“Smoke? Of course you can’t smoke!”
MacGirr swore a little. Then a voice sounded again.
It was Schmidlapp’s. He must have stopped and looked up in the midst of his work.
“But where is this man Sitnikov now?” he inquired.
I could hear that hateful, placid, ever-ready laugh of MacGirr’s again before he answered.
“He’s layin’ for the Paladino welcher with a can o’ soup."
“Where’s he layin’ for her?”
“Up where he’s stalkin’ that amateur gum-shoe mash o’ hers. He’s waitin’ and frettin’ for ’em like a terrier shiverin’ over a rat-hole.”
I could hear the sound of mixing still going on below me. But I did not wait for more.
The Guest at the Threshold
MY ONE concern, now, was to get away from that Suffolk Street room while the coast was still clear. That barren and unheated room had been as cheerless and devitalizing as a tomb. It had chilled me to the bone before I realized it. My legs were cramped, my fingers numb. I was glad to be on the move again. I felt a hunger for the press and stir of humanity. I wanted to feel the life of my kind close about me again.
I saw, when I gained the street, that a flurry of snow had passed over the city, blanketing and muffling the pavements and making walking a hardship. Such a thing as finding a taxi-cab, in that neighborhood, was out of the question. So I hurried south to Division Street, making sure that I was not followed, and turned into Canal Street. There I caught a cross-town surface car which carried me to Broadway, where I cut back a block to the subway. I was glad of the companionable warmth and light and faces of an uptown “local.” It was life, sane and material life, after three hours of phantasmal monstrosities and nightmare.
Rapidly I matured my plans. My first task, I felt, would be to get Elvira Sabouroff safely away. It was my duty to get her out of that atmosphere of intrigue and peril which was ever closer and closer surrounding her. It was no place for a girl, under such conditions, with such men as MacGirr and the rat-faced Sitnikov on her trail. I would send for my car, I decided, the moment I saw the way was clear, and hurry her out with Davis to Beaumaris.
Davis was to be trusted. I would miss him, but I could not send the girl there alone.
That would leave the field clear between me and MacGirr. My next task would be to locate Marvin Stillwell. There was no time to be lost.
I was on the point of turning into the entrance of my apartment, keeping a careful lookout as I went, when I heard my name called sharply. At the next moment, a motor-cab rumbled up to the curb beside me. It gave me a bit of a start. But I breathed freely again when I saw that the cab held only young Harvey Stillwell.
“Hello there, Rebbie!” said Natalie’s brother, with a boyish and genial grin. “Come on! I’m going to pick you up and run you over to the club.”
He swung the cab-apron open, as though there could be no doubt as to my going with him. But life, at that moment, held sterner purposes for me. Any constraint that may have shown in my manner did not seem to trouble him.
“I’m just running up to my rooms,” I explained, keeping my eye on each figure which passed me and the wide doorway.
“Then I’ll run up with you,” he genially suggested. “For one smoke.”
I saw no way out of it, so we went up together. I kept wondering just how the youth at my side would relish the information that at any step a rat-faced Russian might drop a bomb between us.
It would have startled him a little; but I doubt if it could have disturbed him more than the sight of Elvira Sabouroff calmly standing before my Caen-stone mantel. There was no sign of embarrassment on her part. The fires through which she had passed seemed to have burned away all the decorative little conventions of feminine habit. Her quiet impersonality, in fact, did not altogether fail to give young Stillwell the momentary idea that it was meant as a tacit sign of proprietorship.
But I could not explain; I always hated explanations. Harvey was gentleman enough to bury his wonder, though it seemed to take a dozen sextons of coercion to perform that prodigious rite. He showed a little disappointment, however, when I informed him that I could give him only five minutes. His candid young eyes told me, as plain as print, that something surely must have happened to make Rebstock Woodruff in a hurry about anything!
I said nothing, but passed him the cigarettes instead. He took one, with a shrug, and was once more himself.
“I’ve got something on—something big,” he explained to me. “I didn’t want to talk about it down there in the street, of course. But it can wait, I think.”
“Anything I can help you in?” I asked.
He looked at me through the smoke of his cigarette. He seemed uncertain of his ground, as though he were holding something back.
“Natalie’s got the pater to let me run the Amorita down to Miami,” he said, after a silence. “Then we’ll cruise over to Havana and get to New Orleans in time for the Mardi Gras. And Natalie told me to bring you along.”
I EXPRESSED my regret.
“But, Rebbie, I tell you I’ve got something big on, something besides running a nickel-plated schooner yacht between bathing-beaches and watering-places.”
He glanced back at the third figure behind us.
“I can’t explain it now. But you’ve knocked about South America, and I know you’re game, when it comes to adventure. Then why not swing in with me?”
“It’s out of the question, my boy,” I told him, remembering that he was always having “something big on,” as he put it. “My time is scarcely my own now.”
Again I saw that infinitesimal shrug of the shoulder as he arose from his chair. It reminded me of his sister Natalie. It even irritated me a little.
“I was almost forgetting,” he said good-naturedly; “I’ll drop in some other time, when you’re free.”
“Yes, do,” I said, as I went to the door with him. “By the way, where and how can I get your father over the wire?"
“To-night?” he asked wonderingly, almost suspiciously.
He looked down at the Persian prayer-rug on my hall floor.
“Why, it’s hard to tell where the pater is after eight o’clock. But it’s safe to say he’s talking U.S. Rubber, wherever he’s holding out.”
I could not quite understand his reservations. But he was holding something back from me.
“Well, I’ll try the house. Peterson will be there, anyway, I suppose?”
“Yes, Peterson’s there, I think. I’m hanging out at the United Athletic now, you know—the house seems so barny with everyone away.”
I had opened the door for him as he spoke, and he turned to go. I should have closed that door again, sharply, only young Stillwell’s body was interposed between the jamb and the doorway. For in the hallway outside stood a figure in a foreign-looking cape overcoat.
This figure was hurriedly lighting a cigarette. There was nothing extraordinary in that. But the sight of that familiar narrow-eyed, rat-like face reminded me of the dangers which surrounded me. It flashed through my brain what his presence there portended. I realized that a critical moment had come. But I had no time to act, beyond catching instinctively at the boy in front of me, as though to drag him back from danger.
He must have thought I had gone mad, for he jerked away from me sharply and wheeled about. The rat-faced man, as he did so, flung a paper-wrapped parcel between us. It rolled along the Persian prayer-rug and lay there spitting, audibly, mysteriously, as though it contained an angry snake.
I recall having the impression that it would be unwise to cry out, for a cry would bring Elvira Sabouroff from the next room. I remember young Stillwell’s sharp exclamation as I clutched at him, even as I told myself that merely pushing him back a few feet was a waste of energy.
It was not ten seconds from the time when the paper-wrapped parcel was thrown, but the thought flashed through my mind that it was already too late—that the thing was over. I remember the quick stab of irritation which shot through me as I saw that young Stillwell’s cry had already brought the woman in the next room out to us. I think I even raised my hand and shouted to her to keep back. But she did not seem to understand.
"Go back!” I must have cried.
I took a deeper breath and tried to think of life comprehensively, as dying men do, or as lost souls should.
It rankled a little to remember that I had been beaten at the game I had chosen as my own. I tried to think of the rending power of one quart of nitro-glycerine. I tried to tell myself that there might be a chance, if there were only a wall between us and the cursed spitting thing on the prayer-rug. Thought, at such moments, flashes like lightning. Action, beside thought, seems snail-like in its movement. I only knew that it was a moment of supreme crisis. But, like so many such moments in real life, there was little about it that was outwardly spectacular.
I saw the girl fall on her face directly over the hissing, snake-like thing. My chief concern was that she would be the first to suffer, that her beautiful body would be dismembered and shattered, that it would be torn and obliterated. It was more than I could endure. I wanted to have the business over and done with. I dosed my eyes until the blow should come. But that seemed cowardly, and I promptly opened them again.
I noticed that I was holding my hands stretched out before me, like a base-ball-player in the act of catching a ball. I saw Elvira Sabouroff’s white hand flash about and caress the paper-wrapped menace. I saw her quick fingers catch at something and tear it loose. It seemed like pulling the fangs from a snake. I heard her little cry as she held the spitting, hissing fuse up in her fingers, away from the thing so cleverly wrapped up in paper.
She had not worked and lived with and acquired the secrets of the Inner Circle for nothing. She had torn out the fuse within half an inch of the fulminate. I had missed my moment. The amateur mouchard had lost his presence of mind!
It was young Stillwell’s voice that brought me back to life—a voice in which wonder, raucous humor, and dismay all seemed to be mingled.
“What kind of a game do you call this, anyway?” he demanded, as he backed slowly away. “Does your laundryman always attach a fire-cracker to your shirts that way?”
I did not wait to answer him. Turning to the door, I sprang through it and down the stairs, in pursuit of the man Sitnikov.
An Effort at Intervention
MY ATTEMPT to overtake or find Sitnikov proved a fruitless one. We had given him time to slip away; he obviously had made the most of his chances.
I think I was pretty well myself again by the time I had climbed the stairs and re-entered my apartment. I began to see the duties and difficulties that lay before me.
My first difficulty was young Stillwell, whom I met at my own door.
“Look here, Rebbie,” he said. “Please never startle me twice in one hour that way!”
“Twice?” I said, resenting his tone.
“Yes,” he answered, with a backward movement of his head. The motion, I assumed, implied the unexpected presence of Elvira Sabouroff in my apartment. Harvey Stillwell was very young. There was no use being indignant with him.
“I want you to help me find your father,” I said.
“Is it anything about Natalie?” he asked, growing more serious. All the world, with the exception of that young lady herself, seemed to assume that Natalie Ethelwyn Stillwell and I were duly and formally affianced.
“No, it’s nothing about Natalie. But I can’t explain it here. I must see your father at once.”
His artistocratic young eyebrows went up—at the touch of peremptoriness in my voice, I suppose—but he held himself in.
“I’ve got some rather important stuff to attend to myself to-night,” he replied, with irritating calmness. “And the governor’s rather hard to get hold of, these days, you know.”
“But I’ve got to get hold of him,” I retorted.
“Well, if I run into him I’ll phone you,” answered the youth, as he drew on a dog-skin glove.
Time was too precious for me to pay attention to his sulks. The moment he had started down-stairs, I was back in my library ordering out the car. Then I called a telegraph-messenger, and while Elvira and Davis wrote out a dozen telegrams to Marvin Stillwell, directed to as many hotels and clubs, I sat at the phone and rung up every possible quarter, from his own office to the Cosmos Club. It was slow and tedious work, and my efforts resulted in nothing.
It exasperated me to think that I was losing time, but it was essential that I should first find Marvin Stillwell. Before all things, he must be warned of his danger. I even called up the different hotels where I was known and requested that the financier be “paged” in each. While waiting for these movements to be carried out, I asked Davis to bring me my German magazine-revolver, a new-fangled sporting gun of which I was especially fond. It was a smokeless, small-caliber gun that carried a mushroom bullet, and was compact enough, for all its magazine-space, to be held comfortably in the pocket. As I sat waiting at the phone I looked it over, making sure that it was fully loaded. I had just slipped it into my pocket when my call-bell rang sharply.
“Hello,” I cried into the transmitter.
“This is Marvin Stillwell.”
“This is Woodruff—Rebstock Woodruff speaking. Could I see you to-night?”
“I’m at a corporation meeting at the Knickerbocker. It’s a rather important conference.”
“When could I see you? I mean how soon could I see you?”
“It will last until quite late,” was the answer, not without its note of impatience, I thought.
“Could I see you as soon as it’s over?”
“Couldn’t you make it to-morrow?”
“Not very well. This, too, is more or less important.”
There was a second or two of silence.
“I might say that I’ve just received a rather extraordinary wire from you, some ten minutes ago. Is this a new form of practical joke?”
“I can explain that when I see you. But it’s far from being a joke.”
“I’ve had rather a tiring day, Woodruff, as you know. The market is taking every moment of my time.”
“This is more important than the market!”
‘T’m tired and I want to go home and go to bed.”
“That’s the one thing you must not do!”
MARVIN STILLWELL laughed, crisply, shortly, condescendingly.
“Is it?” he retorted. “Then you’d better tip me off quick, for I’m keeping seven short-tempered millionaires waiting here. And I still stick to the habit of sleeping at my own home, you know!”
I could detect the ring of sarcasm in his voice.
“This is not the sort of thing I can talk about over the wire,” I told him. “But you—”
His voice had suddenly changed as he cut in on me.
“Nobody in trouble, is there? You don’t mean Harvey?”
“No—no,” I answered. “I—”
“Then who is it?”
“Me? What kind of trouble?”
“There’s a bomb-thrower named Red-flag MacGirr about to break into your house. He may already have broken into it!”
“Into my house?”
“I believe so. It’s the same man who was sent up for the bomb outrage in your office nearly four years ago.”
“But my servants are in my house, taking care of it. This is impossible.”
“Will you promise to keep away from that house until I can make sure of this?” I demanded.
He laughed again, a little scornfully. He still refused to take me seriously.
“Are you one of the gang?” he asked.
“We’re wasting good time here, Mr. Stillwell. What I want to know is, will you keep away from that house until I make sure it’s safe?”
“My dear Woodruff,” came the caustic reply over the wire, “I’m now attending a corporation meeting, and I intend to remain at that meeting until its business has been despatched. My house, I think, you’ll find in excellent order, and a very unpromising field for the exercise of those romantic—”
“This is too important to trifle over,” I broke in. “You know what MacGirr has been—what he’s already done!”
“My dear Woodruff,” answered Stillwell, “I’m not worrying over these things. I’ve existed for fifty-nine years without worrying over them. And I rather imagine I’ll exist for a few years more, even though sentimentally inclined persons continue to enlarge on the vicissitudes and uncertainties of a brigand-infested metropolis like our own!”
“Very well,” I said, holding myself in, but with difficulty, as that characteristically Johnsonian period came over the wire to my ear.
“Good-by,” concluded the crisp voice. “But don’t let me interfere with any of your amateur detective amusements!”
No, I decided as I hung up the receiver; I would not let that obsessed and narrow-visioned money-grubber interfere with my amateur detective amusements. And I intended to make him feel grateful for that resolution.
A moment later, I was on my feet, struggling into an overcoat and catching up my hat and gloves.
“Davis,” I said, “you must stay here and keep an eye on the apartment. Miss Sabouroff will stay with you!”
“Yes, sir,” said Davis as he held the portières back for me.
I turned to Elvira.
“You will not mind staying here?” I asked. “I’m afraid it will be almost necessary, under the circumstances.”
HER eyes met mine. Her face, at first sight, seemed without emotion. And yet into it crept a momentary timidity, a mute acknowledgment of intimacies understood, of possibilities that could not be ignored. Then the look passed, as quickly as it came, and she was herself again.
“If you think best,” was her answer. It was her continuous contact with men intent on the sterner ends of life, I felt, which had stripped her of so many of the little feminine fripperies of conventionality. I liked her all the better for that utter honesty of heart. She was almost boy-like in her matter-of-fact acceptance of me.
“Could I not go with you?” she asked suddenly, and for the second time I saw some vague sign of agitation on her face.
“To meet a man like MacGirr?” I demanded.
“I met with that type of man much earlier than you did,” was her answer.
“But not in the way I’m going to meet him,” I protested, as I started toward the door. The telephone-bell rang before I had quite reached it. I turned back. It was Marvin Stillwell speaking.
“I’ve been trying to get that house of mine,” he said with a deprecatory cough; “but no one seems to answer.”
“I’m not surprised at that.”
Again I heard the deprecatory noise that was neither a cough nor an articulate sound.
“What did you say was wrong up there, anyway, Woodruff?” he asked.
“I can’t wait to explain,” I replied.
“What’s this bomb-story you were trying to tell me?”
“That’s what I’m going to find out!” was my brief retort, “but don’t you go into the house until you find out!’’
Then I rang off and sprang for the door.
An Essay in Exploration
TWENTY minutes later, I was passing quietly along in front of the Stillwell home. There was nothing to give me any indication of what might be taking place inside it. I saw merely a gloomy brownstone front, similar to that of many another New York mansion. It was the customary flat-walled, curtain-windowed, respectable solemnity behind which the Knickerbocker merchant of thirty years ago preferred to hide his joys and sorrows from the eyes of the world.
It was not a fashionable house, nor could the neighborhood in which it stood be called fashionable. Its street was lapped by the creeping eruption of skyscraper and office building, of hotel and apartment-house. But Marvin Stillwell had refused to shift with society’s shifting centre. The house bad been good enough for him and his wife; it ought to be good enough for his children. It held, behind its gloomy front and impassive oaken doors that frowned over the wide sandstone steps, all the romance of his younger days and all the best memories of his married life.
Often and often I had passed that house and looked up at it, and wondered what its inmates were doing, what scenes and movements and emotions its taciturn walls were shutting off from me. But never was I so eager to know what lay inside those walls as when I walked past the sandstone steps and wondered if MacGirr were yet within that impassive paneled door.
I walked on until I came to the Merryfield house, three doors to the west. Then I turned up the steps and rang the bell. It was an electric bell, adjusted at some late date beside the staid, old-fashioned entrance-door which should, by rights, have borne a brass knocker. It seemed as incongruous to me as the fact that such a house could shelter Catherine Merryfield—that such an austere and forbidding cocoon could hold so bright and many-colored a butterfly.
I had known Catherine Merryfield since the day when our schooner-yachts first fouled each other off Whortleberry Island, in the Huguenot races. We had danced and motored together, as fate continued to throw us into the same house-parties. We had golfed and played bridge together, as accident involved us in the same weekends. She was a good-hearted and companionable young woman. And she would not be too inquisitive.
The door was opened by a lean, shrewd-eyed man in livery. He was far from being a dolt, that man. So a new determination took possession of me as I saw him standing at attention under the shadow of the tinted electrics.
“I am Rebstock Woodruff,” I told him, “and until this moment it was my intention to ask for Miss Merryfield.”
The man still stood respectfully attentive.
“Do you chance to remember my face?” I stopped to inquire.
“Yes, sir—quite well,” he said, without emotion.
“What I want to do is to go up through this house to the roof. And I want to go in a hurry.”
I reached down into my pocket as I spoke, and felt for my wallet. I always hated carrying a wad of money about with me; I had no need to do it, when a reference to a check-book was a convenient open-sesame. But, to my disgust, I found I had nothing but three two-dollar bills and some loose change.
“What I want to know is, will you permit me to go up to your roof?”
“I’m afraid not, sir,” was his quiet but none the less prompt response.
“Why not?” I asked, wondering if a check would possibly soften him.
“It’s against orders, sir.”
HERE was a cropper, indeed. And there was no time to be lost.
“Will you please see if Miss Merryfield is at home,” I said, restraining my natural impulse at revolt, and once more speaking in the casually authoritative tone of the social caller.
“Yes, sir,” he answered, following my lead in a relapse to the triteness of things. He led me with dignity into the gloomy reception-room, which I had always claimed was no more like Catherine Merryfield than a mud nest is like the swallow that has flitted and fluttered about it.
He returned in a few minutes to announce that Miss Merryfield would be down. Then he disappeared.
The house was very quiet. A full minute dragged itself away, then another, and another. I went to the door and looked out.
The silence was unbroken. I stepped out and walked to the back of the hall, where the incongruous modernity of an automatic elevator caught my eye. I promptly pressed one of the mother-of-pearl buttons.
The car descended, in obedience to the summons, to the floor where I stood; the door opened automatically; the electric globe flashed into light, and I stepped into the cage. Pressing the button marked III, I rose silently and swiftly upward, stopped mechanically at the floor designated, and beheld the door automatically open for me.
I groped my way through the darkness, heard the sound of heavy snores, and promptly retreated. I must have stumbed and padded about for another precious and perilous two minutes before I found the narrow stairs leading to the roof-transom. This transom, I found, was held down by a chain which was caught and tied through a staple originally meant for a hasp and padlock. It took me but a minute to free the chain, push up the transom and gain the roof. Then I carefully closed the transom again, looked about to get my bearings, and cautiously worked my way eastward along the house-tops. It wasn’t until I felt the cold night air on my head that I remembered I had left my hat in Catherine Merryfield’s decorous and gloomy reception-room.
But I had more material difficulties and embarrassments to hold my attention. A new moon hung like a silver shaving in the west, and gave me enough light to see by. I had a wall-coping to scramble over, and then a “cat-teaser” of pointed iron rods to circumvent. Then came a climb of five feet of brick wall, for the Stillwell house stood high above its neighbors.
But, once on the roof, I seemed on familiar ground. I could remember the odd skylight of many-colored glass, covered with its protecting network of wire—the very glass through which young Harvey, ten long years before, had sent a bullet from my old army revolver. And there was the servants’ narrow little hand-power elevator, by means of which I had once enacted the perilous role of Santa Claus. And there were the remains of the stanchion-sockets where Natalie and I had once built a roof-garden, in the year when I came home from Central America with fever. The red earthenware pots of the palms and flowers which I had sent up for that forlorn little garden, still stood in a row beside the wall-coping.
Down that elevator, I knew, I should have to make my descent—a descent both dangerous and undignified, but one which would get me into the stronghold of the enemy.
I stopped beside the roof-transom to take off my overcoat, not caring to be encumbered by that garment. I removed my magazine-revolver from its hip pocket to the side pocket of my coat. Then I folded the overcoat neatly and placed it beside the transom. It struck me, as an afterthought, that this was not the best possible place for it. As I stooped to pick up the overcoat, some sudden impulse prompted me to test the transom. It might be possible to force the lock.
As I reached over to throw my strength against the heavy door covered with galvanized iron, it came away promptly, without resistance. It was unlocked and open.
The Second Invasion
THAT open transom meant both a new advantage and a new danger to me. It made my way into the Stillwell house easy, but it also left in my mind little further doubt as to MacGirr’s presence
The heavy lock, I found, had been “jimmied” open. It was plain to see that this had been done from the inside. The natural conclusion was that MacGirr, after effecting his entrance from the street and making sure that the coast was clear, had crept up to the top floor and pried open the transom, so that an avenue of escape would lie ready in case of any sudden surprise at his work.
I let myself down through the transom and closed it after me. Then I went cautiously down the slanting iron ladder that led to the floor, feeling my way along a wall of piled up trunks until I came to a door.
Carefully and silently I opened this door and stepped out into what must have been the hallway. There I groped my way forward until I came in contact with a stair-banister. I leaned over and peered downward, listening.
The house was in utter darkness. There was nothing to be heard; not a sound crept up out of the gloomy gulf beneath me. So I slipped my revolver back into my side pocket and felt my way toward the head of the stairs. On second thoughts, I turned back to the storeroom and felt to see if there was a key in the door. I found it, half turned in the lock, on the inside. My first impulse was to lock the door and pocket the key, but on thinking it over I decided that it would be better to leave the way of escape open in case of emergency.
I had to be very careful. I wished to think out every point beforehand and leave no contingency unprovided for. There would be dangerous work ahead, and I wished to face it with as free a mind as possible.
So I groped my way step by step down the stairway, listening every now and then for any sound that might betray the enemy or give me a hint as to his whereabouts. As I made my way deeper and deeper into that house which I knew so well, I felt more and more at home in it. Familiar rooms and corners and furnishings kept confronting me, filling my mind with teasing memories of old times and old scenes. The very perfumes of the place were reminiscent of other days—the subtle and indescribable odors of cut flowers, of furniture-varnish and tapestry-dust.
I came to a sudden stop. Somewhere out of the silence there smote on my ear a faint and muffled pulsation of sound. It was a sort of throb of noise, slower than a pulse-beat, and not persistent in its regularity. But it sent a tingle of nerves up and down my spine and brought my revolver out once more. Feeling sure that the source of that sound was somewhere below me, I advanced guardedly down the wider staircase which led from the second floor to the first above the ground floor.
I was not mistaken. The sound grew more distinct as I descended. At the bottom of the stairs I looked about, point by point, trying to fix the direction from which came that mysterious and muffled throb.
My search was rewarded by a narrow pencil of light showing through a door in the rear. There could be no mistake about it; the room behind that door was lighted, and in that room was taking place something which gave rise to the sound I had heard.
AT THE foot of the stairway I stood waiting and listening for a minute or two; then I tiptoed toward the door, revolver in hand. The sound continued; it could be plainly heard now. I put my hand on the door-knob, turned it slowly but firmly, cushioning it against any sudden click of the bar-latch, and tried to swing it open an inch or two. But it was securely locked on the inside.
I stooped and pressed an ear flat against one of the panels. The sound seemed to leap suddenly toward me; it seemed to be the methodical and regular blow of a mallet striking on metal. It reminded me of the strokes of a diligent stone-mason fashioning a block of granite. What further bore out this impression was the occasional rattle of solid fragments against the surrounding walls and pieces of furniture.
But the secret of that mysterious sound was more than I could fathom. The room from which it came, I remembered, was Marvin Stillwell’s private den—though “den” was scarcely the word to be used in connection with so commodious a chamber. It was, rather, a combination of smoking-room, library, and sitting-room. Its two large windows faced the south, opening on the roof of a one-storey addition where the remaining thirty feet of the Stillwell lot had been utilized for a billiard-room, abutted by a diminutive conservatory. These windows, I knew of old, carried slender but impregnable trellises of steel scrollwork, as a defence against possible sneak-thieves and porch-climbers. But otherwise the room had no means of ingress or egress beyond the door directly in front of me. It became my duty, therefore, to get through that door.
I felt the surface over carefully, in search of some point of attack. It was divided into four panels, I found. The hinges were on the inner side. The lock was a mortised one; the key, half turned on the inner side, made it impossible for me to use a second key from the outside.
Near the newel-post at the head of the broad stairs which led down into the old-fashioned hallway, I remembered, was an electrolier made up of a bronze wood-nymph blowing from a reed a bubble, which was the light bulb. I groped my way toward it and stood there, with my finger on the button, weighing the possible danger and profit of turning on the light.
Some impulse which I could not altogether analyze prompted me to leave the hall in darkness. I crept back to the door, taking out my pocket-knife as I went. Then I pushed the slender steel blade into the lower and outer corner of the upper panel.
I FOUND, to my delight, that the panel was of either pine or whitewood; for the knife-blade sank slowly into it under my steady but cautious pressure, until the point must have protruded from the inside surface of the wood. The occupant of that room, I decided, was too intent on his own work to take notice of my silent emulation of the homely woodpecker. So quietly and patiently I began my task of cutting out a small section of the panel, carefully timing my knife-strokes with the strokes of the mallet within.
Almost five minutes elapsed before I had whittled out a rough oval, large enough to admit my arm. When it hung only by a mere fibre or two of wood, I ceased my operations abruptly, because the sound of the mallet no longer came from within. I heard a sigh—a very human and impatient sigh—an echo or two of heavy footsteps on the polished hardwood floor, and then the scrape of a chair being pushed back. I drew away a little, with my gun well up in front of me, wondering whether or not the door was to be flung open.
But a minute later I heard the steady, muffled blows of the mallet again, and I knew that my presence had not been suspected. I wrenched off the hanging section of wood and placed it on the floor beside the door-frame. Then I stooped and peered through the opening.
I found my view obstructed by what could be nothing else than the back of a tall pier-glass which had been pushed over toward the door, to act as a screen in case of surprise. But it was plain to see that the room was fully lighted. It was also apparent that the occupant of the room was busily engaged in chiseling his way into something which was more or less successfully defying his attack.
He could not have been more than six or seven paces from where I stood. My problem now was to get to him; and the closer I could get to him before being discovered, the better it would be for me.
I reached a hand in through the opening I had made and quietly turned the key in the lock. I waited and listened again, to make sure that I had not been heard. Then cautiously I turned the knob, opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door after me without appreciable sound. My pulse quickened a little, for this movement had brought me within the same four walls with Red-flag MacGirr.
The Fight in the Dark
THE tall pier-glass, luckily, still stood between me and the enemy. It gave me a chance to get my bearings before making my final advance. I could see the two windows at the back of the room, securely shuttered and curtained; the wreck of a hand-carved oaken door; and the gaping rent in the wall beside the widemouthed fireplace, where Marvin Stillwell’s house-safe had been torn away from its setting. Peering still further past the tall glass, I saw the steel box standing bottom-side upward on a flowered silk coverlet, and beside it, facing me, the huge figure of Red-flag MacGirr, in the cap of a gas company’s inspector.
He had removed his coat, and placed it on a chair beside him, a little toward the rear wall. On top of the coat rested a huge revolver, with the handle pointing toward him. It took but a glance to show me that he was chiseling his way through the concrete bottom of the safe. To blow off the door, apparently, had seemed too dangerous a proceeding for that neighborhood. This present method was, I knew, a “yegg” trick long approved in case of assault on low-powered strong boxes—a highly expeditious way of forcing an entrance into “keek-house keisters,” which are usually bottomed with a shell of sheet iron reinforced by a bed of concrete filling. It was not a mallet with which he was working, but a pair of heavy pipe-tongs. About these he had wrapped what seemed to be a pillow case, to deaden the sound. But his repeated blows on the slender chisel, which he held in his left hand, had reduced the linen to shreds and tatters; and he stopped, from time to time, to readjust the muffler.
As he worked, small chips of the concrete kept flying and spraying about the room, striking on picture-glass, furniture and wall-paper.
I watched him for several anxious moments. When I saw him step to the nearer side of the upturned safe-bottom and begin chiseling along its northern edge, I knew that my time for action had arrived.
I sidled out from behind the pier-glass and tiptoed into the centre of the room. I stood prepared for the final spring at any moment that his eye might fall upon me. But he bent over his work, hammering on his chisel as artlessly and industriously as though he were a day-laborer in a quarry. I crept closer, and still closer, until I knew that it was dangerous to delay any longer. I was within four feet of him when he looked up sharply and saw me.
He might perhaps have reached his gun on the chair before him, but the mere sight of a stranger in the room with him seemed to paralyze every muscle in his body. It left him spellbound for a second or two.
He stood there blinking at me in the helplessness of utter surprise. That immobility on his part lasted only for a heart-beat or two, at the most, but it gave me a chance to leap for the glimmering revolver.
I CAUGHT it and wheeled as I landed, so that, as the chair went tumbling and spinning across the room, I turned on him with the two revolvers in my hands. He stood, half-crouched, but not daring to spring.
“Stay there!” I ordered, a little foolishly, I felt, but keeping him carefully covered.
He must have seen that the game was up, for he gradually relaxed, took a deep breath and stood upright, all the while keeping those ludicrous little duck-like eyes of his fixed on my face. But the sheer bewilderment of my presence seemed to ebb out of him slowly as he fell back, step by step, sidlingly, until his back was against the wall itself. There he stood, his face working and twitching, without speaking.
“Put up your hands!” I commanded, for I knew he was not to be trusted. I saw the hands move away from his hips upward, in answer to my command.
But his right hand paused on its upward journey, and the thumb turned outward and downward until the back of the hand faced me. It was not until I heard the sudden snap of a switch button that I comprehended the meaning of that movement. MacGirr had turned out the lights. He had backed along the wall until he had come opposite the wall switch, and had then snapped off the electrics. The room was in utter darkness.
I did not wait for the incandescence to die out of the light globes before springing for the door. I half expected the same movement from MacGirr, but for some reason he did not start or move forward from where he stood. He might have dropped to the floor or swayed to one side—of that I had no means to judge. But I assumed that he was afraid of my revolvers, deciding that it would be better not to risk a shot at close quarters.
Of one thing, however, I was sure, he was still in the room. I knew, as I stood with my back against the closed door, that he was somewhere before me, crouching and waiting in silence.
I dropped one of the revolvers into my pocket and pushed the pier-glass a little to one side. The suspense was beginning to tell on my nerves. I was now master of the situation. But I was getting a little impatient of that prolonged inactivity, of that sullen quietness on the part of the enemy. The fact that I knew I had him safe made me all the more indignant at his trickery of silence. He was merely postponing the inevitable. Even though it were possible for him to creep about the room without a sound, he could make no move that would lead to escape. Any interference with the curtains, or with the shutters of the two windows at the back of the room would be at once detected by me. And outside of these windows, from top to bottom, were the impregnable guards of steel scroll-work.
I had no intention of equivocating with him, so I spoke into the darkness that surrounded me. There was something eerie in the sound of my voice, authoritative as I tried to make it.
“MacGirr,” I cried, into the empty and unresponding darkness, “I’ve got you here! And I’m going to keep you here! Turn on those lights, and turn them on quick!”
THERE was no answer to this—not the slightest sound or movement. The suspense was becoming uncanny. The whole thing was childish and theatrical and I resolved to put an end to it.
“You heard me,” I said, again addressing myself to the utter blackness that seemed to stifle and wall me in. “I’ve got enough ammunition here to rake every foot of this room. And I’ll do it, unless you turn on that light! Do you hear—turn on that light!”
There was no reply.
“I’ll give you just ten seconds to turn that switch!”
I steadied myself with my left hand against the door-knob, waiting, counting under my breath. But still there was no stir from the blackness in front of me. The pregnant click-click of my raised trigger broke the silence. I counted to ten, and balanced the heavy revolver in my hand. But I did not fire.
For, as I stood there, I felt the doorknob, on which my left hand rested, slowly turn. The next moment I felt the door itself swing forward until it pressed against my shoulder-blades, until my resisting body stopped its advance.
A sudden galvanic thrill scampered and tingled through all my startled body. Just what hand or what power was moving that door, I could not tell. There was nothing to break the tomb-like silence. But I knew that something was stirring and moving against the door behind me. With that discovery came the thought that I was surrounded by new and unlooked-for peril. I had to arrive at some definite plan of action. I had to act, decisively and quickly.
My first decision was to send a bullet through the panel. But the sheer uncertainty as to the person who stood outside, whether friend or enemy, made this seem dangerous. My next and more reasonable decision was to swing the door back sharply, have my gun ready, and be prepared for any suspicious movement from the intruder.
I had made ready to carry out this intention, when again the unexpected happened.
I found the coat-sleeve of my left arm jerked suddenly tight against the door panel, held there by some powerful hand that had reached inward through the very aperture I myself had made. Instinctively I struggled to free that pinioned arm; but the grip was like the grip of a vice.
Before I could swing my right arm about to bring the revolver into play, the full weight of a body was hurled against the door. The sudden movement flung it back, the pier-glass went over with a crash, and I was pinned between the wide-swung door and the wall. I heard a second crash like the falling and breaking of bottles. But still I struggled to free my imprisoned arm and raise my right hand to get my revolver into play. Then a cry broke from the blackness beyond.
There was no answer to that sharp monosyllabic bark of sound.
“Sitnikov—is it you?”
“Yes!” came in a gasp from the unknown.
“Have you got him?”
IT WAS MacGirr’s voice again from the far side of the room. I felt something striking about my head, and a huge hand gripping at my half-raised revolver.
“Quick!” gasped the man who had clinched with me. “Quick! I have heem.”
And that worthy continued his efforts to throttle and brain me, while MacGirr closed in beside him and wrenched the gun from my benumbed fingers.
It was not a pleasant encounter. The pair of them were too much for me. The man called Max had me safe when MacGirr fell back and switched on the lights.
I could not have been a pleasant thing to look at. My face was bleeding, and my hand dripped blood. My clothing was torn, my collar was gone, and I could see blood-stains on my shirt-front. But I did not altogether give up. I remembered the revolver in my coat pocket. I remembered, also, that the criminal is almost always a man without imagination, unable to visualize contingencies outside of what his narrow experience has conventionalized for him, unable to fortify himself against that element of uncertainty which enters into any problem with the entrance of the human equation. Therefore I still hoped for my fighting chance, however slim it might be.
The fact that it was indeed to be slim came home to me as I looked up and saw the colorless, mirthlessly grinning face of MacGirr,
“So it’s you—the amateur gum-shoe!’, he said, with his malignant sneer. He stood over me, digesting his victory. The man called Max swung the door shut, then stooped and picked up my revolver. It was nothing that he said or did that caused me suddenly to stop breathing. It was merely the expression on his white-skinned, Asiatic-looking face, with its pale, slanting eyes, its short, blunt nose and bulging low forehead. There was neither passion nor hate nor venomous malignity in the face. Yet I knew, from the moment I saw it, that the man intended to shoot me where I sat leaning against the wall.
The game was up, after all, was the thought that flashed through my mind—a thought followed by a great sense of injustice that it should come to an end in such a way, and through an instrument so blind and unlovely.
But MacGirr saw the man and laughed as he waved him back with an imperious movement of his ape-like arm.
“No, Max!” he cried, with an oath. “Not that way, my friend—not that fool way!"
Max stopped and looked at his confederate. I breathed once more.
“Shoot heem! Eet ees best!” argued Max. This colleague of MacGirr’s had apparently been despatched to the lower parts of the house, in search for refreshments some time before my entrance. He had returned with biscuits and a pot of cheese and an armful of wine bottles at the time when I had stood with my back to the door. I could see the remnants of his would-be meal lying scattered about the floor. One of the bottles had broken, and the wine had soaked into the thick-napped silk rug.
“I’ll show you a better way than shooting,” declared MacGirr, holding out his hand for the gun, “something more in keeping with that Hammer of God idea!”
THE other man surrendered the revolver, but with a frown. I could see that even MacGirr, for all his air of nonchalance, was breathing quick and short. He looked the gun over leisurely, and as leisurely slipped it into his pocket. But I noticed that his hand still rested on it
“Get into one of those bedrooms and bring me a couple of towels,” he ordered. He backed away a little as Sitnikov went to do his bidding. Then he let his eye coast about the room for a moment. I took advantage of that moment to get my hand a little nearer my side pocket. But he saw the movement. It brought his gun out like a flash, and he was covering me again.
“Sit up in that chair!” he commanded. I did as he ordered; my position had become an uncomfortable one.
“Now fold your arms!” was his next command. I did so, with as much dignity as the situation allowed. But I did not give up. There was still the ghost of a chance that Davis might disobey orders and in some way follow me up. There was still a hope that Marvin Stillwell, as he grew less preoccupied and less skeptical of what I had reported to him, might send a message to police head-quarters; or that even the disconcerted Merryfields might venture forth to make inquiries as to how and when I was returning for my forgotten hat. No, I told myself, the game was not yet up. But my enemy, I saw, did not permit its action to lag.
“Have you got anything to say?” demanded MacGirr, standing beside the overturned safe, his deep-set, duck-like eyes squinting thoughtfully down at me.
I resented the valedictory nature of that brusque question.
“Before what?” I asked.
“Before you have a pleasant last hour or two,” he retorted, with his mocking and satanic laugh.
Sitnikov came back into the room with a cluster of towels over his arm. MacGirr merely nodded and stood regarding me with that studious, baleful leer of his.
“This game’s not up!” I defiantly retorted.
MacGirr laughed again.
“No, this game’s not up. But your part in it’s up!”
He stepped forward, impatiently, as though he were tired of quibbling about side issues. But his revolver-barrel, I noticed, still pointed directly at my head.
“Max,” he said sharply, “put down those towels. Now take off his coat.”
My heart sank at the words. For with my coat, I knew, would go the revolver in the side pocket. And with that revolver would go my last chance. I saw that it was useless to struggle; but I warned myself to be watchful and save my strength.
The coat was handed to MacGirr. He took out the revolver with a grimace of triumph, and calmly proceeded to go through my pockets. Then he flung the empty coat to one side.
“Now take his shiner and his watch. Good! We may need a few things like these! And he won’t, I guess!”
Sitnikov handed my possessions to MacGirr, without a word.
“Now see what he’s got in his pants’ pockets!” was that worthy’s next injunction.
He gave vent to one of his blasphemous ejaculations when he saw that the search resulted in nothing more than three two dollar bills and some loose change. He held the money in the palm of his hand, and gave a grunt of contempt.
“You make a hell of a showing for a mere millionaire, don’t you?” he said, as he kicked the bundle of towels over to his colleague.
“Now tie him up,” he commanded. “And tie him good. This means we’ve still got to crack that keister!”
The other man was tearing a couple of the heavier towels down the middle. One of these strips he twisted together and knotted tightly in the centre, tying it again and again, until the knot was almost as big as an orange. MacGirr took out my watch and looked at it.
“Get a move on!” he said impatiently. “And don’t be afraid of trussing him up too tight.”
THE other man’s work could not have disappointed him. He first twisted my arms sharply behind me so that they stretched across the hollow of my back, one hand under each elbow. Then he took his twisted towel-strips and pinioned and swathed and knotted them there, drawing the fastenings so tight that the very blood seemed to stop circulating in my finger ends. He did the same to my feet, binding and trussing them tightly together from the ankle to the knee.
Then he pulled me sharply over on the floor, and before I could quite divine his intention he had thrust his knuckles into my cheek between the upper and lower molars. One savage grind of this wedging fist forced open the jawbone, and at the next moment he had that odious knotted-towel gag in my mouth and was tying the loose ends of it tightly behind my head.
I could see MacGirr’s sullen nod of approval as he sat back on the edge of the safe-bottom and rested the arm that had been holding the revolver.
“What’re you doing that for?” he suddenly demanded. Max was placidly and deliberately unlacing my shoes.
“I need heem!” was the brief and anarchistic retort, as Sitnikov pointed to his own worn and unattractive footwear.
“Then cut it short,” warned MacGirr, getting up again with a quick look about. He disappeared though the door into the hallway, and I listened intently as I lay there. I heard him turn on the light at the head of the stair and go down. What he did below I could not tell; but I thought I heard the sound of an opening door. In a couple of minutes he was back in the room again, leaving the hall lighted behind him.
“Give me a hand!” he commanded, as he thrust his great paw into the crook of my right arm. The other man turned with a look of interrogation on his face.
“We’re going to leave him down at the door,” MacGirr explained. “We’ll leave him there, nice and handy for his friends to call for!”
I could see the look of comprehension that spread over the other’s apathetic and animal-like face. It seemed to spread wider and wider, until it erupted and broke into a laugh—an unholy, pitiless, altogether fiendish laugh.
It was not until they had half-lifted, half-dragged me out into the lighted hall and down the wide stairway, that I fully understood what MacGirr intended. It was not until I saw the familiar rose-tinted newel-lamp of the lower hall and the two inner doors that opened on the old-fashioned vestibule, that I fully comprehended the enormity of his intention. He was to leave me there, bound hand and foot, side by side with his giant-cap bomb. He proposed that the very man I had tried to deliver should be the means of my death.
The Brink of Despair
NOT a word was said as my two captors let my inert body sag down upon the floor of the vestibule. MacGirr merely pushed me with his foot closer in along the right-hand wall, so that I faced the two outer doors as I lay there. To one of these outer doors, I saw, a screw-eye had been fastened, at a distance of some two or three inches from the floor. To this screw-eye had been attached a piece of stout cord, about three feet in length. The other end of the cord was made fast to a roughly bent bit of wire which protruded from a slit in an oblong wooden box about fourteen inches long and six or seven inches high.
That box, I knew, was Schmidlapp’s infernal machine, composed of giant-caps. All that was necessary to detonate it was a tug on the string tied to the wire hook, which was made fast to the cork of a bottle of sulphuric acid. The moment that cork was pulled and the sulphuric acid released, the explosion would take place. And nobody could open that street door—nobody could attempt to enter the house—without detonating this devilishly planned mine. I was to be left there, unable to make a movement or sound, until Marvin Stillwell returned to his home and opened the door which was to send us simultaneously to death.
All this I saw and knew in the brief moments during which the malignant MacGirr stooped over me, as though to carry away with him some consoling memory of the anguish that was written on my face. Then he emitted his animal-like grunt of satisfaction, and quietly closed and fastened the two inner doors.
I knew, by the sounds, that he had once more climbed the stairs and taken up his work on the overturned safe.
The one thought that now terrorized me was that at any moment Stillwell might come in. I felt sure that I should be able to hear his approach on the sandstone steps without. The knowledge that I should hear him—that I should know when the pass-key was inserted in the lock, the door-knob turned, and the door itself swung back—and yet be utterly powerless to warn him, seemed more than my overtaxed nerves could bear.
It took a great effort to steady them. There was a struggle, such as one seldom goes through, before I could master my feelings and forget the ache in my body and the infinitely keener anguish of my mind. Death itself could be little darker than that battle between hopelessness and hope, before I learned to fix my attention on the situation before me. For the second time I warned myself to be calm, to think clearly and quickly.
First I tried each hand and leg, methodically, limb by limb. But any hope of liberating myself had to be abandoned. Then I compelled my attention to the vestibule that surrounded me.
It was as bald as a vault, with the exception of the wooden box bomb and the slender Villona palm that stood opposite me in the inner left-hand corner of the entry, growing in an antique Greek amphora of early Cretan workmanship. The vase was one which I had brought back from abroad three years before; I had given it to Natalie Stillwell on her birthday. It had always hurt my feelings a little to behold this almost priceless find of mine relegated to the duties of a lawn terra-cotta or a landing-step flower-pot, since it was an exquisite example of early Greek cameoware in white and blue, overlaid on preclassic earthenware with naive Dionysian decorations. But it was not for me to point out the gold in a gift horse’s tooth.
Its slender base stood on a circular slab of cork, to protect the marquette flooring. Beyond this, and the infernal machine, the vestibule was empty. It was as empty as a coffin, destitute of resource, barren of any possibility of delivery or relief. I studied the walls, one by one, with the nauseating despair of a man who knows that he has reached the end of his rope.
AS I lay there, one faint glimmer of hope came to me. It was a glimmer and nothing more, but the longer I thought of it the more feasible it became.
The first movement in my plan of action was to work my body, slowly, painfully, inch by tortured inch, away from the wall until it lay at right angles from it, directly across the entrance. Still another five minutes of torturing worming and writhing brought my feet within touch of Natalie Stillwell’s amphora. Then I rested, and once more studied the situation.
Again I began my wormlike contortions, until I was close enough to the tall vase to raise my two bound feet between it and the wail. One sharp downward sweep of my legs between the wall and the vase sent the slender piece of earthenware toppling over on the hardwood floor. I could hear it crash as it fell, breaking into a dozen pieces. Then I rested again, listening and waiting to make sure I had not been overheard. Then I decided to carry out the rest of my plan.
I rolled over several times, until my back rested on the jagged base of the fine-grained earthenware pot. It took several minutes to adjust my position to suit the purpose I had in mind. But when once I found myself placed as I had planned, I began the second movement of my campaign. It was nothing more or less than a movement of abrasion—a stubborn, soul-worrying, nerve-racking inferno of sawing up and down on the serrated edges of that jagged piece of ware.
But the knowledge that my bonds were being worn away, thread by thread, taught me patience. The thought that any moment might restore to me the freedom of my hands—that blessed freedom which is better than the gift of sight to the blind—steeled me to endure the aches that throbbed and racked through my body.
But when I had severed the twisted towel-strand, and knew that my hands were free again, I had to lie motionless for several minutes before life came back to my arms, before I could raise them as far as my face.
Not until I had rested a little and once more felt the blood pulsing through my arms did I think of the danger still hanging over me. Yet my emotion was more of a sullen and vindictive rage at the humiliations through which I had been dragged than any recognition of danger.
It took but a minute or two of patient struggle to release the gag that still held open my aching jaws. I felt like a patient who had escaped from an afternoon in a dentist’s chair, I flung the sodden cloth to the floor and sat reveling in the luxury of freely opening and closing my mouth. To release my pinioned feet involved a longer and fiercer struggle. But I succeeded in the end and was once more a free man.
With that emancipation, with that power to walk and move about, seemed to come back to me some vaguely estranged sense of manhood. And with this came a consuming indignation, an ever-increasing anger at the insults with which my body had been visited. Luckily I had no time to brood over my injuries, for the most difficult and dangerous part of my work still lay before me. That was to take the menace from MacGirr’s engine of destruction at the door beside me.
THE safest way to destroy his bomb, I felt, would be to remove the bottle of sulphuric acid from above the giant caps. This required, I knew, manipulation of the most delicate character. I pried open the crack in the box with a piece of broken pottery, after making sure of the location of the wire attached to the cork.
But once that insignificant glass vial was safely lifted out of the box, I felt safe, I was another man. My spirits rose with a rebound as I felt about for the earth of the Villona palm and carefully poured the acid into it.
Then I turned and unlatched the outer door, though I no longer had any thought of making my escape to the street. The mere idea of crawling out into the open in the condition I was in—coatless, shoeless, tattered and blood-stained—became repugnant to me. I had a score or two to even up, I told myself in my new born spirit of audacity; and I intended to lose no time in the balancing of that ledger.
The two inner vestibule doors still shut me out from the rest of the house. My impression had been that they were possibly held shut with a spring lock. I was not a little relieved, on trying the knob, to find that they were not actually locked, that I could step back into the hallway without resistance.
Above me, beyond the head of the stairway, I could still see the glimmer of light from Marvin Stillwell’s sitting-room. I could also hear the steady sound of MacGirr’s pounding on the concreted safe bottom. He was evidently finding it a harder task than he had expected. I felt grateful for the fact that he was still there, but I did not stop to luxuriate in my emotions. Instead, I groped my way quickly but quietly back to where I knew the library to be, the second door to the right of the stairway on the ground floor. I slipped into this room and locked the door behind me.
I turned on the electrics and ran to the desk-telephone which stood glimmering on a wide rosewood reading-table. I caught up the receiver and called for central—only to find that the instrument was “dead.” It required but a moment’s examination to discover that the astute MacGirr had not only cut the wires, but had carried off or secreted a large enough section of the circuit to make a “splice” impossible.
But the difficulty did not trouble me for long. Not three feet away was a drop light, swinging from its twisted green wires. It took but a jerk to bring these wires loose, and then but a twist or two to free them from the lamp. Another minute’s work sufficed to connect them with the broken ends of the ruptured telephone circuit beneath the phone. Thirty seconds later I had secured my number.
“Is that you, Davis?” I all but whispered into the transmitter; for, above everything, I did not want to be overheard in that house.
“Yes, sir,” answered Davis, and I knew from his voice that he had recognized me.
“Come to the Stillwell house at once. Bring a revolver. But get here quick!”
“Shall I ring when I come, sir?” asked Davis, and I thought I detected a note of concern in his voice.
“No; don’t ring. The door will be open. Come right in, but come carefully. Do you understand? Quick!”
“Yes, sir!” said Davis, and I pressed my hand down on the call bell as I hung up the receiver, in case it should tinkle out an alarm.
A moment later I was out of the library again and creeping cautiously up the stairs, step by step, past the door of the room that held MacGirr, onward up the second stairway, and again up the third, until I came to the door that opened into the store-room and the way to the roof. I turned the key in the lock, saw that it was securely fastened, withdrew the key, slipped it into my pocket, and once more noiselessly descended the stairs, knowing that MacGirr’s road of escape in that direction was cut off.
The House of Contention
AS I felt my way down the second stairway, I heard MacGirr’s hammering come to a stop, and what seemed to be a muttered oath or two of fatigue and exasperation.
“This is like eatin’ into a sub-treasury vault,” I heard him complain. “It’ll take a quarter of an hour to get that sheet iron off!”
“Ze door—blow eet off!” suggested the voice of Sitnikov.
“That’d take a quarter of an hour, too, just to get your soup in and your timer attached. And it’s too risky for this neighborhood!”
I knew by the sounds that he had again taken up his improvised hammer and chisel. Then he stopped to speak to the other man.
“See if everything’s all right,” he suggested, before the sharp sound of his chisel cutting into sheet iron once more broke the silence of the house.
I waited in the darkness like a cat, and I saw the man loom in the lighted doorway, step out and peer down into the darkness below.
I could see the glimmer of his revolver in the dim light as it swung loosely in his hand at his side. I could see him lean farther out over the banister in an attitude of listening. Then I sped across the intervening space on my shoeless feet and leaped for him.
My arms clutched and clasped his, as the leaning body received the full impact of mine. We went down together, I scarcely know how; but he had no chance to raise his hand and use his gun as we went.
My fighting blood was up now; I was I drunk with the dizzy memory of the indignities he had already heaped upon me. I got his gun away from him, then lost it again in the darkness. But I fought him, foot by foot, like a wildcat—fought until I had him helpless against the stair-head banister. Scarcely knowing what I did or why I did it, I heaved him bodily up and over. He fell with a howl of pain, rebounded, toppled weakly forward, and went down the stairs in a heap, rolling and tumbling to the bottom, where he lay without moving.
But I did not stop to watch him. I was on my hands and knees, clawing and padding and groping about on the floor to find that lost revolver. I did not stop to look up until it was once more safe in my hand. But before I could rise and stand on my feet, I saw the light go out in the room where MacGirr was. For the second time, I knew, he was sheltering himself in blanketing darkness. But this time we were more evenly matched, for he had his own revolver. He also knew what he was facing, and just what to expect.
I sidled closer in to the wall, waiting. The blackness about me was unbroken by one single ray or glimmer of light. Not a sound crept through the house. It was impossible to say when or from what quarter the bolt would strike. All I knew was that the bolt was inevitable—that somewhere in the gloom MacGirr was waiting and watching, just as I stood waiting and watching.
The suspense became almost unendurable. The very silence seemed to ache with it. I felt an insane desire to shout or send a volley of shots cannonading about the blank walls. I could feel the sweat trickle down my face and itch in the cuts and scratches on my hands. But I still waited, under the looming crest of that awful silence which seemed to gather and build on itself like a great wave that rises and rises until the crash of its breaking wall spells the sheerest music of relief.
YET the break in that tortured silence came from an altogether unexpected quarter. It came from the foot of the stairs, where a stunned man, recovering his senses, half-staggered and half-crawled up toward his colleague. Whether or not that colleague misunderstood the movement, whether the sheer delirium of utter panic prompted him to do what he did, I cannot tell. But as the crawling figure reached the head of the stairs, I saw the darkness stabbed by a sudden jet of flame. At the same time, the roar of a revolver shot struck my ear.
I was not the only man who had suffered by that strain of inaction. It had proved too much for even the nerves of MacGirr. He was now shooting wildly, irrationally, down through the darkness of the hall, “going Berserk” at what seemed the approach of a new peril.
I heard the snap of his gun-hammer on the exploded caps, and his animal-like gasp as he turned and went pounding and pawing and running for the stairs that led upward to the roof. Whether or not any of those flying shots reached Sitnikov I had no time to determine. I only knew that my enemy had emptied his revolver and was in flight.
So I started in pursuit, flinging on the newel-post light as I passed it. The sudden illumination caused MacGirr to look back over his shoulder. He saw my upraised revolver as I ran. He must have seen my face as well, and understood what I intended, for he suddenly wheeled about and leaned weakly against the wall.
“For the love of God, don’t shoot!” he cried.
I did not stop or lower the gun.
“I’ll come down. Don’t shoot!”
I was up to him by this time, two steps below where he cowered and blinked and shivered.
“Throw up your hands!” I gasped. Vaguely I felt it was a lucky thing for him that he did what I asked without hesitation and without equivocation.
“Come down!” I ordered.
He came down—but not as I had counted on his coming. He came in a sort of flying leap, which carried us both to the floor and sent a bullet from my revolver spitting and plowing into the wall plaster. We rolled over twice, fighting like terriers as we went. I could feel the pound of the man’s great fist on my face. But this did not seem to trouble me. My one thought was not to lose possession of the revolver. That, above all, was the thing I needed.
We clawed and writhed and tugged; we rolled and struggled, dealt stroke and counter-stroke. I felt my breath coming in painful gasps, and one eye blinded by the drip of blood. But still we fought, hand to hand, tooth and nail; still I held the revolver in my bruised and bloodstained hand. The great paw of MacGirr’s still retained its clutch over my fingers, leaving them powerless to use the weapon. But I could feel that this clutch was minute by minute weakening. I threw all the energy of my tortured body into one supreme effort.
Suddenly I writhed and twisted away from him, so that his clutching fingers slipped from my own fingers up to my wrist. There the hold was more uncertain. It left my hand free; all that remained for me to do was to force that hand slowly upward and inward, until the gun-barrel could be directed against the gross body under me.
I was dimly conscious of figures moving about us, of voices calling, of lights growing brighter. But all my existence centered in one maddening passion to wrest away that clutch on my wrist, to swerve my gun-barrel in against the beaded white face that stared up so pantingly into mine.
Then I gave a drunken cry of joy, for I knew that I had won. I closed my eyes to shut out the sight, for something told me it would be unlovely.
BUT I opened them again with a mumble and gasp of rage, for the revolver was being taken from my hand before I could pull the trigger.
“No—no! Don’t!” said a pleading voice in my ear.
On one side of me stood Davis, a revolver in his hand. On the other side stood Elvira Sabouroff, stooping close over me.
“You must not kill him,” she half-whispered, admonishingly, as she caught my arm. “I cannot have you kill a man!” she repeated. Slowly she drew back with my revolver in her hand.
“Leave him to me, sir,” said Davis, half-dragging, half-lifting me to my feet. “She’s right, sir! You don’t want murder on your ’ands, sir!”
It was only in his moments of intensest emotion that Davis neglected the aspirate. That tell-tale elision, more than anything else, I think, brought me to my senses. It gave Reason time to climb once more into her shaken and ill-used throne. It also gave me a chance to regain my wind, though I preferred resting on the solid floor until its return.
I looked about me, weakly, to see Elvira gazing down into my face. I could catch the forlorn commiseration in her eyes, and even at that untimely moment the consciousness of her loveliness crept through me. It became a sort of ache, indeterminate, and yet keener than any ache in my tired and throbbing body. The intrusion of tenderness, in the midst of all that blood and tumult, seemed to leave me light-headed.
I think I tried to take her hand, as she stooped there at my side. I felt a wayward impulse to declare to her how beautiful she was, and what balm seemed to lie in her merest touch. I think I should have told her, then, how I loved her—had I not been brought back to reality by a glimpse of Davis quietly and deliberately throttling the life out of the still struggling MacGirr.
“Don’t kill that man!” I gasped. “No one’s going to do it if I can’t!”
“I’m only choking a bit of the fight out of him, sir,” was Davis’ answer. And the next moment I was conscious of the approach, from heaven knows where, of Marvin Stillwell himself. His face, I remember, was the unwholesome color of a well-ripened cheese.
“Are you hurt, Woodruff?” he gasped.
I did not answer him, for at the moment Elvira was bending over me and trying to wipe the blood-stains from my face. She was using her little absurdity of a handkerchief for this, it is true, but there was something sweet and consolatory in its touch. Stillwell, apparently, had wheeled quickly about on Davis and MacGirr.
“Here, you, get that man in here,” I heard the owner of the house call out to my servant, as he threw open a door on the right. “Get him in there under lock and key!”
“You watch that man!” I managed to cry out, disquieted by the thought that MacGirr was leaving my sight. “And watch the other man too!”
“What other man?” demanded Stillwell.
“Sitnikov, the man on the stairs,” I sleepily told him.
“There’s no other man—he must have got away,” were the words I heard from the stair-head.
I must have been more done up than I first imagined, for the quick voices about me seemed to recede into space, the moving figures became more and more mist-like. I heard the voice of Davis, thin and faraway, ask where the telephone was. I also heard Elvira command someone to bring water.
I was awakened from my torpor by an explosion of sound that shook the floor on which I lay and brought a sudden shift to the entire scene about me. I could once more hear voices and steps, calls and cries.
I SAW a blue-clad figure block the doorway through which the shackled MacGirr had been thrust.
“Don’t look!” commanded this figure, peremptorily barring back Marvin Stillwell and Davis. “It’s no use—it’s all over!"
“But what is it?” gasped Stillwell, struggling foolishly and ineffectively to gain the doorway.
“He bit on a giant-cap o’ some kind, no bigger than a dog-whistle. It blew his whole head off—but for the love of God, keep out—don’t look!”
I remembered, with dreamy unconcern, that once, in my Central American mining days, I had seen a Jamaican negro, too indolent to use a “crimping iron,” close his teeth on a mercurial fulminate cap. It had detonated under that pressure, blowing away the negro’s jaw.
And MacGirr, I told myself, had declined to be taken alive. He and all the perils he stood for, were a thing of the past. But I seemed too weak and tired to give the matter much thought.
The Paths of Peace
AS A result of my impromptu “at home” in the Stillwell house I had to take a rest of three weeks, out at Beaumaris. Nearly one half of that time, in fact, I spent in bed, succumbing to a most unheroic attack of weakness. A more leisured appraisal of my bodily injuries could show a broken collar-bone, a torn wrist-tendon, three loosened teeth, and enough minor contusions and lacerations to excuse the attentions of a very prim and thin-lipped trained nurse who plainly resented the fact that Elvira Sabouroff could adjust a pillow much more delightfully than could her own over-professional fingers.
That enforced exile from the outer world practically cut me off from the more sordid aftermath of that sordid enough struggle—from the coroner’s investigations, the police conferences, the newspaper exaggerations and perversions.
The most deft perversion, however, was that which seemed to emanate from official quarters, insisting that the man who had reached such an untimely end in Marvin Stillwell’s house had been operating merely as a burglar. The identity of MacGirr, in fact, was never fully established—and in this, of course, I recognized the hand of the capitalist himself, naturally averse to exploiting either his enemies or their activities. There was, of course, the battered safe to back up this position—and many were the photographs and flashlights of that battered safe to appear in the evening papers.
But the nine-day wonder wore itself out, as wonders have the habit of doing, in a great city where the tides of calamity so ceaselessly beat and break on the cliffs of ennui.
The thought of escaping it all was not repugnant to me. The thought of having Elvira there, safe in my own home, was also a source of consolation.
As the soreness went out of my body, and the listlessness out of my spirit, I made it a point to be more and more with Elvira. I saw, from the first, that she was innately averse to idleness. While she found that rambling old house at Beaumaris attractive enough to the eye, she found her greatest delight in the performance of some definite and actual duty. So she seemed strangely happy in her elaborate task of sorting and cataloguing my Tanagra figurines.
She would have to run in to the city for a day or two, she told me, to consult the collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A day or two of research work in the city library would also be necessary, she felt, before she could make sure of her classification.
I could see, from the way she spoke, that the task was one that engrossed her. I felt a longing to share that work with her; but equally strong was my reluctance to force myself on her, or to give her the impression I was taking advantage of what she might have interpreted as her helplessness. I was quite willing to go slowly. There were certain things, I knew, which she would have to forget, certain inconsiderate missteps which would have to be forgiven.
I could detect that subtle shrinking from all personal relationship, for the present at least, in the very enthusiasm with which she spoke of the Tanagra figurines. It seemed unbelievable, she told me, that a few rows of terra-cotta figures could hold so much history packed away in their crudely baked clay. It seemed wonderful to think that on these little mud images of gods and men and animals hinged the history of classical art. It left her speechless to think they were the forerunners of all the glorious sculpture of Greek civilization.
ONCE her work was done as she hoped to do it, she confessed there would be a woeful shaking up of the Salting collection in London, and a relabelling of many of the Mycenaean museum specimens in general. And she went on to tell how so many of the figures reminded her of the half-jocular mural amoretti which she had once studied at Pompeii. She even claimed they should receive more attention than hitherto bestowed upon them, since they so clearly showed how Greek art-types first became secularized, and how art was once borrowed from city to city.
I had groped over much of that ground myself, and I was inordinately proud of my figurines. Only a few of my own family, in fact, knew what a small fortune had been frittered away on the foolish things. I felt repaid for them in the thought that they were serving as a link that might hold Elvira and me a little closer together. I wondered, too, if mere flesh and blood interests, if any commonplace man of to-day, could ever bring the same eye-glow of emotion as she spoke of my little terra-cotta Nike with its missing nose and its sadly broken pedestal.
Those were days of contentment and quiet happiness at Beaumaris. The stampeding March winds and the cold rains kept us much indoors—but this was not a hardship.
Then our tranquility was ended by an unexpectedly disturbing note. This took the form of a telegram from Natalie Stillwell, saying she was on her way home from Palm Beach and asking if I would run over to Jersey City with the car and meet her.
The End of the Armistice
THREE nights later I sat in Adolf’s, waiting for Elvira. The evening was thick, and unwhojesomely warm for early March.
Through the misted window-glass I could see the fretting and jostling street-crowds ebbing past, drifting homeward at the day’s end, stamping and pattering the pavement-slush into a disconsolate black batter. I felt suddenly grateful for the assuaging orderliness and quiet-toned hangings of the dining-room about me, for the sense of comfort and cleanness in the white-draped table rows, for the warm light from the rose-shaded candles. Somewhere, outside in the slush, a barrel-organ was converting Mascagni into ragtime madness. The clatter and throb of sound seemed to mock the greyness and weariness of a world grown suddenly old.
The barrel-organ moved away through the mist, and began again, more wearily, remotely, the distance mellowing its two year old Casino waltz-song into a pulsing and plaintive theme. The bedraggled streets emptied themselves, like a closed sluice-way, until nothing but a thin trickle of humanity seeped through it. A waiter in funereal black put a carafe down on one of the nearby niveous squares so brightly damaskeened with cutlery. I heard a tinkle of silver as he moved about the table, the faint squeak of his boots on the carpet as he passed out of hearing. Then I swung about so that I faced the door, and waited.
I waited expectantly, minute by minute. A diner or two drifted in between the serried rows of damask. An odor of cooked food, neither gross nor disagreeable, smote on my nostrils. I realized how hungry I was, and meditated, lazily, on how much that rudimentary appetite of hunger meant to human life. Then I looked at my watch again.
It was already fifteen minutes past the time. That was not an exceptional margin to leave for the accidents and exigencies of city travel. I warned myself against impatience. I sat back idly watching a woman in a plumed Gainsborough dabbing grated horse-radish on her Blue Points. I pondered if the table linen about me took on its different pattern from each different aspect simply because of its double set of parallel twilled threads. I wondered if waiters really had souls. I watched the newcomers who straggled in out of the night, by twos and threes, subdued into quietness as they came, dignified by the tangible decency of a plush carpet under their feet. It was a very quiet cafe; the sudden pop of a champagne-cork was almost a shock to the nerves. It was too far down-town for the frivolous; it was more a deep-water port for the human freighters of city life. And it was macaronic in more ways than one, was Adolf’s, for it was a German establishment with a French chef noted for his Italian dishes.
I turned back to the door and waited. Then I looked at my watch once more.
It was thirty minutes past the appointed hour. That, in itself, was not a momentous situation. But never before had I known Elvira to fail me. Never before had she kept me waiting in this way. I remembered that it had been her pwn suggestion that we meet at Adolf’s. She had even appointed the hour, and had repeated it to me, as though to impress it on my memory.
I probed about for possible reasons; but could find none. And as I sat there, with my watch still in my hand, a slow but persistent sense of apprehension began to well up within me.
To be Continued