Agatha Webb by Anna Katharine Green
Book II. The Man of no Reputation
XXVI. The Adventure of the Parcel
"A man! Haul him in! Don't leave a poor fellow drifting about like that."
The speaker, a bluff, hearty skipper, whose sturdy craft had outridden one of the worst storms of the season, pointed to our poor friend Sweetwater, whose head could just be seen above the broken spar he clung to. In another moment a half-dozen hands were stretched for him, and the insensible form was drawn in and laid on a deck which still showed the results of the night's fierce conflict with the waters.
"Damn it! how ugly he is!" cried one of the sailors, with a leer at the half-drowned man's face. "I'd like to see the lass we'd please in saving him. He's only fit to poison a devil-fish!"
But though more than one laugh rang out, they gave him good care, and when Sweetwater came to life and realised that his blood was pulsing warmly again through his veins, and that a grey sky had taken the place of darkness, and a sound board supported limbs which for hours had yielded helplessly to the rocking billows, he saw a ring of hard but good-natured faces about him and realised quite well what had been done for him when one of them said:
"There! he'll do now; all hands on deck! We can get into New Bedford in two days if this wind holds. Nor' west!" shouted the skipper to the man at the tiller. "We'll sup with our old women in forty-eight hours!"
New Bedford! It was the only word Sweetwater heard. So, he was no farther away from Sutherlandtown than that. Evidently Providence had not meant him to escape. Or was it his fortitude that was being tried? A man as humble as he might easily be lost even in a place as small as New Bedford. It was his identity he must suppress. With that unrecognised he might remain in the next village to Sutherlandtown without fear of being called up as a witness against Frederick. But could he suppress it? He thought he could. At all events he meant to try.
"What's your name?" were the words he now heard shouted in his ear.
"Jonathan Briggs," was his mumbled reply. "I was blown off a ship's deck in the gale last night."
"The Proserpine." It was the first name that suggested itself to him.
"Oh, I thought it might have been the Hesper; she foundered off here last night."
"Foundered? The Hesper?" The hot blood was shooting now through his veins.
"Yes, we just picked up her name-board. That was before we got a hold on you."
Foundered! The ship from which he had been so mercilessly thrown! And all on board lost, perhaps. He began to realise the hand of Providence in his fate.
"It was the Hesper I sailed on. I'm not just clear yet in my head. My first voyage was made on the Proserpine. Well, bless the gale that blew me from that deck!"
He seemed incoherent, and they left him again for a little while. When they came back he had his story all ready, which imposed upon them just so far as it was for their interest. Their business on this coast was not precisely legitimate, and when they found he simply wanted to be set on shore, they were quite willing to do thus much for him. Only they regretted that he had barely two dollars and his own soaked clothing to give in exchange for the motley garments they trumped up among them for his present comfort. But he, as well as they, made the best of a bad bargain, he especially, as his clothes, which would be soon scattered among half a dozen families, were the only remaining clew connecting him with his native town. He could now be Jonathan Briggs indeed. Only who was Jonathan Briggs, and how was he to earn a living under these unexpected conditions?
At the end of a couple of days he was dexterously landed on the end of a long pier, which they passed without stopping, on their way to their own obscure anchorage. As he jumped from the rail to the pier and felt again the touch of terra firma he drew a long breath of uncontrollable elation. Yet he had not a cent in the world, no friends, and certainly no prospects. He did not even know whether to turn to the right or the left as he stepped out upon the docks, and when he had decided to turn to the right as being on the whole more lucky, he did not know whether to risk his fortune in the streets of the town or to plunge into one of the low-browed drinking houses whose signs confronted him on this water-lane.
He decided that his prospects for a dinner were slim in any case, and that his only hope of breaking fast that day lay in the use he might make of one of his three talents. Either he must find a fiddle to play on, a carpenter's bench to work at, or a piece of detective shadowing to do. The last would bring him before the notice of the police, which was just the thing he must avoid; so it was fiddling or carpentry he must seek, either of which would be difficult to obtain in his present garb. But of difficulties Sweetwater was not a man to take note. He had undertaken out of pure love for a good man to lose himself. He had accomplished this, and now was he to complain because in doing so he was likely to go hungry for a day or two? No; Amabel might laugh at him, or he might fancy she did, while struggling in the midst of rapidly engulfing waters, but would she laugh at him now? He did not think she would. She was of the kind who sometimes go hungry themselves in old age. Some premonition of this might give her a fellow feeling.
He came to a stand before a little child sitting on an ill-kept doorstep. Smiling at her kindly, he waited for her first expression to see how he appeared in the eyes of innocence. Not so bad a man, it seemed, though his naturally plain countenance was not relieved by the seaman's cap and knitted shirt he wore. For she laughed as she looked at him, and only ran away because there wasn't room for him to pass beside her.
Comforted a little, he sauntered on, glancing here and there with that sharp eye of his for a piece of work to be done. Suddenly he came to a halt. A market-woman had got into an altercation with an oysterman, and her stall had been upset in the contention, and her vegetables were rolling here and there. He righted her stall, picked up her vegetables, and in return got two apples and a red herring he would not have given to a dog at home. Yet it was the sweetest morsel he had ever tasted, and the apples might have been grown in the garden of the Hesperides from the satisfaction and pleasure they gave this hungry man. Then, refreshed, he dashed into the town. It should now go hard but he would earn a night's lodging.
The day was windy and he was going along a narrow street, when something floated down from a window above past his head. It was a woman's veil, and as he looked up to see where it came from he met the eyes of its owner looking down from an open casement above him. She was gesticulating, and seemed to point to someone up the street. Glad to seize at anything which promised emolument or adventure, he shouted up and asked her what she wanted.
"That man down there!" she cried; "the one in a long black coat going up the street. Keep after him and stop him; tell him the telegram has come. Quick, quick, before he gets around the corner! He will pay you; run!"
Sweetwater, with joy in his heart,--for five cents was a boon to him in the present condition of his affairs,--rushed after the man she had pointed out and hastily stopped him.
"Someone," he added, "a woman in a window back there, bade me run after you and say the telegram has come. She told me you would pay me," he added, for he saw the man was turning hastily back, without thinking of the messenger. "I need the money, and the run was a sharp one."
With a preoccupied air, the man thrust his hand into his pocket, pulled out a coin, and handed it to him. Then he walked hurriedly off. Evidently the news was welcome to him. But Sweetwater stood rooted to the ground. The man had given him a five-dollar gold piece instead of the nickel he had evidently intended.
How hungrily Sweetwater eyed that coin! In it was lodging, food, perhaps a new article or so of clothing. But after a moment of indecision which might well be forgiven him, he followed speedily after the man and overtook him just as he reached the house from which the woman's veil had floated.
"Sir, pardon me; but you gave me five dollars instead of five cents. It was a mistake; I cannot keep the money."
The man, who was not just the sort from whom kindness would be expected, looked at the money in Sweetwater's palm, then at the miserable, mud-bespattered clothes he wore (he had got that mud helping the poor market-woman), and stared hard at the face of the man who looked so needy and yet returned him five dollars.
"You're an honest fellow," he declared, not offering to take back the gold piece. Then, with a quick glance up at the window, "Would you like to earn that money?"
Sweetwater broke out into a smile, which changed his whole countenance.
"Wouldn't I, sir?"
The man eyed him for another minute with scrutinising intensity. Then he said shortly:
"Come up-stairs with me."
They entered the house, went up a flight or two, and stopped at a door which was slightly ajar.
"We are going into the presence of a lady," remarked the man. "Wait here until I call you."
Sweetwater waited, the many thoughts going through his mind not preventing him from observing all that passed.
The man, who had left the door wide open, approached the lady who was awaiting him, and who was apparently the same one who had sent Sweetwater on his errand, and entered into a low but animated conversation. She held a telegram in her hand which she showed him, and then after a little earnest parley and a number of pleading looks from them both toward the waiting Sweetwater, she disappeared into another room, from which she brought a parcel neatly done up, which she handed to the man with a strange gesture. Another hurried exchange of words and a meaning look which did not escape the sharp eye of the watchful messenger, and the man turned and gave the parcel into Sweetwater's hands.
"You are to carry this," said he, "to the town hall. In the second room to the right on entering you will see a table surrounded by chairs, which at this hour ought to be empty. At the head of the table you will find an arm-chair. On the table directly in front of this you will lay this packet. Mark you, directly before the chair and not too far from the edge of the table. Then you are to come out. If you see anyone, say you came to leave some papers for Mr. Gifford. Do this and you may keep the five dollars and welcome."
Sweetwater hesitated. There was something in the errand or in the manner of the man and woman that he did not like.
"Don't potter!" spoke up the latter, with an impatient look at her watch. "Mr. Gifford will expect those papers."
Sweetwater's sensitive fingers closed on the package he held. It did not feel like papers.
"Are you going?" asked the man.
Sweetwater looked up with a smile. "Large pay for so slight a commission," he ventured, turning the packet over and over in his hand.
"But then you will execute it at once, and according to the instructions I have given you," retorted the man. "It is your trustworthiness I pay for. Now go."
Sweetwater turned to go. After all it was probably all right, and five dollars easily earned is doubly five dollars. As he reached the staircase he stumbled. The shoes he wore did not fit him.
"Be careful, there!" shouted the woman, in a shrill, almost frightened voice, while the man stumbled back into the room in a haste which seemed wholly uncalled for. "If you let the packet fall you will do injury to its contents. Go softly, man, go softly!"
Yet they had said it held papers!
Troubled, yet hardly knowing what his duty was, Sweetwater hastened down the stairs, and took his way up the street. The town hall should be easy to find; indeed, he thought he saw it in the distance. As he went, he asked himself two questions: Could he fail to deliver the package according to instructions, and yet earn his money? And was there any way of so delivering it without risk to the recipient or dereliction of duty to the man who had intrusted it to him and whose money he wished to earn? To the first question his conscience at once answered no; to the second the reply came more slowly, and before fixing his mind determinedly upon it he asked himself why he felt that this was no ordinary commission. He could answer readily enough. First, the pay was too large, arguing that either the packet or the placing of the packet in a certain position on Mr. Gifford's table was of uncommon importance to this man or this woman. Secondly, the woman, though plainly and inconspicuously clad, had the face of a more than ordinarily unscrupulous adventuress, while her companion was one of those saturnine-faced men we sometimes meet, whose first look puts us on our guard and whom, if we hope nothing from him, we instinctively shun. Third, they did not look like inhabitants of the house and rooms in which he found them. Nothing beyond the necessary articles of furniture was to be seen there; not a trunk, not an article of clothing, nor any of the little things that mark a woman's presence in a spot where she expects to spend a day or even an hour. Consequently they were transients and perhaps already in the act of flight. Then he was being followed. Of this he felt sure. He had followed people himself, and something in his own sensations assured him that his movements were under surveillance. It would, therefore, not do to show any consciousness of this, and he went on directly and as straight to his goal as his rather limited knowledge of the streets would allow. He was determined to earn this money and to earn it without disadvantage to anyone. And he thought he saw his way.
At the entrance of the town hall he hesitated an instant. An officer was standing in the doorway, it would be easy to call his attention to the packet he held and ask him to keep his eye on it. But this might involve him with the police, and this was something, as we know, which he was more than anxious to avoid. He reverted to his first idea.
Mixing with the crowd just now hurrying to and fro through the long corridors, he reached the room designated and found it, as he had been warned he should, empty.
Approaching the table, he laid down the packet just as he had been directed, in front of the big arm chair, and then, casting a hurried look towards the door and failing to find anyone watching him, he took up a pencil lying near-by and scrawled hastily across the top of the packet the word "Suspicious." This he calculated would act as a warning to Mr. Gifford in case there was anything wrong about the package, and pass as a joke with him, and even the sender, if there was not. And satisfied that he had both earned his money and done justice to his own apprehensions, he turned to retrace his steps. As before, the corridors were alive with hurrying men of various ages and appearance, but only two attracted his notice. One of these was a large, intellectual- looking man, who turned into the room from which he had just emerged, and the other a short, fair man, with a countenance he had known from boyhood. Mr. Stone of Sutherlandtown was within ten paces of him, and he was as well known to the good postmaster as the postmaster was to him. Could anyone have foreseen such a chance!
Turning his back with a slow slouch, he made for a rear door he saw swinging in and out before him. As he passed through he cast a quick look behind him. He had not been recognised. In great relief he rushed on, knocking against a man standing against one of the outside pillars.
"Halloo!" shouted this man.
Sweetwater stopped. There was a tone of authority in the voice which he could not resist.