Long Live the King by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Chapter XII. Two Prisoners
Herman Spier had made his escape with the letter. He ran through tortuous byways of the old city, under arches into courtyards, out again by doorway set in walls, twisted, doubled like a rabbit. And all this with no pursuit, save the pricking one of terror.
But at last he halted, looked about, perceived that only his own guilty conscience accused him, and took breath. He made his way to the house in the Road of the Good Children, the letter now buttoned inside his coat, and, finding the doors closed, lurked in the shadow of the park until, an hour later, Black Humbert himself appeared.
He eyed his creature with cold anger. "It is a marvel," he sneered, "that such flight as yours hag not brought the police in a pack at your heels."
"I had the letter," Herman replied sulkily. "It was necessary to save it."
"You were to see where Niburg took the substitute."
But here Herman was the one to sneer. "Niburg!" he said. "You know well enough that he will take no substitute to-night, or any night, You strike hard, my friend."
The concierge growled, and together they entered the house across the street.
In the absence of Humbert, his niece, daughter of a milk-seller near, kept the bureau, answered the bell, and after nine o'clock, when the doors were bolted, admitted the various occupants of the house and gave them the tiny tapers with which to light themselves upstairs. She was sewing and singing softly when they entered. Herman Spier's pale face colored. He suspected the girl of a softness for him, not entirely borne out by the facts. So he straightened his ready-made tie, which hooked to his collar button, and ogled her.
"All right, girl. You may go," said Humbert. His huge bulk seemed to fill the little room.
"Good-night to you both," the girl said, and gave Herman Spier a nod. When she was gone, the concierge locked the door behind her.
"And now," he said, "for a look at the treasure."
He rubbed his hands together as Herman produced the letter. Heads close, they examined it under the lamp. Then they glanced at each other.
"A cipher," said the concierge shortly. "It tells nothing."
It was a moment of intense disappointment. In Humbert's mind had been forming, for the past hour or two, a plan - nothing less than to go himself before the Council and, with the letter in hand, to point out certain things which would be valuable. In this way he would serve both the party and him-self. Preferment would follow. He could demand, under the corning republic, some high office. Already, of course, he was known to the Committee, and known well, but rather for brawn than brain. They used him. Now -
"Code!" he said. And struck the paper with a hairy fist. "Everything goes wrong. That blond devil interferes, and now this letter speaks but of blankets and loaves!"
The bell rang, and, taking care to thrust the letter out of sight, the concierge disappeared. Then ensued, in the hall, a short colloquy, followed by a thumping on the staircase. The concierge returned.
"Old Adelbert, from the Opera," he said. "He has lost his position, and would have spent the night airing his grievance. But I sent him off!"
Herman turned his pale eyes toward the giant. "So!" he said. And after a pause, "He has some influence among the veterans."
"And is Royalist to his marrow," sneered the concierge. He took the letter out again and, bringing a lamp, went over it carefully. It was signed merely "Olga." "Blankets and loaves!" he fumed.
Now, as between the two, Black Humbert furnished evil and strength, but it was the pallid clerk who furnished the cunning. And now he made a suggestion.
"It is possible," he said, "that he - upstairs -could help."
"Adelbert? Are you mad?"
"The other. He knows codes. It was by means of one we caught him. I have heard that all these things have one basis, and a simple one."
The concierge considered. Then he rose. "It is worth trying," he observed.
He thrust the letter into his pocket, and the two conspirators went out into the gloomy hall. There, on a ledge, lay the white tapers, and one he lighted, shielding it from the draft in the hollow of his great hand. Then he led the way to the top of the house.
Here were three rooms. One, the best, was Herman Spier's, a poor thing at that. Next to it was old Adelbert's. As they passed the door they could hear him within, muttering to himself. At the extreme end of the narrow corridor, in a passage almost blocked by old furniture, was another room, a sort of attic, with a slanting roof.
Making sure that old Adelbert did not hear them, they went back to this door, which the concierge unlocked. Inside the room was dark. The taper showed little. As their eyes became accustomed to the darkness, the outlines of the attic stood revealed, a junk-room, piled high with old trunks, and in one corner a bed.
Black Humbert, taper in hand, approached the bed. Herman remained near the door. Now, with the candle near, the bed revealed a man lying on it, and tied with knotted ropes; a young man, with sunken cheeks and weary, desperate eyes. Beside him, on a chair, were the fragments of a meal, a bit of broken bread, some cold soup, on which grease had formed a firm coating.
Lying there, sleeping and waking and sleeping again, young Haeckel, one time of His Majesty's secret service and student in the University, had lost track of the days. He knew not how long he had been a prisoner, except that it had been eternities. Twice a day, morning and evening, came his jailer and loosened his bonds, brought food, of a sort, and allowed him, not out of mercy, but because it was the Committee's pleasure that for a time he should live, to move about the room and bring the blood again to his numbed limbs.
He was to live because he knew many things which the Committee would know. But, as the concierge daily reminded him, there was a limit to mercy and to patience.
In the mean time they held him, a hostage against certain contingencies. Held him and kept him barely alive. Already he tottered about the room when his bonds were removed; but his eyes did not falter, or his courage. Those whom he had served so well, he felt, would not forget him. And meanwhile, knowing what he knew, he would die before he became the tool of these workers in the dark.
So he lay and thought, and slept when thinking became unbearable, and thus went his days and the long nights.
The concierge untied him, and stood back. "Now," he said.
But the boy - he was no more - lay still. He made one effort to rise, and fell back.
"Up with you!" said the concierge, and jerked him to his feet. He caught the rail of the bed, or he would have fallen. "Now - stand like a man."
He stood then, facing his captors without defiance. He had worn all that out in the first days of his imprisonment. He was in shirt and trousers only, his feet bare, his face unshaven - the thin first beard of early manhood.
"Well?" he said at last. "I thought - you've been here once to-night."
"Right, my cuckoo. But to-night I do you double honor."
But seeing that Haeckel was swaying, he turned to Herman Spier. "Go down," he said, "and bring up some brandy. He can do nothing for us in this state."
He drank the brandy eagerly when it came, and the concierge poured him a second quantity. What with weakness and slow starvation, it did what no threat of personal danger would have done. It broke down his resistance. Not immediately. He fought hard, when the matter was first broached to him. But in the end he took the letter and, holding it close to the candle, he examined it closely. His hands shook, his eyes burned. The two Terrorists watched him narrowly.
Brandy or no brandy, however, he had not lost his wits. He glanced up suddenly. "Tell me something about this," he said. "And what will you do for me if I decode it?"
The concierge would promise anything, and did. Haeckel listened, and knew the offer of liberty was a lie. But there was something about the story of the letter itself that bore the hall-marks of truth.
"You see," finished Black Humbert cunningly, "she - this -lady of the Court - is plotting with some one, or so we suspect. If it is only a liaison - !" He spread his hands. "If, as is possible, she betrays us to Karnia, that we should find out. It is not," he added, "among our plans that Karnia should know too much of us."
"Who is it?"
"I cannot betray a lady," said Black Humbert, and leered.
The brandy was still working, but the spy's mind was clear. He asked for a pencil, and set to work. After all, if there was a spy of Karl's in the Palace, it were well to know it. He tried complicated methods first, to find that the body of the letter, after all, was simple enough. By reading every tenth word, he got a consistent message, save that certain supplies, over which the concierge had railed, were special code words for certain regiments. These he could not decipher.
"Whoever was to receive this," he said at last, "would have been in possession of complete data of the army, equipment and all, and the location of various regiments. Probably you and your band of murderers have that already."
The concierge nodded, no whit ruffled. "And for whom was it intended?"
"I cannot say. The address is fictitious, of course."
Black Humbert scowled. "So!" he said. "You tell us only a part!"
"There is nothing else to tell. Save, as I have written here, the writer ends: 'I must see you at once. Let me know where.'"
The brandy was getting in its work well by that time. He was feeling strong, his own man again, and reckless. But he was cunning, too. He yawned. "And in return for all this, what?" he demanded. "I have done you a service, friend cut-throat."
The concierge stuffed letter and translation into his pocket. "What would you have, short of liberty?"
"Air, for one thing." He stood up and stretched again. God, how strong he felt! "If you would open that accursed window for an hour - the place reeks."
Humbert was in high good humor in spite of his protests. In his pocket he held the key to favor, aye, to a plan which he meant to lay before the Committee of Ten, a plan breath-taking in its audacity and yet potential of success. He went to the window and put his great shoulder against it.
Instantly Haeckel overturned the candle and, picking up the chair, hurled it at Herman Spier. He heard the clerk go down as he leaped for the door. Herman had not locked it. He was in the passage before the concierge had stumbled past the bed.
On the stairs his lightness counted. His bare feet made no sound. He could hear behind him the great mass of Humbert, hurling itself down. Haeckel ran as he had never run before. The last flight now, with the concierge well behind, and liberty two seconds away.
He flung himself against the doors to the street. But they were fastened by a chain, and the key was not in the lock.
He crumpled up in a heap as the concierge fell on him with fists like flails.
Some time later, old Adelbert heard a sound in the corridor, and peered out. Humbert, assisted by the lodger, Spier, was carrying to the attic what appeared to be an old mattress, rolled up and covered with rags. In the morning, outside the door, there was a darkish stain, however, which might have been blood.