Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent - John T. McIntyre - E-Book

Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent E-Book

John T. McIntyre

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Looking for classic detective fiction that harks back to the era of Sherlock Holmes? Try Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent, the second in a series by author John T. McIntyre. When a seemingly humdrum family man finds his life turned upside-down by a series of increasingly improbable circumstances, he solicits the help of super-sleuth Ashton Kirk.

John T. McIntyre (26 November 1871 – 21 May 1951) was an American novelist of mystery and crime fiction.

McIntyre was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, son of Patrick and Sarah (Walker) McIntyre. He grew up in the Northern Liberties district and attended St. Michael's School and then the Harrison Grammar School. He left school early and was working full-time by the age of eleven.

He worked for the stock company of the South Street Standard Theatre, writing a new play each week based on a set of posters produced for the theater's entrance. He also worked as a free-lance journalist for Philadelphia newspapers such as the Philadelphia Press. In 1898, he started writing his first novel, a political drama set in the wards along the Schuylkill River and Philadelphia waterfront, titled The Ragged Edge. The only copy of his manuscript was stolen during an express company robbery and it took him nearly a year to rewrite the book from memory. The book was published by McClure, Phillips in 1902 and is now considered an early example of the urban Irish-American political novel.

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ASHTON KIRK, SECRET AGENT

BY

JOHN T. MCINTYRE

Copyright © 2018 by John T. McIntyre.

 

All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations em- bodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organiza- tions, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

For information contact :

Sheba Blake Publishing

[email protected]

http://www.shebablake.com

 

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Book and Cover design by Sheba Blake Publishing

 

First Edition: August 2018

TABLE OF CONTENTS

 

INTRODUCTION      5

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

CHAPTER XIII

CHAPTER XIV

CHAPTER XV

CHAPTER XVI

CHAPTER XVII

CHAPTER XVIII

CHAPTER XIX

CHAPTER XX

CHAPTER XXI

CHAPTER XXII

CHAPTER XXIII

CHAPTER XXIV

CHAPTER XXV

CHAPTER XXVI

 

INTRODUCTION

Ashton-Kirk, who has solved so many mysteries, is himself something of a problem even to those who know him best. Although young, wealthy, and of high social position, he is nevertheless an indefatigable worker in his chosen field. He smiles when men call him a detective. "No; only an investigator," he says.

He has never courted notoriety; indeed, his life has been more or less secluded. However, let a man do remarkable work in any line and, as Emerson has observed, "the world will make a beaten path to his door."

Those who have found their way to Ashton-Kirk's door have been of many races and interests. Men of science have often been surprised to find him in touch with the latest discoveries, scholars searching among strange tongues and dialects, and others deep in tattered scrolls, ancient tablets and forgotten books have been his frequent visitors. But among them come many who seek his help in solving problems in crime.

"I'm more curious than some other fellows, that's all," is the way he accounts for himself. "If a puzzle is put in front of me I can't rest till I know the answer." At any rate his natural bent has always been to make plain the mysterious; each well hidden step in the perpetration of a crime has always been for him an exciting lure; and to follow a thread, snarled by circumstances or by another intelligence has been, he admits, his chief delight.

There are many strange things to be written of this remarkable man--but this, the case of the numismatist Hume, has been selected as the first because it is one of the simplest, and yet clearly illustrates Ashton-Kirk's peculiar talents. It will also throw some light on the question, often asked, as to how his cases come to him.

A second volume that shows the investigator deep in another mystery, even more intricate and puzzling than this, is entitled "Ashton-Kirk and the Scarlet Scapular."

CHAPTER I

PENDLETON CALLS UPON ASHTON-KIRK

Young Pendleton's car crept carefully around the corner and wound in and out among the push-cart men and dirty children.

About midway in the block was a square-built house with tall, small-paned windows and checkered with black-headed brick. It stood slightly back from the street with ancient dignity; upon the shining door-plate, deeply bitten in angular text, was the name "Ashton-Kirk."

Here the car stopped; Pendleton got out, ascended the white marble steps and tugged at the polished, old-fashioned bell-handle.

A grave-faced German, in dark livery, opened the door.

"Mr. Ashton-Kirk will see you, sir," said he. "I gave him your telephone message as soon as he came down."

"Thank you, Stumph," said Pendleton. And with the manner of one perfectly acquainted with the house, he ascended a massively balustraded staircase. The walls were darkly paneled; from the shadowy recesses pictured faces of men and women looked down at him.

Coming in from the littered street, with its high smells and crowding, gesticulating people, the house impressed one by its quiet, its spaciousness, and the evident means and culture of its owner. Pendleton turned off at the first landing, proceeded along a passage and finally knocked at a door. Without waiting for a reply, he walked in.

At the far end of a long, high-ceilinged apartment a young man was lounging in an easy-chair. At his elbow was a jar of tobacco, a sheaf of brown cigarette papers and a scattering of books. He lifted a keen dark face, lit up by singularly brilliant eyes.

"Hello, Pen," greeted he. "You've come just in time to smoke up some of this Greek tobacco. Throw those books off that chair and make yourself easy."

One by one Pendleton lifted the books and glanced at the titles.

"Your morning's reading, if this is such," commented he, "is strikingly catholic. Plutarch, Snarleyow, the Opium Eater, Martin Chuzzlewit." Then came a host of tattered pamphlets, bound in shrieking paper covers, which the speaker handled gingerly. "'The Crimes of Anton Probst,'" he continued to read, "'The Deeds of the Harper Family,' 'The Murder of ----'" here he paused, tossed the pamphlets aside with contempt, sat down and drew the tobacco jar toward him.

"Some of the results of your forays into the basements of old booksellers, I suppose," he added, rolling a cigarette with delicate ease. "But what value you see in such things is beyond me."

Ashton-Kirk smiled good-humoredly. He took up some of the pamphlets and fluttered their illy-printed pages.

"They are not beautiful," he admitted; "the paper could not be worse and the wood cuts are horrors. But they are records of actual things--striking things, as a matter of fact--for a murder which so lifts itself above the thousands of homicides that are yearly occurring, as to gain a place outside the court records and newspapers, must have been one of exceptional execution."

"There is a public which delights in being horrified," said Pendleton with a grimace. "The things are put out to get their nickels and dimes."

"No doubt," agreed the other. "And the fact that they are willing to pay their nickels and dimes is, to my way of thinking, a proof of the extraordinary nature of the crime chronicled." The speaker dropped the prints upon the floor and lounged back in his big chair. "There is Plutarch," he continued; "the account of the assassination of Caesar is not the least interesting thing in his biography of that statesman. Indeed, I have no doubt but that the chronicler thought Caesar's taking off the most striking incident in his career; that the Roman public thought so is a matter of history.

"Countless writers have dwelt upon the taking of human life; some of them were rather commercial gentlemen who always gave an ear to the demands of their public, and their screeds were written for the money that they would put in their pockets; but others, and by long odds the greatest, were fascinated by their subjects. Both Stevenson and Henley were powerfully drawn by deeds of blood. Did you know they planned a great book which was to contain a complete account of the world's most remarkable homicides? I'm sorry they never carried the thing out; for I cannot conceive of two minds more fitted to the task. They would have dressed every event in the grimmest and most subtle horror; why, the soul would have shuddered at each enormity as shaped and presented by such masters."

Pendleton regarded his friend with candid distaste.

"You are appalling to-day," said he. "If you think it's the Greek tobacco, let me know. For I have to mingle with other human beings, and I'd scarcely care to get into your state of mind."

The strong, white teeth of Ashton-Kirk showed in a quick smile.

"The tobacco was recommended by old Hosko," he said, "and you'll find nothing violent in it, no matter what you find in my conversation."

"What put you into such a frame of mind, anyway? Something happened?"

But Ashton-Kirk shook his head.

"I don't know," said he. "In fact, I have been strangely idle for the last fortnight. The most exciting things that have appeared above my personal horizon have been a queer little edition of Albertus-Magnus, struck off in an obscure printing shop in Florence in the early part of the sixteenth century, and a splendid, large paper Poe, to which I fortunately happened to be a subscriber."

A volume of the Poe and the Albertus-Magnus were lying at hand; Pendleton ignored the dumpy, stained little Latin volume; its strong-smelling leather binding and faded text had no attractions for him. But he took up the Poe and began idly turning its leaves.

"It is a mistake to suppose that some specific thing must be the cause of an action, or a train of thought," resumed the other, from the comfortable depths of his chair. "Sometimes thousands of things go to the making of a single thought, countless others to the doing of a single deed. And yet again, a thing entirely unassociated with a result may be the beginning of the result, so to speak. For example, a volume of Henry James which I was reading last night might be the cause of my turning to the literature of assassination this morning; your friendly visit may result in my coming in contact with a murder that will make any of these," with a nod toward the scattered volumes, "seem tame."

Pendleton threw away his cigarette and proceeded to roll another.

"It is my earnest desire to remain upon friendly terms with you, Kirk," stated he, with a smile. "Therefore, I will make no comment except to say that your last reflection was entirely uncalled for."

Lighting the cigarette, he turned the tall leaves of the beautiful volume upon his knee.

"This edition is quite perfection," he remarked admiringly. "And I'm sorry that I was not asked to subscribe. However," and Pendleton glanced humorously at his friend, "I don't suppose its beauty is what attracts you to-day. It is because certain pages are spread with the records of crime. I notice that this volume holds both 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue' and the 'Mystery of Marie Roget.'"

"Right," smiled Ashton-Kirk. "I admit I was browsing among the details of those two masterpieces when you came in. A great fellow, Poe. His peculiar imagination gave him a marvelous grasp of criminal possibilities."

Ashton-Kirk took up the "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater" and turned the leaves until he came to "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts."

"In some things I have detected an odd similarity in the work of De Quincey and Poe. Mind you, I say in some things. As to what entered into the structure of an admirably conceived murder they were as far apart as the poles. The ideals of the 'Society of Connoisseurs in Murder' must have excited in Poe nothing but contempt. A coarse butchery--a wholesale slaughter was received by this association with raptures; a pale-eyed, orange-haired blunderer, with a ship carpenter's mallet hidden under his coat, was hailed as an artist.

"You don't find Poe wasting time on uncouth monsters who roar like tigers, bang doors and smear whole rooms with blood. His assassins had a joy in planning their exploits as well as in the execution of them. They were intelligent, secret, sure. And in every case they accomplished their work and escaped detection."

"You must not forget, however," complained Pendleton, "that De Quincey's assassin, John Williams, was a real person, and his killings actual occurrences. Poe's workmen were creatures of his imagination, their crimes, with the possible exception of 'Marie Roget,' were purely fanciful. The creator of the doer and the deed had a clear field; and in that, perhaps, lies the superiority of Poe."

Ashton-Kirk sighed humorously.

"Perhaps," said he. "At any rate the select crimes are usually the conceptions of men who have no idea of putting them into execution. And that, upon consideration, is a fortunate thing for society. But, at the same time, it is most irritating to a man of a speculative turn of mind. Fiction teems with most splendid murders. Captain Marryat, in Snarleyow, created an almost perfect horror in the attempted slaughter of the boy Smallbones by the hag mother of Vanslyperken; the lad's reversal of the situation and his plunging a bayonet into the wrinkled throat, makes the chapter an accomplishment difficult to displace. Remember it?"

Pendleton arose and opened one of the windows.

"Even the noise and smell of this street of yours are grateful after what I have been listening to," said he. Then, after a moment spent in examining the adjacent outdoors, he added in a tone of wonderment. "I say, Kirk, this is really a hole of a place to live! Why don't you move?"

The other arose and joined him at the window. Old-fashioned streets alter wonderfully after the generations of the elect have passed; but when Eastern Europe takes to dumping its furtive hordes into one, the change is marked indeed. In this one peddler's wagons replaced the shining carriages of a former day--wagons drawn by large-jointed horses and driven by bearded men who cried their wares in strange, throaty voices.

Everything exhaled a thick, semi-oriental smell. Dully painted fire-escapes clung hideously to the fronts of the buildings; stagnant-looking men, wearing their hats, leaned from bedroom windows. The once decent hallways were smutted with grimy hands; the wide marble steps were huddled with alien, unclean people.

A splendidly spired church stood almost shoulder to shoulder with the Ashton-Kirk house. Once it had been a place of dignified Episcopal worship; but years of neglect had made it unwholesome and cavern-like; and finally it was given over to a tribe of stolid Lithuanians who stuck a cheaply gilded Greek cross over the door and thronged the street with their wedding and christening processions.

"Perhaps," said Ashton-Kirk, after a moment's study of the prospect, "yes, perhaps it is a hole of a place in which to live. But you see we've had this house since shortly after the Revolution; four generations have been born here. As I have no fashionable wife and I live alone, I am content to stay. Then, the house suits me; everything is arranged to my taste. The environment may not be the most desirable; but, my visitors are seldom of the sort that object to externals."

"Well, you have one just now who is not what you might call partial to such neighborhoods," said Pendleton. "And," looking at his watch, "you will shortly have another who will be, perhaps, still less favorably impressed."

"Ah!" said Ashton-Kirk.

He curled himself up upon the deep window sill while Pendleton went back to his chair and the tobacco.

"It's a lady," resumed Pendleton, the brown paper crackling between his fingers, "a lady of condition, quality and beauty."

"It sounds pleasant enough," smiled the other. "But why is she coming?"

"To consult you--ah--I suppose we might call it--professionally. No, I don't know what it is about; but judging from her manner, it is something of no little consequence."

"She sent you to prepare the way for her, then?"

"Yes. It is Miss Edyth Vale, daughter of James Vale, the 'Structural Steel King,' you remember they used to call him before he died a few years ago. She was an only child, and except for the four millions which he left to found a technical school, she inherited everything. And when you say everything in a case like this, it means considerable."

Ashton-Kirk nodded.

"She is a distant relative of mine," resumed Pendleton; "her mother was connected in some vague way with my mother; and because of this indefinite link, we've always been"--here he hesitated for an instant--"well, rather friendly. Last night we happened to meet at Upton's, and I took her in to dinner. Edyth is a nice girl, but I've noticed of late that she's not had a great deal to say. Sort of quiet and big-eyed and all that, you know. Seems healthy enough, but does a great deal of thinking and looking away at nothing. I've talked to her for ten minutes straight, only to find that she hadn't heard a word I'd said.

"So, as you will understand, I did not expect a great deal of her at dinner. But directly across from us was young Cartwright--"

"Employed in the Treasury Department?"

"That's the man. Well, he began to talk departmental affairs with some one well down the table--you know how some of these serious kids are--and as there seemed to be nothing else to do, I gave my whole attention to the interesting performance of Mrs. Upton's cook. I must have been falling into a dreamy rapture; but at any rate I suddenly awoke, so to speak. To my surprise Edyth was talking--quite animatedly--with Cartwright, and about you."

"Ah!" said Ashton-Kirk. "That's very pleasant. It is not given to every man that the mention of him should stir a melancholy young lady into animation."

"Have you done anything in your line for the Treasury Department lately?" asked Pendleton.

"Oh, a small matter of some duplicate plates," said Ashton-Kirk. "It had some interest, but there was nothing extraordinary in it."

"Well, Cartwright didn't think that. I did not come to in time to catch the nature of your feat, but he seemed lost in admiration of your cleverness. He was quite delighted, too, at securing Edyth's attention. You see, it was a thing he had scarcely hoped for. So he proceeded to relate all he had ever heard about you. That queer little matter of the Lincoln death-mask, you know, and the case of the Belgian Consul and the spurious Van Dyke. And he had even heard some of the things you did in the university during your senior year. His recital of your recovery of the silver figure of the Greek runner which went as the Marathon prize in 1902 made a great hit, I assure you.

"But when he answered 'No' to Edyth's earnest question as to whether he were acquainted with you, she lost interest; and when I promptly furnished the information that I was, he was forgotten. During the remainder of the dinner I had time for little else but Edyth's questions. When she learned that you had taken up investigation as a sort of profession, she was quite delighted, and before we parted I was asked to arrange a consultation."

"She will be here this morning, then?" asked Ashton-Kirk.

Pendleton once more looked at his watch.

"Within a very few minutes," said he.

CHAPTER II

MISS EDYTH VALE STATES HER CASE

It was exactly three minutes later when the continuous tooting of a horn told of the approach of another motor car along the crowded street. Then the door-bell rang.

Ashton-Kirk arose and touched one of a series of buttons in the wall. Almost instantly a buzzer made sharp reply. He lifted a tube.

"If it is Miss Edyth Vale," spoke he, "show her up."

A little later a knock came upon the door. The grave faced German opened it, ushering in an astonishingly lovely girl; tall, most fashionably attired and with a manner of eager anxiety. Both men arose.

"Considering that you are under twenty-five," said Pendleton, "you are remarkably prompt in keeping your engagements, Edyth."

But the girl did not answer his smile. There was a troubled look in her brown eyes; she tugged nervously at her gloves to get them off.

"This is Mr. Ashton-Kirk?" she asked.

"It is," answered Pendleton. "Kirk, this is my cousin, Edyth Vale."

Ashton-Kirk gave the girl a chair; she sat down, regarding him all the time with much interest. The gloves were removed by now; but she continued plucking at the empty fingers and drawing them through her hands.

"I have heard of you quite frequently," said she to Ashton-Kirk, "but did not dream that I would ever be forced to benefit by your talents. Mr. Pendleton has been kind enough to arrange this interview at my request; and I desire to consult you upon a most important matter--a very private matter."

Pendleton caught the hesitating glance which she threw at him and reached for his hat.

"Edyth," said he, "after all I have done for you, this is very distressing. I had not expected to be bundled out in this manner."

She smiled faintly, and nodded.

"Thank you, Jimmie," she said. "You are a nice boy."

After Pendleton had gone, Miss Vale sat for some moments in silence; and all the time her eyes went from one part of the room to another, curiously; she seemed to be trying to estimate the man whom she came to consult by his surroundings.

At one side, rank on rank of books ran from floor to ceiling; others were scattered about in chairs, on stands and on the floor. At one spot the wall was racked with glittering, and to her, strange looking instruments. An open door gave a glimpse of a second apartment with bare, plastered wall, fitted with tables covered with sheet lead and cluttered with tanks, grotesquely swelling retorts, burners, jars and other things that make up a complete laboratory.

But these told her nothing, except that the man was a student; and this she had heard before.

So she gave her attention to Ashton-Kirk himself. He stood by the open window, the morning light beating strongly upon his dark, keen face, apparently watching the uncouth surging in the street below.

"He's very handsome and very wealthy," her friend Connie Bayless had informed her only that morning. "Comes of a very old family; has the entrée into the most exclusive houses, but practically ignores society."

"Oh, yes, I know him," her uncle, an eminent attorney, had told her. "A very unusual young man. I might call him acutely intellectual, and he is an adept in many out of the way branches of knowledge. He would make a wonderful lawyer, but has too much imagination. Thinks more of visionary probabilities than of tangible facts."

"As an amateur actor," Pendleton had confided to her, "Kirk is without an equal. If he adopted the stage, he'd make a sensation. At college he was a most tremendous athlete too--football, cross-country running, wrestling, boxing. And I'm told that he still keeps in training. Clever chap."

"I never saw a more splendid natural equipment for languages," said Professor Hutchinson. "The most sprawling dialect seemed a simple matter to him; Greek and the oriental tongues were no more trouble in his case than the 'first reader' is to an intelligent child."

She had spoken with Mrs. Stokes-Corbin over the telephone. Mrs. Stokes-Corbin was related to Ashton-Kirk, and her information was kindly but emphatic.

"My dear," said the lady, "I do hope you haven't fallen in love with him. No? Well, that's fortunate. He's one of the dearest fellows in the world, but one of the most extraordinary. I can't fancy his marrying at all. His ways and moods and really preposterous habits would drive a wife mad. You can't imagine the extent of them. He spends days and nights in positively uncanny chemical experiments. Without a word to anyone he plunges off on some mysterious errand, to be gone for weeks. They do tell me that he is to all intents and purposes a policeman. But I really can't quite credit that, you know. He loves to do things that others have tried and failed. Even as a boy he was that way. It was quite discouraging to have a child straighten out little happenings that we had all given up in despair. Sometimes it was quite convenient, but I'm not sure that I ever liked it. A charming talker, my dear; he knows so much to talk about. But he's eccentric; and an eccentric young man is a frightful burden to those connected with him."

All these things passed through the mind of Edyth Vale, as she sat regarding the young man at the window. Finally he lifted his eyes and turned them upon her--beautiful eyes--remarkable, full of perception, compelling. As he caught her intent, inquiring look, he smiled; she colored slightly, but met his glance bravely.

"Last night I heard you spoken of," she said, "and it occurred to me that you could aid me."

"I should be glad to," said he. "It sometimes happens that I can be of service to persons extraordinarily circumstanced. If you will let me hear your story--for," with a smile, "all who come to see me as you have done have a story--I shall be able to definitely say whether your case comes within my province."

She hesitated a moment, her hands nervously engaged with the gloves. Then she said, frankly.

"I suppose it is only sensible to speak quite candidly with you, Mr. Ashton-Kirk, as one does with a lawyer or a physician."

He nodded.

"Of course," said he.

For another moment she seemed to be turning her thoughts over and seeking the best means of making a beginning.

"It is very silly of me, I know," she said; "but I feel quite like the working girl who writes to the correspondence editor of an evening paper for advice in smoothing out her love affairs." She bent toward him, the laugh vanishing from her face, a troubled look taking its place, and continued. "I am to be married--some day--and it is about that that I wish to speak to you."

"I realize the difficulties of the subject," spoke Ashton-Kirk quietly.

"What I am going to tell you, I have never mentioned to anyone before. It has been three years ago--four years at Christmas time--since I first met Allan Morris," she said. "Our engagement so quickly followed that my friends said it was a very clear case of love at first sight. Perhaps it was!

"However that might be, we were very happy for a time. But trouble was in store for us. I had always disbelieved in long engagements, had always been very outspoken against them, in fact. This is perhaps what made me so quickly notice an absence of haste on Mr. Morris' part as to the wedding. When the subject came up, as it naturally would, he seemed to avoid it. At first I was surprised; but finally I grew annoyed, and spoke my mind very frankly.

"You see, he is not at all well off, and I am--well I have a great deal. I thought this might have something to do with his apparent reluctance. But no, it was something else. As I just said, I spoke frankly; and he was equally candid, after a fashion. He said it was quite impossible for us to be married for some time. There was a something--he did not say what--which must first be settled. Naturally I grew curious. I desired to know what it was that so stood in the way of our happiness. He replied that it was something that must not be spoken of, and was so very earnest in the matter that I did not mention it again--for a long time.

"You may think, Mr. Ashton-Kirk, that my fiancé was no very ardent lover. But I was assured, and I do not lack perception, that he was passionately fond of me. And I still think so. But as time went by, things did not alter; our wedding was a vague expectation; even more than before Mr. Morris avoided mention of anything definite.

"I am not naturally patient; and my rearing as the only child of an enormously rich man has perhaps added to my impetuousness. In a burst of temper one day, I broke the engagement, gave him back his ring and did a number of other rather silly things. But he was so tragic in his despair--so utterly broken hearted and white--that I immediately relented and we patched the matter up once more. That he loved me was plain; but that he could not marry me--for some mysterious reason--was even plainer.

"After this I began to notice a change in him. He was rather silent and given to reverie; he seldom laughed. Sometimes he was haggard and so wrought up, apparently, that he could scarcely contain himself. He would pace the floor, evidently with little realization as to what he was doing. Once he was really dreadfully agitated. I calmed him as well as I could, and he sat for a long time, thinking deeply. As I watched him, he sprang to his feet and dashing his fist upon a table, cried out, passionately:

"'The black-hearted rascal! He's mocking me!'

"Then like a flash he realized the strangeness of his conduct, and with anxious, alarmed face, asked my pardon. I felt that this was an opportunity to put an end to a situation that was growing intolerable. My persistent questioning gained me something, but, on the whole, not a great deal.

"The thing that was troubling him was a business matter. In some way he was in the hands of some one--these are the indefinite threads that I gathered--a mocking, jeering, smiling someone whom he hated, but from whom he could not free himself.

"I began to tell him that there could be nothing strong enough in itself to prevent our happiness; but he stopped me in such a way that I did not feel inclined to continue. In an outburst, filled with denunciations of his enemy and protestations of devotion to myself, I caught the name of Hume. He had dropped this inadvertently. I knew it instantly because of the swift look that he gave me. But I allowed no hint of what I thought to show in my face. He was more subdued during the remainder of his stay; the mentioning of the name had startled him, and he was doubtless afraid that his state of mind would lead him into further indiscretions.

"As you may suppose, the name--the first tangible thing that I had learned--was of much interest to me. If I could but find out who this person was, I could probably get to the bottom of the matter."

At this point Miss Vale paused; and Ashton-Kirk noted her head lift proudly.

"Perhaps," she continued, "it might be thought that I had no right to make such an effort in a matter which Mr. Morris saw fit to keep from me. Were you thinking that? But I am not a silent sufferer. I usually make an end of annoying things without delay. And I would have done so in this case long before, but I was in love; and I could not bear to see Allan suffer by my insistence.

"However, here was an opportunity to perhaps aid him; and I set to work. In a few hours next day I had located every person of the name of Hume in the city. Mr. Morris is a consulting engineer. Anyone named Hume who, from his occupation, would be likely to have dealings with him especially attracted my attention. There were only a few, and long before the day was over I had satisfied myself by personal visits at their places of business that they did not even know him."

Ashton-Kirk smiled. One of his well-kept hands patted applause upon the arm of his chair.

"You are strong," said he. "I recognized your type when you came in. It is a pleasure to have one's judgment so thoroughly and satisfactorily proven."

Miss Vale looked pleased.

"I am glad that you approve of what I did," she said. "I confess I had some hesitancy, but not enough to prevent my carrying out the design. But when the first effort proved without result, I set about making a study of all the Humes in the directory. I had my secretary make me a typed list of them, with their addresses and occupations, and I pored over this for hours at a time.

"There was one that caught my eye after a while; probably this was because of the unusualness of his business. The directory gave him as a numismatist; but I drove by his shop in my car, and the sign over the window said that he was also a dealer in curiosities of art.

"This gave me an idea. Mr. Morris is an ardent collector; his hobby is engraved gems, and for a man of his means his possessions in this line are quite remarkable. It was easily within the range of possibility that he had had transactions with this particular Hume--at least that he was acquainted with him. The more I thought of this, the more curious I grew; and one afternoon I paid the place a visit. It is on the second floor, the entrance is through a side door and up a narrow, dusty stairway. Then I had to make my way along a dark windowless passage to the office, or shop in the front.

"This shop was well lighted, and literally stuffed with what were well termed 'curiosities of art.' I never before saw such queer carvings, such freakish pottery, such weird and utterly impossible bric-a-brac. At a table sat a flabby looking man with a short sandy beard. One glance told me that he was an habitual drunkard, for he had the sodden look that is unmistakable. But when he arose and bid me good evening his manner struck me like a blow in the face. Allan Morris had spoken of a mocking person who jeered and smiled. And that described this man exactly. There was mockery in every glance of his dull eyes; every twitch of his mouth was a fleer; with each gesture he seemed making game of one; sneering incredulity was stamped all over him."

Ashton-Kirk leaned forward with keen interest.

"My manner must have betrayed me," the girl went on, "for I saw an inquiring crease come into his forehead. When he asked the nature of my business his voice was sharp and insolent.

"I had not thought as to what I should say, what excuse I should give in this case. But almost instantly my mind was made up. About the most conspicuous thing in the room was a squat Japanese idol--a fat, grinning, hideous thing which sat upon a sort of pedestal near the door. So I laid my hand in it.

"'I was told of this,' said I, examining the idol minutely, 'and came in to see it.'

"'Ah, yes,' said he. But it was plain enough that he did not believe me.

"I inquired the price of the figure. He named a high one; and I believe I astonished him by purchasing it without another word. The idol was delivered late that afternoon. I had it unpacked at once and placed where Mr. Morris could not fail to see it when he called."

"A clever plan," commented Ashton-Kirk, admiringly.

"He saw it when he entered the room and greeted me. He was smiling; and the smile froze on his lips, his face went pale, and he turned a look upon me that filled me with fear, it was so wan and startled.

"I had intended telling him the full truth if my ruse succeeded. But after that look I could not. I convinced him by a nonchalant manner and story, that I had come by the idol accidentally. At least I think I convinced him, though I noticed his watching me steadily from under very level brows more than once during the evening. But if he had any suspicions that I was deceiving him, he did not put them into words."

Here Miss Vale paused for a moment. Then she resumed:

"I tried, in various ways, to gain a knowledge of the relationship between my fiancé and this sneering shopkeeper; but they were all ineffectual. Mr. Ashton-Kirk, this occurred fully three months ago, and the situation remains the same as it was upon that night."

Then with a suddenness that startled the young man she lifted two trembling hands to her face and began to sob gaspingly. When she took the hands away there were no signs of tears, but her beautiful face was drawn with pain and her voice shook as she said:

"I don't think I can stand it much longer. I beg of you not to think lightly of my story; for the thing that stands between Allan Morris and myself is deadly. As I watch him I can see that his heart is breaking; his health is failing, there is a look of fear in his eyes." She reached forward and her hand rested upon the sleeve of Ashton-Kirk. "He is at the mercy of this mocking monster that I have described to you. It is killing him, and through him it is killing me. Help me, please."

Ashton-Kirk smiled reassuringly.

"As far as I can see," said he, "the case is a simple one. However, it may turn out the reverse. But in either event I can promise you a swift and energetic attempt to set the matter right."

"Thank you!" She stood up. "And you will begin to-day?"

"At once!"

"You are kind." She held out her hand; he took it. "Thank you, again."

Stumph appeared, in answer to the bell. She turned to go.

"There is nothing more that you can tell me?" he inquired.

"Nothing."

"I had supposed that. Your recital sounded pretty complete."

When the door closed upon her, he stood for a few moments in the middle of the floor, his head bent forward, his hands behind him. Then he turned and touched another of the system of bells.

Immediately a brisk, boyish looking young man presented himself.

"Fuller," spoke Ashton-Kirk, "I want instant and complete information upon one Hume, a local numismatist, and Allan Morris, consulting engineer."

"Very well, sir." And Fuller turned at once, and left the room.