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Produced by Don Lainson





THE AMATEUR


By Richard Harding Davis




I


It was February off the Banks, and so thick was the weather that, on
the upper decks, one could have driven a sleigh. Inside the smoking-room
Austin Ford, as securely sheltered from the blizzard as though he had
been sitting in front of a wood fire at his club, ordered hot gin for
himself and the ship's doctor. The ship's doctor had gone below on
another "hurry call" from the widow. At the first luncheon on board the
widow had sat on the right of Doctor Sparrow, with Austin Ford facing
her. But since then, except to the doctor, she had been invisible. So,
at frequent intervals, the ill health of the widow had deprived Ford of
the society of the doctor. That it deprived him, also, of the society
of the widow did not concern him. HER life had not been spent upon ocean
liners; she could not remember when state-rooms were named after the
States of the Union. She could not tell him of shipwrecks and salvage,
of smugglers and of the modern pirates who found their victims in the
smoking-room.

Ford was on his way to England to act as the London correspondent of the
New York Republic. For three years on that most sensational of the New
York dailies he had been the star man, the chief muckraker, the chief
sleuth. His interest was in crime. Not in crimes committed in passion or
inspired by drink, but in such offences against law and society as
are perpetrated with nice intelligence. The murderer, the burglar, the
strong-arm men who, in side streets, waylay respectable citizens did not
appeal to him. The man he studied, pursued, and exposed was the cashier
who evolved a new method of covering up his peculations, the dishonest
president of an insurance company, the confidence man who used no
concealed weapon other than his wit. Toward the criminals he pursued
young Ford felt no personal animosity. He harassed them as he would
have shot a hawk killing chickens. Not because he disliked the hawk,
but because the battle was unequal, and because he felt sorry for the
chickens.

Had you called Austin Ford an amateur detective he would have been
greatly annoyed. He argued that his position was similar to that of
the dramatic critic. The dramatic critic warned the public against bad
plays; Ford warned it against bad men. Having done that, he left it to
the public to determine whether the bad man should thrive or perish.

When the managing editor told him of his appointment to London, Ford had
protested that his work lay in New York; that of London and the English,
except as a tourist and sight-seer, he knew nothing.

"That's just why we are sending you," explained the managing editor.
"Our readers are ignorant. To make them read about London you've got
to tell them about themselves in London. They like to know who's been
presented at court, about the American girls who have married dukes; and
which ones opened a bazaar, and which one opened a hat shop, and which
is getting a divorce. Don't send us anything concerning suffragettes and
Dreadnaughts. Just send us stuff about Americans. If you take your meals
in the Carlton grill-room and drink at the Cecil you can pick up more
good stories than we can print. You will find lots of your friends over
there. Some of those girls who married dukes," he suggested, "know you,
don't they?"

"Not since they married dukes," said Ford.

"Well, anyway, all your other friends will be there," continued the
managing editor encouragingly. "Now that they have shut up the tracks
here all the con men have gone to London. They say an American can't
take a drink at the Salisbury without his fellow-countrymen having a
fight as to which one will sell him a gold brick."

Ford's eyes lightened in pleasurable anticipation.

"Look them over," urged the managing editor, "and send us a special.
Call it 'The American Invasion.' Don't you see a story in it?"

"It will be the first one I send you," said Ford. The ship's doctor
returned from his visit below decks and sank into the leather cushion
close to Ford's elbow. For a few moments the older man sipped doubtfully
at his gin and water, and, as though perplexed, rubbed his hand over his
bald and shining head. "I told her to talk to you," he said fretfully.

"Her? Who?" inquired Ford. "Oh, the widow?"

"You were right about that," said Doctor Sparrow; "she is not a widow."

The reporter smiled complacently.

"Do you know why I thought not?" he demanded. "Because all the time she
was at luncheon she kept turning over her wedding-ring as though she was
not used to it. It was a new ring, too. I told you then she was not a
widow."

"Do you always notice things like that?" asked the doctor.

"Not on purpose," said the amateur detective; "I can't help it. I see
ten things where other people see only one; just as some men run ten
times as fast as other men. We have tried it out often at the office;
put all sorts of junk under a newspaper, lifted the newspaper for five
seconds, and then each man wrote down what he had seen. Out of twenty
things I would remember seventeen. The next best guess would be about
nine. Once I saw a man lift his coat collar to hide his face. It was in
the Grand Central Station. I stopped him, and told him he was wanted.
Turned out he WAS wanted. It was Goldberg, making his getaway to
Canada."

"It is a gift," said the doctor.

"No, it's a nuisance," laughed the reporter. "I see so many things I
don't want to see. I see that people are wearing clothes that are not
made for them. I see when women are lying to me. I can see when men are
on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and whether it is drink or debt or
morphine - "

The doctor snorted triumphantly.

"You did not see that the widow was on the verge of a breakdown!"

"No," returned the reporter. "Is she? I'm sorry."

"If you're sorry," urged the doctor eagerly, "you'll help her. She is
going to London alone to find her husband. He has disappeared. She
thinks that he has been murdered, or that he is lying ill in some
hospital. I told her if any one could help her to find him you could. I
had to say something. She's very ill."

"To find her husband in London?" repeated Ford. "London is a large
town."

"She has photographs of him and she knows where he spends his time,"
pleaded the doctor. "He is a company promoter. It should be easy for
you."

"Maybe he doesn't want her to find him," said Ford. "Then it wouldn't be
so easy for me."

The old doctor sighed heavily. "I know," he murmured. "I thought of
that, too. And she is so very pretty."

"That was another thing I noticed," said Ford.

The doctor gave no heed.

"She must stop worrying," he exclaimed, "or she will have a mental
collapse. I have tried sedatives, but they don't touch her. I want to
give her courage. She is frightened. She's left a baby boy at home, and
she's fearful that something will happen to him, and she's frightened
at being at sea, frightened at being alone in London; it's pitiful." The
old man shook his head. "Pitiful! Will you talk to her now?" he asked.

"Nonsense!" exclaimed Ford. "She doesn't want to tell the story of her
life to strange young men."

"But it was she suggested it," cried the doctor. "She asked me if you
were Austin Ford, the great detective."

Ford snorted scornfully. "She did not!" he protested. His tone was that
of a man who hopes to be contradicted.

"But she did," insisted the doctor, "and I told her your specialty was
tracing persons. Her face lightened at once; it gave her hope. She will
listen to you. Speak very gently and kindly and confidently. Say you are
sure you can find him."

"Where is the lady now?" asked Ford.

Doctor Sparrow scrambled eagerly to his feet. "She cannot leave her
cabin," he answered.

The widow, as Ford and Doctor Sparrow still thought of her, was lying on
the sofa that ran the length of the state-room, parallel with the lower
berth. She was fully dressed, except that instead of her bodice she wore
a kimono that left her throat and arms bare. She had been sleeping,
and when their entrance awoke her, her blue eyes regarded them
uncomprehendingly. Ford, hidden from her by the doctor, observed that
not only was she very pretty, but that she was absurdly young, and
that the drowsy smile she turned upon the old man before she noted the
presence of Ford was as innocent as that of a baby. Her cheeks were
flushed, her eyes brilliant, her yellow curls had become loosened and
were spread upon the pillow. When she saw Ford she caught the kimono so
closely around her throat that she choked. Had the doctor not pushed her
down she would have stood.

"I thought," she stammered, "he was an OLD man."

The doctor, misunderstanding, hastened to reassure her. "Mr. Ford is old
in experience," he said soothingly. "He has had remarkable success.
Why, he found a criminal once just because the man wore a collar. And
he found Walsh, the burglar, and Phillips, the forger, and a gang of
counterfeiters - "

Mrs. Ashton turned upon him, her eyes wide with wonder. "But MY
husband," she protested, "is not a criminal!"

"My dear lady!" the doctor cried. "I did not mean that, of course not. I
meant, if Mr. Ford can find men who don't wish to be found, how easy for
him to find a man who - " He turned helplessly to Ford. "You tell her,"
he begged.

Ford sat down on a steamer trunk that protruded from beneath the berth,
and, turning to the widow, gave her the full benefit of his working
smile. It was confiding, helpless, appealing. It showed a trustfulness
in the person to whom it was addressed that caused that individual to
believe Ford needed protection from a wicked world.

"Doctor Sparrow tells me," began Ford timidly, "you have lost your
husband's address; that you will let me try to find him. If I can help
in any way I should be glad."

The young girl regarded him, apparently, with disappointment. It was
as though Doctor Sparrow had led her to expect a man full of years
and authority, a man upon whom she could lean; not a youth whose smile
seemed to beg one not to scold him. She gave Ford three photographs,
bound together with a string.

"When Doctor Sparrow told me you could help me I got out these," she
said.

Ford jotted down a mental note to the effect that she "got them out."
That is, she did not keep them where she could always look at them. That
she was not used to look at them was evident by the fact that they were
bound together.

The first photograph showed three men standing in an open place and
leaning on a railing. One of them was smiling toward the photographer.
He was a good-looking young man of about thirty years of age, well fed,
well dressed, and apparently well satisfied with the world and himself.
Ford's own smile had disappeared. His eyes were alert and interested.

"The one with the Panama hat pulled down over his eyes is your husband?"
he asked.

"Yes," assented the widow. Her tone showed slight surprise.

"This was taken about a year ago?" inquired Ford. "Must have been," he
answered himself; "they haven't raced at the Bay since then. This was
taken in front of the club stand - probably for the Telegraph?" He lifted
his eyes inquiringly.

Rising on her elbow the young wife bent forward toward the photograph.
"Does it say that there," she asked doubtfully. "How did you guess
that?"

In his role as chorus the ship's doctor exclaimed with enthusiasm:
"Didn't I tell you? He's wonderful."

Ford cut him off impatiently. "You never saw a rail as high as
that except around a racetrack," he muttered. "And the badge in his
buttonhole and the angle of the stand all show - "

He interrupted himself to address the widow. "This is an owner's badge.
What was the name of his stable?"

"I don't know," she answered. She regarded the young man with sudden
uneasiness. "They only owned one horse, but I believe that gave them the
privilege of - "

"I see," exclaimed Ford. "Your husband is a bookmaker. But in London he
is a promoter of companies."

"So my friend tells me," said Mrs. Ashton. "She's just got back from
London. Her husband told her that Harry, my husband, was always at the
American bar in the Cecil or at the Salisbury or the Savoy." The girl
shook her head. "But a woman can't go looking for a man there," she
protested. "That's why I thought you - "

"That'll be all right," Ford assured her hurriedly. "It's a coincidence,
but it happens that my own work takes me to these hotels, and if your
husband is there I will find him." He returned the photographs.

"Hadn't you better keep one?" she asked.

"I won't forget him," said the reporter. "Besides" - he turned his eyes
toward the doctor and, as though thinking aloud, said - "he may have
grown a beard."

There was a pause.

The eyes of the woman grew troubled. Her lips pressed together as though
in a sudden access of pain.

"And he may," Ford continued, "have changed his name."

As though fearful, if she spoke, the tears would fall, the girl nodded
her head stiffly.

Having learned what he wanted to know Ford applied to the wound a
soothing ointment of promises and encouragement.

"He's as good as found," he protested. "You will see him in a day, two
days after you land."

The girl's eyes opened happily. She clasped her hands together and
raised them.

"You will try?" she begged. "You will find him for me" - she corrected
herself eagerly - "for me and the baby?"

The loose sleeves of the kimono fell back to her shoulders showing the
white arms; the eyes raised to Ford were glistening with tears.

"Of course I will find him," growled the reporter.

He freed himself from the appeal in the eyes of the young mother
and left the cabin. The doctor followed. He was bubbling over with
enthusiasm.

"That was fine!" he cried. "You said just the right thing. There will be
no collapse now."

His satisfaction was swept away in a burst of disgust.

"The blackguard!" he protested. "To desert a wife as young as that and
as pretty as that."

"So I have been thinking," said the reporter. "I guess," he added
gravely, "what is going to happen is that before I find her husband I
will have got to know him pretty well."

Apparently, young Mrs. Ashton believed everything would come to pass
just as Ford promised it would and as he chose to order it; for the next
day, with a color not born of fever in her cheeks and courage in
her eyes, she joined Ford and the doctor at the luncheon-table. Her
attention was concentrated on the younger man. In him she saw the one
person who could bring her husband to her.

"She acts," growled the doctor later in the smoking-room, "as though
she was afraid you were going to back out of your promise and jump
overboard."

"Don't think," he protested violently, "it's you she's interested in.
All she sees in you is what you can do for her. Can you see that?"

"Any one as clever at seeing things as I am," returned the reporter,
"cannot help but see that."

Later, as Ford was walking on the upper deck, Mrs. Ashton came toward
him, beating her way against the wind. Without a trace of coquetry or
self-consciousness, and with a sigh of content, she laid her hand on his
arm.

"When I don't see you," she exclaimed as simply as a child, "I feel so
frightened. When I see you I know all will come right. Do you mind if I
walk with you?" she asked. "And do you mind if every now and then I ask
you to tell me again it will all come right?"

For the three days following Mrs. Ashton and Ford were constantly
together. Or, at least, Mrs. Ashton was constantly with Ford. She told
him that when she sat in her cabin the old fears returned to her, and in
these moments of panic she searched the ship for him.

The doctor protested that he was growing jealous.

"I'm not so greatly to be envied," suggested Ford. "'Harry' at
meals three times a day and on deck all the rest of the day becomes
monotonous. On a closer acquaintance with Harry he seems to be a decent
sort of a young man; at least he seems to have been at one time very
much in love with her."

"Well," sighed the doctor sentimentally, "she is certainly very much in
love with Harry."

Ford shook his head non-committingly. "I don't know her story," he said.
"Don't want to know it."

The ship was in the channel, on her way to Cherbourg, and running as
smoothly as a clock. From the shore friendly lights told them they were
nearing their journey's end; that the land was on every side. Seated
on a steamer-chair next to his in the semi-darkness of the deck, Mrs.
Ashton began to talk nervously and eagerly.

"Now that we are so near," she murmured, "I have got to tell you
something. If you did not know I would feel I had not been fair. You
might think that when you were doing so much for me I should have been
more honest."

She drew a long breath. "It's so hard," she said.

"Wait," commanded Ford. "Is it going to help me to find him?"

"No."

"Then don't tell me."

His tone caused the girl to start. She leaned toward him and peered
into his face. His eyes, as he looked back to her, were kind and
comprehending.

"You mean," said the amateur detective, "that your husband has deserted
you. That if it were not for the baby you would not try to find him. Is
that it?"

Mrs. Ashton breathed quickly and turned her face away.

"Yes," she whispered. "That is it."

There was a long pause. When she faced him again the fact that there was
no longer a secret between them seemed to give her courage.

"Maybe," she said, "you can understand. Maybe you can tell me what it
means. I have thought and thought. I have gone over it and over it until
when I go back to it my head aches. I have done nothing else but think,
and I can't make it seem better. I can't find any excuse. I have had no
one to talk to, no one I could tell. I have thought maybe a man could
understand." She raised her eyes appealingly.

"If you can only make it seem less cruel. Don't you see," she cried
miserably, "I want to believe; I want to forgive him. I want to think he
loves me. Oh! I want so to be able to love him; but how can I? I can't!
I can't!"

In the week in which they had been thrown together the girl
unconsciously had told Ford much about herself and her husband. What she
now told him was but an amplification of what he had guessed.

She had met Ashton a year and a half before, when she had just left
school at the convent and had returned to live with her family. Her home
was at Far Rockaway. Her father was a cashier in a bank at Long Island
City. One night, with a party of friends, she had been taken to a dance
at one of the beach hotels, and there met Ashton. At that time he was
one of a firm that was making book at the Aqueduct race-track. The girl
had met very few men and with them was shy and frightened, but with
Ashton she found herself at once at ease. That night he drove her and
her friends home in his touring-car and the next day they teased her
about her conquest. It made her very happy. After that she went to hops
at the hotel, and as the bookmaker did not dance, the two young people
sat upon the piazza. Then Ashton came to see her at her own house, but
when her father learned that the young man who had been calling upon her
was a bookmaker he told him he could not associate with his daughter.

But the girl was now deeply in love with Ashton, and apparently he with
her. He begged her to marry him. They knew that to this, partly from
prejudice and partly owing to his position in the bank, her father would
object. Accordingly they agreed that in August, when the racing moved to
Saratoga, they would run away and get married at that place. Their plan
was that Ashton would leave for Saratoga with the other racing men, and
that she would join him the next day.

They had arranged to be married by a magistrate, and Ashton had shown
her a letter from one at Saratoga who consented to perform the ceremony.
He had given her an engagement ring and two thousand dollars, which he
asked her to keep for him, lest tempted at the track he should lose it.

But she assured Ford it was not such material things as a letter, a
ring, or gift of money that had led her to trust Ashton. His fear of
losing her, his complete subjection to her wishes, his happiness in her
presence, all seemed to prove that to make her happy was his one wish,
and that he could do anything to make her unhappy appeared impossible.

They were married the morning she arrived at Saratoga; and the same day
departed for Niagara Falls and Quebec. The honeymoon lasted ten days.
They were ten days of complete happiness. No one, so the girl declared,
could have been more kind, more unselfishly considerate than her
husband. They returned to Saratoga and engaged a suite of rooms at one
of the big hotels. Ashton was not satisfied with the rooms shown him,
and leaving her upstairs returned to the office floor to ask for others.

Since that moment his wife had never seen him nor heard from him.

On the day of her marriage young Mrs. Ashton had written to her father,
asking him to give her his good wishes and pardon. He refused both. As
she had feared, he did not consider that for a bank clerk a gambler made
a desirable son-in-law; and the letters he wrote his daughter were
so bitter that in reply she informed him he had forced her to choose
between her family and her husband, and that she chose her husband.
In consequence, when she found herself deserted she felt she could not
return to her people. She remained in Saratoga. There she moved into
cheap lodgings, and in order that the two thousand dollars Ashton
had left with her might be saved for his child, she had learned to
type-write, and after four months had been able to support herself.
Within the last month a girl friend, who had known both Ashton and
herself before they were married, had written her that her husband was
living in London. For the sake of her son she had at once determined to
make an effort to seek him out.

"The son, nonsense!" exclaimed the doctor, when Ford retold the story.
"She is not crossing the ocean because she is worried about the future
of her son. She seeks her own happiness. The woman is in love with her
husband."

Ford shook his head.

"I don't know!" he objected. "She's so extravagant in her praise of
Harry that it seems unreal. It sounds insincere. Then, again, when I
swear I will find him she shows a delight that you might describe as
savage, almost vindictive. As though, if I did find Harry, the first
thing she would do would be to stick a knife in him."

"Maybe," volunteered the doctor sadly, "she has heard there is a woman
in the case. Maybe she is the one she's thinking of sticking the knife
into?"

"Well," declared the reporter, "if she doesn't stop looking savage every
time I promise to find Harry I won't find Harry. Why should I act the
part of Fate, anyway? How do I know that Harry hasn't got a wife in
London and several in the States? How do we know he didn't leave his
country for his country's good? That's what it looks like to me. How can
we tell what confronted him the day he went down to the hotel desk to
change his rooms and, instead, got into his touring-car and beat the
speed limit to Canada. Whom did he meet in the hotel corridor? A woman
with a perfectly good marriage certificate, or a detective with a
perfectly good warrant? Or did Harry find out that his bride had a devil
of a temper of her own, and that for him marriage was a failure? The
widow is certainly a very charming young woman, but there may be two
sides to this."

"You are a cynic, sir," protested the doctor.

"That may be," growled the reporter, "but I am not a private detective
agency, or a matrimonial bureau, and before I hear myself saying, 'Bless
you, my children!' both of these young people will have to show me why
they should not be kept asunder."




II


On the afternoon of their arrival in London Ford convoyed Mrs. Ashton to
an old-established private hotel in Craven Street.

"Here," he explained, "you will be within a few hundred yards of the
place in which your husband is said to spend his time. I will be living
in the same hotel. If I find him you will know it in ten minutes."

The widow gave a little gasp, whether of excitement or of happiness Ford
could not determine.

"Whatever happens," she begged, "will you let me hear from you
sometimes? You are the only person I know in London - and - it's so big it
frightens me. I don't want to be a burden," she went on eagerly, "but if
I can feel you are within call - "

"What you need," said Ford heartily, "is less of the doctor's nerve


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Online LibraryRichard Harding DavisThe Amateur → online text (page 1 of 2)