Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
When the veil falls from Leslie’s head, Siebel’s quick eye is the first to catch the shine of the diamonds in her ears. He stifles an exclamation, looks again, and then grasps the arm of his confederate:
“Nance,” he whispers eagerly, “Nance, look – in her ears.”
The girl peers down, and fairly gasps.
“Shiners!” she whispers; “ah, they make my eyes water!”
“They make my fingers itch,” he returns; “d’ye twig, gal?”
Drawing her away from the aperture, he says, in a hoarse whisper:
“Gal, I’ve got a plan that’ll lay over old Beelzebub’s down there, if we kin only git the chance ter play it. See here, Nance, are ye willin’ to make a bold stroke fer them shiners?”
“By surprisin’ ’em. If I’ll floor the old man, can’t you tackle the gal?”
Nance takes a moment for consideration; they exchange a few more whispered words and then begin to creep stealthily toward the stairway.
A DETECTIVE TRAPPED
While the thieves are gazing upon her from above, Leslie Warburton, unconscious of this new danger that threatens her, replaces her veil and continues to address the old man.
“Once more, and for the last time,” she pleads, “I ask you to tell me the truth. Give up this claim of kinship. If you were my father, something in my heart would tell me so; God has not created me lower than the brutes. What do you know of my parentage? You must possess some knowledge. Man, I would go upon my knees to you to learn the truth!”
Papa is silent a moment, then he begins to cough violently. It is the signal for the two thieves to enter, but they do not respond as promptly as Papa could wish.
“My child,” he begins feebly, but leaves the sentence unfinished at the sound of a double knock upon the door.
“Ah-h-h!” he cries with evident relief, “here comes your mother; she can tell you how wrong you are.”
And he hastens to admit an old woman, literally lost in an ample old-fashioned cloak, and bearing in her arms a long and apparently heavy bundle.
“Ah,” says the old hypocrite, “here you are at last, after being at the toil of the poor. Come in, old woman, here is our proud girl come to see us.” Then as his eyes rest upon the bundle, he grasps her wrist and hisses in her ear: “You old fool! to bring that here.”
“I had to do it,” she retorts in a whisper; “there are cops in the alleys.”
With a fierce gesture toward the rear door, Papa seizes the bundle, saying:
“Why, it is very heavy; old iron, I suppose; and how horrid those old rags smell. We must take them away, old woman.”
And with a jerk of the head which, evidently, she understands, he turns toward the aforementioned door, and they bear the big bundle out between them.
Perhaps it is the flickering light, perhaps it is her disordered fancy, but as they bear their burden through the doorway, Leslie Warburton half believes that she sees it move.
A moment later she starts forward, her face blanched, her eyes distended.
“Oh, am I losing my senses?” she cries, “or did I hear a child’s voice, a voice like my little Daisy’s, calling ‘mamma?’”
A moment she listens, but no child’s voice breaks the stillness; even Papa and Mamma Francoise are silent in the room without.
A sudden feeling of terror possesses Leslie.
“Oh, these wicked people are driving me mad!” she murmurs brokenly. “Anything is better than this. I will go home and confess all to my husband. I will brave the worst, rather than be so tortured!”
Drawing her cloak about her, she makes a step toward the door.
Only a single step, for strong hands seize her from behind, and, uttering a shriek of terror, she sees a ferocious face close to her own, feels a clutch upon her throat, and is struggling between two fierce assailants.
“Get on to the shiners, gal,” commands Siebel, as he pinions her arms with his powerful hands.
Again Leslie utters a cry for help, and what follows is the work of a moment.
The outer door, left unbarred after the entrance of Mamma Francoise, is dashed open and a man attired as a sailor bounds into the room. At the same moment Papa and Mamma Francoise rush upon the scene.
“Stop, Josef, you demon, stop!” cries Papa wildly, and scarce noticing the stranger in their midst; while the sailor, without uttering a word, hurls himself upon Leslie’s assailants.
Then follows a moment of confusion, a wild struggle for the mastery, which ends soon in a horrible tableau.
Near the door stands Papa Francoise, his face livid, his teeth chattering, his foot poised for instant flight. In the corner, borne down by the force and fury of Mamma Francoise, the girl, Nance, lies prostrate, her throat still in the clutch of the virago, whose face bears bloody evidence that Nance has not succumbed without a struggle. In the center of the room stands Alan Warburton, one arm supporting the half fainting form of Leslie, the other hanging limp by his side; and at his feet, ghastly and horrible, lies the form of Josef Siebel, his skull crushed out of all semblance to humanity, and a bar of rusty iron lying close beside him.
There is a moment of awful stillness in the room.
Then Leslie Warburton’s strong nature asserts itself. Withdrawing from Alan’s supporting arm, she fixes her eyes upon his face.
“Oh, Alan,” she says, “you followed – ”
“I followed you? Yes,” he answers sternly. “Hush!” as she is about to speak, “this is no time for words.”
There is a shout from the street, and the sound of approaching footsteps. Papa Francoise seems galvanized into new life.
“The police!” he cries, springing through the door by which he has lately entered. Mamma Francoise, releasing her hold upon the girl, Nance, bounds up in affright, and hurries after her partner in iniquity; while Nance, who evidently fears her less than she dreads the police, loses no time in following the pair, leaving Alan and Leslie alone, with the dead man at their feet.
The approaching footsteps come nearer, and Alan, seizing Leslie by the arm, drags her toward the door by which the others have escaped.
“Go!” he says fiercely, “the police are coming; go, for the sake of the name you bear, for your husband’s sake, go! go! go!”
As he forces her resisting form across the threshold she turns upon him a face of piteous appeal.
“Alan! And you – ”
His lip curls scornfully.
“I am not a woman,” he says impatiently; “go, or– ”
Some one is entering at the outer doorway. He pushes her fiercely out into the rear room, from which he knows there is a means of exit, closes the door, and turns swiftly to face the intruders.
Silly Charlie has crossed the threshold just in time to see Leslie as she disappears through the opposite door. He has one swift glimpse of the fair vanishing face, and then turns suddenly, and with a sound indicative of extreme terror, brings himself into violent contact with Van Vernet who is close behind.
Before he has so much as obtained a glimpse of the scene, Vernet finds his legs flying from under him, and in another moment is rolling upon the floor, closely locked in the embrace of Silly Charlie, who, in his terror, seems to mistake him for an enemy.
When he has finally released himself from the grasp of the seeming idiot, and is able to look about him, Van Vernet sees only a dead man upon the floor, and a living one standing at bay, with his back against a closed door, a deal table before him serving as barricade, and, in his hand, a bar of rusty iron. There is no trace of the Francoises, and nothing to indicate the recent presence of Leslie Warburton.
Struggling away from the embrace of Silly Charlie, and bringing himself slowly to his feet, Vernet says angrily:
“You confounded idiot, what do you mean?”
But the “idiot” only sits upon the floor and stares stupidly, and Vernet turns from him to glance about the room. At sight of the dead man he starts eagerly forward.
“What’s this?” he queries sharply, glancing down at the body and drawing a pistol with a quick movement. “A murder!” And he levels the weapon at Alan, dropping upon one knee, at the same instant, and with the unoccupied hand touching the face of the dead man. “A murder! yes; and just committed. Don’t you stir, my man,” as Alan makes a slight movement, “I’m a dead shot. This is your work, and it seems that we heard this poor fellow’s death-cry. Skull crushed in. Done by that bar of iron in your hand, of course. Well, you won’t crack any more skulls with that.”
While Vernet delivers himself thus, Alan Warburton is thinking vigorously, his eyes, meanwhile, roving about the room in search of some avenue of escape other than the door over which he stands guard, and through which, he is resolved, the detective shall not pass, at least until Leslie has made good her escape from the vicinity. He is unarmed, save for the bar of iron, but he is no coward, and he resolves to make a fight for Leslie’s honor and his own liberty.
Gazing thus about him he sees the seeming idiot rise from his crouching posture and creep behind Vernet, beginning, over that officer’s shoulder, a series of strange gestures.
Shaking his fist defiantly behind Vernet’s left ear, in token, Alan conjectures, of his opposition to that gentleman, he makes a conciliatory gesture towards Alan. And then, placing his fingers upon his lips, he shakes his head, and points again to Vernet, who now rises from his examination of the body, and calls over his shoulder:
“Charlie, come here.”
Leering and laughing, Charlie comes promptly forward.
“Ugh!” he says, making a detour around the body of Siebel, “Charlie was scared. Charlie don’t like dead folks.” And he plants himself squarely before Vernet, grinning and staring at Alan the while.
“Out of my range, fool!” cries Vernet angrily. And then, as Charlie springs aside with absurd alacrity, he says to Alan: “Fellow, throw down that iron.”
But Alan Warburton gives no sign that he hears the command. He has not recognized the voice of Vernet, and is not aware of the man’s identity, but he has an instinctive notion that his address will not be in keeping with his nautical costume, and he is not an adept at dissimulation.
“You won’t eh?” pursues Vernet mockingly. “You are very mum? and no wonder.”
“Mum, mum,” chants Silly Charlie, approaching Alan with gingerly steps, and peering curiously into his face.
Then bending suddenly forward he whispers quickly: “Keep mum!” and bursting into an idiotic laugh, pirouettes back to the side of Vernet.
“Charlie,” says Vernet suddenly, and without once removing his eyes from Alan’s face, “put your hand in my side pocket – no, no! the other one,” as Charlie makes a sudden dive into the pocket nearest him. “That’s right; now pull out the handcuffs, and take out the rope.”
Charlie obeys eagerly, and examines the handcuffs with evident delight.
“Charlie” says Vernet, “you and I have got to make this man a prisoner. If we do, you will get your star and uniform.”
“Hooray!” cries Charlie, fairly dancing with delight. “Gimme, gum – gimme knife!”
“Why, the blood-thirsty fool!” exclaims Vernet. “No, no, Charlie; we must put on these handcuffs, and rope his feet.”
“Hoop la!” cries Charlie; “gimme rope.”
Seizing the rope from Vernet’s hand, he advances toward Alan, gesticulating savagely. Suddenly Alan raises the iron bar and menaces him. Charlie stops a moment, then flinging aside the rope he makes a swift spring, hurling himself upon Alan with such sudden force that the latter loses his guard for a moment, and then Van Vernet is upon him. He makes such resistance as a brave man may, when he has a single hand for defence and two against him, but he is borne down, handcuffed, and bound.
As he lies fettered and helpless, in close proximity to the murdered sneak thief, Alan Warburton’s eyes rest wonderingly upon Silly Charlie, for during the struggle that strange genius has contrived to whisper in his ear these words:
“Don’t resist – keep silence – we are gaining time for her!”
“Charlie,” says Vernet, “that’s a good bit of work, and I’m proud of you. Now, let’s make our prisoner more comfortable.”
Together they lift Alan, and place him in a chair near the centre of the room. Then, finding it impossible to make him open his lips, Van Vernet begins a survey of the premises.
“We must get one or two of my men here,” he says, after a few moments of silent investigation. “Charlie, can I trust you to go back to the place where we left them?”
Charlie nods confidently, and makes a prompt movement toward the door. Then suddenly he stops and points upward with a half terrified air.
“Some one’s up there,” he whispers.
“What’s that, Charlie?”
“Somebody’s there. Charlie heard ’em.”
Van Vernet hesitates a moment, looks first at the prisoner, then at Charlie, and slowly draws forth his dark lantern.
“I’ll go up and see,” he says half reluctantly, and making his pistol ready for use. “Watch the prisoner, Charlie.”
But Silly Charlie follows Vernet’s movements with his eyes until he has passed through the low door leading to the stairway. Then, gliding stealthily to the door, he assures himself that Vernet is already half-way up the stairs. The next moment he is standing beside the prisoner.
“Hist, Mr. Warburton!”
“Ah! who – ,” Alan Warburton checks himself suddenly.
“Hush!” says this strangest of all simpletons, in a low whisper, at the same moment beginning to work rapidly at the rope which binds Alan’s feet. “Be silent and act as I bid you; I intend to help you out of this. There,” rising and searching about his person, “the ropes are loosened, you can shake them off in a moment. Now, the darbies.”
He produces a key which unlocks the handcuffs.
“Now, you are free, but remain as you are till I give you the signal, – ah!”
The tiny key has slipped through his fingers and fallen to the floor. It is just upon the edge of the scrap of dirty carpet; as he stoops to take it up, it catches in a fringe, and in extricating it the carpet becomes a trifle displaced.
Something underneath it strikes the eye of the seeming idiot. He bends closer, and then drags the carpet quite away, seizes the candle, and springs the trap which he has just discovered. Holding the candle above the opening, he looks down, and then, with a low chuckle, spreads the carpet smoothly over it, rises to his feet, and listens.
He hears footsteps crossing the rickety floor above. Van Vernet, having failed to find what he sought for aloft, is about to descend.
Stepping quickly to Alan’s side, Silly Charlie whispers:
“Fortune favors us. We have got Vernet trapped.”
“Vernet!” Alan Warburton starts and the perspiration comes out on his forehead.
Is this man who is his captor, Van Vernet? Heavens! what a complication, what a misfortune! And this other, – this wisest of all idiots, who calls him by name; who knows the reason for his presence, then, perhaps, knows Leslie herself; who, without any motive apparent, is acting so strange a part, who is he?
Mentally thanking the inspiration which led him to retain his incognito while negotiating with Van Vernet, Alan’s eyes still follow the movements of Silly Charlie.
As he gazes, Vernet enters the room, a look of disappointment and disgust upon his face.
“Charlie, you were scared at the rats,” he says; “there’s nothing else there.”
The trap is directly between him and the prisoner, and as he walks toward it, Silly Charlie fairly laughs with delight.
“What are you – ”
The sentence is never finished. Vernet’s foot has pressed the yielding carpet; he clutches the air wildly, and disappears like a clown in a pantomine.
“Now,” whispers Silly Charlie, “off with your fetters, Warburton, and I will guide you out of this place. You are not entirely safe yet.”
Up from the trap comes a yell loud enough to waken the seven sleepers, and suddenly, from without, comes an answering cry.
“It’s Vernet’s men,” says Silly Charlie. “Now, Warburton, your safety depends upon your wind and speed. Come!”
A PROMISE TO THE DEAD
Guided by Silly Charlie, Alan Warburton finds himself hurrying through crooked streets and dismal alleys, for what seems to him an interminable distance. Now they run forward swiftly; now halt suddenly, while Charlie creeps ahead to reconnoiter the ground over which they must go. At last they have passed the Rubicon, and halting at the corner of a wider street than any they have as yet traversed, Alan’s strange guide says,
“You are tolerably safe now, Mr. Warburton; at least you are not likely to be overtaken by Vernet or his men. You are still a long distance from home, however, and possibly the way is unfamiliar. I would pilot you further, but must hurry back to see how Vernet is coming out.”
For the first time Alan Warburton, the self-possessed, polished man of society, is at a loss for words. Society has given him no training, taught him no lessons applicable to such emergencies as this.
“Of one thing you must be warned,” continues the guide. “Van Vernet is a sleuth-hound on a criminal secret, and he considers you a criminal. He has seen you standing above that dead man with a bar of iron in your hand – did you know that bar of iron was smeared with blood, and that wisps of human hair clung to its surface? Never mind; I do not accuse you. I do not ask you to explain your presence there. You have escaped from Van Vernet, and he will never forgive you for it. He will hunt you down, if possible. You know the man?”
“I never saw his face until to-night.”
“What! and yet, two hours ago, he was at your brother’s house, a guest!”
“True. My dear sir, I am deeply indebted to you, but just now my gratitude is swallowed up in amazement. In Heaven’s name, who are you, that you know so much?”
“‘Silly Charlie’ is what they call me in these alleys, and I pass for an idiot.”
“But you are anything but what you ‘pass for.’ You have puzzled me, and outwitted Van Vernet. Tell me who you are. Tell me how I can reward your services.”
“In serving you to-night, Mr. Warburton, I have also served myself. As to who I am, it cannot matter to you.”
“That must be as you will,” – Alan is beginning to recover his conventional courtesy – “but at least tell me how I may discharge my obligations to you. That does concern me.”
Alan’s companion ponders a moment, and then says:
“Perhaps we had better be frank, Mr. Warburton. You are a gentleman, and, I trust, so am I. If you owe me anything, you can discharge your debt by answering a single question.”
“Van Vernet was a guest at your masquerade – why was he there?”
The question startles Alan Warburton, but he answers after a moment’s reflection:
“He came at my invitation, and on a matter of business.”
“And yet you say that you never saw his face before?”
“True; our business was arranged through third parties, and by correspondence. He came into my presence, for the first time, masked. Until I saw his face in that hovel yonder, I had never seen it.”
“A kind fortune has favored me. This dress I wore as a masquerade costume; over it I threw a black and scarlet domino. Van Vernet saw me in that domino, and with a mask before my face.”
“You may thank your stars for that, and for your silence at the hovel. If you had opened your lips then, your voice might have betrayed you.”
“It would have betrayed the fact that I was no seaman, at the least, and that is why I had resolved upon silence as the safest course.”
“You have come out of this night’s business most fortunately. But you still have reason to fear Vernet. Your very silence may cause him to suspect you of playing a part. Your features are photographed upon his memory; alter the cut of your whiskers or, better still, give your face a clean shave; crop your hair, and above all leave the city until this affair blows over.”
“Thank you,” Alan replies; “I feel that your advice is good.” Then, after a struggle with his pride, he adds:
“I could easily clear myself of so monstrous a charge as that which Vernet would prefer against me, but, for certain reasons, I would prefer not to make a statement of the case.”
Again Alan is startled out of his dignity. “You were the first to arrive in response to that cry for help to-night?” he begins.
“The first, after you.”
“You saw those who fled?”
“I saw only one fugitive. Mr. Warburton, I know what you would ask. I saw and recognized your brother’s wife. I understood your actions; you were guarding her retreat at the risk of your own life or honor. You are a brave man!”
Alan’s tone is a trifle haughty as he answers:
“In knowing Mrs. Warburton and myself, you have us at a disadvantage. In having seen us as you saw us to-night, we are absolutely in your power, should you choose to be unscrupulous. Under these circumstances, I have a right to demand the name of a man who knows me so intimately. I have a right to know why you followed us, or me, to that house to-night?”
His companion laughs good-naturedly.
“In spite of your airs, Mr. Warburton,” he says candidly, “you would be a fine fellow if you were not – such a prig. So you demand an explanation. Well, here it is, at least as much as you will need to enlighten you. Who am I? I am a friend to all honest men. Why did I follow you? Neither Vernet nor myself followed you or the lady. Vernet was there as the leader of an organized Raid. I was there – ahem! as a pilot for Vernet. You were there as a spy upon the lady. Mrs. Warburton’s presence remains to be accounted for. And now, Mr. Warburton, adieu. You are out of present danger; if I find that Mrs. Warburton has not fared so well, you will hear from me again. If otherwise, you look your last upon Silly Charlie.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî