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HOME > Short Stories > Colonel Thorndyke's Secret > CHAPTER XII.
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 The next morning Mark commenced work in earnest, and for two months visited all the worst slums of London in company with one of the Bow Street men. Both were generally in disguise, but Mark's companion sometimes went openly to some of the houses inhabited by men well known as criminals. On such occasions Mark remained within call, ready to go in if assistance should be required; but there was small fear of this, the men who were visited were all personally known to the officer, and generally greeted him with “You aint wanting me, are you?” “Not at all; what I am wanting is a little information for which I shall be quite willing to pay the first man who enables us to lay hands on the gentleman I want to find.” Then he would describe Bastow's appearance.
“He has taken to the road, I fancy, and has given us a good deal of trouble; if it is the man I think it is, he has been away from London for some years, and came back eight or ten months ago.”
The reply was always to the same effect:
“I don't know of such a man, and never heard of him. For my part, I would not split on a pal, not for anything; but I should not mind earning five guineas to put you on a cove who is not one of us. Besides, it aint only the money; you know, you might do me a good turn some day.”
“Quite so; well, I can tell you it is a good deal more than five guineas that would be earned if you could put me in the way of laying my hand on his shoulder. I don't think that he is living in town. I expect he is in some quiet neighborhood; still, if he is on the road, he must have a horse somewhere. You might ask among the stables, and find out whether anyone keeps a horse there who is in the habit of going out in the afternoon and not coming back until the next day. You have plenty of time upon your hands, and it would pay you well if you could bring me the information I want.”
The officer said to Mark at the end of two months: “These knights of the road don't often mix themselves up with the London housebreakers. The most likely men to be able to tell you about the doings of such a fellow would be receivers of stolen goods, but it would be dangerous to question any of them—they would be sure to put him on his guard. I will give you a list of some of them, and I should say that your best way would be to watch their places of an evening, from the time it gets dark till ten or eleven. Of course, it is just a chance. You may watch one place for a month and he may happen to go there the very day you have gone off to watch another crib. Still, there is just the chance, and I don't see that there is one any other way.”
During this time Mark had been taking a lesson every evening with Needham, and had surprised his teacher with the rapidity of his progress; he had said, the very evening before, when Mark had countered him with a blow that knocked him for two or three minutes senseless:
“We have had enough of this, governor; you have got beyond me altogether, and I don't want another blow like that. You had better take on Gibbons now. You are too big altogether for me, and yet you don't fight like a heavyweight, for you are as quick on your pins as I am.”
Well pleased at having the day to himself and of having got clear of his work in the thieves' rookeries, Mark went the next morning to Gibbons' shop. His entry was hailed by a chorus of barking from dogs of all sorts and sizes, from the bulldog down to the ratting terrier.
“Glad to see you, Mr. Thorndyke,” Gibbons said, when he had silenced the barking. “I saw Jack last week, and he told me that he should hand you over to me pretty soon, for that you were getting beyond him altogether, and he thought that if you stuck to it you would give me all my work to do in another six months.”
“I finished with him last night, Gibbons, and I shall be ready to come for a lesson to you every morning, somewhere about this hour. I have brought my bag with my togs.”
“All right, sir, I am ready at once; the place is clear now behind. I have just been making it tidy, for we had a little ratting last night, one of my dogs against Sir James Collette's, fifty rats each; my dog beat him by three quarters of a minute.”
“You will never see me here at one of those businesses. I have no objection to stand up to a man my own size and give and take until we have had enough, but to see rats slaughtered when they have not a chance of making a fight of it is altogether out of my line.”
“Well, sir, I do not care about it myself; there are lots who do like it, and are ready to wager their money on it, and as it helps to sell my dogs, besides what I can win out of the event—it was a wager of twenty guineas last night—it aint for me to set myself up against it.”
Calling a boy to look after the shop, Gibbons went away into a wooden building in the back yard; it was about twenty-five feet square, and there were holes in the floor for the stakes, when a regular ring was made. The floor was strewn with clean sawdust; a number of boxing gloves hung by the wall.
“There is the dressing room,” Gibbons said, pointing to a door at the other end. When both were ready he looked Mark over. “Your muscles have thickened out a good bit, sir, since I saw you strip. Before another four years, if you keep on at it, you will be as big a man as I am. I am about eight years too old, and you are four years too young. You will improve every day, and I shan't. Now, sir, let us see what you can do. Jack tells me that you are wonderfully quick on your feet; there is the advantage you have of me. I am as strong as ever I was, I think, but I find that I cannot get about as I used to.”
He stood somewhat carelessly at first, but as they sparred for an opening he became more careful, and presently hit out sharply. Mark leaped back, and then, springing forward, struck out with his left; Gibbons only just stopped it and then countered, but Mark was out of reach again.
“That is good enough,” Gibbons said; “I can see Jack has taught you pretty nearly all there is to know. We will just take those hits again. You were right to get away from the first, but the second time you should have guarded with your left, and hit at my chin with your right. That jumping back game is first rate for avoiding punishment, but you have got to come in again to hit. You took me by surprise that time, and nearly got home, but you would not do it twice,” and so the lesson went on for three quarters of an hour.
“That will do for today, sir; I am getting blown, if you are not. Well, I can tell you I have never had a more promising pupil, and I have brought forward two or three of the best men in the ring; no wonder that Jack cannot do much with you. Give me six months, every day, and you should have a turn occasionally with other men, and I would back you for a hundred pounds against any man now in the ring.”
Three or four days later Mark received a message that the chief wanted to speak with him that afternoon, and he accordingly went down.
“I've got a job for you, Mr. Thorndyke; it is just the sort of thing that will suit you. There is a house in Buckingham Street that we have had our eye on for some time; it is a gambling house, but with that we have nothing to do unless complaints are made, but we have had several complaints of late. It is a well got up place, and there are a good many men of title frequent it, but men of title are not always more honest than other people; anyhow, there are some rooks there, and several young fellows of means have been pigeoned and ruined. They are mighty particular who they let in, and there would be very little chance of getting my regular men in there. Now, you are a stranger in London, but you have friends here, and no doubt you could get introduced. We want to know if the play is fair; if it isn't, we would break the place up altogether. We know enough to do it now; but none of the poor beggars who have been ruined will come forward, and, indeed, haven't any idea, I think, that they have lost their money in anything but a run of bad luck.
“One young fellow blew his brains out last week, and his father came here with a list of what are called debts of honor, which he found in his room. There they are, and the names of the men they are owed to; of course some of them have been fairly won, but I have a strong suspicion that those I have marked with a cross have not been. For instance, there is Sir James Flash, a fellow who was turned out of White's two years ago for sharp practice with cards; there is John Emerson, he is a man of good family, but all his friends have given him up long ago, and he has been living by his wits for the last five years. The others marked are all of the same sort. Now, what I want you to do is to become a frequenter of the place; of course you will have to play a little, and as you are a stranger I expect that they will let you win for a bit; but if not the old gentleman has placed 200 pounds in my hands for the expenses.”
“I could play with my own money,” Mark said rather warmly.
“You forget, Mr. Thorndyke,” the chief said firmly, “that at the present moment you are a member of my force, and that you go to this place in that capacity, and not as Squire of Crowswood; therefore you must, if you please, do as I instruct you. The gentleman will be ready to pay that sum. As you see, the amounts entered here total up to nearly 10,000 pounds. He said that it will ruin him to pay that sum, but that he must do so rather than his son should be branded as a defaulter. I have advised him to write to all these people saying that it will take him some time to raise the money, but that he will see that nobody shall be a loser by his son's debts. I have told him in the meantime that I will endeavor to get proof that the play was not fair, and in that case he would, of course, refuse to pay any of the claims on that ground; and you may be sure that if unfair play was proved none of those concerned would dare to press their claims.”
“Then my function would be simply to watch?”
“Yes, to watch, and to bring me word of anything you may observe. You see, without making a public scandal, if it could be found that a man was discovered cheating, and the way in which he was doing it, one would be able to put so strong a pressure on him, that not only might he be forced to abstain from going to any club, but would be frightened into giving up any IOUs he might hold.”
“I shall be glad to do the best I can, sir; but frankly I know next to nothing of cards, and should have but little chance of detecting anything that might be going on, when it must be done so cleverly that experienced gamblers, watching a man closely, fail to see anything wrong.”
“I quite understand that; but one of my men has made a study of the various methods employed by gamblers to cheat, and although it would take you years to learn how to do it yourself, a few hours' instruction from him would at least put you up to some of their methods, and enable you to know where to look for cheating. The man is now waiting in the next room, and if you will take two or three hours daily with him, say for a week, you ought to be able to detect the doings of these fellows when to others everything seems right and above board. You may have no inclination for cards, but knowledge of that sort is useful to anyone in society, here or anywhere else, and may enable him either to save his own pocket or to do a service to a friend.”
Mark was greatly interested in the tricks the man showed him. At first it seemed to him almost magical, after he himself had shuffled the cards and cut them the dealer invariably turned up a king. Even admitting he might have various places of concealment, pockets in the lining of the sleeve, in the inside of the coat, and in various other parts of the dress, in which cards could be concealed and drawn out by silken threads, it did not seem possible that this could be done with such quickness as to be unobserved. It was only when his teacher showed him, at first in the slowest manner, and then gradually increasing his speed, that he perceived that what seemed impossible was easy enough when the necessary practice and skill had been attained. The man was indeed an adept at a great variety of tricks by which the unsuspecting could be taken in.
“I ought to know,” he said. “I was for three years in a gambling house in Paris, where every other man was a sharper. I have been in places of the same sort in Belgium, Holland, Germany, and Italy. At first I was only a boy waiter, and as until evening there was nothing doing at these places, men would sometimes amuse themselves by teaching me tricks, easy ones to begin with, and when they saw I was sharp and quick handed they went on. After a time I began to work as a confederate, and at last on my own account; but I got disgusted with it at last. A young fellow shot himself at the table of the gambling house at Rome, and at another place I was nearly killed by a man who had lost heavily—do you see, it has left a broad scar right across my forehead?—so I gave it up.
“I was in the French police for a time, and used to watch some of the lower hells. I was nearly killed there once or twice, and at last I came back here. My French chief gave me a letter to the chief, and I was taken on at once, for, talking as I do half a dozen languages, and being acquainted with most of the swell mobsmen of Paris, I was just the man who happened to be wanted here at the time. Since I came over I have done a good deal in the way of breaking up hells where sailors and others are plundered. But, you see, I cannot be used for the higher class of work; my nose has been broken, and I have half a dozen scars on my face. I hate the sight of cards now. I have seen so much of the ruin they do, and have, I am sorry to say, taken a hand so often in doing it, that save showing someone who would use the knowledge in the right way how the tricks are done, nothing would persuade me to touch them again. However, as a protection, the knowledge is as useful as it is dangerous when used the other way. It would take you ten years to learn to do these tricks yourself so well as to defy detection; but in a very short time, by learning where to keep your eyes, you would get to detect almost any of them.
“You see, there are three methods of cheating: the first by hidden cards, the second by marked cards, the third simply by sleight of hand, this being generally used in connection with marked cards. These tricks require great skill and extreme delicacy of touch, for the marks, which are generally at the edge of the cards, are so slight as to be altogether imperceptible save to a trained hand. There are also marks on the back of the cards; these are done in the printing, and are so slight that, unless attention were attracted to them, no one would dream of their existence.”
In the course of a week's practice Mark learned where to look for cheating; he could not indeed follow the fingers of his instructor, for even when he knew what was going to be done, the movements were so rapid that his eye could not follow them, and in nine cases out of ten he was unable to say whether the coup had been accomplished or not; but he could see that there was a slight movement of the fingers that could only mean that something was being done.
“It would be a good thing,” he said one day, “if every young fellow before going out into the world were to have a course of such instruction as you are giving me; he would learn, at least, the absolute folly of sitting down to play cards with strangers. He would see that he could be robbed in fifty different ways, and would be at the absolute mercy of any sharper. I never had any inclination for gambling, but if I had been inclined that way you would have cured me of the passion for life.”
The week's instruction was lengthened to a fortnight, and at the end of that time Mark went to Dick Chetwynd.
“Do you know, Dick,” he said, “a gambling place in Buckingham Street?”
“I know that there is a hell there, Mark, but I have never been in it. Why do you ask?”
“I have rather a fancy to go there,” he replied. “I hear that, although a good many men of f............
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