The journalist moved a little nearer to the man by the fireplace. For the journalist was interested, and the man by the fireplace had let drop certain hints and insinuations which seemed to have behind them the making of a story, and the journalist was not only a writer of paragraphs per se, but a fairly well-known writer of fiction besides. He laid a half-crown on the table.
"Will you have another?" he said persuasively. "Didn't I hear you say something just now about the mailbag robbery at Silvertown Post Office some two years ago. So far as I recollect, the matter was never properly solved."
The man in the corner grinned. Up to a certain point he had been spinning out his glass of vitrolic whisky with the faint hope that someone might come along and replace the potent fluid and here was an obvious angel unawares. Properly told, the story might result in the aggrandisement of the journalist's entire half-crown.
He was a seedy, sodden, savoury little man, with swollen features picturesquesly adorned with pink spots. His nose was red and damp, and deflected corners of his mouth twitched convulsively. A broken down man is a pathetic figure enough in any case, but a broken down rascal is one of the saddest sights to be sifted out from the scrap heap of humanity. The journalist's instinct spotted right enough. He had unerringly spotted the little man as one who, in his time, had been looked up to as one of the captains of crime.
"You were talking of Silvertown robbery," he said huskily. "So happens, guv'nor, I can tell you a good deal about it. I reckon, you are one of those writing chaps. Is that so?"
The journalist admitted the soft impeachment.
"Very well, then," the little man picked up the thread again. "It was just like this. Mind you, what I am telling you now I have never mentioned to a soul before." Prefixing the whole thing with a question. "Did you ever hear of Martin Stryde?"
The journalist nodded. The name was familiar enough to him. Stryde had been a well-known figure in certain circles a year or two before, but of late he had been lost sight of, and he was troubling the police no more.
"I thought you had heard of him," the little man said with a certain air of pride. "Well, about four years ago Martin Stryde was sitting in this very bar waiting for business, so to speak. He had not had much luck of late, for one or two things had gone wrong, and he was getting pretty short of the ready. He was thinking of moving on when a man that he knew came in and asked for a drink of whisky. You see, you can never tell who you are going to pick up a valuable tip from, consequently Martin Stryde was pretty free handed in the way of little treats of that kind. Just casual like he asked the other if anything was going on. Then Stryde's friend, he leans across the table and says with a wink of his eye:
"'What's the matter with Silvertown Post Office?'
"'I don't quite catch on, Jimmy,' says Stryde.
"'Well, it's this way, Mr. Stryde. The Silvertown Post Office is a small one—practically a sub-office for the dispatch of mails. There is a postmaster there and two clerks. I went in there the other night to get a stamp or two, and they were that busy they kept me waiting nearly twenty minutes.'
"'Selling stamps, do you mean, Jimmy?' Stryde asks.
"'Stamps be blowed! I tell you, Mr. Stryde, thousands of pounds' worth of parcels go through that office every day. Did you ever hear of a firm called Morgor and Enrstine?'
"'One of the biggest jewel dealers in the world, Jimmy.'
"'Well,' Jimmy goes on, 'they're making up a case for some foreign exhibition, and one of these cases will be dispatched some evening next month by registered parcel. Here's a chance for a man with a head on his shoulders. Only two small bags to pinch and two clerks and a postmaster to deal with.'
"Stryde, his eyes glistens. Then he laughs in a careless way.
"'Have you examined the back premises, Jimmy?' he says.
"'There ain't no back premises, Mr. Stryde. There is no outlet behind at all. The post office used to be a shop at one time, and over it are flats let out to men by the week. It would all have to be done by the front door. The post office people ain't quite fools, either. It's an understood thing that the parcels to be registered should be left as late as possible, so as to have them on the premises no longer'n is necessary. A special van comes for them at ten minutes to 6.'
"'Quite dark at this time of the year, Jimmy,' says Stryde.
"'Yes, sir. Well, those chaps locks the door of the counter, and as the parcels are registered they are dropped into two bags on the inner edge. Do you follow me, sir?'
'"Upon my word, Jimmy, I am quite interested,' Stryde says presently. 'Is it a narrow counter one could reach across and lift the bags in case anything happened to the gas, for instance?'
"'No it ain't,' Jimmy he says emphatically. 'There's a strong brass grating like a metal summer house all along the edge of it.'
"After that Stryde he has no more to do with it. He says to Jimmy as the thing is impossible, and of course Jimmy takes this for granted. Jimmy finishes up his drink and drifts out of the bar, and out of the story, too, for that matter; and Stryde he sits there until he begins to see his way pretty clear.
"Somehow or another a lot of information concerning the Silvertown Post Offices comes along in Stryde's direction the next two or three days. On one or two occasions he found it necessary to register a small parcel there. At the end of a week he posts a letter to a certain Mr. George Tatton, asking the pleasure of that gentleman's company to dinner at Hendon on Sunday evening. For Stryde he has a weakness, a little place in the country, and a nice snug shop he had of it, too. Ah, those were good days."
The man by the fireplace sighed and reached his hand out mechanically for his empty glass. The hint was not wasted.
"Well, George Tatton he turns up in due course—solemn, undertaking looking chap he was, dressed from head to foot in sober black. Sort of man who would have passed for a lay-preacher or street missionary anywhere.
"'And now, Martin," he says, 'what's your little game?'
"Stryde he goes on in great detail to speak of the information what he has got from Jimmy. There was a good deal more which might have caused Jimmy to prick up his ears if he had been present.
"'That brass trellis work is a fair knock-out,' Tatton he says, after a long pause.
"But Stryde, he doesn't seem to think so. When he had finished speaking, Tatton, he so far forgets himself as to smile.
"'You are a genius,' he says. 'Why, with an intellect like yours you might be Prime Minister. There ain't a flaw anywhere.'
"Well, for a day or two this same publichouse, where we are seated now, and where I don't mind having another, as you so kindly suggest, plays an important part in this little comedy. From this 'ere desirable establishment two evenings later there emerged a certain ship's fireman, Ben Barnes by name, in that state of silly drunk that leans towards a single-handed defiance of the law. Tatton was with him, and Tatton was trying to keep the fool quiet.
"'You let me alone,' says the fireman. 'I've got money in the Savings Bank, and I mean to get it out.'
"Saying that he lurched breezily into the Silvertown Post Office. A rare bit of luck it was getting hold of Ben Barnes, who really had money in the post office, and about as much to do with the story as you have. A puppet in the game, sir, no more.
"'I want,' he says, lurching forward, 'I want my money.'
"'You can't have your money without notice,' the clerk says curtly. 'Go away, or I'll whistle for a policeman.'
"Ben Barnes he loses his head at that. He clutches at the grill, shaking it backwards and forwards, for he was a pretty powerful man, then down comes the whole thing, together with the cast iron standards supporting the railing, and a moment later the police step in and take a hand in the game. Finally they gets Barnes down on the floor and straps him to a stretcher. Tatton he discreetly disappears, and by a strange coincidence runs against Stryde, he happened to be at the end of the street on business.
"'Well,' Stryde says, 'and how did it go?'
"'Beautiful,' Tatton explains. 'Real artistic, I call it. Barnes fell into the trap, never suspecting anything, and there's a fine specimen of modern brasswork to be sold cheap at the post office. They'll probably fine Barnes a couple of pounds in the morning, and compel him to make the damage good, so you had better hang about the court to-morrow and offer to pay the fine. Also you can find Barnes an expert workman who will repair the mischief in little less than no time. You don't want me for anything else, do you?'
"It turned out just like that. Ben Barnes he has nothing to say for himself except in the way of gratitude for Tatton, who pays his fine, and not only that, produces the workman to make good the damage. And then Barnes, like Jimmy, goes his own way, and he drops out of the story and there's an end of him."
"The same evening a new tenant moves into the industrial flat over the Post Office. A quiet looking chap he was, who appeared to have seen trouble in the past. Come to think of it, I fancy he called himself an insurance agent, and his little bit of furniture was hired from a small shop close by on the instalment system. Reuben Taylor we'll call him—not that it matters. At midnight of the first day, in his now house, Taylor, he has a visitor. I won't deceive you, sir, when I tell you that the visitor was Stryde.
"'Have you found out the lie of those pipes yet,' he asks.
"Tatton had wasted no time. Of course, you will have guessed by this time that the man Taylor was only Tatton in another name. He removes a short board from the floor, and with a candle shows out a mass of pipes below. It was a bit puzzling to Stryde, but plain enough to a skilled mechanic like Tatton.
"'I hadn't no difficulty in locating the pipe,' says he. 'I knew they were under this floor, and that's why I took this particular room. The finding of that short piece of board was a rare slice of luck. It fits so tight that I have only to stamp it down, and no one could possibly know that it had been moved.'
"'Very good,' Stryde he says. 'All you have got to do is to wait for the signal. Count twenty slowly, very slowly, mind, and then manipulate the pipes. The point is, are you sure you have got the right one?'
"'Of course I am,' Tatton says contemptuously. 'That's the one with the bit of red lead dabbed along the top. Loosen that head with a spanner, then comes a gush of gas into this room that will put the post office lights out like a shot. Then I'll tighten up the thread again, stamp this board down once more, and the whole blooming thing is done.'
"'Good again,' Stryde says. 'And after that?'
"'I'll have a cab waiting for me at the corner of the Street. Directly the gas business is manipulated I am to get to that cab as quickly as possible. You'll bring me the bags, and then you'll make yourself scarce as soon as I have them. Then I'm to blind the trail as well as I can, and get to Hendon without delay.'
"'Mind you get a four-wheeled cab,' Stryde, he says.
"Tatton, he wants to know what the four-wheeler is for. It did not take Stryde long to explain his reasons.
"'What a chap you are,' Tatton says. 'Seems to me there's nothing you don't think of.'
"If you listens to me carefully," Stryde goes on. "I can show you a way of blinding your trail so as to make everything perfectly safe. You mustn't forget that it is you they'll look for. And now the less we are seen together for the next two or three days the better. Good-night and good luck to you."
Nothing happens for a week or more till about six o'clock one evening when the Post Office is at its busiest and the small registered letter bags are nearly full. A loafer looks into the office curiously, waiting as if hesitating till the last of the confidential clerks had registered his precious packet. Then the loafer he steps into the road and sneezes two or three times violently. A second later some body closes a window over the Post Office very gently, and at the same time a most strange and unexpected thing happens. Like a flash out goes the gas in the Post Office, and the whole place is plunged into darkness. You can imagine the clerks looking at one another and wondering what is wrong. You can imagine, too, them having their suspicions aroused, but they are not particularly brilliant youths, and it never seems to occur to them that anything has gone really wrong. When you come to think of it, there is nothing unusual in gas going out. Anyway, those clerks were not a bit alarmed, not even when a slide and rattle as of a gate being opened struck upon their ears.
"'Funny thing,' says one clerk to another, 'funny that the gas is out again. Can't you smell it?'
"'Rather,' says the other one. 'Got a match?'
"'There's one in my overcoat pocket hanging just past the desk yonder. You'll find a box of vestas there.'
"Of course it takes a little time fumbling about in the dark, even when you know a place, and some two or three minutes passed before the matches were produced and the gas brackets over the counter lighted again. It didn't seem to strike those chaps as at all funny that the gas should play them a trick like that. They just looked at one another a moment, then one of them, who happened to be a bit sharper than his pal, he staggers back against the counter with his eyes fairly bulging out of his head.
"'Good heavens, Summers,' he cries, 'the mail bags have gone!'
"Summers he says nothing. He can only stand there gaping with his mouth wide open, till presently there comes a sound of wheels outside, which means as the Post Office van has come along and the postman is waiting for the registered letters.
"'I am a bit early, gentlemen,' he says, 'anything wrong?'
"Then those two clerks come to their senses at the same time, and begin to explain simultaneously. Of course, all this takes time, and a good five minutes pass before the post messenger makes a dash for the street, yelling at the top of his voice for the police. One or two of them come along presently, and at the end of half an hour some of the Scotland Yard Division begin to drop in. I believe it was Sergeant Denton who had the case in hand. It is long ago, and I forget. But, anyway, the sergeant comes along and clears the office, except for the frightened clerks and the postmaster. At the end of an hour that shrewd detective officer makes one or two what he calls important discoveries. There was a boy in the neighborhood who happened to have seen a tall stranger with a long coat, a seedy-looking chap, came out of the Post Office with two bags on his arm. Then somebody else professes to have seen the same man give the bags into the custody of somebody else, who was waiting at the top of the street in a four-wheeled cab.
"Then the inspector he strokes his big moustache and looks like a cat after a saucer of cream. Of course, he's got an important clue.
"'I shall lay those fellows by the heels yet,' he says, 'and now I'll go off and find the cabman.'
"Of course, they finds the cabman easy enough. But if they expected him to tell them anything they were mistaken. As a matter of fact he hadn't got anything to say but the truth.
"'It was just like this,' he explains 'the man comes along and orders my cab off the rank by St. Peter's Church to be at the corner of John-street by five forty-five sharp. He gets into the cab, and just as he is going to start a moment or two later another chap comes up with a couple of bags on his arm, a tall, surly-looking man, he was, wearing a shabby ulster. Nothing passes between them except that the bags were transferred to my cab, and then I was told to drive to Piccadilly Circus sharp. Not as I ever did get to Piccadilly Circus by a long chalk. When we were passing the Swan, in Ford-road, my man tells me to pull up, and we goes inside together leaving another party to hold my horse, and we had a drink. Then my party, out he goes, saying he has forgotten something, and that he'll be back in about ten minutes. Seeing as he had pitched half a quid on the counter to pay for the drinks, and hadn't picked up the change, why I didn't feel particularly troubled about being bilked out of my fare. 'Specially as he tells me, in a laughing sort of way, to keep the change if he doesn't come back. Well, I waited for half-an-hour or more and he didn't come back, and I did keep the change and that's all I can tell you about it.'
"But nobody knows, sir, till this day, and nobody will know, what Stryde was doing while the cabby waited in the public-house. But I don't mind telling you. He just goes back to the cab again and practically changes all his clothes. From under the ulster he produces a collapsible portmanteau, into which he empties the mail bags and the clothes he has just taken off. Then he fills the portmanteau with every blessed thing and steps out of the cab door, and not a blessed soul to notice him. It is an easy matter, after that, to stand at the corner of the road as if he had just come off a 'bus, and hire a hansom to take him to Baker-street Station. Once at Baker-street, he makes his way round to Charing Cross, and before morning he is on the night boat making for Calais. Before twenty-four hours are over his head, he is in Amsterdam; but I don't think there is any necessity for me to tell a smart gentleman like yourself what happened to the contents of those mail bags before Stryde turned his back on Holland. And that's the true story of the Robbery of the Silvertown Post Office."
"So that was the reason why he wanted a four-wheeled cab?" the journalist asked thoughtfully.
"You've got it first time," the man by the fireplace said. "He wanted a dressing-room. No, Stryde didn't leave anything to chance in those days. You see, he hadn't taken to drink then, and always kept a clear head. If he had only kept off that accursed stuff he might be a rich man now, and I know for a fact he was very well off at one time."
"The curse of so many geniuses," the journalist said gravely. "I am greatly obliged to you for your most entertaining story, but there is still one point which seems to me to need elucidation. I presume from what you say that the ship's engineer, Barnes, was quite an innocent party. I suppose he was what you call kidded on to make that disturbance at the Post Office. It was probably Stryde's brilliant suggestion that he should pull the railing down. But why?"
The man by the fireplace chuckled. A look of almost intelligence flashed into his bleared and watery eye.
"That was the gem of the whole thing," he said. "You see, we—I mean, they—could put the gas out, but there was the grating to be dealt with. So when Barnes pulled it down, and Tatton so generously repaired the mischief for him, the grating was fitted with a kind of hinge over the near end of the counter behind which the bags of the registered letters were hanging. Nobody suspected, and nobody could have found it out, unless some meddlesome person happened to raise one of the standards slightly. At any rate, there it was, and directly the gas was put out, all that was needed was for someone to sneak quietly into the Post Office, push a part of the railing back, and reach over for the letter bags. I know it sounds difficult, but, bless your soul, it was easy enough."
The journalist had no further questions to ask. He looked at his watch and rose with an explanation that he had overstayed his time already. At the same moment a detective, in plain clothes, glanced into the bar and nodded at the journalist, whom he knew slightly. Then he followed into the street, and the two walked along side by side for some little way.
"Who was my friend in the bar?" the journalist asked. "He told me a very entertaining story, just now."
"I daresay," the detective said drily. "At one time he was quite in the first criminal flight. The name by which we knew him in those days was Martin Stryde."