The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 1/Chapter 5
THE AFFAIR OF THE PUSHCART MAN
LARRY THE BAT shambled out of the side door of the tenement into the back alleyway; shambled along the black alleyway to the street—and smiled a little grimly as a shadow across the roadway suddenly shifted its position. The game was growing acute, critical, desperate even—and it was his move.
Larry the Bat, disreputable denizen of the underworld, alias Jimmie Dale, millionaire clubman, alias the Gray Seal, whom Garruthers of the Morning News-Argus called the master criminal of the age, shuffled along in the direction of the Bowery, his hands plunged deep in the pockets of his frayed and tattered trousers, where his fingers, in a curious, wistful way, fondled the keys of his own magnificent residence on Riverside Drive. It was his move—and it was an impasse, ironical, sardonic, and it was worse—it was full of peril.
True, he had outwitted Kline of the secret service two nights before, when Kline had raided the counterfeiters' den; true, he had no reason to believe that Kline suspected him specifically, but the man Kline wanted had entered the tenement that night, and since then the house had been shadowed day and night. The result was both simple and disastrous—to Jimmie Dale. Larry the Bat, a known inmate of the house, might come and go as he pleased—but to emerge from the Sanctuary in the person of Jimmie Dale would be fatal. Kline had been outwitted, but Kline had not acknowledged final defeat. The tenement had been searched from top to bottom—unostentatiously. His own room on the first landing had been searched the previous afternoon, when he was out, but they had failed to find the cunningly contrived opening in the floor under the oilcloth in the corner, an impromptu wardrobe, that would proclaim Larry the Bat and Jimmie Dale to be one and the same person—that would inevitably lead further to the establishment of his identity as the Gray Seal. In time, of course, the surveillance would cease—but he could not wait. That was the monumental irony of it—the factor that, all unknown to Kline, was forcing the issue hard now. It was his move.
Since, years ago now, as the Gray Seal, he had begun to work with her, that unknown, mysterious accomplice of his, and the police, stung to madness both by the virulent and constant attacks of the press and by the humiliating prod of their own failures, sought daily, high and low, with every resource at their command, for the Gray Seal, he had never been in quite so strange and perilous a plight as he found himself at that moment. To preserve inviolate the identity of Larry the Bat was absolutely vital to his safety. It was the one secret that even she, who so strangely appeared to know all else about him, he was sure, had not discovered—and it was just that, in a way, that had brought the present impossible situation to pass.
In the month previous, in a lull between those letters of hers, he had set himself doggedly and determinedly to the renewed task of what had become so dominantly now a part of his very existence—the solving of her identity. And for that month, as the best means to the end—means, however, that only resulted as futilely as the attempts that had gone before—he had lived mostly as Larry the Bat, returning to his home in his proper person only when occasion and necessity demanded it. He had been going home that evening, two nights before, walking along Riverside Drive, when from the window of the limousine she had dropped the letter at his feet that had plunged him into the affair of the Counterfeit Five—and he had not gone home! Eventually, to save himself, he had, in the Sanctuary, performing the transformation in desperate haste, again been forced to assume the rôle of Larry the Bat.
That was really the gist of it. And yesterday morning he had remembered, to his dismay, that he had had little or no money left the night before. He had intended, of course, to replenish his supply—when he got home. Only he hadn't gone home! And now he needed money—needed it badly, desperately. With thousands in the bank, with abundance even in his safe, in his own den at home, a supply kept there always for an emergency, he was facing actual want—he rattled two dimes, a nickel, and a few odd pennies thoughtfully against the keys in his pocket.
To a certain extent, old Jason, his butler, could be trusted. Jason even knew that mysterious letters of tremendous secretive importance came to the house, and the old man always meant well—but he dared not trust even Jason with the secret of his dual personality. What was he to do? He needed money imperatively—at once. Thanks to Kline, for the time being, at least, he could not rid himself of the personality of Larry the Bat by the simple expedient of slipping into the clothes of Jimmie Dale—he must live, act, and remain Larry the Bat until the secret service officer gave up the hunt. How bridge the gulf between Jimmie Dale and Larry the Bat in old Jason's eyes!
Nor was that all. There was still another matter, and one that, in order to counteract it, demanded at once a serious inroad—to the extent of a telephone call—upon his slender capital. A too prolonged and unaccounted-for absence from home, and old Jason, in his anxious, blundering solicitude, would have the fat in the fire at that end—and the city, and the social firmament thereof, would be humming with the startling news of the disappearance of a well-known millionaire. The complications that would then ensue, with himself powerless to lift a finger, Jimmie Dale did not care to think about—such a contretemps must at all hazards be prevented.
Jimmie Dale reached the corner of the street, where it intersected the Bowery, and paused languidly by the curb. No one appeared to be following. He had not expected that there would be—but it was as well to be sure. He walked then a few steps along the Bowery—and slipped suddenly into a doorway, from where he could command a view of the street corner that he had just left. At the end of ten minutes, satisfied that no one had any concern in his immediate movements, he shambled on again down the Bowery.
There was a saloon two blocks away that boasted a private telephone booth. Jimmie Dale made that his destination.
Larry the Bat was a very well-known character in that resort, and the bullet-headed dispenser of drinks behind the bar nodded unctuously to him over the heads of those clustered at the rail as he entered; Larry the Bat, as befitted one of the elite of the underworld, was graciously pleased to acknowledge the proletariat salutation with a curt nod. He walked down to the end of the room, entered the telephone booth—and was carelessly careful to close the door tightly behind him.
He gave the number of his residence on Riverside Drive, and waited for the connection. After some delay, Jason's voice answered him.
"Jason," said Jimmie Dale, in matter-of-fact tones, "I shall be out of the city for another three or four days, possibly a week, and—" he stopped abruptly, as a sort of gasp came to him over the wire.
"Thank God that's you, sir!" exclaimed the old butler wildly. "I've been near mad, sir, all day!"
"Don't get excited, Jason!" said Jimmie Dale a little sharply. "The mere matter of my absence for the last two days is nothing to cause you any concern. And while I am on the subject, Jason, let me say now that I shall be glad if you will bear that fact in mind in future."
"Yes, sir," stammered Jason. "But, sir, it ain't that—good Lord, Master Jim, it ain't that, sir! It's—it's one of them letters."
Something like a galvanic shock seemed to jerk the disreputable, loose-jointed frame of Larry the Bat suddenly erect—and a strained whiteness crept over the dirty, unwashed face.
"Go on, Jason," said Jimmie Dale, without a quiver in his voice.
"It came this morning, sir—that shuffer with his automobile left it. I had just time to say you weren't at home, sir, and he was gone. And then, sir, there ain't been an hour gone by all through the day that a woman, sir—a lady, begging your pardon, Master Jim—hasn't rung up on the telephone, asking if you were back, and if I could get you, and where you were, and half frantic, sir, half sobbing, sometimes, sir, and saying there was a life hanging on it. Master Jim."
Larry the Bat, staring into the mouthpiece of the instrument, subconsciously passed his hand across his forehead, and subconsciously noted that his fingers, as he drew them away, were damp,
"Where is the letter now, Jason?" inquired Jimmie Dale coolly.
"Here on your desk. Master Jim. Shall I bring it to you?"
Bring it to him! How? When? Where? Bring it to him! The ghastly irony of it! Jimmie Dale tried to think—prodding, spurring desperately that keen, lightning brain of his that had never failed him yet. How bridge the gulf between Larry the Bat and Jimmie Dale in Jason's eyes—not just for the replenishing of funds now, but with a life at stake!
"No—I think not, Jason," said Jimmie Dale calmly, "Just leave it where it is. And if she telephones again, say that you have told me—that will be sufficient to satisfy any further inquiries. And Jason——"
"If she telephones again, try and find out where the call comes from."
"I haven't forgotten what you said once. Master Jim, sir," said the old man eagerly. "And I've been trying that, sir, all day. They've all come from different pay stations, sir.
A mirthless little smile tinged Jimmie Dale's lips. Of course! He might have known! It was always that way—always the same. He was as near to the solution of her identity at that moment as he had been years ago, when she, in some mysterious way, alone of all the world, had identified him as the Gray Seal!
"Very good, Jason," he said quietly. "Don't bother about it any more. It will be all right. You can expect me when you see me. Good-night." He hung the receiver on the hook, walked out of the booth, and mechanically reached the street.
All right! It was far from "all right"—very far from it. It was no trivial thing, that letter; they never had been trivial things, those letters of hers, that involved so often a matter of life and death—as this one now, perhaps, as her actions would seem to indicate, involved life and death more urgently than any that had gone before. It was far from all right—at a moment when his own position, his own safety, was at best but a desperate chance; when his every energy, brain, wit, and cunning were taxed to the utmost to save himself! And yet, somehow, some way, at any cost, he must get that letter—and at any cost he must act upon it! To fail her was to fail utterly in everything that failure in its most miserable, its widest sense, implied—failure in that which rose paramount to every other consideration in life!
Fail her! Jimmie Dale's lips thinned into a hard, drawn line—and then parted slowly in a curiously whimsical smile. It would be a strange burglary that he had decided upon, in order that he might not fail her—stranger than any the Gray Seal had ever committed, and, in some respects, even more perilous!
He started along the Bowery, walking briskly now, toward the nearest subway station, at Astor Place, his mind for the moment electing to face the situation in a humour as whimsical as his smile. Supposing that, as Larry the Bat, he were caught and arrested during the next hour, in Jimmie's Dale's residence on Riverside Drive! With his arrest as Larry the Bat, Jimmie's Dale would automatically disappear. Would follow then the suspicion that Jimmie Dale, the millionaire, had met with foul play, and as time went on, and Jimmie Dale, being then in prison as Larry the Bat, did not reappear, the assurance of it; then the certainty that suspicion would focus on Larry the Bat as being connected with the millionaire's death, since Larry the Bat had been caught in Jimmie Dale's home—and he would be accused of his own murder! It was quite humourous, of course, quite grotesquely bizarre—but it was equally an exceedingly grim possibility! There were drawbacks to a dual personality!
"In a word," confided Jimmie Dale softly to himself, and a serious light crept into the dark, steady eyes, "I'm in a bit of a nasty mess!"
At Astor Place he entered the subway; at Fourteenth Street he changed to an express, and at Ninety-sixth Street he got out. It was but a short walk west to Riverside Drive, and from there his house was only a few blocks farther on.
Jimmie Dale did not slouch now. And for all his disreputable attire, incongruous as it was in that neighbourhood, few people that he passed paid any attention to him, none gave him more than a casual glance—Jimmie Dale swung along, upright, with no attempt to make himself inconspicuous, hurrying a little, as one intent upon a definite errand. As he neared his house he slowed his pace a little until a couple, who were passing in front of it, had gone on; then he went up the steps, but noiselessly as a shadow now, to the front door, opened it softly, closed it softly behind him, and crouched for a moment in the vestibule.
Through the monogrammed lace on the plate glass of the inner doors he could see, a little indistinctly, into the reception hall beyond. The hall was empty. Jason, for that matter, would be the only one likely to be about; the other servants would have no business there in any case, and whether in their quarters above or below, they had their own stairs at the rear.
Jimmie Dale inserted the key in the spring lock, and opened the door a cautious fraction of an inch—to listen. There was no sound—yes, a subdued murmured—the servants were downstairs in the basement. He slipped inside, slipped, in a flash, across the hall, and, treading like a cat, went up the stairs. He scarcely seemed to breathe until, with a little sigh of relief, he stood inside his den on the first floor, with the door shut behind him.
"I must speak to Jason about being a little more watchful," muttered Jimmie Dale facetiously. "Here's all my property at the mercy of—Larry the Bat!"
An instant he stood by the door, looking about him—in the bright moonlight streaming in through the side windows the room's appointments stood out in soft shadows, the huge davenport, the great, luxurious easy-chairs, an easel with a half-finished canvas, as he had left it; the big, flat-topped, rosewood desk, the open fireplace—and then, his steps silent on the thick velvet rug under foot, he walked quickly to the desk.
Yes, there it was—the letter. He placed it hurriedly in his pocket—the moonlight was not strong enough to read by, and he dared not turn on the lights.
And now money—funds. In the alcove behind the portière, Jimmie Dale dropped on his knees before the squat, barrel-shaped safe, and opened it. He reached inside, took out a package of banknotes, placed the bills in his pocket—and hesitated a moment. What else would he require? What act did that letter call upon the Gray Seal to perform in the next few hours? Jimmie Dale stared thoughtfully he would have to change back again and return to the Sanctuary before morning, as Larry the Bat—and remain there until Kline, beaten, called off his human bloodhounds. No, a change was not to be thought of.the interior of the safe. Whatever it was, it must be performed in the rôle of Larry the Bat, for though he could get into his dressing room now, and become Jimmie Dale again, there were still those watchers outside the Sanctuary—they must not become suspicious—and if Larry the Bat disappeared mysteriously, Larry the Bat would be the man that Kline and the secret service of the United States would never cease hunting for, and that would mean that he could never reassume a character that was as necessary for his protection as breath was to life, so long as the Gray Seal worked. True, he could change now to Jimmie Dale, but
What, then, would he require—that compact little kit of burglar tools, rolled in its leather jacket, that, unrolled, slipped about his body like a close-fitting undervest? As well to take it anyway. He removed his coat and vest, took out the leather bundle from the safe, untied the thongs that bound it together, unrolled it, passed it around his body, life-belt fashion, secured the thongs over his shoulders, and put on his coat and vest again. A revolver, a flashlight? He had both—at the Sanctuary, under the flooring—but there were duplicates here! He slipped them into his pockets. Anything else—to forestall and provide for any possible contingency? He hesitated again for a moment, thinking, then slowly closed the inner door of the safe, locked it, swung the outer door shut—and, in the act of twirling the knobs, sprang suddenly to his feet. Sharp, shrill in the stillness of the room, the telephone bell on the desk rang out clamourously.
Jimmie Dale's face set hard, as he leaped out from behind the curtain—had Jason heard it! It rang again before he could reach the desk—was ringing as he snatched the receiver from the hook.
"Yes, yes!" he called, in a low, guarded, hasty way, into the mouthpiece. "Hello! What is it? " And then one hand, resting on the desk, closed around the edge, and tightened until the skin over the knuckles grew ivory white. It was—she! She! It was her voice—he had only heard it once in all his life—that night, two nights before, in a silvery laugh from the limousine as it had sped away from him down the road—but he knew! It thrilled him now with a mad rhapsody, robbing him for the moment of every thought save that she was living, real, existent—that it was her voice. "It's you—you! he said hoarsely.
"Oh, Jimmie—you at last!"—it came in a little gasping cry of relief. "The letter——"
"Yes, I've got it—it's all right—it's all right"—the words would not seem to come fast enough in his desperate haste. "But it's you now. Listen! Listen!" he pleaded. "Tell me who you are! My God! how I've tried to find you, and——"
That rippling, silvery laugh again, but now, too, it seemed to his eager ear, with just the faintest note of wistfulness in it.
"Some day, Jimmie. That letter now. It——"
Jimmie Dale straightened up suddenly—Jason's steps, running, sounded outside the room along the corridor—there was not an instant to lose.
"Hang up! Good-bye! Danger! Don't ring again!" he whispered hurriedly, and, with a miserable smile, replacing the receiver bitterly on the hook, hefor the curtain.
He reached it none too soon. The door opened, an electric-light switch clicked, and the room was flooded with light. Jason, still running, headed for the desk.
"It'll be her again!" Jimmie Dale heard the old man mutter, as from the edge of the portière he watched the other's actions.
Jason picked up the telephone.
"Hello! Hello!" he called—then began to click impatiently with the receiver hook. "Hello! . . . Who? . . . Central? . . . I don't want any number—somebody was calling here. . . . What? . . . Nobody on the wire!"
He set the telephone back on the desk with a bewildered air.
"That's queer!" he exclaimed. "I could have sworn I heard it ring twice, and——" He stopped abruptly, and, leaning across the desk, hung there, wide-eyed, staring, while a sickly pallor began to steal into his face. "The letter!" he mumbled wildly. "The letter—Master Jim's letter—the letter—it's gone!"
Trembling, excited, the old man began to search the desk, then down on his knees on the floor under it; and then, growing more frantic with every instant, rose and began to hunt around the room in an agitated, aimless fashion.
Jason's distress was very real—he was almost beside himself now with fear and anxiety. A whimsical, affectionate smile played over Jimmie Dale's lips at the old man's antics—and changed suddenly into one of consternation. Jason was making directly now for the curtain behind which he stood! Perhaps, though, he would pass it by, and—Jason's hand reached out and grasped the portière.
"Jason!" said Jimmie Dale sharply.
The old man staggered back as though he had been struck, tried to speak, choked, and gazed at the curtain with distended eyes.
"Is—is that you, sir—Master Jim—behind the curtain there?" he finally blurted out. "I—sir—you gave me a start—and the letter, Master Jim——"
"Don't lose your head, Jason," said Jimmie Dale coolly, "I've got the letter. Now do as I bid you."
"Yes—Master Jim," faltered the old man.
"Pull down the window shades and draw the portières together," directed Jimmie Dale.
Jason, still overwrought and excited, obeyed a little awkwardly.
"Now the lights, Jason," instructed Jimmie Dale. "Turn them off, and go and sit down in that chair at the desk."
Again Jason obeyed, stumbling in the darkness as he returned from the electric-light switch at the farther end of the room. He sat down in the chair.
Larry the Bat stepped out from behind the curtain.
"I came for that letter, Jason," he explained quietly. "I am going out again now. I may be back to-morrow; I may not be back for a week. You will say nothing, not a word, of my having been here to-night. Do you understand, Jason?"
"Yes, sir," said Jason; then hesitantly: "Would you mind saying, sir, when you came in?"
"It's of no consequence, Jason—is it?"
"No, sir," said Jason.
Jimmie Dale smiled in the darkness.
"I wish you to remain where you are, without leaving that chair, for the next ten minutes." He moved across the room to the door. "Good-night, Jason," he said.
"Good-night, Master Jim—good-night, sir—oh, Lord!"
Jimmie Dale did not require that ten minutes; it was a very wide margin of safety to obviate the possibility of Jason, from a window, detecting the exit of a disreputable character from the house—in three minutes he was turning the corner of the first cross street and walking rapidly away from Riverside Drive.
In the subway station Jimmie Dale read the letter—read it twice over, as he always read those strange epistles of hers that opened the door to new peril, new danger to the Gray Seal, but too, that seemed somehow to draw tighter, in a glad, big way, the unseen bond between them; read it, as he always read those letters, almost subconsciously committing the very words to memory with that keen faculty of brain of his. But now as he began to tear the sheet and envelope into minute particles, a strained, hard look was on his face and in his eyes, and his lips, half parted, moved a little.
"It's a death warrant," muttered Jimmie Dale. "I—I guess to-night will see the end of the Gray Seal. She says I needn't do it, but I guess it's worth the risk—a human life!"
A downtown express roared into the station.
"What time is it?" Jimmie Dale asked the guard, as he stepped aboard.
"'Bout midnight," the man answered tersely.
The forward car was almost empty, and Jimmie Dale chose a seat by himself. How did she know? How did she know not only this, but the hundred other affairs that she had outlined in those letters of hers? By what means, superhuman, indeed, it seemed, did she—— Jimmie Dale jerked himself erect suddenly. What good did it do to speculate on that now, when every minute was priceless? What was he to do, how was he to act, what plan could he formulate and carry out, and win against odds that, at the outset, were desperate enough even to forecast almost certain failure—and death!
Who would ever have suspected old Tom Ludgate, known for years throughout the squalour of the East Side as old Luddy, the pushcart man, of having a bag of unset diamonds under his pillow—or under the sack, rather, that he probably used for a pillow! What a queer thing to do! But then, old Luddy was a character—apparently always in the most poverty-stricken condition, apparently hardly more than keeping body and soul together, trusting no one, and obsessed by the dread that by depositing in a bank some one would discover that he had money, and attempt to force it from him, he had put his savings, year after year, for twenty years, twenty-five years, perhaps, into unset stones—diamonds. How had she found that out?
Jimmie Dale sank into a deeper reverie. He could steal them all right, and they would be well worth the stealing—old Luddy had done well, and lived and existed on next to nothing—the stones, she said, were worth about fifteen thousand dollars. Not so bad, even for twenty-five years of vegetable selling from a pushcart! He could steal them all right; it would tax the Gray Seal's ingenuity little to do so simple a thing as that, but that was not all, nor, indeed, hardly a factor in it—it was vital that if he were to succeed at all he must steal them publicly, as it were.
And after that—what? His own chances were pretty slim at best. Jimmie Dale, staring at the grayness of the subway wall through the window, shook his head slowly—then, with a queer little philosophical shrug of his shoulders, he smiled gravely, seriously. It was all a part of the game, all a part of the life—of the Gray Seal!
It was half-past twelve, or a little later, as nearly as he could judge, for Larry the Bat carried no such ornate thing in evidence as a watch, as he halted at the corner of a dark, squalid street in the lower East Side. It was a miserable locality—in daylight humming with a cosmopolitan hive of pitiful humans dragging out as best they could an intolerable existence, a locality peopled with every nationality on earth, their community of interest the struggle to maintain life at the lowest possible expenditure, where necessity even was pared and shaved down to a minimum; but now, at night-time, or rather in the early-morning hours, the darkness, in very mercy, it seemed, covered it with a veil, as it were, and in the quiet that hung over it now hid the bald, the hideous, aye, and the piteous, too, from view.
It was a narrow street, and the row of tenement houses, each house almost identical with its neighbour, that flanked the pavement on either side, seemed, from where Jimmie Dale stood looking down its length, from the corner, to converge together at a point a little way. beyond, giving it an unreal, ominous, cavernlike effect. And, too, there seemed something ominous even in its quiet. It was as though one sensed acutely the crouching of some Thing in its lair—waiting silently, viciously, with sullen patience.
A footstep sounded—another. Jimmie Dale drew quickly back around the corner into an areaway. Two men passed—in helmets—swinging their nightsticks—that beat was always policed in pairs!
They passed on, turned the corner, and went down the narrow cross street that Jimmie Dale had just been inspecting. He started to follow—and drew back again abruptly. A form flitted suddenly across the road and disappeared in the darkness in the officers' wake—ten yards behind the first another followed—at the same interval of distance still another—and yet still one more—four in all.
The darkness hid all six, the two policemen, the four men behind them—the only sounds were the officers' footsteps dying away in the distance.
Jimmie Dale's fingers were mechanically testing the mechanism of the automatic in his pocket.
"The Skeeter's gang!" he muttered to himself. "Red Mose, the Midget, Harve Thoms—and the Skeeter! The worst apaches in the city of New York; death contractors—and the lowest bidders! Professional assassins, and a man's life any time for twenty-five dollars! I wonder—I've never done it yet—but I wonder if it would be a crime in God's sight if one shot—to kill!"
Jimmie Dale was at the corner again—again the street before him was black, deserted, empty. He chose the right-hand side, and, well in the shadow of the houses, as an extra precaution, stole along silently. He stopped finally before one where, in the doorway, hung a little sign. Jimmie Dale mounted the porch, and with his eyes close to the sign could just make out the larger words in the big printed type:
ROOM TO RENT
Jimmie Dale nodded. That was right. The first house on the right-hand side, with the room-to-rent sign, her letter had said. His fingers were testing the doorknob. The door was not locked.
Naturally, it wouldn't be locked," Jimmie Dale told himself grimly—and stepped inside.
He stood for an instant without movement, every faculty on the alert. Far up above him a step, guarded though his trained ear made it out to be, creaked faintly upon the stairs—there was no other sound. The creaking, almost inaudible at its loudest, receded farther up—and silence fell.
In the darkness, noiselessly, Jimmie Dale groped for the stairway, found it, and began to ascend. The minutes passed—it seemed a minute even from step to step, and there were three flights to the top! There must be no creaking this time—the slightest sound, he knew well enough, would be not only fatal to the work he had to do, but probably fatal to himself as well. He had been near was bathed in perspiration, and he wiped it off with his coat sleeve.many times—the consciousness that he was nearer to it now, possibly, than he had ever been before, seemed to stimulate his senses into acute and abnormal energy. And, too, the physical effort, as, step by step, the flexed muscles relaxing so slowly, little by little, gradually, each time as he found foothold on the step higher up, was a terrific strain. At the top his face
It was still dark here, intensely dark, and his eyes, though grown accustomed to it, could make out nothing but the deeper shadow of the walls. But thanks to her, always a mistress of accurate and minute detail, he possessed a mental plan of his surroundings. The head of the stairs gave on the middle of the hallway—the hallway ran to his right and left. To his right, on the opposite side of the hall, was the door of old Luddy's squalid two-room apartment.
For a moment Jimmie Dale stood hesitant—a sudden perplexity and anxiety growing upon him. It was strange! What did it mean? He had nerved himself to a quick, desperate attempt, trusting to surprise and his own wit and agility for victory—there had seemed no other way than that, since he had seen those four men at the corner—since they were ahead of him. True, they were not much ahead of him, not enough to have accomplished their purpose—and, furthermore, they were not in that room. He knew that absolutely, beyond question of doubt. He had listened for just that all the nerve-racking way up the stairs. But where were they? There was no sound—not a sound—just blackness, dark, impenetrable, utter, that began to palpitate now.
It came in a whisper, wavering, sibilant—from his left. A sort of relief, fierce in the breaking of the tense expectancy, premonitory in the possibilities that it held, swept Jimmie Dale. He crept along the hall. The whisper had come from that room, presumably empty—that was for rent!
By the door he crouched—his sensitive fingers, eyes to Jimmie Dale so often—feeling over jamb and panels with a delicate, soundless touch. The door was just ajar. The fingers crept inside and touched the knob and lock—there was no key within.
The whispering still went on—but it seemed like a screaming of vultures now in Jimmie Dale's ears, as the words came to him.
"Aw, say, Skeeter, dis high-brow stunt gives me de pip! Me fer goin' in dere an' croakin' de geezer regular, widout de frills. Who's to know? Say, just about two minutes, an' we're beatin' it wid de sparklers."
An inch, a half inch at a time, the knob slowly, very, very slowly turning, the door was being closed by the crouched form on the threshold.
"Close yer trap, Mose!" came a fierce response. "We ain't fixed the lay all day for nothin'. There ain't a soul on earth knows he's got any sparklers, 'cept us. If there was, it would be different—then they'd know that was what whoever did it was after, see?"
The door was closed—the knob slowly, very, very slowly being released again. From one of the leather pockets under Jimmie Dale's vest came a tiny steel instrument that he inserted in the key-hole.
The same voice spoke on:
"That's what we're croaking him for, 'cause nobody knows about them diamonds, and so's he can't tell anybody afterward that any were pinched. An' that's why it's got to look like he just got tired of living and did it himself. I guess that'll hold the police when they find the poor old duck hanging from the ceiling, with a bit of cord around his neck, and a chair kicked out from under his feet on the floor. Ain't you got the brains of a louse to see that?"
"Sure"—the whisper came dully, in grudging intonation through the panels—the door was locked. "Sure, but it's de hangin' 'round waitin' to get busy that's gettin' me goat, an'——"
Jimmie Dale straightened up and began to retreat along the corridor. A merciless rage was upon him now, every fiber of his being seemed to tingle and quiver with it—the damnable, hellish ingenuity of it all seemed to choke and suffocate him.
"Luck!" muttered Jimmie Dale between his clenched teeth. "Oh, the blessed luck to get that door locked! I've got time now to set the stage for my own get-away before the showdown!"
He stole on along the corridor. Excerpts from her letter were running through his brain: "It would do no good to warn him, Jimmie—the Skeeter and his gang would never let up on him until they got the stones. . . . It would do no good for you to steal them first, for they would only take that as a ruse of old Luddy's, and murder the man first and hunt afterward. . . . In some way you must let the Skeeter see you steal them, make them think, make them certain that it is a bona-fide theft, so that they will no longer have any interest or any desire to do old Luddy harm. . . . And for it to appear real to them, it must appear real to old Luddy himself—do not take any chances there."
Jimmie Dale's eyes narrowed. Yes, it was simple enough now with that pack of hell's wolves guarded for the moment by a locked door, forced to give him warning by breaking the door before they could get out. It was simple enough now to enter old Luddy's room, steal the stones at the revolver point, then make enough disturbance—when he was ready—to set the gang in motion, and, as they rushed in open him, to make his escape with the stones to the roof through Luddy's room. That was simple enough—there was an opening to the roof in Luddy's room, she had said, and there was a ladder kept there in place. On hot nights, it seemed, the old man used to go up there and sleep on the roof—not now, of course. It was too late in the year for that—but the opening in the roof was there, and the ladder remained there, too.
Yes, it was simple enough now. And the next morning the papers would rave with execrations against the Gray Seal—for the robbery of the life savings of a poor, defenseless old man, for committing as vile and pitiful a crime as had ever stirred New York! Even Carruthers, of the Morning News-Argus, would be moved to bitter attack. Good old Carruthers—who little thought that the Gray Seal was his old college pal, his present most intimate friend, Jimmie Dale! And afterward—after the next morning? Well, that, at least, had never been in doubt. Old Luddy could be made to leave New York, and, once away, with the Skeeter and his gang robbed of incentive to pay any further attention to him, the stones could be secretly returned to the old man. And it would to the public, to the police, be just another of the Gray Seal's crimes—that was all!
Jimmie Dale had reached old Luddy's door. The Gray Seal? Oh, yes, they would know it was the Gray Seal—the insignia was familiar enough; familiar to the crooks of the underworld, who held it in awe; familiar to the police, to whom it was an added barb of ridicule. He was placing it now, that insignia, a diamond-shaped, gray paper seal, on the panel of the door; and now, a black silk mask adjusted over his face, Jimmie Dale bent to insert the little steel instrument in the lock—a pitiful, paltry thing, a cheap lock, to fingers that could play so intimately with twirling knobs and dials, masters of the intricate mechanism of vaults and safes!
And then, about to open the door, a sort of sudden dismay fell upon him. He had not thought of that—somehow, it had not occurred to him! What was if they were waiting for? Why had they not struck at once, as, when he had first entered the house, he had supposed they would do? What was it? Why was it? Was old Luddy out? Were they waiting for his return—or what?
The door, without sound, moved gradually under his hand. A faint odor assailed his nostrils! It was dark, very dark. Across the room, in a direct line, was the doorway of the inner room—she had explained that in her letter. It was slow progress to cross that room without sound, in silence—it was a snail's movement—for fear that even a muscle might crack.
And now he stood in the inner doorway. It was dark here, too—and yet, how bizarre, a star seemed to twinkle through the very roof of the room itself! The odour was pungent now. There was a long-drawn sigh—then a low, indescribable sound of movement. Somebody, apart from old Luddy, was in the room!
It swept, the full consciousness of it, upon Jimmie Dale in an instantaneous flash. Chloroform; the open scuttle in the roof; the waiting of those others—all fused into a compact logical whole. They had loosened the scuttle during the day, probably when old Luddy was away—one of them had crept down there now to chloroform the old man into insensibility—the others would complete the ghastly work presently by stringing their victim up to the ceiling—and it would be suicide, for, long before morning came, long before the old man would be discovered, the fumes of the chloroform would be gone.
It seemed like a cold hand, deathlike, clutching at his heart. Was he too late, after all! Chloroform alone could—kill! To the right, just a little to the right—he must make no mistake—his ear placed the sound! He whipped his hands from the side pockets of his coat—the ray of his flashlight cut across the room and fell upon an aged face upon a bed, upon a hand clutching a wad of cloth, the cloth pressed horribly against the nose and mouth of the upturned face—and then, roaring in the stillness, spitting a vicious lane of fire that paralleled the flashlight's ray, came the tongue flame of his automatic.
There was a yell, a scream, that echoed out, reverberated, and went racketing through the house, and Jimmie Dale leaped forward—over a table, sending it crashing to the floor. The man had reeled back against the wall, clutching at a shattered wrist, staring into the flashlight's eye, white-faced, jaw dropped, lips working in mingled pain and fear.
"Harve Thorns—you, eh?" gritted Jimmie Dale.
A cunning look swept the distorted face. Here, apparently, was only one man—there were pals, three of them, only a few yards away.
"You ain't got nothing on me!" he snarled, sparring for time. "You police are too damned fresh with your guns!"
"I'll take yours!" snapped Jimmie Dale, and snatched it deftly from the other's pocket. "This ain't any police job, my bucko, and you make a move and I'll drop you for keeps, if what you've got already ain't enough to teach you to keep your hands off jobs that belong to your betters!"
He was working with mad haste as he spoke. One minute at the outside was, perhaps, all he could count upon. Already he had caught the rattle of the locked door down the hall. He lit a match and turned on the gas over the bed—it was the most dangerous thing he could do—he knew that well enough, none knew it better—it was offering himself as a fair mark when the others rushed in, as they would in a moment now—but the Skeeter and his gang and this man here must have no misconception of his purpose, his reason for being there, the same as their own, the theft of the stones—and no misconception as to his success.
"Y'ain't the police!"—it came in a choked gasp from the other, as he blinked in the sudden light. "Say then——"
"Shut up!" ordered Jimmie Dale curtly. "And mind what I told you about moving! " He leaned over the bed. Old Luddy, though under the influence of the chloroform, was moving restlessly. Thoms had evidently only begun to apply the chloroform—old Luddy was safe! Jimmie Dale ran his hand in under the pillow. "If you ain't swiped them already they ought to be here!" he growled; "and if you have I'll—ah!" A little chamois bag was in his hand. He laughed sneeringly at Thoms, opened the bag, allowed a few stones to trickle into his hand—and then, without stopping to replace them, dashed stones and bag into his pocket. The door along the corridor crashed open.
"What's that?" he gasped out, in well-simulated fright—and sprang for the ladder that led up to the roof.
It had all taken, perhaps, the minute that he had counted on—no more. Noises came from the floors below now, a confusion of them—the shot, the scream had been heard by others, save those who had been in the locked room. And the latter were outside now in the corridor, running to their accomplice's aid.
There was a pause at the outer door—then an oath—and coupled with the oath an exclamation:
"The Gray Seal!"
They had swept a flashlight over the door panel—Jimmie Dale, halfway up the ladder, smiled grimly.
The door opened—there was a rush of feet. The man with the shattered wrist yelled, cursing wildly:
"Here he is—on the ladder! Let him have it! Fill him full of holes!"
Jimmie Dale was in the light—they were in the dark of the outer room. He fired at the threshold, checking their rush—as a hail of bullets chipped and tore at the ladder and spat wickedly against the wall. He swung through to the roof, trying, as he did so, to kick the ladder loose behind him. It was fastened!
The three gunmen jumped into the room—from the roof Jimmie Dale got a glimpse of them below, as he flung himself clear of the opening. Bullets whistled through the aperture—a voice roared up as he gained his feet:
"Come on! After him! The whole place is alive, but this lets us out. We can frame up how we came to be here easy enough. Never mind the old geezer there any more! Get the Gray Seal—the reward that's out for him is worth twice the sparklers, and——
Jimmie Dale hurled the cover over the scuttle. He could have stood them off from above and kept the ladder clear with his revolver, but the alarm seemed general now—windows were opening, voices were calling to one another—from the windows across the street he must stand out in sharp outline against the sky. Yes—he was seen now.
A woman's voice, from a top-story window across the street, screamed out, high-pitched in excitement:
"There he is! There he is! On the roof there!"
Jimmie Dale started on the run along the roof. The houses, built wall to wall, flat-roofed, seemed to offer an open course ahead of him—until a lane or an intersecting street should bar his way! But they were not quite all on the same level, though—the wall of the next house rose suddenly breast high in front of him. He flung himself up, regained his feet—and ducked instantly behind a chimney.
The crack of a revolver echoed through the night—a bullet drummed through the air-the Skeeter and his gang were on the roof now, dashing forward, firing as they ran. Two shots from Jimmie Dale's automatic, in quick succession, cooled the ardour of their rush—and they broke, black, flitting forms, for the shelter of chimneys, too.
And now the whole neighbourhood seemed awakened. A dull-toned roar, as from some great gulf below, rolled up from the street, a medley of slamming windows, the rush of feet as people poured from the houses, cries, shouts, and yells—and high over all the shrill call of the police-patrol whistle—and the crack, crack, crack of the Skeeter's revolver shots—the Skeeter and his hellhounds for once self-appointed allies of the law!
Twice again Jimmie Dale fired—then crouching, running low, he zigzagged his way across the next roof. The bullets followed him—once more his pursuers dashed forward. And again Jimmie Dale, his face set like stone now, his breath coming in hard gasps, dodged behind a chimney, and with his gun checked their rush for the third time.
He glanced about him—and with a growing sense of disaster saw that two houses farther on the stretch of roof appeared to end. There would be a lane or a street there! And in another minute or two, if it were not already the case, others would be following the gunmen to the roof, and then he would be—he caught his breath suddenly in a queer little strangled cry of relief. Just back of him, a few yards away, his eyes made out what, in the darkness, seemed to be a glass skylight.
A dark form sped like a deeper shadow across the black in front of him, making for a chimney nearer by, closing in the range. Jimmie Dale fired—wide. Tight as was the corner he was in, little as was the mercy deserved at his hands, he could not, after all, bring himself to shoot—to kill.
A voice, the Skeeter's, bawled out raucously:
"Rush him all together—from different sides at once!
A backward leap! Jimmie Dale's boot was crashing glass and frame, stamping at it desperately, making a hole for his body through the skylight. A yell, a chorus of them, answered this—then the crunch of racing feet on the gravel roof. He emptied his revolver, sweeping the darkness with a semicircle of vicious flashes.
It seemed an hour—it was barely the fraction of a second, as he hung by his hands from the side of the skylight frame, his body swinging back and forth in the unknown blackness below. The skylight might be, probably was, directly over the stair well, and open clear to the basement of the house—but it was his only chance. He swung his body well out, let go—and dropped. With the impetus he smashed against a wall, was flung back from it in a sort of rebound, and his hands closed, gripping fiercely, on banisters. It had been the stair well beyond any question of doubt, but his swing had sent him clear of it.
Above, they had not yet reached the skylight. Jimmie Dale snatched a precious moment to listen, as he rose, and found himself, apart from bruises, perhaps unhurt. There was commotion, too, in this house below, the alarm had extended and spread along the block—but the commotion was all in the front of the house—the street was the lure.
Jimmie Dale started down the stairs, and in an instant he had gained the landing. In another he had slipped to the rear of the hall—somewhere there, from the hall itself, from one of the rear rooms, there must be an exit to the fire escape. To attempt to leave by the front way was certain capture.
They were yelling, shouting down now through the skylight above, as Jimmie Dale softly raised the window sash at the rear of the hall. The fire escape was there. Shouts from along the corridor, from the tenement dwellers who had been crowding their neighbours' rooms, craning their necks probably from the front windows, answered the shouts now from the roof and the skylight; doors opened; forms rushed out—but it was dark in the corridor, only a murky yellow at the upper end from the opened doors.
Jimmie Dale slipped through the window to the fire escape, and, working cautiously, silently, but with the speed of a trained athlete, made his way down. At the bottom he dropped from the iron platform into the back yard, ran for the fence and climbed over into a lane on the other side.
And then, as he ran, Jimmie Dale snatched the mask from his face and put it in his pocket. He was safe now. He swept the sweat drops from his forehead with the back of his hand—noticing them for the first time. It had been close—almost as close for him as it had been for old Luddy. And to-morrow the papers would execrate the Gray Seal! He smiled a little wanly. His breath was still coming hard. Presently they would scour the lane—when they found that their quarry was not in the house. What a racket they were making! The whole district seemed roused like a swarm of angry bees.
He kept on along the lane—and dodged suddenly into a cross street where the two intersected. The clang of a bell dinned discordantly in his ears—a patrol wagon swept by him, racing for the scene of the disturbance—the riot call was out!
Again Jimmie Dale smiled wearily, passing his hand across his eyes.
"I guess," said Jimmie Dale, "I'm pretty near all in. And I guess it's time that Larry the Bat went—home."
And a little later a figure turned from the Bowery and shambled down the cross street, a disreputable figure, with hands plunged deep in his pockets—and a shadow across the roadway suddenly shifted its position as the shambling figure slouched into the black alleyway and entered the tenement's side door.
And Larry the Bat smiled softly to himself—Kline's men were still on guard!