THE GIRL AND THE BILL
An American Story of Mystery, Romance and Adventure
A. L. Burt Company Publishers :: New York
Copyright, 1909, by Dodd, Mead and Company
Published, March, 1909
CHAPTER PAGE I The Threshold of Adventure 1 II Senhor Poritol 21 III The Shadows 41 IV The Girl of the Car 58 V "Evans, S. R." 77 VI A Chance Lead 93 VII A Japanese at Large 115 VIII The Trail of Maku 136 IX Number Three Forty-One 162 X "Find the American" 178 XI The Way Out 192 XII Power of Darkness 209 XIII An Old Man of the Sea 223 XIV Prisoners in the Dark 253 XV From the Devil to the Deep Sea 279 XVI The Struggle 295 XVII A Chance of the Game 322 XVIII The Goal 347 XIX A Saved Situation 359
THE GIRL AND THE BILL CHAPTER I
THE THRESHOLD OF ADVENTURE
The roar of State Street filled the ears of Robert Orme not unpleasantly. He liked Chicago, felt towards the Western city something more than the tolerant, patronizing interest which so often characterizes the Eastern man. To him it was the hub of genuine Americanism—young, aggressive, perhaps a bit too cocksure, but ever bounding along with eyes toward the future. Here was the city of great beginnings, the city of experiment—experiment with life; hence its incompleteness—an incompleteness not dissimilar to that of life itself. Chicago lived; it was the pulse of the great Middle West.
Orme watched the procession with clear eyes. He had been strolling southward from the Masonic Temple, into the shopping district. The clangor, the smoke and dust, the hurrying crowds, all worked into his mood. The expectation of adventure was far from him. Nor was he a man who sought impressions for amusement; whatever came to him he weighed, and accepted or rejected according as it was valueless or useful. Wholesome he was; anyone might infer that from his face. Doubtless, his fault lay in his overemphasis on the purely practical; but that, after all, was a lawyer's fault, and it was counterbalanced by a sweet kindliness toward all the world—a loveableness which made for him a friend of every chance acquaintance.
It was well along in the afternoon, and shoppers were hurrying homeward. Orme noted the fresh beauty of the women and girls—Chicago has reason to be proud of her daughters—and his heart beat a little faster. Not that he was a man to be caught by every pretty stranger; but scarcely recognized by himself, there was a hidden spring of romance in his practical nature. Heart-free, he never met a woman without wondering whether she was the one. He had never found her; he did not know that he was looking for her; yet always there was the unconscious question.
A distant whistle, the clanging of gongs, the rapid beat of galloping hoofs—fire-engines were racing down the street. Cars stopped, vehicles of all kinds crowded in toward the curbs.
Orme paused and watched the fire horses go thundering by, their smoking chariots swaying behind them and dropping long trails of sparks. Small boys were running, men and women were stopping to gaze after the passing engines, but Orme's attention was taken by something that was happening near by, and as the gongs and the hoof-beats grew fainter he looked with interest to the street beside him.
He had got as far as the corner of Madison Street. The scramble to get out of the way of the engines had here resulted in a traffic-jam. Two policemen were moving about, shouting orders for the disentanglement of the street-cars and vehicles which seemed to be inextricably wedged together.
A burly Irish teamster was bellowing at his horse. The hind wheel of a smart barouche was caught in the fore wheel of a delivery wagon, and the driver of the delivery wagon was expressing his opinion of the situation in terms which seemed to embarrass the elderly gentleman who sat in the barouche. Orme's eye traveled through the outer edge of the disturbance, and sought its center.
There in the midst of the tangle was a big black touring-car. Its one occupant was a girl—and such a girl! Her fawn-colored cloak was thrown open; her face was unveiled. Orme was thrilled when he caught the glory of her face—the clear skin, browned by outdoor living; the demure but regular features; the eyes that seemed to transmute and reflect softly all impressions from without. Orme had never seen anyone like her—so nobly unconscious of self, so appealing and yet so calm.
She was waiting patiently, interested in the clamor about her, but seemingly undisturbed by her own part in it. Orme's eyes did not leave her face. He was merely one of a crowd at the curb, unnoted by her, but when after a time, he became aware that he was staring, he felt the blood rush to his cheeks, and he muttered: "What a boor I am!" And then, "But who can she be? who can she be?"
A policeman made his way to the black car. Orme saw him speak to the girl; saw her brows knit; and he quickly threaded his way into the street. His action was barely conscious, but nothing could have stopped him at that moment.
"You'll have to come to the station, miss," the policeman was saying.
"But what have I done?" Her voice was broken music.
"You've violated the traffic regulations, and made all this trouble, that's what you've done."
"I'm on a very important errand," she began, "and——"
"I can't help that, miss, you ought to have had someone with you that knew the rules."
Her eyes were perplexed, and she looked about her as if for help. For a moment her gaze fell on Orme, who was close to the policeman's elbow.
Now, Orme had a winning and disarming smile. Without hesitation, he touched the policeman on the shoulder, beamed pleasantly, and said: "Pardon me, officer, but this car was forced over by that dray."
"She was on the wrong side," returned the policeman, after a glance which modified his first intention to take offense. "She had no business over here."
"It was either that or a collision. My wheel was scraped, as it was." She, too, was smiling now.
The policeman pondered. He liked to be called "officer"; he liked to be smiled upon; and the girl, to judge from her manner and appearance, might well be the daughter of a man of position. "Well," he said after a moment, "be more careful another time." He turned and went back to his work among the other vehicles, covering the weakness of his surrender by a fresh display of angry authority.
The girl gave a little sigh of relief and looked at Orme. "Thank you," she said.
Then he remembered that he did not know this girl. "Can I be of further service?" he asked.
"No," she answered, "I think not. But thank you just the same." She gave him a friendly little nod and turned to the steering-gear.
There was nothing for it but to go, and Orme returned to the curb. A moment later he saw the black car move slowly away, and he felt as though something sweet and fine were going out of his life. If only there had been some way to prolong the incident! He knew intuitively that this girl belonged to his own class. Any insignificant acquaintance might introduce them to each other. And yet convention now thrust them apart.
Sometime he might meet her. Indeed, he determined to find out who she was and make that sometime a certainty. He would prolong his stay in Chicago and search society until he found her. No one had ever before sent such a thrill through his heart. He must find her, become her friend, perhaps——But, again he laughed to himself, "What a boor I am!"
After all she was but a passing stranger, and the pleasant revery into which his glimpse of her had led him was only a revery. The memory of her beauty and elusive charm would disappear; his vivid impression of her would be effaced. But even while he thought this he found himself again wondering who she was and how he could find her. He could not drive her from his mind.
Meantime he had proceeded slowly on his way. Suddenly a benevolent, white-bearded man halted him, with a deprecating gesture. "Excuse me, sir," he began, "but your hat——"
Orme lifted his straw hat from his head. A glance showed him that it was disfigured by a great blotch of black grease. He had held his hat in his hand while talking to the girl, and it must have touched her car at a point where the axle of the dray had rubbed. So this was his one memento of the incident.
He thanked the stranger, and walked to a near-by hatter's, where a ready clerk set before him hats of all styles. He selected one quickly and left his soiled hat to be cleaned and sent home later.
Offering a ten-dollar bill in payment, he received in change a five-dollar bill and a silver dollar. He gave the coin a second glance. It was the first silver dollar that he had handled for some time, for he seldom visited the West.
"There's no charge for the cleaning," said the clerk, noting down Orme's name and address, and handing the soiled hat to the cash-boy.
Orme, meantime, was on the point of folding the five-dollar bill to put it into his pocket-book. Suddenly he looked at it intently. Written in ink across the face of it, were the words:
"Remember Person You Pay This To."
The writing was apparently a hurried scrawl, but the letters were large and quite legible. They appeared to have been written on an uneven surface, for there were several jogs and breaks in the writing, as if the pen had slipped.
"This is curious," remarked Orme.
The clerk blinked his watery eyes and looked at the bill in Orme's hand. "Oh, yes, sir," he explained. "I remember that. The gentleman who paid it in this morning called our attention to it."
"If he's the man who wrote this, he probably doesn't know that there's a law against defacing money."
"But it's perfectly good, isn't it?" inquired the clerk. "If you want another instead——"
"Oh, no," laughed Orme. "The banks would take it."
"But, sir——" began the clerk.
"I should like to keep it. If I can't get rid of it, I'll bring it back. It's a hoax or an endless chain device or something of the sort. I'd like to find out."
He looked again at the writing. Puzzles and problems always interested him, especially if they seemed to involve some human story.
"Very well," said the clerk, "I'll remember that you have it, Mr.——" he peered at the name he had set down—"Mr. Orme."
Leaving the hatter's, Orme turned back on State Street, retracing his steps. It was close to the dinner hour, and the character of the street crowds had changed. The shoppers had disappeared. Suburbanites were by this time aboard their trains and homeward bound. The street was thronged with hurrying clerks and shop-girls, and the cars were jammed with thousands more, all of them thinking, no doubt, of the same two things—something to eat and relaxation.
What a hive it was, this great street! And how scant the lives of the great majority! Working, eating, sleeping, marrying and given in marriage, bearing children and dying—was that all? "But growing, too," said Orme to himself. "Growing, too." Would this be the sum of his own life—that of a worker in the hive? It came to him with something of an inner pang that thus far his scheme of things had included little more. He wondered why he was now recognizing this scantiness, this lack in his life.
He came out of his revery to find himself again at the Madison Street corner. Again he seemed to see that beautiful girl in the car, and to hear the music of her voice.
How could he best set about to find her? She might be, like himself, a visitor in the city. But there was the touring-car. Well, she might have run in from one of the suburbs. He could think of no better plan than to call that evening on the Wallinghams and describe the unknown to Bessie and try to get her assistance. Bessie would divine the situation, and she would guy him unmercifully, he knew; but he would face even that for another glimpse of the girl of the car.
And at that moment he was startled by a sharp explosion. He looked to the street. There was the black car, bumping along with one flat tire. The girl threw on the brakes and came to a stop.
In an instant Orme was in the street. If he thought that she would not remember him, her first glance altered the assumption, for she looked down at him with a ready smile and said: "You see, I do need you again, after all."
As for Orme, he could think of nothing better to say than simply, "I am glad." With that he began to unfasten the spare tire.
"I shall watch you with interest," she went on. "I know how to run a car—though you might not think it—but I don't know how to repair one."
"That's a man's job anyway," said Orme, busy now with the jack, which was slowly raising the wheel from the pavement.
"Shall I get out?" she asked. "Does my weight make any difference?"
"Not at all," said Orme; but, nevertheless, she descended to the street and stood beside him while he worked. "I didn't know there were all those funny things inside," she mused.
Orme laughed. Her comment was vague, but to him it was enough just to hear her voice. He had got the wheel clear of the street and was taking off the burst tire.
"We seem fated to meet," she said.
Orme looked up at her. "I hope you won't think me a cad," he said, "if I say that I hope we may meet many times."
Her little frown warned him that she had misunderstood.
"Do you happen to know the Tom Wallinghams?" he asked.
Her smile returned. "I know a Tom Wallingham and a Bessie Wallingham."
"They're good friends of mine. Don't you think that they might introduce us?"
"They might," she vouchsafed, "if they happened to see us both at the same time."
Orme returned to his task. The crowd that always gathers was now close about them, and there was little opportunity for talk. He finished his job neatly, and stowed away the old tire.
She was in the car before he could offer to help her. "Thank you again," she said.
"If only you will let me arrange it with the Wallinghams," he faltered.
"I will think about it." She smiled.
He felt that she was slipping away. "Give me some clue," he begged.
"Where is your spirit of romance?" she railed at him; then apparently relenting: "Perhaps the next time we meet——"
Orme groaned. With a little nod like that which had dismissed him at the time of his first service to her, she pulled the lever and the car moved away.
Tumult in his breast, Orme walked on. He watched the black car thread its way down the street and disappear around a corner. Then he gave himself over to his own bewildering reflections, and he was still busy with them when he found himself at the entrance of the Pere Marquette. He had crossed the Rush Street bridge and found his way up to the Lake Shore Drive almost without realizing whither he was going.
Orme had come to Chicago, at the request of Eastern clients, to meet half-way the owners of a Western mining property. When he registered at the Annex, he found awaiting him a telegram saying that they had been detained at Denver and must necessarily be two days late. Besides the telegram, there had been a letter for him—a letter from his friend, Jack Baxter, to whom he had written of his coming. Jack had left the city on business, it appeared, but he urged Orme to make free of his North Side apartment. So Orme left the Annex and went to the rather too gorgeous, but very luxurious Pere Marquette, where he found that the staff had been instructed to keep a close eye on his comfort. All this had happened but three short hours ago.
After getting back to the apartment, Orme's first thought was to telephone to Bessie Wallingham. He decided, however, to wait till after dinner. He did not like to appear too eager. So he went down to the public dining-room and ate what was placed before him, and returned to his apartment just at dusk.
In a few moments he got Bessie Wallingham on the wire.
"Why, Robert Orme!" she exclaimed. "Wherever did you come from?"
"The usual place. Are you and Tom at home this evening?"
"I'm so sorry. We're going out with some new friends. Wish I knew them well enough to ask you along. Can you have some golf with us at Arradale to-morrow afternoon?"
"Delighted! Say, Bessie, do you know a girl who runs a black touring-car?"
"Do you know a tall, dark girl who has a black touring-car?"
"I know lots of tall, dark girls, and several of them have black touring-cars. Why?"
"Who are they?"
There was a pause and a little chuckle; then: "Now, Bob, that won't do. You must tell me all about it to-morrow. Call for us in time to catch the one-four."
That was all that Orme could get out of her and after a little banter and a brief exchange of greetings with Tom, who was called to the telephone by his wife, the wire was permitted to rest.
Orme pushed a chair to the window of the sitting-room and smoked lazily, looking out over the beautiful expanse of Lake Michigan, which reflected from its glassy surface the wonderful opalescence of early evening. He seemed to have set forth on a new and adventurous road. How strangely the girl of the car had come into his life!
Then he thought of the five-dollar bill, with the curious inscription. He took it from his pocket-book and examined it by the fading light. The words ran the full length of the face. Orme noticed that the writing had a foreign look. There were flourishes which seemed distinctly un-American.
He turned the bill over. Apparently there was no writing on the back, but as he looked more closely he saw a dark blur in the upper left-hand corner. Even in the dusk he could make out that this was not a spot of dirt; the edges were defined too distinctly for a smudge; and it was not black enough for an ink-blot.
Moving to the center-table, he switched on the electric lamp, and looked at the blur again. It stood out plainly now, a series of letters and numbers:
Evans, S. R. Chi. A. 100 N. 210 E. T.
The first thought that came to Orme was that this could be no hoax. A joker would have made the curious cryptogram more conspicuous. But what did it mean? Was it a secret formula? Did it give the location of a buried treasure? And why in the name of common sense had it been written on a five-dollar bill?
More likely, Orme reasoned, it concealed information for or about some person—"S. R. Evans," probably. And who was this S. R. Evans?
The better to study the mystery, Orme copied the inscription on a sheet of note-paper, which he found in the table drawer. From the first he decided that there was no cipher. The letters undoubtedly were abbreviations. "Evans" must be, as he had already determined, a man's name. "Chi" might be, probably was, "Chicago." "100 N. 210 E." looked like "100 (feet? paces?) north, 210 (feet? paces?) east."
The "A." and the "T." bothered him. "A." might be the place to which "S. R. Evans" was directed, or at which he was to be found—a place sufficiently indicated by the letter. Now as to the "T."—was it "treasure"? Or was it "time"? Or "true"? Orme had no way of telling. It might even be the initial of the person who had penned the instructions.
Without knowing where "A." was, Orme could make nothing of the cryptogram. For that matter, he realized that unless the secret were criminal it was not his affair. But he knew that legitimate business information is seldom transmitted by such mysterious means.
Again and again he went over the abbreviations, but the more closely he studied them, the more baffling he found them. The real meaning appeared to hinge on the "A." and the "T." Eventually he was driven to the conclusion that those two letters could not be understood by anyone who was not already partly in the secret, if secret it was. It occurred to him to have the city directory sent up to him. He might then find the address of "S. R. Evans," if that person happened to be a Chicagoan. But it was quite likely that the "Chi." might mean something other than that "Evans" lived in Chicago. Perhaps, in the morning he would satisfy his curiosity about "S. R. Evans," but for the present he lacked the inclination to press the matter that far.
In the midst of his puzzling, the telephone-bell rang. He crossed the room and put the receiver to his ear. "Yes?" he questioned.
The clerk's voice answered. "Senhor Poritol to see Mr. Orme."
"S-e-n-h-o-r—P-o-r-i-t-o-l," spelled the clerk.
"I don't know him," said Orme. "There must be some mistake. Are you sure that he asked for me?"
There was a pause. Orme heard a few scattered words which indicated that the clerk was questioning the stranger. Then came the information: "He says he wishes to see you about a five-dollar bill."
"Oh!" Orme realized that he had no reason to be surprised. "Well, send him up."
He hung up the receiver and, returning to the table, put the marked bill back into his pocket-book and slipped into a drawer the paper on which he had copied the inscription.
When Orme answered the knock at the door a singular young man stood at the threshold. He was short, wiry, and very dark. His nose was long and complacently tilted at the end. His eyes were small and very black. His mouth was a wide, uncertain slit. In his hand he carried a light cane and a silk hat of the flat-brimmed French type. And he wore a gray sack suit, pressed and creased with painful exactness.
"Come in, Senhor Poritol," said Orme, motioning toward a chair.
The little man entered, with short, rapid steps. He drew from his pocket a clean pocket-handkerchief, which he unfolded and spread out on the surface of the table. Upon the handkerchief he carefully placed his hat and then, after an ineffectual effort to make it stand against the table edge, laid his cane on the floor.
Not until all this ceremony had been completed did he appear to notice Orme. But now he turned, widening his face into a smile and extending his hand, which Orme took rather dubiously—it was supple and moist.
"Oh, this is Mr. Orme, is it not?"
"Yes," said Orme, freeing himself from the unpleasant handshake.
"Mr. Robert Orme?"
"Yes, that is my name. What can I do for you?"
For a moment Senhor Poritol appeared to hover like a timid bird; then he seated himself on the edge of a chair, only the tips of his toes touching the floor. His eyes danced brightly.
"To begin with, Mr. Orme," he said, "I am charmed to meet you—very charmed." He rolled his "r's" after a fashion that need not be reproduced. "And in the second place," he continued, "while actually I am a foreigner in your dear country, I regard myself as in spirit one of your natives. I came here when a boy, and was educated at your great University of Princeton."
"You are a Portuguese—I infer from your name," said Orme.
"Oh, dear, no! Oh, no, no, no!" exclaimed Senhor Poritol, tapping the floor nervously with his toes. "My country he freed himself from the Portuguese yoke many and many a year ago. I am a South American, Mr. Orme—one of the poor relations of your great country." Again the widened smile. Then he suddenly became grave, and leaned forward, his hands on his knees. "But this is not the business of our meeting, Mr. Orme."
"No?" inquired Orme.
"No, my dear sir. I have come to ask of you about the five-dollar bill which you received in the hat-shop this afternoon." He peered anxiously. "You still have it? You have not spent it?"
"A marked bill, was it not?"
"Yes, yes. Where is it, my dear sir, where is it?"
"Written across the face of it were the words, 'Remember person you pay this to.'"
"Oh, yes, yes."
"And on the back of it——"
"On the back of it!" gasped the little man.
"Was a curious cryptogram."
"Do not torture me!" exclaimed Senhor Poritol. "Have you got it?" His fingers worked nervously.
"Yes," said Orme slowly, "I still have it."
Senhor Poritol hastily took a fresh five-dollar bill from his pocket. "See," he said, jumping to the floor, "here is another just as good a bill. I give this to you in return for the bill which was paid to you this afternoon." He thrust the new bill toward Orme, and waved his other hand rhetorically. "That, and that alone, is my business with you, dear sir."
Orme's hand went to his pocket. The visitor watched the motion eagerly, and a grimace of disappointment contracted his features when the hand came forth, holding a cigar-case.
"Have one," Orme urged.
In his anxiety the little man almost danced. "But, sir," he broke forth, "I am in desperate hurry. I must meet a friend. I must catch a train."
"One moment," interrupted Orme. "I can't very well give up that bill until I know a little better what it means. You will have to show me that you are entitled to it—and"—he smiled—"meantime you'd better smoke."
Senhor Poritol sighed. "I can assure you of my honesty of purpose, sir," he said. "I cannot tell you about it. I have not the time. Also, it is not my secret. This bill, sir, is just as good as the other one."
"Very likely," said Orme dryly. He was wondering whether this was some new counterfeiting dodge. How easily most persons could be induced to make the transfer!
A counterfeiter, however, would hardly work by so picturesque and noticeable a method, unless he were carefully disguised—hardly even then. Was Senhor Poritol disguised? Orme looked at him more closely. No, he could see where the roots of the coarse black hair joined the scalp. And there was not the least evidence of make-up on the face. Nevertheless, Orme did not feel warranted in giving up the marked bill without a definite explanation. The little man was a comic figure, but his bizarre exterior might conceal a dangerous plot. He might be a thief, an anarchist, anything.
"Please, my dear sir, please do not add to my already very great anxiety," pleaded the visitor.
Orme spoke more decisively. "You are a stranger, Senhor Poritol. I don't know what all this mystery conceals, but I can't give you that bill unless I know more about it—and I won't," he added, as he saw Senhor Poritol open his mouth for further pleading.
"Very well," sighed the little man. He hesitated for an instant, then added: "I do not blame you for insisting, and I suppose I must say to you everything that you demand. No, I do not smoke the cigar, please. But if you do not object—" He produced a square of cigarette paper and some tobacco from a silver-mounted pouch, and deftly rolled a cigarette with one hand, accepting a match from Orme with the other. Closing his eyes, he inhaled the smoke deeply, breathing it out through his nostrils.
"Well—" he hesitated, his eyes roving about the room as if in search of something—"Well, I will explain to you why I want the bill."
Orme lighted a fresh cigar, and settled himself to hear the story. Senhor Poritol drew a second handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his damp brow.
"You must know, my very dear sir," he began, "that I come from a country which is very rich in the resources of nature. In the unsettled interior are very great mineral deposits which are little known, and since the day when the great Vega made the first exploration there has been the belief that the Urinaba Mountains hide a great wealth in gold. Many men for three hundred years have risked their most precious lives to go look for it. But they have not found it. No, my dear sir, they have not found it until—But have patience, and you shall hear everything.
"A few days ago a countryman of mine sent word that he was about to die. He asked that I, his early friend, should come to him immediately and receive news of utmost importance. He was lying sick in the hotel of a small city in Wisconsin. He was a tobacco agent and he had been attacked by Death while he was on a business trip.
"Filled with the heartbroken hope to see him once more before he died, I went even as I was, to a train and made all haste to his bedside."
"What was his name?" asked Orme.
"Lopez," replied Senhor Poritol promptly; and Orme knew that the answer might as well have been Smith. But the little man returned quickly to his story.
"My friend had no strength left. He was, oh, so weak that I wept to see him. But he sent the doctor and the priest out of the room, and then—and then he whispered in my ear a secret. He had discovered rich gold in the Urinaba country. He had been trying to earn money to go back and dig up the gold. But, alas! now he was dying, and he wished to give the secret to me, his old friend.
"Tears streamed on my cheek." Senhor Poritol's eyes filled, seemingly at the remembrance. "But I took out my fountain-pen to write down the directions he wished to give. See—this was the pen." He produced a gold-mounted tube from his waistcoat.
"I searched my pockets for a piece of paper. None could I discover. There was no time to be lost, for my friend was growing weaker, oh, very fast. In desperation I took a five-dollar bill, and wrote upon it the directions he gave me for finding the gold. Even as I finished it, dear Lopez breathed his last breath."
Orme puffed at his cigar. "So the bill carries directions for finding a rich deposit in the Urinaba Mountains?"
"Yes, my dear sir. But you would not rob me of it. You could not understand the directions."
"Oh, no." Orme laughed. "I have no interest in South American gold mines."
"Then accept this fresh bill," implored Senhor Poritol, "and give me back the one I yearn for."
Orme hesitated. "A moment more," he said. "Tell me, how did you lose possession of the marked bill?"
The South American writhed in his chair and leaned forward eagerly. "That is the most distressing part of all," he exclaimed. "I had left Chicago at a time when my presence in this great city was very important indeed. Nothing but the call from a dying friend would have induced me to go away. My whole future in this country depended upon my returning in time to complete certain business.
"So, after dear Lopez was dead, I rushed to the local railroad station. A train was coming in. I searched my pocket for my money to buy my ticket. All I could find was the five-dollar bill!
"It was necessary to return to Chicago; yet I could not lose the bill. A happy thought struck me. I wrote upon the face of it the words you have seen, and paid it to the ticket-agent. I called his attention to the writing and implored him to save the bill if he could until I returned, and if not, to be sure to remember the person he gave it to."
"It does seem funny," said Senhor Poritol, rolling another cigarette, "but you cannot imagine my most frantic desperation. I returned to Chicago and transacted my business. Then I hastened back to the Wisconsin city. Woe is me! The ticket-agent had paid the bill to a Chicago citizen. I secured the name of this man and finally found him at his office on La Salle Street. Alas! he, too, had spent the bill, but I tracked it from person to person, until now, my dear sir, I have found it? So——" he paused and looked eloquently at Orme.
"Do you know a man named Evans?" Orme asked.
Senhor Poritol looked at him in bewilderment.
"S. R. Evans," insisted Orme.
"Why, no, dear sir—I think not—But what has that to do——?"
Orme pushed a sheet of paper across the table. "Oblige me, Senhor Poritol. Print in small capitals the name, 'S. R. Evans.'"
Senhor Poritol was apparently reluctant. However, under the compulsion of Orme's eye, he finally took out his fountain-pen and wrote the name in flowing script. He then pushed the paper back toward Orme, with an inquiring look.
"No, that isn't what I mean," exclaimed Orme. "Print it. Print it in capital letters."
Senhor Poritol slowly printed out the name.
Orme took the paper, laying it before him. He then produced the coveted bill from his pocket-book. Senhor Poritol uttered a little cry of delight and stretched forth an eager hand, but Orme, who was busily comparing the letters on the paper with the letters on the bill, waved him back.
After a few moments Orme looked up. "Senhor Poritol," he said, "why didn't you write the secret on a time-table, or on your ticket, before you gave the bill to the agent?"
Senhor Poritol was flustered. "Why," he said uncertainly, "I did not think of that. How can we explain the mistakes we make in moments of great nervousness?"
"True," said Orme. "But one more point. You did not yourself write your friend's secret on the bill. The letters which you have just printed are differently made."
Senhor Poritol said nothing. He was breathing hard.
"On the other hand," continued Orme, turning the bill over and eyeing the inscription on its face, "your mistake in first writing the name instead of printing it, shows me that you did write the words on the face of the bill." He returned the bill to his pocket-book. "I can't give you the bill," he said. "Your story doesn't hold together."
With a queer little scream, the South American bounded from his chair and flung himself at Orme. He struck no blow, but clawed desperately at Orme's pocket. The struggle lasted only for a moment. Orme, seizing the little man by the collar, dragged him, wriggling, to the door.
"Now get out," said Orme. "If I find you hanging around, I'll have you locked up."
Senhor Poritol whispered: "It is my secret. Why should I tell you the truth about it? You have no right to know."
Orme retained his hold. "I don't like your looks, my friend," he said. "There may have been reason why you should lie to me, but you will have to make things clear." He considered. After all, he must make allowance; so he said: "Come back to-morrow with evidence that you are entitled to the bill, and you shall have it." He released Senhor Poritol.
The little man had recovered his composure. He went back to the table and took up his hat and cane, refolding the handkerchief and slipping it into his pocket. Once more he was the Latin fop. He approached Orme, and his manner was deprecatory.
"My most abject apologies for attacking you, sir. I was beside myself. But if you will only permit me, I will bring up my friend, who is waiting below. He will, as you say, vouch for me."
"Who is he?"
"A very, very distinguished man."
Orme pondered. The adventure was opening up, and he felt inclined to see it through. "Bring him," he said shortly.
When Senhor Poritol had disappeared Orme telephoned to the clerk. "Send me up a porter," he ordered, "and have him stand just outside my door, with orders to enter if he hears any disturbance." He waited at the door till the porter appeared, then told him to remain in a certain place until he was needed, or until the visitors left.
Senhor Poritol remained downstairs for several minutes. Evidently he was explaining the situation to his friend. But after a time Orme heard the clang of the elevator door, and in response to the knock that quickly followed, he opened his own door. At the side of his former visitor stood a dapper foreigner. He wore a long frock coat and carried a glossy hat, and his eyes were framed by large gold spectacles.
"This is the Senhor Alcatrante," explained Senhor Poritol.
The newcomer bowed with suave dignity.
"Senhor Alcatrante? The name is familiar," said Orme, smiling.
Poritol assumed an air. "He is the minister from my country to these United States."
Orme understood. This was the wary South American diplomat whose name had lately been so prominent in the Washington dispatches. What was he doing in Chicago?
"I am glad to meet you," said Orme.
Alcatrante smiled, displaying a prominent row of uneven teeth.
"My young friend, Poritol," he began, "tells me that you have in your possession the record of a secret belonging to him. What that secret is, is immaterial to you and me, I take it. He is an honorable young man—excitable, perhaps, but well-meaning. I would suggest that you give him the five-dollar bill he desires, accepting from him another in exchange. Or, if you still doubt him, permit me to offer you a bill from my own pocket." He drew out a fat wallet.
The situation appeared to be simplified. And yet Orme was dubious. There was mischief in the bill; so much he felt sure of. Alcatrante's reputation was that of a fox, and as for Poritol, he was, to say the least, a person of uncertain qualities. Orme could not but admire the subtle manner in which Alcatrante sought delicately to limit his doubts to the mere possibility that Poritol was trying to pass spurious money. He decided not to settle the question at this moment.
"This seems to be rather a mixed-up affair, Senhor Alcatrante," he said. "There is much more in it than appears. Call on me to-morrow morning, and you shall have my decision."
Alcatrante and Poritol looked at each other. The minister spoke:
"Will you engage not to give the bill to anyone else in the interval?"
"I will promise that," said Orme. "It is only fair. Yes, I will keep the bill until to-morrow morning."
"One other suggestion," continued Alcatrante. "You may not be willing to give up the bill, but is there any reason why you should refuse to let Senhor Poritol copy the writing that is on it?"
"Only my determination to think the whole matter over before I do anything at all," Orme replied.
"But the bill came into your hands by chance," insisted the minister. "The information means nothing to you, though obviously it means a great deal to my young friend, here. May I ask what right you have to deny this request?"
"What right?" Orme's eyes narrowed. "My right is that I have the bill and the information, and I intend to understand the situation better before I give the information to anyone else."
"But you recognized Senhor Poritol's handwriting on the bill," exclaimed the minister.
"On the face of it, yes. He did not write the abbreviations on the back."
"Abbreviations!" exclaimed Poritol.
"Please let the matter rest till morning," said Orme stubbornly. "I have told you just what I would do."
Poritol opened his mouth, to speak, but Alcatrante silenced him with a frown. "Your word is sufficient, Mr. Orme," he said. "We will call to-morrow morning. Is ten o'clock too early?"
"Not at all," said Orme. "Doubtless I shall be able to satisfy you. I merely wish to think it over."
With a formal bow, Alcatrante turned to the door and departed, Poritol following.
Orme strolled back to his window and stood idly watching the lights of the vessels on the lake. But his mind was not on the unfolded view before him. He was puzzling over this mystery in which he had so suddenly become a factor. Unquestionably, the five-dollar bill held the key to some serious problem.
Surely Alcatrante had not come merely as the friend of Poritol, for the difference in the station of the two South Americans was marked. Poritol was a cheap character—useful, no doubt, in certain kinds of work, but vulgar and unconvincing. He might well be one of those promoters who hang on at the edge of great projects, hoping to pick up a commission here and there. His strongest point was his obvious effort to triumph over his own insignificance, for this effort, by its comic but desperate earnestness, could not but command a certain degree of respect.
Alcatrante, on the other hand, was a name to make statesmen knit their brows. A smooth trouble-maker, he had set Europe by the ears in the matter of unsettled South American loans, dexterously appealing to the much-overworked Monroe Doctrine every time his country was threatened by a French or German or British blockade. But his mind was of no small caliber. He could hold his own not only at his own game of international chess, but in the cultured discussion of polite topics. Orme knew of him as a clever after-dinner speaker, a man who could, when he so desired, please greatly by his personal charm.
No, Alcatrante was no friend of Poritol's; nor was it likely that, as protector of the interests of his countrymen, he would go so far as to accompany them on their errands unless much was at stake. Perhaps Poritol was Alcatrante's tool and had bungled some important commission. It occurred to Orme that the secret of the bill might be connected with the negotiation of a big business concession in Alcatrante's country. "S. R. Evans" might be trying to get control of rubber forests or mines—in the Urinaba Mountains, perhaps, after all.
In any event, he felt positive that the secret of the bill did not rightfully belong to Poritol. If the bill had been in his possession, he should have been able to copy the abbreviated message. Indeed, the lies that he had told were all against the notion of placing any confidence in him. The two South Americans were altogether too eager.
Orme decided to go for a walk. He could think better in the open air. He took up his hat and cane, and descended in the elevator.
In the office the clerk stopped him.
"A man called to see you a few minutes ago, Mr. Orme. When I told him that you were engaged with two visitors he went away."
"Did he leave his name?" asked Orme.
"No, sir. He was a Japanese."
Orme nodded and went on out to the street. What could a Japanese want of him?
Orme walked north along the Lake Shore Drive. As best he could, he pieced together the curious adventures of the day. The mystery of the five-dollar bill and the extreme anxiety of Poritol seemed to be complicated by the appearance of the Japanese at the Pere Marquette. Orme sought the simplest explanation. He knew that mysterious happenings frequently become clear when one definitely tries to fit them into the natural routine of every-day life. The Japanese, he mused, was probably some valet out of a job. But how could he have learned Orme's name. Possibly he had not known it; the clerk might have given it to him. The incident hardly seemed worth second thought, but he found himself persistently turning to one surmise after another concerning the Japanese. For Orme was convinced that he stood on the edge of a significant situation.
Suddenly he took notice of a figure a short distance ahead of him. This man—apparently very short and stocky—was also going northward, but he was moving along in an erratic manner. At one moment he would hurry his steps, at the next he would almost stop. Evidently he was regulating his pace with a purpose.
Orme let his eyes travel still farther ahead. He observed two men actively conversing. From time to time their discussion became so animated that they halted for a moment and faced each other, gesticulating rapidly. Every time they halted, the single figure nearer to Orme slowed down his own pace.
The oblivious couple came under a street lamp and again turned toward each other. Their profiles were distinct. Orme had already suspected their identity, for both had high hats and carried canes, and one of them was in a sack suit, while the other wore a frock coat. And now the profiles verified the surmise. There was no mistaking the long, tip-tilted nose of the shorter man and the glinting spectacles of the other. The two were Poritol and Alcatrante.
But who was the man trailing them? A friendly guard? Or a menacing enemy? Orme decided to shadow the shadow.
At a corner not far from the entrance to Lincoln Park, Poritol and Alcatrante became so apparently excited that they stood, chattering volubly for several minutes. The shadow stopped altogether. He folded his arms and looked out over the lake like any casual wanderer, but now and then he turned his head toward the others. He seemed to be indifferent to what they were saying, though he was near enough to them to catch fragments of their conversation, if he so desired. The South Americans were probably talking in that dialect of Portuguese which their nation has developed.
Meantime Orme also stopped, taking up a position like that of the shadow. He saw Poritol, with outstretched, questioning hands, his eyes fixed on the face of Alcatrante, who seemed to be delivering orders. The flashing reflections of light from the minister's spectacles indicated his authoritative nods of the head.
After a time Alcatrante evidently completed his instructions. He removed his hat and bowed formally. Little Poritol echoed the salute and, turning, shot off down a side street, with ridiculously rapid movements of his short legs. Orme inferred that he was bound for the North Clark Street car line. Alcatrante continued along the drive.
When the South Americans separated, the shadow quickly came to life. He hesitated for an instant, as if in doubt which of the two to follow, then decided in favor of Alcatrante, who was moving in leisurely fashion toward the park entrance, his head bowed in thought. Orme found himself wondering what snaky plots were winding through that dark mind.
The procession of three silently entered the park. The shadow was about a hundred feet behind Alcatrante. Orme kept the same distance between himself and the shadow.
The minister was in no hurry. Indifferent to his surroundings he made his way, with no apparent interest in the paths he took. At last he turned into a dark stretch and for the moment was lost to sight in the night.
Suddenly the shadow darted forward. Orme hurried his own pace, and in a moment he heard the sounds of a short, sharp struggle—a scuffling of feet in the gravel, a heavy fall. There was no outcry.
Orme broke into a run. At a point where the path was darkest he checked himself for an instant. A little distance ahead a man lay flat on the ground, and bending over him was a short, stocky figure.
Orme leaped forward and swung his cane. The stick was tough and the blow was hard enough to send a man to earth, but the robber had heard Orme's approach, and looked up from his victim just in time. With a motion indescribably swift, he caught with one hand the descending cane and wrenched it from Orme's grasp. Then he crouched to spring.
At this instant Orme heard footsteps behind him. A turn of the head showed a threatening figure at his back. There had been four men in that procession through the park!
By a quick leap to one side, Orme placed himself for the moment out of danger. His two assailants, moving too fast to stop, bumped together. They faced about for another spring at him. And then there was a short scratching sound, and in the hand of the man on the ground flared a match.
"Ha!" exclaimed the prostrate Alcatrante, "I thought so!"
Orme found himself looking into the contorted faces of two Japanese.
Discovery was evidently the last thing the hold-up men desired, for they disappeared like a flash, diving through the shrubbery behind them. Orme, dazed and breathing hard, attempted no immediate pursuit. He stepped quickly to Alcatrante and helped him to his feet.
"I am not hurt," said the South American. "When the man threw me to the ground, I feigned that I was stunned. It is wiser not to resist a thug, is it not so?" He brushed the dust from his clothing with his handkerchief. Orme handed him his hat, which had rolled to one side. The minister rubbed it carefully with his coat-sleeve. "See," he laughed, nodding at the ground, "my cane is broken. I must have fallen on it."
"Since you're not hurt," said Orme, "we'd better get after the thieves."
"Bah!" replied Alcatrante. "What is the use? They are already far away—and they got nothing." He laughed. "Is it not always better to avoid notoriety, Mr. Orme?"
"As a rule, no doubt—but in this instance——"
"No," said Alcatrante firmly, "I really must insist that we let the matter drop. As for me, I shall return to my hotel. Perhaps you will walk along with me."
Orme hesitated. "I don't like those thieves to get off without a chase, senhor."
"But, my dear Mr. Orme, they did me no harm."
Orme shrugged his shoulders. "You forget that there was one after me as well as one after you."
"No, I don't forget that. But don't you see, Mr. Orme? Those two men were not after our valuables."
"Not at all. What they would like is my little friend Poritol's secret."
"But why Japanese?" Orme was puzzled.
"Why, indeed? A cunning Japanese might as easily have got wind of it as anyone else."
"But why did you say, 'I thought so'?" persisted Orme.
"Did I say that? It must have been because I suspected that only a Japanese could be so agile as my assailant. But all this is immaterial. I should have warned you that Poritol's secret is dangerous. You should not have left your apartments."
"Well, this certainly is a queer kettle of fish," muttered Orme. He was beginning to feel disgusted with the situation. He did not like Alcatrante's oily smoothness, and he wondered whether it would not have been better to hand the bill over to Poritol at the first demand. But it came to his mind that in a certain degree he stood committed to continue the policy he had adopted. He had sought adventure; it was coming to him in full measure.
Together they walked back toward the park entrance. The minister seemingly exerted himself to regain the ground he had lost with Orme. He proved an interesting conversationalist—keen, slightly cynical, but not without an under-note of earnestness.
"You have seen me much abused by your press, Mr. Orme," he said. "That is natural. I have the interests of my own country to protect, and those interests are of necessity sometimes opposed to the interests of other countries. But if your people would be even more patient with us—all we need is time. There is reason for our persistent to-morrow; for we are young, and it is a slow process to realize on our resources. That is why we do not pay our debts more promptly."
Orme said nothing, but he thought of looted South American treasuries, of exiled presidents squandering their official stealings at Paris and Monte Carlo, of concessions sold and sold again to rival foreign companies.
They had now reached the park entrance. "There is a cab," said Alcatrante. "You will ride with me as far as your hotel?"
"Thank you, no," said Orme. "I rather need the walk."
Alcatrante smiled persuasively. "Permit me to urge you. If you should be robbed, my little friend might lose his precious secret. Poor boy!" he added. "His father was my friend, and I cannot refuse him a service."
The cab had swung around to the curb beside them. Orme had no fear of robbery on the lighted drive, but since Alcatrante was so insistent he felt inclined to yield. He might as well ride; so he permitted the minister to bow him into the cab, and presently they were whirling along southward. There was a period of silence. Then Alcatrante spoke meditatively.
"You see how it happened, I suppose," he said. "Those Japanese were waiting outside your hotel. When Poritol and I came out, one of them followed us, while the other remained on guard. Then you started on your stroll, and the man who remained on guard set out after you."
"Yes," said Orme, "but I don't see how the fellow could have known who I was."
Alcatrante laughed. "Oh, he could have placed you in a number of different ways. He may have got your description from one of the servants—or from the clerk. But it is enough that he did know you."
"Well," said Orme, "this is beyond me. That five-dollar bill seems to be very much desired by different groups of persons."
Alcatrante nodded. "I am not sure," he said slowly, "but that it would ease young Poritol's mind if you would place the bill in my hands for safekeeping. Not that he mistrusts you, Mr. Orme, but he imagines that you may not realize how important it is to him, and you might not guard it carefully."
"I agreed to keep it until to-morrow," said Orme, quietly. "As for thieves, my apartment is on the tenth floor, pretty well out of their reach. The only danger of robbery lies between the cab and the hotel office.
"I know, I know," chuckled Alcatrante. "It is, of course, as you will. I was merely thinking of my young friend's peace of mind. I am his fellow-countryman, you see, and his confidence in me——" he stopped, with another chuckle. "Singular, is it not, how impressionable are the young?"
Orme said nothing. He did not enjoy this fencing.
"Look at the lake," Alcatrante suddenly exclaimed. "How beautiful an expanse of water. It has so much more color than the sea. But you should see our wonderful harbor of Rio, Mr. Orme. Perhaps some day I shall be permitted to show you its magnificences."
"Who knows?" said Orme. "It would be very pleasant."
"As to the bill," continued Alcatrante quickly, "do you care to give it to me?"
Orme felt himself frowning. "I will keep it till the morning," he said.
"Oh, well, it is of no consequence." Alcatrante laughed shortly. "See, here is your hotel. Your company has been a pleasure to me, Mr. Orme. You arrived most opportunely in the park."
Orme jumped to the curb and, turning, shook the hand that was extended to him. "Thank you for the lift, Senhor Alcatrante," he said. "I shall look for you in the morning."
"In the morning—yes. And pray, my dear sir, do not wander in the streets any more this evening. Our experience in the park has made me apprehensive." The minister lifted his hat, and the cab rattled away.
The entrance to the Pere Marquette was a massive gateway, which opened upon a wide tunnel, leading to an interior court. On the farther side of the court were the doors of the hotel lobby. As a rule, carriages drove through the tunnel into the court, but Orme had not waited for this formality.
He started through the tunnel. There was no one in sight. He noted the elaborate terra-cotta decorations of the walls, and marveled at the bad taste which had lost sight of this opportunity for artistic simplicity. But through the opening before him he could see the fountain playing in the center of the court. The central figure of the group, a naiad, beckoned with a hand from which the water fell in a shower. The effect was not so unpleasing. If one wished to be rococo, why not be altogether so? Like the South Americans? Was their elaborate ornamentation plastered on to an inner steel construction? Orme wondered.
Midway of the tunnel, and at the right as one entered, was a door leading into the porter's office. This door was shut, but as Orme approached it, it noiselessly opened out. He expected to see a porter appear, and when no person stepped over the sill, he inferred that the door had been blown open by an interior draught.
Just as he was turning out to go around the the door—which shut off all view of him from the inner court—a figure shot through the opening.
Before Orme could dodge, he was seized firmly by the shoulders and jerked into the room, with a force that sent him staggering. He tripped over a chair and went to the floor, but quickly scrambled to his feet and wheeled about.
Two men stood between him and the door, which had been closed silently and swiftly. They were short and stockily built. Orme exclaimed aloud, for the light that filtered through a window from the street showed two faces unmistakably oriental.
If this was an ordinary robbery, the daring of the robbers was almost incredible. They ran the risk that the porter would return—if they had not already made away with him. Only the most desperate purpose could explain their action.
"What do you want?" demanded Orme.
"Your pocket-book," replied one of the men—"queek!" He smiled an elusive smile as he spoke.
"What if I refuse?" said Orme.
"Then we take. Be queek."
A call for help would hardly bring anyone; but Orme gave a loud cry, more to disconcert his enemies than with any hope of rescue.
At the same instant he rushed toward the door, and struck out at the nearer Japanese.
The blow did not land. His wrist was caught in a grip like an iron clamp, and he found himself performing queer gyrations. The Japanese had turned his back toward Orme and swung the imprisoned arm over his shoulder. A quick lurch forward, and Orme sailed through the air, coming down heavily on his side. His arm was still held, and in a few seconds he was on his back, his assailant astride him and smiling down into his face.
Orme struggled to free himself, and promptly felt a breaking strain on his imprisoned arm. The knee of the Japanese was under the back of Orme's elbow. A moderate use of the leverage thus obtained would snap the arm like a pipe-stem. This Orme realized, as he ceased struggling. The strain on his arm relaxed slightly, but the grip was maintained.
"Jiu-jitsu," explained the Japanese in a tone that sounded gently apologetic.
The other robber now stooped and ran his hands over Orme's coat. Finding the pocket-book, he took it from its inside pocket and went swiftly to a table. He produced from his own pocket a little electric hand-lamp, by the light of which he took rapid count of Orme's money.
His eyes glittered; a wide scar on his forehead stood out whitely. Suddenly he gave a little cry and held up a single bill. He jabbered excitedly to his companion for a moment, then spoke quietly to Orme.
"This all we want," he said. "We are not thief, see—I put other five-dollar bill in its place and leave pocket-book here."
He thrust the selected bill into his pocket, put the fresh bill in the pocket-book, and laid the pocket-book on the table.
"See here," said Orme, still prone, "what's the meaning of all this?"
"Don't say." The Japanese smiled. He went over to the door. "Come," he said. The man astride Orme released his hold and sprang to his feet. Like a flash, both the Japanese disappeared.
Orme jumped up. Seizing his pocket-book and his hat, he darted after his assailants. At the street entrance to the tunnel, he looked quickly in both directions, but his men were not in sight.
Pursuit was futile. Slowly he turned back. He thought of notifying the police, but, after all, he was none the worse off—except for his promise to Poritol and Alcatrante, now involuntarily broken. He must explain to them as best he could. The marked bill had been of no consequence to him except as a focus of adventure. And he had had about as much adventure as he could expect for one evening.
But the secret of the bill still tantalized him. Blindfolded, he had played in a game at which the others saw. It seemed unfair—as if he had some right to know the meaning of all these mysterious incidents. Why had Poritol wanted the bill so badly? Why had the desire to possess it driven the two Japanese to such extreme measures?
Orme crossed the court and entered the lobby. The clerk looked at him curiously.
"Mr. Orme," he said, "there is a young lady in the reception-room, waiting to see you."
"Me?" Orme looked his surprise.
"Yes, sir. She gave no name."
"Has she been waiting long?"
"Nearly an hour."
Without further questioning, Orme turned to the door of the little green-and-gold room. At the threshold he paused in bewilderment. Arising to meet him, smiling frankly, was the girl of the car.
THE GIRL OF THE CAR
"Oh," she said, with a little gasp of recognition, "are you Mr. Orme?" Her cheeks flushed softly.
He bowed; his heart was beating furiously, and for the moment he dared not try to speak.
"Then we do meet again," she exclaimed—"and as usual I need your help. Isn't it queer?"
"Any service that I"—Orme began haltingly—"of course, anything that I can do——"
The girl laughed—a merry ripple of sound; then caught herself and changed her manner to grave earnestness. "It is very important," she said. "I am looking for a five-dollar bill that was paid to you to-day."
Orme started. "What? You, too?"
"I, too? Has—has anybody else——?" Her gravity was more intense.
"Why, yes," said Orme—"a little man from South America."
"Oh,—Mr. Poritol?" Her brows were knit in an adorable frown.
"Yes—and two Japanese."
"Oh!" Her exclamation was apprehensive.
"The Japanese got it," added Orme, ruefully. That she had the right to this information it never occurred to him to question.
The girl stood rigidly. "Whatever shall I do now?" she whispered. "My poor father!"
She looked helplessly at Orme. His self-possession had returned, and as he urged her to a chair, he condemned himself for not guessing how serious the loss of the bill must be to her. "Sit down," he said. "Perhaps I can help. But you see, I know so little of what it all means. Tell me everything you can."
With a sigh, she sank into the chair. Orme stood before her, waiting.
"That bill tells, if I am not mistaken," she said, wearily, "where certain papers have been hidden. My father is ill at our place in the country. He must have those papers before midnight to-morrow, or——" Tears came into her eyes. Orme would have given much for the right to comfort her. "So much depends upon finding them," she added—"more even than I can begin to tell you."
"Let me help," said Orme, eager to follow those papers all over Chicago, if only it would serve her. "Hear my story first." Rapidly he recounted the adventures of the evening. She listened, eyes intent, nodding in recognition of his description of Poritol and Alcatrante. When he came to the account of the fight in the porter's office and spoke of the Japanese with the scar on his forehead, she interrupted.
"Oh! That was Maku," she exclaimed.
"Our butler. He must have overheard my father and me."
"Then he knew the value of the papers."
"He must have. I am sorry, Mr. Orme, that you have been so roughly used."
"That doesn't matter," he said. "They didn't hurt me in the least. And now, what is your story? How did you get on the trail of the bill?"
"We came back from the East a few days ago," she began. "My father had to undergo a slight operation, and he wished to have it performed by his friend, Dr. Allison, who lives here, so we went to our home in—one of the northern suburbs.
"Father could not go back East as soon as he had expected to, and he had the papers sent to him, by special arrangement with the—with the other parties to the contract. Mr. Poritol followed us from the East. I—we had known him there. He was always amusing company; we never took him seriously. He had business here, he said; but on the first day of his arrival he came out to call on us. The next night our house was entered by a burglar. Besides the papers, only a few things were taken."
"Poritol?" exclaimed Orme, incredulously.
"It happened that a Chicago detective had been in our village on business during the day," she went on. "He had recognized on the streets a well-known thief, named Walsh. When we reported the burglary the detective remembered seeing Walsh, and hunted him out and arrested him. In his pockets was some jewelry belonging to me, and in his room the other stolen articles were found—everything except the papers."
"Did you tell the police about the papers?"
"No, it seemed wiser not to. They were in a sealed envelope with—with my father's name on it, and would surely have been returned, if found with the other things. There are reasons why they would have—would try to please my father. We did let them know that an envelope containing something of value had not been recovered, and told them to make a thorough search.
"The afternoon after the burglary the news of Walsh's arrest was telephoned out to us from Chicago. I talked with my father, who was not well enough to leave the house, and it seemed best that someone should go to the county jail and see Walsh and try to get the papers. My father had reasons for not wishing the loss to become known. Only he and I were acquainted with the contents of the envelope; so I insisted on going to Chicago and interviewing the burglar."
She laughed, intercepting Orme's admiring look. "Oh, it was easy enough. I planned to take our lawyer as an escort."
"No, and that is where my troubles really began. Just as I was preparing to go, Mr. Poritol called. I had forgotten that we had asked him out for an afternoon of golf. He is such a funny player.
"As soon as I told him I was going to the Chicago jail to interview a burglar about some stolen goods, he insisted on acting as escort. He was so amusingly persistent that I finally agreed. We set out for the city in my car, not waiting to take a train.
"When we reached the jail I presented a letter which my father had written, and the officials agreed to let me have a private interview with Walsh."
Orme opened his eyes. This girl's father must have considerable influence.
"It is a horrid place, the jail. They took us through a corridor to Walsh's cell, and called him to the grating. I made Mr. Poritol stand back at the other side of the corridor so that he couldn't hear us talk.
"I asked the man what he had done with the papers. He insisted that he had seen none. Then I promised to have him freed, if he would only return them. He looked meditatively over my shoulders and after a moment declined the offer, again insisting that he didn't understand what I was talking about. 'I took the other things, miss,' he said, 'and I suppose I'll get time for it. But so help me, I didn't see no papers.'"
The girl paused and looked at Orme. "This seems like wasting minutes when we might be searching."
Orme was pleased to hear the "we."
"Well," she went on, "I knew that the man was not telling the truth. He was too hesitant to be convincing. So I began to promise him money. At every offer he looked past my shoulder and then repeated his denials. The last time he raised his eyes I had an intuition that something was going on behind me. I turned quickly. There stood Mr. Poritol, extending his fingers in the air and forming his mouth silently into words. He was raising my bids!
"It flashed upon me that the papers would be of immense value to Mr. Poritol—for certain reasons. If only I had thought of it before! I spoke to him sharply and told him to go outside. It always seemed natural to order him about, like a little dog."
"However, little dogs have the sharpest teeth," remarked Orme.
"That is true. He replied that he couldn't think of leaving me alone in such a place. So there was nothing for me to do except to go. I would have to return later without Mr. Poritol. 'Come along,' I said. 'My errand is done.'
"Mr. Poritol smiled at me in a way I didn't like. The burglar, meantime, had gone to a little table at the back of his cell. There was an ink-bottle there and he seemed to be writing. Looking into the cell, Mr. Poritol said: 'The poor fellow has very unpleasant quarters.' Then he said to Walsh: 'Can't we do something to make your enforced stay here more comfortable, my very dear sir?'"
Orme smiled at the unconscious mimicry of her accent.
"Walsh came back to the grating. He held in his hand a five-dollar bill—the one that has made so much trouble. It had been smuggled in to him in some way. 'You might get me some "baccy,"' he said, thrusting the bill through the bars and grinning.
"Now I understood what was going on. I reached for the bill, as though it were intended for me, but Mr. Poritol was quicker. He snatched the bill and put it in his pocket.
"I didn't know what to do. But suddenly Mr. Poritol seemed to be frightened. Perhaps he thought that I would have him arrested, though he might have known that there were reasons why I couldn't. He gave me a panicky look and rushed out of the corridor. Afterward I learned that he told the guard I had sent him on an errand.
"Well"—she sighed—"of course, I followed, after a last glance at Walsh, who was peering through the grating with a look of evil amusement. He must have been well paid, that burglar. But then," she mused, "they could afford it—yes, they could well afford it.
"When I got to the street, Poritol was just disappearing in my car! I can only think that he had lost his head very completely, for he didn't need to take the car. He could have mixed with the street-crowd and gone afoot to the hotel where——"
"Yes, Mr. Alcatrante—where he was stopping, and have waited there. But Mr. Alcatrante was playing golf at Wheaton, and Mr. Poritol seems to have thought that he must go straight to him. He cannot escape from being spectacular, you see.
"He ran out through the western suburbs, putting on more and more speed. Meantime I set a detective on the track of the car. That is how I learned what I am now telling you. As for the car, Mr. Poritol sent it back to me this morning with a hired chauffeur. He wrote a note of abject apology, saying that he had been beside himself and had not realized what he was doing.
"After setting the detective at work, I went out to our place by train. I dreaded confessing my failure to father, but he took it very well. We had dinner together in his study. Maku was in the room while we were talking. Now I can see why Maku disappeared after dinner and did not return."
"But how did Poritol lose the bill?" asked Orme.
The girl laughed. "It was really ridiculous. He over-speeded and was caught by one of those roadside motor-car traps, ten or twelve miles out in the country. They timed him, and stopped him by a bar across the road. From what the detective says, I judge he was frightened almost to speechlessness. He may have thought that he was being arrested for stealing the car. When they dragged him before the country justice, who was sitting under a tree near by, he was white and trembling.
"They fined him ten dollars. He had in his pocket only eleven dollars and sixty-three cents, and the marked bill was nearly half of the sum. He begged them to let him go—offered them his watch, his ring, his scarf-pin—but the justice insisted on cash. Then he told them that the bill had a formula on it that was valuable to him and no one else.
"The justice was obdurate, and Mr. Poritol finally hit on the device which you have seen. It fitted in well with his sense of the theatrical; and the detective says that there was not a scrap of paper at hand. The point was that Mr. Poritol was more afraid of delay than anything else. He knew that I would put someone on his track."
"When did all this happen?" asked Orme.
"Yesterday afternoon. Mr. Poritol came back to Chicago by trolley and got some money. He went back to the country justice and discovered that the marked bill had been paid out. He has followed it through several persons to you, just as Maku did, and as I have done. But I heard nothing of the Japanese."
"You shouldn't have attempted this alone," said Orme, solicitously.
She smiled faintly. "I dared not let anyone into the secret. I was afraid that a detective might learn too much." She sighed wearily. "I have been on the trail since morning."
"And how did you finally get my address?"
"The man who paid the bill in at the hat-shop lives in Hyde Park. I did not get to him until this evening, while he was at dinner. He directed me to the hat-shop, which, of course, was closed. I found the address of the owner of the shop in the directory and went to his house. He remembered the bill, and gave me the addresses of his two clerks. The second clerk I saw proved to be the one who had paid the bill to you. Luckily he remembered your address."
Orme stirred himself. "Then the Japanese have the directions for finding the papers."
"My predicament," said the girl, "is complicated by the question whether the bill does actually carry definite directions."
"It carries something—a set of abbreviations," said Orme. "But I could not make them out. Let us hope that the Japanese can't. The best course for us to take is to go at once to see Walsh, the burglar."
He assumed that she would accept his aid.
"That is good of you," she said. "But it seems a little hopeless, doesn't it?"
"Why? What else can we do? I suppose you saw to it that no one else should have access to Walsh."
"Yes, father arranged that by telephone. The man is in solitary confinement. Several persons tried to see him to-day, on the plea of being relatives. None of them was admitted."
What money-king was this girl's father, that he could thus regulate the treatment of prisoners?
"So there were abbreviations on the bill?" she asked.
"Yes. They weren't very elaborate, and I puzzled over them for some time. The curious fact is that, for all my study of them, I can't remember much of anything about them. What I have since been through, apparently, has driven the letters out of my head."
"Oh, do try to remember," she implored. "Even if you recall only one or two bits of it, they may help me."
"There was something about a man named Evans," he began. "S. R. Evans, it was."
"Evans? That is strange. I can't think how anyone of that name could be involved."
"Then S. R. Evans is not your father?" he ventured.
"Oh, no." She laughed a light little laugh. "My father is—but are you sure that the name was Evans?"
"Quite sure. Then there was the abbreviation 'Chi.'—which I took to mean 'Chicago.'"
"Yes?" she breathed.
"And there were numerals—a number, then the letter 'N.'; another number, followed by the letter 'E.' So far north, so far east, I read it—though I couldn't make out whether the numbers stood for feet or paces or miles."
"Yes, yes," she whispered. Her eyes were intent on his. They seemed to will him to remember. "What else was there?"
"Odd letters, which meant nothing to me. It's annoying, but I simply can't recall them. Believe me, I should like to."
"Perhaps you will a little later," she said. "I'm sorry to be such a bother to you."
"But it does mean so much, the tracing of this bill."
"Shall we go to see Walsh?" he asked.
"I suppose so." She sighed. Apparently she was discouraged. "But even if he gives the information, it may be too late. The Japanese have the directions."
"But perhaps they will not be able to make them out," he suggested.
She smiled. "You don't know the Japanese," she said. "They are abominably clever at such things. I will venture that they are already on their way to the hiding-place."
"But even if the papers are in the pocket of one of them, it may be possible to steal them back."
"Hardly." She arose. "I fear that the one chance is the mere possibility that Maku couldn't read the directions. Then, if Walsh will speak out——"
"Now, let me say something," he said. "My name is Robert Orme. Apparently we have common friends in the Wallinghams. When I first saw you this afternoon, I felt that I might have a right to your acquaintance—a social right, if you like; a sympathetic right, I trust."
He held out his hand. She took it frankly, and the friendly pressure of her fine, firm palm sent the blood tingling through him.
"I am sorry," she said, "that I can't give you my name. It would be unfair just now—unfair to others; for if you knew who I am, it might give you a clue to the secret I guard."
"Some day, I hope, I may know," he said gravely. "But your present wish is my law. It is good of you to let me try to help you."
At the same instant they became conscious that their hands were still clasped. The girl blushed, and gently drew hers away.
"I shall call you Girl," Orme added.
"A name I like," she said. "My father uses it. Oh, if I only knew what that burglar wrote on the bill!"
Orme started. What a fool he had been! Here he was, trying to help the girl, forcing her to the long, tired recital of her story, when all the time he held her secret in the table in his sitting-room. For there was still the paper on which he had copied the abbreviated directions.
"Wait here," he said sharply, and without answering the look of surprise on her face, hurried from the room and to the elevator. A few moments later he was back, the sheet of paper in his hand.
"I can't forgive my own stupidity," he said. "While I was puzzling over the bill this evening I copied the secret on a sheet of paper. When Poritol came I put it away in a drawer and forgot all about it. But here it is." He laid the paper on the little, useless onyx table that stood beside her chair.
She snatched it quickly and began to examine it closely.
"Perhaps you can imagine how those letters puzzled me," he volunteered.
"Hush!" she exclaimed; and then: "Oh, this is plain. You wouldn't know, of course, but I see it clearly. There is no time to lose."
"You are going to follow this clue now—to-night?"
"Maku will read it on the bill, and—oh, these Japanese! If you have one in your kitchen, you never know whether he's a jinriksha man, a college student, or a vice-admiral."
"You will let me go with you?" Orme was trembling for the answer. He was still in the dark, and did not know how far she would feel that she could accept his aid.
"I may need you, Mr. Orme," she said simply.
It pleased him that she brought up no question of possible inconvenience to him. With her, he realized, only direct relations were possible.
"How much of a journey is it?" he ventured to ask.
"Not very long. I intend to be mysterious about it." She smiled brightly. Her face had lighted up wonderfully since he gave her the paper that contained the secret of the bill.
But he knew that she must be tired; so he said: "Can't you send me alone on this errand? It may be late before it is done, and——"
"And I will not sit and rest while you do all the work. Besides, I cannot forego the excitement of the chase."
He was selfishly glad in her answer. "Do we walk?" he asked.
"We will go in the motor," she said.
"Where is it?"
"I left it around the corner. The thought came to me that Mr. Poritol might be here, and I didn't wish him to recognize it."
Orme thought of the hard quest the girl had followed that day—battling for her father's interests. What kind of a man could that father be to let his daughter thus go into difficulties alone? But she had said that her father was unable to leave the house. Probably he did not know how serious the adventure might be. Or was the loss of the papers so desperate that even a daughter must run risks?
Together they went out to the street. Orme caught a dubious glance from the clerk, as they passed through the lobby, and he resented it. Surely anyone could see——
The girl led the way around the corner into a side street. There stood the car. He helped her in and without a word saw that she was restfully and comfortably placed in the seat next to the chauffeur's. She did not resist the implication of his mastery.
He cranked up, leaped to the seat beside her, and took the levers. "Which way, Girl?" he asked.
"North," she answered.
The big car swung out in the Lake Shore Drive and turned in the direction of Lincoln Park.
"EVANS, S. R."
The car ran silently through the Park and out on the broad Sheridan Road. Orme put on as much speed as was safe in a district where there were so many police. From time to time the girl indicated the direction with a word or two. She seemed to be using the opportunity to rest, for her attitude was relaxed.
The hour was about eleven, and the streets were as yet by no means deserted. As they swung along Orme was pleased by the transition from the ugliness of central Chicago to the beauty of suburbs—doubly beautiful by night. The great highway followed the lake, and occasionally, above the muffled hum of the motor, Orme could hear the lapping of the wavelets on the beach.
The girl roused herself. Her bearing was again confident and untired. "Have you been up this way before?" she asked.
"This is Buena Park we are passing now. We shall soon reach the city limits."
Clouds had been gathering, and suddenly raindrops began to strike their faces. The girl drew her cloak more closely about her. Orme looked to see that she was protected, and she smiled back with a brave attempt at cheerful comradeship. "Don't worry about me," she said. "I'm quite dry." With that she leaned back and drew from the tonneau a light robe, which she threw about his shoulders.
The act was an act of partnership merely, but Orme let himself imagine an evidence of solicitude in her thoughtfulness. And then he demanded of himself almost angrily: "What right have I to think such thoughts? She has known me only an hour."
But to him that hour was as a year, so rich was its experience. He found himself recalling her every change of expression, her every characteristic gesture. "She has accepted me as a friend," he thought, warmly. But the joy of the thought was modified by the unwelcome reflection that the girl had had no choice. Still, he knew that, at least, she trusted him, or she would never have let him accompany her, even though she seriously needed protection.
They were passing a great cemetery. The shower had quickly ended. The white stones and monuments fled by the car like dim and frightened ghosts. And now the car swung along with fine houses, set back in roomy grounds, at the left, the lake at the right.
"Do you know this city?" the girl asked.
"I think not. Have we passed the Chicago limits?"
"Yes. We are in Evanston."
"Evanston!" Orme had a glimmer.
The girl turned and smiled at him. "Evanston—Sheridan Road."
"Evans,—S. R.!" exclaimed Orme.
She laughed a low laugh. "Ah, Monsieur Dupin!" she said.
Speeding along the lake front, the road turned suddenly to the left and west, skirting a large grove of trees which hugged the shore. Just at the turn was a low brick building on the beach. "The life-saving station," explained the girl; "and these are the grounds of the university. The road goes around the campus, and strikes the lake again a mile or more farther north."
Large buildings were at their right after they turned. Orme noted that they were scattered among the trees—some near the street, some at a distance back. Then the road again turned to the north, at a point where less imposing streets broke in from the west and south.
"Stop at this corner," said the girl.
Orme threw on the brakes.
"We are in Evanston, on the Sheridan Road," she said, "and this street cutting in from the south is Chicago Avenue."
"'Chi. A.'!" exclaimed Orme.
She had taken the paper from the pocket of her coat, and was scanning it closely. "One hundred paces north and two hundred and ten east. 'T.' must mean 'tree.'"
Orme jumped to the ground. He noticed that the university grounds were cut off from the street by an iron fence. There was a gate at the corner by which they had stopped. The gate was not closed. If it were customary to shut it at night, there had been some neglect on this particular evening.
"You'd better go in through the gate," said the girl, "and follow the west fence northward for one hundred paces. Then turn east, at right angles and go two hundred and ten paces—I suppose it must be paces, not feet."
"Yes," said Orme. "That would be the natural way for a burglar in a hurry to measure."
"I will move the car north on Sheridan Road a little way," she went on, "so as not to be in the glare of this street light."
This was the first evidence she had shown of nervousness, and Orme suddenly realized that enemies might be lurking among the trees.
"It might be well for you to take the electric hand-lamp," she added. "It's in the kit-box, I think."
He looked in the kit-box, but the lamp was not there. He told her so.
"Maku may have stolen it," she said.
Orme slipped a heavy wrench into his pocket and closed the kit-box. With the girl, he avoided any reference to the possible presence of the Japanese among the trees, but knowing that he was no match for them unarmed, with their skill in jiu-jitsu, he resolved to be in some measure prepared.
He walked through the gate and began to pace northward, keeping close to the fence and counting his steps. Meantime the car followed his course, moving along the side of the road just west of the fence. Orme counted his hundred paces north, then turned east.
He saw that the two hundred and ten paces which he now had to take would carry him well over toward the lake. The girl evidently had not realized how great the distance would be. She would be nearer him, if she turned back to the corner and followed the Sheridan Road eastward toward the life-saving station, but Orme did not suggest this to her, though the car was within twenty feet of him, the other side of the fence. If there should be a struggle, it would please him just as well that she should be out of hearing, for her anxiety, he knew, was already great, though she kept it closely under control.
Eastward he went through the trees. When he had covered about half the distance he found himself approaching the side of a large building. There must be some mistake. Had he deviated so widely from the course? In leaving the fence he had taken sights as carefully as he could.
Then the explanation struck him. Walsh, the burglar, had probably paced in eastward from the fence and come to the building just as he had. There was no good hiding-place apparent near at hand, and Walsh would hardly have retraced his steps. What, then, would he have done? Orme asked himself. Why, he would have turned north or south.
Orme looked in both directions. North and south of the building were open driveways. Walsh must have gone around the building, then continued eastward. This is what Orme now proceeded to do.
Remembering the number of paces to the side of the building, he chose the northward course, because there was less light north of the building. He hugged the side of the building, counting his steps, and, after reaching the corner, turned eastward. He now counted his paces along the northern side of the building.
When he reached the corner of the eastern side of the building, he paced as far southward on the eastern side as he had gone northward on the western side, and on reaching a point due east of the place at which he had originally come to the building, he added the number of paces from the fence to the building to the number of paces he had taken along the northern side of the building, and continued eastward toward the lake.
At the two hundredth pace he stopped to reconnoiter. Not more than two hundred feet ahead of him he could see dimly, through the tree trunks, the expanse of the lake. There was no sound, no evidence that any other person was near.
He proceeded cautiously for ten paces. Many trees were near him. He would have to examine all of them, for it was hardly possible that he had followed Walsh's course with unerring exactness. If the tree was within twenty feet of him north or south, that was as much as he could expect.
One thing was clear to him. Walsh had probably chosen a tree that could easily be distinguished from the others, either by its size or by some peculiarity of form. Also, the tree must have a hollow place in which the envelope could be concealed. Orme now decided that Walsh must have found his tree first and then paced westward to the fence. The even number, one hundred paces north from the gate, could be only a coincidence.
A little to his left Orme discovered a trunk much larger than its neighbors. It ran up smoothly about eight feet to the first limb. An agile man could easily get up to this limb and pull himself into the branches. A cavity such as are so common in oaks, would furnish a good place for hiding the envelope away.
He looked up. Suddenly a light appeared among the branches. It was a short ray, striking against the trunk. Before Orme could realize what was happening a hand appeared in the little bar of radiance and was inserted apparently into the trunk of the tree. A moment later it was withdrawn. It held an oblong of white.
Involuntarily Orme took a step forward. A twig cracked under his foot. Instantly the light went out.
Orme drew the wrench from his pocket and stood tense. There was no other tree quite close enough for the man above him to spring to its branches. He would have to drop near Orme.
Standing there, the wrench in his hand, Orme felt that the advantage was his. He heard rustlings in the branches above his head and kept himself alert to guard against the man dropping on his shoulders.
To strike the Japanese down as he dropped from the tree, that was his plan. But meantime, where was the other Japanese? Was he among the near shadows? If so, he might even now be creeping stealthily toward Orme. The likelihood of such an attack was disconcerting to think of. But as Orme was wondering about it, it occurred to him that the man in the tree would not have gone on guard so quickly, if his confederate were near at hand. It was natural that he should have put the light out, but would he not immediately afterward have given some signal to the friend below? And would he not take it for granted that, were a stranger near, his watcher would have managed to give warning? No, the other Japanese could not be on guard.
Perhaps, thought Orme, only one of them had come on this quest. He hoped that this might be the case. He could deal with one.
The man in the tree was taking his own time to descend. Doubtless he would await a favorable moment, then alighting on the ground as far from Orme as possible, make off at top speed.
But now, to Orme's surprise, a figure swung from the lower branch apparently without haste. Once on the ground, however, the stranger leaped toward Orme.
An intuition led Orme to thrust out his left arm. It was quickly seized, but before the assailant could twist it, Orme struck out with the wrench, which was in his right hand. Swift though the motion was, his opponent threw up his free arm and partly broke the force of the blow. But the wrench reached his forehead nevertheless, and with a little moan, he dropped to the ground in a heap.
As Orme knelt to search the man, another figure swung from the tree and darted northward, disappearing in the darkness. Orme did not pursue—it was useless—but a sickening intuition told him that the man who had escaped was the man who had the envelope.
He struck a match. The man on the ground was moving uneasily and moaning. There was a scar on his forehead. It was Maku.
He went through the unconscious man's pockets. There was no envelope such as he was looking for, but he did find a folded slip of paper which he thrust into his own pocket. A discovery that interested him, though it was not now important, he made by the light of a second match. It was the marked five-dollar bill. He would have liked to take it as a souvenir, if for no other reason, but time was short and Maku, who evidently was not seriously hurt, showed signs of returning consciousness.
Another occurrence also hastened him. A man was strolling along the lake shore, not far away. Orme had not seen his approach, though he was distinctly outlined against the open background of lake and sky. The stranger stopped. The striking of the two matches had attracted his attention.
"Have you lost something?" he called.
"No," Orme replied.
The man started toward Orme, as if to investigate, and then Orme noticed that outlined on his head was a policeman's helmet.