Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio
(Return to Web Text-ures)
X. — Some Bad
IT happened that on the night of the great attempt the inquisitive Mr. Lane, of 76 Cawdor Street, was considerably exercised in his mind as to the depleted condition of his humble treasury. With Mr. Lane the difference between affluence and poverty was a matter of shillings. His line of business was a humble one. Lead piping and lengths of telephone wire, an occasional door-mat improvidently left outside whilst the servant cleaned the hall, these represented the scope and extent of his prey. Perhaps he reached his zenith when he lifted an overcoat from a hatstand what time a benevolent old lady was cutting him thick slices of bread and butter in a basement kitchen.
Mr. Lane had only recently returned from a short stay in Wormwood Scrubbs Prison. It was over a trifling affair of horsehair abstracted from railway carriage cushions that compelled Mr. Lane's retirement for two months. It was that same affair that brought about his undoing on the night of the attempt.
For the kudos of the railway theft had nerved him to more ambitious attempts, and with a depleted exchequer to urge him forward, and the prestige of his recent achievements to support him, he decided upon burglary. It was a wild and reckless departure from his regular line, and he did not stop to consider the disabilities attaching to a change of profession, nor debate the unpropitious conditions of an already overstocked labour market. It is reasonable to suppose that Mr. Lane lacked the necessary qualities of logic and balance to argue any point to its obvious conclusion, for he was, intellectually, the reverse of brilliant, and was therefore ill-equipped for introspective or psychological examination of the circumstances leading to his decision. Communing with himself, the inquisitive Mr. Lane put the matter tersely and brutally.
"Lead pipin's no go unless you've got a pal to r work with; telephone wires is so covered up with wood casin' that it's worse'n hard work to pinch two-penn'oth. I'm goin' to have a cut at Joneses."
So in the pelting rain he watched "Joneses" from a convenient doorway. He noted with satisfaction the "workmen" departing one by one; he observed with joy the going of "Jones" himself; and when, some few minutes afterwards, the queer-looking old man, whom he suspected as being a sort of caretaker, came shuffling out, slamming the gate behind him, and peering left and right, and mumbling to himself as he squelched through the rain, the watcher regarded the removal of this final difficulty as being an especial act of Providence.
He waited for another half hour, because, for some reason or other, the usually deserted street became annoyingly crowded. First came a belated coal cart and a miserably bedraggled car-man who cried his wares dolefully. Then a small boy, escaping from the confines of his domestic circle, came to revel in the downpour and wade ecstatically but thoroughly through the puddles that had formed on the uneven surface of the road. Nemesis, in the shape of a shrill-voiced mother, overtook the boy and sent him whining and expectant to the heavy hand of maternal authority. With the coast clear Mr. Lane lost no time. In effecting an entrance to the head-quarters of the "Borough Lot," Mr. Lane's method lacked subtlety. He climbed over the gate leading to the yard, trusting inwardly that he was not observed, but taking his chance. Had he been an accomplished burglar, with the experience of any exploits behind him, he would have begun by making a very thorough inspection of likely windows. Certainly he would never have tried the "office" door. Being the veriest tyro, and being conscious, moreover, that his greatest feats had connection with doors carelessly left ajar, he tried the door, and to his delight it opened.
Again the skilled craftsman would have suspected some sort of treachery, and might have withdrawn; but Mr. Lane, recognizing in the fact that the old man had forgotten to fasten the door behind him only yet another proof of that benevolent Providence which exerts itself for the express service of men "in luck," entered boldly. He lit a candle stump and looked around.
The evidence of that wealth which is the particular possession of "master-men" was not evident. Indeed, the floor of the passage was uncarpeted, and the walls bare of picture or ornament. Nor was the "office," a little room leading from the "passage," any more prolific of result. Such fixtures as there were had apparently been left behind by the previous tenant, and these were thick with dust.
"Bah!" said the inquisitive Mr. Lane scornfully, and his words echoed hollowly as in an empty house.
With the barren possibilities of his exploit before him, Mr. Lane's spirits fell.
He was of the class, to whom reference has already been made, that looked in awe and reverence toward the "Borough Lot" in the same spirit as the youthful curate might regard the consistory of bishops. In his cups — pewter cups they were with frothing heads a-top — he was wont to boast that his connection with the "Borough Lot" was both close and intimate. A rumour that went around to the effect that the "mouthpiece" who defended him at the closing of the unsatisfactory horsehair episode had been paid for by the "Borough Lot" he did not trouble to contradict.
If he had known any of them, even by sight, he would not at that moment have been effecting p a burglarious entry into their premises.
Room after room he searched. He found the ill-furnished bedroom of Connor, and the room where old George slept on an uncleanly mattress. He found, too, the big room where the "Lot" held their informal meetings, but nothing portable. Nothing that a man might slip under his coat, and walk boldly out of the front door with. No little article of jewelry that your wife might carry to a pawnbroker's with a long face and a longer story of a penury that forced you to part with her dear mother's last gift. None of these, noted Mr. Lane bitterly, and with every fresh disappointment he breathed the harder.
For apart from the commercial aspect of this, his burglary, there was the sickening humiliation of failure. An imaginative man, he had already invented the story he was to tell to a few select cronies in sneak-thief division. He had rehearsed mentally a scene where, with an air of non-chalance, he drew a handful of golden sovereigns from his pocket and ordered drinks round. And whilst they were sipping his drinks, smirking respectfully, he would have confided to them the fact that he had been duly, and with all ceremony, installed a full-fledged member of the "Borough Lot." Of the irony of the situation he was ignorant. A qualified burglar would have completed a systematic examination of the premises in ten minutes, but Mr. Lane was not so qualified. In consequence he dawdled from room to room, go ing back to this room to make sure, and returning to that room to be absolutely certain that nothing had been overlooked. Oblivious of the flight of time, he stood irresolutely in the topmost room of the house when the real adventure of the even ing began. He heard the click of a lock — he had thoughtfully closed the office door behind him — and a voice, and his heart leapt into his throat. He heard a voice, a voice hoarse with rage, and another, and yet another.
Mr. Lane realized, from the stamping of feet on the stairs, that half a dozen men had come into the house; from their language he gathered they were annoyed.
Then he heard something that froze his blood and turned his marrow to water.
It had begun in a rumble of hoarse, undistinguishable words, and ended in the phrase that caught his ear.
"... he's sold us, I tell ye! Put spies on us! He led us into the trap, curse him . . ."
He heard another voice speaking in a lower tone.
"What are we worth? You're a fool! What d'ye think we're worth? Ain't we the 'Borough Lot'? Don't he know enough to hang two or three of us... It's Connor and his pal the lawyer... "
'The Borough Lot'!
The paralyzing intelligence came to Mr. Lane, and he held on to the bare mantelshelf for support. Spies! Suppose they discovered him, and mistook him for a spy! His hair rose at the thought. He knew them well enough by repute. Overmuch hero-worship had invested them with qualities for evil which they may or may not have possessed.
There might be a chance of escape. The tumult below continued. Scraps of angry talk came floating up.
Mr. Lane looked out of the window; the drop into the street was too long, and there was no sign of rope in the house.
Cautiously he opened the door of the room. The men were in the room beneath that in which he stood. The staircase that led to the street must take him past their door.
Mr. Lane was very anxious to leave the house. He had unwittingly stepped into a hornets' nest, and wanted to make his escape without disturbing the inmates. Now was the time — or never. Whilst the angry argument continued a creaking stair board or so might not attract attention. But he made no allowance for the gifts of these men — gifts of sight and hearing. Bat Sands, in the midst of his tirade, saw the uplifted finger and head-jerk of Goyle. He did not check his flow of invective, but edged toward the door; then he stopped short, and flinging the door open, he caught the scared Mr. Lane by the throat, and dragging him into the room, threw him upon the ground and knelt on him.
"What are ye doing here?" he whispered fiercely.
Mr. Lane, with protruding eyes, saw the pitiless faces about him, saw Goyle lift a life-preserver from the table and turn half-round the better to strike, and fainted.
"Stop that!" growled Bat, with outstretched hand. "The little swine has fainted. Who is he? Do any of you fellers know him?"
It was the wizened-faced man whom Angel had addressed as Lamby who furnished the identification.
"He's a little crook — name of Lane."
"Where does he come from?"
"Oh, hereabouts. He was in the Scrubbs in my time," said Lamby.
They regarded the unconscious burglar in perplexity.
"Go through his pockets," suggested Goyle.
It happened — and this was the most providential happening of the day from Mr. Lane's point of view — that when he had decided upon embarking on his career of high-class crime he had thoughtfully provided himself with a few home-made instruments. It was the little poker with flattened end to form a jemmy and the centre-bit that was found in his pocket that in all probability saved Mr. Lane's life.
Lombroso and other great criminologists have given it out that your true degenerate has no sense of humour, but on two faces at least there was a broad grin when the object of the little man's visit was revealed.
"He came to burgle Connor," said Bat admiringly. "Here, pass over the whisky, one of ye!"
He forced a little down the man's throat, and Mr. Lane blinked and opened his eyes in a frightened stare.
"Stand up," commanded Bat, "an' give an account of yourself, young feller. What d'ye mean by breaking into — "
"Never mind about that," Goyle interrupted savagely. "What has he heard when he was sneaking outside — that's the question."
"Nothin', gentlemen!" gasped the unfortunate Mr. Lane, "on me word, gentlemen! I've been in trouble like yourselves, an' — "
He realized he had blundered.
"Oh," said Goyle with ominous calm, "so you've been in trouble like us, have you?"
"I mean — "
"I know what you mean," hissed the other; "you mean you've been listenin' to what we've been saying, you little skunk, and you're ready to bleat to the first copper."
It might have gone hard with Mr. Lane but for the opportune arrival of the messenger. Bat went downstairs at the knock, and the rest stood quietly listening. They expected Connor, and when his voice did not sound on the stairs they looked at one another questioningly. Bat came into the room with a yellow envelope in his hand. He passed it to Goyle. Reading was not an accomplishment of his. Goyle read it with difficulty.
"Do the best you can," he read. "I'm lying 'doggo.'"
"What does that mean?" snarled Goyle, holding the message in his hand and looking at Bat.
"Hidin', is he — and we've got to do the best we can?"
Bat reached for his overcoat. He did not speak as he struggled into it, nor until he had buttoned it deliberately.
"It means — git," he said shortly. "It means run, or else it means time, an' worse than time."
He swung round to the door.
"Connor's hidin'," he stopped to say. "When Connor starts hiding the place is getting hot. There's nothing against me so far as I know, except — "
His eyes fell on the form of Mr. Lane. He had raised himself to a sitting position on the floor, and now, with dishevelled hair and outstretched legs, he sat the picture of despair.
Goyle intercepted the glance.
"What about him?" he asked.
"Leave him," said Bat; "we've got no time for fooling with him."
A motor-car came buzzing down Cawdor Street, which was unusual. They heard the grind of its brakes outside the door, and that in itself was sufficiently alarming. Bat extinguished the light, and cautiously opened the shutters. He drew back with an oath.
"What's that?" Goyle whispered. Bat made no reply, and they heard him open his matchbox.
"What are you doing?" whispered Goyle fiercely.
"Light the lamp," said the other.
The tinkle of glass followed as he removed the chimney, and in the yellow light Bat faced the "Borough Lot."
"U — P spells 'up,' an' that's what the game is," he said calmly.
He was searching his pockets as he spoke. "I want a light because there's one or two things in my pocket that I've got to burn — quick!"
After some fumbling he found a paper. He gave it a swift examination, then he struck a match and carefully lit the corner.
"It's the fairest cop," he went on. "The street's full of police, and Angel ain't playing 'gamblin' raids' this time."
There was a heavy knock on the door, but nobody moved. Goyle's face had gone livid. He knew better than any man there how impossible escape was. That had been one of the drawbacks to the house — the ease with which it could be surrounded. He had pointed out the fact to Connor before.
Again the knock.
"Let 'em open it," said Bat grimly, and as though the people outside had heard the invitation, the door crashed in, and there came a patter as of men running on the stairs.
First to enter the room was Angel. He nodded to Bat coolly, then stepped aside to allow the policemen to follow.
"I want you," he said briefly.
"What for?" asked Sands.
"Breaking and entering," said the detective. "Put out your hands!"
Bat obeyed. As the steel stirrup-shaped irons snapped on his wrists he asked —
"Have you got Connor?"
"Connor lives to fight another day," he said quietly.
The policemen who attended him were busy with the other occupants of the room.
"Bit of a field-day for you, Mr. Angel," said the thin-faced Lamby pleasantly. "Thought you was goin' to let us off?"
"Jumping at conclusions hastily is a habit to be deplored," said Angel sententiously. Then he saw the panic-stricken Mr. Lane.
"Hullo, what's this?" he demanded.
Mr. Lane had at that moment the inspiration of his life. Since he was by fortuitous circumstances involved in this matter, and since it could make very little difference one way or the other what he said, he seized the fame that lay to his hand.
"I am one of the 'Borough Lot,'" he said, and was led out proud and handcuffed with the knowledge that he had established beyond dispute his title to consideration as a desperate criminal.
Mr. Spedding was a man who thought quickly. Ideas and plans came to him as dross and diamonds come to the man at the sorting table, and he had the faculty of selection. He saw the police system of England as only the police themselves saw it, and he had an open mind upon Angel's action. It was within the bounds of possibility that Angel had acted with full authority; it was equally possible that Angel was bluffing.
Mr. Spedding had two courses before him, and they were both desperate; but he must be sure in how, so far, his immediate liberty depended upon the whim of a deputy-assistant-commissioner of police.
Angel had mentioned a supreme authority. It was characteristic of Spedding that he should walk into a mine to see how far the fuse had burned. In other words, he hailed the first cab, and drove to the House of Commons.
The Right Honorable George Chandler Middleborough, His Majesty's Secretary of State for Home Affairs, is a notoriously inaccessible man; but he makes exceptions, and such an exception he made in favour of Spedding. For eminent solicitors do not come down to the House at ten o'clock in the evening to gratify an idle curiosity, or to be shown over the House, or beg patronage and interest; and when a business card is marked "most urgent," and that card stands for a staple representative of an important profession, the request for an interview is not easily refused.
Spedding was shown into the minister's room, and the Home Secretary rose with a smile. He knew Mr. Spedding by sight, and had once dined in his company,
"Er — " he began, looking at the card in his hand, "what can I do for you at this hour?" he smiled again
"I have called to see you in the matter of the late — er — Mr. Reale." He saw and watched the minister's face. Beyond looking a little puzzled, the Home Secretary made no sign.
"Good!" thought Spedding, and breathed with more freedom.
"I'm afraid — " said the minister. He got no further, for Spedding was at once humility, apology, and embarrassment.
What! had the Home Secretary not received his letter? A letter dealing with the estate of Reale? You can imagine the distress and vexation on Mr. Spedding's face as he spoke of the criminal carelessness of his clerk, his attitude of helplessness, his recognition of the absolute impossibility of discussing the matter until the Secretary had received the letter, and his withdrawal, leaving behind him a sympathetic minister of State who would have been pleased — would have been delighted, my dear sir, to have helped Mr. Spedding if he'd received the letter in time to consider its contents. Mr. Spedding was an inventive genius, and it might have been in reference to him that the motherhood of invention was first identified with dire necessity.
Out again in the courtyard, Spedding found a cab that carried him to his club.
"Angel bluffed!" he reflected with an inward smile. "My friend, you are risking that nice appointment of yours."
He smiled again, for it occurred to him that his risk was the greater.
"Two millions!" he murmured. "It is worth it: I could do a great deal with two millions."
He got down at his club, and tendered the cab-man the legal fare to a penny.