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   Chapter 4 THE MERCY SIGN-ONE

Average Jones By Samuel Hopkins Adams Characters: 26572

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


"Want a job, Average?"

Bertram, his elegance undimmed by the first really trying weather of the early summer, drifted to the coolest spot in the Ad-Visor's sanctum and spread his languid length along a wicker settee.

"Give a man breathing space, can't you?" returned Average Jones. "This is hotter than Baja California."

"Why, I assumed that your quest of the quack's scion would have trained you down fit for anything."

"Haven't even caught up with the clippings that Simpson floods me with, since I came back," confessed the other. "What have you got up your faultlessly creased sleeve? It's got to be something different to rouse me from a well-earned lethargy."

"Because a man buncoes a loving father out of five thousand dollars," Average Jones snorted gently, "is no reason why he should unanimously elect himself a life member of the Sons of Idleness,"' murmured Bertram.

He cast an eye around the uniquely decorated walls, upon which hung, here, the shrieking prospectus of a mythical gold-mine; there a small but venomous political placard, and on all sides examples of the uncouth or unusual in paid print; exploitations of grotesque quackeries; appeals, business-like, absurd, or even passionate, in the form of "Wants;" threats thinly disguised as "Personals;"' dim suggestions of crime, of fraud, of hope, of tragedy, of mania, all decorated with the stars of "paid matter" or designated by the Adv. sign, and each representing some case brought to A. Jones, Ad-Visor-to quote his hybrid and expressive doorplate-by some one of his numerous and incongruous clients.

"Something different?" repeated the visitor, reverting to Average Jones' last observation. "Well, yes; I think so. Where is Bellair Street?"

"Ask a directory. How should I know?" retorted the other lazily. "Sounds like old Greenwich Village."

Bertram reached over with a cane of some pale, translucent green wood, selected to match his pale green tie and the marvelous green opal which held it in place, and prodded his friend severely in the ribs. "Double-up Lucy; the sun is in the sky!" he proclaimed with unwonted energy. "Listen. I cut this out of yesterday's Evening Register. With my own fair hands I did it, to rouse you from your shameless sloth. With your kind attention, ladies and gentlemen-" He read:

"WANTED-A young man, unattached,

competent to act as assistant in

outdoor scientific work. Manual

skill as desirable as experience.

Emolument for one month's work generous.

Man without family insisted upon.

Apply after 8:30 P. M. in proper person.

Smith, 74 Bellair Street."

Slowly whirling in his chair, Average Jones held out a hand, received the clipping, read it through with attention, laid it on the desk, and yawned.

"Is that all?" said the indignant Bertram. "Do you notice that 'unattached' in the opening sentence? And the specification that the applicant must be without family? Doesn't that inspire any notion above a yawn in your palsied processes of mind?"

"It does; several notions. I yawned," explained Average Jones with dignity, "because I perceive with pain that I shall have to go to work. What do you make of the thing, yourself?"

"Well, this man Smith-"

"What man Smith?"

"Smith, of 74 Bellair Street, who signs the ad."

Average Jones laughed, "There isn't any Smith," he said.

"What do you know about it?" demanded Bertram, sitting up.

"Only what the advertisement tells me. It was written by a foreigner; that's too obvious for argument. 'Emolument generous.' 'Apply in proper person.' Did a Smith ever write that? No. A Borgrevsky might have, or a Greiffenhauser, or even a Mavronovoupoulos. But never Smith."

"Well, it's nothing to me what his name is. Only I thought you might be the aspiring young scientist he was yearning for."

"Wouldn't wonder if I were, thank you. Let's see. Bellair Street? Where's the directory? Thanks. Yes, it is Greenwich Village. Well, I think I'll just stroll down that way and have a look after dinner."

Thus it was that Mr. Adrian Van Reypen Egerton Jones found himself on a hot May evening pursuing the Adventure of Life into the vestibule of a rather dingy old house which had once been the abode of solemn prosperity if not actual aristocracy in the olden days of New York City. Almost immediately the telegraphic click of the lock apprised him that he might enter, and as he stepped into the hallway the door of the right-hand ground-floor apartment opened to him.

"You will please come in," said a voice.

The tone was gentle and measured. Also it was, by its accent, alien to any rightful Smith. The visitor stepped into a passageway which was dim until he entered it and the door swung behind him. Then it became pitch black.

"You will pardon this," said the voice. "A severe affection of the eyes compels me."

"You are Mr. Smith?" asked Average Jones.

"Yes. Your hand if you please."

The visitor, groping, brushed with his fingers the back of a hand which felt strangely hot and pulpy. Immediately the hand turned and closed, and he was led forward to an inner room and seated in a chair. The gentle, hot clasp relaxed and left his wrist free. A door facing him, if his ears could be trusted, opened and shut.

"You will find matches at your elbow," said the voice, coming dulled, from a further apartment. "Doubtless you would be more comfortable with a light."

"Thank you," returned Average Jones, enormously entertained by the dime-novel setting which his host had provided for him.

He lighted the gas and looked about a sparsely furnished room without a single distinguishing feature, unless a high and odd-shaped traveling-bag which stood on a chair near by could be so regarded. The voice interrupted his survey.

"You have come in answer to my advertisement?"

"Yes, sir."

"You are, then, of scientific pursuit?"

"Of scientific ambition, at least. I hope to meet your requirements."

"Your name, if you please."

"Jones; A. Jones, of New York City."

"You live with your family?"

"I have no family or near relatives."

"That is well. I will not conceal from, you that there are risks. But the pay is high. Can you endure exposure? Laboring in all weathers? Subsisting on rough fare and sleeping as you may?"

"I have camped in the northern forests."

"Yes," mused the voice. "You look hardy."

Average Jones arose. "You-er-are spying upon me, then," he drawled quietly. "I might have-er-suspected a peep-hole."

He advanced slowly toward the door whence the voice came. A chair blocked his way. Without lowering his gaze he shoved at the obstacle with his foot.

"Have a care!" warned the voice.

The chair toppled and overturned. From it fell, with a light shock, the strange valise, which, striking the floor, flew open, disclosing a small cardboard cabinet. Across the front of the cabinet was a strip of white paper labeled in handwriting, each letter being individual, with what looked to the young man like the word "MERCY." He stooped to replace the bag.

"Do not touch it," ordered the voice peremptorily.

Average Jones straightened up to face the door again.

"I will apologize for my clumsiness," he said slowly, "when you explain why you have tried to trick me."

There was a pause. Then:

"Presently," said the voice. "Meantime, after what you have accidentally seen, you will perhaps appreciate that the employment is not without its peril!"

Average Jones stared from the door to the floored cabinet and back again in stupefaction.

"Perhaps I'm stupid," he said, "but a misshapen valise containing a cabinet with a girl's name on it doesn't seem calculated to scare an able-bodied man to death. It isn't full of dynamite, is it?"

"What is your branch of scientific work?" counter-questioned the other.

"Botany," replied the young man, at random.

"No other? Physics? Entomology? Astronomy? Chemistry? Biology?"

The applicant shook his head in repeated negation. "None that I've specialized on."

"Ah! I fear you will not suit my purpose."

"All right. But you haven't explained, yet, why you've been studying me through a peep-hole, when I am not allowed to see you."

After a pause of consideration the voice spoke again.

"You are right. Since I can not employ you, I owe you every courtesy for having put you to this trouble. You will observe that I am not very presentable."

The side door swung open. In the dimness of the half-disclosed apartment Average Jones saw a man huddled in a chair. He wore a black skull cap. So far as identification went he was safe. His whole face was grotesquely blotched and swollen. So, also, were the hands which rested on his knees.

"You will pardon me," said Average Jones, "but I am by nature cautious. You have touched me. Is it contagious?"

A contortion of the features, probably indicating a smile, made the changeling face more hideous than before.

"Be at peace," he said. "It is not. You can find your way out? I bid you good evening, sir."

"Now I wonder," mused Average Jones, as he jolted on the rear platform of an Eighth Avenue car, "by what lead I could have landed that job. I rather think I've missed something."

All that night, and recurrently on many nights thereafter, the poisoned and contorted face and the scrawled "MERCY" on the cabinet lurked troublously in his mind. Nor did Bertram cease to scoff him for his maladroitness until both of them temporarily forgot the strange "Smith" and his advertisement in the entrancement of a chase which led them for a time far back through the centuries to a climax that might well have cost Average Jones his life. They had returned from Baltimore and the society of the Man who spoke Latin a few days when Bertram, at the club, called up Average Jones' office.

"I'm sending Professor Paul Gehren to you," was his message. "He'll call to-day or to-morrow."

Average Jones knew Professor Gehren by sight, knew of him further by repute as an impulsive, violent, warm-hearted and learned pundit who, for a typically meager recompense, furnished sundry classes of young gentlemen with amusement, alarm and instruction, in about equal parts, through the medium of lectures at the Metropolitan University. During vacations the professor pursued, with some degree of passion, experiments which added luster and selected portions of the alphabet to his name. Twice a week he walked down-town to the Cosmic Club, where he was wont to dine and express destructive and anarchistic views upon the nature, conduct, motives and personality of the organization's governing committees.

On the day following Bertram's telephone, Professor Gehren entered Astor Court Temple, took the elevator to the ninth floor, and, following directions, found himself scanning a ground-glass window flaunting the capitalized and gilded legend,

A. JONES, AD-VISOR

"Ad-Visor," commented the professor, rancorously. "A vicious verbal monstrosity!" He read on:

ADVICE UPON ADVERTISING IN ALL FORMS

Consultation Free. Step In

"Consultation free!" repeated the educator with virulence. "A trap! A manifest pitfall! I don't know why Mr. Bertram should have sent me hither. The enterprise is patently quack," he asseverated in a rising voice.

Upon the word a young man opened the door and, emerging, received the accusation full in the face. The young man smiled.

"Quack, I said," repeated the exasperated mentor, "and I repeat it. Quack!"

"If you're suffering from the delusion that you're a duck," observed the young man mildly, "you'll find a taxidermist on the top floor."

The caller turned purple. "If you are Mr. Jones, of the Cosmic Club-"

"I am."

"-there are certain things which Mr. Bertram must explain."

"Yes; Bertram said that you were coming, but I'd almost given you up. Come in."

"Into a-a den where free advice is offered? Of all the patent and infernal rascalities, sir, the offer of free advice-"

"There, there," soothed the younger man. "I know all about the free swindles. This isn't one of them. It's just a fad of mine."

He led the perturbed scholar inside and got him settled in a chair. "Now, go ahead. Show me the advertisement and tell me how much you lost."

"I've lost my assistant. There is no advertisement about it. What I came for is advice. But upon seeing your tricky door-plate-"

"Oh, that's merely to encourage the timorous. Who is this assistant?"

"Harvey Craig, a youth, hardly more than a boy, for whom I feel a certain responsibility, as his deceased parents left him in my care."

"Yes," said Jones as the professor paused.

"He has disappeared."

"When?"

"Permanently, since ten days ago."

"Permanently?"

"Up to that time he had absented himself without reporting to me for only three or four days at a time."

"He lived with you?"

"No. He had been aiding me in certain investigations at my laboratory."

"In what line?"

"Metallurgy."

"When did he stop?"

"About four weeks ago."

"Did he give any reason?"

"He requested indefinite leave. Work had been offered him, he hinted, at a very high rate of remuneration."

"You don't know by whom?"

"No, I know nothing whatever about it."

"Have you any defini

te suspicions as to his absence?"

"I gravely fear that the boy has made away with himself."

"Why so?"

"After his first absence I called to see him at his room. He had obviously undergone a violent paroxysm of grief or shame."

"He told you this?"

"No. But his eyes, and, indeed, his whole face, were abnormally swollen, as with weeping."

"Ah, yes." Average Jones' voice had suddenly taken on a bored indifference. "Were-er-his hands, also?"

"His hands? Why should they?"

"Of course, why, indeed? You noted them?"

"I did not, sir."

"Did he seem depressed or morose?"

"I can not say that he did."

"Professor Gehren, what, newspaper do you take?"

The scholar stared. "The Citizen in the morning, The Register in the evening."

"Are either of them delivered to your laboratory?"

"Yes; the Register."

"Do you keep it on file?"

"No."

"Ah! That's a pity. Then you wouldn't know if one were missing?"

The professor reflected. "Yes, there was a copy containing a letter upon Von Studeborg's recent experiments-"

"Can you recall the date?"

"After the middle of June, I think."

Average Jones sent for a file and handed it to Professor Gehren.

"Is this it?" he asked, indicating the copy of June 18.

"That is the letter!" said that gentleman.

Average Jones turned the paper and found, upon an inside page, the strange advertisement from 74 Bellair Street.

"One more question, Professor," said he. "When did you last see Mr. Craig?"

"Nine or ten days ago. I think it was July 2."

"How did he impress you?"

"As being somewhat preoccupied. Otherwise normal."

"Was his face swollen then?"

"No."

"Where did you see him?"

"The first time at my laboratory, about eleven o'clock."

"You saw him again that day, then?"

"Yes. We met by accident at a little before two P.M. on Twenty-third Street. I was surprised, because he had told me he had to catch a noon train and return to his work."

"Then he hadn't done so?"

"Yes. He explained that he had, but that he had been sent back to buy some supplies."

"You believe he was telling the truth?"

"In an extensive experience with young men I have never known a more truthful one than he."

"Between the first day of his coming back to New York and the last, had you seen him?"

"I had talked with him over the telephone. He called up two or three times to say that he was well and working hard and that he hoped to be back in a few weeks."

"Where did he call up from?"

"As he did not volunteer the information, I am unable to say."

"Unfortunate again. Well, I think you may drop the notion of suicide. If anything of importance occurs, please notify me at once. Otherwise, I'll send you word when I have made progress."

Having dismissed the anxious pundit, Average Jones, so immersed in thought as to be oblivious to outer things, made his way to the Cosmic Club in a series of caroms from indignant pedestrian to indignant pedestrian. There, as he had foreseen, he found Robert Bertram.

"Can I detach you from your usual bridge game this evening?" he demanded of that languid gentleman.

"Very possibly. What's the inducement?"

"Chapter Second of the Bellair Street advertisement. I've told you the first chapter. You've been the god-outside-the-machine so far. Now, come on in."

Together they went to the Greenwich Village house. The name "Smith" had disappeared from the vestibule.

"As I expected," said Jones. "Our hope be in the landlord!"

The landlord turned out to be a German landlady, who knew little concerning her late ground-floor tenant and evinced no interest in the subject. The "perfessor," as she termed "Smith," had taken the flat by the month, was prompt in payment, quiet in habit, given to long and frequent absences; had been there hardly at all in the last few weeks. Where had he moved to? Hummel only knew! He had left no address. Where did his furniture go? Nowhere; he'd left it behind. Was any one in the house acquainted with him? Mrs. Marron in the other ground-floor flat had tried to be. Not much luck, she thought.

Mrs. Marron was voluble, ignorant, and a willing source of information.

"The perfessor? Sure! I knew'm. 'Twas me give'm the name. He was a Mejum. Naw! Not for money. Too swell for that. But a real-thing Mejum. A big one; one of the kind it comes to, nacheral. Spirit-rappin's! Somethin' fierce! My kitchen window is on the air-shaft. So's his. Many's the time in the still evenin's I've heard the rap-rap-rappin' on his window an' on the wall, but mostly on the window. Blip! out of the dark. It'd make you just hop! And him sittin' quiet and peaceful in the front room all the time. Yep; my little girl seen him there while I was hearin' the raps."

"Did you ask him about them?" inquired Jones.

"Sure! He wouldn't have it at first. Then he kinder smiled and half owned up. And once I seen him with his materializin' wand, sittin' in the room almost dark."

"His what?"

"Materializin' wand. Spirit-rod, you know. As tall as himself and all shiny and slick. It was slim and sort o' knobby like this wood-what's the name of it, now?-they make fish poles out of. Only the real big-bugs in spiritualism use 'em. They're dangerous. You wouldn't caich me touchin' it or goin' in there even now. I says to Mrs. Kraus, I says-"

And so the stream of high-pitched, eager talk flowed until the two men escaped from it into the vacant apartment. This was much as Average Jones had seen on his former visit. Only the strange valise was missing. Going to the kitchen, which he opened through intermediate doors on a straight line with the front room, Average Jones inspected the window. The glass was thickly marked with faint, bluish blurs, being, indeed, almost opaque from them in the middle of the upper pane. There was nothing indicative below the window, unless it were a considerable amount of crumbled putty, which he fingered with puzzled curiosity.

In the front room a mass of papers had been half burned. Some of them were local journals, mostly the Evening Register. A few were publications in the Arabic text.

"Oriental newspapers," remarked Bertram.

Average Jones picked them up and began to fold them. From between two sheets fluttered a very small bit of paper, narrow and half curled, as if from the drying of mucilage. He lifted and read it.

"Here we are again, Bert," he remarked in his most casual tone. "The quality of this Mercy is strained, all right."

The two men bent over the slip, studying it. The word was, as Average Jones had said, in a strained, effortful handwriting, and each letter stood distinct. These were the characters:

MERCY

"Is it mathematical, do you think, possibly?" asked Average Jones.

"All alone by itself like that? Rather not! More like a label, if you ask me."

"The little sister of the label on the cabinet, then."

"Cherchez la femme," observed Bertram. "It sounds like perfect foolishness to me; a swollen faced outlander who rules familiar spirits with a wand, and, between investigations in the realms of science, writes a girl's name all over the place like a lovesick school-boy! Is Mercy his spirit-control, do you suppose?"

"Oh, let's get out of here," said Average Jones. "I'm getting dizzy with it all. The next step," he observed, as they walked slowly up the street, "is by train. Want to take a short trip to-morrow, Bert? Or, perhaps, several short trips?"

"Whither away, fair youth?"

"To the place where the fake 'Smith' and the lost Craig have been doing their little stunts."

"I thought you said Professor Gehren couldn't tell you where Craig had gone."

"No more he could. So I've got to find out for myself. Here's the way I figure it out: The two men have been engaged in some out-of-door work that is extra hazardous. So much we know. Harvey Craig has, I'm afraid, succumbed to it. Otherwise he'd have sent some word to Professor Gehren. He may be dead or he may only be disabled by the dangerous character of the work, whatever it was. In any case our mysterious foreign friend has probably skipped out hastily. Now, I propose to find the railroad station they passed through, coming and going, and interview the ticket agent."

"You've got a fine large contract on your hands to find it."

"Not so large, either. All we have to do is to look for a place that is very isolated and yet quite near New York."

"How do you know it is quite near New York?"

"Because Harvey Craig went there and back between noon and two o'clock, Professor Gehren says. Now, we've got to find such a place which is near a stretch of deserted, swampy ground, very badly infested with mosquitoes. I'd thought of the Hackensack Meadows, just across the river in Jersey."

"That is all very well," said Bertram; "but why mosquitoes?"

"Why, the poisoned and swollen face and hands both of them suffered from," explained Average Jones. "What else could it be?"

"I'd thought of poison-ivy or some kind of plant they'd been grubbing at."

"So had I. But I happened to think that anything of that sort, if it had poisoned them once, would keep on poisoning them, while mosquitoes they could protect themselves against, if they didn't become immune, as they most likely would. As there must have been a lot of 'skeeters' to do the kind of job that 'Smith's' face showed, I naturally figured on a swamp."

"Average," said Bertram solemnly, "there are times when I conceive a sort of respect for your commonplace and plodding intellect. Now, let me have my little inning. I used to commute-on the Jersey and Delaware Short Line. There's a station on that line, Pearlington by name, that's a combination of Mosquitoville, Lonesomehurst and Nutting Doon. It's in the mathematical center of the ghastliest marsh anywhere between Here and Somewhere else. I think that's our little summer resort, and I'm yours for the nine A. M. train to-morrow."

Dismounting from that rather casual accommodation on the following day, the two friends found Pearlington to consist of a windowed packing-box inhabited by a hermit in a brass-buttoned blue. This lonely official readily identified the subjects of Average Jones' inquiry.

"I guess I know your friends, all right. The dago was tall and thin and had white hair; almost snow-white. No, he wasn't old, neither. He talked very soft and slow. Used to stay off in the reeds three and four days at a time. No, ain't seen him for near a week; him nor his boat nor the young fellow that was with him. Sort of bugologists, or something, wasn't they."

"Have you any idea where we could find their camp?"

The railroad man laughed.

"Fine chance you got of finding anything in that swamp. There's ten square miles of it, every square just like every other square, and a hundred little islands, and a thousand creeks and rivers winding through."

"You're right," agreed Average Jones. "It would take a month to search it. You spoke of a boat."

"It's my notion they must have had a houseboat. They could a-rowed it up on the tide from the Kills-a little one. I never saw no tent with 'em. And they had to have something over their heads. The boat I seen 'em have was a rowboat. I s'pose they used it to go back and forth in."

"Thanks," said Average Jones. "That's a good idea about the houseboat."

On the following day this advertisement appeared in the newspapers of several shore towns along the New Jersey and Staten Island coast.

A DRIFT-A small houseboat lost several

days ago from the Hackensack Meadows.

Fifty dollars reward paid for information

leading to recovery. Jones, Ad-Visor,

Astor Court Temple, New York.

Two days later came a reply, locating the lost craft at Bayonne. Average Jones went thither and identified it. Within its single room was uttermost confusion, testifying to the simplest kind of housekeeping sharply terminated. Attempt had been made to burn the boat before it was given to wind and current, but certain evidences of charred wood, and the fact of a succession of furious thunder-showers in the week past, suggested the reason for failure. In a heap of rubbish, where the fire had apparently started, Average Jones found, first, a Washington newspaper, which he pocketed; next, with a swelling heart, the wreck of the pasteboard cabinet, but no sign of the strange valise which had held it. The "Mercy" sign was gone from the cabinet, its place being supplied by a placard, larger, in a different handwriting, and startlingly more specific:

"DANGER! IF FOUND DESTROY AT ONCE. Do Not Touch With Bare Hands."

There was nothing else. Gingerly, Average Jones detached the sign. The cabinet proved to be empty. He pushed a rock into it, lifted it on the end of a stick and dropped it overboard. One after another eight little fishes glinted up through the water, turned their white bellies to the sunlight and bobbed, motionless. The investigator hastily threw away the label and cast his gloves after it. But on his return to the city he was able to give a reproduction of the writing to Professor Gehren which convinced that anxious scholar that Harvey Craig had been alive and able to write not long before the time when the houseboat was set adrift.

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