III. Alias Gypsy Nan
 

Rhoda Gray went slowly from the room. In a curiously stunned sort of way she reached the street, and for a few blocks walked along scarcely conscious of the direction she was taking. Her mind was in turmoil. The night seemed to have been one of harrowing hallucination; it seemed as though it were utterly unreal, like one dreaming that one is dreaming. And then, suddenly, she looked at her watch, and the straight little shoulders squared resolutely back. The hallucination, if she chose to call it that, was not yet over! It was twenty minutes of one, and there was still Skarbolov's - and her promise.

She quickened her pace. She did not like this promise that she had made; but, on the other hand, she had not made it either lightly or impulsively. She had no regrets on that score. She would make it again under the same conditions. How could she have done otherwise? It would have been to stand aside and permit a crime to be committed which she was assured was easily within her power to prevent. What excuse could she have had for that? Fear wasn't an excuse. She did not like the thought of entering the back door of a store in the middle of the night like a thief, and, like a thief, taking away that hidden money. She knew she was going to be afraid, horribly afraid - it frightened her now - but she could not let that fear make a moral coward of her.

Her hands clenched at her sides. She would not allow herself to dwell upon that phase of it! She was going to Skarbolov's, and that was all there was to it. The only thing she really had to fear was that she should lose even a single unnecessary moment in getting there. Halfpast one, Gypsy Nan had said. That should give her ample time; but the quicker she went, the wider the, margin of safety.

Her thoughts reverted to Gypsy Nan. What had the woman meant by her last few wandering words? They had nothing to do with Skarbolov's, that was certain; but the words came back now insistently. "Seven-three-nine." What did "seven-three-nine" mean? She shook her head helplessly. Well, what did it matter? She dismissed further consideration of it. She repeated to herself Gypsy Nan's directions for finding the spring of the secret drawer. She forced herself to think of anything that would bar the entry of that fear which stood lurking at the threshold of her mind.

From time to time she consulted her watch - and each time hurried the faster.

It was five minutes past one when, stealing silently along a black lane, and counting against the skyline the same number of buildings she had previously counted on the street from the corner, she entered an equally black yard, and reached the back door of Skarbolov's little store. She felt out with her hands and found the padlock, and her fingers pressed on the link in the chain that Gypsy Nan had described. It gave readily. She slipped it free, and opened the door. There was faint, almost inaudible, protesting creak from the hinges. She caught her breath quickly. Had anybody heard it? It - it had seemed like a cannon shot. And then her lips curled in sudden self-contempt. Who was there to hear it?

She stepped forward, closed the door silently behind her, and drew out her flashlight. The ray cut through the blackness. She was in what seemed like a small, outer storeroom, that was littered with an untidy collection of boxes, broken furniture, and odds and ends of all sorts. Ahead of her was an open door, and, through this, the flashlight disclosed the shop itself. She switched off the light now as she moved forward-there were the front windows, and, used too freely, the light might by some unlucky chance be noticed from the street.

And now, in the darkness again, she reached the doorway of the shop. She had not made any noise. She assured herself of that. She had never known that she could move so silently before - and - and - Yes, she would fight down this panic that was seizing her! She would! It would only take a minute now - just another minute - if - if she would only keep her head and her nerve. That was what Gypsy Nan had said. She only needed to keep her nerve. She had never lost it in the face of many a really serious danger when with her father - why should she now, when there was nothing but the silence and the darkness to be afraid of!

The flashlight went on again, its ray creeping inquisitively now along the rear wall of the shop. It held finally on an escritoire over in the far corner at her right.

Once more the light went out. She moved swiftly across the floor, and in a moment more was bending over the escritoire. And now, with her body hiding the flashlight's rays from the front windows, she examined the desk. It was an old-fashioned, spindle-legged affair, with a nest of pigeonholes and multifarious little drawers. One of the drawers, wider than any of the others, and in the center, was obviously the one to which Gypsy Nan referred. She pulled out the drawer, and in the act of reaching inside, suddenly drew back her hand. What was that? Instinctively she switched off the flashlight, and stood tense and rigid in the darkness.

A minute passed-another. Still she listened. There was no sound - unless - unless she could actually hear the beating of her heart. Fancy! Imagination! The darkness played strange tricks! It - it wasn't so easy to keep one' s nerve. She could have sworn that she had heard some sort of movement back there down the shop.

Angry with herself, she thrust her hand into the opening now and felt hurriedly around. Yes, there it was! Her fingers touched what was evidently a little knob or button. She pressed upon it. There was a faint, answering click. She turned on the flashlight again. What had before appeared to be nothing but one of the wide, pearl inlaid partitions between two of the smaller drawers, was protruding invitingly outward now by the matter of an inch or so. Rhoda Gray pulled it open. It was very shallow, scarcely three-quarters of an inch in depth, but it was quite long enough, and quite wide enough for its purpose! Inside, there lay a little pile of banknotes, banknotes of very large denomination - the one on top was a thousand-dollar bill.

She reached in and took out the money-and then from Rhoda Gray's lips there came a little cry, the flashlight dropped from her hand and smashed to the floor, and she was clinging desperately to the edge of the escritoire for support. The shop was flooded with light. Over by the side wall, one hand still on the electric-light switch, the other holding a leveled revolver, stood a man.

And then the man spoke - with an oath - with curious amazement:

"My God - a woman!"

She did not speak, or stir. It seemed as though not fear, but horror now, held her powerless to move her limbs. Her first swift brain-flash had been that it was one of Gypsy Nan's accomplices here ahead of the appointed time. That would have given her cause, all too much of cause, for fear; but it was not one of Gypsy Nan's accomplices, and, far worse than the fear of any physical attack upon her, was the sense of ruin and disaster that the realization of a quite different and more desperate situation brought her now. She knew the man. She had seen those square, heavy, clamped jaws scores of times. Those sharp, restless black eyes under over-hanging, shaggy eyebrows were familiar to the whole East Side. It was Rorke - "Rough" Rorke, of headquarters.

He came toward her, and halfway across the room another exclamation burst from his lips; but this time it held a jeer, and in the jeer a sort of cynical and savage triumph.

"The White Moll!"

He was close beside her now, and now he snatched from her hand the banknotes that, all unconsciously, she had still been clutching tightly.

"So this is what all the sweet charity's been about, eh?" he snapped. "The White Moll, the Little Saint of the East Side, that lends a helping hand to the crooks to get 'em back on the straight and narrow again! The White Moll-hell! You crooked little devil!"

Again she did not answer. Her mind was clear now, brutally clear, brutally keen, brutally virile. What was there for her to say? She was caught here at one o'clock in the morning after breaking into the place, caught red-handed in the very act of taking the money. What story could she tell that would clear her of that! That she had taken it so that it wouldn't be stolen, and that she was going to give it back in the morning? Was there anybody in the world credulous enough to believe anything like that! Tell Gypsy Nan's story, all that had happened to-night? Yes, she might have told that to-morrow, after she had returned the money, and been believed. But now-no! It would even make her appear in a still worse light. They would credit her with being a member of this very gang to which Gypsy Nan belonged, one in the secrets of an organized band of criminals, who was trying to clear her own skirts at the expense of her confederates. Everything, every act of hers to-night, pointed to that construction being placed upon her story, pointed to duplicity. Why had she hidden the identity of Gypsy Nan? Why had she not told the police that a crime was to be committed, and left it to the police to frustrate it? It would fit in with the story, of course - but the story was the result of having been caught in the act of stealing twenty thousand dollars in cash! What was there to say - and, above all, to this man, whose reputation for callous brutality in the handling of those who fell into his hands had earned him the sobriquet of "Rough" Rorke? Sick at heart, desperate, but with her hands clenched now, she stood there, while the man felt unceremoniously over her clothing for a concealed weapon.

Finding none, he stooped, picked up the flashlight, tested it, and found it broken from its fall.

"Too bad you bust this, we'll have to go out in the dark after I switch off the light," he said with unpleasant facetiousness. "I didn't have one with me, or time to get one, when I got tipped off there was something doing here to-night." He caught her ungently by the arm. "Well, come along, my pretty lady! This'll make a stir, this will! The White Moll!" He led her to the electric-light switch, turned off the light, and, with his grasp tight upon her, made for the front door. He chuckled in a sinister manner. "Say, you're a prize, you are! And pretty clever, too, aren't you? I wasn't looking for a woman to pull this. The White Moll! Some saint!"

Rhoda Gray shivered. Disgrace, ruin, stared her in the face. A sea of faces in a courtroom, morbid faces, hideous faces, leered at her. Gray walls rose before her, walls that shut out sunshine and hope, pitiless, cold things that seemed to freeze the blood in her veins. And to-night, in just a few minutes more - a cell!

From the street outside came the sound of some one making a cheery, but evidently a somewhat inebriated, attempt to whistle some ragtime air. It seemed to enhance her misery, to enhance by contrast in its care-free cheeriness the despair and misery that were eating into her soul. Her hands clenched and unclenched. If there were only a chance - somewhere - somehow! If only she were not a woman! If she could only fight this hulking form that gripped so brutally at her arm!

Rough Rorke opened the door, and pulled her out to the street. She shrank back instinctively. It was quite light here from a nearby street lamp, and the owner of the whistle, a young man, fashionably dressed, decidedly unsteady on his legs, and just opposite the door as they came out, had stopped both his whistle and his progress along the street to stare at them owlishly.

"'Ullo!" said the young man thickly. "What'sh all this about - eh? What'sh you two doing in that place this time of night - eh?"

"Beat it!" ordered Rough Rorke curtly.

"That'sh all right." The young man came nearer. He balanced himself with difficulty, but upon him there appeared to have descended suddenly a vast dignity. "I'm - hic - law - 'biding citizen. Gotta know. Gotta show me. Damn funny - coming out of there this time of night! Eh - what'sh the idea?"

Rough Rorke, with his free hand, grabbed the young man by the shoulder angrily.

"Mind your own business, or you'll get into trouble!" he rasped out. "I'm an officer, and this woman is under arrest. Beat it! D'ye hear? Beat it - or I'll run you in, too!"

"Is that'sh so!" The young man's tones expressed a fuddled defiance. He rocked on his feet and stared from one to the other. "Shay, is that'sh so! You will - eh? Gotta show me. How do I know you're - hic - officer? Eh? More likely damned thief yourself! I -"

The young man lurched suddenly and violently forward, breaking Rough Rorke's grip on Rhoda Gray - and, as his arms swept out to grasp at the detective in an apparently wild effort to preserve his balance, Rhoda Gray felt a quick, significant push upon her shoulder.

For the space of time it takes a watch to tick she stood startled and amazed, and then, like a flash, she was speeding down the street. A roar of rage, a burst of unbridled profanity went up from Rough Rorke behind her; it was mingled with equally angry vituperation in the young man's voice. She looked behind her. The two men were swaying around crazily in each other's arms. She ran on - faster than she had ever run in her life. The corner was not far ahead. Her brain was working with lightning speed. Gypsy Nan's house was just around the corner. If she could get out of sight - hide - it would...

She glanced behind her again, as her ears caught the pound of racing feet. The young man was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, shaking his fist; Rough Rorke, perhaps a bare fifty yards away, was chasing her at top speed.

Her face set hard. She could not out-run a man! There was only one hope for her - just one - to gain Gypsy Nan's doorway before Rorke got around the corner.

A yard - another - still another! She swerved around the corner. And, as she turned, she caught a glimpse of the detective. The man was nearer - much nearer. But it was only a little way, just a little way, to Gypsy Nan's - not so far as the distance between her and Rorke - and - and if the man didn't gain too fast, then - then - A little cry of dismay came with a new and terrifying thought. Quite apart from Rorke, some one else might see her enter Gypsy Nan's! She strained her eyes in all directions as she ran. There wasn't any one - she didn't see any one - only Rorke, around the corner there, was bawling out at the top of his voice, and - and...

She flung herself against Gypsy Nan's door, stumbled in, and, closing it, heard Rorke just swinging around the corner. Had he seen her? She didn't know. She was panting, gasping for her breath. It seemed as though her lungs would burst. She held her hand tightly to her bosom as she made for the stairs - she mustn't make any noise - they mustn't hear her breathing like that - they - they mustn't hear her going up the stairs.

How dark it was! If she could only see - so that she would be sure not to stumble! She couldn't go fast now - she would make a noise if she did. Stair after stair she climbed stealthily. Perhaps she was safe now - it had taken her a long time to get up here to the second floor, and there wasn't any sound yet from the street below.

And now she mounted the short, ladder-like steps to the attic, and, feeling with her hand for the crack in the flooring under the partition, reached in for the key. As her fingers closed upon it, she choked back a cry. Some one had been here! A piece of paper was wrapped around the key. What did it mean? What did all these strange, yes, sinister, things that had happened to-night mean? How had Rorke known that a robbery was to be committed at Skarbolov's? Who was that man who had effected her escape, and who, she knew now, was no more drunk than she was? Fast, quick, piling one upon the other, the questions raced through her mind.

She fought them back. There was no time for speculation now! There was only one question that mattered: Was she safe?

She stood up, thrust the paper for safe-keeping into her bosom, and unlocked the door. If - if Rorke did not know that she had entered this house here, she could remain hidden for a few hours; it would give her time to think, and...

It came this time, no strength of will would hold it back, a little moan. The front door below had opened, a heavy footstep sounded in the lower hall. She couldn't see, of course. But she knew. It was Rorke! She heard him coming up the stairs.

And then, in a flash, it seemed, her brain responded to her despairing cry. There was still a way - a desperate one - but still a way - if there was time! She darted inside the garret, locked the door, found the matches and candle, and, running silently to the rear wall, pushed up the board in the ceiling. In frantic haste she tore off her outer garments, her stockings and shoes, pulled on the rough stockings and coarse boots that Gypsy Nan had worn, slipped the other's greasy, threadbare skirt over her head, and pinned the shawl tight about her shoulders. There was a big, voluminous pocket in the skirt, and into this she dropped Gypsy Nan's revolver, and the paper she had found wrapped around the key.

She could hear a commotion from below now. It was the one thing she had counted upon. Rough Rorke might know she had entered the house, but he could not know whereabouts in the house she was, and he would naturally search each room as he came to it on the way up. She fitted the gray-streaked wig of tangled, matted hair upon her head, plunged her hand into the box that Gypsy Nan used for her make-up and daubed some of the grime upon both hands and face, adjusted the spectacles upon her nose, hid her own clothing, closed the narrow trap-door in the ceiling, and ran back, carrying the candle, to the washstand.

Here, there was a small and battered mirror, and more coolly, more leisurely now, for the commotion still continued from the floor below, she spread and rubbed in, as craftily as she could, the grime streaks on her face and hands. It was neither artistic nor perfect, but in the meager, flickering light now the face of Gypsy Nan seemed to stare reassuringly back at her. It might not deceive any one in daylight - she did not know, and it did not matter now - but with only this candle to light the garret, since the lamp was empty, she could fairly count on her identity not being questioned.

She blew out the candle, left it on the washstand, because, if she could help it, she did not want to risk having it lighted near the bed or door, and, tiptoeing now, went to the door, unlocked it, then threw herself down upon the bed.

Possibly a minute went by, possibly two, and then there was a quick step on the ladder-like stairs, the door handle was rattled violently, and the door was flung open and slammed shut again.

Rhoda Gray sat upright on the bed. It was her wits now, her wits against Rough Rorke's; nothing else could save her. She could not even make out the man's form, it was so dark; but, as he had not moved, she was quite well aware that he was standing with his back to the door, evidently trying to place his surroundings.

It was Gypsy Nan, not Rhoda Gray, who spoke.

"Who's dere?" she screeched. "D'ye hear, blast youse, who's dere?"

Rough Rorke laughed gratingly.

"That you, Nan, my dear?"

"Who d'youse t'ink it is-me gran'mother?" demanded Rhoda Gray caustically. "Who are youse?"

"Rorke," said Rorke shortly. "I guess you know, don't you?"

"Is dat so?" snorted Rhoda Gray. "Well den, youse can beat it - hop it - on de jump! Wot t'hell right have youse got bustin' into me room at dis time of night - eh? I ain't done nothin'!"

Rough Rorke, his feet scuffling to feel the way, came forward.

"Cut it out!" he snarled. "I ain't the only visitor you've got! It's not you I want; it's the White Moll."

"Wot's dat got to do wid me?" Rhoda Gray flung back hotly. "She ain't here, is she?"

"Yes, she's here!" Rough Rorke's voice held an ugly menace. "I lost her around the corner, but a woman from a window across the street, who heard the row, saw her run into this house. She ain't downstairs - so you can figure the rest out the same way I do."

"De woman was kiddin' youse!" Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan, cackled derisively. "Dere ain't nobody here but me."

"We'll see about that!" said Rough Rorke shortly. "Strike a light!"

"Aw, strike it yerself!" retorted Rhoda Gray. "I ain't yer servant! Dere's a candle over dere on de washstand against de wall, if youse wants it."

A match crackled and spurted into flame; its light fell upon the lamp standing on the chair beside the bed. Rough Rorke stepped toward it.

"Dere ain't any oil in dat," croaked Rhoda Gray. "Didn't I tell youse de candle was over dere on de washstand, an' -"

The words seemed to freeze in her throat, the chair, the lamp, the shadowy figure of the man in the match flame to swirl before her eyes, and a sick nausea to come upon her soul itself. With a short, triumphant oath, Rough Rorke had stopped suddenly and reached in under the chair. And now he was dangling a new, black kid glove in front of her. Caught! Yes, she was caught! She remembered Gypsy Nan's attempt to put on her gloves - one must have fallen to the floor unnoticed by either of them when Gypsy Nan had thought to put them in her pocket! The man's voice came to her as from some great distance:

"So, she ain't here - ain't she! I'll teach you to lie to me! I'll -" The match was dying out. Rorke raised it higher, and with the last flicker located the washstand, and made toward it, obviously for the candle.

Her wits against Rough Rorke's! Nothing else could save her! Failing to find any one here but herself, certain now that the White Moll was here, only a fool could have failed in his deduction - and Rough Rorke was not a fool. Her wits against Rough Rorke's! There was the time left her while the garret was still in darkness, just that, no more!

With a quick spring she leaped from the bed, seized the chair, sending the lamp to the floor, and, dragging the chair after her to make as much noise and confusion as she could, she rushed for the door, screeching at the top of her voice:

"Run, dearie, run! Run!" She was scuffling with her feet, clattering the chair, as she wrenched the door open. And then, in her own voice: "Nan, I won't! I won't let you stand for this, I -"

Then as Gypsy Nan again: "Run, dearie! Don't youse mind old Nan!" She banged the door shut, locked it, and whipped out the key. It had taken scarcely a second. She was still screeching at the top of her voice to cover the absence of flying footers on the stairs. "Run, dearie, run! Run!"

And then, in the darkness, the candle still unlighted, Rough Rorke was on her like a madman. With a sweep of his arm he sent her crashing to the floor, and wrenched at the door. The next instant he was on her again.

"The key! Give me that key!" he roared.

For answer she flung it from her. It fell with a tinkle on the floor at the far end of the garret. The man was beside himself with rage.

"Damn you, if I had time, I'd wring your neck for this, you she-devil!" he bawled-and raced back, evidently for the candle on the washstand.

Rhoda Gray, sprawled on the floor where he had thrown her, did not move-except to take the revolver from the pocket of her dress. She was crooning queerly to herself, as she watched Rough Rorke light the candle and grope around on the floor:

"She was good to me, de White Moll was. Jellies an' t'ings she brought me, she did. An' Gypsy Nan don't ferret. Gypsy Nan don't -"

She sat up suddenly, snarling. Rorke had found the key, left the bottle with the short stub of guttering candle standing on the floor, and was back again.

"By God!" he gritted through his teeth, as he jabbed the key with frantic haste into the lock. "I'll fix you for this!" He made a clutch at her throat, as he swung the door open.

She jerked herself backward, eluding him, her revolver leveled.

"Youse keep yer dirty paws off me!" she screamed. "Yah, wot can youse do! Wot do I care! She was good to me, she was, an -"

Rough Rorke was gone-taking the stairs three and four at a time. Then she heard the street door slam.

She rose slowly to her feet - and suddenly reached out, grasping at the door to steady herself. It seemed as though every muscle had gone limp, as though her limbs had not strength to support her. And for a moment she hung there, then she locked the door, staggered back, sank down on the edge of the bed, and, with her chin in her hands, stared at the guttering stub of candle. And presently, in an almost aimless, mechanical way, she felt in her pocket for the piece of paper that she had found wrapped around the key, and drew it out. There were three figures scrawled upon it - nothing else.

                        7     3     9         

She dropped her chin in her hands again, and stared again at the candle. And after a while the candle went out.