Read CHAPTER VIII - ABOARD THE PRIVATE CAR, “OBASKA” of Every Man for Himself , free online book, by Hopkins Moorhouse, on ReadCentral.com.

For many years self-repression had stood high in the estimation of Hughey Podmore as a thing worth cultivating. He had first learned the value of it in many a clandestine game of poker, which he had condescended to play of a Saturday afternoon in a corner of the deserted composing-room. In those days of his early newspaper experience the ink-daubed denizens of the “ad-alley” had paid with hard-earned wages for many a fancy vest and expensive cravat which the paper’s star reporter had worn with such aplomb. And when he had adventured afield into wider pastures more in harmony with his talents, where the cards were not soiled nor the air pungent with printers’ ink and benzine, he had taken with him a tendency to quiet tones of speech and quietness of movement.

Being a believer in rubber-heels and a cool head, therefore, the secretary to the President of the Canadian Lake Shores Railway went about his duties with his customary assurance. After the first excitement of his startling discovery had passed there was nothing in his manner to indicate the fires which burned within. To one who knew him well, perhaps, it might have seemed that for the two weeks which followed the mysterious disappearance of the tan satchel he was even a little quieter than usual, a little more restrained in his talk, and a little more alert in movement. Beyond this he gave no indication of the keen disappointment and mortification that possessed him.

It had been the biggest stake for which he had yet played. He had stacked the cards with particular care till, so he had thought, all element of risk had been eliminated. But for this his natural caution would have deterred him from the attempt. What he had completely overlooked was the possibility that some one else might decide this was any man’s money who was clever enough to acquire it. Figure as he might and he had spent hours in deep thought even his keen mind had been unable to solve the situation to his satisfaction. Somebody had stepped in and walked off with this money in front of his nose in spite of the most elaborate precautions. Who had done this, and how? It had been done so cleverly that not a single clue was left for Podmore to work on once he had proved beyond question that Clayton had not double-crossed him. Clayton had taken the first train for Chicago; but not before Podmore had third-degreed him into abject fear. No, Clayton had had no hand in it; that was certain, and with that once established, the identity of the arch-thief remained a mystery which baffled investigation especially when the situation called for the utmost circumspection.

It was a problem which Podmore was forced to solve without consulting anyone. He could not go boldly to his supposed partners with his discovery; for thereby he would reveal to Nickleby and Alderson his own attempt at double dealing. That he had to be very careful what he did, Mr. Hughey Podmore realized, very careful indeed. For this mix-up held many possibilities for personal misfortune. In fact, the situation suddenly had become fraught with positive danger. There were moments, therefore, when the cautious Mr. Podmore felt qualms which though not born of a troubled conscience, were nonetheless disagreeable. Conscience in the case of Hughey Podmore, if it had ever existed, had been a stunted affair which because of malnutrition long since had given up the ghost. Its place had been pre-empted by Argus-eyed regard for all matters affecting the preservation of Mr. Podmore’s precious epidermis the safety of his own skin. And Hughey Podmore was well aware that a large contribution to campaign funds by a construction company would be a matter of immediate suspicion among opponents of the Government if it became known. Such things had got people into trouble before this. It had been one of the things which had landed the famous Honorable Harrington Rives in jail and others who were involved.

Hughey Podmore knew all about that strenuous period of political chaos. Twelve years ago he had been an eager-eyed young reporter with a large appreciation of newspaper sensations. His skill at ferreting into hidden recesses by unscrupulous methods had made him a valuable man for a paper which was willing to ignore certain time-honored traditions of the press. Under editorial stimulus Hughey had blossomed forth among the flowers of the journalistic profession as a yellow chrysanthemum. “Mum” became the word wherever Hughey showed himself! His reputation finally had ostracised him into other fields of endeavor.

Those had been the days! If only he and Rives had been working together! If he had been managing Rives’ campaigns there would have been no crude mistakes to land the “people’s idol” behind the bars, Waring or no Waring. He would have seen that every dainty dish was properly cooked before it was set before the King, its inner rawness safely covered, done up brown. By all means let there be lemon filling, but smothered in a beaten white purity that would pass the public censor! Under his management there would have been no tangible evidence to show that favored contractors, bidding upon public works, had been secretly advised that their tenders were too low, and instructed as to the amounts to which it was safe for them to raise their new tenders; there would have been no evidence of election contributions from these favored contractors for the amounts thus squeezed out of the public treasury.

With such an example of folly to warn him, it was no wonder that the Honorable Milton Waring had told Nickleby and Alderson he would have nothing to do with their proposed campaign fund contribution. Nickleby must have a pretty strong connection even to dare such an approach; evidently he had felt pretty sure of himself to go ahead with the plan on his own initiative.

Nickleby believed that Ferguson had the money now. What would he say if he knew the facts that the money was really in the hands of some person unknown, some person perhaps who was interested in gathering evidence that would upset the present Government? There was only one thing for Mr. Podmore to do, now that his own pet scheme had failed, and that was to keep quiet as to his own ambitions and stick to the three-handed game which he was supposed to be playing with Nickleby and his henchman, Alderson; for Nickleby was worth tying to.

Thus ran the reflections of Hughey Podmore as he lounged comfortably in a leather chair aboard the private car, “Obaska,” and idly watched the endless flow of the Algoma wilderness pass the windows monotonously. The car had taken an inspection party west to the head of the lakes, but a wire from the Vice-President was sending the President back to headquarters unexpectedly. Besides President Wade, Podmore and Taylor, the steward, the only person on board was Bob Cranston. Cranston was chief of the railroad’s Special Service Department. Taylor was busy in his kitchen, preparing dinner. Cranston and the President had the brass-railed observation platform at the rear of the car to themselves and were deep in earnest conversation; they had shut the door at their backs and the sound of their voices was lost in the roar of the wheels.

Hughey Podmore smiled cynically as he watched them. There was nothing in President Wade’s fine strong profile to indicate the trend of talk. Both, in fact, were men who seldom allowed what they were thinking to reflect in their facial expressions too readily. Nevertheless, the perspicacious Mr. Podmore could surmise the subject of conversation, or at any rate give a guess which was close enough to satisfy his own curiosity.

He amused himself by running over the list of possible topics. Wade was a big man in financial circles, a man of rugged and plain-spoken dealings who commanded the confidence of every associate and was respected even by his enemies. There were many matters of moment which he might have discussed with bankers or lawyers or statesmen, but which he would hardly attempt with a bull-necked bonehead like Cranston. Government railway bond issues, franchises and stock-quotations were beyond that cheap stiffs depth. Probably Cranston was holding forth in regard to some petty theft which his crew of spotters had discovered, some ticket-scalping conductor

Or there was old Nat Lawson’s case in which Wade was interested; it was a topic that was often uppermost in the railway President’s mind, as Podmore knew, and Hughey smiled inscrutably at the smoke curling from his cigarette. Old Nat, the founder and former president of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company the honest old fool whom Nickleby had succeeded in overcoming by a trick, and whose shoes J. Cuthbert was now wearing! It would take more than the friendship of a Benjamin Wade, powerful though that was, to salvage Old Nat. That nanny-whiskered old galoot was sunk in too many fathoms of water ever to wade ashore. (He smiled at his poor pun.) The missing power-of-attorney that had scuttled the Lawson supporters would continue missing for all time to come. Mr. J. Cuthbert Nickleby, the then genial secretary, had seen to that once for all; in fact, it had been a charred fragment of the document which Mr. Hugh Podmore had used as a card of introduction when he had had his first long and very interesting session with Friend Nickleby.

Some class to Nickleby all right. Here were methods which Mr. Podmore could understand and admire. It was because the minds of Messrs. Podmore and Nickleby ran in the same grooves that he had been able to unearth enough of Nickleby’s very private plans to persuade that “rising young financier” that it was better to set another plate at the head table than to have the dishes smashed and Lucullus waylaid before he could reach the banquetting-hall.

So Mr. Podmore had hung up his hat, accepted a cigar and joined the inner ring, soon proving himself a congenial spirit and an able counsellor. And inasmuch as President Wade, of the Canadian Lake Shores Railroad, was seeking about that time for a private secretary with a newspaper training; inasmuch as it was known to J. Cuthbert Nickleby that the said President Wade hoped to restore Old Nat Lawson to his former place in the business world by acquiring control of the Interprovincial Loan & Savings Company inasmuch did it seem desirable in the interests of Messrs. Nickleby and Podmore that Mr. Podmore should apply for the vacant secretaryship. Podmore had got the position, thereby enabling Nickleby to keep a finger upon the pulse of his opposition.

Wade was shrewd, clever, a big man; he knew many things, did Benjamin Wade, railway magnate. But, reflected Hughey, there were many things also which he did not know, and there was a disagreeable twist in the corner of Podmore’s mouth as he lounged and smoked. His revered chief did not know, for instance, that his very competent secretary had spent the better part of an afternoon alone in the private car “Obaska,” listening to the click of the tumblers in the little secret wall safe which the President had had built in behind a sliding panel listening so intelligently that the said very competent secretary had come away with the combination.

Podmore’s further enjoyment of retrospection was cut short by a sudden gesture which rivetted his attention upon the two men on the rear platform. Cranston had turned suddenly and was peering in at him; almost automatically Podmore’s eyes dropped quickly to the open magazine on his knee. There was a certain hint of caution on the railroad detective’s face that did not escape the astute secretary. The latter’s vigilance was rewarded presently by seeing Cranston reach into an inside pocket, pull out a bulky blue envelope and quickly pass it across to the President. The latter as quickly stowed it out of sight in an inner pocket of his tweed coat and himself cast a hasty glance over his shoulder to see if he had been observed. But again Mr. Podmore’s gaze dropped in time and when he raised his eyes casually from his magazine it was to note an expression of satisfaction upon the faces of both gentlemen. They got up and came inside, laughing rather loudly.

“That there steak and onions Taylor’s cookin’ is sure goin’ to hit the spot,” cried Cranston, sniffing with relish. “Eh, Hughey?” He dropped into the chair alongside the secretary with a familiar slap on the latter’s knee, and thrust his legs out in the sprawling abandon of a comfortable stretch.

Unfortunately he did this just as President Wade, having turned to toss away the end of his cigar, took a step forward with a hand thrust into an inside pocket of his coat, evidently intending to put away in the safe the envelope which Cranston had given him. The result of Cranston’s sudden movement and Wade’s awkward position was that the President tripped, lost his balance and would have measured full length on the car floor if Cranston had not caught him. In his effort to save himself the blue envelope was jerked out of his pocket and fell directly at Podmore’s feet.

“Oh, I beg your pardon, sir!” apologized Cranston hurriedly.

“That’s all right, Bob,” laughed Wade good naturedly. “Thanks, Hughey,” as his secretary handed him the envelope. “Why, what’s the matter?”

Podmore’s face had gone suddenly white and he was trembling visibly.

“Aint you feelin’ well, Hughey?” enquired Cranston with concern. He rang quickly for highballs.

“It’s all right, thanks,” stammered Podmore hastily. “I I guess it’s just a little faintness due to the fact that I ate practically no lunch I’m all right now.”

Nevertheless when Taylor arrived with the decanter Podmore poured himself an extra stiff drink. He had need of it. For a second time he had lost his poise, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he prevented any further manifestation of the fact during the meal and the evening which followed. For unless he was very much mistaken and he felt sure that he was not that envelope he had picked up and handed to the President was the identical blue linen envelope that had been stolen with the tan satchel so mysteriously two weeks ago! The size of it, the feel of it, the daubs of gray sealing-wax Oh, there was no mistaking it!

How in thunderation had it come into Cranston’s hands? Cranston, of all men! Had Cranston pulled off the stunt? Had Podmore been doing him an injustice? He studied the chief of the Special Service Department with a new and wide-awake interest. If Cranston had purloined this packet it was under orders Wade’s, of course. Then that suspicion which had kept recurring every time he had tried to think out the mystery of the disappearance was correct. It was a political move! The opponents of the Government were lining up for the approaching election with open charges of mal-feasance, graft, the same old game! Wade, he knew, had had friction with the present administration over certain legislation; that was sufficient motive for him taking a hand, although it was hardly likely that a man of Wade’s standing would allow himself to become involved in such back-alley tactics unless Nickleby the Interprovincial!

Podmore’s thoughts were not running as clearly as usual. They kept pocketing themselves provokingly in blind alleys that led nowhere, or scattering in mazes that led everywhere. There was such a wide field of speculation open, once he began to consider things from the political angle, that it was difficult to reach any very definite conclusion. He was not now so concerned as to the why or the how of what had happened; the cold analysis of motives and methods was dwarfed by the one big fact that here on board the private car and within easy reach was that blessed envelope, containing fifty thousand dollars of any man’s money. For it did not look as if it had been tampered with; the seals were still unbroken. Right here, within a few yards of where he sat, was that little old bunch of greenbacks that he had planned so earnestly to take unto his bosom and that had cost him so many heartburnings this past two weeks. Talk about luck! Talk about Opportunity knocking once on somebody’s door! Why, the Old Dame was chopping down his door with an axe!

With his mind in such a chaos of confused emotions Hughey found it difficult to keep up his end of the conversation and he was not sorry when the others showed a tendency to turn in early. Once the lights were dimmed he could hardly wait the reasonable length of time which must elapse before the other three occupants were asleep, so eager was he to make his investigations. But at last the snores of Cranston and the steward and the steady breathing of President Wade satisfied him that the way was clear.

Quietly he slipped from his berth. He had not undressed, except to remove his boots and coat, and in two minutes he had the envelope in his hands. He slipped noiselessly down the aisle to the steward’s kitchen, switched on a light and examined the prize leisurely. He felt it carefully, hefted it in one hand, then with the aid of a thin-bladed paring-knife he succeeded in loosening a corner of the flap sufficiently to allow of a peek at the contents without disturbing the seals. His involuntary exclamation of satisfaction when he verified the contents as a package of greenbacks was drowned fortunately in the hum of the train. It was the missing campaign fund contribution beyond a doubt.

Back down the dimly lighted aisle with its swaying green curtains, past the sleepers he slipped noiselessly to the writing desk where he carefully regummed the corner of the flap, leaving no trace of his inspection. Then he sank into a leather chair and lit a cigarette with a cheerful grin on his face.

The Fates certainly were kindness itself. He had it 50,000 bucks! He actually had it in his pocket! It was enough to give Mr. Podmore a fine start on his own account somewhere far away. Nickleby and Alderson? They could go and take a jump in the lake! He had his. It was a good time to drop out of this game anyway. The political situation did not look any too good. Well, he would befriend the Honorable Milt and Ferguson and Nickleby and Alderson by removing this little piece of election evidence from the reach of their opponents. That was a service which was cheap at the price.

Yes, it was time to say a final farewell while the farewelling was good. He hunted up a time-table. They must be somewhere in the vicinity of Indian Creek by now. Where would the west-bound limited be at that hour? He glanced at his watch, then flattened his nose against the window, until his eyes became accustomed to the starlight and he could watch the dim panorama of spruce trees and lonely little lakes sliding by in ceaseless procession. Presently he recognized a flag-station. His guess at Indian Creek as their whereabouts had not been far astray.

He made his plans quickly. He would drop off, walk to the nearest station and catch N, westbound, at midnight. That would take him into the Missinaibi country by daylight, and he could afford to run the risk of discovery until then. He would leave the train there somewhere and would find no difficulty in obtaining an outfit and an Indian guide. They would hit southwest for Lake Superior, and once there he could find his way across to the Michigan side by night and so away.

Podmore laced his boots rapidly and went through his grip for one or two articles he thought he might need. He stole back to the kitchen and put some crackers and cheese in his pockets; it was all he could find that was not under lock and key. Then with the precious envelope buttoned tightly inside his coat he picked his way cautiously to the rear of the swaying car, closed the door carefully behind him and climbed over the brass rail.

For a moment he hung there, hesitating. Then he let go his hold and disappeared.