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V. — The Cryptogram
MR. SPEDDING looked at his watch. He stood upon the marble-tiled floor of the Great Deposit. High above his head, suspended from the beautiful dome, blazed a hundred lights from an ornate electrolier. He paced before the great pedestal that towered up from the centre of the building, and the floor was crisscrossed with the shadows of the steel framework that encased it. But for the dozen chairs that were placed in a semicircle before the great granite base, the big hall was bare and unfurnished.
Mr. Spedding walked up and down, and his footsteps rang hollow; when he spoke the misty space of the building caught up his voice and sent down droning echoes.
"There is only the lady to come," he said, looking at his watch again.
He spoke to the two men who sat at either extreme of the crescent of chairs. The one was Jimmy, a brooding, thoughtful figure; the other was Connor, ill at ease and subdued. Behind the chairs, at some distance, stood two men who looked like artisans, as indeed they were: at their feet lay a bag of tools, and on a small board a heap that looked like sand. At the door a stolid-looking commissionaire waited, his breast glittering with medals.
Footsteps sounded in the vestibule, the rustle of a woman's dress, and Kathleen Kent entered, closely followed by Angel Esquire. At him the lawyer looked questioningly as he walked forward to greet the girl.
"Mr. Angel has kindly offered me his help," she said timidly — then, recognizing Connor, her face flushed — "and if necessary, his protection."
Mr. Spedding bowed.
"I hope you will not find this part of the ceremony trying," he said in a low voice, and led the girl to a chair. Then he made a signal to the commissionaire.
"What is going to happen?" Kathleen whispered to her companion, and Angel shook his head.
"I can only guess," he replied in the same tone. He was looking up at the great safe wherein he knew was stored the wealth of the dead gambler, and wondering at the freakish ingenuity that planned and foresaw this strange scene. The creak of footsteps in the doorway made him turn his head. He saw a white-robed figure, and behind him a black-coated man in attendance, holding on a cushion a golden casket. Then the dread, familiar words brought him to his feet with a shiver: —
"I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and whosoever liveth and liveth in me shall never die."
The clergyman's solemn voice resounded through the building, and the detective realized that the ashes of the dead man were coming to their last abiding-place. The slow procession moved toward the silent party. Slowly it paced toward the column; then, as the clergyman's feet rang on the steel stairway that wound upward, he began the Psalm which of all others perhaps most fitted the passing of old Reale: —
"Have mercy upon me, O God, after Thy great goodness... Wash me throughly from my wickedness: and cleanse me from my sin... Behold, I was shapen in wickedness... Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God... "
Halfway up the column a small gap yawned in the unbroken granite face, and into this the golden cabinet was pushed; then the workman, who had formed one of the little party that wound upward, lifted a smooth cube of polished granite.
"Forasmuch as it hath pleased Almighty God of His great mercy to take unto Himself the soul of our dear brother here departed... "
The mason's trowel grated on the edges of the cavity, the block of stone was thrust in until it was flush with the surface of the pedestal. Carved on the end of the stone were four words: —
It was when the workmen had been dismissed, and the lawyer was at the door bidding adieu to the priest whose strange duty had been performed, that Angel crossed to where Jimmy sat.
He caught Jimmy's grim smile, and raised his eyes to where all that was mortal of Reale had been placed.
"The Latin?" asked Angel.
"Surprising, isn't it?" said the other quietly.
"Reale had seen things, you know. A man who travels picks up information." He nodded toward the epitaph. "He got that idea at Toledo, in the cathedral there. Do you know it? A slab of brass over a dead king-maker, Portocarrero, 'Hic jacet pulvis cinis et nihil'. I translated it for him; the conceit pleased him. Sitting here, watching his strange funeral, I wondered if 'pulvis cinis et nihil' would come into it."
And now Spedding came creaking back. The workmen had disappeared, the outer door was closed, and the commissionaire had retired to his room leading from the vestibule. In Spedding's hand was a bundle of papers. He took his place with his back to the granite pedestal and lost no time in preliminaries.
"I have here the will of the late James Ryan Reale," he began. "The contents of this will are known to every person here except Miss Kent." He had a dry humour of his own, this lawyer, as his next words proved. "A week ago a very clever burglary was committed in my office; the safe was opened, a private dispatch box forced, and my papers ransacked. I must do my visitor justice" — he bowed slightly, first in the direction of Connor, then toward Jimmy — "and say that nothing was taken and practically nothing disturbed. There was plenty of evidence that the object of the burglary was to secure a sight of this will."
Jimmy was unperturbed at the scarcely-veiled charge, and if he moved it was only with the object of taking up an easier position in the chair. Not even the shocked eyes of the girl that looked appealingly toward him caused him any apparent uneasiness.
"Go on," he said, as the lawyer paused as though waiting for an admission. He was quietly amused. He knew very well now who this considerate burglar was.
"By copying this will the burglar or burglars obtained an unfair advantage over the other legatee or legatees."
The stiff paper crackled noisily as he unfolded the document in his hand.
"I will formally read the will and afterwards explain it to such of you as need the explanation," Spedding resumed.
The girl listened as the lawyer began to read. Confused by the legal terminology, the endless repetitions, and the chaotic verbiage of the instrument, she yet realized as the reading went on that this last will and testament of old Reale was something extraordinary. There was mention of houses and estates, freeholds and bonds... "... and all the residue of any property whatsoever and wheresoever absolutely" that went to somebody. To whom she could not gather. Once she thought it was to herself, "to Francis Corydon Kent, Esquire, or the heirs of his body;" once it sounded as though this huge fortune was to be inherited by "James Cavendish Fairfax Stannard, Baronet of the United Kingdom." She wondered if this was Jimmy, and remembered in a vague way that she had heard that the ninth baronet of that name was a person of questionable character. Then again it seemed as if the legatee was to be "Patrick George Connor." There was a doggerel verse in the will that the lawyer gabbled through, and something about the great safe, then the lawyer came to an end. In the conventional declaration of the witnesses lay a sting that sent a dull red flush to Connor's cheek and again provoked Jimmy's grim smile.
The lawyer read: —
"Signed by the above James Ryan Reale as his last will and testament (the word 'thief' after 'James Cavendish Fairfax Stannard, Baronet of the United Kingdom' and the word 'thief' after 'Patrick George Connor,' in the twentieth and twenty-third lines from the top hereof, having been deleted), in the presence of us... "
The lawyer folded the will perversely and put it in his pocket. Then he took four slips of paper from an envelope.
"It is quite clear to you gentlemen." He did not wait for the men's reply, but went on addressing the bewildered girl.
"To you, Miss Kent, I am afraid the will is not so clear. I will explain it in a few words. My late client was the owner of a gambling establishment. Thus he amassed a huge fortune, which he has left to form, if I may so put it, a large prize fund. The competitors are yourselves. Frankly, it is a competition between the dupes, or the heirs of the dupes, who were ruined by my late client, and the men who helped in the fleecing."
The lawyer spoke dispassionately, as though expounding some hypothesis, but there was that in his tone which made Connor wince.
"Your father, my dear young lady, was one of these dupes many years ago — you must have been at school at the time. He became suddenly a poor man."
The girl's face grew hard.
"So that was how it happened," she said slowly.
"That is how it happened," the lawyer repeated gravely. "Your father's fortune was one of four great fortunes that went into the coffers of my late client." The formal description of Reale seemed to lend him an air of respectability. "The other three have long since died, neither of them leaving issue. You are the sole representative of the victims. These gentlemen are — let use say — in opposition. This safe," he waved his hand toward the great steel room that crowned the granite column, "contains the fortune. The safe itself is the invention of my late client. Where the lock should be are six dials, on each of which are the letters of the alphabet. The dials are ranged one inside the other, and on one side is a steel pointer. A word of six letters opens the safe. By turning the dials so that the letters come opposite the pointer, and form this word, the door is opened."
He stopped to wipe his forehead, for in the energy of his explanation he had become hot. Then he resumed —
"What that word is, is for you to discover. My late client, who had a passion for acrostics I and puzzles and inventions of every kind, has left a doggerel verse which he most earnestly assured me contained the solution."
He handed a slip first to the girl and then to the others. For a moment the world swam before Kathleen's eyes. All that hinged upon that little verse came home to her. Carefully conning each word, as if in fear of its significance escaping her, she read: —
"Here's a puzzle in language old,
Find my meaning and get my gold.
Take one Bolt — just one, no more —
Fix it on behind a Door.
Place it at a river's Mouth
East or west or north or south.
Take some Leaves and put them whole
In some water in a Bowl.
I found this puzzle in a book
From which some mighty truths were took."
She read again and yet again, the others watching her. With every reading she seemed to get further from the solution of the mystery, and she turned in despair to Angel.
"I can make nothing of it," she cried helplessly, "nothing, nothing, nothing."
"It is, with due respect to my late client, the veriest doggerel," said the lawyer frankly, "and yet on that the inheritance of the whole of his fortune depends."
He had noticed that neither Connor nor Jimmy had read the slips he had handed to them.
"The paper I have given you is a facsimile reproduction of the original copy, and that may be inspected at any time at my office."
The girl was scanning the rhyme in an agony of perplexity.
"I shall never do it," she said in despair.
Angel took the paper gently from her hand.
"Don't attempt it," he said kindly. "There is plenty of time. I do not think that either of your rival competitors have gained anything by the advantage they have secured. I also have had in my possession a copy of the rhyme for the past week."
The girl's eyes opened wide in astonishment.
"You?" she said.
Angel's explanation was arrested by a singular occurrence.
Connor sat at one end of the row of chairs moodily eying the paper. Jimmy thoughtfully stroking his beard at the other end, suddenly rose and walked to where his brooding confederate sat. The man shrunk back as he approached, and Jimmy, seating himself by his side, bent forward and said something in a low voice. He spoke rapidly, and Angel, watching them closely, saw a look of incredulous surprise come into Connor's face. Then wrath and incredulity mingled, and Connor sprang up, striking the back of the chair with his fist.
"What?" he roared. "Give up a chance of a fortune? I'll see you — "
Jimmy's voice never rose, but he gripped Connor's arm and pulled him down into his chair.
"I won't! I won't! D'ye think I'm going to throw away — "
Jimmy released the man's arm and rose with a shrug of his shoulders.
He walked to where Kathleen was standing.
"Miss Kent," he said, and hesitated. "It is difficult for me to say what I have to say; but I want to tell you that so far as I am concerned the fortune is yours. I shall make no claim to it, and I will afford you every assistance that lies in my power to discover the word that is hidden in the verse."
The girl made no reply. Her lips were set tight, and the hard look that Angel had noticed when the lawyer had referred to her father came back again.
Jimmy waited a moment for her to speak, but she made no sign, and with a slight bow he walked toward the door.
It was Kathleen that spoke, and Jimmy turned and waited.
"As I understand this will," she said slowly, "you are one of the men to whom my father owed his ruin."
His eyes met hers unfalteringly.
"Yes," he said simply.
"One of the men that I have to thank for years of misery and sorrow," she continued. "When I saw my father slowly sinking, a broken-hearted man, weighed down with the knowledge of the folly that had brought his wife and child to comparative poverty; when I saw my father die, crushed in spirit by his misfortunes, I never thought I should meet the man who brought his ruin about."
Still Jimmy's gaze did not waver. Impassive, calm and imperturbable, he listened unmoved to the bitter indictment.
"This will says you were a man of my father's own class, one who knew the tricks by which a gentle, simple man, with a childish faith in such men as you, might be lured into temptation."
Jimmy made no reply, and the girl went on in biting tones —
"A few days ago you helped me to escape from men whom you introduced with an air of superiority as thieves and blackmailers. That it was you who rendered me this service I shall regret to the end of my days. You! You! You!" She flung out her hand scornfully. "If they were thieves, what are you? A gambler's tout? A decoy? A harpy preying on the weakness of your unfortunate fellows?"
She turned to Connor.
"Had this man offered me his help I might have accepted it. Had he offered to forego his claim to this fortune I might have been impressed by his generosity. From you, whom God gave advantages of birth and education, and who utilized them to bring ruin and disaster on such men as my father, the offer is an insult!"
Jimmy's face was deadly pale, but he made no sign. Only his eyes shone brighter, and the hand that twisted the point of his beard twitched nervously.
The girl turned to Angel wearily. Her outburst and the tension of the evening had exhausted her.
"Will you take me home, Mr. Angel?" she said.
She offered her hand to the lawyer, who had been an interested observer of the scene, and ignoring the two men, she turned to go.
Then Jimmy spoke.
"I do not attempt to excuse myself, Miss Kent," he said evenly; "for my life and my acts I am unaccountable to man or woman. Your condemnation makes it neither easier nor harder to live my life. Your charity might have made a difference."
He held out a detaining hand, for Kathleen had gathered up her skirts to move away.
"I have considered your question fairly. I am one of the men to whom your father owed his ruin, insomuch as I was one of Reale's associates. I am not one of the men, insomuch as I used my every endeavour to dissuade your father from taking the risks he took."
The humour of some recollection took hold of him, and a grim little smile came into his face.
"You say I betrayed your father," he said in the same quiet tone. "As a fact I betrayed Reale. I was at trouble to explain to your father the secret of Reale's electric roulette table; I demonstrated the futility of risking another farthing." He laughed. "I have said I would not excuse myself, and here I am pleading like a small boy, 'If you please, it wasn't me,'" he said a little impatiently; and then he added abruptly, "I will not detain you," and walked away.
He knew instinctively that she waited a moment hesitating for a reply, then he heard the rustle of her dress and knew she had gone. He stood looking upward to where the graven granite set marked the ashes of Reale, until her footsteps had died away and the lawyer's voice broke the silence.
"Now, Sir James — " he began, and Jimmy spun round with an oath, his face white with passion.
"Jimmy," he said in a harsh voice, "Jimmy is my name, and I want to hear no other, if you please."
Mr. Spedding, used as he was to the wayward phases of men, was a little startled at the effect of his words, and hastened to atone for his blunder.
"I — I beg your pardon," he said quickly. "I merely wished to say — "
Jimmy did not wait to hear what he said, but turned upon Connor.
"I've got a few words to say to you," he said. His voice had gone back to its calm level, but there was a menace in its quietness.
"When I persuaded Angel to give you a chance to get away on the night the 'Borough Lot' was arrested, I hoped I could get you to agree with me that the money should be handed to Miss Kent when the word was found. I knew in my inmost heart that this was a forlorn hope," he went on, "that there is no gold in the quartz of your composition. You are just beast all through."
He paced the floor of the hall for a minute or two, then he stopped.
"Connor," he said suddenly, "you tried to take my life the other night. I have a mind to retaliate. You may go ahead and puzzle out the word that unlocks that safe. Get it by any means that suggest themselves to you. Steal it, buy it — do anything you wish. The day you secure the key to Reale's treasure I shall kill you."
He talked like a man propounding a simple business proposition, and the lawyer, who in his early youth had written a heavy little paper on "The Congenital Criminal," listened and watched, and, in quite a respectable way, gloated.
Jimmy picked up his hat and coat from a chair, and nodding to the lawyer, strolled out of the hall. In the vestibule where the one commissionaire had been were six. Every man was a non-commissioned officer, and, as was apparent from his medals, had seen war service. Jimmy noted the belt about each man and the dangling revolver holster, and approved of the lawyer's precaution.
"Night guard, sergeant-major?" he asked, addressing one whose crowned sleeve showed his rank.
"Day and night guard, sir," replied the officer quietly.
"Good," said Jimmy, and passed out into the street. And now only the lawyer and Connor remained, and as Jimmy left, they too prepared for departure.
The lawyer was mildly interested in the big, heavy criminal who walked by his side. He was a fairly familiar type of the bull-headed desperado.
"There is nothing I can explain?" asked Spedding, as they stood together in the vestibule. Connor's eyes were on the guard, and he frowned a little.
"You don't trust us very much," he said.
"I don't trust you at all," said the lawyer.