A Scrap of Paper
| It was a dismal, sodden morning, with heavy
clouds banked in the western sky. Rain had sloshed down since midnight so that the
gutter in front of me was a turbid little river.
A chill wind swept across the city and penetrated to the marrow. From the summit of the hill, three blocks above me, my car was sliding down, but I clung to the curb to postpone until the last moment a plunge into the flowing street.
Since I was five-and-twenty, in tip-top health, and Irish by descent, I whistled while the windswept drops splashed the shine from my shoes. Rain or sun, 'twas a good little old world, though, faith! I could have wished it a less humdrum one.
For every morning I waited at that same time and place for the same car to take me to my desk in the offices of Kester & Wilcox, and every day I did the same sort of routine grubbing in preparation of cases for more experienced lawyers to handle.
Sometimes it flashed across me that I was a misfit. Nature had cast me for the part of a solider of fortune, and instead I was giving my services to help a big corporation escape the payment of damages for accidents caused by its cars. I turned my back on the romance of life. Well, it was the penalty one must pay to win success.
And while I stood on the curb there fluttered down to me from the dun heavens an invitation to the great adventure my soul longed for. It came on a gust of wind and lay on the sidewalk at my feet, a torn sheet of paper yellowed with age.
I had no premonition of what that faded bit of parchment meant, no picture of men in deadly battle, of the flash of knives or the gleam of revolvers, of lusty seamen lying curled on the deck where they had fallen at the call of sudden death. The only feeling that stirred in me was a faint curiosity at the odd markings on the street.
My foot moved forward and pined the paper to the cement walk. Should I pick it up? Of what use? It would turn out to be only some Chinese laundry bill. Already the gong of the street-car was not more than a block away as it swept down the hill.
Was it some faint sound that drew my eyes up? Or was I answering the call of my destiny when my lifted gaze met the figure of a young woman framed in a second-story window? She was leaning far out, with arm stretched down and fingers opened wide.
Behind her stood a man, also out of the window to his waist. One of his hands clutched her wrist, the other reached toward hers. That he had been trying to take from her the paper he had flung away was an easy guess.
I had but the fraction of a second before my car was slowing for the crossing, but it was long enough to read in his dark face a malignant rage, in her fair, flushed one a defiant triumph. Stooping, I gathered the document that lay under my foot, then ran forward and swung to the platform of the car.
If there had been time for second thought I might have stayed to see the drama out, or I might have left the cause of quarrel where it lay. As it was I had done neither one thing nor the other. Having yielded to impulse so far as to pick up the paper, I had then done the conventional thing and ignored the little scene above.
But then I glanced back up the hill I glimpsed a man flying bareheaded from a doorway and pursuing the car with gestures of impotent fury.
All the way down to the business quarter the odd affair challenged my interest. What did it mean? The picture in the window was no laughing romp meant to end in kisses. So much I was willing to swear. There was passion in both the faces.
Out of those two lives I had snatched a vivid moment, perhaps one of many common to them, perhaps the first their intersecting life-lines had developed.
Was the man her husband? I was not willing to think so. More likely a brother, I persuaded myself. For it was already being borne in upon me that freakish chance had swept me into the orbit of thing we spell Romance.
A petty domestic quarrel suggested itself as the obvious solution, but the buoyant youth in me refused any such tame explanation. For the girl was amazingly pretty.
After a glance at it I put the crumpled paper in my pocketbook. In that crowded car, hanging to a strap, I could make nothing of it. At the office my time belonged to Kester & Wilcox until noon, for I was still in that preliminary stage of my legal career during which I found it convenient to exchange my inexperience for fifteen dollars a week. A clouded real-estate title was presumably engaging my attention, but between my mind and the abstract kept jumping a map with the legend "Doubloon Spit" above it.
Faith, the blood sang in my veins. The scent of adventure was in my nostrils. A fool you may think me, but I was already on the hunt for buried treasure. Half a dozen times I had the paper out furtively, and as soon as my hour of release came I cleared the desk and spread the yellow, tattered document upon it.
The ink had been originally red, but in places it was faded almost to illegibility. The worn edges at the folds showed how often it had been opened and scanned. One lower corner had been torn away, leaving perhaps seven-eighths of the original manuscript. Yet in spite of its imperfect state of preservation I found this relic of a dead and forgotten past pulse-stirring.
Before me lay the map of a peninsula, the upper part sketched in vaguely but the toe marked apparently with the greatest care. The first detail that caught my eye was a sketch of a brig in the bay, beneath which was written:
"Here Santa Theresa went to Hell."
It was plain that the coast line was charted accurately so as to show the precise location of the inlets. It was a contour map, giving the hills, sand reaches, and groves. At the nearest one of these last was jotted down the words: "Umbrela Tree."
A little cross had been drawn near the foot of a hill. From this a long line ran into the bay with a loop at the end in which had been printed neatly:
"Where Lobardi croked. Good riddance."
Not far from this were three little circles, beneath which was one word in capitals, "ITTE."
My heart leaped like an unleashed foxhound taking the trail. What could it mean but treasure? What had happened to the Santa Theresa? Had some one helped Lobardi to "croke" by cracking his skull? Could that dim, red ink once have been the life blood in a man's veins?
Here was food enough to fire the blood of a cool-headed Yankee, let along that of a made Irishman. I caught a vision of a boatload of red-turbaned buccaneers swarming up the side of a brig; saw the swish of cutlasses and the bellying smoke of pistols; beheld the strangely garbed seadogs gathered around an open chest of yellow gold bars shining in the sun.
For an eyebeat it was all clear to me as day. Then I laughed aloud at myself in returning sanity. I was in the twentieth century, not the eighteenth. An imagination so vivid that it read al this from a scrap of paper picked from the gutter needed curbing. I repocketed the chart and went to lunch.
But I found I could not laugh myself out of my interest. The mystery of it drew me, despite myself. While I waited for my chop I had the map out again, studying it as a schoolboy does a paper-backed novel behind his geography.
Beneath the map were some closely written lines of directions for finding "itte," whatever that might be. As to that my guess never wavered.
Whoever had drawn the map had called the peninsula "Doubloon Spit." Why? Clearly because he and his fellow buccaneers had buried there the ill-gotten treasure they had gained from piracy. No doubt the Santa Theresa was a gold ship they had waylaid and sunk.
At my entrance I had taken a little side table, but the restaurant was filling rapidly. A man stopped beside my table and took off a frogged overcoat with astrakhan trimmings. He hung this and his hat on a rack and sat down in the chair opposite me.
Instinctively I had covered the map with a newspaper. With amazement I now discovered that my vis-à-vis was the villain of the Adventure of the Young Lady and the Chart, as the author of the "New Arabian Nights" would have phrased it.
The man was in a vile humor, so much could be seen at a glance. Without doing me the honor of a single glance he stared moodily in front of him, his heavy black brows knit to a grim frown.
He was a splendid specimen of physical manhood, big and well-muscled, with a broad, flat back and soldierly carriage. That he was a leader of men was an easy deduction, though the thin, straight mouth and the hard glitter in the black eyes made the claim that he would never lead toward altruism.
In quick, short puffs he smoked a cigarette, and as soon as he had finished it he lit a second. Men all around us were waiting their turn, but I observed that the first lift of his finger brought an attendant.
"Tenderloin with mushroomsasparagus tipsstrong black coffeecognac," he ordered with the curtness of an army officer snapping commands at a trooper. His voice was rich and cultivated, but had a very distinctly foreign quality in spite of the fact that his English was faultless.
I took advantage of the distraction of the waiter's presence to slip the map from the table into my pocket. After this I breathed freer, for it is scarcely necessary to say that in the struggle for the mapand by this time I had quite made up my mind that there would be fought out a campaign for its possessionI was wholly on the side of the young woman.
But as yet I knew none of the facts, and so was not in a position to engage with him to advantage. I called for the check and took my coat and hat from the rack.
Then I made my first mistake. I should have carried my raincoat to the door before putting it on. As I buttoned it recognition began to struggle faintly into his eyes. I waited for no further developments.
But as I went out of the door I could see him hurrying forward. Instantly I turned to the right, dodged into a tobacco shop, ran swiftly through it to the surprise of the proprietor, and found myself in an alley. I took this in double-quick time and presently had lost myself in the hurrying crowds on Kearney Street. Five minutes later I was in the elevator on the way to our office.
I set to work resolutely, but my drifting thoughts went back to the military man with the frogged coat, to the distractingly pretty girl who did not want him to have the map, and to that spit of land lapped by Pacific waves in a latitude and longitude that shall be nameless for reasons that will hereafter appear.
It must have been fifteen minutes after my return that our office boy, Jimmie, came in to tell me that a lady wanted to see me.
"She's a peach, too," he volunteered with the genial impudence that characterized him.
This brought me back to earth, a lawyer instead of a treasure seeker, and when my first client crossed the threshold she found me deep in a volume on contracts, eight other large and bulky reference books piled on the table.
The name on the card Jimmie had handed me was Miss Evelyn Wallace. I rose at once to meet her.
"You are Mr. John Sedgwick?" asked a soft, Southern voice that fell on my ears like music.
My bow stopped abruptly. I stifled an exclamation. The young woman was the one I had seen framed in a second-story window some hours earlier.
"I think you know me by sight," she said, not smiling exactly, but little dimples lurking in her cheeks ready to pounce out at the first opportunity. "That is, unless you have forgotten?"
Forgotten! I might have told her it would be hard to forget that piquant, oval face of exquisite coloring, and those blue eyes in which the sunshine danced like gold. I might have, but I did not. Instead, I murmured that my memory served me well enough.
"I have come for the paper you were good enough to take care of for me, Mr. Sedgwick. It belongs to methe paper you picked up this morning."
From my picket I took the document and handed it to her.
"May I ask how you found out who I was, Miss Wallace?"
You might have thought that roses had brushed her cheeks and left their color there.
"I asked a policeman," she confessed, just a little embarrassed.
"To find you a man in a gray ulster, medium height, weight, and complexion," I laughed.
"I had seen you come from the Graymount once or twice, and by describing you to the landlady he discovered who you were and where you worked," she explained.
Her touch of shyness had infected me, too. It was is if unwittingly I had intruded on her private affairs, had seen that morning an incident not meant for the eyes of a stranger. We avoided the common interest between us, though both of us were thinking of it.
Later I was to learn that she had been as eager to approach the subject as I. But she could not very well invite a stranger into her difficulty any more than I could push myself into her confidence.
"I hope you find the paper exactly as you left it, or rather as it left you," I stammered at last.
She had put the map in her handbag, but at my words she took it out, not to verify my suggestion but to prolong for a moment her stay in order to find courage to broach the difficulty. For she had come to the office in desperation, determined to confide in me if she liked my face and felt I was to be trusted.
"Yes. It was torn at the moment I threw it way. My cousin has the other part. It is a map."
"So I noticed. My impression was that the paper was yours. I examined it see whether it held your name and address."
Her blue eyes met mine shyly.
"Did itinterest you at all?"
"Indeed, and it did. Nothing in a long time has interested me more."
I might have made an exception in favor of the owner of the document, but once more I decided to move with discretion.
"You understood it?" Her soft voice trailed upward so that her declaration was in essence a question.
"I am thinking it was only a wild guess I made."
"I'd like right well to hear it."
My eyes met hers.
With eager little nods she assented.
"Right, sir; treasure buried by pirates early in the nineteenth century. We have reason to think it has never been lifted."
"The best. Except the copy I have, this map is the only one is existence. Only four men saw the gold hidden. Two of them were killed by the others within the hour. The third was murdered by his companion some weeks later. The fourthbut it is a long story. I must not weary you with it."
"Weary me," I cried, and I dare swear my eyes were shining. But there I pulled myself up. "You're right. I had forgotten. You don't know me. There is no reason why you should tell me the story."
"That is true," she asserted. "It is of no concern to you."
That she was a little rebuffed by my words was plain. I made haste to explain them.
"I am meaning that there is no reason why you should trust me."
"Except your face," she answered impulsively. "Sir, you are an honest gentleman. Chance, or fate, has thrown you in my way. I must go to somebody for advice. I have no friends in San Francisco that can help menone nearer than Tennessee. You are a lawyer. Isn't it your business to advise?"
"If you put it that way. But it is only fair to say that I am a very inexperienced one. To be frank, I've never had a client of my own."
Faith, her smile was warm as summer sunshine.
"Then I'll be your first, unless you refuse the case. But it may turn out dangerous. I have no right to ask you to take a risk for me"she blushed divinely"especially since I am able to pay so small a fee."
"My fee shall be commensurate with my inexperience," I smiled. "And are you thinking for a moment that I would let my first case get away from me at all? As for dangerwell, I'm an Irishman."
"But it isn't really a law case at all."
"So much the better. I'll have a chance of winning it then."
"It will be only a chance."
"We'll turn the chance into a certainty."
"You seem very sure, sir.
"I must for confidence is all the stock in trade I have," was my gay answer.
From her bag Miss Wallace took the map and handed it to me.
"First, then, you must have this put in a safety-deposit vault until we need it. I'm sure attempts will be made to get it."
"By my cousin. He'll stick at nothing. If you had met him you would understand. He is a wonder. I'm afraid of him. His name is Boris BothwellCaptain Bothwell, lately cashiered from the British army for conduct unbecoming a gentleman. In one of his rages he nearly killed a servant."
"But you are not English, are you?"
"He is my second cousin. He isn't English, either. His father was a Scotchman, his mother a Russian."
"That explains the nameBoris Bothwell."
Like an echo the words came back to me from over my shoulder.
"Capt. Boris Bothwell to see you, Mr. Sedgwick."
In surprise I swung around. The office boy had come in quietly, and hard on his heels was a man in a frogged overcoat with astrakhan trimmings. Not half an hour earlier I had sat opposite him at luncheon.