MoboReader> Literature > Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent

   Chapter 1 No.1

Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent By John T. McIntyre Characters: 26508

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Some Peculiar Circumstances

Fuller studied the heavy, decided signature at the bottom of the typed page; then he laid the letter upon the table.

"One who judges character by handwriting," said he, "would probably think the secretary a strong man."

Ashton-Kirk took the stem of the long German pipe from between his lips.

"From your tone," said he, "you do not so consider him."

Fuller was looking down at the letter.

"With that looking me in the face, how can I? Here is a matter of tremendous importance-one of the most guarded secrets of the government is endangered. Yesterday, in what was undoubtedly a panic, he wired you, begging help. Then, almost immediately after, he weakens and writes, requesting you to do nothing."

Thick clouds arose from the Coblentz; the smoker snuggled down into the big chair luxuriously.

"And from these things," said he, "you draw that he lacks force?"

"Yes; he quit before even catching a glimpse of the end."

There was a moment's silence, and then the secret agent spoke.

"There are times," remarked he, "when it is not altogether desirable to catch that glimpse." He blew out a veil of smoke and watched it idly for a moment. "It is possible, in pushing a thing to the end," he added, "to force an entirely unexpected result. Take for example the case of the Molineux chaplet, some little time since. Could there have been more fire, more determination than that exhibited by old Colonel Molineux in this room when he brought the matter to our attention? And yet, when I showed him that his own daughter was the thief, he instantly subsided."

Fuller regarded his employer with questioning eyes.

"You think, then, that some one concerned in the government has been found out as--"

But the other stopped him.

"Sometimes," said he, "we are even more anxious to spare an enemy than a friend. And the reason usually is that we do not care to force the said enemy into such a position that his only resource would be an open blow."

"Ah!" Fuller's eyes widened. "They hesitate because they fear to bring about a war." He looked at the secret agent, the question in his face growing. "But with whom?"

Ashton-Kirk put aside the pipe and got up.

"For years," said he, "the specialists of the Navy Department have been secretly working upon a gun designed to throw a tremendous explosive. That it was delicate work was shown by the quality of the men employed upon it; and that it was dangerous was proven by the lives lost from time to time in the experiments. Six months ago the invention was completed. The news leaked out, and naturally the powers were interested. Then to the dismay of the heads of the department it was learned that a most formidable plan to obtain possession of the secret had been balked by the merest chance. The agents of the government were at once put to work; not satisfied with this, the secretary wired me to come to Washington at once. But I was in no haste to do so, because I foresaw what would happen."

The questioning look in Fuller's eyes increased.

"I knew that the agents of a foreign government laid the plan," proceeded Ashton-Kirk. "Who else would desire information upon such a point? And at this time there is but one government sufficiently interested in us to go so far."

"You mean--"

Ashton-Kirk yawned widely and then asked:

"Have you seen the morning papers?"

"Yes."

"Perhaps you noticed a speech by Crosby, the Californian, in Congress. Rather a slashing affair. He continues to demand a permanent fleet for the Pacific and increased coast defenses."

The windows were open; the high-pitched complaint from the mean street drifted up and into the room. A bar of sunlight shot between two up-rearing brick bulks across the way; it glittered among the racks of polished instruments, slipped along the shelves of books and entered at the door of the laboratory; here the vari-colored chemicals sparkled in their round-bellied prisons; the grotesque retorts gleamed in swollen satisfaction.

A knock came upon the door, and Stumph, Ashton-Kirk's grave-faced man servant, entered with a card.

"It is the gentleman who called yesterday while you were out," said Stumph.

The secret agent took the card and read:

"Mr. Philip Warwick."

"He asked me to say," proceeded Stumph, "that his business is urgent and important."

"Let him come up."

Stumph went out. Fuller began fingering a packet of documents which he took from the table.

"I suppose," said he, "that I may as well file these Schofield-Dempster papers away."

"Yes, the matter is finished, so far as we are concerned. It was interesting at first, but I'm rather glad to be rid of it. The piquancy of the situation was lost when the 'forgeries' were found to have been no forgeries at all; and the family despair is a trifle trying."

"Mr. Philip Warwick," said the low voice of Stumph, a few moments later.

A big, square-shouldered young man entered the room; he had thick, light colored hair and wide open blue eyes. That he was an Englishman was unmistakable. For a moment he seemed in doubt as to whom he should address; but Fuller indicated his employer and the caller bowed his thanks.

"Sir," said he, "if I am intruding, I ask your pardon. I was directed to you by Professor Hutchinson of Hampden College, with whom I have become acquainted through our mutual interest in the Oriental languages."

"Ah, yes. Hutchinson is a very old friend of mine, a splendid fellow, and a fine judge of tobacco. Will you sit down?"

"Thank you."

Mr. Philip Warwick sat down, and looked very big and strong and ill at ease. There was a perplexed expression upon his handsome face; but he said, quietly enough:

"I take this occasion, Mr. Ashton-Kirk, to express my appreciation of your book upon the Lithuanian language. I spent some years in the Baltic provinces, and am fairly familiar with the tongue."

Ashton-Kirk smiled, well pleased.

"A number of people have been good enough to notice that little book," said he, "though when I wrote it I did not expect it to get beyond my own circle. You see, the Lithuanians have grown rather thick in this section of the city; and the great similarity between their language and the Sanskrit interested me."

"The work," said the young Englishman, "is very complete. But," and his voice lowered a trifle, "much as I am delighted with it, still, that is not why I have ventured to call upon you."

"No?" The secret agent settled himself in the big chair; his singular eyes studied the visitor with interest. Fuller having finished with the papers at the table now asked:

"Will you need me?"

"Perhaps."

The assistant thereupon sat down, took out a pencil and laid a pad of paper upon his knee. Philip Warwick shifted uneasily in his chair; his powerful fingers clasped and unclasped nervously.

"Professor Hutchinson informs me," said he, "that you take an interest in those problems which spring up unexpectedly and confound the inexperienced. Have I been correctly informed?"

The secret agent nodded.

"Am I to understand that you have brought me such a problem?" he asked.

The visitor bent forward a trifle.

"Perhaps," he said, "it will prove no problem to you. It may be, to some extent, that our imaginations have been playing tricks upon us. But, however that may be, the whole matter is utterly beyond our comprehension. I have done what I can to get to the bottom of it and failed. If you will be kind enough to hear and advise me, I shall be profoundly grateful."

Ashton-Kirk gestured for him to go on.

"The affair," began the young Englishman, "is not my own, but that of my employer, Dr. Simon Morse." He caught the look in the eyes of the secret agent, and added: "No doubt you have heard of him; his theories attracted wide attention some time ago."

"I recall him very well," said Ashton-Kirk. "A sort of scientific anarchist, if I'm not mistaken; he had many daring ideas and considerable hardihood in their expression."

"Any sort of government, human or divine, has in him an outspoken enemy," said Warwick. "I know him to be a man of great learning and splendid ability, but somewhere in his brain there is a something which nullifies it all."

"You say the matter regarding which you came to see me is that of Dr. Morse. Did he ask you to come?"

"No, no," young Warwick held up his hand, hastily. "He knows nothing of it; and I much prefer that he should not. You see, he is a man of peculiar temperament. He is very silent and secretive regarding his private affairs; also he has," drily, "a somewhat violent temper."

"You picture a rather unpleasant character."

"But I do him no injustice," protested the young Englishman. "Frankly, he is not at all my sort; and I should not remain with him a day, were it not for Stella-Miss Corbin."

"I see."

"She is his niece-the only child of a younger sister; and the things which I am about to relate have caused her much alarm. She fears that some strange danger threatens him. He has always been kind to her, and she is very much attached to him.

"Dr. Morse is an Englishman and a graduate in medicine; but having large means has given but little time to the practice of his profession. As his published works have shown, he detests all governments; however, that of Russia has always been his pet aversion. He has declared it the most corrupt system extant, and maintained that not a patriotic pulse was to be found among the ruling class throughout the vast empire. Its mighty army, he predicted, would crumble before the first determined foe.

"When the war broke out between Japan and Russia, Dr. Morse at once placed his niece in safe hands; then he disappeared for more than a year. Upon his return it was learned that he had, somehow, managed to have himself enrolled upon the medical staff of the Russian army, and had witnessed most of the operations in Manchuria. Though he came back rather worn and with a slow-healing wound, he seemed much elated.

"'I now have the direct proof which I desired,' he said. 'The Muscovite army reeks with chicanery; and the book that I'm going to write will set the whole world talking.'

"But before beginning the book he determined to have a long rest; he took a fine old house, just outside Sharsdale, in Kent; and with him were his niece and an old French woman servant who had been in the family for many years. They lived very snugly there for some three months; then there began a most singular train of incidents. Of these I have but a slight personal knowledge, for, as I have said, Dr. Morse is a secretive man. But, little by little, Stella and I gathered up the fragments and put them together; the result was rather an alarming whole. Odd happenings became of daily occurrence; a peculiar, nameless something seemed hovering about the place; a vague agency was felt in the commonest things; the household began to live in the expectation of some indefinite calamity."

"Pardon me. You were at Sharsdale at the time, I take it?"

"Yes; stopping at the village inn. My excuse was that I was doing some sketching; but," with great simplicity, "as a matter of fact, I was there in order to be near Stella Corbin."

"I see. Please go on."

"Gradually we came to know, from the doctor's manner more than anything else, that he fancied himself watched. Indeed, more than once I personally noted traces of what I can call mysterious visitations. And twice within as many months the house was broken into and ransacked from top to bottom."

"A moment ago," said Ashton-Kirk, "you spoke of odd happenings. Just what were the nature of these?"

"What I consider the first," answered Warwick, "was the visit of Karkowsky. He drove up one morning in a high-seated pony cart-a round-bellied, fresh-faced, smiling little man with eyes that stared as innocently as a child's. He seemed in most urgent haste, gave his name, said that he was a Pole and gave as his business that of confidential adviser in those delicate matters which one hesitates to bring to the attention of a solicitor. I was with Dr. Morse at the time, and I recall that Karkowsky's manner was most important and his time apparently of much value. But, queerly enough, his methods were singularly futile; they led in no particular direction. Several times Morse hinted concerning the nature of his errand, but he avoided the subject. Finally he arose, and I fancied that he wore a disappointed look; and upon taking his leave gave the doctor his card bearing a London address and begged that he be communicated with should his services ever be needed.

"On the night following this visit, Dr. Morse dined with me at the inn; Stella was away from home and the old French woman was with her. About nine o'clock I walked with the doctor to his garden gate. Just as we were saying good-night we noticed a dim light shine in his study window. As we stood surprisedly watching, it disappeared. A moment later, however, it returned, a faint fluttering sort of light which maintained itself with difficulty. Again it disappeared and once more returned; and then we understood. Some one was lighting his way about the room with

matches.

"At first we thought it must be Stella returned unexpectedly; but instantly we knew that this could not be, for she would have turned on the lights had she had occasion to visit the room. We entered and softly ascended the stairs. But all was dark and still; we searched everywhere, but found no one.

"A week later, Stella and the servant having returned, they all awoke one morning some hours later than usual. The bedrooms were heavy with the fumes of a drug; locks had been broken, chests, desks and cupboards had been opened, and their contents strewed the floors. But, strange to say, nothing had been stolen.

"Two nights after this Dr. Morse was struck down in a lane; he was found by some workmen and brought home. Of this incident he refused to speak other than that he had not been robbed.

"Stella now became frightened. At night she saw shadows flitting in the garden; that these were not fancies was proven by the strange foot-prints which I found in the soft mould. The dog died of poison; another was procured, a savage, crafty creature; but she went the way of the first. One day, and at broad noon, the doctor arose from his desk and went into an adjoining room for a book. He was not gone above a minute; but upon returning he found a loaded revolver lying upon the tablet upon which he had been writing. This apparently drove him frantic, for he seized the weapon and rushed through the house. But there was no one save Stella and old Nanon.

"Then once again they were drugged and the house ransacked, but this time the attention of the intruders seemed directed toward Dr. Morse's papers only. They showed every indication of having been exhaustively examined; but nothing was missing.

"As these things continued, the tension began to tell; the face of Stella's uncle became drawn and his eyes quick and feverish. At the least sound he would start; and it became almost as much as one's life was worth to approach him from behind. Then suddenly and secretly he made up his mind to come to America; at the last moment he made me an offer to accompany them as his secretary.

"'The work upon my proposed book will be heavy,' he said, 'and I shall require aid.'" Here young Warwick nodded and smiled. "Nothing could have fallen in better with my desires than this," he said. "And so, of course, I accepted the proposal. This was three years ago; at first we occupied apartments in the city here; but some five months back, Dr. Morse took a house on Fordham Road, Eastbury; and there the work upon the book, the idea of which had greatly expanded, went on without a halt.

"But," and the young man gestured oddly, after the fashion of one curiously impressed, "though the doctor had crossed the sea he had not traveled beyond the reach of his mysterious persecutor. The happenings at Eastbury are every bit as queer as those at Sharsdale; and they began in the same way. As the doctor and I sat working in the library one day, a taxi-cab stopped and Karkowsky, as cheerful, red cheeked and comfortable as before, alighted. And as before, he seemed in great haste. Apparently Dr. Morse had never marked, as I had done, Karkowsky's first visit as the beginning of his strange troubles. At any rate he showed no resentment, but merely seemed surprised at so unexpected a visitor. The Pole talked volubly about the new country and of his prospects; the delicate matters, so he said, which it was his business to handle were vastly greater in number in America. And I noted that he kept to this point; no matter what unexpected turn was given the conversation he always came back to it. And all the time he kept his eyes fixed eagerly upon the doctor. But at the end of a half hour he arose; again I sensed that he was disappointed; but he said nothing, merely handing my employer another card and begging that he be summoned any time his services were needed. Then he took his departure.

"It was next morning that I entered the library rather quietly and found Dr. Morse with a heap of mail before him; in his hand he held a square of white paper at which he looked fixedly. Upon this was a roughly drawn device done in brown crayon. I could make nothing of it. When he discovered me looking over his shoulder he uttered an impatient exclamation, tore the sheet into strips and tossed them into the waste basket. That same day I opened some mail matter, as was my habit when the doctor was not about; and in one of the envelopes I came upon a duplicate of the drawing that I had seen in my employer's hands. When I handed this to him a little later I fancied that I caught a gleam of the old haunted look which I had so often noted at Sharsdale."

"Have you, by any chance, one of these drawings?" asked Ashton-Kirk.

"I have." Philip Warwick took out a wallet and from it selected a paper. "It is the third that came-and in every respect like the other two."

The secret agent looked at the paper carefully; it bore a rough, hurried tracing done with a brown material-and looked much like this:

Attentively Ashton-Kirk examined the drawing. But if it bore any meaning for him, he gave no indication of it; for placing the paper upon the table, he said:

"Go on."

"As I had suspected upon sight of Karkowsky," resumed Warwick, "the persecution of Dr. Morse was resumed. But, so it seemed, the matter had entered into a new phase. There was no more mysterious prowling, waylaying and housebreaking; the mail only was used. But, so far as I know, duplicates of this drawing," pointing to the one which the secret agent had just laid down, "were the only things sent up to yesterday. The outline of the thing never varied; but, oddly enough, the color has."

"Ah!"

"At first the design was always in brown. Then, finally, one came in light blue, and for a space they were all of that color. The next change was to black, then to red, and finally to white-drawn upon neutral tinted paper. But yesterday," and once more the young Englishman opened the wallet and took out a paper, "this came."

Ashton-Kirk took the sheet and glanced at it. In the same brown material that had been used in making the other drawing he found the picture of a woman.

"Apparently meant to represent a person of some consequence," he said. "There is a sort of tiara, or coronet upon the head." He laid the drawing upon the table with the other. "Was there never any accompanying writing with these?"

"None that I ever heard of."

"Have you any of the envelopes in which they came?"

"No."

Ashton-Kirk arose and took a few turns up and down the long room; then pausing at a stand he opened a case of heavy looking cigars, one of which he offered Warwick.

"Thank you, no," said the young man.

The secret agent, however, selected one, lighted it and resumed his pacing.

"That is about all I can tell you," said Warwick. "And now if you can offer any explanation of it all, I beg that you do so. I shall be perfectly frank and say that I am not greatly interested in the matter beyond natural curiosity. But," and here the strong fingers began to intertwine once more, "Miss Corbin is filled with fear, and it is for her sake that I appeal to you."

Ashton-Kirk shot a quick look at him.

"Your personal regard for Dr. Morse's possible safety is not very great, then?"

"I wish him no harm. But there is no warm feeling between us. If you knew him you would understand the reason for this readily enough." He paused for a moment and then went on. "Perhaps," he said, "the matter, as I set it before you, seems absurd. But to Miss Corbin it is a continuous menace-a thing which throws its shadow across her uncle's daily path. To her, it is impossible that what has happened and is happening has not a deep significance; the apparent resolution behind it inspires her with awe. It is her firm conviction that if something is not soon done, unspeakable things will happen."

Ashton-Kirk paused by the table; the smoke from the heavy cigar curled pungently upward.

"What address did Mr. Karkowsky's card bear?" he inquired.

"It is in the Polish section. Corinth Avenue and Fourth Street."

"Do you know whether Dr. Morse has called upon him?"

"I do not. But I am inclined to think that he has not done so. However, I have taken it upon myself to pay the man a visit. He lodges upon a third floor, over a harness-maker; and when I entered he received me eagerly and with delight. But when I began to question him he grew enraged and ordered me from the place."

"You have never repeated the visit?"

"No."

The secret agent drew softly upon the cigar; its spicy aroma filled the room.

"Coming in personal contact, so to speak, with this matter," said he, "it is but natural to suppose that you have formed some opinion as to the cause of it."

The young Englishman nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I have. It is my opinion that the Russian government is behind it all. They have heard of the proposed book."

But Ashton-Kirk shook his head.

"The Russian government," smiled he, "is charged with a great number of things; and the foundations of most of them are as light as this. According to your story, Dr. Morse's papers were once examined very minutely. Were the notes for the book among them?"

"Yes."

"That then places Russia outside the probabilities. If that government had been sufficiently interested in Morse to have done the housebreaking, rest assured that the notes, if considered harmful, would have disappeared."

"I have thought of that," said Warwick. "But," with a shake of the head, "St. Petersburg being denied me, I am at a loss."

"There are two common causes for most things of a criminal nature," said Ashton-Kirk. "These are robbery and revenge. The fact that nothing is known to have been stolen in either of the nightly visits to the house at Sharsdale seems to eliminate the first of these; and that Morse was twice drugged and once waylaid and still not seriously injured, does away with the other."

"It would seem to."

There was another pause. The secret agent regarded Warwick intently.

"Think carefully before answering the question I am now about to ask. What is there in the doctor's possession that you have seen, or have even heard hinted at-that is in any way remarkable or unique?"

Warwick pondered, but finally shook his head.

"Take your time-think deliberately. What does he own that would excite the cupidity of persons of much power and great wealth?"

"I know of nothing," replied the young man.

"It would scarcely be a thing to be measured by a money value," encouraged the secret agent. "It might be, and the fact that the doctor's papers were once searched seems to indicate it rather strongly-a document."

Again Warwick shook his head.

"As I have said, Morse is not of a confiding nature. He keeps his affairs to himself."

Ashton-Kirk laid his half-burned cigar upon a bronze shell; and as he did so his eyes fell once more upon the drawing of the crowned woman. A sudden tightening about his mouth showed a fresh interest; taking up the drawing he examined it with eager attention. At length he said:

"Previous to the first visit of Karkowsky at Sharsdale-Morse had never experienced any of the things of which you told me?"

"No."

"You are sure of this?"

"Positive. Old Nanon would have been sure to have heard of them. She has been with him since he was a child."

"You have mentioned that Dr. Morse is possessed of means. Did he inherit this, or did he accumulate it himself?"

"He inherited it from his father."

"Have you ever heard anything uncommon of the father? Any of the sort of things which you have just mentioned?"

"No. According to Nanon he was an extraordinarily gentle and simple-minded man."

"Has Dr. Morse ever traveled in the East?"

"In Egypt and the Holy Lands when a young man, seeking material for his anti-religious lectures. Then, of course, there was the war in Manchuria."

"Have you ever heard him express any opinion as to Orientals?"

"Only that they were intelligent and in many ways capable. The Japanese he only came within musket shot of, but," with a smile, "he thinks them very competent fighters."

Ashton-Kirk joined in the smile.

"A remarkable race," he said, "and one of whom the last word has not yet been spoken."

Here Warwick arose and Ashton-Kirk pressed the bell for Stumph.

"This," said the secret agent, "promises to be a very interesting matter; and, it so happens, one that falls in with my inclinations at this time."

"You will undertake it then?" eagerly.

"With pleasure."

Stumph held open the door that the caller might depart.

"In behalf of Miss Corbin," said Warwick, earnestly, "I thank you." He hesitated a moment, and then said: "Before making a definite start in the matter, I suppose it will be necessary for you to visit us at Eastbury. I confess that rather puzzles me. You see, I would not have Dr. Morse--"

"Rest easy as to that," Ashton-Kirk assured him; "we need tell him nothing."

"When will you come?"

"To-night."

Philip Warwick smiled.

"You are prompt," said he. "But Miss Corbin will be delighted."

And with that he took his departure.

* * *

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares