The Uttermost Farthing by R. Austin Freeman
VII. The Uttermost Farthing
Intense was the curiosity with which I turned to the last entry in Humphrey Challoner's "Museum Archives." Not that I had any doubt as to the issue of the adventure that it recorded. I had seen the specimen numbered "twenty-five" in the shallow box, and its identity had long since been evident. But this fact mitigated my curiosity not at all. The "Archives" had furnished a continuous narrative--surely one of the strangest ever committed to writing--and now I was to read the climax of that romantically terrible story; to witness the final achievement of that object that my poor friend had pursued with such unswerving pertinacity.
I extract the entry entire with the exception of one or two passages near the end, the reasons for the omission of which will be obvious to the reader.
"Circumstances attending the acquirement of the specimen numbered 'twenty-five' in the Anthropological Series (A. Osteology. B. Reduced dry preparations).
"The months that followed the events connected with the acquirement of the specimens 23 and 24 brought me nothing but aching suspense and hope deferred. The pursuit of the common criminal I had abandoned since I had got scent of my real quarry. The concussor lay idle in its basket; the cellar steps were greased no more. I had but a passive role to play until the hour should strike to usher in the final scene--if that should ever be. Though the term of my long exile in East London was drawing nigh, its approach was unseen by me. I could but wait; and what is harder than waiting?
"I had made cautious inquiries among the alien population. But no one knew Piragoff--or, at least, admitted any knowledge of him; and as to the police, when they had made a few arrests and then released the prisoners, they appeared to let the matter drop. The newspapers were, of course, more active. One of them described circumstantially how 'the three anarchists who escaped from the house in Saul Street' had been seen together in an East End restaurant; and several others followed from day to day the supposed whereabouts of a mysterious person known as 'Paul the Plumber,' whom the police declared to be a picturesque myth. But for me there was one salient fact: of those three ruffians one was still at large, and no one seemed to have any knowledge of him.
"It was some four months later that I again caught up the scent. A certain Friday evening early in February found me listlessly tidying up the shop; for the Jewish Sabbath had begun and customers were few. But about eight o'clock a man strode in jauntily, hung up his hat and seated himself in the operating chair; and at that moment a second man entered and sat down to wait. I glanced at this latter, and in an instant my gorge rose at him. I cannot tell why. To the scientific mind, intuitions are abhorrent. They are mostly wrong and wholly unreasonable. But as I looked at that man a wave of instinctive dislike and suspicion swept over me. He was, indeed, an ill-looking fellow enough. A broad, lozenge-shaped Tartar face, with great cheekbones and massive jaws; a low forehead surmounted by a dense brush of up-standing grayish-brown hair; beetling brows and eyes deep-set, fierce and furtive; combined to make a sufficiently unprepossessing countenance. Nor was his manner more pleasing. He scowled forbiddingly at me, he scrutinized the other customer, craning sideways to survey him in the mirror, he looked about the shop and he stared inquisitively at the parlor door. Every movement was expressive of watchful, uneasy suspicion.
"I tried to avoid looking at him lest my face should betray me, and, to divert my thoughts, concentrated my attention on the other customer. The latter unconsciously gave me every assistance in doing so. Though by no means a young man, he was the vainest and most dandified client I had ever had under my hands. He stopped me repeatedly to give exhaustive directions as to the effect that he desired me to produce. He examined himself in the glass and consulted me anxiously as to the exact disposition of an artificially curled forelock. I cursed him inwardly, for I wanted him to be gone and leave me alone with the other man, but for that very reason and that I might conceal my impatience, I did his bidding and treated him with elaborate care. But now and again my glance would stray to the other man; and as I caught his fierce, suspicious eye--like the eye of a hunted animal--I would look away quickly lest he should read what was in my mind.
"At length I had finished my dandy client. I had brushed his hair to a nicety and had even curled his forelock with heated tongs. With a sigh of relief I took off the cloth and waited for him to rise. But he rose not. Stroking his cheek critically he decided that he wanted shaving, and, cursing him in my heart, I had to comply.
"I had acquired some reputation as a barber and, I think, deserved it. I could put a perfect edge on a razor and I wielded the instrument with a sensitive hand and habitual care. My client appreciated my skill and complimented me patronizingly in very fair English, though with a slight Russian accent, delaying me intolerably to express his approval. When I had shaved him he asked for pink powder to be applied to his chin; and when I had powdered him he directed me to shape his mustache with Pate Hongrois, a process which he superintended with anxious care.
"At last the fellow was actually finished. He got up from the chair and surveyed himself in the large wall-mirror. He turned his head from side to side and tried to see the back of it. He smiled into the mirror, raised his eyebrows, frowned and, in fact, tried a variety of expressions and effects, including a slight and graceful bow. Then he approached the glass to examine a spot on his cheek; leaned against it with outspread hands to inspect his teeth, and finally put out his tongue to examine that too. I almost expected that he would ask me to brush it. However, he did not. Adjusting his necktie delicately, he handed me my fee with a patronizing smile and remarked, 'You are a good barber: you have taste and you take trouble. I give you a penny for yourself and I shall come to you again.'
"As the door closed behind him I turned to the other customer. He rose, walked over to the operating chair and sat down sullenly, keeping an eye on me all the time; and something in his face expressive of suspicion, uneasiness and even fear seemed to hint at something unusual in my own appearance.
"It was likely enough. Hard as I had struggled to smother the tumult of emotions that seethed within me, some disturbance must have reached the surface, some light in the eye, some tension of the mouth to tell of the fierce excitement, the raging anxiety, that possessed me. I was afraid to look at him for fear of frightening him away.
"Was he the man? Was this the murderer, Piragoff, the slayer of my wife? The question rang in my ears as, with a far from steady hand, I slowly lathered his face. Instinct told me that he was. But, even in my excitement, reason rejected a mere unanalyzable belief. For what is an intuition? Brutally stated, it is simply a conclusion reached without premises. I had always disbelieved in instinct and intuition and I disbelieved still. But what had made me connect this man with Piragoff? He was clearly a Russian. He looked like a villain. He had the manner of a Nihilist or violent criminal of some kind. But all this was nothing. It formed no rational basis for the conviction that possessed me.
"There was his hair; a coarse, wiry mop of a queer grayish-brown. It might well, from its color, be ringed hair; and if it was I should have little doubt of the man's identity. But was it? I was getting on in years and could not see near objects clearly without my spectacles; and I had laid down my spectacles somewhere in the parlor.
"As I lathered his face, I leaned over him to look at his hair more closely, but he shrank away in fierce alarm, and after all my eyesight was not good enough. Once I tried to get out my lens; but he challenged me furiously as to my object, and I put it away again. I dared not provoke him to violence, for if he had struck me I should have killed him on the spot. And he might be the wrong man.
"The operation of shaving him was beset with temptations from moment to moment. Forgotten anatomical details revived in my memory. I found myself tracing through the coarse skin those underlying structures that were so near to hand. Now I was at the angle of the jaw, and as the ringing blade swept over the skin I traced the edge of the strap-like muscle and mentally marked the spot where it crossed the great carotid artery. I could even detect the pulsation of the vessel. How near it was to the surface! A little dip of the razor's beak at that spot--
"But still I had no clear evidence that he was the right man. A mere impression--a feeling of physical repulsion unsupported by any tangible fact--was not enough to act on. One moment a savage impatience for retribution urged me to take the chance; to fell him with a blow and fling him down into the cellar. The next, my reason stepped in and bade me hold my hand and wait for proof. And all the time he watched me like a cat, and kept his hands thrust into the hip pockets of his coat.
"Again and again these mental oscillations occurred. Now I was simply and savagely homicidal, and now I was rational--almost judicial. Now the vital necessity was to prevent his escape; and yet, again, I shrank from the dreadful risk of killing an innocent man.
"What the issue might have been I cannot say. But suddenly the door opened, a burly carter entered and sat down, and the opportunity was gone. The Russian waited for no lengthy inspection in the glass like his predecessor. As soon as he was finished he sprang from the chair, slapped down his coppers in payment and darted out of the shop, only too glad to take himself off in safety. There must have been something very sinister in my appearance.
"The carter seated himself in the chair and I fell to work on him mechanically. But my thoughts were with the man who was gone. What a fiasco it had been! After waiting all these years, I had met a man whom I suspected to be the very wretch I sought; I had actually been alone with him--and I had let him go!
"The futility of it! Before my eyes the grinning tenants of the great wall-case rose in reproach; the little, impassive faces in those shallow boxes seemed to look at me and ask why they had been killed. I had let the man go; and he would certainly never come to my shop again. True, I should know him again; but what better chance should I ever have of identifying him? And then again came the unanswerable question: Was he really the man, after all?
"So my thoughts fluttered to and fro. Constant, only, was a feeling of profound dejection; a sense of unutterable, irretrievable failure. The carter--a regular customer--rose and looked askance at me as he rubbed his face with the towel. He remarked that I 'seemed to be feeling a bit dull tonight,' paid his fee, and, with a civil 'good evening,' took his departure.
"When he had gone I stood by the chair wrapped in a gloomy reverie. Had I failed finally? Was my long quest at an end with my object unachieved? It almost seemed so.
"I raised my eyes and they fell on my reflection in the large mirror; and suddenly it was borne in on me that I was an old man. The passing years of labor and mental unrest had left deep traces. My hair, which was black when I first came to the east, was now snow-white and the face beneath it was worn and wrinkled and aged. The sands of my life were running out apace. Soon the last grains would trickle out of the glass; and then would come the end--the futile end, with the task still unaccomplished. And for this I had dragged out these twenty weary years, ever longing for repose and the eternal reunion! How much better to have spent those years in the peace of the tomb by the dear companion of my sunny hours!
"I stepped up to the glass to look more closely at my face, to mark the crow's-feet and intersecting wrinkles in the shrunken skin. Yes, it was an old, old face; a weary face, too, that spoke of sorrow and anxious thought and strenuous, unsatisfying effort. And presently it would be a dead face, calm and peaceful enough then; and the wretch who had wrought all the havoc would still stalk abroad with his heavy debt unpaid.
"Something on the surface of the mirror interposed between my eye and the reflection, slightly blurring the image. I focussed on it with some difficulty and then saw that it was a group of finger-marks; the prints made by the greasy fingers of my dandy customer when he had leaned on the glass to inspect his teeth. As they grew distinct to my vision, I was aware of a curious sense of familiarity; at first merely subconscious and not strongly attracting my attention. But this state lasted only for a few brief moments. Then the vague feeling burst into full recognition. I snatched out my lens and brought it to bear on those astounding impressions. My heart thumped furiously. A feeling of awe, of triumph, of fierce joy and fiercer rage surged through me, and mingled with profound self-contempt.
"There could be no mistake. I had looked at those finger-prints too often. Every ridge-mark, every loop and whorl of the varying patterns was engraved on my memory. For twenty years I had carried the slightly enlarged photographs in my pocket-book, and hardly a day had passed without my taking them out to con them afresh. I had them in my pocket now to justify rather than aid my memory.
"I held the open book before the glass and compared the photographs with the clearly-printed impressions. There were seven finger-prints on the mirror; four on the right hand and three on the left, and all were identical with the corresponding prints in the photographs. No doubt was possible. But if it had been--
"I darted across to the chair. The floor was still littered with the cuttings from that villain's head. In my idiotic preoccupation with the other man I had let that wretch depart without a glance at his hair. I grabbed up a tuft from the floor and gazed at it. Even to the unaided eye it had an unusual quality when looked at closely; a soft, shimmering appearance like that of some delicate textile. But I gave it only a single glance. Then rushing through to the parlor, I spread a few hairs on a glass slip and placed it on the stage of the microscope.
"A single glance clenched the matter. As I put my eye to the instrument, there, straying across the circular field, were the broad gray stripes, each with its dark line of medulla obscured at intervals by rings of tiny bubbles. The demonstration was conclusive. This was the very man. Humanly speaking, no error or fallacy was possible.
"I stood up and laughed grimly. So much for instinct! For what fools call intuition and wise men recognize for mere slipshod reasoning! I could understand my precious intuition now; could analyze it into its trumpery constituents. It was the old story. Unconsciously I had built up the image of a particular kind of man, and when such a man appeared I had recognized him at a glance. The villainous Tartar face: I had looked for it. The fierce, furtive, hunted manner; the restless suspicion; the mop of grayish-brown hair. I had expected them all, and there they were. My man would have those peculiarities, and here was a man who had them. He, therefore, was the man I sought.
"'O! good old "undistributed middle term!" How many intuitions have been born of you?'
"My triumph was short-lived. A moment's reflection sobered me. True, I had found my murderer; but I had lost him again. That bird of ill omen was still a bird in the bush; in the tangled bush of criminal London. He had said that he would come to me again, and I hoped that he would. But who could say? Other eyes than mine were probably looking for him.
"I suppose I am by nature an optimist; otherwise I should not have continued the pursuit all these years. Hence, having mastered the passing disappointment, I settled myself patiently to wait in the hope of my victim's ultimate reappearance. Not entirely passively, however, for, after the shop was shut, I went abroad nightly to frequent the foreign restaurants and other less reputable places of the East End in the hopes of meeting him and jogging his memory. The active employment kept my mind occupied and made the time of waiting seem less long; but it had no further result. I never met the man; and, as the weeks passed without bringing him to my net, I had the uncomfortable feeling that his hair must have grown and been trimmed by someone else; unless, indeed, he had fallen into the clutches of the law.
"Meanwhile I quietly made my preparations--which involved one or two visits to a ship chandler's--and laid down a scheme of action. It would be a delicate business. The villain was some fifteen years younger than I; a sturdy ruffian and desperate, as I had seen. My own strength and activity had been failing for some time now. Obviously I could not meet him on equal terms. Moreover, I must not allow him to injure me. That was a point of honor. This was to be no trial by wager of battle. It was to be an execution. Any retaliation by him would destroy the formal, punitive character which was the essence of the transaction.
"The weeks sped by. They lengthened into months. And still my visitor made no appearance. My anxiety grew. There were times when I looked at my white hair and doubted; when I almost despaired. But those times passed and my spirits revived. On the whole, I was hopeful and waited patiently; and in the end my hopes were justified and my patience rewarded.
"It was a fair evening early in June--Wednesday evening, I recollect--when at last he came. Fortunately the shop was empty, and again, oddly enough, it was some Jewish holiday.
"I welcomed him effusively. No fierce glare came from my eyes now. I was delighted to see him and he was flattered at the profound impression his former visit had made on me. I began very deliberately, for I could hardly hold the scissors and was afraid that he would notice the tremor; which, in fact, he did.
"'Why does your hand shake so much, Mr. Vosper?' he asked in his excellent English. 'You have not been curling your little finger, hein?'
"I reassured him on this point, but used a little extra care until the tremor should subside; which it did as soon as I got over my first excitement. Meanwhile I let him talk--he was a boastful, egotistical oaf, as might have been expected--and I flattered and admired him until he fairly purred with self-satisfaction. It was very necessary to get him into a good humor.
"My terror from moment to moment was that some other customer should come in, though a holiday evening was usually a blank in a business sense until the Christian shops shut. Still, it was a serious danger which impelled me to open my attack with as little delay as possible. I had several alternative plans and I commenced with the one that I thought most promising. Taking advantage of a little pause in the conversation, I said in a confidential tone:
"'I wonder if you can give me a little advice. I want to find somebody who will buy some valuable property without asking too many questions and who won't talk about the deal afterwards. A safe person, you know. Can you recommend me such a person?'
"He turned in the chair to look at me. All his self-complacent smiles were gone in an instant. The face that looked into mine was the face of as sinister a villain as I have ever clapped eyes on.
"'The person you mean,' he said fiercely, 'is a fence--a receiver. Why do you ask me if I know a fence? Who are you? Are you a spy for the police? Hein? What should I know about receivers? Answer me that!'
"He glared at me with such furious suspicion that I instinctively opened my scissors and looked at the neighborhood of his carotid. But I took his question quite pleasantly.
"'That's what they all say,' I remarked with a foolish smile.
"'Who do?' he demanded.
"'Everybody that I ask. They all say, "What should I know about fences?" It's very inconvenient for me.'
"'Why is it inconvenient to you?' he asked less savagely and with evidently awakening curiosity.
"I gave an embarrassed cough. 'Well, you see,' I said, 'it's this way. Supposing I have some property--valuable property, but of a kind that is of no use to me. Naturally I want to sell it. But I don't want it talked about. I am a poor man. If I am known to be selling things of value, people may make uncharitable remarks and busy-bodies may ask inconvenient questions. You see my position?' Piragoff looked at me fixedly, eagerly. A new light was in his eye now.
"'What have you got?' he demanded.
"I coughed again. 'Aha!' I said with a smile. 'It is you who are asking questions now.'
"'But you ask me to advise you. How can I if I don't know what you have got to sell? Perhaps I might buy the stuff myself. Hein?'
"'I think not,' said I, 'unless you can write a check for four figures. But perhaps you can?'
"'Yes, perhaps I can, or perhaps I can get the money. Tell me what the stuff is.'
"I clipped away at the top of my speed--and I could cut hair very quickly if I tried. No fear of his slipping away now. I had him fast.
"'It's a complicated affair,' I said hesitatingly, 'and I don't want to say much about it if you're not in the line. I thought you might be able to put me on to a safe man in the regular trade.'
"Piragoff moved impatiently, then glanced at the parlor door.
"'Anyone in that room?' he asked.
"'No,' I answered, 'I live here all alone.'
"'No servant! No one to look after you?' he asked the question with ill-concealed eagerness.
"'No. I look after myself. It's cheaper; and I want so little.'
"The last statement I made in accordance with a curious fact that I have observed, which is that the really infallible method of impressing a stranger with your wealth is to dilate on your poverty. The statement had its usual effect. Piragoff fidgeted slightly, glanced at the shop door and said
"'Finish my hair quickly and let us go in there and talk about this.'
"I chuckled inwardly at his eagerness. Even his personal appearance had become a secondary consideration. I bustled through the rest of the operation, whisked off the cloth and opened the parlor door. He rose, glanced at his reflection in the glass, looked quickly at the shop door and followed me into the little room, shutting and bolting the door after him.
"I watched him closely. I am no believer in the rubbish called telepathy, but, by observing a person's face and actions, it is not difficult to trace the direction of his thoughts. Piragoff gazed round the room with the frank curiosity of the barbarian, and the look of pleased surprise that he bestowed on the safe and the way in which his glance traveled from that object to my person were easy enough to interpret. Here was an iron safe, presumably containing valuables, and here was an elderly man with the key of that safe in his pocket. The corollary was obvious.
"'Is that another room?' he asked, pointing to the cellar door.
"I threw it open and let him look into the dark cavity. 'That,' I said, 'is the cellar. It has a door opening into the back yard, which has a gate that opens into Bell's Alley. It might be useful. Don't you think so?'
"He did think so; very emphatically, to judge by his expression. Very useful indeed when you have knocked down an old man and rifled his safe, to have a quiet exit at the back.
"'Now tell me about this stuff,' said he. 'Have you got it here?'
"'The fact is,' I said confidentially, 'I haven't got it at all--yet' (his face fell perceptibly at this), 'but,' I added, 'I can get it when I like; when I have arranged about disposing of it.'
"'But you've got a safe to keep it in,' he protested.
"'Yes, but I don't want to have it here. Besides, that safe won't hold it all, if I take over the whole lot.'
"Piragoff's eyes fairly bulged with greed and excitement.
"'What sort of stuff is it? Silver?'
"'There is some silver,' I said, superciliously; 'a good deal, in fact. But that's hardly worth while. You see this stuff is a collection. It belongs, at present, to one of those fools who collect jewelry and church plate; monstrances, jeweled chalices and things of that kind.'
"Piragoff licked his lips. 'Aha!' said he, 'I am that sort of fool myself.' He laughed uneasily, being evidently sorry he had spoken, and continued:
"'And you can get all this when you want it, hein? But where is it now?'
"I smiled slyly. 'It is in a sort of private museum; but where that museum is I am not going to say, or perhaps I may find it empty when I call.'
"Piragoff looked at me earnestly. He had evidently written me down an abject fool--and no wonder--and was considering how to manage me.
"'But this place--this museum--it must be a strong place. How are you going to get in? Will you ring the bell?'
"'I shall let myself in with a latch-key,' I said jauntily.
"'Have you got the latch-key?'
"'Yes, and I have tried it. I had it from a friend who lives there.'
"Piragoff laughed outright. 'And she gave you the latch-key, hein? Ha-ha! but you are a wicked old man. And it is strange too.' He glanced from me to his reflection in the little mirror over the safe; and his expression said as plainly as words, 'Now, if she had given it to me, one could understand it.'
"'But,' he continued, 'when you are inside? The stuff will be locked up. You are skilful, perhaps? You can open a safe, for instance? You have tried?'
"'No, I've never actually tried, but it's easy enough. I've often opened packing cases. And I don't think there is an iron safe. They are wooden cabinets. It will be quite easy.'
"'Bah! Packing cases!' exclaimed Piragoff. He grasped my coat sleeve excitedly. 'I tell you, my friend, it is not easy. It is very difficult. I tell you this. I, who know. I am not in the line myself, but I have a friend who does these things and he has shown me. I have some skill--though I practice only for sport, you understand. It is very difficult. You shall let yourself in, you shall find the stuff locked up, you shall try to open the cabinet and you shall only make a great noise. Then you shall come away empty, like a fool, and the police shall set a watch on the house. The chance is gone and you have nothing.'
"I scratched my head like the fool that he thought me. 'That would be rather awkward,' I admitted.
"'Awkward!' he exclaimed. 'It would be wicked! The chance of a lifetime gone! Now, if you take with you a friend who has skill--hein?'
"'Ah!' I said craftily, 'but this is my little nest egg. If I take a friend I shall have to share.'
"'But there is enough for two. If your safe will not hold it, there is more than you can carry. Besides, your friend shall not be greedy. If he takes a third--or say a quarter? How much is the stuff worth?'
"'The collection is said to be worth a hundred thousand pounds.'
"'A hundred thousand!' gasped Piragoff. He was almost foaming at the mouth. 'A hundred thousand! That would be twenty five for me--for your friend--and seventy-five for you. It is impossible for one man. You could not carry it. My friend,' again he grasped my sleeve persuasively, 'I will come with you. I am very skilful. I am strong. I am brave. You shall be safe with me. I will be your comrade and you shall give a quarter--or even less if you like.'
"He could afford to make easy terms--under the circumstances.
"I reflected awhile and at length said, 'Perhaps you are right. Some of the things are large and gold is heavy--we should leave the silver. It would take two to carry it all. Yes, you shall come with me and bring the necessary tools. When shall we do it? Any night will do for me.'
"He reflected, with an air of slight embarrassment, and then asked:
"'Do you open your shop on Sunday?'
"The question took a load off my mind. I had been speculating on what plan of action he would adopt. Now I knew. And his plan would suit me to a nicety.
"'No,' I said, 'I never open on Sunday.'
"'Then,' said he, 'we will do the job on Saturday night or Sunday morning. That will give us a quiet day to break up the stuff.'
"'Yes. That will be a good arrangement. Will you come here on Saturday night and start with me?'
"'No, no!' he replied. 'That would never do. We must not be seen together. Give me a rendezvous. We will meet near the place.'
"Quite so! It would never do for us to be seen together in Whitechapel where we were both known. The fact might be mentioned at the inquest. It would be most inconvenient for Piragoff.
"'And, look you,' he continued; 'wear a top-hat and good clothes; if you have an evening suit, put it on. And bring a new Gladstone bag with some clothes in it. Where will you meet me?'
"I mentioned Upper Bedford Place and suggested half-past twelve, to which he agreed; and, after sending me out to see that the coast was clear, he took his leave, twisting his waxed mustache as he went out.
"I was, on the whole, very well pleased with the arrangement. Particularly pleased was I with Piragoff's transparent plan for disposing of me. For, now that it really came to action, I found myself shying somewhat at the office of executioner; though I meant to do my duty all the same. But the fact that this man was already arranging coolly to murder me made my task less unpalatable. The British sporting instinct is incurable.
"Piragoff's scheme was perfectly simple. We should go together to the house, we should bring away the spoil--I carrying half--convey it to my premises in Saul Street early on Sunday morning. Then we should break up the 'stuff,' and when our labors were concluded, and I was of no further use, he would knock me on the head. The quiet back gate would enable him to carry away the booty in instalments to his lodgings. Then he would lock the gate and vanish. In a few days the police would break into my house and find my body; and Mr. Piragoff, in his hotel at, say Amsterdam, would read an account of the inquest. It was delightfully simple and effective, but it failed to take into account the player on the opposite side of the board.
"The interval between Wednesday and Saturday was a time of anxious thought and considerable excitement. I went out every night, and had the pleasure of discovering that I was honored by the attendance--at a little distance--of Mr. Piragoff. One evening only I eluded him, and watched him drive off furiously in a hansom in pursuit of another hansom which was supposed to contain me. On that night I visited the museum. Not that I had anything special to do. My very complete and even elaborate arrangements had been made some time before and I now had only to look them over and see that they were in going order; to test, for instance, the brass handle that was connected with the electric main, and see that the well-oiled blocks of a couple of purchase tackles ran smoothly and silently. Everything was in working trim, even to the concussor, stowed out of sight, but within easy reach, in its narrow basket.
"Saturday night arrived in due course. I shut up the shop at nine, put on evening clothes, took the newly-purchased Gladstone and hailed a hansom. I drove, in the first place, to the Criterion Restaurant and dined delicately but substantially, carefully avoiding indigestible dishes. From the restaurant I drove to the museum, where I loitered, making a final inspection of my arrangements, until twenty-five minutes past twelve. Then I came forth and walked quietly to Upper Bedford Place.
"As I turned the corner and looked down the wide thoroughfare the long stretch of pavement contained but a single figure; a dim, dark blot on the gray of the summer night. It moved towards me, and, resolving itself into a definite shape, showed me Piragoff in evening dress, enveloped in a voluminous overcoat and carrying a small hand-bag.
"'You are punctual, Vosper,' he said graciously. 'Shall we make our visit now? Is the house quiet yet? These are not, you see.' He nodded at the boarding-houses that we were passing, several of which still showed lights in the windows.
"'Our house has settled down,' I answered. 'The collector is an early bird. I have just been past it to see that all the lights were out.'
"We walked quickly across the square towards the neighborhood of my house. Piragoff was very affable. He conversed cheerfully as we went and gave a pleasant 'Good night' to a policeman, who touched his helmet civilly in response. When I halted at the door of the museum, he looked about him with a slight frown.
"'I seem to know this place,' he murmured. 'Yes, I have been here before; many years ago. Yes, yes; I remember.'
"He laughed softly as if recalling an amusing incident. I set my teeth, inserted the key and pushed the door open.
"'Enter,' I said. He stepped into the hall. I followed and softly closed the door, slipping up the catch as the lock clicked. It was a small precaution, but enough to hinder a hasty retreat.
"I piloted him through to the museum and switched on a single electric lamp which filled the great room with a ghostly twilight. Piragoff looked about him inquisitively and his eye fell on the long wall-case with the dimly-seen, pallid shapes of the company within it. His face blanched suddenly and he stared with wide-open eyes.
"'God!' he exclaimed, 'what are those things?'
"'Those skeletons?' said I. 'They are part of the collection. The fellow who owns this place hoards all sorts of trash. Come round and have a look at them.'
"'But skeletons!' he whispered. 'Skeletons of men! Ah, I do not like them!'
"Nevertheless he followed me round the room, peering in nervously at the case of skulls as we passed. I walked him slowly past the whole length of the wall-case and he stared in at the twenty-four motionless, white figures, shuddering audibly. I must admit that their appearance was very striking in that feeble light; their poses were so easy and natural and their faces, modeled by broad shadows, so singularly expressive. I was very pleased with the effect.
"'But they are horrible!' gasped Piragoff. 'They seem to be alive. They seem to beckon to one--to say, "Come in here: come in and stay with us." Ah! they are dreadful! Let us go away from them.'
"He stole on tiptoe to the other side of the room and stood positively shaking; shaking at the sight of a mere collection of dry bones. It was amazing. I have often been puzzled by the odd, superstitious fear with which ignorant people view these interesting and beautiful structures. But surely this was an extreme case. Here was a callous wretch who would murder without a scruple a young and lovely woman and laugh at the recollection of the atrocity. And he was actually terrified at the sight of a few irregularly-shaped fragments of phosphate of lime and gelatine. I repeat, it was amazing.
"Piragoff recovered only to develop the ferocity of a frightened ruffian.
"'Where is the stuff, fool?' he demanded. 'Show it to me quickly or I will cut your throat. Quick! Let us get it and go.'
"I watched him warily. These neurotic Slav criminals, when they get into a state of panic, are like frightened cats; very dangerous to be near. And the more frightened, the more dangerous. I must keep an eye on Piragoff.
"'I can open one of the cabinets,' I said.
"'Then open it, pig! Open it quickly! I want to get away from this place!'
"He grinned at me like an angry monkey, and I led him to the secret cupboard. As I very deliberately turned the hidden catches and prepared to take out the panel, I considered whether it was not time to set the apparatus going. For I had prepared a little surprise for Piragoff and I was now rather doubtful how he would take it. Besides, I was not enjoying the proceedings as much as I had expected to. Piragoff's lack of nerve was disconcerting.
"However, I took out the panel and stood by to watch the result. Piragoff peered into the cupboard and uttered a growl of disappointment.
"'There is nothing there but books and those boxes. Lift the boxes down, pig, and let us see what is in them.'
"I lifted the boxes from the shelf.
"'They are very light,' I said. 'And here are two pistols on top of them.'
"These pistols were the surprise that I had prepared in a spirit of mischief. I had taken them from the pockets of the last two specimens and kept them for the sake of the devices that those two imbeciles had scratched on the butts.
"'Pistols!' exclaimed Piragoff. 'Let me look at them.' He snatched the weapons from the top of the box and took them over to the lamp. Immediately I heard a gasp of astonishment.
"'God! But this is a strange thing! Here is Louis Plotcovitch's pistol! And this other belonged to Boris Slobodinsky! They have been here too!'
"He stared at me open-mouthed, holding the pistols--which I had carefully unloaded--one in each trembling hand. What little nerve he had had was going fast.
"I laid the boxes on a small table and switched on the lamp that hung close over it. High up above the table was one of the cross-beams of the roof. From the beam there hung down two purchase-tackles. The tail-rope of each tackle ended in a noose that was hitched on a hook on the wall, and the falls of the two tackles were hitched lightly over two other hooks. But none of these appliances was visible. The shaded lamp threw its bright light on the table only.
"Piragoff came across the room and laid down the pistols.
"'Open those boxes,' he said gruffly, 'and let us see what is in them.'
"I took off the lid of one; and Piragoff started back with a gasp, but came back, snuffing at the box like a frightened animal.
"'What the devil are these things?' he demanded in a hoarse whisper.
"'They look like dolls' heads,' I answered.
"'They look like dead men's heads,' he whispered, shudderingly, 'only they are too small. They are dreadful. This collector man is a devil. I should like to kill him.' He glared with horrid fascination at the little dry preparations--there were eight in this box, each in its own little black velvet compartment with its number and date on the label. I opened the second box--also containing eight--and he stared into that with the same shuddering fascination.
"'What do you suppose these dates mean?' he whispered.
"'I suppose,' I replied, 'those are the dates on which he acquired them. Here is another box.' This, the last one, was intended to hold nine heads, but it contained only eight--at present. There was an empty compartment of red velvet in the middle, on either side of which were the heads of the last two specimens, twenty-three and twenty-four.
"I took off the lid and stood back to see what would happen.
"Piragoff stared into the box without speaking for two or three seconds. Suddenly he uttered a shriek. 'It is Boris! Boris and Louis Plotcovitch!'
"His figure stiffened. He stood rigid with his hands on his thighs, leaning over the box, his hair bristling, his white face running with sweat, his jaw dropped; the very personification of horror. And of a sudden he began to tremble violently.
"I looked at him with disgust and an instantaneous revulsion of feeling. What! Should I call in the aid of all those elaborate appliances to dispatch a poor trembling devil like this? I would have none of them. The concussor was good enough for him. Nay, it was too good.
"I reached out behind me and lifted one of the nooses from its hook. Its own weight had nearly closed the loop, for the steel eyelet spliced into the end ran very easily and smoothly on the well-greased rope. I opened the loop wide, and leaning towards Piragoff from behind, quietly dropped it over his shoulders, pulling it tight as it fell to the level of his elbows. He sprang up, but at that instant I kicked away one of his feet and pushed him to the unsupported side, when he fell sprawling face downwards. I gave another tug at the rope, and, as he struggled to get to his feet, I snatched the fall of the tackle from its hook and ran away with it, hauling as I went. Looking back, I saw Piragoff slowly rise to the pull of the tackle until he was upright with his feet just touching the floor. Then I belayed the fall securely to one of a pair of cleats, and approached him.
"Hitherto, sheer amazement had kept him silent, but as I drew near him he gave a yell of terror. This would not do. Taking the gag from the place where I had hidden it in readiness, I came behind him and slipped it over his mouth where I secured it, cautiously evading his attempts to clutch at me. It was a poor gag--having no tongue-piece--but it answered its purpose, for it reduced his shouts to mere muffled bellowings, inaudible outside.
"Now that the poor wretch was pinioned and gagged and helpless, my feelings urged me to get the business over quickly. But certain formalities had to be observed. It was an execution. I stepped in front of the prisoner and addressed him.
"'Listen to me, Piragoff.' At the sound of his name he stopped bellowing and stared at me, and I continued, 'Twenty years ago a burglar came to this house. He was in the dining-room at two o'clock in the morning preparing to steal the plate. A lady came into the room and disturbed him. He tried to prevent her from ringing the bell. But she rang it; and he shot her dead. I need not tell you, Piragoff, who that burglar was. But I will tell you who I am. I am the husband of that lady. I have been looking for you for twenty years, and now I have caught you; and you have got to pay the penalty of that murder.'
"As I ceased speaking he broke out into fresh bellowings. He wagged his head from side to side and the tears coursed down his ghastly face. It was horrible. Trembling, myself, from head to foot, I took the second noose from its hook, passed it over his head and quickly adjusted it. Then I snatched the second fall and walked away with it, gathering in the slack. As the rope tightened in my hand the bellowings suddenly ceased. I never looked back. I continued to haul until I felt the tackle-blocks come together. I belayed the rope to the second cleat and set a half-hitch on the turns. Then I walked out of the museum and shut the door.
"It had been very different from what I had anticipated. As I sat by the laboratory table with my head buried in my hands, I shook as if I had an ague; my skin was bathed in a cold sweat and I felt that it would have been a relief to weep. I was astonished at myself. Twenty-four of these vermin had I exterminated with a light heart, because the blow was dealt in the heat of conflict; and now, because this wretch had been helpless and unresisting, I was nearly broken with the effort of dispatching him.
"I sat in the dark laboratory slowly recovering and thinking of the long years that had slipped away since the hand of this miscreant had robbed me of my darling. Gradually I grew more calm. But fully an hour passed before I could summon resolution to go back into the museum and satisfy myself that the long-outstanding debt had indeed been paid at last to the uttermost farthing.
"On Monday morning I withdrew from my bank a hundred pounds in notes, which I handed to my landlord's widow--Mr. Nathan had died some years previously--with a note surrendering the shop and house in Saul Street. I emptied the safe and brought away such things as I cared to keep, leaving the rest for Mrs. Nathan. Then I shaved off my ragged beard and white mustache, set my Bloomsbury house in order, pensioned off the sergeant-major (who was now growing an old man) and engaged a set of respectable servants. When the last specimen was finished and put in its place in the museum, my work was done. I had now only to wait quietly for the end. And for that I am now waiting, I hope not impatiently.
"Something tells me that I have not long to wait. Certain new and strange sensations, which I have discussed with my friend Dr. Wharton, seem to herald a change. Wharton makes light of them, but I think and hope he is mistaken. And in that hope I rest content; believing that soon I shall hear the curfew chime steal out of the evening mist to tell me that the day is over and that my little spark may be put out."