by Richard Harding Davis
Public Domain Books
On the afternoon of their arrival in London Ford convoyed Mrs. Ashton to an old-established private hotel in Craven Street.
“Here,” he explained, “you will be within a few hundred yards of the place in which your husband is said to spend his time. I will be living in the same hotel. If I find him you will know it in ten minutes.”
The widow gave a little gasp, whether of excitement or of happiness Ford could not determine.
“Whatever happens,” she begged. “will you let me hear from you sometimes? You are the only person I know in London--and--it’s so big it frightens me. I don’t want to be a burden,” she went on eagerly, “but if I can feel you are within call--”
“What you need,” said Ford heartily, “is less of the doctor’s nerve tonic and sleeping draughts, and a little innocent diversion. To- night I am going to take you to the Savoy to supper.”
Mrs. Ashton exclaimed delightedly, and then was filled with misgivings.
“I have nothing to wear,” she protested, “and over here, in the evening, the women dress so well. I have a dinner gown,” she exclaimed, “but it’s black. Would that do?”
Ford assured her nothing could be better. He had a man’s vanity in liking a woman with whom he was seen in public to be pretty and smartly dressed, and he felt sure that in black the blond beauty of Mrs. Ashton would appear to advantage. They arranged to meet at eleven on the promenade leading to the Savoy supper-room, and parted with mutual satisfaction at the prospect.
The finding of Harry Ashton was so simple that in its very simplicity it appeared spectacular.
On leaving Mrs. Ashton, Ford engaged rooms at the Hotel Cecil. Before visiting his rooms he made his way to the American bar. He did not go there seeking Harry Ashton. His object was entirely self-centred. His purpose was to drink to himself and to the lights of London. But as though by appointment, the man he had promised to find was waiting for him. As Ford entered the room, at a table facing the door sat Ashton. There was no mistaking him. He wore a mustache, but it was no disguise. He was the same good- natured, good-looking youth who, in the photograph from under a Panama hat, had smiled upon the world. With a glad cry Ford rushed toward him.
“Fancy meeting YOU!” he exclaimed.
Mr. Ashton’s good-natured smile did not relax. He merely shook his head.
“Afraid you have made a mistake,” he said. The reporter regarded him blankly. His face showed his disappointment.
“Aren’t you Charles W. Garrett, of New York?” he demanded.
“Not me,” said Mr. Ashton.
“But,” Ford insisted in hurt tones, as though he were being trifled with, “you have been told you look like him, haven’t you?”
Mr. Ashton’s good nature was unassailable.
“Sorry,” he declared, “never heard of him.”
Ford became garrulous, he could not believe two men could look so much alike. It was a remarkable coincidence. The stranger must certainly have a drink, the drink intended for his twin. Ashton was bored, but accepted. He was well acquainted with the easy good-fellowship of his countrymen. The room in which he sat was a meeting-place for them. He considered that they were always giving each other drinks, and not only were they always introducing themselves, but saying, “Shake hands with my friend, Mr. So-and- So.” After five minutes they showed each other photographs of the children. This one, though as loquacious as the others, seemed better dressed, more “wise"; he brought to the exile the atmosphere of his beloved Broadway, so Ashton drank to him pleasantly.
“My name is Sydney Carter,” he volunteered.
As a poker-player skims over the cards in his hand, Ford, in his mind’s eye, ran over the value of giving or not giving his right name. He decided that Ashton would not have heard it and that, if he gave a false one, there was a chance that later Ashton might find out that he had done so. Accordingly he said, “Mine is Austin Ford,” and seated himself at Ashton’s table. Within ten minutes the man he had promised to pluck from among the eight million inhabitants of London was smiling sympathetically at his jests and buying a drink.
On the steamer Ford had rehearsed the story with which, should he meet Ashton, he would introduce himself. It was one arranged to fit with his theory that Ashton was a crook. If Ashton were a crook Ford argued that to at once ingratiate himself in his good graces he also must be a crook. His plan was to invite Ashton to co-operate with him in some scheme that was openly dishonest. By so doing he hoped apparently to place himself at Ashton’s mercy. He believed if he could persuade Ashton he was more of a rascal than Ashton himself, and an exceedingly stupid rascal, any distrust the bookmaker might feel toward him would disappear. He made his advances so openly, and apparently showed his hand so carelessly, that, from being bored, Ashton became puzzled, then interested; and when Ford insisted he should dine with him, he considered it so necessary to find out who the youth might be who was forcing himself upon him that he accepted the invitation.
They adjourned to dress and an hour later, at Ford’s suggestion, they met at the Carlton. There Ford ordered a dinner calculated to lull his newly made friend into a mood suited to confidence, but which had on Ashton exactly the opposite effect. Merely for the pleasure of his company, utter strangers were not in the habit of treating him to strawberries in February, and vintage champagne; and, in consequence, in Ford’s hospitality he saw only cause for suspicion. If, as he had first feared, Ford was a New York detective, it was most important he should know that. No one better than Ashton understood that, at that moment, his presence in New York meant, for the police, unalloyed satisfaction, and for himself undisturbed solitude. But Ford was unlike any detective of his acquaintance; and his acquaintance had been extensive. It was true Ford was familiar with all the habits of Broadway and the Tenderloin. Of places with which Ashton was intimate, and of men with whom Ashton had formerly been well acquainted, he talked glibly. But, if he were a detective, Ashton considered, they certainly had improved the class.
The restaurant into which for the first time Ashton had penetrated, and in which he felt ill at ease, was to Ford, he observed, a matter of course. Evidently for Ford it held no terrors. He criticised the service, patronized the head waiters, and grumbled at the food; and when, on leaving the restaurant, an Englishman and his wife stopped at their table to greet him, he accepted their welcome to London without embarrassment.
Ashton, rolling his cigar between his lips, observed the incident with increasing bewilderment.
“You’ve got some swell friends,” he growled. “I’ll bet you never met THEM at Healey’s!”
“I meet all kinds of people in my business,” said Ford. “I once sold that man some mining stock, and the joke of it was,” he added, smiling knowingly, “it turned out to be good.”
Ashton decided that the psychological moment had arrived.
“What IS your business?” he asked.
“I’m a company promoter,” said Ford easily. “I thought I told you.”
“I did not tell you that I was a company promoter, too, did I?" demanded Ashton.
“No,” answered Ford, with apparent surprise. “Are you? That’s funny.”
Ashton watched for the next move, but the subject seemed in no way to interest Ford. Instead of following it up he began afresh.
“Have you any money lying idle?” he asked abruptly. “About a thousand pounds.”
Ashton recognized that the mysterious stranger was about to disclose both himself and whatever object he had in seeking him out. He cast a quick glance about him.
“I can always find money,” he said guardedly. “What’s the proposition?”
With pretended nervousness Ford leaned forward and began the story he had rehearsed. It was a new version of an old swindle and to every self-respecting confidence man was well known as the “sick engineer” game. The plot is very simple. The sick engineer is supposed to be a mining engineer who, as an expert, has examined a gold mine and reported against it. For his services the company paid him partly in stock. He falls ill and is at the point of death. While he has been ill much gold has been found in the mine he examined, and the stock which he considers worthless is now valuable. Of this, owing to his illness, he is ignorant. One confidence man acts the part of the sick engineer, and the other that of a broker who knows the engineer possesses the stock but has no money with which to purchase it from him. For a share of the stock he offers to tell the dupe where it and the engineer can be found. They visit the man, apparently at the point of death, and the dupe gives him money for his stock. Later the dupe finds the stock is worthless, and the supposed engineer and the supposed broker divide the money he paid for it. In telling the story Ford pretended he was the broker and that he thought in Ashton he had found a dupe who would buy the stock from the sick engineer.
As the story unfolded and Ashton appreciated the part Ford expected him to play in it, his emotions were so varied that he was in danger of apoplexy. Amusement, joy, chagrin, and indignation illuminated his countenance. His cigar ceased to burn, and with his eyes opened wide he regarded Ford in pitying wonder.
“Wait!” he commanded. He shook his head uncomprehendingly. “Tell me,” he asked, “do I look as easy as that, or are you just naturally foolish?”
Ford pretended to fall into a state of great alarm.
“I don’t understand,” he stammered.
“Why, son,” exclaimed Ashton kindly, “I was taught that story in the public schools. I invented it. I stopped using it before you cut your teeth. Gee!” he exclaimed delightedly. “I knew I had grown respectable-looking, but I didn’t think I was so damned respectable-looking as that!” He began to laugh silently; so greatly was he amused that the tears shone in his eyes and his shoulders shook.
“I’m sorry for you, son,” he protested, “but that’s the funniest thing that’s come my way in two years. And you buying me hot-house grapes, too, and fancy water! I wish you could see your face,” he taunted.
Ford pretended to be greatly chagrined.
“All right,” he declared roughly. “The laugh’s on me this time, but just because I lost one trick, don’t think I don’t know my business. Now that I’m wise to what YOU are we can work together and--”
The face of young Mr. Ashton became instantly grave. His jaws snapped like a trap. When he spoke his tone was assured and slightly contemptuous.
“Not with ME you can’t work!” he said.
“Don’t think because I fell down on this,” Ford began hotly.
“I’m not thinking of you at all,” said Ashton. “You’re a nice little fellow all right, but you have sized me up wrong. I am on the ’straight and narrow’ that leads back to little old New York and God’s country, and I am warranted not to run off my trolley.”
The words were in the vernacular, but the tone in which the young man spoke rang so confidently that it brought to Ford a pleasant thrill of satisfaction. From the first he had found in the personality of the young man something winning and likable; a shrewd manliness and tolerant good-humor. His eyes may have shown his sympathy, for, in sudden confidence, Ashton leaned nearer.
“It’s like this,” he said. “Several years ago I made a bad break and, about a year later, they got on to me and I had to cut and run. In a month the law of limitation lets me loose and I can go back. And you can bet I’m GOING back. I will be on the bowsprit of the first boat. I’ve had all I want of the ’fugitive-from- justice’ game, thank you, and I have taken good care to keep a clean bill of health so that I won’t have to play it again. They’ve been trying to get me for several years--especially the Pinkertons. They have chased me all over Europe. Chased me with all kinds of men; sometimes with women; they’ve tried everything except blood-hounds. At first I thought YOU were a ’Pink,’ that’s why--”
“I!” interrupted Ford, exploding derisively. “That’s GOOD! That’s one on YOU.” He ceased laughing and regarded Ashton kindly. “How do you know I’m not?” he asked.
For an instant the face of the bookmaker grew a shade less red and his eyes searched those of Ford in a quick agony of suspicion. Ford continued to smile steadily at him, and Ashton breathed with relief.
“I’ll take a chance with you,” he said, “and if you are as bad a detective as you are a sport I needn’t worry.”
They both laughed, and, with sudden mutual liking, each raised his glass and nodded.
“But they haven’t got me yet,” continued Ashton, “and unless they get me in the next thirty days I’m free. So you needn’t think that I’ll help you. It’s ’never again’ for me. The first time, that was the fault of the crowd I ran with; the second time, that would be MY fault. And there ain’t going to be any second time.”
He shook his head doggedly, and with squared shoulders leaned back in his chair.
“If it only breaks right for me,” he declared, “I’ll settle down in one of those ’Own-your own-homes,’ forty-five minutes from Broadway, and never leave the wife and the baby.”
The words almost brought Ford to his feet. He had forgotten the wife and the baby. He endeavored to explain his surprise by a sudden assumption of incredulity.
“Fancy you married!” he exclaimed.
“Married!” protested Ashton. “I’m married to the finest little lady that ever wore skirts, and in thirty-seven days I’ll see her again. Thirty-seven days,” he repeated impatiently. “Gee! That’s a hell of a long time!”
Ford studied the young man with increased interest. That he was speaking sincerely, from the heart, there seemed no possible doubt.
Ashton frowned and his face clouded. “I’ve not been able to treat her just right,” he volunteered. “If she wrote me, the letters might give them a clew, and I don’t write HER because I don’t want her to know all my troubles until they’re over. But I know,” he added, “that five minutes’ talk will set it all right. That is, if she still feels about me the way I feel about her.”
The man crushed his cigar in his fingers and threw the pieces on the floor. “That’s what’s been the worst!” he exclaimed bitterly. “Not hearing, not knowing. It’s been hell!”
His eyes as he raised them were filled with suffering, deep and genuine.
Ford rose suddenly. “Let’s go down to the Savoy for supper,” he said.
“Supper!” growled Ashton. “What’s the use of supper? Do you suppose cold chicken and a sardine can keep me from THINKING?”
Ford placed his hand on the other’s shoulder.
“You come with me,” he said kindly. “I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to bring you a piece of luck. Don’t ask me any questions,” he commanded hurriedly. “Just take my word for it.”
They had sat so late over their cigars that when they reached the restaurant on the Embankment the supper-room was already partly filled, and the corridors and lounge were brilliantly lit and gay with well-dressed women. Ashton regarded the scene with gloomy eyes. Since he had spoken of his wife he had remained silent, chewing savagely on a fresh cigar. But Ford was grandly excited. He did not know exactly what he intended to do. He was prepared to let events direct themselves, but of two things he was assured: Mrs. Ashton loved her husband, and her husband loved her. As the god in the car who was to bring them together, he felt a delightful responsibility.
The young men left the coat-room and came down the short flight of steps that leads to the wide lounge of the restaurant. Ford slightly in advance, searching with his eyes for Mrs Ashton, found her seated alone in the lounge, evidently waiting for him. At the first glance she was hardly be recognized. Her low-cut dinner gown of black satin that clung to her like a wet bath robe was the last word of the new fashion; and since Ford had seen her her blond hair had been arranged by an artist. Her appearance was smart, elegant, daring. She was easily the prettiest and most striking-looking woman in the room, and for an instant Ford stood gazing at her, trying to find in the self-possessed young woman the deserted wife of the steamer. She did not see Ford. Her eyes were following the progress down the hall of a woman, and her profile was toward him.
The thought of the happiness he was about to bring to two young people gave Ford the sense of a genuine triumph, and when he turned to Ashton to point out his wife to him he was thrilling with pride and satisfaction. His triumph received a bewildering shock. Already Ashton had discovered the presence of Mrs. Ashton. He was standing transfixed, lost to his surroundings, devouring her with his eyes. And then, to the amazement of Ford, his eyes filled with fear, doubt, and anger. Swiftly, with the movement of a man ducking a blow, he turned and sprang up the stairs and into the coat-room. Ford, bewildered and more conscious of his surroundings, followed him less quickly, and was in consequence only in time to see Ashton, dragging his overcoat behind him, disappear into the court-yard. He seized his own coat and raced in pursuit. As he ran into the court-yard Ashton, in the Strand, was just closing the door of a taxicab, but before the chauffeur could free it from the surrounding traffic, Ford had dragged the door open, and leaped inside. Ashton was huddled in the corner, panting, his face pale with alarm.
“What the devil ails you?” roared Ford. “Are you trying to shake me? You’ve got to come back. You must speak to her.”
“Speak to her!” repeated Ashton. His voice was sunk to a whisper. The look of alarm in his face was confused with one grim and menacing. “Did you know she was there?” he demanded softly. “Did you take me there, knowing--?”
“Of course I knew,” protested Ford. “She’s been looking for you--”
His voice subsided in a squeak of amazement and pain. Ashton’s left hand had shot out and swiftly seized his throat. With the other he pressed an automatic revolver against Ford’s shirt front.
“I know she’s been looking for me,” the man whispered thickly. “For two years she’s been looking for me. I know all about HER! But, WHO IN HELL ARE YOU?”
Ford, gasping and gurgling, protested loyally.
“You are wrong!” he cried. “She’s been at home waiting for you. She thinks you have deserted her and your baby. I tell you she loves you, you fool, she LOVES you!”
The fingers on his throat suddenly relaxed; the flaming eyes of Ashton, glaring into his, wavered and grew wide with amazement.
“Loves me,” he whispered. “WHO loves me?”
“Your wife,” protested Ford; “the girl at the Savoy, your wife.”
Again the fingers of Ashton pressed deep around his neck.
“That is not my wife,” he whispered. His voice was unpleasantly cold and grim. “That’s ’Baby Belle,’ with her hair dyed, a detective lady of the Pinkertons, hired to find me. And YOU know it. Now, who are YOU?”
To permit him to reply Ashton released his hand, but at the same moment, in a sudden access of fear, dug the revolver deeper into the pit of Ford’s stomach.
“Quick!” he commanded. “Never mind the girl. WHO ARE YOU?”
Ford collapsed against the cushioned corner of the cab. “And she begged me to find you,” he roared, “because she LOVED you, because she wanted to BELIEVE in you!” He held his arms above his head. “Go ahead and shoot!” he cried. “You want to know who I am?” he demanded. His voice rang with rage. “I’m an amateur. Just a natural born fool-amateur! Go on and shoot!”
The gun in Ashton’s hand sank to his knee. Between doubt and laughter his face was twisted in strange lines. The cab was whirling through a narrow, unlit street leading to Covent Garden. Opening the door Ashton called to the chauffeur, and then turned to Ford.
“You get off here!” he commanded. “Maybe you’re a ’Pink,’ maybe you’re a good fellow. I think you’re a good fellow, but I’m not taking any chances. Get out!”
Ford scrambled to the street, and as the taxicab again butted itself forward, Ashton leaned far through the window. “Good-by, son,” he called. “Send me a picture-postal card to Paris. For I am off to Maxim’s,” he cried, “and you can go to--”
“Not at all!” shouted the amateur detective indignantly. “I’m going back to take supper with ’Baby Belle’!”