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VIII. Old George
A STRANGER making a call in that portion of North Kensington which lies in the vicinity of Ladbroke Grove by some mischance lost his way. He wandered through many prosperous crescents and quiet squares redolent of the opulence of the upper middle classes, through broad avenues where neat broughams stood waiting in small carriage-drives, and once he blundered into a tidy mews, where horsy men with great hissings made ready the chariots of the Notting Hill plutocracy. It may be that he was in no particular hurry to arrive at his destination, this stranger who has nothing to do with the story but certainly he did not avail himself of opportunity in the shape of a passing policeman, and continued his aimless wanderings. He found Kensington Park Road, a broad thoroughfare of huge gardens and walled forecourts, then turned into a side street. He walked about twenty paces, and found himself in the heart of slum-land.
It is no ordinary slum this little patch of property that lies between Westbourne Grove and Kensington Park Road. There are no tumbled-down hovels or noisome passages; there are streets of houses dignified with flights of steps that rise to pretentious street doors and areas where long dead menials served the need of the lower middle classes of other days. The streets are given over to an army of squalling children in varying styles of dirtiness, and the halls of these houses are bare of carpet or covering, and in some the responsibility of leasehold is shared by eight or nine families, all pigging together.
They are streets of slatternly women, who live at their front doors, arms rolled under discoloured aprons, and on Saturday nights one street at least deserves the pithy but profane appellation which the police have given it "Little Hell."
In this particular thoroughfare it is held that of all sins the greatest is that which is associated with "spying." A "spy" is a fairly comprehensive phrase in Cawdor Street. It may mean policeman, detective, school board official, rent collector, or the gentleman appointed by the gas company to extract pennies from the slot-meters.
To Cawdor Street came a man who rented one of the larger houses. To the surprise of the agent, he offered his rent monthly in advance; to the surprise of the street, he took no lodgers. It was the only detached house in that salubrious road, and was No. 49. The furniture came by night, which is customary amongst people who concentrate their last fluttering rag of pride upon the respectability of their household goods. Cawdor Street, on the qui vive for the lady of the house, learns with genuine astonishment that there was none, and that the newcomer was a bachelor.
Years ago No. 49 had been the abode of a jobbing builder, hence the little yard gate that flanked one side; and it was with satisfaction that the Cawdor Streeters discovered that the new occupant intended reviving the ancient splendour of the establishment. At any rate, a board was prominently displayed, bearing the inscription:
J. JONES, BUILDER AND CONTRACTOR.
and the inquisitive Mr. Lane (of 76), who caught a momentary vision of the yard through the gate, observed "Office" printed in fairly large letters over the side door.
At stated hours, mostly in the evening, roughly-dressed men called at the "Office," stayed a while, and went away. Two dilapidated ladders made their appearance in the yard, conspicuously lifting their perished rungs above the gate level.
"I tried to buy an old builder's cart and wheelbarrow today," said "Mr. Jones" to a workman. "I'll probably get it tomorrow at my own price, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to get a few sacks of lime and a couple of cartloads of sand and bricks in, also a few road pitchers to give it a finishing touch."
The workman grinned.
"You've got this place ready in time, Connor," he said.
Mr. Connor for such "J. Jones, Builder and Contractor" was nodded and picked his teeth meditatively with a match stick.
"I've seen for a long time the other place was useless," he said with a curse.
"It was bad luck that Angel found us there last week. I've been fixing up this house for a couple of months. It's a nice neighbourhood, where people don't go nosing around, and the boys can meet here without anybody being the wiser."
"And old George?"
"We'll settle him tonight," said the other with a frown. "Bat is bringing him over, and I want to know how he came to let Angel get at us."
Old George had always been a problem to the "Borough Lot." He held the position of trust that many contended no demented old man should hold.
"Was it safe or sane to trust him with the plate that had been so laboriously acquired from Roebury House, and the jewels of Lady Ivy Task-Hender, for the purloining of which one "Hog" Stander was at that very moment doing seven stretch? Was it wise to install him as custodian of the empty house at Blackwall, through which Angel Esquire gained admittance to the meeting-place of the "Borough Lot"?
Some there were who said "Yes," and these included the powerful faction that numbered "Bat" Sands, "Curt" Goyle, and Connor amongst them. They contended that suspicion would never rest on this half-witted old gentleman, with his stuffed birds, his goldfish, caged rabbits and mice, a view that was supported by the fact that Lady Ivy's priceless diamonds lay concealed for months in the false bottom of a hutch devoted to guinea pigs in old George's strange menagerie, what time the police were turning London inside out in their quest for the property."
But now old George was under a cloud. Notwithstanding the fact that he had been found amongst his live stock securely bound to a chair, with a handkerchief over his mouth, suspicion attached to him. How had Angel worked away in the upper room without old George's knowledge?
Angel might have easily explained. Indeed, Angel might have relieved their minds to a very large extent in regard to old George, for in marking down the haunt of the "Borough Lot" he had been entirely deceived as to the part played by the old man who acted as "caretaker" to the "empty" house.
In a four-wheeled cab old George, smiling foolishly and passing his hand from time to time over his tremulous mouth, listened to the admonitions of Mr. Bat Sands.
"Connor wants to know all about it," said Bat menacingly, "and if you have been playing tricks, old man, the Lord help you."
"The Lord help me," smiled old George complacently.
He ran his dirty lingers through his few scanty white locks, and the smile died out of his face, and his loose mouth dropped pathetically.
"Mr. Sands," he said, then stopped; then he repeated the name to himself a dozen times; then he rubbed his head again.
Bat, leaning forward to catch what might be a confession, sank back again in his seat and swore softly.
In the house of "J. Jones, Builder and Contractor," were gathered in strength the men who composed the "Borough Lot."
"Suppose he gave us away," asked Goyle, "what shall we do with him?"
There was little doubt as to the feeling of the meeting. A low animal growl, startling in its ferocity, ran through the gathering.
"If he's given us away" it was Vinnis with his dull fishlike eyes turned upon Connor who was talking "why, we must 'out' him."
"You're talking like a fool," said Connor contemptuously. "If he has given us away, you may rest assured that he is no sooner in this house than the whole place will be surrounded by police. If Angel knows old George is one of us, he'll be watched day and night, and the cab that brings him will be followed by another bringing Angel. No, I'll stake my life on the old man. But I want to know how Mr. Cursed Angel got into the house next door."
They had not long to wait, for Bat's knock came almost as Connor finished speaking.
Half led, half dragged into the room, old George stood, fumbling his hat in his hand, smiling helplessly at the dark faces that met his. He muttered something under his breath.
"What's that?" asked Connor sharply.
"I said, a gentleman " began old George, then lapsed into silence.
"What gentleman?" asked Connor roughly.
"I am speaking of myself," said the old man, and there came into his face a curious expression of dignity. "I say, and I maintain, that a gentleman is a gentleman whatever company he affects. At my old college I once reproved an undergraduate." He was speaking with stately, almost pompous distinctness. "I said, 'There is an axiom to which I would refer you, De gustibus non est disputandum, and and '"
His shaking fingers went up again to the tell-tale mouth, and the vacant smile came back.
"Look here," said Connor, shaking his arm, "we don't want to know anything about your damned college; we want to know how Angel got into our crib."
The old man looked puzzled.
"Yes, yes," he muttered; "of course, Mr. Connor, you have been most kind the crib ah! the young man who wanted to rent or hire the room upstairs."
"Yes, yes," said Connor eagerly.
"A most admirable young man," old George rambled on, "but very inquisitive. I remember once, when I was addressing a large congregation of young men at Cheltenham or it may have been young ladies I "
"Curse the man!" cried Goyle in a fury. "Make him answer, or stop his mouth."
Connor warned him back.
"Let him talk in his own way," he said.
"This admirable person," the old man went on, happily striking on the subject again, "desired information that I was not disposed to give, Mr. Connor, remembering your many kindnesses, particularly in respect to one Mr. Vinnis."
"Yes, go on," urged Connor, and the face of Vinnis was tense.
"I fear there are times when my usually active mind takes on a sluggishness which is foreign to my character my normal character" old George was again the pedant "when the unobservant stranger might be deceived into regarding me as a negligible quantity. The admirable young man so far treated me as such as to remark to his companion that there was a rope yes, distinctly a rope for the said Mr. Vinnis."
The face of Vinnis was livid.
"And," asked Connor, "What happened next? There were two of them, were there?"
The old man nodded gravely; he nodded a number of times, as though the exercise pleased him.
"The other young man not the amiable one, but another upon finding that I could not rent or hire the rooms as indeed I could not, Mr. Connor, without your permission engaged me in conversation very loudly he spoke, too on the relative values of cabbage and carrot as food for herbaceous mammals. Where the amiable gentleman was at that moment I cannot say "
"I can guess," thought Connor.
"I can remember the occasion well," old George continued, "because that night I was alarmed and startled by strange noises from the empty rooms upstairs, which I very naturally and properly concluded were caused "
He stopped, and glancing fearfully about the room, went on in a lower tone.
"By certain spirits," he whispered mysteriously, and pointed and leered first at one and then another of the occupants of the room.
There was something very eerie in the performance of the strange old man with the queerly working face, and more than one hardened criminal present shivered a little.
Connor broke the silence that fell on the room.
"So that's how it was done, eh? One held you in conversation while the other got upstairs and hid himself? Well, boys, you've heard the old man. What d'ye say?"
Vinnis shifted in his seat and turned his great unemotional face to where the old man stood, still fumbling with his hat and muttering to himself beneath his breath; in some strange region whither his poor wandering mind had taken him he was holding a conversation with an imaginary person. Connor could see his eyebrows working, and caught scraps of sentences, now in some strange dead tongue, now in the stilted English of the schoolmaster.
It was Vinnis who spoke for the assembled company.
"The old man knows a darned sight too much," he said in his level tone. "I'm for "
He did not finish his sentence. Connor took a swift survey of the men.
"If there is any man here," he said slowly, "who wants to wake up at seven o'clock in the morning and meet a gentleman who will strap his hands behind him and a person who will pray over him if there's any man here that wants a short walk after breakfast between two lines of warders to a little shed where a brand new rope is hanging from the roof, he's at liberty to do what he likes with old George, but not in this house."
He fixed his eyes on Vinnis.
"And if there's any man here," he went on, "who's already in the shadow of the rope, so that one or two murders more won't make much difference one way or the other, he can do as he likes outside this house."
Vinnis shrank back.
"There's nothing against me," he growled.
"The rope," muttered the old man, "Vinnis for the rope," he chuckled to himself. "I fear they counted too implicitly upon the fact that I am not always quite myself Vinnis"
The man he spoke of sprang to his feet with a snarl like a trapped beast.
"Sit down, you."
Bat Sands, with his red head close cropped, thrust his chair in the direction of the infuriated Vinnis.
"What Connor says is true we're not going to croak the old man, and we're not going to croak ourselves. If we hang, it will be something worth hanging for. As to the old man, he's soft, an' that's all you can say. He's got to be kept close "
A rap at the door cut him short.
"Who's that?" he whispered.
Connor tiptoed to the locked door.
"Who's there?" he demanded.
A familiar voice reassured him, and he opened the door and held a conversation in a low voice with somebody outside.
"There's a man who wants to see me," he said in explanation. "Lock the door after I leave, Bat," and he went out quickly.
Not a word was spoken, but each after his own fashion of reasoning drew some conclusion from Connor's hasty departure.
"A full meetin'," croaked a voice from the back of the room. "We're all asked here by Connor. Is it a plant?"
That was Bat's thought too.
"No," he said; "there's nothin' against us. Why, Angel let us off only last week because there wasn't evidence, an' Connor's straight."
"I don't trust him, by God!" said Vinnis.
"I trust nobody," said Bat doggedly, "but Connor's straight "
There was a rap on the door.
"All right!" said the muffled voice.
Bat unlocked the door, and Connor came in. What he had seen or what he had heard had brought about a marvellous change in his appearance his cheeks were a dull red, and his eyes blazed with triumph.
"Boys," he said, and they caught the infectious thrill in his voice, "I've got the biggest thing for you a million pounds, share and share alike."
He felt rather than heard the excitement his words caused. He stood with his back to the half-opened door.
"I'm going to introduce a new pal," he rattled on breathlessly. "I'll vouch for him."
"Who is he?" asked Bat. "Do we know him?"
"No," said Connor, "and you're not expected to know him. But he's putting up the money, and that's good enough for you, Bat a hundred pounds a man, and it will be paid tonight."
Bat Sands spat on his hand.
"Bring him in. He's good enough," and there was a murmur of approval.
Connor disappeared for a moment, and returned followed by a well-dressed stranger, who met the questioning glances of his audience with a quiet smile. His eyes swept over every face. They rested for a moment on Vinnis, they looked doubtfully at old George, who, seated on a chair with crossed legs and his head bent, was talking with great rapidity in an undertone to himself.
"Gentlemen," said the stranger, "I have come with the object of gaining your help. Mr. Connor has told me that he has already informed you about Reale's millions. Briefly, I have decided to forestall other people, and secure the money for myself. I offer you a half share of the money, to be equally divided amongst you, and as an earnest of my intention, I am paying each man who is willing to help me a hundred pounds down."
He drew from one of his pockets a thick package of notes, and from two other pockets similar bundles. He handed them to Connor, and the hungry eyes of the "Borough Lot" focused upon the crinkling paper.
"What I shall ask you to do," the stranger proceeded, "I shall tell you later "
"Wait a bit," interrupted Bat. "Who else is in this?"
"We alone," replied the man.
"Is Jimmy in it?"
"Is Angel in it?"
"Go on," said Bat, satisfied.
"The money is in a safe that can only be opened by a word. That word nobody knows so far. The clue to the word was stolen a few nights ago from the lawyer in charge of the case by Jimmy."
He paused to note the effect of his words.
"Jimmy has passed the clue on to Scotland Yard, and we cannot hope to get it."
"Well?" demanded Bat.
"What we can do," the other went on, "is to open the safe with something more powerful than a word."
"But the guard!" said Bat. "There's an armed guard kept there by the lawyer."
"We can arrange about the guard," said the other.
"Why not get at the lawyer?" It was Curt Goyle who made the suggestion.
The stranger frowned.
"The lawyer cannot be got at," he said shortly. "Now, are you with me?"
There was no need to ask. Connor was sorting the notes into little bundles on the table, and the men came up one by one, took their money, and after a few words with Connor took their leave, with an awkward salutation to the stranger.
Bat was the last to go.
"Tomorrow night here," muttered Connor.
He was left alone with the newcomer, save for the old man, who hadn't changed his attitude, and was still in the midst of some imaginary conversation.
"Who is this?" the stranger demanded.
"An old chap as mad as a March hare. A gentleman, too, and a scholar; talks all sorts of mad languages Latin and Greek and the Lord knows what. He's been a schoolmaster, I should say, and what brought him down to this drink or drugs or just ordinary madness I don't know."
The stranger looked with interest at the unconscious man, and old George, as if suddenly realizing that he was under scrutiny, woke up with a start and sat blinking at the other. Then he shuffled slowly to his feet and peered closely into the stranger's face, all the time sustaining his mumbled conversation.
"Ah," he said in a voice rising from its inaudibility, "a gentleman! Pleased to meet you, sir, pleased to meet you. Omnia mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis, but you have not changed."
He relapsed again into mutterings.
"I have never met him before," the stranger said, turning to Connor.
"Oh, old George always thinks he has met people," said Connor with a grin.
"A gentleman," old George muttered, "every inch a gentleman, and a munificent patron. He bought a copy of my book you have read it? It is called dear me, I have forgotten what it is called and sent to consult me in his ah ! anagram "
"What?" The stranger's face was ashen, and he gripped Connor by the arm. "Listen, listen!" he whispered fiercely.
Old George threw up his head again and stared blandly at the stranger.
"A perfect gentleman," he said with pathetic insolence, "invariably addressing me as the 'professor' a most delicate and gentlemanly thing to do."
He pointed a triumphant linger to the stranger. "I know you!" he cried shrilly, and his cracked laugh rang through the room. "Spedding, that's your name! Lawyer, too. I saw you in the carriage of my patron."
"The book, the book!" gasped Spedding. "What was the name of your book?"
Old George's voice had dropped to its normal level when he replied with extravagant courtesy
"That is the one thing, sir, I can never remember."