The Yellow Claw/Chapter VIII
RETURNING to Scotland Yard, Inspector Dunbar walked straight up to his own room. There he found Sowerby, very red faced and humid, and a taximan who sat stolidly surveying the Embankment from the window.
“Hullo!” cried Dunbar; “he’s turned up, then?”
“No, he hasn’t,” replied Sowerby with a mild irritation. “But we know where to find him, and he ought to lose his license.”
The taximan turned hurriedly. He wore a muffler so tightly packed between his neck and the collar of his uniform jacket, that it appeared materially to impair his respiration. His face possessed a bluish tinge, suggestive of asphyxia, and his watery eyes protruded remarkably; his breathing was noisily audible.
“No, chuck it, mister!” he exclaimed. “I’m only tellin’ you ’cause it ain’t my line to play tricks on the police. You’ll find my name in the books downstairs more’n any other driver in London! I reckon I’ve brought enough umbrellas, cameras, walkin’ sticks, hopera cloaks, watches and sicklike in ’ere, to set up a blarsted pawnbroker’s!”
“That’s all right, my lad!” said Dunbar, holding up his hand to silence the voluble speaker. “There’s going to be no license-losing. You did not hear that you were wanted before?”
The watery eyes of the cabman protruded painfully; he respired like a horse.
“Me, guv’nor!” he exclaimed. “Gor’blimë! I ain’t the bloke! I was drivin’ back from takin’ the Honorable ’Erbert ’Arding ’ome—same as I does almost every night, when the ’ouse is a-sittin’—when I see old Tom Brian drawin’ away from the door o’ Palace Man—”
Again Dunbar held up his hand.
“No doubt you mean well,” he said; “but damme! begin at the beginning! Who are you, and what have you come to tell us?”
“’Oo are I?—’Ere’s ’oo I ham!” wheezed the cabman, proffering a greasy license. “Richard ’Amper, number 3 Breams Mews, Dulwich Village”…
“That’s all right,” said Dunbar, thrusting back the proffered document; “and last night you had taken Mr. Harding the member of Parliament, to his residence in?”—
“In Peers’ Chambers, Westminister—that’s it, guv’nor! Comin’ back, I ’ave to pass along the north side o’ the Square, an’ just a’ead o’ me, I see old Tom Brian a-pullin’ round the Johnny ’Orner,—’im comin’ from Palace Mansions.”
“Mr. Exel only mentioned seeing one cab,” muttered Dunbar, glancing keenly aside at Sowerby.
“Wotcher say, guv’nor?” asked the cabman.
“I say—did you see a gentleman approaching from the corner?” asked Dunbar.
“Yus,” declared the man; “I see ’im, but ’e ’adn’t got as far as the Johnny ’Orner. As I passed outside old Tom Brian, wot’s changin’ ’is gear, I see a bloke blowin’ along on the pavement—a bloke in a high ’at, an’ wearin’ a heye-glass.”
“At this time, then,” pursued Dunbar, “you had actually passed the other cab, and the gentleman on the pavement had not come up with it?”
“’E couldn’t see it, guv’nor! I’m tellin’ you ’e ’adn’t got to the Johnny ’Orner!”
“I see,” muttered Sowerby. “It’s possible that Mr. Exel took no notice of the first cab—especially as it did not come out of the Square.”
“Wotcher say, guv’nor?” queried the cabman again, turning his bleared eyes upon Sergeant Sowerby.
“He said,” interrupted Dunbar, “was Brian’s cab empty?”
“’Course it was,” rapped Mr. Hamper, “’e ’d just dropped ’is fare at Palace Mansions.”…
“How do you know?” snapped Dunbar, suddenly, fixing his fierce eyes upon the face of the speaker.
The cabman glared in beery truculence.
“I got me blarsted senses, ain’t I?” he inquired. “There’s only two lots o’ flats on that side o’ the Square—Palace Mansions, an’ St. Andrew’s Mansions.”
“St. Andrew’s Mansions,” continued Hamper, “is all away!”
“All away! I know, ’cause I used to have a reg’lar fare there. ’E’s in Egyp’; flat shut up. Top floor’s to let. Bottom floor’s two old unmarried maiden ladies what always travels by ’bus. So does all their blarsted friends an’ relations. Where can old Tom Brian ’ave been comin’ from, if it wasn’t Palace Mansions?”
“H’m!” said Dunbar, “you are a loss to the detective service, my lad! And how do you account for the fact that Brian has not got to hear of the inquiry?”
Hamper bent to Dunbar and whispered, beerily, in his ear: “P’r’aps ’e don’t want to ’ear, guv’nor!”
“Oh! Why not?”
“Well, ’e knows there’s something up there!”
“Therefore it’s his plain duty to assist the police.”
“Same as what I does?” cried Hamper, raising his eyebrows. “Course it is! but ’ow d’you know ’e ain’t been got at?”
“Our friend, here, evidently has one up against Mr. Tom Brian!” muttered Dunbar aside to Sowerby.
“Wotcher say, guv’nor?” inquired the cabman, looking from one to the other.
“I say, no doubt you can save us the trouble of looking out Brian’s license, and give us his private address?” replied Dunbar.
“Course I can. ’E lives hat num’er 36 Forth Street, Brixton, and ’e’s out o’ the big Brixton depot.”
“Oh!” said Dunbar, dryly. “Does he owe you anything?”
“Wotcher say, guv’nor?”
“I say, it’s very good of you to take all this trouble and whatever it has cost you in time, we shall be pleased to put right.”
Mr. Hamper spat in his right palm, and rubbed his hands together, appreciatively.
“Make it five bob!” he said.
“Wait downstairs,” directed Dunbar, pressing a bell-push beside the door. “I’ll get it put through for you.”
“Right ’o!” rumbled the cabman, and went lurching from the room as a constable in uniform appeared at the door. “Good mornin’, guv’nor. Good mornin’!”
The cabman having departed, leaving in his wake a fragrant odor of fourpenny ale:—
“Here you are, Sowerby!” cried Dunbar. “We are moving at last! This is the address of the late Mrs. Vernon’s maid. See her; feel your ground, carefully, of course; get to know what clothes Mrs. Vernon took with her on her periodical visits to Scotland.”
“That’s the idea; it is important. I don’t think the girl was in her mistress’s confidence, but I leave it to you to find out. If circumstances point to my surmise being inaccurate—you know how to act.”
“Just let me glance over your notes, bearing on the matter,” said Sowerby, “and I’ll be off.”
Dunbar handed him the bulging notebook, and Sergeant Sowerby lowered his inadequate eyebrows, thoughtfully, whilst he scanned the evidence of Mr. Debnam. Then, returning the book to his superior, and adjusting the peculiar bowler firmly upon his head, he set out.
Dunbar glanced through some papers—apparently reports—which lay upon the table, penciled comments upon two of them, and then, consulting his notebook once more in order to refresh his memory, started off for Forth Street, Brixton.
Forth Street, Brixton, is a depressing thoroughfare. It contains small, cheap flats, and a number of frowsy looking houses which give one the impression of having run to seed. A hostelry of sad aspect occupies a commanding position midway along the street, but inspires the traveler not with cheer, but with lugubrious reflections upon the horrors of inebriety. The odors, unpleasantly mingled, of fried bacon and paraffin oil, are wafted to the wayfarer from the porches of these family residences.
Number 36 proved to be such a villa, and Inspector Dunbar contemplated it from a distance, thoughtfully. As he stood by the door of the public house, gazing across the street, a tired looking woman, lean and anxious-eyed, a poor, dried up bean-pod of a woman, appeared from the door of number 36, carrying a basket. She walked along in the direction of the neighboring highroad, and Dunbar casually followed her.
For some ten minutes he studied her activities, noting that she went from shop to shop until her basket was laden with provisions of all sorts. When she entered a wine-and-spirit merchant’s, the detective entered close behind her, for the place was also a post-office. Whilst he purchased a penny stamp and fumbled in his pocket for an imaginary letter, he observed, with interest, that the woman had purchased, and was loading into the hospitable basket, a bottle of whisky, a bottle of rum, and a bottle of gin.
He left the shop ahead of her, sure, now, of his ground, always provided that the woman proved to be Mrs. Brian. Dunbar walked along Forth Street slowly enough to enable the woman to overtake him. At the door of number 36, he glanced up at the number, questioningly, and turned in the gate as she was about to enter.
He raised his hat.
“Have I the pleasure of addressing Mrs. Brian?”
Momentarily, a hard look came into the tired eyes, but Dunbar’s gentleness of manner and voice, together with the kindly expression upon his face, turned the scales favorably.
“I am Mrs. Brian,” she said; “yes. Did you want to see me?”
“On a matter of some importance. May I come in?”
She nodded and led the way into the house; the door was not closed.
In a living-room whereon was written a pathetic history—a history of decline from easy circumstance and respectability to poverty and utter disregard of appearances—she confronted him, setting down her basket on a table from which the remains of a fish breakfast were not yet removed.
“Is your husband in?” inquired Dunbar with a subtle change of manner.
“He’s lying down.”
The hard look was creeping again into the woman’s eyes.
“Will you please awake him, and tell him that I have called in regard to his license?”
He thrust a card into her hand:—