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CHAPTER XX
THE QUEST

It was a piercingly cold day when I landed in New York–such cold as I had not felt since I had finished my last American visit, four years ago.

Everyone else among the many first-class passengers seemed to have some welcoming friend to greet him on shore save only myself. I would not let myself acknowledge that I felt discouragement, but a certain gloomy sense of the hopelessness of my undertaking would obtrude itself, as I rattled over the badly-paved streets of New York in the chill seclusion of my cab.

I had myself driven straight to the Fifth Avenue Hotel, which was becoming almost an old-fashioned hostelry now among its many tall new rivals of incredibly many storeys in height, and walking up to the "office" prepared my most affable manner, to win the confidence of the smart "clerk" or book-keeper.

"Good-day," I began agreeably, wishing that in former visits to New York I had stopped at the Fifth Avenue Hotel, so that now, for my quest's sake, I should be accorded the welcome of an old friend.

"Good-day," was the brisk reply. "You want a room?"

"I should like first to enquire if Mr. Harvey Farnham, of Denver, Colorado, is stopping here," I said. "My principal object in choosing this hotel was to meet him, but if——"

"Gone three days ago," broke in the gentleman with the waxed moustache, who evidently did not wish to waste time on a traveller more inclined to parley than to patronise the house.

This was the first setback I had experienced on American shores, but so many had been my portion on the other side of the Atlantic that I had had time to grow accustomed to them. I had prepared my mind for as numerous rebuffs here, yet in spite of that I felt the bitterness of disappointment settling bleakly down upon me. Already I had been given a sign that Wildred's cleverness had projected itself across the width of ocean.

"Ah, indeed, I'm sorry to hear that he has left. Is he with friends in town, or has he gone to Denver?" I questioned, with as bland an air as I could well command.

"Can't tell you whether he's gone to Denver, I'm sure, sir. But I think it's almost certain he's not in town, and somehow or other I've got the impression that he mentioned he was going west."

"I suppose his health improved more rapidly than he expected, then," I went on. "I understood before crossing that his accident on shipboard had laid him up for awhile, and that it would be some time before he felt fit to undertake the journey home."

"He did seem rather seedy," vouchsafed the clerk. "But he was pretty well able to take care of himself. Shall I put you down for a room?"

"Yes," I answered indifferently. "I suppose you may as well–for one night."

It was already late in the afternoon, and I had certain investigations to make before I renewed my interrupted journey in the direction Harvey Farnham was believed to have taken–going toward the setting sun.

I knew well enough that I was seriously handicapped as a detective by my complete amateurishness, and possibly a little by my own keen personal anxiety, which did not tend to cool my head or my pulses when coolness was needed; but though I would fain have had advice from some clever professional expert, the reports of the New York police had certainly not been such as would encourage me to seek assistance from the force. It appeared to me that I must "dree my weird" alone.

In the handsome, typically American room that was allotted to me I sat down to map out my future course, as well as I could see it.

Either the brisk-mannered young "clerk" had shown a slight reserve in answering my eager questions regarding Harvey Farnham, or I had been morbidly sensitive enough to fancy it in his face and way of speaking. Doubtless, when the police had been acting in the affair under advices from London, he had been subjected to a previous catechism concerning the western millionaire's movements, and if that were the case it was only natural he should be cautiously inclined. But once I could win his confidence and thoroughly convince him that I had no connection whatever with the police, I ventured to hope there might yet be a chance of learning at least a little more from him than I had been able to glean.

Perhaps it was something in the nature of a sop to Cerberus that I should have asked for one of the best rooms in the house; and then, beside, my name written in the visitors' book (or "hotel register," as it is the fashion to call it in the States) evidently had some meaning for the young man round whom my hopes centred, for his manner had decidedly changed for the better when I visited him again after dinner.

He was not particularly busy at the moment, and appeared in the humour for conversation, asking me of his own free will if it were possible that I was "Noel Stanton, the traveller."

I did not deny this impeachment, and, moreover, showed myself willing to be "drawn" on the subject of my explorations. I even went so far as to relate an adventure at some length (a thing I am thankful to say I have never been guilty of before or since), told an anecdote which made the young man laugh, and flattered him to the best of my ability, by asking his opinion about an American political crisis of the day. Then, by gradual steps, I led the talk toward the great West in general, Colorado silver mines in particular, and so at last reached the subject of Harvey Farnham, one of the most prominent of the financiers of that State.

"I was much disappointed, I confess, at not finding him here," I remarked, "and shall on his account cut short my visit to New York. Farnham and I have known each other for some years; and, by the way, I remember his saying that in his opinion this was the best-managed hotel in New York. I believe he usually stops here when in town, doesn't he?"

"So it seems, sir," answered the clerk, very civilly now, having decided to be patient with my humour. "However, I had never seen him until he turned up the other day. I haven't been in my present position very long."

"I suppose you did see him though?" I persevered. "How was he looking after his accident–seedy at all?"

"He was very thin, if you mean that," laughed my informant. "He limped about with a crutch, too, and as he had bumped his forehead in the same fall which sprained his ankle, he wore a green shade that covered his temples and his eyes." I grew attentive at this. It appeared to me that here was a point in my favour.

"I should like to have a talk with one of his old friends in the hotel," I said; "the manager, for instance. No doubt he knows Mr. Farnham very well."

"He does, but he's out of town on business for a day or two. I think you'll find, though, that our bartender and Mr. Farnham were about as chummy together as anyone in the house."

Apparently at my leisure, really with great impatience, I repaired to the extremely handsome "barroom" of the Fifth Avenue Hotel, and here the oracle was very communicative.

Having mixed me a peculiarly American drink called "gin fizz," the bartender was willing to chat of Mr. Farnham.

"I guess he must have been pretty bad this last time," he said, in response to my first question, "for he didn't trouble the barroom much."

"He did come in, however, did he not?" I asked anxiously.

"Oh, yes, he came in once or twice, but I thought he acted rather grumpy and queer."

"Did you have a good look at him either time?" I pressed on, with eagerness.

"Pretty good. Almost as close as you are now, I guess."

"And did he appear the same as usual, with the exception of the green shade over his eyes?"

"Well, I reckon he did. I was kind of busy both times, and I don't know as I took much notice."

"Still"–and I called up a laugh–"you'd have known whether it really was Mr. Farnham, or a stranger passing himself off in his place?"

The bartender stared at me for an instant, and, had he spoken his inmost thoughts, probably they might have been appropriately expressed in the slang phrase, "Ah, what are you givin' me?" "Well, it might have been his grandfather's ghost, I daresay," he facetiously remarked at length, "but, anyhow, there seemed to be a strong resemblance between Harvey Farnham and him."

I set down my glass untouched. A cold conviction was growing within me that I had been mistaken; that, villain as Carson Wildred was, he had not, after all, been guilty of the one great crime which I had attributed to him. It seemed almost impossible that this keen-eyed man, accustomed to Farnham's comings and goings for several years, could have mistaken another for him.

Next morning when I had put together the few things that I had had occasion to unpack, and was "tipping" the pretty chambermaid who "chanced" to come to my door as I was departing, a sudden inspiration seized me, and I called the young woman back again as she was disappearing.

"By the way," I said, "did you happen to attend a Mr. Harvey Farnham, who was here a few days ago, and who has often stopped in the hotel?"

"Oh, yes, sir," she answered, "I know him quite well, and a very pleasant, generous gentleman he is–or rather" (and her face changed at some recollection), "or rather was."

I caught her up eagerly. "Was?" I echoed. "Wasn't he the same as usual this last time?"

"No, that he wasn't, sir. I thought to myself, thinks I, 'Mr. Farnham must have been disappointed in love or something,' he was so grumpy and dull. Always before when he came he had a good word for me, 'How do you do, Ginnie?' or a smile and a nod, but now he went by me without a sign, for all the world as if he'd never seen me before, though I've been here since I was seventeen; that's six years ago. When I spoke to him first, why he looked up and answered in a mumbling way, never even saying my name. But then, poor gentleman, I suppose he was too sick to think of anybody except himself."

"Did he look strangely?" I went on to question.

"Oh, I don't know about that, sir, except for the green shade he had to wear over his eyes; I suppose his face was much the same. Only I didn't get many chances to see it, and all his jolly ways and smiles were gone, so that made a difference. I was so glad when I saw his baggage coming up, for there's never been a gentleman so popular with us girls as Mr. Farnham; but except for his giving me something when he went away, he might almost as well not have been in the hotel."

"Would you have recognised his voice," I asked, "if you had not seen him?"

"I would when he was well and like himself, sir, in a minute, but not this time, because of the bad cold he'd got on the voyage, which he said was the worst he'd ever had. He did nothing but cough and wheeze, and could only speak in a hoarse sort of whisper."

These details were all I could extract from "Ginnie" the chambermaid; but before I left the hotel it occurred to me to examine the visitors' book for Farnham's name, wishing to look at the handwriting which, if his, I felt sure I could not fail to recognise. As I searched the pages vainly I thought with some compunction of Farnham himself, remembering how I had hardly known, on the evening of our unexpected meeting in London, whether or not to be genuinely pleased to see him. I had feared to have too much of his society during the few hours at the St. James's Theatre; yet ever since, by a strange irony of fate, I had been doomed to pursue him, to think of little that was not in some way or other connected with Harvey Farnham and his affairs.

Evidently he had not considered it worth his while to write in the visitors' book on this occasion, though I found that he had scrawled his name when staying in the hotel some months before. This counted for nothing definite, of course; and as for the taciturnity of which the chambermaid complained, the ailments from which my poor friend was reported to have been suffering were quite enough to account for that. Still, through her words and those of the man in the bar, I had gained my only real evidence–if evidence it might be called–and as such I treasured the scanty information.

Having by dint of some exertion found the cabman who had driven Farnham from the hotel to the railway depot, I made sure that his luggage had been "checked" to Denver, and so set forth again with a feeling that I had something to go upon.

Never had a journey seemed to me so endless. After Chicago the interminable plains got upon my nerves, and I looked out eagerly for the first range of the snow-clad Rockies.

The trip had taken the best part of three days, and it was early morning when I arrived in busy Denver, where the dry cold wind and the whirring shrieks of electric trams made me feel that I had left the place but yesterday. Much was changed, and many more tall, handsome blocks of pink stone had been erected during my four years' absence; still I easily found my way to the building where Harvey Farnham had offices.

It was just past breakfast time, but the business world of Denver, Colorado, and the "great West" is astir at an hour which would appear unusual in England. I asked for Mr. Farnham, and was told by a young clerk that he had returned to Denver three or four days previously. He had not been at the offices, as he was somewhat unwell as yet, but if I chose I could see Mr. Bennett, who would tell me when he might be expected.

I remembered Bennett, now that I was reminded of his existence, as an energetic young fellow high in Farnham's confidence, who probably knew as much about the mining and other financial interests as did his employer. I said therefore that I would see Mr. Bennett by all means.

He came in to me briskly in a few moments, surprised, and, he said, delighted to meet me again. Yes, it was quite true that Mr. Farnham had returned, but was as yet unable to be troubled by business affairs.

This settled the matter, then, I assured myself. There was nothing left for me to do but rejoice in Farnham's safety, curse my own idiocy for harbouring fantastic suspicions, despite all evidence which should long ago have overthrown them, and proceed to retrace my six thousand mile journey across the continent and the Atlantic.

I should at all events have the satisfaction, I bitterly reflected, that I had done my best to serve Karine's interests and my own, and I should arrive in England in plenty of time to see her married to the man I had vainly attempted to prove a murderer.

I became for the first moment conscious that I was desperately weary, that I had eaten little during the past few days, and slept less. I had not troubled myself to breakfast that morning–devouring food had seemed so utterly irrelevant–and now for an instant, as Mr. Bennett's words rang in my ears, a curious sudden dizziness overpowered me. I felt sick and faint, and realised that life was a failure, with nothing worth living for in future, since Karine Cunningham would soon be Karine Wildred.

"You look ill, Mr. Stanton," remarked Bennett. "I guess you've had a tiresome journey. I know what a bad run that is between Chicago and Denver."

A nasty run, indeed! But it would be much worse going back again, leaving the house of cards, which I had come so far to see, lying in ruins behind me. Still, I continued to beat into my brains the fact that I rejoiced in poor old Farnham's safety.

"I believe I am a bit knocked out," I said, "though I ought to be able to stand a trifle like that and think nothing of it. I should be glad to see Mr. Farnham. I suppose such an old friend as I might venture to call in on him, even though he isn't feeling as fit as I should like to think him. If he's not likely to turn up here presently I might drive to the house, and he'd give me breakfast, I daresay."

I saw before I had finished my second sentence that Bennett was slightly disturbed. He flushed to the roots of his flaxen hair, and his face wore an expression which betrayed a suppressed desire to whistle.

"You can bet he would give you breakfast, or anything else he had, Mr. Stanton," the trusted man of business said heartily, yet with a certain irresolution. "But the fact is, he ain't at the house this morning. He's gone away again."

"I thought he was unwell," I interpolated, in surprise.

"That's so. He's a sick man, not hardly fit to be about, but for all that he's off. He ought to be back again in–well, in a few days, however."

"A few days!" I echoed.

"More or less. By George! he will be mad when he knows he's kept you waiting. For, of course, you will wait, won't you, Mr. Stanton?"

"I should certainly like to see him before I go back to the East," I said; and I spoke no more than the truth, for, putting my cordial feeling for Farnham out of the question, it might be that valuable information concerning Wildred's past could be wrested from him with due diplomacy. "Still, I hardly feel like hanging about Denver for an indefinite length of time, doing nothing. I shouldn't mind a little journey, as I've come so far. If he's at any of the Colorado mines, perhaps I might run out and join him; I've been there with him before, you may remember."

"You might indeed, sir," returned Bennett, still embarrassed, "if he was in any such place, which he isn't. To tell you the plain truth, Mr. Stanton, as I'm sure Mr. Farnham would wish, if he could dream it was you I was talking to, why, this little journey of his is strictly on the 'Q. T.' I guess from what he said there's a lady mixed up in it."

Exactly what Wildred had said, when explaining his friend's absence on Christmas Day from the House by the Lock! I remembered the coincidence, though I could hardly see that it bore with any importance on the present case. Farnham might hold several feminine trump cards to play at the end of a trick for all I knew, or had a right to know.

"I tell you what to do, Mr. Stanton," Bennett continued, recovering his wonted self-possession. "You just go up to the house, and make yourself at home there till Mr. Farnham gets back. You know what a big place it is, and how glad the chief is to fill it with his friends, especially such friends as you. Then, by the end of next week, anyhow——"

I interrupted him impatiently. "What, will he be away till then?"

"I should think it was probable from what he said before he left, sir."

"I wish," I exclaimed desperately, "that you could see your way to making things a little clearer for me. I don't want to pry into Farnham's affairs, of course–that goes without saying. But perhaps, without any betrayal of confidence, you might let me know exactly what he did tell you in regard to his return."

"Well," said Bennett, with a short laugh, "seeing it's you! The fact is, Mr. Stanton, it'll be a considerable relief to my mind to talk over the matter, and ask your opinion as to one or two points that have been rather troubling me."

He glanced up into my face, almost for the first time since we had begun the discussion, and I saw that I was to hear something which he considered of importance.

Of how great importance it was to prove for me, I did not dare to dream.