Chronicles of Martin Hewitt
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Plummer looked casually in the direction indicated, and then immediately turned his eyes in another direction.
"I see her," he said; "she's just taking a look round the corner. That's a thing not to be ignored. Of course, the Lakers' house is being watched – we set a man on it at once, yesterday. But I'll put some one on now to watch Miss Shaw's place, too. I'll telephone through to Liddle's – probably they'll be able to say where it is. And the women themselves must be watched, too. As a matter of fact, I had a notion that Laker wasn't alone in it. And it's just possible, you know, that he has sent an accomplice off with his tourist ticket to lead us a dance while he looks after himself in another direction. Have you done anything?"
"Well," Hewitt replied, with a faint reproduction of the secretive smile with which Plummer had met an inquiry of his earlier in the morning, "I've been to the station here, and I've found Laker's umbrella in the lost property office."
"Oh! Then probably he has gone. I'll bear that in mind, and perhaps have a word with the lost property man."
Plummer made for the station and Hewitt for his office. He mounted the stairs and reached his door just as I myself, who had been disappointed in not finding him in, was leaving. I had called with the idea of taking Hewitt to lunch with me at my club, but he declined lunch. "I have an important case in hand," he said. "Look here, Brett. See this scrap of paper. You know the types of the different newspapers – which is this?"
He handed me a small piece of paper. It was part of a cutting containing an advertisement, which had been torn in half.
"I think," I said, "this is from the Daily Chronicle, judging by the paper. It is plainly from the 'agony column,' but all the papers use pretty much the same type for these advertisements, except the Times. If it were not torn I could tell you at once, because the Chronicle columns are rather narrow."
"Never mind – I'll send for them all." He rang, and sent Kerrett for a copy of each morning paper of the previous day. Then he took from a large wardrobe cupboard a decent but well-worn and rather roughened tall hat. Also a coat a little worn and shiny on the collar. He exchanged these for his own hat and coat, and then substituted an old necktie for his own clean white one, and encased his legs in mud-spotted leggings. This done, he produced a very large and thick pocket-book, fastened by a broad elastic band, and said, "Well, what do you think of this? Will it do for Queen's taxes, or sanitary inspection, or the gas, or the water-supply?"
"Very well indeed, I should say," I replied. "What's the case?"
"Oh, I'll tell you all about that when it's over – no time now. Oh, here you are, Kerrett. By the bye, Kerrett, I'm going out presently by the back way. Wait for about ten minutes or a quarter of an hour after I am gone, and then just go across the road and speak to that lady in black, with the veil, who is waiting in that little foot-passage opposite.Say Mr. Martin Hewitt sends his compliments, and he advises her not to wait, as he has already left his office by another door, and has been gone some little time. That's all; it would be a pity to keep the poor woman waiting all day for nothing. Now the papers. Daily News, Standard, Telegraph, Chronicle– yes, here it is, in the Chronicle."
The whole advertisement read thus: —
YOB. – H.R. Shop roast. You 1st. Then to-night. 02. 2nd top 3rd L. No. 197 red bl. straight mon. One at a time.
"What's this," I asked, "a cryptogram?"
"I'll see," Hewitt answered. "But I won't tell you anything about it till afterwards, so you get your lunch. Kerrett, bring the directory."
This was all I actually saw of this case myself, and I have written the rest in its proper order from Hewitt's information, as I have written some other cases entirely.
To resume at the point where, for the time I lost sight of the matter. Hewitt left by the back way and stopped an empty cab as it passed. "Abney Park Cemetery" was his direction to the driver. In little more than twenty minutes the cab was branching off down the Essex Road on its way to Stoke Newington, and in twenty minutes more Hewitt stopped it in Church Street, Stoke Newington. He walked through a street or two, and then down another, the houses of which he scanned carefully as he passed. Opposite one which stood by itself he stopped, and, making a pretence of consulting and arranging his large pocket-book, he took a good look at the house. It was rather larger, neater, and more pretentious than the others in the street, and it had a natty little coach-house just visible up the side entrance. There were red blinds hung with heavy lace in the front windows, and behind one of these blinds Hewitt was able to catch the glint of a heavy gas chandelier.
He stepped briskly up the front steps and knocked sharply at the door. "Mr. Merston?" he asked, pocket-book in hand, when a neat parlour-maid opened the door.
"Ah!" Hewitt stepped into the hall and pulled off his hat; "it's only the meter. There's been a deal of gas running away somewhere here, and I'm just looking to see if the meters are right. Where is it?"
The girl hesitated. "I'll – I'll ask master," she said.
"Very well. I don't want to take it away, you know – only to give it a tap or two, and so on."
The girl retired to the back of the hall, and without taking her eyes off Martin Hewitt, gave his message to some invisible person in a back room, whence came a growling reply of "All right."
Hewitt followed the girl to the basement, apparently looking straight before him, but in reality taking in every detail of the place. The gas meter was in a very large lumber cupboard under the kitchen stairs. The girl opened the door and lit a candle. The meter stood on the floor, which was littered with hampers and boxes and odd sheets of brown paper. But a thing that at once arrested Hewitt's attention was a garment of some sort of bright blue cloth, with large brass buttons, which was lying in a tumbled heap in a corner, and appeared to be the only thing in the place that was not covered with dust. Nevertheless, Hewitt took no apparent notice of it, but stooped down and solemnly tapped the meter three times with his pencil, and listened with great gravity, placing his ear to the top. Then he shook his head and tapped again. At length he said: —
"It's a bit doubtful. I'll just get you to light the gas in the kitchen a moment. Keep your hand to the burner, and when I call out shut it off at once; see?"
The girl turned and entered the kitchen, and Hewitt immediately seized the blue coat – for a coat it was. It had a dull red piping in the seams, and was of the swallow-tail pattern – a livery coat, in fact. He held it for a moment before him, examining its pattern and colour, and then rolled it up and flung it again into the corner.
"Right!" he called to the servant. "Shut off!"
The girl emerged from the kitchen as he left the cupboard.
"Well," she asked, "are you satisfied now?"
"Quite satisfied, thank you," Hewitt replied.
"Is it all right?" she continued, jerking her hand toward the cupboard.
"Well, no, it isn't; there's something wrong there, and I'm glad I came. You can tell Mr. Merston, if you like, that I expect his gas bill will be a good deal less next quarter." And there was a suspicion of a chuckle in Hewitt's voice as he crossed the hall to leave. For a gas inspector is pleased when he finds at length what he has been searching for.
Things had fallen out better than Hewitt had dared to expect. He saw the key of the whole mystery in that blue coat; for it was the uniform coat of the hall porters at one of the banks that he had visited in the morning, though which one he could not for the moment remember. He entered the nearest post-office and despatched a telegram to Plummer, giving certain directions and asking the inspector to meet him; then he hailed the first available cab and hurried toward the City.
At Lombard Street he alighted, and looked in at the door of each bank till he came to Buller, Clayton, Ladds & Co.'s. This was the bank he wanted. In the other banks the hall porters wore mulberry coats, brick-dust coats, brown coats, and what not, but here, behind the ladders and scaffold poles which obscured the entrance, he could see a man in a blue coat, with dull red piping and brass buttons. He sprang up the steps, pushed open the inner swing door, and finally satisfied himself by a closer view of the coat, to the wearer's astonishment. Then he regained the pavement and walked the whole length of the bank premises in front, afterwards turning up the paved passage at the side, deep in thought. The bank had no windows or doors on the side next the court, and the two adjoining houses were old and supported in places by wooden shores. Both were empty, and a great board announced that tenders would be received in a month's time for the purchase of the old materials of which they were constructed; also that some part of the site would be let on a long building lease.
Hewitt looked up at the grimy fronts of the old buildings. The windows were crusted thick with dirt – all except the bottom window of the house nearer the bank, which was fairly clean, and seemed to have been quite lately washed. The door, too, of this house was cleaner than that of the other, though the paint was worn. Hewitt reached and fingered a hook driven into the left-hand doorpost about six feet from the ground. It was new, and not at all rusted; also a tiny splinter had been displaced when the hook was driven in, and clean wood showed at the spot.
Having observed these things, Hewitt stepped back and read at the bottom of the big board the name, "Winsor & Weekes, Surveyors and Auctioneers, Abchurch Lane." Then he stepped into Lombard Street.
Two hansoms pulled up near the post-office, and out of the first stepped Inspector Plummer and another man. This man and the two who alighted from the second hansom were unmistakably plain-clothes constables – their air, gait, and boots proclaimed it.
"What's all this?" demanded Plummer, as Hewitt approached.
"You'll soon see, I think. But, first, have you put the watch on No. 197, Hackworth Road?"
"Yes; nobody will get away from there alone."
"Very good. I am going into Abchurch Lane for a few minutes. Leave your men out here, but just go round into the court by Buller, Clayton & Ladds's, and keep your eye on the first door on the left. I think we'll find something soon. Did you get rid of Miss Shaw?"
"No, she's behind now, and Mrs. Laker's with her. They met in the Strand, and came after us in another cab. Rare fun, eh! They think we're pretty green! It's quite handy, too. So long as they keep behind me it saves all trouble of watching them." And Inspector Plummer chuckled and winked.
"Very good. You don't mind keeping your eye on that door, do you? I'll be back very soon," and with that Hewitt turned off into Abchurch Lane.
At Winsor & Weekes's information was not difficult to obtain. The houses were destined to come down very shortly, but a week or so ago an office and a cellar in one of them was let temporarily to a Mr. Westley. He brought no references; indeed, as he paid a fortnight's rent in advance, he was not asked for any, considering the circumstances of the case. He was opening a London branch for a large firm of cider merchants, he said, and just wanted a rough office and a cool cellar to store samples in for a few weeks till the permanent premises were ready. There was another key, and no doubt the premises might be entered if there were any special need for such a course. Martin Hewitt gave such excellent reasons that Winsor & Weekes's managing clerk immediately produced the key and accompanied Hewitt to the spot.
"I think you'd better have your men handy," Hewitt remarked to Plummer when they reached the door, and a whistle quickly brought the men over.
The key was inserted in the lock and turned, but the door would not open; the bolt was fastened at the bottom. Hewitt stooped and looked under the door.
"It's a drop bolt," he said. "Probably the man who left last let it fall loose, and then banged the door, so that it fell into its place. I must try my best with a wire or a piece of string."
A wire was brought, and with some man?uvring Hewitt contrived to pass it round the bolt, and lift it little by little, steadying it with the blade of a pocket-knife. When at length the bolt was raised out of the hole, the knife-blade was slipped under it, and the door swung open.
They entered. The door of the little office just inside stood open, but in the office there was nothing, except a board a couple of feet long in a corner. Hewitt stepped across and lifted this, turning its downward face toward Plummer. On it, in fresh white paint on a black ground, were painted the words —
"BULLER, CLAYTON, LADDS & CO.,
Hewitt turned to Winsor & Weekes's clerk and asked, "The man who took this room called himself Westley, didn't he?"
"Youngish man, clean-shaven, and well-dressed?"
"Yes, he was."
"I fancy," Hewitt said, turning to Plummer, "I fancy an old friend of yours is in this – Mr. Sam Gunter."
"What, the 'Hoxton Yob'?"
"I think it's possible he's been Mr. Westley for a bit, and somebody else for another bit. But let's come to the cellar."
Winsor & Weekes's clerk led the way down a steep flight of steps into a dark underground corridor, wherein they lighted their way with many successive matches. Soon the corridor made a turn to the right, and as the party passed the turn, there came from the end of the passage before them a fearful yell.
"Help! help! Open the door! I'm going mad – mad! O my God!"
And there was a sound of desperate beating from the inside of the cellar door at the extreme end. The men stopped, startled.
"Come," said Hewitt, "more matches!" and he rushed to the door. It was fastened with a bar and padlock.
"Let me out, for God's sake!" came the voice, sick and hoarse, from the inside. "Let me out!"
"All right!" Hewitt shouted. "We have come for you. Wait a moment."
The voice sank into a sort of sobbing croon, and Hewitt tried several keys from his own bunch on the padlock. None fitted. He drew from his pocket the wire he had used for the bolt of the front door, straightened it out, and made a sharp bend at the end.
"Hold a match close," he ordered shortly, and one of the men obeyed. Three or four attempts were necessary, and several different bendings of the wire were effected, but in the end Hewitt picked the lock, and flung open the door.
From within a ghastly figure fell forward among them fainting, and knocked out the matches.
"Hullo!" cried Plummer. "Hold up! Who are you?"
"Let's get him up into the open," said Hewitt. "He can't tell you who he is for a bit, but I believe he's Laker."
"Laker! What, here?"
"I think so. Steady up the steps. Don't bump him. He's pretty sore already, I expect."
Truly the man was a pitiable sight. His hair and face were caked in dust and blood, and his finger-nails were torn and bleeding. Water was sent for at once, and brandy.
"Well," said Plummer hazily, looking first at the unconscious prisoner and then at Hewitt, "but what about the swag?"
"You'll have to find that yourself," Hewitt replied. "I think my share of the case is about finished. I only act for the Guarantee Society, you know, and if Laker's proved innocent – "
"Well, this is what took place, as near as I can figure it. You'd better undo his collar, I think" – this to the men. "What I believe has happened is this. There has been a very clever and carefully prepared conspiracy here, and Laker has not been the criminal, but the victim."
"Been robbed himself, you mean? But how? Where?"
"Yesterday morning, before he had been to more than three banks – here, in fact."
"But then how? You're all wrong. We know he made the whole round, and did all the collection. And then Palmer's office, and all, and the umbrella; why – "
The man lay still unconscious. "Don't raise his head," Hewitt said. "And one of you had best fetch a doctor. He's had a terrible shock." Then turning to Plummer he went on, "As to how they managed the job I'll tell you what I think. First it struck some very clever person that a deal of money might be got by robbing a walk-clerk from a bank. This clever person was one of a clever gang of thieves – perhaps the Hoxton Row gang, as I think I hinted. Now you know quite as well as I do that such a gang will spend any amount of time over a job that promises a big haul, and that for such a job they can always command the necessary capital. There are many most respectable persons living in good style in the suburbs whose chief business lies in financing such ventures, and taking the chief share of the proceeds. Well, this is their plan, carefully and intelligently carried out. They watch Laker, observe the round he takes, and his habits. They find that there is only one of the clerks with whom he does business that he is much acquainted with, and that this clerk is in a bank which is commonly second in Laker's round. The sharpest man among them – and I don't think there's a man in London could do this as well as young Sam Gunter – studies Laker's dress and habits just as an actor studies a character. They take this office and cellar, as we have seen, because it is next door to a bank whose front entrance is being altered– a fact which Laker must know from his daily visits. The smart man – Gunter, let us say, and I have other reasons for believing it to be he – makes up precisely like Laker, false moustache, dress, and everything, and waits here with the rest of the gang. One of the gang is dressed in a blue coat with brass buttons, like a hall-porter in Buller's bank. Do you see?"
"Yes, I think so. It's pretty clear now."
"A confederate watches at the top of the court, and the moment Laker turns in from Cornhill – having already been, mind, at the only bank where he was so well known that the disguised thief would not have passed muster – as soon as he turns in from Cornhill, I say, a signal is given, and that board" – pointing to that with the white letters – "is hung on the hook in the doorpost. The sham porter stands beside it, and as Laker approaches says, 'This way in, sir, this morning. The front way's shut for the alterations.' Laker, suspecting nothing, and supposing that the firm have made a temporary entrance through the empty house, enters. He is seized when well along the corridor, the board is taken down and the door shut. Probably he is stunned by a blow on the head – see the blood now. They take his wallet and all the cash he has already collected. Gunter takes the wallet and also the umbrella, since it has Laker's initials, and is therefore distinctive. He simply completes the walk in the character of Laker, beginning with Buller, Clayton & Ladds's just round the corner. It is nothing but routine work, which is quickly done, and nobody notices him particularly – it is the bills they examine. Meanwhile this unfortunate fellow is locked up in the cellar here, right at the end of the underground corridor, where he can never make himself heard in the street, and where next him are only the empty cellars of the deserted house next door. The thieves shut the front door and vanish. The rest is plain. Gunter, having completed the round, and bagged some ?15,000 or more, spends a few pounds in a tourist ticket at Palmer's as a blind, being careful to give Laker's name. He leaves the umbrella at Charing Cross in a conspicuous place right opposite the lost property office, where it is sure to be seen, and so completes his false trail."
"Then who are the people at 197, Hackworth Road?"
"The capitalist lives there – the financier, and probably the directing spirit of the whole thing. Merston's the name he goes by there, and I've no doubt he cuts a very imposing figure in chapel every Sunday. He'll be worth picking up – this isn't the first thing he's been in, I'll warrant."
"But – but what about Laker's mother and Miss Shaw?"
"Well, what? The poor women are nearly out of their minds with terror and shame, that's all, but though they may think Laker a criminal, they'll never desert him. They've been following us about with a feeble, vague sort of hope of being able to baffle us in some way or help him if we caught him, or something, poor things. Did you ever hear of a real woman who'd desert a son or a lover merely because he was a criminal? But here's the doctor. When he's attended to him will you let your men take Laker home? I must hurry and report to the Guarantee Society, I think."
"But," said the perplexed Plummer, "where did you get your clue? You must have had a tip from some one, you know – you can't have done it by clairvoyance. What gave you the tip?"
"The Daily Chronicle."
"The Daily Chronicle. Just take a look at the 'agony column' in yesterday morning's issue, and read the message to 'Yob' – to Gunter, in fact. That's all."
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