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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 27

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Even when he had comfortably settled himself Mr. Hagan's initial comment was irrelevant.

"Your place is decidedly changed, Mr. Tollman. Improved I should call it."

"Thank you. Please state your business."

"On one of the cross streets in the forties in New York City there's a hotel called the Van Styne with a reputation none too savory and downtown there's a sort of mission organization in which a minister, name of Sam Haymond, takes an interest. He's a live-wire reform worker."

"Indeed?" Eben Tollman's monosyllabic rejoinder conveyed the impression of an interest unawakened, but Mr. Hagan was not so soon discouraged.

"Doesn't interest you yet? Maybe it will later. Recently a girl by the name of Minnie Ray fell out of a window at the hotel I'm speaking of--the Van Styne. It killed her."


"I thought likely you'd read the item in the papers. The coroner's verdict was accident."

"Yes?" These brief, interrogatory replies might have proved dampening to some narrators. Not so with Mr. Hagan. He nodded his head, then he asserted briefly. "But as a matter of fact the Ray woman committed suicide."

"You disagree, it appears, with the coroner."

"I have the facts--and it was seen to that the coroner didn't."

"What bearing has this deplorable episode on our alleged business, Mr. Hagan?" asked Tollman, and the detective raised an index finger.

"That's what I'm coming to. The Ray woman is only incidental--like others that get adrift in New York and end up in places like the Van Styne. Anyhow I'm not starting out to harrow you with any heart-interest stories.... I'm here to talk business, but you know how it sometimes is, Mr. Tollman. A share or two of stock worth par or less may swing the control of a corporation ... and a piece of human drift like Minnie might turn out to be a human share of stock."

"I'm afraid I don't follow you, sir."

"Don't let that trouble you. You will. Minnie Ray didn't have much education when she came on east from Indiana and I expect she didn't have a very heroic character either. But until she went to the Van Styne, she seems to have been straight."

"There is always an 'until' in these cases," observed Mr. Tollman dryly and the head of the "Searchlight" nodded his acquiescence.

"Sure there is. She was young and what the rounders call a good-looking chicken. At first she was inclined to be haughty and upstage when men she worked for got fresh with her which didn't help her to get jobs--or hold them. So she hit the toboggan. She spent what little money she brought with her and after that it was the old story. So far as Minnie could figure prospects there wasn't a thing she had or a thing she could do that would bring in money--except the one asset that wasn't on the market: her virtue. As I said I didn't start out to tell a sob story, but in this business we see quite a few cases like that. It's usually just a question of how long these girls can hold out before they sell the one thing that's saleable. Maybe you can't blame them at that. If virtue is measured that way--and it's a practical way--the 'until,' as you call it, came to Minnie at the end of quite a siege."

Mr. Tollman's impatience grew into actual fretfulness as his visitor delayed coming to the point of his proposition.

"It seems to have been a case," went on the detective unhurriedly, "of dropping down the scale for her until she was up against the question of diving into East River--or hypothecating the one asset."

"How about this mission that you speak of? Didn't it help her?"

"All it could--but that wasn't enough. It got her one or two temporary jobs--but there were hundreds on its lists and it had to spread charity thin. So for the time being they were trying down there to keep her courage up, and that was about all they could do."

"I will take the address of this mission and send a contribution," announced Mr. Tollman benignly. "I suppose your business here is soliciting that--is it not?"

"Yes--it is not," exploded Mr. Hagan emphatically with a smile that savored of a snarl, "though I don't doubt they'd appreciate it. Well, there was a cold-blooded party laying siege to Minnie. He was one of the rat-faces that you can see any time you stroll along Broadway, and up to date she'd been refusing to play with him. But he had the chance to put money in her way--and all he asked was that she'd 'be nice to him.'"

"You put things very bluntly--I might almost say, vulgarly, Mr. Hagan," objected Eben Tollman with a fastidious shiver and his visitor flashed his answer back in a manner of menacing aggressiveness.

"It strikes you that way, does it? Perhaps you know a way to talk about things like this that isn't vulgar. Personally, I don't. Well, the long and the short of it is this, after so many weeks of fighting this thing out with herself Minnie Ray reached the point where she fell for a dinner with the rat-faced gentleman at the Van Styne, and after he'd opened some wine--" The raconteur shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you see she wasn't accustomed to drinking bubbles and topping it off with brandy and benedictine."

"The climax of your story lacks the full force of surprise," Eben reminded his guest. "You forecast the result at the commencement."

"No, I haven't, gotten to the result yet. This is only one stage of it. It happened that the Rev. Sam Haymond heard of a job as a lingerie model in a department store, that would fit Minnie nicely, and he rushed around to her room to carry the glad tidings. The landlady said that Minnie had gone to the Van Styne with a gentleman friend--so the dominie took a taxi and went there, too. You see he didn't know until he got into the lobby and saw all them red lights and heard some little of the conversation there, that it wasn't a _regular_ hotel. But there he was--so he had her paged."

"Did he find her?"

"He did not. The clerk didn't mention that she was in the house and of course 'Jim Smith and wife' on a register didn't mean much to him.... So the Rev. Haymond didn't connect with Minnie--and Minnie didn't connect with the job. But the rat-faced gentleman who had left her there after a pleasant evening and was on his way out heard her real name paged. He beat it back to inquire what in the Sam Hill Haymond wanted with her? He found her in the sort of despair that would come to a girl like that at a time like that. What you call the 'until' Minnie probably called the 'too-late.' Maybe she guessed what the minister had cone for and what she had just missed. Anyhow her 'gentleman-friend' warned her that there had been a raid on a place nearby and that downstairs they were having a scare-- He said that he himself was leaving and she'd better be careful. Well, she went clear out of her head--and she jumped out of the window. It was the fifth floor, you see."

Mr. Tollman's face was gravely serious as he put a question which might have seemed less near the kernel of the matter than several others, "Why did they fear a raid?"

"They sometimes happen, you know. The police get periodically active. The Van Styne has been pinched before." Mr. Hagan rose from his seat and added with the solicitude of one wishing to make the _amende honorable_, "However, Mr. Tollman, I believe that was before you owned the place."

The anxious anticipations of the host during the course of the story had not quite prepared him against the bluntness of this announcement, and his surprise vented itself in a sudden start. But immediately recovering his poise, he spoke coldly. He even smiled.

"Now that your story is ended, what is the real matter that brought you here?"

"I represent others," Mr. Hagan informed him evenly, "who, to quote your own words on a previous occasion, prefer remaining unnamed. If that hotel should happen to be raided and its record should be published--together with the name of the owner--it might prove an embarrassment to you. I'm authorized--under certain conditions--to offer you immunity against that unpleasant chance."

Eben Tollman rose from his seat. He stood for a moment gazing into the eyes of the portrait above the mantel and then he spoke with a measured dignity:

"Mr. Hagan, your proposition is just about what I fancied it would be--an attempt at blackmail. But it's abortive. I do own the property of which you speak, but in understanding so precisely the sort of business done there, you have the advantage of me. This renting has all been conducted through agents whom I seem to have trusted unduly. You _have_ done me a service in acquainting me with the facts and I thank you for your information which, I take it is authentic. I shall at once rid myself of such a despicable property. I shall also place in the hands of the District Attorney of New York, the facts you have given me, and suggest that he call upon you to ratify them." The speaker paused impressively and then swept virtuously into his peroration:

"To the anonymous gentlemen who offer me immunity against a raid--for a consideration--you may say that I will conduct the matter through the District Attorney's office. As for yourself, Mr. Hagan, permit me to add that I regard you as a most extraordinary scoundrel with whom I could have nothing in common."

The detective, who had been thus conclusively defeated, continued to sit with an attitude of composure, and spoke without chagrin:

"Hard words ain't going to kill me, and as for the balance of it I don't most generally lay all my cards on the table at once. You say you'll rid yourself of this property and that you didn't know how it was being used. All right, but why didn't you know? You could of known, couldn't you, if you hadn't taken damned good care _not_ to know? Do you think that story will stand scrutiny with the public or with your wife?"

"Be good enough," cautioned Tollman ominously, "to leave my wife's name out of this talk. It's hardly an appropriate combination."

"No," assented Hagan with readiness, "and it's going to be less so before I finish. How do you expect to rid yourself of the Van Styne? By selling it, at a profit, to somebody else that'll go on getting rich on other Minnie Rays? And when you've done that are you going to carry the same policy of high-minded reform through the rest of your property in New York find Boston? I've got a list of the lot."

"I'm through answering questions," asserted Tollman with finality. "You've made your bluff and it has failed."

"Just as you say." The detective rose and stretched himself luxuriously. "By the way as I came in, I passed your wife on the porch, and I happened to notice that Mr. Farquaharson was visiting you."

Eben Tollman had started toward the door, but this remark gave him pause.

"He didn't recognize me of course," mused Mr. Hagan, "but then in a way we are old acquaintances, I suppose--I shadowed that bird some time."

"What do you mean?"

Mr. Hagan's manner underwent an abrupt transformation. He wheeled and faced his host with a dangerous glint in his eye.

"This is what I mean! You called me a blackmailer and a scoundrel just now. Sure I'm a crook! We're both of us crooks, but I admit it and you don't. So to my thinking, I'm honester than you. I came to you first. Next I'm going to Stuart Farquaharson out there and to your wife.... Mr. Farquaharson might be interested to know that you hired me once to try to frame him. Your wife might be interested to know that you hired me to send her those scandal magazines that roasted him. They both might be interested to know where you got your money from. Now it's just a question of who I do business with, but before I leave here I do business with _somebody_."

As Mr. Hagan declared himself his lower jaw came more protuberantly forward and his eyes blazed with an increasing truculence. And in the exact degree of his growing aggression, Mr. Tollman quailed and became clammily moist of brow.

"Perhaps, Mr. Hagan," he tentatively suggested, "you had better sit down again. Possibly we aren't quite through yet after all."

The detective reseated himself and his composure returned.

"Frankness is always best," he vouchsafed complacently. "I thought when we once came to understand each other, we'd get along."

* * * * *

While Eben Tollman was entertaining his unwelcome guest in the study his wife and Stuart Farquaharson were having tea on the terrace. Upon the recent combat of their wills there seemed to have succeeded a calmness of aftermath. If Stuart had as Conscience expressed it "fired on Fort Sumpter" his subsequent conduct had in a fashion belied his vehemence of pronunciamento. Now his artillery of resource was silent. Perhaps the weariness and heightened pallor of the woman's face, which gave it an ethereal quality, made an appeal upon the chivalry his postulates denied.

This afternoon the entire landscape carried a tuneful message and a brilliant sparkle and play of colors. It was a day for peace and laughter, rather than for heart-bruising discussion--and they were still young enough to seize upon and avail themselves of such respites.

Farquaharson laid aside the manuscript of an unfinished novel, with which Conscience had been assisting him as critic and amanuensis, and let his eyes dwell on her face.

She was wearing a smock of rose-colored silk which fell like drapery, rather than mere clothing, about her and seemed to kindle a delicate echo of its pinkness in the ivory of her cheeks. For a little while the author forgot his work.

"Dearest," he said suddenly, and though he couched his words in form and voice of the whimsical they held the essence of entire sincerity, "I hate to seem unduly impressionable or sentimental--but there's something rather marvelous about you. You'd make a man--even a hardened one--want to go down on his knees before you in worship and at the same time you'd make a timid one want to dare hellfire to take you in his arms. In short, you're a secret and a riddle: an enticement and a sobering inspiration."

The woman's cheeks momentarily reflected more warmly the rosy color of her smock and to her eyes came a mischievous riffle.

"Or to say all that more briefly, Stuart," she replied in a disconcertingly matter-of-fact voice, "I'm a woman--and incidentally you mustn't drop into the habit of calling me dearest."

The old boyhood smoldering blazed briefly in the man's face, but cleared at once into a smile.

"You were criticizing the woman psychology of my heroine, I believe," he said calmly, lifting the neglected manuscript in his one good hand. "What's wrong with her?"

"She's mid-Victorian. She's not modern," ruled the critic. "Her virtue is just a sugary saintliness that doesn't ring true. Any real woman in her circumstances would feel more disgraced by her marriage than by a divorce."

Farquaharson raised his brows, then his laugh rang out with a somewhat satirical merriment.

"And this from you! You admit in fiction the exact truths that you deny in life."

"But your lady was tricked into marriage in the first place," responded Conscience with spirit. "You show me half the reason that woman had and I'll start my lawyer filing a petition the same day. I'll go further than that." Her eyes were twinkling since she meant to treat all these allusions so lightly as to disarm his own seriousness. "As a self-inflicted penalty I'll marry you."

"I wonder if you would."

"On my word of honor, and meanwhile our tea is getting cold. One lump, isn't it?"

He nodded; then, as he watched the deftness with which her hands made a pretty ceremony of pouring tea, he inquired: "Have I seen that ring before--the opal with diamonds?"

"I don't believe you have. Eben gave it to me last Christmas."

"And you're not afraid of the opal's ill-luck?"

"I love them enough to take the chance. Haven't I ever shown you my others--there's quite a collection of them."


"They're in the safe. I'll get Eben to open it as soon as Mr. Hagan leaves."

Teasingly the man inquired, "Doesn't your husband trust you with the combination?"

Conscience flushed. Her companion had touched a sensitive nerve. This was one of the details that went into the summary of Eben's excluding her from his business life, and it had hurt her.

"I can't ever master it somehow," she evaded, and as she spoke Eben Tollman ushered Mr. Hagan out upon the terrace.

As stranger and host passed out Stuart fancied that he detected in Tollman's manner a certain eagerness to speed the parting guest and when the visitor had gone, Eben withdrew at once to his sanctum, declining a cup of tea. The bad half hour had shaken him and sent his thoughts coursing in channels of apprehension. The past was refusing to lie dead and he found himself thinking of what might occur if two wisely intercepted letters should ever fall into the wrong hands.

They lay securely immured in the safe, but he had overheard the teasing reference to his withholding, from his wife, the combination--and it vexed his anxiety. He treasured these trophies of his acumen and victory, but palpably the time had arrived for their sacrifice.

He reconsidered an impulse to lock himself in. Once to-day he had apologized for inadvertently throwing on the catch and a repetition would seem pointed. The letters were in an envelope inscribed "S. F. & C. W." and there would be no difficulty in finding them.

So Eben Tollman opened the safe, and unlocked a certain strong box filled to overflowing with papers of divers sorts.

As he stood holding the tin dispatch case with its cover raised he heard Stuart's voice beyond the threshold and it was a voice couched in a tone of annoying and unthinking levity.

"Don't forget! If I prove a case as strong as my heroine's you will act as you say she should act."

"It's a bargain," came the quick and laughing response. "I'm ready to prove my faith by my works." Then as the pair appeared framed in the door, Conscience explained, "Eben, I want to show Stuart my opals."

To Tollman it seemed a most untimely interruption. Possibly that was why the fingers that held the box trembled, as he came around to his chair at the desk and said shortly, "They're in the larger drawer at the left."

As Conscience came over to the safe Stuart followed her until he stood across the width of the desk from his host whom he regarded absently. Then something quite unaccountable occurred. Mrs. Tollman, in putting down the somewhat heavy metal tray containing her trinkets, let it slip, so that it spilled its rings, and pins and necklaces on the desk top--and as if responsive to her clumsiness in handling her treasures, though really because of nervous tension, Eben started violently, and the box which he held fell from his quaking hands, scattering papers in a confused litter about the floor.

Instantly Tollman was on all fours retrieving, and the undignified posture had the advantage of serving to conceal the wild terror of his face; a terror such as may stamp itself upon the features of a man who cannot swim and who has twice gone down.

As he searched in a feverish panic, pretending an impartial interest in the generality of scattered documents, Eben was tortured by the knowledge that Stuart and Conscience were searching, too, and a conviction that if either of them found that envelope first, the legend "S. F. & C. W." would prove sufficiently illuminating to require an accounting.

Finally the elder man straightened up, and stood panting. The vital package was still unfound. Stuart Farquaharson tossed a sheaf of ancient bill receipts across the desk with the casual comment, "Well, that seems to be the crop."

Over the harrowed visage of the host swept an almost felicitous wave of relief and then, as abruptly, his cheeks changed color again, fading to an ashen pallor tinged with greenish sickliness. In his eyes the light appeared to die. He licked his lips and a palsy shook him like a violent chill. The Virginian's eyes were still searching the floor, but his left hand,--the uninjured one--rested lightly on the table, and as Mr. Tollman looked he saw that the fingers were spread upon a yellowed envelope, of which the exposed surface bore the clearly legible inscription "S. F. & C. W."

And while the victim of terror stood, transfixed with his premonition of crisis, Farquaharson also glanced down and, seeing the envelope, added: "No--here's one more. It must have been lying here all the time." _

Read next: Chapter 28

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