Dangerous Ground: or, The Rival Detectivesñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
“Nobody wants to fall out with him,” retorts Mamma. “He’s going to be the makin’ of us, only – mind this – he ain’t to know too much, unless we want him to be our master. Look at the scamp, a-layin’ there! I’m goin’ to see ef he is asleep.”
She takes the candle from the table, snuffs the wick into a brighter blaze, and moves softly toward the couch. The Prodigal’s face is turned upward. Mamma scans it closely, and then brings the candle very near to the closed eyes, waving it to and fro rapidly.
There is no slow awakening here. The two hands of the sleeper, which have rested in seeming carelessness loosely at his sides, move swiftly and simultaneously with his body. And Mamma’s only consciousness is that of more meteors than could by any possibility emanate from one candle, and a sudden shock to her whole frame. She is sitting upon the floor, clutching wildly at the candle, while Franz, a dangerous-looking revolver in either hand, is glaring fiercely about him.
And all this in scarce ten seconds!
“Wot’s up?” queries Franz shortly, “wot the dickens – ”
Papa comes forward, chuckling softly, but keeping cautiously out of range of the two weapons. And Mamma begins to scramble to her feet.
“Hullo!” says Franz, as he seems to notice Mamma’s position for the first time; “wot ails you?”
Papa is so amused that he giggles audibly; he was never heard to laugh an honest laugh.
“Git up, old lady,” commands Franz, withdrawing his eyes from Mamma; and he stands as at first, until she has risen.
Then he glances sharply about the room, and asks impatiently: “Come, now, what have ye been up to?”
“Ye see, Franzy,” begins Mamma in a conciliating tone, “I went ter take a look at ye – ”
“Oh, ye did!”
“With the candle in my hand.”
“Jest so; an’ to get a good look, ye stuck it pretty close to my eyes. Wanted to see ef I was asleep, or playin’ possum, eh? Wall,” replacing one revolver in a hip-pocket, and trifling carelessly with the other, while he seats himself upon the couch, “what did ye find out?”
Though his tone was one of quiet mockery, there was an angry gleam in his eyes, and neither Papa nor Mamma ventured a reply.
“I’ll tell ye what ye discovered, an’ it may be a good lesson fer ye,” he goes on in a low tone that was full of fierce intensity. “Ye have discovered that Franz Francoise asleep, and the same feller awake, are pretty much alike. It’s jest as onsafe to trifle with one as with the other. I’ve slept nearly ten years o’ my life with every nerve in me waitin’ fer a sign to wake quick and active. I’ve taught myself to go to sleep always with the same idea runnin’ in my head. An’ since I got out o’ that pen down there, I’m always armed, and I’m always ready. The brush of a fly’ll wake me, and it’ll take me just five seconds to shoot. So when ye experiment ’round me agin, ye want to fly kinder light. And, old woman, ye may thank yer stars that ye was so close ter me that ye didn’t come in for nothin’ more’n a tumble.”
He sits quite still for a few moments, and then rising slowly, goes over and seats himself on the edge of the table near which Papa stands.
“When I stowed myself away over there,” resumes Franz, “I was more or less muddled.
But I’m straight enough now, an’ my head’s clear. I’ve just reckelected about that gal’s comin’, an’ – I say, old woman, can she hear us if she happens to be awake?”
“No,” replies Mamma, “she can’t – not unless we talk louder than we’re likely to.”
“Then haul up yer stool. We’re goin’ ter settle about her.”
The look which Mamma casts toward her worser half says, as plainly as looks can speak: “It’s coming.” And then she compresses her lips, and draws a chair near the table, while Papa occupies another, and Franz looks down upon the pair from his more elevated perch.
“Now, then,” begins Franz, “Who’s that ’ere gal?”
No answer from the two on the witness-stand. They exchange glances, and remain mute.
“Next,” goes on Franz, as if quite content with their silence, “wot’s all this talk about child-stealin’?”
Still no answer. Franz remains tranquil as before, and by way of diversion probably, squints along the shining barrel of his six shooter, and snaps the trigger playfully.
“Have ye got that gal’s young un?” he asks, still seeming to find the revolver an object of interest, “or hain’t ye?” Down comes the dangerous weapon upon the knee of its owner, and quite by accident, of course, it has Papa’s head directly in range.
Seeing which, that worthy moves quickly aside with an exclamation of remonstrance. But Mamma is made of other stuff. She leans forward and leers up into the face of her Prodigal.
“It seems ter me, youngster,” she sneers, “that gal’s took a strong hold on yer sympathies. Ain’t ye gettin’ terrible curious?”
“Maybe,” retorts Franz, returning her gaze with interest; “an’ maybe, now, ’tain’t so much sympathy as ye may suppose. I don’t think sympathy runs in this ’ere family. The pint’s right here, and this is a good time to settle it. You two’s hung onter me ter stay by yer, an’ strike together fer luck, but I’m blessed ef I’m goin’ ter strike in ther dark. I’m goin’ ter see ter the bottom o’ things, er let ’em alone. An’ afore we drop this, I want these ’ere questions answered: Who is that gal, an’ why does she talk about bein’ your gal? Who is the young-un she talks of, an’ have you got it? I’m goin’ ter know yer lay afore I move.”
“Franz,” breaks in Papa deprecatingly, “jest give yer mother a chance. Maybe ye won’t ride sich a high horse when ye hear her plans fer yer good.”
And then, as if she has just received her cue, Mamma breaks in:
“Ah-h, Franz,” she says contemptuously, “I’m disappinted in ye! Wot were ye thinkin’ on, ter go an’ weaken afore a slip of a gal like that, talkin’ such chicken talk, an’ goin’ back on yer old mother!”
“I thought ye said ye’d got ter hang onto that gal, an’ she’d make all our fortin’s,” comments Franz.
“An’ so I did.”
“Well,” and he favors her with a knowing leer, “if that’s a fact, somebody needs ter git inter her good books, an’ she don’t ’pear to take much stock in you two.”
He points this sentence with a wink at Papa. And this gentleman, seeming to see his son’s gallantry in a new light, indulges in one of his giggles. Even Mamma grins visibly as she leans forward and pats him on his knee.
“Ah, you sly dog, ah-h! Look what luck’s throwed in our way, my boy! Ye’re bound ter be rich, if ye jest listen to yer mother.”
“It’ll take a power o’ listenin’ unless yer git down ter business. An’ now, once more, wot does the gal mean by talkin’ about a child that’s stole?”
“Never mind the young un, boy,” replies Mamma, her face hardening again; “how do ye like the gal?”
“Like the gal? Wot’s that got ter do with it?”
“Listen, Franz,” and Mamma bends forward with uplifted forefinger; “I’ll explain all that needs explainin’ by an by. S’pose it should turn out as that gal, that’s come here and throwed herself into our hands, should fall heir to – well, to a pile o’ money. What would you be willin’ to do ter git the heft of it?”
“Most anything,” replies Franz coolly, and letting his eyes drop to the weapon in his hand. “I shouldn’t ‘weaken,’ nor play ‘chicken,’ old un. But I’d want ter see the fortin’ ahead.”
“Hear the boy!” chuckles Mamma in delight. “But we don’t want none o’ that,” nodding toward the revolver. “It’s a live gal ye want.” Then leaning forward, she whispers sharply: “You have got ter marry the gal!”
Franz stares at his mother for full ten seconds. Then slowly lowering first one leg and next the other, he stands upon his feet, and embracing himself with both arms, he indulges in what appears to be a violent fit of noiseless laughter.
“Marry the gal!” he articulates between these spasms. “Oh, gimmini! won’t she be delighted!”
“Delighted or not,” snarls Mamma, considerably annoyed by this levity on the part of her Prodigal, “she’ll be brought to consent.”
But the spasm has passed. Franz resumes his position on the table, and looks at Mamma, this time with the utmost gravity, while he says:
“Look here, old woman, that’s a gal as can’t be drove. Ye can’t force her ter marry yer han’some son. An’ ye can’t force yer han’some son ter marry her – not unless he sees some strong inducements. An’ then, ye don’t expect ter make a prisoner o’ that gal, do yer? That racket’s played out, ’cept in the theatres. I don’t know what sent her here, but I’m pretty sure she’ll be satisfied with a short visit.”
“Franz,” remonstrates Mamma, “listen to me. That gal, the minit we step for’ard an’ prove her identity, is goin’ to come into a fortin’ as big as a silver mine. And we shan’t prove her identity – till she’s married ter you.”
Suddenly the manner of the Prodigal, which has presented thus far a mixture of incredulity and indifference, changes to fierce anger. Again he comes down upon his feet, this time with a quick spring that causes Papa to start and tremble once more.
“Now, you listen,” he says sharply. “The quicker yer stop this fool business, the better it’ll be fer yer plans. Who’s that gal, I say? How did she git inter yer clutches? What’s this fortin’, and where’s it comin’ from? When ye’ve answered these ’ere questions, ye kin talk ter me; not afore.”
“Jest trust us fer that, Franzy,” says Papa softly.
“Not any! Then here’s another thing: how are ye goin’ ter git that gal’s consent?”
“Trust us fer that, too,” says Mamma, in a tone betokening rising anger. “We know how ter manage her.”
“An’ that means that ye’ve got her young un! Now look here, both on ye. Do you take me fer a stool-pigeon, to go into such a deal with my eyes blinded? Satisfy me about the gal, an’ her right to a fortin’, an’ let me in to the young un deal, an’ I’m with ye. I don’t go it blind.”
And now it is Mamma’s turn. She bounds up, confronting her Prodigal, with wrath blazing in her wicked eyes.
Papa turns away and groans dismally: “Oh, Lord, they’re goin’ to quarrel!”
“Look here, Franz Francoise,” begins Mamma, in a shrill half whisper, “ye don’t want ter go too fur! I ain’t a-goin’ ter put all the power inter yer hands. If this business ain’t worth somethin’ to me, it shan’t be to you. I kin soon satisfy ye on one pint: the gal ain’t my gal, but she came honest into my hands. I’m willin’ ter tell ye all about the gal, an’ her fortune, but ye kin let out the young-un business. That’s my affair, and I’ll attend to it in my own way. Now, then, if I’ll tell ye about the gal, prove that there’s money in it, and git her consent, will ye marry her an’ – ”
“Whack up with ye afterwards?” drawls Franz, all trace of anger having disappeared from his face and manner. “Old woman, I’ll put it in my pipe an’ smoke it. Ye kin consider this confab ended.”
Turning upon his heel he goes back to the couch, drops down upon it with a yawn, and composes himself to sleep.
MR. FOLLINGSBEE’S VICTORY
When Alan Warburton reached the residence of Mr. Follingsbee, he found that legal gentleman sitting alone in his cosy library, very much, so Alan thought, as if expecting him. And the first words that the lawyer uttered confirmed this opinion.
Rising quickly, Mr. Follingsbee came forward to meet his guest, saying briskly:
“Ah, Warburton, good evening. I’ve been expecting you; sit down, sit down.”
As Alan placed his hat upon the table beside him, and took the seat indicated, he said, with a well-bred stare of surprise:
“You expected me, Mr. Follingsbee? Then possibly you know my errand?”
“Well, yes; in part, at least.” The lawyer took up a folded note, and passed it across the table to his visitor, saying: “It was left in my care about two hours ago.”
Alan glanced up at him quickly, and then turned his attention to the perusal of the note. It ran thus:
The time has come, or will soon come, when Mrs. W – will find it necessary to confide her troubles to Mr. Follingsbee. The time is also near when you will have to fight Van Vernet face to face. You will do well to trust your case to Mr. Follingsbee, relying upon him in every particular. You will have to meet strategy with strategy, if you would outwit Vernet.
Alan perused this slowly, noting that the handwriting was identical with that of the scrap left by the “organ-grinder,” and then he refolded it, saying:
“I am the bearer of a missive for you, Mr. Follingsbee; but first, let me ask if I may know who sent me this message?”
“It was left in my hands,” replied the lawyer, smiling slightly, “by – by a person with ragged garments, and a dirty face. He appeared to be a deaf mute, and looked like – ”
“Like an organ-grinder minus his organ?” finished Alan.
“I trust that this will explain itself,” said Alan, drawing forth from an inner pocket Leslie’s letter, and giving it into the lawyer’s hand. “Read it, Mr. Follingsbee. This day has been steeped in mystery; let us clear away such clouds as we can.”
“From Leslie!” Mr. Follingsbee said, elevating his eyebrows. “This is an unexpected part of the programme.”
“Indeed? And yet this, – ” and Alan tapped the note he had just received, with one long, white forefinger, – “this foretells it.”
“Ah!” Only this monosyllable; then Mr. Follingsbee broke the seal of Leslie’s letter and began its perusal, his face growing graver and more troubled as he read.
It was a long letter, and he read it slowly, turning back a page sometimes to re-read a certain passage. Finally he laid the letter upon his knee, and sat quite still, with his hands working together nervously and his brow wrinkled in thought. At last he lifted his eyes toward Alan.
“Do you know what this letter contains?” he asked slowly.
“I know that my sister-in-law has left her home,” Alan replied gravely; “nothing more.”
“Nothing; really. She left three letters: one for Mrs. French, another for Miss French, and the third for yourself.”
“And you… She left you some message?”
“Not a word, verbal or written.”
“Strange,” mused the lawyer, taking up his letter and again glancing through its pages. “I can’t understand it. Mr. Warburton – pardon the question – was there any difference, any misunderstanding, between you and Leslie?”
“Does not the letter itself explain?”
“That is what puzzles me. The letter tells her own story – a story that I knew before, in part at least; a sad story, proving to me that the girl has been made to suffer bitterly; but it does not, from first to last, mention your name.”
Alan sat silent for a moment. Then he turned his face toward the lawyer, as if acting upon some resolve.
“Yesterday,” he began quietly, “I held an interview with my sister-in-law. It was not an amicable interview; we have been on unfriendly terms since – since the night of the masquerade.”
“Since the masquerade?”
“During that interview,” continued Alan, “Mrs. Warburton gave me the brief outline of what seemed to me a very improbable story.”
“Ah!” There was a new shade in the lawyer’s voice.
“And I am wondering,” Alan goes on, “if your letter contains that same story.”
“Possibly,” said Mr. Follingsbee dryly.
“This note which you have given me, and which bears no signature, seems to indicate as much. Are you acquainted with its contents, sir?”
“I am not.” There is a growing crispness in the lawyer’s tone, which Alan is not slow to note.
“Then oblige me by reading it.”
Mr. Follingsbee took the note and read it slowly.
“Don’t you think,” he said, looking up from its perusal, “that we had better begin by understanding each other?”
“Very good: this note was left with me by – by such a man as I described to you.”
“By a man in disguise?”
“Just so. This – this man in disguise, came to me in your behalf.”
“In my behalf!” exclaimed Alan, in amazement.
“In your behalf. He told me you were in danger, and that the man you had most cause to fear was a certain detective: Van Vernet.”
Alan Warburton stirred uneasily in his chair, and the old haughty look came slowly into his face.
“He said,” went on the lawyer slowly, “that because of your pride, and your obstinacy, you were involving not only yourself but others, in a net that might, if your present course continued, ruin you utterly, and bring upon your cherished family honor a disagreeable blot, if not absolute disgrace. He did not give me an idea of the nature of the difference between yourself and this Vernet, but he laid out a very pretty plan by which to baffle him. And he said, as he went away: ‘If Alan Warburton, under all his pride and obstinate clinging to a wrong idea, possesses the sound judgment that I believe him to have – and it’s a pity he has not made better use of it, – he will confide in you, and act upon your advice, if not upon mine. Let him do this and we will baffle Vernet, and his precious secret will not be dragged to the light. Let him continue in his present course, and Van Vernet will have his hand upon him within a week; the affair of this afternoon should convince him of this.’”
During this remarkable speech, Alan’s face had taken on a variety of expressions. At the closing sentence he gave a quick start, and then sat perfectly still, with his profile toward his companion. After a time he turned his face toward the lawyer; and that personage, looking anxiously for a reply or comment, could read upon the handsome countenance only calm resolve and perfect self-control.
“Mr. Follingsbee,” he began gravely, “do you understand this allusion to the events of the afternoon?”
“I do not.”
“And yet you have confidence in this disguised stranger?”
“Have I alluded to him as a stranger, sir?”
Alan passed his hand across his brow, and said slowly:
“He is not a stranger to you and, evidently, he knows me remarkably well; I might say too well.”
“Ahem! You would be likely to recall your words, if you did.”
“Mr. Follingsbee, who is this man?”
“I am not at liberty to speak his name.”
“What is he, then?”
“First of all, a gentleman; a man whose championship does you honor, for it proves that he believes in you, in spite of this Van Vernet.”
“Was it not a strange freak for this gentleman, disguised just as he afterward came to you, to enter my study window, and conceal himself in my cabinet?”
Mr. Follingsbee looked up with lively interest. “Did he do that?” he asked quickly.
“He did that.”
“Well,” said Mr. Follingsbee slowly, “I should say that it was quite like him. He did not talk of his own exploits when he came to me; I fancy his time was limited.”
“Probably; now, Mr. Follingsbee, I think I see things, some things, in a clearer light. This organ-grinder of mine, this gentleman of yours, this anonymous friend, is a detective!”
“Umph!” mutters the lawyer, half to himself, “we are beginning to use our wits.” Then in a louder tone: “Ah, so we are no longer lawyer and witness?”
“No,” with a quiet smile; “we are two lawyers. Let us remain such.”
“With all my heart,” cries Mr. Follingsbee, extending his hand; “let us remain such.”
Alan takes the proffered hand, and begins again.
“This champion of mine, then, is a detective; you admit that?”
“Well – yes.”
“In espousing my cause, he is making active war upon Van Vernet?”
“So it appears.”
“Then it is safe to say that aside from the interest he has seen fit to take in – in my family and family affairs, he has some personal issue with Mr. Vernet.”
“Then, – how fast we progress – our detective friend must be a remarkably clever fellow, or our chances are very slender. Mr. Vernet is called one of the ablest detectives on the city force.”
“Mr. Follingsbee, have you faith in the ability of this champion-detective to cope with such a man as Vernet?”
“Well,” says the elder gentleman slowly, “if you play your part, I’ll vouch for my friend. He is at least a match for Vernet.”
“Then I think it would not be a difficult matter to identify him.”
“Don’t waste your time,” interrupts Mr. Follingsbee quickly; “I have told you all that I am at liberty to tell.”
“As you please; but before I begin my story, I must be sure that it is the story. Yesterday, as I told you, I had an interview with my sister-in-law.”
“I had observed some things that puzzled me, and – does that letter of Leslie’s contain any statements concerning her early life?” He breaks off abruptly.
“It does; many statements.”
“Do you know anything of her early history?”
“Is she the daughter of Thomas Uliman?”
“His adopted daughter; yes.”
“And are her parents living?”
“Two people who claim to be her parents are in this city. I may as well say to you now, Mr. Warburton, that Leslie never knew herself to be an adopted child until shortly before her marriage; that she discovered it by accident, and came straight to me with the news, which I had known all along. Then she told the truth to your brother, and knowing the height, depth, and absurdity of the Warburton pride, offered to release him from his engagement. He refused this release and bade her never mention the subject again.”
He paused a moment, and seeing that Alan was regarding him with steadfast earnestness, resumed:
“I supposed that the end of the affair, and from that day to this have never heard a word on the subject from Leslie, or from any one, until you brought me this letter. And now, as I have gone thus far into the matter, let me tell you what I have learned from this letter – not as Leslie has written it, but briefly as possible. Shortly before her marriage, two people, asserting themselves to be the two who gave Leslie to the Ulimans, came and claimed her as their child. They were so repulsive, clamorous, and so evidently greedy for money, that Leslie could not, would not, credit their story. Here she made her first mistake. She bribed these old wretches with a good slice of her little fortune, instead of turning them and their claim over to me. They promised to go away, of course, and never trouble her again, and also of course, they did not keep their word. As soon as she was married to your brother, they became bolder; and she was more than ever in their power. She dared not confide in her husband; first, because of his pride, which was only a little less than yours, and next, because she feared the effect of such a revelation upon a constitution so frail, and a mind so sensitive. It was too late, she thought, to come to me; and so it went on. They drained her private purse to the last dollar; they compelled her to come at their summons at any time, and she had to creep from her home like a guilty thing to carry hush-money to these wretches. And so things continued until, in order to satisfy their greed, she must begin to fee them with her husband’s money. Think of that, sir,” casting an ironical glance at his vis-a-vis; “feeing those common clods with the Warburton gold.”ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî