Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter V. Delilah From Streatham
It was a favourite theory with Peter Ruff that the morning papers received very insufficient consideration from the majority of the British public. A glance at the headlines and a few of the spiciest paragraphs, a vague look at the leading article, and the sheets were thrown away to make room for more interesting literature. It was not so with Peter Ruff. Novels he very seldom read - he did not, in fact, appreciate the necessity for their existence. The whole epitome of modern life was, he argued, to be found among the columns of the daily press. The police news, perhaps, was his favourite study, but he did not neglect the advertisements. It followed, therefore, as a matter of course, that the appeal of "M" in the personal column of the Daily Mail was read by him on the morning of its appearance - read not once only nor twice - it was a paragraph which had its own peculiar interest for him.
Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, if still in England, is requested to communicate with "M," at Vagali's Library, Cook's Alley, Ledham Street, Soho.
Peter Ruff laid the paper down upon his desk and looked steadily at a box of India-rubber bands. Almost his fingers, as he parted with the newspaper, had seemed to be shaking. His eyes were certainly set in an unusually retrospective stare. Who was this who sought to probe his past, to renew an acquaintance with a dead personality? "M" could be but one person! What did she want of him? Was it possible that, after all, a little flame of sentiment had been kept alight in her bosom, too - that in the quiet moments her thoughts had turned towards him as his had so often done to her? Then a sudden idea - an ugly thought - drove the tenderness from his face. She was no longer Maud Barnes - she was Mrs. John Dory, and John Dory was his enemy! Could there be treachery lurking beneath those simple lines? Things had not gone well with John Dory lately. Somehow or other, his cases seemed to have crumpled into dust. He was no longer held in the same esteem at headquarters. Yet could even John Dory stoop to such means as these?
He turned in his chair.
"Miss Brown," he said, "please take your pencil."
"I am quite ready, sir," she answered.
He marked the advertisement with a ring and passed it to her.
"Reply to that as follows," he said:
I notice in the Daily Mail of this morning that you are enquiring through the "personal" column for the whereabouts of Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald. That gentleman has been a client of mine, and I have been in occasional communication with him. If you will inform me of the nature of your business, I may, perhaps, be able to put you in touch with Mr. Fitzgerald. You will understand, however, that, under the circumstances, I shall require proofs of your good faith.
Miss Brown glanced through the advertisement and closed her notebook with a little snap.
"Did you say - 'Dear Sir'?" she asked.
"Certainly!" Peter Ruff answered.
"And you really mean," she continued, with obvious disapproval, "that I am to send this?"
"I do not usually waste my time," Peter Ruff reminded her, mildly, "by giving you down communications destined for the waste-paper basket."
She turned unwillingly to her machine.
"Mr. Fitzgerald is very much better where he is," she remarked.
"That depends," he answered.
She adjusted a sheet of paper into her typewriter.
"Who do you suppose 'M' is?" she asked.
"With your assistance," Peter Ruff remarked, a little sarcastically - "with your very kind assistance - I propose to find out!"
Miss Brown sniffed, and banged at the keys of her typewriter.
"That coal-dealer's girl from Streatham!" she murmured to herself....
A few politely worded letters were exchanged. "M" declined to reveal her identity, but made an appointment to visit Mr. Ruff at his office. The morning she was expected, he wore an entirely new suit of clothes and was palpably nervous. Miss Brown, who had arrived a little late, sat with her back turned upon him, and ignored even his usual morning greeting. The atmosphere of the office was decidedly chilly! Fortunately, the expected visitor arrived early.
Peter Ruff rose to receive his former sweetheart with an agitation perforce concealed, yet to him poignant indeed. For it was indeed Maud who entered the room and came towards him with carefully studied embarrassment and half doubtfully extended hand. He did not see the cheap millinery, the slightly more developed figure, the passing of that insipid prettiness which had once charmed him into the bloom of an over-early maturity. His eyes were blinded with that sort of masculine chivalry - the heritage only of fools and very clever men - which takes no note of such things. It was Miss Brown who, from her place in a corner of the room, ran over the cheap attractions of this unwelcome visitor with an expression of scornful wonder - who understood the tinsel of her jewellery, the cheap shoddiness of her ready-made gown; who appreciated, with merciless judgment, her mincing speech, her cheap, flirtatious method.
Maud, with a diffidence not altogether assumed, had accepted the chair which Peter Ruff had placed for her, and sat fidgeting, for a moment, with the imitation gold purse which she was carrying.
"I am sure, Mr. Ruff," she said, looking demurely into her lap, "I ought not to have come here. I feel terribly guilty. It's such an uncomfortable sort of position, too, isn't it?"
"I am sorry that you find it so," Peter Ruff said. "If there is anything I can do - "
"You are very kind," she murmured, half raising her eyes to his and dropping them again, "but, you see, we are perfect strangers to one another. You don't know me at all, do you? And I have only heard of you through the newspapers. You might think all sorts of things about my coming here to make enquiries about a gentleman."
"I can assure you," Peter Ruff said, sincerely, "that you need have no fears - no fears at all. Just speak to me quite frankly. Mr. Fitzgerald was a friend of yours, was he not?"
"He was more than that," she answered, looking down. "We were engaged to be married."
Peter Ruff sighed.
"I knew all about it," he declared. "Fitzgerald used to tell me everything."
"You were his friend?" she asked, looking him in the face.
"I was," Peter Ruff answered fervently, "his best friend! No one was more grieved than I about that - little mistake."
"In some ways," she remarked softly, "you remind me of him."
"You could scarcely say anything," Peter Ruff murmured "which would give me more pleasure. I am flattered."
She shook her head.
"It isn't flattery," she said, "it's the truth. You may be a few years older, and Spencer had a very nice moustache, which you haven't, but you are really not unlike. Mr. Ruff, do tell me where he is!"
Peter Ruff coughed.
"You must remember," he said, "that Mr. Fitzgerald's absence was caused by events of a somewhat unfortunate character."
"I know all about it," she answered, with a little sigh.
"You can appreciate the fact, therefore," Peter Ruff continued, "that as his friend and well-wisher I can scarcely disclose his whereabouts without his permission. Will you tell me exactly why you want to meet him again?"
She blushed - looked down and up again - betrayed, in fact, all the signs of confusion which might have been expected from her.
"Must I tell you that?" she asked.
"You are married, are you not?" Peter Ruff asked, looking down at her wedding ring.
She bit her lip with vexation. What a fool she had been not to take it off!
"Yes! Well, no - that is to say - "
"Never mind," Peter Ruff interrupted. "Please don't think that I want to cross-examine you. I only asked these questions because I have a sincere regard for Fitzgerald. I know how fond he was of you, and I cannot see what there is to be gained, from his point of view, by reopening old wounds."
"I suppose, then," she remarked, looking at him in such a manner that Miss Brown had to cover her mouth with her hands to prevent her screaming out - "I suppose you are one of those who think it a crime for a woman who is married even to want to see, for a few moments, an old sweetheart?"
"On the contrary," Peter Ruff answered, "as a bachelor, I have no convictions of any sort upon the subject."
"I am glad of that," she said.
"I am to understand, then," Peter Ruff remarked, "that your reason for wishing to meet Mr. Fitzgerald again is purely a sentimental one?"
"I am afraid it is," she murmured; "I have thought of him so often lately. He was such a dear!" she declared, with enthusiasm.
"I have never been sufficiently thankful," she continued, "that he got away that night. At the time, I was very angry, but often since then I have wished that I could have passed out with him into the fog and been lost - but I mustn't talk like this! Please don't misunderstand me, Mr. Ruff. I am happily married - quite happily married!"
Peter Ruff sighed.
"My friend Fitzgerald," he remarked, "will be glad to hear that."
Maud fidgeted. It was not quite the effect she had intended to produce!
"Of course," she remarked, looking away with a pensive air, one has regrets."
"Regrets!" Peter Ruff murmured.
"Mr. Dory is not well off," she continued, "and I am afraid that I am very fond of life and going about, and everything is so expensive nowadays. Then I don't like his profession. I think it is hateful to be always trying to catch people and put them in prison - don't you, Mr. Ruff?"
Peter Ruff smiled.
"Naturally," he answered. "Your husband and I work from the opposite poles of life. He is always seeking to make criminals of the people whom I am always trying to prove worthy members of society."
"How noble!" Maud exclaimed, clasping her hands and looking up at him. "So much more remunerative, too, I should think," she added, after a moment's pause.
"Naturally," Peter Ruff admitted. "A private individual will pay more to escape from the clutches of the law than the law will to secure its victims. Scotland Yard expects them to come into its arms automatically - regards them as a perquisite of its existence."
"I wish my husband were in your profession, Mr. Ruff," Maud said, with a sidelong glance of her blue eyes which she had always found so effective upon her various admirers. "I am sure that I should be a great deal fonder of him."
Peter Ruff leaned forward in his chair. He, too, had expressive eyes at times.
"Madam," he said - and stopped. But Maud blushed, all the same.
She looked down into her lap.
"We are forgetting Mr. Fitzgerald," she murmured.
Peter Ruff glanced up at the clock.
"It is a long story," he said. "Are you in a hurry, Mrs. Dory?
"Not at all," she assured him, "unless you want to close you office, or anything. It must be nearly one o'clock."
"I wonder," he asked, "if you would do me the honour of lunching with me? We might go to the Prince's or the Carlton - whichever you prefer. I will promise to talk about Mr. Fitzgerald all the time."
"Oh, I couldn't!" Maud declared, with a little gasp. "At least - well, I'm sure I don't know!"
"You have no engagement for luncheon?" Peter Ruff asked quietly.
"Oh, no!" she answered; "but, you see, we live so quietly. I have never been to one of those places. I'd love to go - but if we were seen! Wouldn't people talk?"
Peter Ruff smiled. Just the same dear, modest little thing!
"I can assure you," he said, "that nothing whatever could be said against our lunching together. People are not so strict nowadays, you know, and a married lady has always a great deal of latitude."
She looked up at him with a dazzling smile.
"I'd simply love to go to Prince's!" she declared.
"Cat!" Miss Brown murmured, as Peter Ruff and his client left the room together.
Peter Ruff returned from his luncheon in no very jubilant state of mind. For some time he sat in his easy-chair, with his legs crossed and his finger tips pressed close together, looking steadily into space. Contrary to his usual custom, he did not smoke. Miss Brown watched him from behind her machine.
"Disenchanted?" she asked calmly.
Peter Ruff did not reply for several moments.
"I am afraid," he admitted, hesitatingly, "that marriage with John Dory has - well, not had a beneficial effect. She allowed me, for instance, to hold her hand in the cab! Maud would never have permitted a stranger to take such a liberty in the old days."
Miss Brown smiled curiously.
"Is that all?" she asked.
Peter Ruff felt that he was in the confessional.
"She certainly did seem," he admitted, "to enjoy her champagne a great deal, and she talked about her dull life at home a little more, perhaps, than was discreet to one who was presumably a stranger. She was curious, too, about dining out. Poor little girl, though. Just fancy, John Dory has never taken her anywhere but to Lyons' or an A B C, and the pit of a theatre!"
"Which evening is it to be?" Miss Brown asked.
"Something was said about Thursday," Peter Ruff admitted.
"And her husband?" Miss Brown enquired.
"He happens to be in Glasgow for a few days," Peter Ruff answered.
Miss Brown looked at her employer steadily. She addressed him by his Christian name, which was a thing she very seldom did in office hours.
"Peter," she said, "are you going to let that woman make a fool of you?"
He raised his eyebrows.
"Go on," he said; "say anything you want to - only, if you please, don't speak disrespectfully of Maud."
"Hasn't it ever occurred to you at all," Miss Brown continued, rising to her feet, "that this Maud, or whatever you want to call her, may be playing a low-down game of her husband's? He hates you, and he has vague suspicions. Can't you see that he is probably making use of your infatuation for his common, middle-class little wife, to try and get you to give yourself away? Can't you see it, Peter? You are not going to tell me that you are so blind as all that!"
"I must admit," he answered with a sigh, "that, although I think you go altogether too far, some suspicion of the sort has interfered with my perfect enjoyment of the morning."
Miss Brown drew a little breath of relief. After all, then, his folly was not so consummate as it had seemed!
"What are you going to do about it, then?" she asked.
Peter Ruff coughed - he seemed in an unusually amenable frame of mind, and submitted to cross-examination without murmur.
"The subject of Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald," he remarked, "seemed, somehow or other, to drop into the background during our luncheon. I propose, therefore, to continue to offer to Mrs. John Dory my most respectful admiration. If she accepts my friendship, and is satisfied with it, so much the better. I must admit that it would give me a great deal of pleasure to be her occasional companion - at such times when her husband happens to be in Glasgow!"
"And supposing," Miss Brown asked, "that this is not all she wants - supposing, for instance, that she persists in her desire for information concerning Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald?"
"Then," Peter Ruff admitted, "I'm afraid that I must conclude that her unchivalrous clod of a husband has indeed stooped to make a fool of her."
"And in that case," Miss Brown demanded, "what shall you do?"
"I was just thinking that out," Peter Ruff said mildly, "when you spoke...."
The friendship of Peter Ruff with the wife of his enemy certainly appeared to progress in most satisfactory fashion. The dinner and visit to the theatre duly took place. Mr. Ruff was afterwards permitted to offer a slight supper and to accompany his fair companion a portion of the way home in a taxicab. She made several half-hearted attempts to return to the subject of Spencer Fitzgerald, but her companion had been able on each occasion to avoid the subject. Whether or not she was the victim of her husband's guile, there was no question about the reality of her enjoyment during the evening. Ruff, when he remembered the flash of her eyes across the table, the touch of her fingers in the taxi, was almost content to believe her false to her truant lover. If only she had not been married to John Dory, he realised, with a little sigh, that he might have taught her to forget that such a person existed as Spencer Fitzgerald, might have induced her to become Mrs. Peter Ruff!
On their next meeting, however, Peter Ruff was forced to realise that his secretary's instinct had not misled her. It was, alas, no personal and sentimental regrets for her former lover which had brought the fair Maud to his office. The pleasures of her evening - they dined at Romano's and had a box at the Empire - were insufficient this time to keep her from recurring continually to the subject of her vanished lover. He tried strategy - jealousy amongst other things.
"Supposing," he said, as they sat quite close to one another in the box during the interval, "supposing I were to induce our friend to come to London - I imagine he would be fairly safe now if he kept out of your husband's way - what would happen to me?"
"You!" she murmured, glancing at him from behind her fan and then dropping her eyes.
"Certainly - me!" he continued. "Don't you think that I should be doing myself a very ill turn if I brought you two together? I have very few friends, and I cannot afford to lose one. I am quite sure that you still care for him."
She shook her head.
"Not a scrap!" she declared.
"Then why did you put that advertisement in the paper?" Ruff asked, with smooth but swift directness.
She was not quick enough to parry his question. He read the truth in her disconcerted face. Knowing it now for a certainty, he hastened to her aid.
"Forgive me," he said, looking away. "I should not have asked that question - it is not my business. I will write to Fitzgerald. I will tell him that you want to see him, and that I think it would be safe for him to come to London."
Maud recovered herself quickly. She thanked him with her eyes as well as her words.
"And you needn't be jealous, really," she whispered behind her fan. "I only want to see him once for a few minutes - to ask a question. After that, I don't care what becomes of him."
A poor sort of Delilah, really, with her flushed face, her too elaborately coiffured hair with its ugly ornament, her ready-made evening dress with its cheap attempts at smartness, her cleaned gloves, indifferent shoes. But Peter Ruff thought otherwise.
"You mean that, after I have found him for you, you will still come out with me again sometimes?" he asked wistfully.
"Of course!" she answered. "Whenever I can without John knowing," she added, with an unpleasant little laugh. "If you only knew how I loved the music and the theatres, and this sort of life! What a good time your wife would have, Mr. Ruff!" she added archly.
It was no joking matter with him. He had to remember that he was, in effect, her tool, that she was making use of him, willing to betray her former lover at her husband's bidding. It was enough to make him, on his side, burn for revenge! Yet he put the thought away from him with a shiver. She was still the woman he had loved - she was still sacred to him! That night he pleaded an engagement, and sent her home in a taxicab alone.
John Dory, waiting patiently at home for his wife's return, felt a certain uneasiness when she swept into their little sitting room in all her cheap splendour, with flushed cheeks - an obvious air of satisfaction with herself and disdain for her immediate surroundings. John Dory was a commonplace looking man - the absence of his collar, and his somewhat shabby carpet slippers, did not improve his appearance. He had neglected to shave, and he was drinking beer. At headquarters he was not considered quite the smart young officer which he had once shown signs of becoming. He looked at his wife with darkening face, and his wife, on her part, thought of Peter Ruff in his immaculate evening clothes.
"Well," he remarked, grumblingly, "you seem to find a good deal of pleasure in this gadding about!"
She threw her soiled fan on the table.
"If I do," she answered, "you are not the one to sit there and reproach me with it, are you ?"
"It's gone far enough, anyway," John Dory said. "It's gone further than I meant it to go. Understand me, Maud - it's finished! I'll find your old sweetheart for myself."
She laughed heartily.
"You needn't trouble," she answered, with a little toss of the head. "I am not such a fool as you seem to think me. Mr. Ruff has made an appointment with him."
There was a change in John Dory's face. The man's eyes were bright - they almost glittered.
"You mean that your friend Mr. Ruff is going to produce Spencer Fitzgerald?" he exclaimed.
"He has promised to," she answered. "John," she declared, throwing herself into an easy-chair, "I feel horrid about it. I wonder what Mr. Ruff will think when he knows!"
"You can feel how you like," John Dory answered bluntly, "so long as I get the handcuffs on Spencer Fitzgerald's wrists!"
She shuddered. She looked at her husband with distaste.
"Don't talk about it!" she begged sharply. "It makes me feel the meanest creature that ever crawled. I can't help feeling, too, that Mr. Ruff will think me a wretch - quite the gentleman he's been all the time! I never knew any one half so nice!"
John Dory set down his empty glass.
"I wonder," he said, looking at her thoughtfully, "what made him take such a fancy to you! Rather sudden, wasn't it, eh?"
Maud tossed her head.
"I don't see anything so wonderful about that," she declared.
"Listen to me, Maud," her husband said, rising to his feet. "You aren't a fool - not quite. You've spent some time with Peter Ruff. How much - think carefully - how much does he remind you of Spencer Fitzgerald?"
"Not at all," she answered promptly. "Why, he is years older, and though Spencer was quite the gentleman, there's something about Mr. Ruff, and the way he dresses and knows his way about - well, you can tell he's been a gentleman all his life."
John Dory's face fell.
"Think again," he said.
She shook her head.
"Can't see any likeness," she declared. "He did remind me a little of him just at first, though," she added, reflectively - "little things he said, and sort of mannerisms. I've sort of lost sight of them the last few times, though."
"When is this meeting with Fitzgerald to come off?" John Dory asked abruptly.
She did not answer him at once. A low, triumphant smile had parted her lips.
"To-morrow night," she said; "he is to meet me in Mr. Ruff's office."
"At what time?" John Dory asked.
"At eight o'clock," she answered. "Mr. Ruff is keeping his office open late on purpose. Spencer thinks that afterwards he is going to take me out to dinner."
"You are sure of this?" John Dory asked eagerly. "You are sure that the man Ruff does not suspect you? You believe he means that you shall meet Fitzgerald?"
"I am sure of it," she answered. "He is even a little jealous," she continued, with an affected laugh. "He told me - well, never mind!"
"He told you what?" John Dory asked.
"Never you mind," she said. "I have done what you asked me anyway. If Mr. Ruff had not found me an agreeable companion he would not have bothered about getting Spencer to meet me. And now he's done it," she added, "I do believe he's a little jealous."
John Dory glared, but he said nothing. It seemed to him that his hour of revenge was close at hand!
It was the first occasion upon which words of this sort had passed between Peter Ruff and his secretary. There was no denying the fact that Miss Violet Brown was in a passion. It was an hour past the time at which she usually left the office. For an hour she had pleaded, and Peter Ruff remained unmoved.
"You are a fool!" she cried to him at last. "I am a fool, too, that I have ever wasted my thoughts and time upon you. Why can't I make you see? In every other way, heaven knows, you are clever enough! And yet there comes this vulgar, commonplace, tawdry little woman from heaven knows where, and makes such a fool of you that you are willing to fling away your career - to hold your wrists out for John Dory's handcuffs!"
"My dear Violet," Peter Ruff answered deprecatingly, "you really worry me - you do indeed!"
"Not half so much as you worry me," she declared. "Look at the time. It's already past seven. At eight o'clock Mrs. Dory - your Maud - is coming in here hoping to find her old sweetheart."
"Why not?" he murmured.
"Why not, indeed?" Miss Brown answered angrily. "Don't you know - can't you believe - that close on her heels will come her husband - that Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, if ever he comes to life in this room, will leave it between two policemen?"
Peter Ruff sighed.
"What a pessimist you are, my dear Violet!" he said.
She came up to him and laid her hands upon his shoulders.
"Peter," she said, "I will tell you something - I must! I am fond of you, Peter. I always have been. Don't make me miserable if there is no need for it. Tell me honestly - do you really believe in this woman?"
He removed her hands gently, and raised them to his lips.
"My dear girl," he said, "I believe in every one until I find them out. I look upon suspicion as a vice. But, at the same time," he added, "there are always certain precautions which one takes."
"What precautions can you take?" she cried. "Can you sit there and make yourself invisible? John Dory is not a fool. The moment he is in this room with the door closed behind him, it is the end."
"We must hope not," Peter Ruff said cheerfully. "There are other things which may happen, you know."
She turned away from him a little drearily.
"You do not mind if I stay?" she said. "I am not working to-night. Perhaps, later on, I may be of use!"
"As you will," he answered. "You will excuse me for a little time, won't you? I have some preparations to make."
She turned her head away from him. He left the room and ascended the stairs to his own apartments.
Eight o'clock was striking from St. Martin's Church when the door of Peter Ruff's office was softly opened and closed again. A man in a slouch hat and overcoat entered, and after feeling along the wall for a moment, turned up the electric light. Violet Brown rose from her place with a little sob. She stretched out her hand to him.
"Peter!" she cried. "Peter!"
"My name," the newcomer said calmly, "is Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald."
"Oh, listen to me!" she begged. "There is still time, if you hurry. Think how many clever men before you have been deceived by the woman in whom they trusted. Please, please go! Hurry upstairs and put those things away."
"Madam," the newcomer said, "I am much obliged to you for your interest, but I think that you are making a mistake. I have come here to meet - "
He stopped short. There was a soft knocking at the door. A stifled scream broke from Violet Brown's lips.
"It is too late!" she cried. "Peter! Peter!"
She sank into her chair and covered her face with her hands. The door was opened and Maud came in. When she saw who it was who sat in Peter Ruff's place, she gave a little cry. Perhaps after all, she had not believed that this thing would happen.
"Spencer!" she cried, "Spencer! Have you really come back?"
He held out his hands.
"You are glad to see me?" he asked.
She came slowly forward. The man rose from his place and came towards her with outstretched hands. Then through the door came John Dory, and one caught a glimpse of others behind him.
"If my wife is not glad to see you, Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald," he aid, in a tone from which he vainly tried to keep the note of triumph, "I can assure you that I am. You slipped away from me cleverly at Daisy Villa, but this time I think you will not find it so easy."
Maud shrank back, and her husband took her place. But Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald looked upon them both as one who looks upon figures in a dream. Miss Brown rose hurriedly from her seat. She came over to him and thrust her arm through his.
"Peter," she said, taking his hand in hers, "don't shoot. It isn't worth while. You should have listened to me."
The little man in the gold-rimmed spectacles looked at her, looked at Mr. John Dory, looked at the woman who was shrinking back now against the wall.
"Really," he said, "this is the most extraordinary situation in which I ever found myself!"
"We will help you to realise it," John Dory cried, and the triumph in his tone had swelled into a deeper note. "I came here to arrest Mr. Fitzgerald, but I hear this young lady call you 'Peter.' Perhaps this may be the solution - "
The little man struck the table with the flat of his hand.
"Come," he said, "this is getting a bit too thick. First of all - you," he said, turning to Miss Brown - "my name is not Peter, and I have no idea of shooting anybody. As for that lady against the wall, I don't know her - never saw her before in my life. As for you," he added, turning to John Dory, "you talk about arresting me - what for?"
Mr. John Dory smiled.
"There is an old warrant," he said, "which I have in my pocket, but I fancy that there are a few little things since then which we may have to enquire into."
"This beats me!" the little man declared. "Who do you think I am?"
"Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald, to start with," John Dory said. "It seems to me not impossible that we may find another pseudonym for you."
"You can find as many as you like," the little man answered testily, "but my name is James Fitzgerald, and I am an actor employed at the Shaftesbury Theatre, as I can prove with the utmost ease. I never called myself Spencer; nor, to my knowledge, was I ever called by such a name. Nor, as I remarked before, have I ever seen any one of you three people before with the exception of Miss Brown here, whom I have seen on the stage."
John Dory grunted.
"It was Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald," he said, "a clerk in Howell & Wilson's bookshop, who leapt out of the window of Daisy Villa two years ago. It may be Mr. James Fitzgerald now. Gentlemen of your profession have a knack of changing their names."
"My profession's as good as yours, anyway!" the little man exclaimed. "We aren't all fools in it! My friend Mr. Peter Ruff said to me that there was a young lady whom I used to know who was anxious to meet me again, and would I step around here about eight o'clock. Here I am, and all I can say is, if that's the young lady, I never saw her before in my life."
There was a moment's breathless silence. Then the door was softly opened. Violet Brown went staggering back like a woman who sees a ghost. She bit her lips till the blood came. It was Peter Ruff who stood looking in upon them - Peter Ruff, carefully dressed in evening clothes, his silk hat at exactly the correct angle, his coat and white kid gloves upon his arm.
"Dear me," he said, "you don't seem to be getting on very well! Mr. Dory," he added, with a note of surprise in his tone, "this is indeed an unexpected pleasure!"
The man who stood by the desk turned to him. The others were stricken dumb.
"Look here," he said, "there's some mistake. You told me to come here at eight o'clock to meet a young lady whom I used to know. Well, I never saw her before in my life," he added, pointing to Maud. "There's a man there who wants to arrest me - Lord knows what for! And here's Miss Brown, whom I have seen at the theatre several times but who never condescended to speak to me before, telling me not to shoot! What's it all about, Ruff? Is it a practical joke?"
Peter Ruff laid down his coat and hat, and sat upon the table with his hands in his pockets.
"Is it possible," he said, "that I have made a mistake? Isn't your second name Spencer?"
The man shook his head.
"My name is James Fitzgerald," he said. "I haven't missed a day at the Shaftesbury Theatre for three years, as you can find out by going round the corner. I never called myself Spencer, I was never clerk in a bookshop, and I never saw that lady before in my life."
Maud came out from her place against the wall, and leaned eagerly forward. John Dory turned his head slowly towards his wife. A sickening fear had arisen in his heart - gripped him by the throat. Fooled once more, and by Peter Ruff!
"It isn't Spencer!" Maud said huskily. "Mr. Ruff," she added, turning to him, "you know very well that this is not the Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald whom you promised to bring here to-night - Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald to whom I was once engaged."
Peter Ruff pointed to the figure of her husband.
"Madam," he said, "my invitation did not include your husband."
John Dory took a step forward, and laid his hands upon the shoulders of the man who called himself Mr. James Fitzgerald. He looked into his face long and carefully. Then he turned away, and, gripping his wife by the arm, he passed out of the room. The door slammed behind him. The sound of heavy footsteps was heard descending to the floor below.
Violet Brown crossed the room to where Peter Ruff was still sitting with a queer look upon his face, and, gripping him by the shoulders, shook him.
"How dare you!" she exclaimed. "How dare you! Do you know that I have nearly cried my eyes out?"
Peter Ruff came back from the world into which, for the moment, his thoughts had taken him.
"Violet," he said, "you have known me for some years. You have been my secretary for some months. If you choose still to take me for a fool, I cannot help it."
"But," she exclaimed, pointing to Mr. James Fitzgerald -
Peter Ruff nodded.
"I have been practising on him for some time," he said, with an air of self-satisfaction.
"A thin, mobile face, you see, and plenty of experience in the art of making up. It is astonishing what one can do if one tries."
Mr. James Fitzgerald picked up his hat and coat.
"It was worth more than five quid," he growled; "when I saw the handcuffs in that fellow's hand, I felt a cold shiver go down my spine."
Peter Ruff counted out two banknotes and passed them to his confederate.
"You have earned the money," he said. "Go and spend it. Perhaps, Violet," he added, turning towards her, "I have been a little inconsiderate. Come and have dinner with me, and forget it."
She drew a little sigh.
"You are sure," she murmured, "that you wouldn't rather take Maud?"