The Intrusion of Jimmy/Chapter 14
CHECK AND A COUNTER MOVE
MR. McEACHERN stood in the doorway, breathing heavily. As the result of a long connection with evil-doers, the ex-policeman was somewhat prone to harbor suspicions of those round about him, and at the present moment his mind was aflame. Indeed, a more trusting man might have been excused for feeling a little doubtful as to the intentions of Jimmy and Spike. When McEachern had heard that Lord Dreever had brought home a casual London acquaintance, he had suspected as a possible drawback to the the visit the existence of hidden motives on the part of the unknown. Lord Dreever, he had felt, was precisely the sort of youth to whom the professional bunco-steerer would attach himself with shouts of joy. Never, he had assured himself, had there been a softer proposition than his lordship since bunco-steering became a profession.
When he found that the strange visitor was Jimmy Pitt, his suspicions had increased a thousand-fold.
And when, going to his room to get ready for dinner, he had nearly run into Spike Mullins in the corridor, his frame of mind had been that of a man to whom a sudden ray of light reveals the fact that he is on the brink of a black precipice. Jimmy and Spike had burgled his house together in New York. And here they were, together again, at Dreever Castle. To say that the thing struck McEachern as sinister is to put the matter baldly. There was once a gentleman who remarked that he smelt a rat, and saw it floating in the air. Ex-Constable McEachern smelt a regiment of rats, and the air seemed to him positively congested with them.
His first impulse had been to rush to Jimmy's room there and then; but he had learned society's lessons well. Though the heavens might fall, he must not be late for dinner. So, he went and dressed, and an obstinate tie put the finishing touches to his wrath.
Jimmy regarded him coolly, without moving from the chair in which he had seated himself. Spike, on the other hand, seemed embarrassed. He stood first on one leg, and then on the other, as if he were testing the respective merits of each, and would make a definite choice later on.
"You scoundrels!" growled McEachern.
Spike, who had been standing for a few moments on his right leg, and seemed at last to have come to a decision, hastily changed to the left, and grinned feebly.
"Say, youse won't want me any more, boss?" he whispered.
"No, you can go, Spike."
"You stay where you are, you red-headed devil!" said McEachern, tartly.
"Run along, Spike," said Jimmy.
The Bowery boy looked doubtfully at the huge form of the ex-policeman, which blocked access to the door.
"Would you mind letting my man pass?" said Jimmy.
"You stay—" began McEachern.
Jimmy got up and walked round to the door, which he opened. Spike shot out. He was not lacking in courage, but he disliked embarrassing interviews, and it struck him that Jimmy was the man to handle a situation of this kind. He felt that he himself would only be in the way.
"Now, we can talk comfortably," said Jimmy, going back to his chair.
McEachern's deep-set eyes gleamed, and his forehead grew red, but he mastered his feelings.
"And now—" said he, then paused.
"Yes?" asked Jimmy.
"What are you doing here?"
"Nothing, at the moment."
"You know what I mean. Why are you here, you and that red-headed devil, Spike Mullins?" He jerked his head in the direction of the door.
"I am here because I was very kindly invited to come by Lord Dreever."
"I know you."
"You have that privilege. Seeing that we only met once, it's very good of you to remember me."
"What's your game? What do you mean to do?"
"To do? Well, I shall potter about the garden, you know, and shoot a bit, perhaps, and look at the horses, and think of life, and feed the chickens—I suppose there are chickens somewhere about—and possibly go for an occasional row on the lake. Nothing more. Oh, yes, I believe they want me to act in some theatricals."
"You'll miss those theatricals. You'll leave here to-morrow."
"To-morrow? But I've only just arrived, dear heart."
"I don't care about that. Out you go to-morrow. I'll give you till to-morrow."
"I congratulate you," said Jimmy. "One of the oldest houses in England."
"What do you mean?"
"I gathered from what you said that you had bought the Castle. Isn't that so? If it still belongs to Lord Dreever, don't you think you ought to consult him before revising his list of guests?"
McEachern looked steadily at him. His manner became quieter.
"Oh, you take that tone, do you?"
"I don't know what you mean by 'that tone.' What tone would you take if a comparative stranger ordered you to leave another man's house?"
McEachern's massive jaw protruded truculently in the manner that had scared good behavior into brawling East Siders.
"I know your sort," he said. "I'll call your bluff. And you won't get till to-morrow, either. It'll be now."
"'Why should we wait for the morrow? You are queen of my heart to-night," murmured Jimmy, encouragingly.
"I'll expose you before them all. I'll tell them everything."
Jimmy shook his head.
"Too melodramatic," he said. "'I call on heaven to judge between this man and me!' kind of thing. I shouldn't. What do you propose to tell, anyway?"
"Will you deny that you were a crook in New York?"
"I will. I was nothing of the kind."
"If you'll listen, I can explain—"
"Explain!" The other's voice rose again. "You talk about explaining, you scum, when I caught you in my own parlor at three in the morning—you—"
The smile faded from Jimmy's face.
"Half a minute," he said. It might be that the ideal course would be to let the storm expend itself, and then to explain quietly the whole matter of Arthur Mifflin and the bet that had led to his one excursion into burglary; but he doubted it. Things—including his temper—had got beyond the stage of quiet explanations. McEachern would most certainly disbelieve his story. What would happen after that he did not know. A scene, probably: a melodramatic denunciation, at the worst, before the other guests; at the best, before Sir Thomas alone. He saw nothing but chaos beyond that. His story was thin to a degree, unless backed by witnesses, and his witnesses were three thousand miles away. Worse, he had not been alone in the policeman's parlor. A man who is burgling a house for a bet does not usually do it in the company of a professional burglar, well known to the police.
No, quiet explanations must be postponed. They could do no good, and would probably lead to his spending the night and the next few nights at the local police-station. And, even if he were spared that fate, it was certain that he would have to leave the castle—leave the castle and Molly!
He jumped up. The thought had stung him.
"One moment," he said.
"You're going to tell them that?" asked Jimmy.
Jimmy walked up to him.
"Are you also going to tell them why you didn't have me arrested that night?" he said.
McEachern started. Jimmy planted himself in front of him, and glared up into his face. It would have been hard to say which of the two was the angrier. The policeman was flushed, and the veins stood out on his forehead. Jimmy was in a white heat of rage. He had turned very pale, and his muscles were quivering. Jimmy in this mood had once cleared a Los Angeles bar-room with the leg of a chair in the space of two and a quarter minutes by the clock.
"Are you?" he demanded. "Are you?"
McEachern's hand, hanging at his side, lifted itself hesitatingly. The fingers brushed against Jimmy's shoulder.
Jimmy's lip twitched.
"Yes," he said, "do it! Do it, and see what happens. By God, if you put a hand on me, I'll finish you. Do you think you can bully me? Do you think I care for your size?"
McEachern dropped his hand. For the first time in his life, he had met a man who, instinct told him, was his match and more. He stepped back a pace.
Jimmy put his hands in his pockets, and turned away. He walked to the mantelpiece, and leaned his back against it.
"You haven't answered my question," he said. "Perhaps, you can't?"
McEachern was wiping his forehead, and breathing quickly.
"If you like," said Jimmy, "we'll go down to the drawing-room now, and you shall tell your story, and I'll tell mine. I wonder which they will think the more interesting. Damn you," he went on, his anger rising once more, "what do you mean by it? You come into my room, and bluster, and talk big about exposing crooks. What do you call yourself, I wonder? Do you realize what you are? Why, poor Spike's an angel compared with you. He did take chances. He wasn't in a position of trust. You—"
"Hadn't you better get out of here, don't you think?" he said, curtly.
Without a word, McEachern walked to the door, and went out.
Jimmy dropped into a chair with a deep breath. He took up his cigarette-case, but before he could light a match the gong sounded from the distance.
He rose, and laughed rather shakily. He felt limp. "As an effort at conciliating papa," he said, "I'm afraid that wasn't much of a success."
It was not often that McEachern was visited by ideas. He ran rather to muscle than to brain. But he had one that evening during dinner. His interview with Jimmy had left him furious, but baffled. He knew that his hands were tied. Frontal attack was useless. To drive Jimmy from the castle would be out of the question. All that could be done was to watch him while he was there. For he had never been more convinced of anything in his life than that Jimmy had wormed his way into the house-party with felonious intent. The appearance of Lady Julia at dinner, wearing the famous rope of diamonds, supplied an obvious motive. The necklace had an international reputation. Probably, there was not a prominent thief in England or on the Continent who had not marked it down as a possible prey. It had already been tried for, once. It was big game, just the sort of lure that would draw the type of criminal McEachern imagined Jimmy to be.
From his seat at the far end of the table, Jimmy looked at the jewels as they gleamed on their wearer's neck. They were almost too ostentatious for what was, after all, an informal dinner. It was not a rope of diamonds. It was a collar. There was something Oriental and barbaric in the overwhelming display of jewelry. It was a prize for which a thief would risk much.
The conversation, becoming general with the fish, was not of a kind to remove from his mind the impression made by the sight of the gems. It turned on burglary.
Lord Dreever began it.
"Oh, I say," he said, "I forgot to tell you, Aunt Julia, Number Six was burgled the other night."
Number 6a, Eaton Square, was the family's London house.
"Burgled!" cried Sir Thomas.
"Well, broken into," said his lordship, gratified to find that he had got the ear of his entire audience. Even Lady Julia was silent and attentive. "Chap got in through the scullery window about one o'clock in the morning."
"And what did you do?" inquired Sir Thomas.
"Oh, I—er—I was out at the time," said Lord Dreever. "But something frightened the feller," he went on hurriedly, "and he made a bolt for it without taking anything."
"Burglary," said a young man, whom Jimmy subsequently discovered to be the drama-loving Charteris, leaning back and taking advantage of a pause, "is the hobby of the sportsman and the life work of the avaricious." He took a little pencil from his waistcoat pocket, and made a rapid note on his cuff.
Everybody seemed to have something to say on the subject. One young lady gave it as her opinion that she would not like to find a burglar under her bed. Somebody else had heard of a fellow whose father had fired at the butler, under the impression that he was a house-breaker, and had broken a valuable bust of Socrates. Lord Dreever had known a man at college whose brother wrote lyrics for musical comedy, and had done one about a burglar's best friend being his mother.
"Life," said Charteris, who had had time for reflection, "is a house which we all burgle. We enter it uninvited, take all that we can lay hands on, and go out again." He scribbled, "Life—house—burgle," on his cuff, and replaced the pencil.
"This man's brother I was telling you about," said Lord Dreever, "says there's only one rhyme in the English language to 'burglar,' and that's 'gurgler—'unless you count 'pergola'! He says—"
"Personally," said Jimmy, with a glance at McEachern, "I have rather a sympathy for burglars. After all, they are one of the hardest-working classes in existence. They toil while everybody else is asleep. Besides, a burglar is only a practical socialist. People talk a lot about the redistribution of wealth. The burglar goes out and does it. I have found burglars some of the decentest criminals I have ever met."
"I despise burglars!" ejaculated Lady Julia, with a suddenness that stopped Jimmy's eloquence as if a tap had been turned off. "If I found one coming after my jewels, and I had a pistol, I'd shoot him."
Jimmy met McEachern's eye, and smiled kindly at him. The ex-policeman was looking at him with the gaze of a baffled, but malignant basilisk.
"I take very good care no one gets a chance at your diamonds, my dear," said Sir Thomas, without a blush. "I have had a steel box made for me," he added to the company in general, "with a special lock. A very ingenious arrangement. Quite unbreakable, I imagine."
Jimmy, with Molly's story fresh in his mind, could not check a rapid smile. Mr. McEachern, watching intently, saw it. To him, it was fresh evidence, if any had been wanted, of Jimmy's intentions and of his confidence of success. McEachern's brow darkened. During the rest of the meal, tense thought rendered him even more silent than was his wont at the dinner-table. The difficulty of his position was, he saw, great. Jimmy, to be foiled, must be watched, and how could he watch him?
It was not until the coffee arrived that he found an answer to the question. With his first cigarette came the idea. That night, in his room, before going to bed, he wrote a letter. It was an unusual letter, but, singularly enough, almost identical with one Sir Thomas Blunt had written that very morning.
It was addressed to the Manager of Dodson's Private Inquiry Agency, of Bishopsgate Street, E. C, and ran as follows:
On receipt of this, kindly send down one of your smartest men. Instruct him to stay at the village inn in character of American seeing sights of England, and anxious to inspect Dreever Castle. I will meet him in the village and recognize him as old New York friend, and will then give him further instructions.
- Yours faithfully,
- J. McEachern.
- Yours faithfully,
P.S. Kindly not send a rube, but a real smart man.
This brief, but pregnant letter cost some pains in its composition. McEachern was not a ready writer. But he completed it at last to his satisfaction. There was a crisp purity in the style that pleased him. He sealed up the envelope, and slipped it into his pocket. He felt more at ease now. Such was the friendship that had sprung up between Sir Thomas Blunt and himself as the result of the jewel episode in Paris that he could count with certainty on the successful working of his scheme. The grateful knight would not be likely to allow any old New York friend of his preserver to languish at the village inn. The sleuth-hound would at once be installed at the castle, where, unsuspected by Jimmy, he could keep an eye on the course of events. Any looking after that Mr. James Pitt might require could safely be left in the hands of this expert.
With considerable fervor, Mr. McEachern congratulated himself on his astuteness. With Jimmy above stairs and Spike below, the sleuth-hound would have his hands full.