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The Strange Adventures Of A Private Secretary In New York






I
It was never quite clear to me how Jim Shorthouse managed to get his
private secretaryship; but, once he got it, he kept it, and for some
years he led a steady life and put money in the savings bank.
One morning his employer sent for him into the study, and it was evident
to the secretary's trained senses that there was something unusual in
the air.
"Mr. Shorthouse," he began, somewhat nervously, "I have never yet had
the opportunity of observing whether or not you are possessed of
personal courage."
Shorthouse gasped, but he said nothing. He was growing accustomed to the
eccentricities of his chief. Shorthouse was a Kentish man; Sidebotham
was "raised" in Chicago; New York was the present place of residence.
"But," the other continued, with a puff at his very black cigar, "I must
consider myself a poor judge of human nature in future, if it is not one
of your strongest qualities."
The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation
of so uncertain a compliment. Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him
narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.
"I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and--" He hesitated, and
puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.
"I don't think I'm afraid of anything in particular, sir--except women,"
interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an
observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief's
purpose.
"Humph!" he grunted. "Well, there are no women in this case so far as I
know. But there may be other things that--that hurt more."
"Wants a special service of some kind, evidently," was the secretary's
reflection. "Personal violence?" he asked aloud.
"Possibly (puff), in fact (puff, puff) probably."
Shorthouse smelt an increase of salary in the air. It had a stimulating
effect.
"I've had some experience of that article, sir," he said shortly; "but
I'm ready to undertake anything in reason."
"I can't say how much reason or unreason there may prove to be in this
particular case. It all depends."
Mr. Sidebotham got up and locked the door of his study and drew down the
blinds of both windows. Then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and
opened a black tin box. He ferreted about among blue and white papers
for a few seconds, enveloping himself as he did so in a cloud of blue
tobacco smoke.
"I feel like a detective already," Shorthouse laughed.
"Speak low, please," returned the other, glancing round the room. "We
must observe the utmost secrecy. Perhaps you would be kind enough to
close the registers," he went on in a still lower voice. "Open registers
have betrayed conversations before now."
Shorthouse began to enter into the spirit of the thing. He tiptoed
across the floor and shut the two iron gratings in the wall that in
American houses supply hot air and are termed "registers." Mr.
Sidebotham had meanwhile found the paper he was looking for. He held it
in front of him and tapped it once or twice with the back of his right
hand as if it were a stage letter and himself the villain of the
melodrama.
"This is a letter from Joel Garvey, my old partner," he said at length.
"You have heard me speak of him."
The other bowed. He knew that many years before Garvey & Sidebotham had
been well known in the Chicago financial world. He knew that the amazing
rapidity with which they accumulated a fortune had only been surpassed
by the amazing rapidity with which they had immediately afterwards
disappeared into space. He was further aware--his position afforded
facilities--that each partner was still to some extent in the other's
power, and that each wished most devoutly that the other would die.
The sins of his employer's early years did not concern him, however. The
man was kind and just, if eccentric; and Shorthouse, being in New York,
did not probe to discover more particularly the sources whence his
salary was so regularly paid. Moreover, the two men had grown to like
each other and there was a genuine feeling of trust and respect between
them.
"I hope it's a pleasant communication, sir," he said in a low voice.
"Quite the reverse," returned the other, fingering the paper nervously
as he stood in front of the fire.
"Blackmail, I suppose."
"Precisely." Mr. Sidebotham's cigar was not burning well; he struck a
match and applied it to the uneven edge, and presently his voice spoke
through clouds of wreathing smoke.
"There are valuable papers in my possession bearing his signature. I
cannot inform you of their nature; but they are extremely valuable _to
me_. They belong, as a matter of fact, to Garvey as much as to me. Only
I've got them--"
"I see."
"Garvey writes that he wants to have his signature removed--wants to cut
it out with his own hand. He gives reasons which incline me to consider
his request--"
"And you would like me to take him the papers and see that he does it?"
"And bring them back again with you," he whispered, screwing up his eyes
into a shrewd grimace.
"And bring them back again with me," repeated the secretary. "I
understand perfectly."
Shorthouse knew from unfortunate experience more than a little of the
horrors of blackmail. The pressure Garvey was bringing to bear upon his
old enemy must be exceedingly strong. That was quite clear. At the same
time, the commission that was being entrusted to him seemed somewhat
quixotic in its nature. He had already "enjoyed" more than one
experience of his employer's eccentricity, and he now caught himself
wondering whether this same eccentricity did not sometimes go--further
than eccentricity.
"I cannot read the letter to you," Mr. Sidebotham was explaining, "but I
shall give it into your hands. It will prove that you are my--er--my
accredited representative. I shall also ask you not to read the package
of papers. The signature in question you will find, of course, on the
last page, at the bottom."
There was a pause of several minutes during which the end of the cigar
glowed eloquently.
"Circumstances compel me," he went on at length almost in a whisper, "or
I should never do this. But you understand, of course, the thing is a
ruse. Cutting out the signature is a mere pretence. It is nothing.
_What Garvey wants are the papers themselves._"
The confidence reposed in the private secretary was not misplaced.
Shorthouse was as faithful to Mr. Sidebotham as a man ought to be to the
wife that loves him.
The commission itself seemed very simple. Garvey lived in solitude in
the remote part of Long Island. Shorthouse was to take the papers to
him, witness the cutting out of the signature, and to be specially on
his guard against any attempt, forcible or otherwise, to gain possession
of them. It seemed to him a somewhat ludicrous adventure, but he did not
know all the facts and perhaps was not the best judge.
The two men talked in low voices for another hour, at the end of which
Mr. Sidebotham drew up the blinds, opened the registers and unlocked the
door.
Shorthouse rose to go. His pockets were stuffed with papers and his head
with instructions; but when he reached the door he hesitated and turned.
"Well?" said his chief.
Shorthouse looked him straight in the eye and said nothing.
"The personal violence, I suppose?" said the other. Shorthouse bowed.
"I have not seen Garvey for twenty years," he said; "all I can tell you
is that I believe him to be occasionally of unsound mind. I have heard
strange rumours. He lives alone, and in his lucid intervals studies
chemistry. It was always a hobby of his. But the chances are twenty to
one against his attempting violence. I only wished to warn you--in
case--I mean, so that you may be on the watch."
He handed his secretary a Smith and Wesson revolver as he spoke.
Shorthouse slipped it into his hip pocket and went out of the room.
* * * * *
A drizzling cold rain was falling on fields covered with half-melted
snow when Shorthouse stood, late in the afternoon, on the platform of
the lonely little Long Island station and watched the train he had just
left vanish into the distance.
It was a bleak country that Joel Garvey, Esq., formerly of Chicago, had