The White Moll/Chapter 5


— V —


MECHANICALLY Rhoda Gray thrust the paper into the pocket of her skirt. The door swung open. A tall man, well dressed, as far as could be seen in the uncertain light, a slouch hat pulled far down over his eyes, stood on the threshold, surveying the interior of the garret.

The Adventurer rose composedly to his feet—and moved slightly back out of the direct radius of the candlelight.

There was silence for a moment, and then the man in the doorway laughed unpleasantly.

"Hello!" he flung out harshly. "Who's the dude, Nan?"

Rhoda Gray, on the edge of the bed, shrugged her shoulders. The Adventurer was standing quite at his ease, his soft hat tucked under his right arm, his hand thrust into the side pocket of his coat. She could no longer see his face distinctly.

"Well?" There was a snarl in the man's voice as he advanced from the doorway. "You heard me, didn't you? Who is he?"

"Why don't youse ask him yerself?" inquired Rhoda Gray truculently. "I dunno."

"You don't, eh?" The man had halted close to where the candle stood on the floor between himself and the Adventurer. "Well, then, I guess we'll find out!" He was peering in the Adventurer's direction, and now there came a sudden savage scowl to his face. "It seems to me I've seen those clothes somewhere before, and I guess now we'll take a look at your face so that there won't be any question about recognition the next time we meet."

The Adventurer laughed softly.

"There will be none on my part," he said calmly. "It's Danglar, isn't it? I am surely not mistaken. Parson Danglar, alias—ah! Please don't do that!"

It seemed to Rhoda Gray that it happened in the space of time it might take a watch to tick: The newcomer stooping to the floor, and lifting the candle with the obvious intention of thrusting it into the Adventurer's face—a glint of metal, as the Adventurer whipped a revolver from the side pocket of his coat—and then, how they got there she could not tell, it was done so adroitly and swiftly, the thumb and forefinger of the Adventurer's left hand had closed on the candle wick and snuffed it out, and the garret was in darkness.

There was a savage oath, a snarl of rage from the man whom the Adventurer had addressed as Danglar; then an instant's silence; and then the Adventurer's voice—from the doorway:

"I beg of you not to vent your disappointment on the lady—Danglar. I assure you that she is in no way responsible for my visit here, and, as far as that goes, never saw me before in her life. Also, it is only fair to tell you, in case you should consider leaving here too hurriedly, that I am really not at all a bad shot—even in the dark. I bid you good-night, Danglar—and you, my dear lady!"

Danglar's voice rose again in a flood of profane rage. He stumbled and moved around in the dark.

"Damn it!" he shouted. "Where are the matches? Where's the lamp? This cursed candle's put enough to the bad already! Do you hear? Where's the lamp?"

"It's over dere on de floor, bust to pieces," mumbled Rhoda Gray. "Youse'll find the matches on de washstand, an——"

"What's the idea?" There was a sudden, steel-like note dominating the angry tones. "What are you handing me that hog-wash language for? Eh? It's damned queer! There's been damned queer doings around here ever since last night! See? What's the idea?"

Rhoda Gray felt her face whiten in the darkness. It was the slip she had feared; the slip that she had had to take the chance of making, and which, if it were not retrieved, and instantly retrieved, now that it was made, meant discovery, and after—— She shivered a little.

"You needn't lose your head, just because you've lost your temper!" she said tartly, in a guarded whisper. "The door into the hall is still wide open, isn't it?"

"Oh, all right!" he said, his tones a sort of sullen admission that her retort was justified. "But even now your voice sounds off color."

Rhoda Gray bridled.

"Does it?" she snapped at him. "I've got a cold. Maybe you'd get one too, and maybe your voice would be off color, if you had to live in a dump like this, and——"

"Oh, all right, all right!" he broke in hurriedly. "For Heaven's sake don't start a row! Forget it! See? Forget it!" He walked over to the door, peered out, swore savagely to himself, shut the door, held the candle up to circle the garret, and scowled as its rays fell upon the shattered pieces of the lamp in the corner; then, returning, he set the candle down upon the chair and began to pace restlessly, three or four steps each way, up and down in front of the bed.

Rhoda Gray, from the edge of the bed, shifted back until her shoulders rested against the wall. Danglar, too, was dressed like a gentleman—but Danglar's face was not appealing. The little round black eyes were shifty, they seemed to possess no pupils whatever, and they roved constantly; there was a hard, unyielding thinness about the lips, and the face itself was thin, almost gaunt, as though the skin had had to accommodate itself to more than was expected of it, and was elastically stretched over the cheek-bones.

"Well, I'm listening!" jerked out the man abruptly, "You knew our game at Skarbolov's was queered. You got the 'seven-three-nine,' didn't you?"

"Yes, of course, I got it," answered Rhoda Gray. "What about it?"

"For two weeks now, yes, more than two weeks"—the man's voice rasped angrily—"things have been going wrong, and some one has been butting in and getting away with the goods under our noses. We know now, from last night, that it must have been the White Moll, for one, though it's not likely she worked all alone. Skeeny dropped to the fact that the police were wise about Skarbolov's, and that's why we called it off, and the 'seven-three-nine' went out. They must have got wise through shadowing the White Moll. See? Then they pinch her, but she makes her get-away, and comes here, and, if the dope I've got is right, you hand Rough Rorke one, and help her to beat it again. It looks blamed funny—doesn't it?—when you come to consider that there's a leak somewhere!"

"Is that so!" Rhoda Gray flashed back. "And did you know before last night that it was the White Moll who was queering our game?"

"If I had," the man gritted between his teeth, "I'd——"

"Well, then, how did you expect me to know it?" demanded Rhoda Gray heatedly. "And if the White Moll happens to know Gypsy Nan, as she knows everybody else through her jellies and custards and fake charity, and happens to be near here when she gets into trouble, and beats it for here with the police on her heels, and asks for help, what do you expect Gypsy Nan's going to do if she wants to stand any chance of sticking around these parts—as Gypsy Nan?"

The man paused in his walk, and, jerking back his hat, drew his hand nervously across his forehead.

"You make me tired!" said Rhoda Gray wearily. "Do you think you could find the door without too much trouble?"

Danglar resumed his pacing back and forth, but more slowly now.

"Oh, I know! I know, Bertha!" he burst out heavily. "I'm talking through my hat. You've got the roughest job of any of us, old girl. Don't mind what I'm saying. Something's badly wrong, and I'm half crazy. It's certain now that the White Moll's the one that's been doing us, and what I really came down here for to-night was to tell you that your job from now on was to get the White Moll. You helped her last night. She doesn't know you are anybody but Gypsy Nan, and so you're the one person in New York she'll dare try to communicate with sooner or later. Understand? That's what I came for, not to talk like a fool—but that fellow I found here started me off. Who is he? What did he want?"

"He wanted the White Moll, too," said Rhoda Gray, with a short laugh.

"Oh, he did, eh!" Danglar' s lips twisted into a sudden, merciless smile. "Well, go on! Who is he?"

"I don't know who he is," Rhoda Gray answered a little impatiently. "He said he was an adventurer—if you can make anything out of that. He said he got the White Moll away from Rough Rorke last night, after Rorke had arrested her; and then he doped the rest out the same as you have—that he could find the White Moll again through Gypsy Nan. I don't know what he wanted her for."

"That's better!" snarled Danglar, the merciless smile still on his lips. "I thought she must have had a pal, and we know now who her pal is. It's open and shut that she's sitting so tight she hasn't been able to get into touch with him, and that's what's worrying Mr. Adventurer."

Rhoda Gray, save for a nod of her head, made no answer.

Danglar laughed suddenly, as though in relief; then, coming closer to the bed, plunged his hand into his coat pocket, and tossed a handful of jewelry carelessly into Rhoda Gray's lap.

"I feel better than I did!" he said, and laughed again. "It's a cinch now that we'll get them both through you, and it's a cinch that the White Moll won't cut in to-night. Put those sparklers away with the rest until we get ready to 'fence' them."

Rhoda Gray did not speak. Mechanically, as though she were living through some hideous nightmare, she began to scoop up the gems from her lap and allow them to trickle back through her fingers: They flashed and scintillated brilliantly, even in the meager light. They seemed alive with some premonitory, baleful fire.

"Yes, there's some pretty slick stuff there," said Danglar, with an appraising chuckle; "but there'll be something to-night that'll make all that bunch look like chicken-feed. The boys are at work now, and we'll have old Hayden-Bond's necklace in another hour. Skeeny's got the Sparrow tied up in the old room behind Shluker's place, and once we're sure there's no backfire anywhere, the Sparrow will chirp his last chirp." He laughed out suddenly, and, leaning forward, clapped Rhoda Gray exultantly on the shoulder. "It was like taking candy from a kid! The Sparrow and the old man fell for the sick-mother-needing-her-son-all-night stuff without batting a lid; but the Sparrow hasn't been holding the old lady's hand at the bedside yet. We took care of that."

Again Rhoda Gray made no comment. She wondered, as she gripped at the rings and brooches in hand, so fiercely that the settings pricked into the flesh, if her face mirrored in any way the cold, sick misery that had suddenly taken possession of her soul. The Sparrow! She knew the Sparrow; she knew the Sparrow's sick mother. That part of it was true. The Sparrow did have an old mother who was sick. A fine old lady—finer than the son—Finch, her name was. Indirectly, she knew old Hayden-Bond, the millionaire, and—— Almost subconsciously she was aware that Danglar was speaking again.

"I guess luck's breaking our way again," he grinned. "The old boy paid a hundred thousand cold for that necklace. You know how long we've been waiting to get our hooks on it, and we've never had our eyes off his house for two months. Well, it pays to wait, and it pays to do things right. It broke our way at last to-night, all right, all right! To-day's Saturday—and the safety deposit vaults aren't open on Sunday. Mrs. Hayden-Bond's been away all week visiting, but she comes back to-morrow, and there's some swell society fuss fixed for to-morrow night, and she wants her necklace to make a splurge, so she writes Mr. H-hyphen-B, and out it comes from the safety deposit vault, and into the library safe. The old man isn't long on social stunts, and he's got pretty well set in his habits; one of those must-have-nine-hours'-sleep bugs, and he's always in bed by ten—when his wife'll let him. She being away to-night, the boys were able to get to work early. They ought to be able to crack that box without making any noise about it in an hour and a half at the outside." He pulled out his watch—and whistled low under his breath. "It's a quarter after eleven now," he said hurriedly, and moved abruptly toward the door. "I can't stick around here any longer. I've got to be on deck where they can slip me the 'white ones,' and then there's Skeeny waiting for the word to bump off the Sparrow." He jerked his hand suddenly toward the jewels in her lap. "Salt those away before any more adventurers blow in!" he said, half sharply, half jocularly. "And don't let the White Moll slip you—at any cost. Remember! She's bound to come to you again. Play her—and send out the call. You understand, don't you? There's never been a yip out of the police. Our methods are too good for that. Look at the Sparrow to-night. Where there's no chance taken of suspicion going anywhere except where we lead it, there's no chance of any trouble—for us! But this cursed she-fiend's another story. We're not planting plum trees for her to pick any more of the fruit. Understand?"

She answered him mechanically.

"Yes," she said.

"All right, then; that end of it is up to you," he said significantly. "You're clever, clever as the devil, Bertha. Use your brains now—we need 'em. Good-night, old girl. See you later."

"Good-night," said Rhoda Gray dully.

The door closed. The short, ladder-like steps to the hallway below creaked once, and then all was still. Danglar did have on rubber-soled shoes. She sat upright, her hands, clenched now, pressed hard against her throbbing temples. It wasn't true! None of this was true—this hovel of a place, those jewels glinting like evil eyes in her lap; her existence itself wasn't true; it was only her brain now, sick like her soul, that conjured up these ugly phantoms with horrible, plausible ingenuity. And then an inner voice seemed to answer her with a calmness that was hideous in its finality. It was true. All of it was true. Those words of Danglar, and their bald meaning, were true. Men did such things; men made in the image of their Maker did such things. They were going to kill a man to-night—an innocent man whom they had made their pawn.

She swept the jewels from her lap to the blanket, and rising, seized the candle, went to the door, looked out, and, holding the candle high above her head, peered down the stairs. Yes, he was gone. There was no one there.

She locked the door again, returned to the bed, set the candle down upon the chair, and stood there, her face white and drawn, staring with wide, tormented eyes about her. Murder. Danglar had spoken of it with inhuman callousness—and had laughed at it. They were going to take a man's life. And there was only herself, already driven to extremity, already with her own back against the wall in an effort to save herself, only herself to carry the burden of the responsibility of doing something—to save a man's life.

It seemed to plumb the depths of irony and mockery. She could not make a move as Gypsy Nan. It would only result in their turning upon her, of the discovery that she was not Gypsy Nan at all, of the almost certainty that it would cost her her own life without saving the Sparrow's. That way was closed to her from the start. As the White Moll, then? Outside there in the great city, every plain-clothes man, every policeman on every beat, was staring into every woman's face he met—searching for the White Moll.

She wrung her hands in cruel desperation. Even to her own problem she had found no solution, though she had wrestle4 with it all last night, and all through the day; no solution save the negative one of clinging to this one refuge that remained to her, such as it was, temporarily. She had found no solution to that; what solution was there to this! She had thought of leaving the city as Gypsy Nan, and then somewhere, far away, of sloughing off the character of Gypsy Nan, and of resuming her own personality again under an assumed name. But that would have meant the loss of everything she had in life, her little patrimony, the irredeemable stamp of shame upon the name she once had owned; and also the constant fear and dread that at any moment the police net, wide as the continent was wide, would close around her, as, sooner or later, it was almost inevitable that it would close around her. It had seemed that her only chance was to keep on striving to play the rôle of Gypsy Nan, because it was these associates of Gypsy Nan who were at the bottom of the crime of which she, Rhoda Gray, was held guilty, and because there was always the hope that in this way, through confidences to a supposed confederate, she could find the evidence that would convict those actually guilty, and so prove her own innocence. But in holding to the rôle of Gypsy Nan for the purpose of receiving those criminal confidences, she had not thought of this—that upon her would rest the moral responsibility of other crimes of which she would have knowledge, and, least of all, that she should be faced with what lay before her now, to-night, at the first contact with those who had been Gypsy Nan's confederates.

What was she to do? Upon her, and upon her alone, depended a man's life, and, adding to her distraction, she knew the man—the Sparrow, who had already done time; that was the vile ingenuity of it all. And there would be corroborative evidence, of course; they would have seen to that. If the Sparrow disappeared and was never heard of again, even a child would deduce the assumption that the proceeds of the robbery had disappeared with him.

Her brain seemed to grow panicky. She was standing here helplessly. And time, the one precious ally that she possessed, was slipping away from her. She could not go to the police as Gypsy Nan—and, much less, as the White Moll! She could not go to the police in any case, for the "corroborative" evidence, that obviously must exist, unless Danglar and those with him were fools, would indubitably damn the Sparrow to another prison term, even supposing that through the intervention of the police his life were saved. What was she to do?

And then, for a moment, her eyes lighted in relief. The Adventurer! She thrust her hand into the pocket of her skirt, and drew out the torn piece of paper, and studied the telephone number upon it—and slowly the hurt and misery came back into her eyes again. Who was he? He had told her. An adventurer. He had given her to understand that he, if she had not been just a few minutes ahead of him, would have taken that money from Skarbolov's escritoire last night. Therefore he was a crook. Danglar had said that some one had been getting in ahead of them lately and snatching the plunder from under their noses; and Danglar now believed that it had been the White Moll. A wan smile came to her lips. Instead of the White Moll, it appeared to be quite obvious that it was the Adventurer. It therefore appeared to be quite as obvious that the man was a professional thief, and an extremely clever one, at that. She dared not trust him. To enlist his aid she would have to explain the gang's plot and while the Adventurer might go to the Sparrow's assistance, he might also be very much more interested in the diamond necklace that was involved, and not be entirely averse to Danglar's plan of using the Sparrow as a pawn, who, in that case, would make a very convenient scapegoat for the Adventurer—instead of Danglar! She dared not trust the man. She could not absolve her conscience by staking another's life on a hazard, on the supposition that the Adventurer might do this or that. It was not good enough.

She was quick in her movements now. Subconsciously her decision had been made. There was only one way—only one. She gathered up the jewels from the bed and thrust them, with the Adventurer's torn piece of paper, into her pocket. And now she reached for the little notebook that she had hidden under the blanket. It contained the gang's secret code, and she had found it in the cash box in Gypsy Nan's strange hiding place that evening. Half running now, carrying the candle, she started toward the lower end of the attic, where the roof sloped down to little more than shoulder high. "Seven-Three-Nine!" Danglar had almost decoded the message word for word in the course of his conversation. In the little notebook, set against the figures, were the words: "Danger. The game is off. Make no further move." It was only one of many, that arbitrary arrangement of figures, each combination having its own special significance; but, besides these, there was the key to a complete cipher into which any message might be coded, and—— But why was her brain swerving off at inconsequential tangents? What did a code, or code book, matter at the present moment?

She was standing under the narrow trap-door in the low ceiling now, and now she pushed it up, and lifting the candle through the opening, set it down on the inner surface of the ceiling, which, like some vast shelf, Gypsy Nan had metamorphosed into that exhaustive storehouse of edibles, of plunder—a curious and sinister collection that was eloquent of a gauntlet long flung down against the law. She emptied the pocket of her skirt, retaining only the revolver, and substituted the articles she had removed with the tin box that contained the dark compound Gypsy Nan, and she herself, as Gypsy Nan, had used to rob her face of youthfulness, and give it the grimy, dissolute and haggard aspect which was so simple and yet so efficient a disguise.

She worked rapidly now, changing her clothes. She could not go, or act, as Gypsy Nan; and so she must go in her own character, go as the White Moll—because that was the lesser danger, the one that held the only promise of success. There wasn't any other way. She could not very well refuse to risk her capture by the police, could she, when by so doing she might save another's life? She could not balance in cowardly selfishness the possibility of a prison term for herself, hideous as that might be, against the penalty of death that the Sparrow would pay if she remained inactive. But she could not leave here as the White Moll. Somewhere, somewhere out in the night, somewhere away from this garret where all connection with it was severed, she must complete the transformation from Gypsy Nan to the White Moll. She could only prepare for that now as best she could.

And there was not a moment to lose. The thought made her frantic. Over her own clothes she put on again Gypsy Nan's greasy skirt, and drew on again, over her own silk ones, Gypsy Nan's coarse stockings. She put on Gypsy Nan's heavy and disreputable boots, and threw the old shawl again over her head and shoulders. And then, with her hat—for the small shape of which she breathed a prayer of thankfulness!—and her own shoes under her arm and covered by the shawl, she took the candle again, closed the trap-door, and stepped over to the washstand. Here, she dampened a rag, that did duty as a facecloth, and thrust it into her pocket; then, blowing out the candle, she groped her way to the door, locked it behind her, and without any attempt at secrecy made her way downstairs.