The green-and-gold room was half empty as he made his way to a corner, and Marcel lingered to talk. Things marched with the inspector, it seemed? Ah, but Inspector Grant was a marvel. To have built a whole man out of a little dagger! (The Press, with the exception of the early-morning editions, had blazoned the wanted man’s description all over Britain.) It was a thing à faire peur. If he, Marcel, was to bring him a fish fork with the entreé, it might be made to prove that he had a corn on the left little toe.
Grant disclaimed any such Holmesian qualities. “The usual explanation advanced for such little mistakes is that the guilty one is in love.”
“Ah, non alors!” laughed Marcel. “I defy even Inspector Grant to find me guilty of that.”
“Oh? Are you misanthrope?” asked Grant.
No; Marcel loved his kind, but his wife was an exacting woman, Grant should know.
“I think I made the acquaintance of a pantry boy of yours the other day,” Grant said. “Legarde, was it?”
Ah, Raoul. A good boy, very. And beautiful too, hein? Such a profile and such eyes! They had wanted him for the cinema, but Raoul would have none of it. He was going to be maître d’hôtel, Raoul. And if Marcel was any judge, he would be.
A new arrival took the table opposite, and Marcel, the geniality gone from his face like snowflakes on a wet pavement, went to listen to his needs with that mixture of tolerant superciliousness and godlike abstraction which he used to all but his five favourites. Grant made a leisurely meal, but even after lingering over coffee it was still early when he found himself in the street. The Strand was brilliant as day and crowded, the ebb of the late home-goers meeting the current of the early pleasure-seekers and causing a fret that filled both footpath and roadway. Slowly he walked up the gaudy pavement towards Charing Cross, in and out of the changing light from the shop windows: rose light, gold light, diamond light; shoe shop, clothes shop, jewellers. Presently, in the wider pavement before the old “bottleneck,” the crowd thinned out and men and women became individual beings instead of the corpuscles of a mob. A man who had been walking several yards in front of Grant turned round as if to see the number of an oncoming bus. His glance fell on Grant, and in the bright diamond light from the window his placid face became suddenly a mask of horror. Without a second’s hesitation or a look to right or left he plunged headlong into the traffic in front of the charging bus. Grant was held up by the bus as it thundered past, but before the end of it had swung by he was off the pavement and into the maelstrom after the man. In that crowded moment, when his eyes were more for a figure in flight than for the dangers that threatened himself, he thought distinctly, “Won’t it be awful to die under a bus in the Strand after dodging the boche for four years!” A yell in his ear, and he hovered in flight sufficiently to let a taxi scrape past him by inches with a blasphemous driver howling vituperation at him. He dodged a yellow sports car, saw a whirring black thing at his left elbow which he recognized as the front wheel of a bus, leaped back, was charged on his right by another taxi, and sprang behind the bus as it passed, and a yard in front of the following one to safety on the far pavement. A quick glance to right and left. There was his man walking composedly towards Bedford Street. He had evidently not expected such a quick decision on the inspector’s part. Grant metaphorically vowed a candle to the saint that had taken him safely across the street, and fell to the casual stroll that kept him at the right distance from his quarry. Now, if he looks round before Bedford Street, he thought, I’ll know I wasn’t mistaken — that it really was the sight of me and not a sudden thought that scared him. But he did not need another glance at the man to verify his impression of high cheekbones, thin dark face, and jutting chin. And he knew as surely as if he saw it that on the man’s left forefinger or thumb was a recent scar.
A second later the man looked back — not with that momentary, absent-minded glance that one gives, not knowing why, but with that two-second turn of the head which means a deliberate scrutiny. And a second after he had vanished up Bedford Street. And then Grant sprinted. Vividly he could see in his mind that thin figure flying up the dark and deserted street with none to say him nay. As he turned the corner and pulled up he could see no sign of his quarry. Now, not even a Burleigh could have been out of sight in the time if he had taken a straight course, so Grant, expecting a bluff, walked briskly up the right-hand side of the street, his eye wary at each recess. As nothing materialized he grew anxious; a consciousness of being fooled grew within him. He stopped and looked back, and as he did so, down at the Strand end a figure moved from a doorway on the other side of the street and fled back to the crowded thoroughfare it had left. In thirty seconds Grant had gained the Strand again, but the man was gone. Busses came and went, taxis floated by, shops were open all up and down the street. The choice of a means of escape was not wanting. Grant cursed, and even as he cursed he thought, Well, he fooled me very neatly, but I expect he’s cursing harder than I am for being such a fool as to show that he knew me. That was a very bad break. And for the first time he felt pleased with the Press who had made so free with his features in their desire to educate the public. He patrolled the street for a while, casting exploratory but unoptimistic glances into the shops as he passed. Then he withdrew into the shadow of a doorway, where he remained for some time, hoping against hope that the man had gone to ground instead of making a break for it, and would reappear when he thought the coast was clear. The only result of that was that an inquisitive policeman who had watched him for some time from across the street wanted to know what he was waiting for. Grant came out into the light and explained the circumstances to the apologetic officer, and, deciding that his man had bolted, went to telephone to the Yard. His first impulse when the man had tricked him and run for it had been to throw a squad into the Strand, but the sight of the swift traffic and the knowledge that by the time any one arrived from the Embankment, even in a fast car, the wanted man might be well on the way to Golder’s Green or Camberwell or Elstree, had deterred him. It was hardly an occasion for turning out the force.
As he went slowly up to Trafalgar Square after the business of telephoning, his spirits lightened. For the last hour he had been disgusted with himself to an extent that beggared his vocabulary. He had had the man within six yards of him, and had let him slip through his fingers. Now the lighter side of the situation was becoming apparent. He had made a backward slip certainly, but even at the end of the slip he was further on — much further on — than when he had started. He knew for a certainty that the Levantine was in London. That was a tremendous advance. Until his description had been furnished to the police the previous night there had been nothing to prevent the murderer from leaving London at any moment. They would have had to consider reports from all over Britain — and Grant had bitter experience of such reports of wanted men — and perhaps the Continent, if it had not been for that chance meeting in the Strand, and the man’s lack of self-control in a delirious moment. Now they knew he was in London, and could concentrate their forces. He might leave it by road, but he could not by any other method, and Grant had seen to it that he would have difficulty in hiring a car from any recognized garage. That merely made things difficult for him it did not prevent him from going if he wanted to, but it made his exit considerably slower. It was strange in the circumstances that he had stayed at all when the way was clear. But Grant knew the Londoner’s mulish habit of clinging to the town he knows, and the foreigner’s rat-like preference of the sewers to the open. Both would be more likely to hide than to run. And of course the wanted man, though his description had not been broadcast, had no guarantee that the police were not in possession of it. It would have required more courage or more foolhardihood than most men possess to face a ticket collector or a boat official in these circumstances. So the man had stuck to the town. From now on he would be at the mercy of a continual patrol of the flying squad, and his chances of slipping through their fingers again were very small. Moreover, Grant had seen him. That was another enormous advance. They could never meet again, even in the distance, without Grant recognizing him.
The Levantine in London, the dead man’s friend in London presumably, the Levantine recognizable, the friend about to be traced by his bank-notes — things, as Marcel had remarked, were marching. At the bottom of St. Martin’s Lane Grant remembered that this was the last night of Didn’t You Know? He would drop in there for a little and then go back to the Yard. His thoughts worked much better without goading, and the quiet of the room at the Yard was a silent goad that maddened him. His thoughts would never work to order. There was more likelihood of a revelation being vouchsafed him in the middle of the teeming streets, in the seething mob that somewhere held the Levantine, than in the imposing isolation of his room.
The play had been in progress for about twenty minutes when Grant, after a chat with the manager, found six square inches of standing-room at the back of the dress circle. It was a magnificent sight, looked at from the darkness of so remote a vantage. The theatre, never a very accommodating one, was packed from floor to ceiling, its rosy dimness filled with the electric quality that is only found when every man of an audience is an enthusiast. And they were all enthusiasts, that last-night crowd, devotees saying farewell to the object of their adoration. Adulation, camaraderie, and regret filled the house and made the gathering completely un-British in its abandon to the emotion of the moment. Now and then, when Gollan left out an old gag, some one would call a correction. “Give us all of it, Golly!” they cried. “Give us all of it!” And Golly gave them all he had. Ray Marcable trailed her loveliness over a nearly empty stage with that half-reluctant lightness of a leaf in the wind. She was always, when she danced, a mere fraction of a beat behind the music, so that it seemed as if, instead of being an accompaniment, the music was the motive power, as if it was the music that lifted and spun and whirled her, floated her sideways, and relinquished her gently as it died. Again and again at their vociferous demands the music lifted her into motion, held her laughing and sparkling and quivering, like a crystal ball held poised on a jet of water, and dropped her in a quick descending run to a fast-breathing stillness broken by the crash of the applause. They would not let her go, and when at last some one held her forcibly in the wings, and an effort was made to get on with the story, there was unconcealed impatience. No one wanted a plot tonight. No one had ever wanted one. Quite a large number of the most enthusiastic habitués were unaware that there was such a thing, and few, if any, would have been able to give a lucid account of it. And tonight to insist on wasting time with such irrelevance was folly.
The entrance of the most perfect chorus in Britain soothed them slightly. The fourteen Woffington girls were famous in two continents, and their studies in synchronized motion gave one the same feeling of complete satisfaction — the satisfaction that never becomes satiety — that one has on beholding the Guards in motion. Not a head turned too much, not a toe was out of alignment. No kick was higher than its neighbour, no flop was quicker than another. When the last of the fourteen flicked her black-and-orange columbine skirt in a little defiant motion as she disappeared behind the flats the audience had almost forgotten Ray. Almost, but not quite. Ray and Gollan possessed the house — it was their night, theirs and their public’s. And presently the impatience with anything that was not Ray or Gollan became too marked to be ignored. The evening was one long crescendo of excitement that was rapidly reaching hysteria point. Grant watched half pityingly the wry smile with which the leading man acknowledged the conventional plaudits accorded to his sentimental solo. That solo was sung by languishing tenors all over Britain, whistled by every errand boy, played, with lowered lights, by every dance orchestra. He had obviously expected it to be encored at least three times, but beyond humming the last chorus with him they had shown no marked appreciation of it. Something had gone wrong. They couldn’t even see him. With as good a grace as he could muster he took his place as background to Ray Marcable, danced with her, sang with her, acted with her — and Grant suddenly caught himself wondering if his eclipse were merely the accident of Ray Marcable’s vivid personality, or if she had used that personality deliberately to keep the limelight where she happened to be. Grant had no illusions about the theatre or about the professional generosity of leading ladies. Theatrical stars were easily moved to tears and a lavish expenditure over a hard-luck story, but their good nature withered at the fount when confronted with a successful rival. Ray Marcable had a reputation for all-round generosity and sweet reasonableness. But then, her press agent was wily beyond the average of that wily race. Grant himself had read “pars” about her which he had not recognized as an agent’s work until his eyes had gone on to the next item of interest. He had that supreme quality, her press agent, of making the advertised one’s presence in the story entirely and convincingly incidental to the main theme.
And then there was the suspicious fact that she had had three leading men in the two years, whereas the rest of the cast had stayed the same. Could her friendly air, her modesty, her — there was no other word for it — her ladylikeness be camouflage? Was London’s fragile darling hard as nails underneath? He visualized her as he had met her “off,” unassuming, intelligent, eminently reasonable. No parade of temperament or idiosyncrasy. A charming girl with her head screwed on the right way. It was hardly credible. He had known among crooks many women of the fluffy type who had no softer feelings whatever in their makeup. But Ray Marcable’s was a sweetness that had no fluff about it, a sweetness that he could have sworn was genuine. He watched her closely now trying to disprove for his own satisfaction — he had liked her enormously — that suggestion which his mind had thrown up involuntarily. But to his dismay he found his suspicions, now that they were acknowledged and made the subject of investigation, being slowly confirmed. She was keeping the man out of it. When he looked for the indications they were all there, but they were done with a subtlety such as Grant had never witnessed before. There was nothing so crude as trying to share or divert his applause, or even cutting his applause short by an intrusion of her own. All these would have been recognizable for what they were, and therefore, from her point of view, not permissible. It occurred to him that she was not only too subtle to use such a method but too potent to need to. She had only to use her glowing personality with unscrupulousness, and rivals faded out as stars before the sun. Only with Gollan she was powerless — he was a sun as potent as herself, if not more so — and so she suffered him. But with her leading man — good-looking, amiable, and a very fine singer — she had no difficulty. They had said, he remembered now, that it was impossible to find a leading man good enough for her. That was why. He did not doubt it now. There was something uncanny about the clearness with which he suddenly read her mind, untouched by the glamour that surrounded him. Only he and she in all that intoxicated crowd were aloof, were poised above emotion and looking on. He watched her play with that unhappy wretch as coldly and deliberately as he would have played a trout in the Test. Smiling and sweet, she took what would have been a triumph from his hands, and tacked it on to her own dazzling outfit. And no one noticed that the triumph had gone astray. If they thought at all; they thought that the leading man was not up to the mark tonight — but, of course, it was difficult to get one good enough for her. And after having absorbed his worth she would at the end of a turn with a Machiavellian acuteness drag him forward by the hand to share the applause, so that every one in the building thought, Well, he didn’t deserve much of it! and his inferiority was accentuated and remembered. Oh, yes, it was subtle. This play within a play became for Grant the absorbing entertainment of the evening. He was seeing the real Ray Marcable, and the sight was incredibly strange. So rapt was he that the final curtain found him still at the back of the circle, deafened by the cheers and feeling strangely cold. Again and again, and yet again, the curtain rose on the glittering stage, and the stream of presents and flowers began to flow over the footlights. Then the speeches came; first Gollan, clutching a large square bottle of whisky and trying to be funny, but not succeeding because his voice would not stay steady. Grant guessed that in his mind was a picture of the heartbreaking years of squalid rooms in squalid towns, twice-nightly performances, and the awful ever-present fear of the bird. Gollan had sung long for his supper; it was no wonder that the feast choked him. Then the producer. Then Ray Marcable.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said in her clear, slow voice, “two years ago, when none of you knew me, you were kind to me. You overwhelmed me then. Tonight you have overwhelmed me again. I can only say thank you.”
Very neat, thought Grant, as they cheered her to the echo. Quite in the part. And he turned away. He knew what was coming — speeches by every one down to the callboy, and he had heard enough. He went down through the crimson and buff vestibule and out into the night with a queer constriction in his chest. If he had not in his thirty-five years cast overboard all such impedimenta as illusion, one would have said that he was disillusioned. He had quite liked Ray Marcable.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01