Billy Higgs stood listening there, the fighting light in his eyes filling them with little red and orange specks. He clenched a lean, and skinny fist, and shook it threateningly in the direction of the floor. The boards were worn and rotten, and the snarling voice going on with grinding monotony floated up to Billy's ears. Outside in the snowy court a barrel organ droned monotonously; and yet, despite the cold and slush, the ragged children danced to the music, for even down there, in that poor, poverty-stricken district, the spirit of Christmas had penetrated, and the pinched, white faces were wreathed with smiles. It was cold and chilly to the bone up there, but Billy was not thinking of that just now. He was wondering vaguely what sort of a Christmas he was likely to get, and if there was any way of helping the man downstairs.
Now, Billy Higgs was young and tough and a little worldly, but at the same time he had an artistic soul hidden away in that frail, underfed body of his. Billy read a great deal of fiction. He knew vaguely that Christmas passed for a happy time, though one of these had never come his way, and he was wondering if this might prove an exception to the rule, and incidentally how much longer John Kenyon was going to stand it. There would be a tragedy some day, of course. Old Timothy Clark would be found murdered in his bed one of these fine times, and John Kenyon would be hanged. For Clark was Kenyon's employer—a cold, hard-fisted skinflint of a man who sneered at everything but money, and grudged the two days' holiday at Christmas as if they had been something taken from his pocket. And there he was down below, girding Kenyon as usual, and driving his unhappy clerk to the verge of madness. And Billy knew a good deal of the art of nagging, for his mother had been a past mistress of that particular form of torture, and Billy had seen his father writhe and twist under it till—well, there had come an end of it at last, and it had all happened as quickly as a flashlight picture. And Billy's mother lay dead on the floor, and the big, silent man had walked to the police-station and surrendered.
All this had happened five years ago, and in consequence, Billy was still something of a celebrity in the neighborhood. He knew what it was to lack a meal. He was grudgingly grateful to old Timothy Clark for the garret he occupied over the office and the six shillings paid him weekly for doing the errands and the old miser's frugal housekeeping. Time was when Clark had done a flourishing business as a shipping agent, but that was a thing of the past, and he was hard put to it to find occupation for his clerk, John Kenyon, to whom he paid a pound a week and treated as if he was the veriest mongrel that ever scavenged for a living in the docks. Why did Kenyon put up with it?
He was a fine figure of a man, an athlete to his finger tips, with some of the sweet fragrance of the country still clinging to him. He had a handsome, pleasant face, and a clear blue eye which would have spoken for his honesty anywhere. And yet here he was, week in and week out, the bond slave of that miserable old miser, a victim to hate and malignity never excelled by the villain of those lurid novelettes on which Billy Higgs spent too many of his precious pennies. Doubtless there must be a vengeance somewhere. Surely time must come when this good-looking slave would be released from his bondage. And Billy had been wondering lately if mayhap he might not have been selected by the gods as the chosen instrument.
For he knew a good bit, did Billy. He knew, for instance, that some years before Kenyon had married Clark's niece. He knew that this had given mortal offence to the old man, for it had deprived him of an excellent servant and a housekeeper to whom he paid nothing. It had been a stolen marriage, and yet within a few weeks Kenyon was down there at Wapping acting as Clark's factotum, and apparently bought body and soul for twenty shillings weekly, and this in the face of the fact that Clark openly said that all his money would go to charity.
"Lor', listen to 'im," Billy muttered. "There will be murder done down there some day, sure as fate. Got an 'old over 'im, 'e 'ave. Forged papers or somethink. I knows. Locked away in that ole desk of 'is. Jest like a story in that 'Britannia' series. And 'ere's me creepin' abaht the 'ouse and watchin' the ole geyser, and 'im none the wiser. 'Ere's the chance for an 'ero. And dash me if I don't do it. Give 'im a 'appy Christmas, per'aps, an' me sittin' at the table along of 'em drinkin' of sherry wine. Lor', I could write one o' them stories meself, if I 'ad the eddication. Come along then."
Billy's thoughtful, somewhat truculent expression softened wonderfully as he knelt upon the floor. From his pursed lips came a low whistle, and immediately a tiny brown object crept into the middle of the room. From one of his pockets Billy produced a pinch of crumbs, and the mouse came and took the food boldly from his hand. He fondled the small rodent tenderly, speaking to it as if it had been human and capable of understanding every word that he said. Then he flicked his fingers, and the mouse was gone.
"Now I'm goin' to be very busy," the boy declared.
Down below the snarling grinding voice had ceased. In the court urchins shrilly cried aloud for the miscreant who had stolen the baby's milk. By this Billy knew that Clark had gone out and that the juvenile population was ragging him according to their wont.
Not for nothing had he been a close student of the blood-and-thunder school of detective fiction. And, remember, he knew a good deal, did William. And he was fond of this man, and, perhaps, fonder still of the pretty, kind-hearted woman, now Kenyon's wife, who had been the first person in his drab life to treat him as a human being. Ah, well, he was going to pay that debt now. And, perhaps, afterwards they would take him away to their house in the country, and send him to school. Bill had been in the country once on a day's outing with the slum children, and he dreamt of it still. He advanced boldly to the man leaning over the desk.
"Guv'nor," he said—"guv'nor, you're in trouble."
"That's very clever of you, Bill," Kenyon, said bitterly.
"Oh, no, it ain't," the boy went on. "You are in the power of yonder scoundrel. 'E's got an 'old over yer. Two innocent lives are embittered by that wicked wretch. If you could put yer 'ead on the forged document all would be well. You could defy the miscreant to do his worst, you could laugh in his beard."
"He hasn't got a beard," Kenyon said wearily. "It's quite evident to me that you're reading too many of those trashy novelettes. I know you mean well, William, but you cannot possibly help me. I must go my own way, and put up with the consequences. What's that you say? Oh, yes, if you want to know, he has got a hold ever me. Most people guess that, I suppose."
"Now, look 'ere," Billy said soothingly. "I've been thinking. What you wants is a proper sort of Christmas. It's getting pretty close now, but there's plenty of time, if you only does as I tells yer. If you really wants to give old Timothy the push——"
"No man would serve Timothy Clark who had the strength to break stones. It's very odd I should be talking to you like this. But you can't do anything. So long as the family skeleton remains, it is my duty to shield it from the public eye."
"No, it ain't," Bill insisted. "Once aboard the lugger—I mean, if we could get hold of the forged papers, why, we've got that ole blighter in a tight place, and don't you forget it."
"So you are sure there are papers?" Kenyon asked.
"Of course I am, guv'nor. And, what's more, they're in yonder desk. You have only got ter say the word——"
"No, no," Kenyon said, hastily. "I'm no thief."
"Once an 'ero always an 'ero," Bill said, complacently. "I knew you wouldn't do it when I made the suggestion. But that's the place where the papers are, all right. How do I know? I keep my eyes open of course. Don't I live in the place, and don't I keep a sharp watch on the old man? If yer cast yer innercent eye up yer will see an 'ole in the ceiling—made that mysel', I did. Many a night 'ave I watched the perisher countin' his money and his notes and chuckling to 'isself, like one o' them ghouls you reads abaht. I could take you at this very moment to the 'oard where the treasure is 'idden. But I ain't no thief neither, guv'nor. I tell you as 'ow I'm what my favorite writer calls the Chosen Instrument. But I'm gettin' a bit off the map, I am. Every night the ole man does the same thing. He always winds up the same way. When 'e's put his money away 'e opens the desk yonder and takes aht two or three pipers wot's fastened together by a helastic band. There ain't more than enough, to make 'arf a dozen spills, and yet he chuckles over them, and laughs like a Chinese idol. Then, arter 'e's cursed you a bit, 'e goes and actually kisses them pipers afore 'e puts 'em back agin. Lor bless yer, I've seen 'im do it a score of times. And there the papers is shoved away in that desk at the present moment."
Kenyon half-rose from his seat, then dropped back with a groan. Salvation might be to his hand, but it could not come to him in that way. And Clark would be merciless, as he knew full well.
"Yer feelin's does yer credit," Bill said, patronisingly. "All the sime, yer kin leave it to me. You 'av a bit on Bill 'Iggs. I've thought aht a way. There's not one of them writin' blokes ever copped such a winner. Now, to-morrow is Saturday. You goes off at one o'clock and don't come back till Monday mornin'. The ole man 'e goes off on Saturday, and 'e don't come back till Monday mornin' neither. Where 'e goes to, Heaven knows. Perhaps 'e's got someone else under 'is thumb; but that don't matter. When you turn up on Monday mornin' give 'im the sack. Say you ain't comin' any more. Tell 'im to go to Jericho. And if he cuts up rough, ask 'im to produce the pipers. 'E won't be able to produce—why?—they won't be there."
Billy's voice had sunk to an excited whisper. He shrewdly read the doubt which was passing in Kenyon's mind.
"Not 'arf," he went on, eagerly. "I ain't goin' to touch the desk. I won't lay a finger on it except to—but that's my business. When the ole man comes to open the desk them pipers won't be there. You can gamble on that, guv'nor; but, of course, if you're afraid——"
"A desperate man is afraid of nothing, Billy," Kenyon said. "In any case, I cant be worse off than I am already."
Billy smiled the smile of conscious victory. "That's all right," he said. "Don't you worry. Jest defy 'im and leave the rest to me. And now let us dissemble."
Billy Higgs was busy in what he called, in his expansive moments, the outer office. He was making a pretence of dusting, but as a matter of fact he was straining his ears so as not to lose a word of the conversation that was going on between Kenyon and his employer. This was not a difficult matter, and Billy grinned expectantly as he heard Clark's snarling voice rising higher and higher. It was as if that dreadful old man grudged Kenyon his Sunday respite, and was now making up for lost time. Would Kenyon be able to rise to the occasion? Billy had his doubts. He had been Clark's bond-slave so long that possibly all the steel had been hammered out of him. It began to look like it, and Billy's anger rose accordingly. The snarling voice droned in and then snapped suddenly.
"Enough!" Kenyon cried. "Another word and I will strangle you! For the last ten minutes you have been taking your life in your hands. I have finished, you miserable miser! If I grasped you by that skinny throat of yours and squeezed the life out of you, I should be doing humanity a service. And heaven knows how near I have been to it many a time. But I have finished. When I leave this office I turn my back upon it for ever. I have finished my term of penal servitude, and from this moment I am free."
Clark broke into a cackle of laughter. His evil face, lined and scored with avarice and greed, lighted up in triumph.
"So you begin to feel the lash," he sneered. "I knew I would make you squeal at last. I have been waiting years for this. Waiting to see the galled jade wince. You want to skin me, do you? You want to creep up behind me and batter my brains out? Your fingers itch to be at me, do they? Ah, this is a moment worth living for! I owe you and that rascally brother of yours a heavy debt, which I mean to pay to the last farthing. You have been long in the breaking but I have broken you now. I love my money but I love my vengeance more. Your brother robbed me of all those thousands and as if that was not enough, you come along and take my niece away. But I knew how to strike. I could hit your brother through that invalid wife of his. I could strike a blow at her which would send her to her grave. Every time that man hears the postman at the door, every time a stranger calls, he knows all the agony of exposure and punishment. He knows that I may change my mind at any time and send him to gaol. There's a revenge for you! To save your brother I made a compact with you. So long as you come here to be my slave and tool I hold my hand, and this is the way I punish you because you took that girl away, and so it will go on till I reach the grave. Sit down you rascal, and go on with your work. And let me thank you for your handsome Christmas box. Christmas indeed!"
Billy Higgs drank all this in greedily. As a connoisseur of rascally heroics Clark's effort commanded his entire approval. This was exactly what he had hoped for, and, so far, none of the necessary ingredients of the drama had been wanting.
"I think not," Kenyon said quietly. He had himself perfectly in hand now. "The thing is finished. You cannot harm me; and so far as my brother is concerned, you may do your worst. I have yet to learn that those incriminating documents are still in existence. If they are, I shall be very glad to see them."
"Oh, you doubt me, do you?" Clark cried. "You want me to fetch the papers from the bank and show them to you. And then you can take them from me by force and destroy them."
"You know that I shall do nothing of the sort. You know perfectly well that you could place them in my hands with every confidence."
"Yes, I know that," Clark admitted, grudgingly. "You were always a quixotic fool. So you think those papers do not exist? You are mistaken, for they do. And, what's more, they are in this very room. In that ship's box yonder. I keep nothing else there. When I am alone at night I gloat over them. Oh, I am a cunning villain, Kenyon. You little dreamt that the papers were under your very eyes all this time. By heavens, I will show them to you. And if, after you have seen them, you still defy me——"
Clark's voice trailed off into a hoarse whisper. He took a quaint old key from his waistcoat pocket, and fitted it to the lock of the box. It was something complicated in the way of a lock, and only an expert could have picked it. With the same leering grin upon his face, Clark threw up the lid of the box, and beckoned Kenyon to his side. Then his face changed to a dull red, and from thence to sickly yellow as he saw that the desk was empty. There was nothing inside but a handful of tiny blue shreds, fine as chaff, littered about on the dusty bottom of the box.
"What demon's work is this?" Clark screamed. "How did you manage it? Oh, you infernal thief, you——"
He staggered to a chair, breathless and incapable of speech. In the outer office Billy Higgs rocked to and fro with silent laughter. Amongst all the heroes of his favorites there had never been one who had brought off a coup half so dazzling as this. He waited anxiously for the next movement in the drama. No further sound came from the inner office. Clark sat there utterly beaten, trembling like one in the presence of some nameless danger. There was no more to be said, no more to be done. Then the door of the office shut with a sullen bang, and Kenyon appeared. He held out his hand to Billy without a word, then pressed a sovereign and a visiting-card into Billy's grimy fist.
"You are a wonderful boy," he whispered. "Come to this address on Christmas morning, and tell me all about it. I am not coming back; I have finished here. You had better wait for an hour or so, for I have a strong suspicion that that wretched old man would be all the better for seeing a doctor."
Billy nodded with an air of importance. It was only fair to him that he should be left in charge of the situation. "That's all right, guv'nor," he said. "I told you as 'ow William would pull you through, and 'e's done it. So long."
Billy sat in the seat of honor on Mrs. Kenyon's right hand. Never in his life before had he sat down in a perfectly appointed dining-room, at a table covered with a white cloth, a table gay with flowers, and bright with silver and glass; but, all the same, he regarded this as his due, and he sat there with the smiling air of a conqueror. He had partaken of turkey and plum-pudding, and drank some wonderful stuff, which he knew by instinct to be champagne. There was a gaudy cap from a cracker on the back of his head; but that in no way detracted from the solemnity of the occasion. Billy had learnt several things in the last half-hour. He knew, for instance, that this fascinating old house was Kenyon's own property, and that he was to regard it as his home for the future. And he was not going to Wapping any more—he was going to school.
"I have told you these things because you are more or less one of the family," Kenyon said. "I am not going to dwell upon the moral side of our recent drama, though I suppose it is possible to argue that all is fair in love and war. Two years ago this property was left to me, but I never dared to make the fact known so long as I was under the thumb of that old scoundrel. But he is dead now. If he had known that I had money he would have blackmailed me of the last penny I had. This is why I went on drudging daily at Wapping in the hope that some time fortune would look my way. I never thought that fortune would come disguised as my friend Mr. William Higgs. Who could have possibly dreamt——"
"Oh, do stop Jack," Kitty Kenyon said. "I am dying to hear how the thing was done. Please go on, Billy."
Very slowly, and with much dignity Billy produced a little box from his pocket. As he opened the lid a tiny brown mouse came out and nestled in the hollow of his hand.
"There's the little 'ero," he said. "Found 'im in my bedroom months ago and tamed 'im so 'e'd come and eat aht o' me 'and. Lived in a little box, 'e did, the sime box I kept me books in. You remember the day as I was knocked dahn by that motor-bus? Forty-eight hours in 'orspital that cost me. When I comes aht I recollect little Joe 'ere, and 'im all that toime withaht any grub. And blowed if 'e 'adn't eaten 'arf a novelette and tore the rest to pieces no bigger than a pin's 'ead. And that's wot give me the idea. I knowed all abaht them incriminatin' pipers and 'ow I could save my friend Mr. Kenyon if I could get rid o' them. Then I tikes Joe and shoves 'im through the little 'ole in the box and dabs a bit o' clay over it. That were Saturday. Monday mornin' I gets Joe back again, and—well, bloomm' simple after all, wasn't it!"