The Uttermost Farthing by R. Austin Freeman
VI. The Trail of the Serpent
Hitherto, in my transcriptions from Humphrey Challoner's "Museum Archives" I have taken the entries in their order, omitting only such technical details as might seem unsuitable for the lay reader. Now, however, I pass over a number of entries. The capture of Numbers 7, 8 and 9 exhibits the methods to which Challoner, in the main, adhered during his long residence in East London; and, though there were occasional variations, the accounts of the captures present a general similarity which might render their recital tedious. The last entry but one, on the other hand, is among the most curious and interesting. Apart from the stirring incidents that it records, the new light that it throws on a hitherto unsolved mystery makes it worth extracting entire, which I now proceed to do, with the necessary omissions alluded to above.
"Circumstances connected with the acquirement of Numbers 23 and 24 in the Anthropological Series.
"The sand of my life ran out with varying speed--as it seemed to me--in the little barber's shop in Saul Street, Whitechapel. Now would my pulses beat and the current of my blood run swift. Those were the times when I had visitors; and presently a new skeleton or two would make their appearance in the long wall-case. But there were long intervals of sordid labor and dull inaction when I would cut hair--and examine it through my lens--day after day and wonder whether, in electing to live, rather than pass voluntarily into eternal repose, I had, after all, chosen the better part. For in all those years no customer with ringed hair ever came to my shop. The long pursuit seemed to bring me no nearer to that unknown wretch, the slayer of my beloved wife. Still was he hidden from me amidst the unclean multitude that seethed around; or perchance some sordid grave had already offered him an everlasting sanctuary, leaving me wearily to pursue a phantom enemy.
"But I am digressing. This is not a record of my emotions, but a history of the contents of my museum. Let me proceed to specimens 23 and 24 and the very remarkable circumstances under which I had the good fortune to acquire them. First, however, I must describe an incident which, although it occurred some time before, never developed its importance until this occasion arose.
"One drowsy afternoon there came to my shop a smallish, shabby-looking man, quiet and civil in manner and peculiarly wooden as to his countenance; in short, a typical 'old lag.' I recognized the type at a glance; the 'penal servitude face' had become a familiar phenomenon. He spread himself out to be shaved and to have the severely official style of his coiffure replaced by a less distinctive mode; and as I worked he conversed affably.
"'Saw old Polensky a week or two ago.'
"'Did you indeed?' said I.
"'Yus. Portland. Got into 'ot water, too, 'e did. Tried to fetch the farm and didn't pull it orf.' ('The farm,' I may explain, is the prison infirmary.) 'Got dropped on for malingering. That's the way with these bloomin' foreigners.'
"'He didn't impose on the doctor, then?'
"'Lor', no! Doctor'd seen that sort o' bloke before. Polensky said he'd got a pain in 'is stummik, so the doctor says it must be becos 'is diet was too rich, and knocks orf arf 'is grub. I tell yer, Polensky was sorry 'e'd spoke.'
"Here, my client showing a disposition to smile, I removed the razor to allow him to do so. Presently he resumed, discursively:
"'I knoo this 'ouse years ago, before Polensky's time, when old Durdler had it. Durdler used to do the smashin' lay up on the second floor and me and two or three nippers used to work for 'im--plantin' the snide, yer know. 'E was a rare leery un, was Durdler. It was 'im what made that slidin' door in the wall in the second floor front.'
"I pricked up my ears at this. 'A sliding door? In this house?'
"'Gawblimy!' exclaimed my client. 'Meantersay you don't know about that door?'
"I assured him most positively that I had never heard of it.
"'Well, well,' he muttered. 'Sich a useful thing, too. Durdler used to keep 'is molds and stuff up there, and then, when there was a scare of the cops, he used to pop the thing through into the next 'ouse--Mrs. Jacob 'ad the room next door--and the coppers used to come and sniff round, but of course there wasn't nothin' to see. Regler suck in for them. And it was useful if you was follered. You could mizzle in through the shop, run upstairs, pop through the door, downstairs next door and out through the back yard. I've done it myself. 'Oo's got the second floor front now?'
"'I have,' said I. 'I keep the whole of the house.'
"'My eye!' exclaimed my friend, whose name I learned to be Towler, 'you are a bloomin' toff. Like me to show you that door?'
"I said that I should like it very much, and accordingly, when the trimming operations were concluded and I had secured a wisp of Mr. Towler's hair for subsequent examination, we ascended to the second floor front and he demonstrated the hidden door.
"'It's in this 'ere cupboard, under that row of pegs. That peg underneath at the side is the 'andle. You catches 'old of it, so, and you gives a pull to the right.' He suited the action to the words, and, with a loud groan, the middle third of the back of the cupboard slid bodily to the right, leaving an opening about three feet square, beyond which was a solid-looking panel with a small knob at the left-hand side.
"'That,' whispered Towler, 'is the back of a cupboard in the next 'ouse. If you was to pull that 'andle to the right, it would slide along same as this one. Only I expect there's somebody in the room there.'
"I rewarded Mr. Towler with half a sovereign, which he evidently thought liberal, and he departed gleefully. Shortly afterwards I learned that he had 'got a stretch' in connection with a 'job' at Camberwell; and he vanished from my ken. But I did not forget the sliding doors. No special use for them suggested itself, but their potentialities were so obvious that I resolved to keep a sharp eye on the second floor front next door.
"I had not long to wait. Presently the whole floor was advertised by a card on the street door as being to let and I seized the opportunity of a quiet Sunday to reconnoiter and put the arrangements in going order. I slid back the panel on my own side and then, dragging at the handle, pushed back the second panel. Both moved noisily and would require careful treatment. I passed through the square opening into the vacant room and looked round, but there was little to see, though a good deal to smell, for the windows were hermetically sealed and a closed stove fitted into the fireplace precluded any possibility of ventilation. The aroma of the late tenants still lingered in the air.
"I returned through the opening and began my labors. First, with a hard brush I cleaned out both sets of grooves, top and bottom. Then, into each groove I painted a thick coating of tallow and black lead, mixed into a paste and heated. By moving the panels backwards and forwards a great number of times I distributed the lubricant and brought the black lead to such a polish that the doors slid with the greatest ease and without a sound. I was so pleased with the result that I was tempted to engage the room next door, but as this might have aroused suspicion--seeing that I had a whole house already--I refrained; and shortly afterwards the floor was taken by a family of Polish Jews, who apparently supplemented their income by letting part of it furnished.
"I now pass over an intervening period and come to the circumstances of one of my most interesting and stirring experiences. It was about this time that some misbegotten mechanician invented the automatic magazine pistol, and thereby rendered possible a new and execrable type of criminal. It was not long before the appropriate criminal arrived. The scene of the first appearance was the suburb of Tottenham, where two Russian Poles attempted, and failed in, an idiotic street robbery. The attempt was made in broad daylight in the open street, and the two wretches, having failed, ran away, shooting at every human being they met. In the end they were both killed--one by his own hand--but not until they had murdered a gallant constable and a poor little child and injured in all, twenty-two persons.
"I read the newspaper account with deep interest and the conviction that this was only a beginning. Those two frenzied degenerates belonged to a common enough type; the type of the Slav criminal who has not sense enough to take precautions nor courage enough to abide the fortune of war. The automatic pistol, I felt sure, would bring him into view; and I was not mistaken.
"One night, returning from a tour of inspection, I met a small excited crowd accompanying a procession of three police ambulances. I joined the throng and presently turned into a small blind thoroughfare in which had gathered a small and nervous-looking crowd and a few flurried policemen. Several of the windows were shattered and on the ground were three prostrate figures. One was dead, the others were badly wounded, and all three were members of the police force.
"I watched the ambulances depart with their melancholy burdens and then turned for information to a bystander. He had not much to give, but the substance of his account--confirmed later by the newspapers--was this: The police had located a gang of suspected burglars and three officers had come to the house to make arrests. They had knocked at the door, which, after some delay, was opened. Some person within had immediately shot one of the officers dead and the entire gang of four or five had rushed out, fired point blank at the other two officers, and then raced up the street shooting right and left like madmen. Several people had been wounded and, grievous to relate, the whole gang of miscreants had made their escape into the surrounding slums.
"I was profoundly interested and even excited for several reasons. In the first place, here at last was the real Lombroso criminal, the sub-human mattoid, devoid of intelligence, devoid of the faintest glimmering of moral sense, fit for nothing but the lethal chamber; compared with whom the British 'habitual' was a civilized gentleman. Without a specimen or two of this type, my collection was incomplete. Then there was the evident applicability of my methods to this class of offender; methods of quiet extermination without fuss, public disorder or risk to the precious lives of the police. But beyond these there was another reason for my interest. The murder of my wife had been a purposeless, unnecessary crime, committed by some wretch to whom human life was a thing of no consideration. There was an analogy in the circumstances that seemed to connect that murder with this type of miscreant. It was even possible that one of these very villains might be the one whom I had so patiently sought through the long and weary years.
"The thought fired me with a new enthusiasm. Forthwith I started to pursue the possible course of the fugitives, threading countless by-streets and alleys, peering into squalid courts and sending many a doubtful-looking loiterer shuffling hastily round the nearest corner. Of course it was fruitless. I had no clue and did not even know the men. I was merely walking off my own excitement.
"Nevertheless, every night as soon as I had closed my shop, I set forth on a voyage of exploration, impelled by sheer restlessness; and during the day I listened eagerly to the talk of my customers in Yiddish--a language of which I was supposed to be entirely ignorant. But I learned nothing. Either the fugitives were unknown, or the natural secretiveness of an alien people forbade any reference to them, even among themselves; and meanwhile, as I have said, I tramped the streets nightly into the small hours of the morning.
"Returning from one of these expeditions a little earlier than usual, I found a small party of policemen and a sprinkling of idlers gathered opposite the house next door. There was no need to ask what was doing. The suppressed excitement of the officers and the service revolvers in their belts told the story. There was going to be another slaughter; and I was probably too late for any but a spectator's part.
"The street door was open and the house was being quietly emptied of its human occupants. They came out one by one, shivering and complaining, with little bundles of their possessions hastily snatched up, and collected in a miserable group on the pavement. I opened my shop door and invited them to come in and rest while their messengers went to look for a harbor of refuge; but I stayed outside to see the upshot of the proceedings.
"When the last of the tenants had come out, a sergeant emerged and quietly closed the street door with a latch-key. The rest of the policemen took up sheltered positions in doorways after warning the idlers to disperse and the sergeant turned to me.
"'Now, Mr. Vosper, you'd better keep your nose indoors if you don't want it shot off. There's going to be trouble presently.' He pushed me gently into the shop and shut the door after me.
"I found the evicted tenants chattering excitedly and very unhappy. But they were not rebellious. They were mostly Jews, and Jews are a patient, submissive people. I boiled some water in my little copper and made some coffee, which they drank gratefully--out of shaving mugs; my outfit of crockery being otherwise rather limited. And meanwhile they talked volubly and I listened.
"'I vunder,' said a stout, elderly Jewess, 'how der bolice know dose shentlemens gom to lotch mit me. Zumpotty must haf toldt dem.'
"'Yus,' agreed an evicted tenant of doubtful occupation, 'some bloomin' nark has giv 'em away. Good job too. Tain't playin' the game for to go pottin' at the coppers like that there. Coppers 'as got their job to do same as what we 'ave. You know that, Mrs. Kosminsky.'
"'Ja, dat is droo,' said the Jewess; 'but dey might let me bring my dings mit me. Do-morrow is Ky-fox-tay. Now I lose my money.'
"'How is that, Mrs. Kosminsky?' I asked.
"'Pecause I shall sell dem not, de dings vot I buy for Ky-fox-tay; de fireworks, de gragers, de masgs and oder dings vor de chiltrens. Dvendy-vaive shillings vort I buy. Dey are in my room on ze zecond floor. I ask de bolice to let me vetch dem, hot dey say no; I shall disturb de chentlemens in de front room. Zo I lose my money pecause I sell dem not.' Here the unfortunate woman burst into tears and I was so much affected by her distress that I instantly offered to buy the whole consignment for two pounds, whereat she wept more copiously than ever, but collected the purchase-money with great promptitude and stowed it away in a very internal pocket, displaying in the process as many layers of clothing as an old-fashioned pen-wiper.
"'Ach! Mizder Fosper, you are zo coot to all de boor beebles, dough you are only a boor man yourzelf. Bot it is de boor vot is de vriendts of de boor;' and in her gratitude she would have kissed my hands if I had not prudently stuck them in my trousers pockets.
"A messenger now arrived to say that a refuge had been secured for the night, and my guests departed with many thanks and benedictions. The street, as I looked out, was now quite deserted save for one or two prowling policemen, who, apparently bored with their hiding-places, had come forth to patrol in the open. I did not stay to watch them, for Mrs. Kosminsky's remarks had started a train of thought which required to be carried out quickly. Accordingly I went in and fell to pacing the empty shop.
"The police, I assumed, were waiting for daylight to rush the house. It was a mad plan and yet I was convinced that they had no other. And when they should enter, in the face of a stream of bullets from those terrible automatic pistols, what a carnage there would be! It was frightful to think of. Why does the law permit those cowards' tools to be made and sold? A pistol is the one weapon that has no legitimate use. An axe, a knife--even a rifle, has some lawful function. But a pistol is an appliance for killing human beings. It has no other purpose whatever. A man who is found with house-breaking tools in his possession is assumed to be a house-breaker. Surely a man who carries a pistol convicts himself of the intention to kill somebody.
"But perhaps the police had some reasonable plan. It was possible, but it was very unlikely. The British policeman is a grand fellow, brave as a lion and ready to march cheerfully into the mouth of hell if duty calls. But he knows no tactics. His very courage is almost a disadvantage, leading him to disdain reasonable caution. I felt that our guardians were again going to sacrifice themselves to these vermin. It was terrible. It was a wicked waste of precious lives. Could nothing be done to prevent it?
"According to Mrs. Kosminsky, the 'chentlemens' were in the second floor front--the room with the sliding panel. Then I could, at least, keep a watch on them. I walked slowly upstairs gnashing my teeth with irritation. The sacrifice was so unnecessary. I could think, offhand, of half a dozen ways of annihilating these wretches without risking a single hair of any decent person's head. And here were the police, with all the resources of science at their disposal and practically unlimited time in which to work, actually contemplating a fight with all the odds against them!
"I stole into the second floor front and, by the light of a match, found the cupboard. The inside panel--as I will call the one on my side--slid back without a sound. There was now only the second panel between me and the next room, and I could plainly hear the murmur of voices and sounds of movement. But I could not distinguish what was being said; and as this was of some importance, I determined to try the other panel. Grasping the handle, I gave a firm but gradual pull, and felt the panel slide back quite silently for a couple of inches. Instantly the voices became perfectly distinct and a whiff of foul, stuffy air came through, with a faint glimmer of light; by which I knew that the cupboard on their side was at least partly open.
"'I tell you, Piragoff,' a voice said in Russian, 'you are nervous about nothing. The police are looking for us, but they know none of us by sight. We can go about quite safely.'
"'I am not so sure,' replied another voice--presumably Piragoff's. 'The babbling fool who let us the house may talk more; and who knows but some of our own people may betray us. That woman Kosminsky looked very queerly at us, I thought.'
"'Bah!' exclaimed the other. 'Come and lie down, Piragoff. Tomorrow we will leave this place and separate. We shall go away for a time and they will forget us. Put some more coke in the stove and let us go to sleep.'
"How incalculable are the groupings of factors that evolve the causation of events! Those last words of the invisible ruffian seemed quite trivial and inconsequent; and yet they framed his death warrant. I did not myself realize it fully at the moment. As I closed the slide and stepped back, I was conscious only that a useful train of thought had been started. 'Put some more coke in the stove and let us go to sleep.' Yes; there was a clear connection between the idea of 'stove' and that of 'sleep,' a sleep of infinite duration. Therein lay the solution of the problem.
"I walked slowly down the stairs tracing the connection between the ideas of 'stove' and 'sleep.' The nauseous air that had filtered through from that room spoke eloquently of sealed windows and stopped crevices. It was a frosty night and the murderers were chilly. A back-draught in the stovepipe would fill the room with poisonous gases and probably suffocate these wretches slowly and quietly. But how was it to be brought about? For a moment I thought of climbing to the roof and stopping the chimney from above. But the plan was a bad one. The police might see me and make some regrettable mistake with a revolver. Besides it would probably fail. The stoppage of the draught would extinguish the fire and the pungent coke-fumes would warn the villains of their danger. Still closely pursuing the train of thought, I stepped into my bedroom and lit the gas; I turned to glance round the room; and, behold! the problem was solved.
"In the fireplace stood a little brass stove of Russian make; a tiny affair, too small to burn anything but charcoal; but, as charcoal was easily obtainable in East London, I had bought it and fixed it myself. It was perfectly safe in a well-ventilated room, though otherwise very dangerous; for the fumes of charcoal, consisting of nearly pure carbon dioxide, being practically inodorous, give no warning.
"My course was now quite clear. The stove was fitted with asbestos-covered handles; a box of charcoal stood by the hearth, and in the corner was an extra length of stovepipe for which I had had no use. But I had a use for it now.
"I lit the charcoal in the stove, and, while it was burning up, carried the stovepipe and the box of fuel upstairs. Then I returned for the stove, inside which the charcoal was now beginning to glow brightly. I fixed on the extra length of pipe and, with my hand, felt the stream of hot air--or rather hot carbon dioxide gas--pouring out of its mouth. I tried the pipe against the opening and found that it would rest comfortably on the lower edge; and then, very slowly and cautiously, I drew back the sliding panel about six inches. The ruffians were still wrangling on the same subject, for I heard one exclaim:
"'Don't be a fool, Piragoff. You'll only attract attention if you go nosing about downstairs.'
"'I don't care,' was the answer; 'I feel uneasy. I must go down and see that all is quiet before I go to sleep.' Here the sound of the opening and shutting of the door put an end to the discussion, save for a torrent of curses and maledictions from the two remaining men. But in a few moments the door opened noisily and Piragoff shouted:
"'Come out! Come out! The house is empty! We are betrayed.'
"A howl of dismay was the answer. The two wretches burst into a grotesque mixture of weeping and cursing, and I heard them literally dancing about the room in the ecstasy of their terror.
"'Come out!' repeated Piragoff. 'We will kill them all! We will shoot those pigs, every one of them! Some of us shall get away. Come!'
"'It is of no use, Piragoff,' whimpered one of his comrades. 'They are in the house. It is an ambush.'
"'Yes,' cried the third man, 'it is as Boris says. The house is dark and they are hiding in it. Bolt the door and let them come up to us; and we will kill them--kill!--kill!--kill!' he ended with an unearthly shriek and a burst of hysterical sobs.
"'I shall go,' said Piragoff. 'There is a chance.'
"'There is none,' shrieked the other. 'Come back, madman!'
"The door slammed, the key turned in the lock and a heavy bolt was shot. I quietly closed the slide and ran down to the open window of the first floor front room.
"The street appeared to be empty save for two constables who stood at a corner conversing in low tones. A profound silence reigned--an unusual silence, as it seemed!--through which the subdued murmur of the constables' voices was faintly audible. I looked out anxiously, debating whether I ought not to warn the unconscious sentinels even at the risk of defeating my plans. Suddenly two sharp reports in quick succession rang out from below; both constables fell, and a figure darted out of the doorway and raced madly up the street.
"One of the fallen constables lay motionless; the other grasped his hip with one hand and with the other fired his revolver repeatedly at the retreating murderer, but apparently missed him every time. In a few seconds a sergeant and another constable came flying round the corner; police whistles began to sound their warning in all directions; and the previous silence gave place to a very Babel of noise. But Piragoff had shot up a side turning before the sergeant arrived, and the persistent clamor of the whistles told me that he had, for the moment, at least, escaped. I turned away. Piragoff was out of my hands, and what I had seen only made it more imperative that I should prevent further bloodshed.
"As, once more, I softly opened the slide, the voices of the miserable wretches within came to me in a strange and unpleasant mixture of curses, blasphemies and hysterical sobs. They cursed Piragoff, they cursed the police, they invoked death and destruction on every man, woman and child in this nation of pigs; and between the curses they wept and lamented. I had shut the damper of the stove before going down, but the charcoal was still alight, though dull. I now arranged the stove in position, resting the long pipe on the bottom edge of the opening so that its end projected a few inches into the room; moving quite silently and assisted by the hubbub from without and the noise produced by the two craven villains. When it was fixed, I opened the damper, and presently, holding my hand opposite the mouth of the pipe, felt a strong current of hot gas pouring out. That gas would cool rapidly on meeting the cold air, and then would fall by its own weight and collect about the floor.
"My apparatus was now in full going order and there was nothing for it but to wait. The noise in the street had subsided, but the two ruffians showed no signs of settling down. They were now engaged in barricading the door so that it could be forced open only a few inches, thus exposing the attackers to a deadly fire. I was much obliged to them. Their movements would help to diffuse the gas and prevent it from settling too densely on the floor. Also, their exertions would make them breathe more deeply and so come more rapidly under the influence of the poison.
"The time crept on; the police made no sign; the murderers rested from their labors, sometimes talking excitedly, sometimes silent for minutes at a time, and at intervals yawning like overstrung women. And all the time the invisible stream of heavy, deadly gas was pouring out of the stovepipe and trickling unseen along the floor. Even now it must be eddying about the murderers' feet and slowly diffusing upwards. If only the police would remain quiescent for an hour or two more, the danger would be over.
"The long hours of the winter's night dragged out their weary length. Yet not weary to me. For, as I kept my vigil by the pipe and fed the stove silently at intervals, I was on the very tip-toe of expectation. Every moment I dreaded to hear the disastrous crash on the door that should herald a fresh slaughter; and, as the minutes passed and all remained still, hope rose higher and higher. Sometimes I caught a glimpse of my quarry through the chink of their cupboard door; for I had opened the slide fully a foot, finding that the clothes that hung from the pegs would screen me, even if the darkness on my side had not done so already. So I saw one of them sit down on a low chair and crouch, shuddering, over the coke stove, while the other restlessly paced the room.
"And still the stream of deadly gas trickled unceasingly from the pipe.
"Presently the former rose and yawned heavily. 'Bah!' he growled, 'I am tired. I shall lie down. If I fall asleep, Boris, do you watch, and wake me if you hear them coming.'
"By craning my neck through the opening I could just continue to get a glimpse of him as he threw himself on a mattress that was spread on the floor. The other man continued for a while to pace the room; then he sat down on the chair and spread his hands out over the stove, muttering to himself. I watched him as well as I could through the chink of the cupboard doors by the dim light of the stinking paraffin lamp; a greasy, unwholesome-looking wretch, sallow, pallid and unshorn; and thought how striking he would look in the form of a reduced, dry preparation.
"But that was impossible. I was now working only for the police. Regrettable as it was, I should have to surrender these two specimens to the coroner and the gravedigger. A deplorable waste of material, but unavoidable--even if one of them should prove to be my long-sought enemy.
"At this thought I started; and at that moment the man on the mattress gave a strange, snorting cry. The ruffian, Boris, looked round, rose, went over to the mattress and stirred the other with his foot. 'Louis! Louis!' he cried angrily, 'what the devil are you making that noise for?'
"The other man scrambled up with a cry of terror, pistol in hand. 'Ah! it is you, Boris! I was dreaming. I thought they had come.' He sat down again on the mattress and yawned. 'Bah! I am sleepy. I must lie down again. Watch a little longer, Boris.'
"'Why should I watch?' demanded Boris. 'They will make enough noise opening that door. I shall lie down a little, too.'
"He flung himself down beside his comrade, but in a minute or two started up, taking deep breaths. 'My God!' he exclaimed. 'I can't breathe lying down. I feel as if I should choke. And you, too, Louis; you are snorting like a pig. Get up, man.'
"He shook the prostrate man roughly, but eliciting only a few drowsy curses, resumed his restless pacing of the room. But not for long. Yawn after yawn told me that the gas was already in his blood; and the loud snoring of the other man indicated plainly the state of the air in the lower part of the room. Presently Boris halted in his walk and sat down by the stove, muttering as before. Soon he began to nod; then he nearly fell forward on the stove. Finally he rose heavily, staggered across to the mattress and once more flung himself down.
"I breathed more freely, notwithstanding that the gas, having partially diffused upwards to the level of the opening, now began to filter through to my side. I waited a minute or two listening to the breathing of the two murderers as it grew moment by moment more stertorous and irregular, and then, having filled up the stove, went down to the first floor and sat awhile by the open window to breathe the relatively fresh air.
"All was now quiet in the street. No doubt the guard had been strengthened, but I did not look out. It was as well not to be seen at that hour in the morning. As I sat by the window, I thought about the two men in that deadly room. It was a thousand pities that they should be lost to science. Yet there was no help for it. Even if I had decided to acquire them I could not have done so, for, by the very worst of luck, I had used up my last barrel and had neglected to lay in a fresh stock. Besides, of course, the police knew they were there.
"I rested for half an hour or so and then went upstairs to see how matters were progressing. No light now came through the opening in the wall, for the paraffin lamp had either burned out or been extinguished by the accumulating gas. I listened attentively. The harsh, metallic ticking of a cheap American clock was plainly, even intrusively, audible; otherwise no sound came from that chamber of death.
"I drew the sliding panel right back, held aside the dangling garments, and, climbing through into the cupboard, pushed open the doors. A faint glimmer of light from the street made dimly visible the mattress on the floor and two indistinct dark shapes stretched on it. I stepped quickly across the room, breathing as little as possible of the unspeakably foul air, and struck a wax match. It burned dimly and smokily, but showed me the two murderers, lying in easy postures, their faces livid and ghastly in hue but peaceful enough in expression. When I lowered the match, its flame dwindled and turned blue, and at eighteen inches from the floor it went out as if dipped in water. At that height the heavy gas must have been nearly pure. The room was a veritable Grotto del Cane.
"I stooped quickly, holding my breath, and felt the wrists of the two men. They were chilly to the touch and no vestige of pulse was perceptible. I shook them both vigorously, but failed to elicit any responsive movement. They were quite limp and inert and I had no doubt that they were dead. My work was done. The policemen were now safe, whatever follies they might commit; and it only remained for me to remove the traces of the fairy godmother who had labored through the night to save them from their own exuberant courage.
"Passing back through the opening, I drew away the now unnecessary pipe, closed the two panels, and carried the little stove down to my bedroom. I looked at the unruffled bed--mute but eloquent witness to the night's activity--and deciding as a measure of prudence to give it the appearance of having been slept in, took off my boots and crept in between the sheets. But I was not in the least degree drowsy. Quite the contrary. I was all agog to see the end of the comedy in which I had, all unknown, taken the leading part; so that after tossing about for a few minutes I sprang out of bed, resumed my boots and poured out a basin full of water to refresh myself by a wash.
"And now once more observe the strangely indirect lines of causation. The towels on the horse were damp and none too clean. I flung them into the dirty-linen basket and dragged open the drawer in which the clean ones were kept. It was the bottom drawer of a cheap pine chest that I had bought in Whitechapel High Street. That chest of drawers was of unusual size; it was four feet wide by nearly five feet high, and the two bottom drawers were each fully eighteen inches deep, and were far larger than was necessary for my modest stock of household linen.
"I pulled out the bottom drawer, then, and as its great cavity yawned before me, it offered a not unnatural suggestion. The length of an average man's head and trunk is under thirty-six inches. Allowing a few inches more for his feet and ankles, a cavity forty-eight inches long is amply sufficient for his accommodation. Flinging out the towels and sheets that lay in the drawer, I got in and lay down with my knees drawn up. Of course there was room and to spare.
"It was an interesting fact but not very applicable to present circumstances. Still, it set me thinking. I went into the front room and glanced out of the open window. A faint lightening of the murky sky heralded the approach of dawn, and from afar came the murmur of commencing traffic out in High Street. I was about to turn away when my ear caught a new and unusual sound rising above that distant murmur; the measured tread of feet mingling with the clatter of horses' hoofs and a heavy, metallic rumbling. I looked out cautiously in the direction whence the sounds came and was positively stupefied with amazement. At the end of the street I saw, by the light of the lamps, a company of soldiers appearing round the corner and taking up a position across the road. I watched breathlessly. Soon, at a sign from the officer, the men spread mats on the muddy ground and lay down on them, and then appeared a train of horses, dragging a field-piece or quick-firing gun, which was halted behind the infantry and unlimbered. A minute later the black shapes of a number of soldiers appeared on the sky-line as they crept along the parapets of the opposite houses where, save for their heads and the barrels of their rifles, they presently disappeared.
"It seemed that I had misjudged the police in the matter of caution. It almost seemed that my labors had been useless; for surely these portentous preparations indicated some masterpiece of strategy. What an anticlimax it would be when the defenders of the fort were found to be dead! But what a still greater anticlimax if they were not there at all!
"At this moment a police sergeant strolled down the middle of the road and, observing me, motioned to me with his hand to get inside out of harm's way. I obeyed with grim amusement, thinking of that absurd anticlimax; and somehow this idea began to connect itself with those two bottom drawers. But the casks were the difficulty. The cooper from whom I had obtained them sometimes kept me waiting nearly a week before supplying them--for I was only a small customer; and that would never do even at this time of year. Besides, the police would make a rigid search; not that that would have mattered if I could have made proper arrangements for the concealment and removal of the specimens. But unfortunately I could not. The specimens would have to go; to be borne out ingloriously in the face of the besieging force, limp and passive, like a couple of those very helpless guys that are wont to be produced by what Mrs. Kosminsky would call 'der chiltrens.' There would be a certain grim appropriateness in the incident. For this was the fifth of November.
"The generation of new ideas is chiefly a matter of association. The ideas 'guys,' 'Mrs. Kosminsky' and 'the fifth of November' unconsciously formed themselves into a group from which in an instant there was evolved a new and startling train of thought. At first it seemed wild enough; but when the two bottom drawers joined in the synthetic process, a complete and consistent scheme began to appear. A flush of pleasurable excitement swept over me, and as I raced upstairs fresh details added themselves and fresh difficulties were propounded and disposed of. I slid open the panels, stepped through and, holding my breath, strode across the poisoned room with only one quick glance at the two still forms on the mattress. Removing the barricading chair, I unlocked and unbolted the door and passed out, closing it after me.
"Mrs. Kosminsky's room was at the back; a dreadful nest of dirt and squalor, piled almost to the ceiling with unclassifiable rubbish. The air was so stifling that I was tempted to raise the heavily-curtained window a couple of inches; and thereby got a useful idea when, by peeping over the curtain, I saw the flat leads of a projecting lower story. The merchandise piled on all sides, and even under the bed, included very secondhand wearing apparel, sheets, blankets, crockery and toys. Among them were the fireworks, the masks and other appliances for commemorating the never-to-be-forgotten 'Gunpowder treason,' and a couple of large balls of a dark-colored cord sometimes used by costers for securing their loads. That gave me an idea, too, as did the frowsily-smart female garments. I appropriated four of the largest masks and a quantity of oakum for wigs; some colored-paper streamers and hat-frills; two huge and disreputable dresses--Mrs. Kosminsky's own, I suspected--the skirts of which I crammed with straw from a hamper; two large-sized and ragged suits of clothes, a woman's straw hat, four pairs of men's gloves and the biggest top-hat that I could find. These I put apart in a heap with one of the balls of cord. From the other ball I cut off some eight fathoms of cord, and, poking it out through the opening of the window, let it drop on the leads beneath. Then I conveyed my spoil in one or two journeys across the murderers' room, passed it through the opening, and closed the panel after me.
"Prudence suggested that I should dispose of these things first, and accordingly I stowed two masks, two pairs of gloves, one suit of clothes and one dress in the large chest of drawers. The rest I carried down to the back yard, where already was a quantity of lumber belonging to a neighboring green grocer. Returning upstairs, I called in at the bedroom to transfer the scanty contents of the two large drawers into the upper ones and then proceeded once more to the second floor front. Time was passing and the glimmer of the gray dawn was beginning to struggle in faintly through the dirty windows.
"As I drew back the slide I became aware of a sound which, soft as it was, rang the knell of my newly-formed hopes. I had closed the door of the murderers' room and locked it, but had not shot the bolt. Now I could distinctly hear someone fumbling gently at the keyhole, apparently with a picklock. It was most infuriating. At the very last moment, when success was within my grasp, I was to be foiled and all my neatly-laid plans defeated. And to make it a thousand times worse, I had not even taken the precaution to examine the dead miscreants' hair!
"With an angry and foolish exclamation, I reached through the opening and drew the cupboard doors to, leaving only a small chink. Then I shut myself in my own cupboard, to exclude the dim light, and closing the panel to within an inch, waited on events with my hand on the knob, ready to shut it at a moment's notice. The great strategic move was about to begin and I was curious to see what it would be.
"The bolt of the lock shot back; the door creaked softly. There was a pause, and then a voice whispered:
"'Why, they seem to be asleep! Keep them covered, Smith, and shoot if they move.'
"Soft footsteps advanced across the room. Someone gave a choking cough and then a brassy voice fairly shouted, 'Why, man, they're dead! My Lord! What a let-off!'
"An unsteady laugh told of the effort it had cost the worthy officer to take this frightful risk.
"'Yes,' said another voice, 'they're dead enough. They've cheated us after all. Not that I complain of that. But, my eye, sir; what a sell! Think of all those Tommies and that machine gun. Ha! ha! Oh! Lord! I suppose the beggars poisoned themselves when they saw the game was up.' He laughed again and the laugh ended in a fit of coughing.
"'Not they, Sergeant,' said the other. 'It was that coke stove that gave them their ticket. Can't you smell it? And, by Jove, it will give us our ticket if we don't clear out. We'll just run down and report and send for a couple of stretchers.'
"'Hadn't I better wait here, sir, while you're gone?' asked the sergeant.
"'Lord, no, man. What for? We shall want three stretchers if you do. Come along. Pooh! Leave the door open.'
"I listened incredulously to their retreating footsteps. It seemed hardly possible that they should be so devoid of caution. And yet, why not? The men were dead. And dead men are not addicted to sudden disappearances.
"But this case was going to be an exception. I had given the specimens up for lost when I heard the police enter; but now--
"I opened the slide, sprang through the opening, and strode over to the mattress. One after the other, I picked up the prostrate ruffians, carried them across and bundled them through the aperture. Then I came through myself, shut the cupboard doors, closed both panels carefully, shut up my own cupboard and carried the specimens down to my bedroom. With their knees drawn up, they packed quite easily in the large drawers. I shut them in, locked the drawers, pocketed the key, washed my hands and went down to the parlor, where I rapidly laid the breakfast table. At any moment now, the police might come to inspect, and whenever they came, they would find me ready.
"I did not waste time on breakfast. That could wait. Meanwhile I fell to work with the materials in the yard. In addition to the hand-cart, there was now a coster's barrow, the property of a greengrocer, to whom also belonged a quantity of lumber, including some bundles of stakes and several hampers filled with straw. With these materials, and those that I had borrowed from Mrs. Kosminsky, I began rapidly to build up a pair of life-sized guys--one male and one female. I put them together very roughly and sat them side by side in the barrow, leaning against the wall; and to each I attached a large ticket on which I had scrawled the name of the person it represented; one being the highly unpopular minister, Mr. Todd-Leeks, and the other the notorious Mrs. Gamway.
"They were very sketchily built and would have dropped to pieces at a touch. But that was of no consequence. The time factor was the important one; and I had worked at such speed that I had huddled them into a pretty plausible completeness when the inevitable peal at the house bell disturbed my labors. I darted into the parlor, crammed a piece of bread into my mouth and rushed out to the shop door, chewing frantically. As I opened the door, an agitated police inspector burst in, followed by a sergeant.
"'Good morning, gentlemen,' I said suavely. 'Hair-cutting or shaving?'
"I shall not record the inspector's reply. I was really shocked. I had no idea that responsible officials used such language. In effect, they wished to look over the premises. Of course I gave instant permission, and followed them in their tour of inspection on the pretext of showing them over the house.
"The inspector was in a very bad temper and the sergeant was obviously depressed. They conversed in low tones as they stumped up the stairs and I heard the sergeant say something about 'an awful suck in.'
"'Oh, don't talk of it,' snapped the inspector. 'It's enough to make a cat sick. But what beats me is how those devils could have stuck the air of that room. It would have settled my hash in five minutes.'
"'Yes,' agreed the sergeant; 'and how they could have let themselves down from that window without being spotted. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen the cord. The constables must have been asleep.'
"'Yes,' grunted the inspector; 'thickheaded louts. Let's have a look out here.' He strode into the second floor back and threw up the window. 'Now you see,' he continued, 'what I mean. This house has no connection with the next one. That projecting wing cuts it off. This back yard opens into Bell's Alley; the yard next door opens into Kosher Court. That's the way they went. They couldn't have got to this house excepting by the roof, and we've seen that they went down, not up.' He stuck his head out of the window and looked down sourly at the guys.
"'Those things yours?' he asked gruffly, pointing at the effigies.
"'No,' I answered. 'I think one of Piper's men is getting them ready to take round.'
"The inspector grunted and moved away. He walked into the front room, looked in the cupboard, glanced round and went downstairs. On the first floor, he made a perfunctory inspection of the rooms, glancing in at my bedroom, and then went down to the ground floor. From thence the two officers descended to the cellar, which they examined more thoroughly, even prodding the sawdust in the bin, and so up to the back yard. Here, at the sight of the guys, the sergeant's woeful countenance brightened somewhat.
"'Ha!' he exclaimed; 'Mrs. Gamway! I saw a good deal of her when I was in the Westminster division. I've often thought I'd like to--and, by Jimini! I will!' He squared up fiercely at the helpless-looking effigy of the lady, and, with a vicious, round-arm punch, sent its unstable head flying across the yard.
"The blow and its effect seemed to rouse his destructive instincts, for he returned to the attack with such ferocity that in a few seconds he had reduced, not only the factitious Mrs. Gamway, but the Right Honorable Todd-Leeks also, to a heap of ruin.
"'Stop that foolery, Smith,' snarled the inspector; 'you'll give the poor devil the trouble of building them up all over again. Come along.' He unlocked the gate and stood for a moment looking back at me.
"'I suppose you've heard nothing in the night?' he said.
"'Not a sound,' I answered, adding, 'I shan't open the shop until the evening, and I shall probably go out for the day. Would you like to have the key?'
"The inspector shook his head. 'No, I don't want the key. I've seen all I want to see. Good morning,' and he stumped out, followed by his subordinate.
"I drew a deep breath as I re-locked the gate. I was glad he had refused the key, though I had thought it prudent to make the offer. Now I was at liberty to complete my arrangements at leisure.
"My first proceeding, after locking up the shop, was to rig up, with the green grocer's stakes and Mrs. Kosminsky's cord, a firm pair of standards to support the guys. Then I took a hearty breakfast, after which I repaired to my bedroom with a hamper of straw, a bundle of small stakes and a quantity of odd rags. The process of converting the specimens into quite convincing guys was not difficult. Tying up the heads in large pieces of rag, I fastened the big masks to the fronts of the globular bundles and covered in the remainder with masses of oakum to form appropriate wigs. Each figure was then clothed in the bulky garments borrowed from Mrs. Kosminsky's stock and well stuffed with straw, portions of which I allowed to protrude at all the apertures. A suitable stiffness was imparted to the limbs by pieces of stick poked up inside the clothing, and smaller sticks gave the correct, starfish-like spread to the gloved hands. When they were finished, the illusion was perfect. As the two effigies sat on the floor with their backs against the wall, stiff, staring, bloated and grotesquely horrible, not a soul would have suspected them.
"I carried the male guy down to the yard, sat him on the barrow and put on his hat; and taking with me the remains of the ruined guys, which I decided to put away in the drawers, I returned for the second effigy. I lashed the two figures very securely to the standards, fixed on their hats firmly, and attached their name-cards. Then I went into the shop to attend to my own appearance.
"I had brought back from my Bloomsbury house the shabby overcoat and battered hat that I had worn on the last few expeditions. These I now assumed; and having fixed on my cheek a large cross of sticking-plaster--which pulled down my eyebrow and pulled up the corner of my mouth--begrimed my face, reddened my nose, and carefully tinted in a not too emphatic black eye, I was sufficiently transmogrified to deceive even my intimate friends. Now I was ready to start; and now was the critical moment.
"I went out into the yard, unlocked the gate, trundled the barrow out into the alley, and locked the gate behind me. At the moment there was not a soul in sight, but from the street close by came the unmistakable murmur of a large crowd. I must confess that I felt a little nervous. The next few minutes would decide my fate.
"I grasped the handles of the barrow and started forward resolutely. As I rounded the curve of the alley, a densely-packed throng appeared ahead. Faces turned towards me and broke into grins; the murmur rose into a dull roar, and, as the people drew aside to make way for me, I plunged into the heart of the throng and raised my voice in a husky chant:
"'Remember, remember the Fifth of November, The Gunpowder Treason and Plot.'
"Through the interstices of the crowd I could see the soldiers still drawn up by the curb and even the machine gun was yet in position. Suddenly the inspector and the sergeant appeared bustling through the crowd. The former caught sight of me and, waving his hand angrily, shouted:
"'Take that thing away from here! Move him out of the crowd, Moloney;' and a gigantic constable pounced on me with a broad grin, snatched the barrow-handles out of my hands, and started off at a trot that made the effigies rock in the most alarming manner.
"'Holler, bhoys!' shouted the grinning constable; and the 'bhoys' complied with raucous enthusiasm.
"At the outskirts of the crowd Constable Moloney resigned in my favor, and it was at this moment that I noticed a manifest plain-clothes officer observing my exhibits with undue attention. But here fortune favored me; for at the same instant I saw a man attempt to pick a pocket under the officer's very nose. The pickpocket caught my eye and moved off quickly. I pulled up, and, pointing at the thief, bawled out, 'Stop that man! Stop him!' The pickpocket flung himself into the crowd and made off. The startled loafers drew hastily away from him. Men shouted, women screamed, and the plain-clothes officer started in pursuit; and in the whirling confusion that followed, I trundled away briskly into Middlesex Street and headed for Spitalfields.
"My progress through the squalid streets was quite triumphal. A large juvenile crowd attended me, with appropriate vocal music, and adults cheered from the pavements, though no one embarrassed me with gifts. But, for all my outward gaiety, I was secretly anxious. It was barely ten o'clock and many hours of the dreary November day had yet to run before it would be safe for me to approach my destination. The prospect of tramping the streets for some ten or twelve hours with this very conspicuous appendage was far from agreeable, to say nothing of the increasing risk of detection, and I looked forward to it with gloomy forebodings. If a suspicion arose, I could be traced with the greatest ease, and in any case I should be spent with fatigue before evening. Reflecting on these difficulties, I had decided to seek some retired spot where I could dismount the effigies, cover them with the tarpaulin that was rolled up in the barrow and take a rest, when once more circumstances befriended me.
"All through the night and morning the ordinary winter haze had hung over the town; but now, by reason of a change of wind, the haze began rapidly to thicken into a definite fog. I set down the barrow and watched with thankfulness the mass of opaque yellow vapor filling the street and blotting out the sky. As it thickened and the darkness closed in, the children strayed away and only one solitary loafer remained.
"''Ard luck for you, mate, this 'ere fog,' he remarked, 'arter you've took all that trouble, too.' (He little knew how much.) 'But it's no go. You'd better git 'ome whilst you can find yer way. This is goin' to be a black 'un.'
"I thanked him for his sympathy and moved on into the darkening vapor. Close to Spital Square I found a quiet corner where I quickly dismounted the guys, covered them with the tarpaulin and, urged by a new anxiety from the rapidly-growing density of the fog, groped my way into Norton Folgate. Here I moved forward as quickly as I dared, turned up Great Eastern Street and at length, to my great relief, came out into Old Street.
"It was none too soon. As I entered the well-known thoroughfare, the fog closed down into impenetrable obscurity. The world of visible objects was extinguished and replaced by a chaos of confused sounds. Even the end of my barrow faded away into spectral uncertainty, and the curb against which I kept my left wheel grinding looked thin and remote.
"Opportune as the fog was, it was not without its dangers; of which the most immediate was that I might lose my way. I set down the barrow, and, detaching the little compass that I always carry on my watch-guard, laid it on the tarpaulin. My course, as I knew, lay about west-southwest, and with the compass before me, I could not go far wrong. Indeed, its guidance was invaluable; without it I could never have found my way through those miles of intricate streets. When a stationary wagon or other obstruction sent me out into the road, it enabled me to pick up the curb again unerringly. It mapped out the corners of intersecting streets, it piloted me over the wide crossings of the City Road and Aldersgate Street, and kept me happily confident of my direction as I groped my way like a fogbound ship on an invisible sea.
"I went as quickly as was safe, but very warily, for a collision might have been fatal. Listening intently, with my eye on the compass and my wheel at the curb, I pushed on through the yellow void until a shadowy post at a street corner revealed itself by its parish initials as that at the intersection of Red Lion Street and Theobald's Row.
"I was nearly home. Another ten minutes' careful navigation brought me to a corner which I believed to be the one opposite my own house. I turned back a dozen paces, put down the barrow and crossed the pavement--with the compass in my hand, lest I should not be able to find the barrow again. I came against the jamb of a street door, I groped across to the door itself, I found the keyhole of the familiar Yale pattern, I inserted my key and turned it; and the door of the museum entrance opened. I had brought my ship into port.
"I listened intently. Someone was creeping down the street, hugging the railings. I closed the door to let him pass, and heard the groping hands sweep over the door as he crawled by. Then I went out, steered across to the barrow, picked up one of the specimens and carried it into the hall, where I laid it on the floor, returning immediately for the other. When both the specimens were safely deposited, I came out, softly closing the door after me with the key, and once more took up the barrow-handles. Slowly I trundled the invaluable little vehicle up the street, never losing touch of the curb, flinging the stakes and cordage into the road as I went, until I had brought it to the corner of a street about a quarter of a mile from my house; and there I abandoned it, making my way back as fast as I could to the museum.
"My first proceeding on my return was to carry my treasures to the laboratory, light the gas and examine their hair. I had really some hopes that one of them might be the man I sought. But, alas! It was the old story. They both had coarse black hair of the mongoloid type. My enemy was still to seek.
"Having cleaned away my 'make-up,' I spent the rest of the day pushing forward the preliminary processes so that these might be completed before 'decay's effacing fingers' should obliterate the details of the integumentary structures. In the evening I returned to Whitechapel and opened the shop, proposing to purchase the dummy skeletons on the following day and to devote the succeeding nights and early mornings to the preparation of the specimens.
"The barrow turned up next day in the possession of an undeniable tramp who was trying to sell it for ten shillings and who was accused of having stolen it but was discharged for want of evidence. I compensated the green grocer for the trouble occasioned by my carelessness in leaving the back gate open; and thus the incident came to an end. With one important exception, for there was a very startling sequel.
"On the day after the expedition, I had the curiosity to open the panels and go through into the room that the murderers had occupied, which had now been locked up by the police. Looking round the room, my eye lighted on a shabby cloth cap lying on the still undisturbed mattress just below the pillow. I picked it up and looked it over curiously, for by its size I could see that it did not belong to either of the men whom I had secured. I took it over to the curtained window and carefully inspected its lining; and suddenly I perceived, clinging to the coarse cloth, a single short hair, which, even to the naked eye, had a distinctly unusual appearance. With a trembling hand, I drew out my lens to examine it more closely; and, as it came into the magnified field, my heart seemed to stand still. For, even at that low magnification, its character was unmistakable--it looked like a tiny string of pale gray beads. Grasping it in my fingers, I dashed through the opening, slammed the panels to, and rushed down to the parlor where I kept a small microscope. My agitation was so intense that I could hardly focus the instrument, but at last the object on the slide came into view: a broad, variegated stripe, with its dark medulla and the little rings of air bubbles at regular intervals. It was a typical ringed hair! And what was the inference?
"The hair was almost certainly Piragoff's. Piragoff was a burglar, a ruthless murderer, and he had ringed hair. The man whom I sought was a burglar, a ruthless murderer, and had ringed hair. Then Piragoff was my man. It was bad logic, but the probabilities were overwhelming. And I had had the villain in the hollow of my hand and he had gone forth unscathed!
"I ground my teeth with impotent rage. It was maddening. All the old passion and yearning for retribution surged up in my breast once more. My interest in the new specimens almost died out. I wanted Piragoff; and it was only the new-born hope that I should yet lay my hand on him that carried me through that time of bitter disappointment."