The Law of the Four Just Men/The Man Who Was Plucked
THE MAN WHO WAS PLUCKED
On Sunday night Martaus Club is always crowded with the smartest of the smart people who remain in Town over the week-end. Martaus Club is a place of shaded lights, of white napery, of glittering silver and glass, of exotic flowers, the tables set about the walls framing a parallelogram of shining floor.
Young men and women, and older folks too, can be very happy in Martaus Club—at a price. It is not the size of the "note" which Louis, the head waiter, initials, nor the amazing cost of wine, nor the half-a-crown strawberries, that breaks a man.
John Eden could have footed the bill for all he ate or drank or smoked in Martaus, and in truth the club was as innocent as it was gay. A pack of cards had never been found within its portals. Louis knew every face and the history behind the face, and could have told within a few pounds just what was the bank balance of every habitue. He did not know John Eden, who was the newest of members, but he guessed shrewdly.
John Eden had danced with a strange girl, which was unusual at Martaus, for you bring your own dancing partner, and never under any circumstances solicit a dance with a stranger.
But Welby was there. Jack knew him slightly, though he had not seen him for years. Welby was the mirror of fashion and apparently a person of some importance. When he came across to him. Jack felt rather like a country cousin. He had been eight years in South Africa, and he felt rather out of it, but Welby was kindness itself, and then and there insisted upon introducing him to Maggie Vane. A beautiful girl, beautifully gowned, magnificently jewelled—her pearl necklace cost £20,000—she rather took poor Jack's breath away, and when she suggested that they should go to Bingley's, he would not have dreamt of refusing.
As he passed out through the lobby Louis, the head waiter, with an apology, brushed a little bit of fluff from his dress-coat, and said in a voice, inaudible, save to Jack: "Don't go to Bingley's," which was of course a preposterous piece of impertinence, and Jack glared at him.
He was at Bingley's until six o'clock in the morning, and left behind him cheques which would absorb every penny he had brought back from Africa, and a little more. He had come home dreaming of a little estate with a little shooting and a little fishing, and the writing of that book of his on big-game hunting, and all his dreams went out when the croupier, with a smile on his bearded lips, turned a card with a mechanical:
"Le Rouge gagnant et couleur."
He had never dreamt Bingley's was a gambling-house, and it certainly had not that appearance when he went in. It was only when this divine girl introduced him to the inner room, where they played trente-et-quarante and he saw how high the stakes were running, that he began to feel nervous. He sat by her side at the table and staked modestly and won. And continued to win—until he increased his stakes.
They were very obliging at Bingley's. They accepted cheques, and, indeed, had cheque forms ready to be filled in.
Jack Eden came back to the flat he had taken in Jermyn Street, which was immediately above that occupied by Manfred and Leon Gonsalez, and wrote a letter to his brother in India....
Manfred heard the shot and woke up. He came out into the sitting-room in his pyjamas to find Leon already there, looking at the ceiling, the whitewash of which was discoloured by a tiny red patch which was growing larger.
Manfred went out on to the landing and found the proprietor of the flats in his shirt and trousers, for he had heard the shot from his basement apartment.
"I thought it was in your room, sir," he said, "it must be in Mr. Eden's apartment."
Going up the stairs he explained that Mr. Eden was a new arrival in the country. The door of his flat was locked, but the proprietor produced a key which opened it. The lights were burning in the sitting-room, and one glance told Manfred the story. A huddled figure was lying across the table, from which the blood was dripping and forming a pool on the floor.
Gonsalez handled the man scientifically.
"He is not dead," he said. "I doubt if the bullet has touched any vital organ."
The man had shot himself in the breast; from the direction of the wound Gonsalez was fairly sure that the injuries were minor. He applied a first-aid dressing and together they lifted him on to a sofa. Then when the wound was dressed, Gonsalez looked round and saw the tell-tale letter.
"Pinner," he said, holding the letter up, "I take it that you do not want to advertise the fact that somebody attempted to commit suicide in one of your flats?"
"That is the last thing in the world I want," said the flat proprietor, fervently.
"Then I'm going to put this letter in my pocket. Will you telephone to the hospital and say there has been an accident. Don't talk about suicide. The gentleman has recently come back from South Africa; he was packing his pistol, and it exploded."
The man nodded and left the room hurriedly.
Gonsalez went to where Eden was lying and it was at that moment the young man's eyes opened. He looked from Manfred to Gonsalez with a puzzled frown.
"My friend," said Leon, in a gentle voice as he leant over the wounded man, "you have had an accident, you understand? You are not fatally injured; in fact, I think your injury is a very slight one. The ambulance will come for you and you will go to a hospital and I will visit you daily."
"Who are you?" whispered the man.
"I am a neighbour of yours," smiled Leon.
"The letter!" Eden gasped the words and Leon nodded.
"I have it in my pocket," he said, "and I will restore it to you when you are recovered. You understand that you have had an accident?"
A quarter of an hour later the hospital ambulance rolled up to the door, and the would-be suicide was taken away.
"Now," said Leon, when they were back in their own room, "we will discover what all this is about," and very calmly he slit open the envelope and read.
"What is it?" asked Manfred.
"Our young friend came back from South Africa with £7,000, which he had accumulated in eight years of hard work. He lost it in less than eight hours at a gambling-house which he does not specify. He has not only lost all the money he has but more, and apparently has given cheques to meet his debts."
Leon scratched his chin.
"That necessitates a further examination of his room. I wonder if the admirable Mr. Pinner will object?"
The admirable Mr. Pinner was quite willing that Leon should anticipate the inevitable visit of the police. The search was made, and Leon found a cheque-book for which he had been looking, tucked away in the inside pocket of Jack Eden's dress-suit, and brought it down to his room.
"No names," he said disappointedly. "Just 'cash' on every counterfoil. All, I should imagine, to the same person. He banks with the Third National Bank of South Africa, which has an office in Throgmorton Street."
He carefully copied the numbers of the cheques—there were ten in all.
"First of all," he said, "as soon as the post office is open we will send a telegram to the bank stopping the payment of these. Of course he can be sued, but a gambling debt is not recoverable at law, and before that happens we shall see many developments."
The first development came the next afternoon. Leon had given instructions that anybody who called for Mr. Eden was to be shown up to him, and at three o'clock came a very smartly dressed young man who aspirated his h's with suspicious emphasis. "Is this Mr. Eden's flat?"
"No, it isn't," said Gonsalez. "It is the flat of myself and my friend who are acting for Mr. Eden."
The visitor frowned suspiciously at Leon.
"Acting for him?" he said. "Well, you can perhaps give me a little information about some cheques that have been stopped. My governor went to get a special clearance this morning, and the bank refused payment. Does Mr. Eden know all about this?"
"Who is your governor?" asked Leon pleasantly.
"Mr. Mortimer Birn."
"And his address?"
The young man gave it. Mr. Mortimer Birn was apparently a bill-discounter, and had cashed the cheques for a number of people who did not want to pass them through their banks. The young man was very emphatic as to the cheques being the property of a large number of people.
"And they all came to Mr. Birn. What a singular coincidence," agreed Leon.
"I'd rather see Mr. Eden, if you don't mind," said the emissary of Mr. Mortimer Birn, and his tone was unpleasant.
"You cannot see him because he has met with an accident," said Leon. "But I will see your Mr. Birn."
He found Mr. Birn in a very tiny office in Glasshouse Street. The gentleman's business was not specified either on the door-plate or on the painted window, but Leon smelt "money-lender" the moment he went into his office.
The outer office was unoccupied when he entered. It was a tiny dusty cupboard of a place with just room enough to put a diminutive table, and the space was further curtailed by a wooden partition, head high, which served to exclude the unfortunate person who occupied the room from draughts and immediate observation. A door marked private led to Mr. Birn's holy of holies and from this room came the sound of loud voices.
"... come without telephoning, hey? She always comes in the morning, haven't I told you a hundred times?" roared one voice.
"She doesn't know me," grumbled the other.
"She's only got to see your hair ..."
It was at that moment that the young man who called at Jermyn Street came out of the room. Gonsalez had a momentary glimpse of two men. One was short and stout, the other was tall, but it was his bright red hair that caught Leon's eye. And then Mr. Birn's clerk went back to the room and the voices ceased. When Gonsalez was ushered into the office, only the proprietor of the establishment was visible.
Birn was a stout bald man, immensely affable. He told Leon the same story as his clerk had told.
"Now, what is Eden going to do about these cheques?" asked Birn at last.
"I don't think he's going to meet them," said Leon gently. "You see, they are gambling debts."
"They are cheques," interrupted Birn, "and a cheque is a cheque whether it's for a gambling debt or a sack of potatoes."
"Is that the law?" asked Leon, "and if it is, will you write me a letter to that effect, in which case you will be paid."
"Certainly I will," said Mr. Birn. "If that's all you want, I'll write it now."
"Proceed," said Leon, but Mr. Birn did not write the letter.
Instead he talked about his lawyers; grew virtuously indignant on the unsportsmanlike character of people who repudiated debts of honour (how he came to be satisfied that the cheques represented gambling losses, he did not explain) and ended the interview a little apoplectically. And all the time Leon was speculating upon the identity of the third man he had seen and who had evidently left the room through one of the three doors which opened from the office.
Leon went down the narrow stairs into the street, and as he stepped on to the pavement, a little car drove up and a girl descended. She did not look at him, but brushing past ran up the stairs. She was alone, and had driven her own luxurious coupe. Gonsalez, who was interested, waited till she came out, which was not for twenty minutes, and she was obviously distressed.
Leon was curious and interested. He went straight on to the hospital where they had taken Eden, and found the young man sufficiently recovered to be able to talk.
His first words betrayed his anxiety and his contrition.
"I say, what did you do with that letter? I was a fool to——"
"Destroyed it," said Leon, which was true. "Now, my young friend, you've got to tell me something. Where was the gambling-house to which you went?"
It took a long time to persuade Mr. John Eden that he was not betraying a confidence and then he told him the whole story from beginning to end.
"So it was a lady who took you there, eh?" said Leon thoughtfully.
"She wasn't in it," said John Eden quickly. "She was just a visitor like myself. She told me she had lost five hundred pounds."
"Naturally, naturally," said Leon. "Is she a fair lady with very blue eyes, and has she a little car of her own?"
The man looked surprised.
"Yes, she drove me in her car," he said, "and she is certainly fair and has blue eyes. In fact, she's one of the prettiest girls I've ever seen. You needn't worry about the lady, sir," he said shaking his head. "Poor girl, she was victimised, if there was any victimisation."
"196 Paul Street, Mayfair, I think you said."
"I'm certain it was Paul Street, and almost as sure it was 196," said Eden. "But I hope you're not going to take any action against them, because it was my own fault. Aren't you one of the two gentlemen who live in the flat under me?" he asked suddenly.
"I suppose the cheques have been presented and some of them have come back."
"They have not been presented yet, or at any rate they have not been honoured," said Leon. "And had you shot yourself, my young friend, they would not have been honoured at all, because your bank would have stopped payment automatically."
Manfred dined alone that night. Leon had not returned, and there had been no news from him until eight o'clock, when there came a District Messenger with a note asking Manfred to give the bearer his dress clothes and one or two articles which he mentioned.
Manfred was too used to the ways of Leon Gonsalez to be greatly surprised. He packed a small suitcase, sent the messenger boy off with it and he himself spent the evening writing letters.
At half past two he heard a slight scuffle in the street outside, and Leon came in without haste, and in no wise perturbed, although he had just emerged from a rough-and-tumble encounter with a young man who had been watching the house all the evening for his return.
He was not in evening dress, Manfred noticed, but was wearing the clothes he had on when he went out in the morning.
"You got your suitcase all right?"
"Oh yes, quite," replied Leon.
He took a short stick from his trousers pocket, a stick made of rhinoceros hide, and called in South Africa a "sjambok". It was about a foot and a half in length, but it was a formidable weapon and was one of the articles which Leon had asked for. He examined it in the light.
"No, I didn't cut his scalp," he said. "I was afraid I had."
"Who was this?"
Before he replied, Leon put out the light, pulled back the curtains from the open window and looked out. He came back, replaced the curtains, and put the light on again.
"He has gone away, but I do not think we have seen the last of that crowd," he said.
He drank a glass of water, sat down by the table and laughed.
"Do you realise, my dear Manfred," he said, "that we have a friend in Mr. Fare, the Police Commissioner, and that he occasionally visits us?"
"I realise that very well," smiled Manfred. "Why, have you seen him?"
Leon shook his head.
"No, only other people have seen him and have associated me with the Metropolitan Constabulary. I had occasion to interview our friend Mr. Bingley, and he and those who are working with him are perfectly satisfied that I am what is known in London as a 'split', in other words a detective, and it is generally believed that I am engaged in the business of suppressing gambling-houses. Hence the mild attention I have received and hence the fact, as I recognised when I was on my way back to Jermyn Street to-day—luckily I had forgotten to tell the cabman where to stop and he passed the watchers before I could stop him—that I am under observation."
He described his visit to the hospital and his interview with Mr. Birn.
"Birn, who of course is Bingley, is the proprietor of three, and probably more, big gambling-houses in London, at least he is the financial power behind them. I should not imagine that he himself frequents any of them. The house in Mayfair was, of course, shut up tonight and I did not attempt to locate it. They were afraid that our poor friend would inform the police. But oh, my dear Manfred, how can I describe to you the beauties of that lovely house in Bayswater Road, where all that is fashionable and wealthy in London gathers every night to try its luck at baccarat?"
"How did you get there?" asked Manfred.
"I was taken," replied Gonsalez simply. "I went to dinner at Martaus Club. I recognised Mr. Welby and greeted him as an old friend. I think he really believed that he had met me before I went to the Argentine and made my pile, and of course, he sat down with me and we drank liqueurs, and he introduced me to a most beautiful girl, with a most perfectly upholstered little run-about."
"You weren't recognised?"
Leon shook his head.
"The moustache which I put on my face was indistinguishable from the real thing," he said not without pride. "I put it on hair by hair, and it took me two hours to manufacture. When it was done you would not have recognised me. I danced with the beautiful Margaret and——" He hesitated.
"You made love to her," said Manfred admiringly.
"My dear Manfred, it was necessary," he said solemnly. "And was it not fortunate that I had in my pocket a diamond ring which I had brought back from South America—it cost me 110 guineas in Regent Street this afternoon—and how wonderful that it should fit her. She wasn't feeling at her best, either, until that happened. That was the price of my admission to the Bayswater establishment. She drove me there in her car. It was a visit not without profit," he said modestly. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a stiff bundle of notes.
Manfred was laughing softly.
Leon was the cleverest manipulator of cards in Europe. His long delicate fingers, the amazing rapidity with which he could move them, his natural gift for palming, would have made his fortune either as a conjurer or a card-sharper.
"The game was baccarat and the cards were dealt from a box by an intelligent croupier," explained Leon. "Those which were used were thrown into a basin. Those in the stack were, of course, so carefully arranged that the croupier knew the sequence of them all. To secure a dozen cards from the basin was a fairly simple matter. To stroll from the room and rearrange them so that they were alternately against and for the bank, was not difficult, but to place them on the top of those he was dealing, my dear Manfred, I was an artist!"
Leon did not explain what form his artistry took, nor how he directed the attention of croupier and company away from the "deck" for that fraction of a second necessary—the croupier seldom took his hands from the cards—but the results of his enterprise were to be found in the thick stack of notes which lay on the table.
He took off his coat and put on his old velvet jacket, pacing the room with his hands in his pockets.
"Margaret Vane," he said softly. "One of God's most beautiful works, George, flawless, gifted, and yet if she is what she appears, something so absolutely loathsome that ..."
He shook his head sadly.
"Does she play a big part, or is she just a dupe?" asked Manfred.
Leon did not answer at once.
"I'm rather puzzled," he said slowly. He related his experience in Mr, Birn's office, the glimpse of the red-haired man and Mr. Birn's fury with him.
"I do not doubt that the 'she' to whom reference was made was Margaret Vane. But that alone would not have shaken my faith in her guilt. After I left the Bayswater house I decided that I would discover where she was living. She had so skilfully evaded any question on this matter which I had put to her that I grew suspicious. I hired a taxi-cab and waited, sitting inside. Presently her car came out and I followed her. Mr. Birn has a house in Fitzroy Square and it was to there she drove. A man was waiting outside to take her car, and she went straight into the house, letting herself in. It was at this point that I began to think that Birn and she were much better friends than I had thought.
"I decided to wait, and stopped the car on the other side of the Square. In about a quarter of an hour the girl came out, and to my surprise, she had changed her clothes. I dismissed the cab and followed on foot. She lives at 803 Gower Street."
"That certainly is puzzling," agreed Manfred. "The thing does not seem to dovetail, Leon."
"That is what I think," nodded Leon. "I am going to 803 Gower Street to-morrow morning."
Gonsalez required very little sleep and at ten o'clock in the morning was afoot.
The report he brought back to Manfred was interesting.
"Her name is Elsie Chaucer, and she lives with her father, who is paralysed in both legs. They have a flat, one servant and a nurse, whose business it is to attend to the father. Nothing is known of them except that they have seen better times. The father spends the day with a pack of cards, working out a gambling system, and probably that explains their poverty. He is never seen by visitors, and the girl is supposed to be an actress—that is, supposed by the landlady. It is rather queer," said Gonsalez thoughtfully. "The solution is, of course, in Birn's house and in Birn's mind."
"I think we will get at that, Leon."
"So I thought," said he. "Mr. Birn's establishment does not present any insuperable difficulties."
Mr. Birn was at home that night. He was at home most nights. Curled up in a deep armchair, he puffed at a long and expensive cigar, and read the London Gazette which was to him the most interesting piece of literature which the genius of Caxton had made possible.
At midnight his housekeeper came in. She was a middle-aged Frenchwoman and discreet.
"All right?" queried Mr. Birn lazily.
"No, monsieur, I desire that you should speak to Charles."
Charles was Mr. Birn's chauffeur, and between Charles and Madame was a continuous feud.
"What has Charles been doing?" asked Mr. Birn with a frown.
"He is admitted every evening to the kitchen for supper," explained madame, "and it is an order that he should close the door after he goes out. But, m'sieur, when I went this evening at eleven o'clock to bolt the door, it was not closed. If I had not put on the lights and with my own eyes have seen it, the door would have been open, and we might have been murdered in our beds."
"I'll talk to him in the morning," growled Mr. Birn. "You've left the door of mademoiselle's room unfastened?"
"Yes, m'sieur, the key is in the lock."
"Good night," said Mr. Birn resuming his study. At half past two he heard the street door close gently and a light footstep passed through the hall. He looked up at the clock, threw away the end of his cigar and lit another before he rose and went heavily to a wall safe. This he unlocked and took out an empty steel box, which he opened and placed on the table. Then he resumed his chair.
Presently came a light tap at the door.
"Come in," said Mr. Birn.
The girl who was variously called Vane and Chaucer came into the room. She was neatly but not richly dressed. In many ways the plainness of her street costume enhanced her singular beauty and Mr. Birn gazed approvingly upon her refreshing figure.
"Sit down, Miss Chaucer," he said, putting out his hand for the little linen bag she carried.
He opened it and took out a rope of pearls and examined every gem separately.
"I haven't stolen any," she said contemptuously.
"Perhaps you haven't," said Mr. Birn, "but I've known some funny things to happen."
He took the diamond pin, the rings, the two diamond and emerald bracelets, and each of these he scrutinised before he returned them to the bag and put the bag into the steel box.
He did not speak until he had placed them in the safe.
"Well, how are things going to-night?" he asked.
She shrugged her shoulders.
"I take no interest in gambling," she said shortly and Mr. Birn chuckled.
"You're a fool," he said frankly.
"I wish I were no worse than that," said Elsie Chaucer bitterly. "You don't want me any more, Mr. Birn?"
"Sit down," he ordered. "Who did you find to-night?"
For a moment she did not reply.
"The man whom Welby introduced last night," she said.
"The South American?" Mr. Birn pulled a long face. "He wasn't very profitable. I suppose you know that? We lost about four thousand pounds."
"Less the ring," said the girl.
"The ring he gave you? Well, that's worth about a hundred, and I'll be lucky to get sixty for it," said Mr. Birn with a shrug. "You can keep that ring if you like."
"No thank you, Mr. Birn," said the girl quietly. "I don't want those kinds of presents."
"Come here," said Birn suddenly, and reluctantly she came round the table and stood before him.
He rose and took her hand.
"Elsie," he said, "I've got very fond of you and I've been a good friend of yours, you know. If it hadn't been for me what would have happened to your father? He'd have been hung! That would have been nice for you, wouldn't it?"
She did not reply but gently disengaged her hand.
"You needn't put away those jewels and fine clothes every night, if you're sensible," he went on, "and——"
"Happily I am sensible, if by sensible you mean sane," said the girl, "and now I think I'll go if you don't mind, Mr. Birn. I'm rather tired."
"Wait," he said.
He walked to the safe, unlocked it again and took out an oblong parcel wrapped in brown paper, fastened with tapes and sealed.
"There's a diamond necklace inside there," he said. "It's worth eight thousand pounds if it's worth a penny. I'm going to put it in my strong box at the bank tomorrow, unless——"
"Unless——" repeated the girl steadily.
"Unless you want it," said Mr. Birn. "I'm a fool with the ladies."
She shook her head.
"Does it occur to you, Mr. Birn," she said quietly, "that I could have had many necklaces if I wanted them? No, thank you. I am looking forward to the end of my servitude."
"And suppose I don't release you?" growled Mr. Birn as he put back the package in the safe and locked the door. "Suppose I want you for another three years? How about that? Your father's still liable to arrest. No man can kill another, even if he's only a croupier, without hanging for it."
"I've paid for my father's folly, over and over again," said the girl in a low voice. "You don't know how I hate this life, Mr. Birn. I feel worse than the worst woman in the world! I spend my life luring men to ruin—I wish to God I had never made the bargain. Sometimes I think I will tell my father just what I am paying for his safety, and let him decide whether my sacrifice is worth it!"
A momentary look of alarm spread on the man's face.
"You'll do nothing of the kind," he said sharply. "Just as you've got into our ways! I was only joking about asking you to stay on. Now, my dear," he said with an air of banter, "you'd better go home and get your beauty sleep."
He walked with her to the door, saw her down the steps and watched her disappear in the darkness of the street, then he came back to lock up for the night. He drank up the half glass of whisky he had left and made a wry face.
"That's a queer taste," he said, took two steps towards the passage and fell in a heap.
The man who had slipped into the room when he had escorted Elsie Chaucer to the door came from behind the curtain and stooping, loosened his collar. He stepped softly into the dimly lit passage and beckoned somebody, and Manfred came from the shadows, noiselessly, for he was wearing rubber over-boots.
Manfred glanced down at the unconscious man and then to the dregs in the whisky glass.
"Butyl chloride, I presume?"
"No more and no less," said the practical Leon, "in fact the 'knock-out-drop' which is so popular in criminal circles."
He searched the man, took out his keys, opened the safe and removing the sealed packet, he carried it to the table. Then he looked thoughtfully at the prostrate man.
"He will only be completely under the 'drop' for five minutes, Manfred, but I think that will be enough."
"Have you stopped to consider what will be the pathological results of 'twilight sleep' on top of butyl?" asked Manfred. "I saw you blending the hyocine with the morphia before we left Jermyn Street and I suppose that is what you are using?"
"I did not look it up," replied Gonsalez carelessly, "and if he dies, shall I weep? Give him another dose in half an hour, George. I will return by then."
He took from his pocket a small black case, and opened it; the hypodermic syringe it contained was already charged, and rolling back the man's sleeve, he inserted the needle and pressed home the piston.
Mr. Birn woke the next morning with a throbbing headache.
He had no recollection of how he had got to bed, yet evidently he had undressed himself, for he was clad in his violet pyjamas. He rang the bell and got on to the floor, and though the room spun round him, he was able to hold himself erect.
The bell brought his housekeeper.
"What happened to me last night?" he asked, and she looked astounded.
"Nothing, sir. I left you in the library."
"It is that beastly whisky," grumbled Mr. Birn.
A cold bath and a cup of tea helped to dissipate the headache, but he was still shaky when he went into the room in which he had been sitting the night before.
A thought had occurred to him. A terrifying thought. Suppose the whisky had been drugged (though what opportunity there had been for drugging his drink he could not imagine) and somebody had broken in!...
He opened the safe and breathed a sigh of relief. The package was still there. It must have been the whisky, he grumbled, and declining breakfast, he ordered his car and was driven straight to the bank.
When he reached his office, he found the hatchet-faced young man in a state of agitation.
"I think we must have had burglars here last night, Mr. Birn."
"Burglars?" said Mr. Birn alarmed. And then with a laugh, "well, they wouldn't get much here. But what makes you think they have been?"
"Somebody has been in the room, that I'll swear," said the young man. "The safe was open when I came and one of the books had been taken out and left on your table."
A slow smile dawned on Mr. Birn's face.
"I wish them luck," he said.
Nevertheless he was perturbed, and made a careful search of all his papers to see if any important documents had been abstracted. His promissory notes were at the bank, in that same large box wherein was deposited the necklace which had come to him for the settlement of a debt.
Just before noon his clerk came in quickly.
"That fellow is here," he whispered.
"Which fellow?" growled Mr. Birn.
"The man from Jermyn Street who stopped the payment of Eden's cheques."
"Ask him in," said Mr. Birn. "Well, sir," he said jovially, "have you thought better about settling those debts?"
"Better and better," said Gonsalez. "I can speak to you alone, I suppose?"
Birn signalled his assistant to leave them.
"I've come to settle all sorts of debts. For example, I've come to settle the debt of a gentleman named Chaucer."
The gambling-house keeper started.
"A very charming fellow, Chaucer. I've been interviewing him this morning. Some time ago he had a shock which brought on a stroke of paralysis. He's not been able to leave his room in consequence for some time."
"You're telling me a lot I don't want to hear about," said Mr. Birn briskly.
"The poor fellow is under the impression that he killed a red-haired croupier of yours. Apparently he was gambling and lost his head, when he saw your croupier taking a bill."
"My croupier," said the other with virtuous indignation. "What do you mean? I don't know what a croupier is."
"He hit him over the head with a money-rake. You came to Chaucer the next day and told him your croupier was dead, seeking to extract money from him. You soon found he was ruined. You found also he had a very beautiful daughter, and it occurred to you that she might be of use to you in your nefarious schemes, so you had a little talk with her and she agreed to enter your service in order to save her father from ruin and possibly imprisonment."
"This is a fairy story you're telling me, is it?" said Birn, but his face had gone a pasty white and the hand that took the cigar from his lips trembled.
"To bolster up your scheme," Gonsalez went on, "you inserted an advertisement in the death column of The Times and also you sent to the local newspaper a very flowery account of Mr. Jinkins' funeral, which was also intended for Chaucer and his daughter."
"It's Greek to me," murmured Mr. Birn with a pathetic attempt at a smile.
"I interviewed Mr. Chaucer this morning and was able to assure him that Jinkins is very much alive and is living at Brighton, and is running a little gambling-house—a branch of your many activities, and by the way, Mr. Birn, I don't think you will see Elsie Chaucer again."
Birn was breathing heavily.
"You know a hell of a lot," he began, but something in Leon's eyes stopped him.
"Birn," said Gonsalez softly. "I am going to ruin you—to take away every penny of the money you have stolen from the foolish men who patronise your establishments."
"Try it on," said Birn shakily. "There's a law in this country! Go and rob the bank, and you'd have little to rob," he added with a grin. "There's two hundred thousand pounds' worth of securities in my bank—gilt-edged ones, Mr. Clever! Go and ask the bank manager to hand them over to you. They're in Box 65," he jeered. "That's the only way you can ruin me, my son."
Leon rose with a shrug.
"Perhaps I'm wrong," he said. "Perhaps after all you will enjoy your ill-gotten gains."
"You bet your life I will." Mr. Birn relit his cigar.
He remembered the conversation that afternoon when he received an urgent telephone message from the bank. What the manager said took him there as fast as a taxi could carry him.
"I don't know what's the matter with your strong box," said the bank manager, "but one of my clerks who had to go into the vault said there was an extraordinary smell, and when we looked at the box, we found a stream of smoke coming through the keyhole."
"Why didn't you open it?" screamed Birn, fumbling for his key.
"Partly because I haven't a key, Mr. Birn," said the bank manager intelligently.
With shaking hands the financier inserted the key and threw back the lid. A dense cloud of acrid yellow smoke came up and nearly stifled him ... all that remained of his perfectly good securities was a black, sticky mess; a glass bottle, a few dull gems and nothing ...
"It looks to me," said the detective officer who investigated the circumstance, "as though you must have inadvertently put in a package containing a very strong acid. What the acid is our analysts are working on now. It must have either leaked out or burst."
"The only package there," wailed Mr. Birn, "was a package containing a diamond necklace."
"The remnants of which are still there," said the detective. "You are quite sure nobody could get at that package and substitute a destroying agent? It could easily be made. A bottle such as we found—a stopper made of some easily consumed material and there you are! Could anybody have opened the package and slipped the bottle inside?"
"Impossible, impossible," moaned the financier.
He was sitting with his face in his hands, weeping for his lost affluence, for though a few of the contents of that box could be replaced, there were certain American bonds which had gone forever and promissory notes by the thousand which would never be signed again.