Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim
Chapter VIII. Mrs. Bognor's Star Boarder
In these days, the duties of Miss Brown as Peter Ruff's secretary had become multifarious. Together with the transcribing of a vast number of notes concerning cases, some of which he undertook and some of which he refused, she had also to keep his cash book, a note of his investments and a record of his social engagements. Notwithstanding all these demands upon her time, however, there were occasions when she found herself, of necessity, idle. In one of these she broached the subject which had often been in her mind. They were alone, and not expecting callers. Consequently, she sat upon the hearthrug and addressed her employer by his Christian name.
"Peter, she said softly, "do you remember the night when you came through the fog and burst into my little flat?"
"Quite well," he answered, "but it is a subject to which I prefer that you do not allude."
"I will be careful," she answered. "I only spoke of it for this reason. Before you left, when we were sitting together, you sketched out the career which you proposed for yourself. In many respects, I suppose, you have been highly successful, but I wonder if it has ever occurred to you that your work has not proceeded upon the lines which you first indicated?"
"I think I know what you mean," he said. "Go on."
"That night," she murmured softly, "you spoke as a hunted man; you spoke as one at war with Society; you spoke as one who proposes almost a campaign against it. When you took your rooms here and called yourself Peter Ruff, it was rather in your mind to aid the criminal than to detect the crime. Fate seems to have decreed otherwise. Why, I wonder?"
"Things have gone that way," Peter Ruff remarked.
"I will tell you why," she continued. "It is because, at the bottom of your heart, there lurks a strong and unconquerable desire for respectability. In your heart you are on the side of the law and established things. You do not like crime; you do not like criminals. You do not like the idea of associating with them. You prefer the company of law-abiding people, even though their ways be narrow. It was part of that sentiment, Peter, which led you to fall in love with a coal-merchant's daughter. I can see that you will end your days in the halo of respectability."
Peter Ruff was a little thoughtful. He scratched his chin and contemplated the tip of his faultless patent boot. Self-analysis interested him, and he recognized the truth of the girl's words.
"You know, I am rather like that," he admitted. "When I see a family party, I envy them. When I hear of a man who has brothers and sisters and aunts and cousins, and gives family dinner-parties to family friends, I envy him. I do not care about the loose ends of life. I do not care about restaurant life, and ladies who transfer their regards with the same facility that they change their toilettes. You have very admirable powers of observation, Violet. You see me, I believe, as I really am."
"That being so," she remarked, "what are you going to say to Sir Richard Dyson?"
Peter Ruff was frank.
"Upon my soul," he answered, "I don't know!"
"You'll have to make up your mind very soon," she reminded him. "He is coming here at twelve o'clock."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"I shall wait until I hear what he has to say," he remarked.
"His letter gave you a pretty clear hint," Violet said, "that it was something outside the law."
"The law has many outposts," Peter Ruff said. "One can thread one's way in and out, if one knows the ropes. I don't like the man, but he introduced me to his tailor. I have never had any clothes like those he has made me."
"You are a vain little person," she said.
"You are an impertinent young woman!" he answered. "Get back to your work. Don't you hear the lift stop?"
She rose reluctantly, and resumed her place in front of her desk.
"If it's risky," she whispered, leaning round towards him, "don't you take it on. I've heard one or two things about Sir Richard lately."
Peter Ruff nodded. He, too, quitted his easy-chair, and took up a bundle of papers which lay upon his desk. There was a sharp tap at the door.
"Come in!" he said.
Sir Richard Dyson entered. He was dressed quietly, but with the perfect taste which was obviously an instinct with him, and he wore a big bunch of violets in his buttonhole. Nevertheless, the spring sunshine seemed to find out the lines in his face. His eyes were baggy - he had aged even within the last few months.
"Well, Mr. Ruff," he said, shaking hands, "how goes it?"
"I am very well, Sir Richard," Peter Ruff answered. "Please take a chair."
Sir Richard took the easy-chair, and discovering a box of cigarettes upon the table, helped himself. Then his eyes fell upon Miss Brown.
"Can't do without your secretary?" he remarked.
"Impossible!" Peter Ruff answered. "As I told you before, I am her guarantee that what you say to me, or before her, is spoken as though to the dead."
Sir Richard nodded.
"Just as well," he remarked, "for I am going to talk about a man who I wish were dead!"
"There are few of us," Peter Ruff said, "who have not our enemies."
"Have you any experience of blackmailers?" Sir Richard asked.
"In my profession," Peter Ruff answered, "I have come across such persons."
"I have come to see you about one," Sir Richard proceeded. "Many years ago, there was a fellow in my regiment who went to the bad - never mind his name. He passes to-day as Ted Jones - that name will do as well as another. I am not," Sir Richard continued, "a good-natured man, but some devilish impulse prompted me to help that fellow. I gave him money three or four times. Somehow, I don't think it's a very good thing to give a man money. He doesn't value it - it comes too easily. He spends it and wants more."
"There's a good deal of truth in what you say, Sir Richard," Peter Ruff admitted.
"Our friend, for instance, wanted more," Sir Richard continued. "He came to me for it almost as a matter of course. I refused. He came again; I lost my temper and punched his head. Then his little game began."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"He had something to work upon, I suppose?" he remarked.
"Most certainly he had," Sir Richard admitted. "If ever I achieved sufficient distinction in any branch of life to make it necessary that my biography should be written, I promise you that you would find it in many places a little highly colored. In other words, Mr. Ruff, I have not always adhered to the paths of righteousness."
A faint smile flickered across Peter Ruff's face.
"Sir Richard," he said, " your candor is admirable."
"There was one time," Sir Richard continued, "when I was really on my last legs. It was just before I came into the baronetcy. I had borrowed every penny I could borrow. I was even hard put to it for a meal. I went to Paris, and I called myself by another man's name. I got introduced to a somewhat exclusive club there. My assumed name was a good one - it was the name, in fact, of a relative whom I somewhat resembled. I was accepted without question. I played cards, and I lost somewhere about eighteen thousand francs."
"A sum," Peter Ruff remarked, "which you probably found it inconvenient to pay."
"There was only one course," Sir Richard continued, "and I took it. I went back the next night and gave checks for the amount of my indebtedness - checks which had no more chance of being met than if I were to draw to-night upon the Bank of England for a million pounds. I went back, however, with another resolve. I was considered to have discharged my liabilities, and we played again. I rose a winner of something like sixty thousand francs. But I played to win, Mr. Ruff! Do you know what that means?"
"You cheated!" Peter Ruff said, in an undertone.
"Quite true," Sir Richard admitted. "I cheated! There was a scandal, and I disappeared. I had the money, and though my checks for the eighteen thousand francs were met, there was a considerable balance in my pocket when I escaped out of France. There was enough to take me out to America - big game shooting in the far West. No one ever associated me with the impostor who had robbed these young French noblemen - no one, that is to say, except the person who passes by the name of Teddy Jones."
"How did he get to know?" Peter Ruff asked.
"The story wouldn't interest you," Sir Richard answered. "He was in Paris at the time - we came across one another twice. He heard the scandal, and put two and two together. I shipped him off to Australia when I came into the title. He has come back. Lately, I can tell you, he has pretty well drained me dry. He has become a regular parasite a cold-blooded leech. He doesn't get drunk now. He looks after his health. I believe he even saves his, money. There's scarcely a week I don't hear from him. He keeps me a pauper. He has brought me at last to that state when I feel that there must be an ending!"
"You have come to seek my help," Peter Ruff said, slowly. "From what you say about this man, I presume that he is not to be frightened?"
"Not for a single moment," Sir Richard answered. "The law has no terrors for him. He is as slippery as an eel. He has his story pat. He even has his witnesses ready. I can assure you that Mr. Teddy Jones isn't by any means an ordinary sort of person."
"He is not to be bluffed," Peter Ruff said, slowly; "he is not to be bribed. What remains?"
"I have come here," Sir Richard said, "for your advice, Mr. Ruff."
"The blackmailer," Peter Ruff said, "is a criminal."
"He is a scoundrel!" Sir Richard assented.
"He is not fit to live," Peter Ruff repeated.
"He contaminates the world with every breath he draws!" Sir Richard assented.
"Perhaps," Peter Ruff said, "you had better give me his address, and the name he goes under."
"He lives at a boarding-house in Russell Street, Bloomsbury," Sir Richard said. "It is Mrs. Bognor's boarding-house. She calls it, I believe, the 'American Home from Home.' The number is 17."
"A boarding-house," Peter Ruff repeated, thoughtfully. "Makes it a little hard to get at him privately, doesn't it?"
"Fling him a bait and he will come to you," Sir Richard answered. "He is an adventurer pure and simple, though perhaps you wouldn't believe it to look at him now. He has grown fat on the money he has wrung from me."
"You had better leave the matter in my hands for a few days," Peter Ruff said. "I will have a talk with this gentleman and see whether he is really so unmanageable. If he is, there is, of course, only one way, and for that way, Sir Richard, you would have to pay a little high."
"If I were to hear to-morrow," Sir Richard said quietly, "that Teddy Jones was dead, I would give five thousand pounds to the man who brought me the information!"
Peter Ruff nodded.
"It would be worth that," he said - "quite! I will drop you a line in the course of the next few days."
Sir Richard took up his hat, lit another of Peter Ruff's cigarettes, and departed. They heard the rattle of the lift as it descended. Then Miss Brown turned round in her chair.
"Don't you do it, Peter!" she said solemnly. "The time has gone by for that sort of thing. The man may be unfit to live, but you don't need to risk as much as that for a matter of five thousand pounds."
Peter Ruff nodded.
"Quite right," he said; "quite right, Violet. At the same time, five thousand pounds is an excellent sum. We must see what can be done."
Peter Ruff's method of seeing what could be done was at first the very obvious one of seeking to discover any incidents in the past of the person known as Teddy Jones likely to reflect present discredit upon him if brought to light. From the first, it was quite clear that the career of this gentleman had been far from immaculate. His researches proved, beyond a doubt, that the gentleman in question had resorted, during the last ten or fifteen years, to many and very questionable methods of obtaining a living. At the same time, there was nothing which Peter Ruff felt that the man might not brazen out. His present mode of life seemed - on the surface, at any rate - to be beyond reproach. There was only one association which was distinctly questionable, and it was in this one direction, therefore, that Peter Ruff concentrated himself. The case, for some reason, interested him so much that he took a close and personal interest in it, and he was rewarded one day by discovering this enemy of Sir Richard's sitting, toward five o'clock in the afternoon, in a café in Regent Street, engrossed in conversation with a person whom Peter Ruff knew to be a very black sheep indeed - a man who had been tried for murder, and concerning whom there were still many unpleasant rumors. From behind his paper in a corner of the café, Peter Ruff watched these two men. Teddy Jones - or Major Edward Jones, as it seemed he was now called - was a person whose appearance no longer suggested the poverty against which he had been struggling most of his life. He was well dressed and tolerably well turned out. His face was a little puffy, and he had put on flesh during these days of his ease. His eyes, too, had a somewhat furtive expression, although his general deportment was one of braggadocio. Peter Ruff, quick always in his likes or dislikes, found the man repulsive from the start. He felt that he would have a genuine pleasure, apart from the matter of the five thousand pounds, in accelerating Major Jones's departure from a world which he certainly did not adorn.
The two men conducted their conversation in a subdued tone, which made it quite impossible for Peter Ruff, in his somewhat distant corner, to overhear a single word of it. It was obvious, however, that they were not on the best of terms. Major Jones's companion was protesting, and apparently without success, against some course of action or speech of his companion s. The conversation, on the other hand, never reached a quarrel, and the two men left the place together apparently on ordinary terms of friendliness. Peter Ruff at once quitted his seat and crossed the room toward the spot where they had been sitting. He dived under the table and picked up a newspaper - it was the only clue left to him as to the nature of their conversation. More than once, Major Jones who had, soon after their arrival, sent a waiter for it, had pointed to a certain paragraph as though to give weight to his statements. Peter Ruff had noticed the exact position of that paragraph. He smoothed out the paper and found it at once. It was an account of the murder of a wealthy old woman, living on the outskirts of a country village not far from London. Peter Ruff's face did not change as he called for another vermouth and read the description, slowly. Yet he was aware that he had possibly stumbled across the very thing for which he had searched so urgently! The particulars of the murder he already knew well, as at one time he had felt inclined to aid the police in their so far fruitless investigations. He therefore skipped the description of the tragedy, and devoted his attention to the last paragraph, toward which he fancied that the finger of Major Jones had been chiefly directed. It was a list of the stolen property, which consisted of jewelry, gold and notes to a very considerable amount. With the waiter's permission, he annexed the paper, cut out the list of articles with a sharp penknife, and placed it in his pocketbook before he left the café.
In the course of some of the smaller cases with which Peter Ruff had been from time to time connected, he had more than once come into contact with the authorities at Scotland Yard, and he had several acquaintances there - not including Mr. John Dory - to whom, at times, he had given valuable information. For the first time, he now sought some return for his many courtesies. He drove straight from the café to the office of the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Department. The questions he asked there were only two, but they were promptly and courteously answered. Peter Ruff left the building and drove back to his rooms in a somewhat congratulatory frame of mind. After all, it was chance which was the chief factor in the solution of so many of these cases! Often he had won less success after months of untiring effort than he had gained during that few minutes in the café in Regent Street.
Peter Ruff became an inmate of that very select boarding-house carried on by Mrs. Bognor at number 17 Russell Street, Bloomsbury. He arrived with a steamer trunk, an elaborate traveling-bag and a dressing-case; took the best vacant room in the house, and dressed for dinner. Mrs. Bognor looked upon him as a valuable addition to her clientele, and introduced him freely to her other guests. Among these was Major Edward Jones. Major Jones sat at Mrs. Bognor's right hand, and was evidently the show guest of the boarding-house. Peter Ruff, without the least desire to attack his position, sat upon her left and monopolized the conversation. On the third night it turned, by chance, upon precious stones. Peter Ruff drew a little chamois leather bag from his pocket.
"I am afraid," he said, "that my tastes are peculiar. I have been in the East, and I have seen very many precious stones in their uncut state. To my mind, there is nothing to be compared with opals. These are a few I brought home from India. Perhaps you would like to look at them, Mrs. Bognor."
They were passed round, amidst a little chorus of admiration.
"The large one with the blue fire," Peter Ruff remarked, "is, I think, remarkably beautiful. I have never seen a stone quite like it."
"It is wonderful!" murmured the young lady who was sitting at Major Jones's right hand. "What a fortunate man you are, Mr. Ruff, to have such a collection of treasures!"
Peter Ruff bowed across the table. Major Jones, who was beginning to feel that his position as show guest was in danger, thrust his hand into his waistcoat pocket and produced a lady's ring, in which was set a single opal.
"Very pretty stones," he remarked carelessly, "but I can't say I am very fond of them. Here's one that belonged to my sister, and my grandmother before her. I have it in my pocket because I was thinking of having the stone reset and making a present of it to a friend of mine."
Peter Ruff's popularity waned - he had said nothing about making a present to any one of even the most insignificant of his opals! And the one which Major Jones now handed round was certainly a magnificent stone. Peter Ruff examined it with the rest, and under the pretext of studying the setting, gazed steadfastly at the inside through his eyeglass. Major Jones, from the other side of the table, frowned, and held out his hand for the ring.
"A very beautiful stone indeed!" Peter Ruff declared, passing it across the tablecloth. "Really, I do not think that there is one in my little collection to be compared with it. Have you many treasures like this, Major Jones?"
"Oh, a few!" the Major answered carelessly, "family heirlooms, most of them."
"You will have to give me the ring, Major Jones," the young lady on his right remarked archly. "It's bad luck, you know, to give it to any one who is not born in October, and my birthday is on the twelfth."
"My dear Miss Levey," Major Jones answered, whispering in her ear, "more unlikely things have happened than that I should beg your acceptance of this little trifle."
"Sooner or later," Peter Ruff said genially, "I should like to have a little conversation with you, Major. I fancy that we ought to be able to find plenty of subjects of common interest."
"Delighted, I'm sure!" the latter answered, utterly unsuspicious. "Shall we go into the smoking-room now, or would you rather play a rubber first?"
"If it is all the same to you," Peter Ruff said, "I think we will have a cigar first. There will be plenty of time for bridge afterwards."
"May I offer you a cigar, sir?" Major Jones inquired, passing across a well-filled case.
Peter Ruff sighed.
"I am afraid, Major," he said, "that there is scarcely time. You see, I have a warrant in my pocket for your arrest, and I am afraid that by the time we got to the station - "
Major Jones leaned forward in his chair. He gripped the sides tightly with both hands. His eyes seemed to be protruding from his head.
"For my what?" he exclaimed, in a tone of horror.
"For your arrest," Peter Ruff explained calmly. "Surely you must have been expecting it! During all these years you must have grown used to expecting it at every moment!"
Major Jones collapsed. He looked at Ruff as one might look at a man who has taken leave of his senses. Yet underneath it all was the coward's fear!
"What are you talking about, man?" he exclaimed. "What do you mean? Lower your voice, for heaven's sake! Consider my position here! Some one might overhear! If this is a joke, let me tell you that it's a d-d foolish one!"
Peter Ruff raised his eyebrows.
"I do not wish," he said, "to create a disturbance - my manner of coming here should have assured you of that. At the same time, business is business. I hold a warrant for your arrest, and I am forced to execute it."
"Do you mean that you are a detective, then?" Major Jones demanded.
He was a big man, but his voice seemed to have grown very small indeed.
"Naturally," Peter Ruff answered. "I should not come here without authority."
"What is the charge?" the other man faltered.
"Blackmail," Peter Ruff said slowly. "The information against you is lodged by Sir Richard Dyson."
It seemed to Peter Ruff, who was watching his companion closely, that a wave of relief passed over the face of the man who sat cowering in his chair. He certainly drew a little gasp - stretched out his hands, as though to thrust the shadow of some fear from him. His voice, when he spoke, was stronger. Some faint show of courage was returning to him.
"There is some ridiculous mistake," he declared. "Let us talk this over like sensible men, Mr. Ruff. If you will wait until I have spoken to Sir Richard, I can promise you that the warrant shall be withdrawn, and that you shall not be the loser."
"I am afraid it is too late for anything of that sort," Peter Ruff said. "Sir Richard's patience has been completely exhausted by your repeated demands."
"He never told me so," Major Jones whined. "I quite thought that he was always glad to help an old friend. As a matter of fact, I had not meant to ask him for anything else. The last few hundreds I had from him was to have closed the thing up. It was the end."
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"No," he said, "it was not the end! It never would have been the end! Sir Richard sought my advice, and I gave it him without hesitation. Sooner or later, I told him, he would have to adopt different measures. I convinced him. I represent those measures!"
"But the matter can be arranged," Major Jones insisted, with a little shudder, "I am perfectly certain it can be arranged. Mr. Ruff, you are not an ordinary police officer - I am sure of that. Give me a chance of having an interview with Sir Richard before anything more is done. I will satisfy him, I promise you that. Why, if we leave the place together like this, every one here will get to know about it!"
"Be reasonable," Peter Ruff answered. "Of course everyone will get to know about it! Blackmailing cases always excite a considerable amount of interest. Your photograph will probably be in the Daily Mirror tomorrow or the next day. In the meantime, I must trouble you to pay your respects to Mrs. Bognor and to come with me."
"To Sir Richard's house?" Major Jones asked, eagerly.
"To the police-stations" Peter Ruff answered.
Major Jones did not rise. He sat for a few moments with his head buried in his hands.
"Mr. Ruff," he said hoarsely, "listen to me. I have been fortunate lately in some investments. I am not so poor as I was. I have my check-book in my pocket, and a larger balance in the bank now than I have ever had before. If I write you a check for, say, a hundred - no, two! - five!" he cried, desperately, watching Peter Ruff's unchanging face - " five hundred pounds, will you come round with me to Sir Richard's house in a hansom at once?"
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"Five thousand pounds would not buy your liberty from me, Major Jones," he said.
The man became abject.
"Have pity, then," he pleaded. "My health is not good - I couldn't stand imprisonment. Think of what it means to a man of my age suddenly to leave everything worth having in life just because he may have imposed a little on the generosity of a friend! Think how you would feel, and be merciful!"
Peter Ruff shook his head slowly. His face was immovable, but there was a look in his eyes. from which the other man shrank.
"Major Jones," he said, "you ask me be merciful. You appeal to my pity. For such as you I have no pity, nor have I ever shown any mercy. You know very well, and I know, that when once the hand of the law touches your shoulder, it will not be only a charge of blackmail which the police will bring against you!"
"There is nothing else - nothing else!" he cried. "Take half my fortune, Mr. Ruff. Let me get away. Give me a chance - just a sporting chance!"
"I wonder," Peter Ruff said, "what chance that poor old lady in Weston had? No, I am not saying you murdered her. You never had the pluck. Your confederate did that, and you handled the booty. What were the initials inside that ring you showed us to-night, Major Jones?"
"Let me go to my bedroom," he said, in a strange, far-away tone. "You can come with me and stand outside."
Peter Ruff assented.
"To save scandal," he said, "yes!"
Three flights of stairs they climbed. When at last they reached the door, the trembling man made one last appeal.
"Mr. Ruff," he said, "have a little mercy. Give me an hour's start - just a chance for my life!"
Peter Ruff pushed him in the door.
"I am not a hard man," he said, "but I keep my mercy for men!"
He took the key from the inside of the door, locked it, and with the key in his pocket descended to the drawing-room. The young lady who had sat on Major Jones's right was singing a ballad. Suddenly she paused in the middle of her song. The four people who were playing bridge looked up. Mrs. Bognor screamed.
"What was that?" she asked quickly.
"It sounded," Peter Ruff said, "very much like revolver shot."
"I see," Sir Richard remarked, with a queer look in his eyes, as he handed over a roll of notes to Peter Ruff, "the jury brought it in 'Suicide'! What I can't understand is - "
"Don't try," Peter Ruff interrupted briskly. "It isn't in the bond that you should understand."
Sir Richard helped himself to a drink. A great burden had passed from his shoulders, but he was not feeling at his best that morning. He could scarcely keep his eyes from Peter Ruff.
"Ruff," he said, "I have known you some time, and I have known you to be a square man. I have known you to do good-natured actions. I came to you in desperation but I scarcely expected this!"
Peter Ruff emptied his own tumbler and took up his hat.
"Sir Richard," he said, "you are like a good many other people. Now that the thing is done, you shrink from the thought of it. You even wonder how I could have planned to bring about the death of this man. Listen, Sir Richard. Pity for the deserving, or for those who have in them one single quality, one single grain, of good, is a sentiment which deserves respect. Pity for vermin, who crawl about the world leaving a poisonous trail upon everything they touch, is a false and unnatural sentiment. For every hopelessly corrupt man who is induced to quit this life there is a more deserving one, somewhere or other, for whom the world is a better place."
"So that, after all, you are a philanthropist, Mr. Ruff," Sir Richard said, with a forced smile.
Peter Ruff shook his head.
"A philosopher," he answered, buttoning up his notes.