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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Man Who Knew - Chapter 3. Four Important Characters
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The Man Who Knew - Chapter 3. Four Important Characters Post by :marketing Category :Long Stories Author :Edgar Wallace Date :May 2012 Read :1104

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The Man Who Knew - Chapter 3. Four Important Characters


The writer pauses here to say that the story of "The Man Who Knew" is an unusual one. It is reconstructed partly from the reports of a certain trial, partly from the confidential matter which has come into the writer's hands from Saul Arthur Mann and his extraordinary bureau, and partly from the private diary which May Nuttall put at the writer's disposal.

Those practiced readers who begin this narrative with the weary conviction that they are merely to see the workings out of a conventional record of crime, of love, and of mystery may be urged to pursue their investigations to the end. Truth is stranger than fiction, and has need to be, since most fiction is founded on truth. There is a strangeness in the story of "The Man Who Knew" which brings it into the category of veracious history. It cannot be said in truth that any story begins at the beginning of the first chapter, since all stories began with the creation of the world, but this present story may be said to begin when we cut into the lives of some of the characters concerned, upon the seventeenth day of July, 19--.

There was a little group of people about the prostrate figure of a man who lay upon the sidewalk in Gray Square, Bloomsbury.

The hour was eight o'clock on a warm summer evening, and that the unusual spectacle attracted only a small crowd may be explained by the fact that Gray Square is a professional quarter given up to the offices of lawyers, surveyors, and corporation offices which at eight o'clock on a summer's day are empty of occupants. The unprofessional classes who inhabit the shabby streets impinging upon the Euston Road do not include Gray Square in their itinerary when they take their evening constitutionals abroad, and even the loud children find a less depressing environment for their games.

The gray-faced youth sprawled upon the pavement was decently dressed and was obviously of the superior servant type.

He was as obviously dead.

Death, which beautifies and softens the plainest, had failed entirely to dissipate the impression of meanness in the face of the stricken man. The lips were set in a little sneer, the half-closed eyes were small, the clean-shaven jaw was long and underhung, the ears were large and grotesquely prominent.

A constable stood by the body, waiting for the arrival of the ambulance, answering in monosyllables the questions of the curious. Ten minutes before the ambulance arrived there joined the group a man of middle age.

He wore the pepper-and-salt suit which distinguishes the country excursionist taking the day off in London. He had little side whiskers and a heavy brown mustache. His golf cap was new and set at a somewhat rakish angle on his head. Across his waistcoat was a large and heavy chain hung at intervals with small silver medals. For all his provincial appearance his movements were decisive and suggested authority. He elbowed his way through the little crowd, and met the constable's disapproving stare without faltering.

"Can I be of any help, mate?" he said, and introduced himself as Police Constable Wiseman, of the Sussex constabulary.

The London constable thawed.

"Thanks," he said; "you can help me get him into the ambulance when it comes."

"Fit?" asked the newcomer.

The policeman shook his head.

"He was seen to stagger and fall, and by the time I arrived he'd snuffed out. Heart disease, I suppose."

"Ah!" said Constable Wiseman, regarding the body with a proprietorial and professional eye, and retailed his own experiences of similar tragedies, not without pride, as though he had to some extent the responsibility for their occurrence.

On the far side of the square a young man and a girl were walking slowly. A tall, fair, good-looking youth he was, who might have attracted attention even in a crowd. But more likely would that attention have been focused, had he been accompanied by the girl at his side, for she was by every standard beautiful. They reached the corner of Tabor Street, and it was the fixed and eager stare of a little man who stood on the corner of the street and the intensity of his gaze which first directed their attention to the tragedy on the opposite side of the square.

The little man who watched was dressed in an ill-fitting frock coat, trousers which seemed too long, since they concertinaed over his boots, and a glossy silk hat set at the back of his head.

"What a funny old thing!" said Frank Merrill under his breath, and the girl smiled.

The object of their amusement turned sharply as they came abreast of him. His freckled, clean-shaven face looked strangely old, and the big, gold-rimmed spectacles bridged halfway down his nose added to his ludicrous appearance. He raised his eyebrows and surveyed the two young people.

"There's an accident over there," he said briefly and without any preliminary.

"Indeed," said the young man politely.

"There have been several accidents in Gray Square," said the strange old man meditatively. "There was one in 1875, when the corner house--you can see the end of it from here--collapsed and buried fourteen people, seven of whom were killed, four of whom were injured for life, and three of whom escaped with minor injuries."

He said this calmly and apparently without any sense that he was acting at all unconventionally in volunteering the information, and went on:

"There was another accident in 1881, on the seventeenth of October, a collision between two hansom cabs which resulted in the death of a driver whose name was Samuel Green. He lived at 14 Portington Mews, and had a wife and nine children."

The girl looked at the old man with a little apprehension, and Frank Merrill laughed.

"You have a very good memory for this kind of thing. Do you live here?" he asked.

"Oh, no!" The little man shook his head vigorously.

He was silent for a moment, and then:

"I think we had better go over and see what it is all about," he said with a certain gravity.

His assumption of leadership was a little staggering, and Frank turned to the girl.

"Do you mind?" he asked.

She shook her head, and the three passed over the road to the little group just as the ambulance came jangling into the square. To Merrill's surprise, the policeman greeted the little man respectfully, touching his helmet.

"I'm afraid nothing can be done, sir. He is--gone."

"Oh, yes, he's gone!" said the other quite calmly.

He stooped down, turned back the man's coat, and slipped his hand into the inside pocket, but drew blank; the pocket was empty. With an extraordinary rapidity of movement, he continued his search, and to the astonishment of Frank Merrill the policeman did not deny his right. In the top left-hand pocket of the waistcoat he pulled out a crumpled slip which proved to be a newspaper clipping.

"Ah!" said the little man. "An advertisement for a manservant cut out of this morning's _Daily Telegraph_; I saw it myself. Evidently a manservant who was on his way to interview a new employer. You see: 'Call at eight-thirty at Holborn Viaduct Hotel.' He was taking a short cut when his illness overcame him. I know who is advertising for the valet," he added gratuitously; "he is a Mr. T. Burton, who is a rubber factor from Penang. Mr. T. Burton married the daughter of the Reverend George Smith, of Scarborough, in 1889, and has four children, one of whom is at Winchester. Hum!"

He pursed his lips and looked down again at the body; then suddenly he turned to Frank Merrill.

"Do you know this man?" he demanded.

Frank looked at him in astonishment.

"No. Why do you ask?"

"You were looking at him as though you did," said the little man. "That is to say, you were not looking at his face. People who do not look at other people's faces under these circumstances know them."

"Curiously enough," said Frank, with a little smile, "there is some one here I know," and he caught the eye of Constable Wiseman.

That ornament of the Sussex constabulary touched his cap.

"I thought I recognized you, sir. I have often seen you at Weald Lodge," he said.

Further conversation was cut short as they lifted the body on to a stretcher and put it into the interior of the ambulance. The little group watched the white car disappear, and the crowd of idlers began to melt away.

Constable Wiseman took a professional leave of his comrade, and came back to Frank a little shyly.

"You are Mr. Minute's nephew, aren't you, sir?" he asked.

"Quite right," said Frank.

"I used to see you at your uncle's place."

"Uncle's name?"

It was the little man's pert but wholly inoffensive inquiry. He seemed to ask it as a matter of course and as one who had the right to be answered without equivocation.

Frank Merrill laughed.

"My uncle is Mr. John Minute," he said, and added, with a faint touch of sarcasm: "You probably know him."

"Oh, yes," said the other readily. "One of the original Rhodesian pioneers who received a concession from Lo Bengula and amassed a large fortune by the sale of gold-mining properties which proved to be of no especial value. He was tried at Salisbury in 1897 with the murder of two Mashona chiefs, and was acquitted. He amassed another fortune in Johannesburg in the boom of '97, and came to this country in 1901, settling on a small estate between Polegate and Eastbourne. He has one nephew, his heir, Frank Merrill, the son of the late Doctor Henry Merrill, who is an accountant in the London and Western Counties Bank. He--"

Frank looked at him in undisguised amazement.

"You know my uncle?"

"Never met him in my life," said the little man brusquely. He took off his silk hat with a sweep.

"I wish you good afternoon," he said, and strode rapidly away.

The uniformed policeman turned a solemn face upon the group.

"Do you know that gentleman?" asked Frank.

The constable smiled.

"Oh, yes, sir; that is Mr. Mann. At the yard we call him 'The Man Who Knows!'"

"Is he a detective?"

The constable shook his head.

"From what I understand, sir, he does a lot of work for the commissioner and for the government. We have orders never to interfere with him or refuse him any information that we can give."

"The Man Who Knows?" repeated Frank, with a puzzled frown. "What an extraordinary person! What does he know?" he asked suddenly.

"Everything," said the constable comprehensively.

A few minutes later Frank was walking slowly toward Holborn.

"You seem to be rather depressed," smiled the girl.

"Confound that fellow!" said Frank, breaking his silence. "I wonder how he comes to know all about uncle?" He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, dear, this is not a very cheery evening for you. I did not bring you out to see accidents."

"Frank," the girl said suddenly, "I seem to know that man's face--the man who was on the pavement, I mean--"

She stopped with a shudder.

"It seemed a little familiar to me," said Frank thoughtfully.

"Didn't he pass us about twenty minutes ago?"

"He may have done," said Frank, "but I have no particular recollection of it. My impression of him goes much farther back than this evening. Now where could I have seen him?"

"Let's talk about something else," she said quickly. "I haven't a very long time. What am I to do about your uncle?"

He laughed.

"I hardly know what to suggest," he said. "I am very fond of Uncle John, and I hate to run counter to his wishes, but I am certainly not going to allow him to take my love affairs into his hands. I wish to Heaven you had never met him!"

She gave a little gesture of despair.

"It is no use wishing things like that, Frank. You see, I knew your uncle before I knew you. If it had not been for your uncle I should not have met you."

"Tell me what happened," he asked. He looked at his watch. "You had better come on to Victoria," he said, "or I shall lose my train."

He hailed a taxicab, and on the way to the station she told him of all that had happened.

"He was very nice, as he always is, and he said nothing really which was very horrid about you. He merely said he did not want me to marry you because he did not think you'd make a suitable husband. He said that Jasper had all the qualities and most of the virtues."

Frank frowned.

"Jasper is a sleek brute," he said viciously.

She laid her hand on his arm.

"Please be patient," she said. "Jasper has said nothing whatever to me and has never been anything but most polite and kind."

"I know that variety of kindness," growled the young man. "He is one of those sly, soft-footed sneaks you can never get to the bottom of. He is worming his way into my uncle's confidence to an extraordinary extent. Why, he is more like a son to Uncle John than a beastly secretary."

"He has made himself necessary," said the girl, "and that is halfway to making yourself wealthy."

The little frown vanished from Frank's brow, and he chuckled.

"That is almost an epigram," he said. "What did you tell uncle?"

"I told him that I did not think that his suggestion was possible and that I did not care for Mr. Cole, nor he for me. You see, Frank, I owe your Uncle John so much. I am the daughter of one of his best friends, and since dear daddy died Uncle John has looked after me. He has given me my education--my income--my everything; he has been a second father to me."

Frank nodded.

"I recognize all the difficulties," he said, "and here we are at Victoria."

She stood on the platform and watched the train pull out and waved her hand in farewell, and then returned to the pretty flat in which John Minute had installed her. As she said, her life had been made very smooth for her. There was no need for her to worry about money, and she was able to devote her days to the work she loved best. The East End Provident Society, of which she was president, was wholly financed by the Rhodesian millionaire.

May had a natural aptitude for charity work. She was an indefatigable worker, and there was no better known figure in the poor streets adjoining the West Indian Docks than Sister Nuttall. Frank was interested in the work without being enthusiastic. He had all the man's apprehension of infectious disease and of the inadvisability of a beautiful girl slumming without attendance, but the one visit he had made to the East End in her company had convinced him that there was no fear as to her personal safety.

He was wont to grumble that she was more interested in her work than she was in him, which was probably true, because her development had been a slow one, and it could not be said that she was greatly in love with anything in the world save her self-imposed mission.

She ate her frugal dinner, and drove down to the mission headquarters off the Albert Dock Road. Three nights a week were devoted by the mission to visitation work. Many women and girls living in this area spend their days at factories in the neighborhood, and they have only the evenings for the treatment of ailments which, in people better circumstanced, would produce the attendance of specialists. For the night work the nurses were accompanied by a volunteer male escort. May Nuttall's duties carried her that evening to Silvertown and to a network of mean streets to the east of the railway. Her work began at dusk, and was not ended until night had fallen and the stars were quivering in a hot sky.

The heat was stifling, and as she came out of the last foul dwelling she welcomed as a relief even the vitiated air of the hot night. She went back into the passageway of the house, and by the light of a paraffin lamp made her last entry in the little diary she carried.

"That makes eight we have seen, Thompson," she said to her escort. "Is there anybody else on the list?"

"Nobody else to-night, miss," said the young man, concealing a yawn.

"I'm afraid it is not very interesting for you, Thompson," said the girl sympathetically; "you haven't even the excitement of work. It must be awfully dull standing outside waiting for me."

"Bless you, miss," said the man. "I don't mind at all. If it is good enough for you to come into these streets, it is good enough for me to go round with you."

They stood in a little courtyard, a cul-de-sac cut off at one end by a sheer wall, and as the girl put back her diary into her little net bag a man came swiftly down from the street entrance of the court and passed her. As he did so the dim light of the lamp showed for a second his face, and her mouth formed an "O" of astonishment. She watched him until he disappeared into one of the dark doorways at the farther end of the court, and stood staring at the door as though unable to believe her eyes.

There was no mistaking the pale face and the straight figure of Jasper Cole, John Minute's secretary.

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