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The Face and the Mask/A Slippery Customer


XXIII. A SLIPPERY CUSTOMER

When John Armstrong stepped off the train at the Union Station, in Toronto, Canada, and walked outside, a small boy accosted him.

"Carry your valise up for you, sir?"

"No, thank you," said Mr. Armstrong.

"Carry it up for ten cents, sir?"

"No."

"Take it up for five cents, sir?"

"Get out of my way, will you?"

The boy got out of the way, and John Armstrong carried the valise himself.

There was nearly half a million dollars in it, so Mr. Armstrong thought it best to be his own porter.

*****

In the bay window of one of the handsomest residences in Rochester, New York, sat Miss Alma Temple, waiting for her father to come home from the bank. Mr. Horace Temple was one of the solid men of Rochester, and was president of the Temple National Bank. Although still early in December, the winter promised to be one of the most severe for many years, and the snow lay crisp and hard on the streets, but not enough for sleighing. It was too cold for snow, the weatherwise said. Suddenly Miss Alma drew back from the window with a quick flush on her face that certainly was not caused by the coming of her father. A dapper young man sprang lightly up the steps, and pressed the electric button at the door. When the young man entered the room a moment later Miss Alma was sitting demurely by the open fire. He advanced quickly toward her, and took both her outstretched hands in his. Then, furtively looking around the room, he greeted her still more affectionately, in a manner that the chronicler of these incidents, is not bound to particularize. However, the fact may be mentioned that whatever resistance the young woman thought fit to offer was of the faintest and most futile kind, and so it will be understood, at the beginning, that these two young persons had a very good understanding with each other.

"You seem surprised to see me," he began.

"Well, Walter, I understood that you left last time with some energetically expressed resolutions never to darken our doors again."

"Well, you see, my dear, I am sometimes a little hasty; and, in fact, the weather is so dark nowadays, anyhow, that a little extra darkness does not amount to much, and so I thought I would take the risk of darkening them once more."

"But I also understood that my father made you promise, or that you promised voluntarily, not to see me again without his permission?"

"Not voluntarily. Far from it. Under compulsion, I assure you. But I didn't come to see you at all. That's where you are mistaken. The seeing you is merely an accident, which I have done my best to avoid. Fact! The girl said, 'Won't you walk into the drawing-room,' and naturally I did so. Never expected to find you here. I thought I saw a young lady at the window as I came up, but I got such a momentary glimpse that I might have been mistaken."

"Then I will leave you and not interrupt——"

"Not at all. Now I beg of you not to leave on my account, Alma. You know I would not put you to any trouble for the world."

"You are very kind, I am sure, Mr. Brown."

"I am indeed, Miss Temple. All my friends admit that. But now that you are here—by the way, I came to see Mr. Temple. Is he at home?"

"I am expecting him every moment."

"Oh, well, I'm disappointed; but I guess I will bear up for awhile— until he comes, you know."

"I thought your last interview with him was not so pleasant that you would so soon seek another."

"The fact is, Alma, we both lost our tempers a bit, and no good ever comes of that. You can't conduct business in a heat, you know."

"Oh, then the asking of his daughter's hand was business—a mere business proposition, was it?"

"Well, I confess he put it that way—very strongly, too. Of course, with me there would have been pleasure mixed with it if he had—but he didn't. See here, Alma—tell me frankly (of course he talked with you about it) what objection he has to me anyhow."

"I suppose you consider yourself such a desirable young man that it astonishes you greatly that any person should have any possible objection to you?"

"Oh, come now, Alma; don't hit a fellow when he's down, you know. I don't suppose I have more conceit than the average young man; but then, on the other hand, I am not such a fool, despite appearances, as not to know that I am considered by some people as quite an eligible individual. I am not a pauper exactly, and your father knows that. I don't think I have many very bad qualities. I don't get drunk; I don't—oh, I could give quite a list of the things I don't do."

"You are certainly frank enough, my eligible young man. Still you must not forget that my papa is considered quite an eligible father-in-law, if it comes to that."

"Why, of course, I admit it. How could it be otherwise when he has such a charming daughter?"

"You know I don't mean that, Walter. You were speaking of wealth and so was I. Perhaps we had better change the subject."

"By the way, that reminds me of what I came to see you about. What do——"

"To see me? I thought you came to see my father."

"Oh, yes—certainly—I did come to see him, of course, but in case I saw you, I thought I would ask you for further particulars in the case. I have asked you the question but you have evaded the answer. You did not tell me why he is so prejudiced against me. Why did he receive me in such a gruff manner when I spoke to him about it? It is not a criminal act to ask a man for his daughter. It is not, I assure you. I looked up the law on the subject, and a young friend of mine, who is a barrister, says there is no statute in the case made and provided. The law of the State of New York does not recognize my action as against the peace and prosperity of the commonwealth. Well, he received me as if I had been caught robbing the bank. Now I propose to know what the objection is. I am going to hear——"

"Hush! Here is papa now."

Miss Alma quickly left the room, and met her father in the hall. Mr. Brown stood with his hands in his pockets and his back to the fire. He heard the gruff voice of Mr. Temple say, apparently in answer to some information given him by his daughter: "Is he? What does he want?"

There was a moment's pause, and then the same voice said:

"Very well, I will see him in the library in a few minutes."

Somehow the courage of young Mr. Brown sank as he heard the banker's voice, and the information he had made up his mind to demand with some hauteur, he thought he would ask, perhaps, in a milder manner.

Mr. Brown brightened up as the door opened, but it was not Miss Alma who came in. The servant said to him:

"Mr. Temple is in the library, sir. Will you come this way!"

He followed and found the banker seated at his library table, on which he had just placed some legal-looking papers, bound together with a thick rubber band. It was evident that his work did not stop when he left the bank. Young Brown noticed that Mr. Temple looked careworn and haggard, and that his manner was very different from what it had been on the occasion of the last interview.

"Good evening, Mr. Brown. I am glad you called. I was on the point of writing to you, but the subject of our talk the other night was crowded from my mind by more important matters."

Young Mr. Brown thought bitterly that there ought not to be matters more important to a father than his daughter's happiness, but he had the good sense not to say so.

"I spoke to you on that occasion with a—in a manner that was—well, hardly excusable, and I wish to say that I am sorry I did so. What I had to state might have been stated with more regard for your feelings."

"Then may I hope, Mr. Temple, that you have changed your mind with——"

"No, sir. What I said then—that is, the substance of what I said, not the manner of saying it—I still adhere to."

"May I ask what objection you have to me?"

"Certainly. I have the same objection that I have to the majority of the society young men of the present day. If I make inquiries about you, what do I find? That you are a noted oarsman—that you have no profession—that your honors at college consisted in being captain of the football team, and——"

"No, no, the baseball club."

"Same thing, I suppose."

"Quite different, I assure you, Mr. Temple."

"Well, it is the same to me at any rate. Now, in my time young men had a harder row to hoe, and they hoed it. I am what they call a self-made man and probably I have a harsher opinion of the young men of the present day than I should have. But if I had a son I would endeavor to have him know how to do something, and then I would see that he did it."

"I am obliged to you for stating your objection, Mr. Temple. I have taken my degree in Harvard law school, but I have never practiced, because, as the little boy said, I didn't have to. Perhaps if some one had spoken to me as you have done I would have pitched in and gone to work. It is not too late yet. Will you give me a chance? The position of cashier in your bank, for instance?"

The effect of these apparently innocent words on Mr. Temple was startling. He sprang to his feet and brought down his clenched fist on the table with a vehemence that made young Mr. Brown jump. "What do you mean, sir?" he cried, sternly. "What do you mean by saying such a thing?"

"Why, I—I—I—mean——" stammered Brown, but he could get no further. He thought the old man had suddenly gone crazy. He glared across the library table at Brown as if the next instant he would spring at his throat. Then the haggard look came into his face again, he passed his hand across his brow, and sank into his chair with a groan.

"My dear sir," said Brown, approaching him, "what is the matter? Is there anything I can——"

"Sit down, please," answered the banker, melancholy. "You will excuse me I hope, I am very much troubled. I did not intend to speak of it, but some explanation is due to you. A month from now, if you are the kind of man that most of your fellows are, you will not wish to marry my daughter. There is every chance that at that time the doors of my bank will be closed."

"You astonish me, sir. I thought——"

"Yes, and so every one thinks. I have seldom in my life trusted the wrong man, but this time I have done so, and the one mistake seems likely to obliterate all that I have succeeded in doing in a life of hard work."

"If I can be of any financial assistance I will be glad to help you."

"How much?"

"Well, I don't know—50,000 dollars perhaps or——"

"I must have 250,000 dollars before the end of this month."

"Two hundred and fifty thousand!"

"Yes, sir. William L. Staples, the cashier of our bank, is now in Canada with half a million of the bank funds. No one knows it but myself and one or two of the directors. It is generally supposed that he has gone to Washington on a vacation."

"But can't you put detectives on his track?"

"Certainly. Then the theft would be made public at once. The papers would be full of it. There might be a run on the bank, and we would have to close the doors the next day. To put the detectives on his track would merely mean bringing disaster on our own heads. Staples is quite safe, and he knows it. Thanks to an idiotic international arrangement he is as free from danger of arrest in Canada as you are here. It is impossible to extradite him for stealing."

"But I think there is a law against bringing stolen money into Canada."

"Perhaps there is. It would not help us at the present moment. We must compromise with him, if we can find him in time. Of course, even if the bank closed, we would pay everything when there was time to realize. But that is not the point. It would mean trouble and disaster, and would probably result in other failures all through one man's rascality."

"Then it all resolves itself to this. Staples must be found quietly and negotiated with. Mr. Temple, let me undertake the finding of him, and the negotiating, also, if you will trust me."

"Do you know him?"

"Never saw him in my life."

"Here is his portrait. He is easily recognized from that. You couldn't mistake him. He is probably living at Montreal under an assumed name. He may have sailed for Europe. You will say nothing of this to anybody?"

"Certainly not. I will leave on to-night's train for Montreal, or on the first train that goes."

Young Mr. Brown slipped the photograph into his pocket and shook hands with the banker. Somehow his confident, alert bearing inspired the old man with more hope than he would have cared to admit, for, as a general thing, he despised the average young man.

"How long can you hold out if this does not become public?"

"For a month at least; probably for two or three."

"Well, don't expect to hear from me too soon. I shall not risk writing. If there is anything to communicate, I will come myself."

"It is very good of you to take my trouble on your shoulders like this.I am very much obliged to you."

"I am not a philanthropist, Mr. Temple," replied young Brown.

*****

When young Mr. Brown stepped off the train at the Central Station in Toronto, a small boy accosted him.

"Carry your valise up for you, sir?"

"Certainly," said Brown, handing it to him.

"How much do I owe you?" he asked at the lobby of the hotel.

"Twenty-five cents," said the boy promptly, and he got it.

Brown registered on the books of the hotel as John A. Walker, of Montreal.

*****

Mr. Walter Brown, of Rochester, was never more discouraged in his life than at the moment he wrote on the register the words, "John A. Walker, Montreal." He had searched Montreal from one end to the other, but had found no trace of the man for whom he was looking. Yet, strange to say, when he raised his eyes from the register they met the face of William L. Staples, ex-cashier. It was lucky for Brown that Staples was looking at the words he had written, and not at himself, or he would have noticed Brown's involuntary start of surprise, and flush of pleasure. It was also rather curious that Mr. Brown had a dozen schemes in his mind for getting acquainted with Staples when he met him, and yet that the first advance should be made by Staples himself.

"You are from Montreal," said Mr. Staples, alias John Armstrong.

"That's my town," said Mr. Brown.

"What sort of a place is it in winter? Pretty lively?"

"Oh, yes. Good deal of a winter city, Montreal is. How do you mean, business or sport?"

"Well, both. Generally where there's lots of business there's lots of fun."

"Yes, that's so," assented Brown. He did not wish to prolong the conversation. He had some plans to make, so he followed his luggage up to his room. It was evident that he would have to act quickly. Staples was getting tired of Toronto.

Two days after Brown had his plans completed. He met Staples one evening in the smoking-room of the hotel.

"Think of going to Montreal?" asked Brown.

"I did think of it. I don't know, though. Are you in business there?"

"Yes. If you go, I could give you some letters of introduction to a lot of fellows who would show you some sport, that is, if you care for snow-shoeing, toboganning, and the like of that."

"I never went in much for athletics," said Staples.

"I don't care much for exertion myself," answered Brown. "I come up here every winter for some ice-yachting. That's my idea of sport. I own one of the fastest ice-boats on the bay. Ever been out?"

"No, I haven't. I've seen them at it a good deal. Pretty cold work such weather as we've been having, isn't it?"

"I don't think so. Better come out with me tomorrow?"

"Well, I don't care if I do."

The next day and the next they spun around the bay on the ice-boat. Even Staples, who seemed to be tired of almost everything, liked the swiftness and exhilaration of the iceboat.

One afternoon, Brown walked into the bar of the hotel, where he found Staples standing.

"See here, Armstrong." he cried, slapping that gentleman on the shoulder. "Are you in for a bit of sport? It's a nice moonlight night, and I'm going to take a spin down to Hamilton to meet some chaps, and we can come back on the iceboat, or if you think it too late, you can stay over, and come back on the train."

"Hamilton? That's up the lake, isn't it?"

"Yes, just a nice run from here. Come along—I counted on you."

An hour later they were skimming along the frozen surface of the lake.

"Make yourself warm and snug," said Brown. "That's what the buffalo robes are for. I must steer, so I have to keep in the open. If I were you I'd wrap up in those robes and go to sleep. I'll wake you when we're there."

"All right," answered Staples. "That's not a bad idea."

"General George Washington!" said young Brown to himself. "This is too soft a snap altogether. I'm going to run him across the lake like a lamb. Before he opens his eyes we'll have skimmed across the frozen lake, and he'll find himself in the States again when he wakes up. The only thing now to avoid are the air-holes and ice-hills, and I'm all right."

He had been over the course before and knew pretty well what was ahead of him. The wind was blowing stiffly straight up the lake and the boat silently, and swifter than the fastest express, was flying from Canada and lessening the distance to the American shore.

"How are you getting along, Walker," cried Staples, rousing himself up. "First rate," answered Brown. "We'll soon be there, Staples."

That unfortunate slip of the tongue almost cost young Mr. Brown his life. He had been, thinking of the man under his own name, and the name had come out unconsciously. He did not even notice it himself in time to prepare, and the next instant the thief flung himself upon him and jammed his head against the iron rod that guided the rudder, with such a force that the rudder stayed in its place and the boat flew along the ice without a swerve.

"You scoundrel!" roared the bank-robber. "That's your game, is it? By the gods, I'll teach you a lesson in the detective business!"

Athlete as young Brown was, the suddenness of the attack, and the fact that Staples clutched both hands round his neck and had his knee on his breast, left him as powerless as an infant. Even then he did not realize what had caused the robber to guess his position.

"For God's sake, let me up!" gasped Brown. "We'll be into an air-hole and drowned in a moment."

"I'll risk it, you dog! till I've choked the breath out of your body." Brown wriggled his head away from the rudder iron, hoping that the boat would slew around, but it kept its course. He realized that if he was to save his life he would have to act promptly. He seemed to feel his tongue swell in his parched mouth. His strength was gone and his throat was in an iron vice. He struck out wildly with his feet and one fortunate kick sent the rudder almost at right angles.

Instantly the boat flashed around into the wind. Even if a man is prepared for such a thing, it takes all his nerve and strength to keep him on an iceboat. Staples was not prepared. He launched head first into space and slid for a long distance on the rough ice. Brown was also flung on the ice and lay for a moment gasping for breath. Then he gathered himself together, and slipping his hand under his coat, pulled out his revolver. He thought at first that Staples was shamming, but a closer examination of him showed that the fall on the ice had knocked him senseless.

There was only one thing that young Mr. Brown was very anxious to know. He wanted to know where the money was. He had played the part of private detective well in Toronto, after the very best French style, and had searched the room of Staples in his absence, but he knew the money was not there nor in his valise. He knew equally well that the funds were in some safe deposit establishment in the city, but where he could not find out. He had intended to work on Staples' fears of imprisonment when once he had him safe on the other side of the line. But now that the man was insensible, he argued that it was a good time to find whether or not he had a record of the place of deposit in his pocket-book. He found no such book in his pockets. In searching, however, he heard the rustling of paper apparently in the lining of his coat. Then he noticed how thickly it was padded. The next moment he had it ripped open, and a glance showed him that it was lined with bonds. Both coat and vest were padded in this way—the vest being filled with Bank of England notes, so the chances were that Staples had meditated a tour in Europe. The robber evidently put no trust in Safe Deposits nor banks. Brown flung the thief over on his face, after having unbuttoned coat and vest, doubled back his arms and pulled off these garments. His own, Brown next discarded, and with some difficulty got them on the fallen man and then put on the clothes of mammon.

"This is what I call rolling in wealth." said Brown to himself. He admitted that he felt decidedly better after the change of clothing, cold as it was.

Buttoning his own garments on the prostrate man, Brown put a flask of liquor to his lips and speedily revived him. Staples sat on the ice in a dazed manner, and passed his hand across his brow. In the cold gleam of the moonlight he saw the shining barrel of Brown's revolver "covering" him.

"It's all up, Mr. Staples. Get on board the iceboat."


P240 - The Face and the Mask.jpg

"HE SAW BROWN'S REVOLVER 'COVERING' HIM"—Page 241


"Where are you going to take me to?"

"I'll let you go when we come to the coast if you tell me where the money is."

"You know you are guilty of the crime of kidnapping," said Mr. Staples, apparently with the object of gaining time. "So you are in some danger of the law yourself."

"That is a question that can be discussed later on. You came voluntarily, don't forget that fact. Where's the money?"

"It is on deposit in the Bank of Commerce."

"Well, here's paper and a stylographic pen, if the ink isn't frozen— no, it's all right—write a cheque quickly for the amount payable to bearer. Hurry up, or the ink will freeze."

There was a smile of satisfaction on the face of Staples as he wrote the check.

"There," he said, with a counterfeited sigh. "That is the amount."

The check was for 480,000 dollars.

When they came under the shadow of the American coast, Brown ordered his passenger off.

"You can easily reach land from here, and the walk will do you good. I'm going further up the lake."

When Staples was almost at the land he shouted through the clear night air: "Don't spend the money recklessly when you get it, Walker."

"I'll take care of it, Staples," shouted back young Brown.

*****

Young Mr. Brown sprang lightly up the steps of the Temple mansion, Rochester, and pressed the electric button.

"Has Mr. Temple gone to the bank yet?" he asked the servant.

"No, sir; he is in the library."

"Thank you. Don't trouble. I know the way."

Mr. Temple looked around as the young man entered, and, seeing who it was, sprang to his feet with a look of painful expectancy on his face. "There's a little present for you," said Mr. Brown, placing a package on the table. "Four hundred and seventy-eight thousand: Bank of England notes and United States bonds." The old man grasped his hand, strove to speak, but said nothing.

*****

People wondered why young Mr. and Mrs. Brown went to Toronto on their wedding tour in the depth of winter. It was so very unusual, don't you know.