Chapter V.

Mr. Kraker Ruminates.

Matthew Kraker lived, as we have already said, in Hunter Street, Bloomsbury, not a very aristocratic locality, but, at the same time, not altogether a poverty-stricken one. He occupied the first floor, and passed for a quiet but eccentric man, who had made a little money in business, and who, like hundreds of other men, was “something in the city.” He never spoke about his connection with the police, and not a soul among his few acquaintances suspected it. He had no relations, save a few thirty-third cousins or so living in the wilds of Lincolnshire, and having lost both parents early, had been accustomed all his life to shift for himself. He had visited many foreign countries, and could speak more than one European language like a native. Being of a frugal disposition, and wanting little, he had saved some money, and this, perhaps, not so much from a miserly spirit as from an indifference to those things which some people deem necessities, but which he classed as luxuries. He had never cared for amusements or for drinking, and did not readily make friends. As a billiard marker, or as a croupier of a rouge et noir table at a German watering place, he had seen an infinite variety of life; so much so that the study of character had become with him a perfect passion. In his capacity as croupier he had been brought several times in contact with the Continental detective police, and had assisted them greatly in the arrest of more than one notorious forger. When the establishment with which he was connected became bankrupt he came back to England, settled down upon his earnings, which were enough to support him, and looked about for something to employ his leisure. Instinct, rather than any other motive, led him to haunt the police courts for years, and there was scarcely a famous trial at the Old Bailey from which he was absent. Chance led him against a young barrister who had gained a certain reputation for defence in criminal cases. The latter, in one or two conversations they had together, was struck with the extraordinary acumen, and profound knowledge of human motives which the ex-croupier displayed. He suggested that he might employ his talents to advantage as a detective, and Matthew had taken the hint, though with some obstinacy he refused to enter the force, observing that he could not work with rule and line, and must go in his own way, or not at all. Mr. Preston’s (the barrister already mentioned) chief practice lay in the northern circuit, and the introduction he had been able to give to Kraker had reference to cases in the north, and, curiously enough, the murder at Hammersmith was the first affair of any moment which he had undertaken in London. His successes, however, were well known to the metropolitan police, and this, as we have already said, led the chief of the detective department at Scotland Yard to employ him. But he never gave up his independence. Money would not tempt him to take up a case unless he felt an interest in it, and provided there was sufficient scope for his peculiar talent, he cared not whether he was paid. His sitting room, which overlooked the street, was a fairly large apartment, comfortably furnished, the most conspicuous object in the room being a large bookcase, well stocked with books. A glance at the titles of these would have revealed at once the taste of the owner. A complete edition of the Newgate Calendar, many volumes of state trials, biographies of notorious criminals, police reports, not only of the metropolis but of the provinces, and not confined to Great Britain, scrapbooks full of newspaper cuttings, all relating more or less to crime, made up the bulk of the library, the remainder consisting chiefly of law and medical works, a large proportion of the latter having reference to mental diseases. Beyond this bookcase there was nothing in the room to betray in the least degree the occupation of the owner, and though his frequent absence from home, his unexpected returns at all times of the day and night, sometimes made his landlady wonder, and certainly added not a little to her discomfort, she never had the remotest suspicion that he passed his time in bringing criminals to justice. But he paid well, gave no trouble about his meals, being perfectly contented with what she chose to give him so that he had not to wait for it, and at last she got used to his habits, and ceased to trouble or talk about them. His visitors were very few, and, with one exception, he rarely called to see anyone as a matter of friendship. This exception was a widow lady, named Delanne, who lived with her son in Bedford Square, Tottenham Court Road. To Mrs. Delanne’s house he used to make a periodical visit about once a fortnight, and in his heart secretly admired the lady, who, though past her prime, was still a fascinating woman, and must have been in her youth remarkably handsome. Her son, Gerald, was about thirty years of age, but looked much older. He was possessed of great talent, and of an inordinate ambition. He had been educated as a doctor, but after walking the hospitals he came to the conclusion that surgery was not his proper vocation, and he turned his attention to the bar, not so much with the intention of practising as to make use of the bar as a stepping stone to something greater. He had dabbled considerably in literature, and had obtained an engagement as leader writer for a daily paper. He was a practised speaker, and his secret desire, for the accomplishment of which all his efforts were concentrated, was to get into Parliament. Tall and well made, he was strikingly handsome, his well-cut features and somewhat pale complexion being well relieved by masses of dark brown wavy hair. Under a somewhat cold exterior he concealed a passionate and ardent nature, and those who saw him when he had thrown aside the mask which he usually wore as far as the outside world was concerned could scarcely believe him to be the same man.

So much for Mrs. Delanne and her son, whom we have thus particularly mentioned, as by a singular chance of accidents they play a somewhat prominent part in the curious drama the plot of which we are attempting to unfold.

To go back to Matthew Kraker. After leaving Scotland Yard he walked rapidly in the direction of Regent’s Park, and, with his hands buried deep in his pockets, and his eyes fixed upon the ground, walked up and down the most solitary parts he could find for nearly an hour. Occasionally he muttered something under his breath; had anyone been near enough they would have heard that it was always the same thing that he repeated over and over again, the words of the murdered woman given in the evidence of the milk-woman at the coroner’s inquest. “‘If I wanted more money I could get it.’ That’s the whole gist of the matter,” he muttered after a pause, during which he frowned until his brows nearly met. “This Mrs. Rennett must have had a knowledge of something which it was the interest of some rich person or other to keep concealed. As long as the secret was safe she could count on claiming money. Yes, but what is the secret, and how did she get hold of it? That’s the rub. Let me see. Supposing she had at some time or another been a servant in a rich family. Mightn’t she have seen, or heard, or discovered something which concerned somebody? If so, the chances are a thousand to one it would concern a woman. Her mistress might have been married and had a lover. Why not? It would complicate matters a bit, but it’s not at all unlikely. We should have to find out not only the lady but the gentleman as well, which would be a little awkward, but would have to be done; for, of course, the man would be the actual murderer. Now, then, let us go a step further. I should be inclined to think that the man was some person of rank. An ordinary tradesman, or one of what we call the middle classes, wouldn’t have pluck enough, not would there be sufficient motive. No; this is the work of someone of good birth, and not only that, but he himself has been the perpetrator. He has had no accomplice, but trusted in himself, and admirably has he carried out his purpose. A neater or better-contrived thing I never heard or read of.”

The little man became almost enthusiastic as he spoke, and his small eyes sparkled like diamonds.

“The fellow left nothing to chance,” he said. “It was well planned​—​well planned. Forrest by himself would have made a sad mess of it. Just the sort of thing one might expect from an ordinary detective. Provided an offence by committed by one of what we call the criminal classes they are equal to it, but let the offender by something out of the common order, and to have gone about the business with his brains, then they are nowhere. It is no more than I should have expected.”

Thus soliloquising he arrived at Hunter Street, and stopping in front of 102, gave a loud knock. The door was opened by a good-natured, stupid-looking woman of about fifty-five.

“Lor’, Mr. Kraker, how you did startle me!”

Mr. Kraker was still absorbed in the engrossing subject of the day, and scarcely heard her. His reply was to ask whether she had any dinner ready.

“Bless the man,” exclaimed Mrs. Corfield, “dinner at this hour! Why, it’s just struck eight. But there​—​I’ll get a nice chop ready for you in less than no time.”

“That will do,” he returned, and, mounting the staircase, he entered his room, and after lighting the gas, began pacing up and down the room in a somewhat abstracted fashion.

Mrs. Corfield, in the meantime, began to make preparations for the meal, and in the intervals of laying the cloth and arranging the table, gossiped as was her wont; Mr. Kraker, as was his wont, scarcely replying, or if he did, only in monosyllable. When the chop was ready, he sat down to it with the same preoccupied air which had marked him all day.

“Well, I never,” said Mrs. Corfield, who after leaving the room for a few minutes to fetch some beer, returned to find Mr. Kraker sitting before his untasted chop, his knife and fork in his hand, but his gaze directed towards a cruet stand, as if he were meditating an attack upon it. “I never saw anyone like you. There’s that beautiful chop, and you a-sitting afore it like a stony image.”

“Eh?” said her eccentric lodger, roused from his reverie, “oh! I see. All right, Mrs. Corfield, you can go.”

He had scarcely swallowed two mouthfuls, when he alarmed his landlady by suddenly exclaiming​—​

“The devil! I have it.”

“Bless me! have what?” said good Mrs. Corfield, with a vague suspicion that a black beetle or a mouse had caused Mr. Kraker to give vent to so violent an ejaculation.

“Oh! nothing” he returned, dropping into his usual tone of voice. “I’ll ring when I want you, Mrs. Corfield.”

But Mrs. Corfield, with the pertinacity of her sex, did not immediately obey, and before she had left the room Mr. Kraker was again absorbed in the all-engrossing subject.

“Yes,” he mused half aloud, “I’ll wager there’s a child mixed up somehow in the business.”

Mrs. Corfield pricked up her ears. “A child,” she thought. “What can he have to do with children? Ahem!” she coughed.

Mr. Kraker descended from his hobby horse.

“What are you waiting for, Mrs. Corfield?” he asked, rather irritably.

“Nothing, sir, nothing,” answered the dame with alacrity.

“Then, pray, leave me alone.”

And Mrs. Corfield, somewhat abashed, hurried from the room.

For a few minutes he went on eating, and having satisfied his hunger, pursued the train of thought which Mrs. Corfield had so disturbed.

“Aye,” he muttered, “there is a child, and this is something like its history. Mrs. Rennett was probably the servant of some rich, perhaps a titled lady. The husband might be fond of travel, or in the army. While he is away, his wife, maybe, has a lover. She gets into a fix, and Mrs. Rennett helps her out of it. A child is born, and then——”

Our detective seemed to be in difficulty. He frowned, rubbed his forehead, and finally sought relief in pacing up and down the room.

“They wouldn’t have got rid of the child, because Mrs. Rennett herself would have been compromised. No; in all probability she had brought it up, and very likely the father is the man who, as the evidence went to show, came in a carriage, while the mother is the lady who was accompanied by a young man. Of course, she would be will paid, because she would get money from both sides. But then, what was the motive for murdering her? She used to live well, and sometimes, perhaps very often, took too much. She may have grown exacting in her demands, knowing she could, if she liked, raise such a deuce of a hornet’s nest; or they might have been afraid lest in a drunken moment her tongue became rather slippery. Yes, that’s the most likely. Granting this, who would have done the ugly work​—​the father or the son? The chances are every way in favour of the son.”

At this moment came a knock at the door. It was Mrs. Corfield, who had come to inquire if her lodger would take cheese?

“Yes, yes. Confound the woman! What on earth makes her such a nuisance just when I want to be quiet?”

The cheese was brought, and he ate a small portion, and then returned to the little history he had sketched out in his mind. But somehow, whether the process of digestion is not good for reflection, or whether it was due to the interruptions of Mrs. Corfield, his thoughts had become disturbed, disjointed. He could go no farther than the romance he had laid down. How to apply it practically to the difficult problem he had to solve he could not see. “What I want now is a friend to talk the matter over with. It is so easy to deceive oneself. Besides, there is such an advantage in two persons approaching a subject from different points of view. But who to go to? Forrest?” A smile passed over his face, and he shook with internal laughter. “Not he; a good fellow in his way, but quite at sea here. Preston (the barrister before mentioned) is out of town, or I would go to him. What is the time? Just nine (pulling out his watch). Ah! Gerald Delanne will be at home now. I will go and see him. He is a shrewd, clear-headed fellow; it will go hard if I can’t get an idea or two out of him.” And, putting on his hat, and taking his walking stick, without which he was rarely seen, he descended the stairs.

“What time shall you return, Mr. Kraker?” asked Mrs. Corfield, calling out from somewhere in the lower regions.

“Can’t say.”

“Shall anyone sit up?”

“No, no, of course not.”

And, banging the door to, he strode off in the direction of Russell Square, and in little more than five minutes was at his friend’s house.