The crime club, p.12
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       The Crime Club, p.12

           W. Holt-White
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  Horrified though he was, Westerham made no sign. He had stood in thepresence of death before, and he had faced it in more dreadful forms,though it is true he had never known it so intimately and so poignantly.

  "The girl may be the next," the words seemed ominous--like a doom.Troubles encompassed him on every side. An hour or so previously hehad faced the greatest odds he had ever known till then. The odds weregreater now.

  Conscious that the keen eyes of Rookley were upon him, he saw thatinstant action was necessary, and turning on his heel he walkeddeliberately into the sitting-room.

  The detective followed him, and then seating himself at the table,Westerham bade the man take a chair.

  For a moment the detective's face lighted up with anticipation. Itseemed to him that at last the mysterious Mr. Robinson was aboutto make some statement. His anticipations were, however, to bedisappointed.

  "Well," said Westerham, in a pleasant, even voice, "I am waiting foryou to begin."

  "I was hoping," said Mr. Rookley, "that you were about to make somestatement."

  "I never make statements," said Westerham, "any more than I answerquestions which are inconvenient. What have you to say?"

  Suddenly the detective leant forward and spoke so quickly thatWesterham was almost thrown off his guard.

  "Who are you, Mr. Robinson?"

  "I can only give you the same answer," said Westerham, "which I gaveyou before--that my name is my own business."

  "You are aware, of course," pursued Rookley, "that the present occasionis more serious than the last. You seem to have an unfortunate habit ofcoming in on the heels of awkward occurrences."

  "It does seem like it just now," agreed Westerham.

  There was a pause and Westerham was the first to speak again. "Asyou yourself know full well that I was not here when this businesshappened, I think that you had better clear the ground by telling meall you know if you wish me to assist you."

  Rookley looked at him sharply, but decided that Westerham was right.

  "I will tell you," he said.

  "At about ten o'clock two men called and asked for you. Both of themwere dressed rather like sailors, one man being short, the other tall.They were told that you were out.

  "The tall man, however, said that he had come to see you in responseto a letter, and that, as he knew you had a sitting-room, he would beobliged if they would allow him to wait with his friend.

  "As the men were both quiet and respectable in dress and in manner,they were allowed to do so.

  "After a little while the taller of the two men went down to the halland told the porter that he had left his friend upstairs, and that hehimself was going out to buy some cigarettes.

  "The porter was a little surprised, but said nothing, but when half anhour had gone by he grew uneasy and going upstairs to the sitting-roomdiscovered what you have just seen.

  "The body was not touched, and we were immediately summoned by thepolice at Bow Street. The police-surgeon happened to be absent, and hasnot yet called. That accounts for the body being still undisturbed.We had, as a matter of fact, only been here a few minutes when youyourself arrived."

  "Is that all?" asked Westerham.

  "That's all that I can tell you up to the present," said the detective.

  "What were the men like?" asked Westerham, though he had by this timelittle doubt as to the identity of the murderer, just as he knew wellenough the identity of the victim.

  "The murdered man," said the detective, "you have seen yourself. Themurderer--for there is not the slightest doubt that the taller of thetwo men stabbed the other--is described as being spare in build andblack-bearded."

  "Black-bearded?" said Westerham, wonderingly.

  Rookley looked at him sharply.

  "You have suspicions?" he said.

  "Is there a man without them?" asked Westerham.

  "Come, come, sir," urged the detective, "this is not a time forjesting."

  "I am not jesting," said Westerham, and relapsed into silence.

  "Don't you think," asked the detective after a little while, "it wouldbe better if you were to make a clean breast of everything?"

  "I tell you frankly, Mr. Robinson," he continued, "that I have changedmy opinion about yourself. At first I thought you were a dupe ofMelun's, but I was soon convinced that a man so astute as yourselfcould not possibly have been misled even by that clever scoundrel.

  "Indeed, it seemed to me improbable that a gentleman of such ingenuityas yourself should have become a victim of any conspiracy. No, sir, itappears to me--mind, I am giving you every credit--that you are in someway bound up with a very extraordinary network of crime.

  "What it is, of course, I cannot tell, unless you trust me. I wish youwould see the wisdom of giving me your confidence. In the meantime Ican only theorise."

  Mr. Rookley paused and looked infinitely wise.

  "Go on," said Westerham.

  "In all probability," Mr. Rookley proceeded, "you have become involvedin some peculiar kind of vendetta. I assure you, sir, that when you areas versed in the machinations of mankind as I am you will not find sucha supposition as mine at all romantic.

  "If, however, such is the case, then Melun plays a part in it. And ifMelun plays a part in it," concluded the detective, with a fine show ofpitiless logic, "then he had a hand in this. Now tell me, sir, do yoususpect him?"

  "I must once again," said Westerham, "be allowed to point out that whatI suspect is no affair of yours at all.

  "I don't mind telling you, however, that I am involved in a veryremarkable conspiracy. The part which I play is entirely innocent; onthe other hand, it is impossible for me to make the faintest revelationconcerning it."

  "But this is not the end of it," cried Rookley. "By no means the endof it. Look at the threat on the luggage label. 'The girl may be thenext.' Now, what does that mean? Who is the girl?"

  Westerham's ruddy face grew a little pale.

  "The girl," he said, "is the lady it is my business to shelter andprotect. By holding silent I can at least secure her life; if I breatheone word I can well believe that her fate may be the same as that ofthe man within."

  He pointed to the bedroom.

  "Then, sir," said the detective, banging his fist on the table, "it isyour duty to tell us everything.

  "The police can give protection to all who need it," he added after apause.

  "The police did not save the dead," answered Westerham. "And theycannot save the girl."

  "Mr. Robinson," said the detective, darkly, "if you persist in silenceI must resort to extreme measures. There was no justification in mydetaining you yesterday over the gagging of your valet. But this is anentirely different piece of business.

  "This is murder, and I should not be doing my duty if I did not turnevery stone to bring the murderer to justice, I warn you solemnly thatthere is such a thing as being charged with complicity, and, if youcontinue to defy me as you do, then I shall have no other course but totake you in charge."

  "My dear man," said Westerham, "don't be a fool. Let me implore you notto be led by a little exercise of your authority into taking a stepwhich you would for ever regret.

  "You have been extremely clever in your theories, but you have not beenquite clever enough. I don't wish to be unkind, but you have lackedimagination. This is not some comparatively small affair; it is by nomeans a vendetta; it is by no means a quarrel over a woman.

  "It is an affair in which half the participators act in blindignorance. There are possibly only three people in existence who canthrow any light on the matter. And they occupy such a position in thisworld that it would be extremely unwise for you to take any stepswithout their sanction."

  "I don't know who are concerned in the matter," said the detective. "Itis that of which I complain."

  "And I," answered Westerham, "am not in a position to enlighten you."

  "One thing, however, I can tell
you," said the detective, "and thatis that however he may be indirectly concerned in this murder, Melunhimself did not actually commit it. I have already ascertained that hewas in his club at the time."

  If he expected Westerham to betray the slightest surprise, Rookley wasdisappointed. For although, as a matter of fact, he was astounded atthis information, Sir Paul continued to stare at his interrogator instony and unemotional silence.

  "Indeed!" was the only remark he made.

  Mr. Rookley rose and rang the bell, and when the servant appeared,asked him to request Mr. Moore to step upstairs.

  A few minutes later Mr. Moore, the young detective whose acquaintanceWesterham had made at his rooms in Bruton Street the day before, camebriskly into the room.

  "Mr. Moore," said the detective, solemnly, "we must do our duty.

  "It is our task to charge this gentleman with being concerned in thisbusiness."

  Westerham turned his hard, stern eyes on Moore, and the man feltuncomfortable.

  "Very well, sir," he said, looking at his chief.

  "Stop!" cried Westerham, "before you do so, I want to ask you one ortwo questions. You, of course, are responsible to the Commissioner?"

  Rookley nodded.

  "And the Commissioner is responsible to the Home Secretary?"

  Rookley nodded again.

  "And the Home Secretary is, to a certain extent, responsible to thePrime Minister?"

  Once more Rookley nodded.

  "That being so," Westerham continued, "will you allow me to ask you ifyou have ever known even as bad a business as this hushed up for highpolitical motives?"

  Rookley started and stared at him.

  "Oh, I see you have," said Westerham.

  "This is not Russia, sir," remarked Mr. Rookley.

  "No," said Westerham, "but, on the other hand, Russian methods are notwholly unknown in this country."

  It was Mr. Rookley's turn to look uncomfortable now.

  "Now," continued Westerham, "you have warned me. I want to warn you.In dealing with me you are dealing with no ordinary person. I assureyou that by my silence I am doing my duty by the State, although Ipractically know no more what this means than you do. I give you myword on that.

  "I know, however, sufficient to appreciate that my arrest must resultin a great many inquiries, the effect of which will be disastrous, notonly to individuals, but to the State. I repeat again that I cannotsee plainly in what way, but I have sufficient knowledge to justify myassuming this conclusion.

  "What I ask you therefore is this: Will you allow me to write a note tothe Prime Minister in person? I will abide by the answer, which you caneasily get from Downing Street within the space of half an hour."

  Mr. Rookley's face suddenly brightened, and there was a certaintriumphant air in his manner, as much as to say that he had convictedWesterham of having blundered badly.

  "The Prime Minister is away," he snapped.

  "I know that," said Westerham, "but his private secretary, the Hon.Claude Hilden, is at No. 10. There is, moreover, a private telephonewire to Trant Hall. I know that because I was at the Hall yesterday."

  Mr. Rookley opened his eyes wide. His astonishment was intense andundisguised.

  "I will write that note," said Westerham--"and believe me that thewriting of it will save a vast deal of trouble--on one condition. Willyou pledge me your word that it shall not be tampered with and shallnot be read by anyone until it is placed in the hands of Mr. Hildenhimself?"

  For a few moments the detective looked worried and doubtful.

  "Very well," he said finally; "but, of course, you must realise that ifyou are simply putting up a game on us the consequences will be all theworse for yourself."

  "I am perfectly aware," said Westerham, coldly, "of precisely what I amdoing."

  Thereupon he rose, and, going over to the writing-table, hastily wrotethe following letter:--

  "To the Honourable Claude Hilden, Private Secretary to the Right Honourable the Earl of Penshurst.

  "_Personal and private._

  "DEAR SIR,--Kindly inform Lord Penshurst at once by telephone that the writer of this note--Mr. James Robinson, of Bruton Street--whose rooms were burglariously entered by yourself yesterday afternoon--is in an awkward predicament.

  "For your own convenience I occupied, besides the flat in Bruton Street, rooms in Walter's Hotel. During my absence to-night an atrocious murder was committed in those rooms. The detectives called in to take charge of the case are convinced that, while I am not the murderer, I am involved in the conspiracy which brought it about. That conspiracy is perfectly well known to Lord Penshurst. There is no justification for my arrest, and the result of police-court proceedings must compel me to make revelations which may prove exceedingly awkward to his lordship.

  "I recognise that there must be an inquest, and I am prepared to give evidence there. Nothing I may say there, however, will in any way involve the Prime Minister.

  "I venture to write to you and point these things out, and to ask you that you should immediately communicate with Lord Penshurst by telephone, as, although I am practically in ignorance of all that is going on about me, I realise that some very important matter is involved which Lord Penshurst desires to keep to himself.--I am, yours faithfully,


  Westerham fastened the note down, sealed it, and handed it to Rookley,who instructed Moore to take it immediately to Downing Street.

  There, Moore told Rookley afterwards, he had the unusual experience ofseeing Mr. Hilden go pale as death, and of hearing him mutter excitedlyto himself.

  Then the private telephone was busy for some ten minutes, and presentlyMr. Hilden came back still greatly agitated, and told Moore to instructRookley that Mr. Robinson was on no account to be detained.

  Both the men were, moreover, enjoined to complete silence, and toldthat not a word of the matter must be breathed to anyone except theCommissioner himself.

  When Moore came back with these various messages, Rookley sat for somemoments as though entirely overcome.

  When at last he spoke his voice was husky.

  "I don't know what it's all about, sir," he said to Westerham, "or whoyou may be. Apparently it is none of my business to inquire; but I tellyou frankly that this beats everything that I have ever known in thecourse of my long experience.

  "You will naturally have to take another room, as the body must not betouched till the police-surgeon has seen it, when it can be removed tothe mortuary. You will get your summons for the inquest in the morning."

  He went into the bedroom where the dead man lay and shut the door witha bang.

  Westerham, without even troubling to gather together his differenteffects, rang the bell and ordered another room. But, as may beimagined, he did not sleep much; indeed, he sat and smoked throughoutthe entire night, trying to account for the real motive which underlaythe murder.

  Slowly, too, he began to see that he had underrated Melun's resourcesand fiendish cleverness; for this was evidently Melun's work.

  Yet it was difficult to account for Melun's presence in his club at themoment of the perpetration of the crime. Melun must have acted withalmost superhuman swiftness and ingenuity.

  Piecing the affair together as best he could, Westerham came to theconclusion that after the men had left Limehouse Melun must havepurchased Crow's adherence out and out; and this more than ever puzzledWesterham to understand what the amazing mystery in which he wasentangled meant. He could well believe now that the stake was evengreater than the quarter of a million the captain himself had mentioned.

  Then he also became convinced that not only had he underestimatedMelun's mental capacity, but that he had underrated his physicalhardihood; for by this murder, unless he had in some subtle waypre-armed himself with a triumphant excuse, the captain hadautomatically cut himself adrift from the rougher spirits of his gang.

  This reflection led to a great anxiety on Westerham's part, for herealised that i
f Melun could afford to take this step the crisismust be close at hand. And it was an exceedingly uncomfortable andhair-raising thought when he remembered the threat pinned to the deadman's chest.

  "The girl may be the next."

  The words haunted him more than Kathleen's own extraordinary statement.He wondered impotently when the problems which beset him would cease tomultiply.

  The whole situation seemed to have a double edge, for while herejoiced to think that the crisis must now be close at hand, he wascorrespondingly terrified by the thought that the crisis might involve,not only the safety, but even the life of Lady Kathleen.

  That he could actually blackmail the Prime Minister to the extent ofsecuring his immunity from arrest only increased his alarm, becausehe was able thereby to appreciate more than ever the reality of theunknown peril in which Lord Penshurst stood.

  It was with much apprehension that he sent for the morning papers andread what they might have to say concerning the tragedy.

  Fortunately the newspapers--whether by Rookley's instrumentality ornot Westerham didn't know--were discreet almost to the verge of beingindefinite.

  They confined themselves to setting forth those details of the murderwhich could not be hidden; they advanced no theories whatsoever,contenting themselves by stating that the police had a clue and thatimportant developments might be expected.

  They did not mention the fact that the murder had been committed in theroom occupied by a Mr. James Robinson, but Westerham was glad to notethat they did not speculate as to who he might be, nor did they attemptto give any account of his present or past circumstances.

  He was prepared to face, and if necessary to defeat, a battery ofquestions when he went to the inquest.

  The strange little coroner's court was packed to suffocation, andWesterham was conscious that every eye was turned upon him. But he drewsome comfort from the reflection that this was inevitable, seeing thathe was the only witness in the case beyond the hall-porter and thedetective.

  To his surprise he found that the coroner led him quietly through afew formal questions as to the hour at which he arrived at the hoteland what he had seen there. The coroner, indeed, made no attempt todiscover Westerham's actual identity, nor even suggested that he shouldadvance any theory of the strange affair.

  At the close of Westerham's evidence, however, one of the jurymenbecame for a few moments a little troublesome.

  "I think it should be asked," said this gentleman, "whether Mr.Robinson's suspicions turn in any particular direction.

  "Has anything occurred in his life that would suggest that such a crimemight be looked for?"

  But the coroner cut him short in such a freezing manner that Westerhamrightly guessed that Rookley had been using a tactful influence.

  "I consider that question," said the coroner, "a most improper one. Wehave been assured by Mr. Rookley that there is not the slightest reasonto associate Mr. Robinson with this crime. Interference on your partis out of place, and may even lead to a miscarriage of justice. I amperfectly certain that this matter may be safely left to the police,who should be allowed to take their own course of action."

  The juryman grumbled a little, but subsided, and the sharp eyes of thereporters at the tables looked disappointed.

  A verdict of wilful murder by some person unknown concluded theinquest, from which Westerham hurried in order to evade furtherquestionings from curious journalists.

  He imagined that his hotel was likely by this time to be beset byreporters, and so, having first acquainted Inspector Rookley with hisintention, he went back to his rooms in Bruton Street.

  There even the mask-like face of his valet bore some traces of distrustand curiosity. It was, however, without a word that the man handed hima note.

  To his surprise, and with a little leap of his heart, Westerham sawthat it was addressed in a woman's hand-writing, and for a moment hethought that the letter might be from Lady Kathleen. But he was veryroughly undeceived, for, tearing open the envelope, his eye instantlycaught the address--"Laburnum Road, St. John's Wood"--while across halfa sheet of newspaper was scrawled:--

  "For Lady Kathleen's sake, come to me at once. "MARIE ESTELLE."

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