It was I, Carl Masters, of the secret service, so called, who uttered this exclamation, although not a person of the exclamatory school; and small wonder, for I was standing beneath the dome of the Administration Building, and I had but that hour arrived at the World's Fair.
I was not there as a sight-seer, not on pleasure bent, and even those first moments of arrival, I knew well, were not to be wasted.
I had come hither straight from the Terminal Station, seeking this stately keystone to the great Fair, not to steep my senses and fill my eyes with beauty in myriad forms, but to seek out the great man whose masterful hand was to create for me the passport which was to be my 'open sesame' to all within this fair White City's walls; but when I stood beneath that lofty double dome and looked about me, I forgot all but the beauty all around, and gazed upon the noble rotunda through the western entrance, where 'Earth,' majestic but untamed, a masterpiece of giant statuary, guards one massive pillar; and the same 'Earth,' yet not the same, conquered yet conquering, adds her beauty to the strength of the column opposite – to the east, where Neptune sports, classic as of old, around about the octagonal interior with its splendid arches, its frescoes and gilding, its medallions and plates of bronze, wherein gleamed, golden and fair, the names of the world's greatest countries at its gilded panels, supported by winged figures, and bearing engraven upon each shining surface the record of some great event. Its medallions and graceful groups, allegorical or symbolic, all mounting high, and higher, until illuminated by the opal-like circle of light at the summit, Dodge's great picture crowns the whole, with its circling procession of arts and sciences, gods and muses, nymphs and graces, and Apollos radiant in the midst.
Small wonder that, forgetting all but the scene before me, my lips shot out the single word 'Eureka!' and smaller wonder that, having vented my admiration in sound, I became aware of the fact at once, and remembered not only who I was, but what I was, and why I was there.
It was scarcely ten a.m., but there were people all about me, and my exclamation caused more than one eye, inquiring, amused, cynical, or simply stupid, to turn toward me where I stood, near the centre of the great rotunda.
'Big thing, ain't it?'
I turned my head, a little rattled at the notice I had thus brought upon myself, and saw standing close beside me a man whose garb, no less than his nasal utterance, proclaimed him a Yankee, and a son of the soil. I had seen him upon my entrance, standing beneath the dome, with his head thrown back at a painful angle in an effort to read one of the brazen plates above him, one hand tightly grasping a half-inflated umbrella – long past its palmy days – and the other fiercely gripped about the handle of a shawl-strap drawn tight around a handleless basket, by no means small, and bristling at the top with knobby protuberances which told but too plainly of the luncheon under the pictorial newspaper tied down with abundant lashings of blue 'Shaker' yarn.
'Big thing, indeed!' Evidently my burst of enthusiasm had brought upon me this overture, no doubt meant to pave the way to further conversation; and I answered, after a single quick glance at my neighbour, as blandly as Ah Sin himself.
'Yes, sir,' resumed the man, with a brisk nod, 'it's a big thing! When 'twas first talked up I was a good deal sot on havin' it in Noo York State. I'd been there, ye see, twenty years ago on my weddin' trip; I was livin' in Pennsylvany then. But, Lor! Noo York couldn't 'a' done this here! No, sir, she couldn't. Chicargo gits my money – not that I've got much on it,' with a nervous start and a shrugging movement as if he were trying to draw in his pockets and obliterate all traces of them. 'I don't never believe in carryin' money to sech places.' Then, as if anxious to get away from a dangerous subject, he asked, 'Been here long, stranger?'
'About half an hour.'
'M – um! I've done better than that; been here two hull hours. Come in on one of them Village Grove cable cars, and come plum through Middleway Pleasants. M – um! but they're some, them furren fellers; only it seems to me they ain't no need of so many of them niggers of all shades, dressed up like Callathumpians on Fourth of July, and standin' round in everybody's way.'
I was not there to impart information, and I let the honest soul babble on. He had brawny shoulders and an ingenuous face, but I felt sure he had brought with him more money than was wise or needful, and that he would come to grief if he continued to deny the possession of money, with his tell-tale face flatly contradicting his words.
But I was now recalled to myself and my own affairs; and dropping a few politely meaningless words, I left my first acquaintance and made my way toward the pavilion at the corner, where I had been told I should find the 'man in authority' whom I sought.
Putting my question to a guard in the ante-room, I was told that the man in authority was absent – would be absent two hours, perhaps; and, not much loth to pass a little time in that splendid rotunda, stood gazing about the beautiful Court of Honour, with its fountains, statues, glittering and fair façades, rippling lagoons, and snowy and superb peristyle, statue-crowned and gleaming, with blue Lake Michigan, sun-kissed and breeze-tossed, stretching away to the horizon in pulsating perspective.
Fairer than any dream it looked that fair May day, with Justice, golden and glorious, rising from out the waves, splendid as a sun goddess, and dominating all the rest.
As I turned away, having looked and looked again, I saw my first White City acquaintance seated upon a settle in the shadow of one of the mammoth arches, his basket between his knees and his umbrella between his two clasped hands. He was talking just as amiably and frankly as before, and this time he had for audience a dapper man with a thin face that might have been old or young, and which I disliked at sight. He was exceedingly well dressed; he looked very respectable, but he also looked smug and sophisticated – too sophisticated, I thought, to be really so well entertained as he seemed to be with my rustic friend's confidences.
For a few moments I watched the two, to the exclusion of the golden Justice, the peristyle, everything; and then, the settle being long, and the two being its sole occupants, I moved around, going in and out unobserved among the crowd, and seated myself upon the end of the bench, unseen by my friend, who sat with his broad shoulders and back squarely toward me, and affording an ample screen between myself and his companion.
I have wondered since just what actuated me to do what I did; but I only recall now a vague remembrance of a small black book, seen in memory as in a vision, and a fluttering page which seemed to blazon forth the question, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' The book? – it was buried in dead hands long ago; and the words? – they had not been printed in the book more indelibly than upon my memory.
Why should the sight of this homely, honest rustic bring back these things? I did not know; but I seated myself in the shelter of his broad back, and affected to be absorbed in a notebook and the bronzed plates upon the walls about me, keeping meanwhile, with one ear, sufficiently close note upon their conversation, and letting my mind wander.
What a strange scene! Out upon the lagoon swift electric launches swept by, and gondolas, slower, but graceful and picturesque, glided to and fro, their lithe boatmen swaying to the sweep of the single oar.
Why did the sharp-eyed little woman opposite, on the bench in the shadow of the goddess of Air, eye me so keenly and so long, dividing her attention, in fact, between myself and a young mother with two tired children, scarce more than infants both?
Yonder went two Turks, bearing between them, swaying betwixt two long poles, a genuine Turkish palanquin, and crying, 'Hi! hi!' to those who obstructed their direct line of march.
Where was the man of authority? I looked at my watch, and my thoughts came back to myself and my own affairs.
'An hour and a half to wait! I wonder if Brainerd is on the ground, and what he will say of our joint undertaking when we meet; for you can by no means establish a precedent by which to judge of Brainerd's thoughts and deeds to come. How will our work prosper? Shall we find it easy? and shall we succeed?'
For Dave Brainerd and I, both professional detectives, 'man-hunters,' if you will, were sent to this White City on a twofold mission.
It was not our first work together, and at first we did not enter into it with enthusiasm.
'Masters, Brainerd,' our chief said to us one morning, 'they are going to want a lot of good men at that World's Fair; I think I'd better put you both on the list.' And this was all that was said then, but when we were out of his presence Dave exploded.
'Wants to send us to watch little boys, look after ladies' kerchiefs, and hunt up lost babies, does he?' he began, in a fume. 'It's not meself that'll do it; d'ye hear, Masters? I'll go like the biggest gentleman of all, or like the sleuth I am, but no child-rescuing and kid-copping for me! Let his honour give us,' with a theatrical gesture, 'a foeman worthy of our steel.'
Nothing came of this whimsical tirade, and a week had passed before the chief spoke again upon the subject. Then we were both called into his private office, and he said:
'Boys, we have just found out to a certainty that Greenback Bob and his pals are going to operate at the World's Fair. I've already promised them more good men than I like to spare, but we can't let Bob and his crowd slip. I did not really mean to send you, either of you, with the others; but this is something worth while.'
'I should say!' broke in Dave, who was no respecter of persons, unless perhaps it might have been of Dave Brainerd. 'Do you mean to tell us, Cap, that the dandy Frenchman is in it?'
'He is very much in it. He crossed from Calais on the last boat in hot haste, and I'm much mistaken if the whole gang is not already on its way to the White City, though he only reached this side the night before last; and there's another party who may give us some trouble. We don't know him, but he is said to be an all-round bad one, just come over from Calais with this Delbras. I wish I could give you even a description of him.'
Greenback Bob was a counterfeiter, or so it was believed, for he was so bold, so shrewd, and so generally successful, that no one as yet had been able to entangle him in the meshes of the law; though samples of what was believed to be his handiwork had been passed from hand to hand, and travelled far before they had been challenged, and their journeys summarily ended in the cabinet of our chief. Bob was known as a gambler, too, and more than once had he been watched and shadowed because of some ill deed connected with his name; we had seen his face, and his picture adorned the rogues' gallery. Delbras, however, was likely to give us some trouble; we had seen him, it is true, but it was only a fleeting glimpse, with the possibility that he was at the moment cleverly disguised.
Of Delbras we knew, first, that he was and had been for years the occasional partner or confederate of the counterfeiter, and presumably a counterfeiter also; next, that he was set down in the records of the London police as 'dangerous'; and last, that he had crossed the ocean, leaving Paris, which had grown 'too hot to hold him,' and was avowedly en route for the World's Fair, it was thought upon mischief intent.
This last item came to our chief direct from the French police, together with the information that two or three diamond robberies which had occurred in the French capital during the previous winter were laid at his door, although it had been thus far impossible to bring the thefts home to him.
Concerning Greenback Bob – the fellow was known to us by no other name – we felt quite sanguine; we had seen him, we had his photograph and his full description according to the Bertillon system, and, once seen, he would hardly be lost to sight again, or so we flattered ourselves. Delbras we must identify through Bob, or as we best could; and the third member of the 'gang' – well, a great deal must be left to chance, as usual.
This much we knew of Delbras: he was 'handsome, educated, familiar with the ways of good society, and not an easy bird to catch.' This from the French police commissaire.
'A pinchbeck gentleman, eh!' had been Dave Brainerd's scornful comment upon hearing this. 'The worst set to deal with; I'd rather tackle a straight out-and-outer any day.'
Recalling this speech of Dave's brought my thoughts back to the old question, 'Where was he?' And then the dialogue at my elbow aroused my flagging attention, and brought it back to my rustic acquaintance and the smug personage at his side.
'Wal, now, I hadn't thought of that, but now't you mention it, 'twas a good idee; and they wouldn't change it to the eatin'-house?'
'Not there.' The smug man's tones were low and cautious. 'Pardon me, but – don't speak too loud, my friend – the mere mention of money is likely to attract some sharper to you. No, they refused me there. You see, I anticipated some difficulty inside the gates, so I had tried just before entering; but the man at the desk refused, and very curtly, too. I wanted to enter at once in order to meet half a dozen young men from my town who are sort of under my care.'
'Not quite. They belong to my Bible class, you see,' Mr. Smug explained modestly; 'and I had promised to be at the Terminal Station in case they arrived by the early train.'
'Whar from, d'ye say?' with awakening interest. 'I'm a Sunday-school teacher myself, when I'm to hum.'
'Indeed! It's a very interesting and useful work – labouring for souls. Ah, they come from Marshall, in Iowa.'
'Don't say! Why, I – '
'But they did not arrive; their train had been delayed. But, as I was about to tell you, if I had not chanced to have in my possession a roll of bills, put in my care by the father of one of the younger lads, I might have been kept outside for some time longer.'
I had been a little puzzled at this dialogue, and was losing my interest somewhat when it reached this point, and I pricked up my ears anew, while I continued to copy inscriptions and jot down memoranda.
'It seems almost like confessing to a breach of trust; but there seemed no other way, and so, stepping to one side, I took out the package of money belonging to my young friend. I had counted it in his father's presence, and knew that it contained on the very outside of the roll a two dollar bill. I took this and procured my ticket. Of course I shall explain to him and replace it at once.'
'In course! but – you was a-saying – '
'I began to tell you how I learned where to go to get money changed. I had entered, you must know, at the Cottage Grove gate opening upon Midway, and walking toward the east I soon met a guard.' He had drawn a cigar from his pocket while speaking, and he now turned toward me. I had lighted a weed upon seating myself near them, and as he uttered a polite 'Pardon me, sir,' I smoked calmly on, while I copied upon a fresh page of my notebook the legend, 'Jenner discovered the principle of vaccination in 1796,' putting an elaborate final flourish after the date.
'Sir! Your pardon; may I trouble you for a light?' A light touch of his hand accompanied the words, and I turned slowly, favoured him with a look of as well-managed stupidity and inquiry as I could muster, drew from my pocket a little ear-tube, and, adjusting it to my right ear, said, 'Hey?'
Again the fellow made known his want, and then, apparently convinced that I had not been a listener, he resumed, somewhat hurriedly, I thought:
'As I was saying, I met a guard and asked him where to go to get a bill exchanged; he mentioned one or two places a long way off, and then, happening to think of the arrangement made for the accommodation of foreigners, he courteously directed me to one of the agents quite near at hand.' He allowed a big puff of smoke to escape his lips very slowly, and added, as if it were the final word, 'Those agencies for home and foreign exchange are a great convenience to travellers.'
'What air they?' demanded my rustic. 'Never heerd on 'em.'
'Really! Why, the administration has arranged a system of agencies which are supplied with a certain sum in small bank-notes, greenbacks, which they are authorized to exchange for foreign currency; and, for the convenience of Midway Plaisance, one of these agents is established in Midway, near the Turkish Village. One may know him by a small blue badge with a silver stamp in the form of a half-dollar souvenir upon his coat.'
'He proved very affable – the guard assured me I would find him so; and as the other agencies were so far away, I took advantage of his good nature, and instead of exchanging ten dollars, I got him to put a hundred-dollar bill into fifty crisp new two-dollar bills, fresh, like all this exchange money from the Government treasury – a part, in fact, of that great output of two-dollar greenbacks issued by the Government at the same time as the souvenir coins, as you no doubt remember.'
No, the rustic did not remember, but neither did he doubt. He was full of exclamations of wonder and admiration at the workings of so wonderful and generous a Government; and then came the climax. Would Mr. Smug direct him to this affable agent upon Midway? etc.
'As I was saying at first, I don't lug much money around with me to sech places as this here, but what little I've got ain't quite divided up enough to be handy; I don't mind gettin' a fifty into new Gover'ment greenbacks myself. My wife 'n' me are countin' on stayin' on here a consid'able of a spell, maybe, an' small change is handiest.'
'It's positively necessary,' declared Smug, getting up quickly. 'I'll show you the place, and the man; and then I must be looking for my young men again.'
I had not looked for this conclusion, but as the rustic arose I closed my notebook and made ready to follow them. I was all agog to see this amiable dealer in brand-new Government notes.
As the countryman turned toward his guide, the small sharp-faced woman, who had eyed us so long and often from her bench almost opposite, arose with a movement suggestive of steel springs, and made her way toward us, waving her umbrella to attract attention. I moved rapidly aside, in anticipation of the sweeping gesture of arm and umbrella, which dislodged a tall man's hat and sent it rolling to the feet of a frisky maiden, from whence it was rescued by Smug, who restored it, with a placating word, and so averted an unpleasantness. Meanwhile the woman had reached her husband's side, and a few quick words had passed between the two. Then a gesture, and another word or two, evidently meant for an introduction, brought the smug stranger to her notice, and the three turned their faces toward the Plaisance; but not until I had heard her say to her better-half as she clung to his arm, while Smug opened a way ahead, 'I tell you he's a confidence man, and I know it. I've been a-watchin' him!'
Following the three at a little distance, and discreetly, I smiled at the woman's rustic cleverness; and never did man smile more mistakenly.
На этой странице вы можете прочитать онлайн книгу «Against Odds: A Detective Story», автора Lawrence Lynch. Данная книга имеет возрастное ограничение 12+, относится к жанрам: «Зарубежные детективы», «Классические детективы».. Книга «Against Odds: A Detective Story» была издана в 2017 году. Приятного чтения!