I was before one of those difficult positions unavoidable to a visitor in a foreign country.
I had to meet the obligations of professional courtesy. Captain Walker had asked me to go over the manuscript of his memoirs; and now he had called at the house in which I was a guest, for my opinion. We had long been friends; associated in innumerable cases, and I wished to suggest the difficulty rather than to express it. It was the twilight of an early Washington winter. The lights in the great library, softened with delicate shades, had been turned on. Outside, Sheridan Circle was almost a thing of beauty in its vague outlines; even the squat, ridiculous bronze horse had a certain dignity in the blue shadow.
If one had been speculating on the man, from his physical aspect one would have taken Walker for an engineer of some sort, rather than the head of the United States Secret Service. His lean face and his angular manner gaffe that impression. Even now, motionless in the big chair beyond the table, he seemed - how shall I say it? - mechanical.
And that was the very defect in his memoir. He had cut the great cases into a dry recital. There was no longer in them any pressure of a human impulse. The glow of inspired detail had been dissected out. Everything startling and wonderful had been devitalized.
The memoir was a report.
The bulky typewritten manuscript lay on the table beside the electric lamp, and I stood about uncertain how to tell him.
"Walker," I said, "did nothing wonderful ever happen to you in the adventure of these cases?"
"What precisely do you mean, Sir Henry?" he replied.
The practical nature of the man tempted me to extravagance.
"Well," I said, "for example, were you never kissed in a lonely street by a mysterious woman and the flash of your dark lantern reveal a face of, startling beauty?"
"No," he said, as though he were answering a sensible question, "that never happened to me."
"Then," I continued, "perhaps you have found a prince of the church, pale as alabaster, sitting in his red robe, who put together the indicatory evidence of the crime that baffled you with such uncanny acumen that you stood aghast at his perspicacity?"
"No," he said; and then his face lighted. "But I'll tell you what I did find. I found a drunken hobo at Atlantic City who was the best detective I ewer, saw."
I sat down and tapped the manuscript with my fingers.
"It's not here," I said. "Why did you leave it out?"
He took a big gold watch out of his pocket and turned it about in his hand. The case was covered with an inscription.
"Well, Sir Henry," he said, "the boys in the department think a good deal of me. I shouldn't like them to know how a dirty tramp faked me at Atlantic City. I don't mind telling you, but I couldn't print it in a memoir."
He went directly ahead with the story and I was careful not to interrupt him:
"I was sitting in a rolling chair out there on the Boardwalk before the Traymore. I was nearly all in, and I had taken a run to Atlantic for a day or two of the sea air. The fact is the whole department was down and out. You may remember what we were up against; it finally got into the newspapers.
"The government plates of the Third Liberty Bond issue had disappeared. We knew how they had gotten out, and we thought we knew the man at the head of the thing. It was a Mulehaus job, as we figured it.
"It was too big a thing for a little crook. With the government plates they could print Liberty Bonds just as the Treasury would. And they could sow the world with them."
He paused and moved his gold-rimmed spectacles a little closer in on his nose.
"You see these war bonds are scattered all over the country. They are held by everybody. It's not what it used to be, a banker's business that we could round up. Nobody could round up the holders of these bonds.
"A big crook like Mulehaus could slip a hundred million of them into the country and never raise a ripple."
He paused and drew his fingers across his bony protruding chin.
"I'll say this for Mulehaus: He's the hardest man to identify in the whole kingdom of crooks. Scotland Yard, the Service de la Surete, everybody, says that. I don't mean dime-novel disguises - false whiskers and a limp. I mean the ability to be the character he pretends - the thing that used to make Joe Jefferson, Rip Van Winkle - and not an actor made up to look like him. That's the reason nobody could keep track of Mulehaus, especially in South American cities. He was a French banker in the Egypt business and a Swiss banker in the Argentine."
He turned back from the digression:
"And it was a clean job. They had got away with the plates. We didn't have a clew. We thought, naturally, that they'd make for Mexico or some South American country to start their printing press. And we had the ports and border netted up. Nothing could have gone out across the border or, through any port. All the customs officers were, working with us, and every agent of the Department of Justice."
He looked at me steadily across the table.
"You see the Government had to get those plates back before the crook started to print, or else take up every bond of that issue over the whole country. It was a hell of a thing!
"Of course we had gone right after the record of all the big crooks to see whose line this sort of job was. And the thing narrowed down to Mulehaus or old Vronsky. We soon found out it wasn't Vronsky. He was in Joliet. It was Mulehaus. But we couldn't find him.
"We didn't even know that Mulehaus was in America. He's a big crook with a genius for selecting men. He might be directing the job from Rio or a Mexican port. But we were sure it was a Mulehaus' job. He sold the French securities in Egypt in '90; and he's the man who put the bogus Argentine bonds on our market - you'll find the case in the 115th Federal Reporter.
"Well," he went on, "I was sitting out there in the rolling chair, looking at the sun on the sea and thinking about the thing, when I noticed this hobo that I've been talking about. He was my chair attendant, but I hadn't looked at him before. He had moved round from behind me and was now leaning against the galvanized pipe railing.
"He was a big human creature, a little stooped, unshaved and dirty; his mouth was slack and loose, and he had a big mobile nose that seemed to move about like a piece of soft rubber. He had hardly any clothing; a cap that must have been fished out of an ash barrel, no shirt whatever, merely an old ragged coat buttoned round him, a pair of canvas breeches and carpet slippers tied on to his feet with burlap, and wrapped round his ankles to conceal the fact that he wore no socks.
"As I looked at him he darted out, picked up the stump of a cigarette that some one had thrown down, and came back to the railing to smoke it, his loose mouth and his big soft nose moving like kneaded putty.
"Altogether this tramp was the worst human derelict I ever saw. And it occurred to me that this was the one place in the whole of America where any sort of a creature could get a kind of employment and no questions asked.
"Anything that could move and push a chair could get fifteen cents an hour from McDuyal. Wise man, poor man, beggar man, thief, it was all one to McDuyal. And the creatures could sleep in the shed behind the rolling chairs.
"I suppose an impulse to offer the man a garment of some sort moved me to address him.
"`You're nearly naked,' I said.
"He crossed one leg over the other with the toe of the carpet slipper touching the walk, in the manner of a burlesque actor, took the cigarette out of his mouth with a little flourish, and replied to me
"'Sure, Governor, I ain't dolled up like John Drew.'
"There was a sort of cocky unconcern about the creature that gave his miserable state a kind of beggarly distinction. He was in among the very dregs of life, and he was not depressed about it.
"'But if I had a sawbuck," he continued, "I could bulge your eye . . . . Couldn't point the way to one?'
"He arrested my answer with the little flourish of his fingers holding the stump of the cigarette.
"'Not work, Governor,' and he made a little duck of his head, 'and not murder . . . . Go as far as you please between 'em.'
"The fantastic manner of the derelict was infectious.
"`O. K.' I said. `Go out and find me a man who is a deserter from the German Army, was a tanner in Bale and began life as a sailor, and I'll double your money - I'll give you a twenty-dollar bill.'
"The creature whistled softly in two short staccato notes.
"`Some little order,' he said. And taking a toothpick out of his pocket he stuck it into the stump of the cigarette which had become too short to hold between his fingers.
"At this moment a boy from the post office came to me with the daily report from Washington, and I got out of the chair, tipped the creature, and went into the hotel, stopping to pay McDuyal as I passed.
"There was nothing new from the department except that our organization over the country was in close touch. We had offered five thousand dollars reward for the recovery of the plates, and the Post Office Department was now posting the notice all over America in every office. The Secretary thought we had better let the public in on it and not keep it an underground offer to the service.
"I had forgotten the hobo, when about five o'clock he passed me a little below the Steel Pier. He was in a big stride and he had something clutched in his hand.
"He called to me as he hurried along: `I got him, Governor. . . . See you later!'
"`See me now,' I said. `What's the hurry?'
"He flashed his hand open, holding a silver dollar with his thumb against the palm.
"`Can't stop now, I'm going to get drunk. See you later.'
"I smiled at this disingenuous creature. He was saving me for the dry hour. He could point out Mulehaus in any passing chair, and I would give some coin to be rid of his pretension."
Walker paused. Then he went on:
"I was right. The hobo was waiting for me when I came out of the hotel the following morning.
"`Howdy, Governor,' he said; `I located your man.'
"I was interested to see how he would frame up his case.
"`How did you find him?' I said.
"He grinned, moving his lip and his loose nose.
"`Some luck, Governor, and some sleuthin'. It was like this: I thought you was stringin' me. But I said to myself I'll keep out an eye; maybe it's on the level - any damn thing can happen.'
"He put up his hand as though to hook his thumb into the armhole of his vest, remembered that he had only a coat buttoned round him and dropped it.
"`And believe me or not, Governor, it's the God's truth. About four o'clock up toward the Inlet I passed a big, well-dressed, banker-looking gent walking stiff from the hip and throwing out his leg. "Come eleven!" I said to myself. "It's the goosestep!" I had an empty roller, and I took a turn over to him.'
"`"Chair, Admiral?" I said.
"`He looked at me sort of queer.
"`"What makes you think I'm an admiral, my man?" he answers.
"Well," I says, lounging over on one foot reflective like, "nobody could be a-viewin' the sea with that lovin', ownership look unless he'd bossed her a bit . . . . If I'm right, Admiral, you takes the chair."
"`He laughed, but he got in. "I'm not an admiral," he said, "but it is true that I've followed the sea.'"
"The hobo paused, and put up his first and second fingers spread like a V.
"`Two points, Governor - the gent had been a sailor and a soldier; now how about the tanner business?
"He scratched his head, moving his ridiculous cap.
"`That sort of puzzled me, and I pussyfooted along toward the Inlet thinkin' about it. If a man was a tanner, and especially a foreign, hand-workin' tanner, what would his markin's be?
"`I tried to remember everybody that I'd ever seen handlin' a hide, and all at once I recollected that the first thing a dago shoemaker done when he picked up a piece of leather was to smooth it out with his thumbs. An' I said to myself, now that'll be what a tanner does, only he does it more. . . . he's always doin' it. Then I asks myself what would be the markin's?'
"The hobo paused, his mouth open, his head twisted to one side. Then he jerked up as under a released spring.
"`And right away, Governor, I got the answer to it flat thumbs!'
"The hobo stepped back with an air of victory and flashed his hand up.
"`And he had 'em! I asked him what time it was so I could keep the hour straight for McDuyal, I told him, but the real reason was so I could see his hands.'"
Walker crossed one leg over the other.
"It was clever," he said, "and I hesitated to shatter it. But the question had to come.
"`Where is your man?' I said.
"The hobo executed a little deprecatory step, with ,his fingers picking at his coat pockets.
"`That's the trouble, Governor,' he answered; `I intended to sleuth him for you, but he gave me a dollar and I got drunk . . . you saw me. That man had got out at McDuyal's place not five minutes before. I was flashin' to the booze can when you tried to stop me . . . . Nothin' doin' when I get the price.'"
"It was a good fairy story and worth something. I offered him half a dollar. Then I got a surprise.
"The creature looked eagerly at the coin in my fingers, and he moved toward it. He was crazy for the liquor it would buy. But he set his teeth and pulled up.
"`No, Governor,' he said, `I'm in it for the sawbuck. Where'll I find you about noon?'
"I promised to be on the Boardwalk before Heinz's Pier at two o'clock, and he turned to shuffle away. I called an inquiry after him . . . You see there were two things in his story: How did he get a dollar tip, and how did he happen to make his imaginary man banker-looking? Mulehaus had been banker-looking in both the Egypt and the Argentine affairs. I left the latter point suspended, as we say. But I asked about the dollar. He came back at once.
"`I forgot about that, Governor,' he said. `It was like this: The admiral kept looking out at the sea where an old freighter was going South. You know, the fruit line from New York. One of them goes by every day or two. And I kept pushing him along. Finally we got up to the Inlet, and I was about to turn when he stopped me. You know the neck of ground out beyond where the street cars loop; there's an old board fence by the road, then sand to the sea, and about halfway between the fence and the water there's a shed with some junk in it. You've seen it. They made the old America out there and the shed was a tool house.
"`When I stopped the admiral says: "Cut across to the hole in that old board fence and see if an automobile has been there, and I'll give you a dollar." An' I done it, an' I got it.'
"Then he shuffled off.
"`Be on the spot, Governor, an' I'll lead him to you.
Walker leaned over, rested his elbows on the arms of his chair, and linked his fingers together.
"That gave me a new flash on the creature. He was a slicker article than I imagined. I was not to get off with a tip. He was taking some pains to touch me for a greenback. I thought I saw his line. It would not account for his hitting the description of Mulehaus in the make-up of his straw-man, but it would furnish the data for the dollar story. I had drawn the latter a little before he was ready. It belonged in what he planned to give me at two o'clock. But I thought I saw what the creature was about. And I was right."
Walker put out his hand and moved the pages of his memoir on the table. Then he went on:
"I was smoking a cigar on a bench at the entrance to Heinz's Pier when the hobo shuffled up. He came down one of the streets from Pacific Avenue, and the direction confirmed me in my theory. It also confirmed me in the opinion that I was all kinds of a fool to let this dirty hobo get a further chance at me.
"I was not in a very good humor. Everything I had set going after Mulehaus was marking time. The only report was progress in linking things up; not only along the Canadian and Mexican borders and the customhouses, but we had also done a further unusual thing, we had an agent on every ship going out of America to follow through to the foreign port and look out for anything picked up on the way.
"It was a plan I had set at immediately the robbery was discovered. It would cut out the trick of reshipping at sea from some fishing craft or small boat. The reports were encouraging enough in that respect. We had the whole country as tight as a drum. But it was slender comfort when the Treasury was raising the devil for the plates and we hadn't a clew to them."
Walker stopped a moment. Then he went on:
"I felt like kicking the hobo when he got to me, he was so obviously the extreme of all worthless creatures, with that apologetic, confidential manner which seems to be an abominable attendant on human degeneracy. One may put up with it for a little while, but it presently becomes intolerable.
"`Governor,' he began, when he'd shuffled up, `you won't git mad if I say a little somethin'?
"`Go on and say it,' I said.
"The expression on his dirty unshaved face became, if possible, more foolish.
"`Well, then, Governor, askin' your pardon, you ain't Mr. Henry P. Johnson, from Erie; you're the Chief of the United States Secret Service, from Washington.' "
Walker moved in his chair.
"That made me ugly," he went on, "the assurance of the creature and my unspeakable carelessness in permitting the official letters brought to me on the day before by the post-office messenger to be seen. In my relaxation I had forgotten the eye of the chair attendant. I took the cigar out of my teeth and locked at him.
"`And I'll say a little something myself!' I could hardly keep my foot clear of him. `When you got sober this morning and remembered who I was, you took a turn up round the post office to make sure of it, and while you were in there you saw the notice of the reward for the stolen bond plates. That gave you the notion with which you pieced out your fairy story about how you got the dollar tip. Having discovered my identity through a piece of damned carelessness on my part, and having seen the postal notice of the reward, you undertook to enlarge your little game. That's the reason you wouldn't take fifty cents. It was your notion in the beginning to make a touch for a tip. And it would have worked. But now you can't get a damned cent out of me.' Then I threw a little brush into him: `I'd have stood a touch for your finding the fake tanner, because there isn't any such person.'
"I intended to put the hobo out of business," Walker went on, "but the effect of my words on him were even more startling than I anticipated. His jaw dropped and he looked at me in astonishment.
"`No such person!' he repeated. `Why, Governor, before God, I found a man like that, an' he was a banker-one of the big ones, sure as there's a hell!' "
Walker put out his hands in a puzzled gesture.
"There it was again, the description of Mulehaus! And it puzzled me. Every motion of this hobo's mind in every direction about this affair was perfectly clear to me. I saw his intention in every turn of it and just where he got the material for the details of his story. But this absolutely distinguishing description of Mulehaus was beyond me. Everybody, of course, knew that we were looking for the lost plates, for there was the reward offered by the Treasury; but no human soul outside of the trusted agents of the department knew that we were looking for Mulehaus."
Walker did not move, but he stopped in his recital for a moment.
"The tramp shuffled up a step closer to the bench where I sat. The anxiety in his big slack face was sincere beyond question.
"`I can't find 'the banker man, Governor; he's skipped the coop. But I believe I can find what he's hid.'
"`Well,' I said, `go and find it.'
"The hobo jerked out his limp hands in a sort of hopeless gesture.
"`Now, Governor,' he whimpered, `what good would it do me to find them plates?'
"`You'd get five thousand dollars,' I said.
"`I'd git kicked into the discard by the first cop that got to me,' he answered, `that's what I'd git.'
"The creature's dirty, unshaved jowls began to shake, and his voice became wholly a whimper.
"`I've got a fine on this thing, Governor, sure as there's a hell. That banker man was viewin' the layout. I've thought it all over, an' this is the way it would be. They're afraid of the border an' they're afraid of the customhouses, so they runs the loot down here in an automobile, hides it up about the Inlet, and plans to go out with it to one of them fruit steamers passing on the way to Tampico. They'd have them plates bundled up in a sailor's chest most like.
"`Now, Governor, you'd say why ain't they already done it? An' I'd answer, the main guy - this banker man - didn't know the automobile had got here until he sent me to look, and there ain't been no ship along since then . . . . I've been special careful to find that out.' And then the creature began to whine. `Have a heart, Governor, come along with me. Gimme a show!'
"It was not the creature's plea that moved me, nor his pretended deductions; I'm a bit old to be soft. It was the `banker man' sticking like a bur in the hobo's talk. I wanted to keep him in sight until I understood where he got it. No doubt that seems a slight reason for going out to the Inlet with the creature; but you must remember that slight things are often big signboards in our business."
He continued, his voice precise and even
"We went directly from the end of the Boardwalk to the old shed; it was open, an unfastened door on a pair of leather hinges. The shed is small, about twenty feet by eleven, with a hard dirt floor packed down by the workmen who had used it; a combination of clay and sand like the Jersey roads put in to make a floor. All round it, from the sea to the board fence, was soft sand. There were some pieces of old junk lying about in the shed; but nothing of value or it would have been nailed up.
"The hobo led right off with his deductions. There, was the track of a man, clearly outlined in the soft sand, leading from the board fence to the shed and returning, and no other track anywhere about.
"`Now, Governor,' he began, when he had taken a look at the tracks, `the man that made them tracks carried something into this shed, and he left it here, and it was something heavy.'
"I was fairly certain that the hobo had salted the place for me, made the tracks himself; but I played out a line to him.
"`How do you know that?' I said.
"`Well, Governor,' he answered, `take a look at them two lines of tracks. In the one comin' to the shed the man was walkin' with his feet apart and in the one goin' back he was walkin' with his feet in front of one another; that's because he was carryin' somethin' heavy when he come an' nothin' when he left.'
"It was an observation on footprints," he went on, "that had never occurred to me. The hobo saw my, awakened interest, and he added:
"`Did you never notice a man carryin' a heavy load? He kind of totters, walkin' with his feet apart to keep his balance. That makes his foot tracks side by side like, instead of one before the other as he makes them when he's goin' light."'
Walker interrupted his narrative with a comment:
"It's the truth. I've verified it a thousand times since that hobo put me onto it. A line running through the center of the heel prints of a man carrying a heavy burden will be a zigzag, while one through the heel prints of the same man without the burden will be almost straight.
"The tramp went right on with his deductions:
"`If it come in and didn't go out, it's here.'
"And he began to go over the inside of the shed. He searched it like a man searching a box for a jewel. He moved the pieces of old castings and he literally fingered the shed from end to end. He would have found a bird's egg.
"Finally he stopped and stood with his hand spread out over his mouth. And I selected this critical moment to touch the powder off under his game.
"`Suppose,' I said, `that this man with the heavy load wished to mislead us; suppose that instead of bringing something here he took one of these old castings away?'
"The hobo looked at me without changing his position.
"`How could he, Governor; he was pointin' this way with the load?'
"`By walking backward,' I said. For it occurred to me that perhaps the creature had manufactured this evidence for the occasion, and I wished to test the theory."
Walker went on in his slow, even voice:
"The test produced more action than I expected.
The hobo dived out through the door. I followed to see him disappear. But it was not in flight; he was squatting down over the footprints. And a moment later he rocked back on his haunches with a little exultant yelp.
"`Dope's wrong, Governor,' he said; `he was sure comin' this way.' Then he explained: `If a man's walkin' forward in sand or mud or snow the toe of his shoe flirts out a little of it, an' if he's walkin' backward his heel flirts it out.'
"At this point I began to have some respect for the creature's ability. He got up and came back into the shed. And there he stood, in his old position, with his fingers over his mouth, looking round at the empty shed, in which, as I have said, one could not have concealed a bird's egg.
"I watched him without offering any suggestion, for my interest in the thing had awakened and I was curious to see what he would do. He stood perfectly motionless for about a minute; and then suddenly he snapped his fingers and the light came into his face.
"`I got it, Governor!' Then he came over to where I stood. `Gimme a quarter to git a bucket.'
"I gave him the coin, for I was now profoundly puzzled, and he went out. He was gone perhaps twenty minutes, and when he came in he had a bucket of water. But he had evidently been thinking on the way, for he set the bucket down carefully, wiped his hands on his canvas breeches, and began to speak, with a little apologetic whimper in his voice.
"`Now look here, Governor,' he said, `I'm a-goin' to talk turkey; do I git the five thousand if I find this stuff ?'
"`Surely,' I answered him.
"`An' there'll be no monkeyin', Governor; you'll take me down to a bank yourself an' put the money in my hand?'
"`I promise you that,' I assured him.
"But he was not entirely quiet in his mind about it. He shifted uneasily from one foot to the other, and his soft rubber nose worked.
"`Now, Governor,' he said, `I'm leery about jokers - I gotta be. I don't want any string to this money. If I git it I want to go and blow it in. I don't want you to hand me a roll an' then start any reformin' stunt - a-holdin' of it in trust an' a probation officer a-pussyfootin' me, or any funny business. I want the wad an' a clear road to the bright lights, with no word passed along to pinch me. Do I git it?,
"`It's a trade!' I said.
"`O. K.,' he answered, and he took up the bucket. He began at the door and poured the water carefully on the hard tramped earth. When the bucket was empty he brought another and another. Finally about midway of the floor space he stopped.
"`Here it is!' he said.
"I was following beside him, but I saw nothing to justify his words.
"`Why do you think the plates are buried here?' I said.
"`Look at the air bubbles comin' up, Governor,' he answered."
Walker stopped, then he added:
"It's a thing which I did not know until that moment, but it's the truth. If hard-packed earth is dug up and repacked air gets into it, and if one pours water on the place air bubbles will come up."
He did not go on, and I flung at him the big query in his story.
"And you found the plates there?"
"Yes, Sir Henry," he replied, "in the false bottom of an old steamer trunk."
"And the hobo got the money?"
"Certainly," he answered. "I put it into his hand, and let him go with it, as I promised."
Again he was silent, and I turned toward him in astonishment.
"Then," I said, "why did you begin this story by saying the hobo faked you? I don't see the fake; he found the plates and he was entitled to the reward."
Walker put his hand into his pocket, took out a leather case, selected a paper from among its cons tents and handed it to me. "I didn't see the fake either," he said, "until I got this letter."
I unfolded the letter carefully. It was neatly written in a hand like copper plate and dated Buenos Aires
DEAR COLONEL WALKER: When I discovered that you were planting an agent on every ship I had to abandon the plates and try for the reward. Thank you for the five thousand; it covered expenses.
Very sincerely yours,