“And then those actresses, poor little devils, who have to earn all they get. I followed you down the road, you see. That was a dirty trick, if ever I heard one. The City shark was different. If a chap must go a-robbing, that sort of fellow is fair game. But your friend, and then the girls—well, I say again, I couldn’t have believed it.”
“Then why believe it?”
“Because it is so.”
“Well, you seem to have persuaded yourself to that effect. You don’t seem to have much evidence to lay before any one else.”
“I could swear to you in a police-court. What put the lid on it was that when you were cutting my wire—and an infernal liberty it was!—I saw that white tuft of yours sticking out from behind your mask.”
For the first time an acute observer might have seen some slight sign of emotion upon the face of the baronet.
“You seem to have a fairly vivid imagination,” said he.
His visitor flushed with anger.
“See here, Hailworthy,” said he, opening his hand and showing a small, jagged triangle of black cloth. “Do you see that? It was on the ground near the car of the young women. You must have ripped it off as you jumped out from your seat. Now send for that heavy black driving-coat of yours. If you don’t ring the bell I’ll ring it myself, and we shall have it in. I’m going to see this thing through, and don’t you make any mistake about that.”
The baronet’s answer was a surprising one. He rose, passed Barker’s chair, and, walking over to the door, he locked it and placed the key in his pocket.
“You are going to see it through,” said he. “I’ll lock you in until you do. Now we must have a straight talk, Barker, as man to man, and whether it ends in tragedy or not depends on you.”
He had half-opened one of the drawers in his desk as he spoke. His visitor frowned in anger.
“You won’t make matters any better by threatening me, Hailworthy. I am going to do my duty, and you won’t bluff me out of it.”
“I have no wish to bluff you. When I spoke of a tragedy I did not mean to you. What I meant was that there are some turns which this affair cannot be allowed to take. I have neither kith nor kin, but there is the family honour, and some things are impossible.”
“It is late to talk like that.”
“Well, perhaps it is, but not too late. And now I have a good deal to say to you. First of all, you are quite right, and it was I who held you up last night on the Mayfield road.”
“But why on earth——”
“All right. Let me tell it my own way. First I want you to look at these.” He unlocked a drawer and he took out two small packages. “These were to be posted in London to-night. This one is addressed to you, and I may as well hand it over to you at once. It contains your watch and your purse. So, you see bar your cut wire you would have been none the worse for your adventure. This other packet is addressed to the young ladies of the Gaiety Theatre, and their properties are enclosed. I hope I have convinced you that I had intended full reparation in each case before you came to accuse me?”
“Well?” asked Barker.
“Well, we will now deal with Sir George Wilde, who is, as you may not know, the senior partner of Wilde and Guggendorf, the founders of the Ludgate Bank of infamous memory. His chauffeur is a case apart. You may take it from me, upon my word of honour, that I had plans for the chauffeur. But it is the master that I want to speak of. You know that I am not a rich man myself. I expect all the county knows that. When Black Tulip lost the Derby I was hard hit. And other things as well. Then I had a legacy of a thousand. This infernal bank was paying 7 per cent. on deposits. I knew Wilde. I saw him. I asked him if it was safe. He said it was. I paid it in, and within forty-eight hours the whole thing went to bits. It came out before the Official Receiver that Wilde had known for three months that nothing could save him. And yet he took all my cargo aboard his sinking vessel. He was all right—confound him! He had plenty besides. But I had lost all my money and no law could help me. Yet he had robbed me as clearly as one man could rob another. I saw him and he laughed in my face. Told me to stick to Consols, and that the lesson was cheap at the price. So I just swore that, by hook or by crook, I would get level with him. I knew his habits, for I had made it my business to do so. I knew that he came back from Eastbourse on Sunday nights. I knew that he carried a good sum with him in his pocket-book. Well it’s my pocket-book now. Do you mean to tell me that I’m not morally justified in what I have done? By the Lord, I’d have left the devil as bare as he left many a widow and orphan if I’d had the time!”
“That’s all very well. But what about me? What about the girls?”
“Have some common sense, Barker. Do you suppose that I could go and stick up this one personal enemy of mine and escape detection? It was impossible. I was bound to make myself out to be just a common robber who had run up against him by accident. So I turned myself loose on the high road and took my chance. As the devil would have it, the first man I met was yourself. I was a fool not to recognise that old ironmonger’s store of yours by the row it made coming up the hill. When I saw you I could hardly speak for laughing. But I was bound to carry it through. The same with the actresses. I’m afraid I gave myself away, for I couldn’t take their little fallals, but I had to keep up a show. Then came my man himself. There was no bluff about that. I was out to skin him, and I did. Now, Barker, what do you think of it all? I had a pistol at your head last night, and, by George! whether you believe it or not, you have one at mine this morning!”
The young man rose slowly, and with a broad smile he wrung the magistrate by the hand.
“Don’t do it again. It’s too risky,” said he. “The swine would score heavily if you were taken.”
“You’re a good chap, Barker,” said the magistrate. “No, I won’t do it again. Who’s the fellow who talks of ‘one crowded hour of glorious life’? By George! it’s too fascinating. I had the time of my life! Talk of fox-hunting! No, I’ll never touch it again, for it might get a grip of me.”
A telephone rang sharply upon the table, and the baronet put the receiver to his ear. As he listened, he smiled at his companion.
“I’m rather late this morning,” said he, “and they are awaiting for me to try some petty larcenies on the county bench.”