The Adventures of Jimmie Dale/Part 2/Chapter 14
OUT OF THE DARKNESS
A MOMENT later, Jimmie Dale stepped forward through the vestibule. He was quite calm now; a sort of cold, merciless precision in every movement succeeding the riot of turbulent emotions that had possessed him as he had entered the house.
The half hour, the maximum length of time before the Magpie would appear, as he had estimated it when out there under the stoop with the Tocsin, had dwindled now to perhaps twenty minutes, twenty-five at the outside. Twenty-five minutes! Twenty-five minutes was so little that for an instant the temptation was strong upon him to sacrifice, rather than any of those precious minutes, the Magpie instead! And then in the darkness, as he stole noiselessly across the hall, he shook his head. It would be a cowardly, brutal thing to do. What chance would a man with a record like the Magpie's stand if caught there? How easy it would be to shift the murder of the supposed Henry LaSalle to the Magpie's shoulders! Jimmie Dale's lips closed firmly. Self-preservation was, perhaps, the first law, but he would save the Magpie if he could—the Magpie should have his chance! The man might be a criminal, might deserve punishment at the hands of the law, his liberty might be a menace to the community—but he was not a murderer, his life forfeit for a crime he had never committed!
If he, Jimmie Dale, could only in some way have arranged with the Tocsin out there to keep the Magpie away altogether! But it could not be done without arousing the Magpie's suspicions; and, as a corollary to that, afterward, with the subsequent events, would come—the deluge! The law of the underworld was clear, concise, and admitting of no appeal on that point; to double cross a pal meant, sooner or later, a knife thrust, a blackjack, or—— But what difference did it make what form the execution of the sentence took? And, since, then, that was out of the question, since he could not keep the Magpie away without practically risking his own life, the Magpie at least must have his chance.
Jimmie Dale was at the library door now, that, according to the plan the Tocsin had drawn for the Magpie, and as he remembered her description when she had told him her story earlier in the evening, was just at the foot of the staircase. How dark it was! Though the stairs could be only a few feet away, he could not see them. And how intense the silence was again! Here, where he stood, the slightest stir from above must have reached him—but there was not a sound.
His hand felt out for the doorknob, found it, turned it, and pushed the door open. He stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him. The safe, according to the Tocsin's plan again, was in that sort of alcove at the lower end of the library. Jimmie Dale's flashlight played inquisitively about the room. There was the window, the only one in the room, the window through which the Magpie proposed to enter; there was the archway of the alcove, with its—no, there were no longer any portières; and there was the safe, he could see it quite plainly from where he stood at the upper end of the room.
The flashlight went out for the space of perhaps thirty seconds—thirty seconds of absolute silence, absolute stillness—then the round, white ray of the light again, but glistening now on the nickel knobs and dial of the safe—and Jimmie Dale was on his knees before it.
A low, scarcely breathed exclamation, that seemed to mingle anxiety and hesitation, escaped him. He, who knew the make of every safe in the country, knew this one for its true worth. Twenty-five minutes! Could he open it in that time, let alone with any time to spare! It was not like the one in Spider Jack's; it was the kind that the Magpie, however clever he be in his own way, would be forced to negotiate with "soup," and, with the attendant noise, double his chance of discovery and capture—and the responsibility for what might have happened upstairs! No; the Magpie must have his chance! And, besides, the money in the safe apart, why should not he, Jimmie Dale, have his own chance, as well? All this would help. The motive—robbery; the perpetrator, there was grim mockery on his lips now as the light went out and the sensitive fingers closed on the knob of the dial, the perpetrator—the Gray Seal. It would afford excellent food for the violent editorial diatribes under which the police again would writhe in frenzy!
Stillness again! Silence! Only a low, tense breathing; only, so faint that it could not be heard a foot away, a curious scratching, as from time to time the supersensitive fingers fell away from the dial to rub upon the carpet—to increase even their sensitiveness by setting the nerves to throbbing through the skin surface at the tips. And then Jimmie Dale's head, ear pressed close against the safe to catch the tumbler's fall, was lifted—and the flashlight played again on the dial.
"Twenty-eight and a quarter—left."
How fast the time went—and how slowly! Still the black shape crouched there in the darkness against the safe. At times, in strange, ghostly flashes, the nickel dial with the ray upon it seemed to leap out and glisten through the surrounding blackness; at times, the quick intake of breath, as from great exertion; at times, faint, musical little clicks, as, after abortive effort, the dial whirled, preparatory to a fresh attempt. And then, at last—a gasp of relief:
Came the sound, barely audible, as of steel sliding in well-oiled grooves, the muffled thud of metal meeting metal as the bolts shot back—and the heavy door swung outward.
Jimmie Dale stretched his cramped limbs, and wiped the moisture from his face—then set to work again upon the inner door. This was an easier matter—far easier. Five minutes, perhaps a little more, went by—and then the inner door was open, and the flashlight's ray was flooding the interior of the safe.
A queer little sound, half of astonishment, half of disappointment, issued from Jimmie Dale's lips. There was money here, a great deal of money, undoubtedly, but there was no such sum as he had, somehow, fantastically imagined from the Magpie's evidently overcoloured story that there would be; there was money, ten packages of banknotes neatly piled in the bottom compartment—but there was no half million of dollars! He picked up one of the packages hurriedly—and drew in his breath. After all, there was a great deal—the notes were of hundred-dollar denomination, and on the bottom were two one-thousand-dollar bills! Calculated roughly, if each of the other nine packages contained a like amount, the total must exceed a hundred thousand.
And now Jimmie Dale began to work with feverish haste. From the leather girdle inside his shirt came the thin metal insignia case—and a gray seal was stuck firmly on the dial knob of the safe. This done, he tucked away the packages of banknotes, some into his pockets and some inside his shirt; and then quickly ransacked the interior of the safe, flauntingly spilling the contents of drawers and pigeonholes out upon the floor.
He stood up, and, leaving the safe door wide open, walked back across the room to the window, unfastened the catch, and opened the window an inch or two. The way was open now for the Magpie! The Magpie would have no need to make any noise in forcing an entrance; he would be able to see almost at a glance that he had been forestalled—by the Gray Seal; and that, as far as he was concerned, the game was up. The Magpie had his chance! If the Magpie did not take the hint and make his escape as noiselessly as he had entered—it was his own fault! He, Jimmie Dale, had given the Magpie his chance.
Jimmie Dale turned from the window, and made his way out of the library to the foot of the stairs, leaving the library door open behind him. How long had he been? Was it more or less than the twenty-five minutes? He did not know—only, as yet, the Magpie had not come, and now perhaps it did not make so much difference.
Where was he going now? His foot was on the first stair—and suddenly he drew it back, the cold sweat bursting out on his forehead. Where was he going now? "The first room on the right at the head of the landing!" From his inner consciousness, as it were, the answer, in all the bald, naked horror that it implied, flashed upon him. The first room on the right—that man's room! God, how the darkness and the stillness began to palpitate again, and suddenly seem to shriek out at him over and over the one, single, ghastly word—murder!
It had been with him, that thought, all the time he had been working at the safe; but it had been there then only subconsciously, like some heavy, nameless dread, subjugated for the moment by the work he had had to do which had demanded the centred attention of every faculty he possessed. But now the moment had come when there was only that before him, only that, nothing else—only that, the man upstairs in the first room to the right of the landing!
Why did he hesitate? Why did he stand there while the priceless moments before daylight came were passing? The man was a murderer, a blotch on society, and, his life already forfeited, he was living now only because the law had not found him out—the man was a criminal, bloodstained—and his life, because he had taken her father's life and had tried to take the Tocsin's own life, stood between her and every hope of happiness, robbing her even literally, in a material sense, of everything that the world could hold for her! Why did he hesitate? It was that man's life—or hers! It was the only way!
He put his foot upon the bottom step again—paused still another instant—and then began stealthily to mount the stairs. The darkness! There had never been, it seemed, such darkness before! The stillness—he had never known silence so heavy, so full of strange, premonitory pulsings; a silence that seemed so incongruously full of clamouring whispers in his ears! It must be those imagined whispers that were affecting his nerve—for now, as he gained the landing and slipped his automatic from his pocket, his hand was shaking with a queer twitching motion.
For an instant, fighting for his self-composure, he stood striving to locate his surroundings through the darkness. The staircase was a circular one, making the landing nearly at the front of the house, and rearward from this, the Tocsin had said, a hallway ran down the centre, with rooms on either side. The first room to the right, therefore, should be just at his hand. He reached out, feeling cautiously—there was nothing. He edged to the right—still nothing; edged a little farther, a sense of bewilderment growing upon him, and finally his fingers touched the wall. It was very strange! The hallway must be much wider than he had understood it to be from what she had said!
He moved along now straight ahead of him, his hand on the wall, feeling for the door—and with every step his bewilderment increased. Surely there must be some mistake—perhaps he had misunderstood! He had come fully twice the distance that one would expect—and yet there was no door. Ah, what was that? His fingers closed on soft, heavy velvet hangings. These could hardly be in front of a door, and yet—what else could it be? He drew the hangings warily apart, and felt behind them. It was a window; but it was shuttered in some way evidently, for he could not see out.
Jimmie Dale stood motionless there for fully a minute. It seemed absurd, preposterous, the conviction that was being forced home upon him—that there were no rooms on the right-hand side of the corridor at all! But that was not like the Tocsin, accurate always in the most minute details. The room must be still farther along. He was tempted to use his flashlight—but that, as long as he could feel his way, was anrisk. A flashlight upstairs, where a sleeping-room door might be ajar, or even wide open, where some one wakeful, that man himself, perhaps, might see it, was quite another matter than a flashlight in the closed and deserted library below!
He went on once, more, still guiding himself by a light finger touch upon the wall, passed another portière similar to the first, and, after that, another—and finally stopped by bringing up abruptly against the end wall of the house. It was certainly very strange! There were no rooms on the right-hand side of the corridor. And here, hanging across the end wall, was another of those ubiquitous velvet portières. He parted it, and, a little to his surprise, found a window that was not shuttered, but that, instead, was heavily barred by an ornamental grille work. He could see out, however, and found that he was looking directly out from the rear of the house. A lamp from the side street threw what was undoubtedly the garage into shadowy outline, and he made out below him a short stretch of yard between the garage and the house. He remembered that now—she had described all that to the Magpie. There was no driveway between the front and the rear. The house being on the corner, the entrance to the garage was directly from the side street. Yes, she had described all that exactly as it was, but—he dropped the portière and faced around, carrying his hand in a way to his eyes—but here, upstairs, within the house, it was not as she had said it was at all! What did it mean? She could not have blundered so egregiously as that, unless—he caught his breath suddenly—unless she had done so intentionally! Was that it? Had she surmised, formed a suspicion of what was in his mind, of what he meant to do—and taken this means of defeating it? If so—well, it was too late for that now! There was one way—only one way! Whatever the cost, whatever it might mean for him—there was only one way out for her.
His flashlight was in his hand now, and the round, white ray shot down the corridor—seemed suddenly to falter unsteadily—swept in through an open door that was almost beside him—and then, as though a nerveless hand held it, the ray dropped and played shakily on the toe of his boot before it went out.
A stifled cry rose to his lips. Something cold, like a hand of ice, seemed to clutch at his heart. Those portières, the wide, richly carpeted corridor! It was the corridor of the night before! That room at his side was the room where he had seen Hilton Travers, the chauffeur, dead, lashed in a chair! He felt the sweat beads burst out anew upon his forehead.
It was the Crime Club!