The White Moll by Frank L. Packard
IV. The Adventurer
Twenty-Four hours had passed. Twenty four hours! Was it no more than that since - Rhoda Gray, in the guise of Gypsy Nan, as she sat on the edge of the disreputable, poverty-stricken cot, grew suddenly tense, holding her breath as she listened. The sound reached the attic so faintly that it might be but the product solely of the imagination. No - it came again! And it even defined itself now - a stealthy footstep on the lower stairs.
A small, leather-bound notebook, in which she had been engrossed, was tucked instantly away under the soiled blanket, and she glanced sharply around the garret. A new candle, which she had bought in the single excursion she had ventured to make from the house during the day, was stuck in the neck of the gin bottle, and burned now on the chair beside her. She had not bought a new lamp - it gave too much light! The old one, the pieces of it, lay over there, brushed into a heap in the corner on the floor.
The footstep became more audible. Her lips tightened a little. The hour was late. It must be already after eleven o'clock. Her eyes grew perturbed. Perhaps it was only one of the unknown tenants of the floor below going to his or her room; but, on the other hand, no one had come near the garret since last night, when that strange and, yes, sinister trick of fate had thrust upon her the personality of Gypsy Nan, and it was hoping for too much to expect such seclusion to obtain much longer. There were too many who must be interested, vitally interested, in Gypsy Nan! There was Rough Rorke, of headquarters; he had given no sign, but that did not mean he had lost interest in Gypsy Nan. There was the death of the real Gypsy Nan, which was pregnant with possibilities; and though the newspapers, that she, Rhoda Gray, had bought and scanned with such tragic eagerness, had said nothing about the death of one Charlotte Green in the hospital, much less had given any hint that the identity Gypsy Nan had risked so much to hide had been discovered, it did not mean that the police, with their own ends in view, might not be fully informed, and were but keeping their own counsel while they baited a trap.
Also, and even more to be feared, there were those of this criminal organization to which Gypsy Nan had belonged, and to which she, Rhoda Gray, through a sort of hideous proxy, now belonged herself! Sooner or later, they must show their hands, and the test of her identity would come. And here her danger was the greater because she did not know who any of them were, unless the man who had stepped in between Rough Rorke and herself last night was one of them - which was a question that had harassed her all day. The man had been no more drunk than she had been, and he had obviously only played the part to get her out of the clutches of Rough Rorke; but, against this, he had seen her simply as herself then, the White Moll, and what could the criminal associates of Gypsy Nan have cared as to what became of the White Moll?
A newspaper, to procure which had been the prime motive that had lured her out of her retreat that afternoon, caught her eye now, and she shivered a little as, from where it lay on the floor, the headlines seemed to leer up at her, and mock, and menace her. "The White Moll....The Saint of the East Side Exposed....Vicious Hypocrisy....Lowly Charity for Years Cloaks a Consummate Thief..." They had not spared her!
Her lips firmed suddenly, as she listened. The stealthy footfall had not paused in the hall below. It was on the short, ladder-like steps now, leading up here to the garret - and now it had halted outside her door, and there came a low, insistent knocking on the panels.
"Who's dere?" demanded Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan, in a grumbling tone, as, getting up from the bed, she moved the chair noiselessly a few feet farther away, so that the bed would be beyond the immediate radius of the candle light. Then she shuffled across the floor to the door. "Who's dere?" she demanded again, and her hand, deep in the voluminous pocket of Gypsy Nan's greasy skirt, closed tightly around the stock of Gypsy Nan's revolver.
The voice that answered her expostulated in a plaintive whisper:
"My dear lady! And after all the trouble I have taken to reach here without being either seen or heard!"
For an instant Rhoda Gray hesitated - there seemed something familiar about the voice - then she unlocked the door, and retreated toward the bed.
The door opened and closed softly. Rhoda Gray, reaching the edge of the bed, sat down. It was the fashionably-attired, immaculate young man, who had saved her from Rough Rorke last night. She stared at him in the faint light without a word. Her mind was racing in a mad turmoil of doubt, uncertainty, fear. Was he one of the gang, or not? Was she, in the role of Gypsy Nan, supposed to know him, or not? Did he know that the real Gypsy Nan, too, had but played a part, and, therefore, when she spoke must it be in the vernacular of the East Side - or not? And then sudden enlightenment, with its incident relief, came to her.
"My dear lady" - the young man's soft felt hat was under his arm, and he was plucking daintily at the fingers of his yellow gloves as he removed them - "I beg you to pardon the intrusion of a perfect stranger. I offer you my very genuine apologies. My excuse is that I come from a - I hope I am not overstepping the bounds in using the term - mutual friend." Rhoda Gray snorted disdainfully.
"Aw, cut out de boudoir talk, an' get down to cases!" she croaked. "Who are youse, anyway?"
The young man had gray eyes - and they lighted up now humorously.
"Boudoir? Ah - yes! Of course! Awfully neat!" His eyes, from the chair that held the candle, strayed around the scantily furnished, murky garret as though in search of a seat, and finally rested inquiringly on Rhoda Gray.
"Youse can put de candle on de floor, if youse like," she said grudgingly. "Dat's de only chair dere is."
"Thank you!" he said.
Rhoda Gray watched him with puckered brow, as he placed the gin bottle with its candle on the floor, and appropriated the chair. He might, from his tone, have been thanking her for some priceless boon. He wore a boutonniere. His clothes fitted him like gloves. He exuded a certain studied, almost languid fastidiousness - that was wholly out of keeping with the quick, daring, agile wit that he had exhibited the night before. She found her hand toying unconsciously with the weapon in her pocket. She was aware that she was fencing with unbuttoned foils. How much did he know - about last night?
"Well, why don't youse spill it?" she invited curtly. "Who are youse?"
"Who am I?" He lifted the lapel of his coat, carrying the boutonniere to his nose. "My dear lady, I am an adventurer."
"Youse don't say!" observed Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan. "An' wot's dat w' en it's at home?"
"In my case, first of all a gentleman, I trust," he said pleasantly; "after that, I do not quarrel with the accepted definition of the term - though it is not altogether complimentary."
Rhoda Gray scowled. As Rhoda Gray, she might have answered him; as Gypsy Nan, it was too subtle, and she was beyond her depth.
"Youse look to me like a slick crook!" she said bluntly.
"I will admit," he said, "that I have at times, perhaps, taken liberties with the law."
"Well, den," she snapped, "cut out de high-brow stuff, an' come across wid wot brought youse here. I ain't holdin' no reception. Who's de friend youse was talkin' about?"
The Adventurer looked around him, and lowered his voice.
"The White Moll," he said.
Rhoda Gray eyed the man for a long minute; then she shook her head.
"I take back wot I said about youse bein' a slick crook," she announced coolly. "I guess youse're a dick from headquarters. Well, youse have got de wrong number - see? Me fingers are crossed. Try next door!"
The Adventurer's eyes were fixed on the newspaper headlines on the floor. He raised them now significantly to hers.
"You helped her to get away from Rough Rorke last night," he said gently. "Well, so did I. I am very anxious to find the White Moll, and, as I know of no other way except through you, I have got to make you believe in me, if I can. Listen, my dear lady - and don't look at me so suspiciously. I have already admitted that I have taken liberties with the law. Let me add now that last night there was a little fortune of quite a few thousand dollars that I had already made up my mind was as good as in my pocket. I was on my way to get it - the newspaper will already have given you the details - when I found that I had been forestalled by the young lady, who, the papers say, is known as the White Moll." He smiled whimsically. "Even though one might be a slick crook as you suggest, it is no reason why he should fail in his duty to himself - as a gentleman. What other course was open to me? I discovered a very charming young lady in the grip of a hulking police brute. She also, apparently, took liberties with the law. There was a bond between us. I - er - took it upon myself to do what I could. And, besides, I was not insensible to the fact that I was under a certain obligation to her, quixotic as it may sound, in view of the fact that we were evidently competitors after the same game. You see, if she had not forestalled me and been caught herself, I should most certainly have walked into the trap that our friend of headquarters had prepared. I - er - as I say, did what I could. She got away; but somehow Rough Rorke later discovered her here in this room, I understand that he was not happy over the result; that, thanks to you, she escaped again, and has not been heard of since.
Rhoda Gray dropped her chin in her grime-smeared hand, staring speculatively at the other. The man sat there, apparently a self-confessed crook and criminal, but, also, he sat there as the man to whom she owed the fact that at the present moment she was not behind prison bars. He proclaimed himself in the same breath both a thief and a gentleman, as far as she could make out. They were characteristics which, until now, she had never associated together; but now, curiously enough, they did not seem so utterly at variance. Of course they were at variance, must of necessity be so; but in the personality of this man the incongruity seemed somehow lost. Perhaps it was a sense of gratitude toward him that modified her views. He looked a gentleman. There was something about him that appealed. The gray eyes seemed full of cool, confident, self-possession; and, quiet as his manner was, she sensed a latent dynamic something lurking near the surface all the time - that she was conscious she would much prefer to have enlisted on her behalf than against her. The strong, firm chin bore this out. He was not handsome, but - with a sort of mental jerk, she forced her mind back to the stark realities of her surroundings. She could not thank him for what he had done last night. She could not tell him that she was the White Moll. She could only play out the role of Gypsy Nan until - until - Her hand tightened with a fierce, involuntary pressure upon her chin until it brought a physical hurt. Until what? God alone knew what the end of this miserable, impossible horror, in which she found herself engulfed, would be!
Her eyes sought his face again. The Adventurer was tactfully engaged in carefully smoothing out the fingers of his yellow gloves. Thief and gentleman, whatever he might be, whatever he might choose to call himself, what, exactly, was it that had brought him here to-night? The White Moll, he had said; but what did he want with the White Moll?
He answered her unspoken question now, almost as though he had read her thoughts.
"She is very clever," he said quietly. "She must be exceedingly clever to have beaten the police the way she has for the last few years; and - er - I worship at the shrine of cleverness - especially if it be a woman's. The idea struck me last night that if she and I should - er - pool our resources, we should not have to complain of the reward."
"Oh, so youse wants to work wid her, eh?" sniffed Rhoda Gray. "So dat's it, is it?"
"Partially," he said. "But, quite apart from that, the reason I want to find her is because she is in very great danger. Clever as she is, it is a very different matter to-day now that the police have found her out. She has been forced into hiding, and, if alone and without any friend to help her, her situation, to put it mildly, must be desperate in the extreme. You befriended her last night, and I honor you for the unselfishness with which you laid yourself open to the future attentions of that animal Rorke, but that very fact has deprived her of what might otherwise have been a refuge and a quite secure retreat here with you. I do not wish to intrude, or force myself upon her, but I believe I could be of very material help, and so I have come to you, as I have said, because you are the only source through which I can hope to find her, and because, through your act of last night, I know you to be a trustworthy, and, perhaps, even an intimate, friend of hers."
"Aw, go on!" said Rhoda Gray, alias Gypsy Nan, deprecatingly. "Dat don't prove nothin'! I'd have done as much for a stray cat if de bulls was chasm' her. See? I told youse once youse had de wrong number. She didn't leave no address. Dat's flat, an' dat's de end of it."
"I'm sorry," said the Adventurer gravely. "Perhaps I haven't made out a good enough case. Or perhaps, even believing me, you consider that the White Moll, and not yourself, should be the judge as to whether my services are acceptable or not?"
"Youse can dope it out any way youse likes," said Rhoda Gray indifferently. "Me t'roat's gettin' hoarse tellin' youse dere's nothin' doin'!"
"I'm sorry," said the Adventurer again. He smiled suddenly, and tucking his gloves into his pocket, leaned forward and tore off a small piece from the margin of the newspaper on the floor - but his head the while was now cocked in a curious listening attitude in the direction of the door. "You will pardon me, my dear lady, if I confess that, in spite of what you say, I still harbor the belief that you know where to reach the White Moll; and so -" He stopped abruptly, and she found his glance, sharp and critical, upon her. "You are expecting a visitor, perhaps?" he inquired softly.
Rhoda Gray stared in genuine perplexity.
"Wot's de answer?" she demanded.
"There is some one on the stairs," replied the Adventurer.
Rhoda Gray listened - and her perplexity deepened. She could hear nothing.
"Youse must have good ears!" she scoffed.
"I have," returned the Adventurer coolly. "My hearing is one of the resources that I wanted to pool with the White Moll."
"Well, den, mabbe it's Rough Rorke." Her tone still held its scoffing note; but her words voiced the genuine enough, that had come flashing upon her. "An' if it is, after last night, an' he finds youse an' me together, dere'll be -"
"My dear lady," interposed the Adventurer calmly, "if there were the remotest possibility that it could be Rough Rorke, I would not be here."
"Wot do youse mean?" She had unconsciously towered her voice.
The Adventurer shrugged his shoulders whimsically. He had laid the piece of paper on his knee, and, with a small gold pencil which he had taken from his pocket, was writing something upon it.
"The fact that I can assure you that, whoever else it may be, the person outside there cannot be Rough Rorke, is simply a proof that, if I had the opportunity, I could be of real assistance to the White Moll," he said imperturbably. "Well" - a grim little smile flickered suddenly across his lips - "do you hear any one now?"
Quite low, but quite unmistakably, the short, ladder-like steps just outside the door were voicing a creaky protest now as some one mounted them. Rhoda Gray did not move. It seemed as though she could hear the sudden thumping of her own heart. Who was it this time? How was she to act? What was she to say? It was so easy to make the single little slip of word or manner that would spell ruin and disaster.
"Rubber heels and rubber soles," murmured the Adventurer. "But, at that, it is extremely well done." He held out the torn piece of paper to Rhoda Gray.
"If" - he smiled significantly - "if, by any good fortune, you see the White Moll again, please give her this and let her decide for herself. It is a telephone number. She can always reach me there by asking for - the Adventurer." He was still extending the piece of paper. "Quick!" he whispered, as the door knob rattled.