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   Chapter 3 No.3

Ashton Kirk, Secret Agent By John T. McIntyre Characters: 16311

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


An International Affair

Next morning Ashton-Kirk's car was drawn up at his door; in the hall, the secret agent pulled on a pair of gloves; at his side stood the alert Fuller.

"You carried out my instructions?" asked the former.

"Yes," answered Fuller. "I telegraphed the secretary that you would reach Washington by 11:40 and would call upon him at once."

"You urged him that the matter was possibly one of much importance?"

"Yes."

The secret agent turned to Stumph, who stood at the front door.

"Have Dixon meet every Washington train after dark," said he. "We shall be on one or the other of them."

Stumph threw open the hall door and then that of the car; the soft throb of the engine changed to a startled snort, and then the huge vehicle glided away.

A little later the two men sat facing each other upon the heavy "Limited"; Ashton-Kirk turned the pages of a magazine. For a time Fuller was silent and thoughtful. But at length he said:

"Do you know-I don't just understand those two fellows behind the house last evening, the Jap, you know-and the one who acted as though he were cold. What are we to make of men who edge toward each other, apparently bent upon some sort of a secret communication-and then when they get within speaking distance, work away doggedly and at last depart without exchanging a word?"

"You are quite sure that there was no message dropped across the hedge, or stuck among its branches?"

"Positive. I did not take my eyes off them for a moment; and later I made it my business to go out and look. That they exchanged signals is scarcely possible, unless they were remarkably ingenious ones. And then, had they desired to signal, they could have done so at a distance; it would have been unnecessary for them to risk attracting attention by drawing so closely together."

Ashton-Kirk did not reply; and after another period spent in cogitation, Fuller spoke again.

"The feeling which you have spoken of as existing between old Nanon and her employer is rather queer, isn't it?"

"Somewhat."

"But that she should remain with him-even accompany him to a new country-and all the time hate, or fear, him is perplexing."

Ashton-Kirk nodded, his eyes half closed.

"Yes," he said, "it is rather so. But," and he opened his eyes, "don't forget that this woman is, by her trace of accent, a Breton, and the peasantry of that section have very rigorous notions as to duty."

"They must have if she's borne with his quips and sneers all these years. I can see very readily what Warwick meant when he said you'd not wonder at his lack of interest in Dr. Morse if you knew the man."

"When Warwick came into the room where we were awaiting him last evening, did you notice anything in his manner?"

"He did seem rather agitated, now that I think of it. His face was flushed and his voice trembled a bit-just as though he had been quarreling with some one."

Again the secret agent nodded.

"But with whom?" said he. "Not Miss Corbin, I feel sure; and scarcely the old servant woman."

"You think it was with Dr. Morse?" eagerly.

"I don't know. But when Morse was heard entering the house, the girl whispered something to Warwick, rather pleadingly I thought, and he brusquely denied having any intention of doing-whatever it was that she spoke of."

"Humph," said Fuller.

After some hours the train drew into the station at Washington; at once they took a taxi-cab and whirled to a government building. Ashton-Kirk was shown through a spacious suite and into a room where a handsome white-haired gentleman sat at a huge mahogany desk.

"It was kind of you, Mr. Secretary, to put yourself out," said the secret agent.

The white-haired gentleman arose and shook his hand cordially.

"I have had such telegrams from you before," he said, "and they have never failed to be followed by matters of some interest."

Ashton-Kirk sat down; the secretary pushed a box of long loosely wrapped cigars toward him.

"They are Porto Ricos," said he. "You may fancy their flavor."

For a little time after lighting the cigars they sat in silence watching the smoke drifts and enjoying the aroma. Then Ashton-Kirk spoke.

"Yesterday," said he, "my attention was called to a rather interesting train of circumstances."

"If you class it as interesting," said the statesman, "there is nothing more to be said. I recall several matters which you handled in a somewhat bored fashion; and yet, to me, they were in many ways really amazing."

"That is, perhaps, because you held to the point of view of the spectator. There is a broad element of drama in most things of this sort, and as a looker-on, this appealed to you. But this present affair," leaning a trifle forward, "may have a greatly increased interest for you, for the indications are that it will lead directly to your department."

The secretary knocked a narrow rim of ash from his cigar; he examined the red end carefully, and then said:

"Indeed?"

"All countries have had their secrets," said Ashton-Kirk, after a pause. "Some never see the light-others are only made known after centuries. If the hidden archives of the nations were thrown open to the world, history, perhaps, would have to be rewritten. Of course," with a wave of one long finger, "some governments have more of these state secrets than others; the Italian republics probably were in the lead; the United States I should place almost last."

"You are very good," smiled the secretary.

"But, still, we have some. Even in a democracy, it is not possible to make public all the details of government. Things are handed from one administration to another which must await the time of ripening and fulfilment."

The secretary smoked quietly, but he said nothing.

"These matters," continued Ashton-Kirk, "are not, of course, to be disclosed-they are scarcely to be hinted at. But the case which I bring to your attention perhaps involves a delicate point of international relationship; if my reasoning holds, I do not require you to make any admissions. That you consider the affair important and worth following out will be enough."

"Go on," said the official.

Ashton-Kirk reflected for a moment; then with a smile, he said:

"Don't be alarmed if I date the beginning of my story back quite a bit. I merely desire to glance at one or two facts which I consider of some importance; then I will come as swiftly as I may to the present." There was another pause, but in a moment he resumed. "Have you ever noticed that there are individuals who, without any great intimacy, seem to cherish a steady regard for each other? There are families which do the same thing. And there are nations.

"Now, I'm going to take a running view of such a friendship between two countries. When George III was puzzled as to how he should put down the rebellion of England's American colonies in the year 1775, he turned to Russia and tried to borrow an army. Catherine was then Empress of Russia; and her answer to the request was a most biting one. And George growled that she was a barbarian and contented himself with Hessians and Brunswickers.

"When the second war of independence began, John Quincy Adams was United States Minister at St. Petersburg; and to him the Czar expressed the keenest regrets. And he did not stop at this. Through his representative, Daschkoof, and by personal letters, the Czar strove to bring the war to an end; he failed, but through no fault of his own. The friendly manner in which Russia ceded Alaska to the United States needs no comment.

"During the blackest period of the Civil War, when practically all Europe favored the Confederacy and were upon the verge of giving it official recognition; when France had gone so far as to throw troops into Mexico in defiance of the Monroe doctrine, Russia still stood our firm friend. To the wonder of the nations she sent a fleet across the Atlantic; it entered our northern ports and lay grimly waiting. What the admiral's orders were, only St. Petersburg and Washington knew; but that they warranted his stripping his ships for action in the

event of certain conditions arising, I have no doubt.

"When the famine swept Russia a score of years ago, what people so quick to respond as our own? And when that same nation, because of geographical disadvantages, was outclassed in her war with Japan, it was the United States that stepped in and called a stay which resulted in the treaty of Portsmouth."

There were some few moments of silence; the secretary leaned back in his chair, his fingers pattering upon its arms; that he was interested was shown by the quick little jets of smoke which rose above his head.

"Well?" said he.

"We now come to the matter of present interest," said Ashton-Kirk. "The early defeats of Russia at the hands of Japan demonstrated her unpreparedness; and upon the heels of the news, the Russian Count Malikoff, with some military officers, came to Washington. At once a scarcely audible murmur ran through the more daring of the newspapers, but almost instantly died away. However, one with his ear to the ground could detect the falling into place of the ponderous parts of some international arrangement; but just what this arrangement was has not been made known."

"Well," said the secretary again.

Slowly and with great care, the secret agent then began the story of Dr. Morse. Starting with the visit of Warwick, he related the queer happenings at Sharsdale; then came the flight to America and the grotesque messages which had so startled Stella Corbin. He proceeded:

"A second glance at the picture of the crowned woman handed me by Warwick, and my attention was caught. It was the work of a Japanese."

"Ah!" said the secretary. And he sat a trifle more upright.

"It was a Japanese with a thoroughly Western training; but that his point of view was still Oriental was plain in the drawing. It then occurred to me that if a Japanese were vitally interested in Dr. Morse he would be likely to live as near to him as he could. And the telephone directory informed me that the house directly behind that of Morse was occupied by one Okiu."

The secretary laid down his cigar.

"Okiu!" said he. "I think I recall that name."

"And more than likely it is the same person," said Ashton-Kirk; "though as yet I am not assured of that fact."

"Well?" said the official, expectantly.

"As you have seen, the persecution of Dr. Morse began only after his return from Manchuria, where he had served in the Russian army. This in itself seemed to tell something; but when I add to it that he had never before come into contact with Japanese, and that one of the race was plainly involved, you will see that I had a fairly good reason for supposing that the thing had its beginning in Manchuria.

"But what was the thing? Plainly it was not a personal matter, for his person and effects had been spared more than once. Then I got a faint gleam of light; for just about now the name of Drevenoff comes into the case."

"Drevenoff!" The official repeated the name quietly; his ruddy face was entirely devoid of expression.

"It is the name of a young Pole who is employed by Morse as a sort of gardener. He is educated and, I understand, capable of filling a much higher position in life. A few weeks ago he came to Eastbury entirely destitute. I recalled that a Colonel Drevenoff made one of the party which bore Count Malikoff company upon the mysterious mission to Washington in the early days of the Russo-Japanese war; I remembered also that Philip Warwick had told me that Morse had known young Drevenoff's father.

"This suggested an amazing possibility. After leaving the house on Fordham Road I consulted the files of a newspaper; from this I learned that Colonel Drevenoff had, some six months after leaving Washington, joined the army in Manchuria and had been killed in battle."

The secretary nodded.

"Well?" said he.

"Morse told me, in the brief talk that I had with him, that he had been attached as surgeon to the 47th Siberian infantry; and I learned from the newspaper file that Colonel Drevenoff had been commander of that very regiment."

The official shifted his position; his face was still unreadable; his voice, when he spoke, was even.

"You appear to attach some significance to that," said he.

"Suppose," spoke Ashton-Kirk, "that Colonel Drevenoff were possessed of something of great value; when brought in wounded and dying, what more likely thing than that he should be attended by Dr. Morse? Also it is not without the range of possibility that he should entrust this precious possession to the physician's keeping."

"You are not deficient in imagination." And as the secretary said this he smiled.

"Imagination is a vital necessity in my work. Without it I could make but little headway. And now I will venture still farther upon the same road; but, remember, I am claiming nothing substantial for what I am about to say. I merely place it before you as what might have happened and ask you to fit it to any facts of which you may be possessed. That Colonel Drevenoff was in the party of so eminent a diplomat as Count Malikoff shows him to have been a person of some standing; that he should so suddenly be packed off to the Orient to head a provincial regiment indicates a fall in favor.

"What was the cause of this? I have no means of knowing, but in view of what I do know, I can build up a structure which may be more or less composed of truths. Suppose, after Malikoff left Washington, he missed something-a document, perhaps, in the hand of some person high in this government. Suppose Drevenoff were suspected of taking it, but could not be charged with the act because of lack of proof. There we have a reason for his banishment. Now we will suppose that Drevenoff did actually take this paper. Why did he do so? In order that he should profit by it. In what way? The answer follows swiftly: by selling it to the Japanese government."

The secretary arose and crossed to a window.

"It is rather close here," said he. "But don't stop."

"Suppose the mission of Malikoff had already suggested the existence of this paper to Tokio; but upon Drevenoff getting into communication with them, they learned for the first time of its reality. But before the matter could be closed, Drevenoff met his death; and after Dr. Morse returned to England, the enemies of Russia in some way discovered that he had been made the custodian of the secret. What followed has been in the nature of attempts to gain possession of the coveted thing."

"But if this is so, how do you account for the bizarre-almost nonsensical methods employed? And how do you account for the apparent ignorance of Dr. Morse as to the meaning behind this persecution of him?"

Ashton-Kirk shook his head.

"I do not account for it," he said. "That is a thing which I have not come to, as yet."

The secretary recrossed to his desk, took another cigar and pushed the box toward his visitor; after he had the long roll burning freely, he began pacing up and down. After quite a space, he resumed his chair.

"As you said in the beginning," he spoke, "there are things which cannot even be hinted at before the time of ripening and fulfilment. Therefore, I can say only this: Count Malikoff did lose a document of most tremendous importance. Colonel Drevenoff was suspected. The paper in question, should it fall into the hands of those unfriendly to this government, might cause a nasty diplomatic complication. That it has not done so as yet, we feel sure; because the conditions are such that immediate and open steps would be taken. But official Washington has, so to speak, been living over a volcano for several years."

"This is all you can say?"

"In an official way, yes. But, assuming the point of view of a mere spectator, of which you lately accused me," and here the secretary smiled, "I should say that this matter of Dr. Morse holds all the elements of an interesting case."

"I agree with you," said Ashton-Kirk, as he arose to his feet and looked at his watch, "and as there is a train in another half hour I think I shall return at once and take up the study of it."

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