Peter Ruff and the Double Four by E. Phillips Oppenheim - HTML preview

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II.5. The First Shot

 

De Grost and his wife were dining together at the corner table in a fashionable but somewhat Bohemian restaurant. Both had been in the humor for reminiscences, and they had outstayed most of their neighbors.

"I wonder what people really think of us," Violet remarked pensively. "I told Lady Amershal, when she asked us to go there this evening, that we always dined together alone somewhere once a week, and she absolutely refused to believe me. 'With your own husband, my dear?' She kept on repeating."

"Her Ladyship's tastes are more catholic," the Baron declared dryly. "Yet, after all, Violet, the real philosophy of married life demands something of this sort."

Violet smiled and fingered her pearls for a minute.

"What the real philosophy of married life may he I do not know," she said, "but I am perfectly content with our rendering of it. What a fortunate thing, Peter, with your intensely practical turn of mind, that nature endowed you with so much sentiment."

De Grost gazed reflectively at the cigarette which he had just selected from his case.

"Well," he remarked, "there have been times when I have cursed myself for a fool, but, on the whole, sentiment keeps many fires burning."

She leaned towards him and dropped her voice a little. "Tell me," she begged, "do you ever think of the years we spent together in the country? Do you ever regret?"

He smiled thoughtfully.

"It is a hard question, that," he admitted. "There were days there which I loved, but there were days, too, when the restlessness came, days when I longed to hear the hum of the city and to hear men speak whose words were of life and death and the great passions. I am not sure, Violet, whether, after all, it is well for one who has lived to withdraw absolutely from the thrill of life."

She laughed, Softly but gayly.

"I am with you," she declared, "absolutely. I think that the fairies must have poured into my blood the joy of living for its own sake. I should be an ungrateful woman indeed, if I found anything to complain of, nowadays. Yet there is one thing that troubles me," she went on, after a moment's pause.

"And that?" he asked.

"The danger," she said, slowly. "I do not want to lose you, Peter. There are times when I am afraid."

De Grost flicked the ash from his cigarette.

"The days are passing," he remarked, "when men point revolvers at one another, and hire assassins to gain their ends. Now, it is more a battle of wits. We play chess on the board of Life still, but we play with ivory pieces instead of steel and poison. Our brains direct and not our muscles."

She sighed.

"It is only the one man of whom I am afraid. You have outwitted him so often and he does not forgive."

De Grost smiled. It was an immense compliment - this.

"Bernadine," he murmured, softly, "otherwise, our friend the Count von Hern."

"Bernadine!" she repeated. "All that you say is true, but when one fails with modern weapons, one changes the form of attack. Bernadine at heart is a savage."

"The hate of such a man," De Grost remarked complacently, "is worth having. He has had his own way over here for years. He seems to have found the knack of living in a maze of intrigue and remaining untouchable. There were a dozen things before I came upon the scene which ought to have ruined him. Yet there never appeared to be anything to take hold of. Even the Criminal Department once thought they had a chance. I remember John Dory telling me in disgust that Bernadine was like one of those marvelous criminals one only reads about in fiction, who seem, when they pass along the dangerous places, to walk upon the air, and, leave no trace behind."

"Before you came," she said, "he had never known a failure. Do you think that he is a man likely to forgive?"

"I do not," De Grost answered grimly. "It is a battle, of course, a battle all the time. Yet, Violet, between you and me, if Bernadine were to go, half the savor of life for me would depart with him."

Then there came a curious and wholly unexpected interruption. A man in dark, plain clothes, still wearing his overcoat, and carrying a bowler hat, had been standing in the entrance of the restaurant for a moment or two, looking around the room as though in search of some one. At last he caught the eye of the Baron de Grost and came quickly toward him.

"Charles," the Baron remarked, raising his eyebrows. "I wonder what he wants."

A sudden cloud had fallen upon their little feast. Violet watched the coming of her husband's servant, and the reading of the note which he presented to his master, with an anxiety which she could not wholly conceal. The Baron read the note twice, scrutinizing a certain part of it closely with the aid of the monocle which he seldom used. Then he folded it up and placed it in the breast pocket of his coat. "At what hour did you receive this, Charles?"he asked.

"A messenger brought it in a taxicab about ten minutes ago, sir," the man replied. "He said that it was of the utmost importance, and that I had better try and find you."

"A district messenger?"

"A man in ordinary clothes, Charles answered. "He looked like a porter in a warehouse, or something of that sort. I forgot to say that you were rung up on the telephone three times previously by Mr. Greening."

The Baron nodded.

"You can go," he said. "There is no reply."

The man bowed and retired. De Grost called for his bill. "Is it anything serious?" Violet inquired.

"No, not exactly serious," he answered. "I do not understand what has happened, but they have sent for me to go - well, where it was agreed that I should not go except as a matter of urgent necessity "

Violet knew better than to show any signs of disquietude. "It is in London?" she asked.

"Certainly," her husband replied. "I shall take a taxicab from here. I am sorry, dear, to have one of our evenings disturbed in this manner. I have always done my best to avoid it, but this summons is urgent."

She rose and he wrapped her cloak around her.

"You will drive straight home, won't you?" he begged. "I dare say that I may be back within an hour myself."

"And if not?" she asked, in a low tone. "If not, there is nothing to be done."

Violet bit her lip, but, as he handed her into the small electric brougham which was waiting, she smiled into his face.

"You will come back, and soon, Peter," she declared, confidently. "Wherever you go I am sure of that. You see, I have faith in my star which watches over you."

He kissed her fingers and turned away. The commissionaire had already called him a taxicab.

"To London Bridge," he ordered, after a moment's hesitation, and drove off.

The traffic citywards had long since finished for the day, and he reached his destination within ten minutes of leaving the restaurant. Here he paid the man, and, entering the station, turned to the refreshment room and ordered a liqueur brandy. While he sipped it, he smoked a cigarette and carefully reread in a strong light the note which he had received. The signature especially he pored over for some time. At last, however, he replaced it in his pocket, paid his bill, and, stepping out once more on to the platform, entered a telephone booth. A few minutes later he left the station, and, turning to the right, walked slowly as far as Tooley Street. He kept on the right-hand side until he arrived at the spot where the great arches, with their scanty lights, make a gloomy thoroughfare into Bermondsey, In the shadow of the first of these he paused, and looked steadfastly across the street. There were few people passing and practically no traffic. In front of him was a row of warehouses, all save one of which was wrapped in complete darkness. It was the one where some lights were still burning which De Grost stood and watched.

The lights, such as they were, seemed to illuminate the ground floor only. From his hidden post he could see the shoulders of a man apparently bending over a ledger, diligently writing. At the next window a youth, seated upon a tall stool, was engaged in presumably the same occupation. There was nothing about the place in the least mysterious or out of the way. Even the blinds of the offices had been left undrawn, The man and the boy, who were alone visible, seemed, in a sense, to be working under protest. Every now and then the former stopped to yawn, and the latter performed a difficult balancing feat upon his stool. De Grost, having satisfied his curiosity, came presently from his shelter, almost running into the arms of a policeman, who looked at him closely. The Baron, who had an unlighted cigarette in his mouth, stopped to ask for a light, and his appearance at once set at rest any suspicions the policeman might have had.

"I have a warehouse myself down in these parts," he remarked, as he struck the match, "but I don't allow my people to work as late as that."

He pointed across the way, and the policeman smiled.

"They are very often late there, sir," he said. "It's a Continental wine business, and there's always one or two of them over time."

"It's bad business, all the same," De Grost declared pleasantly. "Good night, policeman!"

"Good night, sir!

De Grost crossed the road diagonally, as though about to take the short cut across London Bridge, but as soon as the policeman was out of sight he retraced his steps to the building which they had been discussing, and turning the battered brass handle of the door, walked calmly in. On his right and left were counting houses framed with glass; in front, the cavernous and ugly depths of a gloomy warehouse. He knocked upon the window-pane on the right and passed forward a step or two, as though to enter the office. The boy, who had been engaged in the left-hand counting house, came gliding from his place, passed silently behind the visitor and turned the key of the outer door. What followed seemed to happen as though by some mysteriously directed force. The figures of men came stealing out from the hidden places. The clerk who had been working so hard at his desk calmly divested himself of a false mustache and wig, and, assuming a more familiar appearance, strolled out into the warehouse. De Grost looked around him with absolutely unruffled composure. He was the centre of a little circle of men, respectably dressed, but every one of them hard-featured, with something in their faces which suggested not the ordinary toiler, but the fighting animal - the man who lives by his wits and knows something of danger. On the outskirts of the circle stood Bernadine.

"Really," De Grost declared, "this is most unexpected. In the matter of dramatic surprises, my friend Bernadine, you are certainly in a class by yourself."

Bernadine smiled.

"You will understand, of course," he said, "that this little entertainment is entirely for your amusement - well stage-managed, perhaps, but my supers are not to be taken seriously. Since you are here, Baron, might I ask you to precede me a few steps to the tasting office?

"By all means," De Grost answered cheerfully. "It is this way, I believe."

He walked with unconcerned footsteps down the warehouse, on either side of which were great bins and a wilderness of racking, until he came to a small, glass-enclosed office, built out from the wall. Without hesitation he entered it, and removing his hat, selected the more comfortable of the two chairs. Bernadine alone of the others followed him inside, closing the door behind. De Grost, who appeared exceedingly comfortable, stretched out his hand and took a small black bottle from a tiny mahogany racking fixed against the wall by his side.

"You will excuse me, my dear Bernadine," he said, "but I see my friend Greening has been tasting a few wines. The 'XX' upon the label here signifies approval. With your permission."

He half filled a glass and pushed the bottle toward Bernadine.

"Greening's taste is unimpeachable," De Grost declared, setting down his glass empty. "No use being a director of a city business, you know, unless one interests oneself personally in it. Greening's judgment is simply marvelous. I have never tasted a more beautiful wine. If the boom in sherry does come," he continued complacently, we shall be in an excellent position to deal with it."

Bernadine laughed softly.

"Oh, my friend - Peter Ruff, or Baron de Grost, or whatever you may choose to call yourself," he said, "I am indeed wise to have come to the conclusion that you and I are too big to occupy the same little spot on earth!"

De Grost nodded approvingly.

"I was beginning to wonder," he remarked, "whether you would not soon arrive at that decision."

"Having arrived at it," Bernadine continued, looking intently at his companion, "the logical sequence naturally occurs to you."

"Precisely, my dear Bernadine," De Grost asserted. "You say to yourself, no doubt, 'One of us two must go!' Being yourself, you would naturally conclude that it must be I. To tell you the truth, I have been expecting some sort of enterprise of this description for a considerable time."

Bernadine shrugged his shoulders.

"Your expectations," he said, "seem scarcely to have provided you with a safe conduct."

De Grost gazed reflectively into his empty glass.

"You see," he explained, "I am such a lucky person. Your arrangements to-night, however, are, I perceive, unusually complete."

"I am glad you appreciate them," Bernadine remarked dryly.

"I would not for a moment," De Grost continued, "ask an impertinent or an unnecessary question, but I must confess that I am rather concerned to know the fate of my manager - the gentleman whom you yourself with the aid, I presume, of Mr. Clarkson, so ably represented."

Bernadine sighed.

"Alas!" he said, "your manager was a very obstinate person."

"And my clerk?"

"Incorruptible, absolutely incorruptible. I congratulate you, De Grost. Your society is one of the most wonderful upon the face of this earth. I know little about it, but my admiration is very sincere. Their attention to details, and the personnel of their staff, is almost perfect. I may tell you at once that no sum that could be offered, tempted either of these men."

"I am delighted to hear .it," De Grost replied, "but I must plead guilty to a little temporary anxiety as to their present whereabouts."

"At this moment," Bernadine remarked, "they are within a few feet of us, but, as you are doubtless aware, access to your delightful river is obtainable from these premises. To be frank with you, my dear Baron, we are waiting for the tide to rise."

"So thoughtful about these trifles," De Grost murmured. "But their present position? They are, I trust, not uncomfortable?"

Bernadine stood up and moved to the further end of the office. He beckoned his companion to his side and, drawing an electric torch from his pocket, flashed the light into a dark corner behind an immense bin. The forms of a man and a youth, bound with ropes and gagged, lay stretched upon the floor. De Grost sighed.

"I am afraid," he said, "that Mr. Greening, at any rate, is most uncomfortable." Bernadine turned off the light.

"At least, Baron," he declared, "if such extreme measures should become necessary, I can promise you one thing - you shall have a quicker passage into Eternity than they."

De Grost resumed his seat.

"Has it really come to that?" he asked. "Will nothing but so crude a proceeding as my absolute removal satisfy you?"

"Nothing else is, I fear, practicable," Bernadine replied, "unless you decide to listen to reason. Believe me, my dear friend, I shall miss you and our small encounters exceedingly, but, unfortunately, you stand in the way of my career. You are the only man who has persistently balked me. You have driven me to use against you means which I had grown to look upon as absolutely extinct in the upper circles of our profession."

De Grost peered through the glass walls of the office.

"Eight men, not counting yourself," he remarked, "and my poor manager and his faithful clerk lying bound and helpless. It is heavy odds, Bernadine."

"There is no question of odds, I think," Bernadine answered smoothly. "You are much too clever a person to refuse to admit that you are entirely in my power."

"And as regards terms? I really don't feel in the least anxious to make my final bow with so little notice," De Grost said. "To tell you the truth, I have been finding life quite interesting lately."

Bernadine eyed his prisoner keenly. Such absolute composure was in itself disturbing. He was, for the moment, aware of a slight sensation of uneasiness, which his common sense, however, speedily disposed of.

"There are two ways," he announced, "of dealing with an opponent. There is the old-fashioned one - crude, but in a sense eminently satisfactory - which sends him finally to adorn some other sphere."

"I don't like that one," De Grost interrupted. "Get on with the alternative."

"The alternative," Bernadine declared, "is when his capacity for harm can be destroyed."

"That needs a little explanation," De Grost murmured.

"Precisely. For instance, if you were to become absolutely discredited, I think that you would be effectually out of my way. Your people do not forgive."

"Then discredit me, by all means," De Grost begged. "It sounds unpleasant, but I do not like your callous reference to the river."

Bernadine gazed at his ancient opponent for several moments. After all, what was this but the splendid bravado of a beaten man, who is too clever not to recognize defeat?

"I shall require," he said, "your code, the keys of your safe, which contains a great many documents of interest to me, and a free entry into your house."

De Grost drew a bunch of keys reluctantly from his pocket and laid them upon the desk.

"You will find the code bound in green morocco leather," he announced, "on the left-hand side, underneath the duplicate of a proposed Treaty between Italy and some other Power. Between ourselves, Bernadine, I really expect that that is what you are after."

Bernadine's eyes glistened.

"What about the safe conduct into your house?" he asked.

De Grost drew his case from his pocket and wrote few lines on the back of one of his cards.

"This will insure you entrance there," he said, "and access to my study. If you see my wife, please reassure her as to my absence."

"I shall certainly do so," Bernadine agreed, with a faint smile.

"If I may be pardoned for alluding to a purely personal matter," De Grost continued, "what is to become of me?"

"You will be bound and gagged in the same manner as your manager and his clerk," Bernadine replied, smoothly. "I regret the necessity, but you see, I can afford to run no risks. At four o'clock in the morning, you will be released. It must be part of our agreement that you allow the man who stays behind the others for the purpose of setting you free, to depart unmolested. I think I know you better than to imagine you would be guilty of such gaucherie as an appeal to the police."

"That, unfortunately," De Grost declared, with a little sigh, "is, as you well know, out of the question. You are too clever for me, Bernadine. After all, I shall have to go back to my farm."

Bernadine opened the door and called softly to one of his men. In less than five minutes De Grost was bound hand and foot. Bernadine stepped back and eyed his adversary with an air of ill-disguised triumph.

"I trust, Baron," he said, "that you will be as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances."

De Grost lay quite still. He was powerless to move or speak.

"Immediately," Bernadine continued, "I have presented myself at your house, verified your safe conduct, and helped myself to certain papers which I am exceedingly anxious to obtain," he went on, "I shall telephone here to the man whom I leave in charge and you will be set at liberty in due course. If, for any reason, I meet with treachery and I do not telephone, you will join Mr. Greening and his young companion in a little - shall we call it aquatic recreation? I wish you a pleasant hour and success in the future, Baron - as a farmer."

Bernadine withdrew and whispered his orders to his men. Soon the electric light was turned out and the place was in darkness. The front door was opened and closed; the group of confederates upon the pavement lit cigarettes and wished one another good night with the brisk air of tired employees, released at last from long labors. Then there was silence.

It was barely eleven when Bernadine reached the west end of London. His clothes had become a trifle disarranged and he called for a few minutes at his rooms in St. James's Street. Afterwards, he walked to Porchester House and rang the bell. To the servant who answered it, he handed his master's card.

"Will you show me the way to the library?" he asked. "I have some papers to collect for the Baron de Grost."

The man hesitated. Even with the card in his hand, it seemed a somewhat unusual proceeding.

"Will you step inside, sir?" he begged. "I should like to show this to the Baroness.

The master is exceedingly particular about any one entering his study."

"Do what you like so long as you do not keep me waiting," Bernadine replied. "Your master's instructions are clear enough."

Violet came down the great staircase a few moments later, still in her dinner gown, her face a little pale, her eyes luminous. Bernadine smiled as he accepted her eagerly offered hand. She was evidently anxious. A thrill of triumph warmed his blood. Once she had been less kind to him than she seemed now.

"My husband gave you this!" she exclaimed.

"A few minutes ago," Bernadine answered. "He tried to make his instructions as clear as possible. We are jointly interested in a small matter which needs immediate action."

She led the way to the study.

"It seems strange," she remarked, "that you and he should be working together. I always thought that you were on opposite sides."

"It is a matter of chance," Bernadine told her. "Your husband is a wise man, Baroness. He knows when to listen to reason."

She threw open the door of the study, which was in darkness; "'If you will wait a moment," she said, closing the door, "I will turn on the electric light."

She touched the knobs in the wall and the room was suddenly flooded with illumination. At the further end of the apartment was the great safe. Close to it, in an easychair, his evening coat changed for a smoking jacket, with a neatly tied black tie replacing his crumpled white cravat, the Baron de Grost sat awaiting his guest. A fierce oath broke from Bernadine's lips. He turned toward the door only in time to hear the key turn. Violet tossed it lightly in the air across to her husband.

"My dear Bernadine," the latter remarked, "on the whole, I do not think that this has been one of your successes. My keys, if you please."

Bernadine stood for a moment, his face dark with passion. He bit his lip till the blood came, and the veins at the back of his clenched hands were swollen and thick. Nevertheless, when he spoke he had recovered in great measure his self- control.

"Your keys are here, Baron de Grost," he said, placing them upon the table. "If a bungling amateur may make such a request of a professor, may I inquire how you escaped from your bonds, passed through the door of a locked warehouse and reached here before me?"

The Baron de Grost smiled as he pushed the cigarettes across to his visitor. "Really," he said, "you have only to think for yourself for a moment, my dear Bernadine, and you will understand. In the first place, the letter you sent me signed 'Greening' was clearly a forgery. There was no one else anxious to get me into their power, hence I associated it at once with you. Naturally, I telephoned to the chief of my staff - I, too, am obliged to employ some of these un-uniformed policemen, my dear Bernadine, as you may be aware. It may interest you to know, further, that there are seven entrances to the warehouse in Tooley Street. Through one of these something like twenty of my men passed and were already concealed in the place when I entered. At another of the doors a motor-car waited for me. If I had chosen to lift my finger at any time, your men would have been overpowered and I might have had the pleasure of dictating terms to you in my own office. Such a course did not appeal to me. You and I, as you know, dear Count von Hern, conduct our peculiar business under very delicate conditions, and the least thing we either of us desire is notoriety. I managed things, as I thought, for the best. The moment you left the place my men swarmed in. We kindly, but gently, ejected your guard, released Greening and my clerk, and I passed you myself in Fleet Street, a little more comfortable, I think, in my forty-horsepower motor-car than you in that very disreputable hansom. As to my presence here, I have an entrance from the street there which makes me independent of my servants. The other details are too absurdly simple; one need not enlarge upon them."

Bernadine turned slowly to Violet.

"You knew?" he muttered. "You knew when you brought me here?"

"Naturally," she answered. "We have telephones in every room in the house."

"I am at your service," Bernadine declared, calmly.

De Grost laughed.

"My dear fellow," he said, "need I say that you are free to come or go, to take a whiskey and soda with me, or to depart at once, exactly as you feel inclined? The door was locked only until you restored to me my keys."

He crossed the room, fitted the key in the lock and turned it. "We do not make war as those others," he remarked, smiling. Bernadine drew himself up.

"I will not drink with you," he said, "I will not smoke with you. But some day this reckoning shall come."

He turned to the door. De Grost laid his finger upon the bell.

"Show Count von Hern out," he directed the astonished servant who appeared a moment or two later.