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VI. The Red Envelope
MR. SPEDDING, the admirable lawyer, lived on Clapham Common, where he owned the freehold of that desirable residence, "High Holly Lodge." He was a bachelor, with a taste for bridge parties and Madeira. Curious neighbours would have been mystified if they had known that Mr. Spedding's repair bill during the first two years of his residence was something well over three thousand pounds. What they did know was that Mr. Spedding "had the builders in" for an unconscionable time, that they were men who spoke in a language entirely foreign to Clapham, and that they were housed during the period of renovation in a little galvanized iron bungalow erected for the purpose in the grounds.
A neighbour on visiting terms expressed his opinion that for all the workmen had done he could discern no material difference in the structure of the house, and from his point of view the house presented the same appearance after the foreign builders left, as it did before their advent. Mr. Spedding met all carelessly-applied questions concerning the extent of the structural alterations with supreme discretion. He spoke vaguely about a new system of ventilation, and hinted at warmth by radiation.
Suburbia loves to show off its privately conceived improvements to property, but Mr. Spedding met veiled hints of a desire to inspect his work with that comfortable smile which was so valuable an asset of his business.
It was a few evenings after the scene in the Lombard Street Deposit that Mr. Spedding sat in solitude before his modest dinner at Clapham.
An evening newspaper lay by the side of his chair, and he picked it up at intervals to read again the paragraph which told of the release of the "Borough Lot." The paragraph read:
"The men arrested in connection with the gambling raid at Poplar were discharged today, the police, it is understood, failing to secure sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution."
The lawyer shook his head doubtfully.
"I rather like Angel Esquire's definition," he said with a wry smile. "It is a neat method of saving the face of the police, but I could wish that the 'Borough Lot' were out of the way."
Later he had occasion to change his opinion.
A tap at the door preceded the entry of a sedate butler. The lawyer looked at the card on the tray, and hesitated; then, "Show him in," he said.
Jimmy came into the room, and bowed slightly to the elder man, who rose at his entrance.
They waited in silence till the servant had closed the door behind him.
"To what am I indebted?" began the lawyer, and motioned his visitor to a seat.
"May I smoke?" asked Jimmy, and Mr. Spedding nodded.
"It is in the matter of Reale's millions," said Jimmy, and allowed his eyes to follow the cloud of smoke he blew.
"I thought it was understood that this was a subject which might only be discussed at my office and in business hours?" said the lawyer sharply, and Jimmy nodded again.
"You will confess, Mr. Spedding," he said easily, "that the Reale will is sufficiently unconventional to justify any departure from established custom on the part of the fortunate or unfortunate legatees."
Mr. Spedding made an impatient movement of his hand.
"I do not inquire into your business," Jimmy went on smoothly enough, "and I am wholly incurious as to in what strange manner you became acquainted with your late client, or what fees you received to undertake so extraordinary a commission; but I am satisfied that you are recompensed for such trifling inconveniences as say an after-dinner visit from myself."
Jimmy had a way of choosing his words, hesitating for the exact expression that would best convey every shade of his meaning. The lawyer, too, recognized the logic of the speech, and contented himself with a shrug which meant nothing.
"I do not inquire into your motives," Jimmy resumed; "it pleases me to believe that they are entirely disinterested, that your attitude is the ideal one as between client and agent."
His pause was longer this time, and the lawyer was piqued into interjecting an impatient
"Well," said Jimmy slowly, "believing all this, let us say, I am at a loss to know why at the reading of the will you gave us no indication of the existence of a key to this mysterious verse."
"There is no key," said the lawyer quickly, and added, "so far as I know."
"That you did not tell us," Jimmy went on, as though unconscious of any interruption, "of the big red envelope"
Spedding sprang to his feet white as death. "The envelope," he stammered angrily, "what do you know what envelope?"
Jimmy's hand waved him to his seat.
"Let us have no emotions, no flights, no outraged honour, I beg of you, dear Mr. Spedding. I do not suggest that you have any sinister reasons for withholding information concerning what my friend Angel would call the 'surprise packet'. In good time I do not doubt you would have disclosed its existence."
"I know of no red envelope," said the lawyer doggedly.
"I rather fancied you would say that," said Jimmy, with a touch of admiration in his tone. "You are not the sort of fox to curl up and howl at the first bay of the hound if you will permit the simile indeed, you would have disappointed me if you had."
The lawyer paced the room.
"Look here," he said, coming to a halt before the semi-recumbent form that lay behind a haze of cigarette smoke in the arm-chair, "you've spent a great deal of your time telling me what I am, describing my many doubtful qualities, and hinting more or less broadly that I am a fairly representative scoundrel. May I ask what is your ultimate object? Is it blackmail?" he demanded harshly.
"No," said Jimmy, by no means disconcerted by the brutality of the question. "Are you begging, or borrowing, or "
"Stealing?" murmured Jimmy lazily.
"All that I have to say to you is, finish your business and go. Furthermore, you are at liberty to come with me tomorrow morning and search my office and question my clerks. I will accompany you to my banks, and to the strong-room I rent at the deposit. Search for this red envelope you speak about, and if you find it, you are at liberty to draw the worst deductions you will."
Jimmy pulled gently at his cigarette with reflective eyes cast upward to the ceiling.
"Do you speak Spanish?" he asked.
"No," said the other impatiently.
"It's a pity," said Jimmy, with a note of genuine regret. "Spanish is a very useful language especially in the Argentine, for which delightful country, I understand, lawyers who betray their trust have an especial predilection. My Spanish needs a little furbishing, and only the other day I was practising with a man whose name, I believe, is Murrello. Do you know him?"
"If you have completed your business, I will ring for the servant," said the lawyer.
"He told me my Spaniard, I mean a curious story. He comes from Barcelona, and by way of being a mason or something of the sort, was brought to England with some other of his fellow-countrymen to make some curious alterations to the house of a Senor in er Clapham of all places in the world."
The lawyer's breath came short and fast.
"From what I was able to gather," Jimmy went on languidly, "and my Spanish is Andalusian rather than Catalonian, so that I missed some of his interesting narrative, these alterations partook of the nature of wonderfully concealed strong-rooms steel doors artfully covered with cheap wood carving, vaults cunningly constructed beneath innocent basement kitchens, little stairways in apparently solid walls and the like."
The levity went out of his voice, and he straightened himself in his chair.
"I have no desire to search your office," he said quietly, "or perhaps I should say no further desire, for I have already methodically examined every hole and corner. No," he checked the words on Spedding's lips, "no, it was not I who committed the blundering burglary you spoke of. You never found traces of me, I'll swear. You may keep the keys of your strong-room, and I shall not trouble your bankers."
"What do you want?" demanded the lawyer shortly.
"I want to see what you have got downstairs," was the reply, and there was no doubting its earnestness, "and more especially do I want to see the red envelope."
The lawyer bent his brows in thought. His eyes were fixed unwaveringly on Jimmy's.
"Suppose," he said slowly, "suppose that such an envelope did exist, suppose for the sake of argument these mysterious vaults and secret chambers are, as you suggest, in existence, what right have you, more than any other one of the beneficiaries under the will, to demand a private examination? Why should I give you an unfair advantage over them?"
Jimmy rose to his feet and stretched himself before replying.
"There is only one legatee whom I recognize," he said briefly, "that is the girl. The money is hers. I do not want a farthing. I am equally determined that nobody else shall touch a penny neither my young friend Connor " he stopped to give emphasis to the next two words "nor yourself."
"Sir!" said the outraged Mr. Spedding.
"Nor yourself, Mr. Spedding," repeated Jimmy with conviction. "Let us understand each other thoroughly. You are, as I read you, a fairly respectable citizen. I would trust you with ten or a hundred thousand pounds without experiencing the slightest anxiety. I would not trust you with two millions in solid cash, nor would I trust any man. The magnitude of the sum is calculated to overwhelm your moral sense. The sooner the red envelope is in the possession of Angel Esquire the better for us all."
Spedding stood with bent head, his fingers nervously stroking his jaw, thinking.
"An agile mind this," thought Jimmy; "if I am not careful there will be trouble here." He watched the lawyer's face, and noticed the lines suddenly disappear from the troubled face, and the placid smile returning.
"Conciliation and partial confession," judged Jimmy, and his diagnosis was correct.
"Well, Mr. Jimmy," said Spedding, with some show of heartiness, "since you know so much, it may be as well to tell you more. As you have so cleverly discovered, my house to a great extent is a strong-room. There are many valuable documents that I could not with any confidence leave deposited at my office. They are safer here under my eye, so to speak. The papers of the late Mr. Reale are, I confess, in this house; but now mark me whether the red envelope you speak of is amongst these I do not know. There is a multitude of documents in connection with the case, all of which I have had no time to go through. The hour is late, but "
He paused irresolutely.
" If you would care to inspect the mysteries of the basement " he smiled benevolently, and was his old self "I shall be happy to have your assistance in a cursory search."
Jimmy was alert and watchful and to the point.
"Lead the way," he said shortly, and Spedding, after a moment's hesitation, opened the door and Jimmy followed him into the hall.
Contrary to his expectations, the lawyer led him upstairs, and through a plainly furnished bedroom to a small dressing room that opened off. There was a conventional wardrobe against the wall, and this Spedding opened. A dozen suits hung from hooks and stretchers, and the lawyer groped amongst these for a moment. Then there was a soft click, and the back of the wardrobe swung back.
Spedding turned to his visitor with a quizzical smile.
"Your friend Angel's method of gaining admittance to the haunt of the 'Borough Lot' was not original. Come."
Jimmy stepped gingerly through into the darkness. He heard the snap of a button, and a soft glow of light revealed a tiny chamber, in which two men might comfortably stand upright. The back of the wardrobe closed, and they were alone in a little room about as large as an average cupboard.
There was a steel lever on one side of the walls, and this the lawyer pulled cautiously. Jimmy felt a sinking sensation, and heard a faint, far-off buzzing of machinery.
"An electric lift, I take it," he said quietly.
"An electric lift," repeated the lawyer.
Down, down, down they sank, till Jimmy calculated that they must be at least twenty feet below the street level. Then the lift slowed down and stopped at a door. Spedding opened this with a key he took from his pocket, and they stepped out into a chill, earthy darkness.
"There's a light here," said the lawyer, and groped for the switch.
They were in a large vaulted apartment lit from the roof. At one end a steel door faced them, and ranged about the vault on iron racks a number of black japanned boxes.
Jimmy noted the inscriptions, and was a little surprised at the extent and importance of the solicitor's practice. Spedding must have read his thoughts, for he turned with a smile.
"Not particularly suggestive of a defaulting solicitor," he said ironically.
"Two million pounds," replied Jimmy immediately, "that is my answer to you, Mr. Spedding. An enormous fortune for the reaching. I wouldn't trust the Governors of the Bank of England."
Spedding may have been annoyed as he walked to the door in the wall and opened it, but he effectively concealed his annoyance.
As the door fell backward, Jimmy saw a little apartment, four feet by six feet, with a roof he could touch with his hand. There was a fresh current of air, but from whence it came he could not discover. The only articles of furniture in the little cell were a writing table and a swing chair placed exactly beneath the electric lamp in the roof.
Spedding pulled open a drawer in the desk.
"I do not keep my desks locked here," he said pleasantly enough.
It was characteristic of him that he indulged in no preamble, no apologetic preliminaries, and that he showed no sign of embarrassment as he slipped his hand into the drawer, and drawing forth a bulky red envelope, threw it on to the desk.
You might have forgotten that his last words were denials that the red envelope had existed. Jimmy looked at him curiously, and the lawyer returned his gaze.
"A new type?" he asked.
"Hardly," said Jimmy cheerfully. "I once knew a man like you in the Argentine he was hanged eventually."
"Curious," mused the lawyer, "I have often thought I might be hanged, but have never quite seen why " He nearly added something else, but checked himself.
Jimmy had the red envelope in his hand and was examining it closely. It was heavily sealed with the lawyer's own seal, and bore the inscription in Reale's crabbed, illiterate handwriting, "Puzzle Ideas." He weighed it and pinched it. There was a little compact packet inside.
"I shall open this," said Jimmy decisively. "You, of course, have already examined it."
The lawyer made no reply.
Jimmy broke the seal of the envelope. Half his mind was busy in speculation as to its contents, the other half was engaged with the lawyer's plans. Jimmy was too experienced a man to be deceived by the complaisance of the smooth Mr. Spedding. He watched his every move. All the while he was engaged in what appeared to be a concentrated examination of the packet his eyes never left the lawyer. That Spedding made no sign was a further proof in Jimmy's eyes that the coup was to come.
"We might as well examine the envelope upstairs as here," said the lawyer. The other man nodded, and followed him from the cell. Spedding closed the steel door and locked it, then turned to Jimmy.
"Do you notice," he said with some satisfaction, "how skilfully this chamber is constructed?" He waved his hand round the larger vault, at the iron racks and the shiny black boxes.
Jimmy was alert now. The lawyer's geniality was too gratuitous, his remarks a trifle inapropos. It was like the lame introduction to a story which the teller was anxious to drag in at all hazards.
"Here, for instance," said the lawyer, tapping one of the boxes, "is what appears to be an ordinary deed box. As a matter of fact, it is an ingenious device for trapping burglars, if they should by any chance reach the vault. It is not opened by an ordinary key, but by the pressure of a button, either in my room or here."
He walked leisurely to the end of the vault, Jimmy following.
For a man of his build Spedding was a remarkably agile man. Jimmy had underrated his agility.
He realized this when suddenly the lights went out. Jimmy sprang for the lawyer, and struck the rough stone wall of the vault. He groped quickly left and right, and grasped only the air.
"Keep quiet," commanded Spedding's calm voice from the other end of the chamber, "and keep cool. I am going to show you my burglar catcher."
Jimmy's lingers were feeling along the wall for the switch that controlled the lights. As if divining his intention, the lawyer's voice said
"The lights are out of control, Jimmy, and I am fairly well out of your reach."
"We shall see," was Jimmy's even reply.
"And if you start shooting you will only make the atmosphere of this place a little more unbreathable than it is at present," Spedding went on.
Jimmy smiled in the darkness, and the lawyer heard the snap of a Colt pistol as his captive loaded.
"Did you notice the little ventilator?" asked the lawyer's voice again. "Well, I am behind that. Between my unworthy body and your nickel bullets there are two feet of solid masonry."
Jimmy made no reply, his pistol went back to his hip again. He had his electric lamp in his pocket, but prudently kept it there.
"Before we go any further," he said slowly, "will you be good enough to inform me as to your intentions?"
He wanted three minutes, he wanted them very badly; perhaps two minutes would be enough. All the time the lawyer was speaking he was actively employed. He had kicked off his shoes when the lights went out, and now he stole round the room, his sensitive hands flying over the stony walls.
"As to my intentions," the lawyer was saying, "it must be fairly obvious to you that I am not going to hand you over to the police. Rather, my young friend, in the vulgar parlance of the criminal classes, I am going to 'do you in', meaning thereby, if you will forgive the legal terminology, that I shall assist you to another and, I hope, though I am not sanguine, a better world."
He heard Jimmy's insolent laugh in the blackness.
"You are a man after my own heart, Jimmy," he went on regretfully. "I could have wished that I might have been spared this painful duty; but it is a duty, one that I owe to society and myself."
"You are an amusing person," said Jimmy's voice.
"I am glad you think so. Jimmy, my young friend, I am afraid our conversation must end here. Do you know anything of chemistry?"
"Then you will appreciate my burglar catcher," said Spedding, with uncanny satisfaction. "You, perhaps, noticed the japanned box with the perforated lid? You did? Good! There are two compartments, and two chemicals in certain quantities kept apart. My hand is on the key now that will combine them. When cyanide of potassium is combined with sulphuric acid, do you know what gas is formed?"
Jimmy did not reply. He had found what he had been searching for. His talk with the Spanish builder had been to some purpose. It was a little stony projection from the wall. He pressed it downward, and was sensible of a sensation of coldness. He reached out his hand, and found where solid wall had been a blank space.
"Do you hear, Jimmy?" asked the lawyer's voice.
"I hear," replied Jimmy, and felt for the edge of the secret door. His fingers sliding down the smooth surface of the flange encountered the two catches.
"It is hydrocyanic acid," said the lawyer's smooth voice, and Jimmy heard the snap of the button.
"Goodbye," said the lawyer's voice again, and Jimmy reeled back through the open doorway swinging the door behind him, and carrying with him a whiff of air heavily laden with the scent of almonds.