The Day of Uniting/Chapter 13
That morning Tom Elmers had received an urgent summons from his employer.
Elmers had recently come to occupy a dirty little room in a back street of Greenwich, and his landlady found some difficulty in waking him, for Tom Elmers had spent the night before in a Greenwich bar and the evening had finished with a fight. He sat up with a groan, for his head was sore and whizzy, and took the letter from the landlady's hands.
“It came by messenger boy an hour ago, and I've been trying to wake you ever since, Mr. Elmers.”
“All right,” growled the young man.
The writing danced before his eyes, but presently he deciphered it and began to dress.
He stopped on his way to the rendezvous, to visit a barber, and for all the heaviness in his eyes and the puffiness of his skin, he was more presentable than Mr. Palythorpe had seen him.
“That's better,” said that eminent journalist, leaning back in his chair. The interview took place in Palythorpe's comfortable flat. “You've been boozing, of course, but you're not so bad as I've seen you. Help yourself to a drink.”
Mr. Elmers obeyed.
“And remember that drink has killed more men than earthquakes,” said Palythorpe in his best oracular manner. “Have you any news for me?”
Tom shook his head, and was immediately sorry that he had committed so reckless an indiscretion.
“You haven't been to Blake's place again, have you?” asked Palythorpe warningly.
“No, I haven't,” was the snarling reply. “You'll get nothing there, I tell you——”
“I know that, now,” Mr. Palythorpe interrupted him. “I think I've got the whole story in my two hands, And, what's more, I got it by accident.”
It was hardly an accident, for in the very heart of the premier's household was a maid who had been from time to time a very useful informant. She was perhaps the best paid housemaid in London at that period, for Palythorpe could be generous.
“I didn't want to tell you much about this, but unfortunately I must,” Palythorpe went on. “I have discovered that Chapelle is spending his nights away from home. Now, that can mean only one thing.” He wagged his fat forefinger solemnly at Tom. “He is leading a double life. I never expected this sort of news for a minute, even in my most optimistic moments; but it only shows that the higher they get the worse they are. It's deplorable,” he added virtuously.
“Where does he go?” asked Tom. “Do you want me to find out?”
Mr. Palythorpe's face creased in a smile of amusement.
“I should have to wait a pretty long time before you could find anything out,” he sneered. “No, I know where he goes—I followed him last night in a taxi. He goes to Blackheath, to a little government cottage which is practically inside Greenwich Park. There is something fishy going on there, and it is your job to find out what!”
“That won't be difficult!” said Tom after a pause. “If he goes there, I can ask the servants——”
“You fool!” interrupted the other contemptuously. “Do you think, if it was a question of asking servants, that I should employ a bungler like you to stick your nose inside the house? Or do you think that the servants are sitting on the top of the wall waiting to be questioned? There are no servants, and, if there were, you wouldn't be able to get at them. The house is supposed to be deserted. If the prime minister goes there, and, of course, I did not hint to the fellow who gave me the information that I dreamed of such a thing—then nobody guesses as much. What I want you to do, Tom, is to get inside that place, and it is not going to be easy. Can you climb?”
It was Mr. Elmers' one accomplishment, that he could climb like a cat, and he stated the fact immodestly.
“That'll be all right,” nodded Mr. Palythorpe. “There are some iron spikes on the top of the wall, and you could easily get a rope over them. I want you to get into the grounds and have a good look at the place. If there's a chance of sneaking into the lodge, and you can stay there any time without anybody knowing you're on the premises, so much the better.”
“And what am I to do when I'm there?” asked Tom resentfully. The prospect of spending several days in an empty house did not appeal to him.
“You'll collect anything you can find that'll help me expose Chapelle,” said Mr. Palythorpe emphatically; “letters and papers particularly, and, if a woman is there, any letters of hers. Don't forget, letters are the things I want.”
Tom had made a survey of the house in the daylight, a proceeding he relished less than the night visit he had planned. Jimmy Blake lived uncomfortably close to the lodge, and Jimmy was the last man in the world he wished to meet. That night he waited his opportunity to make an entrance.
He was surprised that there were so many people on the road. He did not know that their destination, too, was the Warden's Lodge, and when he came up to the place, walking—this he did not know—within a few feet of two interested watchers, he was under the impression that the men who had passed him had gone on.
It took him a very little time to get a grip on the spikes above, but at last his rope caught and held. He had not overstated his claim when he said he could climb like a cat, and he was over the wall in less than a minute. His first act when he reached the other side was to unfasten the rope he carried round his waist, which he intended using in case there were other walls to surmount.
He remembered, cursing his carelessness, that he had left the rope he had employed to scale the wall hanging down on the far side, and decided to leave the second rope on the ground in readiness for a quick climb.
Very cautiously he pushed through the bushes and came to the house, as Jimmy had done, near its front entrance. He tried a window, but it was fastened. Then he peered up at the roof. It was too dark to make any attempt that way, and he went round to the south side of the house and tried another window. This time he was more successful, the window went up squeakily and, after waiting to learn if the noise had been heard, he slipped into the room and reached the passage.
He heard a voice, and he almost cried out in his astonishment. It was the voice of Joe Sennett! Then there was a movement in a room at the other end of the passage, and Tom Elmers went quickly and noiselessly up the stairs.
The upper part of the house was in darkness. He was on the point of striking a match when he heard a step in the hall below. He groped along the wall and found a door, opened it, and entered the room, closing the door quietly behind him. It was a small room with a flight of steep steps which led to a trapdoor in the discolored ceiling. Tom blew out the match he had lit, mounted the steps gingerly and pushed up the trap. It opened, and he stepped out on to a flat roof, easing down the heavy wooden cover behind him so that it made no noise. Here he waited five minutes, his ear pressed to the trapdoor, and he thought he detected the sound of feet, a furtive shuffling sound that ceased suddenly.
Several minutes passed without any further interruption. They must have gone down to the lower floor again, he thought, and, cautiously raising the trap, he descended into the cistern room. His foot had hardly touched the floor when somebody gripped him. For a second they struggled, and then, hitting out wildly, Tom dropped his assailant. The struggle could not have been heard from below, for when he came out on to the landing, there was no sound. He heard the man behind him struggling to his feet, and in two seconds he had reached the hall below, had crossed the room, and was through the window into the grounds.
He ran for the wall where he had left the rope and flung it up; at the second attempt the loop caught on the spikes and tightened. Tom Elmers took one grip of the rope and grinned. He had been instructed by his employer to devote his whole attention, and his every thought to the service which was demanded of him, but in that moment he forgot Mr. Palythorpe and remembered only that somewhere in the darkness an old man whom he hated was searching for him.
“Joe!” he mocked. “If it's you, come and fight, you old devil!”
There was a silence, a crash of glass, a running of feet toward him.
He pulled on the rope, but the bar at the top of the wall slipped round and the rope fell at his feet. The running man was nearer, and then out of the darkness leaped a thin pencil of brilliant light, and the silence was broken by the crack of a pistol.
Mr. Palythorpe waited in vain for the return of his lieutenant that night, and finally went to bed.
“He must have got into the house,” thought the blackmailer, and with this comforting assurance he went to sleep.