"You know the rest. We began our work. We caused you annoyance from the first, with the banker, the hotel manager, and all that. Before we could do any more, you were accused of murder. That pleased us, of course. We did not believe you guilty, but we were glad to see that you were being caused some trouble, that your name was being stained. Some of us even began to think that the law of retribution was at work itself, without our poor help.
"We went ahead with our plans, however. You engaged a prominent attorney, and finally we induced him to leave you. But some who were handling the affair went too far. You were assaulted in Central Park. Your valet was knocked on the head and kidnaped, and an attempt made to get him to take payment and spy upon you. At that time I told a certain man who had the handling of the affair that there could be no more violence.
"We should not break a law to undo you, I declared. If we did that, we were as bad as you. I said that, if there was any more violence, I should cease having anything to do with the affair, and would come to you and tell you so. An hour ago, I found out that Detective Farland, a man in your employ, had been seized and treated with violence and was being held prisoner because he insisted upon remaining loyal to you. So I am here!"
"This is amazing, Miss Gilbert!" Sidney Prale told her. "The whole thing has been amazing. Somebody has tried to connect me with that murder. Somebody tried to smash my alibi. The little annoyances were bad enough, and the knowledge that I had unknown foes who fought in the dark; but the murder charge was the worst of all, for it placed me in a position where I had to clear myself absolutely or remain forever suspected by many persons."
"I understand that," Kate Gilbert said.
"And now you have come to me to say that you are no longer associated with my enemies?"
"For what you did, there can be no forgiveness, Mr. Prale. I want to see you punished. But I will not be a party to violence. It seems to me that the man who has been managing this affair has gone beyond proper bounds. For some reason, he is particularly vindictive, though he did not suffer at all, as did some of the others. I cannot forgive you for what you did, Sidney Prale. But I can wash my hands of the entire affair and try to forget you entirely and hope that there is a law of retribution that will take vengeance for me. That is all, Mr. Prale. Only please remember that, from this hour, I am not concerned with the others in this affair."
She started to rise, but Prale motioned for her to retain her seat. He bent forward and looked at her searchingly.
"I am very glad that you have come here and spoken to me in this way, Miss Gilbert," he said. "I scarcely know how to express what I feel that I must tell you. I have listened to you patiently, without interruption. Will you be kind enough to listen to me for a moment now?"
"I'll listen, though it will be useless," she said.
"When I left Honduras, Miss Gilbert, I was a happy man. I had made my pile and was coming home. I had left ten years before because a selfish woman, whom I imagined I loved, jilted me for a wealthier man. That wound had healed, and when I left Honduras, I did not think that I had an enemy in the world, unless it was some poor devil of a disgruntled native workman I had been forced to discharge, or somebody like that.
"I believed those notes on the ship to be in the nature of a jest, or else that somebody was making a mistake. Then troubles began, and I was at a loss to understand them. Next came the murder charge! We will put that aside for the moment, for it seems to be the result of circumstantial evidence and probably has nothing to do with the other affair—merely a coincidence.
"Miss Gilbert, look at me! I want you to believe what I am going to say. You must believe it! In the name of everything I hold sacred, I swear to you that I do not know these foes of mine, or the reason for their enmity!"
"How can I believe that?" she cried. "Why should you ask me to believe such a statement?"
"Because I want some light on this subject, Miss Gilbert, and I am determined to get it. There is some terrible mistake. I am being punished for the fault of some other person."
"Can you not remember back ten years?" she asked.
"Easily. I can live over again the last day I spent in New York ten years ago."
"And the few days before that time?"
"Certainly, Miss Gilbert."
"And yet you ask why others should seek to punish you? Perhaps you are one of those men whose natures are so dishonorable that you think you did nothing wrong at that time."
"So it was then that I was supposed to have done this terrible thing—whatever it was?"
"As you know, Mr. Prale."
"But I do not know, Miss Gilbert. To the best of my recollection I left New York without having done anything in the least dishonorable; and certainly I did nothing to merit a band of enemies working against me."
"What is it that you wish me to do?" she asked.
"Be fair with me, Miss Gilbert. I tell you that there is some terrible mistake! If I am supposed to know all about this, what harm can there be in your repeating the details to me? Tell me what crime I am supposed to have committed to merit this attack. Give me a chance to prove my innocence! The common thug gets that chance in a court of law, you know."
"But this is ridiculous!" she exclaimed. "There can be no question of it! The whole thing came out at the time."
"Then you do not wish to be fair?" Prale asked.
"I cannot allow you to say that. I will tell the story to you, Mr. Prale, tell exactly what you did—as you know very well—if that will be any satisfaction to you. But it will do you no good to deny it!"
"Tell me!" Sidney Prale said.
A STARTLING STORY
"This is a painful subject for me, as you must be aware," Kate Gilbert said. "I shall tell the story in as few words as possible, and if you are a gentleman, you will not interrupt or cause me more suffering by protesting your innocence."
"I promise not to interrupt," Sidney Prale replied. "I want justice and nothing more, Miss Gilbert."
"Ten years ago you were a clerk in the office of Griffin, the big broker, were you not?"
"Mr. Griffin took a fancy to you, after your father died and left you alone in the world without any money. He gave you odd jobs to do around his residence, fed and clothed you and arranged it so that you could go to school. Your uncle, the father of George Lerton, your cousin, would do nothing for you because there had been a family quarrel several years before.
"Had it not been for Mr. Griffin you might have been an ordinary street Arab. He sent you to a business college after you had finished the public schools, and then he took you into his office and started you on a business career.
"You showed great promise, and Mr. Griffin was delighted and advanced you rapidly. You seemed to know the meaning of gratitude and worked hard. You were ambitious, too—always said that some day you would be worth a million dollars.
"Step by step, you went up the ladder. Then it happened that your cousin, George Lerton, obtained a position in the same office after his father's death. He had had the advantage of a college education and knew how to handle himself in the presence of other men, and yet you, after your early struggle and with an inferior education and inferior opportunities, easily outdistanced him.
"Other men began talking about you as a coming man—bankers and brokers, business men and financiers. Mr. Griffin finally gave you the post of chief clerk and adviser. You worked hard and seemed to be loyal and faithful. You got profits for your employer where other men would have caused losses. So he let you more and more into his confidence.
"You got to know the secrets of big deals, the inside facts of the country's finance. You spoke in millions, but got only a nice salary. Your ambition to be worth a million dollars seemed to be not susceptible of gratification. Yet you saved money, and took advantage of small, solid investments now and then.
"After a while you met a girl and fell in love with her. She was the sort who wished wealth above all, and you soon found that out. You became engaged to her, however. Then a rival appeared in the field, a wealthier man. You realized that the girl was shallow in that she favored the man with more money, but you were so infatuated that you overlooked that. You wanted the girl and, to get her, you had to have more money.
"Then you began to feel dissatisfied. You didn't want to grow gradually, as other men did. You wanted the foundation for a fortune—enough to use in a plunge in the market. You wanted to be rich as soon as possible.
"You began to think, perhaps, that you were not getting ahead. You worked in an atmosphere of wealth, you heard men speak in terms of millions, while you had less than ten thousand dollars in the bank. You began to think that Mr. Griffin should do more for you, that he had not done enough. You forgot that he had picked you up and made you what you were, that you had so much more than other men who had not been equally fortunate in finding a sponsor."
She ceased speaking for a moment, but Sidney Prale never took his eyes from her face. Be ungrateful to Griffin? He never had dreamed of that! He always had worshiped Griffin for what the broker had done for him; he realized what he might have been only for Griffin. But he had promised not to interrupt, and so he said nothing, merely waited for Kate Gilbert to continue her recital.
"You made certain plans," she went on. "Certain big business deals were in the wind, and, as Mr. Griffin's confidential and chief clerk, you knew all about them. There were millions of dollars involved, the control of several large companies, and more than that; for Mr. Griffin and his associates were fighting a group of financial thieves who were trying to wreck excellent properties for the sake of making a gain. It was a fight for more than money—it was a fight to keep big business honest, to drive off the wolves and make finance solid. It was a tremendous thing!
"And you, a boy picked up and educated by a broker, who had risen through his kindness, knew as much of the big deal contemplated as some of the wealthiest and most influential men of the country. There were men in the other group who would have given a million gladly to know what you, a clerk, knew.
"You were approached by one of that band of financial wolves. You were willing to listen. You wanted money because the girl with whom you were infatuated demanded it before she would marry you. You believed that Griffin had not done enough for you and you agreed to sell him out—him and his associates."
Sidney Prale gasped, sat up straight in his chair, opened his mouth as if to speak, but did not when he saw the expression in her face. He decided to keep his word.
"The agreement was made," she went on. "And you, who could have demanded half a million easily for the information you had, sold out your benefactor and his friends and the decent element on the Street for a paltry hundred thousand! You sold your honor and your manhood for that.
"At this juncture, the woman in the case informed you that she wished to break the engagement, because a man of money—your rival—had asked her to marry him, and she wanted his wealth. Instead of seeing what sort of woman she was—instead of coming to your senses then and stopping your deal with the other side—you took the opposite course. You would take the money, betray your benefactor and his friends, and leave the country! With that money as a foundation, you would build up a fortune. And that is what you did, Sidney Prale!
"You arranged everything nicely. You gave those men the information and received your hundred thousand and then you quit your job and sailed away to Honduras.
"The battle began on the Street, and because of the information you had sold them, the financial wolves got the better of the honest element. It was a battle that lasted for two weeks. The wolves met every move, because they knew everything that had been planned. Fortunes were lost overnight. A score of big, decent men were ruined in their attempt to defeat the wolves and keep finance clean.
"Mr. Griffin, the man who had done everything for you, went down in the crash—because you had sold him out! It was only five years ago that he got new backing and fought his way up again. Others went down with him, and some never regained their footing—because of what you had done, because you had played traitor! They knew there had been a leak, and there was an investigation. You had sailed away the day before the fight began, and that looked suspicious, for you had made up your mind suddenly. Finally it was discovered that you were the traitor in the camp!
"My father was one of Mr. Griffin's associates, Mr. Prale. He lost his fortune, of course. We could have endured that, but the blow cost him his health. He was a giant of a man at that time, the best father in the world. You should see him now, Mr. Prale—see what your treason made of him. He is an invalid who sits all day in his wheel chair. At times his mind wanders and he fights that battle over again and calls curses down upon the head of the man who played traitor! My big, handsome, rich father is a broken, thin-faced man whose voice is a whisper and whose hands tremble—because of what you did. You beast!"
She began sobbing softly as she glanced through the window, and Sidney Prale started to get out of his chair. But she faced him again quickly and motioned for him to remain silent.
"You wanted to hear it, and so I shall tell it all!" she declared. "You had been clever; you had done this thing in such a manner than the law could not touch you. Yet you must have been afraid of it, for you fled the country. It was some time before things were adjusted, and then those men you had betrayed got together and determined to make you pay!
"They told the story to others, and they began gathering information about you. You were making your million, all right, on the foundation that had wrecked a score of fortunes and lives—on treason instead of superior financial ability—and they swore that you should pay.
"They knew my father's story, of course, and knew that we had very little money. So they provided for him, and gave me funds and sent me to Honduras to spy upon you. Marie, my maid since girlhood, who worshiped my father and knew all the circumstances, went with me. Soon after I reached Honduras, I found that you were selling out with the intention of returning to New York and enjoying your million.
"I communicated with the others and told them all I knew of your plans, whereupon they made some plans of their own. They won the sympathy of the most influential men in the city. They determined to make you pay!
"That is why the big trust company would not accept your account. A whisper in the ear of the hotel manager by the president of the company that owned the hotel, and you were as good as ordered out. Can you understand now, Sidney Prale? Coadley, the lawyer, was told that he will be made a nobody by the influential men of the town unless he ceased to work for you, and he dropped your case.
"But there was to be no violence, and because they have descended to that, I have ceased to be interested in the affair. I know nothing about the Shepley murder case or any trouble it may have caused you. That is quite another matter. Now that I have told my story, I hope that you are satisfied. It has shown you, I trust, that I know all, and that any falsehood you may utter will have no effect on me."
"I do not intend uttering a falsehood, Miss Gilbert," Sidney Prale assured her. "What you have said has amazed and shocked me. So that is why I was treated so badly upon returning to my home?"
"Exactly," she said.
"Now listen to me one moment, I beg of you. There is some mystery here, and though it is ten years old, I shall solve it. Miss Gilbert—whether you believe me or not—I am not guilty of such treachery. I had no dealings with the financial wolves. When I left the United States I took with me the ten thousand dollars I had saved—nothing more. And I left nothing behind."
"You made a million in ten years with a capital of ten thousand?" she asked, with a slight sneer.
"I did, Miss Gilbert! I can prove every transaction, show you or anybody else exactly how I did it. Disbelieve me or not, it is the truth that I am innocent. If my people were sold out at that time, somebody else got the selling price. I was chagrined because my love affair had gone wrong. I shook the dust of New York from my feet. I did not even look at a New York newspaper for more than a year. Somebody else got the money, and I got a nasty name. And Mr. Griffin, who was as a father to me, thinks that I was an ungrateful cur!
"This thing is hard to believe, Miss Gilbert. But I never can thank you enough for telling me. I am going to clear myself before I am done."
"I cannot believe you, Mr. Prale! The proof was there!"
"And who furnished it?" he demanded. "Who is handling this campaign of vengeance against me now?"
"You scarcely can expect me to tell you that," she said. "I am done—have nothing more to do with the affair—but I am not going to be a traitor, as you were!"
"If you ever are convinced, Miss Gilbert, that I am entirely innocent, that somebody has put this stain upon me for their own reasons, can I count upon your friendship?"
"Convince me that injustice has been done you, Mr. Prale, and I'll do everything in my power to make amends—and so will all the others!"
"Thanks for that assurance," Prale said. "I am going to clear myself in your eyes, and in the eyes of the others. I remember the details of that big deal perfectly and I shall know how to start to work."
"I cannot understand this," she said. "You speak as if you were indeed innocent, but I cannot believe it!"
"I am innocent!"
"If so, who is guilty?"
"That is what I intend finding out."
"But you were in their confidence—you knew all the details of their financial plans," Kate Gilbert said. "You were the only one who could have betrayed them. You scarcely expect me to believe that they betrayed themselves."
"Any spying clerk in the Griffin offices could have told the enemy enough to betray the plans," Prale replied. "By the way, who is this man who goes too far and insists upon using violence? Who is the man who seems to be so extraordinary vindictive toward me in this affair?"
"I can tell you nothing more," she declared. "It would not be fair to them."
"But they have Jim Farland, and Heaven knows what they are doing to him, simply because he will not turn against me. Is it fair to Jim Farland's wife and child?"
"I—I am being kept informed," she assured him. "If they treat Mr. Farland badly, or detain him much longer, I shall speak. But until then, I have nothing to say. You see, Mr. Prale, I cannot believe that you are innocent and have been misjudged. The evidence against you is so conclusive, and I have learned to hate you as the man who betrayed his benefactor and friends and wrecked my father's health. But, if you are innocent, I hope that you will forgive me."
"I'll forgive you gladly," said Sidney Prale. "I realize what you must have suffered, and what your father must have suffered, too. I am going to prove my innocence; and then I hope to claim you as one of my friends."
"I am sorry that I cannot believe you," she said again, "although I would like to. I would prefer to think that no man could be so ungrateful as to do such a thing. I'd like to have my faith in human nature restored. If you prove your innocence, I shall be very glad indeed!"
Then she called for Marie, and when the maid came from the adjoining room, Sidney Prale ushered the two women to the door and watched as they went down the hall toward the elevator. But Kate Gilbert did not glance back.
Sidney Prale closed the door and turned around to face a grinning Murk.
"Some pair of chickens!" Murk said. "That Marie girl may be a bear for size and strength, but she's got a lot of good common sense. I'm strong for her!"
"Sit down!" Prale commanded.
And then, walking up and down across the room, he told Murk what Kate Gilbert had revealed to him, simply because he felt that he had to tell it to somebody.
"How is that for a dirty deal, Murk?" he asked when he had finished. "Doesn't that make ordinary dirty work look rather pale?"
"Who did it, boss? Name the gent, and I'll get his address out of the city directory and pay him a visit!" Murk said. "I'll have some things to say to him—and some things to do, maybe."
"I'm a sort of husky individual myself, Murk, and, if I knew him, I think I'd beat you to it," Prale replied. "Now we must get busy!"
"Just say the word, Mr. Prale. What is it to be?"
"I haven't quite decided yet, Murk. How far will you go?"
"I'll croak him, if it's necessary!"
"That'd be a bit too far, Murk, and might lead to the electric chair and a far country. Let's take a walk and think it over. We will confine ourselves to the Avenue, and you may trail me as before. I scarcely think they'll assault us on the Avenue."
Ten minutes later, Sidney Prale was walking down the street, and the faithful Murk was trailing in his wake, watching carefully. That walk lasted for an hour. Then they returned to the hotel and Prale ordered an early dinner. He did not say what he had decided to do, despite Murk's hints that he should state his plans.
But Murk had noticed that Prale had stopped in at a printing office during the walk, and shortly after they finished dinner, a bell boy brought a small package to the suite. Prale unwrapped it, and some cards spilled out.
"Nice cards, Murk," he said. "I had them printed this afternoon. They bear the name of Horace Greenman, whoever he may be, and state that he is connected with the General Utilities Company—whatever that is."
"What's the big idea, Mr. Prale?" Murk asked wonderingly.
"I wish to get into a certain place, Murk, and I'd never do it if I send in my own card. What time is it?"
"A few minutes of eight, sir."
"Then we'll be going. Let us hope that we find our man at home. If this happens to be his opera or theater evening, we are going to be delayed."
Murk followed him down in the elevator and to the street, where Prale engaged a taxicab. The machine took them up past the Park and to an exclusive residence section, where it stopped on a corner. Prale and Murk got out, and Prale instructed the chauffeur to wait. Then he led the way to the middle of the block.
"Murk, you remain just outside this gate," he instructed. "If I have good luck, I'll come out with a man, and I may want to take him with us. Be ready to help in case I get in wrong."
"Sure thing, sir," Murk said.
Prale passed through the gate, went up the walk, and lifted the knocker on the front door. A moment, and a servant appeared and looked at him searchingly.
"I wish to see Mr. Griffin at once on important business," Prale said. "Kindly take my card to him."
Then Prale waited with his heart in his mouth. Was Griffin at home? The servant instantly assured him of that, and carried the card away. Prale had written "Important Business" on it.
The servant returned soon and announced that Mr. Griffin would see the visitor. Prale followed him down the hall to the library. He was glad that Griffin had chosen to receive him there, for there was less likelihood of an interruption. The servant opened the door, and Sidney Prale stepped inside.
Griffin was sitting beside the long table, and he arose immediately and turned.
"You!" he gasped.
"Pardon the deception——"
"James! James!" Griffin thundered.
The servant was in the room instantly.
"Show this fellow the door!" Griffin commanded. "Look at him well, and never admit him again!"
James took a step forward and indicated the door. But Sidney Prale reached into the pocket of his coat, drew out an automatic pistol, and held it menacingly.
"Close the door, James—softly!" he commanded in a stern voice. "Now advance to the table and stand where I can watch you. Don't you make a move, Mr. Griffin! I used to handle men down in Honduras, and I feel confident that I can take care of this situation."
"You thug!" Griffin cried. "I'll have you sent up for this, Prale, if it's the last thing I do!"
"I know that it is against the law to be carrying a gun without a permit, but this situation demands a show of force," Prale said. "I merely want you to listen to me for a moment, Mr. Griffin."
"I don't want to hear anything you may have to say to me, Sidney Prale!" the financier said.
"You are going to hear it, nevertheless! Mr. Griffin, I did not know until this afternoon why I had secret enemies and why they were trying to cause me endless trouble. Miss Kate Gilbert was kind enough to enlighten me."
"I am sorry that you believe me guilty of such base ingratitude to you and of such dishonorable conduct, for I am not guilty, Mr. Griffin! You were like a father to me—which was enough to compel my loyalty—and, aside from that, you had taught me several things regarding honor in business deals. I went away on the spur of the moment because a woman had jilted me. But before I went, I did not betray you and your associates."
"A likely story!"
"But a true one, Mr. Griffin! I did not sell you out for a hundred thousand dollars or any other sum. My conscience is clear, and I came back to New York expecting to greet old friends and have a pleasant time. You know what I found instead of that happy state of affairs. I am not here to talk at length. I demand a chance to prove my innocence!"
"How can you do the impossible, sir?"
"It is not the impossible, Mr. Griffin! I intend to prove to you that I was not disloyal, and then I shall prove that I had nothing to do with the murder of Rufus Shepley. I have an idea, sir, what is behind all this."
"We are wasting time——"
"I think not, sir! Time is not wasted in which a man shows that he is not a scoundrel! I think you owe it to me to give me a chance. You have condemned me unheard."
"I would give almost anything to have you prove your innocence," Griffin said. "You don't know how it hurt me. But the case against you was so strong—and is so strong——"
"Let us waste no more time," Prale said. "I remember the details of the big deal that was under way when I left New York ten years ago. If you recall, sir, I helped plan the campaign. If I can look at papers in your office, I think I can show that I am not guilty."
"I'd like to believe you, but this is preposterous!" Griffin cried. "I tell you the evidence——"
"It probably was strong, because the guilty man wanted to make it so. Mr. Griffin, were I guilty I should not be here. Please give me a few minutes, and let us talk this over. Then, if you wish, we can go to your office and continue the investigation."
Griffin sat down and motioned for Sidney Prale to do the same. Prale returned the automatic to his pocket, much to the relief of the servant.
Murk, standing outside by the gate, paced back and forth and wondered whether he should attempt to take the house by storm and rescue his employer. The chauffeur, waiting at the corner, wondered whether his fare had slipped down the next street without paying the bill. Murk relieved him on that point and threatened to beat him up because he intimated that Prale might do such a thing.
It was more than two hours later when Prale left the house and went out to the street. He paid the chauffeur and dismissed him, and told Murk to return to the hotel. Then he went back into the house and joined Mr. Griffin again, and after Griffin had telephoned several persons, he ordered his car, got into it with Prale, and started downtown.
An astonished watchman took them up in an elevator in an office building in the financial district, and a little later he took up several other gentlemen.
"Them financiers make me sick!" the watchman told himself. "Why can't they lay their schemes in the daytime?"
It was almost dawn when they left the building and scattered. They had spent hours investigating books and papers. Sidney Prale had even sent a messenger to the hotel with an order to Murk for certain books and papers of his own, and these had been investigated, too.
"And there we are, gentlemen," Prale had said, at the last. "I have shown you, I think, that I did not do this thing. I do not want you to believe me fully until I have proved my innocence by revealing the man who is guilty. I merely ask you to give me a fair chance to prove my case. I have told you my suspicions. Now it is up to me to demonstrate whether they are just or worthless."
Griffin had little to say as they rode back uptown. But when he dropped Prale at the hotel just before daylight, he gripped him by the hand.
"I want to believe you, Sidney!" he said. "I hope that you have told me the truth. If you have, I hope you'll be able to clear yourself. If you only can show me that the boy I was glad to help was not ungrateful, after all——"
"I'll do it, sir!"
"And then I'll never forgive myself, Sidney!"
"You'll show your forgiveness by handling my affairs for me, sir, in that event, and by treating me as your son again!" Prale said.
He hurried up to the suite. Murk had been sleeping in a chair in the living room, as if expecting a call at any moment. He was somewhat startled to hear Sidney Prale whistling merrily at four o'clock in the morning.
Springing toward him, the masked man stopped two feet from the bound Jim Farland.
"So you think you know me, do you?" he snarled.
"I have a pretty good idea," Farland said. "There are only a few men in the city, to my knowledge, who could be hired to do work like this, and it occurs to me that I have seen those hands of yours before. I think your face is in the rogues' gallery, too, if you want to know!"
The masked man retreated for a few feet, evidently relieved.
"So you'll not make terms with me," he said. "You'd rather work for Sidney Prale, would you? Perhaps we can change your mind."
"I doubt that like blazes!"
"You are going to be kept here as a prisoner until I decide what is to be done with you."
He crossed over to the door, opened it, and called to his men, two of whom responded.
"I want this man guarded well," he said. "I want you to understand that I am holding you responsible for him. I'll be back to-morrow evening and have another talk with him. Give him something to eat now and then, and fix him so he can sleep, but watch him all the time!"
"I was figurin' on goin' to the city this mornin', boss," one of the men spoke up.
"You'll do as I say!" the masked man cried.
"Don't argue with me, you dog!"
Farland saw the man's eyes flash fire for a moment. And then the masked man faced toward him again, his eyes glittering through his mask.
"Sometimes it isn't healthy to know whose picture is in the rogues' gallery!" he said.
He went from the room. After a short argument one of the men remained to guard Farland, and the other went away. Farland spent a night of agony. His guards fixed the bonds so that he could be a bit more comfortable, and yet he got little sleep.
Jim Farland was considering a big idea now. He had thrown the masked man off guard by intimating that he might be a crook with a record, when, as a matter of fact, the detective did not believe him to be anything of the sort. Now Farland knew where to begin working, but he had to win his freedom first.
Night passed, morning came, and the long day of agony began. Farland had his hands untied and was given some food. Then his wrists were lashed again and his ankles loosened, and he was allowed to walk around the room for an hour or so, two of the men watching him closely. The one to whom the masked man had applied the epithet, "dog," appeared surly.
After they had bound him again and stretched him upon the couch, they guarded him one at a time, evidently secure in the belief that he could not escape. Jim Farland thought a day never had seemed so long. All the time he was busy with his thoughts. He had a plan of campaign outlined now; he wanted to be at work.
Once more the evening came. Farland, who had been sleeping for a few minutes, awoke and turned over to find that his guard had been changed again. The man who had been called a dog was on duty.
"How long are you going to keep me tied up like this?" Jim Farland asked.
"Don't ask me. Ask the high and mighty boss," was the sneering reply.
"You don't seem to stand very high with him."
"Aw, he makes me sick sometimes."
"It'd make me sick, too, if anybody called me a dog," Farland declared.
The man before him did not reply to that, but Farland could see the anger burning in his face.
"Come closer," Farland whispered.
The man obeyed instantly.
"Can anybody overhear what I say to you?"
"No. Everybody's gone—but they'll be back soon."
"Why are you working for these people?"
"Coin, of course—and precious little of it I've seen so far," was the reply.
"Then you haven't any other interest in this business? Maybe we can make a deal."
"What sort of a deal?"
"The man I work for is worth a million," Farland said. "Help me escape, and I'll give you five hundred dollars."
"Got it with you?"
"The biggest part of it," Farland replied.
He told the truth, too, for he always carried plenty of money while working on a case.
"Suppose I simply take it away from you," the guard said.
"In the first place, I don't think you are that kind of a man. And you want to get square with the man who called you a dog, don't you?"
"What's your scheme?"
"Simply let me go, right now. It is dusk outside already. Tell me how to get to town the quickest way. I'll give you almost all I have on me; I'll need a little to use to get back to the city. To-morrow I'll meet you some place and give you the rest. In addition I'll give you a chance to get out without being arrested for your part in abducting me and holding me here."
The man spent a few minutes in thought.
"I'll fix you so you can slip your bonds," he said, "and I'll hand your automatic back to you. It is there in the cupboard. But I don't want you to make a get-away while I'm guarding you—see? I don't exactly love the man who'll guard you next. I'll fix it so you can handle him. Wait for five minutes after he comes and I have gone. I will be away for an hour or so, and the escape can happen while I'm not here."
"That suits me," Farland said.
"What about the money?"
"You'll get it just as soon as I get my hands loose."
The guard walked to the hall door and opened it, peered out into the hall and listened. Then he hurried back to the couch and cut Jim Farland's bonds. Farland took the money from one of his inside pockets and handed it over. The guard got the weapon from the cupboard and gave it to Farland.
The detective stretched himself down on the couch again, and the guard adjusted the ropes on his ankles and wrists so that they would appear to be all right. Farland slipped the automatic beneath the small of his back, where he could reach it quickly.
It was half an hour later before the guard was changed and Farland's friend hurried away, warning him with a glance that he should not make a move too soon. He had declined to meet the detective the following day and get the few dollars still due him; he would rather use what he already had in getting out of town, he had said.
Farland made no attempt to talk with the new guard. He pretended to be tired, almost exhausted and sleepy. The guard sat beside the table, smoking and glancing at a newspaper now and then, apparently of the opinion that Farland was safely a prisoner.
After waiting for about half an hour, the detective began moving his ankles and wrists gently. Gradually the ropes fell away. He reached one hand beneath his back and grasped the automatic. Then he sat up quickly on the couch and covered the guard.
"Put 'em up!" he commanded.
The guard whirled from the table and sprang to his feet, surprise written on his countenance. Farland had arisen now, and advancing toward him.
"Walk past me to the couch!" the detective commanded.
The guard started to obey. He was holding his hands above his head and seemed to be afraid that his captor would shoot. But as he came opposite Farland, he lurched to one side and made an attempt to grapple with him.
The detective did not fire. He sprang aside himself, swung the automatic, and crashed it against the other man's temple. The guard groaned once and dropped to the floor.
"Thought you might try something like that!" Jim Farland growled. "Couldn't have pleased me better—won't have to waste time tying you up now. You'll be dead to the world for a few minutes at least!"
Farland darted to the door, opened it, went into the hall and closed the door again. He passed through the house noiselessly. He could hear two men in conversation in a rear room, and he knew that he would have to be cautious until he was at some distance from the old dwelling, unless he wanted a battle on his hands.
He got out of the place without being discovered, and reached the edge of a grove not far away. There he found the lane, and near the end of it was a powerful roadster, its engine dead and its lights extinguished.
Farland listened a moment, then went forward and examined the machine. He knew the model, and he was an excellent driver. Once more he stopped to listen. Then he sprang behind the wheel and operated the starter.
He drove slowly down the lane, the engine almost silent, the car traveling slowly. He proceeded in that manner until he had reached the highway. There he switched on the lights, put on speed, and sent the powerful car roaring along the winding road toward the river.
Jim Farland, being a modest man, never did tell the entire story of that night. He drove like a fiend, narrowly escaping collision a score of times. He made his way along the roads running alongside the broad river, and finally came opposite the city. He crossed over a bridge, drove through the streets with what speed he dared, left the car at a public garage with certain instructions, and hurried to a telephone.
He was unable to get either Sidney Prale or Murk, for at that hour they were on their way to the Griffin residence. Farland telephoned to his wife to say that he was all right, but would not be home until some time during the day. Then he engaged a taxicab and began his work.
He knew where to start now. An idea had come to him in that old house far up the river, a suspicion, a feeling of certainty that he was on the right track. Jim Farland was no respecter of persons that night.
When morning came he stopped only for a cup of coffee, and then worked on. He dashed from one place to another, running up a taxicab bill that made the chauffeur smile. He interviewed important gentlemen, threatening some and cajoling others, but always getting the information that he desired.
At two o'clock the following afternoon he stood on a certain corner near Madison Square, his suspicion almost proved, his investigation at an end.
"Now for the big bluff!" Jim Farland said to himself.
He fortified himself with another cup of coffee, got into the taxicab again, and started downtown. He was smoking one of his big, black cigars, puffing at it as if in deep contentment, not looking at all like a man who had been kept a prisoner a night and a day, and had been busy since that experience.
The taxicab stopped before an office building, as Jim Farland had ordered. The detective pulled out his last money and paid the chauffeur.
"You're got more coming, son, but this is all I have with me," Farland said. "Drop in at my office any time after ten to-morrow morning and get it."
"Yes, Mr. Farland—and thanks!"
"You're a good boy, but keep your mouth shut!" Farland told him.
Then he hurried into the office building, went to the elevator nearest the entrance, and ascended to the floor where George Lerton had his suite of offices.
The office boy stepped to the railing.
"Mr. Lerton busy?" Farland asked.
"He is alone in his private office, sir," said the boy, who regarded the detective with admiration and awe. After Farland's other visit, the youth had decided to be a detective when he grew up.
"I am to go right in—important business," Farland said. "Never mind announcing me."
The willing boy opened the gate, and Farland hurried across to the door of the private office. He paused there a moment and seemed to pull himself together, as if making sure before entering the room of questions he wanted to ask and information he wanted to gather. Then he threw the door open, stepped quickly inside, closed the door, and turned the key.
Lerton was sitting at his desk with his back to the door. He made no move until he heard the key turned. Then he whirled around in his desk chair.
"I—Great Scott, Farland, how you startled me!" he exclaimed. "I thought it was my secretary."
"Pardon me for butting in this way, but I am in a deuce of a hurry and told the boy it was all right," Farland said.
"You'll smash my office discipline doing things like this. But, sit down, man! What is it now? Has that cousin of mine been acting up again, or are you going to pester me with a lot of fool questions about things I don't know anything about?"
Farland had seated himself in the chair at the end of the desk, within four feet of George Lerton. He had tossed his hat to a table and twisted the cigar into one corner of his mouth. Now he stared Lerton straight in the eyes.
"You look like a madman!" Lerton said. "Why on earth are you looking at me like that? You look as if you were ill——"
The expression in Farland's face made him stop, and he appeared to be a bit disconcerted.
"Why did you kill Rufus Shepley?" Jim Farland demanded suddenly in a voice that seemed to sting.
Lerton's face went white for an instant. His jaw dropped and his eyes bulged.
"Are—are you insane?" he gasped. "What on earth do you mean by this? I'll call a clerk and——"
"The door is locked," Farland said, taking the automatic from his pocket. "You raise your voice, touch a button or make any move that I do not like, and I'll plug you and say afterward that I had placed you under arrest and had to shoot when you tried to escape. Answer my question, Lerton! You are at the end of your rope! Why did you kill Rufus Shepley and then try to hang the crime on your cousin, Sidney Prale?"
"This is preposterous!" Lerton exclaimed.
"Oh, I've got the goods on you, Lerton! I wouldn't be here talking like this if I didn't! You're going to the electric chair!"
Lerton laughed rather nervously. "I always thought that you were a good detective, Jim, but I am beginning to have doubts now," he said. "What has put such an idea into your head?"
"Facts gathered and welded together," Farland told him. "Don't try to carry out the bluff any longer, Lerton. And don't call me Jim. I never allow murderers to get familiar with me!"
"This has gone far enough!" the broker exclaimed. "I'll have to ask you to leave my office, sir!"
"I expect to do that little thing before long, and you are going with me," Farland said.
There was a knock at the door.
THE TRUTH COMES OUT
Farland did not take his eyes off George Lerton.
"If you have touched a button and called some fool clerk, I'll manhandle you!" he promised. "Kindly consider yourself a prisoner!"
The knock was repeated, and Farland, still keeping his eyes on the man at the desk, backed to the door and turned the key. Then he took up a position where he could continue watching George Lerton and keep an eye on the door at the same time.
"Come in!" he called.
The door was hurled open. At the same instant, the office boy who had opened it was thrust aside. Sidney Prale sprang into the private office and stood glaring at his cousin. Behind him was Murk, and behind Murk were Kate Gilbert and her maid.
"Quite a gathering!" Farland said, grinning. "I'm glad that you are here. Kindly close and lock the door, Murk, with that young office gentleman on the outside!"
Murk obeyed. George Lerton sprang to his feet.
"What is the meaning of this intrusion?" he demanded. "Has my office been turned into a rendezvous for maniacs?"
"Sit down!" Sidney Prale cried. He had not taken his eyes off Lerton, had not even turned to speak to Jim Farland, had not even wondered how Farland had escaped and come here.
Lerton dropped back into his chair, wetting his thin lips, his eyes furtive now.
"You miserable cur!" Sidney Prale went on, advancing toward his cousin. "I should handle this affair myself. I should have you in Honduras, and fasten you to a tree and beat you until you are senseless."
"Are deserved, you beast!" Prale cried. "So, when I went away ten years ago, you sold out Mr. Griffin and put the blame for it on me, did you? You wrecked that good man's faith in me, turned influential men against me, had me persecuted when I returned."
Jim Farland gave a shout of delight. "That right, Sid?" he cried, "Then I have the connecting link! So George Lerton has been causing you all this trouble, has he? I understand a lot more now. Lerton killed Rufus Shepley, also!"
"It's a lie! You are trying to save Prale by accusing me!" Lerton cried.
"Why, we've got you, you weak fool!" said Farland. "I knew you in that old farmhouse despite your mask. Your hands gave you away—I recognized them."
"And he's the man who tried to bribe me!" Murk cried. "I can tell it by his hands, too!"
"You tried to smash Prale's alibi," Jim Farland continued. "You had him followed that night and you sent those notes to the barber and the clothing merchant, with money in them."
"And you betrayed yourself when you began using violence," Prale put in. "You were too vindictive. You showed that you had some good reason of your own for wanting to drive me away from New York quickly!"
"Oh, we've got you!" Farland repeated. "You are as good as in the electric chair now!"
George Lerton looked as if he might have been in it. He was breathing in gasps, and his face was white. His eyes held an expression of terror.
"I guess—you've got me!" he said. "But I'll never—go to the chair!"
Farland stepped across to him. "Get it off your chest!" he suggested.
"I—I'll talk about it—yes!" George Lerton said. "I—I sold out Griffin. I wanted money, and I hated Griffin because he had put Sidney Prale over me. Then Sid had his trouble with the girl and ran away. I fixed things so it looked as if he had been the guilty one.
"I pretended to hate Sid for what he was supposed to have done. I suggested the scheme of vengeance, and worked to get the influential men together. Then he came back—with his million. I hated him all the more because of that. I was afraid that, if he remained in New York, he would find out the truth and I'd be exposed. I knew what that would mean, and I was beginning to get rich.
"So I had him followed and watched. I trailed him myself and met him on Fifth Avenue, and tried to get him to go away, and afterward denied that I had seen him at all, for he was accused of the murder of Rufus Shepley."
"Which was your deed!" Farland put in. "Go ahead—tell it all. Let us see whether you were clever or merely an amateur at crime."
"Oh, I was clever enough!" Lerton boasted. "I—I killed Shepley because he was about to have me arrested for embezzlement. I had been handling a vast sum for him, aside from his regular business. While he was traveling, I speculated with the money—and lost. He knew it. I could not repay.
"I had an engagement with him that night at the hotel. The detective I had working for me had reported that Sid had had a quarrel with Shepley, and where he had gone afterward and what he had done. There I saw my chance.
"I did not have myself announced at Shepley's hotel. I knew where his suite was, so I slipped up to it without anybody seeing me, and knocked at the door. He admitted me. I begged him to give me a little time to repay the money, but he would not. He called me a thief, and said that I must go to prison, that he would not have a hand in letting me remain at liberty to rob other men.
"There was a steel letter opener on the table. I—I stabbed him with it, and then I got away by the fire escape. Nobody saw me. I left him there dead. I was almost frantic when I reached home. Then I saw how I could have Sidney Prale accused and remove the menace of his presence also. I would be safe if Prale were convicted of the murder. I would not have to repay the Shepley money, and Prale never could reveal that I had betrayed Mr. Griffin and the others instead of him.
"So I sent the notes and money to the barber and clothing merchant, and they denied that Prale had visited them, thus smashing his alibi. I denied that I had met him on the Avenue. I thought that I was safe. But the barber and merchant told Farland the truth, and the police began to think that Sid was not guilty.
"I grew almost frantic then. My one hope was in running Sid out of town as quickly as possible, and so I did everything I could think of to bring about that end."
"How about that fountain pen found beside the body?" Farland asked.
"When I was talking to Sid that night on the Avenue, his coat was open and I saw the pen. Something seemed to tell me to take it, that it might be used against him some time. As I clutched his lapel, begging him to leave town, I took the pen from his pocket."
"Nothing but a plain dip, after all!" Farland sneered.
"I dropped it beside the body after I had killed Shepley. It was a part of my plan. And—and I guess that is all!"
"I guess it is!" Sidney Prale said. "Mr. Griffin and I, and some other men, made a little investigation last night and continued it this morning. We found that you were the traitor who caused that financial smash ten years ago. It may please you to know that Mr. Griffin is my friend again, and that others are being informed of my innocence. Even Coadley has come to me and asked to take my case again. But I was clearing myself of the charge of business treason, and nothing more. I did not connect you with the murder of Shepley."
"Well, I did connect him with it," Farland put in. "But when I sprung it on him here this afternoon, I was running a bluff. I had some evidence, but not enough to convict. You might have got away with it, Lerton, if you had had any nerve. But you happen to be a rank coward—and a guilty man!"
"You—you——" George Lerton gasped.
He had been holding two fingers in a pocket of his waistcoat. Now he withdrew them and, before Farland could reach him, he had swallowed something.
"You'll never——" he began, and then his head fell forward to the desk. "Get the ladies outside, Murk!" Farland commanded suddenly. "And tell that secretary out there to send in a call for a physician and the police. Lerton was right—he'll never go to the electric chair!"
* * * * *
Ten minutes later, Sidney Prale and Murk were waiting for the elevator with Kate Gilbert and Marie, but each couple was standing at some distance from the other.
"I have proved my innocence, and now I ask you to remember your promise and grant me your friendship," Prale was telling Kate Gilbert.
"I shall remember," she said. "You have my address, haven't you? If you haven't, ask Murk. He knows it. You sent him to spy on me, remember."
"Jim Farland did that," Prale protested.
Murk was talking to the gigantic Marie at that moment.
"You're mighty nice!" he was saying. "Say, I'd like to see you some more. I've got an idea my boss will be calling on your mistress, and when he does I might come up to the corner, and you might slip out and meet me, and we might take a walk in the Park. You wouldn't want to stay in the apartment and bother them, would you?"
"It would be a shame!" said Marie. "Which corner, Murk?"