Roy Norton--The unknown Mr Kent/Chapter 1
THERE are just three sorts of men in this world who have an ambition that is worth a cuss! Hermits, billionaires, and burglars; and all they ask is to be left alone," declared John Rhodes on the day when, with painstaking attention to details, he took the last precautions to obliterate his footsteps and disappeared. He might have added, "I'm one of 'em," and if the inquisitive had asked which one, would probably have answered, "Burglar."
Furthermore, there were numerous financiers over different sections of the globe who would have agreed with him heartily, perhaps vociferously. Not that the methods by which, with amazing and cumulative steadiness, he had acquired his vast fortune were more reprehensive than those of other financiers; but because he was endowed with such appalling foresight, steadiness of nerve, and ingenuity of resource that it seemed impossible to drive him into a corner and keep him there. And this was naturally much of a disappointment to rival magnates. His most peculiar characteristic, however, was such a morbid hatred for publicity that even those who could have identified him on the street were few and it became a tradition that, whenever possible, his business was transacted through agents. Also that of these agents Richard Kent was the one who effected nearly all the largest deals; also that if there was any truth in the adage, "Like master like man," Rhodes must have been a "terror," inasmuch as, in the parlance of the street, Kent was a "Hum-dinger!"
It was admitted that Kent could be neither bullied, bribed, influenced nor employed, because at different times all these tactics had been tried unsuccessfully. There were diverse opinions of him. Some agreed with that expressed by a certain renowned financial light, pillar of a fashionable church, advertised as a philanthropist, moralist, and patriot, who declared wrothfully, "Kent is nothing more nor less than a blithering ass! A fool! Why, do you know, he's so stupid that he can tell Rhodes' money from his own? He refused fifty thousand dollars I offered him as a gift, when all he had to do to get it was to tell me whether Rhodes was a bull or a bear on Steel Common? Plain dishonest, I call him!"
Others, disagreeing, liked him because he kept his word; but most of those were unimportant people, who, therefore, didn't count.
That Kent was astonishingly qualified to act as Rhodes' agent in foreign countries, some were aware; for amongst his conspicuous talents was that of languages, of which he made a hobby. This was proven by the assertion of a distinguished polyglot, who could have given "cards and spades" to the average university professor of languages, being a waiter in a Broadway restaurant.
"He's a heller!" said he. "Talks at least five languages, each one better than the other. And he can cuss in all five of 'em. Found it out one night when he got sore at the head waiter, who was a bit uppish, because there was a short change on his meal bill, a hold-up in the cloak room, pair of gloves swiped from his overcoat pocket by a page boy and the waiter handed him coffee with a harmless little roach in it! And that ain't all, either. He'd had a row at the front door with a chauffeur because the guy flipped his flag and tried to double the fare before this Kent could look at the dial. Fine chance an honest workingman's got with him, eh? He ain't no New Yorker, because if he was, he'd stand for it, and what's more, he'd like it. Besides, a perfect gent don't make no fuss over little things like them. He can talk some, all right, believe me, but he's either a Boston feller or a piker. Give me one live one from Pittsburgh or Goldfields, every time. You can tell what they are when they blow in; but these big, square-jawed guys like that Kent is awfully hard to place, and every once in a while I make a mistake with his kind!"
Yet on one point every one agreed, that being Kent's loyalty to Rhodes. And this fidelity found further proof when the master financier disappeared, inasmuch as at somewhere near the same time, or at least within a few weeks after it had been announced that Rhodes had gone on an extended vacation, Kent likewise departed from New York. Presumably to attend his employer's interests abroad. He said that was why he was going; but he lied, this being his blunt idea of diplomacy as employed in many national and social circles.
And so, having lied when he stated that he was going abroad in behalf of the formidable Mr. Rhodes, the square-jawed Mr. Kent was now turned loose on war-stricken Europe for a holiday to wander as his somewhat erratic fancy dictated, and cheerfully agreeing with himself that he "didn't care a continental cuss" where the renowned John Rhodes was, what he was doing, what he wanted to do, or what he did. All that Mr. Kent, the agent, desired, was that Mr. Rhodes, the financier, should leave him, Mr. Kent, undisturbed. He was rebellious.
"John Rhodes," said he to himself, "has bossed me around and run me here and there, like a small boy hopping a cat over hurdles in the cellar, until I'm sick and tired of it. He's paid me well, and I'm fairly well off; but I've sure earned every cent I ever got out of him. He's gone on a long vacation. So shall I. And if John Rhodes doesn't like it he can go to ——"; but at that point of his meditations caution, or perhaps some of his loyalty to Rhodes, overcame his disregard of that amiable employer under whom he had prospered, and caused him to take the precaution of leaving word with sundry bankers of New York, London, Paris, Berlin and Vienna where Rhodes could find him if desiring his services. And, so strong is the habit of discipline and obedience, on second thought he arranged that mails might be forwarded enclosed in protective envelopes, keeping him informed concerning certain financial transactions entrusted to him by Mr. Rhodes. From all of which it might be conjectured that, despite his mutinous disposition, he cautiously realised that, without the fat commissions afforded by John Rhodes, Richard Kent might shrivel as thin as a living skeleton in a freak museum, and be compelled to seek another patron endowed with purse, power, and authority.
Mr. Rhodes' disappearance was noted; Mr. Kent's wasn't. Watchful financiers rumoured it that Mr. Rhodes was travelling in the far East intent on new plunder; but about Mr. Kent there were no rumours at all, and for the simplest of reasons, that Kent had hopped completely beyond the reach of rumour; had hopped almost out of the known world, beyond finance, railways, automobiles, and state highways, into the unknown, unchanging, sixteenth century village of Steinweg. Accompanied only by his factotum, Ivan, who for years had gone with him, everywhere, he had found in Steinweg his two great objects, fish and freedom. Probably he would not have admitted any sentimental or artistic interest in the quaint village itself, with its single crooked street, lined by houses whose gables seemed forever to reach across and whisper of conspiracies, the next robber baron raid, or the public flaying of some poor wretch accused of stealing a purse or a ham. He might have admitted the comfort within the old houses, once one had passed through the low doors to the cool interiors where low ceilings, heavy beams, ancient fire-places, blackened wainscotings and all, were lighted by the cross shadows cast through the narrow windows with tiny leaded panes. This would have been his excuse for renting one of those quaint houses in the quaint street—renting it and all it contained, including the aged but competent widow who owned it. Proof of his daring! It requires nerve to rent a widow, although anybody can rent a house.
He paid even the slightest curiosity in either the widow, Mr. Kent, or Ivan, because it stormed; stormed as it can in those mountains, with sweeping rain, thunder that is a punctual and close comrade of lightning stabs; an erratic, capricious pair out on a rampage, like a pair of drunken rioters, one of whom is boisterous, swaggering, shouting, and harmless, the other snapping, deadly, intent, and out to kill. The villagers were inside and under cover on that turbulent night of late spring. So were Kent, financial agent on a holiday, and Ivan, factotum, always at work.what seemed a prodigal sum in those wretched, penurious times that followed on the heels of that great war, when old boundaries disappeared and new states either sprang into existence or were resuscitated after decades of suppression. He wished to be free, obscure, unmolested, and within a month he must have been gratified, having been accepted as a part of the village, like the village forge, the shabby little priest, or the town pump, because none might suspect that within his uncommunicative mind were concealed the methods by which so many of the old-new or new-old states had been financed; but not so with Ivan. He commanded an uncanny interest. He couldn't avoid it. First, because of his enormous size, strength and agility; second, because of his strange manner of ignoring all sounds and of speaking only to those who faced him in the light. It took longer to accustom the villagers to this giant, stalking ever at the fisherman's elbow, silent, taciturn, alert with the absorbed alertness of a wild animal watchful to the four ways of the wind. Visualisation is necessary to attract the attention of the unimaginative, and without visualisation they have small interest; hence on a certain night in Steinweg no one had
Kent, the master, lounged in the room that he had converted into a den, and luxuriously stuck his feet, carpet-slippered, toward the fireplace wherein surged a blaze that robbed the spring dampness of a winter chill. He wondered if, despite his sense of freedom and independence, he could endure such a place in real winter, and yawned, casually thanking God, in the meantime, that Rhodes had decided to extend his vacation indefinitely. Kent liked him for that decision. Lazily he swung round in his chair to see what Ivan was doing; but the light, a sharp, white flame from the student's lamp on the oaken desk by his side, bothered him, and he held his fine head sidewise to escape its rays. It accentuated the individuality of his square jaws, the lumpiness of his high brow, the whimsical lines at the corners of his shrewd eyes, the ruggedness of his well-shaped nose, the half-humorous, half-stern crevices bordering his liberal mouth.
In the corner of the room, whose uniform and blackened wainscoting Kent had, with his own hands, desecrated by building a makeshift bookcase, Ivan knelt. His huge shoulders were bent forward and his shock head was stretched, turtlewise, as he sought, patiently and laboriously, along the well-packed shelves, for a book that the widow had replaced in her customary hit-or-miss fashion. His face, dour and strong, was set like a mask of perseverance, and one huge finger probed methodically along the line of titles. His lips moved, dumbly, as he read. A terrifying, terrific shock of combined thunder and lightning did not disturb him; but Kent started and stared at the diamond-shaped panes that became iridescent with fresh rivulets of rain. An interior door was jerked open and the widow appeared, holding her work-gnarled hands upward, and rolling her eyes with fright.
"I hope it struck the Catholic church!" she exclaimed. "I'm a Lutheran."
She paused to look backward over her shoulder, as if afraid that the thunderbolt had legs and might be chasing her; and then, suddenly discovering that she was safe, made garrulity serve for apology.
"It isn't often that we have such weather here, it isn't! The sides of the house are waterfalls; the street a river; the garden a lake. I was afraid the pig would drown. I brought him into the kitchen."
"And very humane of you," commented Kent, drily. "Why didn't you bring him in here? Any other stock to be salvaged?"
"There's the chickens; but they have roosts, and—a very great bother to bring them all in the kitchen. Unless——" she stopped, put her arms akimbo and stared at Ivan as if to suggest that with his assistance she might manage.
"Never mind! As you say, they can roost," Kent hastily protested, lest she take him seriously and bring not only the chickens but perhaps the cow, a donkey and the family goat into the household.
Another crash of thunder and flash of light so close as to be simultaneous caused her to throw her arms above her head as if to protect it. Ivan did not so much as raise his eyes. His imperturbability exasperated her.
"I tell you," she exclaimed, pointing a declamatory finger at Ivan, "he's not natural! Sometimes he doesn't answer when a body speaks to him. Something uncanny about him, and—and I don't like it!"
"There is something wrong with him," Kent checked her. "He can't hear. Deaf as an adder, or a bad man's conscience."
Her look of incredulity, her sniff, were equivalent to disputing her employer's word. He thought best to explain.
"Listen," he said, "I don't want you to dislike him. He can't help it. When he was a young man he had spinal meningitis. It left him deaf. Before that he was a tutor of languages. He taught me all I know, so I shall always keep him. He can tell what you say to him only by watching your lips—lip reading we call it in English. I want you and every one else to be kind to him, because he's sensitive. Stop picking at him, and be kind."
She shook her head doubtfully; but won over by natural sympathy said, "Too bad! Who'd have thought it! I see how it is. I had a dog with three legs. Four he had until he had an accident with a scythe. Couldn't pull a cart to market after that. My man wanted to kill it. I told him dogs were like men because nobody wants to lose his leg or his tail if he can help it. And nobody wanted a three-legged dog, and he loved me, so I kept him. I'm sorry I ever scolded that Ivan. He's your three-legged dog and you keep him because he loves you."
Kent tried to discourage her limberness of tongue by picking up a book; but she talked unceasingly while heaping more fagots around the backlog and dusting the ashes from the grate. Her voice, raised to a snap, brought him back from a reverie.
"You've not heard a word I said!" she declared, vastly annoyed.
"Eh? What's that?" he lifted his eyes and placated her with a smile that was rare and winning.
"A man came from Marken," she repeated, intent on impressing him with prodigious news, "Pierre LaFranz, it was, and says there might be a revolution over there that will shake the world! Shake the world, Pierre said."
Kent could not restrain a laugh.
"Don't you bother about the world," he said, soothingly. "Marken's standing army might give the Pope's Swiss guard a good tussle, but— Humph! If Marken went to war the world would probably never hear of it—let alone shake. Why, Marken's so small it's a secret!"
As he proceeded, she reddened with indignation, tried to speak, and then, wagging her head at the obtuseness of a man who could not believe that the two-by-four kingdom, neighbouring on Steinweg, and regarded with awe by every peasant within forty miles, was not of world-wide importance, retired to her kitchen. She slammed the door with a final expression of disgust; but Kent was already thoughtfully recalling what she had said of that inconspicuous, but completely independent kingdom called Marken, a kingdom so small that on a map of Europe it would be but a tiny pink spot; a kingdom so small that no one had ever taken the trouble to upset it.
His face became grave and he emitted a disgruntled, "Humph!" John Rhodes was again intruding on his peace of mind, and could not be put aside. Marken threatening revolt! That meant that the loan of five million dollars that Rhodes had extended to His Majesty Karl II, king of Marken, might prove worthless. And Kent had met the negotiators of that loan, passed upon their securities, accepted them, and caused that loan to be made. Hang Rhodes! He could afford to lose many times that sum; but the question of the wisdom of his agent, Kent, was involved, and a financial agent's judgment is his sole stock in trade. Kent was rather jealous of his, in a secret way. He had laboriously and with inner pride built up a reputation for infallibility, and now Marken might prove a slap at his judgment. Rhodes wouldn't like it. And there were many other agents who——
He twitted his big, capable fingers together and muttered some unpleasant objurgations consigning Karl II, the Marken state loan, and John Rhodes, indiscriminately, to the outer world. It was his plain duty, as he was well aware, to travel without delay to Marken and do what he could to protect Rhodes' interests, and that might mean the end of this vacation, and the trout were at their best. Scowling, he swung to his desk, unlocked a drawer, took therefrom a steel despatch box, unlocked that, and sought a paper which he opened and scanned. It was a private report he had caused to be made on Marken affairs, and, now that its substance was recalled and his memory refreshed, it did not appear to add to his mental comfort. He used one or two very vigorous Americanisms, and replaced paper and box in the desk. He thumped vigorously on the floor with his heel and when the huge man in the corner, feeling the shock, looked up, addressed him in a voiceless whisper of the lips.
"Ivan, have you happened to learn anything about a revolt over in Marken? You see more of these tongue-wagging peasants than I do."
The giant advanced to the desk across which he spoke.
"No, sir, not exactly a revolution; but I heard they were discontented over there. Some of the villagers said—you know it is an autocratic government?"
"Yes. Autocratic government with a man born to the job who doesn't happen to be a real, good, all-wool-and-a-yard-wide autocrat. Good deal like a fellow being born to inherit a farm whose nearest idea he has of a plough is an ice scraper for cocktails."
Whilst Kent spoke Ivan's eyes were fixed on his lips, attentively; but discerning that his employer's speech was at an end, he slowly wagged his massive head, and added all his information.
"They say, sir, that the king is credited with being a well-meaning man, but not just the one to advance the kingdom. They are afraid Marken will be swallowed by some of the big fish around it."
"That's where an autocrat comes in," declared Kent. "A first-class autocrat ought to be a big enough fish to go out, and, under the guise of charity, culture, or some other bosh like that, swallow the other fellow first. Any sort of an excuse will do, just so he eats them, dead or alive. I'm rather a believer in autocrats, myself. Now, if I were advising Karl the Second, I'd say——"
He stopped abruptly, interrupted by a prolonged peal of thunder, and when it died away there became audible a terrific bumping and thumping on the door outside as some one knocked for ingress. At the same moment the door from the kitchen opened hurriedly, and the gnarled widow entered.
"Some one wants in—some one who raps on the outside door," she grumbled.
"Well, let them in," said Kent, and Ivan, reading his lips, straightened up and stepped backward to his corner intent on withdrawing himself now that others desired audience with his employer.