The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 1/Chapter 7
CHOOSING between the snowy napery, the sparkling glass and silver, the cozy, shaded table-lamps, the famous French chef of the ultra-exclusive St. James Club, his own home on Riverside Drive where a dinner fit for an epicure and served by Jason, that most perfect of butlers, awaited him, and Marlianne's, Jimmie Dale, driving in alone in his touring car from an afternoon's golf, had chosen—Marlianne's.
Marlianne's, if such a thing as Bohemianism, or, rather, a concrete expression of it exists, was Bohemian. A two-piece string orchestra played valiantly to the accompaniment of a hoarse-throated piano; and between courses the diners took up the refrain—and, as it was always between courses with some one, the place was a bedlam of noisy riot. Nevertheless, it was Marlianne's—and Jimmie Dale liked Marlianne's. He had dined there many times before, as he had just dined in the person of Jimmie Dale, the millionaire, his high-priced imported car at the curb of the shabby street outside—and he had dined there, disreputable in attire, seedy in appearance, with the police yelping at his heels, as Larry the Bat. In either character Marlianne's had welcomed him with equal courtesy to its spotted linen and most excellent table-d'hôte with vin ordinaire—for fifty cents.
And now, in the act of reaching into his pocket for the change to pay his bill, Jimmie Dale seemed suddenly to experience some difficulty in finding what he sought, and his fingers went fumbling from one pocket to another. Two men at the table in front of him were talking—their voices, over a momentary lull in violin squeaks, talk, laughter, singing, and the clatter of dishes, reached him:
"Carling commit suicide! Not on your life! No; of course he didn't! It was that cursed Gray Seal croaked him, just as sure as you sit in that chair!"
The other grunted. "Yes; but what'd the Gray Seal want to pinch a hundred thousand out of the bank for, and then give it back again the next morning?"
"What's he done a hundred other things for to cover up the real object of what he's after?" retorted the first speaker, with a short, vicious laugh; then, with a thump of his fist on the table: "The man's a devil, a fiend, and anywhere else but New York he'd have been caught and sent to the chair where he belongs long ago, and——"
A burst of ragtime drowned out the man's words. Jimmie Dale placed a fifty-cent piece and a tip beside it on his dinner check, pushed back his chair, and rose from the table. There was a half-tolerantly satirical, half-angry glint in his dark, steady eyes. It was not only the police who yelped at his heels, but every man, woman, and child in the city. The man had not voiced his own sentiments—he had voiced the sentiments of New York! And it was quite on the cards that if he, Jimmie Dale, were ever caught his destination would not even be the death cell and the chair at Sing Sing—his fellow citizens had reached a pitch where they would be quite capable of literally tearing him to pieces if they ever got their hands on him!
And yet there were a few, a very few, a handful out of five millions, who sometimes remembered perhaps to thank God that the Gray Seal lived—that was his reward. That—and she, whose mysterious letters prompted and impelled his, the Gray Seal's, acts! She—nameless, fascinating in her brilliant resourcefulness, amazing in her power, a woman whose life was bound up with his and yet held apart from him in the most inexplicable, absorbing way; a woman he had never seen, save for her gloved arm in the limousine that nighty who at one unexpected moment projected a dazzling, impersonal existence across his path, and the next, leaving him battling for his life where greed and passion and crime swirled about him, was gone!
Jimmie Dale threaded the small, crowded rooms—the interior of Marlianne's had never been altered from the days when the place had been a family residence of some pretension—and, reaching the hall, received his hat from the frowsy-looking boy in attendance. He passed outside, and, at the top of the steps, paused as he took his cigarette case from his pocket. It was nearly a week since Carling, the cashier of the Hudson-Mercantile National Bank, had been found dead in his home, a bottle that had contained hydrocyanic acid on the floor beside him; nearly a week since Bookkeeper Bob, unaware that he had ever been under temporary suspicion for the robbery of the bank, had, equally unknown to himself, been cleared of any complicity in that affair—and yet, as witness the conversation of a moment ago, it was still the topic of New York, still the vital issue that filled the maw of the newspapers with ravings, threats, and execrations against the Gray Seal, snarling virulently the while at the police for the latter's ineptitude inefficiency, and impotence!
Jimmie Dale closed his cigarette case with a snap that was almost human in its irony, dropped it back into his pocket, and lighted a match—but the flame was arrested halfway to the tip of his cigarette, as his eyes fixed suddenly and curiously on a woman's form hurrying down the street. She had turned the corner before he took his eyes from her, and the match between his fingers had gone out. Not that there was anything very strange in a woman walking, or even half running, along the street; nor that there was anything particularly attractive or unusual about her, and if there had been the street was too dark for him to have distinguished it. It was not that—it was the fact that she had neither passed by the house on whose steps he stood, nor come out of any of the adjoining houses. It was as though she had suddenly and miraculously appeared out of thin air, and taken form on a sidewalk a little way down from Marlianne's.
"That's queer!" commented Jimmie Dale to himself, "However——" He took out another match, lighted his cigarette, jerked the match stub away from him, and, with a lift of his shoulders, went down the steps.
He crossed the pavement, walked around the front of his machine, since the steering wheel was on the side next to the curb, and, with his hand out to open the car door—stopped. Some one had been tampering with it—it was not quite closed. There was no mistake. Jimmie Dale made no mistakes of that kind, a man whose life hung a dozen times a day on little things could not afford to make them. He had closed it firmly, even with a bang, when he had got out.
Instantly suspicious, he wrenched the door wide open, switched on the light under the hood, and, with a sharp exclamation, bent quickly forward. A glove, a woman's glove, a white glove lay on the floor of the car. Jimmie Dale's pulse leaped suddenly into fierce, pounding beats. It was hers! He knew that intuitively—knew it as he knew that he breathed. And that woman he had so leisurely watched as she had disappeared from sight was, must have been—she!
He sprang from the car with a jump, his first impulse to dash after her—and checked himself, laughing a little bitterly. It was too late for that now—he had already let his chance slip through his fingers. Around the corner was Sixth Avenue, surface cars, the elevated, taxicabs, a multitude of people, any one of a hundred ways in which she could, and would, already have discounted pursuit from him—and, besides, he would not even have been able to recognise her if he saw her!
Jimmie Dale's smile was mirthless as he turned back to the car, and picked up the glove. Why had she dropped it there? It could not have been intentional. Why had—he began to tear suddenly at the glove's little finger, and in another second, kneeling on the car's step, his shoulders inside, he was holding a ring close under the little electric bulb.
It was a gold seal ring, a small, dainty thing that bore a crest: a bell, surmounted by a bishop's mitre—the bell, quaint in design, harking the imagination back to some old-time belfry tower. And underneath, in the scroll—a motto. It was a full minute before Jimmie Dale could decipher it, for the lettering was minute and the words, of course, reversed. It was in French: Sonnez le Tocsin.
He straightened up, the glove and ring in his hand, a puzzled expression on his face. It was strange! Had she, after all, dropped the glove there intentionally; had she at last let down the barriers just a little between them, and given him this little intimate sign that she——
And then Jimmie Dale laughed abruptly, self-mockingly. He was only trying to deceive himself, to argue himself into believing what, with heart and soul, he wanted to believe. It was not like her—and neither was it so! His eyes had fixed on the seat beside the wheel. He had not used the lap rug all that day, he couldn't use a rug and drive, he had left it folded and hanging on the rack in the tonneau—it was now neatly folded and reposing on the front seat!
"Yes," said Jimmie Dale, a sort of self-pity in his tones, "I might have known."
He lifted the rug. Beneath it on the leather seat lay a white envelope. Her letter! The letter that never came save with the plan of some grim, desperate work outlined ahead—the call to arms for the Gray Seal. Sonnez le Tocsin! Ring the Tocsin! Sound the alarm! The Tocsin! The words were running through his brain. A strange motto on that crest—that seemed so strangely apt! The Tocsin! Never once in all the times that he had heard from her, never once in the years that had gone since that initial letter of hers had struck its first warning note, had any communication from her been but to sound again a new alarm—the Toscin! The Tocsin—the word seemed to visualise her, to give her a concrete form and being, to breathe her very personality.
"The Tocsin!"—Jimmie Dale whispered the word softly, a little wistfully. "Yes; I shall call you that—the Tocsin!"
He folded the glove very carefully, placed it with the ring in his pocketbook, picked up the letter—and, with a sharp exclamation, turned it quickly over in his fingers, then bent hurriedly with it to the light.
Strange things were happening that night! For the first time, the letter was not even sealed! That was not like her, either! What did it mean? Quick, alert now, anxious even, he pulled the double, folded sheets from the envelope, glanced rapidly through them—and, after a moment, a smile, whimsical, came slowly to his lips.
It was quite plain now—all of it. The glove, the ring, and the unsealed letter—and the postscript held the secret; or, rather, what had been intended for a postscript did, for it comprised only a few words, ending abruptly, unfinished: "Look in the cupboard at the rear of the room. The man with the red wig is——" That was all, and the words, written in ink, were badly blurred, as though the paper had been hastily folded before the ink was dry.
It was quite plain; and, in view of the real explanation of it all, eminently characteristic of her. With the letter already written, she had come there, meaning to place it on the seat and cover it with the rug, as, indeed, she had done; then, deciding to add the postscript, and because she would attract less attention that way than in any other, she had climbed into the car as though it belonged to her, and had seated herself there to write it. She would have been hurried in her movements, of course, and in pulling off her glove to use the fountain pen the ring had come with it. The rest was obvious. She had but just begun to write when he had appeared on the steps. She had slipped instantly down to the floor of the car, probably dropping the glove from her lap, hastily inclosed the letter in the envelope which she had no time to seal, thrust the envelope under the rug, and, forgetting her glove and fearful of risking his attention by attempting to close the door firmly, had stolen along the body of the car, only to be noticed by him too late—when she was well down the street!
And at that latter thought, once more chagrin seized Jimmie Dale—then he turned impulsively to the letter. All this was extraneous, apart—for another time, when every moment was not a priceless asset as it very probably was now.
"Dear Philanthropic Crook"—it always began that way, never any other way. He read on more and more intently, crouched there close to the light on the floor of his car, lips thinning as he proceeded—read it to the end, absorbing, memorising it—and then the abortive postscript:
"Look in the cupboard at the rear of the room. The man with the red wig is——"
For an instant, as mechanically he tore the letter into little shreds, he held there hesitant—and the next, slamming the door tight, he flung himself into the seat behind the wheel, and the big, sixty-horse-power, self-starting machine was roaring down the street.
The Tocsin! There was a grim smile on Jimmie Dale's lips now. The alarm! Yes, it was always an alarm, quick, sudden, an emergency to face on the instant—plans, decisions to be made with no time to ponder them, with only that one fact to consider, staggering enough in itself, that a mistake meant disaster and ruin to some one else, and to himself, if the courts were merciful where he had little hope for mercy, the penitentiary for life!
And now to-night again, as it almost always was when these mysterious letters came, every moment of inaction was piling up the odds against him. And, too, the same problem confronted him. How, in what way, in what rôle, must he play the night's game to its end? As Larry the Bat?
The car was speeding forward. He was heading down Broadway now, lower Broadway, that stretched before him, deserted like some dark, narrow canon where, far below, like towering walls, the buildings closed together and seemed to converge into some black, impassable barrier. The street lights flashed by him; a patrolman stopped the swinging of his nightstick, and turned to gaze at the car that rushed by at a rate perilously near to contempt of speed laws; street cars passed at indifferent intervals; pedestrians were few and far between—it was the lower Broadway of night.
Larry the Bat? Jimmie Dale shook his head impatiently over the steering wheel. No; that would not do. It would be well enough for this young Burton, perhaps, but not for old Isaac, the East Side fence—for Isaac knew him in the character of Larry the Bat. His quick, keen brain, weaving, eliminating, devising, scheming, discarded that idea. The final coup of the night, as yet but sensed in an indefinite, unshaped way, if enacted in the person of Larry the Bat would therefore stamp Larry the Bat and the Gray Seal as one—a contretemps but little less fatal, in view of old Issac, than to bracket the Gray Seal and Jimmie Dale! Larry the Bat was not a character to be assumed with impunity, nor one to jeopardize—it was a bulwark of safety, at it were, to which more than once he owed escape from capture and discovery.
He lifted his shoulders with a sudden jerk of decision as the car swerved to the left and headed for the East Side. There was only one alternative then—the black silk mask that folded into such tiny compass, and that, together with an automatic and the curious, thin metal case that looked so like a cigarette case, was always in his pocket for an emergency!
The car turned again, and, approaching its destination, Jimmie Dale slowed down the speed perceptibly. It was a strange case, not a pleasant one—and the raw edges where they showed were ugly in their nakedness. Old Isaac Pelina, young Burton, and Maddon—K. Wilmington Maddon, the wall-paper magnate! Curious, that of the three he should already know two—old Isaac and Maddon! Everybody in the East Side, every denizen of the underworld, and many who posed on a far higher plane knew old Isaac—fence to the most select clientele of thieves in New York, unscrupulous, hand in glove with any rascality or crime that promised profit, a money lender, a Shylock without even a Shylock's humanity as a saving grace! Yes; as Larry the Bat he knew old Isaac, and he knew him not only personally but by first-hand reputation—he had heard the man cursed in blasphemous, whole-souled abandon by more than one crook who was in the old fence's toils. They dealt with him, the crooks, while they swore to "get" him because he was "safe," but—Jimmie Dale's lips parted in a mirthless smile—some day old Isaac would be found in that spiders' den of his back of the dingy loan office with a knife in his heart or a bullet through his head! And K. Wilmington Maddon—Jimmie Dale's smile grew whimsical—he had known Maddon quite intimately for years, had even dined with him at the St. James Club only a few nights before. Maddon was a man in his own "set"—and Maddon, interfered with, was likely to prove none too tractable a customer to handle. And young Burton, the letter had said, was Maddon's private and confidential secretary. Jimmie Dale's lips thinned again. Well, Burton's acquaintance was still to be made! It was a curious trio—and it was dirty work, more raw than cunning, more devilish than ingenious; blackmail in its most hellish form; the stake, at the least calculation, a cool half million. A heavy price for a single slip in a man's life!
He brought the car abruptly to a halt at the edge of the curb, and sprang out to the ground. He was in front of "The Budapest" restaurant, a garish establishment, most popular of all resorts for the moment on the East Side, where Fifth Avenue, in the fond belief that it was seeing the real thing in "seamy" life, engaged its table a week in advance. Jimmie Dale pushed a bill into the door attendant's hand, accompanied by an injunction to keep an eye on the machine, and entered the café.
But for a sort of tinselled ostentation the place might well have been the Marlianne's that he had just left—it was crowded and riot was at its height; a stringed orchestra in Hungarian costume played what purported to be Hungarian airs; shouts, laughter, clatter of dishes, and thump of steins added to the din. He made his way between the close-packed tables to the stairs, and descended to the lower floor. Here, if anything, the confusion was greater than above; but here, too, was an exit through to the rear street—and a moment later he was sauntering past the front of an unkempt little pawnshop, closed for the night, over whose door, in the murk of a distant street lamp, three balls hung in sagging disarray, tawny with age, and across whose dirty, unwashed windows, letters missing, ran the legend:
IS AC PELINA
Pawn brok r
The pawnshop made the corner of a very dark and narrow lane—and, with a quick glance around him to assure himself that he was unobserved, Jimmie Dale stepped into the alleyway, and, lost instantly in the blacker shadows, stole along by the wall of the pawnshop. Old Isaac's business was not all done through the front door.
And then suddenly Jimmie Dale shrank still closer against the wall. Was it intuition, premonition—or reality? There seemed an uncanny feeling of presence around him, as though perhaps he were watched, as though others beside himself were in the lane. Yes; ahead of him a shadow moved—he could just barely distinguish it now that his eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness. It, like himself, was close against the wall, and now it slunk noiselessly down the length of the lane until he lost sight of it. And what was that? He strained his ears to listen. It seemed like a window being opened or closed, cautiously, stealthily, the fraction of an inch at a time. And then he located the sound—it came from the other side of the lane and very nearly opposite to where, on the second floor, a dull, yellow glow shone out from old Isaac's private den in the rear of the pawnshop's office.
Jimmie Dale's brows were gathered in sharp furrows. There was evidently something afoot to-night of which the Tocsin had not sounded the alarm. And then the frown relaxed, and he smiled a little. Miraculous as was the means through which she obtained the knowledge that was the basis of their strange partnership, it was no more miraculous than her unerring accuracy in the minutest devils. The Tocsin had never failed him yet. It was possible that something was afoot around him, quite probable, indeed, since he was in the most vicious part of the city, in the heart of gangland; but whatever it might be, it was certainly extraneous to his mission or she would have mentioned it.
The lane was empty now, he was quite sure of that—and there was no further sound from the window opposite. He started forward once more—only to halt again for the second time as abruptly as before, squeezing if possible even more closely against the wall. Some one had turned into the lane from the sidewalk, and, walking hurriedly, choosing with evident precaution the exact centre of the alleyway, came toward him.
The man passed, his hurried stride a half run; and, a few feet beyond, halted at old Isaac's side door. From somewhere inside the old building Jimmie Dale's ears caught the faint ringing of an electric bell; a long ring, followed in quick succession by three short ones—then the repeated clicking of a latch, as though pulled by a cord from above, and the man passed in through the door, closing it behind him.
Jimmie Dale nodded to himself in the darkness. It was a spring lock; the signal was one long ring and three short ones—the Tocsin had not missed even those small details. Also, Burton was late for his appointment, for that must have been Burton—business such as old Isaac had in hand that night would have permitted the entrance of no other visitor but K. Wilmington Maddon's private secretary.
He moved down the lane to the door, and tried it softly. It was locked, of course. The slim, tapering, sensitive fingers, whose tips were eyes and ears to Jimmie Dale, felt over the lock—and a slender little steel instrument slipped into the keyhole. A moment more and the catch was released, and the door, under his hand, began to open. With it ajar, he paused, his eyes searching intently up and down the lane. There was nothing, no sign of any one, no moving shadows now. His gaze shifted to the window opposite. Directly facing it now, with the dull reflection upon it from the lighted window of old Isaac's den above his head, he could make out that it was open—but that was all.
Once more he smiled—a little tolerantly at himself this time. Some one had been in the lane; some one had opened the window of his or her room in that tenement house across from him—surely there was nothing surprising, unnatural, or even out of the commonplace in that. He had been a little bit on edge himself, perhaps, and the sudden movement of that shadow, unexpected, had startled him for the moment, as, in all probability, the opening of the window had startled the skulking figure itself into action.
The door was open now. He stepped noiselessly inside, and closed it noiselessly behind him. He was in a narrow hall, where a few yards away, a light shone down a stairway at right angles to the hall itself.
"Rear door of pawnshop opens into hall, and exactly opposite very short flight of stairs leading directly to doorway of Isaac's den above. Ramshackle old place, low ceilings. Isaac, when sitting in his den, can look down, and, by means of a transom over the rear door of the shop, see the customers as they enter from the street, while he also keeps an eye on his assistant. Latter always locks up and leaves promptly at six o'clock——" Jimmie Dale was subconsciously repeating to himself snatches from the Tocsin's letter, which, as subconsciously in reading, he had memorised almost word for word.
And now voices reached him—one, excited, nervous, as though the speaker were labouring under a mental strain that bordered closely on the hysterical; the other, curiously mingling a querulousness with an attempt to pacify, but dominantly contemptuous, sneering, cold.
Jimmie Dale moved along the hall—very slowly—without a sound—testing each step before he threw his body weight from one leg to the other. He reached the foot of the stairs. The Tocsin had been right; it was a very short flight. He counted the steps—there were eight. Above, facing him, a door was open. The voices were louder now. It was a sordid-looking room, what he could see of it, poverty-stricken in its appearance, intentionally so probably for effect, with no attempt whatever at furnishing. He could see through the doorway to the window that opened on the alleyway, or, rather, just glimpse the top of the window at an angle across the room—that and a bare stretch of floor. The two men were not in the line of vision.
Burton's voice—it was unquestionably Burton speaking—came to Jimmie Dale now distinctly.
"No, I didn't! I tell you, I didn't. I—I hadn't the nerve."
Jimmie Dale slipped his black silk mask over his face; and with extreme caution, on hands and knees, began to climb the stairs.
"So!" It was old Isaac now, in a half ——", half sneer. "And I was so sure, my young friend, that you had. I was so sure that you were not such a fool. Yes; I could even have sworn that they were in your pocket now—what? It is too bad—too bad! It is not a pleasant thing to think of, that little chair up the river in its horrible little room where
"For God's sake, Isaac—not that! Do you hear—not that! My God, I didn't mean to—I didn't know what I was doing!"
Jimmie Dale crept up another step, another, and another. There was silence for a moment in the room; then Burton again, hoarse-voiced:
"Isaac, I'll make good to you some other way. I swear I will—I swear it! If I'm caught at this I'll—I'll get fifteen years for it."
"And which would you rather have?" Jimmie Dale could picture the oily smirk, the shrug of the shoulders, the outthrust hands, palms upward, elbows in at the hips, the fingers curved and wide apart—"fifteen years, or what you get—for murder? Eh, my friend, you have thought of it—eh? It is a very little price I ask—yes?"
"Damn you!" Burton's voice rose shrill, then dropped to a half sob. "No, no, Isaac, I don't mean that. Only, for God's sake be merciful! It isn't only the risk of the penitentiary; it's more than that. I—I tried to play white all my life, and until that cursed night there's no man living could say I haven't. You know that—you know that, Isaac. I tell you I couldn't do it this afternoon—I tell you I couldn't. I tried to and—and I couldn't."
Jimmie Dale was lying flat on the little landing now, peering into the room. Back a short distance from the doorway, a repulsive-looking little man in unkempt clothes and soiled linen, with yellowish-skinned, parchment face, out of which small black eyes shone cunningly and shrewdly, sat at a bare deal table in a rickety chair; facing him across the table stood a young man of not more than twenty-five, clean cut, well dressed, but whose face was unnaturally white now, and whose hand, as he extended it in a pleading gesture toward the other, trembled visibly. Jimmie Dale's hand made its way quietly to his side pocket and extracted his automatic.
Old Isaac humped his shoulders, and leered at his visitor.
"We talk a great deal, my young friend. What is the use? A bargain is a bargain. A few rubies in exchange for your life. A few rubies and my mouth is shut. Otherwise"—he humped his shoulders again. "Well?"
Burton drew back, swept his hand in a dazed way across his eyes—and laughed out suddenly in bitter mirth.
"A few rubies!" he cried. "The most magnificent stones on this side of the water—a few rubies! It's been Maddon's life hobby. Every child in New York knows that! A few—yes, there's only a few—but those few are worth a fortune. He trusts me, the man has been like a father to me, and——"
"So you are the very last to be suspected," observed old Isaac suavely. "Have I not told you that? There is nothing to fear. Did we not arrange everything so nicely—eh, my young friend? See, it was to-night that Maddon gives a little reception to his friends, and did you not say that the rubies would be taken from the safe-deposit vault this afternoon since his friends always clamoured to see them as a very fitting conclusion to an evening's entertainment? And did you not say that you very naturally had access to the safe in the library where you worked, and that he would not notice they were gone until he came to look for them some time this evening? I think you said all that. And what suspicion, let alone proof, would attach itself to you? You were out of the room once when he, too, was absent for perhaps half an hour. It is very simple. In that half hour, some one, somehow, abstracted them. Certainly it was not you. You see how little I ask—and I pay well, do I not? And so I gave you until to-night. Three days have gone, and I have said nothing, and the body has not been found—eh? But to-night—eh—it was understood! The rubies—or the chair."
Burton's lips moved, but it was a moment before he could speak.
"You wouldn't dare!" he whispered thickly. "You wouldn't dare! I'd tell the story of—of what you tried to make me do, and they'd send you up for it."
Old Isaac shrugged with pitying contempt.
"Is it, after all, a fool I am dealing with!" he sneered. "And I—what should I say? That you had stolen the stones from your employer and offered them as a bribe to silence me, and that I had refused. The very act of handing you over to the police would prove the truth of what I said and rob you of even a chance of leniency—for that other thing. Is it not so—eh? And why did I not hand you over at once three nights ago? Believe me, my young friend, I should have a very good reason ready, a dozen, if necessary, if it came to that. But we are borrowing trouble, are we not? We shall not come to that—eh?"
For a moment it seemed to Jimmie Dale, as he watched, that Burton would hurl himself upon the other. White to the lips, the muscles of his face twitching, Burton clenched his fists and leaned over the table—and then, with sudden revulsion of emotion, he drew back once more, and once more came that choked sob:
"You'll pay for this, Isaac—your turn will come for this!
"I have been threatened very often," snapped the other contemptuously. "Bah, what are threats! I laugh at them—as I always will." Then, with a quick change of front, his voice a sudden snarl: "Well, we have talked enough. You have your choice. The stones or—eh? And it is to-night—now!"
The old pawnbroker sprawled back in his chair, a cunning leer on his vicious face, a gleam of triumph, greed, in the beady, ratlike eyes that never wavered from the other. Burton, moisture oozing from his forehead, stood there, hesitant, staring back at old Isaac, half in a fascinated gaze, half as though trying to read some sign of weakness in the bestial countenance that confronted him. And then, very slowly, in an automatic, machine-like way, his hand groped into the inside pocket of his vest—and old Isaac cackled out in derision.
"So! You thought you could bluff me, eh—you thought you could fool old Isaac! Bah! I read you like a book} Did I not tell you a while back that you had them in your pocket? I know your kind, my young friend; I know your kind very well indeed—it is my business. You would not have dared to come here to-night without the price. So! You took them this afternoon as we agreed. Yes, yes; you did well. You will not regret it. And now let me see them"—his voice rose eagerly—"let me see them now, my young friend."
"Yes, I took them." Burton spoke listlessly. "God help me!"
Old Isaac, quivering, excited, like a different creature now, sprang from his chair, and, as Burton drew a long, flat, leather case from his pocket, snatched it from the other's hand. His fingers in their rapacious haste could not at first manipulate the catch, and then finally, with the case open, he bent over the table feverishly. The light reflected back as from some living mass of crimson fire, now shading darkly, now glowing into wondrous, colourful transparency as he moved the case to and fro with jerky motions of his hands—and he was babbling, crooning to himself like one possessed.
"Ah, the little beauties! Ah, the pretty little things! Yes, yes; these are the ones! This is the great Aracon—see, see, the six-sided prism terminated by the six-sided pyramid. But it must be cut—it must be cut to sell it, eh? Ah, it is too bad—too bad! And this, this one here, I know them all, this is——"
But his sentence was never finished—it was Jimmie Dale, on his feet now, leaning against the jamb of the door, his automatic covering the two men at the table, who spoke.
"Quite so, Isaac," he said coolly; "you know them all! Quite so, Isaac—but be good enough to drop them!"
The case fell from Isaac's hand, the flush on his cheeks died to a sickly pallor, and, his mouth half open, he stood like a man turned to stone, his hands with curved fingers still outstretched over the table, over the crimson gems that, spilled from the case, lay scattered now on the tabletop. Burton neither spoke nor moved—a little whiter, the misery in his face almost apathetic, he moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue.
Jimmie Dale walked across the room, halted at the end of the table, and surveyed the two men grimly. And then, while one hand with revolver extended rested easily on the table, the other gathered up the stones, placed them in the case, and, the case in his pocket, Jimmie Dale's lips parted in an uninviting smile.
"I guess I'm in luck to-night, eh, Isaac?" he drawled. "Between you and your young friend, as I believe you call him, it would appear as though I had fallen on my feet. That Aracon's worth—what would you say?—a hundred, two hundred thousand alone, eh? A very famous stone, that—had your eye on it for quite a time, Isaac, you miserable blood leech, eh?"
Isaac did not answer; but, while he still held back from the table, he seemed to be regaining a little of his composure—burglars of whatever sort were no novelty to him—and was staring fixedly at Jimmie Dale.
"Can't place me—though there's not many in the profession you don't know? Is that it?" inquired Jimmie Dale softly. "Well, don't try, Isaac; it's hardly worth your while. I've got the stones now, and——"
"Wait! Wait! Listen!" It was Burton, speaking for the first time, his words coming in a quick, nervous rush. "Listen! You don't——"
"Hold your tongue!" cried old Isaac, with sudden fierceness. "You are a fool!" He leaned toward Jimmie Dale, a crafty smile on his face, quite in control of himself once more. "Don't listen to him—listen to me. You're right. I can't place you, and it doesn't make any difference"—he took a step forward—"but——"
"Not too close, Isaac!" snapped Jimmie Dale sharply. "I know you!
"So!" ejaculated old Isaac, rubbing his hands together. "So! That is good! That is what I want. Listen, we will make a bargain. We are birds of a feather, eh? All thieves, eh? You've got the drop on us who did all the work, but you'll give us our share—eh? Listen! You couldn't get rid of those stones alone. You know that; you're not so green at the game, eh? You'd have to go to some one. You know me; you know old Isaac, you say. Well, then, you know there isn't another man in New York could dispose of those rubies and play safe doing it except me. I'll make a good bargain with you."
"Isaac," said Jimmie Dale pensively, "you've made a good many 'good' bargains. I wonder when you'll make your last! There's more than one looking for 'interest' on those bargains in a pretty grim sort of way."
"Bah!" ejaculated old Isaac. "It is an old story. They are all alike. I am afraid of none of them. I hold them all like—that!" His hand opened and closed like a taloned claw.
"And you'd add me to the lot, eh?" said Jimmie Dale. He lifted the revolver, its muzzle on old Isaac, examined the mechanism, and lowered it again. "Very well, I'll make a bargain with you—providing it is agreeable to your young friend here."
"Ah!" exclaimed old Isaac shrilly. "So! That is good! It is done then." He chuckled hoarsely. "Any bargain I make he will agree to. Is it not so?" He fixed his eyes on Burton. "Well, is it not so? Speak up! Say——"
He stopped—the words cut short off on his lips. It came without warning—a crash, a pound on the door below—another.
Burton shrank back against the wall.
"My God! The police!" he gasped. "Maddon's found out! We're—we're caught!"
Jimmie Dale's eyes, on old Isaac, narrowed. The pounding in the alleyway grew louder, more insistent. And then his first suspicion passed—it was no "game" of Isaac's. Crafty though the old fox was, the other's surprise and agitation was too genuine to be questioned.
Still the pounding continued—some one was kicking viciously at the door, and banging a tattoo on the panels with his fists.
Old Isaac's clawlike hands doubled suddenly.
"It is some drunken sot," he snarled out, "that knows no better than to come here and rouse the whole neighbourhood! It Is true, in a moment we will have the police running in from the street. But wait—wait—I'll teach the fool a lesson!" He dashed around the table, ran for the window, wrenched the catch up, flung the window open, and, snarling again, leaned out—and instantly the knocking ceased.
And instantly then, with a sharp cry, as the whole ghastly meaning of it swept upon him, Jimmie sprang after the other—too late! Came the roar of a revolver shot, a stream of flame cutting the darkness of the alleyway from the window in the house opposite—and, without a sound, old Isaac crumpled up, hung limply for a moment over the sill, and slid in a heap to the floor.
On his hands and knees, protected from the possibility of another bullet by the height of the sill, Jimmie Dale, quick in every movement now, dragged the inert form toward the table away from the window, and bent hurriedly over the other. A minute perhaps he stayed there—and then rose slowly.
Burton, horror-stricken, unmanned, beside himself, was hanging, clutching with both hands at the table edge.
"He's dead," said Jimmie Dale laconically.
Burton flung out his hands.
"Dead!" he whispered hoarsely. "I—I think I'm going mad. Three days of hell—and now this. We'd—we'd better get out of here quick—they'll get us if——"
Jimmie Dale's hand fell with a tight grip on Burton's shoulder.
"There won't be any more shots fired—pull yourself together!"
Burton stared at him in a demented way.
"What's—what's it mean?" he stammered.
"It means that I didn't put two and two togeher," said Jimmie Dale a little bitterly. "It means that there's a dozen crooks been dancing old Isaac's tune for a long time—and that some of them have got him at last."
Burton reached out suddenly and clutched Jimmie Dale's arm.
"Then I'm safe!" He mumbled the words, but there was dawning hope, relief in his white face. "Safe! I'm safe—if you'll only give me back those stones. Give them back to me, for God's sake give them back to me! You don't know—you don't understand. I stole them because—because he made me—because I—it was the only chance I had. Oh, my God, you don't know what the last three days have been! Give them back to me, won't you—won't you? You—you don't know!"
"Don't lose your nerve!" said Jimmie Dale sharply. "Sit down!" He pushed the other into the chair. "There's no one will disturb us here for some time at least. What is it that I don't know? That three nights ago you were in a gambling hell, Sagosto's, to be exact, one of the most disreputable in New York—and you went there on the invitation of a stray acquaintance, a man named Perley—shall I describe him for you? A short, slim-built man, black eyes, red hair, beard, and——"
"You know that!" The misery, the hopelessness was back in Burton's face again—and suddenly he bent over the table and buried his head in his outflung arms.
There was silence for a moment. Tight-lipped, Jimmie Dale's eyes travelled from Burton's shaking shoulders to the motionless form on the floor. Then he spoke again:
"You're a bit of a rounder, Burton, but I think you've had a lesson that will last you all your life. You were half-drunk when you and Perley began to hobnob over a downtown bar. He said he'd show you some real life, and you went with him to Sagosto's. He gave you a revolver before you went in, and told you the place wasn't safe for an unarmed man. He introduced you to Sagosto, the proprietor, and you were shown to a back room. You drank quite a little there. You and Perley were alone, throwing dice. You got into a quarrel. Perley tried to draw his revolver. You were quicker. You drew the one he had given you—and fired. He fell to the floor—you saw the blood gush from his breast just above the heart—he was dead. In a panic you rushed from the place and out into the street. I don't think you went home that night."
Burton raised his head, showing his haggard face.
"I guess it's no use," he said dully. "If you know, others must. I thought only Isaac and Sagosto knew. Why haven't I been arrested? I wish to God I had—I wouldn't have had to-day to answer for."
"I am not through yet," said Jimmie Dale gravely. "The next day old Isaac here sent for you. He said Sagosto had told him of the murder, and had offered to dispose of the corpse and keep his mouth shut for fifty thousand dollars—that no one in his place knew of it except himself. Isaac, for his share, wanted considerably more. You told him you had no such sums, that you had no money. He told you how you could get it—you had access to Maddon's safe, you were Maddon's confidential secretary, fully in your employer's trust, the last man on earth to be suspected—and there were Maddon's famous, priceless rubies."
Jimmie Dale paused. Burton made no answer.
"And so," said Jimmie Dale presently, "to save yourself from the death penalty you took them."
"Yes," said Burton, scarcely above his breath. "Are you an officer? If you are, take me, have done with it! Only for Heaven's sake end it! If you're not——"
Jimmie Dale was not listening. The cupboard at the rear of the room," she had said. He walked across to it now, opened it, and, after a little search, found a small bundle. He returned with it in his hand, and, kneeling beside the dead man on the floor, his back to Burton, untied it, took out a red wig and beard, and slipped them on to old Isaac's head and face.
"I wonder," he said grimly, as he stood up, "if you ever saw this man before?"
"My God—Perley!" With a wild cry, Burton was on his feet, straining forward like a man crazed.
"Yes," said Jimmie Dale, "Perley! Sort of an ironic justice in his end as far as you are concerned, isn't there? I think we'll leave him like that—as Perley. It will provide the police with an interesting little problem—which they will never solve, and—steady!"
Burton was rocking on his feet, the tears were streaming down his face. He lurched heavily—and Jimmie Dale caught him, and pushed him back into the chair again.
I thought—I thought there was blood on my hands," said Burton brokenly; "that—that I had taken a man's life. It was horrible, horrible! I've lived through three days that I thought would drive me mad, while I—I tried to do my work, and—and talk to people, just as if nothing had happened. And every one that spoke to me seemed so carefree and happy, and I would have sold my soul to have changed places with them." He stared at the form on the floor, and shivered suddenly. "It—it was like that I saw him last!" he whispered. "But—but I do not understand."
Jimmie Dale smiled a little wearily.
"It was simple enough," he said. "Old Isaac had had his eyes on those rubies for a long time. The easiest way of getting them was through you. The revolver he gave you before you entered Sagosto's was loaded with blank cartridges, the blood you saw was the old, old trick—a punctured bladder of red pigment concealed under the vest."
"Let us get out of here!" Burton shuddered again. "Let us get out of here—at once—now. If we're found here, we'll be accused of—that!"
"There is no hurry," Jimmie Dale answered quietly. "I have told you that no one is liable to come here to-night—and whoever did this certainly will not raise an alarm. And besides, there is still the matter of the rubies—Burton."
"Yes," said Burton, with a quick intake of his breath. "Yes—the rubies—what are you going to do with them? I—I had forgotten them. You'll——" He stopped, stared at Jimmie Dale, and burst into a miserable laugh. "I'm a fool, a blind fool!" he moaned. "It does not matter what you do with them. I forgot Sagosto. When they find Isaac here, Sagosto will either tell his story, which will be enough to convict me of this night's work, the real murder, even though I'm innocent; or else he'll blackmail me just as Isaac did."
Jimmie Dale shook his head.
"You are doing Isaac's cunning an injustice," he said grimly. "Sagosto was only a tool, one of many that old Isaac had in his power—and, for that matter, as likely as any one else to have had a hand in Isaac's murder to-night. Sagosto saw you once when Isaac brought you into his place—not because Isaac wanted Sagosto to see you, but because he wanted you to see Sagosto. Do you understand? It would make the story that Sagosto came to him with the tale of the murder the next day ring true. Sagosto, however, did not go to old Isaac the next day to tell about any fake murder—naturally. Sagosto would not know you again from Adam—neither does he know anything about the rubies, nor what old Isaac's ulterior motives were. He was paid for his share in the game in old Isaac's usual manner of payment probably—by a threat of exposure for some old-time offence, that Isaac held over him, if he didn't keep his mouth shut."
Burton's hand brushed his eyes.
"Yes," he muttered. "Yes—I see it now."
Jimmie Dale stooped down, picked up the paper from the floor in which the wig and beard had been wrapped, walked back with it, and replaced it in the cupboard. And then, with his back to Burton again, he took the case of gems from his pocket, opened it, and laid it on the cupboard shelf. Also from his pocket came that thin metal case, and from the case, with a pair of tweezers that obviated the possibility of telltale finger prints, a gray, diamond-shaped piece of paper, adhesive on one side that, cursed by the distracted authorities in every police headquarters on both sides of the Atlantic, and raved at by a virulent press whose printed reproductions had made it familiar in every household in the land—was the insignia of the Gray Seal. He moistened the adhesive side, dropped it from the tweezers to his handkerchief, and pressed it down firmly on the inside of the cover of the jewel case. He put both cases back in his pockets, and returned to Burton.
"Burton," he said a little sharply, "while I was outside that doorway there, I heard you beg old Isaac to let you keep the rubies, and three times already you have asked the same of me. What would you do with them if I gave them back to you?"
Burton did not reply for a moment—he was gazing at the masked face in a half-eager, half-doubtful way.
"You—you mean you will give them back!" he burst out finally.
"Answer my question," prompted Jimmie Dale.
"Do with them?" Burton repeated slowly. "Why, I've told you. They'd go back to Mr. Maddon—I'd take them back."
"Would you?" Jimmie Dale's voice was quizzical.
A puzzled expression came to Burton's face.
"I don't know what you mean by that," he said. "Of course, I would!"
"How?" asked Jimmie Dale. "Do you know the combination of Mr. Maddon's safe?"
"No," said Burton.
"And the safe would be locked, wouldn't it?"
"Quite so," said Jimmie Dale musingly. "Then, granted that Mr. Maddon has not already discovered the theft, how would you replace the stones before he does discover it? And if he already knows that they are gone, how would you get them back into his hands?"
"Yes, I know," Burton answered a little listlessly. "I've thought of that. There's only one way—to take them back to him myself, and make a clean breast of it, and——" He hesitated.
"And tell him you stole them," supplied Jimmie Dale.
Burton nodded his head. "Yes," he said.
"And then?" prodded Jimmie Dale. "What will Maddon do? From what I've heard of him, he's not a man to trifle with, nor a man to take an overly complacent view of things—not the man whose philosophy is 'all's well that ends well.'"
"What does it matter?" Burton's voice was low. "It isn't that so much. I'm ready for that. It's the fact that he trusted me implicitly, and I—well, I played the fool, or I'd never have got into a mess like this."
For an instant Jimmie Dale looked at the other searchingly, and then, smiling strangely, he shook his head.
"There's a better way than that, Burton," he said quietly. "I think, as I said before, you've had a lesson to-night that will last you all your life. I'm going to give you another chance—with Maddon. Here are the stones." He reached into his pocket and laid the case on the table.
But now Burton made no effort to take the case—his eyes, in that puzzled way again, were on Jimmie Dale.
"A better way?" he repeated tensely. "What do you mean? What way?"
"Well, say at the expense of another man's reputation—of mine," suggested Jimmie Dale, with his whimsical smile. "You need only say that a man came to you this evening, told you that he stole these rubies from Mr. Maddon during the afternoon, and asked you, as Mr. Maddon's private secretary, to restore them with his compliments to their owner."
A slow flush of disappointment, deepening to one of anger dyed Burton's cheeks.
"Are you trying to make a fool of me?" he cried out "Go to Maddon with a childish tale like that! There's no man living would believe such a cock-and-bull story!"
"No?" inquired Jimmie Dale softly. "And yet I am inclined to think there are a good many—that even Maddon would, hard-headed as he is. You might say that when the man handed you the case you thought it was some practical joke being foisted on you, until you opened the case"—Jimmie Dale pushed it a little farther across the table, and Burton, mechanically, his eyes still on Jimme Dale, loosened the catch with his thumb nail—"until you opened the case, saw the rubies, and——"
"The Gray Seal!" Burton had snatched the case toward him, and was straining his eyes at the inside cover. "You—the Gray Seal!"
"Well?" said Jimmie Dale whimsically.
Motionless, the case held open in his hands. Burton stood there.
"The Gray Seal!" he whispered. Then, with a catch in his voice: "You mean this? You mean to let me have these back—you mean—you mean all you've said? For God's sake, don't play with me—the Gray Seal, the most notorious criminal in the country, to give back a fortune like this! You—you——"
"Dog with a bad name," said Jimmie Dale, with a wry smile; then, a little gruffly: "Put it in your pocket!"
Slowly, almost as though he expected the case to be snatched back from him the next instant, Burton obeyed.
"I don't understand—I can't understand!" he murmured. "They say that you—and yet I believe you now—you've saved me from a ruined life to-night. The Gray Seal! If—if every one knew what you had done, they——"
"But every one won't," Jimmie Dale broke in bluntly. "Who is to tell them? You? You couldn't very well, when you come to think of it—could you? Well, who knows, perhaps there have been others like you!"
"You mean," said Burton excitedly, "you mean that all these crimes of yours that have seemed without motive, that have been so inexplicable, have really been like to-night to——"
"I don't mean anything at all," interposed Jimmie Dale a little hurriedly. "Nothing, Burton—except that there is still one little thing more to do to bolster up that 'childish' story of mine—and then get out of here." He glanced sharply, critically around the room, his eyes resting for a moment at the last on the form on the floor. Then tersely: "I am going to turn out the light—we will have to pass the window to get to the door, and we will invite no chances. Are you ready?"
"No; not yet," said Burton eagerly. "I haven't said what I'd like to say to you, what I——"
"Walk straight to the door," said Jimmie Dale curtly. There was the click of an electric-light switch, and the room was in darkness. "Now, no noise!" he instructed.
And Burton, perforce, made his way across the room—and at the door Jimmie Dale joined him and led him down the short flight of stairs. At the bottom, he opened the door leading into the rear of the pawnshop itself, and, bidding Burton follow, entered.
"We can't risk even a match; it could be seen from the street," he said brusquely, as he fumbled around for a moment in the darkness. "Ah—here it is!" He lifted a telephone receiver from its hook, and gave a number.
Burton caught him quickly by the arm.
"Good Lord, man, what are you doing?" he protested anxiously. "That's Mr. Maddon's house!"
"So I believe," said Jimmie Dale complacently. "Hello! Is Mr. Maddon there? . . . I beg pardon? . . . Personally, yes, if you please."
There was a moment's wait. Burton's hand was still nervously clutching at Jimmie Dale's sleeve. Then:
"Mr. Maddon ? " asked Jimmie Dale pleasantly. "Yes? . . . I am very sorry to trouble you, but I called you up to inquire if you were aware that your rubies, and among them your Aracon, had been stolen? . . . I beg pardon? . . . Rubies—yes. . . . You weren't. . . . Oh, no, I am quite in my right mind; if you will take the trouble to open your safe you will find they are gone—shall I hold the line while you investigate? . . . What? . . . Don't shout, please—and stand a little farther away from the mouthpiece." Jimmie Dale's tone was one of insolent composure now. "There is really no use in getting excited. . . . I beg pardon? . . . Certainly, this is the Gray Seal speaking. . . . What?" Jimmie Dale's voice grew plaintive. "I really can't make out a word when you yell like that. . . . Yes. . . . I had occasion to use them this afternoon, and I took the liberty of borrowing them temporarily—are you still there, Mr. Maddon? . . . Oh, quite so! Yes, I hear you now. . . . No, that is all, only I am returning them through your private secretary, a very estimable young man, though I fear somewhat excitable and shaky, who is on his way to you with them now. . . . What's that you say? You repeat that," snapped Jimmie Dale suddenly, icily, "and I'll take them from under your nose again before morning! . . . Ah! That is better! Good-night—Mr. Maddon."
Jimmie Dale hung up the receiver and shoved Burton toward the door.
"Now then, Burton, we'll get out of here—and the sooner you reach Fifth Avenue and Mr. Maddon's house the better. No; not that way!" They had reached the hall, and Burton had turned toward the side door that opened on the alleyway. "Whoever they were who settled their last account with Isaac may still be watching. They've nothing against any one else, but they know some one was in here at the time, and, if the police are clever enough ever to get on their track, they might find it very convenient to be able to say who was in the room when Isaac was murdered—there's nothing to show, since Isaac so obligingly opened the window for them, that the shot was fired through the window and not from the inside of the room. And even if they have already taken to their heels"—Jimmie Dale was leading Burton up the stairs again as he talked—"it might prove exceedingly inconvenient for us if some passer-by should happen to recollect that he saw two men of our general appearance leaving the premises. Now keep close—and follow me."
They passed the door of Isaac's den, turned down a narrow corridor that led to the rear of the house—Jimmie Dale guiding unerringly, working from the mental map of the house that the Tocsin had drawn for him—descended another short flight of stairs that gave on the kitchen, crossed the kitchen, and Jimmie Dale opened a back door. He paused here for a moment to listen; then, cautioning Burton to be silent, moved on again across a small back yard and through a gate into a lane that ran at right angles to the alleyway by which both had entered the house—and, a minute later, they were crouched against a building, a half block away, where the lane intersected the cross street.
Here Jimmie Dale peered out cautiously. There was no one in sight. He touched Burton's shoulder, and pointed down the street.
"That's your way. Burton—mine's the other. Hurry while you've got the chance. Good-night."
Burton's hand reached out, caught Jimmie Dale's, and wrung it.
"God bless you!" he said huskily. "I——"
And Jimmie Dale pushed him out on to the street.
Burton's steps receded down the sidewalk. Jimmie Dale still crouched against the wall. The steps grew fainter in the distance and died finally away. Jimmie Dale straightened up, slipped the mask from his face to his pocket, stepped out on the street—and five minutes later was passing through the noisy bedlam of the Hungarian restaurant on his way to the front door and his car.
"Sonnez le Tocsin," Jimmie Dale was saying softly to himself. "I wonder what she'll do when she finds I've got the ring?"