The Saturday Evening Post – November 4, 1916
“WELL, Skinner, my man,” said Jimmy, “how goes it?” Mr. Crocker looked about him cautiously. Then his priestly manner fell from him like a robe, and he bounded forward.
“Jimmy!” he exclaimed, seizing his son’s hand and shaking it violently. “Say, it’s great seeing you again, Jim!”
Jimmy drew himself up haughtily.
“Skinner, my good menial, you forget yourself strangely! You will be getting fired if you mitt the handsome guest in this chummy fashion!”
Jimmy slapped his father on the back. “Dad, this is great! How on earth do you come to be here? What’s the idea? Why the buttling? When did you come over? Tell me all!”
Mr. Crocker hoisted himself nimbly on to the writing desk and sat there, beaming, with dangling legs.
“It was your letter that did it, Jimmy. Say, Jim, there wasn’t any need for you to do a thing like that just for me.”
“Well, I thought you would have a better chance of being a peer without me round. By the way, dad, how did my stepmother take the Lord Percy episode?”
A shadow fell upon Mr. Crocker’s happy face.
“I don’t like to do much thinking about your stepmother,” he said. “She was pretty sore about Percy. And she was pretty sore about your lighting out for America. But, gee, what she must be feeling like now that I’ve come over, I daren’t let myself think!”
“You haven’t explained that yet. Why did you come over?”
“Well, I’d been feeling homesick—I always do over there in the baseball season—and then talking with Pett made it worse ——”
“Talking with Pett? Did you see him, then, when he was in London?”
“See him? I let him in!”
“Into the house, I mean. I had just gone to the front door to see what sort of a day it was—I wanted to know if there had been enough rain in the night to stop my having to watch that cricket game—and just as I got there the bell rang. I opened the door.”
“A revoltingly plebeian thing to do! I’m ashamed of you, dad! They won’t stand for that sort of thing in the House of Lords!”
“Well, before I knew what was happening they had taken me for the butler. I didn’t want your stepmother to know I’d been opening doors—you remember how touchy she always was about it—so I just let it go at that and jollied them along. But I just couldn’t help asking the old man how the pennant race was making out, and that tickled him so much that he offered me a job here as butler if I ever wanted to make a change. And then your note came saying that you were going to New York, and—well, I couldn’t help myself. You couldn’t have kept me in London with ropes. I sneaked out next day and bought a passage on the Carmantic—she sailed the Wednesday after you left—and came straight here. They gave me this job right away.” Mr. Crocker paused, and a holy light of enthusiasm made his homely features almost beautiful. “Say, Jim, I’ve seen a ball game every darned day since I landed! Say, two days running Larry Doyle made home runs! But, gosh, that guy Klem is one swell robber! See here!” Mr. Crocker sprang down from the desk and snatched up a handful of books, which he proceeded to distribute about the floor. “There were two men on bases in the sixth, and What’s-his-Name came to bat. He lined one out to center field—where this book is—and ——”
“Pull yourself together, Skinner! You can’t monkey about with the employer’s library like that.” Jimmy restored the books to their places. “Simmer down and tell me more. Postpone the gossip from the diamond. What plans have you made? Have you considered the future at all? You aren’t going to hold down this buttling job forever, are you? When do you go back to London?”
The light died out of Mr. Crocker’s face. “I guess I shall have to go back sometime. But how can I yet, with the Giants leading the league like this?”
“But did you just light out without saying anything?”
“I left a note for your stepmother telling her I had gone to America for a vacation. Jimmy, I hate to think what she’s going to do to me when she gets me back!”
“Assert yourself, dad! Tell her that woman’s place is the home and man’s the ball park! Be firm!”
Mr. Crocker shook his head dubiously.
“It’s all very well to talk that way when you’re three thousand miles from home, but you know as well as I do, Jim, that your stepmother, though she’s a delightful woman, isn’t the sort you can assert yourself with. Look at this sister of hers here! I guess you haven’t been in the house long enough to have noticed, but she’s very like Eugenia in some ways. She’s the boss all right, and old Pett does just what he’s told to. I guess it’s the same with me, Jim.
“There’s a certain type of man that’s just born to have it put over on him by a certain type of woman. I’m that sort of man and your stepmother’s that sort of woman. No, I guess I’m going to get mine all right, and the only thing to do is to keep it from stopping me having a good time now.”
There was truth in what he said, and Jimmy recognized it. He changed the subject.
“Well, never mind that. There’s no sense in worrying oneself about the future. Tell me, dad, where did you get all the ‘Dinner-is-served, madam’ stuff? How did you ever learn to be a butler?”
“Bayliss taught me back in London. And, of course, I’ve played butlers when I was on the stage.”
Jimmy did not speak for a moment.
“Did you ever play a kidnaper, dad?” he asked at length.
“Sure. I was Chicago Ed in a crook play called This Way Out. Why, surely you saw me in that? I got some good notices.”
“Of course. I knew I’d seen you play that sort of part sometime. You came on during the dark scene and ——”
“Switched on the lights and ——”
“Covered the bunch with your gun while they were still blinking! You were great in that part, dad.”
“It was a good part,” said Mr. Crocker modestly. “It had fat. I’d like to have got a chance to play a kidnaper again. There’s a lot of pep to kidnapers.”
“You shall play one again,” said Jimmy. “I am putting on a little sketch with a kidnaper as the star part.”
“Eh? A sketch? You, Jim? Where?”
“Here—in this house! It is entitled Kidnaping Ogden, and it opens to-night.”
Mr. Crocker looked at his only son in concern. Jimmy appeared to him to be rambling.
“Amateur theatricals?” he hazarded.
“In the sense that there is no pay for performing, yes. Dad, you know that kid Ogden upstairs? Well, it’s quite simple. I want you to kidnap him for me.”
Mr. Crocker sat down heavily. He shook his head.
“I don’t follow all this.”
“Of course not. I haven’t begun to explain. Dad, in your rambles through this joint you’ve noticed a girl with glorious red-gold hair, I imagine?”
“Ann Chester. I’m going to marry her.”
“But she doesn’t know it yet. Now follow me carefully, dad! Five years ago Ann Chester wrote a book of poems. It’s on that desk there. You were using it a moment back as second base or something. Now I was working at that time on the Chronicle. I wrote a skit on those poems for the Sunday paper. Do you begin to follow the plot?”
“She’s got it in for you? She’s sore?”
“Exactly. Get that firmly fixed in your mind, because it’s the source from which all the rest of the story springs.”
Mr. Crocker interrupted.
“But I don’t understand. You say she’s sore at you. Well, how is it that you came in together looking as if you were good friends when I let you in this morning?”
“I was waiting for you to ask that. The explanation is that she doesn’t know that I am Jimmy Crocker.”
“But you came here saying that you were Jimmy Crocker.”
“Quite right. And that is where the plot thickens. I made Ann’s acquaintance first in London and then on the boat. I had found out that Jimmy Crocker was the man she hated most in the world, so I took another name. I called myself Bayliss.”
“I had to think of something quick, because the clerk at the shipping office was waiting to fill in my ticket. I had just been talking to Bayliss on the phone, and his was the only name that came into my mind. You know how it is when you try to think of a name suddenly. Now mark the sequel! Old Bayliss came to see me off at Paddington. Ann was there and saw me. She said ‘Good evening, Mr. Bayliss’ or something, and naturally old Bayliss replied ‘What ho!’ or words to that effect. The only way to handle the situation was to introduce him as my father. I did so. Ann, therefore, thinks that I am a young man named Bayliss, who has come over to America to make his fortune. We now come to the third reel. I met Ann by chance at the Knickerbocker and took her to lunch. While we were lunching, that confirmed congenital idiot, Reggie Bartling, who for some reason has come over to America, came up and called me by my name. I knew that if Ann discovered who I really was she would have nothing more to do with me, so I gave Reggie the haughty stare and told him that he had made a mistake. He ambled away—and possibly committed suicide in his anguish at having made such a bloomer—leaving Ann discussing with me the extraordinary coincidence of my being Jimmy Crocker’s double. Do you follow the story of my life so far?”
Mr. Crocker, who had been listening with wrinkled brow and other signs of rapt attention, nodded.
“I understand all that. But how did you come to get into this house?”
“That is reel four. I am getting to that. It seems that Ann, who is the sweetest girl on earth and always on the lookout to do someone a kindness, had decided, in the interests of the boy’s future, to remove young Ogden Ford from his present sphere, where he is being spoiled and ruined, and send him down to a man on Long Island who would keep him for a while and instill the first principles of decency into him. Her accomplice in this admirable scheme was Jerry Mitchell.”
“Who, as you know, got fired yesterday. Jerry was to have done the rough work of the job. But, being fired, he was no longer available. I, therefore, offered to take his place. So here I am.”
“You’re going to kidnap that boy?”
“No, you are.”
“Precisely. You are going to play a benefit performance of your world-famed success, Chicago Ed. Let me explain further. Owing to circumstances which I need not go into, Ogden has found out that I am really Jimmy Crocker, so he refuses to have anything more to do with me. I had deceived him into believing that I was a professional kidnaper, and he came to me and offered to let me kidnap him if I would go fifty-fifty with him in the ransom!”
“Yes, he’s an intelligent child, full of that sort of bright ideas. Well, now he has found that I am not all his fancy painted me, he wouldn’t come away with me; and I want you to understudy me while the going is good. In the fifth reel, which will be released to-night, after the household has retired to rest, you will be featured. It’s got to be to-night, because it has just occurred to me that Ogden, knowing that Lord Wisbeach is a crook, may go to him with the same proposal that he has made to me.”
“Lord Wisbeach a crook!”
“Of the worst description. He is here to steal that explosive stuff of Willie Partridge’s. But, as I have blocked that play, he may turn his attention to Ogden.”
“But, Jimmy, if that fellow is a crook —— How do you know he is?”
“He told me so himself.”
“Well, then, why don’t you expose him?”
“Because, in order to do so, Skinner, my man, I should have to explain that I was really Jimmy Crocker, and the time is not yet ripe for that. To my thinking, the time will not be ripe till you have got safely away with Ogden Ford. I can then go to Ann and say: ‘I may have played you a rotten trick in the past, but I have done you a good turn now, so let’s forget the past!’ So you see that everything now depends on you, dad. I’m not asking you to do anything difficult. I’ll go round to the boarding house now and tell Jerry Mitchell about what we have arranged, and have him waiting outside here in a car. Then all you will have to do is to go to Ogden, play a short scene as Chicago Ed, escort him to the car, and then go back to bed and have a good sleep. Once Ogden thinks you are a professional kidnaper, you won’t have any difficulty at all. Get it into your head that he wants to be kidnaped. Surely you can tackle this light and attractive job? Why, it will be a treat for you to do a bit of character acting once more!”
Jimmy had struck the right note. His father’s eyes began to gleam with excitement. The scent of the footlights seemed to dilate his nostrils.
“I was always good at that roughneck stuff,” he murmured meditatively. “I used to eat it!”
“Exactly,” said Jimmy. “Look at it in the right way, and I am doing you a kindness in giving you this chance!”
Mr. Crocker rubbed his cheek with his forefinger.
“You’d want me to make up for the part?” he asked after a moment wistfully.
“You’d want me to do it to-night?”
“At about two in the morning, I thought.”
“I’ll do it, Jim!”
Jimmy grasped his hand.
“I knew I could rely on you, dad.”
Mr. Crocker was following a train of thought.
“Dark wig . . . blue chin . . . heavy eyebrows . . . I guess I can’t do better than my old Chicago Ed make-up. Say, Jimmy, how am I to get to the kid?”
“That’ll be all right. You can stay in my room till the time comes to go to him. Use it as a dressing room.”
“How am I to get him out of the house?”
“Through this room. I’ll tell Jerry to wait out on the side street with the car from two o’clock on.”
Mr. Crocker considered these arrangements.
“That seems to be about all,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s anything else.”
“I’ll slip down town and buy the props.”
“I’ll go and tell Jerry.”
A thought struck Mr. Crocker.
“You’d better tell Jerry to make up too. He doesn’t want the kid recognizing him and squealing on him later.”
Jimmy was lost in admiration of his father’s resource.
“You think of everything, dad! That wouldn’t have occurred to me. You certainly do take to crime in the most wonderful way. It seems to come naturally to you!”
Mr. Crocker smirked modestly.
A PLOT is only as strong as its weakest link. “The best-laid schemes o’ mice and men gang aft a-gley,” if one of the mice is a mental defective, or if one of the men is a Jerry Mitchell.
Celestine, Mrs. Pett’s maid—she who was really Maggie O’Toole and whom Jerry loved with a strength that deprived him of even the small amount of intelligence bestowed upon him by Nature—came into the housekeeper’s room at about ten o’clock that night. The domestic staff had gone in a body to the moving pictures, and the only occupant of the room was the new parlor maid, who was sitting in a hard chair, reading Schopenhauer.
Celestine’s face was flushed, her dark hair was ruffled, and her eyes were shining. She breathed a little quickly, and her left hand was out of sight behind her back. She eyed the new parlor maid doubtfully for a moment. The latter was a woman of a somewhat unencouraging exterior, not the kind that invites confidences. But Celestine had confidences to bestow, and the exodus to the movies had left her in a position where she could not pick and choose. She was faced with the alternative of locking her secret in her palpitating bosom or of revealing it to this one auditor. The choice was one that no impulsive damsel in like circumstances would have hesitated to make.
“Say!” said Celestine.
A face rose reluctantly from behind Schopenhauer. A gleaming eye met Celestine’s. A second eye—no less gleaming—glared at the ceiling.
“Say, I just been talking to my feller outside,” said Celestine with a coy simper. “Say, he’s a grand man all right!”
A snort of uncompromising disapproval proceeded from the thin-lipped mouth beneath the gleaming eyes. But Celestine was too full of her news to be discouraged.
“I’m strong for Jer!” she said.
“Huh?” said the student of Schopenhauer.
“Jerry Mitchell, you know. You ain’t never met him, have you? Say, he’s a grand man!”
For the first time she had the other’s undivided attention. The new parlor maid placed her book upon the table.
“Uh?” she said.
Celestine could hold back her dramatic surprise no longer. Her concealed left hand flashed into view. On the third finger glittered a ring. She gazed at it with awed affection.
“Ain’t it a beaut!”
She contemplated its sparkling perfection for a moment in rapturous silence.
“Say, you could have knocked me down with a feather!’’ she resumed. “He telephones me a while ago and says to be outside the back door at ten to-night, because he’d something he wanted to tell me. Of course he couldn’t come in and tell me here, because he’d been fired and everything. So I goes out, and there he is. ‘Hello, kid!’ he says to me. ‘Fresh!’ I says to him. ‘Say, I got something to be fresh about!’ he says to me. And then he reaches into his jeans and hauls out the sparkler. ‘What’s that?’ I says to him. ‘It’s an engagement ring,’ he says to me. ‘For you, if you’ll wear it!’ I came over so weak I could have fell! And the next thing I know he’s got it on my finger and ——”
Celestine broke off modestly.
“Say, ain’t it a beaut, honest!” She gave herself over to contemplation once more. “He says to me how he’s on Easy Street now, or will be pretty soon. I says to him, ‘Have you got a job, then?’ He says to me, ‘Naw, I ain’t got a job, but I’m going to pull off a stunt to-night that’s going to mean enough to me to start that health farm I’ve told you about.’ Say, he’s always had a line of talk about starting a health farm down on Long Island, he knowing all about training and health and everything through having been one of them fighters. I asks him what the stunt is, but he won’t tell me yet. He says he’ll tell me after we’re married, but he says it’s sure fire and he’s going to buy the license to-morrow.”
She paused for comment and congratulations, eying her companion expectantly.
“Huh!” said the new parlor maid briefly and renewed her Schopenhauer. Decidedly, hers was not a winning personality.
“Ain’t it a beaut?” demanded Celestine, damped.
The new parlor maid uttered a curious sound at the back of her throat.
“He’s a beaut!” she said cryptically. She added another remark in a lower tone, too low for Celestine’s ears. It could hardly have been that, but it sounded to Celestine like: “I’ll fix ’m!”
RIVERSIDE DRIVE slept. The moon shone on darkened windows and deserted sidewalks. It was past one o’clock in the morning. The wicked Forties were still ablaze with light and noisy with fox trots; but in the virtuous Hundreds, where Mr. Pett’s house stood, respectable slumber reigned. Only the occasional drone of a passing automobile broke the silence or the lovesick cry of some feline Romeo, patrolling a wall top.
Jimmy was awake. He was sitting on the edge of his bed, watching his father put the finishing touches to his make-up, which was of a shaggy and intimidating nature. The elder Crocker had conceived the outward aspect of Chicago Ed, King of the Kidnapers, on broad and impressive lines, and one glance would have been enough to tell the sagacious observer that here was no white-souled comrade for a nocturnal saunter down lonely lanes and out-of-the-way alleys.
Mr. Crocker seemed to feel this himself.
“The only trouble is, Jim,” he said, peering at himself in the glass, “shan’t I scare the boy to death directly he sees me? Oughtn’t I to give him some sort of warning?”
“How? Do you suggest sending him a formal note?”
Mr. Crocker surveyed his repellent features doubtfully.
“It’s a good deal to spring on a kid at two in the morning,” he said. “Suppose he has a fit!”
“He’s far more likely to give you one. Don’t you worry about Ogden, dad! I shouldn’t think there was a child alive more equal to handling such a situation.”
There was an empty glass standing on a tray on the dressing table. Mr. Crocker eyed this sadly.
“I wish you hadn’t thrown that stuff away, Jim. I could have done with it. I’m feeling nervous.”
“Nonsense, dad! You’re all right! I had to throw it away. I’m on the wagon now, but how long I should have stayed on with that smiling up at me, I don’t know. I’ve made up my mind never again to lower myself to the level of the beasts that perish with the demon rum, because my future wife has strong views on the subject; but there’s no sense in taking chances. Temptation is all very well, but you don’t need it on your dressing table. It was a kindly thought of yours to place it there, dad, but ——”
“Eh? I didn’t put it there.”
“I thought that sort of thing came in your department. Isn’t it the butler’s job to supply drinks to the nobility and gentry? Well, it doesn’t matter. It is now distributed over the neighboring soil, thus removing a powerful temptation from your path. You’re better without it.” He looked at his watch. “Well, it ought to be all right now.” He went to the window. “There’s an automobile down there. I suppose it’s Jerry. I told him to be outside at two sharp, and it’s nearly that now. I think you might be starting, dad. Oh, by the way, you had better tell Ogden that you represent a gentleman by the name of Buck Maginnis. It was Buck who got away with him last time, and a firm friendship seems to have sprung up between them. There’s nothing like coming with a good introduction.”
Mr. Crocker took a final survey of himself in the mirror.
“Gee! I’d hate to meet myself on a lonely road!”
He opened the door and stood for a moment listening. From somewhere down the passage came the murmur of a muffled snore.
“Third door on the left,” said Jimmy. “Three—count ’em—three; and don’t go getting mixed!”
Mr. Crocker slid into the outer darkness like a stout ghost, and Jimmy closed the door gently behind him.
Having launched his indulgent parent safely on a career of crime Jimmy switched off the light and returned to the window. Leaning out he gave himself up for a moment to sentimental musings. The night was very still. Through the trees that flanked the house the dimmed headlights of what was presumably Jerry Mitchell’s hired car shone faintly like enlarged fireflies. A boat of some description was tooting reflectively far down the river. Such was the seductive influence of the time and the scene that Jimmy might have remained there indefinitely weaving dreams, had he not been under the necessity of making his way down to the library. It was his task to close the French windows after his father and Ogden had passed through, and he proposed to remain hid in the gallery there until the time came for him to do this. It was imperative that he avoid being seen.
Locking his door behind him he went downstairs. There were no signs of life in the house. He found the staircase leading to the gallery without having to switch on the lights.
It was dusty in the gallery, and a smell of old leather enveloped him. He hoped his father would not be long. He lowered himself cautiously to the floor and, resting his head against a convenient shelf, began to wonder how the interview between Chicago Ed and his prey was progressing.
Mr. Crocker, meanwhile, masked to the eyes, had crept in fearful silence to the door that Jimmy had indicated. A good deal of the gay enthusiasm with which he had embarked on this enterprise had ebbed away from him. Now that he had become accustomed to the novelty of finding himself once more playing a character part, his innate respectability began to assert itself. It was one thing to play Chicago Ed at a Broadway theater, but quite another to give a benefit performance like this. As he tiptoed along the passage the one thing that presented itself most clearly to him was the appalling outcome of this act of his should anything go wrong. He would have turned back but for the thought that Jimmy was depending on him, and that success would mean Jimmy’s happiness. Stimulated by this reflection, he opened Ogden’s door inch by inch and went in. He stole softly across the room.
He had almost reached the bed and had just begun to wonder how on earth, now that he was here, he could open the proceedings tactfully and without alarming the boy, when he was saved the trouble of pondering further on this problem. A light flashed out of the darkness with the suddenness of a bursting bomb, and a voice from the same general direction said “Hands up!”
When Mr. Crocker had finished blinking and had adjusted his eyes to the glare, he perceived Ogden sitting up in bed with a revolver in his hand. The revolver was pointed directly at Mr. Crocker’s ample stomach.
Exhaustive as had been the thought that Jimmy’s father had given to the possible developments of his enterprise, this was a contingency of which he had not dreamed.
“Don’t do that!” he said huskily. “It might go off!”
“I should worry!” replied Ogden coldly. “I’m at the right end of it. What are you doing here?” He looked fondly at the lethal weapon. “I got this with cigarette coupons to shoot rabbits when we went to the country. Here’s where I get a chance at something part human.”
“Do you want to murder me?”
Mr. Crocker’s make-up was trickling down his face in sticky streams. The mask, however, prevented Ogden from seeing this peculiar phenomenon. He was gazing interestedly at his visitor. An idea struck him.
“Say, did you come to kidnap me?”
Mr. Crocker felt that sense of relief that he had sometimes experienced on the stage when memory had failed him during a scene and a fellow actor had thrown him the line. It would be exaggerating to say that he was himself again. He could never be completely at his ease with that pistol pointing at him; but he felt considerably better. He lowered his voice an octave or so, and spoke in a husky growl:
“Aw, cheese it, kid! Nix on the rough stuff!”
“Keep those hands up!” advised Ogden.
“Sure! Sure!” growled Mr. Crocker. “Can the gun play, bo! Say, you’ve soitanly grown some since de last time we got youse!”
Ogden’s manner became magically friendly.
“Are you one of Buck Maginnis’ lot?” he inquired almost politely.
“Dat’s right!” Mr. Crocker blessed the inspiration that had prompted Jimmy’s parting words. “I’m wit’ Buck.”
“Why didn’t Buck come himself?”
“He’s woiking on anudder job!”
To Mr. Crocker’s profound relief, Ogden lowered the pistol.
“I’m strong for Buck,” he said conversationally. “We’re old pals. Did you see the piece in the paper about him kidnaping me last time? I’ve got it in my press-clipping album.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Crocker.
“Say, listen! If you take me now Buck’s got to come across. I like Buck, but I’m not going to let myself be kidnaped for his benefit. It’s fifty-fifty or nothing doing. See?”
“I get you, kid.”
“Well, if that’s understood, all right. Give me a minute to get some clothes on, and I’ll be with you.”
“Don’t make a noise,” said Mr. Crocker.
“Who’s making a noise? Say, how did you get in here?”
“T’roo de libery windows.”
“I always knew some yegg would stroll in that way. It beats me why they didn’t have bars fixed on them.”
“Dere’s a buzz wagon outside, waitin’.”
“You do it in style, don’t you!” observed Ogden, pulling on his shirt. “Who’s working this with you? Anyone I know?”
“Naw. A new guy.”
“Oh! Say, I don’t remember you, if it comes to that.”
“You don’t?” said Mr. Crocker, a little discomposed.
“Well, maybe I wouldn’t, with that mask on you. Which of them are you?”
“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”
“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”
“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.
Ogden was eying him with sudden suspicion. “Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”
“How am I to know you’re on the level?”
Mr. Crocker played a daring card.
“All right,” he said, making a move toward the door. “It’s up to youse. If you t’ink I’m not on de level I’ll beat it.”
“Here, stop a minute,” said Ogden hastily, unwilling that a promising business deal should be abandoned in this summary manner. “I’m not saying anything against you. There’s no need to fly off the handle like that.”
“I’ll tell Buck I couldn’t get you,” said Mr. Crocker, moving another step.
“Here, stop! What’s the matter with you?”
“Are youse comin’ wit’ me?”
“Sure, if you get the conditions. Buck’s got to slip me half of whatever he gets out of this.”
“Dat’s right. Buck’ll slip youse half of anyt’ing he gets.”
“All right then. Wait till I’ve got this shoe on and let’s start. Now I’m ready.”
“Beat it quietly!”
“What did you think I was going to do? Sing?”
“Step dis way!” said Mr. Crocker jocosely.
They left the room cautiously. Mr. Crocker for a moment had a sense of something missing. He had reached the stairs before he realized what it was. Then it dawned upon him that what was lacking was the applause. The scene had deserved a round.
Jimmy, vigilant in the gallery, heard the library door open softly and, peering over the rail, perceived two dim forms in the darkness. One was large, the other small. They crossed the room together.
Whispered words reached him.
“I thought you said you came in this way.”
“Then why’s the shutter closed?”
“I fixed it after I was in.”
There was a faint scraping sound, followed by a click. The darkness of the room was relieved by moonlight. The figures passed through. Jimmy ran down from the gallery and closed the windows softly. He had just fastened the shutter when, from the passage outside, there came the unmistakable sound of a footstep.
JIMMY’S first emotion on hearing the footstep was the crude instinct of self-preservation. All that he was able to think of at the moment was the fact that he was in a questionable position and one that would require a good deal of explaining away if he were found, and his only sensation was a strong desire to avoid discovery. He made a silent, scrambling leap for the gallery stairs and reached their shelter just as the door opened. He stood there, rigid, waiting to be challenged, but apparently he had moved in time, for no voice spoke. The door closed so gently as to be almost inaudible, and then there was silence again. The room remained in darkness, and it was this perhaps that first suggested to Jimmy the comforting thought that the intruder was equally desirous of avoiding the scrutiny of his fellows. Jimmy had taken it for granted, in his first panic, that he himself was the only person in that room whose motive for being there would not have borne inspection. But now safely hidden in the gallery, out of sight from the floor below, he had the leisure to consider the newcomer’s movements and to draw conclusions from them.
An honest man’s first act would surely have been to switch on the lights. And an honest man would hardly have crept so stealthily. It became apparent to Jimmy, as he leaned over the rail and tried to pierce the darkness, that there was sinister work afoot; and he had hardly reached this conclusion when his mind took a further leap and he guessed the identity of the soft-footed person below. It could be none but his old friend, Lord Wisbeach, known to the boys as Gentleman Jack. It surprised him that he had not thought of this before. Then it surprised him that, after the talk they had had only a few hours earlier in that very room, Gentleman Jack should have dared to risk this raid.
At this moment the blackness was relieved as if by the striking of a match. The man below had brought an electric torch into play, and now Jimmy could see clearly. He had been right in his surmise. It was Lord Wisbeach. He was kneeling in front of the safe. What he was doing to the safe Jimmy could not see, for the man’s body was in the way; but the electric torch shone on his face, lighting up grim, serious features quite unlike the amiable and slightly vacant mask that his lordship was wont to present to the world. As Jimmy looked, something happened in the pool of light beyond his vision. Gentleman Jack gave a muttered exclamation of satisfaction and then Jimmy saw that the door of the safe had swung open. The air was full of a penetrating smell of scorched metal. Jimmy was not an expert in these matters, but he had read from time to time of modern burglars and their methods, and he gathered that an oxyacetylene blowpipe, with its flame that cuts steel as a knife cuts cheese, had been at work.
Lord Wisbeach flashed the torch into the open safe, plunged his hand in, and drew it out again, holding something. Handling this in a cautious and gingerly manner, he placed it carefully in his breast pocket. Then he straightened himself. He switched off the torch, and moved to the window, leaving the rest of his implements by the open safe. He unfastened the shutter, then raised the catch of the window. At this point it seemed to Jimmy that the time had come to interfere.
“Tut, tut!” he said in a tone of mild reproof.
The effect of the rebuke on Lord Wisbeach was remarkable. He jumped convulsively away from the window, then, revolving on his own axis, flashed the torch into every corner of the room.
“Who’s that?” he gasped.
“Conscience!” said Jimmy.
Lord Wisbeach had overlooked the gallery in his researches. He now turned his torch upward. The light flooded the gallery on the opposite side of the room from where Jimmy stood. There was a pistol in Gentleman Jack’s hand now. It followed the torch uncertainly.
Jimmy, lying flat on the gallery floor, spoke again.
“Throw that gun away and the torch too,” he said. “I’ve got you covered!”
The torch flashed above his head, but the raised edge of the gallery rail protected him.
“I’ll give you five seconds. If you haven’t dropped that gun by then I shall shoot!”
As he began to count, Jimmy heartily regretted that he had allowed his appreciation of the dramatic to lead him into this situation. It would have been so simple to have roused the house in a prosaic way and avoided this delicate position. Suppose his bluff did not succeed! Suppose the other still clung to his pistol at the end of the five seconds! He wished that he had made it ten instead. Gentleman Jack was an enterprising person, as his previous acts had showed. He might very well decide to take a chance. He might even refuse to believe that Jimmy was armed. He had only Jimmy’s word for it. Perhaps he might be as deficient in simple faith as he had been proved to be in Norman blood! Jimmy lingered lovingly over his count.
“Four!” he said reluctantly.
There was a breathless moment. Then, to Jimmy’s unspeakable relief, gun and torch dropped simultaneously to the floor. In an instant Jimmy was himself again.
“Go and stand with your face to that wall!” he said crisply. “Hold your hands up!”
“I’m going to see how many more guns you’ve got.”
“I haven’t another.”
“I’d like to make sure of that for myself. Get moving!”
Gentleman Jack reluctantly obeyed. When he had reached the wall Jimmy came down. He switched on the lights. He felt in the other’s pockets and almost at once encountered something hard and metallic.
He shook his head reproachfully.
“You are very loose and inaccurate in your statements,” he said. “Why all these weapons? I didn’t raise my boy to be a soldier! Now you can turn round and put your hands down.”
Gentleman Jack’s appeared to be a philosophical nature. The chagrin consequent upon his failure seemed to have left him. He sat on the arm of a chair and regarded Jimmy without apparent hostility. He even smiled a faint smile.
“I thought I had fixed you,” he said. “You must have been smarter than I took you for. I never supposed you would get on to that drink and pass it up.”
Understanding of an incident that had perplexed him came to Jimmy.
“Was it you who put that highball in my room? Was it doped?”
“Didn’t you know?”
“Well,” said Jimmy, “I never knew before that virtue got its reward so darned quick in this world. I rejected that highball, not because I suspected it but out of pure goodness, because I had made up my mind that I was through with all that sort of thing.”
His companion laughed. If Jimmy had had a more intimate acquaintance with the resourceful individual whom the boys called Gentleman Jack he would have been disquieted by that laugh. It was an axiom, among those who knew him well, that when Gentleman Jack chuckled in that reflective way he generally had something unpleasant up his sleeve.
“It’s your lucky night,” said Gentleman Jack.
“It looks like it.”
“Well, it isn’t over yet.”
“Very nearly. You had better go and put that test tube back in what is left of the safe now. Did you think I had forgotten it?”
“What test tube?”
“Come, come, old friend! The one filled with Partridge’s explosive, that you have in your breast pocket!”
Gentleman Jack laughed again, then he moved toward the safe.
“Place it gently on the top shelf,” said Jimmy.
The next moment every nerve in his body was leaping and quivering. A great shout split the air. Gentleman Jack, apparently insane, was giving tongue at the top of his voice.
“Help! Help! Help!”
The conversation having been conducted up to this point in undertones, the effect of this unexpected uproar was like an explosion. The cries seemed to echo round the room and shake the very walls. For a moment Jimmy stood paralyzed, staring feebly; then there was a sudden deafening increase in the din. Something living seemed to writhe and jump in his hand. He dropped it incontinently and found himself gazing in a stupefied way at a round, smoking hole in the carpet. Such had been the effect of Gentleman Jack’s unforeseen outburst that he had quite forgotten that he held the revolver, and he had been unfortunate enough at this juncture to pull the trigger.
There was a sudden rush and swirl of action. Something hit Jimmy under the chin. He staggered back and, when he had recovered his balance, found himself looking into the muzzle of the revolver that had nearly blown a hole in his foot a moment back. The sardonic face of Gentleman Jack smiled grimly over the barrel.
“I told you the night wasn’t over yet!” he said.
The blow under the chin had temporarily dulled Jimmy’s mentality. He stood, swallowing and endeavoring to pull himself together and to get rid of a feeling that his head was about to come off. He backed to the desk and steadied himself against it.
As he did so, a voice from behind him spoke.
He turned his head. A curious procession was filing in through the open French window. First came Mr. Crocker, still wearing his hideous mask; then a heavily bearded individual with round spectacles, who looked like an automobile coming through a haystack; then Ogden Ford; and finally a sturdy, determined-looking woman, with glittering but poorly coördinated eyes, who held a large revolver in her unshaking right hand and looked the very embodiment of the modern female who will stand no nonsense. It was part of the nightmarelike atmosphere that seemed to brood inexorably over this particular night that this person looked to Jimmy exactly like the parlor maid who had come in answer to his bell and who had sent his father to him. Yet how could it be she? Jimmy knew little of the habits of parlor maids, but surely they did not wander about with revolvers, in the small hours?
While he endeavored feverishly to find reason in this chaos, the door opened and a motley crowd, roused from sleep by the cries, poured in. Jimmy, turning his head back again to attend to this invasion, perceived Mrs. Pett, Ann, two or three of the geniuses, and Willie Partridge, in various stages of negligee and babbling questions.
The woman with the pistol, assuming instant and unquestioned domination of the assembly, snapped out an order.
Somebody shut the door.
“Now whassall this?” she said, turning to Gentleman Jack.