“Oh, they can!” The big man’s face expressed varying feelings—vague wonder; at the same time he began to edge cautiously away. “That would be a nice plant, wouldn’t it? Let’s out of this, blokies!” suddenly, “this cove knows too much, and—”
“Wait!” Steele stepped slightly toward him. “I want you, Tom Rogers, and I’m going to have you; it’ll be quids in your pocket and not Newgate.”
“Slope for it, mates!” The big man’s voice rang out; around the corner in the direction of the Thames the burly figure of a policeman appeared in the dim light. “That’s his little game!” and turned.
But John Steele sprang savagely forward. “You fool! You’ll not get away so easily!” he exclaimed, when one of the others put out a foot. It caught the pursuing man fairly and tripped him. John Steele went down hard; his head struck the stone curb violently.
For some moments he lay still; when at length he did move, to lift himself on his elbow, as through a mist he made out the broad and solicitous face of a policeman bending over him.
“That was a nasty fall you got, sir.”
“Fall?” John Steele arose, stood swaying. “That man!—must not escape—Do you hear? must not!” As he spoke he made as if to rush forward; the other laid steadying fingers on his arm.
“Hold hard a bit, sir,” he said. “Not quite yourself; besides, they’re well out of sight now. No use running after.”
Steele moved, grasped the railing leading up the front step; his brow throbbed; a thousand darting pains shot through his brain. But for the moment these physical pangs were as nothing; disappointment, self-reproach moved him. To have allowed himself to go down like that; to have been caught by such a simple trick! Clumsy clod!—and at a moment when—He laughed fiercely; from his head the blood flowed; he did not feel that hurt now.
The officer regarded the strong, noble figure moving just a little to and fro, the lips set ironically, the dark eyes that gleamed in the night as with sardonic derision.
“Pardon me, sir,” he said in a brisker tone, “but hadn’t we better go in? This, I take it, is your house; you can look after yourself somewhat, and afterward describe your assailants. Then we’ll start out to find and arrest them, if possible!”
“Arrest?” John Steele looked at the officer; his gaze slowly regained its accustomed steadiness. “I am afraid I can’t help you; the darkness, the suddenness of the attack—”
“But surely you must have noticed something, sir; whether they were large, or small; what sort of clothes they wore—” The other shook his head; the man appeared disappointed. “Well, I’ll make a report of the attack, but—”
Steele loosened his hold on the railing; he appeared now to have recovered his strength. “That’s just what I don’t want you to do. My name is John Steele, you know of me?” And, as the other returned a respectful affirmative, “It is my desire to escape any notoriety in this little matter, you understand? As one whose profession brings him in connection with these people, the episode seems rather anomalous as well as humiliating. It might even,” his accents had a covert mocking sound, “furnish a paragraph for one of the comic weeklies. So you see—” Something passed from his hand to the policeman’s.