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THE AMAZEMENT OF SIR HARRY BRACE
'A private inquiry agent!' Sir Harry jumped up from his chair with an angry look, and a sharp ejaculation, neither of which disturbed his visitor. With his red bandanna handkerchief spread on his knees, and his straw hat resting on the handkerchief, Baltic looked at his flushed host calmly and solemnly without moving a muscle, or even winking an eye. Brace did not know whether to treat the ex-sailor as a madman or as an impudent impostor. The situation was almost embarrassing.
'What do you mean, sir,' he asked angrily, 'by coming to me with a cock-and-bull story about your conversion, and then telling me that you are a private inquiry agent, which is little less than a spy?'
'Is it impossible for such a one to be a Christian, Sir Harry?'
'I should think so. One who earns his living by sneaking can scarcely act up to the ethics of the Gospels.'
'I don't earn my living by sneaking,' replied Baltic, coolly. 'If I did, I shouldn't explain my business to you as I have done--as I am doing. My work is honourable enough, sir, for I am ranged against evil-doers, and it is my duty to bring their works to naught. There is no need for me to defend my profession to anyone but you, Sir Harry, as no one but yourself, and perhaps two other people, know what I really am.'
'They shall know it,' spoke Sir Harry, hastily. 'All Beorminster shall know of it. We don't care for wolves in sheep's clothing here.'
'Better be sure that I am a wolf before you talk rashly,' said Baltic, in no wise disturbed. 'I came here to speak to you openly, because you saved my life, and that debt I wish to square. And let me tell you, sir, that it isn't Christianity, or even justice, to hear one side of the question and not the other.'
Harry looked puzzled. 'You are an enigma to me, Baltic.'
'I am here to explain myself, sir. As your hand dashed aside the knife of that Kanaka you have a claim on my confidence. You'll be a sad man and a glad man when you hear my story, sir.'
Harry resumed his seat, shrugged his shoulders, and took a leisurely look at his self-possessed visitor. 'Sad and glad are contradictory terms, my friend,' said he, carelessly. 'I would rather you explained riddles than propounded them.'
'Sir Harry! Sir Harry! it is the riddle of man's life upon this earth that I am trying to explain.'
'You have set yourself a hard task, Baltic, for so far as I can see, there is no reading of that riddle.'
'Save by the light of the Gospel, sir, which makes all things plain.'
'Baltic,' said Brace, bluntly, 'there is that about you which would make me sorry to find you a Pharisee or a hypocrite. Therefore, if you please, we will stop religion and allegory, and come to plain matter-of-fact. When I knew you in Samoa, you were a sailor without a ship.'
'Add a castaway and a child of the devil, sir, and you will describe me as I was then,' burst out Baltic, in his deep voice. 'Hear me, Sir Harry, and gauge me as I should be gauged. I was, as you know, a drunken, godless, swearing dog, in the grip of Satan as fuel for hell; but when you saved my worthless life I saw that it behoved me, as it does all men, to repent. I sought out a missionary, who heard my story and set my feet in the right path. I listened to his preaching, I read the Good Book, and so learned how I could be saved. The missionary made me his fellow-labourer in the islands, and I strove to bring the poor heathen to the foot of the cross. For three years I laboured there, until it was borne in upon me that I was called upon by the Spirit to labour in the greater vineyard of London. Therefore, I came to England and looked round to see what task was fittest for my hand. On every side I saw evil prosper. The wicked, as I noted, flourished like a green bay tree; so, to bring them to repentance and punishment, I became a private inquiry agent.'
'Humph! that is a novel kind of missionary enterprise, Baltic.'
'It is a righteous one, Sir Harry. I search out iniquities; I snare the wicked man in his own nets; I make void the devices of his evil heart. If I cannot prevent crimes, I can at least punish them by bringing their doers within the grip of the law. Then when punished by man, they repent and turn to God, and thereby are saved through their own lusts.'
'Not in many cases, I am afraid. So you regard yourself as a kind of scourge for the wicked?'
'Yes! When I state that I am a missionary, I regard myself as one who works in a new way.'
'A kind of fin-de-siècle apostle, in fact,' said Brace, dryly. 'But isn't the term "missionary" rather a misnomer?'
'No!' replied Baltic, earnestly. 'I do my work in a different way, that is all. I baffle the wicked, and by showing them the futility of sin, induce them to lead a new life. I make them fall, only to aid them to rise; for when all is lost, their hearts soften.'
'You give them a kind of Hobson's choice, I see,' commented Sir Harry, who was puzzled by the man's conception of his work, but saw that he spoke in all seriousness. 'Well, Baltic, it is a queer way of calling sinners to repentance, and I can't understand it myself.'
'My method of conversion is certainly open to misconstruction, sir. That is why I term myself rather a missionary than a private inquiry agent.'
'I see; you don't wish to scare your promising flock of criminals. Does anyone here know that you are a private inquiry agent?'
'Mr Cargrim does,' said the ex-sailor, calmly, 'and one other.'
Harry leaned forward with an incredulous look. 'Cargrim knows,' he said in utter amazement. 'I should think he would be the last man to approve of your ideas, with his narrow views and clerical red-tapism.' 'Perhaps, so, sir; but in this case my views happen to fall in with his own. I came to see you, Sir Harry, in order to ease my mind on that point.'
'In order to ease your mind!' repeated Brace, with a keen look. 'Go on.'
'Sir Harry, I speak to you in confidence about Mr Cargrim. I do not like that man, sir.'
'You belong to the majority, then, Baltic. Few people like Cargrim, or trust him. But what is he to you?'
'My employer. Yes, sir, you may well look astonished. Mr Cargrim asked me down to Beorminster for a certain purpose.'
'Connected with his self-aggrandisement, no doubt.'
'That I cannot tell you, Sir Harry, as Mr Cargrim has not told me his motive for engaging me in my business capacity. All I know is that he wishes me to discover who killed a man called Jentham.'
'The deuce!' Harry jumped up with an excited look. 'Why is he taking the trouble to do that?'
'I can't say, sir, unless it is that he dislikes Bishop Pendle!'
'Dislikes Bishop Pendle, man! And what has all this to do with the murder of Jentham?'
'Sir,' said Baltic, with a cautious glance around, and sinking his voice to a whisper, 'Mr Cargrim suspects Dr Pendle of the crime.'
'What!!!' Sir Harry turned the colour of chalk, and sprang back until he almost touched the wall. 'You hound!' said he, speaking with unnatural calmness, 'do you dare to sit there and tell me that you have come here to watch the bishop?'
'Yes, Sir Harry,' was Baltic's stolid rejoinder, 'and calling me names won't do away with the fact.'
'Does Cargrim believe that the bishop killed this man?'
'Yes, sir, he does, and wishes me to bring the crime home to him.'
'Curse you!' roared Harry, striding across the room, and towering over the unmoved Baltic, 'I'll wring your neck, sir, if you dare to hint at such a thing.' 'I am merely stating facts, Sir Harry--facts,' he added pointedly, 'which I wish you to know.'
'For what purpose.'
'That you may assist me.'
'To hunt down the bishop, I suppose,' said Sir Harry, quivering with rage.
'No, sir, to save the bishop from Mr Cargrim.'
'Then you do not believe that the bishop is guilty.'
'Sir,' said Baltic, with dignity, 'in London and in Beorminster I have collected certain evidence which, on the face of it, incriminates the bishop. But since knowing Dr Pendle I have been observant of his looks and demeanour, and--after much thought--I have come to the conclusion that he is innocent of this crime which Mr Cargrim lays to his charge. It is because of this belief that I tell you my mind and seek your assistance. We must work together, sir, and discover the real criminal so as to baffle Mr Cargrim.'
'Cargrim, Cargrim,' repeated Brace, angrily, 'he is a bad lot.'
'That is what I say, Sir Harry. He is one who spreads a snare, and I wish him to be taken in it himself.'
'Yet Cargrim is your employer, and pays you,' sneered Sir Harry.
'You are wrong,' replied Baltic, quietly. 'I do not take payment for my work.'
'How do you live then? You were not independent when I knew you.'
'That is true, Sir Harry, but when I arrived in England I found that my father was dead, and had left me sufficient to live upon. Therefore I take no fee for my work, but labour to punish the wicked, for religion's sake.'
Brace muttered something about the heat, and wiped his forehead as he resumed his seat. The peculiar views held by Baltic perplexed him greatly, and he could not reconcile the man's desire to capture criminals with his belief in a religion, the keynote of which is, 'God is love.' Evidently Baltic wished to convert sinners by playing on their fears rather than by appealing to their religious feelings, although it was certainly true that those rascals with whom he had to deal probably had no elements of belief whatsoever in their seared minds.
But be this as it may, Baltic's mission was both novel and strange, and might in some degree prove successful from its very originality. Torquemada burned bodies to save souls, but this man exposed vices, so that those who committed them, being banned by the law, and made outcasts from civilisation, should find no friend but the Deity. Harry was not clever enough to understand the ethics of this conception, therefore he abandoned any attempt to do so, and treating Baltic purely as an ordinary detective, addressed himself to the task of arriving at the evidence which was said to inculpate Dr Pendle in the murder of Jentham. The ex-sailor accepted the common ground of argument, and in his turn abandoned theology for the business of everyday life. Common sense was needed to expose and abase and overturn those criminals whose talents enabled them to conceal their wickedness; proselytism could follow in due course. There was the germ of a new sect in Baltic's conception of Christianity as a terrorising religion.
'Let me hear your evidence against the bishop,' said Sir Harry, calm and business-like.
Baltic complied with this request and gave the outlines of the case in barren detail. 'Sir,' said he, gravely, 'some weeks ago, while there was a reception at the palace, this man Jentham called to see the bishop and evidently attempted to blackmail him on account of some secret. Afterwards Jentham, not being able to pay for his board and lodging at The Derby Winner, promised Mosk, the landlord, that he would discharge his bill shortly, as he expected the next week to receive much money. From whom he did not say, but while drunk he boasted that Southberry Heath was Tom Tiddler's ground, on which he could pick up gold and silver. In the meantime, Bishop Pendle went up to London and drew out of the Ophir Bank a sum of two hundred pounds, in twenty ten-pound notes. With this money he returned to Beorminster and kept an appointment, on the common, with Jentham, when returning on Sunday night from Southberry. Whether he paid him the blackmail I cannot say; whether he killed the man no one can declare honestly; but it is undoubtedly true that, the next morning, Jentham, whom the bishop regarded as his enemy, was found dead. These, sir, are the bare facts of the case, and, as you can see, they certainly appear to inculpate Dr Pendle in the crime.'
This calm and pitiless statement chilled Sir Harry's blood. Although he could not bring himself to believe that the bishop was guilty, yet he saw plainly enough that the evidence tended, almost beyond all doubt, to incriminate the prelate. Yet there might be flaws even in so complete an indictment, and Harry, seeking for them, began eagerly to question Baltic.
'Who told you all this?' he demanded with some apprehension.
'Mr Cargrim told me some parts, and I found out others for myself, sir.'
'Does Cargrim know the nature of Dr Pendle's secret?'
'Not that I know of, Sir Harry.'
'Is he certain that there is one?'
'Quite certain,' replied Baltic, emphatically; 'if only on account of Jentham's boast about being able to get money, and the fact that Bishop Pendle went up to London to procure the blackmail.'
'How does he know--how does anyone know that the bishop did so?'
'Because a butt was torn out of Dr Pendle's London cheque-book,' said Baltic, 'and I made inquiries at the Ophir Bank, which resulted in my discovery that a cheque for two hundred had been drawn on the day the bishop was in town.'
'Come now, Baltic, it is not likely that any bank would give you that information without a warrant; but I don't suppose you dared to procure one against his lordship.'
'Sir,' said Baltic, rolling up his red handkerchief, 'I had not sufficient evidence to procure a warrant, also I am not in the service of the Government, nevertheless, I have my own ways of procuring information, which I decline to explain. These served me so well in this instance that I know Bishop Pendle drew a cheque for two hundred pounds, and moreover, I have the numbers of the notes. If the money was paid to Jentham, and afterwards was taken from his dead body by the assassin, I hope to trace these notes; in which case I may capture the murderer.'
'In your character of a private inquiry agent?'
'No, Sir Harry, I cannot take that much upon myself. I mentioned that one other person knew of my profession; that person is Inspector Tinkler.'
'Man!' cried Brace, with a start, 'you have not dared to accuse the bishop to Tinkler!'
'Oh, no, sir!' rejoined the ex-sailor, composedly. 'All I have done is to tell Tinkler that I wish to hunt down the murderer of Jentham, and to induce him to obtain for me a warrant of arrest against Mother Jael.'
'Mother Jael, the gipsy hag! You don't suspect her, surely!'
'Not of the murder; but I suspect her of knowing the truth. Tinkler got me a warrant on the ground of her being concerned in the crime--say, as an accessory after the fact. To-morrow, Sir Harry, I ride over to the gipsy camp, and then with this warrant I intend to frighten Mother Jael into confessing what she knows.'
Harry smiled grimly. 'If you get the truth out of her you will be a clever man, Baltic. Does the bishop know that you suspect him?'
'I don't suspect him, sir,' replied Baltic, rising, 'and the bishop knows nothing, as he believes that I am a missionary.'
'Well, you are, in your own peculiar way.'
'Thank you, Sir Harry. Only you and Mr Cargrim and Mr Tinkler are aware of the truth, and I tell you all this, sir, as I neither approve of, nor believe in, Mr Cargrim. I am certain that Dr Pendle is innocent; Mr Cargrim is equally certain that he is guilty; so I am working to prove the truth, and that,' concluded the solemn Baltic, 'will not be what Mr Cargrim desires.'
'Good God! the man must hate the bishop.'
'Bating your taking the name of God in vain, sir, I believe he does.'
'Well, Baltic, I am greatly obliged to you for your confidence, and feel thankful that you are on our side. You can command my services in any way you like, but keep me posted up in all you do.'
'Sir!' said Baltic, gravely, shaking hands with his host, 'you can look upon me as your friend and well-wisher.'
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