“What the devil—,” he began, and broke off. “You are the cheekiest fellow I ever came across,” he added.
“It ain’t often,” replied the man, puffing away contentedly, “that I get a chance to try a swell’s tobacco and liquor. That’s prime stuff, sir. I feel more like talking now.”
“Then be quick about it. What is your business? And as you have the advantage of me at present, it would be better if you began by stating your name.”
“My name,” the man paused half a second, “is Timmins—Joe Timmins. It ain’t likely that you—”
“No; I never heard it,” Nevill interrupted. He sat down at the other side of the table, and endeavored to hide his anxiety and impatience. “I can’t spare you much time,” he added.
“Sure there ain’t nobody within earshot?”
“Quite sure. Make your mind easy.”
Mr. Joe Timmins—alias Noah Hawker—expressed his satisfaction by a nod. He produced a paper from his pocket, and slowly unfolded it.
“If you will kindly read that,” he said.
Nevill took the document curiously. It consisted of half a dozen pages of writing, well-worded and grammatical, but done by a wretched, scrawling hand, and embellished with numerous blots and smudges. From the first he grasped its import, and as he read on to the end his face grew pale and his hands shook. With a curse he started to his feet and made a step toward the grate, where the embers of a coal fire lingered. Then, dropping down again, he laughed bitterly.
“Of course this is only a copy?” he exclaimed.
“That’s all, sir,” replied Mr. Timmins, with a grim smile. “It ain’t likely I’d been fool enough to bring the original here. I did the copy myself, an’ though I ain’t much of a scholar, I do say as it reads for what it’s meant to be, word for word.”
“I want better proof than this, my man.”
“Ain’t you satisfied? Look at the date of the letter, an’ where it was written, an’ what it says. Could I invent such a thing?”
“No; you couldn’t,” Nevill admitted. “You have the original letter, you say?”
“I’ve had that and other papers for years, hid away in a safe place, which is where they lie now. It’s only lately I looked into them deep, so to speak, and saw what they might be worth to me. I studied them, sir, and by putting things together I found there were three persons concerned—three chances for me to try.”
“You are a cunning fellow,” said Nevill. “Why did you bring the letter to me?”
“Because it pointed that way. I knew you were the biggest bird, and the one most likely to pay me for my secret. It was quite a different matter with the others—”
“You haven’t seen them?”
“No fear!” Mr. Timmins answered, emphatically. “I spotted you as my man from the first, and I’m glad you’ve got the sense to look at it right. I hope we understand each other.”