The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
For a moment neither spoke, then Gypsy Nan broke the silence with a bitter laugh. She threw back the bedclothes, and, gripping at the edge of the bed, sat up.
"The White Moll! The words rattled in her throat. A fleck of blood showed on her lips. "Well, you know now! You're going to help me, aren't you? I - I've got to get out of here - get to a hospital."
Rhoda Gray laid her hands firmly on the other's shoulders.
"Get back into bed," she said steadily. "Do you want to make yourself worse? You'll kill yourself!"
Gypsy Nan pushed her away.
"Don't make me use up what little strength I've got left in talking," she cried out piteously, and suddenly wrung her hands together. "I'm wanted by the police. If I'm caught, it's - it's that 'chair.' I couldn't have a doctor brought here, could I? How long would it be before he saw that Gypsy Nan was a fake? I can't let you go and have an ambulance, say, come and get me, can I, even with the disguise hidden away? They'd say this is where Gypsy Nan lives. There's something queer here. Where is Gypsy Nan? I've got to get away from here - away from Gypsy Nan - don't you understand? It's death one way; maybe it is the other, maybe it'll finish me to get out of here, but it's the only thing left to do. I thought some one, some one that I could trust, never mind who, would have come to-day, but-but no one came, and - and maybe now it s too late, but there's just the one chance, and I've got to take it." Gypsy Nan tore at the shawl around her throat as though it choked her, and flung it from her shoulders. Her eyes were gleaming with an unhealthy, feverish light. "Don't you see? We get out on the street. I collapse there. You find me. I tell you my name is Charlotte Green. That's all you know. There isn't much chance that anybody at the hospital would recognize me. I've got money. I take a private room. Don't you understand?"
Rhoda Gray's face had gone a little white. There was no doubt about the woman's serious condition, and yet - and yet - She stood there hesitant. There must be some other way! It was not likely even that the woman had strength enough to walk down the stairs to begin with. Strange things had come to her in this world of shadow, but none before like this. If the law got the woman it would cost the woman her life; if the woman did not receive immediate and adequate medical assistance it would cost the woman her life. Over and over in her brain, like a jangling refrain, that thought repeated itself. It was not like her to stand hesitant before any emergency, no matter what that emergency might be. She had never done it before, but now...
"For God's sake," Gypsy Nan implored, "don't stand there looking at me! Can't you understand? If I'm caught, I go out. Do you think I'd have lived in this filthy hole if there had been any other way to save my life? Are you going to let me die here like a dog? Get me my clothes; oh, for God's sake, get them, and give me the one chance that's left!"
A queer little smile came to Rhoda Gray's lips, and her shoulders straightened back.
"Where are your clothes?" she asked.
"God bless you!" The tears were suddenly streaming down the grimy face. "God bless the White Moll! It's true! It's true - all they said about her!" The woman had lost control of herself.
"Nan, keep your nerve!" ordered Rhoda Gray almost brutally. It was the White Moll in another light now, cool, calm, collected, efficient. Her eyes swept Gypsy Nan. The woman, who had obviously flung herself down on the bed fully dressed the night before, was garbed in coarse, heavy boots, the cheapest of stockings which were also sadly in need of repair, a tattered and crumpled skirt of some rough material, and, previously hidden by the shawl, a soiled, greasy and spotted black blouse. Rhoda Gray's forehead puckered into a frown. "What about your hands and face-they go with the clothes, don't they?"
"It'll wash off," whispered Gypsy Nan. "It's just some stuff I keep in a box-over there - the ceiling-" Her voice trailed off weakly, then with a desperate effort strengthened again. "The door! I forgot the door! It isn't locked! Lock the door first! Lock the door! Then you take the candle over there on the washstand, and - and I'll show you. You - you get the things while I'm undressing. I - I can help myself that much."
Rhoda Gray crossed quickly to the door, turned the key in the lock, and retraced her steps to the washstand that stood in the shadows against the wall on the opposite side from the bed, and near the far end of the garret. Here she found the short stub of a candle that was stuck in the mouth of a gin bottle, and matches lying beside it. She lighted the candle, and turned inquiringly to Gypsy Nan.
The woman pointed to the end of the garret where the roof sloped sharply down until, at the wall itself, it was scarcely four feet above the floor.
"Go down there. Right to the wall - in the center," instructed Gypsy Nan weakly. And then, as Rhoda Gray obeyed: "Now push up on that wide board in the ceiling."
Rhoda Gray. already in a stooped position, reached up, and pushed at a rough, unplaned board. It swung back without a sound, like a narrow trap-door, until it rested in an upright position against the outer frame of the house, disclosing an aperture through which, by standing erect, Rhoda Gray easily thrust her head and shoulders.
She raised the candle then through the opening - and suddenly her dark eyes widened in amazement. It was a hiding place, not only ingenious, but exceedingly generous in expanse. As far as one could reach the ceiling metamorphosed itself into a most convenient shelf. And it had been well utilized! It held a most astounding collection of things. There was a cashbox, but the cashbox was apparently wholly inadequate - there must have been thousands of dollars in those piles of banknotes that were stacked beside it! There was a large tin box, the cover off, containing some black, pastelike substance - the "stuff," presumably, that Gypsy Nan used on her face and hands. There was a bunch of curiously formed keys, several boxes of revolver cartridges, an electric flashlight, and a great quantity of the choicest brands of tinned and bottled fruits and provisions - and a little to one side, evidently kept ready for instant use, a suit of excellent material, underclothing, silk stockings shoes and hat were neatly piled together.
Rhoda Gray took the clothing, and went back to the bedside. Gypsy Nan had made little progress in disrobing. It seemed about all the woman could do to cling to the edge of the cot and sit upright.
"What does all this mean, Nan," she asked tensely; "all those things up there - that money?"
Gypsy Nan forced a twisted smile.
"It means I know how bad I am, or I wouldn't have let you see what you have," she answered heavily. "It means that there isn't any other way. Hurry! Get these things off! Get me dressed!"
But it took a long time. Gypsy Nan seemed with every moment to grow weaker. The lamp on the chair went out for want of oil. There was only the guttering candle in the gin bottle to give light. It threw weird, flickering shadows around the garret; it seemed to enhance the already deathlike pallor of the woman, as, using the pitcher of water and the basin from the washstand now, Rhoda Gray removed the grime from Gypsy Nan's face and hands.
It was done at last - and where there had once been Gypsy Nan, haglike and repulsive, there was now a stylishly, even elegantly, dressed woman of well under middle age. The transformation seemed to have acted as a stimulant upon Gypsy Nan. She laughed with nervous hilarity she even tried valiantly to put on a pair of new black kid gloves, but, failing in this, pushed them unsteadily into the pocket of her coat.
"I'm - I'm all right," she asserted fiercely, as Rhoda Gray, pausing in the act of gathering up the discarded garments, regarded her anxiously. "Bring me a package of that money after you've put those things away - yes, and you'll find a flashlight there. We'll need it going down the stairs."
Rhoda Gray made no answer. There was no hesitation now in her actions, as, to the pile of clothing in her arms, she added the revolver that lay on the blanket, and, returning to the little trap-door in the ceiling, hid them away; but her brain was whirling again in a turmoil of doubt. This was madness, utter, stark, blind madness, this thing that she was doing! It was suicide, literally that, nothing less than suicide for one in Gypsy Nan's condition to attempt this thing. But the woman would certainly die here, too, with out medical assistance - only there was the police! Rhoda Gray's face, as she stood upright in the little aperture again, throwing the wavering candle-rays around her, seemed suddenly to have grown pinched and wan. The police! The police! It was her conscience, then, that was gnawing at her - because of the police! Was that it? Well, there was also, then, another side. Could she turn informer, traitor, become a female Judas to a dying woman, who had sobbed and thanked her Maker because she had found some one whom she believed she could trust? That was a hideous and an abominable thing to do! "You swore it! You swore you'd see me through!" - the words came and rang insistently in her ears. The sweet, piquant little face set in hard, determined lines. Mechanically she picked up the flashlight and a package of the banknotes, lowered the board in the ceiling into place, and returned to Gypsy Nan.
"I'm ready, if there is no other way," she said soberly, as she watched the other tuck the money away inside her waist. "I said I would see you through, and I will. But I doubt if you are strong enough, even with what help I can give you, to get down the stairs, and even if you can, I am afraid with all my soul of the consequences to you, and -"
Gypsy Nan blew out the candle, and staggered to her feet.
"There isn't any other way." She leaned heavily on Rhoda Gray's arm. "Can't you see that? Don't you think I know? Haven't you seen enough here to convince you of that? I - I'm just spilling the dice for - for perhaps the last time - but it's the only chance - the only chance. Go on!" she urged tremulously. "Shoot the glim, and get me to the door. And - and for the love of God, don't make a sound! It's all up if we're seen going out!"
The flashlight's ray danced in crazy gyrations as the two figures swayed and crept across the garret. Rhoda Gray unlocked the door, and, as they passed out, locked it again on the outside.
"Hide the key!" whispered Gypsy Nan. "See - that crack in the floor under the partition! Slip it in there!"
The flashlight guiding her, Rhoda Gray stooped down to where, between the rough attic flooring and the equally rough boarding of the garret partition, there was a narrow space. She pushed the key in out of sight; and then, with her arm around Gypsy Nan's waist, and with the flashlight at cautious intervals winking ahead of her through the darkness, she began to descend the stairs.
It was slow work, desperately slow, both because they dared not make the slightest noise, and because, too, as far as strength was concerned, Gypsy Nan was close to the end of her endurance. Down one flight, and then the other, they went, resting at every few steps, leaning back against the wall, black shadows that merged with the blackness around them, the flashlight used only when necessity compelled it, lest its gleam might attract the attention of some other occupant of the house. And at times Gypsy Nan's head lay cheek to Rhoda Gray's, and the other's body grew limp and became a great weight, so heavy that it seemed she could no longer support it.
They gained the street door, hung there tensely for a moment to make sure they were not observed by any chance passer-by, then stepped out on the sidewalk. Gypsy Nan spoke then:
"I - I can't go much farther," she faltered. "But - but it doesn't matter now we're out of the house - it doesn't matter where you find me - only let's try a few steps more."
Rhoda Gray had slipped the flashlight inside her blouse.
"Yes," she said. Her breath was coming heavily. "It's all right, Nan. I understand."
They walked on a little way up the block, and then Gypsy Nan's grasp suddenly tightened on Rhoda Gray's arm.
"Play the game!" Gypsy Nan's voice was scarcely audible. "You'll play the game, won't you? You'll - you'll see me through. That's a good name - as good as any - Charlotte Green - that's all you know - but - but don't leave me alone with them - you - you'll come to the hospital with me, won't you - I -"
Gypsy Nan had collapsed in a heap on the sidewalk.
Rhoda Gray glanced swiftly around her. In the squalid tenement before which she stood there would be no help of the kind that was needed. There would be no telephone in there by means of which she could summon an ambulance. And then her glance rested on a figure far up the block under a street lamp - a policeman. She bent hurriedly over the prostrate woman, whispered a word of encouragement, and ran in the officer's direction.
As she drew closer to the policeman, she called out to him. He turned and came running toward, and, as he reached her, after a sharp glance into her face, touched his helmet respectfully.
"What's wrong with the White Moll to-night?" he asked pleasantly.
"There's - there's a woman down there" - Rhoda Gray was breathless from her run - "on the sidewalk. She needs help at once."
"Drunk?" inquired the officer laconically.
"No, I'm sure it's anything but that," Rhoda Gray answered quickly. "She appears to be very sick. I think you had better summon an ambulance without delay."
"All right!" agreed the officer. "There's a patrol box down there in the direction you came from. We'll have a look at her on the way." He started briskly forward with Rhoda Gray beside him. "Who is she d'ye know?" he asked.
"She said her name was Charlotte Green," Rhoda Gray replied. "That's all she could, or would, say about herself."
"Then she ain't a regular around here, or I guess you'd know her!" grunted the policeman.
Rhoda Gray made no answer.
They reached Gypsy Nan. The officer bent over her, then picked her up and carried her to the tenement doorway.
"I guess you're right, all right! She's bad! I'll send in a call," he said, and started on the run down the street.
Gypsy Nan had lost consciousness. Rhoda Gray settled herself on the doorstep, supporting the woman's head in her lap. Her face had set again in grim, hard, perplexed lines. There seemed something unnatural, something menacingly weird, something even uncanny about it all. Perhaps it was because it seemed as though she could so surely foresee the end. Gypsy Nan would not live through the night. Something told her that. The woman's masquerade, for whatever purpose it had been assumed, was over. "You'll play the game, won't you? You'll see me through?" There seemed something pitifully futile in those words now!
The officer returned.
"It's all right," he said. "How's she seem?"
Rhoda Gray shook her head.
A passer-by stopped, asked what was the matter - and lingered curiously. Another, and another, did the same. A little crowd collected. The officer kept them back. Came then the strident clang of a gong and the rapid beat of horses' hoofs. A white-coated figure jumped from the ambulance, pushed his way forward, and bent over the form in Rhoda Gray's lap. A moment more, and they were carrying Gypsy Nan to the ambulance.
Rhoda Gray spoke to the officer:
"I think perhaps I had better go with her."
"Sure!" said the officer.
She caught snatches of the officer's words, as he made a report to the doctor:
Found her here in the street...Charlotte Green...nothing else...the White Moll, straight as God makes 'em...she'll see the woman through." He turned to Rhoda Gray. "You can get in there with them, miss."
It took possibly ten minutes to reach the hospital, but, before that time, Gypsy Nan, responding in a measure to stimulants, had regained consciousness. She insisted on clinging to Rhoda Gray's hand as they carried in the stretcher.
"Don't leave me!" she pleaded. And then, for the first time, Gypsy Nan's nerve seemed to fail her. "I - oh, my God - I - I don't want to die!" she cried out.
But a moment later, inside the hospital, as the admitting officer began to ask questions of Rhoda Gray, Gypsy Nan had apparently recovered her grip upon herself.
"Ah, let her alone!" she broke in. "She doesn't know me any more than you do. She found me on the street. But she was good to me, God bless her!"
"Your name's Charlotte Green? Yes?" The man nodded. "Where do you live?"
"Wherever I like!" Gypsy Nan was snarling truculently now. "What's it matter where I live? Don't you ever have any one come here without a letter from the pastor of her church!" She pulled out the package of banknotes. "You aren't going to get stuck. This'll see you through whatever happens. Give me a - a private room, and" - her voice was weakening rapidly - "and" - there came a bitter, facetious laugh -" the best you've got." Her voice was weakening rapidly.
They carried her upstairs. She still insisted on clinging to Rhoda Gray's hand.
"Don't leave me!" she pleaded again, as they reached the door of a private room, and Rhoda Gray disengaged her hand gently.
"I'll stay outside here," Rhoda Gray promised. "I won't go away without seeing you again.
Rhoda Gray sat down on a settee in the hall. She glanced at her wrist watch. It was five minutes of eleven. Doctors and nurses came and went from the room. Then a great quiet seemed to settle down around her. A half hour passed. A doctor went into the room, and presently came out again. She intercepted him as he came along the corridor.
He shook his head.
She did not understand his technical explanation. There was something about a clot and blood stoppage. But as she resumed her seat, she understood very fully that the end was near. The woman was resting quietly now, the doctor had said, but if she, Rhoda Gray, cared to wait, she could see the other before leaving the hospital.
And so she waited. She had promised Gypsy Nan she would.
The minutes dragged along. A quarter of an hour passed. Still another. Midnight came. Fifteen minutes more went by, and then a nurse came out of the room, and, standing by the door, beckoned to Rhoda Gray.
"She is asking for you," the nurse said. "Please do not stay more than a few minutes. I shall be outside here, and if you notice the slightest change, call me instantly."
Rhoda Gray nodded.
"I understand," she said.
The door closed softly behind her. She was smiling cheerily as she crossed the room and bent over Gypsy Nan.
The woman stretched out her hand.
"The White Moll!" she whispered. "He told the truth, that bull did - straight as they make 'em, and
"Don't try to talk," Rhoda Gray interrupted gently. "Wait until you are a little stronger."
"Stronger!" Gypsy Nan shook her head. "Don't try to kid me! I know. They told me. I'd have known it anyway. I'm going out."
Rhoda Gray found no answer for a moment. A great lump had risen in her throat. Neither would she have needed to be told; she, too, would have known it anyway - it was stamped in the gray pallor of the woman's face. She pressed Gypsy Nan's hand.
And then Gypsy Nan spoke again, a queer, yearning hesitancy in her voice:
"Do - do you believe in God?"
"Yes," said Rhoda Gray simply.
Gypsy Nan closed her eyes.
"Do - do you think there is a chance - even at the last - if - if, without throwing down one's pals, one tries to make good?"
"Yes," said Rhoda Gray again.
"Is the door closed?" Gypsy Nan attempted to raise herself on her elbow, as though to see for herself.
Rhoda Gray forced the other gently back upon the pillows.
"It is closed," she said. "You need not be afraid."
"What time is it?" demanded Gypsy Nan.
Rhoda Gray looked at her watch.
"Twenty-five minutes after twelve," she answered.
"There's time yet, then," whispered Gypsy Nan. "There's time yet." She lay silent for a moment, then her hand closed tightly around Rhoda Gray's. "Listen!" she said. "There's more about - about why I lived like that than I told you. And - and I can't tell you now - I can't go out like a yellow cur - I'm not going to snitch on anybody else just because I'm through myself. But - but there's something on to-night that I'd - I'd like to stop. Only the police, or anybody else, aren't to know anything about it, because then they'd nip my friends. See? But you can do it - easy. You can do it alone without anybody knowing. There's time yet. They weren't going to pull it until halfpast one - and there won't be any danger for you. All you've got to do is get the money before they do, and then see that it goes back where it belongs to-morrow. Will you? You don't want to see a crime committed to-night if - if you can stop it, do you?"
Rhoda Gray's face was grave. She hesitated for a moment.
"I'll have to know more than that before I can answer you, Nan," she said.
"It's the only way to stop it!" Gypsy Nan whispered feverishly. "I won't split on my pals - I won't - I won't! But I trust you. Will you promise not to snitch if I tell you how to stop it, even if you don't go there yourself? I'm offering you a chance to stop a twenty-thousand-dollar haul. If you don't promise it's got to go through, because I've got to stand by the ones that were in it with me. I - I'd like to make good - just - once. But I can't do it any other way. For God's sake, you see that, don't you?"
"Yes," said Rhoda Gray in a low voice; "but the promise you ask for is the same as though I promised to try to get the money you speak of. If I knew what was going on, and did nothing, I would be an accomplice to the crime, and guilty myself."
"But I can't do anything else!" Gypsy Nan was speaking with great difficulty. "I won't get those that were with me in wrong - I won't! You can prevent a crime to-night, if you will - you - you can help me to - to make good."
Rhoda Gray's lips tightened, "Will you give me your word that I can do what you suggest - that it is feasible, possible?"
"Yes," said Gypsy Nan. "You can do it easily, and - and it's safe. It - it only wants a little nerve, and - and you've got that."
"I promise, then," said Rhoda Gray.
"Thank God!" Gypsy Nan pulled fiercely at Rhoda Gray's wrist. "Come nearer-nearer! You know Skarbolov, old Skarbolov, who keeps the antique store - on the street - around the corner from my place?" Rhoda Gray nodded.
"He's rich!" whispered Gypsy Nan. "Think of it! Him - rich! But he gets the best of the Fifth Avenue crowd just because he keeps his joint in that rotten hole. They think they're getting the real thing in antiques! He's a queer old fool. Afraid people would know he had money if he kept it in the bank - afraid of a bank, too. Understand? We found out that every once in a while he'd change a lot of small bills for a big one - five-hundred-dollar bills - thousand-dollar bills. That put us wise. We began to watch him. It took months to find where he hid it. We've spent night after night searching through his shop. You can get in easily. There's no one there - upstairs is just a storage place for his extra stock. There's a big padlock on the back door, but there's a false link in the chain - count three links to the right from the padlock - we put it there, and -"
Gypsy Nan's voice had become almost inaudible. She pulled at Rhoda Gray's wrist again, urging her closer.
"Listen - quick! I - my strength! she panted. "An antique he never sells - old escritoire against rear wall - secret drawer - take out wide middle drawer - reach in and rub your hand along the top - you'll feel the spring. We waited to - to get - get counterfeits - put counterfeits there - understand? Then he'd never know he'd been robbed - not for a long time anyway - discovered perhaps when he was dead - old wife - suffer then - I - got to make good - make good - I -" She came up suddenly on both her elbows, the dark eyes staring wildly. "Yes, yes!" she whispered. "Seven-three-nine! Look out!" Her voice rang with sudden terror, rising almost to a scream. "Look out! Can't you understand, you fool! I've told you! Seven-three-nine! Seven-three...
Rhoda Gray's arms had gone around the other's shoulders. She heard the door open-and then a quick, light step. There wasn't any other sound now. She made way mechanically for the nurse. And then, after a moment, she rose from her knees. The nurse answered her unspoken question.
"Yes; it's over."