Read Saint Errant Online

Authors: Leslie Charteris

Tags: #Mystery & Detective, #General, #Fiction, #Traditional British, #Saint (Fictitious Character)

Saint Errant

Saint Errant

Leslie Charteris


I. Judith

Simon Templar had to admit that the photograph of himself which adorned the front page of the copy of the New York Daily Gazette on his knee left nothing to be desired.

Taken only a couple of years ago, at the studio of an ambitious photographer who had clearly seen the potentialities of future revenue from an authentic likeness of such a disreputable character, it brought out to perfection the rakish curve of his jaw, the careless backward curl of black hair, the mocking challenge of a gay filibuster’s mouth. Even the eyes, by some trick of lighting in the original which had been miraculously preserved through the processes of reproduction, glinted back at him from under the bantering lines of eyebrow with all the vivid dangerous dance of humor that was in his own.

The story illustrated by the picture occupied two columns of the front page and was continued somewhere in the interior. One gathered from it that that elusive and distressingly picturesque outlaw, the Saint, had set the Law by the ears again with a new climax of audacities: his name and nom de guerre waltzed through the bald paragraphs of the narrative like a debonair will-o’-the-wisp, carrying with it a breath of buccaneering glamour, a magnificently medieval lawlessness, that shone with a strange luminance through the dull chronicles of an age of dreary news. “The Robin Hood of Modem Crime” they called him; and with that phrase the Saint himself had least fault of all to find.

At the next table on his left a fair-haired girl was struggling to explain the secret of successful Rumhattan mixing to an unsympathetic waiter. At other tables, other guests of the Windsor Hotel’s Peacock Alley read their evening papers, sipped cocktails, chattered, argued, and gazed injuriously at fellow birds in that pleasantly gilded cage. Outside, but inaudible in that discreetly expensive sanctuary, flowed the common traffic of Montreal, the last outpost of Old France in the New World.

In those surroundings anyone but a Simon Templar might have been embarrassed by the knowledge that a lifelike portrait of himself, accompanied by an account of his latest misdeeds and a summary of several earlier ones, was at the disposal of any citizen who cared to buy a newspaper. The Saint was never embarrassed, except by warrants for his arrest, and in those days he was most careful to leave no legal grounds for one of those.

He folded his paper and lighted a cigarette with the com forting assurance that any casual glance at his classic features would be far less likely to suspect him of a hideous past than to suspect the eminent politician or the debutante victim of a motor accident whose portraits, in smaller frames, had flanked his own on either side. Certainly he saw no reason to creep into a corner and hide.

At the next table the girl’s gray eyes wavered in humorous despair toward him, meeting his own for an instant, which to a Simon Templar was sufficient invitation.

“Ecoute, toi!” The Saint’s voice lanced through the air with a sudden quiet command, the edge of a blade so sweetly keen that it seemed to caress even while it cut, snapping the waiter’s wandering eyes around like a magnet dropped within an inch of twin compass needles. “Mademoiselle desires that one mix three parts of Ron Rey with one part of sweet vermouth and a dash of angostura. After that, one will squeeze into it a very thin piece of lemon peel. It is quite simple.”

The waiter nodded and moved away in a slight daze. In his philosophy, foreigners were not expected to speak his own patois better than he did himself, nor to cut short his studied obtuseness with a cool self-possession that addressed him in the familiar second person singular. In the doorway he paused to explain that at length to a fellow waiter. “Sâles Américains,” he said, and spat. Simon Templar was not meant to hear, but the Saint’s ears were abnormally sensitive.

He smiled. It would never have occurred to him to report the waiter to the management, even though he was sure they would have been grateful to be warned about such a saboteur of good will. To the Saint any city was an oyster for his opening, a world for conquest; anything was an adventure, even the slaying of an insolent waiter and the rescue of a damsel in distress about nothing more serious than a cocktail.

He let his cigarette smolder in absolute contentment. The Rumhattan arrived. The girl tasted it and grimaced ruefully- he decided that she had a mouth that couldn’t look anything but pretty even when it tried.

“It’s a good idea, but it needs co-operation,” he said.

“I wish I could speak the language like you do,” she said. “I’d have something to tell that waiter.”

“I’ve spent more time in Paris than any respectable man should,” said the Saint cheerfully. “I used to be the concierge of a home for inebriate art students in the Rue des Deux Paires de Chaussettes de M. Alexandre Dumas. We all lived on absinthe and wore velvet next the skin. It went very well until someone discovered that half the inmates were wearing false beards and reading Ellery Queen in secret”

The gray eyes laughed.

“But do you know your way about here?”

“Montreal is yours,” said the Saint with a gesture. “What would you like? Respectable night clubs? Disreputable saloons? Historic monuments?”

She seemed to be thinking of something else. And then she turned towards him again in a pose very like his own. The deep friendly eyes had a queer wistfulness.

“Tell me, stranger-where do you think a girl should go on a great occasion? Suppose she had something rather desperate to do, and if it went wrong she mightn’t be able to choose where she went any more.”

The Saint’s very clear blue eyes rested on her thoughtfully. He had always been mad, always hoped to be.

“I think,” he said, “I should take her out St. Lawrence Boulevard to a quiet little restaurant I know where they make the best omelets in North America. We should absorb vitamins and talk about life. And after that we might know some more.”

“I should like to go there,” she said.

Simon flicked a twenty-dollar bill across his table and beckoned the waiter. The waiter counted out change laboriously from a well-filled wallet.

“Shall we?” said the Saint.

The girl gathered up her gloves and bag. Simon stood up quickly to pull the table away from in front of her. He trod heavily on the waiter’s toes, overbalanced him backwards, and caught him again dexterously as he was on the point of descending, like Newton’s apple, on the bald head of a customer in the next row. Somewhere in the course of the acrobatics the well-filled wallet traveled from the waiter’s pocket to the Saint’s own.

“Mille pardons,” murmured the Saint, patting the anguished man soothingly on the shoulder, and sauntered after the girl.

There was a taxi crawling by, and they climbed in.

“I’m free till twelve, stranger,” said the girl.

She pulled off her hat and leaned far back on the cushions, with one slim silken leg stretched out to rest a toe on the folding seat in front. The passing lights picked up her face in al most breathless perfection, and let it sink back reluctantly into shadow.

“And then do you have to hurry home before the dock strikes, and only leave a glass slipper for a souvenir?”

“No,” she said, “I have to burgle a house.”

There was an omelet. She had never dreamed of anything so delicate, wrapped in a gossamer skin, so richly red-gold inside, so different in every way from the dry coagulation of half-scrambled eggs which passes under the same name in so many places.

“There’s a trick in it,” she said with a sigh, when it was finished.

“Of course there is,” said the Saint. “It’s one of the higher mysteries of life, only to be revealed to the pure in heart after many ordeals and battles and much traveling.”

She accepted a cigarette from his case, dipped it in the flame of his lighter. Across the table the gray eyes looked into his with the serene intimacy which must come with the sharing of any sensuous pleasure, even eating. She said: “I’m glad I met you, stranger. You take things very calmly, and you don’t ask awkward questions.”

In the course of his career the Saint had taken a good many things calmly enough, but he could not remember having heard it accounted unto him for righteousness before.

He perceived that he had fallen into the error of attaching himself too much to the viewpoint of his bereaved victims.

“The questions may come later,” he said. “We burglars aren’t easily startled.”

She let a trail of smoke rise and disintegrate towards the ceiling.

“I’m going to talk to you, stranger,” she said quietly. “A girl likes to talk; and nothing about this evening is real. We never met before and we shan’t meet again. This is an interlude that doesn’t count, except for remembrance.”

“Is there a dragon in it?”

“There’s a Robber Baron. Have you ever heard of Burt Northwade?”

Simon had. His knowledge of unlovable characters, in and out of prison, was very nearly unique.

He knew Northwade for one of the more unpleasant products of World War I, a man who had successfully conceived the notion of selling inferior bootlaces to the Allied armies for three times their cost, and had gained for himself much wealth by that patriotic service. The Northwade business, subsequently built up to almost monopolistic proportions, was still welding together the uppers of half the world; but Northwade himself had retired a couple of years ago to his native Canada and a mansion in Westmount, leaving the female part of his family to pursue its strenuous climb through the social gradings of New York.

“Yes, I’ve heard of Northwade. One of these monuments of other people’s industry, isn’t he?”

“He’s also my uncle,” said the girl. “I’m Judith Northwade.”

Simon Templar hadn’t blushed since he was eight years old. Also he considered that his remark was very nearly a compliment compared with what he would probably have said to Burt Northwade’s face, had that undesirable industrialist been present.

“You have our sympathy,” he said coolly.

“My father’s a professor of engineering at Toronto,” said the girl. “You’ve probably never heard of him. You couldn’t have two brothers who were more different. They’ve always been like that. Northwade only wanted to make money. My father never wanted it. He’s just a quiet, kind, completely ordinary man-almost a child outside his work. They both started at the bottom, and they both got what they wanted. Northwade made the money; my father worked his way through school, went on to Toronto University on a scholarship, and got to where he is now. The thing that came between them was my mother. Northwade wanted her, too, but she just happened to prefer Dad.”

The Saint nodded.

“It wasn’t Dad’s fault,” she said, “but Uncle Burt never for gave him. I don’t think he was really jealous-maybe he wasn’t really in love at all-but he’d come on something that money and success alone couldn’t buy, and his vanity never got over it. Oh, he didn’t say anything outright; he’s always been friendly -too friendly-but Dad, who wouldn’t suspect a cannibal who was weighing him, never thought anything of it. I could see. I tried to tell him, but he wouldn’t believe me. He even helped Uncle Burt to make more money-he’s a clever inventor, too, and during the war he designed a machine that would put tags on laces twice as quickly as the old way, or something like that. I think Uncle Burt gave him fifty dollars for it.” She smiled a little. “It’s beginning to sound like a detective story, isn’t it?”

“It has begun,” said the Saint, “but I like those stories.”

She finished her glass of Château Olivier.

“It’s going to sound more like that; but it’s just one of those stories that are happening every day. For the last eighteen months or so Dad’s been working on an infinitely variable gear for automobiles. Do you know what that means? It means that you’ll just drive your car on the accelerator and brake; and whatever it’s doing, up hills or down, or in traffic or anywhere, without even an automatic gear change, the engine’ll always be working at its maximum efficiency-that sounds rather technical, but I’m so used to hearing Dad talk that I’ve got that way myself. Anyway, it’s far in advance of anything that’s been done in that line so far. There’s a fortune in it already; but it wasn’t good enough for Dad. He wanted to be sure that it was beyond any improvement. Three months ago he’d spent every penny he’d saved on his experiments. Then he went to Uncle Burt for help.”

The Saint’s mind moved in certain channels with the speed and precision of infinite experience. He took up his cigarette again and regarded her steadily over it.

“Northwade helped him, of course,” he said.

“Uncle Burt lent him five thousand dollars. On a nominal security-purely nominal. And with a few legal documents-just as a matter of form. I expect you can guess what that means.”

“I could try.”

“The plans of the gear are in Uncle Burt’s safe, over in West-mount-all the results of Dad’s work up till now. And there’s a paper with them which says that all rights in them belong to Burt Northwade-with no time limit specified. It was sup posed to be until the loan was repaid, but the contract doesn’t say so. Dad hasn’t any mind for legal trickeries, and he signed the papers while I was away. I didn’t know about it till it was too late.”

“One gathers,” said the Saint composedly, “that this is the house you propose to burgle.”

She gazed at him without flinching, gray eyes frank and resolute, even with that strain of wistful loneliness in them.

“Listen, stranger,” she said softly. “This is still the game of Let’s Pretend, isn’t it? Pretending that this evening is right outside the world. Because that’s the only reason why I’m telling you all this. I’m going to burgle Uncle Burt’s house, if I can. I’m going to try and get hold of his keys and open his safe and take those papers away, including the contract Dad signed. Dad hasn’t any hope of paying back that five thousand dollars. And Uncle Burt knows it. He’s practically completed arrangements to sell the gear to Ford. There’s no legal way of stopping him. It’s one of those cases where possession is nine points of the law. If we had that contract back, as well as the plans, Uncle Burt would never have the face to go into a court and publish the terms of it, which he’d have to do if he wanted to make any claim. Do you think I’m quite mad?”

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