A story of fear, two crooks, and a man who found himself
By G. R. MALLOCH
MR. BROWN sat in the assistant-manager’s room of the Universal Bank, staring at an envelope that had just been put on his table by a clerk. It was addressed to him in a neat hand with which he was familiar, and as he looked at it he shuddered slightly. The letter had been lying there for a quarter of an hour and he had not opened it yet. He did not need to. He could guess what it had to say, only too easily.
This was the third time. And on the first occasion and on the second, they had given an undertaking that he would hear no more of it. Each of the payments he had made had been a final payment against promised delivery to him of the fatally compromising thing these people had got hold of. For a year of torture he had lived in unspeakable fear.
It was nearly three o’clock. Through the glass doors of his room he could see the great hall of the bank thronged with a constantly changing stream of people, the perspiring cashiers at the long counter with knots of late customers paying in or taking out money. Moneyif he had all the money in the bank, probably it would not satisfy the human leeches who had fastened themselves on him.
He gave a laugh that was half a groan. Here he sat, one of the most respected men in the City, the trusted official of a great bank, dispensing thousands and hundreds of thousands or withholding them by a mere nod of the head; a man honorably engaged in great and useful work, a man of brains and knowledge—and there on his blotting-pad lay a note from an obscure scoundrel demanding money from him as the price of silence that would save him from public disgrace.
A silk-hatted bill broker opened the door sufficiently to allow him to thrust his head into the room.
“Any day-to-day money, sir?” he asked breathlessly: he had been running. Mr. Brown glanced at the sheet of figures before him.
“You can have fifty thousand at two and an eighth,” he said.
“Right,” said his visitor. “That squares me. Thanks awf’ly.”
“Hi !” shouted Mr. Brown after the retreating figure. “What are you sending in?”
“Bank bills,” shouted the other and was gone, running heavily: he was a fat man. As the door closed, the hum of voices and the clink of money against the cashiers’ shovels in the hall were cut off again, and Mr, Brown was left to his thoughts.
That fellow Jones, for instance, head of a big firm, who came in every day and kowtowed to him and called him sir, and was one of the greatest gossips in the city. Brown had been proud sometimes of the fact that he, who began life as an errand boy, had attained the position of power in which he was called sir or treated
like a friend by those fellows, most of whom were men of birth, university and public school men. He moved among them as an equal; they liked him, he knew that. It was something to be proud of, and he had been proud of it.
What would all these fellows say if they knew that the errand boy, in a moment of madness and youthful folly, the result of drink and bad company, had forged his master’s cheque?
What would the directors of the bank say? What would the
shareholders to whom he made a little speech every year, thanking them for their vote of thanks to the staff, say? What a horrible, stupendous scandal it would make! The city would hum with it; the papers would revel in it. It would mean absolute, irretrievable ruin to him,
A slight darkening of the great hall told him that the doors had been closed for the day. He could see the cashiers relaxing and exchanging conversation. Colleagues came into the room, clerks followed them with papers, people spoke to him, a clerk placed a basket of letters and forms before him for signature. He answered absently, signed automatically. Surely he had atoned for everything? He had made for himself a great and honored career. Was he to be persecuted and bled white to the end of his life by a criminal, a blackmailer of the lowest order, a thing that preyed on decent men? There was his wife out there in their lovely house in Kent; his daughter Joan, a wild, beautiful young thing on the verge of life and knowledge; young Marcus, his only son, up at Oxford, and looking forward to a great career of some kind. Were they to be sacrificed to this blackmailer? For his ruin would be theirs, and even if he were not exposed, the price of safety would be all the money that he had made and saved for them and most of his salary from the bank. The first time it had been a hundred, then two, now probably three. It couldn’t go on.
HE RECALLED the Sunday afternoon a year ago, when he had found a dark, hard-faced man with shifty eyes waiting for him in the library at home; and the gradual revelation that the stranger had something to sell to him that he had better buy. Long ago, he had deliberately dismissed from his mind all recollection of his folly. He had been forgiven by old Perkins, to one of whose cheques he had added a nought, to pay debts
and silence a loose girl with whom he had got entangled. The old man had been a friend of his father, which made his crime the worse; but he had wept over him and promised that the secret should remain with him. And he had allowed him to repay the nine pounds he had stolen. Nine pounds! For nine pounds, borrowed, as he had called it to himself, by a halfdrunk boy who had got into bad company, all the fine edifice of his life was to be brought down.
The general manager came out of his room, attired for the street.
“By the way, Brown,” he said in passing, “the Board has decided to let Withers have that loan.”
“I see, sir. I’ll put it through.”
“Thankye. Good day.” “Good day, sir.” He watched the figure of his chief passing through the hall, marked the respectful salutes he received, saw the senior commissionaire step forward to escort him to the waiting car. In time, if all went well, that man would be translated to the Board, and he might expect to take his place as one of the great financial powers. And because of that miserable nine pounds— what a boy’s sum!—it might be forever impossible. He could imagine the growing rapacity of his persecutors; from hundreds they would rise to thousands. He would be ruined financially and he might be exposed.
He continued to sign. Clerks came in with fresh batches of papers, but he was living that Sunday afternoon over again. The man had said his name was Johnson; he seemed incapable of looking you in the eye; his manner was a mixture of servility and threat. An envelope had been-found among the papers of the late Mr. Perkins marked “To be destroyed unopened at my death.” Unfortunately, it hadn’t been destroyed—it had apparently been stolen in a burglary that took place at the old gent’s house. And it had come by sheer chance into Mr. Johnson’s possession. He had opened it the other day in going over some old papers.
What of it? Well, it seemed to contain some papers that he thought might interest Mr. Brown—a cheque that had been altered, a letter signed by him, and a memorandum by old Perkins.
No, he hadn’t brought them with him; a friend of his had them, as a matter of fact. He was wondering if Mr. Brown could give him a little financial assistance; he had had business misfortunes. Well, say, a hundred pounds.
What a fool he had been not to go to the police at once! But he couldn't bear the thought of anyone knowing of his lapse—not even the police. One result of that escapade had been to give him an exaggerated horror of anything savoring of dishonesty. From that moment he had been an upright, honest man. He couldn’t bear to admit to himself that he had ever been anything else. He would get the papers and destroy them without thinking about them, and then it would all be finished. He paid the hundred pounds and did not get the cheque and the letters; instead, he got fresh demands for money.
There were two of them in it—Johnson and his friend, a man named Baumgarten, an American crook. He knew nothing about them beyond the fact that they were blackmailing him and had a small top-floor office
in a building in a mean street on the outskirts of the city proper. He had been there once to demand the incriminating papers, and they had laughed at him.
Now, they were at it again and they would go on as long as he lived. He must stop it somehow. But how?
He picked up the letter and put it in a pocket, unopened.
HE LEFT the bank early and resolved to go on foot to Victoria Station. He thought the long walk through the streets might cool his brain, in which all sorts of impossible ideas were whirling. The thing had got thoroughly on his nerves, he told himself, and he must get the better of it. Experience had taught him that there were no difficulties in Mfe that cool deliberation could not abolish; if he allowed himself to get rattled, he would be done for. At present he did not see the solution, but there must be one. As for mad ideas about suicide, even disguised suicide, he couldn’t do that any more than he could commit murder. Murder? He shivered and turned pale,-and shut his mind to the whole thing. He began to think about business matters as he strode along, outwardly calm, a well-dressed, prosperous citizen.
But when he reached the Westminster end of the Embankment and saw the buildings of Scotland Yard, an idea came to him. If he could find out something about these two men, it might make it possible to deal with them. He turned into the courtyard. Presently he found himself in an upper room, facing a mild-mannered Inspector across a table. His card was in the officer’s hand.
“What can we do for you, Mr. Brown?” asked the Inspector. “Nothing wrong at the Universal, I hope— I keep my little account with you.”
“You needn’t worry about that.” He forced a laugh. “It’s nothing very important, I’m afraid. The fact is, I’ve received a begging letter from a man named Johnson—I wondered whether it was genuine or whether you, perhaps, knew something about him here.”
“Have you got the letter?”
“No . . . no . . . in fact I tore it up. But it remained in my mind.”
“Well, we know several hundred Johnsons,” said the Inspector patiently. “What are his Christian names?”
“He signs A. Johnson.”
“Not very illuminating, is it, Mr. Brown? But wait a minute.” The Inspector looked at him thoughtfully for a moment and then left the room. Presently, he returned with a file which he opened before Mr. Brown. He saw a portrait of his enemy.
“That’s the very man !” The words were out before he realized his foolishness: he did not intend to give anything away to Scotland Yard.
The Inspector took the file round to his own side of the table and sat down.
“So you’ve seen him as well as had a letter from him?” he asked, carelessly.
“Yes . . . he came to my house first. I . . . I refused to help him . . . and then he wrote,” Mr. Brown stammered, conscious of flushing under the Inspector’s gaze.
“I see. Well, it’s a new line for him. He’s not a very nice gentleman, sir, and the less you have to do with him the better. If^ he writes again, better hand the letter to us. Johnson’s a professional blackmailer. He’s done time for that, for burglary, forgery, and dealing in dope. But writing begging letters is a new one—unless he wants your signature for a forgery.”
“Dear me,” said Mr. Brown, “Fm glad I came to see you. Luckily, as I told you, I didn’t answer the letter.” He began to fear that the police might raid Johnson and discover his secret.
“He works in company with an American crook named Baumgarten,” went on the Inspector. “He's worse. Several murders to his credit in the States, as well as the usual.”
“One particularly brutal murder, and several what you might call ordinary American shootings.”
“Dreadful!” Mr. Brown rose and held out his hand. For some obscure reason he was glad to know that Baumgarten was a murderer. “Thank you very much, Inspector; you’ve put me on my guard.”
The Inspector followed him to the door.
“You’re quite sure wre can’t do anything else for you, Mr. Brown?" he asked.
“Oh, no, thank you.”
“No . . . er . . . discreet enquiries you’d like us to make?”
“Nothing, thank you, Inspector. Everyone gets begging letters, I suppose, at times.”
When he had gone, the Inspector lay back in his chair and addressed the ceiling.
“Johnson and Baumgarten blackmailing Mr. Brown of the Universal. Now what do you know about that?” he asked softly.
WHEN he left Scotland Yard, Mr. Brown did not go to Victoria Station to catch his train for home. What he had learned about Johnson and Baumgarten seemed enough to give him a chance of settling with these gentlemen once and for all. It was obvious that they could not stand exposure any more than he could: he now had a weapon to fight them with. He resolved to go to their office in the city and settle matters with them once and for all. If he had to go to the police for assistance he would go rather than submit to any fresh extortion; but first he would try the effect of a little plain talking. The more he thought of it, the more likely it seemed that they would be ready enough to hand over their evidence rather than risk arrest and the heavy punishment that was certain to follow. He would even be willing to make a last payment to secure what he wanted without revealing his youthful escapade to Scotland Yard. He had a nervous dread of revealing that to anyone, though he knew well enough that his secret would have been perfectly safe with the authorities. But he was sensitive to the point of folly: he could not bear to think that a thing which he hated to admit to himself should be known to anyone.
He went to the nearest telephone box, shut himself in, and opened the letter. It contained the usual polite request for a further remittance for business purposes— this time the sum was four hundred pounds. There was
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nothing about the letter to suggest that it referred to anything but an ordinary business transaction. It was neatly typed on ordinary business letter paper, bearing the name of the bogus firm of merchants which covered the identity of his persecutors. It even gave a telephone number and a telegraphic address. Mr. Johnson’s business was a big one.
He called the number and in a few moments the voice of Mr. Johnson, unpleasantly polite, enquired his business.
"Brown speaking. I received your
letter and I’m coming down to your office to talk to you about it,” he answered with equal suavity. "The telephone people must suspect nothing.” "Indeed,” said Mr. Johnson. “Of course we shall be glad to see you, but it’s rather late and my partner has gone home for the day. I suppose you will bring the matter we require with you?” “Perhaps, and perhaps not, Mr. Johnson. I’m going to have a heart to heart talk with you about that.”
"Oh, indeed.” There was a perceptible
change in Mr. Johnson’s voice. “In that case, I shall want my partner to be present. But I shall have to phone him. Say in an hour’s time, Mr. Brown. We shall be delighted to see you.” There was an obvious threat in his voice.
“Very well; and I’m afraid it’s the last time we shall have the pleasure of meeting each other,” said Mr. Brown and hung up the receiver.
He hailed a taxi and directed the driver to take him back to the city. He had no intention of giving his enemies time to
prepare a trap for him or to concoct any new means of frightening him into sub mission.
Driving against the west-bound stream of rush hour traffic it took him half an hour to reach the end of the street in which Johnson’s office was situated. He dismissed the taxi and walked the rest of the way. Most of the business premises were closed for the night and the narrow street was practically deserted. Wisps of fog were closing about the few lamps that
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cast a feeble light on the dirty pavements. It made a mean and miserable scene, Mr. Brown thought, a fit neighborhood for such people as Johnson and his partner.
The building which he sought was an old house sandwiched between two warehouses. The front door was still open, and in the hall a charwoman was washing the floor: the staircase was lit by one gas jet. The woman had her back to him and did not look round. Me went up the narrow wooden stairs slowly, beginning for the first time to wonder whether he had not been rather rash to come here at. this time of night to interview two criminals in a practically deserted building. The first floor was in darkness; evidently all the occupants had gone home. He reached the second and walked down a passage to the lighted door at the end of it, on which the name of Johnson’s firm was inscribed in black letters on the frosted glass. It. struck him that the place was uncannily quiet.
THE door of the office stood a little open. That struck him as strange, and then he reflected that they probably wanted to hear him coming. But why should they? Was Baumgarten, the American crook, lying in wait ready to take his money and silence him?
Such things did not happen in London. Nevertheless, he paused outside the open door and listened. No sound came from the brightly lit office within. Johnson was alone, then, probably. He pushed the door open and looked in. The little outer office was empty, and he saw that the door of the inner room also stood ajar. Apparently the place was empty. Johnson perhaps had gone out to meet his partner: they would not expect him for another twenty minutes at least..
But Mr. Johnson was not out. When Mr. Brown pushed the door of the inner room wide open with his foot, he saw Mr. Johnson sitting at his flat-topped desk with his head on the blotting-pad in a pool of blood; one arm was flung across the desk, the other hung down by his side.
He was dead. Of that Mr. Brown satisfied himself in a moment, and when the first shock of surprise was over, he suddenly became perfectly calm and collected. He was glad that the man was dead; he realized that he himself must get uway at once. It would never do to be connected in any way with this matter. How could his presence here be explained? And if they found any papers affecting him, it would be explained in a sinister fashion enough.
But while he was here, he might as well make sure that the things he wanted wore not in this office. He glanced round the room. In one corner stood a safe and the key was in the lock. He stepped silently across and opened the iron door. Someone had been there before him, perhaps, for it seemed to be practically empty. He pulled open drawer after drawer; in the last of them lay a small packet labelled “Brown.”
He tore it open and saw with an immense satisfaction the papers he was looking for; a faded cheque, his letter of confession, and a memorandum in the shaky hand of old Mr. Perkins. There was still a glimmer of fire in the grate; he laid them on a red coal and saw them burst into flame and consume into white ash. Then, without another glance at the figure at the table, and without the slightest touch of regret, he tiptoed softly from the place.
The gas jet still burned on the staircase, but the hall was empty; the charwoman had disappeared and the front door was closed. He opened it softly and stepped out into the street, leaving the door ajar to avoid making any noise.
He was glad to be out of it. He felt strangely elated. He was glad that Johnson was dead, and he knew that all evidence of his youthful crime had been destroyed. He was free for ever from the
threat that had hung over his every waking hour for the past year. Fear had lifted from his life: his dear ones were safe now. That was all he cared about. As to how or why Johnson had met his terrible end, he was completely indifferent. He filled his lungs with the cold air and stepped out.
Suddenly the lights of a taxi appeared bearing down upon him. He slipped into a doorway and crouched against a wall. The cab stopped; he heard bargaining about the fare; the voice of the bargainer was the voice of Baumgarten.
But in a moment the taxi had driven away and Baumgarten had walked on. For some reason he had not chosen to be driven to the address he was seeking he might have reasons of his own for caution. Mr. Brown stepped from his concealment in time to see Baumgarten enter the building. He crossed the street and merged himself into a little hurrying group of workers on their homeward way. But in a moment he discovered that they were going east, which was not his direction. He turned, and realized as he did so, that he would have to pass the building in which he had left Johnson again. And just as he was hurrying past, a policeman emerged from a shadowy gateway and began examining doors and windows with his lamp.
And at. the same moment a muffled cry rang out from the building opposite. The policeman stiffened into immobility. Mr. Brown paused with well-feigned hesitation.
“Hear that?” asked the policeman. He was staring up at the lighted window of Johnson’s room.
"Someone up to a lark in one of the offices,” suggested Mr. Brown. They waited, listening, for a moment; nothing happened.
"Well, I've got my train to catch,” said Mr. Brown, beginning to move away.
“I think I’ll go and have a look up there,” said the policeman.
He swung ponderously across the road and disappeared into the building. Mr. Brown hurried along through various small streets till he reached a main road. He climbed into a bus. It seemed bright and cheerful and full of wholesome people. The pavements were crowded with hurrying workers; heavy trams rumbled along the wide road; brilliantly lit red buses shot past them; life and animation were all round him. He had passed out of the shadow of fear, and life held nothing but promise for him.
“Bank, please,” he said to the conductor as he tendered his penny. He took the ticket, thinking of the scene in Johnson’s room--the corpse, the astonished Baumgarten, and the policeman. Well, it was no affair of his; pretty black for Baumgarten perhaps, but his life was already forfeit if the truth had been told at Scotland Yard. And with a deliberate effort of will, he shut the whole affair out of his life forever.
MR. BROWN slept soundly that night and awoke with a strange feeling of release and happiness. He refused to think about the past, but he allowed himself to enjoy the happy consciousness that a nightmare had been lifted from his life. The morning sun seemed brighter, his house seemed more spacious, the furnishing and decoration of it more exquisite. Before breakfast he went out into the gardens, now in the last glory of autumn, and it .seemed to him that some renewal had come to him, that all colors burned with new beauty, and that trees and flowers had new grace that he had not perceived before.
At breakfast, his wife and daughter remarked on his unusual brightness and chaffed him about it. He felt so happy that he could only smile at them and make idiotic jokes. Everything was going to be plain sailing now for them all. His wife was not to suffer; his children were to have everything that he longed to give them. All the happiness that he had
so nearly lost was still his, enhanced a thousandfold by the danger he had passed through; all his inanimate belongings that symbolized it had become infinitely precious to him. He felt a strong affection for the shining car that took him to the station. He revelled in a conversation with the station-master about politics. Never would the stationmaster’s eyes be darkened by suspicion or contempt; never would anybody’s that met his.
And in the train, in the seclusion of an empty first-class carriage, he opened his morning paper and saw set out in staring headlines the story of Johnson’s murder and the arrest of his partner, who had been found standing over the body.
After all, he could not quite banish the thing. He reflected that he would have to discuss this mysterious crime with people during the day. There would be no escape from that.
He reached the bank and set about his work with a light heart. But everyone with whom he came in contact wanted to talk about this murder of a city man and the strange circumstances connected with it. Why should Johnson’s partner have killed him? There was no motive, and his story that he had come back to the office after receiving a telephone call and found his partner dead might be a perfectly true one. Was it true that the partners were a pair of crooks? Blackmailers, some people said. And they insisted on discussing the case in every aspect.
“Just picture to yourself,” said the fat Mr. Jones, “the situation of a man who finds his friend dead and is discovered by a policeman beside the body before he has had time to give the alarm. And, mind you, the man had naturally shouted out on finding the body, and the policeman, as naturally, takes his shout as the victim’s. Very awkward for the most innocent man in the world, I should say!”
“But they say the fellow’s a bad hat, anyhow,” said Mr. Brown. “I’ve heard that he’s a murderer who only escaped the death penalty in America by flight.”
“Well, even so,” objected Mr. Jones, “if he didn’t commit this particular murder, he shouldn’t hang for it. A chap may have made a bad break in the past; if he gets away with it and makes good again, it’s hard lines to drag that up against him, isn’t it?”
Mr. Brown kept remembering these words all day. Various uncomfortable ideas were started by them. He kept on seeing the unhappy Baumgarten trapped there with the dead body and the suspicious policeman. If a man hadn’t committed a murder, it couldn’t be right to hang him for it, no matter what he was. But they couldn’t—there was no proof.
The evening papers contained a story from the man who occupied the adjoining office. He had overheard a violent quarrel between Johnson and Baumgarten on the morning of the day of the murder. That was enough to hang Baumgarten, said a man in the train with an air of satisfaction. Mr. Brown kept seeing a haggard Baumgarten trapped at last, no doubt deserving death, but not for this. He saw from his paper that there was a Mrs. Baumgarten and two children. She declared that she herself had taken the telephone call from Johnson’s office. They could easily fake that, said the other passenger. Mr. Brown sat back in his corner in silence for the rest of the journey.
When he stepped out of the train, things seemed a little changed. The station-master, hurrying past, gave him a hasty nod and went on; he seemed flurried and not so cordial as in the morning. Mr. Brown surveyed his waiting car with dissatisfaction—it did not seem so well-polished as it might be. He said so, and his man gave him a surprised and hurt look. He got in and sat huddled in one corner. The road was muddy and dirty-looking; the country did not look so spacious and entrancing as it had done. As they swept through the
gates, he noticed that the lodge needed painting; the house itself seemed to have shrunk; his wife’s greeting was absentminded; nothing seemed the same. A feeling of depression settled on him and he strove against it in vain. At dinner, they would talk of the city murder. He kept on seeing the foxy-looking Baumgarten trapped in a cell, walking up and down.
It was no affair of his. He had not murdered the man. Surely he was not bound to go and dip himself in that mud, implicate himself, raise all sorts of suspicions and almost certainly bring out the whole story that he must conceal, simply because he had seen the dead man first? He might be accused of the murder himself—certainly he would be; there was motive enough in the story of blackmail. How could he account for his visit to the office without revealing everything? And then ruin, utter ruin for him and for them all! No; his first duty was to himself—that was clear enough.
And yet it was not quite so clear in the morning, when his daughter said at breakfast:
“If anybody knows the truth and is letting them hang that man, no matter what he has done, it must be a pretty mean skunk.”
Baumgarten appeared before a magistrate and was remanded, affirming his innocence passionately. He admitted that he was a crook; but he had been fond of Johnson, who had once saved his life; they were real pals; Johnson knew that he would never have killed him.
But what did it really matter to the world, asked Mr. Brown, whether Baumgarten died for this crime or another? He was a murderer, anyhow, and better out of the way. Was he to sacrifice his children to save Baumgarten? And perhaps the fellow had done it, after all. Mr. Brown made up his mind firmly and finally not to interfere. He was not bound to, and he was not going to. To mix himself up in it at all would be sheer madness and a crime against his own family.
TWO days later, he went to Scotland Yard and asked to see the Inspector with whom he had talked on his first visit.
“I thought that perhaps we should be having a visit from you, sir,” said the Inspector, politely.
“Well, you had been getting begging letters from a man named Johnson and it seemed likely that he would go on worrying you, that’s all,” said the Inspector. “Do you know that it was the same man who was murdered the other day?” “Yes,” said Mr. Brown, resolutely, bracing himself to say the thing that would probably ruin him and put an end to his career. He was dimly aware that the Inspector was studying him keenly. “Yes. It was about that I came to see you. I think you’ve got hold of the wrong man, Inspector.”
“Yes. You see, I was in Johnson’s office ten minutes before Baumgarten arrived. His story is true. Johnson was dead when he got there.”
There was a moment of silence. Mr. Brown was surprised that the Inspector (fid not lean across the table and handcuff him, or ring a bell for someone to take him into custody. Instead, he leaned back in his chair and nodded.
“Ah,” he said, reflectively, “that explains one point that puzzled me—how your fingerprints came to be on the safe.” “How did you know they were mine?” “Well, sir, perhaps you remember a talkative stranger in the train the other day, who handed you a letter to examine? We got them on that sheet of paper which was prepared for the purpose.”
“Then why didn’t you arrest me?” “Because I was pretty certain that you hadn’t killed Johnson. But, if you’ll
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lorgive me, one never knows, and it was necessary to follow every clue. And as you’ve been plucky enough to come here in the circumstances to clear Baumgarten, I may as well tell you that Baumgarten didn’t do it, either. But we had to take him and test his story. You see, you’re not very good at deception, Mr. Brown. It was perfectly plain to me, when you first came here, that Johnson was blackmailing you or about to do so.” ‘‘He was—and after what you told me, I went straight to his office to tell him that I would stand no more.”
‘T thought so. And you found him dead and searched the safe for whatever it was—I hope you found it?”
“Arid burned it in the grate,” pursued the Inspector. "Well, no matter, we don’t want to know what it was. The truth is that Johnson killed himself.”
“You mean that he committed
“Just that. What so many writers of detective stories seem to forget is that crooks are human beings—they catch measles and suffer from indigestion just like the rest of us. This one had cancer cause one. Cause two was that he had been swindling his pal Baumgarten and Baumgarten was going to find out if you . . that is, if he didn't get a certain sum of money on the day he died. I suppose that he was in great pain, and fear of Baumgarten was just the last straw . . . anyhow, he shot himself in the head.”
“And how do you know that?”
“You didn’t notice that the window in front of his desk was wide open? Well, it was, and that was how Baumgarten’s cry of fear was heard by the constable and you—it was you, I suppose—so plainly. Well, when he shot himself and
pitched forward, the revolver flew out of his hand - probably when his elbow hit the table -and went out of the window. It was caught in a gutter, where I found it yesterday. The only fingerprints on it were Johnson's own. And as everything points to a self-inflicted wound, Baumgarten is all right.
“And he has told you, I suppose, why I was being blackmailed?”
“He didn’t know —that was Johnson’s secret, he says, and I believe him. Johnson was too cunning to give it away. You’ll never hear anything more about that. I daresay it’s a relief to you, sir.” Mr. Brown got up and walked over to the window for a moment. He looked out upon a world whose glory was renewed. Then he came back again.
“It was a boy’s fault, Inspector, and nothing in my life since justified the agony I might have suffered from these men.”
“Well, all I know and all I want to know, sir,” said the Inspector with a smile, as he held out his hand, “is that you came here to land yourself in a devil of a mess just because you knew that a murderer was guiltless of this particular murder. Take it from me, sir, you can regard that as cancelling everything, whatever it was.”
Mr. Brown walked out of the shadows of Scotland Yard into the brightness of the Embankment. The sky was blue, the sun was shining, gulls were wheeling over the river. His heart was full of gladness, but he found a thought to spare for the misery of men to whom the world could never look like this; who could never look their fellows in the face without fear at their hearts. And when he thought of the current glorification of criminals and the sentimentalizing of crime, he laughed aloud. Their world and his—what a gulf lay between them. Poor devils!