"What do you make of it, Harley?" I asked. Paul Harley returned a work of reference to its shelf and stood staring absently across the study.
"Our late visitor's history does not help us much," he replied. "A somewhat distinguished army career, and so forth, and his only daughter, Sybil Margaret, married the fifth Marquis of Ireton. She is, therefore, the noted society beauty, the Marchioness of Ireton. Does this suggest anything to your mind?"
"Nothing whatever," I said blankly.
"Nor to mine," murmured Harley.
The telephone bell rang.
"Hallo!" called Harley. "Yes. That you, Wessex? Have you got the address? Good. No, I shall remember it. Many thanks. Good-bye."
He turned to me.
"I suggest, Knox," he said, "that we make our call and then proceed to dinner as arranged."
Since I was always glad of an opportunity of studying my friend's methods I immediately agreed, and ere long, leaving the lights of the two big hotels behind, our cab was gliding down the long slope which leads to Waterloo Station. Thence through crowded, slummish high-roads we made our way via Lambeth to that dismal thoroughfare, Westminster Bridge Road, with its forbidding, often windowless, houses, and its peculiar air of desolation.
The house for which we were bound was situated at no great distance from Kensington Park, and telling the cabman to wait, Harley and I walked up a narrow, paved path, mounted a flight of steps, and rang the bell beside a somewhat time-worn door, above which was an old-fashioned fanlight dimly illuminated from within.
A considerable interval elapsed before the door was opened by a marvellously untidy servant girl who had apparently been interrupted in the act of black-leading her face. Partly opening the door, she stared at us agape, pushing back wisps of hair from her eyes and with every movement daubing more of some mysterious black substance upon her countenance.
"Is Mr. Bampton in?" asked Harley.
"Yus, just come in. I'm cookin' his supper."
"Tell him that two friends of his have called on rather important business."
"All right," said the black-faced one. "What name is it?"
"No name. Just say two friends of his."
Treating us to a long, vacant stare and leaving us standing on the step, the maid shuffled along the passage and began to mount the stairs. An unmistakable odour of frying sausages now reached my nostrils. Harley glanced at me quizzically, but said nothing until the Cinderella came stumbling downstairs again. Without returning to where we stood:
"Go up," she directed. "Second floor, front. Shut the door, one of yer."
She disappeared into gloomy depths below as Harley and I, closing the door behind us, proceeded to avail ourselves of the invitation. There was very little light on the staircase, but we managed to find our way to a poorly furnished bed-sitting-room where a small table was spread for a meal. Beside the table, in a chintz-covered arm-chair, a thick-set young man was seated smoking a cigarette and having a copy of the Daily Telegraph upon his knees.
He was a very typical lower middle-class, nothing-in-particular young man, but there was a certain truculence indicated by his square jaw, and that sort of self-possession which sometimes accompanies physical strength was evidenced in his manner as, tossing the paper aside, he stood up.
"Good evening, Mr. Bampton," said Harley genially. "I take it"-- pointing to the newspaper--"that you are looking for a new job?"
Bampton stared, a suspicion of anger in his eyes, then, meeting the amused glance of my friend, he broke into a smile very pleasing and humorous. He was a fresh-coloured young fellow with hair inclined to redness, and smiling he looked very boyish indeed.
"I have no idea who you are," he said, speaking with a faint north-country accent, "but you evidently know who I am and what has happened to me."
"Got the boot?" asked Harley confidentially.
Bampton, tossing the end of his cigarette into the grate, nodded grimly.
"You haven't told me your name," he said, "but I think I can tell you your business." He ceased smiling. "Now look here, I don't want any more publicity. If you think you are going to make a funny newspaper story out of me change your mind as quick as you like. I'll never get another job in London as it is. If you drag me any further into the limelight I'll never get another job in England."
"My dear fellow," replied Harley soothingly, at the same time extending his cigarette-case, "you misapprehend the object of my call. I am not a reporter."
"What!" said Bampton, pausing in the act of taking a cigarette, "then what the devil are you?"
"My name is Paul Harley, and I am a criminal investigator."
He spoke the words deliberately, having his eyes fixed upon the other's face; but although Bampton was palpably startled there was no trace of fear in his straightforward glance. He took a cigarette from the case, and:
"Thanks, Mr. Harley," he said. "I cannot imagine what business has brought you here."
"I have come to ask you two questions," was the reply. "Number one: Who paid you to smash Major Ragstaff's white hat? Number two: How much did he pay you?"
To these questions I listened in amazement, and my amazement was evidently shared by Bampton. He had been in the act of lighting his cigarette, but he allowed the match to burn down nearly to his fingers and then dropped it with a muttered exclamation in the fire. Finally:
"I don't know how you found out," he said, "but you evidently know the truth. Provided you assure me that you are not out to make a silly-season newspaper story, I'll tell you all I know."
Harley laid his card on the table, and:
"Unless the ends of justice demand it," he said, "I give you my word that anything you care to say will go no further. You may speak freely before my friend, Mr. Knox. Simply tell me in as few words as possible what led you to court arrest in that manner."
"Right," replied Bampton, "I will." He half closed his eyes, reflectively. "I was having tea in the Lyons' cafe, to which I always go, last Monday afternoon about four o'clock, when a man sat down facing me and got into conversation."
"He was a man rather above medium height. I should say about my own build; dark, going gray. He had a neat moustache and a short beard, and the look of a man who had travelled a lot. His skin was very tanned, almost as deeply as yours, Mr. Harley. Not at all the sort of chap that goes in there as a rule. After a while he made an extraordinary proposal. At first I thought he was joking, then when I grasped the idea that he was serious I concluded he was mad. He asked me how much a year I earned, and I told him Peters and Peters paid me 150 pounds. He said: 'I'll give you a year's salary to knock a man's hat off!'"
As Bampton spoke the words he glanced at us with twinkling eyes, but although for my own part I was merely amused, Harley's expression had grown very stern.
"Of course, I laughed," continued Bampton, "but when the man drew out a fat wallet and counted ten five-pound notes on the table I began to think seriously about his proposal. Even supposing he was cracked, it was absolutely money for nothing.
"'Of course,' he said, 'you'll lose your job and you may be arrested, but you'll say that you had been out with a few friends and were a little excited, also that you never could stand white hats. Stick to that story and the balance of a hundred pounds will reach you on the following morning.'
"I asked him for further particulars, and I asked him why he had picked me for the job. He replied that he had been looking for some time for the right man; a man who was strong enough physically to accomplish the thing, and someone"--Bampton's eyes twinkled again--"with a dash of the devil in him, but at the same time a man who could be relied upon to stick to his guns and not to give the game away.
"You asked me to be brief, and I'll try to be. The man in the white hat was described to me, and the exact time and place of the meeting. I just had to grab his white hat, smash it, and face the music. I agreed. I don't deny that I had a couple of stiff drinks before I set out, but the memory of that fifty pounds locked up here in my room and the further hundred promised, bucked me up wonderfully. It was impossible to mistake my man; I could see him coming toward me as I waited just outside a sort of little restaurant called the Cafe Dame. As arranged, I bumped into him, grabbed his hat and jumped on it."
He paused, raising his hand to his head reminiscently.
"My man was a bit of a scrapper," he continued, "and he played hell. I've never heard such language in my life, and the way he laid about me with his cane is something I am not likely to forget in a hurry. A crowd gathered, naturally, and I was 'pinched.' That didn't matter much. I got off lightly; and although I've been dismissed by Peters and Peters, twenty crisp fivers are locked in my trunk there, with the ten which I received in the City."
Harley checked him, and:
"May I see the envelope in which they arrived?" he asked.
"Sorry," replied Bampton, "but I burned it. I thought it was playing the game to do so. It wouldn't have helped you much, though," he added; "It was an ordinary common envelope, posted in the City, address typewritten, and not a line enclosed."
Bampton stood looking at us with a curious expression on his face, and suddenly:
"There's one point," he said, "on which my conscience isn't easy. You know about that poor devil who fell out of a window? Well, it would never have happened if I hadn't kicked up a row in the street. There's no doubt he was leaning out to see what the disturbance was about when the accident occurred."
"Did you actually see him fall?" asked Harley.
"No. He fell from a window several yards behind me in the side street, but I heard him cry out, and as I was lugged off by the police I heard the bell of the ambulance which came to fetch him."
He paused again and stood rubbing his head ruefully.
"H'm," said Harley; "was there anything particularly remarkable about this man in the Lyons' cafe?"
Bampton reflected silently for some moments, and then:
"Nothing much," he confessed. "He was evidently a gentleman, wore a blue top-coat, a dark tweed suit, and what looked like a regimental tie, but I didn't see much of the colours. He was very tanned, as I have said, even to the backs of his hands--and oh, yes! there was one point: He had a gold-covered tooth."
"I can't remember, except that it was on the left side, and I always noticed it when he smiled."
"Did he wear any ring or pin which you would recognize?"
"Had he any oddity of speech or voice?"
"No. Just a heavy, drawling manner. He spoke like thousands of other cultured Englishmen. But wait a minute--yes! There was one other point. Now I come to think of it, his eyes very slightly slanted upward."
"Like a Chinaman's?"
"Oh, nothing so marked as that. But the same sort of formation."
Harley nodded briskly and buttoned up his overcoat.
"Thanks, Mr. Bampton," he said; "we will detain you no longer!"
As we descended the stairs, where the smell of frying sausages had given place to that of something burning--probably the sausages:
"I was half inclined to think that Major Ragstaff's ideas were traceable to a former touch of the sun," said Harley. "I begin to believe that he has put us on the track of a highly unusual crime. I am sorry to delay dinner, Knox, but I propose to call at the Cafe Dame."