EARLE ASHLEY WALCOTT
I A DANGEROUS ERRAND II A CRY FOR HELP III A QUESTION IN THE NIGHT IV A CHANGE OF NAME V DODDRIDGE KNAPP VI A NIGHT AT BORTON'S VII MOTHER BORTON VIII IN WHICH I MEET A FEW SURPRISES IX A DAY IN THE MARKET X A TANGLE OF SCHEMES XI THE DEN OF THE WOLF XII LUELLA KNAPP XIII A DAY OF GRACE XIV MOTHER BORTON'S ADVICE XV I AM IN THE TOILS XVI AN ECHO OF WARNING XVII IN A FOREIGN LAND XVIII THE BATTLE IN THE MAZE XIX A DEAL IN STOCKS XX MAKING PROGRESS XXI AT THE BIDDING OF THE UNKNOWN XXII TRAILED XXIII A PIECE OF STRATEGY XXIV ON THE ROAD XXV A FLUTTER IN THE MARKET XXVI A VISION OF THE NIGHT XXVII A LINK IN THE CHAIN XXVIII THE CHASE IN THE STORM XXIX THE HEART OF THE MYSTERY XXX THE END OF THE JOURNEY XXXI THE REWARD
A DANGEROUS ERRAND
A city of hills with a fringe of houses crowning the lower heights; half-mountains rising bare in the background and becoming real mountains as they stretched away in the distance to right and left; a confused mass of buildings coming to the water's edge on the flat; a forest of masts, ships swinging in the stream, and the streaked, yellow, gray-green water of the bay taking a cold light from the setting sun as it struggled through the wisps of fog that fluttered above the serrated sky-line of the city—these were my first impressions of San Francisco.
The wind blew fresh and chill from the west with the damp and salt of the Pacific heavy upon it, as I breasted it from the forward deck of the ferry steamer, El Capitan. As I drank in the air and was silent with admiration of the beautiful panorama that was spread before me, my companion touched me on the arm.
"Come into the cabin," he said. "You'll be one of those fellows who can't come to San Francisco without catching his death of cold, and then lays it on to the climate instead of his own lack of common sense. Come, I can't spare you, now I've got you here at last. I wouldn't lose you for a million dollars."
"I'll come for half the money," I returned, as he took me by the arm and led me into the close cabin.
My companion, I should explain, was Henry Wilton, the son of my father's cousin, who had the advantages of a few years of residence in California, and sported all the airs of a pioneer. We had been close friends through boyhood and youth, and it was on his offer of employment that I had come to the city by the Golden Gate.
"What a resemblance!" I heard a woman exclaim, as we entered the cabin. "They must be twins."
"There, Henry," I whispered, with a laugh; "you see we are discovered." Though our relationship was not close we had been cast in the mold of some common ancestor. We were so nearly alike in form and feature as to perplex all but our intimate acquaintances, and we had made the resemblance the occasion of many tricks in our boyhood days.
Henry had heard the exclamation as well as I. To my surprise, it appeared to bring him annoyance or apprehension rather than amusement.
"I had forgotten that it would make us conspicuous," he said, more to himself than to me, I thought; and he glanced through the cabin as though he looked for some peril.
"We were used to that long ago," I said, as we found a seat. "Is the business ready for me? You wrote that you thought it would be in hand by the time I got here."
"We can't talk about it here," he said in a low tone. "There is plenty of work to be done. It's not hard, but, as I wrote you, it needs a man of pluck and discretion. It's delicate business, you understand, and dangerous if you can't keep your head. But the danger won't be yours. I've got that end of it."
"Of course you're not trying to do anything against the law?" I said.
"Oh, it has nothing to do with the law," he replied with an odd smile. "In fact, it's a little matter in which we are—well, you might say— outside the law."
I gave a gasp at this disturbing suggestion, and Henry chuckled as he saw the consternation written on my face. Then he rose and said:
"Come, the boat is getting in."
"But I want to know—" I began.
"Oh, bother your 'want-to-knows.' It's not against the law—just outside it, you understand. I'll tell you more of it when we get to my room. Give me that valise. Come along now." And as the boat entered the slip we found ourselves at the front of the pressing crowd that is always surging in and out of San Francisco by the gateway of the Market-Street ferry.
As we pushed our way through the clamoring hack-drivers and hotel- runners who blocked the entrance to the city, I was roused by a sudden thrill of the instinct of danger that warns one when he meets the eye of a snake. It was gone in an instant, but I had time to trace effect to cause. The warning came this time from the eyes of a man, a lithe, keen-faced man who flashed a look of triumphant malice on us as he disappeared in the waiting-room of the ferry-shed. But the keen face, and the basilisk glance were burned into my mind in that moment as deeply as though I had known then what evil was behind them.
My companion swore softly to himself.
"What's the matter?" I asked.
"Don't look around," he said. "We are watched."
"The snake-eyed man?"
"Did you see him, too?" His manner was careless, but his tone was troubled. "I thought I had given him the slip," he continued. "Well, there's no help for it now."
"Are we to hunt for a hiding-place?" I asked doubtfully.
"Oh, no; not now. I was going to take you direct to my room. Now we are going to a hotel with all the publicity we can get. Here we are."
"Internaytional! Internaytional!" shouted a runner by our side. "Yes, sir; here you are, sir. Free 'bus, sir." And in another moment we were in the lumbering coach, and as soon as the last lingering passenger had come from the boat we were whirling over the rough pavement, through a confusing maze of streets, past long rows of dingy, ugly buildings, to the hotel.
Though the sun had but just set, the lights were glimmering in the windows along Kearny Street as we stepped from the 'bus, and the twilight was rapidly fading into darkness.
"A room for the night," ordered Henry, as we entered the hotel office and saluted the clerk.
"Your brother will sleep with you?" inquired the clerk.
"That's right—if you are sure you can tell which is which in the morning," said the clerk, with a smile at his poor joke.
Henry smiled in return, paid the bill, took the key, and we were shown to our room. After removing the travel-stains, I declared myself quite ready to dine.
"We won't need this again," said Henry, tossing the key on the bureau as we left. "Or no, on second thought," he continued, "it's just as well to leave the door locked. There might be some inquisitive callers." And we betook ourselves to a hasty meal that was not of a nature to raise my opinion of San Francisco.
"Are you through?" asked my companion, as I shook my head over a melancholy piece of pie, and laid down my fork. "Well, take your bag. This door—look pleasant and say nothing."
He led the way to the bar and then through a back room or two, until with a turn we were in a blind alley. With a few more steps we found ourselves in a back hall which led into another building. I became confused after a little, and lost all idea of the direction in which we were going. We mounted one flight of stairs, I remember, and after passing through two or three winding hallways and down another flight, came out on a side street.
After a pause to observe the street before we ventured forth, Henry said:
"I guess we're all right now. We must chance it, anyhow." So we dodged along in the shadow till we came to Montgomery Street, and after a brief walk, turned into a gloomy doorway and mounted a worn pair of stairs.
The house was three stories in height. It stood on the corner of an alley, and the lower floor was intended for a store or saloon; but a renting agent's sign and a collection of old show-bills ornamenting the dirty windows testified that it was vacant. The liquor business appeared to be overdone in that quarter, for across the alley, hardly twenty feet away, was a saloon; across Montgomery Street was another; and two more held out their friendly lights on the corner of the street above.
In the saloons the disreputability was cheerful, and cheerfully acknowledged with lights and noise, here of a broken piano, there of a wheezy accordion, and, beyond, of a half-drunken man singing or shouting a ribald song. Elsewhere it was sullen and dark,—the lights, where there were lights, glittering through chinks, or showing the outlines of drawn curtains.
"This isn't just the place I'd choose for entertaining friends," said Henry, with a visible relief from his uneasiness, as we climbed the worn and dirty stair.
"Oh, that's all right," I said, magnanimously accepting his apology.
"It doesn't have all the modern conveniences," admitted Henry as we stumbled up the second flight, "but it's suitable to the business we have in hand, and—"
"What's that?" I exclaimed, as a creaking, rasping sound came from the hall below.
We stopped and listened, peering into the obscurity beneath.
Nothing but silence. The house might have been a tomb for any sign of life that showed within it.
"It must have been outside," said Henry. "I thought for a moment perhaps—" Then he checked himself. "Well, you'll know later," he concluded, and opened the door of the last room on the right of the hall.
As we entered, he held the door ajar for a full minute, listening intently. The obscurity of the hall gave back nothing to eye or ear, and at last he closed the door softly and touched a match to the gas.
The room was at the rear corner of the building. There were two windows, one looking to the west, the other to the north and opening on the narrow alley.
"Not so bad after you get in," said Henry, half as an introduction, half as an apology.
"It's luxury after six days of railroading," I replied.
"Well, lie down there, and make the most of it, then," he said, "for there may be trouble ahead." And he listened again at the crack of the door.
"In Heaven's name, Henry, what's up?" I exclaimed with some temper. "You're as full of mysteries as a dime novel."
Henry smiled grimly.
"Maybe you don't recognize that this is serious business," he said.
"I don't understand it at all."
"Well, I'm not joking. There's mischief afoot, and I'm in danger."
"From whom? From what?"
"Never mind that now. It's another person's business—not mine, you understand—and I can't explain until I know whether you are to be one of us or not."
"That's what I came for, isn't it?"
"Hm! You don't seem to be overly pleased with the job."
"Which isn't surprising, when I haven't the first idea what it is, except that it seems likely to get me killed or in jail."
"Oh, if you're feeling that way about it, I know of another job that will suit you better in—"
"I'm not afraid," I broke in hotly. "But I want to see the noose before I put my head in it."
"Then I'm sure the assistant bookkeeper's place I have in mind will—"
"Confound your impudence!" I cried, laughing in spite of myself at the way he was playing on me. "Assistant bookkeeper be hanged! I'm with you from A to Z; but if you love me, don't keep me in the dark."
"I'll tell you all you need to know. Too much might be dangerous."
I was about to protest that I could not know too much, when Henry raised his hand with a warning to silence. I heard the sound of a cautious step outside. Then Henry sprang to the door, flung it open, and bolted down the passage. There was the gleam of a revolver in his hand. I hurried after him, but as I crossed the threshold he was coming softly back, with finger on lips.
"I must see to the guards again. I can have them together by midnight."
"Can I help?"
"No. Just wait here till I get back. Bolt the door, and let nobody in but me. It isn't likely that they will try to do anything before midnight. If they do—well, here's a revolver. Shoot through the door if anybody tries to break it down."
I stood in the door, revolver in hand, watched him down the hall, and listened to his footsteps as they descended the stairs and at last faded away into the murmur of life that came up from the open street.
A CRY FOR HELP
I hastily closed and locked the door. It shut out at least the eyes and ears that, to my excited imagination, lurked in the dark corners and half-hidden doorways of the dimly-lighted hall. And as I turned back to the room my heart was heavy with bitter regret that I had ever left my home.
This was not at all what I had looked for when I started for the Golden Gate at my friend's offer of a "good place and a chance to get rich."
Then I rallied my spirits with something of resolution, and shamed myself with the reproach that I should fear to share any danger that Henry was ready to face. Wearied as I was with travel, I was too much excited for sleep. Reading was equally impossible. I scarcely glanced at the shelf of books that hung on the wall, and turned to a study of my surroundings.
The room was on the corner, as I have said, and I threw up the sash of the west window and looked out over a tangle of old buildings, ramshackle sheds, and an alley that appeared to lead nowhere. A wooden shutter swung from the frame-post of the window, reaching nearly to a crazy wooden stair that led from the black depths below. There were lights here and there in the back rooms. Snatches of drunken song and rude jest came up from an unseen doggery, and vile odors came with them. Shadows seemed to move here and there among the dark places, but in the uncertain light I could not be sure whether they were men, or only boxes and barrels.
Some sound of a drunken quarrel drew my attention to the north window, and I looked out into the alley. The lights from Montgomery Street scarcely gave shape to the gloom below the window, but I could distinguish three or four men near the side entrance of a saloon. They appeared quiet enough. The quarrel, if any there was, must be inside the saloon. After an interval of comparative silence, the noise rose again. There were shouts and curses, sounds as of a chair broken and tables upset, and one protesting, struggling inebriate was hurled out from the front door and left, with threats and foul language, to collect himself from the pavement.
This edifying incident, which was explained to me solely by sound, had scarcely come to an end when a noise of creaking boards drew my eyes to the other window. The shutter suddenly flew around, and a human figure swung in at the open casing. Astonishment at this singular proceeding did not dull the instinct of self-defense. The survey of my surroundings and the incident of the bar-room row had in a measure prepared me for any desperate doings, and I had swung a chair ready to strike a blow before I had time to think.
"S-h-h!" came the warning whisper, and I recognized my supposed robber. It was Henry.
His clothes and hair were disordered, and his face and hands were grimy with dust.
"Don't speak out loud," he said in suppressed tones. "Wait till I fasten this shutter. The other one's gone, but nobody can get in from that side unless they can shin up thirty feet of brick wall."
"Shall I shut the window?" I asked, thoroughly impressed by his manner.
"No, you'll make too much noise," he said, stripping off his coat and vest. "Here, change clothes with me. Quick! It's a case of life and death. I must be out of here in two minutes. Do as I say, now. Don't ask questions. I'll tell you about it in a day or two. No, just the coat and vest. There—give me that collar and tie. Where's your hat?"
The changes were completed, or rather his were, and he stood looking as much like me as could be imagined.
"Don't stir from this room till I come back," he whispered. "You can dress in anything of mine you like. I'll be in before twelve, or send a messenger if I'm not coming. By-by."
He was gone before I could say a word, and only an occasional creaking board told me of his progress down the stairs. He had evidently had some practice in getting about quietly. I could only wonder, as I closed and locked the door, whether it was the police or a private enemy that he was trying to avoid.
I had small time to speculate on the possibilities, for outside the window I heard the single word, "Help!"
The cry was half-smothered, and followed by a gurgling sound and noise as of a scuffle in the alley.
I rushed to the window and looked out. A band of half a dozen men was struggling and pushing away from Montgomery Street into the darker end of the alley. They were nearly under the window.
"Give it to him," said a voice.
In an instant there came a scream, so freighted with agony that it burst the bonds of gripping fingers and smothering palms that tried to close it in, and rose for the fraction of a second on the foul air of the alley. Then a light showed and a tall, broad-shouldered figure leaped back.
"These aren't the papers," it hissed. "Curse on you, you've got the wrong man!"
There was a moment's confusion, and the light flashed on the man who had spoken and was gone. But that flash had shown me the face of a man I could never forget—a man whose destiny was bound up for a brief period with mine, and whose wicked plans have proved the master influence of my life. It was a strong, cruel, wolfish face—the face of a man near sixty, with a fierce yellow-gray mustache and imperial—a face broad at the temples and tapering down into a firm, unyielding jaw, and marked then with all the lines of rage, hatred, and chagrin at the failure of his plans.
It took not a second for me to see and hear and know all this, for the vision came and was gone in the dropping of an eyelid. And then there echoed through the alley loud cries of "Police! Murder! Help!" I was conscious that there was a man running through the hall and down the rickety stairs, making the building ring to the same cries. My own feelings were those of overmastering fear for my friend. He had gone on his mysterious, dangerous errand, and I felt that it was he who had been dragged into the alley, and stabbed, perhaps to death. Yet it seemed I could make no effort, nor rouse myself from the stupor of terror into which I was thrown by the scene I had witnessed.
It was thus with a feeling of surprise that I found myself in the street, and came to know that the cries for help had come from me, and that I was the man who had run through the hall and down the stairs shouting for the police.
Singularly enough there was no crowd to be seen, and no excitement anywhere. Some one was playing a wheezy melodeon in the saloon, and men were singing a drunken song. The alley was dark, and I could see no one in its depths. The house through which I had flown shouting was now silent, and if any one on the street had heard me he had hurried on and closed his ears, lest evil befall him. Fortunately the policeman on the beat was at hand, and I hailed him excitedly.
"Only rolling a drunk," he said lightly, as I told of what I had seen.
"No, it's worse than that," I insisted. "There was murder done, and I'm afraid it's my friend."
He listened more attentively as I told him how Henry had left the house just before the cry for help had risen.
The policeman took me by the shoulders, turned me to the gaslight, and looked in my face.
"Excuse me, sor," he said. "I see you're not one of that kind. Some of 'em learns it from the blitherin' Chaneymen."
I was mystified at the moment, but I found later that he suspected me of having had an opium dream. The house, I learned, was frequented by the "opium fiends," as they figure in police slang.
"It's a nasty place," he continued. "It's lucky I've got a light." He brought up a dark lantern from his overcoat pocket, and stood in the shelter of the building as he lighted it. "There's not many as carries 'em," he continued, "but they're mighty handy at times."
We made our way to the point beneath the window, where the men had stood.
There was nothing to be seen—no sign of struggle, no shred of torn clothing, no drop of blood. Body, traces and all had disappeared.
A QUESTION IN THE NIGHT
I was stricken dumb at this end to the investigation, and half doubted the evidence of my eyes.
"Well," said the policeman, with a sigh of relief, "there's nothing here."
I suspected that his doubts of my sanity were returning.
"Here is where it was done," I asserted stoutly, pointing to the spot where I had seen the struggling group from the window. "There were surely five or six men in it."
The policeman turned his lantern on the spot. The rough pavement had taken no mark of the scuffle.
"It's hard to make sure of things from above in this light," said the policeman, hinting once more his suspicion that I was confusing dreams with reality.
"There was no mistaking that job," I said. "See here, the alley leads farther back. Bring your light."
"Aisy, now," said the policeman. "I'll lead the way. Maybe you want one yourself, as your friend has set the fashion."
A few paces farther the alley turned at a right angle to the north, yawning dark behind the grim and threatening buildings, and filled with noisome odors. We looked narrowly for a body, and then for traces that might give hint of the passage of a party.
"Nothing here," said the policeman, as we came out on the other street. "Maybe they've carried him into one of these back-door dens, and maybe they whisked him into a hack here, and are a mile or two away by now."
"But we must follow them. He may be only wounded and can be rescued. And these men can be caught." I was almost hysterical in my eagerness.
"Aisy, aisy, now," said the policeman. "Go back to your room, now. That's the safest place for you, and you can't do nothin' at all out here. I'll report the case to the head office, an' we'll send out the alarm to the force. Now, here's your door. Just rest aisy, and they'll let you know if anything's found."
And he passed on, leaving me dazed with dread and despair in the entrance of the fateful house.
The sounds of drunken pleasure were lessening about me. The custom had fallen off in the saloon across the street to such extent that the proprietor was putting up the shutters. The saloon on the corner of the alley was still waiting for stray customers and I crossed over to it with the thought that the inmates might give me a possible clue. A man half-asleep leaned back in a chair by the stove with his chin on his breast. Two rough-looking men at a table who were talking in low tones pretended not to notice my entrance, but their furtive glances gave more eloquent evidence of their interest than the closest stare.
The barkeeper eyed me with apparent openness. I called for a glass of wine, partly as an excuse for my visit, and partly to revive my shaken spirits.
"Any trouble about here to-night?" I asked in my most affable tone.
The barkeeper looked at me with cold suspicion.
"No, sir," he said shortly. "This is the quietest neighborhood in town."
"I should think there would be a disturbance every time that liquor was sold," was my private comment, as I got the aftertaste of the dose. But I merely wished him good night as I paid for the drink, and sauntered out.
I promptly got into my doorway before any one could reach the street to see whither I went, and listened to a growling comment and a mirthless laugh that followed my departure. Hardly had I gained my concealment when the swinging doors of the saloon opened cautiously, and a face peered out into the semi-darkness. With a muttered curse it went back, and I heard the barkeeper's voice in some jest about a failure to be "quick enough to catch flies."
Once more in the room to wait till morning should give me a chance to work, I looked about the dingy place with a heart sunk to the lowest depths. I was alone in the face of this mystery. I had not one friend in the city to whom I could appeal for sympathy, advice or money. Yet I should need all of these to follow this business to the end—to learn the fate of my cousin, to rescue him, if alive and to avenge him, if dead.
Then, in the hope that I might find something among Henry's effects to give me a clue to the men who had attacked him, I went carefully through his clothes and his papers. But I found that he did not leave memoranda of his business lying about. The only scrap that could have a possible bearing on it was a sheet of paper in the coat he had changed with me. It bore a rough map, showing a road branching thrice, with crosses marked here and there upon it. Underneath was written:
"Third road—cockeyed barn—iron cow."
Then followed some numerals mixed in a drunken dance with half the letters of the alphabet—the explanation of the map, I supposed, in cipher, and as it might prove the clue to this dreadful business, I folded the sheet carefully in an envelope and placed it in an inmost pocket.
The search having failed of definite results, I sat with chair tilted against the wall to consider the situation. Turn it as I would, I could make nothing good of it. There were desperate enterprises afoot of which I could see neither beginning nor end, purpose nor result. I repented of my consent to mix in these dangerous doings and resolved that when the morning came I would find other quarters, take up the search for Henry, and look for such work as might be found.
It was after midnight when I had come to this conclusion, and, barring doors and windows as well as I could, I flung myself on the bed to rest. I did not expect to sleep after the exciting events through which I had passed; yet after a bit the train of mental pictures drawn out by the surging memories of the night became confused and faded away, and I sank into an uneasy slumber.
When I awoke it was with a start and an oppressive sense that somebody else was in the room. The gas-light that I had left burning had been put out. Darkness was intense. The beating of my own heart was the only sound I could distinguish. I sat upright and felt for the matches that I had seen upon the stand.
In another instant I was flung back upon the bed. Wiry fingers gripped my throat, and a voice hissed in my ear:
"Where is he? Where is the boy? Give me your papers, or I'll wring the life out of you!"
I was strong and vigorous, and, though taken at a disadvantage, struggled desperately enough to break the grip on my throat and get a hold upon my assailant.
"Where is the boy?" gasped the voice once more; and then, as I made no reply, but twined my arms about him, my assailant saved all his breath for the struggle.
We rolled to the floor with a thud that shook the house, and in this change of base I had the luck to come out uppermost. Then my courage rose as I found that I could hold my man. I feared a knife, but if he had one he had not drawn it, and I was able to keep his hands too busy to allow him to get possession of it now. Finding that he was able to accomplish nothing, he gave a short cry and called:
I heard a confusion of steps outside, and a sound as of a muffled oath. Then the door opened, there was a rush of feet behind me, and the flash of a bull's-eye lantern. I released my enemy, and sprang back to the corner where I could defend myself at some advantage. It was a poor chance for an unarmed man, but I found a chair and set my teeth to give an account of myself to the first who advanced, and reproached the lack of foresight that had allowed me to lay the revolver under the pillow instead of putting it in my pocket.
I could distinguish four dark figures of men; but, instead of rushing upon me as I stood on the defensive, they seized upon my assailant. I looked on panting, and hardly able to regain my breath. It was not half a minute before my enemy was securely bound and gagged and carried out. One of the men lingered.
"Don't take such risks," he said. "I wouldn't have your job, Mr. Wilton, for all the old man's money. If we hadn't happened up here, you'd have been done for this time."
"In God's name, man, what does all this mean?" I gasped.
The man looked at me in evident surprise.
"They've got a fresh start, I guess," he said. "You'd better get some of the men up here. Mr. Richmond sent us up to bring this letter."
He was gone silently, and I was left in the darkness. I struck a match, lighted the gas once more, and, securing the revolver, looked to the letter. The envelope bore no address. I tore it open. The lines were written in a woman's hand, and a faint but peculiar perfume rose from the paper, it bore but these words:
"Don't make the change until I see you. The money will be ready in the morning. Be at the bank at 10:30."
The note, puzzling as it was, was hardly an addition to my perplexities. It was evident that I had been plunged into the center of intrigue, plot and counterplot. I was supposed to have possession of somebody's boy. A powerful and active enemy threatened me with death. An equally active friend was working to preserve my safety. People of wealth were concerned. I had dimly seen a fragment of the struggling forces, and it was plain that only a very rich person could afford the luxury of hiring the bravos and guards who threatened and protected me.
How wide were the ramifications of the mystery? Whose was the boy, and what was wanted of him? Had he been stolen from home and parents? Or was he threatened with mortal danger and sent into hiding to keep him from death?
The fate of Henry showed the power of those who were pursuing me. Armed as he was with the knowledge of his danger, knowing, as I did not, what he had to guard and from what he had to guard it, he had yet fallen a victim.
I could not doubt that he was the man assaulted and stabbed in the alley below. But the fact that no trace of him or of a tragedy was to be found gave me hope that he was still alive. Yet, at best, he was wounded and in the hands of his enemies, a prisoner to the men who had sought his life. It must be, however, that he was not yet recognized. The transfer of the chase to me was proof that the scoundrels had been misled by the resemblance between us, and by the letters found in the coat. They were convinced that he was Giles Dudley, and that I was Henry Wilton. As long as there was hope that he was alive I would devote myself to searching for him and to helping him to recover his liberty.
As I was hoping, speculating, planning thus, I was startled to hear a step on the stair.
The sound was not one that need be thought out of place in such a house and neighborhood even though the hour was past four in the morning. But it struck a chill through me, and I listened with growing apprehension as it mounted step by step.
The dread silence of the house that had cast its shadow of fear upon me now seemed to become vocal with protest against this intrusion, and to send warning through the halls. At last the step halted before my door and a loud knock startled the echoes.
With a great bound my heart threw off its tremors, and I grasped the revolver firmly:
"Open the door, sor; I've news for ye."
"Who are you?"
"Come now, no nonsense; I'm an officer."
I unlocked the door and stepped to one side. My bump of caution had developed amazingly in the few hours I had spent in San Francisco, and, in spite of his assurance, I thought best to avoid any chance of a rush from my unknown friends, and to put myself in a good position to use my revolver if necessary.
The man stepped in and showed his star. He was the policeman I had met when I had run shouting into the street.
"I suspicion we've found your friend," he said gravely. "You're wanted at the morgue."
"Dead!" I gasped.
"Dead as Saint Patrick—rest his sowl!"
A CHANGE OF NAME
"Here's your way, sor," said the policeman, turning into the old City Hall, as it was even then known, and leading me to one of the inner rooms of the labyrinth of offices.
The odors of the prison were heavy upon the building. The foul air from the foul court-rooms and offices still hung about the entrance, and the fog-laden breeze of the early morning hours was powerless to freshen it.
The policeman opened an office door, saluted, and motioned me to enter.
"Detective Coogan," he said, "here's your man."
Detective Coogan, from behind his desk, nodded with the careless dignity of official position.
"Glad to see you, Mr. Wilton," he said affably.
If I betrayed surprise at being called by Henry's name, Detective Coogan did not notice it. But I hastened to disclaim the dangerous distinction.
"I am not Wilton," I declared. "My name is Dudley—Giles Dudley."
At this announcement Detective Coogan turned to the policeman. "Just step into Morris' room, Corson, and tell him I'm going up to the morgue."
"Now," he continued, as the policeman closed the door behind him, "this won't do, Wilton. We've had to overlook a good deal, of course, but you needn't think you can play us for suckers all the time."
"But I tell you I'm not—" I began, when he interrupted me.
"You can't make that go here," he said contemptuously. "And I'll tell you what, Wilton, I shall have to take you into custody if you don't come down to straight business. We don't want to chip in on the old man's play, of course, especially as we don't know what his game is." Detective Coogan appeared to regret this admission that he was not omniscient, and went on hastily: "You know as well as we do that we don't want any fight with him. But I'll tell you right now that if you force a fight, we'll make it so warm for him that he'll have to throw you overboard to lighten ship."
Here was a fine prospect conveyed by Detective Coogan's picturesque confusion of metaphors. If I persisted in claiming my own name and person I was to be clapped into jail, and charged with Heaven-knows- what crimes. If I took my friend's name, I was to invite the career of adventure of which I had just had a taste. And while this was flashing through my mind, I wondered idly who the "old man" could be. The note I had received was certainly in a lady's hand. But if the lady was Henry's employer, it was evident that he had dealt with the police as the representative of a man of power.
My decision was of necessity promptly taken.
"Oh, well, if that's the way you look at it, Coogan," I said carelessly, "it's all right. I thought it was agreed that we weren't to know each other."
This was a chance shot, but it hit.
"Yes, yes," said the detective, "I remember. But, you see, this is serious business. Here's a murder on our hands, and from all I can learn it's on account of your confounded schemes. We've got to know where we stand, or there will be the Old Nick to pay. The papers will get hold of it, and then—well, you remember that shake-up we had three years ago."
"But you forget the 'old man,'" I returned. The name of that potent Unknown seemed to be my only weapon in the contest with Detective Coogan, and I thought this a time to try its force.
"Not much, I don't!" said Coogan, visibly disturbed. "But if it comes to a choice, we'll have to risk a battle with him."
"Well, maybe we're wasting time over a trifle," said I, voicing my hope. "Perhaps your dead man belongs somewhere else."
"Come along to the morgue, then," said he.
"Where was he found?" I asked as we walked out of the City Hall.
"He was picked up at about three o'clock in the back room of the Hurricane Deck—the water-front saloon, you know—near the foot of Folsom Street."
Detective Coogan asked a number of questions as we walked, and in a few minutes we came to the undertaker's shop that served as the city morgue. At the best of times it could not be a place of cheer. In the hour before daybreak, with the chill air of the morning almost suppressing the yellow gaslights, the errand on which I had come made it the abode of dread. Yet I hoped—hoped in such an agony of fear that I became half-insensible to my surroundings.
"Here it is," said Coogan, opening a door.
The low room was dark and chill and musty, but its details started forth from the obscurity as he turned up the lights.
Detective Coogan's words seemed to come from a great distance as he said: "Here, you see, he was stabbed. The knife went to the heart. Here he was hit with something heavy and blunt; but it had enough of an edge to cut the scalp and lay the cheek open. The skull is broken. See here—"
I summoned my resolution and looked.
Disfigured and ghastly as it was, I recognized it. It was the face of Henry Wilton.
The next I knew I was sitting on a bench, and the detective was holding a bottle to my lips.
"There, take another swallow," he said, not unkindly. "I didn't know you weren't used to it."
"Oh," I gasped, "I'm all right now." And I was able to look steadily at the gruesome surroundings and the dreadful burden on the slab.
"Is this the man?" asked the detective.
"Dudley—James Dudley." I was not quite willing to transfer the whole of my identity to the dead, and changed the Giles to James.
"Was he a relative?"
I shook my head, though I could not have said why I denied it. Then, in answer to the detective's question, I told the story of the scuffle in the alley, and of the events that followed.
"Did you see any of the men? To recognize them, I mean?"
I described the leader as well as I was able—the man with the face of the wolf that I had seen in the lantern-flash.
Detective Coogan lost his listless air, and looked at me in astonishment.
"I don't see your game, Wilton," he said.
"I'm giving you the straight facts," I said sullenly, a little disturbed by his manner and tone.
"Well, in that case, I'd expect you to keep the straight facts to yourself, my boy."
It was my turn to be astonished.
"Well, that's my lookout," I said with assumed carelessness.
"I don't see through you," said the detective with some irritation. "If you're playing with me to stop this inquiry by dragging in—well, we needn't use names—you'll find yourself in the hottest water you ever struck."
"You can do as you please," I said coolly.
The detective ripped out an oath.
"If I knew you were lying, Wilton, I'd clap you in jail this minute."
"Well, if you want to take the risks—" I said smiling.
He looked at me for a full minute.
"Candidly, I don't, and you know it," he said. "But this is a stunner on me. What's your game, anyhow?"
I wished I knew.
"So accomplished a detective should not be at a loss to answer so simple a question."
"Well, there's only one course open, as I see," he said with a groan. "We've got to have a story ready for the papers and the coroner's jury."
This was a new suggestion for me and I was alarmed.
"You can just forget your little tale about the row in the alley," he continued. "There's nothing to show that it had anything to do with this man here. Maybe it didn't happen. Anyhow, just think it was a dream. This was a water-front row—tough saloon—killed and robbed by parties unknown. Maybe we'll have you before the coroner for the identification, but maybe it's better not."
I nodded assent. My mind was too numbed to suggest another course.
The gray dawn was breaking through the chill fog, and people were stirring in the streets as Detective Coogan led the way out of the morgue. As we parted he gave me a curious look.
"I suppose you know your own business, Wilton," he said, "but I suspect you'd be a sight safer if I'd clap you in jail."
And with this consoling comment he was gone, and I was left in the dawn of my first morning in San Francisco, mind and body at the nadir of depression after the excitement and perils of the night.
It was past ten o'clock of the morning when the remembrance of the mysterious note I had received the preceding night came on me. I took the slip from my pocket, and read its contents once more:
"Don't make the change until I see you. The money will be ready in the morning. Be at the bank at 10:30."
This was perplexing enough, but it furnished me with an idea. Of course I could not take money intended for Henry Wilton. But here was the first chance to get at the heart of this dreadful business. The writer of the note, I must suppose, was the mysterious employer. If I could see her I could find the way of escape from the dangerous burden of Henry Wilton's personality and mission.
But which bank could be meant? The only names I knew were the Bank of California, whose failure in the previous year had sent echoes even into my New England home, and the Anglo-Californian Bank, on which I held a draft. The former struck me as the more likely place of appointment, and after some skilful navigating I found myself at the corner of California and Sansome Streets, before the building through which the wealth of an empire had flowed.
I watched closely the crowd that passed in and out of the treasure- house, and assumed what I hoped was an air of prosperous indifference to my surroundings.
No one appeared to notice me. There were eager men and cautious men, and men who looked secure and men who looked anxious, but neither man nor woman was looking for me.
Plainly I had made a bad guess. A hasty walk through several other banks that I could see in the neighborhood gave no better result, and I had to acknowledge that this chance of penetrating the mystery was gone. I speculated for the moment on what the effects might be. To neglect an order of this kind might result in the withdrawal of the protection that had saved my life, and in turning me over to the mercies of the banditti who thought I knew something of the whereabouts of a boy.
As I reflected thus, I came upon a crowd massed about the steps of a great granite building in Pine Street; a whirlpool of men, it seemed, with crosscurrents and eddies, and from the whole rose the murmur of excited voices.
It was the Stock Exchange, the gamblers' paradise, in which millions were staked, won and lost, and ruin and affluence walked side by side. As I watched the swaying, shouting mass with wonder and amusement, a thrill shot through me.
Upon the steps of the building, amid the crowd of brokers and speculators, I saw a tall, broad-shouldered man of fifty or fifty-five, his face keen, shrewd and hard, broad at the temples and tapering to a strong jaw, a yellow-gray mustache and imperial half-hiding and half- revealing the firm lines of the mouth, with the mark of the wolf strong upon the whole. It was a face never to be forgotten as long as I should hold memory at all. It was the face I had seen twelve hours before in the lantern flash in the dreadful alley, with the cry of murder ringing in my ears. Then it was lighted by the fierce fires of rage and hatred, and marked with the chagrin of baffled plans. Now it was cool, good- humored, alert for the battle of the Exchange that had already begun. But I knew it for the same, and was near crying aloud that here was a murderer.
I clutched my nearest neighbor by the arm, and demanded to know who it was.
"Doddridge Knapp," replied the man civilly. "He's running the Chollar deal now, and if I could only guess which side he's on, I'd make a fortune in the next few days. He's the King of Pine Street."
While I was looking at the King of the Street and listening to my neighbor's tales of his operations, Doddridge Knapp's eyes met mine. To my amazement there was a look of recognition in them. Yet he made no sign, and in a moment was gone. This, then, was the enemy I was to meet! This was the explanation of Detective Coogan's hint that I should be safer in jail than free on the streets to face this man's hatred or revenge.
I must have stood in a daze on the busy street, for I was roused by some one shaking my arm with vigor.
"Come! are you asleep?" said the man, speaking in my ear. "Can't you hear?"
"Yes, yes," said I, rousing my attention.
"The chief wants you." His voice was low, almost a whisper.
"The chief? Who? Where?" I asked. "At the City Hall?" I jumped to the conclusion that it was, of course, the chief of police, on the scent of the murder.
"No. Of course not. In the second office, you know."
This was scarcely enlightening. Doubtless, however, it was a summons from my unknown employer.
"I'll follow you," said I promptly.
"I don't think I'd better go," said the messenger dubiously. "He didn't say anything about it, and you know he's rather—"
"Well, I order it," I cut in decisively. "I may need you."
I certainly needed him at that moment if I was to find my way.
"Go ahead a few steps," I said.
My tone and manner impressed him, and he went without another word. I sauntered after him with as careless an air as I could assume. My heart was beating fast. I felt that I was close to the mystery and that the next half-hour would determine whether I was to take up Henry Wilton's work or to find my way in safety back to my own name and person.
My unconscious guide led the way along Montgomery Street into an office building, up a flight of stairs, and into a back hallway.
"Stay a moment," I said, as he had his hand on the door knob. "On second thoughts you can wait down stairs."
He turned back, and as his footsteps echoed down the stair I opened the door and entered the office.
As I crossed the threshold my heart gave a great bound, and I stopped short. Before me sat Doddridge Knapp, the King of the Street, the man for whom above all others in the world I felt loathing and fear.
Doddridge Knapp finished signing his name to a paper on his desk before he looked up.
"Come in and sit down," he said. The voice was alert and businesslike— the voice of a man accustomed to command. But I could find no trace of feeling in it, nothing that could tell me of the hatred or desperate purpose that should inspire such a tragedy as I had witnessed, or warn me of danger to come.
"Do you hear?" he said impatiently; "shut the door and sit down. Just spring that lock, will you? We might be interrupted."
I was not at all certain that I should not wish very earnestly that he might be interrupted in what Bret Harte would call the "subsequent proceedings." But I followed his directions.
Doddridge Knapp was not less impressive at close view than at long range. The strong face grew stronger when seen from the near distance.
"My dear Wilton," he said, "I've come to a place where I've got to trust somebody, so I've come back to you." The voice was oily and persuasive, but the keen gray eyes shot out a glance from under the bushing eyebrows that thrilled me as a warning.
"It's very kind of you," I said, swallowing my astonishment with an effort.
"Well," said Knapp, "the way you handled that Ophir matter was perfectly satisfactory; but I'll tell you that it's on Mrs. Knapp's say-so, as much as on your own doings, that I select you for this job."
"I'm much obliged to Mrs. Knapp," I said politely. I was in deep waters. It was plainly unsafe to do anything but drift.
"Oh, you can settle that with her at your next call," he said good humoredly.
The jaded nerves of surprise refused to respond further. If I had received a telegram informing me that the dispute over the presidency had been settled by shelving both Hayes and Tilden and giving the unanimous vote of the electors to me, I should have accepted it as a matter of course. I took my place unquestioningly as a valued acquaintance of Doddridge Knapp's and a particular friend of Mrs. Knapp's.
Yet it struck me as strange that the keen-eyed King of the Street had failed to discover that he was not talking to Henry Wilton, but to some one else who resembled him. There were enough differences in features and voice to distinguish us among intimate friends, though there were not enough to be seen by casual acquaintances. I had the key in the next sentence he spoke.
"I have decided that it is better this time to do our business face to face. I don't want to trust messengers on this affair, and even cipher notes are dangerous,—confoundedly dangerous."
Then we had not been close acquaintances.
"Oh, by the way, you have that other cipher yet, haven't you?" he asked.
"No, I burnt it," I said unblushingly.
"That's right," he said. "It was best not to take risks. Of course you understand that it won't do for us to be seen together."
"Certainly not," I assented.
"I have arranged for another office. Here's the address. Yours is Room 15. I have the key to 17, and 16 is vacant between with a 'To Let' sign on it. They open into each other. You understand?"
"Perfectly," I said.
"You will be there by nine o'clock for your orders. If you get none by twelve, there will be none for the day."
"If I can't be there, I'll let you know." I was off my guard for a moment, thinking of the possible demands of Henry's unknown employer.
"You will do nothing of the kind," said Doddridge Knapp shortly. His voice, so smooth and businesslike a moment before, changed suddenly to a growl. His heavy eyebrows came down, and from under them flashed a dangerous light. "You will be there when I tell you, young man, or you'll have to reckon with another sort of customer than the one you've been dealing with. This matter requires prompt and strict obedience to orders. One slip may ruin the whole plan."
"You can depend on me," I said with assumed confidence. "Am I to have any discretion?"
I had thus far been able to get no hint of his purposes. If I had not known what I knew, I should have supposed that his mind was concentrated on the apparent object before him—to secure the zeal and fidelity of an employee in some important business operation.
"And what am I to do?" I asked.
"Be a capitalist," he said with an ironical smile. "Buy and sell what I tell you to buy and sell. Keep under cover, but not too much under cover. You can pick your own brokers. Better begin with Bockstein and Eppner, though. Your checks will be honored at the Nevada Bank. Oh, here's a cipher, in case I want to write you. I suppose you'll want some ready money."
Doddridge Knapp was certainly a liberal provider, for he shoved a handful of twenty-dollar gold pieces across the desk in a way that made my eyes open.
"By the way," he continued, "I don't think I have your signature, have I?"
"No, sir," I replied with prompt confidence.
"Well, just write it on this slip then. I'll turn it into the bank for your identification. You can take this check-book with you."
"That's all," he replied with a nod of dismissal. "Maybe it's to- morrow—maybe it's next month."
And I walked out into Montgomery Street, bewildered among the conflicting mysteries in which I had been entangled.
A NIGHT AT BORTON'S
Room 15 was a plain, comfortable office in a plain, comfortable building on Clay Street, not far from the heart of the business district. It was on the second floor, and its one window opened to the rear, and faced a desolate assortment of back yards, rear walls, and rickety stairways. The floor had a worn carpet, and there was a desk, a few chairs and a shelf of law books. The place looked as though it had belonged to a lawyer in reduced circumstances, and I could but wonder how it had come into the possession of Doddridge Knapp, and what had become of its former occupant.
I tried to thrust aside a spirit of melancholy, and looked narrowly to the opportunities offered by the room for attack and defense. The walls were solidly built. The window-casement showed an unusual depth for a building of that height. The wall had been put in to withstand an earthquake shock. The door opening into the hall, the door into Room 16, and the window furnished the three avenues of possible attack or retreat. The window upon examination appeared impracticable. There was a sheer drop of twenty feet, without a projection of any kind below it. The ledge was hardly an inch wide. The iron shutters by which it might be closed did not swing within ten feet of any other window. The one chance of getting in by this line was to drop a rope ladder from the roof. The door opening into Room 16 was not heavy, and the lock was a cheap affair. A good kick would send the whole thing into splinters. As it swung into Number 16 and not into my room it could not be braced with a barricade. Plainly it was not a good place to spend the night should Doddridge Knapp care to engineer another case of mysterious disappearance.
The depression of spirits that progressed with my survey of the room deepened into gloom as I flung myself into the arm-chair before the desk, and tried to plan some way out of the tangle in which I was involved. How was I, single-handed, to contend against the power of the richest man in the city, and bring home to him the murder of Henry Wilton? I could look for no assistance from the police. The words of Detective Coogan were enough to show that only the most convincing proof of guilt, backed by fear of public sentiment, could bring the department to raise a finger against him. And how could I hope to rouse that public sentiment? What would my word count against that of the King of the Street?
Where was the motive for the crime? Until that was made clear I could not hope to piece together the scraps of evidence into a solid structure of proof. And what motive could there be that would reconcile the Doddridge Knapp who sought the life of Henry Wilton, with the Doddridge Knapp of this morning, who was ready to engage him in his confidential business? And had I the right to accept any part in his business? It had the flavor of treachery about it; yet it seemed the only possible chance to come upon the secret springs of his acts, to come in touch with the tools and accomplices in his crime. And the unknown mission, that had brought Henry to his death? How was I to play his part in that? And even if I could take his place, how was I to serve the mysterious employer and Doddridge Knapp at the same time, when Doddridge Knapp was ready to murder me to gain the Unknown's secret.
Fatigue and loss of sleep deepened the dejection of mind that oppressed me with these insistent questions, and as I vainly struggled against it, carried me at last into the oblivion of dreamless slumber.
The next I knew I was awaking to the sound of breaking glass. It was dark but for a feeble light that came from the window. Every bone in my body ached from the cramped position in which I had slept, and it seemed an age before I could rouse myself to act. It was, however, but a second before I was on my feet, revolver in hand, with the desk between me and a possible assailant.
Silence, threatening, oppressive, surrounded me as I stood listening, watching, for the next move. Then I heard a low chuckle, as of some one struggling to restrain his laughter; and so far from sympathizing with his mirth, I was tempted to try the effect of a shot as an assistance in suppressing it.
"I thought the transom was open," said a low voice, which still seemed to be struggling with suppressed laughter.
"I guess it woke him up," said another and harsher voice. "I heard a noise in there."
"You're certain he's there?" asked the first voice with another chuckle.
"Sure, Dicky. I saw him go in, and Porter and I have taken turns on watch ever since."
"Well, it's time he came out," said Dicky. "He can't be asleep after that racket. Say!" he called, "Harry! What's the matter with you? If you're dead let us know."
They appeared friendly, but I hesitated in framing an answer.
"We'll have to break down the door, I guess," said Dicky. "Something must have happened." And a resounding kick shook the panel.
"Hold on!" I cried. "What's wanted?"
"Oh," said Dicky sarcastically. "You've come to life again, have you."
"Well, I'm not dead yet."
"Then strike a light and let us in. And take a look at that reminder you'll find wrapped around the rock I heaved through the transom. I thought it was open." And Dicky went off into another series of chuckles in appreciation of his mistake.
"All right," I said. I was not entirely trustful, and after I had lighted the gas-jet I picked up the stone that lay among the fragments of glass, and unwrapped the paper. The sheet bore only the words:
"At Borton's, at midnight. Richmond."
This was the name of the agent of the Unknown, who had sent the other note. Dicky and his companion must then be protectors instead of enemies. I hastened to unlock the door, and in walked my two visitors.
The first was a young man, tall, well-made, with a shrewd, good-humored countenance, and a ready, confident air about him. I had no trouble in picking him out as the amused Dicky. The other was a black-bearded giant, who followed stolidly in the wake of the younger man.
"You've led me a pretty chase," said Dicky. "If it hadn't been for Pork Chops here, I shouldn't have found you till the cows come home."
"Well, what's up now?" I asked.
"Why, you ought to know," said Dicky with evident surprise. "But you'd better be hurrying down to Borton's. The gang must be there by now."
I could only wonder who Borton might be, and where his place was, and what connection he might have with the mystery, as Dicky took me by the arm and hurried me out into the darkness. The chill night air served to nerve instead of depress my spirits, as the garrulous Dicky unconsciously guided me to the meeting-place, joyously narrating some amusing adventure of the day, while the heavy retainer stalked in silence behind.
Down near the foot of Jackson Street, where the smell of bilge-water and the wash of the sewers grew stronger, and the masts of vessels could just be seen in the darkness outlined against the sky, Dicky suddenly stopped and drew me into a doorway. Our retainer disappeared at the same instant, and the street was apparently deserted. Then out of the night the shape of a man approached with silent steps.
"Five-sixteen," croaked Dicky.
The man gave a visible start.
"Sixteen-five," he croaked in return.
"Any signs?" whispered Dicky.
"Six men went up stairs across the street. Every one of them did the sailor-drunk act."
"Sure they weren't sailors?"
"Well, when six coves goes up the same stairs trying the same dodge, all inside of ten minutes, I has a right to my suspicions. And Darby Meeker ain't been to sea yet that I knows on."
"Darby Meeker!" exclaimed Dicky in a whisper. And he drew a whistle under his breath. "What do you think of that, Wilton? I had no idea he was back from that wild-goose chase you sent him on."
"It looks bad," I admitted cautiously. "I dare say he isn't in good temper."
"You'll have to settle with him for that piece of business," said Dicky with a chuckle.
I failed to see the amusing side of the prospect. I wished I knew what Mr. Meeker looked like.
The guard had melted away into the darkness without another word, and we hurried forward with due caution. Just past the next corner was a lighted room, and the sound of voices broke the quiet. A triangular glass lantern projected from above the door, and such of the paint as had not weathered away made the announcement:
We pushed open the door and walked in. The room was large and dingy, the ceiling low. Tables were scattered about the sanded floor. A bar took up the side of the room next the entrance, and a general air of disreputability filled the place. The only attempts at ornament, unless the arrangement of various-colored bottles behind the bar came under that head, were the circles and festoons of dirty cut paper hanging from the ceiling.
About the room, some at the tables, some at the bar, were numbers of stout, rough-looking men, with a few Greek fishermen and two or three sailors.
Behind the bar sat a woman whose appearance in that place almost startled me. She might have been nearing seventy, and a hard and evil life had left its marks on her bent frame and her gaunt face. Her leathery cheeks were lined deep, and a hawk-like nose emphasized the unpleasant suggestions conveyed by her face and figure. But the most remarkable feature about her was her eyes. There was no trace of age in them. Bright and keen as the eyes of a rat, they gave me an unpleasant thrill as I felt her gaze fixed upon me when I entered the door, arm in arm with Dicky. It was as though they had pierced me through, and had laid bare something I would have concealed. It was a relief to pass beyond her into a recessed part of the room where her gaze might waste itself on the back of my head.
"Mother Borton's up late to-night," said Dicky thoughtfully, as he ordered wine.
"You can't blame her for thinking that this crowd needs watching," I suggested with as much of airiness as I could throw into my manner.
Dicky shook his head for a second, and then resumed his light-hearted, bantering way. Yet I could see that he was perplexed and anxious about something that had come to his attention on our arrival.
"You'll not want to attend to business till all the boys are here?" asked Dicky.
"Not unless there's something to be done," I responded dryly.
Dicky gave me a quick glance.
"Of course," he said with a laugh that was not quite easy, "not unless there's something to be done. But I thought there was something."
"You've got a fine mind for thinking, Dicky," I replied. "You'd better cultivate it."
"Well, they say there's nothing like society for that sort of cultivation," said Dicky with another laugh. "They don't say what kind, but I've got a pretty good stock here to choose from." He was at his ease in banter again, but it struck unpleasantly on me that there was something behind.
"Oh, here's a queer friend," he said suddenly, looking to the door. "I'd better speak to him on the matter of countersigns."
"By all means," I said, turning in my chair to survey the new-comer.
I saw the face for an instant. The man wore a sou'wester, and he had drawn his thick, rough coat up as though he would hide his head under the collar. Cheek and chin I could see were covered by a thick blond beard. His movements were apparently clumsy, but his figure was lithe and sinuous. And his eyes! Once seen they never could be forgotten. At their glance, beard and sou'wester dropped away before my fancy, and I saw in my inner vision the man of the serpent glance who had chilled my spirit when I had first put foot in the city. It flashed on me in an instant that this was the same man disguised, who had ventured into the midst of his enemies to see what he might learn of their plans.
As I watched Dicky advance and greet the new-comer with apparent inquiry, a low harsh voice behind gave me a start of surprise.
"This is your wine, I think,"—and a lean, wrinkled arm passed over my shoulder, and a wrinkled face came near my own.
I turned quickly. It was Mother Borton, leering at me with no apparent interest but in her errand.
"What are you doing here?" asked the crone in a voice still lower. "You're not the one they take you to be, but you're none the less in danger. What are you doing with his looks, and in this place? Look out for that man you're with, and the other. Yes, sir," her voice rose. "A small bottle of the white; in a minute, sir."
I understood her as Dicky and the new-comer came to the table and took seats opposite. I commanded my face to give no sign of suspicion, but the warning put me on the alert. I had come on the supposition that I was to meet the band to which Henry Wilton belonged. Instead of being among friends, however, it seemed now that I was among enemies.
"It's all right," said Dicky carelessly. "He's been sent."
"That's lucky," said I with equal unconcern. "We may need an extra hand before morning."
The new-comer could not repress a triumphant flash in the serpent eyes.
"I'm the one for your job," he said hoarsely, his face as impassive as a stone wall.
"What do you know about the job?" I asked suspiciously.
"Only what I've been told," he answered.
"And that is—"
"That it's a job for silence, secrecy, and—"
"Spondulicks," said Dicky with a laugh, as the other hesitated for a word.
"Just so," said the man.
"And what else?" I continued, pressing him firmly.
"Well," he admitted hoarsely, "I learned as how there was to be a change of place to-night, and I might be needed."
I looked at him inquiringly. Perhaps I was on the threshold of knowledge of this cursed business from the mouth of the enemy.
"I heard as how the boy was to be put in a safer place," he said, wagging his head with affected gravity.
Some imp put it into my brain to try him with an unexpected bit of news.
"Oh," I said coolly, "that's all attended to. The change was made yesterday."
The effect of this announcement was extraordinary. The man started with an oath.
"The hell you say!" he exclaimed in a low, smooth voice, far different from the harsh tone he had used thus far. Then he leaped to his feet, with uncontrollable rage.
"Tricked—by God!" he shouted impulsively, and smote the table with his fist.
His outburst threw the room into confusion. Men sprang from their chairs. Glasses and bottles fell with clinking crash. Oaths and shouts arose from the crowd.
"Damn you, I'll have it out of you!" said the man with suppressed fury, his voice once again smooth and low. "Where is the boy?"
He smote the table again; and with that stroke the false beard fell from his chin and cheek, and exposed the malignant face, distorted with rage. A feeling of horrible repulsion came over me, and I should have struck at that serpent's head but for a startling occurrence. As he spoke, a wild scream rose upon the air, and as it echoed through the room the lights went out.
The scream was repeated, and after an instant's silence there rose a chorus of shouts and oaths, mingled with the crash of tables and the clink of breaking glass and crockery, as the men in the room fought their way to the door.
"Oh, my God, I'm cut!" came in a shriek out of the darkness and clamor; and there followed the flash of a pistol and a report that boomed like a cannon in that confined place.
My eyes had not been idle after the warning of Mother Borton, and in an instant I had decided what to do. I had figured out what I conceived to be the plan of the house, and thought I knew a way of escape. There were two doors at the rear of the room, and facing me. One led, as I knew, to the kitchen; the other opened, I reasoned, on a stair to the lodging-rooms above.
Before the scream that accompanied the extinction of the lights had died away, I had made a dive beneath the table, and, lifting with all my might, had sent it crashing over with my enemy under it. With one leap I cleared the remaining table that lay between me and the door. And with the clamor behind me, I turned the knob and bounded up the stairs, three steps at a time.
The noise of the struggle below continued. Yells and curses rose from the maddened men. Three shots were fired in quick succession, and a cry of "Oh, my Lord!" penetrated through the closed door with the sound of one sorely hurt.
I lingered for a little, listening to the tumult. I was in a strange and dangerous position. Enemies were behind me. There were friends, too, but I knew no way to tell one from the other, and my ignorance had nearly brought me to my death. I hesitated to move, but I could not remain in the open hall; and as the sounds of disturbance from below subsided, I felt my way along the wall and moved cautiously forward.
I had progressed perhaps twenty steps when a door, against which my hand pressed, yielded at the touch and swung slowly open. I strove to stop it, for the first opening showed a dim light within. But the panel gave no hold for my fingers, and my efforts to close the door only swung it open the faster. I drew back a little into the shadow, for I hesitated to dash past the sight of any who might occupy the room.
"Come in!" called a harsh voice.
I hesitated. Behind, the road led to the eating-room with its known dangers. A dash along the hall for the front door meant the raising of an alarm, and probably a bullet as a discourager of burglary. Should I escape this, I could be certain of a warm reception from the enemies on watch outside. Prudence lay in facing the one rather than risking the many. I accepted the invitation and walked into the room.
"I was expecting you," said the harsh voice composedly. "Good evening."
"Good evening," I returned gravely, swallowing my amazement as best I could.
By the table before me sat Mother Borton, contemplating me as calmly as though this meeting were the most commonplace thing in the world. A candle furnished a dim, flickering light that gave to her hard wicked countenance a diabolic leer that struck a chill to my blood.
"Excuse me," I said, "I have lost my way, I fear."
"Not at all," said Mother Borton. "You are in the right place."
"I was afraid I had intruded," I said apologetically.
"I expected you," she repeated. "Shut the door."
I glanced about the room. There was no sign of another person to be seen, and no other door. I obeyed her.
"You might as well sit down," she said with some petulance. "There's nothing up here to hurt you." There was so much meaning in her tone of the things that would hurt me on the floor below that I hastened to show my confidence in her, and drew up a chair to the table.
"At your service," I said, leaning before her with as much an appearance of jaunty self-possession as I could muster.
"Who are you, and what are you doing here?" she asked grimly.
What should I answer? Could I tell her the truth? "Who are you?" she repeated impatiently, gazing on me. "You are not Wilton. Tell me. Who are you?"
The face, hard as it was, seamed with the record of a rough and evil life, as it appeared, had yet a kindly look as it was turned on me.
"My name is Dudley,—Giles Dudley."
"Where is Wilton?"
"Dead? Did you kill him?" The half-kindly look disappeared from her eyes, and the hard lines settled into an expression of malevolent repulsiveness.
"He was my best friend," I said sadly; and then I described the leading events of the tragedy I had witnessed.
The old woman listened closely, and with hardly the movement of a muscle, to the tale I told.
"And you think he left his job to you?" she said with a sneer.
"I have taken it up as well as I can. To be frank with you, Mrs. Borton, I know nothing about his job. I'm going along on blind chance, and trying to keep a whole skin."
The old woman looked at me in amazement.
"Poor boy!" she exclaimed half-pityingly, half-admiringly. "You put your hands to a job you know nothing about, when Henry Wilton couldn't carry it with all his wits about him."
"I didn't do it," said I sullenly. "It has done itself. Everybody insists that I'm Wilton. If I'm to have my throat slit for him I might as well try to do his work. I wish to Heaven I knew what it was, though."
Mother Borton leaned her head on her hand, and gazed on me thoughtfully for a full minute.
"Young man," said she impressively, "take my advice. There's a train for the East in the mornin'. Just git on board, and never you stop short of Chicago."
"I'm not running away," said I bitterly. "I've got a score to settle with the man who killed Henry Wilton. When that score is settled, I'll go to Chicago or anywhere else. Until that's done, I stay where I can settle it."
Mother Borton caught up the candle and moved it back and forth before my face. In her eyes there was a gleam of savage pleasure.
"By God, he's in earnest!" she said to herself, with a strange laugh. "Tell me again of the man you saw in the alley."
I described Doddridge Knapp.
"And you are going to get even with him?" she said with a chuckle that had no mirth in it.
"Yes," said I shortly.
"Why, if you should touch him the people of the city would tear you to pieces."
"I shall not touch him. I'm no assassin!" I exclaimed indignantly. "The law shall take him, and I'll see him hanged as high as Haman."
Mother Borton gave a low gurgling laugh.
"The law! oh, my liver,—the law! How young you are, my boy! Oh, ho, oh ho!" And again she absorbed her mirthless laugh, and gave me an evil grin. Then she became grave again, and laid a claw on my sleeve. "Take my advice now, and git on the train."
"Not I!" I returned stoutly.
"I'm doing it for your own good," she said, with as near an approach to a coaxing tone as she could command. It was long since she had used her voice for such a purpose and it grated. "For my sake I'd like to see you go on and wipe out the whole raft of 'em. But I know what'll happen to ye, honey. I've took a fancy to ye. I don't know why. But there's a look on your face that carries me back for forty years, and—don't try it, dearie."
There were actually tears in the creature's eyes, and her hard, wicked face softened, and became almost tender and womanly.
"I can't give up," I said. "The work is put on me. But can't you help me? I believe you want to. I trust you. Tell me what to do—where I stand. I'm all in the dark, but I must do my work." It was the best appeal I could have made.
"You're right," she said. "I'm an old fool, and you've got the real sand. You're the first one except Henry Wilton that's trusted me in forty years, and you won't be sorry for it, my boy. You owe me one, now. Where would you have been to-night if I hadn't had the light doused on ye?"
"Oh, that was your doing, was it? I thought my time had come."
"Oh, I was sure you'd know what to do. It was your best chance."
"Then will you help me, now?" The old crone considered, and her face grew sharp and cunning in its look.
"What can I do?"
"Tell me, in God's name, where I stand. What is this dreadful mystery? Who is this boy? Why is he hidden, and why do these people want to know where he is? Who is behind me, and who threatens me with death?"
I burst out with these questions passionately, almost frantically. This was the first time I had had chance to demand them of another human being.
Mother Borton gave me a leer.
"I wish I could tell you, my dear, but I don't know."
"You mean you dare not tell me," I said boldly. "You have done me a great service, but if I am to save myself from the dangers that surround me I must know more. Can't you see that?"
"Yes," she nodded. "You're in a hard row of stumps, young man."
"And you can help me."
"Well, I will," she said, suddenly softening again. "I took a shine to you when you came in, an' I says to myself, 'I'll save that young fellow,' an' I done it. And I'll do more. Mr. Wilton was a fine gentleman, an' I'd do something, if I could, to git even with those murderin' gutter-pickers that laid him out on a slab."
She hesitated, and looked around at the shadows thrown by the flickering candle.
"Well?" I said impatiently. "Who is the boy, and where is he?"
"Never you mind that, young fellow. Let me tell you what I know. Then maybe we'll have time to go into the things I don't know."
It was of no use to urge her. I bowed my assent to her terms.
"I'll name no names," she said. "My throat can be cut as quick as yours, and maybe a damned sight quicker."
Mother Borton had among her failings a weakness for profanity. I have omitted most of her references to sacred and other subjects of the kind in transcribing her remarks.
"The ones that has the boy means all right. They're rich. The ones as is looking for the boy is all wrong. They'll be rich if they gits him."
"Why, I don't know," said Mother Borton. "I'm tellin' you what Henry Wilton told me."
This was maddening. I began to suspect that she knew nothing after all.
"Do you know where he is?" I asked, taking the questioning into my own hands.
"Who is protecting him?"
"I don't know."
"Who is trying to get him?"
"It's that snake-eyed Tom Terrill that's leading the hunt, along with Darby Meeker; but they ain't doing it for themselves."
"Is Doddridge Knapp behind them?"
The old woman looked at me suddenly in wild-eyed alarm.
"S-s-h!" she whispered. "Don't name no names."
"But I saw—"
She put her hand over my mouth.
"He's in it somewhere, or the devil is, but I don't know where. He's an awful man. He's everywhere at once. He's—oh Lord! What was that?"
I had become infected with her nervousness, and at a cracking or creaking sound turned around with half an expectation of seeing Doddridge Knapp himself coming in the door.
There was no one there—nothing to be seen but the flickering shadows, and no sound broke the stillness as we listened.
"It's nothing," I said.
"I reckon I ain't got no call to be scared at any crackings in this old house," said Mother Borton with a nervous giggle. "I've hearn 'em long enough. But that man's name gives me the shivers."
"What did he ever do to you?" I asked with some curiosity.
"He never did nothing," she said, "but I hearn tell dreadful things that's gone on of nights,—how Doddridge Knapp or his ghost was seen killing a Chinaman over at North Beach, while Doddridge Knapp or his ghost,—whichever was the other one,—was speaking at a meeting, at the Pavilion. And I hearn of his drinkin' blood—"
"Nonsense!" said I; "where did you get such stories?"
"Well, they're told me for true, and by ones I believe," she said stoutly. "Oh, there's queer things goes on. Doddridge Knapp or the devil, it's all one. But it's ill saying things of them that can be in two places at once." And the old dame looked nervously about her. "They've hushed things up in the papers, and fixed the police, but people have tongues."
I wondered what mystification had given rise to these absurd reports, but there was nothing to be gained by pursuing them. The killing of the Chinaman might have been something to my hand, but if Doddridge Knapp had such a perfect alibi it was a waste of time to look into it.
"And is this all you know?" I asked in disappointment.
Mother Borton tried to remember some other point.
"I don't see how it's going to keep a knife from between my ribs," I complained.
"You keep out of the way of Tom Terrill and his hounds, and you'll be all right, I reckon."
"Am I supposed to be the head man in this business?"
"Who are my men?"
"There's Wilson and Fitzhugh and Porter and Brown," and she named ten or a dozen more.
"And what is Dicky?"
"It's a smart man as can put his finger on Dicky Nahl," said Mother Borton spitefully.
"Nahl is his name?"
"Yes. And I've seen him hobnob with Henry Wilton, and I've seen him thick as thieves with Tom Terrill, and which he's thickest with the devil himself couldn't tell. I call him Slippery Dicky."
"Why did he bring me here to-night?"
"I hearn there's orders come to change the place—the boy's place, you know. You was to tell 'em where the new one was to be, I reckon, but Tom Terrill spoiled things. He's lightning, is Tom Terrill. But I guess he got it all out of Dicky, though where Dicky got it the Lord only knows."
This was all that was to be had from Mother Borton. Either she knew no more, or she was sharp enough to hide a knowledge that might be dangerous, even fatal, to reveal. She was willing to serve me, and I was forced to let it pass that she knew no more.
"Well, I'd better be going then," said I at last. "It's nearly four o'clock, and everything seems to be quiet hereabouts. I'll find my way to my room."
"You'll do no such thing," said Mother Borton. "They've not given up the chase yet. Your men have gone home, I reckon, but I'll bet the saloon that you'd have a surprise before you got to the corner."
"Not a pleasant prospect," said I grimly.
"No. You must stay here. The room next to this one is just the thing for you. See?"
She drew me into the adjoining room, shading the candle as we passed through the hall that no gleam might fall where it would attract attention.
"You'll be safe here," she said. "Now do as I say. Go to sleep and git some rest. You ain't had much, I guess, since you got to San Francisco."
The room was cheerless, but in the circumstances the advice appeared good. I was probably safer here than in the street, and I needed the rest.
"Good night," said my strange protectress, "You needn't git up till you git ready. This is a beautiful room—beautiful. I call it our bridal chamber, though we don't get no brides down here. There won't be no sun to bother your eyes in the mornin', for that window don't open up outside. So there, can't nobody git in unless he comes from inside the house. There, git to bed. Look out you don't set fire to nothing. And put out the candle. Now good night, dearie."
Mother Borton closed the door behind her, and left me to the shadows.
Her departure did not leave me wholly at my ease. I had escaped from my foes, but I was no closer to being in touch with those who would be my friends; and before daylight I might be lying here with my throat slit. At the reflection I hastily bolted the door, and tried the fastenings of the window. All seemed secure, but the sound of a footstep in the passageway gave me a start for an instant.
"Only Mother Borton going down stairs," I thought, with a smile at my fears.
There was nothing to be gained by sitting up, and the candle was past its final inch. I felt that I could not sleep, but I would lie down on the bed and rest my tired limbs, that I might refresh myself for the demands of the day. I kicked off my boots, put my revolver under my hand, and lay down.
Heedless of Mother Borton's warning I left the candle to burn to the socket, and watched the flickering shadows chase each other over walls and ceiling. The shadows grew larger and blacker, and took fantastic shapes of men and beasts. And then with a confused impression of deadly fear and of an effort to escape from peril, a blacker shadow swallowed up all that had gone before, and carried me with it.
IN WHICH I MEET A FEW SURPRISES
I awoke with the sense of threatened danger strong in my mind. For a moment I was unable to recall where I was, or on what errand I had come. Then memory returned in a flood, and I sprang from the bed and peered about me.
A dim light struggled in from the darkened window, but no cause for apprehension could be seen. I was the only creature that breathed the air of that bleak and dingy room.
I drew aside the curtain, and threw up the window. It opened merely on a light-well, and the blank walls beyond gave back the cheery reflection of a patch of sunlight that fell at an angle from above.
The fresher air that crept in from the window cleared my mind, a dash of water refreshed my body, and I was ready once more to face whatever might befall.
I looked at my watch. It was eight o'clock, and I had slept four hours in this place. Truly I had been imprudent after my adventure below, but I had been right in trusting Mother Borton. Then I began to realize that I was outrageously hungry, and I remembered that I should be at the office by nine to receive the commands of Doddridge Knapp, should he choose to send them.
I threw back the bolt, but when I tried to swing the door open it resisted my efforts. The key had been missing when I closed it, but a sliding bolt had fastened it securely. Now I saw that the door was locked.
Here was a strange predicament. I had heard nothing of the noise of the key before I lost myself in slumber. Mother Borton must have turned it as an additional precaution as I slept. But how was I to get out? I hesitated to make a noise that could attract attention. It might bring some one less kindly disposed than my hostess of the night. But there was no other way. I was trapped, and must take the risk of summoning assistance.
I rapped on the panel and listened. No sound rewarded me. I rapped again more vigorously, but only silence followed. The house might have been the grave for all the signs of life it gave back.
There was something ominous about it. To be locked, thus, in a dark room of this house in which I had already been attacked, was enough to shake my spirit and resolution for the moment. What lay without the door, my apprehension asked me. Was it part of the plot to get the secret it was supposed I held? Had Mother Borton been murdered, and the house seized? Or had Mother Borton played me false, and was I now a prisoner to my own party for my enforced imposture, as one who knew too much to be left at large and too little to be of use? On a second and calmer thought it was evidently folly to bring my jailers about my ears, if jailers there were. I abandoned my half-formed plan of breaking down the door, and turned to the window and the light-well. Another window faced on the same space, not five feet away. If it were but opened I might swing myself over and through it; but it was closed, and a curtain hid the unknown possibilities and dangers of the interior. A dozen feet above was the roof, with no projection or foothold by which it might be reached. Below, the light-well ended in a tinned floor, about four feet from the window sill.
I swung myself down, and with two steps was trying the other window. It was unlocked. I raised the sash cautiously, but its creaking protest seemed to my excited ears to be loud enough to wake any but the dead. I stopped and listened after each squeak of the frame. There was no sign of movement.
Then I pushed aside the curtain cautiously, and looked within. The room appeared absolutely bare. Gaining confidence at the sight, I threw the curtain farther back, and with a bound climbed in, revolver in hand.
A scurrying sound startled me for an instant, and with a scramble I gained my feet, prepared to face whatever was before me. Then I saw the disappearing form of a great rat, and laughed at my fears.
The room was, as I had thought, bare and deserted. There was a musty smell about it, as though it had not been opened for a long time, and dust and desolation lay heavy upon it. A dark stain on the floor near the window suggested to my fancy the idea of blood. Had some wayfarer less fortunate than I been inveigled to his death in this evil place?
There was, however, nothing here to linger for, and I hastened to try the door. It was locked. I stooped to examine the fastening. It was of the cheapest kind, attached to door and casement by small screws. With a good wrench it gave way, and I found myself in a dark side-hall between two rooms. Three steps brought me to the main hall, and I recognized it for the same through which I had felt my way in the darkness of the night. It was not improved by the daylight, and a strange loneliness about it was an oppression to the spirits. There were six or eight rooms on the floor, and the doors glowered threateningly on me, as though they were conscious that I was an intruder in fear of his life.
The intense stillness within the house, instead of reassuring me, served as a threat. After my experience of the night, it spoke of treachery, not of peace.
I took my steps cautiously down the stairs, following the way that led to the side entrance. The saloon and restaurant room I was anxious to evade, for there would doubtless be a barkeeper and several loiterers about. It could not be avoided, however. As I neared the bottom of the stairs, I saw that a door led from the hallway to the saloon, and that it was open.
I moved slowly down, a step at a time, then from over-cautiousness tripped and came down the last three steps at once with the clatter of a four-horse team.
But nobody stirred. Then I glanced through the open door, and was stricken cold with astonishment. The room was empty!
The chairs and tables that a few hours ago I had seen scattered about were gone. There was no sign that the place had been occupied in months.
I stepped into the room that I had seen crowded with eager friends and enemies, eating, drinking, ready for desperate deeds. My step echoed strangely with the echo of an untenanted house. The bar and the shelves behind it were swept clear of the bottles and glasses that had filled them. Dust was thick over the floor and walls. The windows were stained and dirty, and a paper sign on each pane informed the passers-by that the house was "To Let."
Bewildered and apprehensive, I wondered whether, after all, the events of the night, the summons from Dicky Nahl, the walk in the darkness, the scene in the saloon, the encounter with the snake-eyed man, the riot, the rush up the dark stair, and the interview with the old crone, were not a fantastic vision from the land of dreams.
I looked cautiously through the other rooms on the first floor. They were as bare as the main room. The only room in the whole house that held a trace of furniture or occupancy must be the one from which I had escaped. It seemed that an elaborate trap had been set for my benefit with such precautions that I could not prove that it ever had been.
There was, however, no time to waste in prying into this mystery. By my watch it was close on nine o'clock, and Doddridge Knapp might even now be making his way to the office where he had stationed me.
The saloon's front doors were locked fast, but the side door that led from the stairway to the street was fastened only with a spring lock, and I swung it open and stepped to the sidewalk.
A load left my spirits as the door closed behind me. The fresh air of the morning was like wine after the close and musty atmosphere I had been breathing.
The street was but a prosaic place after the haunt of mystery I had just left. It was like stepping from the Dark Ages into the nineteenth century. Yet there was something puzzling about it. The street had no suggestion of the familiar, and it appeared somehow to have been turned end for end. I had lost my sense of direction. The hills were where the bay ought to be. I seemed to have changed sides of the street, and it took me a little time to readjust the points of the compass. I reasoned at last that Dicky Nahl had led me to the street below before turning to the place, and I had not noticed that we had doubled on our course.
I hurried along the streets with but a three-minute stop to swallow a cup of coffee and a roll, and once more mounted the stairs to the office and opened the door to Number 15.