The Knight Heir
JAMES SEXAGESIMA, DETECTIVE, MAKES HIS LAST ATTEMPT AT A DARING COUP
By H. Bedford-Jones
"SORRY, Jim, but I ain't got any choice in the matter. You just don't fit in, son, and that's the long and short of it. A fellow's got to be born to this sort of thing, and—well, you ain't!"
Corcoran's red face was redder than usual with the effort of being both authoritative and apologetic at the same time. The result was a feeling of being on the defensive, which was so obviously unpleasant that he rushed again into belligerent speech.
"No use trying to get away from facts. A square peg won't fit in a round hole. After to-day we'll have to do without you here."
James Sexagesima nodded.
"I understand," he said quietly.
Corcoran moved uneasily in his swivel chair. That feeling of being on the defensive still persisted, to his discomfort. Yet, hang it all, he was right—he knew he was right! Sexagesima was not cut out for a private detective. Corcoran had not reached his present affluent position as head of the Corcoran Investigation Bureau, finder of lost heirs for unclaimed fortunes, by letting his sympathy run away with his good sense. None the less, the sympathy was there.
"You won't have any trouble landing some other job, Jim. Refer anybody to me; I'll give you a good send off. Use me for a reference, strong!"
"Thank you, Mr. Corcoran;" and Sexagesima moved toward the door.
"Oh, Jim!" Corcoran's fat hand was moving some papers about on the desk. "Er—the wife still out in that sanitarium in New Mexico?"
To this Sexagesima merely nodded.
"H-m! That's pretty tough. Look here, I'm telling the cashier to slip you two months' salary, so you'll have something to send West. Good luck to you, Jim! And—well, I'm sorry."
"Thank you, Mr. Corcoran. It's mighty kind of you."
James Sexagesima abruptly left the inner office.
A student of physiognomy would have applauded Corcoran's judgment. This young man, slightly under thirty, sandy-haired, ruddily healthful, thin of lips and nostrils, was obviously no detective. His scholarly appearance was emphasized by the shell-rimmed glasses that he wore. Upon reaching the out€r office, be sought one of the filing clerics, his sensitive lips set in a thin line of determination.
"The files on the Knight case, Indiana, please."
His tone was quiet and businesslike, quite as if he were still an employee of the office. He pocketed the envelope handed him, then turned to the cashier's window.
There was sympathy in the eyes of the girl who handed him the pay check. Courteous, unobtrusive Sexagesima was well liked. Moreover, she knew of the invalid wife in the Western sanitarium, and her face was sober when she turned back to her ledgers, forgetting that she had failed to have the man turn in his detective's badge.
Sexagesima retained his non-committal manner until he reached the cheap lodging house which to him bore the ironic appellation of home. There, however, in his dark little room, he dropped into a chair and pressed clenched hands hard against dry eyes. It was a long while before he stirred. Although he had long expected this blow, its coming was none the less a shock.
When he did move, it was to take the envelope containing clippings of the Knight case from his pocket and lay them carefully, one by one, on the cheap varnished top of his small table. The brown eyes behind the rimmed glasses were keen, watchful, earnest. The thin lips were again set in a resolute line. He studied the clippings a space, then returned them to the envelope and took writing materials.
The letter that he wrote concluded thus:
You see from the inclosed check, sweetheart, that things are going well with me. Because an excellent opportunity has presented itself, I am leaving the Corcoran bureau. Until it is certain, dear, I don't want to go into detail, but you are not to worry that dear little yellow head of yours. I always told you I'd come out on top!
Don't write to me until you hear again, for I shall be away. If all goes well—which it must, for my sweetheart's sake—I shall join you in Santa Fe before long. God bless you, my dearest, and make you well!
- Always your
P. S.—By the way, Dulcie, please send me at once, to this address, that old gold locket of mine with the filigree work on the cover. You remember—the one with my mother's picture in it.
Judge Joel Williams leaned back in his swivel chair and switched on the electric fan. The city of Evansville is an intolerably hot place in August. Though the old judge had cannily selected the top floor of the Furniture Building for his legal offices, and had retained the large comer room for his own use, the sweeping heat waves, intensified by the heavy humidity of the Ohio bottom lands, rose about him like the hot blast of a furnace.
From the window beside his desk the judge could overlook the courthouse and its surrounding square. It was a grimy pile of stone thickly coated by soot and coal dust—a grimly unbeautiful structure when viewed from the street. From his high vantage point, however, the old judge had discovered an item of loveliness on which his eye loved to rest, a beauty for which no man deserved credit.
In the extravagant fashion of the past generation, the builders had roofed the courthouse dome with copper, which, through years of storm and sun and corrosion, had become a rich and magnificent Pompeian green. To-day the judge was regarding it with the fond eye of a discoverer, when his stenographer opened the door of the inner office and announced a visitor.
Judge Williams adopted his judicial air and his spectacles at the same time, and swung slowly about to face his caller.
This proved to be a man of unkempt appearance and careless linen. His eyes were brown. His hat, pushed to the back of his head that he might wipe his forehead without the trouble of removing it, revealed a straggling fringe of black hair about its edge. His complexion was sallow and unpleasant, his manner bold. With a flourish which contrived to be at the same time a swagger, he dropped a dirty-edged card on the desk, then took a chair and proceeded to roll a cigarette.
The soiled pasteboard announced the gentleman to be Mr. James Sexagesima of the Corcoran Investigation Bureau.
"And what can I do fo' you, suh?" asked Judge Williams.
The visitor drew taut the string of his tobacco sack, with the aid of his teeth, before he replied.
"We got a claimant for the Knight money—the Horatio Nelson Knight estate. I just come to look up the records and make sure our party's all right, see? You're in charge of the estate, so the boss says to look you up, and I'm here."
The judge surveyed his visitor closely. Mr. Sexagesima had tilted back his chair and hooked one thumb easily in the armpit of his vest, perhaps the better to display the glittering badge of his dignity.
"That is very straightforward, suh, exceedingly so! May I inquire upon what grounds the claim of your man is based?"
"Nope!" said the operative curtly. "We ain't saying. I come to look and report. If he stands up under it, we'll send the claimant to you and let him talk his own say. Fair enough, I guess?"
Judge Williams slowly creased and recreased a paper on his old-fashioned desk.
"This is an unexpected honor, suh. You are acquainted with the nature of the case?"
"Some." The detective flourished his yellow cigarette. "You been advertising for Horatio Nelson Knight or his heirs. Knight was last heard of in 1898, at Carencro, in Louisiana. Our claimant says he's Knight's son, see? If his case looks good, we'll send him along to palaver with you."
"I presume," said the judge cautiously, "he is fortified with documents and legal evidence of his identity?"
"You said it!" retorted the other airily. "I want to look up some dope here and check it with his story. If you'll give me a note so's I can look up the records, I won't take no more of your time, and much obliged."
To a casual eye the old lawyer would perhaps appear a simple, credulous man, an unworldly Southern gentleman, passive rather than decisive, and knowing little of sharp methods. Those who had heard him address a jury, or who had seen him argue the McCall case with a gun in his pocket, and with bets laid as to whether he or McCall would shoot first, knew better.
"Well, suh, I reckon it's your privilege to look around," he finally said. He made a determined effort to be friendly, "That's a downright 'Piscopalian name you got, suh, it suttinly is! Did you ever hear the story about the old darky—"
"My name suits me," broke in Sexagesima coolly. "I ain't here to discuss my name. I'm here on business. Let's get down to it."
Judge Williams stared a moment, then brought down his fist with a crash that shook his desk.
"Why, damn yo' insolence, suh!" he thundered. "You shall have that letter, and then you'll get out of this office, suh, and you'll stay out!"
"Suits me," said the other, unperturbed.
This constituted the one and only encounter of Judge Joel Williams and James Sexagesima. During the remainder of his stay in Evansville, the operative conducted himself busily if inconspicuously. He found that the Knight estate consisted of cash in the bank and rich bottom land along the river. The whole amounted to perhaps fifty thousand dollars. The vanished Horatio Nelson Knight, or his heirs, had this snug little fortune waiting for them; should no claimant prove title, the property would revert to the State.
Armed with the curt letter furnished by Judge Williams, the detective went to the library and courthouse and exhumed files of musty documents and old newspapers, on which he spent long hours. He even chanced upon an ancient delineation of Horatio Nelson Knight, at the time when that gentleman left the town of his nativity to seek his fortune in Louisiana. None in the quiet library saw him hastily clip that newspaper cut and place it carefully in his pocket. Nor did they notice that he traced the signatures on certain documents, by the aid of tissue paper.
At the end of a week, Sexagesima placed his suit case aboard a north-bound train. On the following day he appeared on the streets of Indianapolis, marvelously changed to the trim neatness, the healthful ruddiness, of former days. His hair was again sandy, his brown eyes themselves appeared different behind the shelter of the horn-rimmed glasses.
In the shabby studio of an obscure photographer who made a practice of tinting portraits with color, Sexagesima took a small filigreed gold locket from his wallet and laid it on the table.
The photographer examined it with professional interest. Within the oval frame was the penciled portrait of a woman's head. It was not a very well executed drawing. Obviously, it had been done by an amateur.
The little photographer turned bright black eyes on his client.
"Want me to copy that, do you?"
"No." Sexagesima extracted from his pocket the yellowed newspaper cut. He handed over the likeness of a heavily mustached gentleman. "I want you to copy this and set it in the frame."
"All right! And the picture that's there now—want to keep it?"
Sexagesima hesitated. He made a concession to sentiment. After all, the picture was all that he had to tell him of his unknown mother.
"Can you leave it there? It doesn't seem just right to pry it out of the locket. Why not put the other one over it? I expect you can make it fit all right."
For some days after the detective's departure, the memory of his unwelcome visitor was sufficient to send an apoplectic color to the face of Judge Williams. He had fully determined to write the Corcoran bureau that if they had no gentlemen in their employ, they might leave him in peace. This letter, however, went the way of many others that he was "intending" to write—all of them letters damning some one, as he put it.
Once again he sat at his window and lovingly surveyed the tender green of the courthouse dome. That touch of sweet color, above the grimy pile of stone, was to him a symbolic thing. He rubbed one hand over his polished skull and patted down the white wisps of fringing hair. In those halls across the street he had played out his little hour of strenuous life, winning his little triumphs and gaining his brief laurels of fame and recompense; and now he was old.
Thus the stenographer found him, as she came in to announce a Mr. Knight.
The name brought the judge swinging around, to meet the direct gaze of a sandy-haired young man, whose countenance shone ruddily healthful, whose brown eyes sparkled with good humor behind their shell-rimmed glasses, and whose ascetic lips and nostrils conveyed an indefinite hint of excellent breeding.
"Judge, I have come to throw myself on your mercies and submit to all the horrors of legal inquisition. I am James Horace Knight, son of Horatio Nelson Knight."
"Bless my soul! I was just thinking of your case, suh!" The judge reached for his spectacles, donned them, and surveyed the young man critically. "This is an honor, suh! Are you the gentleman with whom the Corcoran Investigation Bureau was concerned?"
"The past tense is correct, sir." Knight smiled. "I got into an argument with the operative who handled my case. I'm afraid I knocked him down for some offensive answer he made to a suggestion of mine, and—"
"Hurray for Jeff Davis!" The judge's hand crashed down on the desk, and his very scalp grew pink with excitement. "I regret I did not do that very thing! I suppose the man was that offensive scoundrel named Sexagesima?"
"So you've met him? Then you can understand my feelings. I have severed all connection with the Corcoran bureau, and am now acting for myself. I am at your command, sir." Knight produced a cigarette case, then paused. "By the way, do you mind if I smoke?"
Now, Judge Williams was famed abroad for an intense dislike of smoking in his presence. This came from no aversion to the use of tobacco. On the contrary, it was a matter of self-protection, one method of saying:
"Get thee behind me, Satan!"
Consequently, when he pushed a match box across the desk with a pleasant nod, one may infer the impression made upon him by the Knight claimant.
The visitor seated himself by the open window.
"If you'll give me the benefit of your advice, sir, I'll be more than grateful. I understand that you handle the Knight estate. In a legal contest, I presume, we should be on opposite sides, but I hope that will not come to pass. You have a reputation for uprightness, judge, and I should be more than glad to intrust myself to you."
The judge was completely conquered.
"Suh, I thank you for the confidence you repose in me. If your proofs warrant it, I shall be pleased to open my private purse to you while awaiting court action. In the meantime, suh, you may deposit with me, for examination, whatever documentary or other evidence you may possess; also a statement covering your early life in detail. That you come to me in this fashion, suh, rather than through some other attorney, not only does you credit, but honors me mightily by such a token of confidence in my integrity. As the immortal bard has said, 'who steals my purse, steals trash, but—'"
Knight listened with respectful interest. Nevertheless, if he thought that a hearty welcome and a very polite old lawyer assured an easy success for his quest, he was speedily undeceived. When Judge Williams got down to work on the matter, he asked questions and made demands that might well have staggered any impostor. Knight's tale, however, was more than plausible.
As a boy of six, it appeared, he had been orphaned by one of those tremendous hurricanes which smite the Louisiana bayous. With other little tots, sadly isolated as himself, he was taken to the Sisters' Home, a local religious institution. There he was kept and educated. This place had been entirely destroyed by fire in 1915, and all its records lost. Thus the case pro and con might count the Sisters' Home out of the reckoning.
Fortunately for his case. Knight had far better evidence than the records of that institution might have afforded. There were two letters from Horatio Nelson Knight to the wife whom he had met and married in Louisiana. These letters called the baby by name, and mentioned the members of the family in Evansville in such a way as to leave no doubt as to the identity of the writer. They were faded and worn, but legible.
Then, too, there was a gold filigreed locket containing a portrait, easily recognized as that of Horatio Nelson Knight as he looked when he first lived in Louisiana.
As to his mother, the claimant knew almost nothing. He had been unable to obtain any trace of her in the Southern State.
Within the course of a few days, Judge Williams thoroughly satisfied himself that the claim was substantiated. Knight was summoned to his office and informed of the fact in the judge's heartiest manner.
"Suh, I knew your father as a boy, and I take pleasure in being the first to shake hands with you in your established identity. May I add that I have already set in motion the legal machinery which will establish you in your rights? It is my hope that you will take the rightful position of your father's son in this community. For any sum of money which you may require until the decision of the court is announced, I beg that you will draw upon me, suh."
Knight's voice was a trifle husky when he made response.
"That's mighty good of you, judge, and I appreciate your kindness. I do need some of that money at once—not for myself, however. Some time ago an old friend of mine died. His wife is stricken with tuberculosis, and he left her to my care. I promised that I would see she had proper attention, and she is now in a sanitarium out West. If I could draw a thousand dollars, to go out there and make sure that that the poor little woman is receiving every comfort, I'd—well, I can't say what it would mean to me, judge. Her doctor says she cannot live many weeks longer."
Knight suddenly turned his back and stared out of the window. The hand of the judge was already reaching for his check book.
At the door, the younger man turned for a sudden hand grip.
"I'll leave to-night, and be back in case you need me. I'll spend a week there."
More than that handclasp passed between the two men. A bond had been created which was all the stronger for being intangible.
On the train, that day, Knight looked upon the fleeting panorama of the countryside, and his chin was painfully squared.
"It hurts!" he was saying to himself. "It hurts to deceive that fine old man, to play upon his kind heart, his warm soul! Yet what harm does it do to any one? None. It is not for myself, but for Dulcie. I've got to see her again, to know that she dies in peace."
Back in his office, overlooking the green-domed courthouse. Judge Williams walked the floor. The memory of those steady brown eyes haunted him. To escape them he called in the stenographer and cleared his slate of many overdue letters. When he found a memorandum to write the Corcoran bureau a stinging letter as to the gentility of their operatives, he chuckled and tore it up.
"Can't damn anybody to-day," he said. "I'll send 'em a letter complimenting them on finding young Knight in the first place."
That letter was destined to begin a surprising correspondence with the Corcoran bureau.
Upon his return to Evansville, James Horace Knight sent his suit case to a hotel. He himself took a taxicab to the Furniture Building. As he stepped into the private office of Judge Williams, he halted suddenly. Corcoran in person was seated there.
"Glad to see you lookin' so well, Jim," said the detective dryly.
The three men eyed one another for a moment. At length Judge Williams spoke.
"This is a devilish unpleasant affair, suh. What have you to say for yo'self?"
Sexagesima came slowly toward the desk.
"Nothing, sir. What I have done was done for a little woman out West. She knows nothing of it. Gentlemen, I'm glad that I did it. At least—"
He paused, finding something amiss with the two men before him. Judge Williams had turned to the window. Corcoran was mopping his red forehead nervously. Without turning around, the judge spoke.
"Give it to him, Corcoran."
Corcoran took from his pocket a telegram, which he extended.
"This came for you about an hour ago, Jim. I opened it against the protest of the judge—and I'm sorry, boy, damned sorry!"
Sexagesima opened the telegram. He read it; then with steady fingers he folded and laid down the yellow slip. His face was livid. When his voice sounded, it was hollow and dead.
"She had seemed so much better! Well, maybe it's best; now she'll never know about this." He turned to the judge. "It was all that I could do, to send her there. I wanted her to have everything—poor little patient Dulcie! I just want you to understand why I deceived you—for you were square with me. It hurt me, judge!"
Williams turned around for the first time. His hand went out.
"Shake, my boy. I'm grieved to say, suh, that you'll find a gentleman waiting fo' you outside that door. I'll be over shortly to see you."
"And I'm cursed sorry I ever fired you, Jim," said Corcoran.
Left alone together, the two men avoided each other's eyes. It was Corcoran who was the first to speak.
"Like I was telling you, I have his complete record. Jim really did come from Louisiana. He was raised in the Sisters' Home—that's how he was able to bluff it so well. He was left there one Sunday, as a little kid. Nobody knew where he came from, so they called him Sexagesima, after that particular Sunday. The only thing he had with him was that same locket he used in this impersonation." Corcoran hesitated. "Judge, nobody but you and me knows about this. D'you s'pose now, by any chance—"
There was a long silence. Then, his wrinkled features working. Judge Williams spoke.
"Suh, I have served truth and justice too long to lightly betray them. Not to act according to my principles would be to tarnish the gold of the spirit."
None the less, his voice faltered. Corcoran perceived that it was useless, and departed. Judge Williams remained motionless, watching the green dome across the street.
However, before the week was out, James Sexagesima was dead—influenza, the city physician called it. A psychologist will assure you that nothing so lowers physical resistance as the lack of desire to live.
Some months later Judge Joel Williams retired from practice, gave up his office, and turned over his pending business to younger hands. In the course of moving, he found a gold locket which had fallen behind a rack of legal records.
The old man pried open the trinket and looked at it for a long time, shaking his head and muttering to himself. This was the locket that Sexagesima had worn when taken to the house of charity. Before his death he had admitted the imposture, telling of the portrait which he had had inserted over the picture of his mother.
With the point of his knife, the judge pried out the tiny gold frame which held the miniature in place. With it came the original little oval drawing in pencil. From the blue blotter of his desk it smiled up at him, and he put on his spectacles to regard it more closely.
"A sweet face!" he muttered.
For a long moment he studied it, then attempted to insert it again in the locket which it had graced so long. It fluttered from the uncertain old fingers, to fall face down on the blotter. Upon the reverse side there was something written in almost microscopic characters.
The judge reached out for his reading glass, and held it above the writing.
Portrait of my dear wife Emily, done at Carencro, August 2, 1898.—H. N. Knight.
The glass fell from the old lawyer's hand. As if he could not bear the sight of that tiny oval, he drew a blotter over the thing. Then his swivel chair squeaked morosely as he turned about and sat gazing out at the soft green of the courthouse dome across the street, with eyes that saw not.
James Horace Knight's claim had not been a false one, after all.
This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.
The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.
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