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Authors: Patricia Wentworth

Rolling Stone

BOOK: Rolling Stone
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Rolling Stone

Patricia Wentworth

CHAPTER I

The rain fell in a fine, steady drizzle. The young man in the armchair looked up from the letter he was writing and glanced with dislike at a prospect where nothing pleased and man appeared viler than usual. It had been raining all day. Everything was very wet. And instead of being the cleaner for this continuous shower-bath, everything, steep tilted roofs, narrow street, small shops, and a wavering, havering, haphazard straggle of men women children and dogs, appeared to be even dirtier than usual.

The room was a bare one, the arm chair dowdy, sagging, but not uncomfortable. The man who occupied it had one leg crossed above the other at a fantastic angle. He brought his eyes back from the window to a writing-block precariously perched against the tilted knee and went on writing. A loosely built young man of indeterminate features, in repose expressionless. But just now when he had looked at the rain they had changed. Something quick, vivid and angry had looked out. Then he was back at his writing, pen running fast, left hand steadying the block.

“I think I've found the man. Wrong expression—as you were—I am on his track. Dictionary for sleuths, use of—don't the department issue it? If not, why not? All right, all right, I'm coming to the point. You know I didn't ask to be dragged into sleuthing, so you'll just have to take me as you find me. It will, I feel, do you—and the department—a lot of good. Query—is the Foreign Office Secret Service a department? Probably not. That's the sort of moss a rolling stone like me doesn't gather. Yes, I'm really coming to it—the point,
cher maître
, the point.”

Here the young man grinned suddenly, showing good teeth. He was ready to bet that no one had ever called Colonel Garrett
cher maître
before, and he had a clear and pleasant picture of what Garrett's reactions would be. Then he went on writing.

“He calls himself Pierre Riel. I am told he is Spike Reilly. I think he may be the goods. Someone told a girl, who told a man, who told a girl, who told another man, who told me that Mr. Spike had once talked in his cups. Moral of this—all criminals should join their local Band of Hope. I go now to take a room in the same pub as Spike. Viewed from the outside it presents every appearance of being about as low in the social scale as you can get. If I fall a victim to dirt, drains or bugs, I presume that a grateful government will pay for my obsequies.

Yours unofficially,

J.P.T.

P.S. I shall post this on my way. Another thrilling installment tomorrow.

P.P.S. Brussels has some fine architectural features and a lot of bells. I like it better when it doesn't rain.

P.P.P.S., or what comes next. It's been raining ever since I got here.

N.B. That is all,
cher maître
.”

The grin showed again for a fleeting moment. Then, with the letter enveloped and stamped, suit-case in hand and raincoat on back, Mr. Peter Talbot clattered down a steep and rickety stair and sallied reluctantly forth into the rain.

He posted the letter, and pursued a damp and devious course through a number of mean and narrow streets. The odd thing was that his spirits kept on rising. And, paradoxically, this was a depressing circumstance. He even groaned over it slightly himself, because, on his own private barometer, that sudden lift was a certain indication of cyclones ahead, and at this stage of the proceedings while the blood mounted to Peter's head, he could still be aware that his feet were cold.

He was whistling between his teeth when he came to the Hotel Dupin and pushed through into its narrow, dingy hall.

A room? But certainly m'sieu could have a room. If m'sieu would register. And the suit-case of m'sieu would be taken up,
o bien sur
.

Peter Talbot stood with the pen in his hand and looked at the register. Five—no, six names up, illegibly scrawled, the name of Pierre Riel. Something sang in his ears. He bent down and signed the good old-fashioned name of John Smith.

CHAPTER II

Peter looked presently from a third-floor window, and beheld a back yard under rain—very literally under rain, because the water stood in pools amongst a jumble of old barrels, broken crockery, a mouldering dog kennel, and other odds and ends. There were logs of wood, a perambulator with only one wheel, something that looked like the wreck of a bicycle, and a hip bath with a hole in it. He was wondering where all these things had come from, and wondering too about the odd muttering sound which seemed to come from the room on the right. He had taken it at first for the murmur of voices in conversation, but there were not two voices, there was only one, and it went on, and on, and on.

There was a communicating door. The first thing you do about a communicating door in a place like this is to find out whether it is locked, and whether there is a bolt on your own side. Well, it was locked all right, but there was no sign of a key, and there wasn't any bolt. Not so good. Behind that door was M. Pierre Riel, alias Mr. Spike Reilly, and Peter would have preferred that there should be a bolt.

With his hand on the jamb he listened to the muttering voice. Either Mr. Spike Reilly was drunk, or—or—he saw again very vividly the scrawled name in the register—the very illegible scrawled name. If he hadn't known what name to look for, the odds would have been against his making head or tail of it.

The mutter on the other side of the door died down, and then rose again waveringly to a kind of scream. The scream broke off in a gasp. Peter walked down the stairs he had just come up and routed out M. Dupin—small, dark, sallow, with eyes as bright and beady as a rat's. Rather ratlike about the teeth, Peter thought. The way he had of half cupping his hands too—

“Who's the fellow in the room next to mine?” he said. “And what's the matter with him? Is he ill, or only drunk?”

M. Dupin cupped his hands and showed his teeth apologetically. Madame Dupin, at the desk, shrugged tightly upholstered shoulders and sent a glance to the ceiling.

“It is M'sieu Riel.”

Dupin shrugged too.

“It is only last night that he arrives and we notice nothing. We think he is a little drunk perhaps. But this morning he does not get up, he does not move. He has a fever, he talks all the time. And what can I do? I say to him, ‘Will you send for your friends—will you send for a doctor—will you tell me of someone to whom I can send?' And does he answer me? No. He has a delirium. He goes on talking, and there is not a single word of sense in all he says—not one. It is English, English. English all the time. And he calls himself Pierre Riel. Without a doubt that is not his name. Who knows whether we shall not find ourselves in trouble with the police?”

“Have you sent for a doctor?” said Peter.

“Assuredly not! Who knows that he can pay for one?” Madame Dupin's voice was indignant. It was one of those husky voices with no breath behind it.

Dupin showed his teeth in an ingratiating smile.

“Now if m'sieu, who is also English, would like to arrange for his compatriot—”

Peter looked blankly from one to the other. His heart sang. His face showed nothing. He said in a stupid voice,

“I'll go up and see him.”

As he climbed the dark, musty stair, something said in a warning voice, “What a damned fool you are. No one ever gets luck like this if it isn't to land him into the hell of a mess. You take my advice and get out.” To which he replied rudely, “Who's getting out?” and walked in upon M. Pierre Riel.

He shut the door behind him and stood a yard or two inside it and a yard or two from the bed.

The bed-clothes were tumbled beyond belief. The man on the bed was undoubtedly very ill. He neither saw Peter nor answered him. He talked in that incessant hoarse mutter which had come droning through the door. There was a wash-stand and some water in a jug. An empty glass was tipped over and lay on its side unbroken. Peter half filled it. He knelt by Pierre Riel and held it to his lips. The man gulped the water down, choked on the last of it, and said with his first coherent words,

“What's the good of water? Give me brandy.”

Peter said, “I'll get you a doctor.” But the man shook his head.

“No good. Who are you? If you're a doctor, I don't want you. Go away. I don't want anyone—want brandy—cognac—order bottle—” He dropped to the muttering again.

Peter set down the glass and stood looking at him. “Better get him a doctor. I think he's going to die. Not much loss to anyone but me. You can't begin with luck like this and expect it to last. Well, better get on with today's good deed.” He turned to the door, but before he reached it the muttering voice arrested him. Words were emerging, many at a time, quite clear. Then panting breaths and an unintelligible murmur of sound. Then words again.

“The money's—not—enough. I say—it's not enough. You say there's no risk—no risk—” He gave a wild, unsteady laugh. “You're telling me—and perhaps—there's something I can tell.” There was a blaze of fever in the eyes. The words came tumbling out. “I said—I'd find out—who you were—didn't I? And I will. And when I do—you'll have to pay me something more than—a postman's wages. And if you think I can't—find out—why then you can think again—do you hear? Because I know—I know—” He stared at Peter with the blazing eyes which saw some shape from his delirium, and said in a clear voice of triumph, “Maud Millicent—what have you got to say to that? Maud Millicent Simpson—what have you got to say to that? If I can find her, I can find you—can't I? And I'm going to find you—if it takes me from here to—to—” He groaned, flung out an arm, and said vaguely, “Ah now, what was I saying?” The flare had died. The voice dropped to a whisper. “Mind you, it's hundreds of thousands for you. What do I get? Postman's wages—I'm nothing but a postman. And I'm through, I tell you—” The voice broke and changed. “Where's that brandy? Look sharp about it, can't you!”

BOOK: Rolling Stone
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