Young Love—And A Skull

Harry Stephen Keeler

Chapter 1

YOUNG LOVE – AND A SKULL

My name is Jerry Hammond. J. Hammond, yeggman in the vernacular of gangsterdom and the underworld, safe-cracker in everyday English. Also gentleman – and take that last or leave it! So now I’m placed in the general scheme of things. Yeggman, boxman, peterman, ironworker, blaster – there are more names for the racket that has kept wrinkles out of the lining of my interior for a good eight years than there are fleas on a cat’s ear when he’s being dipped to his whiskers in insecticide. I know how to cook dynamite in a pail of hot water over a one-hole gas burner, and take off from the bottom a half-ounce of pure nitro-glycerine, known among us users of the stuff as soup. Or how to crumble the dynamite into wood-alcohol and bring the nitro-glycerine out – and straight to the top! – with cold distilled water. I know how to drill into an ordinary fire-proof safe and lay my nitro-glycerine, fused and timed, all ready for the touch-off that will bring the door away. I know how to get to the inside of a chilled-steel receptacle with no more noise than a cockroach, drunk after emerging from an uncorked gin-bottle in a garbage can, would make as he sneaked back to Mrs. C., waiting up to biff him on the beezer for leaving her to mind the youngsters while he went skyhooting. I can saw past the bolts of any cast-iron contraption, using two saws at the same time, one in each mitt. Or I can blowpipe an entry to an armourplated vault, and leave any driller, who’s had no more sense than to try and blow it open, to scuttle off faster than a hold-up man at the wheel of a sports Dusenberg, when he hears the radio outfit on it squawking – “Calling all cars!”
A lone wolf, me for I have never worked with a gang, though I could have been top dog in more than one crowd where brains count. Also, I have never been caught at the game, and consequently have never been up before any hard-hearted Horatio on the bench. There’s not a line of “pedigree,” as the crooks call police record, against me in any detective bureau in America. Further to that, in all the jobs I have pulled off I have never carried a gun, except for a wooden one with which to put fear into any chance onlooker at my operations. In fact, a famous old safe-cracker who knew me well used to call me “Wooden Gun.” My point of view was that if the wooden gun couldn’t get me out of a jam, I’d sooner put up my hands and take a sentence than rob some woman of her man, and a pack of kids of their living.

But, as I said, I have never had to put up my hands, and that for many reasons. The old wooden gun pulled me out of a few scrapes, but the main reason, now I come to weigh things up, I put down as imported French rubber gloves, thin and supple as the skin of a new-born child, yet you couldn’t chop the finger off one with an ordinary axe, nor rub the finger-tip through on a pad of sandpaper. Yes, I think I must put that down as the main reason, for it only takes one little finger-print on a piece of nitro-smoked metal to send the safe-cracker up for a long stretch in the penitentiary. And the other reason for my immunity – I have always played a lone hand. For it only needs one ally, seeing the job through with you, and then, well-heeled with a wad of notes and full to the back teeth, bragging between hiccups in a saloon within hearing of a Pinkerton detective, to put the minions of the law on the trail of Old-Man-Back-Of-The-Job. And there is still one more reason, which I will explain fully before I start my tale, and which prevented me from ever yearning for a dainty damsel to soothe the old fevered brow – and then go passing out all she knows to the nearest district attorney, so that she can be free to freeze on to a new man who can buy her a better fur coat. I’m where I am to-day, free, white, and thirty-five, because of these things, and because I have always planned and surveyed every job from three to six months in advance – and then, if I so much as suspected a possible let-down over it, I’ve ditched it and gone on for something easier. I’ve left the big and tough chances alone: better a mere thousand dollars out of an easy job, and a chance to lie up somewhere for a half-year in comfort, than ten thousand out of a tough project, and the whole to pay away to some gangster’s lawyer for saving a long spell in Joliet or some other state institution for all of us who buck against society.

I am, as may have appeared, strong on the gangster dialect, the language of crookdom, but it happens that I am just as strong on good English – perfect English, in fact, at need. My grandmother, who brought me up, was a lady, one of the finest ladies I have ever known, in fact. She had me well educated by her own efforts, put all her earnings into assuring that I should be fitted to face the world and take an honourable place in it, and, by means of a paltry inheritance which fell to her, she put me part way through college, intending that I should graduate as a dental surgeon. But the money gave out a year and a half before I was due to take my diploma: grandmother died, too, in the summer of ‘29, and I squeezed one more term out of the sale of her effects. Then came the great financial panic, with the world going dizzy – but there is no need for me to recapitulate all that ancient history. What I am trying to put over is that when all was over, Jerry Hammond, D.D.S., with white starched coat and drills complete, became, as you might say, a user of other kinds of drills.

And now I have to explain how it was that, in addition to being a lone wolf in my vocation, never once did I look at the damsels who might have played havoc with my affections – and probably helped to send me up for one of the long terms that often come of friendships or alliances with them. For all that belongs to my college days.

Good days they were, too. My especial chum was a lanky, solemn-looking divinity student named Phil Dottworth, who used to be a leading figure in all theatricals that were got up, and one of the best hands at make-up who ever mistook his profession – though, for that matter, he may have become quite a good parson after his ordination. It was Phil who managed to get a gaudy pair of pyjama trousers hauled up the flagstaff on the parade ground and broken out to fly in the breeze in place of Old Glory on a certain important occasion, and he, too, who managed to smuggle a prairie owl into the professorial desk just before old Professor Hoyte was due to begin his lecture. The owl broke the professor’s spectacles when he opened the desk, and we got no lecture from him that morning. These are two instances which go to prove that Phil was not as solemn as he looked, by a long way.

Phil and I and another half-dozen students made a clique, into which came some six or seven girls, including old Professor Hoyte’s daughter Elsie, whom nobody knew by that name, since she was always called Princess. The rags we organized would fill a book, and, as far as the girls were concerned, Princess was easily the leader, and easily the most admired. Justly so, for she was the sweetest and loveliest and – well, I think we all loved her. Healthy, happy boys and girls we were, old enough to realize love as something big and serious, and young enough to be a little reverent over it. Hard up, every one of us, but not less cheery for that, and I can look back on the times Phil and I and the Princess spent together as some of the happiest I have ever known, and the happiest and proudest day of them all was the one in which Princess owned that she cared for me as much as I cared for her.

What could come of our young love we did not know – I doubt if we thought much about it, being just happy together. If I thought of it, probably my mind ran on a decent practice somewhere after I had got my diploma, and a little home with my Princess beside me, but I think we were more concerned with present happiness than future possibilities. She and I paired in all the parties and rags that our little clique organized, and all went well until my last term was half-way through, when I realized that, still a year and a half short of getting the diploma and turning out as a fully-fledged dental surgeon, I had to give it all up and trust to a vague and most unpromising future to bring me and my Princess together again.

Our problem was badly complicated by the Princess’s mother, a semi-invalid with social aspirations, who did all she could to separate us two and throw my Princess at a youngster whom I will call just Wally, son and heir of a big manufacturer out west, and far too superior to belong to our clique of merrymakers. He dressed perfectly, ran a splendid sports Stutz, and did all that he could to ingratiate himself with the Princess, mainly through Mrs. Hoyte, while he sneered at me and my pretensions. One day he sneered too loudly in Phil Dottworth’s hearing, and Phil hammered hell out of him and so far spoilt his looks that neither Mrs. Hoyte nor the Princess saw anything of him for another month. He was big and consequential, but Phil had speed and skill and was one of the best boxers who ever kept out of the professional ring, and Wally soon found that he had met more than his match. This was in my last term, when the Princess and I knew that a long parting was not far ahead of us, and for that reason we made the most of our time together.
Then came my last day of all, and to celebrate it we had a party in Phil’s rooms, to which, most surprisingly to me, Wally was invited. What was more surprising still, he accepted the invitation, and, so far as could be seen with regard to the scrap they had had, it was a case of forgive and forget on both sides. But I felt sure that Phil had something up his sleeve in giving such an invitation: he was not the sort to put himself to trouble for nothing. The party was his farewell to college, too, for he was due for ordination at the term’s end.

We were all very merry, although it was an occasion of farewells, and down in my heart I felt far from merry, since I knew that it might be a very long time before I should see my Princess again. She too, I knew, felt it, though we both played up and kept the others from seeing what the parting meant to us both. From time to time Wally eyed her in a way that made me itch to repeat the treatment Phil had handed out to him, but he gave me no chance, keeping well away from me.

Mischief or concerted planning – I am not sure which it was – set Slim Cornish, one of our clique, to guying Phil over his ordination.

“A fine cleric you’ll make, you old bean pole,” Slim told him. “I bet you couldn’t bury a man without giving him half the marriage service before you got the coffin out of sight.”

“There’s no subject handy to work on,” Phil said, “and I couldn’t possibly work without a lay figure. That is –” he looked across at Wally – “maybe there’s a subject I wouldn’t mind reading the funeral service over, but he gives no sign of turning his toes up.”

“Well, let’s test you out on the marriage service,” Slim suggested. “Bet you couldn’t go through it on a couple without losing yourself.”

“That’s a whiz,” Phil said promptly. “Get that third book from the end of the top shelf there and turn up the marriage service in it, and if you check me as I go through it from memory I’ll bet you five dollars I don’t make five mistakes.”

“Bet’s on,” said Slim, and reached down the book. He turned up the marriage service in it. “Go ahead,” he bade. “I’ll check you on it.”

“Yeah, but I got to have lay figures,” Phil objected. “Can’t do it on nothing, old hoss. I know! You, Jerry, and the Princess – spot of rehearsal for you for when you celebrate the real thing. Come along here and stand up before me – get the right side of her, Jerry.”

We complied, and as I saw Wally’s black look at me I wondered if the whole thing were being worked for his benefit, and if, in fact, he had been invited to the party for this very purpose, for all of us knew how he tried to force his attentions on the girl, and how her mother backed him up because his father had more money than he could count. We two stood up before Phil, while Slim Cornish held the book and followed the words of the service, and we made the appropriate responses, both in our hearts wishing that it were no mere rehearsal. Right to the end Phil took it, and he put a punch into the final benediction that marked him as cut out for a parson, for, as I have said, he was a born actor.

“That’s that,” he said after he had finished. “How come, Slim?”

“Two errors only, so you win,” Slim answered. “That is, if you know how to fill in a certificate of marriage.”

“Here, gimme a sheet of paper,” Phil ordered, and reached for his fountain-pen. “I’ll win that five dollars or bust.” And he made out the certificate, which he handed to the Princess.

“Look it over,” he bade, “and let Slim gaze at it and weep. It’s all in order, sound as you’d get anywhere – five dollars, please, Slim.”

He pocketed the money and grinned at me. Wally, I saw, was fuming in the background, and the rest of the party looked amused.

“Pity my ordination hasn’t come through yet,” Phil said to me. “If it had, you two would be so well tied up that only Reno could separate you – unless the movie stars have found a place where divorce goes through slicker than under Colorado law. Anyhow – boys and girls, let us drink to the happy pair, and give them a drink, too, for standing it so well. You sure made the responses ring true, Jerry.”

“I wish they had been,” I said.

“But you’ve one more trick to take yet,” he pointed out. “It’s your business to kiss the bride at the end of the job. Hop to it.”

I needed no second invitation, and my Princess’s lips met my own with just as much fervour as if the ceremony had been real And, I noticed, she folded the “certificate” Phil had given her and put it away in her handbag – as a memento, I guessed. But, for me, the memento that counted was her kiss. I can feel it on my lips yet.

And the only one that did not drink to us right heartily was Wally, who scowled apart from the rest. I grew more and more convinced that Phil had invited him solely to witness this little play, and had arranged the dialogue that led up to it beforehand, with Slim as his coadjutor. And I knew that in Wally’s place I myself would have felt pretty sick over it, as he looked for the rest of the evening.

When it was all over, I took the Princess as far as the gateway of her home. It was our parting, we did not know for how long, and she put her arms about my neck with no restraint and looked up at me.

“I shall always remember,” she told me.

“Darling, if only that – to-night – had been real!” I said.

“Our day may come,” she said hopefully. “I know you’re going off in bitter disappointment at this break in your career, but I feel sure that some day, somehow, you’ll win through, and then – I shall be waiting. Whatever happens, my Jerry, I shall not forget.”

“And as for me, Princess,” I said, “no other girl or woman shall take your place as long as we both live. Whatever comes to me, that holds good. I’ve given you all my love, and there’s none left for any other. If you wait, I’ll come back when I’ve won through.”

Old sentiment, I know, but we were both so young, then, that it did not seem old to us. And I left her there by the gate under the stars and went my way, the long way that took me into many strange places and stranger adventures, but never once did I forget that promise to her, nor look at any other woman to love her. Few men can say that of themselves, I know: few are made that way, but of the few I am one.

Now, to make the story complete, I must tell what happened to her after I had gone, though it did not come to my knowledge till a long while after – till I got to Kamehameha Park in Honolulu, to be exact.

For a little while her letters came through to me, rather pitiful letters towards the end, for she never received one of mine. Her mother saw to that: from that sweet lady’s point of view, Jerry Hammond was an undesirable, and she wanted to cut her daughter off from him. She succeeded, too, by the help of circumstance.

Professor Hoyte, my Princess’s father, was a born gambler, though nobody guessed it. To all appearances he was the usual college don, upright and stiff, but with the very devil’s own temper at times, and a gift for sarcasm that could make any unlucky student whom he made a target squirm helplessly under the lash of his tongue. All to himself, and unknown even to his wife and daughter, he had a taste for plotting curves on squared paper, the said curves representing the rise and fall of various stocks, including quite a few wild-cat propositions. If he had been satisfied with the squared paper and the curves, all would have been well, but he took to making investments on the strength of his curves. He appears to have won a bit at first, and, encouraged by the luck, to have increased his speculations more and more.

That, I suppose, is a story that has been told a thousand times and more. It led Professor Hoyte down the hill that so many gamblers have descended, and ended, for him, with a bullet through his brain in his study one winter morning, and the squared papers showing his fatal curves on the desk beside which his body had fallen. He had gambled away every penny, and even gone to a moneylender on the strength of forthcoming salary. Mrs. Hoyte and the Princess were left practically destitute, six months or a bit more after my college career had terminated. I have already said that Mrs. Hoyte was a semi-invalid. Under the shock of her husband’s suicide she went all to pieces for a while, and then so far recovered that the Princess was able to look after her. All that while, Wally had never ceased his attentions to the girl: he was on the spot in their trouble, and as far as he could he smoothed the way for the stricken widow and her daughter, never letting himself get far from that daughter’s sight. She had written to me time and again and won no reply, and, naturally, thought I had forgotten my promise and her too. But, loyal soul that she was, she waited and waited, hoping against hope for some word from me, though, since as shall be told I landed in a South American jail, my letters ceased. She went on hoping until one day Wally took to her a cutting from a San Francisco paper, in which was announced my marriage to an heiress of the Pacific slope, a quarter-column slip which enumerated the celebrities at the wedding, and gave me beyond question as a student of the college at which I had gone through my unfinished training. It was no other than myself, unmistakably, and the Princess had to believe it.

I have that cutting to-day. It was never printed in the ordinary way, nor did it appear in any newspaper. Some linotyper set the slugs, and then the quarter-column was “pulled” as a proof and carefully trimmed to look like a genuine cutting from a paper – there is even a rule between it and the supposed adjoining column down one side. I have said that Wally was a rich youth: he was out to get the Princess, and did not care what means he used to that end.

And so he won. His money meant comfort for the ailing mother, and her persuasions were added to his. My Princess married him, rather more than two years after she and I had said good-bye at the gate under the stars, that night of our “marriage” by Phil Dottworth. I could not blame her over it: as far as she knew, I had forgotten all about her; she was next to penniless, and her mother a suffering woman who needed the care and luxury that only money can provide. She did what she thought best, but I know that in her heart she never forgot.

Now mark how old lady Fate takes a hand in things sometimes, and maybe hands out what people deserve for their trickery. Wally and the Princess were married, gorgeously, and set off on their wedding trip. They went from the ceremony straight through to San Francisco by car, there to board a cruising steamer due to make the trip through the Panama Canal and run around among the West Indies. Going up the gangplank to the steamer, Wally slipped, missed his footing and hold altogether, and made a drop of about thirty feet on to the hard concrete of the quayside, for the tide was at the full and the ship riding high. He was picked up and taken to hospital, and thence to a swell nursing home, with a damaged spine – the wedding trip was off, and for good, as it turned out. He left that nursing home, nine months later, on a wheeled carriage, a helpless, querulous log of a man to whom the Princess was tied for life; no husband, but a subject for nursing, from then on to the day of his death. I, knowing all, do not pity him.

She played up nobly, kept patience with him, nursed and tended him, and even took charge of business affairs for him at need. Having made her bed, she lay on it uncomplainingly, and, after her mother’s death, gave up herself to caring for him. Women do these things far more often than men: the average man, in such a position, would lose patience after a few months and run off with some other woman, but a woman seizes such a chance to prove the angel in herself, as did the Princess – my Princess, as I still thought her, for I knew nothing of these things then. Fate was so to twist things as to give me the knowledge, long later, but all I knew then was that her letters had ceased. Being beyond reach of newspapers that would give local affairs of her home town, I did not even know of the professor’s suicide or of her marriage for a long while, though news of the latter event reached me before I had finished with the series of adventures that befell me in Central and South America, in those little republics that sit like flies on a ceiling between Mexico and Columbia – the republic of Columbia, that is.

Well, that is the story of the Princess, the story of my first and only love affair, which kept me lone wolf all through the years between that mock marriage by Phil Dottworth and the end of my campaign against Tillary Steevens – but Whoa! I’m getting ahead of myself. There is much to tell, including the why and how of my going to Honolulu in a curious way, and on a curious errand. The way was one by which I could save at least half of a certain hundred and fifty dollars round-trip passage money entrusted to me by a man in Chicago, since I was flat broke and needed it. And the errand being a confidential one for the donor of this magnificent largess. No less, in fact, than Tillary Steevens, recognized for years as one of the foremost mystery-story writers in America – if not the foremost. For, to be sure, I know Tillary Steevens. I knew him, moreover, ever since I was thirteen, and he about the same age – though I must put in here that our acquaintance languished during my college days, and in fact until I returned from Pueblo San Diego and bade farewell for ever to mestizo statesmen, the breed of fleas they disseminate, the possibility of becoming His Excellency the President, and Senorita Carmen de Alvarado. All these I bade good-bye without a tear, and returned to embark on that remarkable affair in which Tillary Steevens figured, together with a skull – and jawbone! Wherefore I went to Honolulu.

He lived in a house that I know well, since I have visited it more than once, and studied it with a discerning and interested eye. 363, Fullerton Parkway, was the address, and there Steevens lived with one man-of-all-work – has lived, till lately. It is a grand old-time mansion with curved window-panes, and curving stone balustrades down high front steps of black marble. There is a pool and billiard-room on the top floor, a chandelier with a million pendent crystals in the high-ceilinged main reception-room, and a dirt-floored basement devoted to Steeven’s particular fool hobby – mushroom-growing! And Steevens himself – who has not seen his portrait in the newspapers? Pointed brown beard – in fact, he told me once in conversation that he was emulating a certain D. H. Lawrence, and I knew that, like Lawrence, he was covering up a pitifully weak chin that had marked him as an abnormality, even as Lawrence’s marked him, from boyhood onward. His moustache was of the same colour as the beard, and he wore a red-framed monocle in his eye, with a black ribbon nearly a foot wide pendant from it. Add to these personal possessions a velvet jacket, flowing black tie, and, when he appeared among his fellow-men, a wide-brimmed grey velour hat and a cane big enough for use in stunning an elephant, by the look of it.

My errand for Tillary Steevens in Honolulu – the errand which eventually made the big change in my life – was confidential – damned confidential, in fact. For it was to get hold of and bring back a skull. Rather, a skull plus lower jaw, to state the case fully. It was, moreover, a sconce with a strange history, for it had been owned – worn, I ought to say – some thirty or forty years ago by an English Shakespearean actor, who died insane and also penniless with the delusion that he himself was Hamlet. Psychiatrists, I believe, can explain a delusion of this sort. The man had played the part so many times that he had lived himself into it, and the woes and eccentricities of the Prince of Denmark, so far as his mentality was concerned, became his own. And past question he was insane on this point long before the fact was recognized; it was, in most ways, a perfectly harmless delusion, and the business of certifying a man as insane is complicated and difficult, while, since a certain decision in the courts, doctors are very reluctant to become parties to the procedure, for fear of damages being subsequently claimed by relatives of the supposedly insane but possibly sane man. Beyond doubt this actor, Sylvanus Axton by name, was insane long before he was certified, and, to himself, was Hamlet and no other.

His will had been drawn up and signed by him in good legal form before he was certified, and therefore it was not contested, although it contained a number of, to say the least of them, doubtful propositions. One clause demanded that his heart should be removed from his body after his death, enclosed in a silver casket, and buried with fitting ceremonies at Elsinore, but I believe the executors ruled this out on the ground that it would involve difficulties with a foreign state. Another clause declared that “the skull of myself, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” shall “bring great luck to each and every one of its succeeding possessors” and called for immediate preparation in a London medical college, in the natural form as it would have been uncovered by the two grave-diggers, and its shipment then to the Theatre League of Chicago for incorporation in their new Museum of Drama. Chicago, it seems, had always liked Axton tremendously – more so, even, than his home city London had; and had always turned out for him. And so, in the days when Axton’s mind was breaking up, it was to Chicago that it turned as a recipient of his own skull – or Hamlet’s skull – whichever way one wants to put it! Anyway, the sconce and jaw were sent in due course to the Theatre League of Chicago – the Theatre League finally blew up – all the things in its museum were sold – the sconce and jaw reached a curio agent – and then, in turn, became the property of a man on Tillary Steevens’s own street, who subsequently treasured them like hell because they really did seem to bring him good luck. And Tillary loved luck; in fact he loved anything treasured by anybody else; and there came not long ago the day when Tillary not only coveted the skull – rather, skull and jawbone – but needed them. But of that, more anon – as the scribblers say.

A queer proposition, Jerry Hammond doing a confidential errand for the famous Tillary Steevens!

For Jerry Hammond is a thief.

But a straight-from-the-shoulder thief – who takes his liberty – and his life – in his hands on any kind of a thieving job.

While Tillary Steevens is also a thief! A thief who has stolen every one of the twenty-six successful mystery novels that have been published under his name in the last eleven years to date. Stolen them bag and baggage from a man who has been dead now for thirty years. A man whom I knew – or at least knew a lot about. And because every novel Tillary Steevens has had published has been stolen – then all the rich perquisites that have come out of each book are therefore stolen too: the screen sales – the dozen different foreign translation rights – the British sales – the radio-broadcast rights – the newspaper syndications – all the huge side money that goes into the purse of a smug, respectable, so-called “novelist” living on a smug, respectable boulevard in a smug, would-be-respected city.

And the curious thing about Tillary Steevens and his great theft – the greatest theft of its kind, probably, in all the history of larceny! – is that the man who penned all those fine books Steevens is publishing to-day, very slightly doctored to fit present-day conditions, left me – in the long, long ago – his entire estate. An estate which, unfortunately, amounted to but $8 cash and a Bible!

So – it seems that Tillary is robbing me! I should be proud, perhaps, to be able to say that Tillary Steevens, with such literary carpentryship talents as he evidently has, is my friend. Whereas, strangely, the only man after whose name I can tack the words “Real Friend” is describable only by the words “ignorant, uncouth, illiterate Negro.” In short, one Laughing Sam – from Alabam’! Though Laughing Sam knew little of Alabama, since he was brought from there, by his mammy, to Georgia or some such place when he was only five.

And I call Laughing Sam friend supreme – because he saved me from a South American gallows. By a double risking of his life – and not a single risking. He saved me from strangling to death, on the end of a hempen rope, in a dark execution chamber below water-level. And for an offence that I never committed – and which those who hoped to hang me know, even to-day, that I never committed.

And so it was to Laughing Sam that I went when the day came on which I desired to get the goods on Tillary Steevens. And show him up before the world as the whited sepulchre, the hypocritical buzzard, the contemptible thief, that he is. And show the world exactly how he stole all his – but perhaps I should first state how and where I met Laughing Sam – from Alabam’ – before I present the case, and cite the proofs, that Tillary Steevens is the world’s worst Literary Fraud – bar none.

And so I’ll begin – with Laughing Sam!


CHAPTER II


LAUGHING SAM – FROM ALABAM’!


WHEN I first met Laughing Sam from Alabam’ he wasn’t any Laughing Sam! He was a crying, moaning, sobbing Sam. Bawling, actually screaming in pain.

And I was a prisoner. Being locked up incommunicado. Incommunicado plus! And destined, though heaven knows I didn’t even guess it at the moment – to hang.

And to live, before that hanging, for many weary months, in a stone cell some 20 feet square, partly below the surface of a deep river flowing outside, in a South American calaboose. My only companions an American Negro from El Paso and parts about. And a safe-blower – the cleverest, I’ve since heard, who ever plied the trade – from South Africa. Whereabouts in South America this took place doesn’t matter. It could have no bearing on my situation here to-night, ten long years after. And I’m not forgetting, either, that those human tigers, even after these ten long years, probably have some of their phoney devilish papers by which to extradite me: to shut my mouth; and, if they should extradite me, I might have to pay out money – which I haven’t got! – to fight it; and, if I lost, I would have to take the same noose that, ten years ago, I slipped out from under. And it all has nothing to do to-day with any of to-day’s happenings – outside of but the simple fact that there I met the best and finest and truest friend a white man ever had – Laughing Sam. Who was to become, in due course, my right bower in getting the goods on Tillary Steevens!

And so as the big iron-grill door of that damned underground lock-up clanged behind me that fateful day, and I stood, ill at ease, gazing about the high stone walls of that cell – dripping here and there, on the side where the river flowed – not a stick of furniture in it except the three straw-stuffed pallets of coarse burlap – the high-barred 18-inch-square window through which a shaft of sunlight fell in a square upon the cement floor, I didn’t see Cape Town Slim at first. For Slim sat as he ever sat, arms folded, knees drawn up, against the right-hand wall – and ever that supercilious, scornful look on his lips. I saw only Sam. Clad in faded cast-off overalls, frayed at the cuffs, tattered at trouser-ends. About twenty-one years or so in age. Rocking back and forth upon his own straw-stuffed pallet.

“Oh God, mah teef,” he was wailing; “Ah dyin’ by inches – God, please, deah good kin’ God, he’p me to die – Ah jes’ cain’t stand de pain – it eatin’ out mah brains, dat whut it is. Please, deah God – strike me daid – Ah cain’t stand it. Ah cain’t, Ah cain’t!”

Then only did I see Slim. Handsome. Well built, Grey eyes. Cosmopolitan and gentleman – if ever there was one. Looked forty-three. And wearing a once fine tweed English lounge suit now going here and there into tatters.

“Welcome, stranger,” he said in a dry voice. “For if I know this goddamn joint any – you’ll be here a long time. We’ve all been! Slim’s my name – Cape Town Slim – safe-cracker – I give you the lowdown since they’ve got the goods on me. The dinge yonder is an American dinge – Laughing Sam from Alabam’. What’s your name, buddy?”

And I told him. Truthfully. Jerry Hammond. From U.S.A. Many places. Wanderer – with many near-trades – but all legitimate. As they were – them.

“Sit down,” he bade me. “And for God’s sake, Dinge, pipe down. You gotta stand it. You or me’ll go barmy – and I’ll have to slough you out in another minute. My nerves are cracking.”

I was seated on the floor close to Slim within a few minutes.

“I’ll jolly well wager,” he inquired, “that you don’t even know what you’re in for? Yes? No?”

“God, no!” I said. “I only came to this city a couple of days ago. This morning a pack of these dago police came to the door of my hotel room – made a lot of accusations in poor English that I’d forged a cheque – and then requested that I write my name for ‘em on the bottom of a sheet of blank paper; part of ‘em then went away – and the rest up and lugged me off here.”

“What for, buddy, did you come to such a godamned banana republic as this?”

“Well,” I told him, “I’m everything but a full-fledged dental surgeon. Dentist, you know. And –”

“Whaddye mean, buddy – ‘everything but’ a dentist? How can a bloke be everything but?”

“Just,” I explained, “that I never graduated, grandmother had a tough time to get me through such schools as I did get through. Her earnings – and the money I’ve always earned in the summers – got me up as far as college, and a small inheritance she got from a sister put me in college! Grandmother and the money both petered out when I was three and a half years through the five-year course. Though in that three and a half years – in the free clinic, you know – I’ve done every kind of technical dental work that’s done on the outside – received graduation points for it – but never yet have done a professional job. Reason: never graduated – hence no licence! For Grandmother’s death in the summer of ‘twenty-nine – all the available tuition money giving out in mid-fall of nineteen twenty-nine – then the beginning of the Big Panic that’s even going on right now up North – well, that put me blotto as to finishing. Though even if I could practise to-day, the damned panic up North is starving even them that have a licence. Knocked around the States like the glass ball in a pin-ball game. Finally tried Canada. Montreal. Got two hours a day nailing boxes. That petered out. Soup queues then. And so I finally came down here. Stowaway, yes. Thinking that here, where there aren’t any licence laws at all, I might dig up a chance to help some South American dentist who had too much trade to handle – or else needed more free time to run with women – or maybe wanted all his time to be drunk. Either a few pesos earned that way – at my rightful profession – or else spend the rest of my life nailing boxes, as I told you I was doing in Montreal when I left the North.”

And that was the first time that Laughing Sam spoke up. His eyes, in his high-cheeked black face, had been open as wide as saucers.

“Good God, boss – is you a – a daintist?”

“Yes,” I said.

“God, boss – tek a look, will yu, at mah po’ teef – Ah clah, dey is slow’ killin’ me daid wid pain.”

And so while Slim waited, ever sitting stoically in his place, his hands linked around his knees, I turned Sam around, and let the sun from that high-up barred window pour straight into his mouth and throat. Then I shook my head slowly.

“God, black boy,” I told him, “but you’ve some badly exposed nerves. You sure could stand plenty of cleaning out of bone cavities, and something to cover those nerve endings. Your mouth, black boy, is a classical example of number three of Dr. Spencer Albright’s studies of Negro oral conditions found only in large Southern cities. Chewing negro taffy, rich in synthetic esters, as a kid; then five or six years of dental neglect – with your folks in the meanwhile using the old carbolic acid bottle on you whenever you had toothache – and you learning to do– the same. – Why don’t you apply to the warden here for care?”

Slim, over across the room, laughed grimly.

“When you’re in this place of forgotten men,” he said, “you’re buried alive – head deep!”

I was fumbling in my pockets. And I found the lone pill of zirconium citrate. I’d brought it down with me to show some South American dentist the latest in quick local oral anesthetics. The manufacturers claimed that zirconium citrate, reacting with saliva, made a perfect local anesthetic. I told the facts to Sam. “Now then, coloured boy, dissolve this in your spit – don’t dare swallow it – it’s all we’ve got – shake it around in your mouth – and you’ll feel better – oh, for a half-day, anyway.”

He did so. Even before it must have dissolved, one could absolutely see the relief spread over Sam’s black face. Though I knew it could be but a temporary relief at best.

“Now, Sam,” Slim was saying, “catch up a little on your sleep – while that stuff’s working. You haven’t slept for four days and nights. And you, buddy,” to me, “sit down here again. For you’re going to be here – a while!”

I did. Sam, his pill dissolved, his body completely worn out, was as good as asleep already.

“How long have you been here – Cape Town Slim – if I may ask?”

“Two months.”

“What are you charged with?” I asked. “If you don’t mind?”

“Not at all, buddy. Illegal entry – plus complete outfit of crib-cracking tools found in my room. I’ll undoubtedly catch All of the Book down here. Only – I’ll never read it!”

“Catch – the – Book?” I said, for I was green in those days.

“Catch the full limit of the sentence, you lug,” he said friendlily. “Life! Only I’ll never read all the Book – if they do hand it to me.”

“Why?” I asked, bewildered greatly.

“The old ticker here,” he explained simply, putting his hand on his heart. “Forty-eight – buddy – and a valve leaking badly. They won’t lock this baby up for long.” He changed the subject. “I see the dinge is peacefully sleeping. Chest moving as regularly as a baby’s.”

I paused helplessly. And then asked: “And what is he – the Negro – locked up for?”

“Suspicions of having been sent down here specially to steal valuable military secrets because he got acquainted right off the bat with some American Negress who’s known down here to be the darling mistress of some high-up dignitary who’s at some Austrian spa right now – getting his own heart treated.”

“Well,” I responded, “illegal entry is the only charge they have against me. Since I did sneak in myself, without hide nor hair of a passport. Could I do anything for you – on the outside? British consul – or anyone else? For I’ll sure be getting out of here soon – though with maybe sixty days of jail sentence attached.”

“Oh – yeah?” Slim said sarcastically. “I’m betting all I’ve got in Cape Town – which happens to be a one-pound note owing to me by the keeper of the pub in the Mount Nelson Hotel! – against a plugged shillin’, that you wouldn’t have been stuck in this particular dungeon if they weren’t plotting to sock you – and how! I’m saying you’ll be here good – and long – and plenty!”

I looked about those grim stone walls – one wall dripping. “A tough place – to amuse oneself in.”

“Amuse – oneself?” He laughed gleefully. “Why, there isn’t a goddamned thing to do in this hole but chew the rag. And now that I’ve a white man to talk to – for Sam, pounding his ear over yonder, hasn’t enough brains to be worth talking to! – I may even start a technical school. Crib-cracking – all branches! I’d say that in ninety theoretical lessons, of one hour each – maybe only seventy-five – I could turn a bird who had the mechanical and chemical training of a Dental Surgeon into a bird who possessed the practical quintessence of the accumulated knowledge of all the safe-crackers in history!”
And that is how, where, and from whom I learned the entire technique and art of cracking a crib!

CHAPTER III


KANGAROO COURT


FOR I did not get out as I had blithely supposed! I never even left that cursed cell till one certain day when I was whisked down some stone corridors and up and down some winding stairways. And into a huge room studded with dripping stone pillars. It was full of men, some in brilliant uniforms, all speaking a language which I couldn’t understand. Improvised planks and barrels, and a makeshift judge’s bench, showed that it was a temporary courtroom. They held some kind of a trial With a jury of the hardest-looking men I’d ever seen. I attempted to expostulate. A greasy-looking man with huge moustaches said: “Kip quee-it. Me – I am your att-turnee. I take good care for you.”

In due course the jury went out. And came back in three minutes.

A lot of talking followed.

And I was brought back to Cape Town Slim and Laughing Sam. And that night I learned from a turnkey who spoke a little English the bitter fact. I had been condemned to death for the murder of a Spanish girl found stabbed to death in the park I They had the signed deposition of three police witnesses who swore they had found the dagger, cleansed carefully of finger-prints, hidden in the closet of my hotel room. Also the deposition of two men who had seen me on the lonely park bench, the night before the killing, quarrelling bitterly with the girl. They even had a typewritten “confession,” signed by me, in which I had thrown myself upon the mercy of the court. And because of that “confession” the judge, hypocritical viper, had ordered clemency of the rope, instead of the torture of the spike-studded garrotte, in case the jury found me guilty. Damned farce! All of it. For several of the jurymen were fast asleep while the case was going on – but the whole twelve proclaimed me guilty. And mercifully “gave” me the rope – instead of the steel garrotte!

That was all I knew. And I lived in a state of shell-shock for forty-eight hours. And finally, a few days later, they took Slim out. Took him somewhere in the old cabildo. He was gone about two hours. Then they brought him back. And when the door clanged, he motioned me over. “I picked up the whole low-down on your case, buddy,” he told me gravely. “And a little on mine. I was just up for more interrogation, in front of some kind of military big-wig around here, that’s all. About myself, I’m to be tried after – after you’re knocked off. So it’ll have to mean life for me in some dungeon – so’s I don’t get word out about you. But about you – well – you see, I’ve never yet let on to any of you – or them – that I speak this lingo. I’ve kept that one little fact back. So they let me sit in a side room, whilst a couple of their plain-clothes coppers talked near me. Buddy, they jobbed you all right. This white senorita was, it seems, the mistress of every police and political higher-up in this town. She played them all. The little fool! And when they all finally commenced comparing notes – and found she’d done just that – they decided she’d have to take a ride, a la American. So a couple of their local hoods, armed with rubber gloves, squeezed her gold-digging hand about a dagger to get her f.p.’s on it, slipped the dagger between her ribs late that night – and right in her quarters – and lugged her across a lane and set her up in the park, on a bench, with a phoney suicide note to be found with her. They themselves got bumped off by the powers that be – one hour after they copped their pay-off. For it seems they’d bungled the case. And a bird – an ex-dick, and a member of the politico-military gang – who inspected it, found the bungle. For she was left-handed – and the dagger-hole was on the wrong side; moreover, it was a bit too far back for her hand to reach. Her knock-off then had to be, obviously, a bump-off. The dick used his brains, drew out the dagger and copped the phoney suicide note. Now, since it had to be a bump-off, this politico-military gang had to have a scapegoat – before a certain bright mouthpiece for the minority party, suspecting the truth, tried to put the heat on them. The scapegoat might easily have been me – only I was already apparently in limbo. They picked on you: new-comer – under surveillance ever since you got here – and no passport. That name you wrote on the bottom of that sheet was the signature to your confession typed in later above it. Every man-jack on that jury was a police or military henchman. The judge was the lousiest bastard of his kind in all South America. They held the trial down here so that nobody but their own gang could be present. Not a word’s been in the papers; so the consuls know nothing. The morning after you’re hung, your confession, which absolutely clinches the fake testimony, is to be published. And this, buddy, is the low-down.”

I gulped. I was young and soft. And only twenty-five years old.

“But why – why – why, Slim, are they waiting?”

“Because,” Slim told me, “it seems that in all these banana republics an execution, an entry order into stir for a life term, or an extradition, is nought per cent. legal – or one hundred per cent. illegal! – unless the Big Bug – and you know now, of course, who he is – is inside the boundary lines and. technically, ‘appealable to.’ Though just try to appeal. Eh? And this devil has been, all this time, in Europe. At a spa. Treating his goddamn precious heart whilst Cape Town Slim sits here in pain with his own heart. This fellow’s in with ‘em all – but he’s got to be this side of the boundary line, else the minority party here, which controls the one bench that administers breaches of office, can cast every one involved with that execution out of office: that is, of course, after they learn of it. So, in the meantime, the buzzards that are in are waiting, waiting, on the head Buzzard’s return. So you’re safe for a while.”

“And then – then what?” I asked helplessly.

“Then what?” Cape Town Slim said. He shrugged his shoulders. “Never cross a bridge, lad, till you reach it. There’s more things happen in this old world than you ever dreamed of. From what I hear, it’s a long time off yet. And something may happen. All right, sit down,” he ordered, “and take your to-day’s lesson. For now that they’ve given us this soap-box to eat our stinking horsemeat stew off of, and we got a sort of model of a safe, we’re moving a hell of a sight faster. And the Grand Old Iron Worker is going to make an expert cribman out of you on the one chance in a million that you might get out of this country – though, frankly, I’m doing it really to keep myself from going barmy; So let’s see – where are we? Yesterday was Lesson Forty-four: How the V-door is wedged open, for the seepage of the soup, in case you haven’t got wedge, nor knife, nor even safety-razor blade. Boy, that lesson was worth a twenty-pound note in itself. And to-day we’ll go into something new: torching. And if you’ll consider our soap-box a chlled-steel cannon-ball safe, which can’t be blown, I’ll show you exactly how to find the little old point – Achilles’ Heel himself – where the acetylene jet can eat through in half the time. Ready now?”

“I might as well,” I returned desperately. “Either that – or go crazy.”

“Crazy?” moaned Sam – for this was one of his bad, bad days. “It’s me – Laughin’ Sam – who’s goin’ crazy. Ah ‘clahs to hell-an’-gone, Slim an’ Jehhy, Ah gonna die dis night – for Ah suffe’n so dat Ah des gonna kill mahse’f wid mah own hands. Ah will! Ah will. Ah will!”

CHAPTER IV


NEGOTIATIONS


I LOOKED at Sam. His sufferings were bad all right, for they were pulling him continuously down. He was thin as a rail. His eyes were like bloodshot black walnuts sunken deep in his head. All night he would moan. Hardly ever slept. I looked at Slim.

“Listen, Slim – you’ve been badly shaken by knowing you’re going to catch the Book in this country – but you’ve kept yourself from going crazy by teaching me safe-cracking which I’ll never be able to use – and wouldn’t use, I guess, even if I could. But I’ve got to do something to keep myself from going crazy. And from keeping Sam over there from going crazy too.”

“What?” he asked.

“Will you translate some words into Spanish for me – to the guard who sits just up the corridor there? It means, of course, giving away the fact that you know the lingo.”

He looked at me. “Well – I might as well. But that’ll end all chance of picking up any more news. Okay.”

He motioned the guard over. A tall man with face the colour of an olive.

And I told Slim, sentence by sentence, what to say – and he translated to me, the same way, the answers, though giving them a typical South American accent, grim humorist that Slim ever was.

“This young man,” he began, “is a dentist. He even received, in North America, the highest degree known in dentistry: that of Doctor in the Integrity Calculation is of Account Collecting. I can’t translate that last exactly, but the degree would also be known as P.D.Q. Phooey to You, Brother.”

“‘Ee’s danteest, eh? Well, can he stop theez black man from ‘owling? We guards, even in the guardroom up yon flight of stairs, no can sleep. So gr-reatly are our senseebeelities disturbed.”

“Your sensibilities, you goddamned black-eyed son-of-a-bitch with a Woolworth-Kresge military coat. What do you suppose our feelings are?”

“I know not w’at zat word beetch mean – so how I know w’at son of same is? However – w’at you wan’?”

“Listen, you won’t let a dentist be brought here – because this black bird is liable to slip him a piece of info that you don’t want to leak out of this calaboose.”

“Well, I know notheeng about that. I am hired but to be a guard. From six in the morning till eight at night. I know notheeng.”

“Well, so be it. But this fellow at my elbow here says if he could only get some dental apparatus – and a little material to work with – he’d be glad to work on the black man’s teeth – just to keep from going crazy himself.”

“‘Ee would, eh? Well, wait.”

The fellow was gone. While Slim and I waited.

Presently he returned.

“My fran ‘oo work on upper corridor,” Slim translated quizzically to me, “had a brother ‘oo was danteest in an adjoining contree. ‘Ee’s brother ees dead. So ‘ee ‘as a foot dreel. And a drawer full of – of nutpeecks.”

“Ah – fine. That’s what the lad here requires. Oh yes – the lad here asks me to ask you: has your ‘fran’ any gold or silver paste? Or mercury?”

“No gold. No. He sold eet. But ‘ee say ‘ee has the silver dust. And the mercuree.”

“Good. Bring the apparatus here – and he’ll manage somehow to fix the black man’s teeth so the poor devil won’t howl all night.”

“But ‘ow we know you won’ dreel your way out that weendow?”

“You ass! Don’t you sit all day where you can look right in this cell? Go and examine that one window each night – and if you see evidences of drilling – call everything off.”

“Hokay! I weel breeng the app’ratus.” Slim shrugged his shoulders. “A hell of a chance we’d have to drill our way out,” he commented. “And if we did – only a deep river to plunge into with plenty of man-eating ‘gators. But to stop that dinge’s howling is the next best thing, says I. Now come on – while the apparatus comes. For you haven’t recited your yesterday’s lesson yet, let alone seen to-day’s demonstration.”

CHAPTER V


J. HAMMOND, D.D.S.,

HOURS 10.05 A.M. TO 11.20 A.M. DAILY!


AT last, outside of our mutual terrible predicaments, things were much happier in our cell.

The old foot drill that the guard brought was a fair enough one. Not like the ones I’d had in the different dental colleges I’d attended. But it did the work. The “nutpicks,” as the guard called them – drills, burrs, and so forth – were all there. Silver and mercury for amalgam. Even cement. All I needed.

Each day Laughing Sam was in less and less pain, as I cleaned out those terribly rotten cavities; Three extractions, in fact, I had to make. Twice I had to take out a half-dead nerve, We had no anesthetic. Sam stood it manfully, sweating great beads of sweat. The only mouth-washing apparatus vouchsafed to us was an old stinking scrub-pail half-filled with filthy water which more than once actually held the remains of scrub water in it. After a drilling, Sam would wallop some of the black muddy contents of the pail around his mouth, yodelling with pain, expectorate it all out, and we’d start drilling again. Lucky, lucky for him – that I found a small bottle half-filled with Steriline – made in my own country – to sterilize those cavities just before working the amalgam in.

As for a chair to put the patient in, they would not give us hide nor hair of one. And I had to work on Sam, he seated on the cold cement floor, his back against Slim’s back for a prop. His head lying back on Slim’s shoulder for a head-rest. It was in those days that I realized that Cape Town Slim was one of God’s own gentlemen. I had to squat low on my heels – but could work the drill-pedal with one foot just the same. Only from about five minutes after . ten each morning, to about five minutes after eleven, though, could I work by natural light, while – that is – the sun from the high window poured straight down into Sam’s mouth and throat. A further fifteen minutes could often be got on sunny days by Slim holding out the hand-mirror above his and Sam’s head, and actually reflecting the sunlight into Sam’s mouth. Those fifteen minutes I always reserved for the difficult technique, for the concave mirror actually focused the rays on the site of the work. But when the sun completely passed – the work was up for the day. And, working swiftly as I did often to beat the sun – I had to put in strange-shaped fillings – square – triangular – God knows what other forms – which, though they protected the underlying cavity too per cent., would have actually demoted me back to freshman year in a dental college clinic!

Each day Slim taught me more and more of his trade.

Down in his soul, assuredly, he had the criminal’s hunch – gained from lots of strange experiences – that always there might be a last-minute “crush-out,” as he termed it.

Each learned lesson he made me actually demonstrate, over and over again, on the soap-box. But soon he commenced to look bluer and bluer.

For we had heard that the Big Bug had left Austria and would soon land on the coast of South America. Which meant that Slim’s trial would take place very soon and, in all probability, be ratified the same day. While mine, already held, would be ratified, and probably carried out the day before Slim would go to prison.

And the day after that was the day when the military big-wig of the Bastille ruled that we had no rights to have a dental drill. Even though the guard was rigorously inspecting the lone square window every morning and evening. But – luckily! – I had fixed Sam up completely. By the evening before. It had taken thirty mornings – working swiftly – to do it. The first out-of-college job I’d ever done. Professional, by God, because it was paid for! Because Sam subsequently paid for it, in fact, a thousand times over. By getting me out of there. And by – but that’s getting ahead of my story.

“What in hell am I going to do, Slim?” I asked. For my nerve was slipping. “God – if I could only reach the American consul.”

He thought hard.

“The trouble is, Jerry,” he said, “that we’re being kept here for just that reason: so that we can’t notify our consuls. We’re incommunicado – that and plus! But tell you what I’ll do, old chap. To-night I’m going to lie awake. All night. The moon’s full. And I always think – well – brilliantly – when the moon is full! I get ideas galore. And when morning comes, Jerry, I swear I’ll have some sort of an idea. By which one of us, at least, may escape. And, notifying the consuls, get the rest out!”

That night, Slim, on his straw-stuffed pallet, was very quiet. I knew he was thinking as never in his life he had thought before. I wondered what desperate ideas were surging through his head. I caught a look at him once, when the penumbra of the moving moonlight crept across and beyond him. His eyes were staring thoughtfully at the farther ceiling edge, and he was actually smiling. Smiling so intently that I knew he’d found at last the solution to outwit these devils who held us.

The solution by which one of us, at least, might escape – and thus save the other two.

And when morning came, my conjecture of the night was confirmed – for Slim had, indeed, found a way in which one and one only of us might make an escape.

An escape more perfect than anything which we had ever mutually discussed and tossed aside as hopelessly impractical.

Moreover, Slim had achieved it!

For he lay on his burlap pallet – dead!


CHAPTER VI


TWO LEFT


NOW that Slim’s defective heart had proved ticket-of-leave for him, there were but the two of us left in that cell, myself and Laughing Sam. He tried fearfully to cheer me up. Joked with me – jigged and buck-danced for me – sung for me – told me stories of strange adventures he’d had in the Black Belts of many Southern and Northern cities of the U.S.A., including particularly El Paso. I tried desperately, frantically, to, keep from thinking of what was to happen to me. And soon. For I had seen huge drilled beams being carried past the door. And I knew a gallows was being bolted together in some cell – in some farther part of that Bastille of Hell.

“Sam,” I said, “I suppose as soon as – as they get rid of me – they’ll be letting you out. After all, they don’t claim anything on you – and you’ve nothing on them.”

“God, boss – but Ah hates to heah you talk lak dat. Fo’ Ah sure lubs you, boss. You done did pull me out ob Hell. Mah mouf don’ ache an’ mah haid an’ face an’ eva’thing up dah don’t ache no ma’, Ah wish to God, boss, Ah could do somep’n fo’ you. Oh, Mist’ Jehhy, is dey evah ann’body you wan’ fo’ me to – to – to notify when dey – dat is, if’n dey – dey – dey gibs you de rope?”

“No, Sam,” I said, and truthfully. “The only relative I ever had – my grandmother – has been dead three years now.”

“No kid frien’s, Mist’ Jehhy?”

“No, Sam. She and I gypsied about so much when I was a kid that I didn’t have time to make permanent friends.”

We were silent. What could be said, anyway? And still sitting there, we both heard a rapping against the bars of our cell-door. We both jumped up.

The governor of the prison – in red coat and epaulettes – stood there. Scowling.

“You – black man,” he said, in fair English, “get ready to get out of here in five minutes. Put your stinking socks on. Your flapping shoes, also. Get your few rags together.”

“Whah – whah Ah goin’?” quavered Sam. “You’re going to be put aboard a native fruit freighter that leaves to-night. And when you get back to the U.S.A. don’t ever show yourself back here. Or you’ll get exactly what this fellow is going to get.”

“What – what am I going to get?” I asked.

“You are to be hanged to-morrow some time. For he whose presence is required to ratify your execution order – and who, my fine murderer of innocent girls, has already stated by wire that he will ratify the order at the border if met there with it – is now within less than twelve hours of the border.”

And he turned from the cell. And his military-shod feet were clicking rapidly up the corridor.

Sam turned to me. We were quite alone. Even our guard was gone, bowing and scraping along behind the governor.

“Mist’ Jehhy,” Sam burst out, “gib me yo’ socks – yes – don’ ax no questions – and put mah socks on instid.”

“But Sam – why – why, Sam, in God’s name, why? They’re going to hang me. So why?”

“Oh God, Mist’ Jehhy – don’ ax. In case it – it don’ wuhk. But quick, now. Dis sock. Yes. And dis ‘un. Gi’ me yourn quick. Ah cain’t tell you. It mebbe is ouah on’y chance. Quick now. Fo’ dese debills’ll inspeck me sure w’en Ah goes out.”

I put his stinking socks on my feet. And gave him mine – equally stinking in that place of no soap and little water.

And – they were back for him within two minutes – not five.

And a second later I was left alone.

Up and down, up and down, I paced that evening. For the first time, I would have relished a corridor guard. But guard there never was – at night. Not in that section, anyway.

That night I lay on my lone pallet in the moonlight. Slim gone to a happier land for good and for all – and Sam now far, far out at sea. I thought of many things. Thought – thought – thought–

About then something wrapped in paper hit the bars of the high square window. Fell back into the river. For I heard the distinct “plash” of its impact with the water, Again, within a minute, the strange manoeuvre was repeated. This time the wrapped stone, as obviously it was, came clean through the bars. I clambered over to it. Unwrapped it in the bright moonlight. It said:

SAID NOAT ONLY’ NUMMER 2

Unrabble de sock, and let unrabblment down quik. Wuk fas for de cuhrrant in dis ribber is swif and if im cotched ahll git life centense.

Sam! How – how had he done it?

And then it commenced dawning on me – the reason for his strange last-minute demand. The socks he’d given me were knit socks. Knit for him, as I remembered now his having told me, by some coloured girl in the last place he’d been before he came south. I peeled one off – pulled at one of its worn-through spots. And the thin but tough cotton yarn unravelled! Once or twice I had to start again at a new worn spot – and tie the two broken ends together. At last I had a 25-foot piece of yarn. I tied to it the piece of rock that had come in the note, and tossed the latter over the window-sill. Let it down. Down. Down. Felt an answering tug on it. Pulled it slowly back. Much heavier this time.

A metal hacksaw was on the end! A beautiful saw. Three extra blades tied to it, too!

I worked as never in my life. By standing on the up-ended box, I could reach the lower cemented-in cross-bar which held all the vertical rods of the window. That beautiful saw – almost silent – literally ate through that ancient soft metal. The upper cross-bar was harder – harder, that is, to reach. By straining on tiptoes – and straining my very shoulder – I sawed it through. On the right side. And half-way through on the left. Then up on to the sill I drew myself.

Muscled the nearly freed web of iron rods towards me, feet on sill, body bent double, straining furiously. The web of rods, held to the stone frame now only by a single bit of iron, bent beautifully inward. I sidestepped around it. Then pressed it clear around in towards the wall. Forcing my body through the nearly 18-inch square opening, I caught a glimpse of brackish but swift-flowing water, perhaps seven feet below. And a boat bobbing about six feet away, tethered to some spike in the wall. A black man in it. And one end of the boat standing dangerously in full moonlight. I made a clean-cut head-first dive. Probably soundless. In a minute strong arms were about me, pulling me in. At once my saviour – Sam, of course – was rowing furiously down-river. A half-mile farther, Sam was telling me all. He’d been liberated and made room-orderly to the captain of the fruit-freighter the very second the ship weighed anchor and pulled out. Which was sundown. He’d noticed the ship was not provided with “wiahless wiahs” nowhah. He dived over the rail when it was out of the harbour, and in the sea. And, despite the sharks known to infest that nation’s coast, he’d succeeded in making the shore of the outer harbour. But before diving, he’d taken 1,000 American dollars that were in a Houston Texas bank-book on the captain’s dressing-table. Once on shore, he’d bought a sailor’s whole outfit of clothes for $20 American, and then, spotting the captain of the very freighter who had smuggled him in many months before – and who liked him – he had made a dicker with the latter to take himself and one other person on board. This captain evidently realized that this was hot, hot stuff for him to be playing in with; especially with gunboats in the harbour to find, maybe, on his ship some missing white political convict or what not. Then zip! – his licence to come into port at that country gone for ever. But he told Sam he’d play in. Price: $500. As for the rowboat Sam bought, it had cost him $200. The saw had cost him $75. Prices can jump skyhigh on a Southern America waterfront – when the goods are manifestly for smuggling – or for revolutionaries.

Sam and I made the freighter, far out in the harbour, two hours before dawn. And it sailed at dawn. Before, indeed, my own absence probably was discovered. Sam insisted absolutely on splitting the remaining near $200 between us.

CHAPTER VII


RETURN TO PURGATORY


THUS we went seaward, hopeful of seeing the coast of Uncle Sam’s country rise on the skyline one fine morning. It was a little after dawn when Sam and I leaned on the rail, watching the coast of that infernal country grow grey behind us, and glad of every yard of distance between it and ourselves, after all we had endured there.

“If ever a man pulled another out of hell, Sam,” I said, “it was you when you threw that stone through the window. You saved my life.”

“Ah, boss Jehhy, didn’t you do jes’ so. much fo’ me?” Sam inquired earnestly. “In dat stinkin’ rotten place, whah you got no nuffin’ to make de job proper, you made me de good toofs agin. I’d sure been daid in dah, if it wasn’t fo’ yo’ doctorin’.”

Then the voice of the captain broke in on our mutual thanks to each other, and caused me to turn round to face him.

“Mr. Hammond – I believe it is Mr. Hammond,” he said, “I’ve just had a wireless from the port we’ve left, and –”

“Boss, you promised to take us fo’ de five hunderd dollars!” Sam broke in, seeing the man’s intention in his face. “Yo’ promised!”

“To take you away from there – yes, and I’ve done it,” the captain said. “But I’ve more than five hundred dollars to think about. The wireless message I’ve just received – and my wireless operator acknowledged it – is to the effect that a boat was seen to come alongside my ship last night with two men aboard, and was later found drifting, empty of any man at all. Also, two prisoners have escaped. And they want me to submit to search, in case the two prisoners are aboard.”

“There is no right of search on the high seas,” I objected.

“Quite – so,” he agreed smoothly, and I saw he was of the sort that will argue a way round anything, smoothly and detestably. “But there is the question of my licence to trade in the ports of this republic, and if I refuse to be searched, I lose the licence. Since the boat belongs to a company, I lose my job if the licence is revoked, and – well, to put it plainly, for the sake of five hundred dollars I cannot afford to take that risk. No man in his senses would do it.”

“But you have already taken the risk,” I pointed out.

He shrugged his shoulders, and I hated him, badly.

“Accepted the five hundred dollars to take you aboard,” he pointed out in turn. “You may think it implies that I am to take you to my destination, but that was not stated when your coloured friend made the contract. It was simply to take him and one other aboard, and I took that risk. But I have to submit to search, and if you are found –”

He ended it with another shrug, and I hated him still more. But he held the whip-hand – a captain on his own ship is a god of sorts.
“Then what do you propose to do with us?” I asked.

“I’m going up parallel with the coast,” he answered, with the air of one who has already made up his mind and will not be moved from his intent, “and putting in off Pueblo San Diego – there’s no harbour, and I shall have to lie off. It’s a roadstead, and Pueblo San Diego is their northern frontier town. I’ve had a talk by wireless with them, and agreed to lie off there for search at eleven to-night – and you can bet your back teeth the search will be thorough. I can’t hide you two.”

“Then – ?” I asked. “Are you throwing us to the sharks?”

“Not quite so bad,” he answered with a smile. “Frankly, Mr. Hammond, I don’t want you aboard – I’d be happier without you, for they may find out if I land you at New Orleans when I get there, and I’d lose my licence to trade in their ports just the same as if they’d found you at Pueblo San Diego. Therefore, I propose to hand you back three hundred out of the five hundred dollars you paid for your passage, and drop you overside into one of the ship’s boats – and pray to God it’s cloudy till you’re too far away from the ship to be connected with it. I’ll see that all identifying marks are scraped off the boat before you board it.”

“You know that means death for me if I’m caught?” I asked.

“I can’t help it, Mr. Hammond,” he answered.

“If we refuse this, what is the alternative?” I demanded.

“Well –” he looked over the side – “I’d say there’s quite a lot of sharks in these waters, if you go in without a boat.”

“You mean – you are absolutely determined to get rid of us in this way, and to give us no chance of evading the search?”

“I’ve got my licence and my job to think about,” he replied sullenly.

“Right!” I said. “Hand over the three hundred dollars, and we’ll take your offer. But put in a couple of good automatic pistols with it. You say Pueblo San Diego is a border town – we may be able to shoot our way across the border, and get clear in spite of you.”

For I felt that, having escaped a hanging, I had no need to fear what might happen in this border town, given money and sufficient armament for self-protection. Moreover, I put a different value on life from that which I had entertained before that spell in the dungeon: I was far more willing, now, to take risks, and Sam, I knew, would follow me to hell and through it, so fully was he devoted to me.

“Them pistols’ll cost you twenty-five dollars apiece, and I’ll throw in five hundred rounds of ammunition for ‘em,” the captain stated.

“We will agree to that – hand over the remaining two hundred and fifty dollars right now,” I bade. “And then go away till it’s time for us to get together over final arrangements. I don’t like your face – I don’t like any of you for letting two American citizens down like this.”

He produced the money in silence. Possibly his conduct weighed on his conscience a little – he was throwing us to the wolves, and knew it. But, over that and everything, his licence and his job ruled him – some men are like that, I know. Probably he would have been glad to know that we had been caught and killed by the mestizo politicians of that infernal state, for then he would have been absolved of all complicity in our attempt at escape. I know that in his place – in any place, for that matter – I would never have played it low down on a fellow countryman as he did on us two, But his was a yellow nature, obviously.

At about ten o’clock that night, in black darkness – since the moon was past the full and not due to rise till later – Sam and I went over the side of the freighter and down into a boat towing alongside, with four oars laid in it for our use. The ship was then about three miles short of the roadstead of Pueblo San Diego, and lay with her engines stopped for our descent, after which she would go on to her anchorage, We had the two automatics for which I had asked, and the two hundred and fifty dollars of passage money, which, although it belonged to Sam, he insisted on dividing, so that we were possessed of over two hundred good American dollars apiece. As I shoved with an oar against the vessel’s side after we had settled ourselves in the boat, I heard the telegraph on the bridge give an engine-room signal, and then the rumble of the propeller. The freighter drew away from us, and presently we were rocking in the wash of her movement, while flakes of the loveliest phosphorescence I have ever seen lightened the darkness of the waters and showed me Sam’s eyes as he turned his black face towards me.

“What we gonna do now, boss Jehhy?” he asked.

“It looks to me as if we’ve got to go back to purgatory,” I told him. “It’s not as if I knew anything about the lie of this country, but we can’t get anywhere in this boat, while we may by land.”

“Yeah, boss, but if we gotta go back in, how we goin’ to git back out?” he persisted, “Mebbe we lan’ back in dat ar prison.”

“We must chance it,” I said. “Head for the shore, now.”

It seemed to me the only possibility. At my request, the captain had let me study his charts, but they gave only the coast-line, showing Pueblo San Diego as about ten kilometres inside the actual frontier, and the nearest town to northward, beyond the frontier, a good sixty kilometres away from it. What lay between the two I had no idea: my plan then, as far as I had any, was to get ashore, buy provisions for the boat, and then attempt to row up the coast to land again outside this infernal Republic. The ship’s captain, for some reason that I could not fathom, had refused to provision us: I think he wanted to drive us ashore, and hoped we would be caught to avert suspicion from himself. There seemed no other reason for his refusal.

We laid to the oars. I could see the freighter’s lights distant to north of us, and, on shore, sundry twinkles of light that revealed the existence of Pueblo San Diego, which the volume of sailing directions gave as a town of six thousand inhabitants. Its lights, like the steamer’s, were to north of us, and we rowed directly for the coast, my intention being to land outside the town and then reconnoitre. Each dip of our oars raised ripples of phosphorescent light, and the wake we left was a path of luminous glory. So still was the hot, starlit night that I heard the rattle of the freighter’s anchor cable when she reached her station in the roadstead: sound carries farther across water than over land; I know, but it was strange to hear that sound come out of the distance, and I remember cursing the captain again as I heard it.

We drove up, after about an hour’s rowing, on to a beach of fine white sand, beyond which showed the blackness of a line of foliage of some sort, and, rising out from it, the tops of five palm trees in a line parallel with the coast cut the sky. They would give us our direction, I knew, when we came back to the boat – if we had to return in darkness. The tide had been three-quarters of an hour short of full when we left the freighter, as I had ascertained before going down into the boat, so that it was now slack water of full tide, and since we pulled our craft up on to the sand, taking the aid of each big roller that came in and broke on the shore, I had little fear of its getting afloat again before our return to it with the provisions I meant to secure. All the same, I paid out the rope I found in the bows to its limit while Sam went up over the sand with the other end, and, by dragging the boat another Couple of yards up from the water’s edge, we had enough line to make fast to a stunted shrub up at the inner edge of the beach.

So that was that. We buried the oars in the sand close by the shrub, in case anyone should take a liking to the boat in our absence, and went off northward along the inner edge of the beach towards Pueblo San Diego. We left nothing in the boat, for the all-sufficient reason that, apart from our automatics and money, which we wanted, we had nothing to leave. Moonrise told me that it must be near on midnight when we struck a sandy track and entered on it, heading inland and still towards the town. We passed one silent, unlighted hut, and another where a dog barked furiously at our nearly silent footfalls. The track gave place to a pot-holed, badly kept highway; to the left I saw a big white mansion with lights showing through venetians of two windows on the ground floor; it was set back from the road in a shrub-spotted garden, divided from the road by a five-foot white wall, and in the gateway I saw a sentry with a rifle lounging. He took no notice whatever of us, and we passed on. Midnight struck from a clock somewhere ahead of us.

A bend in the way revealed to us what I conjectured – rightly, too – was the main street of Pueblo San Diego, though they call it the avenida. There were electric lights on standards at infrequent intervals, still alight, and giving us view of the frontages of some well-built stone buildings, interspersed with adobe and wooden structures, mostly closed and silent at this hour. But not all the town was asleep, by any means. We saw loungers in doorways, and passed twos and threes of little brown devils on their way home or to mischief; some of them stared at us as, shabby and by this time weary, we tramped on, but most of them took no notice of us. Two drinking dens, I saw, were well patronized, and the little tables on the sidewalk were occupied by groups of these little brown devils, of the same breed as those who had guarded us in the prison from which we had escaped. Then, a mile or more beyond the sentry-guarded mansion which stood just outside the town, we came to a brightly lighted establishment with more little tables set out on the sidewalk, and the murmur of many voices from its patrons. A linen slip pinned along the frontage announced it in scarlet letters as the “Posada de Sandoval,” and advertised drinks of probably local brands, together with angostura and cognac, It was of superior type to the two drinking dens we had passed, and, on the opposite side of the avenida from it, I paused to look across.

“Sam,” I said, “if we knew this infernal language we could get all we want for the boat inside there. They sell grub as well as drink.”

“Sure we could, boss Jehhy,” he assented. “Dat’s the wust ob puggatohy, ez yo’ said dis place wuz. Dah’s alwuz a catch in it.”

Then, as we stood gazing, a voice came to us across the avenida, and to my amazement and delight it was an English voice, while the words I heard seemed to indicate that Providence had directed us here.

“Hell’s bells!” it said. “Of all the god-forsaken holes on earth, this sure is the worst.” Then, in a shout of wrath – “A dentist! A dentist! My kingdom for a dentist!”

English, it was, not American, as I knew on hearing it. Beside me Sam drew a sharp, audible breath, and whispered – “De good Lawd!” in an awed way. As for me, I made one step towards the voice, drawn by almost irresistible curiosity, but then halted. My dentistry on Sam might be known here by this time – these little brown devils might have talked about what had gone on among the two escapees from that hell of a prison where we had been held, and, if I betrayed myself as a dentist here, probably it would be all up with me and with Sam too. Such were my first thoughts, but on top of them came a realization of the amazing coincidence that made a man shout in English for a dentist in such a place as this, exactly at the time that I happened to be passing. Somehow it seemed more than mere coincidence – a direction by Providence, fate, or whatever you choose to call it, which I must follow.

I took two more steps to cross the avenida to where that voice had sounded, and then Sam had me by the arm and stopped me.

“Boss Jehhy,” he said. “Ef we ‘uns go dah, we gonna git cotched, fo’ sure. Dat place no good to we – too much folkses dah.”

“We’ve got to get our grub somewhere, Sam,” I told him, “and it looks to me that shout is our guidepost – mine, anyhow. Come along.”

He followed me then. The lights of the posada shone down on the men at the little tables, and showed me at once the man who had shouted. He was clad in decent English clothes, and his face was white, not chocolate-coloured as were most of the others. He had with him a brown-faced little man in a uniform that fairly glittered with gold braid, finished off with a Sam Browne belt from which depended a holstered pistol. The two of them sat near the outer edge of the rows of tables, and I went straight to him and looked down as he looked up. I saw a lean, aristocratic-looking face, and a pair of steady blue eyes: he had, I could see, the quiet dignity of a well-bred Englishman, and for a moment, gazing down at him, I questioned inwardly whether I had not been mistaken after all; he did not look the sort of man who would shout like that, but appeared altogether too well-bred and quiet. Still, I risked it, while his companion stared up at me curiously.

“What do you want with a dentist?” I asked.

He leaned back in his chair, and a faint, satiric smile grew about his lips. Those blue eyes of his took in all of me, travelled down to my water-sodden, dingy trouser-legs, and up again, dwelling for an instant on the bulge of my coat pocket where my automatic rested – ready loaded, too! – and came up to my face. Then he spoke.

“And what the hell has that to do with you?” he inquired calmly.

“Oh, nothing, maybe,” I said, as easily as I could, while Sam peered past my shoulder and this Englishman took in all of him, too. “I happened to hear you screech for one, that’s all.”

“Do you know where to find one?” he inquired, with slightly more interest. “Because – well, I’m stumped on it, here.”

“I am one,” I told him, and risked the consequences of the statement. A man of my own colour and race, I reasoned, was not likely to betray me, even if he knew I was the escaped prisoner.

“Well, by Jove!” he remarked, with faint, satiric amusement. “I should never have guessed it. Sit down, won’t you? Not that you look like one – or like anything, in fact. But do sit down.”


CHAPTER VIII


THE HANG OF IT


THERE were two vacant chairs at the table at which the Englishman and his companion sat, and I drew out one and was about to seat myself when I glanced at Sam, standing tall and rather conspicuous at my elbow. The Englishman observed my look, and divined my difficulty.

“I forget,” he said. “Your – er – servant, I presume.”

“No,” I dissented. “My friend.”

I saw the faintly satiric expression in the blue eyes give place to one of approval, and he nodded gravely at Sam, who, as I thus acknowledged him, gave me a glance which said he was more than repaid for anything he may have done for me. But he had saved my life, and I was not going back on him, whatever the consequences might be.

“In that case,” said the Englishman, “he had better sit down with us too, while I explain – give you the hang of it, as I might say.”

“In fact, the low-down,” I suggested. I had been too near the hang of it recently to relish the expression.

“Er – yes,” he agreed. “I believe that is the expression in the States, and gather that you hail from there. And now, perhaps, we may introduce ourselves. My friend there is General Juarez – General Miguel Juarez, his excellency’s chief of staff, and I am Monty – that is, Montgomery Alden, private secretary to his excellency.”

The general half-rose and bowed to me as I seated myself and gestured to Sam to take the other chair. But I noticed that he pulled his own chair slightly away as Sam obeyed my gesture and seated himself too.

“Glad to meet you – I hope – Mr. Alden,” I said. “My name is Hammond, Jerry Hammond, and this is Sam Laffan –” it was as near as I felt myself able to get to Laughing Sam – “who has rendered me services that make me regard him as a friend. Now I think we all know each other, though I don’t know whom you mean by his excellency.

“Why, the president, of course,” Alden interposed.

He must have seen my jaw drop. We had walked into a hornets’ nest, if ever men did. The president – who had signed the warrant for my execution as soon as he crossed the border! I recovered myself.

“Oh yes, the president,” I said, as calmly as I could. “And –”

“And I’ve been looking for a dentist,” Alden pursued, frowning slightly. “There is one in this godforsaken town, of course, but he happened to look with eyes of love on a lady patient, apparently, and her husband stuck a knife in him, It seems that he will be able to resume work in a week or thereabouts, but his excellency wants a dentist at once, or sooner. And there is only that one, out of action,”

I had a momentary gleam of joy over the possibility of putting a drill on to the president’s molars and hitting a nerve without any anesthetic. But Alden went on with his story, and extinguished the hope.

“You see,” he said, “we’ve just come back from Europe, all of us. That is, the president and his daughter, the senorita Carmen de Alvarado, General Juarez here, myself the secretary, and some dozen other members of the staff. And the senorita has gone down with toothache – it began yesterday, just after we got here. I’d just got his excellency to sign an execution warrant on some poor devil they were holding in the capital, and came out from his room to find the senorita with tears running down her cheeks and one of them bumped out and spoiling her face. She’s in real agony, and I turned out to-night to see if I could find anything resembling a dentist before we start for the capital to-morrow, so if you know anything about that sort of thing – well – er –” He broke off and gazed at me questioningly. “But you’ve no tools,” he added, “unless that bulge in your pocket is a travelling-case.”

“It isn’t,” I assured him, “but probably I could get all the tools I need from this wounded tooth-yanker you’ve told me about, if we can get into his surgery without his trying to knife us.”

“As representative of the president, I can get anywhere,” Alden assured me. “And the uniform of General Juarez –” the general bowed at me as his name was spoken – “is a perfect passport, even to a dentist’s surgery. In fact, we are the goods, as you Yankees say.”

I liked him. I liked that half-humorous, all-careless way of his, and his acceptance of all that came with perfect, easy calm. He even accepted me as a dentist, with no more than my mere word for it, and told his story with utter belief that Providence had rained a genuine dentist on him in response to his call. But then I remembered his offer, shouted as it had been, and remembered, too, the warrant that the president had signed. It was time to bargain.

“You were shouting – ‘my kingdom for a dentist’ – a little while ago,” I pointed out. “As for me, no pay, no work, senorita or no senorita. I’ll put up a proposition to you for this job.”

“State it,” he bade – had he been American, he would have said “As how?” But he was as English as any man I have ever met.

“Simple,” I answered, and, glancing at the general, decided that he did not understand English. “All I ask is an escort to the frontier for myself and my friend here, and safe-conduct till we’re across.”

“Then you’re the – Oh, hell!” he breathed softly.

“I am,” I agreed – I had decided that this was a man worth trusting. “Say, boy, how did you come to get to be secretary, anyhow?”

“If you must know, I was one of six hundred applicants for the post while his excellency was in England, on his way back from his heart treatment,” he answered. “I beat the rest of them through my knowledge of South American Spanish, which is rather different from the European variety. But you’re the – well, I’m damned!”

“No, you’re not,” I contradicted. “That is, not yet. I’m putting my cards down because you’re white, like myself. All that business that planted me in jail was a frame-up – do I look like a guy that would knife a dame? You don’t know this dirty country yet, or you’d know that strange things get done in it – and I’m one of the strange things. My cards are down, and I can cure the senorita’s toothache. Now what about it? Do you pay my price for the job? Or do my friend and myself shoot our way out of here?”

He laughed softly. “Don’t shoot,” he answered. “Have a drink.”

“Suits me,” I agreed, “and my friend here too.”

He signalled a waiter – it was an all-night joint we had struck, apparently – and presently Sam and I were furnished with some sort of native wine, sweetish, heady stuff, in which we drank Alden’s health, and that of the general too, who, though he obviously understood no English, bowed and smiled to the universal language of the lifted glass.

“You’re a nervy sort of ‘cuss,” Alden said to me. “Else you’d never have owned to me that you’re a dentist – what’s more, you’d never have come near the general’s uniform. Personally, I’m all for paying your price for professional services, but as you may realize, I’m not top dog in this kennel. If you can stop the senorita’s moans it will go a long way towards procuring your price from the one who is top dog – her father, that is – but whether it will go all the way, I don’t know.”

“But you feel like being on my side?” I asked.

“I am on your side,” he answered, “My goldlaced friend here happened to know the real story of how you were due to swing, and so I knew before you told me that it was what you call a frame-up – but I didn’t know it until after the warrant for execution had been sent off. And to tell you the truth, Mr. Hammond, I’m not so much in love with my job as I was on the voyage across. It seems, as you said, a dirty country.”

“It sure is,” I said, “and my chief anxiety is getting out of it, with Sam, here – though he’s far less to fear from it than I have, being set at liberty and merely told to get out, while I’m – well, due to get the hang of it, as you said a while ago, But now – what about this dental job? Where do I get tools for it, and when do I operate?”

“I think you operate as soon as we get back,” he answered thoughtfully. “As for tools, I understand it’s a back tooth, so if I were you I’d yank it out, make it a sudden operation rather than a lingering job. And you’ll get your tools at the regular practitioner’s place, a bit along the road that way.” He nodded in the direction from which we had come. “You’ll know what you ought to take, of course.”

“Sounds like a few pairs of forceps and no more,” I said.

“Exactly,” he agreed. “The president speaks English, and so does the daughter, so you’ll have no trouble over that. But – how to get you out after the job is done. That’s what’s puzzling me.”

I let him think a while. It was growing very late, and even the citizens of this banana republic had nearly all sought their haybags. Including us four, there were not more than a dozen patrons of this posada left at the tables, and the two drinking shops farther down had both closed. With a sudden sort of snap, all the electric lights along the avenida went out, leaving moonlight and black pools of shadow.

“Let’s go,” Alden said, and rose to his feet.

Sam and I and the general rose too, and made our way back, as we two had come, until we were near the edge of the town. There Alden entered a sort of compound in which stood a neat little one-storeyed white house, and beckoned to me. “Tools,” he explained laconically.

I followed him to the front door, and with a little cane that he carried he beat a tattoo on the door-panel that set a dog barking fiercely inside, until soft-sounding footfalls replaced the dog’s alarm, and I wondered what had been done to silence him. The door opened, and in the darkness that it framed showed the dim outline of a figure, but whether of man or woman I could not tell.

Alden spoke in Spanish, and won a reply. Then he spoke again – the exchanges went on for a minute or two, and then we were left on the doorstep, while Sam and the general waited in the street.

“Gone to get a light,” Alden explained. “She’s going to show us into his surgery, and then you can take what you choose.”

The “she” appeared again, a bulky negress carrying a paraffin lamp: although they had electricity for street lighting, this house was not furnished with current, apparently. She led us to a dental surgery at the back of the house – surgery, I call it, but pigsty would be a better term, and I wondered how much sepsis the man who ran this place turned loose in the course of a year. There was a glass wall-case of instruments which, although not actually rusty, looked unclean. “It’s going to be a straight extraction whatever is wrong, or else I don’t operate,” I said. “I can sterilize a pair of forceps.”

“Heaven send I never have to come here!” Alden ejaculated piously.

I went to the wall-case, and from one of the glass shelves took a half-dozen pairs of forceps, for certainty of having the right type. A moderately clean towel served for wrapping, and with my bundle I went out, Alden following me, and the negress lighting us to the door. Before we rejoined the other two, I stopped.

“It’s understood that this means a clean getaway for me – and for my friend Sam as well?” I asked him, as he too paused.

He shook his head. “To be frank with you, old chap, I can’t promise as far as that,” he said, “I’ll do my damnedest to get you clear, and I can do a good deal, but I can’t promise absolutely.”

For nearly a minute I stood thinking over it, and he waited. As nearly as I could see, he was unarmed, and at a word from me Sam would down the little general before he could get his pistol out. Impulse, and that amazing coincidence of a man shouting for a dentist just as I came into hearing, had driven me to accept this situation as made for me, so far – I’d had a hunch that this was our way out, but now I doubted. If we two got Alden and the general down, and got away to where our boat waited, we should be no worse off than when we had come ashore, and might get the grub we wanted for our coastal trip from some other source near by. I think Alden guessed the cause of my hesitation. He smiled.

“Please yourself, of course,” he said coolly. The words decided me, and I went on towards the gate.

“I’ll see it through,” I said. “It’s a chance, anyhow.”

“And, by Jove, I’ll see you through, somehow,” he promised. “The president isn’t a bad sort, for one of his breed – he’s better than most of them, at least, and thinks all the world of his daughter.”

We went on, Sam and the general following. When we had got round the bend that marked the end of the avenida – at least, of its lighted part – the moon was high enough to let us evade the pot-holes in the road until we came to the sentry-guarded gate that I remembered. Here a little brown devil who had been dozing as he leaned against the wall started and came to attention after a fashion when he heard us, and Alden, entering through the gateway, led on towards the still-lighted frontage of the big white mansion.

CHAPTER IX


THE PATIENT


A BIG, high-ceilinged room, gaudily furnished. Looped back from the high window by red and gold cords were crimson curtains, and the furniture was all gilt and red plush upholstery, while the uncarpeted floor was of some dark, highly polished wood, slippery to the foot – and that floor was to play a part in our destinies, though I did not know it when Alden left Sam and me alone in the room. I put my towel-load of forceps down on one of the plush-seated chairs and went to the big window, but, though the curtains were looped back, the venetian shutters outside concealed everything from my sight.
“Whut you t’ink happen next, boss Jehhy?” Sam asked after a pause.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Only, I think I’ve been a fool.”

“Whut you mean?” Sam inquired uneasily.

“Following my hunch. I ought to have let this secretary guy alone, not walked into it as I did. He may get us out, but –”

Then one of the two folding doors at the end of the room opened, and Alden reappeared, together with a small, middle-aged man, and a girl. The man was simply dressed in white drill, and his face looked no darker than that of any white man condemned to live in a banana republic like this: the girl, wearing a sort of loose, wrappery robe, looked to me rather a doll, at first, for she was golden-haired and blue-eyed, not over-tall, but very graceful and well-built. I saw the man’s gaze travel over me and Sam, none too friendlily.

“The dentist I found, your excellency,” Alden said in English. “Smith –” he addressed me, “this is his excellency the president, Senor Don Felipe de Alvarado, and this is your patient, the senorita Carmen de Alvarado –”

“Who needs your services at once, Smith,” the president interrupted, laying a peculiar and unpleasant emphasis on the name. He spoke perfect English, I noted, with only a very slight accent to betray that it was not his native tongue, and as one accustomed to command.

“Then,” I said, “if the senorita will be so good as to sit down, I will make an examination and see what is wrong.”

I could see already, to a certain extent, for her left cheek was slightly swollen. Without speaking she went to one of the chairs and seated herself, while the president placed himself beside her as if on guard, and Alden stood back. Sam, at a distance and with his hand in his pocket, was a passive spectator – I knew the fingers of that hand were wrapped round the automatic pistol from the freighter’s captain, and, as he watched, he was not even Smiling Sam.

“You speak English, senorita?” I asked her.

“Fairly well,” she answered, and proved that she spoke it quite well. And, gazing up at me, she achieved a smile.

“Good. Now, allow me.” And, taking her head in my two hands, I turned it upwards to get the light on her face. “Now open your mouth as widely as you can, please. A little more to the right –”

I got the light, nearly over her head as she sat, on to the left side of her opened mouth, and saw at once what was wrong. Two molars had probably been decaying internally for some time, and now the crowns of the teeth had broken down: the teeth themselves were not worth saving, even if I had had stoppings and all other necessities. I released my hold on her head and stood back.

“Extraction is the only thing,” I said. “Two extractions.”

“Impossible!” the president said sharply. “With – no doctor available in the town, no anesthetics – Carmen, it must wait till we reach the capital – you, Smith, can give her something to alleviate the pain.”

“I will not have it, father,” the girl said. “He must do the extractions without anesthetic. I will bear it, somehow.”

I revised my original estimate of her. She was considerably more than a doll, evidently – if she knew what she was proposing. Two molars do not come out easily. But that man beside her, her father, had signed my death-warrant not long before, and at that point I had no love for any of his family, nor wish to spare them.

“It could be done, senorita,” I said. “Painful, but not for long.”

“Not more painful than all I have endured for the past two days,” she answered. “I have not slept – it aches and aches.”

Tears came to her blue eyes as she spoke, but did not fall.

“So be it, my child, if it is your wish,” the president said. “I have seen your agony and been distressed by it. And you, Smith –” he turned to me, and again I noted the mocking, peculiar emphasis on the name – “can you do your work here, and what do you want for it in the way of appliances? You appear to have nothing with you.”

“I want a can of hot water and a spirit stove or something to bring it to the boil,” I told him, “and also a can of cold water and a glass and spittoon. That couch there will have to do for an operating-chair, and the senorita can rest on it after the extractions till she feels fit to retire. I have all the instruments I need.”

“You hear, Alden?” The president turned to his secretary. “See that these things are provided. The senorita and myself will retire until your dentist is ready to operate. Come, Carmen,”

Alden opened the door for them, and I saw him beckon, evidently to some servant outside. He spoke to whoever it was in Spanish after the other two had gone out, and the only word I could recognize was “agua,” which showed that he was ordering my requirements. Then he closed the door and came back towards me and Sam, looking thoughtful.

“I believe he knows,” he said. “The way he spoke that name.”

Sam murmured, “Oh, de good Lawd!” while I thought about it.

“Then what happens next?” I asked, after a long interval for thought – useless, rather hopeless thought, it was.

He smiled, a friendly, encouraging sort of smile.

“I’m not quite sure,” he said. “By Jove, old chap, I like your nerve, and if it rests with me you’ll get out. It seems to me that we have got to follow our noses, if you understand that. I mean, take our chances as they come. And since you’ve been so good as to butt into this trouble, I’ll see you through if I possibly can.”

Two men, entering, broke in on our talk. They brought, each of them, an ordinary petrol-can with the top sawed off and a wire handle that made a bucket of it, while one also brought a glass and a sort of tripod arrangement, and the other carried a primus stove. It was a rough-and-ready sort of sterilizing outfit, I saw, and the one who carried the primus put it down on the polished floor and lighted it, while the other fixed the tripod over it after putting down his can of cold water and the glass so that they should be handy – well trained, these servants, evidently, I went and unrolled the towel, and selected the pair of forceps I judged would fit my case. By the time the men had gone out and I had got it ready, the water was already bubbling in the can, nearing boiling-point: it must have been very hot when the pair had entered and fixed up the sterilizer for me.

“You can fetch her in,” I told Alden.

The water boiled up to the handles of the forceps as he went to the door. This time, the girl came in alone, for which I was not sorry. I felt uneasily conscious that the president had some sort of bed of hot coals ready for me, and possibly for Sam too, and wanted to see as little of him as possible, His daughter looked up at me.

“What do I do?” she asked, bravely enough.

“Just lie down there, and open your mouth wide,” I said.

“There” was the couch, and with my hand on her arm she lay down obediently enough. I guessed that those uncovered nerves must have tortured her until she was ready to face anything. With Alden and Sam watching I sat over her and did my work.

I’m not going to describe it. She stood the double wrench splendidly, though the wisdom tooth had twisted fangs and took all my strength to pull – and I’m no weakling. A quarter of an hour later her father walked in on us, and by that time she was sitting up on the couch.

“You’d better see the senorita to bed,” I told him, with no statement of his rank or anything of the sort. He looked hard at me.

“My daughter is capable of going to bed without my help,” he said.

She proved it, too. She got up off the couch and, coming toward me, held out her hand. I took it and held it.

“I am very grateful to you, Senor Smith,” she said. Alden opened the door for her, and closed it on her. He, like her father, took the fact of her going off alone as a matter of course: I wondered whether she would get to her room, wherever it might be, or drop in a faint on the way. The president still gazed at me.

“You are a rash man, Senor – Hammond,” he said slowly.

So he knew. I suppose my description must have been sent along here from Oceida, the capital where Sam and I and Cape Town Slim had been prisoned – perhaps with some account of my dentistry on Sam. I saw Alden shrug as if to say that the play was up to me.

“As how?” I asked, and made the question as cool and uninterested as I could. Sam, back towards the window, listened apprehensively.

“Your description, and that of your companion, preceded you here,” the president told me. “Alden –” he turned to his secretary – “remind me to see that the licence to trade in our ports is revoked for that freighter. It brought them here, beyond doubt.”

Alden inclined his head in silent assent, and I felt glad that the captain who had played it low down on us would get his reward for his dirtiness. Felt glad for a moment – I had myself to think about.

“That may be,” I said, “but there’s the fact that your secretary here set out to relieve your daughter’s suffering – and believe me, if he hadn’t found me or somebody, those teeth would have made a nervous wreck of her in another twenty-four hours. He told me what was wanted, and I risked everything for an errand of mercy.”

It was not exactly true, but I couldn’t afford to be scrupulous. The president frowned thoughtfully, and looked at me.

“You admit you are the man who escaped from jail at Oceida?” he asked, with a side glance from me to Sam in the background.

“Not much use denying it, is there?” I retorted. “Now, senor, you stand as the big noise here, and what you say goes. You must know as well as I do – or better – that I was the victim of a frame-up down at Oceida. Your henchmen down there wanted a scapegoat for a bit of particularly dirty work, and they happened on me. It’s up to you to put that straight. All we want is grub for forty-eight hours, and the chance to go off with it – we’ll find our own way of going.”

He shook his head gravely, and for a while did not answer. Suddenly he turned towards the door. “Wait,” he said, and went towards it.

Alden would have followed, but the president made a sign for him to remain. His footfalls went clicking towards the folding doors, and once he slipped on the glassily polished flooring and seemed about to fall, but recovered himself and went out, closing the door after him.

“And that means what?” I asked Alden, after the door had closed.

“Juarez recognized you, from the description,” he answered.

Well, we were conspicuous enough, I knew. Again I realized what a fool I had been to answer that shout from the posada.

“And what’s your president going to do?” I asked. “As far as that goes, what’s to prevent us two from walking out, now? Are you going to make a shot at preventing us, if we try it?”

“I wouldn’t,” he said, “but you wouldn’t get as far as the gate. Juarez will have seen to that. I think the president will let you go, if he can. It’s best to wait, as he said – he’ll do what he can.”

“But he’s president,” I pointed out. “Do what he can, you say?”

“Just that,” he said, and did not explain it. “As he said.”

“Wait.”

We waited.

Sam seated himself on one of the plush-covered chairs, and I watched those closed doors, anxiously. It must be very late, I knew, getting on for three o’clock. I thought again of the girl.

“Golden hair and white faces – they’ve both got white faces,” I said to Alden after a long while. “How come?”

“His mother was English,” he explained, “Also, he claims descent from the Alvarado who was with Cortes, if that means anything to you.”

I knew what it meant. Cortes’ lieutenant had been a golden-haired Spaniard – the Aztecs had called him “Tonatiuh,” which means “son of the sun,” or something of that sort. And, by the girl’s colouring, it looked as if there were something in their claim to descent from him.

“Look lak to me, boss Jehhy,” Sam contributed abruptly, “de we des’ jump straight out ob de lion’s mouf inter de fiah.”

Before either Alden or I could reply, one of the folding doors opened to admit, not the president, but the little General Juarez, still in his gorgeous gold-laced outfit – possibly he slept in it. He and Alden embarked on a long conversation, and I could see he was badly excited about something, if not actually frightened. It ended at last with some question from Juarez that Alden did not answer.

He turned to me. “Trouble at Oceida,” he explained. “The president knew the trouble was brewing, which was why he broke off his heart treatment in Europe and hurried back. The news has just come through – there’s a minority party there under a politician named Gonzales – but I expect the local politics would be beyond you.”

“Oh, no!” I said. “I know all about that minority party,”

“Well, Gonzales is aiming to unseat the president, and it appears that your escape is giving him his handle – you’ve become a person of some importance. He’s playing on the possibility of international complications wrecking the president if you get a chance to open your mouth over what was done to you there, and it looks as if –”

The president himself broke in on us and interrupted the explanation. Juarez looked at me as if he’d have liked to murder me himself. I looked at Alvarado, and saw that his face was a sort of greyish colour, unnatural, deathly, and he seemed to stagger a little as he walked.

“Senor Hammond,” he said, and his voice was altered, croaky, “I am sorry, because of the service you rendered to my daughter, but I am not altogether a free agent. You and your companion must start for Oceida under escort within the hour. I am compelled to give you up.”

“The hell you are!” I exclaimed. “Alden, are you going to stand for this? I came in here to do a service, and now –”

Alden did not reply – I don’t see, now, what he could have said.

“It is that or destruction for us all,” the president said to me.

It was the captain of the freighter over again: he was going to sacrifice me to save himself. And I could see his fix quite clearly. To prevent themselves from being accused of having a hand in trying to make away with me, if I got loose and told the truth to an American consul, the leaders of his party in Oceida would go over to Gonzales, whoever he might be – join the minority party to save their skins. But if Alvarado could hand me over, assure that my mouth was closed for ever, they would not rat on him.

Yet, surely, it was a last-minute chance. Alvarado had hurried back from Europe to preserve his place here, but by what Alden had told me the trouble had already broken out – it must be serious, or news would not have come through like this in the middle of the night. My chance now lay in playing for time – that minority party, in the next few hours, might have got such a grip on things as to ensure my freedom, if I could keep myself from being sent back for hanging in the meantime. These political disturbances – revolutions, if they were worth calling that – were usually only matters of hours, I knew. But how to make time! I could see no way, for the moment.

There were three of them, and only two of us. Juarez still had his pistol in its holster, but the other two were unarmed, and Alden was undecided over what to do, as I could see. I was dog-tired after all the happenings of the night, but felt that it ought to be possible to hold them all here till dawn and after, if I could keep awake. Make a hold-up of it, and tie them all with the curtain cords, with Sam’s help, at worst. I moved to where Sam was sitting, and he got up, but then Juarez barked a command, and the doors, opening, showed us four little brown devils standing there with rifles – an escort to take me back to Oceida for hanging, I guessed. The president had had it all shaped, for how long I could not tell. Either he or Juarez must have fetched the men and posted them outside there, ready for that command.

“I am sorry, Senor Hammond,” the president began smoothly.

But that was all. He seemed to be choking, and put a hand to his throat. Then he began to walk towards the doors, and, if that floor had not been so glassily slippery, might have got to wherever he meant to go. But he skidded, threw up his arms as if to help him balance, and fell, face downward. Both Alden and Juarez half-skated to his help, and Alden knelt beside him and turned him over.

But he made no move to help himself. I knew, before Alden spoke, that what had already happened to Cape Town Slim had happened, now, to him. Alden put a hand to his heart, inside his clothing, and looked up at me, while Juarez rose to his feet from beside the body.

“Dead,” Alden said. “He ought to have completed his cure.”

Beyond the open doors, the four men waited passively – uninterestedly, it seemed to me. Maybe they did not realize what had happened. Juarez spoke, and one of them closed the doors, shutting them out from our sight again. A couple of rifle shots crashed on the stillness, somewhere outside the house, and then a patter of firing broke out, and stopped, began again and ceased again. l heard shouts, and then more firing, while Alden stood beside the president’s body, perplexed, silent as he thought over this new turn in the situation.

“It seems that we can go, now,” I said. He did not answer. Juarez went to the window, and from behind one of the curtains pulled out a hinged, folding shutter that moved slowly, as if it were very heavy. He pulled it fully across the window and latched it to staples in the wall, and I could see that its four panels were made of half-inch iron or steel – it made the window bullet-proof. Then Juarez came back to where the late president lay, and on that second movement Alden looked up at me.

“Eh? What was that you said?” he asked.

“I said, we can go now,” I repeated. He shook his head. “Try it, if you like,” he said, “but you’re safer here, for the present. That shooting means Gonzales’ men must have got here, and you’d stand no more chance of getting away – than –”

He did not end it. I beckoned Sam to rise, ready for going.

“We’ll risk it,” I said. “This game has gone on long enough.”

“Don’t risk it, yet,” he advised. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do know this house is bullet-proof. The owner had it built when times were even more troubled here than they are now, and the president chose to stay here in case of any happenings before he could take over power again. Your problem is solved – Gonzales will be president, and we can make terms with him in the morning.”

Again there was a spatter of rifle firing outside. I heard two bullets go plunk on the bullet-proof shutter, and the clink and clatter of broken glass falling. Alden nodded at the shutter.

“Closed just in time,” he said. “You see? If you or anyone else went out from here now, they’d be shot down – the place is almost certainly surrounded, and you don’t know your way about here.”

I heard a few more shots, and then a distant shouting. Alden smiled as he looked at me, and shook his head.

“Too late,” he said. “They’re shouting ‘Death to the tyrant.’ But I don’t think he was so much a tyrant as a fool, and wish I’d never taken his job, now. Look here, old chap, stay and see it through with me!”

“It’s a whiz,” I said. For there might be death outside, as he had stated, even more surely than in here – and I liked him.


CHAPTER X


GONZALES’ TERMS


DAWN found the four of us – Alden, Juarez, Sam, and myself – making a campaigning breakfast in a small room adjoining the entrance hall of the house. That is to say, us three of English and American breed made a campaigning breakfast, while the little general, who had become reconciled to our presence as free men after Alden had explained things to him, made out on chocolate and a roll. I had been the round of the house with Alden, and found it a veritable fort. Strong stone walls, two to three feet thick, and every window fitted with one of those bulletproof folding shutters. The man who built it must have been a nervous sort, but maybe he had cause for it.

Now, after stuffing myself full with fried chicken, tortillas, and a few other things, since I determined to make a good meal while I had the chance, I lighted a cigarette and prepared to get the full low-down on our position, for, so far, Alden had told me little.

“Half a company – that is, sixty men – for garrison,” he told me. “Provisions to last a week if we need them, and plenty of ammunition. I don’t believe there’s anything bigger than a rifle in the country, and don’t see how they can force the position.”

“Sure of your men?” I asked.

He nodded. “Juarez here is,” he said, and the little general ‘bowed at us as he heard his name. “You’ve got to remember that Gonzales’ party is and always has been a minority, and their only chance at getting on top is through frightening the other side over you. There are no top dogs here to tell these men what a risk they’re running by siding with the party that will get into trouble over you, and until they’re told that, we can depend on them, because they’ll believe that Gonzales can’t win. Juarez is dependable –” the owner of the name bowed again as he heard it – “for the sake of the president’s daughter. He’s got a streak of chivalry in him, and means to defend her.”

“And if you do hold out a week, what then?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Gonzales may get licked,” he said, and smiled.

“Supposing I went and surrendered to him – told him who I am?” I suggested. “I’ve no love for being mixed up in things by staying here.”

“If you did that,” he answered, “he’d obliterate you and hide the body, to make the late president’s party believe you’d got away and had started to raise trouble. Because, if they know you’re alive and still in the country, they’ll hang together against him. He’s counting on frightening them over to his side by belief in your freedom elsewhere.”

“And eventually, if Gonzales does not get licked?” I persisted. Again he shrugged. “I’ll meet that trouble if it comes,” he said. “I don’t believe he can last a week, unless there’s some sign of trouble on account of you – one of Uncle Sam’s warships nosing round, or something of that sort. With that, they’d all go over to him and swear themselves black in the face that they had nothing to do with jailing you and accusing you of a dirty murder. Without it, they’ll hold to the president’s side – such of them as haven’t gone over already.”

“But, damn it, man, there isn’t any president!” I expostulated. “What are you holding out against Gonzales for, anyhow?”

But then I got on my feet, for, facing me in the doorway of the room, stood Carmen de Alvarado, very pale, and with traces of tears around her eyes. I knew by her expression that she had heard what I had said. The other three got to their feet too.

“No, senor,” she said quietly, “there is not any president, it is true, but I think I am the answer to your question.”

I had a few moments’ pause of embarrassment as she entered the room. None of the others spoke, and she looked at me as if she expected me to continue my argument. She was very beautiful, I realized.

“Do you think, senorita, that this republic will accept you as its president, now that the post is vacant?” I asked – a bit tactlessly, perhaps, but it seemed to me that she did expect just that.

She shook her head ever so slightly as she gazed at me.

“No, senor,” she said. “I expect only that the men who remain loyal to my father will protect me from Gonzales.”

“Protect you – a girl?” It was incredible that she should need anything of the sort, I felt. But she shook her head again.

“My father leaves wealth that he cannot touch – except through me,” she said. “He will not rest till he has me, or is dead.”

“Which, as Euclid says, is absurd,” Alden put in dryly.

And then the firing, which had died down hours before, broke out again and stopped our talk. I guess the party detailed to attack the house had Waited for full daylight, or maybe, like us, they had been seeing about breakfast. But now the rifles pattered again.

“There’s a look-out post on the roof,” Alden said abruptly. “I’m going up to see how many there are, and what they’re doing.”

He went up by a stairway at the side of the entrance hall – the house was two tall storeys high – and I followed him. There was a high parapet round the flat roof, with slits in it for rifle-users: half a dozen slits on each side – two dozen in all – had men at them, but they were not firing, although shooting was still going on outside.

Alden went to a slit and looked out, and I took another. There was a row of men on the outside of the five-foot wall in front of the house, as I could see by the tops of headgear and rifle-muzzles, but the firing was not coming from them. In front of the gateway stood a big motor lorry all cased in sheet iron or sheet steel, the engine as well as the rest of it being protected. It stood sideways on to the house, and in the side were loopholes through which men were firing.

“Merely wasting ammunition,” Alden said beside me. “I don’t know what they think they’re going to do, like that, except frighten us.”

“Or keep their own courage up,” I said, watching the lorry. The back end of it, I could see, was fitted with a couple of doors in place of a tailboard, and these were swung wide open, and were about five feet in height, as were the metal-sheathed front and sides, but the top was uncovered. There was a canvas covering fitted, but it had been rolled forward to the front, and I could just see the heads of the men inside the thing now and again as they lifted them incautiously. I drew back and turned to Alden.

“Why don’t your men return that fire?” I asked him.

“Why waste ammunition?” he asked in reply. “They’re not marksmen.”

I looked out again and counted heads, as nearly as I could. There did not appear to be fifty men altogether, but, I knew, there may have been a hundred, for almost certainly more than I could see would be under cover of the wall. Away up the road towards the town I could see the nose of another big motor lorry. I drew back again.

“Two lorry-loads of them, and no more,” I told Alden. “I bet they came here from Oceida, and the rest haven’t got here yet. Why doesn’t your general Juarez get out with his half-company and attack?”

“It would be sudden death to attack that wall across the open garden,” he answered; “Juarez’s men wouldn’t face it.”

“Isn’t there a back door?” I asked.

“Why, yes,” he said, suddenly thoughtful. “I suppose he hasn’t thought of that, though, or else he doesn’t think it worth risking.”

“Meanwhile,” I said, “that hundred or so of advance guard is going to be followed up by a few more hundreds before the day is out, and to-night they’ll batter a way in, before moonrise, unless they’re fools.”

“You maybe right,” he admitted in a meditative way.

“Well, what the hell!” I broke out – I could not help it. “Aren’t you going to do anything? Before the situation gets worse?”

But, while he stared at my outburst, a bugle sounded from somewhere out there in front of the wall. The spatter of rifle firing ceased – to this day I don’t know what the fools were aiming at – and from near the front end of the lorry a white rag went up on a stick. Alden looked through a loophole, and with a quick patter of footsteps the little general came out on the roof. He took an enormous white pocket handkerchief from his tunic pocket, and with it in his hand climbed to stand on the parapet. A voice hailed him, and he answered. Then, distinct in the early morning stillness, the voice spoke again.

“By Jove!” Alden beside me muttered. “Gonzales himself!”

For awhile the two talked, and then Juarez looked down and spoke to Alden, who answered, and spoke to me while Juarez transmitted the reply.

“He offers freedom to all the rest of us if we give up the president and his daughter,” Alden told me. “I told him to say he could have safe-conduct for himself and four men to come and fetch the president, but we will not give up the senorita to him.”

Again Juarez spoke down at us, volubly and long. Alden answered again, and the general shouted the reply across and then stepped down under cover – only just in time, for a rifle spat from the lorry and a chip of stone flew up from the parapet-edge, just beside him.

“Dirty devils!” Alden said disgustedly.

He conferred with Juarez for a while, and reported to me again.

“Five hundred more of them coming up by noon, Gonzales threatens,” he said. “If he hadn’t been a fool, he wouldn’t have given away his present weakness by owning that he’s waiting for reinforcements before making any attack. He spurted here to capture the president, by the look of it, with just those two lorry-loads of men, and no more.”

“As I thought,” I said. Somehow this fool fight was beginning to capture my imagination. They seemed such poor scrappers, the whole lot of them, that I decided a man with brains – that is, myself – ought to be able to do something before the other five hundred got here. Gonzales, obviously, was in that armoured lorry, taking care of his own skin behind the plating of the side, and – two lorry-loads! Eighty men, at the most, and Juarez had sixty. Also, there was a back door to the house, and all the attack was in front. I went to the back wall and looked through a loophole there. A sunken path, literally made for the plan that had come into my head, ran away from the back of the house and curved round to an iron gate in the wall Just inside that gate, which was just ajar, lay two figures – two of Gonzales’ men who had thought they might sneak in by the back way, only to be dropped by these rifemen the roof. There was nobody living near the gate. It looked all so darned simple, if I could get Alden to agree and Juarez and his men to co-operate with me. I was about to put it to him when the senorita appeared on the roof, and came to us as I rejoined the other two. If she felt afraid, she did not show it.

“I heard it all, Senor Alden,” she said, “and I thank you.” Then she turned to thank the general, who bowed over her hand and kissed it.

“Meanwhile,” I cut in on the compliments, “we are wasting time. I think there’s a way to sink those guys out there, if we get busy.”

The girl stared at me. “But you – it is not your quarrel, senor?” she half-asked. “Besides, you are a dentist, are you not?”

“For the present, senorita,” I answered, a little nettled at the title, “I am a scrapper, at your service, unless you despise me too much. If you’ll let me unfold my scheme to Mr. Alden here.”

She stood back, then, but listened while I talked, and out of the corner of my eye I could see her expression change as she gazed at me. And, at the end of my spiel, Alden was grinning.

“Now translate it to the general,” I told him, “and let’s hear what he thinks. You needn’t leave more than six up here.”

In turn Alden began to expound, while the general listened, though with more than one puzzled, almost suspicious glance at me. Briefly, the scheme was – simple enough – to leave only six men up here on the roof, muster all the rest, and let all but six go out under Juarez at the back, take the sunken path, and charge out from the iron gate to enfilade the party under cover of the garden wall. Then, as soon as the firing began there, Sam and I and the chosen six would charge out from the front and capture the lorry – as nearly as I could tell, there were not more than half a dozen men in it – but Gonzales himself was one of them 1 And not only was he the head of the minority party, but he was so much the party itself, the brains of it, that it would go to pieces without him. Our chief risk, of course, was in crossing the open space between the front doorway and the wall, but I counted on the attacking party from the iron gate giving Gonzales’ men so much to think about that they would not see us in time. Our half-dozen on the roof were to begin firing while the rest of us arranged ourselves to mask the attack from the iron gate, but to cease fire as soon as my party charged out from the front door to seize the lorry – and Gonzales too, I hoped.

I saw the little general’s leathery brown face wrinkle to a smile as the plan was unfolded to him, and guessed that some of the smile was due to the fact that he was to lead the main body, and had not to take the risk of scuttering across the open to attack the lorry. Whether that were so or no, he bowed to me after Alden had left talking, and I knew he approved my idea.

“He says you’re a good strategist, Hammond,” Alden told me.

“More –” the senorita faced me to speak – “you are a very gallant man, Senor Hammond, and I owe you my eternal gratitude.”

“After the show, senorita – not yet,” I told her. “And the general had better collect his men and get busy. Also, Alden, tell him to instruct the half-dozen he’s sending with me as to what they have to do, because I can’t speak the lingo, except to tell ‘em pronto.”

Half an hour later, Juarez and his men had assembled for their flanking attack along the wall by way of the iron gate, while Sam, myself, five of the soldiers, and Alden, waited just inside the front door to hear the rattle of rifle-fire break out and give us our signal for charging on the lorry. Alden refused to be left out of it. I think the sheer adventure of it had captured ‘him as it had me. We waited, and Senorita Carmen came to us and took both my hands.

“May the holy virgin watch over you, senor, and reward you for this service to me,” she said. “And your friend –” she gave a hand to Sam, who for the only time in my knowledge of him looked embarrassed – “may she watch over him too. For it is a great thing that you, strangers, plan to do for me, whom you had not seen yesterday.”

I had no time to answer, for a sudden patter of shots sounded, and Alden flung the door wide. We charged out, sprinting for the wall, and gained it unobserved. For, as I had hoped, the unexpected attack by way of the iron gate was taking all the attention of Gonzales’ party, and they did not think to keep watch on the front of the house. Sam made a back, and I was first to leap on it and go over the wall, coming down almost behind the lorry, but between its open back door and the wall itself. The others dropped down beside me one by one – Alden was third over, I remember – and, when all had come across, he stopped to give Sam a lift over, for to stop on the other side would have been murderously dangerous. Then, as one man, the eight of us got behind the lorry, to face the most consternated half-dozen rebels that ever looked into gun-muzzles. Nobody fired, for both Alden and I wanted Gonzales alive, and, since six pairs of hands went up in the air at our order, we got him. A dark, evil-looking devil he was, too.

It took less than a minute to tie them all, while bullets from Juarez’s party pattered on the plating of the front. But, at Alden’s order, three of our men got to the loopholes behind the driving-seat and began shooting, and, knowing they were caught between two fires, and apparently being fired on by their own men, since they had seen nothing of the capture of the lorry, Gonzales’ troopers bolted for the cover of the scrub on the far side of the road, many of them dropping their rifles in their hurry. Then Alden shoved up Gonzales’ own white rag, into visibility for Juarez – we had agreed on that as a signal – and the firing stopped. I found, afterward, that Juarez had lost three men killed outright and only one wounded, while none of my party had a scratch.

We had raised the seige. I started the engine, and backed the lorry into the garden – I had an idea it might be useful to me, later, if Juarez and Alden would let me have it. The sun was high, by this time, and we were all thirsty. We bundled Gonzales and his men out of the lorry and into the house, and he was locked up by himself – incommuncado, as I had been not much more than a day before.


CHAPTER XI


REFUSING A PRESIDENCY


THE three of us, Juarez, Alden, and myself, had a long argument as to what we should do with Gonzales, now we had got him. Juarez was for putting him against a wall and shooting him, but I reckoned he would be more useful alive – we might use him for bargaining. I say “we,” because after that capture of the lorry Juarez counted me in with his side, though all my anxiety was over getting away. And the argument was a long one because Alden had to translate everything Juarez said for my benefit, and translate me into Spanish for the general. As for Alden, he was a good guy in his way, darned useful as a secretary, I guess, but when it came to making plans he had no pep. He had grit, too, as the way he insisted in sharing our charge across the garden proved, but he wanted a leader, all the time. And somehow he seemed to look to me as that’ leader, maybe because I was nearer in blood to him than Juarez.

I won that argument, convinced Juarez that the rebel leader was more useful to us alive than he would be dead, and then Alden and I went up on the roof for a breathing spell – it was gloomy and like a prison inside the house, with all those bullet-proof shutters drawn over the windows. Juarez went to talk to the senorita, and of that, as the sting men say, more anon, for his talk concerned me among other things.

“The trouble here,” Alden said to me, “is that we’re so infernally cut off from everything. And five hundred of Gonzales’ men on the way.”

I took a look round. Tall trees prevented us from seeing anything of the town – we seemed to be in the middle of a forest, though I could get a sight of the sea over the tree-tops on the side towards the beach where Sam and I had landed and left our boat the night before. There were bodies of Gonzales’ men lying out in the road beyond the wall, and we could look down into the lorry in the garden, that had been Gonzales’ headquarters. Down under me Sam was having a sleep after our busy night, and I would not have been sorry to follow his example.

“Who’s leading those five hundred?” I asked.

Alden shrugged – I was getting a little irritated by that habit of his, for he seemed to push all responsibility aside with it.

“Oh, they’ll look to him to lead, when they get here,” he said.

“It sure is a banana republic,” I said, and meant it “And it’s near on eleven o’clock – look here, if I finally bust up this revolution for you, will you help me and Sam to get away?”

“Why, certainly I will,” he answered. “But how – what do you mean to do? We can’t fight five hundred when they get here.”

“Come along down, and translate something for me,” I said. “I’ve got a hunch – it’s a comic-opera country, if they hadn’t got a habit of trying to hang strangers. How do that five hundred get here?”

“Why, march, of course,” he told me, as if the question surprised him. “If Gonzales had had lorries for them – but he hadn’t, obviously!”

“Then they’ll be a weary lot when they get here,” I said. “Come along down and do some translating for me. What do they call this place – this house – – if it’s got a name at all.”

“Casa San Diego,” he admitted. “But why?”

“Never mind. Paper and a fountain-pen – or a pencil.”

He came down with me to the room in which we had had our breakfast, and got me a sheet of paper and a pen. But, in getting them, he must have disturbed the senorita and Juarez, for they came in to see what was going on. I was busy writing by the time they arrived, and did not stop my work for courtesies. And this is what I wrote –

HeadQuarters Of His Excellency President Alvarado Casa San Diego, Pueblo San Diego

A PROCLAMATION To the Rebel Forces Following Martin Gonzales

The battle of Casa San Diego has ended in complete victory for our gallant troops, and the traitor Martin Gonzales is now a prisoner in our hands. All rebels who come to the Casa San Diego before sunset to-day and surrender their arms will receive unconditional pardon. Any who choose to remain under arms will be shot without trial when captured. We march on the capital, Oceida, at dawn to-morrow, and our ranks are open to any who will take oath to serve under us, and who, at the end of hostilities, will be well rewarded for their loyalty.

Felipe De Alvarado

President. Juarez, General commanding the Loyal Army.

I heard Alden chuckle softly behind me as I finished, and then a dainty little hand reached over and took the pen from me. Carmen de Alvarado pulled the paper aside and, bending over the table, crossed out Juarez’s name and wrote mine in its place. I got up and faced her.

“No, senorita,” I said. “It can’t be.”

“It must be,” she insisted. “Your plan saved us, for the time, and put Gonzales in our hands. Juarez and I have talked about you. Yet – no! I will alter it again. See – like this!”

Again she wrote at the foot of the paper, and, when she had finished, there stood my name as president, while Juarez was under it.

“Oh, no, senorita,” I told her. “Our whole strength lies in concealing your father’s death, for the time. This is bluff, if you understand that word. Your father’s name carries weight here, and they don’t know mine, even if I would take his place. No – let it stand as I wrote it, go out as I wrote it. We’ve less than sixty men to back it, and I know I’m right. And we’ve got to hurry, too.”

“The Senor Hammond is right, senorita,” Alden told her, “But how – how are you going to get this distributed, Hammond?”

“Get a couple of big sheets of paper – packing paper – anything – and paint it big on them in Spanish,” I told him. “We’ll go up town in the armoured lorry and post ‘em, if we can get there before these five hundred heroes arrive, and I bet you they’ll walk along here in heaps and surrender when they’re sure Gonzales is caught, since you say he’s the brains and the money of the rebellion, But hurry.”

He stopped to translate the proclamation to Juarez, who nodded delightedly and shook hands with me as if I’d been his long-lost brother. Then the pair of them got to work, and in ten minutes we had two big posters fairly well splashed with the statement – nobody could miss them at six yards. Then I had another idea.

“Alden, you stop here and get out another two copies,” I said, “and the general can come along up town with me in the lorry and show me where to plant these two to the best advantage. When you’ve got your copies done, turn loose two of the men we caught with Gonzales and give ‘em each a copy. Tell ‘em to go round among their friends and circulate the good news. But we’ve got to hurry.”

I routed out Sam, who was still too sleepy to do more than grunt when I told him our business, but I guessed the shaking of the lorry over the pot-holes of that road would wake him up by the time we got to town. Juarez, with the two proclamations under his arm, got five of his riflemen and packed them into the lorry for escort, and a bit short of noon we went off through the garden gateway, with me driving. I had to slew nearly into the bushes to dodge the corpses our attack of the morning had left out in the road – the live rebels, with Gonzales captured, were nowhere in sight or hearing. We banged and clattered past the other lorry, an ordinary five-ton Speedier, with no iron plating about it, and standing deserted alongside the road. It sure had been a complete victory for us, just as my proclamation said.

The town was as dead as a flayed hog when we went with the plating on the lorry banging and thundering along the main street – I believe they always shut up shops in these republics for an insurrection. We stopped outside the Posada de Sandoval, and Juarez got down with four of his men for escort while he tacked one of the posters on the front door of the establishment – where, I rejected, all this adventure had begun less than twenty-four hours before. Then we went on to a big building – town hall, I suppose it was – and again Juarez and his escort got down. There was a big notice-board in front of the building, and Juarez ripped off all the notices there were on it and tacked the second copy of ours on in place of them. Just there the street widened out into a sort of. market-place, which gave me room to turn the lorry – and, just as I turned it, the head of a column of dusty little brown devils, with rifles carried anyhow and packs on their backs, came straggling in from a cross street. I drew off down to the end nearest our fortress, and there stopped to look back.

They were crowding round the proclamation, and there seemed to be a considerable amount of excitement among them, while more and more of their sort kept pouring in from the cross street until there was quite a crowd milling round the notice-board. Then Sam, who was sharing the driving-seat with me, jogged my arm, and I stopped looking round along the side of the lorry to straighten up and gaze ahead.

“Is deze our folks, or deir folks, boss?” Sam asked. “Dey look lak dey done gone lose ebberyting, de way dey walk.”

“They’re the heralds of victory, Sam,” I told him. “But they’re unlucky, all the same, because it ain’t their victory.”

They were the pair of Gonzales’ men from the lorry whom Alden had turned loose as I had instructed, and with what they had to tell, I felt pretty sure, that crowd up the street would cave in, since none of them could tell that there were not hundreds of us at the Casa San Diego. It was a big bluff, but I was willing to lay a thousand dollars to a cent that we’d pulled it off, and they would come in and surrender.

So I drove on, but stopped alongside the other deserted lorry, to drop Sam, telling him to drive it in to the garden after us. I had seen boxes of ammunition inside it, and was not going to leave them for the rebels to use against us. With that done, I went on, and took. the ignition key off my lorry before getting out in front of the casa.

“Well?” Alden greeted me, as we went in.

“Sitting lovely, by the look of things,” I told him. “They should be along here to pile arms in front of the door in an hour or two. If so, you and Juarez can take over for the time – I’m going to pound my ear. It’s quite a long while since I hit the hay.”

It was so, too. I felt tired out, and found me a couch in one of the rooms where I dropped down, all dressed as I was, and dirty and unshaved, but past caring about it. I’d busted the insurrection for them, and guessed I’d earned a few hours’ rest.

It was about an hour short of sunset when I wakened and Alden got me a bath and lent me shaving kit. All had worked out according to plan, he told me. There looked to have been a considerable discussion among the five hundred minority patriots when they first read my proclamation. Some had voted for surrender, and others had been for carrying on the war.

They started shooting among themselves, and did each other some damage, when the two men we turned loose came along and explained that not only had we captured Gonzales, but the armoured lorry as well. That broke up the opposition, for Gonzales, sure of winning, had parked his war chest under the driving-seat of that lorry – I had been sitting on a small fortune, and not so small at that except that it was in the currency of the country, while I drove the lorry, all without knowing what was under me.

They caved, when they knew the presidential party had all the berries, and came along to surrender meekly enough. More than that, every man jack of them volunteered for service on our side, and so Juarez had a pretty little army of turncoats to guard the casa for him. News had come through from the capital that the capture of Gonzales was already known there – someone in Pueblo San Diego had telephoned it through – and though fighting was still going on there the Alvaradists looked to be the winning side. So all was well for the president – except that there wasn’t any president, only a dead body on a couch in the casa.

All this Alden told me, and ended with a question.

“And now, what are we to do with Gonzales?”

I didn’t know the answer. If they jailed him, somebody would let him out sooner or later, and then trouble would start all over again. I hardly liked to suggest shooting him, for I remembered that it was not his minority party that had wanted to hang me. I could see, though, that Alden was beginning to look to me for decisions, and thought it as well to put him off that tack at once. “You can search me,” I said. “Moreover, since I’m for the road now all is serene for you and the senorita, it’s your pidgin.”

“But – but you can’t go,” he ejaculated, alarmed.

“Guess again,” I invited. “I’ve seen quite enough of this paradise, and it’s me for the long trail. Back to where men are men and guns do not go off without just cause or impediment. The home trail, me.”

“Oh, but – we’re counting on you,” he urged.

“I’m not outed enough to take the count,” I said. He got on his feet and started walking about the room, all perturbed. Quite suddenly he walked out, and left me alone in there, and I made only one guess over where he had gone. I followed him out, and in the corridor came on Sam, who grinned largely at me.

“Dey’s all peaceful agin now, ain’t dey, boss Jehhy?” he asked me.

“Snug as fleas in a pillow-case, Sam,” I told him.

“Den let me’n yo’ git goin’, boss,” he pleaded. “Else, sho’ as yo’ is borned, dey’ll tuck us in dat jail agin, or else a wuss’n dat one. Ah doan’ lak dis place, boss Jehhy. It gib me de creeps.”

“Don’t worry, Sam,” I bade. “We’re for home, just as soon as I can fix things. To-night, maybe. Soon, anyhow.”

“Dat’s good, boss. We uns– Oh, look, boss Jehhy! Look dah!”

I turned to look. We two stood in part shadow in the long corridor that went off from the entrance hall and through to the back of the house – casa, as they called it. Along towards us came Juarez and Alden, and behind them a figure sneaked catlike – I knew it for Gonzales as Sam pointed it out to me. Later, we learned that the man who had taken him his food had been fool enough to untie his hands – both of them I – for him to eat, and the devil had strangled the man and got loose. I yelled a warning, but too late. Gonzales’ arm went up and came down again – the knife in his hand, invisible to me because of the half-darkness of the corridor, went downward through Alden’s shoulder, and as Alden fell, without a pause Gonzales charged on me, the knife upraised and dripping from the first thrust.

It was all so sudden that I was half-paralysed for a moment. I had no time to do anything, and that brown-faced devil with glaring, hating eyes was almost on me, the lifted knife ready to deal me such a blow as he had dealt Alden, who lay now on the stone floor, while Juarez, too late to help me in any way, leaped forward. Then a shot crashed and roared in the confined space of the corridor, and Gonzales spun half-way round and dropped, his head banging against the wall, and his shoulder smashed by the soft-nosed bullet from Sam’s automatic pistol. a “Oh, t’ank the good Lawd, boss Jehhy!” Sam said piously.

But I was down beside Alden, then, The blood was pouring out from the wound Gonzales had dealt him, and I knew he was past human aid as soon as I looked at him. I got an arm round him and lifted him, and he looked up at me. He knew – I could see that he knew it was the end.

“Tough luck, old chap,” he said weakly, “yet not – not so... very tough. I... I didn’t like the job. See... see it through... she told me, just now. Needs you... president – President Hammond.”

He just whispered those last words with a smile, and then his head fell back and I laid him down, drawing his body a little away from the pool of blood that had formed on the floor. I looked up: men had come running at the sound of the shot. Juarez stood pointing towards the front entrance, and his men dragged Gonzales towards it, taking no notice of the pain of his smashed shoulder. I saw Juarez grip Sam’s hand, as if in that way he would acknowledge what Sam had done, since he could not put it into words that either of us would understand. He barked an order, and three of his men got round Alden’s corpse and lifted it, carrying it away. Then Juarez and the others went out, and I heard the front door open and close.

“Dat sure was sudden, boss,” Sam said to me in an awestruck way.

He was right. It had been dazingly sudden from start to finish. At one moment, it seemed, Juarez and Alden had been coming along the corridor towards me: the next, or thereabouts, I stood alone there with Sam, who once again had saved my life, and Alden was dead.

President Hammond! Were they planning that behind my back?

“Gosh, Sam, you must be my good angel,” I told him. “Twice in two days you’ve saved my life, do you realize?”

“Oh, dat ain’t nuffin’ to what Ah would do, boss,” he said. “If I wuz one ob deseyer angels lak yo’ say, I wouldn’t be heah – not if de wings hab enough lift in ‘em. Boss, dis is one hell ob a place. We gotta go, while dere’s any goin’ to be seen.”

“I think. you’ve said it,” I agreed. “But, with Alden dead, who’s going to translate to say we’re going? We can’t talk Spanish.”

“We des’ go,” Sam urged. “It don’t need no talk.”

I rejected. How to go. Was our boat still there? How could I lay hands on enough provisions to ensure that we would not starve, if we took to the boat? There was plenty of food and stuff in this place, but where? I was still cogitating when a rattle of musketry sounded from outside, one irregular volley, and then no more. Juarez had gone out there with his men dragging Gonzales – I guessed that the problem that had worried Alden, what to do with Gonzales, no longer existed. And ten minutes before – less than ten minutes – Alden had been alive!

President Hammond!

I went along to the room I knew, and Sam followed me as far as the doorway, but stopped there. He was on edge to be gone, I could see.

“Do you know where they keep the grub, Sam?” I asked him.

“Ah sure do, boss,” he answered with a wide grin.

“Then go and requisition a stock for us – steal it, if you have to, but get it. I’ll wait here. Eggs, ham – anything. Eats for two days, and then we can starve for another if we have to. Hurry it.”

For the sun had set, now, and an idea had come to me. We would not try to find that boat again, with a five-ton Speedler lorry out there in front to take us to the border and beyond. I would see that the lorry had a full fuel tank – there were a dozen or more cans strapped on it, as I had seen – and run it all night to northward, or at least run it as far as its fuel lasted. That would take us well out from this cursed country, and then, with two hundred dollars apiece, we could trust to luck to see us the rest of our way. Ditch the lorry. Take to our feet till we struck a northward running railway, which would give each of us a free ride if I knew anything about jumping a freight, and I believed I did. I saw us coming out on the Texan border at the finish, using boats and trains as chance served us –

I looked up. There in the doorway of the room stood Carmen de Alvarado, dressed all in black, now, and lovelier than ever with her little golden head and sad blue eyes. She came into the room.

“Death strikes again, senor,” she said sadly. “Juarez has told me. I have only you left, now – you and him.”

“Senorita,” I said, “I don’t wish you to count on me. All I have done was towards giving myself the chance to get free of this –”

“Senor!” she broke in, in a scared way, “You cannot leave me!”

“I both can and must,” I insisted. “It’s this way, senorita. I may have made things easier for you here, but do not forget that the men of your father’s party sentenced me to hanging, and your father signed the warrant for my death before he died. And if they get hold of me again, for their own sakes they dare not let me go to talk to an American consul of what they did to me

“Senor,” she interrupted again, “I have Juarez beside me, a man loyal to me as he was to my father. At my word he will protect you until there is no more need for protection – and it will not be long. We have only to tell how your planning, your wit and skill and courage, saved us to-day, and you will be a national hero. But for your plan and your bravery in carrying it out, Gonzales would still besiege this place – if he had not already forced us to surrender. Your thought of the proclamation gave Juarez an army of five hundred men, and ruined Gonzales’ cause. We have but to tell this, and Juarez has but to speak as he has told me he will speak, and you take my father’s place. For we have great need of a man to lead us, senor. President Hammond!”

There it was. In that speech she offered it to me – I do not know to this day if she could have made good on the offer, but still I like to think that, once, I might have been a president, though only of a comic-opera republic like that. Not that I dreamed of accepting it.

“No, senorita,” I said. “I am not cut out for a president.”

“You are a brave man, and a clever man,” she pleaded. “We have need of such a man, I tell you. Without you, I do not know if I can make good my cause, for Juarez would do for a man in whom he believes more than he would do for me, a woman, though I am my father’s daughter. See, senor, a woman cannot be president – he cannot put me up to rule, and he would not dream of taking the place himself. There remains to me only you. The others, what are they? Flies on a wall!”

I knew those others. Dirty little men who had jailed me, tried to hang me for the murder they themselves had instigated. I own that then I hesitated, just for a second or two. To go back to Oceida beside the senorita and Juarez, at the head of his little army, and, perhaps, win the supreme power there by just such a coup as I had brought off here! It might have been possible – I do not know if it would have been. But, just then, I was tempted, for the sake of revenge on those devils.

She came a step nearer, laid her hand on my arm, and looked up into my eyes. There was no more than a half-light in the room, and she was very lovely.

“Do not refuse.” She almost whispered it, and there was a caress in her voice. “I, Carmen, ask you. And in return, all you would ask of me is yours – all you choose to ask I will give.”

I might have foreseen that this temptation would be added to the rest. But – it did not tempt. If I had known then all that I learned later, things might have been different for me. I might, to-day, be president of that toy republic, with Carmen as Mrs. President, or might have been stood against a wall and shot, long before this, according to the way local politics happened to go. But between me and this girl stood my Princess by her gate under the stars, telling me – “Whatever happens, my Jerry, I shall not forget.”

But here I was, faced with that offer of herself, and a presidential chair to boot. I do not doubt, on thinking it over, that with her and Juarez to back me I could have got to the top as they wanted, but as I did not want. Yet to tell a woman, when she offers herself, that you are going to refuse the offer is a dangerous thing, and I could see no way out of telling her that. I thought and thought, while she stood waiting for me to take her in my arms and kiss her – and then Sam saved me. Saving me was getting quite a habit of his.

He came in with a sack over his shoulder. He had put a heavy fine on the larder of the casa, and was all full of joy at the idea of getting away at last, so he came blundering in, and pulled up short when he saw Carmen in that lover-like posture and me facing her. It gave me my cue, and I just took her hands and looked at her.

“Let me think,” I said. “It is a big thing. This is not my country, and I don’t even know the language. Give me till morning – you shall know then. I have to think, for a thing like this.”

She drew her hands away, disappointed, I think, that I had not jumped at the chance she offered. Sam backed out of the room.

“So be it,” she said, rather coldly. “You shall tell one in the morning. But –” again her voice grew soft – “I need you, remember.”

“I shall remember,” I said. “You shall know in the morning.”

She went out, then, and I breathed deeply as Sam came in again.

“Phew, but that was a close shave!” I said.

“Boss Jehhy, I done got enough fo’ a week,” Sam said, and put down his sack. “Do we ‘uns go back to de boat now?”

“We do not, Sam,” I decided. “Anybody can have that boat, for me.”

All the iron shutters had been opened again, and I could see through the window of the room that a storm was banking up, while now and again a lurid flash of lightning showed it was going to be no small storm. I looked out, and saw a clear way to the front door.

“Fetch the sack, Sam,” I said, “and follow me.”

We got out without any trouble. There was a sentry on the front door, and another on the gateway to the road, but they were Juarez’s own men, and knew me – after what I had done that day, anything I chose to do went with them. Juarez himself was in the garden, walking up and down. I took Sam’s sack and heaved it into the unarmoured lorry.

“Switch on and get that engine started, Sam,” I bade.

Juarez, who had seemed in a sort of abstraction of thinking, came up to me as the engine started, and looked hard at me. I pointed towards the town. He wanted some sort of explanation, evidently, and I left him to make what he liked of my pointing, since we could not talk to each other. The storm was near on breaking now, and thunder muttered and growled, while the lightning flashed almost continuously.

“Pronunciamento, senor?” Juarez asked, though what the hell he meant by it is more than I can tell. Maybe he thought we were going up-town in the lorry to post some more placards.

“Si, senor, pronounciamento,” I agreed. He smiled and bowed, and I climbed into the cab of the Speedler and took the wheel. Then with a vast crash of thunder and a blaze of light the storm broke over us. I could hear the rain coming with a hiss across the trees round us, and Juarez ran for shelter and to save his nice gold-braided uniform from getting wet. I put in the clutch, and with Sam beside me went off just as the drenching storm began,

We rocked up to and through Pueblo San Diego with little rivers running down the empty street. Where that road ended, I did not know, but it went northward, towards the frontier. There, I knew, we might find complications, but as long as we got away I felt we would make good somehow – ditch the lorry and make it on foot, if there were guards to stop us at a frontier post.

It was a crazy road, and all I could do to prevent us from doing somersaults with the lorry. The rain came down in solid sheets, but fortunately the cab was enclosed and had a wind-screen wiper – it was one of the latest model Speedler five-tonners, and there was a gauge that told me the tank was more than half-full. On we went, missing trees by the wayside by mere shaves when we skidded, twisting and turning as the track bent, the headlights showing two lanes of rain straight before us, while Sam kept calling on “de good Lawd” between every pair of thunderclaps. Juarez had had the ammunition-boxes taken out, and the long body of the lorry was empty behind us, which made things worse, since there was no weight to give the back wheels a grip and prevent skidding. Still, we got on somehow, and the worst of the storm went over. It was still raining, but not so hard, when we went flying past a sort of hut and through an open gateway which I knew, from the distance we had come, must be the frontier post. There was not a soul in sight as the head-lamps lit up the hut, and, since the way was straight through the gateway, I jammed down the accelerator pedal and rushed it. As we went by, I saw men tumbling out of the hut and heard a shout, but they were too late – we were away.

And that was that. When I look back on it, it seems a mad, impossible adventure, prospect of hanging one day, and of being president of a republic almost the next. But there it was, and we had won clear. Also, I had kept my promise to the senorita, for she knew even before morning what was my answer to her offer.

I learned, afterward, that things did not go well with her and Juarez. They had a stormy month, and he was president for a couple of days, but then the party to which Gonzales had belonged got the upper hand again, for with Alvarado dead there was no leader with brains on the side he had headed. Juarez was shot, and the senorita got away to Europe somehow – maybe she is there yet. But, I heard, they pinned Alvarado’s death on me, said I had assassinated him – whether the senorita had any part in that I do not know. Since they got my name wrong and had neither photo nor finger-prints, it is of no great importance, for they never got track of me.

It would take far too long to tell all the adventures Sam and I had before we got aboard a northward-bound tramp steamer for the last stage of our homeward trip. The only thing about it that matters is that I managed to sell the lorry for fifty dollars to a storekeeper of my own nationality in a place called Cerro de Viejas – he was a shifty sort of crook who risked the bargain without any credentials from me, and a mighty good bargain it was, too, since it was nearly a new lorry. As nearly as I remember, Sam and I had still a hundred and fifty dollars apiece left when we boarded that tramp steamer – she was carrying hides, and stank like all-possessed – on the last leg of the run.

And thus we came back to America. Sam, after landing, headed towards El Paso, where he liked to hang around the negro district. Myself headed towards Montreal with, deep down in me, the feeling that I would wring enough out of this old world, somehow, to get back to my Princess.

Life, as I’d had to live it, had not weakened that ambition, but it had hardened me. I had no scruples whatever. I’d not had a fair deal, it seemed to me, and now hadn’t a profession, had nothing but my wits and the few dollars I had brought back, but I was determined to win out, and pretty careless as to how I did it.

So I began again. The road I had travelled so far had brought me up against Laughing Sam, a black man, but a real friend, and whiter than most men I’ve known. It was now to bring me up against Tillary Steevens, white man, but a darned sight blacker than Sam in all but his skin. Famous mystery-story writer, thief –

The tale of my adventures has to stop, here and now, while I tell just how and why Tillary Steevens was in reality no more than a fraud, a monumental fraud. And that telling takes back again, for a minute or two, to the beginnings ‘of my life, when my grandmother was still alive and hoping to put me in the way of a good and prosperous career. For she kept that hope right up to her death, worked for it, lived for it, but not long enough to see her hope realized.

Laughing Sam – black man.

Tillary Steevens, white man!

Yet the black man white, and the white man black.

Which, before I go on, has got to be explained.

CHAPTER XII


THE WILL


AS a small boy – and a larger one, too! – grandmother and I travelled about. Here, there, everywhere. Practically gypsies. Grandmother was an expert seamstress – and, except for the handicap of her age, could always get work. It was she, God bless her soul, who earned enough with her talented needle that Jerry Hammond, her grandson, could enter this school – that school; and her little inheritance that enabled him to go into this college – and that college, taking part of his dental course here – part of it there – only, alas, to become – when all was done and said – a safe-cracker!

But grandmother, thanks perhaps to the kindly fates, sleeps to-day peacefully, unknowing. In Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis, with not even a head-piece over her grave. But with a living monument of a sort, yet, though not the unlucky grandson, carrying the brand of professional criminal, who lives on to-day no – but the thousands of loving memories concerning herself, which she left, everywhere she went, everywhere that she met people.

And it was during a certain few months that we lived in Columbus, Ohio – myself aged thirteen – that I met Tillary Steevens. Himself only thirteen or so – since we were in the same grade at school I even remember the rented house grandmother and I lived in. A rickety wooden affair on Dakota Avenue, with an attic. It cost us $9 a month. Tillary lived in a much finer house, a beautiful grey Bedford stone affair, with green blinds, on Terrace Drive. And I recall, even after all the years, its number – shown by the big ornate bronze numerals 237 at the side of its entrance.

A bully he was, even then, of the smaller boys. Not me, of course, for I could stand up for myself. So he became friends with me, when he saw he couldn’t bluff nor lick me.

It was Tillary, in fact, who first gave me the ambition to be a dentist. Dentists, said Tillary, were grand men – they had lots of fun – drilling into people’s nerves – and making the beggars squeal. Naturally cruel, Tillary, a sadist doubtlessly, but he awoke in me the same ambition – though not, at least, with the motive of “making people squeal.” Mine was merely the desire to stop, in people, some of the toothaches such as I myself had had.

Since, because of Tillary’s inability to bully me, we had become friends, we often went up into my attic to read. While, of course, grandmother was out sewing by the day. He and I would take turns at reading – one to the other. And what we used to read were no less than some two score of fascinating manuscripts that grandfather had left in an old brass-bound trunk. For grandfather had been a professional miscarriage of some sort. A Presbyterian minister by training, he had had an insatiable urge for writing stories. Mystery stories, they would be called to-day. Dime novels, he had shamefacedly confessed to grandmother they were – things unbefitting a Presbyterian clergyman – stories which, did his parishioners know that he wrote them – would actually bar him from the cloth. But, as he told grandmother, they gave him great enjoyment – discharged some tension within himself; and, so long as he buried each one in the trunk after it was written, they all did, he said, no harm.

Dime novels they may have been all right, but they were wonderfully, ingeniously put together. They ticked – which is as near as a layman like myself can put it. Everything hung with everything else, with the mathematical precision of a structural iron bridge. Gears rolled within gears – and atop gears at the same time, too! – and levers, unseen at the moment, worked powerfully and quietly with other levers in view of the reader – so that surprise followed surprise – and everything came out at the end with a grand bang of surprise, and love triumphant, and villains getting their just deserts. All this in spite of the fact that the characters in those scripts lit their houses with kerosene lamps – heroes chased villains in horse-drawn hacks – and the closest approach to a telephone call was a messenger-boy.

Each script was tied up beautifully with a black ribbon. Grandfather’s sense of contrition, I guess, for having penned what he considered such melodramatic balderdash. Each was written in a hand so perfect – though not at all Spencerian – that a boy of thirteen could read one easily to another boy of thirteen. It was only during our sojourn in Columbus that grandmother had first shown me grandfather’s forty scripts in the old trunk – and it was there that each day, after school, I inducted Tillary into the thrills of grandfather’s magnificent imagination – and Tillary, in turn, would read to me. Till, I guess, we had at least two-thirds of them read completely through.

I was talking to grandmother one day while she sewed at home on an outside job.

“What kind of a man was grandfather, Grandmother?”

“Oh – a fine man, sonny-boy,” she said. “You were only a little more than four years old when he died, He and I had taken you from your parents who both died when you were but two. You were the apple of your grandfather’s eye – because he’d wanted a son – and he got a daughter – your mother.”

“Did he make much money, Grandmother?”

“Your grandfather was too bright a man, sonny-boy – to belong to the clergy. So – poorly – paid! No, we were desperately poor. In fact, sonny-boy, grandmother has always been poor. You can judge for yourself how poor grandfather was from the fact that he left you only eight dollars and his Bible.”

“But – but how was that, Grandmother? Wouldn’t anything he owned have to go to you – his wife?”

“Yes, sonny-boy. But once grandmother – well – the doctors were absolutely certain she was going to die. Your grandfather was fearfully downcast. And being ill himself, he at once made a will. Leaving you everything he had. But grandmother fooled the doctors, and got well. Grandfather, too, incidentally. And it was grandfather who, long later, died. I found his will. I didn’t even probate it, poor lad. For grandfather only had eight dollars – and that trunkful of dime novels. When you’re grown up grandmother will go out and earn you the eight dollars and give you your correct legacy.”

“When I grow up, Grandmother, you’re going to drive in one of these Royce-Rolls autymobeels. But listen, Grandmother, wouldn’t maybe some dime-novel publisher give us maybe fifty dollars apiece for those novels?”

She threw up her thimble-encased hands in horror.” Heavens, no, child! They’re the most bloodcurdling things ever penned – why, the police would bar them off the bookstands as criminal literature, and arrest the publishers, if any firm even dared to bring them out. Why, child, they have in them corpses, and blood and murders, and the most horrible cunning villains. No, child, they’re just the bubblings-over of some queer part of your grandfather’s nature. And they – however – while we’re on this subject – I do want to give you grandfather’s will.”

And she got up, and fumbling down in some great cracked teapot large enough to have made tea for the whole Japanese army, she brought me up that document of grandfather’s. I was old enough to read it. It left everything to me. Everything! Poor grandfather. He had dreams, all right, I guess, of Hooverian Corners before the world ever heard of promoter Herbert Hoover.

And it was the next day, after that conversation with grandmother, that grandfather’s manuscripts were stolen – bag and baggage – out of our attic.

Tillary Steevens, of course – as I found out long, long years after!

CHAPTER XIII


THE MOVIE POSTER!


THE pillaging of our house took place while grandmother was doing some sewing somewhere – and I was fishing.

The intruder got in by a cellar window. He took, oddly enough, three jars of jams – all of the manuscripts – and $3 that grandmother had in her huge cracked teapot.

I wept bitterly when I discovered the theft. For I’d wanted at least to read the last fifteen or so of those novels.

“Well, child,” said grandmother philosophically, thinking that I was weeping over the $3 that was stolen from us, “this will at least teach you a valuable lesson, in the wisdom of your Welsh progenitors. About ‘burying the key to a house’! Yes. For you’ve seen me, time and again, when we left – me to sew, and you to go to school – press our key under the sod near the stoop. And if I’d only done that to-day, child, instead of taking it along and having you call for it where I was sewing, nobody would have – nor could have – broken in, for ‘tis said, child, as I’ve so often told you, by the ancient Welsh, that ‘if one buries the key to the house one leaves – neither man nor beast nor ghost will break in during one’s absence.’“ But I still continued to weep, and shortly grandmother found that it was the lost novels I was weeping about!

“Tut, tut, child,” she reproved me. “And so that’s it? Well, you’ll be the better off if you never read those novels. I never had the heart to destroy them, because your poor grandfather wrote them – but, thank God, their fate has been decreed for me. Though, alack, somebody else’s mind will be polluted now. Poor thief!”

I didn’t in the least suspect Tillary. For he had full access, through me, to the manuscripts. And all he cared for, presumably, was to read them. I felt that he wouldn’t even bother to steal such stuff. Moreover, he proposed – right after the theft – that we be detectives – he had two magnifying-glasses – also two 10-cent-store burglar lamps – and together we worked on the case for an entire week. Tillary seemed dreadfully sorry. So sorry that grandmother said: “Tillary, lad – it’s a blessing for you, too, that those scripts were stolen. You and Jerry, I plumb declare, have gone detective crazy!”

And not long after, gypsy-like, grandmother and I drifted away from Columbus, never to return.

It was when I came back to America – the second time, however – after escaping from that South American jail and a presidency, that I received the shock of my life. On my first return, I had got – on Sam’s money, of course – up to Montreal, Canada, picked up a wrapped and sealed packet containing a couple of merely sentimental things – one of them being no less than grandfather’s will, the other – well, I’ll come to that in due course! – that I’d left in care of the man who’d kept me from starvation a full half-year or more before by hiring me to nail boxes two hours a day in his plant which was practically going bust all the time. One damn fine chap – if ever there was one! And neither need nor use, I’ll assume, to give his name here. For he entered my life eleven years ago – and went out of it five years ago, via the Big Black Turnstile that turns one way only.

All right. To get back to the story. The story of how J. Hammond, Esquire, got the big shock of his life – on a little old street called Broadway! Complete with facts ahead – and all facts after!

For after I’d picked up those mementoes I referred to a while back, and had trekked farther on in the direction I was moving! – I had hooked up with a trapper heading for the far lone Canadian north. And there in the North I had stayed three years – for the fellow paid me a really decent commission on the pelts we took. But I had to give it up, finally, because I couldn’t stand the suffering of the poor beasts we caught in those goddamned traps.

And so – back to civilization again – and, as before, through Montreal. $580 in my jeans! But the screams of those small animals sounding in my ears at every revolution of the train-wheels coming down from the lower tip of Hudson Bay. And the same – after I’d transferred to the trans-Continental. Finally, Montreal – again. And this time my ex-employer – poor devil – was dying. A malignant tumour at a site that practically couldn’t be got at with the knife. Oh, there was a high-priced surgeon who’d had some luck at that particular operation, who was willing to operate – price five hundred bucks. “All right,” I said to myself. “You’ve created plenty of suffering with those nickel-steel traps you helped set – up in the North. Now, you Jerry, pay back – and pay to the limit.” And I paid the $500 fee. And, by God, the $500, saved the poor devil I’ve spoken of. Reached the cancer. Got it out clean. And when he did die – which was two years later – he died peacefully – with heart disease. Which was, I say, pulling a swift one on the old Scythester.

And now, stepping back from the point – fall of I937 – where my ex-boss really did enter the Black Valley, to the point – summer of 1935 – when I pulled him off a mighty tough bus heading that way, I went on to New York – with just my remaining eighty bucks. Travelling de luxe on the cushions. But not hearing any more, in the revolutions of the car-wheels, the screams of those thousands of trapped animals. I was freed! And damn cheap at the price, at that. Never again, I told myself; From now on a mangy rat could dine with me, right at my plate, if he were satisfied with my vitamin layout.

And so it was there, in little old New Yawk, as I started to imply, that I got the shock of my life. And it was when – or slightly after – I strolled into a movie show. The first I’d been in for nearly four years. The title of the film was “The Frankline Square Enigma.” And I’d got in, the man on my right generously told me, just as the actual “drammer” opened, so I wouldn’t have to see “nothing” over! I watched the “drammer” unfold. By order of some inspired movie magnate who had doubtless tried to make the plot feasible for re-use as a romance to be called “Two Buttonholes in Love,” all its innards had been recorded in reverse direction, the end had evidently been made the beginning so that it could be told – well – infra-retrospectively, I suppose the process would be termed – oh, it had had one grand scrambling of some sort in the frying-pan of Hollywood. Not less than sixteen scenarioists, twenty-four plot-builders, and thirty-two dialogue writers must have punched each other’s noses in fixing it up. The censors all over the country had done their work well, also, for immense chunks of the story were missing here and there, being substituted with dead-black stretches where words came to the audience out of the pure ether; while, in other places, characters, moving silent lips all the while, had eight-course dinners with each other, went to the theatre, and retired to bed – all without a single nighty-night, however. Yet, in spite of all this mayhem plus major and minor surgery, there was something profoundly, distinctly, familiar about the story. It was plain that the Hollywood plot artists who worked on it had been unable, try as they might, to get rid of its high spots – the things that really made its basic structure. I couldn’t put my finger on why or how that story was familiar. Its plot appeared singularly like something I’d read once. And yet, I knew I positively never had – nor could have.

So, going out of the theatre as the film came to its end, I puzzledly studied at dose hand one of the larger foyer posters. And – ah I – what did it say in the corner but “Adapted from the Successful Murder-Mystery Novel, The Stolen Playlet, by Tillary Steevens.”

Tillary Steevens! A novelist. Tillary – who had intended to devote his life to hurting people with a dentist’s drill!

I went straight into a bookstore and bought me a copy of Tillary’s novel, The Stolen, Playlet. And in my cheap room, in a cheap hotel, I opened its covers with considerable interest. And the very first thing that I opened to, oddly enough, was the playlet, whose theft in the story was the motive of the murder therein! And since the actual playlet itself had neither been shown nor suggested in the screen version, I proceeded to read it.

For good and salient reasons – which were known to myself alone!

CHAPTER XIV


TILLARY STEEVENS’S OUTPUT


I READ, as I say, and within less than a dozen pages had realized the truth. That playlet was grandfather’s own work, in essence. The story of it was one of those flashes of inspiration – like Rider Haggard’s She, and Lytton’s use of the blind girl in the Last Days of Pompeii as a guide to the lovers when nobody else could find a way about the doomed city – that can only be used once, because of their originality. It was as original and striking as Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean in the Paris sewers, as uncopyable, to quote a later writer, as H. G. Wells’s Martians in the War of the Worlds. Grandfather’s work, as I had read it in one of the scripts Steevens had stolen from the attic, in the far-back days of my childhood.

No mistake was possible – there was the idea, as grandfather had coined it from his brain. Steevens had had to adapt for the new inventions of life, of course. Poor grandfather had known nothing about a long-distance telephone wire on which his hero might talk to the audience, and had had to have that hero read aloud a letter he had written, but had decided not to send. A curious form of soliloquy, as it were. And his hero, likewise, who escaped a horrible death through the intervention of the heroine, had intended to go a long railway journey in which the train fell into a river, instead of taking the passenger ‘plane that got wrecked and burnt with every soul aboard, as Steevens made it happen. But the essential soul of the original story was there, the twist of action which made it unique, and, in my opinion, one of the best curtain-raisers I have ever read or seen, if not actually the best of them all. It was brought up to date, but otherwise was the story as I had read it in the attic.

Now I read the rest of the book, of which the theft of this playlet, or curtain-raiser, was the motive. Steevens called his The Stolen Playlet. Grandfather, taking one of the longer, clumsier titles that had been the rule in his day, had named his script The Destruction of the Corpus Delicti, and here I had Steevens proved as thief of grandfather’s work, past any question, as a brief outline of the plot will show. Grandfather, it seems, had once studied with the aim of becoming a chemist, and had put all his knowledge of a certain side of chemistry into this work, which knowledge Steevens had copied almost verbatim.

In writing the script, grandfather had given the entire chemistry of the case he presented. It was the story of a doctor who had killed a man in order to steal his literary work – curious coincidence that this particular story should lead me to knowledge of Steevens’s own theft of literary work! – and had buried the body of the real author in his cellar. The stolen playlet grandfather had given as an example of what the doctor had stolen. Then, with the chase for the murderer growing hot, and suspicion pointing faintly to the doctor, the actual murderer, he had dug up the body of his victim and had accomplished a feat that even to-day, I understand, is extremely difficult. Namely, the feat of dissolving all the flesh off the bones of a corpse by chemical action, in such a way as to leave no trace of the work on the bone itself. Briefly, the doctor had treated the body of the man he had murdered in such a way that he had been able to run all its dissolved flesh de a drainpipe, and its skeleton, wired as an anatomical specimen by a couple of nights’ work, stood in his surgery in place of a normal specimen. And, when the police came to interview him and question him on various phases of the case, they actually used to view the bony structure of the man whose disappearance they were trying to solve. Here, as in the playlet itself, was internal evidence of the real authorship, and the two quite original ideas, taken together, formed absolute proof of how Steevens got the plots of his stories.

Out I went, full of the thought of how those manuscripts had disappeared and Steevens had pretended to help me search for the thief, and bought not one, but five more books by Tillary – all he had had published, so far, by the data on the title-pages and the publishers’ list on the backs. Studying the list, I found that the books had been appearing at the rate of two a year, which meant that it was only three years since Tillary had made his first bid for fame and fortune. It was no matter for wonder that I had seen nothing, heard nothing, of what he had done, for I had been in South America, and then into the far north of Canada – over three years away from civilization, almost, for that republic whence I had escaped could hardly be called civilized, and the fur-trappers’ hunting grounds are not exactly crowded with bookstores. But now I was back in, and seeing what I had missed.

I read those other five stories, one by one. Again I found replicas of grandfather’s manuscripts, brought up to date merely by the substitution of electric light for paraffin lamps, taxicabs for horse-drawn vehicles, and dial telephones for messenger-boys, with here and there the wireless thrown in to make them quite modern. The slang of grandfather’s day was, of course, adapted; sneak thieves became gangsters, and Steevens had scored heavily by putting the importation of hootch in place of running jewellery across the border. But all the essentials were there: what I might call the genius of the stories was grandfather’s work, and Steevens had done no more than good carpentry on it.

I remembered the will in which grandfather had left everything to me, and considered the whole situation. And, no matter how it might be argued, I knew that those scripts were mine, both legally and morally. Tillary Steevens had ridden to fortune, and was still riding to even greater fortune, on work that belonged to me. Further to that, he had thieved it from me – or from grandmother, which amounted to exactly the same thing – meanly and dirtily, had tricked me as a boy just as, now, he was robbing me as a man.

He might explain, if I tackled him, and might even make some sort of reparation. From what I remembered of him, I thought it far more likely that he would hold on to his ill-gotten prosperity and let me feed or starve as luck might send, but still, it seemed worth trying. I felt like getting my hands on his throat just then.

I went straight to the public library, and in the Who’s Who found the city in which Tillary was now living. I copied down the address, for I had decided to hear if he had any explanation to offer to the man he had so meanly defrauded.

But then, how to get to him. For I had one lone dollar left in my pocket when I came out of that public library, and Steevens, as I had found out, was living in Chicago, many times more than a dollar’s worth of travel, to say nothing of feeding myself till I could tackle him and, perhaps, get some way towards a meal ticket.

I went back from that public library towards the cheap room in which I had fixed myself. A good three-mile walk, and I had already walked three to get to the library. With my small capital I could not afford to eat too often, and I was both hungry and tired, but, more than both of these, determined to get at Steevens somehow. With that in my mind I went on and came to a narrow, mean sort of street – I’m not going to particularize it more than that – where, thinking and trying to plan as I was, I stopped outside the window of a small, shabby-looking second-hand clothes store. I didn’t want any second-hand clothes, and couldn’t have paid for them in any case. It was that sort of aimless pause a man makes when he is thinking, as I was then.

The store was on the ground floor of an old tenement building, and had a separate door from the one leading to the stairs. That door was recessed at an angle to the frontage, I saw, and, when I stopped there, it stood open. While I was looking into the window, a man in his shirt-sleeves, a bit older than myself, emerged from the store, carrying a white kitten by its tail. Standing on the topmost of the three steps leading both to his door and the tenement entrance, he tossed the kitten up in the air and, as it fell, kicked it with all his strength, just as a footballer might kick. The poor little thing went flying across the street, struck the opposite wall, and fell on the pavement.

I felt literally sick with rage and horror. The fiend who had done this stood grinning on his step while I crossed the street and picked up the kitten. As I took it up, as gently as I could, it opened its mouth and tried to mew, just once, and then stiffened and died. I put it down again and, bleak with fury, turned to look at its murderer.

He stood there, grinning and with his lips pursed up for whistling, for a second or two longer, and then turned back into his store. I crossed the street and followed him in. He had a counter at the back, with behind it an open door leading to a soft of cubbyhole office, and in there I saw an old-fashioned safe, open, with an open drawer showing some ten-dollar bills – two or three, I could see, as top of a pile of currency. The swine who had done that thing looked at me from back of his counter, quite unconcernedly.

“Wanna buy a suit?” he asked.

“I just want to tell you that hell ain’t hot enough for your sort,” I told him. “More than that, for every second that kitten suffered, you’ve got to pay. Get that, and don’t forget it.”
He looked me up and down. We were about the same build, and I’d have liked nothing better than for him to come out from behind the counter and give me the chance of handing him an instalment of what I meant should come to him. But he stayed where he was.

“Here, you get out, before I call a flattie,” he growled.

“That’s all right,” I said. “I’ve just dropped in to tell you, and you’re going to get yours for what you did to that animal.”

“Get outer my store!” he growled again, with the counter protecting him – for the time. And, without knowing it, he had given something away with the four words. It was his store, evidently, and by the look of things he was running it on his own. Good enough for me.

I left him with that last word and, coming out from the store, went into the main doorway of the tenement. Going along the passage, I saw another doorway which pierced the wall maybe six or seven feet behind the back wall of his cubby-hole of an office. I mounted the stairs to the first floor, and there again were two doors on that side of the building, one near the front, opening into a room that would correspond with the store and be directly over it, and another, not far from the turn of the stairs, leading to a back room. Good enough – three rooms to each floor, on that side of the building, and I reckoned it almost certain that my assassin slept in the back room of his three.

I came down again, gave the store doorway the once-over as I passed it, and went out to the street. The animal-torturer was in his doorway, but he drew back into his place as I came down and passed out. I had every detail of that doorway in my mind then: a passing cop might spot a man at it after closing-time, but he would have to be quite dose, for the nearest street lamp was angled in relation to the recess in such a way that the door would be in shadow, and it was a mean thoroughfare, none too well lit, as I could tell. The corpse of the white kitten still lay on the other side of the street as I went away.

I went back to my room and, sitting on the bed, took up and opened my bag, which had a false bottom to it. From under that false bottom I took out my kit. There was everything I wanted, including a Courfeyrac silent cutter, a French tool which must have been designed by a genius for jobs like mine. It was meant for getting a way into escritoires, library desks, and the like, and would bite any sized piece-required out of inch-thick hardwood with no more sound than a mouse would make in nibbling a hard bit of cheese, so I had little doubt of what it would do on the door of that heartless devil’s store. I laid out the rest of my kit, and chose what I knew I should need: not much, for with the lessons Cape Town Slim had given me that safe in the cubby-hole office was no more than old pie, I knew.

Nothing now but to wait for night, and I went out and used up ‘half my last dollar on a good feed, after which I had a sleep, and dreamed that again I held the poor little white kitten in my hands while it died from the kick that swine had given it. But the killer was going to pay. I was determined on ‘that, and saw my way to Chicago out of it, too.

It was past midnight when I reached the tenement doorway again, kit all handy, and, as nearly as I could tell, not a soul moving. I had passed only one cop at the corner of the street, and he seemed to be standing there in a blue daze and took little or no notice of me. Up the steps, and I took out the Courfeyrac and got to work. It took nearly a square foot out of the panel of that door nearest the lock just like a pair of scissors clipping tissue-paper – a wonderful tool it was, and difficult to get, for not many of them were made, I believe.

The piece I had cut out dropped silently into my hand, and I put it down and felt through the hole. As I had guessed would be the case, the key was in the lock. Feeling around, I found that the top bolt had been shot, but it went back easily enough, and then I turned the key and was inside with the door closed again, and my piece from the panel fitted back in its place in case a cop should come along and shine his little glim on to the door, ‘And there, behind the cleared counter, stood another half-glazed locked door between me and that old safe.

The framing of that door was a good two inches thick, but I brought the Courfeyrac into play again, and it did the trick. My glim showed me the keyhole, and I cut the lock, which was mortised into the thickness of the door, clean away, taking a square which gave ample margin beyond the edges of the lock. The door would not move, so I cut a square out at the top, guessing a bolt there. Still the door would not give, so again I set to work on the bottom corner and took out a liberal square – and then my way in was clear, with not enough sound to disturb a girl waiting for her lover on a park bench. And, as the door swung, I saw before me the safe, and beside it another door giving access to the back room of the three. Whether the swine who killed kittens with his foot were alone in there or no I did not know for sure, but I guessed he was, if he were there at all.

As how? Well, when I had faced him across his counter I’d noticed a button missing off his shirt, and there had been a plate with some scraps of delicatessen stuff on it at one end of the counter. If he’d had a wife or any woman living there with him, I reasoned, I should have seen neither of those things, and he’d had no assistant, It may have been thin reasoning, but I guessed him alone in the place.

Guessed it with so much faith that I was right, that I put my Courfeyrac down on the top of that old safe with no aim at silence, and heard the iron clank on iron. Then, on the other side of the door from the safe, I waited, and presently saw a glimmer of light show under the edge of the door and disappear again. My man had wakened to see what was amiss, and had put his light on and switched it off again.

I went on waiting, in black darkness, a neat jemmy gripped in my hand. After a long while I heard a board creak faintly, and then the noise of that third door opening. A thin beam of light from an electric torch was turned towards the safe first, and then towards the door from which I had carved three neat squares. But, before the holder of that torch could get a good view of the door, more than to see it open after he had closed and locked it, I struck with the jemmy, upward and sideways as I stood. It took him under the throat, and as he went staggering backward there was a pop like a champagne cork flying out of its bottle-neck and a clatter on the bare boards of the back room. He had had a silenced pistol in his hand, and it had gone off and then fallen from his grasp – but before he could grope for it or do anything I was on him, and knew after no more than seconds of struggle that he was alone in there, as I had guessed.

It was no sort of struggle at all, for that blow on the throat had half-stunned him. With a length of cord from my pocket I got his hands tied behind his back. He tried to shout, but only croaked, for the jemmy had damaged his vocal cords, whether for the time or permanently I neither knew nor cared: he was paying for his cruelty to the kitten, that was all. Still, I tore up one of the sheets from his bed and gagged him as well as finishing the tying-up process, till I had him helpless there on the floor of his dingy, dirty bedroom. All this without a word from me, though after the gagging was finished he made odd noises in his throat. I dragged him into his office to keep an eye on him while I finished my business with him.

The safe proved tougher than I had anticipated. With only my small glim laid to throw its beam on the door I worked, and in the end got it open. A wrench of the jemmy, and his cash drawer flew open. I grabbed the contents without counting them and stuffed them in my pocket. The other drawers gave me nothing. Except for the getaway, the job was finished, and at least, I knew, I had my fare to Chicago.

Yet it was not quite finished, for still I could see that poor little kitten flying through the air, striking the wall and falling while this devil stood grinning at his own cruelty to a dumb thing. I had him dumb now, and I’d promised him full payment. At the end of his counter I’d noticed a row of trouser belts hanging, and now I went there and selected one, a leather belt with a chromium-plated buckle. I went back to where my man lay helpless. One minute, I calculated, had passed between the kick he had given the kitten and the moment when it died as I held it. Sixty seconds, at the very least, and I’d promised him he should pay for every second. I stood over him and, raised the belt, buckle end swinging. There was only the dirty pyjama back between his back and that buckle.

I counted, my glim in my free hand and directed on to his face. I gave him twenty-five with the buckle end of that belt as he lay at my feet, and to this day I don’t regret one of them, But, with the last of them, he ceased to squirm, and I knew he had gone senseless. A hand at his heart proved that it was beating all right, and I left him and collected my tools, He would get over his punishment – in time.

So I went, and left his front door ajar for a cop to investigate if he felt like it, or for somebody to open next morning. The street was quite empty when I went away, well satisfied with the job. I had my hat well down over my eyes and my shoulders hunched when I passed the same dreamy cop on the corner, and whistled a tune as I went by him. I think, on looking back, that there must have been something wrong with that cop, for as nearly as I could tell he had not moved a yard since I had first passed him, and he took no more notice of me this second time than he had before. Goofy, maybe – or was he planted there to watch for something or someone not in the least resembling me?

My job never made the papers, as nearly as I could tell. Possibly the cop who found my victim also found the silenced pistol, and knew the man for a crook, for no honest guy would own that sort of gun. Possibly he got himself loose somehow, and felt he couldn’t afford to bring himself to the notice of the police by squealing over his sore back and what he had lost. Over that, I neither know nor care: the man who could ill-treat animals the way he did deserved all I gave him, if not more, and I have no regrets over any of what I did on that job.

It gave me, I found when I’d got back and counted up, enough to pay up to date for my room – I’d got a little behind over that – together with my fare to Chicago and less than ten dollars over. I had no fear of being traced, and planned, now, to head straight for Tillary Steevens and Some recompense for his theft from me. And I was so sure I’d make good on the quest that I was a trifle careless over my last ten dollars. Bought me a new hat and some underclothing, cheap things, but I felt I needed them and had more money coming to me.

I remember, that night, reckoning up my career as far as it had gone, and getting mighty little comfort out of the reckoning’. As nearly as I could see, I was as far as ever from my Princess, as far as ever from some sort of opening that might make me honestly prosperous. I’d seen and done quite a few things, even had the job of president of a state staring me in the face – but the girl who went with that job, attractive though she might be, was not my Princess, and so I had had to pass it up. Now, as I saw it, nothing showed in the future except Tillary Steevens and the one thing I knew well – safe-cracking.

Steevens first, and with that errand in my mind I went to stash the kit that had served me so well with the animal torturer, for there was enough in that kit to send me up for a stretch of sorts, if I were caught travelling with it, and I had no intention of using any of its contents over Steevens. So I went to put it to roost here in li’l old New York while I hied me to the mighty London of the west, Chicago.

As how, you’d ask. To which I’d reply – Cape Town Slim’s teaching. For, back there in that rotten jail, he had not only given me my thorough training in the trade I knew, but had also taught me where to plant the stuff that comes out of safes. He had made me memorize no less than a dozen names and addresses at different points between New York and ‘Frisco, Chicago and New Orleans, and each one of those names was that of a “fence” who could be trusted to give close on fifty per cent. of the value of any sparklers or other goods handed over to him, and who, above all, was a straight guy to whom one could go with no fear over the results of a deal. This one – call him just Rosenberg, for he was one of the chosen, and that name serves as well as any other. I am not going to particularize him any more fully than that, for to the best of my knowledge he is still carrying on his business, and I’d hate to crab it. So Rosenberg let him be named, and to him I went with the kit, for storage till I had finished with Steevens – or perhaps for good and all. I knew there was enough value in that kit for him to take care of it.

Slim’s name, together with the set of passwords he had made me memorize, got me through to Rosenberg’s back parlour, a very comfortable apartment which gave no more hint than anything else of how its owner maintained himself. He produced a bottle and a couple of glasses, and bade me seat myself as he poured the tots for us.

“And Slim, where’d you leave him, and how?” he inquired.

“I didn’t,” I said. “He left me, and everyone else too, His ticker gave out on him, and you’ll see no more of Slim in this life.”

“An’ for der next, I takes my chance,” he half-soliloquized. “Well, well! A good guy lost to der game. But you, mister – vot you got?”

“No more than a kit I want to park while I go on a job where I don’t need it,” I told him. “A month, or maybe less.”

“Dot cost you ten bucks,” he said.

“Right – but when I come for the kit, not now. This present, it’d hurt me to pass over one buck, let alone ten.”

“I makes it fifteen, if you don’t cough up now,” he observed.

“Suits me,” I agreed. “Fifteen it is.”

“An’ first we lamps vot you got in dot kit,” he suggested.

I nodded and took a swig at my glass, and he opened up the kit to inspect its contents. I saw his eyes widen as he gazed at that perfect little collection, and he almost caressed the Courfeyrac cutter.

“Der most beautiful, der most complete,” he said.

“Ja, mine friend, I stash it at fifteen a month up to six month. Den I sell, if still you do not come back to claim it, Sell to cover mine expense on der last day of der sixt’ month from dis day we talk,”

“Suits me,” I agreed again, “Slim said I could bank on you.”

“Ah, Slim!” There was regret in the exclamation. “Dot vas a fine craftsman, Slim. Und you knew him well?”

“He taught me how to use these,” I said, nodding at the kit.

“Ach, zo!” said Rosenberg, and sat thoughtful while I finished my drink. Then he put down his empty glass on the table between us.

“Mister, I vant you to meet a manf here,” he said.

I shook my head. “I’m due out rom this burg,” I dissented.

“Even if to stay meant five grand in cash?” he offered.

On that, I weakened. “Spill it, then,” I bade.

In turn he shook his head. “Der man, he do der spillin’,” he said. “High Art – you know dot name if you knew Slim.”

I did know it. Arthur Bone, known in the underworld as High Art for more than one reason, was one whom even Slim had regarded as a master, Obviously, though, that offer of five grand meant that I must abandon my rule of playing lone wolf, if I took on whatever was involved. But I wanted to see the man, hear what he had to say,

“I’ll meet him,” I said. “Where, and when, though?”

“Shust stay parked,” said Rosenberg.

He left me there in the room, and from outside I heard his telephone bell tinkle and the indistinct murmur of his voice. He came back.

“Five – ten minute,” he said. “We haf one more drink.”

He refilled the glasses, and we sat silent over the drinks until Arthur Bone walked in on us, unannounced. Six feet four in height and magnificently built as he was, I could see one reason for his nickname with my first glance at him. Rosenberg nodded at me as High Art’s gaze went momentarily to my kit, still lying opened on the table.

“Der man, Art.” Rosenberg introduced us.

“And the outfit, too,” Art remarked. “My friend –” he turned to me with a smile – but even then I saw his eyes as those of a man haunted by some memory he had been better without – “I congratulate you.”

“And make a limit of five thousand bucks, I understand,” I said.

He nodded. “Rosenberg tells me you trained with Cape Town Slim,” he observed, “and I want no more guarantee than that of what you can do. Up to now, let me tell you, I’ve pulled off all my games alone, and this is going to be the one and only occasion in my life of breaking that rule. For this is a game that two must play, and I offer five grand to the one who stands in with me. Five grand flat, whatever I make out of it!”

“State it, then,” I bade. He made a gesture at Rosenberg, who went out from the parlour and dosed the door. Then High Art leaned across the table to me.

He made a gesture at Rosenberg, who went out from the parlour and closed the door. Then High Art leaned across the table to me.

“He’s safe enough, I know,” he said, “but I hate to spread things. Two of us will know, when I’ve told you, and that’s enough.”

“Sound policy,” I agreed. “One too many, if I don’t like it.”

He pondered that for nearly a minute, and then smiled again.

“Why, yes,” he said, “it would be, of course. Now, feller, ever heard of a guy they call Gian Zaccone?”

Gian Zaccone! A nod was answer enough to that question. The vice racket king here in the east, with so much political pull that he had gone unquestioned, let alone untouched, for the better part of two years. A spider sitting at the centre of the foulest, ugliest web that flung threads over every quarter of this great city, a name that honest men spoke with loathing and decent women never spoke at all.

“I thought you had,” said High Art, very softly.

“If it’s any game of his, you can get to hell out of here,” I said.

“Don’t go till I’ve told you,” Art counselled. “Gian Zaccone will be at a certain place to-morrow night, and not less than twenty thousand bucks will pass into his hands. I intend that lot to pass from his hands into mine, and if you take on the easy end of the stick-up, one-fourth of the total comes on to you. Four – five hours’ work, at the outside. Call it a thousand bucks an hour.”

“I want to know a sight more before taking it on,” I said.

“We’ve thirty-six hours to go before beginning operations,” he remarked. “Come round to my place to hear the rest. Rosenberg’s on the level, but he might butt in on us if we talk here. You can leave that jewel of a kit if you like – you won’t need it on this job.”

I went, without demur. Outside Rosenberg’s door, which was that of a perfectly legitimate business establishment, stood a sports Duesenberg with a liveried chauffeur at the wheel. I stayed only to ask Rosenberg to park my kit, and then seated myself beside High Art, while the chauffeur went to the back. Art drove us out to a small, well-kept brown-stone residence in a not unfashionable quarter, and then handed over the wheel to the chauffeur again. I followed him into the house, to a panelled library where he turned to me questioningly.

“Drinks?” he asked, with the smile I was beginning to know – just such a smile as Lucifer himself might have summoned up when he knew himself cast down out of heaven for evermore.

“Not for now,” I dissented.

“Then squat,” and he produced a couple of fine Havanas.

“I’d have thought, with a place like this, you’d not need to worry about little things like Gian Zaccone and his twenty thousand bucks,” I remarked after biting the end off the cigar.

“Possibly –” he gave me a light – “the little place is the result of worrying about things like that. Possibly –” for a moment his face hardened – “I have other reasons for interesting myself in this Gian and his little packet. I guess you know me by repute, but it’s safe to say you’d never have known me for High Art, but for Rosenberg!”

“Why, that’s only natural,” I pointed out.

“You don’t quite get me,” he said, and again smiled his strange smile. “I, the occupant of this house, and the owner of that car you rode here in, have my own name and presumable occupation. I have to own to being rather distinctive in appearance – you couldn’t mistake me, once you’d seen me. Now does it strike you, my friend, that if High Art were seen at his profession once – only once – it would mean the end of his career? What I might call the Sing Sing end?”

“I guess that holds with all of us on our game,” I said.

“It holds with me,” he asserted gravely, “to such an extent that, except for Rosenberg, you are the only living man who could identify me as High Art – and if you tried to pin that identity on me, before we pull this stunt on Zaccone, you’d merely raise a laugh.”

I thought hard over that. The only man, apart from Rosenberg – whom he could trust – who would be capable of identifying him as the cracksman supreme. Who would be in a position to blackmail him, whom he would have cause to fear, and might put out of the way to eliminate that fear. I began to feel that I had tumbled into dangerous waters, but he read my thoughts and smiled again.

“Don’t think it, my friend,” he said. “If you turn down this proposition of mine right now and walk out of here, you go freely and in no fear of what I might do. Similarly, you go where you will after we pull this stunt together, if you’re standing in on it. I’ve known Rosenberg long enough to be sure the man he puts on to me is a straight guy. Else you wouldn’t be sitting here in my home.”

“If we take that as read, then, you might state the proposition,” I suggested. “I’m all for five grand, if it’s as easy as you say.”

“Here’s the case, then,” he told me. “Gian Zaccone, battener on human souls, hell take him! – Gian Zaccone is bitten with the idea of getting out of his racket altogether and becoming a decent member of society. I don’t think that’s possible, for his record is too damnable, and yet I’ve got to own money will take even a foul hound like him a long way – money, that is, in such a wad as he can put up. His reason for the change of heart, a woman, as you may have guessed.”

“Since it’s Gian Zaccone, I don’t see why I should,” I put in.

“Well, every woman has her price,” High Art remarked cynically, “and all this city knows Zaccone’s been a big buyer. The price of this one, though, is marriage, and he daren’t offer any other. Whether she would accept him or no is more than I can tell you, but if she should, he means to lay off racketeering altogether, for that’s part of her price as well. And you’ll understand that when I tell you I’m talking about old John Mortonhaugh’s only daughter Marguerite.”

“Means nothing to me, since I don’t know New York,” I said.

“John Mortonhaugh,” High Art explained, “ranks up in the same alley with Rockefeller and Henry Ford. He’s not merely big, but colossal. Why, the Mortonhaugh steamship line alone – never mind, though. All I want you to realize is that Mortonhaugh is a power that even Gian Zaccone daren’t buck against, and if he wants that girl, he’s got to take her honourably – though God forgive me for talking of honour and Zaccone in the same breath! There it is, though.”

“And you come in – how?” I asked.

“Marguerite Mortonhaugh,” he went on, “has always been a little wild. I’ve met her – a glorious creature, a passion flower with the sun in her eyes, and as modern as sin. She runs a studio on the thirtieth floor – that’s the top floor – of the Duiker building, which you may or may not know, since you don’t know New York, you say.”

“No, I don’t know the building either,” I said.

“If all goes well, you will,” he told me. “Marguerite throws parties in that studio – I’ve been to one of them. Further to that, she’s agreed to grant Gian Zaccone an interview there at half an hour short of midnight to-morrow. Don’t ask me how I know that, for I have my own ways of finding out the things I want to know before bringing off a stunt. I know, further to ‘that, Gian will contact Pierre the Chouan, his head man for all Manhattan, before going on to the Duiker building to-morrow night. He picks off Pierre not less than twenty grand, which he’ll have on him when he goes to that interview with Marguerite.”

“With a bodyguard of not less than six, all fitted out with sub-machine guns,” I pointed out. “Tackling him sounds as easy a form of sudden death as ever I’ve heard – and I know a few.”

“Right so, my friend, until he reaches the thirtieth floor of the Duiker building,” Art agreed – and disagreed. “For, you see, he daren’t appear in her presence with an armed guard. The vestibule of the Duiker will be a death-trap, for sure – until Gian is found, gagged and tied, in Marguerite’s studio – and I regret to say the fair Marguerite must also be bound and gagged. But you only appear in that vestibule some hours before Gian’s bodyguard gets there, and I do not appear at all. Further to that, we are both well away before any suspicion is raised. It’s the audacity of the thing that brings it off, don’t you see? No man in all New York would dare lay a finger on the great Gian Zaccone – and so we lay whole hands on him – and pull it off!”

“Do we?” I asked, though the sheer devil-may-careishness of such a venture was beginning to attract me. “As how?”

“Lamp this – a plan of the Duiker and its surroundings that I drew myself,” he said, and thrust a large sheet of paper into my hands. “Elevation of the Duiker building and the Van den Hoyst building next it, Observe that little line running down into the well of the Duiker building, coming to the dividing wall between the courtyards of the Duiker and the Van den Hoyst. Then look at the Van den Hoyst, and observe a similar line running up from its courtyard. Fire escapes, my friend. I’ve drawn in only the essentials, and you’ll note that the line on the Van den Hoyst building, as I’ve drawn it, ends at the tenth floor.”

“Carry on,” I bade. “I don’t get it, yet.”

“Ends at the tenth floor,” he pursued, “because there you come to an open window. You step through it, and you are in a flat which I have rented – and never entered yet. When you step through the window, my chauffeur will greet you – give you a drink, if you feel like it. He is the apparent tenant of that flat, and after to-morrow night he will never be seen in it again. He has been in it, so far, just twice, to make sure of the ground. He is a man I trust as I trust you in outlining this plan of mine to you here and now.”

“And I haven’t grasped the plan yet,” I said.

“No, naturally,” he agreed. “But leave that elevation alone, since you get the idea of using the fire escapes, and have a look at this plan of part of the thirtieth floor of the Duiker building. Here, Marguerite’s studio. That is, studio, bedroom leading off, kitchen and offices here – but they don’t concern us. Marguerite keeps a maid there who is to act as chaperone for this interview with Zaccone, but I know the maid will not be there to-morrow night. She will disappear as Zaccone enters, and probably Marguerite will not know it until she rings for drinks or Zaccone’s hat, or anything she may want the maid to bring. Then, she’ll understand that she’s all alone with Zaccone, and that may have some weight in influencing her reply to his proposals. May or may not, though long before he gets to those proposals, to make this a thoroughly Irish statement of the case, we shall be on him, and he’ll be tied and helpless and short of twenty thousand bucks, at least. It may be a bigger wad, even, but it won’t be smaller.”

“And you count on getting up and down those fire escapes after Zaccone starts his interview with this frail, and butting in through her window?” I asked, reckoning him a simpleton for thinking he could ever get away with such an obvious plan. “Why, before you could –”

“Hold your hosses,” he interrupted. “High Art goes in for high art, not childish foolery. That studio of Marguerite’s was part of an eight-roomed apartment, originally, and a partition wall was put up to divide her rooms from the rest at her cost. I hired the other rooms, on the other side of the partition, last week, on a monthly agreement. It’s from those rooms, through that dividing wall, we’ll operate.”

“Oh, we walk through a wall, do we?” I asked sarcastically.

“We do,” he answered. “I’ve all but cut that wall – with that kit of yours I saw at Rosenberg’s, you’ll know that cutting it is no more than child’s play. I marked the place to cut, behind a full-length mirror she’s got on the studio side of the wall, and now, one push, and down goes the mirror and lets us through. It’s after the game is played we go for the fire escapes, down to the well of the Duiker building, up the back of the Van den Hoyst, and out like ordinary citizens before there’s a hint leaked out of anything wrong with either Gian or Marguerite. By the time they’re discovered, I shall have changed back to the self you see now, and you – well, you please yourself.”

“Suppose Zaccone hasn’t got the twenty grand on him?” I asked.

“He will have it,” Art said confidently. “Every week he contacts his Manhattan chief the same night, and he’s going straight on to Marguerite from that contact, It’s good enough for me to plan it, so it ought to be good enough for you. You’re not out of pocket on plans.”

“Hiring two flats, running that car and a joint like this,” I rejected. “Hully gee! All you get is twenty grand less my five.”

“In our game, my friend, you’ve got to give to get,” he answered coolly. “A certain coup I pulled off cost me more than fifteen grand before I’d laid all my plans, but Rosenberg counted me out one hundred grand in straight notes when I took the stuff to him. When I play, I play big. Now, are you in on this with me, or no?”

“Why did you pick me?” I countered.

“Rosenberg’s say-so,” he answered promptly. “I’m worth too much to him for any chance of his letting me down. Add to that, Cape Town Slim trained you at the game, Rosenberg said, and I’ve no fear of a man that Slim turned out, either over his skill at the game or anything else.”

“Uh-huh! But Zaccone – it’s a dangerous game, if he gets wise to either of us after we’ve made our play.”

“He won’t get wise to me,” Art said. “You’ll hardly know me – look for a hunchback; a good three inches shorter than you see me now, with a horrible livid scar to disfigure his right cheek, and the corner of his mouth drawn up on the left side. You make your own arrangements, over that part of it, and I’d say, get out of New York quick, after to-morrow night. That’s up to you, though. My responsibility for you ends when I hand over the five thousand bucks, and we say good-bye on that.”

I sat thoughtful. He might pull it off – we might pull it off – but, in the event of failure, I did not like to think what would happen to me. Yet, five grand – I had no doubt of High Art’s keeping his promise to pay, if all went as he had planned.

“Well, take it, or leave it?” he interrupted my thoughts.

“Take it,” I answered. “I’m in, though we’re bucking Zaccone.”

“Good man,” Art said quietly. “Now, I’ve given you only the very vaguest outline – I’ll get my man to bring us in some sandwiches and drinks, and we’ll go over the whole thing point by point till it’s absolutely watertight, and there’s not a dot or a comma you don’t know as well as I do. It’s got to be perfect team work.”

“One second,” I said. “Why do you want me at all? Why not make it a one-man stand, since he’ll be alone with Marguerite, you say?”

“Because of her,” he told me. “I want you to tackle her, tie and gag her while I attend to him. Else, there’s a chance she might squeal and spoil the whole show for me. Handle her gently, but make dead sure she’s both helpless and silent – that’s your part in the act. Can do?”

“Can do,” I assented. “Now fetch in that grub – we’ve talked me hungry and thirsty too, and while we pack it away you can put me wise to everything, as you said. I’ve got to be word-perfect in my part from the moment the curtain goes up. We don’t get a second bite at this cherry if our teeth fail to click first go, so spill it, brother.”

He frowned a little at that form of address, but made no verbal protest. Instead, he rang the bell, and the man who had acted as chauffeur in the Duesenberg answered it and took High Art’s orders as a perfectly trained servant should. I noted that Art did not speak the man’s name, nor did he speak mine in his hearing.

Our meal, daintily served and plentiful, appeared, and after the chauffeur-valet had closed the door on himself Art began on the details of his plan. When I came to think it over, later, I wondered at the brain of the man: he had missed out nothing, had even worked out alternatives to fit varying circumstances, and he coached me in all that he had worked out for himself until I too could go over the whole plan and find no flaw in it. He sure was an artist at his work, and, as he had said, he went in for high art, and fine art at that. If things had fallen differently, and if he had wished it, I might have abandoned my determination to play lone wolf, and gone in with him. Little enough he told me about his exploits, but there was no doubt that he played big, all the time. And not once had he been sighted, let alone caught.

A super-cracksman, past question. What else he was, what life the brownstone house represented, I never learned in full. I know mainly that, looking back on our adventure and seeing him as he was for the little time I knew him, I liked him, far more than any white man I had ever met. For he had just the quality that I had found in Laughing Sam, an indescribable quality, yet, when you find it in a man, be he black or white, you recognize it at once and are drawn to him.

That by the way. For three full hours he talked over our empty plates, and I listened, throwing in a question every time I wanted a point made quite clear. At last he was satisfied, and so was I.

“Now,” he said, “do I send you back to wherever it is in the Duesenberg? If so, you’ve only to say the word.”

I shook my head. I’d be less conspicuous afoot, and did not know, then, whether my animal-torturer was looking for somebody like me.

“Thanks all the same,” I said, “but I’ll make it on the hoof.”

“Suit yourself,” he advised, with that odd smile of his. “And at nine to-morrow night you let yourself into the flat next Marguerite’s with this key I’m handing you, and wait for me.”

“That is the plan,” I assented. “Count on finding me there.”

And with that I left him, to go and think over this unsought adventure that had come my way, and what five thousand bucks might mean – if I got them – to my attempt at bringing Tillary Steevens to book.

CHAPTER XV


ZACCONE PAYS


I GUESS the Duiker and Van den Hoyst buildings both ranked as sky-scrapers when they were built, but modern structures have dwarfed them so that they are quite inconspicuous, now. It was just on nine o’clock the night after my interview with High Art – I had neither seen nor heard anything of him in the interval – when I walked into the vestibule of the Duiker building and, together with seven or eight other people, was swung up in one of the elevators. I got out at the thirtieth and made my way along a marble-panelled corridor to the door I wanted (Art had made sure that I should know my way, from the moment I entered the building) and entered the vacant flat by mean’s of the key he had entrusted to me.

It irked me a little to reflect that I was the only passenger in that lift who had gone all the way up to the thirtieth, but I consoled myself with the thought that, if all went well, I should not be returning by that route, and, as nearly as I could tell, none of Zaccone’s bodyguard had yet turned up to make sure of a clear way in and out of the building for him. This was only natural: he would have no suspicion that his amorous call might form an occasion for trouble, though I had no doubt that the Duiker vestibule would be a very hot spot indeed when once he had entered the building, and until he left it. The big shots of gangdom never travel without bodyguards, but, being big shots, they do not anticipate planned trouble coming to them from outsiders like High Art, or me. Zaccone had no cause to suspect anything.

I took out a couple of thin rubber pads with which I had come provided, and slipped them over my shoe soles, to prevent noise on the bare boards. Then I went over all the rooms of the flat with the electric torch I had brought, and found them innocent of human presence. Art had told me where to look for the partitioning wall in which he had cut his means of entry to Marguerite’s studio, and I found it with no difficulty. The cut made a sort of door, secured at the top by two bits of uncut stuff, each not more than half an inch in width. He sure had made an artist’s job of that cut, and must have taken special pains to get the exact position of the mirror backed on to it, for if he had cut three or four inches wrong on either side, his work would have shown on the studio side and spoilt all his planning.

Yes, a sound job. As I stood with the torch rayed on to it, I heard a woman crooning to herself beyond the mirror, in the studio, and at that I switched the torch off hastily and went out from that room. I had seen all I wanted, until Art should turn up, and it seemed to me indecent to listen to what that woman might sing or say. It might have been only the maid, or Marguerite herself: I could not tell which.

I went to a back window and looked out, to pass the time. To the right I could see the little fire-escape platform – it gave on to the window next to Marguerites’ studio, not to this window, and extended so that one could gain access to it from her window too. That, I knew, was my way out, after this game had been played. Then I saw that the rear wall of the Van den Hoyst building was angled so as to give me a view of the fire-escape there, and I counted ten floors up and saw the open window where Art’s chauffeur-valet would be waiting from half-past eleven onward, to take me off in the Duesenberg and land me well clear of this district of the city. Before Zaccone was discovered, I hoped.

And that was all there was to do or see. The time lengthened out endlessly: I heard clocks strike ten, chime the quarters, strike eleven, and each quarter-hour was far longer than the one that had gone before it. A quarter-past eleven came at last, and, minutes later, a low “Pst!” told me that High Art was in the flat with me.

How he got there, I do not know to this day. He had told me that he would not enter by the vestibule of the Duiker, and I am dead certain that he did not come by way of the fire-escape, as I am that he was not in the place when I arrived at nine o’clock. I replied to his signal, and he came beside me into the faint light that rayed into the window from opposite. Used to the darkness as my eyes had become, I was able to see him fairly well even in that dim light, and, as he had told me would be the case, he was changed beyond recognition. His face that I had seen as handsome was horrible now, with the long scar appearing to distort one cheek and the lips drawn up and parted on the other side to show a wolfish sort of grin. He appeared but little taller than I am myself, with monkeyishly rounded shoulders making his arms appear abnormally long, and a hump, an ugly-looking deformity, marring the line of his back.

He did not speak, nor did I, for all that we needed to say had been said at our interview the day before. Only, after a minute or two of standing thus, he reached out and plucked at my sleeve, and with that I padded silently along with him to the room of the partition wall. Here we waited: I could hear sounds that told me a metal tray of some sort with glasses on it was being put down somewhere, and a voice said – “Put the decanter there, Susie.” Another period of waiting. Then a door-bell ringing faintly, a murmured exchange of sentences, and a second woman’s voice speaking clearly –

“Mr. Zaccone, miss,” it said.

A closing door, and a man’s voice, oilily soft, hateful, I thought.

“I have dreamed of this moment since I saw you last, Marguerite.”

“Oh, have you?” She sounded quite nonchalant over it.

“As the beginning of a better, sweeter dream that shall last me all my life,” he said, even more smoothly and detestably than before. “Marguerite, have you no word for me of what I long to hear, of all that you know I would ask to hear from you.”

“Do have a drink, Mr. Zaccone,” she interrupted him, with a tinge of amusement in her tone. “Whisky, or will you unwire the champagne in the bucket there?”

“I drink only if you drink with me,” he said, with a hint of sulkiness over being interrupted in his declamation.

“Then you had better unwire the bottle,” she told him, “for I certainly am not going to drink whisky, whatever you prefer.”

We could hear it all as plainly as if we were in the room with them, thanks to High Art’s cut in the wall. I felt his hand on my arm again as a signal. We heard a faint scuffing sound and a plop! as Zaccone took the bottle from the ice bucket to unwire it, and with that, knowing both his hands would be occupied, Art chose his moment. He charged forward: light shone on us, soft shaded light, as the mirror and section of wall went down, and as Marguerite Mortonhaugh started up from the divan on which she had been seated, stark fear in her lovely eyes, Art’s fist crashed home on Zaccone’s solar plexus, and the Dago went down senseless. It was all over, almost soundlessly, in ten seconds.

“Take the goil, Mike,” Art adjured me, in choicest Bowery, as he dropped on one knee beside Zaccone’s still figure.

“Ah, sure an’ Oi’ll take herself, thin,” I answered.

Moving quickly, she was reaching for the telephone receiver at the far side of the studio when my hand fell on her wrist. She opened her mouth to scream, but my other hand went across her lips.

“Av yez’ll kape quite, yez’ll not be hurrt,” I told her. “Wan squeal from yez, though, an’ Oi’ll be compelled to black-jack yez.”

“What do you want?” she demanded, staring at me.

“Ah, sure, we want nuthin’ fr’m yer swate silf,” I answered. “Only to kape yez quite till me soide-kick’s finished wid the gintleman on the flure. Now come along wid me, honey, f’r Oi’ve got to make sure av yez, an’ ‘tis the other room we’ll be seekin’ intoirely.”

Whether my Irish brogue were convincing enough or no, I have no means of telling. I saw High Art trussing his victim with fine cord as with the girl’s arm gripped tightly I impelled her towards the bedroom and, once inside – Art had given me the layout of this studio as well as all else – got out the cord I had brought and began tying her. She made no attempt at resistance, and I trussed her, wrists and elbows and ankles, and then got out the gag I had brought. She gave me a look of utter contempt as she saw it and divined its purpose.

“Is that necessary?” she asked.

“Ah, sure, an’ yez moight squeal,” I rejoined, “Open yez purty mouth, f’r Oi’d hate to hurrt so swate a broad as yersilf.”

The gag fitted. I hate most of all to think of that part of the night’s doings. It came to me, even as I worked on her, that someone might treat my Princess just this way, and what would I think of that someone? Just what this girl obviously thought of me.

I had closed the bedroom door – Art had bidden that. Now, with the girl tied and gagged securely, I reflected: this business, like all properly planned affairs, had been as easy as falling off a log: we had got the invincible Zaccone, got him outed and down, and now there was nothing but for High Art to get that twenty grand off our victim, give me the signal he had planned, and away we’d be, while these two might wait for the rescue that would inevitably come to them when Zaccone’s henchmen realized that his visit to the studio had lasted far too long, and they must find out what was delaying him. Hours hence, that would be, and we should be well away by then.

But then I heard High Art’s voice. Hard, terrible – I have never heard any voice sound more awful than did his then. All that he said came clearly to me and the girl through the closed bedroom door.

“Awake at last, Gian. Eh? How d’you feel? Don’t know me, do you? No. I don’t think you ever met me, socially. Well, well l I’m so sorry you can’t answer me, Gian. Waggle an eyelid for yes, and shake your shiny head for no, if you feel like it. I don’t care what you do.

“Listen, Gian – listen hard. Once there was a woman – they’re your stock-in-trade, I know, A woman. The woman, to some man. Your hell hounds got hold of her. Two years later, I found her, dying – you don’t need my telling of the rest of that story, Gian, for you know it, many times over. But that woman happened to be the woman to me, d’you see? And so I swore to get you, and I’ve got you, Gian! Aye, wriggle, try to scream – try anything you like. I’ve got you, Gian!”

I saw Marguerite Mortonhaugh’s eyes widen with terror at the sound of that measured, awful voice, and knew I had cold shivers myself. We listened, and it went on –

“Because of what you did to that woman, my woman, Gian, I’m going to do things to you. No, you don’t know me, can’t recognize me, but I happen to be a surgeon, and I brought my tools with me! I’m not going to kill you, Gian. I’m going to leave you one eye to see with, no voice to speak with, no ear drums to hear with, and I’m going to make sure ye never walk again, never use those legs of yours. And I’m going to make you such a horrible thing to see that men will look aside and women scream at sight of you – I’m going to turn you into something that will want to hide itself from the sight of men, and leave you to Live. There – see? Lancets, scalpels, everything – even including antiseptics. I told you I’d brought my tools. Now, Gian, if you want to die, wriggle when the agony of cutting begins. You’ve got to go through it as she went through it – wriggle if you want to die, keep still if you think it worth while to live.”

The horrible, inarticulate moan of a gagged man followed, and then High Art laughed. If his smile had been that of Lucifer, the laugh I heard then was that of the devil who keeps the doorway of the lowest hell of all. And then Marguerite Mortonhaugh moaned at me.

I shook my head at her. “That devil has earned it all, whatever is done to him now,” I said, entirely forgetting my brogue.

“For a beginning, Gian –” it was High Art’s voice again – “you’ve got to sit up. You’can hear me tell you that, just as you’ve heard me tell you the rest, but it’s the last thing on earth you’ll ever hear. Sit up – so! This won’t hurt you – much.”

There followed the sound of a heavy, flat-handed blow, and after a brief interval the sound was repeated. I knew what it meant. High Art had struck Zaccone first over one ear and then over the other – no more than boxed his ears, in fact. But, for those blows, he had struck with slightly hollowed palm, and struck with all his great strength, too – and each blow had broken an eardrum. He was right – Zaccone would never hear another sound as long as he lived.

“Down, you devil, flat again – no, I know you can’t hear me. The eye, next – I’m taking all my vengeance on you.”

Silence. Then a horrible, strangling moan, and a chuckle from Art. It had gone far enough, I felt, but then Marguerite moaned at me.

“All right,” I said, “I’ll go and see if I can stop him.”

But she shook her head and moaned again, an imperative sort of sound that puzzled me. I stared at her – again we heard a noise from gagged Zaccone that marked the limit of agony, and again Marguerite made that noise of hers at me and shook her head when I would have opened the door between the two rooms.

“Look here,” I said, “can I put you on your honour not to speak above a whisper, if I take that gag out?”

She nodded with a sort of appealing energy, as if to tell me to make haste over it. I took the risk and untied the cord that held the gag in place, and the sounds that came to us from the other room were such as might have been made by a soul in hell, with Art’s chuckles as those of a devil at the work of torture.

“Quick – tell him!” Marguerite whispered. “Fifteen minutes after Zaccone entered the studio, one of his men comes to make sure all is safe for him. You know what that means – tell him.”

She had not finished before I had my hand stretched out to the door handle – but I dropped it at a new sound, an oath from High Art that told of savage rage over being interrupted. Marguerite whispered again from where she stood bound and helpless –

“Too late – lock that door! Lock it, I tell you! They–”

The rattle of a sub-machine gun drowned the rest of what she would have said as I turned the key in the lock. There was a soft thud of a body falling on the carpet, a gasping moan, and a new voice –

“Hell, chief! Oh, hell f’r sure!”

They had got High Art, I knew. I looked at the girl, and abruptly took out a penknife and cut the cords that had bound her.

“You – one dead over him is enough,” she said. “That way – go!” She pointed at the window. There was no fear in her gaze at me, only horror. In the studio sounded a fear-struck, incredulous jabbering, and amid it the half-choked, breathless sobs of a man – Zaccone, ungagged now, evidently. They were trying to question him, but he could not hear, I knew.

“Why did you ever let him come here?” I asked. “Oh, because I was a mad fool,” she answered bitterly. “And so are you – why don’t you go, before they come looking. Save yourself – go at once! In another minute – less, perhaps–”

I made the window. It slid up silently, and I looked out. Its sill was wide, and continuous with that of the studio window. I could reach the fire-escape platform. I climbed out, with not another look, even, at the girl. The studio window curtains were drawn, so that the men in there did not see me pass and gain the platform. Then away down the almost endless rungs of that spidery way, down, down. down, into the well of the Duiker building at last. A big empty packing-case served to get me to the top of the wall and over into the well of the Van den Hoyst structure, and then I found that fireescape and went up to the tenth, to see a head thrust out through an open, unlighted window as Art had told me I should find it when we had played our game. The chauffeur helped me in through that window without a word, nor did I speak. We padded out from the empty flat, and I was for taking the stairs, but he stopped me.

“Why ask for suspicion that way?” he said calmly, and pressed the lift button. “Besides, this is quicker.”

I thought he might have questioned how his master had fared on the adventure – might have heard the shots up on the thirtieth floor of the Duiker – but he displayed no curiosity at all. We stepped into a lift and dropped to the ground floor, to walk out unhurriedly to the Duesenberg, parked near by. Nobody questioned either of us, or appeared to observe us closely – a chauffeur had called for his rather shabbily dressed master, and was about to take him home, it appeared. But, as he held the door for me, the chauffeur looked along towards the Duiker entrance, where two low-slung, powerful saloon cars stood by the kerb in defiance of the regulations, governing ordinary private motors.

“They’ll be two of Zaccone’s machines,” said the chauffeur, as if it were just a matter of interest. “Wonder what he’s doing there?”

I gave him no answer, but got into the Duesenberg. He took the wheel and drove off, and all at once it came to me that I was not a cent better off than when I had first contacted High Art at Rosenberg’s place, let alone five thousand dollars to the good as I had hoped. There and then I renewed my resolve to play lone wolf, and to make no more exceptions to that rule, no matter how tempting any partnership proposition might appear. Whether, supposing that he had lived, High Art would have paid the five thousand over, I don’t know, but from the little I saw of him I guess he would have done it, no matter what sum Zaccone might or might not have had on him.

That Zaccone’s men got Art was news in next morning’s papers, and the rest of it filtered through to me by degrees. Zaccone is no longer head of the vice racket, nor is he ever seen in public. For he is a stone-deaf, one-eyed being with a pair of useless legs, and a face slashed and scarred almost beyond belief. Broken-nerved, too – Art completed his revenge before the bullets wiped him out.

So that was that, and here was I just where I had been when I met him – for the chauffeur dropped me outside Rosenberg’s silent frontage, thus ending the adventure exactly where it had begun. I went back to my room, and got away in the parlour car of the next morning’s flyer, headed for Tillary Steevens and some recompense for his theft from me, and thinking quite a lot about the girl Marguerite, wondering how she would come out of this and what her father would say to her if and when he learned that Gian Zaccone had been found in her studio.

They must have found some means of keeping his presence out of the papers, though, for the newspaper accounts made it that Art, an unidentified crook, had been fleeing from some other crooks when he sought refuge in her studio, where his enemies broke in and shot him down before her eyes. Since the story gave her as utterly ignorant of the crook’s existence until he suddenly appeared there, it did her no harm, and, about a year later, she married a man of her own class. Cured of her thirst for the bizarre, I guess.

That too I learned later. I knew nothing of it, only wondered and read the story in the papers as I went to Chicago, a thief looking for a thief.

CHAPTER XVI


TILLARY STEEVENS


AT journey’s end – and with capital consisting of only ninety cents, and a ticket for my checked bag – I was vomited out into a street called Randolph Street, from some huge and brand-new fifty-story railroad station that Chicago politicians, as I later learned, had just stuck up on her Lake Front to keep her people from thinking about modern traction subways; the which the present people’s fathers and mothers had commenced petitioning for only some fifty years before.

And shortly, after a twenty-minute bus ride northward from the station on some huge triple-decker bus, I found Tillary’s residence. Not far, in fact, from a big green park. It was on a street of ancient and dignified mansions, all well kept up. And I rang the bell.

Tillary himself, as chance would have it, answered the door. I saw at once, even after fifteen years, that he was a poseur and a charlatan. His pointed brown beard – his moustache – his scarlet-framed monocle with broad black ribbon – his velvet jacket and black windsor tie, not to mention the wide-brimmed grey velour hat and huge cane on the hall rack behind him, all told the story.

He knew me, too, after all the years. And a flash of white swept across his face. But I did not divulge the reason for my errand.

I told him just that I’d been in the far Canadian North for a few years, whence I’d gone practically direct from South America where I’d been previously. And now, passing through Chicago, where I’d happened to find his name in the telephone book, I’d decided to drop in on him.

He took me through his great house. Where he lived, it seems, with just a single man-servant, now on a several months’ leave of absence. From the billiardroom on the top floor, to the beautiful mechanically disappearing bar in the back parlour, replete with rare whiskies and cordials. Thence, after a drink, to the cellar, with dank dirt floor, and replete with mushroombeds. His hobby, as it likewise appeared.

There at last we sat, on up-ended boxes of carefully packed imported mushroom spores, under a single lighted electric bulb whose tint was such that it wouldn’t make the little mushrooms about the cellar restive.

“Tillary,” I said curiously, “how come you never took up the study of dentistry?”

“Oh,” he laughed. “I did. For just one year. I took it at Northwestern-U here. But switched to general arts.”

“And why, Tillary, if I may ask,” I said next, “do you wear beard and moustache? For you’re only my age. And monocole too? For just a while back, when you laid it down for a moment in the upstairs hall to talk on the ‘phone to somebody, I observed, in trying your monocole out against the wall, that it has no refractive power whatsoever.”

“Oh, Jerry,” he said, “don’t you realize that a clientele such as mine is, expects me to have a very picturesque appearance? Now and then – in a thousand blue moons – like for instance when I go on a long hunting trip or something – I shave it all off – and grow it on again only after I get home. But for the most part living here in Chicago, I give my clientele the appearance they expect; in other words, I capitalize myself.”

“We-ell – ah – what clientele would that be?” Now I had him!

“Oh,” he said airily, “I write a little.” And I saw that he figured I knew quite nothing of his thievings.

And then I put my cards on the table.

“Tillary,” I said, “I have read all you have had published to date. And, Tillary, those books you’ve allegedly written are manuscripts which were in my grandfather’s trunk. You stole them from us – grandmother and me. And you must make restitution.”

“No,” he said coldly, “I won’t. For the simple reason that I bought them from Red – you remember Red? – after you and your grandmother left Columbus, Ohio. It was Red, as is evident to-day, who pillaged your house. I never heard again where you were. And the Statute of Limitations of the State of Ohio prevents prosecuting me on an innocent purchase of stolen goods that far back. Much less even registering a charge of such. On a direct theft from you of stolen goods – yes, of course. But not as an innocent buyer, which is exactly what I am in this case.”

“But good God, Tillary,” I expostulated, “decency is decency. You evidently knew, when you first decided to revamp them and publish them, that I could never prove they were grandfather’s scripts since you had possession of them all. But – how about fairness? Now – look here. Grandmother, of course, is dead. I have my grandfather’s will. Here –” And I showed it to him, for it was fortunately in my breast pocket at the moment. He really looked as though he would like to have fled with it and burned it up. But of course, craven that he was, he dared not. “I should have the income – oh, a substantial part of it anyway – from those scripts which, it appears, are damned fine mystery novels – and not dime novels at all.”

“No,” he said, granite in mien, “you should not. I am, after all, Jerry, a rare artist. And but for me they could never have reached print. It is I who have touched them with the magic gilding brush that has transformed them from dime novels into literature.”

“Tosh and twaddle.” I retorted curtly. “I read the printed books. And I remember well the handwritten originals. The only difference betwee – well I could hire any Broadway hackwriter at twenty-five dollars a script – if, of course, I had the scripts! – to make the substitutions that would change the eighteen-seventy’s into the nineteen-thirtyfive’s – and revise the lingo as you’ve done. You are no more an artist, at the literary game, than I am myself. You’re – you’re just a pirate.”

“Sez you,” he said airily.

“I ought,” I said bitterly, knowing he had the upper hand, “to kill you here – and now. And since your lone servant has just gone away – and for a few months, you say – I should become as it were, your new servant – and live on here for a few months. In fact, killing you is exactly what I’m now going to do.”

“And what would you do with my body, pray, meanwhile?”

“Bury you right here under this rolled dirt floor – and have fewer mushrooms.” He threw back his head and laughed. Actually chuckled.

“My dear fellow,” he said, “do you remember my showing you that big necromancer’s crystal globe in my safe? While we went through my study?”

“Yes. A beautiful crystal globe – and a damned fine safe. Burglar proof – if you don’t object to a mere comment.”

“So I am informed. Well, I handed you that crystal with my fist tightly clutching the small round slate base – so that you had to take it by the ball itself. But that crystal was wiped meticulously clean of all finger-prints when last put in the vault. And you, therefore, left your entire five finger-prints smack on its surface! After you took it by its base in your other hand, and looked through it, you handed it back to me. Only I took it by one exposed edge of the base. And slid it into the vault. Where, while you’d been gazing through the ball at objects about the room, I’d been writing your name and description, the date and the hour, on a pink slip of paper. Which also went into the vault. Remember that pink slip? I thought so. Well, ‘sonnyboy,’ it’s got all the highlights that can capture you and identify you the world over. In fact, the whole thing is an arrangement I’ve had a long time with my lawyers downtown. All suspicious persons who enter here – and I was damned suspicious of you – right off! – I make finger-print themselves – and I book them up on a pink slip just as I did you. Were I not to report to by ‘phone to my lawyer – and in code! – within – let’s see” he glanced at his wrist-watch “– three hours and forty-seven minutes, now, since I reported twenty hours and thirteen minutes ago – every twenty-four hours, see? – he’d be here with two private detectives, and duplicate key and combination, and would open that vault – and you, before you’d even crossed the Mississippi – would be nabbed – and, thanks to the return of the good old rope in Cook County, and the speeding up of criminal justice, would be hanged in exactly thirty days.”
I laughed bitterly. For I recalled indeed how mysterious he had been about his fool crystal ball – and his filling out notes or something on a pink slip. And all. “Yes,” I commented, still bitterly, “you’re right, I guess, on all of that. All this criminology in your noodle comes from working over grandfather’s mystery novels. Your last murderer-catching stunt must be something from one certain novel which I, at least, never got to read – The Finger-prints on the Crystal Ball.”

“It is,” Tillary said gloatingly. “It was such a damned slick idea I adopted it in my own real life. Your grandfather had ideas, all right.”

“And,” I said, “you won’t give me my monetary share of those ideas?”

“Let’s go upstairs to the parlour,” he said, “where there’ll be less chill in the air than here – near the damp dirt floor, You can kill me up there just as well, and drag my body downstairs and plant me under my mushrooms.” Supreme confidence he had all right. And we were shortly sitting in his high-ceilinged parlour near a high Victorian desk.

“About your last question,” he resumed, “I won’t give you any share of those ideas. For you’ve legally forfeited, I tell you, any share you’ve ever had. I bought those ancient scripts for six dollars from Red. Which fact, however, considering my present huge writing reputation to-day, I would not now openly admit to anyone but you. And Red, incidentally, died some seven years ago. He came to me here, for help. Practically dying then. T.B. I managed to get him into the County Free Hospital, where he passed away in the best of comfort. But, speaking again of the purely moral angle of this alleged theft from you and your grandmother, I kept those scripts solely for you. And for many years. But you people never wrote back to Columbus, Ohio. And so, as I say, the Ohio Criminal Limitation Statutes outlaws completely your bringing any claim under the circumstances I’ve cited. Moreover, as a real lit’ry artist, I made those novels. And last but not least,” he added triumphantly, “you have nothing to prove your wild story – since I have all the scripts – and not in this house, either.”

“All you’ve said is true,” I admitted. “And particularly the one point that implies I would make a damned ass of myself to try and bring charges – against the famous Tillary Steevens!”

“All right,” he said genially. “We’re agreed. On moral, and legal, and miscellaneous aspects of the situation. But, Jerry, tell you what I’ll do – before you go. I’ll make you a lucrative proposition. For I can read, with half an eye, that you’re flat broke.” He paused. “Your dear and departed grand’ther, Jerry, wasn’t at all up on crook lingo – having been a clergyman! And I’ve noted a number of genuine crook expressions in your talk – such as a certain police expert who recently went over the crook talk in each of my novels, at one hundred dollars per novel, used to insert. This fellow, however, was bumped off last week by gangsters. Now you, Jerry, are doubtlessly a crook all right, all right, And for a full glossary of all crook expressions – those used among yeggmen and whatever-else-not – I’ll pay you one dollar a word.”

This was almost amusing, under the circumstances. For I was no crook at all – except for the one job on the cat-killer – and though I had all that Tillary needed, I had it simply because Cape Town Slim, in those long months in that South American dungeon, had made me learn the entire lingo of his trade, teaching me as though it were another language; and because to-day, when no word or expression quite fitted a situation, I often inadvertently snatched one or another of Cape Town Slim’s specialized expressions which did fit.

“Good,” I said quickly to Tillary. “But will you play a no-limit game? Hundreds of words, perhaps?”

Tillary nodded eager affirmation.

“Then give me,” I told him, “a pad of sheets, a big pad!”

And in the next half-hour I earned $350. For “Rooting against the Oliver”– cracksman talk meaning to work by the moonlight only – brought me $4. “Full of larceny”– open for bribery! – $3. “Run the roads down”– look over all possible escapes with a car – $4. “Market for stiffs”– banker who buys stolen bonds – $3. And the many names for a gang leader: “Big shot, red-hot, big rod, mokker, heavy guy –” fetched $9. “A Fourth of July”– gun battle after a getaway – $4. The synonyms for milady of crookdom alone: “Broad, dame, floozie, skirt, chippy, roach, moll, frail – $8 in 8 seconds. I cashed in – and with a vengeance – on all the linguistic part of what that poor devil back in that dungeon cell had taught me a few years back. Cashed in to the tune of $350. Which Tillary paid.

And I had a reason for giving him all that lingo; I wanted Tillary now to be entirely up on his profession – to be able to wax more successful than ever, as it were,

When I rose to go, I was the height of geniality. And I said: “Well, Tillary old top, since you did buy the scripts from Red – I can’t very well claim ‘em. Since, after all, it was up to grandmother and me to come back. Or to write back. Neither of which things we ever did. However, Tillary, you say you’re going to be without a man-servant till yours gets back? And from a few cracks you made a while back, I imagine you wish you could tell him never to come back. Ever try a Southern Negro, Tillary? You just know nothing of servants – till you have. And a Southern Negro did me a great favour in South America. A chap called just Laughing Sam. Or Sam Davis – in full. Faithful. Industrious. Intelligent. Loyal. I could rout him up for you in El Paso, towards where I happen to be heading now. And you would have a man who’d knock all your white Northern servants into a cocked hat. And at the same time help me pay back my debt to him. Will you do that much for me?”

“Yes, I will,” he said. “Send on your coon. I’ve always fancied I’d like a coon servant. A Southern one, I mean. For I’ve heard they never talk back – and will even take a rap on the snoot – and actually like it! Send him on. I’ll get a temporary man from the bureau around the corner till your man gets here. And I hope to hell I can tell that cocky devil who works here regularly to stay where he is. Yes, send your paragon on.”

And with this, I left. And with more than a smile on my lips.

For Tillary had slipped. Slipped badly. For Red, as I remembered more than well, had been in the State Reform school when that trunk was stolen. Had already been there several months. Couldn’t have stolen the stuff; hence Tillary couldn’t have bought it from him. Tillary had convicted himself as a liar.

And so, with the money he had paid me for the criminal lingo, I went to El Paso. To find Laughing Sam. For it would have to be through Laughing Sam only that I would be able to get justice.

CHAPTER XVII


THE LUGUBRIOUS ONE


I FOUND Sam, face a mile long, standing on a street corner somewhere in the Negro District. No laughing going on now! He wore a checked suit, seedy as well as shiny; his shoes had badly run down at the heels, and his head carried a battered bowler hat with a bright red feather in the band – and – oh, what a long face!

He turned, as I drew up suddenly right in front of him.

“Fo’ de good God a’mighty,” he ejaculated. “Mist’ Jehhy!”

“Yes, Sam. Jerry himself! Been in Northern Canada ever since you and I – thanks all to you – came back from South America.”

I soon had him inside a Negro saloon with sawdust-covered floor. At a lonely corner table.

“Sam,” I began, “I’ve had a sort of a bad break – in Montreal. Anyway – such as it was – my roll went for a ride. I intended, Sam, to bring you some dough. As ‘tis, I’ve three hundred bucks on me. And I intend –”

“Mist’ Jehhy,” he said, plaintively, “to see you ag’in is wuth all do moneh in de w’uld. An’ b’sides, Ah couldn’t use any moneh raght now. Wouldn’t be of no good nohow.”

I squinted at him in puzzlement. Then went on to tell him exactly what he must do for me. Which was, in short, to go North – to work for Tillary – to watch his records whenever such were strewn about – to listen to Tillary talking on the ‘phone – to find out, by all of this, the titles of Tillary’s projected novels as much as possible – and particularly the exact dates when Tillary’s publishers proposed to publish them. “And,” I added, “if I get this information, you’ll never die in the poorhouse, Sam!”

“Glad to git it, Mist’ Jehhy. Moughty glad to do dat fo’ you. Specially sence dat no-good swindlah tekkin’ de money dat ‘long to you ‘count you grandaddy writin’ all dern wunnerful sto’ies, But as fo’ you sayin’ Ah won’ die in no po’house, Ah ain’ keehin’ none whah Ah dies. But Ah’ll git dat info. Fo’ Ah kin read much better dan Ah kin write. An’ ‘sides Ah – Ah jes’ has to git away from dis heah whole Texas kentry, anyway. Ah’s vehy sad, Mist’ Jehhy.” He looked ready to weep black tears.

“Why, Sam, what’s the matter?”

“Oh, a gal whut Ah lubbed – no, not heah in El P – but in another town in Texas – Ah on’y come back heah mahse’f a week ago, to try an’ fo’git – well, a gal whut Ah lubbed in dat town, an’ pow’ful bad, done th’owed me down. Fo’ anothah man. Ob cose, to tell you de truf, she wan’ no good. She was on de street w’en Ah gut huh. And she gonna be on de street ag’in, Ah guess, when dat man th’ow huh down. But dat’ll mebbe be yeahs yet. An’ in de meanwhile, Ah’ll allus, allus lub dat gal. On’y, you see, she don’t nor never ain’ goin’ to – lub me!”

“Well, Sam,” I commented, “I won’t try to pump you of what hurts you so bad, but I can’ tell in the wink of a gnat’s eye that this was a case of you not having any coin – and some other guy having some. Now you go on up North – I’ve a whole hundred-dollar bill that’s going to deck you out from head to toe, no matter what, and send you up there on the cushions. If you can get by for the while on your salary – fine and dandy: And when you do this job for me – and when I spring what I’m going to do from your info – well, Black Boy, you’ll have enough out of my coup to buy all the good-looking coloured gals in any city in Texas.”

“Well, Ah ‘spose Ah kin use de money, a’right,” he said lifelessly, “but ‘twill be on’y to find dat ‘tickler gal – an’ win huh back.”

And it was thus, therefore, that Sam, decked out with new clothes from head to foot and back again, trained in a score of instructions I gave him, and with a ticket to Chicago and a letter from me to Tillary – started for Chicago. To take a serving. man’s job. And to please his master – at any cost.

I heard from Sam exactly three weeks later, in care of my friend in Montreal who forwarded Sam’s letter on to me in Denver, where I was trying like hell to get a job – and only wasting my roll. For Ye Olde Panic wasn’t over yet by any means. Sam’s letter was an illiterate, badly spelled epistle. In it he said he was “hol’ing his job” all right because he didn’t get up “on his ear” at all at “none of Mist Steevens on-reasanbullness.” He said that Steevens was all right for days at a time, but would then fly into huge tempers, particularly after a solitary drunk, and would take a swing at him; once, Sam said, Tillary actually chased him with an axe and flung it at him – would have killed him if he hadn’t dodged – and he’d have quit that day, he said, if it hadn’t been for his loyalty to me.

A week later, I heard from him again.

Sam was having a slightly more difficult time of it. Though, fortunately, getting a lever of his own, to keep Tillary out of going too far. Which was good for my plan. For this time he wrote:

Mist Steevens whos a collectah ob odd tings specially if deya jonahs o jinxes hes done got his greedy eyes on de scroll of some po actah man whut went craizy and tinked his skoll was ham and eggs and lef it to somebody, and one of Mist Steevens naybors done finly git to own it. And [he went on] dis man do hab me come in, on mah off houahs, an by Mist Steevens puhmission, an wuhk each day fo a houh or so. Anyways he wont sell de skoll to Mist Steevens. and now Mist Steevens want me to steel it. Dat is, he wan me to crack a side winder lock in de naybors house kwiet an from de inside, smoggle de skoll out dat night wid mah cleanin close, an den him an me late dat night we go an poke de winder up in a dahk cote alongside it, wid a long pole, lak as if it was a outside robbery puffomed.

Same old stuff! – Tillary’s bright ideas – from boyhood days.

But [Sam’s letter went on] Ah wuddnt be no tief, ah tell him, Mist Jehhy. Nor lay no plots agin his arbors. He kinda ugly about it, but he caint say nuffen lest Ah squeel on him.

And [Sam went on] has Ah had offuhs from Mist Steevens gennelmen frends! Dey all knows me, Mist Jehhy, an dey calls me Sam, You Raskal You, an dey tries an tries to git me to wuhk fo dern – ony Ah is stayin raght heah tite wid Mist Steevens wich makes him pull his punches now caize he git a big kick out of it dat dese fals frends as he call dem caint ontice me away. But ifn he evah did fah me, Ahd hab a dozin places in one houah from de varyus gennelmens what wans me. Though none of dem job wuh Ah tek, Mist Jehhy, sence Ahm a bit homesock fo El P. And dahs zackly whah Ahd go.

Also, in Sam’s letter, came something I was mighty glad to have. A careful copy, made in his handwriting, of a statement from Tillary’s literary agent – Sam forgot to copy that part of the letter – showing the probable earnings on his next book, averaged from his last three. It read briefly:

American $2.00 book royalties via Hilton

MacHarcourt and Co........................$20,000

English 7shilling – 6pence book royalties,

via Harden, Locken and Co.,London..........$6,000

British cheaper editions via Harden,

Locken and Co.,London......................$2,500

American 75-cent reprint edition royalties

via Grossern and Burren, New York City....$12,000

All foreign translation rights..............$5,000

Syndication, 100 newspapers at $100. Our

share, at 1/2..............................$5,000

Broadcast rights, Columbia chain............$2,000

Screen rights, already contracted for in

advance (as always) via

Metric-Gilding-Meier, Inc.................$25,000

10-year option on possible future use in

television performances........................$5

$77,505

Friend Tillary was in the big money now all right. Making well over $50,000 from each book!

Two weeks later – this time I was in Seattle, and my remaining money mighty low – came another letter from Sam, via my friend in Montreal, who was all recovered by now, from that operation I’d bought for him. And I got that letter – got it immediately it came, that is – by a rather queer hunch, for I was passing a cheap coal-and-wood office, with lone window on a lonely alley, and a small iron safe inside, and letters on the window reading:

SAM He Laughs at Winter Let Him Help You to Laugh at it Too!

“Sam” – laughing! Laughing Sam. Let him help you. I went straight to the post office; and there was Sam’s letter, just arrived by way of Montreal. And this had news indeed, big news!

For Sam, it seems, had come upon a sheet of paper. Something carefully worked out by Tillary from the list of his secret stock of grandfather’s scripts. Rather, grandfather’s scripts all retitled! It showed the general plan or prospective schedule of appearance of certain novels, which Tillary had worked out so that their publication would tally exactly with various conditions; in one case, this small Balkan war we’re all expecting about 1945; and, in another case, with the construction of a huge dam scheduled for 1944. All this, as it appeared, because their plots involved such features, and the appearance of the books in conjunction with the actual events, would make, as fiction, “timely!” Sam, thanks to his employer having been called out of the house for a couple of hours, had made a careful copy of this entire sheet, Plus any or all notations after certain titles, such as “This must precede, but not follow,” such and so; etc. Anyway, one of the titles to come out later was, it appears, to be known as The State of Maryland versus william Lucullus! And after this title Tillary had written:

Must positively be redated so that its action appears to take place in either 1943 or 1946, as the figures 1943 and 1946 possess the digits which, added up, give 17 or 20, and which numbers, in conjunction with the strange numerology of this absolutely perfect title for the story, will indubitably insure it an unusually large sale, That fact, therefore, in turn, determines publication of this book for either 1943 or 1946, because of Hiffton MacHarcourt’s fool insistence that the time-scheme of all novels published by them be dated to conform with the year of publication, because (so they claim I) books with post-dated action become falsely classified in the bookstores as “fantastic,” and books with ante-dated action are completely out of date by the time they reach the resale publishers. Publication date, therefore, for The Stale of Maryland versus, etc., becomes automatically set for either 1943 or 1946. Which year can be decided later.

That was all I wanted to know! Thank the Lord that Tillary had gone numerological. I didn’t care now whether Sam stuck with his job or not. For I had what I wanted.

Indeed, I had Tillary dead to rights! For on the day that he should publish The State of Maryland versus William Lucullus, every bit of the possible earnings of that book would be mine. $50,000 – $70,000 – whatever they would prove to be. But in the meantime I must wait. Since my plan required the book to be actually in print, and in transit to the booksellers.

And, waiting, and jobless, in the meantime, I must eat and pay rent.

That night I profited yet again on my long tutelage under Cape Town Slim. In short, I cracked my second safe. The iron gopher in that coal office. And got $89.17!

CHAPTER XVIII


THE TREASURED SCRIPT


THE reason I had Tillary dead to rights was because I had one of grandfather’s manuscripts. One which didn’t get stolen! For the reason that it wasn’t in the old trunk at the time that trunk was pillaged. But – and this was important for me – it was a perfect duplicate of one that had been in the trunk. Moreover – a legal duplicate!

For, as grandmother had explained, grandfather had once decided to submit one of his manuscripts to a New York “dime novel” publisher. He had copied it carefully by hand, therefore – for he was too poor to own even such a poor machine as existed in that day, or even to have carbon paper – and then, unknowing of just what had to be done in those cases to protect either author or publisher, had had affixed on the bottom of the first sheet an affidavit that he was the author, across which, and his signature, he had had a notary public impress his die-seal, filled in with dates and all. The kindly notary had even run the edge of this die-seal all through the script, on the left margin of every sheet. And then – alas – grandfather had married grandmother – taken the cloth – and had withheld his manuscript.

This manuscript she always kept in her big handbag of personal things. “Your grandfather,” she told me, “made what he thought was a great sacrifice – in withholding this from possible print. Even though, to be sure, it would never have been seen elsewhere than on a horrible street in New York called the Bowery. But because of his sacrifice, sonny-boy, I’ve always treasured the script itself.”

I had, with Tillary, read the copy of it that had been in the trunk. Wherein it had been called by grandfather merely Astronomical Murder. And now I had the exact duplicate of that copy, in grandfather’s own writing – as could be proved by his own legally certified will and other records that could be dug up to-day – and the old notarized affirmation on the title-page, dated and die-stamped more than a half-century before – and every succeeding sheet, moreover, bearing an impressed edge of that identical die-stamp.

And the reason I knew that I had Tillary, once Sam had found out for me that Tillary had lined up, as amongst his future titles, one to be called The State of Maryland versus William Lucullus was because the murderer in grandfather’s certified script, Astronomical Murder, was named William Lucullus – and the entire plot was laid in Maryland. It was an ingenious thing, too – and only grandfather, with his fine education, could have written it. For it was the story of a murderer who knew how to strike his victim dead through projecting upon a thin partition wall the movement of a comet! Rather, the inverse of that movement – the movement of the eyepiece end of a telescope in a small room on the other side of the partition.

The man the fellow intended to murder was interested in that comet. And the murderer had a telescope in that small room, pointing skyward. When one sat at the eyepiece, one’s head had to lean against that thin partition wall. And this scientific murderer had figured out exactly where the victim’s head would lie, during the whole course of the comet’s visibility. That is, its transit across the wide window-space open to the sky. And while his guest – and victim I – was in the little observatory room, watching that comet, William Lucullus was in the larger room adjoining showing a builder some changes he wanted made in the house. He picked up a pick. To show how thin the different walls were, with respect to tearing them down. And on the wall just then under discussion, he drove his pick clear through. And straight into the back of the head of the victim, seated on a small stool.

The State of Maryland arrested William Lucullus. For he had profited by the insurance of the other man. A mere $3,000. The detectives, who worked for the State of Maryland, could prove nothing.

And then a young mathematical detective aided the State by showing that a certain pencil line on that driven-through partition wall was the exact projection, on a vertical plane, of the path of the comet made by its own motion plus the earth’s motion. And, moreover, that the height of that projection was the equal of the height of the eyepiece – for that calendar date! And that little cross lines on the queer curve corresponded to ten-minute periods on a clock in the larger room.

And only grandfather, as I say, with his stupendous erudition and his tremendous knowledge, could have penned such a story. Tillary Steevens did not have a tenth of the brains with which to do it.

And now, as I’ve explained, because Tillary had decided to innovate the book with a little modern shot of numerology, its publication would definitely have to be 1943 or 1946!

So, I had plenty of time. Just as Tillary had plenty of scripts to play checkers with for years to come. But once that particular script, The State of Maryland versus William Lucullus, was out from Tillary’s publishers’ hands – and into the booksellers’ shops – I could march forward with grandfather’s will, his original script, and, for good measure, Sam’s testimony also, and prove that that book had been written before even Tillary was born. And, through my lawyers, I could seize not only all the royalties on the novel, but all the other rich perquisites it had – such as screen rights, rights on cheaper editions, and so forth. I could probably even seize Tillary’s Fullerton Parkway mansion as well! But – so I realized – if ever I gave Tillary the slightest inkling of what hung over his head, he would never publish that particular script – he would even recall it from his publishers if they had already started to set it – he would destroy it – for, once my script was shown up, Tillary was destroyed all over the world as a novelist. So there was nothing to do but bide my time and wait, wait, wait.

I no longer needed Sam’s help. And, from that last letter he sent me, I realized that he realized he had delivered me exactly what I needed – and that now homesickness was more than ever at work. It was the report on my Christmas telegram to Sam, of December 25th, that year, in which I sent only the message “Merry Xmas, Sam,” that told me what the end of the Tillary-Sam affiliation had been. For the report ran: “Party removed to Texas; whereabouts unknown.”

And it was Tillary himself, in fact, who ultimately wrote me the fuller details which the report on that telegram had so scantily set forth. Namely, how and why Sam had left him. To go back to Texas – and points about.

But with Tillary I was not just now corresponding. Especially since a new servant had Sam’s place. I was busy catching up on the profession of cracksman – which I’d begun so late! It was a damned short time before I was a full-fledged safe-blaster, living by the precious knowledge I’d got from Slim. It wasn’t long, in fact, before, thanks to a few underworld contacts I did make, I could have been leading man for some of the best mobs in the U.S.A. But I continued, instead, knocking out a fairish living on the lone – and playing always the hyper-super-careful game. Months slid into years. My Montreal friend died in 1937. At least, so some nurse who returned my last letter to him wrote me. I went to get a Montreal paper in a public library and at least look up his obituary – and lo, in the same weekly file, was the write-up of the kick-off of the surgeon who’d pulled him back out of the Black Gates on my dough – two years before. Strange world!

A year later, I took time off one day to write Tillary. Of course I asked him first how Sam was doing – so as to let him think I’d never heard of, nor from, my black protege since he landed with Tillary; and then I asked that, in case Sam wasn’t working for him any more, would he let me know where I could contact him. As, for instance, who might have written to Tillary to check such references as he might have given to Sam, and so forth, and Tillary answered immediately, care of a P.O. box I then had. From his letter it appeared that Sam was no longer of the mileage Steevens, and that such references as were given to Sam were zero in number – for the succinct reason that Mr. Sam had walked right out on Tillary in December of 1936, just as Tillary was giving a grand bachelor party. Tillary blamed it all on Sam, and said that if Sam had kept his filthy temper, he, Tillary, could have got not less than a dozen jobs for him, from his own friends. Of course, to myself I said right there and then that Tillary wasn’t telling at all how probably damned insulting and downright bulldozing he had probably been to Sam – to bring on Sam’s walk-out in the middle of a party. And I was curious to know the inside of that incident.

And still the years passed. Money – known in that world where I now played my lone game as dough, scratch, kale, bullets, mazuma, jack, the bucks, the sugar, the berries – was mine, through careful box-jobs. I tried once or twice to reach Sam with some of it, by letters addressed “Sam Davis (formerly of South America), care General Delivery, El Paso, Texas” – but they always came back to me, Either Sam just didn’t bother to go to post offices, as I figured it out – or had gone, maybe, elsewhere in that big state. But no matter. I could eventually locate someone in the Negro District of El Paso who would be sure to know the whereabouts of Laughing Sam of Alabama. Again and again, I even made plans to go to El P and get a line on him direct. But I never did. For I kept putting it off and off and off. And so, about six weeks or so ago, living in the Pueblo Chicancingo there in ‘Frisco, I wrote to Tillary one day, enclosing a letter addressed to Sam. I had to write both of my letters more or less by a sense of feel, for a damned drug clerk, somewhere on Sutter Street, had given me, on the very day I started living there in ‘Frisco, a small bottle of atropine sulphate solution instead of the five per cent. argyrol I had ordered for an inflammation of my eyelids. After I’d put a few drops of his mixture in each eye for about twenty-four hours – and discovered that I couldn’t see anything close up any more – I went back to him lickety-split. He took one look at his medicine – and was much put out at his own mistake – for it appeared I’d got a small bottle put up for a customer whose oculist had wanted to paralyse his ocular accommodation muscles for a couple of weeks. The clerk obligingly told me that in a few weeks, more or less, depending on how much of the stuff I’d already used, my accommodation would return. And very suddenly – all in about twenty-four hours! But – in the meantime, he blandly assured me, I wouldn’t be able to read print or anything like that, except at a distance too far probably to see it.

I would have taken a punch at him across the counter – except that I couldn’t afford to answer questions to the police as to who I was – and what I was doing in ‘Frisco. So back I’d gone to my room, and tried reading the daily newspaper pinned to the wall – myself standing five or six feet away. With the result that just as I would get far enough away that the print would show signs of being visible – I would find I was too far away to read it. It didn’t make any difference, to be sure, my not being able to read, so far as the work I was doing there in ‘Frisco – but it made me damned lonely at times; and that, more than anything else, I guess, is why I wrote both Tillary – and Sam, care of Tillary – after I’d been there for a couple of weeks or so. Following the blurry outlines of my writing by extending my hand and the paper as far from my eyes as I possibly could. I told Tillary that I was thinking of going over to Honolulu in a week or so on brief business, though my finances were so damned low that very probably – and much maybe! – I wasn’t. Honolulu wasn’t by any means new to me – I’d been in it before once, a few years back – though only for about five days, and the results of that particular visit had been that the local Charlie Chans had been left scratching their heads. Over a small incident in geometry and physics in which the side of a certain three-dimensional rectangular hollow parallelopid had suddenly departed from the other five sides, shearing strength of steel notwithstanding I And now I had in mind to inspect a new job there – one on Waialua Street – that I’d been tipped off on, and, if she looked right, to put the local Charlie Chans back to puzzling on their geometry and their physics. In this letter to Tillary, I asked him, in case Sam ever did write him, asking specifically about me, to please forward the enclosed letter. And all I asked of Sam, of course, since Tillary might take a notion to steam my letter open, was whether Sam had ever found his gal he loved so much – and that I’d be looking him up in El P – within a half-year or so.

Tillary wrote me back at once, and by air mail, too, re-enclosing my letter to Sam, but enclosing an illiterate note at the same time.

Lucky for me the illiterate note he enclosed had been typed out in capital letters, on the unused red section of a red-and-black typewriter ribbon; and by pinning it on the wall and standing well off, I was able to read it. And lucky for me, also, since newsprint was altogether out for me yet, that Tillary’s ribbon made a good black imprint, for I was able to read his letter in exactly the same way.

I’m glad you wrote just when you did [he said] for this enclosed note from Sam has been waiting here a couple of months. He wrote asking me if he could come back to work here – which, of course, he can’t – and asked me to forward this note to you if ever you wrote me. Here it is, but unfortunately the black goddamned half-witted moron gave me no clue by which to write him, or to forward your letter.

The note, as I have said, was all typed out in red capital letters on a typewriter, and ran:

DEER MISTER JEHHY I IS FINE AND HOPES YOU IS DE SAME. I AINT MARRIED YET THOUGH MEBBE YOU IS, HEH? NEX TIME YOU COMES SOWTH I WISH YOU WUD LOOK ME UP AN YOU KIN ALWIZ FINE ME ROUND THE EL PASO COLORED DISTRICK. JES AX ANYBODY FOR SAM WHUT LAFFS. I DON KNOW WHERE TO REECH YOU SO I IS PUTTING THIS IN A LETTER TO MISTER STEEVENS WERIN I IS ASKING MY OLD JOB BACK. SAM.

I smiled when I read the note. Picturing poor Sam waiting patiently for a letter from Tillary which never came because he’d failed to include the address he presumed he had! And deciding then that “Mist Steevens” didn’t want him. Which, it appeared, Tillary very much did not I And all of which miscarriage of intentions was very much for the best, I figured, since Tillary doubtless could pen a most blistering reply to anyone so reckless as to crawl on his hunkers to T. Steevens. And I wondered, also, at the same time, in what El Paso business office, scrubbed probably several times a week by Sam, he had painfully tapped out his epistle.

But Sam’s great day would come soon, I told myself grimly, where he should see more money than he’d ever seen in his entire life. And where I could pull down more than any score of box-jobs had ever given me.

But Tillary’s letter contained something exceedingly interesting. Three things, in fact. First, three crisp $50 bills! Second, a thin key. And third, a paragraph which ran;

So long as you want to get to Honolulu – and are worrying your goddamned fool head off as to how to get the money to get there, I’m staking you your whole fare there and back, just for picking up something for me in Honolulu; and – when you get back on the West Coast – which I understand from your letter would be very soon after your arrival – I will furthermore pay you $250 additional bonus for the article you pick up, to obtain which two hundred and fifty plunks all you need to do is to ship it to me from the West Coast, via express, examination permitted, C.O.D. $250!

And he then told me the facts.

Facts which, with what I had secretly learned from Sam long ago, showed that Tillary had got himself into a nice jam with regard to the skull of one, Mr. Sylvanus Axton, ex-Shakespearean actor!

And the facts were thus:

A celebrated advertising artist of Honolulu who did amazingly beautiful still-life canvases – one of the most important men in the business – his name, for purposes of this record, being Birch Cadwallader – had passed through Chicago some time during the couple of months previous to Tillary’s writing me. Cadwallader had been clear to New York, renewing contracts with various advertising agencies – and so forth. And on his way back to Hawaii, he had stepped off at Chicago and called on Tillary, at the request of Hiffton, MacHarcourt and Company, Tillary’s publishers. For they intended to place in Hearstmopolitan Magazine a full-page ad. – in full colours – for Tillary’s first 1943 book, in the form of a huge dramatic still-life composition. Just what particular script the script should be, of those various ones he was working on, Tillary quite calmly told me, had been left entirely to him by his publishers, who knew that he always had several under construction, And its identity was to be kept an absolute secret from the public and the booksellers – some kind of a try-out as to the selling value of an author’s name as against author’s name plus title – and the book would be announced, right up to the date of publication, only as “Tillary Steevens’s new novel.” And only a week after publication was it to be advertised under its title – and then, as a further experiment, only in this huge all-colour ad. in Hearstmopolitan Magazine. At any rate, Tillary and Cadwallader had, Tillary said, agreed on an effective layout, consistent with Tillary’s outline to the Honolulu artist of the general plot of the script he had selected for first 1943 book – a layout the centremost feature of which was to be – and had, furthermore, to be – a skull. And so, Tillary went on to say, he had foolishly entrusted Cadwallader – for use in the composition – with a skull which had brought him a certain amount of good luck in his sentimental affairs. A skull belonging once, he told me naively, to an English Shakespearean actor, which he had once purchased. Right at that point, of course, I saw that he did not dream how much I knew about the truth of Sylvanus Axton’s skull, how it had really belonged to one of Tillary’s own neighbours who’d flatly refused to sell it, and how Tillary had tried to induce Sam to steal it. It was all plain, of course, that after Sam had left him, Tillary had managed somehow to steal the skull after all. The rest of the story confirmed the foregoing, and illustrated just how Tillary was now in a jam – because of doing so.

For Tillary’s tale of woe ran as follows: Birch Cadwallader had told Tillary confidentially that he possessed a secret studio in Honolulu – a regular hideaway place, known to nobody, not even his own wife – which he used off and on; it was, he told Tillary – and fortunately Tillary, through having memorized the number with the street, had tied them both fast in his mind – at number 273 Makawao Street, Honolulu. It was a place, Cadwallader had explained, where he dug in when he wanted to be absolutely alone – to drink as and when he felt like it, and not be nagged by his wife – nor be bothered with his many women and other satellites searching him out in his regular studio, in the downtown Honolulu. But, Tillary went on to tell me, Cadwallader had up and died but a few weeks before Tillary’s letter, and apparently but a day or so after having written Tillary to the effect that he had laid out the composition all complete in the hideaway studio – canvas, oils, and everything, all in position, too – and he would be ready in two days to start the actual painting.

And, Tillary explained to me desperately, nothing was said in the newspapers, at the time of Cadwallader’s death, about Cadwallader’s secret hideaway studio. Which, being a highly dramatic newspaper story, would have been sure to make the press the moment it was discovered – and identified as Cadwallader’s. For, Tillary averred, he had been faithfully following the Honolulu papers day after day – and still the studio hadn’t been unearthed. But, as he blubbered on my brotherly shoulder, once that studio was unearthed, his skull, his dear darling lucky fetish – and right on the eve of an affair of his heart, too – would in all probability be tied up in the Hawaiian probate court for a whole year. Since he had not asked Cadwallader for any receipt for it, and had no evidence even that he had loaned it to Cadwallader; had even destroyed the original bill of sale to himself – and the Jew who had sold the skull to him was dead.

Besides, so he wrote – as I found by wringing his salt tears out of the pages every few minutes – his precious skull might even be switched. In which case, deus avertat – as he put it! – its luck would be gone. Or Mrs. Cadwallader, who had inherited all of Cadwallader’s property, might even refuse to give it up. I couldn’t help but grin as I saw the jam our fine Chicago mystery novelist was in! For I could see with half an eye myself that, if that secret studio ever were unearthed, it sure would make a news story; since the skull and composition in it – identified by the letters roughly blocked in on the canvas in charcoal, for advertising Tillary’s book – would tie up two world-famous men; the skull and composition would, in short, be the big pictorial feature of the story; and, when that story was published all around the U.S.A. it would mean that Tillary’s neighbour on Fullerton Parkway who had lost that skull – and who perhaps all through the years had half-suspected Tillary – would doubtless send for enlarged news photographs of it, identify it as his stolen one – for doubtless he knew his own curio well, since all skulls are individual, to say the least – and so Mr. Tillary Steevens would be in a hot spot on Fullerton Parkway, Chicago, trying to explain where he’d got a stolen skull.

Fortunately, as Tillary went on to explain, Cadwallader, in discussing keys with him – specifically, whether to use a key in the composition – had detached from a curious ring one there, thus and thus, and decided in the negative. But the upshot was that Cadwallader had rushed off ultimately without the key, though still possessing its duplicate.

And so, suggested friend Tillary generously, since the hideaway studio hadn’t been located yet – and very likely might not be for months – wouldn’t I just step into it, while in Honolulu, with the enclosed key, sequester his lucky skull, and bring it back as soon as I came back to the U.S.A.– which he understood was to be soon. Indeed, he assured me graciously, he was actually slipping me in advance that $150 that I could be assured of getting to Honolulu on my personal business. And $250 more was mine when I got back and shipped his lucky fetish to him C.O.D.

Poor ass! He thought he was talking to John G. Sucker himself, whereas the real facts were, as deduced from his story to me, and Sam’s much earlier one, that Tillary was in danger of being branded as a common thief – and that $400 was a cheap price to hop off such a spot!

At the end of his letter, incidentally, Tillary requested that I return his epistle to him, as he would not wish to be known as one with such childish superstitions.

And return his letter I did, since I didn’t need that letter – for my purpose. For it looked like my long-awaited hour was at hand, to strike! Maybe, that is – and if!

For grandfather, unfortunately for my plan, had also written an ingenious mystery novel called The Lucky Skull of Sanchez the Bandit. And if, for some reason, Tillary had doped out by his fool numerology or something that his louse-infested nobody in Mexico, of whom I’d seen a couple of brief and scant mentions in one or two California papers, prior to my coming to ‘Frisco and losing my accommodation, to the extent that had – say – the spring of next year to set all Mexico into a turmoil, Tillary would be more than certain to spring that novel next so that its appearance would be “hot stuff” – and the world would as usual say: “How does the Great Steevens do it? A world event occurs – and he has a novel about it. Hail – Steevens!” Again, his numerology might inform him that the louse-infested gentleman didn’t have a Chinaman’s chance at a Hodcarriers’ Ball in Brooklyn. In short, if I were to find on that still-life dais in that hideaway studio in Honolulu a skull composition, with a Mex sombrero atop the skull – and various other local colour touches – I would know definitely then that grandfather’s The Lucky Skull of Sanchez the Bandit – though under probably some other title cooked up by Tillary – was next, and that The State of Maryland versus William Lucullus had been set over to the fall – maybe even to the alternate possible year, three years later, But, if the props on that dais were set up so as to conform indisputably with the story of one Mr. William Lucullus, who is tried for murder in Maryland for at least 40,000 words in the 75,000 word script concerning him! – I could swiftly begin to draw together the threads of my web for smashing Tillary Steevens – and putting at least $50,000 to $70,000 of his stolen money into my own pocket. Into my pocket and Sam’s, to be exact.

So I went to Honolulu. To have a look at that hideaway studio!

CHAPTER XIX


AUSSIE – UNBELIEVER!


BUT I didn’t spend Tillary’s $150 to get to Honolulu. Money was scarce with me just then. I merely ensconced myself, with a gripsack containing all of my possessions, a bundle of concentrated grub and plenty of pint flasks of water, down in the lower hold of the Malola. How I did it – well, simple enough. Cape Town Slim had taught me all the tricks that a boxman might ever need, in that old cell in South America. I even had company across! A chap named “Aussie.” That is, he was an Australian – trying to get back to Australia – and after we sized each other up by our mutual electric pocket torches and saw that we were in the same boat in more ways than one, we made first and final agreement on what our names were going to be, and those names were “Jerry” and “Aussie.”

And our introduction there, in the black lower hold of the Malola, was my first intimation that what that damned drug clerk on Sutter Street assured me would happen had happened! My sight accommodation had returned! For, standing off from Aussie only a couple of feet, and by my electric pocket torch only, I could see every freckle – even the tiniest – in his face.

But! – by God! – before we got a full day out, if I didn’t find out that the fellow was a rabid Steevens fan. Thought Steevens the greatest writer in the world. Had read all his books, either the Australian or American editions, and furthermore raved over them, actually slopped over them. I stood it silently – as long as I could, but on the day before we landed, after a long spiel by him as to what a brain Steevens must have, I finally had to burst.

“Listen, ‘bo,” I bit out, “this guy you rave about happens to be a damned stinking sneak-thief – so low that he’d have to use a telescope to view the underside of a bed-bug. And every one of these novels you’ve been raving about he stole from my grandfather.”

And Aussie showed for the first time that he had a bit of a temper.

“You lying American swine,” he came back. “You’re either a sneaking, filthy mud-slinger – or else you’re heading straight for a nut house in Honolulu.’ Steevens is too damned brilliant to have to steal a lousy novel.”

I was tempted then and there to swing on him – even though he was six and a half feet high and about 200 pounds in build – but I knew that we’d both be heard fighting and would be shipped back to the States in irons on the next boat.

“Oh yeah?” was all I said, my fingers clenched. “Listen. Lamp this.” And by the light of the last new dry batteries I’d just put in my pocket torch, I showed Aussie grandfather’s manuscript from out my gripsack. Let him, in fact, read in full not only the title-page, but the whole first three pages of the story itself, “W-we-e-ll?” he said, looking up, and a bit bewildered. “By God – but that does start out just – just exactly like a Steevens novel.”
I put the light out. For we didn’t waste pocket batteries down there.

“Don’t it?” I said sarcastically. “And yet you saw that it was notarized fifty years ago? However, Aussie, don’t wrinkle your tired British brain over this deep puzzle. Just watch the newspapers back in dear old Australia – about February, more or less, next year. At which time your Tillary Steevens – as a novelist – will belong to the ages.– In fact, he’ll be part of the great history of fraud.”

“All right, matey,” he said, and I could hear him still scratching his head in the dark. “I’ll do all that.” And added, a bit disgruntedly: “In fact, accept my apology in advance, matey – if you’re telling the truth; but if you’re just casting dirt against that wonderful brain what writes those stories – then you’re a dog who eats other dogs’ heels.”

“I’m not,” I said, controlling myself. “Just watch and wait. For certain evidence that’s being gathered here, there, and everywhere, this year, will make a news story that will reach even your ‘Bush.’“

At which, we promptly forgot our quarrel and became friends again.

At Honolulu we managed to sneak off the boat without any trouble. We looked like second-class passengers. A huge convention, it seems, was opening in Honolulu, and the boat, filled to bursting with people, was trying to vomit them forth before dark fell. I parted from Aussie somewhere up and beyond the docks, shook hands – and wished him good luck.

Night had definitely fallen before I got into the business section. And when I stoked myself in a little hole-in-the-wall cafe with the first decent meal I’d had for four days, I started out to make Makawao Street. It sounded plenty new to me – as new, even, as some Kamahameha Park that I saw pictured on a civic poster stuck up on the wall of the eating joint. No less than a native copper showed me what street car to take, and how long to stay on it, to get near to where I wanted to go. And Number 273 Makawao Street, as I was to find out, lay not only out in hell-and-gone – but a little farther I For I had to ride that Toonerville trolley clear to the end – get off, walk along a practically unbuilt street, and finally find a huge desolate flat carrying three lonely looking bungalows, all practically the same in appearance, one at each end of the flat and one in the middle. Queer-looking bungalows they were, too; the second story of each one being only about one large room in size, set ‘way back from the front of the house, and having three huge tall windows facing north. That sure smelled “artist” all right I The bungalows had green shutters, all of them, at least on the lower front windows, and a cupola over each threshold. A sign on the near corner of the fiat caught the nearest street light, and read “Honolulu Heights.” And, judging {rom the number on the near bungalow, Number 273 was going to be the one on the other end!

I trudged on. Along a narrow sidewalk. Walked up on the steps of that far bungalow. The place was all dark. I rang and rang – for safety’s sake. Took a careful look behind me – the nearest house was on the opposite side of the next street north – open country all around. it, too. So I tried my key. The door opened, and in I went. I closed the door, groped for the push-button, and snapped on the lights.

The whole first floor was empty and deserted, but a curiously curving stairway to the right of the hall led straight up to that set-back second story. Quickly I snapped off the lights again. Afraid, a bit, of that lone house facing this one, a block away. I creaked my way up the stairway, found a push-button just as I rounded its top, and snapped the lights on in this upstairs place.

And I knew, as the lights went on, that I had Tillary Steevens!

For the huge room, painted roughly in soft-toned violet paint, and carpeted with only a thick straw rug, was an artist’s studio. At least an improvised studio. The three big high windows which, on this set-back second story, faced the north – and open country – from the front of the house were now, thanks to the turning of the staircase, just behind me. And on a raised dais, not eight feet from where I stood in that stairway egress, was a complete still-life composition for grandfather’s Astronomical Murder. To its left stood a huge canvas on a heavy vertical easel, with tubes of paint, and brushes, along the rack in front of it; though not a line of the picture had yet been done on the canvas. It carried, at most, just a few experimental daubs along the bottom, representing apparently trials for colour combinations.

Those three huge windows practically behind my left shoulder had drawn shades, I noted in an instant. Even as I also noted that a single other window, small and high up on the wall on the opposite side of the room, was covered tightly with some kind of black cheesecloth, tacked closely about all four edges of the frame, for the reason no doubt that the small bit of southern light which might come in from it should not interfere with the vast amount of northern light from the three big windows opposite, But, covering or no covering, and shades or no shades, I had no intention whatever of keeping those lights on. For the occupants of that lone house, far north, might get to wondering why this place was lighted up after long darkness. Even as the occupants of some cottage, somewhere perhaps to the south, might also see signs of life through the black cheesecloth covering up that small high-up southern window. But even standing there as I did, with my hand drawing ever closer to that push-button, I could, as I have said, see that the composition, on the dais was, plainly, to represent a court’s exhibit. Against one, William Lucullus.

For its centremost feature was a skull, with its back towards the viewer – which included myself! – and sitting apparently on a loose jawbone to which it was tied with flaming crimson cord. A jagged hole was bashed in its brain-pan, and, above the hole, on the skull’s rounded surface, the letters M vs L stood strongly out in jet black. That meant “Maryland versus Lucullus.” A vicious pick, without handle, lay close to the left of the skull, while to its right a stack of apparent paper money stood. The insurance motive!

Indeed, the whole story of grandfather’s script lay right in that picture! A damned good layout, too. And then and there and at once I snapped out those lights. Using the glow through the shades with which the room was dimly lighted, I realized for the first time that the full moon must be coming up on the horizon facing those windows. So along that wall of endows I slid, drawing the shades up, one by one, to their fullest extent. And the room was lighted – and becoming ever more so! – by the hugest Hawaiian moon I ever saw coming up over a horizon.

And by the light of that rapidly rising moon alone, I proceeded to do the most important thing I was there for – to “sequester”– as Tillary had so aptly put it – that skull and jawbone! I found two sheets of heavy wrapping paper in a corner of the room; and, groping on a shelf looking down on the easel, found a ball of heavy cord. Without even loosing the cord that bound skull to jawbone in the composition – and working solely on the lighted area of the floor – I made a compact and stout squarish package, tied this way and that way, knotted at all the junctions, and with a handloop to boot, by which it could have been carried across Siberia – if needs be. By the time I finished my package, the moonlight was so strong that one could have played solitaire with a midget deck on the floor. Strong enough, in fact, for me to find out that the money that had stood to the right of the skull was all stage money – except the top bill. Which – as the moon continued swiftly to rise, so that two people could have played dominoes in the room – was a $50 bill! I need not say that I left that precious note to encumber the already probated estate of Birch Cadwallader.

Nor even, in fact, did I leave the place at all. For now, plentiful with moonlight as it was, I saw that it was as fine a place to kip in overnight as could ever be found. For I was dog-tired – and hadn’t yet forgotten that Toonerville trolley that one had to return to downtown Honolulu on. And besides – on the first night a big liner docked, the local Charlie Chans would be smelling around all the downtown flophouses and hotels, while to-morrow the heat would be off.

Now that I had all my light from the outside, I took a real good look over the place. A soft leather couch stood against the south wall – which was the thing, in fact, which first caused me to decide to remain there. A pair of bright Indian blankets – probably used once as backgrounds for some painting – lay folded up at its head. A lone calendar tacked on the wall just below that small high-up southern-facing window showed that Cadwallader, defunct, hadn’t been in his studio at least since August. The top leaf of that calendar, moreover – at least its bottom margin – showed two interesting things: First, that Birch Cadwallader might have had more than a faint premonition of his death from heart disease; and second, that any fears Tillary might have expressed to me that he could not legally claim his property were quite unfounded. For that bottom margin bore words scrawled across it in jet-black grease pencil. Words on which I focused, for the few seconds required, the beam of my dying flash lamp so as to supplement the moonlight on them and get them correctly. And they ran:

In case of death or accident to me, skull and jawbone in this studio were entrusted to me by Tillary Steevens, Chicago, and are his property. BIRCH CADWALLADER.

Of course I left the calendar sheet exactly as it was. For it would bear out that this skull and jawbone which I was taking away had actually been there. And I went on looking about. I found a closet full of artists’ props, some helmets, lances, drapes, eden a piece – I believe – of bright new machinery. Three clean white shirts – my size, too – hung on a rack nailed to the inside of the closet door. The shelf – over which I had groped for the string provided nothing but a packet of cigarettes, a stack of blank sheets of stationery, engraved Birch Cadwallader, Hawaiian Trust Building, Honolulu,– Hawaii, and two blank American-government-stamped envelopes. I appropriated two of the sheets on which to write Tillary certain things – and both of the envelopes. In one corner of the room, near a small washbasin which had running water, was a single gas ring with coffee-pot – and a can of coffee, one-third full, sat back of the ring. It looked now a million per cent. certain that J. Hammond had a hotel room – all made to order for him.

I slept the sleep of the dead that night. And rose at the grey of dawn. And – as I rose, one of the many Welsh superstitions with which grandmother had impregnated my soul – in the long ago – descended on me with full force – and enveloped me completely. No less a one, in fact, than the one she had proclaimed – moreover proved! – the day that Tillary had broken into our house. “If one buries the key to the house one leaves – neither man nor beast nor ghost will break in during one’s absence.” And so “bury the key “of Cadwallader’s bungalow, in exact accordance with grandmother’s occult – and generally always proved – theories – was just what I now intended to do! For, superstition or not, there was no use in having Tillary reading reports of my mission in newspapers before he should receive from me by mail a very special report. And so, with a short bit of string, I tied the key of the place to that iron pick – for, on the way to this third bungalow last night, I had seen more than one puddle hole half-filled with brackish water, whose mud, I figured, could close over this bit of notched steel for good and for all, and satisfy every term of grandmother’s and her ancestor’s equation! And, with this done, I washed up – shaved with the safety razor from my bag – put on one of Birch’s clean shirts, made a potful of coffee, and with the emergency box of the graham crackers in my gripsack, breakfasted like John D. Rockefeller. And by the time the sun was coming up, I slipped out into the lonely street, grip-sack in one hand – wrapped-up and tied-up skull under that arm – and iron pick in the other.

What to do now, I asked myself, as I tossed the heavy pick into one particularly generously sized mudhole not far from the sidewalk, and heard it gurgle downward, clear to China apparently. What to do? I had about $200 cash now in my hip pocket. $202.32, to be exact. And, under my left arm, still further evidence that would turn out to be a link in the web that would prove Tillary Steevens to be a stealer of a dead man’s brains and genius. For I had no intention, of course, of sending the skull back to him. Much less of even letting him know it had been there in the Makawao Street artist’s hideout.

So, after jouncing back downtown, I made an inquiry or two, and with my street-car transfer rode on – till I got to the new park I’d seen blazoned on that restaurant placard – Kamehameha Park. Where, knew, I would be free to sit on a bench while the local Charlie Chans looked over downtown Honolulu for dips, heisters and lemon men fresh from the U.S.A.– and plan my plans – exactly what fakealoo to hand Tillary – and all – in solitude and safety.

And there, ironically enough, I met the girl I had always loved most in life, whom I always will love!

CHAPTER XX


THE THREADS OF THE PAST


FROM the night when I had said good-bye to my Princess under the stars, up to that day when I walked into Kamehameha Park, romance and love had played no part in my life. The nearest I came to it was when Carmen de Alvarado had offered me herself and a presidency, though I had met with many other chances for forgetfulness of that youthful love. But I could not forget, for, as I said once before, I am one of the few men who are made that way. At times I had been prosperous in my career as cracksman, and had every chance with women of every sort – though I found, as is commonly stated, that that sort of money never stays, and my periods of prosperity had often been followed by near-starvation. And, because I was what I was, one who lived in fear of discovery by the police time and again – though I was never even suspected – for a time I gave up the idea of ever going back to see if the Princess had remembered. Then, with this chance of beating Steevens and making an honest competency by exposing him, the thought had come to me again that, with at least $50,000 of clean money in my hands, I might go back to find her and win her for my own.

And there, sitting on a bench that I was about to pass in Kamehameha Park, was the girl of my dreams, just as beautiful as when I had known her in the long ago, just as much to me – at sight of her, I knew, even more to me than she had been in our early youth. I stood looking down at her, amazed and incredulous, and she gazed up at me.

“Jerry!” she said at last. “Imagine meeting you here!”

“And you too, Princess,” I said, and dropped down on the seat beside her, putting down my baggage on the other side. “Hawaii,” I added, “surely is the fairyland the travel agencies say it is, since one finds dreams come true in it. But – but what are you doing here?”

For I’d caught sight of the ring on her left hand that told me I had found her again too late. And, with that, the sunshine paled for me, and I knew how deeply set the dream of ending her free and winning her for my own had been. The sight of that ring changed life for me, and I could see by her eyes as she gazed at me that she knew I had seen it. Something in her look, too – the gladness at meeting me, I think it was – said that she had remembered, in spite of the ring and what it meant. For a long while – it seemed a long while to me – she sat silent.

“I’d better tell you all of it, Jerry,” she said at last.

“There’s no need, my dear,” I told her rather bitterly. “The fact is plain enough – why state the details of how it happened.”

“Oh, Jerry, you used not to be bitter!” she pleaded. “Listen – you married before I did – I’d have waited all my life, if –”

“Stop there!” I interrupted her. “Married before you did? What fool’s tale is this, when I’ve never married at all – never thought of or looked at another woman to love her since you and I said good-bye.”

“Jerry!” she exclaimed. “Is that true? Didn’t you – but I saw the newspaper clipping, and it was you. They gave particulars–”

“Now wait,” I interrupted her again, no longer willing that she should hold back any of the details of this mix-up. “Just begin at the beginning, the night I said good-bye to you – if you remember it–”

“Remember it?” she interrupted in turn. “I’ve never forgotten! I’ve never – but I’ll tell you all of it, since you ask.”

And, pausing only to collect the facts in her mind, she told me all that had happened after my college career was broken and I had to go away from her and all the other prospects I had seen till that day. Of her father’s death, her mother’s increasing illness, and of how Wally had come to her and shown her the newspaper account of my marriage –

“Have you got that account anywhere?” I stopped her to ask then.

“Why, yes.” She opened her bag and took out an elastic-banded package of old letters and the like. “I brought these with me, because I didn’t feel it would be safe to leave them – only old things that one treasures because of the times they represent.” She chose out a badly worn slip, cracking at its folds, and handed it to me, and first I read it, saw my own fictitious wedding, and then saw how it had been done – never printed on a machine at all, but hand-pulled in a proof press and then trimmed off to look like a real news item, with the name of the supposed newspaper, a San Francisco sheet, and the supposed date of the event written in at the top.

“Didn’t it strike you,” I asked, “that if this had been a real cutting from a paper, it was a bit odd that my incomplete college course should have been mentioned in it? That’s hardly the sort of thing the bride’s people would be likely to advertise, is it?”

“I – I never thought of that,” she confessed after a pause. “I – it hurt me so much, Jerry, so soon after you had promised, and I’d promised, too. No, I never thought to question it.”

“Wally’s own work, beyond doubt,” I said. “Look here – far too much width on this side for another column to run down beside it in any newspaper. Too much space left at the top and bottom for it to fit into any news column, and –” I turned it over – “if newspapers were printed like this, they’d never be whole sheets. See the way the letters are pressed through the paper – and, most telling of all, you see there is no print of any kind on the back of the cutting, No newspaper runs sheets blank on one side, don’t you see?”

She looked at the paper, and then again at me, with trouble in her eyes.

“But go on,” I bade her. “I suppose Wally did this in order to get you for himself – and in the end he did get you, eh?”

She went on with her story, told me how Wally had, been all chivalry and considerateness both to her and her invalid mother. How in the end she had consented to marry him, believing that I had married and forgotten her, and how, on their wedding day, Wally had been turned from a healthy, athletic youngster to a helpless cripple, condemned to lie on his back for the rest of his life, and since that day she had been no more than nurse to an invalid whose brain was the only part of his anatomy that could function actively as before the accident.

“Then, in the full sense, you’re not his wife?” I asked her.

“Nor ever have been,” she told me. “Just – just as you left me, Jerry. And so it must be to the end – his end, which may come any day, and again may not come till I’m quite old.”

“But there’s a hope, at least,” I reflected.

She put her hand on mine. “No, Jerry – it would be wrong to hope – it would be hoping for his death. And that’s utterly wrong.”

“But it’s a mere mockery of life for you, tied to a man like that,” I urged. “You can’t waste all your life like that. And if he knew you still cared for me – do you still care for me, Princess?”

Her eyes answered me before she said – “You know, without asking.”

“Then if he knew – if you went to him and told him –”

“You don’t know him,” she broke in, “or you would not say that. He has told me – not for anything on earth would he divorce me, and you must see it’s impossible for me to divorce him. No court would grant it, especially since I’ve been apparently content with my life for so long. I have no cause – no outward cause, that is.”

“How do you mean that, no outward cause?” I asked.

“Only that when I’m alone with him he sometimes reminds me of all he’s done for me – how he made the end of my mother’s life easy for her and gives me all I want – as long as I do all he asks.”

“And what does he ask?” I questioned, inwardly damning a man who could remind her of her obligations, while he held her tied from any real happiness, as obviously he did, by her story.

“Just that – you see, when his father died, he inherited all the business, and it’s a big and fiourishing one, too,” she explained. “I practically run it for him – under his instructions, of course. That’s why I’m here, Jerry, except that I stayed a few days longer than I needed, as a rest from the perpetual peevishness I have to endure while I’m with him. You – you can never know what my life has been.”

I picked up my belongings, and she gave me a fearful look.

“Oh, Jerry, you’re not running away from me, are you?” she begged. “You’re not angry with me for all I’ve told you, sorely?”

“Not that at all, Princess,” I said, and saw the colour come back into her dear, lovely face as she – heard me. “No, but we’re in everybody’s view here on this seat, and someone might come along and recognize you talking to me, or even recognize me talking to you. Let’s go and find some place a little more out of the world’s eye.”

We moved to one of the little semi-enclosed bowers that dot Kamehameha Park. A little nook, covered with vines, and a single rustic bench inside which gave room for the two of us – plenty of room, from my point of view, since she was the one with me. And here we talked and talked and talked, until it was time for her to go to her hotel. Of myself, now, since she had told me all her story. I had to make mine as I told it, for not for the world would I have let her know all that my life had been since my incomplete training in dentistry had broken off and I had had to say good-bye to her after the party and the mock marriage between us that Phil Dottworth had conducted.

I told her all the tale of my South American adventures – except, of course, that I missed out my training in safe-cracking by Cape Town Slim. There was no word of safes in all the story, in fact. Her eyes sparkled as I told of the capture of Gonzales and Carmen’s offer of her father’s place and herself, and I saw them grow soft and happy when I told her that the thought of her had kept me from accepting the offer, while her hand stole out to find mine and stayed there. She had no more forgotten nor ceased to care than I had, I knew now.

I went on to tell her of my trapping days, spinning the story out to keep her with me. All that could be revealed of my life to anyone she learned that day, and, to account for my presence there with her, I explained myself as a salesman travelling for firms dealing in structural steel. In that capacity I had come over to Honolulu, with no more baggage than she saw there beside me, to close a deal. But, I was careful to add, l had been dissatisfied with my employment and had wired my resignation, while I intended to go back to the States by the next Matson liner to leave – on the following day – and see about a new and better post that had been offered me before I left. In the fiction of my life as it was here and now, I was as fertile of invention as my grandfather had been when he wrote those stories that brought wealth to Tillary Steevens – and not one word of Tillary was there in my tale.

“Then you’re not compelled to go to-morrow,” she asked, after I had ended my story and she had thought it over for a brief while.

“No,” I answered. “It isn’t really compulsory, though – but why do you ask, Princess? What could I gain by staying.”

“It’s – it’s selfish of me,” she said hesitatingly, “but I wasn’t thinking of what you would gain. I was thinking of myself, Jerry – how you kept your loyalty to our promise, and how terribly I wish I’d kept mine, now I see you again. And – a day or two out of all the years –”

“You mean –?” I asked – with my arm round her now, for the arbour sheltered us, and there was nobody to see.

“To meet, and talk – to see you, Jerry –” she said.

I took her quite close to me, and she did not resist. Some part of the dream of years had come true for us, though we knew we could not realize it all, and there in the little vine-covered solitude she clung to me as I held her, and so wakened all the longing there was in us both. Then, breathless, she disengaged herself from my hold.

“I must go, Jerry dear,” she said. “There are still things to be done – the things I came here to do. But – just a day or two –?”

“To-morrow, in any case,” I said. There were plenty of boats, I knew, and one more day with her – she did not want it more than I did.

I went out from the park with her, and, later, found me a cheap room for the night. There, sleeping little, I questioned why I had acceded to her request. To meet again like that would only add to the emptiness of the future after we had parted. And yet she was – still is – so dear that refusal was impossible, though I knew it would have been better for us both if I had refused. Love is like that, unreasoning, unescapeable, and I had the repression and waiting of years behind me.

We met quite early that next day, and talked and talked again of – what is it that lovers talk, when they are as near to each other in thought and wish as were we two? Some part of the time we managed to forget everything but our two selves, and she was her old, laughing, happy self, the girl of my dreams back here with me. Again we would remember that all this was just one little moment of happiness in an otherwise empty eternity of separateness from each other.

“Oh, my dear, the terrible mistake I made!” she said. “That I didn’t marry you, or at least engage myself to you, in the time when we knew each other, and wait for you.”

“Not that, darling,” I told her. “It’s not your mistake that condemns us to say good-bye again and go our ways, but Wally’s deceit in telling you I was married. We can blame him for it all.”

And then I lost all restraint, took her in my arms and begged her to forget him and risk life with me, But she would not.

“No,” she said. “I can’t, Jerry – it would be a spoilt happiness, though as you say he is to blame. But – his helplessness, his dependence on me for every. thing, even to managing his business for him as I do – Don’t you see – I must go on? Oh, it isn’t that I must be true to him, but to myself! It’s my path, and I must follow it.”

She was right, of course, and only a moment of returning sanity was enough to show me that the course I had proposed was impossible. Until I should have beaten Tillary Steevens and forced what I wanted from him, there could be no real future for us, even if she had acceded to my plea. My hand-to-mouth life, with its crib-cracking necessities, was not one that I had any right to ask her to share.

“But we have these hours,” she said, “have them for always. Nothing can ever spoil the memory of them for me, my dear.”

“Few – all too few,” I said. “Just to-day – perhaps to-morrow, and then to have nothing but the memory. Princess, life owes us more than that! Wally has cheated us – is all life to cheat us of each other?”

She just gave me the quaint, adorable smile that she knew how to summon up, and shelved the question in her own way.

“Jerry, I’d give half a world to say it shouldn’t – you know I would. But just for now – we’ve been here hours, and I’m getting terribly hungry. I know it’s practical and not a bit romantic, but – aren’t you just a little bit hungry, too? Do say you are.”

I had not thought of it, but I found that I was. We went out from the park, and found a little restaurant where we had a really sumptuous lunch, though I forget all of it now, and know only that she faced me while I ate. Then we went back to the park, found our arbour empty as we had left it, since it was in one of the least-frequented parts, and all the while a resolve was growing in my mind. I felt that, since we had actually met again, fate and Wally between them should not cheat us of each other altogether. There was, I felt sure, a way out of that.

“Princess,” I asked her, “when do you go back to the States?”

“When I like,” she answered. “That was why I dared to suggest your missing the boat to-day, and giving the time to me. I can go to-morrow if you are not here – next week, any time. As long as I go back. If I get back to Wally in a month from now, it will be time enough. But I must go in the end – understand that, Jerry. It’s no use your trying to persuade me – I must go back to him in the end, because he is what he is, a helpless cripple dependent on me and knowing I won’t fail him.”

“You won’t, for all that he can ask of you,” I said. “But – Princess – we’ve got one chance, and one only, probably for as long as we both shall live, to have just an interlude of that paradise fate and Wally have tried to rob from us entirely. Just one chance.”

“What do you mean, Jerry?” she asked.

“Well,” I said slowly, “I’ve got to go back to the States, and so have you. I’m going almost at once, and therefore, so are you.”

She did not answer. She looked at me, and I knew that she understood. Knew, too, that she hadn’t it in her heart to refuse.

“In such a case as ours,” I urged, “do conventions count for so much? It’s robbing nobody, harming nobody. Princess, this is our chance, just for the little time that remains before we say good-bye again – not here in Hawaii, but when we land at the end of our journey to the States. No – don’t say it’s impossible, because it isn’t.”

“You mean you’ll –” she hesitated quite a long time – “you’ll go back – back to San Francisco with me as – as” She could not end it, except with her eyes, which looked her understanding at me.

“I mean just that – for us two to go together, and grasp the little bit of happiness life offers,” I said. “For, my dear, it won’t be offered us again like this, I feel sure. We may never meet again, but we shall have had that unforgettable bit out of life, if you will.”

“Yes, I will go like that, Jerry,” she promised gravely. “Like you, I feel it’s due to us, and I’m going back to what I think is the place I ought to keep, afterward, just the same. But, my dear, how can it be done? I don’t know – perhaps it makes no difference as far as you are concerned, but if anyone who knew me were to know, recognize me while I am travelling with you like that – don’t you see? It would give him – Wally – such a hold over me that my life would be impossible from the day that he learned. I daren’t risk that.”

“Darling, I wasn’t suggesting going back with you on a liner – that would be impossible, I know, for someone in the passenger list or somebody among the crew might recognize you – in fact, fate arranges these things so that one is recognized, invariably. I think it was Mark Twain who said that if Jonah had arranged to meet his best girl inside the whale, he’d have found a score of his friends leaning against the ribs of the thing with bull’s-eye lanterns to watch the show. No, not a liner, Princess. I’m thinking for you over that part of it, for I wouldn’t care who knew what I did.” Which was not strictly true, since a good many of my enterprises would not stand daylight. Still, it was true as far as this particular project was concerned.

“Then – what will you do, Jerry?” she asked.

“I’m going to nose round after I leave you to-day,” I said, “and find some obscure little freighter, such as are always coming to Honolulu. One, for preference, that could turn its captain’s cabin into accommodation for two at need, while the captain turns in somewhere else because he’s pocketing the passage money and not booking his passengers or disclosing that he’s got any aboard. It can be done, I know.”

She sat silent a long while, weighing it from all sides, I knew, and just a little fearful – I would not have had her otherwise over it. Then she nestled close to me and smiled as she looked up.

“My chance – my little chance – for happiness,” she said wistfully. “A little interval while I belong where I want to be, and then I shall be strong enough to go back. But – but that first – yes!”

It was mid-afternoon when at last we parted, she to go and attend to the final details of the business that had brought her to Hawaii, and to pack in readiness for departure, and I to arrange the passage – or rather, to find the sort of freighter on which it would be possible to arrange such a passage as I wanted for the two of us. I know I was like a schoolboy let loose, and felt that the very top of the world was just in front of me that day. A week of paradise at least was before me, sea and sky and sun – and my Princess-mine at last. The impermanence of it, the fact that it could not last much longer than a week, and that the desolation of losing her for good was at the end of it, did not spoil my happiness then. I put it aside, out of my thoughts, and saw only the immediate future, the days with her.

But there was something to which I had to attend before beginning to look for the boat that should take us back together. I went into the lobby of an obscure hotel, after seeing through the open doorway that there was such a thing as a writing-desk inside, and on Birch Cadwallader’s stationery – though I used only one of the two sheets I had taken from the studio-bungalow, and only one of the two government-stamped two-cent envelopes – I inscribed an epistle to Tillary Steevens, after a good deal of thought as to the best story to hand to him. And this is how the letter panned out:

Dear Tillary,–

I made the place okay last night – as you can see from this piece of stationery I picked up in it. But, Tillary, there was nary sign of skull anywhere about the shebang. He undoubtedly loaned it to some other artist, and the latter is holding on to it as a useful property and keeping his mouth tight shut now that Cadwallader is dead. I’m damned sorry, I’ll tell the world, for I sure do need your $250 bonus badly – in fact, far more than you really need this skull, since it’s only because you want to push past a hoodoo that you want it at all. Returning in a couple of days via Matson line. Will look you up if my way takes me through Chicago, as it will sooner or later.

Jerry.

After I had sealed and posted that communication, I went out again and, for a start, bought me a cheap but new outfit of clothes, throwing away most of those I’d had on, since the trip sub rosa with my Australian pal on the Malola had got them to the state when a, garbage heap would think twice before giving them a really hearty reception. In fact, when I came to give what I had taken off the once-over, I wondered how it happened that my Princess had let herself recognize me in such an outfit, except that I knew she had looked at the man and not at what he was wearing. Then I went off in my new rig-out, found exactly the boat I wanted, to find, and managed to arrange the passage for the two of us. In other words, I squared the, captain of that boat, and there were no questions about names, or why two of us wanted to travel like that when liners galore were at hand, or, in fact, any questions at all. Money talked, as it always does and the captain went dumb.

By six o’clock that evening I was back in Kamehameha Park, where I had arranged to meet my Princess and tell her what news I might have. She listened, grave-eyed, while I explained what I had done, and then gave a happy little laugh as she realized all that was before us.

“And you’ll call for me at my hotel?” she asked – which proved how childishly ignorant she was of all that might be involved in such an adventure as this which now lay before us two.

“I will not, darling,” I told her. “Just suppose an old friend of your school days – or any other sort of friend or acquaintance who knew you – blew into the far distance as we went away together, and then looked in at the hotel to find out when you would be back, and discovered you were not coming back at all? And then that same old school friend – or any other sort of friend – went off and burbled to Wally that you’d obviously left Honolulu the best part of a fortnight before you landed in ‘Frisco, and had last been seen with a strange man at that? How does a situation of that sort strike you?”

“Of course, it was silly of me to think of such a thing,” she answered with a thoughtful frown. “Then what – what do I do? You do want me to make this trip with you, don’t you?”

I held her close to answer. That ignorance of the world’s ways, that naivete I found in her just as much now as in the far-back days when we had been boy and girl together, made her very dear to me.

“Darling, I tell you it’s all planned, passages booked – no, arranged, though, not booked – for the two of us, and not a chance of a soul ever getting to know how we went back from here, or that we ever did get back, let alone made the trip together. No, all I want you to do is to get a porter or someone of the sort to tote your baggage, and meet me just one hundred yards on the far side of the customs house from your hotel. I’ll be waiting there till you turn up, and see to all the rest, darling. You’ll have nothing more to worry about.”

“Except –” she gave me a pout and then a smile with the reminder – “you haven’t told me what time the porter and I are to be there.”

“Oh, that’s all set,” I said, and laughed. “Just have your dinner at the hotel, and you’ll find me waiting at half-past eight – waiting very anxiously, too, in case something should happen at the last minute to spoil things for us. Not that I can think of anything that can.”

For a few minutes more we talked together – things that concerned only our two selves, and have no place here. I remember her as a bit grave just then, as if the magnitude of all that we contemplated, all that it might mean if some chance should bring it to the knowledge of others, were in her thoughts, behind the things she said. And at the last she put her arm about my shoulders as we sat and looked straight into my eyes a look that lives in my memory.

“My dear,” she said, “I’m trusting myself to you for this time before us, because I feel that somehow’ life has cheated us two – cheated us of each other in the way we wanted. So we’re going to cheat in our turn, make this little interlude out of life to last us all the rest of time as we shall know it, Quite out of life – something apart to keep as our secret, because – because I love you so, my dear.”

Words could not answer that, nor did they, but I know my reply contented her. Then we went back, out from the little arbour – I have never seen it since she to go to her hotel and I to wait for the time of meeting in a sort of desperate anxiety that I had never known in life before. Supposing – supposing that at this very last something should go wrong, rob us of all that we had planned?

Eight o’clock, let alone half-past, found me waiting at the appointed place. The custom house cut off the view of my Princess’s hotel, and I did not want to make myself conspicuous by getting to a point of vantage to wait for the first sight of her. Instead, I lurked in the shadows – it was not yet moonrise – and thus at the very last minute, almost, the thing I feared nearly happened. Yet not the thing I feared, for my fears had had no shape, and what did happen was totally unexpected: all my thoughts were concentrated on my Princess and her coming to me, not on things near at hand.

Someone came at me from behind, out of the deeper shadows, and was on me before I had any warning of an impending attack. I sensed a big black man as I went down under his weight, and managed to turn over to grapple with him, half-dazed though I was with the suddenness of it. I smelt him, an evil smell, as he tried to get a grip on my throat, and I thought to go for his eyes, at which he got me by the wrists. We rolled over and over in the dust there – I think, at first sight of me, he judged that the difference between his weight and mine would give him an easy victory, but he did not know what I had at stake, or what it would mean if he outed me and my Princess did not find me waiting.

I fought him as I have never fought before or since, with teeth and feet and knees as well as fists and arms. Yet it was a very near thing, for surprise had given him the advantage over me at the outset. Five minutes or less of breathless, silent, desperate struggle, and then he got a grip on my throat and grunted a vicious satisfaction. At that I relaxed, foxing, for I knew that if he kept his hold only for half a minute my Princess would never find me, and he half-lifted himself, still keeping the stranglehold, to kneel beside me. Then came my chance. My knee took him in the stomach, and he loosed his hold and rolled a yard away from me, winded and beaten.

I was on him at once, pounding him in the stomach – his muscles there must have been undeveloped, though he had mighty shoulders and arms. Less than ten minutes from his attack on me, I stood over him as he lay prostrate, and waited for him to get breath enough to speak.

“Now, you hound, what was the idea?” I demanded.

“Boss,” he wheezed out weakly, “I’se starvin’, starvin’ in de midst ob plenty, an’ I guessed happen I’d git a dollar.”

“Why the hell couldn’t you ask for the dollar?” I queried, half-inclined to laugh at such a fool, now that he was no longer dangerous.

“I ast an’ ast, boss, an’ nobuddy gib me a cent. An’ I’se des’ famished, boss, desprit’. I doan’ mean no harm, I doan’.”

“No, it felt as if you didn’t when you jumped on me.” I fished up a dollar, in spite of being attacked like that. “Here –” I dropped it on his chest – “go off and get a feed, where and how you like, and count yourself lucky I don’t land you on a course of free board and lodging at government expense. Get up and get to hell out of here.”

“Boss –” he sat up and grabbed the dollar – “yo’ sho’ is de whitest white man I ebber tried to slug, an’ I sho’ prays fer yo’ at meetin’ nex’ Sunday, ef it’s de las’ act. Yassuh, an’ I goes on a-prayin’ fer yo arter dat, too, an’ hopes I meets yo’ some udder time when I got a dollar to gib back to yo’. Kase I’se honest, I is.”

“Then I’ll hope the next nigger I meet isn’t,” I told him, “if this is the way honest ones act in these islands. Now hoof it, quick.”

I watched him scramble to his feet – watched carefully, lest his honesty should prompt him to have another go at me in the hope of a second dollar. But he merely said – “De good Lawd bless yo’, boss,” and shambled off, still bent a little as effect of the terrific pounding in the stomach I had given him. When he was clear away, I looked at the custom house clock, visible from where I stood, and saw with my heart in my boots that it already marked a quarter of nine o’clock!

Something had gone wrong at my Princess’s end, then. I dusted off my clothes with my hands as best I could after that scuffle with the big black, and prepared to go along to the hotel, for time was getting short. Fortunately, my suit was not torn, only soiled by the dry, sandy dust, which would easily brush out. I started for the hotel, only to see the Princess coming into sight from beyond the custom bouse, and, following her, the porter carrying her baggage.

“I couldn’t get a man to carry the things for ever so long,” she greeted me. “I was beginning to be afraid I should have to come along with nothing at all or else miss the boat – and you.”

“As long as you’re here, nothing else matters,” I answered.

“But – but what has happened to you?” she asked, noting my dishevelled state, and a scratch down my cheek of which I was unaware myself.

“It’ll keep till we get aboard,” I said. “Something which – well, a dollar’s worth of trouble, call it. Let’s go, and I’ll tell you later. If that boat should sail without us

She asked no more, but followed me along the quayside until I went aboard, and, following her, the porter dumped her belongings just beyond the ship end of the gangplank and went his way. And there we were, embarked at last on the great adventure we had planned.

And, just as the big Hawaiian moon rose above the peaceful waters of the Pacific, two persons, a Princess and a cracksman, sailed for the States together, the only two white people aboard the Chinese freighter, Ning-Wha.

CHAPTER XXI


LOVE UNDER A PACIFIC MOON


THE Ning-Wha had quarters for but two couples – if necessary. Though, of course, we were the only couple sailing on her. The Captain, one Tsung Fok, who spoke fairish English, had proved finally willing to take the $150 remaining in my clothes. The fare on that ancient snail of a boat shouldn’t actually have been over $50 for the pair of us I But it cost me as much as first-class passage on any of the Matson liners. The reason? – well, all I could figure was that Tsung Pok was certain that he was transporting some couple, one or both of whom was in some serious legal trouble – and so fixed his price accordingly. In fact, he hadn’t been at first even willing to listen at all. But he finally capitulated when he and I got above a hundred dollars in our bargaining. For Chinese captains, after all, have mortgages on their boats and their homes, and have sailors to pay.

And so here the Princess and I were. The only passengers – in a spotlessly clean little cabin – amidst a half-dozen Chinese and Malay sailors. Not a bit of a wirelss transmitting-outfit to bring help – if we sank; nothing to do, in that case, but to get down and pray to Buddha with the rest. And nothing but an ancient six-valve radio-receiving set on board – which – thank God, by the time the boat was out – was found to have a couple of bursted valves and hence, for the entire balance of the journey thereafter, brought in not a note of jazz or a word of wearisome news of the weary outside world. Twelve days of idyllic pleasure in front of us l For we’d been given by Fok to understand that it took the Ning-Wha ordinarily from eleven to thirteen days to make the Honolulu to ‘Frisco passage. As a matter of fact, it took nineteen. The engines went all to the devil half a dozen times; once we were becalmed three full clays. Again, the screw propeller lost a blade – and a new blade had to be actually hammered out at a forge by a Chink who didn’t know how to work malleable metal. Never, moreover, would Tsung Fok summon, by flags, any passing steamer for machine-shop help or engine parts. To-day I know why: he had a couple of smuggled Chinks stowed away down in the engine-room itself. And so – what a run it was I But nineteen days of unalloyed happiness for the Princess and me. Clean meals – most Chinesy, to be sure – but she and I, when we had been in our sweetheart days, had often frequented Chinese restaurants. We had a spotlessly clean deck end to sit on, all by ourselves; and even an awning over it. And we had each other. And I’ll say that because of those nineteen wonderful days and nights I’ll never care again whether school keeps or not. The high spot of wry life was that little interval out of the everyday world.

For I loved that girl – loved the pure decent soul, of her – and to cease being Jerry Hammond, cracksman – over those nineteen days, and to be hero to someone – well, it was balm to my soul. And that she loved me, I was now absolutely certain. For in that one violation she made of all the conventions of her world she upset traditions – religion – all the things that had been ingrained in her since babyhood. All that I know!

And so, at last – on October 20th – we were within fifteen minutes of tying up at the wharf in ‘Frisco. Complete clark had fallen. A half-hour before creeping up to the wharf, I had seen a skiff slide away from the offside of the ship, and head, without lights, somewhere down the harbour. And in that skiff, moreover, were two Chinamen, skulking flat on the bottom. A probable ten minutes before landing, the Princess and I were put into a similar skiff – again on the offside of the ship – and our Chinese sailor guide, a cheerful, smiling fellow, rowed us and our luggage quietly through the black harbour to some open dark point on land where doubtless the other skiff had already landed its Chinks who even now were probably being rushed into the city in a closed motorcar. All this had been at Tsung Fok’s insistence – and only too glad the Princess and I were to comply, so that we wouldn’t have to meet custom and shipping inspectors on the main wharf. When our sailor guide reached his objective, he tied up the skiff, and guided us – toting all our luggage, including the Princess’s huge portmanteau – through a dark yard with tortuous railroad tracks and weeds, and out to civilization – semi-civilization, at least, for where we emerged was a region of dark weed-grown lots, but with street lamps in evidence – and a street-car track. And then our guide vanished discreetly behind us into black nothingness.

Now we stood alone under a lonely street lamp. street car was bawling along towards us, with the word CITY on its lighted front platform transom. We were evidently on the outskirts of ‘Frisco.

The Princess put her arms around my neck. “I love you, Jerry,” she said, “And always’will. But now we separate – for I know people in ‘Frisco, even though I don’t live here – and might, you know, meet one of them. I go directly from here to the railroad station – to return home. You take the next street car following, Jerry – and forget both me and all that happened, won’t you, dearest?”

Our lips met. There was absolutely nothing I could say. Knowing, as I did, all the circumstances that must wedge us apart for all time to come. I helped her quickly, with her few things, on the car that had drawn up. And as the conductor pulled his bell-cord, she went out of my life – for ever! So I told myself as I saw the street car grow small and vanish.

CHAPTER XXII


WANTED, ONE DRIVER


WELL, here I was, back in America. Ready to spring my trap on Tillary. I had the skull representing the centremost feature of the proposed ad. for his forthcoming book. I had grandfather’s duplicate certified manuscript of that very book, and grandfather’s will, and all of Sam’s letters to me, of course. And all I needed now was Laughing Sam to back up some of the points in my story – and a good firm of lawyers.

That – and to get to El Paso! For my money was gone. Passage for the Princess and myself on the Ning-Wha had taken all but about a five-dollar bill.

But even while I was watching the lights of that street car vanishing in the far distance, a battered Buick coupe drew up to the street lamp under which I stood. A man with a cap, the peak low over his eyes, was driving it clumsily with his left hand, for his right hand was bandaged.

“Can you tell me,” he asked, “if this road goes to the main highway that leads to New Orleans?”

“No,” I replied. “I wish I could – and wish to heaven, furthermore, that I was on it.”

“Why? You going to New Orleans?” he asked.

“No. El Paso. Which is on the way, I take it.”

He regarded me shrewdly. The tilting upward of his head as he did so showed that he was in early middle age, with penetrating grey eyes and a firm chin. “Say – can you drive?”

“I’ll say I can.”

“Want to drive me as far as El Paso? This mitt of mine is on the bum, and it’s hell for me. Two – maybe three – days’ rest for it – and I can do my own driving.”

“God, yes! I want to get hold of a chap there – and then start a lawsuit. I’ll drive you – gladly.”

“I like,” he warned me, “to camp out o’ nights. I hate people. Hotels. Tourist camps. If that’s all okay with you – then come along.”

It was. I hopped in with my two pieces of luggage, and thus began a trip to El Paso – only 1,200 miles – that was to last four full days. That the fellow was plainly on the run I knew within thirty minutes – and that it was a murder rap at that I as good as knew after we’d been together twenty-four hours. As for the four days the trip was to take us, the machine had a bad front axle that slowed it up; and it looked – and worked – like something he’d desperately been provided with just as John Law had tried to close in on him. He never, however, at any time during the course of that trip told me who he was – or what it was all about, even though he could see plainly that I myself was in the racket. He was just afraid of the old doublecross, that’s all – and kept the tightest of mouths. We played the roads only about six hours a day, bowling right through towns of every size and kind. At his orders, we passed up all hitchhikers – even such as poor old women walking with crutches. We never even turned the front wheels in at a tourist camp. When we weren’t on the road, we camped in deep woods and thickets. He had more than plenty of grub packed in the old car, and it became equally plain within a few hours that he had been lying low in some hideout for at least a full sixty days or so – for he didn’t know the least bit of news. In fact, he was exactly like myself who’d been nearly four weeks on water, and several weeks before that with eye muscles that couldn’t read print. We were like a couple of Rip Van Winkles, and had to talk ancient moth-eaten news only. We’d been two days on the way when the only incident arose in which he ever got a bit suspicious of my good intentions. We were, in fact, somewhere in Arizona, sitting across a camp fire we’d built far out on a lonely mesa, and the hunger came on me to write a letter to the girl I’d last parted with near the ‘Frisco wharfs, in care of a certain postal box in her city where, so she’d told me, she could receive mail I had that spare sheet of Birch Cadwallader’s stationery – and that American two-cent-stamped envelope. When I’d got done writing the letter – and addressing the envelope – atop a flat rock propped on my knee, I read the letter over by the fire. It ran:

My Darling GIRL,–

I trust that you’re home and safe now, and that sometimes when you think our adventure in love was just a dream you’ll remember me as the real part of that dream. I need not say, Princess, that it’s been hard to forget you. In fact, it’s been quite impossible! I’m heading for New York, though not directly. But write me some day, my very dearest dear – say, three months from the date of our debarkation date – care of General Delivery, N.Y.C., where I’ll pick it up – or arrange to have it picked up.

All my love to the prettiest Princess who ever failed to get into Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

JERRY

P.S.– I hope you’re not still feeling a bit hurt about that mysterious squarishly tied-up package that I had amongst my luggage on the Ning-Wha. The reason, my dear, that I didn’t show its contents to you – nor ever, tell you what they were – was because it held something that would have made you a bit squeamish, to say the least. Just a skull – and a jawbone – brought from Honolulu. And to which considerable of a story attaches. Now you’ll understand, I’m sure.

I was about to insert the letter in the envelope, when the big grey-eyed chap across from me spoke.

“And where, partner, were you expecting to mail that?”

“Oh – at any Uncle Sam’s mail-box along the road – maybe near some hot-dog stand or something.”

“Well, suppose you let your sidekick pro tem – and tour conductor – censor all mail going out on this Cook’s Tour? You know damn well I’m taking it on the run. For you’ve bumped against that .45’ under my armpit enough times.”

“Hey – hey!” I expostulated amicably. “You know damn well I’m no copper-hearted fink – willing to shove a right guy into a grab. So read to your heart’s content. Want the envelope, too?”

“No,” he said – and friendly again – after he’d perused the communication. “I’ve been in love myself! And know the language! Seal her up then, brother – and post her to-morrow. And what say we roll up into the old blankets now for an early start?”

And mail the letter I did next day, at one of Uncle Sam’s roadside post-boxes there in that state of Arizona. Heaven knows just where – but I estimated that, regardless of just where the box was, it would take just about two days for the missive to reach its postal lock-box destination – and, since the Princess, so she told me, went to that lock-box on Saturdays only, it would be in her own precious hands by the end of the week.

And at last, on October 24th, about 9.30 p.m., on the undoubted outskirts of El Paso, my unknown acquaintance of the past four days drew up short – opened the door of his car – and nodded me out.

“You’re on the edge of El P now, old kid,” he said. “For I know the town so-so. And you’d better scram on in by one of the shorts. Because I’m going ‘round by the Jefferson belt highway. And thanks a million. For with the way I’m using the old right mitt now – I’ll make where I’m going in ten hours or so. For of course, partner, it isn’t – and never was – New Orleans!” He paused, genially. “And you’ll forget, I take it, that you and I ever met?”

“I sure will, Old Timer,” I promised willingly enough. “My best to you, for I’ve been in a few, hot spots myself. I’ll even do more than forget you. I’ll go so far as to forget the registration plate on the back of the car – and the front one with it, at that.”

He chuckled. “Oh, remember them by all means, if you feel like it. Sure, they’re duds – you don’t think I’d have left that sort of trail behind me, do you? So long, and good luck – to the girl as well as yourself. I can’t ask you to remember me to her when you meet her.”

And up the road he drove, his hand as good as new by this time. Some two hundred yards or so on ahead, I saw him get out of the car and unfasten that licence plate at the back – and evidently, though I could not see what he was doing, he took the front one off, too. He put back what were evidently another pair of fake numbers – or they may have been the ones belonging to the car, for all I could tell. He waved to me genially, and then the farther darkness swallowed him up.

I followed on with my squarish-wrapped parcel and my bag, looking for a car line to take me into the town, and now I was to be treated to a demonstration of luck, fate, Providence – call it what you will – that altered all my way of living. For my late companion’s car had scarcely vanished round a bend when I heard some sort of crash, and the sound of shots, quite a series of them. I pulled up short at first, but then curiosity overcame every other impulse, and I went on round the bend, and saw the end of the car line I had been wanting.

Saw more. The Buick was sideways to the road, almost – a sort of diagonal with its nose still pointing the way my companion had been going, but it sagged down on the near side, and I knew that faulty front axle had gone at last. But that was not all, by any means. A street car stood just ahead of the brokendown Buick, and between the two, and round the Buick, were quite a dozen Federal men, two of whom were lifting a body out from the Buick. And still I went on, though I knew now what had happened. Way back on our road, some police agent or other busybody had spotted the car and recognized its occupants – one of them, at least – and had ‘phoned on ahead the description of the car in which the wanted man would be found. It must have been some way back, too, for these Federal men to get into position – and, as I found out, to place the wire cable across the road from an electric-power standard on one side to a tree on the other. They had so arranged it that the cable could be slacked off for legitimate traffic, and tightened up to stretch about two feet high across the road when the car they wanted hove in sight. And, I judged, they had caught him, and he had showed fight: hence the body being lifted from the car.

I felt a bit sick over it at first, for he had been decent to me. I’d known all along he was in a jam, and, most likely, the description of the car had gone ahead of him, quite apart from registration plates, and a watch had been out, especially on the last part of our run. Anyhow, they had got him. To this day I do not know what he had done, or why they wanted him, but almost certainly it was murder. I had felt pretty sure of that from the first day, by his way of running the car.

I would have turned back, or hidden, but it was too late. I knew they had seen me, and had to go on. A big chap stopped me, just short of the broken-down Buick, and within a dozen yards of the street car I had hoped to board for my ride into El Paso. But I faced up to it confidently, an altogether different being from the one who had crept aboard the Malola to make the run to Honolulu. Then I had been a pure down-and-out, liable to suspicion by the very look of my clothes. Now I had on the new suit I had bought for the trip with my Princess, and looked like a prosperous bagman, at the worst – and there was nothing incriminating about me. I carried no gun, and all my safe-cracking outfit was safely cased back in San Francisco, including that wonderful Courfeyrac cutter, for, with the chance of a free ride here, I had not stopped to pick up the outfit after bidding the Princess goodbye.

“Hey, what are you?” the Federal man demanded sharply. “Where d’ye come from? No, stop where you are. Nobody goes past here till we give the say-so, so don’t try any tricks. Now then, who are you?”

“Henry Sharp, salesman in structural steelworks,” I said.

“Oh yeah? Is that so?” he retorted sarcastically. “Well then, Mr. Henry Sharp, what’s a salesman in structural steelwork doing tramping along this road, at this time of night, with all he’s got in the world or somewhere about that in his two hands, eh’? That ain’t the way salesmen take the road, if I know anything about it.”

“You do, I guess,” I said, as easily as I could. “Anyhow, that’s me, on my way to El Paso.” And I made to pass him to the street car, which, however, showed no sign of pulling out on its way yet,

“Oh no, you don’t!” he barked, getting in front of me. “I want to know a hell of a lot more about Mister Henry Sharp before he gets away to town. Where d’ye come from? Don’t stop to think – answer up!”

“From Hawaii,” I answered, as calmly as before, if not more so. “I landed at ‘Frisco, and came on here – and yesterday my money gave out, all but enough to feed me for a clay or two. So I’ve hoofed it.”


“In structural steelwork!” he said, with heavy sarcasm.

“I was, but I wired in my resignation to Pittsburg Rustless Incorporated before I left Hawaii,” I said, using the first name that came to my mind. “They played it low-down on me, and I knew a man of my abilities could make more than I’d ever see out of them, so I took a chance on it, and now I’m headed for El Paso because the president of the Lakes Structural” – again I coined the name, and hoped – “is due here day after to-morrow, and I’m carrying enough about his rivals to get me in with him, if I talk the right stuff at him.”

“Huh! Pretty thin!” he grunted. “Hand over that bag, and let’s see what stuff you got. Come on!” He waggled a gun suggestively.

I put down my bag, and he opened it and tumbled its contents out on the road. He went through every item, from shirt to toothbrush.

“Uh-huh!” he grunted again at the end of his inspection. “Nuthin’ here that would be useful to the president of any company.” He tried the sides and bottom of the bag, but did not discover the empty false bottom. “What you got in that bundle under your arm?”

“A skull,” I said frankly – because it was no use being anything but frank. “I’m sending it off from here to Professor J. L. Hastman of Chicago. It’s one I brought specially for him from Hawaii, and said to be the skull of one of Kamehameha’s wives herself. That was a side-game of my trip there, to get that skull.

“Hand it over – let’s see,” he bade – and I complied.

He took my package, untied and opened it, and gave the skull the once-over – the twice-over, in fact. Then. he pointed to the hole in it, and gave me a long look of suspicion.

“Looks like Kamehameha’s wife had trouble at the end of her career,” he said. “How d’ye account for this damage, huh?”

“I don’t,” I told him, while a couple more of his sort came round us to hear the dialogue. “I wasn’t there when it happened. If I’d had anything to do with making that hole, would I be such a fool as to tote the evidence around with me? Do I look that sort of fathead?”

He twisted the skull all ways, turned it upside-down and shook it, but did not unfasten the bit of cord that held the jaw in place. I heard one of his fellow-Federals chuckle as he handed it back to me.

“Go gently on the ancient dead, Freddie,” this man remarked.

“If it wasn’t so ancient,” Freddie growled,” I’d take this bird up on suspicion right here and now–”

“Then get on with it!” I interrupted him, guessing boldness my best and in fact my only card to play. “Take me along, and when you’ve verified, every word I’ve told you, and every other word I’m going to tell you, you’ll be a sick man after answering to unjustifiable molestation of Henry Sharp, going about his legitimate business. I’m not scared, for I’ve nothing to be scared about. Go right ahead!”

He had nothing on which to go ahead, as I knew. He looked at me rewrapping the skull, disappointment in his eyes.

“Say, feller,” he said, “we got the word there was two men in that car there, not one. What about it, now?”

“There was one in it when it passed me,” I told him. “I hailed him for a lift into town, but he just drove on, took no notice.”

“Quite sure you wasn’t number two in the car?” he asked sneeringly.

“If you think so, prove it,” I retorted. “Prove any damn thing you can, and I won’t worry. I’ve told you all about me, and I’m willing to give you chapter and verse for all of it – where I stayed in Hawaii, how I landed in ‘Frisco, and you can get a copy of the passenger list of the boat that brought me there, and check up on that, if it’ll make you any happier. As for this skull, I’m at liberty to tote forty skulls all over the States, as long as I’m not connected with wearing the scalps off of them, and every one can have forty holes in it, as long as I didn’t make ‘em. Oh, brother, I’m footsore and wanting my perch for the night, and by the look of things here you’ve got all you came after except the second man you say was in that car. He left it before it passed me, I tell you, for it held only one on his lone, then.”

“You’re damned slick with your tongue,” he said sulkily.

“And damned slick at backing up what it says,” I fired back. “Put me inside for the night, and I’ll be saved the trouble of feeding myself.” I held out my hands. “Put a pair of bracelets on, so I’ll give no trouble whatever,” I offered, “for I’ve all to-morrow to waste. The president of Lakes Structural doesn’t get here till day after.”

The empty street car pulled out on its run, but I saw another one coming along. Freddie shook his head gloomily – though obviously he already had the main object of this Federal hold-up.

“Aw, get to hell out of it!” he said. “If there was one thing on you – here, what about this dope you’re going to hand the president of your Lakes Structural? Where is it? Not in your baggage, I can see.”

“No, sonny,” I told him. “It’s packed where it’s safe, in that spot which in your case is a mere vacuum – my brain. Don’t think I’d trust financial facts like I hold to paper, because I wouldn’t.”

“What’s your hang-out here in El Paso?” he asked next.

By the question and the manner of it, I knew, I had him beaten. He would have liked to hold me, but dared not take the risk – and, if he had held me, I’d have won out, for no once in all the States had anything against me, and, fortunately for me, my yegg-man’s kit was reposing utterly incommunicado in ‘Frisco, instead of being in my bag.

“Oh, brother, you sure are dumb,” I mocked him. “This is my first call on the good city of El Paso, and I’d have been bathing my sore feet in the bathroom of the handiest hotel if you hadn’t been so damned officious. Since you’re so kind, which hotel would you recommend?”

“Oh, get to hell out of this!” he shouted at me.

But I did not, at once, for any hurry over getting away would have roused him to further suspicion, I knew. I took all the time there was over folding my shirts he had shaken out, and repacking my bag, and let that second street car go without me. Meanwhile he and his men abandoned all their interest in me and my belongings, and took to getting the wrecked Buick off the road, while an ambulance came along to take the body of my recent friend into town – and to this day I don’t know why he was wanted. I boarded the third car that came up and switched over to go back, and so rode into El Paso.

A different man. Take that how you like, but I was different. Maybe that time on the old Ning-Wha had something to do with it. My Princess had showed me what I ought to be, somehow, had restored me to belief in the possibility of sane and decent living, not preying on my fellow-men as I had been doing for years, now. Further to that, the way my acquaintance of the road had decanted me just in time seemed to show me that Providence had a use for me, and was watching over me – for if I’d done that last half-mile with him, all that was left of me would have gone to the El Paso mortuary in the ambulance that took all there was left of him, while, as it was, I was a free man, clear of these Federal guys, and with a competence or more due to me from Tillary Steevens as soon as I had found Laughing Sam and closed up the debit side of my account with the so-called mystery-story writer. I was bound to win out, whatever I did. So I figured it after parting with that Federal gang, and riding a free man into El Paso.

And, right there in the street car, I determined on a change. My kit, one of the best ever got together for the game I had been playing, could rust where it lay, for all me. Even the Courfeyrac, that beautiful tool, had to go with the rest, for I would never reclaim them. From that hour onward, safe-cracking should be a thing of the past, I determined. I would get even with Tillary, show him up for what he was, a ditty thief of other men’s brains and property, and then run as justified my Princess’s belief in me, be the man she thought me. All that I reasoned out on the run to El Paso, and made myself the solemn promise of it – though I did not know, apart from Tillary Steevens and what my plan against him might mean, how I was to live or what I was to do. But, if Providence or fate or anything else were so far watching over me as to save me from the death that had come to my companion of the road almost instantly after he had dropped me, I concluded, it would go on handing me out meal tickets without my resorting to law-breaking. And that, as I say, was the end of my career as a yeggman.

The car brought me into El Paso proper. I could not help but note that a National Guard Encampment or something of the sort appeared to be going on. Or even more likely, as I figured then, a military convention. For I no more tied up the signs about the town, soldiers here and there, with that penny-ante bandit I’d read mentions of in California papers, weeks, even eras before, than I would credit the Chicago Tribune with decent newspaper tactics. A lithograph somewhere on a billboard advertised the Houston House as very reasonable. I had only about five dollars left, and as my street car drew up in front of that very hostelry the Fates themselves seemed to prompt my going there.

I went up to the desk. A big sign said –

Watch Out For Sneak Thieves. Absolutely Not Responsible For Valuables Unless Locked Up In This Safe.

YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

And I had heard plenty, too, in my own racket, of the slick gang of sneak thieves that covers all hotels and boarding-houses in El Paso.

A huge safe, apparently of metal, stood behind the reception-desk. It had scores of lock drawers like a Turkish bath, lock drawers of various shapes and sizes. If I’d been within reaching distance of that beautiful crib – instead of across a ten-foot moat of space – I might have known instanter that this one was of wood, cunningly puttied up where the wood was barked, and painted with two coats of actual metal paint. But not being in reaching distance, I fell for the glitter on the surface, and nodded towards a wide flat drawer when the clerk pointed his thumb interrogatively behind him.

He drew out the lock-box I was indicating, and, opening the gripsack atop the counter, I withdrew from it, and placed in that lock drawer, in turn, the manuscript of grandfather’s will, and all my letters from Sam including that last illiterate note typewritten in capitals which Tillary had sent on to me. For all these – with the wrapped skull and jawbone in the stout package at my elbow – constituted not the case of Maryland vs. William Lucullus, but of J. Hammond vs. T, Steevens, Hiffton, MacHarcourt et alia – for something like $801,000, more or less!

And upstairs, to my small two-dollar room, I went with my lock-box key and my bag.

I rested atop the bed a brief half-hour, and then started forth on foot for the Negro District. A chap on the streets directed me how to get there.

I reached it finally. It was now about 10.30 p.m. A tall Negro with shirt made solely of ragged bandana was shuffling along. I stopped him.

“Do you know Sam Davis? Known as Laughin’ Sam – from Alabam’?”

He scratched his head. “‘Pears, suh, lak Ah is huhd ‘bout him. On’y, suh, Ah ain’ been heah in El Paso on’y a couple days.”

“I see.” And I went on. In the next block I stopped a fat Negro with a coat crudely tailored from burlap. And repeated my question.

“Do dat man,” he asked eagerly, “laff an’ laff an’ laf? – an’ th’ow his haid ‘way back when he laff?”

“Yes. That’s him. Where does he hang out?”

“Ah don’ know. Ca’se Ah’s f’um Memphis. But Ah knowed a niggah up dah f’um down aroun’ heah somewhah’s, dat laffed dataway; on’y he call hese’f Laughin’ Bill – f’um Ober de Hill.”

I left, with a sigh, a bit dampened at the leads I seemed to be getting.

The district was getting drearier now, and tougher. In some fearfully down-at-heel block, with low wooden houses all leaning awry, and tumbledown steps leading to their thresholds, a Negro girl drew up to me under a low rickety street light. She was about twenty-seven years of age, so I judged. Really pretty, as such, though showing the beginning of the ravages of some kind of life she’d been living. Though her green silk dress was poor and threadbare, everything about her was neat. She was a comely wench, regardless of what she was. When she started to speak, I was certain she was going to solicit me.

Instead she said, in a timid voice: “Kin yu kin’ly tell me, suh, whahbouts now is Neb Lee’s Saloon an’ Chitterlin’s Palace whut usta be heah seben – eight – nine yeahs ago?”

“God no – girl,” I said. “What do you want it for?”

“Ca’se a man whut used to lub me usta hang out dah an’ Ah wan’s to see him.”

“Oh – you been out of town then?”

“Yessuh, Ah des come heah t’night. Ah’s been in N’Awleans fo’ seben yeahs.”

“Well – that lets me out! For to tell you the truth, I wanted to ask you about a fellow of your race who hangs out in El Paso.”

“How long, suh, he done hang out heah?”

“Oh – off and on for years and years.”

“Den mebbe Ah kin tell you somethin’. Fo’ Ah libbed in dis heah districk yeahs ago, an’ knowed mos’ evvabody in de coloahed section whut at dat time wuz’n gone No’th o’ nothin’.”

“Yeah, but that won’t do me any good to-day – if you’ve been in New Orleans for seven years. But anyway, the coloured chap I’m looking for is named Sam Davis – and is known as Laughin’ Sam from Alabam’.”

“Mah God!” she said, her black eyes staring out of her face. “Kin – kin yu beat dat? W’y dat’s w’y Ah’s heah in El Paso mahse’f. To fin’ Sam! An’ to tell him, aftah seben long yeahs, dat Ah lubs him – an’ dat Ah allus will lub him!”

CHAPTER XXIII


FOUND: A CLUE TO SAM’S WHEREABOUTS


I STARED at the coloured girl in the semi-light of the rickety lamp-post.

Could this be the girl who had turned Sam’s life from gaiety to deep gloom – when I had looked him up and suggested his taking the job with Steevens right after seeing Steevens in Chicago?

“But see here, girl,” I said. “Let’s compare notes. There’s probably lots of Sam Davises – and probably more than a few of them are called Laughing Sam. Tell me – about your Laughing Sam?”

“Well, fo’ one t’ing,” she replied, rather proudly, “dey ain’ many Laughin’ Sams whut had de ‘sperience mah Laughin’ Sam had. Fo’ mah Sam wuz once in a Souf Amuhican prison!”

“Ah! That seems to cinch it, Though, to be certain, just what did he tell you about that episode?”

“Des, suh, dat dey was two oddah men wid him in de cell. Bof of dem w’ite. One ob dem was a denticalist, an’ fill Sam’s teet’ an’ stop him from goin’ plum’ crazy, an’ –”

“Right – on all scores. Only the man wasn’t a full-fledged dent – however, skip it! What else did he tell you?”

“Da’s all Ah know, suh. Fo’ Sam nevah w’ud talk ‘bout dat ‘sperience. He skeered to deaf he git drug back if it evah leak aroun’. Ah on’y know dat one ob de men whut wuz wid him die. An’ he hepped de odah man – de denticalist – to git away.”

“That settles it, then,” I assured her. “We’re both looking for the same Sam. For I happen to know that episode in Sam’s life only too well. Since I was one of the two men, And Sam helped me at the risk of his life. And I’m here to-day, girl, at last to pay Sam back – at least within the next three or four months – and, if you and he love each other, to help you, too. But first – tell me about yourself – and Sam.”

She stared at me pensively. “Well, in de fus’ place, suh, Ah ain’ seed Sam sence he an’ me libbed togeddah in San Antone – eight long yeahs ago come nex’ spring.”

“Lived together? And love him to-day? Then what on earth made you go to New Orleans?”

“‘Cause pahtly Ah is wuthless an’ no good – but pahtly, too, was ‘count his brothah.”

“A brother? Ah – now we’re getting somewhere! If a man has a brother that’s the way to locate him. Now tell me where his brother lives?”

“Cain’t say, suh, cep’n in gen’ral. He live in San Antone. And he own a house. Owns two o’ tr’ee houses, in fack. An’ got ‘bout seventeen hund’ed mill’un chilluns an’ necies and nephews and whutnot.”

“All the better! A whole tribe. But why on earth, girl, if you lived with Sam there, can’t you say who his brother is?”

“Ca’se, suh – well, Ah’m gonna tell you. But its moughty hahd to esplain. It – it wuz dis way. Sam he come spring o’ nin’teen thutty-five to San Antone – to see his brothah. He come f’um El Paso heah, wheah he lak mos’ to hang out. An’ he meet me dah in San Antone. We fluht wid one anoddah on de street. Moughty quick we libbin’ wid one anoddah dah in San Antone. Ah couldn’ mahhy Sam – ‘count Ah has a husbum libbin’ somewhat ‘round Nashville.” But Sam say he gonna win ‘nough money shootin’ dice to git me a div’oce. Well, one night Sam he disappeah: He wuz gone a full week. Ah thought he wuz gamblin’ – mebbe pinched, o’ drinkin’. Fo’ he sometimes do, dern t’ings. But Ah didn’t cah, fo’ Ah wuz playin’ fas’ an’ loose on de sly wid a yallerman from N’Awleans. But fin’ly Sam show up.

“‘Honey,’ he say, ‘Ah’s been in de horspital. A autymobile done struck me – and runned away. Knock me flattah dan is my pu’se! De doctahs in de horspital dey t’ought I had camcussion ob de brains – ‘cause Ah lay dah day aftah day sayin’ nuffin. But dey foun’ mah brothah’s name in mah clothes – Ah ain’t nebbah tol’ you nuffin ‘bout him, honey, ca’se you mought a-wanted den fo’ to meet him, an’ if’n Ah ebah tuk you dah, dey’d be a ruckus, sure, see? – an’way, dey foun’ mah brothah’s name in mah clothes, an’ mah brothah come. An’ lucky he did, honey cause Ah was de cause ob lots ob ‘spense. Fo’ dey has to Axe-Ray my haid dis way an’ dat way an’ anothah way, an’ f’um de top an’ f’um de bottom an’ fronwise an’ backwuhd – all to see if dey was a crack disaway or dataway, or a tumah ob mah brain, what keepin’ me in dat. An’ mah room in de Jim Crow section ob de horspital cos’ plentah money, too. Ah eben had to habe a specual nu’se.’

“‘But, Sam,’ Ah say, ‘wuz you brains frac’ured? – an’ did you hab a tumah?’“

“‘Naw, honey – dey did’n fm’ no fractions – wid all dey fool photographin’. Dey say it prob’ly was shock – mebbe tem’rary congestium ob some ob de big blood-vessels in mah brain. Oh, Ah come out quick once Ah staht to come out. O’ny, fo’ dey fin’ly let me go, dey wahn me: “Now see heah, niggah – if’n ebbah you gits symptomatics – lak dizziness – o’ seein’ t’ings double – o’ terr’ble pain in de haid – or inability to stick yo’ tongue out – don’, fo’ God’s sake, go to no reg’lah doctah. Come straight back heah weah we has in de files you’ whol’ case hist’ry – w’ich is de whol’ story ob yo’ knockdown – an’ all de dozen o’ so Axe-Ray pictuahs, an’ we kin figgah out in a minute whether you is got a afta’math f’um de axident.”’“

“But Sam’s brother,” I put in a bit impatiently, “is all I’m interested in. What’s his name?”

“Ah tol’ you, suh, Ah don’ know. Ca’se Sam, as Ah jes’ said, nebbah had tol’ me. Rathah, ca’se Ah nebbah seen Sam sence de night he don’ tol’ me he had a brothah. But ‘twas disaway. Raght w’ile we was talkin’, come a big knock on de do’. Ah open it. A black man wid a fat belly an’ a duhby hat stood dah, moughty rich dressed. He ra’ at Sam, lak a lion:

“‘You wuthless swine,’ he ro’, ‘ so heah yo’ is – libbin’ heah wid a no-good wuthless gal off de streets – while Ah is done pay out ob mah own pocket mo’n a hund’ed dollahs fo’ horspital bed an’ nusses an’ med’cenes an’ Axe-Ray plates – on’y to fin’ out finn’ly dat you ain’t got enough brains fo’ to habe camcussion oh dem.’

“‘Ah’ll – Ah’ll – pay yo’ back, brothah,’ Sam tol’ him, ‘ fo’ evaht’ing. Me an’ dis gal heah we lubs each othah. An’ w’ile Ah was in de horspital, Ah met a Pullman po’tah f’um Nashville, who – An’ Sam tuhned to me. ‘ He know yo’ husbum well, honey. On’y yo’ husbum, he say, is daid. Killed on Little Scovey Street.’ An’ Sam tuhn to his brothah. “We gonna be mahhied now. We lubs each othah.’

“‘Ho! You an’ dis gal? Gonna be mahhied? Well, dis black chippie heah gonna git out ob town damn quick – o’ Ah gonna hab yuh arrested. Ah’s got influence. Ah controls plenty black votes whut de w’ite folks wants. An’ Ah gonna brek up dis match if it de las’ t’ing Ah ebah do.’

“An’ den Ah tuhn to him. ‘ You ain’ gonna brek up nothin’, you ornery pot-bellied niggah.’ Ah tuhn to Sam. Po’ Sam. ‘Sam,’ Ah say, as kin’ – like as Ah can, ‘Ah don’ lub you. Ah was libbin’ wid you cause Ah needed suppoht. An’ Ah’s got me a yaller man – whut lib in N’Awleans. He got a wife some’ere – an’ cain’t mahhy me – but he gonna dress me up – an’ he promise to mek me de belle ob N’Awleans Blacktown. So Ah’s gonna git wid him. An’ raght now. You fin’ yo’se’f, Sam, a good gal – an’ fo’git me – an’ don’ fight wid you’ brothah who you lubs.’

“An’ Ah puts on my hat – an’ out de do’ Ah Bounces – gets a-holt ob mah yaller man – an’ off to N’Awleans we go.”

“And just got back,” I commented wonderingly. “After seven long years?”

“Yassuh. Fo’ dat yaller man in N’Awleans didn’ las’ long. He was chased outa town, but tuk a high yaller gal wid him – an’ not me I An’ sence dat day de ma’ men Ah hab seed – de mo’ wunnerful do Ah know dat Sam wuz. An’ dat Ah th’owed obah de fines’ ob all men ob mah race – w’en Ah th’owed obah Sam. Who’d a mahhied me. All dese yeahs, mistah,” she went on desperately, “mah lub fo’ Sam has be’n growin’. An’ fin’ly – de oddah day – Ah thinks – dat befo’ mah beauty is all gone – dat Ah gonna come back heah to whah Sam is mos’ lakely to be hangin’ out – if fo’ no othah reason dan to tell Sam – eben if he got a wife an’ sebben chilluns – dat he a moughty fine man, an’ de best ob dern all. An’ – if’n by any chance he mought be free an’ still lub me – to git on mah vehy knees to him – an’ ax him if on’y he’ll tek me back – dat Ah’ll be good an’ faithful an’ loyal to him fo’ de entire rest ob mah life.”
Poor wretch! Passing judgment only as a white man, I figured that Sam to-day probably wouldn’t even look at her, after these seven or more years. And yet – peering at her in the semi-light – she was comely – she had an indubitable charm about her – and with what I felt I knew of Sam – well, I wasn’t sure of my own judgment. A black Pole Star, Sam, if ever anybody was.

“Well,” I told her, “you’ve given me plenty of valuable dope. I’ve made some inquiries here to-night. All fruitless. And I’ve more than a hunch that Sam’s probably in San Antonio. With his brother – or his people, whoever they may be. Or maybe even working up north somewheres, But I’m going to work the problem out – and reach him.”

I knew that the problem was now easy, for all I needed to do was to search the hospitals of San Antonio with respect to the approximate time of Sam’s accident – find the records of that particular accident – the name Sam Davis, and, by the details of his case-history, find his brother – at that time known more or less because he was as the girl had implied, influential in Black politics – or the latter’s children if he were dead – or his nieces and nephews. And one – or a dozen – of the whole tribe would know where Sam could be reached instanter.

Upon which I’d have my valuable witness in the case of J. Hammond vs. Tillary Steevens. And, more than possibly, a husband for this much-chastened Negro girl.

“Where could I locate you, girl?” I asked.

“Ain’ located nowhah yit. If’n Ah cain’t finn’ a suttin ol’ granny Ah once knowed heahabouts, I’ll hatter lay up in a ten-cent lady’s flop.”

“Well, here’s a dollar – till you get yourself a bit organized here in El Paso. Sorry it isn’t more – but I’m low on funds myself, by which to reach Sam. Though reach him I shall. So you write me,” I told her, “in one week. Seven days from to-day. Just Jerry Hammond, General Delivery, San Antonio – here, I’ll write the address out complete for you.” And did exactly that on a scrap of paper I located in one of my pockets. “And I’ll have Sam’s location – or nearly so – for you then. And maybe good news, too – at least I hope.”

And with that, her black eyes actually beaming, we parted.

I went back to the Houston House. Marvelling at the way life and love and the affairs of men all fell together into a perfect web. Here I would get $50,000, at the very least, out of that next book signed “Tillary Steevens,” yet proved by a million dollars’ worth of publicity as but another book by the real author of all Tillary’s works – my grandfather. And Sam’s share of my winnings – $25,000 I figured it should be at the minimum – would send him and this girl off to a grand new start in life.

It felt good to play Santa Claus. And to be able, too, to pay back my own stupendous debt to Sam. And I found myself anxious to see the look on his honest black face when I should tell him that what he had done for me in the long ago was now going to put more money into his lap than he had ever seen or conceived possible.

CHAPTER XXIV


FIRE!


IT was shortly after midnight when I got back to the Houston House, and went straight up to my room.

After I undressed – which was about 12.30 or so – I lay for a while in bed in the dark, thinking deeply of my forthcoming suit against Tillary; a suit that would be 100 per cent. watertight, based on all I had, now that the way was open to find Sam at once. Indeed, just what was there that Tillary’s lawyers, who would probably be the best in Chicago, could do, to discredit my evidence? Nothing! Nothing, at most, than to claim that when I had called on Tillary years ago, he had been ill in bed and had allowed me to remain in the house for a week or so – during which time I had copied one of his unpublished manuscripts, and had later got some underworld forger to recopy my copy and forge the old notary authentication. It would be a rickety, rickety defence – before any sane jury – and even to make it, to save Tillary from a charge of plagiarism, they would have to first clear him from the smaller charge of being a common neighbourhood sneak thief, in re that stolen skull.

To do that, they would undoubtedly attack Sam’s story in court – try to make him out a liar in his sworn statement that he had even himself once been asked by Tillary Steevens to try to filch the skull of Sylvanus Axton, the Shakespearean actor. They would more than likely claim that Sam was aiding and abetting me in a conspiracy in which I had introduced a spurious skull. To attack Sam’s story, however, they would probably try to claim that Sam had never even worked there on Fullerton Parkway, Chicago. But unfortunately, for such attack, too many people – according to Sam’s old letter to me – knew he worked there and knew him personally. Now indeed I was damned glad that I had left that grease-pencil-scrawled top calendar sheet in Birch Cadwallader’s studio, for, if the studio were. not located by the date of my suit, I could spring its location in court as a surprise – and the notation found in it would show that Tillary actually gave and entrusted Cadwallader with the skull. And that bombshell would knock out completely any charges they might try to make against me that I myself had introduced the skull into the case.

And, thinking of Birch Cadwallader, I was able to see even a further point by which the case of Tillary Steevens, with respect to disclaiming that skull, would be badly weakened. And that was in the matter of its preparation for the advertising composition. Not, that is, as to whether Cadwallader or Tillary had bashed in the hole which was to make it conform to the crime of William Lucullus – for the hole itself could not tell whether Cadwallader or Tillary had made it. But in the matter of the black letters on the brain-pan – ah, that was a different thing! For there is, in Dr. Harry Soderman’s book on Criminology – and in my work as cribman I read all such books faithfully! – a specific chapter on ink identification, with tables which prove that ink – whether gallotannic, chromic, or anilin – can be identified 100 per cent. And if, for instance, Cadwallader himself had painted those black letters on the back of that skull, he would have used jet-black, paint – and Tillary’s disavowal of ownership of the skull would be affected in neither one way nor the other. But ah! – if Tillary had put those letters on – exactly as he wanted them – with black ink – then the ink he customarily bought and used could be traced; and we’d have him still another way running!

And to check this small but interesting point, I jumped out of bed in my pyjamas, and, lighting the lights, got my square package out of the closet. For in the top drawer of the bureau I had seen, before retiring, a bottle of hotel ink and one of ink eradicator, the latter left behind by some moron who had to manufacture a letter by the put-and-take process.

And, seated on the edge of the bed, the ink eradicator on the edge of a chair drawn up near the bedside, I cut the knotted junctions of that package, the wrapping and tying of which in the soft moonlight on a far Honolulu studio floor, seemed now to have been ages ago; which package I had never myself opened since that night I had tied and knotted it up, first, because of the Princess’s presence with me across the Pacific – and second, because of my hectic journey by automobile from ‘Frisco to El Paso. The bright crimson cord holding jawbone to skull, as I found when the tough wrapping paper finally fell away, revealing the, skull, its jet-black letters uppermost, had not even slipped during all of its travels. I lowered the object; black letters still uppermost, to a position between my knees, and, with a corner of the bed-sheet saturated with the ink eradicator, rubbed at the least important part of that “M Vs L”: that is, at the letter “s.” It swabbed off completely and cleanly, as though a magic wand had wafted over it. And only the letters M V L remained to stare up at me. Ink! Not oil paint. Or any other pigment. Ink! In my favour altogether. For Tillary, then, had put on that lettering.

“Well, Sylvanus,” I said genially, turning the skull about, and smiling down into the skeleton face that seemed to leer back at me, “you’re going to make your stage appearance supreme next spring! In a huge lawsuit. A posthumous appearance, however, for Sylvanus Axton, Esquire. Poor old thespian! That you won’t be able to see yourself – nor read about yourself on the front pages of all the papers in the U.S.A., and – but here, Sylvanus, let’s untie the old jaw so that we can put that right prong more securely in its socket. And how’s about you and me, Sylvanus, repeating the old soliloquy together, eh?” And, loosing the tight crimson cord and dropping it to the floor, I repeated, facetiously, and half-aloud “To be or not to be – Ah, that is the question!” working that uncanny lower jaw up and down by one of its prongs so that its teeth came together in exact synchronism with my labials, and its mouth opened concurrently in rhythm with both my rolling “or” and my sonorous “ah,” till it actually seemed as though we were holding a weird rehearsal of Hamlet together.

And it was two full minutes later, more or less, while I still held the skull and jawbone, marvelling at many things, that I heard the cries of “Fire.” The running of dozens of pairs of feet. Sirens blaring from afar. And smoke actually shot through the edges of the, transom. And under the door.

God – a fire trap! A Southern fire trap!

I heard someone shout, evidently from the room adjoining – and evidently through a gap between the floor and the bottom of the locked door between us: “You in two hundred and seventeen there – Fire! Run like hell – don’t dress or you’re lost.”

So – lucky, perhaps, that the skull and jawbone were literally in my very hands as all this happened – and that I subconsciously held on to them while I jerked the top sheet from the bed, wrapped it about myself – and plugged forth into the smoke-filled hall. How I made the streets I’ll never know. Just found a narrow staircase somewhere. Ran down it, gasping, choking. Tumbled out into the clear fresh air of a dark alley filled with running, cursing firemen, and dozens of lanterns bobbing up and down. Still hugging the skull under my left arm, and under that ridiculous-looking sheet. And the fingers of my right hand actually clenched upon the jawbone.

And, two hours later, picking out a new wardrobe in a charity bazaar up the street, and wrapping into a huge bandana handkerchief the only two things I’d saved – that skull and jawbone – I knew that I’d been in the worst conflagration of years for El Paso. A holocaust. A fire that marked complete destruction of the Houston House. And I learned also that everything which belonged to my suit for justice, with regard to grandfather’s work, was destroyed for good. For the great “safe” in the office, so they told me, was of wood, and had been burned to ashes, with every wooden lock drawer in it. Gone – grandfather’s notarized handwritten script, his will in my favour, the letters to me from Sam. Nothing left now – but the skull and jawbone. And that scrawled grease-pencil notation far across the Pacific which attested to their having come to Cadwallader from Tillary. But all quite useless for my lawsuit. My chance gone for ever to show Tillary Steevens up to the world as a plagiarist. While I, the rightful heir to his huge literary income, wandered America risking my freedom and my life.

Though why, it will be wondered, with my truly invaluable papers gone for ever – did I still start out next morning, by freight train, for San Antonio – to find the hospital where Sam had once lain for a week?

It was because of a variety of considerations. For one thing, illiterate notes typed in red capitals can, after all, be forged on any typewriting machine. For another thing, certain chemistry admirably set forth in one of grandfather’s novels once published by Tillary as his own is as exact as it is admirable. But the principal reason was that, once I should locate that hospital, with all its filed X-ray plates on past cases – specifically Sam’s – I could still do a little bit, at least, towards showing Tillary up before the world.

For cranial X-ray plates, with their individually shaped sinuses and their dozens of other equally individual measurements and stigmata, to-day constitute legal identification of persons living or dead. And by that skull and jawbone – and a certain gruesome thing which I knew lay somewhere beneath the mushroom beds of 363 Fullerton Parkway, Chicago – I could quite destroy Tillary Steevens as America’s favourite mystery novelist.

More briefly, I could hang him!

For in examining the entire mouth of that skull the night just gone – and during the two minutes or so before the fire – I had discovered, by the queerly shaped and oddly placed fillings in its teeth – not to omit mention of the precise positions of three certain extractions – that it was work which I myself had once installed in a patient. In the only professional job I had ever done in my life, except for extracting Carmen’s two bad teeth. In a South American dungeon. In short, the skull was that of Laughing Sam himself!

CHAPTER XXV


GETTING THERE


NOW, you’d think, the way was all clear for me to get the rest of Sam’s skeleton disinterred from under Tillary Steevens’s mushroom beds in the basement of his house in Chicago, and put him where he belonged for the murder of my friend. But was it – or was it?

As I have already said, it was a charity organization that fitted me out with clothes. A part-worn suit – and the part that was still to go, especially on the trousers, was a mere final instalment and a short one at that. But the man who looks a pair of gift trousers in the seat is a mutt, anyhow, and I could face the world in that suit, even if I were a little chary of backing up to it.

They also fitted my interior with a good square meal, bless them l I had a talk with the lady almoner, as she called herself, and, after I had explained that there was urgent need for me to get to San Antonio, and that there was at least a prospect of my being able to repay her, she staked me my fare and one dollar over. And for once, which I believe is a rare thing, she got some acknowledgment of her charity, for the day was to come when she received a cheque for $1,000, which I counted not too much recompense for the real, Christian charity she showed to me. I thought, as I went away from that place, of my beautiful yeggman’s kit cached in ‘Frisco, and knew it would never be used again by me – knew it more surely than ever. My way was being cleared for me without work of that sort.

It wasn’t repentance, and I don’t think there was anything creditable about my turn-over to honesty. Just that I’d been a damned fool to play that risky game, when, with such wits as I had, I could make a way without it, and find that way cleared for me at every step. No, not repentance, for when I thought back I saw no reason to regret any job I’d pulled off, and in one case, that of the brute I’d lashed for killing the white kitten, I patted myself on my back. Not that at all, but a new sort of view of life, given me in the first place by the Princess on that voyage in the Ning-Wha, and buttressed solidly by this meeting with real, human kindness.

So I went to San Antonio, found the hospital, and speedily had my belief in the kindness of human beings reversed, After long delays I got to see Eli Harbord, the superintendent, a fish-eyed, buttoned-up individual who regarded me from the start as if he wished he were even more buttoned up, lest I should get a hand in his pocket. I unwrapped the skull of poor old Sam and, putting it down on his desk, explained my errand, how that I wanted copies of his X-ray photographs and record of their identity to tie up this skull as that of Sam Davis,

“Indeed, Mr. Hammond,” he said, eyeing my charity suit with disfavour, “and who is to pay the hospital for the trouble to which you propose to put us, and for the copies of photographs and record?”

“I am, when I’ve made use of them and got all they mean to me,” I said. “They’re going to prove murder, against a certain Tillary Steevens, mystery-story writer, now living in Chicago.”

“My good man, don’t be a fool!” he expostulated. “Such wild and ridiculous charges against a well-known author – I have read many of his works myself – refute themselves. And, to my mind, they seem to indicate that you ought to be medically examined as to your sanity.”

“All right,” I said, keeping my temper with difficulty. “Will you just give me five minutes to tell you the facts, and prove to you –”

“I will give you not another second,” he interrupted, and stuck his thumb on a bell-push on his desk. “I will, if you dare to stay here another minute, give you in charge for slander against one who is almost a public figure in our national life, and who – Oh, Hendrikson,” he broke off, turning to address the big Swede who answered his ring – “I want you to show this gentleman out, and if he makes any trouble about going, throw him out, and don’t be too particular as to how you do it.”

I saw at once that the Swede was too big for me to tackle – in any case, it would have been useless tackling him, for it would not have got me any farther. So, taking my skull – or rather, Sam’s skull – with me, I followed the porter to the main entrance of the hospital, and went down the steps while he watched me as if regretting that I had not given him a chance to use his muscles.

And that was that, I reflected as I took station on a free seat almost facing the hospital entrance. Without those X-ray pictures, I was sunk, and knew it. I could, of course, go to the police with my story, and perhaps get believed – and perhaps not I Too many cranks walked into police offices, as I knew, with fake confessions, fake accusations, and the like, and quite possibly I should be tucked away in a cell for a medical examination and – worst of all, might lose the skull. I was both tired and hungry: the dollar that angel in female clothing had given me in El Paso had gone on food, and there I was, at the end of my resources financially, and short of the vital evidence that would make the case against Tillary Steevens complete.

So there I sat, thinking as gloomily as a man does when his stomach is empty and he sees no prospect of filling it, and, looking up, I saw one of the leanest men on earth come down those hospital steps. A well-dressed man, jaunty and happy, by the look of him, who threw a glance over at me, stopped, and then came over to the bench.

“Discharged patient, eh?” he asked genially.

“Nope,” I told him. “Disgusted applicant.”

“Well, by the great AEsculapius!” he exclaimed. “If it isn’t Jerry Hammond himself! I thought there was something I knew about the set of those shoulders! How are you, Jerry? And what in thunder are you doing in good old San Antone, anyhow? How are you?” I was on my feet by this time, recognizing him as, at once, he had recognized me. Slim Cornish, one of our gang in the old student days when I had run around and still hoped for my dental diploma.

“I might ask the same,” I said. “Damned glad to see you, Slim – as long as you’re not ashamed to be seen with a guy dressed as I am.”

“Oh, don’t be a damned idiot!” he retorted. “Remember how I checked the book for Phil Dottworth, and lost five dollars to him over that mock wedding between you and Princess, ‘way back at our last party? By heck, that’s some years ago, too. How is the little lady?”

“Married to Wally,” I answered. “And – that’s all, Slim.”

“So I You haven’t forgotten her, by the sound of it. Well, life’s one hell of a mixture, anyhow. But what – how – why?”

“First of all,” I asked, “what are you doing in that hospital?”

“Me? Oh, I’m the big noise – consulting physician. Good advertising, you know – I do it free. I’ve got on in the world, Jerry – brain specialist, me. Just run over here once a week – San Antone ain’t big enough for my genius – people never seem to realize that a specialist is one-half bluff and three-eights common sense, with an eight of medical ability. And having the bluff all right – well, what would you? I get through on it, and run a Packard and keep four servants.”

“Congratulations,” I said – but it wasn’t a bit sincere, I realized that I might have been in the same street with him, or at least the next street down, if I had been able to finish my dental course and go the way my grandmother had hoped I might.

He laughed a little. “Something’s biting you mighty badly,” he said, “Well, let’s sit down here and talk it out. If I can help, you can count on me, for the sake of old times. What’s the trouble?”

We sat down on the bench – Lord, how glad I was to meet a real friend, as he showed himself! – and I told him the whole story there and then. Of Tillary Steevens and the skull, and my need of the X-ray pictures of Sam’s skull from the hospital records. All of it, including how Eli Harbord had received me, and practically thrown me out.

He heard it through to the end, saying nothing. When I had finished, he thought it over for a while, and I waited.

“Thin, Jerry – until you get hold of the pictures and tie up this skull with them. Then – by heck! If it’s proved, you’re on the biggest sensation that ever made front-page stuff in newspapers, or thereabouts. And old Eli, the goldarned old mug, wouldn’t see it, eh? Well, I know you, Jerry, and I remember the case. It came to me. Say, what about a spot of grub together – I’m only here for the day, and have to get away back to my practice, but I’ve got a good three hours to spare? What say – I’ve got an emptiness in my inside?”

“I’d value copies of those pictures, signed and attested, more than I would a feed,” I told him, though I was on the edge of starving.

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “As I told you, I know the case, and you shall have your pictures, signed and attested by me, Harold S. Cornish, and a whole row of letters after it, Jerry. But for the love of AEsculapius let us go and stoke up our little insides.” first, and then I’ll come back and make old Eli feel like a Texas sandstorm with the wind dropped. Come along, old son.”

So we went along, though I was by no means anxious to go, in spite of my hunger – I wanted those pictures too much to court delay in getting them. Still, it was good to feel the old belt tightening, as it did after we had seated ourselves in a joint where good food was plentiful, and, over the meal, I amplified the outlines of my tale, since Slim was interested in all of it and kept on questioning me.

“You know, Jerry,” he said when he had heard all I could tell him, “you ought to go straight to the Federal police with this.”

“And ditch my chance of making good on Tillary Steevens,” I pointed out. “No, Slim. A good lawyer in Chicago for me, with all I’ve got – that is, after I’ve got the X-ray records on Sam – and then I stand a chance of making good. If I go to the police with it right off, then I sign myself out of it. Tillary’ll get what’s coming to him, but I won’t. And as you must see, he’s thieved from me.”

“I do see it,” he said, wrinkling his brows, “and – well, I’m in with you, Jerry, to the extent of getting you what you want. And then – look here! I’ve got a brother in Chicago, and he’s got nearly as much brain as I have, except that he took to the law instead of finding an easy way to be prosperous, as I did. Abraham L. Cornish, and if you can’t guess what the L stands for, I’m not helping you. I send him a dollar or two sometimes, just to keep him from falling in at the end of a soup-kitchen line. Now, if I fit you out with those photographs, will you promise me to take your case to him? It’ll put him up on the top line, with all the publicity there is to it, and he’ll be off my hands.”

“Get me those pictures, and I’ll hand the case over to John L. Satan himself at your say-so,” I told him.

“No,” he said, “to my brother. That’s different from what you said!”

We went back to the hospital, and into Eli Harbord’s office. His face, when he saw me walk in with their brain specialist, was a cross between an earthquake, and a sandwich with a piece bitten out.

“My friend here, Mr. Hammond, wants some photographs of a case I handled some time ago, Mr. Harbord,” Slim said magnificently. “I believe he gave you the details when he called on you a few hours ago. Will you be so good as to get him copies of the photographs?”

“Oh, certainly, Mr. Cornish!” Eli answered humbly. “I will have copies made for him at once, if there are none available. Won’t you sit down, Mr. Hammond?” Again he put his thumb on the bell-push on his desk. “We – er – we have to look up old records, you know, and –”

“Oh, cut it out!” Slim interrupted him. “Get busy, man! I’ve got a train to catch, and my friend has got to have what he wants before I go. Produce copies of every one of those pictures of Sam Davis’s cranium, and don’t waste time over it. I know. too much about our game for you to fool me with the workings of it.”

Eli got busy.

Slim Cornish, brain specialist, had been lean, and on good food and a good income, as I knew. Abraham Lincoln Cornish was leaner – he was little more than a skeleton, when having travelled on the money his brother had lent me, I faced him in his office in Chicago. A two-room affair, that once, furnished as cheaply as it could be, and I guessed that the hawk-like-looking typist who showed me in in the absence of an office boy was a part-time employee – and the guess was a good one. I had Slim’s card for a passport, and told my story. If I’d got nothing else out of it, I had the satisfaction of seeing this living skeleton fatten out at the prospects it opened up for him.

“And – er – Mr. Hammond, you have the skull and the – er – photographs signed and attested by my brother?” he asked, when I had finished.

I put the skull down on his bare desk, and, beside it, the envelope in which were the pictures that Slim had had attested before he left me in San Antonio – with my fare to Chicago and a good bit over.

He gave them the once-over, and looked at me.

“Do you know, Mr. Hammond, I think we might go out to lunch and have a talk over this remarkable story you have told me. I want to get the details all fixed in my mind, and then – THEN! – I think we have an earth-shaking phenomenon. The great Tillary Steevens. Yes. Yes.”

I had no objection to his buying me a feed, though, at that time, he could probably afford it as little as I could afford to buy him one. But out we went, the part-time typist regarding me with some disfavour as we went through the outer part of his two-room office. Thanks to me, she is now a full-time employee in the establishment of Abraham L. Cornish, attorney, and has a room to herself apart from the other three wage-slaves he needs. It was a good lunch, and a long talk.

“The great Steevens,” Abraham said at the finish. “Yes. Yes. I think, the not-so-great Steevens, henceforth. In fact, Mr. Hammond, with all that you have shown me Mr. Steevens is due to disappear from the society of his fellow-men in some way. Now let me handle it – give me carte blanche, and leave it all to me. Are you agreeable to such a course? Because, if so, your fortune is made, I assure you.”

“And yours,” I told him, being sure of it.

“Incidentally, Mr. Hammond – quite incidentally,” he said. “But, so sure am I of where and how we stand, that you need not put down one cent towards: the expenses of the case. Leave it to me – just leave it to me, but come back with me to my office and let us put all this remarkable story of yours on record. Just as a precaution.”

We went back together. He said his typist was late back from lunch to-day, but I knew quite well that she only worked mornings with him and would not come back at all, but it made no difference. He took down my story himself, for the fact that his brother believed in me was good enough for him, and he was good at shorthand.

“And that is the case, Mr. Hammond,” he said at the finish, surveying his pothooks. “I think we have a – a watertight case, as you might call it. Now leave it all to me. Do nothing yourself, until I give you the word. Yes, leave it all to me, and rely on me – no charge, no charge whatever, I assure you, at this stage. We have here, I think, a monumental –”

“Never mind the superlatives,” I cut in. “I’ll leave it to you for a day or two and see what happens. If I don’t get what’s coming to me, you don’t get what’s coming to you, for I’ve nothing.”

“Would you like, say, a hundred dollars on account, Mr. Hammond?”

Just to see if he could make good on it, I said I would.

He produced an old pocket-book, and counted me out ten tens. It left him just one ten, I could see.

“Make it fifty,” I said. “I don’t want to bankrupt you.”

He smiled and pushed the ten notes at me across the desk.

“My dear Mr. Hammond,” he said, “I see fame and fortune ahead of me over this case. By all means, take the lot.”

I took it, bade him good day, and went out. For I knew that, as he had said, such a case as this meant fame and fortune for him. And, I hoped, it meant fortune for me, if he played his part well.

Not that I cared a lot about fortune, in reality. Enough to give me meals and a bed – yes. But all the time I remembered my Princess and our voyage together, and, without her, all I could win out of Tillary did not interest me overmuch.

CHAPTER XXVI


TO LEARN THE “OUTS”


COMING down the steps of the Criminal Courts Building, at Chicago, just seven days after my discovery in El Paso, I felt sad and elated both. Sad because of the meeting I had just had to be in – in the State’s Attorney’s office. A meeting where Tillary, facing the facts of what was dug up under his mushroom-beds, had agreed to take twenty years in Joliet penitentiary – which light sentence had been vouchsafed him apparently only because he had consented to turn back to me all of grandfather’s scripts, and had signed a statement as to how he got them. And turned them back, moreover, he actually had – all of them.

Harcourt, of Hiffton, MacHarcourt and Company had remained up there, to talk longer with the D.A.– and he had in his pocket my signed contract for publication of all of the scripts, modernized, of course, over the coming years – and he was now eagerly taking down details of their plots and their titles. Thus my elation – such as it was!

And I stood alone – and free – even wealthy – on the steps of the huge building. Terribly alone, to say the least. Stood, wondering what next. Till suddenly, coming along the sidewalk, I saw –

Yes – it was she!

My dear Princess!

She came up to me. That is, up to where I was! – for I had quickly left those steps and hurried towards her – and now I took both of her hands in mine.

“Princess!” I said. “Why – why are you here? You read, of course –”

“Yes, Jerry. Of course I read – every line printed about the case – in the newspapers. And I have just flown all the way from the Pacific Coast to catch you before you leave Chicago – to tell you something – something so vital. I came straight here to the Criminal Courts Building because I knew the District Attorney here could send me straight to where you were.”

“What is it so vital you want to tell me, Princess?”

“He is dead.”

“Dead? Your husband –”

“Yes, dead, Jerry. And his cruelty to me of years is ended for ever. But as for his being my husband, Jerry – well, it seems he wasn’t. For I have, it appears, been bigamously married to him – all these years.”

“My God!” I groaned. “Of all the luck! A previous marriage, Princess? Well, if it weren’t for that, now, I could–”

“Jerry,” she said, “speaking of marriages – mock as well as real – do you remember, in the long ago, the lanky chap, Phil Dottworth, who conducted a mock marriage of you and me – at that party?”

“Sure – sure I do. He was a good one to do it, for he was a theological student – and I think was due eventually to become a minister.”

“Well, Jerry, he came to me – yesterday – the moment he read in the paper that my husband died, And he told me how he had worried all these years – because of what he alone knew. Jerry – what would you say if you were to be told that he was ordained the very day of the evening on which he conducted that mock ceremony for us?”

“But he couldn’t have been. Because –”

“But he was, Jerry. And didn’t know it himself. His notification had been delayed in the mails. And, Jerry, it seems he thereby actually and legally married, us. By bell, book and candle – as it were!”

“Princess!” I said, taking both her hands in mine. “Then – then all the time – we have been husband and wife – even on the Pacific?”

“Yes, dear Jerry. Even on the Pacific. Except that I – alas – have been, all the time, a bigamist.”

“While, I,” I said grimly, “have been, all the time, a –” But I cut it off.

“Well, husband o’ mine,” she said, half-gaily yet halfsadly, “now that you’re coming back with me – and remain in seclusion a few days till the funeral is over – for I’m going to take you right by the ear and bring you straight back by return ‘plane with me – what are you going to do with your life? Are you going to live on these rich royalties you’ll be getting?”

“Gosh no, darling – I’m – I’m going to work. At something.”

“Well, how about, Jerry – carrying on the business my husband – that is, alas, my husband in my bigamy! – was in? You see, it should go efficiently on, Jerry – because my two uncles and an aunt – and even I share in practically all the stock in it.”

“What is the business?” I asked. “You never told me in Honolulu or aboard the Ning-Wha what it was.”
‘No,” she admitted. “I – I didn’t like to. It was such – such a prosaic sort of business. And you always called me a Princess. But it is the American Burglar-Proof Safe Company. Though, Jerry, do you think – do you think you could learn – the ins and outs of burglar-proof safes?”

I bent down and kissed her, right on the street. “Yes, darling. In fact, maybe all I’ll have to learn is the ‘outs.’ Well – let’s go.” I bent down and kissed her, right on the street. “Yes, darling. In fact, maybe all I’ll have to learn is the ‘outs.’ Well – let’s go.”

THE END

THE END