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Chapter IV Ulysses of Wapping
 On the following morning, Aaron Rodd, somewhat to his surprise, received a visit from his only client. Mr. Jacob Potts, who was a publican and retired pugilist, and whose appearance entirely coincided with his dual profession, looked around the apartment with a little sniff.
"Ho!" he exclaimed. "Better times arrived, eh? 'Ad a spring-cleaning, 'aven't you? Telephone, too, and new chairs! Golly! Does it run to cigars?"
Aaron Rodd shamelessly offered him a box of Harvey Grimm's Cabanas. His client bit off the end of one with relish and seemed inclined to swallow it. He eventually spat it out, however, lit the cigar, and, throwing himself back in a chair, crossed his rather pudgy legs.
"Know anything about maritime law?" he began.
"Not much," Aaron Rodd admitted. "A lawyer very seldom knows anything outside his little bent," he went on. "We have great rows of books properly indexed, turn up the point and read the decisions."
"Where are your'n?" Mr. Jacob Potts enquired, looking around the somewhat bare walls.
"Pawned," Aaron Rodd confessed. "All the same, I can go into the law library and give you an answer on any point you like to put forward, within a very few minutes."
Mr. Potts nodded.
"That's why I kind of took a fancy to you years ago, when you was a nipper," he confessed. "No doubling and twisting about you. Just a straightforward answer to a straightforward question. 'Do you know anything about maritime law?' sez I. 'No,' sez you, 'but I can find out.' And so you can. Now, one of the regular kidney of you fellows'd have been messing about for half an hour and then have read it all out of a book. You never tumbled to it yet, guv'nor, did you, what my new line of business was?"
"Never," Aaron Rodd acknowledged. "From your conversation at various times I gathered that you saved money in the ring, acquired a prosperous public-house property, and were in some way or other responsible for the organisation of labour in your neighbourhood."
Mr. Jacob Potts grinned.
"Let it go at that," he decided. "Well, the point I want to know about is this. Supposing in the course of business I committed an offence against the law, you understand, and I legs it for a nootral country, you see—might be Holland, for instance—can I be 'auled off a Dutch boat in nootral waters on my way to Holland?"
"It would depend," Aaron Rodd replied, "on the nature of your offence. I will let you know your exact position, if you like to come in a little later."
"That goes," Mr. Potts agreed. "I've a call to make at a public-house in Craven Street. There's a promising lad there I saw with the gloves on for the first time in 'is life the other night. I thought of making a match with 'im against Canary Joe. 'Ave you ever seen Canary Joe box?"
"I have never seen a boxing match in my life," Aaron Rodd replied.
"Lumme!" Mr. Jacob Potts gasped. "Well, I suppose yours ain't a sporting profession. Mine is—in every sense of the word," he added with a grin. "What about twelve o'clock, guv'nor? That'll give me time to get a can of beer and some bread and cheese."
"I shall be quite ready for you at that time," Aaron Rodd promised.
The ex-publican departed, and Aaron Rodd, after giving him time to get away, followed him out into the street, spent half an hour in the nearest law library, and returned with a volume under his arm. He found the poet seated on the top of the stairs outside his rooms.
"My dear fellow," the latter exclaimed peevishly, as he rose to his feet, "this new habit of yours of locking the door after you is most inconvenient."
"Why not go to your club and wait?" Aaron Rodd suggested. "It's only a few yards away."
"Inhospitable," the other sighed, "and I have come to you filled with a most generous idea. Listen. This may seem a commonplace thing to you but to me it is an epoch in my career. I have opened a banking account."
"I noticed that the book-shop was thronged, as usual, as I came by," Aaron Rodd remarked.
"This week," the poet declared solemnly, "will practically sever my connection with the book-shop. My publishers insist upon it that my work must be distributed in the regular fashion. Henceforth, the poems of Stephen Cresswell will be on sale at every reputable bookseller's—at four and sixpence, if you please. I have also an agent, and, as I before remarked, a banking account. Things have changed with me, Aaron Rodd. Only yesterday I found myself in need of a ten-pound note, referred the matter to my publishers and found them most affable.... How are adventures this morning?"
"Nothing doing," was the prompt reply, "until Harvey Grimm comes back. My only client has been to ask me a question about maritime law. He is coming back directly."
The poet ignored the hint.
"My presence here will do you good," he pointed out. "He will perhaps take me for another client. He is not a man of culture by any chance?"
"He is not," Aaron Rodd admitted tersely; "nor is he one of those who have been whacked into reading one of your poems."
"He must have read about them, at any rate," Cresswell insisted a little irritably. "If you introduce me, you had better mention my identity. Fame so far has left me quite unspoiled. I still feel a little thrill of pleasure in noticing the effect which the mention of my name has upon strangers.... Come in," he added pleasantly, in response to a thunderous knock at the door.
The door opened and Mr. Jacob Potts entered, bringing with him a strong atmosphere of old ale and bread and cheese. To Aaron Rodd's surprise, he recognised the poet with a broad grin.
"My Ulysses of Wapping!" the latter exclaimed, holding out his hand. "What a meeting!"
Mr. Jacob Potts jerked his thumb towards Cresswell as he turned to the lawyer.
"One of my clients," he remarked.
Aaron Rodd was puzzled. He had once paid a visit to the river-side public-house over which Jacob Potts presided, and he found it hard to associate Cresswell in any way with the atmosphere there. Mr. Jacob Potts had pressed a thick forefinger to his lips.
"Mum's the word, guv'nor," he declared reassuringly. "Don't you worry."
The poet picked up his hat.
"From this gentleman," he asserted grandiloquently, "I have no secrets. To be frank with you, it was he and another friend who are responsible for those incidents in my career with which you have been professionally connected."
Mr. Jacob Potts glanced at him admiringly.
"That's 'ow 'e talks down at Wapping. Ain't it wonderful!" he observed.
Stephen Cresswell edged towards the door.
"When you have finished with our friend here," he said, addressing Aaron, "come across to the Milan. I have a proposition to make anent the opening of my banking account. It is connected with food and drink. Au revoir! Farewell, my river-side Goliath," he added, waving his hand to Jacob Potts. "Remember, our little bargain still goes."
Mr. Potts' large face was convulsed into humorous wrinkles.
"That's a queer gent.," he declared, as the door closed. "Come to me, 'e did, sometime ago—heard I'd been a bit of a bruiser and asked me to teach him a knock-out blow, something quick and not dangerous. Lord love me, I used to let 'im go on, and give 'im 'is fill o' beer, for the sake of hearing 'im talk! 'Ow I larfed when I tumbled to 'is game—me and the missis! He'd written some stuff wot no one would read, and 'is idea was to advertise it. Up you goes to an old gent at a dark corner. ''Ave you read my book?' he arsks. 'No!' sez the old gent. 'Cresswell's Poems, eightpence a copy, number thirty-two Manchester Street,' he sez, and biffs 'im one. Then other nervous old gents, 'ear about this and buys the poems, give the proper answer when they're tackled and 'ome they goes to tea. 'Oly Moses, it was a great scheme, but it was a greater before I'd done with it!"
"Where did you come in?" Aaron Rodd asked curiously.
Jacob Potts drew his chair a little closer to Aaron Rodd's desk.
"Well," he explained, "it's giving things away a bit, but to one's lawyer I don't know as it matters. I'm a kind o' provider of men as can be trusted to give any one a clout on the side of the 'ead and no questions arst. I could lay my hand at the present moment on some titty of 'em, good to give any ordinary person a dom'. Why, the third night after yon chap'd come to me, I'd twenty-five of 'em out, all asking the same question, at ten bob a time. It cost 'im a bit."
"But where on earth did he get the money?" Aaron Rodd asked. "He was broke when we met him first."
"I financed him," Jacob Potts confessed. "I tell you the idea fair tickled me. I found the coin and he paid me back like a gentleman. I only sends 'em out now when we're slack with other work, but whenever we 'ave a little affair doing, whatever the cost may be, we always commence it the same way—''Ave you read Stephen Cresswell's poems?' 'No,'—and then biff!"
The publican leaned back in his chair and his fat body shook with laughter. He mopped the tears from his eyes with a big red bandanna handkerchief.
"To think of meeting 'im 'ere!" he murmured weakly. "You see, we 'as our jokes even in the serious professions. Not that I ever let my boys go too far," he concluded, "and I keep 'em out of trouble as much as I can. That's why I want to know the law about this sea business."
Aaron Rodd read him extracts from the volume he had brought back, and explained several doubtful points. The publican's face was a little grave when he had finished.
"I ain't at all sure," he decided, "that I fancy trusting any of my best boys with this job, and I loathe foreigners, any way."
"Well, I won't ask you any questions," Aaron Rodd said, "but if you want any free advice, here it is. You've made plenty of money. I should keep friends with the law, if I were you. You can't employ such a band of ruffians as you've been talking about, and not find a wrong 'un amongst them now and then."
"If one o' my lads," Jacob Potts declared solemnly, "was to squeal, I tell you the rest would be on 'im like a pack of fox'ounds on a fox. They'd tear 'im limb from limb, that's wot they'd do."
"That wouldn't do you a great deal of good if you were in prison," Aaron Rodd reminded him. "However, you know the law now."
"I know it, and I ain't sweet on the job," Mr. Jacob Potts confessed. "'Owsomever! Good morning to you, Mr. Rodd, and much obliged. You'll add your little bit on to my quarterly account.... Wot 'o, another client!" he added. "I'm toddling."
He shook hands with his adviser and reached the door just as it was opened and Henriette entered. He stood for a moment as though stupefied. Then, as he disappeared through the doorway, he turned round and winked solemnly at Aaron.
"Wishing you good morning, guv'nor!" he said as he closed the door.
Curiously enough, as on that first morning when, they had met in the Embankment Gardens, a little ray of wintry sunshine, which had stolen in through the dusty, uncurtained windows, lay between them. Aaron Rodd, whose first impulse had been one of joy at this unexpected visit, stopped suddenly in his progress across the room. There was something so entirely different about her, a change so absolute and mystifying. The faintly supercilious deportment and expression of the young woman of the world, carrying herself so easily and with such natural grace and self-possession, seemed to have deserted her. She was suddenly a frightened child seeking for shelter, and with a lightning-like effort of imagination he seemed to see her flying for sanctuary from those terrors of which he had already warned her.
"Is anything wrong?" he enquired quickly—"anything fresh, I mean?"
She sank into his chair. She was panting a little, as though she had been hurrying.
"I am afraid!" she confessed. "I am terrified! Give me your hand to hold, and listen."
She gripped his strong fingers. They both almost held their breaths. There was no sound except the distant rumble of traffic. By degrees she grew calmer.
"You are not worrying about my errand?" he asked anxiously. "You know what happened to me?"
"It isn't that," she told him simply. "That was all planned beforehand. You didn't mind?"
"Of course not," he assured her.
"It is something which happened before I came to England," she went on, "something terrible, something from which it seems to me I can never escape. Listen.... I must tell you one day—I shall tell you now. Leopold has always been fortunate, but the luck went against me one day. I was face to face with detection. I had the whole of the jewels in my possession. I was confronted with the worst. I hadn't time to think. I killed the man who would have brought ruin on all of us, and—and, on me, worse than ruin.... Do you hear?—I killed him!"
Aaron Rodd sat speechless. She seemed so small and delicate-looking. It was incredible!
"He was a great man, a colonel in the Prussian Guards. He had high connections, some of them Belgian. The threats of his people reached my ears even before I had escaped. They swore to get me back into Belgium, and if I were once there, God knows what would happen to me! At first, when I reached London, I felt safe. I managed to become attached to the household of Madame. Surely in London was sanctuary! And lately I have felt different. This man—I will not tell you his name—he is connected even with the family of Madame herself. I begin to fear that they have suspicions. The Princess has been cold to me lately. There are several others in the household who seem to look askance at me. I have had letters from relatives in Belgium, inviting me to go back. Some of them, I know, have been forgeries. During the last few days I have been followed about. Only yesterday there was a little fog. I was in the square, near the corner of Brook Street. Suddenly I heard swift footsteps just behind me, there was a whistle, a taxicab drove up by the kerb. There was a man in it, sitting back in the corner. I saw his face—it was cruel, horrible! I could hear another man running from out of the fog towards me. I knew what they wanted—to thrust me into the taxicab. And just at that moment I shrieked, and two strangers came from one of the big houses and I clung to them. The taxicab drove off and the man seemed to melt away. The two gentlemen thought I was mad. They escorted me to another taxicab. Since then I dare not move alone."
"How did you come here?" he asked.
"In one of Madame's cars. It waits for me outside. Even at the corner of this street there were two men who frightened me. To-day my week of service is up with Madame. She has not encouraged me to stay longer. She looks at me with the eyes of suspicion. And at the Milan Court I am afraid! My grandfather is so old—the world is finished for him. And Leopold is so cold and mysterious. He comes and goes with never a word.... There! You see what has happened to me!" she exclaimed, with a little quaver in her tone. "I have lost my nerve. And I have been brave, Monsieur Aaron Rodd—believe me, I have been brave."
"Of course you have," he answered encouragingly, "and of, course you will continue to be brave. You must not fancy things. Believe me, you are safe here—safe, at least, against being sent back to Belgium against your will. The fears for you and about you——"
"Well, what are they?" she interrupted anxiously. "Tell me about them?"
"These diamonds," he continued slowly. "If I might venture to say so, it seems to me that your brother is making a mistake in dragging you into the affair at all. We could have done our business with him and left you out of it."
"But he is watched every hour of the day," she explained. "They cannot find the jewels, and they can prove nothing against him unless they do find them, but they know very well that soon he must dispose of them, and they never willingly let him out of their sight. Besides, we are all to share in the proceeds. Why should we not take a little of the risk? Oh, believe me," she went on eagerly, "I can face anything that comes to me through the jewels. It is the other thing I am afraid of. I cannot speak even to you of that awful moment. The man who guessed our secret—he offered silence. We were alone...."
She broke off suddenly, absolutely incapable of speech. She was white almost to the lips. Her eyes were filled with reminiscent horror. He leaned over and took her hands once more a little clumsily in his.
"Don't think of it," he begged. "That part of it, at any rate, is done with. One must fight for what one has, for the sake of others."
"I know—I know!" she agreed, trying to smile at him. "But tell me again—there isn't any way, is there, that the Belgian authorities—I suppose they do still control their own law-courts—could be cajoled into having me sent back? I am frightened. I begin to wonder whether these men, who I am sure have been watching me, are emissaries from the foreign police."
He smiled reassuringly.
"Not a chance," he declared. "They have something else to do just now. Believe me, you are frightening yourself about nothing. If you are being watched, and I should think it extremely probable that you are being watched, it is simply because you are living under the same roof as your brother and because you are an exceedingly likely medium for the disposal of the jewels."
"If I were sure that that was all!" she murmured.
"It is all," he told her confidently. "There! Besides, in that other case, remember that you are not friendless. I don't think I need tell you," he went on, a little awkwardly, "that if there were any way I could help, any way I could ensure your safety, it would make me very happy."
"I think that I felt that," she answered softly. "I think that that is why I came to you. Leopold has gone to one of his hiding-places—I do not know where—and he will not be back for several days. Please do not go far away. Be where I can telephone to you, or come."
"I wouldn't ask anything better," he promised.
Her eyes glowed for a moment. She gave him her hand impulsively, and he was dizzy with the strangeness and the joy of it. He had been so long debarred from intercourse with her sex that femininity was making a late but extraordinarily subtle appeal to him. He found himself, even in the moment when he was studying the colour of her eyes, counting the wasted years of his life, remembering with a sick regret the lines upon his face, the streak of grey in his hair.
"You are going back now to the Milan?" he enquired.
"From here. You could not——?"
"Of course I could," he assented eagerly, taking down his hat. "I promised to meet our friend Cresswell there."
"That ridiculous Poet!" she laughed. "Whatever made him a friend of yours?"
"He would tell you Fate," was the smiling reply. "Harvey Grimm would tell you a sense of humour. I really don't know what I could say about it. He isn't a bad fellow."
"You are sure you have no more business to attend to?" she asked earnestly. "I can sit and wait quite patiently while you finish."
He sighed as he closed his desk.
"I am afraid my office itself is rather a farce," he told her. "As a lawyer I have been a failure. My only client passed you on the stairs as he went out."
She heard him a little incredulously.
"That seems so strange," she observed. "I am sure that you are clever."
"The majority of the world seems to have come to a different conclusion," he sighed, as he stood on one side to let her pass out.
"Here comes your client back again," she whispered. "I will wait for you upon the landing."
Mr. Jacob Potts came puffing up the stairs. He beckoned mysteriously to Aaron Rodd and drew him on one side.
"Guv'nor," he whispered, "'ave you got any pals in this building?"
"I don't know that I have, particularly," was the somewhat doubtful reply. "Why?"
"Gave me quite a turn," Mr. Potts confessed. "There's two of my boys below, two of them who are on that job I came to consult you about."
"They are probably shadowing you," Aaron Rodd suggested.
"I'd give 'em shadow, if they tried that game on!" Mr. Jacob Potts asserted truculently. "'Owsomever, you've got the office, if there's any pals of yourn about.... If you've any fancy, sir," he added, as he turned away, "for seeing a little bout to-night down at my place, I've arranged for that young fellow I spoke about to come down and put 'em on with Canary Joe. 'Arf-past nine, and no questions arst of a friend."
"I'll remember," the other promised.
"Won't keep you longer," Mr. Potts observed, turning heavily away. "There's other clients than me about this morning, wot 'o!"
He turned back from the doorway and indulged in a huge and solemn wink.
"'Arf-past nine," he called out, "nothing charged for admission, but the salt air down Wapping way encourages the thirst, which is good for the trade. Bring a pal, if you've a mind."
Aaron waited until his client had reached the first landing before he rejoined Henriette. They drove in what was, to him, unaccustomed splendour to the Milan, and parted in the little hall.
"It is foolish," she said, as she held out her hand, "but I feel better because I have been frank with you. Sometimes my fears seem so unreal, and then sometimes I close my eyes and I get these horrible little mind pictures. Ah, but you do not know the terror of them! This is England, though, and that was what they all said—'In England you will be safe.' Tell me you are sure that I am safe?"
"Absolutely," he declared confidently.
She waved her hand to him from the lift, and he proceeded to the smoking-room in search of Cresswell.
The poet, having received forty pounds from his publishers, was thoroughly disposed towards a frivolous evening. He was consequently a little dismayed when, as they sat at dinner that same evening, Aaron Rodd, who had been a little distrait, suggested an alteration in their evening's entertainment.
"I wonder," he said, "if, instead of going to the 'Empire,' you would care to see a bout between Canary Joe and a youthful barman who I understand possesses genius?"
The poet made a wry face.
"I am rather fed up with biffing just now," he confessed, "but Canary Joe—why, that's old man Potts' protégé."
Aaron nodded.
"The affair is to take place in a room at the back of his public-house," he observed.
Cresswell sipped his wine and considered. His attitude was obviously unfavourable.
"I am in the humour," he declared, "for a more enervating atmosphere, the warmth and comfort of the Empire lounge, the charm of feminine society—even from a distance," he added hastily. "I am feeling human to-night, Aaron Rodd—very human."
"It is possible," his companion continued slowly, "that an adventure——"
The poet's manner changed.
"More than anything in the world I am in the humour for an adventure," he asserted eagerly.
"Then I think we will see Canary Joe," Aaron Rodd decided. "You shall be my guide."
The long taxi-ride would have been a little depressing but for the poet's uproarious spirits. He sang himself hoarse and filled the vehicle with cigarette smoke. They reached at last a region of small streets all running one way; in the background a vision of lights, suspended apparently from nowhere, the sound of an occasional siren, the constant, sometimes overpowering odour of river-side mud. When at last the taxicab came to a standstill, they were near enough to the river to hear its rise and fall against a little bank of shingle. From behind the closely-drawn windows of the public-house, one side of which seemed to abut on to the river-side, came the sound of many voices. They dismissed the taxicab and pushed open the swing-doors. The poet, who had been complaining bitterly of thirst on the way down, led the way to the counter.
"Two whiskies and sodas, Tim," he ordered. "Where's the guv'nor?"
The man jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
"Up in the room, getting things to rights," he announced. "If you take my advice, Mr. Cresswell, you'll slip in there as soon as you've had your drink. There'll be a crowd when the gong goes, and they're a tough lot to struggle with for seats."
Aaron glanced around. The room was filled with a motley throng of river-side loafers, with here and there a sprinkling of sailors. One huge Dutchman, in a soiled nautical uniform, was already furiously drunk. The two young men slipped up the stairs, to which the poet led the way, and passed through the door into the further apartment, just as the Dutchman's truculent eye fell upon them.
"Shouldn't wonder if we didn't tumble across something in the way of an adventure here," the poet remarked cheerfully. "We ought to have changed our clothes. Hello, here's the boss."
Mr. Jacob Potts, on his way down the long, dimly lit room, came to a sudden standstill. His expression scarcely confirmed the welcome which the heartiness of his invitation earlier in the day had promised. He glanced at the two visitors in something like dismay. Nothing, however, could damp the poet's spirits.
"We've come down to see the scrap, guv'nor," he declared.
"If you have," Mr. Jacob Potts replied, with something which sounded threatening in his tone, "you're welcome. If so be that you've any other reason for your coming, maybe a word of advice from me wouldn't be out of place, and that word's git."
"When we've seen the scrap and not before," Cresswell chuckled. "Do you know that it cost the best part of a quid to get down here, guv'nor? Bring 'em in and let's see what stuff they're made of."
Jacob Potts looked at the speaker doubtfully.
"You've 'ad a drop, young fellow, you 'ave," he muttered.
"Trenchantly and convincingly put, old chap," the poet replied, steadying himself by the back of the chair. "My dear friend and I are making an evening of it."
Mr. Potts' face cleared a little.
"Boys will be boys," he assented amiably, "and there's none of you the worse for a drop o' good liquor on board. Fact is I'm a bit jumpy to-night," he confessed. "My boys have got a little game on—to-night of all nights! Did you happen to notice," he asked anxiously, "if that goll-darned Dutchman was down there?"
"There is a son of Holland in the bar," the poet replied, "in a glorious state of inebriation. He is seeking for some one to destroy. Tell you the truth, we fled before him. His eye rested upon us and he scowled."
Mr. Jacob Potts lifted a blind and stared out towards the river.
"That's his steamer lying there," he muttered. "I wish to God he'd get aboard her!"
Aaron Rodd moved softly to his side.
"Is this little game you spoke of," he enquired—"the game your boys have on to-night—the one which brought you up to consult me about maritime law this morning?"
"It is," Jacob Potts admitted, "and wot about it?"
Aaron Rodd shrugged his shoulders. Before he could reply, however, a gong sounded. The door of the room was thrown open and a surging mob from the bar streamed in.
"Front seats," yelled the poet, making a dive forward, but Aaron caught him firmly by the arm.
"Stephen," he whispered, "there's something up here to-night. We may have to come into it. Let's get seats by the door, where we can slip out quietly. I'm not joking."
Considering all things, Cresswell was wonderfully amenable. They stood on one side and let the crowd rush past them and eventually found two seats against the side wall, within a few yards of the door. Mr. Jacob Potts seemed for the moment to have forgotten their existence. He was standing in the middle of the little ring, which was roped off on a raised platform, stamping with his heel upon the floor. There were shrill whistles and cries of "Order."
"Gents," Mr. Potts announced, "this is a light-weight scrap, twelve rounds, between our old friend Canary Joe and a youngster I found in Craven Street—Jimmy Dunks."
He pointed first towards a pimply-faced young man, with flaxen hair brushed smoothly down over his forehead, attired in scarlet knickerbockers and a pink vest, over which heterogeneous attire he had thrown a soiled, light-coloured ulster. His opponent wore a thin flannel vest, a pair of dilapidated golfing knickerbockers and the remains of a dressing-gown. They both arose and made awkward salutations. Canary Joe was evidently the favourite, but Mr. Potts himself led the applause for his opponent.
"Fair do's, gents," he begged. "This young 'un's a stranger, but from what I've seen of 'im I believe 'e's out to do 'is best, and we none of us can't do more."
There were a few more preliminaries and the two young men faced one another. They moved round for a moment like cats, amidst an almost breathless silence. Then there were one or two wild plunges, a little more cautious sparring, and a yell of applause as the young man in the golfing knickerbockers landed his right very near his opponent's mouth.
"Don't you treat 'im too light, Canary," they yelled from the back. "Keep your eye on 'is left."
There was a brief pause at the end of the first round. Canary Joe sat scowling at his opponent as he received the attentions of his second. The next round, although without decisive effect, was more vigorous; the third produced a black eye each. The audience settled down to enjoy itself. Suddenly the door at the back of the room was opened and from somewhere below came the sound of a gong struck three tunes. There were little murmurs of annoyance, disjointed oaths and growls from various quarters, but, without a single moment's hesitation, at least a score of the audience rose to their feet and made for the door. Aaron Rodd and his companion watched them as they slunk by. The poet was exceedingly interested.
"Someone's going to get a biffing to-night," he confided. "I wonder what it's all about."
Aaron acted on an inexplicable impulse.
"Let's go and see," he suggested.
The poet rose at once to his feet. He was ready enough, if a trifle dubious.
"They won't want us butting in," he remarked. "All the same, we might see a little of the fun. It will be more like the real thing than this."
They passed down the few stairs into the bar. Several of the men had paused for a drink, but others had already slunk out into the street. Following on the heels of the hindmost, Aaron Rodd and his companion found themselves almost swallowed up in a sudden fog which had rolled in from the river. From somewhere in the midst of the chaos they heard a quick, authoritative voice.
"Joe, you and half a dozen of you take the corners of the street. Hold up anything that tries to come down. Start a fight amongst yourselves if there are coppers about. You others come out on the wharf."
"That Dutchman's in this, I'll swear," the poet whispered. "Let's try and find our way down to the river. I know where the gate is."
Almost as he spoke, a heavy hand descended upon his shoulder, and a dark, evil face was thrust almost into his.
"Look here, guv'nor," the man said, "you mayn't be after any 'arm down 'ere but it's one o' them nights we don't need strangers around. You tumble? The old man's wolves are out and they've a nasty way of snapping anything that comes along."
"What's the game, Sid?" the poet asked engagingly. "We're only here for a bit of sport."
"Never you mind what the game is," was the terse reply. "You get back and watch those two chickens scratching one another's faces."
There was a moment's silence. Then from a few yards off came the sound of a slight moan, as from a person suffocating.
"What's that?" Aaron Rodd demanded sharply.
"Never you mind what it is," was the swift reply from their unseen adviser. "Take your carcases inside, if you want to keep them whole."
He vanished in the fog. Aaron Rodd gripped his companion's arm.
"Stephen," he muttered, "that was a woman's voice!"
"Sounded like it," the poet assented. "Have you got your electric torch in your pocket?"
They heard the rattle of a key in the gate which led out on to the wharf. For some time it refused to turn. Again they heard the moan, and Aaron's blood ran cold.
"I can't stand this, Stephen," he whispered hoarsely. "Come on."
"One moment," the poet answered. "They can't get the gate open. I don't believe the guv'nor's on to this. Stay where you are for a minute."
He hurried back, tore up the stairs and into the dimly lit room, filled still with breathless expectancy. It was the end of another round, during which Canary Joe had obtained some slight advantage. The poet walked straight up the room, regardless of the growls which assailed him, and touched its presiding spirit upon the shoulder.
"Guv'nor," he said, "you told me, when we had dealings, that you'd never taken on any job in which there was a woman to be harried."
"That's right, boy," Jacob Potts agreed.
"There's a woman in the game to-night, a woman who has been brought down here by some of your lot, and who is down there now, either drugged or half conscious. They are trying to get her on the Dutchman's steamer."
"How do you know it's a woman?" was the brief demand.
"I tell you we both heard her groan," the poet insisted.
Jacob Potts rose to his feet.
"Boys," he said, addressing the belligerents, "and gents, there will be a ten minutes' interval. Sorry, but it's business. Joe will serve the drinks, which for this occasion only will be free."
The ten minutes' interval, softened by the promise of free drinks, displeased no one. Jacob Potts, still in his shirt-sleeves, strode out of the place, through the front room of the public-house and out into the street, where a queer, unnatural silence Seemed to reign.
"There ain't no woman about 'ere!" he exclaimed.
Aaron Rodd suddenly flashed his torch. The iron gate was closed. There was no one before it. They could hear the sound of men's footsteps a few yards away on the old wooden wharf.
"They've just gone through," Aaron whispered fiercely. "Come on!"
Jacob Potts produced a key from his pocket and swung the gate open.
"If you fellows have made a fool of me," he muttered, "there'll be trouble, but if my boys have let me in, there'll be hell!"
Just as he finished speaking they once more heard the faint, smothered cry from in front, followed by a man's oath. They saw the flashing of a light and heard the fall of a rope from the wharf into the river. Jacob Potts quickened his pace.
"Turn on that glim o' yours, guv'nor," he growled, "and mind where you're going. 'Ullo there?"
There was a confusion of answering voices.
"It's the guv'nor!" they heard some one say.
Then the light of Aaron Rodd's torch flashed upon the short, wooden dock, and upon the half-dozen men grouped at the top of the crazy steps at its furthest extremity. One of them came back. It was the man who had warned the poet and Aaron.
"Guv'nor," he said earnestly, "this ain't your show. You leave us alone and get back to the fight."
"That be damned!" Jacob Potts replied firmly. "It's no job of yourn to tell me wot to do. You know very well there's just one thing I stick at, and I asks you a plain question, Sid, and a plain answer expected. Is that bundle you're carrying a woman, or ain't it?"
"It's a woman," the man proclaimed doggedly, "and it's going on board the 'Amsterdam.'"
The answer of Jacob Potts was bellicose and unprintable. He strode along the little wharf, followed by Aaron Rodd and Cresswell. Behind came the man called Sid, his face darker and more evil than ever, his breath coming short with anger.
"Boys," Jacob Potts exclaimed, "drop that! You hear me? Women ain't in the game. You've all been told that."
There was a moment's hesitation. Then they heard the voice of their leader, hoarse and vicious.
"Get on with it, boys. It's going to be the river for any one who stands in our way to-night."
There were six of them altogether, besides Sid. Three of them moved now towards the steps, below which a boat was bobbing up and down. Another man was seated in it, holding to the side by a boat-hook, and the three men at the top of the steps were carrying something. Sid and the other two turned round.
"Guv'nor," the former began——
There was a sickening crash as Jacob Potts' fist caught him almost in the mouth. He rolled over and up again on to his feet, remaining warily out of reach, but after that one blow easily able to keep his assailant occupied. Aaron Rodd had sprung for the steps, and received a blow on the side of the head from one of the other men which sent him reeling almost into the river.
"Get her aboard," Sid cried out. "We can tackle this lot. No one can get down the street. The boys'll see to that."
Then there was a fierce, ugly silence for several moments. Jacob Potts, winded from the first, the river on either side of him and murder in the man's face whom he fought, panted and groaned with every fresh movement. Aaron Rodd found himself suddenly in a new world, a new uplifting instinct sending the blood tingling through his veins. He was fighting, a thing he had never done since his school-days, fighting with long, swinging blows, making scarcely an effort to protect himself, fighting in an atmosphere indescribable, the thirst for blood hot in his veins, with one desire throbbing in his heart—to kill or throw into the river the man who kept surging up towards him. It was a vicious face, fair-complexioned once, but dark now with engine grease, with bleary eyes, mouth wide open all the time, disclosing a broken row of hideous sickly-looking teeth. But for the man's evil life he would have disposed of his opponent with his first few blows, for he had been in his day a bruiser of some repute, but Aaron Rodd knew no pain, felt no fear, and he was the first conqueror. Through sheer fortune, hitting wildly with all his strength, his long right arm landed full on the point of his assailant's jaw. The man went over with a sickening crash. Sid, who was sparring still with Jacob Potts, leaned for a moment downwards.
"Lay her down in the boat and come up, one of you," he shouted. "Bill's done in. Get down and let the other boys through. They're at the gate. We'll finish off these blighters then."
One of the men, who had been stepping into the boat, turned back. Suddenly there was a scream from below and Aaron Rodd knew that his had been no dream. The voice was Henriette's.
"Help! Help!" she cried.
Her voice was smothered but Aaron Rodd's shout rang through the night.
"We're here, Henriette! We'll rescue you. Hold on."
Then there was the sound of a mighty splash. The poet, who had suddenly closed with his man, had got him to the very edge of the wharf. Apparently one or both had lost their balance. For a moment the fighting ceased. Every one listened. A few yards away they could hear the long, level strokes of a man swimming—one man only. Then Jacob Potts' voice broke the tense silence.
"I'm—I'm done," he moaned.
Aaron Rodd, who had been waiting for the two men running up the steps, swung round. A peaceful man all his life, he was suddenly a fiend. He seized the electric torch from his pocket and brought it down with all his strength on the head of Jacob Potts' opponent. The man fell over with scarcely a cry, just as the publican reeled backwards. The realisation of what had happened gave him a moment's extra strength.
"You've done him, sir," he faltered. "Can you keep those other two off for a moment whilst I get my wind? That brute—hit me—below the belt. I forgot he wouldn't fight fair. Mind this little one. He'll trip you."
Aaron Rodd turned almost with a laugh to meet his two assailants. It seemed to him that there was a new joy in the world. He whirled the torch over his head, missed the skull of the nearest of the new-comers and brought it crashing on to his shoulder. At the same time he himself received a fierce blow from the second man, staggered, tripped and recovered himself. The whole place went round. He put his hands up for a moment before his head, felt them battered down, struck wildly again and again. One of his blows went home with a sickening thud and the joy of it thrilled him. Both men were closing in upon him, however. On the other side of the wharf they could hear the gate being rattled. There was a low whistle, twice repeated. The man from the boat shouted.
"Climb the gate, boys."
"There's more of 'em," Jacob Potts gasped. "Keep it up for a moment, Mr. Rodd. I'm coming in to help you."
Then there was another hush, ominous, in a sense mysterious. There was a sound which conveyed little enough to Aaron Rodd, but which the others recognised promptly enough—the long, mechanical swing of oars. Without a second's hesitation, Aaron's two assailants turned and ran, fleet-footed and silent, off the wharf, and vanished somewhere in the darkness. The gate was rattled no more and from up the street came the sound of flying footsteps. Jacob Potts began to sob.
"It's the police—the river police! That ever I should be glad to welcome 'em! Get down to the boat, Mr. Rodd. My God, what's come to you, sir!"
Aaron Rodd walked from one side of the quay to the other like a drunken man. There were all manner of stars in front of him. He gripped hold of the rope and stole down the steps. He was suddenly steadied by a great excitement. With a black shawl torn back from her head in that last struggle, her feet and hands tied together, the remains of a gag hanging from her mouth, her face livid, her eyes full of horrible fear, lay Henriette. She saw him swaying over her, gripping the end of the rope, his face streaming with blood but with all manner of things in his eyes, and she made a little movement, tried to hold up her hands, tried even to smile.
"Oh, thank God! Thank God!"
The sound of the oars was no longer audible. A long boat, crowded with men in dark uniform, came gliding out of the shadows. A boat-hook gripped the side of the quay. The poet, looking like a drowned retriever, stood up in the bows and cheered lustily. One of the uniformed men, who seemed to be an inspector, flashed a lantern upon the scene.
"What's wrong here?" he asked quickly.
Aaron Rodd kneeled upon the slippery steps and pointed to the girl. One of the men clambered into the boat and cut the ropes. They half carried her up on to the wharf. The policemen followed. They flashed lanterns around. The man Sid was lying on his side, motionless. Aaron Rodd's first assailant was tying in a doubled-up heap, moaning to himself. Mr. Jacob Potts was just beginning to recover himself.
"So you're in this, are you, Potts?" the inspector remarked grimly. "The boys broken loose, eh?"
"Just a little scrap," the publican groaned.
Then Aaron Rodd was suddenly aware of a new sensation. He felt a pair of warm arms thrown around his neck. The poet, who had been shaking himself like a dripping dog, sprang to his side. The sky came down and the planks beneath his feet seemed jumping towards his throat. But Aaron Rodd, though the world around him was fading fast from his consciousness, had found new things and he was quite happy.


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