Initials Only, by Anna Katharine Green

Chapter 17

In which a Book Plays a Leading Part

When Mr. Brotherson came in that night, he noticed that the door of the room adjoining his own stood open. He did not hesitate. Making immediately for it, he took a glance inside, then spoke up with a ringing intonation:

“Halloo! coming to live in this hole?”

The occupant a young man, evidently a workman and somewhat sickly if one could judge from his complexion — turned around from some tinkering he was engaged in and met the intruder fairly, face to face. If his jaw fell, it seemed to be from admiration. No other emotion would have so lighted his eye as he took in the others proportions and commanding features. No dress — Brotherson was never seen in any other than the homeliest garb in these days — could make him look common or akin to his surroundings. Whether seen near or far, his presence always caused surprise, and surprise was what the young man showed, as he answered briskly:

“Yes, this is to be my castle. Are you the owner of the buildings? If so —”

“I am not the owner. I live next door. Haven’t I seen you before, young man?”

Never was there a more penetrating eye than Orlando Brotherson’s. As he asked this question it took some effort on the part of the other to hold his own and laugh with perfect naturalness as he replied:

“If you ever go up Henry Street it’s likely enough that you’ve seen me not once, but many times. I’m the fellow who works at the bench next the window in Schuper’s repairing shop. Everybody knows me.”

Audacity often carries the day when subtler means would fail. Brotherson stared at the youth, then ventured another question:

“A carpenter, eh?”

“Yes, and I’m an A1 man at my job. Excuse my brag. It’s my one card of introduction.”

“I’ve seen you. I’ve seen you somewhere else than in Schuper’s shop. Do you remember me?”

“No, sir; I’m sorry to be imperlite but I don’t remember you at all. Won’t you sit down? It’s not very cheerful, but I’m so glad to get out of the room I was in last night that this looks all right to me. Back there, other building,” he whispered. “I didn’t know, and took the room which had a window in it; but —” The stop was significant; so was his smile which had a touch of sickliness in it, as well as humour.

But Brotherson was not to be caught.

“You slept in the building last night? In the other half, I mean?”

“Yes, I— slept.”

The strong lip of the other man curled disdainfully.

“I saw you,” said he. “You were standing in the window overlooking the court. You were not sleeping then. I suppose you know that a woman died in that room?”

“Yes; they told me so this morning.”

“Was that the first you’d heard of it?”

“Sure!” The word almost jumped at the questioner. “Do you suppose I’d have taken the room if —”

But here the intruder, with a disdainful grunt, turned and went out, disgust in every feature — plain, unmistakable, downright disgust, and nothing more!

This was what gave Sweetwater his second bad night; this and a certain discovery he made. He had counted on hearing what went on in the neighbouring room through the partition running back of his own closet. But he could hear nothing, unless it was the shutting down of a window, a loud sneeze, or the rattling of coals as they were put on the fire. And these possessed no significance. What he wanted was to catch the secret sigh, the muttered word, the involuntary movement. He was too far removed from this man still.

How should he manage to get nearer him — at the door of his mind — of his heart? Sweetwater stared all night from his miserable cot into the darkness of that separating closet, and with no result. His task looked hopeless; no wonder that he could get no rest.

Next morning he felt ill, but he rose all the same, and tried to get his own breakfast. He had but partially succeeded and was sitting on the edge of his bed in wretched discomfort, when the very man he was thinking of appeared at his door.

“I’ve come to see how you are,” said Brotherson. “I noticed that you did not look well last night. Won’t you come in and share my pot of coffee?”

“I— I can’t eat,” mumbled Sweetwater, for once in his life thrown completely off his balance. “You’re very kind, but I’ll manage all right. I’d rather. I’m not quite dressed, you see, and I must get to the shop.” Then he thought —“What an opportunity I’m losing. Have I any right to turn tail because he plays his game from the outset with trumps? No, I’ve a small trump somewhere about me to lay on this trick. It isn’t an ace, but it’ll show I’m not chicane.” And smiling, though not with his usual cheerfulness, Sweetwater added, “Is the coffee all made? I might take a drop of that. But you mustn’t ask me to eat — I just couldn’t.”

“Yes, the coffee is made and it isn’t bad either. You’d better put on your coat; the hall’s draughty.” And waiting till Sweetwater did so, he led the way back to his own room. Brotherson’s manner expressed perfect ease, Sweetwater’s not. He knew himself changed in looks, in bearing, in feeling, even; but was he changed enough to deceive this man on the very spot where they had confronted each other a few days before in a keen moral struggle? The looking-glass he passed on his way to the table where the simple breakfast was spread out, showed him a figure so unlike the alert, business-like chap he had been that night, that he felt his old assurance revive in time to ease a situation which had no counterpart in his experience.

“I’m going out myself to-day, so we’ll have to hurry a bit,” was Brotherson’s first remark as they seated themselves at table. “Do you like your coffee plain or with milk in it?”

“Plain. Gosh! what pictures! Where do you get ’em? You must have a lot of coin.” Sweetwater was staring at the row of photographs, mostly of a very high order, tacked along the wall separating the two rooms. They were unframed, but they were mostly copies of great pictures, and the effect was rather imposing in contrast to the shabby furniture and the otherwise homely fittings.

“Yes, I’ve enough for that kind of thing,” was his host’s reply. But the tone was reserved, and Sweetwater did not presume again along this line. Instead, he looked well at the books piled upon the shelves under these photographs, and wondered aloud at their number and at the man who could waste such a lot of time in reading them. But he made no more direct remarks. Was he cowed by the penetrating eye he encountered whenever he yielded to the fascination exerted by Mr. Brotherson’s personality and looked his way? He hated to think so, yet something held him in check and made him listen, open-mouthed, when the other chose to speak.

Yet there was one cheerful moment. It was when he noticed the careless way in which those books were arranged upon their shelves. An idea had come to him. He hid his relief in his cup, as he drained the last drops of the coffee which really tasted better than he had expected.

When he returned from work that afternoon it was with an auger under his coat and a conviction which led him to empty out the contents of a small phial which he took down from a shelf. He had told Mr. Gryce that he was eager for the business because of its difficulties, but that was when he was feeling fine and up to any game which might come his way. Now he felt weak and easily discouraged. This would not do. He must regain his health at all hazards, so he poured out the mixture which had given him such a sickly air. This done and a rude supper eaten, he took up his auger. He had heard Mr. Brotherson’s step go by. But next minute he laid it down again in great haste and flung a newspaper over it. Mr. Brotherson was coming back, had stopped at his door, had knocked and must be let in.

“You’re better this evening,” he heard in those kindly tones which so confused and irritated him.

“Yes,” was the surly admission. “But it’s stifling here. If I have to live long in this hole I’ll dry up from want of air. It’s near the shop or I wouldn’t stay out the week.” Twice this day he had seen Brotherson’s tall figure stop before the window of this shop and look in at him at his bench. But he said nothing about that.

“Yes,” agreed the other, “it’s no way to live. But you’re alone. Upstairs there’s a whole family huddled into a room just like this. Two of the kids sleep in the closet. It’s things like that which have made me the friend of the poor, and the mortal enemy of men and women who spread themselves over a dozen big rooms and think themselves ill-used if the gas burns poorly or a fireplace smokes. I’m off for the evening; anything I can do for you?”

“Show me how I can win my way into such rooms as you’ve just talked about. Nothing less will make me look up. I’d like to sleep in one to-night. In the best bedroom, sir. I’m ambitious; I am.”

A poor joke, though they both laughed. There Mr. Brotherson passed on, and Sweetwater listened till he was sure that his too attentive neighbour had really gone down the three flights between him and the street. Then he took up his auger again and shut himself up in his closet.

There was nothing peculiar about this closet. It was just an ordinary one with drawers and shelves on one side, and an open space on the other for the hanging up of clothes. Very few clothes hung there at present; but it was in this portion of the closet that he stopped and began to try the wall of Brotherson’s room, with the butt end of the tool he carried.

The sound seemed to satisfy him, for very soon he was boring a hole at a point exactly level with his ear; but not without frequent pauses and much attention given to the possible return of those departed foot-steps. He remembered that Mr. Brotherson had a way of coming back on unexpected errands after giving out his intention of being absent for hours.

Sweetwater did not want to be caught in any such trap as that; so he carefully followed every sound that reached him from the noisy halls. But he did not forsake his post; he did not have to. Mr. Brotherson had been sincere in his good-bye, and the auger finished its job and was withdrawn without any interruption from the man whose premises had been thus audaciously invaded.

“Neat as well as useful,” was the gay comment with which Sweetwater surveyed his work, then laid his ear to the hole. Whereas previously he could barely hear the rattling of coals from the coal-scuttle, he was now able to catch the sound of an ash falling into the ash-pit.

His next move was to test the depth of the partition by inserting his finger in the hole he had made. He found it stopped by some obstacle before it had reached half its length, and anxious to satisfy himself of the nature of this obstacle, he gently moved the tip of his finger to and fro over what was certainly the edge of a book.

This proved that his calculations had been correct and that the opening so accessible on his side, was completely veiled on the other by the books he had seen packed on the shelves. As these shelves had no other backing than the wall, he had feared striking a spot not covered by a book. But he had not undertaken so risky a piece of work without first noting how nearly the tops of the books approached the line of the shelf above them, and the consequent unlikelihood of his striking the space between, at the height he planned the hole. He had even been careful to assure himself that all the volumes at this exact point stood far enough forward to afford room behind them for the chips and plaster he must necessarily push through with his auger, and also — important consideration — for the free passage of the sounds by which he hoped to profit.

As he listened for a moment longer, and then stooped to gather up the debris which had fallen on his own side of the partition, he muttered, in his old self-congratulatory way:

“If the devil don’t interfere in some way best known to himself, this opportunity I have made for myself of listening to this arrogant fellow’s very heartbeats should give me some clew to his secret. As soon as I can stand it, I’ll spend my evenings at this hole.”

But it was days before he could trust himself so far. Meanwhile their acquaintance ripened, though with no very satisfactory results. The detective found himself led into telling stories of his early home-life to keep pace with the man who always had something of moment and solid interest to impart. This was undesirable, for instead of calling out a corresponding confidence from Brotherson, it only seemed to make his conversation more coldly impersonal.

In consequence, Sweetwater suddenly found himself quite well and one evening, when he was sure that his neighbour was at home, he slid softly into his closet and laid his ear to the opening he had made there. The result was unexpected. Mr. Brotherson was pacing the floor, and talking softly to himself.

At first, the cadence and full music of the tones conveyed nothing to our far from literary detective. The victim of his secret machinations was expressing himself in words, words; — that was the point which counted with him. But as he listened longer and gradually took in the sense of these words, his heart went down lower and lower till it reached his boots. His inscrutable and ever disappointing neighbour was not indulging in self-communings of any kind. He was reciting poetry, and what was worse, poetry which he only half remembered and was trying to recall; — an incredible occupation for a man weighted with a criminal secret.

Sweetwater was disgusted, and was withdrawing in high indignation from his vantage-point when something occurred of a startling enough nature to hold him where he was in almost breathless expectation.

The hole which in the darkness of the closet was always faintly visible, even when the light was not very strong in the adjoining room, had suddenly become a bright and shining loop-hole, with a suggestion of movement in the space beyond. The book which had hid this hole on Brotherson’s side had been taken down — the one book in all those hundreds whose removal threatened Sweetwater’s schemes, if not himself.

For an instant the thwarted detective listened for the angry shout or the smothered oath which would naturally follow the discovery by Brotherson of this attempted interference with his privacy.

But all was still on his side of the wall. A rustling of leaves could be heard, as the inventor searched for the poem he wanted, but nothing more. In withdrawing the book, he had failed to notice the hole in the plaster back of it. But he could hardly fail to see it when he came to put the book back. Meantime, suspense for Sweetwater.

It was several minutes before he heard Mr. Brotherson’s voice again, then it was in triumphant repetition of the lines which had escaped his memory. They were great words surely and Sweetwater never forgot them, but the impression which they made upon his mind, an impression so forcible that he was able to repeat them, months afterward to Mr. Gryce, did not prevent him from noting the tone in which they were uttered, nor the thud which followed as the book was thrown down upon the floor.

“Fool!” The word rang out in bitter irony from his irate neighbour’s lips. “What does he know of woman! Woman! Let him court a rich one and see — but that’s all over and done with. No more harping on that string, and no more reading of poetry. I’ll never — ” The rest was lost in his throat and was quite unintelligible to the anxious listener.

Self-revealing words, which an instant before would have aroused Sweetwater’s deepest interest! But they had suddenly lost all force for the unhappy listener. The sight of that hole still shining brightly before his eyes had distracted his thoughts and roused his liveliest apprehensions. If that book should be allowed to lie where it had fallen, then he was in for a period of uncertainty he shrank from contemplating. Any moment his neighbour might look up and catch sight of this hole bored in the backing of the shelves before him. Could the man who had been guilty of submitting him to this outrage stand the strain of waiting indefinitely for the moment of discovery? He doubted it, if the suspense lasted too long.

Shifting his position, he placed his eye where his ear had been. He could see very little. The space before him, limited as it was to the width of the one volume withdrawn, precluded his seeing aught but what lay directly before him. Happily, it was in this narrow line of vision that Mr. Brotherson stood. He had resumed work upon his model and was so placed that while his face was not visible, his hands were, and as Sweetwater watched these hands and noticed the delicacy of their manipulation, he was enough of a workman to realise that work so fine called for an undivided attention. He need not fear the gaze shifting, while those hands moved as warily as they did now.

Relieved for the moment, he left his post and, sitting down on the edge of his cot, gave himself up to thought.

He deserved this mischance. Had he profited properly by Mr. Gryce’s teachings, he would not have been caught like this; he would have calculated not upon the nine hundred and ninety-nine chances of that book being left alone, but upon the thousandth one of its being the very one to be singled out and removed. Had he done this — had he taken pains to so roughen and discolour the opening he had made, that it would look like an ancient rat hole instead of showing a clean bore, he would have some answer to give Brotherson when he came to question him in regard to it. But now the whole thing seemed up! He had shown himself a fool and by good rights ought to acknowledge his defeat and return to Headquarters. But he had too much spirit for that. He would rather — yes, he would rather face the pistol he had once seen in his enemy’s hand. Yet it was hard to sit here waiting, waiting — Suddenly he started upright. He would go meet his fate — be present in the room itself when the discovery was made which threatened to upset all his plans. He was not ashamed of his calling, and Brotherson would think twice before attacking him when once convinced that he had the Department behind him.

“Excuse me, comrade,” were the words with which he endeavoured to account for his presence at Brotherson’s door. “My lamp smells so, and I’ve made such a mess of my work to-day that I’ve just stepped in for a chat. If I’m not wanted, say so. I don’t want to bother you, but you do look pleasant here. I hope the thing I’m turning over in my head — every man has his schemes for making a fortune, you know — will be a success some day. I’d like a big room like this, and a lot of books, and — and pictures.”

Craning his neck, he took a peep at the shelves, with an air of open admiration which effectually concealed his real purpose. What he wanted was to catch one glimpse of that empty space from his present standpoint, and he was both astonished and relieved to note how narrow and inconspicuous it looked. Certainly, he had less to fear than he supposed, and when, upon Mr. Brotherson’s invitation, he stepped into the room, it was with a dash of his former audacity, which gave him, unfortunately, perhaps, a quick, strong and unexpected likeness to his old self.

But if Brotherson noticed this, nothing in his manner gave proof of the fact. Though usually averse to visitors, especially when employed as at present on his precious model, he quite warmed towards his unexpected guest, and even led the way to where it stood uncovered on the table.

“You find me at work,” he remarked. “I don’t suppose you understand any but your own?”

“If you mean to ask if I understand what you’re trying to do there, I’m free to say that I don’t. I couldn’t tell now, off-hand, whether it’s an air-ship you’re planning, a hydraulic machine or — or —” He stopped, with a laugh and turned towards the book-shelves. “Now here’s what I like. These books just take my eye.”

“Look at them, then. I like to see a man interested in books. Only, I thought if you knew how to handle wire, I would get you to hold this end while I work with the other.”

“I guess I know enough for that,” was Sweetwater’s gay rejoinder. But when he felt that communicating wire in his hand and experienced for the first time the full influence of the other’s eye, it took all his hardihood to hide the hypnotic thrill it gave him. Though he smiled and chatted, he could not help asking himself between whiles, what had killed the poor washerwoman across the court, and what had killed Miss Challoner. Something visible or something invisible? Something which gave warning of attack, or something which struck in silence. He found himself gazing long and earnestly at this man’s hand, and wondering if death lay under it. It was a strong hand, a deft, clean-cut member, formed to respond to the slightest hint from the powerful brain controlling it. But was this its whole story. Had he said all when he had said this?

Fascinated by the question, Sweetwater died a hundred deaths in his awakened fancy, as he followed the sharp short instructions which fell with cool precision from the other’s lips. A hundred deaths, I say, but with no betrayal of his folly. The anxiety he showed was that of one eager to please, which may explain why on the conclusion of his task, Mr. Brotherson gave him one of his infrequent smiles and remarked, as he buried the model under its cover, “You’re handy and you’re quiet at your job. Who knows but that I shall want you again. Will you come if I call you?”

“Won’t I?” was the gay retort, as the detective thus released, stooped for the book still lying on the floor. “Paolo and Francesca,” he read, from the back, as he laid it on the table. “Poetry?” he queried.

“Rot,” scornfully returned the other, as he moved to take down a bottle and some glasses from a cupboard let into another portion of the wall.

Sweetwater taking advantage of the moment, sidled towards the shelf where that empty space still gaped with the tell-tale hole at the back. He could easily have replaced the missing book before Mr. Brotherson turned. But the issue was too doubtful. He was dealing with no absent-minded fool, and it behooved him to avoid above all things calling attention to the book or to the place on the shelf where it belonged.

But there was one thing he could do and did. Reaching out a finger as deft as Brotherson’s own, he pushed a second volume into the place of the one that was gone. This veiled the auger-hole completely; a fact which so entirely relieved his mind that his old smile came back like sunshine to his lips, and it was only by a distinct effort that he kept the dancing humour from his eyes as he prepared to refuse the glass which Brotherson now brought forward:

“None of that!” said he. “You mustn’t tempt me. The doctor has shut down on all kinds of spirits for two months more, at least. But don’t let me hinder you. I can bear to smell the stuff. My turn will come again some day.”

But Brotherson did not drink. Setting down the glass he carried, he took up the book lying near, weighed it in his hand and laid it down again, with an air of thoughtful inquiry. Then he suddenly pushed it towards Sweetwater. “Do you want it?” he asked.

Sweetwater was too taken aback to answer immediately. This was a move he did not understand. Want it, he? What he wanted was to see it put back in its place on the shelf. Did Brotherson suspect this? The supposition was incredible; yet who could read a mind so mysterious?

Sweetwater, debating the subject, decided that the risk of adding to any such possible suspicion was less to be dreaded than the continued threat offered by that unoccupied space so near the hole which testified so unmistakably of the means he had taken to spy upon this suspected man’s privacy. So, after a moment of awkward silence, not out of keeping with the character he had assumed, he calmly refused the present as he had the glass.

Unhappily he was not rewarded by seeing the despised volume restored to its shelf. It still lay where its owner had pushed it, when, with some awkwardly muttered thanks, the discomfited detective withdrew to his own room.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:55