The Brand of Silence
A DETECTIVE STORY
By HARRINGTON STRONG
CHELSEA HOUSE 79 SEVENTH AVENUE NEW YORK CITY
Copyright, 1919 by STREET & SMITH
(Printed in the United States of America)
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian.
I. IN THE HARBOR
II. THE GIRL ON THE SHIP
III. SOME DISCOURTESIES
IV. A FOE AND A FRIEND
V. THE COUSIN
VI. MURK—AND MURDER
VIII. LIES AND LIARS
X. ON THE TRAIL
XI. CONCERNING KATE GILBERT
XII. BATTERED KEYS
XIII. A PLAN OF CAMPAIGN
XIV. MORE MYSTERY
XV. A MOMENT OF VIOLENCE
XVI. MURK RECEIVES A BLOW
XVII. MURK IS TEMPTED
XVIII. A WOMAN'S WAY
XIX. COADLEY QUITS
XX. UP THE RIVER
XXII. AN UNEXPECTED VISITOR
XXIII. A STARTLING STORY
XXIV. HIGH-HANDED METHODS
XXV. AN ACCUSATION
XXVI. THE TRUTH COMES OUT
THE BRAND OF SILENCE
IN THE HARBOR
Now the fog was clearing and the mist was lifting, and the bright sunshine was struggling to penetrate the billows of damp vapor and touch with its glory the things of the world beneath. In the lower harbor there still was a chorus of sirens and foghorns, as craft of almost every description made way toward the metropolis or out toward the open sea.
The Manatee, tramp steamer with rusty plates and rattling engines and a lurch like that of a drunken man, wallowed her way in from the turbulent ocean she had fought for three days, her skipper standing on the bridge and inaudibly giving thanks that he was nearing the end of the voyage without the necessity for abandoning his craft for an open boat, or remaining to go down with the ship after the manner of skippers of the old school.
Here and there showed a rift in the rolling fog, and those who braved the weather and lined the damp rail could see other craft in passing.
A giant liner made her way past majestically, bound for Europe, or a seagoing tug clugged by as if turning up her nose at the old, battered Manatee.
Standing at the rail, and well forward, Sidney Prale strained his eyes and looked ahead, watching where the fog lifted, an eager light in his face, his lips curved in a smile, a general expression of anticipation about him.
Sidney Prale himself was not bad to look at. Thirty-eight he was, tall and broad of shoulder, with hair that was touched with gray at the temples, with a face that had been browned by the weather. Sidney Prale had the appearance of wearing clothes that had been molded to his form. He had a chin that expressed decision and determination, lips that could form in a thin, straight line if occasion required, eyes that could be kind or stern, according to the needs of the moment. A man of the world would have said that Sidney Prale was a gentleman of broad experience, a man who had presence of mind in the face of danger, a man who could think quickly and act quickly when such things were necessary.
He was not alone at the rail—and yet he was alone in a sense, for he gave no one the slightest attention. He bent over and looked ahead eagerly, waving a hand now and then at the men on passing craft, like a schoolboy on an excursion trip. He listened to the bellowing sirens and foghorns, drank in the raucous cries of the ship's officers, strained his ears for the land sounds that rolled now and then across the waters.
"It's great—great!" Sidney Prale said, half aloud.
He bent over the rail again. A hand descended upon his shoulder, and a voice answered him.
"You bet it's great, Prale!"
Sidney Prale's smile weakened a bit as he turned around, but there was nothing of discourtesy in his manner.
"You like it, Mr. Shepley?" he asked.
"Do I like it? Does Rufus Shepley, forced to run here and there around the old world in the name of business, like it when he gets the chance to return to New York? Ask me!"
"I have my answer," Prale said, laughing a bit. "And judge, then, how I like it—when I have not seen it for ten years."
"Haven't seen New York for ten years?" Rufus Shepley gasped.
"A whole decade," Prale admitted.
"Been down in Honduras all that time?"
"And you live to tell it? You are my idea of a real man!" Rufus Shepley said.
Shepley took a cigar from his vest pocket, bit off the end, lighted it, and puffed a cloud of fragrant smoke into the air. Rufus Shepley was a man of fifty, and looked his age. If human being ever gave the appearance of being the regulation man of big business affairs, Rufus Shepley did.
Sidney Prale had held some conversation with him on board ship, but they had not become very well acquainted, though they seemed to like each other. Each man seemed to be holding back, waiting, trying to discover in the other more qualities to like or dislike.
"Ten years," Sidney Prale went on thoughtfully. "It seems a long time, but the years have passed swiftly."
"I always had an idea," Rufus Shepley said, "that a genuine white man who went to one of those Central American countries turned bad after the first year and went to the devil generally. But you don't look it."
"The idea is correct, at that, in some instances," Prale admitted. "Some of them do turn bad."
"They get to drifting, eh? The climate gets into their blood. Do you know what I think? I think that, in seven cases out of eight, it's a case of a man wanting an excuse for loafing. I knew a chap once who went down to that part of the world. Got to drinking too much, threw up his job, used to loaf all the time, married some sort of a half-black woman who had a bit of coin, and went to the dogs generally."
"Oh, there are many such," Sidney Prale admitted. "But the majority of them are men who made some grave mistake somewhere else and got the idea that life was merely existence afterward. A man must have an incentive in any climate to make anything of himself—and down there the incentive has to be stronger."
"I assume that you—er—had the proper incentive," Rufus Shepley said, grinning.
"I don't know how some persons would look at the propriety of it. I wanted to make a million dollars."
"Great Scott! Your ambition was a modest one, I must say. And you managed to win out? Oh, I beg your pardon! It isn't any of my business, of course!"
"That's all right," Prale answered good-naturedly. "I don't mind. I'm so happy this morning that I'm willing to overlook almost anything. And I don't mind telling you that I've won out."
"A million in ten years," Shepley gasped.
"Yes; and with an initial capital of ten thousand dollars," Sidney Prale replied. "I'm rather proud of it, of course. I suppose this sounds like boasting——"
"My boy, you have the right to boast! A million dollars in ten years! Great Scott! Say, would you consider being general manager of one of my companies? We need a few men like you."
Sidney Prale laughed again. "Sorry—but I'm afraid that I can't take the job," he replied. "I am going to have my little holiday now—going to play. A million isn't much in some quarters, but it is enough for me. I don't care for money to a great extent. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could make a million—prove it to myself and others. And, ready to take my vacation, I naturally decided to take it in New York—home!"
"Ah! Home's in New York, eh? Old friends waiting at the dock, and all that!"
Sidney Prale's face clouded. "I am afraid that there will be no reception committee," he said. "I didn't let anybody know that I was coming—for the simple reason that I didn't know whom to inform."
"I have a few old friends scattered around some place, I suppose. I have no relatives in the world except a male cousin about my own age, and I never communicated with him after going to Honduras. There was a girl once——"
"There always is a girl," Shepley said softly, as Prale ceased speaking.
"But that ended ten years ago," Prale continued. "I stand alone—with my million."
"You advertise that fact, my boy, and there'll be girls by the regiment looking up your telephone number."
"And the right one wouldn't be in the crowd," Prale said, the smile leaving his face again.
"Well, you are in for a fine time, at least," Rufus Shepley told him. "There have been quite a few changes in New York in the past ten years. Yes, quite a few changes! There are a few new boarding houses scattered around, and a new general store or two, and the street cars run out farther than they used to."
"Oh, I've kept up to date after a fashion," Sidney Prale said, laughing once more. "I'm ready to appreciate the changes, but I suppose I will be surprised. The New York papers get down to Honduras now and then, you know."
"I've always understood," Shepley said, "that there are certain gentlemen in that part of the world who watch the New York papers very closely."
"Meaning the men who are fugitives from justice, I see," said Prale.
"I didn't mean anything personal, of course."
"It does look bad, doesn't it?" said Prale. "I went straight to Honduras when I left New York ten years ago, like a man running away from the law, and I have remained there all the time until this trip. And I have been gone ten years—thereby satisfying certain statutes of limitation——"
"My boy, I never meant to insinuate that——"
"I know that you didn't," Prale interrupted. "My conscience is clear, Mr. Shepley. When I land, I'll not be afraid of some officer of the law clutching me by the shoulder and hauling me away to a police station."
"Even if one did, a cool million will buy lots of bail," Rufus Shepley said.
The fog was lifting rapidly now. Here and there through the billows of mist could be seen the roofs of skyscrapers glistening in the sun. Sidney Prale almost forgot the man at his side as he bent over the rail to watch.
"Getting home—getting home!" he said. "I suppose no man ever gets quite over the home idea, no matter how long he remains away. Ten years ought to make a change, but I find that it doesn't. I'll be glad to feel the pavements beneath my shoes again."
"Sure!" said Rufus Shepley.
"Confound the fog! Ah, there's a building I know! And there are a few I never saw before. We're beginning to get in, aren't we? Ought to dock before noon, don't you think?"
"A hotel, a bath, fresh clothes—and then for hour after hour of walking around and taking in the sights!" Prale said.
"Better engage a taxi if you expect to take 'em all in before night, my boy," Shepley said.
"I forgot! We haven't any too many taxis in Honduras. I had a car of my own, but sold it before I came away."
"You let the busy auto agents know that, and you'll have a regiment of them——"
"And there!" Sidney Prale cried. "Now I know that I am home! There is the Old Girl in the Harbor!"
Prale removed his cap, and a mist came into his eyes that did not come from the foggy billows through which the ship was plowing. The sun was shining through the murk at last, and it touched the Statue of Liberty. The great figure seemed like a live thing for a moment; the mist made it appear that her garments were waving in the breeze.
"Now I know that I am home!" Sidney Prale repeated.
"She sure is a great old girl!" Rufus Shepley agreed. "Always glad to see her!"
"Well, I've got to get ready to land; I'm not going to waste any time," Prale said. "I'm glad that I met you—and perhaps we'll meet again in the city."
"Hope we do!" said Shepley, grasping Prale's hand. "Our factories are out in Ohio, but the company headquarters are in New York, of course. Here's my business card, my boy. And I generally put up at the Graymore."
Sidney Prale took the card, thanked Rufus Shepley, and hurried down the deck toward his stateroom, one of the best on the ship. Rufus Shepley looked after him sharply.
"Went straight to Honduras and stayed there for ten years, eh?" Rufus Shepley said to himself. "Um! Looks bad! I never put much stock in those Honduras chaps—but this one seems to be all right. Never can tell, though!"
Sidney Prale, still smiling, and humming a Spanish love song, reached his stateroom and threw open the door; and just inside, he came to a stop, astonished.
Somebody had been in that stateroom and had been going through his things. The contents of his suit case were spilled on the floor. A bag was wide open; he had left it closed and in a corner less than an hour before.
Prale went down on his knees and made a quick inspection. There did not seem to be anything missing. A package of papers—business documents for the greater part—had been examined, he could tell at a glance, but none had been taken.
"Peculiar!" Prale told himself. "Some sneak thief, I suppose. No sense in complaining to the ship's officers at this late hour, especially since nothing has been stolen. Makes a man angry, though!"
He put the suit case on the table and began repacking the things that had been scattered on the floor. Then he gathered up his toilet articles, bits of clothing he had left out until the last minute, a few souvenirs of Honduras he had been showing a tourist the evening before. He turned toward the berth to pick up his light overcoat.
There was a sheet of paper pinned to the pillow, paper that might have been taken from an ordinary writing tablet. Sidney Prale took it up and glanced at it. A few words of handwriting were upon the paper, words that looked as if they had been scrawled hurriedly with a pencil that needed sharpening badly.
"Retribution is inevitable and comes when you least expect it."
The smile fled from Sidney Prale's lips, and the Spanish love song he had been humming died in his throat. He frowned, and read the message again.
"Now what the deuce does this mean?" he gasped.
THE GIRL ON THE SHIP
Sidney Prale folded the piece of paper carefully and slipped it into his wallet. Winning a fortune in ten years in a foreign country had taught Prale many things, notably that everything has its cause and effect, and that things that seem trifles may turn out to be of great importance later.
He finished his packing, locked the suit case, put on coat and hat and went out upon the deck. The Manatee was docking. A throng was on the wharf. Prale glanced at the buildings in the distance and forgot for the time being the scrap of paper, because of his happiness at being home again and his eagerness to land. Returning to New York after an absence of so many years was in the nature of an adventure. There would be exploring trips to make, things to find, surprises at every turn and on every side.
The passengers were crowding forward now, preparing to go ashore. Sidney Prale picked up his suit case and started through the jostling crowd. Already those on board were calling greetings to relatives and friends on the wharf, and Prale's face grew solemn for a moment because there was nobody to welcome him.
"Not a friend in the world," he had said to Rufus Shepley that morning.
"A man with a million dollars has a million friends," Shepley had replied. "The only trouble is, you can't enjoy that sort of friends except by getting rid of them, unless you happen to be a miser."
Well, that was something, Sidney Prale told himself now. He had ample funds, at least, and perhaps he could enjoy himself after ten years of battling with financial sharks, of inspecting and working mines, of cutting through dense forests and locating growths that could be turned into wealth.
Prale put his suit case against the rail to wait until he could move forward again. He looked down at the throng on the wharf, and up and down the rail at his fellow passengers. Then he saw the girl again!
He had seen her before. The first time had been at Tegucigalpa, at a ball given by some society people for charity. He had known her at once for an American, and finally had obtained an introduction. Her name was Kate Gilbert, and she lived in New York. It was understood that she was of a wealthy family and traveling for her health. She was accompanied only by a middle-aged maid, a giant of a woman who seemed to be maid and chaperon and general protector in one.
That night at Tegucigalpa, Prale had talked to her and had danced with her twice. He judged her to be about twenty-eight, some ten years younger than himself. She was small and charming, not one of the helpless butterfly sort, but a woman who gave indication that she could care for herself if necessary.
Prale had been surprised to find her aboard the Manatee, but she had told him that she was going home, that her health had been much benefited, and that she felt she could not remain away longer. It had seemed to Prale that she avoided him purposely, and that puzzled him a bit. He could not understand why any woman should absolutely dislike him. His record in Honduras was a clean one; it was known that he did not care much for women, and surely she had learned that he was a man of means, and did not think he might be a fortune hunter wishing to marry a prominent heiress.
He had not spoken to her half a dozen times during the voyage. She made the acquaintance of others aboard and, for the first few days, had been busy in their company. The last three days had been stormy ones, and Kate Gilbert had not been much in evidence. Prale judged that she was a poor sailor.
Now she stopped beside him, the middle-aged maid standing just behind her.
"Well, we're home, Mr. Prale!" she said.
"I suppose that you are glad to get home?"
"Surely!" she replied. "And I'll be angry if there are not half a dozen to meet me when I land. I've been trying to spot some friends in that crowd, but it is a hopeless task."
"I hope you'll not be disappointed," Prale said.
As he spoke, he glanced past her at the middle-aged maid, and surprised a peculiar expression on the face of the woman. She had been looking straight at him, and her lips were almost curled into a sneer, while her eyes were flashing with something akin to anger.
Prale did not understand that. Why should the dragon be incensed with him? He was making no attempt to lay siege to the heart of Miss Kate Gilbert. He was no fortune hunter after an heiress. The expression on the face of the maid amused Prale even while he wondered what it could mean.
"Picked your hotel?" Kate Gilbert was asking.
"Not yet, but I hope to get in somewhere," Prale told her. "May I be of assistance to you when we land?"
"Marie will help me, thanks—and there will be others on the wharf," she answered.
A cold look had come into her face again, and she turned half away from him and looked down at the crowd on the wharf. Sidney Prale looked straight at her, despite the glare of the middle-aged maid. Kate Gilbert was a woman who would appeal to a majority of men, but there seemed to be something peculiar about her, Prale told himself. He knew that she had avoided him purposely during the voyage, and that she had spoken to him purposely now, yet had asked nothing except whether he had chosen a hotel.
Why should Kate Gilbert wish to know where he was going to stop? Perhaps it had been only an idle question, he explained to himself. In her happiness at getting home, she had merely wished to speak to somebody, and none of her shipboard friends happened to be near.
He turned from her and glanced at the maid again. She was not the sort to be named Marie, Prale told himself. Marie called up a vision of a petite, trim woman from sunny France, and this Marie was nothing of the sort. She appeared more to be a peasant used to hard labor, Prale decided.
And he could not understand the expression on the woman's face as she looked at him. It was almost one of loathing.
"Got me mixed up with somebody else, or somebody has been giving me a bad reputation," Prale mused. "Enough to make a man shiver—that look of hers."
Kate Gilbert, apparently, did not intend to have anything more to do with him. Smiling a little at her manner, Prale lifted his hat, picked up the suit case, and turned away. Once more he tried to force a passage through the jostling crowd. He had not taken three steps when Kate Gilbert touched him on the arm.
"Pardon me, Mr. Prale, but there is something sticking on the end of your suit case," she said.
Prale glanced down. On one end of the suit case was a bit of paper. It had been stuck there by a drop of mucilage, and the mucilage was still wet.
He thanked Kate Gilbert and picked the paper off, but he did not throw it over the rail into the water. He crumpled it in his hand and, when he was some distance away, he smoothed it out.
There was a single word written on it, in the same handwriting as that of the note he had found pinned to the pillow in the stateroom—"Retribution."
Sidney Prale glanced around quickly. Nobody seemed to be paying particular attention to him. Kate Gilbert and her maid had passed him and were preparing to land. Prale put the piece of paper into his coat pocket and picked up his suit case again. That bit of paper, he knew well, had not been on the suit case when he had left the stateroom. It had been put there as he had made his way through the crowd of passengers along the rail. Who could have stuck it there—and why?
Now the passengers were streaming ashore, and Sidney Prale stepped to one side and watched them. Perhaps he had some business enemy on board, he told himself, some man he had not noticed, and who was trying to frighten him after a childish fashion. He searched the faces of the landing passengers, but saw nobody he had known in Central America, nobody who looked at all suspicious.
"Either a joke—or a mistake," Prale told himself again.
He started ashore. He saw Kate Gilbert just ahead of him, the bulky maid at her heels. An elderly man met her, but did not greet her as a father would have been expected to do. Prale saw them hold a whispered conversation, and it seemed to him that the elderly man gave him a searching glance.
"I must look like a swindler!" Prale mused.
Finally, as he went out upon the street to engage a taxicab and start for a hotel, he saw Kate Gilbert and her maid and the elderly man again, getting into a limousine. The girl held a piece of paper in her hand, and was reading something from it to the elderly man. As she got into the car, she dropped the piece of paper to the curb.
The limousine was gone before Prale reached the curb. He put his suit case down and picked up the piece of paper. There was nothing on it except a couple of names that meant nothing to Sidney Prale. But his eyes bulged, nevertheless, as he read them.
For the paper was similar to that upon which had been written the note that he had found on the pillow in the stateroom—and the coarse handwriting was the same!
"What the deuce——" Prale caught himself saying.
Had Kate Gilbert written that message about retribution and had her maid leave it in the stateroom? Had Kate Gilbert written that single word and had her maid paste it on his suit case as he passed, or pasted it there herself?
Why had Kate Gilbert—whom he never had seen and of whom he never had heard until she appeared at the ball in Tegucigalpa—avoided him in such a peculiar manner? And why had the misnamed Marie glared at him, and expressed loathing and anger when her eyes met his?
"What the deuce——" Prale asked himself again.
Then a taxicab drew up at the curb, and he got in.
Sidney Prale obtained accommodations in a prominent hostelry on Fifth Avenue, bathed, dressed, ate luncheon, and then went out upon the streets, walking briskly and swinging his stick, going about New York like a stranger who never had seen it before.
As a matter of fact, he never had seen this New York before. He had expected a multitude of changes, but nothing compared to what he found. He watched the crowds on the Avenue, cut over to Broadway and investigated the electric signs by daylight, observed the congestion of vehicles and the efforts of traffic policemen to straighten it out. He darted into the subway and rode far downtown and back again just for the sport of it. After that he got on an omnibus and rode up to Central Park, and acted as if every tree and twig were an old friend.
He made himself acquainted with the animals in the zoo there, and promised himself to go to the other zoo in the Bronx before the end of the week. He stood back at the curb and lifted his head to look at new buildings after the manner of the comic supplement farmer with a straw between his teeth.
"Great—great!" said Sidney Prale.
Then he hurried back to the hotel, dressed for dinner, and went down to the dining room, stopping on the way to obtain a ticket for a musical revue that was the talk of the town at the moment.
Prale ordered a dinner that made the waiter open his eyes. He made it a point to select things that were not on the menus of the hotels in Honduras. Then he sat back in his chair and listened to the orchestra, and watched well-dressed men and women come in and get their places at the tables.
But the dinner was a disappointment to Prale after all. It seemed to him that the waiter was a long time giving him service. He remonstrated, and the man asked pardon and said that he would do better, but he did not.
Prale found that his soup was lukewarm, his salad dressing prepared imperfectly, the salad itself a mere mess of vegetables. The fish and fowl he had ordered were not served properly, the dessert was without flavor, the cheese was stale. He sent for the head waiter.
"I'm disgusted with the food and the service," he complained. "I rarely find fault, but I am compelled to do so this time. The man who has been serving me seems to be a rank amateur, and twice he was almost insolent. This hotel has a reputation which it scarcely is maintaining this evening."
"I'll see about it, sir," the head waiter said.
Prale saw him stop the waiter and speak to him, and the waiter glared at him when he brought the demi-tasse. Prale did not care. He glared back at the man, drank the coffee, and touched the match to a cigar. Then he signed the check and went from the dining room, an angry and disgusted man.
"Another thing like that, and I look for the manager," he told himself.
He supposed that he was a victim of circumstances—that the waiter was a new man and that it happened that the portions he served were poor portions. His happiness at being home again prevented Sidney Prale from feeling anger for any length of time. He got his hat and coat and went out upon the street again.
He had an hour before time to go to the theater. He walked over to Broadway and went toward the north, looking at the bright lights and the crowds. He passed through two or three hotel lobbies, satisfied for the time merely to be in the midst of the throngs.
At the proper time, he hurried to the theater and claimed his seat. The performance was a mediocre one, but it pleased Sidney Prale. He had seen a better show in Honduras a month before, had seen better dancing and heard better singing and comedy, but this was New York!
The show at an end, Prale claimed his hat and coat at the check room and walked down the street toward a cabaret restaurant. He reached into his overcoat pocket for his gloves, and his hand encountered a slip of paper. He took it out.
There was the same rough handwriting on the same kind of paper, and evidently with the same blunt pencil.
"Remember—retribution is sure!"
"This thing ceases to be a joke!" Prale told himself.
His face flushed with anger, and he turned back toward the theater. But he had been among the last to leave, and already the lights of the playhouse were being turned out. The boy in charge of the check room would be gone, Prale knew.
He thought of Kate Gilbert again, and the bit of paper she had dropped as she got into the limousine down on the water front. Surely she could have no hand in this, he thought. What interest could Kate Gilbert, a casual acquaintance and reputed daughter of a wealthy house, have in him and his affairs?
"Somebody is making a mistake," he declared to himself, "or else it is some sort of a new advertising dodge. If I ever catch the jokesmith who is responsible for these dainty little messages, I'll tell him a thing or two."
Prale turned into the restaurant and found a seat at a little table at one side of the room. The after-theater crowd was filling the place. The orchestra was playing furiously, and the cabaret performance was beginning. Sidney Prale leaned back in his chair and watched the show. The waiter came to his side, and he ordered something to eat and drink.
Then he saw Kate Gilbert again, at a table not very far away from his. She was dressed in an evening gown, as if she had just come from the theater or opera. She was in the company of the elderly man who had met her at the wharf, and a young man and an older woman were at the same table.
Prale's eyes met hers for an instant, and he inclined his head a bit in a respectful manner. But Kate Gilbert looked through him as if he had not been present, and then turned her head and began talking to the elderly man.
Prale's face flushed. He hadn't done anything wrong, he told himself. He merely had bowed to her, as he would have bowed to any woman to whom he had been properly introduced. She had seen fit to cut him. Well, he could exist without Kate Gilbert, he told himself, but he wondered at her peculiar manner.
He left the place within the hour and went back to the hotel and to bed. In the morning he walked up the Avenue as far as the Circle, dropped into a restaurant for a good breakfast, and then engaged a taxicab and drove downtown to the financial district. He had remembered that he was a man with a million, and that he had to pay some attention to business.
He went into the establishment of a famous trust company and sent his card in to the president. An attendant ushered him into the president's private office immediately.
"Sit down, Mr. Prale," said the financier. "I am glad that you came to see me this morning. I was just about to have somebody look you up."
"Anything the matter?" Prale asked.
"Your funds were transferred to us by our Honduras correspondent," the financier said. "Since you were leaving Honduras almost immediately, we decided to care for the funds until you arrived and we could talk to you."
"I shall want some good investments, of course," Prale said. "I have disposed of all my holdings in Honduras, and I don't want the money to be idle."
"Idleness is as bad for dollars as for men," said the financier, clearing his throat.
"Can you suggest some investments? I have engaged no broker as yet, of course."
"I—er—I am afraid that we have nothing at the present moment," the financier said.
"The market must be good," Prale observed. "I never knew a time when investments were lacking."
"I would not offer you a poor one, and good ones are scarce with us at present," said the banker. "Sorry that we cannot attend to the business for you. Perhaps some other trust company——"
"Well, I can wait for something to turn up," Prale said. "There is no hurry, of course. Probably you'll have something in a few weeks that will take care of at least a part of the money."
The banker cleared his throat again, and looked a trifle embarrassed as he spoke. "The fact of the matter is, Mr. Prale," he said, "that we do not care for the account."
"I beg your pardon!" Prale exclaimed. "You mean you don't want me to leave my money in your bank?"
"Just that, Mr. Prale."
"But in Heaven's name, why? I should think that any financial institution would be glad to get a new account of that size."
"I—er—I cannot go into details, sir," the banker said. "But I must tell you that we'd be glad if you'd make arrangements to move the deposit to some other bank."
"I suppose you don't like to be bothered with small accounts," said Prale, with the suspicion of a sneer in his voice. "Very well, sir! I'll see that the deposit is transferred before night. Perhaps I can find banks that will be glad to take the money and treat me with respect. And I shall remember this, sir!"
"I—er—have no choice in the matter," the banker said.
"Can't you explain what it means?"
"I have nothing to say—nothing at all to say," stammered the financier. "We took the money because of our Honduras correspondent, but we'll appreciate it very much if you do business with some other institution."
"You can bet I'll do that little thing!" Prale exclaimed.
He left the office angrily and stalked from the building. Were the big financiers of New York insane? A man with a million in cold cash has the right to expect that he will be treated decently in a bank. Prale walked down the street and grew angrier with every step he took.
Before going to Honduras he had worked for a firm of brokers. He hurried toward their office now. He would send in his card to his old employer, Griffin, he decided, and ask his advice about banking his funds, and incidentally whether the financier he had just left was an imbecile.
He found the Griffin concern in the same building, though the offices were twice as large now, and there were evidences of prosperity on every side.
"Got an appointment?" an office boy demanded.
"No, but I fancy that Mr. Griffin will see me," said Prale. "I used to work for him years ago."
Then he sat down to wait. Griffin would be glad to see him, he thought. Griffin was a man who always liked to see younger men get along. He would want to know how Sidney Prale got his million. He would want to take him to luncheon and exhibit him to his friends—tell how one of his young men had forged ahead in the world.
The boy came back with his card. "Mr. Griffin can't see you," he announced.
"Oh, he's busy, eh? Did he make an appointment?"
"No, he ain't busy," said the boy. "He's got his feet set up on the desk and he's readin' about yesterday's ball game. He said to say that he didn't have time to see you this mornin', and that he wouldn't ever have time to see you."
"Don't be discourteous, you young imp!" Prale said, his face flushing. "You're sure you handed Mr. Griffin my card?"
"Oh, I handed it to him—and don't you try to run any bluff on me!" the boy answered. "From the way the boss acted, I guess you don't stand very high with him!"
The boy went back to his chair, and Sidney Prale went from the office, a puzzled and angry man. There probably was some mistake, he told himself. He'd meet Griffin during the day and tell him about the adventure.
He was anxious to meet some of the men with whom he had worked ten years before, but he did not know where to find them. He'd have to wait and ask Griffin what had become of them. Then, too, he wanted to transfer his funds.
Prale got another taxicab and started making the rounds of the banks he knew to be solid institutions. Within a few hours he had made arrangements to transfer the account, using four financial institutions. He said nothing, except that the money had been transferred to the trust company from Honduras, because the company had a correspondent there.
His funds secure, Prale went back uptown and to the hotel. The clerk handed him a note with his key. Prale tore it open after he stepped into the elevator. This time it was a sheet of paper upon which a message had been typewritten.
"You can't dodge the law of compensation. For what you have done, you must pay."
Sidney Prale gasped when he read that message, and went back to the ground floor.
"Who left this note for me?" he demanded of the clerk.
"You don't know where he came from?"
Prale turned away and started for the elevator again. A bell hop stopped him.
"Manager would like to see you in his office, sir," the boy said. "This way, sir."
Prale followed the boy, wondering what was coming now. He found the manager to be a sort of austere individual who seemed impressed with his own importance.
"Mr. Prale," he said, "I regret to have to say this, but I find that it cannot be avoided. When you arrived yesterday, the clerk assigned you to a suite on the fifth floor. He made a mistake. We had a telegraphic reservation for that suite from an old guest of ours, and it should have been kept for him. You appreciate the situation, I feel sure."
"No objection to being moved," Prale said. "I have unpacked scarcely any of my things."
"But—again I regret it—there isn't a vacant suite in the house, Mr. Prale."
"A room, then, until you have one."
"We haven't a room. We haven't as much as a cot, Mr. Prale. We cannot take care of you, I'm afraid. So many regular guests, you understand, and out-of-town visitors."
"Then I'll have to move, I suppose. You may have the suite within two hours."
"Thank you, Mr. Prale."
Prale was angry again when he left the office of the manager. It seemed that everything was conspiring against his comfort. He got a cab, drove to another hotel, inspected a suite and reserved it, paying a month in advance, and then went back to the big hotel on Fifth Avenue to get his baggage. He paid his bill at the cashier's window, and overheard the room clerk speaking to a woman.
"Certainly, madam," the clerk was saying. "We will have an excellent suite on the fifth floor within half an hour. The party is just vacating it. Plenty of suites on the third floor, of course, but, if you want to be up higher in the building——"
Sidney Prale felt the blood pounding in his temples, felt rage welling up within him. He felt as he had once in a Honduras forest when he became aware that a dishonest foreman was betraying business secrets. He hurried to the office of the manager, but the stenographer said the manager was busy and could not be seen.
Prale whirled away, going through the lobby toward the entrance. He met Kate Gilbert face to face. She did not seem to see him, though he was forced to step aside to let her pass.
A FOE AND A FRIEND
After settling himself in the other hotel, Prale ate a belated luncheon. For the first time that day, he looked at the newspapers. He had remembered that a New Yorker reads the papers religiously to keep up to the minute; whereas, in Honduras, it was the custom for busy men to let the papers accumulate and then read a week's supply at a sitting.
Aside from his name in the list of arrivals, Prale found no word concerning himself, though there was mention of other men who had come on the Manatee, and who had no special claim to prominence.
"I don't amount to much, I guess," said Prale to himself. "Don't care for publicity, anyway, but they might let the world know a fellow has come home."
He went for another walk that afternoon, returned to the hotel for dinner, and decided that, instead of going to a show that evening, he would prowl around the town.
He walked up to the Park, went over to Broadway, and started down it, looking at the bright lights again, making his way through the happy, theater-going throngs toward Times Square. In the enjoyment of the crowds he forgot, in part, the discourtesies of the day, but he could not forget them entirely.
Why had the banker acted in such a peculiar fashion? It was not like a financial institution to refuse a deposit of a round million. Why had Griffin refused to see him? Why had he as good as been ordered out of the hotel?
"Coincidence," he told himself. "No reason on earth why such things should happen unless I am being taken for somebody else—and that wouldn't be true in the case of Griffin."
He came to a prominent hotel and went into the lobby, looking in vain for some friend of the old days with whom he could spend an hour or so. Down in Honduras he had had his million and friends, too; and here, in his old home, he had nothing but his money. At this hour, down in Honduras, the band would be playing in the plaza, and society would be out in force. There would be a soft breeze sweeping down from the hills, bringing a thousand odors that could not be detected in New York. Here and there guitars would be tinkling, and men and maidens would be meeting in the moonlight.
There would be a happy crowd at a certain club he knew, at which he always had been made welcome. A man could sit out on the veranda and look over the tumbling sea, and hear the ship's bells strike. Sidney Prale found himself just a bit homesick for Honduras.
"Got to get over it," he told himself. "No sense in feeling this way. I'll have a hundred friends before I've been in town a month!"
He went out upon the street, made his way down it, and dropped in at another hotel. There he saw Rufus Shepley sitting in an easy-chair, smoking and looking at an evening paper.
Well, he knew Shepley, at least. Shepley was only a steamship acquaintance, but he was a human being and could talk. Prale was just a bit tired of confining his conversation to waiters and cigar-store clerks.
He stopped before Shepley and cleared his throat.
"Well, we meet again, Mr. Shepley!" he said.
Rufus Shepley looked up, and then sprang to his feet, but his face did not light and he did not extend a hand in greeting. Instead, his countenance grew crimson, and he seemed to be shaking with anger.
"You presume too much on a chance acquaintance, sir!" Rufus Shepley thundered. "I do not wish you to address me again—do you understand, sir? Never again—either in public or private!"
"Why——" Prale stammered.
"I don't want anything to do with a man of your stamp!" Rufus Shepley went on. "Ten years in Honduras, were you? We all know why men go to Honduras and spend years there."
Shepley had raised his voice, and all in the lobby could hear. Men began moving toward them, and women began walking away, fearing a scene and a quarrel.
Sidney Prale's face had flushed, too, and he felt his anger rising again.
"I am sure I do not wish to continue the acquaintance if you do not, sir," he said. "I can be courteous, at least."
"Some men are not entitled to courtesy," Shepley roared.
"What do you mean by that?" Prale demanded.
"I mean that I don't want anything to do with you, that's all! I don't want you to speak to me again! I don't want anybody to know that you even know me by sight!"
"See here!" Prale cried. "You can't talk to me like that without giving me some explanation! You can't defame me before other men——"
"Defame you?" Shepley cried. "You can't make a tar brush black, sir?"
Rage was seething in Prale now. There was quite a crowd around them, and others were making their way forward.
"I don't pretend to know what is the matter with you, and I don't much care!" he told Shepley. "If your hair wasn't gray, I'd take you out on the sidewalk and smash your face in! Please understand that!"
"Threaten me, will you?"
"I'm not threatening you. I don't fight a man with one foot in the grave."
"And I don't care to have you address me in public again, either," Sidney Prale went on. "It probably would be an insult."
"Confound you, sir!" Shepley cried.
He reached forward and grasped Prale by the arm. Sidney Prale put up a hand, tore the grasp loose, and tossed Rufus Shepley to one side.
"Keep your paws off me!" he exclaimed. "I think that you're insane, if you ask me!"
The hotel detective came hurrying up.
"You'll have to cut that out!" he said. "What's the row here, anyway?"
"The place is harboring a maniac!" Prale said.
"It's harboring a crook!" Shepley cried.
Prale lurched forward and grasped him by both arms, and shook him until Rufus Shepley's teeth chattered.
"Another word out of you, and I'll forget that your hair is gray!" Prale exclaimed, and then he tossed Shepley to one side again.
"Either of you guests here?" the house detective demanded. "No? Then maybe you'd both better get out until you can cool off. If you want to stage a scrap, go down and rent Madison Square Garden and advertise in the newspapers. I wouldn't mind seeing a good fight myself. But this lobby isn't any prize ring. Get me?"
Sidney Prale, his face still flaming, whirled around and started for the entrance, the crowd parting to let him through. Rufus Shepley, fuming and fussing, followed him slowly. The house detective accompanied him to the door.
Prale was waiting at the curb, a Prale whose face was white now because of the temper he was fighting to control. He stepped close to Shepley's side.
"I don't know why you insulted me, but don't do it again!" Prale said. "I ought to settle with you for what you've said already."
The house detective, who had heard, stepped forward again, but Sidney Prale swung across the street and went on his way.
He walked rapidly for a dozen blocks or more, paying no attention to where he was going, until his anger began to subside.
"Why, the raving maniac!" he gasped, once or twice.
He didn't pretend to guess what it meant. Shepley had seemed to be friendly enough when they had separated aboard ship. What could have happened to make the man change his mind and attitude?
"Must be some mistake!" Prale told himself. "If there is any more of this, I'll have to get to the bottom of it!"
He reached Madison Square, and sat down on a bench to smoke and regain his composure. He knew that he had a terrible temper, and that it had to be controlled. A temper that flashed was all right at times in the jungles of Honduras, but it was not the proper thing to exhibit in the heart of New York City. It might get him into serious trouble with somebody.
He finished his cigar, listened to the striking chimes, and lighted another smoke. A pedestrian stopped beside him.
"Old Sid Prale, or I'm a liar!" he cried.
Prale looked up, and then sprang to his feet.
"Jim Farland, the sleuth!" he cried in answer. "Old Jim, the holy terror to evildoers. Now I am glad that I'm home!"
"When did you get in?"
"Yesterday. Sit down. Have a cigar. You're the first old friend I've met!"
Detective Jim Farland sat down and lighted the cigar. "You've been gone some time," he said.
"Ten years, Jim."
"Went away rather sudden, didn't you?"
"I did. I made my decision one night and sailed the night following," said Prale.
"I always wondered why you went, and what became of you. Had a good job with old Griffin, didn't you?"
"The job was all right, Jim. But there was a girl——"
"And she threw me over for a fellow who had some money. That made me huffy, of course. I swore I'd shake the dust of New York from my shoes, go to some foreign country, take with me the ten thousand dollars I had saved, and turn it into a million."
"And came back broke!" Farland said.
"Nothing of the sort, Jim. I came back with a million."
"Great Scott! I suppose I'd better be on my way then. I ain't in the habit of having millionaires let me associate with 'em."
"You sit where you are, or I'll use violence!" Prale told him. "I suppose you are still on the force? Still fussing around down in the financial district watching for swindlers?"
"I left the force three years ago," Jim Farland replied. "Couldn't seem to get ahead. Too honest, maybe—or too ignorant. I'm in a sort of private detective business now—got an office up the street. Doing fairly well, too—lots of old friends give me work. If you have anything in my line——"
"If I have, you'll get a job," said Prale.
"Let me slip you a card," said Farland. "You never know when you may need a detective. So you came back with a million, eh?"
"And ran into a mess," Prale added.
"I can't imagine a man with a million running into much of a mess," Farland said.
"That's all you know about it. I may need your services sooner than you think. There is a sort of jinx working on me, it appears."
"Spill it!" Jim Farland said.
Sidney Prale did. He related what had happened at the bank, at the hotel, in Griffin's office, and told of the scene with Rufus Shepley.
"Funny!" Farland said, when he had finished. "I know old Rufus Shepley, and as a general thing he ain't a maniac. Something behind all this, Sid."
"Yes; but what on earth could it be?"
"That's the question. If anything else happens, and you need help, just let me know."
"I'll do that, surely," said Prale. "And I'm glad that I've got one friend left in town."
"Always have one as long as I'm here," Jim Farland assured him. "And it ain't because of your million, either. It's true about the million?"
"Gee! That's more than old Griffin himself has in cash, anyway," Farland declared. "Maybe it's a good thing that girl turned you down. You'd probably be a clerk at a few thousand a year, if she hadn't. How'd you make the coin?"
"Mines and fruit and water power and logs," said Prale.
"Sounds simple enough. When the detective business goes on the blink, I may take a turn at it myself."
"If you ever need money, Jim, call on me. If you want to engage bigger offices, hire operatives, branch out——"
"Stop it!" Farland cried. "I want nothing of the kind. I'm a peculiar sort of duck—don't care about being rich at all. I just want to be sure I'll have a good living for myself and the wife and kids, and have a few friends, and be able to look every man in town straight in the eye. I'd rather work for a friend for nothing than do work I don't like for ten thousand an hour."
"I believe you!" Prale said.
An hour later, having parted with Detective Jim Farland, Sidney Prale walked slowly up Fifth Avenue, determined to go to his hotel suite and rest for the remainder of the evening. His conversation and short visit with Farland had put him in a better humor. There was no mistaking the quality of Farland's friendship. He and Prale had been firm friends ten years before, when Farland was on duty in the financial district, and they had made it a point at that time to eat luncheon together when Farland's duties permitted.
New York seemed a better place, even with one friend among several million persons. So Prale swung his stick jauntily, and hummed the Spanish love song again, and told himself that Rufus Shepley and Kate Gilbert, old Griffin and the hotel manager and the rest of the motley crew that had made the day miserable for him amounted to nothing in the broader scheme of things, and were not to be taken seriously.
He came to a block where there were few pedestrians, where the great shops had their lights out and their night curtains up. He heard steps behind him, and presently a soft voice.
Sidney Prale whirled around, alert and on guard, for he did not recognize the voice. A medium-sized man stood before him, a man of about his own age, who had a furtive manner and wore a beard.
"Don't you know me, Sid?"
"Can't say that I do!"
"Why, I'm your cousin, George Lerton. I'm the only relative you've got in the world, unless you got married while you were away."
Prale stepped aside so that the nearest light flashed on the face of the man before him.
"Well, if it isn't!" he said. "Didn't recognize you at first. How long have you been wearing the alfalfa on your face?"
"Two or three years," George Lerton told him, grinning a bit. "I saw your name in the passenger list, Sid, and wanted to see you. I found out where you are stopping——"
"Why didn't you come to the hotel, then, or leave a note?" Prale asked. "Come on up now."
"I—I wanted to talk to you——"
"And I want to talk to you. What are you doing for yourself, George? Still working in a broker's office?"
"Oh, I've got an office of my own now."
"Getting along all right?"
"Fairly well," Lerton said. "Business has been pretty good the last year."
"Maybe you can dig up a few good investments for me, then," Prale said. "I've got some coin now."
"I understand that you're worth a million, Sid."
"Yes, I've made my pile, and came back to New York to enjoy it. But come along to the hotel."
"I'd—I'd rather not."
"Why not? We've got to talk over old times and find out about each other. We're cousins, you know."
The truth of the matter was that Sidney Prale never had thought very much of his cousin. Ten years before they had worked side by side for Griffin, the broker. There was something furtive and shifty about George Lerton, but he never had presumed on his relationship, at least. He and Sidney Prale had been courteous to each other, but never had been warm friends.
They came from different branches of the family. Lerton had some traits of character that Prale did not admire, but he always told himself that perhaps he was prejudiced. They had seen a deal of each other in a social way in the old days.
"Let us just talk as we walk along," Lerton now said.
"All right, if you have an engagement," Prale replied. "We can get together later, I suppose. How have the years been using you? Married?"
"I was—I am a widower."
"Sorry," said Prale. "Children?"
"No—not any children. I—I married Mary Slade."
"What?" Prale cried.
He stopped, aghast. Mary Slade had been the girl who had turned him down for a man with money—and that man had not been George Lerton, who did not have as much as five thousand at that time.
"It—it's a peculiar story," Lerton said. "You went away so quick—after you quarreled with her. And that other man—she threw him over, soon. She couldn't endure him, even with all his money. She regretted her quarrel with you. I'm quite sure she wanted you for a time. I got to taking her about. You didn't write, and she was too proud to look you up, and so—after a time——"
"You married her," said Prale.
"About three years after you went away, Sid. She died after we had been married a year."
"But she always wanted money, and I had as much as you."
"I made a strike soon after you left, Sid. I plunged with my five thousand, and turned it into a hundred thousand inside four months. I kept on, and got more. I was worth almost half a million when we were married."
"I see. Well, there are no hard feelings, George. She was a good woman, in a way, and I'm sorry you lost her. I suppose we'll have to get together, for old time's sake."
"Are you going to stay here long, Sid?"
"Long? I've sold out all my Honduras holdings, and I'm here to spend the rest of my days. I've come home for good, George. The United States is plenty good enough for me. I'm going to be a civilized gentleman from now on."
"You—you're not going back?"
"Why should I? I brought that million with me. I left nothing in Honduras except a few friends. I suppose I'll run down there some day and see them, but this is going to be home, you can bet."
"Don't do it, Sid!" Lerton exclaimed.
"Don't do what?"
"Don't stay here, Sid. Get out as quick as you can! Go back to Honduras—anywhere—but don't stay in New York."
"Why shouldn't I? What on earth is the matter with you? Are you insane?"
"I—I can't tell you, Sid. But you are in danger if you don't leave New York. I can tell you that much. That's why I didn't call at the hotel; I'm afraid. Sid, I'm afraid to have anybody see me talking to you. If you came to my office, I'd refuse to see you——"
"Why?" demanded Sidney Prale, in a stern voice.
"I—I can't explain, Sid."
"I've endured a lot of nonsense to-day, and I'm not going to endure any more!" Prale said. "You're going to open your mouth and tell me what you mean, if I have to manhandle you."
"You can beat me until I'm unconscious, Sid, but you can't make me talk!" Lerton told him.
"But what does it all mean?"
"You'd better go away, Sid; you'd better get out of the country and stay out!"
"No reason why I should. I never gave up my citizenship; I haven't done anything wrong. I'm back in my old home, and I fail to see why I shouldn't remain here if that is my wish."
"But you're in danger!"
"In danger from what?" Sidney Prale cried.
"You have powerful enemies, Sid."
"I—I don't know, exactly. But you have powerful enemies. Some of my best customers have informed me that they are through doing business with me if I have anything to do with you. They told me that before you had been back three hours."
"Powerful enemies? Why? Business enemies?"
"I—I don't know."
"Um! So that is why the bank refused my deposit, why I was turned out of a hotel, and why old Rufus Shepley raised such a row with me! Powerful enemies, have I? But there isn't sense in it! I haven't done anything to make powerful enemies, or any other kind. I'm about fed up with this stuff!"
"Go away, Sid. You've got money—you can live anywhere!"
"You bet I can! And I'm going to live in New York!"
"Don't try it, Sid!"
Prale whirled and faced him. "You know more than you're telling!" he accused. "You open your face and talk! I never did have any too much love for you, and you can wager that I'm not going to let you frighten me into running away from New York! Talk!"
"I haven't anything more to say, Sid!"
"If I have to choke it out of you right here——"
"You'd better not. It would give your enemies a chance!"
"Lerton, I've fought the Honduras jungles! I've fought half-savage men and treacherous employees, snakes and fever, financial sharks and common adventurers. I didn't come back to New York to back down in front of a man like you—or half a hundred like you. Maybe that is strong talk—but you have it coming! Give my enemies a chance? I'll give them all the chance they want. Maybe they'll come into the open, then, and let me see whom I'm fighting! I don't like foes that fight from the dark!"
"You'd better go away, Sid. I'm talking for your own good!"
"For my good? For yours, you mean! Afraid you'll lose a few customers and a few dollars, by standing by your cousin, are you? Why don't you be a man, tell me what you know, help me to fight! Bah! I'm disgusted with you!"
He hurled George Lerton away from him, curled his lips in scorn of the man.
"I've tried to warn you," Lerton whimpered.
"I don't understand this and I'm sure you could explain a lot, if you would. Perhaps I've got more dollars than the customers you are so afraid of losing. Suppose I hand my million to you for investment. Will you talk, then?"
"I—I wouldn't dare touch it," Lerton whimpered.
Prale looked at him closely. "It must be something pretty bad to make you toss aside the chance to handle a million in investments," he said. "I know you, George! You'd sell your soul for money! You got anything more to say to me about this?"
"I—I dare not say anything more."
"Very well. If you are afraid to be seen in my presence, kindly keep away from me hereafter and don't worry about me looking you up at your office. I'll not take the trouble!"
Sidney Prale said nothing more; he whirled around and walked rapidly up the Avenue, enraged, wondering what it all meant, determined to find out as soon as possible.
Lerton ran after him.
"Won't you go away, Sid?" he whimpered.
"No. I'll stay here, and if I have enemies I'll fight them!" Prale told him. "Why are you so eager to have me run away?"
"I don't want to see you in trouble, Sid."
"That's peculiar. In the old days you used to gloat whenever I got in trouble. You seem to have a wonderful and sudden regard for my welfare, and I can't explain it to myself."
Once more, Prale whirled around and started up the Avenue. His brain was in a tumult. What did George Lerton know that he refused to tell? Why should there be powerful enemies? He knew of no reason in the world.
"He's dead eager to get me out of town," Prale mused. "There's something behind it, all right."
Instinct, intuition, or some similar faculty caused Prale to turn off the Avenue eastward toward the river. He was not angry now. His mind was in action. He had convinced himself that there was something behind all this, and he was eager for the solution.
Those mysterious warnings had begun on board ship, he remembered. The piece of paper Kate Gilbert had dropped, and which he had picked up, had writing similar to the messages he had received. He would have to engage Jim Farland, he told himself, and learn a few things concerning Miss Kate Gilbert.
Had the journey because of ill health been a subterfuge? Had Kate Gilbert gone to Honduras to watch him? If she had, what was the reason for it?
"It's enough to make a man a maniac," Prale mused. "And that Shepley man! He was all right when we parted on the ship. Somebody said something to him about me after he landed. He treated me as if I had been a skunk."
Then he thought of George Lerton, his cousin. He couldn't quite make up his mind about Lerton. The man seemed frenzied in his eagerness to get Prale to leave New York. And Prale knew that it was not because of an overwhelming love George Lerton had for him, not anxiety lest ill fortune should come to Sidney Prale.
He would have to think it out, he told himself. At least, he knew that he had foes working against him, and could be on guard continually. Down in Honduras he had won a reputation as a fighter, and a fight was a fight in any clime, he knew; there might be a difference in the rules here and there, but the same qualities decided the winner.
He continued walking down the street toward the river. In Honduras he had become accustomed to walking up and down the beach and looking at the water whenever he wanted to think and solve some problem, and it probably was habit that sent him to the water front now.
He tossed away the butt of his cigar and did not light another at the moment. For a time he stood looking out at the black water, at the craft plying back and forth, their lights flashing. He stepped upon a little dock and started walking its length. After a time he came near the end of it without having encountered a watchman, and sat down on a box in a dark, secluded corner.
There, his back braced against the building and the building shielding him from the cold wind that came up from the distant sea, Sidney Prale sat and tried to think it out.
One thing made a comfortable thought—he had money with which to fight. Either he was the victim of some injustice, or a grave mistake was being made. He wished that he had forced George Lerton to tell him more, and he decided that he would do so if they met again. He might even hunt him out and force him to speak. Sidney Prale thought nothing of handling a man like Lerton.
He heard steps on the dock and remained silent in the darkness, thinking that possibly some watchman was making the rounds. If he was discovered, he would say that he had been looking at the river, give the watchman his card and a tip, and leave.
The steps came nearer and Prale could make out the form of a man slipping along the dock's edge in a furtive manner. There was not light enough for Prale to see his features. He was walking bent over, a short, heavy-set man who did not wear an overcoat.
Prale watched as the man passed within six feet of him and went to the edge of the dock. There he stood, outlined against the sky, looking down at the water. Prale imagined that he heard something like a sob, and gave closer attention. Then he saw the man take off his coat and drop it behind him, remove his cap and place it on the coat, and look down at the water again.
And then Sidney Prale sprang straight forward, and grasped the body of the other as it was in mid-air.
"No, you don't!" Prale exclaimed.
He found immediately that he had a fight on his hands. The other whirled and began kicking and striking. Sidney Prale hurled him backward, rushed, caught him up again in a better hold, threw him back against the building, and held him there, breathless and panting.
"Another smash out of you, and I'll drop you into the river myself!" Prale said. "Suppose you take time to get your breath now."
"I—I thought you was a cop."
"Afraid of the cops?"
"It's against the law to—to try to commit suicide."
"So I understand," said Prale. "Well, I am not a cop. Trying to drown yourself, were you? Why?"
"Why not?" the other asked. "I'm done with livin'."
"Not just yet, but you would have been if I hadn't been sitting here."
"I've knocked all over the world—and made a few mistakes," said the derelict. "Oh, nothin' that would get me in trouble with the cops! But I just found out that I'm clutterin' up the earth and don't amount to anything. I'm sick of half starvin' to death, and workin' like a dog when I get the chance just to get enough to keep a few old clothes hung on me."
"Disgusted generally with your lot?" Prale asked.
"Friends or relatives?"
"What's your name?" Prale asked.
"You mean my real name? I don't remember. It's been so long since I've used it, and I've used so many others since that I don't know. What's the difference?"
"I'll call you Murk," said Prale. "That expresses the dark river, the deed you were about to do, and the evident state of your feelings."
"It's as good as any, I suppose."
"What's your particular grievance against the world in general?"
"It ain't anything in particular," said Murk. "It's just general."
"I see. A drifter, are you?"
"I reckon I am."
"Sore at existence, eh?"
"Well, what's the use of livin'?" Murk demanded. "There ain't a man, woman or child in the world that gives a whoop what becomes of me. I'm just in the way to be kicked around."
"Maybe you haven't found your proper place in the scheme of things."
"I've sure done some travelin' lookin' for it, boss, but maybe I ain't found it, as you say. I sure ain't found any place that looks like it needed me bad."
"Hard to make a living?"
"Oh, I get along. But, what's the use?" Murk wanted to know. "I ain't got anybody—I get lonesome lots of times. If I had money, it might be different."
"I'm not so sure about that," said Prale, smiling a bit. "I've got a million dollars, and, as far as I know right this minute, I have just one friend in New York."
"If I had a million dollars I wouldn't care whether I had a friend or not," Murk said.
"You can be just as lonesome with a million dollars as you can without a cent," Prale told him. "I was sitting down here because I was lonesome, and because there are some enemies working at me, and I don't know who they are or why they want to trouble me."
"Well, let's jump in the drink together," Murk said.
"Why not fight it out?" asked Sidney Prale.
"Mister, I've been fightin' for years, and it don't get me anything. It just tires me out—that's all. The next world can't be any worse than this."
"Are you a fighter, or a quitter?"
"Nobody ever called me a quitter."
"But you were trying to be a few minutes ago. You were going to quit like a yellow dog!" Prale told him. "You were going to throw up the sponge and give the devil a laugh."
"That's between me and the devil—nobody else would care."
"If you had a friend, an influential friend, and didn't have to keep up a continual fight to hold body and soul together, could you manage to face the world a little longer?"
"I reckon I could."
"How old are you?"
"Thirty-five," said Murk.
"Old enough to have some sense. I am three years older. I'm almost as lonesome as you are. Why not join forces, Murk?"
"If I showed you a corner where you would fit in, would you be loyal? Would you stand by me, help me fight if it was necessary, and all that?"
"You just try me—that's all."
"Very well, Murk, I'm going to trust you. I told you the truth when I said I had a million dollars. I have but one friend I can depend upon, and I have enemies. I like to fight, Murk, but I like to have a good pal at my back when I do."
"That's me, too, sir; but I ain't ever had the pal."
"You've got one now, Murk. You'd be dead now, but for me. So you must be my man, understand?"
"I don't quite getcha."
"You're under my orders from now on, Murk. We'll have a nice row, standing back to back perhaps. I'll take you on as a sort of valet and bodyguard. You'll have good clothes and a home and plenty to eat and a bit of money to spend. I'll expect you to be loyal. If I find that you are not—well, Murk, I got back yesterday from Central America. I got my million down there, by fighting for it, and there were times when I had to handle men roughly. I can read men, Murk. Can you imagine what I'd do to a man who double crossed me?"
"I getcha now! You needn't be afraid I'll double cross you. I don't think this is real."
"It's real, Murk, if we strike a bargain. Do we?"
"I've got everything to win and nothin' to lose—so we do!" Murk said.
"Fair enough. Now we'll get off this dock. Pick up your cap and coat."
Murk picked them up and put them on, and then he followed at Prale's heels until they were on the street and beneath the nearest light. There they stopped and looked each other over.
Murk was short, but he was built for strength. Prale could tell at a glance that the man, even poorly nourished as he was, had muscles that could be depended on. Prale liked the look around Murk's eyes, too. Murk was a dog man, the sort that proves faithful to the end if treated right.
"Well, how do you like me?" Prale asked.
"You look good to me, sir."
"My name is Sidney Prale."
"Yes, Mr. Prale."
"You understand our little deal thoroughly?"
"Come along, then. Here is a cigar—light up!"
Murk lighted the cigar, and Prale lighted another, and they went rapidly up the street to Fifth Avenue. Prale signaled a passing taxicab, and they got in. When the cab stopped, it was in a district where some cheap clothing stores remain open until almost midnight.
Half an hour later they emerged again. Murk was dressed in a suit which was somber in tone, and which was not at all a bad fit. He was dressed in new clothing from the skin out. Prale took him to a barber shop, and waited until the barber gave Murk a hair cut and a shave.
"Gosh!" Murk said, when he looked at himself in the glass. "This can't be me!"
"It is, however," Prale assured him. "Now, we'll go home, Murk, and get settled."
"Where is home?"
Prale named the hotel.
"I'd get thrown out on my bean if I ever stuck my nose in the kitchen door," Murk said.
"You're not going into the kitchen, Murk. You're going to be registered as my valet and bodyguard, and you're going up in the elevator with me. Kindly remember, Murk, that you are the personal servant of Mr. Sidney Prale."
"And your boss has a million dollars and nobody knows how many secret enemies. Those things give you a standing, Murk. When we are alone, of course, you'll be a sort of pal. I never had a valet before and I couldn't stand a regular one. Instead of being a valet, when we are alone, I want you to be a regular fellow."
"I getcha, Mr. Prale."
"Off we go, then."
They arrived at the hotel, and Prale registered Murk as his valet and took him up to the suite.
"You bunk in there, Murk," Prale said, pointing to another room. "Take a bath and go to bed and get some rest. If you are inclined to throw me down, you'll find some money and jewelry in the top drawer of the dresser. Rob me and sneak out during the night, if you want to. Cut my throat, if it's necessary."
"You needn't be afraid, sir—you can trust me!"
"I do!" said Sidney Prale.
Prale slept well that night. When he awoke in the morning, Murk was dressed and sitting by the window. He drew Prale's bath without being told, and then stood around as if waiting to be of service.
"I—I found this slipped under your door, sir," he said, after a time.
"What is it, Murk?"
"A piece of paper with writing on it, sir."
"More news from the enemy, I suppose. What does it say?"
"It says as how a man's sin always finds him out."
"That's interesting, isn't it? Do you think I am a sinner of some sort, Murk?"
"I don't care if you are, sir!"
"Murk! You needn't get excited about it. Put the paper in the lower drawer of the dresser; I'm making a collection of them," Prale said. He went back into the other room and continued dressing. "Go to the telephone and order breakfast served to us here, Murk," he directed.
"What shall I order, sir?"
"Order plenty of whatever you like, and tell them to make it double," said Prale.
Murk grinned and gave a proper order. Prale was dressed by the time the breakfast was served. He and Murk made a hearty meal.
And then Prale lighted his morning cigar and began reading the newspapers. Murk went around the suite, straightening things and trying to be of service. He looked at Sidney Prale often; it was plain to be seen that Prale was Murk's kind of man.
There came a knock at the door.
"See who it is, Murk," Sidney Prale said.
He did not even look up from the paper he was reading. He supposed it was some hotel employee. Murk stalked across to the door and threw it open. Two men stood there. Murk flinched when he saw them. He did not know either of them, but he knew them immediately for what they were. Murk was a man of experience.
"Mr. Prale in?" one of them asked.
Without asking permission, the two men stepped inside, and one of them closed the door. Prale dropped the newspaper and turned around to face them.
"Are you Sidney Prale?" one of them asked.
"You are under arrest, Mr. Prale."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Under arrest," I said. "You know your rights, perhaps, so you need not talk unless you wish to do so."
"You are officers?"
They showed their shields.
"Straight from headquarters," one of them replied. "We want to take a look around your room while we are here."
"Suppose," said Sidney Prale, "that you tell me, first, why I am under arrest? Of what crime am I accused?"
"You are charged with murder."
"Murder? What crazy joke is this?" Prale cried. "And what particular person am I accused of murdering?"
"You are charged with the murder of Mr. Rufus Shepley," the detective replied.
Many times in his life, Sidney Prale had been greatly surprised, astonished, shocked. But never had he experienced such a feeling as he did at this bald announcement of a police detective.
The statement was like a blow between the eyes. Prale stared at the two detectives for an instant, his face flushed, and then he began to laugh.
"It isn't a laughing matter, Mr. Prale," one of the detectives told him.
"Pardon me, but it is so utterly preposterous," Prale replied. "I fail to see how I can be accused of such a crime. I am not a cut-throat, and Rufus Shepley was a man I met on shipboard casually, and have seen him only once since."
"You can do your talking at headquarters, Mr. Prale," the officer said. "I'll have to ask you to come along with us. I'll leave my partner here to look through your rooms."
"The sooner I get to headquarters, the sooner this thing will be straightened out," Prale said. "Murk, you will remain here in the rooms until you hear from me. Let the officer look at anything he wishes to inspect."
"Yes, sir," said Murk, glaring at the two detectives.
Prale faced the detective who had been speaking to him.
"Be with you as soon as I get my hat and coat," he said. "It'll not be necessary, I hope, to put handcuffs on me."
"We can go to headquarters in a taxi, and I guess I can handle you if you try any tricks," the detective replied.
"There are going to be no tricks tried," Prale said.
"Nevertheless, I think I'll keep a close eye on you."
"Do so, by all means!" Prale retorted.
"Ain't there anything I can do, sir?" Murk asked.
"Nothing except to remain in the rooms until you hear from me," Prale told him. "If I should—er—be detained, I'll probably send for you."
"Very well, sir."
One of the detectives left the suite with Prale and walked down the hall to the elevator. The second officer remained behind to go through Prale's things in an effort to find evidence.
Prale said nothing regarding the crime as they journeyed in the taxicab to police headquarters. His mind was busy, though. This appeared to be a culmination of the annoyances to which he had been subjected.
At headquarters he was ushered into a room where a captain of detectives awaited him.
"Don't have to talk unless you want to, Mr. Prale, but it probably will be better for you to do so, and have an end of it," the captain said. "Why did you kill Rufus Shepley?"
"That's a fool question. I didn't kill him. I had no idea he was dead until the officer arrested me for his murder. I scarcely know the man, captain. I made his acquaintance aboard a ship coming from Central America, and I met him but once after leaving the ship. He told me his business and gave me his card, and that is all. I'm ready to answer any questions you may ask. This is some terrible mistake. I want to talk about it—have an end of it, as you say."
"Very well, Prale," the captain said.
"Mr. Prale, if you please. I have not been convicted yet and am entitled to some courtesy, it seems to me."
"All right, if you're going to be nasty about it," the captain said. "But you won't gain anything by taking a high-and-mighty attitude with me."
"I simply object to being addressed in the tone you used," Prale replied. "I am no crook. Let's get down to business. Ask me any questions you like, and I'd like to ask a few myself."
"That is fair enough," the captain said, a shrewd expression coming into his face.
"Suppose you take it for granted, for a few minutes, that I am innocent, and tell me when Rufus Shepley was killed, and where, and just how."
"Very well, Mr. Prale. A hotel attendant found the body at an early hour this morning. It was in Mr. Shepley's room. The man was fully dressed. The physicians say that he was killed about eleven o'clock last night."
"I understand; go on, please."
"He had been stabbed through the heart," said the captain. "Death had been instantaneous."
"But why suspect me of the crime?" Prale asked.
"This was found beside the body," the captain replied.
From the desk before him he picked up a fountain pen. It was an elaborate pen, chased with gold, and on one side of it was a tiny gold plate, upon which Prale's name had been engraved.
"You recognize it?" the captain asked.
"Certainly; it is mine."
"Oh, you admit that, do you?"
"Naturally. But I fail to see how it came to be beside the body of Rufus Shepley."
"A man who has committed a murder generally is in a hurry to get away," said the captain. "It is easy to drop a fountain pen from a pocket, especially if a man is bending over."
"I don't even know where Shepley's rooms were located," Prale said. "I didn't know the pen was missing until this minute——"
"Possibly not," replied the captain of detectives.
"And I am quite sure I do not know how it came to be beside the body, but of one thing I am certain—I did not drop it there."
"Naturally, you would say that."
"And where is the motive?" Prale demanded. "Suppose you tell me what you have against me, and then I'll proceed to tear your shabby evidence to pieces."
"We have this particular case so well in hand that I can afford to do that," the captain said. "Attend me closely and you'll see the futility of denying your guilt."
"I am waiting to hear the evidence," Prale said.
"Very well. In the first place, you have recently spent some years in Central America."
"Ten years in Honduras," said Prale.
"You made a fortune down there. We have communicated with the authorities there and have learned many things about you. We have learned that you have a hot temper and know how to handle men. You have been known to beat natives terribly——"
"Rot! I was kinder than nine out of ten men of affairs. I have punished a few natives caught stealing, for instance."
"Recently, Mr. Prale, you cashed in on all your properties down there and announced that you were about to leave the country."
"That is correct," said Prale. "I made the million I went down there to make. Honduras is all right in some ways, but a man likes to live with his own kind. My home was in New York, and so, naturally, I decided to return here."
"Did you not tell some of your friends and acquaintances, before you left, that you were returning to New York for a certain purpose."
"I suppose that I did. My purpose was no secret. I had my pile and wanted to enjoy life a bit and perhaps I wanted to show off a bit, too. That was only natural, I suppose. I am proud of my success."
"Did you not hint that the purpose was something sinister—that you were going to have revenge, or something like that?"
"Very well; let us get on," said the captain of detectives. "You say that you first met Rufus Shepley aboard the Manatee?"
"Never saw him in my life until I met him in the smoking room on the ship, and never had heard his name before."
"That is peculiar. Mr. Shepley was a man of large affairs."
"But I had been in Honduras for ten years, out of touch with men of affairs in the United States," Prale replied. "I did the most of my business with firms in South America."
"Just how did you happen to meet Mr. Shepley?"
"In the smoking room. We spoke, as passengers are liable to speak to each other on a boat or a train. We talked of ordinary things and exchanged cards."
"Did you happen to play cards?"
"One evening, for a short time. But the game did not amount to anything, and we quit early. Are you trying to insinuate that I killed the man as the outcome of a gambling quarrel?"
"Nothing of the sort," said the captain, "Let us get on. You had no trouble with Mr. Shepley on the ship—no trouble of any sort?"
"Not the slightest. We parted good friends just before the ship docked. I went to my stateroom for my things and I suppose that he did the same."
"When did you see him next?" the captain asked.
"Last evening, in the lobby of a hotel on Broadway," said Prale.
"What happened then?"
"Ah, I see where you are trying to get the motive," Prale said. "But I think that you will agree with me, before we are done, that it is a slim thing upon which to hang a serious charge of murder. I saw Mr. Shepley sitting in the lobby and went up and spoke to him. We had been friendly on the ship, I was feeling lonesome, and was glad to find somebody with whom I could talk. Besides, he had expressed a desire to see me again."
"Well, what happened?"
"Something I am at a loss to understand. He berated me for daring to address him. He acted like a maniac. I rebuked him for his manner, and the hotel detective advised us to leave the place until we cooled off, or something like that."
"Who left first?" the captain asked.
"I did. I was angry because there was a crowd around and I hated the scene that had been caused. I went through the main entrance and stepped to the curb."
"Shepley follow you?"
"And you went up to him and threatened him, didn't you?"
Prale thought a moment. "I told him that I didn't know why he had insulted me, but I didn't want him to do it again."
"What else?" the captain demanded.
"I believe I said that I ought to settle with him for what he had said already."
"And then I went on down the street. The hotel detective, I think, heard me speak to Mr. Shepley."
"Yes, I know that he did," said the captain. "And the hotel detective also says that you were white with anger, and that you went off down Broadway like a man with murder in his mind. Do you care to say anything more?"
"Of course," said Prale. "I went down to Madison Square, and there I sat down on a bench."
"Meet anybody there?"
"I did. I met an old friend, Jim Farland, who used to be on your detective force, and who now runs a private agency."
"I know Farland well, and I'll send for him."
"I talked with Jim for some time," Prale went on. "I told him, I believe, that I seemed to have enemies working in the dark. I told him about the scene with Shepley."
"Um! What did Farland have to say?"
"Nothing, except that he couldn't understand why Shepley had acted so. We talked the matter over for a while and then we separated."
"Very well. And where did you go next?"
"I walked up Fifth Avenue," said Prale. "It was after nine o'clock by that time."
"Go straight to your hotel?"
"I did not," Prale said.
"Care to tell me where you went and what you did?"
"I have no objections. I walked up the Avenue, and met my cousin, George Lerton, the broker."
"Meet him accidentally?"
"He overtook me—called to me."
"How long did you talk to him?"
"For only a few minutes," said Prale. "You must understand that, while George Lerton is my cousin, we are not exceptionally friendly, and never have been. We worked for the same firm ten years ago, and after I went to Honduras, George made some money and got into business for himself; at least he told me so last night."
"So you merely shook hands and renewed your acquaintance?" the captain asked.
"There was something peculiar about the meeting," Prale replied.
"In what way?"
"Lerton urged me to leave New York and remain away. He said that I had powerful enemies."
"What about that?"
"It is what has been puzzling me. So far as I know, I haven't a powerful enemy on earth. I suppose I have a few business foes in Central America; a man can't make a million without acquiring some enemies at the same time. But I don't know of a single influential person who is my enemy."
"Didn't Lerton explain to you?"
"He refused to do so," said Prale, "and I told him to go his way and that I'd go mine."
"Doesn't that story seem a bit weak to you, Mr. Prale?"
"It may, but it is a true story. Get Lerton and question him if you wish. I couldn't make him talk—maybe you can. I'd like to know the names of these enemies of mine, if I really have them."
"Anything else lead you to believe you might have enemies?"
"Yes. I have received several anonymous notes, some on board ship and some since landing, that say something about retribution about to be visited upon me."
"I don't know, captain. I never did anything in my life to merit such retribution. I am sure of that."
"What time was it when you parted from Lerton?"
"It must have been about nine thirty or a quarter to ten."
"Go to your hotel then?"
"No; I turned east and went to the river."
"Wasn't that a peculiar thing to do at that hour of the night?"
"It may seem so to you," said Prale, "and I scarcely can tell why I did it. I suppose it was because I wanted to think over what George Lerton had told me, and down in Honduras I always used to walk along the beach when I was thinking."
"I went out on a dock and sat down in the darkness to think."
"How long did you remain there?"
"For more than half an hour; and I had an experience. Another man came on the dock. He was going to jump into the river, but I convinced him that suicide was folly, and said I'd give him a job."
"I did," said Prale. "I took him downtown and bought him some clothes, and then took him to a barber shop, and afterward to the hotel. I registered him as my valet. I call him Murk. I can prove by him that I could not have killed Rufus Shepley about eleven o'clock, because I was in Murk's company at that time."
"What time did you get back to your hotel with him?"
"It was a few minutes of midnight. We spent considerable time buying the clothes and visiting the barber shop."
"Um!" the captain said. "We'll have to question a few of these people. It seems peculiar to me that a millionaire would pick up a tramp and turn him into a trusted servant."
"Perhaps it was peculiar. I can read men, I believe, and I decided that Murk needed only a chance, and he would make good. He was broke and friendless, and I was a millionaire and almost as friendless. That's the only way I can explain it."
"I'm going to send you to another office under guard, Mr. Prale," the captain said. "I'll have these people here in a short time, and we'll question them. Just tell me where you bought the clothes for this man, and what barber shop you visited."
Sidney Prale did so, and the captain of detectives made notes regarding the addresses.
"That will be all for the present, Mr. Prale," he said. "I don't want to cause any innocent man annoyance, but I can tell you this much—things look very bad for you!"
LIES AND LIARS
Sidney Prale waited in an adjoining office, a detective sitting in one corner of it and watching him closely. It was almost a prison room, for there were steel bars at the windows, and only the one door. Prale walked to one of the windows and looked down at the street, his arms folded across his breast, trying to think it out.
The finding of that fountain pen in the room beside Rufus Shepley's body was what puzzled and bothered him the most. How on earth could it have come there? He tried to remember when he had used it last, when he had last seen it. All that he could recall was that, the afternoon before, he had used it to write a note in a memorandum book. How and where had he lost it, and how had it come into Shepley's suite? Had he dropped it in the hotel lobby during his short quarrel with Shepley, while he was shaking the man? Had Shepley picked it up later and carried it home with him? Prale did not think Shepley would have done that under the circumstances.
Well, he'd be at liberty soon enough, he told himself. It was natural for the police to learn of his quarrel with Shepley and to make an arrest on the strength of that and of finding the fountain pen. His alibi was perfect; they soon would know that he could not have committed the crime.
It was almost an hour later when he was taken back into the other room again. Prale had spent the time standing before the window, smoking and trying to think things out. The captain of detectives was before his desk when Prale was ushered into the office.