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CHAPTER XVII THE YOUNG MAN WITH THE LITTLE BLACK MUSTACHE
As Greg proceeded along the street to rejoin Hickey, he measured with his eye the distance from the porch floors to the window overhead. All the houses were of the same design. "Twelve feet," he said to himself; "a ten-foot ladder will do."

"Let's go home," he said to Hickey. "We've got to lay plans for an attack after midnight."

"An attack! Good Lord!" said Hickey apprehensively.

"Hickey, where can we get a ten-foot ladder?"

"There's ladders lying around the yard."

"That simplifies matters."

"Are you countin' on carrying a ladder through the streets after midnight? No cop would let you by."

"Ay, there's the rub, as friend Hamlet says. We might cut it in half and rig it as an extension ladder. Then we could carry it inside."

"How about a window-cleaner's ladder? That works up and down on ropes."

"Excellent idea! Do you know any window-cleaners?"

"No, but it's only eight o'clock. The big stores are open for the Christmas trade. You can get most anything at Macymaker's."

"Hickey, sometimes you display almost human intelligence. En avant to Macymaker's!"

Sure enough in the house-furnishing department of that vast emporium, Greg found what he wanted. The salesman wondered perhaps that any one should pick out a window-cleaner's ladder for a Christmas present, but Greg was not worrying about what the salesman might think. With a couple of sheets of store paper wrapped about it, and tied with twine, the ladder was sufficiently disguised, so that there was little danger of the most zealous policeman's suspicions being aroused by the sight of it.

As he and Hickey tied it on top of the flivver outside, Greg said with a chuckle: "Burglary made easy!"

Hickey shivered. "Don't use such ugly-sounding words!" he begged.

They went on. Greg offered Hickey a cigar. "We have time on our hands now," he said. "Light up and let the old girl trundle home at her ease like a lady."

The phantasmagoria of Houston Street was spread before them again. Here was Christmas shopping of the humbler sort. End to end the push-carts extended along the curb lighted by smoky kerosene flares and displaying an amazing variety of wares from sets of "genuine imitation ermine furs" down to apples pickled in brine. The pavement was literally packed, largely by reason of the fat shoppers who took up the room of three or four.

Coming towards them they perceived a stir of excitement in the throng. A big policeman was slowly forcing his way through, presumably urging before him some unfortunate they could not see. In the policeman's wake was a struggling procession of those who were trying to get a look. The quality of excitement in their faces suggested that the affair was something out of the common.

As Greg and Hickey passed abreast of the policeman the crowd opened for a moment, and they had a brief glimpse of the man he had in charge. They saw the slight and sagging figure of a young man with small features. His face was greenish; he shambled along with eyes half-closed. His hat was gone, and to their surprise they saw that his clothes were drenched. They were near the river.

"A would-be suicide," said Greg. "Poor devil!"

An odd little grunt escaped from Hickey, and he brought the cab to a stop with a jerk.

"What's up?" asked Greg.

"That—that face," stammered Hickey.

"What of it?"

"I've been looking for it for three days by your orders. That's the fellow with the little black mustache, who hired me on the pier that night."

Greg was effectually galvanized into action. Slipping out of his seat, he said: "Turn the first corner to the right, and wait for me in the side street. I'll look after him. He doesn't know me."

Greg ran down the roadway until he got in advance of the policeman; then forcing his way through the crowd, who gave way before his determined air, he fronted the officer.

"Beg pardon, officer. I think I know this man. What's he done?"

Greg's good clothes and assured air were not without their effect. The policeman was disposed to be complaisant. "Attempted suicide. Jumped off a Houston Street ferry, he did. A deckhand pulled him out."

The crowd, delighted to receive exact information as to the affair, waited open-mouthed for more. The prisoner glanced at Greg with indifferent, lack-luster eyes. He said nothing.

"He's soaking wet," said Greg. "And at this time of year——"

"I'm keeping him walking," said the blue-coat. "And the station is but a block away. We'll give him blankets there."

Greg fell into step beside the policeman. "Poor devil! Are you obliged to lay a charge against him?"

"They always do. Attempted suicide's a crime."

"But nobody's ever sent to jail for it."

"If I let him go he might try it again."

"Four days to Christmas, officer. Let me take care of him. I'll give him a square meal and a bed. I've got a cab around the corner. I'll take him home in that."

Voices from the crowd said: "Aw, let him go. It's Christmas. He ain't harmed nobody but himself."

The blue-coat was a bit nettled by the implication of hard-heartedness. "'Tain't nothin' to me," he said. "Come on to the station, and if the loot'nant says all right, all right."

"I'll be there," said Greg. "You take him on, and I'll get my cab."

Greg and Hickey doubled back through the next street and were already at the station-house door when the officer arrived with his prisoner. Greg had no great difficulty in persuading the good-natured officer at the desk to let the wretched young man go. The inconsistency of arresting a man for trying to kill himself cannot but be apparent to all. It is something that he cannot be prevented from doing if he wants to. A mumbled promise was extracted from the prisoner that he would not try it again, and he was handed over to Greg's care.

Wrapping him in the lap-robe, Greg bundled him into the flivver and they drove off amid the plaudits of the crowd gathered around the station-house steps. The young man did not come face to face with Hickey. Greg felt a little shamefaced that the people should think he was playing the part of the good Samaritan.

"If they knew!" he thought. "It's only out of the frying pan into the fire for him, poor wretch!"

As the cab started the young man never so much as looked up. He half sat, half lay in the corner of the cab like an old man in whom the last spark of life is almost quenched. His eyes were open, yet they saw nothing. He seemed to be quite indifferent as to where Greg was taking him; he seemed not to care whether he were in jail or out again. Greg, who had never seen a human creature so beaten down, scarcely knew how to act towards him. His heart was touched by the sight of such utter wretchedness, but to offer him sympathy would have been both cruel and hypocritical. On the other hand he could not hit the man while he was down by letting him see that his crime was known. For the present it seemed best merely to try to restore him by warmth, food and sleep, until he was better able to meet his fate like a man.

The young man himself broke the silence. "You would have done better to let me go," he muttered. He spoke with a slight foreign accent.

"Buck up!" said Greg. "Nothing's so bad but what it might be worse." To Greg while he uttered them the words sounded hollow, addressed to one in this young man's position, but he had to say something.

"I suppose I ought to thank you," said the other with weary bitterness.

"You needn't trouble about that," said Greg grimly.

"If you want to do me a real kindness, stop the man and let me out. I can still walk to the river."

"Mustn't talk like that," said Greg. "There's food and warmth waiting for you. Let that do you for the present."

Hickey drove into the yard, and Greg hustled the young man directly into Bessie's kitchen. Bull Tandy and Ginger McAfee were sitting there one on each side of the table, smoking and enjoying their unwonted evening of leisure. Bessie the monumental was wiping dishes. They had been discussing the case all evening, and still had plenty to talk about when lo! Greg provided them with a fresh sensation. The two men stared at the ghastly and bedraggled figure with pipes half way to their mouths; Bessie held plate and towel in the air.

"Good land! who is he?" she exclaimed.

"Tell you later," said Greg. "Help me get him in bed, and to put some hot food and drink in him. Is Blossom back?"

He was not.

Bessie promptly took command of the situation. "You, Bull, go up-stairs to Greg's room, and light the oil heater. Ginger, fetch me a pail of coal from the cellar. Greg, you fill the kettle at the sink and go into the store and get a can of soup. That's the best for him." Bessie herself vigorously shook the fire and opened the draft.

"Poor fellow, you've been in the river, I see," said she. The river is always ominously present in the minds of those who live near. "Take this chair close by the stove until the room up-stairs heats up."

The object of this solicitude accepted it apathetically. He huddled in the chair that was placed for him as if his backbone lacked the pith to hold him straight. He made no effort to speak. While they were bustling about on their various errands he was left alone in the room for a moment. To get him out of the way, Bessie had put his chair on the far side of the stove. This brought him facing the door into the yard, and when Hickey, having backed the flivver under the shed, came in, the young man's eyes fell full upon him.

They were brought running from various directions by the sound of a choking cry followed by a fall. They found the young man lying face downwards on the floor. Hickey was standing with his hand still on the door, scared halt out of his wits.

"Lordy! I clean forgot the sight of me would be a shock to him," he stammered.

"It had to come," said Greg grimly. "We couldn't go on making out to be his friends."

The young man was insensible. They carried him up-stairs and put him in Greg's bed, wrapped in all the blankets the house afforded. Bessie heated bricks in the oven and placed them about him. Hickey was dispatched in the flivver for a doctor.

The doctor came, brought the patient to, and upon hearing all the circumstances, prescribed a small portion of the soup, which Bessie by now had hot upon the stove. They forced it down his throat. He seemed utterly distraught, shaking and moaning Spanish words. Before leaving, the doctor gave him a hypodermic to induce sleep.

Greg said he would watch beside the bed until it should take effect. The patient still twitched and gasped like a creature beyond all control; yet when the others left the room he opened his eyes and asked sanely enough:

"Who are you?"

Greg told his name. "It would take a long time to explain who I am," he added. "You'd better try to sleep."

"You know me?" he asked.

"Yes, your name is de Silva."

"What do you want of me?" the other asked hoarsely.

"Nothing at present except to put a little life into you."

"In order to take it away from me later?"

Greg, taken aback, said: "It isn't your life that I want."

The poor wretch shuddered. "I thought I saw a man down-stairs—or did I dream it? A cab-man——"

Greg saw nothing was to be gained by further concealment. "You saw him," he said. "It was the cabman you engaged on the pier the night the Allianca docked."

The young man raised himself on his elbow. "Then all is known?"

"Pretty nearly all."

He fell back. "Well—I'm glad," he said weakly. "The worst agony is over."

Presently he opened his eyes, attacked by a new fear. "Who are you?" he demanded. "And those others down-stairs? His men?"

"Whose?" asked Greg, perplexed.

"De Socotra's."

"No, by God!"

The recumbent figure relaxed. "Detectives, then? I don't mind that."

"Not detectives, either," said Greg. "I'll tell you this much—I'm after de Socotra. I know he's the principal in this affair, not you. I only want you as a means to get him."

"You'll never get him," said de Silva with hopeless assurance. "He's not a man like others; he's a fiend out of Hell."

"That may be," said Greg grimly. "But just the same I mean to get him! Better not talk any more. Let yourself relax."

"I've got to talk. I've kept it in too long. I'll go out of my mind if I don't talk. I think I'm losing my mind anyway I've been in Hell the last three days. Couldn't think what I was doing. But only of him. This is what they call being haunted maybe. Not like books. All of a sudden his face comes between me and what I look at—nice old face with a half-smile and quiet eyes. Oh God! Oh God! I never can forget it now——!

"I never set up to be any better than I was. It isn't the first job I've done for different men. I sort of got in the way of it young. Men sent for me when they wanted something nervy done. I could get away with anything because I was little and thin and looked harmless. I had nerves of steel until this happened. I was proud of my reputation."

"Good God!" interrupted Greg aghast. "Do you mean to say that murder was your trade?"

"Well, why not? It takes more nerve and cleverness than holding down an office stool. I liked the spice of danger. And anyhow the men I put out before this one only got what was coming to them. They were no better than them that wanted it done. Fair game. I don't give a damn for any of the others. They don't trouble my sleep. But this one—Oh God! he's got me! ...

"I didn't know him beforehand. I was sent down from New York to Central America to get next to him. They told me he was a blackguard that was trying to raise the niggers to cut Hell loose down there. I was to get the job as his secretary because I spoke Spanish and English, and come back to New York with him. The job was to be done here.

"Well, we were on the ship together almost a week. That was what queered me. He wanted to make friends, see? He wouldn't let me alone. God! it raked me up and down with little sharp points—his friendliness. It started me thinking, and I wasn't any good to myself any more. He wasn't a preacher, nothing like it. Just a jolly old gentleman who could tell a story in the smoking-room as well as any man, and laugh till his fat sides shook. He liked me; that's what got me. I couldn't make it out. Nobody ever liked me before. He was always trying to make me talk about myself. God! it scared me what I found myself telling him! I told him lots of funny things—at night on deck. He didn't mind; he didn't blame me. He would only say: 'Well, life's a queer affair!' He didn't stop liking me. And I killed him! Oh God, how I hate myself! ...

"When we got to New York I was in no shape to carry out my job. My nerve was gone. But I couldn't turn back then. Always prided myself I never failed to pull off a job. I thought I could work myself up to it. And I did it. But my hand shook. He looked at me as I gave him the needle. Just one look!"

"How did you do it?" asked Greg.

"With a hypodermic needle. In the jugular here"—he put a finger on his throat. "There was curare in it. What the San Blas Indians dip their arrow-points in. Kills like a hammer-stroke. De Socotra gave me the needle and showed me how. But I bungled it. The cabman heard something and stopped by the curb. My nerve was gone. I beat it."

"Where did you go then?" asked Greg.

"I went—I don't know—I went—I went——"

The voice trailed off. The narcotic was taking effect.


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