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The Black Bag Part 13

The fat adventurer hopped hurriedly across the threshold, Kirkwood following. The woman shut the door, and turned with back to it, nodding significantly at Kirkwood as her eyes met Calendar's.

"Well, well?" snapped the latter impatiently, turning to the young man.

But Kirkwood was thinking quickly. For the present he contented himself with a deliberate statement of fact: "Miss Calendar has disappeared." It gave him an instant's time ... "There's something damned fishy!" he told himself. "These two are playing at cross-purposes. Calendar's no fool; he's evidently a crook, to boot. As for the woman, she's had her eyes open for a number of years. The main thing's Dorothy. She didn't vanish of her own initiative. And Mrs. Hallam knows, or suspects, more than she's going to tell. I don't think she wants Dorothy found. Calendar does. So do I. Ergo: I'm for Calendar."

"Disappeared?" Calendar was barking at him. "How? When? Where?"

"Within ten minutes," said Kirkwood. "Here, let's get it straight.... With her permission I brought her here in a four-wheeler." He was carefully suppressing all mention of Frognall Street, and in Calendar's glance read approval of the elision. "She didn't want to get out, unless you were here.

I asked for you. The maid showed me up-stairs. I left your daughter in the cab--and by the way, I hadn't paid the driver. That's funny, too! Perhaps six or seven minutes after I came in Mrs. Hallam found out that Miss Calendar was with me and wanted to ask her in. When we got to the door--no cab. There you have it all."

"Thanks--it's plenty," said Calendar dryly. He bent his head in thought for an instant, then looked up and fixed Mrs. Hallam with an unprejudiced eye, "I say!" he demanded explosively. "There wasn't any one here that knew--eh?"

Her fine eyes wavered and fell before his; and Kirkwood remarked that her under lip was curiously drawn in.

"I heard a man leave as Mrs. Hallam joined me," he volunteered helpfully, and with a suspicion of malice. "And after that--I paid no attention at the time--it seems to me I did hear a cab in the street--"

"Ow?" interjected Calendar, eying the woman steadfastly and employing an exclamation of combined illumination and inquiry more typically British than anything Kirkwood had yet heard from the man.

For her part, the look she gave Kirkwood was sharp with fury. It was more; it was a mistake, a flaw in her diplomacy; for Calendar intercepted it.

Unceremoniously he grasped her bare arm with his fat hand.

"Tell me who it was," he demanded in an ugly tone.

She freed herself with a twist, and stepped back, a higher color in her cheeks, a flash of anger in her eyes.

"Mr. Mulready," she retorted defiantly. "What of that?"

"I wish I was sure," declared the fat adventurer, exasperated. "As it is, I bet a dollar you've put your foot in it, my lady. I warned you of that blackguard.... There! The mischief's done; we won't row over it. One moment." He begged it with a wave of his hand; stood pondering briefly, fumbled for his watch, found and consulted it. "It's the barest chance," he muttered. "Perhaps we can make it."

"What are you going to do?" asked the woman.

"Give _Mister_ Mulready a run for his money. Come along, Kirkwood; we haven't a minute. Mrs. Hallam, permit us...." She stepped aside and he brushed past her to the door. "Come, Kirkwood!"

He seemed to take Kirkwood's company for granted; and the young man was not inclined to argue the point. Meekly enough he fell in with Calendar on the sidewalk. Mrs. Hallam followed them out. "You won't forget?" she called tentatively.

"I'll 'phone you if we find out anything." Calendar jerked the words unceremoniously over his shoulder as, linking arms with Kirkwood, he drew him swiftly along. They heard her shut the door; instantly Calendar stopped. "Look here, did Dorothy have a--a small parcel with her?"

"She had a gladstone bag."

"Oh, the devil, the devil!" Calendar started on again, muttering distractedly. As they reached the corner he disengaged his arm. "We've a minute and a half to reach Charing Cross Pier; and I think it's the last boat. You set the pace, will you? But remember I'm an oldish man and--and fat."

They began to run, the one easily, the other lumbering after like an old-fashioned square-rigged ship paced by a liner.

Beneath the railway bridge, in front of the Underground station, the cab-rank cried them on with sardonic view-halloos; and a bobby remarked them with suspicion, turning to watch as they plunged round the corner and across the wide Embankment.

The Thames appeared before them, a river of ink on whose burnished surface lights swam in long winding streaks and oily blobs. By the floating pier a County Council steamboat strained its hawsers, snoring huskily. Bells were jingling in her engine-room as the two gained the head of the sloping gangway.

Kirkwood slapped a shilling down on the ticket-window ledge. "Where to?" he cried back to Calendar.

"Cherry Gardens Pier," rasped the winded man. He stumbled after Kirkwood, groaning with exhaustion. Only the tolerance of the pier employees gained them their end; the steamer was held some seconds for them; as Calendar staggered to its deck, the gangway was jerked in, the last hawser cast off.

The boat sheered wide out on the river, then shot in, arrow-like, to the pier beneath Waterloo Bridge.

The deck was crowded and additional passengers embarked at every stop. In the circumstances conversation, save on the most impersonal topics, was impossible; and even had it been necessary or advisable to discuss the affair which occupied their minds, where so many ears could hear, Calendar had breath enough neither to answer nor to catechize Kirkwood. They found seats on the forward deck and rested there in grim silence, both fretting under the enforced restraint, while the boat darted, like some illuminated and exceptionally active water insect, from pier to pier.

As it snorted beneath London Bridge, Calendar's impatience drove him from his seat back to the gangway. "Next stop," he told Kirkwood curtly; and rested his heavy bulk against the paddle-box, brooding morosely, until, after an uninterrupted run of more than a mile, the steamer swept in, side-wheels backing water furiously against the ebbing tide, to Cherry Gardens landing.

Sweet name for a locality unsavory beyond credence! ... As they emerged on the street level and turned west on Bermondsey Wall, Kirkwood was fain to tug his top-coat over his chest and button it tight, to hide his linen. In a guarded tone he counseled his companion to do likewise; and Calendar, after a moment's blank, uncomprehending stare, acknowledged the wisdom of the advice with a grunt.

The very air they breathed was rank with fetid odors bred of the gaunt dark warehouses that lined their way; the lights were few; beneath the looming buildings the shadows were many and dense. Here and there dreary and cheerless public houses appeared, with lighted windows conspicuous in a lightless waste. From time to time, as they hurried on, they encountered, and made wide detours to escape contact with knots of wayfarers--men debased and begrimed, with dreary and slatternly women, arm in arm, zigzaging widely across the sidewalks, chorusing with sodden voices the burden of some popularized ballad. The cheapened, sentimental refrains echoed sadly between benighted walls....

Kirkwood shuddered, sticking close to Calendar's side. Life's naked brutalities had theretofore been largely out of his ken. He had heard of slums, had even ventured to mouth politely moral platitudes on the subject of overcrowding in great centers of population, but in the darkest flights of imagination had never pictured to himself anything so unspeakably foul and hopeless as this.... And they were come hither seeking--Dorothy Calendar! He was unable to conceive what manner of villainy could be directed against her, that she must be looked for in such surroundings.

After some ten minutes' steady walking, Calendar turned aside with a muttered word, and dived down a covered, dark and evil-smelling passageway that seemed to lead toward the river.

Mastering his involuntary qualms, Kirkwood followed.

Some ten or twelve paces from its entrance the passageway swerved at a right angle, continuing three yards or so to end in a blank wall, wherefrom a flickering, inadequate gas-lamp jutted. At this point a stone platform, perhaps four feet square, was discovered, from the edge of which a flight of worn and slimy stone steps led down to a permanent boat-landing, where another gas-light flared gustily despite the protection of its frame of begrimed glass.

"Good Lord!" exclaimed the young man. "What, in Heaven's name, Calendar--?"

"Bermondsey Old Stairs. Come on."

They descended to the landing-stage. Beneath them the Pool slept, a sheet of polished ebony, whispering to itself, lapping with small stealthy gurgles angles of masonry and ancient piles. On the farther bank tall warehouses reared square old-time heads, their uncompromising, rugged profile relieved here and there by tapering mastheads. A few, scattering, feeble lights were visible. Nothing moved save the river and the wind.

The landing itself they found quite deserted; something which the adventurer comprehended with a nod which, like its accompanying, inarticulate ejaculation, might have been taken to indicate either satisfaction or disgust. He ignored Kirkwood altogether, for the time being, and presently produced a small, bright object, which, applied to his lips, proved to be a boatswain's whistle. He sounded two blasts, one long, one brief.

There fell a lull, Kirkwood watching the other and wondering what next would happen. Calendar paced restlessly to and fro upon the narrow landing, now stopping to incline an ear to catch some anticipated sound, now searching with sweeping glances the black reaches of the Pool.

Finally, consulting his watch, "Almost ten," he announced.

"We're in time?"

"Can't say.... Damn! ... If that infernal boat would only show up--"

He was lifting the whistle to sound a second summons when a rowboat rounded a projecting angle formed by the next warehouse down stream, and with clanking oar-locks swung in toward the landing. On her thwarts two figures, dipping and rising, labored with the sweeps. As they drew in, the man forward shipped his blades, and rising, scrambled to the bows in order to grasp an iron mooring-ring set in the wall. The other awkwardly took in his oars and, as the current swung the stern downstream, placed a hand palm downward upon the bottom step to hold the boat steady.

Calendar waddled to the brink of the stage, grunting with relief.

"The other man?" he asked brusquely. "Has he gone aboard? Or is this the first trip to-night?"

One of the watermen nodded assent to the latter question, adding gruffly: "Seen nawthin' of 'im, sir."

"Very good," said Calendar, as if he doubted whether it were very good or bad. "We'll wait a bit."

"Right-o!" agreed the waterman civilly.

Calendar turned back, his small eyes glimmering with satisfaction. Fumbling in one coat pocket he brought to light a cigar-case. "Have a smoke?" he suggested with a show of friendliness. "By Heaven, I was beginnin' to get worried!"

Chapter end

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