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   Chapter 2 No.2

Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent By John T. McIntyre Characters: 19920

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Ashton-Kirk Goes to Eastbury

Ashton-Kirk turned to Fuller.

"Read what you have taken down," he directed.

Fuller did so, and while he read, the secret agent stood by the window, listening. When the assistant finished the other did not speak; he remained gazing down at the shabby hordes which eddied and murmured in the street. There was a strange look upon the keen, dark face of the watcher; the eyes were full of singular speculation. At last he spoke.

"Queer things come out of the East," he said. "Even these people below, who have merely lived upon the western fringe of the Orient, are tinged with its mystery. Every now and then an Occidental eye gets a flash of something among them for which we have no explanation."

"I have felt that frequently," said Fuller; "but never gave much thought to it. Orientals, somehow, have always impressed me uncomfortably; they seem, so to put it, to have something in reserve. It is as though they had a trick or two up their sleeves which they have never shown us."

Ashton-Kirk nodded.

"A strange and interesting people," said he. He crossed to the book shelves and took down a thin folio; placing it upon the table, he began to rapidly turn the leaves; a series of Japanese prints fluttered before Fuller's eyes.

"There are numberless things which are held as marking the line of division between the races of the East and West," remarked Ashton-Kirk. "But," with a smile, "I have an idea that food and the cooking thereof has more to do with it than anything else. The mental and physical differences are the results of this. And in nothing does the Japanese, for example, show the result of his nourishment as in the matter of art. His hand in a drawing is unmistakable."

He closed the volume of prints; and from a stand took a telephone book and opened it at Eastbury. This was a "Boom" suburb, and as yet had no great population; down the list of subscribers ran the inquiring finger; at length it paused and a slight hissing intake of the breath told of a discovery.

"Good," said he.

Tossing the book to Fuller, he added:

"Find Dr. Morse's number in Fordham Road."

While the deft fingers of his assistant ran through the pages, Ashton-Kirk turned to a sort of rack; throwing open one of the huge rolls which it contained, he displayed a section of a marvelously complete map of the city and suburbs. It was done by hand and in variously colored inks; every street, avenue, court and alley were clearly traced; each house and number was microscopically set down. This map was the growth of years; each month it was altered in some small way as the city expanded; the care taken with it was the same as that which a business house gave its ledgers. Again the long, inquiring finger began to move.

"Ah! Fordham Road is the first street east of Berkley."

"Dr. Morse's address is 2979," said Fuller, looking up from the directory.

"The same block!" cried Ashton-Kirk, his finger searching among the lines. Then he burst into a laugh and allowed the spring to whisk the map out of view. "Their houses stand back to back," said he.

Fuller's expression indicated curiosity; but he had been with Ashton-Kirk a number of years and had grown to know that his utterances were not always meant to be heard. The secret agent took up a bit of brown rice paper and a bulging pinch of tobacco; as he delicately manipulated these, he said to Fuller:

"Do you recall the name of Okiu?"

"It seems familiar," replied the assistant, after a moment's thought. Then suddenly: "Wasn't he one of--"

"Look in the cabinet," said Ashton-Kirk.

Fuller went to the filing system and pulled open the drawer marked "OK." After a search of a few moments he turned.

"Yes," said he, eagerly. "Here he is, and underscored in red. The details are in Volume X."

Ashton-Kirk touched one of a row of bells. A buzzer made reply; through a tube the secret agent said:

"Bring up Volume X at once."

He threw himself into the big chair, stretched his legs contentedly and drew at the cigarette. In a little while Stumph entered, bearing a huge canvas-covered book; this he laid upon a small table, which he then pushed toward his employer. The latter looked at his watch.

"I'm not to be disturbed again to-day," said he. "And I'll dine earlier-at five o'clock."

"Anything more?" asked Fuller, when Stumph had left the room.

"Look up the trains stopping at Eastbury after seven o'clock. And stand ready to go with me. I may need you."

Fuller went out; and Ashton-Kirk, with a cloud of blue smoke hovering about his head, opened the canvas-covered volume, found the name he sought, and at once plunged into the finely written pages. The minutes went by, and the hours followed; cigar succeeded cigarette and pipe followed cigar; the table became littered with burnt matches, ash, and impossibly short ends. When Stumph finally knocked to announce dinner, he found tottering mountains of books, maps and newspaper cuttings everywhere and in the midst of them was the investigator, lying back in his chair with closed eyes; the only indication that he was awake being that a thin column of smoke was ascending from the pipe.

At seven-twenty that evening a local paused at Eastbury Station; and among those who got off were Ashton-Kirk, and the brisk looking Fuller.

The station lamps were lighted, but were pale as yet, for deep splashes of reddish gold piled high on the horizon line, and long, shaking lines of light shot down the sparsely built streets.

Fordham Road was one of the newest of these latter; its asphalted length showed hardly a trace of travel and its grading was as level as that of a billiard table. The buildings were even fewer here than elsewhere in the suburb; and upon the vacant spaces huge signs reared themselves, announcing the sale of choice sites.

Number 2979 was a brick and brown-stone house with a wide veranda and a smooth lawn which ran all around it. Skirting the lawn was a hedge fence; and a cemented path led to the front door. A tall, angular old woman opened this in answer to the ring. Her eyes were sharp and gray; her face was severe-crossed and recrossed by a thousand minute wrinkles; her hands were large and the veins were blue and swollen.

"Is Mr. Warwick at home?" asked Ashton-Kirk.

The sharp, gray eyes seemed to become partly veiled, the thin lips only moved a trifle when she spoke.

"You would see him?"

Ashton-Kirk nodded; and as the old woman admitted them, he said:

"You are not English, then?"

For an instant she seemed to bristle with indignation; her eyes, wide open now, snapped.

"English! No; I am a French woman, thank God!"

She showed them into a somberly furnished but spotlessly kept sitting-room; a single window overlooked that portion of the lawn which lay behind the house.

"If you will sit down," she said, "I will speak to Mr. Warwick."

Ashton-Kirk, whose first glance had been through the window, said:

"You have Japanese for neighbors, I see."

The woman's eyes also went to the window; there was a long, narrow stretch of lawn between the house and the one behind it; and this was divided in the center by a hedge fence. Upon the opposite side of the latter, engaged in uprooting the encroaching weeds, was a small, dark man with spectacles and grayish hair. At sight of him the old woman made a gesture of aversion.

"The good God hates all pagans," she said, resolutely, and went out.

The secret agent smiled.

"I think I should have known her for a zealot even without that," he said. "The type is perfectly expressed in her."

"She has no love for the Japs, at all events," said Fuller, as he went to the window.

"The man clipping the hedge," said Ashton-Kirk, "is a member of the household of whom Warwick neglected to speak."

Fuller looked at the person indicated; he was upon the Morse side of the fence and wielded a huge pair of shears diligently; in spite of the mildness of the evening he had a heavy coat buttoned to the chin. Near him frolicked a small terrier.

"He may be a gardener called in to do the trimming," suggested the assistant.

"I think we'll find that he belongs here," said Ashton-Kirk. "That is a Scottish terrier running about there; and that breed is never friendly with strangers."

There was a piano being played somewhere in the house; the touch was sure and soft, the air mournful and full of minors. They had listened but a moment, however, when Warwick entered the room.

There was a flush in his cheeks and an excited sparkle in his eyes; as he spoke his voice shook a little as though not perfectly under control.

"Thank you," he said, eagerly, as he shook hands. "I am glad that you have come."

"Something has happened?"

"Yes. A special delivery letter came for Dr. Morse about an hour ago. A few moments after receiving it I heard him shouting aloud in the library, and apparently smashing things in his rage."

"Did you go to him?"

"No. When he is that way, we have found it a better plan to leave him alone. After venting his rage in the way I have just mentioned, he rushed from the place."

Ashton-Kirk did not immediately comment upon this; his eyes were upon the man clipping the hedge.

"Who is that?" asked he.

Warwick followed his glance.

"Oh, a young fellow whom the doctor employs about the place. He is a Pole, and came about a month ago; he seems very intelligent, and I know he is hard up. Morse knew his father somewhere, I believe."

"I see." The speaker turned from the window.

"You were saying that Dr. Morse rushed from the house in a passion."

"Yes. And I went at once into the library. Upon his desk I found this, which was, more than likely, the cause of the outburst."

He handed Ashton-Kirk a sheet of paper; in the center was a cross, the only peculiarity of which was that the down stroke was red, and the other was blue. This

the secret agent inspected with interest.

"I believe you said that he cried aloud in the library-did you catch any words?"

"No. But Miss Corbin did. She told me that--"

"Wait!" Ashton-Kirk halted him. "I would like to speak to Miss Corbin personally."

"Ah, yes. I suppose it would be best."

Warwick left the room. Instantly Ashton-Kirk was at the window, and after a glance, he laughed softly.

"Fuller," said he, "if you saw a man weeding a garden and another man clipping a hedge near by; and if you noticed that they gradually and almost imperceptibly worked toward each other, what should you think?"

Fuller looked out at the two stooping figures; the terrier had stopped his capering and lay gnawing one of the cuttings from the hedge, which he held between his paws.

"They are nearer to each other," said Fuller. "And look! they never exchange a glance. It seems to me," in the low, rapid tone of one to whom an idea had just occurred, "that they desire to speak to each other, but would rather not be observed."

Before the secret agent could reply to this, Warwick re?ntered, and with him was a girl. She was slight and dark and dressed in white. Her most remarkable feature was her eyes; they were big and black and wonderful. Her manner was hushed and fearful; her voice, when she spoke, was sunk almost to a whisper.

"Philip tells me that you are a very gifted man," she said, after Warwick had spoken the words of presentation. "He says that hidden things are plain to you. I do not understand how or why this is, but nevertheless I am glad that you have come. And I only hope," here one of the slim, white hands trembled upon his sleeve, "that you have come in time."

"I think," said Ashton-Kirk, quietly, "that you had better make an effort to control yourself. You are cold with fear. It is necessary that you answer a few questions; so try and calm yourself-even if only for that reason."

"I can't! I can't!" She made a despairing sort of gesture, the great eyes filled with a thrilling terror. "How can I be calm when I read such things in his face?" One hand was upon the arm of the secret agent, the other upon that of young Warwick; she looked first at one and then the other. "Death is near to him," she said. "It is very near to him."

"No, no!" cried the young Englishman.

"I tell you, yes! And, perhaps, it is even nearer than I dream. It may be upon the very threshold."

"My dear girl," cried Warwick.

"Have you been blind, Philip?" she asked in the same whispering voice as before. "Have you been blind that you have not seen? But no," her tone changing tenderly, "it is not to be expected of you. He has not been a father to you."

"No," said Warwick, and somehow a second meaning seemed to lurk behind the words, "he has not."

The girl turned to Ashton-Kirk.

"Never," she said, "has any one been better or kinder than Dr. Morse has been to me. Everything that I have I owe to him. And so can you wonder that I have been quick to see?"

"Quick to see-what?"

"The fear," she answered, "the fear which has gradually taken possession of him. You have seen some of it," to Warwick, "but not all. It is terror of the unseen, of the unknown. It is fear of a danger which he does not understand."

"You think, then, that Dr. Morse does not know the meaning of these grotesque messages which he has been receiving?"

"I know that he does not. I have always known it; but just how, I cannot say. This evening, upon opening the letter, he rushed out of the library. I happened to be passing the hall, and heard him cry out: 'Be plain! Who are you? What do you want?'"

"Is that all you heard?"

"Yes; for with the last word he threw open the front door and was gone."

Ashton-Kirk glanced at the two-colored cross.

"Perhaps," said he, "if we could find the envelope which this came in, it would tell us something."

"Will you come into the library?" said Warwick.

As they were moving toward the door, Ashton-Kirk whispered a few quick words to Fuller; the latter nodded and took a seat by the window, partly screened by a hanging and apparently much interested in the lawn.

The library was a large, high ceilinged room, darkly paneled and with a smoothly polished floor. The chairs were massive oak affairs and there were two huge, flat-topped desks. The bookcases were stuffed with serious, well-handled tomes; at one side was a highboy, the many drawers of which were furnished with glass knobs. Upon the top of this was a large English traveling bag, the strap of which was tightly buckled.

From the floor near one of the desks Warwick picked up a torn envelope.

"That is what the paper came in," said he. "I know, because it was I who handed it to him."

"Postmarked at three o'clock this afternoon at the central station," said Ashton-Kirk. "And the address was written on a typewriter." He threw the envelope upon the desk. "We'll learn nothing from that, except, perhaps, that the sender is one who understands the value of keeping hidden."

Just then a door was heard to open and close heavily. At the sound Ashton-Kirk noted the girl go swiftly to Warwick's side and whisper something hurriedly.

"No," said he, and there was just a trace of sharpness in his tone. "Of course not."

Quick steps were heard in the hall, then a man entered the room.

"Uncle," said Stella Corbin.

She went to him and put an arm about him, but his feverishly burning eyes singled out the stranger.

"It is a friend of Philip's-Mr. Ashton-Kirk. He has been kind enough to visit us."

There was a disagreeable smile about the thin lips of Dr. Morse as he said:

"Kind, indeed. We are charmed." Then to Warwick he added, "It is not every one, my dear Philip, who has the power of attracting friends."

Dr. Morse was a tall man, with high, narrow shoulders and a long, pasty-white face. There were deep, sour-looking lines about his mouth; the short black hair stood up on his head like bristles.

"To attract friends," said the secret agent, "is rather an enviable knack."

"It denotes a perfect nature, I have no doubt," replied Dr. Morse, still with the disagreeable smile.

"And if such a knack exists," said Ashton-Kirk, evenly, "it argues the existence of a counter condition, don't you think, in some others-that of attracting enemies?"

For a moment there was a dead silence in the room; a look of consternation appeared in the face of the young Englishman. Dr. Morse smoothed back his short, stiff hair and sat down; the smile was still present, but his red-lidded eyes were narrowed in a way that was not at all pleasant.

"Perhaps you are right-things are usually balanced in some such way. We all have our enemies," he added. "I have read somewhere that the fewer the personal foes, the weaker the man. And since we must have them in order to prove our personality," with a laugh which sounded peculiarly unnatural, "why, we can consider ourselves fortunate if they but stand out where we can see them."

"Your businesslike enemy seldom fights in the open," commented Ashton-Kirk with the air of a man merely making talk. "Our American politicians could teach you that fact."

The physician nodded.

"The ambuscade is effective," he agreed. "I learned its use in the Russo-Japanese war."

"So!" The secret agent's brows went up. "You served in that war then? What regiment?"

"The 47th infantry, Siberians."

"It is peculiar how things come about," smiled Ashton-Kirk. "While waiting for Warwick I noticed that the house in your rear is occupied by Japanese. Rather close quarters for old opponents, is it not?"

"The Japanese," spoke Dr. Morse, "were the opponents of Russia."

"I see. You are on good terms with your neighbors, then?"

"No. They have been there almost as long as I have been here; but I have never spoken to one of them."

Just then there came a tap upon the door; the old servant woman entered, but at the sight of those present, she halted.

"I beg your pardon, Simon," she said to Morse. "I did not know you were engaged."

He looked at her coldly.

"Well, Nanon," said he, "what is it now? Out again? There is no service at your church to-night."

There was a jeer in his voice, but the old French woman paid no attention to it. That she addressed him by his first name indicated that she felt no sense of inferiority. Indeed, as Ashton-Kirk regarded her, he detected a look of contempt upon her severe face.

"No," she answered, "there is no service to-night, as you know very well. I came to speak of Drevenoff."

A peculiar look came into the eyes of the secret agent; it was as though he were groping about for something hidden away in his memory; then like a flash, recollection seemed to come.

"Well, what of him?" asked Dr. Morse.

"He is no better. Even now while he clips the hedges, he shakes with cold; again he burns."

The physician gestured impatiently. Arising he went to a small cabinet and took out a jar partly filled with whitish pills. While he was so engaged, Warwick whispered to Ashton-Kirk.

"Don't wonder at Nanon's manner. You know I'd told you she'd been in the family for years-before the doctor was born. He has the bad taste to sneer at her religion; and I really think that she considers him somehow evilly possessed. It's a sort of truce between them."

Dr. Morse placed some of the pellets in an envelope upon which he scrawled some lines.

"Tell him to take these," he said, handing them to the old woman. "The directions are on the envelope."

"I hope it is nothing serious," said his niece.

"He needs some quinine, that is all," returned the physician.

Old Nanon moved toward the door. Her withered, large veined right hand hung at her side; Ashton-Kirk noted her dart a sidelong glance toward Morse; then the bony forefinger made a rapid sign of the cross between them.

And so the door closed behind her.

* * *

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