HE PURSUED his leisurely way to the Bellingham Library, one of the institutions of London that is known only to a select few. No novel or volume of sparkling reminiscence has a place upon the shelves of this institution, founded a hundred years ago to provide scientists and litterateurs with an opportunity of consulting volumes which were unprocurable save at the British Museum. On the four floors which constituted the building, fat volumes of German philosophy, learned and, to the layman, unintelligible books on scientific phenomena, obscure treatises on almost every kind of uninteresting subject, stood shoulder to shoulder upon their sedate shelves.
John Bellingham, who in the eighteenth century had founded this exchange of learning, had provided in the trust deeds that 'two intelligent females, preferably in indigent circumstances', should form part of the staff, and it was to one of these that Dick was conducted.
In a small, high - ceilinged room, redolent of old leather, a girl sat at a table, engaged in filing index cards.
"I am from Scotland Yard," Dick introduced himself. "I understand that some of your books have been stolen?"
He was looking at the packed shelves as he spoke, for he was not interested in females, intelligent or stupid, indigent or wealthy. The only thing he noticed about her was that she wore black and that her hair was a golden - brown and was brushed into a fringe over her forehead. In a vague way he supposed that most girls had hair of golden - brown, and be had a dim idea that fringes were popular among working - class ladies.
"Yes," she said quietly, "a book was stolen from this room whilst I was at luncheon. It was not very valuable - a German volume written by Haeckel called 'Generelle Morphologic'."
She opened a drawer and took out an index card and laid it before him, and he read the words without bong greatly enlightened.
"Who was here in your absence?" he asked.
"My assistant, a girl named Helder."
"Did any of your subscribers come into this room during that time?"
"Several," she replied. "I have their names, but most of them are above suspicion. The only visitor we had who is not a subscriber of the library was a gentleman named Stalleti, an Italian doctor, who called to make inquiries as to subscription."
"He gave his name?" asked Dick.
"No," said the girl to his surprise; "but Miss Helder recognized him; she had seen his portrait somewhere. I should have thought you would have remembered his name."
"Why on earth should I remember his name, my good girl?" asked Dick a little irritably.
"Why on earth shouldn't you, my good man?" she demanded coolly, and at that moment Dick Martin was aware of her, in the sense that she emerged from the background against which his life moved and became a personality.
Her eyes were grey and set wide apart; her nose straight and small; the mouth was a little wide - and she certainly had golden - brown hair.
"I beg your pardon!" he laughed. "As a matter of fact" - he had a trick of confidence which could be very deceptive - "I'm not at all interested in this infernal robbery. I'm leaving the police force tomorrow."
"There will be great joy amongst the criminal classes," she said politely, and when he saw the light of laughter in her eyes, his heart went out to her.
"You have a sense of humour," he smiled.
"You mean by that, that I've a sense of your humour," she answered quickly. "I have, or I should very much object to being called 'my good girl' even by an officer of the law" - "he looked at his card again - "even with the rank of sub - inspector."
There was a chair at his hand. Dick drew it out and sat down unbidden.
"I abase myself for my rudeness, and humbly beg information on the subject of Signor Stalleti. The names means no more to me than John Smith - the favourite pseudonym of all gentlemen caught in the act of breaking through the pantry window in the middle of the night."
For a second she surveyed him gravely, her red lips pursed. "And you're a detective?" she said, in a hushed voice. "One of those almost human beings who protect us while we sleep!"
He was helpless with laughter.
"I surrender!" He put up his hands. "And now, having put me in my place, which I admit is a pretty lowly one, perhaps you will pass across a little information about the purloined literature."
"I've no information to pass across." She leaned back in her chair, looking at him interestedly. "The book was here at two o'clock; it was not here at half past two - there may be fingerprints on the shelf, but I doubt it, because we keep three charladies for the sole purpose of cleaning up fingerprints."
"But who is Stalleti?"
She nodded slowly. "That was why I expressed a little wonder about your being a detective," she said. "My assistant tells me that he is known to the police. Would you like to see his book?"
"Has he written a book?" he asked in genuine surprise. She got up, went out of the room and returned with a thin volume, plainly bound. He took the volume in his hand and read the title.
"New Thoughts on Constructive Biology, by Antonio Stalletti." Turning the closely printed leaves, broken almost at every page by diagrams and statistical tables, he asked: "Why did he get into trouble with the police? I didn't know that it was a criminal offence to write a book."
"It is," she emphatically; "but not invariably punished as such. I understand that the law took no exception to Mr Stalletti being an author; and that his offence was in connection with vivisection or something equally horrid."
"What is all this about?" He handed the book back to her.
"It is about human beings," she said solemnly, "like you and me; and how much better and happier they would be if, instead of being mollycoddled - I think that is the scientific term - they were allowed to run wild in a wood and fed on a generous diet of nuts."
"Oh, vegetarian stuff!" said Slick contemptuously.
"Not exactly vegetarian. But perhaps you would like to become a subscriber and read it for yourself?" And then she dropped her tone of banter. "The truth is, Mr - er - " she looked at his card again - "Martin, we are really not worried about the loss of this book of Haeckel's. It is already replaced, and if the secretary hadn't been such a goop he wouldn't have reported the matter to the police. And I beg of you" - she raised a warning finger - "if you meet our secretary that you will not repeat my opinion of him. Now please tell me something that will make my flesh creep. I've never met a detective before, I may never meet one again."
Dick put down the book and rose to his seventy - two inches. "Madam," he said, "I have not mustered courage to ask your name, I deserve all the roasting you have given me, but as you are strong, be merciful. Where does Stalleti live?"
She picked up the book and turned back the cover to a preface.
"Gallows Cottage. That sounds a little creepy doesn't it? It is in Sussex."
"I can read that for myself," he said, nettled, and she became instantly penitent.
"You see, we aren't used to these exciting interludes, and a police visitation gets into one's head. I really don't think the book's worth bothering about, but I suppose my word doesn't go very far."
"Was anybody here besides Stalleti?" She showed him a list of four names. "Except Mr Stalletti, I don't think anybody is under suspicion. As a matter of fact, the other three people were severely historical, and biology wouldn't interest them in the slightest degree. It could not have happened if I had been here, because I'm naturally rather observant."
She stopped suddenly and looked at the desk. The book that had been lying there a few seconds before had disappeared. "Did you take it?" she asked.
"Did you see me take it?" he challenged.
"I certainly didn't. I could have sworn it was there a second ago.
He took it from under his coat and handed it to her. "I like observant people," he said.
"But how did you do it?" She was mystified. "I had my hand on the book and I only took my eyes off for a second."
"One of these days I'll come along and teach you," he said with portentous gravity, and was in the street before he remembered that clever as he was, he had not succeeded in learning the name of this very capable young lady.
Sybil Lansdown walked to the window which commanded a view of the square and watched him till he was out of sight, a half smile on her lips and the light of triumph in her eyes. Her first inclination was to dislike him intensely; she hated self - satisfied men. And yet he wasn't exactly that. She wondered if she would ever meet him again - there were so few amusing people in the world, and she felt that - she took up the card - Sub - Inspector Richard Martin might be very amusing indeed.