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Room 13

By Edgar Wallace All Rights Reserved ©

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Chapter 1

OVER the grim stone archway was carved the words:

PARCERE SUBJECTIS.

In cold weather, and employing the argot of his companions Johnny Gray translated this as "Parky Subjects"—it certainly had no significance as "Spare the Vanquished" for he had been neither vanquished nor spared.

Day by day, harnessed to the shafts, he and Lal Morgon had pulled a heavy hand-cart up the steep slope, and day by day had watched absently the red-bearded gate-warder put his key in the big polished lock and snap open the gates. And then the little party had passed through, an armed warder leading, an armed warder behind, and the gate had closed.

And at four o'clock he had walked back under the archway and waited whilst the gate was unlocked and the handcart admitted.

Every building was hideously familiar. The gaunt "halls," pitch painted against the Dartmoor storms, the low-roofed office, the gas house, the big, barn-like laundry, the ancient bakery, the exercise yard with its broken asphalt, the ugly church, garishly decorated, the long, scrubbed benches with the raised seats for the warders… and the graveyard where the happily released lifers rested from their labours.

One morning in spring, he went out of the gate with a working-party. They were building a shed, and he had taken the style and responsibility of bricklayer's labourer. He liked the work because you can talk more freely on a job like that, and he wanted to hear all that Lal Morgon had to say about the Big Printer.

"Not so much talking to-day." said the warder in charge, seating himself on a sack-covered brick heap.

"No, sir." said Lal.

He was a wizened man of fifty and a lifer, and he had no ambition, which was to live long enough to get another "lagging."

"But not burglary. Gray," he said as he leisurely set a brick in its place; "and not shootin', like old Legge got his packet. And not faking Spider King, like you got yours."

"I didn't get mine for faking Spider King," said Johnny calmly. "I didn't know that Spider King had been rung in when I took him on the course, and was another horse altogether. They framed up Spider King to catch me. I am not complaining."

"I know you're innocent—everybody is." said Lal soothingly. "I'm the only guilty man in boob. That's what the governor says. 'Morgon,' he says, 'it does my heart good to meet a guilty man that ain't the victim of circumstantiality. Like everybody else is in boob,' he says."

Johnny did not pursue the subject. There was no reason why he should. This fact was beyond dispute. He had known all about the big racecourse swindles that were being worked, and had been an associate of men who backed the "rung in" horses. He accepted the sentence of three years' penal servitude that had been passed without appeal or complaint. Not because he was guilty of the act for which he was charged—there was another excellent reason.

"If they lumbered you with the crime, it was because you was a mug," said old Lal complacently. "That's what mugs are for—to be lumbered. What did old Kane say?"

"I didn't see Mr. Kane." said Johnny shortly.

"He'd think you was a mug, too," said Lal with satisfaction—"hand me a brick. Gray, and shut up! That nosey screw's coming over." The "nosey screw" was no more inquisitive than any other warder. He strolled across, the handle of his truncheon showing from his pocket, the well-worn strap dangling. "Not so much talking," he said mechanically.

"I was asking for a brick, sir,-" said Lal humbly. "These bricks ain't so good as the last lot."

"I've noticed that," said the warder, examining a half-brick with a professional and disapproving eye.

"Trust you to notice that, sir," said the sycophant with the right blend of admiration and awe. And, when the warder had passed:

"That boss-eyed perisher don't know a brick from a gas-stove," said Lal without heat. "He's the bloke that old Legge got straightened when he was in here—used to have private letters brought in every other day. But then, old Legge's got money. Him and Peter Kane smashed the strong-room 'of the Orsonic and got away with a million dollars. They never caught Peter, but Legge was easy. He shot a copper and got life."

Johnny had heard Legge's biography a hundred times, but Lal Morgon had reached the stage of life when every story he told was new.

"That's why he hates Peter," said the garrulous bricklayer. "That's why young Legge and him are going to get Peter. And young Legge's hot! Thirty years of age by all accounts, and the biggest printer of slush in the world! And it's not ord'nary slush. Experts get all mixed up when they see young Legge's notes—can't tell 'em from real Bank of England stuff. And the police and the secret service after him for years—and then never got him!"

The day was warm, and Lal stripped off his red and blue striped working jacket. He wore, as did the rest of the party, the stained yellow breeches faintly stamped with the broad arrow. Around his calves were buttoned yellow gaiters. His shirt was of stout cotton, white with narrow blue stripes, and on his head was a cap adorned with mystic letters of the alphabet to indicate the dates of his convictions. A week later, when the letters were abolished, Lal Morgon had a grievance. He felt as a soldier might feel when he was deprived of his decorations.

"You've never met young Jeff?" stated rather than asked Lal, smoothing a dab of mortar with a leisurely touch.

"I've seen him—I have not met him," said Johnny grimly, and something in his tone made the old convict look up.

"He 'shopped' me," said Johnny, and Lal indicated his surprise with an inclination of his head that was ridiculously like a bow.

"I don't know why, but I do know that he 'shopped 'me," said Johnny. "He was the man who fixed up the fake, got me persuaded to bring the horse on to the course, and then squeaked. Until then I did not know that the alleged Spider King was in reality Boy Saunders cleverly camouflaged."

"Squeaking's hidjus," said the shocked Lal, and he seemed troubled. "And Emanuel Legge's boy, too! Why did he do it—did you catch him over money?"

Johnny shook his head.

"I don't know. If it's true that he hates Peter Kane he may have done it out of revenge, knowing that I'm fond of Peter, and… well, I'm fond of Peter. He warned me about mixing with the crowd I ran with—"

"Stop that talking, will you?" They worked for some time in silence. Then: "That screw will get somebody hung one of these days," said Lal in a tone of quiet despair. "He's the feller that little Lew Morse got a bashing for—over clouting him with a spanner in the blacksmith's shop. He was nearly killed. What a pity! Lew wasn't much account, an' he's often said he'd as soon be dead as sober."

At four o'clock the working-party fell in and marched or shuffled down the narrow road to the prison gates. Parcere Subjectis. Johnny looked up and winked at the grim jest, and he had the illusion that the archway winked back at him. At half-past four he turned into the deep-recessed doorway of his cell, and the yellow door closed on him with a metallic snap of a lock.

It was a big, vaulted cell, and the colour of the folded blanket ends gave it a rakish touch of gaiety. On a shelf in one corner was a photograph of a fox terrier, a pretty head turned inquiringly toward him. He poured out a mugful of water and drank it, looking up at the barred window. Presently his tea would come, and then the lock would be put on for eighteen and a half hours. And for eighteen and a half hours he must amuse himself as best he could. He could read whilst the light held—a volume of travel was on the ledge that served as a table. Or he could write on his slate, or draw horses and dogs, or work out interminable problems in mathematics, or write poetry… or think. That was the worst exercise of all. He crossed the cell and took down the photograph. The mount had worn limp with much handling, and he looked with a half-smile into the big eyes of the terrier.

"It is a pity you can't write, old Spot." he said. Other people could write, and did, he thought as he replaced the photograph. But Peter Kane never once mentioned Marney, and Marney had not written since… a long time. It was ominous, informative, in some ways decisive. A brief reference, "Marney is well," or "Marney thanks you for your inquiry," and that was all.

The whole story was clearly written in those curt phrases, the story of Peter's love for the girl, and his determination that she should not marry a man with the prison taint. Peter's adoration of his daughter was almost a mania—her happiness and her future came first, and must always be first. Peter loved him—Johnny had sensed that. He had given him the affection that a man might give his grown son. If this tragic folly of his had not led to the entanglement which brought him to a convict prison, Peter would have given Marney to him, as she was willing to give herself. "That's that," said Johnny, in his role of philosopher. And then came tea and the final lock-up, and silence… and thoughts again.

Why did young Legge trap him? He had only seen the man once; they had never even met. It was only by chance that he had ever seen this young printer of forged notes. He could not guess that he was known to the man he "shopped," for Jeff Legge was an illusive person. One never met him in the usual rendezvous where the half-underworld foregather to boast and plot or drink and love.

A key rattled in the lock, and Johnny got up. He forgot that it was the evening when the chaplain visited him. "Sit down. Gray." The door closed on the clergyman, and he seated himself on Johnny's bed. It was curious that he should take up the thread of Johnny's interrupted thoughts.

"I want to get your mind straight about this man Legge… the son, I mean. It is pretty bad to brood on grievances, real or fancied, and you are nearing the end of your term of imprisonment, when your resentment will have a chance of expressing itself. And, Gray, I don't want to see you here again."

Johnny Gray smiled.

"You won't see me here!" he emphasised the word. "As to Jeff Legge, I know little about him, though I've done some fairly fluent guessing and I've heard a lot."

The chaplain shook his head thoughtfully.

"I have heard a little; he's the man they call the Big Printer, isn't he? Of course, I know all about the flooding of Europe with spurious notes, and that the police had failed to catch the man who was putting them into circulation. Is that Jeff Legge?"

Johnny did not answer, and the chaplain smiled a little sadly. "Thou shalt not squeak'—the eleventh commandment, isn't it?" he asked good-humouredly. "I am afraid I have been indiscreet. When does your sentence end?"

"In six months," replied Johnny, "and I'll not be sorry."

"What are you going to do? Have you any money?"

The convict's lips twitched.

"Yes, I have three thousand a year," he said quietly. "That is a fact which did not come out at the trial, for certain reasons. No, padre, money isn't my difficulty. I suppose I shall travel. I certainly shall not attempt to live down my grisly past."

"That means you're not going to change your name," said the chaplain with a twinkle in his eye. "Well, with three thousand a year, I can't see you coming here again." Suddenly he remembered. Putting his hand in his pocket, he took out a letter. "The Deputy gave me this, and I'd nearly forgotten. It arrived this morning."

The letter was opened, as were all letters that came to convicts, and Johnny glanced carelessly at the envelope. It was not, as he had expected, a letter from his lawyer. The bold handwriting was Peter Kane's—the first letter he had written for six months. He waited until the door had closed upon the visitor, and then he took the letter from the envelope. There were only a few lines of writing.

'Dear Johnny, I hope you are not going to be very much upset by the news I am telling you. Marney is marrying Major Floyd, of Toronto, and I know that you're big enough and fine enough to wish her luck. The man she is marrying is a real good fellow who will make her happy.

Johnny put down the letter on to the ledge, and for ten minutes paced the narrow length of his cell, his hands clasped behind him. Marney to be married! His face was white, tense, his eyes dark with gloom. He stopped and poured out a mugful of water with a hand that shook, then raised the glass to the barred window that looked eastward.

"Good luck to you, Marney!" he said huskily, and drank the mug empty.

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