The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 1/Chapter 3
THE MOTHER LODE
IT was the following evening, and they had dined together again at the St. James Club—Jimmie Dale, and Carruthers of the Morning News-Argus, From Clayton and a discussion of the Metzer murder, the conversation had turned, not illogically, upon the physiognomy of criminals in general. Jimmie Dale, lazily ensconced now in a lounging chair in one of the club's private library rooms, flicked a minute speck of cigar ash from the sleeve of his dinner jacket, and smiled whimsically across the table at his friend.
"Oh, I dare say there's a lot in physiognomy, Carruthers," he drawled. "Never studied the thing, you know—that is, from the standpoint of crime. Personally, I've only got one prejudice: I distrust, on principle, the man who wears a perennial and pompous smirk—which isn't, of course, strictly speaking, physiognomy at all. You see, a man can't help his eyes being beady or his nose pronounced, but pomposity and a smirk, now——" Jimmie Dale shrugged his shoulders.
Carruthers laughed—and then glanced ludicrously at Jimmie Dale, as the door, ajar, was pushed open, and a man entered.
"Speaking of angels," murmured Jimmie Dale—and sat up in his chair. "Hello, Markel!" he observed casually. "You've met Carruthers, of the News-Argus, haven't you?"
Markel was fat and important; he had beady black eyes, fastidiously trimmed whiskers—and a pronounced smirk.
Markel blew his nose vigorously, coughed asthmatically, and held out his hand.
"Of course, certainly," said he effusively. "I've met Carruthers several times—used his sheet more than once to advertise a new bond flotation."
The dominant note in Markel's voice was an ingratiating and unpleasant whine, and Carruthers nodded, not very cordially—and shook hands.
Markel went back to the door, closed it carefully, and returned to the table.
"Fact is," he smiled confidentially, "I saw you two come in here a few minutes ago, and I've got something that I thought Carruthers might be glad to have for his society column—say, in the Sunday edition."
He dove into the inside pocket of his coat, produced a large morocco leather jeweller's case, and, holding it out over the table between Carruthers and Jimmie Dale, suddenly snapped the cover open—and then, with a complacent little chuckle that terminated in another fit of coughing, spilled the contents on the table under the electric reading lamp.
Like a thing of living, pulsing fire it rolled before their eyes—a magnificent diamond necklace, of wondrous beauty, gleaming and scintillating as the light rays shot back from a thousand facets.
For a moment, both men gazed at it without a word.
"Little surprise for my wife," volunteered Markel, with a debonair wave of his pudgy hand, and trying to make his voice sound careless.
The case lay open—patently displaying the name of the most famous jewelry house in America. Jimmie Dale's eyes fixed on Markel's whiskers where they were brushed outward in an ornate and fastidious gray-black sweep.
"By Jove!" he commented. "You don't do things by halves, do you, Markel?"
Two hundred and ten thousand dollars I paid for that little bunch of gewgaws," said Markel, waving his hand again. Then he clapped Carruthers heartily on the shoulder. "What do you think of it, Carruthers—eh? Say, a photograph of it, and one of Mrs. Markel—eh? Please her, you know—she's crazy on this society stunt—all flubdub to me, of course. How's it strike you, Carruthers?"
Carruthers, very evidently, liked neither the man nor his manners, but Carruthers, above everything else, was a gentleman.
"To be perfectly frank with you, Mr. Markel," he said a little frigidly, "I don't believe in this sort of thing. It's all right from a newspaper standpoint, and we do it; but it's just in this way that owners of valuable jewelry lay themselves open to theft. It simply amounts to advising every crook in the country that you have a quarter of a million at his disposal, which he can carry away in his vest pocket, once he can get his hands on it—and you invite him to try."
Jimmie Dale laughed. "What Carruthers means, Markel, is that you'll have the Gray Seal down your street. Carruthers talks of crooks generally, but he thinks in terms of only one. He can't help it. He's been trying so long to catch the chap that it's become an obsession. Eh, Carruthers?"
Carruthers smiled seriously. "Perhaps," he admitted. "I hope, though, for Mr. Markel's sake, that the Gray Seal won't take a fancy to it—if he does, Mr. Markel can say good-bye to his necklace."
"Pouf!" coughed Markel arrogantly. "Overrated! His cleverness is all in the newspaper columns. If he knows what's good for him, he'll know enough to leave this alone."
Jimmie Dale was leaning over the table poking gingerly with the tip of his forefinger at the centre stone in the setting, revolving it gently to and fro in the light—a very large stone, whose weight would hardly be less than fifteen carats. Jimmie Dale lowered his head for a closer examination—and to hide a curious, mocking little gleam that crept into his dark eyes.
"Yes, I should say you're right, Markel," he agreed judicially. "He ought to know better than to touch this. It—it would be too hard to dispose of."
"I'm not worrying," declared Markel importantly.
"No," said Jimmie Dale. "Two hundred and ten thousand, you said. Any special—er—significance to the occasion, if the question's not impertinent? Birthday, wedding anniversary—or something like that?"
"No, nothing like that!" Markel grinned, winked secretively, and rubbed his hands together. "I'm feeling good, that's all—I'm going to make the killing of my life to-morrow."
"Oh!" said Jimmie Dale.
Markel turned to Carruthers. "I'll let you in on that, too, Carruthers, in a day or two, if you'll send a reporter around—financial man, you know. It'll be worth your while. And now, how about this? What do you say to a little article and the photos next Sunday?"
There was a slight hint of rising colour in Carruthers' face.
"If you'll send them to the society editor, I've no doubt he'll be able to use them," he said brusquely.
"Right!" said Markel, and coughed, and patted Carruthers' shoulder patronisingly again. "I'll just do that little thing." He picked up the necklace, dangled it till it flashed and flashed again under the light, then restored it very ostentatiously to its case, and the case to his pocket,
"Thanks awfully, Carruthers," he said, as he rose from his chair. "See you again. Dale. Good-night!"
Carruthers glared at the door as it closed behind the man.
"Say it!" prodded Jimmie Dale sweetly. "Don't feel restrained because you are a guest—I absolve you in advance."
"Rotter!" said Carruthers.
"Well," said Jimmie Dale softly. "You see—Carruthers?"
Carruthers' match crackled savagely as he lighted a cigar.
"Yes, I see," he growled. "But I don't see—you'll pardon my saying so—how vulgarity like that ever acquired membership in the St. James Club."
"Carruthers," said Jimmie Dale plaintively, "you ought to know better than that. You know, to begin with, since it seems he has advertised with you, that he runs some sort of brokerage business in Boston. He's taken a summer home up here on Long Island, and some misguided chap put him on the club's visitor's list. His card will not be renewed. Sleek customer, isn't he? Trifle familiar—I was only introduced to him last night."
Carruthers grunted, broke his burned match into pieces, and began to toss the pieces into an ash tray.
Jimmie Dale became absorbed in an inspection of his hands—those wonderful hands with long, slim, tapering fingers, whose clean, pink flesh masked a strength and power that was like to a steel vise.
Jimmie Dale looked up. "Going to print a nice little story for him about the 'costliest and most beautiful necklace in America'?" he inquired innocently.
Carruthers scowled. "No," he said bluntly. "I am not. He'll read the News-Argus a long time before he reads anything about that, Jimmie."
But therein Carruthers was wrong—the News-Argus carried the "story" of Markel's diamond necklace in three-inch "caps" in red ink on the front page in the next morning's edition—and Carruthers gloated over it because the morning News-Argus was the only paper in New York that did. Carruthers was to hear more of Markel and Markel's necklace than he thought, though for the time being the subject dropped between the two men.
It was still early, barely ten o'clock, when Carruthers left the club, and, preferring to walk to the newspaper offices, refused Jimmie Dale's offer of his limousine. It was but five minutes later when Jimmie Dale, after chatting for a moment or two with those about in the lobby, in turn sought the coat room, where Markel was being assisted into his coat.
"Getting home early, aren't you, Markel?" remarked Jimmie Dale pleasantly.
"Yes," said Markel, and ran his fingers fussily, comb fashion, through his whiskers. "Quite a little run out to my place, you know—and with, you know what, I don't care to be out too late."
"No, of course," concurred Jimmie Dale, getting into his own coat.
They walked out of the club together, and Markel climbed importantly into the tonneau of a big gray touring car.
"Ah—home, Peters," he sniffed at his chauffeur; and then, with a grandiloquent wave of his hand to Jimmie Dale: "'Night, Dale."
Jimmie Dale smiled with his eyes—which were hidden by the brim of his hat.
"Good-night, Markel," he replied, and the smile crept curiously to the corners of his mouth as he watched the gray car disappear down the street.
A limousine drew up, and Benson, Jimmie Dale's chauffeur, opened the door.
"Home, Mr. Dale?" he asked cheerily, touching his cap.
"Yes, Benson—home," said Jimmie Dale absently, and stepped into the car.
It was a luxurious car, as everything that belonged to Jimmie Dale was luxurious—and he leaned back luxuriously on the cushions, extended his legs luxuriously to their full length, plunged his hands into his overcoat pockets—and then a change stole strangely, slowly over Jimmie Dale.
The sensitive fingers of his right hand in the pocket had touched, and now played delicately over a sealed envelope that they had found there, played over it as though indeed by the sense of touch alone they could read the contents—and he drew his body gradually erect.
It was another of those mysterious missives from—her. The texture of the paper was invariably the same—like this one. How had it come there? Collusion with the coat boy at the club? That was hardly probable. Perhaps it had been there before he had entered the club for dinner—he remembered, now, that there had been several people passing, and that he had been jostled slightly in crossing the side-walk. What, however, did it matter? It was there mysteriously, as scores of others had come to him mysterously, with never a clew to her identity, to the identity of his—he smiled a little grimly—accomplice in crime.
He took the envelope from his pocket and stared at it. His fingers had not been at fault—it was one of hers. The faint, elusive, exquisite fragrance of some rare perfume came to him as he held it.
"I'd give," said Jimmie Dale wistfully to himself—"I'd give everything I own to know who you are—and some day, please God, I will know."
Jimmie Dale tore the envelope very gently, as though the tearing almost were an act of desecration—and extracted the letter from within. He began to read aloud hurriedly and in snatches:
"Dear Philanthropic Crook: Charleton Park Manor—Markel's house is the second one from the gates on the right-hand side—library leads off reception hall on left, door opposite staircase—telephone in reception hall near vestibule entrance, left-hand side—safe is one of your father's make. No. 14,321—clothes closet behind the desk—probably will be kept in cash box—five servants; two men, three maids—quarters on top story—Markel and wife occupy room over library—French windows to dining room on opposite side of the house—opening on the lawn—get it to-night, Jimmie—to-morrow would be too late—dispose of it—see fit—Henry Wilbur, Marshall Building, Broadway—fifth story——"
Through the glass-panelled front of the car, Jimmie Dale could see his chauffeur's back, and the hand that held the letter dropped now to his side, and Jimmie Dale stared—at his chauffeur's back. Then, presently, he read the letter again, as though committing it to memory now; and then, tearing the paper into tiny shreds, as he did with every one of her communications, he reached out of the window and allowed the little pieces to filter gradually from his hand.
The Gray Seal! He smiled in his whimsical way. If it were ever known! He, Jimmie Dale, with his social standing, his wealth, his position—the Gray Seal! Not a police official, not a secret-service bureau probably in the civilised world, but knew the name—not a man, woman, or child certainly in this great city around him but to whom it was as familiar as their own! Danger? Yes. A battle of wits? Yes. His against everybody's—even against Carruthers', his old college chum! For, even as a reporter, before he had risen to the editorial desk, and even now that he had, Carruthers had been one of the keenest on the scent of the Gray Seal.
Danger? Yes. But it was worth it! Worth it a thousand times for the very lure of the danger itself; but worth it most of all for his association with her who, by some amazing means, verging indeed on the miraculous, came into touch with all these things, and supplied him with the data on which to work—that always some wrong might be righted, or gladness come where there had been gloom before, or hope where there had been despair—that into some fellow human's heart should come a gleam of sunshine. Yes, in spite of the howls of the police, the virulent diatribes of the press, an angry public screaming for his arrest, conviction, and punishment, there were those perhaps who even on their bended knees at night asked God's blessing on—the Gray Seal!
Was it strange, then, after all, that the police, seeking a clew through motive, should have been driven to frenzy on every occasion in finding themselves forever confronted with what, from every angle they were able to view it, was quite a purposeless crime! On one point only they were right, the old dogma, the old, old cry, old as the institution of police, older than that, old since time immemorial—cherchez la femme! Quite right—but also quite purposeless! Jimmie Dale's eyes grew wistful. He had been "hunting for the woman in the case" himself, now, for months and years indefatigably, using every resource at his command—quite purposelessly.
Jimmie Dale shrugged his shoulders. Why go over all this to-night—there were other things to do. She had come to him again—and this time with a matter that entailed more than ordinary difficulty, more than usual danger, that would tax his wits and his skill to the utmost, not only to succeed, but to get out of it himself with a whole skin. Markel—eh? Jimmie Dale leaned back in his seat, clasped his hands behind his head—and his eyes, half closed now, were studying Benson's back again through the plate-glass front.
He was still sitting in that position as the car approached his residence on Riverside Drive—but, as it came to a stop, and Benson opened the door, it was a very alert Jimmie Dale that stepped to the sidewalk.
"Benson," he said crisply, "I am going downtown again later on, but I shall drive myself. Bring the touring car around and leave it in front of the house. I'll run it into the garage when I get back—you need not wait up."
"Very good, sir," said Benson.
In the hallway, Jason, the butler, who had been butler to Jimmie Dale's father before him, took Jimmie Dale's hat and coat.
"It's a fine evening. Master Jim," said the privileged old man affectionately.
Jimmie Dale took out his silver cigarette case, selected a cigarette, tapped it daintily on the cover of the case—and accepted the match the old man hastily produced.
"Yes, Jason," said Jimmie Dale, pleasantly facetious, "it is a fine night, a glorious night, moon and stars and a balmy breeze—quite too fine, indeed, to remain indoors. In fact, you might lay out my gray ulster; I think I will go for a spin presently, when I have changed."
"Yes, sir," said Jason. "Anything else. Master Jim?"
"No; that's all, Jason. Don't sit up for me—you may go to bed now."
"Thank you, sir," said the old man.
Jimmie Dale went upstairs, opened the door of his own particular den on the right of the landing, stepped inside, closed the door, switched on the light—and Jimmie Dale's debonair nonchalance dropped from him as a mask instantly—and it was another Jimmie Dale—the professional Jimmie Dale.
Quick now in every action, he swung aside the portière that curtained off the squat, barrel-shaped safe in the little alcove, opened the safe, took out that curious leather girdle with its kit of burglar's tools, added to it a flashlight and an automatic revolver, closed the safe—and passed into his dressing room. Here, he proceeded to divest himself rapidly of his evening clothes, selecting in their stead a suit of dark tweed. He heard Jason come up the stairs, pass along the hall, and mount the second flight to his own quarters; and presently came the sound of an automobile without. The dressing room fronted on the Drive—Jimmie Dale looked out. Benson was just getting out of the touring car. Slipping the leather girdle, then, around his waist, Jimmie Dale put on his vest, then his coat—and walked briskly downstairs.
Jason had laid out a gray ulster on the hall stand. Jimmie Dale put it on, selected a leather cap with motor-goggle attachment that pulled down almost to the tip of his nose, tucked a slouch hat into the pocket of the ulster, and, leaving the house, climbed into his car.
He glanced at his watch as he started—it was a quarter of eleven. Jimmie Dale's lips pursed a little.
"I guess it'll make a night of it, and a tight squeeze, at that, to get back under cover before daylight," he muttered. "I'll have to do some tall speeding."
But at first, across the city and through Brooklyn, for all his impatience, it was necessarily slow—after that, Jimmie Dale took chances, and, once on the country roads of Long Island, the big, powerful car tore through the night like a greyhound whose leash is slipped.
A half hour passed—Jimmie Dale's eyes shifting occasionally from the gray thread of road ahead of him under the glare of the dancing lamps, to the road map spread out at his feet, upon which, from time to time, he focused his pocket flashlight. And then, finally, he slowed the car to a snail's pace—he should be very near his destination—that very ultra-exclusive subdivision of Charleton Park Manor.
On either side of the road now was quite a thickly set stretch of wooded land, rising slightly on the right—and this Jimmie Dale scrutinised sharply. In fact, he stopped for an instant as he came opposite to a wagon track—it seemed to be little more than that—that led in through the trees.
If it's not too far from the seat of war," commented Jimmie Dale to himself, as he went on again, it will do admirably."
And then, a hundred yards farther on, Jimmie Dale nodded his head in satisfaction—he was passing the rather ornate stone pillars that marked the entrance to Charleton Park Manor, and on which the initial promoters of the subdivision, the real-estate people, had evidently deemed it good advertising policy to expend a small fortune.
Another hundred yards farther on, Jimmie Dale turned his car around and returned past the gates to the wagon track again. The road was deserted—not a car nor a vehicle of any description was in sight. Jimmie Dale made sure of that—and in another instant Jimmie Dale's own car, every light extinguished, had vanished—he had backed it up the wagon track, just far enough in for the trees to screen it thoroughly from the main road.
Nor did Jimmie Dale himself appear again on the main road—until just as he emerged close to the gates of Charleton Park Manor from a short cut through the woods. Also, he was without his ulster now, and the slouch hat had replaced the motor cap.
Jimmie Dale, in the moonlight, took stock of his surroundings, as he passed in at a businesslike walk through the gates. It was a large park, if that name could properly be applied to it at all, and the houses—he caught sight of one set back from the driveway on the right—were quite far apart, each in its own rather spacious grounds among the trees.
"The second house on the right," her letter had said. Jimmie Dale had already passed the first one—the next would be Markel's then—and it loomed ahead of him now, black and shadowy and unlighted.
Jimmie Dale shot a glance around him—there was stillness, quiet everywhere—no sign of life—no sound.
Jimmie Dale's face became tense, his lips tight—and he stepped suddenly from the sidewalk in among the trees. They were not thick here, of course, the trees, and the turf beneath his feet was well kept—and, therefore, soundless. He moved quickly now, but cautiously, from tree to tree, for the moonlight, flooding the lawn and house, threw all objects into bold relief.
A minute, two, three went by—and a shadow flitted here and there across the light-green sward, like the moving of the trees swaying in the breeze—and then Jimmie Dale was standing close up against one side of the house, hidden by the protecting black shadows of the walls.
But here, for a moment, Jimmie Dale seemed little occupied with the house itself—he was staring down past its length to where the woods made a heavy, dark background at the rear. Then he turned his head, to face directly to the main road, then back again slowly, as though measuring an angle. Jimmie Dale had no intention of making his escape by the roundabout way in which he had been forced to come in order to make certain of locating the right house, the second one from the gates—and he was getting the bearings of his car and the wagon track now.
"I guess that'll be about right," Jimmie Dale muttered finally. "And now for——"
He slipped along the side of the house and halted where, almost on a level with the ground, the French windows of the dining room opened on the lawn. Jimmie Dale tried them gently. They were locked.
An indulgent smile crept to Jimmie Dale's lips—and his band crept in under his vest. It came out again—not empty—and Jimmie Dale leaned close against the window. There was a faint, almost inaudible, scratching sound, then a slight, brittle crack—and Jimmie Dale laid a neat little four-inch square of glass on the ground at his feet. Through the aperture he reached in his hand, turned the key that was in the lock, turned the bolt-rod handle, pushed the doors silently open—wide open—left them open—and stepped into the room.
He could see quite well within, thanks to the moonlight. Jimmie Dale produced a black silk mask from one of the little leather pockets, adjusted it carefully over his face, and crossed the room to the hall door. He opened this—wide open—left it open—and entered the hall.
Here it was dark—a pitch blackness. He stood for a moment, listening—utter silence. And then—alert, strained, tense in an instant, Jimmie-Dale crouched against the wall—and then he smiled a little grimly. It was only some one coughing upstairs—Markel—in his sleep, perhaps, or, perhaps—in wakefulness.
"I'm a fool!" confided Jimmie Dale to himself, as he recognised the cough that he had heard at the club. "And yet—I don't know. One's nerves get sort of taut. Pretty stiff business. If I'm ever caught, the penitentiary sentence I get will be the smallest part of what's to pay."
A round button of light played along the wall from the flashlight in his hand—just for an instant—and all was blackness again. But in that instant Jimmie Dale was across the hall, and his fingers were tracing the telephone connection from the instrument to where the wires disappeared in the baseboard of the floor. Another instant, and he had severed the wires with a pair of nippers.
Again the quick, firefly gleam of light to locate the staircase and the library door opposite to it—and, moving without the slightest noise, Jimmie Dale's hand was on the door itself. Again he paused to listen. All was silence now.
The door swung under his hand, and, left open behind him, he was in the room. The flashlight winked once—suspiciously. Then he snapped its little switch, keeping the current on, and the ray dodged impudently here and there all over the apartment.
The safe was set in a sort of clothes closet behind the desk, she had said. Yes, there it was—the door, at least. Jimmie Dale moved toward it—and paused as his light swept the top of the intervening desk. A mass of papers, books, and correspondence littered it untidily. The yellow sheet of a telegram caught Jimmie Dale's eye.
He picked it up and glanced at it. It read:
"Vein uncovered to-day. Undoubtedly mother lode Enormously rich. Put the screws on at once.Thurl.
Under the mask, Jimmie Dale's lips twitched.
"I think, Markel, you miserable hound," said he softly, "that God will forgive me for depriving you of a share of the profits. Two hundred and ten thousand, I think it was, you said the sparklers cost." A curious little sound came from Jimmie Dale's lips—like a chuckle.
Jimmie Dale tossed the telegram back on the desk, moved on behind the desk, opened the door of the closet that had been metamorphosed into a vault—and the white light travelled slowly, searchingly, critically over the shining black-enamelled steel, the nickelled knobs, and dials of a safe that confronted him.
Jimmie Dale nodded at it—familiarly, grimly.
"It's number one-four-three-two-one, all right," he murmured. "And one of the best we ever made. Pretty tough. But I've done it before. Say, half an hour of gentle persuasion. It would be too bad to crack it with 'soup'—besides, that's crude—Carruthers would never forgive the Gray Seal for that!"
The light went out—blackness fell. Jimmie Dale's slim, sensitive fingers closed on the dial's knob, his head touched the steel front of the safe as he pressed his ear against it for the tumblers' fall.
And then silence. It seemed to grow heavier, that silence, with each second—to palpitate through the quiet house—to grow pregnant, premonitory of dread, of fear—it seemed to throb in long undulations, and the stillness grew loud. A moonbeam filtered in between the edge of the drawn shade and the edge of the window. It struggled across the floor in a wavering path, strayed over the desk, and died away, shadowy and formless, against the blackness of the opened recess door, against the blackness of the great steel safe, the blackness of a huddled form crouched against it. Only now and then, in a strange, projected, wraithlike effect, the moon ray glinted timidly on the tip of a nickel dial, and, ghostlike, disclosed a human hand.
Upstairs, Markel coughed again. Then from the safe a whisper, heavy-breathed as from great exertion:
The dial whirled with faint, musical, little metallic clicks; then began to move slowly again, very, very slowly. The moonbeam, as though petulant at its own abortive attempt to satisfy its curiosity, retreated back across the floor, and faded away.
Time passed. Then from the safe again, but now in a low gasp, a pant of relief:
The ear might barely catch the sound—it was as of metal sliding in well-oiled grooves, of metal meeting metal in a padded thud. The massive door swung outward. Jimmie Dale stood up, easing his cramped muscles, and flirted the sweat beads from his forehead.
After a moment, he knelt again. There was still the inner door—but that was a minor matter to Jimmie Dale compared with what had gone before.
Stillness once more—a long period of it. And then again that cough from above—a prolonged paroxysm of it this time that went racketing through the house.
Jimmie Dale, in the act of swinging back the inner door of the safe, paused to listen, and little furrows under his mask gathered on his forehead. The coughing stopped.
Jimmie Dale waited a moment, still listening—then his flashlight bored into the interior of the safe.
"The cash box, probably," quoted Jimmie Dale, beneath his breath—and picked it up from where it lay in the bottom compartment of the safe.
The lock snipped under the insistent probe of a delicate little blued-steel instrument, and Jimmie Dale lifted the cover. There was a package of papers and documents on top, held together with elastic bands. Jimmie Dale spent a moment or two examining these, then his fingers dived down underneath, and the next minute, under the flashlight, the morocco leather case open, the diamond necklace was sparkling and flashing on its white satin bed.
"A tempting little thing, isn't it?" said Jimmie Dale gently. "It was really thoughtful of you, Markel, to buy that this afternoon!"
Jimmie Dale replaced the necklace in the cash box, set the cash box on the floor, closed the inner door of the safe, and swung the outer door a little inward—but left it flauntingly ajar. Then from a pocket of the leather girdle beneath his vest he produced his small, thin, flat, metal case. From this, from between sheets of oil paper, with the aid of a pair of tweezers, he lifted out a gray, diamond-shaped seal. Jimmie Dale was apparently fastidious. He held the seal with the tweezers as he moistened the adhesive side with his tongue, laid the seal on his handkerchief, and pressed the handkerchief firmly against the safe—as usual, Jimmie Dale's insignia bore no finger prints as it lay neatly capping the knob of the dial.
He reached down, picked up the cash box—and then, for the second time that night, held suddenly tense, alert, listening, his every muscle taut. A door opened upstairs. There came a murmur of voices. Then a momentary lull.
Jimmie Dale listened. Like a statue he stood there in the black, absolutely motionless—his head a little forward and to one side. Nothing—not a sound. Then a very low, curious, swishing noise, and a faint creak. Somebody was coming down the stairs!
Jimmie Dale moved stealthily from the recess, and noiselessly to the desk. Very faintly, but distinctly now, came a pad of either slippered or bare feet on the stairway carpet. Like a cat, soundless in his movements, Jimmie Dale crept toward the door of the room. Down the stairs came that pad of feet; occasionally came that swishing sound. Nearer the door crept Jimmie Dale, and his lips were thinned now, his jaws clamped. How near were they together, he and this night prowler? At times he could not hear the other at all, and, besides, the heavy carpet made the judgment of distance an impossibility. If he could gain the hall, and, in the darkness, elude the other, the way of escape through the dining room was open. And then, within a few feet of the door, Jimmie Dale halted abruptly, as a woman's voice rose querulously from the hallway above:
"You are making a perfect fool of yourself, Theodore Markel! Come back here to bed!"
Jimmie Dale's face hardened like stone—the answer came almost from the very threshold in front of him:
"I can't sleep, I tell you"—it was Markel's voice, in a disgruntled snarl. "I was a fool to bring the confounded thing home. I'm going to take the library couch for the rest of the night."
It happened quick, then—quick as the winking of an eye. Two sharp, almost simultaneous, clicks of the electric-light buttons pressed by Markel, and the hall and library were a flood of light—and Jimmie Dale leaped forward to where, in dressing gown and pajamas, blankets and bedding over one arm, a revolver dangling in the other hand, Markel stood full before the door in the hallway without.
There was a wild yell of terror and surprise from Markel, then a deafening roar and a spit of flame from his revolver—a bitter, smothered exclamation from Jimmie Dale as the cash box crashed to the floor from his left hand, and he was upon the other like a tiger.
With the impact, both men went to the floor, grappled, and rolled over and over. Half mad with fear, shock, and surprise, Markel fought like a maniac, and his voice, in gasping shouts, rang through the house.
A minute, two passed—and the men rolled about the hall floor. Markel, over middle age and unheathily fat, against Jimmie Dale's six feet of muscle—only Jimmie Dale's left hand, dripping a red stream now, was almost useless.
From above came wild confusion—women's voices in little shrieks; men's voices shouting in excitement; doors opening, running feet. And then Jimmie Dale had snatched the revolver from the floor where Markel had dropped it in the scuffle, and was pressing it against Markel's forehead—and Markel, terror-stricken, had collapsed in a flabby, pliant heap.
Jimmie Dale, still covering Markel with the weapon, stood up. The frightened faces of women protruded over the banisters above. The two men-servants, at best none too enthusiastically on the way down, stopped as though stunned as Jimmie Dale swung the revolver upon them.
Then Jimmie Dale spoke—to Markel—pointing the weapon at Markel again.
"I don't like you, Markel," he said, with cold impudence. "The only decent thing you'll ever do will be to die—and if those men of yours on the stairs move another step it will be your death warrant. Do you understand? I would suggest that you request them to stay where they are."
Cold sweat was on Markel's face as he stared into the muzzle of the revolver, and his teeth chattered.
"Go back!" he screamed hysterically at the servants. "Go back! Sit down! Don't move! Do what he tells you!"
"Thank you!" said Jimmie Dale grimly. "Now, get up yourself!"
Markel got up.
Jimmie Dale backed to the library door, picked up the cash box, tucked it under his left armpit, and faced those on the stairs.
"Mr. Markel and I are going out for a little walk," he announced coolly. "If one of you make a move or raise an alarm before your master comes back, I shall be obliged, in self-defence, to shoot—Mr. Markel. Mr. Markel quite understands that—I am sure. Do you not, Mr. Markel?"
"Helen," screamed Markel to his wife, "don't let 'em move! For God's sake, do as he says!"
Jimmie Dale's lips, just showing beneath the edge of his mask, broadened in a pleasant little smile.
"Will you lead the way, Mr. Markel?" he requested, with ironic deference. "Through the dining room, please. Yes, that's right!"
Markel walked weakly into the dining room, and Jimmie Dale followed. A prod in the back from the revolver muzzle, and Markel stepped through the French windows and out on the lawn. Jimmie Dale faced the other toward the woods at the rear of the house.
"Go on!" Jimmie Dale's voice was curt now, uncompromising. "And step lively!"
They passed on along the side of the house and in among the trees. Fifty yards or so more, and Jimmie Dale halted. He backed Markel up against a large tree—not over gently.
"I—I say"—Markel's teeth were going like castanets. "I——"
"You'll oblige me by keeping your mouth shut," observed Jimmie Dale politely—and he whipped the cord of Markel's dressing gown loose and began to tie the man to the tree. "You have many unpleasant characteristics, Markel—your voice is one of them. Shall I repeat that I do not like you?" He stepped to the back of the tree. "Pardon me if I draw this uncomfortably tight. I don't think you can reach around to the knot. No? The trunk is too large? Quite so!" He stepped around to face Markel again—the man was thoroughly frightened, his face was livid, his jaw sagged weakly, and his eyes followed every movement of the revolver in Jimmie Dale's hand in a sort of miserable fascination. Jimmie Dale smiled unhappily. "I am going to do something, Markel, that I should advise no other man to do—I am going to put you on your honour! For the next fifteen minutes you are not to utter a sound. Do you understand?"
"Y-yes, said Markel hoarsely.
"No," said Jimmie Dale sadly, "I don' think you do. Let me be painfully explicit. If you break your vow of silence by so much as a second, then to-morrow, or the next day, or the day after, at my convenience, Markel, you and I will meet again—for the last time. There can be no possible misapprehension on your part now—Markel?"
"N-no"—Markel could scarcely chatter out the word.
"Quite so," said Jimmie Dale, in velvet tones. He stood for an instant looking at the other with cool insolence; then: "Good-night, Markel"—and five minutes later a great touring car was tearing New Yorkward over the Long Island roads at express speed.
It was one o'clock in the morning as Jimmie Dale swung the car into a cross street off lower Broadway, and drew up at the curb beside a large office building. He got out, snuggled the cash box under his ulster, went around to the Broadway entrance, glanced up to note that a light burned in a fifth-story window, and entered the building.
The hallway was practically in darkness, one or two incandescents only threw a dim light about. Jimmie Dale stopped for a moment at the foot of the stairs, beside the elevator well, to listen—if the watchman was making rounds, it was in another part of the building. Jimmie Dale began to climb.
He reached the fifth floor, turned down the corridor, and halted in front of a door, through the ground-glass panel of which a light glowed faintly—as though coming from an inner office beyond. Jimmie Dale drew the black silk mask from his pocket, adjusted it, tried the door, found it unlocked, opened it noiselessly, and stepped inside. Across the room, through another door, half open, the light streamed into the outer office, where Jimmie Dale stood.
Jimmie Dale stole across the room, crouched by the door to look into the inner office—and his face went suddenly rigid.
"Good God!" he whispered. "As bad as that!"—but it was a nonchalant Jimmie Dale to all outward appearances that, on the instant, stepped unconcernedly over the threshold.
An elderly man, white-haired, kindly-faced, kindly-eyed, save now that the face was drawn and haggard, the eyes full of weariness, was standing behind a flat-topped desk, his fingers twitching nervously on a revolver in his hand. He whirled, with a startled cry, at Jimmie Dale's entrance, and the revolver clattered from his fingers to the floor.
"I am afraid," said Jimmie Dale, smiling pleasantly, "that you were going to shoot yourself. Your name is Wilbur, Henry Wilbur, isn't it?"
Unmanned, trembling, the other stood—and nodded mechanically.
"It's really not a nice thing to do," said Jimmie Dale confidentially. "Makes a mess, you see, too"—he was pulling off his motor gauntlet, his ulster, his jacket, and, having set the cash box on the desk, was rolling back his sleeve as he spoke. "Had a little experience myself this evening." He held out his hand that, with the forearm, was covered with blood. " A little above the wrist—fortunately only a flesh wound—a little memento from a chap named Markel, and——"
"Markel!" The word burst, quivering, from the other's lips.
"Yes," said Jimmie Dale imperturbably. "Do you mind if I wash a bit—and could you oblige me with a towel, or something that would do for a bandage?"
The man seemed dazed. In a subconscious way, he walked from the desk to a little cupboard, and took out two towels.
Jimmie Dale stooped, while the other's back was turned, picked up the revolver from the floor, and slipped it into his trousers pocket.
"Markel?" said Wilbur again, the same trembling anxiety in his voice, as he handed Jimmie Dale the towels and motioned toward a washstand in the corner of the room. "Did you say Markel—Theodore Markel?"
"Yes," said Jimmie Dale, examining his wound critically.
"You had trouble—a fight with him? Is he—he—dead?"
"No," said Jimmie Dale, smiling a little grimly. "He'sbadly hurt, though, I imagine—but not in a physical way."
"Strange!" whispered Wilbur, in a numbed tone to himself; and he went back and sank down in his desk chair. "Strange that you should speak of Markel—strange that you should have come here to-night!"
Jimmie Dale did not answer. He glanced now and then at the other, as he deftly dressed his wrist—the man seemed on the verge of collapse, on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Jimmie Dale swore softly to himself. Wilbur was too old a man to be called upon to stand against the trouble and anxiety that was mirrored in the misery in his face, that had brought him to the point of taking his own life.
Jimmie Dale put on his coat again, walked over to the desk, and picked up the 'phone.
"If I may?" he inquired courteously—and confided a number to the mouthpiece of the instrument.
There was a moment's wait, during which Wilbur, in a desperate sort of way, seemed to be trying to rally himself, to piece together a puzzle, as it were; and for the first time he appeared to take a personal interest in the masked figure that leaned against his desk. He kept passing his hands across his eyes, staring at Jimmie Dale.
Then Jimmie Dale spoke—into the 'phone.
"Morning News-Argus office? Mr. Carruthers, please. Thank you."
Another wait—then Jimmie Dale's voice changed its pitch and register to a pleasant and natural, though quite unrecognisable bass.
"Mr. Carruthers? Yes. I thought it might interest you to know that Mr. Theodore Markel purchased a very valuable diamond necklace this afternoon. … Oh, you knew that, did you? Well, so much the better; you'll be all the more keenly interested to know that it is no longer in his possession. … I beg pardon? Oh, yes, I quite forgot—this is the Gray Seal speaking. … Yes. … The Gray Seal. … I have just come from Mr. Markel's country house, and if you hurry a man out there you ought to be able to give the public an exclusive bit of news, a scoop, I believe you call it—you see, Mr. Carruthers, I am not not to overlook the detail of Mr. Markel in his pajamas and dressing gown tied to a tree in his park—Mr. Markel might be inclined to be reticent on that point, and it would be a pity to deprive the public of any—er—'atmosphere' in the story, you know. . . . What? . . . No; I am afraid Mr. Markel's 'phone is—er—out of order. . . . Yes. . . . And, by the way, speaking of 'phones, Mr. Carruthers, between gentlemen, I know you will make no effort under the circumstances to discover the number I am calling from. Good-night, Mr. Carruthers." Jimmie Dale hung the receiver abruptly on the hook.for, I might say, the eulogistic manner in which the Morning News-Argus treated me in that last affair, and I trust I shall be able to do you many more favours—I am deeply in your debt. And, oh, yes, tell your reporter
"You see," said Jimmie Dale, turning to Wilbur—and then he stopped. The man was on his feet, swaying there, his face positively gray.
"My God!" Wilbur burst out. "What have you done? A thousand times better if I had shot myself, as I would have done in another moment if you had not come in. I was only ruined then—I am disgraced now. You have robbed Markel's safe—I am the one man in the world who would have a reason above all others for doing that—and Markel knows it. He will accuse me of it. He can prove I had a motive. I have not been home to-night. Nobody knows I am here. I cannot prove an alibi. What have you done!"
"Really," said Jimmie Dale, almost plaintively, swinging himself up on the corner of the desk and taking the cash box on his knee, "really, you are alarming yourself unnecessarily. I——"
But Wilbur stopped him. "You don't know what you are talking about!" Wilbur cried out, in a choked way; then, his voice steadying, he rushed on: "Listen! I am a ruined man, absolutely ruined. And Markel has ruined me—I did not see through his trick until too late. Listen! For years, as a mining engineer, I made a good salary—and I saved it. Two years ago I had nearly seventy thousand dollars—it represented my life work. I bought an abandoned mine in Alaska for next to nothing—I was certain it was rich. A man by the name of Thurl, Jason T. Thurl, another mining engineer, a steamer acquaintance, was out there at the time—he was a partner of Markel's, though I didn't know it then. I started to work the mine. It didn't pan out. I dropped nearly every cent. Then I struck a small vein that temporarily recouped me, and supplied the necessary funds with which to go ahead for a while. Thurl, who had tried to buy the mine out from under my option in the first place, repeatedly then tried to buy it from me at a ridiculous figure. I refused. He persisted. I refused—I was confident, I knew I had one of the richest properties in Alaska."
Wilbur paused. A little row of glistening drops had gathered on his forehead. Jimmie Dale, balancing Markel's cash box on one knee, drummed softly with his finger tips on the cover.
"The vein petered out," Wilbur went on. "But I was still confident. I sank all the proceeds of the first strike—and sank them fast, for unaccountable accidents that crippled me both financially and in the progress of the work began to happen." Wilbur flung out his hands impotently. "Oh, it's a long story—too long to tell. Thurl was at the bottom of those accidents. He knew as well as I did that the mine was rich—better than I did, for that matter, for we discovered before we ran him out of Alaska that he had made secret borings on the property. But what I did not know until a few hours ago was that he had actually uncovered what we uncovered only yesterday—the mother lode. He was driving me as fast as he could into the last ditch—for Markel. I didn't know until yesterday that Markel had anything to do with it. I struggled on out there, hoping every day to open a new vein. I raised money on everything I had, except my insurance and the mine—and sank it in the mine. No one out there would advance me anything on a property that looked like a failure, that had once already been abandoned. I have always kept an office here, and I came back East with the idea of raising something on my insurance. Markel, quite by haphazard as I then thought, was introduced to me just before we left San Francisco on our way to New York. On the run across the continent we became very friendly. Naturally, I told him my story. He played sympathetic good fellow, and offered to lend me fifty thousand dollars on a demand note. I did not want to be involved for a cent more than was necessary, and, as I said, I hoped from day to day to make another strike. I refused to take more than ten thousand. I remember now that he seemed strangely disappointed."
Again Wilbur stopped. He swept the moisture from his forehead—and his fist, clenched, came down upon the desk.
"You see the game!"—there was bitter anger in his voice now. "You see the game! He wanted to get me in deep enough so that I couldn't wriggle out, deeper than ten thousand that I could get at any time on my insurance, he wanted me where I couldn't get away—and he got me. The first ten thousand wasn't enough. I went to him for a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth—hoping always that each would be the last. Each time a new note, a demand note for the total amount, was made, cancelling the former one. I didn't know his game, didn't suspect it—I blessed God for giving me such a friend—until this, or, rather, yesterday afternoon, when I received a telegram from my manager at the mine saying that he had struck what looked like a very rich vein—the mother lode. And"—Wilbur's fist curled until the knuckles were like ivory in their whiteness—"he added in the telegram that Thurl had wired the news of the strike to a man in New York by the name of Markel. Do you see? I hadn't had the telegram five minutes, when a messenger brought me a letter from Markel curtly informing me that I would have to meet my note to-morrow morning. I can't meet it. He knew I couldn't. With wealth in sight—I'm wiped out. A demand note, a call loan, do you understand—and with a few months in which to develop the new vein I could pay it readily. As it is—I default the note—Markel attaches all I have left, which is the mine. The mine is sold to satisfy my indebtedness. Markel buys it in legally, upheld by the law—and acquires, robs me of it, and——"
"And so," said Jimmie Dale musingly, "you were going to shoot yourself?"
Wilbur straightened up, and there was something akin to pathetic grandeur in the set of the old shoulders as they squared back.
"Yes!" he said, in a low voice. "And shall I tell you why? Even if, which is not likely, there was something reverting to me over the purchase price, it would be a paltry thing compared with the mine. I have a wife and children. If I have worked for them all my life, could I stand back now at the last and see them robbed of their inheritance by a black-hearted scoundrel when I could still lift a hand to prevent it! I had one way left. What is my life? I am too old a man to cling to it where they are concerned. I have referred to my insurance several times. I have always carried heavy insurance"—he smiled a little curious, mirthless smile—"that has no suicide clause." He swept his hand over the desk, indicating the papers scattered there. "I have worked late to-night getting my affairs in order. My total insurance is fifty-two thousand dollars, though I couldn't borrow anywhere near the full amount on it—but at my death, paid in full, it would satisfy the note. My executors, by instruction, would pay the note—and no dollar from the mine, no single grain of gold, not an ounce of quartz, would Markel ever get his hands on, and my wife and children would be saved. That is——"
His words ended abruptly—with a little gasp. Jimmie Dale had opened the cash box and was dangling the necklace under the light—a stream of fiery, flashing, sparkling gems.
Then Wilbur spoke again, a hard, bitter note in his voice, pointing his hand at the necklace.
"But now, on top of everything, you have brought me disgrace—because you broke into his safe to-night for that! He would and will accuse me. I have heard of you—the Gray Seal—you have done a pitiful night's work in your greed for that thing there."
"For this?" Jimmie Dale smiled ironically, holding the necklace up. Then he shook his head. "I didn't break into Markel's safe for this—it wouldn't have been worth while. It's only paste."
"Paste!" exclaimed Wilbur, in a slow way.
"Paste," said Jimmie Dale placidly, dropping the necklace back into its case. "Quite in keeping with Markel, isn't it—to make a sensation on the cheap?"
"But that doesn't change matters!" Wilbur cried out sharply, after a numbed instant's pause. "You still broke into the safe, even if you didn't know then that the necklace was paste."
"Ah, but, you see—I did know then," said Jimmie Dale softly. "I am really—you must take my word for it—very good judge of stones, and I had—er—seen these before."
Wilbur stared—bewildered, confused.
"Then why—what was it that——"
"A paper," said Jimmie Dale, with a little chuckle—and produced it from the cash box. "It reads like this: 'On demand, I promise to pay——'"
"My note!" It came in a great, surging cry from Wilbur; and he strained forward to read it.
"Of course," said Jimmie Dale. "Of course—your note. Did you think that I had just happened to drop in on you? Now, then, see here, you just buck up, and—er—smile. There isn't even a possibility of you being accused of the theft. In the first place, Markel saw quite enough of me to know that it wasn't you. Secondly, neither Markel nor any one else would ever dream that the break was made for anything else but the necklace, with which you have no connection—the papers were in the cash box and were just taken along with it. Don't you see? And, besides, the police, with my very good friend, Carruthers at their elbows, will see very thoroughly to it that the Gray Seal gets full and ample credit for the—crime. But"—Jimmie Dale pulled out his watch, and yawned under his mask—"it's getting to be an unconscionable hour—and you've still a letter to write."
"A letter?" Wilbur's voice was broken, his lips quivering.
"To Markel," said Jimmie Dale pleasantly. "Write him in reply to his letter of the afternoon, and post it before you leave here—just as though you had written it at once, promptly, on receipt of his. He will still get it on the morning delivery. State that you will take up the note immediately on presentation at whatever bank he chooses to name. That's all. Seeing that he hasn't got it, he can't very well present it—can he? Eventually, having—er—no use for fake diamonds, I shall return the necklace, together with the papers in his cash box here—including your note."
"Eventually?" Uncomprehendingly, stumblingly, Wilbur repeated the word.
"In a month or two or three, as the case may be," explained Jimmie Dale brightly. "Whenever you insert a personal in the News-Argus to the effect that the mother lode has given you the cash to meet it." He replaced the note in the cash box, slipped down to his feet from the desk—and then he choked a little. Wilbur, the tears streaming down his face, unable to speak, was holding out his hands to Jimmie Dale. "I—er—good-night!" said Jimmie Dale hurriedly—and stepped quickly from the room.
Halfway down the first flight of stairs he paused. Steps, running after him, sounded along the corridor above; and then Wilbur's voice.
"Don't go—not yet," cried the old man. "I don't understand. How did you know—who told you about the note?"
Jimmie Dale did not answer—he went on noiselessly down the stairs. His mask was off now, and his lips curved into a strange little smile.
"I wish I knew," said Jimmie Dale wistfully to himself.