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The Empty House and Other Ghost Stories (Algernon Blackwood) online
THE STRANGE ADVENTURES OF A PRIVATE SECRETARY IN NEW YORK
It was never quite clear to me how Jim Shorthouse managed to get his private secretaryship; but, once he got it, he kept it, and for some years he led a steady life and put money in the savings bank.
One morning his employer sent for him into the study, and it was evident to the secretary's trained senses that there was something unusual in the air.
"Mr. Shorthouse," he began, somewhat nervously, "I have never yet had the opportunity of observing whether or not you are possessed of personal courage."
Shorthouse gasped, but he said nothing. He was growing accustomed to the eccentricities of his chief. Shorthouse was a Kentish man; Sidebotham was "raised" in Chicago; New York was the present place of residence.
"But," the other continued, with a puff at his very black cigar, "I must consider myself a poor judge of human nature in future, if it is not one of your strongest qualities."
The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation of so uncertain a compliment. Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.
"I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and--" He hesitated, and puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.
"I don't think I'm afraid of anything in particular, sir--except women," interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief's purpose.
"Humph!" he grunted. "Well, there are no women in this case so far as I know. But there may be other things that--that hurt more."
"Wants a special service of some kind, evidently," was the secretary's reflection. "Personal violence?" he asked aloud.
"Possibly (puff), in fact (puff, puff) probably."
Shorthouse smelt an increase of salary in the air. It had a stimulating effect.
"I've had some experience of that article, sir," he said shortly; "but I'm ready to undertake anything in reason."
"I can't say how much reason or unreason there may prove to be in this particular case. It all depends."
Mr. Sidebotham got up and locked the door of his study and drew down the blinds of both windows. Then he took a bunch of keys from his pocket and opened a black tin box. He ferreted about among blue and white papers for a few seconds, enveloping himself as he did so in a cloud of blue tobacco smoke.
"I feel like a detective already," Shorthouse laughed.
"Speak low, please," returned the other, glancing round the room. "We must observe the utmost secrecy. Perhaps you would be kind enough to close the registers," he went on in a still lower voice. "Open registers have betrayed conversations before now."
Shorthouse began to enter into the spirit of the thing. He tiptoed across the floor and shut the two iron gratings in the wall that in American houses supply hot air and are termed "registers." Mr. Sidebotham had meanwhile found the paper he was looking for. He held it in front of him and tapped it once or twice with the back of his right hand as if it were a stage letter and himself the villain of the melodrama.
"This is a letter from Joel Garvey, my old partner," he said at length. "You have heard me speak of him."
The other bowed. He knew that many years before Garvey & Sidebotham had been well known in the Chicago financial world. He knew that the amazing rapidity with which they accumulated a fortune had only been surpassed by the amazing rapidity with which they had immediately afterwards disappeared into space. He was further aware--his position afforded facilities--that each partner was still to some extent in the other's power, and that each wished most devoutly that the other would die.