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Peril sharpens the intellect. Archie's mind as a rule worked in rather a languid and restful sort of way, but now it got going with a rush and a whir. He glared round the room. He had never seen a room so devoid of satisfactory cover. And then there came to him a scheme, a ruse. It offered a chance of escape. It was, indeed, a bit of all right.
Peter, the snake, loafing contentedly about the carpet, found himself seized by what the Encyclopaedia calls the "distensible gullet" and looked up reproachfully. The next moment he was in his bag again; and Archie, bounding silently into the bathroom, was tearing the cord off his dressing-gown.
There came a banging at the door. A voice spoke sternly. A masculine voice this time.
"Say! Open this door!"
Archie rapidly attached the dressing-gown cord to the handle of the bag, leaped to the window, opened it, tied the cord to a projecting piece of iron on the sill, lowered Peter and the bag into the depths, and closed the window again. The whole affair took but a few seconds. Generals have received the thanks of their nations for displaying less resource on the field of battle.
He opened the-door. Outside stood the bereaved woman, and beside her a bullet-headed gentleman with a bowler hat on the back of his head, in whom Archie recognised the hotel detective.
The hotel detective also recognised Archie, and the stern cast of his features relaxed. He even smiled a rusty but propitiatory smile. He imagined--erroneously--that Archie, being the son-in-law of the owner of the hotel, had a pull with that gentleman; and he resolved to proceed warily lest he jeopardise his job.
"Why, Mr. Moffam!" he said, apologetically. "I didn't know it was you I was disturbing."
"Always glad to have a chat," said Archie, cordially. "What seems to be the trouble?"
"My snake!" cried the queen of tragedy. "Where is my snake?"
Archie, looked at the detective. The detective looked at Archie.
"This lady," said the detective, with a dry little cough, "thinks her snake is in your room, Mr. Moffam,"
"Snake's what the lady said,"
"My snake! My Peter!" Mme. Brudowska's voice shook with emotion. "He is here--here in this room,"
Archie shook his head.
"No snakes here! Absolutely not! I remember noticing when I came in."
"The snake is here--here in this room. This man had it in a bag! I saw him! He is a thief!"
"Easy, ma'am!" protested the detective. "Go easy! This gentleman is the boss's son-in-law."
"I care not who he is! He has my snake! Here--' here in this room!"
"Mr. Moffam wouldn't go round stealing snakes."
"Rather not," said Archie. "Never stole a snake in my life. None of the Moffams have ever gone about stealing snakes. Regular family tradition! Though I once had an uncle who kept gold-fish."
"Here he is! Here! My Peter!"
Archie looked at the detective. The detective looked at Archie. "We must humour her!" their glances said.
"Of course," said Archie, "if you'd like to search the room, what? What I mean to say is, this is Liberty Hall. Everybody welcome! Bring the kiddies!"
"I will search the room!" said Mme. Brudowska.
The detective glanced apologetically at Archie.
"Don't blame me for this, Mr. Moffam," he urged.
"Rather not! Only too glad you've dropped in!"
He took up an easy attitude against the window, and watched the empress of the emotional drama explore. Presently she desisted, baffled. For an instant she paused, as though about to speak, then swept from the room. A moment later a door banged across the passage.
"How do they get that way?" queried the detective, "Well, g'bye, Mr. Moffam. Sorry to have butted in."
The door closed. Archie waited a few moments, then went to the window and hauled in the slack. Presently the bag appeared over the edge of the window-sill.
"Good God!" said Archie.
In the rush and swirl of recent events he must have omitted to see that the clasp that fastened the bag was properly closed; for the bag, as it jumped on to the window-sill, gaped at him like a yawning face. And inside it there was nothing.
Archie leaned as far out of the window as he could manage without committing suicide. Far below him, the traffic took its usual course and the pedestrians moved to and fro upon the pavements. There was no crowding, no excitement. Yet only a few moments before a long green snake with three hundred ribs, a distensible gullet, and gastrocentrous vertebras must have descended on that street like the gentle rain from Heaven upon the place beneath. And nobody seemed even interested. Not for the first time since he had arrived in America, Archie marvelled at the cynical detachment of the New Yorker, who permits himself to be surprised at nothing.
He shut the window and moved away with a heavy Heart. He had not had the pleasure of an extended acquaintanceship with Peter, but he had seen enough of him to realise his sterling qualities. Somewhere beneath Peter's three hundred ribs there had lain a heart of gold, and Archie mourned for his loss.
Archie had a dinner and theatre engagement that night, and it was late when he returned to the hotel. He found his father-in-law prowling restlessly about the lobby. There seemed to be something on Mr. Brewster's mind. He came up to Archie with a brooding frown on his square face.
"Who's this man Seacliff?" he demanded, without preamble. "I hear he's a friend of yours."
"Oh, you've met him, what?" said Archie. "Had a nice little chat together, yes? Talked of this and that, no!"
"We have not said a word to each other."
"Really? Oh, well, dear old Squiffy is one of those strong, silent fellers you know. You mustn't mind if he's a bit dumb. He never says much, but it's whispered round the clubs that he thinks a lot. It was rumoured in the spring of nineteen-thirteen that Squiffy was on the point of making a bright remark, but it never came to anything."
Mr. Brewster struggled with his feelings.
"Who is he? You seem to know him."
"Oh yes. Great pal of mine, Squiffy. We went through Eton, Oxford, and the Bankruptcy Court together. And here's a rummy coincidence. When they examined me, I had no assets. And, when they examined Squiffy, he had no assets! Rather extraordinary, what?"
Mr. Brewster seemed to be in no mood for discussing coincidences.
"I might have known he was a friend of yours!" he said, bitterly. "Well, if you want to see him, you'll have to do it outside my hotel."
"Why, I thought he was stopping here."
"He is--to-night. To-morrow he can look for some other hotel to break up."
"Great Scot! Has dear old Squiffy been breaking the place up?"
Mr. Brewster snorted.
"I am informed that this precious friend of yours entered my grill- room at eight o'clock. He must have been completely intoxicated, though the head waiter tells me he noticed nothing at the time."
Archie nodded approvingly.
"Dear old Squiffy was always like that. It's a gift. However woozled he might be, it was impossible to detect it with the naked eye. I've seen the dear old chap many a time whiffled to the eyebrows, and looking as sober as a bishop. Soberer! When did it begin to dawn on the lads in the grill-room that the old egg had been pushing the boat out?"
"The head waiter," said Mr. Brewster, with cold fury, "tells me that he got a hint of the man's condition when he suddenly got up from his table and went the round of the room, pulling off all the table- cloths, and breaking everything that was on them. He then threw a number of rolls at the diners, and left. He seems to have gone straight to bed."
"Dashed sensible of him, what? Sound, practical chap, Squiffy. But where on earth did he get the--er--materials?"
"From his room. I made enquiries. He has six large cases in his room."
"Squiffy always was a chap of infinite resource! Well, I'm dashed sorry this should have happened, don't you know."
"If it hadn't been for you, the man would never have come here." Mr. Brewster brooded coldly. "I don't know why it is, but ever since you came to this hotel I've had nothing but trouble."
"Dashed sorry!" said Archie, sympathetically.
"Grrh!" said Mr. Brewster.
Archie made his way meditatively to the lift. The injustice of his father-in-law's attitude pained him. It was absolutely rotten and all that to be blamed for everything that went wrong in the Hotel Cosmopolis.
While this conversation was in progress, Lord Seacliff was enjoying a refreshing sleep in his room on the fourth floor. Two hours passed. The noise of the traffic in the street below faded away. Only the rattle of an occasional belated cab broke the silence. In the hotel all was still. Mr. Brewster had gone to bed. Archie, in his room, smoked meditatively. Peace may have been said to reign.
At half-past two Lord Seacliff awoke. His hours of slumber were always irregular. He sat up in bed and switched the light on. He was a shock-headed young man with a red face and a hot brown eye. He yawned and stretched himself. His head was aching a little. The room seemed to him a trifle close. He got out of bed and threw open the window. Then, returning to bed, he picked up a book and began to read. He was conscious of feeling a little jumpy, and reading generally sent him to sleep.
Much has been written on the subject of bed-books. The general consensus of opinion is that a gentle, slow-moving story makes the best opiate. If this be so, dear old Squiffy's choice of literature had been rather injudicious. His book was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and the particular story, which he selected for perusal was the one entitled, "The Speckled Band." He was not a great reader, but, when he read, he liked something with a bit of zip to it.
Squiffy became absorbed. He had read the story before, but a long time back, and its complications were fresh to him. The tale, it may be remembered, deals with the activities of an ingenious gentleman who kept a snake, and used to loose it into people's bedrooms as a preliminary to collecting on their insurance. It gave Squiffy pleasant thrills, for he had always had a particular horror of snakes. As a child, he had shrunk from visiting the serpent house at the Zoo; and, later, when he had come to man's estate and had put off childish things, and settled down in real earnest to his self- appointed mission of drinking up all the alcoholic fluid in England, the distaste for Ophidia had lingered. To a dislike for real snakes had been added a maturer shrinking from those which existed only in his imagination. He could still recall his emotions on the occasion, scarcely three months before, when he had seen a long, green serpent which a majority of his contemporaries had assured him wasn't there.
Squiffy read on:--
"Suddenly another sound became audible--a very gentle, soothing sound, like that of a small jet of steam escaping continuously from a kettle."
Lord Seacliff looked up from his book with a start Imagination was beginning to play him tricks. He could have sworn that he had actually heard that identical sound. It had seemed to come from the window. He listened again. No! All was still. He returned to his book and went on reading.
"It was a singular sight that met our eyes. Beside the table, on a wooden chair, sat Doctor Grimesby Rylott, clad in a long dressing- gown. His chin was cocked upward and his eyes were fixed in a dreadful, rigid stare at the corner of the ceiling. Round his brow he had a peculiar yellow band, with brownish speckles, which seemed to be bound tightly round his head."
"I took a step forward. In an instant his strange head-gear began to move, and there reared itself from among his hair the squat, diamond-shaped head and puffed neck of a loathsome serpent..."
"Ugh!" said Squiffy.
He closed the book and put it down. His head was aching worse than ever. He wished now that he had read something else. No fellow could read himself to sleep with this sort of thing. People ought not to write this sort of thing.
His heart gave a bound. There it was again, that hissing sound. And this time he was sure it came from the window.
He looked at the window, and remained staring, frozen. Over the sill, with a graceful, leisurely movement, a green snake was crawling. As it crawled, it raised its head and peered from side to side, like a shortsighted man looking for his spectacles. It hesitated a moment on the edge of the sill, then wriggled to the floor and began to cross the room. Squiffy stared on.
It would have pained Peter deeply, for he was a snake of great sensibility, if he had known how much his entrance had disturbed the occupant of the room. He himself had no feeling but gratitude for the man who had opened the window and so enabled him to get in out of the rather nippy night air. Ever since the bag had swung open and shot him out onto the sill of the window below Archie's, he had been waiting patiently for something of the kind to happen. He was a snake who took things as they came, and was prepared to rough it a bit if necessary; but for the last hour or two he had been hoping that somebody would do something practical in the way of getting him in out of the cold. When at home, he had an eiderdown quilt to sleep on, and the stone of the window-sill was a little trying to a snake of regular habits. He crawled thankfully across the floor under Squiffy's bed. There was a pair of trousers there, for his host had undressed when not in a frame of mind to fold his clothes neatly and place them upon a chair. Peter looked the trousers over. They were not an eiderdown quilt, but they would serve. He curled up in them and went to sleep. He had had an exciting day, and was glad to turn in.
After about ten minutes, the tension of Squiffy's attitude relaxed. His heart, which had seemed to suspend its operations, began beating again. Reason reasserted itself. He peeped cautiously under the bed. He could see nothing.
Squiffy was convinced. He told himself that he had never really believed in Peter as a living thing. It stood to reason that there couldn't really be a snake in his room. The window looked out on emptiness. His room was several stories above the ground. There was a stern, set expression on Squiffy's face as he climbed out of bed. It was the expression of a man who is turning over a new leaf, starting a new life. He looked about the room for some implement which would carry out the deed he had to do, and finally pulled out one of the curtain-rods. Using this as a lever, he broke open the topmost of the six cases which stood in the corner. The soft wood cracked and split. Squiffy drew out a straw-covered bottle. For a moment he stood looking at it, as a man might gaze at a friend on the point of death. Then, with a sudden determination, he went into the bathroom. There was a crash of glass and a gurgling sound.
Half an hour later the telephone in Archie's room rang. "I say, Archie, old top," said the voice of Squiffy.
"Halloa, old bean! Is that you?"
"I say, could you pop down here for a second? I'm rather upset."
"Absolutely! Which room?"
"I'll be with you eftsoons or right speedily."
"Thanks, old man."
"What appears to be the difficulty?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, I thought I saw a snake!"
"I'll tell you all about it when you come down."
Archie found Lord Seacliff seated on his bed. An arresting aroma of mixed drinks pervaded the atmosphere.
"I say! What?" said Archie, inhaling.
"That's all right. I've been pouring my stock away. Just finished the last bottle."
"I told you. I thought I saw a snake!"
Squiffy shivered slightly.
Archie hesitated. He perceived that there are moments when silence is the best policy. He had been worrying himself over the unfortunate case of his friend, and now that Fate seemed to have provided a solution, it would be rash to interfere merely to ease the old bean's mind. If Squiffy was going to reform because he thought he had seen an imaginary snake, better not to let him know that the snake was a real one.
"Dashed serious!" he said.
"Bally dashed serious!" agreed Squiffy. "I'm going to cut it out!"
"You don't think," asked Squiffy, with a touch of hopefulness, "that it could have been a real snake?"
"Never heard of the management supplying them."
"I thought it went under the bed."
"Well, take a look."
"Not me! I say, old top, you know, I simply can't sleep in this room now. I was wondering if you could give me a doss somewhere in yours."
"Rather! I'm in five-forty-one. Just above. Trot along up. Here's the key. I'll tidy up a bit here, and join you in a minute."
Squiffy put on a dressing-gown and disappeared. Archie looked under the bed. From the trousers the head of Peter popped up with its usual expression of amiable enquiry. Archie nodded pleasantly, and sat down on the bed. The problem of his little friend's immediate future wanted thinking over.
He lit a cigarette and remained for a while in thought. Then he rose. An admirable solution had presented itself. He picked Peter up and placed him in the pocket of his dressing-gown. Then, leaving the room, he mounted the stairs till he reached the seventh floor. Outside a room half-way down the corridor he paused.
From within, through the open transom, came the rhythmical snoring of a good man taking his rest after the labours of the day. Mr. Brewster was always a heavy sleeper.
"There's always a way," thought Archie, philosophically, "if a chappie only thinks of it."
His father-in-law's snoring took on a deeper note. Archie extracted Peter from his pocket and dropped him gently through the transom.
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