Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter I. Introducing Mr. Peter Ruff
There was nothing about the supper party on that particular Sunday evening in November at Daisy Villa, Green Street, Streatham, which seemed to indicate in any way that one of the most interesting careers connected with the world history of crime was to owe its very existence to the disaster which befell that little gathering. The villa was the residence and also - to his credit - the unmortgaged property of Mr. David Barnes, a struggling but fairly prosperous coal merchant of excellent character, some means, and Methodist proclivities. His habit of sitting without his coat when carving, although deprecated by his wife and daughter on account of the genteel aspirations of the latter, was a not unusual one in the neighbourhood; and coupled with the proximity of a cold joint of beef, his seat at the head of the table, and a carving knife and fork grasped in his hands, established clearly the fact of his position in the household, which a somewhat weak physiognomy might otherwise have led the casual observer to doubt. Opposite him, at the other end of the table, sat his wife, Mrs. Barnes, a somewhat voluminous lady with a high colour, a black satin frock, and many ornaments. On her left the son of the house, eighteen years old, of moderate stature, somewhat pimply, with the fashion of the moment reflected in his pink tie with white spots, drawn through a gold ring, and curving outwards to seek obscurity underneath a dazzling waistcoat. A white tube-rose in his buttonhole might have been intended as a sort of compliment to the occasion, or an indication of his intention to take a walk after supper in the fashionable purlieus of the neighbourhood. Facing him sat his sister - a fluffy-haired, blue-eyed young lady, pretty in her way, but chiefly noticeable for a peculiar sort of self-consciousness blended with self-satisfaction, and possessed only at a certain period in their lives by young ladies of her age. It was almost the air of the cat in whose interior reposes the missing canary, except that in this instance the canary obviously existed in the person of the young man who sat at her side, introduced formally to the household for the first time. That young man's name was - at the moment - Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald.
It seems idle to attempt any description of a person who, in the past, had secured a certain amount of fame under a varying personality; and who, in the future, was to become more than ever notorious under a far less aristocratic pseudonym than that by which he was at present known to the inhabitants of Daisy Villa. There are photographs of him in New York and Paris, St. Petersburg and Chicago, Vienna and Cape Town, but there are no two pictures which present to the casual observer the slightest likeness to one another. To allude to him by the name under which he had won some part, at least, of the affections of Miss Maud Barnes, Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, as he sat there, a suitor on probation for her hand, was a young man of modest and genteel appearance. He wore a blue serge suit - a little underdressed for the occasion, perhaps; but his tie and collar were neat; his gold-rimmed spectacles - if a little disapproved of by Maud on account of the air of steadiness which they imparted - suggested excellent son-in-lawlike qualities to Mr. and Mrs. Barnes. He had the promise of a fair moustache, but his complexion generally was colourless. His features, except for a certain regularity, were undistinguished. His speech was modest and correct. His manner varied with his company. To-night it had been pronounced, by excellent judges - genteel.
The conversation consisted - naturally enough, under the circumstances - of a course of subtle and judicious pumping, tactfully prompted, for the most part, by Mrs. Barnes. Such, for instance, as the following:
"Talking about Marie Corelli's new book reminds me, Mr. Fitzgerald - your occupation is connected with books, is it not?" his prospective mother-in-law enquired, artlessly.
Mr. Fitzgerald bowed assent.
"I am cashier at Howell & Wilson's in Cheapside," he said. "We sell a great many books there - as many, I should think, as any retail establishment in London."
"Indeed!" Mrs. Barnes purred. "Very interesting work, I am sure. So nice and intellectual, too; for, of course, you must be looking inside them sometimes."
"I know the place well," Mr. Adolphus Barnes, Junior, announced condescendingly, - "pass it every day on my way to lunch."
"So much nicer," Mrs. Barnes continued, "than any of the ordinary businesses - grocery or drapery, or anything of that sort."
Miss Maud elevated her eyebrows slightly. Was it likely that she would have looked with eyes of favour upon a young man engaged in any of these inferior occupations?
"There's money in books, too," Mr. Barnes declared with sudden inspiration. His prospective son-in-law turned towards him deferentially.
"You are right, sir," he admitted. "There is money in them. There's money for those who write, and there's money for those who sell. My occupation," he continued, with a modest little cough, "brings me often into touch with publishers, travellers and clerks, so I am, as it were, behind the scenes to some extent. I can assure you," he continued, looking from Mr. Barnes to his wife, and finally transfixing Mr. Adolphus - "I can assure you that the money paid by some firms of publishers to a few well-known authors - I will mention no names - as advances against royalties, is something stupendous!"
"Ah!" Mr. Barnes murmured, solemnly shaking his head.
"Marie Corelli, I expect, and that Hall Caine," remarked young Adolphus.
"Seems easy enough to write a book, too," Mrs. Barnes said. "Why, I declare that some of those we get from the library - we subscribe to a library, Mr. Fitzgerald - are just as simple and straightforward that a child might have written them. No plot whatsoever, no murders or mysteries or anything of that sort - just stories about people like ourselves. I don't see how they can pay people for writing stories about people just like those one meets every day!"
"I always say," Maud intervened, "that Spencer means to write a book some day. He has quite the literary air, hasn't he, mother?"
"Indeed he has!" Mrs. Barnes declared, with an appreciative glance at the gold-rimmed spectacles.
Mr. Fitzgerald modestly disclaimed any literary aspirations.
"The thing is a gift, after all," he declared, generously. "I can keep accounts, and earn a fair salary at it, but if I attempted fiction I should soon be up a tree."
Mr. Barnes nodded his approval of such sentiments.
"Every one to his trade, I say," he remarked. "What sort of salaries do they pay now in the book trade?" he asked guilelessly.
"Very fair," Mr. Fitzgerald admitted candidly, - "very fair indeed."
"When I was your age," Mr. Barnes said reflectively, "I was getting - let me see - forty-two shillings a week. Pretty good pay, too, for those days."
Mr. Fitzgerald admitted the fact.
"Of course," he said apologetically, "salaries are a little higher now all round. Mr. Howell has been very kind to me, - in fact I have had two raises this year. I am getting four pounds ten now."
"Four pounds ten per week?" Mrs. Barnes exclaimed, laying down her knife and fork.
"Certainly," Mr. Fitzgerald answered. "After Christmas, I have some reason to believe that it may be five pounds."
Mr. Barnes whistled softly, and looked at the young man with a new respect.
"I told you that - Mr. - that Spencer was doing pretty well, Mother," Maud simpered, looking down at her plate.
"Any one to support?" her father asked, transferring a pickle from the fork to his mouth.
"No one," Mr. Fitzgerald answered. "In fact, I may say that I have some small expectations. I haven't done badly, either, out of the few investments I have made from time to time."
"Saved a bit of money, eh?" Mr. Barnes enquired genially.
"I have a matter of four hundred pounds put by," Mr. Fitzgerald admitted modestly, "besides a few sticks of furniture. I never cared much about lodging-house things, so I furnished a couple of rooms myself some time ago."
Mrs. Barnes rose slowly to her feet.
"You are quite sure you won't have a small piece more of beef?" she enquired anxiously.
"Just a morsel?" Mr. Barnes asked, tapping the joint insinuatingly with his carving knife.
"No, I thank you!" Mr. Fitzgerald declared firmly. "I have done excellently."
"Then if you will put the joint on the sideboard, Adolphus," Mrs. Barnes directed, "Maud and I will change the plates. We always let the girl go out on Sundays, Mr. Fitzgerald," she explained, turning to their guest. "It's very awkward, of course, but they seem to expect it."
"Quite natural, I'm sure," Mr. Fitzgerald murmured, watching Maud's light movements with admiring eyes. "I like to see ladies interested in domestic work."
"There's one thing I will say for Maud," her proud mother declared, plumping down a dish of jelly upon the table, "she does know what's what in keeping house, and even if she hasn't to scrape and save as I did when David and I were first married, economy is a great thing when you're young. I have always said so, and I stick to it."
"Quite right, Mother," Mr. Barnes declared.
"If instead of sitting there," Mrs. Barnes continued in high good humour, "you were to get a bottle of that port wine out of the cellarette, we might drink Mr. Fitzgerald's health, being as it's his first visit."
Mr. Barnes rose to his feet with alacrity. "For a woman with sound ideas," he declared, "commend me to your mother!"
Maud, having finished her duties, resumed her place by the side of the guest of the evening. Their hands met under the tablecloth for a moment. To the girl, the pleasure of such a proceeding was natural enough, but Fitzgerald asked himself for the fiftieth time why on earth he, who, notwithstanding his present modest exterior, was a young man of some experience, should from such primitive love-making derive a rapture which nothing else in life afforded him. He was, at that moment, content with his future, - a future which he had absolutely and finally decided upon. He was content with his father-in-law and his mother-in-law, with Daisy Villa, and the prospect of a Daisy Villa for himself, - content, even, with Adolphus! But for Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, these things were not to be! The awakening was even then at hand.
The dining room of Daisy Villa fronted the street, and was removed from it only a few feet. Consequently, the footsteps of passers-by upon the flagged pavement were clearly distinguishable. It was just at the moment when Mrs. Barnes was inserting a few fresh almonds into a somewhat precarious tipsy cake, and Mr. Barnes was engaged with the decanting of the port, that two pairs of footsteps, considerably heavier than those of the ordinary promenader, paused outside and finally stopped. The gate creaked. Mr. Barnes looked up.
"Hullo!" he exclaimed. "What's that? Visitors?"
They all listened. The front-door bell rang. Adolphus, in response to a gesture from his mother, rose sulkily to his feet.
"Job I hate!" he muttered as he left the room.
The rest of the family, full of the small curiosity of people of their class, were intent upon listening for voices outside. The demeanour of Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, therefore, escaped their notice. It is doubtful, in any case, whether their perceptions would have been sufficiently keen to have enabled them to trace the workings of emotion in the countenance of a person so magnificently endowed by Providence with the art of subterfuge. Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald seemed simply to have stiffened in acute and earnest attention. It was only for a moment that he hesitated. His unfailing inspiration told him the truth!
His course of action was simple, - he rose to his feet and strolled to the window.
"Some people who have lost their way in the fog, perhaps," he remarked. "What a night!"
He laid his hand upon the sash - simultaneously there was a rush of cold air into the room, a half-angry, half-frightened exclamation from Adolphus in the passage, a scream from Miss Maud - and no Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald! No one had time to be more than blankly astonished. The door was opened, and a police inspector, in very nice dark braided uniform and a peaked cap, stood in the doorway.
Mr. Barnes dropped the port, and Mrs. Barnes, emulating her daughter's example, screamed. The inspector, as though conscious of the draught, moved rapidly toward the window.
"You had a visitor here, Mr. Barnes," he said quickly - "a Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald. Where is he?"
There was no one who could answer! Mr. Barnes was speechless between the shock of the spilt port and the appearance of a couple of uniformed policemen in his dining room. John Dory, the detective, he knew well enough in his private capacity, but in his uniform, and attended by policemen, he presented a new and startling appearance! Mrs. Barnes was in hysterics, and Maud was gazing like a creature turned to stone at the open window, through which little puffs of fog were already drifting into the room. Adolphus, with an air of bewilderment, was standing with his mouth and eyes wider open than they had ever been in his life. And as for the honoured guest of these admirable inhabitants of Daisy Villa, there was not the slightest doubt but that Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald had disappeared through the window!
Fitzgerald's expedition was nearly at an end. Soon he paused, crossed the road to a block of flats, ascended to the eighth floor by an automatic lift, and rang the bell at a door which bore simply the number II. A trim parlourmaid opened it after a few minutes' delay.
"Is Miss Emerson at home?" he asked.
"Miss Emerson is in," the maid admitted, with some hesitation, "but I am not sure that she will see any one to-night."
"I have a message for her," Fitzgerald said.
"Will you give me your name, sir, please?" the maid asked.
An inner door was suddenly opened. A slim girl, looking taller than she really was by reason of the rug upon which she stood, looked out into the hall - a girl with masses of brown hair loosely coiled on her head, with pale face and strange eyes. She opened her lips as though to call to her visitor by name, and as suddenly closed them again. There was not much expression in her face, but there was enough to show that his visit was not unwelcome.
"You!" she exclaimed. "Come in! Please come in at once!"
Fitzgerald obeyed the invitation of the girl whom he had come to visit. She had retreated a little into the room, but the door was no sooner closed than she held out her hands.
"Peter!" she exclaimed. "Peter, you have come to me at last!"
Her lips were a little parted; her eyes were bright with pleasure; her whole expression was one of absolute delight. Fitzgerald frowned, as though he found her welcome a little too enthusiastic for his taste.
"Violet," he said, "please don't look at me as though I were a prodigal sheep. If you do, I shall be sorry that I came."
Her hands fell to her side, the pleasure died out of her face - only her eyes still questioned him. Fitzgerald carefully laid his hat on a vacant chair.
"Something has happened?" she said. "Tell me that all that madness is over - that you are yourself again!"
"So far as regards my engagement with Messrs. Howell & Wilson," he said, despondently, "you are right. As regards - Miss Barnes, there has been no direct misunderstanding between us, but I am afraid, for the present, that I must consider that - well, in abeyance."
"That is something!" she exclaimed, drawing a little breath of relief. "Sit down, Peter. Will you have something to eat? I finished dinner an hour ago, but - "
"Thank you," Fitzgerald interrupted, "I supped - extremely well in Streatham!"
"In Streatham!" she repeated. "Why, how did you get there? The fog is awful."
"Fogs do not trouble me," Fitzgerald answered. "I walked. I could have done it as well blindfold. I will take a whisky and soda, if I may."
She led him to an easy-chair.
"I will mix it myself," she said.
Without being remarkably good-looking, she was certainly a pleasant and attractive-looking young woman. Her cheeks were a little pale; her hair - perfectly natural - was a wonderful deep shade of soft brown. Her eyes were long and narrow - almost Oriental in shape - and they seemed in some queer way to match the room; he could have sworn that in the firelight they flashed green. Her body and limbs, notwithstanding her extreme slightness, were graceful, perhaps, but with the grace of the tigress. She wore a green silk dressing jacket, pulled together with a belt of lizard skin, and her neck was bare. Her skirt was of some thin black material. She was obviously in deshabille, and yet there was something neat and trim about the smaller details of her toilette.
"Go on, please, Peter," she begged. "You are keeping me in suspense."
"There isn't much to tell," he answered. "It's over - that's all."
She drew a sharp breath through her teeth.
"You are not going to marry that girl - that bourgeois doll in Streatham?"
Fitzgerald sat up in his chair.
"Look here," he said, seriously, "don't you call her names. If I'm not going to marry her, it isn't my fault. She is the only girl I have ever wanted, and probably - most probably - she will be the only one I ever shall want. That's honest, isn't it?"
The girl winced.
"Yes," she said, "it is honest!"
"I should have married her," the young man continued, "and I should have been happy. I had my eye on a villa - not too near her parents - and I saw my way to a little increase of salary. I should have taken to gardening, to walks in the Park, with an occasional theatre, and I should have thoroughly enjoyed a fortnight every summer at Skegness or Sutton-on-Sea. We should have saved a little money. I should have gone to church regularly, and if possible I should have filled some minor public offices. You may call this bourgeois - it was my idea of happiness."
"Was!" she murmured.
"Is still," he declared, sharply, "but I shall never attain to it. To-night I had to leave Maud - to leave the supper table of Daisy Villa - through the window!"
She looked at him in amazement.
"The police," he explained. "That brute Dory was at the bottom of it."
"But surely," she murmured, "you told me that you had a bona-fide situation - "
"So I had," he declared, "and I was a fool not to be content with it. It was my habit of taking long country walks, and their rotten auditing, which undid me! You understand that this was all before I met Maud? Since the day I spoke to her, I turned over a new leaf. I have left the night work alone, and I repaid every penny of the firm's money which they could ever have possibly found out about. There was only that one little affair of mine down at Sudbury."
"Tell me what you are going to do?" she whispered.
"I have no alternative," he answered. "The law has kicked me out from the respectable places. The law shall pay!"
She looked at him with glowing eyes.
"Have you any plans?" she asked, softly.
"I have," he answered. "I have considered the subject from a good many points of view, and I have decided to start in business for myself as a private detective."
She raised her eyebrows.
"My dear Peter!" she murmured. "Couldn't you be a little more original?"
"That is only what I am going to call myself," he answered. "I may tell you that I am going to strike out on somewhat new lines."
"Please explain," she begged.
He recrossed his knees and made himself a little more comfortable.
"The weak part of every great robbery, however successful," he began, "is the great wastage in value which invariably results. For jewels which cost - say five thousand pounds, and to procure which the artist has to risk his life as well as his liberty, he has to consider himself lucky if he clears eight hundred. For the Hermitage rubies, for instance, where I nearly had to shoot a man dead, I realized rather less than four hundred pounds. It doesn't pay."
"Go on," she begged.
"I am not clear," he continued, "how far this class of business will attract me at all, but I do not propose, in any case, to enter into any transactions on my own account. I shall work for other people, and for cash down. Your experience of life, Violet, has been fairly large. Have you not sometimes come into contact with people driven into a situation from which they would willingly commit any crime to escape if they dared? It is not with them a question of money at all - it is simply a matter of ignorance. They do not know how to commit a crime. They have had no experience, and if they attempt it, they know perfectly well that they are likely to blunder. A person thoroughly experienced in the ways of criminals - a person of genius like myself - would have, without a doubt, an immense clientele, if only he dared put up his signboard. Literally, I cannot do that. Actually, I mean to do so! I shall be willing to accept contracts either to help nervous people out of an undesirable crisis; or, on the other hand, to measure my wits against the wits of Scotland Yard, and to discover the criminals whom they have failed to secure. I shall make my own bargains, and I shall be paid in cash. I shall take on nothing that I am not certain about."
"But your clients?" she asked, curiously. "How will you come into contact with them?"
"I am not afraid of business being slack," he said. "The world is full of fools."
"You cannot live outside the law, Peter," she objected. "You are clever, I know, but they are not all fools at Scotland Yard."
"You forget," he reminded her, "that there will be a perfectly legitimate side to my profession. The other sort of case I shall only accept if I can see my way clear to make a success of it. Needless to say, I shall have to refuse the majority that are offered to me."
She came a little nearer to him.
"In any case," she said, with a little sigh, "you have given up that foolish, bourgeois life of yours?"
He looked down into her face, and his eyes were cold.
"Violet," he said, "this is no time for misunderstandings. I should like you to know that apart from one young lady, who possesses my whole affection - "
"All of it?" she pleaded.
"All!" he declared emphatically. "She will doubtless be faithless to me - under the circumstances, I cannot blame her - but so far as I am concerned, I have no affection whatever for any one else."
She crept back to her place.
"I could be so useful to you," she murmured.
"You could and you shall, if you will be sensible," he answered.
"Tell me how?" she begged.
He was silent for a moment.
"Are you acting now?" he asked.
"I am understudying Molly," she answered, "and I have a very small part at the Globe."
"There is no reason to interfere with that," he said, "in fact, I wish you to continue your connection with the profession. It brings you into touch with the class of people among whom I am likely to find clients."
"Go on, please," she begged.
"On two conditions - or rather one," he said, "you can, if you like, become my secretary and partner - and find the money we shall require to make a start."
"Conditions?" she asked.
"You must understand, once and for all," he said, "that I will not be made love to, and that I can treat you only as a working; companion. My name will be Peter Ruff, and yours Miss Brown. You will have to dress like a secretary, and behave like one. Sometimes there will be plenty of work for you, and sometimes there will be none at all. Sometimes you will be bored to death, and sometimes there will be excitement. I do not wish to make you vain, but I may add, especially as you are aware of my personal feelings toward you, that you are the only person in the world to whom I would make this offer."
She sighed gently.
"Tell me, Peter," she asked, "when do you mean to start this new enterprise?"
"Not for six months - perhaps a year," he answered. "I must go to Paris - perhaps Vienna. I might even have to go to New York. There are certain associations with which I must come into touch - certain information I must become possessed of."
"Peter," she said, "I like your scheme, but there is just one thing. Such men as you should be the brains of great enterprises. Don't you understand what I mean? It shouldn't be you who does the actual thing which brings you within the power of the law. I am not over-scrupulous, you know. I hate wrongdoing, but I have never been able to treat as equal criminals the poor man who steals for a living, and the rich financier who robs right and left out of sheer greed. I agree with you that crime is not an absolute thing. The circumstances connected with every action in life determine its morality or immorality. But, Peter, it isn't worth while to go outside the law!"
"You are a sensible girl," he said, "I have always thought that. We'll talk over my cases together, if they seem to run a little too close to the line."
"Very well, Peter," she said, "I accept."