The crime club, p.10
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       The Crime Club, p.10

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER X

  SIR PAUL IN PERIL

  It was all very well for Melun to tell Westerham that he was a strongman armed. But was he?

  Westerham pondered over this problem with a puzzled frown. In spite ofthe checks he had met with, he still felt himself to be, as Melun hadsaid, a strong man. And when he came to a tight corner he was armed forthe struggle, and had less fear of things than had Melun.

  At times also it seemed as if his ingenuity was greater than thecaptain's. But, for all that, did he really hold the upper hand? As heimpartially summed the matter up for himself it seemed to him that hedid not.

  On the _Gigantic_ he had laughed that Melun should hope to find in hispossession anything to make him an easy prey to blackmail. Yet herehe was, a prey to the worst blackmail of all--a species of blackmailof the heart. On every hand, and at every turn, no matter in whatdirection he might strike out, he was more than met and baffled bythe one dominant fact that the faintest breath of publicity wouldinevitably lose him Lady Kathleen.

  So great, however, and so entirely unselfish was his love for thePremier's daughter, that he would have faced even that loss bravelycould it have brought any peace to the hunted girl's mind. But herealised that to relinquish his claims would be immediately to throwher into the arms of Melun. Westerham shuddered when he thought of that.

  No, crippled and cramped though he was, he must certainly go on--go onin the blind hope that he could find something which would enable himto deal Melun a blow from which he could not recover.

  This, however, on further thought, seemed a rather _laissez faire_policy to follow. It was ridiculous to think that, in spite of hishandicap, he should be beaten and bested at every turn by such a man asMelun.

  For fully an hour, therefore, after the captain had left him, Westerhamsat, pencil in hand, mapping out plan after plan of campaign. But allof them, as he pored over their possibilities, seemed to avail himnothing, and at last, when well nigh in despair, he tore up into minutefragments the various propositions he had formulated.

  Then it suddenly dawned on him that if he could only prove, as hestrongly suspected, that Melun was by no means dealing honestly withhis fellow criminals, he would be able by a little astute management toturn all the organisation which Melun had at his disposal against thecaptain himself.

  Westerham's bright gaze brightened and his smile broadened. With analmost boyish delight he immediately set to work to devise a schemewhereby he could turn the tables on his enemy.

  There was very little time to be lost, and to his joy Westerhamremembered that the day was Thursday, the day on the evening of whichMelun's various friends met at the pseudo working-man's club atLimehouse.

  Immediately he resolved that he would go there that very night.

  Rough men had no terrors for him; during his life in the West he haddealt with rougher men than Melun had ever been called on to handle.He laughed as he thought of the possibilities of dominating such acollection of scoundrels as he had seen on his first visit to "TheClub."

  Then he bethought him of Mr. Rookley, and he reflected that if themills of Scotland Yard, like the mills of God, ground exceedinglyslowly, they ground uncommonly fine.

  It may be an easy thing to detect that one is shadowed by a large manwith large boots. But, none the less, it is sufficiently disconcertingto find that the large boots follow one's footsteps persistently anddoggedly. Scotland Yard wears down a man by sheer weight.

  Westerham knew, too, that he had so aroused the interest of theauthorities that they would do their best to watch his every movement.Nor was he wrong.

  He realised, therefore, that it would be folly for him to proceedstraight from Bruton Street to the East End. Never in his life hadhe feared any man, nor had he ever before been compelled to facethe contingency of throwing off pursuers--and those pursuers therepresentatives of law and order.

  However, the prospect of for once being the pursued rather than thepursuer to some extent tickled his fancy; he resolved to try his'prentice hand at evasion by secretly making his way from Bruton Streetto Walter's Hotel.

  Walter's, he imagined, would be probably safe from observation for thatnight at least. Rookley had practically told Sir Paul that he did notknow where he went when he was not in Bruton Street.

  First Westerham called in Blyth and questioned him pretty closely; hesatisfied himself, however, that whatever the man might think of hismaster's methods of life he was at least faithful.

  Westerham, indeed, resolved to trust him a great deal more than hehad done up to then, and told him, without any disguise, that hestrongly suspected that Bruton Street was at that moment being watched.Casually, and without the slightest demonstration of surprise, thevalet thereupon suggested that it would be just as well for Westerhamto change his dress before he left the flat.

  This he did, and afterwards sent the porter for a taxicab. Into this hejumped as soon as it arrived, telling the man to drive to Turnham Green.

  And long before they reached that distant part of London, Westerhamconvinced himself that even had he been pursued at all he had certainlyoutdistanced the pursuers.

  From Turnham Green he took the District Railway to Earl's Court.Alighting there, he walked to South Kensington, where he again took thetrain, on this occasion booking straight through to Whitechapel.

  From St. Mary's, Whitechapel, he turned south, and plunging through amaze of little streets came on foot to Limehouse at about nine o'clock.

  He had little difficulty in finding the "Cut," and walking briskly downit, came to the little space where the tall, four-storeyed buildingwas set back from the roadway.

  Always quick to observe detail, he had not only noticed but herecollected Melun's peculiar rap. So three times he knocked slowly, andagain three times slowly, and then three times in quick succession.

  As on the former occasion, the door swung open at once, and the hideousface of the negro he had treated so cavalierly before peered at himfrom the darkness.

  The nigger peered eagerly about as though seeking for Melun, and whenhe saw that Westerham stood there alone, made as though to slam thedoor on him.

  But Westerham was too quick for him, and thrust his heavy-booted footinto the opening and laughed in the negro's face.

  The negro cursed him roundly and demanded what he wanted.

  "Let me in," said Westerham, quietly, "and I will explain."

  Most unwillingly the negro opened the door, and Westerham, entering thepassage, looked the black squarely in the eyes.

  "I fancy that it is none of your business to inquire what I want?" hesaid. "I was brought here by Captain Melun and properly introduced, ifsuch is the term you use. And my affairs at the present moment are withthe gentlemen of the club. I will thank you to take me there at once."

  The negro gave him an ugly look.

  "Did Captain Melun send you?" he asked.

  "Mind your own business," retorted Westerham, sharply. "Lead the way. Ishall say what I have to say to my friends.

  "Don't play the fool," he added as the man still looked doubtful. "Whatdo you take me for? A 'tec'? If I were, do you think I should be assenough to come here alone and ask to be shown into that crowd?"

  The negro grinned as much as to say that he thought him an ass in anycase, but he led the way down the passage none the less.

  They passed through the opium den as before, and then it seemed thatthe negro purposely made no disturbance in order that Westerham'sentrance might have a proper dramatic effect.

  He was right in his estimation of the confusion it would cause.

  If one may so term it, the parliament of scoundrels was in fullsession. The long trestle table was in the centre of the room, and atone end of it sat the bullet-headed man, while at the other was theyoung ruffian whom Westerham knew by the name of Crow.

  It was evidently Crow, too, who was in supreme command.

  The bullet-headed man rose up and stared at Westerham with startingeyes. The other men followed his gaze and
leapt to their feet withcries and oaths.

  Crow, of the vicious eyes and the hawk-like nose and the large, brutalhands, alone seemed undismayed.

  The negro, having waited just sufficiently long to watch the sensationcaused by Westerham's entrance, had slipped out of the club-room onsilent feet.

  Crow, in a quick, hard voice, cried, "The door!"

  Instantly, as though their stations had by previous arrangements beenallotted them--as was indeed the case--two men jumped from their seatsand put their backs against the door. As they stood there they drewtheir knives, and on taking a step forward Westerham found himself cutoff from retreat and facing the angry eyes of quite a score of men.

  Two of them had pulled out revolvers, but Crow caught their action withquick and angry eyes.

  "Don't be fools," he said; "put those barkers away. We want no noisedown here."

  Sullenly the men obeyed.

  "Come to the table, Mr. Robinson," said Crow, in a manner whichsuggested he had no doubt that his instructions would be followed, "andexplain what this intrusion means."

  Westerham laughed and drew away from the men with the knives. He walkedeasily down to the table to the place which had been vacated by thebullet-headed man, and without so much as a word of apology took thatplump and furious person's seat.

  He looked easily and almost lazily along the lines of vicious facesuntil his gaze finally rested on Crow.

  "I understood," he said, in a pleasant voice, "that after myintroduction the other night I was at liberty to come here when Ipleased."

  "Unfortunately," said Crow, "you have made a mistake. We had no desireto see you then, much less had we any wish to set eyes on you again."

  "I should think not!" blared the bullet-headed man.

  From the rest of the men came murmurs and angry words.

  "My visit," said Westerham, "should be of considerable interest to youall. It is also of considerable interest to myself, as it proves thatyou act independently of Melun. I understood from him that you held nocouncil unless he was with you."

  "Are you his cursed spy?" cried the man on his right, rising from hisseat and bringing his fist down with a bang on the table.

  "No," said Westerham, looking the man straight in the face, "I am not."

  "Sit down, Smith!" shouted Crow.

  The man sat down.

  "Now, my pretty gentleman," Crow went on, "we have had enough of you,just as we have had enough of Melun, who has brought you into thisbusiness for no good so far as we are concerned, and we do not proposethat matters should go any further; in fact, it is rather handy thatyou thought of coming down East to us, as otherwise we should have comeup West to you."

  "Indeed," said Westerham, who was still smiling at Crow.

  "Yes," Crow went on, "you have saved us a great deal of trouble. Youare a cool hand, Mr. Robinson, but we are just as cool. This spot wasnot chosen for its beauty; it was chosen for its advantages."

  At this some of the men laughed coarsely, while several of them swore.

  "Melun's kid-glove business is all very well in its way. It has made abit of money in its time, but it seems to us--we were just discussingthe matter to-night--that we can do pretty well without the captain andhis swells up West.

  "It is a long time since his nice West End pals brought any grist toour mill, and we don't propose to go on like this for ever.

  "What brought matters to a head was your arrival. We can stand a gooddeal, and we can wait a good deal. We are financed now and again bymen whom we never set eyes on, and, according to Melun, we pay them apretty rate of interest for our share of the work, but that is neitherhere nor there. What we do object to--and what you will find we objectto to the extent of putting an end to it--is the importation of Yankeeswankers from the States."

  Westerham raised a protesting hand, but Crow did not heed him.

  "Oh, it is no use your objecting," he said; "we can read you likea book. Things have been worse ever since your arrival. Melun haspractically never been near us so that we have been left to our ownresources. Well, we don't mind that; but we will see that the resourcesare such as we like."

  He laughed a jarring laugh.

  "Now you may be as bad as the worst of us, and it may be you won'tstick at much; and it may be that you have in that clever head athousand ways of keeping us in funds. I should say by the look of you,you had.

  "But I should say, too, that you were one of the mean breed, who keepsthings to himself. You are too much class for us. We don't suit yourbook, and so we can rot while you and Melun spend the dibs up West.Now, that's not good enough."

  Crow looked round the table, the men nodded, and he continued:--

  "We are going to end it here and now. Mark you, Mr. High-and-Mighty,we owe you one grudge already. We did not go looking after you tointerfere with your pleasures, which probably are a deal worse thanours. In the same way, we do not allow any interference with what we dodown here.

  "It's a thing which Melun himself never dares to do, and why shouldyou? It's more than we can stand. I am talking about those girls theother night."

  Westerham was still smiling with his eyes hard and bright. "Perhaps,"he said, "you had better let me inform you that if I found the samestate of things going on to-night I should interfere again."

  Some of the men stared in astonishment at his audacity. Crow's facewent white with passion.

  "Would you, my beauty? I don't think you would."

  Then in a flash he had drawn a six-shooter from his pocket and yelled"Hands up!"

  Westerham laughed outright. Unless he should so lose control overhimself as to act foolishly he knew that Crow would not fire. He hadalready told two men that they wanted no firing that night.

  So, instead of putting his hands up, he folded them placidly on thetable.

  "Put that thing away," he said quietly, "until you explain preciselywhat you intend to do."

  Crow lowered his weapon but kept it on the table. He even laughed ahard, short laugh.

  "Well, you are a good plucked 'un at any rate," he said, "and as yournumber's up, and dead men tell no tales, I don't see why I shouldn'toblige you.

  "You think," he continued, making an attempt to imitate Westerham'scool, off-hand way of speech, "that this is a working-man's club.

  "Well, it is not exactly that. It is a club, sure enough, with prettyfixed rules--rules which, if broken, may result in a man's light beingput out.

  "The same may be said of anyone who offends us. You have offended us.

  "Now, though Melun comes in through 'The Cut,' we come in the otherway. No one in London except the members of this club know that thereare two entrances. We come in by the main door, and that gives on to apath which runs by a handy canal.

  "Shooting is noisy, and knives mean messy work. Strangling is justas simple and just as easy, and, with the clothes off you, and witha good lead weight on your feet, there'd not be much chance of yourdisappearance ever being traced to this place."

  He stared at Westerham with a fixed beast-like glare.

  Westerham, however, with his hands still folded placidly on the table,was smiling blandly.

  "Allow me," he said, seeing that Crow had made an end of speaking, "tocongratulate you on a very pretty little programme--but a programmewhich, I fear, is hardly likely to be carried out to-night."

  "Str'wth," cried a man, craning across the table towards Westerham,"are you a copper's nark? Have you put the police on us?"

  Half a dozen men rose from their seats and looked with scared faces atCrow.

  Crow, somewhat to Westerham's admiration, kept his head.

  "See to the door," he said.

  Two other men rose, and going to Westerham's side of the long room,opened the door leading into a little porch; through this they went outon to the footpath by the canal and peered cautiously up and down.

  Presently they came back shaking their heads.

  "Have another look," said Crow. "Search a little further."

  The
two men went out again, and in the complete silence which nowprevailed their footsteps could be heard through the open door pacingup and down the path.

  Returning, they reported that everything was quiet.

  "Very well," said Crow, "but, all the same, you had better get to yourposts."

  The two men went out once more and closed the door after them.

  "Bluff!" said Crow, insolently, to Westerham, "just bluff. But youcannot come bluff on us, for all your Yankee smartness."

  "No," said Westerham; and his face was still the face of a man who isimmensely amused and interested.

  "What are you grinning at?" snarled Crow.

  "I was grinning because, whatever you may contrive to do to me, itstruck me as being rather funny that one man in a place like thisshould manage to scare so many."

  Crow's hand gripped the handle of his revolver.

  "That will do," said Westerham, growing suddenly serious, for herealised that while the men were posted at either end of the canal-paththere was just a chance that Crow might risk the noise of firearms.

  "Now, Mr. Crow," Westerham continued, "I have allowed you to say a gooddeal and insult me very considerably. As a matter of fact, I do nothappen to be an American--not that that makes very much difference. WhoI am and where I come from is no concern of yours. And I don't proposeto tell you.

  "I propose to tell you something else, though, and I regret to say thatit is a tale of breach of faith--of a breach of faith committed by amember of what you are pleased to call 'the club.'"

  The men looked at each other.

  "The name of the offending member," said Westerham, slowly anddeliberately, "is Melun."

  At the mention of this name most of the men broke out into volleys ofcursing; but Westerham held up his hand for silence.

  "I entered into a certain agreement with Melun on certain terms," hesaid. "Is it news to you that the price I offered for his services andfor the services of yourselves was a hundred thousand pounds?"

  "Good Heavens!" Crow exclaimed, and then sat muttering to himself.

  The rest of the men were too astonished to speak.

  "You are a liar!" shouted Crow.

  "Pardon me," said Westerham, "I am no liar, as I am quite prepared toprove to you. Now I have every intention, provided that Melun holdsgood to his promise, of handing him over that sum. I simply tell youthis in order that you may see to it that you get your proper shares."

  "You liar!" exclaimed Crow again.

  "Pardon me," said Westerham, "but you really are mistaken."

  He put his hand into his breast and pulled out a pocket-book.

  "Here," he said, "I have the sum of ten thousand pounds in notes."

  Drawing them out, he flung them carelessly on the table.

  So utterly were the men lost in amazement that they could do nothingbut stare in silence at the notes.

  "Now, I may as well be quite frank," Westerham went on, "and tell youthat I have not the slightest intention of handing those notes over toyou. Nor, for that matter, do I intend having them stolen.

  "You might take them from me, but you would merely have to destroythem, for I have taken the precaution of informing the bank that allthese notes have been lost. I can well afford to let such a sum as thislie idle for a time, and the numbers were posted this afternoon."

  "Good Heavens!" said Crow once more.

  "Now," Westerham continued as evenly as ever, "I hope that this, tosome extent, proves that what I say is true."

  Some of the men nodded assent.

  "Well," said Westerham, looking about him, "I will take it for grantedthat you are prepared to believe me. So far so good."

  "I have now to tell you that Captain Melun is at the present momentengaged in a deal of the most stupendous proportions. He has mentionedto me that the sum he hopes to net is over a quarter of a million."

  He paused and looked round at the men again. They continued to stareat him open-mouthed, remaining entirely silent. They were beyond allspeech.

  Glancing at Crow, Westerham saw with satisfaction that he was evidentlymuch amazed and beginning to look uneasy.

  "Well, gentlemen," Westerham continued, "it is unnecessary for meto mention the names of the people who are assisting Captain Melunin this enterprise. I really believe that they don't even know whatthe enterprise is. But there is an exception. One of them does know,because the business may involve dirtier work than Melun may care to dowith his own hands."

  Westerham paused, and saw that Crow's face was as pale as ashes.

  Again his intuition proved to be correct.

  "Gentlemen," he cried, rising, and pointing an accusing finger atCrow, "that is the man who knows!"

  "It's a lie!" shrieked Crow; "it's a lie! It is only a matter of tenthousand pounds. Melun swore it to me."

  In the silence that followed Westerham laughed loud and long.

  "Gentlemen," he said at last, "I ask you if ever a man more completelycondemned himself out of his own mouth?"

  Now the tide of anger turned and swept towards Crow.

  There was a great clamour, while the men, with curses, shouted at himfor an explanation.

  Then above the hubbub there came a loud knocking, and turning in thedirection of the sound they saw Melun, smiling and pleasant-lookingas ever, pounding on the floor with his stick, while the negro stoodbehind him, grinning over his shoulder.

  Instantly silence fell again.

  "Now, then," called Melun, coolly, "be quiet, all of you. Be quiet atonce. We have been betrayed, and the man who has betrayed us is there!"

  For some seconds the men looked from Westerham to Melun, and thenfrom Melun to Westerham. But the power of their old allegiance heldgood, and before he could utter a sound Westerham was seized and bornesavagely to the floor.

  When he found himself pinned to the ground Westerham made not theslightest attempt to struggle. He had been in similar predicamentsbefore, and knew that a policy of passive resistance was best.

  And, just as he had expected, when he made no effort to release himselfthe men partially relaxed their hold of him. Two of them, indeed,dragged him into a sitting posture.

  By this time Melun had taken his place at the head of the long table,and was rapping on the bare boards for order and for silence.

  "Two of you are enough there," he said. "The rest of you get back toyour seats."

  The men followed his instructions hastily and almost sheepishly.

  When they were all seated again, Melun looked down their ranks sharplyand a little furtively.

 
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