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CHAPTER IX

The moment she passed though the great arched door which admits the stranger to that portion of New Scotland Yard where throbs the heart of that great organism which fights the forces of civilised crime, Daisy Bunting felt that she had indeed become free of the Kingdom of Romance. Even the lift in which the three of them were whirled up to one of the upper floors of the huge building was to the girl a new and delightful experience. Daisy had always lived a simple, quiet life in the little country town where dwelt Old Aunt, and this was the first time a lift had come her way.

With a touch of personal pride in the vast building, Joe Chandler marched his friends down a wide, airy corridor.

Daisy clung to her father’s arm, a little bewildered, a little oppressed by her good fortune. Her happy young voice was stilled by the awe she felt at the wonderful place where she found herself, and by the glimpses she caught of great rooms full of busy, silent men engaged in unravelling—or so she supposed—the mysteries of crime.

They were passing a half-open door when Chandler suddenly stopped short. "Look in there," he said, in a low voice, addressing the father rather than the daughter, "that’s the Finger-Print Room. We’ve records here of over two hundred thousand men’s and women’s finger-tips! I expect you know, Mr. Bunting, as how, once we’ve got the print of a man’s five finger-tips, well, he’s done for—if he ever does anything else, that is. Once we’ve got that bit of him registered he can’t never escape us—no, not if he tries ever so. But though there’s nigh on a quarter of a million records in there, yet it don’t take—well, not half an hour, for them to tell whether any particular man has ever been convicted before! Wonderful thought, ain’t it?"

"Wonderful!" said Bunting, drawing a deep breath. And then a troubled look came over his stolid face. "Wonderful, but also a very fearful thought for the poor wretches as has got their finger-prints in, Joe."

Joe laughed. "Agreed!" he said. "And the cleverer ones knows that only too well. Why, not long ago, one man who knew his record was here safe, managed to slash about his fingers something awful, just so as to make a blurred impression—you takes my meaning? But there, at the end of six weeks the skin grew all right again, and in exactly the same little creases as before!"

"Poor devil!" said Bunting under his breath, and a cloud even came over Daisy’s bright, eager face.

They were now going along a narrower passage, and then again they came to a half-open door, leading into a room far smaller than that of the Finger-Print Identification Room.

"If you’ll glance in there," said Joe briefly, "you’ll see how we finds out all about any man whose finger-tips has given him away, so to speak. It’s here we keeps an account of what he’s done, his previous convictions, and so on. His finger-tips are where I told you, and his record in there—just connected by a number."

"Wonderful!" said Bunting, drawing in his breath.

But Daisy was longing to get on—to get to the Black Museum. All this that Joe and her father were saying was quite unreal to her, and, for the matter of that, not worth taking the trouble to understand. However, she had not long to wait.

A broad-shouldered, pleasant-looking young fellow, who seemed on very friendly terms with Joe Chandler, came forward suddenly, and, unlocking a common-place-looking door, ushered the little party of three through into the Black Museum.

For a moment there came across Daisy a feeling of keen disappointment and surprise. This big, light room simply reminded her of what they called the Science Room in the public library of the town where she lived with Old Aunt. Here, as there, the centre was taken up with plain glass cases fixed at a height from the floor which enabled their contents to be looked at closely.

She walked forward and peered into the case nearest the door. The exhibits shown there were mostly small, shabby-looking little things, the sort of things one might turn out of an old rubbish cupboard in an untidy house—old medicine bottles, a soiled neckerchief, what looked like a child’s broken lantern, even a box of pills…

As for the walls, they were covered with the queerest-looking objects; bits of old iron, odd-looking things made of wood and leather, and so on.

It was really rather disappointing.

Then Daisy Bunting gradually became aware that, standing on a shelf just below the first of the broad, spacious windows which made the great room look so light and shadowless, was a row of life-size white plaster heads, each head slightly inclined to the right. There were about a dozen of these, not more—and they had such odd, staring, helpless, real-looking faces.

"Whatever’s those?" asked Bunting in a low voice.

Daisy clung a thought closer to her father’s arm. Even she guessed that these strange, pathetic, staring faces were the death-masks of those men and women who had fulfilled the awful law which ordains that the murderer shall be, in his turn, done to death.

"All hanged!" said the guardian of the Black Museum briefly. "Casts taken after death."

Bunting smiled nervously. "They don’t look dead somehow. They looks more as if they were listening," he said.

"That’s the fault of Jack Ketch," said the man facetiously. "It’s his idea—that of knotting his patient’s necktie under the left ear! That’s what he does to each of the gentlemen to whom he has to act valet on just one occasion only. It makes them lean just a bit to one side. You look here——?"

Daisy and her father came a little closer, and the speaker pointed with his finger to a little dent imprinted on the left side of each neck; running from this indentation was a curious little furrow, well ridged above, showing how tightly Jack Ketch’s necktie had been drawn when its wearer was hurried through the gates of eternity.

"They looks foolish-like, rather than terrified, or—or hurt," said Bunting wonderingly.

He was extraordinarily moved and fascinated by those dumb, staring faces.

But young Chandler exclaimed in a cheerful, matter-of-fact voice, "Well, a man would look foolish at such a time as that, with all his plans brought to naught—and knowing he’s only got a second to live—now wouldn’t he?"

"Yes, I suppose he would," said Bunting slowly.

Daisy had gone a little pale. The sinister, breathless atmosphere of the place was beginning to tell on her. She now began to understand that the shabby little objects lying there in the glass case close to her were each and all links in the chain of evidence which, in almost every case, had brought some guilty man or woman to the gallows.

"We had a yellow gentleman here the other day," observed the guardian suddenly; "one of those Brahmins—so they calls themselves. Well, you’d ’a been quite surprised to see how that heathen took on! He declared—what was the word he used?"—he turned to Chandler.

"He said that each of these things, with the exception of the casts, mind you—queer to say, he left them out—exuded evil, that was the word he used! Exuded—squeezed out it means. He said that being here made him feel very bad. And ’twasn’t all nonsense either. He turned quite green under his yellow skin, and we had to shove him out quick. He didn’t feel better till he’d got right to the other end of the passage!"

"There now! Who’d ever think of that?" said Bunting. "I should say that man ’ud got something on his conscience, wouldn’t you?"

"Well, I needn’t stay now," said Joe’s good-natured friend. "You show your friends round, Chandler. You knows the place nearly as well as I do, don’t you?"

He smiled at Joe’s visitors, as if to say good-bye, but it seemed that he could not tear himself away after all.

"Look here," he said to Bunting. "In this here little case are the tools of Charles Peace. I expect you’ve heard of him."

"I should think I have!" cried Bunting eagerly.

"Many gents as comes here thinks this case the most interesting of all. Peace was such a wonderful man! A great inventor they say he would have been, had he been put in the way of it. Here’s his ladder; you see it folds up quite compactly, and makes a nice little bundle—just like a bundle of old sticks any man might have been seen carrying about London in those days without attracting any attention. Why, it probably helped him to look like an honest working man time and time again, for on being arrested he declared most solemnly he’d always carried that ladder openly under his arm."

"The daring of that!" cried Bunting.

"Yes, and when the ladder was opened out it could reach from the ground to the second storey of any old house. And, oh! how clever he was! Just open one section, and you see the other sections open automatically; so Peace could stand on the ground and force the thing quietly up to any window he wished to reach. Then he’d go away again, having done his job, with a mere bundle of old wood under his arm! My word, he was artful! I wonder if you’ve heard the tale of how Peace once lost a finger. Well, he guessed the constables were instructed to look out for a man missing a finger; so what did he do?"

"Put on a false finger," suggested Bunting.

"No, indeed! Peace made up his mind just to do without a hand altogether. Here’s his false stump; you see, it’s made of wood—wood and black felt? Well, that just held his hand nicely. Why, we considers that one of the most ingenious contrivances in the whole museum."

Meanwhile, Daisy had let go her hold of her father. With Chandler in delighted attendance, she had moved away to the farther end of the great room, and now she was bending over yet another glass case. "Whatever are those little bottles for?" she asked wonderingly.

There were five small phials, filled with varying quantities of cloudy liquids.

"They’re full of poison, Miss Daisy, that’s what they are. There’s enough arsenic in that little whack o’ brandy to do for you and me—aye, and for your father as well, I should say."

"Then chemists shouldn’t sell such stuff," said Daisy, smiling. Poison was so remote from herself, that the sight of these little bottles only brought a pleasant thrill.

"No more they don’t. That was sneaked out of a flypaper, that was. Lady said she wanted a cosmetic for her complexion, but what she was really going for was flypapers for to do away with her husband. She’d got a bit tired of him, I suspect."

"Perhaps he was a horrid man, and deserved to be done away with," said Daisy. The idea struck them both as so very comic that they began to laugh aloud in unison.

"Did you ever hear what a certain Mrs. Pearce did?" asked Chandler, becoming suddenly serious.

"Oh, yes," said Daisy, and she shuddered a little. "That was the wicked, wicked woman what killed a pretty little baby and its mother. They’ve got her in Madame Tussaud’s. But Ellen, she won’t let me go to the Chamber of Horrors. She wouldn’t let father take me there last time I was in London. Cruel of her, I called it. But somehow I don’t feel as if I wanted to go there now, after having been here!"

"Well," said Chandler slowly, "we’ve a case full of relics of Mrs. Pearce. But the pram the bodies were found in, that’s at Madame Tussaud’s—at least so they claim, I can’t say. Now here’s something just as curious, and not near so dreadful. See that man’s jacket there?"

"Yes," said Daisy falteringly. She was beginning to feel oppressed, frightened. She no longer wondered that the Indian gentleman had been taken queer.

"A burglar shot a man dead who’d disturbed him, and by mistake he went and left that jacket behind him. Our people noticed that one of the buttons was broken in two. Well, that don’t seem much of a clue, does it, Miss Daisy? Will you believe me when I tells you that that other bit of button was discovered, and that it hanged the fellow? And ’twas the more wonderful because all three buttons was different!"

Daisy stared wonderingly, down at the little broken button which had hung a man. "And whatever’s that?" she asked, pointing to a piece of dirty-looking stuff.

"Well," said Chandler reluctantly, "that’s rather a horrible thing—that is. That’s a bit o’ shirt that was buried with a woman—buried in the ground, I mean—after her husband had cut her up and tried to burn her. ’Twas that bit o’ shirt that brought him to the gallows."

"I considers your museum’s a very horrid place!" said Daisy pettishly, turning away.

She longed to be out in the passage again, away from this brightly lighted, cheerful-looking, sinister room.

But her father was now absorbed in the case containing various types of infernal machines. "Beautiful little works of art some of them are," said his guide eagerly, and Bunting could not but agree.

"Come along—do, father!" said Daisy quickly. "I’ve seen about enough now. If I was to stay in here much longer it ’ud give me the horrors. I don’t want to have no nightmares to-night. It’s dreadful to think there are so many wicked people in the world. Why, we might knock up against some murderer any minute without knowing it, mightn’t we?"

"Not you, Miss Daisy," said Chandler smilingly. "I don’t suppose you’ll ever come across even a common swindler, let alone anyone who’s committed a murder—not one in a million does that. Why, even I have never had anything to do with a proper murder case!"

But Bunting was in no hurry. He was thoroughly enjoying every moment of the time. Just now he was studying intently the various photographs which hung on the walls of the Black Museum; especially was he pleased to see those connected with a famous and still mysterious case which had taken place not long before in Scotland, and in which the servant of the man who died had played a considerable part—not in elucidating, but in obscuring, the mystery.

"I suppose a good many murderers get off?" he said musingly.

And Joe Chandler’s friend nodded. "I should think they did!" he exclaimed. "There’s no such thing as justice here in England. ’Tis odds on the murderer every time. ’Tisn’t one in ten that come to the end he should do—to the gallows, that is."

"And what d’you think about what’s going on now—I mean about those Avenger murders?"

Bunting lowered his voice, but Daisy and Chandler were already moving towards the door.

"I don’t believe he’ll ever be caught," said the other confidentially. "In some ways ’tis a lot more of a job to catch a madman than ’tis to run down just an ordinary criminal. And, of course—leastways to my thinking—The Avenger is a madman—one of the cunning, quiet sort. Have you heard about the letter?" his voice dropped lower.

"No," said Bunting, staring eagerly at him. "What letter d’you mean?"

"Well, there’s a letter—it’ll be in this museum some day—which came just before that last double event. ’Twas signed ‘The Avenger,’ in just the same printed characters as on that bit of paper he always leaves behind him. Mind you, it don’t follow that it actually was The Avenger what sent that letter here, but it looks uncommonly like it, and I know that the Boss attaches quite a lot of importance to it."

"And where was it posted?" asked Bunting. "That might be a bit of a clue, you know."

"Oh, no," said the other. "They always goes a very long way to post anything—criminals do. It stands to reason they would. But this particular one was put in the Edgware Road Post Office."

"What? Close to us?" said Bunting. "Goodness! How dreadful!"

"Any of us might knock up against him any minute. I don’t suppose The Avenger’s in any way peculiar-looking—in fact we know he ain’t."

"Then you think that woman as says she saw him did see him?" asked Bunting hesitatingly.

"Our description was made up from what she said," answered the other cautiously. "But, there, you can’t tell! In a case like that it’s groping—groping in the dark all the time—and it’s just a lucky accident if it comes out right in the end. Of course, it’s upsetting us all very much here. You can’t wonder at that!"

"No, indeed," said Bunting quickly. "I give you my word, I’ve hardly thought of anything else for the last month."

Daisy had disappeared, and when her father joined her in the passage she was listening, with downcast eyes, to what Joe Chandler was saying.

He was telling her about his real home, of the place where his mother lived, at Richmond—that it was a nice little house, close to the park. He was asking her whether she could manage to come out there one afternoon, explaining that his mother would give them tea, and how nice it would be.

"I don’t see why Ellen shouldn’t let me," the girl said rebelliously. "But she’s that old-fashioned and pernickety is Ellen—a regular old maid! And, you see, Mr. Chandler, when I’m staying with them, father don’t like for me to do anything that Ellen don’t approve of. But she’s got quite fond of you, so perhaps if you ask her——?" She looked at him, and he nodded sagely.

"Don’t you be afraid," he said confidently. "I’ll get round Mrs. Bunting. But, Miss Daisy"—he grew very red—"I’d just like to ask you a question—no offence meant——"

"Yes?" said Daisy a little breathlessly. "There’s father close to us, Mr. Chandler. Tell me quick; what is it?"

"Well, I take it, by what you said just now, that you’ve never walked out with any young fellow?"

Daisy hesitated a moment, then a very pretty dimple came into her cheek. "No," she said sadly. "No, Mr. Chandler, that I have not." In a burst of candour she added, "You see, I never had the chance!"

And Joe Chandler smiled, well pleased.