The crime club, p.18
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       The Crime Club, p.18

           W. Holt-White
 
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  CHAPTER XVIII

  AT THE EMPIRE

  The better to show his contempt for the people whom he was robbing,Melun had put away his revolver. This little piece of play-acting costhim dear.

  As he saw Westerham coming down the stairs his hand went to hiship-pocket. But Westerham was first, and covered him in an instant.

  "Put up your hands!" he ordered.

  Melun obediently threw up his hands.

  The other masked men now covered Westerham, but Melun cried outsharply: "Stop that! No firing!"

  For he knew who was the best shot, and who was likely to be quickest;and he had no desire to risk his own skin.

  "Tell the men to lower their hands," said Westerham, "and you can putyour own hands down."

  Melun gave the order in a surly voice.

  "Thank you!" said Westerham.

  All this had passed in complete silence on the part of Lord Penshurst'sguests. Lord Penshurst also was far too astonished to speak.

  "You must forgive my intrusion," Westerham said, now addressing thePrime Minister, "but I must ask you to allow me to have a word withthis man." He pointed to Melun.

  Without more ado he came down the staircase from the musicians' galleryand walked over to Melun's side.

  "You are an impudent scoundrel, Captain Melun," he whispered in thecaptain's ear, "but I will put a stop to this. You will have to callyour men off and restore all that property."

  "I shall do nothing of the kind!" snarled Melun.

  "You won't, eh?" said Westerham. "Well, we will see.

  "You know," he added, still whispering, "that Lord Penshurst isperfectly acquainted with your identity. The guests are in ignorance,and therein lies your safety. But how many would recognise you if theycould see your face?"

  Melun shot a vindictive look through his mask at Westerham.

  "And so," continued Westerham, quietly, "I will give you five secondsto make up your mind. You either order all these jewels to be restoredto their proper owners or I will tear the mask from your face."

  "For Heaven's sake don't do that," cried Melun in a low voice. "But itwill cost you your life, for I shall not be able to hold the men."

  "I shall not bother you to do so," said Westerham; "I can manage themquite well myself."

  Still keeping Captain Melun under observation, he turned about, whilehis revolver covered the man who had collected the jewels. "Come here!"he ordered.

  The man came forward.

  "Give me your gun!"

  The man handed over his six-shooter without a word, and Westerhamplaced it carefully on the floor.

  "Now right-about!" he ordered, "and get the other men's weapons."

  The ruffian in the mask hesitated. "They will shoot me and you,governor," he said thickly.

  "You had better be shot at by them than by me," said Westerham. "My aimrarely fails. Do as you're told."

  Westerham then turned to the other men. "All of you," he said, "willhave to give up your guns. If necessary, Captain Melun and I will seethat you do it. However, I should recommend you to be quick. I warnedScotland Yard before I left London of what was about to happen here,and within a few minutes this place will be swarming with police."

  The men fidgeted uneasily and looked helplessly at Melun.

  Melun wisely decided to assist Westerham.

  "It's true," he said, "and you'd better be quick."

  At this there was a good deal of grumbling, and one of the men criedout that they had been betrayed.

  Westerham turned on him sharply. "I am compounding a felony," he cried;"but still, if you are quick, you will get away. I won't detain you."

  By this time two or three men had come in from the hall to inquire themeaning of the delay. They surveyed the scene uneasily.

  "How many of you are there?" demanded Westerham, glancing towards thedoor. "I suppose it is a case of twenty to one; but never mind. Onthis occasion it is my move. Bring your guns over here one by one. Youon the left there start first."

  Lord Penshurst and Kathleen were staring in amazement at Westerham,as indeed were all the guests. It was a simple exhibition of thedomination of one will over many. One by one the men came forward anddeposited their weapons at Westerham's feet.

  When they had all laid down their arms he turned again to Melun. "Youcan call your men off now," he said.

  Melun was in no mind to remain. Without a word he walked out of theball-room, calling on the men to accompany him; they followed him likesheep.

  "Just a minute, Lord Penshurst," said Westerham, easily, "while I seethese visitors off the premises."

  He went out into the hall and watched the departure of the three cars.

  Melun was shaking with rage. So angry was he, indeed, that his passionovercame his fear, and as he was about to enter his car he stepped backinto the hall again and addressed Westerham.

  "You shall pay for this, my gentleman," he said in a shaking voice.

  Westerham made no answer except to say, "You're wasting time, and ifyou take my advice you will not return to town along the same route bywhich you came."

  Then he turned on his heel and went back into the ball-room. There themen were busy sorting out the jewels on the floor and restoring themto their proper owners.

  As Westerham came in there was a simultaneous movement towards him. Ahalf-score of hands were outstretched and a hundred voices clamouredadmiration and congratulation.

  But Westerham held up his hand for silence.

  "Be kind enough not to approach any nearer," he said; "my business iswith Lord Penshurst. If I have been of any service to you I am glad;but please let the matter rest at that."

  Westerham walked over to Lord Penshurst and looked reassuringly intohis face.

  "Lord Penshurst," he said, "I shall be grateful if you can spare me afew minutes."

  "Certainly," said the Prime Minister; "let us go to my own room."

  The Premier led the way across the hall and down a long corridor untilhe came to the library. He bowed Westerham in before him and afterwardsclosed the door.

  There was open admiration in the Premier's eyes, but at the same timehe was distressed and ill at ease. Like the diplomat he was, he waitedfor Westerham to speak the first word. Westerham spoke it.

  "I think," he said, "that the time has come for mutual explanations."

  "I have to thank you," answered Lord Penshurst, "for having rid me ofthese ruffians to-night, but as I imagine that you have only done so tosuit your own private ends," he added coldly, "I think that it is you,rather than myself, who should make the explanations."

  "Practically all the explanations that I can make," said Westerham, "Ihave already given to Lady Kathleen."

  "And a very pretty tale, too," remarked the Premier, drily.

  "None the less a true tale. I can furnish ample proof that I am theSir Paul Westerham who disappeared at Liverpool. I knew Lord Duntonbefore I left England ten years ago, and he has twice visited me in theStates. I should hardly imagine you would doubt his word, and he cancertainly establish my identity. If that does not satisfy you, you canapply to my solicitor, Mr. Hantell."

  Still the Premier looked thoroughly unconvinced, but in spite of thisWesterham plunged once more into the details of his meeting with Melunand the bargain he had made with him.

  "You will see from all that I have told you," he concluded, "how good agrip I have on that scoundrel. But for the influence that I can bringto bear on him he would never have surrendered so quietly to-night.

  "Of course this escapade of his, mad though it seems, was not withouta motive, and I judge that motive to be the further terrorising ofLady Kathleen and yourself. Once more let me appeal to you to tell mefrankly and fully what it is that so distresses you."

  The Premier almost laughed. "You must think me a very credulous personindeed," he said, "if you expect me to believe such a tale as yours.I have several reasons for thinking that you are no better than Melun,I am not sure that you are not worse. If, for some reason, you
haveserved Lady Kathleen and myself, I presume it is merely a question ofthieves quarrelling among themselves."

  Westerham flushed hotly. But the Prime Minister, though he noticedWesterham's annoyance, continued to speak quietly and coldly.

  "Why should I go in search of Lord Dunton? If you are not a liar, sendLord Dunton to me. Not that it would help matters, for if you werefifty times Sir Paul Westerham you could not assist me, nor, indeed,would I ask your assistance. But as I fully expect that you know asmuch about my troubles as I do myself, it would in any case be wasteof breath to mention them; and certainly I am not going to mentionanything that will give you and Melun a stronger hold of me than youhave already."

  "But I tell you," cried Westerham, "that I have nothing to do withMelun's schemes. Nothing at all!"

  "That, of course," said Lord Penshurst, drily, "will presently beproved by your friend Lord Dunton. In the meantime I warn you and youraccomplice Melun that you are rapidly driving me to desperation. Iadmit that. I tell it to you to impress on you the necessity of notgoing too far. It is rather unfortunate that the Prime Minister ofEngland should have to liken himself to a worm, but nevertheless I maymention that even a worm will turn."

  This was exasperating, and Westerham found it hard to keep cool.

  "Very well," he said with a sigh, "I am sorry you think so badly ofme, and I will do my best to open your eyes as to the real truth ofmatters. As, however, I cannot do that to-night, I will ask you toallow me to withdraw."

  "I have no objection," said the Premier, "but before you go perhaps Imay offer you some hospitality. I do not wish to be so ungrateful andungracious as to deny that I owe you some thanks for to-night's work."

  "I am much obliged," answered Westerham, "but I would rather be excusedthe humiliation of having to accept hospitality from the hands of a manwho does me so much injustice. Good-night."

  He passed out of the room, and the Premier let him go without a word.

  In the hall the hosts of departing guests eyed him with curiosity andsome anxiety.

  Lady Kathleen was standing at the foot of the staircase, and, to theirsurprise, she stepped forward and held out her hand.

  Westerham bowed over it but said nothing. He would indeed have chokedover any words which he might have sought to utter. He was, perhaps, inas trying a position as he could well be in.

  It might have been that Lady Kathleen expected him to say something,for she gazed after his retreating figure a little sadly and wistfully.The guests in their evening wraps drew aside to let this tall man in ablue serge suit pass them.

  A few of them held out their hands, and some of them called"Good-night"; but Westerham passed on unheeding.

  The taxicab in which he had come down from town was waiting at thedoor, and stepping into it he ordered the man to return to London. Itwas nearly three o'clock when he reached his hotel.

  There, to his extreme annoyance, he was informed by the porter, who nowregarded him with open suspicion, that a gentleman was waiting to seehim.

  "What is his name?" demanded Westerham, sharply.

  "He didn't give any, sir," said the man, "but he is in thesmoking-room."

  Westerham entered that vast and dimly-lighted apartment, to be greetedon the threshold by Inspector Rookley.

  "Good heavens! sir," cried Westerham; "am I never to be rid of thisconstant persecution?

  "Surely," he continued, "you received fairly explicit instructionsthrough the Commissioner from Lord Penshurst to let me alone?"

  "I know, sir," said the detective, soothingly, "but you have anunfortunate habit of stirring us up afresh. I have called now aboutthis business at Trant Hall."

  "Oh!" said Westerham, starting, "what about it?"

  "I understand," said Rookley, "that you were there?"

  "If it's any satisfaction for you to know it," said Westerham, "I was.But I don't quite remember seeing any members of the police forcethere, and I should be glad to ascertain how it is that my presence atthe Hall was notified to you."

  "It came first of all by telephone from the local police," saidRookley, "and I then had a message 'phoned through from LordPenshurst. It seems that he sent word on your behalf, and he was atgreat pains to tell us of the service you had rendered him. He said hewas telephoning because we might imagine that you were in mischief,whereas you happened to be the man who had saved them all from theftand possibly from violence.

  "Of course, sir," the detective continued, "that clears you more orless. I cannot argue with the Prime Minister, or I would have pointedout to him that you must have been in the business yourself or youcould never have got wind of the affair and turned up at all. So, asthis is a very serious matter indeed, I waited here to ask you what youknow about it."

  "Look here," cried Westerham, annoyed past all endurance, "I don't knowhalf as much about this matter as Lord Penshurst does himself. If youwant to know what I had to do with it, go and ask the Prime Minister.Personally, I decline to say anything at all."

  "You do?" Rookley was staring at him uneasily while he scratched hishead. He was as certain as he could be in his official mind that he wasconstantly running up against the most astute of master criminals thathe had ever met. It perplexed him, too, beyond measure that, wheneverhe felt his grip fastening on the man, the Prime Minister should stepin to save him.

  He would truly have loved to arrest Westerham there and then uponsuspicion; but the telephonic message from Trant Hall made thatdesirable object impossible.

  "Well?" he began again.

  "Good-night," said Westerham; and turning on his heel he walkedcontemptuously away, leaving the baffled detective to make what excuseshe could to the night porter, who, ignorant of the detective'sidentity, was beginning to suspect him of being no more honest than heshould be.

  Westerham slept badly, and awoke, after a succession of uneasy dreams,at about nine o'clock in response to a knock at his door.

  To his surprise it was neither the boots nor the chambermaid whoentered at his bidding; instead there stood before him a tall,cadaverous man, wearing a long black frock-coat, whom he instantlyrecognised as the manager.

  The manager closed the door and walked over to Westerham's bedside. Hismanner was at once offensive and deferential.

  "You will have to excuse me, sir," he said, "but I thought it betterto speak to you in your own room than to rouse any remark by sending amessage requesting you to speak to me in mine.

  "I am aware that Lord Dunton called to visit you here, and I knowsufficient about his lordship to feel no uneasiness about his friendsas a rule. But really--you must pardon my saying so--you make things alittle awkward in this hotel."

  Westerham sat up in bed and looked at the man quizzically.

  "Your appearances and disappearances," continued the manager, avoidingWesterham's eyes, "have already led to considerable comment. Besides,after inquiry this morning, I discovered that Mr. Rookley from ScotlandYard was here waiting for you till the small hours. Fortunately thenight porter did not know who he was, or things would have been stillmore awkward."

  "On the other hand," suggested Westerham, "it might have been thatRookley called on me for the purpose of consulting me rather than ofholding an investigation as to my movements."

  The manager eyed him coldly.

  "That's hardly what I have been given to understand," he said.

  Westerham reddened with anger. It seemed to him that Rookley, beingbaffled, was seeking to make himself disagreeable. Westerham wasbeginning to feel indeed something like an outcast, moved on from placeto place without time for rest.

  "You want me to leave?" he asked shortly.

  The manager made a queer sort of bow.

  "Very well," Westerham returned; "for my part I have no objection."

  To himself he reflected that within a few days the man would bitterlyregret his mistake.

  So Westerham packed his little bag and went out. First he went on footto Victoria, where he left his bag in charge of the cloak-room.

&n
bsp; Then he breakfasted at a restaurant, and after he had consumed amoderate quantity of doubtful ham and still more doubtful eggs hesmoked cigarette after cigarette while he thought over the situation.

  At last he hit upon a solution--as he thought--to the whole difficulty;a solution which was so extraordinarily daring that he laughed tohimself as he conceived it.

  The idea tickled his fancy immensely, but he did not embrace it withoutall his customary caution.

  Carefully and methodically he weighed the pros and cons of success,only to be ultimately convinced that the arguments against the schemewere of practically no account.

  To secure the success of his enterprise, however, he needed at leastone assistant, and his mind turned without hesitation in the directionof Dunton.

  But before he saw Dunton it was expedient to ascertain the whereaboutsof Melun. Then it occurred to him that he had been more than foolish toallow Melun to escape from Trant without having secured any informationas to where he now lay in hiding.

  Had he returned to his rooms? That was doubtful; and the doubt wasconfirmed when Westerham called at Rider Street to ascertain. CaptainMelun had not returned to town.

  Grateful to Mme. Estelle for the timely news she had given him ofMelun's journey to Trant Hall, Westerham was by no means unmindful ofhis promise to tell her of all that had happened.

  He had simply delayed his visit because he had been in hopes that if hecould only find Melun he would be able to go to her with some definiteproposition.

  For it was now entirely obvious that Melun, unable to be true to anyman or any woman, had merely been using Mme. Estelle as an agent, andhad not the faintest notion of fulfilling his promise to her.

  It was inconceivable that unless Melun wished to push his advantageto the utmost--that is to say, to the extreme limit of forcing LordPenshurst to agree to his marriage with Lady Kathleen--that he couldpossibly have had the hardihood, not to say the foolhardiness, ofconducting the raid of the night before.

  Two days previously Lady Kathleen had declared to Westerham that onlya week remained. Two days of that week had already slipped away, sothat now only five days were left in which to find Melun and bring hisworks to naught.

  Westerham wondered whether he would find Mme. Estelle tractable.That also was open to doubt. And while he thought on the matter hewas tempted to go just a little back on his word and refuse her theinformation she had asked for until she told him in what way he couldlay his hands on the truant captain.

  But this, he reflected, in spite of all that was at stake, would be, tosay the least of it, dishonourable; and it was with every intention ofproving to Madame that the captain was playing her false that Westerhamtook a cab and drove to St. John's Wood. He found Mme. Estelle aloneand anxious.

  She gave him no greeting, though she almost ran towards him as heentered the little drawing-room.

  "What have you to tell me?" she cried.

  "Nothing," answered Westerham, "that is absolutely definite; but atthe same time I am convinced that Melun is not treating you justlyand honourably. After last night's affair was over--you may not haveheard that I defeated Melun's raid--I spoke for some time with LordPenshurst. He would tell me nothing; but, none the less, I am convincedthat Melun is insisting that his marriage with Lady Kathleen shall takeplace at once."

  For some minutes Madame sat in complete silence, with her hands tightlyclasped together. Then she looked up and said, "Can you prevent thatwithout completely ruining Melun?"

  "Yes," said Westerham, thoughtfully. "I think I can contrive it; but Imust first know where I can see the captain."

  Madame rose and looked at him long and earnestly.

  "Though I trust your word," she said, "I can see that it would be verydifficult for you to meet him without some dreadful trouble arising. Ifyou can only see him in public it would not matter so much. You are agentleman and would not create a scene.

  "Yes," she went on, more to herself than to Westerham, "I think thatis the better way. To-night--just, I think, to prove that he cares fornobody--Melun has taken a box at the Empire. I am going there with him.It is possible that you could join us."

  Westerham laughed with some bitterness.

  "I am obliged to you for your suggestion," he said, "but you donot seem to appreciate that I have been robbed by Melun of all theappurtenances of a decent existence. It is to his efforts--and tosome extent yours--that I am at the present moment, in spite of allmy millions, homeless. I have not even a dress-suit to my name.If, therefore, my appearance in your box this evening is a littleincongruous, you will have to excuse me."

  "Quite so; quite so," said Mme. Estelle with a queer smile, the meaningof which was not at the moment obvious to Westerham.

  After this he took his departure; nor did he for the moment fulfill hisintention of visiting Dunton. It was useless to go to that young manuntil after he had met Melun. After that meeting his plans might haveto be remodelled.

  To distract his thoughts he went to a matinee, and afterwards dinedalone, lingering over his cigarette till the restaurant clock showedhim it was half-past nine.

  He then made his way to the Empire and entered the lounge. From therehe was able to discern quite easily the box in which Melun was seated.He made his way to it, and without even the formality of knockingturned the handle of the door and went in.

  As he did so Melun rose angrily to his feet, and, as though he hadnever known Westerham in his life before, demanded what he meant by theintrusion.

  Westerham bowed to Mme. Estelle, and then turned his attention to thecaptain.

  "Don't be a fool," he said shortly; "I have not the slightest intentionof being treated in this way. I think you had better sit down."

  For his own part, Westerham drew up a chair and seated himself in frontof the box so that his face and figure could be seen by all observers.It was indeed the prospect of this which had so alarmed Melun and hadresulted in his taking up so tactless an attitude towards Westerham.Melun was fearful lest some of those present in the theatre should havebeen numbered among Lord Penshurst's guests of the night before, inwhich case the freedom which Westerham made of his box might lead to asuspicion that the captain himself was implicated in the raid.

  Westerham smiled at the discomfited Melun as though he hugely enjoyedthe joke.

  "You may well be alarmed," he said, "and you had better be civil, orI certainly shall not relieve you of my presence, which is apparentlyobnoxious, and which I fancy you imagine to be a source of danger toyou."

  "Mark you, Melun," he went on, turning his head away from Mme. Estelleso that the woman could not catch his words. "Mark you, there are agreat many things about which I want an explanation. When I made mybargain with you I had no idea that I should come to be regarded as apartner in crime with a murderer. Things have gone too far.

  "However, for Mme. Estelle's sake, I will not cross-examine you here. Iinsist, however, that you shall tell me where and when I can find you."

  "And if I decline to say?"

  Westerham had foreseen the possibility of this answer, and had madeup his mind as to how he should meet it if it came. He saw that hecould not extort a statement from Melun there, and was resolved on adifferent method.

  Without a word--and he knew that his silence would cause Melun thedeepest anxiety--he rose and left the box.

  He waited patiently till the end of the performance and then succeededin following Melun into the street.

  As he had counted on his doing, Melun took a hansom and drove away withMme. Estelle. Westerham followed.

  The hansom in front of him bowled quickly along Piccadilly, turned upBerkeley Street, and then made at a good pace for Davies Street. HereMelun alighted, and having said "Good-night!" to Mme. Estelle, lethimself into a small private hotel with a latch-key.

  Westerham, who had passed Melun's cab, stopped his own further up thestreet and marked the house from the little window at the back of thehansom. He was satisfied.

  He immediately ordered the m
an to turn about and drive to Dunton'sroom. Dunton was sitting before a fire, enjoying a pipe before heturned in.

  Westerham immediately plunged into every detail of his story which hedared disclose and still keep faith with Lady Kathleen. Dunton heardhim out with open-mouthed wonder.

  Next Westerham proceeded to explain to Dunton the counter-move againstMelun which he intended to put into execution on the morrow.

  When he had finished speaking, Dunton rocked on his chair withlaughter, as though delighted beyond measure with the proposal.

  And certainly Dunton had some justification for his merriment, for whatWesterham proposed, gravely and of fixed purpose, was the kidnapping ofthe Prime Minister.

 
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