IX. The Man in Black
 

Mrs. Brian started back, with a wild look, a trapped look, in her eyes.

"What's he done?" she inquired. "What's he done? Tom's not done anything!"

"Be good enough to waken him," persisted the inspector. "I wish to speak to him."

Mrs. Brian walked slowly from the room and could be heard entering one further along the passage. An angry snarling, suggesting that of a wild animal disturbed in its lair, proclaimed the arousing of Taximan Thomas Brian. A thick voice inquired, brutally, why the sanguinary hell he (Mr. Brian) had had his bloodstained slumbers disturbed in this gory manner and who was the vermilion blighter responsible.

Then Mrs. Brian's voice mingled with that of her husband, and both became subdued. Finally, a slim man, who wore a short beard, or had omitted to shave for some days, appeared at the door of the living-room. His face was another history upon the same subject as that which might be studied from the walls, the floor, and the appointments of the room. Inspector Dunbar perceived that the shadow of the neighboring hostelry overlay this home.

"What's up?" inquired the new arrival.

The tone of his voice, thickened by excess, was yet eloquent of the gentleman. The barriers passed, your pariah gentleman can be the completest blackguard of them all. He spoke coarsely, and the infectious Cockney accent showed itself in his vowels; but Dunbar, a trained observer, summed up his man in a moment and acted accordingly.

"Come in and shut the door!" he directed. "No"--as Mrs. Brian sought to enter behind her husband--"I wish to speak with you, privately."

"Hop it!" instructed Brian, jerking his thumb over his shoulder-- and Mrs. Brian obediently disappeared, closing the door.

"Now," said Dunbar, looking the man up and down, "have you been into the depot, to-day?"

"No."

"But you have heard that there's an inquiry?"

"I've heard nothing. I've been in bed."

"We won't argue about that. I'll simply put a question to you: Where did you pick up the fare that you dropped at Palace Mansions at twelve o'clock last night?"

"Palace Mansions!" muttered Brian, shifting uneasily beneath the unflinching stare of the tawny eyes. "What d'you mean? What Palace Mansions?"

"Don't quibble!" warned Dunbar, thrusting out a finger at him. "This is not a matter of a loss of license; it's a life job!"

"Life job!" whispered the man, and his weak face suddenly relaxed, so that, oddly, the old refinement shone out through the new, vulgar veneer.

"Answer my questions straight and square and I'll take your word that you have not seen the inquiry!" said Dunbar.

"Dick Hamper's done this for me!" muttered Brian. "He's a dirty, low swine! Somebody'll do for him one night!"

"Leave Hamper out of the question," snapped Dunbar. "You put down a fare at Palace Mansions at twelve o'clock last night?"

For one tremendous moment, Brian hesitated, but the good that was in him, or the evil--a consciousness of wrongdoing, or of retribution pending--respect for the law, or fear of its might-- decided his course.

"I did."

"It was a man?"

Again Brian, with furtive glance, sought to test his opponent; but his opponent was too strong for him. With Dunbar's eyes upon his face, he chose not to lie.

"It was a woman."

"How was she dressed?"

"In a fur motor-coat--civet fur."

The man of culture spoke in those two words, "civet fur"; and Dunbar nodded quickly, his eyes ablaze at the importance of the evidence.

"Was she alone?"

"She was."

"What fare did she pay you?"

"The meter only registered eightpence, but she gave me half-a- crown."

"Did she appear to be ill?"

"Very ill. She wore no hat, and I supposed her to be in evening dress. She almost fell as she got out of the cab, but managed to get into the hall of Palace Mansions quickly enough, looking behind her all the time."

Inspector Dunbar shot out the hypnotic finger again.

"She told you to wait!" he asserted, positively. Brian looked to right and left, up and down, thrusting his hands into his coat pockets, and taking them out again to stroke his collarless neck. Then:--

"She did--yes," he admitted.

"But you were bribed to drive away? Don't deny it! Don't dare to trifle with me, or by God! you'll spend the night in Brixton Jail!"

"It was made worth my while," muttered Brian, his voice beginning to break, "to hop it."

"Who paid you to do it?"

"A man who had followed all the way in a big car."

"That's it! Describe him!"

"I can't! No, no! you can threaten as much as you like, but I can't describe him. I never saw his face. He stood behind me on the near side of the cab, and just reached forward and pushed a flyer under my nose."

Inspector Dunbar searched the speaker's face closely--and concluded that he was respecting the verity.

"How was he dressed?"

"In black, and that's all I can tell you about him."

"You took the money?"

"I took the money, yes" . . .

"What did he say to you?"

"Simply: 'Drive off.'"

"Did you take him to be an Englishman from his speech?"

"No; he was not an Englishman. He had a foreign accent."

"French? German?"

"No," said Brian, looking up and meeting the glance of the fierce eyes. "Asiatic!"

Inspector Dunbar, closely as he held himself in hand, started slightly.

"Are you sure?"

"Certainly. Before I--when I was younger--I traveled in the East, and I know the voice and intonation of the cultured Oriental."

"Can you place him any closer than that?"

"No, I can't venture to do so." Brian's manner was becoming, momentarily, more nearly that of a gentleman. "I might be leading you astray if I ventured a guess, but if you asked me to do so, I should say he was a Chinaman."

"A chinaman?" Dunbar's voice rose excitedly.

"I think so."

"What occurred next?"

"I turned my cab and drove off out of the Square."

"Did you see where the man went?"

"I didn't. I saw nothing of him beyond his hand."

"And his hand?"

"He wore a glove."

"And now," said Dunbar, speaking very slowly, "where did you pick up your fare?"

"In Gillingham Street, near Victoria Station."

"From a house?"

"Yes, from Nurse Proctor's."

"Nurse Proctor's! Who is Nurse Proctor?"

Brian shrugged his shoulders in a nonchalant manner, which obviously belonged to an earlier phase of existence.

"She keeps a nursing home," he said--"for ladies."

"Do you mean a maternity home?"

"Not exactly; at least I don't think so. Most of her clients are society ladies, who stay there periodically."

"What are you driving at?" demanded Dunbar. "I have asked you if it is a maternity home."

"And I have replied that it isn't. I am only giving you facts; you don't want my surmises."

"Who hailed you?"

"The woman did--the woman in the fur coat. I was just passing the door very slowly when it was flung open with a bang, and she rushed out as though hell were after her. Before I had time to pull up, she threw herself into my cab and screamed: 'Palace Mansions! Westminster!' I reached back and shut the door, and drove right away."

"When did you see that you were followed?"

"We were held up just outside the music hall, and looking back, I saw that my fare was dreadfully excited. It didn't take me long to find out that the cause of her excitement was a big limousine, three or four back in the block of traffic. The driver was some kind of an Oriental, too, although I couldn't make him out very clearly."

"Good!" snapped Dunbar; "that's important! But you saw nothing more of this car?" . . .

"I saw it follow me into the Square."

"Then where did it wait?"

"I don't know; I didn't see it again."

Inspector Dunbar nodded rapidly.

"Have you ever driven women to or from this Nurse Proctor's before?"

"On two other occasions, I have driven ladies who came from there. I knew they came from there, because it got about amongst us that the tall woman in nurse's uniform who accompanied them was Nurse Proctor."

"You mean that you didn't take these women actually from the door of the house in Gillingham Street, but from somewhere adjacent?"

"Yes; they never take a cab from the door. They always walk to the corner of the street with a nurse, and a porter belonging to the house brings their luggage along."

"The idea is secrecy?"

"No doubt. But as I have said, the word was passed round."

"Did you know either of these other women?"

"No; but they were obviously members of good society."

"And you drove them?"

"One to St. Pancras, and one to Waterloo," said Brian, dropping back somewhat into his coarser style, and permitting a slow grin to overspread his countenance.

"To catch trains, no doubt?"

"Not a bit of it! To meet trains!"

"You mean?"

"I mean that their own private cars were waiting for them at the arrival platform as I drove 'em up to the departure platform, and that they simply marched through the station and pretended to have arrived by train!"

Inspector Dunbar took out his notebook and fountain-pen, and began to tap his teeth with the latter, nodding his head at the same time.

"You are sure of the accuracy of your last statement?" he said, raising his eyes to the other.

"I followed one of them," was the reply, "and saw her footman gravely take charge of the luggage which I had just brought from Victoria; and a pal of mine followed the other--the Waterloo one, that was."

Inspector Dunbar scribbled busily. Then:--

"You have done well to make a clean breast of it," he said. "Take a straight tip from me. Keep off the drink!"