"Tell me about it, father," she said, putting an arm around his neck.
"You couldn't understand, no matter how much I tried to make it clear," he answered, excitedly. "There was a combination that meant ruin or success, depending on the cast of a die, as one might say. Wool has been in a bad way. Congress had the tariff bill before it. If higher protection was put on, the stocks in the American market would rise. If the tariff rate was lowered they would fall. I took the right side. I bought an immense quantity of options. The bill passed to-day and the President signed it. Wool went up, and I am richer by two hundred and fifty thousand dollars than I was yesterday!"
For answer the girl kissed him affectionately, and for a few moments neither of them spoke.
"I don't wonder you say I can't understand business," said Daisy, presently. "It would puzzle most feminine brains, I think, to know how a man could purchase quantities of wool when he had nothing to buy with."
The father drew himself suddenly away from her, and gazed in a sort of alarm into her wide-opened eyes.
"That is a secret," he said, hoarsely. "It is one of the things business men do not talk about. When stocks are rising it is easy to buy a great deal, if one only has something to give him a start."
"And you had something?" asked Daisy, trying to utter the words that she thought would please him best.
"Yes, yes!" he answered, hurriedly. "I—had—something! And to-morrow I shall free myself of Boggs, and of—of all my troubles. I shall pay the mortgage on the house, and we can have anything we want. Ah! What a relief it is! What a relief!"
He panted like a man who had run a race with wolves and had just time to close the door before they caught him.
"May I tell Millie?" asked the girl. "She has worried about the house, fearing it would be sold."
He shook his head as if the subject was disagreeable.
"She will find it out," he said. "There is no need of haste. And at any rate I don't want you to give her any particulars. I don't want her to know how successful I have been. You can say that I have made money—enough to free the home. Don't tell any more than that to any one. It—it is not a public matter. I was so full of happiness that I had to tell you, but no one else is to know."
Daisy promised, though she asked almost immediately if the prohibition extended to Mr. Weil. He was such a friend of the family, she said, he would be very much gratified.
She had reached thus far in her innocent suggestion, when she happened to glance at her father's face. He was deathly pale. His body was limp and his chin sunken to his breast.
"Father!" she exclaimed. And then, seized with a nameless fear, was about to summon other help, when he opened his eyes slowly and touched her hand with his.
"You are ill! Shall I call the servants?" she asked, anxiously.
He intimated that she should not, and presently rallied enough to say he was better, and required nothing.
"What were we speaking of?" he asked, in a strained voice.
"We were talking of your grand fortune, and I asked if I might not tell Mr.—"
He stopped her with a movement, and another spasm crossed his face.
"You will make no exception," he whispered. "None whatever. My affairs will interest no one else. If you are interrogated, you must know nothing. Nothing," he added, impressively, "nothing whatever!"
Mr. Fern's recovery was almost as quick as his attack, although he did not resume the gaiety of manner with which he had opened the subject. After dinner he talked with Daisy, declaring over and over that she had been on short allowance long enough, and asserting that she must be positively in a state of want. She answered laughingly that she needed very little, and then suddenly bethought herself of something and grew sober.
"Do you feel rich enough to let me exercise a little generosity for others?" she inquired.
He replied with alacrity that she could do exactly as she pleased with whatever sum he gave her, and that the amount should be for her to name.
"You don't know how big it will be," she replied, timidly.
"I'll risk that. Out with it," he said, smiling.
"Supposing," she said, slowly, "that I should ask for a thousand dollars?"
"You would get it," he laughed. "In fact I was going to propose that you accept several thousand, and have it put in the bank in your name, so you would be quite an independent young woman. You must have your own checkbook and get used to keeping accounts. I will bring you a certificate of deposit for three thousand dollars, and each six months afterwards I will put a thousand more to your credit, out of which you can take your pin money."
It seemed too good to be true, and the girl's face brightened until it shone with a light that the father thought the most beautiful on earth. Now she could return the thousand dollars she had borrowed of Mr. Roseleaf, a sum that had given her much uneasiness since she broke off her intimate relations with the young novelist. More than this, she would have sufficient on hand to send the future amounts that Hannibal would need to keep him abroad. It was such a strange and delightful thing to see smiles on her father's face that she did not want anything to disturb them. She was quite as happy as Mr. Fern, now that this cloud had been lifted from her mind.
The next day was a bright one for the wool merchant. By noon he had sent for Walker Boggs and astonished that gentleman by handing him a check in full for the entire amount of his indebtedness. In answer to a question he merely said he had been on the right side of the market. Mr. Fern also settled with his mortgage creditor, and went home at night happy that his head would again lie under a roof actually as well as in name his own. Notes which he had given came back to him soon after, and he burned them with a glee that was almost saturnine. Burned them, after looking at their faces and backs, after scanning the endorsements; burned them with his office door locked, using the flame of a gas-jet for the purpose.
The ashes lay on the floor, when a knock was heard and Archie Weil's voice answered to the resultant question. Mr. Fern lost color at the familiar sound, but he mustered courage.
"I've come to congratulate you," said Archie, warmly. "They say you have made a mint of money out of the rise in wool."
"Who says so?" asked Mr. Fern, warily.
"Everybody. Don't tell me it's not true."
"I've done pretty well," was the evasive reply. "And I'm going out of business, too. It seems a good time to quit."
Mr. Weil made a suitable answer to this statement and the two men talked together for some time. After awhile the conversation took a wider turn.
"Where's your young friend, Roseleaf?" asked Mr. Fern, to whom the matter did not seem to have occurred before. "I don't believe I have seen him at Midlands for a month."
"No, he doesn't come," replied Archie, growing darker. "If you wish a particular reason, you will have to ask it of your daughter."
Mr. Fern looked as if he did not understand.
"He became very fond of her," explained Archie, "and for some reason, he does not know what, she has evinced a sudden dislike to him."
Mr. Fern looked still more astonished.
"Millie is a strange girl," he ventured to remark. "But I supposed—I was almost sure, her affections were engaged elsewhere; and, really, I thought he knew it."
Mr. Weil stared now, for it was evident his companion was far from the right road. He was also interested to hear that Miss Fern had anything like a love affair in mind, for he had supposed such a thing quite impossible.
"I was not speaking of Miss Millicent, but of Miss Daisy," he said.
The wool merchant rose from his chair in the extremity of his astonishment.
"You meant that—that Mr. Roseleaf—was in love with Daisy!" he said. "And that she seemed to reciprocate his attachment?"
"I did. And also that a few weeks ago she asked him to cease his visits, giving no explanation of the cause of her altered demeanor. He is a most excellent young gentleman," continued Weil, "and one for whom I entertain a sincere affection. Her conduct is a great blow to him, especially as he does not know what he has done to deserve it. I trust the estrangement will not be permanent, as they are eminently suited to each other."
The face of Mr. Fern was a study as he heard this explanation.
"If he was an honorable man, why did he not come to me?" he asked, pointedly.
"He was constantly seeking Miss Daisy's permission to do so," replied Archie. "Which she never seemed quite willing to give him."
"She is too young to think of marriage," mused Mr. Fern, after a long pause.
"He is willing to wait; but her present attitude, giving him no hope whatever, has thrown him into the deepest dejection."
From this Mr. Weil proceeded to tell Mr. Fern all he knew about Roseleaf. He said the young man was at present engaged on literary work that promised to yield him good returns. He had a small fortune of his own beside. Everything that could be thought of in his favor was dilated upon to the fullest extent.
"I don't believe I can spare my 'baby,'" said Mr. Fern, kindly, "for any man. You plead with much force, Mr. Weil, for your friend. How is it that you have never married. Are you blind to the charms of the sex?"
For an instant Archie was at loss how to reply.
"On the contrary," he said, at last, "I appreciate them fully. I have had my heart's affair, too; but," he paused a long time, "she loved another, and there was but one woman for me. Perhaps this leads me to sympathize all the more with my unfortunate young friend."
Mr. Fern said he would have a talk with Daisy, and learn what he could without bringing in the name of his informant.
"We fathers are always the last to see these things," he added. "It would be terrible to give her up, but I want her to be happy."
A BURGLAR IN THE HOUSE.
Millicent Fern lay wide awake a few nights later, at Midlands, when the clock struck two. She was thinking of her second novel, now nearly ready for Mr. Roseleaf's hand. There was a hitch in the plot that she could best unravel in the silence. As she lay there she heard a slight noise, as of some one moving about. At first she paid little attention to it, but later she grew curious, for she had never known the least motion in that house after its occupants were once abed. She thought of each of them in succession, and decided that the matter ought to be investigated.
Millicent had no fear. If there was a burglar present, she wanted to know. She arose, therefore, and slipped on a dress and slippers. Guided only by the uncertain light that came in at the windows, she tiptoed across the hall, and in the direction in which she had heard the noise. She soon located it as being on the lower floor where there were no bedrooms, and a thrill of excitement passed over her. She crept as silently as possible down the back stairs, and toward the sound, which she was now sure was in the library.
What was the sound? It was the rustling of papers. It might be made by a mouse, but Millicent was not even afraid of mice. She was afraid of nothing, so far as she knew. If there was a robber there, he would certainly run when discovered. At the worst she could give a loud outcry, and the servants would come.
She tiptoed along the lower hall. A man sat at her father's desk, examining his private papers so carefully, that he seemed wholly lost in the occupation.
The room was quite light. In fact, the gas was lit, and the intruder was taking his utmost ease. His face was half turned toward the girl, and she recognized him without difficulty.
It was Hannibal!
Hannibal, whom she supposed at that moment in France!
Without pausing to form any plan, Millicent stepped into the presence of the negro.
"Thief," she said, sharply, "what do you want?"
They had hated each other cordially for a long time, and neither had changed their opinion in the slightest degree. Hannibal looked up quietly at the figure in the doorway.
"I have a good mind to tell you," he said, smiling.
"You will have to tell me, and give a pretty good reason, too, if you mean to keep out of the hands of the police," she retorted. "Come!"
He laughed silently, resting his head on his hands, his elbows on the desk. Millicent's hair hung in a loose coil, her shoulders were but imperfectly covered by her half buttoned gown, the feet that filled her slippers had no hosiery on them. She was as fair a sight as one might find in a year.
"Do you remember the time I saw you in this guise before?" he asked, in a low voice.
A convulsion seized the girl's countenance. She looked as if she would willingly have killed him, had she a weapon in her hand. But she could not speak at first.
"It was you who sought me then," said the negro. "And because I bade you go back to your chamber, you never forgave me. Have you forgotten?"
Gasping for breath, like one severely wounded, Millicent roused herself.
"Will you go," she demanded, hotly, "or shall I summon help?"
"Neither," replied Hannibal. "If you inform any person that I am here, I will tell the story I hinted at just now. Besides, I would only have to wait until your father came down, when he would order them to release me, and say I came here by his request."
Millicent chafed horribly at his coolness.
"Came here by my father's request!" she echoed. "In the middle of the night! A likely story. Do you think any one would believe it?"
"I do not think they would. It would not even be true. But he would say it was, if I told him to, and that would answer. Don't you know by this time that I have Wilton Fern in a vise?"
Yes, she did know it. Everything had pointed in that direction. Millicent could not dispute the insinuation.
"What has he done, in God's name, that makes him the slave of such a thing as you?" she cried.
"I will answer that question by asking another," said the negro, after a pause. "Do you know that Shirley Roseleaf hopes to wed your sister?"
The shot struck home. With pale lips Millicent found herself trembling before this fellow.
"You love him," pursued the man, relentlessly. "You do not need to affirm or deny this, for I know. He loves Daisy, and unless prevented, will marry her. I hold a secret over your father's head which can send him to the State prison for twenty years. If I confide it to you, will you swear to let no one but him know until I give you leave?"
The girl bowed quickly. She could hardly bear the strain of delay.
"Then listen," said the negro. "To save himself in business he has committed numerous forgeries upon the names of two men. One of them is Walker Boggs and the other Archie Weil. Very recently he has been successful in his speculations, and has called in many notes with these forged endorsements. But the proofs of his crimes are ample, and I possess them. If he ever proposes to let Roseleaf marry Daisy, hint to him of what you know, and he will obey your will. I shall be in the city. Here is my address. If you need me I am at your service. Understand, I shall not harm your father unless he makes it necessary. I only mean to use the fear of what might await him, and you can do the same. It is time I was going. I have found all I want here, though I had enough before."
He handed Millicent a card on which was the address he had mentioned, and she allowed herself to take it from his hand. Then he started to pick up a package of papers that lay where he had put them on the table, when a third figure, to the consternation of both, brushed Millicent aside, and stepped into the room. It was the younger sister.
"Give that to me!" she demanded, imperiously, reaching out her hand for the package.
The apparition was so unexpected that the previous occupants of the library stood for a few seconds staring at it without moving a step. Daisy was dressed in much the same manner as Millicent, but she thought only of the danger that threatened one she loved better than life—her father.
"Give that to me!" she repeated, approaching Hannibal closer.
Without a word the negro, his head bowed, handed it to her.
"And now," she said, in the same quick, sharp tone, "the others!"
"They are not here," he answered, huskily.
"Where are they?"
"At my lodgings in the city."
Instantly Daisy snatched the card from her sister's hand.
"At this place?" she asked, hastily scanning the writing.
"Yes," said Hannibal, in a voice that was scarcely audible.
"I will be there this morning at ten o'clock. See that they are ready."
The negro bowed, while his chest heaved rapidly.
"And now," said the girl, pointing to the door, "go!"
He hesitated, as if he wanted to say more to her, but recollecting that she would meet him so soon, he turned and obeyed her. At the threshold he only paused to say, "You must come alone; otherwise it will be of no use." And she answered that she understood.
She followed some paces behind and closed the door after him, pushing a bolt that she did not remember had ever been used before.
Then she turned to encounter her sister; but Millicent had disappeared.
BLACK AND WHITE.
When Daisy reached her own room again, she felt assured that no one but herself and Millicent knew what had occurred. This was something. Had her father awakened, she did not know what might have followed. She had seen him too often, pale and distraught, in the presence of his relentless enemy, not to entertain the greatest thankfulness that he had slept through this terrible experience. At any cost it must be kept from him. She would beg, pray, entreat Millicent to seal her lips. And in the morning she would go to the address Hannibal had given her and obtain his proofs of her father's guilt, removing the frightful nightmare that had so long hung over that dear head.
Would Hannibal surrender his documents? He had made a tacit promise to do so, and she had faith that she could make him keep his word. She knew the negro had a liking for her that was very strong.
She had made it possible for him to become a man—by giving him the money that took him to France. Why had he returned so suddenly? What new fancy had caused him to give up his studies and recross the sea to enter her doors at night, to plunder still further secrets from her father's private desk? There were a thousand reasons for fear, but the devoted daughter only thought of saving the one she loved at all risks. She would dare anything in his behalf.
And this father of hers—that she had revered from babyhood—was a forger! He had made himself liable to a term of imprisonment in the common jail! He was a criminal, for whom the law would stretch out its hand as soon as his guilt was revealed! His previous high standing in the community could not save him; nor the love of his children; nor his new fortune—won by such means as this. Nothing could make his liberty secure but the silencing of the witness to his fault, the negro who had carefully possessed himself of certain facts with which to ruin his benefactor.
What did Hannibal want? Surely he had no revenge to gratify, as against her or her father! They had treated him with the greatest consideration. Only once—that day on the lawn—had Daisy spoken to him in a sharp tone, and then the provocation was very great. Since then she had raised the money that was to make a man of him. What did he require now? An increased bribe to keep him away? Well, she would get it for him. She would spend one, two, three thousand dollars if necessary to purchase his silence; if it needed more she could borrow of—of Mr. Weil.
Yes, Mr. Weil was the friend to whom she would turn in this emergency. He had lost nothing, apparently, by the unwarranted use of his name. The notes on which his endorsement had been forged were all paid. When she met Hannibal she would ascertain his price and then the rest would be easy. Her father need not even know the danger to which he had been exposed.
In the morning she went to Millicent's room early, in order to have a conversation with her undisturbed. Millicent was sleeping soundly and was awakened with some difficulty.
"I've only been unconscious a little while," she said, in explanation. "I thought I never should sleep again. Oh, what a disgrace! My father a forger! Liable to go to prison with common criminals, to wear the stripes of a convict! It seems as if my degradation could go no lower."
Reddening with surprise at the attitude of her sister, Daisy answered that the thing to be thought of now was how to save Mr. Fern from the consequences of his errors.
"You're a strange girl," was Millicent's reply. "You don't think of me at all! Won't it be nice to have people point after me in the street and say, 'There goes one of the Fern girls, whose father is in Sing Sing!' I never thought I should come to this. There's no knowing how far it will follow me. I doubt if any reputable man will marry me, when the facts are known."
Thoroughly disgusted with her sister's selfishness, Daisy cried out that the facts must not be known—that they must be covered up and kept from the world, and that she was going to bring this about. She reminded Millicent of the evident suffering their father had undergone for the past two years, changed from a light-hearted man into the easily alarmed mood they had known so well.
"If he deserved punishment, God knows he has had enough!" she added. "And there is another thing you and I ought not to forget, Millie. Whatever he did was in the hope of saving this home and enough to live on, for us! During the last week he has had an improvement in business. He has paid all of those people whose claims distressed him. You have seen how much brighter it has made him. Now, when he had a fair prospect of a few happy days, comes this terrible danger. Surely you and I will use our utmost endeavors to shield him from harm. Even if he were the worst of sinners he is still our father!"
But Millicent did not seem at all convinced. She could only see that her reputation had been put in jeopardy, and that a dreadful fear would constantly hang over her on account of it.
"It is your fault, as much as his, too!" she exclaimed, angrily. "You both made as much of that negro as if he were a prince in disguise. I've told you a hundred times that he ought to be discharged. I hope you'll admit I was right, at last."
There was little use in reminding her sister that Hannibal had shown himself the possessor of some information that endangered Mr. Fern before either he or Daisy began to cultivate his good will; for she knew it well enough. What Daisy did say was more to the point.
"Have you always hated him?" she asked, meaningly. "What did he mean last night by his reference to a time when you sought him, en dishabille?"
Millicent sprang up in bed, with flashing eyes.
"He is a lying scoundrel!" she cried, vehemently. "I never did anything of the kind, and I do not see how you can stand there and repeat such a calumny!"
"The strange thing about it," replied Daisy, quietly, "is that you did not dispute him. But then, you did not know a third person was present. When I meet him this morning I shall ask for further particulars."
Millicent sprang from the bed and threw herself at her sister's feet.
"Would you drive me mad!" she exclaimed. "I am distracted already with the troubles of this house, and now you wish to hear the lying inventions of one you know to be a blackmailer and a robber! Don't mention my name to him, I entreat you. He is capable of any slander. You can't intend to listen to tales about your sister from such a low, base thing!"
Having Millicent at her feet, Daisy was pleased to relent a little.
"Very well," she said. "I will not let him tell me anything about you. But I want you to promise in return that you will do all you can to protect father from the slightest knowledge of what happened last night. I am afraid it would kill him. So far he believes us ignorant of his troubles. If I can make an arrangement to send Hannibal back to France he will remain so. Be sure you do not arouse his suspicions in any way, and we may come out all right yet."
The promise was made, and, as nothing could be gained by prolonging the conversation, Daisy withdrew. In the lower hall she met her father, and his bright smile proved to her that he was still in blissful ignorance that any new cloud had crossed his sky. Millicent did not appear at breakfast, for which neither of the others were sorry. It enabled Mr. Fern to talk over some of his plans with his younger daughter. Among them was a possible trip abroad, for he said he felt the need of a long rest after his troubled business career.
The last suggestion opened a new hope for Daisy. If worse came to worst, and there was no other way to escape the jail, flight in a European steamer could be resorted to. It would mean expatriation for life, as far as he was concerned, but that would be a thousand times better than a lingering death inside of stone walls. He could raise a large sum of ready money, and they would want for nothing. Millie would not wish to go with them, probably. She would stay and marry—how the thought choked Daisy—marry Mr. Roseleaf; unless indeed, the young novelist did what she had foreshadowed, repudiated the thought of allying himself with a tainted name.
Roseleaf! The bright, happy love she had given him came back to the child like a wave of agony.
Making an excuse that she had shopping to do, Daisy took the train to the city with her father, and parted from him at a point where the downtown and uptown street cars separated. Then she took a cab and drove to the address given her.
It was not the finest quarter in the city, and she would have hesitated at any other time before taking such a risk as going there alone. At present she thought of nothing but the object of her visit. Inquiry at the door brought the information that the lady was expected and that she was to go upstairs and wait. The woman who let her in was a pleasant faced mullatress, and several young children of varying shades were playing on the stairs she had to ascend. Daisy mounted to the room designated, which proved to be a small parlor, with an alcove, behind the curtains of which was presumably a bed.
As the weather was quite warm, the girl went to the front windows and opened them, in order to admit the fresh air. Then she sat down and waited impatiently. There was a scent in the room which she associated with the Ethiopian race, a subtle aroma that she found decidedly unpleasant. It gave her an indefinable uneasiness, and she mentally remarked that she would be glad when the ordeal was over. Her nerves were already beginning to suffer.
After the lapse of fifteen minutes, Hannibal entered. He had the look of one who had passed a sleepless night, and despite the blackness of his complexion, his cheeks seemed pale.
"Good-morning," said Daisy, rising.
"Good-morning," he replied.
And then there was a brief space of silence, each waiting for the other.
"I am here, you see," said the girl, finally, with an attempt at a smile. "And now will you give me the things I came for, as I cannot stay long?"
The negro tried to look at her, tried many times, but failed. His eyes shifted uneasily to all the other objects in the room, resting on none of them more than a second at a time.
"You wonder," he said, after another pause, "why I returned to America, why I came to your house last night. I thought I could tell you—this morning—and I have been trying to prepare myself to do so—but I cannot. You blame me a great deal, that is evident in every line of your face, but you do not know what I have suffered. Were your father to go to jail for the term the law prescribes, he would not endure the agony that has been mine."
He looked every word he spoke and more.
"I am sorry, truly sorry for you," she replied. "But why could you not leave all your troubles, when you went to France, and begin an entirely new life? You found it true what I told you, I am sure, about the lack of prejudice—on account of your—race."
He nodded and cleared his throat before he spoke again.
"Oh, yes; but it is not the prejudice there that worries me. It is the prejudice here. It is the barrier my color brings between me and the only being whose regard I crave!"
The girl's cheeks grew rosier than ever, but she affected not to understand, and once more reverted to the errand that had brought her thither.
"You promised me the documents with which my poor father has been tortured," she said, reproachfully; "let us not talk of other things until you have given them to me."
The negro drew from a pocket of his coat a fair-sized package tied with a ribbon.
"They are all there," he said. "Every scrap, every particle of proof, everything that could bring the breath of suspicion upon your father's honesty. All there, in that little envelope."
She reached for it, but instead of giving it to her, Hannibal caught her hand, and before she dreamed what he intended, pressed a kiss upon it. The next moment the girl, with a look of outraged womanhood, was rubbing the spot with her handkerchief, as if he had covered it with poison.
"You brute!" she exclaimed. "You—you—"
She could not find the word she wanted; nothing in the language she spoke seemed detestable enough to fill the measure of her wrong.
"You see!" he answered, bitterly. "Because I am black I cannot touch the hand of a woman that is white. You have claimed to be without the hatred of the African so ingrained among Americans; you have talked about the Almighty making of one blood all the nations of the earth; and yet you are like the rest! A viper's bite could not have aroused deeper disgust in you than my lips. And all because the sun shone more vertically on my ancestors than it did on yours!"
Daisy was divided between her horror of the act he had committed and her anxiety to do something to free her father from his danger. She suppressed the hateful epithets that rose to her tongue and once more entreated the negro to give her the packet he held in his possession.
"You can do nothing with it but injure a man who has been kind to you," she pleaded. "And if you use the information you have, and afterwards repent, it will be too late to remedy your error. Give it to me, and return to France with the proud consciousness that you are worthy the position you wish to occupy."
Hannibal shook his head with decision.
"That would be very well if I ever could be considered a man by the one for whose opinion I care most. But while I am to her a creature something below the ape, a mere crawling viper whose touch is pollution, I will act like the thing she thinks me. To-day I possess the power to make a high-born gentleman dance whenever I pull the string. You ask me to give up this power, and in return you offer—nothing."
"One would suppose," remarked Daisy, struggling with herself in this dilemma, "that the ability to inflict pain was one a true nature would delight to surrender. My father has done no harm to you."
The negro bent toward her and spoke with vehemence.
"But his daughter has! She has made my life wretched. Whatever position I may attain will be worthless to me, without the love I had hoped might be mine."
"Love!" cried the girl, recoiling. "Love!"
"Love and marriage," he replied. "In France we could live without the hateful prejudices that prevail in America. I have natural ability enough, you have told me so a thousand times, and I could make myself worthy of you. As my wife—"
Daisy rose and interrupted him fiercely.
"Cease!" she exclaimed. "There is a limit to what I can endure. If you mean to make any promise of that kind a prelude to my father's freedom from persecution, we may as well end this conversation now as later. He would rather rot in prison than have his child sacrifice herself in such a manner!"
She started toward the door, and he did not interrupt her passage, as she half expected he would do; but he spoke again.
"All this because I am black," he said.
"Because you are a cruel, heartless wretch!" she answered, her eyes flashing. "Because you have abused the goodwill of a generous family; because you have tortured a kind old man and a loving daughter. If you were as white as any person on earth, I would not marry you. Worse than all outward semblance is a dark and vile mind. Do what you like! I defy you!"
The door opened and closed behind her. Hannibal heard her retreating footsteps grow fainter on the stairs, and then there was silence.
"I might have known it," he said, aloud. "I did know it, but I kept hoping against hope. She would wed a Newfoundland dog sooner than me. Nothing is left but to make her repent her action. I will bring that father of hers to the dust, if only to revenge the long list of injuries his race has inflicted on mine!"
"PLAY OUT YOUR FARCE."
When Daisy left the house where she had the interview with Hannibal, she walked for some minutes aimlessly along the street. Her mind was in a state of great excitement. She realized that she had defied a man who could inflict the deepest injury on the father she dearly loved. How she could have done otherwise was not at all clear, but the terror which hung over her was none the less keen. The proposal of the negro—to marry her—filled her with a nameless dread that made her teeth chatter, though it was a warm day. Rather would she have cast her body into the tides that wash the shores of Manhattan Island. Even to save her father from prison—if it came to that—she could not make this sacrifice. She now felt for Hannibal a horrible detestation, a feeling akin to that she might entertain for a rattlesnake. Whatever good she had seen in him in other days had vanished under the revelations of his true character.
What to do next was the absorbing question. A great danger hung over her father. A dim idea of seeking the mayor—or the chief of police—and imploring their mercy, entered her brain. Then she thought of Roseleaf, whose aid she might have secured, if he had not proved himself a double-dealer, capable of making love to herself and Millicent at the same time. And then came the resolve to seek out Mr. Weil, the one person in all this trouble that seemed clear of wrong. Her sister had told her that he loved her. Well, if necessary she would marry him. At least he was a man of honor, and white. Yes, she would go to him and throw herself upon his mercy.
Daisy knew that Archie made his headquarters at the Hoffman House, and summoning a cab she asked to be taken to that hotel. Ensconced in the ladies' parlor she awaited the coming of the man she wanted and yet dreaded so much to see. Luckily he was in the house, and in a few moments responded in person to her card.
"Why, Miss Daisy," he stammered. "What is the matter? Nothing wrong, I trust. You look quite pale. Is it anything—about—your father?"
The girl was pale indeed. Now that Mr. Weil was so close, the danger that he might not be willing to help her rose like a mountain in her path. She did not know exactly how grave a matter forgery was—whether it was something that the injured party would be able or likely to forgive. If she should tell him everything, and he should refuse to be placated—what could she do then?
There was no one else in the parlor, but seeing that she wanted as much seclusion as possible, Mr. Weil motioned the girl to follow him to a remote corner, where the curtains of a recessed window partially concealed them. He felt that she had come on a momentous errand. His suspicions concerning Mr. Fern were apparently about to be verified, and if so, he did not mean that other ears should hear the tale.
"Mr. Weil," began Daisy, tremblingly, "I don't know what to say to you. I am in great distress. Would you—will you—help me?"
He responded gently that he would do anything in his power. He bade her calm herself, and promised to be the most attentive of listeners.
Reassured by his kind words and manner, the girl began again; but she could not tell her story connectedly, and after making several attempts to do so, she broke out in a new direction.
"I want so very much of you, dear Mr. Weil. And I am nervous and afraid to ask what I would like. I will give you anything you please in return. Yes, yes, anything."
He smiled down upon her face, on which the tears were making stains in spite of her.
"You are promising a great deal, little girl," he said.
"I know it; I realize it fully," she responded quickly. "But I mean all I say. I did not think I could, once, but I am quite resolved now. Millie told me you were in love with me, and feared I would refuse you. But I won't. No, no, I will marry you—indeed I will—if you will only save my darling father!"
The concluding words were spoken in the midst of a torrent of sobs that shook the girlish frame and affected powerfully the strong man that witnessed them.
"Daisy, dear child, don't speak like this," he answered. "If I can do anything for your father I will most gladly, and the price of your sweet little heart shall not be demanded in payment, either. Leave that matter entirely out of the question, and tell me at once what you desire."
She heard him with infinite delight, and wiping her eyes she began, in broken tones, to relate the history of Hannibal's revelations. As she proceeded his brow darkened, and when she had finished he muttered something that sounded very much like a curse.
"And what do you wish of me?" he asked, when she had ended.
"To keep him from having my father put in prison; to give us time to escape, if there is no other way; and to forgive the harm to yourself. I know," she added earnestly, "it is a great deal to ask, but I have no one else to go to. He has paid every cent, and you will lose nothing. Tell me, dear Mr. Weil, is there anything you can do?"
He had the greatest struggle of his life to keep from bending over that trembling mouth and pressing upon it the kiss he knew she would not refuse; that mouth he had coveted so long and which must never be touched by his lips!
"Can I do anything?" he repeated. "Certainly. I can stop that fellow so quickly he won't know what ails him. Have no fear Miss Daisy. Go home and rest in peace. Before the sun sets I will remove the last particle of danger from your father's path."
The girl sprang to her feet and would have thrown her arms around his neck had he not prevented her.
"You are certain you can do this?" she cried, beaming with happy eyes upon him.
"There is not the least question of it. But—I must demand payment for my trouble. I shall not do this work for nothing."
With a hot blush Daisy lowered her eyes to the carpet.
"I have already told you what I will do," she said, trembling. "If you accomplish what you say, have no fear but I shall keep my word."
There was an element of pride and truth in the way she spoke that struck the hearer strongly. The reverent smile on his face grew yet deeper.
"I am placed in a peculiar situation," he said, after a slight pause. "Your sister has, unintentionally, no doubt, misrepresented matters in a way that may be embarrassing for us both. When I have removed the troubles that stand in your way, I will talk this over with you."
Daisy looked up quickly. What could he mean?
"I beg you to explain," she stammered. "If there has been any mistake no time can be better to set it right than now."
The man toyed with the lace of the window curtain. He had no intention of evading his duty, and yet he did not find it agreeable as he proceeded.
"Your sister told me," he said, finally, "that—you loved me. She was wrong. I knew all the time she was wrong. You have just offered to give yourself to me in marriage in exchange for the efforts that I am to make on your father's behalf. But I would not marry a woman who did not love me—who only became mine from gratitude. No, I could not accept you under such circumstances."
The young girl glanced at him timidly.
"I wish you knew how much I liked you," she said. "I never knew a man I respected more."
"That is most gratifying," he answered, "for I hold your good opinion very highly. You must think I speak in riddles, for I have said that I demand payment for my services, and yet that I would not accept the greatest gift it is in your power to bestow upon me. Let me wait no longer in my explanation. When I have put your father out of all danger from this blackmailer—and I can easily do it, never fear—you must do justice to Shirley Roseleaf."
She shivered at the name, as if the east wind blew upon her.
"He is not a true man," she replied, in a whisper. "He has forfeited all claim to my consideration."
"Why do you say that? I am afraid there is another misunderstanding here, my child."
Then he drew out of her, slowly at first, the revelations that Millicent had made. And he disposed of the charges, one by one, until there was nothing left of them.
"Could you—would you—only go with me to his rooms," he added, "and see him lying there, wan and pale, disheartened at the present, hopeless for the future, you would change your mind. He has never in his life loved but one woman, and that one is yourself. I will not undertake to say why you have been told differently, though I could guess. Shirley Roseleaf loves you, Miss Daisy, and you love him. When I have made good my promise, I shall ask you to come to my friend's side and bring him back to health with the sunshine of your presence."
Daisy was more than half convinced, for the strong affection she had had for the young man plead for him in every drop of her blood.
"Is he so very ill?" she asked, dreamily.
"He has not left his room for a week," was the answer. "Nothing his friends can say will move him. He is in such a state of mind that he even refuses to have me with him; me, until very lately, his closest friend. But if I tell him you have relented, there is no medicine on earth will have such an instant effect."
The girl thought for some moments without speaking.
"It is my father first, of course," she said at last. "But while you are arranging matters concerning him, I do not see any reason to keep me from helping a sick boy. I—yes, I will go with you now."
He looked the gratitude he could not speak, and fearful that in her mercurial mood she might change her mind, he accompanied her without delay to the street, and procured a cab, in which they were driven rapidly to Roseleaf's lodgings. On the way, with that loved form so near him, Archie Weil had a constant struggle. She might be his, if he would forget duty.
And he loved her! God, how he loved her! He could marry her, and perhaps after a fashion make her happy. The perspiration stood on his forehead as he dwelt on the bliss that he had resolutely cast aside.
Roseleaf's landlady came to the door in person and informed the callers that her guest was in about the same condition as he had been for some days. He was not ill in bed, but he did not leave his room. When she sent up his meals he received them mechanically, and they were often untouched when the domestic went for the dishes. He wrote several hours a day, though he was undoubtedly feeble. Did he have any visitors? Only one, Mr. Gouger, who was with him at the present moment. Should she go up and announce them? Very well, if it was not necessary. Mr. Weil could show the lady into the adjoining room, which was empty, until he had announced her presence in the house to his friend.
Archie whispered to Daisy when he left her at Roseleaf's door, that he would come for her as soon as possible. He did not enter the sick boy's chamber at once, for something in the conversation that came to his ears arrested his steps at the threshold. Mr. Gouger's voice was heard, and Archie's ears caught the sound of his own name.
"You should let me send to Mr. Weil," said Gouger. "I am sure he can explain everything. You have written all you ought for the present. He would take you to ride and bring the color to those white cheeks of yours."
"But he cannot bring me the girl I love," responded Roseleaf, with a profound sigh. "Even if I have done him injustice, she is lost to me now. You know appearances were against him. Why, you agreed with me about it. I don't want to see any one. I want to go away from here, and forget my sorrows as best I can in some far distant place."
There was a sadness in the tone that went to the listener's heart. The door was slightly ajar and Archie took the liberty of looking into the room. Roseleaf lay stretched out in a great chair, and Gouger leaned over him, appearing for all the world like some sinister bird of prey. Mr. Weil felt for the first time in his life that there was something uncanny in the aspect of the book reviewer. He did not think he could ever be close friends with him again. And what did Shirley mean by saying that Lawrence had "agreed" with him when he heard such base opinions?
The critic was fingering with apparent satisfaction a pile of MSS. that lay on the table. It had grown vastly since Archie saw it the last time, and must be fifteen or twenty chapters in extent now.
"You must not go away until you have finished this wonderful work," replied Gouger, with concern. "A few more months—a little further experience in life—and your reputation will be made! Ah, it is wonderful! It is magnificent! The world will ring with your praises before the year is ended. Such fidelity to nature! Such perfection of detail! In all my career I have never seen anything to approach it!"
Shirley moved uneasily in his chair.
"Do you ever think at what cost I have done this?" he asked. "I know the pain of a burn because I have held my hands in the fire. I know the agony of asphyxiation, because I have dangled at the end of a rope. I can write of the miner buried beneath a hundred feet of clay, because I have had the load fall on my own head. To love and find myself beloved; then to see happiness snatched without explanation from my grasp; to feel that my best friend has been the one to betray me! That is what I have passed through, and from the drops of misery thus distilled, I have penned those lines you so much admire. I have written all I can of these horrors. I will not begin again till I have caught somewhere in the great sky a glimpse of sunlight!"
Mr. Weil could wait no longer. He pushed open the door and went to the speaker's side.
"The sunlight is awaiting you," he said, gazing down upon the figure in the armchair. "You have only to raise your curtain."
Mr. Gouger sprang up in astonishment at the sudden arrival, and perhaps a little in alarm also; for he could not tell how long the visitor had been eavesdropping at the portal. But Roseleaf turned his languid eyes toward his old friend, and was silent.
"Shirley, my boy," pursued Weil, with the utmost earnestness, "I can prove to you now that Daisy Fern loves you and you alone."
Roseleaf did not move. His lips opened and the words came stiffly.
"You can promise many things," he said, "but can you fulfill any of them?"
So cold, so unlike himself!
"What will convince you?" demanded Weil. "Shall I bring a letter from her? Or would you rather she came in person, to tell you I speak the truth?"
The shadow of a smile, a smile that was not agreeable, hovered around the corners of the pale mouth.
"I shall write no more," said the lips, when they opened, "until I have seen her and heard the reason for my rejection. I will discover who my enemy is. I will unmask the man or the woman that has done me this injury. Till then, I shall write no more. No, not one line."
Mr. Gouger was nonplussed by the new turn in affairs. He knew that Weil had some basis for what he said, that he was not the man to come with pretence on his tongue. Neither of the other persons in the room paid the least attention to him, any more than if he had not been present. It was like a play, at which Gouger was the only spectator.
"Could you bear it if I brought her to you to-day, if I brought her here now?" asked Archie, beseechingly. "If I go and get her, and she comes with me, will the shock harm you?"
The ironical smile deepened on the face of the younger man.
"Play out your farce," he said.
Casting one look of apprehension at Roseleaf, Mr. Weil turned toward the door that entered the hallway. Before he could reach it, a female form came into the room and caught his arm. Together they faced the recumbent figure in the chair. This lasted but a moment. Then Daisy broke from her escort and threw herself at her lover's feet.
"Come," whispered Archie, to the critic. "Let us leave them alone."
LIKE A STUCK PIG.
Hannibal was neither better nor worse, morally, because his color was black. There are men with white complexions who would have done exactly as he did. There are others as dark as Erebus who would have done nothing of the sort.
He was no ordinary negro. His intelligence was above the average. When he first entered the employ of Mr. Fern, that gentleman took every pains to encourage the aptitude for learning that he found in him. Hannibal accompanied his employer to his office, where he was entrusted with important commissions, which he seemed for a long time to execute with faithfulness and discrimination. At home he performed his duties in a way that gave great satisfaction. At the end of the first six months Mr. Fern would have hated to part with a servant that he believed difficult to replace.
But the great source of trouble arose gradually. Hannibal began to entertain a sentiment for his master's younger daughter that was impossible of fruition. Daisy treated him in the most considerate manner, never dreaming what was going on behind his serious brow. Millicent, ungovernable in all things, began early to show the bitterest enmity toward the negro, while her sister, seeing that her father liked and appreciated him, tried by her own kindness to compensate for the other's rudeness. What caused Millicent's feelings Daisy had no means of knowing, and she had not the least suspicion until she heard the conversation in the library the night the house was entered. Even then she did not take the subject much to heart, for she did not comprehend all that Hannibal had meant to convey in the brief and sarcastic expression he used. Daisy had a mind too pure to believe anything so heinous of her own sister as Hannibal had intimated.
The passion of love is a thing that grows in curious ways. What made it seem to Hannibal that there was hope for him was the discovery that Mr. Fern was committing forgeries and that the proofs might be his for the taking. If he could hold such a power as that over this gentleman, who could say that even so great a mesalliance as his daughter's marriage to an African might not be arranged?
The negro proceeded cautiously. He secured the proofs he wished, and let Mr. Fern know tacitly that he had them. The terror, the undisguised fear that followed, the admittance of the menial to a totally different position in the household and the office, showed that the servant had not underrated the importance of his acquisition.
Not one word bearing directly on the subject passed between them. The condition of the merchant was more horrible than it would have been had his employe said outright, "I have the proof that you are a forger—I can send you to prison for twenty years, and I will do so unless you do so-and-so for me." He did not know how Hannibal meant to use his information. He was afraid to broach the matter to him. He could only wait and suffer; and suffer he did, as a proud-spirited, high-minded man who has made an error must suffer, when such a sword hangs over his head, ready at any moment to fall.
As Walker Boggs had said, Mr. Fern was not by nature a business man. After the former's retirement from active participation in the concern there was a series of losses. When Mr. Fern took his pen and began to imitate the signature of his late partner on a sheet of paper, nothing but some such course stood between him and bankruptcy. He felt certain that if he could tide over twenty-four hours he would be saved. Before he left his office he had made a note, written Mr. Boggs name across the back of it, and raised money thereon.
He did this many times afterwards, but finally, when he again wanted a name to save himself with, he dared not use this one. Boggs had called in to remark that he should withdraw the capital he had lent as soon as the term arranged for had expired. The sum was already infringed upon, had the investor known it. The next name used was that of Archie Weil. Archie had been to the house a good deal to see Millicent. Mr. Fern believed there was a love affair between them, and he caught at the straw of possible protection in case of discovery. The forgeries became numerous, and the total amount on that day when the passage of a new tariff saved the venturesome speculator, was very large. Hannibal was at this time in foreign parts, or at least so the merchant supposed. He soothed his conscience with the reflection that this additional wrong act would enable him to right the others that preceded it. And things might have gone well had not the negro returned, consumed with the love he bore the younger daughter, and had not his love turned to vinegar by her contemptuous rejection of his advances.
An hour after Daisy left him, Hannibal had made up his mind to be revenged. He had faltered a little in the meantime, asking himself what good it would do to bring disgrace on the head of this poor old man, but his injuries were too strong for mercy. He was despised by them all; he would show them that, black as he was, his ability to hurt was no less strong than theirs. Roseleaf had made the first impression on that young heart he himself had craved. It remained to be seen whether he would wed the daughter of a convict. There would be something pleasant, too, in disgracing Millicent, who had once placed herself in a position where he could have blasted her reputation forever, and had afterwards dared to treat him as if he were the dirt beneath her shoes. Yes, Hannibal decided, he would go to Mr. Weil and Mr. Boggs, and show them the way this man had used their names, hawking them in the public market without their knowledge.
When Hannibal reached the Hoffman House and inquired for Mr. Weil, he was told that he was absent. An hour later he received the same answer. A visit to the residence of Mr. Boggs elicited a reply precisely similar. In fact, the day wore away and evening arrived before he found them.
In the meantime, Mr. Weil had not been idle. While Daisy and Shirley Roseleaf were tearfully exchanging their explanations, he sent a messenger to Mr. Boggs, asking that gentleman to come to him without delay. An hour later the messenger arrived with the gentleman, and having engaged a room for temporary use, and seen to it that Roseleaf wanted nothing at present but his fair nurse, Archie pulled Boggs in and locked the door securely.
"What's all this?" exclaimed Boggs. "You look and act as if there was the devil to pay."
"There is," was the short answer. "I want you to do one of the most creditable acts of your life. I want it as a personal favor, and I'm going to have it, too."
Mr. Boggs crossed his hands over his paunch and waited for further information.
"Are you a first-class liar?" was Mr. Weil's next question. "Could you, in an emergency, do yourself justice as an eminent prevaricator? Are you able, for a certain time, to banish truth from your vicinity?"
Mr. Boggs remarked, in response to these astonishing suggestions, that he could tell much better what his friend was about if he would drop metaphor.
Mr. Weil hesitated. He saw no way but to trust this man with the facts, and yet he dreaded the possibility that he might prove obstinate.
"By-the-way," he said, as if to change the subject temporarily, "have you been out to see Fern lately?"
Mr. Boggs shook his head.
"You ought to," said Weil. "He's improved a thousand per cent. in the last few weeks. His financial luck has made a new man of him."
"I'm glad of that," responded the other. "And I'm glad too that I've got my money out of his firm, for I had a strong suspicion at one time that he was running pretty close to the wall."
Mr. Weil nodded to show that he believed this statement, and then grew sober.
"Sometimes, when men get into a tight place financially," he said, "they do queer things. Supposing I should tell you that Mr. Fern had endorsed checks and notes in a way he was not authorized to do?"
The stout man opened his eyes wider.
"That would be a piece of news," he answered. "But, if he did, he's made it all right by this time, of course, and nobody is the loser."
Mr. Weil drew himself up in his chair, as if righteously indignant.
"Do you think that is enough?" he demanded, raising his voice. "By Gad, supposing I tell you my name was one of those he monkeyed with!"
The other did not seem much perturbed.
"If the paper is all in, I wouldn't make a fuss about it, if I were you," he replied. "Fern is a good fellow. He has gone out of business, and I hope he'll never go in again. Take my advice, if you have learned anything to his discredit, and keep it to yourself."
Weil could hardly control himself.
"Do you think I intend to let him forge my name on his notes and checks and not put him under arrest!" he cried; "when the proofs are beyond question?"
Mr. Boggs bowed and said he meant that, exactly. He further remarked that he was astonished that his friend had any other idea in his mind. The Fern family was one in which he had been favorably received and he ought to do everything possible to prevent harm to any of its members. As he proceeded in this vein, Mr. Boggs grew so earnest that he did not notice the broad smile of happiness that was creeping over the face of his companion, and was not prepared to find a pair of manly arms clasped around his neck.
"You—you!" Archie Weil was trying to say. "You dear, kind, sensible fellow. You've made me the happiest man on earth! Of course I wouldn't trouble Fern, but I was afraid you would. He used your name as well as mine, the rascal! Everything is paid up, and all the trouble now is that a miserable scamp has got hold of some of the paper and wants to blackmail him. And what I called you here to-day for is to get you to agree—with me—to acknowledge every scrap of that paper as being our own!"
The sudden change was more than Mr. Boggs could bear for a moment. He sat, to use a common expression, "like a stuck pig," staring at Archie.
"You remember the nigger that worked for Fern," explained Mr. Weil. "He got hold of some of these notes and checks, in Fern's office, and is coming to look us up to-day, for the purpose of having his employer arrested. A nice game, eh? But we will foil him, won't we? We'll show him a trick worth several of his! He's probably gone to the Hoffman House and he'll hang round till he finds me. I'll send word that I am to be home this afternoon at five. You will be there with me. We'll tackle him together. When he tells us that he has some forged paper in his possession we'll act astonished and enraged; we'll ask him to show it to us; and when we've got it all in our hands we'll say the signatures are our own, and kick him down stairs. Are you with me, Walker? Is it a go, old boy?"
The agreement was made without more ado. Mr. Boggs began to see the humorous element in the affair, and actually came nearer laughing than he had done since the day he discovered that the size of his waist placed him out of the list of eligible "mashers."
When everything was settled, Mr. Weil excused himself for a few moments, while he tiptoed to Roseleaf's door and knocked. Daisy came to open it, and when she saw who the visitor was she blushed charmingly.
"Come in," she said. "I am sure both of us are glad to see you."
Shirley's eyes met those of his friend with a strange expression. He knew now that all his suspicions were unfounded, that Weil had proved himself noble and true. But the apologies that he owed could not be suitably made in the presence of a third person, and he made no reference to them. His changed appearance was enough, however, for Archie. The reconciliation with the girl of his heart was perfect, and the happiness that shone from their faces repaid their good friend for his sacrifice.
"I think I ought to take Miss Daisy to her train now," said Archie, after the exchange of a few ordinary remarks. "She can come to see you to-morrow again, and before many days we will have matters arranged with pater familias, so that Shirley can go out to Midlands in his proper capacity. Oh, you need not redden, little woman! The love you two have for each other does both of you credit."
Returning to Mr. Boggs, for the sake of allowing the young couple a few minutes for their good-bys, Archie dismissed that gentleman with the understanding that not later than half-past four he would join him in his room at the Hoffman House. Soon after he escorted Miss Fern to her station, and before he left the building Archie sent a dispatch to her father, asking him to come to the city and meet him at his hotel at four that afternoon.
Everything worked to a charm. Mr. Fern arrived at the time designated and went promptly to Mr. Weil's apartments. A brief explanation of what was about to occur threw the wool merchant into a state of extreme agitation, but he was assured that the last particle of danger to himself would be removed before he left the Hoffman House. He was asked to step into an inner room of the suite, the door of which was to be left ajar, and to make no move unless he was called.
Mr. Boggs came at his appointed hour, and Hannibal soon after. Delighted to find both gentlemen—accidentally, as he supposed—the negro began without delay to explain the cause of his visit. He stated the manner in which he had discovered the forgeries, and said he thought it only his duty to let the facts be known.
Messrs. Weil and Boggs exchanged glances of well-simulated surprise as the discoverer proceeded.
"How long is it since you first knew of this matter?" asked Mr. Weil, when Hannibal came to a pause.
"Something like eighteen months."
"And you allowed this swindle to go on all that time without saying a word!" said the questioner. "I am surprised, when I remember that for a long time you saw me almost daily."
"That is true," was the quiet response. "I could not easily bring myself to disgrace one whose bread I was eating. But that does not matter now. I have here a number of notes on which Mr. Fern has forged both of your names. The law will hold him just as strongly as if I had exposed him at the time."
He exhibited a package of papers, and unsuspiciously passed them to the two gentlemen. Undoing the band Archie Weil spread the documents on the centre table and went over them carefully with Mr. Boggs, separating those which bore their several names. A close perusal of all the notes followed, and finally Mr. Weil looked up and asked if there were any more.
"No, those are all," said Hannibal. "I believe there are thirty-six of them."
Mr. Weil consulted in a low tone with Mr. Boggs. They seemed puzzled over something.
"If these are really all the notes you have," said Archie, "there has been a great mistake on your part. These endorsements are genuine in every case. Where are the forged papers of which you spoke?"
The negro stared with all his might at the speaker.
"Genuine!" he repeated.
"Undoubtedly, as far as my name is concerned. I have lent my credit to Mr. Fern for a long time."
"That is equally true of myself," spoke up Boggs, slowly. "I wrote every one of these signatures and I am willing to swear to them."
Hannibal's eyes flashed with baffled rage. He had been trapped. These men had conspired to save his late employer from his clutches. They had lied, deliberately, and he was powerless against their combined assertions, although he knew the falsity of all they said.
"You will be as glad as we to learn the truth," said Archie, in a softly modulated voice. "It would have grieved you to know that your kind employer had made himself amenable to the criminal law. Your only object in this matter was to ease your conscience, and do justice. There is nothing, now, to prevent your returning at your earliest convenience to France."
The negro rose and took up his hat.
"This is very nice," he growled, "but I want to tell you that you are not through with me yet."
Mr. Weil rose also.
"I trust," he said, "that you are not going to be impolite. I certainly would not be guilty of discourtesy to you. But let me assure you of one thing: If you ever, hereafter, annoy in the slightest degree my friend, Mr. Fern, or any member of his family, you will wish heartily that you had never been born. We can spare you now, Mr. Hannibal."
With the last words, Archie waved his hand toward the door, and without further reply than a glare from his now blood-shot eyes, the African strode from the apartment.
"I want you to take a ride in the Park with me, for an hour or so, and then we will return here for dinner," said Mr. Weil to Mr. Boggs.
He did this to allow Mr. Fern to leave the house without Boggs' knowing he was there, and also to avoid a meeting that he felt would be too full of gratitude to suit his temperament just then.
"WE WANT MILLIE TO UNDERSTAND."
Millicent Fern had been so busy on her second novel that she had hardly noticed the prolonged absence of Shirley Roseleaf from her father's house. Her first story was selling fairly well and she had received a goodly number of reviews in which it was alluded to with more or less favor. Not the least welcome of the things her mail brought was a check bearing the autograph of Cutt & Slashem, that tangible evidence which all authors admire that her efforts had not been wholly in vain. She had put a great deal of hard work into her new novel, and felt that, when Mr. Roseleaf added his polish to the plot she had woven, it would make a success far greater than the other.
Millicent thought she understood the young man perfectly. To her mind he was merely awaiting the moment when she was ready to name the day for their marriage. To be sure he had not asked her to wed him, but his actions were not to be misunderstood. She would accept him, for business reasons, and the romance could come later. Together they would constitute a strong partnership in fiction. While she was wrapped up in her writing it was quite as well that he remained at a respectful distance. Between her second and her third story she would have time to arrange the ceremony.
When Roseleaf made his next appearance at dinner, in the house at Midlands, Miss Fern smiled on him pleasantly. She remarked that he lacked color, and he replied that he had been suffering from a slight illness. Then she spoke of her new story, revealing the plot to a limited extent, and said it would be ready for him in about two weeks. The astonished young man saw that she considered his services entirely at her disposal, without question, whenever she saw fit to call upon them. He talked it over with Daisy.
"You know," stammered the girl, "that Millie thought you were in love with her. That would account for everything, wouldn't it?"
"But where did she ever get that idea!" he exclaimed, desperately.
"She says you tried to put your arm around her."
"Just to practice. Just to learn what love was like. I told you how ignorant I was, the same as I did her. Archie said she would show me, but it didn't amount to anything. It was only when I asked you, Daisy, that I began to understand. Do you remember how you stood on your toes and kissed me?"
The girl bade him be quiet and not get too reminiscent, but he would not.
"It taught me all I needed to know, in one instant," he persisted. "Ah, sweetheart, how much happiness and suffering I have had on your account!"
He stooped and kissed her tenderly as he spoke.
"And after this it will be happiness only," she whispered.
Another kiss answered this prediction.
"What can I do if she asks me to rewrite the whole of another novel?" asked Roseleaf, with a groan.
"I think you might find time to oblige her," said Daisy. "But you ought to explain things—you ought not to let her misunderstand your position any longer."
He said that this was true, and that he would act upon the suggestion. He had her father's consent, and nothing could stand in the way of his marriage to Daisy before the year ended. It was not right, of course, to go on with the implication of being engaged to both the sisters.
"But I wish I could escape doing that writing," he added. "I hate fiction, any way; I have been at work on one of my own that I fear I never shall finish. There is much sadness in novels, and I like joy so much better. I believe I shall abandon the whole field."
This she would not listen to. She said her husband that was to be must become a famous writer, for she wanted to be very proud of him. And Mr. Fern came in to the room, and having the question put to him, decided it in the same manner, as he was sure to do when he learned that his younger daughter held that opinion.
The retired merchant bore the appearance of a man from whose shoulders the severe burden of a great weight had fallen. The tiger that had crouched so long in his path, ready at any moment to spring, had been vanquished. Beyond the profound humiliation of knowing that his sin was exposed to the gaze of two of his intimate friends, he had no cause for present grief. Both of them had proved friends indeed, and nothing was to be feared from any quarter. Hannibal had disappeared immediately after the interview at the Hoffman House, and it was supposed had gone back to France.
There was to be no haste about the wedding, after all. Now that the young couple felt perfectly sure of each other they were more willing than they had been to wait. The freedom that an understood engagement brings to Americans was theirs. If Millicent had only known the true condition of affairs, and was content with them, they would have been perfectly satisfied.
An old story tells how a certain colony of mice came to the unanimous conclusion that a bell should be hung around the neck of a cat for which they had a well-defined fear; and it also relates that none of the rodents were willing to undertake the task of placing the warning signal in the desired position. Both Shirley and Daisy wished heartily that Millicent could be told the exact condition of their hopes and expectations, but neither had the courage to inform her. Many of their long conversations referred to this matter, and one day, when they had discussed it as usual, Daisy hit upon a bright idea.
"You don't suppose, do you, that Mr. Weil would tell Millie for us? He has done so many nice things, he might do one more."
Roseleaf wore a thoughtful expression. He realized how much Archie had already done for him—realized it more fully than Daisy did; but he said the matter was worth thinking of. He wanted very much to have it settled.
"Would—would you—ask him?" he stammered. "He would do anything for you."
"Yes," she responded, softly, "I will ask him. But we had best be together. I do not want to broach the matter unless you are there."
In a few days the opportunity came. Mr. Weil heard the voice he loved best explaining the situation.
"We want Millie to understand," said Daisy. "If she—if she still likes Shirley herself, there may be an unpleasant scene, and you will see how difficult it is for either of us to tell her. But you, who have done so many kindnesses for us, could convey the information to her without the diffidence we should feel. Will you, dear Mr. Weil?"
And Archie said he would, and that it would be a pleasure to him. And a bright light illumined the faces of the young people, as another stone was rolled out of the pathway their feet were to tread.
Mr. Weil did not know how to approach his subject except by a more or less direct route. One day he was talking with Miss Fern about her new novel, and she spoke of Mr. Roseleaf in connection with its nearness to the required revision.
"I don't know as Shirley will find time to help you out," he replied. "He is so busy just now with Miss Daisy."
She did not seem to comprehend him in the least.
"Oh, he is merely filling in the time, as a matter of amusement," she answered. "When I am ready he will be."
He looked at her earnestly.
"Is it fair to speak of love-making as a matter of amusement, Miss Fern?"
"Love-making? Is he, then, practicing for his novel with Daisy, also?" she inquired. "I am afraid he will get erroneous views of love in that quarter. She is such a child that she can have little knowledge of the subject."
She had evidently no suspicion of the truth, and he determined to become more explicit.
"Perhaps that is exactly what he wishes," said he. "The virgin heart of a young girl certainly affords tempting ground for the explorations of a novelist."
For the first time she showed a slightly startled face.
"I trust you do not mean that Mr. Roseleaf is deceiving my sister with pretended affection?" she said. "I did not think him that kind of man. If he is making love to her, as you call it, surely she understands that it is only for the purposes of his forthcoming novel?"
Mr. Weil drew a long breath.
"Is it possible," he asked, "that you do not know him better than even to hint that suspicion? Shirley Roseleaf is honor personified. He would not lead any woman to believe him her lover unless he truly felt the sentiments he expressed."
Miss Fern looked much relieved.
"I am glad to hear you say so," she replied.
Archie was plunged into a new quandary. He had evidently made no progress whatever thus far.
"No," he continued, slowly, "he has not deceived Miss Daisy. His love for her is as true as steel. I understand their engagement is to be announced in a few days."
If he had known the pain that these words would bring to their hearer—if he had foreseen the anguish that was portrayed on that brow and in those eyes—friend as he was of the young couple who had set him to this errand, he would have shrunk from it. Millicent made no verbal reply. Spasms chased each other over her white face. She seemed stricken dumb. Her hands, lifted to her forehead, trembled visibly. And Mr. Weil sat there, uncertain what to do, as silent as herself.
Gradually the force of the storm passed, and Miss Fern staggered faintly to her feet. Mr. Weil offered to support her with his arms, but she refused his aid with a motion that was unmistakable. She was making every effort to conceal her agitation, and she dared not trust herself with words. After taking a weak step or two, and finding that she could not walk unassisted, she rested herself upon the arm of a large chair, and signed to him to leave her. Much mortified, but knowing no other course, he bowed profoundly and obeyed the signal.
The next morning he received the following letter at his hotel:
"MR. A. WEIL:—SIR: If you are in any respect a gentleman—which I may be excused for doubting—you will not allude in the presence of any one to the exhibition I made to-day. Had I had the least preparation I could have controlled myself. You adroitly took me at a complete disadvantage, and you saw the result.
"I leave to-morrow for a new home. Never again shall I live under the roof of those who have betrayed me. Do not think I shall succumb to grief because of my sister's conduct. She is welcome to her victory. No answer to this is expected. Yours, M. A. F."
Luckily Archie had escaped from Midlands without meeting either Daisy or Roseleaf, and he obeyed as strictly as possible the injunction he received from the elder sister. All he would say was that he had informed her of the engagement and that she had made no reply. When he was told a day or two later that Millicent had left the house, he merely remarked that he was not much surprised, as she was a girl of strong will and usually did about as she pleased.
Mr. Fern, at first much distressed over his daughter's action, grew reconciled when he thought of it more at length. He sent a liberal allowance to her, which she did not return, and made arrangements by which she could draw the same sum at her convenience at a bank in the city.
WHERE WAS DAISY?
The wedding was arranged to occur in the month of October, and the preparations, so dear to the hearts of all young women, were pushed with dispatch. There were to be no ceremonials beyond the ones necessary, and the company to visit the nuptials was limited to a dozen of the family's most intimate friends. When the evening came, Walker Boggs was on hand, wearing an extra large waistcoat, and a countenance such as would have best befitted a funeral. Lawrence Gouger came, his keen eye alert, foreseeing several chapters in the great novel that Roseleaf was writing, based on the experiences of the next few weeks. But Archie Weil wrote a note at the last minute, regretting that a business engagement that could not be postponed had called him to a distant point, and sending a magnificent ornament in large pearls for the bride, to whom he wished, with her husband, all health and happiness.
Mr. Gouger had had many arguments with Mr. Weil, in opposition to the early date set for the wedding. He had shown that, according to the best models, the hero of Roseleaf's novel—which was practically the young man himself, ought to pass through some very harrowing scenes yet before his wedded happiness began. He feared an anti-climax, and was apprehensive that the wonderful romance would lie untouched for long months while Roseleaf sipped honey from the lips of his beloved. And he acted as if these things were entirely at the disposal of Mr. Weil—as if the young couple were mere marionettes whose actions he could control.
"You could put it off if you liked," Gouger said, complainingly. "You could introduce other elements that would be the making of the novel, and you ought to do it. They should not marry before next spring, at the earliest. You run the risk of spoiling everything."
"Good God!" cried Archie. "You talk like a fool. I would have postponed it forever, if I could, and you know it. But she loves him, and there is nothing to be gained by delay. Confound you and your old novel! With the happiness of two human beings at stake you talk about a piece of fiction as if it was worth more than a blissful life!"
Gouger straightened himself up in his chair.
"It is worth a hundred times more!" he answered, boldly. "A novel such as Roseleaf's ought to be would give pleasure to millions. But I see you are bound to have your way. The only hope left is that there will be trouble enough after marriage to spice the story to the end. A milk and water, nursing-bottle existence for them would make all the work already done on this manuscript mere wasted time!"
Weil turned from his friend in disgust. Could the man talk nothing, think nothing, but shop?
But Archie did not come to the wedding. He knew the final strain would be more than he could bear. It was one thing to sacrifice the woman he loved and quite another to see her given into the arms of the rival he had encouraged. One may do the noblest things, at a respectful distance, and find himself physically unable to view them at greater proximity.
Of course Shirley Roseleaf was almost too happy to breathe. But even the happiest of lovers somehow manage to inhale a sufficiency of oxygen to keep life in them, though they have no knowledge of the process by which this is accomplished. He had seen several of his productions in type, some in the leading magazines, and he had a permanent position now on the staff of a great periodical. When the month he had allowed himself as necessary for a wedding journey was ended, he would settle down to work, and he knew no reason why he might not make a success in his chosen field. And there was Daisy—always Daisy—he would never again be separated from Daisy! Who that has loved and been loved can doubt the perfect content of this young man?
The saddest face at Midlands was that of Mr. Fern, who failed in his best attempts to appear cheerful. He was not sorry that his daughter was to be married, he would not have put a single obstacle in her way; but she was going from him, and the very, very dear relations they had so long sustained would never be exactly the same again. It was the destiny of a woman to cleave to her husband. He found no fault with the law of nature, but he had clung to Daisy so devotedly that he could not welcome very sincerely the hour that was to take her away.
The marriage was to be early in the evening. Everything was ready, even to the trunks, filled with traveling and other dresses. The night was to be passed at the Imperial Hotel in the city, and the journey proper to be begun some time on the following day.
On the most momentous morning of her life, Daisy Fern announced that she had an errand to do in the city and would return shortly after twelve o'clock. As she was so thoroughly her own mistress nobody thought of questioning her more particularly. But twelve o'clock came, and one o'clock, and three, and five, and she neither was seen at Midlands nor was any message received from her.
By the latter hour Mr. Fern was in a state of excitement. The entire house was in an uproar. The servants were catechised, one by one, to see if perchance any of them could guess the young lady's destination. Word was sent by telephone to various places in the city, asking information, but none was received. She had left the house, ostensibly to go to New York, and nothing could be learned of her from that moment.
As Mr. Roseleaf was not expected until some time later, Mr. Fern went at last to the city and sought the young man at his rooms. He found him in the company of Lawrence Gouger, dressed for the ceremony, and impatient for the arrival of the hour when he should start for his bride's abode. It may be conceived that the news Mr. Fern brought was not the pleasantest for him.
"You—you have not seen Daisy?" came the stammering question, as the father paused on the threshold of Roseleaf's room.
"To-day? Why, certainly not!" was the stupefied answer. "I was just about to start for your house."
Mr. Fern sank upon a sofa just inside the door.
"Something—has—happened!" he groaned. "Ah, my boy, something has happened to my child!"
Roseleaf looked at Mr. Gouger, who in turn looked at Mr. Fern.
"She—went away—this morning—on an errand," enunciated the father, slowly, "saying—she would return—at noon. And—that is the last we—have seen—of her. Oh, it seems as if I should go mad!"
It seemed as if Shirley Roseleaf would go mad, too. He looked like one bereft of sense, as he stood there without uttering a word.
"Perhaps she has returned since you left home," suggested Mr. Gouger, on the spur of the instant. "Don't lose heart yet. Let me send to a telephone office and have them inquire. You have a 'phone in your house, have you not, Mr. Fern?"
The father bowed in reply. He was too crushed to say anything unnecessary. Touching a button, Mr. Gouger soon had a messenger dispatched for the information desired, and in the meantime he tried, by suggesting possibilities, to soothe the two men.
"You shouldn't get so excited," he protested. "There are a hundred slight accidents that might be responsible for Miss Daisy's delay. Perhaps she has met with an insignificant accident, and the word she has sent to her father has gone astray—as happens very often in these days. That would account for everything. Or she may have taken the wrong train—an express—that did not stop this side of Bridgeport, and hesitated to telegraph for fear of alarming you. 'Don't cry till you're hurt' is an old proverb. Why, neither of you act much better than as if her dead body had been brought home!"
They heard him, but neither replied. They waited—it seemed an hour—for an answer to the telephonic message, and it came, simply this: "Nothing has been heard as yet of Miss Fern."
The thoroughly distressed and disheartened father shrank before the gaze of the lover, when this news was promulgated by Mr. Gouger.
"What swindle is this?" were the bitter words he heard. "Have you decided on another husband for your daughter, and come to break the news to me in this fashion?"
Mr. Gouger interfered, to protect the old man whose suffering was evidently already too acute.
"Hush!" he exclaimed. "Can't you see that you are killing him? Be careful!"
Roseleaf waved him back with a sweep of his arm.
"Your advice has not been asked," he replied, gutturally. "I can see some things, if I am blind. That girl has gone to the man she loves—the man he," indicating the father, "wanted her to marry. He is rich, and I am poor, and he has won! It is plain enough! And he pretended, day by day, to my face, that he had given her up for my sake; and she put her arms around me, and beguiled me into confidence, in order to strike me the harder at the end. Well, let him have her! I wouldn't take her from him. But there's an account between us that he may not like to settle. When you see your friend, tell him that!"
Mr. Fern heard these terrible sentences like a man in a dream. It could not be Roseleaf that was uttering them—the man to whom his young daughter had given the full affection of her innocent heart! He was mad to talk that way. Mad! mad!
"You will repent these rash statements," said the old gentleman, rising faintly from his seat. "You will repent them, sir, in sackcloth. I wish with all my heart that Mr. Weil was here, for he would at least try to help me find my child."