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Chapter 22

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« on: March 15, 2023, 03:12:15 am »

“IF ever,” Mr. Humble declared, with slow and earnest emphasis, “that miserable little bounder should dare to swagger in here and address his conversation to me again, I shall give him such a thrashing, Harry, as he will remember to the day of his death. I don’t care whether he has that saucy little chit of a girl with him or not. She must stand by and see him get what he deserves---him and his bloody heels.”

Mr. Humble was leaning in an attitude of graceful ease against the counter of the bar in the sanctum of the Cat and Chickens. Distinctly he was not looking his best. He had a black eye and a gash over his cheekbone, his arm was in a sling, and one foot was encased in a slipper. Furthermore, vacant spaces in his mouth clearly denoted the advisability of a visit to his dentist. His clothes were more disreputable than ever; it is true that he wore a worn and crumpled soft collar, but he was without a cravat, and the general appearance of his clothing suggested that he had been taking a roll in the mud.

“Why, this does surprise me surely, Mr. Humble,” the landlord remarked. “A nice-spoken young man, I thought him, and seemed to have taken quite a fancy to you. Free-handed he was too. Why, the drinks he stood in this parlour I couldn’t no wise keep count of.”

“You kept count all right till they were paid for,” Mr. Humble chuckled. “You’re a good ’un for seeing to that, Harry.”

The landlord rubbed the counter vigorously with the cloth which he was carrying.

“It ain’t so easy to make a living nowadays that you can afford to forget what’s owing to you,” he remarked, with a covert glance at the slate which hung upon the wall.

“Never you mind about that,” Mr. Humble enjoined emphatically. “You’ll get your money in time. What that young man’s going to get he’ll find out, if ever I catch sight of his blasted phiz again.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Mr. Harry Chittock asked, with some show of curiosity. “What did he do to you?”

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with him,” was the portentous reply. “He’s a bloody liar, that’s one thing. Selling those heels wasn’t his job down in Norwich. Do you know what he was? Of course you don’t. I’ll tell you. He was a sneaking little ‘tec.’ That’s what he was.”

Mr. Chittock paused in his renewed attempts to bring back the polish to the counter.

“You don’t tell!” he exclaimed.

“Took advantage of me, he did,” Mr. Humble continued. “Me being naturally unsuspicious and ready to confide in any one, he got me talking and I let drop a word or two here and there. That was all that he wanted. You see the state I’m in, Harry? This is what I got for my good nature.”

“Some one do seem to have knocked you about, right and proper,” the landlord admitted, half-sympathetically, half with professional interest, for he was himself something of a boxer.

“It’s nothing to what I’ll do to him,” Mr. Humble declared savagely, “if ever he shows his little rat’s face in here again. His saucy little chit of a girl won’t know him by the time I’ve finished. If only---he clenched his fist and looked at it.

There was a quick footstep in the passage. The door opened. Mr. Pank, with good fellowship in his face and a dripping umbrella in his hand, beamed upon them.

“Good evening, Mr. Humble,” he exclaimed. “How are you, Harry? I’m like the bad penny, you see. Most comfortable spot I’ve seen for several hours.”

Mr. Humble swallowed hard. He began to wonder whether he had said a little too much. There was something very opulent and genial about the newcomer. Something very benevolent about his expression. Something which suggested a continual stream of warm and comforting drinks and no cold-blooded allusions to the slate. Nevertheless---he felt a sudden pain in his eye. The landlord too was watching him with interest.

“What about a hot whisky just to keep the cold out?” Pank suggested cheerfully. “Hot water and a slice of lemon, eh?”

Mr. Humble knew what was due to him as a man and he tried to forget what hot whisky would taste like.

“You dirty little tike,” he said bitterly.

Pank paused in the act of removing his overcoat.

“Mr. Humble,” he remonstrated, “what’s wrong with you?”

“You and your heels!” was the caustic reply. “I know all about you, Pank. You’re a sneak cop, that’s what you are.”

“Steady, my friend, steady,” Pank begged, as, divested finally of his overcoat, he wheeled one of the easy-chairs up to the fire. “You mustn’t talk like that, Mr. Humble. It isn’t gentlemanly. Besides, it might lead to trouble.”

“I’ve been in that, thanks to you,” Mr. Humble growled.

Pank looked him over quickly.

“Now, who’s been making a mess of you like that?” he asked. “Letting your tongue run away with you, I expect, eh? Well, don’t take any more risks. I’m quick-tempered myself sometimes. Harry, get the hot water and lemon. Humble, my friend, draw your chair up.”

“I don’t know as I want to drink with a sneak cop,” Mr. Humble muttered sullenly, moving a step or two, however, towards the fire.

“Don’t be an ass,” Pank laughed. “We all have to follow our professions. You might have been hangman to-day if you could have kept from the drink. Nasty job! I should think keeping you from it was the best thing drink ever did for you. I’m a sneak cop as you say---Detective Inspector Pank of Scotland Yard, if you please. You mayn’t like my profession. I should have hated yours. Come and sit down and tell me who’s been knocking you about.”

Mr. Humble walked to the chair as though mesmerised. He sat down, gazing stealthily all the time at his companion.

“Don’t get opening your mouth too wide,” he growled. “I was just a carpenter down at Wandsworth. I couldn’t have taken that other job on.”

“Well, you didn’t, anyway, which is a good thing for you,” Pank replied. “Now tell me who’s been knocking you about?”

“A fellow I’ve never seen before in my life,” Mr. Humble complained, eloquent once more at the thought of his grievances. “Came up to me in Swan’s Alley, he did, and tapped me on the shoulder. ‘Your name Humble?’ he asked. ‘Well, mine’s Bowhill,’ he said. ‘I’m a chauffeur and I’m going to sock you one in the jaw.’ ‘What for?’ I asked. ‘You open your mouth too wide in Harry Chittock’s parlour,’ he said. ‘You’re such a fool---you don’t know a sneak cop when you see one.’ And with that he gave me this black eye.”

The landlord presented himself, carrying a tray upon which was a bottle of whisky, a jug of hot water and a lemon cut in slices. Mr. Humble looked at these preparations and sniffed. He was a lost man.

“You’re a young fellow,” he went on, as he watched the whisky poured into the glass, “that I took a fancy to the moment I saw you, Ernest Pank, but it wasn’t scarcely playing the game. I ask you now, we sits here friendly like, you ask me questions and, looking upon you as a pal, I answer unsuspicious like. I’m not complaining. I’m not threatening or anything of that sort. But I simply ask---was it quite playing the game?”

“It was not,” Pank admitted. “A little more whisky into Mr. Humble’s glass, Harry. Half and half, I said, you know. That’s what keeps the cold out. It was not playing the game, Mr. Humble, but I ask you, as a man of the world, to remember this---I was doing my duty. I am an officer of the Crown and I was doing my duty.”

“There’s something in that,” the other acknowledged, holding his tumbler tightly in both hands and praying for the moment when it would be cool enough for him to sip.

“Considering that you were a pal,” Pank went on, “I ought perhaps to have told you the truth at once. Well, anyhow, there you are. You know’ it now. I’m a Scotland Yard detective and there’s one thing always worth remembering about us---if I ask for information and I get it, I’m willing to pay for it. Could anything be fairer than that, I ask you?”

“I don’t know as it could,” Mr. Humble confessed, warmed all through his body by that long delicious sip. “You know I like you, Ernest, my lad. If there’s anything I can tell you that it’s worth your while to hear----”

“And er---to pay for,” Pank murmured softly.

“Well, it’s yours,” Mr. Humble decided generously. “Ask me anything you choose, Ernest, and I’ll tell you the truth.”

“Now this is what I call getting comfortably together,” Pank declared, sipping from his own tumbler and lighting a gasper. “I’m interested, Mr. Humble, in those---er---four---or was it five men who were in that stunt with Lord Edward Keynsham.”

“Three,” his companion corrected him. “There was only three---I was the fourth. Queer blokes they was too.”

“Had you ever seen any of them before?”

“Never before and never wanted to since,” was the prompt reply. “Two or three odd little jobs I did for them besides finding them masks, and not so much as ten bob amongst the lot of them. And they say Americans are so generous.”

“They were Americans, then?” Pank asked swiftly.

“All three of ’em. One---the youngest---a fine, good-looking young fellow he was, reminded me in a way of Lord Edward, though he hadn’t got what you might call his polish. The other two were just ordinary-looking gents, well-dressed and all that sort of thing, but they wouldn’t have deceived me. They weren’t in the same class as his lordship.”

“You don’t know where they are now, I suppose?”

“Ernest, my lad,” Mr. Humble declared, small drops of perspiration standing out on his forehead from the heat of the liquor. “I do not. I ain’t seen them from that day to this. If I knew where they were, I’d tell you willing. If I knew any more about them, I’d tell you willing---but I don’t. They didn’t seem to me of much account.”

“It was Lord Edward Keynsham who sat at the other end of the table and talked to their prisoner?” Pank asked. “It was he who was running the whole affair, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, it was he,” Mr. Humble acknowledged. “The others had nothing to say to it. It was he who gave all the orders, although if I hadn’t seen him with my own eyes, I should never have believed it. He changed his voice and manner altogether like, directly he put on his mask.”

“You overheard no conversation between them?”

Mr. Humble scratched his head and, to assist his memory, his host refilled his glass.

“The young one that I was telling you about,” he reflected, “he seemed uncommon worried. He and Lord Edward talked for some time while they were waiting for the car. It was about that chap at Wandsworth who was condemned to be hanged. I couldn’t catch anything much of what they said, but the young one, he said to Lord Edward at the end---‘If they hang Brandt,’ he said, ‘the beast will do us dead as he’s done us alive.’ That’s every word that I can remember.”

“It’s something, Mr. Humble,” Pank assured him. “It’s a trifle, but it’s quite interesting. Now let me ask you this. In a way, it’s almost as important. What were Lord Edward’s orders to you about how far you were to go with the old gentleman? Were you really going to pop him off?”

Mr. Humble smiled a cunning smile.

“Ernest, my lad,” he remonstrated, “now think. You know me. I’m not a fool. If I’d popped him off at Lord Edward’s orders or any one else’s, where should I have been, if the truth had come out? None of that, thanks, for yours truly. I’ve seen the rope on a man, I’ve seen the job done. I’d rather die in my bed, thanking you all the same. His lordship’s orders were---‘Draw the lever, but put it out of touch. Bolt the trapdoor and see that nothing happens to the man, but let it go right up to the last moment.’ Well, the last moment had pretty near come when that telephone rings. After that, there was a rare scurry. In half an hour’s time, I should think it was, we were hard at work breaking the place up. That was as near to hanging any one as ever I’ve been.”

“Queer business altogether,” Ernest Pank said, as he absent-mindedly produced his pocketbook and pulled out two notes.

“A queer business it was,” the other admitted.

“Stick these in your pocket,” Pank invited, passing the notes across.

“It’s a welcome sight,” Mr. Humble confessed, transferring them eagerly to a place of security. “A queer business you’ve just called that, Ernest. You’re right---it was, and a hard business for me. I was the artist there, in control of the whole situation. Who else could have built that shed or that scaffold? Not a soul. Yet, would you believe me, when the time came for payment, every one there got a real handsome sum, but when my turn came, that skunk Edwards deducted about three months’ pay which he said I’d overdrawn. His lordship meant me to be dealt with generous, I know that, and I got about as much as the errand boy.”

Pank rose with a sigh, donned his overcoat and picked up his hat and umbrella.

“A dirty trick,” he said sympathetically. “See you later, Mr. Humble. Good-night, Harry . . .”

The landlord looked through the trapdoor with a grin a moment or two later.

“Help yourself, Mr. Humble,” he invited. “The bottle of whisky’s paid for. I’m glad you didn’t knock him about too much!”

Mr. Humble coughed as he helped himself with none too steady fingers.

“Too small,” he hiccoughed. “I never could bring myself to hit a man that size.”
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