The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
XI. Some of the Lesser Breed
Danglar's wife! It had been a night of horror; a night without sleep; a night, after the guttering candle had gone out, when the blackness of the garret possessed added terrors created by an imagination which ran riot, and which she could not control. She could have fled from it, screaming in panic-stricken hysteria - but there had been no other place as safe as that was. Safe! The word seemed to reach the uttermost depths of irony. Safe! Well, it was true, wasn't it?
She had not wanted to return there; her soul itself had revolted against it; but she had dared to do nothing else. And all through that night, huddled on the edge of the cot bed, her fingers clinging tenaciously to her revolver as though afraid for even an instant to relinquish it from her grasp, listening, listening, always listening for a footstep that might come up from that dark hall below, the footstep that would climax all the terrors that had surged upon her, her mind had kept on reiterating, always reiterating those words of the Adventurer - "Gypsy Nan is Danglar's wife."
And they were still with her, those words. Daylight had come again, and passed again, and it was evening once more; but those words remained, insensible to change, immutable in their foreboding. And Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, shuddered now as she scuffled along a shabby street deep in the heart of the East Side. She was Danglar's wife - by proxy. At dawn that morning when the gray had come creeping into the miserable attic through the small and dirty window panes, she had fallen on her knees and thanked God she had been spared that footstep. It was strange! She had poured out her soul in passionate thankfulness then that Danglar had not come - and now she was deliberately on her way to seek Danglar himself! But the daylight had done more than disperse the actual, physical darkness of the past night; it had brought, if not a measure of relief, at least a sense of guidance, and the final decision, perilous though it was, which she meant now to put into execution.
There was no other way - unless she were willing to admit defeat, to give up everything, her own good name, her father's name, to run from it all and live henceforth in hiding in some obscure place far away, branded in the life she would have left behind her as a despicable criminal and thief. And she could not, would not, do this while her intuition, at least, inspired her with the faith to believe that there was still a chance of clearing herself. It was the throw of the dice, perhaps - but there was no other way. Danglar, and those with him, were at the bottom of the crime of which she was held guilty. She could not go on as she had been doing, merely in the hope of stumbling upon some clew that would serve to exonerate her. There was not time enough for that. Danglar's trap set for herself and the Adventurer last night in old Nicky Viner's room proved that. And the fact that the woman who had originally masqueraded as Gypsy Nan - as she, Rhoda Gray, was masquerading now - was Danglar's wife, proved it a thousandfold more. She could no longer remain passive, arguing with herself that it took all her wits and all her efforts to maintain herself in the role of Gypsy Nan, which temporarily was all that stood between her and prison bars. To do so meant the certainty of disaster sooner or later, and if it meant that, the need for immediate action of an offensive sort was imperative.
And so her mind was made up. Her only chance was to find her way into the full intimacy of the criminal band of which Danglar was apparently the head; to search out its lair and its personnel; to reach to the heart of it; to know Danglar's private movements, and to discover where he lived so that she might watch him. It surely was not such a hopeless task! True, she knew by name and sight scarcely more than three of this crime clique, but at least she had a starting point from which to work. There was Shluker's junk shop where she had turned the tables on Danglar and Skeeny on the night they had planned to make the Sparrow their pawn. It was obvious, therefore, that Shluker himself, the proprietor of the junk shop, was one of the organization. She was going to Shluker's now.
Rhoda Gray halted suddenly, and stared wonderingly a little way up the block ahead of her. As though by magic a crowd was collecting around the doorway of a poverty-stricken, tumble-down frame house that made the corner of an alleyway. And where but an instant before the street's jostling humanity had been immersed in its wrangling with the push-cart men who lined the curb, the carts were now deserted by every one save their owners, whose caution exceeded their curiosity - and the crowd grew momentarily larger in front of the house.
She drew Gypsy Nan's black, greasy shawl a little more closely around her shoulders, and moved forward again. And now, on the outskirts of the crowd, she could see quite plainly. There were two or three low steps that led up to the doorway, and a man and woman were standing there. The woman was wretchedly dressed, but with most strange incongruity she held in her hand, obviously subconsciously, obviously quite oblivious of it, a huge basket full to overflowing with, as nearly as Rhoda Gray could judge, all sorts of purchases, as though out of the midst of abject poverty a golden shower had suddenly descended upon her. And she was gray, and well beyond middle age, and crying bitterly; and her free hand, whether to support herself or with the instinctive idea of supporting her companion, was clutched tightly around the man's shoulders. And the man rocked unsteadily upon his feet. He was tall and angular, and older than the woman, and cadaverous of feature, and miserably thin of shoulder, and blood trickled over his forehead and down one ashen, hollow cheek - and above the excited exclamations of the crowd Rhoda Gray heard him cough.
Rhoda Gray glanced around her. Where scarcely a second before she had been on the outer fringe of the crowd, she now appeared to be in the very center of it. Women were pushing up behind her, women who wore shawls as she did, only the shawls were mostly of gaudy colors; and men pushed up behind her, mostly men of swarthy countenance, who wore circlets of gold in their ears; and, brushing her skirts, seeking vantage points, ragged, ill-clad children wriggled and wormed their way deeper into the press. It was a crowd composed almost entirely of the foreign element which inhabited that quarter - and the crowd chattered and gesticulated with ever-increasing violence. She did not understand. And she could not see so well now. That pitiful tableau in the doorway was being shut out from her by a man, directly in front of her, who had hoisted a half-naked tot of three or four to a reserved seat upon his head.
And then a young man, one whom, from her years in the Bad Lands as the White Moll, she recognized as a hanger-on at a gambling hell in the Chatham Square district, came toward her, plowing his way, contemptuous of obstructions, out of the crowd.
Rhoda Gray, as Gypsy Nan, hailed him out of the corner of her mouth.
"Say, wot's de row?" she demanded.
The young man grinned.
"Somebody pinched a million from de old guy!" He shifted his cigarette with a deft movement of his tongue from one side of his mouth to the other, and grinned again. "Can youse beat it! Accordin' to him, he had enough coin to annex de whole of Noo Yoik! De moll's his wife. He went out to hell-an'-gone somewhere for a few years huntin' gold while de old girl starved. Den back he comes an' blows in to-day wid his pockets full, an' de old girl grabs a handful, an' goes out to buy up all de grub in sight 'cause she ain't had none for so long. An' w'en she comes back she finds de old geezer gagged an' tied in a chair, an' some guy's hit him a crack on de bean an' flown de coop wid de mazuma. But youse had better get out of here before youse gets run over! Dis ain't no place for an old skirt like youse. De bulls'11 be down here on de hop in a minute, an' w'en dis mob starts sprinklin' de street wid deir fleetin' footsteps, youse are likely to get hurt. See?" The young man started to force his way through the crowd again. "Youse had better cut loose, mother!" he warned over his shoulder.
It was good advice. Rhoda Gray took it. She had scarcely reached the next block when the crowd behind her was being scattered pell-mell and without ceremony in all directions by the police, as the young man had predicted. She went on. There was nothing that she could do. The man's face and the woman's face haunted her. They had seemed stamped with such abject misery and despair. But there was nothing that she could do. It was one of those sore and grievous cross-sections out of the lives of the swarming thousands down here in this quarter which she knew so intimately and so well. And there were so many, many of those cross-sections! Once, in a small, pitifully meager and restricted way, she had been able to help some of these hurt lives, but now - Her lips tightened a little. She was going to Shluker's junk shop.
Her forehead gathered in little furrows as she walked along. She had weighed the pros and cons of this visit a hundred times already during the day; but even so, instinctively to reassure herself lest some apparently minor, but nevertheless fatally vital, point might have been overlooked, her mind reverted to it again. From Shluker's viewpoint, whether Gypsy Nan was in the habit of mingling with or visiting the other members of the gang or not - a matter upon which she could not even hazard a guess - her visit to-night must appear entirely logical. There was last night - and, a natural corollary, her equally natural anxiety on her supposed husband's account, providing, of course, that Shluker was aware that Gypsy Nan was Danglar's wife. But even if Shluker did not know that, he knew at least that Gypsy Nan was one of the gang, and, as such, he must equally accept it as natural that she should be anxious and disturbed over what had happened. She would be on safe ground either way. She would pretend to know only what had appeared in the papers; in other words, that the police, attracted to the spot by the sound of revolver shots, had found Danglar handcuffed to the fire escape of a well-known thieves' resort in an all too well-known and questionable locality.
A smile came spontaneously. It was quite true. That was where the Adventurer had left Danglar - handcuffed to the fire escape! The smile vanished. The humor of the situation was not long-lived; it ended there. Danglar was as cunning as the proverbial fox; and Danglar, at that moment, in desperate need of explaining his predicament in some plausible way to the police, had, as the expression went, run true to form. Danglar's story, as reported by the papers, even rose above his own high-water mark of vicious cunning, because it played upon a chord that appealed instantly to the police; and it rang true, not only because what the police could find out about him made it likely, but also because it contained a modicum of truth in itself; and, furthermore, Danglar had scored on still another count in that his story must stimulate the police into renewed activities as his unsuspecting allies in the one thing, the one aim and object that, at that moment, must obsess him above all others - the discovery of herself, the White Moll.
It was ingeniously simple, Danglar's smooth and oily lie! He had been walking along the street, he had stated, when he saw a woman, as she passed under a street lamp, who he thought resembled the White Moll. To make sure, he followed her - at a safe distance, as he believed. She entered the tenement. He hesitated. He knew the reputation of the place, which bore out his first impression that the woman was the one he thought she was; but he did not want to make a fool of himself by calling in the police until he was positive of her identity, so he finally followed her inside, and heard her go upstairs, and crept up after her in the dark. And then, suddenly, he was set upon and hustled into a room. It was the White Moll, all right; and the shots came from her companion, a man whom he described minutely - the description being that of the Adventurer, of course. They seemed to think that he, Danglar, was a plain-clothes man, and tried to sicken him of his job by frightening him. And then they forced him through the window and down the fire escape, and fastened him there with handcuffs to mock the police, and the White Moll's companion had deliberately fired some more shots to make sure of bringing the police to the scene, and then the two of them had run for it.
Rhoda Gray's eyes darkened angrily. The newspapers said that Danglar had been temporarily held by the police, though his story was believed to be true, for certainly the man would make no mistake as to the identity of the White Moll, since his life, what the police could find out about it, coincided with his own statements, and he would naturally therefore have seen her many times in the Bad Lands when she was working there under cover of her despicable role of sweet and innocent charity. Danglar had made no pretensions to self-righteousness - he was too cute for that. He admitted that he had no "specific occupation," that he hung around the gambling hells a good deal, that he followed the horses - that, frankly, he lived by his wits. He had probably given some framed-up address to the police, but, if so, the papers had not stated where it was. Rhoda Gray's face, under the grime of Gypsy Nan's disguise, grew troubled and perplexed. Neither had the papers, even the evening papers, stated whether Danglar had as yet been released - they had devoted the rest of their space to the vilification of the White Moll. They had demanded in no uncertain tones a more conclusive effort on the part of the authorities to bring her, and with her now the man in the case, as they called the Adventurer, to justice, and...
The thought of the Adventurer caused her mind to swerve sharply off at a tangent. Where he had piqued and aroused her curiosity before, he now, since last night, seemed more complex a character than ever. It was strange, most strange, the way their lives, his and hers, had become interwoven! She had owed him much; but last night she had repaid him and squared accounts. She had told him so. She owed him nothing more. If a sense of gratitude had once caused her to look upon him with - with - She bit her lips. What was the use of that? Had it become so much a part of her life, so much a habit, this throwing of dust in the eyes of others, this constant passing of herself off for some one else, this constant deception, warranted though it might be, that she must now seek to deceive herself! Why not frankly admit to her own soul, already in the secret, that she cared in spite of herself - for a thief? Why not admit that a great hurt had come, one that no one but herself would ever know, a hurt that would last for always because it was a wound that could never be healed?
A thief! She loved a thief. She had fought a bitter, stubborn battle with her common sense to convince herself that he was not a thief. She had snatched hungrily at the incident that centered around those handcuffs, so opportunely produced from the Adventurer's pocket. She had tried to argue that those handcuffs not only suggested, but proved, he was a police officer in disguise, working on some case in which Danglar and the gang had been mixed up; and, as she tried to argue in this wise, she tried to shut her eyes to the fact that the same pocket out of which the handcuffs came was at exactly the same moment the repository of as many stolen banknotes as it would hold. She had tried to argue that the fact that he was so insistently at work to defeat Danglar's plans was in his favor; but that argument, like all others, came quickly and miserably to grief. Where the "leak" was, as Danglar called it, that supplied the Adventurer with foreknowledge of the gang's movements, she had no idea, save that perhaps the Adventurer and some traitor in the gang were in collusion for their own ends - and that certainly did not lift the Adventurer to any higher plane, or wash from him the stigma of thief.
She clenched her hands. It was all an attempt at argument without the basis of a single logical premise. It was silly and childish! Why hadn't the man been an ordinary, plain, common thief and criminal - and looked like one? She would never have been attracted to him then even through gratitude! Why should he have all the graces and ear-marks of breeding? Why should he have all the appearances of gentleman? It seemed a needlessly cruel and additional blow that fate had dealt her, when already she was living through days and nights of fear, of horror, of trepidation, so great that at times it seemed she would literally lose her reason. If he had not looked, yes, and at times, acted, so much like a thorough-bred gentleman, there would never have come to her this hurt, this gulf between them that could not now be spanned, and in a personal way she would never have cared because he was - a thief.
Her mental soliloquy ended abruptly. She had reached the narrow driveway that led in, between the two blocks of down-at-the-heels tenements, to the courtyard at the rear that harbored Shluker's junk shop. And now, unlike that other night when she had first paid a visit to the place, she made no effort at concealment as she entered the driveway. She walked quickly, and as she emerged into the courtyard itself she saw a light in the window of the junk shop.
Rhoda Gray nodded her head. It was still quite early, still almost twilight - not more than eight o'clock. Back there, on that squalid doorstep where the old woman and the old man had stood, it had still been quite light. The long summer evening had served at least to sear, somehow, those two faces upon her mind. It was singular that they should intrude themselves at this moment! She had been thinking, hadn't she, that at this hour she might naturally expect to find Shluker still in his shop? That was why she had come so early - since she had not cared to come in full daylight. Well, if that light meant anything, he was there.
She felt her pulse quicken perceptibly as she crossed the courtyard, and reached the shop. The door was open, and she stepped inside. It was a dingy place, filthy, and littered, without the slightest attempt at order, with a heterogeneous collection of, it seemed, every article one could think of, from scraps of old iron and bundles of rags to cast-off furniture that was in an appalling state of dissolution. The light, that of a single and dim incandescent, came from the interior of what was apparently the "office" of the establishment, a small, glassed-in partition affair, at the far end of the shop.
Her first impression had been that there was no one in the shop, but now, from the other side of the glass partition, she caught sight of a bald head, and became aware that a pair of black eyes were fixed steadily upon her, and that the occupant was beckoning to her with his hand to come forward.
She scuffled slowly, but without hesitation, up the shop. She intended to employ the vernacular that was part of the disguise of Gypsy Nan. If Shluker, for that was certainly Shluker there, gave the slightest indication that he took it amiss, her explanation would come glibly and logically enough - she had to be careful; how was she supposed to know whether there was any one else about, or not!
"'Ello!" she said curtly, as she reached the doorway of the little office, and paused on the threshold. Shifty little black eyes met hers, as the bald head fringed with untrimmed gray hair, was lifted from a battered desk, and the wizened face of an old man was disclosed under the rays of the tin-shaded lamp. He grinned suddenly, showing discolored teeth - and instinctively she drew back a little. He was an uninviting and exceedingly disreputable old creature.
"You, eh, Nan!" he grunted. "So you've come to see old Jake Shluker, have you? 'Tain't often you come! And what's brought you, eh?"
"I can read, can't I?" Rhoda Gray glanced furtively around her, then leaned toward the other. "Say, wot's de lay? I been scared stiff all day. Is dat straight wot de papers said about youse-know-who gettin' pinched?"
A scowl settled over Shluker's features as he nodded.
"Yes; it's straight enough," he answered. "Damn 'em, one and all! But they let him out again."
"Dat's de stuff!" applauded Rhoda Gray earnestly. "Where is he, den?"
Shluker shook his head.
"He didn't say," said Shluker.
"He didn't say?" echoed Rhoda Gray, a little tartly. "Wot d'youse mean, he didn't say? Have youse seen him?"
Shluker jerked his hand toward the telephone instrument on the desk.
"He was talkin' to me a little while ago."
"Well, den" - Rhoda Gray risked a more peremptory tone - "where is he?"
Shluker shook his head again.
"I dunno," he said. "I'm tellin' you, he didn't say."
Rhoda Gray studied the wizened and repulsive old creature, that, huddled in his chair in the dirty, boxed-in little office, made her think of some crafty old spider lurking in its web for unwary prey. Was the man lying to her? Was he in any degree suspicious? Why should he be? He had given not the slightest sign that her uncouth language was either unexpected or unnecessary. Perhaps to Shluker, and perhaps to all the rest of the gang - except Danglar! - Gypsy Nan was accepted at face value as just Gypsy Nan; and, if that were so, the idea of playing up a natural wifely anxiety on Danglar's behalf could not be used unless Shluker gave her a lead in that direction. But, all that apart, she was getting nowhere. She bit her lips in disappointment. She had counted a great deal on this Shluker here, and Shluker was not proving the fount of information, far from it, that she had hoped he would.
She tried again-even more peremptorily than before.
"Aw, open up!" she snapped. "Wot's de use bein' a clam! Youse heard me, didn't youse? Where is he?"
Shluker leaned abruptly forward, and looked at her in a suddenly perturbed way.
"is there anything wrong?" he asked in a tense, lowered voice. "What makes you so anxious to know?"
Rhoda Gray laughed shortly.
"Nothin'!" she answered coolly. "I told youse once, didn't I? I got a scare readin' dem papers - an' I ain't over it yet. Dat's wot I want to know for, an' youse seem afraid to open up!"
Shluker sank back again in his chair with an air of relief.
"Oh!" he ejaculated. "Well, that's all right, then. You were beginning to give me a scare, too. I ain't playin' the clam, and I dunno where he is; but I can tell you there's nothing to worry you any more about the rest of it. He was after the White Moll last night, and it didn't come off. They pulled one on him instead, and fastened him to the fire escape the way the papers said. Skeeny and the Cricket, who were in on the play with him, didn't have time to get him loose before the bulls got there. So Danglar told them to beat it, and he handed the cops the story that was in the papers. He got away with it, all right, and they let go him to-day; but he phoned a little while ago that they were still stickin' around kind of close to him, and that I was to pass the word that the lid was to go down tight for the next few days, and -"
Shluker stopped abruptly as the telephone rang, and reached for the instrument.
Rhoda Gray fumbled unnecessarily with her shawl, as the other answered the call. Failure! A curious bitterness came to her. Her plan then, for to-night it least, was a failure. Shluker did not know where Danglar was. She was quite convinced of that. Shluker was - She glanced suddenly at the wizened little old man. From an ordinary tone, Shluker' s voice had risen sharply in protest about something. She listened now:
No, no; it does not matter what it is!
What?...No! I tell you, no! Nothing! Not to-night! Those are the orders....No, I don't know! Nan is here now....Eh?....You'll pay for it if you do!" Shluker was snarling threateningly now. "What?....Well, then, wait! I'll come over....No, you can bet I won't be long! You wait! Understand?"
He banged the receiver on the hook, and got up from his chair hurriedly.
"Fools!" he muttered savagely. "No, I won't be long gettin' there!" He grabbed Rhoda Gray's arm. "Yes, and you come, too! You will help me put a little sense into their heads, if it is possible - eh? The fools!"
The man was violently excited. He half pulled Rhoda Gray down the length of the shop to the front door. Puzzled, bewildered, a little uneasy, she watched him lock the door, and then followed him across the courtyard, while he continued to mutter constantly to himself.
"Wot's de matter?" she asked him twice.
But it was not until they had reached the street, and Shluker was hurrying along as fast as he could walk, that he answered her.
"It's the Pug and Pinkie Bonn!" he jerked out angrily. "They're in the Pug's room. Pinkie went back there after telephonin'. They've nosed out something they want to put through. The fools! And after last night nearly havin' finished everything! I told 'em - you heard me - that everybody's to keep under cover now. But they think they've got a soft thing, and they say they're goin' to it. I've got to put a crimp in it, and you've got to help me. Y'understand, Nan?"
"Yes," she said mechanically.
Her mind was working swiftly. The night, after all, perhaps, was not to be so much of a failure! To get into intimate touch with all the members of the clique was equally one of her objects, and, failing Danglar himself to-night, here was an "open sesame" to the re-treat of two of the others. She would never have a better chance, or one in which risk and danger, under the chaperonage, as it were, of Shluker here, were, if not entirely eliminated, at least reduced to an apparently negligible minimum. Yes; she would go. To refuse was to turn her back on her own proposed line of action, and on the decision which she had made herself.