Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“So,” murmurs Stanhope to his inner consciousness, “I am making a point in personal history, but – it’s a tight place for me!” And as Winnie’s arms give him a little hug, while she pauses to take breath, he feels tempted to retort in kind.
“Now, then,” resumes Winnie, absorbed in her topic; and releasing her victim to check off her “cons” on the pretty right hand; “here’s my opinion of Mr. Warburton. He’s proud, ridiculously proud. He worships his name, if not himself. He is suspicious, uncharitable, unforgiving. He’s hard-hearted. If Leslie were not an angel she would hate him utterly. He treats her with a lofty politeness, a polished indifference, impossible to resent and horrible to endure, – and all because he chooses to believe that she has tarnished the great Warburton name, by taking it for love of the Warburton fortune instead of the race.”
Up from the ball-room floats the first strains of a delicious waltz. Winnie stops, starts, and turns toward the door.
“That’s my favorite waltz, and I’m engaged to Charlie Furbish – he dances like an angel. Follingsbee, bye, bye!”
She flits to the mirror, gives two or three dainty touches to her coquettish costume, tosses a kiss from her finger tips, and is gone.
“Thank Heaven,” mutters Stanhope. “I consider that the narrowest escape of my life! What a little witch it is, and pretty, I’ll wager.”
He draws from beneath his flowing robe a tiny watch such as ladies carry, and consults its jewelled face.
“My time is up!” he ejaculates. “Twenty minutes delay, now, will ruin my Raid. Ah! here’s Follingsbee.” And he moves forward at the sound of an approaching step.
But it is not Follingsbee who appears upon the threshold. It is, instead, Stanhope’s too-obsequious, too-attentive admirer, the Celestial, who has voted the prospect of a flirtation with a mysterious mask, a thing of spice.
A “’MELLICAN LADY’S” LITTLE TRICK
In such an emergency, when every moment has its value, to think is to act with Richard Stanhope. And time just now is very precious to him.
This importunate fellow is determined to solve the mystery of his identity, to see him unmask. Ten minutes spent in an attempt to evade him will be moments of fate for the ambitious detective.
And, for the sake of his patroness, he cannot leave the house at the risk of being followed. This difficulty must be overcome and at once.
These thoughts flash through his mind as if by electricity; and then, as the Celestial approaches, he turns languidly toward the open window and rests his head against the casement, as if in utter weariness.
“‘Mellican lady slick?” queries the masker solicitously; “‘Mellican lady walm? Ching Ling flannee, flannee.”
And raising his Japanese fan, he begins to ply it vigorously.
Mentally confiding “Ching Ling,” to a region where fans are needed and are not, Stanhope sways, as if about to faint, and motions toward a reclining chair.
The mask propels it close to the window, and the detective sinks into it, with a long drawn sigh.
Then, plying his fan with renewed vigor, the Celestial murmurs tenderly:
“‘Mellican lady slick?”
“Confound you,” thinks Stanhope; “I will try and be too slick for you.” Then, for the first time, he utters a word for the Celestial’s hearing.
Moving his head restlessly he articulates, feebly:
“The heat – I feel – faint!” Then, half rising from the chair, seeming to make a last effort, he reels and murmuring: “Water – water,” sinks back presenting the appearance of utter lifelessness.
“Water!” The Celestial, utterly deceived, drops the fan and his dialect at the same moment, and muttering: “She has fainted!” springs to the door.
It is just what Stanhope had hoped for. When the Celestial returns with the water, the fainting lady will have disappeared.
But Fate seems to have set her face against Stanhope. The Celestial does not go. At the very door he encounters a servant, none other than the girl, Millie, who, having for some time lost sight of little Daisy, is now wandering from room to room in quest of the child.
“Girl,” calls the masker authoritatively, “get some water quick; a lady has fainted.”
Uttering a startled: “Oh, my!” Millie skurries away, and the Celestial returns to the side of the detective, who seems just now to be playing a losing game.
But it is only seeming. The case, grown desperate, requires a desperate remedy, and the Goddess of Liberty resolves to do what, probably, no “‘Mellican Lady” ever did before.
Through his drooping eyelids he notes the approach of the Celestial, sees him fling aside his fan to bend above him, and realizes the fact that he is about to be unmasked.
The Celestial bends nearer still. His hands touch the draped head, searching for the secret that releases the tightly secured mask. It is a sentimental picture, but suddenly the scene changes. Sentiment is put to rout, and absurdity reigns.
With indescribable swiftness, the body of the Goddess darts forward, and the head comes in sudden contact with the stomach of the too-devoted Celestial, who goes down upon the floor in a state of collapse, while Stanhope, bounding to his feet and gathering up his trailing draperies, springs through the open window!
When Millie returns with water and other restoratives, she finds only a disarranged masker sitting dolefully upon the floor, with one hand pressed against his stomach and the other supporting his head; still too much dazed and bewildered to know just how he came there.
When he has finally recovered sufficiently to be able to give a shrewd guess as to the nature of the calamity that so suddenly overcame him, he is wise enough to see that the victory sits perched on the banner of the vanished Goddess, and to retire from the field permanently silent upon the subject of “spicy flirtations” and mysterious ladies.
Meantime, Stanhope having alighted, with no particular damage to himself or his drapery, upon a balcony which runs half the length of the house, is creeping silently along that convenient causeway toward the gentlemen’s dressing-room, situated at its extreme end.
Foreseeing some possible difficulty in leaving the house unnoticed while attired in so conspicuous a costume, the Goddess had come prepared with a long black domino, which had been confided to Mr. Follingsbee, who, at the proper moment, was to fetch it from the gentlemen’s dressing-room, array Stanhope in its sombre folds, and then see him from the house, and safely established in the carriage which the detective had arranged to have in waiting to convey him to the scene of the Raid.
Owing to his little encounter with the Celestial, Stanhope knows himself cut off from communication with Mr. Follingsbee, and he now creeps toward the dressing-room wholly intent upon securing the domino and quitting the house in the quickest manner possible.
As he approaches the window, however, he realizes that there is another lion in his path.
The room is already occupied; he hears two voices speaking in guarded tones.
“Be quick, Harvey; some one may come in a moment.”
“I have locked the door.”
“But it must be opened at the first knock. There must be no appearance of mystery, no room for suspicion, Harvey.”
At the sound of a most familiar voice, Richard Stanhope starts, and flushes with excitement underneath his mask. Then he presses close against the window and peers in.
Two men are rapidly exchanging garments there; the one doffing a uniform such as is worn by an officer of Her Majesty’s troops, the other passing over, in exchange for said uniform, the suit of a common policeman.
With astonished eyes and bated breath, Stanhope recognizes the two. Van Vernet, his friend, and Harvey, a member of the police force, who is Vernet’s staunch admirer and chosen assistant when such assistance can be of use.
How came Vernet at this masquerade, of all others? And what are they about to do?
He is soon enlightened, for Van Vernet, flushed with his success, present and prospective, utters a low triumphant laugh as he dons the policeman’s coat, and turns to readjust his mask.
“Ah! Harvey,” he says gayly; “if you ever live to execute as fine a bit of strategy as I did to-night, you may yet be Captain of police. Ha! ha! this most recent battle between America and England has turned out badly for America – all because she will wear petticoats!”
America! England! petticoats! Stanhope can scarcely suppress an exclamation as suddenly light flashes upon his mental horizon.
“I’ve done a good thing to-night, Harvey,” continues Vernet with unusual animation, “and I’ve got the lead on a sharp man. If I can hold my own to-night, you’ll never again hear of Van Vernet as only ‘one of our best detectives.’ Is your mask adjusted? All right, then. Now, Harvey, time presses; there’s a big night’s work before me. You are sure you understand everything?”
“Oh, perfectly; my work’s easy enough.”
“And mine begins to be difficult. Unlock the door, Harvey, I must be off.” Then turning sharply he adds, as if it were an after-thought: “By the way, if you happen to set your eye on a Goddess of Liberty, just note her movements; I would give something to know when she contrives to leave the house and,” with a dry laugh, “and how.”
In another moment the dressing-room is deserted.
And then Richard Stanhope steps lightly through the window. With rapid movements he singles out his own dark domino, gathers his colored draperies close about him, and flings it over them, drawing the hood down about his head, and the long folds around his person. Then he goes out from the dressing-rooms, hurries down the great stairway, and passing boldly out by the main entrance, glances up and down the street.
Only a few paces away, a dark form is hurrying toward a group of carriages standing opposite the mansion, and Stanhope, in an instant, is gliding in the same direction. As the man places a foot upon the step of a carriage that has evidently awaited his coming, Stanhope glides so near that he distinctly hears the order, given in Vernet’s low voice:
“To the X – street police station. Drive fast.”
A trifle farther away another carriage, its driver very alert and expectant, stands waiting.
Having heard Vernet’s order, Stanhope hurries to this carriage, springs within, and whispers to the driver:
“The old place, Jim; and your quickest time!”
Then, as the wheels rattle over the pavement, the horses speeding away from this fashionable quarter of the city, a strange transformation scene goes on within the carriage, which, evidently, has been prepared for this purpose. The Goddess of Liberty is casting her robes, and long before the carriage has reached its destination, she has disappeared, there remaining, in her stead, a personage of fantastic appearance. He is literally clothed in rags, and plentifully smeared with dirt; his tattered garments are decorated with bits of tinsel, and scraps of bright color flutter from his ragged hat, and flaunt upon his breast; there is a monstrous patch over his left eye and a mass of disfiguring blotches covers his left cheek; a shock of unkempt tow-colored hair bristles upon his head, and his forehead and eyes are half hidden by thick dangling elf-locks.
If this absurd apparition bears not the slightest resemblance to the Goddess of Liberty, it resembles still less our friend, Richard Stanhope.
Suddenly, and in an obscure street, the carriage comes to a halt, and as its fantastically-attired occupant descends to the ground, the first stroke of midnight sounds out upon the air.
A CRY IN THE DARK
One more scene in this night’s fateful masquerade remains to be described, and then the seemingly separate threads of our plot unite, and twine about our central figures a chain of Fate.
While Van Vernet is setting snares for the feet of his rival, and while that young man of many resources is actively engaged in disentangling himself therefrom, – while Leslie Warburton, tortured by a secret which she cannot reveal, and dominated by a power she dare not disobey, steals away from her stately home – and while Alan Warburton, soured by suspicion, made unjust by his own false pride, follows like a shadow behind her – a cloud is descending upon the house of Warburton.
Sitting apart from the mirthful crowd, quite unobserved and seemingly wholly engrossed in themselves, are little Daisy Warburton and the quaintly-attired Mother Goose, before mentioned.
It is long past the child’s latest bedtime, but her step-mamma has been so entirely preoccupied, and Millie so carelessly absorbed in watching the gayeties of the evening, that the little one has been overlooked, and feels now quite like her own mistress.
“Ha! ha!” she laughs merrily, leaning, much at her ease, upon the knee of Mother Goose; “ha! ha! what nice funny stories you tell; almost as nice as my new mamma’s stories. Only,” looking up with exquisite frankness, “your voice is not half so nice as my new mamma’s.”
“Because I’m an old woman, dearie,” replies Mother Goose, a shade of something like disapproval in her tone. “Do you really want to see Mother Hubbard’s dog, little girl?”
“Old Mother Hubbard – she went to the cupboard,” sings Daisy gleefully. “Of course I do, Mrs. Goose. Does Mother Hubbard look like you?”
“And – you said Cinderella’s coach was down near my papa’s gate?”
“So it is, dearie.” Then looking cautiously about her, and lowering her voice to a whisper: “How would you like to ride to see Mother Hubbard in Cinderella’s coach, and come right back, you know, before it turns into a pumpkin again?”
The fair child clasps two tiny hands, and utters a cry of delight.
“Oh! could we?” she asks, breathlessly.
“Of course we can, if you are very quiet and do as I bid you, and if you don’t get afraid.”
“I don’t get afraid – not often,” replies the child, drawing still closer to Mother Goose, and speaking with hushed gravity. “When I used to be afraid at night, my mamma, my new mamma, you know, taught me to say like this.”
Clasping her hands, she sinks upon her knees and lifts her face to that which, behind its grotesque mask, is distorted by some unpleasant emotion. And then the childish voice lisps reverently:
“Dear God, please take care of a little girl whose mamma has gone to Heaven. Keep her from sin, and sickness, and danger. Make the dark as safe as the day, and don’t let her be afraid, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.”
Something like a smothered imprecation dies away in the throat of the listener, and then she says, in honeyed accents:
“That’s a very nice little prayer, and your new mamma is a very fine lady. When you come back from your ride in Cinderella’s carriage, you can tell your new mamma all about it.”
“Oh! how nice!”
“It will be charming. Come into the conservatory, dearie. I think we can see Cinderella’s lamps from there.”
With the confidence born of childish innocence, the little one places her hand in that of Mother Goose, and is led away.
The conservatory is all aglow with light and color and rich perfume, and it is almost tenantless. The broad low windows are open, and a narrow balcony, adorned with tall vases and hung with drooping vines, projects from them scarce three feet from the ground.
Out upon this balcony, and close to the railing, the child follows the old woman confidently. Then, as she peers out into the night, she draws back.
“It’s – very – dark,” she whispers.
“It’s the light inside that makes it seem so dark, dearie. Ah! I see a glimmer of Cinderella’s lamp now; look, child!”
Stooping quickly, she lifts the little one and seats her upon the railing of the balcony. Then, as the child, shading her eyes with a tiny hand, attempts to peer out into the darkness, something damp and sickening is pressed to her face; there is an odor in the air not born of the flowers within, and Daisy Warburton, limp and unconscious, lies back in the arms of her enemy.
In another moment, the woman in the garb of Mother Goose has dropped from the balcony to the ground beneath, and, bearing her still burden in her arms, disappeared in the darkness.
And as her form vanishes from the balcony, a city clock, far away, tolls out the hour: midnight.
At this same hour, with the same strokes sounding in their ears, a party of men sally forth from the X – street Police station, and take their way toward the river.
They are policemen, mostly dressed in plain clothes, and heavily armed, every man. They move away silently like men obeying the will of one master, and presently they separate, dropping off by twos and threes into different by-ways and obscure streets, to meet again at a certain rendezvous.
It is the Raiding Party on its way to the slums, and, contrary to the hopes of the Chief of the detectives and the Captain of the police, it is led, not by Dick Stanhope, but by Van Vernet.
Contrary to all precedent, and greatly to the surprise of all save Vernet, Richard Stanhope has failed to appear at the time appointed; and so, after many doubts, much hesitation, and some delay, Van Vernet is made leader of the expedition.
“I shall send Stanhope as soon as he reports here,” the Chief had said as a last word to Vernet. “His absence to-night is most reprehensible, but his assistance is too valuable to be dispensed with.”
Mentally hoping that Stanhope’s coming may be delayed indefinitely, Van Vernet bites his lip and goes on his way, while the Chief sits down to speculate as to Stanhope’s absence, and to await his coming.
But he waits in vain. The long night passes, and day dawns, and Richard Stanhope does not appear.
Meanwhile, Van Vernet and the two men who accompany him, arrive first of the party at their rendezvous.
It is at the mouth or entrance to a dark, narrow street, the beginning of that labyrinth of crooked by-ways, and blind alleys, from the maze of which Richard Stanhope had rescued himself and the wounded convict, on the night previous.
Halting here Van Vernet waits the arrival of his men, and meditates. He is tolerably familiar with this labyrinth; knows it as well, perhaps, as most men on such a mission would deem necessary, but he has not given the locality and its denizens the close study and keen investigation that Stanhope has considered essential to success. And now, as he peers down the dark street, thinking of the maze beyond, and the desperate character of the people who inhabit it, he involuntarily wishes for that closer knowledge that only Stanhope possesses.
He knows that Stanhope, in various disguises, has passed days and nights among these haunts of iniquity; that he can thread these intricate alleys in the darkest night, and identify every rogue by name and profession.
He thinks of these things, and then shrugs his shoulder with characteristic inconsequence. He has, and with good reason, unbounded confidence in himself. He has tact, skill, courage; what man may do, he can do.
What are these miserable outlaws that they should baffle Van Vernet the skillful, the successful, the daring?
Some one is coming toward them from out the dark alley. They hear the fragment of an idiotic street song, trolled out in a maudlin voice, and then feet running, skipping, seeming now and then to prance and pirouette absurdly.
“What the – ”
The exclamation of the policeman is cut short by the sudden collision of his stationary figure with a rapidly moving body. Then he grapples with his unintentional assailant only to release him suddenly, as Van Vernet throws up the slide of his dark lantern and turns its rays upon the new-comer.
Involuntarily all three utter sharp exclamations as they gather around the apparition.
What a figure! Ragged, unkempt, fantastic; the same which a short time ago we saw descending from a carriage only a few rods distant from this very spot.
It is the same figure; the same rags and tinsel and dirt; the same disfigured face, with its black patch and its fringe of frowzy hair; the same, yet worse to look upon; for now the under jaw is dropped, the mouth drivels, the eye not concealed by the patch leers stupidly.
Unmistakably, it is the face of an idiot.
“How!” ejaculates this being, peering curiously at the three. “How do? Where ye goin’?”
Van Vernet gazes curiously for a moment, then utters a sound expressive of satisfaction. He has heard of a fool that inhabits these alleys; Stanhope has mentioned him on one or two occasions. “A modernized Barnaby Rudge,” Stanhope had called him. Surely this must be him.
Turning to one of his men he says, in an undertone:
“If I’m not mistaken this fellow is a fool who grew up in these slums, and knows them by heart. ‘Silly Charlie,’ I think, they call him. I believe we can make him useful.”
Then turning to the intruder he says suavely:
“How are you, my man? How are you?”
But a change has come over the mood of the seeming idiot. Striking his breast majestically, and pointing to a huge tin star which decorates it, he waves his hand toward them, and says with absurd dignity:
“G’way —g’way! Charlie big p’liceman. Gittin’ late; g’way.”
“We must humor him, boys,” says Vernet aside. Then to Charlie – “So you’re a policeman? Well, so am I; look.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî