The Strand Magazine/Volume 2/Issue 7/Why He Failed

4032761The Strand Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 7 — "Why He Failed"

Why He Failed.

H E threw away a great chance of success, and has been a happier man ever since.

There is no one but myself in England now, who knows exactly how it happened, and as I was thinking over it to-night (something in the papers about a clever detective in New York brought it all fresh back to my mind) it seemed to me such a queer story altogether that I think it will interest others to know it.

I must just alter one or two of the names, that's all, because it is not so very long ago since it happened, and it came out in one or two papers at the time, but all more or less wide of the mark. None of them had just the rights of it.

You see, no one could make out how Allan got away so easily—no one knows except my friend and I, and one man over the seas, and not even the cutest Yankee could ever guess the truth.

It is stranger than fiction, as you will find. But this is the story.

I put it short enough, for writing is not in my line. I can think things out in my head, and turn them over and over, till there is not much left of them that has not been put through the sieve, so to speak, but when it comes to pen and ink I'm a poor hand. It means sitting down indoors for hours, and that I am not used to. No, thank Heaven, I can earn my bread by something else, or very little bread would come to me, and no chance of butter or cheese.

This is not my story at all; I mean, not about my own life. It is about a friend of mine, George Markson.

If I told you his real name, you would probably remember at once; he was one of the best known detectives of that time. Talk about five senses, George had ten at least. He could see round a case, and through a man, and into your mind almost, and tell you what you were thinking of, better than you knew yourself.

And all so quiet—you would not think he saw much, but he had seen everything at a glance, and forgotten nothing. I have known him look into a room that he had never seen before, and in the evening, when we were sitting together, he would describe that room, down to the maker's name on the clock, as minutely as if he were holding a picture of it in his hand at the time.

He worked on his own account, and he had constant and well paid employment, since the day he tracked the man who robbed the bank of Westminster; you may remember the case—a daring daylight robbery.

"A good disguise too."

He traced him after a long search to Paris, and spotted him there as a garçon in a café—a good disguise too. George was in Spain after that for a long time, and then went to Cairo, so I did not see him for more than a year. He came back with a reputation more brilliant than ever, and settled down into the same rooms he had shared with me before he left.

He was a middle-aged man when I knew him, and the severe mental strain of his employment, together with home troubles, made him seem older than he was.

His wife, to whom he had been much attached, had died many years before. His only son, too, had turned out badly, got into debt (the old story of a weak will influenced by bad companions), and then had emigrated to the gold diggings, and was believed to have died there, after a few more wasted years of riot and dissipation.

His father had built many hopes on his only son, and carried about an unhealed wound caused by the bitter disappointment of all his expectations.

At the time I am writing about, I saw there was something more than usual on George's mind.

He never talked much about what he was engaged in, and I took care never to plague him with questions, but it happened that a chum of mine, named Miles, told me that George had missed a good clue, and that another man, named Smollett, was beginning to make a name, and was now bent on outdoing George.

Once run to earth someone whom George had failed to trace, and his reputation was secure.

To outshine one of the best men then at work was a high game to try for, but Smollett was trying no less.

Not long after, I met Miles again in Oxford-street. He told me that Smollett had scored again, and that George had missed a find he had made pretty sure of.

I pooh-poohed the whole thing.

"Chance, all chance. Fine thing for Smollett, more luck than good management, no doubt," I said, feeling rather nettled, I own. "Wait a bit; you will see which is the best man of the two."

"I'll back Sm—" said Miles, but he remembered that George was my friend and said no more.

I came across Miles in very nearly the same place next day. "Heard the latest?" he shouted, and then proceeded to explain that a forger, who had been wanted for some time, was supposed to be in London, and that a large reward was offered for him.

"He stood for some time deep in thought."

"Both on the war trail this time," said Miles. "Which will be the best man now, eh? Getting exciting, isn't it?"

That evening George, who had been out all day, came quickly into the room soon after six.

I knew by his look that he was employed on some important mission. His brows were drawn down into a single straight line, and his lips were firmly pressed together.

He stood for some time on the hearth-rug, evidently deep in thought. He had not removed his top coat.

"Are you off again?" I remarked.

He looked up suddenly. "Going to drive to Holloway," he said. "Will you come?"

I knew by this that he would tell me more of his errand. I rose at once. He looked at his watch.

"The cab will be round here in a few minutes," he said quickly. "I'll tell you what it is, Tom, if I miss this, I shall give up this work altogether. I have not been very lucky lately, old man, though I have not worried you about my affairs."

"They never worry me," I began, "I only wish you———"

"I know, I know," he interrupted kindly; "you think your back is broad enough to carry my cares as well as yours, but you shall never have mine to bother you, Tom, while you have got any of your own. This is the thing you have heard of"—and then he went on to tell me the details of the case that Miles had referred to.

"I came across the track this afternoon," he said, "and now it's only a question of time."

He drew a deep breath of relief, and threw his shoulders back. "I did make a mess of that last thing, and that makes me more keen about this. You see, there’s another man" (I knew he meant Smollett) "who would give a good bit to get hold of this job before me, but there's not much fear of my losing it now."

He smiled as he spoke, and looked more hopeful than he had done for a long time.

We said nothing more, and drove off.

It was a wet, cold night, and I was glad when the cab stopped, and we left it at the corner of a shabby-looking side street.

"Third door on the right," said George, partly to himself, "past the coal yard, over the butcher's. You wait here for two minutes, Tom; if I am not down then, you follow me. Back room on the top of staircase. I may want you. Don't stand in the wet. Here's a doorway to shelter in."

At the end of two minutes, I was climbing quietly up the narrow dark staircase. No sound of voices anywhere.

"Bird's flown. Bad luck to him," I thought. "Awfully hard on George, poor fellow."

I was at the top when suddenly there came the sound (so seldom heard) of a man's voice broken by sobs, striving to speak quickly and coherently.

"Ah! found it's no go, confessing his sins," I smiled to myself, and pushed the door ajar.

Ah! how could I have known George's voice, always so quiet, so self-controlled? How could I recognise George himself, kneeling on the floor, by the side of a poor, miserable bed, holding in his arms the figure of a man. A head was resting on his shoulder; his hands were smoothing back the dark hair from a thin, white face on which his own tears were fast falling.

"Come, my boy, no time to lose. You know me? Bob dear, quick, say you know me—your father, Bob, it's only your father; you must get out of this, no one knows but me, Bob, no one will know, no one will follow you—quick, quick." And with a sob in his throat, he turned round and saw me.

He had forgotten my existence, but now seemed to think that I knew everything.

No explanation that this was his lost son, whom he had tracked to earth, and whose discovery was to bring him so much credit. No thought of the object for which he had come. The detective was not there; in his place stood a broken-hearted father, with but one thought in his mind, how best to get his unhappy son out of the reach of the law which had so nearly caught him.

"Come," he cried, in a hoarse whisper to me, "help him to stand, he is weak; we must arrange for him."

"Holding in his arms the figure of a man."

I had looked round the place. The squalid poverty of the uncleaned room, the well-worn pack of cards lying on the chair by the bed, the empty bottle on the other side, and the stale smell of spirits and tobacco in the room all told the same tale, and bore silent but unmistakable witness to the complete mastery of evil habits.

But of all this George seemed to see nothing.

The sharp-searching scrutiny of the detective had given place to the loving look of a father, to whom all forgiveness was possible.

With hasty hands he had taken off his hat, greatcoat, and scarf, and was now hurriedly putting them on the figure, who offered no help, and who seemed too dazed and bewildered to speak.

"Here is money, my boy," he whispered in a husky voice; "it is all I have now, but you shall have more; and here, take care of this," hurriedly writing a few words upon a scrap of paper. "See, I put it in the breast pocket with the purse. It is the name of a house at Liverpool. Stay there till you hear from me, and then you shall get right away from this. There is a cab waiting at the corner; tell him to drive to the nearest station. You follow me, Bob, you understand what I have said? The money is here in this pocket. Now quick! if anyone———" I read the thought in his heart. What if someone had come on the clue which had helped him, and should be already on the way. Is that a foot on the stair? No, all is quiet.

"He seemed too dazed to speak."

"Now go, I dare not go with you. Do not lose a moment. Downstairs, and then to the left. Tell him to drive fast. God bless you, Bob;" and following him to the head of the stair with broken utterances of endearment and caution, George watched the unsteady figure descend the steps, and listened with strained ears until he caught the sound of wheels driving rapidly away.

We waited for what seemed to me a long, long time, in a silence which I dared not break. And then we went out into the wet and deserted street.

We stopped at the corner where the cab had waited; and I watched my friend as he stood under the gas-lamp, looking out into the darkness with a far-away look in his eyes, not knowing, or at least not heeding, that the rain was beating upon his uncovered head.

There is a better smile on his face now, than the smile he wore early in the evening at the thought of his coming success. His reputation would suffer greatly, beyond doubt, but what is that to him?

He stands there a defeated—and a happy man.

I always meet Miles when I want to keep out of his way. So I was not surprised to come across him next day, walking by the Horse Guards.

"Ha, ha!" he shouted boisterously, before we had well met. "Queer go, wasn't it? What was? You haven’t heard from Markson? Oh, of course, he would be as mute as a fish. Hard lines on him, too, when he had got the whole thing as neat as could be. Went to the very house yesterday where Allan was. The man at the pub saw him go into the house. Ha! ha! what does my lord Allan do? Awfully sharp fellow! lets himself down by a rope out of the back window, and goes off in Markson's own cab—not bad, ha! ha! ha! Markson rushed after him too late. Smollett is furious that he was just out of it. He found out where Allan was hiding, and came on the scene a day behind the fair. Pity he did not get the chance. He'd have nailed him. Everyone says that Markson has made an awful mull of it, and now the fellow has got clean away, no one knows where. Who's the best man now? You can't say much for your side, Tom."

As I watched him stride away towards the park, I thought: "Yes, but thank God, Smollett did not get the chance."