XVI. Skagg's Theory
There was, perhaps, more depth to Mr. Skaggs than most people gave him credit for having. However it may be, when he got an idea into his head, whether it were insane or otherwise, he had a decidedly tenacious way of holding to it. Sadness had been disposed to laugh at him when he announced that Joe's drunken story of his father's troubles had given him an idea. But it was, nevertheless, true, and that idea had stayed with him clear through the exciting events that followed on that fatal night. He thought and dreamed of it until he had made a working theory. Then one day, with a boldness that he seldom assumed when in the sacred Presence, he walked into the office and laid his plans before the editor. They talked together for some time, and the editor seemed hard to convince.
"It would be a big thing for the paper," he said, "if it only panned out; but it is such a rattle-brained, harum-scarum thing. No one under the sun would have thought of it but you, Skaggs."
"Oh, it 's bound to pan out. I see the thing as clear as day. There 's no getting around it."
"Yes, it looks plausible, but so does all fiction. You 're taking a chance. You 're losing time. If it fails----"
"But if it succeeds?"
"Well, go and bring back a story. If you don't, look out. It 's against my better judgment anyway. Remember I told you that."
Skaggs shot out of the office, and within an hour and a half had boarded a fast train for the South.
It is almost a question whether Skaggs had a theory or whether he had told himself a pretty story and, as usual, believed it. The editor was right. No one else would have thought of the wild thing that was in the reporter's mind. The detective had not thought of it five years before, nor had Maurice Oakley and his friends had an inkling, and here was one of the New York Universe's young men going miles to prove his idea about something that did not at all concern him.
When Skaggs reached the town which had been the home of the Hamiltons, he went at once to the Continental Hotel. He had as yet formulated no plan of immediate action and with a fool's or a genius' belief in his destiny he sat down to await the turn of events. His first move would be to get acquainted with some of his neighbours. This was no difficult matter, as the bar of the Continental was still the gathering-place of some of the city's choice spirits of the old régime. Thither he went, and his convivial cheerfulness soon placed him on terms of equality with many of his kind.
He insinuated that he was looking around for business prospects. This proved his open-sesame. Five years had not changed the Continental frequenters much, and Skaggs's intention immediately brought Beachfield Davis down upon him with the remark, "If a man wants to go into business, business for a gentleman, suh, Gad, there 's no finer or better paying business in the world than breeding blooded dogs--that is, if you get a man of experience to go in with you."
"Dogs, dogs," drivelled old Horace Talbot, "Beachfield 's always talking about dogs. I remember the night we were all discussing that Hamilton nigger's arrest, Beachfield said it was a sign of total depravity because his man hunted 'possums with his hound." The old man laughed inanely. The hotel whiskey was getting on his nerves.
The reporter opened his eyes and his ears. He had stumbled upon something, at any rate.
"What was it about some nigger's arrest, sir?" he asked respectfully.
"Oh, it was n't anything much. Only an old and trusted servant robbed his master, and my theory----"
"But you will remember, Mr. Talbot," broke in Davis, "that I proved your theory to be wrong and cited a conclusive instance."
"Yes, a 'possum-hunting dog."
"I am really anxious to hear about the robbery, though. It seems such an unusual thing for a negro to steal a great amount."
"Just so, and that was part of my theory. Now----"
"It 's an old story and a long one, Mr. Skaggs, and one of merely local repute," interjected Colonel Saunders. "I don't think it could possibly interest you, who are familiar with the records of the really great crimes that take place in a city such as New York."
"Those things do interest me very much, though. I am something of a psychologist, and I often find the smallest and most insignificant-appearing details pregnant with suggestion. Won't you let me hear the story, Colonel?"
"Why, yes, though there 's little in it save that I am one of the few men who have come to believe that the negro, Berry Hamilton, is not the guilty party."
"Nonsense! nonsense!" said Talbot; "of course Berry was guilty, but, as I said before, I don't blame him. The negroes----"
"Total depravity," said Davis. "Now look at my dog----"
"If you will retire with me to the further table I will give you whatever of the facts I can call to mind."
As unobtrusively as they could, they drew apart from the others and seated themselves at a more secluded table, leaving Talbot and Davis wrangling, as of old, over their theories. When the glasses were filled and the pipes going, the Colonel began his story, interlarding it frequently with comments of his own.
"Now, in the first place, Mr. Skaggs," he said when the tale was done, "I am lawyer enough to see for myself how weak the evidence was upon which the negro was convicted, and later events have done much to confirm me in the opinion that he was innocent."
"Yes." The Colonel leaned across the table and his voice fell to a whisper. "Four years ago a great change took place in Maurice Oakley. It happened in the space of a day, and no one knows the cause of it. From a social, companionable man, he became a recluse, shunning visitors and dreading society. From an open-hearted, unsuspicious neighbour, he became secretive and distrustful of his own friends. From an active business man, he has become a retired brooder. He sees no one if he can help it. He writes no letters and receives none, not even from his brother, it is said. And all of this came about in the space of twenty-four hours."
"But what was the beginning of it?"
"No one knows, save that one day he had some sort of nervous attack. By the time the doctor was called he was better, but he kept clutching his hand over his heart. Naturally, the physician wanted to examine him there, but the very suggestion of it seemed to throw him into a frenzy; and his wife too begged the doctor, an old friend of the family, to desist. Maurice Oakley had been as sound as a dollar, and no one of the family had had any tendency to heart affection."
"It is strange."
"Strange it is, but I have my theory."
"His actions are like those of a man guarding a secret."
"Sh! His negro laundress says that there is an inside pocket in his undershirts."
"An inside pocket?"
"And for what?" Skaggs was trembling with eagerness.
The Colonel dropped his voice lower.
"We can only speculate," he said; "but, as I have said, I have my theory. Oakley was a just man, and in punishing his old servant for the supposed robbery it is plain that he acted from principle. But he is also a proud man and would hate to confess that he had been in the wrong. So I believed that the cause of his first shock was the finding of the money that he supposed gone. Unwilling to admit this error, he lets the misapprehension go on, and it is the money which he carries in his secret pocket, with a morbid fear of its discovery, that has made him dismiss his servants, leave his business, and refuse to see his friends."
"A very natural conclusion, Colonel, and I must say that I believe you. It is strange that others have not seen as you have seen and brought the matter to light."
"Well, you see, Mr. Skaggs, none are so dull as the people who think they think. I can safely say that there is not another man in this town who has lighted upon the real solution of this matter, though it has been openly talked of for so long. But as for bringing it to light, no one would think of doing that. It would be sure to hurt Oakley's feelings, and he is of one of our best families."
"Ah, yes, perfectly right."
Skaggs had got all that he wanted; much more, in fact, than he had expected. The Colonel held him for a while yet to enlarge upon the views that he had expressed.
When the reporter finally left him, it was with a cheery "Good-night, Colonel. If I were a criminal, I should be afraid of that analytical mind of yours!"
He went upstairs chuckling. "The old fool!" he cried as he flung himself into a chair. "I 've got it! I 've got it! Maurice Oakley must see me, and then what?" He sat down to think out what he should do to-morrow. Again, with his fine disregard of ways and means, he determined to trust to luck, and as he expressed it, "brace old Oakley."
Accordingly he went about nine o'clock the next morning to Oakley's house. A gray-haired, sad-eyed woman inquired his errand.
"I want to see Mr. Oakley," he said.
"You cannot see him. Mr. Oakley is not well and does not see visitors."
"But I must see him, madam; I am here upon business of importance."
"You can tell me just as well as him. I am his wife and transact all of his business."
"I can tell no one but the master of the house himself."
"You cannot see him. It is against his orders."
"Very well," replied Skaggs, descending one step; "it is his loss, not mine. I have tried to do my duty and failed. Simply tell him that I came from Paris."
"Paris?" cried a querulous voice behind the woman's back. "Leslie, why do you keep the gentleman at the door? Let him come in at once."
Mrs. Oakley stepped from the door and Skaggs went in. Had he seen Oakley before he would have been shocked at the change in his appearance; but as it was, the nervous, white-haired man who stood shiftily before him told him nothing of an eating secret long carried. The man's face was gray and haggard, and deep lines were cut under his staring, fish-like eyes. His hair tumbled in white masses over his pallid forehead, and his lips twitched as he talked.
"You 're from Paris, sir, from Paris?" he said. "Come in, come in."
His motions were nervous and erratic. Skaggs followed him into the library, and the wife disappeared in another direction.
It would have been hard to recognise in the Oakley of the present the man of a few years before. The strong frame had gone away to bone, and nothing of his old power sat on either brow or chin. He was as a man who trembled on the brink of insanity. His guilty secret had been too much for him, and Skaggs's own fingers twitched as he saw his host's hands seek the breast of his jacket every other moment.
"It is there the secret is hidden," he said to himself, "and whatever it is, I must have it. But how--how? I can't knock the man down and rob him in his own house." But Oakley himself proceeded to give him his first cue.
"You--you--perhaps have a message from my brother--my brother who is in Paris. I have not heard from him for some time."
Skaggs's mind worked quickly. He remembered the Colonel's story. Evidently the brother had something to do with the secret. "Now or never," he thought. So he said boldly, "Yes, I have a message from your brother."
The man sprung up, clutching again at his breast. "You have? you have? Give it to me. After four years he sends me a message! Give it to me!"
The reporter looked steadily at the man. He knew that he was in his power, that his very eagerness would prove traitor to his discretion.
"Your brother bade me to say to you that you have a terrible secret, that you bear it in your breast--there--there. I am his messenger. He bids you to give it to me."
Oakley had shrunken back as if he had been struck.
"No, no!" he gasped, "no, no! I have no secret."
The reporter moved nearer him. The old man shrunk against the wall, his lips working convulsively and his hand tearing at his breast as Skaggs drew nearer. He attempted to shriek, but his voice was husky and broke off in a gasping whisper.
"Give it to me, as your brother commands."
"No, no, no! It is not his secret; it is mine. I must carry it here always, do you hear? I must carry it till I die. Go away! Go away!"
Skaggs seized him. Oakley struggled weakly, but he had no strength. The reporter's hand sought the secret pocket. He felt a paper beneath his fingers. Oakley gasped hoarsely as he drew it forth. Then raising his voice gave one agonised cry, and sank to the floor frothing at the mouth. At the cry rapid footsteps were heard in the hallway, and Mrs. Oakley threw open the door.
"What is the matter?" she cried.
"My message has somewhat upset your husband," was the cool answer.
"But his breast is open. Your hand has been in his bosom. You have taken something from him. Give it to me, or I shall call for help."
Skaggs had not reckoned on this, but his wits came to the rescue.
"You dare not call for help," he said, "or the world will know!"
She wrung her hands helplessly, crying, "Oh, give it to me, give it to me. We 've never done you any harm."
"But you 've harmed some one else; that is enough."
He moved towards the door, but she sprang in front of him with the fierceness of a tigress protecting her young. She attacked him with teeth and nails. She was pallid with fury, and it was all he could do to protect himself and yet not injure her. Finally, when her anger had taken her strength, he succeeded in getting out. He flew down the hall-way and out of the front door, the woman's screams following him. He did not pause to read the precious letter until he was safe in his room at the Continental Hotel. Then he sprang to his feet, crying, "Thank God! thank God! I was right, and the Universe shall have a sensation. The brother is the thief, and Berry Hamilton is an innocent man. Hurrah! Now, who is it that has come on a wild-goose chase? Who is it that ought to handle his idea carefully? Heigho, Saunders my man, the drinks 'll be on you, and old Skaggsy will have done some good in the world."