Agatha Webb, by Anna Katharine Green

xxvii

The Adventure of the Scrap of Paper and the Three Words

“What are you trying to do? Why do you fall over a man like that? Are you drunk?”

Sweetwater drew himself up, made a sheepish bow, and muttered pantingly:

“Excuse me, sir. I’m in a hurry; I’m a messenger.”

The man who was not in a hurry seemed disposed to keep him for a moment. He had caught sight of Sweetwater’s eye, which was his one remarkable feature, and he had also been impressed by that word messenger, for he repeated it with some emphasis.

“A messenger, eh? Are you going on a message now?”

Sweetwater, who was anxious to get away from the vicinity of Mr. Stone, shrugged his shoulders in careless denial, and was pushing on when the gentleman again detained him.

“Do you know,” said he, “that I like your looks? You are not a beauty, but you look like a fellow who, if he promised to do a thing, would do it and do it mighty well too.”

Sweetwater could not restrain a certain movement of pride. He was honest, and he knew it, but the fact had not always been so openly recognised.

“I have just earned five dollars by doing a commission for a man,” said he, with a straightforward look. “See, sir. It was honestly earned.”

The man, who was young and had a rather dashing but inscrutable physiognomy, glanced at the coin Sweetwater showed him and betrayed a certain disappointment.

“So you’re flush,” said he. “Don’t want another job?”

“Oh, as to that,” said Sweetwater, edging slowly down the street, “I’m always ready for business. Five dollars won’t last forever, and, besides, I’m in need of new togs.”

“Well, rather,” retorted the other, carelessly following him. “Do you mind going up to Boston?”

Boston! Another jump toward home.

“No,” said Sweetwater, hesitatingly, “not if it’s made worth my while. Do you want your message delivered to-day?”

“At once. That is, this evening. It’s a task involving patience and more or less shrewd judgment. Have you these qualities, my friend? One would not judge it from your clothes.”

“My clothes!” laughed Sweetwater. Life was growing very interesting all at once. “I know it takes patience to WEAR them, and as for any lack of judgment I may show in their choice, I should just like to say I did not choose them myself, sir; they fell to me promiscuous-like as a sort of legacy from friends. You’ll see what I’ll do in that way if you give me the chance to earn an extra ten.”

“Ah, it’s ten dollars you want. Well, come in here and have a drink and then we’ll see.”

They were before a saloon house of less than humble pretensions, and as he followed the young gentleman in it struck him that it was himself rather than his well-dressed and airy companion who would be expected to drink here. But he made no remark, though he intended to surprise the man by his temperance.

“Now, look here,” said the young gentleman, suddenly seating himself at a dingy table in a very dark corner and motioning Sweetwater to do the same; “I’ve been looking for a man all day to go up to Boston for me, and I think you’ll do. You know Boston?”

Sweetwater had great command over himself, but he flushed slightly at this question, though it was so dark where he sat with this man that it made very little difference.

“I have been there,” said he.

“Very well, then, you will go again to-night. You will arrive there about seven, you will go the rounds of some half-dozen places whose names I will give you, and when you come across a certain gentleman whom I will describe to you, you will give him —”

“Not a package?” Sweetwater broke out with a certain sort of dread of a repetition of his late experience.

“No, this slip on which two words are written. He will want one more word, but before you give it to him you must ask for your ten dollars. You’ll get them,” he answered in response to a glance of suspicion from Sweetwater. Sweetwater was convinced that he had got hold of another suspicious job. It made him a little serious. “Do I look like a go-between for crooks?” he asked himself. “I’m afraid I’m not so much of a success as I thought myself.” But he said to the man before him: “Ten dollars is small pay for such business. Twenty-five would be nearer the mark.”

“Very well, he will give you twenty-five dollars. I forgot that ten dollars was but little in advance of your expenses.”

“Twenty-five if I find him, and he is in funds. What if I don’t?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing?”

“Except your ticket; that I’ll give you.”

Sweetwater did not know what to say. Like the preceding job it might be innocent and it might not. And then, he did not like going to Boston, where he was liable to meet more than one who knew him.

“There is no harm in the business,” observed the other, carelessly, pushing a glass of whiskey which had just been served him toward Sweetwater. “I would even be willing to do it myself, if I could leave New Bedford to-night, but I can’t. Come! It’s as easy as crooking your elbow.”

“Just now you said it wasn’t,” growled Sweetwater, drinking from his glass. “But no matter about that, go ahead, I’ll do it. Shall I have to buy other clothes?”

“I’d buy a new pair of trousers,” suggested the other. “The rest you can get in Boston. You don’t want to be too much in evidence, you know.”

Sweetwater agreed with. him. To attract attention was what he most dreaded. “When does the train start?” he asked.

The young man told him.

“Well, that will give me time to buy what I want. Now, what are your instructions?”

The young man gave him a memorandum, containing four addresses. “You will find him at one of these places,” said he. “And now to know your man when you see him. He is a large, handsome fellow, with red hair and a moustache like the devil. He has been hurt, and wears his left hand in a sling, but he can play cards, and will be found playing cards, and in very good company too. You will have to use your discretion in approaching him. When once he sees this bit of paper, all will be easy. He knows what these two words mean well enough, and the third one, the one that is worth twenty-five dollars to you, is FREDERICK.”

Sweetwater, who had drunk half his glass, started so at this word, which was always humming in his brain, that he knocked over his tumbler and spilled what was left in it.

“I hope I won’t forget that word,” he remarked, in a careless tone, intended to carry off his momentary show of feeling.

“If you do, then don’t expect the twenty-five dollars,” retorted the other, finishing his own glass, but not offering to renew Sweetwater’s.

Sweetwater laughed, said he thought he could trust his memory, and rose. In a half-hour he was at the depot, and in another fifteen minutes speeding out of New Bedford on his way to Boston.

He had had but one anxiety — that Mr. Stone might be going up to Boston too. But, once relieved of this apprehension, he settled back, and for the first time in twelve hours had a minute in which to ask himself who he was, and what he was about. Adventure had followed so fast upon adventure that he was in a more or less dazed condition, and felt as little capable of connecting event with event as if he had been asked to recall the changing pictures of a kaleidoscope. That affair of the packet, now, was it or was it not serious, and would he ever know what it meant or how it turned out?

Like a child who had been given a pebble, and told to throw it over the wall, he had thrown and run, giving a shout of warning, it is true, but not knowing, nor ever likely to know, where the stone had fallen, or what it was meant to do. Then this new commission on which he was bent — was it in any way connected with the other, or merely the odd result of his being in the right place at the right moment? He was inclined to think the latter. And yet how odd it was that one doubtful errand should be followed by another, in a town no larger than New Bedford, forcing him from scene to scene, till he found himself speeding toward the city he least desired to enter, and from which he had the most to fear!

But brooding over a case like this brings small comfort. He felt that he had been juggled with, but he neither knew by whose hand nor in what cause. If the hand was that of Providence, why he had only to go on following the beck of the moment, while if it was that of Fate, the very uselessness of struggling with it was apparent at once. Poor reasoning, perhaps, but no other offered, and satisfied that whatever came his intentions were above question, he settled himself at last for a nap, of which he certainly stood in good need. When he awoke he was in Boston.

The first thing he did was to show his list of addresses and inquire into what quarter they would lead him. To his surprise he found it to be the fashionable quarter. Two of them were names of well-known club-houses, a third that of a first-class restaurant, and the fourth that of a private house on Commonwealth Avenue. Heigho! and he was dressed like a tramp, or nearly so!

“Queer messenger, I, for such kind of work,” thought he. “I wonder why he lighted on such a rough-looking customer. He must have had his reasons. I wonder if he wished the errand to fail. He bore himself very nonchalantly at the depot. When I last saw him his face and attitude were those of a totally unconcerned man. Have I been sent on a fool’s chase after all?”

The absurdity of this conclusion struck him, however, as he reasoned: “Why, then, should he have paid my fare? Not as a benefit to me, of course, but for his own ends, whatever they might be. Let us see, then, what those ends are. So now for the gentleman of the red hair who plays cards with one arm in a sling.”

He thought that he might get entrance into the club-houses easily enough. He possessed a certain amount of insinuation when necessity required, and, if hard-featured, had a good expression which in unprejudiced minds defied criticism. Of porters and doorkeepers he was not afraid, and these were the men he must first encounter.

At the first club-house he succeeded easily enough in getting word with the man waiting in the large hall, and before many minutes learned that the object of his search was not to be found there that evening. He also learned his name, which was a great step towards the success of his embassy. It was Wattles, Captain Wattles, a marked man evidently, even in this exclusive and aristocratic club.

Armed with this new knowledge, he made his way to the second building of the kind and boldly demanded speech with Captain Wattles. But Captain Wattles had not yet arrived and he went out again this time to look him up at the restaurant.

He was not there. As Sweetwater was going out two gentlemen came in, one of whom said to the other in passing:

“Sick, do you say? I thought Wattles was made of iron.”

“So he was,” returned the other, “before that accident to his arm. Now the least thing upsets him. He’s down at Haberstow’s.”

That was all; the door was swung to between them. Sweetwater had received his clew, but what a clew! Haberstow’s? Where was that?

Thinking the bold course the best one, he re-entered the restaurant and approached the gentlemen he had just seen enter.

“I heard you speak the name of Captain Wattles,” said he. “I am hunting for Captain Wattles. Can you tell me where he is?”

He soon saw that he had struck the wrong men for information. They not only refused to answer him, but treated him with open disdain. Unwilling to lose time, he left them, and having no other resource, hastened to the last place mentioned on his list.

It was now late, too late to enter a private house under ordinary circumstances, but this house was lighted up, and a carriage stood in front of it; so he had the courage to run up the steps and consult the large door-plate visible from the sidewalk. It read thus:

HABERSTOW.

Fortune had favoured him better than he expected.

He hesitated a moment, then decided to ring the bell. But before he had done so, the door opened and an old gentleman appeared seeing a younger man out. The latter had his arm in a sling, and bore himself with a fierceness that made his appearance somewhat alarming; the other seemed to be in an irate state of mind.

“No apologies!” the former was saying. “I don’t mind the night air; I’m not so ill as that. When I’m myself again we’ll have a little more talk. My compliments to your daughter, sir. I wish you a very good evening, or rather night.”

The old gentleman bowed, and as he did so Sweetwater caught a glimpse (it was the shortest glimpse in the world) of a sweet face beaming from a doorway far down the hall. There was pain in it and a yearning anxiety that made it very beautiful; then it vanished, and the old gentleman, uttering some few sarcastic words, closed the door, and Sweetwater found himself alone and in darkness.

The kaleidoscope had been given another turn.

Dashing down the stoop, he came upon the gentleman who had preceded him, just as he was seating himself in the carriage.

“Pardon me,” he gasped, as the driver caught up the reins; “you have forgotten something.” Then, as Captain Wattles looked hastily out, “You have forgotten me.”

The oath that rang out from under that twitching red moustache was something to startle even him. But he clung to the carriage window and presently managed to say:

“A messenger, sir, from New Bedford. I have been on the hunt for you for two hours. It won’t keep, sir, for more than a half-hour longer. Where shall I find you during that time?”

Captain Wattles, on whom the name New Bedford seemed to have made some impression, pointed up at the coachman’s box with a growl, in which command mingled strangely with menace. Then he threw himself back. Evidently the captain was not in very good humour.

Sweetwater, taking this as an order to seat himself beside the driver, did so, and the carriage drove off. It went at a rapid pace, and before he had time to propound more than a question or two to the coachman, it stopped before a large apartment-house in a brilliantly lighted street.

Captain Wattles got out, and Sweetwater followed him. The former, who seemed to have forgotten Sweetwater, walked past him and entered the building with a stride and swing that made the plain, lean, insignificant-looking messenger behind him feel smaller than ever. Indeed, he had never felt so small, for not only was the captain a man of superb proportions and conspicuous bearing, but he possessed, in spite of his fiery hair and fierce moustache, that beauté de diable which is at once threatening and imposing. Added to this, he was angry and so absorbed in his own thoughts that he would be very apt to visit punishment of no light character upon anyone who interfered with him. A pleasing prospect for Sweetwater, who, however, kept on with the dogged determination of his character up the first flight of stairs and then up another till they stopped, Captain Wattles first and afterwards his humble follower, before a small door into which the captain endeavoured to fit a key. The oaths which followed his failure to do this were not very encouraging to the man behind, nor was the kick which he gave the door after the second more successful attempt calculated to act in a very reassuring way upon anyone whose future pay for a doubtful task rested upon this man’s good nature.

The darkness which met them both on the threshold of this now open room was speedily relieved by a burst of electric light, that flooded the whole apartment and brought out the captain’s swaggering form and threatening features with startling distinctness. He had thrown off his hat and was relieving himself of a cloak in a furious way that caused Sweetwater to shrink back, and, as the French say, efface himself as much as possible behind a clothes-tree standing near the door. That the captain had entirely forgotten him was evident, and for the present moment that gentleman was too angry to care or even notice if a dozen men stood at the door. As he was talking all this time, or rather jerking out sharp sentences, as men do when in a towering rage, Sweetwater was glad to be left unnoticed, for much can be gathered from scattered sentences, especially when a man is in too reckless a frame of mind to weigh them. He, therefore, made but little movement and listened; and these are some of the ejaculations and scraps of talk he heard:

“The old purse-proud fool! Honoured by my friendship, but not ready to accept me as his daughter’s suitor! As if I would lounge away hours that mean dollars to me in his stiff old drawing-room, just to hear his everlasting drone about stocks up and stocks down, and politics gone all wrong. He has heard that I play cards, and — How pretty she looked! I believe I half like that girl, and when I think she has a million in her own right — Damn it, if I cannot win her openly and with papa’s consent, I will carry her off with only her own. She’s worth the effort, doubly worth it, and when I have her and her money — Eh! Who are you?”

He had seen Sweetwater at last, which was not strange, seeing that he had turned his way, and was within two feet of him.

“What are you doing here, and who let you in? Get out, or —”

“A message, Captain Wattles! A message from New Bedford. You have forgotten, sir; you bade me follow you.”

It was curious to see the menace slowly die out of the face of this flushed and angry man as he met Sweetwater’s calm eye and unabashed front, and noticed, as he had not done at first, the slip of paper which the latter resolutely held out.

“New Bedford; ah, from Campbell, I take it. Let me see!” And the hand which had shook with rage now trembled with a very different sort of emotion as he took the slip, cast his eyes over it, and then looked back at Sweetwater.

Now, Sweetwater knew the two words written on that paper. He could see out of the back of his head at times, and he had been able to make out these words when the man in New Bedford was writing them.

“Happenings; Afghanistan,” with the figures 2000 after the latter.

Not much sense in them singly or in conjunction, but the captain, muttering them over to himself, consulted a little book which he took from his breast pocket and found, or seemed to, a clew to their meaning. It could only have been a partial one, however, for in another instant he turned on Sweetwater with a sour look and a thundering oath.

“Is this all?” he shouted. “Does he call this a complete message?”

“There is another word,” returned Sweetwater, “which he bade me give you by word of mouth; but that word don’t go for nothing. It’s worth just twenty-five dollars. I’ve earned it, sir. I came up from New Bedford on purpose to deliver it to you.”

Sweetwater expected a blow, but he only got a stare.

“Twenty-five dollars,” muttered the captain. “Well, it’s fortunate that I have them. And who are you?” he asked. “Not one of Campbell’s pick-ups, surely?”

“I am a confidential messenger,” smiled Sweetwater, amused against his will at finding a name for himself. “I carry messages and execute commissions that require more or less discretion in the handling. I am paid well. Twenty-five dollars is the price of this job.”

“So you have had the honour of informing me before,” blustered the other with an attempt to hide some serious emotion. “Why, man, what do you fear? Don’t you see I’m hurt? You could knock me over with a feather if you touched my game arm.”

“Twenty-five dollars,” repeated Sweetwater.

The captain grew angrier. “Dash it! aren’t you going to have them? What’s the word?”

But Sweetwater wasn’t going to be caught by chaff.

“C. O. D.,” he insisted firmly, standing his ground, though certain that the blow would now fall. But no, the captain laughed, and tugging away with his one free hand at his pocket, he brought out a pocket-book, from which he managed deftly enough to draw out three bills. “There,” said he, laying them on the table, but keeping one long vigorous finger on them. “Now, the word.”

Sweetwater laid his own hand on the bills.

“Frederick,” said he.

“Ah!” said the other thoughtfully, lifting his finger and proceeding to stride up and down the room. “He’s a stiff one. What he says, he will do. Two thousand dollars! and soon, too, I warrant. Well, I’m in a devil of a fix at last.” He had again forgotten the presence of Sweetwater.

Suddenly he turned or rather stopped. His eye was on the messenger, but he did not even see him. “One Frederick must offset the other,” he cried. “It’s the only loophole out,” and he threw himself into a chair from which he immediately sprang up again with a yell. He had hurt his wounded arm.

Pandemonium reigned in that small room for a minute, then his eye fell again on Sweetwater, who, under the fascination of the spectacle offered him, had only just succeeded in finding the knob of the door. This time there was recognition in his look.

“Wait!” he cried. “I may have use for you too. Confidential messengers are hard to come by, and one that Campbell would employ must be all right. Sit down there! I’ll talk to you when I’m ready.”

Sweetwater was not slow in obeying this command. Business was booming with him. Besides, the name of Frederick acted like a charm upon him. There seemed to be so many Fredericks in the world, and one of them lay in such a curious way near his heart.

Meanwhile the captain reseated himself, but more carefully. He had a plan or method of procedure to think out, or so it seemed, for he sat a long time in rigid immobility, with only the scowl of perplexity or ill-temper on his brow to show the nature of his thoughts. Then he drew a sheet of paper toward him, and began to write a letter. He was so absorbed over this letter and the manipulation of it, having but one hand to work with, that Sweetwater determined upon a hazardous stroke. The little book which the captain had consulted, and which had undoubtedly furnished him with a key to those two incongruous words, lay on the floor not far from him, having been flung from its owner’s hand during the moments of passion and suffering I have above mentioned. To reach this book with his foot, to draw it toward him, and, finally, to get hold of it with his hand, was not difficult for one who aspired to be a detective, and had already done some good work in that direction. But it was harder to turn the leaves and find the words he sought without attracting the attention of his fierce companion. He, however, succeeded in doing this at last, the long list of words he found on every page being arranged alphabetically. It was a private code for telegraphic or cable messages, and he soon found that “Happenings” meant: “Our little game discovered; play straight until I give you the wink.” And that “Afghanistan” stood for: “Hush money.” As the latter was followed by the figures I have mentioned, the purport of the message needed no explanation, but the word “Frederick” did. So he searched for that, only to find that it was not in the book. There was but one conclusion to draw. This name was perfectly well known between them, and was that of the person, no doubt, who laid claim to the two thousand dollars.

Satisfied at holding this clew to the riddle, he dropped the book again at his side and skilfully kicked it far out into the room. Captain Wattles had seen nothing. He was a man who took in only one thing at a time.

The penning of that letter went on laboriously. It took so long that Sweetwater dozed, or pretended to, and when it was at last done, the clock on the mantelpiece had struck two.

“Halloo there, now!” suddenly shouted the captain, turning on the messenger. “Are you ready for another journey?”

“That depends,” smiled Sweetwater, rising sleepily and advancing. “Haven’t got over the last one yet, and would rather sleep than start out again.”

“Oh, you want pay? Well, you’ll get that fast enough if you succeed in your mission. This letter” he shook it with an impatient hand —“should be worth two thousand five hundred dollars to me. If you bring me back that money or its equivalent within twenty-four hours, I will give you a clean hundred of it. Good enough pay, I take it, for five hours’ journey. Better than sleep, eh? Besides, you can doze on the cars.”

Sweetwater agreed with him in all these assertions. Putting on his cap, he reached for the letter. He didn’t like being made an instrument for blackmail, but he was curious to see to whom he was about to be sent. But the captain had grown suddenly wary.

“This is not a letter to be dropped in the mailbox,” said he. “You brought me a line here whose prompt delivery has prevented me from making a fool of myself to-night. You must do as much with this one. It is to be carried to its destination by yourself, given to the person whose name you will find written on it, and the answer brought back before you sleep, mind you, unless you snatch a wink or so on the cars. That it is night need not disturb you. It will be daylight before you arrive at the place to which this is addressed, and if you cannot get into the house at so early an hour, whistle three times like this — listen and one of the windows will presently fly up. You have had no trouble finding me; you’ll have no trouble finding him. When you return, hunt me up as you did to-night. Only you need not trouble yourself to look for me at Haberstow’s,” he added under his breath in a tone that was no doubt highly satisfactory to himself. “I shall not be there. And now, off with you!” he shouted. “You’ve your hundred dollars to make before daylight, and it’s already after two.”

Sweetwater, who had stolen a glimpse at the superscription on the letter he held, stumbled as he went out of the door. It was directed, as he had expected, to a Frederick, probably to the second one of whom Captain Wattles had spoken, but not, as he had expected, to a stranger. The name on the letter was Frederick Sutherland, and the place of his destination was Sutherlandtown.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/green/anna_katharine/agatha_webb/chapter26.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37