The Wrecker

Page 62

The endless streets of any American city pass, from one end to another, through strange degrees and vicissitudes of splendour and distress, running under the same name between monumental warehouses, the dens and taverns of thieves, and the sward and shrubbery of villas. In San Francisco, the sharp inequalities of the ground, and the sea bordering on so many sides, greatly exaggerate these contrasts. The street for which we were now bound took its rise among blowing sands, somewhere in view of the Lone Mountain Cemetery; ran for a term across that rather windy Olympus of Nob Hill, or perhaps just skirted its frontier; passed almost immediately after through a stage of little houses, rather impudently painted, and offering to the eye of the observer this diagnostic peculiarity, that the huge brass plates upon the small and highly coloured doors bore only the first names of ladies--Norah or Lily or Florence; traversed China Town, where it was doubtless undermined with opium cellars, and its blocks pierced, after the similitude of rabbit-warrens, with a hundred doors and passages and galleries; enjoyed a glimpse of high publicity at the corner of Kearney; and proceeded, among dives and warehouses, towards the City Front and the region of the water- rats. In this last stage of its career, where it was both grimy and solitary, and alternately quiet and roaring to the wheels of drays, we found a certain house of some pretension to neatness, and furnished with a rustic outside stair. On the pillar of the stair a black plate bore in gilded lettering this device: "Harry D. Bellairs, Attorney-at-law. Consultations, 9 to 6." On ascending the stairs, a door was found to stand open on the balcony, with this further inscription, "Mr. Bellairs In."

"I wonder what we do next," said I.

"Guess we sail right in," returned Jim, and suited the action to the word.

The room in which we found ourselves was clean, but extremely bare. A rather old-fashioned secretaire stood by the wall, with a chair drawn to the desk; in one corner was a shelf with half-a-dozen law books; and I can remember literally not another stick of furniture. One inference imposed itself: Mr. Bellairs was in the habit of sitting down himself and suffering his clients to stand. At the far end, and veiled by a curtain of red baize, a second door communicated with the interior of the house. Hence, after some coughing and stamping, we elicited the shyster, who came timorously forth, for all the world like a man in fear of bodily assault, and then, recognising his guests, suffered from what I can only call a nervous paroxysm of courtesy.

"Mr. Pinkerton and partner!" said he. "I will go and fetch you seats."

"Not the least," said Jim. "No time. Much rather stand. This is business, Mr. Bellairs. This morning, as you know, I bought the wreck, Flying Scud."

The lawyer nodded.

"And bought her," pursued my friend, "at a figure out of all proportion to the cargo and the circumstances, as they appeared?"

"And now you think better of it, and would like to be off with your bargain? I have been figuring upon this," returned the lawyer. "My client, I will not hide from you, was displeased with me for putting her so high. I think we were both too heated, Mr. Pinkerton: rivalry--the spirit of competition. But I will be quite frank--I know when I am dealing with gentlemen --and I am almost certain, if you leave the matter in my hands, my client would relieve you of the bargain, so as you would lose"--he consulted our faces with gimlet-eyed calculation-- "nothing," he added shrilly.

And here Pinkerton amazed me.

"That's a little too thin," said he. "I have the wreck. I know there's boodle in her, and I mean to keep her. What I want is some points which may save me needless expense, and which I'm prepared to pay for, money down. The thing for you to consider is just this: am I to deal with you or direct with your principal? If you are prepared to give me the facts right off, why, name your figure. Only one thing!" added Jim, holding a finger up, "when I say 'money down,' I mean bills payable when the ship returns, and if the information proves reliable. I don't buy pigs in pokes."

I had seen the lawyer's face light up for a moment, and then, at the sound of Jim's proviso, miserably fade. "I guess you know more about this wreck than I do, Mr. Pinkerton," said he. "I only know that I was told to buy the thing, and tried, and couldn't."

"What I like about you, Mr. Bellairs, is that you waste no time," said Jim. "Now then, your client's name and address."

"On consideration," replied the lawyer, with indescribable furtivity, "I cannot see that I am entitled to communicate my client's name. I will sound him for you with pleasure, if you care to instruct me; but I cannot see that I can give you his address."

The Wrecker Page 63

Robert Louis Stevenson

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