The Heads of Cerberus, by Francis Stevens

Chapter 1

“Welcome, However You Come!”

UPON a walnut bed in a small, plainly furnished room which dawn had just begun grayly to illuminate, a man lay unconscious.

His thin face, indefinably boyish for all its gauntness, wore that placid, uncaring look which death shares with complete insensibility. Under him his right arm was doubled in an uncomfortable, strained position, while the left hand, slender and well cared for, trailed limp to the floor by the bedside. On his right temple there showed an ugly wound, evidently made by some blunt, heavy instrument, for the skin was burst rather than cut. His fair hair was plastered with blood from the wound, and a good deal of blood had also run down over the side of the face, lending a sinister and tragic aspect to his otherwise not unpleasant countenance. Fully dressed in a rather shabby blue serge, both appearance and attitude suggested that the man had been flung down here and left brutally to die or revive, as he might.

The dawn light grew brighter, and as if in sympathy with its brightening, the face of the man on the bed began to take on a look more akin to that of life. That alien, wax-like placidity of one who is done with pain slowly softened and changed. The features twitched; the lips which had fallen slightly apart, closed firmly. With a sudden contraction of the brows the man opened his eyes.

For several minutes he lay quiet, staring upward. Then he attempted to withdraw his right hand from beneath him, groaned, and by a considerable effort at last raised himself on one elbow. Gazing about the room with bewildered, pain-stricken eyes, he raised his hand to his head and afterward stared stupidly at the blood on his fingers. He seemed like one who, having fallen victim to some powerful drug, awakens in unfamiliar and inexplicable surroundings.

As he again looked about him, however, the expression changed. What he saw, it seemed, had revived some memory that mingled with a new and different bewilderment.

In a corner of the room, near the one window, stood a small, old-fashioned, black steel safe. The door of it was swung wide open, while scattered on the floor before it lay a mass of papers. From between loose pages and folded, elastic-bound documents gleamed a few small articles of jewelry. Two or three empty morocco cases had been carelessly tossed on top of the pile.

With eyes fixed on this heap, the man swung his legs over the side of the bed, and, staggering across to the safe, dropped on his knees beside it. He ran his hand through the papers, uncovered a small brooch which he picked up and examined with a curious frowning intentness; then let it fall and again raised a hand to his head.

In another corner of the room was a doorway through which he glimpsed a porcelain washbowl. Toward this the man dragged himself. Wetting a towel that hung there, he began bathing the wound on his temple. The cold water seemed to relieve the dizziness or nausea from which he suffered. Presently he was able to draw himself erect, and having contemplated his disheveled countenance in the small mirror above the bowl, he proceeded with some care to remove the more obvious traces of disaster. The blood fortunately had clotted and ceased to flow. Having washed, he sought about the room, found his hat, a worn, soft gray felt, on the floor near the bed, and, returning to the mirror, adjusted it with the apparent intent to conceal his wound.

The effort, though attended by a grimace of pain, was successful, and now at length the man returned his attention to that stack of miscellanies which had been the safe’s contents.

Ignoring the papers, he began separating from them the few bits of jewelry. Beside the brooch there was a man’s heavy gold signet ring, a pair of cuff links set with seed pearls, a bar pin of silver and moonstones, and a few similar trifles. He sorted and searched with an odd scowl, as if the task were unpleasant, though it might equally well have been the pain of his wound which troubled him.

As he found each piece he thrust it in his pocket without examination, until the displacing of a small bundle of insurance policies disclosed the first thing of any real value in the entire collection.

With an astonished ejaculation the man seized upon it, scrutinized it with wide, horrified eyes, and for a moment afterward knelt motionless, while his pallid face slowly flushed until it was nearly crimson in color.

“Good God!”

The man flung the thing from him as if it had burned his fingers. In a sudden frenzy of haste he tore from his pockets the trinkets he had placed there a few moments earlier, threw them all back on the stack of papers, and without another glance for the safe or its contents fairly ran across the room to the door. Flinging it open, he emerged into a short, narrow passageway.

There, however, he paused, listening intently at the head of a narrow stairway that led downward. Two other doors opened off the passage; but both were closed. Behind those doors and throughout the house below all was quiet. Ever and again, from the street, three stories below, there rose the heavy rattle of a passing truck or cart. Within the house there was no sound at all.

Assured of that, the man raised his eyes toward the ceiling. In its center was a closed wooden transom. Frowning, the man tested the transom with his finger tips, found it immovable, and, after some further hesitation, began descending the narrow stairs, a step at a time, very cautiously. They creaked under him, every creak startlingly loud in that otherwise silent place.

Reaching the landing at the floor below, he was about to essay the next flight downward, when abruptly, somewhere in the rear of the ground floor, a door opened and closed. The sound was followed by swift, light footfalls. They crossed the reception hall below, reached the stair, and began to mount.

His face bathed in a sudden sweat of desperation, the man above darted back along the second-floor hallway. One after the other he swiftly turned the handles of three closed doors. One was locked, one opened upon a closet stacked to overflowing with trunks and bags; the third disclosed a large bedroom, apparently empty, though the bed had evidently been slept in.

He sprang inside, shut the door softly, looked for a key, found none, and thereafter stood motionless, his hand gripping the knob, one ear against the panel.

Having ascended the stairs, the footsteps were now advancing along the passage. They reached that very door against which the man stood listening. They halted there. Some one rapped lightly.

With a groan the man inside drew back. Even as he did so he found himself whirled irresistibly about and away from the door.

A great hand had descended upon his shoulder from behind. That large hand, he discovered, belonged to a man immensely tall — a huge, looming giant of a man, who had stolen upon him while he had ears only for those footsteps in the passage.

The fellow’s only garment was a Turkish robe, flung loosely about his enormous shoulders. His black hair, damp from the bath, stood out like a fierce, shaggy mane above a dark, savage face in which a pair of singularly bright blue eyes blazed angrily upon the intruder. This forceful and sudden apparition in a room which the latter had believed unoccupied, was sufficiently alarming. In the little sharp cry which escaped the intruder’s throat, however, there seemed a note of emotion other than terror — different from and more painful than mere terror.

“You-you!” he muttered, and fell silent.

“For the love of-” began the giant. But he, too, seemed suddenly moved past verbal expression. As a somber landscape lights to the flash of sunshine, his heavy face changed and brightened. The black scowl vanished. Shaggy brows went up in a look of intense surprise, and the fiercely set mouth relaxed to a grin of amazed but supremely good-humored delight.

“Why, it is!” he ejaculated at length. “It surely is — Bob Drayton!”

And then, with a great, pleased laugh, he released the other’s shoulder and reached for his hand.

The intruder made no movement of response. Instead, he drew away shrinkingly, and with hands behind him stood leaning against the door. When he spoke it was in the tone of quiet despair with which a man might accept an intolerable situation from which escape has become impossible.

“Yes, Trenmore, it’s I,” he said. Even as the words left his lips there came another loud rapping from outside. Some one tried the handle, and only Drayton’s weight against the door kept it closed.

“Get away from there, Martin!” called the big man peremptorily. “I’ll ring again when I want you. Clear out now! It’s otherwise engaged I am.”

“Very well, sir,” came the muffled and somewhat wondering reply.

Staring solemnly at one another, the two in the bedroom stood silent while the invisible Martin’s steps receded slowly along the hall and began to descend the stairs.

“And for why will you not take my hand?” demanded the giant with a frown that was bewildered, rather than angry.

The man with the bruised head laughed. “I can’t-can’t-” Unable to control his voice, he lapsed into miserable silence.

The giant’s frown deepened. He drew back a little, hitching the robe up over his bare shoulders.

“What is it ails you, Bobby? Here I’m glad to see you the way I cannot find words to tell it and you will not take my hand! Did you get my letter, and is this a surprise visit? You’re welcome, however you’ve come!”

But the other shrank still closer against the door, while his pallid face grew actually gray. “May I— may I sit down?” he gasped. He was swaying like a drunken man, and his knees seemed to have no strength left in them.

“Sit down! But you may indeed.” Trenmore sprang instantly to help him to the nearest chair, one arm about his shoulder in a gentle, kindly pressure. “Tell me now, did you really get my letter?”

“What letter?”

“Then you did not. What ails you, man? You’re white as the banshee herself! Is it bad hurt you are, and you not telling me?”

“No-yes. A trifle. It is not that.”

“What, then? Have you been ill? Here, take a drop o’ the brandy, lad. That’s it. A fool could see you’re a deathly sick man this minute.”

Trenmore’s voice was tender as only a woman’s or an Irishman’s can be; but Drayton shrank away as if its kindness only hurt him the more.

“Don’t speak that way!” he cried harshly, and buried his face in his hands.

Very wonderingly, his host laughed and again put his arm about the other’s bowed shoulders. “And why not, then?” he asked gently. “I should, perhaps, like to know why you bolt into my room in the early morn, bang to my door behind yourself, and then try to repel my hospitable reception; but you need tell me nothing. For me ’tis enough that you’re here at all, whom I’ve been wanting to see this long while more than any other lad in the world.”

“Stop it, I say!” cried Drayton, and raised his head abruptly. His pale face had flushed deeply, and he seemed to flinch at the sound of his own words. “I can’t-can’t take your welcome. I came here as a thief, Terry Trenmore! And for no other reason.”

The Irishman’s blue eyes flashed wide.

“A thief?” He laughed shortly. “And pray what of mine did you wish to steal, friend Bobby? Name the thing and it’s yours!”

“Terry, I’m not off my head, as you think. Haven’t any such excuse. I tell you, I’m a thief. Plain, ugly t-h-i-e-f, thief. I entered this particular house only because I found a way in. I didn’t know it was your house.”

In the midst of speech Drayton paused and started suddenly to his feet. “Good Lord!” he exclaimed. “I had half forgotten. Terry, I wasn’t the only-er-burglar here last night!”

“And what are you meaning now?”

“Your safe was opened!”

Ere he could finish the sentence Trenmore had turned, crossed the room, and was pushing aside a silken curtain, hung from ceiling to floor, near the bed. It disclosed a squared, nickeled-steel door, set flush with the wall. After a moment’s scrutiny he turned a freshly bewildered face to his visitor. “Broken open? But it’s not! My poor boy, you are out of your mind this morning. It’s a doctor you are needing.”

“No, no. I don’t mean that one. I mean the safe upstairs, in the small room at the front.”

“Is there one there?” queried Trenmore. “I didn’t know of it.”

“What! This isn’t your own place, then?”

The giant shook his head, smiling. “For why would you be expecting to find Terence Trenmore tied to a house of his own? It belongs to my cousin, on the mother’s side, whom I’ll be glad for you to know, though he’s not here now. But you say there’s been robbery done above-stairs?”

“I’m not exactly sure. There was something so strange about it all. Come up there with me, Terry, and look for yourself.”

Either because of the brandy he had swallowed, or because the first shame and shock of confession were over, Drayton seemed to have recovered some measure of strength. He led the way upstairs to the front bedroom, and answered the Irishman’s question with a slow gesture toward the violated safe. Trenmore stood thoughtfully over the neglected pile of papers and more or less valuable jewelry, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his bathrobe, brows drawn in a reflective scowl. “And what,” he asked, “were they like, these queer thieves that left their plunder behind them?”

“I didn’t see them.”

“What?”

Drayton’s boyish, sensitive mouth quivered. “If you don’t believe me, I can’t blame you, of course. By Heaven, I think it would be a relief if you would call in the police, Terry, and end the whole rotten affair that way. I wish with all my heart that they’d put me where they put my partner, poor old Warren!”

“And where is that? It’s riddles you’re talking.”

“First in jail and now in his grave,” answered Drayton grimly.

The Irishman flung back his great, black-maned head angrily —

“Bobby, my boy, we’ve had enough of that make of talk! I can see with half an eye that much has happened of which I know nothing, for I’ve been back in old Ireland this two years past. But for what sort of scoundrel do you take me, to throw over the man I’ve best liked in my whole life, and just because he chances to be in a bit of trouble? As I said before, ’tis a doctor you are needing, not a policeman. As for this,” he pointed to the rifled safe, “it was my thought that you did things here last night of which you have now no memory. Others here? ’Tis not in the bounds of reason that two different thieves — pardon the word; it’s your own — should honor this house in one night!”

By way of reply, Drayton removed his hat, and for the first time Trenmore saw the ugly wound its low-drawn brim had concealed. “They gave me that,” said Drayton simply. “The room,” he continued, “was dark. I came over the roofs and down through the first transom I found unfastened. I had just entered this room and discovered the safe when they, whoever they were, came on me from behind and knocked me out.”

Trenmore’s lips drew in with a little sympathetic sound. “Ah, and so that’s why you’re so white and all! But tell me, was the safe open then?”

“No. They must have done the trick afterward. I was left lying on that bed. And I may as well tell you that this morning, when I found myself alone here and that stuff on the floor, I was going to — was going to finish what they had begun.”

“And what stopped you?” Trenmore eyed him curiously from beneath lowered brows.

“This.” Stooping, Drayton picked up the thing he had flung so desperately away half an hour earlier. It was a thin gold cigarette case, plain save for a monogram done in inlaid platinum.

Trenmore looked, and nodded slowly.

“Your own gift to me, Bobby. I think a power o’ that case. But how came it there, I wonder? The other day I mislaid it. Likely Jim found it and put it here while I was in Atlantic City yesterday. When I returned Jim had been called away. I wonder he did not put it in the wall safe, though, that he lent me the use of; but all that’s no matter. What did you do after finding the case?”

“I tried to get out, but the transom had been fastened down from above. So I made for the front door. Your servant intercepted me, and I-I hid in your room, hoping he would pass on by.”

“And that’s the one piece of good luck you had, my boy!” cried Trenmore. Grasping Drayton’s shoulder with one great hand, he shook him gently to and fro, as if he had been the child he seemed beside his huge friend.

“Don’t look like that now! I’m not so easy shocked, and if you’ve seen fit to turn burglar, Bob Drayton, I’m only sure ’tis for some very good cause. And let you arrive through the roof or by the front door, it makes no difference at all. You’re here now! Martin and I have the place to ourselves for a couple of days. Jimmy Burford’s a jolly old bachelor to delight your heart, but he lives at his club mostly and keeps but one man-servant, and him he took to New York with him when he was called away. We’ll do fine with Martin, though. The man’s a born genius for cooking.”

“You mean that you are only visiting here?” asked Drayton hesitantly. Trenmore seemed taking it rather for granted that he was to remain as a guest, who had entered as a very inefficient burglar.

“Just visiting, the while Viola is enjoying herself with some friends in Atlantic City. You know it’s no social butterfly I am, and too much of that crowd I will not stand, even for her sake. D’you mind my ever speaking to you of my little sister Viola, that was in the convent school near Los Angeles? But I’m a dog to keep you standing there! Come down to my room while we fix that head of yours and I get myself decently dressed. Then we’ll breakfast together, and perhaps you’ll tell me a little of what’s been troubling your heart? You need not unless —”

“But I will, of course!” broke in Drayton impulsively as he at last grasped the friendly, powerful hand which his innate and self-denied honesty had prevented his taking except on a basis of open understanding.

Gathering up the stuff on the floor in one great armful, Trenmore bore it down to his own bedroom, followed by Drayton.

“I’ll advise Jimmy to get him a new safe,” chuckled Trenmore as he tossed his burden on the bed. “If there’s aught of value here he deserves to be robbed, keeping it in that old tin box of a thing. But perhaps I’m ungrateful. I never thought, so freely he offered it, that he had to clear his own things out of this wall safe to give me the use of it. I’ll share it with him from this day, and if there’s anything missing from this lot I’ll make the value up to him so be he’ll let me, which he will not, being proud, stiff-necked, and half a Sassenach, for all he’s my mother’s third cousin on the O’Shaughnessy side. So I’ll do it in a most underhand and secretive manner and get the better of him.”

Still running along in a light, commonplace tone which denied any trace of the unusual in the situation, he again rang for Martin, and when that young man appeared bade him prepare breakfast for his guest as well as himself. The servant did his best to conceal a not unnatural amazement; but his imitation of an imperturbable English man-servant was a rather forlorn and weak one.

He went off at last, muttering to himself: “How’d the fellow get in? That’s what I want to know! He wasn’t here last night, and Mr. Trenmore hasn’t been out of his room or I’d have heard him, and I never let his friend in, that’s sure!”

Not strangely, perhaps, it did not occur to Martin that Mr. Trenmore’s mysterious friend might have come a-visiting through the roof.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30