The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
XIV. The Lame Man
Another night - another day! And the night again had been without rest, lest Danglar's dreaded footstep come upon her unawares; and the day again had been one of restless, abortive activity, now prowling the streets as Gypsy Nan, now returning to the garret to fling herself upon the cot in the hope that in daylight, when she might risk it, sleep would come, but it had been without avail, for, in spite of physical weariness, it seemed to Rhoda Gray as though her tortured mind would never let her sleep again. Danglar's wife! That was the horror that was in her brain, yes, and in her soul, and that would not leave her.
And now night was coming upon her once more. It had even begun to grow dark here on the lower stairway that led up to that wretched, haunted garret above where in the shadows stark terror lurked. Strange! Most strange! She feared the night - and yet she welcomed it. In a little while, when it grew a little darker, she would steal out again and take up her work once more. It was only during the night, under the veil of darkness, that she could hope to make any progress in reaching to the heart and core of this criminal clique which surrounded her, whose members accepted her as Gypsy Nan, and, therefore, as one of themselves, and who would accord to her, if they but even suspected her to be the White Mall, less mercy than would be shown to a mad dog.
She climbed the stairs. Fear was upon her now, because fear was always there, and with it was abhorrence and loathing at the frightful existence fate had thrust upon her; but, somehow, to-night she was not so depressed, not so hopeless, as she had been the night before. There had been a little success; she had come a little farther along the way; she knew a little more than she had known before of the inner workings of the gang who were at the bottom of the crime of which she herself was accused. She knew now the Adventurer's secret, that the Pug and the Adventurer were one; and she knew where the Adventurer lived, now in one character, now in the other, in those two rooms almost opposite each other across that tenement hall.
And so it seemed that she had the right to hope, even though there were still so many things she did not know, that if she allowed her mind to dwell upon that phase of it, it staggered her - where those code messages came from, and how; why Rough Rorke of headquarters had never made a sign since that first night; why the original Gypsy Nan, who was dead now, had been forced into hiding with the death penalty of the law hanging over her; why Danglar, though Gypsy Nan's husband, was comparatively free. These, and a myriad other things! But she counted now upon her knowledge of the Adventurer's secret to force from him everything he knew; and, with that to work on, a confession from some of the gang in corroboration that would prove the authorship of the crime of which she had seemingly been caught in the act of committing.
Yes, she was beginning to see the way at last - through the Adventurer. It seemed a sure and certain way. If she presented herself before him as Gypsy Nan, whom he believed to be not only one of the gang, but actually Danglar's wife, and let him know that she was aware of the dual role he was playing, and that the information he thus acquired as the Pug he turned to his own account and to the undoing of the gang, he must of necessity be at her mercy. Her mercy! What exquisite irony! Her mercy! The man her heart loved; the thief her common sense abhorred! What irony! When she, too, played a double role; when in their other characters, that of the Adventurer and the White Moll, he and she were linked together by the gang as confederates, whereas, in truth, they were wider apart than the poles of the earth!
Her mercy! How merciful would she be - to the thief she loved? He knew, he must know, all the inner secrets of the gang. She smiled wanly now as she reached the landing. Would he know that in the last analysis her threat would be only an idle one; that, though her future, her safety, her life depended on obtaining the evidence she felt he could supply, her threat would be empty, and that she was powerless - because she loved him. But he did not know she loved him - she was Gypsy Nan. If she kept her secret, if he did not penetrate her disguise as she had penetrated his, if she were Gypsy Nan and Danglar's wife to him, her threat would be valid enough, and - and he would be at her mercy!
A flush, half shamed, half angry, dyed the grime that was part of Gypsy Nan's disguise upon her face. What was she saying to herself? What was she thinking? That he did not know she loved him! How would he? How could he? Had a word, an act, a single look of hers ever given him a hint that, when she had been with him as the White Moll, she cared! It was unjust, unfair, to fling such a taunt at herself. It seemed as though she had lost nearly everything in life, but she had not yet lost her womanliness and her pride.
She had certainly lost her senses, though! Even if that word, that look, that act had passed between them, between the Adventurer and the White Moll, he still did not know that Gypsy Nan was the White Moll - and that was the one thing now that he must not know, and...
Rhoda Gray halted suddenly, and stared along the hallway ahead of her, and up the short, ladder-like steps that led to the garret. Her ears - or was it fancy? - had caught what sounded like a low knocking up there upon her door. Yes, it came again now distinctly. It was dusk outside; in here, in the hall, it was almost dark. Her eyes strained through the murk. She was not mistaken. Something darker than the surrounding darkness, a form, moved up there.
The knocking ceased, and now the form seemed to bend down and grope along the floor; and then, an instant later, it began to descend the ladder-like steps - and abruptly Rhoda Gray, too, moved forward. It wasn't Danglar. That was what had instantly taken hold of her mind, and she knew a sudden relief now. The man on the stairs - she could see that it was a man now - though he moved silently, swayed in a grotesquely jerky way as though he were lame. It wasn't Danglar! She would go to any length to track Danglar to his lair; but not here - here in the darkness - here in the garret. Here she was afraid of him with a deadly fear; here alone with him there would be a thousand chances of exposure incident to the slightest intimacy he might show the woman whom he believed to be his wife - a thousand chances here against hardly one in any other environment or situation. But the man on the stairs wasn't Danglar.
She halted now and uttered a sharp exclamation, as though she had caught sight of the man for the first time.
The other, too, had halted - at the foot of the stairs. A plaintive drawl reached her:
"Don't screech, Bertha! It's only your devoted brother-in-law. Curse your infernal ladder, and my twisted back!"
Danglar's brother! Bertha! She snatched instantly at the cue with an inward gasp of thankfulness. She would not make the mistake of using the vernacular behind which Gypsy Nan sheltered herself. Here was some one who knew that Gypsy Nan was but a role. But she had to remember that her voice was slightly hoarse; that her voice, at least, could not sacrifice its disguise to any one. Danglar had been a little suspicious of it until she had explained that she was suffering from a cold.
"Oh!" she said calmly. "It's you, is it? And what brought you here?"
"What do you suppose?" he complained irritably. "The same old thing, all I'm good for - to write out code messages and deliver them like an errand boy! It's a sweet job, isn't it? How'd you like to be a deformed little cripple?"
She did not answer at once. The night seemed suddenly to be opening some strange, even premonitory, vista. The code messages! Their mode of delivery! Here was the answer!
"Maybe I'd like it better than being Gypsy Nan!" she flung back significantly.
He laughed out sharply.
"I'd like to trade with you," he said, a quick note of genuine envy in his voice. "You can pitch away your clothes; I can't pitch away a crooked spine. And, anyway, after to-night, you'll be living swell again.
She leaned toward him, staring at him in the semi-darkness. That premonitory vista was widening; his words seemed suddenly to set her brain in tumult. After to-night! She was to resume, after to-night, the character that was supposed to lay behind the disguise of Gypsy Nan! She was to resume her supposedly true character - that of Pierre Danglar's wife!
"What do you mean?" she demanded tensely.
"Aw, come on!" he said abruptly. "This isn't the place to talk. Pierre wants you at once. That's what the message was for. I thought you were out, and I left it in the usual place so you'd get it the minute you got back and come along over. So, come on now with me."
He was moving down the hallway, blotching like some misshapen toad in the shadowy light, lurching in his walk, that was, nevertheless, almost uncannily noiseless. Mechanically she followed him. She was trying to think; striving frantically to bring her wits to play on this sudden and unexpected denouement. It was obvious that he was taking her to Danglar. She had striven desperately last night to run Danglar to earth in his lair. And here was a self-appointed guide! And yet her emotions conflicted and her brain was confused. It was what she wanted, what through bitter travail of mind she had decided must be her course; but she found herself shrinking from it with dread and fear now that it promised to become a reality. It was not like last night when of her own initiative she had sought to track Danglar, for then she had started out with a certain freedom of action that held in reserve a freedom to retreat if it became necessary. To-night it was as though she were deprived of that freedom, and being led into what only too easily might develop into a trap from which she could not retreat or escape.
Suppose she refused to go?
They had reached the street now, and now she obtained a better view of the misshapen thing that lurched jerkily along beside her. The man was deformed, miserably deformed. He walked most curiously, half bent over; and one arm, the left, seemed to swing helplessly, and the left hand was like a withered thing. Her eyes sought the other's face. It was an old face, much older than Danglar's, and it was white and pinched and drawn; and in the dark eyes, as they suddenly darted a glance at her, she read a sullen, bitter brooding and discontent. She turned her head away. It was not a pleasant face; it struck her as being both morbid and cruel to a degree.
Suppose she refused to go?
"What did you mean by 'after to-night'?" she asked again.
"You'll see," he answered. "Pierre'll tell you. You're in luck, that's all. The whole thing that has kept you under cover has bust wide open your way, and you win. And Pierre's going through for a clean-up. To-morrow you can swell around in a limousine again. And maybe you'll come around and take me for a drive, if I dress up, and promise to hide in a corner of the back seat so's they won't see your handsome friend!"
The creature flung a bitter smile at her, and lurched on.
He had told her what she wanted to know - more than she had hoped for. The mystery that surrounded the character of Gypsy Nan, the evidence of the crime at which the woman who had originated that role had hinted on the night she died, and which must necessarily involve Danglar, was hers, Rhoda Gray's, now for the taking. As well go and give herself up to the police as the White Moll and have done with it all, as to refuse to seize the opportunity which fate, evidently in a kindlier mood toward her now, was offering her at this instant. It promised her the hold upon Danglar that she needed to force an avowal of her own innocence, the very hold that she had but a few minutes before been hoping she could obtain through the Adventurer.
There was no longer any question as to whether she would go or not.
Her hand groped down under the shabby black shawl into the wide, voluminous pocket of her greasy skirt. Yes, her revolver was there. She knew it was there, but the touch of her fingers upon it seemed to bring a sense of reassurance. She was perhaps staking her all in accompanying this cripple here to-night - she did not need to be told that - but there was a way of escape at the last if she were cornered and caught. Her fingers played with the weapon. If the worst came to the worst she would never be at Danglar's mercy while she possessed that revolver and, if the need came, turned it upon herself.
They walked on rapidly; the lurching figure beside her covering the ground at an astounding rate of speed. The man made no effort to talk. She was glad of it. She need not be so anxiously on her guard as would be the case if a conversation were carried on, and she, who knew so much and yet so pitifully little, must weigh her every word, and feel her way with every sentence. And besides, too, it gave her time to think. Where were they going? What sort of a place was it, this headquarters of the gang? For it must be the headquarters, since it was from there the code messages would naturally emanate, and this deformed creature, from what he had said, was the "secretary" of the nefarious clique that was ruled by his brother. And was luck really with her at last? Suppose she had been but a few minutes later in reaching Gypsy Nan's house, and had found, instead of this man here, only the note instructing her to go and meet Danglar! What would she have done? What explanation could she have made for her nonappearance? Her hands would have been tied. She would have been helpless. She could not have answered the summons, for she could have had no idea where this gang-lair was; and the note certainly would not contain such details as street and number, which she was obviously supposed to know. She smiled a little grimly to herself. Yes, it seemed as though fortune were beginning to smile upon her again - fortune, at least, had supplied her with a guide.
The twisted figure walked on the inside of the sidewalk, and curiously seemed to seek as much as possible the protecting shadows of the buildings, and invariably shrank back out of the way of the passers-by they met. She watched him narrowly as they went along. What was he afraid of? Recognition? It puzzled her for a time, and then she understood: It was not fear of recognition; the sullen, almost belligerent stare with which he met the eyes of those with whom he came into close contact belied that. The man was morbidly, abnormally sensitive of his deformity.
They turned at last into one of the East Side cross streets, and her guide halted finally on a corner in front of a little shop that was closed and dark. She stared curiously as the man unlocked the door. Perhaps, after all, she had been woefully mistaken. It did not look at all the kind of place where crimes that ran the gamut of the decalogue were hatched, at all the sort of place that was the council chamber of perhaps the most cunning, certainly the most cold-blooded and unscrupulous, band of crooks that New York had ever harbored. And yet - why not? Wasn't there the essence of cunning in that very fact? Who would suspect anything of the sort from a ramshackle, two-story little house like this, whose front was a woe-begone little store, the proceeds of which might just barely keep the body and soul of its proprietor together?
The man fumbled with the lock. There was not a single light showing from the place, but in the dwindling rays of a distant street lamp she could see the meager window display through the filthy, unwashed panes. It was evidently a cheap and tawdry notion store, well suited to its locality. There were toys of the cheapest variety, stationery of the same grade, cheap pipes, cigarettes, tobacco, candy - a package of needles.
"Go on in!" grunted the man, as he pushed the door - which seemed to shriek out unduly on its hinges - wide open. "If anybody sees the door open, they'll be around wanting to buy a paper of pins - curse 'em! - and I ain't open to-night." He snarled as he shut and locked the door. "Pierre says you're grouching about your garret. How about me, and this job? You get out of yours to-night for keeps. What about me? I can't do anything but act as a damned blind for the rest of you with this fool store. just because I was born a freak that every gutter-snipe on the street yells at!"
Rhoda Gray did not answer.
"Well, go on!" snapped the man. "What are you standing there for? One would think you'd never been here before!"
Go on! Where? She had not the faintest idea. It was quite dark inside here in the shop. She could barely make out the outline of the other's figure.
"You're in a sweet temper to-night, aren't you?" she said tartly. "Go on, yourself! I'm waiting for you to get through your speech."
He moved brusquely past her, with an angry grunt. Rhoda Gray followed him. They passed along a short, narrow space, evidently between a low counter and a shelved wall, and then the man opened a door, and, shutting it again behind them, moved forward once more. She could scarcely see him at all now; it was more the sound of his footsteps than anything else that guided her. And then suddenly another door was opened, and a soft, yellow light streamed out through the doorway, and she found that she was standing in an intervening room between the shop and the room ahead of her. She felt her pulse quicken, and it seemed as though her heart began to thump almost audibly. Danglar ! She could see Danglar seated at a table in there. She clenched her hands under her shawl. She would need all her wits now. She prayed that there was not too much light in that room yonder.