The Secret Adversary
8. The Adventures Of Tommy
TAKEN aback though he was by the man's words, Tommy did not hesitate. If audacity
had successfully carried him so far, it was to be hoped it would carry him yet farther. He
quietly passed into the house and mounted the ramshackle staircase. Everything in the
house was filthy beyond words. The grimy paper, of a pattern now indistinguishable,
hung in loose festoons from the wall. In every angle was a grey mass of cobweb.
Tommy proceeded leisurely. By the time he reached the bend of the staircase, he had
heard the man below disappear into a back room. Clearly no suspicion attached to him as
yet. To come to the house and ask for "Mr. Brown" appeared indeed to be a reasonable
and natural proceeding.
At the top of the stairs Tommy halted to consider his next move. In front of him ran a
narrow passage, with doors opening on either side of it. From the one nearest him on the
left came a low murmur of voices. It was this room which he had been directed to enter.
But what held his glance fascinated was a small recess immediately on his right, half
concealed by a torn velvet curtain. It was directly opposite the left-handed door and,
owing to its angle, it also commanded a good view of the upper part of the staircase. As a
hiding-place for one or, at a pinch, two men, it was ideal, being about two feet deep and
three feet wide. It attracted Tommy mightily. He thought things over in his usual slow
and steady way, deciding that the mention of "Mr. Brown" was not a request for an
individual, but in all probability a password used by the gang. His lucky use of it had
gained him admission. So far he had aroused no suspicion. But he must decide quickly on
his next step.
Suppose he were boldly to enter the room on the left of the passage. Would the mere fact
of his having been admitted to the house be sufficient? Perhaps a further password would
be required, or, at any rate, some proof of identity. The doorkeeper clearly did not know
all the members of the gang by sight, but it might be different upstairs. On the whole it
seemed to him that luck had served him very well so far, but that there was such a thing
as trusting it too far. To enter that room was a colossal risk. He could not hope to sustain
his part indefinitely; sooner or later he was almost bound to betray himself, and then he
would have thrown away a vital chance in mere foolhardiness.
A repetition of the signal knock sounded on the door below, and Tommy, his mind made
up, slipped quickly into the recess, and cautiously drew the curtain farther across so that
it shielded him completely from sight. There were several rents and slits in the ancient
material which afforded him a good view. He would watch events, and any time he chose
could, after all, join the assembly, modelling his behaviour on that of the new arrival.
The man who came up the staircase with a furtive, soft-footed tread was quite unknown
to Tommy. He was obviously of the very dregs of society. The low beetling brows, and
the criminal jaw, the bestiality of the whole countenance were new to the young man,
though he was a type that Scotland Yard would have recognized at a glance.