With a grunt he turned on his heel and descended to the street, where he lighted another stogey and returned the way he had come. Arriving finally at the offices of the Alderson Construction Company, he was admitted at once to Alderson's presence and reported that the tan satchel had been delivered at its destination without mishap.
As he finished speaking the telephone rang and Alderson lifted down the receiver with a nod of dismissal. The detective's hand was on the doorknob when he turned quickly, viewing with alarm the sudden bewilderment and blank consternation which had crept into the contractor's heavy face as he listened to the agitated voice of J. Cuthbert Nickleby.
"Brady's man? Yes, he's here now—Sure, I'll hold him—No, not back yet—Sure. Sure I will—Eh? Say, Mr. Nickleby, fer the love o' Mike, what's wrong?—WHA-AT!"
Alderson wildly jiggled the hook of the telephone instrument, but Nickleby had rung off. He stared across at the anxious representative of the Brady Detective Agency, his thick loose lower lip hanging in dismay. For the moment he was bereft of speech.
"What's the matter?"
"Uh? Matter?" echoed Alderson vacuously. Then he pounded the desk with his fat fist while his face grew red. "Matter!" he shouted. "You're a heluva detective, you are! That's what's the matter. The mon—I mean—the papers—in the satchel, you fathead!—stolen right under your nose!"
AGAIN THE TAN SATCHEL
Swearing fervently, Alderson grabbed the telephone and called for Podmore at the Queen's Hotel. A few stuttering words of explanation and the 'phone went dead once more as Podmore banged up the receiver at his end.
Nickleby arrived first. He strode in through the outer office, leaving a trail of awed employes in his wake. Alderson, who had rushed forward to meet him, fell back a step as the banker entered the private office and banged the door behind him with a force which nearly broke the glass in the partition. He carried in his hand the tan satchel and forthwith slammed it down upon the desk and took to pacing back and forth in speechless wrath. His face was ghastly, his eyes blazing, his mouth drawn down in an ugly sneer as he turned at last upon the dumfounded detective.
"You—you blithering idiot!"
"Easy, brother. Keep your shirt on, see!" advised the Brady operative with justifiable resentment. "There aint nothin' been taken out o' that there grip while I was watchin' it, that's a cinch. Say, 'bo, what was in it, anyways?"
Alderson caught Nickleby's eye and shook his head in warning. Nickleby stepped across the room, opened the satchel and flung out upon the table a package of blank brown wrapping paper, cut to the size of bank-notes and fastened together with rubber bands. He pointed his finger at it contemptuously.
"Instead of the legal papers which were in that satchel when it left this office, there's what we found when Ferguson and I opened it. Now, explain that, will you? No, wait! 'Phone your chief to come over here himself at once; I think he'd better hear what you have to say. What's your name?"
"McCorquodale. An' I takes no lip from nobody, see!"
While the man was at the telephone Jimmy Stiles knocked on the door to report that he had delivered the satchel safely to its destination. It was an amazed youth who was yanked unceremoniously into the room by the coat-collar while the irate Nickleby blazed forth anew. He took hold of the bookkeeper's shoulders and was shaking the frightened young man in speechless fury when Podmore came in.
"Here, here, leave him alone!" he commanded sharply as he stepped between them. "What crazy nonsense is this, J. C.?"
No fuss or fury about Hugh Podmore in time of stress. It was Podmore's way to turn calm and cold and calculating in proportion to the extent to which any given crisis disturbed him. The news which had reached him over the 'phone from the incoherent Alderson had been grave enough; but he was much the coolest of the three most vitally concerned in this mysterious miscarriage of carefully laid plans. The first thing he did was to have Alderson clear the outer office of stenographers and junior clerks. He suggested that Alderson dismiss them for the afternoon, and began at once to question the bookkeeper and the detective who had followed him. The two recitals agreed in every particular.
Podmore at once despatched the detective to the Union Station in Nickleby's car to find Clayton at all costs and arrest him if he would not come otherwise.
"Tell us all you know about this man, Jimmy. Take your time," advised Podmore kindly. "No occasion to get scared stiff."
Stiles said he had not known Clayton very long—just a few days, in fact. He had met him for the first time last Sunday at All Saints' Mission, where Jimmy was an usher. On Monday night there had been a social gathering of the younger members of the church in the Sunday School and Clayton had attended that and seemed to enjoy himself. He had made friends with everybody quickly and seemed to fit in so readily that he had been accepted without question by everybody, from the pastor down. He was an American who had come north to visit relatives and was on his way back to Philadelphia. He expected to return shortly, he had told Stiles, and might decide to locate here permanently. He was in the hardware business, somewhere near Philadelphia.
"All right, Jimmy, that will do. Now, better wait outside till your friend arrives. It all seems straight enough so far as you're concerned," and Podmore closed the door on him with a smile of encouragement; for young Stiles looked as if he needed encouragement. "You've scared the wits out of him, J. C. That won't get us anywhere," he reproved when the three were alone.
"I don't trust anybody——"
"Wait," commanded Podmore with upraised hand. He stepped over to the table quickly and closely scrutinized the tan satchel. Finally he drew attention to the triangular mark which he had scratched on one end with his pocket-knife. "It's the satchel O.K. Now, who opened it?"
"Ferguson. I gave him the key, as you suggested, and he opened it in front of me. And so help me, that stuff there was all that was in it. The money was gone. I tell you I never felt so much like a fool——" Nickleby broke off with an oath, still smarting under the jibes which the caustic Mr. Ferguson had levelled at him, and beneath which the President of the Interprovincial had writhed in humiliation. "Somebody took that money out on the way over, Podmore."
"N—ot necessarily, J. C.," said Podmore judicially. "Wait, now. Think, man. Were you there when Stiles——?"
"Of course I was."
"——when Stiles handed the satchel to Ferguson? Did you see him do it?"
"Why,—no, not exactly. I was out in the general office when the kid took it in to Ferguson. What are you driving at?"
"Talking to anybody out there?"
"Yes. I ran into McAllister, of the Recorder, and I was so surprised at seeing the editor of that yellow sheet there—well, he got quizzing me about one or two matters."
"How long after Stiles left you before you joined Ferguson?"
"Oh—five minutes, maybe. Why, what's all that got to do with it?" He regarded the look of triumph upon Podmore's face with some astonishment.
"It's as clear as daylight to me, J. C. In that five minutes almost anything might have happened. Many of the world's great events have happened in less than that. Hasn't it occurred to you that the package of money might be removed from the satchel and the paper substituted in Ferguson's office? The lock might have been sprung, you know."
Nickleby stared, his beady eyes narrowed in a frown of thought. Then he slapped the table with his open palm.
"By——!" he ejaculated.
"I'm inclined to fancy the whole thing is a cleverly arranged scare which those fellows have chosen to throw into us in order to protect themselves," went on Mr. Podmore, nodding with satisfaction at his own logic. "You can understand that, surely. If I am guessing correctly, they have succeeded in providing a fine denial of the fact that there ever was such a thing as our contribution to the Campaign Fund."
"I told you!" cried Alderson excitedly. "The Hon. Milt said he wouldn't have anything to do with it. He said we'd contribute at our own risk, didn't he?"
Nickleby rounded on him.
"Shut up, you jackass!" he ordered angrily.
Podmore's eyebrows arched a trifle at this admission. Already he had surmised something of the kind. The Honorable Milt was nobody's fool, he knew. For the matter of that, neither was Hughey Podmore.
"They'll be expecting us to keep our mouths shut and let things take their course," he continued, choosing to ignore the interruption. "The money's not lost, Alderson. They'll keep on swearing up and down that they haven't got it, of course; but that's just the coy way in which these things are handled. It's my opinion that the sacrifice of that million bags of peanuts up the elephant's trunk will ensure a good performance when the circus starts."
"I believe you've struck it, Pod," nodded Nickleby slowly.
"I'm sure of it," agreed Mr. Podmore, allowing himself a little laugh of satisfaction. "Hadn't Frank better write Brady a cheque and get rid of him? He's probably waiting outside, and we don't want him nosing into anything."
This seemed to meet with the approval of the others, and when the check was ready the head of the Brady Detective Agency was called in and handed a cigar, the cheque and some plausible explanations which enabled him to return to his office with no hard feelings. Detective Brady never found it an inconvenience to receive money.
The air had cleared wonderfully by the time Detective McCorquodale arrived with Robert Clayton in tow—so much so that both anxious gentlemen were somewhat surprised at the smiles which greeted them. If anything further were needed to convince Nickleby that he had been too hasty in his conclusions, this frank, clean-cut young American supplied it, and as the brief interview progressed the President of the Interprovincial approached as near to geniality as his naturally suspicious and cynical nature ever ventured. The detective had found Clayton just preparing to descend the stairs to his train; but he had come readily enough when the circumstances were explained to him.
"I do hope none of you gentlemen suspect my young friend here in connection with this inexplicable matter," were his first words as he stood with a hand on Stiles' shoulder. He spoke earnestly, his grave eyes searching their faces, one after another. "I haven't known Jimmy very long, of course; but I know honesty when I see it and I'd stake my life that he has had no hand in this—this strange disappearance which I understand has upset you all. May I ask just what the contents of this satchel were? Was it a sum of money or——?"
"No, no, it's all right, Mr. Clayton," volunteered Nickleby rather hurriedly,"—just some legal documents which can be duplicated; the puzzle is why anybody should take them. The delay in connection with some business matters which their loss will entail is the only thing that concerned us; but we find that it is not as bad as we thought, and we regret very much causing you this inconvenience."
Robert Clayton made a gesture of deprecation.
"That's the last consideration, gentlemen," he smiled. "For my own satisfaction, I would like to state candidly a little about myself. Under the circumstances it is your right to know."
What he had to say merely substantiated what Jimmy Stiles had told them already. He was returning from a visit to his uncle on a Western Ontario farm, and had remained over in the city for a few days on his way home. While out for a Sunday morning constitutional he had been attracted to All Saints' Mission by its resemblance to the little church he attended at home. There he had been welcomed so cordially by Jimmy Stiles and others that it had been a great pleasure to him.
He described in detail his meeting with Jimmy, and their harmless chat in the Jessup Grill. He produced his travelling bag and insisted on opening it for inspection despite the fact that there was no possibility of confusing its travel-worn leather with the tan satchel. It contained merely the usual travel accessories, a magazine and a box of cigars. The latter Clayton insisted upon passing around. He then produced his business card and chatted for a moment with Alderson about conditions in the building trade in Pennsylvania, asking many questions about prospects in hardware lines in Ontario.
So that when at last he took his departure, laughing away apologies, he left behind him a most favorable impression. Detective McCorquodale departed next with a real cigar between his teeth and a feeling of satisfaction in the recognition that he was no longer a "blithering idiot." Stiles was told to "knock off for the day and go fishin'," and accepted Podmore's five-dollar bill only when it was forced on him.
When the trio were alone once more Alderson produced a bottle and three glasses.
"To the Campaign Fund," he laughed, holding his glass aloft.
"And the future of the Government," added J. Cuthbert Nickleby.
"And of ourselves," said Podmore reverently.
It was thus that they parted for the second time that afternoon.
Mr. Hugh Podmore went directly to his hotel. Not until he was safe in his own room did he permit any unusual elation to show in his manner. Once he had locked the door, however, and pulled down the window-blinds, he threw himself upon the bed and indulged in a toss of unrestrained mirth. Still very much amused, he felt in his pocket for the key of the old walnut wardrobe with which his room was furnished, unlocked it and lifted out a tan satchel.
Assuredly. In all fairness to himself he had to admit that it had been about as neat a piece of work as he had ever known. For a first attempt it had been carried through with credit, cleverly planned and as cleverly executed. Everything had gone like a clock. Robert Clayton, alias "Tuxedo Bob," had performed his end of it with commendable finish, and Podmore felt that he had made no mistake in hiring him to come on from Chicago. Fifty thousand dollars! It wasn't a bad afternoon's work—not at all bad!
Setting the satchel upon the table, Mr. Podmore sank into the easy chair and lighted a cigarette with a slow smile of satisfaction. The smile lingered as he ran over the whole thing. Neat was not the word; artistic was better. Clayton had "happened" in at All Saints' Mission quite opportunely. Quite. It was proof of his ability that in three days he had established himself so firmly in the friendship of young Stiles. Poor, scared, white-faced kid!
And the duplicate satchels? An old trick, of course; but in simplicity lay success. Podmore had purchased those two identical imitation-leather satchels some days ago. In one he had placed the package of brown paper, cut to banknote size and held by rubber bands, and in a certain position on the outside of the satchel he had scratched a triangular identification mark with his pocket-knife; the other tan satchel he had delivered to the Alderson Construction Company's office. There it had received the currency in Alderson's elaborately sealed linen envelope, and there in front of the others Podmore had marked it ostentatiously for identification—the same triangular mark in the same position on the outside of the satchel.
When the bookkeeper went into the Jessup Grill Clayton had the duplicate satchel which contained the worthless brown wrapping paper—had it hidden under his raincoat. When Stiles had dropped the other satchel close alongside the raincoat on the floor he had played right into Clayton's hand, that being the very position for which Clayton was manoeuvring; an unobtrusive kick of the foot flopped the raincoat over the satchel which contained the money, so that Clayton had picked it up quite simply, leaving the duplicate satchel for Stiles.
Clayton had made straight for the Union Station, first stopping at the hotel where Podmore had hurried from the construction company's office and was waiting to receive the money satchel. At the hotel Clayton had picked up his own personal travelling bag and had gone over to the depot to wait for the Brady detective to find him in due course.
Podmore had not opened the precious satchel, the 'phone having rung with Alderson's hurry-up message just as he had reached his room. Chucking the tan satchel inside the wardrobe, he had gone back to Alderson's office immediately to engineer the covering up and to quiet the troubled waters.
It was not every day that such a golden opportunity of acquiring fifty thousand dollars presented itself. It was rarely that it could be done without the risk of discovery. But Mr. Hugh Podmore had recognized in this very secret contribution for election purposes a sum of money which was outlawed for the time being, which for obvious reasons dare not be claimed publicly by either side in the secret transaction. Ergo, it was any man's money who could lay hands on it. Ergo, it belonged to Mr. Hughey Podmore!
The beauty of it was that the idea of Ferguson removing the contents to provide a denial of the whole contribution was so patently the clever thing to do, that it was a wonder Ferguson had not thought of it himself when there was such need of secrecy. Nickleby had accepted the suggestion at once as the solution of the mystery.
Ferguson was stupid. Even Nickleby—admirable as was his smoothness—had fallen right into the clever trap prepared for him. If Nickleby did discover the truth, Podmore could give him the laugh. Let Friend Nickleby just start something and he'd find himself in several varieties of hot soup before he knew it. For did not Little Hughey know all about the crooked deal by which the worthy J. Cuthbert had ousted old Nat Lawson from the presidency of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company? He did! You bet he did! Let Nickleby interfere with these pickings of Little Hughey and he would be shown a thing or two that would cost him a lot more than a measly fifty thousand!
That had been a delicate touch—making Nickleby carry the key to the satchel across to Ferguson's office. The key to satchel number two, it was! Nickleby had been on hand throughout. Oh, they had nothing on Hughey Podmore in this thing, absolutely noth——!
Podmore's cigarette teetered on his lower lip. With a sudden lunge he grabbed for the tan satchel on the table. He went to the window and threw up the shade. Slowly he turned the satchel around, examining it minutely, his amazement growing. It was undoubtedly the same satchel exactly, so far as he could see,—except for one little disparity. There was no sign of the identification mark, no scratched triangle on either end!
Thoroughly mystified, Podmore fished out the tiny key that belonged to satchel number one. It would not fit!
With an oath he seized a hairbrush, smashed both lock and brush, slipped the catches and yanked open the satchel. Inside lay a roll of old newspapers, tied at the ends with dirty white string!
Hughey Podmore wiped his forehead with his handkerchief. For once he was completely non-plussed. He sank back into the chair and lighted another cigarette with a hand that shook ridiculously. For a very long time he sat there, smoking cigarettes and staring blankly at the wall, lighting each fresh one with the butt of its predecessor, end on end.
The retirement of Nathaniel Lawson from active participation in the management of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company had come as a complete surprise to his many acquaintances in commercial circles. For while he was frequently spoken of as "Old Nat," it was a familiarity fostered by long and friendly associations rather than declining years. Why a man in his prime and at the apex of his usefulness should drop out of harness so suddenly when he appeared to be in the best of health, was something of a mystery. Not a few missed his genial companionship, and were frank enough to say so on those rare occasions when Nat Lawson now put in an appearance at the Club. For a while rumors were rife, but gradually these subsided as his absence became a custom.
It was to that very end that the founder of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company made his retirement so literal. There were times when the inquisitiveness of his friends was hard to combat, when the temptation to give expression to the hidden springs of indignation that had been born within him was almost irresistible. So, acting upon his better judgment, he gradually relegated himself to the background of affairs till his tall, distinguished-looking figure was no longer a familiar sight in public places. But if his white hair, his carefully trimmed Van Dyke beard and wide moustache no longer singled him out in gatherings of his former associates his carriage lost none of its alertness, his glance none of its customary fearlessness. Nathaniel Lawson was biding his time.
Like so many successful men who have risen to places of wealth and influence, Lawson had begun as a poor boy, struggling upward over untold difficulties by pluck and determination. In his case, however, the rewards of the struggle had been swept from his reach at the very pinnacle of achievement by what appeared to be an exceptionally bold piece of financial buccaneering. He belonged to the older generation which had grown up accustomed to seeing business carried on by individuals or on a partnership basis; joint stock companies, combines and holding companies had been a development of his later days. It had taken him a lifetime to build up his financial business from very small beginnings, until it had become the big organization now known as the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company. And because it was his nature to be generous and kindly "Old Nat" had fallen victim to misplaced confidence.
In those early years of struggle conservative methods and plain honesty had been not the least of his assets. It was upon these sound principles that he had relied throughout. The small deposits of the working classes, more or less ignored by his early competitors, had given him his start; even now the strength of the Interprovincial lay in its popularity among workmen and farmers, while its aggregate of small savings accounts was tremendous. The people trusted the Interprovincial because they had seen it grow and knew that it was administered honestly. "Catch 'Old Nat' having anything to do with the tricks of high finance!" said they, confidently, and many were the stories which went the rounds of how the "old-fashioned" financier had allowed sentiment to "interfere" with business. And the business had grown apace.
Because of this ingrained sentimental streak in his make-up and because of this inherent honesty he had created some enemies. There were those who looked hungrily in the direction of the Interprovincial and imagined what could be accomplished in a very big way in several different directions if only the man in control of the stock were—say, a little more modern. If it were not for the close tab which that energetic young secretary kept upon things, Lawson would have run the concern into the ditch long ago, whispered the ambitious ones. The young and energetic secretary, J. C. Nickleby, may have been the first to whisper it—very confidentially, of course. For it would ill become so promising a young financier as J. Cuthbert Nickleby to be guilty of ingratitude, and there had been one raw wet night in the spring of a year long past when Nathaniel Lawson had rescued a miserable travesty of a man from the gutter—a night that Nickleby, once his benefactor had set him firmly upon his feet with a new lease of life, no doubt had schooled himself to forget for all time.
At any rate there had come an annual meeting at which Nat Lawson found himself in a quandary. It followed on the heels of a rumor that it was the desire of certain shareholders to inject some "new blood," and thereby new life, into the loan company—that it would be a good thing, in short, for the "revered old Chief" to retire to a pedestal where he could sit as inanimate as a bronze bust upon the official label, "Honorary President," while a younger man took upon his shoulders the burden of the expanded business, and so forth.
The campaign against him had been of a most insidious character and Lawson had pretended with dignity to ignore it, even while his resentment grew to the proportions of great indignation. And all the time he was worried because he could not find a certain power-of-attorney which authorized him to vote a large block of stock belonging to a personal friend who had invested heavily in Lawson's company—Bradford, the arctic explorer, who had gone into the hinterland on a Government expedition, and who was not expected to get into communication with civilization again for about two years. Bradford had left everything in connection with his investment in his friend Lawson's hands. While the status of this stock on the books of the Interprovincial was unquestioned, the power-of-attorney had been given to Lawson personally and had not been placed officially in the hands of the secretary with instructions.
Herein lay the quandary. For when at the annual meeting in question Nat Lawson had tried to vote the stock in the usual way, he was asked for the power-of-attorney by some of the new shareholders and could not produce it. Proxies which Nickleby had manipulated then were thrown on the scale and when the meeting was over, the Interprovincial had a new president by the name of J. Cuthbert Nickleby. In making the announcement, the newspapers had quite a story about "Old Nat" and his career; they printed in full the account which was handed to them regarding the presentation of a gold-headed cane, suitably engraved, and an illuminated address which marked the esteem in which the directors held the retiring president and founder.
Convinced though he was that the power-of-attorney had been stolen deliberately and that the whole thing was a cunning frame-up to get him out of the way in order that certain transactions of which he never would have approved might go through—although convinced that this was the truth of the matter, Nat Lawson had no evidence to prove a case against Nickleby or any of his associates. It would have been a dangerous procedure to give publicity to his suspicions, or to attempt legal action without definite proof of his charges, as this could result only in destroying public confidence in the institution itself without in the least altering the situation. At the worst, the reign of the Nickleby faction could be but temporary, as the situation would adjust itself with the return of the explorer who owned the stock. But it was exceedingly humiliating, and there was always the possibility that those now in control of the Interprovincial meanwhile would undermine the whole financial fabric by loose policies of administration, or even by questionable practices.
These apprehensions were shared by the only two friends whom Nat Lawson had admitted fully to his confidence—President Benjamin Wade, of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway, and McAllister, the keen-eyed editor of the Recorder, which of all the city newspapers was the most consistently independent in politics. Wade was an old friend of long standing, himself holder of a small block of stock in the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company, and it was to him that Lawson had turned for advice in his extremity. Immediately Wade had called into counsel the chief of his railroad's very competent detective staff, Bob Cranston, and thereupon began a series of quiet investigations with the object of obtaining the necessary evidence to depose the Nickleby faction from control of Interprovincial affairs.
Although equally anxious to help, McAllister had no part in Wade's plans; he preferred to work along special lines of his own. He and Wade differed in their theories of the situation, and much to Nat Lawson's amusement they had argued with some heat the first night that they happened to meet at the Lawson home; so that the two were somewhat in friendly rivalry, each anxious to prove that he was right, and each determined to play a lone hand.
It may have been his interest in the case that led McAllister to call so frequently of late at the old-fashioned brick house that stood back from the street, surrounded by spacious grounds and a wealth of carefully tended shrubbery, in the older residential section of the city. No doubt it was this that made him stop for a smoke with the former president of the Interprovincial about three evenings a week on the way to his office in the brightly-lighted Recorder building, where hummed activity during the hours that others slept, in order that the public might have a morning newspaper to prop against the sugar-bowl while it breakfasted.
Even so, it is necessary to add that Nathaniel Lawson had a beautiful and accomplished daughter whose name was Cristobel. It is necessary to record further that being a young woman of spirit, Miss Cristy Lawson had insisted upon taking up newspaper work as a profession when the need of adding to the family resources presented itself. For most of the Lawson capital had gone into the loan company and her father's philanthropic tendencies in the heyday of his earnings had made greater inroads upon his personal fortune than he had realized at the time. Her father's objections to the plan had been overruled finally when McAllister had offered Miss Lawson a position on the Recorder's day staff as "Society Editor," and it was not long before her interest in the work and her natural aptitude for it rejuvenated the Society Page into one of the best features the paper boasted.
Not content with this success, Miss Lawson became ambitious to try her journalistic wings in other directions; but her desire for more important assignments than the reporting of afternoon teas brought down the paternal foot—flat! No daughter of Nathaniel Lawson was going to be allowed to roam the city at all hours. "No night work," her father had insisted. Nevertheless, the young woman continued to hope that this edict would be removed eventually, and she never lost an opportunity of coaxing if she happened to be at home when McAllister was present; but there came a night finally when Nat Lawson grew impatient at her persistence and kindly but firmly put a final period to the topic.
She arrived home from a recital at the Conservatory of Music just in time to serve the refreshments and to listen breathlessly to the conclusion of the evening's animated discussion. Both Wade and McAllister were there and it was evident that they had been "at it again." From the quiet elation in the editor's eye and the corresponding amusement of her father, she judged that McAllister temporarily was having the better of the argument.
"Mac, I don't care a hoot what you've found out!" declared Ben Wade. "You can sit there and talk till this time to-morrow night, but you'll never convince me that the Honorable Milt isn't as straight as the best man who ever went into politics."
"Ah, just so—who ever went into politics," drawled McAllister with a provoking grin.
"Who ever did his duty in public life and became the victim of hidebound newspapers!" retorted Wade. "Milt Waring and I grew up in the same town together—went to the same school, played both hookey and hockey together. Why, I know him inside and out and I tell you he's as straight as a string."
"Your simile is unfortunate, Ben. The straightest string can be tied in knots."
"I see by this morning's papers that Rives has been released from the penitentiary," interposed their host. "Good conduct has got him out three years ahead of time. His sentence was fifteen, wasn't it?"
Wade nodded, but was not to be turned from his tilt with McAllister.
"What have you found out that makes you so cocky to-night?" he challenged the editor with interest.
"You'll read all about it in the Recorder when the time comes. You laughed at me the other night when I warned you that politics was mixed up in this Interprovincial manoeuvring. Watch me prove it. I'll send you a marked copy of the paper."
"Bluff! Listen to him, Nat!"
"I'm not in the habit of bluffing, Wade." McAllister's jaw was set as he patted the edge of the table for emphasis. "I'm responsible to the public and I tell you both right now that as sure as you're born—— Ah, good-evening, Miss Lawson," he finished, rising to his feet with a smile.
McAllister busied himself, clearing a space on the table for the tray she was carrying, and from beneath his shaggy brows the railroad president's shrewd eyes carried a glint of amusement at the evident relief with which the editor welcomed the interruption. A moment more and McAllister might have committed himself to a rash statement.
"And how goes the battle, Cristy? Who won the latest bun fight?" smiled Wade by way of making conversation. "Have you persuaded your father——?"
"Indeed I have not," interrupted Cristy with an exaggerated pout. She looked directly at Ben Wade and frowned, as if the subject were one about which she would rather not be teased even by an old family friend of long and intimate standing. "It is too mean for anything! If, as Mr. McAllister has been good enough to intimate, I am capable of big successes in newspaper work, is it right to hold me back from the necessary experience? To hear Daddy talk you'd think I was a little child——"
"Cristy!" reproved Nat Lawson quietly.
"But I ask you, Mr. Wade, is it fair——?"
"Your father knows best, my child. He probably has good reasons——"
"I do not approve of you working on the night staff. I must ask you not to refer to this matter again. We will not discuss it now, please."
"Allow me to give you another cup of cocoa, Mr. McAllister?"
"Thank you, but I must be getting along," said McAllister, glancing hurriedly at his watch. "I have stayed later than I intended, thanks to the side-tracking of yon railroad president."
"I'll run you down to the office in the car for that," laughed Wade, also rising. "I'm going out of town for a couple of weeks, Nat; but the next time I see you I expect to have some news that will interest you. And I'll give it to you in advance of publication." He slapped McAllister on the shoulder and they bade their host and hostess a jovial adieu.
But once Wade's limousine was speeding down the street the magnate fell strangely silent. He passed a cigar to McAllister and lighted one for himself. For fully five minutes he did not speak a word. He listened in a preoccupied way to the editor's opinion of the new city parks by-law and to that gentleman's surprise interrupted him finally by a statement entirely irrelevant.
"Cristy Lawson is a remarkably clever young woman," he said, gazing thoughtfully at a little electric light in the roof of the car.
"For once I can agree with you entirely," nodded McAllister, flashing a quick glance at the other's upturned face.
"I don't blame her for getting sick and tired of writing your pink-tea items. Why don't you give her a chance at bigger game?"
"You heard what her father said?"
"I did. I want to make sure that you did too."
"What do you mean?"
"Whatever you like," snapped Wade. "There are some jobs that even a clever woman has no business attempting, that's all."
"Why talk in riddles, Ben? What's on your mind?"
"This wonderful graft exposure which you are planning to spring on an unsuspecting public." He rounded on McAllister and looked at him gravely. "How much of it have you told Nat?"
"I have said nothing about it to anybody," replied the editor, plainly puzzled. "Why?"
"My advice is to keep right on saying nothing about it. The less you say the less you'll have to take back."
"We'll see about that in due course," chuckled McAllister. "Do I look like a fool?"
"Appearances are often deceptive. I once knew a fellow who got so slick at gumshoeing that he sneaked up on his own shadow and made a fool of himself."
"Got married at high noon, perhaps?"
"Mac, seriously, I want you to promise me that you won't spring anything without giving me twenty-four hours' notice. It's an unusual request, I know; but I ask it in your own interests." There was no mistaking the earnestness with which he spoke, and McAllister stared at him.
"You—have some inside information to justify it?"
"Yes. I cannot tell you the details just now. I warn you that if your paper attempts the so-called exposure which you have in mind without my co-operation you'll regret it bitterly. I can help you and will be glad to; but only on condition that you warn me when you are ready. Do you promise?"
The limousine had stopped opposite the Recorder building and McAllister alighted slowly. Then he reached in through the open door and shook hands.
"All right, Ben. You're the doctor," he decided.
"Good. You can count on me, then. As a starter I can promise that the photos of the Alderson Construction Company's missing campaign-fund contribution will be delivered to you personally to-morrow night. I'll look you up when I get back in a week's time, Mac. Good-night."
McAllister remained standing at the curb till Wade's car swung out of sight around the corner. Then he struck the pavement with his cane, for it irritated him to be so completely surprised. Wade knew! How much did he know? And how in under the sun——?
"Pyed!" he grunted. "Devil take the man!"
He turned slowly and entered the building to his night's work.
ABOARD THE PRIVATE CAR, "OBASKA"
For many years self-repression had stood high in the estimation of Hughey Podmore as a thing worth cultivating. He had first learned the value of it in many a clandestine game of poker, which he had condescended to play of a Saturday afternoon in a corner of the deserted composing-room. In those days of his early newspaper experience the ink-daubed denizens of the "ad-alley" had paid with hard-earned wages for many a fancy vest and expensive cravat which the paper's star reporter had worn with such aplomb. And when he had adventured afield into wider pastures more in harmony with his talents, where the cards were not soiled nor the air pungent with printers' ink and benzine, he had taken with him a tendency to quiet tones of speech and quietness of movement.
Being a believer in rubber-heels and a cool head, therefore, the secretary to the President of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway went about his duties with his customary assurance. After the first excitement of his startling discovery had passed there was nothing in his manner to indicate the fires which burned within. To one who knew him well, perhaps, it might have seemed that for the two weeks which followed the mysterious disappearance of the tan satchel he was even a little quieter than usual, a little more restrained in his talk, and a little more alert in movement. Beyond this he gave no indication of the keen disappointment and mortification that possessed him.
It had been the biggest stake for which he had yet played. He had stacked the cards with particular care till, so he had thought, all element of risk had been eliminated. But for this his natural caution would have deterred him from the attempt. What he had completely overlooked was the possibility that some one else might decide this was any man's money who was clever enough to acquire it. Figure as he might—and he had spent hours in deep thought—even his keen mind had been unable to solve the situation to his satisfaction. Somebody had stepped in and walked off with this money in front of his nose in spite of the most elaborate precautions. Who had done this, and how? It had been done so cleverly that not a single clue was left for Podmore to work on—once he had proved beyond question that Clayton had not double-crossed him. Clayton had taken the first train for Chicago; but not before Podmore had third-degreed him into abject fear. No, Clayton had had no hand in it; that was certain, and with that once established, the identity of the arch-thief remained a mystery which baffled investigation—especially when the situation called for the utmost circumspection.
It was a problem which Podmore was forced to solve without consulting anyone. He could not go boldly to his supposed partners with his discovery; for thereby he would reveal to Nickleby and Alderson his own attempt at double dealing. That he had to be very careful what he did, Mr. Hughey Podmore realized,—very careful indeed. For this mix-up held many possibilities for personal misfortune. In fact, the situation suddenly had become fraught with positive danger. There were moments, therefore, when the cautious Mr. Podmore felt qualms which though not born of a troubled conscience, were nonetheless disagreeable. Conscience in the case of Hughey Podmore, if it had ever existed, had been a stunted affair which because of malnutrition long since had given up the ghost. Its place had been pre-empted by Argus-eyed regard for all matters affecting the preservation of Mr. Podmore's precious epidermis—the safety of his own skin. And Hughey Podmore was well aware that a large contribution to campaign funds by a construction company would be a matter of immediate suspicion among opponents of the Government if it became known. Such things had got people into trouble before this. It had been one of the things which had landed the famous Honorable Harrington Rives in jail—and others who were involved.
Hughey Podmore knew all about that strenuous period of political chaos. Twelve years ago he had been an eager-eyed young reporter with a large appreciation of newspaper sensations. His skill at ferreting into hidden recesses by unscrupulous methods had made him a valuable man for a paper which was willing to ignore certain time-honored traditions of the press. Under editorial stimulus Hughey had blossomed forth among the flowers of the journalistic profession as a yellow chrysanthemum. "Mum" became the word wherever Hughey showed himself! His reputation finally had ostracised him into other fields of endeavor.
Those had been the days! If only he and Rives had been working together! If he had been managing Rives' campaigns there would have been no crude mistakes to land the "people's idol" behind the bars, Waring or no Waring. He would have seen that every dainty dish was properly cooked before it was set before the King, its inner rawness safely covered, done up brown. By all means let there be lemon filling, but smothered in a beaten white purity that would pass the public censor! Under his management there would have been no tangible evidence to show that favored contractors, bidding upon public works, had been secretly advised that their tenders were too low, and instructed as to the amounts to which it was safe for them to raise their new tenders; there would have been no evidence of election contributions from these favored contractors for the amounts thus squeezed out of the public treasury.
With such an example of folly to warn him, it was no wonder that the Honorable Milton Waring had told Nickleby and Alderson he would have nothing to do with their proposed campaign fund contribution. Nickleby must have a pretty strong connection even to dare such an approach; evidently he had felt pretty sure of himself to go ahead with the plan on his own initiative.
Nickleby believed that Ferguson had the money now. What would he say if he knew the facts—that the money was really in the hands of some person unknown, some person perhaps who was interested in gathering evidence that would upset the present Government? There was only one thing for Mr. Podmore to do, now that his own pet scheme had failed, and that was to keep quiet as to his own ambitions and stick to the three-handed game which he was supposed to be playing with Nickleby and his henchman, Alderson; for Nickleby was worth tying to.
Thus ran the reflections of Hughey Podmore as he lounged comfortably in a leather chair aboard the private car, "Obaska," and idly watched the endless flow of the Algoma wilderness pass the windows monotonously. The car had taken an inspection party west to the head of the lakes, but a wire from the Vice-President was sending the President back to headquarters unexpectedly. Besides President Wade, Podmore and Taylor, the steward, the only person on board was Bob Cranston. Cranston was chief of the railroad's Special Service Department. Taylor was busy in his kitchen, preparing dinner. Cranston and the President had the brass-railed observation platform at the rear of the car to themselves and were deep in earnest conversation; they had shut the door at their backs and the sound of their voices was lost in the roar of the wheels.
Hughey Podmore smiled cynically as he watched them. There was nothing in President Wade's fine strong profile to indicate the trend of talk. Both, in fact, were men who seldom allowed what they were thinking to reflect in their facial expressions too readily. Nevertheless, the perspicacious Mr. Podmore could surmise the subject of conversation, or at any rate give a guess which was close enough to satisfy his own curiosity.
He amused himself by running over the list of possible topics. Wade was a big man in financial circles, a man of rugged and plain-spoken dealings who commanded the confidence of every associate and was respected even by his enemies. There were many matters of moment which he might have discussed with bankers or lawyers or statesmen, but which he would hardly attempt with a bull-necked bonehead like Cranston. Government railway bond issues, franchises and stock-quotations were beyond that cheap stiff's depth. Probably Cranston was holding forth in regard to some petty theft which his crew of spotters had discovered, some ticket-scalping conductor——
Or there was old Nat Lawson's case in which Wade was interested; it was a topic that was often uppermost in the railway President's mind, as Podmore knew, and Hughey smiled inscrutably at the smoke curling from his cigarette. Old Nat, the founder and former president of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company—the honest old fool whom Nickleby had succeeded in overcoming by a trick, and whose shoes J. Cuthbert was now wearing! It would take more than the friendship of a Benjamin Wade, powerful though that was, to salvage Old Nat. That nanny-whiskered old galoot was sunk in too many fathoms of water ever to wade ashore. (He smiled at his poor pun.) The missing power-of-attorney that had scuttled the Lawson supporters would continue missing for all time to come. Mr. J. Cuthbert Nickleby, the then genial secretary, had seen to that once for all; in fact, it had been a charred fragment of the document which Mr. Hugh Podmore had used as a card of introduction when he had had his first long and very interesting session with Friend Nickleby.
Some class to Nickleby all right. Here were methods which Mr. Podmore could understand and admire. It was because the minds of Messrs. Podmore and Nickleby ran in the same grooves that he had been able to unearth enough of Nickleby's very private plans to persuade that "rising young financier" that it was better to set another plate at the head table than to have the dishes smashed and Lucullus waylaid before he could reach the banquetting-hall.
So Mr. Podmore had hung up his hat, accepted a cigar and joined the inner ring, soon proving himself a congenial spirit and an able counsellor. And inasmuch as President Wade, of the Canadian Lake Shores Railroad, was seeking about that time for a private secretary with a newspaper training; inasmuch as it was known to J. Cuthbert Nickleby that the said President Wade hoped to restore Old Nat Lawson to his former place in the business world by acquiring control of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company—inasmuch did it seem desirable in the interests of Messrs. Nickleby and Podmore that Mr. Podmore should apply for the vacant secretaryship. Podmore had got the position, thereby enabling Nickleby to keep a finger upon the pulse of his opposition.
Wade was shrewd, clever, a big man; he knew many things, did Benjamin Wade, railway magnate. But, reflected Hughey, there were many things also which he did not know, and there was a disagreeable twist in the corner of Podmore's mouth as he lounged and smoked. His revered chief did not know, for instance, that his very competent secretary had spent the better part of an afternoon alone in the private car "Obaska," listening to the click of the tumblers in the little secret wall safe which the President had had built in behind a sliding panel—listening so intelligently that the said very competent secretary had come away with the combination.
Podmore's further enjoyment of retrospection was cut short by a sudden gesture which rivetted his attention upon the two men on the rear platform. Cranston had turned suddenly and was peering in at him; almost automatically Podmore's eyes dropped quickly to the open magazine on his knee. There was a certain hint of caution on the railroad detective's face that did not escape the astute secretary. The latter's vigilance was rewarded presently by seeing Cranston reach into an inside pocket, pull out a bulky blue envelope and quickly pass it across to the President. The latter as quickly stowed it out of sight in an inner pocket of his tweed coat and himself cast a hasty glance over his shoulder to see if he had been observed. But again Mr. Podmore's gaze dropped in time and when he raised his eyes casually from his magazine it was to note an expression of satisfaction upon the faces of both gentlemen. They got up and came inside, laughing rather loudly.
"That there steak and onions Taylor's cookin' is sure goin' to hit the spot," cried Cranston, sniffing with relish. "Eh, Hughey?" He dropped into the chair alongside the secretary with a familiar slap on the latter's knee, and thrust his legs out in the sprawling abandon of a comfortable stretch.
Unfortunately he did this just as President Wade, having turned to toss away the end of his cigar, took a step forward with a hand thrust into an inside pocket of his coat, evidently intending to put away in the safe the envelope which Cranston had given him. The result of Cranston's sudden movement and Wade's awkward position was that the President tripped, lost his balance and would have measured full length on the car floor if Cranston had not caught him. In his effort to save himself the blue envelope was jerked out of his pocket and fell directly at Podmore's feet.
"Oh, I beg your pardon, sir!" apologized Cranston hurriedly.
"That's all right, Bob," laughed Wade good naturedly. "Thanks, Hughey," as his secretary handed him the envelope. "Why, what's the matter?"
Podmore's face had gone suddenly white and he was trembling visibly.
"Aint you feelin' well, Hughey?" enquired Cranston with concern. He rang quickly for highballs.
"It's all right,—thanks," stammered Podmore hastily. "I—I guess it's just a little faintness due to the fact that I ate practically no lunch—I'm all right now."
Nevertheless when Taylor arrived with the decanter Podmore poured himself an extra stiff drink. He had need of it. For a second time he had lost his poise, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he prevented any further manifestation of the fact during the meal and the evening which followed. For unless he was very much mistaken—and he felt sure that he was not—that envelope he had picked up and handed to the President was the identical blue linen envelope that had been stolen with the tan satchel so mysteriously two weeks ago! The size of it, the feel of it, the daubs of gray sealing-wax—Oh, there was no mistaking it!
How in thunderation had it come into Cranston's hands?—Cranston, of all men! Had Cranston pulled off the stunt? Had Podmore been doing him an injustice? He studied the chief of the Special Service Department with a new and wide-awake interest. If Cranston had purloined this packet it was under orders—Wade's, of course. Then that suspicion which had kept recurring every time he had tried to think out the mystery of the disappearance was correct. It was a political move! The opponents of the Government were lining up for the approaching election with open charges of mal-feasance, graft,—the same old game! Wade, he knew, had had friction with the present administration over certain legislation; that was sufficient motive for him taking a hand, although it was hardly likely that a man of Wade's standing would allow himself to become involved in such back-alley tactics—unless—Nickleby—the Interprovincial——!
Podmore's thoughts were not running as clearly as usual. They kept pocketing themselves provokingly in blind alleys that led nowhere, or scattering in mazes that led everywhere. There was such a wide field of speculation open, once he began to consider things from the political angle, that it was difficult to reach any very definite conclusion. He was not now so concerned as to the why or the how of what had happened; the cold analysis of motives and methods was dwarfed by the one big fact that here on board the private car and within easy reach was that blessed envelope, containing fifty thousand dollars of any man's money. For it did not look as if it had been tampered with; the seals were still unbroken. Right here, within a few yards of where he sat, was that little old bunch of greenbacks that he had planned so earnestly to take unto his bosom and that had cost him so many heartburnings this past two weeks. Talk about luck! Talk about Opportunity knocking once on somebody's door! Why, the Old Dame was chopping down his door with an axe!
With his mind in such a chaos of confused emotions Hughey found it difficult to keep up his end of the conversation and he was not sorry when the others showed a tendency to turn in early. Once the lights were dimmed he could hardly wait the reasonable length of time which must elapse before the other three occupants were asleep, so eager was he to make his investigations. But at last the snores of Cranston and the steward and the steady breathing of President Wade satisfied him that the way was clear.
Quietly he slipped from his berth. He had not undressed, except to remove his boots and coat, and in two minutes he had the envelope in his hands. He slipped noiselessly down the aisle to the steward's kitchen, switched on a light and examined the prize leisurely. He felt it carefully, hefted it in one hand, then with the aid of a thin-bladed paring-knife he succeeded in loosening a corner of the flap sufficiently to allow of a peek at the contents without disturbing the seals. His involuntary exclamation of satisfaction when he verified the contents as a package of greenbacks was drowned fortunately in the hum of the train. It was the missing campaign fund contribution beyond a doubt.
Back down the dimly lighted aisle with its swaying green curtains, past the sleepers he slipped noiselessly to the writing desk where he carefully regummed the corner of the flap, leaving no trace of his inspection. Then he sank into a leather chair and lit a cigarette with a cheerful grin on his face.
The Fates certainly were kindness itself. He had it—50,000 bucks! He actually had it in his pocket! It was enough to give Mr. Podmore a fine start on his own account somewhere far away. Nickleby and Alderson? They could go and take a jump in the lake! He had his. It was a good time to drop out of this game anyway. The political situation did not look any too good. Well, he would befriend the Honorable Milt and Ferguson and Nickleby and Alderson by removing this little piece of election evidence from the reach of their opponents. That was a service which was cheap at the price.
Yes, it was time to say a final farewell while the farewelling was good. He hunted up a time-table. They must be somewhere in the vicinity of Indian Creek by now. Where would the west-bound limited be at that hour? He glanced at his watch, then flattened his nose against the window, until his eyes became accustomed to the starlight and he could watch the dim panorama of spruce trees and lonely little lakes sliding by in ceaseless procession. Presently he recognized a flag-station. His guess at Indian Creek as their whereabouts had not been far astray.
He made his plans quickly. He would drop off, walk to the nearest station and catch No. 1, westbound, at midnight. That would take him into the Missinaibi country by daylight, and he could afford to run the risk of discovery until then. He would leave the train there somewhere and would find no difficulty in obtaining an outfit and an Indian guide. They would hit southwest for Lake Superior, and once there he could find his way across to the Michigan side by night and so away.
Podmore laced his boots rapidly and went through his grip for one or two articles he thought he might need. He stole back to the kitchen and put some crackers and cheese in his pockets; it was all he could find that was not under lock and key. Then with the precious envelope buttoned tightly inside his coat he picked his way cautiously to the rear of the swaying car, closed the door carefully behind him and climbed over the brass rail.
For a moment he hung there, hesitating. Then he let go his hold and disappeared.
The President's private car pulled into Wardlow at the tail of No. 2, the east-bound express, at 3.10 a.m., and was there side-tracked upon instructions from Detective Robert Cranston. As soon as No. 2 had got away behind a fresh engine on the long jump to the next divisional point, Cranston, fully dressed, descended from the car and went across to the despatcher's office. Half an hour later he returned to the car, undressed and crawled back into his berth with a grunt of satisfaction.
The President greeted him at breakfast with a smile and Cranston responded with the grin of a man who has made predictions which have come true.
"Well, Bob, your fish bit, I see."
"Sure did, sir. He took bait, hook an' sinker at 23.20 an' I'll have him reeled in by to-morrow morning."
"Not so sure about that, Bob," said Wade skeptically. "Fish sometimes get clean away, remember. What have you done?"
"Wired his description to every section foreman on the division with instructions to notify me here and hold him prisoner till we come. Fifty dollars reward. We crossed No. 1 half an hour after Hughey jumped. Johnston has special instructions to watch out for him, and there isn't a sharper conductor in the service. He'd figure to grab the west-bound, if everything went well. If he didn't succeed, we'll nab him sure somewhere up the line during the day."
"Unless he's taken to the woods. Podmore's not fool enough to stick to the track, Bob," objected Wade.
"Excuse me, sir, but that's exactly what he's got to do in these here parts. A train's the on'y hope he's got of gettin' quick to where he can get an outfit. On'y a damn fool 'd try to make the lake immediate. I aint sayin' as he mightn't lay low for a while, but he can't stick that out long."
"Well, I'll be gone all day with Foster up the Lone Hollow spur. Back by dark. That's all the time I can give you, Bob. If you haven't a lead before No. 2 gets here, I'm afraid I can't wait." He got up from the table.
"That's all right, Mr. Wade. But I'll have a message to show you when you get back this evening," said Cranston confidently.
Nevertheless the only message which he was able to show the President on his return was a wire from Johnston that there was no trace of Podmore among his passengers, and that everybody who had boarded last night's westbound train on the Wardlow division was accounted for. It was with considerable secret disappointment that the Chief of the Special Service Department of the C.L.S. made arrangements for the President's car to continue eastward with No. 2, while he remained behind at Wardlow; for thereby Cranston was losing a splendid opportunity to demonstrate his ability at cross-questioning in the presence of the magnate. He was only human.
Cranston, however, had been taught by experience that time is never up till the last moment. Although his belongings were packed, he left his suitcase aboard the car and long after he had said good-bye to Wade, long after the President was in his berth for the night, the detective sat doggedly on in the despatcher's office, smoking his pipe. His patience was rewarded about an hour before No. 2 was due.
The message was from Thorlakson and came over the wire from the night operator at Indian Creek. The Icelander was holding Podmore at Thorlakson Siding as instructed. Cranston already had made arrangements for a special engine to run them back up the line, and having issued definite instructions he went back to the private car and unpacked his pyjamas.
One of those methodical individuals who are born every now and then with the gift of interpreting railway schedules would have had no great difficulty in locating "Thorlakson" in the main-line timetable of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway. It takes the form of a little dagger-mark which, pursued into the fine print of the "Explanatory," yields the information that "Thorlakson" is a flag-station.
Magnus Thorlakson himself, Icelander, must be credited with being one of the oldest and most conscientious section foremen on the division. He, his men, his wife, his children and everything that was his abode in a log shanty on a rise of ground close to the track. The rest of the place consisted of a long siding, a short wooden platform, a tall new standard enclosed water-tank and a little whitewashed shed where the handcar and tools were stored. A creek here slipped out of the woods to find fault with a stone culvert ere it flowed beneath the track and resought silence among the encircling spruce trees.
It was a lonesome, insignificant place with nothing to indicate its selection as a bobbin for threads of destiny. The sun was just coming into the sky above the low-lying hills to the east when the President's special steamed into the siding. From the group, clustered about the tool-shed and awaiting its arrival, a broad-shouldered young man in the flannel shirt and legging boots of a railway engineer separated himself and hurried forward. He waved his hand as he recognized Wade's sturdy figure and laughed to hear the magnate's hearty greeting of surprise, his profane enquiry as to what in Gehenna Philip Kendrick was doing away up here in the woods.
The mere sound of that big vibrant bass voice, the mere vitality of the magnate's presence was stimulating. Here was a two-fisted, hard-headed, straight-spoken man's man who had fought his way to the top by refusing pointblank to stay at the bottom. As Phil stood renewing acquaintance he realized more fully why his aunt had always had such supreme confidence in this old friend of her girlhood.
"I've been working for the C.L.S. for nearly two weeks now," he explained. "I'm chainman with the Rutland party, out from North Bay on a topographical survey. We're taking a new mileage and mapping the right-of-way. Our van's on the second siding above here."
This unexpected "vacation" had come about quite simply. On arrival in North Bay to go fishing with Billy Thorpe he had found that wide-awake young architect so immersed in an important contract that temporary postponement of their plans was imperative. As if provided specially to meet the situation along had come Rutland's urgent wire to headquarters for a new chainman, one of his men having taken sick suddenly. Phil had jumped at the opportunity for a taste of practical survey work, and with Thorpe's assistance the matter had been arranged readily and he had left the same night to join the Rutland party out the line.
The battered old freight caboose in which the young engineers lived was moved ahead from siding to siding by passing freight trains as Rutland advised the Chief Despatcher of the work's progress. Scarcely a day had passed that had not strung a few interesting beads of incident to brighten the necklace of its routine monotonies—the squealing, kicking baby rabbit which Anderson, the head chainman, had captured; the wild duck which they had cornered in a thicket and which Bayley, the marker, had insisted upon decorating with his white paint before he would let it go; the occasional mess of speckled trout for which they angled; the fresh baked pies and cakes they were sometimes able to buy from a section-man's wife; the bear tracks and the bodies of wild animals lured to death by the glare of the powerful headlights on the fast trains at night; the excitement at the great ballast pit where the gangs at work were running an unpopular cook out of camp; the very old Indian who had stared at the dragging chain and muttered "Heap big snake," and the very young Englishman who had gone crazy from fly-bites and whom the sawmill gang had strapped to a rough litter in preparation for rushing him to the North Bay hospital by the first train they could flag. In spite of the mosquitoes, black flies and midges, which at this season of the year were a decided affliction in the country through which they were working, Kendrick had enjoyed the new experience. Twenty miles average daily working distance, frequently with an extra ten-mile walk back to the car, already had rounded the erstwhile captain of the Varsity rugby champions into tackling condition.
In spite of the fact that he had been up all night, therefore, his eyes were bright with the mirror glisten which is the gift of long hours in the open air. The black eye which had attracted unwelcome attention at first no longer contributed to the amusement of the inquisitive, the obtrusion of its remaining jaundice being overcome by the new coat of tan that encroached upon it.
His presence at Thorlakson Phil accounted for very briefly, saying merely that he had come back there to look for a lost pocketbook, containing his railway pass. But it had not been the pass or the loose change that had troubled him so greatly; it had been—well, darn it, he didn't want to lose them like that anyway!—a dollar bill, wrapped carefully around a lady's shirtwaist pin! It was his own business entirely. Luckily Thorlakson had picked it up and was able to restore the pocketbook with its contents intact.
As it had turned out Kendrick's evening hike back down the track to Thorlakson had been a lucky thing for Podmore too. Within a mile of the siding Phil had come upon him, sitting beside the track in despair of reaching human aid before he collapsed completely. He had been badly hurt in his fall from the train, and aside from these injuries his hands were swollen and covered with dirt and blood, his torn clothes encrusted with dried mud, collar and tie gone and his shirt ripped open in front, revealing neck and chest smeared with blood where the blackflies had bitten him severely.
"He had spent part of the night and the whole day in the woods and was half out of his head, poor devil!" said Phil. "I managed to get him down here and with the help of Mrs. Thorlakson's homemade liniment I fixed him up as well as I could. He insisted on me staying with him all night—till you arrived, in fact."
"Expected us, eh?" grunted Wade.
"Oh, sure. News of the—er—accident travelled up and down the line pretty swiftly. A track-walker passed the word to us early yesterday morning just as we were starting out from the caboose for the day's work. So I had Thorlakson get a message off to you; he stuck it in a split stick and the engineer of a passing freight caught it O.K. and took it up the line to the operator at Indian Creek."
As Kendrick finished speaking they both turned to watch Cranston approaching slowly, supporting Podmore. The secretary's condition had improved greatly under Phil's ministrations and the food which Mrs. Thorlakson had prepared for him. But it was apparent that he was still suffering from shock and beneath the bandage about his head the black and blue evidence of the contusion was visible. His sprained arm was bandaged also and he limped badly and leaned heavily upon the detective.
"Hello there, Hughey," greeted Wade. "Wrecked from engine to caboose, eh? What a whack on the head! Might've killed you. How'd you come to fall off?"
Podmore smiled weakly. He gazed for a moment at Kendrick as if trying to collect his thoughts. Then he explained that he had been troubled with insomnia and got up to smoke a cigarette. He had been fool enough to perch up on the brass rail at the rear of the private car, thinking the fresh air might make him sleepy. The train had been hitting up a fast pace on a down grade and as they swung a curve he had lost his balance and pitched clean down a long fill among the rocks of a creek bottom. The fall had knocked him senseless. When finally he had recovered consciousness he had been too ill to move for a long time. Then the hot sun had driven him to crawl painfully into the woods where he had lain helpless most of the day, with just enough strength to get water from the creek. When he began to feel a little better toward nightfall he had gone back to the track and started for help. Just as he was ready to give up Kendrick had found him.
Cranston and the President exchanged glances, but Wade merely nodded when Podmore requested to be allowed to crawl into his berth because he was feeling "swimmy in the head." Cranston and the steward helped him aboard and proceeded to put him to bed.
"From that little shake of the head that Cranston just passed you, Mr. Wade, I gather that he failed to find any trace of the envelope that's missing," said Kendrick quietly. He smiled at the abruptness with which the President of the C.L.S. took hold of his arm and walked him away from the car.
"Let's go over there and see Thorlakson a minute," he said loudly. "Now, shoot," he added in a lower voice. "What do you know about this thing, Phil?"
"He's been trying to fill me up with the smoothest line of bunk I ever listened to. According to him you're the sworn political enemy of Uncle Milt and have had a finger in the theft—theft, mind you!—of important secret state documents which would have been the cause of a financial panic if they had remained in your possession much longer, to say nothing of undermining public confidence in the present administration."
"Great Busted Reputations! Did he tell you that?"
"While I was bandaging him. He said he was the reporter who located the evidence that had convicted Rives and elected my uncle, and that he was acting now as an agent of the government to recover the confidential reports that had been stolen from the chairman of the Waterways Commission."
"Trying to unload the envelope on you, eh?"
"Yes. He asked me to post it for him—addressed it himself to his address in Toronto."
"What did you do?"
"Posted it, of course—in a hollow stump over there near the tank with a slab of fungus on top for a lid!"
Ben Wade laughed aloud.
"Know what's in the thing?" he demanded abruptly.
"These stolen Government documents?"
"Fifty thousand dollars, you mean!"
"The son-of-a-gun!" muttered Kendrick, looking startled.
"But he doesn't happen to know that the bills are bogus—stage money, sandwiched between a couple of genuine bills of small denomination," chuckled Wade. He stopped short and stood in front of Kendrick with one hand on the younger man's shoulder. "Phil," he said seriously, "you've stumbled in on a little game that is being played out with stacked cards. We'll talk about it after breakfast. We'll be running up as far as Indian Creek to use the Y in the old ballast pit. You're coming along. We can stop at Rutland's caboose long enough for you to pick up your nightie and your safety razor."
"I don't think I understand, Mr. Wade," said Phil, puzzled.
"Not supposed to," retorted Wade. "Fact is, you're fired! You can't work for Rutland another minute——"
"Because you're hired! I've got to have a secretary, haven't I? There's interesting work ahead, boy, and I need you. Don't ask questions. Breakfast first. I can't talk without a cigar and I never smoke before breakfast."
"Shall I run over to the stump and get the envelope?" asked Kendrick when he had recovered from his first surprise.
"Not by a jugful! Podmore thinks you're playing his game, doesn't he? Always draw to the aces, Phil. Leave the envelope where it is. Hello, Thorlakson. Hello, boys. Good work last night. I want to thank you all. Mr. Kendrick here has just been telling me how well you did your duty. He wants you to have that fifty dollar reward—all of it."
As he spoke he took from his pocket a roll of greenbacks and peeled off five ten-dollar bills which he handed to the foreman with a twinkle of the eye. It was what they had been waiting for with a vast interest. And while Svenson, the big Swede, and the two Norwegians snatched off their caps and grinned, Thorlakson endeavored to convey their entire satisfaction.
"Yaow, Meester Vade, sir, it is wery suffeecient," he assured in his best English as he shook hands with profound respect. When he turned to Kendrick there was added his evident admiration of the young man's generosity.
Smoke was curling up from the kitchen end of the private car and the welcome aroma of coffee announced that Taylor had breakfast ready. They climbed aboard forthwith, but the special remained sidetracked to pass a fast freight. It thundered by before they finished the meal and by the time Kendrick found himself on the observation platform at the rear of the car the special was on its way.
Wade carefully shut the door behind them. Podmore had fallen into a sound slumber while Cranston was busy at the writing-desk, and it was with a lively interest that Phil settled himself to listen to whatever confidences Ben Wade might see fit to impart. For some time, however, the President of the C.L.S. smoked in silence, his shaggy eyebrows puckered in a frown and his gaze fastened thoughtfully upon the serrated skyline of the spruce tops that ran rearward unceasingly.
"We've come across two or three places like that on this division the past two weeks," said Phil to break the silence. He nodded towards the disused station building that was receding down the track, its boarded windows and broken platform eloquent of desolation. "I've wondered why a perfectly good station like that should be built in the first place if it was to be abandoned later on without even a day telegraph operator?"
"Eh? Oh, there used to be some lumbering around here when we first opened up. Also the road's required to put up a station every so-many miles without regard to the surrounding country—just a fool charter obligation, that's all; sometimes we use an old box-car——" Wade carefully picked away the band of his cigar. "Phil, I'm going to ask you to undertake a somewhat unusual commission for me with no very definite idea of what it may lead you into. There may be even some danger attached to it. It is my duty to mention this possibility, although I know you'll consider that not at all when I tell you that the results may have some bearing upon the welfare of—your uncle; indirectly, perhaps your aunt.
"Let me give you a few facts. If you've cut your eye teeth you know that just as man does not live by bread alone so elections in this fair land are not won nowadays by mass meetings and fine speeches, but by hard cold cash and organization. Things have come to such a pass that it is largely a matter of machinery. The side with the biggest machine and the most oil—and gas—is pretty sure of passing the grandstand in the lead. The oil is most important, and long before the race it is gathered into a large tank called the 'Party Campaign Fund,' by henchmen who call upon various friendly corporate institutions. You follow me?"
"Right at your heels," smiled Kendrick.
"Well then, one of these substantial little contributions not long since while on its devious way to the Place of Burnt Offerings was ambushed by somebody with a hankering for the fleshpots of Egypt—fifty thousand dollars cold, stolen as slick as a whistle. I happen to be one of the very few, outside of the principals in the transaction, who know anything about it; for campaign fund contributions are among those things which men of discretion do not discuss from the housetops. I'm not going to say just now how this information reached me; but it is necessary for you to know that the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company is vitally interested in the recovery of this money, or at least in the identity of the thief. And when we speak of the Interprovincial in these halcyon days we speak of J. Cuthbert Nickleby, its astute president. A thing like this could never have happened if Nat Lawson had been in the saddle.
"Mention of Nickleby brings me to Podmore, who is nothing more than a tool of Nickleby's. I knew when I hired Podmore as my secretary that I was hiring a spy. I knew his record. You see, they were aware of the fact that I was interesting myself on behalf of my friend, Lawson. Podmore hadn't been with me two days before the beggar had the combination of the safe aboard this car. He's a smooth one. But I figured to learn as much from him as he got from me. Before we get to Toronto I'll give you the inside history of that Lawson situation; for it's mixed up with the rest of it.
"But let me get back to this stolen money. It was done up in an envelope just like this one which Podmore stole from the car the other night; fact is, they're duplicates. It was a little experiment which Cranston and I decided to try out to get Podmore where we wanted him. We're going to have an interesting session with him after a bit on the off chance of securing some information. I haven't a great deal of confidence in third-degree methods; but I'm letting Cranston have a fling at it on the chance that Podmore will drop a stitch. He's yellow enough for anything.
"Now, here's where you come in, Phil. Podmore thinks you intend to help him out and that is exactly what I want you to pretend to do. We'll stage a little drama and we'll have you on the carpet along with him. You'll deny all knowledge of the envelope. I'll fire you. You'll get mad and come back at me with red-hot talk for doubting your word and so on. We're going to let Podmore go when we get to the city. You'll go with him. The chance to sic you onto him is too good to miss. So we'll turn you loose together; it will be up to you then to mix in where you see fit. Is that all clear?
"All right. What I want you to do is to keep an eye on him. Find out what his next move is. He told you he was the reporter who had located the evidence that convicted Rives. Did he tell you how he got hold of it?—how he double-crossed Rives by low-down trickery? He doesn't know how to be loyal to anybody. I'll be surprised if he doesn't repeat on Nickleby.
"Then there are some things I want to find out about Nickleby and his associates. I want you to move carefully, Phil. I had one of Cranston's best men on the job until recently; but his usefulness was ended by unexpected developments. I'm working to put Nat Lawson back at the head of the loan company; Nickleby is an interloper and he's playing ducks and drakes with the concern. Tell you about it later. Are you agreeable to act as my secretary in these matters and to carry out instructions—blindfolded, so to speak?"
Kendrick had listened intently to this recital. Now he deliberately lighted his pipe before replying, and when he did it was to ask a blunt question.
"Does Uncle Milt figure in this?" and he noted the shadow that crossed the magnate's face.
"I wish I really knew that, Phil," said Wade seriously. "Time will tell. I'm banking on your uncle to stay square to the finish; but there's nothing to be gained by shutting one's eyes to the fact that many a good man has found the political game as it's being played these days too many for him. There are those who are inclined to doubt all politicians, your uncle included. I don't set myself up as any high-minded reformer; if you're sitting in on a game at all, you've got to play it according to the rules that are handed you—or quit."
Phil smoked in silence. He was thinking of that strange interview with his uncle the night of the fog; but he gave no voice to his thoughts.
"Your aunt has some of her private funds invested in the Interprovincial Loan and that's one of the reasons I want you with me, Phil." Wade turned and laid a hand on Kendrick's knee while he looked the young man quietly in the eye. "There are stronger considerations than the money side of it, though. All I can say is that the happiness of your aunt is as dear to me as it is to you, or as it would be to anyone who had learned to respect and admire her as we have. That happiness has got to be guarded, Phil, even at the sacrifice of—everything else."
His gaze wandered away again to where the twin rails converged, and for a moment the rhythmic beat of the wheels over the joints held sway. Rather surprised, Phil stole a glance at the virile face that was turned so steadfastly away and recalled an item of gossip he had once overheard somewhere—that Mrs. Waring was the real reason Benjamin Wade was still a bachelor. He wondered if there could be any truth in that idle rumor.
"I'm sorry that I can't be more explicit. Did you ever try to piece out a puzzle, Phil? That's what I'm up against now. I'll tell you all about it—as soon as I know myself. There are men in this world who stop at nothing——"
Phil turned abruptly, a startled look in his eyes; but the other did not finish the sentence.
"Harrington Rives is out of jail—" he began.
"A case in point, if you like," nodded Wade. "But don't let's talk to no purpose. We'll be passing Rutland's car in a minute. Do we stop for your things?"
"You hired me back there at Thorlakson's," Kendrick reminded.
In this simple fashion were events conspiring.
THE STENOGRAPHER STILL LISTENING
The visitors who came and went occasionally up the back stairs at Blatchford Ferguson's office were a motley lot. Silk hats and expensive overcoats sometimes hung on the hooks in the corner. Again, ill-kempt figures slunk up that back way and signal-tapped an entrance; for in his police-reporter days Blatch Ferguson had been interested in the study of underworld types and he made no secret of his intention of one day writing an authoritative work upon the psychology of crime.
The big leather chair, so placed that it faced the light and left the lawyer in partial shadow behind his desk, had held many a strange and anxious caller in its day. Great men, men of national importance, had sat in that deep old leather chair; but with fine passivity it yielded the same comforts to men who only thought they were important.
Just now it was occupied by Mr. Hugh Podmore—within an hour of that worthy's arrival in the city. At three p.m. his new-found friend, Philip Kendrick, had agreed to call upon Ferguson to corroborate the story which Mr. Podmore had just finished telling and to which his auditor had listened with great intentness, that being the only indication of surprise which the practiced Mr. Ferguson permitted himself to exhibit.
"You always were pretty cock-sure of yourself, Poddy, even back in the days when we both worked on the old Tribune," commented Ferguson with a smirk of amusement. "But this proposition of yours is the deckle-edged limit and no mistake. If you were anybody else I'd have a lot of fun—kicking you downstairs!"
"Old stuff, Fergey!" grinned Podmore, unperturbed. "You don't need to pull that for my benefit. Talk brass tacks. Kendrick will be here in ten minutes with all the proof you want that I'm handing it to you straight and that that campaign-fund wad of Nickleby's is where I can lay hands on it. Do I pass it to you or must I hand it over to Charlie Cady? Guess the Opposition'll know what to do with it. I'm asking you this: What's it worth to the Government to win the next election? That's the little old answer I want."
"Would a couple of million satisfy you? How'll you have it?—in fives and tens?" and Mr. Ferguson gravely stroked his fleshy red nose.
"Be serious, Fergey," protested Podmore. "You can see for yourself that I came near getting killed, lining this thing up."
"I could not be more serious if you really had got killed, Poddy," and again he stroked the emblem of his entrez to the social functions of John Barleycorn. "I'm afraid your mind is warping in the sunshine of your own cleverness, Poddy. This fool notion of yours—coming to me about this money Nickleby's lost—if anybody had told me that once that long green was in your possession you'd come away back here——"
"What do you take me for, Ferguson?—a thief?" glared Podmore angrily.
"Opportunist is not so harsh a word," soothed the lawyer, thoroughly enjoying the baiting. He frowned with an abrupt change of manner. "You want brass tacks, do you? Here they are, then. That money is none of my business, none of the Government's business. Understand that clearly. You say it was a campaign-fund contribution. How do I know it was? It never reached us. It's Nickleby's money and its loss is his funeral. Go and report to him and try to understand the meaning of the word 'loyalty.' Our party doesn't care a tinker's dam who has had, now has, or will have that envelope. And if you want to get thrown out by the scruff of the neck just try going to headquarters with your crazy proposition."
"You—surely you don't mean that, Fergey, old man?" said Podmore, searching the other's face with misgiving.
"Every word of it. And here's something else, Podmore, that I won't charge you for. If you're wise you'll take a straight tip and get out of this office as fast as you know how—out of town—clean out of the country! You don't seem to keep as well posted on the latest news as you used to. Have you read that?"
Ferguson had opened a drawer as he spoke and tossed out a newspaper, so folded that an item encircled by red ink was uppermost. Podmore slowly picked up the paper. As his glance travelled quickly through the marked item his face paled—what part of it was not black and blue.
"Oh, Rives, eh? I—No, I didn't know he was out of the pen." He tried hard to keep his voice steady, but did not succeed very well.
"He's been out over two weeks now," nodded Ferguson, making no effort to conceal his contempt. "And he hasn't forgotten that a fresh newspaper reporter by the name of Podmore played him a dirty trick twelve years ago. He's sworn to get you for that."
"How—how do you know this?" asked Podmore hoarsely.
"'Itchy' McGuire called to see me day before yesterday. He's met Rives. If I were you I'd hunt me up a nice little island somewhere in the Tropics where you can live with the rest of the monkeys; they might elect you to Parliament or crown you king or something. Rives is one bad actor and he's sore—good and sore."
Podmore's attempted laugh had no mirth in it. He reached for his hat, and as he said a hasty good-bye he did not look at all well. For several minutes after he had closed the rear door Blatchford Ferguson leaned back in his chair, chuckling.
Now, while this remarkable interview was taking place in the inner sanctum Phil Kendrick was again shaking hands with Conway in the outer office. A moment later he went on through to the secretary's office, speculating on just what he should say to the self-contained Miss Williams. But, as before, he found her office deserted. To his amazement when he glanced through the inner doorway he saw her for the second time on one knee in front of the keyhole of Ferguson's private office.
She came towards him swiftly, closing the doors behind her as she had done on the occasion of his first visit. She was very angry; that much was apparent.
"I'll admit, Miss Williams, that it is often extremely difficult to break off a bad habit——"
"Mr. Ferguson is busy," she snapped.
"I would judge as much," said Kendrick dryly. "He is expecting me. If you will just hand him my card please,—Thank you."
He was surprised at the look of disdain with which she took his card. Surely this girl whom he had caught twice in the act of eavesdropping upon her employer ought to be grateful for his silence, his toleration of such an utter misdemeanor! Instead, her whole attitude was one of dislike. She made no attempt to conceal it. It might do her good to get a sharp rebuke from Ferguson, and he was of two minds whether or not to speak to the lawyer about her. Then he remembered that she was only substituting and that dismissal would not mean much to her. There was the chance that it was just her woman's curiosity to know what was going on. Women were often like that, he had heard.
"Mr. Ferguson will see you now. Tell him anything you like." She eyed him coolly.
Phil gave her a cheerful smile as he passed on into the private office. Podmore had just gone.
"I had no trouble in getting a line on him for you, Phil. He came in right after you 'phoned and has been here ever since. Now, what the devil's the meaning of all this? What are you up to?"
"Tell me just what he said to you, Blatch," said Kendrick, refusing a cigar and filling his pipe.
"He said he gave you the envelope to mail and that you hid it for him in a hollow stump near the water-tank at Thorlakson Siding when Wade came after it. He said that Wade and Cranston gave both of you the third degree and that you lit into Wade and gave him one awful calling down for not accepting your word that you hadn't seen any envelope and knew nothing about it. He said it made Wade so mad that he not only fired Podmore but told you also that you couldn't work for the C.L.S. another minute, so it was no use you rejoining this survey party you were with. It's a swell kettle of fish you've got into, Phil. What's your uncle going to say to all this?"
"Nothing. Unless you tell him he won't know I've bumped into this mix. He's got enough worries of his own without bothering about me."
"Listen, Blatch. I know what was in that envelope and where it came from. I want to know where Uncle Milt stands in connection with this campaign-fund money, and I want to know what Podmore is trying to do. What did he want?"
"Podmore isn't as clever as he thinks he is," Ferguson laughed. "He actually came here to see if he could work out a little graft proposition by threatening to expose a deal which he imagines has taken place between the Alderson Construction Company and your uncle. His mind works that way. He thinks everybody is as crooked as himself and that all governments are like the late Rives administration. Well, he knows different now."
"Then no such deal is involved?"
"Good heavens, Phil! Surely you didn't think that? Neither your uncle nor the Party cares a hang about this money of Nickleby's or Alderson's, or whoever owns it. We're not interested in what becomes of it. There's been no deal of any kind."
"That's all I want to know, Blatch," said Kendrick, rising. "It's just one of those things a fellow bumps into now and then, and if Uncle Milt needed my help at all I wanted to know it, that's all. I know he's absolutely on the square, of course."
"Absolutely," assured Ferguson earnestly. "Your uncle is one of the hardest working, most conscientious and high principled public men of the day, Phil, and perhaps I have had greater opportunity of knowing that than most. No man can hold high public office, seemingly, without paying the penalty of prominence—petty jealousy, envy, deliberate misrepresentation, even underhand attacks upon his character. A certain class of political aspirant seems to look on that sort of thing as part of the game, and you don't want to believe all you see in some newspapers around election time. That's the way it's been. But false accusation never yet downed an honest man, Phil. Remember that."
As Kendrick noted the expression on the lawyer's face he thought to himself that in spite of the marks of dissipation which marred it, there was a finer side to Blatch Ferguson's character which few would suspect.
"Please say nothing about my connection with Podmore, Blatch. It was an unavoidable unpleasantness which is now over. Some day soon when I have more time I'll drop in and give you all the details."
Miss Margaret Williams was nowhere about, he noted, as he took his departure.
Kendrick caught the next ferry across the bay to the Island and walked in on his uncle's housekeeper. He found that once more he had the big summer residence to himself, that his uncle had taken a flying trip to New York. That meant that his aunt would be alone in the summer cottage at Sparrow Lake, except for the servants, and he decided suddenly to run up and see her that very evening. After glancing through a slight accumulation of mail he changed to outing flannels and hied to the boathouse for an hour's run in the launch—out through the Eastern Gap into the open lake, where he could cut away across miles of blue water that danced invitingly in the golden sunshine on and on to the horizon's clear rim. All alone out there with the wash of the water, the steady undertone of the engine throbbing in his ears and the cool breeze blowing through his hair, he could sort out his thoughts.
They were inclined to tangle. He had yet to plan how he would proceed to obtain the information which Ben Wade wanted in regard to J. C. Nickleby. The railroad executive had traced certain consignments of cheap whisky which had been run through to construction camps in the northern part of the province and had his own suspicions as to the source from which the bootleggers were obtaining funds. If the luck which had attended Phil's first efforts to learn what Podmore was planning held good, it ought not to be difficult; but there would be no Blatch Ferguson to help him out in a task which would call for the utmost circumspection.
Podmore could be dismissed as of the brood of Esau, willing to sell to the highest bidder anybody's birthright upon which he could lay hands. Ferguson's confident assurance that the stolen campaign fund contribution,—if that was what it had been intended to be,—implicated the Government in no way, could be accepted without question. Had it been otherwise, Ferguson would have been galvanized to action of some sort. At any rate, the sudden disappearance of the money before it reached its destination eliminated it so far as the Government was concerned.
This much was clear to Kendrick. Beyond wondering greatly how such a substantial sum as fifty thousand dollars could drop from sight mysteriously without creating general excitement, he dismissed the matter as outside his immediate concern. If the actual money had been in Wade's possession, as Podmore had been led to believe, Phil would have been more perplexed about it; even Wade's evident inside knowledge of the transaction was sufficiently mystifying. That probably was part of the "puzzle" which would be divulged in due course. Kendrick knew that in the modern business world with its constant clashes between powerful financial interests there were many undercurrents which a young man fresh from college could not hope to gauge. He was content, therefore, to accept Wade's superior judgment without question, to follow instructions faithfully, secure in the knowledge that Benjamin Wade was a man of the highest integrity.
The railroad president had gone on to Montreal and beyond delivery of a letter to Nathaniel Lawson and the obtaining of an answer to it, his final instructions to his new secretary had been simple.
"If you can get Nat Lawson to tell you his story, Phil, you'll spend one interesting evening," he had suggested. "Good business for you to know all about the Interprovincial. Use your own judgment and good luck to you."
There was no hurry about calling on Lawson; it could wait till he got back from this rush visit to Sparrow Lake. But what about this girl in Ferguson's office? What a pippin! Phil was unable to decide whether she had been listening at the keyhole because she had gone there for that very purpose or whether he had surprised her merely taking advantage of accidental opportunity to satisfy her curiosity. She interested him greatly—probably because she was so pretty and had rebuffed him so unmistakably.
He amused himself by absurd speculations about her. If she did have a definite object in spying on Ferguson, the solitaire diamond on her engagement finger might be a bluff; her cheap manner, so out of keeping with refinement of feature and dress,—that might be faked likewise. If she were one of these female detectives you read about, who had hired her? Was she in the pay of Nickleby? If she were, it was Kendrick's duty to keep an eye on her, wasn't it? And she was a tonic for any eye!