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SHALL I write “Ichabod” across the rosy splendour of my dreams because I have incurred the disapproval of Inspector Jennings?
He snarls every time he meets me, and in more amiable moments, shakes his head predicting a bitter failure. As to that, to employ Billy’s favourite tag: “We shall see!”
It is sufficient that I am no longer his inferior in rank and that the Third Commissioner has marked “Excellent record” against my name in his confidential report. This I know because he told me over the dinner table last night. He is such a perfect little gentleman that he never once referred to what happened on the 18th day of May at Tavistock railway station, nor did he speak again of that night when Mary Ferrera stood, pistol in hand, staring blankly at the huddled figure lying across Billy’s desk.
The truth is that, though he was a friend of mine, I gave little or no assistance to “Billy” Stabbat in his remarkable adventure; a further truth is that the Stabbat adventure has little resemblance to the fantastic stories which have been woven about it by imaginative writers. For example, it is a lie to say that one of the warders was murdered, and that Stabbat and I assisted in disposing of his body. The warder in question is living at 49, Duchy Street, Princetown, and is to-day in charge of Gallery 7, Block D, Dartmoor Prison. Also I was in London when the attack was made.
To write the true story of the two extraordinary crimes which placed first Billington Stabbat and then Mary Ferrera in a prison cell, is a comparatively easy matter. To know exactly where to begin is the bigger problem. I could, of course, start with the genealogy of Billington Stabbat— except that I am not quite certain as to his nationality. He has been described as English, American, Canadian and Australian. I happen to know that he was born in the city of Lima, in Peru. He would talk for hours about Peru, and quoted Prescott by the page. Gonzalzo Pizzaro and the heroic Tupac Amaru Fransesco of Toledo—and a hundred other names associated with Peruvian history—were the Smiths, Browns and Robinsons of his everyday discourse.
Who were his parents I do not know, and have never asked, nor am I particularly clear about the incidents of his early career. He had been all over the world when I met him in France, and he certainly was serving with the American army at G.H.Q., having been “loaned” by Canadian H.Q. They say that he was the best Intelligence Officer Pershing ever had.
It was not new work for Billy. He had been a detective in Toronto, the smartest man in that corps, and he had his promotion fixed when the war broke out. Most people have heard of the Briscoe Gang—at least most Canadians have heard about them. They were clever. George Briscoe and his brother Tom were the leaders, and there wasn’t a bank manager from Halifax to Victoria, B.C., who didn’t think unkindly of the Briscoes at least once a day. Each of the two Briscoes was a genius at his game. They were safe openers who never used jemmy or “soup.” They just got into the banks and opened the safe of the strong room, took what they wanted, and locked the doors after them.
There was never a sign of burglary except a deficiency in the bank’s assets, and naturally that got the bank managers scared. The job always looked as if it had been worked by an official of the bank who had access to the keys or the combination word, and one bank manager was so upset by the suspicion which attached to him, that he shot himself. That was the manager of the C. & C. T. Bank at Berlin—or as the town is now called “Kitchener.”
What the Briscoes did not know about the mechanics of lock-making, wasn’t worth learning. They were patient, far-seeing, diabolically brilliant criminals. It was Billy who trapped the crowd, caught Tom red-handed and four of the gang. He took George in an hotel at Ottawa, but the case against him fell through. Tom was sent down for twenty years and hanged himself in his cell. I recall this achievement of Billy’s because few people in this country, interested as we are in our domestic crimes and criminals, knew very much about the Briscoe case, even after George stood his trial at the Old Bailey.
I think this story starts when I met Levy Jones on the stairs going up to make a call on Billy. Levy is a little fellow, about five feet two in height, but so immensely broad across the shoulders, that he looks shorter and almost deformed. His face is long, his nose pendulous, his mouth broad and uneven in the sense that when he is amused, one comer lifts higher than the other, which gives his smile the appearance of a sneer.
His bushy eyebrows rose at the sight of me, and out came a hand of considerable size.
“Dear me!” he said. Levy’s expressions of surprise were always unexpectedly mild and inadequate. He seldom permitted himself to go farther in the way of expletive than a respectable old lady would permit herself over the matter of a dropped stitch.
I was surprised and delighted to see him. He had been working with the Mosser Commercial Bureau in pre-war days—as Credit Investigator, I believe —and I had no idea at that moment that he had attached himself to Billy.
“Why, Levy!” said I. “This is a pleasant shock. I thought you were dead.”
“No, sir,” said Levy with that lopsided grin of his, “alive, happily. I’m with Mr. Billington Stabbat.”
“The devil you are!” I was a little taken aback. “And how is it that one of the original Jones of Johannesburg comes to be in the private detective line of business? By the way, Levy, how did you get that ‘ Jones ’ into your name?”
“It is a compromise, Mr. Mont. If I call myself Jivitzki, people think I am a Bolshivicki. You’re not a Jew hater, are you, Mr. Mont?”
“Not a scrap,” said I in truth. “Some of the best pals I have ever had have been of your Royal and Ancient Faith.”
“That’s a new one.” Levy was interested. “Sounds like football to me—or is it golf? I’m rather sorry you’re not a Jew hater. I have a new argument for Judaism which I wanted to try on you. I tried it on our Rabbi, but he has no sense of humour. Have you heard the story about the Jew and the flour-bin ...?”
Levy, like most of his compatriots, had a large repertoire of stories digging slyly at the inherent shrewdness of his race, and this story was a good one.
“But, Levy,” said I, “how did you get in touch with Billy—Mr. Stabbat?”
“Call him Billy,” said Levy. “I do, he insists upon it. I met him during the war. He saved my life.”
“What was the fight? I didn’t know you were at the front.”
“There was no fight,” replied Levy decisively. “I say he saved my life. The day I was called up for service I met him, and he got me a job in the Victualling Department at Plymouth.
What’s more,” he spoke so solemnly, that I was deceived, “when the war was over, he saved me from a fate that was far, far worse than death.”
Even I was impressed.
“I had an offer from the Federation Music Hall Circuit to do a turn as a Jewish comedian,” Levy went on. “Billy dragged me out of it.”
All this at the foot of the stairs leading up to Billy’s new offices.
“He’s just the same,” said Levy, answering a question. “I don’t suppose he has ever altered, or ever will. He’d give away his shirt to a friend and go to the gallows to help some woman with a hard-luck story.”
Prophetic words. I remembered them afterwards.
“Kindness to women will be the ruin of Billy.” Levy shook his head. “We lost a fat commission last week because he trailed an erring female, and then, when he’d got all the evidence, turned round, worked day and night to prove an alibi! She got busy with him. A tear in each eye, and two trickling down her nose. Four tears cost us eight hundred, that’s two hundred a tear. When Billy came back, he couldn’t speak about her without his voice breaking and he said our client was a low, unwholesome man, and didn’t deserve such a wife. That’s Billy,” said Levy with melancholy admiration. “Mind your back, Mr. Mont!”
He drew me on one side to allow a white-overalled workman to pass up the stairs.
“They finish decorating to-day,” he said; “that’s the electrician.”
I glanced idly at the workman in the white smock. He was a pale man with a short red beard.
“Well, so long,” said Levy. “I’m going to Whitechapel to nose around. We’ve got a fire-bug case for one of the insurance companies—by the way, get Billy to tell you about our new client.”
He winked mysteriously, and I went up the stairs to meet his chief.
When a man leaps into fame or notoriety, everybody knows him or has met him and can describe off-hand and glibly his appearance and characteristics. But the truth about Billington Stabbat is that few people indeed seem to have known him or were aware of his existence until the trouble started. I saw him described the other day, in a usually well-informed journal, as “a remarkably tall man.” That description is absurd. His height is about five feet ten. His weight must be about one hundred and forty-five pounds. He was well-built, a type of man that never acquires or carries fat. He is, or was in those days, clean-shaven, with a wide somewhat bulging forehead, level blue-green eyes and a rather square jaw. He always reminds me of McKinnel, the English actor, and he had something of that artist’s jerky, booming delivery. His face could be mask-like and inscrutable, and the few people who have met him, and remember him, remarked on the circumstance that they had never seen him laugh or smile. That sounds curious to me, for I know him best as someone who was all a-gurgle with laughter within; who saw the fun of life and extracted every ounce of its sap for his joy and pleasure.
The first impression I had when I went into his big room was the impression of newness. It had the pungent varnishy-limey smell which new houses have. He was a fastidious man in the matter of comfort, and had chosen the decoration himself. It was, as I say, a big room, very high and light. Three windows overlooked Bond Street and in addition there was a fairly large sky-light. The suite had been in the possession of a fashionable photographer who had sold the lease to Billy and had moved into more accessible premises in Piccadilly. There was no elevator in the building, and apparently his clientele did not relish the climb of three flights of stairs. The floor was covered with a rich blue carpet, and blue, a rather delicate blue, was employed in the scheme of panelling.
Undoubtedly the feature of the room was an enormous fireplace, a gorgeous affair in marble. I remember particularly that the two supports for the carved mantelpiece were two Assyrian lions, sejeant and regardant as the heraldry books put it. They were really remarkable pieces of sculpture, and though sheerly decorative, they were infinitely more convincing than, say, the stodgy Landseer lions in Trafalgar Square, or the queer beasts which guard the Post Office on Fifth Avenue, and which every New Yorker takes an unholy joy in pointing out to the visitor. They were astonishingly real with their huge mouths agape, their thick lips drawn up in a snarl, showing a teeth-rimmed cavity.
Billy looked up as I came in and sprang to his feet with a broad smile of welcome.
“Why, Mont!” he almost shouted as he gripped my hand. “Come in and sit on the new carpet—the chairs haven’t arrived yet. What do you think of it?”
He did not wait for me to reply.
“Mont,” he said, “do you realise how like a game of solitaire—‘ patience,’ you call it—life is? We play and play and few of us get it out. We cheat ourselves, Mont. We try to pretend that if the red six had gone on the black seven instead of stacking it, we’d have sailed out and we sneak it back from the stack. How are you?” he asked abruptly.
“Why these moral reflections?” I asked. “Is it the magnificence of your surroundings?”
I could not but notice that after greeting me, he returned immediately, almost hastily, to his desk.
“Moral reflections,” he said, “are the natural sequence to immoral experiences—would you object, Mont, to sitting on the window-ledge? Where you are standing is exactly in my line of fire.”
“Your what?” I asked, scarcely believing my ears.
“My line of fire,” said Billy calmly. "It is a phrase employed by machine-gun officers, with or without lurid adjectives.”
I sat myself upon the broad window-ledge, feeling it very carefully, because window-ledges in newly-decorated houses seem to be the last part of the decoration to dry. And then I saw a red silk handkerchief on Bill’s desk, and towards that red silk handkerchief his hand presently strayed. There was no need, even if it had been expedient, to ask what that square of silk concealed. I knew at once that it was a revolver and wondered why. As a rule there is very little that is dramatic, and still less that is melodramatic, in the everyday life of a private detective.
I saw his eyes go from me to the door, and looking round I saw the white-coated workman with the little beard. He was standing looking up at the cornice, his hands fidgeting with a foot-rule, and then I heard Billington Stabbat speak.
“George,” he said softly, and the man turned round. “Come over here, George,” said Billy, “and keep your hands where I can see ’em, because if they go to your pockets I shall shoot you very dead, and that is a condition in which I am very sure you would find yourself horribly bored.”
The workman came slowly towards the desk, his large brown eyes fixed on Billy.
“Permit me to introduce you to Sergeant Mont, of Scotland Yard,” said Billy with a little flourish of his hand. “This is Mr. George Briscoe, of Canada; and how is the world treating you, George?”
The workman licked his lips and said nothing.
“I had the honour of putting George’s brother into a penitentiary for a life term, or was it twenty years?” said Billy in a conversational tone as though he were explaining the most commonplace event. “Naturally George is a little sore with me, and has come over, I guess, to get even. You have not had many opportunities, have you, George?”
Still the workman said nothing.
“How is Tom, by the way?” asked Billington in all innocence.
Then the man broke his silence.
“Tom is dead—you know that damn well,” he snarled in a low voice, trembling with hate.
“Dear me, is that so?” said Billy.
“Poor old Tom! He was a clever man, George—I’m not so sure that he wasn’t a cleverer man than you. Well, we can’t live for ever, you know.” The man dropped his eyes to the floor and again spoke.
“I’m going straight now, Mr. Stabbat,” he said, still in his low voice. "It is only a coincidence that I happened to be engaged in this work. I came from Canada two years ago to make a fresh start.”
"You came from Canada six months ago,” said Billy gently, “and you got your job here by tipping the foreman a ten-pound note. In regard to making a fresh start, you were implicated in the robbery of Roberts, the Regent Street jewellers, last December, though I doubt whether our excellent friend, Mr. Mont, could bring it home to you. So far as I am concerned,” and he shrugged his shoulders, "it is no affair of mine. I am now engaged in the most peaceful of pursuits, the chasing of wicked wives by virtuous husbands, or evil husbands by tearful wives. I am in the private detective line of business, now, George, an obnoxious and abominable occupation which is rightly condemned by all the leading Judges of the Divorce Court.”
George rubbed his hand across his beard slowly.
"You are a wonderful fellow, Stabbat,” he said—his voice was that of an educated man—" of course, I’ll get you sooner or later.”
“We shall see,” replied Billy. That phrase, a favourite of his, symbolised his attitude toward life—one of pleasurable curiosity. He was everlastingly eager for to-morrow and all the tomorrow brought, whether it be problem, or reward, work or play, fun or danger. “I am not blaming you, George,” he went on, “for your very natural and proper desire to put me among the obituary notices. Far from it. If I were in your place, I should do exactly the same thing. It is an act of fraternal piety and the manes of Tom demands my sacrifice. In fact,” he went on, and he was perfectly sincere, as I know, “I think your desire to knock me out is an admirable one, and my respect for you has increased tenfold. I believe in brothers sticking together. It is no fault of mine,” he said without a smile, “that you weren’t stuck together in the little old ‘jug’ outside Toronto. But as to whether you will ‘get’ me or I shall ‘get’ you—we shall see!”
“You’d have made a good partner, Stabbat,” said George. “I hate doing it on you, but it’s got to be done.”
Bill nodded knowingly.
“I quite understand,” he said, in an almost apologetic tone. “Well, go ahead, old friend.”
George Briscoe made as though to speak, and then, changing his mind, walked slowly to the door. He stood awhile, with the edge of the door in his hand, thinking deeply, and when he spoke there was a glitter in his eyes which I did not like.
“I am finished to-day; you’ll be relieved of my society—and your fear!” Billington Stabbat lay back in his chair and laughed.
“Honestly, George,” he challenged, “and man to man, do you think I am afraid of you?”
“No, I don’t think you are,” he said at last. “I suppose the gun you’ve kept handy on your table ever since I’ve been here, has been merely an act of elementary precaution?” Billy nodded.
“So long,” said George.
“So long,” replied Billy cordially. And the door closed behind this remarkable criminal, leaving me a little breathless, and Billy with a glint of silent laughter in his eyes.
I MIGHT explain about myself, that I was on sick leave as the result of a very bad gruelling I had received when I arrested the Canning Town murderer. It will be remembered by most of the readers that we ran our man to earth on Wanstead Marshes, I and Constable Flannatty, and that our gentleman had an iron bar which he used to some purpose until Flannatty with a chance blow from his truncheon put him to sleep.
The sick leave—the Commissioner insisted on my taking it, though Inspector Jennings at that time my chief, was averse to my having any such rest—had been useful in many ways. It had given me leisure to look up old friends and to write my little commentary on Lombroso’s “Delinquent Woman.”
I might say in passing that I was at Oxford, and was intended for the diplomatic service, when the death of my father and the necessity for earning a living took me to Scotland Yard, where my father’s old friend, Sir John Jordan, offered me his influence to enter the higher services of the Criminal Investigation Department. I was qualifying for promotion at this time and the commentary on Lombroso’s work would, I knew, sensibly increase my chance of breaking into the close circle of the Political Branch. I never imagined, when I walked out from the Yard with my leave granted how that leave would be employed, and how it would end.
“What do you think of George?” asked Billy when we were alone again.
“A dangerous man,” said I. “You were saying that he ‘ smashed ’ that jeweller’s in Regent Street?”
Billy waved the subject out of existence.
“Don’t let us talk shop,” he said, “besides, everything you hear in this office is confidential. Anyway, you would never convict George. He would prove ten alibis. To get on to a more congenial subject—how is the Honourable Jennings?”
“Jennings?” I asked in surprise. “Do you know him?”
“Do I know him!” scoffed Billy. “I certainly know him. He’s not a great friend of yours, is he?”
“Not very,” said I.
Jennings was one of those narrow-minded men of the old school, who learn nothing and forget nothing. I have found the people who label themselves ‘ the old school,’ are consistent only in their prejudices.
"As a matter of fact, he was in this office two days ago. He is a great friend of a client of mine, Mr. Thomson Dawkes.”
I nodded. I knew Dawkes by repute, and I knew also that Jennings was rather proud of the acquaintance with this wealthy man. He had been at Dawkes's country house and had shot his coverts and he was never tired of dragging into his conversation the names of the illustrious people whom he had met under Dawkes’s palatial roof.
“I suppose it would be indiscreet to ask you why Dawkes is a client of yours?” I asked. “He is not married.”
Billington looked at me with that odd twinkle in his eye which I know so well.
"Maybe not,” , he said. “At any rate, it isn't a marital affair, unless it is a projected alliance which distresses him.”
He took away the handkerchief, and put the revolver in the drawer.
“You can ask anything you like, Mont, in this office,” he said. “I suppose you are not free for a week or two—you couldn’t get leave?”
“I have leave,” I said. “That is why I am here.” And then I told him about my holiday.
“That’s fine,” said Billy. “I think there is no man I'd rather have with me than you. Mont, do you remember that night when the Germans bombed the ridge, and you and I were sitting in a cold, cold dugout . . .”
He plunged into a chain of reminiscences. It seemed curious to me that we should laugh and jest about those terrible days and agonising nights, but so it is, I suppose, with human nature. If we could live in the emotional heights which we reached in the hectic days of war, I doubt whether life would be worth living, even if it were possible.
He changed the subject as abruptly as he had commenced, and had branched into another matter whilst my mind was still groping after the identity of the colonel, whom he had insisted upon recalling.
“Thomson Dawkes, of course, you know,” he said. “He is a man-about-town, a gambler and, I should think, a bit of a blackguard. He came to me on the recommendation of Sir Alfred Cawley who is by way of being a friend of his, though Cawley is a decent, honest man.”
Billy shifted round in his seat and put his feet up on the desk as he lit a cigar and passed the box to me. Billy has never had manners and invariably helps himself first.
“The story begins,” he said, “when Dawkes was at Monte Carlo in the early spring of last year. He had been playing at the tables at trente et quarante and having won about forty thousand francs, had quit for the day. As you know, the rooms have a peculiar fascination for students of humanity as Dawkes claims to be. He idled the rest of the time watching the other players, and his attention was particularly devoted to a girl whom he had noticed playing at the same table.
“According to Thomson, she was a very pretty girl. In fact, he raves about her. She was plainly and not very fashionably dressed, and the remarkable thing was that she was playing a heavier game than anybody else at the table. That is to say, she was staking maximums, making double coups on the black and inverse, or on the red and couleur, as the case may be. Evidently she was following some system because she had a whole sheet of complicated figures before her, which she consulted.
“The girl lost steadily, with a coolness and sang-froid and an absence of all emotion, which excited first the admiration and then the wonder of Mr. Thomson Dawkes, who is no slouch at gambling either. She played steadily from two in the afternoon until five and from seven in the evening until midnight when the circle closed.
On the day when she came under the notice of Dawkes he. discovered from people who had been sitting at the table, and from a friendly croupier, that she had lost two million francs, which is a colossal sum.”
“And wants a bit of losing,” I said. “The table must have run very badly against her.”
“I think it did,” said Bill. “As the rooms were emptying Dawkes spoke to her. It is a friendly way which one has at Monte Carlo, where one knows everybody’s business, and also everybody’s financial position. He commiserated with her upon her losses. Now, as you know, people are not stiff and stand-offish at Monte Carlo. In fact, they are quite the reverse. To Dawkes’s surprise the girl returned him a cold answer, disengaged herself from his conversation and went to her hotel, which was the Hotel de Paris, the swagger hotel opposite the Casino.
“Dawkes was piqued. He rather fancied himself as a squire of dames, and he was naturally annoyed. He made inquiries at the hotel and found that she was a Mademoiselle Hicks, which I am perfectly certain is an assumed name and really is equivalent to X.
“The next afternoon he was very careful to watch for her, intending to pay closer attention to the system she was working, but she did not arrive. He found that she had left that morning by the mail train for Calais. Who she was, nobody knew. She had no friends. She did not discuss her business or take any man or woman into her confidence. Dawkes, who is a persistent sort of person, pursued his inquiries still further and discovered that she had gone away, leaving behind her a handbag, of which he secured possession. It was a cheap thing, with an imitation tortoiseshell rim, and was apparently new. It was the sort of thing you can buy in London for 7s. 6d. Now, ladies who go gambling and losing £40,000 (which was the rate of exchange at that time) in a visit to Monte Carlo, do not as a rule come equipped with cheap clothing and etceteras. There was nothing in the bag except a little French money, two hotel bills, receipted, and the half of a third-class return ticket between Brixton and Victoria. These also were inconsistent with the extraordinary losses which the girl had endured and with the abundance of money which apparently she commanded.”
“It sounds to me as though the young lady had access to somebody else’s money,” I said, and Billy nodded.
“That is Dawkes’s theory too, but we shall see! Whose money could it be? How can a girl of the class and character which Dawkes imagines her to be, lay her hands upon ready money without exciting suspicion, and do it, not once, but at regular intervals.”
“At regular intervals?” I repeated in surprise.
“I’ll tell you,” said Billy. “Dawkes came back to England and then went for a short business trip to New York. On his return he landed at Cherbourg, having booked a sleeper from Paris to Monte Carlo by wireless. He reached the Gare de Lyons just in time to catch the Riviera express and, being tired, he went straight to bed and to sleep. In the morning, when he rose and strolled into the corridor, the first person he saw sitting on one of the folding seats was the mysterious Miss X, looking as neat and as calm and as self-possessed as usual. She did not recognise him, or, if she did, she showed no sign of her recognition. He did not make the mistake of attempting to force his acquaintance upon her, and it was not until the second night after their arrival at Monte Carlo that he spoke to her at all.
“She had been playing and winning almost as heavily as she had been losing on her previous visit.
“‘You have had a lot of luck,’ said Dawkes, and she looked up at him startled. He is rather a tall man, you remember.
“‘Yes,’ she replied hurriedly. ‘I have had very good luck to-day. The table has been running black!’
“‘And to-morrow it will run red,’ said Dawkes with a smile, and the girl looked at him gravely.
“‘I don’t think so,’ she replied very seriously. “The day after to-morrow it will run red in the morning and black in the afternoon.’
“And the extraordinary thing was that that is exactly how the luck ran at the trente et quarante table. Dawkes tried to pursue the friendship, but the girl did not seem to be particularly struck on him, which shows what a discerning and intelligent young woman she was. By this time, I gather, Mr. Thomson Dawkes was very keen on the girl, not as a problem, but as an individual woman. He sent flowers to her room, and did his best to persuade her to take a motor-car drive on the Grande Corniche and through Nice to Grasse, where all the foolish tourists go to buy the perfume they can buy more cheaply in London. But she was not at all anxious to accept his invitation.”
“What happened after that,” said Billy thoughtfully. “I do not know, but I can guess. Dawkes is very vague about his attitude to the girl, but emphatic as to the girl’s attitude toward him. It is certain that there was an incident where she shut her door in his face, but why Dawkes was there, and how he came to place himself in such a humiliating position, he skips in his narrative.”
“We can guess all that,” said I, and Billy nodded.
“At any rate, she went away from Monte Carlo with a large parcel of money, leaving a very sick and sore Mr. Thomson Dawkes behind her, and that’s the story,” he ended as abruptly as usual.
“What is your job, then?” I asked in surprise, for I had expected some more startling denouement.
“My job is to discover who is Miss X,” he said. “What is her job of work, where she gets her money, et cetera.”
“And with this information Mr. Dawkes is going to—” I paused expectantly, but at that moment came an interruption.
The door was flung open and a big man came in, panting heavily, for he had run up the stairs.
“There she is! There she is!” he cried breathlessly, and waved his arms towards the window.
“Look! Now is your chance, Stabbat I There she is, right opposite your door, my boy!”
Billington ran to the window and threw up the sash.
“Where?” he asked.
“The girl with the blue hat, standing in front of the jeweller’s. Do you see her?”
Billington shaded his eyes.
It was a warm, sunny day, and the office faced south-west.
“I see her,” he said slowly.
“She’s going into the shop,” said the big man excitedly. “Now you’ve got her, Stabbat!”
Bill paused irresolutely and stretched out his arms to press the bell on the wall. I have often remembered that movement, the lithe figure of Billington Stabbat reaching across the desk, his arm extended, his finger-tips hesitating on the bell-push.
If he had only pressed that bell this story would not have been written. Thomson Dawkes might have been spared the knife of the surgeon, Billy Stabbat would never have seen the interior of a prison cell, and Sir Philip Frampton would still be attending his quarterly bank conventions.
“I’ll go myself,” he said.
Yet, if he had rung for Levy Jones!
BUT he didn’t. Instead, he snatched his hat from the desk and raced out of the room, leaving us three by the window.
For a third man had come in behind Thomson Dawkes, and at the sight of his red face and heavy-lidded eyes I had grown uncomfortable.
Apparently he did not see me until we stood by the window, and then he turned his face slowly in my direction.
“Hallo, Mont,” he said disagreeably, “I thought you were on leave.”
“So I am, sir,” I replied. “But I made a call on an old friend today.”
“Is he a friend of yours?” he asked, in so disparaging a tone that I knew that Billy was no friend of Inspector Jennings.
“Yes, sir,” I said. “We were together in France.”
“Humph! Personally I do not like Stabbat. He’s much too flippant for my taste. He is certainly not the man I should have advised Mr. Dawkes to employ. I suggested Seinbury’s, they are the best inquiry agents in town.”
I happened to know that Seinbury was also Jennings’s brother-in-law, but I thought it was not the moment to remind him of the fact.
“However,” said Jennings with a shrug of his massive shoulders, “so many people recommended Stabbat; my friend, Sir Julius Brown, whom I met at Mr. Dawkes’s country place, and Lord Foley and several other gentlemen, whom you probably don’t know—they were all very keen on this fellow.”
“There she goes,” said Thomson Dawkes excitedly, “and Stabbat’s gone after her. By Jove, what a bit of luck!”
He turned and beamed upon Jennings, and that sycophant made heroic efforts to reflect his joy.
Thomson Dawkes was a very tall and a very handsome man. Handsome in a florid way, though why he, vain as he was, allowed his face to be disfigured with little black side-whiskers I can’t imagine. He had a heavy silken moustache without a single grey hair, an aquiline nose and a pair of good-humoured, lazy eyes. His lips were big and red, and his chin was a little too rounded for a man, but he was, I must give him credit, as good a looker as I've seen for some years.
His language could be coarse and free, and he referred to the girl he was hunting in terms which a gentleman could not have employed. His father had been a mine-owner in Staffordshire and had left his son a very considerable fortune. Thomson Dawkes was a patron of the prize-ring, he owned a stud of horses, a steam yacht and two country estates. Yet, somehow, he had never managed to ingratiate himself with the right kind of people.
Folk sneer at “society,” but society, as I understand it, is nothing more or less than a standard of manners and morals. Thomson Dawkes had never passed that standard, and in consequence never associated with the men and women who had. There are people who cannot exist without adulation from those with whom they are brought into contact. The big social world, the men and women who are Tom and Dick and Jenny to one another have no place for adulation in their system, for society is nothing if not democratic.
But it was a pleasing thing for Thomson Dawkes to be asked his opinion on this and that and the other subject, to be fawned upon and looked up to, and, naturally, when a man feels that way he gravitates to a lower strata of intelligence for his court. Vanity takes no more obnoxious form than the everlasting desire for approval.
Jennings did not introduce me. I suppose he thought it was beneath his dignity even to admit that he knew a detective sergeant, and as the two men left the room I caught the words: “One of our men.”
Leaving a note on the desk, I went back to my lodgings in Bloomsbury and met Levy Jones in exactly the same place where I had parted from him at the foot of the stairs, on my way out.
“You’re not going, Mr. Mont?” he said in surprise. “I thought Billy wasn’t very busy.”
“Billy’s out,” I explained.
He threw back his head with an open-mouthed “Oh” of understanding.
“On that Dawkes job, I suppose? I saw Dawkes strutting up Bond Street with Fatty Jennings, and they both seemed very pleased with themselves.”
I told Levy just what had happened. He rubbed his long nose.
“I do hope that Billy won’t take an interest in this girl,” he said soberly. “If she’s living in an attic, and supporting an aged and ailing mother, or if she has a brother with consumption in the country, or has got a child she wants to send to Eton, why Billy will be breaking into the Bank of England by to-morrow night, trying to pinch the money that will make right her defalcations. We shall see!” he murmured. “I’ll bet Billy said that when he got the job, and I’ll bet he’s saying it now. Especially if she’s interesting.”
“I don’t think you know Billy, Levy,” said I.
“I do indeed,” said he grimly. “Well I know him!”
And then suddenly he brightened up.
“Have you heard the story about the Jew who sent for the priest to comfort his dying brother one cold and bitter night, and when the priest asked why he, a Jew, had sent for him, a Catholic, replied indignantly:
“‘Do you think I was going to risk the life of our old Rabbi?’”
I had not heard the story.
“Well,” said Levy, “that’s Billy!”
It was a little too cryptic for me and Levy did not explain, but passed on to yet another Hebrew story, this time unprintable, but it left me in convulsions. Levy Jones was the most orthodox Jew I have ever met, yet he never lost an opportunity of telling sly ones against his compatriots.
Before I left him he asked if he could come round and see me that night, and as I had not very much to do and no particular engagement I very gladly invited him, because I am fond of Levy in a way that I am fond of nobody else.
He turned up punctually in Doughty Street and we played cribbage and discussed Billington Stabbat. He told me what I had not known, that Billy was responsible for more escapes from Germany than any other man. It was he who organised the distribution of compasses to the American prison camps in Germany. Levy was in the midst of a rhapsody on the many virtues of his chief when the subject of our discussion was shown in, or rather he showed himself in, the landlady following behind him with an apologetic introduction.
He smiled broadly at me and I could see a thrill in him, if I may be permitted the bull.
“Levy, by gosh!” he said, or rather he howled the words. “Well, isn’t this luck. I wanted to see you.”
“And I wanted to see you,” said Levy significantly. “You asked me to collect a lot of urgent information about the Griddlestone fire”
“O fudge! We’ll see about that,” said Billy impatiently and sat down at the table. “Mont of Monte Carlo,” he said suddenly.
“What’s the game?” I asked.
“You’re coming with me to the beautiful sea, forgive the poetry. Miss Hicks is going to-morrow morning.”
“How do you know?” I demanded.
“I asked her,” he said calmly. “I’ve just seen Dawkes. He follows in a couple of days. Of course, the whole thing is absurd, and is susceptible, I am sure, to the simplest explanation. Why shouldn’t she have money? Why shouldn’t a rich woman indulge herself in cheap bags? After all, the rich are the only people who can afford to wear and carry cheap things. I tell you, Mont,” he spoke with violent earnestness as he leant over the table arid glared at me, “if ever a woman had a heart and a soul too big for her delicate, winsome body, that woman is Mary Ferrera!
You have only to look into her eyes,” he went on, “into those clear, pellucid depths”
“O Moses!” groaned Levy, “I told you what he’d do! I told you, Mr. Mont! If that girl ever got at him he was a goner!”
Bill did not explode as I expected he would. His smile grew broader and broader until it was a grimace of speechless joy.
“O Levy!” he gurgled. “You poor nut! Now listen, Leviticus,” he pleaded. “This girl is innocent, we shall see! But there’s a big story behind it all and I’m going to get the end of it. You’ve got to look after the business till I come back. Until we come back,” he corrected.
“My dear chap, I can’t afford to go to Monte Carlo,” said I. “You seem to think that a police sergeant”
“All your expenses are paid,” interrupted Billy, “and Thomson Dawkes approves of my taking an assistant.” What had he said to her? How had he made her acquaintance? We both asked these questions, and to both of us he returned evasive answers.
That their friendship had made considerable progress in the shortest possible space of time I discovered when she came in to breakfast on the Riviera express two days later.
THE train was running through the Valley of the Rhone, and I think we had just passed Avignon when I saw Mary Ferrera for the first time. Perhaps I had better explain how we came to be on the express at all. We had made the mistake of deciding on the eleven o’clock train from London, thinking that if she went earlier she would stay over a day in Paris. We learnt from the detective on duty on the cross-Channel boat, who knew the names of all the passengers of course, since it was his duty to check the passports, that a Miss Ferrera had crossed by the boat connecting with the eight o’clock train and had joined the direct train from Calais to Mentone.
Then, of course, Billy must do one of those mad things that his erratic nature dictated. He hired a car and we drove to an aviation ground near Wimereaux, and I had my first flying experience. It was more pleasant than I had expected. Billy had decided to cut across country to Dijon and pick up the Côte d’Azur express from there. It was an eerie experience, for we flew over the old battleground of the Somme, ground across which we had toiled so painfully four years before. Looking down upon the earth, still scarred and pitted with craters and trench lines, the horrible tragedy of it, the seeming uselessness of it, depressed me. I shivered as I looked down upon that vast Golgotha of a million redeemers.
I was glad when we left Reims behind—where we had to change machines. Here, on the old aviation ground, in our callow youth, we had watched in awe and wonder the masters of the new science—Lathom, Curtiss, Bleriot, Le Blond—making their seemingly wonderful flights. I think that trip must have cost Billy the greater part of a hundred pounds, but in many ways it was worth it. We came down through a thick bank of cloud on one of the two aviation grounds near Dijon. It was raining heavily when we reached the earth, and I had never seen the birthplace of Charles the Bold under such gloomy conditions. Darkness had fallen by the time we had washed and brushed up, and we spent the evening at a cinema and the best part of the night on an infernally draughty platform swept by chill gusts of wind, and I was very glad to see the big headlamp of the Riviera express come slowly out of the darkness.
By the greatest good luck we found two sleeping berths were for hire. As I say, the first time I saw this girl was at breakfast the following morning. I am not a good hand to describe women. I know they are pretty, or even beautiful, without being able to explain to what particular feature or quality they owe their beauty. I think the first thing that struck me was the purity of her complexion, and then, a long way after, when I had sufficiently recovered from the spell into which her appearance cast me, the beautiful humanity of her eyes and the straightness of her little nose.
There is an old Biblical word which best describes the spirit which seemed to dwell in those big grey eyes of hers, and that word is “loving-kindness.”
I saw it when, with a little nod, she sat down at the table opposite to us and began talking to Billy. Somehow her appearance did not fit with Mr. Dawkes’s description of her. I tried to picture her being cold and hard and haughty, and I could not. Then with a shock I realised that if she could be none of these she was undoubtedly a cold-blooded gambler, and that did not fit with her either. Her voice was girlish and musical, and when she laughed you wanted to laugh in sympathy.
He introduced me, but omitted to mention my profession. Presumably he had also omitted to mention his own. I was puzzled as to how he had become so good a friend that his appearance on the train had not startled her. Indeed she seemed to have expected him, and almost the first words she spoke supported this idea.
“I did not see you in Paris last night,” she said. “I looked along the train. Did you get in very early?”
“We came on to Dijon by aeroplane. I had some business there,” said Billy.
“You leave the train at Marseilles, do you not?” she asked.
“Well,” said Billy with a cough, “I did intend going on to Montpelier, as I told you, but I think I’ll run up to Monte Carlo for a day or two.”
At these words her face dropped and she paled a little.
“Oh, indeed?” she said, and then I saw that those human eyes of hers could be very distant indeed. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then with a grave and steady glance at Billy she got up from the table and went back to her coupé, leaving her breakfast untouched.
Not even on that historic twenty-first of March, 1918, when Billy and I had strolled into Divisional Head-quarters west of St. Quentin and found the mess-room in possession of three German staff officers, have I seen so blank an expression of surprise and dismay upon his face. And I knew instinctively that it was not the threat to his professional prestige which distressed him. I am inclined to think that he forgot for the moment that he had been employed by Mr. Thomson Dawkes to trace this girl and that he was chiefly concerned with the fear that he had jeopardised their friendship.
On our way back from the refreshment saloon to our sleeping berth we had to pass through three cars, and in the doorway of a coupé the girl was waiting.
“Will you come in?” she said, and led us into the tiny compartment. “I am afraid you will think I was awfully rude,” she said frankly, “but somehow I was startled to learn you were going to Monte Carlo. You see,” she said, with a ghost of a smile, “I am rather a gambler, and there are moments when I am heartily ashamed of myself and wish to keep my weakness from my friends.”
Her grave eyes were fixed upon Billy. To me she paid little or no attention.
“Now, Miss Ferrera” began Billy, but she stopped him.
“I do not use my own name at Monte Carlo,” she said. “I call myself Miss Hicks, which is the nearest I can get to the French X.”
“I thought so,” said Billy, and corrected himself hastily: "I think so. But really, Miss Ferrera—”
“Miss Hicks,” she smiled.
“Miss Hicks,” said he. “I must remember Hicks! You must not think I take a narrow view of gambling. In fact, I do a little myself.”
She drew a long sigh, and it seemed to me that it was a sigh of relief.
“That is all right,” she said. “Are you a gambler too, Mr. Mont?”
“I have never been able to afford that luxury, but it must be rather thrilling,” said I, and this time her sigh was not of relief.
“It surely is the most wearisome, boring business I know,” she said surprisingly, and changed the conversation with a reference to a scheme which the French Government had brought forward for making the Rhone a navigable river as far as Geneva.
I did not see her after leaving the compartment until I met her coming out of Lloyds’ Bank about an hour after our arrival.
Monte Carlo, despite the “Fun-City” flimsiness of its Casino and buildings, is to me the most delightful spot on God’s earth. I know no town in the world where I would sooner spend and end my days than in this paradise, and I would have been content to have passed my time idling along the shore or tramping up the mountain-side and going to bed at a healthy, wholesome hour. The Casino has no great attraction for me; there is something sordid and terrifying in those greedy, wan faces one sees about the tables.
Yet, curiously enough, the cercle privé always reminds me of some beautiful ante-room to a papal apartment, despite the pink and gold of it and its white plaster caryatids.
We made our way that night into the circle and found all the tables going strong, especially the trente et quarante table which is at the farther end of the room.
“There she is,” said Billy in a low voice.
The girl was sitting at a table, and before her was piled a thick pad of thousand-franc notes. Little slips of paper marked the notes into twelves.
“She is playing maximums.” Billy’s voice held a note of admiration.
You might have imagined she was doing something very admirable instead of dissipating money which I was quite assured was not hers. She handled the notes with the skill of a croupier almost, for she would flick twelve thousand francs from one side of the table to the other, so that it fell exactly upon the space she intended, with remarkable dexterity. And all the time she was consulting a notebook.
She was winning steadily—she took twelve maximum coups in succession on the black, and fourteen successive coups on couleur and inverse alternately. Once only she looked up and her eyes met Billy’s, but there was no recognition or greeting in her glance, and it was not until the table closed, and there was a rush of players to the roulette table which enjoys a further five minutes of play, that she showed us she was aware of our presence.
She gathered up her notes and stuffed them into her big handbag, and came immediately toward Billy.
“Well!” she challenged, and I saw the steady, almost defiant look in her eyes. “Am I not a gambler?”
“You seem to have won,” he said.
“Only a hundred thousand francs,” she replied. “Quite enough to get the run of the table. I think I shall win heavily to-morrow. The table has been running black for a week, and they tell me it went streaky last Monday and has only settled itself again today.”
It was amazing to hear her talk about the chance of a number of cards indicating red or black as though they obeyed an exact law.
We said good night to her in the hall of the Hotel de Paris—Billy and I were staying at the Hermitage. It was on the way back to the hotel that he explained how he had become acquainted with her. It was by the sheerest luck that he had dragged her away from a skidding motor-bus, by which I mean that it was the greatest of luck that he was there to render this service.
“A wonderful woman, Mont!” he said solemnly as we drank our nightcap together. “An amazing creature, and undoubtedly a mathematical genius! Did you notice the way she handled the notes?”
“Like a bank cashier,’ said I significantly.
“You are prejudiced," said Billy. “We shall see!”
We saw precious little at Monte Carlo that we had not already heard about. At the end of a week’s stay Billy was as far from possessing any knowledge of this strange girl as he had been when he started. The opportunities for meeting her were few. She did not put in an appearance at the rooms until two o’clock—five minutes after two, to be exact. She stopped play at five, and disappeared into her rooms at the hotel. Apparently she took all her meals in her sitting-room, and if she went walking it was at an hour which we failed to hit upon, until Billy took to appearing before the hotel at eight o’clock in the morning.
There is a circular island of palms and greenery in the square which is formed by the Casino and the hotel, and here Billy stationed himself and had the satisfaction of seeing her returning from an early morning walk.
This was the third day of our stay in Monte Carlo, and the day on which Mr. Thomson Dawkes made his appearance. He, too, stayed at the Hotel de Paris, and on the night of his arrival he invited us to dine with him. The girl must have seen us in the company of Dawkes, for the next time Billy spoke to her she was very chilly indeed.
“Are you a friend of Mr. Dawkes?” she asked.
“Not exactly a friend,” said Billy. “An acquaintance, rather.”
"You are not very careful in the choice of your acquaintances, Mr. Stabbat.”
Meeting Mr. Dawkes on the terrace that afternoon, Billy nearly lost a very attractive job by expressing his faith in the girl’s integrity.
I think he must have spoken a little too warmly, for Dawkes turned on him.
“You are costing me £100 a week, Stabbat, and if you do not think that it is worth while trying you can say so and chuck up the job, and I’ll get somebody else who will put a little more snap into his investigations.”
In any other circumstances and with any other man Billy would have very promptly told Thomson Dawkes to go to hell, and it would have been a toss-up whether or not he would have followed up or preceded his remarks with a straight left. But Billy was surprisingly meek, and betrayed to me his terror of being taken out of this case.
“I am going to prove that Miss Ferrera is a perfectly honest and noble girl,” he said.
I reminded him that it was not for this purpose that Dawkes had employed him.
“What Dawkes wants and what he’ll get are two different propositions,” said Billy. “He is confident that he can get this girl under his thumb—we shall see!”
He resolved upon a bold move. On the fifth night of the week, after play had closed, he accompanied the girl down the steps of the Casino, and she was standing with outstretched hand to bid us good night when he said:
“May I have a word with you, Miss Hicks?”
She looked surprised and suspicious.
“It is rather late,” she said.
“Better late than never,” said Billy appropriately, if a little tritely.
What followed, Billy told me in detail, and I have set it down in my own way. I cannot, of course, guarantee the accuracy of every line I have recorded. In the main I have the gist of the conversation that followed.
They walked together on to the terrace overlooking the sea. At this hour of the night it was deserted save for one of the watchmen of the Casino, whose duty it is to patrol the ground about the building.
“Miss Ferrera,” said Billy, and I can imagine his voice was very grave, “I am going to take you into my confidence. Do you know you are being watched?”
“By Mr. Dawkes?” she asked quickly.
“By Mr. Dawkes and his agents,” replied Billy. “In fact, Miss Ferrera, I am one of the agents.”
She took a step back, and the look that she gave Billy cut him to the heart, so he says.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said gravely. “Why am I being watched?” And Billy explained to her that Mr. Thomson Dawkes was firmly convinced that she was gambling with money she had stolen from her employer.
“Isn’t that a matter for the police rather than for a private detective?” she asked coldly.
“It is and it isn't. Dawkes has a particular reason for his action.”
“I agree,” said the girl.
“Now, Miss Ferrera, can’t you take me into your confidence?” said Billy earnestly, and she laughed.
“After you have told me that you are an agent of Mr. Dawkes?” she asked with a little note of scorn in her voice. (Apparently that cut Billy to the heart, too. He was considerably lacerated that evening.)
When he told me of that interview he was a little incoherent and vague as to what happened next. Apparently he begged her to believe that he was her best friend, but the interview was profitless. She told him what was true —that she had a right to gamble if she wished, and it was nobody’s business but her own. She even hinted that she would seek the advice of the Casino authorities on the matter of Mr. Dawkes’s surveillance.
This threat, I have reason to believe, she put into effect. The Casino authorities are very jealous of espionage on their patrons, and on the morning of the seventh day Thomson Dawkes came to us while we were at breakfast, in a fluster of rage, and told us that his ticket for the cercle privé had been summarily cancelled, and that he had been informed that his presence at the sports club was undesirable.
“I’m sure it’s this damned girl!” he said. “I saw her coming out of the Administration Office at tea-time yesterday. By God, I’ll teach her to complain about me!”
“What a girl!” said Billy ecstatically, after the cyclone had left us. “What a nerve! What decision! She’s none of your swooning, weeping misses, Mont! There's character in that action—good luck to her!”
Apparently Mr. Dawkes went up to the hotel to interview the lady, and found she had gone. She had left by the morning train for Marseilles, and she had left a good winner.
HIS experience at Monte Carlo seemed to pique Dawkes into a greater determination that he would run her to earth and expose her. As for Billy, he seemed to be strengthened in his purpose and his faith. Frankly, I thought this merely an exhibition of his notorious perversity because the balance of probability lay on the side of Miss Ferrera being a very vulgar and commonplace pilferer.
The only thing I could not understand was the total absence of anything like nervousness on her part. She gambled as though there were no settling day and as if the result was a foregone conclusion. I put to Billy the possibility that she was in league with some gang which was working in conjunction with the croupier, but he exploded at the mere suggestion.
“Must a woman, because she is young and beautiful and tender, because she is possessed of money, be necessarily a thief or a conspirator?” he demanded wrathfully.
I dropped that hypothesis, and on our journey back to London we discussed everything except the possibility of Miss Mary Ferrera being engaged in some dishonest practice.
Levy Jones met us at Victoria with a woeful tale of possible clients who had called and had to be turned away.
“The chairs and the hat-rack have come,” he said. “The new stationery is arriving to-morrow morning.”
I reached the office at ten o’clock on the following morning at the same time as the stationery. Billy had not come in, and when he did it was only to take up the threads of an insurance case he had in hand, and issue instructions to Levy Jones.
We had left Mr. Dawkes behind at Monte Carlo, to Billy’s great relief. The morning we spent pottering about London, and in Oxford Street, whither we had driven—Billy was making a half-hearted attempt to be interested in the insurance case, and was failing dismally—the first of the three important meetings of the day occurred.
It was with George Briscoe, who was no longer wearing the overalls of a workman. On the contrary, he was smartly and even magnificently dressed. His little red beard was trimmed to a point, and one of his eyes supported a monocle. I learnt afterwards that this was no affectation and that George’s monocle was known from one coast of Canada to the other. He saluted Billy gaily, waving a gold-headed malacca cane to attract his attention.
“Hallo, George!” said Billy with a little grin. “How are things?”
“Fine,” said George. His voice was altogether different, and his tone and manner were so completely changed that I should not have recognised him. “Have you started work yet, Stabbat?” “Not yet,” said Billy, shaking his head. “Are you thinking of giving me a job?”
“No, no,” said George, with a smile which showed his even, white teeth and a glimpse of something more than humour in his eyes. “I have no enemies in the world, except yourself. I am going down to Brighton to-morrow for a few days.”
Billy eyed him keenly, all his detective instincts awake.
“That means that you’re going to slip back to Canada, or to an even more inaccessible part of the globe,” he said, and George laughed.
“There is a good detective lost in you,” he bantered, and that was the last we saw of George for a long time.
The encounter left Billy very thoughtful.
“I hate that fellow’s cheerfulness,” he said. “I wonder what he has got on me?”
We were walking down Northumberland Avenue about an hour later, on our way to lunch, when the second or, rather, the second and third events of the day were staged. Outside one of the big hotels in Northumberland Avenue was a little knot of elderly, silk-hatted gentleman, who were talking together and walking slowly away from the hotel. I guessed that some sort of meeting had been held, and was wondering what, when I saw a familiar figure walking quickly in our direction.
Billy saw her, too, and gasped. She could not fail to have seen us, only just before she reached the entrance of the hotel she turned with a start of surprise and talked to a thin, tall man, who lifted his hat half an inch from his white head. She spun round so that her back was toward us in talking to the man, and Billy and I went forward and joined the little throng of ancient gossips, who were evidently discussing the business which had called them together that morning.
I heard the girl say:
“No, Sir Philip, I had no idea you were in London,” and the old man grunted.
“Well, well, Miss Ferrera,” he said testily, “I will see you to-morrow at the bank. Did you have a profitable holiday in Paris?”
“Yes, Sir Philip,” said the girl.
“I hope so, I hope so,” said Sir Philip, and his voice was clear enough for us to have heard even if we had been at a greater distance. “There is no better way of acquiring the French language than a sojourn amidst people who speak no other tongue. I shall see you in the bank to-morrow morning,” he repeated, and, again lifting his hat for an inch, dismissed her.
She did not see us as she passed, and Billy made no attempt to follow her. Instead, he walked up the steps of the hotel and nodded to the lordly porter.
“What’s been happening?” he asked. “A meeting of the Cabinet?”
The porter smiled.
“No, sir. The Bankers’ Quarterly Convention. They generally meet here. What are you, a pressman?”
“Who is the old gent with the side whiskers?” he asked.
“Which one?” said the porter dryly. “They’re all old and they’ve all got side whiskers. That one talking to the stout little gentleman?” He indicated the man who had been addressed as Sir Philip.
“That’s the fellow,” said Billy eagerly.
“Oh, he is Sir Philip Frampton, of Frampton’s Bank; it’s a West Country concern. You’ve probably heard of it.”
“Oh, that is Sir Philip Frampton, is it?” said Billy softly.
He made a few other inquiries to support the impression that he was associated with journalism, and then, when Sir Philip began walking toward Trafalgar Square, he left the porter and we followed in the wake of this distinguished representative of the banking world.
Sir Philip lunched at the Carlton. So also did we, and it was in the palm court after lunch, when the old man sat with a cigar and a small cup of black coffee, that Billy, with all the coolness in the world, approached him.
“Why!” he said, open-eyed with astonishment, “isn’t it Sir Philip Frampton?”
“That is my name,” said the old man, glancing suspiciously at him.
“I think I met you at Elston,” said Billy. He had looked up certain works of reference before lunch and he discovered that it was at Elston that the bank’s head-quarters were situated.
“I have no recollection,” said Sir Philip a little coldly, but Billy froze at a very low temperature.
He sat down by the banker’s side, produced his cigar-case and lit a weed, whilst I hovered modestly in the background.
“I have a letter of introduction to you,” he said. “I am a bookmaker, you know, and I was thinking of opening a branch office in your town, and I thought it would be a good idea to have an account with you.”
This time there was no mistaking Sir Philip’s hostility.
"It is not the kind of account that we should care to carry,” he said shortly. “We are a very old-established and, I might say, reputable bank, and it is inconsistent with our policy to have the name of the bank associated with clients engaged in a speculative or dubious business.”
I think Billy’s heart must have gone down a few points when he heard this puritanical view on gambling.
A few minutes later the old man pointedly changed his seat, marching solemnly, coffee-cup in hand, to one remote from where Billy was sitting, and my friend took the hint.
“Of course, I don’t believe for one moment the girl is guilty of any improper act,” he said in a troubled voice, “but it looks queer, doesn’t it? And pretty bad for her, if she is found out. I wanted his views on gambling for her sake. I must go down to Elston to-morrow.”
ELSTON is a little market town of greater importance than its size and population suggests. It forms a clearing-house—if one can employ that phrase—for a very large agricultural and sheep-farming area, and Frampton’s Bank, installed in old Georgian premises of red brick, was by far the most important building in the ancient market square. I looked round at this sleepy hollow, the old houses, the most modem of which must have dated back to the fourth George, the white sheep-pens, which formed a chequer-board in the centre of the square, the canvas-covered stalls and the great elms which shaded the principal street. And I thought it was a far cry to Monte Carlo. A deep-toned church bell was summoning worshippers to one of those services which are held in Lent at inconvenient hours, and the only people in sight were a policeman in a straw helmet and two school children, staring in at the window of the local tuck-shop.
We put up at “The Bear,” an inn which had been well-established in the days of the sixth Edward, and Billy set forth to make inquiries. We had arrived in the town before lunch, but it was not until half-past five that he came into the coffee-room, whilst I was drinking tea out of a large cup, and eating bread and butter, cut generously. I saw at once that he was troubled, for there was a droop at the comer of his mouth and a worried look in his eyes.
“Mary is a clerk at Frampton's Bank,” he said. “She earns £3 a week, is Sir Philip Frampton’s niece and adopted daughter, and has complete control of the strong-room.”
I was silent. There was no mistaking the significance of the information he received. One point, however, puzzled me.
“How do you mean, his adopted daughter?” I said. “And why should she be working in the bank if she’s the niece or daughter of a rich man?”
“Sir Philip believes in people working. The girl has been at the bank since she was fifteen,” replied Billy gloomily. “She was the daughter of his sister, and I do not think that her adoption means more than a technical adoption. Anyway, there is no such thing as ‘ adoption ’ in , England in the sense that an adopted child has any status. It doesn’t help her anyway, whether he is living or dead, for his money is left to various charities in the county and a very modest provision has been made for the girl.”
“How on earth did you find this out?” I asked in astonishment.
“I met a man with a grievance,” said Billy, and vouchsafed no other information.
The man with a grievance dined with us that night. He was a little man, very bony, very dyspeptic, and immensely uncharitable. His ancestors had perpetrated a questionable jest when they had handed on to him the singularly unfitting name of Pontius. He had a theory that he had descended without a break from the Roman legate who had ruled the West of England somewhere about A.D. 12, and this obsession had turned him into an archaeologist. His chief value to us lay in the fact that he disliked Mary Ferrera most intensely. He referred to her as “that girl,” and infused a considerable amount of contempt into those two words. It appeared that he had a son whom that girl had supplanted, Mr. Pontius, I might remark in passing, being the accountant of the bank.
It has always been a mystery to me how Billy scraped acquaintances with people. I think his ability in this direction constitutes half his assets as a detective. From what I learnt later, I gathered that he had met Mr. Pontius at the local barber’s and they had come together in confidence over the matter of a hair restorer. Billy was ever a quick and ready liar, and I do not doubt that he invented a renovator of miraculous qualities on the spur of the moment. Certainly the hair of Mr. Pontius was very sparse.
“Another thing,” said the little man when we had reached the port wine stage of dinner. “Why should she be allowed to go to Paris to learn French? I never went to Paris and my French is perfect. I have always conducted the foreign correspondence for the firm, and there is no reason in the world why it should be handed over to that girl. He pampers her, my dear sir, he pampers her! And what’s going to be the end of it? He can’t last forever, and the new directors are not likely to give that girl the run of the bank. I’ll tell you what I think,” he leant forward and lowered his voice until it was a husky whisper. “I think that they’re taking a great risk!”
He said this tremendously, and leant back to watch the effect of his words.
“What kind of risk?” asked Billy, filling his glass again.
“We’re all men of the world,” said Mr. Pontius largely. “We understand the temptations to which human nature is prone, and when a young girl receives secret letters at her lodgings”
“Secret letters?” said Billy quickly. “Does she have that kind of correspondence?”
Mr. Pontius nodded solemnly, I will not say soberly.
“Her landlady told me that she had registered letters come to her, addressed in disguised handwriting, printing, you understand, and always after she has received those letters she goes in to Sir Philip and asks leave to go to Paris to improve her French. Improve her French! Bah!”
“But what happens when she’s away?” asked Billy. “Who looks after her work?”
“Who looks after her work?” repeated Mr. Pontius. “Why, I do, for one. And my boy, as clever a lad as you could meet between here and London, attends to some of the correspondence, and Sir Philip himself does some of her work. And if that’s not pampering, tell me what is.”
We saw him home to his big, ugly house at the end of the village, and walking back to the inn, Billy did not say a word. I could see that the story of Pontius had made a deep impression on him. And yet he battled hard to keep his faith in the girl, and he must have suffered, for she had made a deeper impression upon him than I guessed at that time.
“Love at first sight” really means “fascination at first sight.” I would not deny Mary’s fascinating qualities.
It was the following afternoon that we met her. We had gone down to the station to get some London newspapers. The early morning train from town had arrived half an hour sooner, and we had seen the tall figure of Sir Philip Frampton crossing the square to the bank. We had purchased our newspapers, and were walking up the street leading to the station, speculating as to the identity of a mysterious and shabby man who had been shadowing us all morning, when she turned a comer and came face to face with us. She stood stock still and stared, and her face went white. I thought she was going to pass us without a word, but she came straight up to Billy.
“So you are still working for Mr. Dawkes?” she said quietly, and he flushed.
“I am working for you more than for Mr. Dawkes,” he replied, and her steady eyes rested on his.
“I wonder?” she said softly.
“You needn’t wonder,” said Billy, and his voice was brisk. “I tell you that I am as anxious—”
“I know that—I feel that,” she said, “but that wasn’t what I was wondering about. I was wondering what you thought—of me?”
The last two words were spoken in so low a voice that I could not catch them at the time.
“I must go to see about Sir Philip’s trunks. They have been left behind at Paddington,” she said, and passed by.
We were walking on when we heard her voice calling us, and she came back.
“Mr. Thomson Dawkes can dispense with your services, Mr. Stabbat,” she said, “for he knows!”
“Knows that you’re here? What you are doing?” gasped Billy.
“He came down in the same train with Sir Philip and followed him to the bank. I left him in the bank premises when I came away,” and she turned and went back to the station.
And there was Thomson Dawkes, with a smile of triumph on his big, handsome face, waiting for us outside “The Bear.”
“Well, Stabbat,” he said. “We’ve succeeded between us.”
There was no mistaking the malice in his tone.
“How did you make the discovery?” asked Billy.
“You made it,” replied the other with a laugh. “You know, Stabbat, I’ve got an idea you have been trying to shield this girl, so I got Seinbury to put a man on to watch you. I knew that sooner or later you would find where she lived, and I guessed that you’d keep your information to yourself. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Eh? I think I’ve put one over on you, old man.” Billy rubbed his nose thoughtfully.
“We shall see!” he replied. “And now you have found her, what are you going to do?”
The man’s smile was an ugly one.
“What are we going to do?” he corrected carefully. “Don’t forget that you’re in my service, Mr. Stabbat. The best thing we can do is to see the lady.”
“Here?” asked Billy quickly.
“No, not here. I’d like you to invite her to meet us to-morrow evening in your office.”
“But why?” asked Billy, and I could see the dull red creeping into his face.
The handsome Mr. Dawkes was nearer to violent correction than he knew.
“For many reasons,” replied the man coolly. “In the first place, I wish you to be on hand in case—” He paused as though at a loss to explain what that case might be.
“In case she turns down your proposal?” said Billy. “I don’t know what that proposal is, but I presume it is something to your advantage.” Dawkes looked at him curiously.
“You may be doing me an injustice,” he said, and I honestly think that at that moment he believed his intentions were being misconstrued. “The proposal I shall put to the girl is this. For eighteen months she has being going backward and forward to Monte Carlo, and on almost every occasion she has come away with a very large sum of money. She is working a system which has never been worked before at the Rooms. As you know, the Casino authorities employ detectives to watch system players and to discover just what it is. They have never been able to detect the system she uses.”
“I see!” said Billy quietly. “And you want her to give you particulars. Failing which—?”
“I shall make no threat. I make none now. Please remember that,” said Dawkes emphatically. “So far as I know, this girl is a perfectly honest lady who is in possession of ample private means. If I thought she was a thief and robbing the bank, I should, of course, feel it my duty as a law-abiding citizen to inform the police. But I do not think so. I have not made inquiries into her financial position. If,” he said, speaking as carefully as ever, “if the lady refuses to gratify my curiosity, it is probable that I may go farther into the matter and make inquiries of Sir Philip himself.”
Billy said nothing. He stood looking at the man as a naturalist might look at a new kind of beetle.
“Of course, if you think she is a thief," Dawkes went on, obviously enjoying the situation, “and you tell me so officially, I will not bother any further, but will report the matter to the local police."
“I do not think she is a thief,” said Billy steadily.
“I am going back to town," said Dawkes, looking at his watch, “and I will leave you two gentlemen to persuade Miss Ferrera to keep an appointment at, let us say, eight o’clock to-morrow evening. That will allow her to leave London by the half-past nine train, and arrive at Elston at a little before midnight.”
Billy met the girl that afternoon. He met her alone. He did not tell me what had passed, but he announced briefly, on his return to the inn, that Miss Ferrera had agreed to be at the Bond Street office at eight o’clock the following night.
We ourselves returned to London by the last train leaving Elston.
I HAVE often wondered whether Dawkes was sincere when he told us that his sole desire, so far as the girl was concerned, was to get hold of her secret. He was a rich man, but that, of course, made little difference, for there are very few rich men of his calibre who do not wish to be a little richer, or who are ever satisfied with their worldly possessions. There is, too, something of a kudos attaching to the working of a system, and a man who consistently wins at Monte Carlo gets a pleasure beyond the actual possession of easy money. He is courted by the women and made much of by the envious men, and to a fellow like Dawkes that sort of thing was as incense to the nostrils of the devout.
Perhaps he was genuine. I am inclined to think that he was, and that it was the girl’s beauty and the sense of having her in his power that aroused the brutal passion of the man and brought about such a tragic ending to the interview.
I did not go straight to Billy’s room the next morning. I wanted to see Levy Jones. He was rather more cheerful than I had expected, because he had got together the loose strings of the insurance case and had that morning placed the regular police in possession of a number of very important facts which led to certain wholesale arrests, which the reader may remember.
“Billy’s got it bad,” he said, shaking his head. “Do you realise that we’ve been in these darned offices for a fortnight and that Billy has never sat down once to his desk to do a bit of honest work? ’*
“What is he doing now?” I asked.
“He’s stalking up and down the new carpet, taking years of wear out of it," said Levy sadly, “and I rather think from the ferocity of his countenance that he is rehearsing the nasty things that he is going to say to brother Dawkes.”
“Did he tell you?” I asked quickly.
“He told me as much as it was good for me to know,” said Levy with a sigh. “But, my dear Mr. Mont, I am so used to these exalted moments of Billy’s, that I have ceased to worry about them.” Nevertheless, he sighed again.
“Why couldn't she have been a plain woman?” he began, but shook his head. “It wouldn’t have made any difference to Billy,” he said bitterly. “So long as she was a good weeper and could turn on the sob music, Billy was certain to fall.”
“She is a very charming girl,” said I in defence, and he looked at me in cold wonder.
“Have you got it, too?” he said sadly. “Well, it will be all over soon, and I've got a lovely case for Billy. To see him at his best, you’ve got to put him on the track of a red-nosed bucket-shop keeper with a passion for onions.”
Billington Stabbat was at a loose end. I saw that the moment I went into his office. He was standing staring gloomily out of the window, and taking an interest in little inconsiderable things which only a distracted man could take. For example, there was a small panel in the recess of the window with which he fidgeted. I didn’t discover the fact that it was a panel until he fidgeted to such purpose that it swung open on hinges, revealing a tiny dark cavity and the rough edges of the brickwork beyond.
“What’s that?” said Billy, eager for distraction.
He peered down what seemed to be an interminable shaft and then remembered.
“Oh, yes, they had central heating in the building, but it wouldn’t work. The pipes came up here from the basement, I think,” he said, and closed the panel.
He was staring at it for quite a while, then he pulled it open again—he had to use the paper-knife to get a grip on the edge.
“That would be a fine place to hide anything, wouldn’t it?” he said.
“Yes,” I replied. “If you wanted to go down into the basement to find it again.”
He slammed the panel hard, threw the paper-knife on the table with a crash and stalked up to the marble fire-place, with its lions sejeant and regardant. On the grinning head of one of them, he leant an elbow and dropped his head on his hands.
“Good Lord!” he groaned. “Suppose she is! But it is absurd!”
“Suppose she is what? And what is absurd?” I asked.
“Don’t be a fool, Mont,” he snapped. “You know what I’m talking about. Suppose this dear girl has borrowed the money from the bank to help some rascally brother”
“Or lover,” I murmured.
“Don’t be a brute,” he almost shouted. “And for God’s sake be decent, Mont. She has no lover.”
“She has no brother either, so far as you know," said I, lighting one of his cigars.
“Well, suppose all this has happened and she has borrowed the money from the bank?”
He was silent for a while, then:
“It would be tragic,” he said.
I sat down in the chair and regarded him wonderingly.
“Honestly,” said I, “do you always get like this over a woman case?”
I expected an outburst, but it did not come.
“I am always sorry for women,” he said quietly, “but I have never loved a woman before.”
And the simplicity of that confession silenced me. He walked across to the desk and stood towering over me, resting his palms on the edge.
“Mont,” he said, “if Thomson Dawkes is offensive to this girl to-night, I shall shoot him.”
It was in the most matter-of-fact tone that he made this threat.
“Oh, rubbish!” said I. “In the first place, he isn’t going to be offensive, and in the second place, you are not to shoot him.”
“He has been on the ’phone to me this morning,” he went on. “He says he wants to see the girl alone.”
“Well,” said I, “that isn’t extraordinary. If he intends demanding something from the girl on the threat of exposing her, he is hardly likely to want a detective sergeant and an ex-detective officer as witnesses.’’
“I don't like it,” said Billy.
“Did you agree to the private interview?
“It doesn’t matter very much. I shall be in Levy’s room and I shall come in at the first cry from the girl. And I tell you, Mont,” he smashed his fist on the desk, “if that blackguard insults her I’ll—do you want me, Levy?”
This latter to Levy, standing in the doorway, his hands in his pockets, his head bent on his chest, and looking straight at Billy.
“Who are you killing, Billy?” he asked softly, and Billy smiled.
“Come in, Levy. Don’t stand in the doorway.”
“Who are you killing, Billy?” asked Levy as he came forward.
“Dawkes,” said Billy.
“Fine,” said the sarcastic Levy. “I’ll send lilies and Mont can send roses, and we'll come along and see you the day before you’re hung. I want to tell you a story, Billy.”
He sat down on the edge of the desk and Billy, leaning against the wall, looked at him with a twinkle in his eyes. “Go on. It’s about a Hebrew.”
“A young Hebrew,” corrected Levy. “He was in a Sunday school at Glasgow and the teacher asked the class who would like to go to heaven, and every hand shot up except one. ‘Why, Issy Isaacs,’ said the teacher in surprise, ‘don’t you want to go to heaven?’
“‘No, miss,’ said Issy; ‘I want to go to hell, where our business is going.’”
“Verbum sapienti,” said Levy significantly.
“Meaning that there’s where our business is going?” Billy clapped him on the shoulder. “We’ll be through with this case to-day, Levy, and then I can devote my mind whole-heartedly to your outside brokers.”
“If you were through with the case to-day I wouldn’t mind,” said Levy, shaking his head, “but you’re not going to be, Billy. I’ve got a feeling in my old bones that this job is going to last for a year and there's going to be trouble at the end of it, and maybe at the beginning of it,” and he stalked gloomily forth.
“Do you remember that third-class ticket they found in Miss Ferrera’s bag?” asked Billy when Levy had gone.
“To Brixton?” I said. “Yes.”
“She has a cousin she stays with on her way from London to Monte Carlo,” said Billy. “That’s all.”
I tried to get him on to some other topic, but only partially succeeded, forevery now and again he would come back to the girl and his problem.
In the midst of a perfectly thrilling description I gave of the struggle we had had with our murderer on Wanstead Marshes he broke in:
“She carries a revolver in her bag. You see, she takes so much money about with her that she cannot afford to run risks. I knew that at Monte Carlo that night I talked with her on the terrace, because, swinging round, the bag struck my hand.”
“She is a very capable young person,” I said patiently, for no man likes to have the story of his own perils broken in upon. I refused his invitation to lunch and promised to come up at half-past seven that night. As a matter of fact, I did not get there until a quarter to eight, and Miss Ferrera had already arrived.
I could see that even the sceptical and hard-hearted Levy Jones was somewhat under her spell. As for Billy, his face was flushed and his eyes, which never left her face, were bright and sparkling. The girl was, as I expected, wholly self-possessed. Once again I saw that beautiful face in its loving-kindly aspect. I know it is a ridiculous word to apply, but there was something motherly about her, a certain soft tenderness in her voice which was not designed for Billy any more than it was designed for me, but was just the natural woman in her.
“He will insist upon the explanation,” Billy was saying as I went in, and after shaking hands with me she went straight on to where he had left off.
“Then he must insist,” she said calmly.
“Could you tell him the system?”
“It would be quite impossible to tell him the system,” she said. “In the first place, it is not my system to give, and in the second place it would be impossible to give it off-hand if it were. It is like asking me to explain the differential calculus to somebody who imagines it is a recent addition to the Zoo!”
Further conversation was arrested by the arrival of Mr. Thomson Dawkes. To my surprise, he came alone. I had fully expected to see his shadow—for Inspector Jennings had become little else of late—following him into the room.
“I'm early,” he said with a genial smile all round, “but I think we might get this business over as we are all here.”
He looked from Mary Ferrera to Billy.
“I wish to speak alone with Miss Ferrera,” he said, and Billy nodded and turned to the girl.
“If you want anything, Miss Ferrera, don’t hesitate to call for me,” he said pointedly. “Just ring that bell”—he indicated the push by the side of the desk—”and I will be with you before the bell stops ringing.”
She nodded gravely, and we three left the room together.
Did Thomson Dawkes take Billington’s implied threat seriously? I fancy not. He was a man who had a most inordinate faith in the power of money and in the authority which the possession of great wealth could impose. There was always something of good-natured contempt in his attitude towards Billy, and indeed towards the whole of the world. He gave me the impression that he was just humouring a capricious and inconsiderable man, and that also was the view which Billy took of his attitude.
I knew Billington Stabbat perhaps better than any living man, for we had been together in moments of supreme danger, when the very souls of men were bared by the sheer terror of their circumstances. And I knew that what in another person might be regarded as an idle piece of bluster had a deadly significance when it was uttered by my friend. Billy would not hesitate to destroy this big, smiling creature any more than he would hesitate to crush a beetle under his foot; and at the moment we left the room I uttered a prayer, a silent prayer, that that evening might end well. It was a prayer, unhappily, which was destined for rejection.
We gathered together, a curiously tense party, in Levy’s office, which opened from the bigger room.
“I hope this interview is not going to last long,” said Billy irritably. “If he dares” He did not finish his words.
I could find nothing to say, and we sat there in silence and watched the slow minute hand of the clock move from ten minutes to eight to five, and still there came no sound from the room. Another five minutes passed, and then Billy, with a snarl, slipped from the table on which he was sitting, and began:
“I’m not going to stand this any longer—!”
And then the interruption came.
It was the sound of a shot from the next room!
Billy leapt at the door and flung it open. The room was in darkness, but there was a switch near the doorway, and his hand found it and turned it down. I shall never forget the sight which met my eyes. Near the door leading into the corridor stood the girl, white-faced and staring like a thing demented. In her hand was a tiny revolver, and as the lights went on she lifted it from her side and looked at it with a kind of fascinated horror. It was Levy who broke the silence.
“We’ve lost a client,” he said in a shaky voice.
Even in that awful moment his queer sense of humour did not desert him. And lost a client we undoubtedly had; for sprawling over the desk lay Thomson Dawkes, with a hideous wound in his head, and his blood lay in a pool upon the writing-table.
NEITHER Levy nor Billy spoke. For myself, I felt white and shaking, and I realised that I had had a much worse time and that my sick leave was much more necessary than I had imagined. Both these two men acted in a characteristic fashion. Levy pulled the blotting-pad from under the head of the prostrate man and laid it on the carpet where the blood was beginning to drip. Billington turned to the girl and gently took the revolver from her hand. Then it was that she woke from her trance, and clung to him, shuddering and moaning.
“He kissed me!” she said. “He tried to hold me.... I put the light out to avoid him. I didn’t want to scream, and I thought I’d slip out of the door, but it was locked.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” said Billy, comforting. If she had the mother quality, no less had he. He patted and soothed her, and then beckoned me with a jerk of his head.
“Get her away,” he said. “Take her downstairs and put her in a taxi.”
I only hesitated for a second, and then I nodded.
“Don’t take her home,” he warned me. “Just put her in a taxicab and send her to Brixton. Then come back here; I want you. Now you’ve got to pull yourself together, Mary,” he said, and took her face in both his hands. I thought he was going to kiss her, but he did not. Billy’s eyes could be wonderfully soft and kind, and so they were now.
“You are not to say what happened. You understand? You were not present at this. You are not to say you were here to-night.”
“But, but—” she began.
“You must do as I tell you,” he said.
“Is he dead?” she whispered. “I didn’t—”
“No, no,” said Billy soothingly. “He is not dead.”
He thought he was lying, but he was telling no more than the truth.
I got her downstairs, and waited for a little while on the last landing until she had recovered, and then I hailed a taxi and promised to come and see her in the morning.
Personally, I was in a terrible position. Here was I, an officer of the law, helping a woman to escape who had apparently killed a man, even though she had killed him in self-defence. But strangely enough, at that moment the fact that I was being false to all the oaths I had taken to preserve the King’s peace did not worry me so much as my anxiety for Billy, for I knew just what he was going to do.
When I got back to the room—I had to pass through Levy’s room because the door on to the corridor was locked from the inside—I found Levy dressing the man’s wound with a towel.
“He’s not dead, fortunately,” said Billy, “but it’s a toss-up whether he’ll live. I think the bullet must have glanced off his skull. The window is broken.”
Together they carried Dawkes to a sofa and laid him down. Levy had already telephoned to a doctor, and an ambulance. After we had put the man as comfortably as we could, Billy went to his desk and took up the revolver we had taken from the girl, looked round, and then, with an exclamation, walked to the window recess, where he had discovered the little panel only that day. He wrenched open the tiny door and threw the revolver into the cavity, closing the panel securely. Then he went to his desk and took out his own revolver from a drawer.
“What are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’ll show you,” said Billy. He walked quickly to the big fire-place and, pointing the pistol up the chimney, fired once.
A heap of rubbish fell—bits of bricks and mortar and soot; then he came across to me and handed me the revolver.
“Sergeant Mont,” he said, “as you were coming up the stairs you heard a shot fired, and on reaching this room you found Mr. Dawkes lying across the desk dying. I was standing just about here.” He walked to the door. “You asked me what had happened, and I told you that I had had a quarrel with him, and that I had shot him.”
“I’ll be damned if I do it!” I cried in protest.
“You’ll be doubly damned if you don’t,” said Billy between his teeth. “There’s somebody on the stairs now! Are you going to make the arrest, or are you going to wait till that bloated swine Jennings appears? Mont, for God’s sake do as I tell you,” he cried. “We’re all in this unless you do. Make the arrest. I’m determined to keep the girl out of it; and you will be doing me the most wonderful of services.” What was I to do? I had a second to make up my mind, and then, though the words choked me, I said:
“Stabbat, I shall take you into custody on a charge of feloniously shooting Mr. Thomson Dawkes.”
At that moment Jennings came in and took in the situation at a glance.
“Where’s the girl?” he asked quickly.
“The girl did not come.” It was Billington who replied.
Then Jennings’ eyes fell upon the prostrate figure on the sofa.
“My God, you’ve killed him!” he almost yelled.
“I hope not,” replied Billington. “I shot him, certainly.”
“Are you in this, Mont? Did you see anything of this?” demanded Jennings, his face purple.
“I have just arrested Stabbat,” said I. If it was possible to get any satisfaction out of this miserable business, I had it when I saw his face drop. For by the arrest I had made the case my own, or, if not mine, the officers of my particular department; and Jennings, who was an office man and all his life had craved for a big publicity case like this, positively writhed as he saw his life’s opportunity slip from his grasp.
The first report I had the following morning was from the hospital. Dawkes had passed an uneasy night and had not yet recovered consciousness. The injury was a concussion and probably a fracture of the right parietal bone of the skull. Surgeons were making an examination, and if necessary they would operate that morning. I went early to Bond Street, and found Levy Jones collecting his personal belongings under the eye of a uniformed constable, whom I dismissed as soon as I arrived.
“We shall have to seal up the room, and nobody must go in,” said I; “and Levy, old man, you’re going to be a witness.”
“I know all about that,” he wailed. “Poor old Billy! I’ve just been down to Marlborough Street to take him his breakfast.”
“How is he?” I asked.
“Slept like a top,” moaned Levy. “That’s Billy all over. I kidded the ‘screw’ to let me have a look at him. I said I was his servant—and ain’t I?” he demanded.
“Well, what happened?”
“I asked him how he slept,” said Levy, “and he told me he hadn’t awakened all the night, and cursed me because I hadn’t brought devilled kidneys. ‘Well, Billy,’ I said, ‘this looks bad.’ ‘We shall see,’ said Billy. That’s all—‘we shall see,’” said Levy bitterly. Then apparently the suspicious “screw,” by which inelegant title Levy had designated the police-court jailer, had turned him out.
“Do you think Dawkes will die?” asked Levy anxiously.
I shook my head.
“The report from the hospital was not very encouraging.”
“Of course, he ought to die by rights,” said Levy. “I bet he’s a blackguard! When I think of that girl in the power of a man like that—a beautiful, sweet—”
“Et tu, Brute,” I murmured reproachfully, and Levy had the grace to blush.
I made a careful examination of the room. I was as anxious to get the real facts of the case as I was to present to the court a story which would have the appearance of truth without betraying Billy or the girl. I placed myself in the position in which Miss Ferrera had stood when we had found her, revolver in hand, and raised my hand, pointing my forefinger as though it were the barrel of a pistol; and the first thing that struck me was that, if Thomson Dawkes had been standing by the desk when he was shot, as he undoubtedly had, and if the bullet had struck him on the head, as it unquestionably did, then the window which should have been smashed was a window in the upper sash, unless—
It might, of course, have ricochetted from his head to the lower sash, but that was unlikely. Why was the pane of glass, which was below the height of a man standing where Dawkes had been standing, smashed to smithereens, and the upper window panes left untouched?
There was obviously nothing to be gained by searching for a bullet which had gone through the window and probably had struck a roof on the opposite side of the road. Later I sent officers to make a careful search of these roofs, without, however, discovering the bullet, so the chances were that it had hit the parapet, of the house and, dropping into the street, had been swept up by the road-cleaners in the night.
It had been reported to me from the hospital that morning that, in addition to the injury to the scalp, there were two scratches on the man’s cheek. I think I could have explained these very simply, but it was necessary to find a reason for those marks, and I found no difficulty here; for where the head had rested was Billington Stabbat’s pen rack.
The door near the corridor was locked, as it had been the night before; the key I removed and put into my pocket, but not until I had made a search of the new paint on the door for fingerprints. I hoped against hope that some third person had been in the room and had fired the shot which laid out Dawkes.
And then in a flash I remembered George Briscoe and his threat to be even with Billy. George Briscoe! And then my heart sank. For I remembered that the girl had not denied the shooting. Had we not taken her with the pistol in her hand? But suppose she and Briscoe (concealed somewhere in the room) had fired at the same time—it was of course a fantastic theory, but I remember reading a story the plot of which was based upon some such happening. Nevertheless, I must trace Mr. Briscoe, and in this search I was favoured by circumstances which I had not counted upon. For Mr. Briscoe was in a police cell at Cannon Row Station, and had been there since three o’clock the previous afternoon, on a charge of being concerned in the Regent Street burglary.
I interviewed him in the cell, and there was no doubt whatever that he had the most effective of alibis.
“Who put you away, Briscoe? I had nothing to do with it.” I felt it was my duty to exonerate Billy, and he nodded.
“I know all about that, Mr. Mont,” he said. “If you want to know the person who has betrayed me, cherchez les femmes.”
“Why have you come to see me?” he asked quickly. “Has anything happened?”
“Nothing at all, except that Mr. Thomson Dawkes has been found shot in Stabbat’s office—and Stabbat is under arrest for the shooting.”
“Good Lord!” he gasped. “Under arrest — Billy Stabbat? Isn’t that grand! Did he shoot him?” he asked.
“Unfortunately he did,” said I. “I was a witness to the occurrence.”
“Is Dawkes dead?” he asked quickly.
“He’s not dead, but he’s pretty bad,” said I.
“Let’s hope he dies,” said the cheerful Mr. George Briscoe. “Nothing would have given me greater pleasure than to look through the bars—do you have barred doors here, by the way?—and see him going to the death house.”
“You’re a cheerful little soul, Briscoe,” said I, and left it at that.
My next call was on the girl. I had her Brixton address, but I did not want to be seen in her company, remembering the unpleasant experience we had had at Elston. Jennings was just as capable of having me shadowed as Dawkes was of shadowing Billy. She had recovered from the shock of it, and when I came to the sitting-room into which I was shown, she had the evening paper before her.
The press had only a meagre account of what they termed a “shooting affray,” just enough to drive her half wild with anxiety.
“I cannot allow them to make this sacrifice,” she said. “It is absurd. I can explain everything.”
“That is just why I have come to see you,” I said. “You must start explaining to me.”
“I’ve been trying to remember ever since.”
She paced the room, and I could see that this imperturbable gambler, who could stake thousands without a flicker of the eyelash, and who could face a man like Thomson Dawkes with equanimity, had been broken, not by the threat to herself, but by the terrible danger overhanging a man for whom she had conceived perhaps something of that love which she had awakened in Billington Stabbat.
“I'm trying to think—I’m trying to think,” she said, wringing her hands. “I’ve been trying all day to piece together all that happened. When you left me, alone with him, Mr. Dawkes spoke quite kindly, and told me that he had discovered all about me, and he knew that the money with which I had been gambling had been taken from the bank. He talked at the time quite rationally about systems, and then suddenly he came toward me. I had not the slightest idea of his intention until he suddenly seized me in his arms.
“‘You can pay another price if you like, my dear. You can go to Monte Carlo as often as you take it into your pretty little head to do so,’ he said.
“I tried to escape, but he was strong —terribly strong. I told him I would scream, and he laughed in my face. ‘You will do nothing so ridiculous,’ he said. ‘ I think I know your kind. Now, my dear, what is it to be? Am I to call in those officers of the law ’—he sneered as he said it—‘ or are you going to be sensible? ’ Then suddenly I stamped on his foot, and with a cry he let go. In the struggle I had moved towards the big door, which I think leads to the passage and the stairs, and immediately his hold released I ran to the door and tried to open it. It was locked. ‘ You little devil! ’ said Dawkes, and was reaching out for me again when by an inspiration I saw the light switch and knocked it up with my hand. I managed to elude him, but I could not get past him to reach the room where Mr. Stabbat was.”
“Why didn’t you cry out?” I asked. She shook her head.
“Dawkes knew me that much,” she said. “I thought I could escape without trouble, or without—causing Mr. Stabbat to make a scene. That was the thing I was afraid of. I wonder if Dawkes knew that too?” she mused.
“He must have seen me against the window,” she went on. “He came toward me with a run, and I had just time to stoop under his arms before he stumbled over the desk. ‘Stay where you are,’ I said. ‘I can see you against the window. I am armed,’ and I pulled back the trigger of the little revolver which I carry in my bag when I am travelling on the continent; oh, if I had not brought it last night!”
“Then what happened?” I asked.
“He fell into a kind of cold fury,” said the girl. “I shall always see his silhouette against the window and hear his voice." She shivered. “I never want to recall the vile things that he said to me—things that I could not think any man would say to a woman, and least of all a cultured man. I don’t know what happened. My head seemed to swim; but, just as he was saying: ‘Now I will send for Stabbat and he will put you in prison, you—’ I must have gone mad. I don’t remember what happened. All I remember was a shot and the thud of his body, and there was I, standing with a pistol in my hand. Then you came in.”
“That is all you remember?” I asked. “You did not actually shoot at him. It might have been an accident. The pistol might have gone off by itself.”
She shook her head.
“I don’t know what happened,” she said simply. “I had murder in my heart. I hated him. I wanted to stamp the life out of him. That is all I know. How is he?” she asked.
“He had a very restless night, and the doctors are operating this morning,” I said, and caught a look of alarm, and then a contemptuous little smile played on her face.
“I don’t mean Dawkes,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if he dies or lives. How is Mr. Stabbat? What does he think of it all, and what is going to be done?”
And then I told her, and I thought she was going to collapse.
“You arrested him—you!” she said, her eyes blazing. “You, who are supposed to be his friend, arrested him for a crime which you knew he did not commit?”
“Where are you going?” I said, catching her arm as she was leaving the room.
“I am going to the nearest police station to tell them the truth,” she said.
“Incidentally you are going to ruin Billy and break Billy’s heart,” I said quietly. “I will not add that you involve me in utter ruin, because that isn’t a consideration. Billy did this deliberately for you, because he had a better chance of getting out of the mess than you had; and he wants to keep your name out of the case—you and the name of your uncle,” I added with emphasis, and she went pale.
“Did you know?” she asked quickly.
“Billy knew that you were Sir Philip Frampton’s niece," I said, and she stood there, biting her lips, absorbed in her thoughts.
“Suppose this case goes for trial—which it will undoubtedly," she asked, “what will happen to Billy?”
She said it so naturally that I did not realise that she was calling Stabbat by his Christian name.
“He may get five and he may get seven years,” I replied.
“Five or seven years!” she gasped. “But they can’t touch him. It would be monstrous. It would be a crime."
Now I must pay this tribute to Mary Ferrera. Any other woman of my acquaintance would have not only “gone in off the deep end” at the news I brought her, but would have persisted in their lunacy. In half an hour she was as calm and as cold as ice, and she took even a logical view of the part which I had played.
“If he goes to prison,” she said, in the most matter-of-fact tones, as though she were discussing some arrangement of her own household, “we must get him out, of course.”
“Get him out?” I stammered. “How?”
“Well, he must escape. It is quite as possible for men to escape from prison nowadays as it was years ago; in fact, it’s much more possible now that the aeroplane and the motor-car can be employed. What does he want me to do?”
There and then I told her, not what Billy wanted her to do, because he had not had time to give any instructions or express his wishes. But I had to tell her it was his plan, because she had unbounded faith in him.
“You have a passport, which I suppose has an annual vise?” said I.
She nodded, but looked at me doubtfully.
“Do you want me to go away?”
“I want you to go to the south of France till this business is settled. When it is, you can come back and you can discuss this matter with Levy Jones.”
“But how can I go to Monte Carlo?” she asked, and I gaped at her.
“You go whenever you wish, don’t you?” I said bluntly.
“I go when I’m sent,” said she; and that was the first hint I had that she was not her own mistress, but that her gambling adventures were undertaken on behalf of somebody else.
“Then get them to send you,” said I. “You had better go to your uncle, Sir Philip, and tell him the whole of the story.”
“No, no, no!” she said. “I couldn't do that—I dare not do that. I will go to somebody else.”
Who was the somebody else, I wondered, and that was a part of the interview which I resolved to keep from Billy when I visited him.
In one respect I could help her, because Levy Jones had handed to me £300 which he had taken from Billy’s safe that morning, with the request that I should look after it. I offered to supply her with money, and to my surprise she accepted the offer. Evidently the person who employed her, if her story was true, was not over-generous in the matter of a reward.
She decided at last that she would go away and remain in the south of France until I wired for her, but said that she must first go back to Elston. I saw Billy that same night in his cell, and told him what had happened. He was very grateful to me.
“You don’t know what a load you’ve lifted off my chest, Mont,” he said. “It was an inspiration on my part to suggest that you should pinch me. It gives you control of the case and makes things ever so much easier. How is Dawkes?”
The operation had been a success, I told him, but it would be weeks before he could give evidence.
It was, in fact, two months before he stepped up into the witness-box at the Old Bailey with his head still swathed in black bandages, and told all he remembered. I imagine that within the period of his convalescence Mr. Thomson Dawkes must have put in some pretty long thinks. Billy had made a statement at the preliminary proceedings at the police court, giving a detailed account of how and why he had shot Dawkes, and this was exactly the story which Dawkes told in the box. I give him credit for being ashamed of the part he had played, and the infamy of his conduct toward the girl, and subsequent events proved that I was right. At any rate, her name was not mentioned in the court, and he even took blame upon himself for the provocation he had offered to Billy. In fact, Dawkes was as near to being a gentleman in the witness-box as he had ever been in his life.
It may have made some difference to the sentence which was passed, but I doubt very much whether Mr. Justice Chudleigh was influenced by what he called, in his summing up, Mr. Thomson Dawkes’s “generosity.”
"You will be kept in penal servitude for the term of seven years,” was the sentence; and Billy, with a little bow to the judge, turned and walked down the steps to the cells.
BY an extraordinary coincidence, George Briscoe was the next prisoner to be tried, and he was, as I read in the paper that night, for I did not stop to hear the case, sentenced to three years.
I could now telegraph Miss Ferrera the result of the case. It puzzled me that she had been allowed to stay away so long from the bank; and that night, after seeing Billy in the cells at Newgate, I sat down and wrote to Mr. Pontius, the accountant at Frampton’s Bank, and my letter was, I flatter myself, a wily and a diplomatic document. His answer came to me two days later, and it contained the startling news that Miss Ferrera had resigned her position from the bank, after having been given two months’ leave of absence.
He did not tell me that any discovery had been made as to the reserve of the bank, though he did say, in his garrulous way, that he could not have answered my letter if I had sent it the week before, because the auditors were “in.” Then nothing had been found at the bank detrimental to the girl. After all, why should it? Supposing she had used the bank money, it must not be forgotten that she was a winner, except on one occasion, and that she would be able to replace the cash she had taken. Did she have so complete a faith in this extraordinary system that she could take money perfectly confident that she would be able to replace it? If she had done this, she would hardly have played a succession of losing coups as she had done under Dawkes’s eye without showing some sign of agitation.
Poor Levy Jones was carrying on the business, and carrying it on very efficiently too, though his heart was not in the job. There are stories of brides who have been jilted on their wedding day, and who have maintained the room in which the bridal feast was set just as it appeared on the day of their disappointment. Levy did not go as far as this; but he seemed to take a reverent care of the room in which the crime was committed, and it was kept just as Billy had left it, save that it was dusted and swept every day.
Billy had been in prison three months or more when I made a call at the office and had a talk with Levy. I had not heard from Mary Ferrera, and I was not quite sure whether I had been wise in leaving her alone.
I remarked to Levy Jones upon the condition of poor Billy’s room.
“I’d like Billy to come back and find it as he wanted it,” said Levy miserably. “Oh yes, I’ve got plenty of work in hand, Mr. Mont, but I should be grateful if you would give me a little help now and again. I’ve got two sleuths working for me. Sleuths!” he said in despair. “They are permanently disguised! They neither look like sleuths nor act like sleuths; but they’ve got one advantage. They always use the same public-house, and they’re there all the time, so I know where to find them.” He hadn’t even the heart to tell me a story against his own people.
“There’s a job I’d like you to take on, Levy,” I said just before I went.
“A job for me—a detective job, Mr. Mont?” he answered in surprise, and I nodded.
“It concerns Billy very closely,” said I. “You know the story of Miss Ferrera and her gambling at Monte Carlo?”
He smiled a little sadly.
“I should say I did,” he answered.
“Well,” said I, “I am convinced that Miss Ferrera was merely the agent of some other person, and I am anxious to discover who that person was.”
He pushed back his chair and put his hands into the pockets of his shabby jacket.
“I’ve been to Elston twice,” he said quietly.
“Have you, by Jove?” I said, startled.
“Yes, I have, by Jove,” said Levy. “When Billy was waiting his trial, you don’t suppose that I was losing any time beating up evidence for him, do you? Billy’s a big thing in my life, Mont,” he said. His voice shook for a moment. “A big thing,” he repeated.
I never suspected Levy Jones of sentiment or of such deep feeling, but I knew instinctively that he was at that moment very near to tears, and he would never have forgiven me had he broken down in my presence.
“What did you do at Elston, Levy?”
“I found out all I could about the staff of the bank,” he said. “Also, who her friends were. The first thing that struck me as being rum,” said Levy, “was that she didn’t live with her uncle—that’s the old banker.”
“Yes, that struck me as being curious too,” said I. “She used to live with him.”
“She lived with him for about eight months. He has a big house just outside the town. He and his sister used to run the establishment, but the sister died, and then this brother-in-law of his died, and he kind of adopted her daughter.”
“Why didn’t she live with him?”
“Because she couldn’t stand him,” was the surprising reply. “They say he is a devil of a man to get on with, and there isn’t a member of his staff that doesn’t hate him.”
This was news to me. The chief of a big staff is not necessarily beloved, but it is very seldom the case that he is execrated by those who serve under him.
“He’s a narrow, mean kind of man,” said Levy, “the sort of fellow who doesn’t believe in men smoking or women riding astride. The people who knew him were surprised when he carried out the wish of Ferrera—that is, Miss Ferrera’s father—because, though they were relations, relationship means very little to Sir Philip. But he did adopt her and took her out to his house to live. She stuck it for eight months, and then she went into lodgings, but still went to the bank. Now I’ll tell you another curious thing: Miss Ferrera was getting three pounds ten a week in actual cash, and three pounds ten a week was being credited to Sir Philip's private account.”
I sat down in the chair and stared at Levy.
“Do you mean she was getting seven pounds a week and half of that went to Sir Philip?”
“My own theory is that it was toward wiping off some debt which Mr. Ferrera owed when he died.”
“Of course that’s it,” I cried. “What a mean old devil!”
“You’ve said it,” said Levy. “They talk about us Jews. Why, we’re children in the art of usury compared with a certain type of giaour! And I’ll tell you another thing: for the last two weeks Miss Ferrera was working at the bank she was credited with seven pounds, which meant that the debt had been paid, and that was why she resigned.”
“I’ll let you know.” I began rising.
“Don’t go,” said Levy. “Wait and have some tea: I’ll send the boy out.” There was a lobby office attached to his, through which visitors were shown, and at his call a lanky youth appeared and took Levy’s order, bringing the tea up on a tray in a remarkably short space of time considering the laggard ways of youth.
Over the tea Levy told me the latest news of Billy. He had been in Wormwood Scrubbs, but that week had been transferred to Dartmoor, the London prison being at that time rather full of political prisoners from Ireland.
“And he’s as cheerful as a bird,” said Levy in despair. “He’s in the tailor’s shop, and so is George Briscoe!”
“Billy had better be careful.”
“Briscoe had better be careful, too,” said Levy significantly. “I should be really sorry for Briscoe if he gets upsides with Billy.”
“There is one thing I cannot understand about Sir Philip Frampton,” I began, when there was a tap at the door and the lanky youth appeared.
“A gentleman wants to see you,” he said, “on business.”
“Give me that card,” said Levy, and took the pasteboard from the boy’s hand. He looked at it and breathed through his nose heavily.
“Sir Philip Frampton,” he read at last, and we looked at one another.
I HAD never before caught anything but a fleeting glimpse of him. He had something of a venerable air and appearance, but closer at hand he impressed me less favourably. He overtopped Levy by head and shoulders, and his height alone saved him from the appellation of “mean-looking." His head was narrow; his face, like his frame, shrivelled; and a pair of restless brown eyes, faded now to something that was neither brown nor grey, glanced from one to the other of us as he rubbed his hands nervously together. Levy pushed a chair forward.
“Good morning, gentlemen," said Sir Philip Frampton in a harsh, unmusical voice. “Which of you is Mr. Stabbat? I was recommended to Mr. Stabbat a few months ago by a client of his, but I have had no need to invite his services until now.”
“Mr. Stabbat is in the country,” said Levy calmly, “but I am in control of the business.”
The old man looked at Levy dubiously.
“Can you accept a commission?” he said.
“Yes, sir,” said Levy.
I was putting down my cup preparatory to departing, but Levy signalled to me to stay, and the old man evidently thought it was not unusual that a third person should be present at the interview. He looked at me.
“This is a detective, I presume?” he said. He meant one of Levy’s sleuths.
“Yes, sir, this is a detective,” replied Levy in truth.
“H’m!” said Sir Philip. “He looks an intelligent man.”
I blushed. Levy rocked with silent laughter, but Sir Philip did not seem to notice that his remark had caused any hilarity.
“As he may be called upon in the course of his duty to follow the person I shall speak about, it is perhaps better that he should hear all I have to tell.”
He spoke hesitatingly and with difficulty.
“You probably know that I am a banker—one of the largest bankers in the West of England,” he said. “Some years ago, an old friend of mine, a man who owed me a great deal of money—”
Levy shot a quick sidelong glance at me.
“— died, leaving his—er—orphan child in my care. Though I am not a family man, and in fact am a bachelor, I accepted the undertaking all the more readily because just about then my dear sister died, and I felt extremely lonely. The girl was a difficult person to deal with; although she was in fact a distant relative, which placed her under an extraordinary obligation to me, in more senses than one. She was what is known as a strong-minded woman—I think that is the term, and it describes a type which is extremely obnoxious to me, sir, extremely obnoxious.”
He wagged his head at this, and there was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the strong-minded woman was a type which was extremely obnoxious to Sir Philip Frampton.
“There were one or two disagreeable incidents, and eventually I agreed to her leaving the house and taking lodgings in the town. I might tell you that she was employed in a very responsible position in my bank. A month or so ago she sent in her resignation, although I had treated her with the greatest generosity and kindness. She was in the habit of going to Paris at frequent intervals, with the ostensible object of perfecting herself in the French tongue, and I had promised to hand over to her the important post of foreign corresponding secretary to the bank.”
If he had thought of handing over to her the Foreign Secretaryship of the British Empire, or the State Secretaryship of the United States Administration, he could not have announced the fact with greater empressement.
“I accepted the resignation with the greatest reluctance, and there the matter might have ended but for a discovery I made last week in going through a safe in my private vault—a safe in which I keep my own personal belongings—that twenty thousand pounds had been taken from the vault without my knowledge.” Levy scribbled the sum mechanically upon a sheet of paper at his elbow.
“Simultaneously,” said Sir Philip with the greatest gravity, “I learnt from an anonymous correspondent that my foster-daughter, instead of being in Paris as I imagined, was gambling very heavily at Monte Carlo, not on one but on many occasions.”
We were silent.
Poor Billy! So it was true after all. But there was a third person—somebody behind her, somebody on behalf of whom she was working. Who was the anonymous correspondent who had given the girl away? Immediately my mind went to Mr. Thomson Dawkes; but such an act was not consistent with his attitude in the dock.
“What do you want me to do?” asked Levy.
“Well, that is a difficult question to answer,” said the old man after hesitation. “I think she should be warned not to come to Elston again. I should not like her feelings hurt by the knowledge that I am aware of her duplicity and wickedness.”
“Assuming she took the money,” I interrupted.
“Assuming she took the money?” said Sir Philip. “There is no assumption in the matter, sir! She was the only person who had access to the vault, and I have confirmed the stories about her gambling at Monte Carlo. I have the dates of her visits, and I know further that she masqueraded under the name of Miss Hicks. Now, if I give you her address, or where I have reason to believe she is to be found, which is at a small villa in Brixton, could I trust to you the commission of hinting to her, without telling her what I have told you, that it would be inadvisable for her to return to Elston?”
Levy nodded. The old man, taking out a pocket-book, produced a sheet of paper with an address written upon it, though he might have saved himself the trouble, for I could have supplied that, though it was news to me that she was in London.
“You might also say,” Sir Philip went on, “that I harbour no uncharity in my heart, and although I have destroyed the will in which I left her a very respectable annuity”—(we afterwards discovered it was one of £75 per annum!)—“I shall, in the will which I shall execute before I return to Elston, specially mention her, and leave her some token to remind her of her benefactor.”
Levy showed him out with proper and impressive reverence, and, closing the door behind him, stood with his back to it, looking at me.
“Well, what do you think of that?” “It is certainly an amazing coincidence,” said I. “You will tell her, of course?”
Levy shook his head.
“I don’t know what to do,” he said. “The truth is that Billy has always made it a rule to respect the confidence of a client. I admit he departed from the straight and narrow way where Miss Ferrera was concerned, but I’m not worrying so much about keeping up to the traditions of the firm as I am about the charge against this young lady. What I can do is to find out if she thinks of going to Elston. And anyway, why couldn't he write and warn her—unless, of course,” he added thoughtfully, “he is not going to admit that he knows anything about the loss of his money.” I left Levy to go to Brixton whilst I sought out Mr. Thomson Dawkes. He lived in a big house facing Regent’s Park, and I was fortunate enough to find him at home. Usually he went racing at this season of the year, and when I learnt he was in I thought it possible that the crack on the head which he had received had changed some of his habits. However, he was looking well and strong when I was ushered into his study.
“Hallo, Mr. Mont. What is the trouble now?” he asked. “Sit down and take a cigar.”
“There’s no particular trouble, Mr. Dawkes,” I replied; “only I wanted to ask you a question privately about Miss Ferrera.”
He made a little grimace.
“I was hoping that young lady’s name would not crop up again. I am not particularly proud of myself over that business. Of course, you know all the facts; because you were there at the time; though I have not told Jennings this.”
For which I was grateful.
“The object of my visit is this, Mr. Dawkes,” I said. “You remember that Miss Ferrera was employed by Frampton’s Bank at Elston, and you know too that she gambled very heavily at Monte Carlo.”
“I have reason to know all that,” he said with a half-smile.
“Well, the old man has discovered that twenty thousand pounds has been taken from the vault, and he says that, coinciding with that discovery, he received an anonymous letter from some person or persons unknown telling him about Miss Ferrera’s gambling on the Riviera. Now I want to ask you very frankly, not because I have any interest beyond the interests of justice, whether you sent that letter.”
“And I can answer you as frankly,” he replied, “that I did not. Of course I did not! That would have been a blackguardly thing to do. If I wanted to expose the girl, I should have done so in the witness-box. I wouldn’t play a dirty trick like that.”
“I didn’t think you would, Mr. Dawkes,” said I. “But who could have sent it?”
Dawkes shook his head.
“Other people may have identified her at Monte Carlo,” he said. “People go to that spot from every town in England, and it is quite likely that somebody from Elston saw her.”
“In which case, I should imagine, they would not have taken the trouble to write anonymous letters unless they were friends or well known to her.”
“That’s true,” agreed Dawkes. “It is an unpleasant business, and every night I go to bed I think of poor old Billington Stabbat, and feel that I should be in his place. Of course, the girl shot me.”
“Are you certain of that?” I asked.
“Absolutely. I actually saw the flash of fire, and can remember it distinctly. Doesn’t she admit it?” he asked in surprise.
I shook my head.
“She doesn’t know whether she did or whether she didn’t. Apparently you said something which upset her—”
He raised his hands and made a little face.
“For the Lord’s sake don’t remind me!” he said. “I was an unutterable cad; and if I dared to see her, and if she would see me, I feel I would go on my knees and ask her forgiveness.”
I left Mr. Thomson Dawkes with almost a feeling of friendship for him. I often think that where the writers of fiction stories and plays make such a mistake is in their delineations of villains. It is my experience that there are no villains who are villainous in all things, but that their evil acts are born of circumstances and of their own selfish plans and enterprises. Thomson Dawkes was a rascal and a blackguard; but, like all rascals and all blackguards, he had his redeeming features, and there were moments when that which was best in him came out and made one go far towards forgiving him for the crooked bits of his character.
That night I received the intimation—oh, the irony of it!—that I had been promoted to the rank of sub-inspector for my work in connection with the Stabbat case, and that I would be received on probation with that rank in the special branch. Jennings met me as I was coming out of Scotland Yard, and the congratulations had just the “come back” I expected.
“I hear you’ve had a lift,” he said. “Well, you got it easy enough. Some of us have to wait for years and work hard; others get a bit of luck and a little cheap publicity, and they get their caps over the heads of better men.”
“Thank you for your hearty congratulations, Inspector,” said I politely. “And now you and I are of equal rank and we are quite alone and without witnesses, I can tell you that, so far as I am concerned, you can take all your good wishes to hell.” Which I think annoyed him.
I dined at my rooms that night, so I was in when a telephone message came through from a call office. It was Mary Ferrera, and her voice was very cheery and bright.
“I’ve just seen the mysterious Levy,” she said. “He came to me with an inquiry as to whether I’m going back to Elston. Of course I am not. Why did he ask that?”
“I don’t know. Levy is a very inquisitive person,” said I diplomatically. “He had a reason, didn't he?”
“Levy never does anything without reason,” said I evasively. “He is the most reasonable person I know.”
There was a silence at the other end of the wire, then:
“I saw him to-day.”
“I know; you just told me.”
“I don’t mean Levy,” she said. “I saw—Billington.”
“The dickens you did!” said I in surprise. “Where did you see him?”
“At Wormwood Scrubbs,” said she, and there was just the tiniest break in her voice. “He is going to Dartmoor to-night. I want to see you, Mr. Mont.”
“I’ll come to-morrow,” said I, but she dissented.
“I won’t bring you down here; I’ll call at your office to-morrow afternoon.”
“I haven’t an office,” said I, “and Scotland Yard is a dismal hole. Suppose you come to Billy’s office. Levy will give you an excellent cup of tea.”
When I was saying it I realised that I had the uncomfortable feeling that I was making a faux pas, but could not think why. Then it flashed on me that old man Frampton had said he would come in the afternoon.
“No, no, don’t come to-morrow,” I said hastily.
“I shall be there at four,” she replied. “Don’t try to put me off, Mr. Mont. I don’t think you’re very anxious to see me?”
“I swear to you, Miss Ferrera, that I’d go a very long way to see you,” said I. “But—”
“There will be no buts,” she said. “Good night.” And I heard the click of the receiver.
Anyhow they need not meet, I thought later. There were three rooms to the suite, though she would hardly like going into Billy’s room after all that had occurred.
My work kept me busy at the Yard all the following morning, but I had time to 'phone Levy and tell him of the appointment which Mary Ferrera had fixed for herself.
“That will be all right,” he said. “She’s been in London for months and has no idea of going back to Elston; did she tell you that?”
"Yes.” I recounted our conversation.
“Fancy her going to see Billy,” he said admiringly. “He must have a pull somewhere to be allowed visitors on odd days.”
That day there was an opening of Parliament, and I was on duty in Whitehall, wearing for the first time the uniform of my new rank. That fact explains why I was not recognised, either by Sir Philip Frampton or by Mary Ferrera, when I met them in John Street, Adelphi. I was on my way to my lodging, which is in John Street, when I saw them. They were standing together, talking, at the comer of Chandos Street, and had met, I learnt later, by accident in the Embankment Gardens. The old man was talking angrily, and as I passed them I heard her say:
“I never expected anything from you, uncle.” And later, when I was some distance from them, I caught, in his harsh voice, the word “Will.” It was puzzling.
I changed into mufti, and at three o’clock that afternoon I went off to keep my appointment with Levy and Miss Ferrera. I met Levy on the steps. He had been detained at lunch by a compatriot of his.
“The old boy isn’t coming to-day,” he said. “He ’phoned me this morning, and we’re in tons of time for Miss Ferrera.”
We had reached the first landing when we heard the patter of feet on the stairs, and, looking up, to my surprise I saw Mary Ferrera hurrying down. Her face was white and set, and when I spoke to her she did not reply, but brushed past us, leaving us staring after her in bewilderment.
“What’s wrong?” I asked Levy, and he was silent for a moment. Then: “We shall see,” he said prophetically. The door of Billy’s private room, the room in which the shooting occurred, was opposite to the end of the stairway. Farther along on the right was Levy’s office, and beyond that the public office, where the lank youth sat. We went into Levy's room, and at the sound of our feet the office-boy came in.
“Who has been?” asked Levy sharply.
“The young lady, sir, who was up here before, and the old gentleman.”
“The old gentleman?” repeated Levy incredulously.
“Yes, sir, they’re both in there.” He jerked his head to the door of Billy’s room.
“But the lady isn’t there; I met her on the stairs.”
“Well, the old gentleman is. He came in about half an hour ago and asked where he could write a letter, and I put him in Mr. Stabbat's office.”
“Oh, you did, did you?” snarled Levy. “Well, you’d better start looking for another job right away! What happened?”
“The young lady came up,” said the boy sulkily, “and she went into your room, but I think the door was open and she saw the old gent. Anyway, she went in there and shut the door, and there they are,” he persisted.
So that accounted for Mary's agitation and obvious anger.
“Good Lord!” groaned Levy. “She thinks we’re double-crossing her! I wonder what the old devil said to her?” He flung open the door and strode into Billington’s office, then stopped. In the middle of the room Sir Philip Frampton lay at full length on the floor, and there was no reason to ask why, for the bullet-hole above the left eyebrow was eloquent.
LEVY reeled—I thought he was going to faint.
“Merciful Father Abraham!” he whispered, and turning round, he gripped the boy who was staring over our shoulders. “Did you hear a shot?”
“No, sir,” whimpered the frightened lad. “I heard something bang, but I thought that he’d shut the door.”
“The door,” said Levy, and ran.
It was unlocked and was not even closed. We should have noticed that if we had not been so perturbed through meeting Mary on the stairs.
“How long ago did this happen?” asked Levy eagerly, but here the boy was criminally vague.
It might have been five minutes, it might have been two minutes before we came in, the boy was not very sure.
Levy made a quick search of the room while I sent the boy to get on to the hospital.
“He was writing here,” said Levy. There was a sheet of notepaper upon the pad and an envelope already addressed to a firm of lawyers. The letter was only just begun, and ran:
Dear Mr. Tranter,
I have now decided upon the conditions I will make in my new will, the other having been destroyed by me. I give to...
Here the writing ceased; the ink was still wet indeed upon the letter. That was an important fact—or would have been, only Sir Philip wrote with a broad-pointed nib and used a heavy stroke, and it was not the kind of day when ink would dry quickly. What we did not notice was that the nib was worn and spluttery. That was the big clue that I missed—that old and useless nib.
Before the arrival of the doctor and the ambulance there was time for one short, tense, nerve-racking conference.
“Now what are we going to do?” asked Levy desperately.
“What is there to be done?” I demanded in so hopeless a tone that he groaned.
“Don’t talk like that. Billy will break his heart if anything happens to the girl,” he wailed. “Think of something, Mont, for God’s sake! The girl was here; she was in the room with him; she left after he was murdered. Who knows she was here?” he asked suddenly. I thought for a moment his brain had given under the strain.
“The boy,” said I quietly. “You've got to look things squarely in the face, Levy. There is no sense in deceiving ourselves. We have the alternative of arresting Mary Ferrera or of helping her to escape from the country. But her name must be associated with this killing, and there’s no way out of it.”
He buried his head in his hands, and there he was when the doctor came. Whilst the body was being examined he nodded to me.
“You’d better go and see her, Mont,” he said shakily, “and do what is best.” She was not at home when I called at the house in Brixton, and I had to wait in her little sitting-room for half an hour before she came in. At the sight of me her chin went up.
“I didn’t expect this visit,” she said with a touch of hauteur. “But perhaps you aren’t in Levy’s scheme.”
“I don’t know Levy’s scheme,” I answered quietly.
She took off her hat and threw it upon the couch.
“I never thought Levy would accept a commission to watch me,” she said, “or that you were in league with Sir Philip Frampton”
That was my opportunity.
“Speak well of the dead, Miss Ferrera,” I said.
“Dead?” Her face went white—whiter than it had been that afternoon. “Dead, you say?” she repeated incredulously. “Sir Philip isn’t dead; I saw him this afternoon.”
“We found him shot dead in the room where you shot Thomson Dawkes,” said I, and she sat down heavily into a chair.
“Say that again slowly. I don’t quite take it in,” she said, and I repeated the words. “You went straight upstairs and you found him—dead?”
I nodded. She looked at me with a hint of wild alarm in her eyes. Suddenly she started up.
“You’ve come to arrest me!” she gasped.
“I have come either to arrest you or to give you assistance to get out of the country,” I said gruffly. “This means that I shall have to resign from the police. I can’t in decency remain after I have helped you to escape.”
“Do you think I killed Sir Philip?”
I was silent.
“Do you really think I killed Sir Philip?” she said again.
“If you tell me that you did not, I shall believe you,” said I, and I saw the colour come back to her face.
“You’re a dear man, Mr. Mont,” she said, and she dropped her hand on my shoulder. “Thank you for that. No, of course I did not kill him. He made me very, very angry, but I did not kill him.”
“Then you’ve got to get away. We are searching for you now” I began, and she shook her head.
“I’m not going away. Poor Mr. Mont, you’ve got to arrest me, too,” she smiled, and there was just that pity in her voice which made me choke. “Sit down,” she said. “I’m going to tell you a strange story.
“When Sir Philip Frampton took me into his house at Elston he did so with some reluctance. And then, I think, the realisation that there was somebody who was bound to him by all manner of ties, by blood relationship and by other obligations (my father owed him six hundred pounds), gave him the idea which he afterwards carried out. Sir Philip was a great mathematician, and although he was a very strait-laced person and a man who was respected in the narrowest circles of the small provincial town for his austerity and his impatience of gambling and gamblers, he devoted the greater part of his life to the study of chance and its laws, and was perhaps the greatest authority in the world upon the games of roulette and trente et quarante. When I tell you that from seven o’clock every evening till nearly two o’clock in the morning he spent his time working out all manner of possible combinations with the cards, and that he had records extending over thirty years of the ‘runs’ of the colours at Monte Carlo, you will see how deep and earnest a student he was.
“About six years ago he devised a system which he regarded as invincible.
“One night, whilst I was staying in the house with him, he took me into his confidence, swearing me to secrecy, and reminding me, as he invariably did, of his generous treatment. It was then he told me something of his extraordinary hobby. He himself had never been to Monte Carlo, but he was anxious to give the system a practical trial. He was a very rich man, and he could well have afforded to snap his fingers at public opinion, because the bank is one of the soundest institutions in the country, as you probably know. But he lived in mortal fear of the censure of little men. At the thought of his fellow-church-wardens discovering his weakness he would literally become ill. After some time we devised this plan: that I was to go to Monte Carlo, with certain instructions which he elaborated, and there I should play maximum stakes. Every time I left the country I carried with me exactly one million francs; and, except on one occasion, I returned a winner of one million five hundred thousand francs. Even as it was I should not have lost on that one visit but for an error in Sir Philip’s instructions, a clerical error for which he himself was responsible. When I came back and told him I had lost he was like a madman, and swore that I had not followed the system. I had already given up living in his house because of his ungovernable temper, and now I told him I would not go again. I meant that, but after he had discovered his mistake he was so very humble that I did go to Monte Carlo, as you know.”
“One moment,” I said, “perhaps you can explain something which puzzles me. Pontius says, and he had the fact from your landlady, that you were in the habit of receiving mysterious letters just before you left for Monte Carlo.”
“They were Sir Philip’s instructions and tables of figures,” she said. “I hated the work, and I was determined that when my father’s debts were paid I would make an end of our relationship. As you know, I resigned, and wrote to Sir Philip, telling him that I had no intention of returning to the bank or of acting as his agent in his gambling transactions. I think those two words ‘gambling transactions’ terrified him, for he wrote to me, telling me to keep his secret, and swearing that if I so much as whispered a word that was detrimental to him, he would bring charges against me which would result in my going to prison. He would never have dared!”
“That is where you're wrong,” I said. “He came to Levy Jones and instructed him to warn you not to go to Elston again. That was the beginning and end of Levy’s instructions.”
“I see. So that was it. Poor Levy! I did you both an injustice.”
She sat with her chin on her hand for a long time.
“I can’t pretend to be sorry that he is dead,” she said quietly. “He was a hard man, almost inhuman.”
That was the secret, then. A simple story; the story of a hypocritical old man who desired the thrill of gambling without the odium which attached to it.
“I received ten pounds for each visit, in addition to my salary, and this ten pounds was increased to twenty pounds for the last two visits, though the money was never paid to me, but credited to my father’s account.”
She got up briskly.
“Now tell me, Mr. Mont—you’re an authority on those subjects—what ought I to take with me?”
“To prison,” she said.
An hour later, carrying a little bag with her belongings, I ushered her into the dock at Cannon Row and charged her with the wilful murder of Sir Philip Frampton, though I had no doubt of her innocence.
I HAD played no very heroic part in this extraordinary series of adventures, but I had played the only part possible. If I had been the traditional hero of fiction, I should have carried off my friend’s beloved and defied the world to capture her. As it was, I arranged for a comfortable bed to be put in her cell and telegraphed to my solicitors asking them to brief the best counsel available for her defence.
I had left two of my own men to make a thorough search of the room to discover the weapon, or any other clues they could find. After putting Mary Ferrera into the cell, I drove straight away to Bond Street, and found Sergeant Merthyr and Constable Doyne eating bread and cheese in Levy’s office, with the doleful Levy cursing the day that the firm of Stabbat and Levy had ever left their very comfortable quarters in Cork Street.
Levy looked up anxiously as I came in, but there was no need for secrecy.
“I’ve arrested Miss Ferrera,” I said, and Levy nodded slowly.
“I don’t see what else could be done,” said he.
“Have you found anything?” I asked Merthyr. But Merthyr had found nothing.
“Was the weapon found? Did you search her lodgings, sir?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “but there was nothing there.” As a matter of fact, I had not taken the trouble to search the lodgings or to subject Mary Ferrera to the indignity of a personal search more than the conventional “smoothing down” which the matron invariably gives a newly arrived prisoner. It was unlikely that Mary would purchase another revolver, or that she had possessed two. Her only pistol lay at the foot of the shaft.
“By gosh!” I said suddenly. My two men had just gone, and Levy and I were alone.
“What are you goshing about?” asked the weary Levy. “I say, Mont, this is going to give our firm a nice advertisement.”
He said that mechanically. I have found it so often the pose of Jews that business is their first consideration, a pose which they find it difficult to depart from. But if ever a man’s heart was broken, it was Levy’s when Billington Stabbat went to prison; and now this new misfortune seemed to have knocked him out.
“Where does that shaft lead to?”
“Which shaft?” he replied.
“Were you in the room the day Billington tossed the pistol through the hole in the window board?”
“Which hole? Show me.” He dragged me into the room, switching on the lights. With the aid of the identical paper-knife which Billy had used I prised open the panel, and Levy squinted down.
“I wonder where the devil that goes to,” he said thoughtfully; and, taking a penny out of his pocket, he dropped it in the opening, putting his ear to the cavity.
I saw a look of surprise on the face he turned to me.
“It drops right to the basement,” he said wonderingly. “What is it used for?”
I told him Billy’s theory, and he agreed. It seems that Levy knew the janitor and had heard the harrowing story of a central heating installation which did nothing except to distribute warm water through various ceilings.
“As a fire extinguisher it was a great success,” said Levy, “but as a heating apparatus it was beneath contempt. Let us go down and see Bolt,” said Levy; and locking the door behind us, we descended to the ground floor.
The janitor was not in his little glass-covered hut, and we sought him in the basement and found him preparing to go off duty for the night.
“The central heating?” he said. “Do I remember it? Do I remember any trouble that has ever come my way? Do I remember the measles, and whooping cough, and being knocked down by a bus? I always said from the very beginning that it was the wrong kind of heating”
“And we’re going to agree with you before you start. Where did it operate from, Bolt?”
“It operated from the cellar down below here,” he pointed a large forefinger to the farther end of the passage where there was an iron pass door, locked and bolted.
“I’d like to see the place,” said Levy.
“Well, you can’t see it to-night. I’ve had enough for one day. That's the second murder been committed in this house in three months,” said Mr. Bolt decisively. “What with seeing reporters and giving them private bits about Mr. Stabbat’s life, I’ve had a full day’s work.”
“Perhaps you’ll show it to me,” said I with a smile. He did not know me, and I introduced myself. At the magical word “Scotland Yard” he ran to his cubby-hole to find the key.
“I'll have to get a hand torch for you, gentlemen,” he said: and then anxiously; “You don’t think somebody else has been murdered and the body buried here, do you, sir?”
“It isn’t likely,” said I. “You can stand in the door and direct us, and we’ll make our search without assistance,” a command which seemed to disappoint Mr. Bolt, who had earned quite a large amount of money that day by supplying facts and nearly facts to the small army of journalists that had invaded the building.
A flight of stone stairs led down to a small concrete cellar, half filled with packing-cases. There was no need to ask the porter to direct us to the dismantled heart of the discarded system. It loomed up, the ghost of a once noble furnace, and we passed round to the other side and began our search for the shaft. At first we did not see it, because the shaft terminated in a large pipe, which had been distempered the same colour as the wall. Then I flashed my lamp along the floor.
“There it is,” said Levy in an excited whisper, and I stooped and picked up a little revolver thick with dust. The hammer was raised, and very gingerly I let it down before I slipped it into my pocket.
“And here’s the penny,” said Levy. “Not that I want it, but I want to make sure that it came down the same shaft.”
We returned to the office, and I laid the pistol on his table under a strong light. It was, as I said, covered with dust and fully loaded, as I judged from a glimpse of five conical bullets at the business end of the cylinder. I pulled back the catch and threw out the cylinder, and we made the discovery simultaneously and looked at one another. The revolver had not been fired!
I looked again, but there was no doubt about it: each cartridge was intact.
When Billington Stabbat took the revolver from the girl's hand and threw it down the shaft, he took away from her the proof of her innocence.
“Well, I’m damned!” breathed Levy. “What do you know about that?”
We sat with that infernal thing between us, neither of us speaking a word, each busy with his own thoughts. The hand that had shot Thomson Dawkes was the hand that had killed Sir Philip Frampton; that was the conclusion I reached, and it was not the hand of Mary Ferrera.
“You’ll never get to the bottom of this, Mont,” Levy broke his silence. “There’s only one man on earth who could disentangle this mystery, and he is in Dartmoor prison. And he’s going to be got out,” he added.
I looked at him.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s going to be got out,” said Levy doggedly. “It was Miss Mary’s idea that he should escape, and somehow I never thought it possible or necessary. But now it is a matter of life or death that we should get him out of that jail.”
Exactly half an hour passed before I said:
“We shall see,” said Levy, and I could have shrieked if I had been of a more emotional temperament.
To get a man out of Dartmoor is one thing; to get a man away from Dartmoor, the great, cruel stretch of heath-land and boulder, is another.
I went home that night with a throbbing head and an aching heart, and it was not till nearly six o’clock in the morning that I fell asleep.
The preliminary examination of Mary Ferrera differed from any other that I can remember. It differed because, as a rule, only evidence of arrest is offered at the first hearing, but in this case there had also to be evidence of identity, and to establish this we had sent a man to bring the lawyer, a Mr. Tranter, to whom the deceased man had been writing immediately before his death. Then ensued a dramatic examination, and the drama was accentuated by the very simplicity of the questions that were asked and the replies which were given.
“Did you recognise the body?” asked the counsel for the Crown.
“Whose is it?”
“The body of Sir Philip Frampton.”
“Was he a wealthy man?”
“An extremely wealthy man; he was worth from four to five hundred thousand pounds.”
“Did he leave a will?”
“No, sir, he did not. We had prepared a will for him, which was duly executed three years ago. There were certain provisions in that will which he desired to alter; and as he had a rooted objection to codicils, he destroyed his testament and was preparing to execute another when he died.”
“Did he die intestate?”
I could not understand the trend of this examination until the fatal question was asked.
“As he has died intestate, who inherits his property?”
“Miss Mary Ferrera, his niece,” was the reply.
The girl, sitting in the dock, stood up with wide-open eyes and stared at the lawyer.
“I—I did not know that,” she stammered. But her counsel turned with a smile and beckoned her to be seated.
“What was the provision in the earlier will which Sir Philip desired should be altered?”
“He had left five thousand pounds to the Anti-Gambling Association, which he wished to remove from the will,” was the unexpected reply.
“Thank you,” said counsel, and sat down. That ended the evidence for the day.
So Mary Ferrera was a rich woman! I had not realised till then that she was the only relative which this loveless old man possessed. It was a terribly damaging circumstance, for it supplied a motive for the crime. Levy was in court, but they had not called him. The case was adjourned for eight days to allow the prosecution to prepare its case, and he would be called then.
I walked out of court with Levy Jones, and the only thing he said to me was:
“You remember that three hundred pounds I gave you belonging to Bill?”
“I remember,” said I. “I advanced a hundred pounds to Miss Ferrera.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like the rest of it,” said Levy apologetically. “This job is going to cost about four thousand pounds.”
“What job—the defence?” I asked.
"I’m thinking about getting Bill out of Dartmoor,” said Levy, “and that is part of the defence; in fact, it’s about the only defence.”
When I reached Scotland Yard I found a note there from Thomson Dawkes, asking me if he could come and see me.
“I suppose you’re too busy to run over to Regent’s Park, but if you will ’phone me, giving me an appointment, I would like to call.”
I ’phoned through, telling him to come at once, and in half an hour he was with me in my office.
“I read of the arrest in the newspapers,” he said. “Of course the girl didn’t do this. Had Stabbat an enemy?”
“I believe he had several.”
He seemed at a loss as to how he was to proceed, and at last he blurted out the object of his visit.
“See here, Mont, you know I have no nonsensical ideas in regard to that girl, and that I’m heartily sick of myself for the way I’ve treated her. Now she’ll want a lot of money for her defence, and I’m here to tell you you can draw on me to any amount.”
I put out my hand and gripped his. It is curious how he took it for granted that I was seeking to discover a defence for Mary Ferrera; but he is a man of very keen perception.
THANK you, Mr. Dawkes,” I said, “but it won’t be necessary. You haven't seen the account of this morning’s proceedings.”
“No,” he said in surprise, “I haven’t,” and I told him that Miss Ferrera was Frampton’s heiress.
“Good Lord!” he said in surprise. “That makes it pretty black for her, doesn’t it? Now do you know what I think?” he said, after considering a while. “I think that the only man who could straighten out this tangle is our unfortunate friend, Billington Stabbat.”
I looked at him and laughed.
“You’re not the only person who believes that,” said I.
“Is there any possible way of getting him out?” he asked.
I laughed again. A most surprising man, this Thomson Dawkes!
“You’re rather a sportsman,” I said. “Why don’t you go along and see Levy Jones? He’s Billington Stabbat’s assistant.”
“I know the man,” nodded Dawkes. Later on in the afternoon I met Levy, and he was amazingly cheerful.
“Yes, I saw Dawkes,” he said. “I’ve given him an interest in life.”
He chuckled and slapped his knee.
“What a weird world it is, Mr. Mont! Fancy this guy wanting to help Billy.”
“Have you reached any conclusions?”
“Many,” replied Levy, “but they wouldn’t interest you, not at the present stage.”
The next day I had to ring up Levy for something, and his office-boy told me that he had gone out of town and didn’t expect to be back for a fortnight. I was curious enough to ring up Mr. Thomson Dawkes’s house.
“Mr. Dawkes is out of town,” was the reply. “He left this morning for the South of France.”
Now it was not the season when time-killers like Thomson Dawkes make a prolonged stay at the Côte d’Azur; for the Riviera is red-hot at the end of May. To make absolutely certain, I put a call through to Dover and Folkestone, and asked our men who accompany the steamers across the Channel whether he had been a passenger. They both knew him and they both replied an emphatic “No.” After that I thought it discreet to ask no further questions.
I had an interview with the girl and told her just what had happened, and she was a greatly astonished young woman.
“Mr. Dawkes?” she said in surprise. “Impossible!”
So I added, for her own peace of mind, all he had told me before of how ashamed he was, and how willing he would be to kneel at her feet and ask forgiveness.
“Has Levy accepted him as a confederate?” she asked.
“Obviously,” said I.
“Well, I suppose it’s all right.” She frowned and shook her head. “It’s the most extraordinary thing to have happened. I can find myself almost forgetting his unpleasantness.”
I think she was impressed, because the next time I saw her, a few days later —it was the day the adjourned magisterial inquiry was held— she asked me to thank Mr. Dawkes for all he was doing, and to tell him that the objectionable incident had been forgotten.
“We all go a little mad at times,” she said.
On this occasion the case was presented much more fully, and we had to bring up the visits which Mary had paid to Monte Carlo. Happily, the prosecution had no idea of connecting her with the previous shooting case at Stabbat's office, a circumstance which brought me much relief. The case was again adjourned for a week, and I had several opportunities of seeing the girl in Holloway Prison. What struck me about her was her extraordinary calm and confidence in the outcome, not only of this trial, but in so far as the earlier trial affected Billy’s liberty. I was more dubious.
“It’s almost attempting the impossible,” said I, “and I'm afraid they are going to get into very serious trouble. It is not on record that a convict has escaped from that prison, and I doubt whether Levy Jones is going to break records.”
She looked at me with bright, human laughter in her eyes, and said mockingly:
“We shall see!”
And we did see with a vengeance! I was leaving the office that night when an urgent telegram was received and immediately minuted on to me. I thought it was some detail of administration, and was for putting it in the basket for consideration on the following morning, when I saw the “urgent” sign on the left-hand comer of the covering note. Then I read the telegram. It was dated “Princetown” and was handed in at half-past three by the Chief Warder of Dartmoor Convict Establishment, and it ran:
CONVICT BILLINGTON STABBAT ESCAPED THIS MORNING, IT IS BELIEVED WITH OUTSIDE HELP. SEND DOWN OFFICER WHO KNOWS HIM AND CAN IDENTIFY HIM IN CIVILIAN CLOTHING. WATCH HIS HOME ADDRESS. VERY URGENT. VERY URGENT.
I gaped at the wire. Escaped! Then Levy Jones had succeeded.
“What is that, Mr. Mont?”
I turned quickly. It was Inspector Jennings in the doorway, who had asked the question. My own Chief Inspector was away sick that week, and, by the worst of bad luck, Jennings was in control of our department.
“It is a wire that will interest you,” said I maliciously, and handed it to him.
He read it through.
“Send down officer who can identify him, eh?” he said. “Are you going?”
“I thought I’d go by to-night’s train,” said I.
“Well, so will I,” said Jennings with a meaning smile. “Two heads are better than one, and two eyes that want to identify him will counteract the shortsightedness of a pair that would like to see him escape.”
I looked at him from head to toe.
“I didn’t know that Stabbat was a friend of yours,” said I, “or that you were prejudiced in his favour.”
The luck was against me. I could easily have called up the commissioner and held Jennings, but I had hardly started getting on to my immediate chief when another wire came from Dartmoor, a correction of the first, which ran:
FOR OFFICER, READ OFFICERS.
So Jennings and I travelled down together, and the morning found us in that bleak hell which is called Dartmoor Prison. It was not my first visit to Dartmoor, but every time I went I hated it worse. There is something sinister, something inhuman, about that habitation of woe; and I suppose few of us who have watched the shuffling files of prisoners marching through the gates on their way to the quarries and the hills, have not echoed the words of the great preacher: “There, but for the grace of God, goes Gordon Mont.” The story which was told to us by the Assistant-Governor was simple and short. Billington Stabbat had been sent out to work on a barn where hay was stacked in the summer. Billington was something of a builder, and could at any rate handle the tools of carpenter or plasterer or bricklayer with equal facility. His behaviour in jail had been such that they had no hesitation in sending him out of the prison, especially as the usual precautions were taken and an armed guard accompanied the gang of four men who were engaged on the bam.
The place at which they worked was near to the main road across the moor to Tavistock. The field boundaries which extend to the road were formed by a stone wall about four feet high, made of loose stones, laid one on another. There are hundreds of these walls throughout Dartmoor, the foundations of a large number having been laid by the French prisoners in the days of the Napoleonic wars.
The warder seated himself upon the wall about thirty paces from the shed where the convicts were working, and with his rifle across his knees sat waiting for the time to pass when the men would be marched back to the prison for their midday meal. Whilst he was sitting there, a grey motor-car drove up containing a man and a stout, large-built woman in a motor-veil. The chauffeur stopped the car near the warder and, getting down, watched the convicts at work, leaning on the wall within a few feet of the warder.
The warder, as is usual in these circumstances, ordered him to move away, partly because it is considered undesirable that men undergoing sentence should be recognised, and partly because there is always danger of communication or the transfer of tobacco, cigarettes, etc., from well-meaning members of the public to the unfortunates who live in durance.
The chauffeur nodded and turned to go. The warder could not see his face because it was hidden by huge motor-goggles ending in a sort of curtain which concealed everything but the tip of his chin. And then suddenly the chauffeur threw something which was afterwards ascertained to be a sponge filled with liquid ammonia, and it struck the warder in the mouth, and the paralysing odour deprived him of breath, so that he rolled on the ground, choking. In that second of time, Billington Stabbat raced from the shed, leaped the wall, and by the time the warder could rise to his feet and level his rifle the limousine was over the hill and disappearing from view. The shot the warder fired did, however, take effect on the back of the car.
A few minutes later the prison gun had boomed, warning the country-side that there had been an escape. All the hamlets, villages and towns that fringe Dartmoor were warned by telegraph, and reserves of police were immediately called out to watch the roads. And that is where matters stood when I arrived, except that the car had been found with a bullet hole in the back, abandoned by the side of the road, with a fifty-pound note pinned to the seat and addressed to a firm of motorcar agents at Exeter. It was from this agency that the car was hired in the name of Sir Philip Frampton! That, of course, was Levy Jones’s work.
I could understand everything except the stout lady in the tonneau. Who was she, I wondered? Not—not—
I could have roared with laughter at the mental vision which was conjured up by my thoughts. Thomson Dawkes minus his black moustache and side-whiskers!
I questioned the warder about this “lady.”
“Yes, she had bold features”—a very good description of the aquiline nose and rounded chin of Mr. Thomson Dawkes.
Where had they taken him? Levy Jones would leave nothing to chance. He had been a fortnight preparing, and in that fortnight Levy, with the love of Stabbat to urge him, could work miracles. They had seized Billy's correspondence, and this was now being examined by an expert (specially brought over from Exeter Jail), who was employed to decode and detect cipher letters written to prisoners.
Amongst Billy’s correspondence was a series of letters from one who called herself “Your darling Lee.” They were very wordy and very long, and herein the expert unveiled one mystery—the means by which communication had been established between the prisoner and his outside friends. For the last word but one on the first line, and the second word on the third line and the last but one on the fifth, and so on, read consecutively, and the message in the final letter which had reached Billy in captivity was as follows:
Mary in prison shooting Frampton twelfth May watch grey motor-car be ready jump will discover working party you are in.
“That’s all very well,” said Jennings, “but where are they now?”
“Ask me!” said the chief warder with some asperity.
“Anyway, he won’t get past me,” said Jennings. Heaven knows what was his private grudge against Billy. “I’d recognise him a mile away. You can’t mistake him.”
“They will try to get away by train,”
Jennings went on, caressing his fat chin. “And there’s only one station they’ll go from and it is Tavistock. That is where we must be, Mont.”
“Must you?” said I, and then it occurred to me that if we were both together, the full responsibility of Billy getting off would rest with him.
“You needn’t come unless you like,” said he. “If you know—”
“If I know a better hole I'll go to it,” said I. “I know all about that. I’ll go with you—Jennings.” Thank God I didn’t have to call him “sir” any longer!
That afternoon the patrolling warders made a discovery. They found a carefully concealed dugout, but it was empty. I guessed that Levy had dug that. He had the strength of an ox, but he must have seen the danger of discovery and abandoned all idea of using this place of concealment.
For myself I suspected a farmer whose cottage was on the moor near Tavistock. I suspect this more because a man closely resembling Levy Jones made a careful search of the County Court Registry a fortnight before. Artful old Levy! He was looking for people who were very hard up, and this particular farmer had had thirty judgment summonses against him in seven months. Some time after this he was reported to be affluent, and had bought a second-hand motor-car. Perhaps I am libelling a perfectly innocent man, and the story that he told about an uncle of his in Australia having died and left him five thousand pounds had some foundation in truth; though nobody on Dartmoor had ever heard that he had a relation in the world. At any rate, it does not matter.
We drove over to Tavistock, Jennings and I, in a wagonette, and we took up a position on the departure platform, carefully scrutinising every outgoing passenger. Two days, three days passed, and no news of the fugitives. On the fourth day I had a wire recalling me, and Jennings also received a telegram containing something like a reprimand, I should imagine, for he did not show it to me. The 2.57 was the last train we watched, save the one by which we returned to London.
It was a wet, miserable day, and a wind swept over Dartmoor and howled around the station building. Jennings said the conventional things about summer that men of his mentality trot out on such occasions as these. There were only three passengers for London —a lady, who was recognised by the porter; a commercial traveller, who was also known; and a tall, veiled lady.
"She’s rather big for a woman,” said Jennings.
“That’s her misfortune,” said I.
These three, and a couple of handcuffed convicts in charge of a grim old warder, were the only passengers on the platform when the train came in.
“Miserable looking devils, aren’t they?” said Jennings, looking at the convicts in their drab overcoats, the only bright thing about them being the irons on their wrists.
Miserable they might be, though the smaller of the convicts—his head only reached his companion’s breast—was humming a little tune in a whining voice, till the warder, with a gruff “Shut up” silenced them before he bundled them both into an empty third-class carriage and pulled down the blinds.
“I’m going to have a look at that woman,” said Jennings. His eyes had been on the veiled lady all the time.
“I don't think I should if I were you,” said I, and he looked at me narrowly.
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Well, she might be quite a respectable person, and you will get yourself in wrong if you ask her to lift her veil.”
“I'm going to do it,” said Jennings, fired with a sudden resolve, and he strode along the rain-swept platform and yanked open the door of a first-class carriage which the lady had entered.
She was alone in the compartment.
“Excuse me, madam,” said Jennings, touching his hat, “but we’re in search of an escaped convict,” and “I hope you will find him,” said the figure. It was unmistakably a woman’s voice. Still Jennings was not satisfied. He was the kind of fellow who is not content with putting his foot in it; it is two feet or nothing with Jennings.
“I must ask you to lift your veil, madam,” he said firmly.
“I shall do nothing of the kind,” said the lady. “How dare you!”
“Then I shall have to take you from the train and place you under arrest,” said Jennings.
I am not going to give an account of the wrangle that followed, or of Jennings's unmannerly behaviour in jerking off the lady’s veil, nor of the long correspondence which followed between the Chief Commissioner and the Duchess of Babbacombe—for it was this great lady who was travelling incognito (the Duke’s divorce case was heard only a few weeks ago, and readers will understand why the Duchess went heavily veiled)—but it left poor old Jennings an absolute pulp.
“Well, we’ve done our best,” he said, cheering up a little as we entered the next train for London. “And if they’ve got away from Dartmoor, it wasn’t through Tavistock.”
I said nothing at all. I had not recognised Billy in his warder kit—the grey beard was most artistically arranged—but, of course, I had known Levy Jones as convict No. 1 and the stout and dismal Thomson Dawkes as convict No. 2 the moment I saw them.
“BILLY’S escaped, has he?” said Levy, with well-simulated surprise. “Well, wonders will never cease. I wonder how they got away, Mr. Mont?”
“By aeroplane, perhaps.”
“Very likely,” said Levy, busy with his papers. “Very likely indeed.”
“I’ll tell you what I think, Levy,” said I—the conversation occurred the day after we left Tavistock—”there is an excellent method by which a convict can escape from Dartmoor if he has the necessary confederates. Let his pals disguise themselves as convicts on transfer to another jail, and let the escaping prisoner be made up as a warder. Nobody would stop them or question them, because convicts do not escape in convict garb with handcuffs on their wrists.”
He looked round at me with a smile dawning in his eyes.
“That’s one of the most ingenious schemes I’ve ever heard about, Mr. Mont. Why don’t you write a story?”
“Levy,” said I gently.
“Yes, Mr. Mont?”
“Do you think Billy will come back to his office?”
“We shall see, Mr. Mont,” said Levy.
“Unfortunately you won’t be the only people who will see. There are two lynx-eyed officers of the law, whose duty it is to watch this house. Of course, if I thought you were concealing him, or were in any way privy to his escape, I should not warn you, but knowing you to be a law-abiding citizen, I must ask you to render those two officers every service which lies in your power.”
He took my hand in his.
“Mr. Mont,” he said, “you can rely on me. Those lynx-eyed officers of the law have already searched these offices without their lynx eyes being offended by the sight of anything illegal. They have looked even between my trousers press,” he said. “If you will go into Billy’s room, I will send in to you a foreign visitor, Señor Tobasco, from Chile.”
I hesitated. Well, I was too far in it now to kick at a trifle. I turned the handle of the door and went in, and there was Billy Stabbat sitting at his desk, smoking a perfecto with evident relish. I couldn’t trust myself to speak, I could just wring him by the hand, and no thought of my disloyalty or impropriety bothered me for a second. My conscience had a holiday that day.
“I am glad to see you, Billy,” said I. “But you’re taking a risk, aren’t you?”
“The door is locked,” said Billy carelessly, “and there’s a way out of this building which your gentlemen didn’t discover. Now, Mont,” he said, “we’ve got to get my girl out of this trouble; and what’s more, I am going to get her out of this trouble,” he repeated slowly, “for I have found the murderer of Philip Frampton.”
“You have found him?”
“As a matter of fact, I’ve been spending a few weeks in the same gang with him.” He laughed quietly. “I’ll bet George is raving mad at my having escaped, but he is going to get the shock of his life. His brother I jailed; but George,” he said softly, almost caressingly, “George I will hang!”
He turned to me and gripped my arm.
“You’ve been a brick to us, Mont,” he said, “and I've involved you in all sorts of dangers and perils, and I shouldn’t have blamed you if you’d chucked it.”
“Working for me and working for Mary,” he said. “Well, I intend to vindicate you to-day. I want you to bring Jennings up here at two o’clock this afternoon, and I’d like you to bring your chief.”
“The Third Commissioner?” I asked in surprise.
“The Third Commissioner,” he repeated. “I’m going to surrender myself to him, and incidentally I am going to clear myself of the charge for which I was sentenced, and Mary of this new, terrible accusation. It would be easier for Mary, because she is obviously innocent; whilst I, for my part, pleaded guilty and must make a very lengthy explanation, but I don’t think my dear girl will mind that.”
I listened in astonishment.
“Do you seriously mean that you want me to bring the Commissioner and Jennings here?”
“And you will be here to meet them?”
“I shall be here to receive them. We spent the night here after our arrival in London—we changed our clothing in the train, by the way, and did some mighty quick shaving before we reached Exeter. Levy is a wonderful bird, isn’t he?” he said, lost in admiration, and then, quickly: “Yes, I want you to bring these people to a demonstration, and afterwards, as you are in charge of the case, you can take another journey to Dartmoor and arrest George Briscoe.”
I could not believe my ears. But he was perfectly serious, and I left him to continue a letter, a very long letter, which I presume he was writing to Mary. Who else would he call a “brave darling”? (Those were the words I saw, for I have a gift for reading any kind of handwriting at incredible distances.) It was a ticklish job approaching the Third Commissioner and I was a bit scared, both for Billy and myself.
“I—I have been in communication with Stabbat, sir,” I blurted out, and he swung round in his chair, eyeing me over his glasses.
“You have been in communication with him, eh?” he said, “and to what police station have you taken him?”
“To none, sir,” said I with an appearance of calm which I certainly did not feel. “The man is innocent and has broken jail to prove it.”
“Oh,” said the Third Commissioner, and then after a painful pause he asked, “How is he proving this?”
I told him that I had spoken to Billy on the 'phone a few minutes before (which was true) and that he wished me to bring along—
“Me!” he said, and slapped the table. “I’ll bet the rascal said me!”
“You and Inspector Jennings, sir,” I said. “I don’t know whether I can
“I’ll see to that,” he said dryly, and we went along in a taxicab at half-past two.
I hadn’t told Jennings what it was all about, and when he stepped into Stabbat’s room and saw Billy standing there by the desk, neatly attired, a cigar in the comer of his mouth, the light of triumph in his eyes, I thought Jennings would have an apoplectic fit.
“Stabbat!” he almost screamed.
“By heaven! We’ve got you”
Billy raised his hand to silence him.
“You have and you haven’t, Mr. Jennings. I asked you to come here to-day that you might see with your own eyes something which you could not possibly imagine with your own brain. Your eyesight is good?”
“You can’t bamboozle me!” blustered Jennings.
“I think I could if I tried,” smiled Billy sweetly.
“We shall see!” spluttered Jennings. It was too much. Billy and I, and Levy in the rear, shrieked with laughter.
“What is the joke?” said the puzzled Commissioner.
“I will tell you later, sir,” said I.
Jennings, aflame with fury, turned to the Commissioner.
“I don’t know whether you’re aware, sir” he began, but the chief waved him down.
“Let us hear what Stabbat has to say,” he said.
“I asked you gentlemen to come, to explain to you how two people were shot in this room through the agency of a man named George Briscoe, about whom you may have heard, sir.”
“The Canadian criminal?” said the Commissioner.
“Yes, sir, the Canadian criminal, who is one of two brothers. I arrested Tom, but George escaped punishment. He came to this country determined to be even with me for having sent his brother to jail for a life term. He is, as I think you will know, one of the cleverest mechanics that has ever gone into the crooked game. There was nothing which he or his brother could not do with locks or keys, or with ingenious mechanical contrivances. The opportunity he sought presented itself to him when I took these offices. He bribed the foreman to give him the kind of job he wanted. I recognised him at once, but let him go on, thinking that he contemplated no more than a quick draw and a plug, and I’m quite willing to take my chance with any gun-play that is going. But that wasn’t George’s idea at all.”
Jennings had seated himself at the desk in the chair that Billy had vacated.
“I hope this story isn’t going to last a long time,” he said, but the Commissioner silenced him with a look.
“Go on, Stabbat.”
“What he did was something so devilishly clever that I don’t know whether to hate him or admire him. I've since discovered that he spent two days alone in this room, and that he fixed what was nothing more remarkable than an automatic pistol in such a manner that anybody who pressed that bell, and naturally he expected it to be me”—he pointed to the bell-push by the desk—”would be instantly shot dead.”
“Oh, come, come,” said Jennings.
It was over in a flash. Before we quite realised what was happening, I heard Billy’s warning cry as he sank flat on the floor, and saw the stodgy thumb of Jennings press the bell. . . .
There was a deafening report. A bullet ripped across the bowed shoulder of Inspector Jennings, slashing his coat as with a knife, and smashed through the window.
“. . . yes, that bell,” said Billy, rising slowly from the floor. “And if you had been a more intelligent man, Jennings, you’d have been a dead man.” Jennings was as white as a sheet and shaking in every limb, though the bullet did not touch him, because he had pushed his chair back from the table and to reach the bell he had to bend himself forward until his chest was lying on the edge of the desk.
“My God!” said the Commissioner. “Where did that come from?”
“It came from the mouth of the farthermost lion. I will show you.” Levy and he tugged at the marble head, which slid out, placing the block on the floor. And there was the pistol, firmly cemented in position, the simple electric control obvious even to those who were ignorant of the electrician’s art.
“The night a certain person thought he”—he emphasised “he”—”had shot at my friend Thomson Dawkes, Mr. Dawkes had pressed the bell in order to bring the officers of the law to make an arrest.”
“You’re very mysterious, Stabbat, but I think I understand,” said the Commissioner.
“The certain person who held the pistol did not fire at all. I have learnt that since, though at the time I was under the impression that he had fired. What happened to Sir Philip Frampton is clear. He was writing a letter and found that the nib he was using had worn out. He looked round and saw the bell-push, and pressed it in order to bring the boy in. He was immediately shot. Like so many men who have been shot in the head, he was able to rise and stagger to the middle of the room before he fell.”
The Commissioner was inspecting the pistol.
“Of course, this puts an end to the case against Miss Ferrera,” he said. “I presume she was the ‘he’ in both cases —although”—he looked at me oddly —“I don’t remember that you mentioned her presence, Inspector.”
“I did not, sir,” I replied.
“Perhaps you didn't see her or know anything about it?” asked my discreet superior.
He beckoned Jennings.
“You can start a few candles burning before your household shrine this night, Inspector. I think you can take your two men from the door. Perhaps Mr. Stabbat will remain here for an hour or two. The Chief Commissioner would like to see this ingenious apparatus.”
I could have wept for joy when I said good-bye to Billy that afternoon.
“I wonder what Mary will say?” I said.
Billy did not utter the three words I expected. Instead he said:
“God bless her!”
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