Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VII. The Demand of the Double-Four
It was about this time that Peter Ruff found among his letters one morning a highly-scented little missive, addressed to him in a handwriting with which he had once been familiar. He looked at it for several moments before opening it. Even as the paper cutter slid through the top of the envelope, he felt that he had already divined the nature of its contents.
MY DEAR Mr. RUFF:
I expect that you will be surprised to hear from me again, but I do hope that you will not be annoyed. I know that I behaved very horridly a little time ago, but it was not altogether my fault, and I have been more sorry for it than I can tell you - in fact, John and I have never been the same since, and for the present, at any rate, I have left him and gone on the stage. A lady whom I knew got me a place in the chorus here, and so far I like it immensely.
Won't you come and meet me after the show to-morrow night, and I will tell you all about it? I should like so much to see you again.
Peter Ruff placed this letter in his breast-coat pocket, and withheld it from his secretary's notice. He felt, however, very little pleasure at the invitation it conveyed. He hesitated for some time, in fact, whether to accept it or not. Finally, after his modest dinner that evening, he bought a stall for the Frivolity and watched the piece. The girl he had come to see was there in the second row of the chorus, but she certainly did not look her best in the somewhat scant costume required by the part. She showed no signs whatever of any special ability - neither her dancing nor her singing seemed to entitle her to any consideration. She carried herself with a certain amount of self-consciousness, and her eyes seemed perpetually fixed upon the occupants of the stalls. Peter Ruff laid down his glasses with something between a sigh and a groan. There was something to him inexpressibly sad in the sight of his old sweetheart so transformed, so utterly changed from the prim, somewhat genteel young person who had accepted his modest advances with such ladylike diffidence. She seemed, indeed, to have lost those very gifts which had first attracted him. Nevertheless, he kept his appointment at the stage-door.
She was among the first to come out, and she greeted him warmly - almost noisily. With her new profession, she seemed to have adopted a different and certainly more flamboyant deportment.
"I thought you'd come to-night," she declared, with an arch look. "I felt certain I saw you in the stalls. You are going to take me to supper, are n't you? Shall we go to the Milan?"
Peter Ruff assented without enthusiasm, handed her into a hansom, and took his place beside her. She wore a very large hat, untidily put on; some of the paint seemed still to be upon her face; her voice, too, seemed to have become louder, and her manner more assertive. There were obvious indications that she no longer considered brandy and soda an unladylike beverage. Peter Ruff was not pleased with himself or proud of his companion.
"You'll take some wine?" he suggested, after he had ordered, with a few hints from her, a somewhat extensive supper.
"Champagne," she answered, decidedly. "I've got quite used to it, nowadays," she went on. "I could laugh to think how strange it tasted when you first took me out."
"Tell me," Peter Ruff said, "why you have left your husband?"
"Because he was dull and because he was cross," she answered, "and because the life down at Streatham was simply intolerable. I think it was a little your fault, too," she said, making eyes; at him across the table. "You gave me a taste of what life was like outside Streatham, and I never forgot it."
Peter Ruff did not respond - he led the conversation, indeed, into other channels. On the whole, the supper was scarcely a success. Maud, who was growing to consider herself something of a Bohemian, and who certainly looked for some touch of sentiment on the part of her old admirer, was annoyed by the quiet deference with which he treated her. She reproached him with it once, bluntly.
"Say," she exclaimed, "you don't seem to want to be so friendly as you did! You haven't forgiven me yet, I suppose?"
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"It is not that," he said, "but I think that you have scarcely done a wise thing in leaving your husband. I cannot think that this life on the stage is good for you."
She laughed, scornfully.
"Well," she said, "I never thought to have you preaching at me!"
They finished their supper. Maud accepted a cigarette and did her best to change her companion's mood. She only alluded once more to her husband.
"I don't see how I could have stayed with him, anyhow," she said. "You know, he's been put back - he only gets two pounds fifteen a week now. He couldn't expect me to live upon that."
"Put back?" Peter Ruff repeated.
"He seemed to have a lot of bad luck this last year," she said. "All his cases went wrong, and they don't think so much of him at Scotland Yard as they did. I am not sure that he hasn't begun to drink a little."
"I am sorry to hear it," Peter Ruff said, gravely.
"I don't see why you should be," she answered, bluntly. "He was no friend of yours, nor isn't now. He may not be so dangerous as he was, but if ever you come across him, you take my tip and be careful. He means to do you a mischief some day, if he can. I am not sure," she added, "that he doesn't believe that it was partly your fault about my leaving home."
"I should be sorry for him to think that," Peter Ruff answered. "While we are upon the subject, can't you tell me exactly why your husband dislikes me so?"
"For one thing, because you have been up against him in several of his cases, and have always won."
"And for the other?"
"Well," she said, doubtfully, "he seems to connect you in his mind, somehow, with a boy who was in love with me once - Mr. Spencer Fitzgerald - you know who I mean."
"He still has that in his mind, has he?" he remarked.
"Oh, he's mad!" she declared. "However, don't let us talk about him any more."
The lights were being put out. Peter Ruff paid his bill and they rose together.
"Come down to the fiat for an hour or so," she begged, taking his arm. "I have a dear little place with another girl - Carrie Pearce. I'll sing to you, if you like. Come down and have one drink, anyhow."
Peter Ruff shook his head firmly.
"I am sorry," he said, "but you must excuse me. In some ways, I am very old-fashioned," he added. "I never sit up late, and I hate music."
"Just drive as far as the door with me, then," she begged.
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"You must excuse me," he said, handing her into the hansom. "And, Maud," he added - "if I may call you so - take my advice: give it up - go back to your husband and stick to him - you'll be better off in the long run."
She would have answered him scornfully, but there was something impressive in the crisp, clear words - in his expression, too, as he looked into her eyes. She threw herself back in a corner of the cab with an affected little laugh, and turned her head away from him.
Peter Ruff walked back into the cloak-room for his coat and hat, and sighed softly to himself. It was the end of the one sentimental episode of his life!
It had been the study of Peter Ruff's life, so far as possible, to maintain under all circumstances an equable temperament, to refuse to recognize the meaning of the word "nerves," and to be guided in all his actions by that profound common sense which was one of his natural gifts. Yet there were times when, like any other ordinary person, he suffered acutely from presentiments. He left his rooms, for instance, at five o'clock on the afternoon of the day following his supper with Maud, suffering from a sense of depression for which he found it altogether impossible to account. It was true that the letter which he had in his pocket, the appointment which he was on his way to keep, were both of them probable sources of embarrassment and annoyance, if not of danger. He was being invited, without the option of refusal, to enter upon some risky undertaking which would yield him neither fee nor reward. Yet his common sense told him that it was part of the game. In Paris, he had looked upon his admittance into the order of the " Double-Four" as one of the stepping-stones to success in his career. Through them he had gained knowledge which he could have acquired in no other way. Through them, for instance, he had acquired the information that Madame la Comtesse de Pilitz was a Servian patriot and a friend of the Crown Prince; and that the Count von Hern, posing in England as a sportsman and an idler, was a highly paid and dangerous Austrian spy. There had been other occasions, too, upon which they had come to his aid. Now they had made an appeal to him - an appeal which must be obeyed. His time - perhaps, even, his safety - must be placed entirely at their disposal. It was only an ordinary return a thing expected of him - a thing which he dared not refuse. Yet he knew very well what he could not explain to them - that the whole success of his life depended so absolutely upon his remaining free from any suspicion of wrong-doing, that he had received his summons with something like dismay, and proceeded to obey it with unaccustomed reluctance.
He drove to Cirey's café in Regent Street, where he dismissed the driver of his hansom and strolled in with the air of an habitue. He selected a corner table, ordered some refreshment, and asked for a box of dominoes. The place was fairly well filled. A few women were sitting about; a sprinkling of Frenchmen were taking their aperitif; here and there a man of affairs, on his way from the city, had called in for a glass of vermouth. Peter Ruff looked them over, recognizing the type - recognizing, even, some of their faces. Apparently, the person whom he was to meet had not yet arrived.
He lit a cigarette and smoked slowly. Presently the door opened and a woman entered in a long fur coat, a large hat, and a thick veil. She raised it to glance around, disclosing the unnaturally pale face and dark, swollen eyes of a certain type of Frenchwoman. She seemed to notice no one in particular. Her eyes traveled over Peter Ruff without any sign of interest. Nevertheless, she took a seat somewhere near his and ordered some vermouth from the waiter, whom she addressed by name. When she had been served and the waiter had departed, she looked curiously at the dominoes which stood before her neighbor.
"Monsieur plays dominoes, perhaps?" she remarked, taking one of them into her fingers and examining it. "A very interesting game!"
Peter Ruff showed her a domino which he had been covering with his hand - it was a double four. She nodded, and moved from her seat to one immediately next him.
"I had not imagined," Peter Ruff said, "that it was a lady whom I was to meet."
"Monsieur is not disappointed, I trust?" she said, smiling. "If I talk banalities, Monsieur must pardon it. Both the waiters here are spies, and there are always people who watch. Monsieur is ready to do us a service?"
"To the limits of my ability," Peter Ruff answered. "Madame will remember that we are not in Paris; that our police system, if not so wonderful as yours, is still a closer and a more present thing. They have not the brains at Scotland Yard, but they are persistent - hard to escape."
"Do I not know it?" the woman said. "It is through them that we send for you. One of us is in danger."
"Do I know him?" Peter Ruff asked.
"It is doubtful," she answered. "Monsieur's stay in Paris was so brief. If Monsieur will recognize his name - it is Jean Lemaitre himself."
Peter Ruff started slightly.
"I thought," he said, with some hesitation, "that Lemaitre did not visit this country."
"He came well disguised," the woman answered. "It was thought to be safe. Nevertheless, it was a foolish thing. They have tracked him down from hotel to apartments, till he lives now in the back room of a wretched little café in Soho. Even from there we cannot get him away - the whole district is watched by spies. We need help."
"For a genius like Lemaitre," Peter Ruff said, thoughtfully, "to have even thought of Soho, was foolish. He should have gone to Hampstead or Balham. It is easy to fool our police if you know how. On the other hand, they hang on to the scent like leeches when once they are on the trail. How many warrants are there out against Jean in this country?"
"Better not ask that," the woman said, grimly. "You remember the raid on a private house in the Holloway Road, two years ago, when two policemen were shot and a spy was stabbed? Jean was in that - it is sufficient!"
"Are any plans made at all?" Peter Ruff asked.
"But naturally," the woman answered. "There is a motor car, even now, of sixty-horse-power, stands ready at a garage in Putney. If Jean can once reach it, he can reach the coast. At a certain spot near Southampton there is a small steamer waiting. After that, everything is easy."
"My task, then," Peter Ruff said, thoughtfully, "is to take Jean Lemaitre from this café in Soho, as far as Putney, and get him a fair start?"
"It is enough," she answered. "There is a cordon of spies around the district. Every day they seem to chose in upon us. They search the houses, one by one. Only last night, the Hotel de Netherlands - a miserable little place on the other side of the street - was suddenly surrounded by policemen and every room ransacked. It may be our turn to-night."
"In one hour's time," Peter Ruff said, glancing at his watch, "I shall present myself as a doctor at the café. Tell me the address. Tell me what to say which will insure my admission to Jean Lemaitre!"
"The café," she answered, "is called the Hotel de Flandres. You enter the restaurant and you walk to the desk. There you find always Monsieur Antoine. You say to him simply - 'The Double-Four!' He will answer that he understands, and he will conduct you at once to Lemaitre."
"In the meantime," he said, "let it be understood in the café - if there is any one who is not in the secret - that one of the waiters is sick. I shall come to attend him."
She nodded thoughtfully.
"As well that way as any other," she answered. "Monsieur is very kind. A bientot!"
She shook hands and they parted. Peter Ruff drove back to his rooms, rang up an adjoining garage for a small covered car such as are usually let out to medical men, and commenced to pack a small black bag with the outfit necessary for his purpose. Now that he was actually immersed in his work, the sense of depression had passed away. The keen stimulus of danger had quickened his blood. He knew very well that the woman had not exaggerated. There was no man more wanted by the French or the English police than the man who had sought his aid, and the district in which he had taken shelter was, in some respects, the very worst for his purpose. Nevertheless, Peter Ruff, who believed, at the bottom of his heart, in his star, went on with his preparations feeling morally certain that Jean Lemaitre would sleep on the following night in his native land.
At precisely the hour agreed upon, a small motor brougham pulled up outside the door of the Hotel de Flandres. and its occupant - whom ninety-nine men out of a hundred would at once, unhesitatingly, have declared to be a doctor in moderate practice - pushed open the swing doors of the restaurant and made his way to the desk. He was of medium height; he wore a frock-coat - a little frayed; gray trousers which had not been recently pressed; and thick boots.
"I understand that one of your waiters requires my attendance," he said, in a tone not unduly raised but still fairly audible. "I am Dr. Gilette."
"Dr. Gilette," Antoine repeated, slowly.
"And number Double-Four," the doctor murmured.
Antoine descended from his desk.
"But certainly, Monsieur!" he said. "The poor fellow declares that he suffers. If he is really ill, he must go. It sounds brutal, but what can one do? We have so few rooms here, and so much business. Monsieur will come this way?"
Antoine led the way from the café into a very smelly region of narrow passages and steep stairs.
"It is to be arranged?" Antoine whispered, as they ascended.
"Without a doubt," the doctor answered. "Were there spies in the café?"
"Two," Antoine answered.
The doctor nodded, and said no more. He mounted to the third story. Antoine led him through a small sitting-room and knocked four times upon the door of an inner room. It suddenly was opened. A man - unshaven, terrified, with that nameless fear in his face which one sees reflected in the expression of some trapped animal - stood there looking out at them.
"'Double-Four'!" the doctor said, softly. "Go back into the room, please. Antoine will kindly leave us."
"Who are you?" the man gasped.
"'Double-Four'!" the doctor answered. "Obey me, and be quick for your life! Strip!"
The man obeyed.
Barely twenty minutes later, the doctor - still carrying his bag - descended the stairs. He entered the café from a somewhat remote door. Antoine hurried to meet him, and walked by his side through the place. He asked many questions, but the doctor contented himself with shaking his head. Almost in silence he left Antoine, who conducted him even to the door of his motor. The proprietor of the café watched the brougham disappear, and then returned to his desk, sighing heavily.
A man who had been sipping a liqueur dose at hand, laid down his paper.
"One of your waiters ill, did I understand?" he asked. Monsieur Antoine was at once eloquent. It was the ill-fortune which had dogged him for the last four months! The man had been taken ill there in the restaurant. He was a Gascon - spoke no English - and had just arrived. It was not possible for him to be removed at the moment, so he had been carried to an empty bedroom. Then had come the doctor and forbidden his removal. Now for a week he had lain there and several of his other voyageurs had departed. One did not know how these things got about, but they spoke of infection. The doctor, who had just left - Dr. Gilette of Russell Square, a most famous physician - had assured him that there was no infection - no fear of any. But what did it matter - that? People were so hard to convince. Monsieur would like a cigar? But certainly! There were here some of the best.
Antoine undid the cabinet and opened a box of Havanas. John Dory selected one and called for another liqueur.
"You have trouble often with your waiters, I dare say," he remarked. "They tell me that all Frenchmen who break the law in their own country, find their way, sooner or later, to these parts. You have to take them without characters, I suppose?"
Antoine lifted his shoulders.
"But what could one do?" he exclaimed. "Characters, they were easy enough to write - but were they worth the paper they were written on? Indeed no!"
"Not only your waiters," Dory continued, "but those who stay in the hotels round here have sometimes an evil name."
Antoine shrugged his shoulders.
"For myself," he said, "I am particular. We have but a few rooms, but we are careful to whom we let them."
"Do you keep a visitors' book?"
"But no, Monsieur!" Antoine protested. "For why the necessity? There are so few who come to stay for more than the night - just now scarcely any one at all."
There entered, at that moment, a tall, thin man dressed in dark clothes, who walked with his hands in his overcoat pockets, as though it were a habit. He came straight to Dory and handed him a piece of paper.
John Dory glanced it through and rose to his feet. A gleam of satisfaction lit his eyes.
"Monsieur Antoine," he said, "I am sorry to cause you any inconvenience, but here is my card. I am a detective officer from Scotland Yard, and I have received information which compels me with your permission, to examine at once the sleeping apartments in your hotel."
Antoine was fiercely indignant.
"But, Monsieur!" he exclaimed. "I do not understand! Examine my rooms? But it is impossible! Who dares to say that I harbor criminals?"
"I have information upon which I can rely," John Dory answered, firmly. "This comes from a man who is no friend of mine, but he is well-known. You can read for yourself what he says."
Monsieur Antoine, with trembling fingers, took the piece of paper from John Dory's hands. It was addressed to -
Mr. JOHN DORY, DETECTIVE:
If you wish to find Jean Lemaitre, search in the upper rooms of the Hotel de Flandres. I have certain information that he is to be found there.
"Never," Antoine declared, "will I suffer such an indignity!"
Dory raised a police whistle to his lips.
"You are foolish," he said. "Already there is a cordon of men about the place. If you refuse to conduct me upstairs I shall at once place you under arrest."
Antoine, white with fear, poured himself out a liqueur of brandy.
"Well, well," he said, "what must be done, then! Come!"
He led the way out into that smelly network of passages, up the stairs to the first floor. Room after room he threw open and begged Dory to examine. Some of them were garishly furnished with gilt mirrors, cheap lace curtains tied back with blue ribbons. Others were dark, miserable holes, into which the fresh air seemed never to have penetrated. On the third floor they reached the little sitting-room, which bore more traces of occupation than some of the rooms below. Antoine would have passed on, but Dory stopped him.
"There is a door there," he said. "We will try that."
"It is the sick waiter who lies within," Antoine protested. "Monsieur can hear him groan."
There was, indeed, something which sounded like a groan to be heard, but Dory was obstinate.
"If he is so ill," he demanded, "how is he able to lock the door on the inside? Monsieur Antoine, that door must be opened."
Antoine knocked at it softly.
"Francois," he said, "there is another doctor here who would see you. Let us in."
There was no answer, Antoine turned to his companion with a little shrug of the shoulders, as one who would say - "I have done my best. What would you have?"
Dory put his shoulder to the door.
"Listen," he shouted through the keyhole, "Mr. Sick Waiter, or whoever you are, if you do not unlock this door, I am coming in!"
"I have no key," said a faint voice. "I am locked in. Please break open the door."
"But that is not the Voice of Francois!" Antoine exclaimed, in amazement.
"We'll soon see who it is," Dory answered.
He charged at the door fiercely. At the third assault it gave way. They found themselves in a small back bedroom, and stretched on the floor, very pale, and apparently only half-conscious, lay Peter Ruff. There was a strong smell of chloroform about. John Dory threw open the window. His fingers trembled a little. It was like Fate - this! At the end of every unsuccessful effort there was this man - Peter Ruff!
"What the devil are you doing here?" he asked.
Peter Ruff groaned.
"Help me up," he begged, "and give me a little brandy."
Antoine set him in an easy-chair and rang the bell furiously.
"It will come directly!" he exclaimed. "But who are you?"
Peter Ruff waited for the brandy. When he had sipped it, he drew a little breath as though of relief.
"I heard," he said, speaking still with an evident effort, "that Lemaitre was here. I had secret information. I thought at first that I would let you know - I sent you a note early this morning. Afterwards, I discovered that there was a reward, and I determined to track him down myself. He was in here hiding as a sick waiter. I do not think," Peter Ruff added, "that Monsieur Antoine had any idea. I presented myself as representing a charitable society, and I was shown here to visit him. He was too clever, though, was Jean Lemaitre - too quick for me."
"You were a fool to come alone!" John Dory said. "Don't you know the man's record? How long ago did he leave?"
"About ten minutes," Peter Ruff answered. "You must have missed him somewhere as you came up. I crawled to the window and I watched him go. He left the restaurant by the side entrance, and took a taxicab at the corner there. It went northward toward New Oxford Street."
Dory turned on his heel - they heard him descending the stairs. Peter Ruff rose to his feet.
"I am afraid," he said, as he plunged his head into a basin of water, and came into the middle of the room rubbing it vigorously with a small towel, "I am afraid that our friend John Dory will get to dislike me soon! He passed out unnoticed, eh, Antoine?"
Antoine's face wore a look of great relief.
"There was not a soul who looked," he said. "We passed under the nose of the gentleman from Scotland Yard. He sat there reading his paper; and he had no idea. I watched Jean step into the motor. Even by now he is well on his way southwards. Twice he changes from motor to train, and back. They will never trace him."
Peter Ruff, who was looking amazingly better, sipped a further glass of liqueur. Together he and Antoine descended to the street.
"Mind," Peter Ruff whispered, "I consider that accounts are squared between me and 'Double-Four' now. Let them know that. This sort of thing isn't in my line."
"For an amateur," Antoine said, bowing low, "Monsieur commands my heartfelt congratulations!"