The round had come full circle. By various chances and a train of circumstances for which he could not account, he had been turned from his first intention and was being brought back stage by stage to the very spot he had thought it his duty to fly from. Was this fate? He began to think so, and no longer so much as dreamed of struggling against it. But he felt very much dazed, and walked away through the now partially deserted streets with an odd sense of failure that was only compensated by the hope he now cherished of seeing his mother again, and being once more Caleb Sweetwater of Sutherlandtown.
He was clearer, however, after a few blocks of rapid walking, and then he began to wonder over the contents of the letter he held, and how they would affect its recipient. Was it a new danger he was bringing him? Instead of aiding Mr. Sutherland in keeping his dangerous secret, was he destined to bring disgrace upon him, not only by his testimony before the coroner, but by means of this letter, which, whatever it contained, certainly could not bode good to the man from whom it was designed to wrest two thousand five hundred dollars?
The fear that he was destined to do so grew upon him rapidly, and the temptation to open the letter and make himself master of its contents before leaving town at last became so strong that his sense of honour paled before it, and he made up his mind that before he ventured into the precincts of Sutherlandtown he would know just what sort of a bombshell he was carrying into the Sutherland family. To do this he stopped at the first respectable lodging-house he encountered and hired a room. Calling for hot water “piping hot,” he told them — he subjected the letter to the effects of steam and presently had it open. He was not disappointed in its contents, save that they were even more dangerous than he had anticipated. Captain Wattles was an old crony of Frederick’s and knew his record better than anyone else in the world. From this fact and the added one that Frederick had stood in special need of money at the time of Agatha Webb’s murder, the writer had no hesitation in believing him guilty of the crime which opened his way to a fortune, and though under ordinary circumstances he would, as his friend Frederick already knew, be perfectly willing to keep his opinions to himself, he was just now under the same necessity for money that Frederick had been at that fatal time, and must therefore see the colour of two thousand five hundred dollars before the day was out if Frederick desired to have his name kept out of the Boston papers. That it had been kept out up to this time argued that the crime had been well enough hidden to make the alternative thus offered an important one.
There was no signature.
Sweetwater, affected to an extent he little expected, resealed the letter, made his excuses to the landlord, and left the house. Now he could see why he had not been allowed to make his useless sacrifice. Another man than himself suspected Frederick, and by a word could precipitate the doom he already saw hung too low above the devoted head of Mr. Sutherland’s son to be averted.
“Yet I’ll attempt that too,” burst impetuously from his lips. “If I fail, I can but go back with a knowledge of this added danger. If I succeed, why I must still go back. From some persons and from some complications it is useless to attempt flight.”
Returning to the club-house he had first entered in his search for Captain Wattles, he asked if that gentleman had yet come in. This time he was answered by an affirmative, though he might almost as well have not been, for the captain was playing cards in a private room and would not submit to any interruption.
“He will submit to mine,” retorted Sweetwater to the man who had told him this. “Or wait; hand him back this letter and say that the messenger refuses to deliver it.”
This brought the captain out, as he had fully expected it would.
“Why, what —” began that gentleman in a furious rage.
But Sweetwater, laying his hand on the arm he knew to be so sensitive, rose on tiptoe and managed to whisper in the angry man’s ear:
“You are a card-sharp, and it will be easy enough to ruin you. Threaten Frederick Sutherland and in two weeks you will be boycotted by every club in this city. Twenty-five hundred dollars won’t pay you for that.”
This from a nondescript fellow with no grains of a gentleman about him in form, feature, or apparel! The captain stared nonplussed, too much taken aback to be even angry.
Suddenly he cried:
“How do you know all this? How do you know what is or is not in the letter I gave you?”
Sweetwater, with a shrug that in its quiet significance seemed to make him at once the equal of his interrogator, quietly pressed the quivering limb under his hand and calmly replied:
“I know because I have read it. Before putting my head in the lion’s mouth, I make it a point to count his teeth,” and lifting his hand, he drew back, leaving the captain reeling.
“What is your name? Who are you?” shouted out Wattles as Sweetwater was drawing off.
It was the third time he had been asked that question within twenty-four hours, but not before with this telling emphasis. “Who are you, I say, and what can you do to me —?”
“I am — But that is an insignificant detail unworthy of your curiosity. As to what I can do, wait and see. But first burn that letter.”
And turning his back he fled out of the building, followed by oaths which, if not loud, were certainly deep and very far-reaching.
It was the first time Captain Wattles had met his match in audacity.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55