The tall, spare man was cleanly shaved, he wore a very white collar, his expression combined benignity with a certain ascetic calm. He carried two or three books in his left hand, pressed against his heart with a sort of caress, an affection very common with gentlemen of the cloth, for Nicholas Crips had a keen eye for character, and his various impersonations were fairly true to type, and of no mean dramatic quality.
Nickie the Kid knocked gently at an office door, a peremptory voice called “Come in,” and he opened the door very softly, entered, closed the door very gently behind him, placed his crippled belltopper (rim uppermost) on the small counter that walled visitors off from the severe gentleman dictating to a blonde typewriter and said, with clerical unction.
“Good-day sir. Good-day my dear young lady.”
“D-afternoon!” replied the severe gentleman severely.
“Sir. I am here on a mission of charity, if you don’t mind. I am the Rev Andrew Rowbottom. I am collecting subscriptions for the widow and family of the late William John Elphinston, a worthy member of my congregation, and a most estimable bricklayers labourer, killed, as you may remember, in the execution of his duty on the 14th September last.”
“Bless my soil, I can’t be bothered with these matters in business hours,” said the gentleman, and is severity was something terrible, but it did not appall the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom.
“I have here a subscription list,” continued the intruder suavely. “You will find upon it the name of some of our most prominent business people.”
“I’m busy.” said the severe gentleman.
“Need I remind you, my very good sir, that the smallest contribution will be thankfully received?”
“Be so good as to close the door after you.”
“Certainly, brother, all in good time. Shall we say half-a-crown? Half-a-crown is a nice sum. No? A shilling perhaps?”
“I suppose I shall have to pay for the privilege of being left in peace to the pursuit of my affairs. Here!!” The severe man slapped a shilling on the counter.
“Oh, thank you—thank you so much.” said the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom effusively. “What name?”
“Confound the name!” snapped the severe gentle man. “Good-day.”
“Oh, to be sure, to be sure—good—day,” said the Rev. Andrew, and he smiled and bowed and slid I trough the half-open door.
Nicholas Crips called at many offices. In a few instances the occupants evaded a levy. They were people who had no particular business in hand, and could spare the time to hear all the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom persuasive arguments and stubbornly resist each plea, but the majority of the men were glad to buy the eloquent clergyman off with a small contribution. Sometimes office boys were impertinent, and an occasional business man was insolent and talked of throwing the suppliant out of the window, but Mr. Rowbottom was always suave and conciliatory. He seemed to sympathise with the angry individual whose privacy he was forced to break in pursuit of a sacred duty.
Nickie the Kid reached the fourth floor. It was very quiet, and most of the offices were deserted. He found a pale young typewriter, a slave of the machine, in a room rather larger than an alderman’s coffin, and obtained threepence in coppers for the widow and family of the late lamented William John Elphinston. He passed along a dim passage, and came to one of the larger apartments fronting the main street. It was evidently one of a suite. On the door was a brass plate bearing the name. “Henry Berryman.”
The Rev. Andrew Rowbottom knocked on his door a meek, appealing summons. He received no reply. Confident that he had heard a movement in the room Andrew knocked again. Still on answer. The Rev Andrew Rowbottorn turned the knob, opened the door a foot or so, and thrust his benignant countenance into the room.
The face when it first appeared to the occupant was lit with a smile, suffused with a tender benevolence, a moment later it was stark and white, drawn with horror, a horror that chilled the blood, and gripped at the heart with a hand of iron.
What the Rev. Andrew Rowbottom saw was a tall, handsome, fashionably-dressed woman of about thirty-six resting with her back to an office table, the position was crouching, her fingers clung to the table’s edge; her eyes, large, dark, and instinct with mortal terror, were fixed upon the stranger in the doorway. At her feet was the body of a man, a stout man of perhaps forty. The body lay on its right side, the face turned to the floor, and from somewhere in the breast flowed a red stream that massed in a dark, clammy pool upon the slate coloured linoleum.
Nickie saw a faint, flutter of movement in the limbs of the man on the floor, and his eyes rose to the face of the woman again. Her dry tongue passed over her parched lips, she seemed to be making an effort to speak. On the table near her right hand was a knife.
Nicholas Crips slipped into the room, the door closed softly behind him. He had recognised the woman. She was his Mary Stuart of the Mask Ball. The man on the floor he remembered in the guise of Henry VIII.
For a terrible half-minute the two stared at each other over the dead man.
“You killed him!” whispered Nickie.
The woman tried to moisten her lips again, made an effort to speak, and her voice broke in her throat. She nodded dumbly.
“You—you—what are you going to do?” whispered the woman. “Why don’t you call out?” There was a wild hope in her dilated eyes. “You don’t! You don’t!”
Nickie shook his head. “I don’t run for the police?” he said. “No, I am not on speaking terms with the police myself.”
“You won’t seize me, you won’t betray me—you, a clergyman!”
“No.” said Nicholas Crips.
The woman moved forward, she laid hands upon him, she looked into his face.
“He was a villain.” she said. “He deserved it, but I am a murderess, and you won’t—” Her hands gripped him, a new light shone in her eyes.
“Why were you creeping in here?” she said. “You are a thief, That’s it—you are a thief. Well, listen, there are five thousand pounds’ worth of diamonds in a little leather bag in his breast pocket!” She pointed down at the body. “Five thousand pounds’ worth,” she said.
“Five thousand!” he gasped. “Five thousand!”
The woman’s hand was on the door knob. She opened the door and slipped out. The lock clicked as she closed the door behind her.