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Before he said a word more, I knew that Mr. Gilverthwaite was very ill--much worse, I fancied, than my mother had any notion of. It was evidently hard work for him to get his breath, and the veins in his temples and forehead swelled out, big and black, with the effort of talking. He motioned to me to hand him a bottle of some stuff which he had sent for from the chemist, and he took a swig of its contents from the bottle neck before he spoke again. Then he pointed to a chair at the bed-head, close to his pillow.
"My lungs!" he said, a bit more easily. "Mortal bad! Queer thing, a great man like me, but I was always delicate in that way, ever since I was a nipper--strong as a bull in all else. But this word is private. Look here, you're a lawyer's clerk?"
He had known that, of course, for some time--known that I was clerk to a solicitor of the town, and hoping to get my articles, and in due course become a solicitor myself. So there was no need for me to do more than nod in silence.
"And being so," he went on, "you'll be a good hand at keeping a secret very well. Can you keep one for me, now?"
He had put out one of his big hands as he spoke, and had gripped my wrist with it--ill as he was, the grip of his fingers was like steel, and yet I could see that he had no idea that he was doing more than laying his hand on me with the appeal of a sick man.
"It depends what it is, Mr. Gilverthwaite," I answered. "I should like to do anything I can for you."
"You wouldn't do it for nothing," he put in sharply. "Ill make it well worth your while. See here!"
He took his hand away from my wrist, put it under his pillow, and drew out a bank-note, which he unfolded before me.
"Ten pound!" he said. "It's yours, if you'll do a bit of a job for me--in private. Ten pound'll be useful to you. What do you say, now?"
"That it depends on what it is," said I. "I'd be as glad of ten pounds as anybody, but I must know first what I'm expected to do for it."
"It's an easy enough thing to do," he replied. "Only it's got to be done this very night, and I'm laid here, and can't do it. You can do it, without danger, and at little trouble--only--it must be done private."
"You want me to do something that nobody's to know about?" I asked.
"Precisely!" said he. "Nobody! Not even your mother--for even the best of women have tongues."
I hesitated a little--something warned me that there was more in all this than I saw or understood at the moment.
"I'll promise this, Mr. Gilverthwaite," I said presently. "If you'll tell me now what it is you want, I'll keep that a dead secret from anybody for ever. Whether I'll do it or not'll depend on the nature of your communication."
"Well spoken, lad!" he answered, with a feeble laugh. "You've the makings of a good lawyer, anyway. Well, now, it's this--do you know this neighbourhood well?"
"I've never known any other," said I.
"Do you know where Till meets Tweed?" he asked.
"As well as I know my own mother's door!" I answered.
"You know where that old--what do they call it?--chapel, cell, something of that nature, is?" he asked again.
"Aye!--well enough, Mr. Gilverthwaite," I answered him. "Ever since I was in breeches!"
"Well," said he, "if I was my own man, I ought to meet another man near there this very night. And--here I am!"
"You want me to meet this other man?" I asked.
"I'm offering you ten pound if you will," he answered, with a quick look. "Aye, that is what I'm wanting!"
"To do--what?" I inquired.
"Simple enough," he said. "Nothing to do but to meet him, to give him a word that'll establish what they term your bony fides, and a message from me that I'll have you learn by heart before you go. No more!"
"There's no danger in it?" I asked.
"Not a spice of danger!" he asserted. "Not half as much as you'd find in serving a writ."
"You seem inclined to pay very handsomely for it, all the same," I remarked, still feeling a bit suspicious.
"And for a simple reason," he retorted. "I must have some one to do the job--aye, if it costs twenty pound! Somebody must meet this friend o' mine, and tonight--and why shouldn't you have ten pound as well as another?"
"There's nothing to do but what you say?" I asked.
"Nothing--not a thing!" he affirmed.
"And the time?" I said. "And the word--for surety?"
"Eleven o'clock is the time," he answered. "Eleven--an hour before midnight. And as for the word--get you to the place and wait about a bit, and if you see nobody there, say out loud, 'From James Gilverthwaite as is sick and can't come himself'; and when the man appears, as he will, say--aye!--say 'Panama,' my lad, and he'll understand in a jiffy!"
"Eleven o'clock--Panama," said I. "And--the message?"
"Aye!" he answered, "the message. Just this, then: 'James Gilverthwaite is laid by for a day or two, and you'll bide quiet in the place you know of till you hear from him.' That's all. And--how will you get out there, now?--it's a goodish way."
"I have a bicycle," I answered, and at his question a thought struck me. "How did you intend to get out there yourself, Mr. Gilverthwaite?" I asked. "That far--and at that time of night?"
"Aye!" he said. "Just so--but I'd ha' done it easy enough, my lad--if I hadn't been laid here. I'd ha' gone out by the last train to the nighest station, and it being summer I'd ha' shifted for myself somehow during the rest of the night--I'm used to night work. But--that's neither here nor there. You'll go? And--private?"
"I'll go--and privately," I answered him. "Make yourself easy."
"And not a word to your mother?" he asked anxiously.
"Just so," I replied. "Leave it to me."
He looked vastly relieved at that, and after assuring him that I had the message by heart I left his chamber and went downstairs. After all, it was no great task that he had put on me. I had often stayed until very late at the office, where I had the privilege of reading law-books at nights, and it was an easy business to mention to my mother that I wouldn't be in that night so very early. That part of my contract with the sick man upstairs I could keep well enough, in letter and spirit--all the same, I was not going out along Tweed-side at that hour of the night without some safeguard, and though I would tell no one of what my business for Mr. Gilverthwaite precisely amounted to, I would tell one person where it would take me, in case anything untoward happened and I had to be looked for. That person was the proper one for a lad to go to under the circumstances--my sweetheart, Maisie Dunlop.
And here I'll take you into confidence and say that at that time Maisie and I had been sweethearting a good two years, and were as certain of each other as if the two had been twelve. I doubt if there was such another old-fashioned couple as we were anywhere else in the British Islands, for already we were as much bound up in each other as if we had been married half a lifetime, and there was not an affair of mine that I did not tell her of, nor had she a secret that she did not share with me. But then, to be sure, we had been neighbours all our lives, for her father, Andrew Dunlop, kept a grocer's shop not fifty yards from our house, and she and I had been playmates ever since our school-days, and had fallen to sober and serious love as soon as we arrived at what we at any rate called years of discretion--which means that I was nineteen, and she seventeen, when we first spoke definitely about getting married. And two years had gone by since then, and one reason why I had no objection to earning Mr. Gilverthwaite's ten pounds was that Maisie and I meant to wed as soon as my salary was lifted to three pounds a week, as it soon was to be, and we were saving money for our furnishing--and ten pounds, of course, would be a nice help.
So presently I went along the street to Dunlop's and called Maisie out, and we went down to the walls by the river mouth, which was a regular evening performance of ours. And in a quiet corner, where there was a seat on which we often sat whispering together of our future, I told her that I had to do a piece of business for our lodger that night and that the precise nature of it was a secret which I must not let out even to her.
"But here's this much in it, Maisie," I went on, taking care that there was no one near us that could catch a word of what I was saying; "I can tell you where the spot is that I'm to do the business at, for a fine lonely spot it is to be in at the time of night I'm to be there--an hour before midnight, and the place is that old ruin that's close by where Till meets Tweed--you know it well enough yourself."
I felt her shiver a bit at that, and I knew what it was that was in her mind, for Maisie was a girl of imagination, and the mention of a lonely place like that, to be visited at such an hour, set it working.
"Yon's a queer man, that lodger of your mother's, Hughie," she said. "And it's a strange time and place you're talking of. I hope nothing'll come to you in the way of mischance."
"Oh, it's nothing, nothing at all!" I hastened to say. "If you knew it all, you'd see it's a very ordinary business that this man can't do himself, being kept to his bed. But all the same, there's naught like taking precautions beforehand, and so I'll tell you what we'll do. I should be back in town soon after twelve, and I'll give a tap at your window as I pass it, and then you'll know all's right."
That would be an easy enough thing to manage, for Maisie's room, where she slept with a younger sister, was on the ground floor of her father's house in a wing that butted on to the street, and I could knock at the pane as I passed by. Yet still she seemed uneasy, and I hastened to say what--not even then knowing her quite as well as I did later--I thought would comfort her in any fears she had. "It's a very easy job, Maisie," I said; "and the ten pounds'll go a long way in buying that furniture we're always talking about."
She started worse than before when I said that and gripped the hand that I had round her waist.
"Hughie!" she exclaimed. "He'll not be giving you ten pounds for a bit of a ride like that! Oh, now I'm sure there's danger in it! What would a man be paying ten pounds for to anybody just to take a message? Don't go, Hughie! What do you know of yon man except that he's a stranger that never speaks to a soul in the place, and wanders about like he was spying things? And I would liefer go without chair or table, pot or pan, than that you should be running risks in a lonesome place like that, and at that time, with nobody near if you should be needing help. Don't go!"
"You're misunderstanding," said I. "It's a plain and easy thing--I've nothing to do but ride there and back. And as for the ten pounds, it's just this way: yon Mr. Gilverthwaite has more money than he knows what to do with. He carries sovereigns in his pockets like they were sixpenny pieces! Ten pounds is no more to him that ten pennies to us. And we've had the man in our house seven weeks now, and there's nobody could say an ill word of him."
"It's not so much him," she answered. "It's what you may meet--there! For you've got to meet--somebody. You're going, then?"
"I've given my word, Maisie," I said. "And you'll see there'll be no harm, and I'll give you a tap at the window as I pass your house coming back. And we'll do grand things with that ten pounds, too."
"I'll never close my eyes till I hear you, then," she replied. "And I'll not be satisfied with any tap, neither. If you give one, I'll draw the blind an inch, and make sure it's yourself, Hughie."
We settled it at that, with a kiss that was meant on my part to be one of reassurance, and presently we parted, and I went off to get my bicycle in readiness for the ride.
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