Chapter XVI. Mr. Gerald Rayner
 

There were various reasons why Ambler Appleyard's wonder had often been aroused by the man to whom Miss Slade had stopped to speak. He wondered about him, first of all, because of his personal appearance. That was striking enough to excite wonder in anybody, for he was one of those remarkable men who possess great beauty of countenance allied to unfortunate deformity of body. The face was that of a poet and a dreamer, the body that of a hunchback and a cripple. Painter or sculptor alike would have rejoiced to depict the face on canvas or carve it in marble--its perfect shape, fine tinting, the lines of the features, the beauty of the eyes, the wealth of the dark, clustering hair, were all as near artistic perfection as could be. But all else spoke of deformity--the badly bent back, the twisted body, the short leg, the misshapen foot. It was as if Nature had endeavoured in some wickedly mischievous freak to show how beauty and ugliness can be combined in one creature.

That was one reason for wonder in Appleyard's mind--he had never come across quite this type before, though he knew that hunchbacks and cripples are often gifted with unusual strength, and more than usual good looks, as if in ironic compensation for their other disadvantages. But there were others. Mr. Gerald Rayner--everybody knew everybody else's name in that private hotel, for they were all more or less permanent residents--was something of a mystery man. In spite of his deformity, he was the best-dressed man in the house--they were all smart men there, but none of them came up to him in the way of clothes, linen, and personal adornment, always in the best and most cultured taste. Also it was easy to gather that he was a young man of large means. Although he made full use of the public rooms, and was always in and about them of an evening, from dinner-time to a late hour, he tenanted a private suite of apartments in the hotel--those residents, few in number, who had been privileged to obtain entrance to them spoke with almost awed admiration of their occupant's books, pictures, and objects of art. Mr. Gerald Rayner, it was evident, was a man of culture--that, indeed, was shown by his conversation. And at first Appleyard had set him down as a poet, or an artist, or a writing man of some sort--a dilettante who possessed private means. Then, being a sharp observer of all that went on around his own centre, he began to perceive that he must be mistaken in that--Rayner was obviously a business man, like himself. For every morning, at precisely half-past nine, a smart motor-brougham arrived at the door of the private hotel and carried Rayner off Citywards; every afternoon at exactly half-past five the same conveyance brought him back. Only business men, said Appleyard, are so regular, so punctual; therefore Rayner must be a business man.

But nobody in that hotel knew anything whatever of Rayner, beyond what they saw of him within its walls. Nobody knew whither the motor-brougham carried him, what he did when he reached his destination, nobody knew what or who he was. Appleyard, who was always knocking about the heart of the City, who was for ever in its business streets, who knew all the City clubs, all the best City restaurants, and was familiar with all sorts and shades of life in the City, never saw Rayner in any of his own purlieus. Accordingly, he came to the conclusion that Rayner's business, whatever it was, did not take him to the City. Nevertheless, it was certain, in Appleyard's opinion, that he was in business, and paid scrupulous attention to his daily duties.

Over the edge of his newspaper he watched Rayner and Miss Slade meet, exchange a word or two, and retire to a corner of an inner lounge in which they often sat talking together. He had often seen them talking together, and it had struck him that they seemed to talk with more than ordinary confidence. The hunchback was on terms of easy familiarity with everybody in the house, and he had a remarkable range of topics. He could talk sport, books, finance, politics, art, science, history, theology--the variety of his conversation was astonishing. But Appleyard had begun to notice that he rarely talked to any single person with the exception of Miss Slade--he would join a group in smoking-room or drawing-room and enter gaily into whatever was being discussed, but he seemed to have no desire to hold a tete-a-tete talk with any one except this young woman, who was now as much an object of mystery and speculation to Appleyard as he himself was. They were often seen talking together in quiet corners--and some of the old maids and eligible widows were already saying that Miss Slade was setting her cap at Mr. Rayner's evident deep purse.

Ambler Appleyard went to bed that night wondering greatly about two matters--first, why Miss Slade was Miss Slade in Bayswater and Mrs. Marlow at Fullaway's office; second, if Miss Slade or Mrs. Marlow, whichever she really was, had any secrets with the mysterious Mr. Rayner. From that he got to wondering who Rayner really was, and what his business was. And this process of speculation began again next morning, and continued all the way to the Gresham Street warehouse, and by the time he had arrived there he had half-determined to find out more about Miss Slade than was known to him up to then--and also, since he appeared to be such great friends with Miss Slade, about Mr. Gerald Rayner.

"But how?" he mused as he ran up the steps to the warehouse. "I'm not a private detective, and I don't propose to employ one. If I knew some sharp fellow--"

Just then he caught sight of Gaffney, who sat on a bale of goods within the warehouse door, holding a note in his hand. He stood up with a grin of friendly recognition when he saw Appleyard.

"Morning, sir," he said. "Letter from Mr. Allerdyke for you. No answer, but I was to wait till you'd read it."

Appleyard opened the note there and then. It was a mere hurried scrawl, saying that Allerdyke was just setting off for Hull, in obedience to a call from the police; as Gaffney had nothing to do, would Appleyard make use of him during Allerdyke's absence?

Appleyard bade Gaffney wait a while, went into his office, ran through his correspondence, gave the morning's orders out to the warehouseman, and called the chauffeur inside.

"Gaffney," he said as he carefully closed the door on them, "you're a Londoner, aren't you?"

Gaffney smiled widely.

"Ought to be, Mr. Appleyard," he answered. "I was born within sound of Bow Bells, anyhow. Off Aldersgate Street, sir. Yes, I'm a Cockney, right enough."

"Then you know London well, of course," suggested Appleyard.

"Never went out of it much, sir, till I went down to Bradford to this present job," replied Gaffney. "I shouldn't have left it if Mr. Allerdyke hadn't given me extra good wages and a real good place."

Appleyard tossed Allerdyke's note across his desk.

"You see what Mr. Allerdyke says," he remarked. "Wants me to find you something to do while he's off. How long is he likely to be off?"

"He said he might be back to-morrow night, sir," answered Gaffney, glancing at the note. "But possibly not till the day after to-morrow."

"Well, I don't know that there's anything you can do here," said Appleyard. "We're not particularly busy, and we've a full staff. But," he continued, with a sharp glance at the chauffeur, "there's something you can do for me, privately, to-morrow morning--a quite private matter--a matter entirely between ourselves. I'll account to Mr. Allerdyke for your time, but I don't want even him to know about this job that you can do for me--I'll pay you for doing it out of my own pocket."

"Just as you think right, sir," answered Gaffney. "So long as you make it right with the guv'nor, I'm willing."

"Very well," said Appleyard. He paused a moment, and then lowered his voice. "You've seen about this tremendous reward that's being offered in Mr. James Allerdyke's case?" he asked, with another sharp look. "You know what I mean?"

Gaffney's shrewd face grew shrewder, and he nodded knowingly.

"I know!" he said. "Fifty thousand! A fortune, sir!"

"What I want you to do," continued Appleyard, "may lead to something relating to that, and it mayn't. Anyway, I'll make you all right. Now, listen carefully. Do you think you could get hold of a private motor to-morrow morning? A smart, private cab in which you could put a friend of yours--well dressed--would be the thing. Early."

"Easy as winking, sir," answered Gaffney. "Know the cab, and know a friend o'mine who'd sit in it--as long as you like."

"Very good," said Appleyard. "Now, then, do you know Lancaster Gate?"

"Do I know St. Paul's?" exclaimed Gaffney, half-derisively. "Used to drive for an old gent who lived in Porchester Terrace."

"Oh!" replied Appleyard. "Then I daresay you know the Pompadour Private Hotel?"

"As well as I know my own fingers," responded Gaffney. "Driven to and from it many a hundred times."

"Just the man I want, then," continued Appleyard. "Now, to-morrow morning, get your cab early--put your friend in it--dressed up, of course--and at half-past nine to the very minute drive slowly past the front door of the Pompadour. You'll see a private motor-brougham there--dark green--you'll also see a hunchbacked gentleman enter it--you can't mistake him. Follow him! Never mind where he goes, or how long it takes to get there--or how few minutes it takes to get there, for that matter!--follow him and find out where that private cab puts him down. Then--come and report to me. Is that all clear?"

"Clear as noonday, sir," answered Gaffney. "I understand--I've been at that sort of game more than once."

"All right," said Appleyard. "I leave it to you. Take every care--I don't want this man to get the least suspicion that he's followed. And--" He hesitated, considering his plans over again. "Yes," he went on, "there's just another detail that I may mention--it'll save time. This hunchback gentleman's name is Rayner--Mr. Gerald Rayner. Can you remember it?"

"As well as my own," answered Gaffney. "Mr. Gerald Rayner. I've got it."

"Very good. Now, then, can you trust this friend of yours?" asked Appleyard. "Is he a chap of common sense?"

"It's my own brother," replied Gaffney. "Some people say I'm the sharper of the two, some say he is. There's a pair of us, anyhow."

"That'll do," said Appleyard. "Now, wherever you see this Mr. Rayner set down, let your brother get out of your cab and take particular notice if he goes into any shop, office, flats, buildings, anything of that sort which bears his name--Rayner. D'you see? I want to know what his business is. And now that you know what I want, you and your brother put your heads together and try to find it out, and come to me when you've done, and I'll make it worth your while. You'd better go now and make your arrangements."

Gaffney went away, evidently delighted with his commission, and Appleyard turned to his business of the day, wondering if he was not going to waste the chauffer's time and his own money. Next morning he purposely hung about the Pompadour until the time for Rayner's departure arrived; from one of the front windows he saw the hunchback enter his brougham and drive away; at the same moment he saw a neat private cab, driven by Gaffney, and occupied by a smart-looking young gentleman in a silk hat, come along and follow in quite an ordinary and usual manner. And on that he himself went to Gresham Street and waited.

Gaffney and his brother turned in during the morning, both evidently primed with news. Appleyard shut himself into his office with them.

"Well?" he asked.

"Easy job, Mr. Appleyard," replied Gaffney. "Drove straight through the Park, Constitution Hill, the Mall, Strand, to top of Arundel Street. There he got out; brougham went off--back--he walked down street. So my brother here he got out too, and strolled down street after him. He'll tell you the rest, sir."

"Just as plain as what he's told," said the other Gaffney. "I followed him down the street; he walked one side, I t'other side. He went into Clytemnestra House--one of those big houses of business flats and offices--almost at the bottom. I waited some time to see if he was settled like, or if it was only a call he was making. Then I went into the hall of Clytemnestra House, as if I was looking for somebody. There are two boards in that hall with the names of tenants painted on 'em. But there's not that name--Gerald Rayner. Still, I'll tell you what there is, sir--there's a name that begins with the same initials--G.R."

"What name?" asked Appleyard.

"The name," replied the second Gaffney, "is Gavin Ramsay--Agent."