The crime club, p.8
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       The Crime Club, p.8

           W. Holt-White
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  Mme. Estelle was at home, and Westerham was immediately shown into along, low, pretty drawing-room, which gave on to a garden at the backof the house.

  Judged, indeed, from Madame's pose, and from the gown she wore, shemight have been expecting visitors.

  The lights were shaded so that the hard lines on her face weresoftened, and in the dimness of the pretty room she looked the reallybeautiful woman she once must have been.

  In his generous spirit--though he knew nothing of Madame's past, andpractically nothing of her present--his heart was touched by a certainair of loneliness the woman wore, and by the very pleasant smile ofgreeting which she gave him.

  Sir Paul was conscious that Mme. Estelle surveyed him with a certainamount of quiet wonderment. And it came home to him that for the firsttime for many years he had been shaken out of himself--so badly shakenout of himself that evidently his countenance bore some traces of hisunquiet mind.

  Madame's words of welcome were, however, quite conventional, and boreno evidence of surprise. "This is a most unexpected pleasure," shesaid.

  "The pleasure, I assure you," answered Westerham in the sameconventional strain, "is entirely mine. I do not wish in the least tobe discourteous, but I have to tell you that I have called on business."

  Madame nodded as if she understood. "Suppose," she said, in a pleasantvoice, "that while we discuss business we drink tea."

  "I shall be more than delighted," returned Westerham, though he wasanxious to get the matter over and go back to the quiet of his room,where he could think without interruption.

  So Madame rang the bell, gave her orders, and the tea came in.

  It was not till they were alone again and fairly certain of not beinginterrupted that Westerham went straight to the point.

  "Madame," he said, and his tone was formal--so formal that he pausedfor a moment to be amused at himself; he might have been a familysolicitor about to talk business with a difficult client.

  "Whatever they may have been to you," he continued, "the last few dayshave meant much to me. Possibly you are aware of how I made CaptainMelun's acquaintance."

  Madame pursed up her mouth and smiled. "I can guess," she said; "but,of course, versions differ."

  Westerham's heart gave a little bound of triumph. After all, this womanwas not wholly sunk in admiration of the gallant captain.

  "Never mind about the versions," he said; "we met. Without attemptingto make an _ex-parte_ statement, I may say that I practically foistedmyself upon Melun. I think I may even go so far as to say that Icompelled him to reveal himself to me in his most unpleasant light, andalso to introduce to me various of his friends. You will, of course,pardon my including you in that number."

  Making a bow that was half a mock, Madame smiled--not altogether apleasant smile.

  "Les affaires sont les affaires," said Madame. "Let us be strictlybusinesslike. Allow me to put the matter as I think you should have putit had you been entirely plain. Do you"--her face grew a little hardagain--"blackmail the blackmailer?"

  "To be perfectly honest," said Westerham, "I do."

  Madame nodded her head up and down several times as though shecompletely understood.

  "Now the first of my discoveries," Westerham continued, "was that Melunhad some sort of hold over the Prime Minister, Lord Penshurst."

  Madame started.

  "I also discovered that whatever that hold might be, the secretinvolved his daughter. Then I think by a perfectly reasonable andlogical course of argument I came to the conclusion that the secret,however closely it might be guarded, did not reflect one particularkind of dishonour upon Lord Penshurst."

  Madame nodded again. "I presume you mean," she said--"I am speaking, ofcourse, as a woman of the world--that whatever Lord Penshurst had to beafraid of, he was at least not terrified of any exposure of his morals."

  "Quite so," agreed Westerham. "More than that; both from hisreputation and the little I have seen of him I am sure that he is sohonourable a man that he is not guarding any secret that might imperilhis family's standing. Indeed, I am convinced that whatever he has tokeep to himself it does not include any of the ordinary crimes andoffences of men."

  Again Madame nodded.

  "Now, Mme. Estelle," Westerham continued, speaking more sharply thanbefore, "you may or may not be aware that I purchased an insight intoMelun's mode of life at the price of a hundred thousand pounds."

  Madame's face went first white and then red.

  "That's the first I have heard of it," she said, and there was an angryquietude in her voice.

  "None the less, it is so," said Westerham. "You know who I am; you knowtherefore what my resources are. Such a sum is nothing to me.

  "Now," and he raised his voice so that it became loud and very clear,"I will double that sum if you will tell me what the secret is."

  Lying back on her cushions, Madame stared at him with open mouth; thenshe sat forward and spoke slowly.

  "Will you allow me to speak," she said, "as it were, man to man? Twohundred thousand pounds cannot buy for me that which I desire."

  She laughed harshly.

  Mme. Estelle, as though she were far away, said dreamily, and a littlewistfully. "Still, I will try."

  She roused herself from her momentary abstraction and shook her headalmost fiercely. "I cannot help you because I do not know what thesecret is," she cried.

  Westerham looked at her with his cold, bright eyes, and saw that shespoke the truth, and he was amazed.

  If she did not know what the secret was, then she could not know theprice of it.

  Should he tell her the price?

  Melun had said nothing to him on that point, but he could clearly seewhere matters were trending. Money, he understood, would be of littlevalue to Melun compared to a marriage with Kathleen.

  He started, and started to such a degree that Madame surveyed him withopen suspicion. "Sacrifice," he said to himself. "Sacrifice."

  "Was that what she meant?"

  And then he added to himself: "Oh, Heaven! If that's the sacrifice,then it shall never be."

  Outwardly, however, he only straightened his back and made a formallittle bow to the astonished woman on the sofa.

  "I believe you, Madame," he said, "when you declare that you do notknow."

  For a few moments he lapsed into silence, debating with himself whetherhe should drop the bombshell into Madame's camp now, or whether heshould keep what, to this woman, would be the coping-stone of Melun'svillainy--his intention to marry Kathleen--until such a moment when itsdramatic force would turn the scales in his favour.

  It required almost superhuman resolution on Westerham's part to holdthis second secret to himself. But with an effort he held his lips insilence.

  With the silence, too, he suddenly recognised that he had come intopossession of a fact that would prove a mighty weapon with which todeal both with Mme. Estelle and with Melun.

  Here in truth were wheels within wheels.

  He felt strangely softened to this unhappy woman, who was evidentlytrusting much and being trusted little; and with his pity came aspeculation as to what extent Melun was playing fair and square withhis other confederates in blackmail.

  He realised now that the captain was in a position to play for his ownhand, and that neither the financing of Bagley nor the ambitions ofMme. Estelle, nor yet the brutal violence of Crow and his subsidiaryhooligans in Limehouse were necessary to his object.

  With this conclusion came more complete puzzlement than before.

  It was the word "murderess" employed by Kathleen which distressed himmost. Facile and swift as his imagination was, he had as yet beenunable to build up any theory which could possibly account for theobstinate and desperate manner in which Lord Penshurst and his daughterwere guarding their extraordinary secret.

  So long, indeed, did Westerham stand in silence, lost in his ownthoughts, that it was with a start he realised that Mme.
Estelle wasgazing at him with wide-open, fearful eyes. He was quick to grasp thenecessity of breaking the silence.

  And he deliberately chose to bring matters back to a businesslikemethod by being excessively brutal.

  "You will pardon me," he said, "but I came here expecting to find aliar. I have been agreeably disappointed."

  In the pause which followed the words he coldly watched the womanwince. But the anger which stole across her face convinced him that shehad now been speaking the truth.

  He held out his hand. Madame rose and took it.

  "I am sorry to ask you again," he said, "but will you once more giveme your word of honour as a woman that you do not know what all thismystery is about?"

  "I know," said Mme. Estelle, "that Melun hopes to obtain some advantagefrom Lord Penshurst; beyond that I know nothing."

  Then suddenly she cast aside her reserve and drew a little closer tohim.

  "Forgive plain speaking on my part," she said, "but I am perfectlycertain that you are being dragged into some horrible disaster. I willbe frank and honest with you. I have been given to understand that thecultivation of your acquaintance will free us--I am speaking now forCaptain Melun and myself--from those embarrassments which trouble us somuch, but I think--I cannot tell why--that it is unfair you should bedrawn into this business.

  "You don't know, I am afraid, quite what Melun is capable of. I haveseen"--here she shuddered a little and broke off.

  "Why will you not listen to me," she continued presently, "and getclear while there is yet time? There is no reason why your good nameshould be besmirched; there is no reason"--and she faltered in herspeech--"there is no reason why you should lose----"

  "No reason," said Westerham, in an even voice, "why I should lose mylife?"

  Mme. Estelle gave a little gasping sigh and drew away from him.

  "Oh!" she cried, turning away her face, "you are pitilessly logical."

  They were standing thus, Westerham looking at Mme. Estelle with hissearching gaze while her face was turned towards the window, when thedoor opened behind them.

  The prim voice of the trim maid said, "Captain Melun."

  Westerham gathered himself together with a laugh. It was rather likethe star situation of a highly-coloured melodrama.

  "If Mme. Estelle will pardon the phrase," he said. "Speak of thedevil----" He stopped short, shrugged his shoulders, and made a littlebow towards Melun.

  For his part, the captain was entirely without embarrassment, havingbeen warned by the maid that Westerham was with Madame.

  "Quite so," he said. His look, however, was so vicious that Westerhamhad some inclination to stay and see that Mme. Estelle did not sufferphysically as the result of his call. He reflected, however, that Mme.Estelle was evidently a brave woman and Melun a cowardly man.

  It was, therefore, with an easy mind on this score that he steppedforward and held out his hand to Madame.

  "Thank you very much," he said, "for an exceedingly pleasant,agreeable hour. I hope that you will allow me to have the pleasure ofcalling again."

  Madame bowed and took his hand. Her own was clammy and wet.

  To Melun, Westerham only nodded. The more he dealt with this man themore he regarded him as a lackey to be ordered here and there.

  "I trust," he said, and there was an undertone of command in his voice,"that I shall see you at the hotel to-night."

  When he gained the street, Westerham told his chauffeur to go home; hehad been cramped by travelling in the car, and had a wish to walk. Hestepped out briskly towards St. John's Wood Road.

  At the corner between the Red Lion Hotel and the underground stationhe saw a news-boy yelling for dear life and waving about him afiery-coloured placard. The wind caught it, and blowing it flat againstthe lad's knees enabled Westerham to read the contents' bill:--


  There were times when Westerham suffered from the quick intuition of awoman, and at this moment it came home to him that this contents' billaffected himself.

  His second thoughts were that his first impression was nonsense, buthis third thoughts were that it was foolish to distrust his intuition;crossing the road, he bought a copy of the paper from the news-boy.

  So certain was he that he was in some way connected with the gaggingoutrage, of which he as yet knew nothing, that he opened the paperperfectly prepared for a shock. It was well that he had braced himself,for in heavy type on the main page he read the following:--

  "An extraordinary gagging outrage was discovered at about four o'clockthis afternoon at No. 17B Bruton Street, Bond Street. The scene was theflat of a Mr. James Robinson, a gentleman who took a suite of thesefashionable chambers less than a week ago.

  "Mr. Robinson, who, it is understood, has only been in London a shorttime, and has since his arrival purchased a magnificent motor car, hasnot been sleeping regularly at his chambers. As a matter of fact, ourrepresentative was given to understand that he has been away visitingfriends in the country.

  "He returned, however, to London at about one o'clock to-day, andhaving lunched, told his valet to send round for the car which he hadnot hitherto used. He was heard to instruct the chauffeur to drivealong the Hertfordshire Road, upon which it was concluded that hedid not intend to return till late. Up to the time of going to pressnothing has been heard of him.

  "About four o'clock the doorkeeper, having some message to give to Mr.Robinson's valet, went up to the chambers and knocked at the door.Receiving no reply, the man entered by a pass-key, and was astonishedto find the whole place in a state of great disorder. Rushing into thedining-room, he discovered that everything had been turned upside down.He then proceeded to the bedroom, where he found Mr. Robinson's valetsecurely bound hand and foot and his mouth gagged.

  "Before summoning the police, the doorkeeper took the gag out of themouth of Charles Blyth, the valet, and then released his hands and feet.

  "Upon the police being summoned, the man, who was sufferingconsiderably from shock, stated that shortly after Mr. Robinsonhad left there had come a knock at the door. On opening it, he wasconfronted by a very tall and powerful-looking man, who, he is quitecertain, was a gentleman. He was well dressed in a lounge suit andblack bowler hat, but, to the valet's surprise and dismay, wore a maskover his face.

  "Continuing, the valet says that in less time than it took him to makethe statement, the stranger had rushed into the flat and seized histhroat in a vice-like grip.

  "His assailant then pushed a gag--which apparently consists of a tornpillowcase--into his mouth, and, throwing him to the floor, partiallystunned him.

  "After this the stranger bound him hand and foot, subsequently liftinghim bodily on to the bed, where he left him while he ransacked therooms from top to bottom.

  "As far as can be judged at present, theft was not the motive of thestranger's extraordinary proceedings, for not a single thing is missingfrom Mr. Robinson's rooms, though every piece of paper has been turnedover and every article of clothing evidently searched.

  "Presumably the mysterious assailant was looking for some particularobject which he expected to be there. Whether he found it or not isopen to question, and no further light can be thrown on the matteruntil Mr. Robinson returns."

  "Mr. Robinson," said Westerham to himself, "will return at once," and,hailing a hansom, he directed the man to drive as fast as he could toBruton Street.

  On the way he was rather troubled over the fact that he had called onMme. Estelle, as it was quite possible that by this time the police haddiscovered where he had been during the afternoon, unless his chauffeurhad been more discreet than usual.

  At Bruton Street Westerham found his rooms in much the same conditionas the newspaper had described.

  The valet, pale and troubled-looking, was seated on a chair in thedining-room, evidently fending off question after question which wasbeing put to him by a couple of men whom, without much effort ofimagination, Westerham instantly recognised as detectiv

  As he stood on the threshold, the elder and taller of the two men leftthe valet and approached him.

  "You are Mr. Robinson?" he asked.

  Westerham nodded.

  "My name, sir," said the big man, "is Inspector Rookley, from ScotlandYard. We were, of course, called in by the police in Vine Street. Thisis a most mysterious affair."

  "Apparently," said Westerham, easily. "I have been reading about it inthe evening papers."

  "I think it will be better," said Mr. Rookley, gravely, "if mycolleague takes your valet away while I make a few inquiries."

  "I am not at all sure that I desire any inquiries to be made."

  Mr. Rookley was first astounded and then suspicious.

  "But, sir," he protested, "this is a most peculiar case."

  "I agree with you," said Westerham, "a most peculiar case, a mostpuzzling case. But, at the same time, I cannot see, in the least, howit concerns you."

  "I am sure, sir," said Mr. Rookley, with meaning, "that the sooner Iremove your valet the better."

  "Just as you please. As I find you in my flat, and as apparently youwant to talk, and as, moreover, I have nothing on earth to do, Isuppose I had better talk with you. May I offer you a whisky-and-soda?"

  "Not now, sir," said Mr. Rookley severely, and he beckoned to hiscolleague to take the astonished valet away.

  When they were alone, Mr. Rookley turned sharply on Westerham anddemanded in a dictatorial voice: "What does it all mean?"

  "Now really," Westerham laughed, "I should have supposed that that wasthe question I should have asked you. You, Mr. Rookley, of ScotlandYard, as detective, should be more versed in the wicked ways of thislife than I am.

  "I have my rooms entered by a stranger, who gags my valet, and whosubsequently turns all my effects topsy-turvy. You are summoned by thepolice to catch the offender. When are you going to catch him?"

  Mr. Rookley was used to what he himself called "cool hands," but, as hesaid afterwards, this was the coolest hand he had ever met.

  However, he was equal to the occasion.

  "How do you suppose, sir," he asked, "we are to make an arrest if youdon't provide us with some data to go on?"

  "Data!" exclaimed Westerham. "Surely there is plenty of data here, andI can tell you nothing more."

  "Now come, sir," urged the detective, "you must admit that you yourselfare rather a peculiar person, and, mind you, sir, we of the Yard are norespecters of persons. You came here a week ago. You apparently droppedfrom the skies. No one knows who you are, and yet you have plenty ofmoney. You buy a big motor car, you order a lot of new clothes, andthen you disappear."

  Westerham nodded. "Quite true," he said. "Go on."

  "And then," continued the detective, "you reappear. You order out thecar, and scarcely is your back turned before this business happens.

  "Now, my opinion is--and probably you know more about it than Ido--that the gentleman who went through your things was looking forsome special thing. I say a 'gentleman' advisedly, for valets of thedescription that you have got do not make mistakes on that score.

  "Of course," Mr. Rookley droned on, "gentlemen sometimes do wildthings. I have known a few in my time. Maybe there was some quarrelabout some lady. Maybe you have taken something belonging to some ladywhich the other gentleman thought you should not have taken. For themoment we really do not suspect anything more serious, though naturallywe are making inquiries."

  "I trust they will prove satisfactory," said Westerham.

  "You may rest assured they will, sir," snapped Mr. Rookley. "We seldomfail. Of course, it is open to us to put what construction we like uponthis matter if you do not choose to explain.

  "There is the beginning of many big affairs in such a comparativetrifle as this. Why not, for your own sake, and for our sakes, tell usall about it?

  "I have to warn you that as things stand your position is very awkward.If you refuse to give an explanation of your movements you must expectto be regarded with suspicion--and I assure you that with us it is nota far cry from suspicion to action. In fact, the consequences may beexceedingly serious for you. There is such a thing, you know," addedthe detective, adopting a more bullying tone, "as being arrested onsuspicion. Come, tell me, where did you sleep last night?"

  "My dear man," said Westerham, suavely, "I have not the slightestintention of telling you."

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