Produced by Al Haines.
The Riddle and the Ring;
WON BY NERVE
[From _TOP-NOTCH MAGAZINE_]
STREET & SMITH, PUBLISHERS 79-89 SEVENTH AVE., NEW YORK CITY
Copyright, 1911 By STREET & SMITH
The Riddle and the Ring
All rights reserved, including that of translation into foreign languages, including the Scandinavian.
I. THE LITTLE MAN IN BLACK. II. AN AMAZING OFFER. III. PANIC. IV. THE EMERALD RING. V. THE POWER OF AVARICE. VI. AS IN A DREAM. VII. NEW GRACE AND DIGNITY. VIII. THE GATES OF CHANCE. IX. A WOMAN IN DISTRESS. X. SHIRLEY RIVES. XI. HIDE AND SEEK. XII. PUZZLED. XIII. THE WHEEL OF FORTUNE. XIV. FOLLOWED. XV. THE GIRL WHO VANISHED. XVI. ANOTHER WOMAN. XVII. BEYOND BELIEF. XVIII. CHAOS. XIX. PROTECTIVE MEASURES. XX. THE MAN WHO LOST. XXI. IN THE NEXT COMPARTMENT. XXII. THE TOUCH Of COLD STEEL. XXIII. BY FORCE OF ARMS. XXIV. THE EMPTY HOUSE. XXV. THE FACE IN THE CANDLELIGHT. XXVI. THE HAND OF FATE. XXVII. THE LETTER. XXVIII. THE HOUSE ON THE AVENUE. XXIX. LAWRENCE PLEADS. XXX. THE TANGLED WEB. XXXI. DESPAIR. XXXII. AN EXTRAORDINARY INTERVIEW. XXXIII. GONE! XXXIV. THE PUZZLE GROWS. XXXV. THE ASTONISHING MRS. WILMERDING. XXXVI. TAKING UP THE TRAIL. XXXVII. TWO SHEETS OF PAPER.XXXVIII. IN CAPITALS OF RED. XXXIX. HAMERSLEY TAKES A HAND. XL. THE OPEN DOOR. XLI. AT CROSS-PURPOSES. XLII. THE MAN IN THE MIRROR. XLIII. HIS SECOND HALF. XLIV. THE RIDDLE SOLVED. XLV. THE GIFT OF THE RING.
*THE RIDDLE AND THE RING.*
*THE LITTLE MAN IN BLACK.*
It was the second time the man had passed the bench, and, as their eyesmet for an instant before the stranger swiftly averted his head andwalked on, Barry Lawrence frowned with quick suspicion. Was it possiblethat the intolerable persecution had begun again? For more than threeweeks he had been left in peace, and it seemed the irony of fate thatnow, at a moment when he was tasting the bitter dregs of life, theharassing should begin again.
The next moment he shrugged his shoulders resignedly. After all, whatdid it matter? They could get nothing from him now--he had nothing togive. If they had indeed returned, they must soon discover that.
The massive facade of the Pennsylvania Station had caught his eye, andbrought new hope to his numbed brain. Here at least would becomparative warmth, and they could not very well turn him out. He couldpretend that he was waiting for a train, and might sit for hours in thewaiting room. After that---- Well, he did not wish to think ofafterward.
He was only just beginning to recover from the stupefying cold which hadnumbed and chilled him to the marrow, and driven him into the greatstation to keep from dropping in the icy, wind-swept street.
He fancied that the passing porters looked at him curiously. When theannouncer strolled near him, he felt impelled to turn toward the newsstand in the corner. At least he could afford a paper. It was aboutthe only thing he could buy now, and with it he could retire to thewaiting room with some semblance of naturalness.
It was as he turned away from the stand that his eyes met, for the firsttime, those of the little man in black. Lawrence did not notice hisappearance particularly then, but averted his eyes, and strode towardthe men's waiting room. Here it was much warmer. The benches were wellfilled, but he found a seat facing the door, spread out his paper, andbegan to read.
Still, Lawrence felt annoyed. His recent experience of having beenfollowed and spied upon had so worn on his nerves that he constantlyfound himself suspicious of even the most casual glance. A frownfurrowed his wide forehead, and, though his eyes dropped again to theprinted sheet before him, he could not seem to dismiss the commonplacestranger from his mind.
Thus it happened that, when the man passed the bench again, Lawrencethrew back his head swiftly, and caught the pale, grayish eyes fixed onhis face with a stealthy, but unmistakably intent, scrutiny. The lidsdrooped instantly, and the stranger continued his pacing without apause, Barry's glance followed him suspiciously.
This man did not look at all like the others who had made his lifemiserable for months. He seemed so insignificant, with his slight,spare form, his pale eyes, and rather weak face. He looked more like abookkeeper or clerk, grown old and sedate in the service of somelong-established banking house, than anything Lawrence could think of;though that did not seem to fit him exactly.
Now the man had turned and was coming back, and Barry, noticing his faceintently, found himself wondering whether he was really old or not.After all, he might easily have been thirty-five or so; it was hisiron-gray hair and curiously set expression which made him seem older.
The young fellow's eyes dropped to the paper, and he waited for thestranger to pass on. The latter did not pass, however. Instead, heapproached the bench, and quietly took the seat on Barry's left. Therewas a momentary pause, during which Lawrence wondered what under the sunwas coming next. Then the unknown cleared his throat, shot a quickglance at the stout man dozing at the end of the bench, and spoke.
"I beg pardon," he said sedately, "but would you have any objection toearning a thousand dollars?"
*AN AMAZING OFFER.*
Lawrence dropped his paper, and flashed a startled, bewildered glance atthe man beside him. For a moment he was silent, unable to credit hissenses.
"What did you say?" he gasped at length.
"I asked if you would care to earn a thousand dollars," the strangerrepeated, in a quiet, precise voice.
Lawrence stared for a second longer, and then suddenly burst into aharsh, mirthless laugh. For an instant he had been thrilled to the verycore. A thousand dollars! Good Lord!
In that fleeting space there flashed through his brain a dozenpictures--clear, vivid, and distinct. He saw restaurants such as he usedto patronize, with food--real food, and not the gross, coarse stuff oneate simply to fill that gnawing, aching void. He saw theaters, withtheir glittering lights and stirring music. He saw his old rooms,cheery and homelike in the lamplight and the red glow of the grate fire.He saw an overcoat, well cut, and lined with thick, warm fur, into whichhe might snuggle and defy the bitter blasts which had sapped hisvitality and tortured him almost beyond endurance. He saw everythingthat a thousand dollars would bring to him.
And then he came to earth with a thud. Of course, the man was mad!
"I can understand that this may seem a little odd to you," the strangerwent on, in that same dry, unemotional tone, "but the circumstancesthemselves are somewhat out of the ordinary. I had hoped that you mightconsider the matter favorably."
Something in the other's calm, sedate, business-like manner madeLawrence eye him again keenly. There was nothing in the least sav
oringof insanity about the stranger. His whole personality fairly exudedrespectability. His pale eyes were quiet and steady--the eyes of a manwho might be utterly unemotional and lacking imagination, but scarcelythe eyes of a maniac.
Somehow the glance steadied Barry, and brought him new hope. After all,it would do no harm to inquire further into this extraordinary matter.He could scarcely be worse off than he was now.
"You can hardly blame me for being surprised," he said, with a faint,whimsical smile. "I beg your pardon for laughing, but I couldn't helpit. If you will be a little more definite, and explain what I shallhave to do to earn this money, I'll be very glad to consider it."
The stranger did not smile in answer. He simply nodded in a mannerbetokening his satisfaction, and turned more directly toward Lawrence.
"Good!" he said briefly, in that same low tone, which made it impossiblefor any passer-by to hear him. "The matter is very simple. It willtake exactly one week of your time, at the end of which the thousanddollars I shall hand you now will be yours, without further obligationon your part."
"You mean to pay me in advance?" Lawrence exclaimed incredulously.
"I am obliged to. I think, however, that I may safely leave it to yourhonor to fulfill the conditions I impose."
Barry frowned. The situation was growing more and more puzzling, andverging on the absurd.
"Simply this," the unknown explained: "If you accept my proposition, youwill at once provide yourself with an ample wardrobe, including properevening clothes--provided, of course, that you are not already soequipped."
Barry's lips twitched as he remembered that empty hall bedroom over nearTenth Avenue, but he made no comment save an understanding nod.
"There are shops where a man of taste can obtain these thingsready-made," the stranger continued quietly. "I should prefer to havethem cut by a good tailor, but there is no time. Having secured thewardrobe--you understand that there must be no stinting in eitherquality or quantity--I will give you an additional sum for expenses.You will go to the St. Albans Hotel, and engage a suite of rooms. Youknow the house?"
Lawrence shook his head. It seemed that he could not speak. His brainwas whirling, and he was beginning to wonder whether it might not be hehimself who had taken leave of his senses. One or the other of them mustbe mad; there could be no doubt of that.
"It is on Forty-fifth Street, just west of the avenue." The precise,matter-of-fact tone of his companion's voice penetrated to Barry'sdisordered brain, and again he felt that odd, reassuring sense he hadnoticed before. "A quiet, high-class house. You will remain there forjust one week, beginning to-day. During that week you will dine everynight at the Waldorf; lunch each day at the Plaza, the Knickerbocker,Shanley's, or restaurants of equal standing, and next Tuesday afternoon,at three o'clock, the thousand dollars will be earned."
Lawrence sat staring at him, open-mouthed, waiting for him to continue.When it became evident that the little man had nothing more to say,Barry's eyes threatened to pop out of his head.
"Is that all?" he managed to stammer.
"You don't want me to do anything but that?"
"He is daffy!" Lawrence said to himself decidedly. "There can't be adoubt of it. He's probably given his keeper the slip, and is having thetime of his life with me."
For an instant his heart sank, for, in spite of everything, he had beenthrilled by the prospect opened up by the stranger's words. Then heshrugged his shoulders. After all, it would be rather diverting to seehow the fellow would get out of the affair, and Barry was sadly in needof something to take his mind from his own difficulties.
"My time, then, except for lunching and dining and sleeping, will be myown?" he inquired seriously.
"You wish me to register at the St. Albans under my own name?"
"That's a matter for you to decide. It's quite immaterial to me."
"I suppose it would be a waste of time to inquire why you are willing topay such a sum for anything so very simple," Lawrence remarkedtentatively.
"Quite so!" the stranger returned emphatically. "That is altogether myaffair. Well, what do you say?"
Barry kept his face serious with difficulty. "Say?" he repeated. "Why,I accept, of course. I'd be a fool not to."
The unknown arose briskly.
"Good!" he said. "Suppose we take a stroll outside. This place isgetting close."
Without question, Lawrence followed him out into the great vaultedspace. What was the fellow going to do? How was he going to escapecarrying out his side of the bargain with any plausibility or grace? Ofcourse, he would get out of it somehow, for he was mad--mad as a Marchhare.
But, in spite of this conviction, Barry felt the blood tingling in hisfinger tips as they walked past the news stand, past the ticket offices,and on to the deserted extremity of the enormous marble hall.
Clear of the last passer-by, the little man paused, and thrust one handinto the pocket of his inner coat. "There is one other condition," hesaid, drawing out a thick leather wallet. "Under no circumstances mustyou explain to any one where you obtained this money. You must besilent regarding every particular of our meeting here, and the terms ofour bargain. I have your promise?"
Lawrence, his eyes fixed incredulously on the bulging wallet, feltsomething grip his throat. It could not be true--it simply could not!And yet----
"I promise," he said, in a queer, hoarse voice.
The stranger opened the leather flap, and showed the wallet crammed withcrisp bank notes.
"I have your word to carry out faithfully every condition I havementioned?" he questioned briskly, fixing Barry with a keen glance.
The latter tore his eyes from the bills, and returned the look.
"I give you--my word--of honor," he stammered.
His brain was whirling. He could not believe his senses. It was all amad illusion--a dream from which he must soon awake. His heart,thudding loudly and unevenly, drove the blood into his face, a crimsonflood. He was trembling, but not with cold. The stranger's voiceseemed to come from far, far away; it had fallen to a mere whisper,which Lawrence could barely catch.
"There is a matter of another thousand dollars here for expenses," hewas saying. He held out the wallet, and Barry's fingers closed aroundit instinctively. "That is all, I think. You know what you are to do,and I can trust to your word of honor."
Without another word, he turned and walked away.
Lawrence sprang after him. "I haven't thanked you!" he exclaimedincoherently. "You don't know--what you have done for me. I--I----"
"I want no thanks," the stranger returned impatiently, his eyes fixed onthe great clock. "You can best show your gratitude by carrying out myconditions to the letter. I am pressed for time. I can wait no longer.Good-by!"
As he hurried away, Lawrence stood staring after him, as if in a dream.He saw the slim, somberly clad figure bustle past the waiting rooms andthrough the doors into the train shed. A moment later the announcerbellowed out the last call for a certain train, and his raucous voicearoused Barry from the trance.
He had thrust the wallet into his pocket, but now he took it out, andopened it with trembling fingers. The bills were still there--new,crisp, and yellow. His fingers touched them, and they did not crumbleinto dust, as he almost expected them to do. Scraps of long-forgottenfairy stories, read as a child, danced through his dazed brain, in whichbenefactors in strange guises gave unexpected largess to starving,freezing people. Nothing could be stranger than the appearance of thelittle man in black.
He laughed aloud. Then a thought came to him which swept the smile fromhis lips and the color from his cheeks in the twinkling of an eye: Thebills were counterfeit!
With blanched face and trembling fingers, he thrust the wa
llet back intohis pocket like a flash. What a fool he had been--what a bonehead! Thebills were counterfeit, and the stranger, followed closely, no doubt, bydetectives, had taken this way of getting them off his person. Thisaccounted for the stealth, the secrecy, of the transaction. Thisexplained everything which had been inexplicable.
With a swift-drawn breath, Lawrence looked nervously around, to meet theglance of a thin, wiry man standing in the center of the rotunda. Coldchills began to course up and down Barry's spine. What should he do ifhe were caught with the stuff in his pocket? If he could only escapefrom the station there might be a chance of throwing it away unobserved.If only he had not dropped his paper, he might, even here, tuck theincriminating wallet in its folds, and fling both carelessly into therubbish can. What a fool he had been!
Presently the man who had been watching him turned slowly away, andwalked toward one of the ticket windows. That was only a pretense, ofcourse. Lawrence realized that perfectly, and yet, relieved of thestranger's scrutiny, he ventured to move toward the broad flight ofsteps leading up to that long corridor, and thence to the street.
The man did not turn, and Barry's speed increased. If he could only getout of the station it would be all right. As his foot struck the bottomstep, his eyes, glancing backward, told him that the man was buying aticket. He could scarcely see through the back of his head. Perhapsthere was a slim chance, after all.
Less than a minute later he flung himself out into the icy street, witha gasp of thanksgiving. Hurrying past the long front of the building, itseemed to him that every one must be staring after him. Through histhin coat the wallet bulged horribly. How could any one fail to guesswhat was in it?