I WONDERED if Elvira could have misinterpreted my natural reticence on the matter of meeting Natalie Stillwell. Elvira, on that same day, had motored in from Beaumaris with Davis, to go to the Metropolitan Museum and begin her study of the figurines there. I had sent her a bunch of Cattley orchids and a line or two leaving my town apartment at her disposal. Davis, in fact, had made tea for her there, and she had even left one delicate Cattleya Trianae in the Myrina vase on my study table. It had filled me with a sense of guilt, that solitary flower, for I had not altogether explained the reason for my absence. It would have been rather hard to explain; though Elvira, I had learned during those last few weeks, neither welcomed excuses nor looked for explanations.
Yet I had my excuses for meeting Natalie. In the first place, I wanted to cast the die for all time. I wanted to turn the page, and turn it honestly, by explaining everything.
Natalie, however, gave me no opening. There was not even a touch of the old imperiousness to fortify me in my resolution. If other things were troubling her, she gave small sign of it. She never was the sort of woman to be exigent, under any circumstances. She darted as lightly over the surface of things as a water-spider over the surface of its familiar pool. If any deeper feeling was stirring within her, she guarded it with her bristling facetiousness, just as her father guarded his reticent Long Island acres with ornamental chevaux de frise. She even gently coerced me into staying for luncheon, that she might show me her water-moccasin skins and her baby-alligator pelts. She told me the gossip of the Beach Club and how good the tarpon fishing had been. And I listened with attention and answered with studied interest, and tried to tell myself that after all it was very much like old times.
But I knew it was not. I also knew that I had missed, for that day, the chance of meeting Elvira, and wondered why the memory of it should make me miserable. I thought of the pale-faced, girlish figure, with all its contradictory aura of vigor and vitality, drifting through the rooms of the high-walled museum, so rich with its memories of the dead, of things so timelessly old. I tried to picture her as stooping above musty show-cases, as the figure of warm and pulsing Youth gazing into the dust and relics of the dead Past.
No, I decided, it was no feeling of pique that was keeping Elvira away. I could never imagine anger or chagrin in that statue-like impersonality of hers.
I looked at my watch once more. It was almost eight o'clock. My feeling of anxiety became one of alarm. It was no longer a mere matter of a spoiled dinner. It was a situation calling for immediate action on my part. For I could not forget the life out of which Elvira had so recently emerged. I could not shake off the memory of that once malignant figure, Red-flag MacGirr; I could not rid myself of the thought of such deliriants as Cono Di Marco, or obliterate the Inner Circle and its machinations from my mind. I even stopped to wonder what tentacle of that older and darker life could possibly reach out and hold her back.
I got up from the rose-shaded table and made my way through to the office of Adolf’s. There I called up Beaumaris on the long-distance telephone. I was answered by Mrs. Berger, the housekeeper.
“I would like to speak to Miss Sabouroff,” I said, as calmly and casually as I was able. "Miss Sabouroff is not here,” came the answer, and my heart went down into my boots at the words.
"She must be there,” I persisted, a little foolishly. The voice that trickled out of the wire explained that Miss Sabouroff had left early that morning for New York; she had been driven to meet the nine-fifty train.
“What did she take with her?” Mrs. Berger could not exactly remember, but she thought it was nothing more than a small hand-bag. Yes, she had seemed in normal spirits. She had given them to understand that she would be back that evening.
I somewhat startled the placid-eyed Mrs. Berger by ordering her to go at once to Miss Sabouroff’s room and report to me what was there. Then came what seemed an interminable wait. When Mrs. Berger spoke again it was to tell me that everything was there as usual. But no note or letter had been left for me.
Yes, Mrs. Berger was quite sure all Miss Sabouroff’s personal belongings had been left in her room. She had not returned, and she had sent no message. That was all. The situation was becoming inexplicable.
I left word at Adolf’s that if anyone called for me or any message came, to send word at once to my city apartments. Then I faced my ruined dinner, made a farce of eating some of it, and had my waiter order a taxicab for me.
All the way up Broadway and the Avenue I was stubbornly hoping against hope that I would still find Elvira there in my rooms, that some unthought-of side issue would explain the whole foolish dilemma. But the moment my door was opened by the imperturbable and melancholy-eyed Davis I knew that he was alone there. This very calmness exasperated me, at first, as he stood with his fingers hooked together, replying to my impetuous volley of questions with that ox-like placidity which can sometimes make precision doubly hateful.
Yes, Miss Sabouroff had been there. She had come at noon, had asked for me, and had seemed in excellent spirits. She had expressed a wish for paper, to copy some notes, and she had apparently written a letter or two. Davis had gone out, to look after my dogs at the Kennels’ Infirmary, a task which confronted him twice each week. He had left Elvira still writing at the desk. It was three o’clock when he returned, and she had gone. There was no sign that anyone had visited my apartment in the meantime. There was nothing to show when and where she had gone. No word or message had been left. She had disappeared, completely, as mysteriously as though she had walked to the edge of the earth and stepped over into illimitable space. It was more than a puzzle to me; it was a calamity.
I fretted about the room like a leashed beagle. But there was no clue to follow, no trail to take up. There was nothing for me to do. I could only wait until the morning, blindly hoping it was all due to some simple and foolish little blunder.
CHAPTER XXXII The Arm of the Law
I ENTERTAINED a not unnatural aversion to making the news of Elvira’s disappearance public. Hers was not a name I cared to see bandied about either club-rooms or street comers. I still hoped to stumble on some timely clue. I still thought that a few hours of organized inquiry and search would solve the mystery.
The entire morning was lost, accordingly, in a wild goose chase about the city. It was a chase which resulted in nothing but weariness of body and bewilderment of mind. Then, suddenly realizing that I had already lost much precious time, I went straight to police headquarters and sought out my friend Lieutenant Belton.
He was busy at the telephone as I entered, and this gave me a minute or two to pull myself together. I had a chance to shake off that newer depression born of the official austerities of Centre Street, of stolid and intimidating door-men, of a grim machinery of justice which seemed to grind the amenities out of ordinary intercourse even as it ground the evil-doer out of society.
I began to wonder, as I watched the figure at the telephone, just how I could explain things to him without explaining too much. The Central Office atmosphere is not one to encourage intimate confession, except under the thumb-screw of the law.
“What’s the trouble?” asked Belton, with mock solemnity, as he hung up the receiver and swung about on his chair. He faced me, looking as pink and fresh and fit as an athlete just off a running-track. He even laughed a little as he reached out jovially and shook hands with me I could only assume that his hilarity arose from a contemplation of my woebegone and worried face.
“A friend of mine has disappeared»” I began at once, without any beating about the bush.
“Friends have a habit of doing that now and then, you know,” he answered, with the casual smile still on his full-blooded and deceptively boyish-looking face.
“But this is an unexpected, and inexplicable, disappearance.”
"They often are—until they walk home and explain things.” *
“This is not that kind of a disappearance. It’s more than a puzzle. It’s a mystery, and I’ve got to find her.”
“Her!” repeated the lieutenant, with a quick little side glance in my direction.
“She seems literally to have dropped out of sight, without leaving a trace of her whereabouts, without any known reason for disappearing.”
“Are you responsible for her?”
“I feel, in a way, that I am responsible. It’s at least my duty to find her, at once, and at any cost.” The lieutenant curled the ends of his moustache, with infinite care and deliberation.
THE STORY SO FAR:—“Rebbie” Woodruff—cultured, wealthy, thirty-one, industrial and commercial dilettant —says au revoir to Natalie Stillwell, to whom he has been proposing for years. Natalie, daughter of a Wall Street “plute,” encourages “Rebbie,” suggesting he bend his energies —seriously for once—to fathom the mystery of the “Hammer of God,” threatening typewritten notes her father has been receiving. MacGirr, ex-con. Black-hander, a visionary Italian youth, and a beautiful girl enter the story, and in his investigations “Rebbie” commits burglary. “Rebbie” discovers the notes came from the Italian youth, Cono di Marco. He discovers a well-equipped laboratory, with fuses, TNT and bomb* galore; pulls the “fangs” of the bomb destined to blow up th» Exchange, and next morning visits Wall St. to see Cono about to attempt his dastardly crime. Cono’s bomb is a “dud,” but “Rebbie” has him jailed. The beautiful Russian girl. Elvira Paladino (Sabouroff), visits “Rebbie,” pleads for Cono’s release, and confesses she has been embittered owing U life’s persecutions, and become an instrument of the Inner Circle, a pseudo-Bolshevistic organization. “Rebbie", enamoured, agrees, on condition Elvira reports daily to him MacGirr threatens “Rebbie." Elvira tells “Rebbie" both their lives are menaced by the Circle. Sitnikov, shadowing the pair, throws a bomb into “Rebbie’s” flat ; Elvira pulls out fuse, saving their lives. “Rebbie” surprises MacGirr and Sitnikov in Stillwell’s mansion, jimmying the safe. A fight ensues. “Rebbie” is captured, but rescued by Davis, his valet. MacGirr dies, but the other crook escapes. Elvira, who is cataloguing Woodruff’s collection, fails to keep an appointment.
“That shouldn’t be so hard,” he murmured, in no way disturbed by the information I had given him. “But suppose you tell me a little more about the lady?”
“Her name is Elvira Sabouroff,” I began.
FOR the second time, the lieutenant let his quick side-glance play over my face.
“The ‘Bolshevik’ woman of the Cono Di Marco'case?" he inquired promptly, yet casually.
“Yes, that is the woman,” I admitted.
“The ‘gay-cat’ for that anarchist gang called the Inner Circle—the ‘floater’ for Red-flag MacGirr and his crowd—the ‘stick-up’ for men like Mutashenko?”
“She was one of the Inner Circle, I believe, but she has broken away from them,” I explained, as calmly as was possible. To speak without impatience meant somewhat of an effort on my part.
“You mean she said she’d broken away?”
“I know she had,” I declared.
“How do you know that?”
There was no mistaking the note of flippant skepticism. His query was barbed with a contempt which I hotly resented.
“I know it because I took her out of that life myself. I know it because she has for weeks been acting as a sort of private secretary for me. And I know it most of all because I know she is not a woman who could be happy with a gang of outlaws.”
“Miss anything worth while when she went?” he had the effrontery to inquire, without looking up.
“Of course not!” I cried.
My anger seemed to amuse him. He sat pulling at one end of his moustache, with his lips puckered.
“Those ‘Bolshie’ gangs are usually rather close corporations,” he ventured. “They don’t stand for deserters, I mean."
“That’s precisely why I don’t want to lose time in getting on this girl’s track. I’ve got to find out if that Inner Circle has in any way interfered with her. I want to find out if any of those Bolshevistic agents are mixed up in this."
The lieutenant still meditated.
“Of course, you’re aware of the fact that this city’s full of little revolutionary circles like that,” he explained, at last. “We’re growing into a sort of second Switzerland, over here, for Terrorists and Bolshevists and expatriates of all kinds. They raise most of their money here, and print their stuff and work out their plans. They don’t welcome police visitors. They prefer doing their work quietly and secretly.”
“But most of them must be known? They can’t get over Ellis Island without being sized up?”
“By no means most of them. They’d never get over Ellis Island at all if they were sized up. You don’t find people making bombs in public. They have their burrows, and they dive for them when they spot anything that looks like a spy. So all we can do is to scratch and bark around these burrows, like a dog watching a chipmunk’s hole.”
“But some tab must be kept on their movements?”
“When it’s possible, yes. But you must remember we have a good many of these people among us. We’ve Russians and Armenians, Hungarians and Syrians, Macedonians and Czecho-Slovaks, Mexicans and South Americans, Hindus and Heaven knows what all! We know that a revolutionary federation has its headquarters at a certain number on Fourth Avenue, and that what they call ‘The Hunchakista’ hangs out in East Twenty-fifth Street. But until one of those Hunchakista gentlemen commits, say, a murder like that of Tavshanjian, the Union Square merchant, we can’t do much. They live like a gang of gophers—they’ve always a hole to drop into, when the scare comes.”
“It’s not a certainty,” I explained, “that the woman in this case has actually fallen in with any of those people.” “But you say she knew their ways. And you also say that she has disappeared.”
“Yes, without excuse or reason."
“And you still think something may have happened to her?”
“I can’t tell. That’s what we’ve got to find out. That’s what brought me to your office.”
“Then tell me more about the case.”
TT TOOK me but a minute or two to report everything that remained unexplained. What I had to say did not seem to add to Lieutenant Belton’s perplexity. But be looked up at me, a little curiously.
“Do you know tile first answer the police would give to a case like this?"
I told him that I did not.
“Drowned,” he said, with an almost brutal candor. “But why talk about her being drowned?” I indignantly asked, yet with an involuntary tightness about my throat. “She’s not the sort of woman to take to drowning.”
“Well, that would be the usual answer,” he nonchalantly continued. “I don’t suppose you realize the number of ‘reported-missing’ cases we get down here. Last year, for example, we’d practically twenty-two hundred of ’em. We have a regular bureau for taking care of ’em. And we find about nine out of every ten of those missing persons. We find ’em, that is, either dead or alive.”
“How would you proceed with this case?” I inquired with a sense of growing uneasiness.
"As soon as a reported-missing message is sent from a precinct station-house to the Central Office here, it is turned over to what we call the M.P. department the ‘missing-person’ department.”
“And then what?”
“Then a blank is filled out at headquarters, and your case is given a number. Everything about that case it filed under that number—letters, pictures, data, and all that sort of thing. Then a summary’s made out and printed on a separate card by our police printer.”
“Then the thing couldn’t be kept confidential? This search can’t be kept a secret one?”
“It can, if you don’t actually want the help of publicity Of course it can. We send out a general alarm by sending these printed slips to every station-house. Confidential alarms are sent out with instructions not to go beyond the force. Then one of our trained detectives gets to work on the case, and, of course, the first thing is a look through the morgue, and then a round-up of the hospitals and sanatariums and that sort of thing. Then we move on to a wider circle, and then we try a still wider one. In fact, our M.P. department’s practically an international one. Nowadays we can start the machinery moving in London or Paris or Rome, once we’re sure our man or woman has got away from America.”
“But I don’t think this woman has left America I don’t think she would leave,” I protested.
“You can never tell what a ‘Bolshie’ will do!” declared Lieutenant Helton, swinging back in his chair and looking me over with easy condescension. “But we can start the wheels moving and find out, any time you say so.”
"Then be obliged to you if a general alarm was sent out at once. And I’d be very glad to offer any reasonable.
"But why the reward?”
"Because I’ve got to get trace of this woman,” I replied, with some heat. “I’ve got to get her.”
"It’s not for -well, for sentimental reasons?” he inquired.
“It’s for very material reasons if you’d call the fact that I know her life is in danger a material reason.”
"Ah, now we’re getting down to ‘hard-pan,’ ” said the officer, once more swinging around and facing me. “Where is this danger you speak of. as far as you know?”
“I don't know. That’s why I’ve come to you. Elvira Sabouroff has worked with this anarchist band called the Inner Circle. She realized that the leaders of that band were really criminals masquerading as Bolshevists. She knew their haunts, their aims, their secrets.”
“Which always has its drawbacks!”
"Precisely! Then she broke away from them, and they knew she had broken away. Doesn’t it stand to reason, then, that when she suddenly and mysteriously disappears her disappearance may be due to the activity of these old friends who have become her new enemies?”
THE lieutenant thought the matter over for several seconds.
“Yes, it is possible,” was his noncommittal answer. He was about to say more. I felt, but for some unknown reason decided to hold his peace.
“And isn't it equally reasonable that the longer any search for her is delayed, the greater the danger will be— the danger to her, I mean?”
“That’s equally true, if your original assumption is not at fault.”
I assumed that years of such things had left him thus casual and callous before all such dilemmas. In vain I searched his face for any sign of eagerness, for any more intimate trace of interest. All I saw was an official and unfathomable immobility.
“Then why not set the machinery in motion at once?” I asked.
He nodded, after another few seconds of thought.
“The machinery will be set in motion, if you say so,” he agreed. I watched him as he reached out and touched a push-button above his desk.
“It will be impossible for me to give you a photograph,” I explained. But I can make the description very definite.”
"The photograph will not be necessary," was the lieutenant’s reply.
"But it would help, of course?”
“Not so materially, in this case.”
"Because we already have the woman s picture—and, if I am not greatly mistaken, also her finger-prints.”
“You have her picture!” I echoed, as a hot flush of anger swept over me, followed by a slowly subsiding glow of resentment.
As an active and dangerous criminal who has been under the eye of the police for some two years now,” was the dispassionate reply, though I felt a touch of theatricality in the lieutenant’s enforced calmness.
"You mean because of her-extreme Bolshevistic beliefs?” I asked, with a resurgent touch of indignation. “Because she has been what you call a Nihilist?”
"Bomb-throwing is a little extreme, as you call it. And neither of us has forgotten the Cono Di Marco case.”
"She was not a party to that. She fought against that, from the first. That is one of the reasons she broke away from their cursed gang!”
It surprised me to find myself pleading her cause with such vehemence. It angered me to think that she even needed my advocacy. But my hauteur, on Lieutenant Belton, was like water on a duck’s back.
"I've been bumping into these Bolsheviks, Woodruff, every day, almost, for two or three years now,” he went on with the same imperturbable calmness. “And I’ve found the woman ‘Bolshie’, as a rule, even more tricky and unreliable than the man.”
He held up his hand at my quick start of protest.
"Wait,” he continued, motioning me back into my chair.
"Let me finish. It’s not my affair what your friend is, has been, or ought to be. She’s lost, and it's our place to find her for you. I’m uncommonly fond of you, Woodruff, and you’ve done me a good many decent turns, and that’s why I wish you were well out of this whole underground mess."
“Find that woman, and I shall be out of it.”
“Very well, I’ll start the machinery at once. And the moment anything turns up, you’ll get a report on it.”
HE HELD out his great hand. The grip he gave me seemed to be eloquent with understanding, with a commiserative condonation which I resented. “You’ll do me the turn of my life if you find her,” I said, realizing the futility of all explanation. “People can’t step off the earth nowadays without something to show for it.”
“I hope not.”
"Of course not. We’ve certain pet corners we look into first, in cases like this. I’ll see Dugan himself, and have him put McAllister on the case.”
Dispirited as I felt in leaving Lieutenant Belton’s office there was a certain indefinable satisfaction in the thought that the complex mechanism of the law was allied with and active in my cause. It seemed to take the hopelessness out of a prospect that had as yet given me little cause to hope. It brought the fortitude which the consciousness of reinforcements must bring to the actor on any impending battle-field.
By the time I had made my way back to my apartment that evening I knew that the machinery of the law in all its countless ramifications had been put into motion. I knew that the immense nervous system of the city had been electrified into action. But, as I stood at my high studio windows that night, looking out over the light-spangled gloom, I could not keep from wondering, with a touch of wistfulness, if Elvira Sabouroff rested somewhere in the midst of that great wilderness of humanity.
The Intervention of Lefty
A NEW day brought with it a new energy. My first realization was that I was no longer a dilettante along the dubious ways of the underworld. This could no longer be called merely the game for the game’s sake. I was no more “the amateur mouchard” meddling in other people’s affairs. I faced a problem of my own, a dark and forbidding problem demanding a quick and complete solution.
I did not intend to rely only on the police. The machinery at their command was extensive, but all official action in such a case, I decided, would have its handicap. My faith in the miraculous powers of the detective had long since been shattered. As Lefty Boyle, the stool-pigeon, had so often said: “It’s nine-tenths guesswork and one-tenth gall.”
So I went to Lefty himself, and laid the case before him. I told him everything, my only reservation being a natural silence as to the extent of my attachment for Elvira. But Lefty, I am afraid, was able to make a shrewd guess or two at that.
He sat whittling a spindle from a broken office-chair, and eyed the product of his handicraft for several moments of silence. But I knew he was deep in thought.
“Those Bolshevik gangs are like water-mains,” he observed"They’ve all got to travel underground, I mean."
“But why should this woman be travelling with any of those followers of Trotzky? She left them! They're enemies now!”
“She might be travelling with them unwillingly, mightn't she?”
I had to confess that she might. In fact, that was the thing of which I stood most in fear.
Lefty suddenly stopped whittling.
“Was this woman sore on you for anything? Did she have a grouch?”
The question struck me as an odd one, but it was easy enough to answer.
“She had no grouch, as you call it.”
“You’re sure of it?”
“I feel quite sure of it. I heard her say, in fact, that her last week at Beaumaris had been one of the happiest weeks in all her life.”
Again Lefty stopped whittling. “Have you made the first rounds —I mean the morgue and hospitals and those joints?”
“They were canvassed this morning. There’s nothing to lead us to believe the woman was the victim of any accident or sudden illness.”
Lefty sat pondering his fingernails.
“Except drowning,” he added meditatively. The persistence with which they all harped on the possibility of a happy and wholesomeminded girl meeting with death by drowning was beginning to get on my nerves.
“Can you give me a list of her friends, the people she knows?”
It was not a long list that I had to give him.
“I imagine they’re a sweet lot, that. Inner Circle gang!” was his comment. “Those. ‘Bolshies’ have five centres in this country. You’ll find each of ’em denying it, but they’re there, just the same. New York comes first, of course; then comes Hoboken. Then there’s Paterson , and then Pittsburgh. Chicago makes the fifth, and a mean fifth, too! Just about the same' place the Reds and anarchists infested.”
“I don’t care how many there are, Lefty, and I don’t care how mean they are—we’ve got to get into each one of them!”
"Assumin’ the lady’s there.”
“If she’s not there, we’ve got to find where she is.”
“There’s one thing. This case is likely to take time, and perhaps a little money. It may end in a day or two, or it may drag on for a month or two. I want you to know what you are up against.”
“The money side needn’t count, Lefty, if you can give it the time.”
HE LOOKED into a well-thumbed note-book, rubbing his stubbly chin as he consulted the pages.
“I’ll make time,” he said, with a nod of the head.
And with that nod I knew that I had the inimitable Lefty Boyle engaged in my service. Lefty Boyle engaged in my service.
“So don’t you crowd me,” he went on, with his indifferent drawl. “You just let me amble quietly along in my own way. It’s the only way, in a case like this. When there’s anything to report, I’ll come to you and report.’
I left him, feeling more at ease, more hopeful of the end. But I did not relax my own activities. That same day I cabled to London, and then to Rome, giving data and forwarding instructions for a reliable man in each city to be on the lookout for Elvira Sabouroff, alias Paladino. I next cabled to Buenos Ayres, at a flat rate of a dollar a word, and sent a message to La Prensa of that city, asking for information as to either Cono Di Marco or a woman named Paladino.
This done, I made it a point to visit my old room over the Schmidlapp laboratory. Nothing came of that visit, except the discovery that the little printing-shop was closed and locked, and the conviction, after an hour of guarded espionage, that the place was indeed empty and deserted.
It was two hours later that McAllister of the Central Office called on me. He was a quiet little man, who looked like a waiter in street clothes. He asked a number of questions as to the points I had already given Lieutenant Belton.
But I felt, all through his talk,that he had come there more for the purpose of sizing me up, of making sure there was not some secondary meaning in the entire movement.
Nothing, of course, had yet been accomplished. A feeling of irritation took possession of me at what I felt to be the law’s delays. I wanted action—at once. I wanted to see tangible returns, forgetting that the more cumbersome the machinery the more slowly it could be got under way.
One result of this mood of resentment was a hurried message to the garage for my car. The next was an equally hurried excursion down into the lower East Side, with a dip into those places, from the public libraries to the rooms of Elvira’s old lodging-house, where anything might possibly be picked up. Once, as I climbed out of a Second Avenue cellar café that was the haunt of a band of so-called Bolshevists, I came face to face with a quiet little man, who carried a couple of books under hls arm. He wore old-fashioned spectacles with polished steel rims, and might have passed for a studious waiter returning to his room. But, as he looked up at me, I saw it was McAllister, of the Central Office. He made a little movement as a sign for me not to stop and talk. So I watched him go quietly on his way, curiously consoled at the discovery of an agent thus surreptitiously working in my behalf.
I even came to take a sort of satisfaction in drifting idly yet determinedly about those Lower East Side streets, although my movements resulted in nothing. I felt, however, that something was being gained with each inch of ground that I covered; I was at least narrowing the area of the unknown.
I was congratulating myself on this fact, when a hand suddenly caught me by the arm and swung me sharply into the shadow of a doorway.
It was Lefty Boyle, with his hat tilted over his eyes and a villainous-looking cigar-end in one side of his mouth.
“Where did you drop from?” I demanded, looking up and down.
“Drop from? I’ve passed you three times in an hour and a half!” Then he grew suddenly serious. “What are you doin’ down here?”
“The same thing that you are doing, I imagine.”
He made no effort to conceal his look of disgust.
“Then git off that Irish linen and those twenty-dollar shoes. Do the thing right, if you’re going to do it at all. You’re only advertisin’ yourself.”
“That doesn’t worry me.”
“No, but you’re worryin’ me! You might as well go out to shoot ducks in a scarlet huntin’-jacket! And for the Lord’s sake, cut out the chauffeur and tourin’ car when you’re east o’ Fourth Avenue. That’s worse than—than tryin’ to hunt moose from a Pullman platform!”
“But we haven’t seen the moose yet!” I objected.
“And we never will, gunnin’ round with brass bands!”
“But I never bring the car all the way over with me.”
“Keep out of the car, altogether! Keep low! Get into your blind, man —get into your blind! Get under cover! This is the kind o’ work you’ve got to do without announcing it in the society columns!”
The Face in the Crowd
I ACCEPTED the advice of Lefty Boyle, and at once got under cover. The nature of my disguise, I soon saw, was the cause of considerable mental perturbation on the part of Davis, who with the exception of my one lapse some weeks earlier, had limited my sartorial prerogatives to the mere choice of a morning cravat.
When a man has once come to look on the laying out of your linen as a matutinal rite, and has grown to wield your daily razor with all the solemnity of a Buddhist priest steeped in the mystery of implacable and esoteric exercises, it is no easy matter, I have discovered, to divorce him from such ceremonials. Davis tacitly mourned for the exhumation of my evening clothes; he pined for a laundered shirt-front or a fancy waistcoat to embellish with onyx buttons; he grieved at heart to see me tog myself out in the same disreputable garage-suit which had served its purpose during my meanderings in the Cono Di Marco case. His sensibilities were wounded at the sight of my going about in deplorably soiled linen, in outlandishly unpolished shoes, in an oil-stained cap that would have been scorned by a tinker.
But the effect of that new attire, I must confess, proved in one respect little short of miraculous. I was no longer a marked man on the streets; I was one of the people. When I sauntered into an East Side café, men no longer turned to stare at me, drinkers no longer edged away from me. Ash-blond waitresses no longer tittered when I ventured into a cheap restaurant. Even the patrolmen now let me pass without that searching second glance, which, I suppose, brings disquiet into the breast of all evil-doers. I was spoken to now and then, as I went my ways, with the camaraderie of true undergroove fellowship. Card games went on while I stood by. Street gangs no longer dispersed at my approach. I no longer put a damper on dice throwing, or called forth comments from my neighbors in a slum fight.
But if I became less a subject for impolite observation, I became even less an object of polite treatment. I had never reveled much in that subserviency which accords the rich smooth going and soft corners simply because they are rich. I had never luxuriated in those hypocrisies with which so many of their lives are upholstered. And now I accepted things as they came. I took my joy in being one of the people. It was a new and in many ways a unique experience.
BUT at no time was I altogether idle, just as at no time was I altogether happy. There was that ceaseless gnawing anxiety, that eternal doubt as to the outcome of my quest, which kept my restless days from any touch of contentment. Each day opened and closed with an unanswered interrogation.
The tension of this feeling of suspense increased as time went on. No solution of the mystery appeared. At stated intervals I received reports from the police authorities. Periodically Lefty Boyle made his appearance before me. But nothing came of the quest. Replies to my cables dribbled in from foreign cities but no information came with them. Lieutenant Belton drew my attention to the deportation of one Madame Trina Pobloff, who, among other things, was accused of being a member of “The Brothers of the Woods” in the Riga district. She had also been a member of the Central Committee of the Second Soviet. There had been an exchange of notes between Petrograd and the Federal officials at Washington in 1917. Lieutenant Belton wanted to make sure that this woman was not Elvira Sabouroff under another name.
Then came a vague hint that an American woman had joined El Progreso, a newspaper published at Chivilcoy, near Buenos Ayres. After much cabling and questioning, the woman in question turned out to be one Señora Maria Abella Sarraga. She was a Bolshevistic FreeThinker of forty, who had migrated from La Conscienda Libre, at Malaga, and had never so much as set foot on North America.
The search was still a blind one. Not a jot of information had come to me; not an inch of ground had been gained. But my resolution was not shaken. I kept doggedly on the move, each day planning a new field of exploration, or, at least, a new examination of ground already gone
The mere law of probability, I argued, would some day bring me in touch with my quarry. The more I kept moving, the greater my chances must prove. It was equally important, I decided, that I should keep open every possible avenue of observation. I felt that my true hunting-ground was along the unordered ways of the underworld, yet I could not overlook the fact that things often came to us from the most unexpected quarters. A hint or inkling of Elvira Sabouroff’s whereabouts, I felt, might, through the operation of some perverse law of irony, come to me from that very upper world with which she had been so little in touch.
SO FOR one day out of each week I came up, like a whale, to breathe. I patrolled the Avenue in my car. I drifted from club to club. I visited tea-rooms and knocked about a few of those studios where art is considered a silent partner of conviviality.
But for the other six days of the week I wandered about the City’s underworld. I went untidily dressed and unshaved, and became one of the people. I made myself acquainted with the lower end of East Broadway, and bit by bit picked up information as to the different organizations of Russian revolutionists. I located the Bolshevistic “Bunta” in its modest temporary quarters at 196 East Broadway, and, across the way, the so-called “Social Democratic Party.” One block south, on Henry Street, the home of the “Social Revolutionary Party” was of equal interest to me.
I loafed and talked and made friends in drinking-places, stood in bread-lines, got on speaking terms with different gang members, and dropped in at dance-halls and smoking-cribs. My visiting-list gradually extended to fiery-tongued Finns and Poles and Jews, to say nothing of a Sinn-Feiner or two. I was made, after a substantial contribution to the “cause,” a probationer in the “Mother Earthers,” that cosmopolitan revolutionary sect led by Samuel Gicca. Acute and conscienceless demagogue that he was, Gicca interested me. I sized him up as a charlatan, from the first, but his loose-jointed audacity, his cunning and pertinacity, were not to be denied. He had drunk deep, like the rest of his “Mother Earthers,” of many a frothing theory; he was a ferment of all the balms and poisons of modern “free thought.”
I grew depressed at times, and lonely for things which I could not quite fathom. A sense of guiltiness also took possession of me, as I saw more and more clearly how unequal the distribution of earth’s wealth had been. I had never before understood what poverty entailed. I had never had the imagination to put myself completely in the place of those restless souls of the underworld until, even in pretence, I became one of them. And I made certain resolutions as to what was going to be done when my time once more became my own. I sat up, night by night, altering and adding to my working-plan of a tenement-house reform which I some day hoped to see under way. I consoled myself by planning out hygienic sleeping-halls, and a soup-kitchen for the winter months. I began to study how I could turn my Long Island stock farm into a community settlement for East Side city workers. And in the meantime I added repeatedly and recklessly to the coffers of the Macauley Mission.
But nothing of this brought me any nearer to the end of my quest. I stuck to my irregular circle of inspection as doggedly as a patrolman sticks to his rounds; yet I stumbled on nothing to reward me for my search. I have said that I did not despair. It is useless to deny, however, that the flame of hope dwindled down into a very faint glimmer. I suffered more than usual, I suppose, because I had always been denied so little in life. I had never been taught to endure defeat, had never experienced that stern subjugation of the ego which schools us to bow to powers other than our own.
So there were times when I rebelled blindly against my helplessness. There were times, too, when I felt that the whole thing was useless and hopeless, that the search was nothing more than a mockery— a foolish rite which must slowly initiate me into the conviction that Elvira Sabouroff was lost to me, for all time, that she no longer lived, that the vast tides which swept her away had long since buried all trace of her, obliterating all links that bound her to her old life. I had reached the end of my tether.
IT WAS then that I learned my mistake; it was then that the unexpected came about. It happened in a way so unlooked for that it all but dumbfounded me. It made me realize how incongruous the event and its environment may often be, how seldom the great moments of life come to us in a setting that is harmonious.
It was at the end of a warm and showery April afternoon, when even the bald canons of the East Side streets seemed softened and mellowed with the spirit of spring. I drifted into a crowd that blocked the curb near the corner of Second Avenue and East Houston Street, idly speculating on whether it was a fallen truck-horse or a gang-fight.
It turned out to be nothing more than a couple of street peddlers selling a tin musical-instrument known as a lutophone, a small contralto-noted mouth-whistle on which one vendor rendered the popular airs of the day, while his companion accompanied him with barrel-organ obligato. The music, as the odd couple struck up their plaintive duet, filled the, quiet valley of the street, and caused the evening crowd to come surging thicker and thicker about them.
I stood there in the April twilight, watching the mass of color and the faces of the men and women and children about me. They were of all nationalities, Hungarian and Italian, German and Greek, Russian and Irish and Syrian ; even a negro, and a slant-eyed Asiatic or two. They stood there circled about the music, listening, relaxed, wistful-eyed and mournful, touched with the spirit of the sound that throbbed and pulsed up through the quiet April dusk made golden with floating dust.
I let my eye wander over this little sea of saddened faces. Then suddenly, as I peered across the crowd, a tingle of shock swept through all my body, and seemed to burst like a light-globe in my very brain.
For there, not thirty feet away from me, stood Elvira Sabouroff. At her side, at her very shoulder, I saw the face of Sitnikov, the Red. He stood abstractedly wagging his head to the time of the music. I noticed, in that one quick eye-flash at him, that his whole face seemed on the oblique, as though some diabolical instrument of torture had at one time forced the skull back from its undershot jaw, as though it had been shifted and flattened in its framework under some great pressure.
In the next heart-throb my eye was back on the girl’s face, as Sitnikov turned on her his child-like and almost inane smile. The unexpectedness of the vision confronting me left me fixed and rooted there, incapable of movement. But it was, indeed, Elvira. I could see the statue-like pallor of the oval face under the shadow of the heavy black veil thrust up over the black hat-brim, the soft little hollows under either cheek-bone—the hollows which had always lent a touch of tragedy to her face. I could see the deep and wistful eyes, with their brooding and wordless hunger—the eyes which had always given her an apparent touch of the deliriant. I could see the full, deep red under-lip, which always had the habit of squaring itself as she talked, giving her face both its childlike note of ingenuousness and at the same time its appearance of inward revolt. I could see the gently sloping shoulders, beside those of the rough men of the street—the relaxed and gently sloping shoulders that seemed so tragically inefficient for opposing the world. I caught a glimpse of the slender young body backed by the great bulk of a van-driver’s figure. I saw her, the woman I had loved and lost, with her dreaming eyes gazing absently and idly at the figure of the street musicians who stood beside the crowded curb.
Then thought returned to me. Whether or not I cried out, I cannot say. But I remember battling and fighting my way through the crowd. I remember Sitnikov’s start, and the change that swept over the girl’s face as she looked up at the sudden commotion. I remember that she turned quickly away, with what seemed almost a look of fear in her eyes, and loosened the heavy veil from her black hat-brim. And it was then that I flung myself against the human barrier that separated us.
My one passion was to reach her side; my one impression was that to lose time would be to lose everything. But in this I defeated my own ends.
The closely packed crowd resented my incomprehensible assault. Shoulders and elbows barred my way. A hand caught at my coat, and playfully held me back. I had to drill through them, like a football player bucking the lie. I had to fight every inch of the way.
When I reached the spot where the white-faced girl had stood, she was no longer in sight. She had disappeared through the quiet evening dusk as completely as though she had been a timid ghost affronted by the sheer frenzy of my advance. What became of Sitnikov I could not tell. But I nursed the vague impression that he had not fled with the girl. Some subliminal conviction told me that she had turned away alone, of her own will. She had not been shackled or dragged away from me.
I shuttled back and forth through the crowd. I hurried into side-streets, circled about neighboring squares, doubled on my tracks, and resumed the chase in still other directions. There was not a trace of Elvira to be found. I had lost her again.
But a drunkenness sang in my head and danced through my veins as I paced the evening streets, soft with coming Spring. I had seen her; she was alive and well. At least, I knew that she and I, that night, were both somewhere housed by the walls of the same city.
The Old and the New
I LOST no time in advising both Lieutenant Belton and Lefty Boyle of the new turn of affairs. A second general alarm for “Elvira Paladino, alias Sabouroff” was at once sent out to the police.
The day was still young when Lefty Boyle and a chosen few of his kindred spirits were going over the entire East Side, burrow by burrow, like rats through a wheat-bin.
I was a new man, myself. I had now something on which to centralize my activity; something tangible to fight for. I was no longer a disheartened idler. I seemed more like a Meadowbrook hound after a good sniff of his “worry meat.” I could not be happy until I was once more on the hunt.
But, on second thoughts, as the morning wore away and nothing came to reward our different movements, new perplexities presented themselves. I knew that Elvira was alive. I felt sure that she was a free agent, that she was not denied the right to come and go on the city streets, that she was not being held a prisoner against her will. Yet for some unfound and unfathomable reason she had let herself drop away from my life. She had made no effort to come to me when accident had brought us face to face. She had evaded and escaped me.
Was there not something more disturbing in this, I kept asking myself, than in the earlier thought of her disappearance against her own will? Could the mere suspicion of death be less disturbing than the actual death of all her old self, her old sympathy and feeling, everything that had seemed to leave her so vital and so essential to me? Was not this separation in spirit, whatever it meant, much worse than the mere separation of space? And what, of all things, had given rise to such an attitude on her part?
It was more than I could fathom, a mystery beyond my power to solve. But I felt that it was based on some stupendous mistake. I still struggled to coerce myself into the belief that it had arisen out of some misapprehension, which even a moment of talk might set right. I let the riddle stand, and went on with the indeterminate chase. Then for the second time the unlooked-for thing took place, to impress on me again how often the wheel of accident drops unexpectedly into the groove of destiny.
It occurred on the third afternoon of my renewed search, as I stood north of the Brooklyn Bridge approach, scanning every face that drifted back and forth through that tide-gate of restless humanity. I heard an unexpected little shriek of wonder and then my name called, as a winecolored limousine circled from the bridge approach into Park Row. I would have dipped into the crowd and lost myself at once, but I saw the car slow down, swing about and shudder up to the curb within ten yards of where I stood. I saw a plumed hat held in by a pearl-tinted veil, and then a second veil-covered hat as a gloved hand was waved to me.
I knew it was the Stillwell limousine, and that one of the women seated in it was Natalie Stillwell herself.
“Why, Rebbie, is it you?” cried Natalie, as I stepped to the opened door of the car. The woman with her, I saw, was Nannie Washburn. I surmised, even before they told me, that they were on the way home from Westbury, after a glimpse of the trial heats for the cup race at Garden City. It seemed one of the trivial things of life now, that fiercely fought contest on a muddy parkway, where wolfish faces under leather helmets and goggles whirled about a race-track for the mere sake of demonstrating that one thing of cranks and shafts and wheels went faster than another.
“Aren’t you under the weather, Rebbie?” asked Nannie, as she made room for me on the deep-cushioned seat.
“Yes, do,” said Natalie, as I still hesitated. “And we’ll drop you at your door."
NATALIE herself, I noticed as I took my seat in the car, was different and yet the same. There was the same undisturbed sense of well-being, the same full-blooded languor which careless observers might call laziness, the same impression of being a spectator of life rather than an actor in its movements. Yet, in some way, I seemed to miss the familiar touch of imperiousness, the old-time careless joyousness which had always made her air of one born to the purple so easy to forgive. There was the same casual yet queenly poise of the alert head, the same wonderful light in the deep, sapphire eyes.
“Well, you have been keeping Lent!”' was Nannie’s prompt declaration. The sapphire eyes were on me, watching me closely. They made it no easy matter for me to have my retort a laughing one.
“Or is this the sackcloth and ashes of repentance?” pursued Nannie.
“Or the disguise of a modem Dupin in search of a clue?” suggested Natalie. She joined in Nannie’s laugh, yet something in both her tone and her words brought my glance up to her face. She returned my look, steadily.
That feeling of an old affection which has paled and withered, of an old friendship which has suffered change and loss, is not a pleasant one. Nor is it easy to step back, at a lift of the hand, into those grooves of life which you feel you have outgrown.
I found it hard to explain what had kept me so preoccupied. I marshalled a number of vague trivialities that were as foolish as they were unsatisfying. It angered me to think that I was making such a mess of the thing.
“We have missed you,” said Natalie, with a simplicity and directness which left my own weak duplicities all the more hateful to my eyes. Whatever Natalie Stillwell was, I felt she was always a thoroughbred.
Nannie must have detected the spirit of some repressed and unspoken drama in the air about her, for she suddenly demanded that she be dropped at the door of the Colony Club.
There were several minutes of silence as Natalie and I sat alone in the car, and it went swinging and purring northward
“What’s the new game, Rebbie?” she said at last, without looking at me.
“There’s no new game,” I answered, truthfully enough. “I’m tired of games.”"
Again there was that pregnant silence, and I almost thought I heard a ghost of a sigh escape from the woman at my side. She must, at that moment, have felt that our old, more intimate intercourse was in itself a sort of game—a game where I had light-heartedly pursued because she had always light-heartedly fled. Then she spoke.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Would you mind telling me what has become of your protegée—the girl with the advanced ideas about—about Bolshevism and such things?”
She was looking at me quite bravely as she asked the question.
“Why do you ask?”
“I’ve heard her spoken of—even Harvey said he had met her, you know.”
“She’s here in New York,” I answered.
Natalie’s eyes widened a little, and then grew even more narrow than before.
"Not making bombs?”
I SHOULD have felt thankful if there had been something in the tone of that question to call forth my anger. But there was not. The woman at my side seemed only to be seeking information.
“She never made bombs. She merely accepted certain communistic ideals of life and conduct.”
“Which means she is a Bolshevist?”
“She is no longer a Bolshevist,” I answered.
Again there was a moment or two of silence.
“Has she friends?”
“Yes, many of them—too many of them,” I replied.
“You are interested in her, of course?”
“Yes, I am interested in her.”
I knew the sapphire eyes were looking at me.
“Do you think there is any way in which I could help her?” asked Natalie, very simply. It was a question that was not very easy to answer.
“I know of no way in which your help could be extended to her,” I replied at last, feeling a little ashamed of my pomposity, even as I spoke. I had not meant my answer to seem a rebuff, either veiled or open, but three of Natalie’s white teeth were compressed on her full and softly lined under-lip.
“She is Russian, is she not?” was the next question.
“Partly Russian—partly Austrian.”
“A sort of daughter of the people?”
“Yes,” I answered. It was my turn to look up, and Natalie’s turn to look away, out of the limousine’s misted window.
“I suppose she eats herrings and sunflower-seeds with salted pickles?” Natalie mildly inquired.
I felt more at ease after that equalizing touch of emotion on her part.
“There have been days, I rather imagine, when she has not even had that to eat!”
We were two blocks farther north when Natalie spoke again.
“Rebbie,” she cried, with a sudden gush of deeper feeling breaking into her voice, apparently against her will, “let me help you in this, won’t you? Let me feel that I can be of use to you in something that counts! Let me try to repay some of the things you have done for me!”
It is usually not regarded as one of the bitter ordeals of life to have a wonderfully beautiful woman turn to you and plead to be of service. I could feel the tug of the old vague affection at that moment. But I knew it was useless. There was no need even for a struggle. It was like a breath playing on ashes and dead embers; there was no warmth left to revive.
“What can either of us do?” I asked, in a vague effort to evade the issue.
Once more Natalie looked at me out of her sapphire eyes, and her face was a little paler than before. Her hand moved toward me. I might have taken it, but I could not. It was quietly withdrawn.
“Are you changing, Rebbie?” she asked, with the ghost of a smile. Like all ghostly things, it was not merry.
I felt that one of life’s big moments was confronting me, and that I was failing to meet it as I ought. I tried to sweep back an engulfing tide of depression with the mental declaration that it was at least my duty to be honest. But I could not divorce my mood from the memories of the past, from that life which the woman at my side had once seemed to illuminate. Life without those memories seemed as thin and cold as northern sunlight after the genial warmth of a tropical winter.
I thought of the girl listening to the lutophone music in the April twilight, with the street dust golden above her, with the city teeming and throbbing about her lonely spirit. And with the memory of that face went my last doubt. It was greater to give love than to receive it. Expenditure, in this life, was the only law of acquisition. I sat there, wondering how I could express a change so implacable and yet so cruel, a conviction so plain and yet so paradoxical. Then I looked up, for I saw the car had at last stopped in front of my door.
NATALIE was the Natalie of old, ’ holding out her gloved hand to me. She had, I could see, put on her old armor of humorous indifference. She sat cuirassed and helmeted in the invisible steel of convention. Pride waved like a plume of chivalry, intangible yet towering, above her beautiful head.
"Come and see me when you can,” she said, with a smile that was engaging in its very abstractedness.
I promised to do so, as I shook hands with her, quite solemnly, through the open limousine door. Then she called me back.
“I’d like to talk to you some time,” she said, “about Harvey."
“What about Harvey?” I asked.
My question seemed to bring the cuirass and helmet once more between us. There was no conscious movement, as of wounded sensibility drawing into its shell, but I knew she had deferred saying what impulse had first prompted her to say. “It’s nothing that can’t wait. We'll talk about it when you’re free again!”
The limousine swerved in a graceful curve out from the sidewalk where I stood. I watched it join and merge into the Avenue’s line of evening traffic. Then I turned and went up to my apartment with a wordless feeling of discontent and depression.
Davis met me at the door. One glance showed me that something had disturbed that usually imperturbable spirit.
“What is it?” I demanded. Davis, at times, was not hard to anticipate. His spoken word often came to me like the sound of a distant whistle over which I had already seen the steam-blast flower and fade.
“Lefty Boyle has been here,” was his answer.
“And?” “He told me to tell you at once, sir, that he has located Sitnikov!”
“Yes, sir, Sitnikov, the man who threw the second bomb,” explained Davis.
“Sitnikov!” I repeated triumphantly.
The name seemed to fall like a portcullis between my old world and the new.
The Coast of Silence
TWENTY minutes later, I had started out in search of Lefty Boyle. He was to meet me at ten, but the thought of an idle and wasted night was too much for me. Inactivity was now impossible. So Davis hurriedly ordered the car from the garage while I had a bite to eat. In half an hour's time we were dragging the city for Lefty, very much the same as life-savers drag a lake for a lost body.
It took two hours of quick and continuous search before he was brought to the surface. Then, by the sheerest good luck, I caught sight of him interrogating a patrolman on the upper side of Chatham Square.
He made no effort to conceal his annoyance when I drew up and called out to him.
“I wish you’d run that devil-wagon into the East River!” he said, with an unsavory expletive or two. He climbed in, nevertheless, at an impatient sign from me. I had no time to lose in talk.
“You’ve got Sitnikov?” I demanded.
“Have I?” he retorted. “Then I wish you’d tell me where I’ve got him.”
“I only go by what you told Davis.”
“I guess I crowed too soon,” admitted the little man, with still another soft yet blasphemous interjection.
“You mean he got away?”
“He ducked and ran, all right. But we’ve found his outside fence, and we’re after him again.”
“Then let’s get him.”
Lefty Boyle looked at me and laughed a little.
“There’s no special use trying to hurry these things; it only balls you up. This man’s a fugitive from justice, and he’s going to fight before he’ll be cornered.”
“But we’ve got to corner him, fight or no fight.”
“We’ve got to get him when he’s not looking for fight, or for us!”
“Where’s his fence, as you call it?”
“Among the Island dagoes, somewhere between Bath Beach and Sea Gate.”
“That means most of Coney Island, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, most of the water-front, at any rate. There’s a couple o’ shootin’-gallery men out there who supply material to some of the Nero-Mano bomb-makers. Sitnikov worked with a man named Schmidlapp, who’s the smoothest soupmixer in the business here.”
It was a link, but nothing more.
“What are you doing about it?” I asked.
“I’m working it up from the New York end. I want to locate those two shootin’-gallery men.”
“Then I’m going to get at the Coney Island end!” I averred, with a decision and promptness which caused Lefty to look me over a little skeptically. He shrugged a shoulder.
“What can you do?”
“Try to find Sitnikov.”
I was thinking of the last time I had seen that slant-faced Slav; but, most of all, I was thinking of the figure that had stood at his side.
“Then cut out this cursed car, whatever you do!” said Lefty, with a touch of disgust. There was nothing subservient about him. He believed in candor, at any cost.
It was a full hour’s run out Ocean Parkway to the Island, even with Davis’ studied forgetfulness as to the speed law on side-streets and open stretches. The night air seemed damper and cooler once we had left Prospect Park behind us. Few indeed were the travellers we met as we swept out over the lonely flatlands dotted with gas-lamps, and then across a miasmal-smelling creek into streets of wooden buildings that reminded me of a Neapolitan slum.
CONEY ISLAND was still in the chrysalis stage. Surf Avenue had not yet opened up into its butterfly gaiety of Spring. The blank-windowed hotels still hibernated above the ocean tides; the parks were still unlighted and unpainted, looking dingy and spectral in the faint light. Only along Surf Avenue itself were there signs of life. An occasional shooting-gallery, a sprinkling of moving-picture halls, a few drinking-places and photograph-pens, a gloomy array of stalls that suggested the peanut-roaster, the candy-seller, and the sausage-vendor— these made up the still wintry cocoon of Coney Island.
My first thought was to stow away the machine in an empty parking-shed. My next was to make a round of the shooting-galleries, while Davis drifted about the water-front. Then I swung back to Surf Avenue, the one artery of traffic that still held light and life.
I explored that avenue carefully, block by block. I went over it, first on one side and then on the other, as an oysterman rakes his beds, foot by foot, always looking for the one face, always hoping for a glimpse of the one figure. The wind blew in from the Atlantic, cold and raw, bringing a drizzle of rain with it. I was glad of my fur-lined motor-coat. I felt that a smoke might prove equally consolatory, though I had to turn into the shelter of a doorway, out of the wind, before I could get a light.
My eye rested idly on a thin and stoop-shouldered figure of a man entering an Italian grocery-store. It was a huddled and forlorn figure, with the rain dripping from its black hat-brim. Idly I watched the man as he made his frugal purchases, two pounds of macaroni, an Italian loaf, and a quart of red onions. I watched him as he took the paper bag under his arm and turned toward the door.
Then I stepped quietly but quickly back into the shadow until he had passed.
For the man with the bag under his arm was Sitnikov.
The Fight in the Dark
I HAD found again the first link in the unknown chain. I had made my first actual step toward some solution of the mystery before me. I felt like a miner who had stumbled on the out-croppings of a long-sought mother-lode.
I waited with quickened pulse, for I would have faced anything rather than lose that one slender link. I followed the thin and stooping figure as it beat against the wind and rain westward along the lonely stretch of Surf Avenue, and then north, and then west again, until it emerged on the waterfront facing what must have been the Ambrose Channel. Before me was nothing but gloom and silence and empty street-ends, dunes, and the hollows of white sea-sand, punctuated here and there by the ghostly sign of a land-agent. Far away on my right I could see the vague glow of New York and Brooklyn against the sky, in auras of misty gold. Before me, where the seafront merged into marshland and open water, I could see the lonely twinkle of shore-squatters’ lights, the gray mass of an occasional tarpaulin-covered launch, and a ghostly schooner or two.
I saw Sitnikov cross to the water's edge, look guardedly back, and then whistle out into the darkness. A light appeared on what seemed to ho a derelict houseboat. A door opened and closed, and a voice called cautiously back across the water. Then came silence again. Presently I heard the thump of an oar, two voices in mumbling talk, and a sound like the grate of a keel on a bed of oyster-shells. Sitnikov had dropped into the boat.
There was more mumbling and talking, a sound of quiet rowing. The two men were apparently returning to the stranded house-boat. I heard a door open and close. I could see a thin plume of smoke from a stovepipe-end above the cabin. Then I caught a glimpse of light from the window, and heard the splash of something thrown into the water. I had never dreamed that, anywhere within the circle that held Greater New York, such solitude could be found.
I walked along until I came to three oarless punts chained and padlocked to a wave-lapped, water-logged piece of timber embedded in mud. I chose the weakest of the three locks, and forced the staple. Next I found a piece of board—a strip from a lemon-crate—that would serve as a paddle. I knew that I should have no tide to contend against in such a quarter, and I felt grateful for it as I made my way as quietly as I could toward the houseboat. I swung about under her stern, and caught at the rotten decklip with my hand, in order that there should be no noise. I tied my boat and stepped silently on board. Then I approached the cabin window and reconnoitered.
The scene that met my eyes was unassuming enough. On a small cook-stove raised from the floor by means of bricks, a half-dressed man in a dull red undershirt was frying fish in a pan.
ON THE back of the stove steamed a pot of macaroni. Behind this stood Sitnikov, drying his wet coat. I saw him take two Italian “rat-tail” cigars out of his vest pocket and hold them up before the man frying the fish. His lean Slav face broke into a grin as he did so.
The fat man shifted his position, and I could see him better. I took him to be a Greek or a Syrian—he was so swarthy, his hair so black. But when I heard him speak, I decided otherwise. I thought, for a moment, that he might possibly be a Bulgarian. He was thick-shouldered and of medium height, dressed only in a woollen undershirt and a pair of lime-stained trousers. I finally decided, however, as I studied his face, that he was an Italian. He contemplated the frying fish with placid contentment. Sitnikov took an appreciative look into the macaroni-pot. I felt sorry that I was to spoil so good a meal.
I did not care to face the two of them at once, yet I would feel safer if neither of them got away. I knew my chance was at hand, however, when I saw the fat Italian lift the pot from the stove and approach the door, to drain the water from the macaroni over the side. So I waited for him, as close beside the little cabin door as I could get.
I thought that I should be able to do the business silently, without betraying my presence to the second man inside. But in this I was mistaken. The Italian squealed like a stuck pig the moment I fell on him. Even when I had the breath half choked out of his fat body he bubbled and groaned with huge seismic noises.
I had to put him out with my bare knuckles—with a quick, hard punch just above and forward of the ear. He rolled over and relaxed, like a clubbed seal.
It was none too soon, for I could see that Sitnikov, inside, had already blown out the light. I knew there was trouble impending from that quarter.
It came more promptly than I bad expected. It came in the form of a revolver-shot almost beside my ear, and a stab of flame through the darkness not five inches above my head. The shot was repeated before I could duck. I felt it sweep my motor-cap from my head. Then I came to my senses, and made the only counter movement possible—a quick drop and a dive for the man's feet.
I caught him by the ankles with a quick outward pull, even as my lingers clamped on his thin legs. It brought him down on the base of his spine, with a shock that must have stunned him for a second or two. His revolver went oil for the third time as he fell, but I had my hand on his pipe-stem of a wrist before he could use it for a fourth shot. I knew that he would not have hesitated about putting a bullet through my head.
He seemed to be equally sure of my intentions as we fought and twisted about the narrow deck, for with a sudden sidemovement of his body he flung the gun from his pinioned hand, and kicked and pawed at it until it was pushed to the edge of the deck and fell overboard. He intended to make sure that it should not be turned on him, I suppose, though I could have throttled and shaken the life out of him with my bare hands as he lay there. But I needed him for other things.
HAD I been left alone, I might have got him to his senses and reasoned with him, and shown him that I meant him no harm. But no such chance was given me. My mind had been too taken up to give much thought to the fat Italian stretched out by the cabin door. My first intimation that he was once more himself came with his reassuring call to Sitnikov. It was a sort of yelp of rage and defiance. I caught sight of the flash of his knife-blade in the gloom.
Since the day I saw a Mexican sea-gambler disembowel a rival in Acapulco I have always nursed an irrational and deep-seated horror of naked steel. I have hated the thought of a knife-blade as an Indian hates the sight of a rattler. So I broke away and fell back as I saw the Italian run forward. It was not a graceful retreat, but it served its purpose. My one idea was to get distance between us. Half rolling, half crawling, I reached the little cabin door. There I got to my feet. Then I slipped inside, and groped and padded about in search of some means of defence.
The only thing I could find was the long-handled frying-pan of pressed steel. Even as I picked it up, I heard Sitnikov’s cry of triumph and his hurried call for the other man. I knew, as I swung about, that the two of them were already in the crowded little cabin, and that neither of them intended to hold back from the fight.
There was nothing said after that first cry and call from the little Russian. The silence, fox a second or two, was ominous; then the trouble began.
We might have been three naked savages on some lonely island, so primitive was that struggle. They both came at once, and my weapon was nothing but a ludicrous scullery implement. They came at me like a couple of terriers, or, rather, like a terrier backed up by an overfed Great Dane.
I could see that Sitnikov was scarcely a follower of Tolstoy in his theories of nonresistance. He came at me with what was either the end of a broken oar or a table-leg. I had to receive and ward off its blows with my fatuous steel frying-pan. I fell back, dodging from side to side, watching and wondering when I could get in the stroke that would count. The Italian, trying to take me unawares from behind, made my position precarious. Movement alone could save me.
A TABLE went over in the tumult, A and with it the lamp. Then a chair, flung by Sitnikov, crashed against what must have been a row of. crockery dishes. The stove went tumbling and rolling down from its base of piled-up bricks, scattering live coals along the broken floor. The smoke from these, and from the disjointed stovepipe, made the cabin air almost unbreathable. Then the two closed in on me again.
Once a ribbon of sparks showered through the dark, where the Italian’s knife struck and rasped along the handle of my pan. I dodged back and swung out madly, bringing the flat steel down on his hand. It must have disabled his fingers, for the knife fell, and I could hear his grunt of pain. But Sitnikov—and whatever else he may have been, he was assuredly a courageous little rat—closed in on me, to cover the other man’s movement as he stooped to catch up the fallen knife. He kept striking wickedly for my head, making me wonder how much longer I could hold out, or by what means I could divide the two and deal with them one by one.
My breath was now coming in painful gasps, and blood was running from somewhere on my wrist where a side-stroke of the knife had made itself felt. It was now merely a matter of time; they could tire me out between them, and make an end of the business as they thought best. Lefty Boyle had been right: I had indeed gained nothing by my interference. I had spoiled and ended the game.
I decided on a last move while I still had the, strength to essay it. My chance came,as Sitnikov missed a stroke. Before he could raise his weapon again I sprang directly at him, encircling his neck with a half-crook of my arm. I pinioned him against my chest, for I was much the taller man, and continued the pressure until I could hear the crackle of his tortured joints. He fought blindly and uselessly, clawing and scratching and biting at my heavy motor-coat until his breath gave out. But still I hugged him there, as an infuriated grizzly might hug a captured hunter. My right hand was free, and with it I wielded the frying-pan, flail-like, warding off and beating back the Italian in the ludicrous red undershirt.
I wondered how long I could thus hold him off, racking my brain for some strategic move which might still help me out. I had given up all thought of offence. I was thankful enough for strength to hold my ground, though some anxious voice in my agonized body kept asking what the end would be.
The Third Degree
WHAT that end would have been, it is hard to say. But as I stood there in the darkness I heard the sound of a calling voice, the hurried chug-chug of rowlocks, the impact of a boat against the deck on which I stood. I listened dazedly, wondering whether it meant friends or enemies. Then I heard a voice that was strangely familiar to me.
“Mr. Woodruff!” came the anxious cry through the darkness. “Mr. Woodruff! For the love of God, sir, where are you?” It was the voice of my man Davis— dependable, reliable, faithful old Davis.
“Here, Davis!” I called back to him. “But be careful!”
“At the end of the cabin.”
“Opposite the door. But get a light— quick, get lights!”
I heard the thump of running feet on the deck, and a moment later a lantern was swung in at the open door. Above it glimmered and shone the barrel of my large revolver. The expression on Davis’ face rather disturbed me.
“Steady there,” I cried. “Don’t shoot the man—don’t shoot him!”
I spoke none too soon. Davis had already sized up the situation. He saw the Italian in the red shirt crouching back as though to spring; he saw, through the drifting smoke, the clawing Sitnikov pinned under my arm like a pullet. He saw the blood on my hands, my torn clothing, my face wet with perspiration.
He lowered his revolver a little, reluctantly. Then he swung about on the Italian thrusting the lantern up into the oily face with his left hand.
“Drop that knife!” he said, with a savagery of which I had not thought him capable. “Drop it, quick!”
The knife was dropped.
“Now, back up into that corner!”
The order was obeyed.
“Now stand there, without moving, or I’ll blow your frog-eating ’ead off!”
As I have said before, it was only in moments of intense excitement that Davis omitted the aspirate.
“What now, sir?” he asked, turning to me.
“Watch your man,” I told him, “but knock out that cabin window first. We’ve got to have air in here.”
“Very well, sir,” was his answer. The tinkle of glass told me that my order was obeyed.
“Now, give me the revolver. I’ll watch this man. You stamp out that fire along the floor.”
I FLUNG Sitnikov into the corner beside his red-shirted comrade, and stood over them both, taking great lungfuls of the fresh air that came through the broken window. It was all so useless, so foolish, so without meaning or purpose, that now it was over I could almost have wept like a schoolgirl.
“How did you get here, Davis?”
“I heard the shots, sir, and hired a boat.”
“Who’s out there with you?”
“Two boat-house men, sir—an old man and a boy.”
He turned and waved a hand toward two shadowlike figures in the cabin doorway.
“Shall I call an officer, sir?” he asked, as placidly as though a patrolman were within whistling-distance.
“No, we don’t want an officer in this.”
I turned to the two pair of eyes gleaming out through the dim light at me. They stared as two harried water-rats might stare from a sewer-end. Automatically, I picked up my cap, and straightened my collar and tie.
“Oh, you fools!” I cried. I suppose I was unnerved. “You hopeless fools!”
I had to take myself in hand with an effort. The thing was over with. Nothing was to be gained by such a display. My own moves had not been so wonderfully felicitous, my own actions not so gentle. And there was still serious business ahead of us.
“You’re the man I want, Sitnikov—you, you drunken-brained Bolshevist.”
I stepped toward him. He watched me. There was no fear on his face, but he watched me very intently. He was shivering a little—not with alarm, I knew; but more from nervous reaction and the cold draft that was blowing in on his overheated body.
“You could have saved all this if you’d had an ounce of reason in your head, if you’d been anything but a scatter-brained bomb-thrower!”
He neither winced nor drew back. He simply looked at me out of his closely set rat’s eyes.
“Listen to me,” I said, “and answer, or you’ll still get what’s coming to you.”
I shoved the revolver-muzzle up into his lean and colorless face.
“Where’s Elvira Sabouroff?” I demanded.
(To be Continued)