MoboReader > Literature > Jess of the Rebel Trail

   Chapter 1 THE HOLD-UP

Jess of the Rebel Trail By H. A. Cody Characters: 13166

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The glowing coals in the spacious grate seemed to fascinate the woman as she sat huddled in a big luxurious chair. The book she had been reading was lying open and unheeded on her lap. Her surroundings were by no means in keeping with her dejected manner. The room was cosy and lavishly furnished, while the shaded electric reading-lamp cast its gentle radiance upon the woman's white hair and soft evening-gown. It was a rough night, and the wind howling outside beat furiously against the closely-blinded windows.

It was a night such as this, nearly twenty years before, of which the woman was thinking. She was once again in a room in a private hospital, lying weak and helpless from the ordeal through which she had passed. It all came back to her now with a stinging intensity, causing her white hands to clench hard, and her eyes to widen with a nameless fear.

A maid entered and announced a visitor.

"I can't see anyone to-night," the woman before the fire declared, without even turning her head.

"But--" the maid began.

"That is all, Maggie. You need not say anything more. I wish to be left entirely alone."

The maid hesitated a few seconds before obeying the imperious command. Then she slowly turned, and had almost reached the door when it was suddenly pushed open and a man entered. Without a word, he stepped past her and glided across the room toward the fire. His unexpected appearance startled the woman crouching there. She straightened quickly up and stared at the intruder in amazement.

"Who are you?" she demanded. "How dare you come here? Maggie, put this man out."

But Maggie had disappeared, so the woman was left to face the man alone.

"I won't harm you, madame," he smilingly informed her, as he moved closer to the fire and stretched put his hands. "I'm as harmless as a kitten."

"Keep back," the woman ordered. "Don't come so close."

"Oh, I'm all right. Don't you worry about me."

Again the man smiled as he rubbed his hands together.

"I wasn't worrying about you," the woman retorted. "I would like to see you burn yourself for your impudence."

Her fear had now vanished, and she was angry. She carefully noted the man's slight figure, and threadbare clothes. But his face was what attracted her most of all. It was somewhat chubby, and when the mouth was expanded by the almost incessant smile the cheeks were wrinkled like corrugated iron. His head was bald, save for a few tufts of hair above the ears. His bulging eyes twinkled with good humour, causing an observer to feel that their owner was well satisfied with himself and the entire world.

"Who are you?" the woman again demanded. "How dare you come uninvited into my room?"

The man straightened, himself up, and standing with his back to the fire brought forth a package of cigarettes, selected one, and deliberately lighted it.

"You don't mind if I have a smoke, do you?" he asked. "It's good for the nerves."

"Indeed I do," the woman replied. "I hate smoking. I never allow it in this room."

"I'm sorry, madame, but you'll soon forget all about it. I have come to see you to-night on very important business, and when I tell you what it is you won't think any more about the smoke."

"Important business! With me? Why, I never saw you before, and I have not the slightest idea who you are. What do you want, anyway?"

"Yes, it's important business, as I have just said, and when I learned that you would see no one to-night I was compelled to force myself upon your presence."

"How did you know that I would see no one to-night? Were you listening at the door?"

"Madame, when you get to know me better you will learn that I am able to read people's thoughts, though doors may intervene. Words are unnecessary to me. I know all."

The man blew a cloud of smoke into the air, and smiled. "Yes," he continued, "I even read your thoughts to-night as you sat before this fire."

"You did!" The woman's eyes grew wide with fear and amazement. "Who are you, anyway?"

"I am merely a stand-between; that has been my business for years."

"A stand-between?"

"Yes, I stand between people and ignorance. I supply them with mental food, books of the first-water. They all know me, and look upon me as a public benefactor."

"So you are a book-agent, then? And you want to sell me some books, I suppose? Is that your business here to-night?"

The man waved his hand haughtily, and flicked the ashes from his cigarette into the fire.

"No, madame, it is not. Business is somewhat dull these days, I must confess. People are not as anxious as formerly for pure literature. There are too many counter attractions. This being so, I find it is becoming more difficult to stand between my family and poverty. Therefore, I am here to-night."

"So you want me to give you some money; is that it?"

"Ah, now I see you understand," and the man's face beamed. "But remember, I come not as a beggar, neither as a suppliant, but merely to receive payment for a favor."

"Payment for a favor!" the woman exclaimed. "What do you mean? I owe you nothing. I never saw you before. What favor?"

"The favor of silence. I know what you were thinking about to-night as you sat here. Your thoughts were in the past, to another night such as this. You were in a private hospital, and--"

He was interrupted by a startled cry from the woman. She was sitting bolt upright, her hands gripping hard the arms of the chair, and her face ghastly white.

"W-what do you know?" she gasped.

"Calm yourself, madame. Although I know all, you have no need to fear."

For a few seconds the woman stared at the man before her. Then she gave an hysterical laugh and sank back in her chair. What did this stranger know? she wondered. Perhaps nothing, and she had made a fool of herself by showing her agitation.

"My nerves are somewhat shaken to-night," she confessed. "I have not been well of late, so your sudden appearance and strange words have rather unsettled me. What do you mean by referring to another night such as this, and to a private hospital? What have they to do with me?"

"A great deal, I should say, madame. If you doubt my knowledge, it is only necessary to mention the name of Hettie Rawlins, now my wife, Mrs. Gabriel Grimsby."

"Hettie Rawlins!" the woman's face showed her perplexity.

"Yes, Hettie Rawlins, the girl who exchanged the babies. Don't you remember her?"

But the woman did not reply. She sat staring at the man before her.

"There is no doubt now about my knowledge is there?" the stranger as

ked with a smile.

"Heavens, no!" the unhappy woman groaned. "And to think that after all these years I should be thus confronted in my own house, and by a complete stranger. And so your wife told you all?"

"Everything, although she kept the secret for a long time. She told me how you bribed her to exchange your little baby boy for a girl which was born in the hospital on the same day, and the amount you gave the baby's mother for making the exchange."

"Stop, stop," the woman pleaded. "You will kill me."

"But you know it all, madame. You were thinking about it to-night, were you not?"

"I was, I was," and the woman buried her face in her hands.

Presently she lifted her head.

"Where is the boy?" she asked in a hoarse whisper. "Is he alive?"

"And so you are interested in him, madame?"

"Interested? Why, he is with me night and day. Though he must be a young man now, yet I always see him as the little babe I held to my breast. If you know where he is, tell me. I must see him somehow, though he must never know who I am."

"What about the girl, your daughter?" the man questioned. "She must be a comfort to you now, and well takes the place of-of your son."

"Nothing can ever take his place," the woman vehemently declared. I thought so once, fool that I was. But I know better now when it is too late. Where is he? For God's sake, tell me!"

"And you have had no word from him?" the man asked.

"Nothing. I do not even know the woman's name who took him. I thought

I would never want to know."

"Then, madame, it is better for you to remain in ignorance. It would do you no good now to learn anything about him. I, at any rate, shall not enlighten you."

"You won't?"

"No, not now."

"Then why have you come here to-night to inflict this torture upon me?

What good can it do to increase the agony of my tormented soul? Surely

I have endured enough already."

"I come, madame, merely as a stand-between. Business with me has been dull of late, as I have just told you. Therefore, when one door closes another opens. I am not a man to let a good opportunity of earning a few honest dollars slip. I know your story, and, accordingly, am here to receive payment."

"Payment! For what?" the woman asked in amazement.

"For silence. I suppose you don't want this matter known?"

"Good heavens, no! What would my husband and daughter think? Why, I could never face the world again."

"Very well, madame. I am pleased to know that you realise the situation," and the man smiled blandly upon his victim. He was succeeding much better than he had expected. "I shall see that this matter is kept a profound secret."

"Oh, will you?" and the woman looked her relief.

"Indeed I will, providing you make it worth while. I am always open for business."

The woman looked keenly at the man.

"Do I understand that you want to be paid for keeping silent?" she at length found voice to ask.

"Certainly. That's what I'm here for. Business is business, remember, and if I cannot make a living at my regular profession, I must turn to the next best thing that offers."

"But this is a hold-up. Are you not afraid to do such a thing?"

"Afraid! Of what?"

The sudden flush that mantled the woman's face plainly showed that she understood. The man noted it, and smiled.

"You realise the situation, madame, I see. That is very fortunate. I have nothing to fear, as you would do almost anything rather than let your secret be known."

"But suppose I do not accede to your demand, what then?"

"That would remain for you to find out, madame. Are you willing to run the risk?"

"Heavens, no! It must not be. What is your price? Tell me quick, and let us get through with this painful interview."

"Willingly, madame. I am as anxious to get through as you are. My price is very moderate, considering the favor I am bestowing upon you. I want five hundred dollars."

"Five hundred dollars!" The woman gasped as she stared at her visitor.

"Why, you are a scoundrel, and nothing less."

Grimsby smiled, and rubbed his hands. He felt sure of his quarry, and it mattered little to him what he was called. It was all in the way of business, so he told himself. Then he picked up his hat from the floor where he had deposited it, and made as though he was about to leave.

"Very well, then," he casually remarked. "If you think it is too much I am sorry. Next week, perhaps, you will consider it very cheap, and would be willing to give far more. But it may be too late then. However, if you are unwilling to meet my moderate demand, it is no use for me to remain longer."

He started to leave the fire-place, but the woman detained him.

"Don't go just yet," she ordered. "I realise that I must give you something. But isn't your price exorbitant?"

"It might be for some, but not for you, Mrs. Randall. I understand that you are one of the largest tax-payers in this city, and in your own name at that. Why, I am astonished at myself for my moderation in asking for so little from such a rich woman. I might have made it a thousand at least."

For a few minutes the woman remained in deep thought. Grimsby never took his eyes from her face. He was quite elated with himself, for he felt sure of success.

At length the woman gave a weary sigh, rose slowly from her chair, and crossing the room, sat down before a handsome writing-table. When she at last came back to the fire-place she was holding a cheque in her hand. Eagerly the man reached out to receive it. But the woman waved him back.

"Just a minute," she told him. "Before I give you this I want you to promise upon your word of honour that you will never ask me for any more money."

"I promise, madame," Grimsby replied, bowing, and placing his right hand upon his heart in a dramatic manner. "I shall make myself as scarce as I always do when my creditors are after me. What more can I say?"

"And you will never breathe a word of this to anyone?"

"Trust me to keep the secret, madame, I shall not even tell my wife."

The woman was about to say something more, but a startled look came into her eyes, as she turned apprehensively toward the door. Nervously she thrust the cheque into the man's hand.

"Here, take this," she ordered, "and leave the house at once. Somebody is coming."

Without a word Grimsby seized his hat, sped across the room, opened the door and disappeared. Trembling violently, the woman sank down in the chair and buried her face in her hands, a veritable picture of abject misery and despair.

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