Captain Black/Part 4
Pelham was already seated in the coffee-room when he went down-stairs, and having bespoken the adjoining table, he went to the entrance door of the hotel as agreed and looked up and down the street. Not a sign of Lethbridge could be seen, and Farnham, with a cheering hope that the appointment had miscarried, went in to breakfast and seated himself with his back to his unsuspecting neighbor. He had ordered his customary eggs and bacon and breakfast tea, and was looking through the morning paper, when a dark-complexioned man with a profusion of black hair, and wearing spectacles, was shown in to his table, and, before Farnham could utter a protest, seated himself, and taking from his pocket a bundle of documents, began, “I have looked into the matter of the mining prospectus, and I have all the figures here as you requested.” With this there came a warning pressure of his foot beneath the table, and Farnham knew that Lethbridge sat before him.
Farnham was already sufficiently out of humor to be excessively annoyed by what he considered a useless and ridiculous masquerade, and ate his breakfast in sullen silence, while Lethbridge rattled on with amazing volubility, giving the most astounding statistics about the mining property, and keeping meanwhile a stealthy watch upon the suspected man at the adjoining table, until having presumably familiarized himself to the proper standard, he gathered up his papers and took his departure, to Farnham’s infinite relief. That thoroughly disgusted gentleman dawdled over his breakfast until he heard Pelham leave the room, and seeing him presently pass the coffee-room window, took his own departure, satchel in hand, mentally vowing never to be caught again in a similar mess.
The next morning, just as he had finished breakfasting at his own lodgings, Lethbridge, fresh-faced and fair-haired again, made his appearance in such confident humor that Farnham’s spirits revived somewhat under the buoyancy of the detective’s manner, and he inquired what was the next step to be taken.
“I’m going to bait a hook,” said Lethbridge, with an expression of infinite relish, “and if your man doesn’t rise to it you can call me a Dutchman. It may be a long fish, but if we catch anything it will be as good a day’s work as ever I did in my life.”
The baiting of the hook, which Farnham awaited with considerable curiosity, proved to be a simple matter enough. Lethbridge merely wrote the words “Captain Lansing Black” in a large bold hand on a sheet of note-paper, enclosed it in an envelope addressed “Francis Pelham, Esq.,” and with an air of extreme confidence invited Farnham to accompany him to the hotel and witness the landing of the fish.
They strolled back and forth upon the Piccadilly pavement in a line of observance of the hotel entrance, until Mr. Pelham, gloved and well apparelled, was seen to go out. Then Farnham, acting under Lethbridge’s instructions, walked into the hallway, and explaining that he was awaiting a friend, seated himself at one side of the entrance door and became absorbed in perusal of a morning paper. Presently Lethbridge strolled in and, after a brief interview with the manager in that gentleman’s private office, placed the envelope in Pelham’s letter-box in the hall, and seating himself on the opposite side of the entrance door, became a silent rival of Farnham in the matter of looking up the day’s news. The hall-porter, a pompous fellow with a double chin and wearing a black skull-cap, seated himself in his leather-covered bath-chair, all unconscious of the drama that was developing under his very nose, and dropped off into a nap — and the watch began.
It was a long one, as Lethbridge had surmised, and the hours wore slowly on. Farnham having digested the exhaustive details of events in Her Britannic Majesty’s realm, and the scant references to other portions of the globe peculiar to the British press, was endeavoring to concentrate his attention upon the advertisements and occasionally relapsing into a doze, when Lethbridge coughed, and at the same moment Pelham opened the door and walked into the hall. Farnham, with his heart thumping like a trip-hammer against his ribs, glanced at his companion; but that imperturbable individual was so absorbed in the news that Farnham, for a moment, feared that he had not noticed that their man had arrived. The next instant, however, Lethbridge’s eyes appeared, gleaming like coals of fire over the top of his newspaper, and Farnham, following their gaze, saw that the supreme moment had come. Pelham was at the letter-box.
A lump suddenly rose into Farnham’s throat, and he was conscious that he was trembling violently from head to foot as Pelham took the envelope from the box, glanced carelessly at the address upon it, and then opened it. As his eyes met the name on the enclosed sheet he recoiled, glanced like lightning about the hall, and then, crumpling up paper and envelope, he thrust them into his pocket and was in the street again almost before Farnham could realize what had happened. Lethbridge, alert and as agile as a cat, was after him and at his side before he had taken a dozen steps, and Farnham, looking through the window, saw that there was a brief colloquy, followed by a shrug of Pelham’s shoulders, and then the two men entered a cab and were driven away. “Now for it!” said Farnham to himself, and, calling a cab in his turn, he followed at all speed, in a curious whirl of speculations as to how the matter would end.
He was evidently expected at Scotland Yard, and on giving his name was shown without inquiry into a well-lighted room, where Lethbridge and a military- looking official, who proved to be the inspector, were conversing in a low tone in a corner. Pelham, who had apparently quite recovered his composure, was looking out of the window with his back toward them, standing with his legs well apart, and swinging his walking-stick with an air of supreme unconcern. He glanced indifferently at Farnham as he entered the room, and then, apparently relegating him to the obscurity of the official staff, resumed his former attitude at the window and gazed steadily into the court-yard until the inspector said, “Now then, Mr. Pelham, if you please,” when he turned, showing a face deadly pale, but with features evidently under full command.
“Mr. Pelham,” continued the inspector, with extreme urbanity, “it is probably unnecessary to inform you that we have no power to compel you to give us any information. In fact, it is quite within your discretion to preserve absolute silence if you choose, until you have taken legal counsel. At the same time, as it is quite possible that this is a case of mistaken identity, you can readily avoid further complications, and perhaps your further detention, by answering a few questions.” Here the inspector paused, and Pelham, after a moment’s deliberation, inquired haughtily, “What are the questions?”
“First,” said the inspector, “are you Captain Lansing Black?”
“Captain Black was lost at sea a year ago,” replied Pelham, without manifesting the slightest emotion. “The papers were full of the affair, and you must have known of it through them, if not through the investigations of your own department. The question strikes me as an absurdity.”
“Next,” said the inspector, with unruffled composure, “were you a passenger on the Servia, on her homeward passage in June of last year?”
“I was not,” replied Pelham.
“This gentleman — ” said the inspector, quietly, indicating Farnham by a motion of his head — “is prepared to swear that you were.”
Pelham instantly concentrated his gaze upon Farnham, and regarded him intently for a moment with knitted brows, much to that gentleman’s discomposure. The recognition that must have followed this scrutiny was, however, effectually concealed. Beyond a momentary flush upon his face, Pelham evinced no discomfiture whatever, and, turning to the inspector, said, with a contemptuous smile, “Then this gentleman is prepared to swear to a lie,” adding, with a sudden burst of anger, “what rot all this is!”
“Possibly,” replied the inspector, coolly, “but our description of the man we want tallies so closely with your appearance that the mistake is pardonable. Read it, Mr. Lethbridge,” and Lethbridge, taking a folded paper from his pocket, read as follows, Pelham, meanwhile, fixing his eyes upon the ceiling, and resuming his former expression of nonchalance:
“Height, about five feet ten; erect, military carriage, broad shoulders, small hands and feet; brown eyes, stern in expression, regular features, dark complexion; reserved and haughty manner; wore, when last seen, a full brown beard — ” here the detective paused.
“That doesn’t help me,” remarked Pelham, with cool effrontery; “a man’s beard may turn gray in a twelvemonth, and shaving is, I believe optional.”
“Go on, Lethbridge,” said the inspector, with his eyes steadily riveted on Pelham’s face; and Lethbridge continued — “Had on his left forearm two crossed arrows in India ink — ” when Pelham, removing his gaze from the ceiling, broke in sharply with “What’s that?”
Farnham, who chanced to be watching Lethbridge as he read, saw him exchange a significant glance with the inspector, which for an instant puzzled him; but as he turned his eyes upon Pelham and noticed the expression of his face, the truth burst upon him like a flash. The man had been betrayed into surprise by the mention of this mark in a description of himself.
Pelham instantly saw his mistake, and his features moved convulsively for a moment before he could bring them under control. In the death-like silence that ensued the ticking of the clock was distinctly audible, and it seemed to Farnham’s excited fancy to be solemnly marking off the few minutes that remained before the closing in of the net. Then, with a sang-froid which under the circumstances was amazing, Pelham began to unbutton the sleeve-link on his left wrist. “That is not necessary, Mr. Pelham,” said the inspector, with his deadly gaze still upon the other’s face. “Your word will be sufficient in this case,” with an unpleasant inflection upon the last words which caught Farnham’s alert attention at once. By this time the tension on his nerves had become almost unbearable, and as he moistened his dry lips and clinched his hands, he felt that he was perhaps the most agitated man in the room. Pelham, whose angry flush under the examination had given place to his former deadly pallor, had recovered his nerve and, but for the great beads of sweat upon his forehead, was holding himself well in hand.
The inspector spoke again. “We have one more test to apply, Mr. Pelham,” he said, with an ominous accentuation of the name; and making a sign to Lethbridge, the detective left the room and almost instantly returned, followed by a woman, who stood just within the door gazing at the group with startled eyes. One glance at her showed Farnham a sad, worn face, and a trembling hand shielding the quivering lips, and he recognized the poor creature who stood on the landing-stage a year before, and stayed Leath with her hands against his breast. With this scene thus suddenly recalled to memory, he turned his eyes upon Pelham, who had fixed his gaze with terrible intensity upon the woman’s face, and a strange horror came over him as he saw the semblance of Captain Black apparently fading into a contorted likeness of Leath as if a metempsychosis were unveiling itself before his eyes. The inspector’s voice again broke the silence, addressing the woman. “Mrs. Leath, do you know this man?”
“Stop!” said Pelham, imperiously, before she could reply. “Don’t question her. This lies between ourselves, and you have no concern in it. There is no use in further subterfuge. I shall make proper amends to this injured and deserted woman, and I believe there is no law requiring the detention of a man who has merely absented himself from his home and his wife.”
“None whatever,” replied the inspector, with a grim smile.
“And this gentleman,” continued Pelham, turning with a ghastly smile to Farnham, “will, I hope, pardon the rudeness of a man caught in a hole. The confusion of my face with that of Captain Black was natural enough. We were not altogether unlike, and the lapse of a year might well mislead anyone;” and with this he turned to Mrs. Leath with an assumption of heartiness and held out both his hands. But the woman recoiled with horror in her eyes and with her hands held up to repel him. “God save me!” she cried, tremulously, “it’s like him and it is not. I don’t know him.”
“It’s the beard that confuses you,” said Pelham, anxiously insisting upon his identity. “See, Margaret!” and separating the hair upon his chin, he revealed the hideous scar running downward from the corner of the mouth. “Isn’t that enough?” he added appealingly to Farnham, who could only stare in utter bewilderment at this seemingly incontestable proof; and then realizing that his protestations were being received in ominous silence, he turned to the two officers and cried passionately, “What more, in God’s name, do you want?”
“Well, if it isn’t asking too much,” said the inspector, quite unmoved by this outbreak, “it would be a little more satisfactory to have your wife recognize you.”
“She does recognize me. She must!” exclaimed the suspected man, with desperate eagerness. “We had not met in eighteen years when she saw me land at Liverpool, and I left her there almost without a word. The woman is simply misled by her absurd emotion. Can’t I be allowed even to know who I am?”
“Certainly,” said the inspector, coolly, “but you have been several persons lately. If you are quite sure who you are now, you may expose your left arm. It was Leath who had the mark of the crossed arrows.”
Farnham, glancing at the man who had been so adroitly unmasked, saw him recoil as though he had been stung, and averted his eyes to avoid witnessing the distressing spectacle of collapse which he thought was at hand; but the other, nerving himself for a final defiance, turned his back upon Mrs. Leath with brutal indifference and said, with cool insolence, “I seem to have fallen into your clumsy trap, and,” he added, with a vindictive scowl at Farnham, “I congratulate this gentleman upon his police work as a spy, in running me down. I am Lansing Black. Is there anything more?”
“Yes,” said the imperturbable inspector, “What became of Roger Leath?”
Black glared at him wildly for an instant, and then sank back into a chair and covered his face with his hands, while Mrs. Leath, with a heartrending cry, fell heavily to the floor.
• • • • • • • •
The next morning Farnham was nervously pacing the floor of his breakfast-room, suffering from what may be concisely described as a surfeit of detective work, when Lethbridge was shown in; and a glance at that astute gentleman’s face assured him that matters were not altogether as they should be in the affair of Captain Black. “He swears he never touched Leath,” said the detective, “and we haven’t anything to go on but the circumstantial evidence. I hoped he would break down and confess, but he is as hard as a flint.”
“What explanation does he offer?” inquired Farnham. “The business couldn’t possibly look blacker for him as it stands.”
“Well, his story is pretty straight as it goes,” said Lethbridge. “He says his attention was first attracted to Leath by the scar on his chin, having one precisely like it himself. Then he saw there was enough resemblance between them to pass among strangers if he took off his beard. He swears he wrote the note then without any definite plan and put it into his portmanteau simply to have it already there if he had to act without premeditation. Likewise, he says his idea was to buy up Leath to act with him in some way. That may be or it may not. As luck would have it, Leath drank heavily that night, and Black got his keys from him on pretence of going down to get him some cigars or something of that sort; and when at last they went out of the smoking-room, Leath, who was as full as a lord, put on the other man’s ulster by mistake; so you see things seemed to work pretty handsomely for Captain Black. Now he says the end of it was that Leath insisted on sitting upon the rail, and, by George, the first roll the ship took, over he went.”
“I shouldn’t fancy standing trial on such a yarn as that,” said Farnham.
“No more would I,” said Lethbridge, with a fine idiom, “but there it is. When he was locked up in Leath’s room, of course he read over his papers and was prepared to meet his wife, and by the way, sir, it was his dropping of Mrs. Leath as gave me the clue. He took her out to a cab and told her he’d go and look after his luggage, and that was the last she saw of him. Having been on the ship, I was called in to look him up, but he seems to have an extraordinary way of making way with himself, and I couldn’t find a trace of him. Says he boarded an outgoing sailing-ship and went to Copenhagen, which is likely enough. Now,” continued Mr. Lethbridge, who seemed to have conceived a marked admiration for Farnham’s detective abilities, “I’ve another little thing on hand which perhaps you’d like to follow up with me.”
“Thank you,” said Farnham, dryly; “I believe I’ve had enough.”