Read CHAPTER X - THE COINS AND THE CHINAMAN of The Gray Mask, free online book, by Wadsworth Camp, on ReadCentral.com.

On their way to the station, and during their long journey to New York, Nora drew back from any attempt of Garth’s in the direction of sentiment. Frequently he stared at her with a whimsical despair. It was clear enough that he was not distasteful to her. He fancied, moreover, that he had through his very persistence softened perceptibly the girl’s regret for Kridel; had remodeled to an extent her earlier attitude of a widow. Would he, however, he asked himself, be able to go the whole way?

Now she wished to talk of trivial things, to make a lark of their luncheon in Boston, to get as far away as she could from the dangerous and uncertain profession which had taken Kridel from her, and which might, even before she could resolve her own feelings, involve Garth in some fatal accident. Once he recurred to the gray mask, and spoke of Slim and George, whose trial would soon begin. She trembled slightly, he thought. She wouldn’t let him go on. Her fear, he was certain, was not for herself. That much encouraged. Yet this rivalry with one who had been for some time dead often brought him a sensation of complete helplessness; for Nora was not one to pose. She was honest with herself, with Garth, with the dead man. Perhaps some grave sacrifice would resolve her doubts. He felt himself capable of that. He fell into her mood at last, and found the journey home too short. In retrospect it assumed an increased value. During a long period he saw practically nothing of Nora.

For a month or more he found no comfort in his work. Headquarters, he remarked many times, was a rest cure for anybody who wanted one.

All at once that altered, as such things happen, without warning. He had spent an hour or so on an unimpressive case, and it was nearly midnight when he turned south from the frontier of Harlem.

From time to time a light snow fell, and always there was a vaporous quality about the cold night air which added to the waywardness of his unexpected experience.

He walked for a long time, scarcely aware of the landmarks of the neighbourhood, rehearsing thoughts which, these last few weeks, had grown familiar and unpalatable. Now, as always, they failed to guide him to any explanation of Nora’s abrupt abandonment of her routine. His recent visits at the flat had thrown him into the hospitable hands of the inspector, who, however, had maintained an incomprehensible silence as to his daughter’s whereabouts. Garth could read in this attitude no antagonism to his own ambitions. He was confident that the result of his campaign for Nora’s heart depended wholly on the girl herself.

He realized it was growing late. Absent-mindedly he turned into a side street, intending to reach Third Avenue and climb the steps of the nearest elevated station.

It was the discreet murmuring of a motor that routed finally his preoccupation. A limousine of an extravagant type had halted close to the curb at the end of the block. It pointed a contrast which stirred the detective’s curiosity. The street, he noticed now, in common with many this far up-town, was inadequately lighted, but, in spite of the veils placed by the snow and the haze over the few gas lamps, a glance informed him that fashion had not invaded this far. The buildings, with high stoops and sunken areaways, were of a depressing, tasteless similarity-doubtless cheap boarding-houses or dreary converted apartments. He wondered what such an automobile did here, unless, perhaps, the chauffeur, alone, had some object. But he saw that, while the chauffeur retained his seat, the door was opened from the inside and a tall man, in a high hat and a fur coat, which exposed an evening shirt, stepped with nervous haste to the sidewalk.

Garth slackened his pace. He kept to the shadows near the house line. He watched with increasing interest while the man crossed the pavement, and, instead of climbing the steps, stooped to place an object on the ground. He saw him rise then and take something from his pocket which he tossed in the air. He was not surprised when the man failed to catch it. He heard it, whatever it was, strike the sidewalk, clicking metallically.

The man dropped to his knees and with wide gestures searched the flagging and the gutter. After a moment the chauffeur exclaimed-angrily, Garth fancied-then descended from his seat and joined the hunt.

Garth, speculating on this unconventional performance, stepped casually into an areaway, as if, indeed, it was his destination. From this shelter he observed the outcome.

The chauffeur picked up something which he thrust into the other’s hand. After glancing quickly around he sprang to his seat while the man in evening clothes straightened, returned to the limousine, and closed the door. The car rolled almost silently up the street.

What, Garth questioned, had been left with such care on the sidewalk in front of the corner house? What object, probably similar, had occasioned the search?

When the car was nearly opposite him the man inside tapped on the pane. On a subdued note the chauffeur exclaimed again, then pulled the car to the curb and stopped it.

Once more the well-dressed man left the limousine and crossed the sidewalk. For the second time he bent and placed something carefully on the ground. It lay within Garth’s reach, but just outside his line of vision. In fact, Garth could have grasped the other, so close was he; and he could see, in spite of the inefficient light, that he was young and probably good-looking. His inspection, however, was limited, for the other arose, breathing harshly, as if he were labouring under an unfamiliar excitement, and returned to the car.

As the driver set his gears and let the clutch in Garth reached through the areaway railing and fumbled about the sidewalk for the object. His fingers found it-round, flat, hard-not at all puzzling in itself, yet completely unintelligible as a clue to the young man’s motive in placing it there. It was a piece of money.

Garth slipped from the areaway. He held his find up to the nearest lamp. The piece of money was a five dollar gold piece. He glanced along the street. The automobile had just swung from sight. He started quickly after it, because it had occurred to him that if such a performance were repeated in Park Avenue, his curiosity would make him stop the machine, would suggest a number of questions to the young man in the fur coat, would seek an explanation of the chauffeur’s furtive impatience.

When he turned the corner he was not surprised to find the limousine halted again, to see the young man returning from a third excursion to the house line where, doubtless, he had with an extreme anxiety placed another piece of money.

Garth broke into a run. The chauffeur glanced over his shoulder and muttered quickly to the man, who sprang in. As soon as the door was closed the car started with a speed almost affirmative of flight.

Garth held up his hand with the gold piece and shouted. The car went faster. He hastened to read the license number on its rear. As he wrote it in his pocket book he watched the red of the tail light diminish and disappear.

He walked over and picked up a twenty-five cent piece. Why then had the young man left five dollars around the corner? He stared at the two coins, his bewilderment growing. What could be the explanation of this trail of money, left with a scrupulous care on New York pavements? Of what abnormal diligence could such an eccentricity be an echo? How pronounced was its significance?

Almost certainly another coin lay close to Lexington Avenue where the car had first stopped. It was not probable that a third exhibit would reflect any light on the affair, still he wanted to learn the denomination of that coin, and evidently it was the final goal of his curiosity to-night.

As soon as he turned the corner he saw that he would be too late. The discovery heightened his interest. Breathlessly, he slipped into an areaway and watched.

A singularly small figure of a man shuffled across Lexington Avenue and, as if with an assured purpose, made for the corner stoop. The arc light down there, while it emphasized few details, sharpened Garth’s wonder at the size and shape of the newcomer. He was inclined to explain him as a small boy, masquerading in mature clothing. Yet there was about the shoulders a thickness and a curve which did not belong to youth. The face was concealed by the turned-up collar of a diminutive overcoat and by a felt hat, drawn low over the eyes. Even at a distance the figure projected an air of the lawless and sinister.

The man bent and picked up the coin. Afterwards he continued towards Garth, not, however, in a straight line. He shuffled stealthily, his feet scarcely leaving the ground, in a series of zig-zags across the sidewalk. And always his shoulders remained bowed, the eyes lowered, as if he examined with a vital solicitude every inch of his path.

It was obvious to Garth that there was some connection between the young man in the limousine and this stunted, clandestine figure who followed his trail with such anxious vigilance. Therefore he felt justified in setting a small trap. If its issue involved him in a mistake a laugh would extricate him. But he foresaw no mistake. The deformed thing approaching was not to be explained as a peaceful, if tipsy, citizen, bound for home. So he placed the five dollar gold piece just outside the railing. He removed his gloves. He took his pocket lamp from his coat and held it ready. If the other saw the money and tried to pick it up he would be quite at the mercy of Garth’s lamp and hands.

That would happen, for the man had evidently caught the pallid gleaming of the gold. Without increasing his pace he shuffled across and stooped, stretching out his hand. Up to this point the other’s activity had worn an established air. Garth proceeded to rout its complacence. He reached through the railing, and as the hand was about to close over the money grasped it with all his strength.

He had been prepared for fright, for a struggle, but scarcely for the shrill, animal cry that greeted his surprise, nor for the violent and unnatural strength that quivered through the little body as it tried to break away.

And at first Garth combatted a quick impulse to let go. The quality of the bare hand in his own revolted him. The fingers were long, slender, and hard. The skin was dry. It gave him an impression that there was no flesh between it and the bones it covered.

“Steady, my friend,” he muttered. “That’s my money in your claw. Let’s have a look at you.”

The other’s squirming increased. The scream was not repeated. Only a difficult, sobbing sound came recurrently from the man’s throat.

At last Garth managed to twist the small wrist so that practically he controlled the fellow’s movements. Then he pressed the button of his lamp. The light shone mercilessly upon an abhorrent face.

The skin was yellow, and tight, like parchment, across the high cheek bones. The tiny eyes lay far back in rounded sockets. In the lamplight they were deceptively reminiscent of the eyes of a cat. But it was on the head, from which the hat had fallen, that Garth’s glance lingered with the most distaste. A queue was curled about it. It gave the last touch to the fantasy of the snow, the mist, the deserted street of old houses-a fitting setting for the night’s vagaries.

For him the coil of hair gleamed like a serpent, carefully poised and awaiting the most favorable moment for its stroke. As the yellow head moved spasmodically the coil appeared to writhe. It provoked Garth’s imagination. With quiet eloquence it symbolized a vicious conservatism, publicly dead. It suggested secret cérémonials in forbidden shrines. In a broader sense it was the outward survival, properly snake-like, of unconquerable and scarcely apprehended customs.

Garth shuddered. He found it more difficult than before to cling to that bony hand. He arose, snapped off the light, and grasped the Oriental by the shoulder.

“How did you know you’d find this money on the sidewalk?” he asked.

The other shivered, as if for the first time the cold had reached him.

“Talk up,” Garth ordered. “Who’s the fashion-plate that left it?”

The Chinaman made a last effort to escape. Garth subdued him.

“No talk-ee, eh? All right, little one. Then you’ll have a nice free ride downtown-just as a suspicious character.”

For a possibility had occurred to him from which he shrank. Still, since it existed, it dictated a clear enough duty. He stepped from the areaway.

“Hustle along, sonny.”

The other exploded into a torrent of Chinese. Garth understood not a word, yet the shrill voice, rising and falling, cried to him a fear and a despair that were tragic.

“Bluff away,” he muttered, “though I don’t see what good it will do you. Plenty of interpreters at headquarters. Point is, are you coming peaceably, or will I have to wake up a patrolman to get a wagon?”

The Chinaman was on the point of collapse. Garth practically carried him to the corner. He experienced a feeling of remorse, which, however, vanished before the recollection of the queue, glistening, serpent-like.

He was relieved to turn his man over at headquarters. He saw him placed in an empty detention cell.

“Sleep tight,” he called as the key turned. “Maybe you’ll learn English by morning.”

His own sleep was untroubled, save by his persistent uneasiness about Nora.

As soon as he was up the next morning he telephoned the Bureau of Licenses and apparently ran his one clue into a dead wall. The limousine, he found, belonged to Thomas Black, a young man of more than ordinary wealth and position. Garth flushed uncomfortably. He began to suspect that he had been guilty of an indiscretion, for Black, some years ago, had married the sister of Rufus Manford, whose recent selection as head of the Society for Social Justice had set in motion a cumbersome amount of self-satisfied and unusually ill-designed activity against crime. Still Garth knew that Manford was working with the inspector now on some urgent cases about which little was said at headquarters. It was possible, then, that the trail of coins had been arranged by Manford in the society’s office for a purpose which his interference might have destroyed.

But the growing day diminished the importance of the whole adventure. That returned to it only when the telephone summoned him as he was about to leave his rooms.

“Hello!” he called.

The voice that answered was gruff, disapproving, almost reproachful, he would have said.

“It’s Ed, at headquarters. Say, you’ve got me in bad. Hustle on down. Inspector’s on his ear and wants you.”

“What’s up, Ed?”

“That pigtail of yours. Can’t make out the chief. Might be a member of his own family.”

“What are you driving at, Ed? What’s the matter with the pigtail?”

“Dead-that’s all.”

“Dead!” Garth echoed.

“Yup. Must have done it right after you left. Choked himself to heaven with his bloomin’ queue. Now if he’d had it cut off proper-”