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A Suspicious Gift






Blake had been in very low water for months--almost under water part of
the time--due to circumstances he was fond of saying were no fault of
his own; and as he sat writing in his room on "third floor back" of a
New York boarding-house, part of his mind was busily occupied in
wondering when his luck was going to turn again.

It was his room only in the sense that he paid the rent. Two friends,
one a little Frenchman and the other a big Dane, shared it with him,
both hoping eventually to contribute something towards expenses, but so
far not having accomplished this result. They had two beds only, the
third being a mattress they slept upon in turns, a week at a time. A
good deal of their irregular "feeding" consisted of oatmeal, potatoes,
and sometimes eggs, all of which they cooked on a strange utensil they
had contrived to fix into the gas jet. Occasionally, when dinner failed
them altogether, they swallowed a little raw rice and drank hot water
from the bathroom on the top of it, and then made a wild race for bed so
as to get to sleep while the sensation of false repletion was still
there. For sleep and hunger are slight acquaintances as they well knew.
Fortunately all New York houses are supplied with hot air, and they only
had to open a grating in the wall to get a plentiful, if not a wholesome
amount of heat.

Though loneliness in a big city is a real punishment, as they had
severally learnt to their cost, their experiences, three in a small room
for several months, had revealed to them horrors of quite another kind,
and their nerves had suffered according to the temperament of each. But,
on this particular evening, as Blake sat scribbling by the only window
that was not cracked, the Dane and the Frenchman, his companions in
adversity, were in wonderful luck. They had both been asked out to a
restaurant to dine with a friend who also held out to one of them a
chance of work and remuneration. They would not be back till late, and
when they did come they were pretty sure to bring in supplies of one
kind or another. For the Frenchman never could resist the offer of a
glass of absinthe, and this meant that he would be able to help himself
plentifully from the free-lunch counters, with which all New York bars
are furnished, and to which any purchaser of a drink is entitled to help
himself and devour on the spot or carry away casually in his hand for
consumption elsewhere. Thousands of unfortunate men get their sole
subsistence in this way in New York, and experience soon teaches where,
for the price of a single drink, a man can take away almost a meal of
chip potatoes, sausage, bits of bread, and even eggs. The Frenchman and
the Dane knew their way about, and Blake looked forward to a supper more
or less substantial before pulling his mattress out of the cupboard and
turning in upon the floor for the night.

Meanwhile he could enjoy a quiet and lonely evening with the room all to
himself.

In the daytime he was a reporter on an evening newspaper of sensational
and lying habits. His work was chiefly in the police courts; and in his
spare hours at night, when not too tired or too empty, he wrote sketches
and stories for the magazines that very rarely saw the light of day on
their printed and paid-for sentences. On this particular occasion he was
deep in a most involved tale of a psychological character, and had just
worked his way into a sentence, or set of sentences, that completely
baffled and muddled him.

He was fairly out of his depth, and his brain was too poorly supplied
with blood to invent a way out again. The story would have been
interesting had he written it simply, keeping to facts and feelings, and
not diving into difficult analysis of motive and character which was
quite beyond him. For it was largely autobiographical, and was meant to
describe the adventures of a young Englishman who had come to grief in
the usual manner on a Canadian farm, had then subsequently become
bar-keeper, sub-editor on a Methodist magazine, a teacher of French and
German to clerks at twenty-five cents per hour, a model for artists, a
super on the stage, and, finally, a wanderer to the goldfields.

Blake scratched his head, and dipped the pen in the inkpot, stared out
through the blindless windows, and sighed deeply. His thoughts kept
wandering to food, beefsteak and steaming vegetables. The smell of
cooking that came from a lower floor through the broken windows was a
constant torment to him. He pulled himself together and again attacked
the problem.

" . . . for with some people," he wrote, "the imagination is so vivid as
to be almost an extension of consciousness. . . ." But here he stuck
absolutely. He was not quite sure what he meant by the words, and how to
finish the sentence puzzled him into blank inaction. It was a difficult
point to decide, for it seemed to come in appropriately at this point in
his story, and he did not know whether to leave it as it stood, change
it round a bit, or take it out altogether. It might just spoil its
chances of being accepted: editors were such clever men. But, to rewrite
the sentence was a grind, and he was so tired and sleepy. After all,
what did it matter? People who were clever would force a meaning into
it; people who were not clever would pretend--he knew of no other
classes of readers. He would let it stay, and go on with the action of
the story. He put his head in his hands and began to think hard.

His mind soon passed from thought to reverie. He fell to wondering when
his friends would find work and relieve him of the burden--he
acknowledged it as such--of keeping them, and of letting another man
wear his best clothes on alternate Sundays. He wondered when his "luck"
would turn. There were one or two influential people in New York whom
he could go and see if he had a dress suit and the other conventional
uniforms. His thoughts ran on far ahead, and at the same time, by a sort
of double process, far behind as well. His home in the "old country"
rose up before him; he saw the lawn and the cedars in sunshine; he
looked through the familiar windows and saw the clean, swept rooms. His
story began to suffer; the psychological masterpiece would not make much
progress unless he pulled up and dragged his thoughts back to the
treadmill. But he no longer cared; once he had got as far as that cedar
with the sunshine on it, he never could get back again. For all he
cared, the troublesome sentence might run away and get into someone
else's pages, or be snuffed out altogether.

There came a gentle knock at the door, and Blake started. The knock was
repeated louder. Who in the world could it be at this late hour of the
night? On the floor above, he remembered, there lived another
Englishman, a foolish, second-rate creature, who sometimes came in and
made himself objectionable with endless and silly chatter. But he was an
Englishman for all that, and Blake always tried to treat him with
politeness, realising that he was lonely in a strange land. But
to-night, of all people in the world, he did not want to be bored with
Perry's cackle, as he called it, and the "Come in" he gave in answer to
the second knock had no very cordial sound of welcome in it.

However, the door opened in response, and the man came in. Blake did not
turn round at once, and the other advanced to the centre of the room,
but _without speaking_. Then Blake knew it was not his enemy, Perry, and
turned round.

He saw a man of about forty standing in the middle of the carpet, but
standing sideways so that he did not present a full face. He wore an
overcoat buttoned up to the neck, and on the felt hat which he held in
front of him fresh rain-drops glistened. In his other hand he carried a
small black bag. Blake gave him a good look, and came to the conclusion
that he might be a secretary, or a chief clerk, or a confidential man of
sorts. He was a shabby-respectable-looking person. This was the
sum-total of the first impression, gained the moment his eyes took in
that it was _not_ Perry; the second impression was less pleasant, and
reported at once that something was wrong.

Though otherwise young and inexperienced, Blake--thanks, or curses, to
the police court training--knew more about common criminal
blackguardism than most men of fifty, and he recognised that there was
somewhere a suggestion of this undesirable world about the man. But
there was more than this. There was something singular about him,
something far out of the common, though for the life of him Blake could
not say wherein it lay. The fellow was out of the ordinary, and in some
very undesirable manner.

All this, that takes so long to describe, Blake saw with the first and
second glance. The man at once began to speak in a quiet and respectful
voice.

"Are you Mr. Blake?" he asked.

"I am."

"Mr. Arthur Blake?"

"Yes."

"Mr. Arthur _Herbert_ Blake?" persisted the other, with emphasis on the
middle name.

"That is my full name," Blake answered simply, adding, as he remembered
his manners; "but won't you sit down, first, please?"

The man advanced with a curious sideways motion like a crab and took a
seat on the edge of the sofa. He put his hat on the floor at his feet,
but still kept the bag in his hand.

"I come to you from a well-wisher," he went on in oily tones, without
lifting his eyes. Blake, in his mind, ran quickly over all the people he
knew in New York who might possibly have sent such a man, while waiting
for him to supply the name. But the man had come to a full stop and was
waiting too.

"A well-wisher of _mine_?" repeated Blake, not knowing quite what else
to say.

"Just so," replied the other, still with his eyes on the floor. "A
well-wisher of yours."

"A man or--" he felt himself blushing, "or a woman?"

"That," said the man shortly, "I cannot tell you."

"You can't tell me!" exclaimed the other, wondering what was coming
next, and who in the world this mysterious well-wisher could be who sent
so discreet and mysterious a messenger.

"I cannot tell you the name," replied the man firmly. "Those are my
instructions. But I bring you something from this person, and I am to
give it to you, to take a receipt for it, and then to go away without
answering any questions."

Blake stared very hard. The man, however, never raised his eyes above
the level of the second china knob on the chest of drawers opposite. The
giving of a receipt sounded like money. Could it be that some of his
influential friends had heard of his plight? There were possibilities
that made his heart beat. At length, however, he found his tongue, for
this strange creature was determined apparently to say nothing more
until he had heard from him.

"Then, what have you got for me, please?" he asked bluntly.

By way of answer the man proceeded to open the bag. He took out a parcel
wrapped loosely in brown paper, and about the size of a large book. It
was tied with string, and the man seemed unnecessarily long untying the
knot. When at last the string was off and the paper unfolded, there
appeared a series of smaller packages inside. The man took them out very
carefully, almost as if they had been alive, Blake thought, and set them
in a row upon his knees. They were dollar bills. Blake, all in a
flutter, craned his neck forward a little to try and make out their
denomination. He read plainly the figures 100.

"There are ten thousand dollars here," said the man quietly.

The other could not suppress a little cry.

"And they are for you."

Blake simply gasped. "Ten thousand dollars!" he repeated, a queer
feeling growing up in his throat. "_Ten thousand._ Are you sure? I
mean--you mean they are for _me_?" he stammered. He felt quite silly
with excitement, and grew more so with every minute, as the man
maintained a perfect silence. Was it not a dream? Wouldn't the man put
them back in the bag presently and say it was a mistake, and they were
meant for somebody else? He could not believe his eyes or his ears. Yet,
in a sense, it was possible. He had read of such things in books, and
even come across them in his experience of the courts--the erratic and
generous philanthropist who is determined to do his good deed and to get
no thanks or acknowledgment for it. Still, it seemed almost incredible.
His troubles began to melt away like bubbles in the sun; he thought of
the other fellows when they came in, and what he would have to tell
them; he thought of the German landlady and the arrears of rent, of
regular food and clean linen, and books and music, of the chance of
getting into some respectable business, of--well, of as many things as
it is possible to think of when excitement and surprise fling wide open
the gates of the imagination.

The man, meanwhile, began quietly to count over the packages aloud from
one to ten, and then to count the bills in each separate packet, also
from one to ten. Yes, there were ten little heaps, each containing ten
bills of a hundred-dollar denomination. That made ten thousand dollars.
Blake had never seen so much money in a single lump in his life before;
and for many months of privation and discomfort he had not known the
"feel" of a twenty-dollar note, much less of a hundred-dollar one. He
heard them crackle under the man's fingers, and it was like crisp
laughter in his ears. The bills were evidently new and unused.

But, side by side with the excitement caused by the shock of such an
event, Blake's caution, acquired by a year of vivid New York experience,
was meanwhile beginning to assert itself. It all seemed just a little
too much out of the likely order of things to be quite right. The police
courts had taught him the amazing ingenuity of the criminal mind, as
well as something of the plots and devices by which the unwary are
beguiled into the dark places where blackmail may be levied with
impunity. New York, as a matter of fact, just at that time was literally
undermined with the secret ways of the blackmailers, the green-goods
men, and other police-protected abominations; and the only weak point
in the supposition that this was part of some such proceeding was the
selection of himself--a poor newspaper reporter--as a victim. It did
seem absurd, but then the whole thing was so out of the ordinary, and
the thought once having entered his mind, was not so easily got rid of.
Blake resolved to be very cautious.

The man meanwhile, though he never appeared to raise his eyes from the
carpet, had been watching him closely all the time.

"If you will give me a receipt I'll leave the money at once," he said,
with just a vestige of impatience in his tone, as if he were anxious to
bring the matter to a conclusion as soon as possible.

"But you say it is quite impossible for you to tell me the name of my
well-wisher, or why _she_ sends me such a large sum of money in this
extraordinary way?"

"The money is sent to you because you are in need of it," returned the
other; "and it is a present without conditions of any sort attached. You
have to give me a receipt only to satisfy the sender that it has reached
your hands. The money will never be asked of you again."

Blake noticed two things from this answer: first, that the man was not
to be caught into betraying the sex of the well-wisher; and secondly,
that he was in some hurry to complete the transaction. For he was now
giving reasons, attractive reasons, why he should accept the money and
make out the receipt.

Suddenly it flashed across his mind that if he took the money and gave
the receipt _before a witness_, nothing very disastrous could come of
the affair. It would protect him against blackmail, if this was, after
all, a plot of some sort with blackmail in it; whereas, if the man were
a madman, or a criminal who was getting rid of a portion of his
ill-gotten gains to divert suspicion, or if any other improbable
explanation turned out to be the true one, there was no great harm done,
and he could hold the money till it was claimed, or advertised for in
the newspapers. His mind rapidly ran over these possibilities, though,
of course, under the stress of excitement, he was unable to weigh any of
them properly; then he turned to his strange visitor again and said
quietly--

"I will take the money, although I must say it seems to me a very
unusual transaction, and I will give you for it such a receipt as I
think proper under the circumstances."

"A proper receipt is all I want," was the answer.

"I mean by that a receipt before a proper witness--"

"Perfectly satisfactory," interrupted the man, his eyes still on the
carpet. "Only, it must be dated, and headed with your address here in
the correct way."

Blake could see no possible objection to this, and he at once proceeded
to obtain his witness. The person he had in his mind was a Mr. Barclay,
who occupied the room above his own; an old gentleman who had retired
from business and who, the landlady always said, was a miser, and kept
large sums secreted in his room. He was, at any rate, a perfectly
respectable man and would make an admirable witness to a transaction of
this sort. Blake made an apology and rose to fetch him, crossing the
room in front of the sofa where the man sat, in order to reach the door.
As he did so, he saw for the first time the _other side_ of his
visitor's face, the side that had been always so carefully turned away
from him.

There was a broad smear of blood down the skin from the ear to the
neck. It glistened in the gaslight.

Blake never knew how he managed to smother the cry that sprang to his
lips, but smother it he did. In a second he was at the door, his knees
trembling, his mind in a sudden and dreadful turmoil.

His main object, so far as he could recollect afterwards, was to escape
from the room as if he had noticed nothing, so as not to arouse the
other's suspicions. The man's eyes were always on the carpet, and
probably, Blake hoped, he had not noticed the consternation that must
have been written plainly on his face. At any rate he had uttered no
cry.

In another second he would have been in the passage, when suddenly he
met a pair of wicked, staring eyes fixed intently and with a cunning
smile upon his own. It was the other's face in the mirror calmly
watching his every movement.

Instantly, all his powers of reflection flew to the winds, and he
thought only upon the desirability of getting help at once. He tore
upstairs, his heart in his mouth. Barclay must come to his aid. This
matter was serious--perhaps horribly serious. Taking the money, or
giving a receipt, or having anything at all to do with it became an
impossibility. Here was crime. He felt certain of it.

In three bounds he reached the next landing and began to hammer at the
old miser's door as if his very life depended on it. For a long time he
could get no answer. His fists seemed to make no noise. He might have
been knocking on cotton wool, and the thought dashed through his brain
that it was all just like the terror of a nightmare.

Barclay, evidently, was still out, or else sound asleep. But the other
simply could not wait a minute longer in suspense. He turned the handle
and walked into the room. At first he saw nothing for the darkness, and
made sure the owner of the room was out; but the moment the light from
the passage began a little to disperse the gloom, he saw the old man, to
his immense relief, lying asleep on the bed.

Blake opened the door to its widest to get more light and then walked
quickly up to the bed. He now saw the figure more plainly, and noted
that it was dressed and lay only upon the outside of the bed. It struck
him, too, that he was sleeping in a very odd, almost an unnatural,
position.

Something clutched at his heart as he looked closer. He stumbled over a
chair and found the matches. Calling upon Barclay the whole time to wake
up and come downstairs with him, he blundered across the floor, a
dreadful thought in his mind, and lit the gas over the table. It seemed
strange that there was no movement or reply to his shouting. But it no
longer seemed strange when at length he turned, in the full glare of the
gas, and saw the old man lying huddled up into a ghastly heap on the
bed, his throat cut across from ear to ear.

And all over the carpet lay new dollar bills, crisp and clean like those
he had left downstairs, and strewn about in little heaps.

For a moment Blake stood stock-still, bereft of all power of movement.
The next, his courage returned, and he fled from the room and dashed
downstairs, taking five steps at a time. He reached the bottom and tore
along the passage to his room, determined at any rate to seize the man
and prevent his escape till help came.

But when he got to the end of the little landing he found that his door
had been closed. He seized the handle, fumbling with it in his violence.
It felt slippery and kept turning under his fingers without opening the
door, and fully half a minute passed before it yielded and let him in
headlong.

At the first glance he saw the room was empty, and the man gone!

Scattered upon the carpet lay a number of the bills, and beside them,
half hidden under the sofa where the man had sat, he saw a pair of
gloves--thick, leathern gloves--and a butcher's knife. Even from the
distance where he stood the blood-stains on both were easily visible.

Dazed and confused by the terrible discoveries of the last few minutes,
Blake stood in the middle of the room, overwhelmed and unable to think
or move. Unconsciously he must have passed his hand over his forehead in
the natural gesture of perplexity, for he noticed that the skin felt wet
and sticky. His hand was covered with blood! And when he rushed in
terror to the looking-glass, he saw that there was a broad red smear
across his face and forehead. Then he remembered the slippery handle of
the door and knew that it had been carefully moistened!

In an instant the whole plot became clear as daylight, and he was so
spellbound with horror that a sort of numbness came over him and he came
very near to fainting. He was in a condition of utter helplessness, and
had anyone come into the room at that minute and called him by name he
would simply have dropped to the floor in a heap.

"If the police were to come in now!" The thought crashed through his
brain like thunder, and at the same moment, almost before he had time to
appreciate a quarter of its significance, there came a loud knocking at
the front door below. The bell rang with a dreadful clamour; men's
voices were heard talking excitedly, and presently heavy steps began to
come up the stairs in the direction of his room.

It _was_ the police!

And all Blake could do was to laugh foolishly to himself--and wait till
they were upon him. He could not move nor speak. He stood face to face
with the evidence of his horrid crime, his hands and face smeared with
the blood of his victim, and there he was standing when the police burst
open the door and came noisily into the room.

"Here it is!" cried a voice he knew. "Third floor back! And the fellow
caught red-handed!"

It was the man with the bag leading in the two policemen.

Hardly knowing what he was doing in the fearful stress of conflicting
emotions, he made a step forward. But before he had time to make a
second one, he felt the heavy hand of the law descend upon both
shoulders at once as the two policemen moved up to seize him. At the
same moment a voice of thunder cried in his ear--

"Wake up, man! Wake up! Here's the supper, and good news too!"

Blake turned with a start in his chair and saw the Dane, very red in the
face, standing beside him, a hand on each shoulder, and a little further
back he saw the Frenchman leering happily at him over the end of the
bed, a bottle of beer in one hand and a paper package in the other.

He rubbed his eyes, glancing from one to the other, and then got up
sleepily to fix the wire arrangement on the gas jet to boil water for
cooking the eggs which the Frenchman was in momentary danger of letting
drop upon the floor.





Next: The Strange Adventures Of A Private Secretary In New York

Previous: Smith: An Episode In A Lodging-house



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