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Chapter I.

IT was a chilly gusty night in the autumn of the year 188—. Short, sharp showers of rain occurred at intervals, when the fitful wind lulled for a space, and allowed the heavy clouds to collect in a dark mass overhead. The streets of London were slushy, and the pavements cold and slippery with a coating of soft mud. The foot-passengers jostled each other, and were rude in their struggle for the inside walking, where they might be less exposed to the unceasing sprays of slush from the remorseless wheel traffic. London, in fact, was dirty and exceedingly disagreeable.

At 7.30 p.m. the diurnal rush from city to suburb had died its usual natural death. The bearish scramble for the omnibus was over for the day; so also was the flood tide of traffic on the Underground Railway. Of toilers in the city only those who had been detained by unusual causes or by stress of work were still abroad.




  ― 174 ―

Among the stragglers who hurried into the Farringdon Street Station about the hour mentioned, a tall man with somewhat bowed shoulders might have been remarked. There was nothing particularly striking about his appearance save his beard, which was unusually thick and unkempt for these prim times. His clothes were of a cut and preservation such as to suggest the possession by their wearer of average means. He wore an ordinary felt hat, rather wide in the brim, and an overcoat of dark material, the collar of which was turned up; and in his gloveless hand he carried an umbrella dry and furled.

“Gower Street,” said the person I have described, on stooping to present his face at the window of the ticket office.

“What class?”

“First.”

Then, while the clerk was stamping the ticket, the bearded man, with some deliberation, laid his umbrella on the ledge of the window and drew some money from his pocket. Having paid for and received his ticket, he hurried away.

“Hi!” shouted the clerk, “you're leaving your umbrella.”

The man came back, took his umbrella, muttered “Thank you,” in his beard, and again hurried away.

“Funny customer that!” soliloquized the clerk. “Doesn't use his umbrella, and doesn't remember it. A good gamp wasted on an idiot—and in such weather as this too!”




  ― 175 ―

Meanwhile the absent-minded stranger had had his ticket clipped, passed through the gates, and reached the platform. Here he stood motionless under the board “Wait here for first-class.” He had not long to wait. In a few moments a train drew up at the platform. It was fairly peopled in the third-class, and sparsely in the second, while the first-class compartments in the centre of the train were all unoccupied with the exception of one. That one contained a solitary man, and into that compartment the bearded traveller, after a hurried glance at the other carriages, entered. First-class passengers were not much abroad that night. No one else entered the carriage after the man whose movements we are following.

In a few moments the train moved on to King's Cross—a very short run from Farringdon: one of the shortest, in fact, on the line. The bearded man had taken the corner next the door he had entered, and fronting the engine. His face was turned towards his fellow-passenger; but its expression could not have been seen through his beard, and even his eyes were concealed by his hat, which he had pulled forward. The other occupant of the compartment sat at the far end, with his back towards the engine. He was middle-aged, very slight in figure, and well dressed. His face was thin, delicate, and extremely agreeable; the hair both of head and face was somewhat grey, short, and carefully


  ― 176 ―
trimmed. Altogether this passenger had an air of neatness and refinement about him. You would have said at once that he was a gentleman.

The train stopped at King's Cross, and then started on its longer run to Gower Street, and still these two men were alone. Perhaps the foul sulphurous atmosphere peculiar to the Underground Railway was more pronounced here, for as the train moved from the station the bearded man ejaculated “Bah!” and shifted from the window half-way along the seat. His fellow-passenger, who, with his hat pushed back from his high white forehead, was smiling over one of the comic papers, looked up for a moment, and returned to his diversion. A moment! An innocent, half-surprised glance at the man who sat with down-turned face almost exactly opposite him. That was all! No instinct of peril. No prompting to vigilance and defence!

For the bearded man's hand had crept to his pocket, and his eyes, blazing with greed for crime, had risen from the floor and fastened upon his neighbour's breast, from which the overcoat was drawn aside. And still there was no instinct of danger, no thought of ill, as the small man read his last witticism and smiled his last smile, and so smiling received to its hilt in his breast the sharp, fierce-driven knife.

A short, strange, horrible gasp, the victim's last effort at respiration, and a moving of startled, death-filled eyes, which, staring for a moment


  ― 177 ―
with no recognition, but wondering horror at the murderer, asked, “What have I done to thee?” and then the stricken man's head fell upon his breast and his life went out.

One minute only had passed since the train left King's Cross, and time was still with the murderer. Many moments would pass before Gower Street was reached, precious moments! He had done the murder; he had still to save himself. He had stood while his victim died, bent forward and motionless—eyes hidden by the muscular contraction of forehead and cheeks, and glittering white teeth showing through the thick beard and moustache. He recovered himself by a spasmodic movement. His first care was to throw the comic paper out of the window. Then he seized the warm dead body, which had slipped down along the seat, and propped it sitting and upright in the corner, while the still limp fingers of the right hand he arranged round the handle of the knife. “Suicide!” he muttered, glancing quickly at the effect. “A clear case! Temporary insanity! Murder impossible on the Underground Railway!”

Then he stood at the door. As the train emerged from the darkness into the light of the Gower Street Station he noticed blood on his right hand. But he put the hand to his mouth, and when he withdrew it the stain was gone. Before the train stopped the murderer looked back once, without a shudder, at the still body


  ― 178 ―
of the murdered man, and then he jumped on to the platform, shutting the carriage-door upon his work, and the next moment was lost in the crowd.

And the people who elbowed their way to the gates were shoulder to shoulder with a murderer hot from his crime!

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