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"THE first confirmatory evidence of the thing, Excellency, was the print of a woman's bare foot."He was an immense creature. He sat in an upright chair that seemed to have been provided especially for him. The great bulk of him flowed out and filled the chair. It did not seem to be fat that enveloped him. It seemed rather to be some soft, tough fiber, like the pudgy mass making up the body of a deep-sea thing. One got an impression of strength.The country was before the open window; the clusters of cultivated shrub on the sweep of velvet lawn extending to the great wall that inclosed the place, then the bend of the river and beyond the distant mountains, blue and mysterious, blending indiscernibly into the sky. A soft sun, clouded with the haze of autumn, shone over it.
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Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostepny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacjach Legimi na:
I. The Thing on the Hearth
II. The Reward
III. The Lost Lady
IV. The Cambered Foot
V. The Man in the Green Hat
VI. The Wrong Sign
VII. The Fortune Teller
VIII. The Hole in the Mahogany Panel
IX. The End of the Road
X.-The Last Adventure
XII. The Spread Rails
XIII. The Pumpkin Coach
XIV. The Yellow Flower
XV. Satire of the Sea
XVI. The House by the Loch
I was before one of those difficult positions unavoidable to a visitor in a foreign country.
I had to meet the obligations of professional courtesy. Captain Walker had asked me to go over the manuscript of his memoirs; and now he had called at the house in which I was a guest, for my opinion. We had long been friends; associated in innumerable cases, and I wished to suggest the difficulty rather than to express it. It was the twilight of an early Washington winter. The lights in the great library, softened with delicate shades, had been turned on. Outside, Sheridan Circle was almost a thing of beauty in its vague outlines; even the squat, ridiculous bronze horse had a certain dignity in the blue shadow.
If one had been speculating on the man, from his physical aspect one would have taken Walker for an engineer of some sort, rather than the head of the United States Secret Service. His lean face and his angular manner gaffe that impression. Even now, motionless in the big chair beyond the table, he seemed—how shall I say it?—mechanical.
And that was the very defect in his memoir. He had cut the great cases into a dry recital. There was no longer in them any pressure of a human impulse. The glow of inspired detail had been dissected out. Everything startling and wonderful had been devitalized.
The memoir was a report.
The bulky typewritten manuscript lay on the table beside the electric lamp, and I stood about uncertain how to tell him.
"Walker," I said, "did nothing wonderful ever happen to you in the adventure of these cases?"
"What precisely do you mean, Sir Henry?" he replied.
The practical nature of the man tempted me to extravagance.
"Well," I said, "for example, were you never kissed in a lonely street by a mysterious woman and the flash of your dark lantern reveal a face of startling beauty?"
"No," he said, as though he were answering a sensible question, "that never happened to me."
"Then," I continued, "perhaps you have found a prince of the church, pale as alabaster, sitting in his red robe, who put together the indicatory evidence of the crime that baffled you with such uncanny acumen that you stood aghast at his perspicacity?"
"No," he said; and then his face lighted. "But I'll tell you what I did find. I found a drunken hobo at Atlantic City who was the best detective I ever saw."
I sat down and tapped the manuscript with my fingers.
"It's not here," I said. "Why did you leave it out?"
He took a big gold watch out of his pocket and turned it about in his hand. The case was covered with an inscription.
"Well, Sir Henry," he said, "the boys in the department think a good deal of me. I shouldn't like them to know how a dirty tramp faked me at Atlantic City. I don't mind telling you, but I couldn't print it in a memoir."
He went directly ahead with the story and I was careful not to interrupt him:
"I was sitting in a rolling chair out there on the Boardwalk before the Traymore. I was nearly all in, and I had taken a run to Atlantic for a day or two of the sea air. The fact is the whole department was down and out. You may remember what we were up against; it finally got into the newspapers.
"The government plates of the Third Liberty Bond issue had disappeared. We knew how they had gotten out, and we thought we knew the man at the head of the thing. It was a Mulehaus job, as we figured it.
"It was too big a thing for a little crook. With the government plates they could print Liberty Bonds just as the Treasury would. And they could sow the world with them."
He paused and moved his gold-rimmed spectacles a little closer in on his nose.
"You see these war bonds are scattered all over the country. They are held by everybody. It's not what it used to be, a banker's business that we could round up. Nobody could round up the holders of these bonds.
"A big crook like Mulehaus could slip a hundred million of them into the country and never raise a ripple."
He paused and drew his fingers across his bony protruding chin.
"I'll say this for Mulehaus: He's the hardest man to identify in the whole kingdom of crooks. Scotland Yard, the Service de la Surete, everybody, says that. I don't mean dime-novel disguises—false whiskers and a limp. I mean the ability to be the character he pretends—the thing that used to make Joe Jefferson, Rip Van Winkle—and not an actor made up to look like him. That's the reason nobody could keep track of Mulehaus, especially in South American cities. He was a French banker in the Egypt business and a Swiss banker in the Argentine."
He turned back from the digression:
"And it was a clean job. They had got away with the plates. We didn't have a clew. We thought, naturally, that they'd make for Mexico or some South American country to start their printing press. And we had the ports and border netted up. Nothing could have gone out across the border or, through any port. All the customs officers were, working with us, and every agent of the Department of Justice."
He looked at me steadily across the table.
"You see the Government had to get those plates back before the crook started to print, or else take up every bond of that issue over the whole country. It was a hell of a thing!
"Of course we had gone right after the record of all the big crooks to see whose line this sort of job was. And the thing narrowed down to Mulehaus or old Vronsky. We soon found out it wasn't Vronsky. He was in Joliet. It was Mulehaus. But we couldn't find him.
"We didn't even know that Mulehaus was in America. He's a big crook with a genius for selecting men. He might be directing the job from Rio or a Mexican port. But we were sure it was a Mulehaus' job. He sold the French securities in Egypt in '90; and he's the man who put the bogus Argentine bonds on our market—you'll find the case in the 115th Federal Reporter.
"Well," he went on, "I was sitting out there in the rolling chair, looking at the sun on the sea and thinking about the thing, when I noticed this hobo that I've been talking about. He was my chair attendant, but I hadn't looked at him before. He had moved round from behind me and was now leaning against the galvanized pipe railing.
"He was a big human creature, a little stooped, unshaved and dirty; his mouth was slack and loose, and he had a big mobile nose that seemed to move about like a piece of soft rubber. He had hardly any clothing; a cap that must have been fished out of an ash barrel, no shirt whatever, merely an old ragged coat buttoned round him, a pair of canvas breeches and carpet slippers tied on to his feet with burlap, and wrapped round his ankles to conceal the fact that he wore no socks.
"As I looked at him he darted out, picked up the stump of a cigarette that some one had thrown down, and came back to the railing to smoke it, his loose mouth and his big soft nose moving like kneaded putty.
"Altogether this tramp was the worst human derelict I ever saw. And it occurred to me that this was the one place in the whole of America where any sort of a creature could get a kind of employment and no questions asked.
"Anything that could move and push a chair could get fifteen cents an hour from McDuyal. Wise man, poor man, beggar man, thief, it was all one to McDuyal. And the creatures could sleep in the shed behind the rolling chairs.
"I suppose an impulse to offer the man a garment of some sort moved me to address him.
"'You're nearly naked,' I said.
"He crossed one leg over the other with the toe of the carpet slipper touching the walk, in the manner of a burlesque actor, took the cigarette out of his mouth with a little flourish, and replied to me:
"'Sure, Governor, I ain't dolled up like John Drew.'
"There was a sort of cocky unconcern about the creature that gave his miserable state a kind of beggarly distinction. He was in among the very dregs of life, and he was not depressed about it.
"'But if I had a sawbuck," he continued, "I could bulge your eye .... Couldn't point the way to one?'
"He arrested my answer with the little flourish of his fingers holding the stump of the cigarette.
"'Not work, Governor,' and he made a little duck of his head, 'and not murder.... Go as far as you please between 'em.'
"The fantastic manner of the derelict was infectious.
"'O. K.' I said. 'Go out and find me a man who is a deserter from the German Army, was a tanner in Bale and began life as a sailor, and I'll double your money—I'll give you a twenty-dollar bill.'
"The creature whistled softly in two short staccato notes.
"'Some little order,' he said. And taking a toothpick out of his pocket he stuck it into the stump of the cigarette which had become too short to hold between his fingers.
"At this moment a boy from the post office came to me with the daily report from Washington, and I got out of the chair, tipped the creature, and went into the hotel, stopping to pay McDuyal as I passed.
"There was nothing new from the department except that our organization over the country was in close touch. We had offered five thousand dollars reward for the recovery of the plates, and the Post Office Department was now posting the notice all over America in every office. The Secretary thought we had better let the public in on it and not keep it an underground offer to the service.
"I had forgotten the hobo, when about five o'clock he passed me a little below the Steel Pier. He was in a big stride and he had something clutched in his hand.
"He called to me as he hurried along: 'I got him, Governor.... See you later!'
"'See me now,' I said. 'What's the hurry?'
"He flashed his hand open, holding a silver dollar with his thumb against the palm.
"'Can't stop now, I'm going to get drunk. See you later.'
"I smiled at this disingenuous creature. He was saving me for the dry hour. He could point out Mulehaus in any passing chair, and I would give some coin to be rid of his pretension."
Walker paused. Then he went on:
"I was right. The hobo was waiting for me when I came out of the hotel the following morning.
"'Howdy, Governor,' he said; 'I located your man.'
"I was interested to see how he would frame up his case.
"'How did you find him?' I said.
"He grinned, moving his lip and his loose nose.
"'Some luck, Governor, and some sleuthin'. It was like this: I thought you was stringin' me. But I said to myself I'll keep out an eye; maybe it's on the level—any damn thing can happen.'
"He put up his hand as though to hook his thumb into the armhole of his vest, remembered that he had only a coat buttoned round him and dropped it.
"'And believe me or not, Governor, it's the God's truth. About four o'clock up toward the Inlet I passed a big, well-dressed, banker-looking gent walking stiff from the hip and throwing out his leg. "Come eleven!" I said to myself. "It's the goosestep!" I had an empty roller, and I took a turn over to him.'
"'"Chair, Admiral?" I said.
"'He looked at me sort of queer.
"'"What makes you think I'm an admiral, my man?" he answers.
"Well," I says, lounging over on one foot reflective like, "nobody could be a-viewin' the sea with that lovin', ownership look unless he'd bossed her a bit.... If I'm right, Admiral, you takes the chair."
"'He laughed, but he got in. "I'm not an admiral," he said, "but it is true that I've followed the sea."
"The hobo paused, and put up his first and second fingers spread like a V.
"'Two points, Governor—the gent had been a sailor and a soldier; now how about the tanner business?
"He scratched his head, moving his ridiculous cap.
"'That sort of puzzled me, and I pussyfooted along toward the Inlet thinkin' about it. If a man was a tanner, and especially a foreign, hand-workin' tanner, what would his markin's be?
"'I tried to remember everybody that I'd ever seen handlin' a hide, and all at once I recollected that the first thing a dago shoemaker done when he picked up a piece of leather was to smooth it out with his thumbs. An' I said to myself, now that'll be what a tanner does, only he does it more.... he's always doin' it. Then I asks myself what would be the markin's?'
"The hobo paused, his mouth open, his head twisted to one side. Then he jerked up as under a released spring.
"'And right away, Governor, I got the answer to it flat thumbs!'
"The hobo stepped back with an air of victory and flashed his hand up.
"'And he had 'em! I asked him what time it was so I could keep the hour straight for McDuyal, I told him, but the real reason was so I could see his hands.'"
Walker crossed one leg over the other.
"It was clever," he said, "and I hesitated to shatter it. But the question had to come.
"'Where is your man?' I said.
"The hobo executed a little deprecatory step, with his fingers picking at his coat pockets.
"'That's the trouble, Governor,' he answered; 'I intended to sleuth him for you, but he gave me a dollar and I got drunk... you saw me. That man had got out at McDuyal's place not five minutes before. I was flashin' to the booze can when you tried to stop me.... Nothin' doin' when I get the price.'"
"It was a good fairy story and worth something. I offered him half a dollar. Then I got a surprise.
"The creature looked eagerly at the coin in my fingers, and he moved toward it. He was crazy for the liquor it would buy. But he set his teeth and pulled up.
"'No, Governor,' he said, 'I'm in it for the sawbuck. Where'll I find you about noon?'
"I promised to be on the Boardwalk before Heinz's Pier at two o'clock, and he turned to shuffle away. I called an inquiry after him... You see there were two things in his story: How did he get a dollar tip, and how did he happen to make his imaginary man banker-looking? Mulehaus had been banker-looking in both the Egypt and the Argentine affairs. I left the latter point suspended, as we say. But I asked about the dollar. He came back at once.
"'I forgot about that, Governor,' he said. 'It was like this: The admiral kept looking out at the sea where an old freighter was going South. You know, the fruit line from New York. One of them goes by every day or two. And I kept pushing him along. Finally we got up to the Inlet, and I was about to turn when he stopped me. You know the neck of ground out beyond where the street cars loop; there's an old board fence by the road, then sand to the sea, and about halfway between the fence and the water there's a shed with some junk in it. You've seen it. They made the old America out there and the shed was a tool house.
"'When I stopped the admiral says: "Cut across to the hole in that old board fence and see if an automobile has been there, and I'll give you a dollar." An' I done it, an' I got it.'
"Then he shuffled off.
"'Be on the spot, Governor, an' I'll lead him to you.'"
Walker leaned over, rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, and linked his fingers together.
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