Memling Must Have an Alibi
Memling Must Have an Alibi
By Rupert Hughes
OF all the house parties that ever house-partied, Doik," Nellie summed up the situation to Memling, "this is soitainly the woist. Mrs. Hostess had to be blackmailed out of the invitation, and Mrs. Guestess and Friend Husband only accepted in pref'runce to goin' to the penitentiary. I'd always hoid that high society folks are bored to death all the time, but I didn't know how doleful they could be. Why, I couldn't be boreder if I was in a solitary cell. It's abs'lutely ghassly, that's all; just ghassly!"
Memling sighed dismally: "The circumstances are not particularly conducive to a jocund entente."
Nellie threw him a startled look. "I got the woid 'soicumstances,' but after that I fell off. But I think the soicumstances are such that we all got a right to be full of glee and moith. Here's you, the greatest sculptor in the woild, making the portrait bust of a grande dame—I suppose swells don't call it bust, but boist—anyway, you ought to be happy dabbling in clay again, but you act like you was kneading red-hot mush and it boint your fingers.
"And here's Mrs. Woithington that ought to be proud as a Toik at having her double chin poipetrated to immortal fame by a great sculptor, but she's acting like she was a shoplifter being held and mugged for the rogues' gallery. "And here's me, that's prayed all my life to get a look-in at high society, and now that I find myself really inside a swell home without committin' boiglary, I'm wondering if I can keep from screaming and chewing up the foiniture one day more.
"There isn't enough cheerfulness in all three of us to make one stingy smile, and we're so dismal that a groan of distress sounds like an outboist of careless rapcher. This morning, when Mrs. Woithington woke up long enough to say 'Could you tell me the time?' it sounded like Gabriel's trumpet in a graveyard.
"It's the foist time I ever realized how long etoinity would be. I spent a coupla etoinities watching you woik this morning, and I can't stand another this afternoon. I just can't. All we do is sit around and think of our past crimes."
And all three of them had crimes to think of. Dirk Memling and Nellie had completed the most ambitious and triumphant crime of their careers—the raid on the Continental Storage Warehouse—and they were, for the first time, closely shadowed by the police.
They had found that a storage warehouse is a vast receptacle for many things besides jewelry, cash securities, silver, clothes, automobiles, paintings, pianos—and what not. In the Continental there were flocks of trunks full of letters, and some of the safe-deposit boxes were choked with legal papers.
Memling and Nellie had brought away many of these, not from a vulgar curiosity, but as a possible shield against future necessities.
When Memling divided up the loot with the twelve professional criminals who had aided him to carry it off, he made an honorable partition of all the proceeds—that is, a lion would have called it a fair partition; he took a third of the total for himself, leaving the balance to be split into twelve parts. In this division he had not included the captured documents, though he considered some of them more valuable than money. In the first place, they could not have been divided without destroying them; and, in the second, since he and Nellie had elected to remain in New York, while the rest scattered to all the points of the compass, he felt that he had a right to the use of these documents for his own defense.
Among the collection, Memling placed chief reliance on what he had found in Police Lieutenant Melick's safe-deposit box—a stack of bills amounting to thirty thousand dollars, and a number of incriminating memoranda showing that the officer had collected the sum through illicit dealings with gamblers.
One of the accomplices had also unearthed in a trunk full of costumes and stage jewelry a bundle of love letters written by the district attorney. They were not written to Mrs. District Attorney. Memling had an idea that these might come in handy in case the police lieutenant or the district attorney grew unpleasantly active.
Nellie, for her part, had slipped into her bosom a document to which Memling had attached no importance. It was simply a certified copy of the decree in the divorce case of a prominent society woman, Mrs. Percy Schermerman, who had named as corespondent a still more prominent woman, Mrs. Willoughby Worthington. The evidence had been sealed, and the yellower papers had toiled in vain to find out just who the prominent corespondent was.
Instinct told Nellie that certain newspapers would pay a fortune for that document, but she did not intend to stoop to its sale. Still, she felt that it might be of use.
It was not many days after the warehouse robbery before Memling realized that they were being shadowed. They dared not attempt flight. What they needed was an alibi. If somebody swore that they were somewhere else at the time of the robbery, this would indicate that they could not have been at the robbery—provided the somebody else was a credible witness, and there were material proofs to substantiate the affidavit.
Memling knew numbers of people who would have sworn him anywhere; they would have cheerfully tossed off an affidavit that they had lunched with him and Peary at the north pole that afternoon, or passed the evening playing pinochle with him on the planet Mars. But to find an alibi affirmer who was at the same time willing to commit perjury and reputable enough to convince the cynical police was something of a task.
It was Nellie that was inspired. Remembering the copy of the Schermerman decree, with its definite mention of the great name of Mrs. Willoughby Worthington, she realized that Mrs. W. W. would move heaven and earth to keep herself out of the limelight. All that would be needed would be the dramatizing of an alibi to support the perjury.
But the scheme for this also came to Nellie in a shower. Memling was dazed but obedient. They gave their shadow the slip by various doublings, turnings, taxicab dashes, and the use of subway stations and buildings with various exits. Then they took train to the Long Island home of Mrs. Worthington. where, according to the newspapers, she was spending a few quiet weeks.
Nellie and Memling came down on her fold like Assyrian wolves. Their visit was as unwelcome as it was unexpected.
Mrs. Worthington was disdainful at first, but humble enough when she understood with what weapon Memling and Nellie were armed. It was a long time since her narrow escape from publicity in the Schermerman divorce had scared her back into a reconciliation with her husband. The reappearance of the old ghost filled her with terror. Her first thought was that Nellie would demand hush money, and she only resolved to pay anything, even to the half of her husband's fortune.
When Nellie announced that the price of silence was merely a little hospitality, and a certain amount of posing for a portrait bust, together with a small amount of perjury, Mrs. Worthington almost fainted with relief.
As she came to herself, she began to fret. The perjury troubled her less than the invitation, for while Mrs. Worthington scattered white lies with a lavish hand, she was as chary of her hospitality as monarchs are of theirs. She felt indeed that one of her invitations to a dinner dance was equivalent to a presentation at court, while an invitation to spend a week-end at her Long Island château was equal to the conferring of a title of nobility.
To have two strangers walk into her house and settle there like squatters, compelling her to entertain them or take the consequences, was appalling. To realize that her guests were fugitives from the law. that they were apt to be visited by the police, and that she must connive with them—well, it was paying a high price for an ancient indiscretion.
She had long ago quarreled with Percy Schermerman, and she had never cared deeply for him. She had flirted with him mainly because she enjoyed the fuming jealousy of his wife. Then the wife had had the insane impulse to sue for divorce, and to name her as a corespondent. It had cost a lot of money and more stratagem to keep the evidence out of the papers.
Such an ordeal for a wild love would have been bitter enough. Such an experience for flirtation's sake was nauseating. The sudden appearance of the two strangers from the underworld, with their uncanny power over her, threw her into a rage against mankind in general, and Percy Schermerman in particular. Yet there was nothing for her to do but submit. She surrendered, and begged Memling and Nellie to be her guests.
Nellie was almost more frightened when she took up her abode under the Worthington roof than if she had been entering a court of justice for trial. She had been born and reared in poverty, and she had grown up into a studio career as a model for artists to whom formalities were as hateful as formulas. She had traveled a bit, and lived for a while in good hotels, but never had she visited an aristocratic home.
She had read novels and stories, and seen plays galore concerning high life, but they were mainly written by authors who knew nothing of their subject, or who evaded the details. According to these writers, life in a mansion was one long dress parade between a double line of liveried servants, through a world in which everybody spoke with painful correctness and elaborate pomposity.
If Mrs. Worthington had lived the life of storybooks, Nellie might have walked through her drawing-room without attracting attention. It was the easy informality and comfort of the home that upset. Nellie. Then, just as she adapted herself to this atmosphere, some little snag of convention tripped her up.
She asked Mrs. Worthington what explanation she gave the household of the unforeseen guests. Mrs. Worthington set her down hard:
"Why should I explain my guests to my servants? So long as they get their outrageous wages it is enough."
It was magnificent, but untrue. The servants betrayed the most feverish interest in Memling and Nellie. Nellie's dialect put her out of the pale of Mrs. Worthington's normal list at once. Memling they could understand, but Nellie—Mrs. Worthington entertained many strange people, eccentric singers, actresses, lions, and lionesses of every sort, and foreigners of various degree, but Nellie——
The keyholes were never so closely attended, and ears were never so alert. But they found out nothing, for Memling and Nellie were secretive by profession. When any exchange of confidence was necessary, Mrs. Worthington led her guests out to the beach, where the resounding surf drowned their words.
The French maid who waited upon Nellie and the Englishman assigned to Memling pumped and questioned with the most persistent adroitness, but learned nothing.
All that Mrs. Worthington told them was that Mr. and Mrs. Memling were to stay several days, and that they had spent the previous Saturday night there. The servants had not known of this, and eyebrows went up, but Mrs. Worthington brought them down again by the frown on her own.
"Remember," she commanded, "if inquiries are made by any one, you are to say, and to swear, that Mr. and Mrs. Memling were here last Saturday, and spent the night here."
Since a large part of a servant's business is telling the employer's lies, this demand caused no mutiny, though it inflamed vain curiosity still further.
Meanwhile Memling was at work. He had telephoned to a dealer in art materials to send at once a modeling stand, a sculptor's tools, and a quantity of clay. While these were coming he was building up an armature to support the clay with pieces of lead pipe and wire obtained in the village.
There followed laborious mussy hours of breaking the soppy clay up into small pellets and kneading them bit by bit into the general mass of the bust. Then he was ready, and he summoned Mrs. Worthington to pose. He was anxious to get the work well under way before the first detective, like the first snowflake, brought on the winter of discontent.
Mrs. Worthington was reluctant to pose, and Memling found her an uninspiring subject. She was oppressed by the knowledge that he knew the great dark secret of her life. He was oppressed by the fact that she knew a black page in his life. It was small wonder that the atmosphere was as gloomy as Nellie pictured it.
But a little later Nellie was longing for the old boredom again in place of the new excitement, for Mrs. Worthington began to take an interest in Memling. At first it was the deft ingenuities of his gifted hands that caught her. Then she made him talk, and his ideas fascinated her. He was a gentleman born and bred, and they met as peers.
After the Schermerman escape she had vowed to herself and her forgiving husband that she would never flirt again. But as the inveterate gambler returns to the wheel after every calamity, so the soul addicted to flirtation reverts to type as soon as the chance recurs.
As soon as Mrs. Worthington realized that Memling was handsome, brilliant, curiously attractive, she decided that he was far too good for the creature he called his wife. With exquisite gradations from insolence to tolerance to politeness to interest to cordiality, she began-a flirtation that rendered Memling uncomfortable, and infuriated Nellie.
"We threw an awful scare into that dame at foist," said Nellie, "but she's beginning to poik up sumpum dreadful. She's beginning to floit with you."
"Oh, you mustn't misunderstand her," Memling protested. "That's just her way of being courteous."
"Coiteous? I'll coiteous her! That female would floit with St. Peter at the poily gates. But she'd better toin down the light in those goo-goo lamps of hers, or I'll scratch 'em out and throw 'em in her face."
Memling protested, but Nellie was not to be appeased. She persisted in being present at the sittings. Her eyes followed every move of artist and model.
Her presence reduced Mrs. Worthington to silence, and as Memling hardly dared look at his subject he made little progress. The very atmosphere of the room became so stupid and morose and silent that the boredom drove Nellie for a long walk on the beach. Which was perhaps what Mrs. Worthington planned. For when Nellie returned, she heard Mrs. Worthington chattering like a magpie, and Memling laughing with more than polite interest.
Mrs. Worthington was saying:
"After all, there isn't any figure more picturesque than Claude Duval, or Dick Turpin, do you think so? If one is a gentleman it doesn't matter so much about his profession, does it? I always believe that manners are far more important than morals, don't you? In fact, they are the highest kind of morals—don't you think so? Or do you?"
Nellie retreated from the door in a sick disgust. She tiptoed back to the veranda, stretched herself out on a chaise longue of rattan, and wished to die.
Wild projects thrilled her to break up the sitting, and snatch Memling's susceptible soul from the lair of the siren.
As she fretted, there was a soft step on the walk, and Mr. Willoughby Worthington appeared. He was all in white, and about to go aboard his yacht. His scholarly eye had noted Nellie's beauty. As she lounged, relaxed and pouting, she was particularly attractive. He lifted his yachting cap and invited her to join him while the others worked.
Nellie hated to be away from Dirk under any circumstances. To leave him with that outrageous fisherwoman was dangerous. She shook her head and informed Mr. Worthington that she was "just as much obliged, commodore"—he was the commodore of his yacht club—"but no, thank you."
The commodore looked disappointed, and insisted. While he was urging her, Nellie was remembering that absence is said to make the heart grow fonder. She wondered if it would not be the best tactics to leave Memling alone with his old "frump of a grande damn"—Nellie thought of her now with an "n." She knew that Memling had a gift for jealousy, and she sometimes felt that she neglected it too much. If he really loved her, he would think more about her if she were out yachting with another man than if she were helplessly sulking in a chair while he sculped another woman. If he really loved her he would be truer to her in her trusting absence than under her suspicious espionage.
The third time the commodore repeated his invitation, she nodded Yes, and went to the door of the room set apart as a studio, to say:
"Pardong, Doik, but the commodore is oiging me to take a little stroll in his yacht, and I thought I would—wouldn't you or would you?"
Memling turned an anxious face her way, and frowned privately at her.
"I—I'm afraid you—well, of course—but—do you think——"
"All right; good-by!" said Nellie, and she hastened with the commodore to where a small motor boat bobbed and grided the little pier. He called it the Porpoise, and it went out to the yacht in a series of looping leaps that justified its name, and gave Nellie cause for intense internal anxiety.
Once aboard the lugger, Nellie was still miserabler.
"It's funny," she burbled, "from the veranda the water looked so smooth and basky, but it's full of holes and ruts, isn't it?"
To the Greeks the stomach was the organ of the affections, and perhaps it was her troubled affections that kept Nellie so ill at ease during the short spin. Perhaps it was jealousy that gave her complexion so green a pallor. She tried to talk fast enough to forget her distress, but she was afraid to laugh much.
The only comfort she had was in seeing the distant figure of Memling watching the boat from the Worthington lawn. She could tell by his very outline that he was wretchedly anxious, and she rejoiced to think that Mrs. Worthington was gaining small advantage from having him alone.
Once she was assured of Memling's devotion, Nellie found no delight in his torment. She loved him top well. She begged the commodore to drop her at the next stop, and the commodore, who had been trying the same tactics with his own spouse, was glad enough to return.
Nellie put it down to Mrs. Worthington's credit that she, too, had understood, and undergone jealousy during the promenade of the yacht. She could be heard berating the commodore for gadding about with that creature. At the same time Memling was rendering Nellie deliciously happy by storming at her for eloping "with that old roué."
"It's no woise for me to go sailing with an old roué," she answered, "than for you to stay here floiting with an old rouette."
"But I'm not floiting—flirting with her!" Memling raged.
"Oh, no," Nellie flared back, with an excellent concealment of her real joy. "I didn't hear her calling you 'Claude Duval,' and 'Dick Toipentine,' and saying 'manners are better than morals,' and 'don't you or do you?' did I? Oh, no!"
"All I gotta say is, if she don't watch out, I'll take that bust you're makin', and bust it over her head."
Memling cast up his hands in despair. "Well, I give up. It was your idea, and I've tried to carry it out. The man who tried to get anywhere with two women in double harness is bound to get a smash-up. I'll go back to town and let the police take me to the nice quiet penitentiary, where there are no women at all."
The mention of the penitentiary brought Nellie back to earth. The hot flashes of jealousy gave way to a cold sweat of terror. She had almost forgotten that she was in more danger of losing Memling to the law than to this lady, and that the penitentiary would divorce them more effectually than any flirtation.
"We're soitainly a pair of Its," said Nellie. "You'd think we was a coupla millionaires tryin' to kill time instead of a coupla boiglars tryin' to keep from doin' it. We've got our alibi all built up, but when are we going to get a chance to use it? I've been expecting to see a platoon of coppers pop out of every sand dune. But we're desoited completely. It's getting on my noives."
"They don't know where we are," said Memling. "We left no clew. We'd better enjoy our peace while it lasts."
"But I'm afraid our alibi will get stale. If they come after us now, while we're all primed up, maybe we can persuade 'em that we couldn't have been in on the burglary, and maybe they'll drop us. But if we wait they'll catch us when we're not ready."
"That's true," Memling admitted. "We'd better get it over with. I'll go back to the studio and let the shadow pick me up and follow me here."
"Oh, no, you won't," said Nellie. "The coppers would pick you up and slam you in jail. Then the newspapers would headline us, and Mrs. Woithington would toin against us. We gotta do the job right here—and the sooner the quicker."
"But how am I to get the police here? I can't call them up and invite them down for the week-end."
"You telephone the janitor to forward your mail here, and he'll tell the police as fast as he can get to 'em."
"Do you think he would give us away?"
"Give us away? That janitor wouldn't give away one yank at the dumb-waiter rope. But he'll sell his own wife for thoity cents. You can bet the shadow is in touch with him, and if he can touch the shadow, he will, all right, all right."
Memling obeyed Nellie's impulse. The janitor was so happy to hear his voice, and so careful to get the address right that Memling was convinced of the man's eagerness to sell the knowledge to the police.
"They'll be here on the milk train in the morning," said Nellie, "and they'll be disguised as everything on oith except coppers. We'd better spend this evening rehoising our alibi."
There was a sudden zero in their hearts as they realized that they were approaching the. great duel of wits with the detectives. Success meant so much; failure meant the end of everything except life—and what was life without liberty and the pursuit of happiness?
The commodore was fortunately called to a meeting of the house committee of his yacht club, and the evening was devoted to perfecting the alibi.
A complete series of events was constructed and memorized, rehearsed, altered, and rerehearsed. Memling tried to forestall every possible flaw in the story. He played the part of an imaginary detective, and put Mrs. Worthington, Nellie, and himself through grueling cross-examinations.
The consequence was that as fast as he elaborated a satisfactory story, he destroyed its plausibility by some question revealing some unforeseen contradiction. As fast as a story was memorized, it was ordered off the books. Chaos soon reigned supreme.
Mrs. Worthington began to complain of brain fag, and Nellie to grow hysterical. Memling himself felt the invasion of panic.
"It's small wonder that crime is difficult," he mused aloud, "for the criminal has to take things as they come. A playwright can imagine his own people and his own plot, and then, after he has worked over it for years, and after a company has rehearsed it for weeks—when it is played it may be found so full of contradictions that the lowest brow in the gallery won't accept it. And yet some people blame criminals for lack of imagination and intelligence."
Mrs. Worthington was worn to peevishness, and she observed contemptuously:
"They show their lack of intelligence in attempting the crime in the first place. And as for imagination, if they had any they would realize that they are bound to be caught."
"Not necessarily," said Memling, "for the people who are set to catch them are sometimes even less intelligent and even less imaginative. And the coarsest work sometimes goes undetected, the plainest clews overlooked. Do you know that about two-thirds of the crimes are never traced, and three-fourths of the stolen goods never recovered?"
"Still I insist," Mrs. Worthington snapped, "that anybody who attempts a crime is a fool!"
Memling met her discourtesy with a helpless shrug. But Nellie was furious.
"Not forgetting that there's crimes and crimes," she said; "as I obsoived once before, there's other commandments besides the one against stealing. It's a crime to dally with the seventh, and dames that steal other dames' husbands lack imagination and intelligence, too, sometimes; and sometimes they get caught, too. Sometimes the clews toin up in the most unexpected places. Now, there's the unknown thoid party in the Schoimerman case "
Mrs. Worthington wilted. "I surrender!" she sighed. "Go on with the rehearsal."
When the commodore-came back from the meeting of what the club called the "souse committee," the three conspirators had just put the finishing touches to the final story that seemed best fitted to stand the strain of examination.
Seeing their jaded look, the commodore queried a trifle foggily:
"Wash been doing all evening—playing brizzh?"
"Blindman's buff," said Nellie dolefully.
The next morning opened with a warning of battle, as Nellie had feared. The maid Berthe, who brought the coffee and rolls to the Memling bedroom, announced that they had already had a visitor.
"What sort of a visitor, Boit?" said Nellie. "A gentleman?"
"Non, madame, not a zhontlymon; zhoost a man."
"How was he dressed—in uniform?"
"Non, madame, he is not a soldat—zhoost a man—beeg man wit' two shoulders enormous. He carried a hat to his head, a suit of beesnees, a—I do not know what."
"His feet—how were his feet?"
"Very grand, madame, and very flat."
Nellie turned to Memling: "I knew it! They can disguise anything except their feet." She turned to Berthe: "And what did he have to say for himself, Boit?"
"Nossing for himself, madame. Me, I do not go to the door, but I hear heem ask the second man much question—when are you come here, how long you stay, and I do not know what."
"What did the second baseman say?"
"He say you are come feerst for Saturday a week ago, and then you are come back for veesit and make the bust of madame."
Nellie sighed with relief. "Doik, you'll have to slip that second baseman a little extra pin money. He remembered what he was taught. Say, Boit, did the flattie go away? Did the man go away?"
"Mais oui, madame."
"God bless our home!" said Nellie. "But he will come back when you are up."
And then Berthe bustled away, leaving the couple to renewed alarm. The detective had not been convinced by the servant's lie!
When they were bathed and dressed and downstairs, it was nearly noon, and Mrs. Worthington had not appeared. Nellie insisted on having her routed out for a dress rehearsal. The hostess proceeded to have an acute attack of stage fright; she threatened to turn her guests over to the police on her own testimony; she threatened to vanish, and leave them to their own resources. But their counterthreat of exposing her complicity in the Schermerman scandal always brought her back to terms. Mr. Worthington, having long ago decided to give and take forgiveness for his wife's and his own wanderings from the straight and narrow path of discretion, had also gallantly determined to protect her from the world. He added his powerful influence to the cause.
Everybody waited impatiently for the officer to return, but he did not appear. At length Memling made out a burly figure on a bench on the lawn near the beach. He made out other figures lounging about the different exits from the place. It was evident that during the night a cordon had been drawn around the Worthington estate. They were under siege.
Believing that the best defense is attack, Memling determined to make a sally. After an examination through the commodore's marine glasses, he decided that the man on the front beach was Lieutenant Melick himself in plain clothes. He decided to beard the lion before the lion sprang at him. Nellie protested frantically, but Memling answered that if they were to be taken it would happen inside the house or out.
He lighted a cigar, and, setting his cap jauntily on his head, sauntered out toward the burly figure, which rose burlily to meet him with a policeman's hoarse inquiry:
"Ain't your name Memling?"
"I have that melancholy honor."
"Well, I've come for you."
"Have you indeed? That's flattery! Do you want a portrait bust of yourself, your wife——"
"I've got orders to arrest you."
"Is my work so bad?"
"Purty coarse, the last bit."
"You saw it, then—you mean the statue of the dryad."
"Statue nothin'. I mean the Continental Storage Warehouse."
"But I never did any work for that building. Oh, yes, that's the place that was robbed! I read something about it. Had they a statue of mine there? Have they caught the robbers?"
"We've caught one."
"Congratulations! And is he in jail?"
"Not yet. I'm goin' to take him there now. Come along quiet."
Memling made a polite effort to control his laughter. "You policemen are wonderful. How did you find me out?"
"Oh, we don't tell all we know."
"And perhaps you don't know all you tell. When was the warehouse robbed?"
"Last Sat'day week."
"Why, let me see—I was—I was—Saturday, you say? Yes, I was here that day, and spent the night here."
"Ah, go on! We had you shaddered all last week in New York."
"Had you, indeed? I hope I behaved myself, or did I? Yes, I went back from here to make my arrangements to come out here to work. I've been here several days, and the bust is coming along swimmingly."
"Oh, swim out!"
"You don't believe me?"
"Would you believe the bust?"
"Would you believe Mr. or Mrs. Worthington and the servants?"
"That depends. Can I talk to 'em?"
"I don't know. Mrs. Worthington is rather careful whom she meets."
"I guess not, seein' she's harborin' youse two."
"Come see the bust, anyway."
The officer waddled alongside, and Memling chose the opportunity to upset the man's odious complacency. But he did not confess that he recognized him as Melick.
"Do you know your face is very familiar to me," said Memling graciously, and received an ungracious answer: "Us cops' mugs gets familiar to crooks."
"Undoubtedly; but I've seen your picture in the paper—only the other day, wasn't it?"
The officer flushed. His picture had been published in connection with the gambling upheaval. He was spoken of and illustrated as the pickpocket's friend, the grafter extraordinary, and the next suspect to be called before the grand jury for indictment.
Memling had gained the first point. He had reminded the strong arm of the law that it was liable to the law. He knew perfectly well that the published portrait was Melick's, but he said:
"I can't remember your name, officer, but I never forget a face. I can't remember whether or not you were praised or blamed, but your face I can't forget."
Melick passed his handkerchief around his collar. It was a warmish day, and he had a bull neck.
"Melick is my name," he growled.
"Mellen?" said Memling. "That's right; I remember now. Inspector Mellen, isn't it?"
"Not yet," Melick grunted.
"But it surely will be soon," Memling beamed. "I don't know much about police affairs, but with so many policemen going to Sing Sing promotions must be very rapid, and you look to me like an ambitious man. You leave no stomach unturned—I mean no stone unturned. Fancy, now, you're being so thorough as to visit the home of so prominent a man as Commodore Worthington and accuse a starving sculptor of having carried off a whole storage warehouse. I'm flattered. You know even Samson only carried off the gates of Gaza, while I pocketed an entire building."
Melick was as angry as a bull nagged by a gnat. He shook his horns wrathfully. Memling led him to the door, and the old butler admitted them.
"Will you tell Mr. and Mrs. Worthington," said Memling, "that Captain Mellen is calling?"
Melick was too sullen to correct him, but he beckoned the old man out on the veranda, where he questioned him as to the dates of Memling's visit. The old butler corroborated Memling's statement with the perfect technique of a lifetime of vicarious falsehood.
Melick's assurance was further shaken at this. He was ushered into the sumptuous living room, and placed in a delicate chair, which promised to crumble underneath his weight at the least motion. This added to his discomfort. Then Mr. and Mrs. Worthington came in. They were as nervous as if they were themselves the criminals. But the lieutenant was more uneasy. He made the fatal mistake of apologizing first. He who apologized to Mrs. Worthington was lost. She immediately became haughty and insolent, as only she could be.
Melick regretted to trouble them, but there had been a big job pulled off, and he was after the crook. Nellie slipped into the room, and dropped into a chair, to be greeted by a searching gaze from Melick, which she met with a look of angelic innocence.
The commodore blustered and stormed at the invasion of his sacred home. He demanded the evidence, but Melick declined it. He mentioned the date of the robbery, and Memling interposed:
"The droll thing about it is that I happened to be here on that date."
"That's true!" the commodore growled. "He came down to see about making a bust of my wife."
"So he pretended to me," said Melick.
"Pretended!" the commodore roared. "Do you mean to insinuate——"
"I ain't insinuatin' nothin'," Melick muttered. "Lemme see that bust."
They led him to the room where Memling had worked. The sculptor lifted the wet cloths from the clay, and Mrs. Worthington stood by it. Rough as the work was, the likeness was evident, though Melick could not enjoy the artistic power of it. Mrs. Worthington, however, looked at it with a new appreciation of its possibilities. It was like looking into a mirror. And she loved her mirror.
Memling tore a handful of wet clay from the base of the bust, and began to work it over in his hands while Melick attempted the rôle of prosecuting attorney:
"When did he begin the thing?"
"Saturday," said Mrs. Worthington.
"Last Saturday?" She nodded. "But the rob'ry was Sat'd'y week."
"I came down to arrange " Memling began, but Melick cut him off. "Let her talk."
"He came down to arrange the sittings a week before—didn't you?" said Mrs. Worthington. Memling nodded.
"How did he come down? By train, boat, trolley?"
"By train, I think—or did you motor down?"
"By——" Memling began.
"Let her do the talking!" Melick growled. "What train did he come on?"
"I never remember such things," said Mrs. Worthington. "It was early in the afternoon, I think."
"I came by the two-thirty-eight," said Memling, remembering the train he arrived on the Friday before.
Melick pulled out a train schedule, and pushed a forefinger like an eclair along it. "That train don't run Sat'days," he grinned triumphantly.
"Quite true," said Memling; "that was the train I came back on. I forget the time of the other."
"Oh, you do, do you?"
"Yes; I'm not a time-table, you know—I'm only a——"
"Well, how did you come to the house?"
"I picked up a cab at the station."
"Would you remember the man?"
"Yes. No, I—let me see."
Mrs. Worthington intervened. "I sent my car down for you—don't you remember?"
"Of course you did."
"Where's the cheffure?"
The commodore, who knew the trains by heart, summoned the butler.
"Go ask Bawson if I didn't send him to the station a week ago last Saturday to meet Mr. Memling on the two-twenty-six."
"The two-twenty-six, yes, sir."
Melick interposed: "Bring him here to me!" The chauffeur was fetched, and testified that he had indeed gone to meet the two-twenty-six. He remembered it so well because the limousine had split a shoe, and he had to take the runabout.
Melick let him go. He was baffled by the confirmation at every hand, yet the exactness of the memories rendered him suspicious. He turned to Mrs. Worthington.
"Who told you this man Memling was a good sculpture?" he demanded.
"Oh, everybody knows Mr. Memling's work."
"I don't. Who told you about him specially?"
"Mrs. Harry Creighton, I think, advised me to——"
"Where can I see Mrs. Creighton?"
"In Paris, I think. She sailed Saturday."
Melick pondered: "O' course, I ain't doubting you, but how do I know Memling done that bust? How do I know he's a artist?"
Memling held in front of him the lump of clay he had been thumbing. It was now a little portrait of the lieutenant—a hasty improvisation, yet so strangely like that the others laughed, and Melick flushed. He liked Memling none the better for either the caricature or the proof of his ability. He thrashed about with other questions in awkward determination to find a contradiction. When Mrs. Worthington slipped, Memling corrected her, till he insisted that Memling and Nellie be sent from the room.
Memling and Nellie withdrew in a manner of amused contempt, but once away from the baleful presence of Melick, they gazed at each other in an access of terror. They waited outside like collaborating playwrights on a first night, wondering what the fateful verdict was to be, and helpless to correct or revise.
They could not know what questions were being asked, what answers given, or what opinions formed. They could not interpose or prompt. They could only wait.
But Melick was in better hands than theirs. He could not treat the Worthingtons as crooks. He could not imagine a reason for their harboring criminals. The divorce scandal never occurred to him in his wildest gropings for a theory. He was soon on the defensive, trying to justify his own presence at a gentleman's home accusing a gentle artist of a daring burglary. Once he was on the retreat, Mrs. Worthington shriveled him with sarcasm, and the commodore crumpled him with indignation.
His next appearance before Memling was when he backed out, apologetic, from the presence of the Worthingtons, who had snubbed presumptuous people all their lives till they were champions.
Melick mumbled his regrets to Memling, too, but there was an ugly look in his eye. His evidence against Memling was feeble and disconnected, and not ready for the eye of a jury, and yet there were links in it that confirmed his instinct.
There was a subdued rejoicing over his exit. But Memling saw that the cordon was not withdrawn. Strange men loitered about the gates; they were dressed like civilians, but their carriage was that of policemen on fixed post.
"We're not out of the woods yet," Memling sighed.
"And we're going to stay in 'em," Nellie announced. "If we step outside, we'll be nabbed and hurried off to New York for the thoid degree."
At Mrs. Worthington's request, Memling resumed work on the bust, but his mind was working over other problems. His fingers, however, were so practiced in their art that while one part of his brain was laboring over the problem of escape, the other was fashioning Mrs. Worthington's image into a thing of art and beauty, with which she fell more and more in love.
All that day the cordon remained. And the next morning the same figures were visible like hungry wolves on the prowl about a sheepfold.
"Doik, we gotta do sumpum to shake off that Melick mut," said Nellie. "We can't stay here forever. I think I'd rather be in the pen than spend a life sentence here watching Mrs. Worthington pouring the love light from her eyes on you, and dodging the old commodore's impoitinent advances to me."
"If I only had those documents of Melick's here, I could scare him to death. I wasn't as wise as I thought I was when I put them in the Continental Warehouse. For now I can't get them without going to town, and, once I leave this castle, they'll never let me come back."
"There's the commodore's yacht," said Nellie.
"An inspiration!" said Memling. "But I can't get out to it without running the gantlet."
"Let me think!" said Nellie. And he let her think.
She came up from the depths of meditation with a new scheme.
"It sounds loony," she said. "But it's woith trying." So they tried it.
The Worthingtons agreed to it. The commodore welcomed any effort that might relieve him of the burden of his guests. His skipper, coming ashore for instructions, was ordered to take out with him a suit case of Memling's clothes and bring one of the sailors back.
When he returned, the Jacky was instructed to slip off his jacket and flaring breeches and go to bed. Memling dressed himself as a sailor, and went out with the skipper to the launch. The commodore, Mrs. Worthington, and Nellie made themselves conspicuous on the veranda.
Memling reached the pier without being held up, and the motor boat hastened him to the yacht. The anchor came up with a rush, and the vessel turned her nose to New York. Memling retired to a stateroom and emerged in his own clothes. The yacht dropped him in a dinghy at an unfrequented slip, and he made his way to his club, found in his letter box the self-addressed envelope containing the safe-deposit keys, and took a taxicab to the warehouse.
There he asked for his safe-deposit box, and retired to one of the little cells. He copied the memoranda which proved Melick's association with gamblers, and his blackmailing methods toward the very outlaws he was hired to suppress. Then he took from the bundle of Melick's money a thousand-dollar bill, and with deep reluctance decided to return it to him.
Then he wrote with a laborious left hand the following:
Loot. Mellic.Dere Sir: i take my pen in han to inform you you better drop the storag warehous mater and turn yure atenshun to fixing up yure oan case i got away with yure do and yure papers if you doan believe it here is a coppy of part of yure papers i will male the origernal to the districk aturny if you munky any more around this case then you wil go to the pen like what you want me to do so to show you i got you were the hare is short i send you one of yure thousand dolar bils if you are a good boy i wil send you another sum day if you dont take a frens advise you wil get no more mony and a trip up the river to you Now were. Yours truely,
Yure Fren X.
Memling addressed the envelope in the same scrawl, marked it "pursonel," inclosed the thousand dollars with a sigh, and pocketed it. He addressed another envelope to himself at the club, to take the keys back to a safe place where they could not be found if he were searched.
Then he copied quickly three of the district attorney's love letters, and, placing the copies inside the lining of his waistcoat, restored the box to the vault, slipped the keys into the envelope, summoned a taxicab, and ordered the driver to take him to a saloon near a pier downtown.
At an obscure corner on the lower East Side, he stopped the cab a moment while he dropped the letters into a post box.
When the cab had left him at the saloon, he bought a few atrocious cigars, loitered about as if waiting for some one, and vanished at the side door. At the slip he found the dinghy waiting, and he was promptly put aboard the yacht.
On the way back to the Worthingtons' he felt in a mood to enjoy the sunset triumphing in splendor along the sky and the bay. The Statue of Liberty held up her torch as if to show him the way to freedom.
He put on the sailor's clothes again. His own suit case, repacked, was dumped into a hamper of vegetables, with which he descended into the motor boat. Once at the pier he assumed his most sailorish gait, and toted his hamper round to the kitchen door.
As soon as it was possible to restore the costume to the imprisoned Jacky, that sailor issued from the kitchen, and went back to the yacht. None of the idle sentinels suspected that the uniform had housed two men that day.
Nellie had suffered agonies of terror for Memling. She overwhelmed him with devotion when he was safe in her arms again, and he told her of his adventures as if they were the chronicles of Sindbad.
"If you're Sindbad," she said, "old Melick is In-bad. Watch him back out."
The next morning the cordon was still decorating the environs. But at noon it was mysteriously removed.
Memling and Nellie began to enjoy the luxury of the Worthington home.
The bust progressed but slowly. Memling was willing to take his time about it now. Sometimes, like another Penelope, he undid at night what he had woven the day before.
Days went by, and formed into weeks. The warehouse robbery was not mentioned in the news. Then those who had lost their treasure began a new agitation. There were letters in the papers, and Melick's name began to be used in terms of reproach.
One morning the district attorney announced that owing to Melick's dereliction he would himself take up the matter.
The next day the ambitious gentleman received in his mail a letter inclosing a letter. The handwriting was crude. He read the inclosed first. He was bewildered and amused by the silly, lovesick treacle of it. He read the letter attached to it. It informed him with distorted syntax and spelling that the inclosure was a copy of one of his own letters found in a trunk in the storage warehouse. The trunk belonged to an actress famous for the number and fervor of her love affairs on and off the stage.
The district attorney turned again to his letter. It had a sadly different look in the cold perspective of time. It began:
"Oh, my wonderful, my only soul's own soul——"
The letter on his desk warned him that the writer of it held a "large bundle of these "billy dooz," and that the sample was the mildest of the lot. The writer advised the district attorney to mind his own business, and leave the warehouse case alone. Otherwise the letters would be sent to Lieutenant Melick, the newspapers, and to others who might enjoy them.
In the next day's papers the district attorney announced, in a feverish interview, that, having discovered important clews, he was to devote all his time to stamping out graft among the aldermen.
And thus, by the old strategy of meeting fire with fire, Memling escaped disaster—at least for the time being.
Refreshed by the sense of liberty, he attacked the bust with ardor, and finished it with genius in full flight. Mrs. Worthington was so rejoiced at the success of it that she sent for the best bronze founders in America, and ordered it cast in perennial form. Memling thought that some day he might put it into marble himself. And Mr. Worthington offered to send him to Italy for the purpose. Nellie volunteered to go along.
Mr. Worthington would gladly have sent him to a yet warmer region. And Nellie would have insisted on going along—even there.